31 January 2011

Still Waters

"(A) mirror of the soul, and the depths that are divined below the surface join forces with the world above in a shared secret: neither the depths of the water nor those of the soul are ever to be plumbed." — Andrea Domesle

Fernand Khnopff's Still Water. Fosset   was shown at the First Vienna Secession in 1898. At the urging of Gustave Klimt, it was purchased by the Belvedere Museum  A panoramic view and an unusually large work for Khnopff, it depicts mostly unseen trees and a bright strip of sky visible only as mirrored in  water. Surely, it owes its brooding quality as much to Khnopff's eccentric cropping of the image as it does to its muted colors.   The sixteen year-old Khnopff had made his first sketches from nature in 1874, at his family’s summer home in Fosset, a hamlet in the Ardennes of eastern Belgium.  “Pas voir du ciel” he wrote on one, meaning roughly 'do not show the sky'.   In later years Khnopff always insisted that he had his reasons for the shapes of his image though, as mystification was one of his strategies, he offered no explanations.

The impression this painting made on its early viewers cannot be overestimated.  In short order Gustave Klimt painted Still Pond (1899 - Leopold Museum-Vienna) in tribute, though it is not one of his best works.   Twilight by the underrated Austrian painter Carl Moll is worthy of its inspiration; its invisible waterline draws the eye inward while it defies our expectations.  A fellow Belgian, Anna de Weert (1867-1950) came close in color and spirit with Canal In Ghent. 
To understand the impact of this one painting it helps to remember the ambivalences built into the use of symbols in 19th century art.  Water functions as a horizontal axis, positive in supporting life but when it acts as a mirror it takes on the vertical, with the implicit sense of drowning or at least absorbing what it reflects.  For  its original audiences, the still waters of Fosset were more than a static landscape.  They suggested the instability of nature and, by extension, of modern life.  Some of them doubtless had also  read Stephane Mallarme's Herodiade (1887),in which the French Symbolist poet had written:
"By the power of old silence and deepening gloom,/ Fated, monotonous, vanquished, undone,/ Like the sluggish waters of an ancient pond."

1. Fernand Khnopff - Still Water. Fosset, 1894, Osterreisches Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
2. Gustav Klimt - Still Pond, 1899, Loepold Museum, Vienna.
3. Carl Moll - Twilight, c.1900, Osterrreisches Galerie Belvedere, Vienna
4. Anna de Weert - Canal in Ghent, c.1900, Museum  voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent.

18 January 2011

A Spray Of Pollen: Lucien Levy-Dhurmer

What a difference a decade makes.  The  four elements of classical antiquity (earth, air, wind, and fire) that appear in benign decorative form on this vase made in 1889 become the pretext for dark dreams in 1900. 
In that millennial year Lucien Levy-Dhurmer won a bronze medal at the Universal Exposition in Paris.  Not-quite-human creatures cavort with black swans in an inflamed aura uniting fire and water. Black swans, representing deep mysteries, were a staple of symbolist imagery.    Gliding with no obvious effort through the water, they also suggested the permeability of everyday reality.

Often dismissed as an art form for amateurs, pastels became the favorite medium for the peripatetic Levy-Dhurmer, as for many of his contemporaries.  Easy to transport and easy to use, he found new ways to create spectacular effects with grains of chalk.  One that became a signature  created the appearance of a scrim between the viewer and the subject, a veil similar to the floral sprays of pollen that attract butterflies.

In his interpretations, such real locations as Venice and Constantinople inhabit the same universe as the imaginary City of Ys, said to exist under the waves off the Breton coast.  My Mother - An Evening - To See The City Of Ys draws from a whole other world of archaic imagery from his portrait of the Breton people. 

Levy-Dhurmer applied a refined style to every new medium he tried.  In 1910,  he accepted his first commission as ensemblier, (see The Wisteria Dining Room - Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, May 2008) designing not only architectural settings but everything  that went into them, so that no single element would offend the eye or be inconsistent with the whole. 


In his portrait of Georges Rodenbach Lvey-Dhurmer used literature as a stimulant to his imagination. Music often moved him to translate his aural sensations into personal images of powerful yearning. The Beethoven triptych, a Tchaikovsky Swan Lake (1905), Prélude à l'aprés-midi d'un faune after Debussy, and The Roses Of Isfahan After a melody by Gabriel Faure among them.

Like swans, like butterflies, his female listeners seem to move through time and  space effortlessly, achieving an integration of the senses that teases and eludes us.  Do they float or levitate?  The artist offers no clues.

In his later years, Levy-Dhurmer continued to travel.  He outlived Symbolism and its other practitioners, turning  to landscapes, including the series  he titled  La Calanque.

In La Calanque the rocky outcroppings appear like ghostly  icebergs thanks to extreme cropping.  Brights pinks and reds are the visible tokens of warmth on a summer evening; the green outcroppings among the rocks appear more robust in their fierce light.  The Belgian Fernand Khnopff created a Symbolist vocabulary with his cropped images; refusing to explain their meanings but insisting on their necessity.   Possibly, Levy-Dhurmer through this device lets us know that he has not forsaken his earlier preoccupations but still finds inspiration in them.  Abstraction and verisimilitude coexist in works that deserve an audience.

1. Fantasmagorie, c. 1900-1905, private collection, NYC.
2. The Four Elements, c.1889, Jason Jacques Gallery, NYC.
3. The Lake at Night, c.1910 , August Rateau Collection, Paris.
4. Ma Mere - Un Soir - A Vue la Ville d'Ys, 1898, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Brest.
5. Clair de lune, 1929, Louvre Museum, Paris.
6. Appasionata, from the Beethoven Triptych, 1906, Musee du Petit Palais, Paris.
7.  La Calanque, c. 1936, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

For further reading:
Autour de Lucien Levy-Dhurmer by Reynold Arnould, et al, editions des Musees Nationaux, Paris, 1973.

13 January 2011

Luicen Levy-Dhurmer: Painter Of Souls

"As a portrait painter he has the gift of grasping the character of the person before him.  He is the painter of the mind as well as the flesh.  In this respect he reminds me of a passage in the Journal des Goncourt where Edmond de Goncourt tells of the impressions of M. de Montesquieu, after a séance with Whistler.  M. Levy-Dhurmer seems also to "pump out some of your individuality - to take the life out of you;  he sees through your body into your soul."
 - Frances Keyzer, excerpt from The Studio, March 1906, Volume 37 Issue 156. 

Ever since I first saw this black and white reproduction La Paysanne Breton I have been searching for more about her.  Her quiet self-possession, her solemn, direct gaze fixed on the artist/viewer, are a testament to her individuality.  She stands by a weathered stone wall, a reminder of the endurance the Breton land requires of its inhabitants.
Lucien Levy-Dhurmer seemed to function as a medium, translating the souls of his subjects to canvas.  The Symbolist mantra 'close your eyes and look within' often led to hermetic art, but Levy-Dhurmer's work harks back to an earlier version of the dictum by Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840) :  “Close your physical eyes, so that you can see the painting with the eyes of the spirit.  Then bring into the light of day what you can see with your Night. "        

After viewing Portrait Of Georges Rodenbach (c. 1895) , the poet Robert de Montesquiou dubbed its subject  "the minister of swans" (le pasteur des cynges). The swans of Bruges featured prominently in Rodenbach's novel Bruges-la-Morte, an immediate Symbolist classic on its publication on 1892.  Although he had lived in Paris since 1888, Rodenbach  (1855-1898) didn't discover the art of Levy-Dhurmer until seven years later.  The two became fast friends and the portrait soon followed.  This remarkable image performs the sleight of hand of dissolving the boundaries between the author  and his emblematic subject although, ironically,  he had never been to the city. Using  the technique of  sfumato (from Italian - to evaporate like smoke), Levy-Dhurmer suggests a symbolic fusion of author and subject.

Ah, the mischievous gaze of Mlle. Carlier!  Pastel
creates a diaphanous setting for her formidable charm; she seems to throw powdery dust as us, even as she lounges in its haze of enchantment.  It would interesting to know what  book she is reading!

The woman of/in the pond in this  tranquil portrait is Emmy Fournier (1856-1944), the woman Lucien Levy-Dhurmer married in 1914, when he was forty-nine.  Fournier had been the editor of a feisty feminist journal La Fronde until it ceased publication in 1905.  In her calm self-possession she could be the older sister, or perhaps the grown self, of the Breton girl.  She gazes into an inertior distance, absorbed by her thoughts, her head turned as gracefully as a swan.   A preliminary sketch of this work was dedicated to Perla, Levy-Dhurmer's affectionate nickname for his fiancee.  Fournier kept the sketch in her room until she died in 1944, at the age of 88. 
 He made another pastel of Mme. Levy-Dhurmer in 1917;  it shows her in profile as she sits reading by lamplight, head propped in her hand.  The title?   La Fronde.
1. La Paysanne Bretonne, undated, private collection, France, Reunion Musees Nationales.
2. Notre Dame de Penmarc'h, 1896, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Quimper.
3. Portrait Of Georges Rodenbach, c.1896, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
4. Portrait of Mlle. Carlier, 1910, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
5. Portrait of Emmy Fournier - untitiled, 1910s, private collection, France.
6. Self-portrait of Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, undated 20th century, Musee du Petit Palais, Paris.