31 July 2019

Sassetta by the Sea

  "O my country, I can see the walls
and arches and the columns and 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.

05 July 2019

Francisco de Zurbaran: Perfectly Still

If only Francisco de Zurbaran had had a century of his own to shine in. Instead Zurbaran's life (1598-1664) overlapped that of Diego Velasquez (1599-1660), arguably the greatest painter of Spain's Golden Age.  Whether Zurbaran would have been flattered to be called the "Spanish Caravaggio" is open to question.  There is no evidence that he ever saw any of  the Italian's work, not to mention that the comparison  grounded in their similar intense use of chiaroscuro, went in the wrong direction for an unalloyed compliment.  And Zurbaran might well have taken offence; he was an ambitious man, the son of a notions seller,  who married three times to wealthy women.

Still life in the 17th century was just becoming a separate genre rather than a merely decorative addition to portraiture.  Looked down on, seen as requiring less skill and ambition than figure painting, it was the poor stepchild of painting.  Zurbaran was a typical artist of his time, painting mostly religious subjects, long  used  to educate the faithful and a fruitful source of commissions for Zurbaran.  Portraits were intended to flatter the vanity of their subjects; a clever artists could combine the two as Zurbaran did with Bishop Gonzallo de Illescas.   Of the few still life paintings that are thought to be from his hand, only this one is signed 'Zurbaran and  dated 1633.   

One painter, Francisco Pachecco, threw shade on still life  in The Art of Painting (El arte de la pintura) in 1649):  "These days there is no lack of those who enjoy this kind of painting because it is easy to do and causes delight by its variety."  "...although it does require more skill...if it is to be used in serious history painting."

Looked at in one way Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose  is a triptych. This has led some critics to guess at religious symbolism in the objects themselves. The unearthly light  does not reach  the  preternaturally dark background, sometimes referred to as Spanish-black. The objects are set on a narrow ledge which imparts a horizontal solemnity to their arrangement.   A  basket of oranges with a sprig of blossoms looks freshly plucked from the tree, an orangerie being a sure sign of luxury in the days before refrigeration. So was the pewter plate that holds four lemons, their pedicels all projecting an erotic tactility.  The cup of water with a rose on a pewter saucer may be included as a bravura display of chiaroscuro.  If we cannot know for certain what prompted Zurbaran to paint this enigmatic masterpiece we sense his pride in its perfection.
Francisco de Zurbaran - Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, 1633, oil on canvas, 23.62 x 41.12" The Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.

02 July 2019

Sonia Delaunay: A Wind Rose

"Did the same
Car carry me away
                             I see where you came from
                             You turn your head
On the moon
Just struck
                            At the street corner
                            Everything is turned around
I saw her face
Even her hands
                            The last star
                            Is in the garden
Just like the first
Think of tomorrow
                            Where will they be
                             The thoughtless dead
When the wall vanishes
                             The sky will fall."
"Perspective" by Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960), translated from the French by Kenneth Rexroth, New York, New Directions: 1969.

A wind rose is a graphic chart that shows the direction and speed of wind and employs colors to differentiate wind speeds.  The subject was irresistible to Sonia Delaunay, an artist who thought in graphic terms no matter what the medium at hand. When her friend the poet Tristan Tzara invited her to illustrate a series of poems he had written about La rose des vents Delaunay was delighted.    Both had a long-standing interest in illustrated books and had worked with others on similar projects, most famously Delaunay's  1913 collaboration with Blaise Cendrars on Prose of the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France a long title for a long work printed on one continuous sheet of paper two meters long.   The resulting book, titled Juste present (La rose des vents) was published in 1961. For the covers Delaunay created a color etching that appeared right-side-up on the front and upside-down on the back just present, indeed.

"I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd: in which the world
And all her train were hurl'd."
 - excerpted from "The World" by Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), Maidstone, Crescent Moon: 2012.

It was jazz that came to mind when I saw the Sonia Delaunay retrospective at the Albright-Knox Gallery in early 1980. It was still winter and those brilliant colors seduced me;  fanciful rugs woven  rugs on the gallery floor seemed to bring the sun inside even on a gray day.

Along with  elation  I felt  the unfairness of being too late to an exhibition that opened less than two months after the artist died in December 1979.  If there was any incongruity between the brilliant rhythms in Delaunay's work and the unmovable gray marble columns holding up the Beaux Arts galleries it barely registered on me.  Originally built  to house the Fine Arts Pavilion for the 1901 World's Fair, the Albright-Knox Gallery only opened in 1905; it was celebrating its 75th anniversary in 1980.

Simultanisme, or the representation of movement through pure color, was Sonia Delaunay's contribution to the dynamic experiments that ushered in 20th century art. It has proved to be just as important as Dada and Surrealism, two better-known European movements.  Delaunay's experiments went beyond the emphatically colored landscapes by the Fauvist painters (derogatorily christened  as " Les Fauves" or " the wild beasts" by contemporary critics) just as people were getting comfortable with the beautiful daubs of the Impressionists. 

Delaunay and Tzara had known each since their early days in Paris, meeting in 1921.  Sonia Terk (1885-1979)  was born in Odessa and emigrated from Ukraine in 1905 to study art. When  she met Robert Delaunay, a French artist and became pregnant with their son,  she divorced her husband and married Delaunay.  Their marriage was also an artistic partnership that lasted until Robert Delaunay's death in 1941.   The Delaunay apartment became a meeting place for avant-garde artists and poets Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, and Jean Cocteau.  While Sonia was busy decorating a Surrealist bookstore Robert painted two portraits of their friend Tzara.  Delaunay not only painted, designed clothing, furniture, and other household items but also collaborated on books with several French poets.  "I have done everything. I have lived my Art," she said.

Tzara came from Hungary by way of Zurich which is where he began to practice something he called Dada, art that expressed hostility to reason and aesthetics, two things that had proved woefully inadequate in the face of trench warfare. A performance artist at the Zurich's Cafe Voltaire, he began to produce manifestos before he wrote poetry.   By the time he met Sonia Delaunay-Terek, Tzara was already known as the "president of Dada."

Images: Sonia Delaunay-Terk, illustrations for Juste present (La rose des vents) by Tristan Tzara, Paris: 1961.  Images from the collection of the Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco.
1. illustration for page 39.
2. illustration for page 13.
3. illustration for page 21.
4. frontispiece.