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.

25 August 2019

Late Summer: Matisse at Collioure



"I believe that painting will make me crazy,  and I am going to try to get out of it as soon as possible."    - Henri Matisse, from a letter to his friend Henri Manguin, late summer, 1904   

The sky visible through the two small windows above the dormer is red with heat.  The geraniums in the terracotta pots on the windowsill are red, too.  Nothing outlandish there - but what about the sails on the boats in the harbor?  And notice that the sky as reflected in the window glass i blue as one would expect.  We are in the presence of a new way of painting, colorful but not in the controlled (and supposedly scientifically based color palette of the pointillists: think Seurat an company.  What caught my attention first, though, was the suggestion of clouds, those blue, pink, and lavender squiggles dancing across the top of the view from Matisse's window.

It is thanks to the critic Louis Vauxelles that the pejorative term Les Fauves (The Wild Beasts) attached to the painters at Collioure in 1905.  The Fauve moment lasted about four years, from 1904 until 1908 when it was overtaken by the renewed interest in form that became known as Cubism.  Vauxelles and his contemporaries had the work of Vincenr Van Gogh, then gone a decade and a half, fresh in their minds.  Van Gogh's colors may have originated in hallucinations; speculation abounded and does to this day that his distorted geometries crossed the line from genius to insanity and Matisse may have had this in mind when he vented to Manguin.
   
Matisse first summered on the Mediterranean at Saint-Tropez in 1904 and then in 1905 he came to Collioure, a sleepy little fishing village perched below hills, near the border with Spain.   

Matisse, as painter, deliberately avoided  putting his fleeting impressions on canvas, choosing instead to "risk losing charm in order to obtain greater stability."(quoted in Notes of a Painter, translated from the French by Jack D. Flam, New York, E.P. Dutton: 1978)  Matisse had no interest in mimesis  when choosing his colors, to him their brightness was an obvious correlation to the directness of the Mediterranean sun: thus also the lack of shadows in his paintings.  Also, his brushwork was so loose that his forms veer toward abstraction.

Artists may tire of repetition sooner than the pubic appetite for the familiar.  As early as 1873, a guide book for vacationers lamented that destinations on the Normandy coast like Trouville and Sainte-Adresse were little more than "Paris transported for two or three months to the seacoast" (Adolphe Joann) with its attendant frivolities and vices.

When Open Window at Collioure was exhibited for the first time at the Salon d'Automne in 1905 its  colors were described as "primitive" but look closely and their application is anything but unsophisticated.  The way that landscape and  building are intertwined is ingenious.
This seemingly simple style is well-suited to the rustic landscape.

Image:
Henrii Matisse - Open Window at Collioure  (La Fenetre ouverte), 1905, oil on canvas, National gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  


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.