27 March 2020

Achille Lauge: Pure Light, Pure Color, Pure Spirit


"Light is something that cannot be reproduced, but must be represented by something else - by color."
   - Paul Cezanne

Pointillism is all about color. It was based on a theory of simultaneous contrast, defined as the tendency of a color to move toward its complementary color.  Based on theories of the long-live chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul (1786-1889) who codified it in a book published in 1839.  Chevreul had partnered with the preeminent Gobelin tapestry company where he was the director of dyes.

Artists searching for new ways of painting,  Georges Seurat and Paul Signac developed a technique o in 1886 that relied on the ability of the human eye (and mind) to blend dabs of various colors into something new.   The term pointillism was coined by art critics and, as is often the case, it originated as ridicule.  Although the science has been superseded, artists have continued to find the technique fruitful. Achille Lauge was essentially a solitary artist whose combination of rigorous geometry and adroit use of pointillism produced  brilliant effets de lumiere

Occitaine, near the Spanish border on the Mediterranean, was first shaped by the Romasn occupation of two millennia ago; the region once included the southern third of modern France.  Its language and culture were a bouillabaisse of  Catalan, French, and Italian elements. Into this milieu Achille Lauge (1861-1944) was born to a family of peasant farmers.  His family sent him to Toulouse to study pharmacy but Lauge switched to art school in 1878. There he met a budding sculptor, Antoine Bourdelle, who encouraged Lauge to go to Paris for further study in 1882. Bourdelle went there himself to study with Rodin  and , in turn, later taught Albert Giacometti.

In Paris, Bourdelle introduced him to Aristide Maillol, a fellow southerner and the son of a fisherman, with whom Lauge shared a studio until 1888. Tiring of academic training, Lauge became interested in the pointillist paintings of Seurat, Signac, and Camille Pissarro,  He began to practice adapting the technique to his own sensibility, never adhering to Seurat's strict color guidelines. Deeply attached to his native landscape, Lauge returned home in 1888. During the period from 1888 to 1896, he produced some of his finest paintings.

Lauge's  paintings, exhibited in Paris at the Salon des Independents of 1894, were not well received by the critics;  la Revue Meridionale opined that " Carcassonne wants to impress Paris," referring to the little city where Lauge was then  living.  Another criticism leveled at his work was that it was imitative of other better-known artists, causing them to miss Lauge's unique combination of  "a very particular vision, much serene logic and a beautiful unity in your love of light."- (Antoine Bourdelle).  Finally, after repeated rejections by the Salon,  Lauge decided to have done with salons; from then on he would exhibit with dealers who supported his work like Bernheim Jeune and Galerie Georges Petit.   His work was also promoted by famous contemporaries  Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuilliard, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

After his father died in 1895, Lauge moved back to Cailhau, home of his youth, in the sun-baked Midi.  His residence, L'Alouette (The Lark), at left is made of stucco, its large windows welcoming light into the artist's studio and it and the garden are awash in pure light awash with pure light.  Named for the lark, one of of the few songbirds that sings in flight.

He liked to work firstly outside both with pastels and oils, then move inside to apply dots of adjacent colors to get the effect he was after. In 1905, he constructed a caravan-studio that allowed him to paint outside in all kinds of weather.  He always painted still life  in oils and found inspiration in the Japanese art he had encountered during his time in Paris. The bright reds in this picture  remind me of ukiyo-e,  even though the  grapes and peaches  are quintessential fruits of the Mediterranean.

An artist who preferred to work in  tranquility, Lauge wa eventually recognized as an important and even pivotal figure in the art of his time.  His paintings are included in the collections of France's most prestigious museums - the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay.

Images:
1. Achille Lauge - Still Life with Flowers and Fruits, oil on canvas, Galerie Eric Gillis, Brussels.la maison de l'artiste (The Lark, home of the artist), oil on canvas, Galerie Ary Jan, Paris.
2. Achille Lauge - L'Alouette, (The Lark, home of the artist), oil on canvas, Galerie Ary Jan, Paris.

22 March 2020

Ker-Xavier Roussel: The Bucolic Nabi















"Eternity
never was lost.

What we did not know

was how to translate it into days,
skies, landscapes,

into words for others,
authentic gestures.

But holding onto it for ourselves,
that was not difficult,

and there were moments
when it seemed clear to us
we ourselves were eternity."
  - Guillevic, from Guillevic: Selected Poems, translated by Denise Levertov New York, New Directions: 1969,

Summer by the shore signals its presence with glimpses of sea and sky in patches of blue-ish white.    But it is the energy of yellow that conveys the excitement of sand between your toes, the smell of a briny breeze, at the end of the  path.

Ker-Xavier Roussel was in Sallenelles, a small village on the Norman coast in 1905 when he painted this pastel.  Nearby Deauville, well known from artists who painted its broad beaches  over and over again (realists like Gustave Courbet and Eugene Boudin to Claude Monet and Raoul Dufy).  With the extension of the railroad to Trouville in 1863, Deauville changed from a sleepy village to a vacation resort with a casino, numerous hotels and the well-to-do tourists to fill them.  But Sallenelles stayed off the beaten path with few visitors to disturb its two hundred residents.  This may have been its charm for Roussel, inviting the melancholy aspect of his personality.

Etude pour Lucy Hessel a Sallenelles en Normandie exemplifies Roussel's skill at depicting the effects of light filtered through trees and shadows on a sandy path. Deep green tree trunks and boxwood, punctuated by spots of bright, fresh greens. All made possible by his unlocking of the rich textures in the pastel stick.  Roussel's effet de lumiere give a photographic blur to the garden and, as we now know, Vuillard had taken up photography as a hobby, as had his friend Pierre Bonnard.

Nineteen hundred was a moment  when  the Nabis had gotten as much from small decorative paintings and the craze for Japonisme as they wanted;  the centrifugal forces of competing inspirations were drawing its apart. Printmaking and emphatic blocks of color were given a rest.  Already, in the 1890s, Ker-Xavier Roussel had began to experiment with pastels, and he found the medium increasingly congenial the more he used it.  Landscapes  in soft colors,  a melancholy tone, these attributes were reminiscent of the landscapes of Corot and earned Roussel the nickname  "the bucolic Nabi."

Roussel' first summered in Normandy in 1903, renting a house in  the village of Sallenelles.  His wife Marie's brother,  fellow Nabi Edouard Vuillard, was living nearby at Chateau-Rouge in Amfreville with a Belgian friend Jos Hessel.  Hessel's cousin, Gaston Bernheim, ran the gallery that was Vuillard's exclusive dealer.  Hessel's wife Lucy was Vuillard's favorite model and also his mistress for many years.  As Roussel turned more and more to injecting mythological stories into his landscapes, his bucolic scenes seemed to mimic the real-life dramas swirling around his circle. But for this Etude, Lucy was not yet part of the scene as she would be in the penultimate work.

Why Guillevic?  Eugene Guillevic (1909-1997), who went simply by "Guillevic" was from  the French coastal province of Brittany.  

Image:
Ker-Xavier Roussel - Etude pour Lucy Hessel a Sallenelles en Normandie (Study for Lucy Hessel at Sallanelles in Normandy), 1905, pastel on laid paper, Galerie Eric Gilles, Brussels.

18 March 2020

Redicsovering Clara Peeters


"Someone arranged them in 1620.
Someone found the rare lemon and paid
 a lot and neighbored it next
to the plain pear, the plain
apple of the lost garden, the glass of wine, set down
     mid-sip -
don't drink it, someone said, it''s for
the painting."
  - excerpt from "Still Life" by Marianne Boruch

The voice that speaks in Marianne Boruch's poem was not around when Clara Peeters painted Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke and Cherries (circa 1825?). Someone unseen had already left marks on the artist's subjects.  The perpetrator's knife is positioned at the center front of the picture, its effects on the butter, cheese, bread, and artichoke visible. Peeters  made a veritable tower of local produce, artfully displayed (butter perched atop a blue plate) and richly articulated (shaved fragments of a cheese wheel). Butter and cheese, emblems of Dutch pride in their dairy farms were by-products of milk, known as "the noble liquid"

But there is another arrangement, anchored by the pewter charger, painted with a high glaze.  The cherries are reflected and, in turn, reflect the unseen light source to the left on the canvas.   My eye was drawn immediately to the exquisite realism of the artichoke section.  The stem of a cherry may be a nod to the vanitas (from the Latin vanus for emptiness), a type of painting that portrayed of the transience of life and the emptiness of pleasure

Still life as a stand-alone genre emerged during the early decades of the seventeenth century  when increasing prosperity brought a new abundance to ordinary people. Ontbijtjes or "breakfast pieces," pictures that showed the ingredients of a simple meal were very popular. Clara Peeters, one of the few female painters of the time, is credited as a founder of the genre. Her distinction is not owed to the genre itself but to her meticulous brushwork and elegant arrangements.  There were fewer than a half dozen Dutch paintings of food that have been identified from the years before Peeters painted her first known work

About the life of Clara Peeters (1594? - 1657?) we have very little information. She lived in Antwerp and may also have lived in Amsterdam and The Hague. Her earliest works have been dated to 1607 and 1608. It is not known who taught Peeters but speculation has come to rest on Osian Beert (circa 1580-1623) of Antwerp as Peeters' teacher; certainly there are similarities in their style for a genre that was just taking shape.  Objects are arrayed on a table that extends beyond both edges of the canvas; beyond is only inarticulate darkness.  Her earliest works have been dated to 1607 and 1608.  Although Peeters worked mostly with still life, in a painting dated about 1610 she included a figure that is assumed to be a self-portrait, holding a pen in one hand and a timepiece in the other.  The arrangements of objects could to be interpreted symbolically as a vanitas. (from the Latin vanus for emptiness),  an expression of the transience of life and the emptiness of pleasure

We know more about her compatriot Judith Leyster (1609-1660) who was  much admired by her contemporaries but who, like Peeters, faded from memory after her death; many of Leyster's works were attributed to Frans Hals because it was thought that they were too good to be the work of a woman.

Image:
Clara Peeters - Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke and Cherries, circa 1625 ?, oil on board, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

14 March 2020

A Tale Of The Art Market

I. The art market as we now know it was an invention of dealers in late ninetieth century Paris when artists and patrons became buyers and sellers.

The Salon system of art exhibitions was being subjected to increasing and vehement criticism from artists for its bland  selections and threadbare aesthetics.  Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, arguably, the most exciting artists of their day were not welcomed by the salons.

Newly prosperous merchants, bankers, and industrialists had little knowledge of the classics or mythology, frequent subjects of academic and religious paintings.  Unlike  aristocratic patrons of previous centuries, these new collectors lived not in palaces but in houses, large and grand, but still houses.  The new collectors wanted pictures they could enjoy and understand without academic training.  Landscapes, genre scenes from everyday life, and portraits of themselves and their loved ones were what they wanted.

Whether the artists liked it or not, and Eugene Delacroix most emphatically did not, the demand for smaller paintings created a market.  "There is no encouragement for anything but cabinet pictures," Delacroix grumbled.

By the time of the Impressionists  the distinction between art and interior decoration was collapsing.  The artists were Janus-faced, on the one hand deconstructing realism on canvas, on the other catering to the tastes of the newly-minted bourgeoisie. For one, Pierre Bonnard was inspired by the idea of the  standing screen, designing them for specific rooms in his clients' homes.

II. To create a market for Impressionist paintings, dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) camouflaged their radical style with gilded and richly-carved frames that were understood to signify quality. This gambit was described as  a Trojan horse being wheeled before a credulous public.  Durand-Ruel established the solo exhibition, which we now take for granted, as an effective way to build an artist's reputation. He was also the first French dealer to establish a beach-head in the United States. "Without America, I would have been lost, ruined, after buying so many Monets and Renoirs," he admitted. Durand-Ruel's ascendance in the art world was based on a gamble and not without challenges, years of critical opposition, and the financial drain that subsidizing his artists entailed.

III. Born on the remote island of La Reunion, a French colony in the Indian Ocean, Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) was supposed to study law but instead became the leading dealer in contemporary art of his generation.  He opened a gallery in 1893 on rue Lafitte, which became known as the "street of pictures.'  His first major exhibition in 1896 included paintings by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Vlaminck, Roualt, and also Bonnard.

A "marchand-decouvreur," a dealer-discoverer, Vollard shrewdly bought up the contents of entire studios from little known artists at bargain prices.  He drew people out, saying "Dites-moi" meaning 'Tell me, then'.  Somnolence and evasion were Vollard's favored techniques with prospective clients; his eccentric selling techniques including frequent dozing in his gallery, making a point of not showing his clients what they asked to see, and concealing most of his paintings behind a screen at the back of his shop.  All this was neatly captured by Bonnard in Vollard and His Cat (at left).

Vollard himself was full of contradictions and remains an enigma in retrospect.  Opinions of his contemporaries differed greatly.  Some artists like Matisse  considered him a thief  who had exploited his art while others spoke warmly of Vollard's loyalty and generosity to them.  Cezanne was extremely grateful to the dealer for rescuing him from obscurity.   Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, whose gallery supported the next generation, the Cubist painters,  recalled,  "Vollard was very secretive.  He knew how to weave a mystery around his pictures in order to fetch a higher price."

IV. An artist who functioned as a de facto dealer was Mary Cassatt, who moved from Pennsylvania to France in 1874.  She became a friend of Edgar Degas and, through him, met other Impressionists.   After Louisine Elder (later Havemeyer) sailed to Paris in 1873 she was introduced to Cassatt, who would advise her on collecting art after she married the wealthy H.O. Havemeyer who single-handedly controlled the American sugar market.  As collectors, the Havemeyers were able to acquire artworks from landed European aristocrats who were strapped for cash.  Willing buyers met needy sellers.  Henry James, an expatriate American who sided with Europeans was dismayed at the prospect of losing their artistic patrimony, even wrote a novel The Outcry (1911) about it. Fast forward to the 1980s as Western buyers wrung their hands as Japanese collectors went on a buying spree, snapping  up van Goghs and Picassos. Life imitates art imitating life.

For further reading:
1. Paul Durand-Ruel: The man who saved the Impressionists, The Times, UK, 14 Februay 2015.
2. Cezanne to Picasso: patron of the avant-garde, Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Yale University, New Haven: 2006.
Images:
1. Edgar Degas  - Mary Cassatt (and her sister Lydia( at the Louvre, 1879-1885, pastel, private collection.
2. Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Paul Durand-Ruel, 1910, oil on canvas, private collection.
3. Pierre Bonnard - Vollard and his Cat, circa 1904-1905, oil on canvas, Kunsthaus, Zurich.
4. Mary Cassatt - Portrait of Louisine Havemeyer, 1896, pastel, Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont.

09 March 2020

Leon Bonvin In The Walters Museum


"He had the cold beauty of the morning or the heavy hours of the night in which to draw and paint his watercolors."

In five brief years between 1861 and his suicide in 1865, Leon Bonvin created a group of watercolors of such intricacy and luminosity that they vibrate with finely calibrated emotion to the viewer's eye.

What did it cost the artist emotionally to depict.the landscape that immured him poverty and obscurity with such tenderness? Leon Bonvin's life was divided between long hours working as an innkeeper and brief. periods devoted to drawing and painting.  His landscapes work as an expression of his situation;  his garden is populated by friends, while the larger world is viewed  with yearning. (A few years before the evening he painted Country Scene Bonvin had made a charcoal sketch of the yellow house with its distinctive profile seen here in the background at right.)

Everything is these paintings has been imbued with feeling as is early morning on the plain of Issy. Close by are  the fortifications of Paris, unwelcoming by design. Flowering Chrysanthemum is silhouetted against an untended  patch filled with wild carrots, grasses, and weeds.  In the middle distance a farmer stoops to till the soil, visible through a scrim of morning mist.  Beyond  houses and church spires are  rendered in washes of white, just on the edge of dissolving.

So far as anyone knows, Bonvin produced only one oil painting. The lack of means that prevented him from using oil paints confined him to the difficult and relatively unforgiving media of ink and watercolor, but we never register this limitation as a lack in Bonvin's work. He perfected a technique of outlining his forms in sepia ink, achieving  a clarity similar to that produced by photography.


Overlooked in his own time and forgotten after his death (just as Chardin had been before him) Bonvin's work was known to a small circle that included William T. Walters. whose son Henry Walters (1848-1931) founded the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. William began collecting Bonvin's work (56 watercolors and one oil painting) while he waited out the Civil War in Europe and it constitutes the largest collection of Bonvin's in existence.  That these exquisite works came to Baltimore is a quirk of history.

Baltimore, according to  woman who wrote to a  local newspaper in 1809, was "the Siberia of the arts." Apparently the brothers Rembrandt and Rubens Peale thought otherwise when they opened a combination art and natural history curio gallery there in 1812. However, even the considerable reputation of America's first family of the arts was not enough to guarantee success; after just a few years the gallery closed and the Peales moved on.

William Walters might never have gone to Paris, might never have seen the works of Leon Bonvin, if not for Baltimore.  The city sat near the fault line between north and south when the Civil War erupted in 1861. A successful grain merchant and liquor wholesaler, Walters' wealth was had been built on the backs of slaves. When war came, he took his mixed loyalties and his family to Europe.It may be that immersing himself in the French landscape Walters found an escape from trouble.  If so, it was temporary, as Leon Bonvin well knew.

Images:
1. Leon Bonvin - Country Scene, 1865, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.
2. Leon Bonvin - Flowering Chrysanthemum, 1863, Walters Museum, Baltimore.
3. Leon Bonvin - The Rose Bush, 1863, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Bonvin made his watercolors using pen and ink under-drawing, charcoal, iron gall ink and gum varnish on wove paper.

03 March 2020

Leon Bonvin: From An Inn At Vaugirard


"Someone arranged them in 1600.
Someone found the rare lemon and paid
 a lot and neighbored it next
to the plain pear, the plain
plain apple of the lost garden, the glass
of wine, set down mid-sip -
don't drink it, someone said, it's for
the painting. "
 - excerpt from "Still Life" from Grace, Fallen From by Marianne Boruch, Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press: 2008

When I first saw Leon Bonvin's   Still Life with Glass and Jug on a Table  I immediately   thought   of Jean-Baptiste Chardin's Glass of Water and Coffee Pot (1760).  There is character in the mottled surface of the jug and radiance in the crystal clarity of the glass. There is a basic rule of composition that a long unbroken line parallel to the bottom of the picture creates a dead zone but his is ameliorated by the vertical creases in the table cloth.

There is evidence that Bonvin did know about the Parisian art world.  As the Louvre's collection swelled with Napoleon's plunder of other countries,  public interest in art grew.  The idea that art belonged to the people took hold and working people visited the museum that had been a royal fortress.  Chardin's work was being rediscovered in 1850s and 1860s when Bonvin was painting, and, like Chardin, Bonvin chose his objects for their intrinsic interest and not for symbolic reasons. The ultimate precedent for this type of still life were seventeenth century Dutch painting.



Philippe Burty wrote that Bonvin, who had to make time for painting at night, often drew using "a lamp enclosed in a box with a small opening as a light source, a practice that sometimes imparted a slightly acid color to the greens."

The makings for a salad, just picked from the garden, arrayed on the inn's kitchen table are a marvel of observation. His rendering of the intricate mass of celery roots and the medley of greens, yellow, and white of the leaves seems to draw the light. Around this central light-soaked image are onions, herbs, and pepper suggesting  warmth -  they are earth-scented.

One way to create reflections and highlights (particularly in oils) to go over the painted surface a second time with the same colors as Bonvin did here. The variety of materials used to complete this painting


Philippe Burty, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 75, January 1886, 37-51.

Images:
1. Leon Bonvin - Still Life with Glass and Jug on a Table, watercolor and pen & ink, no date given, Louvre Museum, Paris.
2. Leon Bonvin - Still Life with Wine, Water, and Fruits, 1864
3. Leon Bonvin - Still Life on Kitchen Table with Celery, Parsley, a Bowl, and Two Cruets, 1865, watercolor and brush with graphite under-drawing and iron gal ink and gum varnish on heavily textured moderately thick cream wove paper, Walters museum, Baltimore

29 February 2020

The Gentle Art of Leon Bonvin

We see the artist, a cigarette dangling from his lips, holding a palette and wearing a cook's cap.  An image of a bifurcated existence as captured by his brother.  Leon and Francois Bonvin,


Francois (1817-1877), the first child of the family, was born in Paris to a constable and a seamstress. After his mother died when he was four, the father remarried (to another seamstress) and relocated the family to Vaugirard, a small village west of the city where the family grew to number ten children. Leon (1834-1866) was the caboose baby of the Bonvin family.


Both brothers showed an early aptitude for drawing: Francois who grew up in Paris was able to spend time at the Louvre studying its encyclopedic collection, even though he was apprenticed to a printer at thirteen.  Not very healthy and never well to do, the older brother helped the younger as much as he was able, giving materials and encouragement.

Leon was timid and introspective, unable to break away from his domineering and oppressive father.  Francois, already in Paris, was able to  pursue art but Leon was expected to stay at home  working as waiter at the family inn.

Interior of a House with an Open Door could be a metaphoric view of Bonvin's situation, contrasting a narrow, claustrophobic interior with a glimpse of the world beckoning through a blaze of sunlight.

We see the same scene in The Gate and the Door, this time from outdoors and the stone wall lining the road that leads to the larger world is now a formidable obstacle; my sense is of an artist feeling imprisoned by circumstance. And the larger world was coming; Vaugiriard and the adjoining village of Issy were building housing for the people being displaced (gentrified) by Baron Huassmann's urban renewal of the core of  old Paris.


The work of an innkeeper is never-ending, no matter how modest the premises.  During an
impoverished youth, drawing was his pleasure and consolation.  Leon was only able to find time to devote to drawing or painting at dawn and dusk of his very long days. He began drawing with charcoal because it was cheap and paints were expensive. His only formal training would be a period at the Ecole de Dessins in Paris at his brother's urging.

Philippe Burty, in an article that is a major source of information about the artist's life, called Bonvin's marriage in 1861 " a grave event in an existene which had until then been deprived of all tenderness" in the artist's life. Drawings like Waiting Dog and The Rabbit Hutch offer other intimations of  his yearning for companionship that expressed itself in empathetic observation.  The two rabbits peer out of the cupboard by a door that hangs precariously from a broken hinge, their white noses seem to emanate warmth.  For the little dog who waits the sun warms his back and the tree trunk suggests reassurance; yes, his posture seems to say, my people will return.

The winter of 1865 was a bleak one for the Bonvins. Other taverns had opened nearby and Leon felt compelled to build a new inn by going unto dept.  However few customers came and Leon had to take work as a carter at local stone quarries. Their situation was dire.

On January 29, 1866, in desperation Bonvin took his watercolors to Paris.  Unluckily, the first dealer he approached dismissed the works as " too dark, not gay enough."  What must he have felt  to have works of such delicacy and palpable feeling rejected out of hand? Apparently overwhelmed by a sense of futility, Bonvin did not return home but hung himself the next day from a tree in the forest of Meudon, a place that overlooked the plains of Issy that he had depicted with such attentiveness and affection.  The family at home, his wife, his  three children, and the little dog were all bereft.

"My poor brother, in spite of all his efforts, has been overcome by evil fortune, " wrote Francois to Albert de la Fiziliere, a compassionate dealer who organized a group of artists to donate works to a public auction to raise money to ease the family's plight.

It is painful to contemplate Bonvin's pictures. knowing how little recognition or recompense they brought him.  His pictures resonate with emotion, not the exaggerated emotional response to exotic subjects of the Romantics but emotion in service to the truth and accuracy of ordinary people, respecting the truth of their lives.

Philippe Burty- "Leon Bonvin, l'aquarelliste" in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, New York: Decmber 1885.

Images:
1. Francois Bonvin - Portrait of Leon Bonvin, no date given, charcoal and ink private collection, France.
2. Leon Bonvin - A Room with a Door Opening to a Courtyard and a Road, charcoa and ink, Louvre Museum, Paris
3. Leon Bonvin -. Gate and Wall near the Maison Bonvin, charcoal and ink, Louvre Museum, Paris.
4. Leon Bonvin - The Rabbit Hutch, 1856, charcoal and ink, Louvre Museum, Paris.
5. Leon Bonvin - Waiting Dog, charcoal and ink, Louvre Museum, Paris.

19 February 2020

Irene Rice Pereira: Vacillating Progression


"We don't see things as they are,
we see them as we are." - Anais Nin

"...these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words," - Vincent van Gogh in a letter to Theo van Gogh and Jo van Gogh-Bonger, July 10, 1890

So here I am using words to suggest that when we think we don't understand a work of art it is because we don't have ready language to describe it.  Naming, describing, and possessing get all tangled up  and can distract us from experiencing the art work by seeing it.  Information is not experience although it can add to the our experience.

Vacillating Progression (1949) is Irene Rice Pereira's finest work, a singular gem, and I use the term advisedly because it works in three dimensions. Constructed of  smooth and corrugated glass painted with oil and plastic paint,  the undulating glass surface allows the viewer to see the pattern move as if under water.

When she began exhibiting her work under the name I. Rice Pereira, viewers assumed that the artist was male.   Pereira had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946,  among the first women to have solo exhibitions in highly visible New York City museums, along with Georgia O'Keeffe and Loren MacIver. Although her works were abstract, she was never accepted by the predominantly male Abstract Expressionists who disdained both the work and the assertive personality of the artist herself.

I cannot give you the experience of this kinetic artwork but I can give you encouragement to seek it out in person and to see more work by the sui generis Irene Rice Pereira.

Pereira was born Irene Rice in Chelsea< Massachusetts in 1902, the eldest of five children.  After her father's death in 1918, the family moved to Brooklyn and Irene began working as a stenographer to support her siblings.  At the same time she began taking courses at the Art Students League in 1927.  By 1931, she had saved enough money to travel to Europe where she studied the primitive Renaissance masters of Italy and  to North Africa where the quality of the light and the expanse of the Sahara inspired an almost mystical reverence for light that is embodied in Vacillating Progression

Image: Irene Rice Pereira (1905-1971) - Vacillating Progression, 1949, oil & plastic paints on undulating glass, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica, NY.

14 February 2020

How to Tell if You're Hard-Boiled


A plane crashes into your boudoir? Oh well, these things happen.  A girl wants to finish making up before she heads out for the day.

A school girl's riddle: Why do males disappear before Thanksgiving and only reappear after the New Year?  If you have heard this one and you know the answer then, yes, you are hard-boiled.

To be hard-boiled is to have am adamantine attitude.  Often associated with detective novels, it was incubated in Manhattan, the first truly sophisticated American city.  Prohibition was the petri dish

Before the New Yorker debuted in 1925, Vanity Fair was the journal of the diamond cut on the hardness scale.  It was in its pages that Stephen Leacock wondered in 1915, "Are the Rich Happy?"   To begin with, he had trouble finding them. "Very often I had thought that I had found them, but it turned out that it was not so. They were not rich at all. They were quite poor. They were hard up.  They were pinched for money. They didn't know where to turn for ten thousand dollars."

Leacock was followed by Dorothy Rothschild Parker, as she was then known, who published a series of "Hate Songs," satirical verses  in which she trained her gimlet eye on various  of city life - office politics, the whims of actresses, the shortcomings of one's relatives and, of course, men.  Although she was only twenty-three at the time, Parker was already a walking anthology of hard edges.  Husbands, Parker decreed, were "The White Woman's Burden" and concluded, "I wish to Heaven somebody would alienate their affections."

Image: Tim Ford - photographic collage, for Vogue, UK, London.

08 February 2020

A Portrait: From Otakar Kubin to Othon Coubine


Here is another portrait of a woman painted by a man in which the woman, self-possessed, keeps her own counsel.  Do not look to these portraits (see also Rosabianca Skira below) either for psychological secrets or for adversarial revelations.  Redolent of inner harmony yet  revealing little of the life story within, the young woman in the pullover sweater may have come to France from another place; this could have evoked a sense of kinship in an atist who had left his own country. The colors here are muted and harmonious, the brushwork careful and understated; the bouquet of garden flowers adds a bravura touch,

Born in 1883 in Czechoslovakia, Otakar Kubin studied sculpture at the Academy in Prague, graduating in 1905. But Kubin found work as a drawing instructor. In 1912, urged on by his wife,  they abruptly moved to Paris.  There he changed his name to Othon Coubine and a promising painting career was interrupted during WWI when the couple were interned in a prison camp at Bordeaux.  In 1919 Coubine received the first of many solo exhibitions that were greeted with enthusiasm by critics and public alike. His work fit in with the new School of Paris.  His French translation of his name, along with his new French style of painting, caused consternation and ridicule back in Bohemia.

The death of a newborn son and the illness and death of his wife effectively made  a second caesura in Coubine's life as surely as his emigration had.  Isolated from his artist friends, he grieved alone in the beautiful Provencal countryside, seeking inner peace through painting. Delicate lyrical landscapes and bouquets of meadow flowers became signature offerings.  In his last years he experienced artistic isolation yet again. He died in Marseille in the autumn of 1969.

How this painting come into the collection of the Musee de l'Annees Trentre I don't know but the museum specializes in the works  of artists from countries other than F rance, along with modern sacred art, sculptue, and decorative arts of the 1930s.  Work by Henry de Waroquier and Robert Mallet-Stevens are included in the collection.


Image: Othon Coubine - A mulatto woman with bouquet of flowers, no date given, Musee de l'Annees Trente (1930s), Boulogne-Billancourt, France.

02 February 2020

Rosabianca Skira-Venturi: Polymath in the Art World

























She was a young married woman when the artist Balthus painted Portrait of Rosabianca Skira in Paris in 1949.  The half-Jewish Balthus had fled Nazi-occupied France for Switzerland where he met  Skira  in 1946.  In an interview with Sabine Rewald, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mme Skira-Venturi recalled that the portrait was completed in just a few sessions and that the red coat she wore was actually the artist's bathrobe. The portrait has a trompe l'oiel painted frame on which the sitter's arm rests. She appears self-protective, with her arms folded and her gaze averted from the viewer - and the artist. She is posed in three quarter view, the same pose of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.  I make that comparison because Rosabianca similarly has a long nose and heart-shaped mouth with a pronounced cupid's bow.  I am left wondering what Rosabianca Skira made of Balthus' exploitative paintings of young girls.   As this portrait makes apparent, in Rosabianca Skira he had to take the measure of an equal.

Rosabianca Skira grew up in a home surrounded by art.  She was the daughter of Italian art historian Lionello Venturi and sister of Franco Venturi, also an art historian.  When Lionello Venturi refued to swear allegiance to Mussolini's dictatorship, he left his university professorship and moved the family to Paris. Rosabianca  married Swiss publisher Albert Skira, and worked at Skira Editions in Geneva as  author, translator, and editor.  Albert had founded the international art press Editions Skira in 1928 and it became renowned for the high quality of its color reproductions.

When Albert unexpectedly died in 1973, Rosabianca took over as publisher but eventually sold the family business to Flammarion of Paris.  Under the name Rosabianca Skira-Venturi she wrote several art books for children, notably the series of Weekend books...with Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, and also co-authored Italian Painting: The Creators of the Renaissance, with her father, published by Skira in 1952.

Balthus, born Balthazar Klossowski de Rola in Paris, grew up in three countries.   Intellectuals like Rilke, Gide, and Cocteau were frequent visitors during his childhood.  As an adult Balthus befriended avant-garde artists including Picasso and Alberto Giacometti.  His debut as an artist was a book of drawings with a preface by Rilke that was published in 1921.  An enigmatic character, he fabricated more than his name, creating a life story that was more story than anything else.  Essentially self-taught, Balthus became a great figurative painter and a controversial one for his erotically charged pictures of young girls.  His "school" was the Louvre where he learned the techniques of the old masters, especially fresco painters of the early Renaissance.  From them he learned to use the matte surfaces and muted colors we see in Portrait of Rosabianca Skira.

For further reading:  Albert Skira et ses livres d'art by Corisande Evesque.

Image: Balthus - Portrait of Rosabianca Skira, 1949, on on board, Barry Friedman Collection, NYC.

27 January 2020

In the Pantry with Juan Sanchez Cotan



"They lie
under stars in a field.
They lie under rain in a field,
Under the sun.

Some people
are like this as well -
like a painting
hidden beneath another painting.

An unexpected weight
the sign of their ripeness."
  - "Green Striped Melons" by Jane Hirschfield

"There was a melon fresh from the garden/So ripe the knife slurped/As it cut it into slices." from "The Melon" by Charles Simic

Ah, melons.  One of the first fruits to be cultivated by domestic gardeners, loved for its juicy sweetness. Melon takes center stage in Juan Sanchez Cotan's  Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber.  The melon and the wedge that has been cut from it do not make up a whole melon, implying a human presence as still life paintings often do. The practice of hanging the quince and cabbage was meant  to keep them from spoiling when refrigeration was not available. The cucumber placed over the edge of the sill is an enigmatic gesture or is perhaps intended to show Cotan's mastery of shadowing.  These pristine objects are the fruits of contemplation.

Typically, a still life inhabits low space to bring the viewer close to the objects.  A human presence is often implied but unseen. The gray frame in Cotan's painting is called a bodegon in Spanish, a pantry. The black rectangle behind is an abstraction, seemingly unrelated to the humble store room but perhaps symbolic of some preternatural vastness  of existence.  

Still life as a genre has been around since antiquity but it has usually been regarded as one of the lowliest of art forms.  During Medieval and Renaissance times symbolic and religious meanings were attached to objects that appeared in paintings. With an abundance of materials goods available to a newly prosperous mercantile class in seventeenth century Holland, everyday objects began to seem interesting subjects in themselves. A paradox of still life: it can be suffused with meaning but not necessarily intended to convey a message.  Not every painting is like Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding.

Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1627) was a Spanish artist of the Baroque period (barroco or flawed pearl was a term borrowed from Portuguese). Cotan introduced realism into still life painting in his country, but  differently than the lavish materialism of his Dutch contemporaries. His austere style has been attributed to his years at a Carthusian monastery in Segovia. The Carthusians encouraged the practice of solitude and contemplation; we can see both qualities in Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber. Norman Bryson suggested in Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting that Cotan deliberately arranged them to reflect his  monastic life.  I see them as being suffused with a spiritual  equanimity.

Image: Juan-Sanchez Cotan - Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, 1602, oil on canvas, San Diego Museum of Art,

17 January 2020

Thinking of Antonioni & Bergman


"Why is youth so unmerciful?  And who has given them permission to be?"
   - Ingmar Bergman

Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, idiosyncratic film makers whose work inspired and influenced countless younger colleagues in the post-WWII era, died on the same day, July 30, 2007.

Ingmar Bergman may have been thinking of posterity when he made the comment about youth. In his autobiography The Magic Lantern, Bergman dismissed the Italian director as an amateur and a man suffocating from boredom. Bergman was only slightly more gallant in his assessment of Antonioni's partner in films of the early 1960s, Monica Vitti, acknowledging her talent while disparaging her technique.  Antonioni, by contrast, said that his opinions were in his films. I wonder if he had ever heard what G. K. Chesterton said: "For views I look out the window, my opinions I keep to myself."  And yet both were preoccupied with loneliness, tantalization, and miscommunication.  Ah, the narcissism of small differences. 

In his films Bergman worried the question of God like a bone, coming at it from every angle.  For his part, Antonioni told the London Telegraph that Bergman's only interest was in finding answers from God, whereas he was content to explore metaphysical questions without seeking answers, a rather Buddhist position.  "You wonder what to look at. I wonder how to live.  It's the same thing."  Antonioni puts these sentiments in the mouth of a character in Red Desert (1964).  Bergman the moralist only admitted his past as a Nazi in 1999; possibly it had slipped his mind for half a century while he was otherwise occupied .  As for the timing of their deaths, Bergman went first.

The son of a prosperous family from the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, Antonioni  witnessed firsthand the depredations of poverty.  The film maker told the critic Aldo Tassone, "I always had sympathy for the young women of working-class families."  He also was prescient in recognizing the environmental devastation caused by the postwar prosperity brought to the region by the booming petrochemical industry.

Bergman grew up in Uppsala, Sweden, the son of a Lutheran minister, in a home surrounded by religious images and lessons.  Often locked in dark closets by his self-righteous father for minor misbehavior, the young Ingmar said that he lost his faith at the age of eight but  retained its moral preoccupations  that later became the subtext in his films.

Even today Antonioni and Bergman have something in common.  Their work is thought of as old-fashioned and not relevant to our interests.  That may change and, if it does, my hunch is that Red Desert, Antonioni's vision of a world made infernal by humans, will be understood as prophetic, a tale foretold

Image: Emile Galle - Tremble, no date given, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

11 January 2020

Paul-Emile Colin: A Breton Winter



His name sounds vaguely familiar, one of those names that flesh out a list of friends of (insert name of famous artist here) but the French artist Paul-Emile Colin (1867-1949) merits our attention for something more than the company he kept.  And what company it was. Gauguin, Serusier, Maurice Denis, Emile Bernard and the others who formed the School of Pont-Aven, a group of painters who  used  bright colors, boldly applied and  not shading or Western perspective.  

When the railway line from Paris to Quimper opened in 1862 artists discovered the Breton coast. Connection to a rail line was the surest guarantee of popularity, especially given the rough state of roads at that time. Brittany had been inhabited for hundreds of thousands of years but not for the habitability of its climate. Winters were hard and the people struggled to farm the rocky soil and fish the treacherous waters of the Atlantic. Colin's Trois pommiers en hiver  exists in a different universe than Emile Bernard's  Madeleine in the  Bois d'Amour  although they were inspired by the same locale.  Madeleine dreaming in the forest of love is redolent of spring and symbolism.  Those three apple trees, bare branches at the mercy of the cold, look as though the artist and possibly all of Brittany was beseeching the sun to return quickly. The woman in Colin's Resources d'hiver  could be Madeleine's grandmother.  Bent with age, she is blown along by the cold wind that increases the travail of carrying her kindling..

"A fairground barker, a troubadour, or a pirate" able to "exude energy from every pore" was how Colin described his famous friend Paul Gauguin.  The two met at Le Pouldu, a fishing village on the Breton coast in 1890.  Later in his life, Colin experimented with color  under the influence, he admitted,  of Gauguin's example.  But Colein did not need color for the effects he wanted in his pictures and it added little to its impact.   He was determined to compose line-defined images and lithography was a medium that suited him very well. It also opened a niche for him int he group that surrounded Gauguin at Pont-Aven. It is intriguing to consider that  he acknowledged Gauguin as a influence when the older man was anything but a skilled draftsman.  

Though Vincent van Gogh was not at Pont-Aven, by the time Colin was there many of the artists had seen van Gogh's work and there is a similar mood and technique in Colin's work.  The vagaries of the art market being what they are, if only the name of van Gogh was attached to these impressive works they would be much better known and much more expensive to acquire.


Depending on who told the story, Colin was either a medical doctor who amued himself by making art during his vacations or a man with a passion for art who needed to support himself with more certain employment.  By 1901 colin had achieved enough success with his engravings that he felt confident enough for the future that he was able to give up practicing medicine to become a full-time artist.

Images: courtesy of Bibliotheque de Institut nationale d'histoire et de l'art, Paris.
1.Pauk Colin - Trois pommiers en hiver (Three Apple Trees in Winter), no date given
2. Paul Colin - Resources d'hiver (Winter Resources), 1902
2. Paul Colin - Eglise de Galluis (Church in Galluis), no date given

05 January 2020

Lotte Laserstein: A Modern Woman Paints Modern Women

"Paradise is yours for a dime."
- Ivan Goll (1891-1950) on cinema, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers

"They did not look.
They envisioned.
They did not photograph.
They had visions.
Instead of the rocket they created the perpetual state of excitement."
- Kasimir Edschmid (1890-1966), translated from the German by Walter H. Sokel

During the interwar years everything  novel seemed unprecedented, nowhere more so than  in the new Weimar Republic.  More progress was being visited upon people than ever before.   Berlin, which had a population of 800,00 in 1870, had grown to more than four million by 1920.  Everything was accelerating, from the speed of travel and  news to the pace of everyday life.  Gaiety was in the air  but also an unstable nervous energy.

 From her birthplace in eastern Prussia, Lotte Laserstein (1898-1993), daughter of a watch maker and a piano teacher, came to Berlin, where she was one of the first female students accepted by the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts.  While there she won the Academy's Gold Medal which entitled her to her own studio.  She discovered an affinity with the paintings of the 17th century Ditch artist Franz Hals.  Did she ever know that of many of them attributed to Hals had been painted by a woman, Judith Leyster?  Laserstein herself would accomplish something new - portraying the modern woman in he nascent state.

Woman in a Red Beret is a realistic portrait that wears its modernism lightly.  The paint is applied openly to the canvas, without undue artifice.  There are two distinct and visible stylistic levels in the picture; the upper portion is finely detailed  while the lower remains sketchy.  The subject, in red dress, hat, and lipstick is self-contained, with no need of a backdrop.

In the early 1930s Lasertein participated in the Berlin Women Artists Association.  To support herself she took various odd jobs, including the illustration of an anatomy textbook. But in 1933 Lasersterin was classified  as "three quarters Jewish" under the new Nazi racial laws, making her continued career untenable. Whether on not she knew that  her masterpiece Evening Over Potsdam had been labeled "degenerate,"  Laserstein was forced to close her studio in 1935.

Laserstein sensed that she needed to leave Germany even as three of her paintings enjoyed success at the 1937 Paris World's Fair. An invitation to exhibit at Galleri Modern in Stockholm that year became her exit plan.With help from the Jewish community in Stockholm Laserstein became a Swedish citizen in 1938. But she was unable to bring her mother to safety; Meta Laserstein was deported to Ravensbruck concentration camp where she died at age seventy-five in 1943.   Lotte Laserstein lived in Sweden for the rest of her life and died  there in 1993.  But it is the work she created during those frenetic interwar years that are her legacy

Fittingly, the first painting purchased by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 1988 was  Lotte Laserstein's  Traute  (Trust), painted in 1930.

Image:
Lotte Laserstein - Woman In A Red Beret, circa 1928 1933, charcoal, pastel,  chalk, gouache, ad oil on paper, Berlinische Galerie, Bonn.