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.