25 October 2015

Felix Vallotton: All is Not What it Appears to Be

I - There is a style of art criticism that I  think of as being peculiarly American.  Peter Schjeldahl, from his position at the New Yorker, practices it with relish.   The style was rejected as the "biographical fallacy" after World War II, but critics find it so appealing that it keeps coming back and, it can be a useful tool, if deftly employed.   Biographical criticism was made popular by a Frenchman, Hippolyte Taine (1828-1895). Taine's contention that you could learn a lot about a work of art by knowing something about its creator's life is one of those propositions that is so vague that it is impossible to disprove. That a Frenchman introduced this idea seems unremarkable yet  the French have long shown a lack of interest  in biography as is it practiced in the English-speaking world.

But getting back to Schjeldahl who has never met a dead artist whose sex life - or lack thereof - didn't make his hair stand up with anticipation.   Where an Abstract Expressionist like Helen Frankenthaler was always at pains to deny the landscape-like elements in her work, Willem de Kooning  was considered  a strong painter for including  subtle and not so subtle reminders of his copious sexual escapades into his pictures. Said escapades were retailed with relish by Schjeldahl is his column in the New Yorker.

II - The risks of biographical interpretation are nicely illustrated by the paintings of Felix Vallotton (1865-1925).   Vallotton, a Swiss artist,  is best known for his black and white woodcuts, particularly the  series  Intimacies  and Crimes And Punishments.  They are like firecrackers, some go off immediately they are set and some do a slow burn.  His paintings are not so well known in North America; most are in European museums.
Le Ballon (see above), painted in 1899,  is one of the best-known; it has been an inspiration to hundreds of photographers.  Indeed, Vallotton himself had purchased Kodak camera that year and 
there is a convincing hypothesis offered by critics that Vallotton created the composition of Le Ballon by using two photographs, one taken from above (afar)  and one taken from below (a close-up), approximating a view from underwater.   The end result is a painting that shows us two worlds - the world of a child chasing a balloon and the world of  adults.  I am far from the first person to notice that the shadow of unseen trees seems to symbolize the adult world chasing the little girl toward the future.
What might a biographical interpretation of Le Ballon be?   In 1899, Vallotton married a widow who had three children.  At thirty-three,  the  bachelor with a reputation for modiness had acquired a ready-made family.  Conjecture as you you like; here's what Vallotton had to say.  The boys were "two perfect cretins."   As for his step-daughter, "Madeleine parades and imposes her self-importance, her stupidity, her bossiness."  And again:   "She spends her time doing her nails and watching everyone's suffering as if from on high."  All this family happiness prompted Vallotton to ask himself: "What has man done wrong that he is obliged to submit to this terrifying 'associate' known as woman?"

III -  Vallotton's landscapes.   Felix Vallotton began painting his disorienting  landscapes several years before he acquired  his first camera. They leave the viewer in the odd position of never quite knowing where they are.  The artist called them "paysages composes" and with good reason; they were not painted from nature or memory, rather they were assembled from bits of nature that he relished and then combined into a whole of his own making.  Vallotton had his reasons for using cutout forms with contrasting colors.  He had belonged to the relatively short lived movement known as Nabism, a bouillabaisse of symbolism, abstraction, and infatuation with Japanese prints; Vallotton then became a master of the woodcut himself.  And  as to the problem of the elephant in the room: the only thing Vallotton's work has in common with Impressionism is that admiration for Japanese art of the floating world. His landscapes should not be taken literally  although he often named them after specific locations, you  will not find their approximations on location;  the artist was after a universal landscape, a landscape of the imagination that the Symbolists would have recognized as their own.
The early landscape Clair de lune (1894) is a nocturne in navy blue with a fat pink cloud conglomeration that looks more substantial than the land itself.  As for the  stream that cuts across the field reflecting the moonlit clouds, it is cutout stream, reminding us that although ink-dark colors suggest depth, this is a flat paper world, a floating world indeed.  After a few years, Vallotton turned to other subjects; when he produced The Pond - Honfleur in 1909 it was his first landscape in several years and, once again, a nocturne.
IV -  Like most artists with large oeuvre, Vallotton's work varies in interest.  There is really nothing to be said about his nudes except perhaps that what works for the natural world doesn't work well for human bodies. When the Zurich Kunsthaus presented a solo exhibition of Vallotton's work in 2007, it had been forty years since the last one.  Nothing equals the woodcuts and we would be poorer without them but the landscapes and interiors deserve another look.

For further reading: Keeping An Eye Open by Julian Barnes, New York, Alfred A. Knopf: 2015.
1. Felix Vallotton - La ballon ou Coin de parc avec enfant au ballon + 1899, Musee d'Oesay, Paris.
2. Felix Vallotton - Clair de lune, 1895, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
3. Felix Vallotton - The Pond - Honfleur, 1909, Kunstmuseum, Basel.

14 October 2015

Thoreau MacDonald: First Snow at Algoma

"...the end of our exploring to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." - T.S. Eliot

One autumn years ago I saw the first snow at Algoma.  It was the middle of October, the time when Canadians celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday.  I was on the road that runs along the north shore of Lake Superior, on the way from Sault Saint Marie to Wawa.  When snowflakes started to hurtle toward my windshield, I turned around and headed south.  Two days later at the McMichael Collection in Kleinberg (north of Toronto) I saw A.Y. Jackson's First Snow At Algoma  and thought "I have been there, too."

The McMichael centers on paintings by Jackson and the other members of The Group Of Seven, Canadian landscape painters active during the period between the two World Wars who are, lamentably, little known in the U.S.  Also works by Thoreau MacDonald (1901-1989), the son of Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald.  Thoreau MacDonald was an artist and illustrator who preferred to work in black and white, as he was colorblind.  He was also a walker and, as such, sensitive to his place in a land populated by otters, minks, fixes,  and lynx.  His artistic method was to keep his attention focused on the moment - that thing that is the only thing any us ever has - and to make his art when he was back in his studio.  What was it that held the attention of this handsome lynx?

Meanwhile, an exhibition The Idea Of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris is on now and will continue until January 24, 2016 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.  It is the first, time that Harris had been the subject of abn exhibition in the United States.
1.  A.Y. (Alexander Young) Jackson - First Snow, Algoma, c.1919, McMichael Collection, Kleinberg, Ontario.
2. Thoreau MacDonald  - Lynx At Kleinberg from Birds And Animals,  McMichael Collection, Kleinberg, 1968
3. Throeau MacDonald  - cover of Birds And Animals, McMichael Collection, Kleinberg, 1968.

09 October 2015

Who Decides ?

"You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you can't be both."  -  Gertrude Stein

But if you think Gertrude Stein laid that particular argument to rest, keep reading.

I. -  The title of the painting above tells a story, but not the whole story.  A Room at the Second Post-Impressionist Exposition - The Matisse Room was painted in 1912 by Roger Fry to commemorate the second exhibition of Post-Impressionist Art held in London. 

Roger Fry was a historian specializing in the Italian Renaissance when he was converted to modernism by Paul Cezanne’s paintings, seen in Paris.   Four years later Fry organized the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists in London.  By 1910 these artists were not news, but Fry coined the catch-all term them that stuck, so we remember the moment.  At the same time, the conservative newspaper the Daily Telegraph is credited with first use of the term avant-garde (a military term originating in French) to describe what made artists modern.  That French culture aroused deep suspicion in the British only makes things more delicious.

II -  Call it a protest or a piece of performance art, it was an “anti-Renoir” event.     On Monday, October 5, a small group gathered in front of the Boston Museum of Fine Art to denounce the French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, dead these one hundred years,   The participants held homemade signs, one stating “Treacle Harms Society.” They demanded that the museum remove a number of inferior Renoirs (there are a lot of them) and instead give their precious gallery space to  artists like Gauguin, Cezanne, etc.
The spectacle provided great fun to the public including a bemused Carol Off who interviewed the instigator  Max Geller on the CBC news program As It Happens   It is not often remarked in polite company just how mediocre Renoir's paintings can be; after all their prices are astronomical, assuming you can locate one for sale.   Ar his best, Renoir's pictures show him to be a gifted member of the dazzling group of French Impressionists painters.   But  his  pretty young women lived a precarious existence as working women in the 19th century city, those nubile young nudes were intended not for the walls of museums so much as for the smoking rooms of lascivious rich men.
The protest could have been held, with equal justification, at the Clark Art Institute in Willamstown, at the  other end of Massachusetts.   The Clark owns thirty-two Renoirs, some very  fine and as many that are mediocre.  For my taste the star Renoir at the Clark is the still life Onions (1881).  Here Renoir applies his modeling technique to vegetables; what takes my breath is that the artist captured  the delicate  shimmer of their  papery skins.  

Sterling Clark’s taste for Renoir began in 1916 when he purchased his first painting, Renoir’s   A Girl CrochetingDespite its demure title, the subject is really the young woman’s luscious body.   There is ample evidence (Nymphs and Satyr by another French artists, William-Adolphe Bougereau, for instance) that Sterling Clark's taste in art extended to what we might call fuzzy porn.
Four years ago, the Clark deaccessioned ( a euphemism for sold off for $$$) one of its Renoirs,  Woman Picking Flowers, through a London gallery,  asking price $15 million. As the flower-picker was Camille Monet, wife of Claude Monet, the painting has some significance  as the document of a friendship.   Asked why the Clark decided to sell this Sterling Clark selection  at an art fair, director Michael Conforti explained in a written  statement that the offering “would afford both transparency and visibility since this art fair is so widely followed and well attended by those individuals who are most likely to have an interest in works of this quality.’’   Notice that this does not  answer the question. 

There may come a day when Pierre-Auguste Renoir is remembered as the father of Jean Renoir, one of the great 20th century filmmakers, rather than for his paintings.

III. - Both an art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark, and a structural anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, believed that collecting-and arranging, call it curation or bricolage, is a basic human activity.   Lévi-Strauss added a dark reminder: that ancient Roman curators were procurers, agents for hire.
Museums as we know them were built on the collections of royalty, beginning in the eighteenth century.   The first curators were hardly free agents, either.    By the 1860s, French artists were fed up with the curators of the official salons and began their own counter-exhibitions, joining aesthetics and commerce under their own banner.

The third act in this drama took place in New York City when Alfred Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art,, became art's chief arbiter of value, a model that ruled the art world until, like other ideas, it wore out its welcome.  It fell to curator Lucy Lippard, whose exhibition Six Years: The Dematerialization of the art Object from 1966 to `1972 to threw down the gauntlet.  The modern museum had made a fetish of art works?  Very well, we will dematerialize them!   And so they gave us conceptual art. 

Contemporary suspicion of institutions has given rise to art fairs (places where art is sold) and kunsthalles, (places where art is displayed but not collected).   The anxiety about separating the good from the bad seems to be a human constant and we have given the curator the power to assign value, but what values?  Aesthetic or monetary?  And let us not forget eros.  Deciding seems to be an activity very much like peeling one of Renoir's beautiful onions.
Revised 10/11/2015.
1. Roger Fry - A Room at the Second Post-Impressionist Exposition - The Matisse Room , 1912, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2. Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Onions, 1881, Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.
3. Pierre-Auguste Renoir - A Girl Crocheting, 1875, Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.