25 November 2020

All Blues: Impressionism or Gentle Realism?

 

I. When the Russian-born artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid created their series People's Choice paintings in the 1990s, to no one's surprise, blue was the favorite color in countries around the world. With tongues planted firmly in cheek, the duo had hired a polling firm to conduct the research that resulted in the composite "Most Wanted" and "Least Wanted" paintings. Conceptual art can be hermetic and off-putting but this project was fun.  And it illustrated a truth long known to artists.

Natural ultramarine was for centuries the most prized of all pigments by artists.  Its  only source was lapis lazuli, mined in Afghanistan beginning in the 6th century. Imported to Europe through Venice, it was  valued at five times its weight in gold by Renaissance artists. Yes, there were other blues that became available but each was unsatisfactory in some way.  An experiment gone wrong in an alchemist's  laboratory in the early 18th century resulted in the discovery of Prussian blue, giving hope that other,  better blues could be developed. Watteau used the new pigment and shared it with Fragonard and Boucher and it was used to great effect b Elizabeth Vige-Lebrun. But it was the explosion of industrialization in the 19th century that led to the invention of an inexpensive, synthetic ultramarine used to great effect in Gustave Caillebotte's Skiff on the Yerre, painted in 1877.

II. Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) was both a painter and a patron of his fellow Impressionists.  The son of a wealthy textile manufacturer who made a fortune supplying blankets to the French Army, he grew up and made his studio in a large house the Caillebotte's  purchased from none other than Baron Haussmann, architect of Parisian urban renewal.  After serving in the military during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Caillebotte enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux  Arts in Paris where he made the acquaintance of Edgar Degas who introduced him to other Impressionist painters.  The young Caillebotte can be seen in Renoir's painting Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881).  He is the one seated at the far right in a white vest and straw boater.

Although he fit in with the circle of Monet, it was the influence of the great realist Gustave Courbet that inspired Caillebotte's  hybrid style, a style that has been called "gentle realism." For Caillebotte, human figures are full of individual personality and are never mere types. His work is also notable for the odd angles that he chose as vantage points in composing his paintings. Like his contemporaries,  Caillebotte had absorbed the spell of japonisme with its heady unconventional juxtapositions of conventional subjects.

Owing to his wealth, Caillebotte felt no pressure to sell his pictures; thus, he had a low public profile.  Modest to a fault, he bequeathed his considerable art collection to the nation but did not include any of his own work. Renoir, who was the executor of his will, eventually arranged to have Caillebotte's paintings hung in the Palais de Luxembourg alongside the artist's personal collection. 

For further reading: Painting By Numbers: Komar & Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art, New York, Farrar Straus & Giroux: 1997.

Image: Gustave Caillebotte - Skiffs on the Yerre, 1877, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

18 November 2020

Evening, Canoe Lake: Tom Thomson


"Because we love bare hills and stunted trees/ we head north when we can,/ past tiaga, tundra, rocky shoreline, ice.

Where does it come from, this sparse taste/ of ours?/ How long/ did we roam this hadrscape, learninng by heart/ all that we used to know:/ turn skin fur side in,/ partner with wolves, eat fat,  hate waste,/ carve spirit, respect the snow,/ build and guard the flame?"

 - excerpt from "Improvisation on a first line by Yeats (from Hound Voice)" by Margaret Atwiid, from Dearly: New Poems, New York, Ecco Press: 2020.

Given the similarities in their climates it is hardly surprising that paintings by members of Canada's Group of Seven makes the viewer think of the northern Europeans - Munch, Van Gogh, Arnold Bocklin, or Ferdinand Hodler -  all of them painters from the early 20th century. If there is a significant difference between the Canadians and the Europeans it is that when we look at the Canadians we cannot help but think of the vastness of the prairie in the background of their landscapes.

Trees give the measure of the landscape in Tom Thomson's paintings, their forms give shape and meaning to the surroundings. In the foreground  of Evening, Canoe Lake  trunks of winter birch trees are painted in ochre and gold with bits of tangerine.  Auburn and cobalt, applied horizontally define the rocky shoreline; used vertically these same shades in thin blended strokes define the birches that cling to it. The emphatic purple of the mountain range as viewed through the  scrim of the trees is a Thomson signature. We know this is North America by the bold colors that cold fall nights bring. This idiosyncratic palette is typical of Thomson's work, his control of them is phenomenal.  Despite his very early death, Thomson's influence is apparent in the work of the other painters of the Group of Seven, only established after his passing. 

Algonquin Park does not possess conventionally beautiful scenery, with swamps, flooded by beaver dams, and clear-cut pine forests but as part of the geological formation the Pre-Cambrian Shield it did provide a quintessentially Canadian landscape for artists searching for a national identity.

Tom Thomson (1877-1917) was a self-taught artist who worked in Toronto for the design group Grip Ltd.   On his own time he hiked and climbed mountains and painted what he saw.  He soaked up influences from Van Gogh and Cezanne. For Thomson the far reaches of Algonquin Park were his Mont Sainte-Victoire. He painted  pictures from the age of fifteen onward; his need to paint was relentless.  Along with hundreds of oil sketches, Thomson left behind fifty large oil paintings.

The American poet Robert Frost became a friend and mentor to Thomson around the time of the outbreak of the World War.  Thomson had lost his job and was anguished about whether her should, at thirty-seven, enlist in the Army,  becoming "the oldest bald head in the battalion."  

Canoe Lake was the place where Thomson entered the park when he disembarked the train from Toronto.  A logging town named for a lake, this was where Thomson loved to canoe and to paint. It was also where he disappeared on a summer night in 1917.  His canoe was seen floating on the lake in the afternoon but  his body was only recovered from the waters eight days later. Thomson was less than a month away from what would have been his twentieth birthday.  The circumstances of his death gave a mythic cast to his reputation in retrospect but to Canadians Thomson remains the quintessential Canadian artist.

Image: Tom Thomson - Evening, Canoe Lake, circa 1915, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.


05 November 2020

Eva Hesse: An Ear In A Pond


 


















"Don't ask what it means or what it refers to. Don't ask what the work is. See what it does." - Eva Hesse
.
Lucy Lippard, art critic and Hesse biographer, called the colors used in An Ear in a Pond "ill-.conceived," but I disagree.  When I first looked at the picture I immediately remembered a gorgeous brushed Lucite necklace my mother bought at Bergdorf Goodman in the late 1960s.  It consisted of cubes, each shaded from chartreuse to cerise (or raspberry pink, if you prefer) with tiny, round pink beads alternating between each cube. There were matching earrings - dangling (! like the red cord in this picture) single cubes on a string of cerise beads.  I wish I knew what happened to them. 

When Hesse made An Ear in a Pond  it marked the beginning of her most creative period, five years in which her paintings became increasingly sculptural, a period that ended with her premature death from a brain tumor in 1970 at the age of thirty-four.  It was first exhibited in Germany in August, 1965  where Hesse and her husband Tom Doyle had moved so he could take a position as artist residence. Hesse was unhappy about leaving New York but it did not keep her from working; no amount of turmoil ever did.  An Ear in a Pond is a hybrid, basically a painting but built up into a third dimension with the use of papier mache, especially the pink form of an ear in the lower right section of the picture. Also dangling from the ear is a double string of red wrapped for half its length in cotton cords.  This inventive use of materials is difficult to see in a reproduction.

In retrospect it was a prototype of what was to come. We know from a journal entry that Hesse completed this work on April 27 of that year. On April 14 while she was at work on An Ear in a Pond  her friend Sol Lewitt wrote to Hesse, "You seem the same as always, and being you. hate very minute of it. Don't! Learn to say 'Fuck you' to the world once in a while."

In her journals Hesse called these works "machine drawings," and likened them to "outer space networks." With hindsight, it is painful to read the journals, so full of self-doubt and questioning about the balance to be sought between the intellectual and the emotional, knowing how powerful the works are and how many artists have been influenced by them.

Image: Eva Hesse An Ear in a Pond, 1965, tempura, enamel paint, papier mache, cotton cord on Masonite, Ursula Hauseer collection, Switzerland.

31 October 2020

Get The Message?

 

This is an artwork based on the infamous butterfly ballot from the 2000 Presidential election that threw the Florida ballot count into question.  Those holes, the ones that are punched through, were called hanging chads. Whoever created this image deserves to be applauded.  Unfortunately, I have been unable to discover its creator. 

Image: by Thoughts On Democracy, 2016, Wolfsonian Museum, Miami.

22 October 2020

Angela Prati: Sudden Light


"Glory of expanded noon
when the trees give up no shade,
and more and more the look of things
is turning bronze, from excess light.

Above the sun - and a dry shore;
so my day is not yet done"
the finest hour is over the low wall
closed off by a pale setting sun."
  - "Glory of Expanded Noon" by Eugenio Montale, translated from the Italian by William Arrowsmith, from The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale, edited by Rosanna Warren, New York, W.W. Norton: 2012.

The first thing we notice in this photograph is the imperious quality of the light, the sun as master stage-crafter. Arches that we cannot see give the effect of proscenium arches silhouetting an open doorway and a cart full of harvest produce, pumpkins and squash. The door, the cart, the earth, and the terracotta walls just happen to be the palette we associate with autumn. And we have seen this light in Angela Prati's photograph before in the paintings of Italian painters.

There is a quality to light in the paintings by the 19th century Italian artists called I Macchiaioli that appears abrupt, as definitive as a spotlight trained on a stage.  It is as unlike as possible from  the blurriness and deconstruction of objects in paintings by the French Impressionists.  When this light reappeared in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico around 1910, the artist decreed a new movement - the scuola metafisica - where stillness and emptiness spoke louder than words could. In their paintings the Macchiaiolli let macchia (patches or spots) of contrasting colors determine the composition, a practice on display in this contemporary photograph by Angela Prati and also in the painting Peasant Woman in the Sun by the short-lived Florentine  Guseppi Abbati (1836-1868) whose life was cut shot when his dog Cennino, infected with hydrophobia, bit im.

Angela Prati was born at Piacenza and divides her time between Milan and Trento.  She has traveled around Africa in a Land Rover, As well as writing for magazines and newspapers both Italian and intternational, Prati took the photograph's for Trentino: The Enchantments of Art and Nature (1987) and Alvisi Zorzi's book Luce di Venizia (The Light of Venice) (1989) among others. Pati has specialized in anthropologic research photography, focused on peoples and cultures that are often overlooked.  In 2015 she was chosen by the Alinari Archives of Photography in Florence to interpret travel photography for their new project Alinari Contemporary

For more about the Macchiaioli go here and here and here and here.

Images:
1, Angela Prati - Mantova (Mantua), photograph, Alinari Archives, Florence.
2, Giuseppe Abbati - Peasant Woman in the Sun, oil on canvas, Pinacoteca Provincale, Bari

15 October 2020

Beatriz Milhazes: You Never Really Arrive


"Once in a while poetry comes slinking by to be possessed. later she slips away disappears as if her home were on the far side of the moon." - Li Po& Company" by Salgado Maranhoa, translated from the Portuguese by Alexis Levitin, The High Window Press: 2017

At the center of  Fleur de la  passion - Marajuca are roses in colors that  we don't associate with roses - baby blue and mint green and an embroidered heart enmeshed in a clockwork series of spinning disks and stray bits of trailing spider web.  It is the energy that emanates from these colorful shapes that enchants; it is difficult to turn away from a Beatriz Milhazes painting, so obvious is its vitality and beauty.  Beauty as a fit subject for art has been out of favor for five decades now; conceptualism rules the stage.

"Where there is a fishing net there is lace," is a long-lived Brazilian folk saying. Lacework was introduced in Brazil when immigrants arrived from Portugal and from the Azores and Madeira islands in the 17th century. The female lace makers or rendeiras were the wives and daughters of fishermen who settled along the northeastern coast of Brazil. That is still the case today.  Intricate  interwoven patterns dazzle by the skill with which they are executed -  words that describe the  lace maker's creations also fit Beatriz Milhazes. A Milhazes painting may be determinedly flat, yet it bursts with kinetic energy.

Milhazes, born in 1960, is equally comfortable including elements of modernist art with Brazilian folk arts from the favelas. Always keen to explore contradictions, Milhazes has introduced  the  culture of her country's  poorest residents into  pictures that hang in the country's - and the world's -  elite museums.

Milhazes developed her own process for picture-making that combines elements of monotype (drawing or painting on a smooth non-absorbent surface) and collage. She paints motifs on a translucent plastic sheet that she glues to a canvas. When the paint has dried she peels off the plastic, leaving a reverse image superimposed on the canvas. As some portions of the image are lost or overlap each other the effect of a palimpsest becomes visible. She likes the way that this technique minimizes the visibility of the brsh strokes, thus injecting a softening element to the image. The results are audaciously colorful but never hectic, thanks to the artist's use of a grid as the basic rational structure of each painting. Milhazes herself has said that she does not create "peaceful surfaces," a preference she attributes to the bold blue ocean and lush greenery of her native city, Rio de Janeiro.  She also says that she knows when a picture is finished when the colors and the structural elements reach equilibrium.

Image: Beatriz Milhazes - Fleur de la passion- Marajuca (Passion Flower), 1995-1996, acrylic on canvas, James Cohan Gallery, NYC.

28 September 2020

Sheila Goloborotko: Janaina, A Yoruba Goddess















 "In Rio de Janeiro 

they go at midnight

 to welcome the new year.

Fresh in white garments

bearing white candles

they assemble by the sea.

To toss old year's errors

griefs and mistakes

into the accepting waves.

Begin again afresh and new

when the year turns to become

green again and young."

 - from "To Become Green Again" by Lorna Goodison, Kingston, Jamaica

Janaina is a goddess whose origins are in the Yoruba religion of West Africa. The Yoruba people believe in Ashe, the energy that animates all living things and unites the human with the divine.  In Goloborotko's rendering she takes the form of a mermaid wearing a star crown and surrounded by clam shells, a latter-day Botticelli Venus, perhaps. Clasped in her right hand is a shell fan and in her left she holds a sword. A goddess of both beauty and power.

Brought over to the Caribbean and South America by slaves, Janaina has been represented as a sea spirit  celebrated at various times of the year in different places. For example, in Rio de Janeiro people dress all in white and gather on the beach to welcome the New Year, setting off fireworks and throwing white flowers and other offerings into the sea in the hope that Janaina grant their wishes for the coming year. Some offerings are even sent to sea in tiny wooden boats.

Sheila Golobortko is a Brazilian artist who teaches at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and she is also the founder and director of the Goloborotko Studio in Brooklyn, where she makes prints and conducts print-making workshops.

Image: Sheila Golobborotko - Janaina, 1992, color viscosity, intaglio and colored ink on lightly textures wove paper, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica.


22 September 2020

Lady Of The Beasts: Nancy Spero

"I have come to the conclusion that the art world has to join us, women artists, not we join it." - Nancy Spero

Spero believed that archetypes, exemplified in the goddesses of mythology, reverberate through our contemporary lives. In 1969 when women were fed up with the assumptopn of male superiority by men in artists' coalitions, they broke away to form W.A.R. (Woman Artists in Revolution) Nancy Spero was there. The feminist movement of the 1970s inspired Spero to explore female sexuality, suffering, and heroism. Her celebrations of life from the ancient world to the present re-figured the representation of women in art. Spero's task was nothing less than writing women back into history through art.

Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, wildlife, and nature, making her the most venerated goddess of rural people. As the protector of young girls, she represented chastity. Artemis was also a Maenad, a female follower of Dionysius, god of wine and drunkenness.  Maenads could be recognized by their animal-skin clothing and by their frenzied, demented dancing.

Spero borrowed her Artemis from a 5th century BCE kylix, a decorated drinking cup.  She holds an animal in her left hand and in her right she grasps a thyrsus, a tall walking stick or staff, traditionally made of fennel and garlanded with ivy. The earliest surviving image of Artemis is an archaic Greek Potnia Theron ("Queen of the Beasts") We can easily imagine such an image on a wall, perhaps an antique fresco, so it comes as no surprise that Spero would begin making works that scroll off the paper  onto the wall.

"Dear Lucy, The enemies of women's liberation in the arts will be crushed.  Love, Nancy" - a letter from Nancy Spero to Lucy Lippard

"Dear Nancy, the enemies of women's liberation in the arts will be upended by envy." - Martha Rosler to Nancy Spero

"I suppose I felt doomed to be an artist ear;y on, because of the way I drew all over the margins of my textbook." - Nancy Spero

Nancy Spero (1926-2009) was an American artist known for confronting injustices in her work, believing "the personal and the political are indistinguishable." She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and after graduating in 1949, she trained for five years in Paris at Ecole des Beaux-Arts and  at Atelier Andre Lhote,  already focused on painting the human form. After returning stateside, Spero married fellow artist Leon Golub; the two would collaborate throughout their careers and shared a commitment to new expressions of human forms.  In the 1960s, Spero changed her medium from canvas to paper. Spero was a founding member of A.I.R.,(Artists in Residence), the first cooperative women's gallery in SoHo.

Image: Nancy Spero - Artemis, 1989,  hand-printing and hand-printed collage on paper, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica, NY.

11 September 2020

Fred Wilson: Beautiful Trouble At The Museum

"I get everything that satisfies my soul from bringing together objects, manipulating them, working with spatial arrangements, and having things presented in the way I want to see them" - Fred Wilson

I. An installation artist who shakes up traditional museum presentations, an archaeologist who digs into museum archives to uncover previously untold stories, Fred Wilson is an artist with a mission. To call him a conceptual artist barely scratches the surface of his work. When Wilson speaks of remembrance he intends to remind viewers that museums collect in order to recollect. Wilson is, in his own description, "African, Native American, European, and Amerindian." 

Fred Wilson's SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD - Believe It Or Not at the Hood Museum in 2008 asked the question: what does it mean to be viewed from the outside by those who impose their interpretation rather than extend understanding?  In the photograph above we see  busts on pedestals, originally created for an anthropological exhibit at the 1904 St' Louis World's Fair.  At the time, it was called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition - an overtly expansionist declaration of intent.  A prominent and popular display was "The University of Man." It included temporary villages of peoples from around the world, along with life-cast models of the inhabitants that were taken and shared among scientists of the day as an encyclopedia of  racial "types"  

These are the busts that Wilson renamed,  shrouding the derogatory labels with cloths (Onondaga, Sioux, Kongo Bakuba, Pygmy, Negrito, Tagalog, etc.) in  heavy cloth. His captions honor their individual humanity:  "I have a family, "  "Somebody knows me - but not you," "The ancestors remember me."  When I think about this transformation I recall the unease I experience looking at figures painted by Paul Gauguin during his years in Tahiti.  There is no glimmer of feeling, no sense that the models were open to him or that he even recognized the chasm between artist and subject.

The figure at right in the photograph above, Ota Benga (1883-1916), was a 23 year old member of the Mbuti people from the Congo who  was purchased from slave traders by American missionary Samuel Verner  to inhabit the anthropology exhibit at the 1904 exposition. Later Benga was displayed at the Bronx Zoo in a cage with an orangutan.  A committee from the Colored Baptist Ministers Conference  protested his treatment and eventually Benga was transferred to a seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia. But Benga wanted to go home to Africa so depressed and  stymied by the outbreak of WWI, he committed suicide.

II. Daniel Webster's position is an outsize one in relation to Dartmouth College where the exhibition SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD - Believe It Or Not! took place. Founded in 1769 as a college to educate Native Americans, Dartmouth soon moved away from that ideal.  In the meantime the school had founded a museum known as Dartmouth College Museum in 1772, making what would eventually be renamed the Hood Museum once of the oldest in the nation.

Daniel Webster (1782-1852), the son of a farmer, graduated from Dartmouth in 1801 and enjoyed a long career as a lawyer, statesman, and orator.  When Webster won a major case at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1819 that guaranteed the right of the college to remain private and free of government interference, its museum  became a repository of for all sorts of Webster memorabilia. But then in 1850, while sieving as U.S. Secretary of State, Webster brokered the Missouri Compromise, that extended the reach of slavery into the western territories.  Fred Wilson made multiple uses of paintings and artifacts to construct his alternative narrative of the museum's collection with regard to Webster's legacy.  His touch is deft, surgically precise. He shows rather than tells; like a prestidigitator, he can make visible what has been hidden in plain sight.

Wilson evokes Charles Wilson Peale's American Museum in Philadelphia,  considered to be the first museum in the United States, collected memorial portraits and all manner of curiosities. But Wilson opposes Peale's anodyne project with Francisco Goya's Disasters of War, a series that reveals the monsters that trouble the dreams of reason in the Age of Enlightenment. He confronts viewers again and again with the barbaric underside of civilization.

Fred Wilson channels Peale's showmanship in his  allusions to Ripley's Believe It Or Not!  Robert Leroy Ripley's was a self-taught artists who received an honorary degree from Dartmouth in 1939, prompting him to donate items from his Odditorium to its museum.  Ripley made his audience decide the  truth of his visual displays, weighing the scale in his day was the "scientific' concept of the "primitive" as a human category.

III.  At the time of the publication of The Voices of Silence in 1965, a famous photograph of Andre Malraux appeared in Paris Match, the author stands over an array of images spread out around him on the floor.  Its title was  "Museum Without Walls." He believed this demonstrated the unity of human experience, a belief congenial to the cosmopolitan European white male.  Malraux, dissatisfied with the museum's dependence on portable objects, lamented that "Napoleon's victories did not enable him the bring the Sistine to the Louvre."   Of course, some have argued that, for instance, the Elgin Marbles, were never intended to be portable and yet they were removed from Greece and now reside (contentiously) in the  British Museum.   In contrast to Malraux, Fred Wilson was photographed lying on the floor among pictures of Daniel Webster, not the figure of Olympian detachment but one immersed in a contentious history. 

Fred Wilson was born in the Bronx (1954), attended Music & Art High School, and received a BFA in Fie Art from SUNY Purchase.  To support himself at college Wilson worked as a guard at the Neuberger Museum. Wilson's first major installation "Mining the Museum" at the Maryland Historical Society, placed unlikely objects together to reveal overlooked viewpoints on the colonization, slavery, and abolition in the state.  He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999 and in 2008 he became a trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

For further reading:

Fred Wilson: SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD: Believe It Or Not! by Barbara Thompson, et al,  Hanover, University Press of New England: 2006.

Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader, edited by Doro Globus, Santa Monica, RAM Publications: 2011

Images:

1. Fred Wilson - photograph of installation of life casts, 2008, Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH.

2. Fred Wilson - photograph of installation of "The Immortal Daniel Webster", 2008, Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH.

3. Francisco Goya - "They May Be Of Another Race" from The Disasters of War, circa 1810-1820, etching, drypoint, burnisher on wove paper, National Museum of Western Arts, Tokyo.


03 September 2020

Seraphine de Senlis: Art as Ecstatic Confession


























"I realized that if, subsequently, I encouraged Seraphine de Senlis, it was not for the primitive or surrealist character of he paintings but because she belonged to the great immortals who go beyond the framework of a movement or a school." - Wilhelm Uhde

Who is this French woman whose still life paintings are so distinctive? Flowers that shine like stars,  a potpourri of realistic elements and ornamental fancies. Whatever the blue and white spotted flowers in this still life are meant to represent, they are an inspired touch.  Perhaps, like Seraphine's other paintings, they were inspired by the stained glass windows in the local cathedral. Most include a section in the lower quarter of a different order from the rest of the picture, an area where herbs or darker leaves suggest the subterranean. Seraphine's arrangements are often unexpected, not carefully arranged floral displays so much as maps of a labyrinthine thought process composed with paint brush in hand. That said,  I am not suggesting that her method was like automatic writing.

Seraphine Louis (1864-1942) lived a life permeated by sadness while painting images filled with joy and beauty.. Despite innumerable hardships, she taught herself to paint, finding inspiration in her Catholic faith. Seraphine mixed her own colors, mixing Ripolin, the first commercially available enamel paint, and whitewash. When finances allowed, she switched to  using varnish. Her first paintings were made on wood in 1906 and usually have a matte appearance.  Remarkably, this completely self-taught artist left works that present few conservation issues.  She began each painting by engraving her signature with a knife.  

Painted by candlelight in the evenings after the work day was done, her work was known only to to small circle until, in 1912, a German collector, Wilhelm Uhde first saw her work.  Uhde was an  early supporter of Pablo Picasso and Henri Rousseau so his encouragement and support of  Seraphine's work is the reason that we know her work. Forced to return to Germany by the outbreak of WWI Uhde was delighted to reconnect with Seraphine in 1927.  An exhibition he sponsored brought financial success to Seraphine for the first time in her life but it was to be short-lived.  The Depression intervened and Seraphine's emotional state, always fragile, collapsed into mental illness. Confined to an asylum in 1932, she lived there  until her death ten years later

Seraphine Louis had been orphaned at age seven; her mother died on Seraphine's first birthday, followed by her father six years later.  The young girl worked as a shepherdess and then as a domestic for an order of nuns at the convent of the Charity of Providence in Clermont-sur-Oise (1882-1902). Later she found work for local families in nearby Senlis and it was there that she began to paint and found a sponsor.

Like her contemporary Camille Claudel, Seraphine died of hunger while  in a hospital under German occupation.  Her medical file at the Senlis hospital noted that she "picks grass to eat at night and also eats garbage."  Seraphine suffered from breast cancer as well as psychosis.  She died alone and friendless, buoyed, one hopes, by a strong religious faith that had led her to art.

In 2008 Marcel Prevost directed Seraphine,  a film biography which won numerous awards for its sensitive, nuanced portrayal of the artist played by Belgian actor Yolande Moreauwho also appeared in the Agnes Varda film Vagabond.

Paintings by Seraphine Louis are in the collections of the Musee Maillol in Paris and the Charlotte-Zander Museum in Bonningheim, Germany.  There is a gallery at the Centre Pompidou in Parris where her works are displayed alongside those of Henri Rousseau, challenging the modernistic dogma that belittles such art as exotic or primitive.

Image: Seraphine Louis - Fleurs (Flowers), circa 1927, oil on panel, Museum of Art & Archaeology, Senlis, France. 

25 August 2020

Elsewhere, Paradise: Patricia Chidlaw

The light in southern California - whether direct, diffused, ambient, incandescent, or fluorescent - is different than the light I grew up with in the east. We associate California with intense sunlight and also the artificiality of Hollywood klieg lights so it is not surprising that Patricia Chidlaw's work is replete with flourishes of light, either dramatic (as in Paradise Motel) or subtle (as in Saffron's World). The southern California light seems to vaporize human artifacts as soon as they are built. As an aside, I wonder, does Chidlaw paint with oil rather than acrylic because of the latter's tendency to fade in the light.


Chidlaw is a painterly realist with an urban sensibility,  shaped by the automobile. Her palette contains a symphony of blues that reach from aquamarine to lavender-blue.  Her frequent use of oblique angles and their frontal placement give an automotive  sense of movement to her pictures.


This is a place that erases visual history with glee.  Did the fires and earthquakes give white settlers the idea or did they come  with erasure in mind?  Chidlaw's precisely located paintings are a historian's gold mine of post-war architecture, so the paintings of Nell Brooker Mayhew (1875-1940) captured the Spanish missionary style.

Occasionally a person or a goldfish will appear in a Chidlaw painting but  the unpeopled rooms and streets are saturated with lost dreams. Is the name Paradise Motel  a brave front presented to a jaded world? Mr. Lucky doesn't look as though it has enjoyed good fortune for a long time. To meditate on the foolishness of building a water park in the desert, abandoned now and vandalized, where even the palm trees have been shorn of their glamour is to reckon with how transitory our dreams really are. But if that makes Chidlaw's work sound depressing,in fact  it is something more.  And identifying that something more is why the poets who contributed to Elsewhere, Paradise are so inventive.














Saffron's World is something altogether different, like one of my other favorite Chidlaw paintings Air Dancer (the dancer of the title is a trapeze artist).   "The Story of My Golden Life," a poem by Pamela Davis imagines the quirky interior monologue of Saffron, the goldfish, who confides flirtatiously,  "I try to lift a fin to wave my prettiest when he walks/ through the door."

"Everything went so fast. Once I was going nowhere
 in a dime store aquarium of a dozen common fish
 and he chose me  - lifted in a metal scoop, held high
 plopped in a bag of water shut with a quick twist."

Here at last that elusive paradise is getting closer. 

In 2018 the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara (yes, the city has a Poet Laureate) invited 32 fellow poets to write poems in response to Chidlaw's paintings. In When I Look at Pictures (1990) Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote poems in response to his favorite paintings but Elsewhere, Paradise is something more unusual. Two years ago the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara (yes, the city has a Poet Laureate) invited 32 fellow poets to write poems in response to Chidlaw's paintings.

Elsewhere, Paradise: Santa Barbara poets respond to paintings by Patricia Chidlaw, Santa Barbara, Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery: 2020

Images:
1. Patricia Chidlaw - Paradise Motel, 2017, oil on canvas, private collection.
2. Patricia Chidlaw - Mr. Lucky, 2017, oil on linen, Sulliivan Goss: An American Gallery, Santa Barbara.
3, Patricia Chidlaw - Abandoned Water Park -Tune Up, 2018, oil on Canvas, private collection
4. Patricia Chidlaw - Saffron's World, 2017, oil on canvas, private collection.

20 August 2020

The Heart of the Matter

         
                         3.
"Every day I go to earn my bread
In the exchange where lies are marketed,
Hoping my own lies will attract a bid.

                         4.
It's Hell, It's Heaven: the amount you earn
Determines whether you play the harp or burn."

 - from Hollywood Elegies by Bertold Brecht,
translated by Adam Kirsch in Poetry Magazine, 2011.







A man with a hole in his chest where his heart should be, instead there is a package of dollar bills wrapped as if by a bank clerk. Heart of the Matter is typical of Otis Kaye's favorite painting genre - the money painting. Selling paintings of currency has been illegal since 1909  so Kaye had to give them away. Nevertheless, he was often in trouble with the Bureau of the Treasury; Kaye thought that painting currency no longer in circulation would pass muster but the government begged to differ. 

Kaye's obsession with money is muddied by his idiosyncratic relationship with truth. We know that when the stock market crashed in October 1929, his finances suffered a severe shock and so did his nervous system. The irrationality of the stock market induced in Kaye a grim kind of gallows humor. His works abound with calligrams, rebuses, and visual puns but its closest ancestor is vanitas,  paintings of the transience and futility of life, popular in the 16th and 17th centuires. His engineer's eye was trained for precision; the stock ticker tapes and graphs that appear in his paintings are clearly legible and always headed in one direction - down.

Otis Kaye (1885-1974) was born in Dresden, Germany.  After emigrating to the U.S., his father, who owned a lumber yard died in 1904; with his mother, Frieda Millabeke, Kaye moved to New York for a short time.  He had studied engineering back in Germany; at first art was merely a pastime but after the stock market crash of 1929, Kaye began to make tromp l'oeil paintings in the style made familiar  by William Harnett and John Frederick Peto.

Money problems put a strain on his marriage; in 1937 his wife moved back to Germany with their two children. He also made etchings in the styles of Rembrandt and Whistler; however he sold only two works during his lifetime and there were no public exhibitions, either. Kaye eventually returned to Dresden in 1966, where he died in 1974.  Only after his death did Kaye's works attract attention and then enter public collections.

Otis Kaye would be better known today if, he had been the subject of a book by arts journalist Lawrence Weschler.  In 1999 Weschler published Boggs; A Comedy of Values about the career of  J.S.G. Boggs who, like Kaye, drew pictures of money that he used as performance art pieces.  Again, like Kaye, Boggs was the subject of prosecutions - on three continents. The authorities were not amused.

Image: Otis Kaye - The Heart of the Matter,  1963, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

16 August 2020

Time For Bridget Riley






 "In the next country over, the lotus
is chocolate brown and grows tall

as maize. The sole religion seems
to be bread, any kind, including

one similar to rye, but made of lotus."

 -  excerpt from "East of Here" by Idra Novey, in The Next Country, Farmington, ME, Alice James Books: 2008






In five minutes with a painting by Bridget Riley, you will begin to see it move, relationships will appear and dissolve before your eyes.  Riley's art is classified as Op Art but it is also participatory art. She intends her works as experiences rather than simply static images. The longer you look the more can see the colors reacting to one another. Riley has said when she began painting she wanted to do something with light reflected on water as the Impressionists had done, but by other means.

The British Bridget Riley (b. 1931) spent an extended time traveling in the 1980s.  Her sojourn in Egypt inspired a series of paintings she called "Egyptian Stripes." They contain colors Riley saw in tomb paintings, the Nile River (hence Cool Edge), and the vernacular  architecture. Still abstract, yet different in effect from the hard edged black and white paintings that brought her to public attention in the London of the 1960s, more recent works  present more subtle interactions.

A retrospective exhibition held last year at London's Hayward Gallery began with paintings the young Riley made to analyze how Georges Seurat's pointillism worked. Riley paints the way the eye sees, moving across shapes and colors. She has always played with the  relationship of intensity and tonality (light and dark) of color.  For all her intentional experiments based on the physiology of the eye's workings, color is the beating heart of  Riley's art.

Image: Bridget Riley - Cool Edge, 1982, oil on linen, private collection.

09 August 2020

Francis Ponge: Babillage



















"The boat pulls up its tether, shifts its body from one foot to the other, restless and stubborn as a colt.
It is however only a rather  crude receptacle, a wooden spoon without a handle: but, dug out and arched to permit a pilot direction, it seems to have a mind of its own, like a hand signaling cosi-cosa.

Mounted, it adopts a passive attitude, slips gently away, is easy to guide. If it kicks up, it has good reasons.

Left alone, it follows the current and goes, like everything in the world, to its destruction like a straw."
 - "The Boat" by Francis Ponge


"Midway between cage and "cachot" (prison) the French language has "Cageot" (crate), a simple small openwork box given over to the transporter of fruits that out of the least suffocation make (you can be sure)  a malady.

Arranged in a way that at the end of its usefulness it could be broken effortlessly, it does not serve twice. So it lasts less than the melting of clouded produce it encloses.

At all the street corners that converge upon the marketplace, it gleams then with the unpretentious luster of white wood. Brand new still, and slightly dumbfounded at being in an awkward pose tossed on the garbage heap beyond return, this object is in sum amongst the most sympathetic, - upon whose fate it is better not to dwell lengthily." 
 - "Le Cageot/ the crate" by Francis Ponge


Babillage is a term coined by Cid Corman to describe the delights of  the poetry of Francis Ponge.  Corman, poet and translator of  Ponge, has described the Frenchman as "the willing spokesman" for the objects he write about. Ponge has been called "the poet of things" for his relation with the world of mute things. His prose poems seem to meander as his imagination takes him but this is a hard won illusion; Ponge is surgically precise in his choice of words.

So what makes a poem a prose poem? Basically,  a poem written without line breaks;  although you could object that all prose is broken up by line breaks but, with most prose, the reader ignores those line breaks as though they weren't there. The first lyrics written in prose form were in  Paris Spleen (1869) by Charles Baudelaire; his influence on Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarrme should not be underestimated.  So the origins of the prose poem are French. In the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), Andre Breton credited several prose poets with inspiring the surrealists. 

The long-lived Francis Ponge (1899-1988) was himself influenced by Paul Valery, he learned from the surrealists, his work found favor with the postwar existentialists who appreciated what they saw as his phenomenological poetry, and he was then rediscovered by a new generation of writers who found his "scientific" use of language a poetic equivalent of structural anthropology.  When Ponge was good his work revealed new aspects of overlooked things but some of his work has aged badly.  His takes on then contemporary technology such as "The Radio," "The Stoves," and "The Telephone" do not align with our experiences and others (I'm thinking  here of "Young Girl") reduce a human being to appraisable body parts. 

Translations from the French are by Cid Corman, from Things by Francis Ponge, New York, A Mushinsha Book, Grossman Publishers: 1970

Images:oi on canvas, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Valencienes.
1. Pierre Bisiaux - Les Barques (The Boats), 
2. Barabtre a/k/a Francois Aubin  - Still Life with Crate  1979, pastel drawing, Pompidou Center, Paris

03 August 2020

Horace Pippin: Scenes From A Childhood



"Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead." - Horace Pippin

"Pippin would paint for as long as seventeen hours at a stretch, holding the wrist of his injured right arm in the fist of his left hand..."- Seldon Rodman.

There is so much to see in a Horace Pippin painting. Especially in intimate domestic scenes recalling his childhood, with affectionate and a touch of tartness.  Saying Prayers is centered around a mother and two children engaged in a familial ritual. I am drawn to the touch of gaiety in the woman's polka-dotted blouse. The mother sits in a spindle-backed chair while the children kneel on a braided rug where a little rag doll waits to be tucked in bed, perhaps.  They are gathered in front of the coal stove, with a coffee pot warming.  Behind the coal scuttle there are multiple patches of peeling plaster. A black shade is pulled down over the window but not so far that we cannot see snowflakes creased in the mullioned window an the wooden lathe-work revealed by peeling plaster below.  At left we see an umbrella propped against the wall outside a bedroom door.  The little family is bracketed by two shelves nailed to the wall, splashes of red, one holding a kerosene lamp and the other with cooking utensils hanging from it. 


Painted during the same year, Asleep appears to show the same room with the same stove and  green coffee pot. Only now the stool has been moved away from the window to make way for the children's bed. The kerosene lamp has been turned low for the night.  Striped blankets and a patchwork quilt at the foot of the bed are the only touches of decoration, as is the braided rug is in Saying Prayers. My hunch is that the woman created as much beauty as she could manage for her home. Pippin's apparently economical style makes room for these telling details. 

Horace Pippin (1888-1946) was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the child of a laborer and a domestic worker, both descendants of slaves. Horace's interest in art crystallized when he won a set of crayons and a box of watercolors in a contest sponsored by an art supply company.

"(T)he war brought out all the art in me,"" Pippin recalled after he had become an established artist. He enlisted in the New York National Guard in 1917 and was shipped overseas where he was part of the  renowned all-back U.S. 369th Infantry. Shot by a sniper in October, 1918, Pippin's right arm was severely damaged so that he could not lift it above his shoulder. For his valor under fire, Pippin was awarded the Croix de guerre by a grateful French government.  His arm was useless when he returned home but it gradually became stronger; perhaps some of the nerve damage healed with time.  Disability may contributed to the scrupulous attention to small details that characterize Pippin's paintings. 

Pippin began painting  on wooden panels around 1925; canvas was out of his reach because of its expense. Most of his paintings were made between 1930 and 1946. He did not begin painting with oils until he was forty and he never managed to have a proper studio but by the 1940s he was selling more work and so was able to paint more. Whatever his medium, Pippin always had a  strong, personal voice; he copied no one.

The Barnes Foundation  has claimed a major role in promoting Pippin's work but it was his relationship with his dealer Robert Carlen, beginning in 1939, that sustained Pippin's career.  Carlen, who had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art when Ralston Crawford and Robert Gwathmey were also students, introduced Pippin to Albert Barnes. Barnes wrote an introduction to the catalog for Pippin's exhibition at the Carlen Gallery the next year. 

Dr. Barnes was a complex and quarrelsome man, perennially at war with Philadelphia's conservative art establishment. While Pippin appreciated Barnes' support of his work, he was not awed and certainly not cowed by the millionaire's cantankerousness.  More than once Barnes suggested subjects for Pippin to paint and the reply was invariably, "Do I tell you how to run your foundation? Don't tell me how to paint." Carlen and Barnes were eventually estranged because Barnes did not want to pay more for Pippin's paintings when success resulted in higher prices. 

Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes scholar, was also a strong advocate of Pippin's work .  Pippin benefited from the mid-century interest in folk art but we can take the measure of this versatile artist, accomplished in portraiture, history painting, landscape, still life,  religious imagery, and the horrors of war.  In the words of Alain Locke, "a real and rare genius, combining folk quality with artistic maturity so unique as almost to defy classification."

Images:
1. Horace Pippin - Saying Prayers, 1943, oil on canvas, Brandywine Museum, West Chester.
2. Horace Pippin - Asleep, 1943, oil on canvas board, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

27 July 2020

Henri Matisse: The Yellow Chairs


"There were very many wanting to be doing what he was doing that is to be one clearly expressing something." - Gertrude Stein, from "Matisse" (1912)

There is nothing extraneous in a painting by Henri Matisse.  He takes decoration to an aesthetic plane beyond anywhere it had gone before. However his technical panache can obscure the conventionality of his vision. Despite flirtations with cubism, futurism, and cubism, his vision of la belle vie was bourgeois.

The composition of The Yellow Chairs is  tripartite.  A woman reclines on a chaise lounge while an expansive vase of flowers rests on a chair positioned at right angles; the two are balanced by a pedestal table between the chairs.  As usual in a Matisse painting, spaces are collapsed; the great artist felt no need for traditional perspective.

The dancer evokes Matisse's frequent images of women as odalisques. Her arms are  two arabesques in a composition that marvelously combines angles and curves. Her bouffant dress (a tutu) is outlined in curvilinear white trim echoed by the white flower in her hair. At left an Italian baroque armchair has straight black legs and deep aquamarine arms. 

For Matissse,  color was the vehicle he used to express his response to his subjects rather than being attempts at verisimilitude.  Here, as he often did, Matisse mixes in patches of white that give the vibrant colors a restless sense of movement, as though the sunlight had reached into the room to dapple its contents.The chairs are yellow, as thought they had absorbed the  Mediterranean light. The white tiles are painted in green and the black ones aubergine, green and purple being complementary colors as is the reddish-orange arabesque on the chaise lounge. His draftsmanship is breezy and deft black lines.

Henri Matisse was seventy-three when he painted The Yellow Chairs. The year was 1942 and the artist had returned home to his studio in Nice after the Nazis occupied Paris. The year before Matisse had been diagnosed with cancer and there were complications after the surgery that left him two choices: to sit in a chair or lie in bed.  But he continued painting although he would gradually switch to making cutouts.  Yet no trace of that suffering finds its way into The Yellow Chairs.

Image: Henri Matisse - Danseur dans un interieur avec carrelage vert et noir (Dancer in an interior with checked floor tiles), 1942, oil on canvas, private collection, Great Britain (?).

22 July 2020

Diego Rivera: The Hammock

 


A perfect picture of summer? Maybe, but then it is always summer-like in Acapulco. Still a vacation is welcome at any time of year: sunshine, ocean breezes, a hammock, a good book, and a good friend.  There are red flowers peaking up over the edge of the hammock and white boat sails, tiny dabs of white paint in the cerulean blue of the Pacific seems to have leached all the blue out of the sky, what little of it is visible here. Sunlight warms the women's skins; though the effect of  sunlight is everywhere, there is no shade, except in some contouring on the arms and legs of the sun bathers.  This painting is a joyous demonstration of the primary colors  from an artist known his his love of vivid color. 

Diego Rivera painted La Hamaca (The Hammock) in 1955, just two years before his death.  Rivera had created a large number of public murals so he was experienced at working on a large scale. La Hamaca is large:  6'7" by 3'5" so he portrayed these figures at life size.

One of the two young women in La Hamaca is the daughter of  Delores Olmedo. Olmedo was a woman of parts, successful in business, a musician, and a philanthropist.  Together, these attributes made her a beneficent friend to artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.  In 1994 she converted a building she owned in Mexico City into a museum (Museo Delores Olmedo) to which she donated her extensive collection of art, including the largest assemblage of worjs by Kahlo and Rivera anywhere.  

The 19th century bathing dress or pantaloons, was followed by the one piece suit called a maillot (see the painting above), and the bikini, introduced by Louis Reard in 1946. Popularized by movie star Brigitte Bardot and Sophie Loren, the Snow White and Rose Red of the bikini.  And then there is the ceremonial "unveiling" of the suit. The vaudeville star Annette Kellernmann, known as the "Australian Mermaid" was arrested on Revere Beach in Massachusetts in 1907 when she appeared wearing a on piece suit.
Whether it reveals or conceals, the bathing suit is a true anatomical bomb.

Image: Diego Rivera - La Hamaca, 1955, oil on canvas, Muse Delores Olmedo, Mexico City.

17 July 2020

Charles Prendergast: Earthly Paradise


There is much to see in this painting by the American artist Charles Prendergast. 

Starting at the bottom there are water lilies floating in deep purple water..  In the lower right corner  stands Botticelli's Venus, here framed by her giant clam shell, modestly holding a bouquet of flowers in hand while three female figures surround her in homage to the Quattrocento.  The trio may also be a reference to the Three Graces, ancient goddesses of nature often portrayed in similar poses. 

They are balanced by three much larger and more modern figures at lower left; these appear to be a family group, possibly three sisters, two of whom hold floral stems aloft. A brown dog looks at his mistress at left and another lies quietly by the red-headed girl at right. 

To the right of this group we see the rump of a horse carrying a luxuriously dressed male rider, possibly a knight, followed by his female consort who rides side-saddle.  Birds fly near her and one appears to light on the woman's hand. Behind her, four deer stroll on a hill indicated by a curving brown line; perhaps they are a in a forest as they walk among trees. Deer and humans have a very long joint history, dating back at least 15,000 years as documented in the Caves paintings of Lascaux. Deer are thought to personify the virtues.  

Providing a focal point in the upper left corner is a  spectacularly decorative tree, one never seen in any wood, billowing panels of stars, flowers, and abstract shapes; it is related to the stream by their common color: purple.  This makes the viewer notice that the more usual connection the artist eschewed is to link the blue of the sky to blue water.  But here we are in a visionary landscape, a parallel world, fruitful and peopled by figures from different eras and cultures. 

 Incising the image on a wooden panel was an antique touch, giving the effect of a Byzantine mosaic.  This from a man who, on visiting Italy, sensed that he had stepped through a door to an alternate world, where the artistic riches of antiquity were arrayed before him. In all, humans and animals in harmony, this is Prendergast's earthly paradise.


Image: Charles Prendergast - Figures and Deer, circa 1917, tempura, silver and gold leaf, on incised gessoed panel, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

11 July 2020

How to Ruin a Friendship



















Alma Schindler was a Viennese beauty and a budding composer when she fell in love with Gustav Mahler, nineteen years her senior, and a moody, authoritarian composer who made Alma give up her music in order to marry him. Marriage marooned eighteen year old Alma, stifled artistically and taken for granted by her husband; she turned to her male admirers (and there were always several to choose from) for consolation.  This did not bode well for the future but Mahler died in 1911, leaving Alma to refashion her life.

Broncia Pinell was an established  artist of thirty-three when she married Hugo Koller,  a physician who had been introduced to her by the composer Hugo Wolf.  Before their marriage Hugo had to withdraw from the Catholic church because marriages between Catholics and Jews were not permitted. There is some indication that Broncia converted to Catholicism, at least formally. After their marriage in 1891, Hugo, an avid art collector, promoted his wife's career. And it bears underlining  that Broncia Koller-Pinell was an important Post-Expressionist artist, painting nudes at a time when it is was not considered proper subject matter for female artists. Indeed, female artists were barred from study at the Royal Academy until 1920.  Her legacy erased after her death, even as late as 1980 she was described as "a housewife who painted."

That these two women whose lives overlapped yet differed in  many significant ways ever became friends may have come about because of their children.  Koller-Pinell painted several pictures of her daughter Silvia and also of Alma's daughter Anna. The Mahlers often visited the Kollers at their summer home in Oberwaltersdorf, 35 kilometers outside Vienna.  The parrot pictured with Anna belonged to the Koller children.

When Anna Mahler turned sixteen she fell in love with the Koller's son Rupert who was eight years older and a fledgling conductor; perhaps his choice of career reminded her of her lost father. The two married on November 2, 1920 but the marriage ended within months when Anna left Rupert.   Alma Mahler, who was extremely competitive in romantic matters, did not take the perceived slight to femininity at all well. In 1926 Alma persuaded her future husband Franz Werfel to write a play Bocksgesang (Goat's Story), a poorly disguised chronicle of the unhappy marriage in five acts. The friendship between Broncia and Alma disintegrated.

Anna Mahler married the avant-garde Viennese compose Ernest Krenek  when she was nineteen but that marriage also lasted mere months.  Eventually she married three more times. Although Anna had been expected to become a musician like her father, she forged her own path,  becoming a sculptor.Spending one's childhood in the vortex of her mother's turbulent love affairs was like earthquake with many aftershocks. 

Personae: Alma Schindler Mahler (1879-1964), Anna Mahler (1904-1988), Broncia Koller-Pinell (1863-1934), Rupert Koller (1896-1976), Silvia Koller (1899-1963)

Images:
1. Broncia Koller-Pinell - Self Portrait, circa 1920-1925, oil on canvas, Austrian whereabouts unidentified.
2. Broncia-Koller Pinell - Anna Mahler With A Parrot, oil on canvas, Austrian whereabouts unidentified.

06 July 2020

Vilhelm Hammershoi: Silver Light


"This landscape looks like a secret
because the river can't be seen
from the spot where I am standing.
And therefore it is
the landscape where I most easily
would be able to do without myself.
Among these green hills and blue mountains
my person
almost feels an insult."
 - excerpt from "The River's Secret" by Hendrik Nordbrandt, translated from the Danish by John Irons


A silver age painted in shades of gray. An artist of diffidence characteristic of his countrymen. It is easy to look at the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi and see that he had been  deeply imprinted by the work of Vermeer. Like Vermeer, Hammershoi edited out what he considered unnecessary details from his paintings; we know this from the many photographs of the Hammershoi's apartments in Copenhagen. On looking closely at Hammerhoi's paintings, quiet interiors can seem drained of meaning or maybe this is what the world looks like when grand dreams and schemes have been found empty.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that we live life forward but understand it backward.  When we consider the world that Vilhelm Hammershoi grew up in, the place and circumstance, an alternate way of looking at his paintings emerges. Those restrained, minimally appointed rooms may evoke thoughts of glossy decorating magazines in a contemporary viewer but that kind of projection merely makes it more difficult to experience the  paintings as Hammershoi intended.  What the artist intended has  been the subject of speculation, his very reticence an irritant like a pebble in a shoe. Something of an enigma to his contemporaries, he remains so.

Eighteen forty-eight was a year when people  throughout Europe demanded democracy but not in Denmark which  passed peacefully from a monarchy to a constitutional democracy in 1849.  Not surprising for a country that whose experience of the Reformation had been a mild one. 

What distinguished Danish art of the 19th century was the influence of Golden Age Dutch painting  filtered through the soft northern light of Scandinavia. Even today Danes look back on the period between 1849 and 1864 as their Golden Age, a time when Hans Christian Anderson and Christoffer Eckersberg created the stories and images that reflected a new modern cultural patrimony for a nation renewed.  Into that world, Vilhelm Hammershoi was born in 1864, a year when bright ideals were crushed by the harsh realities of war and defeat. There followed a period of  intense introspection among Danes.  This unease of the spirit may be what we sense in Hammershoi's paintings, a feeling of the uncanny. Is this how the world looks after a great disillusionment?

Yet Hammershoi's tenderness is apparent in images of loved objects he painted again and again, vessels used for the sharing of food.  From the china soup tureen with its pattern of swirling leaves (seen above with Ida in their dining room) to the eye-catching shimmer of the silver dish on the table between Ida and her mother-in-law Frederikke.

Images:
Note: Hammershoi did not customarily give titles to his paintings so titles may differ depending on the interpreter.

1. Dust motes dancing in sunlight, 1900,  oil on canvas, Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen.
2. Interior with back view of a woman (Ida Hammershoi), circa 1903, oil on canvas Randers Kunstmuseum, Jutland.
3. Interior with the artist's wife and mother, oil on canvas.
4. unidentified photographer - Vilhelm Hammershoi's palette, courtesy of Royal Academy of Art, London.