25 November 2015

Old Christianshavn And A New Bridge

"I have a student who paints in a very strange way...I try not to influence him." - Peter Severin Kroyer

I. - Silence is the word most often used in connection with the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916).   Hammershoi was a "strange" painter as his teacher, Kroyer, noted early on but that strangeness is more mysterious than received wisdom has it.  Hammershoi himself stated more than once that what attracted him, in both interior and exterior settings, was architectural elements and the relationships between them.  As for the deliberate minimalism of Hammershoi's interiors, the Victorian taste for overstuffed interiors did not become poplar in Scandinavia.  When the Hammershois stayed in London they rented rooms near the British Museum, asking  that knickknacks be removed from the reception room as they distracted from the simplicity of the flat.
Even in his portraits, Hammershoi avoided narrative, as he explained to his brother Svend (also a an artist) in a letter written from London, regular portraits did not interest him.  Of course, this left an opening for speculation that began with Hammershoi's contemporaries and continues to this day.  What we are to make of the empty rooms that reverberate with emotions we cannot pin down?  And what are we to make of the reserve of his human subjects, is it theirs or is it created by the painter?

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard is also often invoked to explain Hammershoi's paintings.  Kierkegaard's "infinite qualitative distinction"   sounds like what we experience when looking at  a Hammershoi:
"...one may risk saying something infinitely decisive and be quite correct in what one says, and yet, ludicrously enough, say nothing at all. Hence it is a psychologically noteworthy phenomenon, that the absolute disjunction may be used quite disingenuously, precisely for the purpose of evasion." - Soren Kierkegaard, 1846, from Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 313, Swenson & Lowrie translation.
But names like Kierkegaard or Hamlet are used as shorthand for anything Danish; the origins of Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark are broadly Indo-European. 

Vilhelm Hammerhois and Ida Ilsted married in 1891 and lived together  contentedly until the painter died from throat cancer in 1916.  Ida often appeared in interior scenes, usually with her back to the viewer - again not a regular portrait but more a quiet domestic scene.  Interiors of their various Christianshavn apartments (30 Strandgade, 25 Bredgade, 25 Strandgade) are uniformly buildings from previous centuries, their stone facades usually left unpainted.  Even the brick facades that were in common use during the 17th century were painted in colors that imitated stone.

The large windows at 30 Strandgade faced the harbor, visible between wings of the Asiatic Company Building across the street. The Hammershois lived there from 1898 to 1909.  The rooms opened on one another through a series of doors, rather than being organized around a central hall.  Most importantly. large windows filled the rooms with light    While they were in London in November 1912, their "dream" apartment at 25 Strangade in the Asiatic Company Building became  available.  They rented it, sight unseen.
Copenhagen's "gray overcoat" is the product of the soft northern light and the muted colors of its buildings. Depending on your viewpoint, the typical grayness of the air enveloping Copenhagen is either severe or dreamlike.  Its similarity to the skies over London could explain why Hammershois felt more at home there than anywhere else they traveled to.   Hammemrshoi wrote home that he could never digest the elaborate decoration of Paris or Rome, if he spent the rest of his life there; he knew exactly what - and how much - stimulation he needed in order to paint.

Christian IV (1577-1648) was the Danish King as master-builder; his town and city projects fill up the fingers of both hands and then some and still exist in Sweden, Norway, and Germany as well as in Denmark.  Christianshavn began as a program to fortify  the capitol city of Copenhagen in 1612.  To this end, earthen embankments were built up in the marshy area between the city and the island of Amager to its east.  Christian employed Johan Semp to create an urban plan for Christianshavn in 1617.  By 1639 it had become an established  merchant enclave.

Strandgade (Beach Street) extended  the full length of the island, following the harbor front.  Semp’s original intention was to build along one side of the street across from the water, leaving the beach side to provide private harbor facilities for the lot owners who could  transfer goods from ships to their warehouses.

Painting Tranquility: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershoi from SMK - The National Gallery of Denmark is on view at Scandinavia House in New York City from 24 November 2015 to 27 February 2016.

II. -  In Christianshavn there are canals around every corner.   Warehouses and the ships that come and go, depositing their cargoes, are interspersed with residential apartments in a manner that modern zoning regulations have all but banished.
A city crisis-crossed by canals is a city in need of bridges.  Earlier this year Cirkelbroen, or Circle Bridge, was built by Studio Olafur Eliaason near Christianshavn's south end. The five  circular platforms are a pedestrian bridge that will become part of a larger pedestrian route around the Copenhagen harbor.   The color red connects the bridge to the brick buildings at the side while the masts pay tribute the shipping trade that shaped and supported Christianshavn from its beginning.

Eliasson believes that art makes life better,  a vision similar in spirit to the philosopher Horace's dictum that the purpose of art is to delight and instruct.  At the moment this is an unfashionable notion at every level.  Nevertheless, Eliasson says “I hope that these people will use Cirkelbroen as a meeting place, and that the zigzag design of the bridge will make them reduce their speed and take a break. To hesitate on our way is to engage in bodily thought.”   Like Kierkegaard, a century and a half ago, who walked the streets of Copenhagen in order, he said, to compose his thoughts. 

Note: Olafur Eliasson was born in 1967 and grew up in Iceland and Denmark. After studying at Royal Acadmey of Fine  Arts in Copenhagen he established  Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin where ninety  people including  architects, computer programmers, art historians, and cooks work together on projects.  Eliasson’s Your waste of time was an installation at MoMA PS1 last year that consisted of several chunks cut from an Icelandic glacier, installed in a refrigerated gallery where they were on display for nearly four months.

1. Vilhelm Hamme3rshoi - The  Old Christianborg Palace - Late Autumn, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen.
2. Vilhelm Hammershoi - The Christianshavn Canal, 1905, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen.
 3. Vilhelm Hammershoi - View of the Old Asiatic Company from 30 Strandgade, 1902, on loan to the Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen.
4. Vilhelm Hammershoi - The Old Christianborg Castle, 1907, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen.
5. Anders Sune Berg - Cirkelbroen (The Circle Bridge) by Olafur Eliaason, Copenhagen, 2015, Studio Olafur Eliasson.
6.  Anders Sune Berg - Cirkelbroen at Night, 2015, Studio Olafur Eliasson.

18 November 2015

Mary Frank: The Colors Of Lament

"It is the duty of us all to ensure that our society remain that of which we are proud, not a society wary of immigrants and intent on their expulsion or a society that disputes the welfare state or a society in which the media are controlled by the wealthy."  - S.H.

"(But) there are unbearable things all around us.  You have to look for them; search carefully.  Open your eyes and you will see.  This is what I tell young people: If you spend a little time searching, you will find your reasons to engage." - S.H.

"The responsibility is that of the individual who will rely neither rely on a form of power nor on a god.  You must engage - your humanity demands it." - S.H.

The late Stephane Hessel (1917-2013) was  a German Jew, born in Berlin.  Both his parents were writers; his father Franz Hessel was also a translator and his mother Helen Grund was also a painter and a musician.  The family moved to Paris in 1924 and Stephane attended the Ecole Normale Superieure.  Drafted into the French Army, Heseel joined the National Coiuncil of the French Resistance in 1943.  He was captured by the Germans and sent to Buchenwald to be hanged just twelve days before the liberation of Paris, but after two tries he escaped.  After World War II ended, Hessel represented France as a diplomat and official observer at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.   His humanitarian efforts could fill a book.  His words, reprinted above, come from one  of his last books, Indignez-vous!

Time For Outrage: Indignez-vous! by Stephane Hessel, translated from the French by Marion Duvert, New York, Twelve Books: 2011.

 “Mary Frank reveals herself once more to be the visual poet of the inner life, evoking the pain and the mystery of our human embeddedness in the natural world. She is not afraid of the large subjects, nor is she reluctant to deploy her extraordinary skills as a creator of memorable imagery in the service of our darkest memories: death, chaos, loss, fragmentation. Nor does she trivialize tragedy and terror by suggesting some easy redemptive value to be obtained from their contemplation. Rather, the artist confronts this darkness of the spirit and wrestles it into vivid pictorial expression."
 - Linda Nochlin, 1998

Mary Frank (b. 1933) is an English artist who began by studying dance with Martha Graham.  Although her mother was a painter, Mary is a mostly self-taught artist.  Frank's sculpture seems to me to be her very finest work generally, giving the viewer a sense that her human subjects are embedded in the natural world.  They remind me of Baruch Spinoza's vision of the divine as existing in the workings of the natural world;  in his A Theological-Political Treatise (1670).

Revised 11/20./2015.
1. Mary Frank - What Color Lament?, c1991-93, D.C. Moore Gallery, NYC.
2. Mary Frank - Persephone, 1980,  terracotta, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
3. Mary Frank - Pieta, 1981, terracotta, D.C. Moore Gallery, NYC>

08 November 2015

Wrapped Lemons: Angela Perko & W.J. McCloskey

I had never heard of Angela Perko until recently when I saw Wrapped Lemons apres W.J. McCloskey (above); I had heard of William McCloskey, but  couldn't remember how although I did remember why.  The elusive artist painted strangely captivating wrapped fruits, a genre he may well have  invented.
The artist Angela Perko, also  turns out to admire the Canadian artists known collectively as  the Group of Seven, artists I've mentioned recently.  Perko cites the group, especially its lone female member Emily Carr,  as influencing  her use of color.  She arranges colors fearlessly, as comfortable with dissonance as she is with delicacy.   Like the Seven, Perko explored painting through landscape; like McCloskey she was born elsewhere but eventually moved to California.
I think Perko's Wrapped Lemons  refers to  McCloskey's Florida Lemons (below).   Perko's painting lets us imagine a world where our eyes can separate planes of vision.  This feature, along with her use of depthless color achieved through barely visible brushwork, makes this a true cubist artwork.  There is a sad  story about the McCloskey painting.  According to The City Review (May 21, 2014), it was offered for sale at auction in New York City but "It failed to sell."

We are spoiled; we take the year-round availability  for granted of any fruit we desire.  Historically speaking, this state of things began just yesterday but there are artists whose works remind us of the magical properties of fruit, especially citrus fruit, with its contrasts of sweetness and tartness in seductively tactile containers.
Wrapped Oranges, painted in 1889 by the little known William J. McCloskey, brought me up short when I first saw it (see below).  These arrangements of fruits in tissue on what appear to be tabletops evoke a mysterious sense of place out of time, much as the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi' s empty rooms do.     Tissue was the preferred method for packing  these precious fruits for shipping before the days of refrigerated trucks..
The story of  American still life painting begins with the Peales (Charles Wilson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, Raphaelle Peale, Titian Peale, and Margaretta Peale to name just five of the prolific and close-knit family).  Their paintings were among the best that a new nation produced during its early decades.  The Peales were also known as  experimenters in tromp l'oeil, a technique used to deceive the eye into seeing relationships between  planes and dimensions that are not there in ostensibly  realistic spatting.

Like the Peales, WillIma McCloskey and his wife Alberta Binford, painted works of great technical virtuosity; William excelled in portraits and fruit, Alberta in portraits floral still lifes.  It was while staying in Los Angeles during the 1880s that the young couple established their artistic reputations.  Already southern California had begun to promote itself as the garden state of the west, home to  plentiful orange groves.  An unusual couple in many respects, the McCloskeys did not stay put, making their whereabouts at any given moment hard to pin down; but they lived in New York City (on 23rd Street near the Art Students League), London, and Paris and exhibited their works in Atlanta, Buffalo, and Providence, at least. Neglected after their deaths,  McCloskey's wrapped fruits again attracted  public interest beginning in the 1990s.
Both artists bring to the table, so to speak, an enthusiasm for  paint that makes  joie de vivre tactile.
Angela Perko is represented by Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery, Santa Barbara.

For further reading about William McCloskey: Partners In Illusion: Alberta Binford and William J. McCloskey  by Nancy D.W. Moure, Santa Ana,  Bowers Museum of Art: 1996.

1. Angela Perko - Wrapped Lemons apres W. J. McCloskey, 2015, Sullivan Goss: An American Art  Gallery, Santa Barbara.
2. William J. McCloskey  - Florida Lemons, 1919, Sotheby's, NYC.
3. William J. McCloskey - Wrapped Oranges, 1889, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth.

25 October 2015

Felix Vallotton: All Is Not What It Appears To Be

I - There is a style of art criticism that I  think of as being peculiarly American.  Peter Schjeldahl, from his position at the New Yorker, practices it with relish.   The style was rejected as the "biographical fallacy" after World War II, but critics find it so appealing that it keeps coming back and, it can be a useful tool, if deftly employed.   Biographical criticism was made popular by a Frenchman, Hippolyte Taine (1828-1895). Taine's contention that you could learn a lot about a work of art by knowing something about its creator's life is one of those propositions that is so vague that it is impossible to disprove. That a Frenchman introduced this idea seems unremarkable yet  the French have long shown a lack of interest  in biography as is it practiced in the English-speaking world.

But getting back to Schjeldahl who has never met a dead artist whose sex life - or lack thereof - didn't make his hair stand up with anticipation.   Where an Abstract Expressionist like Helen Frankenthaler was always at pains to deny the landscape-like elements in her work, Willem de Kooning  was considered  a strong painter for including  subtle and not so subtle reminders of his copious sexual escapades into his pictures. Said escapades were retailed with relish by Schjeldahl is his column in the New Yorker.

II - The risks of biographical interpretation are nicely illustrated by the paintings of Felix Vallotton (1865-1925).   Vallotton, a Swiss artist,  is best known for his black and white woodcuts, particularly the  series  Intimacies  and Crimes And Punishments.  They are like firecrackers, some go off immediately they are set and some do a slow burn.  His paintings are not so well known in North America; most are in European museums.
Le Ballon (see above), painted in 1899,  is one of the best-known; it has been an inspiration to hundreds of photographers.  Indeed, Vallotton himself had purchased Kodak camera that year and 
there is a convincing hypothesis offered by critics that Vallotton created the composition of Le Ballon by using two photographs, one taken from above (afar)  and one taken from below (a close-up), approximating a view from underwater.   The end result is a painting that shows us two worlds - the world of a child chasing a balloon and the world of  adults.  I am far from the first person to notice that the shadow of unseen trees seems to symbolize the adult world chasing the little girl toward the future.
What might a biographical interpretation of Le Ballon be?   In 1899, Vallotton married a widow who had three children.  At thirty-three,  the  bachelor with a reputation for modiness had acquired a ready-made family.  Conjecture as you you like; here's what Vallotton had to say.  The boys were "two perfect cretins."   As for his step-daughter, "Madeleine parades and imposes her self-importance, her stupidity, her bossiness."  And again:   "She spends her time doing her nails and watching everyone's suffering as if from on high."  All this family happiness prompted Vallotton to ask himself: "What has man done wrong that he is obliged to submit to this terrifying 'associate' known as woman?"

III -  Vallotton's landscapes.   Felix Vallotton began painting his disorienting  landscapes several years before he acquired  his first camera. They leave the viewer in the odd position of never quite knowing where they are.  The artist called them "paysages composes" and with good reason; they were not painted from nature or memory, rather they were assembled from bits of nature that he relished and then combined into a whole of his own making.  Vallotton had his reasons for using cutout forms with contrasting colors.  He had belonged to the relatively short lived movement known as Nabism, a bouillabaisse of symbolism, abstraction, and infatuation with Japanese prints; Vallotton then became a master of the woodcut himself.  And  as to the problem of the elephant in the room: the only thing Vallotton's work has in common with Impressionism is that admiration for Japanese art of the floating world. His landscapes should not be taken literally  although he often named them after specific locations, you  will not find their approximations on location;  the artist was after a universal landscape, a landscape of the imagination that the Symbolists would have recognized as their own.
The early landscape Clair de lune (1894) is a nocturne in navy blue with a fat pink cloud conglomeration that looks more substantial than the land itself.  As for the  stream that cuts across the field reflecting the moonlit clouds, it is cutout stream, reminding us that although ink-dark colors suggest depth, this is a flat paper world, a floating world indeed.  After a few years, Vallotton turned to other subjects; when he produced The Pond - Honfleur in 1909 it was his first landscape in several years and, once again, a nocturne.
IV -  Like most artists with large oeuvre, Vallotton's work varies in interest.  There is really nothing to be said about his nudes except perhaps that what works for the natural world doesn't work well for human bodies. When the Zurich Kunsthaus presented a solo exhibition of Vallotton's work in 2007, it had been forty years since the last one.  Nothing equals the woodcuts and we would be poorer without them but the landscapes and interiors deserve another look.

For further reading: Keeping An Eye Open by Julian Barnes, New York, Alfred A. Knopf: 2015.
1. Felix Vallotton - La ballon ou Coin de parc avec enfant au ballon + 1899, Musee d'Oesay, Paris.
2. Felix Vallotton - Clair de lune, 1895, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
3. Felix Vallotton - The Pond - Honfleur, 1909, Kunstmuseum, Basel.

14 October 2015

First Snow At Algoma

"...the end of our exploring to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." - T.S. Eliot

One autumn years ago I saw the first snow at Algoma.  It was the middle of October, the time when Canadians celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday.  I was on the road that runs along the north shore of Lake Superior, on the way from Sault Saint Marie to Wawa.  When snowflakes started to hurtle toward my windshield, I turned around and headed south.  Two days later at the McMichael Collection in Kleinberg (north of Toronto) I saw A.Y. Jackson's First Snow At Algoma  and thought "I have been there, too."

The McMichael centers on paintings by Jackson and the other members of The Group Of Seven, Canadian landscape painters active during the period between the two World Wars who are, lamentably, little known in the U.S.  Also works by Thoreau MacDonald (1901-1989), the son of Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald.  Thoreau MacDonald was an artist and illustrator who preferred to work in black and white, as he was colorblind.  He was also a walker and, as such, sensitive to his place in a land populated by otters, minks, fixes,  and lynx.  His artistic method was to keep his attention focused on the moment - that thing that is the only thing any us ever has - and to make his art when he was back in his studio.  What was it that held the attention of this handsome lynx?

Meanwhile, an exhibition The Idea Of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris is on now and will continue until January 24, 2016 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.  It is the first, time that Harris had been the subject of abn exhibition in the United States.
1.  A.Y. (Alexander Young) Jackson - First Snow, Algoma, c.1919, McMichael Collection, Kleinberg, Ontario.
2. Thoreau MacDonald  - Lynx At Kleinberg from Birds And Animals,  McMichael Collection, Kleinberg, 1968
3. Throeau MacDonald  - cover of Birds And Animals, McMichael Collection, Kleinberg, 1968.

09 October 2015

Who Decides ?

"You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you can't be both."  -  Gertrude Stein

But if you think Gertrude Stein laid that particular argument to rest, keep reading.

I. -  The title of the painting above tells a story, but not the whole story.  A Room at the Second Post-Impressionist Exposition - The Matisse Room was painted in 1912 by Roger Fry to commemorate the second exhibition of Post-Impressionist Art held in London. 

Roger Fry was a historian specializing in the Italian Renaissance when he was converted to modernism by Paul Cezanne’s paintings, seen in Paris.   Four years later Fry organized the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists in London.  By 1910 these artists were not news, but Fry coined the catch-all term them that stuck, so we remember the moment.  At the same time, the conservative newspaper the Daily Telegraph is credited with first use of the term avant-garde (a military term originating in French) to describe what made artists modern.  That French culture aroused deep suspicion in the British only makes things more delicious.

II -  Call it a protest or a piece of performance art, it was an “anti-Renoir” event.     On Monday, October 5, a small group gathered in front of the Boston Museum of Fine Art to denounce the French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, dead these one hundred years,   The participants held homemade signs, one stating “Treacle Harms Society.” They demanded that the museum remove a number of inferior Renoirs (there are a lot of them) and instead give their precious gallery space to  artists like Gauguin, Cezanne, etc.
The spectacle provided great fun to the public including a bemused Carol Off who interviewed the instigator  Max Geller on the CBC news program As It Happens   It is not often remarked in polite company just how mediocre Renoir's paintings can be; after all their prices are astronomical, assuming you can locate one for sale.   Ar his best, Renoir's pictures show him to be a gifted member of the dazzling group of French Impressionists painters.   But  his  pretty young women lived a precarious existence as working women in the 19th century city, those nubile young nudes were intended not for the walls of museums so much as for the smoking rooms of lascivious rich men.
The protest could have been held, with equal justification, at the Clark Art Institute in Willamstown, at the  other end of Massachusetts.   The Clark owns thirty-two Renoirs, some very  fine and as many that are mediocre.  For my taste the star Renoir at the Clark is the still life Onions (1881).  Here Renoir applies his modeling technique to vegetables; what takes my breath is that the artist captured  the delicate  shimmer of their  papery skins.  

Sterling Clark’s taste for Renoir began in 1916 when he purchased his first painting, Renoir’s   A Girl CrochetingDespite its demure title, the subject is really the young woman’s luscious body.   There is ample evidence (Nymphs and Satyr by another French artists, William-Adolphe Bougereau, for instance) that Sterling Clark's taste in art extended to what we might call fuzzy porn.
Four years ago, the Clark deaccessioned ( a euphemism for sold off for $$$) one of its Renoirs,  Woman Picking Flowers, through a London gallery,  asking price $15 million. As the flower-picker was Camille Monet, wife of Claude Monet, the painting has some significance  as the document of a friendship.   Asked why the Clark decided to sell this Sterling Clark selection  at an art fair, director Michael Conforti explained in a written  statement that the offering “would afford both transparency and visibility since this art fair is so widely followed and well attended by those individuals who are most likely to have an interest in works of this quality.’’   Notice that this does not  answer the question. 

There may come a day when Pierre-Auguste Renoir is remembered as the father of Jean Renoir, one of the great 20th century filmmakers, rather than for his paintings.

III. - Both an art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, and a structural anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, believed that collecting-and arranging, call it curation or bricolage, is a basic human activity.   Lévi-Strauss added a dark reminder: that ancient Roman curators were procurers, agents for hire.
Museums as we know them were built on the collections of royalty, beginning in the eighteenth century.   The first curators were hardly free agents, either.    By the 1860s, French artists were fed up with the curators of the official salons and began their own counter-exhibitions, joining aesthetics and commerce under their own banner.

The third act in this drama took place in New York City when Alfred Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art,, became art's chief arbiter of value, a model that ruled the art world until, like other ideas, it wore out its welcome.  It fell to curator Lucy Lippard, whose exhibition Six Years: The Dematerialization of the art Object from 1966 to `1972 to threw down the gauntlet.  The modern museum had made a fetish of art works?  Very well, we will dematerialize them!   And so they gave us conceptual art. 

Contemporary suspicion of institutions has given rise to art fairs (places where art is sold) and kunsthalles, (places where art is displayed but not collected).   The anxiety about separating the good from the bad seems to be a human constant and we have given the curator the power to assign value, but what values?  Aesthetic or monetary?  And let us not forget eros.  Deciding seems to be an activity very much like peeling one of Renoir's beautiful onions.
Revised 10/11/2015.
1. Roger Fry - A Room at the Second Post-Impressionist Exposition - The Matisse Room , 1912, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2. Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Onions, 1881, Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.
3. Pierre-Auguste Renoir - A Girl Crocheting, 1875, Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.