30 April 2013

The Late Flowers Of Leon Dabo

 "We come like water, go like wind."

That's not an exact quote from the 28th verse of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam but, after reading Maurice Maeterlinck's The Intelligence of Flowers, it strikes me as the right epigraph for Leon Dabo's flowers.

Exactly what prompted Leon Dabo (1864-1960) to embrace flower painting around 1915 is unclear. He was already a successful artist (Theodore Roosevelt reportedly admired a Dabo landscape shown at the New York Armory Show in 1913), yet Dabo chose not to make a public display of this interest until 1933,  with  an exhibition at the Knoedler Gallery in New York.  In the time-honored manner of a town crier, the gallery’s press release announced breathlessly: “…his studies of flowers have been hidden away….These flowers were not exhibited and never shown in his studio, with the result that not even his intimate friends had the faintest inkling that the painting of flowers constituted a secret and jealously guarded passion.”   Purple prose may have seemed appropriate to introduce these surprisingly vivid works by a painter of subtle landscapes but there is no particular evidence to support any of these claims.  And there was no need to hype these pictures; full of life and interest as they are.

Dabo, who was born in France and traveled there as a young man after his family moved to Detroit,  knew  the pastels of  Manet, Mary Cassatt,  and Odilon Redon,   Redon’s early watercolor landscapes from the 1870s prefigure the delicate colors  of tonalism.  In the late 1890s, the French symbolists would turn to pastel, reinvigorating a medium, that had been popular during the 18th century but had lately been  relegated to  school children and amateurs.
In Dabo's use of chalks and conte crayons, there may be the hint of a motive for his flower pictures.  Unlike in his large oil landscapes, Dabo used pastel  to  draw, sharpening his points to create contrapuntal effects against the characteristic shimmer and shadow.  La vie en rose, as the title implies, is a tonalist picture but what a riot of vivid colors and sharply defined spaces it contains.  In it, you can see a recurring feature of Dabo's flower pictures:  a background alive with movement, as though to remind us of the  water and wind that birthed  the blossoms. So Dabo uses shimmer to suggest a mis-en-scene for his flowers.  Cascade of Floral Fireworks (at top) positively glitters with movement, a virtuoso presentation piece for an underrated medium.   His use of asymmetrical arrangements suggests that Dabo .had looked at Japanese prints.   Arc-en-ciel and  La vie en rose look like he also knew ikebana (living flowers), the Japanese discipline of floral arrangement.

While Dabo was late to show his flower paintings to the public, Edouard Manet's flowers were late by necessity.  Manet created a group of sixteen flower paintings during the final years of his life.  Confined to home in the winter of 1880 by the ravages of syphilis, Manet concentrated his waning energies on the parade of floral bouquets brought to him by his friends.  (That the pre-eminent painter of the modern city was felled by a disease spread through the freedom that he had portrayed in his great works, was  ironic.)  In his flower paintings Manet used everything he knew about painting light to paint as much life as any small canvases have ever contained.  Two artists, for different reasons,  achieved the same results, works smaller in size but by no means diminished in art. 
Like Manet, Dabo  produced flower pictures in both pastels and oils. Dabo’s brushstrokes often recall the short, thick marks of Manet’s  lilacs.  Notice the similarities between Manet's Bouquet of Lilacs (Prussian State Art Museum, Berlin) and this early Dabo work titled Flowers in a Blue and White Vase.   Where they differ is in the backdrops; what is uninflected in Manet's pictures is invested with drama by Dabo.  He makes backgrounds that seem to speak, to be in conversation with the flowers through the medium of light.  The publication of The Pastels of Leon Dabo, admirably designed and executed, is long overdue.

ADDENDUM:  In this, the one hundredth anniversary year of the Armory Show, held in New York City, I should have mentioned that works by Leon Dabo were included in that important exhibition, including a  landscape of Canada in winter and Evening North Star.

The Pastels of Leon Dabo  by William Gerdts et al, is published by Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery, Santa Barbara: 2012 in connection with their exhibition Leon Dabo: Toutes Les Fleurs.

The Last Flowers of Manet by Robert Gordon, New York, Harry N. Abrams: 1986.

Images: by Leon Dabo courtesy of Sullivan Goss Gallery.
1. Cascade of Floral Fireworks, ca. 1916, private collection
2. Abstraction Melancholique,  ca. 1915.
3. Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow), ca. 1915.
4. La vie en rose, 1916.
5. Flowers in a Blue and White Vase, 1899.

19 April 2013

Italian Hours: William Degouve de Nuncques

“In the arts feeling is meaning.” –  Henry James, quoted by Leon Edel.

“To make a painting, all you need to do is take some paints, draw some lines, and fill the rest up with feelings.” – William Degouve de Nunques

His words strike the  symbolist attitude of disdain for the narrow-mindedness of the bourgeoisie. His portrait, executed by his friend Jan Toorop,  reveals a guarded, introspective young man.  At twenty-three, William Degouve de Nucnques  was about to have his first exhibition in Paris, thanks to the recommendation of  the great Auguste Rodin.  But he had also recently experienced a contentious election for admission to the Belgian avant-garde Les XX and he was an impressionable young man.
 The aristocratic origins of the Degouve de Nuncques family have been called into question by new research but Degouve believed in them and so did his contemporaries. The poet Alfred de Vigny  attributed the family's elevated tastes in literature, music, and philosophy to noble lineage.    More concretely, Henry de Groux  described the artist's father as a character from a novel by Balzac.  "(H)e detests anything that represents authority, loves animals even  more than mankind, and walks about with a loaded shotgun to shoot at neighbors bent on harming his cats."   What was indisputable was the family wealth. 
When Degouve was born in 1865, the family was living at Montherme in eastern France. To escape the Franco-Prussian War,  they moved to Spa and then, when William was seven, to Brussels.   Schooled at home by tutors, Degouve taught himself to draw, eventually enrolling at the Royal Academy in Art in Brussels.

His marriage to fellow artists Juliette Massin in 1894 brought Degouve into the circle of young Belgian artists.   Juliette's sister Marthe, also an artist, had married Emile Verhaeren in 1891.  Their happy union inspired Verhaeren's  Les  Heures claires (The Sunlit Hours - 1896)  Other Verhaeran books such as Les campagnes hallucinees (1893) and Les villes tenticulaires (1895) suggest a symbolist lingua franca in the making.   With this in mind, Degouve's images of tree roots and oddly  illuminated landscapes become more comprehensible.  But even among friends, the artist was known as a melancholy person. 
 Not on their honeymoon, however, which stretched into a tour of the continent.  Some of Degouve's loveliest nocturnes  (Twilight On Lake Como, Park in Milan, and Night In Venice) date from the couple's first trip to Italy in 1895.  Their travels took them to Lake Como, Milan, and Bologna culminating at Venice.  When the trio of pcitures was shown at the salon of Les XX  in Brussels in 1897, they were enthusiastically received. 

Degouve's new night pieces are lit by magic,  a benign form of mystery. The  miniature lanterns hanging from the trees of Park In Milan are actually chestnut blossoms shimmering in the  moonlight, moving to an invisible evening breeze.   The crepuscular light behind the mountains is mimicked by the lights along the shore of the lake, as delicate as fireflies in Twilight At Lake Como .  Blue, the color of dreams for the Symbolists, is the prevalent color here but  regardless of color, dreams  belong to the realms of night, not the certitudes of daylight. 

In reproductions it can be difficult to tell apart Degouve's pastels from his paintings.  Early on, he had experimented with thinning his oil paints to incorporate the weave of the canvas as pictorial element.   Back in Brussels, the symbolist circle was impressed by the 'nocturnes'  of James McNeill Whistler. Degouve's Night In Venice, the most obviously similar was originally owned by the violinist Eugene Ysaye, a member of his Brussels circle. 

1.William Degouve de Nuncques - Park In Milan, 1895,  Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo.
2. Jan Toorop - Portrait of  William Deouve de Nuncuqes, ca.1890, Musee de l'Ancienne Abbaye, Stavelot.
3. William Degouve de Nuncuqes - Crepuscule a La Come, 1895, galerie Patrick Derom, Brussels.
4. William Degouve de Nuncques - Night In Venice, 1895, Groeningen Museum, Bruges.

Note:  The recent exhibition William Degouve de Nuncques: maitre du mystere was a joint undertaking by the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands and the Musee Felicien Rops in Belgium.  It it the first Degove retrospective since 1936 and contains more than one hundred works by the artist.  Three nations can lay claim to Degouve: France where he was born, Belgium, where he lived, and the Netherlands where the largest collection of his work has been preserved.  It is fitting that the excellent catalog accompanying the exhibition is available in both french and Dutch versions.

16 April 2013

Late Hours: William Degouve de Nuncques

"Without the Belgians, the French would have been second rate symbolists." - Arthur Rimbaud

“Everything they don’t understand is mythology.  There’s a lot of that.” - Charles Baudelaire on the Belgians

Surrealism started here,  in the imagined world of a little known Belgian painter, William Degouve de Nuncques.   Without La Maison Aveugle (The Blind House). there would have been no Rene Magritte, no Empire of Light.  Its  English title, The Pink House, while descriptive explains nothing.    The first thing the viewer notices is a house glowing with strange light, as though it were midday.  But it is nighttime, and a sprinkling of stars dot the sky.  What could explain the relation between the pink, apparently inhabited part of the house,  and the shadowed rear part, its broken window panes revealed by a solitary light?
Magritte the Belgian was an artist who knew and honored his sources.  In 1955, he created his own version of Fernand Khnopff's At Fosset Under the Fir Trees (1894), including an outsized squirrel picking at the pine cones.

Another Belgian, the poet Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916) claimed that both La Maison Aveugle and The Canal   had been inspired by stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Also, in what may have been a case of symbolist hyperbole, Verhaeren described Degouve's landscapes as "obscure dreams of a morbid climate."  In favor of his interpretation, Verhaeren was Degouve's brother-in-law,  married to the artist Marthe Massin in 1891.  Three years later Degouve married  Juliette Massin, Marthe's sister and  also a painter.  Degouve himself broke silence in 1911, writing that he had intended the lighted windows to represent "life immobilized." 

Degouve used lines to frame fleeting intuitions of the invisible, an experience  Maeterlinck characterized as."the individual face to face with the universe."  His geometrically structured spaces contain mysterious depths,  Camille Lemmonier, a member of the older generationof Belgian artists, was the first to note that Degouve's paintings contained a "motionless undulation."  This is a symbolism largely devoid of human figures.  Another temperament would have searched for answers in metaphysical realms.

In  The Canal even the hour is obscure and  the bare trees offer no conclusive evidence of the season.  The deserted building appears subject to some peculiar trick of the light.   Broken window panes again punctuate the facade.  Degouve's use of a broad horizontal canvas, severely compressed, creates a claustrophobic feeling seen in landscapes by his contemporary Fernand Khnopff. 
Belgium in the late 19th century was in the forefront of industrialization, with its attendant urban  upheavals and dislocations.  At the same time there were cities like Bruges and Ghent, remnants of the long gone Burgundian court, preserved in a decayed state like insects embalmed  in amber. Against this background,  the recurring motif of immobility, the frustration with  the explanatory uses of the  visible world, make sense.   Maeterlinck, who received the Nobel Prize for literatire in 1911, even discerned intimations of this in the Greek classic.  "It is no longer a violent, exceptional moment of life that passes before our eyes—it is life itself. Thousands and thousands of laws there are, mightier and more venerable than those of passion; but these laws are silent, and discreet, and slow-moving; and hence it is only in the twilight that they can be seen and heard, in the meditation that comes to us at the tranquil moments of life."

In the insubstantial powder of pastels Degouve found a medium fit for the moist, heavy night air.  In such an atmosphere, the gas lamps of the royal park in Brussels illuminate the symmetrical layout  as though it were the otherworldly work  of a phantom gardener.   In its particulars, the image could not be more accurate if it were a photograph. But Degouve has chosen to depict the garden's rectangular pattern from an oblique angle, taking the straightforward and turning it into something slightly strange.  Now you begin to feel the thrill of recognition the surrealists felt.  

A master of static drama (notquite an oxymoron) was Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), the central figure of Belgian literary symbolism.  He was well-suited to understand the melancholy Degouve.  Born into a well-to-do family in the torpid city of Ghent,  de facto capitol of Flemish-speaking Belgium, Maeterlinck became the leader of a movement carried out largely in French.  A childhood divided between winters in an urban townhouse and summers in the country was similar to the one that Fernand Khnopff experienced,  shuttled between Bruges and the forests of the Ardennes.  Like the aristocratic Khnopffs, Maeterlinck's family could trace is roots back to the 14th century chronicler Froissart.
 His play Les Aveugles (known in English as The Blind or The Sightless),  premiered in 1890, was just as influential at the time as The Bluebird or Pelleas and Melisande    In Les Aveugles, Maeterlinck created a group of characters guided by an old priest, who  dies, leaving them alone with their fears.  None of the characters is drawn realistically. They are depersonalized, outlines within which the actors and the audience  invent their interior worlds.   Not a bad description for the tree roots foregrounded in The Leprous Forest from 1898, one of Degouve's most openly morbid works.  Gnarled and twisted tree roots searching (blindly?) for light express the artist's intuition of sadness permeating the natural world.   In the art of Degouve de Nuncques, we share the surrealist thrill at seeing the unseen.

 "A hothouse deep in the woods,
doors forever sealed. Analogies:
everything under that glass dome,
everything under my soul.

Thoughts of a starving princess,
a sailor marooned in the desert,
fanfares at hospital windows.

Seek out the warmest corners!
Think of a woman fainting on harvest-day;
postillions ride into the hospital courtyard;
a soldier passes, he is a sick-nurse now.

Look at it all by moonlight
(nothing is where it belongs).
Think of a madwoman haled before judges,
a man-of-war in full sail on the canal,
nightbirds perched among the lilies,
a knell at noon
(out there under those glass bell-jars),
cripples halted in the fields
on a day of sunshine, the smell of ether.

My God, when will the rain come,
and the snow, and the wind, to this glass house!" -
 -  Hothouses by Maurice Maeterlinck (1889), translated from the French by Richard Howard, Princeton University Press: 2003.

1. William Degouve de Nunques - La Maison aveugle (The Blind House), 1892, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo.
2. William Degouve de Nuncuqes - Le Magasin mysteriux, 1898. private collection, courtesy Kroller-MullerMuseum, Otterloo.
3.. William Degouve de Nuncuqes - Le Canal,  1894, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo.
4. William Degouve de Nuncques - Nocturne au Parc Royale - Bruxelles, 1897, Musee d'Orsay,

5. William Degouve de Nuncques - Le Foret lepreuse (The Leprous Forest),  1898, private collection, Belgium.