24 November 2013

Three Women And The Artists Who Painted Them

How unusual to find these particular artists grouped together but the three paintings form an improbable but satisfying triptych.  From left to right John Singer Sargent's Javanese Dancer, Jules Pascin's Woman In A Pink Dress and William-Adolphe Bouguereau's Madonna and Child.  The space now occupied by two of them has long been  taken up by a very large landscape - Fields In The Month of June  (Les champs au mois de juin, 1874,) by Charles-Francois Daubigny). Someone with an  eye for color connected the thread of reddish pink and pinkish red and the blue-green from the Bouguereau to the pictures brought out of storage.
As I approached them the other day  I was delighted to see a bench positioned before them because a glance around the gallery that I have visited many times at the Johnson Museum at Cornell University persuaded me that this was what I had come to see.
The three choices available to women  a century and more ago, I thought: madonna (Bouguereai), whore (Pascin) and performer (Sargent).  The last one freer than the other two but morally equivocal, caught in a sexual demilitarized zone, so to speak.
Three variations on the use of oil painting, too.  Bouguereau made his canvas disappear, creating an illusion that the air between the viewer and the painting is pure, free of dust motes.  Pascin's use of grey hues with his colors may indicate the air in a room where cigarettes were smoked, an indication that the woman is a prostitute, as his sitters often were.  He also used the weave of the canvas part of his painting, a different relationship between the artist and the viewer than the one Academic artists like Bouguereau aspired to.  A fitting choice for a subject (probably Lucy Krog) who has few illusions of her own.
Bougeureau, the painter most concerned to achieve a recognizable realism, created the picture least connected to reality. Mary and Jesus sit, the infant already bestowing a blessing on a little disciple.  The devotional imagery of the Italian Renaissance has morphed into a 19th century French drawing room.
Javanese Dancer is the finest of Sargent's attempts at this particular subject, posed to be sure but  conveying a sense of dance as movement.  Her sash as she swings it from her chartreuse shadowed right arm (what a color) and the diagonals of her skirt pull on the viewer's eye.   At the same time the formality of the gesture of her left arm, not to mention the ceremonial dagger she wears suggest self-possession, perhaps a denial of the Western assumption of the sexual availability of female performers in Sargent's time.  Sargent worked his colors into the canvas with a zest that makes me think this was a bus-man's holiday from all those delicate watercolors he did.
As I sat there, I could see out of the corner of my eye, Otto Dix's Woman Reclining On A Leopard Skin (1927), both of them ready to confront the culture represented by my chosen paintings.  But that experience belongs to another day.

And now some notes on the painters.  According to those who knew John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) his musical talent was equal to artistic gifts so his numerous studies and finished works of dancers come as no surprise.  Although he lived and worked through the days of Impressionism, Expressionism, fauvism, and Cubism, he remained committed to his own realistic style.  There has never been a critical consensus regarding Sargent's work, to put it mildly.  It is as though his masterly renderings of beautiful women and powerful men might compel us to admit that we are in thrall to them as much as Sargent was.

Jules Pascin (1885-1930), the least well-known of the these three painters,  was born in Bulgaria to Italian-Serbian and Spanish-Jewish parents. He attended art school in Munich but moved to the United States to avoid the draft during World War I.  Paris was the place that he loved and he returned there in 1920.   An excess of debauchery led to his suicide by hanging.  He applied his excellent draftsmanship to his many studies of women; his models were often prostitutes.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) was a French painter of a much more conventional type, although he was represented on this site recently  by Nymphs & Satyr.  To the Impressionists, who despised him, Bouguereau represented everything that was wrong with official art.  Think of someone today daring to sneer at the results of an art auction at Christies and you will get the idea of how large Bouguereau's reputation was at one time.  In recent decades, thanks to renewed interest in figurative painting, Bouguereau has been rediscovered by a new generation.  With over 800 paintings to his credit, many of them in major museums, he could hardly avoid a comeback.

 Note: I have tried to reproduce these three paintings at their relative sizes to give readers as good a sense of the experience in the gallery as possible.

Images; from the collection of Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
1. John Singer Sargent - Javanese Dancer II, 1889.
2. Jules Pascin - Woman In A Pink Dress, (probably Lucy Krog), undated but probably c. 1915-1920.
3. William-Adolphe Bourguereau - Madonna And Child With Saint John The Baptist, 1882.

16 November 2013

Agnes Varda In Lotusland

Who  better to document the culture clash that was the 1960s than a French New Wave filmmaker living  in Southern California?  Contemporary viewers may see more  of John Waters  than traces of La  Nouvelle Vague in Lions Love (...And Lies,) in its newly remastered digital format, but Agnes Varda's film is still a very funny movie and a delightful addition to her available oeuvre.  Of Los Angeles,  Varda recalled recently : “ I found it very dreamlike. It had the quality of daydreams, which I like. And a quality of strangeness."   From now until June 22, 2014, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art  presents the first U.S. museum exhibition devoted to her work:  Agnes Varda In Californaland.

When Agnes Varda moved to  Los Angeles in 1968, she came with her husband Jacques Demy  whose 1967 film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort had paired the American Gene Kelly with the Snow White and Rose Red of French cinema – sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac – in a color-filled  musical that attracted the attention of Hollywood movie makers. 
While Demy worked a project offered to him, Varda was free to make her own projects:  a  documentary about the Black Panthers,  Oncle Yanco a short film about a distant relative living in Sausolito,  and a celebration of the new counterculture, the feature film  Lions Love (... and Lies).  Varda describes her “Hollywood” films this way: "The films are about sex and politics, like they were at the time.”    For the LACMA installation Varda designed a room within a gallery, using stacks of celluloid film cans from Lions Love.

Structured like nesting dolls, Lions Love takes a trio of real people: Jerome Ragni and James Rado, whose Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical had created a sensation when it opened Off-Broadway, and Viva, an actress who appeared in Andy Warhol films,  and sets them loose in a film partly scripted and partly improvised.  In filming. Varda plays with  cinematic illusion, as she often has,  allowing the actors to look directly at her while on camera or by panning past a mirror that captures herself at work.  A heavenly choir, heard in voice-over, hymns the creature comforts of their rented house in the Hollywood hills: a giant bed, a  curvaceous, heated swimming pool, a loopy mix of plants, plastic and real.  Varda frames Viva in a halo of light that crowns her pre-Raphaelite beauty, a more generous gesture than  Warhol was capable of making.  Like a masculine version of Snow White and Rose Red, Rado is the quiet one and Ragni is the clown.  It took a woman to imagine this kind of poly-amorous group.

The plot has this trio of flower children, waiting for the break that will make stars of them, rubbing their bushy heads together  as they murmur their mantra: “Star. Star. Star.”  These three couldn't care less about the 'new morality',  living as they are in what they imagine to be a new garden of Eden.  Like children at a sleep-over, they lounge endlessly in bed, conversing about the meaning of life.  They kiss and nuzzle and make crank phone calls to the bank ( "I'd like to order $200 to go").  They while away their afternoons in the pool, smoking substances that dilate their pupils as surely as their casual nudity does to  the pupils of viewers.   Into this group, comes Shirley Parker, an independent filmmaker also trying to make it in Hollywood.  A New Yorker in over-sized sunglasses, she is both attracted and annoyed by the indolent trio.
When Viva decides, like 'the folks who live on the hill' that they should have children, the trio borrows (abduct) some from the neighborhood.  Not surprisingly, at a time when abortion was illegal and safe and effective birth control was hard to find, Viva contemplates pregnancy without enthusiasm. "Do you think I could go through nine months of it and only come out with one?"  Domestic disaster ensues.   The kids refuse to take naps, urinate in the pool and eat nothing but french fries. "I think," says Viva, "we have to find another way to the spiritual life."
Into this technicolor dream comes a nightmare in the form of black-and-white television coverage of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles, just three days after  the shooting of Andy Warhol in New York.    Like everyone else at that moment, the three are glued to the screen but drape the television set in a black cloth.  

The  characters, as much as the fact of their nudity,  caused consternation when  Lion Love (...And Lies) was relearned in 1969.   At the  New York Film Festival that year  where it was screened, Lions Love  was coupled in the public mind with Duet For Cannibals, the first film by the American intellectual Susan Sontag.  As a sign of the times, the two women endured an excruciating joint interview on Public Television with Newsweek's award-winning but clueless film critic Jack Kroll.  Varda immediately bristled at Kroll's repeated characterization of her stars as "grotesques" and "marginal characters" who would be of no interest to ordinary moviegoers.   When she pointed out that Viva and Andy Warhol were real people, Kroll questioned why anyone should be interested in them.  Both Varda and Sontag were at pains to remind Kroll that, in the films he preferred, the characters act out conventions of behavior manufactured for the movies, not the behavior of real people.  Too bad, neither woman  interrogated their interrogator about his characterization of attractive unclothed people as "grotesque."
The discussion only went downhill from there. If Kroll had done his homework, he might have mentioned Varda's previous release Le Bonheur (1967), a film that raises serious moral questions and still leaves viewers unsettled to this day.    When Varda asserted that  movie stars and politicians like the Kennedys were now on equal terms as  "public effigies" because of television culture, an idea that Sontag explored in Duet For Cannibals, Kroll responded testily: "Reality is being shoved in our faces."  At one point, Kroll even pointed out to Varda and Sontag that they were both women.  It was a long half hour. 

For the lucky visitors to Agnes Varda In Californialand, the retrospective may shed new light on the filmmaker's career.  The ultimate test for Lions Love (...And Lies), or any movie, is how it strikes the viewer on its own merits.  If Lions Love  shows a moment when everyone was young and optimistic, that is a fair description although Varda expresses some reservation with her additional parentheses (...And Lies) . 
Sex and politics was in the process of becoming a subject unto itself when Lions Love was made and film critics were not the only ones who were uncomfortable.  Events moved quickly enough so that in 1985 when the California director Donna Deitch.released her film Desert Hearts, a lesbian love story set in post-World War II Las Vegas, critics wrote admiringly of what are some of the most erotically-charged love scenes ever filmed - and by a woman. 

1.Varda and the cast  of Lions Love were featured in the first issue of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine in 1969.
2. Jim Morrison of The Doors, Peter Bogdanovich, and the European character actor Eddie Constantine make cameo appearances in Lions Love.
3. Lions Love (…And Lies) a film directed by Agn├Ęs Varda, France 1968, 35mm, color, 110 min.  Printed by Cine Tamaris
4. Lions Love  (...And Lies) was screened at Yale University on November 8, 2013,  the  second showing of the  new digital transfer.

Agnes Varda - portion of wall installation for Agnes Varda in Californialand, 2013, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).