21 January 2017

Fantin-Latour's Modern Flowers

"I have no more more ideas on art in my head, and I am obliged to make flowers. In doing so, I think of  Michelangelo,  in front of peonies and roses. This cannot last. " (translation by J.L.)

« Je n’ai jamais eu plus d’idée sur l’art dans la tête, et je suis obligé de faire des fleurs. En le faisant, je pense à Michel-Ange, devant des pivoines et des roses. Cela ne peut durer. »  - Henri Fantin-Latour, Lettre à Edwin Edwards, 15 mai 1862

Fortunately for us, the artist was wrong in this case.  Henri Fantin-Latour is one of the great painters of flowers, able to combine such disparate elements as calm amidst the stages of vegetal life.  If there was any strain involved in creating these works, the artist has prevented us from seeing it.  
Something else we might not be aware of is the lowly status that still life painting had in the hierarchy of genres in Fantin-Latour's day, although he was keenly aware of it both as reflected in the quote given here and in the many portraits he painted, works that he hoped would secure his reputation.    For a still life to command attention it needed some religious or literary reference to lift it above the ordinary, so you could say that these flowers, stripped of all justification but their own aesthetic loveliness, are the early flowers of modern art.
The Fage series on the words of the artists is a good resource for anyone who wants to know how artists see their own works.  However, once the work is released to the world, like a bird, it may take a surprising path and who knows where it will light?

To read more Words of the Artists (in French).
Henri Fantin-Latour  - untitled, possibly 1872 (see writing in upper left corner), Louvre museum, Paris.

16 January 2017

Homage To Martin Luther King, Jr. - Alfred Manessier

A tribute from an expected quarter.  Blue and red, water and blood, bursting with life., a force that moves the spirit and the world.
The late Alfred Manessier (1911-1993) is not a familiar name to most Americans.  When Sonia and Robert Delaunay were commissioned to decorate air and rail stations with murals for the Paris International Exposition in 1937, Manessier and three of his friends who were also students at the  executed the designs.
After going on retreat in a Trappist monastery in 1943, Manessier experienced a spiritual awakening.  Pondering the connections between the monks' spiritual practices and the nature of the cosmos, he changed his practice of painting,  jettisoning  the decorative elements he had absorbed from the Nabis via his studies at Academie Ranson and the Delaunays in favor of stronger colors (as seen here) and more dramatic forms.  He also left  teaching to paint full time.   Manessier held the unusual belief that the abstract and the figurative were merely two sides of the same coin in art.  He went on to receive many commissions for public art, from theater costumes to tapestries and stained glass windows  Where we may see vaguely familiar shapes, Manessier often intended crosses and crowns for churches.
Manessier painted this homage to the American Civil Rights leader in 1964 when King became the youngest person (at that time) ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Alfred Manessier - Homage a Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964, Pompidou Center, Paris.

13 January 2017

Not So Cozy After All: Ethel Sands

Ethel Sands (1873-1962) is one of those artists whose paintings have always impressed me  as being very well executed (they should be; she studied in Paris with Eugene Carrere and was deeply imprinted by the early works of Edouard Vuillard) but rather too amiable, content to portray the interiors of comfortable homes  with few overt signs of  the world outside.  The sort of paintings you might expect from one who took her position as a London society hostess as seriously as any of her other many interests.  Sands was born into money in Newport, Rhode Island and moved easily between France and England, sharing multiple homes with another woman for most of her adult life.

In recent decades, critics have begun to detect the filaments of tension in Vuillard's domestic scenes, based on biographical material that had been revealed since the artist's death in 1940.   No matter how guarded Vuillard and those around him were, his life was not "marked by not a single external  incident."    The romantic/erotic aspects of Vuillard's life may be encoded in his paintings, and who better to have recognized this than a woman who, by the standard of today, would be described as a lesbian?  And who might prefer to present scenes from her own domestic life indirectly?

But then there is this anomalous Ethel Sands painting Still Life With a View of a Cemetery.  It is painted in "early" Vuillard, that is the style he was painting in the 1890s when Vuillard was admired as the leader of the Nabis (or Prophets of a new art) and Pierre Bonnard was his sidekick.   It is all pattern and flat surface, but Sands uses the primary colors (blue, red, and yellow), unlike the muted tones Vuillard favored or her own preferred pastels.  The room that is the still life appears to be a bathroom and the cemetery outside, what we can see of it, seems that of a poor church yard, not the sort of place where the offspring of  haute Newport would have been buried.    Sands had nursed wounded soldiers in France during the war and this painting may allude to the intrusion of the outside world on her domestic life. And yet this interior,  with its tactile curves in the blue and white bowl and pitcher counterpointed by the glass bottles filled with yellow and red liquids, sparkling in the sunlight, is a complete story in itself if we choose to spend time with it.  Disparate shapes are organized around a shelf, with curves below and verticals (the bottles, the curtains, the crosses, above).  On its own terms, this is quite brilliant I think.

Image: Ethel Sands - Still Life With a View Over a Cemetery, 1923, Fitzwilliam Museum, London.

04 January 2017

The Long View: Victor Segalen

This quiet field is more than it appears, as so many photographs turn out to be when you dig into the particulars.  . Sixty years after a Frenchman, Victor Segalen, took this photograph of a farm field in northern China, some local farmers digging a well made an astonishing discovery.  What they unearthed among the meandering watercourses were larger than life-size figures, thousands of soldiers carved from terracotta, that had gone undetected for two thousand years, the funeral army of China's first Emperor, accompanying him to the afterlife.   The Terracotta Warriors, as they are now known, have become one of the wonders of the world, a comparable feat of the imagination to the  Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

Segalen would surely have been delighted by the excavation of the terracotta warriors, and the afterlife they brought to his photograph.  Even so, the significance of the site did not escape Segalen.  He led a band of archeologists that visited the site in 1914 to make drawings and measurements of tumulus, mounds of earth and stones, that are often placed over graves.  These burial mounds have  counterparts around the world,   known as cairns, menhirs, etc.

An obsession was born when Segalen arrived in Peking in 1909;  he  immediately adopted it as "my capital,' only returning to France at the outbreak of war in 1914.  For Segalen,  as for the ancient Chinese, the Middle Kingdom became the center of the world,  "the country that epitomizes harmonious difference, the diversity of the world in a nutshell."

Rene Leys,  Segalen's novel published in 1911, is a kind of spiritual adventure story, in which a young foreigner becomes obsessed with the mysterious Forbidden City and and the Imperial Palace at the heart of Peking.  Day after day the novel's protagonist circles the perimeter, looking and listening for signs of intrigue, clues to the destabilizing politics that followed in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion of 1905. Another foreigner, Rene Leys, becomes his guide, weaving threads of historical events and magical tales together, leaving the reader to wonder what kind of book they have in their hands, a detective story or an allegory.  The book, like the Forbidden City and the field in Lintong guard their secrets well.

The afterlife of Victor Segalen (1870-1919) has been longer than his time on earth.   Segalen, born in  Finistiere (end of the land), at the western-most point of the Atlantic coast, grew up to become a naval doctor, but no single profession could contain him.   He wrote novels, poetry, and literary criticism, and on his travels around the globe he made topographical maps, took photographs, and made  archeological excavations.  For all these accomplishments, Segalen's name is inscribed on the wall of the Pantheon in Paris.  
Revised: 01/07/2017.
An extensive biography of Victor Segalen (in French)
About the novel Rene Leys (in English)

Image: Victor Segalen - Lintong, Shaanxi Province, China, 16 February 1914, Musee Guimet, Paris.

31 December 2016

Happy New Year

Stir up some fun, and economically, too, for the New Year.  In the frugal spirit of old Cape Cod living, the local red berry overwhelms any pretensions the vodka may have, so go for the cheap stuff.  The red  color is reliably deep and gorgeous.  Cocktail mixing doesn't get any easier than the Cape Codder.  I was introduced to the non-alcoholic version as a little girl living in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  Trying to pick out which stirrer would make the drink taste better is the kind of decision that can occupy a child for quite some time.  These stirrers, appropriately for a New Year's celebration, came with a glass holder in the shape of a stork.

The basic Cape Codder recipe is as follows:
2 ounces vodka
3 ounces cranberry juice
1/4 lime perched on the rim of the glass, to be squeezed
club soda to taste

The children's version substitutes ginger ale for the vodka and club soda.
Czechoslovakia - Glass cocktail stirrers, c.1920-1930, blown glass, Geffrye Museum, London.

29 December 2016

Remembering William Christenberry

A star for the new millennium, a landscape cut out by a star, this photograph was taken on New Year's Day in the year 2000. 
While the world was preoccupied with the deaths of other, more famous artists, William Christenberry slipped quietly away on November 28, 2016.   Christenberry was, by turns, a painter, a sculptor of miniature 'dream buildings, and a photographer,  and it is for his photography that he will be remembered.  What attracted him to photography, he said,  was a spiritual dimension that enabled him "to come to grips with my feelings about the landscape and what was in it."  Through his lens,  worn clapboards and dilapidated buildings  appeared more perfectly themselves in rich color than they had in  black and white.  Christenberry, raised under the southern sun, had no prejudice against the use of color film. That landscape also included the Ku Klux Klan and a hooded man at the Tuscaloosa County Court House in 1960, an encounter that shook Christenberry deeply.
Christenberry was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1936, the year that Walker Evans and James Agee spent a month with tenant farmers in nearby Hale County.  The two men hoped to publish an article but it failed to materialize;  instead, their book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published five years later, became a masterpiece of social documentary.  
Alabama was home to some of the poorest areas in the south  and it signifies that Christenberry acquired his first camera as a joint Christmas present with his sister in 1944.  After attending college, Christenberry thought he would become a painter but in New York he met Walker Evans who encouraged him to take his photography seriously.   Christenberry taught painting at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C.,  where he lived until his death from Alzheimer's disease last month. 

See photographs by William Christenberry in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
William Christenberry - Christmas Star Near Akron Alabama, January 1, 2000, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.

23 December 2016

"I love this. You will love this." A Joseph Cornell Christmas Card

"We all live in his enchanted forest." - John Ashbery, American poet, writing about Joseph Cornell. 

An unidentified person wrote "I love this.  You will love this." in the margin of a poster showing a Joseph Cornell shadow box.  A brilliant artist who created most of his work as gifts for friends or simply as offerings to people he admired, Joseph Cornell was the embodiment of that sentiment.

Joseph Cornell was born on Christmas Eve in 1903.  Although Cornell led a humdrum, even constrained life, and rarely traveled, he was fortunate to live in New York City, a place where ordinary life offers intimations of magic around any corner.    He described the small objects he collected and used to compose his shadow boxes as "exquisite surprises."   These jewel-like boxes are now treasures to the museums lucky enough to have them and once you have seen one  you will seek them out wherever you go. 

The shadow box itself has theatrical ancestors, from the wunderkammer (chamber of wonders) of  Renaissance courts and street fairs to the penny arcades that Cornell himself saw at amusement parks as a child.  In Cornell's imagination the idea of a miniature world as entertainment is deepened by memories and personal associations that mesmerize viewers.   So many of his boxes contain pictures of birds that critics have liked to speculate on their symbolism: caged bird of free spirit?  The caged bird appeals to those who concentrate on the artist's loneliness and  shyness with women but Cornell's birds seem to me closer in spirit to the poet Shelley's skylark, who can teach him "half the gladness" it knows.

Some have wanted to claim Cornell's art for surrealism but the artist said not, and I am inclined to agree.  The Surrealist impulse to mix up dreams and reality was often aimed at unnerving the viewer with a pile-up of illogical elements; Cornell was a romantic, bent on revealing magic in our surroundings.  White magic, he said. 

To read more:
1. A Convergence of Birds: Fiction and poetry Inspired by the works of Joseph Cornell, various authors, New York, Distributed Art Publishers: 2009.

1. Joseph Cornell - A Christmas Card Project, 1953, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
2. Jospeh Cornell - untitled shadow box, title attributed Hotel de la Duchesse Anne, 1957, Art Institute of Chicago.

18 December 2016

Adam Elsheimer: A Painting For The Season

Adam Elsheimer  (1578 –1610) was born in Frankfurt and worked and died in Rome. Although he made  a relatively small number of paintings in his brief life,  His friend, the painter Peter Paul Rubens, has left a letter dated a few days after the artist’s death, describing his visit to Elsheimer’s widow at the artist’s home where he saw Flight in the artist’s bedroom.  Elsheimer was the single most influential artist of his period after Durer.  More original than often recognized, Elsheimer apparently began to make use of high contrasts of light and dark before he saw Caravaggio’s work. 
He painted small and usually on copper plate, poetic landscapes executed with meticulous detail.  For Elsheimer landscape was more than decoration or space filler, in his hands it served as a frame for the human figures and, more than that, as the atmosphere in which they were to be understood.  Copper provided a smooth surface for Elsheimer to show off his delicate brushwork.
The Flight into Egypt (1609) is the only one of his paintings that has a date inscribed on it.  Elsheimer’s nocturnal setting is unusual among artists' portrayal of the event but it is faithful to descriptions from the Gospels.  Just as the Magi had been guided by a star to the Holy Family,  the trio fled under a sky full of stars.   Art historians have identified Elsheimer's as the first painting to show the Milky Way, the galaxy that includes our solar system, recently explained by Galileo.  

Elsheimer has choreographed the dark night's journey with light, gently leading our eye along, beginning with  the Milky Way, medieval symbol of the path to heaven, slanting diagonally downward from the upper left corner.  The moon, flanked by clouds though it is, creates a circle with its reflection in water, balancing the circle of light made by the shepherds as they and their animals await the arrival of the little family.  From the torch that Joseph holds to light their way our eye drawn up to a star framed by the branches of a tree.  
Another appealing aspect of  Elsheimer's painting is its naturalism.  The flight into Egypt had been a favorite bible story for artists, from the Middle Ages onward, whether it be as frescoes in Italian churches or romantic  paintings by  German artists of the 15th and 16th centuries.  What I mean here by romantic is that artists depicted the event in anachronistic fashion; even the great Giotto, working  in the early 14th century, made a public parade of an escape under darkness.    Not only is Elsheimer's painting closer to the spirit of the story but the very ordinariness of his human characters draws us closer.
Images: all or in part, Adam Elsheimer - The Flight Into Egypt, 1609,  Alte Pinakotek, Munich.