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A recent addition to Hirmer’s Great Masters of Art series is a short book on German Modernist Hans Purrmann (1880-1966). Purrmann was born in Speyer, Rhineland-Palatinate. He was trained in decorative art and took courses at the Applied Arts School, Karlsruhe, before going to study painting at Academy of Fine Arts, Munich (1897-1905). All of this gave him great craft skills and sensitivity towards colour. He had an affinity for Munich Impressionism. Park in Svinar (1903) is close to Max Liebermann’s Impressionism and Seated Nude (“Polish Equestrienne”) (1905) follows Lovis Corinth’s expressive diagonal brushwork and lush painterliness. The former is a dazzling tour de force depiction of shadow and dappling sunlight effects. Painting as pleasure-giving is never far from Purrmann’s thinking. Purrmann also respected Max Slevogt.
While in Munich, Purrmann developed an admiration for Cézanne. He immersed himself in the power of colour and the cultivation of facture, as means to vitalise painting. He moved to Paris in 1905 and the following year commenced studying in the studio of Henri Matisse. The master proved a major influence; so much so, that Purrmann is often called “the German Matisse”. It did not help Purrmann’s standing as an independent painter the fact that he vigorously promoted Matisse’s paintings in Germany. His combination of bluish greens and viridian – and his preference for blocks of unmodulated, unshaded colour – was developed at this time.
Purrmann could be classed as a late-period Fauve. His paintings from 1905 onwards share characteristics with those of Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain, as well as Matisse. The energy of Purrmann’s early Fauve paintings is akin to Vlaminck’s. The hot-coloured landscapes are a blend of Derain and Cézanne.
The painter admitted that he painted that which he enjoyed looking at and being around – sunny gardens, interiors of his handsome home, family members, nude models. Purrmann’s sumptuous interiors – juxtaposing reds and oranges against saturated greens and blue – of 1917-8 display his feeling for colour. The richness of the colour, restrained brushwork and deft use of detailing in compositions that exaggerate forms and spaces without reaching levels of unreality are highly satisfying and typical of Purrmann. That also demonstrates Purrmann’s weakness in comparison to Matisse. He is too restrained and too genteel to take up the risks that Matisse undertook. His art is gorgeous but genteel; it is the gentility of a consummate craftsman rather than the rawness and risk of genius.
Interestingly, Purrmann’s art was classed as degenerate by the Nazis and included in the 1937 exhibition. The content of his art was unobjectionable, had it been painted in a realist or mild Impressionist manner, but his style was tied to the unapologetic Modernism. This led to him being perceived as belonging to a subversive group (or tendency). The author admits he cannot explain how this condemned artist came to be appointed director of Villa Romana, Florence, a German-owned villa used for artist residencies. Purmann held the position from 1935 until 1943, the breakdown of the Fascist government during the pressure of Allied invasion and German occupation. (That summer his wife died in Munich after a long illness.) In 1939, the “Italian branch of the Nazi Party” wrote to the German Embassy in Rome, calling Purrmann a “proponent of an altogether un-German concept of art”. Purrmann was known to have assisted dissident artists and writers during his time there.
Purrmann’s painting during his years in Florence feature the villa and display the artist’s appreciation for his surroundings. The views of rooms, including glimpses of the garden and trees beyond the balcony, recall Matisse’s Nice and Cannes paintings. After the war, Purrmann settled in Lugano, Switzerland. His studio had a spectacular mountain view. His art did not develop much in later years; it did not need to. He continued painting after 1959, when he was confined to a wheelchair by a stroke. His dedication to pleasure was richly rewarded in his last decades by increasing acclaim and financial security. In 1955, his art was selected for the first Documenta exhibition in Cassel, chosen in part by the German curators because Purrmann was seen as untainted by Naziism, Modernist in character and representative of the taste and artists of France. Purrmann was, for Germans burdened by war-guilt, an embodiment of “the good German artist”: cosmopolitan in outlook and association.
Purrmann’s painting is definitely worth becoming acquainted with, especially if one is a fan of the Fauves or early Matisse. It is highly accomplished and enjoyable. Wagner’s book is the perfect introduction. The book contains a general essay, a thorough chronology and a handful of documents from Purrmann, alongside colour illustrations. The illustrations are well chosen and large enough. Recommended for all fans of Matisse, Modernist painting and German art.
Christoph Wagner, Hans Purrmann, Hirmer, 2021, hardback, 80pp, 55 col. illus., £9.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3679 1
It is said that the Greeks were reluctant to innovate. The prime example given is the steam engine (aeolipile) of Hero of Alexandria. It was a steam turbine, where steam from a boiler was fed into a ball on pivots; the ball had vents for the steam, the ejection of which caused the ball to rotate. It was treated as a novelty and a feat of ingenuity but never used by the Greeks to do any practical function. Yet, when we look at the architecture and art, we can see small constant refinement in methods and tools. The changes in language and ideas over the centuries show curiosity and openness, even if the technology remained fairly stable. While scientific and philosophical ideas developed rapidly in Greece, we find evidence that innovation is different from science. Innovation is tinkering; it is the spotting of certain phenomenon and characteristics of materials or mechanisms and adapting and combining those into new machines or procedures.
The question of change applies in all fields. Innovation in the field of weaponry can allow a city to defeat another. Innovation in agriculture may lead to better harvests or the cultivation of previously unproductive land. Innovation in the way a city is governed can lead to discord and instability. Innovation in religion may lead to heresy and collapse in faithful observance. Change in itself is neither good nor bad though it may do good or bad.
In the latest selection from the classics, published by Princeton, Armand D’Angour has selected, translated and introduced texts by Aristotle (384-322 BC), Athenaeus of Naucratis (c. C150-250 AD) and Diodorus Siculus (c. 90-30 BC).
Diodorus is quoted on Dionysius of Syracuse assembling a uniform army and attracting armourers of the highest ability. Aristotle is quoted on the subject of change, criticising the proto-socialism of Socrates and authoritarianism of Plato. He suggests that citizens be able to own personal property and guard the privacy of their families, allowing that some common property (such as land) may be shared to mutual benefit. Aristotle sets out the foundations of liberalism: “A state is not made up only of many people, but of a variety of kinds of people; a state cannot simply be constituted of similar individuals. It’s not like an alliance, whose usefulness depends simply on numbers, not on different kinds, of men.” He refutes common ownership of everything but leaves open the door to a fragmented society, where factions compete for power and favour. This extract from Aristotle’s Politics (book 2) will make interesting reading for those interested in finding a balance between common good and private autonomy.
The most famous anecdote from Greece is of Archimedes solving the problem of how to calculate the amount of gold used in the creation of a crown. The complexity of the form (and the possibility of hollows) meant that it was difficult to ascertain how much gold had been used in the object and whether it had been adulterated with other metals. Archimedes sank into his bath and saw his body displaced water and he realised that displacement and weight could be used to determine the mass of the crown. This could then be compared to the weight of pure gold of an established volume – to be multiplied up to the volume of the crown. Any discrepancy would indicate the use of non-gold in the crown, thus revealing any deceit on the maker’s part. Comprehending the solution, Archimedes arose from the bath, yelling “Eureka!” (Gr: I have it!).
Archimedes was a naval architect. From Moschion (via Athenaeus) comes an account of Archimedes designing the Syracusia, a warship for Hieron Syracuse. “Hieron arranged for wooden pegs, belly timbers, rib timbers, and whatever material was needed for other uses come partly from Italy and partly from Sicily. He procured esparto from Spain for cables, hemp and pitch from Rhone valley, and other necessary materials from many different places.” He outlines the elaborate construction, including bronze rivets, later sheathed in lead to protect them from corrosion. Archimedes used a windlass of his own design to get the ship into the sea. The huge vessel had space for multiple levels of oarsmen, a garden, library, gymnasium, a fish tank and temple with a stone floor. The ship was a warship, and had battlements, watchtowers, grappling hooks and a baluster. An Archimedes screw was the bilge pump. Hieron gave Syracusia as a gift to Ptolemy II of Alexandria. It was the only voyage it made.
Diodoros describes the innovative tactics that allowed the Thebans to defeat the mightiest army in Greece at the Battle of Leuctra. Due to general Epaminondas’s uneven distribution of forces in his line, the Spartan phalanx was twisted – one side advancing fast and the others held back. Out of position, the Spartans were attacked from behind, breaking their formation. “Epaminondas’s corps pursued those fleeing, cutting down in large numbers any who resisted, and gained for themselves a most glorious victory. For since they had engaged the strongest of the Greeks and, though fielding a smaller force, had miraculously overcome many times their number, they won a great reputation for their heroism. The highest praises were accorded to the general Epaminondas, who chiefly by his own valor and by his brilliant strategy had defeated in battle the hitherto invincible leaders of Hellas.”
The short introductions are handy guides and the choice provides a broad range of aspects to innovation. The quoted texts are given in English and the original Greek; the other material is in English only.
Aristotle, Armand D’Angour (trans., ed.), How to Innovate: An Ancient Guide to Creative Thinking, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardcover cloth spine, 138pp + xxi, Greek/English text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 069 121 3736
“From the first charcoal drawings on cave walls, to Rachel Whiteread’s Turner Prize-winning cast of a house interior, Creation attempts to chart the nature of artistic creativity worldwide. It is a comparative anthropological study of what creativity means within a differing but constant construct: society. The book offers a chronological survey of fine art, applied art and architecture, in that order of emphasis. We visit the highlights of major civilisations, respectively the Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Olmec, Mayans, Aztecs, Greek, Romans, Indians and others. Then we return to Europe for the majority of the remainder of the book.
“Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation — tracing the course of European culture from ancient Greece to the 20th century — was considered an encyclopaedic achievement. This is by some measure even more ambitious. Curator and cultural historian John-Paul Stonard takes us to ancient China, the lost civilisations of Central America and modern and prehistoric Africa, whilst also featuring art of Western societies from the medieval to modern era. Surely, Stonard is setting himself up for failure….”
John-Paul Stonard, Creation: Art Since The Beginning, Bloomsbury, 2021, hardback, 464pp, fully illus., £30, ISBN 978 1 4088 7968 9
The esteemed art historian and journalist Martin Bailey – noted for his expertise on Van Gogh – has completed his trilogy of books on Van Gogh. Van Gogh’s Finale: Auvers & The Artist’s Rise to Fame succeeds Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence and Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum. This final book examines the last few weeks of the artist’s life. It was an intensely productive period, during which the artist completed 70 paintings in 70 days.
When Van Gogh was recovering slowly in the asylum in Saint Rémy, he was in need of a place to stay when he departed. It was Pissarro who recommended to Theo Van Gogh as a suitable place Auvers-sur-Oise. Pissasso had stayed in Pontoise, near the village, and knew the local doctor, Paul Gachet. Gachet was an amateur artist and printmaker and had an interest in assisting artists. On 16 May 1890 Van Gogh took the train from Saint-Rémy to Paris to see Theo, Jo and their baby son. After staying a few days in Paris, visiting art exhibitions, meeting people and buying art supplies (on Theo’s money), Van Gogh travelled to Auvers-sur-Oise, met Dr Gachet and took up lodgings at Auberge Ravoux. The Ravoux’s café and lodging house was officially “Café de la Mairie”. Van Gogh’s attic room was small, with only a skylight for natural light, although he could use a storeroom for materials and finished pictures. The cost of bed and board was 3.50 francs.
Bailey describes Gachet’s peculiar collection: Florentine stained glass, Impressionist paintings, human skulls and casts of the decapitated heads of executed prisoners. The dark rooms crammed with furniture, books and curios made a strong impression on visitors. He painted the doctor’s portrait, complete with yellow-jacketed novels and a sprig of foxgloves, grown as a medicine; the doctor appears melancholy and detached. (Van Gogh considered him a strange character.) He also painted his garden at least twice, one including the doctor’s daughter. Another painting of Maguerite Gachet at a piano used a canvas typically used for landscape. The double-square format (1:2 proportion, 50 x 100 cm) was one that Van Gogh took up as a tribute to Daubigny, whose favourite format it had been for landscapes. Daubigny lived in Auvers and had died in 1878. Daubigny’s widow still lived in his house when Van Gogh stayed in the village.
Bailey includes vintage photographs and postcards of places and people in Auvers that Van Gogh knew or painted. The many illustrations – all well-chosen – make reading a fast experience, which is quite appropriate given the hectic pace of the subject’s last weeks. He was painting so fast that he ran out of canvases and had to use a tea towel to paint on. One of the reasons Van Gogh did not sell paintings was that he was willing to give them away. Gachet did not have to pay for his “26 Van Gogh paintings, 14 drawings, 3 prints and a letter with a drawing.” The Van Goghs and almost 50 paintings by Cézannes and Pissarros owned by Gachet would be valued today at over a billion dollars.
In artistic terms, it is hard to pinpoint anything characteristic of the Auvers period outside of an increase in green hues and a slightly darker tonality, due to the cloudier northern climate. He took as subjects picturesque rural cottages, gardens, wheatfields and the local church. Ears of Wheat (1890), with the absence of horizon or sky and the repeated marks and patterning filling the picture plane, verges on abstraction. There were flower paintings (perhaps on rainy days, when painting outside was impossible) and portraits.
Although it is a common misconception that Van Gogh’s last painting was Wheatfield with Crows (1890) – probably because of the iconic scene in the biopic Lust for Life (1956). His last completed painting was of tree roots. It recalls his curious paintings of caves. The caves and roots both seem to frame portals to the underworld. Only in 2020 was the spot identified. It was depicted in the vintage postcard of a bank next to a road close to the artist’s lodging.
The standard account of Van Gogh’s suicide was that he left his lodgings late in the evening of 27 July (“just after 7pm”) and walked towards the chateau. Standing by the walls, isolated, he shot himself through the chest – a fatal wound. Finding himself still alive, he managed to walk back to his lodging. When the Ravouxs realised he was injured, they summoned a local doctor and Dr Gachet. Theo was summoned from Paris. He arrived in time to comfort the painter in his last hours. He died in the early hours of 29 July. Bailey recounts the touching scenes from the hasty funeral on the following day.
Bailey investigates the question of the artist’s death. In 2011 the Smith-Naifeh biography of Van Gogh presented an alternative story about that fateful 27 July 1890. They recount that late in life, René Secrétan, who was a schoolboy who visited Auvers in 1890 and had known the painter. Secrétan said that he had borrowed the pistol from the owner of the Auberge Ravoux (where the painter was staying) in order to play cowboys and Indians. He had seen the painter painting near the walls of the chateau. He had tussled with the painter – whom he often taunted – and the gun went off. Van Gogh had staggered back to Auberge Ravoux and had refused to implicate the boy, intimating that it was the result of a suicidal act.
Bailey is sceptical. He points out that Secrétan did not say the gun went off in scuffle but that Van Gogh took the gun – then killing himself, on purpose or by accident. “The very limited forensic evidence about the wound has so far failed to resolve the debate.” He gives five reasons for favouring suicide as a cause of death: “suicidal tendencies, Cor’s death and Wil’s depression, Theo’s problems, Vincent’s last words, everyone at the time believed it was suicide”. Van Gogh had self-harmed (the famous ear-slashing attack in December 1888 caused such blood los that he almost died) and contemplated suicide before. Van Gogh’s brother Cor committed suicide in South Africa in 1900 and his sister Wil suffered complete mental collapse in 1902, subsequently diagnosed as dementia (possibly schizophrenia); so, there was serious mental instability in the family. Van Gogh was under the impression his brother was on the verge of quitting his job (or being fired) – imperilling not only Theo’s own livelihood but also Van Gogh’s soul source of income. Actually, the crisis had been averted, but Theo had inexplicably failed to mention this to his brother. Van Gogh, in his last hours, seemed resolved to die, never saying anything otherwise. Theo, Gachet, Ravoux, the police and the painter’s friends all believed the shooting was a deliberate suicide. On balance, Bailey’s defence of the suicide theory is more persuasive than the Smith-Naifeh accident/manslaughter theory.
Barely had Van Gogh been buried when Theo attempted a posthumous exhibition, eventually settling on a display in his Parisian apartment. He was quickly overtaken by tertiary syphilis, dying less than six months after his brother. Bailey wonders whether or not by the May 1890 meeting Theo had known his condition and fate (syphilis was then untreatable and usually fatal) and whether or not information had been transmitted to Van Gogh, effectively warning him that his sole income was threatened. I suspect not. Considering how generally frank the brothers were, it seems letters would have contained explicit references or allusions. Knowing Van Gogh’s precarious emotional, health and financial situation, I believe that Theo did know (or suspect his condition) but chose to conceal that grisly news from Van Gogh and Jo.
The story of Van Gogh’s rise to fame is well known and often recounted but (as with every account) there are new details. Bailey suggests that the reason there are few mentions in the Van Gogh correspondence of press articles about Van Gogh in his lifetime is that he was unaware of some of the pieces. This seems very surprising, considering Theo’s central position in avant-garde art in Paris. Even more remarkably Gachet never wrote anything substantial on Van Gogh, despite his intentions. His notes (both memoirs and any medical notes) were destroyed or lost. The publication of the letters (in 1914), in tandem with a number of group and solo exhibitions, brought Van Gogh to worldwide fame by the early 1920s. By then, the Expressionists had already mined Van Gogh for the emotionally expressive use of colour, brushwork and exaggeration.
Bailey discusses the trade in fakes and the problems of attribution – there are waves of attribution and deattribution, as experts seek to assert their taste and knowledge. There is kudos in being scrupulously rigorous in exclusion and in being perspicuously open-minded. He includes a gallery of shame, comprising four book covers featuring fake Van Goghs. He provides examples of paintings that have been denounced only to be reinstated. Garden in Auvers is one painting that is seen as atypically decorative and was hobbled by doubts, making it difficult to sell. Now authenticated by the Van Gogh Museum, the painting is commonly accepted. He also discounts the famous myth that a Japanese businessman (Ryoei Saito) with cremated with his Portrait of Doctor Gachet (1890) – a black joke, apparently.
Bailey makes a judicious, informative and passionate companion for those of us seeking to understand Van Gogh’s last days. Bailey’s masterful familiarity with artist, art and artistic and social setting pays off. The text is effortlessly readable, thoughtful and well-sourced. The images are rich and rewarding. Highly recommended.
Martin Bailey, Van Gogh’s Finale: Auvers & The Artist’s Rise to Fame, Frances Lincoln, 21 September 2021, hardback, 240pp, fully illus., £25/$40, ISBN 978 0 7112 5700 0
“Colchester and Ipswich Museums held a video conference event on the subject of decolonisation and democratisation. The organisers invited two activist historians to give talks. The organisers revealed their view by staging the event, as well as in their choice of speakers. Heritage organisations are run by managerial leftist elites, who dislike compromised artefacts and resent the populations they serve.
As part of the event, a video talk was given by Tristram Hunt, Director of The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) on the September 29th. He spoke positively about adapting museum presentations to target “new communities”. When asked about the possibility of laws allowing mass deaccessioning of artefacts, he stepped carefully and pointed out that this would require an Act of Parliament. He also avoided fully endorsing a question that advocated making audiences uncomfortable – a reframing of the “no white comfort” slogan of BLM – calling it “a very great question”, saying: “I get the point and I think that intellectual challenge and feeling uncomfortable about some of these histories is part of what we should do but I think at the same time don’t lose sight of the fact that we’ve trusted institutions to make that happen.”…”
The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280 is the “first book to situate the sacred and sensuous bronze statues from India’s Chola dynasty in social context”. This book is an attempt to synthesise art historical and connoisseurial appreciation of temple bronzes of the Chola dynasty (855-1279) but also to consider the social, economic and religious significance of the bronzes. The Chola dynasty flourished in South and South-Eastern India and northern Sri Lanka; its influence expanded over of the territory of Bengal and Malaysia. Its art is considered by some to be the Indian renaissance. Author Vidya Dehejia, professor of Indian and South Asian art at Columbia University, claims that this book a first full attempt to cover the breadth of the reception and production of the famed temple bronzes.
Dehejia faced certain hurdles in preparing this handsome book. Firstly, not all of the bronzes are either documented or even listed. Secondly, getting reliable data on the bronzes is difficult, not least because – as sacred objects – access to them is limited and photography of some is forbidden. Thus, even making an overall assessment of the estimated 3,700 statues over hundreds of holy sites is a task so large that it will require further even more work. One question the author raises is where did roughly 153 tons of copper used to cast the statues come from, considering there are no copper deposits in the Cholas region? She thinks that evidence of copper mines in Sri Lanka probably indicates trade or conquest prompted Chola expansion to Sri Lanka. Additionally, the pearl fisheries of Sri Lanka were greatly valued by Chola kings.
These devotional works were fitted with fixings for carrying poles and – in temples – are routinely clothed, daubed with substances and have offerings applied. Years’ worth of accretion of incense, ointments and soot have patinated the statues that are kept in situ in temples. Some statues have been removed to museums (in India and worldwide, especially Great Britain and the USA). The author explains the subjects of the statues, which are of gods and goddesses (mainly Shiva, Uma, Skanda, Vishnu, Kali, Ganesha) and saints. Included are plentiful photographs of statues dressed in their holy-day finery, showing how worshippers have seen these statues for over a thousand years. In the Valuvur temple in Nagapattinam, the brahmins put a diamond-studded foot cover on the raised foot of dancing Shiva.
As Dehejia explains, the original sculpture that be modelled in a mixture of wax, resin and oil. This is then coated with plaster, surrounded by sand and molten bronze poured in, which replaces the original model entirely. This makes the Chola bronze solid, not hollow as the lost-wax method generates. “All Chola bronzes are the product of this direct lost-wax process in which the mold must be broken to release the image. There is no mold left for reuse, so each Chola bronze is a singular piece that may not be replicated in any mechanical fashion.” Statues are sometimes worn smooth by the touch of priests. Periodically, worn details would be cut back in by sculptors. Some statues and laws on copper plates have been unearthed in recent years, offering further knowledge of the period. In 1310 an invading army of Muslims was pillaging temples for valuable materials, so priests in the region buried their statues and the threat of defilement and destruction lasted until 1378. The hiding places of the bronzes and valuables was secret information. It seems that not all of the bronzes were recovered at the time.
Dehejia notes that the earliest of Chola bronzes (c. 855/860) display remarkable accomplishment. “No evidence exists of hesitant beginnings. Where did this Master come from? Where is his other work? Might it emerge from an underground burial site? Since the entire art of processional bronzes was in its infancy, we must assume that the artist who created this couple [Shiva and Uma] in the mid-ninth century trained as a sculptor in a wood- or stone-carving workshop. The markedly flattened form of the images that is strikingly evident in side view is noteworthy; it is almost as if the figures were extracted from a bas relief in stone or wood.”
The domination of Shiva worship outstrips worship of other deities. “[…] of the 311 temples in the extended Kaveri delta (the present-day districts Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur, and Nagapattinam), 295 honor god Shiva, while only 16 are dedicated to god Vishnu.” It seems that the sinuous lithe forms of dancing Shiva (Shiva as Lord of the Dance, often with four arms) in bronze statues came from Chola Shiva worship and accelerated the preference for Shiva over other gods.
The tapering torso, smooth chest, wide shoulders and elongated face is typical of Shiva and some of the other male statues. The figure type of the women is famous: the wide hips, sloping shoulders, elongated torso, narrow waist and large bust (sometimes exposed). The men exude strength and grace; the women are fecund and youthful. Faces of gods are generally serene. Sometimes figures are accompanied by smaller companions, children and animals. These sometimes support the main figures structurally, as do other forms, such as halos of fire (aureole) and mandalas. Deferral to elegance over verisimilitude is apparent, with some poses being improbable or impossible.
The stone carvings are considered and amply illustrated. The author sees many parallels between the stone and bronzes. The stone (the type is not described) is weathered when exposed to the elements and thus the bronzes are better examples of the sculpture of the period. Most of the bronzes are kept inside the temples. The weathering and alteration of inscriptions in stone walls – sometimes so extensive that they cover all the ground-level walls, alcoves and pilasters – has made reading dedications and instructions difficult. Also written on the walls are donations made by the devout.
Dehejia discusses the co-existence of Tamil Hindus and Sinhalese Buddhists on Sri Lanka. The Cholas were Hindus but understood the value of patronage of Buddhist temples as well as supporting the Tamil merchants’ Hindu temples. Apparently, the sculptors also made Buddhas and Dehejia compares holy statues of Hindu and Buddhist subjects and finds many stylistic and technical points of overlap.
An overview of the classes of individuals who founded the temples is assessed by Dehejia, following the known inscriptions in Sanskrit and Tamil. She concludes that women donors frequently donated statues of Uma. Artists in this period are anonymous. There has been an effort to discern separate masters in certain places and eras, in order to permit an artist-centred appreciation of sacred art, as is possible in modern Europe. Dehejia tentatively assigns specific statues to certain single unnamed masters.
The standard of the art is excellent. The grace of the figures and skill of the artists are comparable to art of any era and region. The stylised and hieratical character of the bronzes can make them look to the uninitiated as led by formalist concerns, but Dehejia explains the subtle psychology expressed in certain groups – for example, the shyness of Uma before her wedding and protective but insistent guidance of her protector. The restrained expressions belie the distinct characterisations of individual gods.
“Today, many small Chola-era temples, including Vadakkalathur, Tandantottam, and Tiruvilakudi, have no bronzes at all. In the light of the smuggling that, unfortunately, has accompanied the thriving art market in India and overseas, all bronzes from many temples have been removed to safe-houses, referred as “Icon Centers”. […] When sequestered in Icon Centers, these exquisite bronzes with deep religious significance and aesthetic reputation are not available to priests, to devotees, or to art lovers, thereby deptiving the bronzes of their many consequential levels of meaning.”
Dehejia’s book does much to illuminate the meaning and importance of the holy statues of the Cholas. The illustrations are generally very good, the level of information is appropriate for the educated non-Hindu reader. The appendices, notes and glossary make the book a self-contained reference work on the subject. Highly recommended.
The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280 is part of the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts National Gallery of Art, Washington Center for Advanced Study in Visual Arts Bollingen Series XXXV: 65.
Vidya Dehejia, The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardback, 336pp, 242 col./3 mono illus., $75/£58, ISBN 9780691202594
“We live in compromised times in which the allegory of an uncompromised self is isolationist, privileged, and dangerous.” So opens this book on motherhood and art-making seen through a feminist lens. The Berlin-based group Maternal Fantasies continues, “We reject the reproduction of social structures, which exclude children from most public dynamics and surrender mothers into domestic isolation suffocated by underpaid and/or unpaid care work. As artists, researchers, and mothers, our economic and political survival demands a recognition of our domestic labor and the context in which we produce creative/intellectual labor (work which is often also poorly compensated).”
The introductory artist statement raises a pertinent question. “How can art exist as a site for thinking of the maternal as a participatory practice, an affective enmeshment, and a situated political prompt – in order to promote new modes of thinking-with?” This raises the following issue for those who wish to appreciate the art documented in this book. If an artist becomes detached from aesthetic criteria, how are those without a personal stake in the art able to assess and absorb the resultant art? How are we to judge the worth of art?
The authors state that because art production – like childcare – is driven by love, it goes uncompensated. By their own admission, these artists have set themselves to making art that is defiantly not commercial (films, performances, installations, interactive art) and also complain that their art is under-recognised and uncompensated. Of course, it is possible that the art that they consider most appropriate for their maternal interests are best expressed through non-commercial forms. Yet, how could poor income from collective art of an ephemeral nature be otherwise? If one did apply some measurement to the rewards of art, how could any meaningful system of payment exist?
This is a problem which is (at least partly) due to the artists’ resolute rejection of the commodification of art production. If one wishes to live on an anti-capitalist basis then this is admirable but it necessarily precludes an obvious way of funding art production – selling art to private buyers. Readers may be sympathetic to the plight of poor artists, but they may be significantly less sympathetic towards a group of artists who complain of poverty and simultaneously reject the most obvious route towards compensation.
The egalitarian approach extends to organisation of projects. “In order to form an international and interdisciplinary collective consisting of diverse personas with differing temperaments, talents, and capacities. Maternal Fantasies has developed a rotational format as a working method. Teams take turns in conceptualizing, organizing, leading, and administering the different group projects. During our immersive residencies and studio sessions, we distribute and rotate the individual tasks, which may include conceptual development, directing, performance, pre- and post-production, marketing, grant-writing, and administration, as well as cooking, cleaning, and childcare.”
The poems and extracts from letters and journals present the thoughts of the women. There is a short entry on the practicalities and costs of daily life, which are enlightening and relatable. These outshine the photographs, which are underwhelming. The performances and events may have been more meaningful and satisfying but they cannot be properly evaluated on this evidence. The descriptions of events are rather vague. They seem to range from protests to children’s activities to mutual support. Some of the activities will be familiar to those who know the communes of the 1970s and squats of the 1980s. Many of the projects involved the children. There are some suggested projects outlined in the book. As art, it does not seem very pleasing but then the art was not made for me. As a book, Re-Assembling Motherhood(s) is engrossing and (inadvertently) revealing for the general art follower.
A long essay recounts the making of a group film, interrupted by COVID-19 lockdown. For all the freethinking regarding gender roles and art making, not a single doubt is expressed in this book about the efficacy or justice of indiscriminate lockdown of a healthy and free populace. Authoritarianism seems okay if the excuse is plausible. There is disappointing scarcity of resistance apparent in the writings. (They did not see one another during some stretches of lockdown.) If these mothers had wished to inculcate independence in their children, shouldn’t they have been defying arbitrary and cruel restrictions and presenting brave community action as a defiant response to the authorities?
There seems at least an apparent conflict between feminism and motherhood. The doctrines of female independence work against the maintenance of a nuclear family, which provides – or at least, did previously provide – a home and income to support the mother and child. The demands of motherhood can be viewed as a constraint on self-actualisation. This schism between personal duty and political action create friction. Always there is the contradiction inherent in this project. There is the recurrent focus on the personal experience (pregnancy, motherhood, emotion, memory, practicalities) and the insistent intrusion of politics. “As a collective, we strongly oppose the reduction of motherhood to a singular experience, which our individualistic Western culture tends to do.” In such entries, Maternal Fantasies appears driven by race and class guilt – a purgative, Spartan, communistic sisterhood, done to demonstrate goodness to spite the capitalist society which funds the collective. The obvious enjoyment of the members and their children undertaking the activities is heartwarming but undercut by the relentless feminism. Feminism, as a branch of progressivism/socialism, demands that “the personal is political” in an insistence of enforcing a joyless sex solidarity, contrary to the intimacy and spontaneity of family and parental relationships.
Another impetus maybe a desire for a disparate (largely expatriate) group to connect. The group is centred in Berlin incidentally. While the group – very multicultural and majority foreign-born – is strongly involved in their own feelings and relationships with their children, they rarely discuss interactions with non-artist Berliners, let alone other Germans. If this group is so concerned to form resilient communities, why does it seem so isolated from the native population? Why does the setting – cultural, linguistic, economic, architectural – not form a greater influence upon their outlook and art work? The collective was formed because of the rootless nature of the lives of the artists, something common in Berlin. “Having moved to Berlin to study more than a decade ago, most of us did not have the social infrastructure and network of extended family, aunts, or grandparents around for support, nor were we fortunate enough or willing to outsource care work to nannies and care workers from more precarious backgrounds than ourselves.” This anger directed at capitalist representative democracy could (perhaps with greater justification) be turned on the chimeras of feminist autonomy and socialist community, with their attendant illusions of self-sufficiency and self-actualisation.
Having lived in Berlin myself, I know it is possible to separate oneself from German Berliners and from the rest of Germany completely. However, I never did and always made an effort to understand and interact with Berliners, even if I did not have the money or opportunity to travel Germany. Berlin has hardly ever seemed as parochial and tiny as it does in Re-Assembling Motherhood(s). Of course, the totality of their existences cannot be measured in a single short book, but even so, this inward-looking approach is saddening.
The absence of men is expected. Today, for the anti-capitalist woman artist in Berlin, where she supplicates for income from a state-benefits system and artists’-grant panel, the state becomes father. Regrettably, the state is as tyrannically unreasonable as any bullying father, more controlling than any jealous husband, more intrusive than any village priest and more callous than any groping employer. The potential control, independence, dignity and privacy of a nuclear family seem – at the moment – a better bet than the modern authoritarian bio-security state.
Overall, this is a volume for those interested in feminist art, women’s creative collectives and those studying the sociology of art.
Sascia Bailer, Magdalena Kallenberger, Maicyra Leão Teles e Silva (eds.), Re-Assembling Motherhood(s): On Radical Care and Collective Art as Feminist Practices, Onomatopee, 2021, paperback, 180pp, 60 col. illus., €18, ISBN 978 9493 148574
“In 1856, eighteen-year-old William Henry Perkin was at home, messing around with the dreck of a failed experiment. He had not made the compound he expected. When the black sediment was diluted on blotting paper it flowered purple — the rarest of pure colours. This dyeing substance (mauveine) would revolutionise the worlds of fashion, furnishing and art, making Perkin the equivalent of a multi-millionaire. Aniline dyes would provide a range of vivid, cheap colours in a world where colour had previously come from substances that were rare, expensive and poisonous.”This is one story from James Fox’s book The World According to Colour. Fox treats the seven colours of black, red, yellow, blue, white, purple and green, providing stories related to pigments, perceptions and uses of these colours. There are biological responses to colour. We react strongly to red (colour of blood) and feel instinctive aversion to aposematic colour combinations (the black-and-yellow stripes of wasp and snakes is now a standardised hazard warning signifier). Divergences between cultural connotations are familiar. Different societies marry and mourn in different colours.
“Conceptual linguistic constructions around colour extend from figures of speech (“caught red-handed”, “blackmail”, “yellow belly”) to the existence (and absence) of words….”
“The main objective of this study is to historicize the different and shifting modes through and ways in which Britons may have conceived of themselves and their nation as ‘open’ to the East across the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” So writes James Watt, historian of the Britain in the Eighteenth Century, in the introduction to British Orientalisms, 1759-1835. It opens with the “year of victories”. In 1759 Britain won victories over the French in Madras, the West Indies, Quebec and Minden and the French invasion of the British Isles failed. It saw Britain become the supreme world power and the consolidation of a worldwide empire. It was also a time when intimations of corruption of the state and British identity as the British were forced to administer and mix with nations distance and dissimilar to her neighbouring nations. Watt concludes his study in 1835 with T.B. Macauley’s Minute on Indian Education (1835), a paper in which the colonial administrator demeaned native Indian culture and recommended the active promotion of British standards via education of Indians. He recommended the replacement of Persian with English as the language of administration. “[…] Macauley serves as a fitting end point since the ethnocentrism of his ‘Minute’ ostensibly signals a decisive transformation in British self-understanding: rather than thinking of Britons as in any way disoriented by colonial contact, it instead calls for the nation to wield its civilizational authority so as to afford moral direction to its colonies.” Watt uses literary texts of the period as a lens through which to examine these issues.
Watt analyses Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), an apologue (moral tale). Prince Rasselas tires of entertainment in the cossetted kingdom of the Happy Valley. He escapes with his sister and travels to Egypt. However, he is disillusioned of exotic sights and returns to his kingdom. It was criticised as providing little by way of local colour, thereby frustrating the expectations of those wanting the detail and variety that they expected of tales of the Orient. Johnson was known to be an opponent of imperial conquest and sceptical about the spread of Christianity among non-Western peoples. Rasselas is considered an indirect satire of imperialism and a recommendation for the British to stay on their isle, their own Happy Valley.
Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1760) was a series of fictional dispatches from Lien Chi Altangi, a Chinese traveller recording England. His errors and misinterpretations both make him a figure of fun and allow Goldsmith to satirise the manners and customs of England. Altangi delights in vivid descriptions of the East and lionises the warrior spirit of the English. In texts of the time, “Goldsmith’s various narrators and authorial personae at different times share in popular exhilaration at British military triumphs and stand back from the crowd in order to warn that victory comes at a price.” (Namely, the difficulty of governing such a vast and diverse empire.)
The rise of the East India Company, which provided the foundation for British imperial rule in India, provided opportunity for British administrators and traders (and their servants and families) to visit India and leave written records. The records varied from letters and reports to poems and novels, all of which contributed to the British public perception of India. Charles Johnstone’s The Pilgrim (1775) was the fictional tale of a woman’s adventures in India before returning home. Watt considers the story to be critical of Major-General Robert Clive, whose administration was considered to have contributed to the 1770 Bengal famine. In Samuel Foote’s play The Nabob (1772) “Sir Matthew Mite attempts to use his riches [obtained by trade in India] to gain the hand of a baronet’s daughter and to buy his way into Parliament, and the mixture of social ambition, conspicuous consumption, and Orientalized manners that he displays identifies him as a composite portrait of Clive and other prominent contemporaries. The Nabob satirizes Mite’s efforts to pass as a gentleman and to legitimize his new wealth […]”
Other accounts were lewder and indulged the readers’ libidinal curiosity – but in doing so they tended to confirm the corrupting and decadent nature of the East, region of the feminine and sensual abandon. Hartly House, Calcutta (1789, publ. 2007) by Phebe Gibbs includes an account of a rape by a British man of an Indian woman, which likely resulted in capital punishment. Although the author declared that such crimes were “more oftener perpetrated than detected”, it shows that far from impunity, British people in India could expect equal punishment. It also shows that British writers approved of this legal equality in regard to serious crimes.
In The History of Women (1779), William Alexander discussed the situation of women in the East. He advanced the idea that as society advanced, it freed women from labour but that this freedom caused now-indolent women to gravitate to corruption and pursuit of vice. Thus, financial and material security led women to become less maternal and faithful, more selfish and depraved. “[…] female virtue is becoming ever more scarce, as the feminine qualities of care and concern for others ‘diminish gradually, in proportion as women advance more toward that perfection, or rather imperfection of politeness’.” Materialism undercuts morality; freedom leads to transgression; absence of hunger heightens the drive to satiate carnal desires. According to Alexander, this is seen no better than in the harems of the East, where there is nothing more for a woman to do than indulge herself – she is literally permitted to do nothing else.
One interpretation of Orientalism is one of horizon expansion rather than a means of “otherising” or “exoticising” inhabitants of foreign societies. An example is Sir William Jones’s Poems Consisting Chiefly of Translations from the Asiatick Languages (1772) and his Persian grammar (1771). Jones was a judge in Bengal and developed into a fluent Persian speaker. He developed the idea of Indo-Aryan cultures and languages sharing a root – the first time that English language had been associated with non-European languages. Jones hugely advanced British understanding of India and Persia. He translated Hindu myths and poems into English; he codified Hindu and Moghul law. Upon his premature death at the age of 47, Jones was idolised for his erudition and sympathy for the peoples of India.
Robert Southey’s Thabala the Destroyer (1801) “is an important text for my book as a whole since it both helped to establish the Orientalist epic poem as a medium of political engagement and in its own distinctive fashion extended the Jonesian project of cultural translation.” Watt dissects the politics and symbolism of Southey’s epic (which was heavily footnoted by the poet), showing how the attitudes and ideas relate to the wider trends. Roderick the Last of the Goths (1814) about the king of the Visigoths battling the Moors in Spain. It is compared by Watt to Thabala and assessed as an allegory of Continental politics under Napoleon. Watt notes how contemporary critics responded to it. Southey led the way for the Romantics taking up Orientalist epics. Thabala was followed by Byron’s The Giaour (1813), Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817), Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam (1818)
As Watt demonstrates, the response of the British to newly gained empire was mixed and often hostile to the corruption, death and cultural influence that came with subjugating and administering peoples of far-off lands. Far from welcoming the glory of supremacy, British people saw empire as an enterprise that brought out the worst in individuals – the temptation to carnally sin, the opportunity to abandon land, family and religion and the lure of gold and indolent life were identified (with some evidence) as ever-present threats to Englishmen.
Watt’s assessment of British writing reflecting upon Empire in the Enlightenment-Romantic period is well grounded, thoughtful and catholic. British Orientalisms helps to explain the complexities of responses to empire and dismantle recent narratives that are driven more by present-day politics than evidence.
James Watt, British Orientalisms, 1759-1835, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 285pp + vii, hardback, £75, ISBN 9781108472661
This publication is a catalogue for an exhibition in Berlin (Museum Berggruen/Nationalgalerie, Berlin). The review is from the catalogue.
In 1954 Picasso began a series of variants of Eugene Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Alger (1834). This series was apparently prompted by three proximate causes. Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s new mistress and future wife, reminded him of a figure in Delacroix’s painting; the news coverage of the Algerian civil war kept Algeria in the public’s attention. The death of Matisse – the only contemporary artist that Picasso considered a true equal and rival – left Picasso in search of artists that he considered historical peers. Matisse (as was Delacroix) a genuine Orientalist. Matisse (unlike Picasso) had visited North Africa to paint, thus he had had memories and insights of the Orient that Picasso did not have. Matisse painted odalisques long after his trips to North Africa. One recurrent motif of Matisse’s (while residing in Nice in the 1920s) were of French models in harem pants, reclining in the painter’s hotel room. This exhibition included nine of these, plus art by Delacroix, Ingres, Matisse, Manet and others. The graphics by Picasso include drawings and prints. The exhibition includes art by contemporary Algerian artists.
Delacroix executed his painting in 1834, following his return from North Africa. It shows three women in an apartment (the artist made a point of calling it an “apartment”, not a harem) with a black servant. The walls are tiled and the floor covered with rugs. The figures sit around a ceramic brazier and a hookah pipe. Delacroix did several versions, including a print, which reduced the scene to two figures, one baring her breasts. Delacroix’s paintings (including street scenes and a Jewish wedding) became touchstones for both Orientalists and radicals. The Orientalists appreciated the subjects and the authenticity; the radicals admired the creativity and handling.
Over the winter of 1954-5, Picasso painted 15 oil-on-canvas variants (given letters A to O) and made supplementary pictures. Picasso turned Delacroix’s chaste women in nude sexual athletes, twisting like tops. Poses are like those in the paintings and drawings are compared to a sequence of thumbnail sketches the young Picasso had drawn in 1905. The Algeriennes’ angular flat forms are bent like cardboard echo the planar sculptures Picasso was making at the time. While there is a sexual dimension to the variants, it seems more of a test of ability, imagination and audacity – taking on one of the masterworks of a great masters of French art.
The initial versions are small – obviously started on blank canvases that were just to hand. The lines are curving. The figures’ positions are accurate to the original but they are nude. The four figures are reduced to three occasionally because Picasso tended to enlarge the figures, which meant he could not accommodate four figures in a painting. By canvas C, the figure on the right in reclining on her back. The lines become straighter. The later versions (H-M) are in grisaille, like ink wash drawings. These are probably the most satisfying because they tamp down the sexual provocation and the play of lines, forms and facets replaces the strident colours. Two are single figure studies. The final version is the most complete and settled. It balances the sensuality of the setting with the invention of Picasso and the harmonious colour combinations. A very useful double-page spread shows all of the paintings in sequence and in proportionate size.
This journey was recapitulated in four states of a lithograph made in 1955. His sketches show him wrestling with the figures and design, trying to emphasise this or that aspect. Some portraits of Jacqueline dressed as an Algerian show Picasso forcefully placing his mistress in the history of Orientalist art and the grand tradition of French painting. The famous linocut after a Cranach portrait is another venture into the variant territory, which Picasso had been mining since at least his Poussin variant of 1944. Of course, all artists have produced copies of older art as part of their apprenticeships and learning their craft. Academic artists and students in France often made copies that were sold to the state, which allocated them to regional museums. Picasso had many copies in his youth. He touched on pastiche in the 1900s with El Greco, then again in the 1910s with Ingres’s portraits and then again in 1930s with parodies of Van Gogh and El Greco. By the time of the Poussin variant of 1944, Picasso saw the Old Masters as a subject in themselves. More precisely, he saw himself responding to the Old Masters in a self-reflective, ironic manner as subject matter. That multi-processed production of masterpieces about masterpieces (with a critical apparatus, audience and a collector base ready to adulate the products without demur) detached Picasso from any subject other than himself.
Whatever the value of the series, it marked a slump in Picasso’s creativity. It was followed by variations after Las Meninas (1957), Cranach portraits (1958), Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1960-1), Rape of the Sabine Women (1962) and others. Picasso entertained himself with these dialogues but they are of little value to others. Paradoxically, these tussles with the great masters indicate a lack of serious of Picasso’s part. Imagine Degas, Poussin or Manet spending months on making fanciful variations of old art in Picasso’s method. These painters did take up old art and made it new. Manet completely reimagined a Raphael composition as Déjeuner sur l’herbe, imbuing it with new meaning and extra significance. It commented on the sex politics of his age, referring obliquely to a source that viewers did not need to know in order to appreciate Manet’s painting. Picasso’s variants after Déjeuner sur l’herbe imbue the source with no new meaning and far from matching (or illuminating) the subject, Picasso’s art shows his weakness. His self-image as a great impaired his ability to make meaningful art and tackle subjects outside of himself.
Just as Picasso worked after Delacroix, so other artists worked after Picasso. The most notable example is Roy Lichtenstein’s Femme d’Alger (1963) a Pop art version of a single seated figure by Picasso. The model was a combination of versions K and L, flattened, schematised and colourised. Areas of solid tone and dotted tone in primary colours. It is an indirect portrait of Picasso as iconic creator of Modernist art, not intended to relate to Delacroix or Algeria.
The catalogue includes various essays on the production of Picasso’s series (excerpts of Leo Steinberg’s 1972 text), the reception of the series and Algerian responses to the art. The selection of art is limited but relevant. This catalogue is ideal for Picasso fans and those researching the production and reception of Orientalism in the modern era.
Gabriel Montua, Anna Wegenschimmel (eds.), Picasso & Les Femmes d’Algers, Hirmer, 2021, hardback, 192pp, 130 col. illus., German/French/English text, £39.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3584 8