28 October 2013

Clara Sipprell: From Vermont to The Balkans

I. My parents  bought a print of White Birches In Vermont when we lived in Massachusetts and, years later, it moved with me when I left home. I liked the picture simply for its  reminder of New England.  The name of the artist, Luigi Lucioni, meant nothing to me; it never came up in any of my art history classes.   Then I spent  several winter vacations in Manchester, Vermont.  After my first visit there, I began to have an odd feeling about that picture hanging in the dining room at home.
I had seen that golf course and those birches  blanketed in snow, from the kitchen window on a old house by the side of the main street in Manchester.  The white spire belongs to  the Congregational Church on the Village Green. The old Eaton House is out of Lucioni's line of sight, hidden by the trees.  Lucioni wisely chose the most picturesque   angle for a scene that he would revisit several times in paint, ink, and dry-point.  In the background Mt. Equinox looms, the tallest mountain in southern Vermont, and  named  for the auspicious date when  Vermont's  Surveyor General reached its peak in 1823,. Mount Equinox shadows  old U.S. Route 7, on its northward way from Norwalk, Connecticut to the Canadian border.  This once revolutionary road was home  to "the most rebellious race on the continent", according to an outraged British General John Burgoyne in 1777.
When I was there, across the road from the Eaton House stood the  remains of the Equinox Hotel, its peeling white clapboards and rotting Corinthian columns flickered in the headlights of passing cars heading north from New York in search of  good snow-pack.  Begun as a private home, the Equinox Hotel opened in to the public in 1853 to serve a  clientele of wealthy city residents  from cities seeking relief from the summer heat.   The Equinox welcomed four Presidents, but not Abraham Lincoln whose wife Mary Todd Lincoln had booked a suite for the summer of 1865.  Exactly forty years later their son Robert Todd Lincoln would return Manchester to build himself a permanent summer home.
Times change, not once but again and again.  The Equinox closed in 1972, a victim of air-conditioning and the changing tastes of vacationers.  By the time I first saw it, the Equinox was thought to be too dangerous to enter and beyond of hope of repair.  Then an improbably poetic rescuer appeared by the name  of Perrier- Jouet  & Cie.   The pure spring waters that ran off the mountain had been bottled and sold by the Equinox Water Company from the 1880s to the 1920s.  There was even a ginger champagne! 
Once I recognized where the white birches were, I had to come back in summertime.  Then I discovered the marble sidewalks (four miles of them), the pride of the village, all the stone quarried locally and scrubbed carefully each spring to remove any traces left by acid rain.  

Clara Sipprell - The Ekwanok Golf Course In Manchester - undated.
This photograph was taken in the afternoon, facing east from behind the Eaton house.

Clara Sipprell - Congregational Church in Manchester, Vermont -  ? before 1960.
Next door to the north (left) of the church is the Eaton house. Note the white marble sidewalks.

Clara Sipprell - untitled, c.1940-50
This building is located north of the Eaton house and is part of the Equinox complex.  It was an abandoned ice cream shop when I first saw it.

Clara Sipprell - The Equinox Hotel (a small part of the facade that stretches for an entire block), c. October, 1937.
This photo was taken in the afternoon on a day much like today.

II. Fast forward to the winter of 1993, as news from the Balkans provided a painful daily tutorial in geography.  Alerted, I noticed a book Clara Sipprell: Pictorial Photographer by Mary Kennedy McCabe (Amon Carter Museum: 1990).   Until then totally unknown to me, Sipprell was a photographer had traveled to the Balkans in the 1920s.   My curiosity was piqued when I read that Sipprell's friend, the novelist Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who persuaded to make  her summer home in Manchester, Vermont, from 1937 until she eventually moved there permanently.  Somehow I was shadowing Clara Sipprell without even knowing who she was.

Clara Sipprell (1885-1975) was  born in Tilsonburg, Ontario,   the last child and only girl in a family of six.  Her schoolteacher father,  died before Clara was born, leaving the mother to support the family as best she could.  One by one, the family migrated eastward to Buffalo, New York, where Clara's older brother Frank opened a photography studio.   Sipprell Photography was auspiciously located at 795 Elmwood Avenue, just down the street from the Albright-Knox Gallery where Alfred Stieglitz chose to hold the first International Exposition of Pictorial Photography, in November, 1910.  Clara began to hang around the studio so her brother gave her a Kodak and, in  1910, she exhibited her work at the Buffalo Camera Club, although it did not (yet) admit women.  Five years later, sure of her vocation, Clara Sipprell left for New York.  
Decades later, by then an accomplished  photographer, Sipprell wrote that she was,  “some kind of interpreter of humanity's eternal struggle to know itself and its surroundings through an unswerving faithfulness to the eternal truths.”   It would be easy to explain Sipprell's neglect at the hands of art historians by her unfashionable views or her adherence to pictorialism decades after it had gone out of favor.  But I wonder.  Sipprell never married yet she was hardly an insipid old maid; she loved to drive fast cars and collected the traffic tickets to prove it, smoked, traveled widely and photographed famous personages from the sculptor Rodin to the Queen of Sweden.  One recent (male) critic described her appearance in unflattering terms, as though that explained it and, for him, it did.

A tragic accident of history made Sipprell's work relevant once again. In her photographs we have access to another world in time  where minarets and crosses coexist, where women, men, and children lead ordinary lives, and the land is old, not the enmities.     And for all the times I travailed back and forth on Elmwood Avenue  and all the times I have walked along the sugar-white marble sidewalks of Manchester, I would have loved to have Clara Sipprell as a companion, at least in  my imagination.  Better late than never but still  too late, always too late.

Clara Sipprell - The Harbor At Split, Dalmatia, c. 1926.

Clara Sipprell - A Street In Kotor, Dalmatia, 1926.

Clara Siprrell - A Street In Old Mostar, c. 1926.

Clara Sipprell - A Mosque In Mostar, c. 1926

Clara Sipprell -  Woman Sitting on A Cobblestone Street, Montenegro, 1926.

Clara Siprrell -  Marketplace in Zagreb, c. 1926.

Clara Sipprell - A Street Shrine In Kotor Montenegri, 1926.

Clara Sipprelll - A Moslem Woman In Sarajevo Bosnia, c.1926.

Clara Sipprell - A Little Turkish Girl, c.1926.

Clara Sipprell - A Shoemaker in Sarajevo, c.1926

For further reading:
Clara Sipprell: Pictorialist Photographer by Mary Kennedy McCabe,  Fort Worth, Amon Carter Museum: 1990.

Luigi Lucioni - White Birches In (Manchester) Vermont.
Clara Sipprell - photographs from the collection of the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth.

11 October 2013

Little Boat: Alice Munro, May Stevens

This is the happiest of days to be a woman.  Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  And yet, like the fish that doesn't know the water it moves through, I don't know where women are now.  Will we ever be free to do things as men have done them, because we want to?  It is always too soon to tell. 
But Alice Munro has been writing dispatches to us for decades in story after story,  bursts of light  like these from The Jack Randa Hotel (included in Open Secrets - 1994):

Wives have diamond rings and headaches, Gail thinks. They still do. The truly successful ones do. They have chubby husbands, left-handed golfers, bent on a lifelong course of appeasement.”

Was she a person who believed that somebody had to have the upper hand?

But love affairs were the main concern of her life, and she knew that she was not being honest when she belittled them. They were sweet, they were sour; she was happy in them, she was miserable. She knew what it was to wait in a bar for a man who never showed up. To wait for letters, to cry in public, and on the other hand to be pestered by a man she no longer wanted.”

A notable characteristic of Munro's stories is the non-linear way  she moves them through time; the later stories especially, often "begin at the end and end in the middle."  Read attentively, this back and forth is also characteristic of the words that the American artist May Stevens uses in describing the sources of her paintings. I think it is a marker of the uncertainty that encapsulated in Munro title of  her book: Who Do You Think You Are?
"What I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together - radiant, everlasting." - A. M.

"I grew up on a tidal inlet."

"Cross my river one could see a spit of land, a peninsula called Germantown.  It looked so green and inviting I longed to go there.  For all those sunny days of childhood I looked at it and longed to have it, to see it up close, to be there.  One day when I was in my teens I decided to go for it – to swim across my river, to actually touch the magical island.  I went with my little black dog, Julie, who of course, paddled rings around me until we finally got there…"

"Many years later when I lived in upstate New York, I found a lovely still quiet river with huge trees growing out of the far side, looking back at them, I stand in the river inching slowly forward, absorbing every color, every tone, every change, before I will dive in, dive under the water, becoming totally part of all I see. But – suddenly – standing there, looking down at my foreshortened legs distorted by the water, I see tiny fish, minnows, all around me, coming for the dusty rust-colored ribbons – like smoke – coming out of – where the water laps against the crotch of my bathing suit.  I am menstruating and the minnows are feeding off my blood.  I feel like river god – a goddess!! I am part of everything I see." - May Stevens, 2008, speaking at Rutgers University for the Heresies Film Project.

Like Alice Munro, born Alice Laidlaw in 1931  in  Wingham, Ontario,  May Stevens (b. 1924) grew up in a working class family, in Quincy, Massachusetts.  Stevens studied at the Art Students League in New York and at the Academie Julian in Paris. For many years she maintained a studio in Soho.   She lives now in Santa Fe.
Munro's father was a fox farmer; she studied English at the University of Western Ontario, working her way by waitressing and picking tobacco.  Like so many women, she gave up her education to marry James Munro when she was twenty.  Munro has spoken of her determination to write and her fear that she might not survive motherhood to do so.
My introduction to Stevens's work came when I saw paintings from her series Big Daddy (1967-1976) at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo.  By that time, Stevens was working on another series of "history paintings," an alternative history of art in answer to Linda Nochlin's deliberately provocative question (made in 1971 in the pages of Artnews): "Why have there been no great women artists?"
If feminism is unfashionable, and it always is, Stevens is doubly unfashionable in her commitment to combining beauty and emotion in art, a heavy lift after a century and more of modernism.  Through her recent series Rivers And Other Bodies Of Water (in progress), Stevens makes connections between her personal experiences and larger philosophical questions of human need and loss, but then she always has one way and another.   Both Munro and Stevens have lost their husbands in recent years; Alice Munro's husband Gerald Fremlin died in April of 2013.  But you don't have to be convinced by May Stevens's particular vision of a universal human consciousness to admire her work.  In these monumentally sized seascapes you can experience the movement of an evanescent substance, made with carefully worked-up layers of thick paint, as contradictory as that notion may seem.

O Barquinho refers to a song with words by Ronaldo Boscoli & music by Roberto Menescal.
1. May Stevens - Into the Night,  aquatint, 2009, Mary Ryan Gallery, NYC.
2. Alice Munro - photograph courtesy of the Toronto Star.
3. May Stevens  - Te Qulero Verde, aquatint, 2004, Mary Ryan Gallery, NYC.
4. May Stevens -  Confluence Of Two Rivers, c. 2002, Mary Ryan Gallery, NYC.