21 November 2017

Stagedoom: A Caprice by Bob Thompson

"El si pronuncian y la mano alargan/
Al primero que llega."

"They swear to be faithful yet marry the first man who proposes."
Sometimes the way in to a picture begins with an emotional frisson.  Aesthetic appreciation or  historical underpinnings may add layers to the experience but the visceral response never lets go.   Stagedoom by Bob Thompson (1937-1966), one of several works the artist made  based on Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos of 1795-97, is that kind of work.  

In Goya's original (below), all the participants are morally compromised, from the nubile woman offering herself to the highest bidder and the church fathers who guide her, to the watching crowd.   Thompson made significant alterations to the image for Stagedoom.   Her nakedness emphasizes the young woman's vulnerability at the same time that the mask she wears dehumanizes her by hiding her facial expression.  The priests offer no comfort; their teachings imprison her.  And who could doubt the evil intentions of the hovering bird-like creatures, a frequent feature in Goya's Los Caprichos, although not in this particular plate. Not only do Goya's birds subject their victims to tortures but  implicate  the viewers in their sadism with obscene glee, these very characteristics are what Thompson wanted to add.   The smiling death's head gives the game away.

Stagedoom, painted in 1962, the year Thompson visited Spain, exhibits a marked understanding of  the painful road to womanhood with its potential for physical and emotional violation.   In Goya's acerbic prints, Thompson recognized "the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual " he had experienced during his Kentucky childhood.
In an alternative  history of post-war art the paintings of Bob Thompson  would occupy a prominent place.  Though only thirty-nine when he died from a heroin overdose, Thompson (1937-1966) left behind more than a thousand paintings and drawings.  Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thompson studied art at university there; his most influential professors were refugees from Nazi Germany. Through them came to appreciate  German Expressionist art of the early 20th century with its distortions of form and color used to express emotion; their influence is there to be seen in Stage Doom.

Based in New York during the 1960s when the city was the center of the art world, he frequented the Five Spot jazz club where he met avant-garde jazz musicians Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden, whose likenesses appeared in his paintings. He also took part in 'happenings' with fellow artist Red Grooms; it was at this time that Thompson's paintings took on a theatrical aspect.

Stagedoom  also shows the influences of Abstract Expressionism and  the  saturated colors of Pop Art.  Unlike Andy Warhol, whose appropriation of advertising images constituted a poke in the eye to all but a knowing few when they were made, Bob Thompson worked in utter, bold seriousness.   The artists he revered, Piero della Francesca, Titian, and Nicolas Poussin, all masters of classical European art,  gave him a symbolic vocabulary.  Their compositions provided Thompson a ready scaffolding for his technicolor nightmares of human and animal  interactions,   illustrating the varieties of human folly, as Goya had.

I began to think, my god, I look at Poussin and think he's got it all there.  Why are all these people running around trying to be original when they should just go ahead and be themselves and that's the originality of it all...You can't draw a new form... [the] human figure almost encompasses every form there is...it hit me that why don't I work with these things that are already there...because that is what I respond to most of all.” - Bob Thompson
I think...painting should be like the theater, a presentation of something...To relate, like painters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance... painters were employed to educate the people...they could walk into a cathedral, look at the wall and see what was happening...I am not specifically trying to do that...I have much more freedom, but in a certain way, I am trying to show what' happening, what's going on,,,in my own private way.” - Bob Thompson

Images:
1. Bob Thompson - Stagedoom, 1962,  gouache (opaque watercolor) and charcoal on woven paper, approximately 21 x 18 inches, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
2. Francisco Goya - El si pronuncian y la mano alargan, plate number 2 from Los Caprichos, c. 1795-97,  intaglio print, Brooklyn Museum.

07 November 2017

Bacchus in Autumn

























What a melancholy sight Bacchus and  his four sleepy little satyrs make on a cold November day.   The enigmatic smile on his face resembles no one so much as the Mona Lisa.  The party's over and even morning's coming light is low.   Until March, when the Maenads will gather to celebrate with rituals of wine and  liberation.  As for the ice crystals on the grapes, they suggest this early morning followed a night of serious drinking.  

This Bacchus was sculpted in lead and gilded with plomb dore by the Marsy Brothers according to a design by Charles Le Brun, court painter to Louis XIV, a man the king described  as "the greatest French artist of all time."  And who would dare to argue with a king?   Be that as it may, the quartet of fountains depicting the four seasons were among the glories of the first progress of  water features to be installed at Versailles.  If Bacchus was a god of excess, Louis XIV was his fervent acolyte.  Fully a third of the cost of the improvements to Versailles was spent on the waterworks to supply its fifty fountains. And the town that gave the palace its name has been the sole supplier of water ever since.  Thanks to Louis XIV,  water is a recurring problem at Versailles to this day; the fountains can be turned on for visitors only one Sunday each month.

The Marsy brothers, Balthazar (c. 1624-1681) and Gaspard (1628-1674) were among dozens of sculptors employed by Louis XIV.   Along with the fountain of Bacchus (Autumn), they executed Basins for Flora (Spring), Ceres (Summer), and Saturn (winter).

Like the devastation Jupiter rained down on the giants who attempted to storm Mount Olympus, a hurricane swooped down on the palace  of the Sun King on Christmas night of 1999.  Morning revealed that some 100,000 trees had been felled including many of the oldest  specimens dating from the 17th century.    Initial fears that the gardens would never recover were proved untrue thanks to heroic  efforts by the French government, led by an army of helicopters that landed even before power could be restored.  And then, just as in the Sun King's day, once again Versailles became a construction sight, full of dirt and noise.

For his stewardship of the restoration, Alain Baraton, head gardener of Versailles then and now, received so many awards from a grateful nation that he wrote "I have more decorations than a Christmas tree."  Baraton's memoir of his life in the world's "grandest garden" was a best seller in France and its charm is evident in translation.   A middle child in a family of seven children, Baraton did not excel at school;  he recalls his time at horticultural school as being more servitude than liberation.  An impromptu visit to Versailles in the summer of 1976 resulted in the dream job he hadn't even imagined: gardener to the Gods.


For furthers reading:
1. Alain Baraton - The Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World's Grandest Garden,  translated by Christopher Brent Murray, New York, Rizzoli: 2014.
2. Thomas Hedin, The Sculpture of Gaspard and Balthazar Marsy, Columbia (University of Missouri Press) 1983.
Images
1.: Jean-Baptiste Leroux - Le bassin de Bacchus en automne -Chateau de Versailles,  c.1672-75, photo from the collection of Jean-Baptiste Leroux, Paris.
2.  Thomas Garnier -  Le Bassin de Bachus - no date given, Grand Palais, Paris.