29 May 2020

The Quarantine Library: Part Three

I. "The very poor, it could be said, often find it hard to be loved."

Stig Dagerman (1923-1954) was a Swedish master of the short story, far less well known than the Russian Chekhov or the Canadian Alice Munro. In her introduction to this new edition of his stories, Alice McDermott describes how her own introduction to Dagerman's work come about through her friendship with his daughter Lo.  McDermott connects Dagerman's work to the stories of James Joyce for his "ability to depict the intractable loneliness of childhood," noting that Dagerman "tempers this loneliness with brief gestures of hope, connectedness.."

Dagerman's stylistic variety is impressive, unlike many writers whose stories seem to blur together into one giant word-lump. He began as a journalist but turned to fiction as its antithesis:"Journalism is the art of coming too late as early as possible."  Dagerman wanted to arrive in time early. From experience, he understood the pains.of impoverished rural childhoods. The story "To Kill a Child," was commissioned by the National Society for Road Safety to show the dangers of speeding and has since been acclaimed as the greatest Swedish short story yet written.  Others here include "Bon Soir" in which a poor ship's cook supplements her meager income through prostitution only to be escorted from the shop by arresting officers; a young boy, observing her tears and humiliation, discovers in himself deep compassion he has never before experienced.

II. "There were plenty of rules, there was nothing but rules - the air was thick with them." - Bette Howland

I first heard of Bette Howland in 1983 when her story collection Things to Come and Go was published.  I enjoyed it so much that I resolved to read anything by her that came my way, but nothing did.  I did not know that Howland won a MacArthur Grant in 1984, after which  she never published again.  She died in 2019,  from complications of multiple sclerosis and dementia in Tulsa, far from her native city  of Chicago.  Recently, while at home, I discovered that Things to Come and Go and Howland's memoir W-3 have become collector's items that each cost more than $100.  Howland's gifts of language and observation stayed with me and when Public Space Books republished some stories under the title Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage I pounced on it.

"A Visit" which opens the present collection is a surreal story of a woman who accidentally drives onto a closed road under reconstruction in the dark. The character in "German Lessons" is a landlady who obsesses about the imaginary illnesses of her mother-in-law, who is also imaginary.  In "Public Facilities" a librarian notices a man who always carries a book tucked under his arm: "He was hatching it."  Howland worked at the public library an also in the editorial department at the University of Chicago Press.

Chicago was Howland's muse and it never failed her.  Her subject was the oddness at the heart of everything we take for granted. A single mother of two, Howland suffered a nervous breakdown  in 1968 and  was treated in hospital.  Saul Bellow, who had met Howland at a writers' conference in 1961, became a friend, sometime lover, and most crucially a strong advocate for her writing.  In on letter, written when Howland was discouraged, as she often was, he wrote this: "I think you ought to write in bed and use your unhappiness. I do it. Many do. One should cook and eat one's misery. Chain it like a dog. Harness it like Niagara Falls to generate light and supply voltage for electric chairs." String words for a writer in a league of her own.

III. Collector or hoarder?  "The function of the two terms ... was not descriptive but social, that is, to warn those in society against straying too far into the ambiguity of objects and the relationships they were capable of establishing with humans/" - Michael Rips.

I don't collect anything; a friend once told me that my apartment could be cleared out in half an hour. So when I opened The Golden Flea: A Story of Obsession and Collecting it was with the spirit of traveler into terra incognita.

For decades the Chelsea Flea Market on Manhattan's lower west side, adjacent to the Garment District, was one of the largest markets of its kind in the country.  It has recently been razed, a victim  of the city's real estate .....Michael Rips, director of the Art Students League and a resident of the Chelsea Hotel, knows objects and he became mesmerized by the oddball objects he found there and the  buyers and sellers. There were the "pickers" who look for undetected treasures to resell at a profit. Ibrahim Diop and his family, from Bameko, Mali, tutored Rips in the importance of  sculptures  based on their effectiveness,the ends for which they were created, age not so much. Characters like Paul, the haberdasher, who only sold to customers he liked. Providing a taxonomy of types was the Prophet, a psychotherapist who offered analyses of its denizens of the Flea. Ibrahim

IV. Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970), one of the great 20th century writers from Norway, author of  novels,  poetry, and plays; The Hills Reply is the second novel (The Birds was the first) to be made available in English by Archipelago Books. a nonprofit literary press.  His writing is terse and yet.deeply sensitive in its effects.  The natural world has much presence as the human one; Vesaas asks us to question whether trees, wind, water, and stone do not possess as much right and reality as ours. His landscapes are lush, yet never sentimental. After all, the land supersedes us when we die.

The characters are often children (a boy helps his father tend a pack horse as they clear a logging road of snow, a boy watches cranes dance overhead from a marsh hiding place, a girl waits for a boy in a snowstorm) or adolescents on the cusp of adulthood (a young man contemplates the indescribable distance between the mountain he has climbed and the familiar sights of home in the valley below, another is bemused by sunlight making mirrors in water, falls into the river and floats downstream clinging to log, noticed only by birds and fish).  Most affecting of all, near the end is "Melody." A woman who loves to play music, so much that she will go on skis during a snow storm to play with others, becomes the subject of intense wonderment by her adolescent son.  He compares the beautiful golden girl, so full of promise in her photograph album, with the woman who works so hard around the farmhouse, and thinks this is not what she should be doing, that she must regret her choice.

Born in Vinje, a town in southern Norway, Vesaas lived a mostly quiet  his life on a farm that had been in his family for three centuries.  He got the travel bug out of his system in his twenties.  Quiet, as Vesaas knew, makes space the most intractable human emotions. He published The Hills Reply, his last novel, two years before his death.

The books in the order I read them:

Sleet by Stig  Dagerman, translated from the swedish by Steven Hartman, David R. Godine: 2013 (1947)

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage by Bette Howland, Public Space Books: 2019

The Golden Flea by Michael Rips, W.W. Norton: 2020

The Hills Reply by Tarjei Vesaas, translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan, Archipelago Books: 2019 (1968)

Image: Vilhelm Hammershoi - Interior With a Woman Reading, 1908, oil on canvas, Museum Sonerjylland (Museum of Southern Jutland), Esbjerg, Denmark.

25 May 2020

Alice Halicka: Something Cool

She signed her painting prominently in an upper corner, a la Gauguin.  The colors - black, brown, red, blue, green, and white - could be used to produce bright effects, but that was not Alice Halicka's aim.
Here all is subtle, the arrangement a satisfying blend of formal items and the paraphernalia of an everyday tabletop.  A glass decanter an a wine glass flank a sheet of foolscap, paper used to commemorate important occasions. In turn, these are flanked by small ceramic pots and two boxes (the red and blue one looks as if may contain matches).

What attracted Albert Barnes to this subtle modernist picture?  My guess is that Halicka's color palette may have reminded him of  the one Cezanne used to paint Bathers At Rest, a Barnes favorite.  Such considerations were uppermost in his mind when he created  his "ensembles," unconventional arrangements of paintings and decorative  and utilitarian objects from many cultures.  And creative is not too strong a word for what he achieved through his demonstrations of the formal properties of the works thus displayed.

Alice Halicka was born in Krakow in 1894 and died in Paris in 1975. Her parents were Jewish; her father was a doctor. During her childhood Alice lived in Switzerland and Austria, as well as in Poland. She studied art at a private school for women in Krakow, directed by Maria Niedzielska.  At eighteen Halicka moved to Paris where she studied under Paul Serusier and Maurice Denis at the independent Academie Ranson, then run by its founder's widow,Marie-France Ranson. One advantage the Academie offered its female students was the opportunity to paint from live models.

In 1913 Halicka marred cubist artist Louis Marcoussis who was also Polish. Guillaume Apollinaire singled out Halicka's cubist works at an exhibition in 1914. A few years later Marcoussis advised her to give up painting, saying one cubist was enough in the family. Through the intercession of Raoul Dufy, Halicka  was hired by the Bianchini silk manufactury in Lyon. Halicka gave birth to a daughter, Madeleine, in 1922.  During the decade she illustrated children's books, Valery Larbuad's  Enfantines  and Israel Zangwoll's Les Enfants du Ghetto.

In addition to oil painting, Halicka created collages, watercolors, engravings, and stage sets for the  ballet (Stravinsky's Le Baiser de la Fee in 1937 was performed at the Metropolitan Opera). She even  executed decorative screens for Helena Rubenstein - New York in 1935.  Throughout her life, Halicka traveled widely and even lived for awhile in Benares, India. Marcoussis died in 1941. Halicka's autobiography Souvenirs was published in 1946.

Image: Alice Halicka - Still Life, by 1925, oil on canvas, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

20 May 2020

Jozef Czapski: A Not So Empty Train Station

"Each time it is almost nothing. But that 'almost nothing' signifies everything." - Jozef Czapski

Seven large empty baggage carts cluster on a platform.  In back is a train that is also  empty.  We don't see train tracks or the train station but we know they are there.  We also know that it is daytime because of the light streaming from the left, outside the frame.

Like a stage set waiting for the actors to appear, all the elements of the set are ready for the arrival of travelers and their bags, conductors and baggage handlers.  The muted institutional tones of depot architecture, the greens of the cars reminiscent of 'hospital' green, all typical of industrial paint.  Not so the yellows and oranges, fanciful colors that embody the excitement of travel. There is something quirky about these baggage trolleys  that makes a viewer smile at  these humble, utilitarian objects.  

Pleasure comes from the vibrant yellows and orange of the baggage trolleys set against the violets of the shadows.  These allow us to imagine the sounds that we can't hear - the buzz of people talking,  announcements issuing from a loudspeaker, the noise of the engines and the hiss of the air brakes wit What a contrast between Czapski's painting and the empty urban scenes of Giorgio de Chirico, where silence and lifelessness are one and the same. Czapski's talent was to make something vivid and expressive from  a glimpse of tiny events most of us overlook.

Josef Czapsli (1896-1993) studied art in Krakow, beginning in 1921, and soon after he began to exhibit his paintings. His painting life was sidetracked by the many creative outlets he found when he moved to Paris and, again. when Czapski became a prisoner during World War II; yet he continued to sketch on scraps of paper, he lost confidence.  After a postwar stint as an international diplomat, he returned to painting and by the time he painted  Baggage Trolleys in the Station in 1965 he was.....

Image: Jozef Czapski - Baggage Trolleys in the Station, 1965, oil on canvas, Aischlimann Collection, Chexbres, Switzerland.

17 May 2020

The Quarantine Library: Part Two

"Strange to see meanings that clung together once, floating away/ in any direction - " - Rainer Maria Rilke

Somehow these lines, seemingly unrelated to what I have been reading recently, nevertheless make a good epigraph.

I. The author of more than one hundred  books, all of them short (Artforum is 82 pages), Cesar Aira is one of Argentina's best known contemporary writers.  The first-person narrator of Artforum is a man obsessed by the international magazine Artforum, a publication characterized by cache, clout, and controversy.  Unfortunately for him, the magazine is be hard to come by in Buenos Aires and its maddening elusiveness only increases the feverishness of his search.  Haunting bookshops and used magazine stores, enlisting the aid of friends, he eventually breaks down and takes out a subscription, only to hound the mail carrier when they fail to appear on time. 

II. When I studied comparative literature in college I found that the short story has a longer history in Italian than in other Romance languages, beginning in the 13th century with numerous anonymous novellinos and followed by Giovanni Boccacio's Decameron (circa 1349-1351). "The Novel of Juliet"  by Luigi da Porto (1485-1529) of  Veneto  The story had been told previously but it was da Porto who gave his lovers the names Romeo and Juliet. The Neapolitan Giambattista Basile (1566-1632) wrote "The Cat-Cinderella" which inspired both Charles Perrault an the Grimm Brothers.

Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of  the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Emperor of Maladies, lived in Rome for three years where she immersed herself in the Italian language and plunged into reading Italian literature.  The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories is the result.  Forty stories, all by 20th century authors, include more by and about women than you usually find; each author is introduced and situated in their milieu.

Fittingly, the first story "Names and Tears" by Elio Vittorini (1908-1966) who, as editor at Einaudi, was the one who rejuvenated Italian literature after the Second World War.  Also, as a prodigious translator of  D.H. Lawrence, Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck.  A deceptively simple story about  a boy writes words in the dirt while waiting for a girl who does not come.

An unexpected tale from a familiar name, Primo Levi's "Quaestio de Centaurius" is a fable of magic and cruelty about a centaur and the boy who befriends him.  And a tale of an old man and a doe from one who should be more familiar - Grazia Deledda (1871-1936), the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926. A rare find is Alda Cespedes, a Cuban girl who married at fifteen to gain Italian citizenship and then enlisted the help of Mussolini himself to arrange an annulment.  She later became friends with Fidel Castro, who did not hold it against her.  Her "Invitation to a Dinner Party" is central to understanding the ways Italians dealt with the Fascist regime and then with their liberators at the end of World War II.  An English guest and a bourgeois Roman couple perceive themselves and each other very differently.  A particular favorite  author of mine, Dino Buzzati who is represented by a  story new to me, "And Yet They Are Knocking at Your Door." Like its author, it is sui generis, telling the social upheaval that of the war through a domestic drama overtaken by the supernatural.

III. Goethe famously said that  a person is worth as many as the foreign languages they speak and anyone who does not know a foreign language does not know their own. This is the pretext for an extremely clever novel written in Spanish by a Polish writer. Aleksandra Lun's protagonist is also a Polish writer, one who writes in an imaginary language called Antarctic. Palimpsests upon palimpsests occur through variations and repetitions that are musical in effect. Czeslaw Przesnicki, an aspiring novelist/veterinarian,  ends up in an asylum in Liege, Belgium ("a country that has not had a government for the past year").  His roommate and his psychiatrist are both hounded by their own issues. His therapy sessions are interrupted by a parade of writers who wrote in "foreign" languages - Conrad, Nabokov, Beckett, Ionesco, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Georges Simenon (a native of Liege).

IV.  Pierce-Arrow was a car company founded in Buffalo, NY in 1901;  Susan Howe lived there for awhile.  Peirce-Arrow is the title Howe chose for her poem-book about Charles S. Pierce (1839-1914), a mathematician and philosopher who, among other accomplishments, developed  pragmatism as a distinctly American philosophy, one that only gained attention when William James took it up. Peirce's professional obscurity was matched by the personal obfuscation of his wife Juliette.  Howe writes  poetry of breathtaking artifice(I mean that as a compliment). She makes connections between Peirce and 19th century English poet Thomas Love Peacock, his daughter Mary Ellen, and her husband George Meredith, Tristan and Iseult, and other literary figures.  Howe has been labeled a Post-Modernist and a difficult poet. I found Peirce-Arrow delightful and a jolt to my own lines of thinking.

The books in the order I read them.

Artforum - Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver, New Directions: 2020
Jhumpa Lahiri, Penguin Press: 2020

The Palimpsests - Aleksandra Lun, translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer, David R. Godine: :20190

The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories - edited and introduced by Jhumpa Lahiri, Penguin Press: 2020

Pierce-Arrow - Susan Howe, New Directions: 1999

John Storrs (1885-1956) was an American artist, primarily a sculptor.  He studied with Laredo Taft in Chicago and with Auguste Rodin in Paris. In the 1930s he began to paint rather abstract pictures with human figures. Question: We see where the light from the window falls, so could it be that Storrs wants us to think of light emanating from the book?  I think so.

Image: John Storrs - Woman Reading, 1949, oil on canvas, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.

13 May 2020

Paul Gauguin: On the Road to a New Synthesis

"Art requires philosophy, just as philosophy requires art. Otherwise, what would become of beauty?"
    - Paul Gauguin

What first catches the eye here is the bowl of fruit but what makes this picture so compelling and even mysterious are the repeating blue metal panels with their emphatic patternization. Brilliant strokes of blue outlined in darker blue do most of the work that usually falls to shading; some critics compared the effect to cloisonne. It gradually dawns on the viewer that the blue grids are  a metal garden chair.  To be sure, the apples in the bowl also show Gauguin moving toward a new stylistic synthesis, particularly the lone green apple outlines in a darker shade of green. 

It had become very important to Gauguin that his paintings have strong and identifiable compositional elements that contained within them an  emotional  response. His quest was to synthesize these seemingly opposing aims. It would be a decorative art and a frank acknowledgement of the two dimensional reality of canvas. 

Around 1890 was when Gauguin  probably painted Bowl of Fruit on a Garden Chair while at at Le Pouldu in Cap Finistere, Brittany. While at Le Pouldu, he lost a small stipend from the family of his Dutch friend Meter de Haan. The small canvas is mounted on board, an inexpensive way of working necessitated  by Gauguin's minimal finances. He roomed at La maison de Marie Henry; when he left it was with a trail of unpaid bills. Mme Henry sold the paintings that were also left behind to recoup her losses 

The year before Gauguin had joined his friend Emile Bernard ar Pont-Aven and there Gauguin coined the term synthetism, shorthand for his rejection of Impressionism.  He had come there from Arles where he told van Gogh that his appetite to do new things was insatiable. 

Gauguin exhibited with the Impressionists in 1886 but, even if they had continued the annual ritual, he was looking for a different approach.  He found Impressionism confining, superficial, and lacking aesthetic rigor; its emphasis on the effects of light (effet de lumiere) in the natural world seemed reductive and  stifling to his creative impulse. At this time Gauguin was unable to sell his work easily, paradoxically freeing him to experiment.

Bowl of Fruit on a Garden Chair was donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 11954 by the actress Merle Oberon.

Image: Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) - Bowl of Fruit on a Garden Chair, circa 1890, oil on canvas, 11.25 x 14 in.,Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

06 May 2020

Lau Tzu, Art Critic

"We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the
usefulness of the wheel depends.

We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the
usefulness of the vessel depends.

We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on this space where there is nothing that
the usefulness of the house depends

Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is,
we should recognize the usefulness of what is not."
   - Lao-Tzu (4th century BCE)

Yves Mohy's ceramic piece contains many shapes of things. We see one hand and the suggestion of its mate; we may assume that both hands belong to the same person without certainty. The thumbs create a steeple within a steeple reminiscent of a children's game Mohy's Hands show prints of the maker's hands visibly in contrast to the smoothness of the black base. The areas around and in between the object's parts are essential to its impact.

The significance of negative space has never been more salient than at this moment. Negative space could be another term for social distancing. A steeple is a signal sender to faraway receivers, again suggesting social distancing.

"Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." - Wallace Stevens

Image: Yves Mohy (1929-2004) - Hands, 2003, ceramic, Cite de la Ceramique, Sevres.

01 May 2020

The Quarantine Library: Part One

My new favorite person is the postal carrier.  Every day with unfailing good cheer he makes the rounds of my apartment complex, the sound of his wheeled cart announcing his imminent arrival.  Although there is less bulk mail to pass out these days, he has so many packages to deliver that he makes repeated trips to the mail truck, full almost to bursting with boxes.  Many of them are books.  I should know, because I have ordered so many in the past eight weeks that I can spot a book box from my balcony. In thanks, I now decorate every bill and letter I mail with the legend "I HEART USPS."

I.One of  my first picks was Vincent's Books describing Vincent van Gogh's insatiable appetite for reading - and for writing about it in his journals.  I, too, began to keep a journal of what I was reading at age thirteen.  Van Gogh writes to his brother Theo and others about the connections he makes between the Bible (he was an itinerant preacher before he turned to painting) and socially engaged literature by Jules Michelet, Alphonse Daudet, Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, etc.  Such did these books resonate with him that van Gogh not only included them in his paintings but also made sure that their titles were legible.

The books in Still Life with Statuette (at left) are Germinie Lacerteux by the Goncourt Brothers  and Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant.

And now let me offer a few brief thoughts about some of the books I have been absorbed in these past eight weeks.

II. Effie Briest is one of those classic novels I have intended to read but hadn't. Theodore Fontane is generally considered the greatest German novelist between Goethe and Thomas Mann.  I have written about another Fontane novel Irretrievable (see hyperlink).  Fontane portrayed his female protagonists with  unusual empathy for a 19th century writer.  Then there is Chance,  Joseph Conrad's only novel to have a female protagonist.  Published in 1913 it was Conrad's "New Woman" novel. The story is told by Conrad's frequent narrator, Marlow. Conrad is more sympathetic to women's lot than H.G. Wells, whose success with the novel Ann Veronica (1909) urged the subject on him; it proved to be Conrad's first major commercial success.

III. Please Talk to Me by the Argentine writer Liliana Hekeris the first collection of stories to be translated into English.  A darkly humorous writer who refused to go into exile during her country's "Dirty War", Heker uses the microcosm of  the family and everyday life to illuminate covertly the social and political life under a dictatorship.

IV. Blaming is the last novel, published after her death from breast cancer, by the British writer Elizabeth Taylor.  Taylor has been described as "the thinking person's dangerous housewife."  Often mistaken for a harmless domestic novelist, Taylor used wit and subtlety to reveal the horrors buried in home life. And she was more than equal to the challenge of making an unsympathetic character a memorable protagonist.

V. The Women in Black is a charming and humorous ode  to women working in an upscale Sydney department store in the 1950s. The title refers to the black dresses that saleswomen were required to wear as a uniform.

VI. The Outward Room is a novel from the Great Depression; its atmosphere has echoes  of our current duress.  Harriet Demuth, a young woman who has a nervous breakdown after her brother's death, escapes from the asylum and, with few resources, travels under darkness to New York City where she lives a hand-to-mouth existence, even sleeping on the subway when she cannot afford a room (history has repeated itself in the pandemic)..  Millen Brand worked as an advertising copywriter for New York Telephone, writing his novel in the two hours before the day's work began.  Presciently, Brand  recognized the foolishness of the Freudian nostrums that the psychiatrist presses on Harriet.

VII. In Idra Novey's The Next Country the poems follow the poet's journeys through Central and South America.  Novey is an American writer who has translated works by Clarice Lispector (Brazil), among others.

VIII. I have written here recently about Jozef Czapski and will probably do so again, thanks to Eric Karpeles' book.  Czapsky was born in Prague, studied law in St. Petersburg and art in Krakow, became an officer in the Polish army, and  a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union, and moved to Paris after WWII ended. Born into an aristocratic family, Czapski, who was extremely tall, towered over his friends.
Becoming a painter was almost as difficult as being a prisoner of war; the 20th century kept intervening. Anyone who can deliver lectures from memory on Marcel Proust in a prison camp is no ordinary mortal. After the war Czapski became a diplomat, a writer, and a historian of the toll the war took on Poland. And, although a devout Roman Catholic, Czapski wsa more at ease with his homosexuality that contemporaries.

IX.  Short Life in a Strange World  by Toby Ferris is a hard book to characterize, part art criticism, part philosophy, part memoir.  At the age of 42, Ferris embarks on a five year mission to view all 42 known panels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, great Flemish painter of the 16th century.  His travels take  him to 22 galleries in 19 cities and 12 countries and across two .continents. Ferris shows us how to read these teeming images for how life was lived  in the Netherlands of the Renaissance.
This is also the story of Pieter Bruegel the Younger who ran a successful workshop making copies of his father's works and Ferris invites us to make comparisons and choose which versions we prefer.  Surprisingly, to non art historians (like me), The Fall of Icarus, that most familiar of Bruegel the Elder's paintings is a copy made by his son, from an original that has been lost.

I have listed the books in the order that I read them.  All but two are paperbacks.  When the publication date is in parentheses that indicates the original date of publication, not the date of the edition I bought.

About Love and Other Stories - Anton Chekhov, translated from the Russian by Rosamund Bartlett, Oxford University Press: 2004

Almost Nothing: The 20th Century Art and Life of Jozef Czapski - Eric Karpeles, New York Review Books: 2018

Effie Briest  - Theodore Fontane, translated from the German by Hugh Rorrison & Helen Chambers, Penguin Books: (1895)

Please Talk to Me: Stories - Liliana Heker, translated from the Spanish by Miranda France, Yale University Press: 2015

Short Life in a Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels - Toby Ferris, Harper Press: 2020

Chance  - Joseph Conrad, Oxford University Press: (1913)

Vincent's Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him - Mariella Guzzoni, University of Chicago Press" 2020

Blaming - Elizabeth Taylor, Virago Modern Classics: (1976)

The Next Country: Poems - Idra Novey, Alice James Books: 2008

The Women in Black - Madeleine St. John, Scribner: (1993)

The Outward Room - Millen Brand,i New York Review Books: (1937)

1. Vincent van Gogh - Pile of French Novels, October 1887 + oil on Canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
2. Vincent van Gogh - Still Life with Statuette, 1887, oil on canvas, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo, Netherlands.

25 April 2020

Beatrice Wood: Her Brimming Life

"I never meant to become a potter.  It happened very accidentally...I could sell pottery because when I ran away from home I was without any money. And so I became a potter." - Beatrice Wood

You could say a chalice is a drinking glass with pretensions.  But Gold Chalice by Beatrice Wood is truly gorgeous. Raising the vessel on a footed pedestal as Wood does gives it a sacramental air. It also shines with one of the lustrous glazes that Wood became known for. The plastic nature of the raw material of clay makes for a variety of form limited only by the skill of the ceramicist. Wood's technical skills were good, she threw her pieces on the wheel,. but she prized the inclusion of  organic and even irregular elements with ancient sources  A Wood vessel may be whimsical, bizarre, even preposterous but is always breathtaking.

Beatrice Wood (1893-1998) was born in San Francisco to a wealthy family but after the earthquake of 1906 the family moved to New York where Beatrice became enamored of the theater.   Her parents opposed her ambition but finally allowed her to study painting in Paris as she was already fluent in French. So at age nineteen Wood fled a stultifying life at home; arriving in Paris she studied drawing at the Academie Julian and then acting at the Comedie Francaise.  

The outbreak of war made transatlantic travel dangerous so Wood stayed on in Paris where she performed with a French repertory company from 1914 to 1916. She became interested in Dada when she met Marcel Duchamp and his friend Henri-Pierre Roche.  The three became involved in a love triangle.  Roche published a novel Jules et Jim in 1956 that was made into a film in 1962, directed by Francois Truffaut.  Wood identified the members of the real-life triangle, but the romance of the idea that Wood was the woman has proved to be a sturdy myth. While in France, Wood was nicknamed "Mama of Dada" for her love of  all things bohemian.

Wood's career as a ceramicist began in her  forties and grew from a small seed;  she wanted a teapot to match a set of teacups she had purchased while in  the Netherlands.  So she enrolled in a class at Hollywood High School where she soon realized that, despite her optimism, she was "not a born craftsman."  She never did make that teapot but in just a few years Wood had rented a small shop on Sunset Boulevard to sell her pots. By 1947 she had exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of At and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Her autobiography I Shock Myself, published in 1986, is downright cheeky.  She was encouraged to write it by her friend Anais Nin.  "I owe it all to chocolate and young men," Wood wrote.

Wood continued to work in her studio until she was 104. She died nine days after her 105th birthday.

Image: Beatrice Wood - Gold Chalice, 1985, earthenware with gold lsutre glaze, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

22 April 2020

John Pfahl: Punto di fuga

"I want to make photographs whose very ambiguity provokes thought, rather than cuts it off prematurely.  I want to make that work on a more mysterious level, that approach the truth by a more circuitous route." - John Pfahl

The photographer  John Pfahl died on April 15.  He was 81.

Pfahl's photographs combine the conceptual with ordinary perception in provocative ways, using string or yarn, aluminum foil, colored tape, or Styrofoam balls. Layers of suggestion unfold like an onion.  Triangle - Bermuda plays on our notion of the Bermuda Triangle as a negative space where things disappear; Pfahl makes it visible without answering the question - what is it?  "Altered States" in 1975 was Pfahl's first major series.  He was  preternaturally aware of human interventions on the natural world; in this his work is similar to landscape architect John Brinkerhoff Jackson. So, among  series of waterfalls and rivers is one on power stations.

John Pfahl parodied the work of an older generation of nature photographers for their unearned reverence, especially Ansel Adams who misrepresnted roadside vistas for wilderness and whose use of red filters falsified the land, in Pfahl.s view.  Pfahl's deadpan sensibility was also apparent in his 1992 series "From the Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile."  Ravishing color and rigorous composition are not things normally perceived in heaps of peelings, pods, and discarded produce leaves. The critic Richard Huntington wrote, "John Pfahl could make even a heap of garbage look beautiful."

"Ansel Adams had his beloved Sierras. I seek out the more elusive mountains on the lake plain near my home in Buffalo, New York." - John Pfahl

Soon after he was given his first (Brownie) camera at eight years old, John appropriated his mother's 35mm camera. At age nine he had found his vocation.  Pfahl has left his mark across his native state. Born in New York City, Pfahl was  educated at the Syracuse University School of Art, taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology and at the University at Buffalo where he lived for forty years.

And about that triangle. Punto di fuga is the Italian term for the vanishing point, literally the fugitive point, the point of escape, usually located near the center of the horizon in an image. Perspective itself comes from the Latin perspicere 'to see through.' Linear perspective was one feature of Renaissance art  developed by architects Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Batista Alberti. Simply put, it was a system to create the illusion of space and distance on a flat surface using geometry. 

The lesson I find  in John Pfahl's photography and in any good photograph is that  I come away better able to see with my own eyes.

Visit the website John Pfahl.

Image: John Pfahl - Triangle - Bermuda, 1975, from the series "Altered States," at George Eastman House, Rochester.

16 April 2020

Giorgio Morandi & The Lives of Objects

"Even at night, the objects kept vigil,
even as he slept with African dreams,
a porcelain jug, two watering cans,
empty green wine bottles, a knife.
Even as he slept, deeply, as only creators
can sleep, dead-tired,
the objects were laughing, revolution was near.

The nosy watering can with its beak
feverishly incited the others;
blood pulsed wildly in the cup,
which had never known the thirst of the mouth,
only eyes, gazes, vision.

By day, they grew humble, and even took pride:
the whole coarse existence of the world
found refuge in them,
abandoning for  time the blossoming cherry,
the sorrowful hearts of the dyin."
  - "Morandi" by Charles Wright, 2013, BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels

My personal introduction to Giorgio Morandi came in 2008  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I was surprised that I had not seen his work before; only later did I learn how little the artist had been concerned with exhibitions.  All he wanted to do was to paint.  And now a museum in his home city of Bologna is devoted to his art and bears his name.

Still Life (above) looks like nothing so much as a meeting-slash-power-struggle as lucent bowls and bottles jostle each other for position like people lining up for a group photo.  There are no labels on the boxes; squarish and matte, they almost give the impression of being two dimensional,  rendered  flatly, with minimal modeling and  shading.  There is a strangeness in their want of verisimilitude.

Several critics have professed to see in Morandi's still lifes a palimpsest of ghostly cities and I can envision an urban skyline when I look at them. Siri Hustvedt has written that Morandi's colors " are colors you see when you walk the streets of almost any Italian town, hues baked and lightened by the sun - green and blue shutters, yellow walls, old terracotta turned pink..."    

Morandi believed that studying art "offer(s) us an answer to our questions - but only if we formulate  them properly.  As a beginner, he digested the influences of Cezanne, Cubism, Futurism, and pittrua metafisica  of Giorgio de Chirico.  Looking back at his, Morandi told an interviewer in 1957, "For me nothing is abstract. In fact I believe there is nothing more surreal, nothing more abstract than reality." At first glance, contradictory, or perhaps more accurately, metaphysical. 

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) was born in Bologna, a university town.  He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts of Bologna from 1907 to 1913. There his studies were based on Renaissance art; he taught himself  to etch from books on Rembrandt. There he developed a deep intimacy with the works of Piero della Francesca.  One of his favorite paintings was The House of Cards by Jean-Simeon Chardin, specifically the house of cards itself, which looks eerily similar to a Morandi arrangement

He seemed to live only for art; we have no traces of any romantic attachments.  When he ventured from Bologna to Florence it was to visit Piero della Francesca, Massacio, Giotto, and Ucello.  Ucello, the artist whose name means 'bird' in Italian but whose paintings, as Italo Calvino pointed out, contain no birds at all.  According to his biographer Janet Abramowicz writes, Morandi was so sensitive that he "was unwilling even to squash an insect in his garden."

For further reading: Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence by Janet Abramowicz, New London, Yale Uniiversity Press: 2004.

1. Giorgio Morandi - Still Life, 1954, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art of Trento & Rovereto.
2. Jean-Simeon Chardin - The House of Cards, circa 1737, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

11 April 2020

Looking At Pictures With Jozef Czapski

"The good gray guardians of art
Patrol the halls on spongy shoes,
Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.

Here dozes once against the wall,
Disposed upon a funeral chair.
A Degas dancer pirouettes
Upon the parting of his hair.

See how she spins! The grace is there,
But strain as well is plain to see.
Degas loved the two together:
Beauty joined to energy.

Edgar Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco which he kept...
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while her slept."
   - "Museum Piece" by Richard Howard

"But the true new painting will begin only when it is understood that color has a life of its own, that infinite combinations of color have their poetry and poetic language much more expressive than ancient methods." - Sonia  Delaunay

A seminal breakthrough made by the Expressionists was the realization that color liberated from the demands of realism could amplify emotion.  Vincent van Gogh had often affirmed to his brother Theo and others that he used color to express his emotions.  Then consider Jozef Czapski, a painter attuned to the moods and body language of others, who used color to heighten the viewer's awareness of people in their daily lives.

Against a background of muted tones typical of those used by Gustave Courbet (this painting Exhibition commemorates a centennial retrospective of the 19th century Realist at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1977) our eye is drawn to the figure of a tall woman dressed in orange, a clutch under her arm. As she strolls, her feet move ahead while her head turns to look at the painting, inviting us to wonder which will prevail - the feet or the eyes.    Czapski, a devout Catholic, may have chosen the image of two women, one sitting while the other kneels to wash her feet,.for its religious significance.

To paint paint itself is to create an illusion, one that viewers respond to with pleasure.  When we take in the yellow walls and shades of green in the next gallery they provide a frame of sorts, another image within an image and another mystery.  Is the woman in the green dress staring at something we cannot see or is she gazing across the gallery to the giant nude on the opposite wall?

Jozef Czapski frequented the museums of Paris,  for the interactions between  people and  paintings,as eagerly as for the paintings themselves. Another example is Young Man Before a de Stael, also the product a retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1981     How a person related to a picture, what choices they made among them, how closely they approached, whether they looked in passing or engaged in an extended colloquy.

In his biography of Czapski, painter Eric Karpeles describes his way of looking at a picture; first look from a middle distance, then move closer, then back to the middle distance, and finally from across the room.  There is more to looking at pictures than just standing still.

Jozef Czapski (1896-1993) was born in Prague and died in Paris.

For much more about Jozef Czapski: Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Jozef  Czapski by Eric Karpeles, New York,New York Review Books: 2018.

Jozef Czapski - Exhibition, 1977, oil on canvas, Collection Aeschlimanns, Chexbres, Switzerland.

04 April 2020

Chaim Soutine: The Trees Speak

"I could see them plainly, but my mind felt that they were concealing something....and yet all three of them, as the carriage moved on, I could see them coming toward me....Like ghosts they seemed to be appealing to me to brin them back to life....I watched the trees gradually recede, waving their desperate arms, seeming to say to me: "What you fail to learn from us today, you will never know. If you allow us to drop back into the hollow of this road from which we sought to rais ourselves up to you, a whole part of yourself  that we were bringing to you will vanish forever into thin air." I was as wretched as if I had lost a friend, had died to myself, had broken faith with the dead, or repudiated a god." - Marcel Proust, from In Search of Lost Time, translated from the French by G.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin

When John Ruskin coined the term "pathetic fallacy" in Modern Painters he intended no compliment, describing the state of mind that gave rise to human personification of nature as "unhinged by grief."   Yet the belief that things are mirrors of our inner lives is seductive and resonant. As Marcel Proust wove a spell around readers with his....of an encounter with three trees, so does Chaim Soutine mesmerize viewers with the painting Big Blue Trees. It is, of course, the artist who is communicating a message; his colors bursting from his brush with elemental force, distorted, exaggerated, expressionistic. Even in reproduction, we sense the viscosity of paint applied to canvas.  The agitated canvases of Soutine owe something to the black paintings of Goya. Soutine developed a recognizably personal style early on.

A small sponge cake...Chaim Soutine and Marcel Proust. The "petite madeleine" that sets Proust's meditation on time's dimensions also inspired Soutine in naming his portrait La Petite Madeleine des Decorateurs (1928). Madeleine Castaing was a wealthy Parisian interior designer who became Soutine's benefactor in the late 1920s.

"Soutine painted rapidly...He painted passionately, with fervor, in a trance, sometimes to the music of some Bach fugue that he played on a phonograph." - Chana Orloff, like Soutine an emigre to Paris and, also like him, she became friends with Modigliani who, in turn, introduced her to Soutine.

The tenth of eleven children Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) was born in a shtetl in Minsk. His tyrannical father often beat the children for any reason or no reason at all and his wrath fell most harshly on young Chaim.  But the boy did not have a submissive personality which only enraged his father more.
And, feeling unsafe at home, Chaim sought solace in nature.

Thanks to the intercession of some kind neighbors, Soutine was able to study art for three years in Vilnius.  From there he, and two fellow students, emigrate to Paris where they found refuge at La Ruche (The Hive), a residence for struggling artists in Montmarte.  There he met Amedeo Modigliani, who was enchanted by the shy but determiner painter.   The two became inseparable, spiritual brothers.  Modigliani would paint Soutine's portraits several times, most notoriously on the door of the apartment of their dealer, Leopold Zborowoski, the man who introduced Soutine to the magical landscape of Nice.

Another dealer, Paul Guillaume took up Soutine's cause, showing hs work to the wealthy American collector Albert C. Barnes who was so impressed that he bought the contents of the artist's studio on sight. After years of poverty, Soutine was giddy: he ran out into the street where he hailed a taxi and ordered the dirver to take him to Nice, four hundred miles from Paris.  Soutine's sojourns in Nice, so different from his native land, colorful and prosperous, greatly influenced his painting, freein him from a drab palette, much as it had done for Vincent van Gogh before him. Vital and full of energy, Soutine's radical style would him an enthusiastic audience.

Chaim Soutine -  Big Blue Trees, 1927, oil on canvas, Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris..

31 March 2020

Hope Mirrlees: An Underground Modernist

"I want a holophrase

Holophrase...a word phrase that expresses a meaningful thought and here, taken from street signs, is a capsule description of modernism in Paris, circa 1919, beginning with  NORD-SUD, the sign above the  entrance to the Metro, that opened in 1910.  Like the fragmentation and multiple perspectives of a Cubist painting, Hope Mirrlees' Paris: A Poem is a literary vision of the overthrow of narrative in favor of the mythical.  And what better vehicle is there to express the irrational side of a rational  scientific age.

The time is spring of 1919, the place is Paris, the city where peace notations to finalize the end of the Great War are ongoing.  At the same time people are mourning the dead.  Mirrlees alludes to this with "subterranean sleep of five long years"  as the paintings in the Louvre are brought up from their underground storage to be rehung, unlike the dead who will never from their slumbers. 

The Louvre is melting into mist
It will soon be transparent
And through it will glimmer the mysterious island
gardens of the Place du Carousel.
The Seine, old egotist, meanders imperturbably to the sea
Ruminating on weeds and rain
If through his sluggish watery sleep come dreams
They are the blue ghosts of kingfishers."

How we take for granted the tropes of modernism, its combination of high and low art forms, the juxtaposition of religion, art, and literature with fragments of advertisements and snippets of overheard conversations, all experienced at warp speed.

Paris: A Poem is also modern in its pan-European reach.  On the first page, Mirrlees uses her knowledge of Greek for "Brekekekek coax coax" to imitate the noise made by frogs in the Aristophanes play of the same name.  

The poem takes the form of a journey around the city of Paris.  Just as the Metro began in Montmartre and proceeded to Monparnasse, it traced the route taken by artist and writers in their ascendance from bohemian quarters to the Left Bank.  Mirrlees drew on Baudelaire's persona of the flaneur, the wanderer in the city, but for her it was the Metro that was the vehicle.  She shared with Aristophanes a fascination with the underworld ("we are passing under the Seine"), a journey into the modern underworld made possible by engineering.

Hope Mirrlees (1887-1978) was born in Kent, hear London, and grew up there and in Scotland and South Africa.  She studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and then studied Greek at Cambridge University where her tutor was the prolific classicist Jane Ellen Harrison (Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion), one of the founders of the modern study of ancient Greece.  The two women formed a lifelong bond, dividing their time between the United Kingdom and France.

Published in 1920 as a chapbook limited edition of 175 copies  by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at their Hogarth Press, Paros: A Poem was never reprinted.  Three years later the Hogarth Press also published the first edition of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.  Both poems use unconventional typography and prominently feature rivers, the Seine in Mirrlees, the Thames on Eliot, but Mirrlees came first.

As significant as Paris; A Poem was in the development of literary modernism, it has lacked champions, Julia Briggs being the most vocal in calling attention to "modernism's lost masterpiece, a work of extraordinary energy and intensity, scope and ambition,  written in a confidently experimental and avant-garde voice."

In its afterlife, Mirrlees' poem went underground.  When Mirrlees converted to Roman Catholicism after Harrison's death, she refused to allow it to be reprinted; she now considered it to include blasphemies.  In 1973, Mirrlees edited it for republication but the journal she was working with folded before the poem appeared.

To read abut another modernist poet: Guido Gozzano

Amedeo Modigliani - Jeanne Hebuterne, 1919, oil on canvas, private collection

27 March 2020

Achille Lauge: Pure Light, Pure Color, Pure Spirit

"Light is something that cannot be reproduced, but must be represented by something else - by color."
   - Paul Cezanne

Pointillism is all about color. It was based on a theory of simultaneous contrast, defined as the tendency of a color to move toward its complementary color.  Based on theories of the long-live chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul (1786-1889) who codified it in a book published in 1839.  Chevreul had partnered with the preeminent Gobelin tapestry company where he was the director of dyes.

Artists searching for new ways of painting,  Georges Seurat and Paul Signac developed a technique o in 1886 that relied on the ability of the human eye (and mind) to blend dabs of various colors into something new.   The term pointillism was coined by art critics and, as is often the case, it originated as ridicule.  Although the science has been superseded, artists have continued to find the technique fruitful. Achille Lauge was essentially a solitary artist whose combination of rigorous geometry and adroit use of pointillism produced  brilliant effets de lumiere

Occitaine, near the Spanish border on the Mediterranean, was first shaped by the Romasn occupation of two millennia ago; the region once included the southern third of modern France.  Its language and culture were a bouillabaisse of  Catalan, French, and Italian elements. Into this milieu Achille Lauge (1861-1944) was born to a family of peasant farmers.  His family sent him to Toulouse to study pharmacy but Lauge switched to art school in 1878. There he met a budding sculptor, Antoine Bourdelle, who encouraged Lauge to go to Paris for further study in 1882. Bourdelle went there himself to study with Rodin  and , in turn, later taught Albert Giacometti.

In Paris, Bourdelle introduced him to Aristide Maillol, a fellow southerner and the son of a fisherman, with whom Lauge shared a studio until 1888. Tiring of academic training, Lauge became interested in the pointillist paintings of Seurat, Signac, and Camille Pissarro,  He began to practice adapting the technique to his own sensibility, never adhering to Seurat's strict color guidelines. Deeply attached to his native landscape, Lauge returned home in 1888. During the period from 1888 to 1896, he produced some of his finest paintings.

Lauge's  paintings, exhibited in Paris at the Salon des Independents of 1894, were not well received by the critics;  la Revue Meridionale opined that " Carcassonne wants to impress Paris," referring to the little city where Lauge was then  living.  Another criticism leveled at his work was that it was imitative of other better-known artists, causing them to miss Lauge's unique combination of  "a very particular vision, much serene logic and a beautiful unity in your love of light."- (Antoine Bourdelle).  Finally, after repeated rejections by the Salon,  Lauge decided to have done with salons; from then on he would exhibit with dealers who supported his work like Bernheim Jeune and Galerie Georges Petit.   His work was also promoted by famous contemporaries  Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuilliard, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

After his father died in 1895, Lauge moved back to Cailhau, home of his youth, in the sun-baked Midi.  His residence, L'Alouette (The Lark), at left is made of stucco, its large windows welcoming light into the artist's studio and it and the garden are awash in pure light awash with pure light.  Named for the lark, one of of the few songbirds that sings in flight.

He liked to work firstly outside both with pastels and oils, then move inside to apply dots of adjacent colors to get the effect he was after. In 1905, he constructed a caravan-studio that allowed him to paint outside in all kinds of weather.  He always painted still life  in oils and found inspiration in the Japanese art he had encountered during his time in Paris. The bright reds in this picture  remind me of ukiyo-e,  even though the  grapes and peaches  are quintessential fruits of the Mediterranean.

An artist who preferred to work in  tranquility, Lauge wa eventually recognized as an important and even pivotal figure in the art of his time.  His paintings are included in the collections of France's most prestigious museums - the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay.

1. Achille Lauge - Still Life with Flowers and Fruits, oil on canvas, Galerie Eric Gillis, Brussels.la maison de l'artiste (The Lark, home of the artist), oil on canvas, Galerie Ary Jan, Paris.
2. Achille Lauge - L'Alouette, (The Lark, home of the artist), oil on canvas, Galerie Ary Jan, Paris.

22 March 2020

Ker-Xavier Roussel: The Bucolic Nabi

never was lost.

What we did not know

was how to translate it into days,
skies, landscapes,

into words for others,
authentic gestures.

But holding onto it for ourselves,
that was not difficult,

and there were moments
when it seemed clear to us
we ourselves were eternity."
  - Guillevic, from Guillevic: Selected Poems, translated by Denise Levertov New York, New Directions: 1969,

Summer by the shore signals its presence with glimpses of sea and sky in patches of blue-ish white.    But it is the energy of yellow that conveys the excitement of sand between your toes, the smell of a briny breeze, at the end of the  path.

Ker-Xavier Roussel was in Sallenelles, a small village on the Norman coast in 1905 when he painted this pastel.  Nearby Deauville, well known from artists who painted its broad beaches  over and over again (realists like Gustave Courbet and Eugene Boudin to Claude Monet and Raoul Dufy).  With the extension of the railroad to Trouville in 1863, Deauville changed from a sleepy village to a vacation resort with a casino, numerous hotels and the well-to-do tourists to fill them.  But Sallenelles stayed off the beaten path with few visitors to disturb its two hundred residents.  This may have been its charm for Roussel, inviting the melancholy aspect of his personality.

Etude pour Lucy Hessel a Sallenelles en Normandie exemplifies Roussel's skill at depicting the effects of light filtered through trees and shadows on a sandy path. Deep green tree trunks and boxwood, punctuated by spots of bright, fresh greens. All made possible by his unlocking of the rich textures in the pastel stick.  Roussel's effet de lumiere give a photographic blur to the garden and, as we now know, Vuillard had taken up photography as a hobby, as had his friend Pierre Bonnard.

Nineteen hundred was a moment  when  the Nabis had gotten as much from small decorative paintings and the craze for Japonisme as they wanted;  the centrifugal forces of competing inspirations were drawing its apart. Printmaking and emphatic blocks of color were given a rest.  Already, in the 1890s, Ker-Xavier Roussel had began to experiment with pastels, and he found the medium increasingly congenial the more he used it.  Landscapes  in soft colors,  a melancholy tone, these attributes were reminiscent of the landscapes of Corot and earned Roussel the nickname  "the bucolic Nabi."

Roussel' first summered in Normandy in 1903, renting a house in  the village of Sallenelles.  His wife Marie's brother,  fellow Nabi Edouard Vuillard, was living nearby at Chateau-Rouge in Amfreville with a Belgian friend Jos Hessel.  Hessel's cousin, Gaston Bernheim, ran the gallery that was Vuillard's exclusive dealer.  Hessel's wife Lucy was Vuillard's favorite model and also his mistress for many years.  As Roussel turned more and more to injecting mythological stories into his landscapes, his bucolic scenes seemed to mimic the real-life dramas swirling around his circle. But for this Etude, Lucy was not yet part of the scene as she would be in the penultimate work.

Why Guillevic?  Eugene Guillevic (1909-1997), who went simply by "Guillevic" was from  the French coastal province of Brittany.  

Ker-Xavier Roussel - Etude pour Lucy Hessel a Sallenelles en Normandie (Study for Lucy Hessel at Sallanelles in Normandy), 1905, pastel on laid paper, Galerie Eric Gilles, Brussels.

18 March 2020

Rediscovered: Clara Peeters

"Someone arranged them in 1620.
Someone found the rare lemon and paid
 a lot and neighbored it next
to the plain pear, the plain
apple of the lost garden, the glass of wine, set down
     mid-sip -
don't drink it, someone said, it''s for
the painting."
  - excerpt from "Still Life" by Marianne Boruch

The voice that speaks in Marianne Boruch's poem was not around when Clara Peeters painted Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke and Cherries (circa 1825?). Someone unseen had already left marks on the artist's subjects.  The perpetrator's knife is positioned at the center front of the picture, its effects on the butter, cheese, bread, and artichoke visible. Peeters  made a veritable tower of local produce, artfully displayed (butter perched atop a blue plate) and richly articulated (shaved fragments of a cheese wheel). Butter and cheese, emblems of Dutch pride in their dairy farms were by-products of milk, known as "the noble liquid"

But there is another arrangement, anchored by the pewter charger, painted with a high glaze.  The cherries are reflected and, in turn, reflect the unseen light source to the left on the canvas.   My eye was drawn immediately to the exquisite realism of the artichoke section.  The stem of a cherry may be a nod to the vanitas (from the Latin vanus for emptiness), a type of painting that portrayed of the transience of life and the emptiness of pleasure

Still life as a stand-alone genre emerged during the early decades of the seventeenth century  when increasing prosperity brought a new abundance to ordinary people. Ontbijtjes or "breakfast pieces," pictures that showed the ingredients of a simple meal were very popular. Clara Peeters, one of the few female painters of the time, is credited as a founder of the genre. Her distinction is not owed to the genre itself but to her meticulous brushwork and elegant arrangements.  There were fewer than a half dozen Dutch paintings of food that have been identified from the years before Peeters painted her first known work

About the life of Clara Peeters (1594? - 1657?) we have very little information. She lived in Antwerp and may also have lived in Amsterdam and The Hague. Her earliest works have been dated to 1607 and 1608. It is not known who taught Peeters but speculation has come to rest on Osian Beert (circa 1580-1623) of Antwerp as Peeters' teacher; certainly there are similarities in their style for a genre that was just taking shape.  Objects are arrayed on a table that extends beyond both edges of the canvas; beyond is only inarticulate darkness.  Her earliest works have been dated to 1607 and 1608.  Although Peeters worked mostly with still life, in a painting dated about 1610 she included a figure that is assumed to be a self-portrait, holding a pen in one hand and a timepiece in the other.  The arrangements of objects could to be interpreted symbolically as a vanitas. (from the Latin vanus for emptiness),  an expression of the transience of life and the emptiness of pleasure

We know more about her compatriot Judith Leyster (1609-1660) who was  much admired by her contemporaries but who, like Peeters, faded from memory after her death; many of Leyster's works were attributed to Frans Hals because it was thought that they were too good to be the work of a woman.

Clara Peeters - Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke and Cherries, circa 1625 ?, oil on board, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

14 March 2020

A Tale Of The Art Market

I. The art market as we now know it was an invention of dealers in late ninetieth century Paris when artists and patrons became buyers and sellers.

The Salon system of art exhibitions was being subjected to increasing and vehement criticism from artists for its bland  selections and threadbare aesthetics.  Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, arguably, the most exciting artists of their day were not welcomed by the salons.

Newly prosperous merchants, bankers, and industrialists had little knowledge of the classics or mythology, frequent subjects of academic and religious paintings.  Unlike  aristocratic patrons of previous centuries, these new collectors lived not in palaces but in houses, large and grand, but still houses.  The new collectors wanted pictures they could enjoy and understand without academic training.  Landscapes, genre scenes from everyday life, and portraits of themselves and their loved ones were what they wanted.

Whether the artists liked it or not, and Eugene Delacroix most emphatically did not, the demand for smaller paintings created a market.  "There is no encouragement for anything but cabinet pictures," Delacroix grumbled.

By the time of the Impressionists  the distinction between art and interior decoration was collapsing.  The artists were Janus-faced, on the one hand deconstructing realism on canvas, on the other catering to the tastes of the newly-minted bourgeoisie. For one, Pierre Bonnard was inspired by the idea of the  standing screen, designing them for specific rooms in his clients' homes.

II. To create a market for Impressionist paintings, dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) camouflaged their radical style with gilded and richly-carved frames that were understood to signify quality. This gambit was described as  a Trojan horse being wheeled before a credulous public.  Durand-Ruel established the solo exhibition, which we now take for granted, as an effective way to build an artist's reputation. He was also the first French dealer to establish a beach-head in the United States. "Without America, I would have been lost, ruined, after buying so many Monets and Renoirs," he admitted. Durand-Ruel's ascendance in the art world was based on a gamble and not without challenges, years of critical opposition, and the financial drain that subsidizing his artists entailed.

III. Born on the remote island of La Reunion, a French colony in the Indian Ocean, Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) was supposed to study law but instead became the leading dealer in contemporary art of his generation.  He opened a gallery in 1893 on rue Lafitte, which became known as the "street of pictures.'  His first major exhibition in 1896 included paintings by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Vlaminck, Roualt, and also Bonnard.

A "marchand-decouvreur," a dealer-discoverer, Vollard shrewdly bought up the contents of entire studios from little known artists at bargain prices.  He drew people out, saying "Dites-moi" meaning 'Tell me, then'.  Somnolence and evasion were Vollard's favored techniques with prospective clients; his eccentric selling techniques including frequent dozing in his gallery, making a point of not showing his clients what they asked to see, and concealing most of his paintings behind a screen at the back of his shop.  All this was neatly captured by Bonnard in Vollard and His Cat (at left).

Vollard himself was full of contradictions and remains an enigma in retrospect.  Opinions of his contemporaries differed greatly.  Some artists like Matisse  considered him a thief  who had exploited his art while others spoke warmly of Vollard's loyalty and generosity to them.  Cezanne was extremely grateful to the dealer for rescuing him from obscurity.   Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, whose gallery supported the next generation, the Cubist painters,  recalled,  "Vollard was very secretive.  He knew how to weave a mystery around his pictures in order to fetch a higher price."

IV. An artist who functioned as a de facto dealer was Mary Cassatt, who moved from Pennsylvania to France in 1874.  She became a friend of Edgar Degas and, through him, met other Impressionists.   After Louisine Elder (later Havemeyer) sailed to Paris in 1873 she was introduced to Cassatt, who would advise her on collecting art after she married the wealthy H.O. Havemeyer who single-handedly controlled the American sugar market.  As collectors, the Havemeyers were able to acquire artworks from landed European aristocrats who were strapped for cash.  Willing buyers met needy sellers.  Henry James, an expatriate American who sided with Europeans was dismayed at the prospect of losing their artistic patrimony, even wrote a novel The Outcry (1911) about it. Fast forward to the 1980s as Western buyers wrung their hands as Japanese collectors went on a buying spree, snapping  up van Goghs and Picassos. Life imitates art imitating life.

For further reading:
1. Paul Durand-Ruel: The man who saved the Impressionists, The Times, UK, 14 Februay 2015.
2. Cezanne to Picasso: patron of the avant-garde, Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Yale University, New Haven: 2006.
1. Edgar Degas  - Mary Cassatt (and her sister Lydia( at the Louvre, 1879-1885, pastel, private collection.
2. Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Paul Durand-Ruel, 1910, oil on canvas, private collection.
3. Pierre Bonnard - Vollard and his Cat, circa 1904-1905, oil on canvas, Kunsthaus, Zurich.
4. Mary Cassatt - Portrait of Louisine Havemeyer, 1896, pastel, Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont.