31 March 2020

Hope Mirrlees: An Underground Modernist

"I want a holophrase

Holophrase...a word phrase that expresses a meaningful thought and here, taken from street signs, is a capsule description of modernism in Paris, circa 1919, beginning with  NORD-SUD, the sign above the  entrance to the Metro, that opened in 1910.  Like the fragmentation and multiple perspectives of a Cubist painting, Hope Mirrlees' Paris: A Poem is a literary vision of the overthrow of narrative in favor of the mythical.  And what better vehicle is there to express the irrational side of a rational  scientific age.

The time is spring of 1919, the place is Paris, the city where peace notations to finalize the end of the Great War are ongoing.  At the same time people are mourning the dead.  Mirrlees alludes to this with "subterranean sleep of five long years"  as the paintings in the Louvre are brought up from their underground storage to be rehung, unlike the dead who will never from their slumbers. 

The Louvre is melting into mist
It will soon be transparent
And through it will glimmer the mysterious island
gardens of the Place du Carousel.
The Seine, old egotist, meanders imperturbably to the sea
Ruminating on weeds and rain
If through his sluggish watery sleep come dreams
They are the blue ghosts of kingfishers."

How we take for granted the tropes of modernism, its combination of high and low art forms, the juxtaposition of religion, art, and literature with fragments of advertisements and snippets of overheard conversations, all experienced at warp speed.

Paris: A Poem is also modern in its pan-European reach.  On the first page, Mirrlees uses her knowledge of Greek for "Brekekekek coax coax" to imitate the noise made by frogs in the Aristophanes play of the same name.  

The poem takes the form of a journey around the city of Paris.  Just as the Metro began in Montmartre and proceeded to Monparnasse, it traced the route taken by artist and writers in their ascendance from bohemian quarters to the Left Bank.  Mirrlees drew on Baudelaire's persona of the flaneur, the wanderer in the city, but for her it was the Metro that was the vehicle.  She shared with Aristophanes a fascination with the underworld ("we are passing under the Seine"), a journey into the modern underworld made possible by engineering.

Hope Mirrlees (1887-1978) was born in Kent, hear London, and grew up there and in Scotland and South Africa.  She studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and then studied Greek at Cambridge University where her tutor was the prolific classicist Jane Ellen Harrison (Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion), one of the founders of the modern study of ancient Greece.  The two women formed a lifelong bond, dividing their time between the United Kingdom and France.

Published in 1920 as a chapbook limited edition of 175 copies  by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at their Hogarth Press, Paros: A Poem was never reprinted.  Three years later the Hogarth Press also published the first edition of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.  Both poems use unconventional typography and prominently feature rivers, the Seine in Mirrlees, the Thames on Eliot, but Mirrlees came first.

As significant as Paris; A Poem was in the development of literary modernism, it has lacked champions, Julia Briggs being the most vocal in calling attention to "modernism's lost masterpiece, a work of extraordinary energy and intensity, scope and ambition,  written in a confidently experimental and avant-garde voice."

In its afterlife, Mirrlees' poem went underground.  When Mirrlees converted to Roman Catholicism after Harrison's death, she refused to allow it to be reprinted; she now considered it to include blasphemies.  In 1973, Mirrlees edited it for republication but the journal she was working with folded before the poem appeared.

To read abut another modernist poet: Guido Gozzano

Amedeo Modigliani - Jeanne Hebuterne, 1919, oil on canvas, private collection

18 March 2020

Rediscovered: 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.

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.
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.

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.

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