30 November 2019

Susan Frecon's Renaissance Art


"I always craved geometric solutions. They underlie so many things: architecture and old paintings that are informed by geometry, like Cimabue, Romanesque cathedrals, churches.  You have the structure of the building and then you have the curves of the architecture and then within that you have the painting and within that you have the art." - Susan Frecon

Subtle and meticulous compositions, Susan Frecon's large scale oil paintings contain shapes and curves familiar from art of the Italian Renaissance. There is a sense of stillness permeating these images, recalling the hush of a cathedral where Frecon encountered them. Her passion for the period extends to her use  of Piero della Francesca's platonic forms, visible in the veil in one her favorite works, the Virgin Annunciate (circa 1476) by Antonello da Massina. 

Painted in the last years of his life when Massina had returned to his native Sicily, it is his masterpiece, the mysteries of the spirit contained in a rectangle.  The Virgin stands at a lectern, her head draped in a veil of lapis lazuli. Her hands suggest ambivalence, rather than the radiance portrayed by other artists; there is no welcome in them, rather they hold the viewer and the angel at bay. The pitch black space that surrounds her is as abstract as anything Frecon paints.  Vasari wrote in Lives of the Artists that Massina had introduced oil paint to Italy.  Frecon saw the painting at its home in the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo.

In Renaissance painting terre verte was used in under-painting of flesh.  The color of moss, this "green earth" was also used to connote death.  Also lapis, or ultramarine, was often used to color the clothing of a painting's central figure, especially the Virgin Mary.  What Frecon does with this is to use the colors without retelling the story.

When Frecon saw the Virgin Annunciate  it was mounted on a green velvet wall; she says that she was immediately struck by the colors. "(W)hen I was looking at the painting, its smooth blue shape floating near the top, on a green ground. I was struck by the fact that the blue form seemed hard and the green appeared soft, and, yes, velvety.  The blue form felt impenetrable while the green ground was inviting."

Color, form, and feeling have replaced outright story-telling in Frecon's work and her sense of color is uniquely her own, just Mark Rothko's was. "I need to mix the colors myself; I need to know how the colors feel..."

Susan Frecon (b. 1941) is an American artist who lives and works in New York. She studied art here and abroad, at the University of Strasbourg and then at the Ecole Normale Superiere des Beaux Arts in Paris. Her paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney in New York, in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, and in the Menil Collection in Houston, home of the Mark Rothko Chapel.

Images:
1. Susan Frecon - A Book of Paint , 2019, oil on wood, David Zwirner Gallery, NYC.
2. Susan Frecon - Terre Verte , 2014, oil on linen, two part work, David Zwirner Gallery, NYC.

23 November 2019

Albert Marquet: The View From His Balcony



"Let's leave the studio and go watch what moves." - Albert Marquet

Water moves.  We all know that but until eh French Impressionists began to paint en plein air in paintings water did not not move. Think of Canaletto's paintings of Venice.

Albert Marquet (1875-1947) painted Le Pont Neuf, la nuit from the balcony of his sixth floor apartment on the Quai des Grands-Augustins at the corner of the rue Dauphine. From there he had a splendid view of the Pont Neuf and Ile de la Cite. His balcony was his de facto studio given how often he painted there.  Marquet painted the River Seine as obsessively as other, more egotistical artists painted self-portraits. And although Marquet traveled frequently, his favorite locations away from home were Naples and Venice, both cities offered spectacular views of water.  Of his method, his wife Marcelle Marquet wrote in her biography of him, "At work he narrowed his eyes, first one eye, then the other, taking advantage of not having the same vision in both ..."  ( Readers, I, too have binocular vision.)

When he was young, the diffident Marquet began a lifelong friendship with the outgoing Henri Matisse.  As his style evolved, Marquet's palette of colors softened: many of his Seine paintings show the river cloaked in its typical muted shades of gray and green. In a different mood, Marquet's Le Pont Neuf, la nuit is his starry night, electric lights sparkle through the rain.  The light-filled house on the opposite bank was La Samaritaine, a turn of the century department store that boasted ninety differen departments under one roof.  Nineteen thirty-seven, the year of its composition was also the year of an International Exposition in Paris where Raoul Dufy created a large crescent-shaped mural La Fee Electricite (The Eelctricity Fairy) for the Pavilion of Light and Electricity.

"The Seine,old egotist, meanders imperturbably toward the sea;
ruminating on weeds and rain
If through his sluggishly watery sleep come dreams
They are the blue ghosts of kingfishers." -  from "Paris, A Poem by Hope Mirrlees, Hogarth Press:1920

Its name means "New Bridge" but the Pont Neuf is the oldest surviving bridge on the Seine..It was the first stone bridge erected in Paris: it has survived as other older wood bridges have failed.  Dedicated in 1607 by King Henry IV, it is wider than any of the streets in Paris.  And although the Seineis prone to frequent flooding, during the catastrophic flood in 1910 the Pont Neuf was one of only two bridges in the city that were not totally submerged.

Althouth not wll known outside France, Marquet was revered by Leland Bell and Louisa Matthiasdottir, two painters married to each other who taught at various American art schools, introducing his work to their students.

Image: Albert Marquet - Le Pon Neuf, la nuit, 1937, oil on canvas, Pompidou Center, Paris.




17 November 2019

Peasant Burning Weeds: A New Van Gogh


"I don't think I shall be able to do justice to the countryside because words fail me(.)... Level planes or strips, varied in color, that grow narrower & narrower as they approach the horizon.  Accentuated here or there by a turf hut or small farmhouse or a few stunted beeches, poplars, oaks - peat stacked up everywhere and barges constantly passing by with peat or bulrushes from the marshes.   Here and there, skinny cows, subtle in color, quite often sheep and pigs.
-  from a letter of Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, circa 3 October 1883

A man bends to the humble task of burning weeds in a field against an unlovely landscape. We see none of his features, we do not know his age although his stance suggests he is equal to his task.  If he looks isolated that may be  because the artist provides no context for him -  no people, no animals, no buildings are in sight. Just the flatness of the Dutch countryside that van Gogh had known had grown up  with.

Van Gogh was proud of this painting, feeling that he had achieved the tone he had been trying for with his subject, conveying with a smoky palette the vastness of the plain as dusk gathers, with a small fire providing the only point of light.  The time was the autumn of 1883 when van Gogh spent three months in the northeastern Dutch province of Drenthe. Historically, Drenthe has been a poor province; it even looks poor with few rivers and mile upon mile of flat heath-lands. During this period of loneliness Vincent tried, not for the first time, to persuade his brother Theo to give up the art trade, which he regarded as corrupt, and join with him in painting. Vincent was thirty years old but just finding  his vocation as an artist;  illness and depression had led him to take up painting just two years previously. There are not many paintings from this period, making Peasant Burning Weeds all the more remarkable.

Van Gogh thought of himself as a painter of modern life. As a counter example, he used the Goncourt  Brothers, catty chroniclers of appearances, whose fabled diaries were much talked about in Paris though not yet published.  

He wanted to be the painter of modern portraits.  "In general the figures that now & then put in an appearance on the flats are full of character, and sometimes they have an enormous charm." - from a letter of Vincent to Theo, circa 3 October 1883

Van Gogh's letters are full of interest not just to art historians but also for their revelation of the man's humanity, his hunger for friendship, a hunger that made him reach out - to the peasants he lived among in Drenthe, to other artists in Paris and London, and to his brother Theo, witness to his creative struggles. Van Gogh's inner life was rich, giving him the inspiration that he could see the eternal in the everyday.  "(I)t is difficult to know oneself - but it isn't easy to paint oneself either." 

Peasant Burning Weeds (1883) has long been in private hands and is just now coming into public view at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Quotations are taken from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, Allen Lane, Penguin Press: 1996.

Image;
Vincent van Gogh - Peasant Burning Weeds, October 1883, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam & Drents Museum, Assen.

03 November 2019

If You Live, You'll See: Recovering Nancy Hale



"Qui vivra, verra."  If you live, you'll see.  An apt epigraph for the career of American author Nancy Hale.

Nancy Hale was eleven years old when her mother painted her portrait. Immediately I first saw Nancy and the Map of Europe I was reminded of Jan Vermeer's Allegory of Painting (1666).  Both girls wear blue dresses, sit before softly tinted maps hanging on walls behind them, and both are possessed of the serious sweetness that attends the threshold of adulthood. The laurels that garland the girl's head in Vermeer's painting are echoed by the fronds of an unseen plant leaning into the upper right corner of Hale's.  The little doll wearing an identical dress also has a book in her hands; both girl and doll interrupted at their reading. It is as though the artist could foresee her daughter's future career.  Suggestively, the door at the left edge of the picture is propped open, an indication of the life to come?  We know from Nancy Hale's memoir Life in the Studio (1969) that she hated being a conscript of a model but that doesn't dim the pleasure of discovering this picture.

  Lilian Westcott Hale, the artist, has faded from the story of art, unjustly, I think and so, after her, has her daughter, the writer Nancy Hale, with even less justice.  Now thanks to the Library of America and editor Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies) we have twenty-five Nancy Hale stories in Where the Light Falls again in print.

About her stories, Nancy Hale wrote in her memoir A New England Childhood (1958), " My pieces,,, are intended less about the real and ascertainable past than about the memory of it, and memory as a mode of thinking tends to burst spontaneously into fantasy at very turn."  Women puzzled her, Hale admitted and so we may read her stories as detective fiction of a kind.

The first story, "The Earliest Dreams" fittingly, is about a little girl lying in bed at night ("suspended in a dark tower above the world") listening to the adults downstairs "( They were all laughing in the drawing-room below.  You were wondering what they were laughing at, that made the laughter so wise, so gay, so confident and foreign.  You never knew what they laughed at when they laughed at when they laughed so long in the evenings, and now you will never know.")  Contemporary writers like Lorrie Moore are not, after all, the first to use a breathless second person voice.

In the second story, also from 1934, "The Double House, " Robert is a little boy who lives with his widowed father and his Aunt Esther in one half of a double house. (" Robert used to think, as he came home from school, how ugly the house looked, and how hopeless and sad.") It is the Depression and the family has little money. Yet Robert finds solace of a sort in the empty half- house;  his emotional equilibrium depends on his father. Shy and tentative with his schoolmates, the  boy is savagely ridiculed and even attacked when he brings a flower to science class that his father picked for him. ("School was  a sort of nightmare broken by little intervals of hope.")  One night when Father comes home late, Robert overhears his father crying.  And just like that, Robert's world collapses.

Hale wrote "Who Lived and Died Believing in 1942, the  story of a woman n a  psychiatric hospital whose inner life is erased by a harrowing series of shock treatments she used a stream of consciousness  that drew on Hale's own nervous breakdown of the year before. For this she used a stream of consciousness similar to that used by Virginia Woolf.

In prose elegant and sometimes slyly humorous, Hale tackled controversial subjects like racism, prejudice against immigrants, anti-Semitism in the early days of World War II, women as enforcers of the double standard against other women,  a woman's ambiguous and even rebellious feelings about motherhood.  "The Bubble" is remarkably frank about a woman's desire "to look nice again"  and to attract attention from men after having a baby. And this was written in 1954.  Five years later in "Flotsam" a babysitting grandmother, vain about her youthful looks ("No doubt many of these passerby mistook her for Marcus's mother."), is trailed by her obedient but literal minded grandson who insist on correcting those mistakes.  Equally zealous in a different way, a suburban woman's back yard bomb shelter becomes the emotional center of her life.

Nancy Hale (1908-1988) was born in Boston; both her mother, Lilian Westcott Hale and her father, Philip Leslie Hale (1865-1931) were artists. Like her mother before her, Nancy Hale studied at the Boston Museum School Fine Arts.  Although she soon turned to writing, Hale published a biography of the painter Mary Cassatt in 1975.  She married her first husband in 1928 and the couple moved to New Yotk City where Nancy got a job at Vogue.  She also freelanced short stories to magazines, including the New Yorker.   Her book editor at Scribner's was Maxwell Perkins, who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe.  Indeed, Hale's stories of debutantes, college dances, and fast cars, drawn from her youth will evoke shades of Fitzgerald for many readers, although Hale's viewpoint is bemused and detached, not idolatrous.  She published a biography of the artist Mary Cassatt in 1975 and some critics took exception to her focus on the obstacles  faced by a female artist in the 19th century but  no one could question the depth of her research; she had learned  it from her parents.  Although she would go on to publish seven novels, her m├ętier was the story. Divorced and remarried in 1936, Hale moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. After her second marriage ended in divorce, Hale had a nervous breakdown; her third marriage in 1942 lasted until Hale's death.

Lilian Westcott Hale (1880-1963) studied with William Merritt Chase at his Shinnecock Hills Summer Art School on  Long Island and then at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts with Edmund Tarbell.  In 1902 she married a fellow artist, Philip Leslie Hale and the couple settled in Dedham, Massachusetts.  Their daughter Nancy was born in 1908.  Her portraits were much admired by critics and she won an award from the National Academy of Design in 1927.

Image: Lilian Westcott Hale - Nancy and the Map of Europe, 1919, oil on canvas, private collection.