18 February 2010

Whiteworld: Constant Montald

"I can change water into wine
solve the riddle for the Sphinx
I like the perfectly primitive
cause they desperately need
my sovereignty over Third World Thebes
I’m a First World Oedipus

and Mother Earth is
down on her knees
Whiteworld. "
- excerpt from Whiteworld by Patricia Barber

It's not so far from the paintings of Constant Montald to the jazz of Patricia Barber as you might think. Barber's Whiteworld, part of her song cycle Mythologies, is a satire on Western colonialism. Montald (1862-1944) was a Belgian artist who used the symbolism of mythology to comment on the politics of his time, Belgian exploitation of the African Congo among them.

Yes, Montald's use of white is a notable feature of his work. As a student, even before he won the Prix de Rome in 1886, Montald studied the varieties of fresco. Delighted by the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the works of Renaissance master Giotto, he brought home an interest in metallic paints, especially gold leaf set off against Mediterranean blue. Even when the artist experimented with a monochrome palette, beginning around 1915, his work remained rooted in the basic white of fresh plaster. Something else is new in The Ladder and Garden Under Snow. Trees cast no shadows yet daytime scenes are enclosed in nighttime shadows. While Montald was creating these works, he was teaching future Surrealists Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux at the Royal Academy of Art in Brussels. You can see where things are going here.

Montald had married, in 1892, a textile artist Gabrielle Canivet, and the sylvan scene in shades of brown and mauve is full of what he learned from her.

Montald died on the street, apparently from a stroke, but his death shares the enigmatic, solitary vision that we find in his paintings. The beauty of the Art Nouveau architecture that had recently reshaped Brussels existed irrationally under a palimpsest made by the realities of two world wars, or even everyday life. Montald understood this and he passed his vision to Magritte and Delvaux.

1. Dancing Nymphs, 1898, Royla museum of Fine Arts, Brussels
 2. The Fountain of Inspiration, 1907, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium.
 3. Woman With Peacocks, 1909, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
 4.Tree, undated, Christies, Ltd. 
 5. The Ladder, Vincent Lecuye Gallery, Brussels. 
 6. Garden Under Snow, 1916, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels. 
 7. with Fernande Dubois, a tapestry, untitled, c.1928, Musee Communale, Woluwe Saint-Lambert, Belgium.

13 February 2010

Xavier Mellery: "Everything Is Alive, Even If It Does Not Move"

He who will manage to have us forget color and form at the price of emotion will achieve the highest goal of all.” - Xavier Mellery

For the son of a gardener to win the Prix de Rome for painting, a year in Italy must have been a door opening wide for 25 year-old Xavier Mellery (1845-1921). Mellery had grown up in suburban Brussels near the Parc Royale, immortalized by William Degouve de Nuncques in his 1897 pastel, now at the Musee d'Orsay.

Mellery's work, even at its most colorful, comes to us through a scrim. Although undated, his pastel of his childhood home, The Gardener's House, was probably an early effort. By 1882, when Mellery made this affecting portrait of his young daughter, he had mastered  elaboration of detail in muted colors He recorded a thoughtful moment with spontaneity; he knew her well enough to do so, unlike his countryman Fernand Khnoff, whose portraits of children, carefully considered and sometimes almost static in their effect,  were often based on photographs.

Perhaps the visual riches offered by the Doge's Palace and the Ca' Pisani, both in Venice, drew some latent sense of awe out of Mellery  a greater sense of depth and the movement that patterns evoke. Mellery was awed by his discovery of Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna, a master of spatial illusion, something that became a prominent characteristic of Mellery's charcoal works.

For the mystery and foreboding of the shadows, the meditation turned in upon itself and the silence are the very forms your thought takes on.”

 - Camille Lemmonier, excerpt from a letter to Mellery, dated 1899.
"Everything is alive, even if it does not move," Mellery wrote and it is that intention that draws us to his work. A symbolist but a gentle one, Mellery's portrayals of women are characterized by neither menace nor malice.

1. The Gardener's House, undated, Palace of Fine Arts, Brussels.
2. Portrait of the Artist's Daughter, 1882, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
3. Celebration at the Doge's Palace, 1876, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.
4. The Bedroom, 1888, Royal Museum of Fine Art, Brussels.
5. The Effect of Light, 1890, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
6. Beguine Reading by Lamplight, undated, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
7. Xavier Mellery - La Poverella, a statue in the foyer of the Mellery home, 1889, Belgian Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.