29 October 2011

Angles And Light

Although he achieved his first successes with unconventional portraits, the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916)  brought an equally fresh perspective to landscape.  What is, in fact, a barn built into the ground becomes through the artist's vision an abstraction of angles andf light.

Three remarkable images, all executed during the summer of 1883,  form a suite that makes a vivid impression of an austere rural aesthetic discovered in situ.  Bright light becomes compatible with mystery when buildings and even entire vistas are cropped.  Thanks to the introduction of photography eccentric cropping became a popular tool for painters at the turn of the last century and Hammerstein seems to be an early experimenter.

Our view of the farmhouse is what one might see from close up.  Then again, looking at The Farm we need time to orient ourselves to the angle of vision Hammershoi sets before us.  We know that we have seen something that looks like this before but what?   With these paintings Hammershoi refutes the idea that landscapes are conventional or unthinking entertainment.  They do not easily let the viewer go.

1. Landscape with a Barn, 1883, private collection, Denmark.
2. Farmhouse, 1833, Nordisk Galerie, Paris.
3. The Farm, 1883, private collection, Denmark.

24 October 2011

In Vienna. The Glasgow School

How  the group of artists known as the Glasgow School became the talk of the Eighth Secession is also a story of Josef Hoffmann.   The Viennese architect produced  the exhibitions of the Vienna Secession in its early years and, although we may not realize it, he invented the "designed" exhibition. What better way to show the work of a group of artists than through a multi-media installation?

The Glasgow School had designed several  stylish tearooms, spaces where women could socialize in public.  Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald,  Charles Rennie Mackintosh,  and Herbert McNair , two sisters and their  husbands, were known collectively as 'The Four.'   The Mackintoshs were the leaders, Margaret specialized in painting and glass art; Charles was an architect.

 Several times Josef Hoffmann had visited England to study the Arts & Crafts  design and it was his invitation that brought the Glasgow group to Vienna.  The tearoom installation at the Eighth Secession used furniture designs from their Argyle Street Tearoom, including the Mackintosh 'rose' high-backed chair.  Critics and the public agreed in their praise of its airy charms  and, as happened with Fernand Khnopff's work  in 1898, local museums and collectors bought.  Interestingly, The Seven Princesses - after Maurice Maeterlinck now in the Museum of Applied Culture, Vienna predates Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh's masterly  Mysterious Garden (Scottish National Gallery).

Critics are still debating how much the visiting Scots influenced Viennese modernism but by 1900 the curvilinear style had become  like the child who doesn't realize how tired she is and keeps on running around until she drops.  The salutary effects of applied geometry were ready to make things new again.  This time to be mixed with elements of  medieval revival and recently discovered  Japanese arts of the floating world.

1.Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh - frieze for Argyle Street tearoom, c.1898, Hunterian Gallery, University of Glasgow.
2. unidentified photographer - tearoom installation, 1900, Vienna, Hunterian Gallery, University of Glasgow.
3. Charles Rennie Mackintosh - chair, c.1898, Hunterian Gallery, University of Glasgow.
4. Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh - Junirose, 1898, Osterreisches Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
5. Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh - The Seven Princesses - after Maurice Maerterlinck, 1906, Museum of Applied Culture, Vienna.
6. Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh - The White Rose and the Red Rose, 1902, Waerendorfer Collection, Vienna.
7. Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh -    Deustche Kunst und Dekoration - cover, May 1902, Heidelberg University Digital Library.

22 October 2011

In Vienna. Fernand Khnopff

The last time we looked at Fernand Khnopff's In Fosset. Still Waters, (January 31, 2011) I mentioned the impact the painting made when it was shown at the Vienna Secession in 1898.    Another Khnopff landscape, In Fosset. Under The Trees has had an even longer half-life.  Gustav Klimt made several under the influence of its stylized vertical tree trunks, notably Birch Forest. Buchenwald I (1901, Dresden Gemmaldegalerie) and the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch was obsessed by them.   Philippe Roberts-Jones, like Khnopff a Belgian, was the first to point out  the similarity between Khnopff's forest and Rene Magritte's Leader of the Pack (1955),  dominated by an impossibly large, nut-collecting squirrel.  

Comparing Magritte's work with another Symbolist, William Degouve de Nuncques (March 2008), illustrates that the Surrealists shared the Symbolist knack for making pictures out of ideas.  The ideas in Fernand Khnopff's paintings were often presented like Zen Koans, in a form inaccessible to the rational mind. Paradoxically, this held true even when, as he often did, Khnopff created and named his images for the works of writers he admired.

Khnopff's work was the star of the first Viennese Secession in March, 1898, and included mixed-media sculptures like the Head of a Young Englishwoman which was bought by Adolphe Stoclet,  a Belgian engineer  in Vienna to supervise some railroad construction.  Stoclet, who came from an artistic family, (he was a nephew of painter Alfred Stevens) met architect Josef Hoffmann on the trip.   Today Stoclet is remembered for  commissioning Hoffmann to design his new home in Brussels - the Palais Stoclet.
Another Khnopff sculpture, Vivien, stayed in Vienna, bought by the Belvedere Galerie.  It depicts a character who is a thief of hearts,  embodying  two of the artist's preoccupations - Anglophilia and femmes fatales.  Lilie Mauqet, who modeled for Diffidence, was one of three sisters from Glasgow whose Pre-Raphaelite looks appealed strongly to Khnopff.   He  rearranged the branches on his family tree to give greater prominence to the English in his background.

 Listening to Flowers was already familiar to German-speaking audiences; it had been published in the journal Pan in 1895.  Inspired by a  Stephane Mallarme poem, the picture was an early example of another type of mixed-media work by Khnopff -  a combination of pastel and photography.  Khnopff was certainly a pioneer in this type of mixing, taking  a keen interest in the new medium and purchasing photographic paraphernalia for various experiments. at home  Some of the artist's friends were surprised after his death, when these items were found in his studio; the artist was accustomed to keeping his own counsel. 
Public attacks on his work at the beginning of his career probably only reinforced Khnopff's reticence.  In 1885, he illustrated the cover of a novel The Supreme Vice.  Khnopff knew its author, Sar Josephin Pelaldon, through their shared interest in Rosicrucianism.  Peladon was a controversial character who  dabbled in occultism and alchemy, and claimed to be the reincarnation of an ancient Babylonian king.  Unfortunately for Khnopff, his cover outraged Rose Caron, an opera singer whose portrait he had recently painted.  She claimed, whether sincerely or for publicity's sake,  that Khnopff had used her image in making it.  The young artist was so upset that he ripped the original pastel up and threw it at her feet.  The Belgian press was thrilled to promote the scandal.
Three years later, another Peladon work Istar was the occasion for one of Khnopff's most disturbing works.  The image shows a woman with her arms raised (possibly bound?) above her head.  Meanwhile, serpent-like vegetation binds her legs and claws at her genitals. 
 The Viennese magazine Ver Sacrum devoted its issue of December 1898 to honor Khnopff's work. All the works illustrated here were included among the twenty-one that Khnopff chose for the Vienna exhibition.

“we who seem to desire one another, my sister, we recognize each other. 
Yes, you are my sister since you recite softly the hymns of the unreal that I chant at the top of my voice.  Yes, you are my sister, because you have not hearkened to the mortal stammerers of love and the gross jolts of women…
Sisterhood, incest, virtue or sin, assumption or fall, whatever shall be the fate of our love, new born that it may raise over us a mystical aurora…
Be my sister…If incest one day comes to join our mouths, we will have at least made the effort of a grand fate, and we will have fought, before our downfall, against the earth and instinctive force…” - excerpt from Istar.

Attempts to understand Khnopff's intentions are always incomplete.  When Khnopff was interviewed in Vienna by Ludwig Hevesi in March, 1898, he complained that "everyone classified me as a Symbolist, they claimed to find a hidden meaning behind everything I made."  A disingenuous comment from an unreliable narrator.  From Charles Baudelaire, a poet admired by Khnopff, these lines that serve to get at the fascination Khnopff's work continues to exert.

" We cannot but arrive at this truth that everything is hieroglyphic...Well, what is a poet - I take this word in its widest sense - if not a translator, a decipherer?"

What does With Verhaeren. An Angel  look like from this perspective?  There is an angel who passes for feminine, a Wagnerian figure with strong features and a tragic expression.  She controls with one hand a sphinx with a massive head and an ecstatic expression.  Interpretation is a risky business.

In Fernand Khnopff, the Viennese found much to admire.  His quixotic mixing of sacred  imagery,  symbolic decadence, and uneasy attraction to modernity was just what their new movement in art was looking for.  For Khnopff the triumph must have been especially sweet:  his family had been raised to the aristocracy by the Emperor in 1621.

1. In Fosset. Still Water, 1894, Osterreisches Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
2. In Fosset. Under the Trees, 1894, Belgian Royal Museum of Art, Brussels.
3. cover of Ver Sacrum, December 1898, Heidelberg University Digital Archive.
4. Head of a Young Woman, 1898, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
5. Vivien, 1896, Osterreisches Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
6. Diffidence, 1893, private collection, Belgium.
7. Listening to Flowers,  1892, private collection, Belgium.
8. After Josephin Peladon. The Supreme Vice, 1885, private collection, Belgium.
9. Istar, 1888, private collection, Belgium.
10. Soltiude, 18981, Belgian Royal Museum of Fine Art, Brussels.
11. With Verhaeren. An Angel, c.1898, Belgian Royal Museum of Art, Brussels.

18 October 2011

California Landscapeland

Landscape,  the aesthetic version of the natural world, has a long history in art, dating back to the Renaissance, when it began to emerge from the background of  religious subjects.  It fell out of favor with early 20th century  Modernists.  Only recently, exhibitions devoted to the landscapes of Gustav Klimt, who died in 1918, have come as a revelation.  It was left to photographers and the makers of prints, flying under the radar.  They knew what Virgil had written in The Golden Age Returns from the fourth Eclogue:

"...faint traces of our former wickedness will linger on, to make us venture on the seas in ships, build walls around our cities, and plow the soil."

California, growing exponentially at the same time, was a veritable landscapeland, with Sequoia forests and barren depths of the aptly named Death Valley.   Pedro de Lemos, (1882-1954)  director of the Stanford Museum, and William Rice, (1873 – 1963) s an early  teacher of woodcut techniques, created  atmospheric landscapes in  color woodcuts

Unhampered by the limelight, woodblock printers tried on borrowed styles from Japan and Mexico in their works. The diverse imagery of extremes of topography was united by a shared technique which, in turn,
 inspired several distinctive art movements.   Women gained a powerful and early voice in this medium, as did the labor movement and Latino artists. 
Several  artists went directly to the source and traveled to Japan to study printmaking techniques and aesthetics.  Bertha Lum (1869 – 1954) went so far as to spend her honeymoon studying in Japan.  Helen Hyde (1868 – 1919) grew up in San Francisco but was introduced to Japanese printmaking when she studied in Paris with the collector Felix Regamey.(You'll find both Hyde and Regamey elsewhere on this site.)  Hyde moved to Japan in 1899, later returning to live in Pasadena.

Anders Aldrin (1889-1970) immigrated from Sweden to the American midwest as a young man but found his vocation and his subject in southern California.  Attracted to subjects with romantic names - Echo Park, Silver Lake - he probably appreciated the symbolism that attaches to Zabriskie Point.
Other immigrant artists are more obscure, like Carl Langheim (1872-1941) whose work suggests the influence of by Symbolism and the Nabis.  The Wood could easily be paired something by Charles Lacoste, for instance.

Another transplanted artist, Elizabeth Norton (1887-1985)  moved to San Francisco from Chicago.  An example of a recognizable California urban landscape is her Berkeley stadium (1926). An autumn football game becomes a landscape by virtue of human absence.
The California Labor School in  San Francisco became a center of woodblock printing and, today, the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts has a large collection of color woodcuts.
1. William S. Rice - Twilight - East Oakland, 1920s, San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts.
2. William S. Rice - The Adobe House, c. 1920-1935, San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts.
3. William S. Rioce - Eucalyptus Grove, c1920-35, Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco.
4. Pedro de Lemos - Hillside Harvest, C 1919, Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco.
5. Bessie Ella Hazen (1881-1946) - Carmel Cypresses, undated, San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts.
6. Bertha Lum - Point Lobos, 1929< Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.
7. Helen Hyde - Church in Cuernavaca, 1912, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.
8. Anders Aldrin - Zabriskie Point - Death Valley, undated, San Francisco Museum of Fine Ary.
9. Carl Langheim - The Wood, 1896, San Francisco museum of Fine Art.
10. Elizabeth Norton - U.C. Stadium, 1926,  San Francisco museum of Fine Arts.

10 October 2011

Veduta: The Bay Of Naples

“The most beautiful country in the universe inhabited by the most idiotic species.” – Marquis de Sade from Voyage d’Italie, 1775-76.`

Judged by pictures, the Bay of Naples is the Italian peninsula's most beautiful vista  The French writer Stendhal (1783-1824), who lived for awhile in Milan and served as the French consul to Trieste before the Risorgimento,  wrote that only Naples had "the true makings of a capital."  As for the other cities of the peninsula, .they were merely "glorified provincial towns like Lyon."
In the centuries between the fall of the Roman Empire and the confederation, Naples was the largest and most prosperous city on the Italian peninsula.  An independent nation, it kept its distance from the influences of the Pope and Rome Its merchants conducted a robust international trade around its large port, its governors enacted a n admirable legal system, and its citizens enjoyed a cosmopolitan culture .
All  this would not have attracted the mass influx of artists in the 18th and 19th centuries without its expansive international art market.  Pierre-Jacques Volaire of France, Joseph Wright of Derby from England, Thomas Jones of Wales, and Michael Wutky from Austria are just a few who came for the scenery - and the chance to witness and paint  an eruption by  Mt. Vesuvius.  Although most artists were not so fortunate (!) and had to rely on historical accounts, notably that of Pliny the Elder (  Natural History), who died on August 24, 79 CE, choked by ash and smoke when he sailed across the Bay of Naples to get a closer look at the eruption that buried Pompeii.  Still, it comes as a disillusionment to discover that a great and trusted painter like J.M.W. Turner fabricated his Vesuvius From Naples from the accounts of other lesser artists.

I have never been to Naples, although my father's parents were both born there.  Each moved to the United States in adolescence with their respective families.  Although Naples is one of the oldest cities in the world, when the Greeks arrived to establish a beachhead on the Italian peninsula, they gave it the name Neapolis (its Greek meaning is 'new city') and the name stuck.

Despite evidence to the contrary,  legends persist that Horace and Virgil wrote there.  Beauty does that to people, inspiring poetry and bending mere evidence.  An old Neapolitan rumor has it  that  when moonlight strikes the Possuoli Bay it is so beautiful that even the fish fall under its spell.  The usually rigorous W.H.Auden insisted that evidence proved that the German poet Goethe finally lost his virginity there, at the age of thirty-seven.

Veduta, an Italian word meaning view, has come to be associated with paintings of grand urban vistas, which include large expanses of water.  And mountains are helpful, too.  Naples has both, including one of the most mythologized and ill-tempered mountains, the volcanic Mt. Vesuvius.  The Bay of Possuoli Off the Coast of Naples by the German artists August Wilhelm Julius Ahlborn (1796-1857) is unusually charming, capturing the intense lavender blue of the water, and also curiously typical in its origins.  The veduta appears to have sprung from the paintbrushes of northern Europeans dazzled by the warmth,  light, and  sublimity of beauty and terror in close proximity. Even the starkly modern images created by the visiting Welshman, Thomas Jones (1742-1803), with their cropped views of Neapolitan vernacular buildings, suggest thrilling views just beyond our sight.

 1. August Wilhlem Julius Ahlborn - The Bay of Possuoili Off the Coast of Naples, 1832, National Gallery, Berlin.
2. Henry Brokman  - Terrace of the Hotel Cocumella, 1913, Musee du Petit-Palais, Paris.
3. Henry Brokman -  Terrace of the Hotel Cocumella with Mt. Vesuvius in the Background, Musee du Petit-Palais, Paris.
4. Thomas Jones - Rooftops in Naples, Aprile (sic) 1782, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

05 October 2011

Jules Bastien-Lepage

“And when other painters saw Bastien-Lepage´s pictures and discovered he had simply set up his easel outdoors, posed his models, and painted right there through to the finish, they sought to do likewise with an unprecedented fervor. All this activity resulted in a fresher, more vivid concept of outdoor color and by the year 1880 the plein-air movement was in full swing.” - Anthony Watkins

Equally so, the invention of the foldable paint tube in the 1840s was a technological breakthrough that made paintings outdoors easy.  Before he set up his easel in the open air, few painters had ventured outside as Jules Bastien-Lepage  (1848-1884) did.  A realist, like the much better known Jean-Francois Millet, Bastien-Lepage distinguished himself by the particularity he brought out in his subjects.


They stand before us, near the frame of his paintings, almost ready to walk out of the background where they stand.  Bastien-Lepage painted from a standing position to maintain the integrity of the relationship of the figures to their surroundings. His grasp of aerial perspective was much criticized but he defended it vehemently.

In many of his paintings the figure fills the canvas; the landscape around the figure is defined by the size of the brushstrokes the artist used to depict it. He used detailed marks for the grasses or stones in the foreground; broader, boxy strokes for the middle distance; and a series of softer, less definite strokes  suggest the far distance. Perspective is merely indicated, but notice the care Bastien-Lepage took in selecting titles for his paintings.  The  location and date of  Roadside Flowers in Damvillers is inscribed in the lower left corner, even as the care-weary child dominates the picture.

Bastien-Lepage grew up on a farm in rural eastern France, far from Paris.  Although his parents encouraged him to draw, they could not imagine a career in art for their son.  So Jules went to work as a postal clerk and studied art at night.  This context helps in looking at  Going To School  (at left), a work that might strike us as sentimental unless we remember that for rural children in the 19th century  to attend school was often a financial sacrifice for the family that depended on the labors of all its members..

While serving as a sharpshooter in the franco-Prussian War of 1870, Bastien-Lepage received a severe chest wound which may have contributed to his early death.  Having got himself to Paris, Jules tried ,with little success, to get work as an illustrator.  That came in 1874 when he showed Portrait of My Grandfather and again in 1877, when his Hayfield captivated the annual Salon.
In the few short, productive years that were given to him, the artist traveled to Italy, Switzerland, and England.  Several paintings commemorate his empathy for the working children of London's streets

The day after his death in his Paris studio on December 10, 1884, Jules Bastien-Lepage was buried in the family's cemetery in Damvillers.  The memorial exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay in 1885 sold out and his work was kept alive by the discerning critic Roger Marx, who arranged a show of Bastien-Lepage's work at the Paris International Exposition of 1900. 

The man, the artist, believed that everyone has a place in nature.    This is the connection between a figure like the woodcutter from Damvillers, whom he knew, and his Joan of Arc, a vividly imagined woman of the woods .   Both belong to a world that is encompassed by the phrase, coined by M.H. Abrams: 'natural supernaturalism.'

1.Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1877, Musee des Beaux-arts, Nice.
2. Portrait of My Grandfather, 1869, Musee des Beax-Arts, Nice.
3.October Season - Picking Potatoes, 1879,  National Gallery of Australia, Melbourne.
4. The Woodcutter - Pere Jacques, 1881, Milwaukee Art Museum.
5. Going to School, 1884, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Scotland.
6. Marchande des fleurs  a Londre (Flower Seller in London), 1882, via Artmagick.
7. Pas de mache (Nothing Going), 1882, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.
8. Joan of Arc, 1878, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
9. Roadside Flowers in Damvillers a/k/a The Little Shepherdess , 1882, private collection, France.