22 July 2020

Diego Rivera: The Hammock


A perfect picture of summer? Maybe, but then it is always summer-like in Acapulco. Still a vacation is welcome at any time of year: sunshine, ocean breezes, a hammock, a good book, and a good friend.  There are red flowers peaking up over the edge of the hammock and white boat sails, tiny dabs of white paint in the cerulean blue of the Pacific seems to have leached all the blue out of the sky, what little of it is visible here. Sunlight warms the women's skins; though the effect of  sunlight is everywhere, there is no shade, except in some contouring on the arms and legs of the sun bathers.  This painting is a joyous demonstration of the primary colors  from an artist known his his love of vivid color. 

Diego Rivera painted La Hamaca (The Hammock) in 1955, just two years before his death.  Rivera had created a large number of public murals so he was experienced at working on a large scale. La Hamaca is large:  6'7" by 3'5" so he portrayed these figures at life size.

One of the two young women in La Hamaca is the daughter of  Delores Olmedo. Olmedo was a woman of parts, successful in business, a musician, and a philanthropist.  Together, these attributes made her a beneficent friend to artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.  In 1994 she converted a building she owned in Mexico City into a museum (Museo Delores Olmedo) to which she donated her extensive collection of art, including the largest assemblage of worjs by Kahlo and Rivera anywhere.  

The 19th century bathing dress or pantaloons, was followed by the one piece suit called a maillot (see the painting above), and the bikini, introduced by Louis Reard in 1946. Popularized by movie star Brigitte Bardot and Sophie Loren, the Snow White and Rose Red of the bikini.  And then there is the ceremonial "unveiling" of the suit. The vaudeville star Annette Kellernmann, known as the "Australian Mermaid" was arrested on Revere Beach in Massachusetts in 1907 when she appeared wearing a on piece suit.
Whether it reveals or conceals, the bathing suit is a true anatomical bomb.

Image: Diego Rivera - La Hamaca, 1955, oil on canvas, Muse Delores Olmedo, Mexico City.

17 July 2020

Charles Prendergast: An Earthly Paradise

There is much to see in this painting by the American artist Charles Prendergast. 

Starting at the bottom there are water lilies floating in deep purple water..  In the lower right corner  stands Botticelli's Venus, here framed by her giant clam shell, modestly holding a bouquet of flowers in hand while three female figures surround her in homage to the Quattrocento.  The trio may also be a reference to the Three Graces, ancient goddesses of nature often portrayed in similar poses. 

They are balanced by three much larger and more modern figures at lower left; these appear to be a family group, possibly three sisters, two of whom hold floral stems aloft. A brown dog looks at his mistress at left and another lies quietly by the red-headed girl at right. 

To the right of this group we see the rump of a horse carrying a luxuriously dressed male rider, possibly a knight, followed by his female consort who rides side-saddle.  Birds fly near her and one appears to light on the woman's hand. Behind her, four deer stroll on a hill indicated by a curving brown line; perhaps they are a in a forest as they walk among trees. Deer and humans have a very long joint history, dating back at least 15,000 years as documented in the Caves paintings of Lascaux. Deer are thought to personify the virtues.  

Providing a focal point in the upper left corner is a  spectacularly decorative tree, one never seen in any wood, billowing panels of stars, flowers, and abstract shapes; it is related to the stream by their common color: purple.  This makes the viewer notice that the more usual connection the artist eschewed is to link the blue of the sky to blue water.  But here we are in a visionary landscape, a parallel world, fruitful and peopled by figures from different eras and cultures. 

 Incising the image on a wooden panel was an antique touch, giving the effect of a Byzantine mosaic.  This from a man who, on visiting Italy, sensed that he had stepped through a door to an alternate world, where the artistic riches of antiquity were arrayed before him. In all, humans and animals in harmony, this is Prendergast's earthly paradise.

Image: Charles Prendergast - Figures and Deer, circa 1917, tempura, silver and gold leaf, on incised gessoed panel, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

11 July 2020

How to Ruin a Friendship

Alma Schindler was a Viennese beauty and a budding composer when she fell in love with Gustav Mahler, nineteen years her senior, and a moody, authoritarian composer who made Alma give up her music in order to marry him. Marriage marooned eighteen year old Alma, stifled artistically and taken for granted by her husband; she turned to her male admirers (and there were always several to choose from) for consolation.  This did not bode well for the future but Mahler died in 1911, leaving Alma to refashion her life.

Broncia Pinell was an established  artist of thirty-three when she married Hugo Koller,  a physician who had been introduced to her by the composer Hugo Wolf.  Before their marriage Hugo had to withdraw from the Catholic church because marriages between Catholics and Jews were not permitted. There is some indication that Broncia converted to Catholicism, at least formally. After their marriage in 1891, Hugo, an avid art collector, promoted his wife's career. And it bears underlining  that Broncia Koller-Pinell was an important Post-Expressionist artist, painting nudes at a time when it is was not considered proper subject matter for female artists. Indeed, female artists were barred from study at the Royal Academy until 1920.  Her legacy erased after her death, even as late as 1980 she was described as "a housewife who painted."

That these two women whose lives overlapped yet differed in  many significant ways ever became friends may have come about because of their children.  Koller-Pinell painted several pictures of her daughter Silvia and also of Alma's daughter Anna. The Mahlers often visited the Kollers at their summer home in Oberwaltersdorf, 35 kilometers outside Vienna.  The parrot pictured with Anna belonged to the Koller children.

When Anna Mahler turned sixteen she fell in love with the Koller's son Rupert who was eight years older and a fledgling conductor; perhaps his choice of career reminded her of her lost father. The two married on November 2, 1920 but the marriage ended within months when Anna left Rupert.   Alma Mahler, who was extremely competitive in romantic matters, did not take the perceived slight to femininity at all well. In 1926 Alma persuaded her future husband Franz Werfel to write a play Bocksgesang (Goat's Story), a poorly disguised chronicle of the unhappy marriage in five acts. The friendship between Broncia and Alma disintegrated.

Anna Mahler married the avant-garde Viennese compose Ernest Krenek  when she was nineteen but that marriage also lasted mere months.  Eventually she married three more times. Although Anna had been expected to become a musician like her father, she forged her own path,  becoming a sculptor.Spending one's childhood in the vortex of her mother's turbulent love affairs was like earthquake with many aftershocks. 

Personae: Alma Schindler Mahler (1879-1964), Anna Mahler (1904-1988), Broncia Koller-Pinell (1863-1934), Rupert Koller (1896-1976), Silvia Koller (1899-1963)

1. Broncia Koller-Pinell - Self Portrait, circa 1920-1925, oil on canvas, Austrian whereabouts unidentified.
2. Broncia-Koller Pinell - Anna Mahler With A Parrot, oil on canvas, Austrian whereabouts unidentified.

06 July 2020

Vilhelm Hammershoi: Silver Light

"This landscape looks like a secret
because the river can't be seen
from the spot where I am standing.
And therefore it is
the landscape where I most easily
would be able to do without myself.
Among these green hills and blue mountains
my person
almost feels an insult."
 - excerpt from "The River's Secret" by Hendrik Nordbrandt, translated from the Danish by John Irons

A silver age painted in shades of gray. An artist of diffidence characteristic of his countrymen. It is easy to look at the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi and see that he had been  deeply imprinted by the work of Vermeer. Like Vermeer, Hammershoi edited out what he considered unnecessary details from his paintings; we know this from the many photographs of the Hammershoi's apartments in Copenhagen. On looking closely at Hammerhoi's paintings, quiet interiors can seem drained of meaning or maybe this is what the world looks like when grand dreams and schemes have been found empty.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that we live life forward but understand it backward.  When we consider the world that Vilhelm Hammershoi grew up in, the place and circumstance, an alternate way of looking at his paintings emerges. Those restrained, minimally appointed rooms may evoke thoughts of glossy decorating magazines in a contemporary viewer but that kind of projection merely makes it more difficult to experience the  paintings as Hammershoi intended.  What the artist intended has  been the subject of speculation, his very reticence an irritant like a pebble in a shoe. Something of an enigma to his contemporaries, he remains so.

Eighteen forty-eight was a year when people  throughout Europe demanded democracy but not in Denmark which  passed peacefully from a monarchy to a constitutional democracy in 1849.  Not surprising for a country that whose experience of the Reformation had been a mild one. 

What distinguished Danish art of the 19th century was the influence of Golden Age Dutch painting  filtered through the soft northern light of Scandinavia. Even today Danes look back on the period between 1849 and 1864 as their Golden Age, a time when Hans Christian Anderson and Christoffer Eckersberg created the stories and images that reflected a new modern cultural patrimony for a nation renewed.  Into that world, Vilhelm Hammershoi was born in 1864, a year when bright ideals were crushed by the harsh realities of war and defeat. There followed a period of  intense introspection among Danes.  This unease of the spirit may be what we sense in Hammershoi's paintings, a feeling of the uncanny. Is this how the world looks after a great disillusionment?

Yet Hammershoi's tenderness is apparent in images of loved objects he painted again and again, vessels used for the sharing of food.  From the china soup tureen with its pattern of swirling leaves (seen above with Ida in their dining room) to the eye-catching shimmer of the silver dish on the table between Ida and her mother-in-law Frederikke.

Note: Hammershoi did not customarily give titles to his paintings so titles may differ depending on the interpreter.

1. Dust motes dancing in sunlight, 1900,  oil on canvas, Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen.
2. Interior with back view of a woman (Ida Hammershoi), circa 1903, oil on canvas Randers Kunstmuseum, Jutland.
3. Interior with the artist's wife and mother, oil on canvas.
4. unidentified photographer - Vilhelm Hammershoi's palette, courtesy of Royal Academy of Art, London.