22 October 2014

My Vegetable Love















“I woke from a dream that all my friends were scallions
I heard bravos from the lumps of beef I had left behind
From the ground round porterhouse and tartar
As they cleaved like peas and sent out shoots.

The sprouts I had eaten
Rejoiced within the striations of my iris
Arched in delight tickling tight curls of chromosomes.

I read leaves in a wadded lettuce heart
    for news of the world
I dug up sweet tuberous poems
I discovered myself counting the chambers in a tomato
I made ink from spores I signed my checks with it

The day I became a vegetarian
I found letter from all the fish in the seas."

 - Fredrich Steinway, reprinted from Food for Thought: An Anthology of Writings Inspired by Food, edited by Joan & John Digby, New York, William Morrow and Company: 1987.

It is easy to name the sources that plants rely on in order to flourish: sunlight and water, or more poetically, in the words of the French writer Andre Gide, "les nouritures terrestres."  In trying to identify the wellspring of human affections we become Aristotelians; that is we accept his taxonomy of souls (vegetative, sensitive, and rational) and optimistically choose the vegetative because it embodies growth.  This is what the poet Andrew Marvell was getting at in "To His Coy Mistress" (1681) when he described his "vegetable love."
As in Plato's allegory of the cave, the sun is unseen in the paintings of the late Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo but we intuit its presence in the luminous quality that the artist bestowed on his watermelons, painted over and over again but never more effectively than this version from 1965.

Image:
Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991)  - Sandias (Watermelon), 1965, private collection, current whereabouts unknown

16 October 2014

The Exquisite Awkwardness Of Georges Lacombe

















Finistere – finis terre – land's end – the end of Europe.


A peninsula  inhabited by humans for 2.5 million years, Brittany is also inhabited by all manner of mythical characters, pixies, mermaids, giants, and sailors who landed in boats made of leaves or stone. They were missionaries of a rude sort, come to bring a new religion to the locals who proved themselves to be wicked by fighting back with the assistance of demons and serpents.  How apt then is the enduring myth of the drowned the City of Ys, said to be located offshore in the Baie de Douarnenez, a city brought to ruin by a spoiled princess (Dahout) who convinces her father the King (Gradlon) to build her a magnificent churchless city on the waves.  Needless to say, the story ends badly. And can it be only coincidence that the brilliant Breton writer Chateaubriand  (1768 – 1848) gave his 42-volume autobiography the title Memoirs d'Outre-Tombe (Memoirs From Beyond the Grave) ? Here also the ghosts of the star-crossed lovers Tristan and Yseult and the jilted King Marc of the Roundtable roam.



How curious that the French artist Georges Lacombe is best known for one of his least typical works, a painting that translates the rugged coast of Brittany into the visual vocabulary of ukiyo-e prints. In Marine bleue – Effet de vagues the waves breaking on the shore at Finistere seem to have arrived from Japan.   The high horizon,  a certain flatness not seen in realist or Impressionist seascapes, announce the influence of a style the French dubbed japonisme.  Decorative fat pink clouds and peacock-feathered are not typical of Brittany, a land of rocky outcroppings incised by waves whose decorative effect, if that is what it was, whose coast is more prehistoric-looking than decorative.  



What is attractive in Lacombe's paintings is their  liveliness.  Again in Breton Boatwomen we confront a subject that is treated more dourly in paintings of his contemporaries, notably his close friend Charles Cottet.  Here the women are not waiting by the shore for bad news of their sailor husbands and sons;  they come alive through purposeful rhythm as active rowers.  

What is typical of Lacombe the artist is that he was not a Breton native; rather he came from a prominent family of Versailles, no small distinction in a royal seat.  The laying down of railroads from Paris to the ends of 19th century France opened the way for tourism and artists were prominent among them.  For nine years from 1888 to 1897, Lacombe summered in Brittany with his artist friends Paul Serusier and Emile Bernard.  Lacombe was the lucky one, with inherited wealth and an advantageous marriage, he had no need to sell his work.   Rather, he chose to give it away.  If his landscapes look familiar, it may be because the young Lacombe had been a member of Les Nabis, where he got to know Maurice Denis, whose coastal landscapes are similarly colorful.  Unlike the devout Denis, Lacombe was decidedly anti-clerical.
Within the group Les Nabis, Lacombe was dubbed the "sculptor Nabi." Whether working with wood or paint, Lacombe

What is attractive in Lacombe's paintings is their  liveliness.  Again in Breton Boatwomen we confront a subject that is treated more dourly in paintings of his contemporaries, notably his close friend Charles Cottet.  Here the women are not waiting by the shore for bad news of their sailor husbands and sons;  they come alive through purposeful rhythm as active rowers. 
What is typical of Lacombe the artist is that he was not a Breton native; rather he came from a prominent family of Versailles, no small distinction in a royal seat.  The laying down of railroads from Paris to the ends of 19th century France opened the way for tourism and artists were prominent among them.  For nine years from 1888 to 1897, Lacombe summered in Brittany with his artist friends Paul Serusier and Emile Bernard.  Lacombe was the lucky one, with inherited wealth and an advantageous marriage, he had no need to sell his work.   Rather, he chose to give it away.  If his landscapes look familiar, it may be because the young Lacombe had been a member of Les Nabis, where he got to know Maurice Denis, whose coastal landscapes are similarly colorful.  Unlike the devout Denis, Lacombe was decidedly anti-clerical.













Within the Nabi group, Lacombe was nicknamed "the sculptor Nabi."  Whether working with wood or with paint, Lacombe's style owes something to Paul Gauguin's stylized vision of primitivism, but Lacombe was capable or more accomplished draftsmanship.  Existence is one of four panels Lacombe carved in walnut for the bed in his stduio at Versailles.  Created during the decade he when he summered in Brittany, they are  earthy, somewhat crude amalgams of le style primitive and Breton folk art.  The side panels are images of a married couple at the beginning and again at the end of their life together; the headboard shows birth.   

Existence (above) is a compact treasury of archaic references.  It is amazing.  Framed by a serpent biting its own tail (Ouroboros, from the Greek,symbol of cyclic recreation), at the same time the double loop suggests a pair of eyes.  Below the eyes is what looks like a voluptuous pair of lips. Buried within this frame is an embracing couple and the meaning is underlined when you learn that the scored leaf at left symbolizes the female sex organs.  More easily recognizable are the spermatozoids spurting from the four corners of the frame.  This type of overtly sexual symbolism shows up shortly in the mosaic style paintings of women by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. Lacombe never displayed the panels in public and they remained in the artist's family until 1956.

In November, 2012, a rare retrospective The Plural Universes of Georges Lacombe opened at the Musee Maurice Denis, in cooperation with Musee Lambinet at Versailles, a gesture of admiration and affection for the artist and his two homes: Versailles, the heart of royal Franmce and Brittany, its Atlantic extremity, finistere.


For further reading:  Les univers de Georges Lacombe by Gilles Genty, et al, Musee departmentale Maurice Denis, Saint- Germaine-en-Laye.


Images:
1.  Georges Lacombe - Marine bleue - Effet de vagues, 1893, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes.
2. Georges Lacombe -  Falaises a Camaret, c. 1892, Musee municipale, Brest.
3. Georges Lacombe - Breton Boatwomen - c. 1888-99, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
4. Georges Lacombe - Existence, c. 1894-96, carved walnut, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
5. anonymous Breton artists -Sujet allegorique, c. 1500, Musee de Louvre, Paris.