14 September 2016

Alexander Benois: The Philosopher's Admonition

In this watercolor by Alexander Benois we see two men strolling in the sunlit  gardens at Versailles, one a courtier and the other a philosopher.  The philosopher is  dressed in turquerie, an imitation fo Turkish style that first became popular in western Europe during the 16th century; the fad is now part of what we call Orientalism, a pastiche of Ottoman culture.   From their attire we can infer that the monarch in residence at the Royal Court was named Louis, whatever his number.

I thought of Benois as I read the poem “Comic Opera” by the late W.G, Sebald.   Unlike most of Sebald’s extensively annotated poems (often the notes run to more words than the poems themselves) this one came into English with no notes at all.    But it does read as though Sebald might have seen The Last Promenades of Louis XIV (1897).   The “newly lapsed century” Sebald writes is the time when Benois made the drawings in what I like to think of as his Rococo-revivalist style.   Whether or not the erudite German knew the Russian’s work, it seems likely that Benois the art historian knew that among the Sun King’s mistresses was one Marquise de La Valliere, a student of philosophy who loved the works of Aristotle and Descartes.

Alexandre Benois was fascinated by Versailles, judging by the six hundred plus drawings, watercolors, pastels, etc. that he devoted to the subject during the decade between 1897 and 1907.   Benois visited Versailles for the first time in 1897, painting a series of watercolors The Last Promenades of Louis XIV. When Diaghilev saw the Promenades  drawings at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow later that year, he sensed the theatrical possibilities in this 19th century Russian interpretation of 17th century France.  But it was not until ten years later that the two staged their first theatrical collaboration, the ballet Le Pavilion d'Armide with a libretto by Benois that drew on his imaginary Versailles.

The program enlists the turqueries
of a newly lapsed century
a potpourri of bells and symbols
orchestrated obscenities
Masked players swell
the plot in a green theater
their true faces overwritten
Rather than greater virtue
the happy ending proposes
more trivial vies
The hedges rustle with applause
and the bygone ladies
of the court return
below the lawns
Back to reading
 - "Comic Opera" Across The Land And Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald,  New York, Random House: 2011.

Benois arrived in France in 1896, having graduated three years earlier with a law degree in St. Petersburg.   He  was now busily engaged in avoiding its practice by trying out the life of a painter in Paris.  Increasing political unrest among the Russian peasantry had been  left behind but it, and Benois's knowledge of the events of 1789, cast a shadow over his view of Versailles.    Below, a frail Louis XIV is being wheeled out to view his gardens and fountains;  over the Sun King's head, the clouds are overtaking the sun.

What was at the root of this infatuation with Versailles?  Did the sweeping parterres, the gilded statuary, and the empty royal chateau remind him of the vast Palace Square in St. Petersburg?   Did  tales of Peter the Great building his royal city over a  swamp offer a mirror image of the Sun King building his  waterborne court in a town where water had to be pumped in rather than drained out?   Maybe something like a stage was what Benois needed to unleash his imagination.  After all, his grandfather had been the architect who designed the great Russian theaters, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky.  And Louis XIV, assuredly a man who made no small plans, had intended  Versailles to be the stage for a continuing pageant, its subject the splendor of his reignAround almost any corner along an allee, the royal gardens provided spectacles of statues and fountains (sometimes both a once)  depicting scenes from  Greek and Roman mythology for the entertainment  of visitors.  Everything at Versailles was staged  but it was the audience rather than the players who moved about. From the palace terrace, Versailles, Paris, and ultimately all of France was  a stage for the King's power.

For both Benois and Diaghilev, the attraction to all things Euuropean was strong; for his part. Diaghilev denounced contemporary Russian art as "one big slap in the face of Apollo."  So they founded the magazine  Mir Istkusska (World of Art) in St. Petersburg to promote the new.  From its first issue in November 1898, the magazine caused a sensation.  A frequent contributor to the magazine was Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, about whom there is more here. After the Russian Revolution Benois served as curator of paintings at the Hermitage Museum but in 1927 he settled permanently in Paris where he died in 1960. 
As for those cubist novels I haven't a clue what Sebald had in mind.   I'm curious if anyone has any thoughts about this.
Alexander Benois – The Philosopher's Admonition,  1907, Pompidou Center, Paris. 
       Alexander Benois  - The King’s Promenade, no date given,  Pompidou Center, Paris.

08 September 2016

(Re)Discovering Arthur Carles

He has been called "one of the most brilliant colorists in the history of American art." (Barbara Ann Boese Wolanin)   I think that must be so because I was immediately drawn to this trio of  paintings that appeared this Sunday at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute.   For those lucky enough to live within driving distance of Utica in upstate New York this type of revelation will be no surprise.    A museum comprising 60,000 square feet  and a collection of 25,000 art works has the opportunity to keep things moving and fresh and it does.  Exhibitions drawn from the vaults, of medieval icons, Rembrandt drawings, or the artists group The Irascibles, are  extraordinary  events but ordinary here.    And in a comparison not intended as invidious, MWPAI is home to four times as much art as the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo.  In short, this is the most underrated museum I have ever visited.  But back to Arthur B. Carles (1882-1952), also underrated.

If Arthur Carles had been born in New York instead of Philadelphia, or if he had been able to stay permanently in France, his art and his influence would be much more salient today.  That he escaped as often as finances permitted from the Procrustean bed that was the Philadelphia art world of his day is telling as is the fact that, in spite of honors at home and abroad, Carles did not receive a solo exhibition in his home town until 1935.

What drew me to these paintings was there in his work from the beginning; even Carles's student pictures were admired for his bold use of color.  Color, he would later teach his own students, is the basis for painting as he understood it.  In the watercolor Paris Lanscape (c.1908) he achieves a luminous impression from his juxtapositions of colors, green and yellow, yellow and blue, blue and red.  In lesser hands what could have been loud, as in blaring, in Carles's hands was an ingenious harmonization of the lessons he learned from looking at Cezanne's structured blocks of color (Paris Rooftops, painted c.1921)) and Gauguin's palette ( the vegetation in The Church, painted c.1910). 

Arthur Carles, Jr. was born in Philadelphia.  As the son of a watchmaker he able to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts after graduating from high school in 1900 thanks to a scholarship.   There his teachers William Merritt Chase and Cecilia Beaux introduce him to French Impressionism but when another scholarship enabled Carles to visit Paris in 1907 it was Post-Impressionism that won him over with its riotous use of color. 

In Paris Carles found artists who share his experimental approach to color.   He took lessons from Matisse and although he dismissed the man as “a bourgeois” he admired the work.   Matisse, for his part, would spend time with Carles in Philadelphia in 1931 while painting  a series of lunettes for the Alfred Barnes Collection.   

Edward Steichen, then a painter himself, became a close friend  with whom Carles spent happy summers in the small town of Voulangis east of Paris.  It was Steichen who introduced Carles to Mercedes de Cordoba, a Spanish mezzo soprano and flamenco dancer.   The couple wed in 1909 but seldom lived together during their sixteen year marriage; they had one child, a daughter born in 1913 who studied with Hans Hoffmann and became an artist under the name  Mercedes Matter.

When Carles returned to America in 1910 he received an invitation from Alfred Stieglitz to join Gallery  291 in New York and given his first one man show there in 1912.  Then he exhibited The Church (c.1910.Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC), painted in Voulangis, at the   Armory Show in 1913; apparently the notoriety of the show itself did not extend to Carles's work which earned no mention in reviews.  American and European modernists had never before been seen under one roof and the public was shocked - and thrilled to be shocked..

From 1917 to 1925 Carles taught at his alma mater but he was eventually dismissed for sins against its conservative academic tradition.   After that he taught privately and never lacked for students.   Carles would teach his students that color was the basis of all painting, a belief only reinforced by his wartime work supervising ship camouflage operations at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  And as you can see in Derivation (painted between 1929 and 1933) the lack of an academic position seems to have freed his imagination.  Those cubist flowers look the way a bee might feel  -overwhelmed by beauty coming from every direction.

Carles suffered from depression and alcoholism, and was hospitalized several times during the 1930s.  After suffering a fall that partially paralyzed him, apparently caused by a stroke, Carles was unable to paint and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  When he died in June 1952 he was eulogized both as a painter and a trans-Atlantic purveyor of modernism.   To have three such varied examples of Arthur Carles together  in one place is a satisfying treat.

02 September 2016

Eugen Gabritschevsky: Art Born of Loneliness

"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see,"   said Edgar Degas.  Some of the others who have seen the paintings of Eugene Gabritschevsky have claimed to see in them pictures of flatness and lack of emotion; yet I see signs of emotion everywhere in his work.   Affectionate regard for the crested bird (above), a witty rethinking of the butterfly, based on his experiences with Rorschach ink blot tests while in a sanitarium, and a fantastic bestiary of tiny creatures based on his years studying insects under a microscope: three instances, but there are others of a darker bent.

Gabritschevsky's paintings are filled with living presences, some  human, others  are all manner of hybrid fantastical beings.  Eyes, in particular, are everywhere, in faces or even embodied in plants composed of nothing but eyes, a sad commentary it seems on the loneliness of a solitary man watched constantly by doctors and nurses yet disconnected from human intimacy.  Surely for social creatures as we humans are, this is the worst fate, to shrivel uncared for and untouched.  You may notice that the light in Gabritschevsky's pictures that comes from below, as in a theater, and the frequent suggestion of a proscenium arch serves to underline the dichotomy between presence and disconnection.
Some critics have dismissed Gabritschevsky's human characters as grotesques but I disagree; only a lack of empathy can explain such blindness.  Only look at the man and woman in the untitled painting (above).  Together yet apart, their bodies contorted with opposing impulses of fear and longing, they have both stretched their heads away from each other yet make no move to leave their shared space. 
Gabritschevksy was born into an upper class Muscovite family in 1893.   Gabritschevky's father was an internationally known bacteriologist; he died when Eugen was fourteen, the first of a series of shocks that challenged a precarious emotional equilibrium.  The revolutionary violence outside in the city streets only intensified the caesura between childhood and whatever would come next.  A privileged education given by tutors including study of languages and a love of drawing were his sources of strength.    

Gabritschevsky studied biology at the University of Moscow, growing fascinated by the world revealed by a microscope.  He took a research position at Columbia University in 1924 but two years later  returned to Europe, settling in  Munich where his brother Georg now lived.  A failed love affair with a Frenchwoman and the death of his mother in 1930 were setbacks but  Gabritschevsky  took a new position at the University of Edinburgh
The next year Gabritschevsky had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in Zurich, where he was diagnosed  with schizophrenia. Eventually he was able to be  transferred to a hospital near Munich where he spent most of his remaining life. One more shock was in store;   during WWII  mental patients were locked in underground cellars by order of the Nazi authorities, with what effect on  already scarred sensibilities we can only imagine.  
He lived out his lonely existence but painting expanded to fill the solitary hours with a stunning output of works unconstrained by the dictates of the art world; what remained a constant was the impression of a spirit ill at ease in the world.   If it were not insensitive and cruel, we could see in Gabritschevsky's later work a mind set free, but Gabritschevsky himself is there to remind us not to be so facile, with these words from a letter written in 1946 where he assessed his paintings as: “merely misshapen offspring of ideas that are more or less true.”    Gabritschevsky continued to paint up until his death on April 5, 1979.

It was Georg who sent a few photographs of his brother's work to Jean Dubuffet in 1948, at a time when Dubuffet himself was restless and searching for new sources of artistic inspiration.   Already under the spell of  Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922), an influenital work written by German art historian-turned-psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn. Dubuffet had coined the term Art brut  and he thought he had found  an example  in Gabritschevsky.  The term Art brut has never been without problems, in its opposition of academic tradition to self-taught and otherwise socially disadvantaged artists.   And although Dubuffet went on to purchase many  of  Gabritschevsky’s works for his Compagnie de l’Art Brut and to recommend the older artist to his  dealer friends, the one-sided connection with the famous Dubuffet has continued to color views of Gabritschevsky to this day.
Eugene Gabritshcevsky (1893-1979) is on view at  La Maison Rouge, a private foundation specializing in contemporary art,  July 8–September 18.
Images: All images are by Eugen Gabritschevsky and all titles are attributed by the curators.
1.  Crested Bird, 1942.
2.  untitled, 1949, Collection Chave, Vence.
3.  untitled, 1942, Collection Chave, Vence. 
4. untitled, 1939, Ville de Lausanne.