09 August 2020

Francis Ponge: Babillage

"The boat pulls up its tether, shifts its body from one foot to the other, restless and stubborn as a colt.
It is however only a rather  crude receptacle, a wooden spoon without a handle: but, dug out and arched to permit a pilot direction, it seems to have a mind of its own, like a hand signaling cosi-cosa.

Mounted, it adopts a passive attitude, slips gently away, is easy to guide. If it kicks up, it has good reasons.

Left alone, it follows the current and goes, like everything in the world, to its destruction like a straw."
 - "The Boat" by Francis Ponge

"Midway between cage and "cachot" (prison) the French language has "Cageot" (crate), a simple small openwork box given over to the transporter of fruits that out of the least suffocation make (you can be sure)  a malady.

Arranged in a way that at the end of its usefulness it could be broken effortlessly, it does not serve twice. So it lasts less than the melting of clouded produce it encloses.

At all the street corners that converge upon the marketplace, it gleams then with the unpretentious luster of white wood. Brand new still, and slightly dumbfounded at being in an awkward pose tossed on the garbage heap beyond return, this object is in sum amongst the most sympathetic, - upon whose fate it is better not to dwell lengthily." 
 - "Le Cageot/ the crate" by Francis Ponge

Babillage is a term coined by Cid Corman to describe the delights of  the poetry of Francis Ponge.  Corman, poet and translator of  Ponge, has described the Frenchman as "the willing spokesman" for the objects he write about. Ponge has been called "the poet of things" for his relation with the world of mute things. His prose poems seem to meander as his imagination takes him but this is a hard won illusion; Ponge is surgically precise in his choice of words.

So what makes a poem a prose poem? Basically,  a poem written without line breaks;  although you could object that all prose is broken up by line breaks but, with most prose, the reader ignores those line breaks as though they weren't there. The first lyrics written in prose form were in  Paris Spleen (1869) by Charles Baudelaire; his influence on Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarrme should not be underestimated.  So the origins of the prose poem are French. In the Surrealist Manifesto (1924), Andre Breton credited several prose poets with inspiring the surrealists. 

The long-lived Francis Ponge (1899-1988) was himself influenced by Paul Valery, he learned from the surrealists, his work found favor with the postwar existentialists who appreciated what they saw as his phenomenological poetry, and he was then rediscovered by a new generation of writers who found his "scientific" use of language a poetic equivalent of structural anthropology.  When Ponge was good his work revealed new aspects of overlooked things but some of his work has aged badly.  His takes on then contemporary technology such as "The Radio," "The Stoves," and "The Telephone" do not align with our experiences and others (I'm thinking  here of "Young Girl") reduce a human being to appraisable body parts. 

Translations from the French are by Cid Corman, from Things by Francis Ponge, New York, A Mushinsha Book, Grossman Publishers: 1970

Images:oi on canvas, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Valencienes.
1. Pierre Bisiaux - Les Barques (The Boats), 
2. Barabtre a/k/a Francois Aubin  - Still Life with Crate  1979, pastel drawing, Pompidou Center, Paris

03 August 2020

Horace Pippin: Scenes From A Childhood

"Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead." - Horace Pippin

"Pippin would paint for as long as seventeen hours at a stretch, holding the wrist of his injured right arm in the fist of his left hand..."- Seldon Rodman.

There is so much to see in a Horace Pippin painting. Especially in intimate domestic scenes recalling his childhood, with affectionate and a touch of tartness.  Saying Prayers is centered around a mother and two children engaged in a familial ritual. I am drawn to the touch of gaiety in the woman's polka-dotted blouse. The mother sits in a spindle-backed chair while the children kneel on a braided rug where a little rag doll waits to be tucked in bed, perhaps.  They are gathered in front of the coal stove, with a coffee pot warming.  Behind the coal scuttle there are multiple patches of peeling plaster. A black shade is pulled down over the window but not so far that we cannot see snowflakes creased in the mullioned window an the wooden lathe-work revealed by peeling plaster below.  At left we see an umbrella propped against the wall outside a bedroom door.  The little family is bracketed by two shelves nailed to the wall, splashes of red, one holding a kerosene lamp and the other with cooking utensils hanging from it. 

Painted during the same year, Asleep appears to show the same room with the same stove and  green coffee pot. Only now the stool has been moved away from the window to make way for the children's bed. The kerosene lamp has been turned low for the night.  Striped blankets and a patchwork quilt at the foot of the bed are the only touches of decoration, as is the braided rug is in Saying Prayers. My hunch is that the woman created as much beauty as she could manage for her home. Pippin's apparently economical style makes room for these telling details. 

Horace Pippin (1888-1946) was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the child of a laborer and a domestic worker, both descendants of slaves. Horace's interest in art crystallized when he won a set of crayons and a box of watercolors in a contest sponsored by an art supply company.

"(T)he war brought out all the art in me,"" Pippin recalled after he had become an established artist. He enlisted in the New York National Guard in 1917 and was shipped overseas where he was part of the  renowned all-back U.S. 369th Infantry. Shot by a sniper in October, 1918, Pippin's right arm was severely damaged so that he could not lift it above his shoulder. For his valor under fire, Pippin was awarded the Croix de guerre by a grateful French government.  His arm was useless when he returned home but it gradually became stronger; perhaps some of the nerve damage healed with time.  Disability may contributed to the scrupulous attention to small details that characterize Pippin's paintings. 

Pippin began painting  on wooden panels around 1925; canvas was out of his reach because of its expense. Most of his paintings were made between 1930 and 1946. He did not begin painting with oils until he was forty and he never managed to have a proper studio but by the 1940s he was selling more work and so was able to paint more. Whatever his medium, Pippin always had a  strong, personal voice; he copied no one.

The Barnes Foundation  has claimed a major role in promoting Pippin's work but it was his relationship with his dealer Robert Carlen, beginning in 1939, that sustained Pippin's career.  Carlen, who had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art when Ralston Crawford and Robert Gwathmey were also students, introduced Pippin to Albert Barnes. Barnes wrote an introduction to the catalog for Pippin's exhibition at the Carlen Gallery the next year. 

Dr. Barnes was a complex and quarrelsome man, perennially at war with Philadelphia's conservative art establishment. While Pippin appreciated Barnes' support of his work, he was not awed and certainly not cowed by the millionaire's cantankerousness.  More than once Barnes suggested subjects for Pippin to paint and the reply was invariably, "Do I tell you how to run your foundation? Don't tell me how to paint." Carlen and Barnes were eventually estranged because Barnes did not want to pay more for Pippin's paintings when success resulted in higher prices. 

Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes scholar, was also a strong advocate of Pippin's work .  Pippin benefited from the mid-century interest in folk art but we can take the measure of this versatile artist, accomplished in portraiture, history painting, landscape, still life,  religious imagery, and the horrors of war.  In the words of Alain Locke, "a real and rare genius, combining folk quality with artistic maturity so unique as almost to defy classification."

1. Horace Pippin - Saying Prayers, 1943, oil on canvas, Brandywine Museum, West Chester.
2. Horace Pippin - Asleep, 1943, oil on canvas board, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

27 July 2020

Henri Matisse: The Yellow Chairs

"There were very many wanting to be doing what he was doing that is to be one clearly expressing something." - Gertrude Stein, from "Matisse" (1912)

There is nothing extraneous in a painting by Henri Matisse.  He takes decoration to an aesthetic plane beyond anywhere it had gone before. However his technical panache can obscure the conventionality of his vision. Despite flirtations with cubism, futurism, and cubism, his vision of la belle vie was bourgeois.

The composition of The Yellow Chairs is  tripartite.  A woman reclines on a chaise lounge while an expansive vase of flowers rests on a chair positioned at right angles; the two are balanced by a pedestal table between the chairs.  As usual in a Matisse painting, spaces are collapsed; the great artist felt no need for traditional perspective.

The dancer evokes Matisse's frequent images of women as odalisques. Her arms are  two arabesques in a composition that marvelously combines angles and curves. Her bouffant dress (a tutu) is outlined in curvilinear white trim echoed by the white flower in her hair. At left an Italian baroque armchair has straight black legs and deep aquamarine arms. 

For Matissse,  color was the vehicle he used to express his response to his subjects rather than being attempts at verisimilitude.  Here, as he often did, Matisse mixes in patches of white that give the vibrant colors a restless sense of movement, as though the sunlight had reached into the room to dapple its contents.The chairs are yellow, as thought they had absorbed the  Mediterranean light. The white tiles are painted in green and the black ones aubergine, green and purple being complementary colors as is the reddish-orange arabesque on the chaise lounge. His draftsmanship is breezy and deft black lines.

Henri Matisse was seventy-three when he painted The Yellow Chairs. The year was 1942 and the artist had returned home to his studio in Nice after the Nazis occupied Paris. The year before Matisse had been diagnosed with cancer and there were complications after the surgery that left him two choices: to sit in a chair or lie in bed.  But he continued painting although he would gradually switch to making cutouts.  Yet no trace of that suffering finds its way into The Yellow Chairs.

Image: Henri Matisse - Danseur dans un interieur avec carrelage vert et noir (Dancer in an interior with checked floor tiles), 1942, oil on canvas, private collection, Great Britain (?).

22 July 2020

Diego Rivera: The Hammock


A perfect picture of summer? Maybe, but then it is always summer-like in Acapulco. Still a vacation is welcome at any time of year: sunshine, ocean breezes, a hammock, a good book, and a good friend.  There are red flowers peaking up over the edge of the hammock and white boat sails, tiny dabs of white paint in the cerulean blue of the Pacific seems to have leached all the blue out of the sky, what little of it is visible here. Sunlight warms the women's skins; though the effect of  sunlight is everywhere, there is no shade, except in some contouring on the arms and legs of the sun bathers.  This painting is a joyous demonstration of the primary colors  from an artist known his his love of vivid color. 

Diego Rivera painted La Hamaca (The Hammock) in 1955, just two years before his death.  Rivera had created a large number of public murals so he was experienced at working on a large scale. La Hamaca is large:  6'7" by 3'5" so he portrayed these figures at life size.

One of the two young women in La Hamaca is the daughter of  Delores Olmedo. Olmedo was a woman of parts, successful in business, a musician, and a philanthropist.  Together, these attributes made her a beneficent friend to artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.  In 1994 she converted a building she owned in Mexico City into a museum (Museo Delores Olmedo) to which she donated her extensive collection of art, including the largest assemblage of worjs by Kahlo and Rivera anywhere.  

The 19th century bathing dress or pantaloons, was followed by the one piece suit called a maillot (see the painting above), and the bikini, introduced by Louis Reard in 1946. Popularized by movie star Brigitte Bardot and Sophie Loren, the Snow White and Rose Red of the bikini.  And then there is the ceremonial "unveiling" of the suit. The vaudeville star Annette Kellernmann, known as the "Australian Mermaid" was arrested on Revere Beach in Massachusetts in 1907 when she appeared wearing a on piece suit.
Whether it reveals or conceals, the bathing suit is a true anatomical bomb.

Image: Diego Rivera - La Hamaca, 1955, oil on canvas, Muse Delores Olmedo, Mexico City.

17 July 2020

Charles Prendergast: Earthly Paradise

There is much to see in this painting by the American artist Charles Prendergast. 

Starting at the bottom there are water lilies floating in deep purple water..  In the lower right corner  stands Botticelli's Venus, here framed by her giant clam shell, modestly holding a bouquet of flowers in hand while three female figures surround her in homage to the Quattrocento.  The trio may also be a reference to the Three Graces, ancient goddesses of nature often portrayed in similar poses. 

They are balanced by three much larger and more modern figures at lower left; these appear to be a family group, possibly three sisters, two of whom hold floral stems aloft. A brown dog looks at his mistress at left and another lies quietly by the red-headed girl at right. 

To the right of this group we see the rump of a horse carrying a luxuriously dressed male rider, possibly a knight, followed by his female consort who rides side-saddle.  Birds fly near her and one appears to light on the woman's hand. Behind her, four deer stroll on a hill indicated by a curving brown line; perhaps they are a in a forest as they walk among trees. Deer and humans have a very long joint history, dating back at least 15,000 years as documented in the Caves paintings of Lascaux. Deer are thought to personify the virtues.  

Providing a focal point in the upper left corner is a  spectacularly decorative tree, one never seen in any wood, billowing panels of stars, flowers, and abstract shapes; it is related to the stream by their common color: purple.  This makes the viewer notice that the more usual connection the artist eschewed is to link the blue of the sky to blue water.  But here we are in a visionary landscape, a parallel world, fruitful and peopled by figures from different eras and cultures. 

 Incising the image on a wooden panel was an antique touch, giving the effect of a Byzantine mosaic.  This from a man who, on visiting Italy, sensed that he had stepped through a door to an alternate world, where the artistic riches of antiquity were arrayed before him. In all, humans and animals in harmony, this is Prendergast's earthly paradise.

Image: Charles Prendergast - Figures and Deer, circa 1917, tempura, silver and gold leaf, on incised gessoed panel, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

11 July 2020

How to Ruin a Friendship

Alma Schindler was a Viennese beauty and a budding composer when she fell in love with Gustav Mahler, nineteen years her senior, and a moody, authoritarian composer who made Alma give up her music in order to marry him. Marriage marooned eighteen year old Alma, stifled artistically and taken for granted by her husband; she turned to her male admirers (and there were always several to choose from) for consolation.  This did not bode well for the future but Mahler died in 1911, leaving Alma to refashion her life.

Broncia Pinell was an established  artist of thirty-three when she married Hugo Koller,  a physician who had been introduced to her by the composer Hugo Wolf.  Before their marriage Hugo had to withdraw from the Catholic church because marriages between Catholics and Jews were not permitted. There is some indication that Broncia converted to Catholicism, at least formally. After their marriage in 1891, Hugo, an avid art collector, promoted his wife's career. And it bears underlining  that Broncia Koller-Pinell was an important Post-Expressionist artist, painting nudes at a time when it is was not considered proper subject matter for female artists. Indeed, female artists were barred from study at the Royal Academy until 1920.  Her legacy erased after her death, even as late as 1980 she was described as "a housewife who painted."

That these two women whose lives overlapped yet differed in  many significant ways ever became friends may have come about because of their children.  Koller-Pinell painted several pictures of her daughter Silvia and also of Alma's daughter Anna. The Mahlers often visited the Kollers at their summer home in Oberwaltersdorf, 35 kilometers outside Vienna.  The parrot pictured with Anna belonged to the Koller children.

When Anna Mahler turned sixteen she fell in love with the Koller's son Rupert who was eight years older and a fledgling conductor; perhaps his choice of career reminded her of her lost father. The two married on November 2, 1920 but the marriage ended within months when Anna left Rupert.   Alma Mahler, who was extremely competitive in romantic matters, did not take the perceived slight to femininity at all well. In 1926 Alma persuaded her future husband Franz Werfel to write a play Bocksgesang (Goat's Story), a poorly disguised chronicle of the unhappy marriage in five acts. The friendship between Broncia and Alma disintegrated.

Anna Mahler married the avant-garde Viennese compose Ernest Krenek  when she was nineteen but that marriage also lasted mere months.  Eventually she married three more times. Although Anna had been expected to become a musician like her father, she forged her own path,  becoming a sculptor.Spending one's childhood in the vortex of her mother's turbulent love affairs was like earthquake with many aftershocks. 

Personae: Alma Schindler Mahler (1879-1964), Anna Mahler (1904-1988), Broncia Koller-Pinell (1863-1934), Rupert Koller (1896-1976), Silvia Koller (1899-1963)

1. Broncia Koller-Pinell, Self Portrait, circa 1920-1925, oil on canvas, Austrian whereabouts unidentified.
2. Broncia-Koller Pinell - Anna Mahler With A Parrot, oil on canvas, Austrian whereabouts unidentified.

06 July 2020

Vilhelm Hammershoi: In Silver

"This landscape looks like a secret
because the river can't be seen
from the spot where I am standing.
And therefore it is
the landscape where I most easily
would be able to do without myself.
Among these green hills and blue mountains
my person
almost feels an insult."
 - excerpt from "The River's Secret" by Hendrik Nordbrandt, translated from the Danish by John Irons

A silver age painted in shades of gray. An artist of diffidence characteristic of his countrymen. It is easy to look at the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi and see that he had been  deeply imprinted by the work of Vermeer. But on looking closely at Hammerhoi's paintings, quiet interiors can seem drained of meaning or maybe this is what the world looks like when grand dreams and schemes have been found empty.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that we live life forward but understand it backward.  When we consider the world that Vilhelm Hammershoi grew up in, the place and circumstance, an alternate way of looking at his paintings emerges. Those restrained, minimally appointed rooms may evoke thoughts of glossy decorating magazines in a contemporary viewer but that kind of projection merely makes it more difficult to experience the  paintings as Hammershoi intended.  What the artist intended has  been the subject of speculation, his very reticence an irritant like a pebble in a shoe. Something of an enigma to his contemporaries, he remains so.

Eighteen forty-eight was a year when people  throughout Europe demanded democracy but not in Denmark which  passed peacefully from a monarchy to a constitutional democracy in 1849.  Not surprising for a country that whose experience of the Reformation had been a mild one. 

What distinguished Danish art of the 19th century was the influence of Golden Age Dutch painting  filtered through the soft northern light of Scandinavia. Even today Danes look back on the period between 1849 and 1864 as their Golden Age, a time when Hans Christian Anderson and Christoffer Eckersberg created the stories and images that reflected a new modern cultural patrimony for a nation renewed.  Into that world, Vilhelm Hammershoi was born in 1864, a year when bright ideals were crushed by the harsh realities of war and defeat. There followed a period of  intense introspection among Danes.  This unease of the spirit may be what we sense in Hammershoi's paintings, a feeling of the uncanny. Is this how the world looks after a great disillusionment?

Yet Hammershoi's tenderness is apparent in images of loved objects he painted again and again, vessels used for the sharing of food.  From the china soup tureen with its pattern of swirling leaves (seen above with Ida in their dining room) to the eye-catching shimmer of the silver dish on the table between Ida and her mother-in-law Frederikke.

Note: Hammershoi did not customarily give titles to his paintings so titles may differ depending on the interpreter.

1. Dust motes dancing in sunlight, 1900,  oil on canvas, Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen.
2. Interior with back view of a woman (Ida Hammershoi), circa 1903, oil on canvas Randers Kunstmuseum, Jutland.
3. Interior with the artist's wife and mother, oil on canvas.
4. unidentified photographer - Vilhelm Hammershoi's palette, courtesy of Royal Academy of Art, London.

30 June 2020

Luigi Settanni: An Artist's Brittany

I. We see men and women standing on a shore, symbolically separated by a boat that seems to be taking on water.  Drowning in the choppy, unpredictable waters of the Atlantic was a constant worry, especially to the families  of the fishermen waiting at home on the Breton shore.  Outsize gulls perch on the shoal at the upper left of the canvas, a nice touch to remind us that this painting aspires to something other than literal representation. In is a Fauvist gesture, Luigi Settanni  has uncoupled  color from its descriptive task, freeing it to express the painter's emotional reaction to his subject.

The tall white headdresses the women wear are traditional Breton coiffe. headdresses  made of lace: Although differing in style from town to town, the caps signify the age and marital status of the wearer;  the ones pictured here are called Bigouden, a tall cylinder of starched lace recognized throughout France.  Dressed in the traditional costume and decorative apron, they are known  as bigoudiennes.  This tells us that we are in the vicinity of Pont l'Abbe near the Bay of Audierne on the south shore of Finistere. And although northwestern France has been settled for millennia, the Bigoudien is a relatively recent sartorial invention.

Port Manech on the coast of Brittany is part of Finistere, the westernmost Department of France that derives its name from the Latin Finis Terrae meaning end of the earth. Jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded on three sides by water, Finistere is remote in many ways.  This is the area where the Breton language has survived most strongly; five per cent of the population  speak Breton rather than French. The countryside is rugged, owing to its rocky soil.

II. In Landscape in Brittany - Pont l'Abbe figure (below) Settanni paints the ground blue, as if to remind the viewer that the sea dominates every corner of Breton life.  This makes it appear as though the sea has jumped the stone wall to surround the houses. The figure of the woman reminds us that while the men were away on fishing expeditions, the women waited at home and watched the sea. Thickly applied strokes and daubs of paint lend richness  to a scene that some dismiss as impoverished and lacking in interest.

III. I have not been able to unearth much information about Luigi Settanni (August 21, 1908-1984) other than that he was born in Italy and moved to the United States in his twenties. He enrolled at the Philadelphia Museum School (now the University of the Arts) and went on to study at the Barnes Foundation in Merion from 1933-1941, where he became a protege of Dr. Albert C. Barnes. We can infer that Settanni did not have much money and that opportunities to study art could have drawn him to emigrate.

Settanni was able to visit Morocco in early 1935 on a Barnes scholarship. There are eleven paintings by Settanni in the collection of the Barnes Foundation, all made before 1940.   On the evidence of the paintings, he spent considerable time in northern France,  circa 1938-1939. Presumably, it was the outbreak of World War II brought him back to the States. His paintings, even those that portray life in the hard-bitten fishing villages of Brittany, are full of joie de vivre.

Luigi Settanni at the Barnes Foundation

1. Luigi Settani - Port-Manech, 1939, oil on canvas, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
2. Luigi Settanni - Landscape in Brittany - Pont l'Abbe figure, 1939, oil on canvas, mounted on board, Barnes Foundation.

23 June 2020

An Artist of the Silver Age: Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva

"How much has been said and written about the White Nights. How they were hated by those who could not get used to them, and how passionately they were loved by others....." - Alexandre Benois

How the northernmost capitol city in the world, bathed in pale light when not shrouded in total  winter darkness, became a city of light-worshiping artists is a story told in silver. From 1890 to 1920 St. Petersburg, Russia was the center of the Russian art world during a period that came to known as the Silver Age. It was also a time of tremendous social and political upheavals.

"Never has classical architecture had so much space to breathe." - Joseph Brodsky from "The Child of Civilization" in Poems and Essays.

St. Petersburg exists because Peter the Great wanted a better seaport than the one he had inherited from his predecessors. The site of a former Swedish fortress on the Baltic Sea was too attractive to pass up so, in 1703, a new city arose on infilled marshland, built by Russian peasants and Swedish prisoners. After Czar Alexabder II abolished serfdom in 1861, a new wave of peasants, thid time vollunarily, poured into the city in search of work. But marshland is an unhealthy place for people to live and the city was never built to support a large population. Without  much of a middle class, St. Petersburg was majestic buildings surrounded by  a sea of human misery.  It remained the capitol of Russia until the Bolsheviks moved the government seat  to Moscow in 1918. The city is home to the Hermitage Museum founded in 1764 and the second largest museum in the world.

St. Petersburg's majestic buildings cluster around the Neva River and a series of canals.  Devastating fire. common in the 18th century, destroyed the city's wooden structures but from the ashes came  enlightened urban planning, thanks to Russia's female monarchs, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. Pink marble from nearby quarries in Finland was used to reinforce the canal embankments and ice cream colored stucco buildings cast a warm glow on the watery reflections of  the gray northern light.

Bored by realism and enchanted by the artifice of  western Symbolism, Russian artists of the 1890s were ready for the next new thing. That is how St. Petersburg became a magnet for artists not lucky enough to be have been born there.  Sergei Prokofiev left Moscow to study at the St. Petersburg  Conservatory where he debuted the experimental composition Sarcasms in 1912.  Another Muscovite, Alexander Scriabin made his debut as a pianist in the city, later  proclaiming that his music heralded the coming of the apocalypse.  The new had arrived.

Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) was the magazine that inspired a movement. Artists yearned to reclaim the formal and technical rigor that seemed lost in the laxity of late 19th century Russian art. Its members dubbed themselves the miriskusniki. They excelled in art forms that required extraordinary concentration. The founding members of the  World of Art group included Sergei Diaghilev, Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst, and Konstantin Somov. Their philosophy  was summed up by Benois  as "not this, not that or the other in isolation, but everything together."

Benois had returned to his native city to take  the directorship of the Mariinsky Theater,  home of the Imperial Ballet. Paris had been exciting but Russian ballet was about to set fire to the stage thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Diaghilev and Bakst and to Benois,  their librettist and set designer. Sergei Makovsky would declare with good reason in 1910, "Over the last ten years Russian art has done the work of a whole generation."

A newcomer to Mir Iskusskva, Anna Ostroumovaa-Lebedeva (1871-1955)  was a loyal resident of her native city, throughout  the  name changes decreed by successive regimes. Born in St. Petersburg  which became Petrograd after the 1917 Revolution, she died in Leningrad in 1955. On May 4, 1901,  When students demonstrating at  the Kazan Cathedral had been beaten and some even killed by the Tsar's police in 1901, Ostroumova-Lebedeva took to bed for two days with what she described as a mental breakdown.  Whatever her inner turmoil, it never surfaced in her art. When the riots of the 1905 Revolution were brutally suppressed by the Tsar, life in Russia seemed to take on the more horrific aspects of the Symbolist vision. Nevertheless, that same year Anna married Sergei Lebedev, a chemist.

If St. Petersburg was Russia's window to Europe, it opened onto Paris.  Shortly after arriving in Paris, Ostroumova-Lebedeva and Alexandre Benois met at the home of their mutual friend Konstantin Somov. Ostroumova and Somov were both students of James McNeill Whistler.  An erratic teacher at best, Whistler had implored Ostroumova to accompany him to America for further study although he had initially dismissed her contemptuously: "But you can do nothing, you know nothing, I can't teach you!"  In her memoirs, Ostroumova-Lebedeva recalled his unorthodox teaching methods.  "Many things surprised me or even seemed quite funny to me: the complete lack of freedom or any independence and the absolute to all rules insisted on by Whistler." In addition, "To mix colors on a palette one had to use a special  method insisted on by Whistler and if you try to d it your own way your neighbors grab hold of your hands because they watch you the whole time."

For Ostroumova, the impetus to study in Paris was partly practical.  "My father has told us many times, that he will not be able to support us in the future, that he will give us a good education, and that we will have to earn our living."  While Anna chose art, her sister Sonia chose chemistry. From 1900 until the October Revolution Anna traveled frequently around Europe. At home she participated in the Community of St. Eugenia, a group that funded the building of hospitals, trained nurses, and sheltered the poor.  It was disbanded by the Communist Part in 1920 on the ground that charity was no longer needed in a workers' state.

Ostroumova-Lebedeva  pioneered the use of the woodcut print in Russian art.  Her cityscapes of old St. Petersburg are much admired for their architectural elegance; I am intrigued by her attention to the developing industrial aspects of the modern metropolis, a subject that was derided by her fellow miriskusnikiLeningrad Fishing Boys (at left) shows a group of little boys dwarfed by a warship in 1942. Among other accomplishments, she reinvigorated the medium of engraving and introduced her countrymen to Japanese prints. Like Benois, she put painting aside in favor of other media.

From 1918 to 1922 Ostroumova-Lebedeva taught at the Institute of Photography and, after 1934, at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts.  In the meantime, Benois had become a curator of paintings at the Hermitage Museum; while there he published a monograph on Ostroumova-Lebedva's work. But Benois left definitively for Paris in 1927.  Ostroumova-Lebedeva  lived through the  872 day Siege of Leningrad during World War II, continuing to record the life of her beloved city. Her images of boys fishing near a warship or bridges under construction reveal her interest in photography. Sadly, she became blind soon after her wartime ordeal, possibly due to its severe deprivations.  She died on May 5, 1955.

Read about The Other St. Petersburg

Images: Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, State Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia, except as noted
1. View of the Fortress at Night from The Leningrad Series,1946
2. View of the Neva River and the Stock Exchange from the Trinity Bridge, 1912
3. The Ekatarina Canal, 1910
4. St. Petersburg Chain Bridge, 1903
5. Filipp Maliavin - Portrait of Anna Ostroumova, 1896, oil on canvas
6. Leningrad Fishing Boys, 1942

17 June 2020

Afloat in a Cubist Boat: Marsden Hartley

"Spirit is awareness, intelligence, recollection. It requires no dogma ..."   -    George Santayana,  excerpt from Platonism and the Spiritual Life.(1927)

It may not look so to us now but this painting was radical when it  was painted by Marsden Hartley in 1916.  It would be ten more years before other American artists would follow his example down the
non-objective path. The boy who grew up in a small industrial city in southern Maine went on to  become one of the most cosmopolitan of American artists.

Hartley spent the summer of 1916 in Provincetown and the winter in Bermuda.  Provincetow was crowded that summer, not only with painters like Hartley's friend Charles Demuth and William  and Marguerite Zorach but the journalist John Reed was summering there.  Four years later Reed  published his eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World. And so, when Warren Beatty produced the movie Reds, his  version of those events in 1981, there was a cameo appearance ny "Marsden Hartley."

 Something about sun and the water  inspired a series of paintings of sailboats in which Hartley worked out his response to cubism.  The colors are uniformly muted, pale shades of blue, pink, yellow, and beige, accented by touches of white. Hartley outlined the forms with soft graphite  pencil , allowing the colors to merge over the lines. The sails are precisely drawn; they unfurl in overlapping planes, giving just a hint of perspective. Windswept, the sails are all angular blocks of color, balanced by the curve of the hull and an unexplained half bullseye on the sail.  They are tethered to a mast that has been reduced to a thin line ending in  a small black knob touching the top of the canvas.  The rudder and  tiller at bottom Combining  rectangular and rounded elements, the rudder and tiller anchor the sailboat in an indeterminate, colorless setting. Thus, the boat sails, but not visibly on water.

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) grew up in Lewiston, Maine, the youngest of nine children born to English immigrant parents. After his mother died and his father remarried and moved to Ohio, the boy was left behind to work in a shoe factory. Reading took Hartley, whose given name was Edmond, out of his lonely world into the expansive world of  the Transcendentalists,  Emerson and Thoreau,  and  the ecstatic Walt Whitman.

Hartley's first solo exhibition in 1909 took place at Alfred Stieglitz's 291 Gallery in  New York.  Despite Stieglitz's many art world connections, having him as dealer was not an unmixed blessing; he was manipulative and often unreliable.  But at 291 Hartley got his first look at paintings by  Matisse, Picasso, and Cezanne.  

In middle age Marsden Hartley discovered the work of the Harvard philosopher George Santayana whose Platonism and the Spiritual Life.(1927) made a deep impression on the artist.  Hartley was what we would now describe as a deeply closeted homosexual and a bred-in-the-bone New England puritan.  Santayana, who published The Last Puritan (1935), a novel in the form of a memoir, was seemingly so far inside the closet that no one has ever been able to determine if he had any sexual relationships at all.

Image: Marsden Hartley - Movement, Bermuda, 1916, oil on pressed composite board, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

13 June 2020

Vilhelm Hammershoi: Aslant

Aslant is good point of view to the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1915). Sun slanting obliquely through a window is remarkable in this context because you look around and  notice doors viewed aslant, and even entire rooms. You may not recognize the British Museum from this side view across Montague Street, so much less familiar that the frontal facade. Did Hammershoi choose his London apartment for that view? It is worth pondering.

I. Hammershoi was a quiet, diffident person whose paintings have fascinated viewers by their withheld quality; there is something more at work here than arrangements of furniture and architecture.  Ostensibly realistic paintings  vibrate with a tension unique this artist; the frequency of imitations testifies to its power.     

II. In trying to explain what is difficult to pin down with words, rumors have run amok.   One  had it that Ida Isted, Hammershoi's wife, suffered from the mental illness that plagued her mother.  From letters Vihelm wrote to his mother, we learn that his concern for Ida's welfare led him to urge  her to marry him as soon as possible to get her away from a perfervid home. Another recurring rumor is that Hammershoi was colorblind because he painted soft colors; in fact, he simply preferred them.  And although Hammershoi enjoyed many travels with Ida during their marriage, being especially fond of the soft quality of the light in London  where they lived for several month in 1906.  Yet the idea persists that he didn't like traveling. 

III. The German language poet Rainer Maria Rilke spent several years in Paris, writing a successful monograph on the sculptor Auguste Rodin between 1903 and 1907. He hoped to follow it with a monograph on Hammershoi but it was never completed. Upon visiting Hammershoi in Copenhagen, Rilke found it difficult to converse with the artist..

IV. Researchers at the Hirschsprung collection in Copenhagen have yet to examine and catalog many drawings and letters by Hammershoi, a daunting task as it turns out: the man wrote more than he talked, it seems. The drawings show a precocious talent for drawing - and experiments with bright colors.

V. A dentist who collected Hammershoi's work donated twenty-eight paintings to the Danish State Museum for Art, thinking to secure the artist's place in history but in the 1930s Hammershoi's work went out of style and the museum gave the pictures back.  Too late, they realized their mistake; the damage had done, the paintings had been sold and dispersed.

VI. In a bit of serendipity, expatriate American musician Scott Walker, living in England, wrote a song for hs first solo album in 1967 titled Montague Terrace (In Blue); his girlfriend, soon to be wife, was  Mette Teglbjaerg an expatriate Denmark.

VII.  Terence Davies, a British film director acclaimed for atmospheric films, has talked about looking to Hammershoi's interior paintings  for inspiration for his two most recent films:  Sunset Song (2015) based on the novel of the same name by Scottish writer  Lewis Grassic Gibbons and A Quiet Passion (2016) with a script written by Davies, based on the life of Emily Dickinson.
1. Vilhlm Hammershoi - Sunshine in the Drawing Room, 1910, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
2. Vilhelm Hammershoi -  Bedroom - Strandgade 30, 1906, oil on canvas, private collection.
3. Vilhelm Hammershoi -  British Museum from Montague Street, 1906, oil on canvas.

08 June 2020

Charles Prendergast: An Offering

"Under the bright glazes
Esau watches Jacob,
Cain watches Abel.
With the same heavy eyes
the tilemaker's Arab assistant
watches me,
all of us wondering
why for every pair
there is just one
 - excerpt from "At the Armenian Tile Shop" from Mosaic by Linda Pastan, from PM.AM: New & Selected Poems, W.W. Norton: 1998

The subject of The Offering by Charles Prendergast was inspired by artistic depictions of the Annunciation. In this re-imagining a female angel with elaborate medievalized wings and an elegant Renaissance left-facing profile,  offers a basket containing flowers and fruits to a woman.  The woman's dress might be stylistically linked to Greece or Egypt, her hairstyle is similar to that seen on statues of  Roman goddesses.  She  holds a basket of daisies in her right hand and grasps an impossibly long tulip in her left; she is participating in an exchange of grace.  A Byzantine mosaic of a tree grows between the two women, perhaps the tree of life.

 A Raphael-esque putti plays a pipe; the chubby line of his cheek always makes me smile when I look at it.  At lower right a fawn nibbles grass.  Against an abstract background a single cloud floats by. Charles Prendergast has used the Roman  technique of atmospheric perspective, by which light colors were brought forward. And it contains these many of art historical references harmoniously.

For the ancient Greeks, offerings were reciprocal exchanges of grace, made spontaneously and bountifully. And they are still an important feature of modern Greek religion. The Offering was an homage to old wall paintings made around 1915, three years after Prendergast made his first gesso panel. He lived at a time when old worlds were being rediscovered, the arts of Greece and Rome and the Great Pyramid at Giza, for instance. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt had been translated into English in 1860 and the British classicist Jane Ellen Harrison published Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion in 1903.

Cennino d'Andrea Cennini (circa 1360 - before 1427) was an Italian painter remembered today for his book Il libro dell arte written around the turn of the 15th century and sometimes translated as The Craftman's Handbook.  The book was a how-to manual for the use of materials and techniques in Renaissance painting from pigments and brushes applied panel and fresco. Prendergast owned a copy.

Prendergast relished the demands of this painstaking medium, taking pleasure in all aspects of producing works of delicate perfection. For panels, he used sugar pine or old white pine.  He transferred the cartoon to its surface with charcoal, repeatedly going over the lines, incising them with gouges and chisels. Meticulously, he created springy, rhythmic patterns. Over this he spread several coats of gesso plaster and while it was still wet, tracing more delicate lines with a steel point.  A last coat of plaster was applied and, when thoroughly dry, sanded down with pumice and sandpaper.  Only then would gold and silver gilt and color be applied with an adhesive.

Persian miniatures, Egyptian frescoes, antique Greek painted vases, Coptic textiles, Byzantine mosaics. - all were incorporated by Prendergast in his panels, seemingly effortlessly yet the product of intense concentration.   The scale and at-the-front-of-the-plane placement is reminiscent of 14th century Italian panel and fresco. His toned reflective use of gold leaf combined the clarity of Persian painting with the muted quality of Italian frescoes.

Charles Prendergast (1863-1948) was born in St. John's Newfoundland, the younger brother of the painter Maurice Prendergast. When Charles was five the Prendergast family moved to Boston. In the 1880s Charles worked briefly selling household items door-to-door.  He then turned to custom woodworking which he found profitable but unsatisfying.  Irresolute, he turned to making frames for paintings and this led to a career in art in 1895.

With Maurice he embarked on joint study in the museums and churches of Florence, Pisa, Siena, Orvietto, and Ravenna; Venice was his special favorite. Charles was smitten by the beauty of antique  Italian wall panels. Nevertheless, it was not until 1912, at forty-nine, that Charles made his first gesso panel.

Almost immediately, Charles Prendergast attracted a small but important group of collectors including Lillie Bliss, a founder of the Museum of Modern Art. Another was Dr. Albert C. Barnes of Merion, Pennsylvania, then in the process of amassing the largest collection of Post Impressionist work in North America, who purchased four panels and a sculpture for his collection. Barres, who also had a great admiration for metalwork,  commissioned Prendergast to make gilt frames for many  other pictures, so the influence of Charles Prendergast is visible throughout the Barnes Collection.  After the death of Maurice Prendergast in 1925, Charles married a Frenchwoman, Eugenie van Kemmel. Charles Prenderrgast died in 1948 at Westport, Connecticut.

Image: Charles Prednergast - The Offering, circa 1915-1917,tempura, gold and silver leaf on gessoed  panel, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

02 June 2020

Emile Nolde: Terra Incognita

"The terra incognita of the not
proven that stretches between
the firm ground of the proved
and the void of the disproved"
 - from Pierce-Arrow by Susan Howe, New York, New Directions: 1999

"To a person who has no art in him, colors are colors, tones tones, ... and that is all. All their consequences for the human spirit, which range between heaven and hell, go unnoticed." - Emil Nolde

When I first looked at Mountain Slope Over the Sea I interpreted the blue orb as the earth, the yellow circle at left as the sun, suspended in a fiery, hostile atmosphere that is burning  the forests. If we follow this train of thought, the tiny boat at the right edge of the picture could be a vehicle attempting to escape from earthly catastrophe. Terra incognita, indeed.

"At the round earthe inagin'd corners, blow
Your trumpetts, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All of whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never tast death's woe."
 - excerpt from "Holy Sonnet Number 4" by John Donne

There are two ways to paint with watercolor, wet paint on dry paint or wet paint on wet paint  The wet on wet method offers possibilities for diffusing colors and softening edges.  Characteristic is that the result is not known until the work is finished, a bit like a potter waiting to see how her work looks when it emerges from the kiln. In Emile Nolde's painting Mountain Slope Over the Sea   the water in the stroke flows downward (think: gravity) from where the brush was placed. As the watercolor flows it changes shape.  Not surprisingly, wet on wet watercolor is good for representing water.

The Danish-born Emile Nolde (1867-1956) was a master of the difficulties involved in the use of wet on wet technique,  raising it to a level it had not attained before. Nolde was known for his spectacular juxtapositions of blues and oranges. Blue, usually considered a calming color, here appears endangered by the orange vapors drifting over the fragile green buffer of trees. For Nolde color was the vehicle for the expression of emotion, in parallel with the general trend in modern art to privilege the artist's response to the real rather than its exact representation.

"Nolde is much more than tied to the ground, he is also a demon of these regions." - Paul Klee.

Suggestiion: try lookig at this picture while listening to Terra Incognita, a composition written by saxophonist Wayne Shorter for the Imani Winds and recorded by the group in 2011.

Image: Emil Nolde - Mountain Slope Over the Sea (Berghang ├╝ber dem Meer ), circa 1905, watercolor

29 May 2020

The Quarantine Library: Part Three

I. "The very poor, it could be said, often find it hard to be loved."

Stig Dagerman (1923-1954) was a Swedish master of the short story, far less well known than the Russian Chekhov or the Canadian Alice Munro. In her introduction to this new edition of his stories, Alice McDermott describes how her own introduction to Dagerman's work come about through her friendship with his daughter Lo.  McDermott connects Dagerman's work to the stories of James Joyce for his "ability to depict the intractable loneliness of childhood," noting that Dagerman "tempers this loneliness with brief gestures of hope, connectedness.."

Dagerman's stylistic variety is impressive, unlike many writers whose stories seem to blur together into one giant word-lump. He began as a journalist but turned to fiction as its antithesis:"Journalism is the art of coming too late as early as possible."  Dagerman wanted to arrive in time early. From experience, he understood the pains.of impoverished rural childhoods. The story "To Kill a Child," was commissioned by the National Society for Road Safety to show the dangers of speeding and has since been acclaimed as the greatest Swedish short story yet written.  Others here include "Bon Soir" in which a poor ship's cook supplements her meager income through prostitution only to be escorted from the shop by arresting officers; a young boy, observing her tears and humiliation, discovers in himself deep compassion he has never before experienced.

II. "There were plenty of rules, there was nothing but rules - the air was thick with them." - Bette Howland

I first heard of Bette Howland in 1983 when her story collection Things to Come and Go was published.  I enjoyed it so much that I resolved to read anything by her that came my way, but nothing did.  I did not know that Howland won a MacArthur Grant in 1984, after which  she never published again.  She died in 2019,  from complications of multiple sclerosis and dementia in Tulsa, far from her native city  of Chicago.  Recently, while at home, I discovered that Things to Come and Go and Howland's memoir W-3 have become collector's items that each cost more than $100.  Howland's gifts of language and observation stayed with me and when Public Space Books republished some stories under the title Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage I pounced on it.

"A Visit" which opens the present collection is a surreal story of a woman who accidentally drives onto a closed road under reconstruction in the dark. The character in "German Lessons" is a landlady who obsesses about the imaginary illnesses of her mother-in-law, who is also imaginary.  In "Public Facilities" a librarian notices a man who always carries a book tucked under his arm: "He was hatching it."  Howland worked at the public library an also in the editorial department at the University of Chicago Press.

Chicago was Howland's muse and it never failed her.  Her subject was the oddness at the heart of everything we take for granted. A single mother of two, Howland suffered a nervous breakdown  in 1968 and  was treated in hospital.  Saul Bellow, who had met Howland at a writers' conference in 1961, became a friend, sometime lover, and most crucially a strong advocate for her writing.  In on letter, written when Howland was discouraged, as she often was, he wrote this: "I think you ought to write in bed and use your unhappiness. I do it. Many do. One should cook and eat one's misery. Chain it like a dog. Harness it like Niagara Falls to generate light and supply voltage for electric chairs." Strong words for a writer in a league of her own.

III. Collector or hoarder?  "The function of the two terms ... was not descriptive but social, that is, to warn those in society against straying too far into the ambiguity of objects and the relationships they were capable of establishing with humans/" - Michael Rips.

I don't collect anything; a friend once told me that my apartment could be cleared out in half an hour. So when I opened The Golden Flea: A Story of Obsession and Collecting it was with the spirit of traveler into terra incognita.

For decades the Chelsea Flea Market on Manhattan's lower west side, adjacent to the Garment District, was one of the largest markets of its kind in the country.  It has recently been razed, a victim  of the city's real estate .....Michael Rips, director of the Art Students League and a resident of the Chelsea Hotel, knows objects and he became mesmerized by the oddball objects he found there and the  buyers and sellers. There were the "pickers" who look for undetected treasures to resell at a profit. Ibrahim Diop and his family, from Bameko, Mali, tutored Rips in the importance of  sculptures  based on their effectiveness,the ends for which they were created, age not so much. Characters like Paul, the haberdasher, who only sold to customers he liked. Providing a taxonomy of types was the Prophet, a psychotherapist who offered analyses of its denizens of the Flea. Ibrahim

IV. Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970), one of the great 20th century writers from Norway, author of  novels,  poetry, and plays; The Hills Reply is the second novel (The Birds was the first) to be made available in English by Archipelago Books. a nonprofit literary press.  His writing is terse and yet.deeply sensitive in its effects.  The natural world has much presence as the human one; Vesaas asks us to question whether trees, wind, water, and stone do not possess as much right and reality as ours. His landscapes are lush, yet never sentimental. After all, the land supersedes us when we die.

The characters are often children (a boy helps his father tend a pack horse as they clear a logging road of snow, a boy watches cranes dance overhead from a marsh hiding place, a girl waits for a boy in a snowstorm) or adolescents on the cusp of adulthood (a young man contemplates the indescribable distance between the mountain he has climbed and the familiar sights of home in the valley below, another is bemused by sunlight making mirrors in water, falls into the river and floats downstream clinging to log, noticed only by birds and fish).  Most affecting of all, near the end is "Melody." A woman who loves to play music, so much that she will go on skis during a snow storm to play with others, becomes the subject of intense wonderment by her adolescent son.  He compares the beautiful golden girl, so full of promise in her photograph album, with the woman who works so hard around the farmhouse, and thinks this is not what she should be doing, that she must regret her choice.

Born in Vinje, a town in southern Norway, Vesaas lived a mostly quiet  his life on a farm that had been in his family for three centuries.  He got the travel bug out of his system in his twenties.  Quiet, as Vesaas knew, makes space the most intractable human emotions. He published The Hills Reply, his last novel, two years before his death.

The books in the order I read them:

Sleet by Stig  Dagerman, translated from the swedish by Steven Hartman, David R. Godine: 2013 (1947)

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage by Bette Howland, Public Space Books: 2019

The Golden Flea by Michael Rips, W.W. Norton: 2020

The Hills Reply by Tarjei Vesaas, translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan, Archipelago Books: 2019 (1968)

Image: Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior With a Woman Reading, 1908, oil on canvas, Museum Sonerjylland (Museum of Southern Jutland), Esbjerg, Denmark.

25 May 2020

Alice Halicka: Something Cool

She signed her painting prominently in an upper corner, a la Gauguin.  The colors - black, brown, red, blue, green, and white - could be used to produce bright effects, but that was not Alice Halicka's aim.
Here all is subtle, the arrangement a satisfying blend of formal items and the paraphernalia of an everyday tabletop.  A glass decanter an a wine glass flank a sheet of foolscap, paper used to commemorate important occasions. In turn, these are flanked by small ceramic pots and two boxes (the red and blue one looks as if may contain matches).

What attracted Albert Barnes to this subtle modernist picture?  My guess is that Halicka's color palette may have reminded him of  the one Cezanne used to paint Bathers At Rest, a Barnes favorite.  Such considerations were uppermost in his mind when he created  his "ensembles," unconventional arrangements of paintings and decorative  and utilitarian objects from many cultures.  And creative is not too strong a word for what he achieved through his demonstrations of the formal properties of the works thus displayed.

Alice Halicka was born in Krakow in 1894 and died in Paris in 1975. Her parents were Jewish; her father was a doctor. During her childhood Alice lived in Switzerland and Austria, as well as in Poland. She studied art at a private school for women in Krakow, directed by Maria Niedzielska.  At eighteen Halicka moved to Paris where she studied under Paul Serusier and Maurice Denis at the independent Academie Ranson, then run by its founder's widow,Marie-France Ranson. One advantage the Academie offered its female students was the opportunity to paint from live models.

In 1913 Halicka marred cubist artist Louis Marcoussis who was also Polish. Guillaume Apollinaire singled out Halicka's cubist works at an exhibition in 1914. A few years later Marcoussis advised her to give up painting, saying one cubist was enough in the family. Through the intercession of Raoul Dufy, Halicka  was hired by the Bianchini silk manufactury in Lyon. Halicka gave birth to a daughter, Madeleine, in 1922.  During the decade she illustrated children's books, Valery Larbuad's  Enfantines  and Israel Zangwoll's Les Enfants du Ghetto.

In addition to oil painting, Halicka created collages, watercolors, engravings, and stage sets for the  ballet (Stravinsky's Le Baiser de la Fee in 1937 was performed at the Metropolitan Opera). She even  executed decorative screens for Helena Rubenstein - New York in 1935.  Throughout her life, Halicka traveled widely and even lived for awhile in Benares, India. Marcoussis died in 1941. Halicka's autobiography Souvenirs was published in 1946.

Image: Alice Halicka - Still Life, by 1925, oil on canvas, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

20 May 2020

Jozef Czapski: A Not So Empty Train Station

"Each time it is almost nothing. But that 'almost nothing' signifies everything." - Jozef Czapski

Seven large empty baggage carts cluster on a platform.  In back is a train that is also  empty.  We don't see train tracks or the train station but we know they are there.  We also know that it is daytime because of the light streaming from the left, outside the frame.

Like a stage set waiting for the actors to appear, all the elements of the set are ready for the arrival of travelers and their bags, conductors and baggage handlers.  The muted institutional tones of depot architecture, the greens of the cars reminiscent of 'hospital' green, all typical of industrial paint.  Not so the yellows and oranges, fanciful colors that embody the excitement of travel. There is something quirky about these baggage trolleys  that makes a viewer smile at  these humble, utilitarian objects.  

Pleasure comes from the vibrant yellows and orange of the baggage trolleys set against the violets of the shadows.  These allow us to imagine the sounds that we can't hear - the buzz of people talking,  announcements issuing from a loudspeaker, the noise of the engines and the hiss of the air brakes wit What a contrast between Czapski's painting and the empty urban scenes of Giorgio de Chirico, where silence and lifelessness are one and the same. Czapski's talent was to make something vivid and expressive from  a glimpse of tiny events most of us overlook.

Josef Czapsli (1896-1993) studied art in Krakow, beginning in 1921, and soon after he began to exhibit his paintings. His painting life was sidetracked by the many creative outlets he found when he moved to Paris and, again. when Czapski became a prisoner during World War II; yet he continued to sketch on scraps of paper, he lost confidence.  After a postwar stint as an international diplomat, he returned to painting and by the time he painted  Baggage Trolleys in the Station in 1965 he was.....

Image: Jozef Czapski - Baggage Trolleys in the Station, 1965, oil on canvas, Aischlimann Collection, Chexbres, Switzerland.

17 May 2020

The Quarantine Library: Part Two

"Strange to see meanings that clung together once, floating away/ in any direction - " - Rainer Maria Rilke

Somehow these lines, seemingly unrelated to what I have been reading recently, nevertheless make a good epigraph.

I. The author of more than one hundred  books, all of them short (Artforum is 82 pages), Cesar Aira is one of Argentina's best known contemporary writers.  The first-person narrator of Artforum is a man obsessed by the international magazine Artforum, a publication characterized by cache, clout, and controversy.  Unfortunately for him, the magazine is be hard to come by in Buenos Aires and its maddening elusiveness only increases the feverishness of his search.  Haunting bookshops and used magazine stores, enlisting the aid of friends, he eventually breaks down and takes out a subscription, only to hound the mail carrier when they fail to appear on time. 

II. When I studied comparative literature in college I found that the short story has a longer history in Italian than in other Romance languages, beginning in the 13th century with numerous anonymous novellinos and followed by Giovanni Boccacio's Decameron (circa 1349-1351). "The Novel of Juliet"  by Luigi da Porto (1485-1529) of  Veneto  The story had been told previously but it was da Porto who gave his lovers the names Romeo and Juliet. The Neapolitan Giambattista Basile (1566-1632) wrote "The Cat-Cinderella" which inspired both Charles Perrault an the Grimm Brothers.

Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of  the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Emperor of Maladies, lived in Rome for three years where she immersed herself in the Italian language and plunged into reading Italian literature.  The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories is the result.  Forty stories, all by 20th century authors, include more by and about women than you usually find; each author is introduced and situated in their milieu.

Fittingly, the first story "Names and Tears" by Elio Vittorini (1908-1966) who, as editor at Einaudi, was the one who rejuvenated Italian literature after the Second World War.  Also, as a prodigious translator of  D.H. Lawrence, Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck.  A deceptively simple story about  a boy writes words in the dirt while waiting for a girl who does not come.

An unexpected tale from a familiar name, Primo Levi's "Quaestio de Centaurius" is a fable of magic and cruelty about a centaur and the boy who befriends him.  And a tale of an old man and a doe from one who should be more familiar - Grazia Deledda (1871-1936), the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926. A rare find is Alda Cespedes, a Cuban girl who married at fifteen to gain Italian citizenship and then enlisted the help of Mussolini himself to arrange an annulment.  She later became friends with Fidel Castro, who did not hold it against her.  Her "Invitation to a Dinner Party" is central to understanding the ways Italians dealt with the Fascist regime and then with their liberators at the end of World War II.  An English guest and a bourgeois Roman couple perceive themselves and each other very differently.  A particular favorite  author of mine, Dino Buzzati who is represented by a  story new to me, "And Yet They Are Knocking at Your Door." Like its author, it is sui generis, telling the social upheaval that of the war through a domestic drama overtaken by the supernatural.

III. Goethe famously said that  a person is worth as many as the foreign languages they speak and anyone who does not know a foreign language does not know their own. This is the pretext for an extremely clever novel written in Spanish by a Polish writer. Aleksandra Lun's protagonist is also a Polish writer, one who writes in an imaginary language called Antarctic. Palimpsests upon palimpsests occur through variations and repetitions that are musical in effect. Czeslaw Przesnicki, an aspiring novelist/veterinarian,  ends up in an asylum in Liege, Belgium ("a country that has not had a government for the past year").  His roommate and his psychiatrist are both hounded by their own issues. His therapy sessions are interrupted by a parade of writers who wrote in "foreign" languages - Conrad, Nabokov, Beckett, Ionesco, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Georges Simenon (a native of Liege).

IV.  Pierce-Arrow was a car company founded in Buffalo, NY in 1901;  Susan Howe lived there for awhile.  Peirce-Arrow is the title Howe chose for her poem-book about Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914), a mathematician and philosopher who, among other accomplishments, developed  pragmatism as a distinctly American philosophy, one that only gained attention when William James took it up.  As Pierce conceived it, pragmatism  was rigorously scientific while also containing spiritual elements Peirce's professional obscurity was matched by the personal obfuscation of his wife Juliette.  Howe writes  poetry of breathtaking artifice(I mean that as a compliment). She makes connections between Peirce and 19th century English poet Thomas Love Peacock, his daughter Mary Ellen, and her husband George Meredith, Tristan and Iseult, and other literary figures.  Howe has been labeled a Post-Modernist and a difficult poet. I found Peirce-Arrow delightful and a jolt to my own lines of thinking.

The books in the order I read them.

Artforum - Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver, New Directions: 2020
Jhumpa Lahiri, Penguin Press: 2020

The Palimpsests - Aleksandra Lun, translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer, David R. Godine: :20190

The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories - edited and introduced by Jhumpa Lahiri, Penguin Press: 2020

Pierce-Arrow - Susan Howe, New Directions: 1999

John Storrs (1885-1956) was an American artist, primarily a sculptor.  He studied with Laredo Taft in Chicago and with Auguste Rodin in Paris. In the 1930s he began to paint rather abstract pictures with human figures. Question: We see where the light from the window falls, so could it be that Storrs wants us to think of light emanating from the book?  I think so.

Image: John Storrs - Woman Reading, 1949, oil on canvas, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.