28 January 2017

Andre Beaudin: Designing His Own Landscape


" (T)he lack of understanding of the work of Beaudin constitutes one of the greatest injustices of our time." - Pablo Picasso, translation by J.L.

Whether his paintings were figurative or abstract, Andre Beaudin's pictures show the influence of  his background as a tapestry designer.   Although he was living and working in Paris  during the 1920s when Cubism was in style, Beaudin found it too formulaic and too rigid for his purposes.   He excelled at  using form and color,  making lyrical canvases that seem to move before our eyes.  As an example of his boundary-pushing work, La cloture (The Fence) could hardly be more exemplary.  If this is a fence, it is a peculiar one, wayward, inconsistent, and even anarchic.

Andre Beaudin (1895-1979) studied at l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  In 1919 he married the painter Suzanne Roger.   Writing for an exhibition at the Pompidou Center in 1970, Reynold Arnould had this to say about Beaudin: " His color has a kind of transparent quality, that of reflection..." - translation by J.L.

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote that an orderly landscape was the cornerstone of political stability.  The Romans agreed, elevating Terminus as the  god  of boundaries, the keeper of property and agriculture.  Boundary stones, called termini in his honor, often contained his carved image in the walls that protected farm fields against trespassers and thieves.  Even the feast of the New Year was dedicated to Terminus, celebrated with the  gift-giving of wine and stones.

To show how seriously the Romans took their boundary lines, the punishment for violators who moved the stones was to be burned alive, along with their livestock.   ( This ghoulish bit of information comes from one of the great histories of the 19th century, The Ancient City (1864) by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges.) 
 Today, the jack o'lantern is a secular descendant of the termini.  Roman law fixed the sacred boundary space at two and one half feet, wide enough for walking, worshiping, and patrolling. Mayhem aside, evidence left to us in the paintings of numerous  19th century artists  shows  the Italian landscape still bisected by these antique walls, but in this more settled agrarian state, serving as resting places for humans and their dogs. 

Anrde Beaudin - La cloture (The Fence), 1941, Musee des beaux-Arts, Troyes.

16 January 2017

Homage to Martin Luther King, Jr. - Alfred Manessier

A tribute from an expected quarter.  Blue and red, water and blood, bursting with life, a force that moves the spirit and the world.
The late Alfred Manessier (1911-1993) is not a familiar name to most Americans.  When Sonia and Robert Delaunay were commissioned to decorate air and rail stations with murals for the Paris International Exposition in 1937, Manessier and three of his friends executed the designs.
After going on retreat in a Trappist monastery in 1943, Manessier experienced a spiritual awakening.  Pondering the connections between the monks' spiritual practices and the nature of the cosmos, he changed his practice of painting,  jettisoning  the decorative elements he had absorbed from the Nabis via his studies at Academie Ranson and with the Delaunays in favor of stronger colors (as seen here) and more dramatic forms.  He also left  teaching to paint full time.   Manessier held the unusual belief that the abstract and the figurative were merely two sides of the same coin in art.  He went on to receive many commissions for public art, from theater costumes to tapestries and stained glass windows.  Where we may see vaguely familiar shapes, Manessier often intended crosses and crowns for churches.
Manessier painted this homage to the American Civil Rights leader in 1964 when King became the youngest person (at that time) ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Alfred Manessier - Homage a Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964, Pompidou Center, Paris.

13 January 2017

Ethel Sands: Not So Cozy After All

Ethel Sands (1873-1962) is one of those artists whose paintings have always impressed me  as being very well executed (they should be; she studied in Paris with Eugene Carrere and was deeply imprinted by the early works of Edouard Vuillard) but rather too amiable, content to portray the interiors of comfortable homes  with few overt signs of  the world outside.  The sort of paintings you might expect from one who took her position as a London society hostess as seriously as any of her other many interests.  Sands was born into money in Newport, Rhode Island and moved easily between France and England, sharing multiple homes with another woman for most of her adult life.

In recent decades, critics have begun to detect the filaments of tension in Vuillard's domestic scenes, based on biographical material that had been revealed since the artist's death in 1940.   No matter how guarded Vuillard and those around him were, his life was not "marked by not a single external  incident."    The romantic/erotic aspects of Vuillard's life may be encoded in his paintings, and who better to have recognized this than a woman who, by the standard of today, would be described as a lesbian?  And who might prefer to present scenes from her own domestic life indirectly?

But then there is this anomalous Ethel Sands painting Still Life With a View of a Cemetery.  It is painted in "early" Vuillard, that is the style he was painting in the 1890s when Vuillard was admired as the leader of the Nabis (or Prophets of a new art) and Pierre Bonnard was his sidekick.   It is all pattern and flat surface, but Sands uses the primary colors (blue, red, and yellow), unlike the muted tones Vuillard favored or her own preferred pastels.  The room that is the still life appears to be a bathroom and the cemetery outside, what we can see of it, seems that of a poor church yard, not the sort of place where the offspring of  haute Newport would have been buried.    Sands had nursed wounded soldiers in France during the war and this painting may allude to the intrusion of the outside world on her domestic life. And yet this interior,  with its tactile curves in the blue and white bowl and pitcher counterpointed by the glass bottles filled with yellow and red liquids, sparkling in the sunlight, is a complete story in itself if we choose to spend time with it.  Disparate shapes are organized around a shelf, with curves below and verticals (the bottles, the curtains, the crosses, above).  Let your eyes move around the canvas, following the directional lines and colors embedded by the artist.  A good still life, Sands shows us, can be more than an arrangement of objects, it can offer a story to the viewer who gives it enough time.   On its own terms, this is quite brilliant I think.

Image: Ethel Sands - Still Life With a View Over a Cemetery, 1923, Fitzwilliam Museum, London.

04 January 2017

The Long View: Victor Segalen

This quiet field is more than it appears, as so many photographs turn out to be when you dig into the particulars.  . Sixty years after a Frenchman, Victor Segalen, took this photograph of a farm field in northern China, some local farmers digging a well made an astonishing discovery.  What they unearthed among the meandering watercourses were larger than life-size figures, thousands of soldiers carved from terracotta, that had gone undetected for two thousand years, the funeral army of China's first Emperor, accompanying him to the afterlife.   The Terracotta Warriors, as they are now known, have become one of the wonders of the world, a comparable feat of the human imagination to the  Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

Segalen would surely have been delighted by the excavation of the terracotta warriors, and the afterlife they brought to his photograph.  Even so, the significance of the site did not escape Segalen.  He led a band of archeologists that visited the site in 1914 to make drawings and measurements of tumulus, mounds of earth and stones, that are often placed over graves.  These burial mounds have  counterparts around the world,   known as cairns, menhirs, etc.

An obsession was born when Segalen arrived in Peking in 1909;  he  immediately adopted it as "my capital,' only returning to France at the outbreak of war in 1914.  For Segalen,  as for the ancient Chinese, the Middle Kingdom became the center of the world,  "the country that epitomizes harmonious difference, the diversity of the world in a nutshell."

Rene Leys,  Segalen's novel published in 1911, is a kind of spiritual adventure story, in which a young foreigner becomes obsessed with the mysterious Forbidden City and and the Imperial Palace at the heart of Peking.  Day after day the novel's protagonist circles the perimeter, looking and listening for signs of intrigue, clues to the destabilizing politics that followed in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion of 1905. Another foreigner, Rene Leys, becomes his guide, weaving threads of historical events and magical tales together, leaving the reader to wonder what kind of book they have in their hands, a detective story or an allegory.  The book, like the Forbidden City and the field in Lintong guard their secrets well.

The afterlife of Victor Segalen (1870-1919) has been longer than his time on earth.   Segalen, born in  Finistiere (end of the land), at the western-most point of the Atlantic coast, grew up to become a naval doctor, but no single profession could contain him.   He wrote novels, poetry, and literary criticism, and on his travels around the globe he made topographical maps, took photographs, and made  archaeological excavations.  For all these accomplishments, Segalen's name is inscribed on the wall of the Pantheon in Paris.  

An extensive biography of Victor Segalen (in French)
About the novel Rene Leys (in English)

Image: Victor Segalen - Lintong, Shaanxi Province, China, 16 February 1914, Musee Guimet, Paris.