29 August 2009

Louis Welden Hawkins: An Englishman In Brittany

You might not think that the son of an English naval officer and an Austrian baroness would be French, but when he turns out to be a painter of the accomplishment of Louis Welden Hawkins (b. Esslingen, 1849 - d. Paris, 1910), the French exercise their expertise at cultural annexation. Intended for a military career, the young Hawkins broke with his family in 1873 and moved to France. After studying at the Academy Julian, he often displayed his work with the Symbolists.

In his later years Hawkins lived in Brittany. Did he feel drawn to a place with ancient connections to his native England? Perhaps. What we see in these paintings is a symbolism tempered to his rural surroundings. In The Orphans (top left) a boy and girl huddle together in a graveyard, regarding what we take to be the grave of a parent. The humble marker seems at one with the muted autumn landscape. When we look up directly, our eye is drawn to a tabby cat perched on the stone wall, back arched, by some unseen provocation.
Just so, in Yellow Umbrella, after our eyes move from the brightness of turning foliage to the figures at the right edge of the picture, then we notice a shadowy form in the water to the left of the trees: a mirage that appears to be a face.

Slightly less enigmatic is The Guarder of the Geese who clasps her hands as if in prayer, or lost in her thoughts as she watches her charges, a source of food or income for her rural family. If we are tempted to regard Le Foyer (at right) as a dour image, it is well to remember that the title translates as 'The Welcome'. Something in the Breton way of life spoke to a taste for ambiguity in Hawkins and, through his paintings, speaks to us.
1. The Orphans, 1881, Musee D'Orsay, Paris.
2.La Gardeuese D'Oises,, undated, F. Tahan.
3. Ombrelles Jaunes, c. 1900-1909, Musee du Petit Palais, Paris.
4. Le Foyer, 1899, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes.

07 August 2009

Elles @ The Pompidou Center

The title of the current exhibition Elles @ Pompidou Center is not precisely translatable. There are no gendered plural pronouns in English but it got me thinking about some of the artists whose works are included in the exhibition. Among the photographers particularly, there are numerous friendships and overlapping professional relationships and points of similarity with contemporary artists around the world.
The painter Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938) used to be better known as the mother of painter Maurice Utrillo and the model for other famous male artists, among them Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, rather than for her own work. However, Valadon's art earned a place as the first woman admitted to the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Her family portrait (at left) includes her mother, a poor unmarried laundress who cared for Suzanne’s son while she painted, and the grown up Maurice. Not a typical family, as we intuit from the disunity of their gazes; only Valadon looks toward us, enigmatically.
The iconoclastic Laure Albin-Guillot (1879-1962) was the most versatile photographer among these women, excelling at microscopic scientific photography and disquieting nude studies of both women and men.
Usually t
hought of as French, Dora Maar (1907-1997), the child of a Croatian architect, was already a respected photographer when she met Pablo Picasso in 1936. Maar had worked as a film photographer with Jean Renoir (Le Crime de Monsieur Lange) and John Epstein (The Fall of the House of Usher) In 1935 Maar made this image of her friend Nusch Eluard (1906-1946), who had been born Maria Benz in Germany. Nusch established a career acting in the plays of August Strindberg before she became an iconic subject in the work of the Surrealists. Nusch also carried on a liaison with Picasso, with the knowledge of her husband, poet Paul Eluard.
An artist skilled in photography and theater, who creates new identities for herself using mixed media in her works, staging tableaux of women that question notions of gender and identity, turning ideas of beauty and logic upside down. Not Eleanor Antin or Cindy Sherman, but Lucie Schwob (1894-1954), better known under her assumed name of Claude Cahun and for her scandalous (for the 1930s) crew-cut. A surrealist to her contemporaries and recognizable to our feminist sensibilities.
In turn, the photograph of Dora Maar (c. 1937-1041) was taken by her friend, Rogi Andre (1905-1970), born Rozsa Klein was married briefly during the late 1920s to fellow photographer Andre Kertesz, but in an act of colossal erasure, Kertesz spent the rest of his life covering up the fact of their marriage from the world. As Rogi Andre, Klein worked and taught, and was credited by the better known Lisette Model as her most important influence.
Think of an artist equally at home with literature, photography and theatre, who uses mixed media to experiment with notions of gender and identity, and in the process turns our accepted ideas of beauty and logic upside down. Neither Eleanor Antin nor Cindy Sherman, but Lucie Schwob (1894-1954), known as Claude Cahun, her crew-cut wearing alter ego. Considered a Surrealist by her contemporaries, she has been claimed as a premature feminist in recent years.
Dorothea Tanning (b. 1910 in Illinois)is one of the last surviving members of the Surrealist movement. She began painting when she moved to Paris and married Max Ernst (she was his fourth wife). Tanning has enjoyed a long and varied career in design and costume, sculpture, and printmaking, as well as painting. In her family portrait we see the other members as the young girl seated at left views them, the looming yet disintegrating presence of the father in his opaque eyeglasses, the mother and dog engaged in some perverse children's game.
What strikes me, finally, about the artists and the works here is how clearly they perceived the world around them and how much of that is embedded in each image, worthy of a thousand words.
1. Suzanne Valadon - Self- portrait with her Family, 1910, Musee D'Orsay, Paris.
2. Laure Albin-Guillot - Nude Study, 1945, Pompidou Center, Paris.
3. Dora Maar - Portrait of Nusch Eluard, c. 1935, Pompidou Center, Paris.
4. Rogi Andre - Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937, Pompidou Center, Paris.
5. Lucie Schwob - Self-portrait, Museum of Fine Arts, Nantes.
6. Dorothea Tanning - Family Portrait, 1954, Pompidou Center, Paris.

05 August 2009

Sleepy Trees

Although I haven't been able to pin down the date of its creation, Sleepy Trees by the Belarussian artist Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) is characteristic of his work between 1914-1920, during the time he lived in Montparnasse. It may be fanciful of me to think that this is a picture of La Ruche (The Beehive), the home for struggling artists where Soutine stayed, but no more so than the painting itself. As remarkable as the role played by February House in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s, La Ruche provided food, shelter, and a place to work to a bouillabaisse of writers and artists, including Apollinaire, Archipenko, Brancusi, Cendrars, Chagall, Robert Delaunay, and Leger. If the trees were sleepy, it was in contrast to the frenetic pace of the inhabitants of the house. If you thought that Soutine never did anything othe than his notorious 'carcass' paintings that drove his neighbors crazy with the stench from his models - nature morte, indeed - think again.

01 August 2009

Winslow Homer At Houghton Farm

Opening on August 18 and running through October 11, at the Lowe Art Gallery at Syracuse University, Winslow Homer’s New York State: Houghton Farm And Beyond, curated by Homer specialist David Tatham brings together a group of watercolors and prints, centered around the summer of 1878, a summer that saw Homer spending long periods of time in Orange County, New York, a summer of exuberant artistic productivity.
Houghton Farm belonged to Lawson Valentine, a successful businessman, whose paint and varnish company created the boat protector Valspar, still used by mariners today. Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and his older brother Charles had been boyhood friends with the Valentine family in Boston. When Homer moved to New York City in 1859, he renewed his connection with Lawson and Charles, a chemist, worked with Lawson Valentine.
Located in a narrow valley near Mountainville, south of Newburgh on the west side of the Hudson River, the 1,000+ acre farm purchased by Valentine purchased it in 1876 served the dual purpose of summer residence away from the New York City heat and a location for Valentine's agricultural research station, one of the first in the United States. From the farmhouse veranda a panoramic view of the valley, Woodbury Creek, the lower Catskills to the wets, and the Erie Railroad line provided a variety of potential subjects for an artist. Today, only the original farmhouse survives; the other buildings and most of the acreage made way for the construction of the New York State Thruway circa 1950.
What these pictures illustrate is that Homer was one of the earliest and most sympathetic painters of the American girl. Homer was familiar with Manet’s credo that “the most important person in any picture is the light”. To this, Homer brought his strong decorative sense, stimulated by his recent membership in the Tile Club. It had not been until 1873 that Homer had taken up watercolor, a medium then associated with amateurs. Through watercolor, Homer explored the boundary between reopresentation and abstraction, as he also lightened his palette. Success in selling the watercolors encouraged him to continue.
When Lawson Valentine invited Homer to stay at Houghton Farm, it was in his dual role as friend of Charles Homer and patron of Winslow.
Pastoral scenes of sheep grazing on gently rolling hills, attended by the daughters of local farmers, inspired the artist to envision Arcadian shepherdesses but not before an initial misunderstanding was resolved. When Homer asked the daughter of a poor mountaineer to pose for him, she appeared proudly in her best clothes for him. Crestfallen that the artist wanted her to change into her shabby work clothes, Homer came up with the idea to use some 18th century costumes that he had previously used for props and, so, a charming conceit was born of their collaboration. Somewhat to Homer's surprise, the public was charmed by these images.
The horizontal plane is dominant in most of Homer's Houghton Farm paintings. Even in the preliminary sketches, facial expressions are fully worked out without the sentimentality common to images of children. You can almost hear the rustling and buzzing sounds of the earth at work as you look at Homer's virtuoso displays of light and shadow. And in recognition of the work and economic value of sheep herding, the faces of the sheep are realistic, too.

Although Homer finished some of his paintings from Houghton Farm the next year, he went on to other places and other subjects, making this the record of a distinct period in the artist's work.