30 September 2009

How To Take A Bath

Recently, I was looking at a photograph of the Emperor's salle de bains (bathroom, like so many words, sounds more impressive in French) in Napoleon's grand apartment at the Chateau Fontainebleau. The striated white marble walls and black-and-white diamond patterned tile floors looked familiar. Even the bidet, although not a standard fixture in American homes, was self-explanatory. The galvanized tub on its raised platform, edged with an organdy ruffle, did look a bit like a baby's bassinet but the four chairs arranged along the walls brought me up short: the Emperor didn't bathe alone.

As a child, I learned from my mother that, if there is one thing a busy modern woman craves in her bath time, it is near monastic solitude. June liked nothing better than to close the door and sink into a fragrant bubble bath with a good book. (There was a southern window in our bathroom that provided plenty of light.) If a child knocked on the door, she called out her usual advice: "Go read your book."
There are other ideas on how to take a bath. The caricature (at right) was included in a letter from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Jane Morris, wife of architect and aesthete William Morris. It shows Jane in the bath tub, apparently drinking a glass of wine, as her husband reads to her. Rossetti captioned it: "To drink bath water is better than to listen Morris read the 7 volumes of his new book The Earthly Paradise." (1868) The glasses lined up by the tub look inviting, though.
The two well-muscled 'mer-men' holding up Aphrodite look charming in Georges Barbier's illustration for the book, Aphrodite: Antiques Moers (1928 edition) by Pierre Louys, but it takes a goddess to relax so nonchalantly, above it all. I'll take the solitary bubble bath.

Image: Leonardo Cremonini - Les Parenthese de l'Eaux, 1968, Pompidou Center, Paris.

21 September 2009

Problematic Carl Moll

Looking at these unfamiliar  paintings, the question arises: why don't we recognize them and know  their maker?  There must be a story here.

The Vienna of 1886 had more young artists in one place than any European city other than Paris. The Viennese mix of energy, edginess, and enervation was a heady one, with one of every six residents a transplant  from  poor outposts of the Habsburg Empire, people who lacked a permit to live in the city.  But you can't see any of this in The View from Schindler's Window.

Carl Moll (1861-1945) painted The View From Schindler's Window  while rooming in the home of his teacher, Emil Schindler, a respected painter of the day. Soon after Moll moved in with the Schindlers gossip began to circulate about an affair between Carl and Anna; it was more than possible, it was true. 

Three years after Schindler died in 1892, Moll married Schindler's widow Anna. In marrying Anna Schindler, Moll became the stepfather of seven year-old Alma, who would grow into the beautiful, temperamental, talented composer, and much-married Alma Schindler Mahler Werfel Gropius.  Like his much-married step-daughter, Moll's every action excited speculation  in Viennese circles that professed to find nothing too shocking for drawing room gossip and demonstrated their fortitude in the face of delicious scandals.

Moll was  noted for his foresightedness, and not necessarily with admiration.  He helped found  the Vienna Secession in 1897; and he would secede from the group in 1905, along with Gustav Klimt.  Moll promoted Klimt's art and introduced tout Vienna to the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, making handsome profits on them as a well-placed dealer.   In time he became an early supporter  of Hitler's National Socialism.  Fast forward to 1945, when  Moll committed suicide, together with his daughter Gretl and son-in-law, as the Soviet Army entered Vienna.  We begin to see more things that are not obvious in Moll's paintings.

Of course, we see no forecast of later events in The View From Schindler's Window. When looking at Moll's self-portrait (1906) or the view of his snow-covered studio from the outside (circa  1905) we see a world of calm introspection, of a new aesthetic in painting masterfully applied. His use of oblique diagonals and bird's eye views allows a subtle lightness in his landscapes, an aesthetic of verisimilitude, resembling something but not the thing itself, rather like the Schindler-Moll family perhaps.

There is some flattening of the picture plane, as in the work of other Secessionists, although not in the interiors; they pull us into the Finance Ministry chambers and a domestic interior through a series of diagonals created by open doors.

Many of Moll's paintings hang in Viennese museums, but his work is often absent from retrospectives of his generation because his personal history is unpalatable in so many ways.  He assumed the mantle of all that had been Schindler's as his by right. His supplanting of  Emil Schindler in his family and his art world never sat well.   He was not enthusiastic about having Gustav Mahler join the family, unwelcome on at least two counts as a Jew and as a rival artist.

Far from being a great man, Moll (whose name translates from the German as 'minor') was far from a minor artist. But the work remains, waiting for a time when it will win out over history, as beautiful work sometimes does.

1.  The View From Schindler's Window, 1886, Essl Collection, Austria.
2. Verschneites Studio on Theriesiengasse, c. 1905, Dichaud Collection, Austria.
3. The Artist In His Studio, 1906, Akademie der Bilder Kunst, Gemaldgalerie, Vienna.
4. Winter In Preibach, 1904, private collection, Vienna

6. Winter Scene -Heiligenstadt, c.1904.
7.  View Of Heilligenstadt, 1906, Dichaud Collection, Austria.
8. The Interior Of The Ambassador's Residence.
9.  Twilight, c. 1900, Osterresiches Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.

01 August 2009

Winslow Homer At Houghton Farm

Opening on August 18 and running through October 11, at the Lowe Art Gallery at Syracuse University, Winslow Homer’s New York State: Houghton Farm And Beyond, curated by Homer specialist David Tatham brings together a group of watercolors and prints, centered around the summer of 1878, a summer that saw Homer spending long periods of time in Orange County, New York, a summer of exuberant artistic productivity.

Houghton Farm belonged to Lawson Valentine, a successful businessman, whose paint and varnish company created the boat protector Valspar, still used by mariners today. Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and his older brother Charles had been boyhood friends with the Valentine family in Boston. When Homer moved to New York City in 1859, he renewed his connection with Lawson and Charles, a chemist, worked with Lawson Valentine.

Located in a narrow valley near Mountainville, south of Newburgh on the west side of the Hudson River, the 1,000+ acre farm purchased by Valentine purchased it in 1876 served the dual purpose of summer residence away from the New York City heat and a location for Valentine's agricultural research station, one of the first in the United States. From the farmhouse veranda a panoramic view of the valley, Woodbury Creek, the lower Catskills to the wets, and the Erie Railroad line provided a variety of potential subjects for an artist. Today, only the original farmhouse survives; the other buildings and most of the acreage made way for the construction of the New York State Thruway circa 1950.

What these pictures illustrate is that Homer was one of the earliest and most sympathetic painters of the American girl. Homer was familiar with Manet’s credo that “the most important person in any picture is the light”. To this, Homer brought his strong decorative sense, stimulated by his recent membership in the Tile Club. It had not been until 1873 that Homer had taken up watercolor, a medium then associated with amateurs. Through watercolor, Homer explored the boundary between reopresentation and abstraction, as he also lightened his palette. Success in selling the watercolors encouraged him to continue. When Lawson Valentine invited Homer to stay at Houghton Farm, it was in his dual role as friend of Charles Homer and patron of Winslow.

Pastoral scenes of sheep grazing on gently rolling hills, attended by the daughters of local farmers, inspired the artist to envision Arcadian shepherdesses but not before an initial misunderstanding was resolved. When Homer asked the daughter of a poor mountaineer to pose for him, she appeared proudly in her best clothes for him. Crestfallen that the artist wanted her to change into her shabby work clothes, Homer came up with the idea to use some 18th century costumes that he had previously used for props and, so, a charming conceit was born of their collaboration. Somewhat to Homer's surprise, the public was charmed by these images.

The horizontal plane is dominant in most of Homer's Houghton Farm paintings. Even in the preliminary sketches, facial expressions are fully worked out without the sentimentality common to images of children. You can almost hear the rustling and buzzing sounds of the earth at work as you look at Homer's virtuoso displays of light and shadow. And in recognition of the work and economic value of sheep herding, the faces of the sheep are realistic, too.
Although Homer finished some of his paintings from Houghton Farm the next year, he went on to other places and other subjects, making this the record of a distinct period in the artist's work.