31 December 2019

Winter Mummery: Werner Drewes


 A seasonal performance  with roots  in folk drama and masque, this is the season for mummery.   In costume  characters give  broadly comic performances, including  competitive versifying.  Two characters vie for honors and when on is finally vanquished  a doctor administers a magic potion and all ends well.

Colorful and humorous, Winter Mummery by Werner Drewes evokes a centuries old celebration familiar to to the artist from his German childhood.  Two figures resemble friendly knights jousting, in a style a bit like that of Paul Klee.  Although painted in 1945, Winter Mummery feels contemporary in the way it mixes up picture planes in lighthearted fashion.

Werner Drewes (1899-1985) studied art in Stuttgart before joining the Weimar Bauhaus, a  school founded a century ago this year.  Nineteen nineteen was an auspicious year, the war had ended and Weimar was to be the capitol of a new German Republic. The very air was an elixir, to breath it was to inhale the scent of exciting new possibilities. For their part, members of the Bauhaus  practiced the integration of artists and craftspeople.  This continues to exert a profound  influence in the art world;  we are still living in the world the Bauhaus made.

That the people he worked and studied with are now better known than Drewes is an unfortunate  oversight.  Drewes studied with Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer at the Weimar Bauhaus. He traveled the world with his wife Margarete before finally settling in New York. There Kandinsky introduced him to Katherine Dreier,  a founder of Societe Anonyme, who arranged  an invitation to exhibit at the Albright Gallery in Buffalo.  Drewes taught at the Brooklyn Museum and became an American citizen in 1936.  Later he was an instructor at Black Mountain College, along with other Bauhaus alumni, Josef and Anni Albers.  His imaginative forms and his love of color are always a pleasure to behold.

The Werner Drewes estate is represented by the Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara.

Image: Werner Drewes - Winter Mummery, 1945, oil on canvas, Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara.

24 December 2019

Merry Christmas & Joyexu Noel, Dear Readers

" I saw three ships coming sailing in
come sailing in, come sailing in
I see three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning."

Like many Christmas carols, the origin of I Saw Three Ships is unclear.  What we do know is that it was included in the book Christmastide: Its History, Festivities, and Carols, gathered together by William Sandys in 1833.  Versions dating from the 17th century are mentioned as is the notion that the carol was composed and spread by minstrels wandering the English countryside during the Medieval times.

Lilian Westcott Hale (1881-1963) was a an accomplished and successful American artist whose work is often described as Impressionistic.  Since Hale often worked at home On Christmas Day in the Morning may be the view out the window of the Hale house in Dedham, Massachusetts.  Bare trees and snowy skies provide a background that renders the interior scene the more inviting.   The ivy trailing along the window frame and the wreath decorated with pears, apples, lemons and cinnamon sticks signal holiday warmth as does the kettle in the corner.  The realistic, even sober, rendering of the scene avoids greeting card sentimentality.

Image: Lilian Westcott Hale - On Christmas Day in the Morning, 1924, charcoal and colored pencil on paper, Richard York Gallery, NYC.

20 December 2019

Grace Hartigan: Both Abstract and Expressive



"I didn't choose painting.  It chose me." - Grace Hartigan

The Red Bowl is an exuberant gesture surrounded by fluid daubs of paint.  Are there flowers in the bowl? Hard to say for certain.  It is as though there are several different things insisting on their existence, demanding our attention.  Such colorful distortions were a hallmark of Grace Hartigan's work from the beginning. 

Fascinated by Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, Grace Hartigan (1882-2008) was twenty-six when she showed up at Willem de Kooning's Fourth Avenue flat.  De Kooning had emigrated to New York City  from Rotterdam but Hartigan had escaped from Newark, just as surely an epic a journey as far as the she was concerned.  As a child, Hartigan had been fascinated by gypsies, sensing kindred spirits in their seemingly carefree existence.

Until she became an artist, Hartigan was unsure where to focus her abundant energies.  Unable to afford college, Hartigan married at nineteen but marriage could not contain her ambitions and after giving birth to a child, she realized that motherhood would not either.  When her son Jeff was seven years old she took him to live with her parents in New Jersey and went back to New  alone.  "If you look through history at people who are pioneers, they don't have a guilt chip. They're forced to have a guilt chip, and act like they have one, but they don't have one.  ..... I think Grace is one of those people who does what she needs to do."  

Lacking formal art training, Grace devised her own curriculum; she spent the year 1952 painting her way through art history, doing freehand renditions of Rubens, Velaquez, and Goya.  To her friends and fellow painters Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell this was heresy; they thought Hartigan had lost her nerve. 

During the early 1950s Hartigan sometimes exhibited under the name George Hartigan to avoid stereotypical reactions to a woman's work.  Her combination of beauty, talent, ambition, and rambunctiousness led to high visibility (including a feature story in Life magazine) and made her a model for other young women, notably the aspiring art historian Linda Nochlin.  Unlike Nochlin, Hartigan was always hesitant to identify herself as a feminist.  And she disputed other labels applied to - second generation Ab Ex-er and forerunner of Pop Art.  One influence Hartigan was happy to credit was the poetry written by her friend Frank O'Hara, the one who showed her that elements of both "high" and "low" art were compatible.  Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic in postwar American art and Meyer Schapiro, an art historian, launched Hartigan's career in 1950 when they included her in their show "New Talent."

But Greenberg was incensed when Hartigan began to include realistic elements in her work, rebuking her for losing her way and decreeing that her wok was no longer modern(!).  Later he disparaged the idea that women could be great artists, even to her face.

Throughout a  career marked restlessness and experimentation, the one constant was Hartigan's conviction that making art is making magic.

Image: Grace Hartigan - Red Bowl, 1953, Baltimore Museum of Art.

09 December 2019

Arthur B. Carles: A Neglected Modernist



He has been called " one of the most brilliant colorists in the history of American art" by Barbara Ann Boese Wolanin.  So why do we not know more about Arthur B. Carles?  

I was immediately drawn to these two paintings, hanging among the likes of Marsden Hartley and William Baziotes to name just two, on the walls of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute.  For those of us who live within reasonable driving distance to Utica, New York this type of revelation is a common occurrence.   The museum has a stellar collection of early 20th century American modernist art, thanks to a bequest from Edward Wales Root.  Root (1884-1956), who taught art at nearby Hamilton College, was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum but when he offered his collection to them, they turned it down.  They were not interested in modern art; their loss was Utica's gain.

Paris Landscape demonstrates Carles' bold use of color - juxtaposing green and yellow, yellow and blue, blue and red - to create a luminous atmosphere.  In lesser hands the effect might have been jarring but Carles ingeniously used what he had learned from looking at Cezanne's structured blocks of color.

Carles (1882-1952) was a native of Philadelphia, a place whose Procrustean bed of an art scene he would escape as often as finances permitted.  The son of a watchmaker, he was able to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Art on a scholarship.  His teachers, William Merritt Chase and Cecilia Beaux introduced him to French Impressionism but when  he was able visit Paris in 1907 it was Post-Impressionism with its riotous colors that won him over. 

Carles took lessons from Matisse; he dismissed the man  as "bourgeois," but admired his work. The two  met again in 1931 when Matissse came to Philadelphia to paint a series of lunettes for the Alfred he met Mercedes de Cordoba, a. mezzo soprano and flamenco dancer from Spain.  The two wed in 1909 but spent little time together during their sixteen year marriage.  The couple had one child, a daughter, born in 1913; Mercedes Matter studied art in New York with Hans Hoffmann and became an abstract expressionist painter. 

Through Steichen, Carles also met Alfred Stieglitz who invited Carles to show his work at his New York Gallery 291.  Carles also showed his work participated in the notorious Armory Show in 1913.  The public had never before seen American and European modernists together under one roof; the effect was shocking and the public was thrilled to be shocked.

From 1917 to 1925 Carles taught at his alma mater but he was eventually dismissed for his refusal to follow its conservative academic curriculum.  Undeterred, Carles taught privately and never lacked for students.  For Carles, color was the bedrock of painting, a belief that had been reinforced by his wartime work supervising ship camouflage operations at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.   Derivation, painted between 1929 and 1933, suggests that losing his academic position freed him artistically. Those cubist flowers look the way they might to a bee - overwhelming beauty coming from every direction.

Carles suffered from bouts of depression and alcoholism which led to several hospitalizations during the 1930s as his health deteriorated.  In 1941 he had a fall that left him partially paralyzed and unable to paint.  Carles lived out his final years in a nursing home where he died in 1952.

Images:
1. Arthur B. Carles - Rooftops I, 1921, oil on wood panel, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica
2. Arthur B. Carles - Derivation, 1929-1933, oil on canvas, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica

17 November 2019

Peasant Burning Weeds: A New Van Gogh


"I don't think I shall be able to do justice to the countryside because words fail me(.)... Level planes or strips, varied in color, that grow narrower & narrower as they approach the horizon.  Accentuated here or there by a turf hut or small farmhouse or a few stunted beeches, poplars, oaks - peat stacked up everywhere and barges constantly passing by with peat or bulrushes from the marshes.   Here and there, skinny cows, subtle in color, quite often sheep and pigs.
-  from a letter of Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, circa 3 October 1883

A man bends to the humble task of burning weeds in a field against an unlovely landscape. We see none of his features, we do not know his age although his stance suggests he is equal to his task.  If he looks isolated that may be  because the artist provides no context for him -  no people, no animals, no buildings are in sight. Just the flatness of the Dutch countryside that van Gogh had known had grown up  with.

Van Gogh was proud of this painting, feeling that he had achieved the tone he had been trying for with his subject, conveying with a smoky palette the vastness of the plain as dusk gathers, with a small fire providing the only point of light.  The time was the autumn of 1883 when van Gogh spent three months in the northeastern Dutch province of Drenthe. Historically, Drenthe has been a poor province; it even looks poor with few rivers and mile upon mile of flat heath-lands. During this period of loneliness Vincent tried, not for the first time, to persuade his brother Theo to give up the art trade, which he regarded as corrupt, and join with him in painting. Vincent was thirty years old but just finding  his vocation as an artist;  illness and depression had led him to take up painting just two years previously. There are not many paintings from this period, making Peasant Burning Weeds all the more remarkable.

Van Gogh thought of himself as a painter of modern life. As a counter example, he used the Goncourt  Brothers, catty chroniclers of appearances, whose fabled diaries were much talked about in Paris though not yet published.  

He wanted to be the painter of modern portraits.  "In general the figures that now & then put in an appearance on the flats are full of character, and sometimes they have an enormous charm." - from a letter of Vincent to Theo, circa 3 October 1883

Van Gogh's letters are full of interest not just to art historians but also for their revelation of the man's humanity, his hunger for friendship, a hunger that made him reach out - to the peasants he lived among in Drenthe, to other artists in Paris and London, and to his brother Theo, witness to his creative struggles. Van Gogh's inner life was rich, giving him the inspiration that he could see the eternal in the everyday.  "(I)t is difficult to know oneself - but it isn't easy to paint oneself either." 

Peasant Burning Weeds (1883) has long been in private hands and is just now coming into public view at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Quotations are taken from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, Allen Lane, Penguin Press: 1996.

Image;
Vincent van Gogh - Peasant Burning Weeds, October 1883, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam & Drents Museum, Assen.

03 November 2019

If You Live, You'll See: Recovering Nancy Hale



"Qui vivra, verra."  If you live, you'll see.  An apt epigraph for the career of American author Nancy Hale.

Nancy Hale was eleven years old when her mother painted her portrait. Immediately I first saw Nancy and the Map of Europe I was reminded of Jan Vermeer's Allegory of Painting (1666).  Both girls wear blue dresses, sit before softly tinted maps hanging on walls behind them, and both are possessed of the serious sweetness that attends the threshold of adulthood. The laurels that garland the girl's head in Vermeer's painting are echoed by the fronds of an unseen plant leaning into the upper right corner of Hale's.  The little doll wearing an identical dress also has a book in her hands; both girl and doll interrupted at their reading. It is as though the artist could foresee her daughter's future career.  Suggestively, the door at the left edge of the picture is propped open, an indication of the life to come?  We know from Nancy Hale's memoir Life in the Studio (1969) that she hated being a conscript of a model but that doesn't dim the pleasure of discovering this picture.

  Lilian Westcott Hale, the artist, has faded from the story of art, unjustly, I think and so, after her, has her daughter, the writer Nancy Hale, with even less justice.  Now thanks to the Library of America and editor Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies) we have twenty-five Nancy Hale stories in Where the Light Falls again in print.

About her stories, Nancy Hale wrote in her memoir A New England Childhood (1958), " My pieces,,, are intended less about the real and ascertainable past than about the memory of it, and memory as a mode of thinking tends to burst spontaneously into fantasy at very turn."  Women puzzled her, Hale admitted and so we may read her stories as detective fiction of a kind.

The first story, "The Earliest Dreams" fittingly, is about a little girl lying in bed at night ("suspended in a dark tower above the world") listening to the adults downstairs "( They were all laughing in the drawing-room below.  You were wondering what they were laughing at, that made the laughter so wise, so gay, so confident and foreign.  You never knew what they laughed at when they laughed at when they laughed so long in the evenings, and now you will never know.")  Contemporary writers like Lorrie Moore are not, after all, the first to use a breathless second person voice.

In the second story, also from 1934, "The Double House, " Robert is a little boy who lives with his widowed father and his Aunt Esther in one half of a double house. (" Robert used to think, as he came home from school, how ugly the house looked, and how hopeless and sad.") It is the Depression and the family has little money. Yet Robert finds solace of a sort in the empty half- house;  his emotional equilibrium depends on his father. Shy and tentative with his schoolmates, the  boy is savagely ridiculed and even attacked when he brings a flower to science class that his father picked for him. ("School was  a sort of nightmare broken by little intervals of hope.")  One night when Father comes home late, Robert overhears his father crying.  And just like that, Robert's world collapses.

Hale wrote "Who Lived and Died Believing in 1942, the  story of a woman n a  psychiatric hospital whose inner life is erased by a harrowing series of shock treatments she used a stream of consciousness  that drew on Hale's own nervous breakdown of the year before. For this she used a stream of consciousness similar to that used by Virginia Woolf.

In prose elegant and sometimes slyly humorous, Hale tackled controversial subjects like racism, prejudice against immigrants, anti-Semitism in the early days of World War II, women as enforcers of the double standard against other women,  a woman's ambiguous and even rebellious feelings about motherhood.  "The Bubble" is remarkably frank about a woman's desire "to look nice again"  and to attract attention from men after having a baby. And this was written in 1954.  Five years later in "Flotsam" a babysitting grandmother, vain about her youthful looks ("No doubt many of these passerby mistook her for Marcus's mother."), is trailed by her obedient but literal minded grandson who insist on correcting those mistakes.  Equally zealous in a different way, a suburban woman's back yard bomb shelter becomes the emotional center of her life.

Nancy Hale (1908-1988) was born in Boston; both her mother, Lilian Westcott Hale and her father, Philip Leslie Hale (1865-1931) were artists. Like her mother before her, Nancy Hale studied at the Boston Museum School Fine Arts.  Although she soon turned to writing, Hale published a biography of the painter Mary Cassatt in 1975.  She married her first husband in 1928 and the couple moved to New Yotk City where Nancy got a job at Vogue.  She also freelanced short stories to magazines, including the New Yorker.   Her book editor at Scribner's was Maxwell Perkins, who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe.  Indeed, Hale's stories of debutantes, college dances, and fast cars, drawn from her youth will evoke shades of Fitzgerald for many readers, although Hale's viewpoint is bemused and detached, not idolatrous.  She published a biography of the artist Mary Cassatt in 1975 and some critics took exception to her focus on the obstacles  faced by a female artist in the 19th century but  no one could question the depth of her research; she had learned  it from her parents.  Although she would go on to publish seven novels, her m├ętier was the story. Divorced and remarried in 1936, Hale moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. After her second marriage ended in divorce, Hale had a nervous breakdown; her third marriage in 1942 lasted until Hale's death.

Lilian Westcott Hale (1880-1963) studied with William Merritt Chase at his Shinnecock Hills Summer Art School on  Long Island and then at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts with Edmund Tarbell.  In 1902 she married a fellow artist, Philip Leslie Hale and the couple settled in Dedham, Massachusetts.  Their daughter Nancy was born in 1908.  Her portraits were much admired by critics and she won an award from the National Academy of Design in 1927.

Image: Lilian Westcott Hale - Nancy and the Map of Europe, 1919, oil on canvas, private collection.

25 October 2019

Painting With Fruit: Carmen Argote


"Did I tell you about
my mother's avocado ado?
She grew it from a pit.
Secretly, slowly in the dark,
it put out grub-white roots
which filled a jelly jar.
From this unlikely start,
an avocado tree with bark
& dark green leaves
shaded the green silk
which shaded me
throughout my shady adolescence."
 - excerpt  from "Fruits & Vegetables" from Fruits & Vegetables by Erica Jong, New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston: 1971.


A tactile art, swirls of fruit as the ultimate finger paints, is the piquant art of Carmen Argote.

"My father mentally inhabited two sites in Guadalajara while living in Los Angeles.  One was an empty lot, and the other was Mansion Magnolia where he envisioned himself working. These two sites created for him, and by extension for me during my childhood, an ever-present feeling that Los Angeles was a temporary situation. I have felt the coexistence of these spaces throughout my life." - Carmen Argote

(Mansion Magnolia is a neoclassical mansion in the center of Guadalajara, built in 1904 as a residence it rhen became a hotel and restaurant.)

These disparate notions of what makes a home propel the artist Carmen Argote in her work. How do we inhabit places and spaces?  She uses materials symbolically, drawing on a rich backstory of everyday use - avocados, pine needles, coffee, and the cochineal dye used to decorate blankets throughout Central America.  The citrus fruit that Argote is working with in the photograph above was picked in the garden of  Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco while she was in residence at his studio. The results are included in  her current solo exhibition at the New Museum in New York City "As Above, So Below." Its title is taken from an aphorism suggesting that the terrestrial world is a reflection of the celestial world.

Carmen Argote was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and now lives in Los Angeles, the city where she spent much of her childhood. 

Images:
1. Itzel Hernandez Gomez, photograph - Manajese con Cuidado,  Carmen Argote working on citrus, preparing the exhibition As Above, So Below, courtesy of the New Museum, NYC.
2. Carmen Argote - Searching with the Fingers, 2019, avocado on linen over panel, Instituto de Vision, Bogota.

16 October 2019

Inspired by Lascaux: Elaine de Kooning & Eric Chevillard



I. Although she is better known for her portraits (1918-1989), Elaine de Kooning was a painter of vivid and vigorous abstraction; for her abstraction was definitely an expressive mode. Her aim for her more abstract work was this: "I wanted a sense of surfaces being in motion."  

Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall is one in a series that de Kooning called "Cave Walls," inspired by the cave paintings of Lascaux.  Of her first visit to Niaux in 1983, she  recalled how impressed she had been, saying, "the walls, even those without paintings, seemed to bellow with animal forms."  As a child, Elaine had loved to draw animals.

De Kooning believed that she had seen the origins of Abstract Expressionism in the ancient cave paintings.  "There's...a tremendous immediacy about the cave work which has much more to do with today's art, than, with, let's say, the Renaissance art."  The textures, cracks, and bulges of the walls resembled her own painting techniques, her use of strokes and drips and layering through collage, all in  a single work.  In Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall  thick strokes of red, white, and blue rush downward, and are scattered about at bottom by  forceful black strokes that suggest a bull in full charge. Here, as in all of Elaine de Kooning's abstract paintings, nothing is static.

De Kooning became a regular contributor to Art News in 1948 and. although she, like her husband, was a painter, she was pigeon-holed as an art critic. Again, like her friend Lee Krasner, de Kooning's efforts to taken seriously for her art were impeded, not helped, by her marriage to a famous male artist.  As the old saying has it:  marriage is only big enough for one and a half persons and guess which one gets the lobotomy?


II. "The end of prehistoric times was precipitated by the advent of writing....in brief, prehistory comes to an end when rhe story begins." - Eric Chevillard

And the beginning of the rewriting of prehistory began in 1940 when an eighteen year old boy found an opening in a wall of rock that led into the caves of Lascaux in southwestern France.  Historians had studied remnants of the early Roman settlements in the Dordogne for a long time but the revelation of Paleolithic artifacts pushed the region's first known habitation back some two million years.

When the caves were opened to the public , entering along with the thousands of visitors were light, moisture, microbes, and fungi that began to degrade the wall paintings. Eventually the French Ministry of Culture came up with a plan to stabilize the precious artworks by creating an alternative series of faux-caves, complete with copies of the Lascaux paintings.  When reality gets turned upside down, is there anything that fiction can add?  Enter Etic Chevillard.

If Chevillard's fictional worlds seem at first far removed from our own but then, without our being aware of how it happens, their orbits begin to run in parallel with the known world or even collide with it.  This is the world that appears in Chevillard's Prix Feneon prize winning novel The Crab Nebula (1993) whose protagonist, a man named Crab, may be out of his mind but he greets the possibility with genial curiosity.

This modest, off-the-cuff lecture does not have as its sole aim the clarification of the meaning of my trade, nor is it intended as the proof of my credentials in the matter; its main purpose is rather the additional reprieve it allows me by justifying my reticence to get down to work..."

These are the first words the protagonist addresses to the reader. Is Boborkine an archaeologist, a tour guide to the caves, or a clerk in the gift shop?  And who is Professor Glatt?  Archaeologist or art historian, but definitely "the most authoritarian authority in this field." At the end of this novel that manages to be both dilatory and succinct, we are no closer to understanding the cave paintings than we were when we began.

Eric Chevillard (b.1964) and the postwar French writers of the Nouveau roman (Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, et al) and Eric Chevillard (b.1964) share a  trait that perplexes and irritates their critics -  a lack of structure.  But, unlike the unleavened seriousness of his predecessors, Chevillard is a writer of cheerful absurdities are elliptical but not indecipherable.  "Man will only ever address himself to man, in a closed circuit, man finishes man."  Suitably then, Prehistoric Times ends with our protagonist, a man who closes himself up in a room to contemplate the afterlife of paintings he has not yet painted.

To read an interview with Eric Chevillard by his translator Alyson Waters....

For further reading - Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters, Brooklyn, Archipelago Books: 2012.

Image: Elaine de Kooning - Cave # 24 Red Oxide Wall + 1984 + acrylic and  collage mounted on paper,  Cindy Lou Friedman & Rick Friedman Collection, Southampton, NY.

11 October 2019

Ostend,1902: Leon Spilliaert, Resident - Stefan Zweig, Visitor


"A day of travel like many others over these past years. Is it because the world shakes on its foundations that one is so used to living in perpetual movement? Is it a premonition that a time is approaching when countries will erect barriers between them, so you yearn to breathe quickly, while you still can, a little of the world's air?" - Stefan Zweig, from his journal, dated 27 September 1935, (translated from the German by Will Stone, 2010)

More than a century separates us from Stefan Zweig yet these lines could easily have been penned yesterday.  Zweig, who was Jewish had fled continental Europe to England in 1934, but in 1939 as war came to England he moved on to the United States, ultimately finding uneasy refuge in Brazil, where he and his wife Lotte Altmann committed suicide in 1942.

Two young men, born in the same year, and full of promise.  One, the artist Leon Spilliaert (1881-1946) paces the shore by the sea wall late at night when his ulcers brought on insomnia and drove him out-of-doors.  The Viennese writer Stefan Zweig was twenty-one when he came to Ostend in 1902.  At twenty-one Zweig had already published five novellas and was well on his way to earning a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Vienna.  As for Spilliaert, just finding his vocation, his  would be displayed next to Pablo Picasso's in 1904 in Paris.

They also shared a mutual friend, Emile Verhaeran (1855-1916).  A prolific poet who was born in the Flemish part of Belgium but went on to write in French, Verhaeren was nominated for the Nobel Literature Prize six times. In his art criticism he advanced the merits of young Belgian artists including James Ensor, another Oostendenaar.  Spilliaert went to work for Verhaeren's publisher Edmond Deman in 1903, where the successful poet inspired and encouraged the tentative painter.  The first of many biographies that Zweig would write on Verhaeran, was published in 1910.

The two favorite occupations of the summer visitors were not swimming and sunbathing but were instead  gambling and racing, racing of all sorts, cars, yachts, horses, and dogs.  There was a febrile quality to their pastimes, as Zweig related in "The Season in Ostend" how, in 1901, when the gaming rooms had to closed the Belgian government proposed to award the town millions of franc in compensation for their losses.

It was only when August ended that the ordinary face of Ostend became visible: the fishers pursuing their marginal living and the ships coming and going from the deep water ocean port.  After repeated bombings by the Germans during the Second World War, the grandeur that had been summer at Ostend was replaced by a drably uniform modernism.  The sea wall and the long pier jutting optimistically into the Atlantic are still there, as Spilliaert as wondrously as painted them.

There is more about Leon Spilliaert at Blue Apple, Green Sea.

Image
Leon Spilliaert - De Windstoot (The Gust of Wind),  idia ink, watercolor, gouache, on paper, Mu.Zee, Ostend, Belgium.

01 October 2019

Jasper Cropsey: Trenton High Falls



" This mode of study productive of knowledge  - it makes a man a botanist, a geologist, he is not satisfied seeing things merely upon the surface.  He studies deeper.  The knowledge he gains is communicated to his work, so that while it possesses beauty as a work of art, it is scientific and historical, scientific from the. great character that pervades it, and historical because of the truthfulness with which it represents the country..."
 - Jasper Cropsey, from as essay "Nature and Art," New York Art Union, August 24, 1845.

Jasper Crpsey often remarked that his goal in creating landscapes was to capture "nature as she is."
The original sketch for Trenton High Falls (1880) appears in a sketchbook that Cropsey carried with him during the years 1855-1856.  You can see traces of his architectural training in the detail and precise placement of his markings in this rendering of the upper falls. I can attest to the accuracy of the work: I have visited Trenton on one of the two weekend of the year that the area is open to the public. The architectonics of the horizontal rock formations are the terraced bench that the waters foam and swirl over, above, and below.  The trail that Cropsey walked to the top of the falls was laid out in 1822 with funds provided by Joseph Bonaparte, brother of France;s Emperor Napoleon

There are many waterfalls in upstate New York named "High Falls."  The Trenton High Falls are located on West Canada Creek which flows south from the Adirondacks to the Mohawk River east of Oneida Lake.   Before Europeans arrived, the Haudenosaunee called the falls Kay-a-ho-ra, or "slanting water."

The terraced levels of the falls are remnants of centuries of geological movement.  The limestone and the locale have contributed the name Trenton Group to the limestone bed that extends from upstate New York to Minnesota. It is a sedimented stone rich in fossils: Concularia, an ancient "armored' jellyfish; spiny-skinned starfsh and sea stars; cephalopads (shelleed mollusks with tentacles); snails and tiny moss animals.

Cropset made frequent sketching trips to such locations as the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Greenwood Lake and the Ramapo Valley in New Jersey and Canada during the 1850s.  Later he would make engravings from some of his sketches   Cropsy was one of the most accomplished draftsmen among the artists of the Hudson River School, as you can see.  Although he was strongly influenced by Thomas Cole, Cropsey's "truth to nature" was much less fanciful than Cole's  roamntic and allegorical paintings.

Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900) was born on Staten Island and began to sketch what he saw around his family's farm as a fragile child, often kept home from school by illness.  Trained as an architect,  Cropsey turned to the study of watercolor and oil painting at the National Academy of Design and exhibited his first landscapes at age twenty-one, soon abandoning his architectural practice.  He was a member of the Art Union, a group founded in 1839,  dedicated to teaching art literacy to the citizens of the young nation. 

Forgotten after his death in 1900, Cropsey's work was rediscovered in the 1960s when there was a revival of interest in the Hudson River painters.  His home "Ever Rest" in Hastings-on-Hudson was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1970s and now includes a gallery devoted to Cropsey's work.

This oil painting by the Danish artist Ferdinand Richter shows the entirety of the falls in Below (Trenton) High Falls.  Painted in 1858 while Richter was on a four year visit to the States, at a time when picturesque waterfalls were becoming popular vacation spots, it is one of most beloved and reproduced works from the collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute.


Note: If you are in the Mohawk Valley and would like to visit Trenton High Falls, visit Town of Trenton for information.

Images:
1.Jasper Francis Cropsy - Trenton High Falls, 1880, watercolor, and graphite on woven paper, 1880, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
2. Ferdinand Richter - Below (Trenton) High Falls, 1858, oil on canvas, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

15 September 2019

Felix Vallotton: More Real Than the Realists


At first glance these carefully arranged peppers appear to be circling each other warily, like contestants in a beauty contest.  Or the presence of a  knife suggests an illustration from a contemporary cooking magazine.  Definitely looks like a  photograph. (Curious note about magazine photography: food is photographed from above while interiors are usually shot from a crouching position.)  But these red peppers Poivrons rouges were painted in 1915 by the Swiss-French artist Felix Vallotton.

Some context: around the late 1960s, influenced by the riposte of Pop Art to the oh-so-serious Abstract Expressionists who dominated the American art scene in the post-war period, young artists felt freed to try on various styles - minimalism, feminism, black art, and photorealism.  Some artists tried more than one at a time; for example Audrey Flack (b. 1931) was a feminist and a photorealist who went pretty maximalist in her paintings while she was at it, filling her pictures to the bursting point with objects.

Photorealism is one of the easier types of art to grasp.  The artist uses photography rather than drawing to  explore a potential subject.  How this information gets transferred to canvas is done in various ways but for a Photorealist painter the highest compliment would be for the viewer to be fooled into thinking  "I'm looking at a photograph." 

Felix Vallotton (1865-1925) was born to a conservative Protestant family in Lausanne, Switzerland.  His father was - yes! - a chocolate maker.  An adventurous streak led the sixteen year old Felix to Paris to study art.   It was in the early 1890s that Vallotton began to make satirical woodcuts that looked at the ways of the French with a gimlet eye.  The technique had fallen out of favor after flowering during the Renaissance but its demanding and clinical aspects appealed to the young artist. And the prints made him famous.

When Vallotton joined the semi-secret, semi-mystical French group the Nabis ('nabi' is the Hebrew word for Prophet) he was christened the "Foreign Nabi." (Jozsef Rippl-Ronai from Hungary was called the "Hungarian Nabi.") He became part of the cultural underground of 1890s Paris but his work suggests that he held himself apart, in Paris but not of Paris.  His early painting were avant-garde but in his later years his work became difficult to categorize but  more conservative in choice of subject and tone, as he began making portraits and still lifes. 

Vallotton studied classics but switched to drawing and settled in Paris in 1882.  He enrolled in the prestigious Academie Julian, also attended by most of his future fellow Nabis. Vallotton showed paintings at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889,  where Japanese prints and the newly dedicated Eiffel Tower caused a sensation.   Still, Vallotton had to work as a restorer to earn his living.  The hours spent at the Louvre studying works by Da Vinci, Durer, and Holbein had stood him in good stead and gradually he began to receive commissions from home for paintings.

After his Nabi period (1892-1900) Vallotton's reputation was secured.  After he married Gabrielle Rodriques-Henriques, the daughter of a wealthy art dealer, in 1899 his financial future was secure.  He acquired a studio on Honfleur, a village on the south bank fo the Seine across the river from Le Havre. There the artist focused on still life painting, particularly fruits and vegetables. The keenness and precision of his eye was like that of a camera. "More than ever the object amuses me: the perfection of an egg; the moisture on a tomato; the striking (martelage) of a hortensia flower;these are the problems for me to resolve." - F.V., quoted in Felix Vallotton: Fire Beneath the Ice by Isabelle Cahn,  Lecturis: 2013.

"Felix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet" , organized by the Royal Academy of Art in  will travel to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City (October 29, 2019 - January 26, 2020).

Image:
Felix Vallotton - Poivrons rouges (Red Peppers), 1915, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum Solothurn.

10 September 2019

Elizabeth Harrower: Under a Clamorous Sky


"You have a remarkable, sober acerbity, an almost historical view (the long prospect - I wonder) and the fragrance and nuttiness of the kernel, with the nutshell dispensed with...You are unique, a writer on your own and your future is, no doubt, a long prospect."
 - Christina Stead to Elizabeth Harrower, November 6, 1969

That fragrance is baked into the Australian landscape, a landscape often parched under a "clamorous sky" as Elizabeth Harrower put it.  Grace Cossington-Smith's Black Mountain was painted in the area known as Turramurra, near Sydney where Grace Cossington lived.  The word originate from the Aboriginal where it denotes a high hill.

Elizabeth Harrower and Christina Stead became friends when  Stead returned home to Australia from Europe in the 1970s.  Both writers created characters who prey on others within the supposed shelter of home. Although Harrower was then only in her forties, she had already stopped publishing books in spite of having written four well-received novels between 1957 and 1966.

The Long Prospect, published in 1958 was Harrower's second novel and her first success.  The novel exemplifies Satyagraha, a Sanscrit word combining satya (truth) an agraha (adherence, insistence) given by Gandhi to the practice of nonviolent resistance. "Man and his deeeds are two disctinct things.  Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doe of the deed, whether good or wicked, always deserves respect or pity as the case may be." In Elizabeth Harrower's novels politics happens in the background because that is how it is in everyday life.  She delicately explores how public disparities play out in real lives.
   
Twelve year old Emily Lawrence has been exiled to a dismal factory town while her parents, Harry and Paula, pursue separate lives in Sydney.  Occasionally one or the other makes an appearance to do something vaguely parental.  "Just the same, it was immensely embarrassing to have a stranger as an intimate relation," the girl reflects. Emily lives in a boarding house run by her maternal grandmother Lilian who both neglects  and torments the little girl.  

Lilian exults in other people's misfortunes so Emily's one bit of luck is that her grandmother mostly ignores her in favor of horse racing, gambling, and gossiping with her like-minded friends.  The boarding house serves as a respectable front for the lovers she ... from her boarders.

Emily has an uncommon sensibility,  painfully sensitive to the cruelty that her grandmother visits on her.  When Thea, a young woman  Emily has a crush on moves away abruptly, the girl is heartsick. Lilian taunts her mercilessly: "That's right!  Cry, cry, cry! Your bladder's too near your eyes, that's what's wrong with you, Emily Lawrence.  No wonder she wouldn't stay to say goodbye.  I don't  know who would."

Then a new boarder arrives.  Max is a scientist from Sydney: intelligent and kind-hearted, he sees that Emily is starved for friendship and adult attention.  He treats her as an equal as the two discuss literature and art and science. "Emily and Max had taken up a dialogue that had no end..."  Max encourages her to  dream of a future for herself.  

Lilian is not pleased by their friendship.  She encourages others to see something unsavory between the two and she engineers Max's punishment by the  community, a trial by mob that drives him from the town.  Harrower uses her understanding of human motivation to build a scaffold as unbreakable as it is unbearable.  Yer Max has given Emily something precious -  the sense that her life matters.

In Elizabeth Harrower's novels politics happens in the background because that is how it is in ordinary life.  For Harrower  how public disparities play out in real lives is a major thread running through her novels..

Other novels by Elizabeth Harrower:
The Catherine Wheel - Melbourne, Text Publishing: 2014 (1960).
The Watch Tower -  Melbourne, Text Publshing: 2014 (1966).
In Certain Circles -  Melbourne, Text Publishing: 2014.

Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984) was among the first Australian artists to paint in he modernist style. Like Van Gogh and Crrzann she used bright colors in broken forms to suggest the natural world.  Paintings of mountains and hillsides were a frequent landscape for Cossington-Smith.

Image:
Grace Cossington-Smith - Black Mountain, 1931, watercolor with gouache over pencil, private collection, Australia.

29 August 2019

Francoise Gilot's Recent Montoypes


"Cigarette papers datebook and tobacco pouch
Life
Ought to be like painting
still
And literature
A hatless head
Eyes straight
Comma
A flat nose a plane
On the forehead
My portrait
My heart beats
It's an alarm clock
In the mirror I'm full length
My head smokes"
-"Still Life - Portrait" by Pierre Reverdy, translated from the French by Kenneth Koch, New York, New Directions: 1969.


I can imagine Pierre Reverdy's poem as a dual portrait of two artists, the ingenue Francoise Gilot and the satyr Pablo Picasso.

A mixture of figuration and abstraction has always been characteristic of Francoise Gilot's work. Squares and stripes provide a geometric frame of reference, anchoring her subjects in an otherwise indeterminate space. Flecks on the wings of a bluebird or on the torso of a nude person suggest layers of time and space in the lives of living creatures, and the artist's interests in myth and the nature of the cosmos. 
Gilot began making monotypes in 1985 after more than four decades painting with oils on canvas.  The new medium offered ways to incorporate texture into the meaning of the work.   She worked first at Solo Press in New York City where she created several series of  monoprints, so-called for their singular nature.  Painting directly onto plexiglass rather than using the customary stone or metal plates, Gilot was free to affix exotic papers to the base sheet.   From this plate a single print was made by transfer to paper.  The first exhibition of her monoprints took place in Paris at Berggruen & Cie in 1990.  Today, at ninety-seven, Gilot still practices her discipline of painting every day in her apartment on New York's Upper West Side or in her Parisian studio

When Francoise Gilot met Pablo Picasso in 1943 it happened shortly after her first exhibition opened.  Attracted to the artist as much as the man, Gilot anticipated a creative partnership as well as a romantic one but, during the decade they were together, her interests were subject to his domineering personality and irrational outbursts. With strength and clarity of mind, qualities Picasso was not accustomed to in his relationships with women, she spoke the truth to him: "As an artist you maybe extraordinary, but morally speaking you're worthless."  Could Gilot have been thinking of that moment when she created Law And Freedom?

The year that Gilot moved in with him, Picasso made a drawing,  titled Adam Forcing Eve to Eat an Apple. The game of their courtship had turned to erogenous combat. In retrospect, Gilot had been wise to hesitate for the better part of three years before moving in with him. They had two children, Claude and Paloma, before their acrimonious split.  Picasso was so incensed that he cursed her, telling her that for the rest of er life she would live in his shadow, that if anyone was nice to her it would only be because of her connection to him.   She later described the source of her determination, "in a way I thought, I don't know how long we will all remain alive, so I'm going to do what I want."

Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960) was the contemporary of Cubist and Surrealist artists but he was much closer to the Cubists, especially Joan Gris who illustrated some of Reverdy's books.  In Reverdy's later years, both Picasso and Braque  contributed illustrations to his books but Picasso was so jealous and competitive with Braque by that time that it must have been a relief to deal with Gris. Reverdy's  translator Kenneth Koch goes so far as to label Reverdy a "Cubist poet."   Reverdy was the least mystical of poets; his approach was  to transform life into an aesthetic experience.  Gilot writes about meeting Reverdy in her autobiography Life with Picasso, reprinted this year by New York Review Books, with a forward by Gilot's American friend author Lisa Alther on the anniversary of its initial publication in 1964.  Controversial when it was originally published in 1964, it caused friends of Picasso to vengeful denunciations; thanks to its publication, Picasso never again would conssent to see his children.

Fore more about Francoise Gilot, read Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Woman.

Images:
1. Francoise Gilot - Nude on a Sofa, 2011, Mac-Grder Gallery, New Orleans.
2. Francoise Gilot - Bluebird, 2011, Mac-Gryder Galler, New Orleans.
3. Francoise Gilot - Billard Game, 2011,  Mac-Gryder Gallery, New Orleans.
4. Francoise Giilot - Law and Freedom, 2009, Mac-Gryder Gallery, New Orleans.

15 August 2019

Two Norwegians: Olav Hauge & Harald Sohlberg


"You build a house for your soul,
and wander proudly
in starlight
with the house on your back,
like a snail.
When danger is near
you crawl inside
and are safe
behind your hard

And when you are no more,
the house will
live on,
a testament
to your soul's beauty.
And the sea of your loneliness
will sing deep
inside."
  - "Conch" translated from the Norwegian by Robert Hedin



"This is the dream we carry through the world
that something fantastic will happen
that it has to happen
that time will open by itself
that doors will open by themselves
that the heart will find itself open
that mountain springs will jump up
that the dream will open by itself
that we one early morning
will slip into a harbor
that we have never known.
  - "This is the Dream" translated from the Norwegian by Robert Bly



"Not by car,
not by plane -
by neither haysled
nor rickety cart
- or even Elijah's fiery chariot!

You' never get farther than Basho.
He got there by foot."
 - " Not by Car, But by Plane" translated from the Norwegian by Robert Hedin

Olav Hauge (1908-1994) was a poet, a translator, and a horticulturalist, whose writing made a mark on the literary and geographical landscape of his country.  Widely read in European literature, Hauge was also a prolific translator of works from German (Heym, Trakl, Brecht, and Paul Celan, from the French (Mallarme, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Michaux, and Rene Char) and English (Blake, Browning, Tennyson,Yeats, and D.H. Lawrence).  The German romantic Friedrich Holderlin whose blend Greek  mythology and pantheistic mysticism beguiled Hauge, permeated his inner life, so deeply so that Hauge sometimes lost his footing in ordinary life.  When that happened Hauge suffered psychotic episodes, spending several years in a mental hospital during his twenties. 

For most of his life Hauge lived alone in a small house filled with books; only in 1978 did he finally marry Bodil Cappele, an artist. he loved books so much so that he wanted to share them with his neighbors, mostly farmers and laborers who had little time for reading.  Often when one would drop in he would pull a book off the shelf, saying "No doubt you've read this..." 

Trained in horticulture at university, Hauge tended a small orchard.  Although the Hauge family owned a large farm, Norwegian custom dictated that the bulk of it go to Olav's older brother so the younger one received just three acres on which he grew apples.  And though he loved apples, he loved literature more.  Hauge's first poems were published when he was thirty-eight years old. Something in the grandeur of the green mountain landscape of western Norway found a correlative for Hauge in the poems of the 8th century Chinese poet Li Po.  Hauge's  Journals, kept from 1924-1994 and published after his death, reveal a man of extraordinarily broad culture.

When Hauge died his body was carried uphill by a horse drawn carriage for burial in the Ulvik cemetery.  Those who attended the funeral reported that the carriage was accompanied by a colt and its mother who trotted gaily alongside the casket all the way up the mountain.  I like to think that Li Po was with them in spirit..

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) is the other great Norwegian artist, the one who did not paint The Scream. Although reasonably contemporary (Edvard Munch lived from 1863-1944), Sohlberg painted the Norwegian landscape in a somewhat romantic style; contra that his use of color is clear and neat, reminding my of the contemporary American Alex Katz.  Munch has been judged the more modern of the two for his expressionist style and febrile temperament.  Both artists disdained comparisons of their works with those of other  artists.  Hauge is  a modernist, his poetry spare and concrete in style - and yet Sohlberg's landscapes strike me as  a visual equivalent in their rendering of the unique character of northern light.

For further reading: The Dream We Carry: Selected and Last Poems by Olav H. Hauge, translated from the Norwegian by Robert Bly & Robert Hedin, Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press: 2008

Images:
1. Harald Sohlberg - Fisherman's Cottage. circa 1907, Art Institute of Chicago.
2, Harald Sohlberg - Flower Meadow in the North, 1905, National Museum of Art, Oslo.
3. Harald Sohlberg -  A Country Road, 1905, National Museum of Art, Oslo.

10 August 2019

May Stevens's Big Daddy: A Man For Our Time

Against an improbably blue sky Big Daddy sits, with a pug(nacious) dog on his lap; draped in an 'Uncle Sam' outfit, his visage resembles an  unhealthy reincarnation of Teddy Roosevelt.  His transparent military helmet and thick neck inevitably suggest a phallic reference.  Pax Americana painted in 1973 looks, if not contemporary, then eerily prescient.

May Stevens created the Big Daddy series between 1967 and 1976.  She says she got the idea from a painting she had made of her father, in a typical pose, sitting in front of the television in his undershirt. Ralph Stevens worked as a pipe fitter at the Bethlehem steelyards.  She has described her father as being an ordinary working class man who never questioned the government, supported the Vietnam War unconditionally, and held openly racist and ant-Semitic views.

Stevens did not merely caricature her father.  Bald and stocky, Big Daddy represents the toll  manual labor takes on workers.  She has spoken perceptively about his life and aspirations.

"He wanted to be proud.  He worked hard (sloughed off only to the extant that it was, permitted,  in fact required, by his co-workers) and used his wages for his own comforts and for ours, and to enhance his standing in the community and ours.  His sending me to college was the kind of decision that rising in class was worth spending money on.  He didn't expect, of course, that college would make me dress badly (long hair and shirts and jeans) even years after I graduated.   Nor behave badly either (radical politics, peace marches, signing petitions and other intemperate behavior).  he never imagined that lifting me out of his class would produce in me an allegiance to his class that he did not feel.  He had swallowed the dream,  but it's more than a dream because the books and the art that raise you from one class to another, to bourgeois life, are indeed capable of providing a better life - and also the means of critiquing that life."

With a style akin to Pop Art, Stevens created a  symbol that connected  patriarchal attitudes to American imperialism (the red, white, and blue color scheme borrowed from the flag). Big Daddy  became a vehicle for protest at the hypocrisy and injustice embedded  in personal life as well as in politics. Deliciously, in Big Daddy Paper Doll (1970) the figure is surrounded by cut-outs of outfits as though he were a Barbie doll, except that his outfits are soldier, police officer, and a butcher in a bloody apron, all latent with  potential violence.  As the images were first shown that became the Big Daddy series, they were derided by mainstream art critics as heavy-handed, even a perversion of Pop Art (!), and they also detected resemblances to the dreaded psychedelia.  Time has clarified Stevens' wide-ranging intentions, keeping her works fresh while other works by her male counterparts now seem dated.

May Stevens (b. 1924) was born in Boston, grew up in Quincy, and now lives in New Mexico.  An earlier series Freedom Riders (1963) was inspired by Daumier's Third Class Railway Carriage (1864).  In 1971 Stevens contributed a memorial volume for the victims of the Attica prison uprising.
To read more about May Stevens...

Addendum: Mat Stevens died on December 9, 2019.  She was ninety-five.

Image: May Stevens - Pax Americana, 1973, acrylic on canvas, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca, NY.

31 July 2019

Sassetta by the Sea


  "O my country, I can see the walls
and arches and the columns an the statues
and lonely towers of our ancestors,
but I don't see the glory;
 - from Canto I

  "Human things last only a short time,
and what the sage of Chios claimed
is very sure:
that leaves and human beings
are similar by nature.
Yet few are comfortable with this idea.
We all give room
to restless hope,
the young heart's creature.
  from Canto XLI

(Excerpts from The Canti,  poems by Giocamo Leopardi, translated from the Italian by Jonathan Galassi, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 2010.)

All appears tranquil on this summer day in central Italy in the 15th century.  The castle-fortress, Rocca Aldobrandesca (at the upper left corner),  built for Aldobrandeshci family, glows importantly in the sun, the buildings of the little walled city are the colors of Jordan almonds, the waters of the Tyrreanean Sea live up to their nickname 'the silver coast', and  ships sail merrily along,  the wind at their backs.  In the lower right corner a woman bathes in a stream, undisturbed. The scene remains much the same today as when Sassetta painted it,  a small fishing village except for the cars and kite surfers.

Stefano di Giovanni, known as Sassetta (ca.1392-ca.1450), is considered by many to be the greatest Sienese painter of the 15th century. His life is obscure in some aspects; no one is certain where he was born nor the origin of his nickname, although there have been plenty of guesses.  Siena is not far from Talamone: in any case, the artist never traveled very far from home, nor did he need to.  He worked in a milieu that included Duccio di Buoninsegna, called the father of Sienese painting, Simone Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio. His style was one of utmost refinement and technical virtuosity. His first works appeared in the 1420s.  There is a quality in Sassetta's style of  "just enough but no more" that has caused many artists of this past century to find in him a precursor.

Who were the Aldobrandeschi, then? There was  a pope in the family tree, Gregory VII from the 11th century.  Famously, Guiglielmo Aldobrandeschi was a character in Dante's  Divine Comedy, as was his son, cited as an example of the sin of pride. A family of wealthy aristocrats, the Aldobrandeschi owned large tracts of lands in southern Tuscany, necessitating an imposing watch tower in the fortress at Talamone.  By 1300, all but abandoned, it became the home of a garrison for Siena.  Talamone had attractions for those with ambitions and the wealth to bring them to fruition; settlements protected  by hillside enclosures surrounded by lands that had been irrigated since the time of Etruscans, settlers of   central Italy who predated the Romans.  It also had an advantage in being a Republic for some four hundred years from the 12th through the 16th centuries; unlike the Papal States which surrounded them, in Siena artists were accorded greater freedoms.

This miniaturized picture of a medieval commune has another remarkable quality: confidence.  Central Italy was an economic, political, and cultural hub and would remain so throughout the Renaissance. Sassetta was an extremely pious man but when he came to the sea, he had to own that life was indeed good.

Giacomo Leopardi (1797-1837) was Italy's first modern poet,  whose work pensiero poetante, thinking in poetry, introduced a new type of lyric as a possible poetry.

Image: Sassetta - City by the Sea - View of Talamone,  c. 1430, Pinaoteca di Siena 

23 July 2019

Vittorio Bolaffio: A Lyric of Swallows in Spring



"Even when it seems that the day
has passed like a swallow's wing,
like a handful of tossed
dust that can never be
regathered and no description
no  story is needed
or heard, there is always a word
a small word one can say
if only to say
there's nothing to say."
 - Patrizia Cavalli, translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock, from The Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry edited by Geoffrey Brock, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2012.

I. On a sunny spring day a young woman pauses on her way to look up at birds in flight overhead. A lyrical moment full of graceful curves, her arms, birds on the wing, and a slightly mysterious wall, not sinister but where does that brown gate lead?  Are we near the sea or up on the escarpment, pretty much the only choices in Trieste, wedged as it is between the mountains and the water.

It could be my imagination or it could be that the wall behind her, there for no obvious reason, is a symbol of the irredentism that is the defining characteristic of Trieste, longtime home of the artist Vittorio Bolaffio.  In Bolaffio's day Trieste was a port city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a fact that rankled the Italian patriots of the Risorgimento.  When World War I broke out Bolaffio was conscripted into the Austrian Army. After the war ended he moved permanently to Trieste, rented a studio, and made lasting friendships while absorbing the atmosphere of the Garibaldi cafe.

After studying art in the Florentine atelier of Giavonni Fattori he had headed to Paris, then the center of the art world, where he sensed to  the significance of Cezanne before most French artists caught on. The impact was so vivid that later when critics evaluated Bolaffio's work they found it to be unusual in its broadly European interests and influences.

An anecdote from the book Trieste nei miei ricordi (Trieste in my memories) written by Bolaffio's friend Giani Stuparich ...the charm of Bolaffio's personality that is visible in Spring with Swallows.
"... one morning I saw Bolaffio arrive in a taxi, and he came down with a very long frame under his arm and I led him into the garden sun where the children were playing.  He called them to see the painting and watched their reactions. I never saw him as happy as when he discovered that they were very interested in the figures and the colors.  Later he told me  about the picture, "I painted iit by oil light while dreaming of the sun. I see that in the sun it does not get damaged: children are the sharpest critics." "

Bolaffio is not so well known outside Italy as his teachers Giovanni Fattori and Giovanni Segantini or his friend Amedeo Modigliani, perhaps because most of his paintings are in Italian collections.  Several of them, including Spring with Swallows, are in the provincial museum of Gorizia. Born in 1893 into a family of well-to-do Jewish wine merchants in the border city of  Gorizia, Baloffio who was described by those who knew him as being gentle, generous, and quiet, seems a natural outsider.  His portraits of members of the local Jewish community are especially admired.

Vittorio Bolaffio died in Trieste the day after Christmas in 1931.  "He was a great artist - he dreamed of universal brotherhood" is the epitaph dictated by his friend the poet Umberto Saba for his tomb.

II. Born in Perugia (1949), Patrizia Cavalli lives in Rome. She has published three collections of poems, the first,  My Poems Will Not Change the World was published in 1974, followed by My Own Singular I (1992) and Always-Open Theater (1999).  "Even when it seems that the day" is  a representative poem, written in a fresh colloquial voice with Cavalli's use of enjambment intensifies her sense of the conditional  nature of  our perception of events.  In origin, enjambment is a French word meaning to step over and in poetry it occurs where most line endings are not punctuated and whose sense of movement steps over to the next line. Her lyricism have inspired some Italian critics to call her  "a modern-day Sappho."  Cavalli's translations of Shakespeare include Othello, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Image: Vittorio Bolaffio - Spring with Swallows, no date given, Museo Provinciale di Borgo

18 July 2019

Howardena Pindell: The Force in the Pattern



In Astronomy: Saturn and Neptune Howardena Pindell portrays the two planets in series of concentric circles moving through a space dotted with numbers and arrows, visitors from a secret graph.  In this ether figurative elements float in a sea of abstract brushwork. It is as though the structure of the universe was right before our eyes in a language whose key we are have yet to find.  As for the large round object at bottom, it could be Jupiter the next innermost planet to Saturn or it could be Earth representing human subjectivity The ragged edges of the image are typical of Pindell's paintings, the canvases usually unstretched and hung directly onto walls with ordinary nails.  

Like Emily Dicksinon's learn'd astronomer who saw figures in columns and charts that measured them, Howardena Pindell has explained her desire to "atomize" art down to its irreducibly smallest  parts, similar to a mathematical exercise.  Pindell recalls how, as a child, she often saw her mathematician father write numbers down in a journal divided into grids. "I saw writing and numbers as drawing."  Another, darker,  memory,  is of a  car trip with her parents through the Midwest.  While drinking from a mug of root beer in Ohio, she noticed that the bottom of the mug had a red circle drawn around its edge.  In answer to her question "why", her parents explained that in the South black people were served separately from whites with cutlery and glassware marked with red circles. 

Although we usually see pattern as decoration, Piindell explores its ideational force, using pattern to express  ideas.  She has worked mostly in an abstract style with figurative elements cleverly encoded; her preference is for details over generalities.  This has also allowed her to upend the cliched expectations of black artists to create earthbound art.

Howardena Pindell was born in Philadelphia and, in 1967, the year she earned her MFA from Yale University,  she was hired by the Museum of Modern Art.  While working at MoMA  Pindell became one of the original members of Artists in Residence, a women's gallery founded in New York in 1972 in response to the dearth of opportunities for women to show their work in museums and galleries, something she had direct experience with at work.  Pindell would return to this theme, elaborating with statistics gathered through seven years of research, with the results published in 1989 in New Art Examiner. She shook up the art world by showing how arts institutions were still deliberately  exclusionary, based on racism. 

At the age of seventy-four Pindell finally had her first career retrospective in 2017, Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen, at the Museum of Contemporary art in Chicago.  And in 2019 she received the Artists' Legacy Foundation award.

Image: Howardena Pindell - Astronomy: Saturn & Neptune, 2008, ink, acrylic, and gouache on paper, courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.