17 January 2020

Thinking of Antonioni & Bergman

"Why is youth so unmerciful?  And who has given them permission to be?"
   - Ingmar Bergman

Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, idiosyncratic film makers whose work inspired and influenced countless younger colleagues in the post-WWII era, died on the same day, July 30, 2007.

Ingmar Bergman may have been thinking of posterity when he made the comment about youth. In his autobiography The Magic Lantern, Bergman dismissed the Italian director as an amateur and a man suffocating from boredom. Bergman was only slightly more gallant in his assessment of Antonioni's partner in films of the early 1960s, Monica Vitti, acknowledging her talent while disparaging her technique.  Antonioni, by contrast, said that his opinions were in his films. I wonder if he had ever heard what G. K. Chesterton said: "For views I look out the window, my opinions I keep to myself."  And yet both were preoccupied with loneliness, tantalization, and miscommunication.  Ah, the narcissism of small differences. 

In his films Bergman worried the question of God like a bone, coming at it from every angle.  For his part, Antonioni told the London Telegraph that Bergman's only interest was in finding answers from God, whereas he was content to explore metaphysical questions without seeking answers, a rather Buddhist position.  "You wonder what to look at. I wonder how to live.  It's the same thing."  Antonioni puts these sentiments in the mouth of a character in Red Desert (1964).  Bergman the moralist only admitted his past as a Nazi in 1999; possibly it had slipped his mind for half a century while he was otherwise occupied .  As for the timing of their deaths, Bergman went first.

The son of a prosperous family from the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, Antonioni  witnessed firsthand the depredations of poverty.  The film maker told the critic Aldo Tassone, "I always had sympathy for the young women of working-class families."  He also was prescient in recognizing the environmental devastation caused by the postwar prosperity brought to the region by the booming petrochemical industry.

Bergman grew up in Uppsala, Sweden, the son of a Lutheran minister, in a home surrounded by religious images and lessons.  Often locked in dark closets by his self-righteous father for minor misbehavior, the young Ingmar said that he lost his faith at the age of eight but  retained its moral preoccupations  that later became the subtext in his films.

Even today Antonioni and Bergman have something in common.  Their work is thought of as old-fashioned and not relevant to our interests.  That may change and, if it does, my hunch is that Red Desert, Antonioni's vision of a world made infernal by humans, will be understood as prophetic, a tale foretold

Image: Emile Galle - Tremble, no date given, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

11 January 2020

Paul-Emile Colin: A Breton Winter

His name sounds vaguely familiar, one of those names that flesh out a list of friends of (insert name of famous artist here) but the French artist Paul-Emile Colin (1867-1949) merits our attention for something more than the company he kept.  And what company it was. Gauguin, Serusier, Maurice Denis, Emile Bernard and the others who formed the School of Pont-Aven, a group of painters who  used  bright colors, boldly applied and  not shading or Western perspective.  

When the railway line from Paris to Quimper opened in 1862 artists discovered the Breton coast. Connection to a rail line was the surest guarantee of popularity, especially given the rough state of roads at that time. Brittany had been inhabited for hundreds of thousands of years but not for the habitability of its climate. Winters were hard and the people struggled to farm the rocky soil and fish the treacherous waters of the Atlantic. Colin's Trois pommiers en hiver  exists in a different universe than Emile Bernard's  Madeleine in the  Bois d'Amour  although they were inspired by the same locale.  Madeleine dreaming in the forest of love is redolent of spring and symbolism.  Those three apple trees, bare branches at the mercy of the cold, look as though the artist and possibly all of Brittany was beseeching the sun to return quickly. The woman in Colin's Resources d'hiver  could be Madeleine's grandmother.  Bent with age, she is blown along by the cold wind that increases the travail of carrying her kindling..

"A fairground barker, a troubadour, or a pirate" able to "exude energy from every pore" was how Colin described his famous friend Paul Gauguin.  The two met at Le Pouldu, a fishing village on the Breton coast in 1890.  Later in his life, Colin experimented with color  under the influence, he admitted,  of Gauguin's example.  But Colein did not need color for the effects he wanted in his pictures and it added little to its impact.   He was determined to compose line-defined images and lithography was a medium that suited him very well. It also opened a niche for him int he group that surrounded Gauguin at Pont-Aven. It is intriguing to consider that  he acknowledged Gauguin as a influence when the older man was anything but a skilled draftsman.  

Though Vincent van Gogh was not at Pont-Aven, by the time Colin was there many of the artists had seen van Gogh's work and there is a similar mood and technique in Colin's work.  The vagaries of the art market being what they are, if only the name of van Gogh was attached to these impressive works they would be much better known and much more expensive to acquire.

Depending on who told the story, Colin was either a medical doctor who amued himself by making art during his vacations or a man with a passion for art who needed to support himself with more certain employment.  By 1901 colin had achieved enough success with his engravings that he felt confident enough for the future that he was able to give up practicing medicine to become a full-time artist.

Images: courtesy of Bibliotheque de Institut nationale d'histoire et de l'art, Paris.
1.Pauk Colin - Trois pommiers en hiver (Three Apple Trees in Winter), no date given
2. Paul Colin - Resources d'hiver (Winter Resources), 1902
2. Paul Colin - Eglise de Galluis (Church in Galluis), no date given

05 January 2020

Lotte Laserstein: A Modern Woman Paints Modern Women

"Paradise is yours for a dime."
- Ivan Goll (1891-1950) on cinema, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers

"They did not look.
They envisioned.
They did not photograph.
They had visions.
Instead of the rocket they created the perpetual state of excitement."
- Kasimir Edschmid (1890-1966), translated from the German by Walter H. Sokel

During the interwar years everything  novel seemed unprecedented, nowhere more so than  in the new Weimar Republic.  More progress was being visited upon people than ever before.   Berlin, which had a population of 800,00 in 1870, had grown to more than four million by 1920.  Everything was accelerating, from the speed of travel and  news to the pace of everyday life.  Gaiety was in the air  but also an unstable nervous energy.

 From her birthplace in eastern Prussia, Lotte Laserstein (1898-1993), daughter of a watch maker and a piano teacher, came to Berlin, where she was one of the first female students accepted by the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts.  While there she won the Academy's Gold Medal which entitled her to her own studio.  She discovered an affinity with the paintings of the 17th century Ditch artist Franz Hals.  Did she ever know that of many of them attributed to Hals had been painted by a woman, Judith Leyster?  Laserstein herself would accomplish something new - portraying the modern woman in he nascent state.

Woman in a Red Beret is a realistic portrait that wears its modernism lightly.  The paint is applied openly to the canvas, without undue artifice.  There are two distinct and visible stylistic levels in the picture; the upper portion is finely detailed  while the lower remains sketchy.  The subject, in red dress, hat, and lipstick is self-contained, with no need of a backdrop.

In the early 1930s Lasertein participated in the Berlin Women Artists Association.  To support herself she took various odd jobs, including the illustration of an anatomy textbook. But in 1933 Lasersterin was classified  as "three quarters Jewish" under the new Nazi racial laws, making her continued career untenable. Whether on not she knew that  her masterpiece Evening Over Potsdam had been labeled "degenerate,"  Laserstein was forced to close her studio in 1935.

Laserstein sensed that she needed to leave Germany even as three of her paintings enjoyed success at the 1937 Paris World's Fair. An invitation to exhibit at Galleri Modern in Stockholm that year became her exit plan.With help from the Jewish community in Stockholm Laserstein became a Swedish citizen in 1938. But she was unable to bring her mother to safety; Meta Laserstein was deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she died at age seventy-five in 1943.   Lotte Laserstein lived in Sweden for the rest of her life and died  there in 1993.  But it is the work she created during those frenetic interwar years that are her legacy

Fittingly, the first painting purchased by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 1988 was  Lotte Laserstein's  Traute  (Trust), painted in 1930.

Lotte Laserstein - Woman In A Red Beret, circa 1928 1933, charcoal, pastel,  chalk, gouache, ad oil on paper, Berlinische Galerie, Bonn.

31 December 2019

Winter Mummery: Werner Drewes

 A seasonal performance  with roots  in folk drama and masque, this is the season for mummery.   In costume  characters give  broadly comic performances, including  competitive versifying.  Two characters vie for honors and when on is finally vanquished  a doctor administers a magic potion and all ends well.

Colorful and humorous, Winter Mummery by Werner Drewes evokes a centuries old celebration familiar to to the artist from his German childhood.  Two figures resemble friendly knights jousting, in a style a bit like that of Paul Klee.  Although painted in 1945, Winter Mummery feels contemporary in the way it mixes up picture planes in lighthearted fashion.

Werner Drewes (1899-1985) studied art in Stuttgart before joining the Weimar Bauhaus, a  school founded a century ago this year.  Nineteen nineteen was an auspicious year, the war had ended and Weimar was to be the capitol of a new German Republic. The very air was an elixir, to breath it was to inhale the scent of exciting new possibilities. For their part, members of the Bauhaus  practiced the integration of artists and craftspeople.  This continues to exert a profound  influence in the art world;  we are still living in the world the Bauhaus made.

That the people he worked and studied with are now better known than Drewes is an unfortunate  oversight.  Drewes studied with Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer at the Weimar Bauhaus. He traveled the world with his wife Margarete before finally settling in New York. There Kandinsky introduced him to Katherine Dreier,  a founder of Societe Anonyme, who arranged  an invitation to exhibit at the Albright Gallery in Buffalo.  Drewes taught at the Brooklyn Museum and became an American citizen in 1936.  Later he was an instructor at Black Mountain College, along with other Bauhaus alumni, Josef and Anni Albers.  His imaginative forms and his love of color are always a pleasure to behold.

The Werner Drewes estate is represented by the Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara.

Image: Werner Drewes - Winter Mummery, 1945, oil on canvas, Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara.

24 December 2019

Merry Christmas & Joyexu Noel, Dear Readers

" I saw three ships coming sailing in
come sailing in, come sailing in
I see three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning."

Like many Christmas carols, the origin of I Saw Three Ships is unclear.  What we do know is that it was included in the book Christmastide: Its History, Festivities, and Carols, gathered together by William Sandys in 1833.  Versions dating from the 17th century are mentioned as is the notion that the carol was composed and spread by minstrels wandering the English countryside during the Medieval times.

Lilian Westcott Hale (1881-1963) was a an accomplished and successful American artist whose work is often described as Impressionistic.  Since Hale often worked at home On Christmas Day in the Morning may be the view out the window of the Hale house in Dedham, Massachusetts.  Bare trees and snowy skies provide a background that renders the interior scene the more inviting.   The ivy trailing along the window frame and the wreath decorated with pears, apples, lemons and cinnamon sticks signal holiday warmth as does the kettle in the corner.  The realistic, even sober, rendering of the scene avoids greeting card sentimentality.

Image: Lilian Westcott Hale - On Christmas Day in the Morning, 1924, charcoal and colored pencil on paper, Richard York Gallery, NYC.

20 December 2019

Grace Hartigan: Both Abstract and Expressive

"I didn't choose painting.  It chose me." - Grace Hartigan

The Red Bowl is an exuberant gesture surrounded by fluid daubs of paint.  Are there flowers in the bowl? Hard to say for certain.  It is as though there are several different things insisting on their existence, demanding our attention.  Such colorful distortions were a hallmark of Grace Hartigan's work from the beginning. 

Fascinated by Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, Grace Hartigan (1882-2008) was twenty-six when she showed up at Willem de Kooning's Fourth Avenue flat.  De Kooning had emigrated to New York City  from Rotterdam but Hartigan had escaped from Newark, just as surely an epic a journey as far as the she was concerned.  As a child, Hartigan had been fascinated by gypsies, sensing kindred spirits in their seemingly carefree existence.

Until she became an artist, Hartigan was unsure where to focus her abundant energies.  Unable to afford college, Hartigan married at nineteen but marriage could not contain her ambitions and after giving birth to a child, she realized that motherhood would not either.  When her son Jeff was seven years old she took him to live with her parents in New Jersey and went back to New  alone.  "If you look through history at people who are pioneers, they don't have a guilt chip. They're forced to have a guilt chip, and act like they have one, but they don't have one.  ..... I think Grace is one of those people who does what she needs to do."  

Lacking formal art training, Grace devised her own curriculum; she spent the year 1952 painting her way through art history, doing freehand renditions of Rubens, Velaquez, and Goya.  To her friends and fellow painters Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell this was heresy; they thought Hartigan had lost her nerve. 

During the early 1950s Hartigan sometimes exhibited under the name George Hartigan to avoid stereotypical reactions to a woman's work.  Her combination of beauty, talent, ambition, and rambunctiousness led to high visibility (including a feature story in Life magazine) and made her a model for other young women, notably the aspiring art historian Linda Nochlin.  Unlike Nochlin, Hartigan was always hesitant to identify herself as a feminist.  And she disputed other labels applied to - second generation Ab Ex-er and forerunner of Pop Art.  One influence Hartigan was happy to credit was the poetry written by her friend Frank O'Hara, the one who showed her that elements of both "high" and "low" art were compatible.  Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic in postwar American art and Meyer Schapiro, an art historian, launched Hartigan's career in 1950 when they included her in their show "New Talent."

But Greenberg was incensed when Hartigan began to include realistic elements in her work, rebuking her for losing her way and decreeing that her wok was no longer modern(!).  Later he disparaged the idea that women could be great artists, even to her face.

Throughout a  career marked restlessness and experimentation, the one constant was Hartigan's conviction that making art is making magic.

Image: Grace Hartigan - Red Bowl, 1953, Baltimore Museum of Art.

09 December 2019

Arthur B. Carles: A Neglected Modernist

He has been called " one of the most brilliant colorists in the history of American art" by Barbara Ann Boese Wolanin.  So why do we not know more about Arthur B. Carles?  

I was immediately drawn to these two paintings, hanging among the likes of Marsden Hartley and William Baziotes to name just two, on the walls of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute.  For those of us who live within reasonable driving distance to Utica, New York this type of revelation is a common occurrence.   The museum has a stellar collection of early 20th century American modernist art, thanks to a bequest from Edward Wales Root.  Root (1884-1956), who taught art at nearby Hamilton College, was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum but when he offered his collection to them, they turned it down.  They were not interested in modern art: their loss was Utica's gain.

Paris Landscape demonstrates Carles' bold use of color - juxtaposing green and yellow, yellow and blue, blue and red - to create a luminous atmosphere.  In lesser hands the effect might have been jarring but Carles ingeniously used what he had learned from looking at Cezanne's structured blocks of color.

Carles (1882-1952) was a native of Philadelphia, a place whose Procrustean bed of an art scene he would escape as often as finances permitted.  The son of a watchmaker, he was able to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Art on a scholarship.  His teachers, William Merritt Chase and Cecilia Beaux introduced him to French Impressionism but when  he was able visit Paris in 1907 it was Post-Impressionism with its riotous colors that won him over. 

Carles took lessons from Matisse; he dismissed the man  as "bourgeois," but admired his work. The two  met again in 1931 when Matissse came to Philadelphia to paint a series of lunettes for the Alfred he met Mercedes de Cordoba, a. mezzo soprano and flamenco dancer from Spain.  The two wed in 1909 but spent little time together during their sixteen year marriage.  The couple had one child, a daughter, born in 1913; Mercedes Matter studied art in New York with Hans Hoffmann and became an abstract expressionist painter. 

Through Steichen, Carles also met Alfred Stieglitz who invited Carles to show his work at his New York Gallery 291.  Carles also showed his work participated in the notorious Armory Show in 1913.  The public had never before seen American and European modernists together under one roof; the effect was shocking and the public was thrilled to be shocked.

From 1917 to 1925 Carles taught at his alma mater but he was eventually dismissed for his refusal to follow its conservative academic curriculum.  Undeterred, Carles taught privately and never lacked for students.  For Carles, color was the bedrock of painting, a belief that had been reinforced by his wartime work supervising ship camouflage operations at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.   Derivation, painted between 1929 and 1933, suggests that losing his academic position freed him artistically. Those cubist flowers look the way they might to a bee - overwhelming beauty coming from every direction.

Carles suffered from bouts of depression and alcoholism which led to several hospitalizations during the 1930s as his health deteriorated.  In 1941 he had a fall that left him partially paralyzed and unable to paint.  Carles lived out his final years in a nursing home where he died in 1952.

1. Arthur B. Carles - Rooftops I, 1921, oil on wood panel, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica
2. Arthur B. Carles - Derivation, 1929-1933, oil on canvas, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica

30 November 2019

Susan Frecon's Renaissance Art

"I always craved geometric solutions. They underlie so many things: architecture and old paintings that are informed by geometry, like Cimabue, Romanesque cathedrals, churches.  You have the structure of the building and then you have the curves of the architecture and then within that you have the painting and within that you have the art." - Susan Frecon

Subtle and meticulous compositions, Susan Frecon's large scale oil paintings contain shapes and curves familiar from art of the Italian Renaissance. There is a sense of stillness permeating these images, recalling the hush of a cathedral where Frecon encountered them. Her passion for the period extends to her use  of Piero della Francesca's platonic forms, visible in the veil in one her favorite works, the Virgin Annunciate (circa 1476) by Antonello da Massina. 

Painted in the last years of his life when Massina had returned to his native Sicily, it is his masterpiece, the mysteries of the spirit contained in a rectangle.  The Virgin stands at a lectern, her head draped in a veil of lapis lazuli. Her hands suggest ambivalence, rather than the radiance portrayed by other artists; there is no welcome in them, rather they hold the viewer and the angel at bay. The pitch black space that surrounds her is as abstract as anything Frecon paints.  Vasari wrote in Lives of the Artists that Massina had introduced oil paint to Italy.  Frecon saw the painting at its home in the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo.

In Renaissance painting terre verte was used in under-painting of flesh.  The color of moss, this "green earth" was also used to connote death.  Also lapis, or ultramarine, was often used to color the clothing of a painting's central figure, especially the Virgin Mary.  What Frecon does with this is to use the colors without retelling the story.

When Frecon saw the Virgin Annunciate  it was mounted on a green velvet wall; she says that she was immediately struck by the colors. "(W)hen I was looking at the painting, its smooth blue shape floating near the top, on a green ground. I was struck by the fact that the blue form seemed hard and the green appeared soft, and, yes, velvety.  The blue form felt impenetrable while the green ground was inviting."

Color, form, and feeling have replaced outright story-telling in Frecon's work and her sense of color is uniquely her own, just Mark Rothko's was. "I need to mix the colors myself; I need to know how the colors feel..."

Susan Frecon (b. 1941) is an American artist who lives and works in New York. She studied art here and abroad, at the University of Strasbourg and then at the Ecole Normale Superiere des Beaux Arts in Paris. Her paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney in New York, in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, and in the Menil Collection in Houston, home of the Mark Rothko Chapel.

1. Susan Frecon - A Book of Paint , 2019, oil on wood, David Zwirner Gallery, NYC.
2. Susan Frecon - Terre Verte , 2014, oil on linen, two part work, David Zwirner Gallery, NYC.

23 November 2019

Albert Marquet: The View From His Balcony

"Let's leave the studio and go watch what moves." - Albert Marquet

Water moves.  We all know that but until eh French Impressionists began to paint en plein air in paintings water did not not move. Think of Canaletto's paintings of Venice.

Albert Marquet (1875-1947) painted Le Pont Neuf, la nuit from the balcony of his sixth floor apartment on the Quai des Grands-Augustins at the corner of the rue Dauphine. From there he had a splendid view of the Pont Neuf and Ile de la Cite. His balcony was his de facto studio given how often he painted there.  Marquet painted the River Seine as obsessively as other, more egotistical artists painted self-portraits. And although Marquet traveled frequently, his favorite locations away from home were Naples and Venice, both cities offered spectacular views of water.  Of his method, his wife Marcelle Marquet wrote in her biography of him, "At work he narrowed his eyes, first one eye, then the other, taking advantage of not having the same vision in both ..."  ( Readers, I, too have binocular vision.)

When he was young, the diffident Marquet began a lifelong friendship with the outgoing Henri Matisse.  As his style evolved, Marquet's palette of colors softened: many of his Seine paintings show the river cloaked in its typical muted shades of gray and green. In a different mood, Marquet's Le Pont Neuf, la nuit is his starry night, electric lights sparkle through the rain.  The light-filled house on the opposite bank was La Samaritaine, a turn of the century department store that boasted ninety differen departments under one roof.  Nineteen thirty-seven, the year of its composition was also the year of an International Exposition in Paris where Raoul Dufy created a large crescent-shaped mural La Fee Electricite (The Eelctricity Fairy) for the Pavilion of Light and Electricity.

"The Seine,old egotist, meanders imperturbably toward the sea;
ruminating on weeds and rain
If through his sluggishly watery sleep come dreams
They are the blue ghosts of kingfishers." -  from "Paris, A Poem by Hope Mirrlees, Hogarth Press:1920

Its name means "New Bridge" but the Pont Neuf is the oldest surviving bridge on the Seine..It was the first stone bridge erected in Paris: it has survived as other older wood bridges have failed.  Dedicated in 1607 by King Henry IV, it is wider than any of the streets in Paris.  And although the Seineis prone to frequent flooding, during the catastrophic flood in 1910 the Pont Neuf was one of only two bridges in the city that were not totally submerged.

Althouth not wll known outside France, Marquet was revered by Leland Bell and Louisa Matthiasdottir, two painters married to each other who taught at various American art schools, introducing his work to their students.

Image: Albert Marquet - Le Pon Neuf, la nuit, 1937, oil on canvas, Pompidou Center, Paris.

17 November 2019

Peasant Burning Weeds: A New Van Gogh

"I don't think I shall be able to do justice to the countryside because words fail me(.)... Level planes or strips, varied in color, that grow narrower & narrower as they approach the horizon.  Accentuated here or there by a turf hut or small farmhouse or a few stunted beeches, poplars, oaks - peat stacked up everywhere and barges constantly passing by with peat or bulrushes from the marshes.   Here and there, skinny cows, subtle in color, quite often sheep and pigs.
-  from a letter of Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, circa 3 October 1883

A man bends to the humble task of burning weeds in a field against an unlovely landscape. We see none of his features, we do not know his age although his stance suggests he is equal to his task.  If he looks isolated that may be  because the artist provides no context for him -  no people, no animals, no buildings are in sight. Just the flatness of the Dutch countryside that van Gogh had known had grown up  with.

Van Gogh was proud of this painting, feeling that he had achieved the tone he had been trying for with his subject, conveying with a smoky palette the vastness of the plain as dusk gathers, with a small fire providing the only point of light.  The time was the autumn of 1883 when van Gogh spent three months in the northeastern Dutch province of Drenthe. Historically, Drenthe has been a poor province; it even looks poor with few rivers and mile upon mile of flat heath-lands. During this period of loneliness Vincent tried, not for the first time, to persuade his brother Theo to give up the art trade, which he regarded as corrupt, and join with him in painting. Vincent was thirty years old but just finding  his vocation as an artist;  illness and depression had led him to take up painting just two years previously. There are not many paintings from this period, making Peasant Burning Weeds all the more remarkable.

Van Gogh thought of himself as a painter of modern life. As a counter example, he used the Goncourt  Brothers, catty chroniclers of appearances, whose fabled diaries were much talked about in Paris though not yet published.  

He wanted to be the painter of modern portraits.  "In general the figures that now & then put in an appearance on the flats are full of character, and sometimes they have an enormous charm." - from a letter of Vincent to Theo, circa 3 October 1883

Van Gogh's letters are full of interest not just to art historians but also for their revelation of the man's humanity, his hunger for friendship, a hunger that made him reach out - to the peasants he lived among in Drenthe, to other artists in Paris and London, and to his brother Theo, witness to his creative struggles. Van Gogh's inner life was rich, giving him the inspiration that he could see the eternal in the everyday.  "(I)t is difficult to know oneself - but it isn't easy to paint oneself either." 

Peasant Burning Weeds (1883) has long been in private hands and is just now coming into public view at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Quotations are taken from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, Allen Lane, Penguin Press: 1996.

Vincent van Gogh - Peasant Burning Weeds, October 1883, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam & Drents Museum, Assen.

03 November 2019

If You Live, You'll See: Recovering Nancy Hale

"Qui vivra, verra."  If you live, you'll see.  An apt epigraph for the career of American author Nancy Hale.

Nancy Hale was eleven years old when her mother painted her portrait. Immediately I first saw Nancy and the Map of Europe I was reminded of Jan Vermeer's Allegory of Painting (1666).  Both girls wear blue dresses, sit before softly tinted maps hanging on walls behind them, and both are possessed of the serious sweetness that attends the threshold of adulthood. The laurels that garland the girl's head in Vermeer's painting are echoed by the fronds of an unseen plant leaning into the upper right corner of Hale's.  The little doll wearing an identical dress also has a book in her hands; both girl and doll interrupted at their reading. It is as though the artist could foresee her daughter's future career.  Suggestively, the door at the left edge of the picture is propped open, an indication of the life to come?  We know from Nancy Hale's memoir Life in the Studio (1969) that she hated being a conscript of a model but that doesn't dim the pleasure of discovering this picture.

  Lilian Westcott Hale, the artist, has faded from the story of art, unjustly, I think and so, after her, has her daughter, the writer Nancy Hale, with even less justice.  Now thanks to the Library of America and editor Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies) we have twenty-five Nancy Hale stories in Where the Light Falls again in print.

About her stories, Nancy Hale wrote in her memoir A New England Childhood (1958), " My pieces,,, are intended less about the real and ascertainable past than about the memory of it, and memory as a mode of thinking tends to burst spontaneously into fantasy at very turn."  Women puzzled her, Hale admitted and so we may read her stories as detective fiction of a kind.

The first story, "The Earliest Dreams" fittingly, is about a little girl lying in bed at night ("suspended in a dark tower above the world") listening to the adults downstairs "( They were all laughing in the drawing-room below.  You were wondering what they were laughing at, that made the laughter so wise, so gay, so confident and foreign.  You never knew what they laughed at when they laughed at when they laughed so long in the evenings, and now you will never know.")  Contemporary writers like Lorrie Moore are not, after all, the first to use a breathless second person voice.

In the second story, also from 1934, "The Double House, " Robert is a little boy who lives with his widowed father and his Aunt Esther in one half of a double house. (" Robert used to think, as he came home from school, how ugly the house looked, and how hopeless and sad.") It is the Depression and the family has little money. Yet Robert finds solace of a sort in the empty half- house;  his emotional equilibrium depends on his father. Shy and tentative with his schoolmates, the  boy is savagely ridiculed and even attacked when he brings a flower to science class that his father picked for him. ("School was  a sort of nightmare broken by little intervals of hope.")  One night when Father comes home late, Robert overhears his father crying.  And just like that, Robert's world collapses.

Hale wrote "Who Lived and Died Believing in 1942, the  story of a woman n a  psychiatric hospital whose inner life is erased by a harrowing series of shock treatments she used a stream of consciousness  that drew on Hale's own nervous breakdown of the year before. For this she used a stream of consciousness similar to that used by Virginia Woolf.

In prose elegant and sometimes slyly humorous, Hale tackled controversial subjects like racism, prejudice against immigrants, anti-Semitism in the early days of World War II, women as enforcers of the double standard against other women,  a woman's ambiguous and even rebellious feelings about motherhood.  "The Bubble" is remarkably frank about a woman's desire "to look nice again"  and to attract attention from men after having a baby. And this was written in 1954.  Five years later in "Flotsam" a babysitting grandmother, vain about her youthful looks ("No doubt many of these passerby mistook her for Marcus's mother."), is trailed by her obedient but literal minded grandson who insist on correcting those mistakes.  Equally zealous in a different way, a suburban woman's back yard bomb shelter becomes the emotional center of her life.

Nancy Hale (1908-1988) was born in Boston; both her mother, Lilian Westcott Hale and her father, Philip Leslie Hale (1865-1931) were artists. Like her mother before her, Nancy Hale studied at the Boston Museum School Fine Arts.  Although she soon turned to writing, Hale published a biography of the painter Mary Cassatt in 1975.  She married her first husband in 1928 and the couple moved to New Yotk City where Nancy got a job at Vogue.  She also freelanced short stories to magazines, including the New Yorker.   Her book editor at Scribner's was Maxwell Perkins, who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe.  Indeed, Hale's stories of debutantes, college dances, and fast cars, drawn from her youth will evoke shades of Fitzgerald for many readers, although Hale's viewpoint is bemused and detached, not idolatrous.  She published a biography of the artist Mary Cassatt in 1975 and some critics took exception to her focus on the obstacles  faced by a female artist in the 19th century but  no one could question the depth of her research; she had learned  it from her parents.  Although she would go on to publish seven novels, her m├ętier was the story. Divorced and remarried in 1936, Hale moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. After her second marriage ended in divorce, Hale had a nervous breakdown; her third marriage in 1942 lasted until Hale's death.

Lilian Westcott Hale (1880-1963) studied with William Merritt Chase at his Shinnecock Hills Summer Art School on  Long Island and then at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts with Edmund Tarbell.  In 1902 she married a fellow artist, Philip Leslie Hale and the couple settled in Dedham, Massachusetts.  Their daughter Nancy was born in 1908.  Her portraits were much admired by critics and she won an award from the National Academy of Design in 1927.

Image: Lilian Westcott Hale - Nancy and the Map of Europe, 1919, oil on canvas, private collection.

25 October 2019

Painting With Fruit: Carmen Argote

"Did I tell you about
my mother's avocado ado?
She grew it from a pit.
Secretly, slowly in the dark,
it put out grub-white roots
which filled a jelly jar.
From this unlikely start,
an avocado tree with bark
& dark green leaves
shaded the green silk
which shaded me
throughout my shady adolescence."
 - excerpt  from "Fruits & Vegetables" from Fruits & Vegetables by Erica Jong, New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston: 1971.

A tactile art, swirls of fruit as the ultimate finger paints, is the piquant art of Carmen Argote.

"My father mentally inhabited two sites in Guadalajara while living in Los Angeles.  One was an empty lot, and the other was Mansion Magnolia where he envisioned himself working. These two sites created for him, and by extension for me during my childhood, an ever-present feeling that Los Angeles was a temporary situation. I have felt the coexistence of these spaces throughout my life." - Carmen Argote

(Mansion Magnolia is a neoclassical mansion in the center of Guadalajara, built in 1904 as a residence it rhen became a hotel and restaurant.)

These disparate notions of what makes a home propel the artist Carmen Argote in her work. How do we inhabit places and spaces?  She uses materials symbolically, drawing on a rich backstory of everyday use - avocados, pine needles, coffee, and the cochineal dye used to decorate blankets throughout Central America.  The citrus fruit that Argote is working with in the photograph above was picked in the garden of  Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco while she was in residence at his studio. The results are included in  her current solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York City "As Above, So Below." Its title is taken from an aphorism suggesting that the terrestrial world is a reflection of the celestial world.

Carmen Argote was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and now lives in Los Angeles, the city where she spent much of her childhood. 

1. Itzel Hernandez Gomez, photograph - Manajese con Cuidado,  Carmen Argote working on citrus, preparing the exhibition As Above, So Below, courtesy of the New Museum, NYC.
2. Carmen Argote - Searching with the Fingers, 2019, avocado on linen over panel, Instituto de Vision, Bogota.

16 October 2019

Inspired by Lascaux: Elaine de Kooning & Eric Chevillard

I. Although she is better known for her portraits (1918-1989), Elaine de Kooning was a painter of vivid and vigorous abstraction; for her abstraction was definitely an expressive mode. Her aim for her more abstract work was this: "I wanted a sense of surfaces being in motion."  

Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall is one in a series that de Kooning called "Cave Walls," inspired by the cave paintings of Lascaux.  Of her first visit to Niaux in 1983, she  recalled how impressed she had been, saying, "the walls, even those without paintings, seemed to bellow with animal forms."  As a child, Elaine had loved to draw animals.

De Kooning believed that she had seen the origins of Abstract Expressionism in the ancient cave paintings.  "There's...a tremendous immediacy about the cave work which has much more to do with today's art, than, with, let's say, the Renaissance art."  The textures, cracks, and bulges of the walls resembled her own painting techniques, her use of strokes and drips and layering through collage, all in  a single work.  In Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall  thick strokes of red, white, and blue rush downward, and are scattered about at bottom by  forceful black strokes that suggest a bull in full charge. Here, as in all of Elaine de Kooning's abstract paintings, nothing is static.

De Kooning became a regular contributor to Art News in 1948 and. although she, like her husband, was a painter, she was pigeon-holed as an art critic. Again, like her friend Lee Krasner, de Kooning's efforts to taken seriously for her art were impeded, not helped, by her marriage to a famous male artist.  As the old saying has it:  marriage is only big enough for one and a half persons and guess which one gets the lobotomy?

II. "The end of prehistoric times was precipitated by the advent of writing....in brief, prehistory comes to an end when rhe story begins." - Eric Chevillard

And the beginning of the rewriting of prehistory began in 1940 when an eighteen year old boy found an opening in a wall of rock that led into the caves of Lascaux in southwestern France.  Historians had studied remnants of the early Roman settlements in the Dordogne for a long time but the revelation of Paleolithic artifacts pushed the region's first known habitation back some two million years.

When the caves were opened to the public , entering along with the thousands of visitors were light, moisture, microbes, and fungi that began to degrade the wall paintings. Eventually the French Ministry of Culture came up with a plan to stabilize the precious artworks by creating an alternative series of faux-caves, complete with copies of the Lascaux paintings.  When reality gets turned upside down, is there anything that fiction can add?  Enter Etic Chevillard.

If Chevillard's fictional worlds seem at first far removed from our own but then, without our being aware of how it happens, their orbits begin to run in parallel with the known world or even collide with it.  This is the world that appears in Chevillard's Prix Feneon prize winning novel The Crab Nebula (1993) whose protagonist, a man named Crab, may be out of his mind but he greets the possibility with genial curiosity.

This modest, off-the-cuff lecture does not have as its sole aim the clarification of the meaning of my trade, nor is it intended as the proof of my credentials in the matter; its main purpose is rather the additional reprieve it allows me by justifying my reticence to get down to work..."

These are the first words the protagonist addresses to the reader. Is Boborkine an archaeologist, a tour guide to the caves, or a clerk in the gift shop?  And who is Professor Glatt?  Archaeologist or art historian, but definitely "the most authoritarian authority in this field." At the end of this novel that manages to be both dilatory and succinct, we are no closer to understanding the cave paintings than we were when we began.

Eric Chevillard (b.1964) and the postwar French writers of the Nouveau roman (Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, et al) and Eric Chevillard (b.1964) share a  trait that perplexes and irritates their critics -  a lack of structure.  But, unlike the unleavened seriousness of his predecessors, Chevillard is a writer of cheerful absurdities are elliptical but not indecipherable.  "Man will only ever address himself to man, in a closed circuit, man finishes man."  Suitably then, Prehistoric Times ends with our protagonist, a man who closes himself up in a room to contemplate the afterlife of paintings he has not yet painted.

To read an interview with Eric Chevillard by his translator Alyson Waters....

For further reading - Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters, Brooklyn, Archipelago Books: 2012.

Image: Elaine de Kooning - Cave # 24 Red Oxide Wall + 1984 + acrylic and  collage mounted on paper,  Cindy Lou Friedman & Rick Friedman Collection, Southampton, NY.

11 October 2019

Ostend,1902: Leon Spilliaert, Resident - Stefan Zweig, Visitor

"A day of travel like many others over these past years. Is it because the world shakes on its foundations that one is so used to living in perpetual movement? Is it a premonition that a time is approaching when countries will erect barriers between them, so you yearn to breathe quickly, while you still can, a little of the world's air?" - Stefan Zweig, from his journal, dated 27 September 1935, (translated from the German by Will Stone, 2010)

More than a century separates us from Stefan Zweig yet these lines could easily have been penned yesterday.  Zweig, who was Jewish had fled continental Europe to England in 1934, but in 1939 as war came to England he moved on to the United States, ultimately finding uneasy refuge in Brazil, where he and his wife Lotte Altmann committed suicide in 1942.

Two young men, born in the same year, and full of promise.  One, the artist Leon Spilliaert (1881-1946) paces the shore by the sea wall late at night when his ulcers brought on insomnia and drove him out-of-doors.  The Viennese writer Stefan Zweig was twenty-one when he came to Ostend in 1902.  At twenty-one Zweig had already published five novellas and was well on his way to earning a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Vienna.  As for Spilliaert, just finding his vocation, his  would be displayed next to Pablo Picasso's in 1904 in Paris.

They also shared a mutual friend, Emile Verhaeran (1855-1916).  A prolific poet who was born in the Flemish part of Belgium but went on to write in French, Verhaeren was nominated for the Nobel Literature Prize six times. In his art criticism he advanced the merits of young Belgian artists including James Ensor, another Oostendenaar.  Spilliaert went to work for Verhaeren's publisher Edmond Deman in 1903, where the successful poet inspired and encouraged the tentative painter.  The first of many biographies that Zweig would write on Verhaeran, was published in 1910.

The two favorite occupations of the summer visitors were not swimming and sunbathing but were instead  gambling and racing, racing of all sorts, cars, yachts, horses, and dogs.  There was a febrile quality to their pastimes, as Zweig related in "The Season in Ostend" how, in 1901, when the gaming rooms had to closed the Belgian government proposed to award the town millions of franc in compensation for their losses.

It was only when August ended that the ordinary face of Ostend became visible: the fishers pursuing their marginal living and the ships coming and going from the deep water ocean port.  After repeated bombings by the Germans during the Second World War, the grandeur that had been summer at Ostend was replaced by a drably uniform modernism.  The sea wall and the long pier jutting optimistically into the Atlantic are still there, as Spilliaert as wondrously as painted them.

There is more about Leon Spilliaert at Blue Apple, Green Sea.

Leon Spilliaert - De Windstoot (The Gust of Wind),  idia ink, watercolor, gouache, on paper, Mu.Zee, Ostend, Belgium.

06 October 2019

Berthe Morisot: Painting Curvilinar Light

"Men are inclined to believe that they fill all of one's life, but as for me, I think that no matter how much affection one mght feel for one's husband, it will not be easy to break off a life of work.  Romanc is all very well, as long as there is something besides it to fill one's days." - Berthe Morisot

"Being reassured that whatever kind of art you make it will be labeled feminine." -  the Guerilla Girls quoted from the exhibition "The Advantage of Being a Woman Artists," Tate Modern Museum, London, 1988.

Painters invented natural light in the 19th century: Courbet, Millet, and others depicted ordinary people and settings as realistically as possible.  Before then light had been an arbitrary feature to be manipulated as desired.  Whereas Medieval and Renaissance artists employed light didactically to draw attention to the religious and metaphysical  messages of their paintings because transcendence exists beyond ordinary perception.  For the Impressionists the play of light  itself became  the subject. Berthe Morisot's Dahlias bridges the realist/impressionist divide, giving the viewer the sense that the source of light which is coming from outside the picture frame is a window.  Beneath the yellow flowers, Morsiot has created the reflection of window panes on the curved  surface of the porcelain vase.

In 1876, the year Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) painted Dahlias, she showed her work at the second Impressionist  exhibition in Paris.  Morisot was the only woman to participate in seven out of the eight exhibition held between 1874 and 1886.  To put this in the context, the  of her career, the year before Morisot had painted three of her most admired pictures:  Manet on the Isle of Wight; The Wheat Field; and Hanging the Laundry Out to Dry.  Still life was an unusual subject in Morisot's oeurve although many of her interior scenes contain vignettes of still life.

Grace Hartigan and Helen Frankenthaler, two abstract expressionists who read Morisot's letters when they were finally published decades after her death, were moved by her struggles, finding  in her an ambiguous and haunting precursor.  Frankenthaler went on to reinterpret a painting that Morisot had posed for, Edouard Manet's Balcony in Los Mayas in which she occluded  the Morisot  figure.

Morisot began with advantages most aspiring female artists of her time could only wish for.  Her family was wealthy and cultured, they built a stuio for her in the garden of their Parisian home, she took private art lesson with teachers she chose for herself.  She chose to join with artists who held independent salon, showing with them at seven out of eight salons between 1874 and 1886 and challenging the legitimacy.  Her beauty was held against her as a fault. 

At her death about five sixths of Morisot's paintings remained within her family: she had only sold between twenty-five and forty pieces during her career. Despite gifts to various museums by her daughter Julie Manet, her gradual erasure after her death proceeded like the fading of the Cheshire Cat. Only eight years later Camille Mauclair in his influential study L'Impressionisme (1903) relegated Morisot to the group he designated  "Secondary Impressionists."   The dealer Ambroise Vollard had collected 360 photographs of her paintings for a book-length study but the project was never completed.

In 2018 the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia presented Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist.

Berthe Morisot - Dahlias, 1876, oil on panel, Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

01 October 2019

Jasper Cropsey: Trenton High Falls

" This mode of study productive of knowledge  - it makes a man a botanist, a geologist, he is not satisfied seeing things merely upon the surface.  He studies deeper.  The knowledge he gains is communicated to his work, so that while it possesses beauty as a work of art, it is scientific and historical, scientific from the. great character that pervades it, and historical because of the truthfulness with which it represents the country..."
 - Jasper Cropsey, from as essay "Nature and Art," New York Art Union, August 24, 1845.

Jasper Crpsey often remarked that his goal in creating landscapes was to capture "nature as she is."
The original sketch for Trenton High Falls (1880) appears in a sketchbook that Cropsey carried with him during the years 1855-1856.  You can see traces of his architectural training in the detail and precise placement of his markings in this rendering of the upper falls. I can attest to the accuracy of the work: I have visited Trenton on one of the two weekend of the year that the area is open to the public. The architectonics of the horizontal rock formations are the terraced bench that the waters foam and swirl over, above, and below.  The trail that Cropsey walked to the top of the falls was laid out in 1822 with funds provided by Joseph Bonaparte, brother of France;s Emperor Napoleon

There are many waterfalls in upstate New York named "High Falls."  The Trenton High Falls are located on West Canada Creek which flows south from the Adirondacks to the Mohawk River east of Oneida Lake.   Before Europeans arrived, the Haudenosaunee called the falls Kay-a-ho-ra, or "slanting water."

The terraced levels of the falls are remnants of centuries of geological movement.  The limestone and the locale have contributed the name Trenton Group to the limestone bed that extends from upstate New York to Minnesota. It is a sedimented stone rich in fossils: Concularia, an ancient "armored' jellyfish; spiny-skinned starfsh and sea stars; cephalopads (shelleed mollusks with tentacles); snails and tiny moss animals.

Cropset made frequent sketching trips to such locations as the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Greenwood Lake and the Ramapo Valley in New Jersey and Canada during the 1850s.  Later he would make engravings from some of his sketches   Cropsy was one of the most accomplished draftsmen among the artists of the Hudson River School, as you can see.  Although he was strongly influenced by Thomas Cole, Cropsey's "truth to nature" was much less fanciful than Cole's  roamntic and allegorical paintings.

Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900) was born on Staten Island and began to sketch what he saw around his family's farm as a fragile child, often kept home from school by illness.  Trained as an architect,  Cropsey turned to the study of watercolor and oil painting at the National Academy of Design and exhibited his first landscapes at age twenty-one, soon abandoning his architectural practice.  He was a member of the Art Union, a group founded in 1839,  dedicated to teaching art literacy to the citizens of the young nation. 

Forgotten after his death in 1900, Cropsey's work was rediscovered in the 1960s when there was a revival of interest in the Hudson River painters.  His home "Ever Rest" in Hastings-on-Hudson was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1970s and now includes a gallery devoted to Cropsey's work.

This oil painting by the Danish artist Ferdinand Richter shows the entirety of the falls in Below (Trenton) High Falls.  Painted in 1858 while Richter was on a four year visit to the States, at a time when picturesque waterfalls were becoming popular vacation spots, it is one of most beloved and reproduced works from the collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute.

Note: If you are in the Mohawk Valley and would like to visit Trenton High Falls, visit Town of Trenton for information.

1.Jasper Francis Cropsy - Trenton High Falls, 1880, watercolor, and graphite on woven paper, 1880, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
2. Ferdinand Richter - Below (Trenton) High Falls, 1858, oil on canvas, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

24 September 2019

On the Fly: Eugene Delacroix Drawings

"Color always occupies me but drawing preoccupies me." - Eugene Delacroix

You can see both impulses at work in Fleurs de laurier-rose (oleanders to English speakers), delicate gradations of red peppered with white slivers and ethereal shadows of green and an ingeniously structured plant on paper that looks completely natural, artless.

Much like other artists, Delacroix wondered how posterity would regard his work.  On the evidence of two exhibitions devoted to his drawings in 2018 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a first-ever New York gallery show, posterity is still getting to know the Frenchman and is awestruck by the revelations.  It is possible that The Triumph of Genius Over Envy was a hint from the artist himself as to how he hoped to be remembered.

During his lifetime (1798-1863), Delacroix was feted as a master of painting but he chose to keep his drawings to himself.  Imagine the with what surprise his executors greeted the discovery of some 6,00 drawings in his Parisian atelier.  To their credit they immediately recognized a master draftsman at work.  Of interest is that Delacroix accomplished all this with modest materials - chalk, charcoal, crayon, graphite, pastels, watercolors - materials that were considered capable only of producing inferior works.

His attraction to romantic and even sensational subjects is reflected in his comment that an artist is someone who is able to draw a man falling from a window before he hits the ground.  This sounds like what the French term a croquis succinct, a quick sketch. Delacroix shows how it is done by catching a tiger at the moment it is posed to pounce on something (one hopes not someone) outside the frame, a choice that intensifies the impression of force. This is the same Delacroix who claimed "I am a pure Classicist."

Delacroix had a conventional education for an artist of his time, absorbing classical academic  principles and making sketches from works by the old masters at the Louvre.  It was at this time that he began to carry a sketchbook with him everywhere, trying out ideas that he might use in his paintings. Sunset is believed to be a study for the restoration of the ceiling of the Apollo Gallery at the Louvre in the years 1848-1851. Delacroix contributed a tableau of the race of Apollo to the  project. You could easily imagine those radiating pink rays as the hand print of  a god.

Delacroix recognized  that, thanks to new technologies,  reproductions of his drawings were a way to promote his work to a new and larger audience. With increasing difficulty he carried on working in his last decades, hobbled by a frail constitution.  In 1853 he wrote in his journal, "Happiness always comes too late.  It is like the little vogue for my pictures; after despising me for so long, the patrons are going to make my fortune." - quoted in Rise of the Modern Art Market, Pamela Fletcher & Anne Helmreich, eds.

1. Eugene Delacroix - Fleurs de laurier-rose (Oleander), no date given, watercolor, Musee Bonnat-Helleu, Bayonne.
2, Eugene Delacroix - The Triumph of Genius Over Envy, circa 1849-51, pen and ink, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
3. Eugene Delacroix - Crouching Tiger, 1839, pen, brush, ink, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
4. Eugene Delacroix - Sunset,  1850, pastel on paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

15 September 2019

Felix Vallotton: More Real Than the Realists

At first glance these carefully arranged peppers appear to be circling each other warily, like contestants in a beauty contest.  Or the presence of a  knife suggests an illustration from a contemporary cooking magazine.  Definitely looks like a  photograph. (Curious note about magazine photography: food is photographed from above while interiors are usually shot from a crouching position.)  But these red peppers Poivrons rouges were painted in 1915 by the Swiss-French artist Felix Vallotton.

Some context: around the late 1960s, influenced by the riposte of Pop Art to the oh-so-serious Abstract Expressionists who dominated the American art scene in the post-war period, young artists felt freed to try on various styles - minimalism, feminism, black art, and photorealism.  Some artists tried more than one at a time; for example Audrey Flack (b. 1931) was a feminist and a photorealist who went pretty maximalist in her paintings while she was at it, filling her pictures to the bursting point with objects.

Photorealism is one of the easier types of art to grasp.  The artist uses photography rather than drawing to  explore a potential subject.  How this information gets transferred to canvas is done in various ways but for a Photorealist painter the highest compliment would be for the viewer to be fooled into thinking  "I'm looking at a photograph." 

Felix Vallotton (1865-1925) was born to a conservative Protestant family in Lausanne, Switzerland.  His father was - yes! - a chocolate maker.  An adventurous streak led the sixteen year old Felix to Paris to study art.   It was in the early 1890s that Vallotton began to make satirical woodcuts that looked at the ways of the French with a gimlet eye.  The technique had fallen out of favor after flowering during the Renaissance but its demanding and clinical aspects appealed to the young artist. And the prints made him famous.

When Vallotton joined the semi-secret, semi-mystical French group the Nabis ('nabi' is the Hebrew word for Prophet) he was christened the "Foreign Nabi." (Jozsef Rippl-Ronai from Hungary was called the "Hungarian Nabi.") He became part of the cultural underground of 1890s Paris but his work suggests that he held himself apart, in Paris but not of Paris.  His early painting were avant-garde but in his later years his work became difficult to categorize but  more conservative in choice of subject and tone, as he began making portraits and still lifes. 

Vallotton studied classics but switched to drawing and settled in Paris in 1882.  He enrolled in the prestigious Academie Julian, also attended by most of his future fellow Nabis. Vallotton showed paintings at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889,  where Japanese prints and the newly dedicated Eiffel Tower caused a sensation.   Still, Vallotton had to work as a restorer to earn his living.  The hours spent at the Louvre studying works by Da Vinci, Durer, and Holbein had stood him in good stead and gradually he began to receive commissions from home for paintings.

After his Nabi period (1892-1900) Vallotton's reputation was secured.  After he married Gabrielle Rodriques-Henriques, the daughter of a wealthy art dealer, in 1899 his financial future was secure.  He acquired a studio on Honfleur, a village on the south bank fo the Seine across the river from Le Havre. There the artist focused on still life painting, particularly fruits and vegetables. The keenness and precision of his eye was like that of a camera. "More than ever the object amuses me: the perfection of an egg; the moisture on a tomato; the striking (martelage) of a hortensia flower;these are the problems for me to resolve." - F.V., quoted in Felix Vallotton: Fire Beneath the Ice by Isabelle Cahn,  Lecturis: 2013.

"Felix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet" , organized by the Royal Academy of Art in  will travel to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City (October 29, 2019 - January 26, 2020).

Felix Vallotton - Poivrons rouges (Red Peppers), 1915, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Solothurn.

10 September 2019

Elizabeth Harrower: Under a Clamorous Sky

"You have a remarkable, sober acerbity, an almost historical view (the long prospect - I wonder) and the fragrance and nuttiness of the kernel, with the nutshell dispensed with...You are unique, a writer on your own and your future is, no doubt, a long prospect."
 - Christina Stead to Elizabeth Harrower, November 6, 1969

That fragrance is baked into the Australian landscape, a landscape often parched under a "clamorous sky" as Elizabeth Harrower put it.  Grace Cossington-Smith's Black Mountain was painted in the area known as Turramurra, near Sydney where Grace Cossington lived.  The word originate from the Aboriginal where it denotes a high hill.

Elizabeth Harrower and Christina Stead became friends when  Stead returned home to Australia from Europe in the 1970s.  Both writers created characters who prey on others within the supposed shelter of home. Although Harrower was then only in her forties, she had already stopped publishing books in spite of having written four well-received novels between 1957 and 1966.

The Long Prospect, published in 1958 was Harrower's second novel and her first success.  The novel exemplifies Satyagraha, a Sanscrit word combining satya (truth) an agraha (adherence, insistence) given by Gandhi to the practice of nonviolent resistance. "Man and his deeeds are two disctinct things.  Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doe of the deed, whether good or wicked, always deserves respect or pity as the case may be." In Elizabeth Harrower's novels politics happens in the background because that is how it is in everyday life.  She delicately explores how public disparities play out in real lives.
Twelve year old Emily Lawrence has been exiled to a dismal factory town while her parents, Harry and Paula, pursue separate lives in Sydney.  Occasionally one or the other makes an appearance to do something vaguely parental.  "Just the same, it was immensely embarrassing to have a stranger as an intimate relation," the girl reflects. Emily lives in a boarding house run by her maternal grandmother Lilian who both neglects  and torments the little girl.  

Lilian exults in other people's misfortunes so Emily's one bit of luck is that her grandmother mostly ignores her in favor of horse racing, gambling, and gossiping with her like-minded friends.  The boarding house serves as a respectable front for the lovers she ... from her boarders.

Emily has an uncommon sensibility,  painfully sensitive to the cruelty that her grandmother visits on her.  When Thea, a young woman  Emily has a crush on moves away abruptly, the girl is heartsick. Lilian taunts her mercilessly: "That's right!  Cry, cry, cry! Your bladder's too near your eyes, that's what's wrong with you, Emily Lawrence.  No wonder she wouldn't stay to say goodbye.  I don't  know who would."

Then a new boarder arrives.  Max is a scientist from Sydney: intelligent and kind-hearted, he sees that Emily is starved for friendship and adult attention.  He treats her as an equal as the two discuss literature and art and science. "Emily and Max had taken up a dialogue that had no end..."  Max encourages her to  dream of a future for herself.  

Lilian is not pleased by their friendship.  She encourages others to see something unsavory between the two and she engineers Max's punishment by the  community, a trial by mob that drives him from the town.  Harrower uses her understanding of human motivation to build a scaffold as unbreakable as it is unbearable.  Yer Max has given Emily something precious -  the sense that her life matters.

In Elizabeth Harrower's novels politics happens in the background because that is how it is in ordinary life.  For Harrower  how public disparities play out in real lives is a major thread running through her novels..

Other novels by Elizabeth Harrower:
The Catherine Wheel - Melbourne, Text Publishing: 2014 (1960).
The Watch Tower -  Melbourne, Text Publshing: 2014 (1966).
In Certain Circles -  Melbourne, Text Publishing: 2014.

Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984) was among the first Australian artists to paint in he modernist style. Like Van Gogh and Crrzann she used bright colors in broken forms to suggest the natural world.  Paintings of mountains and hillsides were a frequent landscape for Cossington-Smith.

Grace Cossington-Smith - Black Mountain, 1931, watercolor with gouache over pencil, private collection, Australia.