Mexican Communist Art 1920-50

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In the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), the Mexican state started to reconstruct its social structure and establish a consensus. The new political situation entailed the working class of the agrarian nation would be the driving force behind land reform, anti-clericism and other dramatic changes. Communism took on new prominence as a leading force on the political Left following the Russian Revolution.

Compared to other Communist movements, the Communist Party of Mexico or PCM (Fondo Partido Comunista Mexicano) was judged weak in terms of membership and leadership in the early 1920s. Inspired by the example of the Russian Revolution, Mexican Leftists saw art as an important way of spreading the message of the PCM in the early years, be it through art or propaganda. The art would explain the party’s message and attract converts. Leading visual artists who joined the PCM in 1923 were the Muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Xavier Guerrero. The lives and work of the Muralists captured the imaginations of the public and were frequently covered by the newspapers. The artists (especially Rivera) were deemed politically unreliable but useful to the party. They edited the Communist newspaper El Machete for a time. The Mexican governments’ views of the PCM veered from wary collaboration to outright hostility, depending on the party in power. In 1929 the government banned the PCM and closed El Machete, which continued for a while as an underground operation.

Rivera was a problem for the PCM. He was the most prominent Mexican Communist, with an international reputation and wide popular appeal but he was wilfully independent and accepted mural commissions from the government, which was sporadically hostile towards the PCM. When Rivera left the PCM, Frida Kahlo, who was married to Rivera, left the PCM with him. The PCM undertook its other disciplinary procedures, expelling Siqueiros for inappropriate behaviour, risking revealing secret information about the now-banned party, plus various moral and financial infractions. Communist artists subject to hostile government action included Sergei Eisenstein and Tina Modotti, both of whom had to leave the country.

Smith discusses the associated Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR). Like the PCM at this time, LEAR was a banned organisation when it was formed, only later becoming legal. Its journal Frente a Frente included much Leftist and social realist art in the form of prints and photographs by LEAR members. Much visual material was propaganda explicitly dedicated to exulting collectivism and eschewing “the mystique of the individual”. In 1935 LEAR members persuaded the government to unban the PCM, El Machete and LEAR. A 1936 group exhibition of art organised by LEAR included amateur art and even politically sympathetic commentators described the display as a mess and criticised the standard of art. Steering a course between political orthodoxy and artistic accomplishment was an impossible task.

An article in Frente a Frente (May 1935) by Siqueiros was critical of Rivera’s Rockefeller Center fresco (1934). It led to a public debate between the artists later that year. They were divided on the appropriateness of murals as a revolutionary art form. Siqueiros – perhaps piqued by Rivera’s greater success – averred that murals were overrated as a political tool and that art should be international in character and closer to Socialist Realism than Rivera’s hybrid, which incorporated Modernism and native Mexican art. Rivera asserted that he wished to record the beauty and individuality of Mexican life in his art and that this was not incompatible with Communist principles. Siqueiros was pro-Stalin and Rivera pro-Trotsky. Deep enmities remained between the two painters for years afterwards.

Siqueiros became so involved in politics that he neglected art. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, as did Modotti. Rivera played a pivotal role in arranging for Trotsky’s successful petition for political asylum in Mexico. Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1937 and lived in the Riveras’ guest house for a time. Despite public and private support between the men, there were political tensions. Ultimately, Trotsky and Rivera’s alliance ended due to political differences in early 1939. Siqueiros and artists Luis Arenal and Antonio Pujol worked with NKVD in a plot to kill Trotsky. On the night of 24 May 1940 the trio broke into Trotsky’s house, failed to find the elderly dissident and – apparently inadvertently – injured his grandson. Months later an unrelated individual assassinated Trotsky.

Smith covers the founding of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the Popular Graphic Art Workshop; TGP) in 1937 without noting that this not simply an outgrowth of LEAR but an extension of a long-existing strand of popular Mexican art, namely social engagement of artists through the portrayal of the life of ordinary Mexicans via cheap and widely distributed graphic art. This uniquely Mexican blend of biting satire, political agitation and social realism – sometimes printed in newspapers – traced its origins to the iconic prints of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). TGP proved to be one of the world’s most enduring, influential and successful artist collectives in history, producing high-quality art distributed widely, fostering international connections and displaying a broadly united front on social issues. Aesthetically, it was hobbled by its commitment to realism – technically, in its founding principles, “art [that] must reflect the social reality of the times”. However, considering the political priorities of the TGP, that position could hardly have been avoided. Ultimately, it was the rigid anti-abstraction stance and limitations on artistic and commercial freedom which undid TGP as a significant force in the arts, though it exists to this day. For my review of artists working in the TGP see here.

Perhaps the most valuable service the FCM, TGP, LEAR and their various publications achieved in the arts was to present a warning of the dangers of fascism and raising funds for the Spanish anti-Falangists. Later, their activities would help the refugees who fled the fall of Spain and Nazi-occupied Europe.

The author has based her studies upon access to Mexican secret service files and internal papers of the PCM, LEAR and TGP, allowing her to present new information on major figures in the fine arts. However, the book has shortcomings. Considering the lack of published research based on primary sources, we would have benefitted from more economic data. For example, what was the commercial value of producing oil paintings for private collectors compared to painting murals for the state or issuing editions of cheap prints for ordinary people? What was the private market for oil paintings at the time? Roughly how much money did prominent artists make from state-subsidised work? On the political side, what did artists write in diaries and letters about politics in art and did that contrast with manifestoes they signed and their public activities? More space devoted to summarising such findings would have been valuable. While we do get to understand some of the political dynamics, economic context is sometimes hazy.

Considering her previous specialisation in the field, Smith is commendably restrained on the issue of gender politics. In this book, we see that Smith is sensitive to gender politics of the Communist movement in Mexico in this era but she wisely partitions her subjects and makes no hyperbolic claims. Overall, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico is an intelligent, accessible and well-judged account of an important aspect of Mexican art in the period 1920-50.

 

Stephanie J. Smith, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico, University of North Carolina Press, 2017, paperback, 288pp, 12 half-tone illus., $29.95, ISBN 978 1 4696 3568 2

© 2018 Alexander Adams

 

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The Triumph of Discrimination

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Legacies are dangerous things. They endow wonderful treasures but make odd and awkward stipulations upon the recipients. Legacies are delicious traps set by the dead. A legatee receives a rich collection of art but one which cannot be tampered with. A great donation perpetuates the donor’s character and bows future custodians to his idiosyncratic will and its generosity is mixed with perverseness and not a little mischievousness. Every great deed has a touch of cruelty at its heart.

The pre-formed collection gathered on the basis of connoisseurship and bequeathed to an institution – bounded by restrictions on deaccessioning – is an antidote to the new self-lacerating identity-driven hierarchy-averse tendency that damages current trends in collecting and academic thought. Those dead white male plutocratic collectors, with their acquisitive tendencies, stubborn attachment to pleasure, independent views on aesthetics and wilful disregard of diversity-and-inclusion agendas, are actually bulwarks of the sheer love of art against forces of joyless political positioning. Connoisseurship is the apotheosis of discrimination – that is, of cultivating taste for the excellent and understanding that only the best, judged on its own terms, is sufficient of admiration.

The bequest of Herman Herzog Levy (1902-1990) to McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario has the delights and drawbacks of every bequest but an extra element. The current exhibition A Cultivating Journey (Vancouver Art Gallery, 3 March-21 May 2018; touring to Kelowna Art Gallery, 16 June-28 October 2018) catalogues the impressive collection of European art that Levy collected from the 1920s to the early 1970s.

Levy (who was born and resided in Hamilton) made his living in the gem trade. Habits of his profession carried over into his art collecting: the search for overlooked or undervalued works of beauty and rarity, the cultivation of discerning taste, long hours of contemplation and learning. All these qualities – combined with disposable surplus capital – allowed Levy to pursue his passion for art. He was civic minded and participated in many activities to benefit Hamilton and Hamiltonians. He was deeply involved with the administration of the Art Gallery of Hamilton and acquired works for it, as well as donating some of his own art. His taste was not parochial and he apparently had little appetite for Canadian art. He collected European fine art (particularly German prints), Chinese ceramics and Japanese woodcuts. His painting collection was donated to McMaster in 1984. In terms of the value that his bequest would provide to Hamilton, his European works of art provided a complement to donations of Canadian art. As a group, his collection forms a primer in European art, equivalent to that of a small regional museum in Europe.

What makes the Levy bequest unusual is that he set aside a legacy to be spent on non-North American fine art for McMaster. New works acquired with the fund were chosen to relate to the pieces in the collection and fill in gaps in areas. Areas of acquisition were Dutch painting, German graphics and School of London (Auerbach and Freud). The catalogue helpfully sets out which works were donated by Levy and which purchased later with his legacy.

The collection is eclectic. There are good prints by Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder and other Germans. The Dutch and Flemish portraits and still-lifes include one of only two identified paintings – a still-life including fish – by Philips Breughel (1635-c.1662), great-grandson of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and a fine anonymous still-life with oysters (possibly by Alexander Adriaenssen). Drawings include attractive works by Boucher, Gainsborough and Cassatt.

Bertin

[Image: Jean-Victor Bertin, Roman Figures in the Sabine Mountains (1825), oil on canvas, 82 x 114.5 cm, Herman H. Levy Bequest purchase 1993, McMaster Museum of Art]

Roman Figures in the Sabine Mountains (1825) by Jean-Victor Bertin (1767-1842) is an example of the academic tradition that dominated French Classical and Neoclassical painting, as practised in France and Rome. Bertin worked in Rome and is closer to the Classical than the Neoclassical. The latter more expressly political in content, was crisper in execution and – following the examples of David and Ingres – more coolly coloured than the Classical painting that came before. Bertin is much closer to Poussin than he is to his colleague Ingres. Like Poussin (who lived in Rome), Bertin went into the campagna to sketch and then compose his idealistic landscapes by combining motifs and observations from life. Bertin’s work is notable for being a last lingering of the Classical French painting made in Rome before the Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Realism overtook the approach.

There are good landscapes by Courbet, Monet and Pissarro. Albert Marquet’s river view in Hamburg is not his finest but strong. (Did Marquet ever let a bad picture out of his studio?) Marquet is at his best in the winter, capturing blues and greens and dank stone and foliage. This 1909 canvas of a sunlit view is too warm in coloration to be a classic. Other works of this period include an indifferent Sickert figure painting, Braque Cubist drypoint and a Klee watercolour.

There are curiosities such as bold but rather crude still-life by Émile Bernard and a sombre still-life by Bernard’s colleague Van Gogh. Still-life: Ginger Pot and Onions (1885) is an odd work.

Van Gogh

[Image: Vincent Van Gogh. Still-life: Ginger Pot and Onions (1885), oil on canvas, 34.5 x 49.5 cm, gift of Herman H. Levy, 1984, McMaster Museum of Art]

The oriental ginger pot (without lid) is contrasted with three onions. Painted in Neunen while the artist was living with his parents, it combines the aestheticism of a young painter keen to learn the technical and theoretical aspects of his craft while also reflecting ordinary life. The latter had drawn Van Gogh to painting peasants, miners and the urban poor and the onions – a staple food of the poor – can be related to the subject of frugal repasts. The ginger pot, probably owned by his parents, was an object of the exotic Orient coveted by the bourgeois for its inherent qualities and its status as an imported luxury. The painter may not have been concerned about symbolism and was more likely keen to add textural and colour variety to the ensemble. Whatever the inspiration, the muted colours and reciprocal rounded forms create a pleasing but slightly bleak picture.

OConor

[Image: Roderic O’Conor, Red Rocks and Foam (c. 1898), oil on canvas, 48.9 x 61 cm, gift of Herman H. Levy, 1984, McMaster Museum of Art]

One of the unexpected highlights of the collection is Red Rocks and Foam (c. 1898) by Roderic O’Conor. This marine by the Irish painter is an energetically painted, pungently coloured and robust picture that can be classed as an early Expressionist work. It has the exuberance of a Soutine landscape or a later Munch painting. O’Conor has used his own observation as the basis of the composition but improvised the brushwork and the serpentine forms of the foam. Dry-brush (scumbling) has described a speckling of spume and an ominous mauve sky has been briskly painted. Painted alla prima in bravura fashion, the painting need not have taken more than an hour to create. That vigorousness in approach – matching the energy of the waves – is part of the credo of Expressionism. The pathetic fallacy of Nature depicted as a mirror of the viewer’s emotions and the creator embodying what is present in Nature and conveying this in the art, both feed into Expressionist art as it was practised in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.

There is a typically thoughtful yet daring portrait by Chaim Soutine of a male painter. As the recent London exhibition attested, Soutine had acute sensitivity regarding his portrait subjects and never overwhelmed them by projecting too much of his own feelings in to his depictions. The subjects come across as quite different individuals.

Essays by specialists provide overviews of areas of the collection as well as selected commentaries on notable works. Many works are illustrated full page and a full list of works is included. All text is in English and French. The touring exhibition and catalogue are a fitting tribute to Levy’s generous bequest.

 

Barker, T. Bruce, L. DeWitt, I Holubizky, A Kidson, A McQueen, K. Ness, C. Pierre, A Cultivating Journey: The Herman H. Levy Legacy, McMaster Museum of Art, 2018, paperback, 250pp, col. illus., English/French text, ISBN 978 192 6632186

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Precisionism 

 

[Images: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]

The current exhibition Cult of the Machine (currently at de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (24 March-8 September 2018); touring to Dallas Museum of Art (16 September 2018-6 January 2019)) examines American artists’ fascination with machinery. This review is from the exhibition catalogue.

Precisionism was a tendency in American art that arose after World War I and flourished until the early 1940s. The central figure in any discussion of Precisionism is Charles Sheeler (1883-1965). His scenes of industrial complexes, machinery and modern architecture are representative of Precisionist engagement with new forms, materials, processes and places in America. This exhibition includes many fine examples of art by Sheeler and the Precisionists and related material.

Precisionism was seen as one answer to the perennial problem that had dogged American art ever since the mid-Nineteenth Century: what was American art? To that question had been added a further complication: could art be both American and Modern? Many American traditionalists said no, as Modernism was a European invention that reflected the culture of Europe not America. Regionalism (views of rural locations painted in a realistic manner) and Precisionism (views of urban and industrial locations painted in a realistic, photographic or stylised manner) were contemporaneous attempts to define what American art could be. The former was viewed as traditionalist, rural and retrograde; the latter Modernist, urban and progressive. While there are inaccuracies in these summaries, they contain a fair degree of general truth. Precisionism’s legacy is most clearly seen in the Photorealism of the 1960s.

Characteristics of Precisionist art are: clarity of technique and subject; typical subjects being machinery, industrial artefacts, architecture, manufacturing and manufactured objects and the act of building and built structures; handling of materials in a neutral and impersonal manner, with smoothly painted surfaces downplaying the physical and tactile aspects of art; subdued colour;  a relative absence of figures; absence of overt social commentary; a dry approach, eschewing humour; a preference for the geometric, regular and unflawed; a balance of simplified realism and post-Cubist flatness of picture surface; extreme angles and close-ups are favoured; lack of flux or movement; and there is an emphasis on the microcosm and macrocosm, often drawing parallels between the extremes.

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shot in studio master

[Image: Paul Strand, “Wall Street, New York,” 1915. Platinum/palladium print, 9 5/8 x 12 5/8 in. (24.4 x 32.1 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Michael E. Hoffman, New York, in honor of Mr. Joseph Folberg for his generous support and commitment to photographers and photography, 1992.96.2. Photograph by Randy Dodson © Aperture Foundation, Inc, Paul Strand Archive Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

In contrast to the Ashcan School of John Sloane and the New York School – which provided candid social-realist views of everyday city life – Precisionism was detached in tone. The Ashcan painters presented dirty, discordant cities teeming with life and incident; the Precisionists viewed the same cities cleansed of the impurities of traffic, billboards, inclement weather and even people. One significant curatorial decision is to include rural subjects in this exhibition. Precisionism was largely urban and rural in its locales but agricultural buildings formed a reasonable proportion of the subjects chosen by Precisionists.

Precisionism was a tendency or trend rather than a movement and no formulation of stipulations or list members. The style had parallels in European art in Neue Sachlichkeit, Stanley Spencer, Tristram Hillier, et al. What goes unmentioned in the catalogue texts are posters and commercial art. Art Deco echoes Precisionism in the preference for simplification, impersonality, mechanical subjects, subdued colour and so forth. Art Deco is not discussed in the catalogue essays.

In addition to paintings, the exhibition includes a range of sculpture, prints, drawings, and photographs. The remainder of the 136 items in the show are examples of excellent and uncompromising design from the inter-war period: book-covers, furniture, a lamp, radio, even a 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton automobile.

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[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]

Sheeler is not only the leading Precisionist, he is one of the most important figures in the history of early Modernist art in America. Paintings, photographs, prints and drawings show the artist’s competence in multiple mediums. His realism is a touch dry but is never pedantic. He knew enough to keep pictures free of fussiness and he simplified to the degree necessary.

Charles Sheeler_Classic Landscape_1931

[Image: Charles Sheeler, “Classic Landscape,” 1931. Oil on canvas, 25 x 32 1/4 in. (63.5 x 81.9 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2000.39.2 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

A colleague of Sheeler’s, Morton Livingston Schamberg (1881-1918), is identified by curators as a link between Dada and Precisionism. His machine paintings are freer than the art that came afterwards. Joseph Stella (1877-1946) is unusual in the degree of freedom and dynamism in his art. His views of the Brooklyn Bridge emphasise the swooping tension of the cables. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) painted views of New York City before her retreat to rural isolation and natural forms as subjects.

OKeeffe City Night 1926

[Image: Georgia O’Keeffe, “City Night,” 1926. Oil on canvas, 48 x 30 in. (121.0 x 76.2 cm). Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of funds from the Regis Corporation, Mr. and Mrs. W. John Driscoll, The Beim Foundation, the Larsen Fund, and by public subscription, 80.28. © 2017 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

This exhibition includes one of her night-time views of skyscrapers and the catalogue illustrates another, the famous Radiator Building – Night, New York (1927). Scenes of Pittsburgh’s ironworks and factories by Elsie Driggs (1898-1992) are included. They show buildings rather than the workers or the dramatic (even picturesque) smelting of iron. The paintings of Charles Demuth (1883-1935) are less naturalistic and feature the multiple lines and flat planes that one can find in Orphism and Cubism. The radically simplified bridge views of Ralston Crawford (1906-1978) are as concise as Art Deco posters.

Cunningham Fageol Ventilators 1934

[Image: Imogen Cunningham, “Fageol Ventilators,” 1934. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/8 x 9 in. (17.9 x 22.7 cm). Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © 1934-2017 Imogen Cunningham Trust Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

Much of Precisionism relies on photography: it is either photography or derived from photographs. The exhibition contains photographs by Precisionists. Paul Strand is the best known of the Precisionist photographers and film makers. His documentary film Manhatta (1920) (made in collaboration with Sheeler) is a landmark of American cinema. Photographs in the exhibition include well-chosen examples by Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Jean Steichen, Ralph Steiner and a number of photographs taken by painters. Where the sources and paintings can be matched, both are included for purposes of comparison.

Gerald Murphy (1888-1964) is acclaimed as one of America’s great painters. The fact that he only painted between 1921 and 1929 is a painful loss to us. Only eight paintings by him survive. In terms of quality of production, Murphy’s art is as strong as Vermeer and Giorgione’s.

Gerald Murphy_Watch_1925

[Image: Gerald Murphy, “Watch,” 1925. Oil on canvas, 78 ½ x 78 1/2 in. (199.4 x 200.4 cm). Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, Gift of the artist, 1963.75.FA. Photograph by Brad Flowers © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

The exhibited Watch (1925) is one of the masterpieces of Modern art. Its restrained colour, flat facets, accuracy and exquisite finish make it stylistically closer to Post-Cubism than Precisionism but the spirit of the art is pure Precisionism. Analysis by horologists suggests that while the depiction of the workings of the watch is accurate, the main spring appears defective. It may be that this poignant impairment was deliberately introduced by the artist, who had a lifelong struggle with his homosexuality, and may have wished to use symbolism of dysfunction.

The find of the exhibition is George Copeland Ault (1891-1948). Technically, his paintings conform to most aspects of Precisionism in approach and subject; where they differ is tone and implication. His architectural views are imbued with more atmosphere than those by other Precisionists. The views of unpeopled scenes in snow, mist and at night have a degree of melancholy and ambivalence absent from other Precisionist art. His Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946) is similar in clarity, calm and peculiar intensity to Magritte’s Domain of Light. Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944) has something akin to bleak orderliness, the white snow blanket a dull antiseptic white under a murky sky. His best paintings have a meditative quality missing from more typical examples of Precisionism. It is not great art but it is powerfully compelling – all the more so because it exerts its hold in an inexplicable manner.

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[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Far left: George Copeland Ault, Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944), far right: George Copeland Ault, Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946)]

Judging on this evidence, political critiques of Precisionism seem misplaced. A better approach is the psychological reading. The primary drive behind Precisionism is psychological not political. The paintings – with their dearth of human figures, signalling of the supremacy of artifice over nature and absence of entropy – indicate their creators’ misanthropy and discomfort with disorder. Precisionist art speaks of perfectionism, attempts to impose control over external chaos and hypersensitivity towards disruption. It is a pathological response akin to phobia of germs or insecurity in the face of change. Precisionism is the art of those averse to imprecision; it speaks of fear of decay and worry about ambiguity and doubt. Sheeler’s stated aspiration of achieving “purity of plastic expression [through] objective forms” is indicative of deep attachment to certitude and impersonality. Any reading of Precisionism which does not include discussion of the psychological drive of its artists is incomplete.

Catalogue essays by experts discuss various aspects of the style, complemented by full-page illustrations, a chronology and notes. The book itself is excellent and handsome. The use of silver chimes with the metallic subjects of the art. The only aspect which could have been improved is to have increased the inner margin between text and page gutter on verso pages, which gets uncomfortably close while never impairing legibility. Personally, I would have chosen a serif typeface in preference to this sans serif. Sans serif is tiring on the eye over extended passages of reading. Cult of the Machine is a wide-ranging, balanced and at time surprising survey of one of the key American art movements.

 

Emma Acker, et al, Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in association with Yale University Press, April 2018, cloth hardback, 244pp, 150 col. illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 300 234 022

© 2018 Alexander Adams

 

Art of the Canadian Relief Camps: Alan Caswell Collier

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[Image: (c) UBC Press]

In the wake of the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, many ordinary people found themselves out of work. At the time, unemployment relief was limited or unavailable. The existing system had not been expected to cope with the vast numbers of men unable to support themselves and their families. In Canada the relief project to combat unemployment and save workers from destitution was a work programme established by the Department of National Defence. Although nominally a civilian organisation for labour, it operated with military austerity and discipline, administered by former military personnel and organised along military lines. Basic shelter and food was provided and men cut timber, dug, built and laboured for 20¢ per day. The scheme was partly to provide subsistence living for the unemployed, curb vagrancy and crime and to combat a rising tide of Communism.

One of the men who arrived at relief camp 506, Big Bend, British Columbia in September of 1934 was Alan Caswell Collier (1911-1990). Relief Stiff: An Artist’s Letters from Depression-Era British Columbia collects Collier’s letters to his fiancée while he was working in one of these camps. (A “relief stiff” is an unemployed man on government relief.”) Collier had trained as a painter at Ontario College of Art between 1929 and 1933. There he met and fell in love with Ruth Brown (1910-1993). The couple courted and intended to marry but by the time Collier graduated, the Depression was in its trough. Unable to secure a job, Collier went to work at a relief camp in the rural interior of British Columbia.

Peter Neary, professor emeritus of history at the University of Western Ontario, has compiled this reading edition of 120,000 words from a transcript of 281,000 words. He not only edited down the text but also made minor changes to increase the consistency and readability of the text, which is an intelligent decision. Neary explains the background and the context of the DND “royal twenty centers”, as the relief workers were called. He writes: “Readers of excerpts I have chosen will encounter in passing the language of racism, homophobia, ableism, nativism, anti-Semitism, sectarianism, and intolerance.” To which concern I am bound to reply that his readers are doubtless robust and adult enough to detach themselves when they encounter language and views they do not personally endorse. No warning was necessary.

The artist intended to document his time through art and letters, primarily to Ruth. He was a skilled letter writer and his lively narrative is free of pretension. He attempted to record the toughness of the life in a way that was authentic, while no doubt taking off a few rough edges and embellishing anecdotes, as all writers do. Collier took paints and paper with him and produced (according to his own records) 61 pictures during his time in the camps. He painted landscapes and portraits, oil on board. His landscapes are largely in the school of the Group of Seven, a prominent association of Canadian painters who depicted the rural landscapes of Canada in a Post-Impressionist manner. He also added to his letters sketches (many humorous) of life in the camps and the characters he knew. Photographs of the camps and men add to our immersion in the milieu.

As an artist, Collier judged his postings by the landscape as a sketching subject. He would go out to draw or paint the landscape most Sundays, painting oil on board. He drew caricatures of the men and painted portraits too, some of which he sold to the subjects for $1. Some portraits he kept for himself.

The camps where Collier worked constructed roads in inland British Columbia. The men were a mixture of working class and middle class, some skilled tradesmen and professionals, along with piece workers. Most of the men were young; some of the older ones were veterans of the Great War. There were many recent immigrants. “Out of forty in camp, 37.5% are Canadian born; 35% were born in the British Isles; and 20% are Scandinavians.” Some, such as explosives experts were employed for their expertise, others moved between jobs in the camps as needed. The men worked five and a half days a week (a half day on Saturday, Sunday off). There was no sick pay but free healthcare. Collier started as a labourer before moving to the less physically arduous but intellectually taxing position of storeman, where he issued, ordered and monitored clothing and equipment.

From these letters we learn about his daily routine, his reading and views on current events, especially relating to the economic situation. There is much talk of food, grumbling about the rations – daily expenditure on food was 23.34¢ per man – and the competence of the cook. Clothes were issued monthly. Collier sold his tobacco ration to earn an extra 50¢ a month.

Like soldiers on deployment, separated from friends and families, the relief-camp workers killed free-time with letter-reading and -writing, playing horseshoes, gambling, washing their own clothes by hand and sleeping. There are stories of fist fights, drunken escapades, strikes and petty pilfering. The writer does not shy away from the seedier aspects of life in the camps. He comments how locals had low opinions of camp workers, most of the times they encountered works them was when they came to town on payday to drink, fight and cause a rumpus.

He atmospherically describes life in the snowbound camp. “That train that was buried at Three Valley was completely buried, and part of it is still in there. There was forty feet of snow on top of the mail car and engine.” At another camp, an avalanche killed three camp workers. Workers at Camp 376, Tappen envied the workers at camps located near towns. Those workers could earn up to 40¢ per hour snow shovelling – quite an improvement on 20¢ per day.

Discontent with the economic situation and lack of security provided the resentment that allowed Communist ideas to flourish. While sympathetic to limited social change in areas, Collier was critical of Communism. He took a leading part in a camp strike when a foreman abused his authority and refused to listen to workers’ grievances but he was opposed to general strikes to further Communist-aligned goals. Relief Camp Worker, a Communist newspaper, incited strikes and disruption. Collier quoted an article discussing individuals killed in an accident. “’We do not regret the accident. We suggest that they represented the type which will have to be exterminated before a perfect society can be realized. This type is an obstacle to world sanity.’ […] Statements like that show what kind of men run the Red organization.”

The camp system was riven with inefficiency, profiteering, corruption and theft and Collier struggled to do right by the system and the men. He attempted to curb wastage and balance the books. He tried to protect hardworking amiable men and to retain the best cooks.

In the summer of 1935, Collier left camp, toured the USA and continued his art education in New York, joined by Ruth.

In these letters young artist comes across as serious, intelligent and independent. He seems – on the basis of these letters – a shrewd judge of character and sceptical of political ideology, fundamentally a pragmatist. His few casual slurs are typical of the time and – given the tough conditions – he seems free of malice or bitterness. He displays empathy and patience. His love of the landscape shines through in his descriptions of sketching trips.

The book contains an introduction, which sets out the methodology of the editorial process and explains the artist’s early life. The index is a useful addition and the footnotes are mostly informative and well judged. An afterword covers Alan and Ruth Collier’s subsequent lives and Alan’s art. During 1940s he painted photograph-derived montage-style paintings in a dry naturalistic style, produced art in mines and became a specialist in landscape painting. Each summer, from the 1950s until the end of his life, Alan and Ruth and their son Ian, toured Canada in a mobile home, Alan working on landscape paintings. He achieved considerable success in Canada and the USA as an artist, while Ruth chose to concentrate on home and family, ably supporting her husband’s career.

This book is an easy read and will appeal to general readers, as well as those interested in the 1930s life or Canadian art. This fascinating slice of social history forms a Canadian counterpart to the volume of Pollock family letters.

 

Alan Caswell Collier and Peter Neary (ed.), Relief Stiff: An Artist’s Letters from Depression-Era British Columbia, March 2018, hardback, UBC Press, 368pp, 89 mono illus., C$45, ISBN 978 0 7748 3498 8

Anni Albers: On Weaving

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[Image: Anni Albers, On Weaving: New Expanded Edition. Princeton University Press, 2017]

 

Anni Albers (1899-1994) was one of the most respected and innovatory figures in the modern craft movement. She studied at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, where she met her future husband Josef Albers, a teacher there. (Josef Albers, a pioneering abstract painter, was an influential teacher, especially on the subject of colour.) In 1933 the couple moved to teach in the USA, first at Black Mountain College and later at Yale. In later years, living in Connecticut, she produced tapestries and weavings, as well as writing articles and books on design and textiles. She was the first designer to have a one-person exhibition at MoMA (in 1949) and became recognised as one of the pre-eminent designers of the Modern era. Two new publications give us an insight into her ideas and practice.

Anni Albers’s worked by weaving on hand-looms, producing designs which used the natural qualities of materials and a limited palette to produce (mainly) hard-edge abstract patterns. Frequently in her designs, simple geometric shapes on small scale are expanded over large areas. In her wall-hangings, she took care over having borders that complemented and also completed central designs. Triangles provide textural “tooth” and indicate visual dynamic flow. Her colours are usually restrained and are rarely more than two or three per design. She had a preference for white, black, grey and muted reds. She produced many striking and sophisticated wall-hangings (illustrated in On Weaving) and was a skilled designer of original artist’s prints, especially silkscreens and lithographs.

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[Image: Anni Albers, Vicara Rug I, 1959. Executed by Inge Brouard Brown. Vicara, wool, and cotton, 60 1/4 x 40 in. (153 x 101.6 cm). Neues Museum Nuremberg. © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

 

On Weaving, originally published in 1965, is a newly revised and expanded version of a classic text on the theory and history of weaving. Albers explains the principles and problems of weaving, drawing on her extensive research and expertise. She covers the manipulation of warp and weft, looks at the different looms and battens, reeds and other paraphernalia of the loom-weaver’s craft. Other topics include draft notation, weave variations, tactility, artificial fibres and tapestry.  Her rigorously anti-decorative function-as-form Bauhaus aesthetic comes to the fore in her comments on embroidery: “Embroidery, on the other hand, is a working of just the surface, since it does not demand that we give thought to the engineering task of building up a fabric. For this very reason, however, it is in danger of losing itself in decorativeness; for the discipline of constructing is a helpful corrective for the temptation to mere decoration.”

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[Image: Anni Albers, Drapery material, 1927. Cotton and rayon, 6 1/4 x 4 1/4 in. (15.9 x 10.8 cm). Gift of the Designer: The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

 

The illustrations Albers selected include images of weaving techniques and machinery, sample patterns, wall-hangings and pictorial tapestries. Close-up views and diagrams demonstrate the principles of knotting, lace, twills and other techniques. Pre-historic, historical and modern examples are taken from many cultures, including Mexico (which Albers visited a number of times), Norway, Congo and Japan; also presented are striking artist-made Modernist pieces.

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[Image: Serape, Querétaro, Mexico, late 19th to mid-20th century. Woven cotton, 81 x 50 in. (205.7 x 127 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, The Harriet Engelhardt Memorial Collection, gift of Mrs. Paul Moore.]

 

Albers particularly venerated pre-Columbian weaving from Peru and there are many illustrations of Peruvian textiles. This new edition adds an extensive selection of Albers’s own woven designs to complement the relatively short text. Most of the old black-and-white photographs have been replaced by high-resolution colour photographs, which are pinpoint sharp. Albers’s original photographs of ephemeral arrangements made specifically for the book are unique and reproduced in their original black and white. Albers experimented by producing texture studies made by pricking paper, arranging small items in patterns and by typing repeated characters on a manual typewriter.

The volume’s cloth binding is appropriately handsome and sturdy. Two new essays by specialists and an afterword by Nicholas Fox Weber, Director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, complement the original text. Fox Weber, Manuel Cirauqui and T’ai  Smith set On Weaving in the context of the artist’s training, milieu and own production. Albers herself chose not to concentrate on her own art in the book, though it perfectly exemplified many of the points she made in the text. Albers makes clear what she feels are the bases of good weaving – understanding the quality of materials, concentrating on design through structure rather than decoration and applying a truth-to-material ethos. The drive towards simplicity – that is, a distillation of the essence of a design – underpins her designs and advice to makers.

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[Image: Anni Albers: Notebook 1970–1980. David Zwirner Books, 2017]

 

Notebook, 1970-1980 is a facsimile publication of Albers’s only known sketchbook. This notebook with graph-paper pages (now coverless) is a typical school notebook as used in mathematics classes. This publication reproduces the book to exact size and includes all pages, including blank ones and those showing the ghost of the drawing on the other side of the page. Colour reproduction catches the slight yellowing of the paper and brown residue of adhesive tape.

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[Image: Interior spread from Anni Albers: Notebook 1970–1980. David Zwirner Books, 2017]

Readers will find themselves instinctively treating the book as if they were holding the fragile original. Designer and publisher deserve credit for the care they have lavished on the production of this book. A brief afterword by Anni Albers scholar Brenda Danilowitz discusses the sketchbook.

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[Image: Anni Albers, Drawing from a notebook, 1970, pencil on paper, 10 x 7 7/8 in. (25.4 x 20 cm) © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

 

The designs in the book relate to Albers’s textile designs and artist’s prints. They feature patterns of triangles and quadrilaterals drawn in pencil in several shades. Some are repeatable or potentially infinite patterns, while others are intended to be limited. Some introduce elements of apparent randomness. There are a few linear maze-like drawings (meanders) and some of Albers’s distinctive curvilinear forms based on curling rope or thread. The illustrations capture the nuances of the artist’s pencil shading, differentiating shades by pressure and grades of pencil. Little colour is employed. While a handful of drawings are doodles or incomplete, most are complete designs. There are few words other than notations of dates and titles of the relevant designs.

Both of these books would make excellent additions to college libraries as they are good examples of preparation and experimentation for students to learn from. Makers in general will also enjoy these impeccably produced volumes.

 

Anni Albers, Brenda Danilowitz, Notebook, 1970-1980, David Zwirner, 2017, hardback, 152pp, 148 col. illus., $30/£25, ISBN 978-1941-701-744

Anni Albers, Nicholas Fox Weber et al., On Weaving (New Expanded Edition), Princeton University Press, 2017, cloth hardback, 272pp, 105 col./28 mono illus., $49.95/£41.95, ISBN 978-069-1177-854

 

Basil Beattie: A Passage of Time

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[Image: Basil Beattie, Ins and Outs Series 1 (2004-5), mixed media on paper 28 x 36 cm, courtesy of the artist]

The current exhibition of works on paper by Basil Beattie RA (b. 1935) charts his progress from the 1980s to today. Beattie built his early career on pure abstraction, largely in line with his colleagues at the Royal Academy in the late 1950s. Influenced by American Abstract Expressionists and the Colour-Field painters, Beattie developed a language based on non-representational image making. In the mid-1980s he began the Circus series, where semi-recognisable imagery began to enter compositions. At the end of the 1980s Beattie felt he could no longer actively keep out the images that were in his mind and from then on his art has combined the solid sense of an abstract painter – with an attendant feeling for material and eye for form – with figural motifs. These are pictographs, simple and strong but not without ambiguity. Stairs, arches, doorways, ladders, corridors, roads, blocks, ziggurats and other forms become signs but signs with weight and earthiness.

The exhibition Basil Beattie RA: A Passage of Time (Hugh Casson Room, Royal Academy, London, 23 February-23 April 2018) picks up in 1986, with prints from the Circus series. Soon after these brightly coloured works, Beattie muted his colours. The work of the 1990s and early 2000s (paintings as well as graphics) were characterised by the use of black, white, ochre, cadmium red medium and grey. This is reflected in the art presented here: prints, drawings and paintings, all on paper.

There are a range of pieces covering many of Beattie’s motifs.

Basil Beattie - Ladder Series 1, 2017

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ladder Series 1 (2017), oil on paper, courtesy of the artist]

Some of the strongest works are the prints of 1998-9, made with Advanced Graphics in Deptford. These corridors and doorways have the presence of vital pictograms, signs with import, urgent warnings or even religious meditations. They are classic images made with confidence and asperity.   Beattie’s oil paintings have a strong physical presence, with wax-thickened impasto over raw linen, and this tactility and heft is difficult to convey in prints. (Beattie might achieve effective results using mixed etchings with the carborundum process, which produce heavily textured granular effects on heavy paper.) To increase texture and weight, Beattie worked with Bob Saich at Advanced Graphics, London to combine screenprint with woodcut in In or Out (1998) and Signs of Entry (1999).

The Janus series (2009-12) are sections with views of roads disappearing towards flat horizons. In one drawing strong colour intrudes. Beattie generally handles colour adroitly but Beyond Yonder (2012) is distractingly highly keyed. His pinks and yellows work best against earthy grounds or raw linen, where predominance of subdued colour and dim tones acts as a foil to small areas of pungent colour. Beyond Yonder fails because the dominance of the white paper fails to provide that foil.

Basil Beattie - Ladder Series 4, 2017

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ladder Series 4 (2017), oil on paper, 36 x 28 cm, courtesy of the artist]

There is a certain dry humour to Beattie’s art. His ladders are comically rustic and seem absurdly rickety. Anyone foolish enough to put weight on a rung would inevitably snap that rung and expose himself as an optimistic buffoon, as in a Buster Keaton movie. In Ladder Series 5 (2017) the ladder has been split and become two structures, almost totemic in their mute uselessness.

Basil Beattie - Ladder Series 5, 2017

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ladder Series 5 (2017), oil on paper, 36 x 28 cm, courtesy of the artist]

Tottering stacks of steps in other pictures induce unease in the viewer. These seem more ominous than comic.

The most recent work is Broken Promises (2017). It has a tottering stack, with the printed in grey over scarlet, which gives it a snappy contrast of flickers of fiery red under and around the grey top layer. The overprinting of different inks gives Beattie’s prints a particularly satisfying density and complexity.

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[Image: Basil Beattie, Above and Below I (2004), etching and chine collé, 72.5 x 57.5 cm, edition of 25, courtesy of the artist]

Pieces are for sale and prices modest. The exhibition is highly recommended. Let us hope there will be a British exhibition displaying the best of Beattie’s art over the last 30 years. Until then, enjoy this taster.

Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension

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[Image: Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension, 2018, installation view, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

Herbert Ferber (1906-1991) was a sculptor who was part of the New York School; his was part of the Abstract Expressionism movement. The touring exhibition Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension currently at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut (27 January-29 July 2018; previously at Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami) gives an opportunity to study Ferber’s art in depth. This review is from the exhibition catalogue.

Herbert Ferber Silvers trained and practised as a dentist part time. His art training was informal and received sporadically at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design and the National Academy of Design, in his native New York. His early sculpture was carved wood and stone and cast bronze; the subjects were Expressionist figures. He also etched and painted. Ferber’s first solo exhibition was held in 1937. This was a time when Regionalism held sway in the small arena of new American art. Ferber’s expressive figurative art put him between, on one hand, the traditionalism and straightforward illustration of Regionalists, Hopper and the Ashcan School and, on the other, the nascent Modernist movement including Stuart Davis, John Marin and young abstract painters.

Ferber committed to abstraction in 1945, at a time when Abstract Expressionism was hitting its stride. A new confidence infused American art. Americans realised that America was leading the way in art internationally and had no reason to feel inferior to Europe. A new generation of collectors were buying adventurous abstract art made by young Americans. Ferber’s art fitted in. In a way, perhaps it fitted in too well. If any vital quality is lacking from Ferber’s art – with the exception of Burning Bush (discussed below) – it is powerful memorability. If Ferber’s art had fitted in less well and stuck out as odd, discordant, pungent or hybrid, perhaps it would have garnered more enthusiastic support and strong aversion. In terms of reputation, Ferber’s art would have benefitted from having both more friends and enemies.

The influence of Giacometti’s Woman with her Throat Cut (1932) – which was frequently reproduced and exhibited in the 1930s and 1940s – is evident in Ferber’s bronzes Hazardous Encounter II (1947) and Dragon (1947). Giacometti’s biomorphic forms, jagged energy and emotive subject evidently struck a chord in Ferber.

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[Image: Herbert Ferber, Hazardous Encounter II (1947), bronze. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

The use of lead at the same time was unusual; Ferber soon discontinued using it as he found it prone to damage. He started to work in welded metal, which was his dominant method for the rest of career as a sculptor. The use of folded, curved and welded steel, brass and copper (often in juxtaposition) gave sculptures from the 1950s to 1991 greater variety of colour and surface. All of them are resolutely abstract. (Ferber apparently never returned to figuration the way Guston and de Kooning did.) The current exhibition includes one painted construction.

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[Image: Herbert Ferber, Roofed Sculpture with “S” Curve II (1954), cast bronze. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

The use of spikes, open linear forms and occasional horizontal orientation in table-top pieces aligns Ferber with David Smith around 1950. Such was Smith’s prominence and accomplishment that his work has tended to overshadow Ferber’s. Notable differences include Smith’s adaptation of recognisable manufactured elements, something less apparent in Ferber’s art. The exploitation of pre-made material gives Smith’s art a collage aspect and the frisson of duality: material as adapted source and material as plastic form. There is also little visual wit or punning in Ferber’s art. For better or worse, Ferber’s art is grave matter. There may be energy, exhilaration and inventiveness but there is no humour.

Ferber received the major commission to create a giant wall-mounted sculpture for the B’nai Israel Synagogue, Millburn, New Jersey. Burning Bush (1951-2) was a highly successful sculpture in brass, copper and lead depicting the burning bush through which God spoke to Moses. The dynamic forms, Modernist crispness and memorability made it very effective as art, decoration and icon. The piece benefits from the limitation as a relief, essentially. Ferber might have benefitted from making more wall reliefs.

In 1961 Ferber had the opportunity to experiment with interior sculptural installation in a work for the Whitney Museum of American Art. This informed later large exterior sculptures of steel that allowed viewers to inhabit the sculptural space. They demonstrated Ferber’s interest in dynamic open forms which defy gravity. Developing a sculptural language that consisted of space as much as solid forms became a central preoccupation for Ferber the sculptor.

Ferber returned to painting intermittently (but seriously) while being best known for his sculpture. His large paintings (made from the 1950s to the last years of his life) present simple forms with curving edges, saturated colour and – especially in late works – surfaces animated by vigorous and visible brushwork. The forms are akin to simple calligraphs and are less dramatic and abrupt than Franz Kline’s similar works. As Edith Devaney points out in her essay, the paintings are related to immersive sculpture of Ferber, with their suspended simple shapes. It is clear Ferber the painter looked at a lot of abstract painting and was close friends with many of the Abstract Expressionists. The Colour-Field paintings by Jules Olitski and Sam Gilliam may have led Ferber to develop his feathery working of surfaces and the introduction of sand as a way of diffusing light and creating texture.

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[Image: Herbert Ferber, Primo (1973), acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

In the 1970s Ferber’s paintings became strongly coloured, often with a hot palette. Triangular sections are softened by blurring brushstrokes, dribbles and dilution. The dancing organic forms in the sculptures become cleaner and clearer. Rods and frames were used to stabilise and support the curving forms. In the energetic rococo sculptures composed of suspended, soaring and curling shapes we can see ideas that Frank Stella developed in his metal reliefs.

Ferber was included in the landmark MoMA exhibition “Fifteen Americans” in 1952 and has featured regularly in publications and group exhibitions since then. He was respected by his peers and played a prominent role in the New York School’s group activities. However, today his art remains lesser known than that of his colleagues. His work was omitted from the recent Royal Academy survey of Abstract Expressionism, whereas Smith had 13 works included – a slightly unkind reflection on Ferber. Non-sculptor Barnett Newman was represented by a bronze. One would have thought Ferber should have had at least one piece also.

The 44 works illustrated in this touring catalogue cover 1943 to 1990 and display the core of Ferber’s art without amounting to a full retrospective. The essays describe the artist’s development, working habits and artistic affiliations. Ferber comes out looking a serious and articulate sculptor. He seems a competent and independent as a painter but not a maker of imposing or exciting paintings – at least in reproduction. For anyone interested in rounding out their knowledge and appreciation of Abstract Expressionism then this catalogue is an enjoyable exploration of Ferber’s art.

 

Jill Deupi, John B Ravenal & Edith Devaney, Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension, Lowe, 2017, paperback, 66pp, 56 col. & mono illus., $15, ISBN 978 0 9969489 5 1

Collectors without Remorse: Dominique and John de Menil

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[Image © Alfred A. Knopf]

Patrons of the arts are not always given the respect or understanding due to them. Although it is artists, writers, composers and other creative figures which generate cultural products, it is the patronage of others who allow them to create (by commissioning art and providing stipends) and preserve the fruits of their labours in their private collections. Very often those collections become public and enrich the life of the state and population. Much culture would never have been produced if it were not for the generosity – and acquisitiveness – of collectors and patrons. Today, those who become wealthy are often scorned as exploiters and are unfairly maligned. Yet it is only through the patronage using funds derived from base commercial transactions that the most sublime cultural products of our eras are created and shared communally – be those sources the tithes of the Medieval church, the coal barons of South Wales, rail magnates of America, shipping tycoons of Greece or the income tax of modern Europe. It is only right that many museums today bear the names of the farsighted and adventurous members of the rich.

Two of the greatest benefactors of the visual arts in America were Dominique and John de Menil. They conducted their lives with a mixture of generosity, frugality, simplicity and attention to detail. Much of that came from their upbringings.

The ancestors of Dominique de Menil (1908-1997) included François Guizot (1787-1874), the renowned lawyer, statesman and historian. His father was guillotined during the Terror. Guizot went into public life and enacted lasting educational reforms, wrote many influential histories and founded La Revue française. Another branch of her relatives included the Schlumbergers, Protestant Alsatian industrialists. It was noted that Dominque’s austere attitudes and emotional restraint was derived from her Protestant upbringing. In Dominique’s family tree commerce, culture and public service were interwoven. In character she was cautious and abstemious.

Baron Jean de Menil (1904-1973) was descended from a line of soldiers and bankers. His great-grandfather was decorated by both Napoleon and Louis XVIII and conferred the title of baron. The de Menil’s were less favoured by fortune than the Schlumbergers – financially ruined then decimated by the Great War, the de Menils were in a poor state at the end of the Great War, at which time Jean was 14 years old. Jean went to work at Banque de I’Union Parisienne and became a rising star, rising to the level of executive by 26.

In 1930 the couple met and began a relationship that last until Jean’s death in 1973. In 1931 they married, the wife remaining Protestant and the husband Catholic. Using the bride’s dowry, they set up home together. Their first artistic commission – a portrait – was inauspicious. Their architect (who was converting their new home) introduced them to Max Ernst. While they liked the artist, they disliked the portrait of Dominique that he painted. They kept it in a cupboard for over a decade.

In the 1910s, Dominique’s father Conrad Schlumberger had established a method of using electrical resistance to prospect for oil. By the 1930s, Schlumberger International was a major player in oil exploration and extraction. In 1936 Conrad died and two years later Jean joined the Schlumberger firm, bringing with him a great deal of banking and financial experience. The war forced their hands. After the fall of France, Jean travelled to Texas. Houston had become an important area for Schlumberger’s business and Jean went to head the branch of Schlumberger there. Dominique and the children soon crossed the Atlantic to join them. As soon as they arrived, Jean and Dominique (who had technical expertise in oil exploration) went to Venezuela to assist the branch there. German submarines had been sinking oil tankers heading north and this vital route of oil transportation was at risk. The de Menils did their part for the Resistance and the Free French Government by raising money.

After the war, the de Menils returned to Houston and commissioned a Modernist house. John dropped the title baron and his name was more frequently anglicised to “John”. The couple began to form an impressive collection of art, which numbered 10,000 items by the late 1970s. The core collections consist of Surrealism, European Modernism, American Modernism (including Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), ancient art, African art and Native American and Latin American art. Out of these, the most important holdings are of Surrealism (particularly Max Ernst and René Magritte) and Abstract Expressionism (particularly Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman). The book includes colour plates of some of the best works in the collection, with many installation shots of landmark loan exhibitions they organised. They commissioned work by a range of world-class creative figures such as couturier Charles James, dancer Merce Cunningham, architects Philip Johnson and Renzo Piano and composers Morton Feldman and Pierre Boulez, among many others.

Although they agreed on all purchases, the couple’s personal tastes as collectors differed. John was the more acquisitive and enjoyed exuberant and combative art (especially Picasso). Dominique liked more meditative art, in particular Rothko and Magritte. It is curious that the de Menils formed such an attachment to Surrealism – a movement that was moribund by the time they started collecting seriously. By 1945, Surrealism looked tired, academic and meretricious, especially compared to the new American art emerging.  Moreover, a large impetus of Surrealism movement was anti-clericism, even atheist, which rather contrasted with the de Menils’ strong Christian faith. They considered collecting and supporting artists to be a moral responsibility but they did not generally judge art in moral terms. (An exception is Matta – one of the de Menils’ artists – whom Dominique considered to be borderline obscene, with all his inter-penetrating quasi-organic forms representing veritable painted orgies.)

There were sometimes gaps in the collection. Most of the best canvases by Braque, Matisse and Picasso were unavailable and the Abstract Expressionists were selling briskly by the late 1950s. “One would go to the Leo Castelli Gallery and the whole show would already have been sold,” Dominique lamented. They would buy classic Ernsts and Magrittes from New York-based dealer Alexandre Iolas, whose judgement they came to rely on. The de Menils formed personal ties to a number of artists, including Ernst and Magritte – with whom they could converse in French. Middleton includes titbits from the private notes that Dominique made when meeting artists: Brauner said Picasso’s art made him feel good and want to paint; Lipchitz was dismissive of de Chirico and Rouault; Giacometti was “exceptionally intelligent”.

In 1951 the de Menils curated a landmark exhibition of Van Gogh at a venue in Houston. The event was a sensation and established the couple as both cultural powerbrokers and curators of discernment. The de Menils became deeply involved in MoMA, with John becoming a trustee. They donated work to the museum but made clear that their civic duty was towards Houston. Dominique made a donation of major works (including The Deep (1953), Pollock’s greatest painting) to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, when it opened. The de Menils also funded research and commissioned the catalogues raisonnés of Ernst and Magritte.

The de Menils were committed supporters of civil rights, the promotion of non-Western art and inter-denominational dialogue. In 1960, the de Menils decided to build a non-denominational chapel at Rice University, Houston and dedicate it to the spiritual power of art. In 1964 they commissioned architect Philip Johnson (who later resigned over aesthetic differences with the de Menils) and interior paintings from Mark Rothko and acquired an exterior sculpture by Barnett Newman. It opened in 1971 and became a centre for art pilgrims and those in search of a contemplative sanctuary. Despite a predominance of positive reactions, opinions have varied about the success of the Rothko Chapel, though the seriousness and significance of the efforts of all involved are unquestioned. The chapel has become a centre for events relating to human rights and political dialogue, which drew Dominique towards former President Carter.

The de Menils had an interest in presenting black art, from African origins to contemporary American art. They travelled in Africa and Asia on trips that combined art buying, museum visiting and consultation with religious leaders, all part of a quest to fuse spirituality and art. Different religions derive their identities from their differences and grow through competition and suppression of competing religions; each religion claims exclusive superiority. The de Menils’ good intentions and genuine desire to harmonise discordant worldviews seem admirable but naïve.

After the death of John in 1973, Dominique continued their work and conceived of turning their art collection into a museum. The $25m museum, designed by Piano, opened on 4 June 1987. The design was a sober, discreet, elegant and dedicated to art, eschewing merchandising. Dominique was insistent it was free to entry. The Menil Collection became one of the world’s leading museums.

William Middleton has used access to the de Menil’s private papers, the Collection’s archives and interviews with colleagues and friends of the subjects to build a rich and sensitive portrait of the de Menils as public figures and private people. The book is thoroughly footnoted and illustrations are well chosen. The great diversity of activities and interests of the subjects – as well as the sheer industriousness of their collecting and curating – mean there are no dull passages or repetition in this narrative. The biography is a warm, balanced and respectful tribute to two major figures in American culture and philanthropy.

 

William Middleton, Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, hardback, 784pp, col. and mono illus., $40, ISBN 978 0 375 41543 2

Van Gogh and Japan

ENG softcover Van Gogh & Japan

 

For Vincent Van Gogh, Japan was an ideal – a place of light, pleasure and a productive society framed by awe-inspiring nature. Van Gogh had a typically Western view of the Orient, with Japan being a fantasy composition of familiarity with some cultural objects, travellers’ tales and assumptions. So, in many ways, the exhibition Van Gogh and Japan is an examination of the artist’s conceptions about a distant land he never visited and his deep involvement in the art of Japan, as it was understood in France of 1880-90. This review is of the catalogue for the current exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (23 March-24 June 2018; previously Hokkaidō Museum of Modern Art (Sapporo), Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, National Museum of Art (Kyoto)).

Although Van Gogh’s knowledge of Japan and its culture was fragmentary, the relationship was important to Van Gogh and influenced the artistic production of his last years. The influence is apparent in the art but there is a degree of uncertainty about how much the artist knew of Japanese art and culture. He perused the stock Parisian print dealers (including Siegfried Bing), bought as much as he could and discussed the art with others. His brother Theo was in the art trade and they frequently discussed the qualities of Japanese prints and tried to build a collection of the art that appealed to them. This was an easy task as Paris was still in the grip of japonisme, the craze for all things Japanese, especially art, clothing and furnishings, so there was much to see in museums, shops and new publications. This was the effect of Japan being opened up to the West in the 1860s. Japan, it seemed to Westerners, was a blend of the primitive and sophisticated – an exotic paradise that was culturally, linguistically and geographically inaccessible.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in September 1888, “We wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful.” In the West there is the frequent longing for a return to simplicity to combat the effects of industrial production, complex social systems and political sophistication in a participatory democracy. The exotic non-Western society is a fantastic release from the demands and complexities of life. Such views tell us about escapism and discontent in the West, but not anything meaningful about the actual lives of those in the East.

Often idioms of non-Western cultures are used by to inject a dose of invigorating “primitivism” into Western art (Tahitian culture for Gauguin, West African masks for Picasso, Oceanic art for Surrealism, and so on). While such incorporations are often based on misapprehensions, they sometimes successfully introduce new elements or ideas into Western art. One of the most prominent examples of this is the art of Japan, as viewed by Vincent Van Gogh.

Van Gogh’s attitudes towards Japanese culture essentially matched the prevailing European view of Japan. In that respect he was conventional. What is distinctive about Van Gogh was how he found a way to express his admiration for an alien culture by incorporating elements of that into the Western art tradition. Certain elements of Japanese woodblock prints appeared in his art: emphatic contours; clearly delineated areas of strong unmixed colour; increased planar flatness as opposed pictorial depth; horizons placed high in compositions; aerial perspective; strong diagonals; cropping and enlargement of foreground elements; absence of chiaroscuro; emphasis on the decorative over the naturalistic description. Van Gogh’s success is not in how noticeable these elements are but in how well – generally – they mesh with the Western tradition within which he worked. The uninformed viewer comparing a late Van Gogh landscape to a traditional Nineteenth Century Dutch landscape will feel the former is powerful and dynamic but – apart from noticing the strong colour and visible brushwork – will not sense how Van Gogh’s art differs. Likewise, it is not clear to the average viewer that the influence is non-Western.

Included in the exhibition are two oval paintings made on wooden panels. The panels are Japanese in manufacture. Photographs show the reverse of the panels, complete with manufacturer’s name.

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, Three Novels (1887), oil on panel, 31.1 × 48.5 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

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[Image: Back of Three Novels, with mention of the firm Kiryū Kōshō Kaisha, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

One aspect that seems to have passed unremarked is how the two still-life paintings are set on tables and the oval format evokes the shape of a round table viewed obliquely. Van Gogh, who was familiar with classic Dutch painting including illusionistic and trompe l’oeil painting, may possibly have used the unusual format to evoke perspectival distortion. It seems relatively unlikely. There is little in the way of visual wit in Van Gogh’s art. It was not in his outlook.

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[Image: Katsushika Hokusai, Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry, from an untitled series known as Small Flowers and Birds (c. 1834), from an untitled series known as Small Flowers and Birds (c. 1834), colour woodcut, 25.5 × 17.1 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Clarence Buckingham Collection, 1925, Photo credit: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence, © 2017]

 

In two double-page spreads, two versions of Portrait of Père Tanguy (both 1887) – which show a supporter of Van Gogh seated beside an array of Japanese woodblock prints – are juxtaposed with illustrations of the prints, allowing us to compare the sources with the transcriptions. The painter made substantial changes to the images but the spirit is carried over. For the artist, his positive feelings regarding his patron were expressed visually in a montage of Japanese art, which he associated with pleasure and exuberance.

On three occasions the artist transcribed Japanese prints as oil paintings, tracing the originals for accuracy. (The tracings still exist.)

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[Image: Utagawa Hiroshige, Sudden Evening Shower on the Great Bridge near Atake, from the series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo (1857), colour woodcut, 33.8 × 22.6 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887), oil on canvas, 73.3 × 53.8 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

Inspired by the slightly wrinkled surface of prints on thin Japanese paper – called crépons by the French, after the uneven surfaces of pancakes – Van Gogh began to produce paintings with textured surfaces. The regular impasto brushstrokes formed a crinkled appearance. He adapted his drawing technique to imitate Japanese masters, by using blends of blue and black ink and working with reed pens. He adopted a stenographic style of drawing: creating areas of pattern by making rapid repeated (simple) marks. Thus with dashes, dots, circles and so forth, he could describe discrete areas of grass, foliage, roadway or sky in ways that had distinct vibrancy and density. These marks are clear enough to be legible but small enough to generate an overall impression. One could almost describe the vibrancy of the areas as “colour”. (Compare to Bonnard’s style of drawing, which took Van Gogh’s approach one step further by using differing weights of touch.)

The catalogue includes fascinating glimpses of Van Gogh’s enchantment – and possible late disenchantment – with Japanese art, including contact with two Western artists (Louis Dumoulin and Edmund Walpole Brooke) who had visited Japan. It seems Van Gogh was interested to hear first-hand testimony about life in the Far East or was assessing the practicality of actually visiting Japan.  One essay examines the Van Gogh brothers’ collection of Japanese prints.  The number of Japanese prints that entered the Van Gogh Museum in 1973 was 482. Originally there were at least 660 prints but some were disposed of by the brothers. Vincent bought 660 prints by early 1888, though apparently he never paid the full price due. The artist had initially thought of exhibiting and selling on the prints but had little success in the one display he arranged. His admiration was genuine and daily acquaintance with his stock influenced his art. His collection included a wide range of subjects – except for warrior and war scenes and erotic prints – and items varied in quality and condition. It notably excludes Hokusai, whose prints were more highly priced than those by other by other printmakers. Chris Uhlenbeck concludes that “Van Gogh quickly formed the collection, within his own limited means, based on aesthetic considerations such as outspoken colour, striking compositional elements in landscapes or sumptuously clad beauties in kimonos. The collection, together with other Japanese art that the artist may have encountered in Paris, provided a new, exotic aesthetic that profoundly influenced Van Gogh’s own artistic voice.”

The catalogue includes a chronology covering Van Gogh’s links to Japanese art and covers some works only tangential to the subject, which gives the publication a satisfying breadth of scope. The reproductions are crisp and largely accurate. For anyone interested in understanding key stylistic aspects of Van Gogh’s art, this catalogue will become essential.

 

Louis van Tiborgh, Nienke Bakker, Cornelia Homburg, Tsukasa Kōdera & Chris Uhlenbeck, Van Gogh and Japan, Van Gogh Museum, 2018, paperback, 240pp, 200 col. illus., €29.95, French & Dutch versions available, ISBN 978 9 462 302204