25 March 2019

Refugees: Antoni Clave

Scenes of puzzlement and distress are often captured with the simplest artistic tools - crayon, pen or pencil, and paper.  Reflecting on this eighty year old work by a now forgotten Spanish artist I find its poignancy sadly familiar.  Without the title to guide us, we recognize these people as refugees; their self-protective postures and worried faces tell us so.  The downward-slanting lines tell of a rainy night that drains the color from their faces and their clothing and the hazy neither-here-nor-thereness of the pastels supplies an inspired correlative to their uncertainty.   What awaits them is as mysterious to us as it is to them.

In February 1939, the Spanish artist Antoni Clave fled from his home in  Barcelona to escape the  carnage of the Spanish Civil War.  Unfortunately, soon after he crossed the border Clave was detained at a military camp  near Perpignan in southern France.  While Clave cooled his heels waiting and hoping to be released he turned his tools, pastels and ink, to record daily rounds of the keepers and the involuntary guests at the camp. After his release which was arranged by the future curator of Perpignan's Museum of Fine Arts, Clave moved to Paris.

Antoni Clave (1913-2005) had a long artistic career that began in swirls of baroque detail and was gradually stripped of ornamentation, becoming simpler and more modern, eventually arrived at pure abstraction.  Beyond painting he began to work with stage and costume design, and was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1952 for Art Direction and Costume Design. He died at Saint-Tropez at the age of ninety-two.

For more about Antoni Clave ( a bit of a rough translation from the French)

Antoni Clave - The Exodus, 1939, pastel and ink on paper, private collection, courtesy of Musee Hyancinthe Rigaud, Perpignan.

18 March 2019

Rosemary In Thought: Raphael Soyer

"If art is to survive, it must describe and express people, their lives and times. It must communicate."
      - Raphael Soyer

A deeply unfashionable sentiment at times, yet it served Raphael Soyer well.  Early in his career as a painter he received acclaim for his detailed, sensitive portrayals of unemployed women and men struggling to keep their dignity and feed their families after the stock market crash of 1929.  When abstract expressionism triumphed in the post-war years, Soyer's art went out of style.  Nevertheless, he continued his explorations of the many faces around hi, particularly artists and writers of his acquaintance.

With that in mind, who is Rosemary?  I haven't been able to identify her but Soyer's portrait and its title indicate his interest in the process of thought.  Her eyes focus inward, distinct from averted away from the artist and, by extension, the viewer.  It's unlikely that she is thinking about her current occupation as sitter.   Her pursed lips and arched brows suggest a satirical bent to her thoughts.  Her crossed arms portend the possibility of dark clouds resulting from any conclusion.  Although she wears ordinary street clothes and sits on a straight- backed chair she wraps herself and the artist also wraps her in dignity.  This portrait is, if it has anything in common with photography, an exercise in time-lapse vision.  Brown, blue, and grey colors that predominate in the portraits of women by the British painter Gwen John (1876-1939) are used by Soyer to effect a similar subdued atmosphere.  As the son of a Hebrew scholar, Soyer was raised to value  signs of human ratiocination.

Raphael Soyer (1899-1987) was one of six children; both Raphael and his twin brother Moses would grow to become artists.   Born in provincial southern Russia, the family was forced to emigrate in 1912 as turmoil engulfed pre-Revolutionary life for poor Jews.  The family emigrated to the United States where they settled in the Bronx.   He studied art at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, and later taught at both institutions.  He chose to paint in a realistic and humane style even when abstract expressionism was the reigning orthodoxy in the New York art world.

Raphael Soyer - Rosemary in Thought , 1975, oil on canvas, Smithsonian Museum of American Att, Washington, D.C.

12 March 2019

An American Cezanne: Henry Lee McPhee

The spirit that suffuses this portrait of a young boy by  Henry Lee McFee is that of Paul Cezanne.  McFee (1886-1953) was an American artist whose works are included in the collections of major museums although his name has faded unjustly, I think, with the passing decades.  The Metropolitan, the Whitney, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York alone, are joined by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Corcoran Gallery, the Cleveland Museum - and the Munson-Williams Proctor Art Institute in Utica, New York, where Boy is currently on display.
Although we think of landscapes of Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne painted some memorable portraits  including Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair (c.1877), now considered a milestone of modernism.

The quiet intimacy of this painting derives as much from the harmony of its elements as it does  from the eye contact between sitter and artist.  In reproduction McFee's careful use of glazing techniques is not easy to discern but makes its contribution based on his study of European art generally. The boy looks sweetly solemn and there is something noble in the vulnerability of his young face and his good clothes.  A pensive sense of occasion emanates from his posture.  That harmonious coloration that unites the  boy, his clothing and the chair he sits in and the wallpaper behind, support the emotional weight that, in a more conventional portrait, would be borne by the sitter.   This is the balance that Cezanne's portraits struck so forcefully,the innovation that caused McFee to credit Cezanne as the influence on his own style.

McFee was born in St. Louis and moved to Woodstock, New York in 1908 to study landscape with the Tonalist painter Lowell Birge Harrison.  He soon began to work independently with Andrew Dasburg who became his lifelong friend and his guide to European art, from the Renaissance to Cubism. Beginning in the late 1920s and continuing for almost a decade McFee wintered at Bellevue, a former plantation in Bedford County, Virginia where he painted the Black farm workers. He empathized with them, recalling in 1948 to Ernest W. Watson, "I think I came closer to painting something of their life and my life with understanding." What is clear from the works themselves is a sensitivity and lack of preconception unusual for a white artist at that time.
 An inheritance allowed McFee to pursue his studies but by 1937, as the Great Depression dragged on, he was compelled to take a series of teaching positions that brought him to southern California, where he influenced a generation of students at the Chouinard School and Scripps College.  McFee died of pneumonia in Altadena in 1953.  An impressive artist with a restless temperament, McFee's exhibited that same restlessness in his personal life.  After being married to Aileen Fletcher Jones for twenty years, he ran off with her niece Eleanor Brown Gitsell in 1936.

Henry Lee McFee - Boy, 1932,  oil on canvas, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica.
2. Paul Cezanne - Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair, c.1877,  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.