26 July 2021

A Sign Of Summer: The Breton Stripe

"The body of the shirt will count twenty-one white stripes, each twice as wide as the twenty to twenty-one indigo blue stripes." -  Admiral Ferdinand-Alphonse Hamelin, Minister of the Marine for Brittany1858

How French, you may say, to be so precise about specifications. The French are proud of their navy and  its many victories over the British. The rivalry is apparent in their dueling names for the body of water that separates the two countries: Pas de Calais or English Cannel.

So the design of a new uniform was also a matter of symbolic import. The colors blue and white were chosen for their nautical associations; the three-quarter length sleeves were practical for physical tasks and sailors soon realized that it was easier to spot a man overboard in  a striped shirt. Although the French like to boast that the stripes represent Napoleon's naval victories, the truth is more prosaic; technical innovations in the production of cloth made it possible to knit a continuous, precisely striped shirt on one piece. Once the mariniere or rayure bretonne became the official sailor's uniform it was quickly adopted by fishermen and onion sellers along France's northern coast.

Stripes have a long history among the marginalized, from wandering minstrels and jesters to lepers and madmen. They were worn by men who existed on the fringes of society. 

At the time stripes were considered suitable male attire. Guy de Maupassant always wore a striped jersey when he was aboard his boat or when was was onshore mixing with the tough guys who hun around the docks.

However the young woman pictured in La voyageuse au bateau painted by Marcel Gromaire in 1930 owes her 'garconne' look to Coco Chanel. The young Chanel had had some success as a hat maker in Deauville where she  opened a shop in 1913.  Being a woman, Chanel recognized that women were looking for a simpler style that would be chic but afford them greater freedom of movement. She introduced her striped jerseys in her couture collection in 1917.

Marcel Gromaire (1892-1971) was a painter of the modern pursuit of leisure,  golf, tennis, swimming, and sunbathing.

For further reading: The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes &  Striped Clothing by Michel Pastoureau, translated from the French by Jody Gladding, New York, Columbia University Press: 2001.\

Image: Marcel Gromaire - La voyageuse au bateau, 1930, oil on canvas, Musee d'Art moderne de la ville de Paris.

19 July 2021

"Voce et intellecto" Barbara Hoogeweegen

"Voce et intellecto." These were the qualities the poet Dante admired in art and when I look at  Barbara Hoogeweegen's portraits of women, voce et intelletco are what comes to mind. Representation is the process of re-presenting something so it is no accident that Hoogeweegen portrays her  contemporary women as self-possessed, and much more than the sum of  their lineage, pace portraits of wealthy and aristocratic women of  the Italian Renaissance .

For each one Hoogeweegen chooses a  color palette; the one she chose for Jeepers Creepers Where'd you Get Them Peepers is made up of the three primary colors with small daubs of the complementary colors on the neck  Applied in broad strokes that often overlap, the paint gets maximal effect without looking labored.
And what is natural about a portrait?  Until Leonardo da Vinci posed his female sitters facing the viewer, Renaissance painters presented women in profile, eyes chastely turned away from the viewer. And although da Vinci influenced younger artists like Giorgione, Raphael, and Titian, museums are filled with paintings of vacant, mask-like faces. If that brings Picasso to mind, then everything that is old can be made new. A few years ago Britain's National Portrait Gallery held an exhibition of portraits from its collection that are rarely seen because the sitters have not been identified.

We know that painting dates back to the time of the cave painters at Lascaux and Altamira. They depicted the natural world around but is painting something more than natural when it hang on the walls of a museum?  As recent events have reminded us, paintings hang against a background of social and political issues.

Barbara Hoogeweegen is truly an international artist.  Born in the Netherlands, she studied art in France and Great Britain and she now lives in London.

Image: Barbara Hoogeweegen - Jeepers Creepers Where'd you Get Them Peepers, 2017, oil on canvas, collection of the artist.

12 July 2021

The Blue Lantern Turns Fourteen

The Blue Lantern first appeared on July 12, 2007. In the beginning, I posted frequently to discover if there was an audience for what I wanted to do when I wasn't writing to order. Since the early days I have deleted a majority of posts (hundreds, actually) because I was dissatisfied with them. Also there was a website that copied my articles verbatim and then used them to solicit advertising, a clear violation of fair use of images. After taking a hard look at those articles, I either rewrote them or deleted them. 

I would like to thank very much the people who have devoted Pinterest boards to images published on The Blue Lantern. To celebrate the 14th anniversary of The Blue Lantern I decided to share some  comments that warmed my heart and kept me writing

Wednesday, 15 July 2009 - The Edinburgh Scotsman

Subtitles "Arts Journalism for the Love of It," this devastatingly beautiful blog covers a wide range of topics and mediums from known artists such as Marc Chagall, to unknown discoveries, (well, unknown to us) such as Kathleen Dustin who makes exquisite handbags in the shapes of seed pods from a special type of colored polymer clay. The site is named for the blue-shaded lamp that French writer Colette used as a guiding light for her imaginary journeys, after she became too frail to leave home. "Her invitation, extended to all, was 'Regarde!' Look, see, wonder, accept, live." It is written by Jane Librizzi, an American broadcaster blessed with great intelligence and an eye for the rare and marvellous."

Sunday 22 August 2010 - The Linosaurus

"I have done a good deal of rainy-day back-reading on Jane's blog (it should be a book really)..."

Friday 16 September 2011 - Wuthering Expectations

Librizzi is a master of pairing text and image, whether the text is a famous poem or her own essay.  This piece on Mariana Griswold von Rensselaer is a good example.  She also understands how literature and images interpenetrate – see this expert review of Theodor Fontane  and this little biography of Djuna Barnes.


 Wednesday 11 Janaury 2012 at Just A False Alarm

EVERY now and then you stumble across a very impressive blog or two whilst trawling the internet during  moments in which you experience rare solitude and freedom. Tonight I have been absorbed for a good hour or two by this blog: ... The writer is Jane Librizzi, a New Yorker, apparently a freelance journalist and a radio broadcaster, who I wouldn't know from a bar of soap- and yet, becoming absorbed in her thought-provoking blog, you can't help but feel you know her a little. She covers a wide range of subjects, mostly Art and Literature, and she does so comprehensively and professionally with acknowledgement of sources and detailed bibliographies. And you learn so much from her blog- or at least I did- because she covers some really interesting and esoteric subjects. At the moment, in 2012, she seems to be absorbed with Belgian art and Belgian photography. Then there is poetry by an Austrian, Ingeborg Bachmann, a fascinating study of the construction of stairs under the lovely heading 'Evanescence', a discussion of a Paul Signac painting under the equally beguiling heading, 'Luminance', and the professional relationship between Duncan Phillips (patron) and Augustus Vincent Tack (painter). Now I have only gone back in my discussion here to December 3, 2011, and Librizzi has been blogging since September 2005. So she has an incredible wealth of interesting blog entries over a number of years. She also includes a library of books read under a link called 'Library Thing.' Here once again I was introduced to the names of many writers and their books totally new to me."

The Human Flower Project, Julie Ardrey, editor, Austin, TX. 

Dear Jane - The Blue Lantern is a masterpiece.  I have been a dazzled reader for awhile and am preparing to wind down my own site, The Human Flower Project.  Having attempted to make something beautiful and thoughtful online, I deeply admire the ambition and generosity of your work!  - Julie Ardrey 

2009, The Curated Object, Joanne Molina, editor, Chicago

It's my absolute delight to introduce Jane Librizzi to our readers, Her intellectually stimulating and aesthetically astute blog, The Blue Lantern, has captivated me for more long  mornings, afternoons, and evenings than I would care to admit. Originally from northern New Jersey, she lived in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and now lives in upstate New York. She studied piano for several years and began writing stories at age nine. Aside from freelance writing, she has worked in music broadcasting on her local Public Broadcasting station for the past nine years. The place in the world she woud most like to visit is the Wolong Panda Center in China.

04 July 2021

The Immigrants: Theresa Bernstein

One of the ideas running like Javascript behind this blog is that the history of the arts is more than a reductive mythology of large personalities. Like the writer who pens one or two good books but gets overshadowed by the colorful character who attracts academic acolytes, there are artists who produce a handful of memorable images but not enough to launch ancillary careers.  Theresa Bernstein is one (1890-2002) despite a very long career. 

Bernstein was known for her portrayals of the bustling crowds of New York City.  The Immigrants is  something quite different, a maritime picture of a kind, people huddled together on an ocean-going ship,  waiting hopefully for the sight of land. They are heroic in a way we are not accustomed to think of as heroic, voyagers into an uncertain future.  Anchoring the picture at center front is a young woman holding a baby; around her head an envelope of air that draws the viewer to the tiered decks receding behind her. A deft way to suggest the depth of space with sparse shadowing.

Before she painted The Immgrants, Bernstein's work was exhibited alongside that of Edward Hopper.  Bernstein pretended that she had been born in America but her compassion for the trials of her fellow immigrants shines clearly in The Immigrants (1923).  The group stands on the deck of the Cunard R.M.S. Aquitania. Although the immigrations numbers were falling during the 1920s, nativism was rising and  Congress passed two laws to restrict immigration and set ne birthplace quotas.

Born in Kracow in 1890, Theresa Bernstein was brought to the United States by her parents and  raised in Philadelphia.  The Bernsteins were a well-educated., cultured family.  When the Bernstein family moved to New York City in 1912, Theresa established a studio of her own near Bryant Park. She enrolled at the Arts Students League where she studied with William Merritt Chase and attended the earthshaking Armory Show in 1913 where ordinary Americans were introduced to all manner of non-representational painting.  Bernstein had already been impressed by the works of Manet, Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso on two trips to Europe in 1905 and again in 1911. Bernstein continued to produce art during every decade of her life, dying in 2002 at the age of one hundred eleven.

Image: Theresa Bernstein - The Immigrants 1923, oil on canvas, private collection.

30 June 2021

A Lazy Afternoon: Raoul Dufy

"One must meditate abut pleasure. Raoul Dufy is pleasure." - Gertrude Stein

Luxe, calme et volupte.  Luxury, calm, an voluptuousness are the characteristics we associate with the French artist Raoul Dufy (1877-1953). Although Dufy worked in ceramics and textiles he is best known - and loved - for his later paintings with their foreshortened perspectives, suggestive shapes, and thin washes of color quickly applied, resulting in a style dubbed 'stenographic painting."

Born in Le Havre on the Pas de Calais, Dufy took refuge in the Midi during the Nazi Occupation. Driven out of his home at Saint-Denis-sur-Sarthon by the invading Germans in early 1940, he settled in unoccupied southern France.  Already suffering from the rheumatoid arthritis that eventually led to his death, the artist coped by strapping the paintbrush to his hand so as to continue working.  "The period of my illness and the cataclysms of the world should not be apparent in my ... work," he said and they are not. 

The  farms, farmyards, and granaries and granaries of the little village of Lestelle are the subject of numerous paintings and sketches from the late 1940s. Spare little pictures painted with an economy of means portray the rhythms of a rustic life.

Unlike Jean-Francois Millet's humbly religious peasants, Dufy's farmers are an altogether more pantheistic lot.  Around a table before a granary, a trumpeter and an accordionist entertain their mates on a break from haying. A table is there an the effect is so perfect that we do not question its being there. In the background a farmhand is working atop a combine.  A summer storm cloud passes casually by, only temporarily quelling the golden dust that rises from the threshing. machine. 

In Musicians In The Country  the chromatic intensity of golds alternates with swaths of verdant green.  The horizontal lines impart a sense of calm to the scene. An intensely blue stream leads  up at right   to a scalloped aqueduct, a survivor of Roman times, reminding us of Virgil's Georgics, a manual of agricultural things that Dufy's near contemporary Aristide Maillol illustrated in a series of prints and drawings between 1937-1944. Perhaps both sought comfort in seeming eternal verities and who could blame them.

Image: Raoul Dufy - Musicians In The Country, 1948-49, oil on cardboard, Centre Pompidou, Paris.

24 June 2021

Maria Zieu Chino: The Potter As Archeologist

Bolts of lightning zigzag toward earth against a backdrop of driving rains. These are, in turn, overlaid by a crisscrossing  network of leaves and flowers.  The lines are so sharp and precise because they are traced with the pointed end of a yucca plant. This is an art of the southwestern desert and its indigenous peoples, an art that celebrates a precious and scarce resource - water.

After incising designs in the clay the potter would tap the pot; if its thin sturdy walls did not ring when held to the ear that indicated that the pot would crack in firing and was defective. Eventually  after wood firing was completed, seed would be stored in the pot until needed for planting. Then the seed pot would be broken and the shards could be reused to make more pots. 

The same clay that made seed pots made pots to carry precious water home from nearby streams.  The same clay was used to build the pueblo towns of the southwest. Dried clay is given additional strength through the incorporation of potsherds. Geometric patterns seem suited to the harsh light of the desert, sharply defined. Fire is implicit in the dry lands, waiting only to be tapped.  Pottery is the art form and the tool maker ready to hand.

Maria Zieu Chino (1907-1982) was born at Acoma Pueblo in northwestern New Mexico. The making of pottery there dates back more than a millennium. She won the first award  for her pottery when she was fifteen years old at the Santa Fe Indian Fair in 1922. Together with her friends Jessica Garcia, Juana Leo, and  Lucy M. Lewis, the quartet became known as the "Four Matriarchs" of Acoma pottery for their revival of an ancient art, beginning in the 1950s.  While gathering potsherds to temper their vessels the women unearthed pieces with long unseen designs, becoming archeologists in service to  their own ancestors. Yet Chino was no mere copyist; she adapted traditional motifs to her own ends, achieving results that were fresh and compelling. Among her peers, Chin's work is admired for the fitness between its form and decoration.

Robert Patricio is the nephew of Maria Zieu Chin.

Image: Maria Zieu Chino - Seed Jar,  1982, clay, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

14 June 2021

Watching For Summer With Edie Harper

A white clapboard house with a swing on the porch.  Just a few colors, with a sunny yellow that suggests the title of this serigraph - Summer Watch.  And if you follow the white paw hanging down over the edge o the porch and turn right you will see a sleeping cat with a smile on its face. Like Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat, Harper's cat slips in and out off view.

Harper was a prodigious experimenter in media.  Beyond photography, she excelled in painting and lithography.   Not content with two dimensions, she made pottery, sculpture, and jewelry, too.  For Harper eploring each new technology must have been thrilling.

Except for a ix month cross country honeymoon with her husband, Edie McKee Harper (1922-2010 never strayed far from her Midwestern roots.  She was born in Kansas City, Kansas and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, after studying at the Art Academy there.  During World War II she worked as a photographer for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Edie Harper - Summer Watch, serigraph (silkscreen) on paper, Springfield Museum of Art, Springfield, OH.

09 June 2021

Brazil The Bittersweet: Patricia Leite

From Gertrudes Altschul, a German immigrant to Patricia Leite, a living Brazilian artist (this site last week) images of nature in art.

These paintings shown here are from a series on the Barra do Una, a beach on the Brazilian coast near Sao Paolo, a region that is home to an abundance of biodiverse flora and fauna and rivers and waterfalls along with the littoral.  They are at once a celebration and a reminder of this fragile ecosystem   In recent years there has been profound  damage to its environment through the Barra's growing number of visitors and  the detritus they discard as well as that which washes ashore.

Patricia Leite was born in 1955 in Belo Horizonte, a large city in southern Brazil, and now lives in Sao Paolo, the nation's largest city.  It would seem t academic argument to debate where figuration in her work ends and abstraction begins because blending is seamless. She often works on wooden panels, the better to layer her pigments.   striking contrasts of color 


1. Patricia Leite  - Saudade do Brasil, 2021, oil on wood, Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

2. Patricia Leite - Vagalumas, 2021, oil on woo, Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

03 June 2021

Gertrudes Altschul & Fotoclubsmo

"(F)or women, whether artists or writers ... the conditions of exile have especially ambiguous or even ambivalent implications." - Linda Nochlin

That Gertrudes Altschul (1904-1962) would become an internationally famous photographer came about because of what Linda Nochlin called "conditions of exile."

Altschul and her husband Leon were Jewish. When  Leon was forced to sell his hat-making business in 1939 under increasing anti-Semitic legislation by the Nazi regime, the couple left Berlin in haste and piecemeal,  evacuating their son Ernst to relatives in Great Britain, the parents arriving separately in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Finally, in 1941 the family were reunited with their son.  Another version of this story of families being buffeted by World War II is Lore Segal's 1964 affecting fictionalized memoir Other People's Houses.

As in the United States, the many professional people who emigrated from Germany constituted a critical mass that influenced the art scene in Sao Paulo. In photography, to name one medium, Brazilians  began to move away from pictorialism and toward experimental modernist methods that often highlighted form and geometry. 

Gertrudes Altshul  found work making artificial flowers; as part of her new life,  Altschul began photographing and joined the Foto Cline Club in 1952. Her ambitious experiments rivaled those of any make photographer.  She aimed to create images that  could resonate  universally  As subjects she frequently chose stairs, ladders, and construction materials. Filigree represents another of Altshcul's continuing interests, botanical subjects. Soon Altschul earned an international reputation for her work.During the 1950s, club members won prizes on six continents.  Though her pphotogrpahic career was short, it was memorable.

With Filigree Altschul has used the camera to convey an intimate relationship; without wanting to overstate my claim, I see it as a portrait.  This leaf is like no other.
The Foto Cine Club Bandeirante was a group of inventive amateur photographers that began in Sao Paulo in 1939. Unusually for the time, the club specifically encouraged women to become members. In These were no ordinary hobbyists. Their photo salons won admiration around the world for originality,  They launched a magazine Boletim foto-cine that appeared on a quixotic schedule and was free to  members and for sale to the public. The magazine fostered an esprit de corps by including information about members' doing,: birthdays, weddings, and club excursions.  Those club excursions were joint learning experiences in the field. There was even an annual visit from Santa Claus.
 Image: Gertrudes Altschul  - Filigree, 1953, gelatin silver print, Estate of Gertrudes Altshcul

23 May 2021

Landscape Into Art: The Light In Switzerland

Eighteen forty-eight is usually remembered as a year of revolution in Europe; not so in Switzerland.  That year the Swiss Confederation was formed and, with three official languages taken from neighboring countries of France, Italy, and Germany, Switzerland seemed to inoculate itself against the excesses of 19th century nationalisms. In the event, the arts would provide the country its genius loci. A remarkable generation of painters emerged in the decades immediately before World War I  who remade the alpine landscape through  radical stylistic inventions. Most would complete their art studies away from home.

Giovanni Giacometti (1868-1933), the son of a baker in Stampa,  managed to enroll at the Munich  School of Arts and Crafts. There he became friends with Cuno Amiet (1868-1961), from the German-speaking canton of Solothurn where Amiet's father was the chancellor of the canton. The two friends decided to go to Paris where they enrolled at the Academie Julian but financial difficulties forced Giacometti to return home. Meanwhile Amiet joined the artist colony around Paul Gauguin in Pont-Aven; the experience convinced him of the primacy of color in painting.  At first his work was not well-received in Basel but he won a silver medal the Universal Exposition in 1900;  his work would remain grounded in French traditions, sometimes evoking the style of the Nabis, heavily influenced as they were by Japanese wood block prints. The Yellow Girls could have been a wood  block print as easily as a painting but as a painting it is completely modern.

After Paris, Giacometti found the isolation of life in Stampa unbearable and traveled south to Rome in 1893 where he had the good fortune to find a mentor  in Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899). Under the more experienced painter's influence he came to appreciate the  beauty inherent in the mountainous Swiss landscape.  During his lifetime Segantini was one of Europe's most famous painters. 

Felix Vallotton (1865-1925) was born into a conservative middle class family in French-speaking Lasuanne. He arrived in Paris at the beginning of 1882, working as an art restorer and an art critic for a newspaper back in Lausanne. His paintings began to attract Swiss patrons at  he same he was experimenting with printing techniques. In 1892 he joined  the Nabis,  a Vallotton's landscapes are always spectacular,  their extreme simplification  through bands of bright colors curving and bending, expressive of movement in nature although not strictly representational. His painting style was influenced by his experiments with prints where line is a primary means of communication. 

All three artists share an interest in the effects of light on a landscape of theatrical proportions, intensified by their imaginative use of bold colors.  These works are currently on view at the Musee d'Orsay in Paros as part of Swiss Modernities (1890-1914) from 19 May - 25 July 2021.

You can access the Swiss art database here in four languages (English, French, German, Italian).


1. Giovanni Giacometti - Primavera, 1905, tempura on canvas, Bundner Kunstmuseum, Chur.

2. Cuno Amiet - The Yellow Girls, 1905, oil on fiberboard, private collection.

3. Felix Vallatton - Effect of Evening Light on Lac Leman, 1900, Tempura on cardboard.

05 May 2021

Portrait Of A Vespertine Flower: Amy Lamb

 "the narcotic breath of beauty and bane" - Linda Marie Van Tassell

Datura goes by many names: thornapple, jimsonweed moonflower, devil's trumpet, hells bells

Lamb thinks of her flower paintings as portraits. "I often print my images very large to allow the viewer to delve into the 'soul' of the flower." Here she creates an image rich in chiaroscuro; the purple bloom has, as if by magic, soaked up all the available light.  The bundled strands of the neck erupt into a flamboyant flurry or ruffles, like old-fashioned crinolines. Purple Datura, typically of Lamb's work, examines the distinctive forms and colors of plants, "the amazing engineering that goes into plants." Inspired to train as a molecular biologist by her fascination with biodiversity, Lamb only began to study photography after her children had grown up.

Lamb grows most of the plants she photographs in her home garden in Bethesda, Maryland.  She relishes the opportunity it gives her to observe the life cycles of plants and to choose the perfect photographic moment. "I like the fact that there's a lot of nature that's not under my control, that in order to do what I do, I have to conform to the plant."

As an artist-scientist, Lamb is heir to a tradition that stretches  back to Maria Sibiyla Merian (1647-1717) who was an early, significant contributor to entomology as well as a scientific illustrator through the Canadian Mary Vaux Walcott  (1860-1940) who meet her geologist husband in 1913 while she was hiking the Canadian Rockies in search of flowers to paint.

Image: Amy Lamb - Purple Datura, 2015, digital print of a photograph, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

25 April 2021

Snoopy Sees The Earth From Sunrise To Sunset


In Snoopy Sees The World Wrapped In Sunset  the world, in the shape and color of the sun, is surrounded by its own color.  The yellow stripes represent the color that we associate with the sun while the reds and oranges represent the heat that emanates from it. Like several other paintings from this time, Snoopy Sees The World Wrapped In Sunset shares some visual similarities with pointillism but not its enervated reliance on a color formula that 19th century European artists mistook for science.

Awed by the Apollo landing on the moon in 1969, Thomas conceived a series of "Space' paintings.  Her take on space also had a light-hearted side. "When Apollo was put into orbit, Peanuts' Charlie Brown left Snoopy spinning around to enjoy the unbelievable," she said in 1972. Snoopy got his own series of seven pictures.   

Then, in Snoopy Sees A Sunrise, the sun is shown in the cool colors -  blue, purple, and mauve,  - that characterize the Earth Shadow that appears above the pink anti-twilight, visible in the eastern sky at sunset. Stretching for nearly 180 degrees it curves, showing us the shadow we cannot see, an astronomical iteration of the parable of Plato's cave. 

Alma Thomas (1891-1978) was African-American artist who began painting in a representational style but, under the influence of Lois Maillou Jones, her style became more abstract. Although she painted throughout her life, Thomas did n ot become a full-time artist until she was sixty-nine. At the age of eighty in 1972 Thomas became the first female African-American artist to receive a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum. "Who would ever have dreamed that somebody like me would make it to the Whitney in New York?" Thomas said at the time.  But some activist groups accused the museum of tkenism, of using a few token black artists to camouflage a general lack of progress. Although she taught junior high school art for thirty-five years, Thomas was active in the local art scene and pushed back against discrimination wherever she encumbered it. 

Something else to know about Thomas is that she liked to give fanciful and suggestive titles to her abstraction such as Winds Dancing With Spring Flowers and Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers.

For more about Alma Thomas go here.


1. Alma Thomas - Snoopy Sees The Earth Wrapped In Sunset, 1970,  acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.

2, Alma Thomas - Snoopy Sees A Sunrise, 1970, acrylic on canvas, Smithsinian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.

15 April 2021

Niki de Saint Phalle: An Artist For Our Time

"If life is a game of cards, we are born without knowledge of the rules yet we must play our own hand." - Niki de Saint Phalle

I. Like the Guggenheim Musuem's Hilma af Klint exhibition in 2019, two exhibitions of works by Niki de Saint Phalle, one at MoMA PS1 and the other at the National Academy of Design, are revelatory, at least for Americans. The French-American Saint Phalle 's reputation has continued to grow since her  death in 2002. 

The term Nana is French slang equivalent calling women  chicks.  The Nanas that Saint Phalle created are playful and  ambiguous at the same time. Voluptuous and triumphant, they embody the woman who conquers through her fertility, as opposed the aggressive and warlike behavior of men. Saint Phalle often said she liked to see men smaller than women, as portrayed by her sculpture The Blind Man and the Cow. Saint Phalle had been transfixed in horror by the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The seeds of her fighting feminism had been planted in childhood.

At first Saint Phalle's Nanas were interior pieces of a small scale but they grew bigger and more imposing as time went on. Saint Phalle intended them to command the public spaces they inhabited. This required a change from papier mache and wool to materials that could withstand the elements, so she began to work with hard resins.  When she placed three Nanas on a public square in Hannover, Germany in 1974, there was grumbling from the city fathers who felt encroached upon by the exuberant figures.

How the Tarot Garden came to be built in Garavicchio.  Members of the Agnelli family, wealthy  industrialists, donated land for the project, the site of an abandoned quarry, Saint Phalle hired local laborers to help her and work began in 1979.  The Tarot Garden would take up two decades of the artist's life. She did not want to be supported by a patron as her hero, Gaudi, had been by Eusebi Guell who got to have the Parc named for himself. Saint Phalle needed to raise millions to fund her garden so, to that end,  she developed and marketed an eponymous perfume in a flask she designed adorned with entwined serpents. 

The Empress Nane was completed in 1983; Saint Phalle into its interior, a comfortable womb-like curivilinear space with no sharp corners.  Like all the figures in the Tarot Garden, this one was decorated with mosaic tiles in designs as artful as lacework and although Saint Phalle had been hostile to organized religion since childhood, the Tarot Garden  expressed her understanding of the spiritual aspect of life.

Weakened from decades of breathing the toxin dust of the fiberglass and polyester resins she had worked with, Niki de Saint Phalle died on May 21, 200 in La Jolla, California.

II. When Niki de Saint Phalle was born in Paris in 1930, her father Andre, was in New York  trying to salvage his family's bank and having affairs. A member of an aristocratic family whose lineage was traced back to the Crusades, Andre was married to an extremely religious American woman, Jeanne.Harper. She often told the little girl that she had cried all the way through her pregnancy. Jeanne had a cold temperament that warmed to violence directed at her five children. Mere months after Niki was born, her parents left her in the care of her grandparents while they moved to New York City. Living in a chateau, surrounded by servants and governesses, Niki felt abandoned and lonely. At the age of ten she was sent to a convent school;  the anger she felt at being  denied the education offered to her younger brother planted the seed of her feminism

Saint Phalle looked back her on eleventh year as the year of enfer (hell). First she was frightened by a snake and then her father began to abuse her sexually, "like a dirty old man in a cinema." As an adult, she would exorcise her demons through art. A legacy of her troubled childhood was the pairing of opposing forces, creation with destruction and joy with fear. "I've learned through my art to tame the things that scare me."

Saint Phalle married the writer Harry Mathews when she was eighteen. They had a daughter, Laura, and moved to Paris in 1952 but the next year Saint Phalle had a nervous breakdown. Hospitalized for six weeks she began to paint. Her discovery of Antoni Gaudi's  architecture in Barcelona captivated her and she soon began to incorporate shards of colored glass and china into her paintings.

Saint Phalle left her husband and two children in 1960 to devote herself to her work.  Searching for an outlet for her aggressions, the next year she hit on the novel idea of plastering bags of paint to canvas and then shooting them with a rifle. She described it as "murder with no victims." To Saint Phalle the choice was either art or terrorism.  Public demonstrations in four countries made her an international sensation of the avant-garde art world.  With that, the first artist of the 21st century was launched.

Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures For Life is on view at MoMA PS1 in New York City until September 6, 2021.

Images: Niki de Saint Phalle, courtesy of The Tarot Garden, Garavicchio, Italy, except as noted.

1. Moon sculpture, Tarot Garden.  2. The Blind Man on the Prairie, courtesy of the Pompidou Center, Paris.  2. Interior room in The Empress sculpture, Tarot Garden. 4. The Tarot Garden at Garavcchio, Italy.

26 March 2021

Painted From Memory: Fernand Khnopff's Bruges

To medieval thinkers, everything on earth  was a sign, what was visible was only worth what it could extract from the invisible.  The waning of religion left a vacuum that nostalgia filled. The Saint John's Hospital was one of the oldest buildings in Bruges, a 12th century palace of healing. Painted by Fernand Khnopff in 1904, its reflection in the water reveals more of the building than the artist showed. 

According to Pol de Mont, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Khnopff described to him in 1901 the many hours he  spent playing with his younger brother Georges in the cellar of the family's home in Bruges. His vivid memories of staring out windows that were just above the waterline of the canal ,may have been the source of his later idiosyncratically cropped images.

Fernand Khnopff was fascinated by the mysteries religion, from the orthodox to the occult. He was attracted to the Salon de la Rose + Croix that ...art as a religion. His pictures are meditations on transience, often done in grisaille. He was inspired by Georges Rodenbach's comment on pastels as a metaphor for memory, images "half erased ... fading like a pastel drawing that has not been kept under glass, allowing the chalk to disperse." What Rodenbach made of Bruges was a metaphor for death. The publication of his novel Bruges-la-Morte in 1892 made his reputation.  By the late 19th century the canals had become polluted carriers of disease. For both men Bruges functioned as a 'soulscape."  In symbolic iconography, reflections signal the differences between perception and reality.

Khnopff''s adroit ways of keeping the curious at a distance were themselves works of art; he cooperated with interviewers throughout his career but only on his terms. His description of his only known return to Bruges in 1904 never varied: he told his friend Leon Tombu that h had donned dark glasses before leaving the train and he never removed them while outdoors, True or not, this story had a similar antecedent in Khoppff's hometown: after his grandfather died in 1868 he never went there again. Rodenbach, who never returned to his birthplace in Ghent, spoke of it constantly, according to his children.

Khnopff's father was a royal magistrate in Bruges where the family had lived since 1726.  Originally from Austria, the family had been elevated to the nobility by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1621.  Several generations has served as lawyers and judges in the Austrian Netherlands.  Belgium had only  become an independent nation in 1830. The family home was located a 1 Langestraat with a view of the Quai vert (Green Quay).

"Where life was concentrated in two or three rooms and where the salons were only used once a year for official receptions, only afterward to be closed once again for the length of the long silent winter nut also in the desolation of the summers. Grandiose dwellings, palaces of oblivion and solemnity..." _ Hippolyte Fierens-Gevaert. 

Khnopff's Memling Plaatz is a surreal island, threatened with inundation..by a rising tide.  The plaza and the base of the memorial to Hans Memling are realistically rendered but where is the statue commemorating the 15th century painter. When he was asked, Khnopff claimed he had never seen the statue. The painter may have been channeling the history of how Bruges hd been left for dead. Miraculously, it had become an accidental port by virtue of a tidal wave tht swept inland in 1134. In response, the citizens of Bruges had constructed a web of canals to take advantage of their good fortune. Gradually as they continued to dredge eventually the River Zwijn silted in leaving the city marooned at permanent low tide. By the 15th century Bruges had entered a twilight world. The glorious art and architecture remained, confirming its irrelevance in an industrial age. Perhaps this was what  Arthur Rimbaud had in mind when he opined that the French would have been second rate Symbolists without the Belgians. 


Fernand Khnopff - In Bruges.  Saint Jan's Hospital (circa 1904) pastel on paper,  Hearn Family Trust, NYC

Fernand Khnopff  - Memories of Bruges, 1889, pastel on paper mounted on canvas, Royal Museum of Fine arts, Brussels

Fernand Khnopff  (1858-1921) - Abandoned City (Memling Plaatz - Bruges), 1904, pastel and pencil on paper mounted on canvas, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.

22 March 2021

Painted From Memory: Henir Le Sidaner's White Garden

Henri Le Sidaner (1862-1939) was born just as the Impressionists were preparing to overturn realism in painting and he died just as abstraction was peeking its nose under the art tent like some mischievous camel.  To our eyes he may look like a particularly sweet Impressionist but Le Sidaner was, rather, an adherent of Symbolism, another reaction to realistic art.  The potted version is that Symbolists expressed truths through metaphorical images (works as well in literature as in art). His friend Gabriel Moury described Le Sidaner as "a mystic who has no faith."

His contemporaries compared Le Sidaner to the great novelists and playwrights of the movement: "The Rodenbach of Painting" and "The Maeterlinck of Painting."  Both men were Belgians. Georges Rodenbach was the author of Bruges-la-Morte (1892), said to be the first novel illustrated by photographs and Maurice Maeterlinck was a Flemish poet who wrote in French and was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize in 1911. His paintings get a mention in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time  

Le Sidaner, the child of Breton parents, was born on the island of Mauritius. He was a contemporary of the Post-Impressionists and studied art in Paris with an academic artist but for his own painting, he looked to the Symbolist movement in turn of the century Belgium. He moved to the village of Gerboroy in 1898 where he could paint in solitude and cultivate his gardens but that did not mean that he set his easel outdoors.  Le Sidaner preferred to paint from memory which pulled a scrim between the painting and the viewer. 

Like Whistler, Le Sidaner saw potential in liminal times of the day, those moments when the sensory threshold is about to be crossed. The white garden, that Le Sidaner designed, was surrounded by sandy walkways,  rows of white pinks (Dianthus plumairius) formed its border, the trees were white weeping roses and a white bench  provided a resting place for contemplation. Its design harked back to a medieval hortus conclusis, an enclosed garden with roots in the Song of Solomon: "A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up." The eye is invited to enter the painting through an expanse of empty lawn, follows back to the balustrades and the steps to arrive at the barely visible red dot of the setting sun. With or without the symbolic elements,  Le Sidaner's paintings  reach out to the viewer.

Image: Heniri Le Sidaner - Le Jardin blanc au crepuscule (The White Garden at Twilight), 1912, oil on canvas, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.

15 March 2021

How The Old Masters Came To America

 "One takes, moreover, an acute satisfaction in seeing America stretch out her long arm and rake in, across the green cloth of the wide Atlantic, the highest prizes of the game of civilization."  -  Henry James, from "The American Purchase of Meisssonier's 'Friedland," 

When Henry James wrote this in 1876 he was a young man.  By the time he came to write the short novel The Outcry in 1911 he was in is sixties and had been living in England for decades.  In The Outcry James took the opposite position.  Times had changed for the British aristocracy. In the wake of the collapse in grain prices they had been rendered land poor, reduced to selling their old master paintings to culture climbing American millionaires like J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick.

Mechanized steamships  had caused the collapse of grain prices as  trans-Atlantic trade enabled the United States to export its grain to Europe.  Over a period of just nine years the price of wheat dropped  from twenty cents a ton down to two cents. The British and Russian land barons were hit especially hard by this; the famines on the Russian steppes would not be forgotten by the peasants; their descendants flocked to support the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

A similar upheaval but a much worse one took place in Norway, an entirely different society from its European neighbors.  Norway in the 19th century was a poor country in an undeveloped state, its people subsisted  mostly off nature as farmers and fishermen with a small class of carpenters and cobblers.  

However hygiene was improving by mid-century so people were living longer but the soil could not support the larger population and agriculture collapsed, forcing people to migrate to the cities. Industrialization came late to Norway and when it did it was sudden and brutal. Kristiana, as Oslo was then known, grew from 17,000 in 1800 to 230,000 in 1901.

From tiny farm communities where everyone knew everyone going back generations and the pace of life was slow, Norwegians were thrust onto an urban treadmill where undreamt-of speed became the pace of their days, where they might see hundreds of strangers in a single day.  The wonder was that even neighbors could be strangers in the city. The need to constantly defend oneself from over-stimulation led to the use of coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol ...

Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) published his novel Hunger in 1890. The story of a starving young man in the capitol city, who moves in and out of homelessness, hunger eventually leading to delusions.  All the while trying to maintain a fa├žade of respectability, he gradually suffers mental and physical deterioration.  Hamsun took a dim view of the modem metropolis just then coming into being, describing Kristiana sardonically as "this wondrous city that no one leaves before it has made its mark on him."

Edvard Munch (1863-1944), painter of emotional extremes lived through these disorienting times. Located on the outer edge of Europe,  a third of Norway was above the Artic Circle. How desolate was this place?  The novelist Mary Shelley had sent her Frankenstein off to die in its Arctic wastes.  From notes he left behind we know that this jittery atmosphere inspired The Scream (the best-known pastel version was created in 1893). 

A brief historical note on the term "old masters."  The term first came into use after the French Revolution to distinguish pre-revolutionary artists from then contemporary artists who were held to be 'modem masters.'


1.  unidentified artist - Countryside Around Dixton Manor- Gloucester, England, 19th century, reprinted from The Observer, 4 November 1979.           

2. Edvard Munch - The Scream, 1893, oil, tempura, and pastel on cardboard, National Gallery of Norway/ Munch Museum, Oslo.                                                                                    

07 March 2021

There's A Word For It: Bonnarding

"Because nothing is ever finished/ the painter would shuffle bonnarding,/ into galleries, museums,, even the homes of his patrons,/ with hidden palette and brush:/ overscribble drapery and table with milk jug or fattened pear,/ the clabbered ripening colors of second sight.

Though he knew the time the pentimenti rise - / half-visible, half brine-swept fish, their plunged shapes/ picking the mind - toward the end, only revision mattered:/ to look again, more deeply, harder, clearer,/ the one redemption granted us to ask." - excerpt from "History As The Painter Bonnard" by Jane Hirshfield, from The October Palace, New York, HarperCollins: 1994

There is a story that may or may not be true, that Pierre Bonnard was arrested in the Louvre, paintbrush and palette in hand, standing in front of one of his own paintings, reconsidering and retouching it. That it has come down to us ...suggests how plausible it seemed to the artist's friends, whether or not  true.

The dog on the terrace may gave this painting its title but could be the last thing you notice about the picture.  The view from the terrace draws the eye first. What a pleasant and varied vista, a landscape with trees and fields and a brook running by. Then the cloth laid on the diagonal in the lower right corner opposite the stairs catches the eye; a cup and saucer, a spoon, and a pot are at the ready for a petit dejeuner en plein air. Only then de we notice the little dog curled up by the garden wall. This too is bonnarding, painting as an adventure.  The process is the point.

Bonnard has been claimed as the first abstract expressionist for the immediacy of his brushwork, full of flexibility and improvisation. Looking at a Bonnard painting, especially later ones,  we sense his pleasure at moving paint around  on the canvas. He simplified his subject matter the better to concentrate on formal elements, color, shape, etc.  

Unlike the Impressionists,  contemporaries of his youth, Bonnard was uninterested in painting  en plein air. He was perfectly content to paint the view from his window or terrace. Instead of  paining at an easel, Bonnard tacked his canvas to a wall. A restless spirit, he usually had several canvases in progress at a time. Sometimes he even painted several subjects on a single canvas, to cut up later when they were finished.  His eccentricities extended to mixing his paints. Rather than use a palette, Bonnard mixed his colors on plates, walking back and forth from the wall to a table where he haad arranged the plates to his liking.

It was in 1904 that Bonnard discovered the Midi when he visited his friends from the days of the Nabis, Ker-Xavier Roussel Edouard Vuillard ,at Saint-Tropez. The light and the vegetation came as a revelation to the Parisian. "I had a thousand and one nights...The sea, the yellow walls, the reflections as colourful (sic) as the lights." From then on Bonnard spent his winters in a succession of rented houses until, in 1922, he purchased :a house in Le Cannet.  Le Bosquet, the pink house became, along with his companion Marthe and a series of little dachshunds, all the inspiration  he needed.

Image: Pierre Bonnard - Chien sur la terrasse (Dog on the ..The sea, the yellowwTerrace), 1917, oil on canvas, Musee d'Orsay, Patis.

28 February 2021

Dusty Springfield: Being Great Isn't Always Easy

Dusty Springfield that's a pretty name

It even sounds like a game

In a green field hobby horses play the game when it's May

Pink and paisley skies shining n green eyes

A magic pin wheel

Flowers in her hair

Dusty Springfield

Silver star shine over crystal waters

Petal pretty as a pearl

What a pretty girl.

s fall from her glance

Flowers sparkle

With a dew of morning, feathers float from her dance

Suddenly the song's the thing

Fill your cup, come to the spring

And you'll stand so still

You'll feel the thrill

 -  "Dusty Springfield" words & music by Jim Council, Blossom Dearie, & Norma Tanega

On March 2 it will be twenty-two years since Dusty Springfield died.  Widely regarded as the greatest British pop singer of the 20th century, but still underrated according to her peers. Elvis Costello: "(I)t's one of the greatest voices in pop music, without doubt. And I don't really think she's ever got credit for that because people concentrate on the icon aspect of it. You know, the hair and the eyelashes and the hand gestures."

Springfield's career still inspires: she was a woman who made the life she wanted from the life she was given.  At the beginning of her solo career in 1963 Springfield hid that she produced  her records, fearing the public would react negatively to a female singer who took the credit. The music business seemed agreed that female singers did not know what was best for them, that there needed to be a man in charge. An interesting footnote is that Brian Epstein, a manager who would have had his hands full even if the Beatles were his only clients - and they were not - said he wished he could have managed Springfield's career. Soon after the Springfields group split up in 1963, Vic Billings became her manager; their association is still regarded as one of the best manager/artist relationships of the 1960s.

Born Mary O'Brien in suburban London, she attended a Catholic girls' school where she  played field hockey in spite of severe nearsightedness.  The sisters at St. Anne's didn't see much of a future for the plump redheaded tomboy but Mary was determined: "I just decided, in one afternoon, to be this other person who was going to make it."  She bleached her hair and developed a unique style of makeup, believing that looking like a different person would help her become that person.  Her teenage nickname Dusty ,combined with Springfield, the name of a vocal group founded by her older brother, completed the transformation.

Finding her voice apart from the Springfields  began in 1962 while the group was en route to Nashville to record an album. During a stopover in New York City Dusty took a late night walk when she became transfixed by a song piped over a loudspeaker at the famous (motto: "I found it at the Colony") Record Store on Broadway at 52nd Street. The song was "Tell Him" by the girl group the Exciters.  Springfield later described the experience: "The Exciters sort of got you by the throat ... out of the blue comes blasting at you "I know something about love" and that's it." You can trace a direct line to Dusty's first solo hit "I Only Want To Be With You" in November 1963

Soon she was meeting the songwriters who would contribute so much to the Springfield songbook.  Dusty met Carole King at the Brill Building where King and her husband Gerry Goffin wrote their hits in a small studio. "(S)he was this little thing with lots of hair and I thought "my God, all this music comes out of you."  On another song-hunting trip to New York, Dusty flew over for a day to have dinner with Burt Bacharach: from that trip she brought back "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself."

Since her death in 1999, it has become known that Dusty Springfield's romantic relationships were with  other women, a subject she avoided discussing publicly during her lifetime for fear it would destroy her career. 

Norma Tanega (1939-2019) was a Native American singer-songwriter who came to England in 1966, where shea met Dusty Springfield.  The two lived together in Kensington for five years. During that time Tanega wrote several evocative songs for Dusty -  No Stranger Am IThe Colour of Your Eyes  English lyrics for Nana Caymmi's Bom Dia (Morning), Midnight SoundsEarthbound GypsyGo My Love (released posthumously, with melody taken from J.S. Bach), and English lyrics for Antonio Carlos Jobim's La Strada do sol (Come For A Dream).

Tanega told an interviewer that Dusty had once explained that she conceived of singing as a river with two currents, one for the notes, one for emotion. "She [Dusty] would always know when the emotion would drop off and that's when she would stop and start again. The emotion and the tone had to mesh. People said that she didn't know her own ability, how good she was. She knew her ability alright, that's why it had to be perfect. She knw how to ride that river better than any other raft in the business."

Springfield's affinity for black American music ran deep.  She described her June 1964 stint performing with Martha & the Vandellas at the Brooklyn Fox Theater as  "the biggest thrill of my life,"  To have persuaded her British label to allow her first two albums to consist of mostly cover version of black songs was a daring move at the time. Springfield had embarked on a tour of South Africa in December 1964 that...After performing before an integrated audience in Capetown the singer was reprimanded and deported.  The affair caused a scandal back home where artists who had enjoyed lucrative tours of South Africa condemned her refusal to perform for segregated audiences because it made them look unprincipled, which they were. 

Madeleine Bell (b.1942) appeared in Black Nativity: A Gopel Song Play by Langston Hughes when it debuted off- Broadway in 1961.  Although the initial run was not long its impact and influence was ...  Bell came to England with the review and at a New Year's Eve party in 1963 she met Dusty Springfield.  The musical relationship that developed between the two was one of several such between church-trained African American vocalists  including Gloria Jones and Doris Troy who, along with Bell would work as Springfield's backing vocalists beginning with In the Middle of Nowhere, recorded in March, 1965.  The call and response between the lead singer and the backup singers made for a close interaction that was energizing to the material in a way British audiences were not accustomed to.  

Blossom Dearie (1924-2009) composed song tributes to artists she admitted - Hey John about her excitement on meeting John Lennon, Sweet Georgie Fame for the British jazz singer and Dusty Springfield. Dearie had often mentioned Springfield as bein one of her favorite singers.

And yes, that was her real name.  Dearie is a name that goes back to 13th century Britain; her father was of Scots-Irish descent and her Norwegian mother called the girl Blossom. Dearie was born in East Durham, Albany County, New York. She moved to Paris in 1952 where she formed a successful jazz vocal group, the Blue Stars. 

In the early 1960s, Dearie began to appear in London jazz clubs like Ronnie Scott's, where she recorded two popular live albums. It's possible that Springfield heard Dearie perform there: Springfield's tastes were eclectic stretching from rhythm and blues to jazz to Brazilian music and even standards and folk music. Both singers performed songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Springfield recorded a song associated with Dearie - Sweet Lover No More. Their voices were as dissimilar as chalk and cheese; Dearie's a light, girlish soprano and Springfield's  a dusky contralto.

For more: Let's Talk Dusty


1. Dezo Hoffmann - Dusty Springfield at San Remo Song Festival in front of Savoy Hotel, January  1965.

2.  unidentified photographer - Dusty Springfield in the late 1970s.

21 February 2021

Off The Coast Of Reality: Lucien Levy-Dhurmer's Venice

Delicate and wispy, evocative,  characterized by poesie, a potent combination of poetry and mystery: that's a good definition of pastels. Dry pastels are made of ground  pigments with gum arabic acting  as a binder.  The medium has been used since the Renaissance; it entered Europe by way of the trade in minerals.  In the 15th century Venice was a republic built on trade, the place where Europeans and Asians with something to sell would meet. 

Artists experimented with those minerals, making colored crayons from Chinese Cinnabar to produce vermillion, Russian malachite  for an intense green and, most precious of all, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan that produced a profound blue never seen before that was named ultramarine.  Levy-Dhurmer used that blue to good effect for the night sky that is the  backdrop for a bravura display of fireworks, seen here raining down from unseen heavens.

Venice is a city where the ephemeral nature of all things is always apparent. Solid objects are twinned with their. reflections,  restless and shimmering, in the Venetian canals. Like Stockholm which is built (mostly) on a chain of islands, Venice comprises more than one hundred marshy islands off the Italian  mainland. 

Originally settled as the Roman Empire collapsed,  refugees fled to the mudflats of the Veneto which offered a natural hideout from the northern invaders.  The local fishermen taught the newcomers to navigate the byways of the lagoon and its islands.  A city whose 'fortress' was the sea  inspired a unique architecture that combined elements of Byzantine, Moorish, and Gothic (seen here in the lancet arches of the Doge's  Palace).   The short-lived painter known as Giorgione (1477 ?- 1510) was the emblematic artist of this liminal world. He was a master of elusiveness: to this day the meaning of his small oeuvre remains an enduring mystery.  

Image: Lucien Levy-Dhurmer - Feu d'artifice a Venise (Fireworks in Venice), date unclear, pastel, Pettit Palais, Paris.

13 February 2021

Norman Lewis: On The Path To Abstraction

Words don't adequately express my delight in the figure of the little in the striped dress playing the trombone, the trombone that is longer than she is tall. Part of the fun of lookin at Jenkins Street Band is in picking out the musicians and their instruments. I see a cornet player, a trumpeter, and a saxophone player wearing a wild checked jacket. That could be another musician wearing the polka dotted bow tie or it could someone holding a collection box.

During the 1940s the painter Norman Lewis was moving from the social realism he had practiced in the 1930s toward the new thing: abstraction.  Doubtful that overt commentary would bring about change and believing that "The goal of the artist must be aesthetic development,"  Lewis used gestural drawing (seen here in Jenkins Street Band from 1946) to make the transition. You can almost hear the improvisational playing of these street musicians through  the ease and freedom of line in Lewis's drawing.  

Street bands were a common sight in Harlem where Norman Lewis grew up.  The child of immigrants from Bermuda, Lewis (b.1909) was always keen on art but the family's resources went to Norman's older brother's music lessons. Saul Lewis would eventually play with the Count Basie and Chick Webb bands. Harlem in the 1920s was a mecca for the well-to-do (white) downtown crowd lured by the hot new jazz. that played in storied venues like the Cotton Club and Small's Paradise.  But there was no shortage of music on the street, of locals who wanted to play and those who wanted to listen. You didn't need to have money to hear music in Harlem.

To read more about Norman Lewis

Hear more Street Music here.

Image: Norman Lewis - Jenkins Street Band, 1944, oil on canvas, Smithsonian Museum of Art, Washington, DC.