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.

07 April 2021

Hilma af Klint: "Everything Is Unity"

"I am an atom in the unversed that has infinities possibilities of development. These possibilities I want, gradually to reveal" - Hilma af Klint

Primordial Chaos (at left) is an example of Hilma af Klint's mystical geometry: blue represents the female principle, yellow the male, and green the unity of both in one.  The artist was a translator between realms. What we know of her thinking about her work does not conform to our notions of abstraction; she did not think the forms of the spirit were less material than the things of this world. The bonds that unite the above and the below of the world are reminiscent of the early years of the Earth, an inherent mystery in the geometry of forms that matter and energy take. Her use of space on the canvas puts me in mind of an early 16th century woodcut from Camille Falmmarion's book L'astronomie (1885).

Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) lived a long life, more than long enough to know that her erasure from the history of modern art was...Contrary to popular belief, af Klint did attempt to show her work several times and sometimes succeeded, as in London in 1928. She continued to believe that her time would come in the future, probably after she was gone, much like Gustav Mahler whose symphonies were greeted unsympathetically.  "My time will come," he declared with absolute confidence.

At the age of twenty af Klint began studies at the Royal Academy of Stockholm, one of the first women to be admitted. There she became part of a spiritualist group of women known as "The Five" who met regularly for several years. 

In her paintings, natural colors were replaced by colors used symbolically to embody her philosophical
interests, Christianity, Rosicrucianism, an Theosophy, the last being a bouillabaisse of Western occult beliefs and Hindu and Buddhist teachings.



It was one of her spiritual guides who gave af Klint the commission for ten large works in November of 1906,  a suite of paintings that became the exhilarating starburst of abstract art. Think of the modest dimensions of works by her well-known contemporaries: Kandinsky, Klee, Albers. At ten and a half feet high, af Klint's works tower over the viewer, exuberant, expansive, and utterly compelling.  Spheres, flowers inside circles, suggest the immanence of divine spirit.  She was convinced, and when we stand in theie presence we, too, are convinced,  that reality was not confined to the physical world.


She willed her works to her nephew who offered them to the Moderna Musset in Stockholm; the gift was declined.

Forty years after her death a selection of her paintings were included in the exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 t the Los Angeles County Museum of  Art.

Images:
1. Hilma af Klint Primordial Chaos No. 16, 1906-07, on canvas.
2. unidentified artist - woodcut, early 16th century, Bettman Archive.
3, Hilma af Klint -  Numbers 117 & 118, 1916, colored pencil on paper


 

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. 

Images: 

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

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

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.'

Images:    

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.

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

Images:

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 when the Roman Empire collapsed,  refugees fled to the mudflats of the Veneto which offered a natural hideout.  The local fishermen taught them to navigate the byways of the lagoon and the 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 a master of elusiveness: to this day the meaning of his small oeuvre remains an enduring mystery.  He was the emblematic artist for this liminal world. 

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.

06 February 2021

Altered States: Claude Cahun


 











We think of assemblage as an art form of the 1960s but  Object by the French artist Claude Cahun dates from 1936. Typically her assemblages were ephemeral and made only to last long enough for her partner Marcel Moore (given name Suzanne Malherbe) to photograph them. Object is the only three dimensional work that still exists as Cahun created it. 

Nothing Cahun used in the making of Object was left in its original form. A painted tennis ball became  the tilted eye. For the surrealists the eye symbolized  inward-looking, made popular by psychoanalysis. Cloud-shaped white wood hovers behind someone's real brown hair that Cahun glued on.  A hand that  originally belonged on a department store mannequin appears to have written the words on the yellow board.

The words written on the yellow base are their own an assemblage. "The Marseillaise is a revolutionary song, the law punishes counterfeiters with forced labor." (English translation)  The first is a slogan used by the anit-Fcsist Popular Front, winners of France's 1936 legislative elections, the second is warning that appears on Belgian currency.  The references are ambiguous;  Cahun was dissatisfied with the Surrealists for their lack of political involvement  and questioned the commitment of the Popular Front groups

Cahun (1894-1954), whose given name was Lucy Schwob, took part in two Surrealist exhibitions the year of Object, one in Paris and the other in London.  She was also one of many who attracted the ire of the irascible Surrealist Andre Breton. She created her works for herself and had no interest in fame.  Lost from view after her untimely death, Cahun's work was only rediscovered in the 1990s by a generation  who found simpatico in her fluid identity. "Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me."

Image: Claude Cahun - Object, 1936, wood, paint, tennis ball, hair and found objects, Art Institute of Chicago.

27 January 2021

Serendipity: Honor Titus & Tateishi Harumi

Separated by thousands of miles, almost a century, and different art histories, these two paintings present a  charming commonality. 

Two young people are relaxing together on the grounds of the Brand Library in Glendale, California.  The Brand is no ordinary public library; it is a center devoted to music and the visual arts and the man in the picture is the artist who painted it, Honor Titus.

The young African-American artist Honor Titus (b.1989, Brooklyn, NY) exemplifies what critic Holland Cotter has in mind when he encourages artists to explore several media, to not put boundaries around their imagination but to bring several "spices" to the table.  Titus brings his experience with punk rock music, poetry, and acting, to his painting  So it seems apt that his painting reminds viewers of the Nabis, a group of late 19th century French artists, who embraced a capacious and expansive definition of art that included decorative screens, murals, theatre sets, posters, and book illustrations.  Titus shares their disregard of  straight-laced categories.


Two young girls relax in a flower-dotted field, their poses are informal  - one dressed in a middy blouse rests on her elbows while the other sprawls casually.  Together they present a picture of modern Japanese womanhood, self-possessed and at ease in the world.

Tateishi Harumi (Hariyoshi), was born in Saga Prefecture, Japan in 1927. He first studied Western-style oil painting in Tokyo when he was nineteen;  apparently he disliked the smell of oil paints so he apprenticed at a studio where he practiced Nihonga, a refreshed version of the traditional Japanese style in painting.

Harumi was one of the major figure painters of the Showa period in Japan. His specialty was  bijinga or the painting of beautiful women, long a prominent theme in Japanese art. Unlike his predecessors, Harumi's interest focused on  modern customs, "those things that come from within..." (the Director of the Mejuro Gajoen Museum).  

Harumi died in Kanagawa prefecture on April, 27,1996 at the age of eighty-five.

Umages:
1, Honor Titus - Grounds of the Brand Library, (Glendale) - 2020, oil on canvas, Timothy Taylot Gallery, NYC.
2, Tateishi Harumi - Clover, 1934, colored ink on paper, Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

20 January 2021

Amedeo Modigliani: Something About This Picture

You can't get much closer to Italy when you're on the French Riviera than Cagnes-sur-Mer. Maybe this was part of the attraction this particular village held for Modigliani. It was here that he painted Cagnes-sur-mer during the last year of his life.

If this painting by the Italian Amedeo Modigliani looks unusual, there are reasons. The artist renowned for his portraits painted just three or four landscapes. Was he not attracted to the genre or was it that, like sculpture which was his first love, he could not make his lining from it? Another reason is the shape of the canvas; this elongated vertical shape is commonly used for portraits although nude figures are often portrayed horizontally to allow them the better to display themselves to the viewer. Landscapes are often depicted horizontally and seascapes are also horizontal, further elongated to encompass the breadth of the sea.  Or we could look at this picture as the portrait of a tree.  There is a Modigliani landscape Cypresses and Houses at Cagnes (also painted in 1919) at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.  Some delicate, atmospheric brushwork cannot disguise the awkwardness of that arrangement whereas in the painting here the tree in the foreground is perched on a knoll overlooking the houses in the little valley. Colors seem bathed in Mediterranean light,  light familiar to what Modigliani experienced during his childhho in Livorno. 

Renoir had moved to Cagnes in 1907 after he developed a painful case of rheumatoid arthritis. Modigliani wanted to meet the older artist and Renoir's neighbor Anders Osterlind, also an artist, arranged at Renoir's far, one evening.  The two should have had a lot to talk about;  both artists painted so many female nudes and yet the evening was a failure.  Renoir, the ageing master was proud of his paintings, going so far as to tell the young artist that after he finished each nude he stroked the buttocks on the canvas for days. With his patrician background Modigliani found the old man vulgar.

Renoir died in December of 1919 at the age of seventy-eight.  Modigliai outlived him by only fifty-three days, dying on January 24, 1920 from tubercular meningitis at thirty-five. 

Image - Amedeo Modigliani - Cagnes-sur-mer, circa 1919, oil on cnvas, private collection.

13 January 2021

Early Renoir: Revolution Is On The Table


Renoir is not one of my favorite painters, no matter how long the list gets he does not make it. The later the works the less I find to admire in them, especially the nudes which seem voyeuristic. But there are exceptions in Renoir's early work, like The Luncheon, painted in 1875. Just the year before the artist had participated in the first Impressionist exhibition, the one that had earned this loose-knit group the  derisive nickname from critics.

As a picture The Luncheon is a combination plate; the wainscoting and the wallpaper in the background of the restaurant where the young couple sit have been drawn in a detailed and realistic manner while a revolution is taking place on the table where they are seated, belying the quiet mood.

With colors but no lines Renoir's bravura verisimilitude recreates solid physical objects out of light.  That silver soup tureen turns out, on close inspection to be composed of the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) with white supplying the reflective sheen of silver.  Next to it the baguette is rendered in broad strokes of red an yellow. And that splash of green sits atop the wine bottle like a cork. The diagonal axes formed by the knife and the baguette and the position of the table keep the riotous colors from spinning into space.


Even more evanescent is the appearance of the wine glasses.  Renoir conveys the look and feel of the glasses with tiny strokes of bright white against a sheer silvery veil; we see the tablecloth and the man's blue sleeve refracted through the glass.  Dabs of pinkish red are the remains of the wine itself, colorful yet clear. 
And what of the reflected light that seems to be coming from an unseen window at the right edge of the canvas?  There are shadows cast by  the baguette and the man's hand resting on the table. And there are dabs of light (more white paint) on the bread knife and on the  knife the young woman grasps in her hand.

The Paris of  Renoir's. youth had doubled its population in a mere two decades from 1850 to 1870. With such rapid growth there were bound to be social upheavals and changing mores. Renoir had a nose for the new modern pleasures, a heady combination of boating, bathing, and flirtation that took place on Sundays at cafes along the Seine.  The most famous and definitely the one most-painted was La Grenouille  (The Frog  Pond), what the French call a gangette -  a floating bar.  In 1869 even th Emperor and his wife ventured out to see what made it a hot spot.  The straw boater hat hanging on the empty chair signals that The Luncheon is one of these Sunday outings.

The son of a tailor, Renoir had learned to draw using his father's marking chalk - the feathery, flickering brushstrokes. At thirteen Pierre apprenticed at a porcelain workshop where he soaked up a taste for decorative colors. The brushstrokes made possible by the ferule, a flat metal sleeve constraining the bristles,  revolutionized painting, making those quick, agitated strokes possible. Plus  imagination and daring and bravura technique.

Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir - The Luncheon, 1875, oil on canvas, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

06 January 2021

The Power of Art: Ben Shahn When We Need Him


Image: Ben Shahn - Breaking Reaction's Grip, offset lithographic print, 1946, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.

05 January 2021

Winter Rains: Richard Haines

"I don't care how God-damn smart

these guys are: I'm bored.

It's been raining like hell all day long

and there's nothing to do."

 - "At the California Institute of Technology" by Richard Brautigan, January 1967



Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) is remembered today as a novelist, and an experimental one at that, but he began his writing career as a poet in the 1960s.  Brautigan was appointed  Poet in Residence for the spring semester in 1967 at the California Institute of Technology.  As you can tell by reading this poem, he was not favorably by impressed by the weather in Pasadena.  An odd sentiment for someone who came from Tacoma, Washington. But rain in winter seems more depressing somehow than spring rain; the earth stays inert and dull looking. The palette Richard Haines uses for Winter Rain is drab, with only touches of blue and yellow to underline the vertical displacement that figures seen through rain take on.

Rain is one of several subjects  Vincent van Gogh painted over and over, as though the subject was inexhaustible, as it was for him. There are van Gogh rain paintings that I would do without.  His shoes were another favorite subject and I have linked to my earlier post about Vincent's love of books  and the ways he included them in paintings.

The arrangement of the figures in Winter Rain comes from  the years Richard Haines worked on  W.P.A. mural projects during the 1930s.

Richard Haines (1906-1984) was born on a farm in Iowa and began working as an illustrator for  greeting cards and calendars before formally studying art at the Minneapolis School of Art.  While there Haines became interested in painting murals ( a popular medium in early 20th century America), winning a scholarship that took him to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1933.  Moving to Los Angeles in 1941 to work in an aircraft factory, he stayed after the was ended to teach at the Chouinard Institute of Art and later headed the painting department at the Otis Institute.  His work itself as well as influence on his students.is evident all around the city.

Image: Richard Haines - Winter Rain, before 1948, watercolor and charcoal, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

01 January 2021

From An Old House In Belgium: Vincent van Gogh

"Art is the highest form of hope." - Gerhard Richter. This New Year think of Vincent van Gogh's search for hope. 

In 1878 van Gogh came to the Borinage, a coal mining region in southern Belgium, where he had been assigned to minister to the people of  the village of Cuesmes. At twenty-five, Vincent's trajectory in life seemed to be heading determinedly downward. The eighteen year old who had shown such promise as an art dealer at the prestigious firm of Goupil et Cie in Paris erred by  revealing his wealthy clients his candid opinions of the works he was selling. He liked to read so he tried his hand at bookselling in Amsterdam but ignored potential customers.  Then, thinking he could  follow in his father's footsteps by becoming a minister, Vincent only succeeded in putting his parishioners to sleep.  And so he was consigned to the lowest work the church offered, as a missionary to the poor coal miners of Cuesmes.       

Persuading an elderly miner to take him down into the mines, van Gogh entered a living hell, a bee hive of cramped chambers where entire families labored  because women and children were smaller than the men, and could navigate the narrow passages more efficiently.  Emile Zola's masterpiece Germinal, published in 1885,describes their plight in harrowing detail while Misere au Borinage, a famous documentary made in 1933,  showed how little had changed since  van Gogh's time.

While conducting bible studies in the homes of the miners, van Gogh was stricken by their squalid living conditions.  He became obsessed with the desire to share their plight, giving away his clothes and food and even going so far as to give up bathing so that his skin would be permeated by the grime that the miners could never  seem to wash off. Vincent's identification with the  suffering of others lacked boundaries and so it would be, sometimes, with ruthlessness. The same Vincent was capable of killing a  butterfly the better to paint it. 

When a church official named Rochedieu (means Rock of God - a name fit for Pilgrim's Progress!) came from Brussels on an inspection tour, he was horrified by van Gogh's condition and sacked him on the spot. Losing yet another job when he yearned to give of himself to others devastated Vincent. (It was the inability of his French-speaking superiors to spell van Gogh correctly that led the artist to refer to himself as Vincent.

Van Gogh had been living in a little miner's house where he retreated in despair for a year.  It took another year of struggle for him to assemble a group of drawings to take with him to Brussels; his letters to his brother Theo describe how, through his anguish, Vincent found his vocation.

"Now, if you can forgive someone for immersing himself in pictures..."

"So please don't think I am renouncing anything, I am reasonably faithful in my unfaithfulness and although I have changed, I am still the same, and what preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject or other in depth?"
- excerpts from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, July, 1880.

"Well, even in these depths of misery I felt my energy revive & said to myself, I shall get over it somehow, I shall get to work again with my pencil, which I had cast aside in my deep dejection, & I shall draw again, & ever since I have had the feeling that everything has changed for me, & now i am in my stride & my pencil has become slightly more willing & seems to be getting more so by the day.  My over-long & over- intense misery had discouraged me so much hat i was unable to do anything."

"...I cannot tell you how happy I am that I have taken up drawing again.  I had been thinking about it for a long time, but always considered it impossible & beyond my abilities.  But now, though I continue to be conscious of my failings & of my depressing dependence on a great many things, now I have recovered my peace of mind & my energy increases by the day."

"At the same time I must tell you that I cannot remain very much longer in the little room where I live now.  It is very small indeed, and then there are the two beds as well, the children's & my own.  And now that I am working on Bargue's fairly large sheets I cannot tell you how difficult it is.  I don't want to upset these people's domestic arrangements."
- excerpts from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, Cuesmes, September 24, 1880., translated from the Dutch by Arnold Pomerans in The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, New York, Penguin Books: 1996.

Vincent took his drawings to Brussels in 1880 where he showed them to his mentor, Reverend Peterson, who saw something in them that transcended Vincent's lack of formal training and so Vincent persevered.

Images:

1. Jean-Paul Grandmont - The house where Vincent van Gogh lived in Cuesmes, photograph, 2005. (Note: the Miason van Gogh is now a museum)

2. Vincent van Gogh - Coal Miners, September, 1880, pencil on paper, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo, Netherlands.

30 December 2020

New York, New Year: Mark Innerst


 "Letters swallow themselves in seconds,/ Notes friends tied to the doorknob,/ transparent scarlet paper,/ sizzle like moth wings,/ marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,/ lists of vegetables, partial poems,/ Orange swirling flame of days,/ 
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn't,/ an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space./ I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,/ only the things I didn't do/  crackle after the blazing dies."

 - "Burning the Old Year"  by Naomi Shahib Nye, from Words Over Words: Selected Poems, Portland, OR, Far Corner Books: 1995.

Ah, Manhattan, the city that epitomized the glamor of the 20th century city. Even an ordinary traffic circle can became an occasion for magic, especially at night. Thanks to electric light, headlights of cars moving circles form  and windows blink. Mark Innerst's Columbus Circle depicts the spot from which all distances in the city are measured, the place where Broadway, Eighth Avenue, and Central Park East/West converge.

Mark Innerst paints on a table, working on a panel or canvas laid flat, as Jackson Pollock did. Innerst uses acrylic paints, building up layer on layer on panel; for the final step he coats the image with a glaze.

Like Yvonne Jacquette (also represented by the D C Moore Gallery), Innerst's urban views are often aerial ones. Jacquette's paintings seem to be what you might see from a plane while Innerst's vantage point often, as here, seems to be that of a bird swooping down from the sky, navigating between buildngs as it goes. Their methods are polar opposites- Jaxquette's style is almost pointilliistic in its fine details while Innerst bathes his subjects in a lush luminosity has earned comparisons with such 19th century Luminist painters  as George Inness.

Mark Innerst was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1957 and now lives and works  in Philadelphia.  After earning his degree in Fine Arts in 1980, Innerst began working as a preparator at an art gallery in New York City. With that experience under his belt, within a few years he began exhibiting his own work.

Image: Mark Innerst - Columbus Circle as Seen from the Essex House, 2010, oil on panel, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica. (So far MWPAI has purchased five paitings by Mark Innerst for their collection, a vote of confidence in his future.)

22 December 2020

Night of Quiet Stars



"Somehow, not only for Christmas,
But all the long year through,
The joy that you give to others,
Is the joy that comes back to you;
And the more you spend in blessing
The poor and lonely and sad,
The more of your heart's possessing,
Returns to make you glad."
 - John Greenleaf Whittier

As a child I saw the John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge that carries I-95 past the back of Newburyport while it was under construction.  My mother and I would walk down to the end of Ferry Road at the Merrimack River.  In an early moment of disillusionment, my mother explained to me that the road was not Fairy Road as I had assumed.

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1895) was a quintessential New England poet of the 19th century, famously the author of the much-anthologized Snow Bound,  yet his reputation has faded compared to such contemporaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Whittier grew up on a farm near Haverhill on the Merrimac River several miles inland from the  Atlantic (1807-1895).  He learned that he was color blind when he could not distinguish ripe red strawberries from the unripe. His sister sent one of Whittier's poems to William Lloyd Garrison, pubksher of the Newburyport Free Press where it was published when Whittier was just eighteen. Garrison also gave the young man his first job as an editor at a weekly newspaper in Boston. Whittier's political passion was deeply routed in the failed promise of toleration in Boston's early days. Two Quakers were executed in Boston in 1656: they had emigrated from England in violation of a law passed the year before banning Quakers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on penalty of death.

 After an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1832, Whittier had a nervous breakdown and returned home. He became active in the abolitionist movement and was especially supportive of women writers of his day, amon them Sarah Orne Jewett, Celia Thaxter, and Lucy Larcom.  An influential poet in his lifetime, the city of Whittier, California is named for him. 

I like to think that Alverto Campanile's photograph of Bruncio, Italy will evoke thoughts of Old North Church in Boston as I remember it from childhood.

Image: Alberto Campanile - Christmas Decorations at Bruncio, Italy, 12 December 2007, Alinari Archives, Florence.


15 December 2020

Georges de La Tour: Transcendent Light

An aspect of preparing food that comes to the fore  during winter holidays is an association with the sacred. Georges de Latour, a French painter of mostly religious subjects, illustrates this in a newly discovered work,  La Fiellette au Braisier.

In this enigmatic painting of a young girl cooking the artist has given us no clues locate the space she inhanits or where the source of the light is; its angle is more like a modern floodlight than anything in a 17th century home.

I can't quite make out what is being cooked but it looks like it could be an omelet; perhaps she is using the implement in he right hand to lift the edge. That could also explain why she is staring so intently into the brazier. or she is just learning to cook. She is all attentiveness as sje works. A fillette is a young girl and we can tell from the lacing on the bodice of her dress. 

Known primarily as a painter of religious subjects, Georges  de La Tour imbued everything he painted with a spiritual aspect through his use of striking contrasts of darkness and light.  Latour seems to have been influenced by Dutch Caravaggisti, painters who adopted the technique from the great Italian Caravaggio. It had been around since the Renaissance but Baroque painters seized on it for its heightened intensity, its ability to evoke a sense of awe in the viewer. In Caravaggio's works it created an air of menace that reflected the often violent city that was 16th century Rome.  Indeed, Caravaggio left in a hurry after he murdered a man in 1606. In La Tour's hands chiaroscuro was  about the light that triumphs over darkness.

Georges de Latour (1593-1652) was born in the Diocese of Metz, one of seven children of a baker and his wife. Details of his early life, his travels, or his artistic education are unclear. When Latour married in 1620 he set up a studio in Luneville, then part of the duchy of Lorraine.  From this outpost he managed to attract the patronage of King Louis XIII of France and when Latour moved to Paris in the late 1630s he received commissions from Cardinal Richelieu, Louis' principal minister.

Like Vermeer, with whom he has often been compared, La Tour left behind only a small number of paintings definitively attributed to him (48 at present). Although Latour enjoyed many honors during his lifetime, he was forgotten after death, again like Vermeer, until his paintings were rediscovered in the early 20th century by Herman Voss, a German scholar of Baroque and Renaissance art.  Voss. the director of the Dresden Museum, was  described by those who knew as being ambitious and vacillating and, together, these characteristics may have predicted his turn from liberal opponent of the Nazis to  second director of Hitler's Fuhrermuseum. What attracted Voss to the devout Latour?  Perhaps it was the light.

Image: Georges de La Tour - La Fillette au braisier (Young Girl with a Brazier), oil on canvas, circa 1646-1648, Gallery Lempertz, Cologne

10 December 2020

Pieter Bruegel's Short Life and Strange World


"... the boy a frolic courage caught
          To fly at random ..."
              -  Metamorphosis by Ovid, translated by Arthur Golding (1567)
 
It seems that the most famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder was actually made by his son Pieter the Younger after an original that has been lost. Another piece of received wisdom bites the dust.  When Jan Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Wedding (1434) was recently  revealed to be something more like a memento mori of the Tuscan merchant's dead wife (in childbirth?) with his riches, another one became inoperational. These early Netherlandish artists can still mystify us from half a millennium away.

This and more  is the subject of a book Short Life in a s Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels by an Englishman, Toby Ferris. Ferris was 42 when he embarked on a plan to go and see all 42 paintings that have survived by the  Renaissance artist Bruegel the Elder. Nineteen countries and three American cities later he had encountered them all. Interwoven into his art criticism are memories of Ferris's late father, an engineer who died in 2009.  There was scant documentation of the senior Ferris's life, as Toby Ferris would discover about Bruegel's,  all that was left was "only the vivid remnant flesh of the paintings and drawings and engravings."

Ferris organizes the paintings not by date or location but by common themes such as cold, crowds, fires, home. He introduces The Fall of Icarus by recounting how he had once picked up a paraglider who had landed on a grassy hill. Bruegel's world is both familiar and strange.  His paintings contain familiar characters - beggars, bee-keepers, children at play, drunkards, farmers, and census takers; it is from the materials of their world that strangeness emanates.


Bruegel is one of the great artists of winter, he lived during a time of hard winters known as the Little Ice Age.  How hard were the winters as portrayed in Hunters in the Snow? Birds dropped out of trees like blocks of ice and in Antwerp the River Scheldt, deep enough to sail an ocean-going ship, froze solidly. Bruegel shows us the hunters returning from what looks like an unproductive hunt, followed by their tired and dejected dogs.  Look up and to their left and you will observe the women preparing to smoke and preserve the family pig, needed now to feed the village through the lean months ahead.  Meanwhile the skaters trace their rounds on rinks cleared on the frozen river.  And because painting is a spatial medium, we marvel at the seeming casualness of Bruegel's choreography, the placement of human and animal figures is never shambolic. 
 
Although he grew up in a peasant family in the commercial Antwerp Breugel's success enabled him to move to the capital  of Brussels where he attracted royal patrons. He died in his mid-forties in 1569, a short life by our measure but prodigious in its output.

The interweaving of personal experience and the experience of encountering a work of art is unique to each person but that hardly makes it irrelevant although some art historians dismiss it as such. Similarly, the New Critics of mid-20th century American poetry decreed  each poem is an island unto itself, not to be contaminated by biograph or history. 

The subtitle Short Life in a Strange World notes that Bruegel worked on wood panels rather than the more expensive medium of canvas.  But there were other distinctions to be made. Wood tends to warp as it dries, shrinking and cracking unevenly. Bruegel knew the reasons why northern builders favored oak or walnut over lime or pine.  As he assessed the knots and grains he would have known that unpredictable shifts and alterations that would transform his works after he was gone.  
 
Breigel's  sophisticated use of imprimatura (an undercoating that prepares the panel for the layering of colors) was a souvenir of his time in Italy. He experimented as he went along, creating subtle effects, not easily seen in reproduction. He smudges tacky paint with his fingers, he scraped paint with the pointed end of the brush to simulate the appearance of textured fabrics. And his collection of brushes contained the fur of various small animals with coarse hog bristles for the underpainting.

Toby Ferris is the creator of the website Anatomy of Norbitron,  devoted to "essays on suburban life and universal failure as seen through the lens of Renaissance art" so this, his first book, follows a longstanding  preoccupation.

Short Life in a s Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels by Toby Ferris, New York, HarperCollins: 2020.

Images:
1. after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, probably by Pieter Bruegl the Younger, The Fall of Icarus, oil on panel, circa 1550, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
2. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.