14 September 2016

Alexandre Benois: The Philosopher's Admonition

In this watercolor by Alexandre Benois we see two men strolling 
the sunlit  gardens at Versailles, one a courtier and the other a philosopher.  The philosopher is  dressed in turquerie, an imitation fo Turkish style that first became popular in western Europe during the 16th century; the fad is now  called Orientalism, a pastiche of Ottoman culture.   From their attire we can infer that the monarch  was named Louis, whatever his number.

I thought of Benois as I read the poem “Comic Opera” by the late W.G, Sebald.   Unlike most of Sebald’s extensively annotated poems (often the notes run to more words than the poems themselves) this one came into English with no notes at all.    But it does read as though Sebald might have seen The Last Promenades of Louis XIV (1897).   The “newly lapsed century” Sebald writes is the time when Benois made the drawings in what I like to think of as his Rococo-revivalist style.   Whether or not the erudite German knew the Russian’s work, it seems likely that Benois the art historian knew that among the Sun King’s mistresses was one Marquise de La Valliere, a student of philosophy who loved the works of Aristotle and Descartes.

Alexandre Benois was fascinated by Versailles, judging by the six hundred plus drawings, watercolors, pastels, etc. that he devoted to the subject during the decade between 1897 and 1907.   Benois visited Versailles for the first time in 1897, painting a series of watercolors The Last Promenades of Louis XIV. When Diaghilev saw the Promenades  drawings at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow later that year, he sensed the theatrical possibilities in this 19th century Russian interpretation of 17th century France.  But it was not until ten years later that the two staged their first theatrical collaboration, the ballet Le Pavilion d'Armide with a libretto by Benois that drew on his imaginary Versailles.

The program enlists the turqueries
of a newly lapsed century
a potpourri of bells and symbols
orchestrated obscenities
Masked players swell
the plot in a green theater
their true faces overwritten
Rather than greater virtue
the happy ending proposes
more trivial vies
The hedges rustle with applause
and the bygone ladies
of the court return
below the lawns
Back to reading
 - "Comic Opera" Across The Land And Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald,  New York, Random House: 2011.

Benois arrived in France in 1896, having graduated three years earlier with a law degree in St. Petersburg.  By the time he left St. Petersburg, he had already accumulated a large collection of books, paintings, and engravings and participated in the founding of an influential journal Mir iskusst va (World of Art) which promoted a new aesthetic. He  became busily engaged in avoiding the practice of law by trying out the life of a painter in Paris.  Increasing political unrest among the Russian peasantry had been  left behind but it, and Benois's knowledge of the events of 1789, cast a shadow over his view of Versailles.    Below, a frail Louis XIV is being wheeled out to view his gardens and fountains;  over the Sun King's head, the clouds are overtaking the sun.

What was at the root of this infatuation with Versailles?  Did the sweeping parterres, the gilded statuary, and the empty royal chateau remind him of the vast Palace Square in St. Petersburg?   Did  tales of Peter the Great building his royal city over a  swamp offer a mirror image of the Sun King building his  waterborne court in a town where water had to be pumped in rather than drained out?   Maybe something like a stage was what Benois needed to unleash his imagination.  After all, his grandfather had been the architect who designed the great Russian theaters, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky.  And Louis XIV, assuredly a man who made no small plans, had intended  Versailles to be the stage for a continuing pageant, its subject the splendor of his reignAround almost any corner along an allee, the royal gardens provided spectacles of statues and fountains (sometimes both a once)  depicting scenes from  Greek and Roman mythology for the entertainment  of visitors.  Everything at Versailles was staged  but it was the audience rather than the players who moved about. From the palace terrace, Versailles, Paris, and ultimately all of France was  a stage for the King's power.  And for Benois this synthesis of the arts,  architecture, landscape, costume, and presentation, constituted a highly contrived yet decorative artifact  more powerful for the human beings - even monarchs - who had decreed its existence.

For both Benois and Diaghilev, the attraction to all things Euuropean was strong; for his part. Diaghilev denounced contemporary Russian art as "one big slap in the face of Apollo."  So they founded the magazine  Mir Istkusska (World of Art) in St. Petersburg to promote the new.  From its first issue in November 1898, the magazine caused a sensation.  A frequent contributor to the magazine was Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, about whom there is more here. After the Russian Revolution Benois served as curator of paintings at the Hermitage Museum but in 1927 he settled permanently in Paris where he died in 1960. 
As for those cubist novels I haven't a clue what Sebald had in mind.   I'm curious if anyone has any thoughts about this.

Alexander Benois – The Philosopher's Admonition,  1907, Pompidou Center, Paris. 
       Alexander Benois  - The King’s Promenade, no date given,  Pompidou Center, Paris.

02 September 2016

Eugen Gabritschevsky: Art Born of Loneliness

"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see,"   said Edgar Degas.  Some of the others who have seen the paintings of Eugene Gabritschevsky have claimed to see in them pictures of flatness and lack of emotion; yet I see signs of emotion everywhere in his work.   Affectionate regard for the crested bird (above), a witty rethinking of the butterfly, based on his experiences with Rorschach ink blot tests while in a sanitarium, and a fantastic bestiary of tiny creatures based on his years studying insects under a microscope: three instances, but there are others of a darker bent.

Gabritschevsky's paintings are filled with living presences, some  human, others  are all manner of hybrid fantastical beings.  Eyes, in particular, are everywhere, in faces or even embodied in plants composed of nothing but eyes, a sad commentary it seems on the loneliness of a solitary man watched constantly by doctors and nurses yet disconnected from human intimacy.  Surely for social creatures as we humans are, this is the worst fate, to shrivel uncared for and untouched.  You may notice that the light in Gabritschevsky's pictures that comes from below, as in a theater, and the frequent suggestion of a proscenium arch serves to underline the dichotomy between presence and disconnection.
Some critics have dismissed Gabritschevsky's human characters as grotesques but I disagree; only a lack of empathy can explain such blindness.  Only look at the man and woman in the untitled painting (above).  Together yet apart, their bodies contorted with opposing impulses of fear and longing, they have both stretched their heads away from each other yet make no move to leave their shared space. 
Gabritschevksy was born into an upper class Muscovite family in 1893.   Gabritschevky's father was an internationally known bacteriologist; he died when Eugen was fourteen, the first of a series of shocks that challenged a precarious emotional equilibrium.  The revolutionary violence outside in the city streets only intensified the caesura between childhood and whatever would come next.  A privileged education given by tutors including study of languages and a love of drawing were his sources of strength.    

Gabritschevsky studied biology at the University of Moscow, growing fascinated by the world revealed by a microscope.  He took a research position at Columbia University in 1924 but two years later  returned to Europe, settling in  Munich where his brother Georg now lived.  A failed love affair with a Frenchwoman and the death of his mother in 1930 were setbacks but  Gabritschevsky  took a new position at the University of Edinburgh
The next year Gabritschevsky had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in Zurich, where he was diagnosed  with schizophrenia. Eventually he was able to be  transferred to a hospital near Munich where he spent most of his remaining life. One more shock was in store;   during WWII  mental patients were locked in underground cellars by order of the Nazi authorities, with what effect on  already scarred sensibilities we can only imagine.  
He lived out his lonely existence but painting expanded to fill the solitary hours with a stunning output of works unconstrained by the dictates of the art world; what remained a constant was the impression of a spirit ill at ease in the world.   If it were not insensitive and cruel, we could see in Gabritschevsky's later work a mind set free, but Gabritschevsky himself is there to remind us not to be so facile, with these words from a letter written in 1946 where he assessed his paintings as: “merely misshapen offspring of ideas that are more or less true.”    Gabritschevsky continued to paint up until his death on April 5, 1979.

It was Georg who sent a few photographs of his brother's work to Jean Dubuffet in 1948, at a time when Dubuffet himself was restless and searching for new sources of artistic inspiration.   Already under the spell of  Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922), an influenital work written by German art historian-turned-psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn. Dubuffet had coined the term Art brut  and he thought he had found  an example  in Gabritschevsky.  The term Art brut has never been without problems, in its opposition of academic tradition to self-taught and otherwise socially disadvantaged artists.   And although Dubuffet went on to purchase many  of  Gabritschevsky’s works for his Compagnie de l’Art Brut and to recommend the older artist to his  dealer friends, the one-sided connection with the famous Dubuffet has continued to color views of Gabritschevsky to this day.
Eugene Gabritshcevsky (1893-1979) is on view at  La Maison Rouge, a private foundation specializing in contemporary art,  July 8–September 18.
Images: All images are by Eugen Gabritschevsky and all titles are attributed by the curators.
1.  Crested Bird, 1942.
2.  untitled, 1949, Collection Chave, Vence.
3.  untitled, 1942, Collection Chave, Vence. 
4. untitled, 1939, Ville de Lausanne.