24 September 2019

On the Fly: Eugene Delacroix Drawings

"Color always occupies me but drawing preoccupies me." - Eugene Delacroix

You can see both impulses at work in Fleurs de laurier-rose (oleanders to English speakers), delicate gradations of red peppered with white slivers and ethereal shadows of green and an ingeniously structured plant on paper that looks completely natural, artless.

Much like other artists, Delacroix wondered how posterity would regard his work.  On the evidence of two exhibitions devoted to his drawings in 2018 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a first-ever New York gallery show, posterity is still getting to know the Frenchman and is awestruck by the revelations.  It is possible that The Triumph of Genius Over Envy was a hint from the artist himself as to how he hoped to be remembered.

During his lifetime (1798-1863), Delacroix was feted as a master of painting but he chose to keep his drawings to himself.  Imagine the with what surprise his executors greeted the discovery of some 6,00 drawings in his Parisian atelier.  To their credit they immediately recognized a master draftsman at work.  Of interest is that Delacroix accomplished all this with modest materials - chalk, charcoal, crayon, graphite, pastels, watercolors - materials that were considered capable only of producing inferior works.

His attraction to romantic and even sensational subjects is reflected in his comment that an artist is someone who is able to draw a man falling from a window before he hits the ground.  This sounds like what the French term a croquis succinct, a quick sketch. Delacroix shows how it is done by catching a tiger at the moment it is posed to pounce on something (one hopes not someone) outside the frame, a choice that intensifies the impression of force. This is the same Delacroix who claimed "I am a pure Classicist."

Delacroix had a conventional education for an artist of his time, absorbing classical academic  principles and making sketches from works by the old masters at the Louvre.  It was at this time that he began to carry a sketchbook with him everywhere, trying out ideas that he might use in his paintings. Sunset is believed to be a study for the restoration of the ceiling of the Apollo Gallery at the Louvre in the years 1848-1851. Delacroix contributed a tableau of the race of Apollo to the  project. You could easily imagine those radiating pink rays as the hand print of  a god.

Delacroix recognized  that, thanks to new technologies,  reproductions of his drawings were a way to promote his work to a new and larger audience. With increasing difficulty he carried on working in his last decades, hobbled by a frail constitution.  In 1853 he wrote in his journal, "Happiness always comes too late.  It is like the little vogue for my pictures; after despising me for so long, the patrons are going to make my fortune." - quoted in Rise of the Modern Art Market, Pamela Fletcher & Anne Helmreich, eds.

1. Eugene Delacroix - Fleurs de laurier-rose (Oleander), no date given, watercolor, Musee Bonnat-Helleu, Bayonne.
2, Eugene Delacroix - The Triumph of Genius Over Envy, circa 1849-51, pen and ink, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
3. Eugene Delacroix - Crouching Tiger, 1839, pen, brush, ink, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
4. Eugene Delacroix - Sunset,  1850, pastel on paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

15 September 2019

Felix Vallotton: More Real Than the Realists

At first glance these carefully arranged peppers appear to be circling each other warily, like contestants in a beauty contest.  Or the presence of a  knife suggests an illustration from a contemporary cooking magazine.  Definitely looks like a  photograph. (Curious note about magazine photography: food is photographed from above while interiors are usually shot from a crouching position.)  But these red peppers Poivrons rouges were painted in 1915 by the Swiss-French artist Felix Vallotton.

Some context: around the late 1960s, influenced by the riposte of Pop Art to the oh-so-serious Abstract Expressionists who dominated the American art scene in the post-war period, young artists felt freed to try on various styles - minimalism, feminism, black art, and photorealism.  Some artists tried more than one at a time; for example Audrey Flack (b. 1931) was a feminist and a photorealist who went pretty maximalist in her paintings while she was at it, filling her pictures to the bursting point with objects.

Photorealism is one of the easier types of art to grasp.  The artist uses photography rather than drawing to  explore a potential subject.  How this information gets transferred to canvas is done in various ways but for a Photorealist painter the highest compliment would be for the viewer to be fooled into thinking  "I'm looking at a photograph." 

Felix Vallotton (1865-1925) was born to a conservative Protestant family in Lausanne, Switzerland.  His father was - yes! - a chocolate maker.  An adventurous streak led the sixteen year old Felix to Paris to study art.   It was in the early 1890s that Vallotton began to make satirical woodcuts that looked at the ways of the French with a gimlet eye.  The technique had fallen out of favor after flowering during the Renaissance but its demanding and clinical aspects appealed to the young artist. And the prints made him famous.

When Vallotton joined the semi-secret, semi-mystical French group the Nabis ('nabi' is the Hebrew word for Prophet) he was christened the "Foreign Nabi." (Jozsef Rippl-Ronai from Hungary was called the "Hungarian Nabi.") He became part of the cultural underground of 1890s Paris but his work suggests that he held himself apart, in Paris but not of Paris.  His early painting were avant-garde but in his later years his work became difficult to categorize but  more conservative in choice of subject and tone, as he began making portraits and still lifes. 

Vallotton studied classics but switched to drawing and settled in Paris in 1882.  He enrolled in the prestigious Academie Julian, also attended by most of his future fellow Nabis. Vallotton showed paintings at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889,  where Japanese prints and the newly dedicated Eiffel Tower caused a sensation.   Still, Vallotton had to work as a restorer to earn his living.  The hours spent at the Louvre studying works by Da Vinci, Durer, and Holbein had stood him in good stead and gradually he began to receive commissions from home for paintings.

After his Nabi period (1892-1900) Vallotton's reputation was secured.  After he married Gabrielle Rodriques-Henriques, the daughter of a wealthy art dealer, in 1899 his financial future was secure.  He acquired a studio on Honfleur, a village on the south bank fo the Seine across the river from Le Havre. There the artist focused on still life painting, particularly fruits and vegetables. The keenness and precision of his eye was like that of a camera. "More than ever the object amuses me: the perfection of an egg; the moisture on a tomato; the striking (martelage) of a hortensia flower;these are the problems for me to resolve." - F.V., quoted in Felix Vallotton: Fire Beneath the Ice by Isabelle Cahn,  Lecturis: 2013.

"Felix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet" , organized by the Royal Academy of Art in  will travel to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City (October 29, 2019 - January 26, 2020).

Felix Vallotton - Poivrons rouges (Red Peppers), 1915, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Solothurn.

10 September 2019

Elizabeth Harrower: Under a Clamorous Sky

"You have a remarkable, sober acerbity, an almost historical view (the long prospect - I wonder) and the fragrance and nuttiness of the kernel, with the nutshell dispensed with...You are unique, a writer on your own and your future is, no doubt, a long prospect."
 - Christina Stead to Elizabeth Harrower, November 6, 1969

That fragrance is baked into the Australian landscape, a landscape often parched under a "clamorous sky" as Elizabeth Harrower put it.  Grace Cossington-Smith's Black Mountain was painted in the area known as Turramurra, near Sydney where Grace Cossington lived.  The word originate from the Aboriginal where it denotes a high hill.

Elizabeth Harrower and Christina Stead became friends when  Stead returned home to Australia from Europe in the 1970s.  Both writers created characters who prey on others within the supposed shelter of home. Although Harrower was then only in her forties, she had already stopped publishing books in spite of having written four well-received novels between 1957 and 1966.

The Long Prospect, published in 1958 was Harrower's second novel and her first success.  The novel exemplifies Satyagraha, a Sanscrit word combining satya (truth) an agraha (adherence, insistence) given by Gandhi to the practice of nonviolent resistance. "Man and his deeeds are two disctinct things.  Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doe of the deed, whether good or wicked, always deserves respect or pity as the case may be." In Elizabeth Harrower's novels politics happens in the background because that is how it is in everyday life.  She delicately explores how public disparities play out in real lives.
Twelve year old Emily Lawrence has been exiled to a dismal factory town while her parents, Harry and Paula, pursue separate lives in Sydney.  Occasionally one or the other makes an appearance to do something vaguely parental.  "Just the same, it was immensely embarrassing to have a stranger as an intimate relation," the girl reflects. Emily lives in a boarding house run by her maternal grandmother Lilian who both neglects  and torments the little girl.  

Lilian exults in other people's misfortunes so Emily's one bit of luck is that her grandmother mostly ignores her in favor of horse racing, gambling, and gossiping with her like-minded friends.  The boarding house serves as a respectable front for the lovers she ... from her boarders.

Emily has an uncommon sensibility,  painfully sensitive to the cruelty that her grandmother visits on her.  When Thea, a young woman  Emily has a crush on moves away abruptly, the girl is heartsick. Lilian taunts her mercilessly: "That's right!  Cry, cry, cry! Your bladder's too near your eyes, that's what's wrong with you, Emily Lawrence.  No wonder she wouldn't stay to say goodbye.  I don't  know who would."

Then a new boarder arrives.  Max is a scientist from Sydney: intelligent and kind-hearted, he sees that Emily is starved for friendship and adult attention.  He treats her as an equal as the two discuss literature and art and science. "Emily and Max had taken up a dialogue that had no end..."  Max encourages her to  dream of a future for herself.  

Lilian is not pleased by their friendship.  She encourages others to see something unsavory between the two and she engineers Max's punishment by the  community, a trial by mob that drives him from the town.  Harrower uses her understanding of human motivation to build a scaffold as unbreakable as it is unbearable.  Yer Max has given Emily something precious -  the sense that her life matters.

In Elizabeth Harrower's novels politics happens in the background because that is how it is in ordinary life.  For Harrower  how public disparities play out in real lives is a major thread running through her novels..

Other novels by Elizabeth Harrower:
The Catherine Wheel - Melbourne, Text Publishing: 2014 (1960).
The Watch Tower -  Melbourne, Text Publshing: 2014 (1966).
In Certain Circles -  Melbourne, Text Publishing: 2014.

Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984) was among the first Australian artists to paint in he modernist style. Like Van Gogh and Crrzann she used bright colors in broken forms to suggest the natural world.  Paintings of mountains and hillsides were a frequent landscape for Cossington-Smith.

Grace Cossington-Smith - Black Mountain, 1931, watercolor with gouache over pencil, private collection, Australia.