27 December 2018

Iguana and Fox: Leonora Carrington

"Darling stop being philosophical it doesn't suit you, it is turning your nose red."
  - Leonora Carrington, excerpt from The Hearing Trumpet (1976)

In the magical world of Leonora Carrington, humans and animals change places, try on each other's outfits; it is a world where metamorphosis is a cinch.  I should note here that Carrington often referred to herself as a "female human animal."  The tree decorated with red berries and white lights lends Iguana and Fox a festive air.  A half woman wearing the head of an iguana and a half man/ half fox regard each other over its ornamented top.  Is that a plum pudding she offers in her left hand and  a snowball she grasps in her right hand?  This may be Carrington's version of regional Mexican folklore that she delighted in using in her work or it may be one of her own creations, a feminist archetype for our times.  

Leonora Carrington (1917 - 2011) was an English-born artist who made Mexico City her home.  There she made a series of tapestries with assistance from an Aztec family of serape makers.  Although best known for her surrealist paintings, Carrington was exposed to the beauty of woven cloth by her father, a successful textile maker.  She is also credited as a founder of the women's liberation movement in Mexico.

It is easy to dismiss surrealism as little more than a series of jokes with its pipes that are not pipes and its  bowler hat-wearing gentlemen caught in incongruous situations but the traumas and  the dislocations in the wake of the First World War (although no one knew it was only the first at the time) were enough to make a person refuse the reality that was given in favor of one that was self-created.

Leonora Carrington - Iguana and Fox - for Edward James, c.1948-1958, Estate of Leonora Carrington, NYC.

20 December 2018

O Tannenbaum

It is good to be reminded that a Christmas tree can also be a humble sign of hope and joy.   This photograph by the eminent American Walker Evans (1903-1975) is an instant color print and a fitting civic tribute to the joy that the beautiful evergreen fir tree conveys during this holiday season and throughout the winter.  By the way, tannenbaum is the German word for fir tree.

Walker Evans - Hanging Christmas Tree, 1973, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

13 December 2018

From "My Five Years in the Country": Joan Mitchell

La grande vallee XIV, painted in 1983, comes closer than any other painting by Joan Mitchell to showing an affinity with Claude Monet.  Like the Impressionist painter, who eliminated the horizon and the sky in his series of water lily paintings, Mitchell chose to orient her foliage paintings in an indeterminate space of her own making.  The longer we look at them, the harder it is to decide whether this is nature viewed close-up or viewed from a distance through half-closed eyes. Again, like Monet, she created mural-sized paintings of nature, no more or less abstracted than the his nymphees. I should add that Mitchell claimed as early influences Van Gogh and Matisse but not Monet.

An inheritance from her mother in 1962 enabled Mitchell to purchase an old estate northwest of Paris, a large stone house surrounded by two acres of gardens and trees with a view of the Seine.  The romance of the site was enhanced by other small structures on the property; Claude Monet had lived in one from 1878 to 1881 and Camille, his first wife, was buried in a little cemetery out beyond the garden.  Mitchell made a studio for herself in one building that had a lookout over the water.   "I became the sunflower, the lake, the tree," Mitchell told Judith Bernstock.

Originally Mitchell moved to France when she began a relationship with French abstract painter Jean-Paul Riopelle.  The relationship lasted from 1955 until 1979 but was far from harmonious.  Riopelle was  married and the father of two young daughters.  He was also France's pre-eminent abstract artist, something that must have chafed at Mitchell, a superior painter in every way, who found herself demoted to the status of 'artist's wife', a humiliation similar to that suffered by Lee Krasner when she was married to Jackson Pollock.  Looking at Riopelle's work today it is hard to believe his imitation abstract expressionism awed the French public.  The most charitable interpretation I can make is that the French had not yet had many opportunities to see what the Americans were doing after World War II.

Unlike many of her fellow abstract painters who denied any resemblances between their pictures and the natural world, Mitchell occasionally hinted at a connection.  It was those moments she said that drew her to the luminous landscapes of the French Impressionists.

An affectionate mood permeates Tilleul (The Linden Tree), a  considered and intimate portrait. Broad strokes of cobalt and inky black alternate with shafts of chartreuse seen through a lavender haze. Had Mitchell drunk tea made from its exquisite lime blossoms? Are Mitchell's paintings abstract landscapes or some specially lyrical abstraction?  Does it really matter to their success? I think not.

Joan Mitchell was forty-seven before she had her first solo museum exhibition at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY in 1972.  "My Five Years in the Country"  based on works she had done at her home Vetheuil, France preceded her solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum by two years even though Mitchell had lived in New York City since 1949 and participated in the landmark  "Ninth Street Show" in 1951 with Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffmann, and Jackson Pollock.

In her final years Mitchell continued to work on her large canvases, several of which are now in the Musee nationale d'art moderne at the Pompidou Center in Paris,  despite undergoing two surgeries for advanced cancer.  She died on October 30, 1992 at her home in Vetheuil at age sixty-seven.

1. Joan Mitchell - La grande vallee XIV, 1983, 2.8 m x 6 m,  Pompidou Center Paris.
2. Joan Mitchell - Tilleul (Linden Tree), 1976,  2.4 m x 1.8 m, Pompidou Center, Paris.
3. Joan Mitchell -The good-bye door, 1980,  2.8 m x 7.2 m, Pompidou Center, Paris.

05 December 2018

Working Girls: 'Tis the Season to be Hard-Boiled

A plane crashes into your boudoir?  These things happen.  A girl needs to finish her makeup before she greets the day; this is hard-boiled.  A school girl's riddle from my mother's high school days goes like this:  why do males disappear before Thanksgiving and only reappear after New Year's?  If you have heard this one, know the answer, and smile ruefully,  then you are hard-boiled.

The hard-boiled  attitude was first sited in Manhattan, post-World War I, when New York became  the first truly sophisticated American city and a mecca for women looking for personal freedom. Before the New Yorker  was founded in 1925,  the  Canadian Stephen Leacock had wondered in the pages of Vanity Fair (1915) "Are the Rich Happy?"  A difficult question to answer, he discovered as he had trouble finding them.

"Very often I have thought that I had found them, but it turned out that it was not so.  They were not rich at all.  They were quite poor.  They were hard-up.  They were pressed for money.  They didn't know where to turn for ten thousand dollars."

When Dorothy Rothschild Parker, as she was then known, began to appear in the pages of Vanity Fair it was with a series she called "Hate Poems,"  verses on a variety of subjects written in what came to epitomize the satirical attitude of the newly emancipated young woman.  Office life, actresses, poseurs, retrograde relatives and, of course, men all came under her withering gaze.  Although only twenty-three in 1916, Parker was herself already a walking anthology of sharp edges.  "Husbands" in her words  were "The White Woman's Burden," concluding "I wish to Heaven someone would alienate their affections."

It was not until 1926 that Frances Newman from Georgia published a novel  titled The Hard-Boiled Virgin. Her second novel Dead Lovers are Faithful Lovers was published two years later.  It was the titles that seduced me when I discovered Newman's books in college. What I found was a neglected literary modernist whose layer cake of time and space was a bit like Virginia Woolf, and a writer whose use of interior monologue rather than dialogue to move her plots along, was a bit like Dorothy Richardson's multi-volume bildungsroman, Pilgrimage, begun in 1915.

The daughter of a prominent Atlanta judge, Newman was educated in finishing school, in anticipation of a genteel career as a librarian.  But Paris and the Sorbonne changed her mind.  Newman finished writing her first novel at twenty-three but was never able to get it published.  Undeterred, she kept writing and when The Hard-Boiled Virgin was published it was hailed by the eminent critic James Branch Cabell as "brilliant" for its portrayal of a young woman who chooses independence over marriage.  Two years later when Dead Lovers are Faithful Lovers appeared it caused a scandal; Atlantans were outraged to find  southern misogyny and racism personified in an angelic wife bested by a seductive other woman.  When Newman died at forty-five, the guardians of morality in literature were happy to forget her.

Deborah Garrison is a working girl for our time and if we thought the hard-boiled attitude was outdated, consider that the poems in A Working Girl Cant't Win have been characterized as "blatantly honest."

For further reading:
1. Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, & Swells:  The Best of Early Vanity Fair edited by Graydon Carter, Penguin Press, New York: 2014.
2. Deborah Garrison - A Working Girl Cant't Win,   New York, Random House: 1998.

Tim Walker - untitled, from Vogue, UK edition: 2014.