27 September 2016

Notes From the Art Of The Print: Fannie Hillsmith

It sounds like a dream come true, and it is.  When a wealthy private university with several art galleries and a collection of 45,000 works of art decides to offer a Humanities  course to the general public at severely reduced tuition, You can believe I was right there to enroll.  Yes, a course in art history includes lectures and slides and class discussion.  But this class offers special opportunities.  Firstly is that each week after we have looked at slides of Rembrandt, Durer, Goya, and Piranesi - so far - we adjourn to the Schaefer Gallery's print room to examine (feast our eyes) on the real things.  Also, rather than writing a term paper, we attended a national  print fair this past weekend and each of us will recommend a print for the gallery to purchase, to be paid for with our tuition.

My first choice (first, only in the order of my posts here) is Garden Plan (1946) by Fannie Hillsmith, a work she created during her first year at Atelier 17, an artists' workshop in Greenwich Village.  Hillsmith went on to make other versions, adding abstract washes of color in green and purple overlaid on this structure.  The title is straightforward: it is the plan Hillsmith designed for her small city garden, as seen from a window above - a birds' eye view.  On second look, what emerges is Hillsmith's witty take on plant life, her use of exclamatory lines familiar from New Yorker cartoons. 

A taste for Cubism  emerged during the four years at Atelier 17, years where she worked side by side with Joan Mrio, Yves Tanguay, Jacques Lipschitz and other emigres from  A Europe at war.  Hillmsith took the fractured planes of Juan Gris, a favorite artist, and turned them in American images, with tongue in cheek.  A folded newspaper was renamed the New York Times and the wine bottle, a standard feature of Parisian cafe scenes, was replaced by an earthenware jug (in Molasses Jug, 1949) or sometimes a martini glass.

Atelier 17 had been the French brainchild of an English artist Stanley William Hayter.   Hayter set up shop on the Left bank in 1927, attracting Picasso, Mrio, Changall, and other artistic luminaries of the day to his workshop.  As a master of etching and engraving Hayter was able to turn their drawings into prints, with all the potential, aesthetic and commercial, that implied.  

Moving the school to New York in 1940 to escape the war, Hayter established himself with a new generation of artists.   Ninety-one of the approximately two hundred artists who enrolled there were women, making Ateleier 17 unusually supportive to women.   What the Atelier offered women was a place to experiment with abstraction and also personal imagery, away from the muscular postwar world of Abstract Expressionism.    Names like Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko may be more familiar to us but  Hayter would look back to the experience and say that the work of these famous men was a lot less impressive that that of the women.  Indeed, the work of women like Fannie Hillsmith pointed toward the flowering of women artists in the 1970s and beyond.

Fannie Hill Smith was born in Boston in 1911; her grandfather Frank Hill Smith, a painter, had been one of the founders of the Boston Museum School, where Fannie studied painting for four years.  She changed the spellling of her last name to Hillsmith, to avoid the association between her name and the 18th century erotic novel Fanny Hill.  After Graduation, she moved to New York where she gravitated to the Art Students League.   In New York, Hillsmith encountered avant garde art - and she liked what she saw.  Even before she joined Atelier 17, she had exhibited her work at Peggy Guggenheim's Art Of This Century Gallery on West 57th Street.  Her career has long and productive; she continued painting up until a few months befor her death at the age of ninety-six in 2007.

1. Fannie Hillsmith - Garden Plan, 1946, intaglio print, Susan Teller Gallery, New York City &  Jersey City.
2. Fannie Hillsmith - The Little Table, 1950, oil/tempura and sand on walnut,  private collection
3. Fannie Hillsmith - Molasses Jug, 1949, oil painting, Susan Teller Gallery.

21 September 2016

Merikokeb Berhanu: An Ethiopian Artist Today

"I want viewers of my work to hear what the images have to say through their own power.    Sensation can be experienced through elements of art.   The life we are passing through...the complexity and density of what surrounds us....all elements push me to think and paint.   And let my perception be crystallised through visual elements as a form of language." - Merikokeb Berhanu (source ARTLabAfrica)

It comes as no surprise that the artist gives no titles to her paintings but instead identifies them by year and in their order of composition (e.g., the painting above is "untitled XI, 2013").  The first things an outsider notices about Berhanu's work, and also that of some of her contemporaries,  are stylistic similarities to Cubist and Expressionist art. "Untitled XIV, 2013" immediately reminded me of Egon Schiele's work, especially his landscapes, made as they are of layers of pattern.    The Austrian Schiele (1890-1918) painted his landscapes during the last six years of his short life, at a time when the arts of Spain and northern Africa countries were being imitated wholesale, or as Europeans thought improved on.  What was the tradition of centuries to the Ethiopians was considered na├»ve by outsiders: bright saturated colors, abstract forms, patterned backgrounds.  But in short order  they were appropriated as the elements of European modernism.

Although its location near the Red Sea has made Ethiopia an important trading route and meeting place for millenia, its culture has remained self-contained for most of that time.   Not surprising in a country where dozens of ethnic groups and more than seventy languages had contributed to the mix.  For westerners Ethiopian art can be hard to see.  While thousands of Ethiopian art works are displayed in museums around the world, their creators have remained  unidentified;  it was not customary for artists to sign their works and the foreigners who purchased them seemed not to care.  Art itself is a more expansive idea there than in western societies with their distinctions between ideas of art and craft, distinctions that fall away in a culture with a wealth of beautiful objects as part of everyday life.  When Ethiopian art is include in world art histories it is usually the paintings made for Ethiopian Orthodox churches, easily understood in western terms (Christianity was introduced there in the 4th century).  An example of that holistic conception at work in Berhani's painting is apparent in "untitled XI, 2014" where a human figure is holding a typical woven coil basket.  So important is basketry in Ethiopian life,  from the utilitarian to the aesthetic and even the sacred, that young women are expected to produce a collection of baskets as part of their dowry.

Merikokeb Berhanu (b.1977) is an Ethiopian artist who studied at the National Academy of Fine Art in Addis Ababa.  After graduation she became one  of the founders of Nubia Studio, a studio space and art gallery that promotes contemporary art.  Berhanu has exhibited her paintings in France and Germany, as well as in the neighboring countries of  Sudan and Uganda. 

Images: Merikokeb Berhanu, Addis Fine Art, Addis Ababa.
1. untitled XI, 2013.
2. untitled XIV, 2013.
3. untitled XI, 2014.
4. untitled V, 2014.
5. untitled XIII, 2016.

14 September 2016

Alexander Benois: The Philosopher's Admonition

In this watercolor by Alexander Benois we see two men strolling in the sunlit  gardens at Versailles, one a courtier and the other a philosopher.  The philosopher is  dressed in turquerie, an imitation fo Turkish style that first became popular in western Europe during the 16th century; the fad is now part of what we call Orientalism, pastiche of Ottoman culture.   From their attire we can infer that the monarch in residence at the Royal Court was named Louis, whatever his number.

I thought of Benois as I read the poem “Comic Opera” by the late W.G, Sebald.   Unlike most of Sebald’s extensively annotated poems (often the notes run to more words than the poems themselves) this one came into English with no notes at all.    But it does read as though Sebald might have seen The Last Promenades of Louis XIV (1897).   The “newly lapsed century” Sebald writes is the time when Benois made the drawings in what I like to think of as his Rococo-revivalist style.   Whether or not the erudite German knew the Russian’s work, it seems likely that Benois the art historian knew that among the Sun King’s mistresses was one Marquise de La Valliere, a student of philosophy who loved the works of Aristotle and Descartes.

Alexandre Benois was fascinated by Versailles, judging by the six hundred plus drawings, watercolors, pastels, etc. that he devoted to the subject during the decade between 1897 and 1907.   Benois visited Versailles for the first time in 1897, painting a series of watercolors The Last Promenades of Louis XIV. When Diaghilev saw the Promenades  drawings at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow later that year, he sensed the theatrical possibilities in this 19th century Russian interpretation of 17th century France.  But it was not until ten years later that the two staged their first theatrical collaboration, the ballet Le Pavilion d'Armide with a libretto by Benois that drew on his pictures of Versailles.

The program enlists the turqueries
of a newly lapsed century
a potpourri of bells and symbols
orchestrated obscenities
Masked players swell
the plot in a green theater
their true faces overwritten
Rather than greater virtue
the happy ending proposes
more trivial vies
The hedges rustle with applause
and the bygone ladies
of the court return
below the lawns
Back to reading
 - "Comic Opera" Across The Land And Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald,  New York, Random House: 2011.

Benois had arrived in France in 1896, having graduated three years earlier with a law degree in St. Petersburg.   He  was now busily engaged in avoiding its practice by trying out the life of a painter in Paris.  Increasing political unrest among the Russian peasantry had been  left behind but it, and Benois's knowledge of the events of 1789, cast a shadow over his  Versailles.    Below, a frail Louis XIV is being wheeled out to view his gardens and fountains;  over the Sun King's head, the clouds are overtaking the sun.

What was at the root of this infatuation with Versailles?  Did the sweeping parterres, the gilded statuary, and the empty royal chateau remind him of the vast Palace Square in St. Petersburg?   Did  tales of Peter the Great building his royal city over a  swamp offer a mirror image of the Sun King building his  waterborne court in a town where water had to be pumped in rather than drained out?   Maybe something like a stage was what Benois needed to unleash his imagination.  After all, his grandfather had been the architect who designed the great Russian theaters, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky.  And Louis XIV, assuredly a man who made no small plans, had intended  Versailles to be the stage for a continuing pageant, its subject the splendor of his reignAround almost any corner along an allee, the royal gardens provided spectacles of statues and fountains (sometimes both a once)  depicting scenes from  Greek and Roman mythology for the entertainment  of visitors.  Everything at Versailles was staged  but it was the audience rather than the players who moved about. From the palace terrace, Versailles, Paris, and ultimately all of France was  a stage for the King's power.

For both Benois and Diaghilev, the attraction to all things Euuropean was strong; for his part. Diaghilev denounced contemporary Russian art as "one big slap in the face of Apollo."  So they founded the magazine  Mir Istkusska (World of Art) in St. Petersburg to promote the new.  From its first issue in November 1898, the magazine caused a sensation.  A frequent contributor to the magazine was Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, about whom there is more here. After the Russian Revolution Benois served as curator of paintings at the Hermitage Museum but in 1927 he settled permanently in Paris where he died in 1960. 
As for those cubist novels I haven't a clue what Sebald had in mind.   I'm curious if anyone has any thoughts about this.
Alexander Benois – The Philosopher's Admonition,  1907, Pompidou Center, Paris. 
       Alexander Benois  - The King’s Promenade, no date given,  Pompidou Center, Paris.