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“German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) placed such a high value on aesthetics that his ideas on art form a core of his thought. In this respect he extends the interests of Schopenhauer, of whose writing he was a devotee in his younger years. Indeed, the ideas in his first book The Birth of Tragedy (1872) are suffused with a sympathy for Schopenhauer, one that would evaporate in the coming years. Nietzsche’s scholarship in ancient Greek – as a professor of philology – and fascination with ancient myths and customs led to his engagement with ancient drama as a paradigm of aesthetic accomplishment.
The Birth of Tragedy was Nietzsche’s analysis of human nature and the role of culture in embodying the conflicting (and complementary) sides of humanity. Nietzsche wrote that civilisation rests on twin pillars of temperament and response to natures which find expression in different art forms and modes: the Apollonian and Dionysian. The Apollonian (or Apollinian, named after Apollo, Greek god of light) spirit resides in sculpture, painting and epic verse; it is characterised by appearance, logic, individuation and clarity; it is rational, cognitive and ordered. (“Apollo is at once the god of all plastic powers and the soothsaying god. He who is etymologically the “lucent” one, the god of light, reigns also over the fair illusion of our inner world of fantasy.”[i]) The Dionysian (named after Dionysus, Greek god of fertility, wine and theatre) spirit resides in drama and music; it is characterised by the hidden, emotion, mass body and intoxication; it is irrational, instinctive and anarchic. (“Dionysiac stirrings arise either through the influence of those narcotic potions of which all primitive races speak in their hymns, or through the powerful approach of spring, which penetrates with joy the whole frame of nature.”[ii]) The genius of ancient Greek civilisation was that the Greeks had not only the Apollonian arts, that favoured lucidity, but festivals of excess – bacchanals, named after Bacchus, god of wine, another name for Dionysus – which allowed the expression of Dionysian values….”
I am delighted to announce the publication of “Degas”, my first book with Prestel (Penguin RandomHouse). Book data is below.
“Get a glimpse into the life and work of painter, sculptor, and printmaker Edgar Degas, who is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism.
“Best known for his depictions of young dancers on the stage and in the studio, Degas was an accomplished draughtsman and portraitist of superb emotional depth. This book explores the full range of Degas’ work, from his celebrated paintings of dancers and depictions of cafe life to his pencil sketches and wax and bronze sculptures. Stunning reproductions help readers understand many aspects of Degas’ oeuvre, such as his gift for capturing movement, the ways he drew inspiration from Japanese prints and Old Masters, and his experiments with color and form. A biographical text traces Degas’ life from his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts and his early history paintings to his friendships with Cassatt and Manet, his reliance on painting dancers to keep him financially afloat, and his lonely, final days in Paris. Accessible and engaging, this exploration of Degas’ life and art looks beyond his well-known works to reveal a talented and complicated genius.”
Paperback, with flaps, 112 pages, 17,0 x 21,0 cm, 55 color illustrations, £9.99/$14.95
These two newly issued anthologies collect important texts on the subject of aesthetics by salient authors. These anthologies contain texts by the following authors, with some of the selected extracts or essays are used in both collections:
Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology – Paul Oskar Kristeller, James O. Young, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Edmund Burke, Gotthold Lessing, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, J.-J. Rousseau, G.W.F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Eduard Hanslick, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Edward Bullough, Clive Bell, R.G. Collingwood, John Dewey, Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Arthur Danto, George Dickie, Berys Gaut, Nelson Goodman, Richard Wollheim, Stephen Davies, Jerrold Levinson, Amie L. Thomasson, Frank Sibley, Kendall L. Walton, George Dickie, Alan H. Goldman, Malcolm Budd, Mary Mothersill, Jenefer Robinson, Noël Carroll, Alexander Nehamas, Eileen John, Peter Livy, Mary Devereaux, A.W. Eaton, Yuriko Saito, Carolyn Korsmeyer, with texts by the editors. Editors Steven M. Cahn (City University, New York), Stephanie Ross (University of Missouri-St. Louis) and Sandra Shapshay (City University, New York).
Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art – Danto, Dickie, Monroe C. Beardsley, Denis Dutton, Dominic McIver Lopes, Catharine Abell, Levinson, Julian Dodd, Aaron Ridley, Thomassen, Sibley, Walton, Nick Zangwill, Robert Hopkins, Carroll, Torsten Pettersson, Stephen Davies, Jack W. Meiland, Malcolm Budd, Gaut, Eileen John, Eaton, Jerome Stolnitz, Cynthia A. Freedland, Eileen John, John Searle, Richard Moran, Tamar Szabó Gendler, Stacie Friend, Wollheim, Abell, David Davies, Roger Scruton, Dawn M. Phillips, Paisley Livingston, Katherine J. Thomson-Jones, Jenefer M. Robinson, Peter Kivy, Jeanette Bicknall, Aaron Meskin, Matthew Kieran, Allen Carlson, Patricia Matthews, Emily Brady, Yuriko Saito, Sherri Irvin, with texts by the editors. Editors Peter Lamarque (University of York) and Stein Haugom Olsen (Bilkent University, Ankara).
The volumes overlap to a degree, with Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology a more comprehensive collection, starting early and taking a general view of aesthetics from the ancients to the modern day. Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art has a more modern selection and has primary focus on visual fine art. Of the two, the latter covers Critical Theory, New Criticism and Post-Modernism. Themed sections are: identifying art, ontology of art, aesthetic properties and aesthetic experience, intention and interpretation, values of art, art and knowledge, fictionality and imagination, pictorial art, photography and film, literature, music, popular arts, aesthetics of nature and everyday aesthetics. Older texts are more extracts from longer treatises; newer texts are often complete essays; the former tend not have authorial footnotes and sources, the latter do have footnotes and sources, given here. Both books have introductory essays, bibliographies and indices.
The two books are valuable compendiums of influential short essays, extracts of classics and selections of newer texts that are harder to find. The translations selected favour modern publications over early translations and that generally serves the readers well. Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology has summaries written by experts which outline the importance of various thinkers and concepts, grouped by subject or period. Each text has a brief biographic introduction, suggesting the context of the text.
Overall the selections in both anthology are thoughtfully chosen. The translations preferred are modern ones, meaning they largely supersede the old translations of pre-modern texts which are out of copyright. Although every expert will have his own preferences and there may be quibbles of selections but there is no doubting the value of the extracts for the areas covered. The richness of thought is enlightening and stimulating, especially in Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. The production quality of both volumes is good, the spines are suitably sturdy and the margins generous for marginalia.
Both volumes are highly recommended for students and tutors of aesthetics, philosophy of aesthetics and history of art. If one needed an essential source book on aesthetics, either volume would be suitable, although many would prefer Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology because it starts with the ancients and runs unbroken through the modern day.
Peter Lamarque, Stein Haugom Olsen (eds.), Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition. An Anthology, Second Edition, Wiley Blackwell, 2018, paperback, 744pp, £32.99, ISBN 978 1 119 22244 6
Steven M. Cahn, Stephanie Ross, Sandra Shapshay (eds.), Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, Second Edition, Wiley Blackwell, 2020, paperback, 848pp, £34.99, ISBN 978 1 118 94832 3
“In November 1878 one of the defining events of Modernism and aesthetics took place. A libel case was brought to court in London. The plaintiff was the flamboyant and notorious London-based American painter-printmaker and the defendant (who did not appear to testify) was a famous art critic.
James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was the leading painter of the Aesthetic Movement. He was witty and erudite and made a point of provoking audiences with his statements on taste. He is (understandably) often assessed in relation to Wilde, whom he knew. There was a degree of competition between the pair. The young Wilde attended events Whistler spoke at and it was commonly thought that many of Wilde’s beliefs on aesthetics and art came from Whistler. Famously, Whistler and Wilde were at a gathering together and Whistler uttered a witticism. Wilde exclaimed, “I wish I had said that,” to which, Whistler replied, “You will, Oscar, you will.” Wilde addressed the painter as “Butterfly”, a symbol of ornate beauty and delicacy. Later, the pair became estranged, their egos rather than their outlooks conflicting. Not least, Whistler was a skilled writer, well known for his elegantly barbed letters to the press. Wilde may have felt, as a mere writer and no more, that the multi-talented Whistler was intimidatingly skilled and sophisticated….”
Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most is a new book on the revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794). Written by prominent French intellectual Marcel Gauchet (b. 1946), it presents a personal view of the problem of Robespierre. For the supporter of humanism and secularism, Robespierre is both a hero and villain, embodying the best and worst of human nature. Rather than a biography that mines primary sources, Gauchet’s book traces Robespierre’s actions during the Revolution. Even today, Robespierre has supporters (who consider him a misled pioneer of human rights) and detractors (who view him as a reckless, paranoid autocrat).
Gauchet is a philosopher, professor of social sciences and prolific author. Gauchet comes at the subject as a moderate Socialist with liberalist tendencies. (By British standards, he would be considered a left of centre.) In the introduction to Gauchet’s book (originally published in 2018), David A. Bell and Hugo Drochon frame Gauchet’s argument. They give biographical sketches of Robespierre and Gauchet to inform non-French readers about background. The translation reads well but the decision not to translate long titles of speeches and pamphlets will vex non-Francophones.
Well-educated (as a lawyer), intelligent and hardworking, Robespierre was a member of the Legislative Assembly when the Revolution commenced. He was initially a principled liberalist, arguing for a constitutional figurehead monarchy, the extension of the franchise and ending capital punishment. He was a tireless advocate for acceptance of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Initially an unimportant figure, Robespierre’s eloquent speeches attracted admiration. Part of the Montagnard faction in the newly elected Convention in 1792, Robespierre became ever more extreme.
By the spring of 1793, Robespierre was at the head of the Committee of Public Safety, the new Republic’s government. He used his legal training and oratorical skills to justify the Terror, during which over ten thousand were executed as counter-revolutionaries after show trials. According to Robespierre, the torrential bloodletting and curbs on freedom were only ever extraordinary measures, temporary, contingent and regrettably necessary in the face of counter-revolutionary activities domestic and foreign. When Robespierre’s accelerating regime of fratricide was on the verge of threatening virtually every member of the Convention, the members turned on him. Denounced and arrested, Robespierre was sent to the guillotine on 10 Thermidor, Year 2 (28 July 1794).
The legacy of the French Revolution (in France) was the establishment of a secular state, institution of democracy, the supremacy of humanism as a national value, the enforced fusion of the wishes of individuals with the intentions of the state and the authority of the state to control and kill citizens in the furtherance of its continuation. Robespierre’s intentions were utopian and it is precisely because they were impossible that the failure to implement his policies in practice led to violence. When an ideologue encounters opposition, it is merely a test of his resolve and his enemies are the enemies of the people and it is in the name of the people that the ideologue will put to the sword their enemies.
This quote shows Robespierre at his most trenchant. “There are now only two parties in France, the people and their enemies. All these rogues and scoundrels, who eternally conspire against the rights of man and against the happiness of all peoples, must be exterminated. […] There are only two parties, one of men who are corrupt, the other of men who are virtuous.” Here we have the cry of the political radical throughout the ages, echoing unchanged.
Gauchet has precepts which – while it would be insulting to describe as unexamined – verge on the banal. The Revolution was terrible because of the bloodshed but the establishment of democracy was worth it. (“The truth is that the ends were just and the means were horrifying.”) Was it? There are strong arguments against democracy (as presented in my article here), and Gauchet’s blithe assumption asks too much of a critical readership. French monarchists and staunch Catholics actively opposed democracy until the early decades of the Twentieth Century.
Robespierre was no atheist. His promotion of the Cult of the Supreme Being – an abstraction of rationalism, scientism or humanism, call it what you will – was not the act of a cynical atheist but the act of a believer. His own need for religion led him to found a state religion, in order to unify people and provide a spiritual justification for the radical social changes wrought by the Revolution. Robespierre (according to Gauchet) probably had to force through the decree of the worship of the Supreme Being despite the hostility or scepticism of the Committee for Public Safety. It was the deep antipathy of the Convention towards that decree that sparked Robespierre’s show trials of moderates, which frightened and angered members and led to his downfall.
Gauchet finds much to admire in Robespierre: his opposition to slavery, his championing of the common man, the support for human rights, his brilliant speeches. Gauchet, as a centrist, perhaps predictably considers Robespierre neither “saint or the demon that he has so comprehensively and so complacently been made out to be. The roles of heroic martyr or bloodstained monster in which most historians have tried to confine him are of little use in discovering who he was and what his life meant.”
Gauchet interprets his subject as driven by circumstances. He was made by 1789 and was transformed into an extremist by the storming of the Tuileries Gardens on 10 August 1792. Gauchet rejects interpretations that dig into Robespierre’s biography or attempt to provide a psychological explanation to his actions. The result is that Gauchet’s Robespierre can seem like mechanical soldier, walking implacably in any direction into which he is set, like a chattering automaton without free will.
Gauchet (and modern French intellectuals) erroneously divides people into those who revile Robespierre for his murderous callousness but admire his ideals and those who regret his excesses but consider his aims and achievements ultimately worth the price. There is a disregarded third group – those who reject the values of the French Revolution. Ultimately, Robespierre can only seem heroic if you consider his values worthwhile and his values definitely are contestable.
Gauchet’s Robespierre sets out the autocratic and liberal facets of his subject but it goes no further because Gauchet cannot see further, with one exception. Gauchet writes something insightful when he describes Robespierre’s fatalism before his removal from power. Robespierre’s religious devotion to the cause of the emancipation of the French people had a martyr-like quality. “Ultimately, self-abnegation, the surrender to something greater than oneself, could be motivated only by the conviction that by acting in this way one could once more act in accordance with the design of the supreme arbiter of all things. In the absence of a shared recognition of some higher authority than man, there could be no justice among men.”
Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most is, notwithstanding the limited perspective of the author, an accessible current-day overview of a pivotal figure in French history.
Marcel Gauchet, Malcolm DeBevoise (trans.), Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most, 3 May 2022, Princeton University Press, cloth hardback, 200pp + xxii, £28, ISBN 978 0 691 21294 4
A central aspect of the art of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) is the adoption of ancient and non-Western visual languages and conventions. The exhibition Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution at the Albertina Museum, Vienna (17 September 2021-9 January 2022) set out to make clear what forms these affinities took in Modigliani’s art and compare those to primitive-inspired art by Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). All three were based in Paris. In short, the exhibition sought to explain how primitivism influenced the directions of leading Modernist artists in the École de Paris and also to look at the links between these three artists. This review is from the catalogue.
Modigliani arrived in Paris from his native Italy in 1906, intent on being a sculptor. The carved stone heads – some twenty – are evidence of his dedication to achieving a single ideal: a female head that would meld the sophistication of European beauty, the direct simplicity of non-European art and the mysterious dignity of ancient statuary. The artist required technical instruction on stone carving and so fell in with another newly arrived immigrant. Brâncuşi arrived in Paris from Romania in 1904. Modigliani was also friendly with Jacob Epstein, with whom he collaborated on a sculptural project in his early Paris years. Over the periods 1907-11 and 1912-4, Modigliani made many drawings of caryatids (some related the Epstein project), which translated into only a handful of sculptures.
One of the most striking aspects of Modigliani’s art is the incorporation of non-Western and archaic art. No viewer of his art can miss the references, albeit highly synthesised, to art generally considered outside of the European fine-art canon. These stylistic elements have been carried over into his paintings. Frontality, stiffness, reduction of modelling and lack of expression are all typical of primitive or archaic statuary and we see all of these is the art of primitive-influenced Modernists. The elongated faces and columnal necks are African innovations and recur often in Modigliani’s carved heads and portraits.
Friedrich Teja Bach enumerates three reasons why Brâncuşi was so struck by encounters with African artefacts. Firstly, it liberated his imagination. Secondly, “the contemporary appreciation of African sculpture made him aware of the relevance of wood – something familiar to him from the arts and crafts of his Romanian homeland – as a material for modern sculpture of the context of the urban avant-garde. Third, as Sidney Geist has rightly pointed out, the abstractness of African sculpture, as found in some masks, probably made a significant contribution to opening for him a path to an abstract symbolic dimension.”
Archaic Greek carvings, Egyptian statuary and murals and other ancient art – in addition to non-European art – was of mutual interest to the pair. Brâncuşi worked in stone, wood, metal and plaster, whereas Modigliani worked only in stone. It was the irritation that the dust of carving caused his tuberculosis-weakened lungs that caused Modigliani to give up carving for painting by 1914. It seems that the friendship of the pair petered out at this time. Unlike Picasso, Modigliani displayed an attachment to primitive art throughout his career, starting in 1906 up to his premature death of tuberculosis. It is the case that Modigliani gradually moved away from primitive influences, especially as he strove for prettiness in his Nice period but one can discern the traits become more or less prominent between pictures.
Modigliani’s portrait painting Black Hair (1918) was bought or acquired by exchange by Picasso in the early 1940s. What exactly the relationship was between Modigliani and Picasso is disputed. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson (and Francis Carco) underplayed it, suggesting that Picasso avoided Modigliani, disliking his drunkenness. Richardson – like many prominent art historians – seemed to have a low opinion of Modigliani. The main charge against Modigliani is superficiality. The idea was Modigliani relied on a range of mannerisms (the long necks, the almond eyes, the long elegant nose) in place of open interaction with sitters and subjects. While that charge has validity, Modigliani’s adoption of the rough surfaces, unusually flattened facets and taut graphic lines – all common between Modernism and African carvings – counteract the tendency towards suaveness and the prioritisation of attractiveness.
Picasso’s paintings from 1906-8 seem to parallel the art of Modigliani. The overwhelming flatness, drawn outlines, graphic shorthand replacing individualistic description, simplified forms, roughly painted facets making no concession to volumetric modelling – all of these are shared by Modigliani and Picasso. It is a moot point how many Picasso works – which seem to date slightly earlier than Modigliani’s, although dating to a precise month is not always possible – Modigliani saw. Many of these pieces were never exhibited during Picasso’s lifetime, so it was only through a studio visit that the Italian could have seen them.
Restellini attempts to reduce the role of debauchery and dissolution in the common view of Modigliani. He quotes the source of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s most committed collector and confidante, on the artist’s use of drugs. The author then adds, “Contrary to legend, Modigliani was neither an alcoholic nor a drug addict. He did not create under the influence of narcotics or drink: like a “seer,” he needed them to fathom the depths of the human soul, to penetrate the other and discover what lay hidden within himself: “Alcohol insulates us from the exterior, it helps us delve into our inner self, all while making use of the outside world.”
The influence of the West African traditions of mask making provided fresh alternatives for avant-garde artists. The radical simplification of the face and the use of symbols and flatness, all aligned with the tendencies already apparent in Post-Impressionist art. We can say that École de Paris artists found what they sought in non-Western art because many aspects of their existing art – and the preferences that they felt drawn towards – were present in the art they responded to. After all, had they been Symbolists such as Moreau, they might have been drawn to the ornate decoration of Khmer sculpture, intricate needlework of North American native textiles, the bas-reliefs of Coptic art, the vivid colours of India art or the narrative function of Aboriginal art. Instead, they found earthy colours, flatness, simplification and the incorporation of shells, feathers and nails in art of West Africa. What the admirers of primitivism found did not change the direct of their art; it confirmed the correctness of their existing trajectory (by antecedent endorsement) and accelerated their trajectory. It was a highly selective response to the breadth of material available.
Modigliani – like artists such as Picasso, Derain and Matisse – frequented the Musée d’Ethnographie at the Palais du Trocadéro, where he was captivated by art of Indochina, Africa and Oceania. At the time, the museum was disorganised, badly lit, overfull, inadequately labelled and unfriendly for any visitor wishing to gain information rather than simply immerse himself in the miasma of foreign cultures. Many readers will long for such a museum, repulsed by the excessive curation of politically active staff of recent days. Publications – especially with high quality illustrations – were less available in those days, which meant that a lot of artefacts that confronted visitors were utterly unexpected and alien. The jolt to the preconceptions of European artists was a shock that electrified and animated Modernist tendencies. Readers are advised to treat the discussion of primitivism by Restellini with caution. While it has some handy quotes from individuals from the lifetime of Modigliani, the historical analysis of primitivism is purely politically driven and of little worth.
Modigliani and Picasso both exhibited at the Lyre et Palette exhibition, held at the studio of Émile Lejeune on 19 November 1916. This displayed modern art alongside 25 African carvings from the Paul Guillaume collection by work by Picasso, Modigliani, Kisling, Matisse and Julio Ortiz de Zarate, in a non-hierarchical approach. It was a recognition of the influence of non-European art and a sense of shared values and outlooks, to a degree.
This exhibition brought together an impressive selection of paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs of lost sculptures. The quality of the art is excellent. There are plenty of drawings by Modigliani, especially those that anticipate sculptures. There is Picasso’s rough unfinished wooden carving of his mistress Fernande as a primeval Venus, made in Gósol in 1906. This is contrasted with a rarely seen gouache of 1905 of harlequin applying make-up, accompanied by a seated woman. At this time, Picasso was looking at ancient Iberian art and the African statues and masks at the Trocadéro. There are many seated portraits in elongated vertical format, which became a feature of his late output. Some of his best portraits are included, such as the profile portrait of his mistress Jeanne Hébuterne (1918) with extravagant curved neck a tapering hairdo. It is notably how few drawings by Modigliani use shading as a modelling technique. When shading appears, it is mainly to separate a figure from a ground, emphasise a line or indicate a block of tone. The paintings deploy modelling techniques, which are handled with a delicacy. The rough dabbing and scumbling of the 1914-5 era is turned into soft smudging in Nice, reminiscent of two local painters: Renoir and Bonnard.
Brâncuşi’s lost wooden figure of a child (The First Step (c. 1914)) is represented by a vintage photograph and a drawing. The sculptor radically simplified the form of an infant walking, following the approach found in West African carving. An oil painting of bathers (1908) by Derain presents art by another Modernist who was inspired by African figures at the Trocadéro. This painting seems as one with Picasso’s African period of 1907-8. The exhibition includes only a few non-Modern/non-Western works (West African carvings, Cycladic stone statuettes, a Khmer head), but there are numerous illustrations of other pieces, some of which may have been personally encountered by the three artists.
Considering today’s political climate, it is unfortunate (but entirely expected) that any approach to primitivism in art leaves the conventional curator tied up in agonised knots of shame. Every statement is preceded by elaborate unequivocal condemnations of the vast ignorance and shameful chauvinism of European artists, even those who demonstrated an intellectual and artistic engagement with non-Western art. “The predominant analysis of this artistic revolution, as articulated by Rubin in the 1980s and persisting until the end of the 1990s, is tinged with racism: this claims that the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas were more at ease in expressing emotion due to their “indigenous” and “primitive” nature.” The curators perform such elaborate obsequious performances to demonstrate their political virtue that they end up damning everyone who came before and failed to meet today’s standards. This leads to an impression that the artist subjects – who were sympathetic towards, and engaged by, non-Western art – are being tried for crimes against 2021’s left-liberal norms.
For those of us who require historical accounts of art that treat us as intelligent, empathetic and morally-informed individuals, we must firmly and clearly reject the presumptions of curators who often know less than their audiences about topics on which they opine.
Notwithstanding this reservation, the catalogue summarises well the inspiring spark that non-Western and archaic art provided for artists of the École de Paris.
Marc Restellini (ed.), Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution, Hirmer/Albertina, 2021, 216pp, 222 col. illus., £39.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3566 4
113, Picasso, female head, 1908, p. 178
114, Fang mask, p. 179
7, Brancusi, The First Step, 1914, p. 62
42, early cycladic figure, p. 102
43, Modigliani, female nude with crossed arms, 1911, p. 102
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Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) was a multi-disciplinary Swiss artist who worked in painting, sculpture, dance, architecture and applied arts. She trained art schools in Switzerland and Germany before World War I. In 1922 she married German-French Surrealist sculptor Jean Hans Arp (1886-1966).
Twenty-four letters and eleven postcards sent by the artist to the Basel art collectors Annie (1893-1964) and Oskar (1887-1956) Müller-Widmann are reproduced and translated into English. The correspondence commenced in 1932 and ends in 1942, the year before the artist’s accidental death, due to carbon-monoxide poisoning. The replies were not preserved. It seems most of the correspondence was addressed between the wives.
The Müller-Widmanns were collectors and patrons of the arts. They bought a painter by Taeuber-Arp and met the Arps in Basel. The couple were taken with Taeuber-Arp’s design of her home in Meudon, France and consequently commissioned her to design a house for them. A drawing for the house is illustrated, but the project never got further than the planning stage. The Müller-Widmanns subsequently paid Arp a monthly stipend to support his art.
In the letters, which grow increasingly friendly, the artist discusses art by herself and husband and makes passing comment on other artists – Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian and others. “Last Saturday we were with Man Ray in St. Germain, where he has a charming country house, full of ingenious inventions; he is the only surrealist who has a sharp sense for modern furnishing. We saw Duchamp and Picasso the other day, they are all hard at work.”[i] At this time, Taeuber-Arp was the editor of the journal plastique plastic, featuring abstract and Surrealist art and literature, so she was closely involved in the trends of the Modernist art world. As expected, exhibitions and catalogues are frequently mentioned. Taeuber-Arp touches upon current events by criticising the Nazis, who had put her and her husband on a list of entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”). She passes cutting comment on the quality of the Paris World Fair of 1937.
Correspondence was disrupted during the war. “[Hans] was inconsolable as he had to leave his sculptures and everything he’s been working on for fifteen years without knowing when or how we’ll see these works again. The air raid alarms disturbed him a lot less than they did me, but all this destruction, all these horrors, are extremely distressing to us. Hans has lost a lot of weight […]”[ii] The Arps relocated from Paris to Grasse, Southern France, then to Switzerland to escape potential internment by the occupying Nazis, following the fall of France. Fascinatingly, she discusses the fact that the Arps had a passage to America booked. The evacuation of Modernist artists was arranged by the U.S. Emergency Rescue Committee and the Arps were granted visas, although they ultimately decided to remain in Europe.
The book reproduces the paintings that the collectors acquired, photographs of the couples together and facsimiles of some of the letters and cards. Included is a brief chronology of the artist’s life, as is an index. The introduction and extensive footnotes are invaluable, helping the reader understand the glancing references and circumstances of correspondents. Overall, this attractive book will be of interest to those researching the life of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, the inter-war abstract art scene and Modernist-art collecting culture in the 1930s.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Waldburga Krupp, Fondazione Marguerite Arp (eds.), Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Letters to Annie and Oskar Müller-Widmann, Scheidegger & Spiess/Fondazione Marguerite Arp, 2022, paperback, 128pp, 32 col./7 mono illus., $30, ISBN 978 3 03942 068 1
The ever-expanding field of Beat studies extends our knowledge and understanding of writers within the Beat Generation movement. I have previously reviewed the Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature here. Beat Feminisms: Aesthetics, Literature, Gender, Activism, a new book from Beat scholar Dr Polina Mackay (University of Nicosia) in the Routledge Transnational Perspectives on American Literature series, examines the role played by women within the Beat Movement. Mackay adopts a division of women which splits up them into waves. Firstly, are the women (born in the 1910s and 1920s) close to the original generation of Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac; secondly, those born in the 1930s who joined (or were associated with the Beats as they reached a public stage; and thirdly, those who were born in the 1930s and were inspired by the Beats but not necessarily personally close to the original Beat Generation. Mackay takes one female writer from each wave and examines them in detail in relation to feminist ideas and practice.
Mackay starts by acknowledging that participation in the Beat Movement – certainly for those individuals not personally connected to original members – was a matter of affinity and allegiance rather than one of conformity of style, theme or content. As Mackay notes, many of the Beat women were isolated from one another, some not meeting until the 1990s. Whether such seclusion was primarily driven by external or internal factors (or both), the point is that male editors and publishers were being exposed to female Beat writings less often and it is therefore unsurprising that little of that material was reaching publication in the 1950s-1980s period. The female absence (in terms of early-era publishing) that could be attributed to male hostility could just as easily be assigned to lack of access to material, no doubt exacerbated by ignorance and indifference. Seeing hostility towards women and absence of interest in women writers as equivalent would be an unhelpful conflation.
There is a thoughtful discussion of the literary place of Joan Vollmer Adams’s death at the hands of her husband William Burroughs in Mexico City. Burroughs, drunk, accidentally shot his wife with his pistol during a game at a party. Mackay outlines the various treatments of the incident. These include a few references in Burroughs’s writings and interviews (he did not present a fictionalised version in his novels), those written by associates and the writings of later authors. It is true but not informative to state that Vollmer’s life is written in her absence, as this is always the case when a subject does not leave any substantial written legacy. The author analyses how Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac used their memories and fantasies regarding Vollmer’s life and death in their writings. Mackay concludes, “A common thread in Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac is the intertwining of female presence in Beat textuality with autobiographical discourses, such as the development of the writer as a process of freeing from the biographical past (Burroughs), the conflation of poetic topic and the author’s poetic self-consciousness (Ginsberg), or the reconstruction of the past in writerly terms (Kerouac).”[i]
The core of the book is a discussion of Diane di Prima, Ruth Weiss and Anne Waldman as key women writers within the Beat movement, whose work exemplifies issues highlighted as feminist and female-specific within literature of the time. In her book Recollections of my Life as a Woman (2001), Diane di Prima wrote of her relationship to the poetry and letters of John Keats, seeing her work as a writer in relation to the ground-breaking output of the Romantic poet. Mackay draws the obvious parallel between di Prima’s inspiration from Keats with the famous incident when Ginsberg had a vision of William Blake, in 1948. Mackay analyses di Prima’s poetics in Recollections and This Kind of Bird Flies Backwards (1958) and Dinners and Nightmares (1961) in terms of a response, extension and revision of Keats’s verse, writing both about him and through him, in a process of intertextuality. “Di Prima’s repurposing of Keatsian poetics [accentuates] Keatsian-like contemplative pieces with the Beat vernacular not only modernizes the meditative poem as a genre but also brings into it a new discourse created by the unique time and space of the work’s production, which was the New York countercultural scene of the 1950s.”[ii]
Ruth Weiss’s Desert Journal (1977) represents two Biblical narratives – of the journeys through the wilderness by Moses and Christ – in a book of 40 poems, symbolising the traditional length of the journeys of 40 days and 40 nights. A reinterpretation of theological stories provided Weiss with a space to explore her journey of spiritual self-understanding. The use of English, German and Hebrew adds to the multi-level sequence, which mirrors the double narrative of the journeys through the wilderness made by the fathers of two religions.
Diane di Prima’s Loba (1998) is a later book, which Mackay uses as a starting point for a discussion of de Prima’s knowledge of early Modernist verse and her responses to mid-century writers, such as Black Mountain poet Charles Olson. This complex book-length poem includes a cast of well-known women from history and, according to critics, contains contradictory attitudes that put forth a complex idea of femininity, not one wholly laudatory. Mackay’s chapter indicates how dense the levels of mythology are in Loba and, more than the other chapters, makes one wish to read the original.
There is a chapter on female performances at Nova Convention in November-December 1978, New York, held to celebrate the work of William Burroughs. These included Laurie Anderson, Julia Heyward, Patti Smith and Anne Waldman. The event marked a widespread acknowledgement of the influence of the Beats on the New Wave and punk movements and advanced a younger generation of creators to be seen as peers of Burroughs and Ginsberg. The performance of Anderson was a key step from being a performance artist known only to afficionados of the New York art scene of the 1970s to a widely known musician and storyteller, world famous by the 1980s. Tangentially related are Kathy Acker’s cut-ups (as found in her novel Don Quixote (1986)), which were expressly parodic in character and considerably less respectful toward Burroughs than were Anderson and Waldman’s performances.
Waldman’s poetry is considered as a form of activism, mainly through the light of her collection Fast Speaking Woman (1975, expanded 2nd edition 1996) and Iovis Trilogy (2011). Aside from generalised statements in support of women lacking power, Waldman makes explicit statements against war. She has been an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Waldman’s Iovis Trilogy is a 1,000-page long Post-Modern, post-Beat “cultural intervention into public space”. Although this book is held up as a “clear link between writing as a woman and being an activist against various forms of oppression”[iii], this argument seems slightly light here. At least, we could do with more concrete examples that display how Waldman enacts activism through text, as opposed to simply displaying socio-political engagement. Is Waldman’s activism more explicit or direct here? Are there some distinct literary devices that support Mackay’s thesis or is it simply the prominence and urgency of Waldman’s politics that make Iovis Trilogy a landmark work?
The avoidance of jargon and clarity of argument makes Beat Feminisms a pleasing read, in a field that can become opaque with theory and advocacy. The extensive bibliography and a full index contribute to the book’s use as a study resource. Mackay’s book will prompt renewed consideration of the way prominent female Beats have viewed themselves as writers and is recommended for students of the Beat Generation and the wider movement, as well as for those researching feminist literature.
“The entrance to the Gagosian gallery is rather unsettling. A pair of calves suspended in formaldehyde solution; two flayed cows heads gaze at each other; a shoal of exotic fish — once vividly coloured — are faded to tawny grey. They have, in artistic terms, acquired the patina of an Old Master.
“Damien Hirst: Natural History (Gagosian, London) displays the past master of shock’s iconic animal sculptures and forces us to consider the question: is Hirst a serious artist?
“When I was an art student at Goldsmiths College a couple of years after Hirst had graduated, tales of his unprecedented success while still a student loomed large. Hirst would send taxis to collect tutors so they could give him tutorials as he prepared works in galleries. For the art students who studied in the early 1990s, it was an impossible act to follow.
“Like others, I made the pilgrimage to see Hirst’s exhibitions, including those at the Saatchi Gallery. The sight of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) — a giant tiger shark in a tank — is one of the most unforgettable experiences of the last 50 years of British art…”