27 December 2018

Iguana and Fox: Leonora Carrington

"Darling stop being philosophical it doesn't suit you, it is turning your nose red."
  - Leonora Carrington, excerpt from The Hearing Trumpet (1976)

In the magical world of Leonora Carrington, humans and animals change places, try on each other's outfits; it is a world where metamorphosis is a cinch.  I should note here that Carrington often referred to herself as a "female human animal."  The tree decorated with red berries and white lights lends Iguana and Fox a festive air.  A half woman wearing the head of an iguana and a half man/ half fox regard each other over its ornamented top.  Is that a plum pudding she offers in her left hand and  a snowball she grasps in her right hand?  This may be Carrington's version of regional Mexican folklore that she delighted in using in her work or it may be one of her own creations, a feminist archetype for our times.  

Leonora Carrington (1917 - 2011) was an English-born artist who made Mexico City her home.  There she made a series of tapestries with assistance from an Aztec family of serape makers.  Although best known for her surrealist paintings, Carrington was exposed to the beauty of woven cloth by her father, a successful textile maker.  She is also credited as a founder of the women's liberation movement in Mexico.

It is easy to dismiss surrealism as little more than a series of jokes with its pipes that are not pipes and its  bowler hat-wearing gentlemen caught in incongruous situations but the traumas and  the dislocations in the wake of the First World War (although no one knew it was only the first at the time) were enough to make a person refuse the reality that was given in favor of one that was self-created.

Leonora Carrington - Iguana and Fox - for Edward James, c.1948-1958, Estate of Leonora Carrington, NYC.

20 December 2018

O Tannenbaum

It is good to be reminded that a Christmas tree can also be a humble sign of hope and joy.   This photograph by the eminent American Walker Evans (1903-1975) is an instant color print and a fitting civic tribute to the joy that the beautiful evergreen fir tree conveys during this holiday season and throughout the winter.  By the way, tannenbaum is the German word for fir tree.

Walker Evans - Hanging Christmas Tree, 1973, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

24 November 2018

Mercedes Matter: Expression in the Abstract

Against a neutral background of negative space, yellows, oranges, and purples vie for prominence in Colors of Autumn  by Mercedes Matter.  The abstraction of the image allows us to contemplate  changes that the season brings.  The intense colors that transforms leaves just before they dry up and drop from the trees in temperate regions are rivaled by the drama of autumnal sunsets, purple clouds back-lit by cherry pink skies. 

As the daughter of a famous modernist, Matter  understood the expressive  possibilities of abstract painting in the mid-1930s, years and a war before the general  public had any inkling that the movement would take over the art world, drawing all the oxygen from other types of art for more than a decade.

Just what is being abstracted in paintings known as Abstract Expressionist?  Thoughts and emotions, filtered through a recognition that a flat two dimensional representation of three dimensions is intrinsically abstract.   Renaissance perspective is, at bottom, just another abstraction.

Those who met Mercedes Matter (1913-2001) described her as "elegant" and even "infuriatingly chic."  And did I forget to mention "charming, intelligent, talented, and witty"?   By the time she was twenty-three Mercedes Carles had an established artist as lover, Armenian expatriate Arshile Gorky. The next year she began to take classes with Hans Hoffmann, another expatriate artist who had just opened his own art school in New York City and who would be an influential teacher of dozens of abstract painters, including Mercedes Carles.   Hoffmann also followed Gorky in her affections.

Her artistic circle grew to include Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, Bill and Elaine de Kooning, and Less Krasner and Jackson Pollock.  When Mercedes saw the first version of de Kooning's Woman On A Bicycle  ar his studio in 1952 she thought, "it was a portrait of myself, albsolutely like a photograph could be."   "The next day it wasn't me at all, it was somebody quite different," she told interviewer Sigmund Koch years after the event

Arthur B. Carles, who had studied painting with Matisse was her father and Mercedes de Cordoba. an artist's model who worked with Edward Steichen was her mother.  Thanks to her parents,  Mercedes met seemingly everyone in the art world while she was growing up.  Born in Philadelphia, Mercedes received her first paintbox before attending finishing schools on two continents.  She said that the museums and churches of Italy were her first art school.

She met Herbert Matter while she and Bill de Kooning worked together on a mural project for the WPA with Fernand Leger; Mercedes also translated for the Frenchman.  Mercedes became friends with Leger who, in turn, introduced her to his friend Matter, a Swiss photographer. The couple married in 1941.   By the mid-1950s, Mercedes was, as  Mary Gabriel described her in Ninth Street Women, "the opposite of a retiring wife."   Along the way, she had affairs with fello w artists including Philip Guston.

For further reading:
Ninth Street Women: five painters and the movement that changed modern art by Mary Gabriel, New York, Little, Brown & Company: 2018

Mercedes Matter - Autumn Still Life, 1985, Mark Borghi Fine Art, NYC.

04 November 2018

Like Oil and Water: A Color Lithograph by Louis LaBrie

Patterns in nature layered and reflected in water, like a cascade of regressing mirror images become what all two dimensional images are at their origins: abstractions.   Scaly bark on trees seen through a medium as clear as glass.  These contrary are effects achieved by the American artist Louis LaBrie (b. 1950) in his color lithograph Autumn.   At first glance it could pass for a photograph, a tribute firstly to the artist's imagination and then to his skills.  He has said that he wants his works to be  equally effective from faraway as from close up.  With Autumn there comes a moment when you switch from gazing at the leaves flowing toward you on the surface of the water to trying to see upside down what is reflected in the water at a distance
Growing up in Martinez, an old city in the East Bay area near San Francisco, early on LaBrie became keenly attuned to an element of decline in the changes taking place in the natural world.   His first painting, made at the age of eight, showed the Yosemite Valley reflected in the Merced River.  After studying art at the University of California, La Brie has described sketching his way around Europe and North Africa for a year before settling once again in California.

A printing process that is based on the incompatibility of oil and water, that old cliche, is color lithography.  Designs are drawn on prepared plates using greasy crayons or inks and when moisture is applied to the plate it adheres only to the uncovered areas.  In the history of printing, color lithography is a relative newcomer, having been invented in 1798.  Its predecessor, relief printing, as its name implies, is accomplished by incising a design into the surface of a pla te and then applying ink to it.  It was first used by the Egyptians before the Common Era some two thousand years ago to print on cloth and spread rapidly after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.  A painstaking hand-driven process was mightily helped by the invention of photography in the 1820s; the introduction of  halftones allowed an image to be broken down into a variety of sizes of dots.  Changes in the composition of plates from limestone to pre-sensitized plates in 1951 have  made ever more detailed and sublte effects possible for the accomplished artist.

Louis LaBrie - Autumn, 1985, color lithograph, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

20 October 2018

I Say it's a Poodle !

At the time William Baziotes painted Shadow in 1951 he was moving away from applying paint to canvas by  brush and its visible strokes as building blocks of the picture.    What gives an image like Shadow its ephemeral quality is the way Baziotes applied the paint by rubbing it into the canvas, thereby making the colors seem to emanate from the canvas itself, almost shimmering in an illusion movement.  Evoking dream-like states in the mind of the viewer was also the business of French Symbolist poetry and Surrealism, two of Baziotes' interests/  Alfred H. Barr coined the term  biomorphism for such works in MoMA's collection by Joan Miro and Isamu Noguchi  Simply put, biomorphism as an abstract style that contains traces of organic forms drawn from nature.   

In the years following World War II Baziotes often displayed his work work with the Abstract Expressionists in New York; the difference was that Baziotes was not so eager to deny other visual elements in his work as his friends were.  It has taken some time for critics to become comfortable with the landscape elements in Helen Frankenthaler's work, for instance.  Unlike Frankenthaler  (1928-2011) whose career was long, Baziotes, born in 1912, died from lung cancer at the age of fifty in 1963.
His most famous picture, painted in 1952, is The Flesh Easters in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Here his compelling interest in surrealism is visible in the wavy forms merging with an apparently human head.

Image: William Baziotes - Shadow, 1951, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

11 October 2018

A Brilliant Corner: Van Gogh's Garden with Butterflies

When Vincent Van Gogh arrived in Paris in March, 1886 it was for the homeliest of reasons.  Too poor to pay the rent in Antwerp, he moved in with his brother Theo who was already working for the respected art dealer Goupil et Cie and living in Montmartre, the artists' quarter of the city and a gathering place for all things avant-garde.  Looking back on his fortuitous move from the summer of 1887, Vincent wrote to a friend, " In Antwerp I did not even know what the Impressionists were. "  What Van Gogh took away from that encounter was a palette of bright colors; gone were the earthy tones and leaden skies of Holland and Belgium. 

The influence of Japanese prints, so popular among the artists of Montmartre that the craze had its own name - Japomisme - has been noted in several subsequent paintings by Van Gogh. Here we could point to the six butterflies whose iridescent red and white wings fluttering in the grasses  evoke the sinuous prehensile movements of Japanese Koi fish in ukiyo-e prints .  What is also striking about Coin de jardin avec papillons  is the influence of photography, for long a taboo subject according to art historians and yet too obvious to ignore. 

Here we have a garden seen in close-up, with no horizon line for reference, a liberty the camera had made palatable to the eye.  Landscape was originally used as a backdrop for religious paintings during the Medieval and Renaissance periods; its contemporary appearance (for the time) adding weight to the didactic messages portrayed by the Biblical personages.  Gradually emerging  as a separate genre, landscape was viewed in panorama until the camera and then the microscope opened up unexamined micro-views by closing in.  This garden in suburban Asnieres was then a newly popular Sunday destination for Parisians in search of refreshment after the six day work week. 

At the end of this auspicious summer Van Gogh headed south to Arles and to the intense  creativity and the depths of misery that are what we think of when we think of Van Gogh.  The gardens the artist painted at St. Remy, where he was confined to an asylum after a nervous breakdown in 1888 look feverish by comparison; the colors under the Mediterranean light are new but the lines are the lines Van Gogh learned to use in Paris, in the colors of the Impressionists.

"Orsay Through the Eyes of Julian Schnabel" is an exhibition that opened October 10, 2018 and will remain on view until January 13, 2019 at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.  This is the French museum's first invitation to a living artist to create a scenario demonstrating continuities between some of their works with thirteen of his own contemporary paintings.  The Brooklyn-born Schnabel, who is also filmmaker (he directed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in 2007) has a new film on the life of Vincent Van Gogh titled At Eternity's Gate being released to coincide with the exhibition.

Schnabel made Rose Painting - Near Van Gogh's Grave  at Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb northwest of Paris where the artist died of a gunshot wound to the chest, the incident an object of conjecture in Schnabel's new film.  Vincent was joined there by his brother Theo who died six months later.  Although it is difficult to see in this photograph, Schnabel has extended his paint to the outer  edges of the frame itself, as though to overflow the canvas.  An apt symbol for Auvers itself where  painters have come before to paint - Corot, Daubigny, and Pissarro being three among the many

Coin de jardin avec papillons became part of the Van Gogh family collection after the artist's death, cared for by his sister-in-law, Theo's  wife Jo Bongor and then was owned by journalist Joseph Reinach,  steadfast defender of Alfred Dreyfus.

1. Vincent Van Gogh - Coin de jardin avec papillons (A corner of the garden with butterflies), 1887, private collection, courtesy of Christies Ltd which will offer the work for sale on November 11 in New York City.
2. Julian Schnabel -  Rose Painting - Near Van Gogh's Grave XVII, 2007, Julian Schnabel Studio, courtesy of Musee d'Orsay.

27 September 2018

Phrasikleia: An Unmarried Woman

"I would not touch the sky with both hands."
    - Sappho, as translated from the Greek by Anne Carson in If Not, Winter: Fragment of Sappho, New York: Alfred A, Knopf: 2002.

"Kore I must be called
evermore; instead of marriage,
by the gods this 
name became my fate." 
  - inscription on the base of the stature of Phrasikleia

She gazes at us straight on, neither coy nor shy.  This is not the studied indirection we are accustomed to in statues from  ancient Greece, the figures often seeming to gaze inward or at a world they alone can see.

Her bearing is regal, displaying her robe striped with meanders on a field of rosettes, indicators of her family's high status.  Because the base  she once stood on was found in a church nearby we know that her name was Phrasikleia, that she was created by the sculptor Aristion of Paros ("Aristion of Paros made me") between 550-540 BCE, and that she died a young unmarred woman.  Even well-born women led constricted lives, not welcome in the public sphere, they were confined to child-bearing and wool-spinning.  They did eat better food than slaves, though.

On May 18, 1972, in a field at Merenta in Attica, a kore (a young maiden, an unmarried woman) was unearthed from a shallow grave where she had been buried since the 6th century BCE.  Next to her was her brother, a kouros.  The most famous excavation of kourais was made on  the Acropolis at Athens in the 1880s.  Kourais had one foot in the world and the other pointed toward the  gods.  Originally created as votive offerings to goddesses in worship and supplication, the kourais gradually developed an aura of what we now call conspicuous consumption, their elaborate robes attesting to the status of their families.

The pink caste to the figure of Phrasikleia in the photograph is not due to the red backdrop but rather is attributed to the red polychrome with which the figure was originally painted. It was the classicist Vincenz Brinkmann and his wife art historian/archaeologist Ukruke Koch-Brinkmann who worked to reconstruct the original colors used in Greek and Roman sculptures  that has helped  to alter our perception of an antique world pervaded by whiteness, in more ways than one.   Change can be jarring, as witness the comment of another art historian, Fabio Barry, who complained that a full-color recreation of a statue of Emperor Augustus in the Vatican Museum looked like nothing so much as "a cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi."  While Phrasikleia's colors have been bleached by time her gaze retains its dazzling directness.

Phrasikleia Kore - c.550-540 BCE, photograph courtesy of National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

20 September 2018

Paradise for a Dime

"You, wild foam.
 You, good-for-nothing snail, you who don't love me."
  - excerpt from "Still?" by Wassily Kandinsky, translated by Elizabeth R. Napier from Sounds, New Haven, Yale University Press: 1981.

What do we have here in Gustave de Smet's painting The Inn?  Superficially, an ordinary scene of evening conviviality: a quartet of men playing cards, a barmaid standing by with a round of drinks, and two men playing darts.   But the spaces between these characters have gone missing, leading to an overall sense of claustrophobia, intensified by the proportions of the canvas, imparting  a sinister potential to the dart-throwers.  Surely they aim too close for the the comfort of their fellows, a suggestion of  misgivings about where modernity was taking the world.  By the time De Smet painted The Inn in 1924, he had begun incorporating elements of Cubism into the faces of his characters, their stylized flatness mask-like. Still we search them for hints of emotion.   The brilliant colors used by the Fauves ("wild beasts" so-called, by their critics) took on darker hues in the Expressionist paintings of the 1920s.  

Like three horsemen of the Apocalypse, Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche trampled the values that had been pillars underpinning European civilization to a heap of rubble at the turn of the last century.  Modern times always seems unprecedented to those living through them. For some though, the disarray offered a springboard to the new.  Expressionism in art, in music, and in literature, was heightened sensitivity to the speed and uncertainty of life.  Are we really moving forward or  just  running amok, artists wondered.  

Paradise is yours for a dime." So wrote Ivan Goll (1891-1950), a bilingual French-German poet best remembered today for the contretemps about his work being plagiarized by his close friend Paul Celan.   Goll was also the librettist for Kurt Weill's 1927 opera Royal Palace.  Like other, better known expressionist poets as Gottfried Benn, Else Lasker-Schuler, and Georg Trakl, Goll's poems were highly visual in their effects.  Even the painter Wassily Kandinksy wrote poetry ("Still?").  If the Americans had their "Jazz Age" fizz and the French had their "Annees Folles" (Crazy Years), there were some who thought otherwise: the Expressionists were wont to look on the dark side

Gustave de Smet (1877-1943) was a Belgian painter who was exposed to art-making in the studio of his father Jules, a set director.  During World War I, de Smet fled to Belgium, among the first of many moves in his peripatetic career.  Social scenes, such as fairs and playgrounds, were his favorite theme.

Gustave de Smet - De Herberg (The Inn) 1924, De Bode Collection, Ghent,  Belgium.

14 September 2018

Irma Stern's Late Summer Dahlias

When they appear in August, dahlias are like many-petaled suns: large, round, and radiating fructiferous color.  This is no flight of fancy; for centuries Mexicans (the dahlia's native country) have eaten its boiled stalks.

Irma Stern's highly personal and spontaneous responses to her subjects are typical of the expressionist style she used so vividly for her Dahlias.  Stern averred that she never retouched a painting after it was finished but looking at Dahlias
we see a sophisticated harmony of color and movement.  The petals move like pinwheels in motion and, although there is no objective reason for the colored stripes that bend up toward the flowers, they suggest the artist's delight in paint.

Irma Stern was born in the Transvaal of South Africa, the daughter of German Jewish parents who had emigrated to the Cape Colony before her birth in 1894.  When her father was interned during the Boer War, Irma was taken to Germany by her mother Hennie to be near relatives, to return  after the war's end.

At nineteen Irma Stern once again traveled to Germany to enroll at art school in Weimar but, becoming disillusioned with the teachers, she transferred to a studio in Berlin.  Only when she met the expressionist painter Max Pechstein did she find the best teacher for her.  By the time she returned home to South Africa at age twenty-five, she had already received her first solo exhibition in Berlin (1919).

Her first exhibition in Cape Town the next year revealed how different and provincial that city was.  Instead of praise, Stern's work was ridiculed mercilessly, "Insults to human intelligence" and "Lunatic Inspirations" being just two of the denunciations that appeared in print.  There was even a police investigation of what some perceived as obscenity.

Another sign of the provincial sense of inferiority was the volte face by critics and the public that followed in the wake of Stern's successful exhibitions in England, Germany, and France where Stern was awarded the Prix d'Honneur at Bordeaux in 1927.  Two years later she was chosen to represent South Africa at London's Empire Art Exhibition.  She went on to represent South Africa at four Venice Biennials in the 1950s.  By the time Stern died in 1966 she had more than one hundred exhibitions to her credit. 

Irma Stern (1894-1966)
The Irma Stern Museum is located on the campus of the University of Cape Town.

Irma Stern, Dahlias, 1947, private collection, courtesy of Strauss & Company, Cape Town.

04 September 2018

Ruby Sky Stiler: Holding Up the Sky

"When the skies are going to fall, fall they will..."
     - excerpt from "The Revolutionary" by David Herbert Lawrence

She stares out at us  holding up the weight of ages.
At first glance, it seems odd to describe sculpture as consisting of two and three dimensions at the same time but looking at the work of Ruby Sky Stiler, it becomes clear that this is exactly her intention.  Stiler's intentions are grand and so are her models.

Th formal feeling in Stiler's figures evokes the caryatids, those stoic female figures who perform in perpetuity their hieratic functions on the Acropolis.  Stiler often makes use of classical models whose origins are obscure but usually attributed to the sculptors in early Greek states.  A fortuitous find at a yard sale, Ernest Arthur Gardener's 1905 classic  A Handbook of Ancient Greek Sculpture, and a subsequent visit to the ruins of Pompeii in Naples a few years, led to Bust of  a Woman,  confronting us with familiar forms and distant meanings.  Or, as Stiler titled her 2017, exhibition Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, Inherited and Borrowed Types.

Her iconography also incorporates feminist imagery (the curved  arm raised as if in a dance). You can see the influence of Louise Bourgeois  in the fractured perspectives of Stiler's figures.  She often works in bas relief, the low relief sculpture often incorporated into the facades of buildings and also a strong feature of Native American pottery.

Ruby Sky Stiler was born in 1979 in Portland, Maine, studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design and Yale University.  At present she lives in Brooklyn Museum.   Stiler's work was included in the inaugural exhibition at the Wellin Museum of Art in 2012 on the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the college's founding.  Her work is on  display at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Neew York City.

Image: Ruby Sky Stiler - Bust of a Woman, 2014, glass, fiber, reinforced concrete,  Nicelle Beachine Gallery, NYC.

22 August 2018

Clarice Lispector Reimagines the World

"Be careful with Clarice.  It's not literature.  It's witchcraft." - anonymous

Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) was a writer whose work is as central to the literature of Brazil as Borges is to Argentina or Garcia Marquez to Colombia.  Now, thanks to new translations of her books and an excellent biography by Benjamin Moser, we can read Lispector in English.

Lispector's writing can be difficult to describe.  She draws on Kabbalah and mysticism, more generally, and its volatility is sometimes surreal.  Her humor is mordant and deadly serious at the same time: she can teach us lessons we may not be tough enough to learn.   Elizabeth Bishop, the austere American poet who lived for decades in Brazil, was surely an odd match when she chose to translate five of Lispector's stories into English in 1963.  Two of them  - The Hen and The Smallest Woman in the World were published in Kenyon Review in 1964.  Helene Cixous, the French philosopher, says that Lispector's keen interest in Kabbalah and mysticism made her what Kafka would have been if he had been a woman, and "if Rilke had been a Jewish Brazilian born in the Ukraine. If Rimbaud had been a mother, if he had reached the age of fifty.  If Heidegger could have ceased being German."  
Lispector often despaired but she never stopped searching for the God she believed had abandoned her.

Her first novel Near to the Wild Heart was published in 1943 when Lispector was a twenty-three year old university student; her last novel The Hour of the Star was published two months before her death in 1977.   In between there were several novels, short story collections, children's books, and journalism written from locations in Italy, Switzerland, England, and the United States.  Both her sons were born abroad.

To be born in a shtetl in the Ukraine might not seem an auspicious beginning for a writer but the great storyteller Isaac Babel had been born in a nearby village a generation earlier and, by the time Lispector came into the world he was following the Bolshevik army around chronicling its every horrid move.  Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector was the youngest of three daughters.  Mania Lispecctor, her mother, was raped  during the pogroms that raged unchecked in the aftermath  of the Russian Revolution of 1917.  In fear for their lives the family fled, first overland to Romania and then by sea to Brazil where Lispector's mother already had relatives living.  Her health broken, Mania was paralyzed by her injuries, dying when she was only forty-two and daughter Clarice was nine.

Changing her name from Chaya to Clarice, Lispector grew up in Recife, the capital of the northeastern province of Pernambuco.   You can taste the flavor of this hard, dry region in the poems of  the great Joao Cabral de Melo Neto.  Born in the same year as Lispector, Cabral de Melo Neto  became a diplomat, whereas Lispector married one.  At twenty-three, she became a naturalized citizen of Brazil, married Maury Valente, and published her first novel Near to the Wild Heart to immediate acclaim.

As the wife of a diplomat, Lispector watched the retreat of Hitler's armies from Italy in 1944 while  tending wounded Brazilian troupes in Naples, and reading Katherine Mansfield's stories (in Italian) in her spare time. Other postings to Bern, Switzerland in 1946 and England in 1949 were always interspersed with trips home to Brazil.  The exception was seven years spent living in Washington, D.C. from 1952 to 1959.

With such a history, death is often a presence in Lispector's stories and she imagined her own death in many of them, as in this excerpt from An Apprenticeship (1969):  "She had never read dying before - what an opening she had before her."   Nevertheless Lispector warned readers not to  mistake her work  as mere autobiography.  They were, she explained, "true but invented."

According to those who knew her,  The Hour of the Star is the truest expression of Lispector's  personality.  Its protagonist Macabea, is named for a hero of early Jewish history.  Born in Alagoas  where Lispector's family had lived, the climate  is so  harsh and dry that the the local patron saint is Our Lady of the Good Death.  Macabea shares her creator's fascination with the void: "Was she a saint?  So it seems.  She didn't know that she was meditating because she didn't know what the word meant. It seems to me that her life was one of contemplation of nothing."  Macabea is an orphan who leaves home to look for work in the big city, as un-self conscious as she is unschooled.

When the story begins,  Macabea  is working as a typist in Rio, so poor that she makes less than the minimum wage.  She makes mistakes at work every day because she is shriveling from hunger yet she takes pleasure in her job and she enjoys Coca-Cola.  When she acquires a boyfriend, he is a ne'er-do-well who drops her for a more affluent girl. Gloria deigns to offer Macabea advice, sending her  to a psychic who assures Macabea that her life will be changed forever by this visit.   Believing the fortune teller means that Jesus has finally come to take care of her, Macabea walks out the door with a smile on her face, only to be struck by a big yellow Mercedes.

The Hour of the Star was published in October, 1977.   Lispector died on  the day before her fifty-seventh birthday in December, 1977 from an untreatable ovarian cancer.  She was never informed of her diagnosis when she was admitted to the hospital in Rio.
About the artist:  Lygia Clark (1920-1988) was an artist from Belo Horizonte in northern Brazil 
who studied  in Rio de Janeiro  with the ecologically-minded landscape architect Roberto Burle Marz (1909-1994).  Like other South American artists, she was influenced by the Russian Constructivists  who fled Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. Her desire to erase the demarcation between two and three dimensional works gradually drew her from painting to sculpture.   During the 1960s she took part in the Tropicalia movement of theater, art, and music, that included Caetano Veloso,  Gilberto Gul, Tom Ze, and Gal Costa.  Whether in combining geometry and organic forms or healing and abstraction, Clark was always searching for new combinations in her work.

For further reading:
1. Why This World: a Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser, New York, Oxford University Press: 2009.
2. Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispecotr, translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser, New York, New Directions: 2011.
3. Education By Stone by Joao Cabral de Melo Neto, translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith, Brooklyn, Archipelago Books: 2005.

And more about Clarice Lispector in translation from Three Percent.

1. Lygia  Clark - Bicho (Critter) or Maquino (Machine), 1962, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
2. Lygia Clark - Superficie Modulada, 1956, Associacao Cultural, Rio de Janeiro.

01 August 2018

Carsten Rene Nielsen: Danish Modern

After all the talking in the audience dies down, one can begin to make out some whispering voices from behind the screen.    Then a couple of footsteps can be heard, something that is dropped on the floor, a door  that slams shut.  For a while there is silence, then the whispering voices can be heard again, and like this it keeps alternating between the silence and the sound of voices.  When on the way home I complain how there wasn't a movie, I'm informed I lack imagination.  "It isn't people when they are fictitious, who have my interest," I try to explain, but of course in vain.  The one we talk to, when we talk to ourselves, always gets the last word.
  - "Movie Theater" by Carsten Rene Nielsen

At the back of the store, where dusty porcelain was piled from floor to ceiling, I found a plate so deep that one day in my kitchen by accident I dropped  an entire cauliflower into it, and I didn't  find it again until days later,, as I, crawling on all fours on the bottom of the plate, reached the edge, where in a radiance  and as far as the eye could see, hung thin, white curtains calmly waving back and forth, as if it were the room itself that was teetering from side to side.
  - "Plate" by Carsten Rene Nielsen

Carsten Rene Nielsen's poems take flight from his neighborhood in Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark, located on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula.  In Nielsen's giddy vision Aarhus is a place where comedic errors lie in wait, where questions go without answers, and stairways and alleys lead anywhere but to the expected terminals.   Nielsen's prose poems take everyday urban places,  florists,  department store fitting rooms, sidewalks, and objects we take for granted such as garbage cans, shoelaces, shirts, and the daily mail and get them up and involved with humans in surprising ways.   The dish may not run away with the spoon, as in the nursery rhyme, but it may entrap an unwary shopper.  A little bit of fear but more magic is created.  Modern, in the sense of being stripped of decoration, surreal in defying the conventional laws of physics, Nielsen's world becomes a recognizable place by the end of Household Inspections

Vilhelm Hammershoi's painted world also often focuses on domestic settings.  An early example,  A Baker's Shop, is surely an edited version of  a patisserie, its lines and neutral colors going against our expectations of plenitude.  By implication the baker is an acolyte tending a floury altar to the staff of life.  By contrast, during the same year Gauguin was painting bright blue trees at Arles and Van Gigh was working on two versions of his starry nights. 

House Inspections by Carsten Rene Nielsen, translated from the Danish by David Keplinger, Rochester NY, BOA Editions: 2011.

Vilhelm Hammershoi -  A Baker's Shop, 1888, Copenhagen.

28 July 2018

Hammershoi's Many Shades of White

They've started a discussion:
What is it to be Danish?
I must admit the question
Has almost turned me Spanish.
How could I ever answer this,
What is it to be Danish?

  - excerpt from "Being Danish" by Kaj Munck (1898-1944) from A Second Book of Danish Verse, translated by Charles Wharton Stork, Freeport, NY, Books for Libraries Press: 1968.

The cliche of the melancholy Danish temperament hovers over the enigma that is the art of Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916);  his work has been compared to Shakespeare's Hamlet or a setting for an Ingmar Bergman movie.  And yet it stands out in company with other art of  Danish Golden Age (approximately 1830-1870), work that can be as bright and boundless as the preternaturally blue summer nights of the north.  Hammershoi stood apart from other artists of his day;  he chose to paint portraits only of people he knew and his palette was one of tones rather than colors.

Was his art cold and repressed or tranquil and intimate?  I incline to the latter interpretation but understand the impulse to try to wrest from these paintings stories, whether made-up or drawn from the artist's own life,  that justify our strong responses.  Surely, there must be much ado about something.

In Dust Motes Dancing In Sunbeams), painted in 1900, the artist offered a bravura demonstration of visual sensation by subtracting all the furnishings from a wood-paneled room with a door leading to an interior courtyard.  Even the round knob on the door is unnece In Dust Motes Dancing In Sunbeams), painted in 1900, t ssary to his aims.  But oh, those shades of white, mixed with bits of color, described by a friend who saw the artist's palette as resembling "oyster shells." 

Photographs, on the other hand, provide evidence of the accouterments of everyday life in the Hammershoi home:  paintings hang on the walls, curtains flutter at the windows, and china is laid out on the table.  The Hammershois possessed some aesthetically pleasing furniture, a white Hepplewhite chair gracing several paintings.

Ida Ilsted wrote to a friends that Hammershoi "had always wanted to live" in the apartment at 30 Strandgade after the couple moved there in 1898.  A large apartment dating to the 17th century that connected two buildings in the old Christianhavn section of Copenhagen, 30 Strandgade comprised a series od connecting rooms that had the air of a gallery intended for art or as art itself in Hammershoi's pairings.  Hammershoi himself wrote in a letter "Personally I am fond of the old, of old houses, old furniture, of that quite special mood that these things possess."  No surprise then that Hammershoi was attracted to archaic Greek sculpture that he painted in the museums of Paris and Rome that the couple saw on their honeymoon tour.

Hammershoi was fortunate in being supported by wealthy patrons who eagerly snatched up his domestic interiors and his scenes of old Christianhavn.  Carl Jacobsen was a brewer whose family business underwrote the establishment of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek to house the family collections, and tobacco manufacturer Heinrich Hirschsprung donated his collection to the state which built it a museum in Copenhagen finished in 1911.  Ironically perhaps, Hammershoi, a smoker, died of throat cancer five years later.

I wish I could remember
whether I've done anything
the letter you received
was full of hidden meanings
the burning bush
did not burn me
this morning I got up too late

I wrote the letter
and never did send it
I lay at the stake
but never was burned
you sit in your chair
and nothing has happened

I wish I could remember
whether I've done anything

 - "Father - Son" from Light by Inger Christensen from Light (1962), translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied, New York, New Directions: 2011

1. Vilhelm Hammershoi -  Interior, Strandgade 25, 1914,  85 x 70.5 cm, Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen.
2. Vilhlelm Hammershoi - Dust Moats Dancing in The Sunbeams, 1900, 23.2. Ordruppgaard, Copenhagen.
3. Vilhelm Hammershoi -  Interior, Strandgade 30, March 1904, 55.5x 460.4 cm, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

17 July 2018

The Woman on the Seawall

Hours ebb.  The horizon
sags into sea.  Not much left of the day:
towels that checkered the beach

folded away.  No children
tumbling from castes like pawns.  Last
walkers leave: a man and his mutts,

the woman who clutched
her shoes to her chest for hours -
all chased away by the night tide exhaling

 - excerpted from "Night Tide at Ostend" by Laure-Anne Bosselaar, from Small Gods of Grief, Rochester, BOA Editions, Ltd.: 2001

This is a strange night world where seabirds fly and the docks and beaches are so many stripes illuminated by a mysterious source, backlit like a Hollywood movie yet painted a century and more ago by Leon Spilliaert of Ostend (Ostende in French, Oostende in Flemish), an important distinction in his native West Flanders.

Similarly poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar paints in words a visual equivalent to Spilliaert's world.  For both, the night and the sea become seemingly fathomless and static, unlike the usual characteristics  of night and sea.  Both Bosselaar and Spilliaert are true Oostendenaars, fluent in both Flemish and French, their imaginary worlds are split at the root, as Luc Sante described it in The Factory of Facts, "Belgian art, the id of the nation, manages to be extravagant and tight-lipped at once..."

In art the beach at Ostend is as familiar to Belgians as the beaches of Normandy are to lovers of French Impressionist painting and for the same reason: during the late 19th century swimming and sun-bathing became popular pastimes for a growing middle class with newly acquired leisure. 

Ideas, applied indiscriminately as they almost always eventually are, prompt a reaction.  As the German philosopher  Hegel put it: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Well, maybe the first two but in art synthesis is no sure thing.  At the end of the 19th century European arts were marked by a fascination with irrationality in response to philosophical positivism with its claims to explain every phenomenon by scientific and rational means.

Symbolism was a literary movement first: the poet Jean MorĂ©as published what became its manifesto Le Symbolisme in Le Figaro in 1886.  Symbolism's attraction for visual artists was immediate, followed closely by the critics.  In Le symbolisme en peinture and other books, Albert Aurier defined symbolist painting as one that would "clothe the idea of ​​a sensitive form" in suggestion and mystery.  It would be subjective, it would have its own recognizable language of forms, and it would have decorative elements.   Although Aurier was only twenty-seven when he died (from typhoid fever) he had not only made a reputation as an astute critic but had assembled a considerable personal  art collection.  His Van Goghs were acquired after his death by another astute collector, Helene Kroller-Muller for what eventually became the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterloo, Netherlands

In Brussels and in Paris, Leon Spilliaert, painter,  frequented literary circles. He particularly admired the French-speaking Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren. Verhaeren was so highly regarded that he was considered for the Nobel Literature Prize but considered a long shot after his countryman Maurce Maeterlinck won the prize in 1911.  Although it is difficult to pin his poetry in modern terms, Verhaeren was close to the art of  Fernand Khnopff and the expressionist James Ensor, two Belgian painters whose works he analyzed.

Spilliaert was a night walker; he came by his deep feeling for the quiet atmosphere that attends theouble to hear it. restless ocean for those who take the tr

The Belgian poet Laure Anne Bosselaar grew up in Flanders,in Bruges and Antwerp; her native tongue is Flemish.  She worked for radio and television stations in Belgium and in Luxembourg before moving to the United States in 1987.   She has taught French poetry and published a collection of her own French poems, Artemis.  Widow of a fellow poet, editor, and translator Kurt Brown,  Bosselaar currently lives in Santa Barbara, CA.

For additional reading:
The Factory of Facts by Luc Sante, New York, Random House: 1998.

Leon Spilliaert (1881-1946) - La femme sur la digue (The Woman on the Sea Wall), 1907, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.

11 July 2018

Museum Of Man

At the Museum of Modern Art you can sit in the lobby
on the foam-rubber couch; you can rest and smoke,
and view whatever the revolving doors express.
You don't have to go into the galleries at all.

In this arena the exhibits are free and have all
the surprises of art - besides something extra:
sensory restlessness, the play of alternation,
expectation in an incessant spray

thrown from heads, hands, the tendons of ankles.
The shifts and strollings of feet
engender compositions on the shining tiles,
and glide together and pose gambits,

gestures of design, that scatter, rearrange,
trickle into lines, and turn clicking through a wicket
into rooms where caged colors blotch the walls.
You don't have to go to the movies downstairs

to sit on red plush in the snow and fog
of old fashioned silence.  You can see the contemporary
Garbos and Chaplins go by right here.
And there's a mesmeric experimental film

constantly reflected on the flat side of the wide
steel plate pillar opposite the crenellated window
Now objective taxis surging west,on Fifty-third,
liquefy in slippery yellows - dusky crimsons,

pearly mauve - an accelerated sunset - a roiled
surf,or cloud curls undulating - their tubular ribbons
elongations of the coils of light itself
(engine of color) and motion (motor of form).
    -  "At the Museum of Modern Art" by May Swenson from To Mix With Time, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons: 1963.

If everyone who works in the art world shares one belief, it is that nothing is more important than art itself.   Some really believe it, some merely pay lip service, but a correlative belief is that the social elements of the art world are irrelevant.  Never mind that Jean Stafford's famous short story "Children Are Bored on Sunday" which appeared in the New Yorker in 1948 is about  the "children," young single adults named Emma and Alfred.   Emma is at the Metropolitan Museum on a mission of self-improvement.  Emma grew up where children played hide-and-seek behind lilac bushes and now, having moved to New York, she realizes that urbanites like Alfred have an advantage "because they had grown up in apartments, where there was nothing else to do but educate themselves."   This  story of girl meets boy did not go well and now Alfred, the witness to her previous embarrassment, turns up and, what is more annoying, he is blocking her view of the very Botticelli painting she was hoping to study.

Stafford, perhaps sooner than most, intuited that contemporary art has become a substitute for religion. One possible explanation for the popularity of conceptual art and one made plausible by historical precedent: western art of the medieval period was a tool for teaching used by the Church.  Another theory that art has become mass entertainment as it has become monetized - and we are talking here about vast sums of money that bear no relation to the aesthetic or social value of the art work itself - is of more recent vintage.   Money, power, beauty - how to tease apart these sticky threads?

Poet May Swenson uses the language of aesthetic description applied to the exhibitions and events the Museum of Modern Art is known for to suggest that people watching is not only an event that brings visitors to the museum but can be viewed as an exhibition itself.   Those "strolling feet" making "gestures of design" have all the frisson of art plus something extra, a sense of performance with all its human contingencies.

Humor helps, too; the French certainly seem to think so.  Looking at  Francois Boisrond's Museum of Man we cannot see the face of the sketcher although we assume he is looking at the artworks assembled in the cases before him but the artist leaves us in no doubt that the creatures are looking at him, with what thoughts we are invited to imagine.   This notion is made explicit in David Prudhomme's delightful book Cruising the Louvre.   On one page we see a crowd surrounding the Mona Lisa as seen from the viewpoint of La Joconde herself.  In another panel, a group of museum visitors struggles to stay upright on a bench before Delacroix's Raft of the Medusa, making them appear physically  in synch with the struggling sailors in the painting.  Prudhomme's book is full of amusing and bemusing moments as museum-goers attempt to position themselves in relation to the art works.  As Prudhomme observes, "We try to hold onto what cannot belong to us" by which I take him to mean experiences. 

Note on the artist: Francois Boisrond was born in 1959 in the western suburbs of Paris and was a student at the National School of Decorative Arts in Paris when he made Musee de l'Homme in 1980.  His mother Annette Wademant (1928-2017) was born in Brussels, Belgium and became the screenwriter of such well known films as The Earrings of Madame de (1953) and Lola Montez (1955).  His father was the Frenchman Michel Boisrond (1921-2002) whose debut film as a director was Naughty Girl (1955), a musical starring the young Brigitte Bardot.

For additional reading:
Cruising Through the Louvre by David Prodhomme, translated from the French by Joe Johnson, Paris, Louvre Editions: 2016.

Francois Boisrond - Musee de l'Homme (Museum of Man), 1980, Pompidou Center, Paris.

04 July 2018

The Rivals: Diego Rivera

A festive scene in Oaxaca is always an occasion for music and dance. Diego Rivera's chromatic colors are so vivid and saturated that they seem to emit light from the canvas.  Of course, light and color go together naturally in southern Mexico.  We  know by the way Rivera used color here to create layers of pictorial planes that he is a modern artist. We can also admire the distinctness he brings to each figure, an affectionate recognition of this gathering.  If the lavender and green decorative border reminds you of  Matisse, it is curious to note that Diego Rivera was only the second artist to be given a solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art - the first was Henri Matisse.

It sounds like the pitch for a novel or a screen play.  She is the daughter of an influential United States senator and the wife of one of the nation's richest and most powerful businessman.  He is a young Mexican artist and one of the leading artists of his generation and, by the way, an outspoken member of the Communist party who has visited Moscow on a number of occasions.  His wife, also an artist, paints unconventional self-portraits that combine elements of Mexican folk art and surrealism.

She was Abby Aldrich, a Quaker from Rhode Island and the dynamo behind the founding of New York's Museum of Modern Art and her husband was John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (think: Standard Oil).
He was Diego Rivera, founder of a union of artists and the painter of murals in Mexico City that brought revolutionary ideas to the people, ideas as strikingly modern as his modernist aesthetics.  His wife was Frida Kahlo, a painter who drew on the popular culture in her work: she met Rivera in 1927 when she joined the Communist Party.

Rockefeller had  seen Rivera's work when she traveled to Mexico and, liking what she saw, she decided to commission a painting from him; the result was The Rivals.  Rivera painted The Rivals on board ship as he and Frida were on their way to New York to meet the Rockefellers.  They were  also looking forward to Rivera's New York debut, a solo exhibition at the recently opened Museum of Modern Art.   Rivera was just the artist that Rockefeller and museum director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. hoped the museum would introduce to the nation and the world, a modernist a s well as one whose work embodied the Americas.

When Rivera and Kahlo visited the Rockefeller home on Park Avenue, Abby's son David was impressed: "He was a very imposing and charismatic figure.."  As for Abby Rockefeller, she was so pleased with The Rivals that she gave it as her wedding gift to her son David when he married Peggy McGrath in 1940.   The young couple gave the painting a prominent place in the living room of their summer home in Maine, where it remained until David's death in 2017.   The Rivals  has rarely been seen by the public since then; the last occasion was a Rivera exhibition at MoMA in 2012.

As for the Rivera - Rockefeller connection, what most people remember is how Abby Rockefeller's next commission, a mural for her husband's own major project, the construction of Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, went very wrong.  Originally intended as an uplifting fresco highlighting cooperation and scientific advancement ...into a more of a  political statement by the artist, including a portrait of Vladimir Lenin and evidences of the evils of unchecked capitalism.  When the artist and the millionaire could reach no compromise, the mural was destroyed yet Rockefeller bore no personal animus toward Rivera.  "The mural was quite brilliantly executed but not appropriate."  (Memoirs by David Rockefeller, 2002)

Diego Rivera - The Rivals, 1931, David & Peggy Rockefeller Collection, courtesy of Sotheby's, NYC.

28 June 2018

Charles Seliger's Small Worlds

Chew your way into a new world.
Munch leaves.  Molt.  Rest. Molt
again.  Self-reinvention is everything.
Spin many nests.  Cultivate stinging
bristles.  Don't get sentimental
about your discarded skins.  Grow
quickly.  Develop a yen for nettles.
Alternate crumpling and climbing.  Rely
on your antennae.  Sequester poisons
in your body for use at a later date.
When threatened, emit foul odors
in self-defense.  Behave cryptically
to confuse predators: change colors, spit,
or feign death.  If all else fails, taste terrible.

 -"Advice from a Caterpillar" by Amy Gerstler from Dearest Creature, New York, Penguin Books: 2009.

The word enjambment comes from the French where it means to step over or to put legs across.  In poetry, its function is similar; it means to break a phrase, a sentence, or a thought between two lines without benefit of punctuation.   This sends a mixed message, increasing the attention of the reader/auditor.  Who started the practice?  The Elizabethan poets made much of it and, like many other things poetic and historic, it seems to date back to the catchall answer that was
The caterpillar, curled in upon itself is like the painter. It seeks perfection through its solitary efforts.  Like the artist leaning over his easel at night, the caterpillar will achieve a magical transformation.  As you can see in Charles Seliger's Caterpillar with Sky, although the subject and the scope of the picture may be small, the artist's intentions are expansive, and no more sentimental than poet Amy Gerstler's imagined Lepidopteran monologue.

Charles Seliger (1926-2009) was an early abstract expressionist but, like a number of others I have mentioned in these columns, not so abstract as all that.  Although it is not obvious from reproductions, Seliger worked with small canvases, eschewing the gigantic proportions of so many of his contemporaries, the better to achieve a sense of intimacy with his subjects.

Although he did not complete high school or attend art school, his interests encompassed biology, natural history, and physics.  "My work, even when most abstract, reflects the natural world," Seliger wrote. His technique attracted the attention of New York artists in the 1940s; his paintings were shown at Peggy Guggenheim's famed "Art of This Century" gallery when he was just nineteen. Nevertheless, he worked at ordinary jobs during the day throughout his adult life.

For further reading: a tribute to Charles Seliger by Addison Parks at Artdeal magazine.

Charles Seliger - Caterpillar with Sky, 1949, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

23 June 2018

Marcia Marcus & Frieze: A Renaissance Art

The end of World War II unleashed energies pent up by years of Depression and war, and not just marriages, babies, home buying,college education, and even commercial aviation on a large scale.   That was all expected but also and  suddenly New York became the center of the art world; artists from all over converged on the city where everything was fresh, exciting, and controversial.  The contrast with the pre-war years was stark: before WWII American galleries rarely displayed American artists.  Abstract Expressionism influenced even the figurative painters of the period. In retrospect, some of the most interesting work being done melded aspects of both: flattened forms and  an ambiguous relationship with pattern and decoration.

Frieze: The Porch (1964) gets it title from Marcus' encounter with Byzantine art and Renaissance frescos in Florence when she studied there in 1961.  Florentine Landscape (1961)  features a reclining semi-nude Red Grooms in the foreground, a male odalisque.  We take this to be an Italian locale thanks to the woman in a toga standing in the background,  more clearly grounded in the landscape than Grooms who appears as convincing as the nude in Edouard Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe.  (Florentine Landscape is now in the collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art, State University of New York at Purchase.)

Looked at from left to right -
Jill Johnston (1929-2010), wearing a red bowler hat and holding an equally dapper cane, was born in England to an American mother and a British father; she grew up on Long Island. 
Having earned an MFA, Johnston became dance critic for The Village Voice in the 1960s.  Her column gradually expanded into a diary of her adventures in the New York art world.

In 1971 Johnston took part in a panel discussion at Town Hall  "Battle of the Sexes" that, in retrospect, was bound for notoriety.  Johnston was by then an announced lesbian, her fellow panelists included Australian author Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch) who had only just been dubbed "saucy feminist that men love" by the mainstream American press,  and Norman Mailer who was - well - Norman Mailer.  Johnston became an early contributor to MS. magazine after it was founded in 1972 and  her best known writing is contained in the book Lesbian Nation, published in 1973.  Johnston published a number of other books and was one of the more intriguing practitioners of the New Journalism but her boldness was too much for most of her male colleagues and even editors at  The Village Voice expressed qualms about her activism and her outspokenness. 

Barbara Forst studied at the Art Students League in New York City where she would spend most of her adult life teaching theater and producing plays off-Broadway.  She died in Washington, D.C. in 1998.

Marcia Marcus (b. 1928, New York, NY) looking over her shoulder at the viewer and wearing  a patterned cape that suggests a familiarity with Gustav Klimt's portraits, also studied at the Art Students League and also at Cooper Union where her contemporaries included Alex Katz and Lois Dodd,  also figurative painters during the high tide of Abstract Expressionism.  Their work shared similarities, flattening forms, strongly articulated figures and attention to pattern.  All these characteristics are represented in Frieze: The Porch painted by Marcus in 1964, three years after her stay in Florence where she immersed herself  Byzantine art and Renaissance fresco painting.

At the far right  is a grisaille image (in black and white) that Marcus painted from a photograph of  herself as a child and her father.

Although Marcia Marcus no longer paints, as Frieze: The Porch demonstrates, she  deserves the attention that has been lavished on her close contemporaries and fellow downtown art luminaries: Allen Kaprow,  with whom she collaborated on Happenings in the late 1950s, Red Grooms and Bob Thompson whose Delancey Street museum featured her self-portraits (they received highly favorable reviews).  Also, for a quarter of a century from the early 1950s until the late 1970s, Marcus spent her summers painting in a shack on the dunes near Provincetown. MA,  another intensely art-centric locale.  Marcus can claim an impressive list of exhibitions at such galleries as Pace, yet her name and her paintings have become invisible.

Marcia Marcus - Frieze: The Porch, 1964, Eric Firestone Gallery, NYC.

12 June 2018

Odilon Redon & The Renaissance Portrait

She could be descended from a Renaissance woman, or at least the portrait of one.  Odilon Redon's Madame Arthur Fontaine (Marie Escudier) was made in 1903 but its subject is presented with all the signifiers of an unusual Renaissance painting that Redon and his contemporaries had seen and studied at the Louvre. Here is an obviously well-born woman, beautiful and virtuous as well can see by her modish dress and elegant profile as she bens studiously over he needlework.  The left-facing profile and the arabesque-like arrangement of flowers as a framing device are part of a fascinating story told by David Alan Brown of the National Gallery of Art in the book Virtue and Beauty. Mme Fontaine  was the wife of a wealthy French industrialist and a patron of the arts whos circle included such forward-thinkers as the writer Andre Gide, composer Claude Debussy and several painters including Redon.

Antonio Pisanello's Ginevra d'Este had no precedent in the style of 15th century Florence.  Rather than adorn his subject with precious jewels to suggest the wealth of her family he chose to portray Ginevra virtues otherwise: situating her in a virginal garden (hortus conclusus)  where he surrounded her with shimmering spring leaves, perfumed carnation flowers and fluttering butterflies (symbols of the human spirit).

We may wonder whether Redon was partaking of a no-classical moment in French art, as evidenced by contemporary paintings by Cezanne and particularly La belle Angele by Paul Gauguin (1889, Musee d'Orsay).  edon makes an appearance in a painting by his friend Maurice Denis, member of the once secret brotherhood of artists known as the Nabis (Prophets, in Hebrew).  Although Gauguin was not included in the picture himself, it is a painting he owned by Cezanne (Fruit Bowl, Glass and Apples) on the easel that the other artists are gathered around.  Redon stand a little separately from the group at their left,  in the painting as in life.

Redon's early graphic works in black and white are a virtual dictionary of bad dreams, and now as familiar from reproductions as the philosophical oddities of Rene Magritte.

What makes Redon's pastels outstanding is his sure feather-light touch with the chalks themselves.  The nameless blue flowers, interspersed with tiny starbursts of white and yellow seem to hang weightlessly in the air, with no other reason than to frame Mme. Fontaine's person as the white lace collar frames her face on her yellow dress.  For Redon nothing in his work was ever merely decorative, it was part of a visual language to translate the mysteries inherent in the natural world for our eyes.  Flowers, opined the artist, are "admirable prodigies of light" and, perhaps like Monet, Redon, rendered sensations in response to the contemplation of visible objects through invisible light.

For further reading:
Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de' Benci: Renaissance Portraits of Women by David Alan Brown, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press: 2001.

1. Odilon Redon - Madame Arthur Fontaine (Marie Escudier), 1903, pastel on paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
2. Pisanello - Ginevra d'Este,  c.1435-49, tempera on wood, Louvre Museum, Paris.

28 May 2018

Takahashi Rikio: Spring Rounds

Early Spring is a remarkable work on its face, a combination of realistic and abstract elements  for the eye to feast on and the imagination to wonder at.  A dash of a primary color that may be a feather and a large thumb-print like black stroke leading off the edge of the paper are the strong marks in a composition of delicate pinks, lavenders, yellows, and amber.
Takahashi Rikio (1917-1991) was admired by his peers for his use of these delicate hues associated with the Kyoto practitioners of sosaku hanga or 'creative prints.'  Takahashi maintained a consistent luminosity, difficult to achieve in woodblock prints, that has been likened to yayoi, the aspect of calm and elegance of the Japanese spirit.  He achieved this difficult feat by printing in extremely thin layers while, at the same time, adding irregular blocks of color that look as though they had been applied with a paint brush. 

When a wood block is printed on, the texture of the wood grain will appear as if it had been sprayed on the block's surface.  This evanescent  appearance becomes the background for cuts made by a knife or burin.  When two or three colors are overlapped in this manner the grain takes on the look of a layer of gauze.

Takahashi began working with abstract forms but the intensity of his concentration always suggested possible layers of meaning.   Just so, the longer we look at his images the more we convince ourselves of the inevitability of incident.

Takahashi was born in Tokyo: his father was an artist and by the age of seventeen the young man was the assistant manager of the father's photographic studio.  In 1944 he was conscripted into the Japanese Navy as a war photographer.  After spending two years, 1962-63 at the California Institute of Art, Takahashi's work became known in the West.  His own words are worth remembering  as we admire Early Spring.  "It is impossible to speak about my work while looking at a book or a photographic reproduction of it.  It is like scratching an itch while wearing an overcoat. Flat reproductions are different from the actual work."

Takahashi Rikio - Early Spring, 1963, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.