30 June 2020

Luigi Settanni: An Artist's Brittany

I. We see men and women standing on a shore, symbolically separated by a boat that seems to be taking on water.  Drowning in the choppy, unpredictable waters of the Atlantic was a constant worry, especially to the families  of the fishermen waiting at home on the Breton shore.  Outsize gulls perch on the shoal at the upper left of the canvas, a nice touch to remind us that this painting aspires to something other than literal representation. In is a Fauvist gesture, Luigi Settanni  has uncoupled  color from its descriptive task, freeing it to express the painter's emotional reaction to his subject.

The tall white headdresses the women wear are traditional Breton coiffe. headdresses  made of lace: Although differing in style from town to town, the caps signify the age and marital status of the wearer;  the ones pictured here are called Bigouden, a tall cylinder of starched lace recognized throughout France.  Dressed in the traditional costume and decorative apron, they are known  as bigoudiennes.  This tells us that we are in the vicinity of Pont l'Abbe near the Bay of Audierne on the south shore of Finistere. And although northwestern France has been settled for millennia, the Bigoudien is a relatively recent sartorial invention.

Port Manech on the coast of Brittany is part of Finistere, the westernmost Department of France that derives its name from the Latin Finis Terrae meaning end of the earth. Jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded on three sides by water, Finistere is remote in many ways.  This is the area where the Breton language has survived most strongly; five per cent of the population  speak Breton rather than French. The countryside is rugged, owing to its rocky soil.

II. In Landscape in Brittany - Pont l'Abbe figure (below) Settanni paints the ground blue, as if to remind the viewer that the sea dominates every corner of Breton life.  This makes it appear as though the sea has jumped the stone wall to surround the houses. The figure of the woman reminds us that while the men were away on fishing expeditions, the women waited at home and watched the sea. Thickly applied strokes and daubs of paint lend richness  to a scene that some dismiss as impoverished and lacking in interest.

III. I have not been able to unearth much information about Luigi Settanni (August 21, 1908-1984) other than that he was born in Italy and moved to the United States in his twenties. He enrolled at the Philadelphia Museum School (now the University of the Arts) and went on to study at the Barnes Foundation in Merion from 1933-1941, where he became a protege of Dr. Albert C. Barnes. We can infer that Settanni did not have much money and that opportunities to study art could have drawn him to emigrate.

Settanni was able to visit Morocco in early 1935 on a Barnes scholarship. There are eleven paintings by Settanni in the collection of the Barnes Foundation, all made before 1940.   On the evidence of the paintings, he spent considerable time in northern France,  circa 1938-1939. Presumably, it was the outbreak of World War II brought him back to the States. His paintings, even those that portray life in the hard-bitten fishing villages of Brittany, are full of joie de vivre.

Luigi Settanni at the Barnes Foundation

1. Luigi Settani - Port-Manech, 1939, oil on canvas, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
2. Luigi Settanni - Landscape in Brittany - Pont l'Abbe figure, 1939, oil on canvas, mounted on board, Barnes Foundation.

23 June 2020

An Artist of the Silver Age: Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva

"How much has been said and written about the White Nights. How they were hated by those who could not get used to them, and how passionately they were loved by others....." - Alexandre Benois

How the northernmost capitol city in the world, bathed in pale light when not shrouded in total  winter darkness, became a city of light-worshiping artists is a story told in silver. From 1890 to 1920 St. Petersburg, Russia was the center of the Russian art world during a period that came to known as the Silver Age. It was also a time of tremendous social and political upheavals.

"Never has classical architecture had so much space to breathe." - Joseph Brodsky from "The Child of Civilization" in Poems and Essays.

St. Petersburg exists because Peter the Great wanted a better seaport than the one he had inherited from his predecessors. The site of a former Swedish fortress on the Baltic Sea was too attractive to pass up so, in 1703, a new city arose on infilled marshland, built by Russian peasants and Swedish prisoners. After Czar Alexabder II abolished serfdom in 1861, a new wave of peasants, thid time vollunarily, poured into the city in search of work. But marshland is an unhealthy place for people to live and the city was never built to support a large population. Without  much of a middle class, St. Petersburg was majestic buildings surrounded by  a sea of human misery.  It remained the capitol of Russia until the Bolsheviks moved the government seat  to Moscow in 1918. The city is home to the Hermitage Museum founded in 1764 and the second largest museum in the world.

St. Petersburg's majestic buildings cluster around the Neva River and a series of canals.  Devastating fire. common in the 18th century, destroyed the city's wooden structures but from the ashes came  enlightened urban planning, thanks to Russia's female monarchs, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. Pink marble from nearby quarries in Finland was used to reinforce the canal embankments and ice cream colored stucco buildings cast a warm glow on the watery reflections of  the gray northern light.

Bored by realism and enchanted by the artifice of  western Symbolism, Russian artists of the 1890s were ready for the next new thing. That is how St. Petersburg became a magnet for artists not lucky enough to be have been born there.  Sergei Prokofiev left Moscow to study at the St. Petersburg  Conservatory where he debuted the experimental composition Sarcasms in 1912.  Another Muscovite, Alexander Scriabin made his debut as a pianist in the city, later  proclaiming that his music heralded the coming of the apocalypse.  The new had arrived.

Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) was the magazine that inspired a movement. Artists yearned to reclaim the formal and technical rigor that seemed lost in the laxity of late 19th century Russian art. Its members dubbed themselves the miriskusniki. They excelled in art forms that required extraordinary concentration. The founding members of the  World of Art group included Sergei Diaghilev, Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst, and Konstantin Somov. Their philosophy  was summed up by Benois  as "not this, not that or the other in isolation, but everything together."

Benois had returned to his native city to take  the directorship of the Mariinsky Theater,  home of the Imperial Ballet. Paris had been exciting but Russian ballet was about to set fire to the stage thanks, in large part, to the efforts of Diaghilev and Bakst and to Benois,  their librettist and set designer. Sergei Makovsky would declare with good reason in 1910, "Over the last ten years Russian art has done the work of a whole generation."

A newcomer to Mir Iskusskva, Anna Ostroumovaa-Lebedeva (1871-1955)  was a loyal resident of her native city, throughout  the  name changes decreed by successive regimes. Born in St. Petersburg  which became Petrograd after the 1917 Revolution, she died in Leningrad in 1955. On May 4, 1901,  When students demonstrating at  the Kazan Cathedral had been beaten and some even killed by the Tsar's police in 1901, Ostroumova-Lebedeva took to bed for two days with what she described as a mental breakdown.  Whatever her inner turmoil, it never surfaced in her art. When the riots of the 1905 Revolution were brutally suppressed by the Tsar, life in Russia seemed to take on the more horrific aspects of the Symbolist vision. Nevertheless, that same year Anna married Sergei Lebedev, a chemist.

If St. Petersburg was Russia's window to Europe, it opened onto Paris.  Shortly after arriving in Paris, Ostroumova-Lebedeva and Alexandre Benois met at the home of their mutual friend Konstantin Somov. Ostroumova and Somov were both students of James McNeill Whistler.  An erratic teacher at best, Whistler had implored Ostroumova to accompany him to America for further study although he had initially dismissed her contemptuously: "But you can do nothing, you know nothing, I can't teach you!"  In her memoirs, Ostroumova-Lebedeva recalled his unorthodox teaching methods.  "Many things surprised me or even seemed quite funny to me: the complete lack of freedom or any independence and the absolute to all rules insisted on by Whistler." In addition, "To mix colors on a palette one had to use a special  method insisted on by Whistler and if you try to d it your own way your neighbors grab hold of your hands because they watch you the whole time."

For Ostroumova, the impetus to study in Paris was partly practical.  "My father has told us many times, that he will not be able to support us in the future, that he will give us a good education, and that we will have to earn our living."  While Anna chose art, her sister Sonia chose chemistry. From 1900 until the October Revolution Anna traveled frequently around Europe. At home she participated in the Community of St. Eugenia, a group that funded the building of hospitals, trained nurses, and sheltered the poor.  It was disbanded by the Communist Part in 1920 on the ground that charity was no longer needed in a workers' state.

Ostroumova-Lebedeva  pioneered the use of the woodcut print in Russian art.  Her cityscapes of old St. Petersburg are much admired for their architectural elegance; I am intrigued by her attention to the developing industrial aspects of the modern metropolis, a subject that was derided by her fellow miriskusnikiLeningrad Fishing Boys (at left) shows a group of little boys dwarfed by a warship in 1942. Among other accomplishments, she reinvigorated the medium of engraving and introduced her countrymen to Japanese prints. Like Benois, she put painting aside in favor of other media.

From 1918 to 1922 Ostroumova-Lebedeva taught at the Institute of Photography and, after 1934, at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts.  In the meantime, Benois had become a curator of paintings at the Hermitage Museum; while there he published a monograph on Ostroumova-Lebedva's work. But Benois left definitively for Paris in 1927.  Ostroumova-Lebedeva  lived through the  872 day Siege of Leningrad during World War II, continuing to record the life of her beloved city. Her images of boys fishing near a warship or bridges under construction reveal her interest in photography. Sadly, she became blind soon after her wartime ordeal, possibly due to its severe deprivations.  She died on May 5, 1955.

Read about The Other St. Petersburg

Images: Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, State Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia, except as noted
1. View of the Fortress at Night from The Leningrad Series,1946
2. View of the Neva River and the Stock Exchange from the Trinity Bridge, 1912
3. The Ekatarina Canal, 1910
4. St. Petersburg Chain Bridge, 1903
5. Filipp Maliavin - Portrait of Anna Ostroumova, 1896, oil on canvas
6. Leningrad Fishing Boys, 1942

13 June 2020

Vilhelm Hammershoi: Aslant

Aslant is good point of view to the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1915). Sun slanting obliquely through a window is remarkable in this context because you look around and  notice doors viewed aslant, and even entire rooms. You may not recognize the British Museum from this side view across Montague Street, so much less familiar that the frontal facade. Did Hammershoi choose his London apartment for that view? It is worth pondering.

I. Hammershoi was a quiet, diffident person whose paintings have fascinated viewers by their withheld quality; there is something more at work here than arrangements of furniture and architecture.  Ostensibly realistic paintings  vibrate with a tension unique this artist; the frequency of imitations testifies to its power.     

II. In trying to explain what is difficult to pin down with words, rumors have run amok.   One  had it that Ida Isted, Hammershoi's wife, suffered from the mental illness that plagued her mother.  From letters Vihelm wrote to his mother, we learn that his concern for Ida's welfare led him to urge  her to marry him as soon as possible to get her away from a perfervid home. Another recurring rumor is that Hammershoi was colorblind because he painted soft colors; in fact, he simply preferred them.  And although Hammershoi enjoyed many travels with Ida during their marriage, being especially fond of the soft quality of the light in London  where they lived for several month in 1906.  Yet the idea persists that he didn't like traveling. 

III. The German language poet Rainer Maria Rilke spent several years in Paris, writing a successful monograph on the sculptor Auguste Rodin between 1903 and 1907. He hoped to follow it with a monograph on Hammershoi but it was never completed. Upon visiting Hammershoi in Copenhagen, Rilke found it difficult to converse with the artist..

IV. Researchers at the Hirschsprung collection in Copenhagen have yet to examine and catalog many drawings and letters by Hammershoi, a daunting task as it turns out: the man wrote more than he talked, it seems. The drawings show a precocious talent for drawing - and experiments with bright colors.

V. A dentist who collected Hammershoi's work donated twenty-eight paintings to the Danish State Museum for Art, thinking to secure the artist's place in history but in the 1930s Hammershoi's work went out of style and the museum gave the pictures back.  Too late, they realized their mistake; the damage had done, the paintings had been sold and dispersed.

VI. In a bit of serendipity, expatriate American musician Scott Walker, living in England, wrote a song for hs first solo album in 1967 titled Montague Terrace (In Blue); his girlfriend, soon to be wife, was  Mette Teglbjaerg an expatriate Denmark.

VII.  Terence Davies, a British film director acclaimed for atmospheric films, has talked about looking to Hammershoi's interior paintings  for inspiration for his two most recent films:  Sunset Song (2015) based on the novel of the same name by Scottish writer  Lewis Grassic Gibbons and A Quiet Passion (2016) with a script written by Davies, based on the life of Emily Dickinson.
1. Vilhlm Hammershoi - Sunshine in the Drawing Room, 1910, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
2. Vilhelm Hammershoi -  Bedroom - Strandgade 30, 1906, oil on canvas, private collection.
3. Vilhelm Hammershoi -  British Museum from Montague Street, 1906, oil on canvas.

08 June 2020

Charles Prendergast: An Offering

"Under the bright glazes
Esau watches Jacob,
Cain watches Abel.
With the same heavy eyes
the tilemaker's Arab assistant
watches me,
all of us wondering
why for every pair
there is just one
 - excerpt from "At the Armenian Tile Shop" from Mosaic by Linda Pastan, from PM.AM: New & Selected Poems, W.W. Norton: 1998

The subject of The Offering by Charles Prendergast was inspired by artistic depictions of the Annunciation. In this re-imagining a female angel with elaborate medievalized wings and an elegant Renaissance left-facing profile,  offers a basket containing flowers and fruits to a woman.  The woman's dress might be stylistically linked to Greece or Egypt, her hairstyle is similar to that seen on statues of  Roman goddesses.  She  holds a basket of daisies in her right hand and grasps an impossibly long tulip in her left; she is participating in an exchange of grace.  A Byzantine mosaic of a tree grows between the two women, perhaps the tree of life.

 A Raphael-esque putti plays a pipe; the chubby line of his cheek always makes me smile when I look at it.  At lower right a fawn nibbles grass.  Against an abstract background a single cloud floats by. Charles Prendergast has used the Roman  technique of atmospheric perspective, by which light colors were brought forward. And it contains these many of art historical references harmoniously.

For the ancient Greeks, offerings were reciprocal exchanges of grace, made spontaneously and bountifully. And they are still an important feature of modern Greek religion. The Offering was an homage to old wall paintings made around 1915, three years after Prendergast made his first gesso panel. He lived at a time when old worlds were being rediscovered, the arts of Greece and Rome and the Great Pyramid at Giza, for instance. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt had been translated into English in 1860 and the British classicist Jane Ellen Harrison published Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion in 1903.

Cennino d'Andrea Cennini (circa 1360 - before 1427) was an Italian painter remembered today for his book Il libro dell arte written around the turn of the 15th century and sometimes translated as The Craftman's Handbook.  The book was a how-to manual for the use of materials and techniques in Renaissance painting from pigments and brushes applied panel and fresco. Prendergast owned a copy.

Prendergast relished the demands of this painstaking medium, taking pleasure in all aspects of producing works of delicate perfection. For panels, he used sugar pine or old white pine.  He transferred the cartoon to its surface with charcoal, repeatedly going over the lines, incising them with gouges and chisels. Meticulously, he created springy, rhythmic patterns. Over this he spread several coats of gesso plaster and while it was still wet, tracing more delicate lines with a steel point.  A last coat of plaster was applied and, when thoroughly dry, sanded down with pumice and sandpaper.  Only then would gold and silver gilt and color be applied with an adhesive.

Persian miniatures, Egyptian frescoes, antique Greek painted vases, Coptic textiles, Byzantine mosaics. - all were incorporated by Prendergast in his panels, seemingly effortlessly yet the product of intense concentration.   The scale and at-the-front-of-the-plane placement is reminiscent of 14th century Italian panel and fresco. His toned reflective use of gold leaf combined the clarity of Persian painting with the muted quality of Italian frescoes.

Charles Prendergast (1863-1948) was born in St. John's Newfoundland, the younger brother of the painter Maurice Prendergast. When Charles was five the Prendergast family moved to Boston. In the 1880s Charles worked briefly selling household items door-to-door.  He then turned to custom woodworking which he found profitable but unsatisfying.  Irresolute, he turned to making frames for paintings and this led to a career in art in 1895.

With Maurice he embarked on joint study in the museums and churches of Florence, Pisa, Siena, Orvietto, and Ravenna; Venice was his special favorite. Charles was smitten by the beauty of antique  Italian wall panels. Nevertheless, it was not until 1912, at forty-nine, that Charles made his first gesso panel.

Almost immediately, Charles Prendergast attracted a small but important group of collectors including Lillie Bliss, a founder of the Museum of Modern Art. Another was Dr. Albert C. Barnes of Merion, Pennsylvania, then in the process of amassing the largest collection of Post Impressionist work in North America, who purchased four panels and a sculpture for his collection. Barres, who also had a great admiration for metalwork,  commissioned Prendergast to make gilt frames for many  other pictures, so the influence of Charles Prendergast is visible throughout the Barnes Collection.  After the death of Maurice Prendergast in 1925, Charles married a Frenchwoman, Eugenie van Kemmel. Charles Prenderrgast died in 1948 at Westport, Connecticut.

Image: Charles Prednergast - The Offering, circa 1915-1917,tempura, gold and silver leaf on gessoed  panel, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

02 June 2020

Emile Nolde: Terra Incognita

"The terra incognita of the not
proven that stretches between
the firm ground of the proved
and the void of the disproved"
 - from Pierce-Arrow by Susan Howe, New York, New Directions: 1999

"To a person who has no art in him, colors are colors, tones tones, ... and that is all. All their consequences for the human spirit, which range between heaven and hell, go unnoticed." - Emil Nolde

When I first looked at Mountain Slope Over the Sea I interpreted the blue orb as the earth, the yellow circle at left as the sun, suspended in a fiery, hostile atmosphere that is burning  the forests. If we follow this train of thought, the tiny boat at the right edge of the picture could be a vehicle attempting to escape from earthly catastrophe. Terra incognita, indeed.

"At the round earthe inagin'd corners, blow
Your trumpetts, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All of whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never tast death's woe."
 - excerpt from "Holy Sonnet Number 4" by John Donne

There are two ways to paint with watercolor, wet paint on dry paint or wet paint on wet paint  The wet on wet method offers possibilities for diffusing colors and softening edges.  Characteristic is that the result is not known until the work is finished, a bit like a potter waiting to see how her work looks when it emerges from the kiln. In Emile Nolde's painting Mountain Slope Over the Sea   the water in the stroke flows downward (think: gravity) from where the brush was placed. As the watercolor flows it changes shape.  Not surprisingly, wet on wet watercolor is good for representing water.

The Danish-born Emile Nolde (1867-1956) was a master of the difficulties involved in the use of wet on wet technique,  raising it to a level it had not attained before. Nolde was known for his spectacular juxtapositions of blues and oranges. Blue, usually considered a calming color, here appears endangered by the orange vapors drifting over the fragile green buffer of trees. For Nolde color was the vehicle for the expression of emotion, in parallel with the general trend in modern art to privilege the artist's response to the real rather than its exact representation.

"Nolde is much more than tied to the ground, he is also a demon of these regions." - Paul Klee.

Suggestiion: try lookig at this picture while listening to Terra Incognita, a composition written by saxophonist Wayne Shorter for the Imani Winds and recorded by the group in 2011.

Image: Emil Nolde - Mountain Slope Over the Sea (Berghang ├╝ber dem Meer ), circa 1905, watercolor