23 April 2012

From Here You Can See The Quattrocento

The first time I saw Aristide Maillol’s Femme a l’ombrelle was on a poster announcing her presence at an exhibition of Post-Impressionism at the Palais de Tokyo on avenue Woodrow Wilson in Paris.  Having grown up near the Atlantic Ocean, I was pretty sure I knew what she was gazing at; now I’m not so sure. Maiillol painted the picture at Fecamp, a town on the Atlantic coast of Normandy, so I got  at least the ocean right. 

The woman in the pink dress appears to be standing before a photographer's backdrop of a seascape, rather than the sea itself.  This may be the key to Maillol's intentions.  Where a line separates the sky from the sand, there her right hand grasps the parasol; where sky and sea meet, there her hair springs up from her forehead.   Her left hand touches the brim of her hat, a gesture mimicked in reverse by the swirl of decorative ribbons trailing behind her.  Anchoring her in place is a band of gray across the bottom of the canvas that our eye registers as shade.  This gesture of masterful design registers on reflection when we realize there is no evident source of the shade.   What a marvel of classical composition this painting is.   In the words of Maurice Denis , written in 1943, Maillol has subordinated "all the graces of detail to the beauty of the whole.."

 "During a stay in Fecamp, where I was giving drawing lessons to a group of American women, I commenced a five meter wide canvas of them, entitled Far from the City.  These young women were beautiful, bursting with life and health; they wore large hats, following the style of that year; I made a considerable effort."  It seems Maillol originally intended Femme a l'ombrelle to be part of a mural that was never completed.  Nevertheless, the resulting work is his finest painting.



Maillol often expressed his admiration for the frescoes of Renaissance artist Domenico Ghirlandaio in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.   We can see echoes of Ghirlandaio's  women in Maiilol's L'enfant couronne (1892), Le souer de l'artiste (1888) and even the very late Portrait of Dina Verney (1940).

During the medieval period an important distinction  was made between the left and right sides of the human body: the right side was superior morally, because guided by God, while the left side could be exposed to view, so brooches were customarily pinned on the left shoulder.

That preference for the left profile is repeated frequently in paintings of the early Renaissance, as is another stylistic gesture that Maillol often used - the half-portrait.  Together these devicesestablish a continuity between centuries, a grace and solemnity that  remained unaffected by Maillol's introduction to the avant-garde Nabis in the mid 1890s and his friendships with two of its members, Joseph Rippl-Ronai and Maurice Denis.  Indeed, Maiilol's portraits retained continuity throughout his long career, in contrast to the sensuous modernism of the sculptures Maillol is best known for.

Painted at about the same time or slightly before Maillol created the woman in pink, Madaemoiselle Faraill au chapeau displays a similarly deceptive background that is as an element of the portrait, not  a realistic landscape.  From this we recognize the link with the art of the early Renaissance, before landscape became an independent object of interest to painters.  Here, the bands and circles of yellow and green echo the tilt of the girl's hat and the pom-pom flowers that decorate it it.

The little girl crowned with a laurel wreath by the hands of an unseen woman is not only classical in its allusions, but classical in its economy of  means.  Her eyes are momentarily closed to the world she is about to discover, her  blue dress stands in for all the fresh colors of spring, and the yellow background is the brightening sun.   She looks like a younger version of Dina Vierny, Maillol's last model, a fifteen year old girl  the artist met when he was seventy-three.  It was Vierny (1919-2009) who assembled the extensive collection of Maillol's paintings and tapestries and founded the Musee Maillol, opened in 2005.

Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) died as the result of a car accident that happened while he was enroute from Banyuls-sur-mer to visit another artist friend, Raoul Dufy.

1. Aristide Maillol - Femme a l'ombrelle,  c.1891-1895, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2. Aristide Maillol - Young woman in profile,  1893, Musee Hyacinth Rigaud, Perpignan.
3. Aristide Maillol - Le soued de l'artiste, 1888, private collection, France.
4. Aristide Maillol - Jeune fille pensive au feuillage, 1893, Musee Maillol, Paris.
5. Aristide Maillol -  Mademoiselle Fariall au chapeau, 1890, Musee Maillol, Paris.
6. Aristide Maillol - L'enfant couronne, 1890, Musee Maillol, Paris.
7. Aristide Maillol - Dina Vierney a la robe rouge, 1940, Musee Maillol, Paris.
8. Pisanello - Portrait of Ginevra d'Estre or Margherita Gonzaga, c.1438-1440, Louvre Museum, Paris.

For further reading:
Wendy Slater, Aristide Maillol in the 1890s, Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press: 1982.
David Alan Brown et al, Virtue And Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra d' Benci and Renaissance Portraits if Women, Princeton University Press: 2001.

Visit the Maillol Museum online.

Below is the poster that started my love affair with Maillol.

12 April 2012

Geometric/Floreale: The Fortunys

Geometric flowers  are typical of Fortuny designs, a union Arabic and Western ideas.  Geometry in Arabic science began as a series of symbolic forms, while Western artists used Euclidean principles to invent pictorial perspective.  The difference can be represented by a flower.  The Arabic flower was a visual image, an abstraction that could be known  by studying refracted light. Whereas, the Western flower was an object in front of the eye, to be known through the gaze.

Mention the Fortuny name and what comes first to mind is a diaphanous pleated dress, known as  the Delphos: it was named after an ancient Greek tunic and made from silk plissé  fabric, using a technique for pleating fabric that teh Fortunys  patented.   The Delphos dress and the Knossos scarf really did begin a revolution in fashion and, as we have remarked about Viennese reform attire, women were very much involved in changing the norms ot their dress.  Fortuny and Negrin's ideas were shaped by the modern rethinking of Greek civilization that began after Heinrich Schliemann's archaeological discoveries of the 1870s.  Theorists turned from Athens to Crete, one result being heightened awareness of women's role in ancient Greece.   In this context, it is ironic that Johann Jakob Bachofen, whose theory of 'mother right' has been largely discredited   is more often cited than the more subtle semi-pagan speculations of the first British female academic,  Jane Ellen Harrison, whose  Prolegoma To The Study Of Greek Religion (1902) was a favorite college text of mine.  We know now that Knossos, on the island of Crete is the oldest known European city, dating back to the Bronze Age.  

"She was enveloped in one of those long, Oriental gauze scarves that the alchemist dyer Mariano Fortuny submerges in the mysterious potions of his caldrons, stirring them with a wooden stick, first like a sylph, then like a gnome, where he obtains colours from strange dreams and later prints them with his thousands of new generations of stars, plants, animals."
 - Gabriele D'Annunzio wrote in Forse che si, forse che no (1910) on seeing Henriette wearing an early version of the dress.

"She" was Henriette Nigrin, an artist who supported herself as an artist's model in Paris, where she met Mariano Fortuny in 1897.  Henriette eventually moved to Venice in 1902, becoming  his business partner and designer.   The Fortuny family disapproved of their relationship, so they did not marry for several years.  Together, they designed textiles and, after World War I ended, opened their own production company on the Giudecca, still in operation today. 

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo,  son, grandson, and nephew of respected Catalan painters, was born  in 1871 in Granada.  After his father's untimely death in 1874, the family moved to Paris, living with their uncle, the painter Raimundo Madrazo.  Mariano's Parisian friends included Marcel Proust and the composer Reynaldo Hahn.

The family moved again, to Venice in 1892, to the Palazzo Orfei, now the home of Museo Fortuny.  Among Mariano 's Venetian friends were  Marchesa Casati anf the writers Gabriel d'Annunzio and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

The young Fortuny expected to follow his father's vocation as a painter, but a visit to the annual Wagner Festival Bayreuth  in 1893 convinced him that theatrical design offered a better scope for his talents.   Eight years later, Fortuny  designed the sets for the Italian premiere of Tristan and Isolde at La Scala  (1901).  

 “The Fortuny dress Albertine wore that night seemed like the tantalizing shadow of invisible Venice. It was covered in Arab ornamentation just like Venice, just like Venetian palaces, disguised as sultans behind a veil pierced with stones, just like the bindings in the Ambrosian Library, just like the columns with Oriental birds that alternately mean life and death and are repeated in the mirage of the clothes, in a deep blue that, as my eyes approached it, became changeable, thanks to the same transmutations that, in front of the advancing gondola, became metal enflaming the azure of the Grand Canal. And the sleeves were lined in cherry pink that is so Venetian it is especially called Tiepolo pink."
 - Marcel Proust,  excerpted from La Prisonnière (1923), translated from the French by G. K. Scott-Moncrieff.  

Poetic but not exaggerated, Proust's vignette of the Delphos dress alluded to the Moorish influences in Fortuny designs.   Granada, where Mariano Fortuny was born,  a city on the Iberian Peninsula  had been part of the Moorish Al-Andalus (now Andalusia). for eight centuries, from 711 to 1492.

Mariano Fortuny died in 1949 and was buried at the Verano in Rome next to his father.  The Fortuny home was donated to the city of Venice to be maintained as a museum in 1956 by his widow, Henriette (Negrin) Fortuny.

Images:  from the collection of Museo Fortuny at Museo Civici Veniziani .
Visit the website: Museo Fortuny.
Also: Fortuny


Fabrics  designed by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo & Henriette Nigrin.
Photograph of Henriette Nigrin -c. 1909   by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo.
Unidentified photographer - Marano Fortuny in his atelier, Campo San beneto, Venice.

For further reading:
1. Anne-Marie Deschodt - Mariano Fortuny: un magicien de Venise. Paris, Editions du Regard: 1979.
2. Guillermo de Osomos - Mariano Fortuny: His Life and Work, New York, Rizzoli: 1980.
3. Cathy Gere - Knossos & The Prophets Of Modernism, Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 2009.