28 October 2013

Clara Sipprell: From Vermont to The Balkans

I. My parents  bought a print of White Birches In Vermont when we lived in Massachusetts and, years later, it moved with me when I left home. I liked the picture simply for its  reminder of New England.  The name of the artist, Luigi Lucioni, meant nothing to me; it never came up in any of my art history classes.   Then I spent  several winter vacations in Manchester, Vermont.  After my first visit there, I began to have an odd feeling about that picture hanging in the dining room at home.
I had seen that golf course and those birches  blanketed in snow, from the kitchen window on a old house by the side of the main street in Manchester.  The white spire belongs to  the Congregational Church on the Village Green. The old Eaton House is out of Lucioni's line of sight, hidden by the trees.  Lucioni wisely chose the most picturesque   angle for a scene that he would revisit several times in paint, ink, and dry-point.  In the background Mt. Equinox looms, the tallest mountain in southern Vermont, and  named  for the auspicious date when  Vermont's  Surveyor General reached its peak in 1823,. Mount Equinox shadows  old U.S. Route 7, on its northward way from Norwalk, Connecticut to the Canadian border.  This once revolutionary road was home  to "the most rebellious race on the continent", according to an outraged British General John Burgoyne in 1777.
When I was there, across the road from the Eaton House stood the  remains of the Equinox Hotel, its peeling white clapboards and rotting Corinthian columns flickered in the headlights of passing cars heading north from New York in search of  good snow-pack.  Begun as a private home, the Equinox Hotel opened in to the public in 1853 to serve a  clientele of wealthy city residents  from cities seeking relief from the summer heat.   The Equinox welcomed four Presidents, but not Abraham Lincoln whose wife Mary Todd Lincoln had booked a suite for the summer of 1865.  Exactly forty years later their son Robert Todd Lincoln would return Manchester to build himself a permanent summer home.
Times change, not once but again and again.  The Equinox closed in 1972, a victim of air-conditioning and the changing tastes of vacationers.  By the time I first saw it, the Equinox was thought to be too dangerous to enter and beyond of hope of repair.  Then an improbably poetic rescuer appeared by the name  of Perrier- Jouet  & Cie.   The pure spring waters that ran off the mountain had been bottled and sold by the Equinox Water Company from the 1880s to the 1920s.  There was even a ginger champagne! 
Once I recognized where the white birches were, I had to come back in summertime.  Then I discovered the marble sidewalks (four miles of them), the pride of the village, all the stone quarried locally and scrubbed carefully each spring to remove any traces left by acid rain.  

Clara Sipprell - The Ekwanok Golf Course In Manchester - undated.
This photograph was taken in the afternoon, facing east from behind the Eaton house.

Clara Sipprell - Congregational Church in Manchester, Vermont -  ? before 1960.
Next door to the north (left) of the church is the Eaton house. Note the white marble sidewalks.

Clara Sipprell - untitled, c.1940-50
This building is located north of the Eaton house and is part of the Equinox complex.  It was an abandoned ice cream shop when I first saw it.

Clara Sipprell - The Equinox Hotel (a small part of the facade that stretches for an entire block), c. October, 1937.
This photo was taken in the afternoon on a day much like today.

II. Fast forward to the winter of 1993, as news from the Balkans provided a painful daily tutorial in geography.  Alerted, I noticed a book Clara Sipprell: Pictorial Photographer by Mary Kennedy McCabe (Amon Carter Museum: 1990).   Until then totally unknown to me, Sipprell was a photographer had traveled to the Balkans in the 1920s.   My curiosity was piqued when I read that Sipprell's friend, the novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who persuaded to make  her summer home in Manchester, Vermont, from 1937 until she eventually moved there permanently.  Somehow I was shadowing Clara Sipprell without even knowing who she was.

Clara Sipprell (1885-1975) was  born in Tilsonburg, Ontario,   the last child and only girl in a family of six.  Her schoolteacher father,  died before Clara was born, leaving the mother to support the family as best she could.  One by one, the family migrated eastward to Buffalo, New York, where Clara's older brother Frank opened a photography studio.   Sipprell Photography was auspiciously located at 795 Elmwood Avenue, just down the street from the Albright-Knox Gallery where Alfred Stieglitz chose to hold the first International Exposition of Pictorial Photography, in November, 1910.  Clara began to hang around the studio so her brother gave her a Kodak and, in  1910, she exhibited her work at the Buffalo Camera Club, although it did not (yet) admit women.  Five years later, sure of her vocation, Clara Sipprell left for New York.  
Decades later, by then an accomplished  photographer, Sipprell wrote that she was,  “some kind of interpreter of humanity's eternal struggle to know itself and its surroundings through an unswerving faithfulness to the eternal truths.”   It would be easy to explain Sipprell's neglect at the hands of art historians by her unfashionable views or her adherence to pictorialism decades after it had gone out of favor.  But I wonder.  Sipprell never married yet she was hardly an insipid old maid; she loved to drive fast cars and collected the traffic tickets to prove it, smoked, traveled widely and photographed famous personages from the sculptor Rodin to the Queen of Sweden.  One recent (male) critic described her appearance in unflattering terms, as though that explained it and, for him, it did.

A tragic accident of history made Sipprell's work relevant once again. In her photographs we have access to another world in time  where minarets and crosses coexist, where women, men, and children lead ordinary lives, and the land is old, not the enmities.     And for all the times I travailed back and forth on Elmwood Avenue  and all the times I have walked along the sugar-white marble sidewalks of Manchester, I would have loved to have Clara Sipprell as a companion, at least in  my imagination.  Better late than never but still  too late, always too late.

Clara Sipprell - The Harbor At Split, Dalmatia, c. 1926.

Clara Sipprell - A Street In Kotor, Dalmatia, 1926.

Clara Siprrell - A Street In Old Mostar, c. 1926.

Clara Sipprell - A Mosque In Mostar, c. 1926

Clara Sipprell -  Woman Sitting on A Cobblestone Street, Montenegro, 1926.

Clara Siprrell -  Marketplace in Zagreb, c. 1926.

Clara Sipprell - A Street Shrine In Kotor Montenegri, 1926.

Clara Sipprelll - A Moslem Woman In Sarajevo Bosnia, c.1926.

Clara Sipprell - A Little Turkish Girl, c.1926.

Clara Sipprell - A Shoemaker in Sarajevo, c.1926

For further reading:
Clara Sipprell: Pictorialist Photographer by Mary Kennedy McCabe,  Fort Worth, Amon Carter Museum: 1990.

Luigi Lucioni - White Birches In (Manchester) Vermont.
Clara Sipprell - photographs from the collection of the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth.

17 October 2013

Ghirri & Antonioni: Blue Sky Or Red Desert?

“Everything has a blighted, faded quality about it now. Still, if you look at it for a long time, the old charm reemerges. And that is why I can see that I will lose absolutely nothing by staying where I am, even by contenting myself with watching things go by, like a spider in its web waiting for flies. You need to look at things for a long time…” – Vincent van Gogh

Although Van Gogh was speaking of southern France, his words could apply as well Emilia Romagna, the region that connects northern Italy to the the boot; a place that was old when the Etruscans arrived is measured in millennia not centuries.  The photograph (at top) was the last one taken by Luigi Ghirri, who died unexpectedly at the age of forty-nine.   It shows a tributary of the Po River, disappearing into a misty, uncertain  horizon, characteristic of the area.  Ghirri died  in 1992 of a heart attack while documenting the old homes of his native Emilia Romagna,  This project  was a continuation of Ghirri's preferred practice, which was to create a series of images for publication, often by the small art press that Ghirri ran with his wife Paola Borghini Ghirri.  On the occasions when Ghirri made prints  for exhibitions, they were usually the size of postcards.

"Photography … I believe it to be an extraordinary visual language for being able to increase this desire for the infinite we all have within us. As I said before, it constitutes a great adventure in the world of thinking and looking, a great, magical toy that succeeds miraculously to combine our adult awareness with the fairy-tale world of childhood "…  - Luigi Ghirri, excerpted from L’opera aperta, 1984).

Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992) has received relatively low level attention in the English-speaking art world.    If only Ghirri had had the foresight to attend Harvard University or hang around with Andy Warhol.  But then, The New Topographics: Photography of A Man-Altered Landscape, an influential exhibition at George Eastman House in Rochester.in 1975, and the movement that followed in its wake, seldom mention John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909-1996), the giant on whose shoulders these photographers stood. Jackson's preoccupation with aerial photography, a heavenly bent tempered by a deep respect for what we learned to call through his work, "the vernacular landscape"  was elaborated in the pages of Landscape, the magazine Jackson founded in 1951.

 Ghirri was born in Emilia Romagna  and lived there for most of his life.  As a young man, he worked as a surveyor in Modena; at first photography was just an avocation.  In the 1970s, Ghirri's early pictures were full of visual non sequiturs, evidence of an  acquaintance with Pop Art.  Then, in 1975, Ghirri saw an exhibition of photographs made for the American Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression and was moved.  Gradually, his photographs of the Po River Valley and its transition at wrenching speed by post-World War II industrialization,  with its concomitant air and water pollution .  Its flat land,  two-lane roads, moist atmosphere, its farms with dilapidated barns and silos were an invitation to melancholy.   Ghirri and his wife Paola Borgonzini bought a home in Roncocesi, not far from Bologna.

"You wonder what to look at; I wonder how to live."
   -  from the screenplay Red Desert by Michelangelo Antonioni & Tonino Guerra

To the east of Bologna lies the city of Ravenna, once the capital of the Roman Empire, where Michelangelo Antonioni  made his first feature length color film in 1964.   The working title of Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) was Celeste e verde (roughly, Blue And Green Sky) but Antonioni wanted more  color so he had the trees and the grass painted white to heighten what Andrew Sarris dubbed "the architecture of anxiety."  How and why Ghirri managed to achieve similar effects without direct intervention makes for interesting speculation.  It is likely, although I can't verify it, that the photographer was familiar with Antonioni's film.  Giuliana, the protagonist played by Monica Vitti, personifies the strain that materialism has brought to human relationships, the shriveling of intimacy likened to the wasting of nature, as the filmmaker sees it.

Two artists, then, with very different temperaments, at least on the surface, arrive at the same humanistic conclusion.  To paraphrase Michel de Montaigne, are we not brutes to consider a world that we belong to, brutish?

"It's too simplistic to say—as many people have done—that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. My intention ... was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable..." - Michelangelo Antonioni

 "When it comes down to it, perhaps the places, objects, things, and faces which crop up by chance are simply waiting for someone to look at them and recognize them without the scorn implied by relegating them to the endless supermarket of the "outside." - Luigi Ghirri

Postscript:  Paola continued to live in their house  at Roncocesi until it was severely damaged by fire in the early autumn of 2011.  She had hoped for a speedy restoration but she died unexpectedly on November 8.  The first major exhibition of Ghirri's work in the U.S. took place in November, 2008 at the Aperture Gallery in NYC.

For further reading:
Discovering The Vernacular Landscape by John Brinckerhoff, New Haven, Yale University Press: 1984.
It's Beautiful Here, Isn't It by Luigi Ghirri, New York, Aperture Foundation: 2008.

1.Luigi Ghirri -  Roncocesi, 1992, Estate of Luigi Ghirri.
2. Luigi Ghirri -San Pietro in Vincoli Villa Jole, 1987, Aperture Foundation, NYC.
3. Luigi Ghirri  - Comacchio. Argine Argosta, Fondazione Sandretto re Rebaudengo.
4. Luigi Ghirri - Bologna, 1985, Aperture Foundation, NYC.
5. Luigi Ghirri -Cervia, , 1988, Galleria Massimo Minini, Brescia.
6. Luigi Ghirri  - Magrete di Formigine, 1988.
7. Claude Nori - Paola Borgonzoni & Luigi Ghirri, 1990.
8. Still photo of Ravenna from Red Desert, 1964, Rizzoli Films.
9.Still photo of Monica Vitti from Red Desert, 1964, Rizzoli Films.