17 July 2018

The Woman On The Seawall


Hours ebb.  The horizon
sags into sea.  Not much left of the day:
towels that checkered the beach

folded away.  No children
tumbling from castes like pawns.  Last
walkers leave: a man and his mutts,

the woman who clutched
her shoes to her chest for hours -
all chased away by the night tide exhaling

 - excerpted from "Night Tide at Ostend" by Laure-Anne Bosselaar, from Small Gods of Grief, Rochester, BOA Editions, Ltd.: 2001

This is a strange night world where seabirds fly and the docks and beaches are so many stripes illuminated by a mysterious source, backlit like a Hollywood movie yet painted a century and more ago by Leon Spilliaert of Ostend (Ostende in French, Oostende in Flemish), an important distinction in his native West Flanders.

Similarly poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar paints in words a visual equivalent to Spilliaert's world.  For both, the night and the sea become seemingly fathomless and static, unlike the usual characteristics  of night and sea.  Both Bosselaar and Spilliaert are true Oostendenaars, fluent in both Flemish and French, their imaginary worlds are split at the root, as Luc Sante described it in The Factory of Facts, "Belgian art, the id of the nation, manages to be extravagant and tight-lipped at once..."

In art the beach at Ostend is as familiar to Belgians as the beaches of Normandy are to lovers of French Impressionist painting and for the same reason: during the late 19th century swimming and sun-bathing became popular pastimes for a growing middle class with newly acquired leisure.   

Ideas, applied indiscriminately as they almost always eventually are, prompt a reaction.  As the German philosopher  Hegel put it: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Well, maybe the first two but in art synthesis is no sure thing.  At the end of the 19th century European arts were marked by a fascination with irrationality in response to philosophical positivism with its claims to explain every phenomenon by scientific and rational means.

Symbolism was a literary movement first: the poet Jean Moréas published what became its manifesto Le Symbolisme in Le Figaro in 1886.  Symbolism's attraction for visual artists was immediate, followed closely by the critics.  In Le symbolisme en peinture and other books, Albert Aurier defined symbolist painting as one that would "clothe the idea of ​​a sensitive form" in suggestion and mystery.  It would be subjective, it would have its own recognizable language of forms, and it would have decorative elements.   Although Aurier was only twenty-seven when he died (from typhoid fever) he had not only made a reputation as an astute critic but had assembled a considerable personal  art collection.  His Van Goghs were acquired after his death by another astute collector, Helene Kroller-Muller for what eventually became the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterloo, Netherlands

In Brussels and in Paris, Leon Spilliaert, painter,  frequented literary circles. He particularly admired the French-speaking Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren. Verhaeren was so highly regarded that he was considered for the Nobel Literature Prize but considered a long shot after his countryman Maurce Maeterlinck won the prize in 1911.  Although it is difficult to pin his poetry in modern terms, Verhaeren was close to the art of  Fernand Khnopff and the expressionist James Ensor, two Belgian painters whose works he analyzed.

Spilliaert was a night walker; he came by his deep feeling for the quiet atmosphere that attends theouble to hear it. restless ocean for those who take the tr

Laure Anne Bosselaar grew up in Belgium where she worked for radio and television stations there and in Luxembourg before moving to the United States in 1987.   She also taught French poetry and published a collection of her own poems, Artemis, in French.  She is the widow of a fellow poet, editor, an translator Kurt Brown.  Bosselaar currently lives in Santa Barbara, CA.

For additional reading:
The Factory of Facts by Luc Sante, New York, Random House: 1998.

Image:
Leon Spilliaert (1881-1946) - La femme sur la digue (The Woman on the Sea Wall), 1907, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.

11 July 2018

Museum Of Man


At the Museum of Modern Art you can sit in the lobby
on the foam-rubber couch; you can rest and smoke,
and view whatever the revolving doors express.
You don't have to go into the galleries at all.

In this arena the exhibits are free and have all
the surprises of art - besides something extra:
sensory restlessness, the play of alternation,
expectation in an incessant spray

thrown from heads, hands, the tendons of ankles.
The shifts and strollings of feet
engender compositions on the shining tiles,
and glide together and pose gambits,

gestures of design, that scatter, rearrange,
trickle into lines, and turn clicking through a wicket
into rooms where caged colors blotch the walls.
You don't have to go to the movies downstairs

to sit on red plush in the snow and fog
of old fashioned silence.  You can see the contemporary
Garbos and Chaplins go by right here.
And there's a mesmeric experimental film

constantly reflected on the flat side of the wide
steel plate pillar opposite the crenellated window
Now objective taxis surging west,on Fifty-third,
liquefy in slippery yellows - dusky crimsons,

pearly mauve - an accelerated sunset - a roiled
surf,or cloud curls undulating - their tubular ribbons
elongations of the coils of light itself
(engine of color) and motion (motor of form).
    -  "At the Museum of Modern Art" by May Swenson from To Mix With Time, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons: 1963.


If everyone who works in the art world shares one belief, it is that nothing is more important than art itself.   Some really believe it, some merely pay lip service, but a correlative belief is that the social elements of the art world are irrelevant.  Never mind that Jean Stafford's famous short story "Children Are Bored on Sunday" which appeared in the New Yorker in 1948 is about  the "children," young single adults named Emma and Alfred.   Emma is at the Metropolitan Museum on a mission of self-improvement.  Emma grew up where children played hide-and-seek behind lilac bushes and now, having moved to New York, she realizes that urbanites like Alfred have an advantage "because they had grown up in apartments, where there was nothing else to do but educate themselves."   This  story of girl meets boy did not go well and now Alfred, the witness to her previous embarrassment, turns up and, what is more annoying, he is blocking her view of the very Botticelli painting she was hoping to study.

Stafford, perhaps sooner than most, intuited that contemporary art has become a substitute for religion. One possible explanation for the popularity of conceptual art and one made plausible by historical precedent: western art of the medieval period was a tool for teaching used by the Church.  Another theory that art has become mass entertainment as it has become monetized - and we are talking here about vast sums of money that bear no relation to the aesthetic or social value of the art work itself - is of more recent vintage.   Money, power, beauty - how to tease apart these sticky threads?

Poet May Swenson uses the language of aesthetic description applied to the exhibitions and events the Museum of Modern Art is known for to suggest that people watching is not only an event that brings visitors to the museum but can be viewed as an exhibition itself.   Those "strolling feet" making "gestures of design" have all the frisson of art plus something extra, a sense of performance with all its human contingencies.

Humor helps, too; the French certainly seem to think so.  Looking at  Francois Boisrond's Museum of Man we cannot see the face of the sketcher although we assume he is looking at the artworks assembled in the cases before him but the artist leaves us in no doubt that the creatures are looking at him, with what thoughts we are invited to imagine.   This notion is made explicit in David Prudhomme's delightful book Cruising the Louvre.   On one page we see a crowd surrounding the Mona Lisa as seen from the viewpoint of La Joconde herself.  In another panel, a group of museum visitors struggles to stay upright on a bench before Delacroix's Raft of the Medusa, making them appear physically  in synch with the struggling sailors in the painting.  Prudhomme's book is full of amusing and bemusing moments as museum-goers attempt to position themselves in relation to the art works.  As Prudhomme observes, "We try to hold onto what cannot belong to us" by which I take him to mean experiences. 

Note on the artist: Francois Boisrond was born in 1959 in the western suburbs of Paris and was a student at the National School of Decorative Arts in Paris when he made Musee de l'Homme in 1980.  His mother Annette Wademant (1928-2017) was born in Brussels, Belgium and became the screenwriter of such well known films as The Earrings of Madame de (1953) and Lola Montez (1955).  His father was the Frenchman Michel Boisrond (1921-2002) whose debut film as a director was Naughty Girl (1955), a musical starring the young Brigitte Bardot.

For additional reading:
Cruising Through the Louvre by David Prodhomme, translated from the French by Joe Johnson, Paris, Louvre Editions: 2016.

Image:
Francois Boisrond - Musee de l'Homme (Museum of Man), 1980, Pompidou Center, Paris.

04 July 2018

The Rivals: Diego Rivera



A festive scene in Oaxaca is always an occasion for music and dance. Diego Rivera's chromatic colors are so vivid and saturated that they seem to emit light from the canvas.  Of course, light and color go together naturally in southern Mexico.  We  know by the way Rivera used color here to create layers of pictorial planes that he is a modern artist. We can also admire the distinctness he brings to each figure, an affectionate recognition of this gathering.  If the lavender and green decorative border reminds you of  Matisse, it is curious to note that Diego Rivera was only the second artist to be given a solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art - the first was Henri Matisse.

It sounds like the pitch for a novel or a screen play.  She is the daughter of an influential United States senator and the wife of one of the nation's richest and most powerful businessman.  He is a young Mexican artist and one of the leading artists of his generation and, by the way, an outspoken member of the Communist party who has visited Moscow on a number of occasions.  His wife, also an artist, paints unconventional self-portraits that combine elements of Mexican folk art and surrealism.

She was Abby Aldrich, a Quaker from Rhode Island and the dynamo behind the founding of New York's Museum of Modern Art and her husband was John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (think: Standard Oil).
He was Diego Rivera, founder of a union of artists and the painter of murals in Mexico City that brought revolutionary ideas to the people, ideas as strikingly modern as his modernist aesthetics.  His wife was Frida Kahlo, a painter who drew on the popular culture in her work: she met Rivera in 1927 when she joined the Communist Party.

Rockefeller had  seen Rivera's work when she traveled to Mexico and, liking what she saw, she decided to commission a painting from him; the result was The Rivals.  Rivera painted The Rivals on board ship as he and Frida were on their way to New York to meet the Rockefellers.  They were  also looking forward to Rivera's New York debut, a solo exhibition at the recently opened Museum of Modern Art.   Rivera was just the artist that Rockefeller and museum director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. hoped the museum would introduce to the nation and the world, a modernist a s well as one whose work embodied the Americas.

When Rivera and Kahlo visited the Rockefeller home on Park Avenue, Abby's son David was impressed: "He was a very imposing and charismatic figure.."  As for Abby Rockefeller, she was so pleased with The Rivals that she gave it as her wedding gift to her son David when he married Peggy McGrath in 1940.   The young couple gave the painting a prominent place in the living room of their summer home in Maine, where it remained until David's death in 2017.   The Rivals  has rarely been seen by the public since then; the last occasion was a Rivera exhibition at MoMA in 2012.

As for the Rivera - Rockefeller connection, what most people remember is how Abby Rockefeller's next commission, a mural for her husband's own major project, the construction of Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, went very wrong.  Originally intended as an uplifting fresco highlighting cooperation and scientific advancement ...into a more of a  political statement by the artist, including a portrait of Vladimir Lenin and evidences of the evils of unchecked capitalism.  When the artist and the millionaire could reach no compromise, the mural was destroyed yet Rockefeller bore no personal animus toward Rivera.  "The mural was quite brilliantly executed but not appropriate."  (Memoirs by David Rockefeller, 2002)


Image:
Diego Rivera - The Rivals, 1931, David & Peggy Rockefeller Collection, courtesy of Sotheby's, NYC.



28 June 2018

Small Worlds


Chew your way into a new world.
Munch leaves.  Molt.  Rest. Molt
again.  Self-reinvention is everything.
Spin many nests.  Cultivate stinging
bristles.  Don't get sentimental
about your discarded skins.  Grow
quickly.  Develop a yen for nettles.
Alternate crumpling and climbing.  Rely
on your antennae.  Sequester poisons
in your body for use at a later date.
When threatened, emit foul odors
in self-defense.  Behave cryptically
to confuse predators: change colors, spit,
or feign death.  If all else fails, taste terrible.

 -"Advice from a Caterpillar" by Amy Gerstler from Dearest Creature, New York, Penguin Books: 2009.


The word enjambment comes from the French where it means to step over or to put legs across.  In poetry, its function is similar; it means to break a phrase, a sentence, or a thought between two lines without benefit of punctuation.   This sends a mixed message, increasing the attention of the reader/auditor.  Who started the practice?  The Elizabethan poets made much of it and, like many other things poetic and historic, it seems to date back to the catchall answer that was
Homer.
.
The caterpillar, curled in upon itself is like the painter. It seeks perfection through its solitary efforts.  Like the artist leaning over his easel at night, the caterpillar will achieve a magical transformation.  As you can see in Charles Seliger's Caterpillar with Sky, although the subject and the scope of the picture may be small, the artist's intentions are expansive, and no more sentimental than poet Amy Gerstler's imagined Lepidopteran monologue.

Charles Seliger (1926-2009) was an early abstract expressionist but, like a number of others I have mentioned in these columns, not so abstract as all that.  Although it is not obvious from reproductions, Seliger worked with small canvases, eschewing the gigantic proportions of so many of his contemporaries, the better to achieve a sense of intimacy with his subjects.

Although he did not complete high school or attend art school, his interests encompassed biology, natural history, and physics.  "My work, even when most abstract, reflects the natural world," Seliger wrote. His technique attracted the attention of New York artists in the 1940s; his paintings were shown at Peggy Guggenheim's famed "Art of This Century" gallery when he was just nineteen. Nevertheless, he worked at ordinary jobs during the day throughout his adult life.

For further reading: a tribute to Charles Seliger by Addison Parks at Artdeal magazine.

Image:
Charles Seliger - Caterpillar with Sky, 1949, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

23 June 2018

Frieze: The Renaissance Art of Marcia Marcus



The end of World War II unleashed energies pent up by years of Depression and war, and not just marriages, babies, home buying,college education, and even commercial aviation on a large scale.   That was all expected but also and  suddenly New York became the center of the art world; artists from all over converged on the city where everything was fresh, exciting, and controversial.  The contrast with the pre-war years was stark: before WWII American galleries rarely displayed American artists.  Abstract Expressionism influenced even the figurative painters of the period. In retrospect, some of the most interesting work being done melded aspects of both: flattened forms and  an ambiguous relationship with pattern and decoration.

Frieze: The Porch (1964) gets it title from Marcus' encounter with Byzantine art and Renaissance frescos in Florence when she studied there in 1961.  Florentine Landscape (1961)  features a reclining semi-nude Red Grooms in the foreground, a male odalisque.  We take this to be an Italian locale thanks to the woman in a toga standing in the background,  more clearly grounded in the landscape than Grooms who appears as convincing as the nude in Edouard Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe.  (Florentine Landscape is now in the collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art, State University of New York at Purchase.)

Looked at from left to right -
Jill Johnston (1929-2010), wearing a red bowler hat and holding an equally dapper cane, was born in England to an American mother and a British father; she grew up on Long Island. 
Having earned an MFA, Johnston became dance critic for The Village Voice in the 1960s.  Her column gradually expanded into a diary of her adventures in the New York art world.

In 1971 Johnston took part in a panel discussion at Town Hall  "Battle of the Sexes" that, in retrospect, was bound for notoriety.  Johnston was by then an announced lesbian, her fellow panelists included Australian author Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch) who had only just been dubbed "saucy feminist that men love" by the mainstream American press,  and Norman Mailer who was - well - Norman Mailer.  Johnston became an early contributor to MS. magazine after it was founded in 1972 and  her best known writing is contained in the book Lesbian Nation, published in 1973.  Johnston published a number of other books and was one of the more intriguing practitioners of the New Journalism but her boldness was too much for most of her male colleagues and even editors at  The Village Voice expressed qualms about her activism and her outspokenness. 

Barbara Forst studied at the Art Students League in New York City where she would spend most of her adult life teaching theater and producing plays off-Broadway.  She died in Washington, D.C. in 1998.

Marcia Marcus (b. 1928, New York, NY) looking over her shoulder at the viewer and wearing  a patterned cape that suggests a familiarity with Gustav Klimt's portraits, also studied at the Art Students League and also at Cooper Union where her contemporaries included Alex Katz and Lois Dodd,  also figurative painters during the high tide of Abstract Expressionism.  Their work shared similarities, flattening forms, strongly articulated figures and attention to pattern.  All these characteristics are represented in Frieze: The Porch painted by Marcus in 1964, three years after her stay in Florence where she immersed herself  Byzantine art and Renaissance fresco painting.

At the far right  is a grisaille image (in black and white) that Marcus painted from a photograph of  herself as a child and her father.

Although Marcia Marcus no longer paints, as Frieze: The Porch demonstrates, she  deserves the attention that has been lavished on her close contemporaries and fellow downtown art luminaries: Allen Kaprow,  with whom she collaborated on Happenings in the late 1950s, Red Grooms and Bob Thompson whose Delancey Street museum featured her self-portraits (they received highly favorable reviews).  Also, for a quarter of a century from the early 1950s until the late 1970s, Marcus spent her summers painting in a shack on the dunes near Provincetown. MA,  another intensely art-centric locale.  Marcus can claim an impressive list of exhibitions at such galleries as Pace, yet her name and her paintings have become invisible.

Image:
Marcia Marcus - Frieze: The Porch, 1964, Eric Firestone Gallery, NYC.

12 June 2018

Odilon Redon's Renaissance Portrait

She could be descended from a Renaissance woman, or at least the portrait of one.  Odilon Redon's Madame Arthur Fontaine (Marie Escudier) was made in 1903 but its subject is presented with all the signifiers of an unusual Renaissance painting that Redon and his contemporaries had seen and studied at the Louvre. Here is an obviously well-born woman, beautiful and virtuous as well can see by her modish dress and elegant profile as she bens studiously over he needlework.  The left-facing profile and the arabesque-like arrangement of flowers as a framing device are part of a fascinating story told by David Alan Brown of the National Gallery of Art in the book Virtue and Beauty. Mme Fontaine  was the wife of a wealthy French industrialist and a patron of the arts whos circle included such forward-thinkers as the writer Andre Gide, composer Claude Debussy and several painters including Redon.

Antonio Pisanello's Ginevra d'Este had no precedent in the style of 15th century Florence.  Rather than adorn his subject with precious jewels to suggest the wealth of her family he chose to portray Ginevra virtues otherwise: situating her in a virginal garden (hortus conclusus)  where he surrounded her with shimmering spring leaves, perfumed carnation flowers and fluttering butterflies (symbols of the human spirit).

We may wonder whether Redon was partaking of a no-classical moment in French art, as evidenced by contemporary paintings by Cezanne and particularly La belle Angele by Paul Gauguin (1889, Musee d'Orsay).  edon makes an appearance in a painting by his friend Maurice Denis, member of the once secret brotherhood of artists known as the Nabis (Prophets, in Hebrew).  Although Gauguin was not included in the picture himself, it is a painting he owned by Cezanne (Fruit Bowl, Glass and Apples) on the easel that the other artists are gathered around.  Redon stand a little separately from the group at their left,  in the painting as in life.

Redon's early graphic works in black and white are a virtual dictionary of bad dreams, and now as familiar from reproductions as the philosophical oddities of Rene Magritte.

What makes Redon's pastels outstanding is his sure feather-light touch with the chalks themselves.  The nameless blue flowers, interspersed with tiny starbursts of white and yellow seem to hang weightlessly in the air, with no other reason than to frame Mme. Fontaine's person as the white lace collar frames her face on her yellow dress.  For Redon nothing in his work was ever merely decorative, it was part of a visual language to translate the mysteries inherent in the natural world for our eyes.  Flowers, opined the artist, are "admirable prodigies of light" and, perhaps like Monet, Redon, rendered sensations in response to the contemplation of visible objects through invisible light.

For further reading:
Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de' Benci: Renaissance Portraits of Women by David Alan Brown, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press: 2001.


Images:
1. Odilon Redon - Madame Arthur Fontaine (Marie Escudier), 1903, pastel on paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
2. Pisanello - Ginevra d'Este,  c.1435-49, tempera on wood, Louvre Museum, Paris.


28 May 2018

Spring Rounds: Takahashi Rikio

Early Spring is a remarkable work on its face, a combination of realistic and abstract elements  for the eye to feast on and the imagination to wonder at.  A dash of a primary color that may be a feather and a large thumb-print like black stroke leading off the edge of the paper are the strong marks in a composition of delicate pinks, lavenders, yellows, and amber.
Takahashi Rikio (1917-1991) was admired by his peers for his use of these delicate hues associated with the Kyoto practitioners of sosaku hanga or 'creative prints.'  Takahashi maintained a consistent luminosity, difficult to achieve in woodblock prints, that has been likened to yayoi, the aspect of calm and elegance of the Japanese spirit.  He achieved this difficult feat by printing in extremely thin layers while, at the same time, adding irregular blocks of color that look as though they had been applied with a paint brush. 

When a wood block is printed on, the texture of the wood grain will appear as if it had been sprayed on the block's surface.  This evanescent  appearance becomes the background for cuts made by a knife or burin.  When two or three colors are overlapped in this manner the grain takes on the look of a layer of gauze.

Takahashi began working with abstract forms but the intensity of his concentration always suggested possible layers of meaning.   Just so, the longer we look at his images the more we convince ourselves of the inevitability of incident.

Takahashi was born in Tokyo: his father was an artist and by the age of seventeen the young man was the assistant manager of the father's photographic studio.  In 1944 he was conscripted into the Japanese Navy as a war photographer.  After spending two years, 1962-63 at the California Institute of Art, Takahashi's work became known in the West.  His own words are worth remembering  as we admire Early Spring.  "It is impossible to speak about my work while looking at a book or a photographic reproduction of it.  It is like scratching an itch while wearing an overcoat. Flat reproductions are different from the actual work."

Image:
Takahashi Rikio - Early Spring, 1963, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

06 April 2018

William Henry Hunt: A Master Watercolorist



Primroses and Bird's Nest,  the flora and fauna of early spring.  I  had a close look at a bird's nest when a robin built one atop the air conditioner on my balcony a few years ago.  The south-facing balcony provided warmth and shelter from the wind and air conditioner stayed mute until the nest was vacated. 

At first glance you could easily take Primroses and Bird's Nest for a photograph. But it is a watercolor painted by William Henry Hunt and it is a startling yet altogether typical example of his work.  The Englishman was known for the marvels of his technique in this notoriously tricky medium, combining transparent washes of color to tint the paper with opaque areas of gouache sitting on the paper like acrylics or oils, sometimes scraped to create texture, as you can see in the velvety primrose leaves.  And there is his unerring eye for color evident in those robin's eggs.  
John Ruskin, arguably the most influential art critic in 19th century England, described William Henry Hunt as the finest still life painter the country had ever produced.  Hunt (1790-1864) lived a long and apparently uneventful life in London, only uneventful if you discount his paintings.

Image:
William Henry Hunt - Primroses and Bird's Nest, 1840s, Tate Gallery, London.

21 March 2018

Spring Violets And A Perfect Poem





















In this little urn is laid
Prudence Baldwin, once my maid,
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.

 - "Upon Prue, His Maid" by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), from The Norton Anthology of Poetry: Shorter Edition, ed. Arthur M. Eastman, New York, W.W. Norton: 1970.

Like the wood violets (and the daffodils) of March, this perfect little poem moves beyond the dichotomy of life and death to the transcendent vision of regeneration.

A child of Cheapside and one of seven children, Robert Herrick's father died when the boy was only a year old.  Apprenticed to an uncle at sixteen, Herrick went on to graduate from Cambridge University in 1617 and was ordained as a minister of the Church of England in 1623.  Ousted from his vicarage in 1647 during the English Civil War, he campaigned for his own restoration after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.  Herrick never married.  Hesperides, published in 1648, is a collection of some 1,200 of Herrick's lyric poems.


Image: Jean-Francois Millet - Narcisses et violettes (Narcissus and Violets), 1867, Kunsthalle, Hamburg.

25 February 2018

Consider The Olive Tree


















"Nobody knows how long it takes to kill an olive.
Drought, axe, fires, admitted failures.  Hack one down,
grub out a ton of mainroot for fuel, and  next spring
every side-root send up shoots.  A great frost
can leave the trees seedless for years; they revive.
Invading armies will fell them.  They return
through the burnt-out ribs of siege machines.

Only the patient goat, nibbling its way down the ages
has malice to master the olive. Sometimes, they say,
a man finds an orchard, fired and goat-cropped
centuries back.  He settles and fences;
The stumps revive.  His grandchildren family prosper
by the arduous oil-pressing trade.  Then wars
and disease wash over.  Goats return.  The olives
go under, waiting another age.

Their shade lies where Socrates disputed.
Gethsemane's withered groves are bearing yet."

 -  "The Olive Tree" by Mark O'Connor, Collected Poems, Alexandria, (N.S.W.), Hale & Iremonger: 2000.

Perhaps it was because I had been thinking about olive trees, but when I looked at Robin Gowen's painting Shades of Shadows VI, I  thought what a civilized landscape.   The trees and, even more, the hedgerow in the background at right are signs of a well tended meadow.   And the light washing over everything could easily be the light in Provence although it is not.

Writing to his editor, Richard Olney, an American expatriate painter and cookbook author, gave his reasons for living in France and the penultimate one was "the presence of olive trees in the landscape."  A civilized answer

Lost in the labyrinth of history, the Olea europea, or  edible olive, was first collected in the wild, probably in the Levant; certainly it is one of the earliest cultivated crops that we know of.   Evidence that the olive tree was farmed successfully on the island of Crete dates back to c. 3500 B.C.

The oil of the olive has been sacred to many cultures.  By the time of Homer (c. 900 B.C.), olive oil had become a luxury good, used to anoint the human body for ceremonial occasions.  (An olive tree appears in Book XXIII of The Odyssey, being the center post of the marriage bed).    In The Odes (c. 13 B.C.) the Roman poet Horace testified to the olive's delectable qualities as food: "As for me, olive, endives, and smooth mallows provide sustenance.  According to the Bible, it was an olive leaf that the dove brought back to Noah's ark. 

Mark O'Connor (b. 1945) is an Australian poet who has collaborated on projects with nature photographers.

Robin Gowen (b. 1957) is an American artist who was raised in New Hampshire and Nigeria.  In recent years she has moved around the western United States.

Image:
Robn Gowen - Shades of Shadows VI, 2017, Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara.

13 February 2018

Patricia Chidlaw: Space.Time















Wonderful is this wall of stone,
wrecked by fate.
The city buildings crumble,
the bold works of the giants decay.
Reefs have caved in, towers collapsed.
Barred gates have gone,
gateways have gaping mouths,
Hoarfrost clings to the mortar.
  - anonymous poet, from The Battle Of Malden And Other Old English Poems, edited by B. Mitchell, London: 1965

Caught between the Romans and Christians; caught between a thousand year old organization of space and a new one taking form that we are too immersed in to fully comprehend, we are of (at least) two minds about the vernacular landscape we have made.

Superficially, they may look like street photography, but the paintings of Patricia Chidlaw are the creations of a different sensibility in a different medium.  A photographer may choose among negatives for the best one and that one may implicitly refer to moments before and after the picture was taken, whereas a painter works - and reworks - a single canvas until it satisfies her intentions.

















In the current exhibition Patricia Chidlaw: The Moving Picture Show at Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery in Santa Barbara, California, the show in the title is often viewed from the vantage point of an implied passerby, possibly on foot but more likely  inside a car.  This immediately gives us a sense of the familiar, that we have seen these places before.  But look longer at many of the paintings and you notice that time is just as much their subject. 

The clock was introduced in Europe circa 1300 and the coordination of times from place to place was a byproduct of the demands of modern transportation, specifically of the railroads.  Paul Tillich,  theologian,  defined tragedy as coming from the gods of space, whereas justice belongs to "the God who acts in time an through time, united the separated spaces...."

And so a question arises: do we value a  sense of space more  than a sense of time, the medium through identify the brain as the seat of sight.   Whichever side of the question one comes down on, there is widespread agreement that roads disturb the peace and cause radical change by muting the distinction between the private and the public.


In Under the 280 an elevated highway casts a mammoth shadow over its surroundings and also functions as a de facto proscenium framing the view of a low rise street from an earlier era.  The woman in No Vacancy stands inside a "vintage" and rare phone booth that stands under a motel sign that announces their rooms have cable television.  It may be titled Sunrise at the Palace but the Art Deco style theater looks as though its best days were over when the Deco style became passe.


The pedestrian ordering of life that goes back hundreds of thousands of years has only recently been forced to live side by side with a new type of road and a myriad of new metaphors.  Easier to impose on the sparsely settled North American continent by newcomers than on Europe, where most of them came from, the freedom to move from place to place and the freedom to use space as you see fit are not necessarily harmonious.

Streets are not just for movement from place to place; they are also places of work and socializing, sometimes they are even used for a refuge of privacy and solitude, uses that became problematic once humans got behind the wheel.  I'm guessing that The Red Chair is not a castoff but rather a seat for sociability.  And I fancy the idea  that the goldfish in Fish Bowl, looking out the window may have the red chair in view.


John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909-1991), was a pioneer in the study of cultural landscape and founder of the magazine  Landscape in 1951. He was known for his complex and humane stance on the state of what we call the environment than some radicals of recent decades, commenting that "death is seen as merely the first step in the producing of compost," a credo that resembles an early but short-lived Christian heresy.  Jackson, who was born in Dinard, France, taught at Harvard and lived in the American southwest for several decades.  His peripatetic life supplied the intimate familiarity with both new and old  landscapes that characterized his writing. Jackson had a toleration and, more than that, a taste for the contradictions  in human actions.

Although she was born in San Francisco, Patricia Chidlaw's childhood was, like Jackson's   a peripatetic one; her father was a military officer who was stationed in Germany and then in France, where Patricia first encountered art in its museums, cathedrals, and even flea markets.  When she began her university art education in 1969, she settled in Santa Barbara, where she now lives.

Images: by Patricia Chidlaw, 2017, Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara
1. Under the 280
2. Sunrise at the Palace
3. No Vacancy
4. The Red Chair
5. Fish Bowl

07 February 2018

Gaslight: Jozsef Rippl-Ronai's Park At Night





















"Paris will be very beautiful in autumn...The town here is nothing, at night every thing is black.  I think that plenty of gas, which is after all yellow and orange, brightens the blue, because at night here the sky looks to me - and it's very odd - blacker than Paris.  And if I ever see Paris again, I shall try to paint some of the effects of gaslight on the boulevard."
 - Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, in a letter #500 

Ethereal and atypical, this delicate pastel by Jozsef Rippl-Ronai is suggestive of  much that is specific to the period when it was created (c.1892-95).  If you think of the works being created at the time by the Belgian symbolists, you can imagine its atmosphere is vaguely anxious.  The cluster of tree trunks appear as insubstantial as a group of hovering ghosts.  Rippl-Ronai creates this effect by making them appear as they would in a photographic negative: they are pale against the dark night.  And speaking of the Belgian, we will see similar trees in the 20th century paintings of a another Belgian, Leon Spilliaert (1861-1946), their (primarily) vertical lines suggesting interpretations as various as their individual trunks.

Like William Degouve de Nuncques' pastel Nocturne in the Parc Royale, Brussels, also in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Rippl-Ronai's Un parc la nuit is a love letter to artificial illumination.   We moderns may think about light pollution or the Dark Sky Society that supports the mission of astronomers but to people of the 19th century, gaslights offered the tantalizing prospect of nightlife, the nocturnal excitement offered by theaters, cafes, clubs, and bars.  We enjoy Un parc la nuit for the evanescent aesthetic it embodies but it can enrich our experience if we understand some measure of what its contemporaries saw in it.

Although the artist does not identify a location, he was living in Paris at the time and the cast-iron lamp posts peppered the French capitol; there were many thousands of them in place by the 1890s.  Robert Louis Stevenson, an enthusiast of the new lamps, called them "domesticated stars."  When they were superseded  by arc lights, he mourned their passing.  The lights hint at the presence of houses and roads in the distance, or maybe just more gaslights

Jozsef Rippl-Ronai (1861-1927) was from Kaposvar, Hungary.  He arrived in Paris in 1888, where he lived until 1901.  His  painting My Grandmother attracted the interest of Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, and Edouard Vuillard, who invited him into their group Les Nabis (Hebrew for Prophets), where his nickname was, naturally enough, the Hungarian Nabi.  When Rippl-Ronai returned home to Hungary he brought back with him the latest developments in art. Nothing the Hungarian artist ever did rivaled the glitter and magic of Un parc la nuit.

While in France he also became friends with the sculptor Aristide Maillol.  His portrait of Maillol won a gold medal at Vienna in 1914. In 1925, Rippl-Ronai was invited by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to contribute a self-portrait to their gallery of self-portraits.

To read more about the friendship between Jozsef Rippl-Ronai and Aristide Mailloll.

Image:
Jozsef Rippl-Ronai - Un parc la nuit (A Park at Night), c.1892-185, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

26 January 2018

La maison de Biala



There is no better time to revel in gorgeous color than in the middle of winter.


"I always had the feeling that I belong where my easel is." - Janice Biala.

Biala (1903-2000) was born in Biala Podlaska in Poland; her given name was Schenehaia Tworkovska but she took a name from her birthplace as her professional name.  Curious perhaps,  given her peripatetic life and her lack of ties to any single place.  The sentiment reads like a paraphrase of Johnny Mercer's lyric to "Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home."


"I have always Matisse in my belly." - Janice Biala

So Lloyd Goodrich, writing in The New York Times in the 1930s, was  early  to sense a connection between Biala and the Fauve painters, although I think he picked the wrong Fauve when he named Andre Derain.  In retrospect, Henri Matisse is the obvious choice.   But that may be because Biala subsequently formed so many friendships with artists of the New York School, those exuberant users of  color in abstract compositions, who were also indebted to Matisse's example.  After all, Matisse was still alive and painting.
Biala seems not have been bothered by any demarcation lines between realism and abstraction, but then she was not only a New Yorker.  She was French, and European, and before that she was Polish.  Or, again as in the later paintings of Pierre Bonnard, the picture plane is there to played with.  In Canaries in Their Cages, the birds are spectators to the real show - strips of venetian blind and sunlight traversing two separate spaces with compositional mastery.
















There is a playful intimacy in Biala's paintings that never lapses into sentimentality.  Wilted tulips or a kitchen that looks to be a utilitarian, even unisex, room in a modern apartment rather than the  workshop of an immiserated  housewife, take the place of the sensuous odalisques that appear, sometimes incongruously, in Matisse.  But then nudes have a way of doing that in the works of painters in any style you can name.  On a more technical note, Biala using more shading than Matisse and the white areas of her canvases are not fetishized, either.  Art historians still argue over the relationship between Fauvism and Abstract Expressionism, the bridge being the bold use of color. Biala brought a unique intelligence to the orchestration of color and form, as you can see.



The Tworkoska family immigrated to the United States in 1913 because of political unrest in Europe.  Biala and her older brother Jack Tworkov, also a future painter (in the Abstract Expressionist style) both studied at the National Academy of Design and at the Arts Students League in New York.  The two also hitch-hiked together from New York to the Provincetown art colony in Massachusetts where they became friends with Charles Demuth and William and Marguerite Zorach.  It was William Zorach who suggested that Biala alter her name to differentiate it from her that of brother Jack.  Was this a hint of the  difficulties that his wife Marguerite had in keeping her work  - and her name - distinct in the public mind?

On a visit to France in 1930 Biala met and fell in love with British novelist Ford Madox Ford and that was that; she stayed in France until 1939, by which time Ford had died and there was political unrest roiling Europe once again.  In the meantime she received several much admired gallery exhibitions in New York.  Although she eventually married an Alsatian artist in New York and moved back to Paris in 1947, she always maintained a studio in the United States.


















Biala’s paintings are in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Images:
1. Biala - Horse and Carriage, 1983, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC.
2. Biala - Canaries in Their Cages, 1986, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC.
3. Biala - Five Tulips, 1997, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC.
4. Biala - Blue Kitchen, 1969, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC.
5. Biala - La maison de Biala, 1985,  Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC.
6. Biala - Vase fond noir - faude rose en haute - la rose, 1976, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC.




17 January 2018

Anne Enright: Read Like An Irish Woman















It begins again.  Or it never ended.  Take your pick. The recently released Cambridge Companion To Irish Poets covers four plus centuries of Irish poetry but finds room to include only four women  along with twenty-six men.   So far, more than Irish 250 women writers have signed a pledge that begins: “The Companion is part of a larger process by which the significance of works by women is attenuated as they become inaccessible or obscured, simply by virtue of their absence from canonical textbooks.”   This state of affairs is not unique to Ireland, of curse.  Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright credits the #MeToo movement for stoking the head of steam powering this action.  “Prejudice against women is a universal crime with zero perpetrators. Irish men are lovely, Irish poets are especially lovely – what on earth could be the problem? There is an amazing series of defences between men and this conversation,” Enright notes wryly.

Anne Enright became  the inaugural Laureatefor irish Fiction in 2015.   Her most recent novel The Green Road (2015) was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize; she won the prize in 2007 for The Gathering.

I offer a few suggestions from my own recent reading for your delectation and look forward to your responses.
















"For two days people have been coming and going and now there is something near.  She wishes everyone would go home and let the house be quiet again.  The summer is gone.  Every days the leaves fall off the trees and blow down the avenue." - excerpt from Academy Street

Tess Lohan is a little girl living in rural Ireland whose world is irrevocably bent when her mother died from tuberculosis.  Mary Costello's debut novel Academy Street takes its title from the street where Tess Lohan finds a home when she emigrates to New York City.  A nurse, Tess is a quiet character, often overlooked by others, yet her seven decades are full of acute observation and passionate emotion.  Her lonely childhood has made it difficult for Tess to connect with other people, especially men.  She has a child but as he grows up they grow apart. Costello compels us to acknowledge how homesickness and  unattended sexuality shadow a life.
















"There now.  There now.  That was just life.   And now." - excerpt from A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing


What Anne Enright calls "bog gothic" is the trio of a mentally troubled mother, disabled brother, and a pervert of an uncle who form the cast of Eimear McBride's novel.  Told through the brother, whose brain damaged condition is the cause of his sister's guilt as well as her only solace,  A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is a succinct, difficult book to read, but never less than riveting.  The sister is, of course, the half-formed girl of the title.  According to fellow author Anne Enright, it took Eimear McBride nine years to find a publisher for this startling first novel.  McBride, born 1976,  is from a generation that knows it stands on the achievements of Edna O'Brien and says frankly, "I'm sick of having to live the agenda of angry men."















"On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11, 521 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street.  One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege.  Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains." - excerpt from The Little Red Chairs

Even writers you think you know well  can surprise you.  In her first novel in a decade, Edna O'Brien, Ireland's most famous living writer, creates an undisputable masterpiece (there, I used that word!).  The Little Red Chairs is large, but no larger than need be, spectacularly plotted, and has a central character who shifts shape as the novel unfolds.  A war criminal who has fled his home in the Balkans, he washes up on the shore of Ireland.  The local garda don't quite manage to arrest him, a nun offers to test his claim to be a holistic healer, and a lonely woman named Fidelma challenges him to give her a child.  

O'Brien's sharp eye for the telling details of modern life is no surprise, as is her clear-eyed assessment of the grittiness of Irish life.  That she moves between rural Ireland and cosmopolitan London we take for granted from the author of The Country Girls Trilogy from the 1960s. What is dazzling  is the way that she moves between the minds of her characters with utter conviction  a conviction we marvel at as we accept it.  Leavened with  mordant humor that may seem surprising but is utterly true to life. 

Read the article "A Tipping Point " at The Guardian.

For further reading:
A Woman Without A Country by Eavan Boland, New York, W.W. Norton: 2014.
Academy Street by Mary Costello, New York, Farrar Straus and Giroux: 2015.
The Green Road by Anne Enright, New York, W.W. Norton: 2015.
A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press: 2014.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien, New York, Little, Brown and Company: 2016.

Images:
1. Alan Betson  for The Irish Times - Anne Enright, 2015
2. unidentified photographer for The Irish Times, Mary Costello, 2014
3. Eric Luke for The Irish Times - Eimear McBride, 2016
4. Bryan O'Brien for The Irish Times - Edna O'Brien, 2015

10 January 2018

Disturbing The Universe: Guido Gozzano

         
















                               I.
With its unkempt garden, its vast rooms, its fine
seventeenth-century balconies decked with greenery,
the villa seems cribbed from certain verses of mine,
a model villa, a piece of postcard scenery ...

It thinks of its past to ease its present gloom,
of jolly gatherings under ancient oaks,
of legendary feasts in the dining room,
and dances in the great hall, now stripped of antiques.

For where, in better times, the Ansaldos called,
or the d'Azelglios, or this or that contessa,
some motorcar now jerks up, its tires bald,
and hirsute foreigners batter the Medusa,

First comes a bark, then footsteps, then the lazy
creak of the door ... In that hush (think cloister or tomb)
lives Toto Merumeni with his ailing mum,
a grizzled great-aunt and an uncle who's crazy.

   excerpt from "Toto Merumeni" by Guido Gozzano, translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock, from The FSG Book Of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry,  New York, Farrar Straus Giroux: 2012.

"Toto Merumeni", taken from his second  collection I colloqui (The Talks, 1911), looks in the rear view mirror like a precursor of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."   (I should point out that although T. S. Eliot was working on his "Prufrock" at the same time, it did not appear in print until 1915.)  Whereas Guido Gozzano (1883-1916) spent most of his life in his native Turin, tried to study law at the university but dropped out, more attracted by evening literature lessons (Crepusculari Torinesi),   There he found an alternative to the pervasive and baneful influence of  conservative poet Gabriel D'Annunzio  through immersion in Dante, Petrach, and Leopardi.  From these illustrious examples he crafted a pessimistic but spiritual vision of a vaguely socialist future.   He died at age thirty-two from tuberculosis. 

T.S. Eliot called "Prufrock" (1911)  his first perfect poem; leaving aside any quibbles about that definition, it is still a poem most poets would be happy to claim as one of theirs.  It was "Prufrock" that attracted the attention of another  - already successful - American expat - Ezra Pound.

These two characters, Toto Merumeni and J. Alfred Profrock, are decidedly older than their  fledging creators (Prufrock worries that women will ridicule him for his baldness) but both share a wariness in the face of material progress accompanied as it is by changes in social relations, not least between women and men.  If no one has yet done a doctoral thesis comparing these two poems...

My favorite catch-all definition of free verse  has been attributed to the Englishman Richard Aldington (1916) who described it  a based on cadence, that is  "(I)t is the sense of perfect balance of flow and rhythm.  Not only must the syllables so fall as to increase and continue the movement, but the whole poem must be as rounded and recurring as the circular swing of a balanced pendulum."   That last bit really ups the ante on a poet.  While Eliot admired, with some reservations, Walt Whitman's versification, he was deeply moved by the example of Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), a short-lived poet (Laforgue was born in Uruguay to French expatriates but moved to France as a child). Laforgue was the first French translator of Walt Whitman so there is simpatico at work here.  Both the Symbolists and the Impressionist schools of French poetry have argued over  custody pf Laforgue for several times longer than Laforgue's own life.

As for our two imaginary gentlemen,  they appear like the Roman god Janus, fated to look both ways, to the future and the past.

Images:
1. Fortunato Depero - Cavalcata Fantastica, 1920, prate collection - Geneva, courtesy Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2. Umberto Boccioni - Visioni simultanee (Simultaneous vision), 1912, Van der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal.

02 January 2018

A Thousand And One Nights - More Or Less


       










           THE SWALLOWS
in refreshing capes of black satin
they're typing out the new aubade
daybreak just dictated

             WHAT FUN
to see how the gasping train
climbs the ladder of frail ties
to get to the mouth of the tunnel
and be sucked in like a licorice stick

                   GIGI
I'm queasy this evening
bring me on of those 7-colored
cocktails like they drink in Paris
I wanna go somewhere over the rainbow

  --- three poems by Farfa, translated from the Italian by Fred Chappell, from The FSG Book Of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux: 2012.


Stile Liberty, as Art Nouveau was called in Italy, began more or less as a movement in decorative arts that proved too delectable to be ignored by painters or poets.  The English had adopted the French term nouveau from the French, the Italians borrowed the name of  Liberty Prints from the English- each thought they had coined the better name for an all-encompassing phenomenon.  What is obvious is that the Italian style was more colorful than its northern cousins, and that color lent itself to movement more than to languor.  Not to mention smiles and a sly joke or two.

Farfa was the  nome di arte of Vittorio Ossvaldo Tommasino, a polymath from Trieste (1879-1964) Futurist who made poetry, pottery, and paintings.   These short poems, as translated by the American Fred Chappelle,   are typical of the Futurist aesthetic,  wringing irony out of compression.  He died - accounts differ - after being hit by a car or  a motorcycle, not bad for someone who was named a "national champion" of Futurist poetry in 1932.

Discouraged by  the drabness and lack of imagination he encountered at the Venetian Art Academy, Vittorio Zecchin took an eight year detour as a civil servant, before having a second try at the art life.  It took five years (1909-14) and a dozen panels to complete the commission for The Thousand And One Nights, Zecchin's interpretation of the story of Aladdin.    Intended for the lobby of the aptly named Hotel Terminus, the ensemble was split up by the upheavals of  war.  Zecchin wisely set up his own hybrid laboratory/gallery where he could pursue painting, tapestry, and glass-making all at once and without interference.  Zecchin's stylistic debt to Gustav Klimt needs no underlining at this point.
.
Recently the Musee d'Orsay in Paris was fortunate to acquire one of the panels (above) however, like Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series (MoMA - NYC and The Philips Collection-Washington, DC) it remains split, some pieces in private collections and some at Ca'Pesaro in Venice,

Image
Vittorio Zecchin - The Thousand and One Nights, 1914, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

25 December 2017

Luminance






































 "No matter what Vermeer may suggest or summarize of the outer world or invite the spectator to imagine, wisdom begins and ends in the room, conceived as a cube of shining space in which the figures and their transitory actions seem forever suspended in light." - Frederick Hartt, in A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall: 1993.

Even bad Presidents make good appointments.  When Warren G. Harding, the scandal-prone 29th President of the United States, appointed Andrew W. Mellon to be his Secretary of Treasury in 1921, he was looking for someone to rationalize the recently instituted national income tax system through something Mellon called "scientific taxation."   He did not bargain for Mellon, the art collector, who used his tenure at the Treasury Department to lay the foundation for a national gallery of art, to be located in the nation's capitol, and to fill it with his personal collection of Old Masters (Rembrandt, Van Dyke, Botticelli - and Vermeer), to go to the nation at his death.   Mellon and, ultimately, all of us, benefited from his perspicacity  in choosing his friend Henry Clay Frick to advise him on the finer points of assembling a collection.  His choice to purchase Vermeer's Girl With A Red Hat from the Knoedler Gallery in 1925 was entirely his own.  Mellon fell in love with the little painted panel just as countless others have before and since; he hung it in an intimate place of honor over his piano.

Although not so obviously based on the delicate glazes that mesmerize viewers of Girl With A Pearl Earring, their cunning use in Girl With A Red Hat harmonizes the muted colors of the tapestry that provides the background for the young woman in her theatrical red hat.   And what a hat the artist makes it: feathery strokes of orange shade gradually to vermillion, the underside of the hat definitely deep purple, reflecting light onto her face through flecks of white paint.  This is what luminance does, it makes us see light where it is not but ought to be. Luminance is the term of art for the relative brightness that enables us to interpret three-dimensional space in two dimensional representations.   

In his own lifetime Vermeer (1632-1675) was a moderately successful painter although his portraits and other commissions were sorely stretched to support the fifteen children Johan and his wife Catharina produced.  So it may be unsurprising that no documents in Vermeer's own words have come down to us.    Considering the silliness of some of the speculations that have been committed to paper about the origins of Vermeer's paintings, critics might do better to follow Vermeer's own example.

Image:
Johannes Vermeer - Girl With A Red Hat, c. 1665, dimensions: 9 1/8 x 7 1/8, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

21 November 2017

Stagedoom: A Caprice By Bob Thompson

"El si pronuncian y la mano alargan/
Al primero que llega."

"They swear to be faithful yet marry the first man who proposes."
Sometimes the way in to a picture begins with an emotional frisson.  Aesthetic appreciation or  historical underpinnings may add layers to the experience but the visceral response never lets go.   Stagedoom by Bob Thompson (1937-1966), one of several works the artist made  based on Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos of 1795-97, is that kind of work.  

In Goya's original (below), all the participants are morally compromised, from the nubile woman offering herself to the highest bidder and the church fathers who guide her, to the watching crowd.   Thompson made significant alterations to the image for Stagedoom.   Her nakedness emphasizes the young woman's vulnerability at the same time that the mask she wears dehumanizes her by hiding her facial expression.  The priests offer no comfort; their teachings imprison her.  And who could doubt the evil intentions of the hovering bird-like creatures, a frequent feature in Goya's Los Caprichos, although not in this particular plate. Not only do Goya's birds subject their victims to tortures but  implicate  the viewers in their sadism with obscene glee, these very characteristics are what Thompson wanted to add.   The smiling death's head gives the game away.

Stagedoom, painted in 1962, the year Thompson visited Spain, exhibits a marked understanding of  the painful road to womanhood with its potential for physical and emotional violation.   In Goya's acerbic prints, Thompson recognized "the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual " he had experienced during his Kentucky childhood.
In an alternative  history of post-war art the paintings of Bob Thompson  would occupy a prominent place.  Though only thirty-nine when he died from a heroin overdose, Thompson (1937-1966) left behind more than a thousand paintings and drawings.   Based in New York during the 1960s when the city was the undisputed center of the art world, he was also close to avant-garde jazz musicians Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden, whose likenesses appeared in his works.

Stagedoom, while typical of  the intimate scale of Thompson's watercolors,  also shows the influences of Abstract Expressionism and  the  saturated colors of Pop Art.  Unlike Andy Warhol, whose appropriation of advertising images constituted a poke in the eye to all but a knowing few when they were made, Bob Thompson worked in utter, bold seriousness.   The artists he revered, Piero della Francesca, Titian, and Nicolas Poussin, all masters of classical European art,  gave him a symbolic vocabulary.  Their compositions provided Thompson a ready scaffolding for his technicolor nightmares of human and animal  interactions,   illustrating the varieties of human folly, as Goya had.

I began to think, my god, I look at Poussin and think he's got it all there.  Why are all these people running around trying to be original when they should just go ahead and be themselves and that's the originality of it all...You can't draw a new form... [the] human figure almost encompasses every form there is...it hit me that why don't I work with these things that are already there...because that is what I respond to most of all.” - Bob Thompson
I think...painting should be like the theater, a presentation of something...To relate, like painters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance... painters were employed to educate the people...they could walk into a cathedral, look at the wall and see what was happening...I am not specifically trying to do that...I have much more freedom, but in a certain way, I am trying to show what' happening, what's going on,,,in my own private way.” - Bob Thompson

Images:
1. Bob Thompson - Stagedoom, 1962,  opaque watercolor and charcoal on woven paper, approximately 21 x 18 inches, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
2. Francisco Goya - El si pronuncian y la mano alargan, plate number 2 from Los Caprichos, c. 1795-97,  intaglio print, Brooklyn Museum.