13 December 2018

From "My Five Years in the Country": Joan Mitchell

La grande vallee XIV, painted in 1983, comes closer than any other painting by Joan Mitchell to showing an affinity with Claude Monet.  Like the Impressionist painter, who eliminated the horizon and the sky in his series of water lily paintings, Mitchell chose to orient her foliage paintings in an indeterminate space of her own making.  The longer we look at them, the harder it is to decide whether this is nature viewed close-up or viewed from a distance through half-closed eyes. Again, like Monet, she created mural-sized paintings of nature, no more or less abstracted than the his nymphees. I should add that Mitchell claimed as early influences Van Gogh and Matisse but not Monet.

An inheritance from her mother in 1962 enabled Mitchell to purchase an old estate northwest of Paris, a large stone house surrounded by two acres of gardens and trees with a view of the Seine.  The romance of the site was enhanced by other small structures on the property; Claude Monet had lived in one from 1878 to 1881 and Camille, his first wife, was buried in a little cemetery out beyond the garden.  Mitchell made a studio for herself in one building that had a lookout over the water.   "I became the sunflower, the lake, the tree," Mitchell told Judith Bernstock.

Originally Mitchell moved to France when she began a relationship with French abstract painter Jean-Paul Riopelle.  The relationship lasted from 1955 until 1979 but was far from harmonious.  Riopelle was  married and the father of two young daughters.  He was also France's pre-eminent abstract artist, something that must have chafed at Mitchell, a superior painter in every way, who found herself demoted to the status of 'artist's wife', a humiliation similar to that suffered by Lee Krasner when she was married to Jackson Pollock.  Looking at Riopelle's work today it is hard to believe his imitation abstract expressionism awed the French public.  The most charitable interpretation I can make is that the French had not yet had many opportunities to see what the Americans were doing after World War II.

Unlike many of her fellow abstract painters who denied any resemblances between their pictures and the natural world, Mitchell occasionally hinted at a connection.  It was those moments she said that drew her to the luminous landscapes of the French Impressionists.

An affectionate mood permeates Tilleul (The Linden Tree), a  considered and intimate portrait. Broad strokes of cobalt and inky black alternate with shafts of chartreuse seen through a lavender haze. Had Mitchell drunk tea made from its exquisite lime blossoms? Are Mitchell's paintings abstract landscapes or some specially lyrical abstraction?  Does it really matter to their success? I think not.

Joan Mitchell was forty-seven before she had her first solo museum exhibition at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY in 1972.  "My Five Years in the Country"  based on works she had done at her home Vetheuil, France preceded her solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum by two years even though Mitchell had lived in New York City since 1949 and participated in the landmark  "Ninth Street Show" in 1951 with Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffmann, and Jackson Pollock.

In her final years Mitchell continued to work on her large canvases, several of which are now in the Musee nationale d'art moderne at the Pompidou Center in Paris,  despite undergoing two surgeries for advanced cancer.  She died on October 30, 1992 at her home in Vetheuil at age sixty-seven.

1. Joan Mitchell - La grande vallee XIV, 1983, 2.8 m x 6 m,  Pompidou Center Paris.
2. Joan Mitchell - Tilleul (Linden Tree), 1976,  2.4 m x 1.8 m, Pompidou Center, Paris.
3. Joan Mitchell -The good-bye door, 1980,  2.8 m x 7.2 m, Pompidou Center, Paris.


Tania said...

I saw a very beautiful exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, 1994 !
I love this painter, thanks for your post.

Jane said...

Some of Mitchell's best work is in Paris. Lucky you, Tania!