25 October 2018

Roger de La Fresnaye: A Cheerful Cubist

When Daniel Henry Kahnweiler decreed that great artists make art dealers great he was being disingenuous.  The German-born French art dealer not only represented Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris from his gallery in Paris, he told the public what to think about Cubism at a time when the public didn't know what to make of this art that flirted with abstraction.  In his book My Galleries and Painters, Kahnweiler underlined the continuity he found between Cubism and previous art.

"Fundamentally painting has never been a mirror of the external world, nor has it ever been similar to photography; it has been a creation of signs, which were always read correctly by contemporaries, after a certain apprenticeship , of course.  Well, the Cubists created signs that were unquestionably new, and that is what made it so difficult to read their paintings for such a long time." (translated by Helen Weaver)

Roger de la Fresnaye (1885-1925) studied at the best art schools Paris had to offer, first the Academie Julian, then  the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and finally at Academie Ranson, an outpost of the Nagis( Hebrew for Prophet) where he came under the influence of Maurice Denis,  a strong influence on the contemporary American painter Alex Katz.  Time spent in Munich where Expressionism's bright colors were the new thing gave him the palette that he would use so effectively in his paintings.  La Fresynaye's Cubism was a playful thing, nothing deadly serious about it.   Unlike his more famous confreres at the Daniel Kahnweiler Gallery, La Fresnaye was not on fire to overthrow conventional perspective as hadnde down to students have ever since the time of Leon Batiste Alberti in the 15th century.  And as for  abstraction, it interested him not at all.

One of La Fresnaye's best known paintings  The Conquest of the Air celebrates French achievements in defying gravity.  The hot air balloon launched by the Montgolfier Brothers in 1783 was greeted with wonder by the public no less than Henri Fabre's 1910 flight, the first in a sea plane offshore of Marseilles.  The French were giddy about the possibilities of human flight; they hosted the first International Aeronautic and Space Exposition in Paris in 1909.

We know the neutral colors favored by Picasso, Braque, and Gris were inspired by their infatuation with early movies.  Arne Glimcher, founder of the Pace Gallery New York City,  and Bernice Rose. curator, revealed that story in their 2010 documentary Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies.  Even though  La Fresnaye sometimes made use of subdued colors his fractured planes had a joyous aspect; in The Prestidigitator they convey magician's delight in his slight of hand.

Fragile health shadowed La Fresnaye 's life from the time he had pleurisy in 1905 and again when he was discharged from the army in 1918 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.  These recurring bouts of illness made it difficult for the artist to paint.  Perhaps that contributed to his turn to unalloyed realism in the paintings of his last years,  The joy he had found in playing with cubism was difficult to sustain after witnessing the sufferings of soldiers and the decline of his own body. He was only 40 when he died at Grasse on the French Riviera in 1925.

1. Roger de La Fresnaye -  The Prestidigitator, c.1921, Pompidou Center, Paris.
2. Roger de La Fresnaye -  The Conquest of the Air, 1913, Pompidou Center, Paris.
2. Roger de La Fresnaye - The Man Who Waits or The Architect, c.1913, Pompidou Center.

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.