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.