11 February 2019

Travelers In The Desert

The last nights of the year,
            kind, departed spirits return
to Encantado as stars,
           down dark streets and hallways
                       peer into windows,
congregate around cribs
           again leave glowing glints
of themselves;
      intertwine with our dreams,
shine on bare boughs,
            pines, and cactus spines.

 - "Encantado" by Pat Mora, from Encantado: Desert Monologues, Tucson, University of Arizona  Press: 2018.

On paper one easily draws a line with a ruler and pencil." - Jose Salazar Ylarregui, 1851, on drafting a national boundary between the United States and Mexico

What seemed at a distance to be a featureless wasteland turns out to be a readable landscape to the people who are its familiars.  At night the sky is so dark that stars loom overhead like portents waiting to be read. Although the desert border is arbitrary and difficult to pin down on the ground, generations of border dwellers have regarded the inhospitable terrain as a barrier in itself.   A different kind of line was drawn in 2016 to designate Bears' Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, the cultural home and sacred landscape of  the Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, and Ute peoples.

Encantado's obvious precursor is Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.  Published in 1915, it was a collective biography of an imaginary town modeled on Masters' home town in Illinois.  Pat Mora is a child of the southwestern desert, born in El Paso, Texas in 1942, whose parents had immigrated from northern Mexico.   Masters tells his tale through epitaphs given by the dead themselves in the local cemetery; Mora through the overlapping voices of a small town peopled by travelers in the desert.

Not surprisingly, Mora's people of the borderlands are a varied lot.  Some are outsiders like Tuan, a refugee artist from Saigon and Fumio, whose entire Japanese family was in interned in California in during World War II.  The lifers include Lydia, newly widowed, who encapsulates her bereavement: "I buy a potato, to practice cooking for one."  Or Jose, a sign painter childhood memories of blossoming:  "I learned English and how to sweep my school  When other children ran out laughing - I delivered newspapers, but a teacher gave me a pencil, a tablet."  And there is Raul, a retired lens grinder of eyeglasses although lacking in formal education, who muses deeply: "A big man always working, and then: nothing.  Bored, I started wandering away from my body."  Death does make an appearance in Encantado, personified as "Reluctant Death" who  whispers to the living when "it's time."  No voices from beyond the grave here
For further reading;
1. Encantado: Desert Monologues by Pat Mora, Tucson, University of Arizona Press: 2018.
2. Voices From Bears' Ears by Rebecca Robinson,  photography by Stephen Strom, Tucson, University of Arizona Press: 2018.

About the artist:
Ynez Johnston (b.1920) is an artist from California who has lived in Meixco and traveled to Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952.   Her work combines narrative with abstraction and her own imaginary lands and creatures, human and otherwise.

Ynez Johnson - Travelers In the Desert, 1956, watercolor drawing, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

07 February 2019

The Stars Hang High

"In the light of the moon, near the sea, in the isolated places of the countryside, one sees, all things take on yellow shapes, indecisive and fantastic." -  from Songs of Maldoror by Comte  de Lautremont, translated by JL. 

Night has been a source of wonder and speculation to artists, a subject so vast that it begs  to be pondered.  Are we immersed in the universe through darkness or do we become deatched from it?  Or both?  Nocturnal journeys under the moon and beneath the stars can induce a sense of vertigo in this "kingdom of the indistinct."   A visual vocabulary that draws on abstraction is certainly well-suited to this subject.

Peter Doig painted The Milky Way  when he was still a graduate student at the Chelsea School of Art.  "At the time I rode my bike every day to Chelsea along the Embankment and was looking a lot at Whistler's quick washy paintings which often had a small figurative element.  The stars themselves came from a star chart of one of my fellow students.  They represented the Milky Way in November which is when I painted them in."
Doig's Milky Way is a masterpiece of indirection.  The reflections in preternaturally still water show  a world where earth has disappeared, become liquid.  Trees and stars both clump and separate in their reflections.  Doig shows us the vastness of the universe in that night sky by placing a young girl adrift in a canoe at the center of the image.

Vincent Van Gogh wrote in 1888, "Often the night seems more richly colored than the day."  Jan Sluijters, agreed with his Dutch compatriot on the evidence of Maanacht IV.  It was at the turn of the century and more than a decade after Van Gogh's death that his work become known to a generation of younger artists who seized on night as a subject for their radical new style.  On his way home from travels sponsored by his Prix de Rome, Sluijters passed through Paris in 1906 and took Fauvism home with him to Amsterdam.   The red halo around the moon in Moonlight illuminates a landscape where everything solid appears to be red-hot.  Oddly enough, I recently saw a photograph of a sunset landscape with water with these same colors.  Who can say definitively that this vision is unrealistic?    At the time he painted Moonlight in 1912, Sluijters was a prominent avant-garde painter who inspired Piet Mondrien whose fame would outpace his own.  

Henri Michaux wrote a poem to explain (!) or obfuscate The Prince of the Night.

"Prince of the night, the double, the gland
of the stars,
from the seat of Death, from the useless column, from the supreme

Prince of the broken crown, 
of the divided Kingdom, of the wooden hand.

Petrified prince in the panther dress.
Prince lost.
 - "The Prince of the Night" , translated by JL

Henri Michaux grew up in Brussels and,  after moving to Paris in the 1920s he would denounce all things Belgian in his background. He became quite the explorer of unusual outposts, visiting Argentina and Uruguay, and even writing a book sort of about Ecuador (1929).   His refusal of public appearances and interviews  and even awards gave an impression of an artist fleeing his public.
Disdaining to attach specific meanings to his works, Michaux did his best to repel the attempts of others to impose them.  He made art in very controlled ways to reach an uncontrolled ends.  Ripples of orange, red, blue and even green flow across a black paper background in Le Prince de la Nuit.  Using black as his background color rather than the customary white was another of Michaux's deliberately provocative but inscrutable choices.  It is possible that the royal purple of the throne is  its only decipherable element.
So full of contradictions and prolific in both words and images, it comes a no surprise that the Michaux Archives in Paris are vast, they contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman might have said.

Thanks to Tania for reminding me of  nocturnal paintings by Leon Spilliaert and William Degouve de Nuncques, two Belgian artists.

1. Peter Doig (b. 1959) - The Milky Way, 1989, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.
2. Jan Sluijters (1881-1957) -  Maanacht IV (Moonlight) 1912, Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar, Netherlands.
3. Henri Michaux (1899-1984) - Le Prince de la nuit (Prince of the Night), 1937, Pompidou Center, Paros.

01 February 2019

Edna Andrade: Art & The Mathematics Of Nature

Recently the paintings of Hilma af Klint have been on exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, revealing the Swedish artist as a, possibly the, pioneer of abstraction in modern art.  Heretofore, af Klint has been not unknown but her reputation has definitely flown under the radar.   Her international debut took place in 1986, forty-two years after her death, in a group exhibition The Spiritual in Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Just as we can look at her work with fresh eyes, so we may be ready to see the geometric abstractions of American artist Edna Andrade (1917-2008) as more than a soft version of Op Art.

The similarities between the two artists are hard to miss.  While af Klint found in geometric forms,  such as the golden mean and the Fibonacci spiral, evidence of an esoteric divine cosmology, Andrade came to use mathematical proportions in her work as emblems of rhythms in nature.  Various symbolisms may be attached by viewers to the orbiting moons in Ahmet Hello and the cross at the center of Space Frame (at left).  They are, of course, commonly used signs in many different cultures.

However the impact of the paintings is related to their size; af Klint's canvases typically tower over viewers whereas Andrade's square images are typically 50 x 50 inches and the rectangles are similarly sized.  Bold describes af Klint's intent while Andrade's works invite a more intimate experience.

Op Art burst into the limelight with the Museum of Modern Art's 1965 exhibition "The Responsive Eye."   Andrade was not one of the artists included in the reputation-making show.  Nevertheless,  dealers began to take an interest in her work. Andrade later said of the name Op Art: "It's too simple.  It seems to refer too directly to the physiology of the eyes.  It fails to suggest that we are exploring the whole process of perception."  

Andrade's geometric works emanate a serenity that suggests motion and stillness at the same time.  This could describe the dynamic that is visible in a bridge so it is an apt comparison for the art of the daughter of a civil engineer.  There is more to see than dizzying kinetic energy, although she could do that too.  

Andrade said that she turned to abstract painting for the homeliest of reasons.  She was married and teaching school which left her with short periods of time to work on her art.  By working with grids she was able to create a pattern that she could then work on in small amounts as time permitted.  Andrade compared her way of painting to the traditional arts women have practiced is sexist societies such as knitting and needlepoint.  In the 1970s Andrade exhibited with Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Schapiro, two artists who worked with Pattern & Decoration, a movement that celebrated arts traditionally practiced by women. 

Read more about Edna Andrade at Locks Gallery.

1. Edna Andrade - Ahmet Hello, 1967, oil on linen, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.
2. Edna Andrade - Space Dream, 1970, acrylic on canvas, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.
3. Edna Andrade - Turbo - I-65, 1965, oil on canvas, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.
4. Edna Andrade - Twilight Wave, acrylic on canvas, 1973, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia

25 January 2019

Now They Tell Us: Fede Galizia's Delicious Still Life

At this remove, I don't remember the name of the painter was who was credited with creating the modern still life in my art history studies.  What I do know is that it wasn't Fede Galizia (1578-c.1630) or any other woman because that was an all but unthinkable idea four decades ago.  Now we know better thanks to the researches of many pioineering women, including Judy Chicago who memorialized Galizia in her magnum opus  The Dinner Party and  historian Linda Nochlin.  What Nochlin wrote about the  photographic clarity of Galizia's portraits is equally true of her still lifes, that they are "unfiltered by idealizing conventions or the artist's own personality."

Until the Renaissance, paintings were usually based on religious or allegorical themes with inanimate objects playing a subsidiary role as symbols underlining its themes.  With the introduction of mathematical perspective by Leon Battista Alberti, objects were seen as enticing subjects in themselves.  It was not that objects changed their appearance but rather that  artists changed their minds about what verisimilitude looked like.  

What keeps this gorgeous picture from looking stiff is the trajectory created by the placement of the jasmine, drawing the eye on diagonal paths across the canvas.   With an indeterminate background and a light source that emanates from slightly above the level of the table, the eye needs direction and Galizia provides it subtly and surely.  The velvety texture of  peach skin and its tactile roundness seems to swell with a sensuous tumescence in contrast to the sheerness and hardness of glass The enameled skin of the pears and the porousness of the cut half pear contributes to this image of the pleasures of the sensuous world. 

A glass compote remained unknown until the late 20th century when the art critic and Galizia biographer Flavio Caroli authenticated it.   Since then the painting has been exhibited publicly, for the first time in 1994.

"It is a small panel..
Fede Galizia - A glass compote with peaches, jasmine flowers, quinces, and a grasshopper, 12 x 17 in., private collection, U.S., courtesy of Sotheby's, NYC.

21 January 2019

Landscape With Farmstead

A fence running along a road beside a farm, a small mill in the distance; it doesn't sound unusual in any way.  Take a drive in the country and you will pass similar scenes.  But this rendition is peculiarly satisfying and you do not need to know that it was  painted by the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn in the 17th century to be enjoy it.

So much gets conveyed with a minimum number of strokes.  Take the fence beginning in the foreground  and curving back toward the farm house: with thick brush strokes the artist outlines it in rich strokes but then changes his instrument to wispy pen scratches.  By this means, he creates an impression of depth and perspective that your eye, once persuaded, follows into (rather than say, upward on the paper) the distance where the farm house sits.   

The soft rose wash that covers the entire scene gives it a soft effect that has led to the longstanding alternative title Winter Landscape.  Ant yet - the row of trees that forms a windbreak in the flat landscape is full of foliage.  Those blank roofs may not be covered with snow after all.  They may be rendered featureless by the daylight.

Rembrandt is known to have made a series of pen and ink drawings of rural scenes around the time he executed Landscape With Farmstead (1650).  Their spontaneity underlines rather than undercuts his mastery of the medium.  They also foretell the artist's increasing use of detail in painting, but that is another story.   Minor works in Rembrandt's catalog, their retain a freshness and immediacy, these mementos of his rambles through the countryside  around Amsterdam.  

A poem of plural rural seasons seems an apt accompaniment to Landscape With Farmstead.  British poet Philip Larkin grew up in Shropshire, a county of flat lands and fertile soils in the English Midlands, not so far removed from the maritime climate of the west Netherlands.

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly tumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too
Earth's immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

  -  "First Sight" by Philip Larkin from The Whitsun Weddings, London, Faber & Faber: 1964

Rembrandt - Landscape With Farmstead,  brown ink, brown wash, black chalk on laid paper, prepared with light rose-brown wash,  2 5/8 inches by 6 5/16 inches, Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

17 January 2019

Kay Walkingstick: Breath In The Face Of Stars

"I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars,
and know anything of meaning,
of the fierce magic emerging here.
I am witness to flexible eternity, the evolving past,
and I know we will live forever, as dust or breath in the face of stars,
in the shifting pattern of winds."
 - Joy Harjo from Secrets From the Center of the World, Tucson, University of Arizona Press: 1989.

Creation stories are all about beginnings but the reverse is not necessarily the case.  For millennia, the peoples of Europe, Asia, and Africa knew about each other's existence but not about the Americas, and vice versa.  They believed they were the whole world and their creation stories were based on the information they had,inaccurate though it often was.  All that changed in 1492; thanks to a ship colliding with an island that wasn't supposed to be an island,  the known world doubled as its two halves met and were forced to acknowledge the other's existence.

Metaphysical reflections are the stuff of Kay Walkingstick's art.  What might seem a decorative fresco-style painting becomes an Edenic garden because of the presence of two unexpectedly cropped human figures who appear to be dancing. The orange and blue colors recall an early Walkingstick piece Hudson Reflection VI (1973) where the colors appear as patterns reflected in water, suggesting the appearance of camouflage. Walkingstick knows we associate camouflage with subterranean military maneuvers but she likes to me remind us that camouflage is an invention of natural genius, rather than the sole property of humans.  On trips to Italy, she noted similarities between Greco-Roman frescoes, with their flat surfaces made of natural materials and her native heritage.  She borrowed ftom them a new material: gold leaf.  As she assimilated new techniques into her work, the core elements  would remain history, the body, the natural landscape.

Born in 1935, she grew up in Syracuse,NY, the daughter of S. Ralph Walkingstick, and Emma McKaig. Her father was a Cherokee from Oklahoma and her was descended from Scots-Irish immigrants.   Art was a family affair; two of Kay's uncles were artists.  Her older  brother Charles became a commercial artist and her sister, a ceramicist.  As for Kay,  "I've grown up thinking this [art] was a viable thing to do.  I've always drawn."

When Walkingstick arrived in New York City in the late 1960s, abstract expressionism was being challenged by new forms of representation and performance in the arts.  Although most of them were men, Walkingstick was undeterred in her determination to work and have that work be seen.  It was not what the public expected from a native American, namely postcard images of southwestern deserts.   Again, unexpectedly, it was the gorges near Ithaca, NY, where Walkingstick was teaching at Cornell University when her husband died suddenly in 1989, that spurred her to explore new forms she had seen abroad.  She put diptychs and triptychs to use in novel ways,  sometimes combining sculpture and painting in a single work.  Included in a recent exhibition  at the Munson-Williams- Proctor Art Institute in Utica,, NY  titled "Mythology in Contemporary Art" was a diptych by Walkingstick from their permanent collection,  Danae in Arizona Variation II (2001).

Kay Walkingstick -  ACEA V, 2003, gouache and gold acrylic on paper,  collection of the artist, courtesy of American Federation of Arts.

11 January 2019

A Romance Of Ferrara

A small city of some 100,000 in northeastern Italy, Ferrara is one of the unforgettable places on the map of 20th century literature thanks to Giorgio Bassani. His works, known collectively as Il Romanza di Ferrara (The Novel of Ferrara), were published between 1958 and 1972, and just recently reissued in one handsome and newly translated volume.

"A relevant character, and by no means a minor one .... Ferrara, the city within whose bounds the events of those lives unfolded...." - excerpt from "Down There, at the End of the Corridor" by Giorgio Bassani, translated from the Italian by Jamie McKendrick

Ferrara, the settlement of a restless region, whose ancient origins are uncertain, possibly Roman, or Etruscan, or Byzantine.    Located in the Passa Badana, a low-lying delta of the Po River,  the climate is humid and the river has regularly delivered disastrous floods along with fertile soil to the region.  The old city walls survive, making an almost unbroken circuit around the city, topped by a broad tree-lined way that is popular with walkers and bicyclists.    The walls protected the residents from invaders for centuries but served to imprison the Jews of Ferrara in the interwar world.  Indeed, the walls and the riverine mists are prominent features in the lives of Bassani's characters.  

An important city during the Renaissance, its center was dominated by a cathedral and a castle.   The Ducs d'Estes were pioneers of enlightened town planning and the local cardinal was a patron of the great poet Torquato Tasso  Although its political power and influence declined over centuries, Ferrara remained prosperous.

The Jewish population of Ferrara, 700 out of 120,000 inhabitants, were prominent in civic life and politically engaged, like Bassani's father, a doctor.  Early on the Jews, like their Catholic neighbors, supported Fascism but, by the latter half of the 1930s, that position had become untenable as the movement's racist tenets marked their community as undesirable, leaving them isolated and completely alone.  Almost imperceptibly, their beloved city had become a redoubt of the Blackshirts.  The dislocation and involuntary solitude of Bassani's Ferrarese characters turned out to be the singular experience of personal life in the 20th century.

Bassani co-wrote Anontioni's 1953 film I Vinti (The Vanquished0.
Vittorio de Sica filmed Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in 1970.
Giuliano Montaldo filmed Gli ochialli d'oro (The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles) in 1987.

For further reading:
The Novel of Ferrara by Giorgio Bassani, translated from the Italisn by Jamie McKendrick, New York, W.W. Norton: 2018,

Image:  Luigi Ghirri -  "Palazzina Marfina d'Este - Ferrara, De Primi Fine Art, Lugano.

For more about Luigi Ghirri go here and here.

05 January 2019

A Dream Of The Open Road

"Cosmonauts of the autoroute, like interplanetary travellers (sic) who observe from afar the rapid aging of those who remain subject  to the laws of terrestrial time, what are we going to discover at camel speed after so many trips in airplanes, subways, and trains?"

They decided to call themselves "freeway-istas."  Their mission was simple, to load up their Volkswagen camper van (nicknamed Fafner after the dragon in Norse mythology) and take a trip from Paris to Marseilles on the AutoRoute du Sud, a limited access highway with tollbooths.  They had done this before, achieving a travel time of about ten hours.  Now, they proposed to stop at each rest stop (sixty-five of them in all, at a rate of two per day) making the trip in thirty-three days, all the while without leaving the freeway.  It was an experiment in reversing the speed that is the purpose and attraction of the modern highway.

"Parkingland is beautiful: it is ours, we are free within it, and we love it," they reported in their journal. Yet it was separated from private properties by fences. When Fafner's water pump broke they resorted to tarot cards for automotive advice.  Their dual solitude seemed to positively attract visitors.  Their only constant connection with the world at large was their dashboard radio.

They were Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop, two writers who had married in 1981 and their slightly surreal expedition began in May of 1982.  They knew they would write a book about their adventures so they took tongue-in-cheek scientific notes as they went.

Cortazar was born in a suburb of Brussels in 1914 while Belgium was occupied by the German army.  His mother moved with him to her native Argentina when Julio was six.  Cortazar emigrated to France in 1951 where he wrote most of his books and lived until his death in 1984.  He is best known experimental novel was Hopscotch (1963) whose chapters can read either in the order they are presented or in any other order the reader chooses.  His story Blow-Up was made into a sensational  film by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1966,  His story "The Southern Thruway", also about the AutoRoute du Sud,  influenced Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film Week End.

Carol Dunlop was born in Quincy, Massachusetts  in 1946; she moved to Montreal where she married and gave birth to a son, Stephane Hebert, who illustrated Autonauts of the Cosmoroute.  In the 1970s Dunlop's  published  books included both fiction and nonfiction,  La solitude inachevee (1976) and Melanie dans le miroir (1980). Dunlop and Cortazar shared a strong commitment to political action, traveling to various countries, including Poland and Nicaragua.  Six months after completing  Autunauts of the Cosmoroute  Dunlop died: Cortazar died in February 1984.  This charming memento of a happy marriage is their memorial.

Pavel Pepperstein (b.1966) is a Russian artist and writer who was born in Moscow where he founded a group he called Inspection Medical Hermeneutics in 1987 with two other artists.  If the idea of storytelling  through of blend of semiotics and psychedelia sounds indigestible, not to worry.  As you can see,  Ppperstein's auto-dream El Lissitzky's Autosttrada in the Alps shows his admiration for the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s, the self-styled Suprematists. His work has been compared to that of Saul Steinberg for its use of the line style of handwriting in images as well as in words. As for the elusive Pepperstein, he salls himself a "psychedelic realist" - whatever that may be.  Only a brilliant draughtsman can pull this off.    In 2014 Pepperstein was awarded the Kandinsky Prize, Russia's highest award for contemporary art.

For further reading:
Autonauts of the Cosmoroute: a timeless voyage from Paris to Marseilles by Julio Cortazar & Carol Dunlop, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, with drawings by Stephane Hebert (1983), Brooklyn, NY, Archipelago Books: 2007.

Pavel Pepperstein - El Lissitzky's Autosttrada in the Alps, 2017, Nahodka, London.

Read more about Pavel Pepperstein - Calvert Journal

27 December 2018

Iguana And Fox: Leonora Carrington

"Darling stop being philosophical it doesn't suit you, it is turning your nose red."
  - Leonora Carrington, excerpt from The Hearing Trumpet (1976)

In the magical world of Leonora Carrington, humans and animals change places, try on each other's outfits; it is a world where metamorphosis is a cinch.  I should note here that Carrington often referred to herself as a "female human animal."  The tree decorated with red berries and white lights lends Iguana and Fox a festive air.  A half woman wearing the head of an iguana and a half man/ half fox regard each other over its ornamented top.  Is that a plum pudding she offers in her left hand and  a snowball she grasps in her right hand?  This may be Carrington's version of regional Mexican folklore that she delighted in using in her work or it may be one of her own creations, a feminist archetype for our times.  

Leonora Carrington (1917 - 2011) was an English-born artist who made Mexico City her home.  There she made a series of tapestries with assistance from an Aztec family of serape makers.  Although best known for her surrealist paintings, Carrington was exposed to the beauty of woven cloth by her father, a successful textile maker.  She is also credited as a founder of the women's liberation movement in Mexico.

It is easy to dismiss surrealism as little more than a series of jokes with its pipes that are not pipes and its  bowler hat-wearing gentlemen caught in incongruous situations but the traumas and  the dislocations in the wake of the First World War (although no one knew it was only the first at the time) were enough to make a person refuse the reality that was given in favor of one that was self-created.

Leonora Carrington - Iguana and Fox - for Edward James, c.1948-1958, Estate of Leonora Carrington, NYC.

20 December 2018

O Tannenbaum

It is good to be reminded that a Christmas tree can also be a humble sign of hope and joy.   This photograph by the eminent American Walker Evans (1903-1975) is an instant color print and a fitting civic tribute to the joy that the beautiful evergreen fir tree conveys during this holiday season and throughout the winter.  By the way, tannenbaum is the German word for fir tree.

Walker Evans - Hanging Christmas Tree, 1973, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

13 December 2018

From An Old House At Vetheuil: Joan Mitchell

La grande vallee XIv, painted in 1983, comes closer than any other painting by Joan Mitchell that shows her affinity with Claude Monet.  Like the Frenchman, who eliminated the horizon and the sky in his series of water lily paintings, Mitchell chose to orient her foliage paintings in an indeterminate space of her own construction.  The longer we look at them, the harder it is to decide whether this is nature viewed close-up or viewed from a distance through half-closed eyes. Also, like Monet, she created mural-sized paintings of nature, no more or less abstracted than the Frenchman's nymphees.

An inheritance from her mother in 1962 enabled Mitchell to purchase an old estate northwest of Paris. A large stone house was surrounded by two acres of gardens and trees with a view a the Seine.  The romance of the site was enhanced by other small structures on the property; Claude Monet had lived in one from 1878 to 1881.  Mitchell made a studio for herself in one that had a lookout over the water.   "I became the sunflower, the lake, the tree," Mitchell told Juidth Bernstock.

Originally Mitchell moved to France when she began a relationship with French abstract painter Jean-Paul Riopelle.  The relationship lasted from 1955 until 1979 but was far from harmonious.  Riopelle was already married and the father of two young daughters.  He was also France's pre-eminent abstract artist, something that must have chafed at Mitchell, a superior painter in every way, who found herself demoted to the status of 'artist's wife', a humiliation similar to that suffered by Lee Krasner when she was married to Jackson Pollock.  Looking at Riopelle's work today it is hard to believe his imitations of abstract expressionism awed the French public.  The most charitable interpretation I can make is that the French had not yet had many opportunities to see what the Americans were doing after World War II.

"There are those fleeting moments, those almost 'supernatural states of soul,' as Baudelaire called them, during which 'the profundity of life is revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself for one.  The scene becomes its symbol.' " - Irving Sandler, 1957

Unlike many of her fellow abstract painters who denied any resemblances between their pictures and the natural world, Mitchell occasionally hinted at just such a connection.  It was those moments when she experienced "supernatural states of soul" that drew her to the luminous landscapes of the French Impressionists.

The affectionate mood that permeates Tilleul (The Linden Tree) is an intimate portrait of a tree, one that produces exquisite lime blossom tea. Broad strokes of cobalt and inky black alternate with shafts of chartreuse seen through a lavender haze.  Are Mitchell's paintings abstract landscapes or some specially lyrical abstraction?  Does it really matter to their success? I think not.

"There are those fleeting moments, those almost 'supernatural states of soul,' as Baudelaire called them, during which 'the profundity of life is revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself for one.  The scene becomes its symbol.' " - Irving Sandler, 1957

Unlike many of her fellow abstract painters who denied any resemblances between their pictures and the natural world, Mitchell occasionally hinted at just such a connection.  It was those moments when she experienced "supernatural states of soul" that drew her to the luminous landscapes of the French Impressionists.

Joan Mitchell was forty-seven before she had her first solo museum exhibition at the Everson Museum in Syracuse in 1972.  "My Five Years in the Country"  based on works she had done at her home Vetheuil, France preceded her solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum by two years even though Mitchell had lived in New York City since 1949 and participated in the landmark show "Ninth Street Show" in 1951 with Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffmann, and Jackson Pollock.

In her final years Mitchell continued to work on her large canvases, several of which are now in the Musee nationale d'art moderne at the Pompidou Center in Paris.  despite undergoing two surgeries for advanced cancer.  She died on October 30, 1992 at her home in Vetheuil at age sixty-seven.

1. Joan Mitchell - La grande vallee XIV, 1983, 2.8 m x 6 m,  Pompidou Center Paris.
2. Joan Mitchell - Tilleul (Linden Tree), 1976,  2.4 m x 1.8 m, Pompidou Center, Paris.
3. Joan Mitchell -The good-bye door, 1980,  2.8 m x 7.2 m, Pompidou Center, Paris.

05 December 2018

Working Girls: 'Tis The Season To be Hard-Boiled

A plane crashes into your boudoir?  These things happen.  A girl needs to finish her makeup before she greets the day; this is hard-boiled.  A school girl's riddle from my mother's high school days goes like this:  why do males disappear before Thanksgiving and only reappear after New Year's?  If you have heard this one, know the answer, and smile ruefully,  then you are hard-boiled.

The hard-boiled  attitude was first sited in Manhattan, post-World War I, when New York became  the first truly sophisticated American city and a mecca for women looking for personal freedom. Before the New Yorker  was founded in 1925,  the  Canadian Stephen Leacock had wondered in the pages of Vanity Fair (1915) "Are the Rich Happy?"  A difficult question to answer, he discovered as he had trouble finding them.

"Very often I have thought that I had found them, but it turned out that it was not so.  They were not rich at all.  They were quite poor.  They were hard-up.  They were pressed for money.  They didn't know where to turn for ten thousand dollars."

When Dorothy Rothschild Parker, as she was then known, began to appear in the pages of Vanity Fair it was with a series she called "Hate Poems,"  verses on a variety of subjects written in what came to epitomize the satirical attitude of the newly emancipated young woman.  Office life, actresses, poseurs, retrograde relatives and, of course, men all came under her withering gaze.  Although only twenty-three in 1916, Parker was herself already a walking anthology of sharp edges.  "Husbands" in her words  were "The White Woman's Burden," concluding "I wish to Heaven someone would alienate their affections."

It was not until 1926 that Frances Newman from Georgia published a novel  titled The Hard-Boiled Virgin. Her second novel Dead Lovers are Faithful Lovers was published two years later.  It was the titles that seduced me when I discovered Newman's books in college. What I found was a neglected literary modernist whose layer cake of time and space was a bit like Virginia Woolf, and a writer whose use of interior monologue rather than dialogue to move her plots along, was a bit like Dorothy Richardson's multi-volume bildungsroman, Pilgrimage, begun in 1915.

The daughter of a prominent Atlanta judge, Newman was educated in finishing school, in anticipation of a genteel career as a librarian.  But Paris and the Sorbonne changed her mind.  Newman finished writing her first novel at twenty-three but was never able to get it published.  Undeterred, she kept writing and when The Hard-Boiled Virgin was published it was hailed by the eminent critic James Branch Cabell as "brilliant" for its portrayal of a young woman who chooses independence over marriage.  Two years later when Dead Lovers are Faithful Lovers appeared it caused a scandal; Atlantans were outraged to find  southern misogyny and racism personified in an angelic wife bested by a seductive other woman.  When Newman died at forty-five, the guardians of morality in literature were happy to forget her.

Deborah Garrison is a working girl for our time and if we thought the hard-boiled attitude was outdated, consider that the poems in A Working Girl Cant't Win have been characterized as "blatantly honest."

For further reading:
1. Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, & Swells:  The Best of Early Vanity Fair edited by Graydon Carter, Penguin Press, New York: 2014.
2. Deborah Garrison - A Working Girl Cant't Win,   New York, Random House: 1998.

Tim Walker - untitled, from Vogue, UK edition: 2014.

24 November 2018

Mercedes Matter: Expressive In The Abstract

Against a neutral background of negative space, yellows, oranges, and purples vie for prominence in Colors of Autumn  by Mercedes Matter.  The abstraction of the image allows us to contemplate  changes that the season brings.  The intense colors that transforms leaves just before they dry up and drop from the trees in temperate regions are rivaled by the drama of autumnal sunsets, purple clouds back-lit by cherry pink skies. 

As the daughter of a famous modernist, Matter  understood the expressive  possibilities of abstract painting in the mid-1930s, years and a war before the general  public had any inkling that the movement would take over the art world, drawing all the oxygen from other types of art for more than a decade.

Just what is being abstracted in paintings known as Abstract Expressionist?  Thoughts and emotions, filtered through a recognition that a flat two dimensional representation of three dimensions is intrinsically abstract.   Renaissance perspective is, at bottom, just another abstraction.

Those who met Mercedes Matter (1913-2001) described her as "elegant" and even "infuriatingly chic."  And did I forget to mention "charming, intelligent, talented, and witty"?   By the time she was twenty-three Mercedes Carles had an established artist as lover, Armenian expatriate Arshile Gorky. The next year she began to take classes with Hans Hoffmann, another expatriate artist who had just opened his own art school in New York City and who would be an influential teacher of dozens of abstract painters, including Mercedes Carles.   Hoffmann also followed Gorky in her affections.

Her artistic circle grew to include Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, Bill and Elaine de Kooning, and Less Krasner and Jackson Pollock.  When Mercedes saw the first version of de Kooning's Woman On A Bicycle  ar his studio in 1952 she thought, "it was a portrait of myself, albsolutely like a photograph could be."   "The next day it wasn't me at all, it was somebody quite different," she told interviewer Sigmund Koch years after the event

Arthur B. Carles, who had studied painting with Matisse was her father and Mercedes de Cordoba. an artist's model who worked with Edward Steichen was her mother.  Thanks to her parents,  Mercedes met seemingly everyone in the art world while she was growing up.  Born in Philadelphia, Mercedes received her first paintbox before attending finishing schools on two continents.  She said that the museums and churches of Italy were her first art school.

She met Herbert Matter while she and Bill de Kooning worked together on a mural project for the WPA with Fernand Leger; Mercedes also translated for the Frenchman.  Mercedes became friends with Leger who, in turn, introduced her to his friend Matter, a Swiss photographer. The couple married in 1941.   By the mid-1950s, Mercedes was, as  Mary Gabriel described her in Ninth Street Women, "the opposite of a retiring wife."   Along the way, she had affairs with fello w artists including Philip Guston.

For further reading:
Ninth Street Women: five painters and the movement that changed modern art by Mary Gabriel, New York, Little, Brown & Company: 2018

Mercedes Matter - Autumn Still Life, 1985, Mark Borghi Fine Art, NYC.

14 November 2018

Serena Perrone: Magic Mountains

When I was six years old I was given a book on world geography for my birthday.  Through it I discovered  the existence of volcanoes, something so much at odds with what I knew of the familiar terrain of northeastern New Jersey that I balked at the revelation.  I couldn't think through this information and so I began to imagine that volcanoes could erupt anywhere at anytime.  I worried over the smallest hillocks to the point that my parents had to flash a light over my backyard sandbox each evening that spring to assure me that no eruptions were sneaking up on Brookwood Road.  Only with time did I realize that my reaction was part of a long history of humanity's attempt to wrestle with the inexplicable.

Volcanoes are older than humanity, their eruptions are awe-inspiring displays of terrestrial outrage, yet, paradoxically, it is their effluvia that carry the minerals that enrich the surrounding soil and make human agriculture possible.  Catal Huyuk, thought to be the first human city, flourished in Anatolia (now eastern Turkey)  around 7000 BCE on a volcanic plain.  The perturbations of Mount Etna (Sicily) and Vesuvius (Naples) and their lesser siblings cast a spell over classical mythology, among the earliest recorded literature.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, from 10th century Japan tells of a goddess who buries the elixir of life at Fuji's peak, hymns the perfection of its symmetry.  In a neat bit of irony, only men were allowed to ascend to the top where its spectacular views could nourish the spirit.  Mountain climbing is a form of spiritual pilgrimage for the Shinto believer and Buddhism also affirms similar intimations of immortality .

Katsushika Hokusai's album Thirty-Six Views  of Mount Fuji (c.1830-1832) was the first to spread the image of the sacred mountain beyond Japan.   Not to be outdone, Ando Hiroshige also published his Thirty-Six Views in 1858.  By the early 1890s the mountain was so well known that the public was ready for Yoshitoshi's tongue-in-cheek parody Thirty-Six Bizarre Selections of Transformation.  With hindsight, Yoshitoshi, whose career bridged the end of the Edo Period and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, stands as the last great Japanese master of the woodblock (ukiyo-e) print.

Serena Perrone's A Volcano Pilgrim in Exchange for Fire is a contemporary series of 21 prints that align to form a continuous work some 25 feet long.   Recognizable accuracy of individual volcanoes is blended at the edges of each with an otherworldly license made possible through abstraction.  In Japanese ukiyo-e refers to an imaginary floating world and Perrone's series melds into its own floating world. The individual prints show active volcanoes in Italy, Central and South America and, most recognizably, Mount Fuji.  The spume blowing from each volcano contains bits of text taken from a travel blog written by poet Craig Arnold during the days preceding his death in 2009.  Arnold was hiking and doing research for a book of poetry he was working on which was to have been called An Exchange for Fire.   Arnold  (b. 1967) and a winner of a Yale Younger Poets Award for his first book published in 1999.  He disappeared while exploring the volcanic island Kuchinoerabujima in the China Sea off southern Japan on April 27, 2009. His body was never found and  Arnold was presumed to have fallen to his death.

Perrone describes her intention for this hybrid of images and text: "Moving geographically from Italy to Japan as they move chronologically  through time from his first blog post to his last, the 20 prints in this series chronicle the 20 days on which he wrote  during his Japan expedition." She hopes that her prints, by finding a permanent  home at the Metropolitan Museum "will be enjoyed by generations to come, and the words of Craig Arnold will continue to reach new audiences."

Serena Perrone is Assistant Professor of Printmaking and Drawing at the Pratt/ Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica, NY.

Serene Perrone - from he series  A Volcano Pilgrim in Exchange for Fire, c.2009-2010  -  dry-point, gouache, monotype and letter press on paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

04 November 2018

Like Oil And Water: A Color Lithograph by Louis LaBrie

Patterns in nature layered and reflected in water, like a cascade of regressing mirror images become what all two dimensional images are at their origins: abstractions.   Scaly bark on trees seen through a medium as clear as glass.  These contrary are effects achieved by the American artist Louis LaBrie (b. 1950) in his color lithograph Autumn.   At first glance it could pass for a photograph, a tribute firstly to the artist's imagination and then to his skills.  He has said that he wants his works to be  equally effective from faraway as from close up.  With Autumn there comes a moment when you switch from gazing at the leaves flowing toward you on the surface of the water to trying to see upside down what is reflected in the water at a distance
Growing up in Martinez, an old city in the East Bay area near San Francisco, early on LaBrie became keenly attuned to an element of decline in the changes taking place in the natural world.   His first painting, made at the age of eight, showed the Yosemite Valley reflected in the Merced River.  After studying art at the University of California, La Brie has described sketching his way around Europe and North Africa for a year before settling once again in California.

A printing process that is based on the incompatibility of oil and water, that old cliche, is color lithography.  Designs are drawn on prepared plates using greasy crayons or inks and when moisture is applied to the plate it adheres only to the uncovered areas.  In the history of printing, color lithography is a relative newcomer, having been invented in 1798.  Its predecessor, relief printing, as its name implies, is accomplished by incising a design into the surface of a pla te and then applying ink to it.  It was first used by the Egyptians before the Common Era some two thousand years ago to print on cloth and spread rapidly after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.  A painstaking hand-driven process was mightily helped by the invention of photography in the 1820s; the introduction of  halftones allowed an image to be broken down into a variety of sizes of dots.  Changes in the composition of plates from limestone to pre-sensitized plates in 1951 have  made ever more detailed and sublte effects possible for the accomplished artist.

Louis LaBrie - Autumn, 1985, color lithograph, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

25 October 2018

Roger de La Fresnaye: A Cheerful Cubist

When Daniel Henry Kahnweiler decreed that great artists make art dealers great he was being disingenuous.  The German-born French art dealer not only represented Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris from his gallery in Paris, he told the public what to think about Cubism at a time when the public didn't know what to make of this art that flirted with abstraction.  In his book My Galleries and Painters, Kahnweiler underlined the continuity he found between Cubism and previous art.

"Fundamentally painting has never been a mirror of the external world, nor has it ever been similar to photography; it has been a creation of signs, which were always read correctly by contemporaries, after a certain apprenticeship , of course.  Well, the Cubists created signs that were unquestionably new, and that is what made it so difficult to read their paintings for such a long time." (translated by Helen Weaver)

Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925) studied at the best art schools Paris had to offer, first the Academie Julian, then  the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and finally at Academie Ranson, an outpost of the Nagis( Hebrew for Prophet) where he came under the influence of Maurice Denis,  a strong influence on the contemporary American painter Alex Katz.  Time spent in Munich where Expressionism's bright colors were the new thing gave him the palette that he would use so effectively in his paintings.  La Fresynaye's Cubism was a playful thing, nothing deadly serious about it.   Unlike his more famous confreres at the Daniel Kahnweiler Gallery, La Fresnaye was not on fire to overthrow conventional perspective as hadnde down to students have ever since the time of Leon Batiste Alberti in the 15th century.  And as for  abstraction, it interested him not at all.

One of La Fresnaye's best known paintings  The Conquest of the Air celebrates French achievements in defying gravity.  The hot air balloon launched by the Montgolfier Brothers in 1783 was greeted with wonder by the public no less than Henri Fabre's 1910 flight, the first in a sea plane offshore of Marseilles.  The French were giddy about the possibilities of human flight; they hosted the first International Aeronautic and Space Exposition in Paris in 1909.

We know the neutral colors favored by Picasso, Braque, and Gris were inspired by their infatuation with early movies.  Arne Glimcher, founder of the Pace Gallery New York City,  and Bernice Rose. curator, revealed that story in their 2010 documentary Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies.  Even though  La Fresnaye sometimes made use of subdued colors his fractured planes had a joyous aspect; in The Prestidigitator they convey magician's delight in his slight of hand.

Fragile health shadowed La Fresnaye 's life from the time he had pleurisy in 1905 and again when he was discharged from the army in 1918 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.  These recurring bouts of illness made it difficult for the artist to paint.  Perhaps that contributed to his turn to unalloyed realism in the paintings of his last years,  The joy he had found in playing with cubism was difficult to sustain after witnessing the sufferings of soldiers and the decline of his own body. He was only 40 when he died at Grasse on the French Riviera in 1925.

1. Roger de La Fresnaye -  The Prestidigitator, c.1921, Pompidou Center, Paris.
2. Roger de La Fresnaye -  The Conquest of the Air, 1913, Pompidou Center, Paris.
2. Roger de La Fresnaye - The Man Who Waits or The Architect, c.1913, Pompidou Center.

20 October 2018

I Say It's A Poodle !

At the time William Baziotes painted Shadow in 1951 he was moving away from applying paint to canvas by  brush and its visible strokes as building blocks of the picture.    What gives an image like Shadow its ephemeral quality is the way Baziotes applied the paint by rubbing it into the canvas, thereby making the colors seem to emanate from the canvas itself, almost shimmering in an illusion movement.  Evoking dream-like states in the mind of the viewer was also the business of French Symbolist poetry and Surrealism, two of Baziotes' interests/  Alfred H. Barr coined the term  biomorphism for such works in MoMA's collection by Joan Miro and Isamu Noguchi  Simply put, biomorphism as an abstract style that contains traces of organic forms drawn from nature.   

In the years following World War II Baziotes often displayed his work work with the Abstract Expressionists in New York; the difference was that Baziotes was not so eager to deny other visual elements in his work as his friends were.  It has taken some time for critics to become comfortable with the landscape elements in Helen Frankenthaler's work, for instance.  Unlike Frankenthaler  (1928-2011) whose career was long, Baziotes, born in 1912, died from lung cancer at the age of fifty in 1963.
His most famous picture, painted in 1952, is The Flesh Easters in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Here his compelling interest in surrealism is visible in the wavy forms merging with an apparently human head.

Image: William Baziotes - Shadow, 1951, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

11 October 2018

A Brilliant Corner: Van Gogh's Garden with Butterflies

When Vincent Van Gogh arrived in Paris in March, 1886 it was for the homeliest of reasons.  Too poor to pay the rent in Antwerp, he moved in with his brother Theo who was already working for the respected art dealer Goupil et Cie and living in Montmartre, the artists' quarter of the city and a gathering place for all things avant-garde.  Looking back on his fortuitous move from the summer of 1887, Vincent wrote to a friend, " In Antwerp I did not even know what the Impressionists were. "  What Van Gogh took away from that encounter was a palette of bright colors; gone were the earthy tones and leaden skies of Holland and Belgium. 

The influence of Japanese prints, so popular among the artists of Montmartre that the craze had its own name - Japomisme - has been noted in several subsequent paintings by Van Gogh. Here we could point to the six butterflies whose iridescent red and white wings fluttering in the grasses  evoke the sinuous prehensile movements of Japanese Koi fish in ukiyo-e prints .  What is also striking about Coin de jardin avec papillons  is the influence of photography, for long a taboo subject according to art historians and yet too obvious to ignore. 

Here we have a garden seen in close-up, with no horizon line for reference, a liberty the camera had made palatable to the eye.  Landscape was originally used as a backdrop for religious paintings during the Medieval and Renaissance periods; its contemporary appearance (for the time) adding weight to the didactic messages portrayed by the Biblical personages.  Gradually emerging  as a separate genre, landscape was viewed in panorama until the camera and then the microscope opened up unexamined micro-views by closing in.  This garden in suburban Asnieres was then a newly popular Sunday destination for Parisians in search of refreshment after the six day work week. 

At the end of this auspicious summer Van Gogh headed south to Arles and to the intense  creativity and the depths of misery that are what we think of when we think of Van Gogh.  The gardens the artist painted at St. Remy, where he was confined to an asylum after a nervous breakdown in 1888 look feverish by comparison; the colors under the Mediterranean light are new but the lines are the lines Van Gogh learned to use in Paris, in the colors of the Impressionists.

"Orsay Through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel" is an exhibition that opened October 10, 2018 and will remain on view until January 13, 2019 at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.  This is the French museum's first invitation to a living artist to create a scenario demonstrating continuities between some of their works with thirteen of his own contemporary paintings.  The Brooklyn-born Schnabel, who is also filmmaker (he directed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in 2007) has a new film on the life of Vincent Van Gogh titled At Eternity's Gate being released to coincide with the exhibition.

Schnabel made Rose Painting - Near Van Gogh's Grave  at Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb northwest of Paris where the artist died of a gunshot wound to the chest, the incident an object of conjecture in Schnabel's new film.  Vincent was joined there by his brother Theo who died six months later.  Although it is difficult to see in this photograph, Schnabel has extended his paint to the outer  edges of the frame itself, as though to overflow the canvas.  An apt symbol for Auvers itself where  painters have come before to paint - Corot, Daubigny, and Pissarro being three among the many

Coin de jardin avec papillons became part of the Van Gogh family collection after the artist's death, cared for by his sister-in-law, Theo's  wife Jo Bongor and then was owned by journalist Joseph Reinach,  steadfast defender of Alfred Dreyfus.

1. Vincent Van Gogh - Coin de jardin avec papillons (A corner of the garden with butterflies), 1887, private collection, courtesy of Christies Ltd which will offer the work for sale on November 11 in New York City.
2. Julian Schnabel -  Rose Painting - Near Van Gogh's Grave XVII, 2007, Julian Schnabel Studio, courtesy of Musee d'Orsay.

27 September 2018

Phrasikleia: An Unmarried Woman

"I would not touch the sky with both hands."
    - Sappho, as translated from the Greek by Anne Carson in If Not, Winter: Fragment of Sappho, New York: Alfred A, Knopf: 2002.

"Kore I must be called
evermore; instead of marriage,
by the gods this 
name became my fate." 
  - inscription on the base of the stature of Phrasikleia

She gazes at us straight on, neither coy nor shy.  This is not the studied indirection we are accustomed to in statues from  ancient Greece, the figures often seeming to gaze inward or at a world they alone can see.

Her bearing is regal, displaying her robe striped with meanders on a field of rosettes, indicators of her family's high status.  Because the base  she once stood on was found in a church nearby we know that her name was Phrasikleia, that she was created by the sculptor Aristion of Paros ("Aristion of Paros made me") between 550-540 BCE, and that she died a young unmarred woman.  Even well-born women led constricted lives, not welcome in the public sphere, they were confined to child-bearing and wool-spinning.  They did eat better food than slaves, though.

On May 18, 1972, in a field at Merenta in Attica, a kore (a young maiden, an unmarried woman) was unearthed from a shallow grave where she had been buried since the 6th century BCE.  Next to her was her brother, a kouros.  The most famous excavation of kourais was made on  the Acropolis at Athens in the 1880s.  Kourais had one foot in the world and the other pointed toward the  gods.  Originally created as votive offerings to goddesses in worship and supplication, the kourais gradually developed an aura of what we now call conspicuous consumption, their elaborate robes attesting to the status of their families.

The pink caste to the figure of Phrasikleia in the photograph is not due to the red backdrop but rather is attributed to the red polychrome with which the figure was originally painted. It was the classicist Vincenz Brinkmann and his wife art historian/archaeologist Ukruke Koch-Brinkmann who worked to reconstruct the original colors used in Greek and Roman sculptures  that has helped  to alter our perception of an antique world pervaded by whiteness, in more ways than one.   Change can be jarring, as witness the comment of another art historian, Fabio Barry, who complained that a full-color recreation of a statue of Emperor Augustus in the Vatican Museum looked like nothing so much as "a cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi."  While Phrasikleia's colors have been bleached by time her gaze retains its dazzling directness.

Phrasikleia Kore - c.550-540 BCE, photograph courtesy of National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

20 September 2018

Paradise For A Dime

"You, wild foam.
 You, good-for-nothing snail, you who don't love me."
  - excerpt from "Still?" by Wassily Kandinsky, translated by Elizabeth R. Napier from Sounds, New Haven, Yale University Press: 1981.

What do we have here in Gustave de Smet's painting The Inn?  Superficially, an ordinary scene of evening conviviality: a quartet of men playing cards, a barmaid standing by with a round of drinks, and two men playing darts.   But the spaces between these characters have gone missing, leading to an overall sense of claustrophobia, intensified by the proportions of the canvas, imparting  a sinister potential to the dart-throwers.  Surely they aim too close for the the comfort of their fellows, a suggestion of  misgivings about where modernity was taking the world.  By the time De Smet painted The Inn in 1924, he had begun incorporating elements of Cubism into the faces of his characters, their stylized flatness mask-like. Still we search them for hints of emotion.   The brilliant colors used by the Fauves ("wild beasts" so-called, by their critics) took on darker hues in the Expressionist paintings of the 1920s.  

Like three horsemen of the Apocalypse, Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche trampled the values that had been pillars underpinning European civilization to a heap of rubble at the turn of the last century.  Modern times always seems unprecedented to those living through them. For some though, the disarray offered a springboard to the new.  Expressionism in art, in music, and in literature, was heightened sensitivity to the speed and uncertainty of life.  Are we really moving forward or  just  running amok, artists wondered.  

Paradise is yours for a dime." So wrote Ivan Goll (1891-1950), a bilingual French-German poet best remembered today for the contretemps about his work being plagiarized by his close friend Paul Celan.   Goll was also the librettist for Kurt Weill's 1927 opera Royal Palace.  Like other, better known expressionist poets as Gottfried Benn, Else Lasker-Schuler, and Georg Trakl, Goll's poems were highly visual in their effects.  Even the painter Wassily Kandinksy wrote poetry ("Still?").  If the Americans had their "Jazz Age" fizz and the French had their "Annees Folles" (Crazy Years), there were some who thought otherwise: the Expressionists were wont to look on the dark side

Gustave de Smet (1877-1943) was a Belgian painter who was exposed to art-making in the studio of his father Jules, a set director.  During World War I, de Smet fled to Belgium, among the first of many moves in his peripatetic career.  Social scenes, such as fairs and playgrounds, were his favorite theme.

Gustave de Smet - De Herberg (The Inn) 1924, De Bode Collection, Ghent,  Belgium.