Image: Alexander Adams, “Martin Bormann’s Skull” (version A), oil on canvas, 1998
I am pleased to announce that today I was awarded the 2018 Artist Scholarship from the Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, Monaco. To mark this honour there will be events and projects this year including the publication of “On Art” (verse and drawings), a new story booklet with Aloes Books, a broadside of a drawing and poem (in English and Polish), an exhibition of new paintings in Paris, a catalogue of new paintings in French, interviews and other events to be announced. My thanks are due to the foundation and supporters.
[Image: Egon Schiele, (Austrian, 1890–1918), Egon Schiele, (Austrian, 1890–1918) Standing Nude with Orange Drapery (1914), Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper
18 1/4 x 12 in. (46.4 x 30.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982]
The sudden rise to prominence – and subsequent descent into obscurity – of Scofield Thayer (1889-1982) reads like an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. A young American playboy brings a millionaire fortune and beautiful girlfriend to Europe. They visit the museums of the Grand Tour. When he returns to Europe after the Great War, the young man is an editor of a literary journal and uses his fortune to support the literary lions of London, Vienna and Paris. He undergoes analysis with Dr Freud in Vienna. Now divorced from his wife, he is a dedicated libertine and decadent, his life devoted to the compulsive pursuit of novelty: principally promoting avant-garde writing, collecting erotic art and engaging in sexual conquests (mostly homosexual). He amasses a great collection of erotic art. On his return to the New York, he slowly descends into insanity and lives out the largest part of his long life in various institutions in obscurity. By the time of his death, he has long outlived his notoriety and his death goes almost unnoticed.
Thayer edited Dial, one of the most important literary journals of the 1920s. It published ground-breaking prose and verse by T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and many others. Dial also brought advanced European art to American readers. Thayer bought large quantities of art, mostly because he liked it but also a few pieces he intended to trade at a profit. In Vienna, he encountered the art if the recently deceased Klimt and Schiele. In war-impoverished Vienna, excellent drawings were cheap and Thayer could amass a fine collection of graphics, especially erotic drawings by the pair, some priced as low as $6 each. His collection of almost 600 pieces of art, ranging from German Renaissance prints and Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs to paintings by the Expressionists, Braque, Bonnard and Matisse, was bought before Thayer’s mental instability sent him into seclusion at the end of the 1920s. The heart of his art collection was erotic in character. The uneven and salacious collection was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum on his death in 1982. One can only imagine the mingled pleasure and embarrassment among museum administrators and curators discovering the unabashed sexual nature of much of the art received into the collection. This catalogue documents the exhibition Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection of 52 nudes by three prominent Modernist artists: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Pablo Picasso. The exhibition will be held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from 3 July to 7 October 2018.
Klimt drew thousands of studies – mainly figures – during pauses between painting sessions. He drew as preparation for his Symbolist paintings (including public commissions, such as the murals for Vienna university) and also as a general exercise to keep his skills sharp. Visitors to his studio recalled nude models lounging around, ready to inspire the artist with a gesture or position. Klimt had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ready models. The drawings of nudes in the Thayer collection are typical of the late period of Klimt. Slender young women with bountiful tresses drape themselves over undepicted beds, sometimes pleasuring themselves. The style is dreamy, with the often undifferentiated subjects drawn lightly, with little shading, most executed in pencil. Outlines – which are almost all there is to Klimt’s figures – are sometimes uncertain and repeatedly reworked to build up solid but insubstantial forms.
[Image: Gustav Klimt, (Austrian, 1862–1918), Reclining Nude with Drapery, Back View (1917–1918), Graphite, 14 5/8 x 22 3/8 in. (37.1 x 56.8 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982]
The best of the drawings is a standing figure of 1906-7. The unusual rounded hairstyle, striking pose (with hip jutting) and evidence of a revised pose all make this piece stand out as memorable. The other pictures by Klimt are fair examples of their type but not very engaging.
Egon Schiele’s interests were even more frankly sexual. Unlike the more expensive and public oil paintings that he made, Schiele could use drawing on paper as medium in which to be more adventurous and explicit in imagery and subject matter. Thayer’s 32 drawings and prints (29 of which are reproduced in the catalogue) cover the whole of Schiele’s short career, starting in 1911 and ending the year of his death, 1918. The earliest drawings are sketchy, with simple lines picking out aspects, those lines sometimes floating as if detached from the motif.
Observed in a Dream (1911) is an unusual showpiece from Schiele’s early years. The fanciful title (prominently inscribed on the front), thorough colouring with watercolour paint and coquettishly sexual pose all indicate the artist aping the pornographic photographs and drawings easily to be found in Vienna in that period. Ultimately, Schiele’s art became more sophisticated and personal without losing its sexual edge. One gets the impression that a more confident and independent Schiele would later collaborate with his models to explore expressions of sexuality that were less clichéd.
The drawings and drypoints of 1914 include the button eyes and doll faces typical of that phase. There are a few of Schiele’s typical line drawings coloured by broken patches of gouache diluted with gum arabic. By 1918, Schiele’s lines were fatter (conté crayon or black chalk replacing pencil) and the curves more emphatic. The models were no longer the scrawny adolescent waifs of the early years but adult women bursting with health, some of them buxom. There are drawings of a child model, who was apparently the child of a female model, as evidenced by a drawing showing the mother and child together.
The art by Picasso is less explicit in general. Although Picasso was often driven by erotic impulses, it came out in playful, indirect and witty ways rather than straightforward realistic depictions of nude figures. One exception is Erotic Scene (1902), showing a woman with long hair performing oral sex on the artist. The work is from the Blue Period. It is poorly painted, with little feeling or care. Picasso later disavowed the painting and refused to authenticate it. However, there is no doubt about its authenticity. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson had a dim opinion of the painting, suggesting that the artist painted it hastily for money.
Other drawings by Picasso are of standing nudes executed in Gosol and Paris in 1906 and bathers executed in the artist’s Neo-Classical period of the early 1920s. The gap is not accidental. Thayer disliked Cubism and abstract art, so had no desire to collect any art made by Picasso during the 1907-1917 period. There is a 1922 pastel portrait of an idealised woman (probably a composite of Sara Murphy and the artist’s wife Olga) which is more tender than erotic. Picasso’s art seems distinctly public; the art of Klimt and Schiele is definitely of a private character. Picasso seems to be engaged in dialogue with artists of the past; Klimt and Schiele were more concerned with depicting reality and establishing connections between artist and subject. Picasso deals with ideals; Klimt and Schiele deal with actual subjects. Picasso worked from memory; Klimt and Schiele worked from life.
The selection of works tells us about Thayer’s priorities. It is notable that despite his sexual preference for men (though Thayer was apparently bisexual), the majority of subjects of the art he purchased were female. This is partly due to the fact that erotic depictions of nudes by the most prominent artists of the period were female ones, made by heterosexual male artists, which meant that the majority of erotic art of the time featured female subjects. Thus most of the nudes available were of female subjects. It also tells us that the quality of the art was more important to Thayer than its erotic potency. There was plenty of homosexual erotica for sale but none of the artistic quality of the art that entered Thayer’s collection. Thayer’s collection of non-erotic art was excellent, including some fine pieces by Matisse, Bonnard, Chagall and Demuth.
The catalogue is a useful addition to the body of literature on erotic art. The exhibition promises to be a celebration of erotic desire, the urge to present the beautiful in art and the lasting appeal of this art for viewers.
Sabine Rewald and Scofield Thayer, Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale University Press), 2018, paperback, 132pp, 110 col. illus., $25, ISBN 978 1 588 39 65 25
[Image: Marie Bashkirtseff (Ukrainian, 1858–1884), In the Studio (1881), oil on canvas, 60 5/8 x 73 1/4 in. Dnipropetrovsk State Art Museum, Ukraine, KH-4234. Photo: Dnipropetrovsk/Bridgeman Images. Courtesy American Federation of Arts]
“Recent gains in women’s participation in the arts now demands an assessment of those who have paved the way – both women artists who struggled to establish careers in art and art historians who reinvented the critical language to accommodate them.”
So states curator Laurence Madeline in her essay introducing a current exhibition on women artists. Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 (the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 9 June-3 September 2018; touring from Denver Art Museum and Speed Art Museum) gathers almost 90 paintings by 37 female artists from 11 countries, all of whom worked or trained in Paris. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.
The period examined by this exhibition and catalogue was a turbulent and rich one. Despite the rise of Naturalism, Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Symbolism, the Salon dominated public reception of art and academic painting was a significant proportion of the art produced and consumed. The studio system of training, the École des beaux-arts and Prix de Rome were important in the training of artists and this presented women with a number of hurdles to becoming full-time artists. Women were not admitted to the École des beaux-arts until 1897 and had limited choices in the studios they could study at. Académie Julian became a favourite not just of women students but adventurous male students and a large number of the most successful artists of that period and the immediately following era studied there. In 1881 the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs was founded to promote and exhibit women.
Statistical analysis in this catalogue indicates that female participation in the annual Salon ranged from below 10% to as high as 20% in a period when women as full-time professional artists were a rarity. This shows that women artists were recognised publicly in proportion to their participation in the fine-art field, even though it seems their art was less likely to have been awarded prizes and bought by the state. Such advantages naturally went to the most established artists, who were predominantly male. (Footnote 1)
Seeing a gathering of pictures by some unknown women artists seems to reinforce the impression that women are (or were) unduly discriminated against. Yet the art of twenty times that number of forgotten male artists from the period could have been assembled – with each of those artists as good as the women artists here. Go through any academy store room and you will encounter fine pictures by unknown artists, male and female. There simply is not enough wall space, book pages and public attention to cause these artists to be remembered. History bestows oblivion upon legions of capable professionals, regardless of gender. Fame is exceptional and, by definition, most artists are destined for obscurity. Nowadays, critics, curators and historians trawl archives and store rooms specifically in search of forgotten women artists to promote. Rescuing women artists from obscurity is an outcome of – and justification for – much Feminist art history over the last 50 years. Today there is no prejudice against women artists in the West. Women are rapidly becoming the majority of arts administrators and art historians. Today, among professionals and critics, there is an in-built favouritism towards women artists. Not a week goes by without a press release heralding the posthumous revival of a forgotten woman artist.
So, how good is the art exhibited here? Much of it is very good.
A number of artists need no introduction. Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès and Marie Bracquemond were respected and popular artists in the Impressionist circle, though the latter (who was married to acclaimed printmaker Félix Bracquemond and exhibited with the Impressionists) has faded from attention, partly due to her early retirement from art. Morisot, Cassatt and Gonzalès are presented fairly here, with first-class pieces.
[Image: Berthe Morisot (French, 1841–1895), The Cherry Tree (1891), oil on canvas, 57 5/8 x 35 in. Collection of Bruce and Robbi Toll; Photo: CAPEHART Photography. Courtesy American Federation of Arts]
A good case is made for Marie Bracquemond, with her Impressionist paintings of women and domestic life matching the quality of her more famous colleagues. Her reputation is likely to rise.
Naturalist painter of rural scenes Rosa Bonheur was celebrated in her lifetime as the equal of male painters. Bonheur was a phenomenon, becoming famous and being granted special privileges. Her art sold for high prices. Her paintings of farm animals were accurate and have an impressive physical presence but such art has become unfashionable and it is hard to see her name becoming common currency again. Fellow Naturalist painter Marie Bashkirtseff was very talented but one wonders if she would have left any more of a significant mark had she not died at the age of 25 in 1884. The adeptly executed In the Studio (1881) is one of the few large-scale paintings she painted in her short career. The Bastien-Lapage style of Naturalism she adopted was already verging on the fusty and sentimental by 1884. Was she capable of innovating or was she only a superior adherent of Cosmopolitan Realism?
Bastien-Lepage’s Naturalism became the dominant painting style in Scandinavia from his Salon success of 1878 until well into the Twentieth Century, long after his death. His approach was to paint scenes of rural life, including mild social commentary about the lives of working people. The doctrine of Naturalism through local colour, studying from life and painting at least studies en plein air won him legions of followers in France and Northern Europe. In this exhibition, nearly all the Nordic painters are indebted to him. Lady Elizabeth Butler’s patriotic scenes are more aligned to academic salon painting. Annie Louisa Swynnerton’s standing female nude is in the beaux-arts tradition, influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism. Amélie Beaury-Saurel’s pastel portrait of a young woman smoking and drinking coffee is bold, accomplished and lively. It is a very fine picture.
Grand claims for Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) are not borne out on the evidence presented here. There is a concise and beautiful painting of an interior (The Door (1884)); the only strong contrast in the picture is the glow of light coming through gaps around a closed door. However, the other pictures by her are weak stuff – a Botticelli copy, soft-focus social realism, a Whistlerian portrait. A strikingly modern self-portrait in a manner similar to Kitaj is not included, as it falls outside the dates for exhibited work.
[Image: Emma Löwstädt-Chadwick (Swedish, 1855–1932), Beach Parasol, Brittany (Portrait of Amanda Sidwall) (1880), oil on panel, 11 7/16 x 19 11/16 in. Private collection, Stockholm; Photo: Lars Engelhardt. Courtesy American Federation of Arts]
There are idiosyncrasies in curation that are puzzling. The curators state that they deliberately avoided so-called typically feminine subjects such as flower paintings and portraits, yet included are maternities, domestic interiors and conversation pieces featuring women – all subjects that were particularly close to women artists’ hearts and the centres of their artistic production. Some of the artists are ones who visited or trained in Paris rather than living there for significant lengths of time. Paula Modersohn-Becker should not have been included.
The catalogue includes informative essays by Jane R. Becker on Marie Bracquemond and by Vibeke Waallann Hansen on the Nordic painters. Impressionist scholar Richard Kendall writes about the careers of the female Impressionists. A valuable biographical section presents data about each artist.
Bridget Alsdorf makes some unfounded judgements in her catalogue essay. She contends that in Manet’s portrait of Eva Gonzalès painting at her easel, Manet appropriates Gonzalès’s painting of flowers on her easel as “his own” by painting it in his own manner. Gonzalès was Manet’s student and her style is very indebted to his. Breaking the stylistic continuity within the portrait by transcribing a Gonzales painting idiomatically correctly would have been completely inconsistent within the aesthetic and practice of Manet. Alsdorf asserts that Orpen included the portrait of Gonzalès in Orpen’s own Homage to Manet (1909) in a way that “is perfectly ironic, a further travesty of Gonzalès’s already awkward image as a femme peintre”. Orpen was including the most celebrated and publicly available painting by Manet situated in the British Isles in 1909. There is nothing ironic about the inclusion. Women artists suffered inequality in this period. Inventing slights only distracts attention from the actual difficulties they faced.
There is some high quality art which we benefit from encountering, often for the first time, but are some of these artists unfairly overlooked? Not really. Bonheur and Bashkirtseff are scarcely more obscure to today’s gallery-goers than Bastien-Lepage and painters of the Barbizon or Hague Schools; Cassatt and Morisot are mentioned in every publication on Impressionism. What about the lesser-known ones? Schjerfbeck is capable but inconsistent; Virginie Demont-Breton is a competent Salon painter; Kitty Kielland is a skilful Norwegian landscape painter. Are these artists good? Yes. Are they better than the (male) artists who are more well-known? No, though some are equal in competence.
Yet there are hundreds of shadowy others at the elbows of Schjerfbeck and Killand, also ready to claim a seat in Parnassus.
On the opening of the Musée fin-de-siècle in Brussels, I was astonished to encounter the paintings of Hippolyte Boulenger (1837-1874). After 20 years of studying and writing about art of the period, I counted myself fairly familiar with the painting of the era, yet here was this painter who was the equal of Corot, who painted with the energy of Courbet and I had never heard his name. His landscapes are deeply immersive, full of bold brushwork and underpinned by acute observation, yet today not even one Belgian in a thousand would recognise his name. His art would have fitted into this exhibition – he deserves a monographic exhibition – yet there is no academic mileage in reviving the reputations of Belgian male painters. No cultural connoisseur or social historian will ever become indignant about the unjust neglect of Hippolyte Boulenger. Yet I would rather have hanging on my wall a Boulenger marine painting in preference to anything painted by Turner or Constable.
The canon is a limited field and it necessarily excludes the overwhelming majority of all art ever produced. Just as the newspaper acclaim and jury prizes of past eras do not secure a place in the canon for dazzling Salon painters, so too the perorations of art historians today do not permanently alter the course of history. The best approach is to look at art frankly (and sceptically) and assess bodies of work as honestly as possible. On that basis, there is plenty in Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 which is appealing and surprising and we can be grateful to have encountered it.
Laurence Madeline et al, Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900, American Federation of Arts/Yale University Press, 2018, paperback, 288pp, 150 col. illus., $45, ISBN 978 1 885444 45 5
(1) Prizes, awards and state purchases are not distributed equally according to the merit of exhibited art. It is in part dependent on the status of the artist and that artist’s reputation.
If famous artist A wins 10 prizes in a career, less famous artist B does not get a proportionate 8 prizes (equivalent to 80% of artist A’s recognition) but more likely 1 or 2 prizes in a career. There is a limit to the number of prizes available. Members of the public or prize juries may recognise a limited number artist names. The difference in recognition between being number 1 and 2 on that list is small; the difference between being number 19 and 20 on that list may be large. Similarly, a graph of all living artists’ income per annum would be flat at zero and near-zero for almost the entire X axis showing the low income of the majority, grow slightly for the small number who make a living income and then reach a sheer wall for the tiny number of super-rich artists. This is a form of winner-take-all situation.
Thus, prizes are awarded in a disproportionate manner. If the top ten most celebrated artists in any given cohort are male then the remaining 90 artists – regardless of whether they are male or female –who are less famous will receive 90% or even 50% of the prizes but about 10% between them due to the winner-take-all economy.
See: Hans Abbing, Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, 2014, Amsterdam University Press, 367pp, ISBN 978 9 0530565650
Bacon – Giacometti, Fondation Beyeler, Basel (29 April-2 September 2018) examines the bonds between Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). The two artists were near contemporaries – though Bacon was a late starter and so considered much more junior than the actual eight years between them – and shared social, intellectual and artistic connections. Bacon – usually so guarded in his compliments – was notably and publicly respectful of Giacometti. Giacometti was also an admirer of Bacon. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.
When Bacon was emerging as a mature artist in the late 1940s, Giacometti was re-emerged from a prolonged retreat from the public art world. He had been a leading figure in the Surrealist movement in the early 1930s but by the late 1930s had left the movement. During the war he was isolated in Switzerland, working on figures that were allied to realism – or at least observation. In a series of photographs of Giacometti’s Paris studio published from 1946 onwards, the public became acquainted with an artist newly devoted to depicting the figure and his art. The startlingly primitive conditions of the studio were notably photogenic and the image of the artist in crumpled tweed suits, cigarette in mouth, hands working on a clay model, proved to be totemic. For a young artist seeking to be taken seriously, Giacometti’s art and life became a template. Exactly how much of the example of Giacometti was adopted consciously by Bacon – and how much simply coincided with Bacon’s pre-existing attitudes – is an open question, on that this exhibition and catalogue examine.
Both artists were influenced by Surrealism but rejected it as a doctrine. Both were committed to depicting observed figures in new ways. Both were artists of habit and routine. They had relatively little engagement with landscape. They were out of step with art of their time. Both artists were admirers of Egyptian sculpture. The many statements by Giacometti about Egyptian art, and reviews discussing this connection, may have led Bacon to investigate Egyptian art more deeply in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Bacon stated outright in later interviews that he preferred Egyptian carvings to any other sculpture.
The pair became acquaintances in the 1950s and friends in the 1960s. Among their common acquaintances were writer Michel Leiris, critic David Sylvester, dealer Ernst Beyeler and collectors Robert and Lisa Sainsbury. The catalogue includes photographs taken by Graham Keen of Bacon visiting Giacometti as he set up his exhibition at the Tate Gallery on the 13th of July 1965. They met infrequently in London and Paris. In a catalogue essay, biographer Michael Peppiatt points out that friendship could have deepened further, as Bacon spent increasing amounts of time in Paris in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Both artists tended to work with portrait subjects they knew personally and tended to reject commissions. Though known for their portraits, they declined to use the demand for their ability to be used to portray subjects who could afford to pay for commissioned paintings. Isabel Rawsthorne (1912-1992) modelled for Giacometti and Derain in the 1930s and later, when she lived in London, she modelled for Bacon. Drawings and sculptures of Rawsthorne made by Giacometti in the late 1936-48 are displayed alongside Bacon’s small portrait paintings and the large full-figure portrait on canvas, loaned from the Nationalgalerie, Berlin. She became one of Bacon’s most significant models during the 1960s-1990s. She became an artist in her own right and exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery, London, Bacon’s dealer.
Giacometti’s use of cuboid frames around his sculptures was initially pragmatic, allowing him to suspend objects in space. Consider Boule suspendue (1930) and La Nez (1947). Later, the frame became a formal device in tableaux (for example, La Cage (1950-1)). The space frames were then introduced into Giacometti’s paintings. In the paintings and drawings they situate the figure in space as well as on the picture plane. They would directly inspire Bacon to adopt the device by 1947 in his own painting. It became one of his most persistent aspects of his art.
The cult of genius that sprang up around Giacometti was pervasive, certainly in the art world before Giacometti became a household name after his death. The example of a determined artist living in near squalid conditions in pursuit of his art – but who was a noted bon vivant and frequenter of public bars, cafés and clubs – was something that accorded with Bacon’s personal inclination to hard work in Spartan conditions and high living in public. Like Bacon, Giacometti was also a former Surrealist who had been rejected by the movement and sought a new direction. He was a defiantly figurative artist at a time when abstraction – especially from America – was ascendant.
The generously sized catalogue has full-page illustrations, which is particularly good for the unique painted Giacometti plasters. It is unfortunate that casting dates for the Giacometti bronzes are not given in the list of details, as this clarifies whether the artist oversaw the production and patination. The selection of works is adroit, with works taken from the Beyeler Foundation and loans from around the world, including triptychs by Bacon.
The co-operation of the Fondation Giacometti, Paris has allowed delicate unique plasters to travel to Switzerland. Giacometti embellished plasters with touches of paint and pencil lines. These have different qualities to the better known bronzes. The plasters have different coloration and the air of great fragility. The Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, Monaco also loaned material for the exhibition.
Some of the art is the very best made by the artists. By Bacon there is the uncanny Head III (1949), the fine recovered Study of Velázquez (1950) and Figure with Meat (1954) with its richly coloured sides of beef, which has travelled from Chicago. The Study for Bullfight No. 2 (1969) is very effective in fusing the bullfight with a crowd from a Nazi rally. The analogy between these two group spectacles of primal anger, fear and catharsis is an intelligent one. The 1967 triptych showing two homosexual couplings flanking a crime scene is one of Bacon’s lush and visually satisfying paintings. The more austere triptych of 1972 includes a rare example of dry-brushing, where Bacon has applied paint in a rough veil over background elements. In Memory of George Dyer (1971) is a weak triptych. Whatever the strength of the emotions Bacon experienced in relation to the death of his lover Dyer, those did not translate into paint here. The triptych depicting Dyer’s death is much more powerful.
Giacometti’s pieces include busts of Annette, Diego, and Eli Lotar, some of them the original plasters of the artist’s last busts. There are versions of walking men and standing figures, including the Women of Venice. Grande tête mince (1954) has Diego Giacometti’s head reduced to the narrowness of a blade or flint arrowhead, while retaining the essence of the subject’s humanity. It does not appear freakish at all. La Nez (1947) is a strange piece, expressing a profound sense of horror and angst. The extended nose does not seem an affectation; it is less a distortion than visual expression of abnormality and distress.
Some pairings are questionable. Trois hommes qui marchent (petit plateau) (1948) is reproduced opposite Bacon’s Marching Figures (c. 1952). The former seems a study of random encounters in an urban setting, while the latter is probably derived from a photograph of marching soldiers. Most of the comparisons are apt and informative. There is single serious and inexplicable omission to the selection. Head (of a Man on a Rod) (1947) is a key work of a head crying out, related to a traumatic memory Giacometti had of witnessing a man die. It is close in character to Bacon’s figures screaming, many of which are included. Head exists in numerous casts and would have been difficult to borrow for an exhibition of this quality.
The catalogue essays, illustrations and artist biographies allow people to track the parallels (and differences) between two of the most important figurative artists of the Late Modern period.
C Grenier, U Küster, M Peppiatt (eds.), Bacon – Giacometti, Hatje Cantz/Fondation Beyeler/Fondation Giacometti, 2018, hardback, 204pp, 162 col. illus. (incl. 4 fold-out pages), €58, ISBN 978 3 7757 4417 1 (German version available)
[Image: Alexander Adams, Firs in Snow, Fog Effect, 2017, oil on canvas]
I am pleased to launch the first website to present my art: alexanderadams.art. The WordPress site will continue to present articles. This new one will concentrate on the art and books. https://www.alexanderadams.art/
[Image: Robert Motherwell: Open, installation view (Dover Beach no. III (1974) on left), courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris & Brussels. Photo: B.Huet/Tutti]
A new exhibition in Paris showcases some striking examples of Abstract Expressionism by Robert Motherwell.
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) was one of leading figures in the first generation of Abstract Expressionism. He was something of an organiser and a committed teacher, helping to explain abstraction and spread its practice among American artists. He was a writer and editor and his facility with words was sometimes held against him. Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko were revered as the high priests (or rabbis) of the New York School but Motherwell was viewed as a professor – a bit earnest, a little dry. This is a little unfair because he was a talented painter and influenced many younger artists with his art.
Over a very productive career, Motherwell produced thousands of paintings, drawings and collages. He was the leading collagist of the New York School, combining scraps of printed paper, book pages, postage stamps and labels, with added dashes of paint and charcoal lines. Many of his collages reflect his love of French culture, particularly literature. His art is distinguished by its elegance, poise and brevity.
Much of Motherwell’s later work relies on the impact of large expanses of single colours, coming close to Colour-Field painting. Colour-Field painting is based on the effect of intense colour and large shapes, frequently using staining and avoiding prominent brushwork and gesture, as seen in Abstract Expressionism, which immediately preceded the Colour-Field movement. For a period, Motherwell was married to Helen Frankenthaler, who developed Colour-Field painting in collaboration with Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland. The influence of Matisse’s single-colour ground paintings (such as The Red Studio (1911)) is also apparent in Motherwell’s later work.
[Image: Robert Motherwell: Open, installation view, courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris & Brussels. Photo: B.Huet/Tutti]
Robert Motherwell: Open, Galerie Templon, Paris (17 May-21 July 2018) gathers some Motherwell’s paintings from the Open series. These are some of his best paintings. Indeed, the array in the day-lit main gallery, which presents the large paintings, is as good as the centrepiece of a museum retrospective. The exhibition presents a very persuasive case for Motherwell as powerful and original painter.
The brushed bronze-gold hue of Untitled (1974) has a near metallic quality. Dover Beach no. III (1974) has more activity, with scribbled brushmarks imparting greater contrast and complexity. The dark blue swatch in the right side implies sky, turning the rectilinear motif into a closed window in a wall next to sky. There has been debate over how literally the Open series should be interpreted, with some seeing the drawn forms as apertures such as windows or doors, others claiming these are purely abstract designs. The Mexican Window (1974) is more concretely figural, with the open window and shutters distilled to a graphic summary.
[Image: Robert Motherwell, The Mexican Window (1974), acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 194.3 x 243.8 cm, courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris & Brussels. Photo: B.Huet/Tutti]
The shutters cast narrow bands of shadow on the wall below. We feel the heat and glare of midday sunlight on a house wall. There is a West Coast ambience to many of the larger paintings, not dissimilar to Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. However, Motherwell’s Open paintings are much more successful than the Ocean Park series, having a great deal more energetic, rich colour and satisfying surfaces. The Ocean Park paintings have an unpleasant dry, drab surface and an insubstantial feeling.
The wet painterly washes of the thinned acrylic paint give the impression of the minor imperfections found in ordinarily painted stucco. The size of these paintings (frequently at or exceeding two metres in dimensions) reinforces the mural character of subjects. In a way, the Open series is itself a sequence of detached murals. In this respect they are curiously mimetic: painted sections of walls have been treated as detached sections of wall.
[Image: Robert Motherwell, California Window (1975), acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 182.9 x 213.4 cm, courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris & Brussels. Photo: B.Huet/Tutti]
The acrylic paint has held up well over the years and shows no sign of deterioration. One reason the paintings are in good condition is the fact they belong to the estate of the artist and have been carefully conserved. All of the 17 paintings in the exhibition come from the Motherwell Estate and all are for sale. The prices are reasonable considering the quality and importance of these paintings.
Critics have noted the lifting/ascending character of the uneven, open-topped forms placed high on the picture plane in this series. These paintings have a surprising amount of energy considering the limited range of expression. There is plenty to see, probably because of the subtle qualities of the energetic surfaces and how they change according to the light. For such simple paintings, they are actually lively.
There are a number of weak paintings. The black painting with a scraped curving outline is slight and unsatisfying. It lacks the substance of painted or drawn lines. Black Open (1973) and Royal Dirge (1972) are both predominantly black and both unsatisfying. Motherwell has a problem animating black and it shows how his art works when it is at its best – through complementing graphic elements with washed rich colour. In the black paintings half of that equation is missing. However, these weaker paintings serve to demonstrate how the series work in general by proving the rule.
In Great Wall of China no. 4 (1971) the yellow top coat covers darker forms in watery obscuration. In this piece we are made aware of a lost earlier state – something of a rarity in Motherwell’s work. Revision – certainly radical revision – is almost entirely absent from Motherwell’s late paintings and the Open pieces are only lightly worked. If anything, Motherwell is open to the criticism of being facile. On the whole, these paintings are very bold, confident and well-judged. Some of the smaller paintings risk the charge of being slight, but Open Study in Charcoal on Grey #1 (1974) has heft, despite its small size. Untitled (Red Open) (c. 1974) is a fine painting, rich in colour and satisfying in design.
This is a superb exhibition of one of abstract art’s best painters. Strongly recommended.
[Image: Jules Chéret, Bal au Moulin Rouge (1889), color lithograph on paper, Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Museum Purchase, photo: Jack Abraham]
The invention of lithography by Bavarian chemist Alois Senefelder in 1796 revolutionised printing. His system of fixing a drawn design on to a stone surface in a new printing process would increase the speed of design, rate of printing and longevity of the design matrix, allowing prints to made faster, cheaper and more plentiful than ever before. Lithography was originally used to print sheet music more efficiently but its potential in every area of printing was soon recognised and by the second decade of the Nineteenth Century a lithography boom had begun. It was used to print sheet music, newspaper illustrations, posters, maps, timetables, menus, book plates, labels, forms, stationery letterheads and a huge range of other material featuring text and images. Lithography became a large, specialised and profitable industry. The variant of offset lithography is still the standard means of mass printing to this day.
The current exhibition Set in Stone: Lithography in Paris, 1815-1900 held at Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey (20 January-20 July 2018) contains many lithographs from this boom, with exhibited items taken from its expansive permanent collection. This review is of the exhibition catalogue. The survey of French lithography ranges from the Napoleonic era to the dawn of the Twentieth Century and the advent of High Modernism.
The technology of lithography advanced over the Nineteenth Century. The use of zinc plates meant that larger sheets could be printed – a key step towards the development of large posters in the 1860s. Registration was improved, allowing the production of three- and four-colour prints. The use of motorisation allowed the automated production of prints, superseding hand-cranking of presses. The ease of use and widespread availability of lithography drove reproduction engraving and etching to near extinction, where etching lived on as an artistic rather than industrial process. Transfer lithography was the development of sheets which could be drawn on before being transferred to the plate in the studio. This meant that artists did not need to come to the studio to draw directly on stones or plates.
Although not intended as an artist’s medium, fine artists were quick to explore the potential of the new medium. Unlike etching and engraving, the process was a simple one. The artist could simply draw on a stone or plate in wax crayon or ink and leave all other stages to master printmakers; however, full-time professional lithograph artists did become technically proficient in all aspects of the printing process. Print-sellers began to encourage and promote lithography as an artist’s medium and cultivate collectors.
The catalogue essays by Christine Giviskos are informative and wide ranging. Exhibited items include examples of art, book illustrations, lettering, reproduction prints, satirical images and posters, some in colour. Art styles covered in this catalogue cover Romanticism, Classicism, Pointillism, Post-Impressionism and the Nabis. Reproduction prints could act as transcriptions of paintings, drawings or prints and became the principal means of becoming familiar with the Old Masters.
Social history looms large in this selection. The after effects of the Napoleonic wars dominated public discourse in the 1810s and 1820s and caused seismic political divisions in the French population. Workless vagrant veterans from the Napoleonic campaigns were a constant reminder of France’s lost glory and ignominious defeats. Veterans were idolised as heroes but also feared as dangerous criminal vagabonds. The plight of soldiers in war and afterwards were presented in lithographs by Horace and Carle Vernet, Hyacinthe Aubry-Lecomte, Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet and Théodore Géricault. Also included are some of Géricault’s equine lithographs, some executed from scenes the artist encountered in London.
[Image: Théodore Géricault, The English Farrier (1821), lithograph on paper, Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Museum Purchase, photo: Peter Jacobs]
The most influential humorous lithographer was Honoré Daumier. His social commentaries and satires had widespread popular appeal and commanded respect from critics and fellow artists alike. He moved fluidly between modes of approach and mediums. His satirical work is to the fore in this selection. Other prominent satirists (including JJ Grandville, LL Boilly) are included in the exhibition and discussed briefly in the catalogue.
Jules Chéret (1836-1932) was the star of French colour posters. His blend of strong colour, stylised figural rendering and dramatic lettering produced pieces such as the exhibited Bal au Moulin Rouge (1889). Other posters are classics by Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Maurou and others. There is a copy of Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s famous Chat Noir poster of 1896. Included is a Steinlen poster and the original stone that he drew on, allowing viewers to understand the process. The drawing includes the motif, some lettering and registration marks. The final version has extra elements and more lettering.
Painters such as Théodore Chassériau used lithography to make reproduction prints of paintings exhibited at the Autumn Salon, such as Venus Anadyomene (c. 1844). Henri Fantin-Latour developed a painterly approach to lithography, using a scraper to scratch dashes of light into shaded areas. The grainy, dark quality of lithography was ideal for Odilon Redon’s sfumato fantasies. Oddities in this selection include two lithographs by Eugène Carrière (1849-1906), who was famous for his chiaroscuro – nearly monochrome – oil paintings and charcoal drawings. The lithographs of a woman resting her head and a foundry scene are very mannered and suave, lacking the gravitas and melancholy of his paintings. Constant Meunier, the Belgian artist who specialised in scenes of industrial work, may have inspired Carrière’s foundry scene.
Édouard Manet created some lithographs illustrating Poe’s The Raven. His Le Polichinelle (1874) colour lithograph was intended to be an insert in newspaper Le Temps, however it was suppressed, perhaps due to political pressure. Manet seemed to be mocking a senior statesman and the police may have ordered the proofs to be destroyed. Only a few copies of the print survive. His Raven illustrations feature drawing in ink, showing how painterly lithography could be.
Late in the boom the journal La Revue blanche (1893-4) capitalised on aficionado appreciation for lithographs among dedicated collectors. It commissioned covers and posters by prominent artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and some of the new generation, including Félix Vallotton, a young Bonnard and other Nabis.
Apart from the design decision to allow illustrations to cover two pages – thus obscuring the centre in shadow – this title is flawless. It forms an excellent introduction to the diversity of pictorial lithography in France during the first century of the technology. Readers are recommended to visit the exhibition.
Christine Giviskos, Set in Stone: Lithography in Paris, 1815-1900, Hirmer/Zimmerli Art Museum/Rutgers University, hardback, 184pp, 130 col. illus., $45, ISBN 978 3777 429946
Other reviews on printmaking in the Nineteenth Century
“Some grand claims have been made for the art of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941). Christie’s described her as ‘one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century’, yet few art-history students in Europe and America know her name. The reissue of Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters & Writings, which collects all of the artist’s writings and reproduces her 172 surviving paintings, allows us to judge the acclaim. In the foreword, Salman Rushdie explains how Sher-Gil became an inspiration for his character Aurora Zogoiby in The Moor’s Last Sigh.
“There is scarcely a day without a gallery press release announcing the rediscovery of a female artist who has not just been neglected but ‘excluded from the Western fine-art canon’. The claim that any artist can be excluded from the canon is nonsensical. The Western canon is a list of the most important good art that a person should know in order to understand the Western art tradition. The canon is not a set text, but a composite of opinions and has no central authority and changes over time. Therefore no art or artist can ever be excluded from the Western canon, whatever you may be told. (For an explanation, read my essay here.)
“Amrita Sher-Gil was born in 1913 in Budapest. Her family was middle class. Her father was Amrao Singh Sher-Gil, a Sikh writer and religious ascetic. He was a skilled photographer and his favourite subject was his family. Amrita’s mother was of French and Hungarian Jewish descent. The couple were mismatched in some respects and the conflict between an ascetic detached father and neurotic socialite mother would prove a source of instability in Amrita’s life. The family (including Amrita’s younger sister Indira) spent Amrita’s early years in Hungary before the family moved to Simla, India in 1924.
This two-volume book publishes all of Amrita’s writings, translated from the original French and Hungarian. She spoke English to her family and Indian colleagues, so much of the text is in her own words….”
In the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), the Mexican state started to reconstruct its social structure and establish a consensus. The new political situation entailed the working class of the agrarian nation would be the driving force behind land reform, anti-clericism and other dramatic changes. Communism took on new prominence as a leading force on the political Left following the Russian Revolution.
Compared to other Communist movements, the Communist Party of Mexico or PCM (Fondo Partido Comunista Mexicano) was judged weak in terms of membership and leadership in the early 1920s. Inspired by the example of the Russian Revolution, Mexican Leftists saw art as an important way of spreading the message of the PCM in the early years, be it through art or propaganda. The art would explain the party’s message and attract converts. Leading visual artists who joined the PCM in 1923 were the Muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Xavier Guerrero. The lives and work of the Muralists captured the imaginations of the public and were frequently covered by the newspapers. The artists (especially Rivera) were deemed politically unreliable but useful to the party. They edited the Communist newspaper El Machete for a time. The Mexican governments’ views of the PCM veered from wary collaboration to outright hostility, depending on the party in power. In 1929 the government banned the PCM and closed El Machete, which continued for a while as an underground operation.
Rivera was a problem for the PCM. He was the most prominent Mexican Communist, with an international reputation and wide popular appeal but he was wilfully independent and accepted mural commissions from the government, which was sporadically hostile towards the PCM. When Rivera left the PCM, Frida Kahlo, who was married to Rivera, left the PCM with him. The PCM undertook its other disciplinary procedures, expelling Siqueiros for inappropriate behaviour, risking revealing secret information about the now-banned party, plus various moral and financial infractions. Communist artists subject to hostile government action included Sergei Eisenstein and Tina Modotti, both of whom had to leave the country.
Smith discusses the associated Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR). Like the PCM at this time, LEAR was a banned organisation when it was formed, only later becoming legal. Its journal Frente a Frente included much Leftist and social realist art in the form of prints and photographs by LEAR members. Much visual material was propaganda explicitly dedicated to exulting collectivism and eschewing “the mystique of the individual”. In 1935 LEAR members persuaded the government to unban the PCM, El Machete and LEAR. A 1936 group exhibition of art organised by LEAR included amateur art and even politically sympathetic commentators described the display as a mess and criticised the standard of art. Steering a course between political orthodoxy and artistic accomplishment was an impossible task.
An article in Frente a Frente (May 1935) by Siqueiros was critical of Rivera’s Rockefeller Center fresco (1934). It led to a public debate between the artists later that year. They were divided on the appropriateness of murals as a revolutionary art form. Siqueiros – perhaps piqued by Rivera’s greater success – averred that murals were overrated as a political tool and that art should be international in character and closer to Socialist Realism than Rivera’s hybrid, which incorporated Modernism and native Mexican art. Rivera asserted that he wished to record the beauty and individuality of Mexican life in his art and that this was not incompatible with Communist principles. Siqueiros was pro-Stalin and Rivera pro-Trotsky. Deep enmities remained between the two painters for years afterwards.
Siqueiros became so involved in politics that he neglected art. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, as did Modotti. Rivera played a pivotal role in arranging for Trotsky’s successful petition for political asylum in Mexico. Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1937 and lived in the Riveras’ guest house for a time. Despite public and private support between the men, there were political tensions. Ultimately, Trotsky and Rivera’s alliance ended due to political differences in early 1939. Siqueiros and artists Luis Arenal and Antonio Pujol worked with NKVD in a plot to kill Trotsky. On the night of 24 May 1940 the trio broke into Trotsky’s house, failed to find the elderly dissident and – apparently inadvertently – injured his grandson. Months later an unrelated individual assassinated Trotsky.
Smith covers the founding of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the Popular Graphic Art Workshop; TGP) in 1937 without noting that this not simply an outgrowth of LEAR but an extension of a long-existing strand of popular Mexican art, namely social engagement of artists through the portrayal of the life of ordinary Mexicans via cheap and widely distributed graphic art. This uniquely Mexican blend of biting satire, political agitation and social realism – sometimes printed in newspapers – traced its origins to the iconic prints of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). TGP proved to be one of the world’s most enduring, influential and successful artist collectives in history, producing high-quality art distributed widely, fostering international connections and displaying a broadly united front on social issues. Aesthetically, it was hobbled by its commitment to realism – technically, in its founding principles, “art [that] must reflect the social reality of the times”. However, considering the political priorities of the TGP, that position could hardly have been avoided. Ultimately, it was the rigid anti-abstraction stance and limitations on artistic and commercial freedom which undid TGP as a significant force in the arts, though it exists to this day. For my review of artists working in the TGP see here.
Perhaps the most valuable service the FCM, TGP, LEAR and their various publications achieved in the arts was to present a warning of the dangers of fascism and raising funds for the Spanish anti-Falangists. Later, their activities would help the refugees who fled the fall of Spain and Nazi-occupied Europe.
The author has based her studies upon access to Mexican secret service files and internal papers of the PCM, LEAR and TGP, allowing her to present new information on major figures in the fine arts. However, the book has shortcomings. Considering the lack of published research based on primary sources, we would have benefitted from more economic data. For example, what was the commercial value of producing oil paintings for private collectors compared to painting murals for the state or issuing editions of cheap prints for ordinary people? What was the private market for oil paintings at the time? Roughly how much money did prominent artists make from state-subsidised work? On the political side, what did artists write in diaries and letters about politics in art and did that contrast with manifestoes they signed and their public activities? More space devoted to summarising such findings would have been valuable. While we do get to understand some of the political dynamics, economic context is sometimes hazy.
Considering her previous specialisation in the field, Smith is commendably restrained on the issue of gender politics. In this book, we see that Smith is sensitive to gender politics of the Communist movement in Mexico in this era but she wisely partitions her subjects and makes no hyperbolic claims. Overall, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico is an intelligent, accessible and well-judged account of an important aspect of Mexican art in the period 1920-50.
Stephanie J. Smith, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico, University of North Carolina Press, 2017, paperback, 288pp, 12 half-tone illus., $29.95, ISBN 978 1 4696 3568 2
Legacies are dangerous things. They endow wonderful treasures but make odd and awkward stipulations upon the recipients. Legacies are delicious traps set by the dead. A legatee receives a rich collection of art but one which cannot be tampered with. A great donation perpetuates the donor’s character and bows future custodians to his idiosyncratic will and its generosity is mixed with perverseness and not a little mischievousness. Every great deed has a touch of cruelty at its heart.
The pre-formed collection gathered on the basis of connoisseurship and bequeathed to an institution – bounded by restrictions on deaccessioning – is an antidote to the new self-lacerating identity-driven hierarchy-averse tendency that damages current trends in collecting and academic thought. Those dead white male plutocratic collectors, with their acquisitive tendencies, stubborn attachment to pleasure, independent views on aesthetics and wilful disregard of diversity-and-inclusion agendas, are actually bulwarks of the sheer love of art against forces of joyless political positioning. Connoisseurship is the apotheosis of discrimination – that is, of cultivating taste for the excellent and understanding that only the best, judged on its own terms, is sufficient of admiration.
The bequest of Herman Herzog Levy (1902-1990) to McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario has the delights and drawbacks of every bequest but an extra element. The current exhibition A Cultivating Journey (Vancouver Art Gallery, 3 March-21 May 2018; touring to Kelowna Art Gallery, 16 June-28 October 2018) catalogues the impressive collection of European art that Levy collected from the 1920s to the early 1970s.
Levy (who was born and resided in Hamilton) made his living in the gem trade. Habits of his profession carried over into his art collecting: the search for overlooked or undervalued works of beauty and rarity, the cultivation of discerning taste, long hours of contemplation and learning. All these qualities – combined with disposable surplus capital – allowed Levy to pursue his passion for art. He was civic minded and participated in many activities to benefit Hamilton and Hamiltonians. He was deeply involved with the administration of the Art Gallery of Hamilton and acquired works for it, as well as donating some of his own art. His taste was not parochial and he apparently had little appetite for Canadian art. He collected European fine art (particularly German prints), Chinese ceramics and Japanese woodcuts. His painting collection was donated to McMaster in 1984. In terms of the value that his bequest would provide to Hamilton, his European works of art provided a complement to donations of Canadian art. As a group, his collection forms a primer in European art, equivalent to that of a small regional museum in Europe.
What makes the Levy bequest unusual is that he set aside a legacy to be spent on non-North American fine art for McMaster. New works acquired with the fund were chosen to relate to the pieces in the collection and fill in gaps in areas. Areas of acquisition were Dutch painting, German graphics and School of London (Auerbach and Freud). The catalogue helpfully sets out which works were donated by Levy and which purchased later with his legacy.
The collection is eclectic. There are good prints by Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder and other Germans. The Dutch and Flemish portraits and still-lifes include one of only two identified paintings – a still-life including fish – by Philips Breughel (1635-c.1662), great-grandson of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and a fine anonymous still-life with oysters (possibly by Alexander Adriaenssen). Drawings include attractive works by Boucher, Gainsborough and Cassatt.
[Image: Jean-Victor Bertin, Roman Figures in the Sabine Mountains (1825), oil on canvas, 82 x 114.5 cm, Herman H. Levy Bequest purchase 1993, McMaster Museum of Art]
Roman Figures in the Sabine Mountains (1825) by Jean-Victor Bertin (1767-1842) is an example of the academic tradition that dominated French Classical and Neoclassical painting, as practised in France and Rome. Bertin worked in Rome and is closer to the Classical than the Neoclassical. The latter more expressly political in content, was crisper in execution and – following the examples of David and Ingres – more coolly coloured than the Classical painting that came before. Bertin is much closer to Poussin than he is to his colleague Ingres. Like Poussin (who lived in Rome), Bertin went into the campagna to sketch and then compose his idealistic landscapes by combining motifs and observations from life. Bertin’s work is notable for being a last lingering of the Classical French painting made in Rome before the Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Realism overtook the approach.
There are good landscapes by Courbet, Monet and Pissarro. Albert Marquet’s river view in Hamburg is not his finest but strong. (Did Marquet ever let a bad picture out of his studio?) Marquet is at his best in the winter, capturing blues and greens and dank stone and foliage. This 1909 canvas of a sunlit view is too warm in coloration to be a classic. Other works of this period include an indifferent Sickert figure painting, Braque Cubist drypoint and a Klee watercolour.
There are curiosities such as bold but rather crude still-life by Émile Bernard and a sombre still-life by Bernard’s colleague Van Gogh. Still-life: Ginger Pot and Onions (1885) is an odd work.
[Image: Vincent Van Gogh. Still-life: Ginger Pot and Onions (1885), oil on canvas, 34.5 x 49.5 cm, gift of Herman H. Levy, 1984, McMaster Museum of Art]
The oriental ginger pot (without lid) is contrasted with three onions. Painted in Neunen while the artist was living with his parents, it combines the aestheticism of a young painter keen to learn the technical and theoretical aspects of his craft while also reflecting ordinary life. The latter had drawn Van Gogh to painting peasants, miners and the urban poor and the onions – a staple food of the poor – can be related to the subject of frugal repasts. The ginger pot, probably owned by his parents, was an object of the exotic Orient coveted by the bourgeois for its inherent qualities and its status as an imported luxury. The painter may not have been concerned about symbolism and was more likely keen to add textural and colour variety to the ensemble. Whatever the inspiration, the muted colours and reciprocal rounded forms create a pleasing but slightly bleak picture.
[Image: Roderic O’Conor, Red Rocks and Foam (c. 1898), oil on canvas, 48.9 x 61 cm, gift of Herman H. Levy, 1984, McMaster Museum of Art]
One of the unexpected highlights of the collection is Red Rocks and Foam (c. 1898) by Roderic O’Conor. This marine by the Irish painter is an energetically painted, pungently coloured and robust picture that can be classed as an early Expressionist work. It has the exuberance of a Soutine landscape or a later Munch painting. O’Conor has used his own observation as the basis of the composition but improvised the brushwork and the serpentine forms of the foam. Dry-brush (scumbling) has described a speckling of spume and an ominous mauve sky has been briskly painted. Painted alla prima in bravura fashion, the painting need not have taken more than an hour to create. That vigorousness in approach – matching the energy of the waves – is part of the credo of Expressionism. The pathetic fallacy of Nature depicted as a mirror of the viewer’s emotions and the creator embodying what is present in Nature and conveying this in the art, both feed into Expressionist art as it was practised in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.
There is a typically thoughtful yet daring portrait by Chaim Soutine of a male painter. As the recent London exhibition attested, Soutine had acute sensitivity regarding his portrait subjects and never overwhelmed them by projecting too much of his own feelings in to his depictions. The subjects come across as quite different individuals.
Essays by specialists provide overviews of areas of the collection as well as selected commentaries on notable works. Many works are illustrated full page and a full list of works is included. All text is in English and French. The touring exhibition and catalogue are a fitting tribute to Levy’s generous bequest.
Barker, T. Bruce, L. DeWitt, I Holubizky, A Kidson, A McQueen, K. Ness, C. Pierre, A Cultivating Journey: The Herman H. Levy Legacy, McMaster Museum of Art, 2018, paperback, 250pp, col. illus., English/French text, ISBN 978 192 6632186
[Images: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]
The current exhibition Cult of the Machine (currently at de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (24 March-8 September 2018); touring to Dallas Museum of Art (16 September 2018-6 January 2019)) examines American artists’ fascination with machinery. This review is from the exhibition catalogue.
Precisionism was a tendency in American art that arose after World War I and flourished until the early 1940s. The central figure in any discussion of Precisionism is Charles Sheeler (1883-1965). His scenes of industrial complexes, machinery and modern architecture are representative of Precisionist engagement with new forms, materials, processes and places in America. This exhibition includes many fine examples of art by Sheeler and the Precisionists and related material.
Precisionism was seen as one answer to the perennial problem that had dogged American art ever since the mid-Nineteenth Century: what was American art? To that question had been added a further complication: could art be both American and Modern? Many American traditionalists said no, as Modernism was a European invention that reflected the culture of Europe not America. Regionalism (views of rural locations painted in a realistic manner) and Precisionism (views of urban and industrial locations painted in a realistic, photographic or stylised manner) were contemporaneous attempts to define what American art could be. The former was viewed as traditionalist, rural and retrograde; the latter Modernist, urban and progressive. While there are inaccuracies in these summaries, they contain a fair degree of general truth. Precisionism’s legacy is most clearly seen in the Photorealism of the 1960s.
Characteristics of Precisionist art are: clarity of technique and subject; typical subjects being machinery, industrial artefacts, architecture, manufacturing and manufactured objects and the act of building and built structures; handling of materials in a neutral and impersonal manner, with smoothly painted surfaces downplaying the physical and tactile aspects of art; subdued colour; a relative absence of figures; absence of overt social commentary; a dry approach, eschewing humour; a preference for the geometric, regular and unflawed; a balance of simplified realism and post-Cubist flatness of picture surface; extreme angles and close-ups are favoured; lack of flux or movement; and there is an emphasis on the microcosm and macrocosm, often drawing parallels between the extremes.
In contrast to the Ashcan School of John Sloane and the New York School – which provided candid social-realist views of everyday city life – Precisionism was detached in tone. The Ashcan painters presented dirty, discordant cities teeming with life and incident; the Precisionists viewed the same cities cleansed of the impurities of traffic, billboards, inclement weather and even people. One significant curatorial decision is to include rural subjects in this exhibition. Precisionism was largely urban and rural in its locales but agricultural buildings formed a reasonable proportion of the subjects chosen by Precisionists.
Precisionism was a tendency or trend rather than a movement and no formulation of stipulations or list members. The style had parallels in European art in Neue Sachlichkeit, Stanley Spencer, Tristram Hillier, et al. What goes unmentioned in the catalogue texts are posters and commercial art. Art Deco echoes Precisionism in the preference for simplification, impersonality, mechanical subjects, subdued colour and so forth. Art Deco is not discussed in the catalogue essays.
In addition to paintings, the exhibition includes a range of sculpture, prints, drawings, and photographs. The remainder of the 136 items in the show are examples of excellent and uncompromising design from the inter-war period: book-covers, furniture, a lamp, radio, even a 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton automobile.
[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]
Sheeler is not only the leading Precisionist, he is one of the most important figures in the history of early Modernist art in America. Paintings, photographs, prints and drawings show the artist’s competence in multiple mediums. His realism is a touch dry but is never pedantic. He knew enough to keep pictures free of fussiness and he simplified to the degree necessary.
[Image: Charles Sheeler, “Classic Landscape,” 1931. Oil on canvas, 25 x 32 1/4 in. (63.5 x 81.9 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2000.39.2 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]
A colleague of Sheeler’s, Morton Livingston Schamberg (1881-1918), is identified by curators as a link between Dada and Precisionism. His machine paintings are freer than the art that came afterwards. Joseph Stella (1877-1946) is unusual in the degree of freedom and dynamism in his art. His views of the Brooklyn Bridge emphasise the swooping tension of the cables. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) painted views of New York City before her retreat to rural isolation and natural forms as subjects.
This exhibition includes one of her night-time views of skyscrapers and the catalogue illustrates another, the famous Radiator Building – Night, New York (1927). Scenes of Pittsburgh’s ironworks and factories by Elsie Driggs (1898-1992) are included. They show buildings rather than the workers or the dramatic (even picturesque) smelting of iron. The paintings of Charles Demuth (1883-1935) are less naturalistic and feature the multiple lines and flat planes that one can find in Orphism and Cubism. The radically simplified bridge views of Ralston Crawford (1906-1978) are as concise as Art Deco posters.
Much of Precisionism relies on photography: it is either photography or derived from photographs. The exhibition contains photographs by Precisionists. Paul Strand is the best known of the Precisionist photographers and film makers. His documentary film Manhatta (1920) (made in collaboration with Sheeler) is a landmark of American cinema. Photographs in the exhibition include well-chosen examples by Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Jean Steichen, Ralph Steiner and a number of photographs taken by painters. Where the sources and paintings can be matched, both are included for purposes of comparison.
Gerald Murphy (1888-1964) is acclaimed as one of America’s great painters. The fact that he only painted between 1921 and 1929 is a painful loss to us. Only eight paintings by him survive. In terms of quality of production, Murphy’s art is as strong as Vermeer and Giorgione’s.
The exhibited Watch (1925) is one of the masterpieces of Modern art. Its restrained colour, flat facets, accuracy and exquisite finish make it stylistically closer to Post-Cubism than Precisionism but the spirit of the art is pure Precisionism. Analysis by horologists suggests that while the depiction of the workings of the watch is accurate, the main spring appears defective. It may be that this poignant impairment was deliberately introduced by the artist, who had a lifelong struggle with his homosexuality, and may have wished to use symbolism of dysfunction.
The find of the exhibition is George Copeland Ault (1891-1948). Technically, his paintings conform to most aspects of Precisionism in approach and subject; where they differ is tone and implication. His architectural views are imbued with more atmosphere than those by other Precisionists. The views of unpeopled scenes in snow, mist and at night have a degree of melancholy and ambivalence absent from other Precisionist art. His Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946) is similar in clarity, calm and peculiar intensity to Magritte’s Domain of Light. Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944) has something akin to bleak orderliness, the white snow blanket a dull antiseptic white under a murky sky. His best paintings have a meditative quality missing from more typical examples of Precisionism. It is not great art but it is powerfully compelling – all the more so because it exerts its hold in an inexplicable manner.
[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Far left: George Copeland Ault, Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944), far right: George Copeland Ault, Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946)]
Judging on this evidence, political critiques of Precisionism seem misplaced. A better approach is the psychological reading. The primary drive behind Precisionism is psychological not political. The paintings – with their dearth of human figures, signalling of the supremacy of artifice over nature and absence of entropy – indicate their creators’ misanthropy and discomfort with disorder. Precisionist art speaks of perfectionism, attempts to impose control over external chaos and hypersensitivity towards disruption. It is a pathological response akin to phobia of germs or insecurity in the face of change. Precisionism is the art of those averse to imprecision; it speaks of fear of decay and worry about ambiguity and doubt. Sheeler’s stated aspiration of achieving “purity of plastic expression [through] objective forms” is indicative of deep attachment to certitude and impersonality. Any reading of Precisionism which does not include discussion of the psychological drive of its artists is incomplete.
Catalogue essays by experts discuss various aspects of the style, complemented by full-page illustrations, a chronology and notes. The book itself is excellent and handsome. The use of silver chimes with the metallic subjects of the art. The only aspect which could have been improved is to have increased the inner margin between text and page gutter on verso pages, which gets uncomfortably close while never impairing legibility. Personally, I would have chosen a serif typeface in preference to this sans serif. Sans serif is tiring on the eye over extended passages of reading. Cult of the Machine is a wide-ranging, balanced and at time surprising survey of one of the key American art movements.
Emma Acker, et al, Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in association with Yale University Press, April 2018, cloth hardback, 244pp, 150 col. illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 300 234 022