30 May 2013

A Summer Landscape: Vilhelm Hammershoi






















“We must never assume that artists did not see what they did not paint.” – E.H. Gombrich.

But how often do we look at a painting and not assume that it includes everything the artist saw?  Like the Belgian Fernand Khnopff, his near contemporary, the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi was the most deliberate of artists.  Nothing in the paintings is accidental and nothing is elucidated for the viewer. 





When Hammershoi (1864-1916) painted the lake at Gentofte (at top) in 1903, the small farming village was in the process of becoming a suburb of Copenhagen but for him and his wife Ida Ilsted Hammershoi, northern Zealand was a place for a quiet summer vacation.  There were new houses behind him as he painted and small farms nearby but Hammershoi chose instead  the light, and the water as his subject.  In Hammershoi's landscapes there is no discernible influence of the 19th century Romantic sublime with its mood of remoteness from the ordinary.  Hammershoi was perfectly capable of teasing sublimity out of the mundane.  His broad panoramas become, on close inspection,  carefully chosen and cropped.
In Hammershoi’s hands the road that gives the picture its name is its least noticeable feature.  Kongevejen, or the King’s High Road, was the main thoroughfare leading north from  Copenhagen.  The road had been laid out in the 1620s by order of  Christian IV, the king whose ambitious city building plans included the construction of Christianhavn, an artificial island bisected by canals,  where the Hammershois lived for most of their married life (at 25 Strandgade and 30 Strandgade). 


















At first glance, Jaegersborg Dryehave (above) is an ordinary forest landscape,  one of several that Hammershoi painted from the inside looking out.    Nordic painters often portrayed trees as something like symbolic humans in their vertical stance but Hammershoi draws our eyes to the spaces between the trees.   This  effect had been discovered accidentally by 19th century photographers, as a by-product of technical limitations.  In Hammershoi's paintings there are no accidents, and we are left to marvel at how he makes the trees and even the ground dematerialize before our eyes as he mesmerizes us with effects of light.














"When people who tumble about in the bustle of a big city think now and then -  perhaps with a little sigh of longing - of life in the country, there hovers in their mind the picture of an existence blessed with leisure.  They imagine  and endless series of quiet days in which every minute passes with the imposing serenity of a grandfather's clock that measures eternity in the parlor of an old farmhouse.
   And in reality, there is no place where time is more fleeting and where life seems shorter than in the country.  Even if the individual days may seem prosaic enough in their uniformity, the weeks are in a hurry - the years flee.  One fine day life is over and everything disappears like a remnant of s summer or winter nights' dream."
 - from  The Royal Guest (Der kongelige Gaest - 1908) by Henrik Pontoppidan, translated from the Danish by Phillip Marshall Mitchell and Kenneth H. Ober, University of Chicago Press: 1977.

Henrik Pontoppidan (1857-1943) won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1917 for  his portrayals of everyday Danish life.  His novels and stories included the upheavals of modern life that Hammershoi left out of his paintings. 














Note:  English pronunciation of the name Hammershoi renders the third syllable as "skoy."

Images:
1. Vilhelm Hammershoi - View Of Gentofte Lake, also known as Sunshower, 1904, private collection.
2. Fernand Khnopff - In Fosset. Rain, 1890, Hearn family Trust, New York City.
2. Vilhelm Hammershoi -  Jaegersborg Dryehave (Deer Park), 1901, Danish State Art Museum, Copenhagen.
3. Vilhelm Hammershoi - Landscape From Lejre, 1905, Swedish national Museum, Stockholm.
Vilhelm hammershoi - From Nakkehoved Strand, 1910, private collection, courtesy of The Atheneum.

23 May 2013

Chekhov, Our Contemporary

Sonya: "....it's incredibly interesting.  He (Astrov) plants new trees every year; he's already gotten a bronze medal and a certificate.   And he's a leader in the campaign to preserve the old-growth forests.  He says that trees are earth's most precious ornament, they teach us to recognize beauty!  Forests help to temper a severe climate, and in regions with temperate climates, people spend less energy trying to combat nature, so the people themselves are kinder and gentler.  And they're better looking, and taller, and more at ease with their emotions; even their speech and their motions have a natural grace.  Wherever there are trees, the arts and sciences flourish, and a positive attitude to life, and they treat women with respect - "

Vanya: "Bravo, bravo! That's a very lovely speech, dear, but it doesn't convince me.  So...(to Astrov) please don't hate me if I keep on cutting wood for the stove and timber to build a new barn."

Astrov: "You can burn turf in your stove and use bricks for your barn.  Look, I'm not against cutting wood, but why destroy the forests?"

Vanya: "Why not? To listen to you you'd think the only thing forests were good for is shade for picnics."

Astrov:  "I never said that.  But all our great woodlands are being leveled, millions of trees already gone, bird and animal habitats destroyed, rivers dammed up and polluted - and all for what?  Because we're too lazy to look for other sources of energy..."
          - excerpted from Act I of Uncle Vanya, translated from the Russian by Paul Schmidt in The Plays Of Anton Chekhov, New York, Harper Collins: 1997 (1897).
















Vanya is Sonya's uncle, which points to the importance of her character to her creator, in a play that points to her by indirection.   Idealistic, dedicated, struggling to reconcile the narrow confines of the estate where she lives with her large spirit, Sonya speaks for Chekhov's aspirations,  as Astrov, a doctor  (like his creator) whose experience speaks to their inadequacy.

In the background there was Russian  agriculture, using the most primitive means to the least productive ends in Europe during the late 19th century. Two thirds of the population worked the land that was owned by the wealthy few.  Living outside the cities, the landed gentry of Chekhov's play felt themselves marooned in a sea of dependents with whom they shared the land but little else.  The need for croplands and pastures was contributing to the destruction of forests, leaving ugly scars on what had appeared primeval.  With blinders on, we may think concern about the stewardship of nature is our  own enlightened invention.  Against that presumption of superiority, Chekhov created characters haunted at once by a sense of the insignificance of their actions and the calamitous consequences.  Chekhov, the poet of that which remains unresolved, is our contemporary.

Paul Schmidt (1934-1999) was the great Chekhov translator of his time, balancing the melancholy with humor,  giving a more fully rounded view of what it means to be a Chekhovian character.
His last published work was an anthology The Stray Dog Cabaret: A Book of Russian Poems  (New York Review Books:2007), discussed  here dated 29 September 2011 (Scream When You Leave).















Images:
1. Grigoriy Myasoyedov- Forest Creek. Spring, 1890, courtesy of Wikipedia.
      Myasoyedov 
2. Ivan Shishkin  - Near the Dacha, 1894, Tatarstan State Museum of Fine Art, Kazan.
     Shishkin (1832-1898) was a Russian painter who studied in St. Petersburg and also abroad in Switzerland and Germany.  He belonged to a group called The Itinerants and was a painter, in oils and watercolors, of the forests of his native country.
3. Ivan Shishkin - Lumbering, 1867, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

16 May 2013

"Everything Was Already There": Jan Groover

"I pretended I was  a painter, for awhile.  Almost as soon as I got out of school I started photographing - photographing the history of photography, repeating lots of things.  I was still pretending I was a painter, that way I could relax and make photographs, even make stupid  photographs, and it didn't matter.  I didn't have to take it too seriously....And then one day I had the thought that I didn't want to have to make everything up, so I quit painting.  Then I found out that you have to make everything up anyway."


The late photographer Jan Groover's work belongs to the type known as  formalism,  wherein the relationships between objects are implied through their formal properties. The older and more familiar Pictorialist photography told stories deliberately.    Paradoxically, Groover's concentration on the formal properties of objects  resulted not in dryness but rather in a rich visual experience.  

Like Daniel Boudinet in France, Jan Groover demonstrated that color and artistry in photography were not incompatible, an idea that was still debatable  in the 1970s.   In that struggle for recognition,  Groover's exhibition at the Museum of modern Art in 1978 was a milestone.  John Szarkowski, who curated the exhibition, wrote that "her works were good to think about because they were good to look at."    The public was dazzled and when Groover's forks appeared on the cover of Artforum, she was  vindicated.
Groover studied painting at Pratt Institute, inspired by the works of Morandi, de Chirico, and  Fra Angelicao, and the thrill of seeing Cezanne's painting of a lemon.  Around 1970, she turned to photography at the moment that a minimalist aesthetic looked fresh, after a decade of Pop Art.   With some success in New York under her belt, Groover received her first NEA fellowship  in 1978.  She bought a different camera anf tried photographing stille lifes of dried flowers but her efforts proved fruitless.  "They were disgusting" Groover later recalled.

 "You're having a hard time?  Why don't you go to the kitchen sink and take a look?' suggested her husband, the art critic Bruce Bois.
"So I did.  I was there for a long time, in one way or another, with those kinds of objects.  It was great.  I could deal with all the things that I knew about art."
Things like foreshortening and playing around with space. In her kitchen still lifes, Groover reprised the history of photography, calling up the ghosts of such French masters as Nicephore Niepce and Dauguerre.
The next year Groover began to work with platinum printing, a process used by many 19th century photographers.  Platinum prints were  known for their subtle tones, from silvery-greys to rose-browns, and were weel-suited to Groover's formal, restrained style.

"What does a lemon do?  A lemon lies down.  It can't do anything else but lie down.  an apple sits.  It doesn't lie down, it doesn't do anything but sit.  A pear lies down and stands up... So all these objects have these attitudes.  Now some objects have bigger attitudes.   An apple could have a big attitude, depending on what it sits with.  A lemon has somewhat of a private-language attitude to me because Manet did a beautiful painting of a lemon.  Then there are some objects like bottles that are containers, and its containership means something. ...So building up still life to have all these characters - I don't know what the sentences are, but I know the sentences make sense to me, when they make sense."    As for the plastic fish and little dog in the lower right corner, the viewer can only speculate.

On Fox Talbot: "His photograph of his dining room table with a ll that stuff on it just drives me nuts.  And I've tried to do that picture... It's such a great thing to have this round table with all these guys on it that don't touch other.  It's an odd little puzzle.  I''m just crazy about his photographs.  Well, he did everything - he mapped out the territory.   I mean, to have to fight today with the first guy to do photography is pretty amazing."    Groover's reaction to Talbot's table explains a lot about the droll aspect that we sense in her arrangements.  There is nothing inherently limiting in Groover's still lifes; it is more like a full table.

Jan Groover was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, in 1943.  Groover and Bois move to France in 1991.  In 1994, Tina Barney produced the documentary Jan Groover: Tilting At Space.   Jan Groover died on January 1, 2012  in Montpon-Ménestérol, France. She was 68.

For further reading: Pure Invention: The Tabletop Still Life: Jan Groover by Constance Sullivan, et al, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. :1990

Images:
1. Jan Groover --untitled, 1988, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
2. Jan Groover - untitled, 2006, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
3. Jan Groover - untitled, 1979,  Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
4. Jan Groover - untitled (tabletop), palladium print, 1983, from Pure Invention, Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
5. William Henry Fox Talbot - Breakfast Table, 1840, photogenic drawing, Science Museum, London.
6. Jan Groover -  untitled, 1979, Galerie Paul Frehces, Paros.
7. Jan Groover + untitled, 1897, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.