30 October 2012

Tondo As Art Form

Andy Warhol created this Tondo (Butterflies) in 1955, not long after Women's Wear Daily dubbed him "the Leonardo of Madison Avenue" for the success of his whimsical fashion illustrations.  In these butterflies, with their vibrant colors fluttering inside delicate blotted lines, you can sense a young artist chafing against the confines of commercial art.   The child of Russian immigrants, Warhol grew up in a religious family and continued to attend Mass and to participate in church works throughout his life. His  use of a circular form that was one of the glories of Renaissance painting suggests hist artistic aspirations taking flight.
The circle as an art form has ancient origins, usually seen as positive, and symbolizing unity or perfection.  Artists in  15th century Florence painted their round images on wooden panels and walls.  It was also customary to present a new mother with a round painted celebratory tray (decsa de parto) heaped with sweets. The sacred and the secular combined in underlining the importance of the circle.  The name tondo itself comes from the Italian word for round (rotondo).  Artists used the tondo frequently to depict mother and child in images of Virgin Mary and  baby Jesus,  Botticelli among them (see Madonna Of The Pomegranates).  Closing the circle of associations, for me, is a similarity between Warhol's butterflies and the blossoms dancing in air around Botticelli's Venus.
The sense of completeness  in these round images should not be taken lightly.  We are much more comfortable working with rectangular shapes and, in this,  artists are no different. 

 The cupola, or rounded dome, was also an architectural development of the Italian Renaissance that presented opportunities for painting in the round.      Lucien-Hector Jonas peopled his mural for the entrance to the Musee des Beaux-Arts  in his native city of Valenciennes with images from art and local history.
Garlanding the outer edge of the mural are figures of painters painting, models posing, and workers carrying canvases, along with groups of citizens in the streets.  In its center, which functions as background, the contemporary figures become part of a procession with  the arts of past eras, in architecture, sculpture, and a court painter at his easel.  Jonas may have intended him to represent Antoine Watteau, a local artist whose paintings the museum owned.

Today Pierre Albert-Birot1876-1967) is remembered for his work in the theater, as director of Apollinaire's  Les Mamelles des TirĂ©sias (Tiresias's Breasts, 1917) but in 1916  Birot created a series of cubist paintings in tondo form depicting nude women in classical poses (see Nude Woman In Her Bath).  Like Marcel Duchamp in Nude Descending A Staircase and Picasso in  Les Demosielles d'Avignon, Birot also delighted in making viewers strain to find the erotic aspects in his nudes, something he knew they would do.

The circular format  continues to be used by modern artists as various as Monet, Braque, Picasso, and Jackson Pollock.
Passacaglia is one of several paintings named for musical themes by the American artist Augustus Vincent Tack during the 1920s.  Originally a medieval street dance, the passacaglia  became a set piece in Baroque musical suites.  Tack had studied the paintings of Giotto, a 13th century Florentine painter on several trips to Europe.   In Passacaglia he began with  a drawing he had made of Giotto's nativity scene, reinterpreted in semi-abstract terms while using the colors from Giotto's Lamentation, so this was no simple homage, but a more complex act of imagination.  
Along with the tondo, Tack  also made paintings in the shapes of  half-moons and stained glass windows, combing elements from Christian symbolism with modernism.  Duncan Phillips, whose eponymous museum in Washington, DC owns dozens of Tack's paintings, admired the artist for what he described as his "abstract mysticism."

Katherina Grosse (b. 1961) is a German artist who often paints directly onto walls as Renaissance fresco painters did, an influence she acknowledges in her  2006 Tondo.  The format has so many strong associations with the symbolic that even a work of determined abstraction is suggestive.  Look at the bright stripes of translucent color overlapping on what we've been trained to see as a flat surface,  and imagine layers  stretching back in space and time.  Once again we see the paradox that limits set the human imagination free.

1. Andy Warhol - Tondo, 1955, Andy Warhol Foundation, Pittsburgh.
2. Lucien-Hector Jonas (1880-1947), Cupola over entrance to museum,  20th century, Musee des Beaux-Arts Valenciennes.
3. Pierre-Albert Birot - Nude Woman In Her Bath, 1916, Pompidou Center, Paris.
4. Augustus Vincent Tack - Passacaglia, 1922, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.
Katherina Grosse, Tondo, 2006, Pompidou Center, Paris.

25 October 2012

Enfilade: Vilhelm Hammershoi

In French, the verb enfiler means to to thread or, as defined by Larousse: " to string together as in a series or a row."
In architecture, enfilade is the term that defines what you are looking at in these images, an arrangement of rooms that are aligned in sequence.  
There is the grand use of enfilade that began for Europeans during the Baroque era, in such  palaces as the Charlottenburg in Berlin and at Versailles.  Salons were arranged on an axis, from public to private rooms, giving a visual effect  that was both amusing and a an expression of privilege.  
Then there is the humble version, the one found in dwellings  built a room at a time and added to as time and money allowed.  The rooms may be perfectly aligned or not; there is no plan being followed other than that of necessity.
Today, we have become accustomed to homes where rooms are separated from each other and entered through hallways,  so this arrangement lokks odd, or even deliberately strange..

The  Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) painted dozens of interiors of apartments where  he and his wife Ida lived in the old Christianhavn section of Copenhagen.  The first and third images shown here are from Strandgade 30 and the second and fourth from a later home at Strandgade 25.  The doors opening from room to room or to indefinite spaces stimulated the artist's imagination and it does something similar for the viewer.
A painting like White Doors (ca. 1905) invites speculation, although it turns out that the wavering across the top of the picture (above)  has a prosaic explanation; the canvas was removed from the stretcher before it was completely dry.
Formal explications involving geometric planes and surfaces, and the representation of three dimensions on flat canvas, both make a connection between Hammershoi's work and modernism   And the door as symbol comes trailing a long train of psychological interpretations.

What interests me here is how these same views are reinterpreted  with the passing of time and the accretions of a shared life..  Ida Ilsted Hammershoi, who appears in the pictures, was the sister of another artist, Peter Ilsted, so her participation in these paintings should not be dismissed as unsophisticated or passive, as it often is.   With Ida in the picture, the furniture and the stove return to the kitchen of Strandgade 25.  We are also offered a better angle to view through to the living room and the distinctive wood-framed couch there.  Not only can we identify the rooms and their place in the couple's life together but the colors are restored.  Now we notice how the artist has bleached the colors out of his architectural interiors

This last picture of Strandgade 30 is the the yellow room (above).    Here the stove is not painted out of the picture; it is merely camouflaged by an open door (the chimney is suggested in the shadowy corner).  Ida stands in the next room that leads to the enclosed porch opening onto the building's interior courtyard.   That she stands with her back to us can be construed in many ways but not conclusively.  Sometimes the view of a woman's head and neck were viewed as a subtle suggestion of eroticism, or simply used as a recognizable convention in painting.  Modern viewers wonder if the pose erases a subject's individuality.  Some of the artist's contemporaries thought it might be a protection of Ida's privacy.
The amateur sleuth can assemble the floor plans of the Hammershoi apartments from comparison of his paintings.  But, be warned.  The artist moved even the heaviest pieces of furniture - at least in imagination and on canvas.

Note: Hammershoi usually did not record titles for his paintings, so most of them have been attributed by curators and critics.
Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior. Strandgade 25, 1914, Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen.
Vilhelm Hammershoi - White Doors, 1905, The David Collection.
Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior. Strandgade 25, 1915, private collection, courtesy of The Atheneum.
Vilhelm Hammershoi, Interior. Strandgade 30, 1901, National Museum of Finland, Helsinki.

18 October 2012

Rose Sauvage: Raoul Dufy

He was the indispensable man, the person who brought together the wild colors of Fauvism, the  plural viewpoints of cubism, interest in the arts of Africa and Asia, and an unapologetic talent for decoration.  In painting, tapestry, stage design, ceramics, and textiles,  Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) was creating Art Deco, a movement that only needed a name, starting in 1910.

We associate Dufy with perpetual summer and yet he grew up  in the northern French port city of Le Havre, a place of gunmetal seas and overcast skies.   His first encounter with something tropical came at the age of sixteen when he went to work in the office of of a Brazilian coffee importer, inspecting foreign produce on the aptly named  Quai du Commerce.

By the time Dufy arrived in Paris he was twenty-three and it was 1900, the year of the International Exposition, which he did not attend.  But the renewed interest in the decorative arts suited his style. Dufy did set himself up in a studio, shared with a friend from home, Othon Frieze who was also an aspiring artist.   They shared the building in the rue Cortot with  Suzanne Valadon and Max Jacob but  Dufy was not a typical Montmartrian.  In Portraits sans retouches (1952) Roland Dorgeles remembered him this way: “He was never seen untidily dressed, without a collar, slouching around in slippers like all his companions.  He loathed bohemianism.  His linen was always clean, his shoes well-polished, and he bore his poverty with a careless pride.”

In Terrace Overlooking The Beach (1907)   Dufy used stripes of color to create a sense of space in the absence of traditional perspective, much as he delineated space by adding hatching to otherwise blank spaces in his engravings.His woodcuts for Guillaume Apollinaire's Le Bestiare ou Cortege d’Orphee  in 1910 attracted the attention of Paul Poiret.

Of the two men, Dufy was the younger.  Poiret was already an established couturier, recognized as an innovator in fashion. He was an amateur  painter and collector of African art and the friend of  Derain,  Picabia, Vlaminck, and Dunoyer de Segonzac.     "We dreamed of sumptuous curtains and dresses decorated in the taste of Botticelli," Poiret said in explaining their partnership.  Poiret had recently returned from a tour of the Wiener Werkstatte, convinced that the French were ready and able to reassert their per-eminence in the arts.

The two set up a studio together on the Boulevard de Clichy where Dufy designed fabrics for furniture.  Dufy was also in charge of manufacturing at La petite usine or The Little Factory, as they nicknamed it.   Poiret later wrote “There were the two of us, Dufy and I, like Bouvard and Pecuchet,  a the forefront of a new profession that would bring us new joys and new excitements.”  Their standing screen (1912) of rambling roses (roses sauvages), falling leaves and  dewdrops is executed with the rigorous geometry that is characteristic of Art Deco.

Also in 1912, the Lyon textile firm of Bianchini-Ferier commissioned Dufy to design fabrics for them, an association that last for two decades.  The French government, too, recognized that something new, voting to sponsor an international exhibition of the decorative arts in 1915.  Surely one historical "what if" is the path the new movement would have taken if war had not intervened.

Paul Poiret, a canny publicist, came up with a novel idea to promote their work by parading his models dressed in Dufy's patterns at the races.  Dufy, in his turn, commemorated Poiret's feat in tapestry (Poiret's Models at the Races, 1925, private collection, Flammarion) and gouache (The Presentation of Models at Poiret's, 1941, private collection, Galerie Malingue, Paris) and paintings. 

In 1925, Dufy acknowledged his debt to Matisse for “all the new reasons for painting.”  Reflecting on what he had learned from the experience of his own  early attempts, Dufy wrote in his notebook, “Painting means creating an image which is not the image of the appearance of things, but which has the power of their reality.”  This was also the year the world finally discovered Art Deco at  the  International Exposition in Paris.   (The Societe des Arts Decoratifs had been founded in 1900.) In 1937, as another war was simmering, Dufy's La Fee Electricite became the centerpiece of yet another  World's Fair in Paris. 

For more:
Raoul Dufy: A Celebration of Beauty, posted at The Curated Object, May 2009.
Dufy by Dora Perez-Tibi, translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside, New York, Harry N. Abrams: 1989.
Images by Raoul Dufy:
2.Red and blue flowers - textile; design for Bianchini- Ferier, Hokin Gallery, Palm Beach.
2. Seahorses and Sea shells, design for Bianchini-Ferier, 1925, Flammarion, Paris.
3. Havesters, ca. 1920, Bianchini-Ferier, Metropolitan Musuem of Art, NYC.
4.  La Terrasse sur la plage, 1907, Musee d'Art moderne de la ville de Paris.
5. Atelier Martine poster, ca. 1911, Fashion Institute of Design Museum, Los Angeles.
(with Paul Poiret) - Rose Paravent, for Atelier Martine, ca. 1912, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
6. Textile design in black, brown, gold and white for Bianchini-Fereier, 1925.
7. Poiret's Models At the Races, mural, 1925,  private collection, courtesy Flammarion, Paris.
8. A model wears Le Perse, evening cape by Paul Poiret, fabric by Raoul Dufy, courtesy of Flammarion, Paris.
9. Le Tennis, ca. 1920-25, Musee d'Art moderne de la ville de Paris.
10. Rose textile, three cersions, ca. 1930-33, produced by Onondaga of New York, courtesy of Flammarion, Paris.

11 October 2012

Penthouse Serenade

"Just picture a penthouse way up in the sky  
With hinges on chimneys for stars to go by 
A sweet slice of Heaven for just you and I  
When we're alone
From all of society, we'll stay aloof 

And live in propriety there on the roof  
Two heavenly hermits we will be in truth  
When we're alone
We'll see life's mad pattern  

As we view old Manhattan 
Then we can thank our lucky stars 
 That we're living as we are
In our little penthouse, we'll always contrive  

To keep love and romance forever alive 
 In view of the Hudson just over the drive  
When we're alone"
 - Will Burton & Will Jason, music and lyrics,  1931, Famous Music, NYC.
Recorded by Ruth Etting, March 7, 1932, Columbia Music,  2630D (Matrix 152123),  NYC 


No other city brings to mind the glamour of the penthouse like New York City does.   Los Angeles was (and is) a sprawling town trying to maximize its suntan.  Paris is the city that has rules to prevent it from overshadowing its glorious self.     New York, like its people, stretches upward toward whatever is newer, brighter, higher.   A summer night somewhere near the corner of  East 42nd Street  and Lexington Avenue.  A woman stands  on the fire escape, wrapped in solitary  elegance, against a background of clotheslines in Martin Lewis's Glow of the Evening  (1929).  She gazes toward her architectural counterpart over a row of apartments: the Chanin Building, which opened just a few months before the stock market crash in 1929.

This is also a story of immigrants and people who were unafraid to leap about on tall buildings, even before the creation of Superman.   Ramon and Rosita,  a stunning dance team from Mexico City, dance a dance called the Southampton Hop on the roof of the Chanin Buidling, with the Art Deco spire of the Chrysler Building as their backdrop.  You can almost hear the lyrics of Penthouse Serenade as you look at the duo.  They were in New York to appear in the revue Midnight Follies at the Hotel Metropole in 1929. 

Joseph Spah, who performed under the name Ben Dova,  immigrated from Strasbourg, France. Known for his stunts (that's him teetering on the edge of the Chanin Building's roof in top hat and tails).  His greatest feat may have been his unplanned jump from the burning Hindenberg blimp in 1937.  He survived but, to his chagrin, broke his ankle in the process. 
The artist Martin Lewis traveled the farthest to get to New York City, arriving  at the age of nineteen from his native  Australia.  After years of working as a commercial illustrator, Lewis had his first solo exhibition of etchings in 1929.  Drypoint  is a difficult technique to handle but, in Lewis's hands, it loses none of its sharpness as he layers it with virtuoso displays of shadings.  I am not alone in preferring his night scenes for this reason.   Even the young boy walking by the shuttered factory in 1939 lives in  an urban wonderland, awash  in angles of light and shadow.  
As you have noticed by now, this is an East Side story.   The poem  From Third Avenue On (below)  by Djuna Barnes is determinedly unromantic.  Barnes, a reporter for several New York dailies, likely knew that the street had been used for practice marches by a ragtag voluntary infantry during the Civil War.  Her taste and her talent was for the unusual combination, the sharp contrast as in stairs and stars or prayers and swearing.  City lights are not natural and that is one of their attraction.

"And now she walks on out turned feet
Beside the litter in the street
Or rolls beneath a dirty sheet
Within the town.
She does not stir to doff her dress,
She does not kneel low to confess,
A little conscience, no distress
And settled down.
Ah God! she settles down we say;
It means her powers slip away
It means she draws back. day by day
From good or bad.
And so she looks upon the floor
Or listens at an open door
Or lies her down, upturned to snore
Both loud and sad.
Or sits besides the chinaware,
Sits mouthing meekly in a chair,
With over-curled, hard waving hair
Above her eyes.
Or grins too vacant into space—
A vacant space is in her face—
Where nothing came to take the place
Of high hard cries.

Or yet we hear her on the stairs
With some few elements of prayers,
Until she breaks it off and swears
A loved bad word.
Somewhere beneath her hurried curse,
A corpse lies bounding in a hearse;
And friends and relatives disperse,
And are not stirred.
Those living dead up in their rooms
Must note how partial are the tombs,
That take men back into their wombs
While theirs must fast.
And those who have their blooms in jars
No longer stare into the stars."
  - From Third Avenue On by Djuna Barnes from The Book of Repulsive Women, New York, Guido Bruno: 1915.

By 1931, Americans were officially Depressed, none more so than New Yorkers, whose city, the mecca for aspiring moderns, bore the dubious distinction of being the home of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929. Nearly half the theaters on Broadway had gone dark and the crash had accelerated a trend, already begun, of the exodus of the movie industry from New York and its environs, to Los Angeles.
In his book Celluloid Skyline (2001), James Sanders argues that absence only heightened the romance of Manhattan for filmmakers and film-goers alike. As for 1931, it was the year that Charlie Chaplin's City Lights was released and even the usually optimistic Frank Capra struck an unusually dark note in his comedy Platinum Blonde, whose plot - society dame is wooed and won by brash newspaper reporter - will be familiar to fans of Capra's 1934 classic, It Happened One Night.

1. Martin Lewis - Glow Of The Evening, 1929, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca. 
2. Martin Lewis - East Side Night, 1928, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca.
3. unidentified photographer - Ramon & Rosita Dance the Southampton Atop The Chanin Building, ca. 1929, Bettman Archive, NYC.
4. unidentified cinematographer, Ben Dova on the roof of the Chanin Building, 1933, British Pathe, London.
5. Martin Lewis - Little :Penthouse, 1931, British Museum, London. 
6, Martin Lewis - Shadow Magic, 1939, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca. 

You may also be interested in Djuna Barnes: Some Hard Captious Star, posted here August 23, 2011 and
The Book Of Repulsive Women, posted here March 17, 2010.