30 January 2024

Berthe Morisot: Things You Can't See In A Painting

(T)here is only one true Impressionist in the whole revolutionary group - and that is Mlle Berthe Morisot." - Paul Mantz, 1877 

When the Barnes Foundation organized their Berthe Morisot retrospective in 2018, they called it "Morisot: Woman Impressionist." Cue the Greek chorus. But that moniker obscures as much as it reveals. Morisot felt no impulse to eroticize her female subjects as male artists did; she foregrounded their subjectivity, their interior focus. She was able to reveal the life of women as she had experienced it herself. After her death in 1895, Morisot's star faded and, with it, her critical reputation. Almost a century would pass before Tamar Garb and Kathleen Adler addressed her erasure from Impressionist history.

Scumble: to soften or blend an outline with a thin wash. Morisot's paintings were praised for their luminous quality, a technique she adapted from the her work with Corot who taught her to paint outdoors. Kept out of traditional (male) art classes, young Berthe was tutored at home.

On the advice of Pissarro, in 1858, Manet, Degas, and Morisot applied to the Copyists' Office at the Louvre for permission to set up their easels in the galleries. By 1864, Morisot's paintings were hanging in the Salon de Paris.

Unlike her friends,  Berthe Morisot did not have to soften her experimental inclinations to suit the tastes of potential patrons; her bourgeois background provided Morisot with economic security. On the other hand, she did not share their freedom to go on painting expeditions to the country in search of interesting subjects or spend her evenings soaking in the ambience of urban cafes. Fortunately, her family welcomed her unconventional friends into their home, so long as the young men were presentable.

Morisot's mother was the great niece of the great 18th century painter Fragonard. In her work the lilacs and the grays become gestural scratches that are halfway to abstraction.

The young woman with long red hair was Berthe Morisot's daughter, and frequent model, Julie Manet.

Berthe Morisot - Two Girls, 1894, oil on canvas, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.
Berthe Morisot - Self- Portrait, 1885, oil on canvas, Musee Marmottan Manet, Paris.

12 January 2024

Aymeric Fouquez: A Quiet Eye

"This landscape looks like a secret
because the river can't be seen
from the spot where I am standing.
And there fore it is
the landscape where I most easily
would be able to do without myself.
Among there 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

The mostly grey and white palette of Ayermic Fouquez reminds me of the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, with its silvery greys and pale colors. Unemphatic, yet memorable. Fouquez finds poetry in otherwise unremarkable common landscapes. The photographs  capture a singular instant but I sense a prolonged meditative process in Fouquez's selection of the moment. In his work the horizon is low and flat but remember that Denmark is bordered by Germany.

Born in Chateau-Thierry in France, Fouquez studied photography at l'Ecole nationale superieure in Arles. Aymeric lives in Cologne, Germany.

Image: Aymeric Fouquez, from the series Nord (North), 2006-2018, separable chromographic prints, Pompidou Center, Paris.

Ebisu Catching a Goldfish

But perhaps   the heart

Does not want   to be understood. 

Your shadow   falls on its pond

and the small fish   hurry away.

They have   their own lives,

not yours, which they love.

And if to you   it is anger,

bewilderment,   grief,

to them   it is simply life:

their mouths   open and close,

their gills,   they are fed,   they breathe.

The gods   are not large,

outside us,   they are the fish, 

going on   wit their own concerns."

"The Gods Are Not Large" by Jane Hirshfield, from The October Palace, New York, Harper Perennial: 1994.

Image: Katsushika Hokusai - Ebisu Catching a Goldfish, circa 1830, Museum of Asian Arts, Berlin.

31 December 2023

Ocotillo Nocturne

Those long ghostly black fingers, visible in silhouette, are the branches of the Ocotillo cactus. The 'vine cactus' is indigenous to the desert of the Imperial Valley.  Tucked into the southeasternmost corner of California, Ocotillo  is a land of little rain.

"I want people to get lost in the work. I want to seduce people into it and I want people to get lost inside the world of the work. In that way the work is pre-Modernist. I throw all my obsessions and loves into the work, and I try not to be too embarrassed about any of it. I love gardening. I love watching birds and all that gets into the work." - Fred Tomaselli

His light-filled geometric patterns pulse with energy and if they appear familiar yet difficult to place in any known cosmology, this only intensifies our impression of deep time. Surely, this feeling is evoked by the desert at dusk.

Image: Fred Tomaselli - Ocotillo Nocturne, 1993, acrylic, synthetic, resin, pills, and leaves on wood panel, Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC.

24 December 2023

A Commedia del arte Christmas

Marionettes, (puppets controlled by strings), have been performing at Christmas markets since medieval times. These marionettes included characters from the commedia del arte, such Pulcinella. The name marionette means 'little Mary' in tribute to the Virgin Mary. 

Merry Christmas to one and all.

Image: Maurizio Faschetti - untitled, December 2002, photograph, Alinari Archives, Florence.

18 December 2023

Eileen Agar: Water Sprite

Try telling a fish about water. Dynamism radiates in all directions from Ondine. Underwater, she floats within a protective penumbra, rather like thee spikes of a porcupine. We also see a fish tail that will, in time, morph this water sprite into a mermaid. From fish to mermaid is an evolutionary transformation.  The human face is overlaid with vegetal growth in the red (blood) and green (vegetable) oval filigree. 

In the manner of a Renaissance portrait of a venerable lady, Eileen Agar's Ondine offers her left profile to the viewer. It calls to mind these lines from Undine :(1811) by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqe:
"... in each element there exists a race of beings, whose form scarcely differs from yours, but who very seldom appears to mortal sight ... you now see before you, my love, an undine." Faces in profile recur in Agar's work, caught in the act of amazement. And those round eyes remind me of Picasso's images.

Where can we situate the work of a surrealist like Agar? Historical painting shows an event that happened at a particular moment. Genre painting shows something ordinary that happens all the time. Surrealist painting suggests what existd beyond reality.

Eileen Agar (1899-1991) was born in Buenos Aires.  As a young girl she was sent to school in England. In 1926, she met her lifelong partner, Hungarian-born Joseph Bard. By 1930, Agar had begun to do art that was recognizably aurrrealist. She is buried in the storied Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Image: Eileen Agar - Ondine, 1972, acryllic and collage on canvas, Kreps Gallery, NYC.

10 December 2023

In the Footsteps of Dorothy Parker: Wendy Cope


"At Christmas little children sing and merry bells jingle,

The cold winter air makes our hands and faces tingle

And happy families go to church and cheerily they mingle

And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful, if you're single."

            - Wendy Cope

Wendy Cope (b.1945) is a British poet, author of five published volumes, and the recipient of  an OBE.

Image: Joel Meyerowitz - untitled,, from the Pack Series, 1977, kodachrome, Pompidou Center, Paris.

24 November 2023

Helen Torr: Little Boat

Where is the lambent light Long Island is fabled for? In Helen Torr's Houses on a Boat the sky  lowers over turbulent waters, possibly a reflection of the artist's own uncertain future.  Painted shortly before the catastrophic stock market crash that begat the Great Depression, five houses huddle precariously on a  boat that can barely contain them. Seeing them as a metaphor is irresistible; however, I should add that Torr had a predilection for dark colors in the 1920s so tread carefully around this metaphor.

Helen Torr (1886-1967), a student of William Merritt Chase, married  Arthur Dove who was friends with Georgia O'Keeffe. When Torr,  whose nickname was 'Red',  met Dove, both were married to others. But they soon  left their respective spouses and, in 1924, set up home on a houseboat off the north shore of Long Island at Halesite. Throughout their life together, the couple suffered extreme financial hardships, basically living from hand to mouth. 

Torr exhibited her work only twice, once at Alfred Stieglitz's American Place Gallery in 1933.  Torr stopped painting after Dove died in 1946.  Her wish to have her paintings destroyed after her death was ignored by her sister.

Image - Helen Torr - Houses on a Boat, 1929, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

13 November 2023

Diwali, Festival Of Candles And Light

"Even after all this time

the sun never says to the earth,

"You owe me."

Look what happens

a love like that

lights the whole sky."

 - Hafiz (1325-1390), Persian lyric poet

Image: Frantisek Kupka - Ordonnance sur verticales et jaune, 1913, oil on canvas, Pompidou Center, Paris.

31 October 2023

Larger Than Life: The Flowers of Santido Pereira

"There are too many waterfalls, here, the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea, 
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over in soft slow-motion
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes."
   - excerpt from "Questions of Travel" in Geogrpahy III by Elizabeth Bishop, written shortly after she moved to Brazil in 1951.

The Brazilian artist Santido Pereira (b.1996) calls his print technique "incision, cut, and fitting." You can see the results in the bromeliad at left; for the past five years he has focused on  the tropical plants of the Atlantic rain forests of northern Brazil. Bromeliads are said to symbolize thes human connection with nature, with its healing and regenerative qualities. Native to South America, they have stemless leaves and a deep calyx, and they are attractive to butterflies...

Composed of a wooden sheet and thick layers of paint, Pereira's engravings have spurred  a renaissance in Brazilian prints. At the same time, his work honors the scientific tradition of botanical illustration which developed on the 6th century. Plant species are placed at the center of the page, seen against a neutral back ground.

Born in Curral Comprido, in the northern state of Piaui, one of the country's poorest, Pereira spent  his early years in close companionship with nature; not surprisingly, his work is viewed through a lens of nostalgia.  He trained at the Acacia School in Sao Paulo.

Image: Santido Pereira in untitled (Bromeliad), wooden sheet offset with paint, dimensions estimated  as being about 4' x 3', Xippas Gallery, Paris.

15 October 2023

Two Women Crossing A Field: One Of van Gogh's Last Paintings

 Vincent van Gogh  died in July, 1890 at age thirty-seven. During his last few months van Gogh painted dozens upon dozens of landscapes. In July he wrote to his brother Theo that had immersed himself in "the immense plain against the hills, boundless as the sea, delicate yellow."  The young green wheat fields of May enthralled him, "vast fields of wheat under turbulent skies." He averred that his "canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside." At the time he painted Women Crossing a Field, van Gogh had temporarily stilled the turbulence within him. There is a gentleness in his brush work, his chosen colors are harmonious, the scene is tranquil.

Image: Vincent van Gogh - Women Crossing a Field, 1890, oil on canvas, McNay Art Museum, San Antonio.

02 October 2023

Georgia O'Keeffe's Autumn Leaves

"The falling leaves drift by the window,
The autumn leaves of red and gold,"
     excerpt from  "Autumn Leaves," the English Lyrics by Johnny Mercer

Hints of red and gold circle the center of this early (1924) painting by Georgia O'Keeffe. This one reminds me of some transitional works by Piet Mondrian, the familiar pared down to its most basic elements.

Twenty-one years later Joseph Kosma, a Hungarian emigre to France, under house arrest and forbidden to compose, teamed up with French poet Jacques Prevert to write Les Feuilles mortes, known in English as Autumn Leaves. It was recorded by Yves Montand and more than a thousand others, making it one of the most successful songs  of the twentieth century. Kosma also wrote the scores for a number of French films,  including Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939), regarded by many film critics as the greatest film of the century. A scathing satire of wealthy people oblivious to the clouds of war gathering on the horizon, its message was subversive so it was cloaked in a love story.

Image: Georgia O'Keeffe - Autumn Leaves - The Maple, 1924, O'Keefe Museum, Santa Fe.

21 September 2023

Helene Schjerfbeck: Through My Travels, I Found Myself

Paring its elements down to near abstraction, this moody landscape shows its  Nordic origins. Helene Schjerfbeck has been called "Finland's Munch" for her status as an early modernist. I fancy this as an autumnal scene, the colors muted by the retreat of the sun.

Best known for searching self-portraits, Schjerfbeck inhabited her landscapes with her pensive personality. A woman of  contradictions, she was reclusive and at the same time a knowing follower of fashion. 

Helene's father gave her a pencil and Helene began to draw at  the age of four while she was recovering from a broken hip...at eleven she won a drawing scholarship to the Finnish Art Society, the youngest student to ever attend the school.

A grant from the Finnish government enabled her to visit Paris, launching her on  extended  travels around Europe, from Pont-Aven, Concarmeau in Brittany to Florence, limited only by her lameness and associated health problems. 

In 1902 she moved to the village of Hyvvinka, twenty-five miles north of Helsinki.  She died in a sanatorium in Helsinki in 1946.

Image:  Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) - Landscape at Hyvvinka, 1914, oil paint and charcoal on canvas board, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

02 September 2023

Shaken, Not Stirred: The Retro Cocktail Hour

A heady mixture of gum-shoe jazz, space age  pop, B-movie soundtracks, bossa nova, and all manner of musical exotica, Retro Cocktail Hour is hip, arch, and cool from a place that few would apply these adjectives to - Kansas! The program describes itself as being the home of "incredibly strange music." Hosted by Darrell Brogdon and a sultry-sounding woman with a tiki torch who says, "I'm the designated driver on the highway of Cool." 
Every program begins with the sound of a cocktail shaker in action. Said cocktail shaker is a fixture of the Underground Martini Bunker where the martinis are always dry. 

When stereo was introduced in the 1950s, it had to be sold to a  public happy with the sound equipment they already had. Companies that sold both equipment and the records to play on it moved aggressively to promote it with in store demonstrations of sound moving from left to right and back. Stereo required to customers to buy new record players. A new musical genre was created to show off the new technology: RCA called its version "Living Stereo."   This movement began in the 1950s so there had to be an underground bunker in there somewhere.

Jazz musicians moonlighting under such bizarre names as the Waitiki Orchestra and the Italian Secret Service punctured any stuffed shirts who might wander in and also protected the reputations of the pseudonymous players,  Latin percussion played a prominent role via such musicians as Perez Prado, Juan Esquival,  and Tito Puente; it punctuated the fun while providing an antidote to the all too serious Cold War. Easily the most recognizable tune is the 1959 hit Quite Village by Martin Denny. Denny used almost entirely percussion instruments to exotic effect.

Contemporary practitioners of the genre include Big Kahuna and the Copa Cat Pack and my personal favorites - Pink Martini.

Lately vinyl records are making an unexpected comeback, so everything retro is new again. Wonder where my Dual turntable is now.

You can listen to the Retro Cocktail Hour here.

Image: unidentified maker - Cocktail ensemble, Bamberger bequest, Newark Art Museum, Newark, NJ.

22 August 2023

Seongmin Ahn : An Artist Of The Diaspora

“In my paintings, by symbolic action and opening a drawer, two seemingly separate dimensions become integrated. It is a matter of how to find connection and openness.” -Seongmin Ahn

Like alchemy, chopsticks pull noodles out of the waves against a background of Taoist indeterminancy.

An immigrant, Ahn portrays the natural world, using Baroque ornamentation on familiar Asian  subject matter like the waves and mountains here in Aphrodisiac. Joining the two cultures, Ahn combines her artistic training in Korean black ink wash and color painting with Western influences from abstract art and conceptual art. In bold compositions and  areas of saturated color, her painting style also reflects the influence of  minhwa  Korean folk art that reached its greatest popularity during the 19th  century of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910).

Ahn was born in South Korea where she studied art at Seoul National University. She now lives in New York City, .

Image: Seongmin Ahn - Aphrodisiac,2019, ink, pigment, and wash on mulberry paper, Courtesy of the artist's website.

11 August 2023

Andre Devambez: Crepuscule

Procession at Dusk  is a pastel by  French artist Andre Devambez.  A twilight procession of monks is observed from afar as they move towards the lighted windows of the monastery. This scene is both solemn and poetic. Its composition emphasizes the glow of candles in the distance, looking like fireflies, while the setting sun is mirrored by the tree trunks in the foreground.  They contrast with the bluish tones of the evening landscape, rendered in sfumato. The summery cast of the landscape suggests a date  near the Feast of the Assumption.  It is possible that its conception dates from the time Devambez was  resident in Italy.

This work sheds a new light on Devambez's early career.  Known for his bird's-eye views and steep perspectives that earned him the nickname "painter of the 6th floor." However this pastel testifies to his predilection for gathering scenes that are observed in a detached mannerThis work is therefore unique in his oeuvre. 

André Devambez was born in Paris and grew up in the world of Maison Devambez, the family engraving and publishing business founded by his father. Andre showed an early interest in drawing and soon enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He was awarded the Prix de Rome which allowed him to perfect hiscraft at the Villa Medici in Rome. On returning to Paris, Devambez his  bird's-eye views revealed his innovative framing. At the same time, he workedr as an illustrator for magazines such as Le Figaro illustré  and l'Illustration. In 1910, he was invited to create decorative panels for the new French Embassy in Vienna. A true jack-of-all-trades, painter, engraver and illustrator his work includes serious and light subjects.

Purchased last year from a private collector by the Musée d'Orsay, Procession at Dusk is a large pastel on canvas by  André Devambez (1867-1944). As one of the rare works from the beginning of the artist's career, this 1902 pastel  will be included in the exhibition 'Pastels. From Millet to Redon.'

Image: Andre Devambez - Procession at Twilight, 1902, pastel on canvas, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

23 July 2023

Ernest Chaplet: A Porcelain Life

"In  such a porcelain life, one like to be sure that all is well, lest one stumble upon one's hopes in a pile of broken pottery." - Emily Dickinson

In this marvelous vase designed by Ernest Chaplet (1835-1909) I see so much detail integrated so harmoniously. The  choice of blue for the flowers is unexpected. The vase is molded and glazed with colored highlights.  At center is a hen with her chicks and a cockerel incised into the sandstone. The design was taken from a series of Japanese woodblock prints Kacho sansui zushiki or Drawings of flowers, birds, and landscapes by Katsushika Isai (1821-1880), a pupil of  Hokusai. 

Cite de la ceramique, French museum of ceramics was founded in 1824, eleven years before Ernest Chaplet was born in Sevres. His parents  owned a cabaret and, by all accounts, the boy had a happy childhood. At  age thirteen, Ernest became an apprentice at the porcelain factory. Later he was put to work decorating everyday earthenware while doing his compulsory military service.

Chaplet would become the supervisor of Haviland et Cie in 1882. The Haviland Brothers, David and Daniel, founded their eponymous company in France to produce porcelain for export to America. The company, and specifically Ernest Chaplet, was instrumental in the revival of the use of stoneware in the late 19th century. Felix Bracquemond discovered a set of Isai's drawings at a painter's studio in Paris in 1865.  Two years later, after seeing the Exposition  Universelle in Paris, Chaplet opened an experimental studio in  the suburb of Auteuil where he put his friend Bracquemond in charge. This particular piece was the product of their long anf fruitful collaboration.

Image: Ernest Chaplet (1835-1909) - vase with japonisme decorations, circa 1883-1885, gray sandstone molded and engraved with gold, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

15 July 2023

August Morisot: Cathedral of the Pines

"I hear you call, pine tree, I hear you on the hill, by the silent pond
where the lotus flowers bloom, I hear you call, pine tree.
What is it you call, pine tree, when the rains fall, when the winds
blow and when the stars appear, what is it you call, pine tree?
I hear you call, pine tree, but I am blind and do not know how to
reach you, pine tree. Who will take me to you, pine tree?"
 - "I Hear You Call, Pine Tree" by Yoni Noguchi

Half a century after Japonisme took tout Paris by storm, the artist August Morisot interpreted the woods of southwest France using what he had learned from ukiyo-e, "art of the floating world,' its flatness and the high stylization of its constituent elements. 

This is Le Grand Bois, the Meyriat Forest near Bourg-sur-Bresse where August Morisot summered with his family from 1904 to 1913. Deploying black ink with the precision of a goldsmith, he used shades of red and orange to pattern the leaves and  their complementary colors of blue and  purple for the shadows and forest undergrowth. Morisot's style has also been compared to Maurice Denis in its oscillation between the style of the Nabis and Art Nouveau.

August Morisot (1857-1951) excelled in several media: painting, engraving, textile design,  and even glass-making. A native of Burgundy, he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Lyon from 1880 to 1885. He taught at his alma mater from 1895 until 1933 when he  retired in 1933 and moved with his wife Pauline and his daughter Marcelle to Brussels. He died there in 1951.

Morisot was sent to the Orinoco Basin in Venezuela as part of a scientific investigation in 1886 by France's Ministry of Public Information; his job was to document the local flora and fauna. The effect light filtering through the canopy of tropical vegetation made a profound impression on Morisot, reminding him of Gothic windows. The journey was perilous and Morisot risked his life for it. He suffered violent fevers, resulting in a religious conversion. When he returned to France he converted to Catholicism. Jules Verne would use this expedition as the basis for his book Le Superbe Orenoque (1898). After 1900, his taste for symbolist literature led him to populate his forest landscapes with fairies; he wrote The Voices of the Forest about it.

Note: Yoni Noguchi ( 1875-1947) was the first Japanese poet to write poems in English.

Image: August Morisot - Le Grand Bois - circa 1917, watercolor, pen, black ink, and gouache on beige cardboard, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

02 July 2023

Mood Indigo: Firelei Baez

 "I started early - Took my dog - 
And visited the sea -
The Mermaids in the Basement 
Came out to look at me -"
     - Emily Dickinson

We can intuit what Firelei Baez had in mind in this painting by reading its title (see below, it's quite long). Women were largely absent from epic narratives of the Caribbean basin;  Baez has a repertoire of  Caribbean and African folklore for inspiration. As Baez's title illustrates, conceptual art asks the viewer to connect the dots; it only takes imagination to find an underwater world within. Are there mermaids lurking near those white speckles (bubbles)? Are those green splotches  underwater shadows reflecting light from above? Whatever we read into the paint daubs, they are rendered as scumbling as viewed  under a microscope. Baez has declared that, for her, the imagery comes out of the application of the paint to the canvas.

Firelei Baez was born in 1981 in the Dominican Republic and her family moved to Miami when Firelei was eight. She studied art at Hunter College and Cooper Union in New York City where she now lives in the Bronx.

Baez traces descent from Haiti and Dominica, two countries that share the island of Hispaniola.  Haiti, on the western side was colonized by France while the Dominican Republic was controlled by Spain so there is no single narrative that encompasses these two very different variants of colonization.  (Think of the contrast between the neighboring states of Georgia and Florida, the one settled by the British and the other colonized by the Spanish). The cultivation of  indigo  was key to the economic development of Haiti; tobacco and sugar were also extremely significant  exports.  The process to turn the plant into a dye was developed in West Africa, a history that Baez knows by heart. For her, the underwater world is blue, indigo blue.

Image: Firelei Baez  - Haitian Mermaid - Describing the West Indian Navigation from Hudson's Bay to the Amazonas, 2023, oil and acrylic on archival printed canvas, 73 7/8 x 60 7/8 in., James Conan Gallery, NYC.

23 June 2023

Adam Zagajewski: And That Is Why

 "And that is why I paced the corridors

Of those great museums

Gazing at paintings of a world

In which David is blameless as a boy scout

Goliath earned his shameful death

While eternal twilight dims Rembrandt's canvases,

The twilight of anxiety and attention

And I passed from hall to hall

Admiring portraits of cynical cardinal

In Roman crimson

Ecstatic peasant weddings

Avid players of cards or dice

Observing ships of war and momentary truces

And that is why we paced the corridors

Of those renowned museums those celestial palaces

Trying to grasps Isaac's sacrifice

Mary's sorrow and bright skies above the Seine

And I went back to a city street

Where madness pain and laughter persisted - 

Still unpainted."

 -"And That Is Why" by Adam Zagajewski, from True Life, New York, Farrar. Straus and Giroux: 2023.

For Adam Zagajewski, the past is always present in everyday life and, as this poem eloquently lays out, nowhere is this fact more visible than in museums. The past isn't dead; it may not even be past.

The poet Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021) was born in Poland and died in Poland; however he lived in Berlin, then  Germany, moved to France in 1982 and later taught at universities in the United States.

Image: Sophie Crespy - photograph of a gallery at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, courtesy of Grand Palais, Paris.