How to Support my Work

For those of you who appreciate my writing, please consider four ways of indirectly assisting me.

  1. Consider subscribing to the journals I most regularly write for. Two outlets have recently requested renewed support to continue their work. They are The Jackdaw (“independent views on the visual arts”, featuring journalism, news, artist profiles, exhibition and book reviews and contributor letters, six issues per year) and The Salisbury Review (“the quarterly magazine of conservative thought”, featuring discursive articles on politics, culture, history and biography, with art, book and media reviews, four issues per year). The websites are here The Jackdaw and The Salisbury Review. The pieces that I publish in these outlets appear nowhere else, so you will be receiving unique content. You will also be supporting independent journalism.
  2. Consider purchasing my books. Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism (Societas/Imprint Academic) is available through bookstores in the UK and USA, Amazon, other online stores and the website of the publisher. Other books by me include fiction, verse and art published by Aloes Books, Golconda, Bottle of Smoke Press and Pig Ear Press. These books can be found on Amazon and other online websites.
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  4. Rating my books on Amazon, Goodreads and other websites.

Thank you again for your support.

AA

Sofonisba Anguissola: Lady and Painter

Cole_Sofonisba's Lesson

During high summer of the year 1624 a brilliant young painter Anthony van Dyck visited a nonagenarian widow in her home in Palermo. She was blind but still mentally acute. After their conversation, van Dyck claimed he learned more art from her than from studying some of the Old Masters. The woman was a living link to the age of Michelangelo, Titian and the court of Philip II of the Bourbon monarchy. Her name was Sofonisba Anguissola.

Michael W. Cole’s new monograph on Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535-1625) revises her corpus of around 150 works and discusses her art in the light of what relatively little we know of her life. She worked with sisters and has been considered alongside other female artists, so a monographic treatment for her is uncommon. The state of expert scholarship on her art is uneven, primarily due to the paucity of signed paintings leaving attribution uncertain. That figure of 150 individual works could be fewer than 50 authentic works.

The artist was born into a downwardly mobile aristocratic family in Cremona. There is some debate over her actual date of birth, with some assigning it to c. 1531/2. Cole gives c. 1535, which will become tangentially significant later. Her father Hamilcare had a classical education and named his children after figures from ancient history and mythology. Hamilcare wrote letters on Sofonisba’s behalf to potential patrons and sent sample paintings and drawings to demonstrate her accomplishment. (Michelangelo apparently received two drawings and was complimentary.) Sofonisba’s father effectively acted as her manager until she moved to Spain.

The eldest Anguissola sister took holy orders; the others were sent to apprentice with Bernadino Campi – a highly unusual decision that led to the sisters (and especially Sofonisba) becoming notable public figures in Cremona, celebrated for their ladylike accomplishment as well as artistic ability. Sofonisba (hereafter called “Anguissola”) later worked under Bernadino Gatti. There is debate about a picture apparently showing Gatti in the act of painting Anguissola. It has been assigned to her but it may be by Gatti and a sign of him wishing to associate with a student of noble birth and who had gone on to achieve royal esteem. Cole inclines toward assigning the painting to Gatti.

As a young artist, Anguissola made her name with striking portraits (some of family members) and many self-portraits, including miniatures. She is especially notable as the Renaissance artist who painted self-portraits more frequently than any other. She worked in the prevailing Late Renaissance/Mannerist style, which rested upon artificiality and placed the striking and unusual over harmony and idealism.

The Chess Game (1555) depicts three of the painter’s younger sisters alongside a servant. They are engaged in noble pastime which demanded intellect and reason (the domain of men) rather than in the manual handicrafts usually befitting womankind. This also suggests these women belong to the upper classes, reinforced by their fine clothing. All of her art exhibits deficiencies in anatomy – which may be attributable to lack of access to nude models – and in perspective, which could have been corrected by consulting the many treatises on the subject.

Anguissola arrived Spain in 1559, to become a lady-in-waiting for the Queen Isabel de Valois (1545-1568) and her daughters. She went as a lady of culture, able to sing and converse on the arts; she was also to act as painting tutor to the queen. She did paint portraits there but it was not her primary function there. For her years there, she was documented more as a courtier than artist. Many of the Spanish pictures are unsigned, adding to confusion about attribution, particularly vis-à-vis Alonso Sánchez Coello. It may be that Anguissola, employed as a lady-in-waiting and royal tutor, was reticent about art made in her private time. (The division between public and private life in the court is a rather fluid distinction.) A seriously abraded portrait of Isabel survives. One wonders about what the original would have told us about artist and sitter. Cole suggests that the stultifying rigidity of court portraiture in Spain was possibly alleviated by the subtleties of dress, comportment and attributes which would have been discernible to members of the court.

The death of Isabel in 1568 entailed the dispersal of her courtiers. Anguissola was subject to an arranged marriage but she proved intractable and it was not until 1573 that a marriage contract was concluded. She was at oldest about 42, at youngest 38. Cole’s late birth date for Anguissola means that she was still of childbearing years in his timeline. Hitherto, Anguissola had assiduously maintained her independence and the burden (and danger) of childbirth. The wishes of King Philip II were not ones even Anguissola could oppose. By whichever cause (natural or willed), Anguissola did not fall pregnant (or at least give birth) and she was able to sustain her devotion to art.

In 1573 she went to Italy with her husband, governor to a town in Sicily. He drowned in a pirate attack in 1578. In 1579 she remarried and moved to Palermo, where she remained until her death. There is little to commend her religious paintings. They are not attractive or original and derivative. Much of her late works painted in Palermo are lost.

Anguissola signed her early work SOFONISBA ANGUISSOLA VIRGO – a signal of her independence – and was potentially inspired by the paintings of Catharina van Hemessen. It would be hard to co-opt her into the sisterhood. We have very little writing by her, so it is hard to assess her attitude towards her situation as a woman painter. What little we can glean is from decoding her art. Cole suggests that interpreting her as a woman artist or thinking of her career progression is not the only approach, indeed, not the most useful. Cole believes that Anguissola’s significance rests more in her example than her art. “She showed that a life devoted to painting was a real possibility for women, and she showed what such a life might look like.”

The first half of the book is a survey of the artist’s life and work and issues surrounding attribution and interpretation of her paintings. The catalogue section treats works in groups of varying connection to the hand of the artist, including lost works, copies and so forth. Colour illustrations are used, though many are small. Both experts and enthusiasts will find Cole’s scholarship approachable and clear-eyed. This book is a serious and honest examination of a second-tier Mannerist painter who painted a handful of excellent portraits.

Michael W. Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson: A Renaissance Artist and Her Work, Princeton University Press, 2019, hardback, 208pp, fully col. illus., £50, ISBN 978 0 691 19832 3

 

© Alexander Adams 2020

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

H.G. Wells:Nightmares of a Better World

GK Chesterton’s most famous analogy is that of a walker finding an ancient fence in a landscape. Chesterton suggested that while one might not understand the fence’s purpose, one should still respect it, because it had at one time served a function and it might still perform that function. Tearing down the fence out of impatience or impetuosity was reckless, Chesterton suggested, because through simple ignorance one might be destroying a potentially useful construction. Such was the situation in which modern man found himself.

“HG Wells (1866-1946) – the prolific fiction and non-fiction writer, best known for his early science fiction – never encountered a fence that he did not do his best to pull down. Family, marriage, religion, nationhood, custom and class – all were subject to Wells’ ire and mockery. He felt it his duty to remake the world according to science and rationality. The sight of old fences was a provocation to him.

“Many today underestimate the enormous influence of Wells. Not so Sarah Cole, who seeks to retrieve something of Wells’ importance in Inventing Tomorrow: HG Wells and the Twentieth Century. As she points out, Wells’ work has sold millions of copies, and has been translated into multiple languages…”

 

Read my full review on Spiked website here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/02/13/hg-wells-nightmares-of-a-better-world/

E.M. Lilien and his Images of Jewish Women

Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation HD

The subject of Lynne M. Swarts’s study Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation: Women in the Work of Ephraim Moses Lilien at the German is Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874-1925), acclaimed as the premier visual artist of the nascent Zionist/Jewish nationalist movement among German-speaking Jews in the 1900-25 period. Lilien was an ardent Zionist and his works were aimed at a Jewish audience. Swarts examines how Lilien’s art supports and undermines views of Jews that were current among the Jewish and non-Jewish population. Swarts believes that the subject of the new Jewish women has been overlooked by writers and that Lilien’s deliberate construction of a distinctive female counterpart to the New Jewish Man (found in his numerous and popular Biblical illustrations) is worthy of special examination.

Lilien was born in Drohobycz, Austrian Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied painting in Krakow under Jan Matejko. After a period in Vienna, Lilien moved to Munich and made illustrations for Jugend, a Jugendstil/Art Nouveau journal. He later moved to Berlin. His line illustrations for Juda (1900) – a collection of poems about Hebrew subjects written by the Gentile Börries von Münchhausen – sold well and became a popular among German Jews. Lilien became acclaimed as the first Zionist artist and was commissioned to illustrate the books of the Old Testament, which brought him further acclaim, although the series was not completed. In 1906 he travelled to Palestine to photograph Biblical sites and Jewish types of physiognomy and clothing in preparation for that project. He made later visits to Palestine.

“Lilien retold the narrative of national identity in terms of old-new heroes: powerful, strong, manly men, as muscular and physically fit as their athletic Teutonic brothers. These new corporeal bodies claimed progressive socialist and utopian readings of modern Jewish life, incorporating the return to authentic Jewish labouring or tilling of the soil in the Biblical homeland of Zion or Eretz Israel. His model of Jewish manliness, developed at the fin de siècle, was a form of cultural resistance, a crucial strategy in the struggle to overcome the twin dilemmas of Jewish ‘otherness’ or alterity: antisemitism and assimilation.” Although the emancipation of Jews (in 1867 in Austro-Hungary and 1871 in Germany) offered the fullfilment of potential, it also presented a threat to Jewish identity. No longer were Jews shunned by law. The possibility of assimilation and integration offered a secular reward for the shedding of Jewish identity and integration into secular civic society that had been barred to them hitherto.

A common iconography is one of the pillars of a nation. Thus the rise of an international Zionist movement to unify the Jewish diaspora and restore it to a homeland stimulated a search for the trappings of nationhood and (ultimately) statehood. Lilien’s imagery was a conscious attempt to contribute to this effort. An exhibition of art by Jews was held in 1901 in relation to a Zionist congress, although the art was disparate and not overtly Jewish in style or Zionist in content.[ii] Lilien wanted to restore pride in Jewishness by forging new (or reviving old) archetypes of heroic masculinity. Lilien made a point of showing typical male Jews as handsome, healthy and unambiguously heterosexual – countering negative anti-Semitic stereotypes. Some of Lilien’s images of patriarchs were based on the appearance of Theodor Herzl, founder of the modern Zionist movement, who he personally met.

Lilien’s career coincided with the rise of the New Woman – the embodiment of legal, social and sexual emancipation of women, initially in the USA and Great Britain but later across Western Europe – which was celebrated and attacked with equal vehemence by progressives and conservatives. Thus Lilien’s images of women have an added layer of significance. He was not only attempting to distinguish the Jewess from Gentile, he was responding to the irreligious challenge posed by New Womanhood to traditional gender roles.

Concern regarding liberated women – guided by feminism – having fewer (or no) children caused nationalists to worry about nation birth rates. Zionism had to reconcile newly emancipated Jews (and Jewish women tempted by the attractive advantages of becoming a New Woman) with the demands of piety, fidelity to tradition and the raising of a new generation of Jews within a definitively Jewish homeland. In the women of Art Nouveau we find the contradictory iconography of woman as ethereal spirit, supernatural force, untrammelled avatar of humanity, seeker of sensual gratification, femme fatale and sophisticated consumer. The symbolism was advantageously malleable in that it allowed artists to make women Christian maidens, pagan temptresses or discerning modern trendsetters in multiple manifestations with the minimum of differentiation. Swarts typifies the woman in fin-de-siècle art as passive, romanticised, aestheticized and essentially ornamental. She was a damsel in need of chivalric rescue (in a story illustration) or the latest perfume (in a poster on the side of an omnibus). Lilien was inspired by the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, the paintings of Gustav Klimt and the posters of Alphonse Mucha.

“The belle Juive was an ideal an earlier nineteenth-century depiction of the Jewess as an ideal, oriental, exotic beauty. Raven-haired and dark-eyed, she was often named Sarah, Rachel, or Judith […] The conflation of the dark racial physiognomy of the Jewess with the belle Juive as ‘exotic and beautiful’ added to the new Jewish woman’s appeal as the artistic muse or model par excellence.”For many Europeans in 1900 ideas of the Jewish women, Jewishness as a subset of Orientalism and the New Women phenomenon formed a nexus within which the Jewish woman was a unique figure of dangerous sensuality, sexuality and subversion, liminal to some areas of mainstream society.

Lilien wanted to show Jewish women as healthy, fit, supreme examples of humanity in harmony with culture, nature and their religion. In his Biblical illustrations, the model women are chaste and dignified – with Esther apparently based upon Lilien’s wife Helene. Rahab, the prostitute of legendary beauty, is shown as graceful and desirable in Juda (1900); by the time she appears in the Bible illustrations (in Vol. I, 1908) her face incorporates some Helene’s appearance combined with that of an anonymous model photographed by the artist (illustrated in the book). In other illustrations there is abundant carnal display. (“[Lilien was] the first to portray the Jewish woman as an active participant in sensual and sexual pleasure […]”) In The Song of Songs, the women seduce and are seduced, with partial nudity complementing the flowing arabesque lines of the style. In other illustrations for ex-libris bookplates, nude women are shown as partially seductive, partially innocent, always attractive.

Swarts touches on the cultural friction between the Ostjude and the Westjude, with the assumptions and perceptions about the historical position of the Jew in Europe. Western Jews (often urban) in 1900 held often strong feelings about their Eastern brethren, with their greater religiosity, longer period of historical continuity and stronger connection with the land as farmers and shtetl dwellers. For a Western Jew committed to Zionism, the Eastern Jew had real or purported authenticity – yet attachment to such a notion (often sentimental and unrealistic) brought out the Western Jew’s ambivalence towards his own family’s history of partial assimilation. Too often Jewish women were caught between the alien, exotic and dangerous East and the over-cultivated West, stigmatised on either (or both) counts, adding to the ambivalence that Jews generally had towards the division between Ostjude and Westjude.

Swarts concludes that Lilien’s ambivalence towards the emancipation of Jewish women in light of his commitment to Zionism influenced his portrayals of women. He was also influenced by the fine art and illustration of the time and was to a degree directing his work towards an underserved (Zionist) audience using the visual language of his time. Lilien’s art remains pungent and effective and merits attention (quite aside from its historical value) as fine art of a high standard. His early death, the dispersal and (deliberate and accidental) destruction of his papers and original art – plus changing taste – has meant that Lilien’s illustration and printmaking is not as well known in the Anglosphere.

If there is criticism to be made of this title, it is that the author pays too much deference to Post-Modernist, feminist and Post-Colonial theory. Swarts proves herself capable of assessing contemporary responses to Lilien’s art and how the art has subsequently been interpreted and repurposed. We do not benefit from the theory nor does this book. Happily for us, there is not enough to detract from Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation, which is a sound and informative analysis of a rich subject. Although it has a strong academic basis, the book is approachable, with many specialist historical aspects outlined. The many illustrations give us a view of Lilien’s art and related images.

Lynne M. Swarts, Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation: Women in the Work of Ephraim Moses Lilien at the German Fin de Siècle, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020, hardback, 328pp + xxxiv, mono/32 col. illus., £95, ISBN 978 1 5013 3614 0

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Suffrage and the Arts

Suffrage and the Arts HD

This book (a paperback edition of a hardback) collects essays by specialists on the relationship between the arts and the movement for female suffrage in Great Britain in the 1890-1914 period. (In this review “suffrage” will used a term applied specifically only to the movement for women’s enfranchisement in Great Britain.) There were a number of organisations supporting the suffrage movement, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, Women’s Social and Political Union, Women’s Freedom League, Women’s Tax Resistance League, Women’s Liberal Federation and others. This collection focuses on the role of the arts and artists in the movement.

The production of pro-suffrage arts and crafts spanned the gamut of professional-level material made by skilled specialists to homemade folk craft. Some prominent supporters were artists and designers and they could produce and sell wares directly to their moneyed peers. Illustrated are tea sets, badges, brooches, banners and posters made for the cause, as well as some material opposing suffrage. The material was sold to demonstrate solidarity and also to raise money for the cause. To aid recognition, the movement developed a combination of colour: pale green, purple and white.

“Although the majority of artistic women did benefit from privileges due to their race and class, we wish to move away from the tendency to celebrate ‘exceptional’ London-based female painters, to instead reference a wider array of voices from across the country, particularly from those working in the applied arts, who often desperately needed to generate an income.” This is in line with the feminist Marxist critique, which holds to an aversion of discusses society in terms of individuals, instead viewing history as the movement of masses. There is a fear of falling into a seeming trap of admiring exceptional achievement.

The suffrage movement was seen – in its manifestations among the artistically inclined middle- and upper-class families – as an extension of the Arts and Crafts movement. The attachment to socialism, collectivism and the moral value of craftwork (for individual, guild and society) translated naturally into the collective action, class solidarity and craftwork in support of women’s emancipation. Authors deprecate “the work of ‘great’ men […] William Morris [and] John Ruskin”. However much the authors dislike veneration for men and exceptional individuals, the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement did not appear like morning dew; it was thought, discussed, explicated and propagated by Morris and Ruskin, among others.

Despite the active participation of some members, women’s arts societies remained aloof to the subject of the suffrage campaign, seeming in a wish to remain independent. Had the societies become seen as tied to activism, it would have impaired the perception of the societies working to promote art because of its quality and instead of promoting art due to its political content. (This is in direct contrast to the artivism of today, which measures art by its political/social utility.) Zoe Thomas’s essay describes how internal debate raged between the political radicals and those committed to maintaining group neutrality. As the women’s societies were locked into disengaged stances, the Artists’ Suffrage League was founded. The atelier was opened in 1909, producing posters, banners (used in public gatherings), postcards, curtains, book covers and other items. The Suffrage Atelier admitted male artists.

Other essays discuss the interior design work of prominent campaigners Agnes Garrett (1845-1935), Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), who used their work and social prominence to lobby for enfranchisement. The production of goods specifically aimed at pro-suffrage consumers is covered in Elizabeth Crawford’s text. Makers (many of them women) created newsletters (Votes for Women, The Common Cause, The Vote, The Suffragette), jewellery, leather goods, embroidered goods and clothing. Other pieces cover suffragette badges and portraits of suffragists. Oil paintings and drawings of prominent figures in the movement emphasise the resolution and composure of subjects; they were displayed and reproduced as a counter to the news photographs and negative cartoons which appeared in the press. Other essays consider the responses to the male supporters of male suffragists, the responses of Scottish and Irish women to the campaign in the light of nationalist sentiments in their nations and the representations of force-feeding of imprisoned suffragettes on hunger strike.

The discussion of suffragette attacks on art provides details and background on these public events. The underlying rationalisation was that because the demands of a lobby had not been met that collateral damage to cultural goods – some owned by the general public – was a proportionate response. It was a campaign of cultural terrorism. Feminists have recently written approvingly of these attacks as an expression of opposition to gender roles and class subjugation. Krista Cowman’s essay is clear and broadly neutral, which compliments the readers’ independence of thought on that matter. Her essay is more informative than the essay in the recent Tate catalogue on iconoclasm.

Overall, this book is a handy primer for the scholarship and debates regarding the suffragette movement in relation to the arts in the Edwardian period. The ample source notes, bibliographies and index will assist historians, academics and students. The illustrations are well chosen and complement the text. This paperback edition makes the welcome and affordable alternative to the rather expensive hardback edition.

 

Miranda Garrett, Zoe Thomas (eds.), Suffrage and the Arts: Visual Culture, Politics and Enterprise, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020, paperback, 281pp, 16pp col./30 mono illus., $34.95, ISBN 978 1 35012867 5

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit: www.alexanderadams.art

The Jackdaw, January issue (#149)

In the January issue of The Jackdaw you can find my reviews of the Gipsformerei (Near Life), John Nash, Leonardo’s Bella Principessa, Jan de Beer and a letter regarding women in art. All this content is exclusive to the print edition of The Jackdaw. Other articles/reviews in this issue are on Lucian Freud, The Turner Prize, Modernist architecture, Anselm Kiefer and more.

To see sample content and subscribe visit the website: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/

How Banksy hoodwinked a Generation

“In October 2019, Banksy’s 2009 painting of Devolved Parliament (showing the House of Commons populated by chimpanzees) sold for a record-setting £9.9 million at auction. Banksy has reached the level of Blue Chip Moderns and Old Masters in auction rooms, books of his art are in museum bookshops worldwide and his street paintings are beloved by ordinary people and tastemakers. For anyone who has looked at his art with a sharp critical eye, the question is: how did such banality hoodwink so many people?

“To answer that question and understand Banksy, one has to go back to his native Bristol of the 1980s and early 1990s. To many Bristolians Banksy is a folk hero; to others he is a sell-out. Banksy formed his political outlook in a city that is a hotbed of left-wing attitudes, from community activism and student politics to rave culture and non-conforming lifestyles. It was an obvious place for graffiti to develop into elaborate grand-scale street art. Being an anti-authoritarian progressive is utterly conventional in Bristol. When protesters stand in Bristol’s College Green with signs welcoming migrants they face not riot police or ridicule but sympathetic students…”

Read my full review on The Critic website: https://thecritic.co.uk/issues/january-2020/banksy-and-the-triumph-of-banality/

Dora Maar

DoraMaar-CVR

Although best known as the lover and muse of Picasso, Dora Maar (1907-1997) was notable creative figure in her own right. Respected as a fashion photographer, Surrealist artist and creator of collages, Maar produced art throughout her life. A new exhibition (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 5 June-29 July 2019; Tate Modern, London, 19 November 2019-15 March 2020; Getty Center, Los Angeles, 21 April-26 July 2020), reviewed from the catalogue, takes an overview of her art.

Born in Paris Henriette Théodora Markovitch in 1907, to a French mother and Croatian father, Dora pursued art from childhood supported by her parents. She studied art at the school of decorative arts and the cinegraphic technical school in Paris and painting under André Lhote (who taught, among others, Tamara de Lempicka). She first published photography as “Dora Markovitch” in 1930. By 1932 she had adopted the name Dora Maar as her professional moniker. She worked as a commercial photographer, providing images for advertisers and journals. Common subjects included fashion, beauty shots, architecture, interiors and nature. She also photographed street scenes, a common practice at the time.

She also produced erotic photography for Parisian journals ranging from the respectable to the trashy. She adopted styles that included the conventional and experimental. A frequent model for Maar was the Ukrainian-born model Assia Granatouroff (1911-1982), who the most successful nude model of the 1930s in Paris. She was noted for her athleticism, beauty and grace. The short hair and fit physique made her Granatouroff (publicly known as “Assia”) the epitome of the post-flapper sun- and sea-worshipper in the era of organised nudism. She modelled for many artists, including Maillol, Derain, Gromaire, Valadon and van Dongen.

The authors fail to note what seems to be a nude photograph of Maar herself (left figure, plate 45), published in Beautés magazine, January 1937. Maar did occasionally model nude but those photographs are rarely seen. Only a few have been published. No others are included in this catalogue.

At this stage she was developing strong formal concerns in both her commercial and private work, toying with Cubism and Expressionism. In this production of photography for commercial and artistic ends, Maar was in a similar position to Man Ray and Lee Miller. From the start of her career, Maar was inventive about combining elements.

In 1933 Maar photographed street life in Barcelona. This combined her political engagement (Spain was at this time a socialist republic) and artistic affiliation to Surrealism, with Spain (like Mexico) being seen as the quintessential Surrealist country.  In 1933 Maar was introduced to Surrealism and found a philosophical and political outlook that chimed with her pre-existing sympathy for the strange, buttressing her detachment from conventional aesthetics.

It was difficult for the women within Surrealism. Although encouraged to be free spirits, this often meant little more than modelling nude and submitting to the sexual advances of the male Surrealists. Musehood seemed to entail a fair amount of old-fashioned unliberated submission of the sexual variety. There were opportunities, however, and we can count more prominent women creators within the Surrealist movement than within any other pre-war art movement. Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Kay Sage, Meret Oppenheim, Frida Kahlo, Toyen, Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Remedios Varo and Maar – not to mention the creative influencers who did not leave bodies of work themselves, such as Gala Éluard (Dalí), Jacqueline Lamba (Breton), Nusch Éluard, Alice (Kiki de Montparnasse) Prin and others – all left a significant mark upon the Surrealist movement.

In documentary photographs taken around Paris in the mid-1930s, Maar used extreme close-ups of elements within their normal context, juxtaposing the distortion and oppressive size of an element contrasted with the apparent normality of the surroundings. This induces a sense of strangeness regarding our common surroundings. The irreverence towards public statuary is apparent in the close-up view of the detail of a Pont Alexandre III of a female statue’s hand holding a torch. The extreme cropping turns the civic symbolism of virtue bringing enlightenment into an explicit sexual image of the female hand manipulating a phallus. The departing ships in the Seine are the shed issue drifting away. Pont Mirabeau (1935) shows a female statue as if in peril suspended over a fall into the river. The angle of the shot and the animation of the allegorical figure’s face give the impression of a woman desperate to save herself from drowning. Thus a banal Belle Époque adornment becomes expressive of the hidden reality in a person’s life – an eruption of honest anxiety unperceived by the multitudes which pass by daily.

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[Image: Dora Maar, Untitled (1935), photomontage, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris
Repro © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Georges Meguerditchian]

Between 1934 and 1938 Maar produced and published 20 montages which are her best known works. Le Simulateur (1935) turns the curving barrel ceiling of the Orangerie into an inverted tunnel – part sewer, part race track – which is animated by a boy curved into an arch of hysteria. 29, rue d’Astorg (1935) has a kitsch ornament which is missing its head placed in a distorted arcade. Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska points that Maar’s montages bear a striking resemblance to a montage by Breton, Éluard and Suzanne Muzard, published in 1931 (dated “1931-3” here). Whether or not Maar’s approach was inspired by this example, she made it her own. What are the characteristics of Maar’s montages? Dark tonality, oneiric quality, claustrophic atmosphere, poetic sentiment, absence of easy humour, internal consistency in terms of scale/lighting/perspective/placement. These were frequently elements which she had photographed specifically with an end in mind, largely eschewing found photographs that were a staple of Surrealist montages. The catalogue reproduces the montages with the constituent photographs and some mock-ups.

There is a powerfully sinister undercurrent to Maar’s art that one does not find in even the more provocative art. Only in Bellmer’s obsessive erotic graphics and Magritte’s 1925-1929 dark claustrophic paintings do we find something comparable to Maar’s emotional darkness. In Maar’s montages there are disorientating inversions and compressions of space, as well as suffocating hermetically sealed spaces. It is worth noting that Maar maintained good standing with both Breton’s official Surrealist group and Georges Bataille’s renegade Documents faction. She photographed subjects from both factions, was Bataille’s lover and was a member of the anti-fascist Contre-Attaque group, which Breton left after a falling out with Bataille. Bataille’s outlook was considerably darker than Breton’s, steeped in mysticism, paganism and violence.

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[Image: Dora Maar, Portrait of Ubu (1936), gelatin silver print, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Philippe Migeat]

Maar’s contact with Picasso from 1935 onwards (ending in 1946) caused her to resume painting and drawing, activity that would last for subsequent decades. Maar photographed Picasso painting Guernica (1937) for the Spanish pavilion of the World Fair. She even painted sections under Picasso’s direction. Most of the art was derivative of Picasso’s style and content of the time. She received some praise but frankly much of the art is, whilst being competent, lugubrious and dull. Tonally dark, favouring cool colours and dwelling upon the straitened circumstances of the Occupation, the pictures do not have the urgency, inventiveness or the sardonic humour of Picasso. Picasso was attracted to Maar due to the air of danger, elegance and neuroticism apparent in her behaviour. A severe nervous breakdown in 1946 (for which she was hospitalised) is seen a contributing factor in her self-imposed retreat from public life. It was not a lasting state but what became a persistent trait was diffidence regarding exposing her new and old art, much of which she destroyed.

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[Image: Dora Maar, La Cage (1943), oil on canvas, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Private collection, Yann Panier, Courtesy Galerie Brame
& Lorenceau]

In the late 1940s Maar became increasingly attached to religious observance and became semi-reclusive, living alone. Starting in the late 1950s, Maar began working in abstracts, using very simple processes and forms. By the 1980s that had developed into the overlapping fields of photographs, paintings and photographed paintings that were abstract, relatively sparse, most of them imaginary landscapes. They are much closer to Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field Painting and Taschisme. In palette they are restrained. They are very engaging; they show an impressive detachment of ego and emotional and stylistic freedom. The only problem with appreciating these pieces is the fact that due to Maar’s practice of destroying art we lack large bodies of evolving work. The late abstracts here seem occasionally jerky or flighty, lacking the grounding in a larger legible corpus. The danger of this situation is that it pushes the viewer towards regarding these pieces as slight – always a potential response to lightly worked abstracts.

The best of Maar’s montages are as good as the best Surrealist art made in Paris in the 1930s. Her paintings and drawings of the 1930s to 1950s are occasionally atmospheric but ultimately derivative and second rate. The late abstract photographs are stimulating and more work is needed to exhibit and catalogue these works, establishing a chronology and assembling groups and themes. At her death, her studio contents were dispersed uncatalogued, which has made understanding her development – mostly secluded from public exposure – difficult. This catalogue contributes to Maar’s standing as a serious and inventive artist. Much critical work has still to be done but what is made clearer than before by this exhibition and catalogue is that Maar’s best art is strong and her output overall rewards attention.

 

Damarice Amao, Amanda Maddox, Karolina Ziebinska (eds.), Dora Maar, J. Paul Getty Museum, 7 January 2020, hardback, 208pp, 240 col. illus., $40, ISBN 978 1 60606 629 4

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

A Confederacy of Dunces

CFD_S_11“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting

In John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) (reissued in an illustrated edition by the Folio Society) Ignatius J. Reilly is that genius. He dresses oddly, refuses to convert his university education into productive employment and lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is ashamed of his mother, who likes to drink and socialise, and she is beginning to tire of him. He speaks like so to a policeman: “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft.”

Ignatius mission is to act as truth teller for the 1960s. He attends the cinema to observe the lewd and tawdry content of films purely to glean insights into the descent of culture. “With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy,” he declares in his treatise on the decline of the Western world, written on pads which he illustrates.

Finally at the age of 30, forced by circumstance, Ignatius takes a clerical position at decrepit Levy Pants. In its squalid premises he seeks apply his acumen to the ignoble task of pursing trade. He engages in business correspondence with the arrogant vitriol of which society so necessarily curtails expression. “Mr I. Abelman, Mongoloid, Esq.: We have received via post your absurd comments about our trousers, the comments revealing, as they did, your total lack of contact with reality.”

Announcing that “I cannot tolerate social injustice,” Ignatius visits the factory floor to observe the inequities of capitalism in action. He is astute enough to realise that the black workers’ responses to jazz on the PA is mere Palovian conditioning, which the subjects mistake for pleasure. “In a sense I have always felt something of a kinship with the colored race because of its position is the same as mine: we both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Of course, my exile is voluntary. However, it is apparent that many of the Negroes wish to become active members of the American middle class. I can not imagine why. […] However, if they wish to join the bourgeoisie, it is really none of my business.”

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

Fired from Levy Pants for organising a (failed) riot, Ignatius becomes the world’s (or at least New Orleans’s) least satisfactory hot-dog vendor: arguing with customers, fighting bystanders and consuming the hot dogs himself. This brings him into contact with the seedy underbelly of New Orleans and into the orbit of yet more odd characters, which drive the story to a satisfying denouement.

Toole gives us some comedic set pieces without too much contrivance. These include an incipient lecture “Sex in Politics: Erotic Liberty as a Weapon Against Reactionaries”, the luncheon party and Ignatius’s follies. There is a plot and plenty of action and thus A Confederacy of Dunces does not suffer from the usual weaknesses of comic novels: passages of self-regarding clever prose and contrived authorial observations. The reader feels he is in the world of these characters and is invested in what happens to them. He is never irritated by the author incongruously taking him aside to deliver witty barbs about modern life.

Ignatius is a comic protagonist: he is a liar, glutton, sluggard, prig and sneak. Yet Toole keeps us engaged and we never lose sympathy despite our disapproval for his main character, who is somewhere between hero and anti-hero. Ignatius suffers consequences of his character flaws and his actions drive the plot. Ignatius is unfettered by social convention and we get the delight of seeing a person overturning politeness and saying the unsayable. He seems to lack the filter that most people have that prevents them from immediately voicing our views out loud. On the other hand, by reading his journal we see that he is driven by folie de grandeur and a series of peculiar convictions which distort his understanding. Thus Ignatius is both liberated by self-belief (having few behavioural inhibitions) and constricted in by delusion (having little wisdom). It is that friction between liberation and ignorance that makes Ignatius compelling as a character. That is why we can find him loveable – or at least appealing – while being aware of his foolishness and inadequacy.

Myrna Minkoff is Ignatius’s long-distance on-and-off-again Beatnik girlfriend. She wears black clothes, a beret and glasses purely to demonstrate her seriousness. From New York she writes letters diagnosing Ignatius’s dysfunction and urging sexual liberation. (To be fair, in this case Ignatius’s sexual repression does seem a contributing factor to his abnormal behaviour.) She reports on her activism. “At the moment my every waking hour is spent in helping some dedicated friends raise money for a bold and shattering movie that they are planning to film about interracial marriage. Although it will be a low-budget number, the script itself is chock full of disturbing truths and has the most fascinating tonalities and ironies.” She makes it her place to befriend the black actress. “She is such a real, vital person that I have made her my closest friend. I discuss her racial problems with her constantly, drawing her out even when she doesn’t feel like discussing them.” She carries a valise full of pamphlets on left-wing campaigns. Toole indirectly shows that her defiance of her parents is bound up with her libido. Although outwardly agitating for racial equality through political conviction, it is Myrna’s sex drive that directs her towards race-mixing and reveals a fetishisation of interracial relationships.

She is a great comic creation, although admittedly one drawn from Toole’s real-life experience. In her relentless moralism, lack of inhibition and absence of self-awareness, Myrna stands as a cutting portrait of a proto-SJW. Ignatius, likewise, is a precursor of a disaffected university-graduate anarchist who rails against the middle class whilst living with his mother. He suspects he is slandered by the forces of white supremacists. He is an armchair revolutionary who muses on how to restructure society and abolish the tyranny of commerce. He could be persuaded to engage in terrorism. “I am not above tossing a Molotov cocktail or two,” he confesses. His class solidarity allows him boundless compassion towards the masses but no patience in their execrable company.

In their forceful views, profanity, volcanic tempers and quick resorts to violence, Ignatius and Myrna are the embodiment of the minority-adulating, self-appointed class warriors.

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

The secondary characters are distinctive. Hapless Patrolman Mancuso, operates undercover as a vice operative; factory owner Mr Levy is a distracted and uninterested owner of a failing concern; his wife is discontent, mildly guilty about their income, she nags her husband to better himself; Darlene, the barmaid, wants to develop a striptease act with her pet cockatoo removing her garments; her boss Lana is a penny-pinching martinet overseeing a dive bar; Dorian Greene is a party-hopping trust-fund homosexual with a line of catty banter. Burma Jones is a stand-out character; he is a cool streetwise black man living on the boundary of the licit. Toole captures his patois accurately and without condescension. When he is employed to clean a bar for below minimum wage, Jones sourly rehearses a conversation he could have with the policeman who has harassed him to get a job. “Well, I gonna tell that po-lice I gainfully employ, keep him off my back, tell him I met up with a humanitaria payin me twenty dollar a week. He say “That fine, boy. I’m glad to see you straighten out.” And I say, “Hey!” And he say, “Now maybe you becomin a member of the community.” And I say, “Yeah, I got me a nigger job and nigger pay. Now I really a member of the community. Now I a real nigger. No vagran. Just nigger.””

Jones’s backchat with his employer shows him moving between leveraging historical injustice and following self-interest in a seamless manner, yet he is sympathetic and believable. He is not a rake, criminal or grifter but a smart-yet-lazy man who follows the line of least resistance, able to provide a dry self-deprecating commentary on his situation. We enjoy his company, appreciate his intelligent insight and wish him well. He is the closest to a neutral reader-perspective character in the book. It would be wrong to call A Confederacy of Dunces a collection of grotesques. Toole’s characters do not seem calculated to make social critiques or embody types but seem to have an internal life and faithfulness to life (albeit heightened) that renders them truer than outright caricatures.

This volume consists of the corrected text of the novel, an introduction covering the writing and publication history of the book and a preface by Bill Bailey, comedian and musician, explaining why he – like many comedians – finds Toole’s story strikes a chord. Production values of the Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces are characteristically high. Carefully designed, well printed and using high-quality materials, the book is a pleasure to read. Jonny Hannah has provided new illustrations for this edition. It comprises 7 illustrations plus a frontispiece, all full colour. He has also designed endpapers, cover and the design of the pictorial slipcase, as well as incidental figures in black and white, making the book a complete experience. The images are painted and drawn in a collage style, vigorous and striking. This riotous, informal and vibrant approach perfectly matches the tone and contents of the novel. Reading this new Folio Society is like being immersed in one of the best comic novels of the Twentieth Century.

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, Folio Society, 2019, cloth hardback in pictorial slipcase, 332pp, 8 col. illus., £39.95. The Folio Society edition of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, with preface by Bill Bailey and illustrated by Jonny Hannah, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Theophrastus’s Satirical Characters

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Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behaviour is a book of character sketches which describes common types that recur in perpetuity. These types survive today. Although we refuse to recognise ourselves among these characters, we all find some individuals here that we know in person. This attractive little book with new illustrations brings these eternal types to a new generation.

Tyrtamus, called Theophrastus (“divine in speech”) (c. 371-c. 287 BC) was a respected philosopher and teacher, who came from Lesbos to join Plato’s Academy, later studying with Aristotle in Athens. He became a favourite student of Aristotle. He survived the vicissitudes of Athenian politics through a combination of wits, rhetoric and popularity. His lectures drew large audiences. He went on to become a wealthy property owner – no mean feat for a foreigner with no voting rights or other entitlements of Athenian citizens. Most of his essays on grammar, ethics, history and nature are lost. His Characters has come down to us in damaged form.

The collection of comic portrait sketches is satirical, mocking the bad behaviour of Athenians, especially their venality. These were written during the immediate post-Alexandrian period, though only mention contemporary events rarely and tangentially and these types are universal rather than specific. Each description is only a page or so long. There is relatively little that is historically dependent in the text. In cases where amounts, places, people and customs are referred to there are footnotes. We pick up on the importance in Alexandrian Athens of public status, private litigation and personal money from Theophrastus’s targets and approaches.

The_Authoritarian

[Image: Andre Carrilho, The Authoritarian (2018). (c) 2018 Andre Carrilho]

The Babbler is an incessant talker who bores and distracts all around him. He prevents theatre-goers from enjoying the play and diners from eating in peace. His children tease him by, at bedtime, imploring him to bore them to sleep. The Obnoxious Man exhibits his genitals in public, belches loudly and makes a nuisance of himself at the theatre in order to attract attention. He stops in at the barbershop to announce that he is on his way to get drunk. “The Distrustful Man is the sort who, when he’s sent his slave to do some shopping, sends another along to find out how much the first one spent. Though he’s carrying his money himself, he sits down every two hundred yards to count it.”[i] Theophrastus describes him getting up at night to check that the doors and windows are locked, despite the assurances of his wife.

Particularly good is the Coward, who deliberately hides his sword under the pillow in his tent, so that he has to go through the pantomime of searching for it before he can go out to battle. His terror at being at sea is genuinely comic. The Authoritarian is today’s know-nothing, offering his opinion unwanted; he is the elitist who believes he is immune to the faults he ascribes to others. Others include the Social Climber, the Charlatan, the Vulgar Man (more an inconsiderate man, readers may think), the Arrogant Man and the Slanderer. There are multiple versions of the miser – Theophrastus obviously had strong feelings on the subject of parsimony…

The_Slanderer

[Image: Andre Carrilho, The Slanderer (2018). (c) 2018 Andre Carrilho]

The illustrations by Andre Carrilho are vigorous, bold and highly stylised. Each character gets a drawing. The figures are both ancient and modern. The mixture of sweeping curves in line and shaded details used sparingly is distinctive and redolent of The New Yorker, a publication for which Carrilho has worked. The introduction is informative and the translation is very approachable whilst preserving the literal examples of obols, drachmas and agora as written by Theophrastus. The design is attractive and the binding a handsome scarlet cloth.

 

Theophrastus, Pamela Mensch (trans.), James Romm (introduction), Andre Carrilho (illus.), Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behaviour, Callaway, 2018, cloth hardback, $24.95, 111pp, mono illus., ISBN 978 0 935112 37 5

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

Hidden London: Discovering the Forgotten Underground

“When riding the Tube, passengers sometimes get flashing glimpses of lit side tunnels or abandoned stations. Before they fully register them, the sights are gone and passengers are left with a short-lived curiosity about the hidden life of their primary means of travel about London. The long complex history of the London Underground network has generated a legacy of disused stations, defunct lines and disregarded buildings. Hidden London: Discovering the Forgotten Underground (published by London Transport Museum in association with Yale University Press) presents some of those in pictorial format with extensive explanatory commentary.

“Parts of this story will be familiar to anyone who has disappeared down those rabbit holes of Wikipedia that beckon us when we are killing time. Closed stations, merged stations, tracks abandoned and service tunnels not open to the public are the inevitable by-product of a system that emerged piecemeal under multiple companies since 1863 and has had to serve a vast and changing city. Amateur historians of LU have long applied formidable scrutiny to plentiful available documentation, so there is little in this book that will be unknown to dedicated fans of LU trivia, but for general readers this is an ideal companion to lost elements of London’s underground rail system.

“There is a strange power to encountering these images of lost ages, at once melancholy and sinister. These are time capsules…”

Read the full review online at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/hidden-london/