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.  His luminous fruits and vegetables inhabit their own spheres much like the inhabitants of the monastery at Segovia.

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

17 January 2020

Thinking About 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. Antonioni who was ninety-five and Bergman who was eighty-nine had seen almost two centuries between them but no the same ones; Bergman looked to the past where Antonioni looked at the present as a warning, a canary in a mineshaft.

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 immobilized by boredom. Antonioni could have responded that Bergman was a man immobilized by depression. 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.

The German filmmaker Wim Wenders dedicated his 2006 picture Palermo Shooting to Antonioni and Bergman.

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.