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.

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 aspects 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.

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.