23 July 2016

Alma Thomas: A Most Painterly Brush

One of the things we couldn't do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there.” - Alma Thomas, from an interview in the New YorkTimes, 1972.

Manuals of Japanese brush painting include rules for how to make strokes; if that seems restrictive or inhibiting, just look at the paintings of Alma Thomas (1891-1978).  Like an instrumentalist whose diligence sets her free, Alma Thomas was able make Abstract Expressionism speak the joy of painting itself.  Even when seen in person where the brush strokes are the more vivid than in reproductions, the sense of movement seems redolent of joy, in contrast perhaps to the anguish viewers often find in the paintings of her contemporary Mark Rothko. Thomas experimented  with techniques and styles but when she arrived at Abstract Expression she used its means to shape feelings in paint, the definition of aesthetics.

When the Thomas family, mother and father and four daughters, moved to Washington, D.C., the segregation of the nation's capitol was a giant step up from the constant threat of racist violence in their home state of Georgia.  The first student to graduate with a fine arts degree from Howard University, Thomas supported herself by teaching art in Washington, D.C. public while she painted on the side. "I Never lost this need to create something original, something all my own." Thomas was not able to devote her full time to painting until she retired from teaching at sixty-eight. Even then it would take another decade before she received broad recognition. 

About her late blooming career, Thomas had this to say: "I don't know how it happened, but it seems to me that I've conducted my life so that every time I came to a crossroads I took the right turn. I never married, for one thing.. That was a place where I know I made the right choice. The young men I knew cared nothing about art, nothing at all. And art was the only thing I enjoyed. So I remained free. I paint when I feel like it. I didn't have to come home. Or I could come home later and there was nobody to interfere with what I wanted, to stop and discuss what they wanted. It was what I wanted, and no argument. That is what allowed me to develop." Such clarity of purpose, expressed to an interviewer in 1977, still sounds revolutionary coming from a woman. 

Resurrection, (above)  is the first painting by Alma Thomas to be included in the official collection of the White House, in 2014.

Alma Thomas, the retrospective now on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem originated at the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs this spring..  This path retraces an earlier one taken by Thomas's work,from the periphery to the center;  when the Whitney Museum opened Alma Thomas: A Retrospective in 1972 it was the first such exhibition at the Whitney devoted to the work of an African-American woman artist but it was the seventh solo exhibition for Thomas.

To read:
1. Phantasmagoria: Major Paintings from the 1970s by Alma Thomas, New York, Michael Rosenfeld gallery, New York: 2001.
2, Stroke!: Beauford Delaney, Norman Lewis & Alma Thomas, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York: 2005.

1. Alma Thomas (1891-1978)  - Resurrection, 1966, Collection of the White House Historical Association, Washington, D.C.

2. Alma Thomas - Irises, Tulips Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1968, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.

15 July 2016

From Baudelaire to Eric Rohmer

"What one can see out in the sunlight is always less interesting than what goes on behind a windowpane. In that black or luminous square life lives life dreams. life suffers.  

Across the ocean of roofs I can see a middle-aged woman, her face already lined, who is forever bending over something and who never goes out.  Out of her face, her dress, her gestures, out of practically nothing at all, I have made up this woman;s story, or rather legend, and sometimes I tell it to myself and sleep.
If it had been an old man I could have made it up just as well.

And I go to bed proud to have lived and to have suffered in someone besides myself.

Perhaps you will say " are you sure that your story is the real one?"    But what does it matter what is really outside myself, so long as it has helped me to live, to feel that I am, and what I am?"
    - excerpt from "Windows" by Charles Baudelaire

I am immersed in the new  book  Eric Rohmer: a biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe.  Although it is over six hundred pages long it will not last the month; it has me under its spell. When I looked at this still  frame from Rohmer's 1967 film La Collectioneuse I thought of the poem Windows" by the 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire, the dyspeptic 19th century flaneur.  It strikes me that Baudelaire's words prefigure the cinematic imagination. The gorgeous cinematography of the late Nestor Almendros.(1930-1992)  captures the beauty of natural light; not simple to do but straightforward in its aim.

To read: Eric Rohmer: a biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe, translated from the French by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal, New York, Columbia University Press: 2016.

Image:Nestor Almendros

06 July 2016

A Big Wave Knocked Her Over

I. Swimming as a pastime was an invention of the new urban middle class  during the second half of the 19th century.  It was not that no one swam before that time of course; it was that swimming had  not been  a structured activity with lessons and styles and rules – and bathing suits.  Country people had enjoyed ‘natural swimming’ as it was dubbed in retrospect, an activity that could include any  and all members of a family and friends - in the nude.  

As the newly prosperous vacationers flocked to the shore to relax and escape the summer heat they brought with them a sense of bourgeois decorum that required a new, more structured regimen for what had been an informal pleasure.
A consensus was reached in polite circles that the sexes be segregated  on the shore as much as possible when not formally dressed and that swimming was reserved for males,  with females relegated  to such oddities as walking into the water while hanging onto anchored towlines or confined to little huts in the water (talk about confinement) known as “bathing machines.”  Boys were encouraged to learn to swim to avoid drowning but it would take the advent of urban WMCAs and WYCAs for girls to receive the same  life preserving instruction.

In  an article that appeared in Scribner’s Monthly in July of 1890 the aptly named Duffield Osborne enumerated the reasons that women should not swim: their hair might get wet or a wave might knock them over.  And this nonsense was not limited to men; writing that same year in Ladies’ Home Journal,  Felicia Holt titled her article on the problem  “Promiscuous Bathing.”

Warning of  the effect that bare toes on the beach would have on public morality, Holt wrote, “I fear the girl will soon begin to calculate the effect of what someone late called 'artistic bareness' on the mind of masculinity.  It would take an imagination of an entirely different order of magnitude to understand that the revolutionary potential of swimming for women lay not in self-display but in the experience of strength and self-assertion.

II.  She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” 

With that sentence Kate Chopin signaled her readers that for Edna Pontellier, protagonist of The Awakening (1899), learning to swim would become the means to her personal declaration of independence, an act that resulted in social ostracism, and finally, disaster.  Radical as her depiction of a woman's search for an authentic self was,   Chopin found it difficult to imagine a heroine escaping Divine wrath much less  the wrath of men.    Herself the daughter of a successful Irish businessman and a French mother, Katherine O'Flaherty  had grown up in a family of self-reliant women; her father died when she was just five years old.   At age twenty she married Oscar Chopin and the couple moved to New Orleans.  With the move from St. Louis to the deep south and the birth of six children in eight years, Chopin absorbed the shocks of a myriad of social expectations that diminished a woman's sense of autonomy.  In the novel Chopin drew pointed tableaux of Victorian social life that, to contemporary critics, only made Edna's increasingly desperate attempts  at self-assertion seem the more irrational as well as selfish.  Swedish writer Per Seyerstad, first to write a modern biography of Kate Chopin (Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, 1969) was also to resurrect The Awakening for generations of grateful readers who have grown  up with it.  John R. Stilgoe, a Harvard historian who really ought to know better, cannot resist categorizing Chopin's revelation  of a woman's inner emancipation as a story that  “borders on the pornographic.”  It must be the combination of female self-assertion and feminine pulchritude that has male minds bollixed.

Image: Louis Valtat - Bicyclette, c.1895, Musee de la voiture, Compiegne.