Japanese Prints in the Collection of Vincent Van Gogh

 

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[Image: Utagawa Hiroshige, The Outskirts of Koshigaya in Musashi Province, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, 1858, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

In 1886 Vincent Van Gogh bought a batch of around 660 Japanese woodblock prints from a Paris dealer. He intended to sell them on for a profit, benefitting from the fashion for Japonisme that had been current since the Exposition Universelle in 1878. As it turned out, he did not buy especially good examples of prints, opting for quantity over quality. His February-March 1887 display at the Le Tambourin café was a commercial failure (in a catalogue essay Chris Uhlenbeck suggests Van Gogh overpriced) and Van Gogh and his brother were left with unsold stock. Those unsold prints became a resource for the artist. Van Gogh was already aware of Japanese prints before but now, with a large selection to hand, he could examine them at length and absorb the style of masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige, Utagawa Kunisada and Utagawa Kunisada.

This catalogue adds more to the recent exhibition Van Gogh and Japan (see my review here).

He used the prints to decorate his rooms and planned to trade them for works of art, though apparently this did not come to pass. Some prints went to his sister Willemien and after her death these returned to the collection of Vincent Van Gogh junior (son of Theo). Thus most of the 660 prints Van Gogh bought passed eventually to the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The current count is 511 sheets.

The classic Japanese colour woodblock print was discovered in 1765, developing from the uncoloured print. It is characterised by prominent black linear designs separating flat planes of strong unmixed colour, strong diagonal and absence of chiaroscuro and shadow (in the early period). A lot of this fed into the paintings that Van Gogh made in south of France 1888-90. Indeed when he arrived in the region for the first time he wrote ecstatically to his brother about the intense light and vivid colours as being the Japan of Europe.

Hokusai’s manga (sketchbooks, published over many decades) included drawings of people, flora, fauna and supernatural beings. The manga were an inspiration for Van Gogh and led to his refining his drawing technique with ink and reed pen. This catalogue only touches upon that, as it is addressed in other books in detail.

Some sheets Van Gogh bought were only parts of triptychs. For practical reasons, Japanese prints used sheets at a standard size, so for larger pictures makers used multiple linked designs printed on individual sheets and hung them together. Uhlenbeck writes, “Van Gogh unfortunately never commented in writing on multiple-sheet compositions. It is possible that he did not know that many of the designs in his collection were incomplete, and this may have affected his conception of the Japanese rules of composition.”

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[Image: Utagawa Kunisada, View of the Spring Rain, central sheet of a triptych, 1820–29, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

There are a number of notable absences in the collection. There are few horizontal landscapes, which may have been in the Le Tambourin exhibition and later confiscated by creditors when the café was closed. The absence of war scenes may have been because fewer of those prints were exported by Japanese traders keen to downplay their country’s violent past. The absence of shunga (erotic prints) might have been because they were too pricey for Van Gogh. It is hard to know what exactly motivated Van Gogh’s choices, apart from cost and availability. Did he buy what he thought would appeal to general collectors or what he found appealing? Did he aim to collect work that presented a variety in terms of subject, age and format or were these aspects relatively unimportant?

While there are a number of fine prints, the majority are not outstanding pieces according to experts. For example, there are no prints by Hokusai, who was by 1886 already too well known and costly for Van Gogh. There are a number of prints featuring trees, particularly ones with jutting irregular trunks and branches and it is reasonable to assume that these images caught Van Gogh’s eye because they reminded him of the trees of his native Brabant. In these cases at least, Van Gogh was using his personal artistic taste in the selection.

Van Gogh was especially partial towards so-called “crépon” prints (technically chirimen-e), which were prints which had been subjected to a mechanical process which textured the paper. Uhlenbeck describes the process of crêping, which led to the paper crinkling and shrinking, the edges becoming uneven. He bought 20 examples. It seems at least some of the crépon prints in Van Gogh’s collection were recent and manufactured expressly for the export market.

This catalogue presents new information about the prints. Data regarding artists, subjects and dates have rounded out our knowledge about the collection. The conditions of prints have been assessed and the illustrations show the uncropped sheets, including the tattered margins and pinholes, showing how the prints were handled and used. Van Gogh is known to have pinned some to walls and specks of oil paint can be detected, meaning that they were hung near his easel. The prints that he copied have been identified. There are missing prints and Van Gogh did know other prints from books, magazines, illustrations and visits to galleries. Even so, this largely intact collection provides us with a useful resource which allows us to understand Van Gogh’s taste and knowledge.

 

Louis van Tilborgh (ed.), Japanese Prints: The Collection of Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Thames & Hudson, 2018, hardback, $45, 224pp, over 170 col. illus., ISBN 978 0500 23 9896

© Alexander Adams

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Angela de la Cruz: Bare

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[Image: Angela de la Cruz, installation view, ‘Bare’, Lisson Gallery London, July 2018, © Angela de la Cruz; Courtesy Lisson Gallery]

In a medium-size top-lit gallery just off the Edgeware Road – with its bustling traffic, delivery vans and shops selling used office furniture – is a display of painted sculptures/sculpture as paintings. At Angela de la Cruz’s new exhibition Bare (Lisson Gallery, 27 Bell Street, London; 4 July-18 August 2018) four rectangular mounts are set on the walls. Sloughing down them are metal shutter bands. The bands and frames form objects that resemble roller shutters used to cover windows of commercial properties. They are dented. Each set of bands is painted a different colour: navy blue, turquoise, burgundy, scarlet. The frames are bare aluminium. There is an inevitable redolence of grimy urban existence notwithstanding the warmth and energy of the immaculate paintwork. (The shutters were painted after deformation.)

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[Image: Angela de la Cruz, Shutter (Turquoise), 2017, Oil and acrylic on aluminium, 154 x 159 x 15 cm, 60 5/8 x 62 5/8 x 5 7/8 in, CRUZ170018, © Angela de la Cruz; Courtesy Lisson Gallery]

In the centre of the space are four sculptures. Rectangular box-like forms in folded aluminium are rammed into old-fashioned steel filing cabinets. The metal is crumpled, meaning that the tall forms tilt. The outside of the forms are painted, each one in navy blue, turquoise, burgundy or scarlet, to match the shuttered forms. The insides are pristine unpainted metal. The filing cabinets remain in their original state, patinated through a legacy of use then obsolescence and neglect.

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[Image: Angela de la Cruz, Crate (Turquoise), 2017, Oil and acrylic on aluminium, filing cabinet, 165 x 63 x 42 cm, 65 x 24 3/4 x 16 1/2 in, CRUZ170014, © Angela de la Cruz; Courtesy Lisson Gallery]

On the wall is the only canvas in the exhibition. Bare (Red) (2018) is a square painting with a square burgundy form is surrounded by an edge of scarlet. The front has been sliced free of its edges then reattached to the stretcher with a heavy nails pounded through each corner. There is no escape from being painting; it must go on as a mutilated painting, nearly pristine, its centre sagging slightly. It is so close to being both perfect and ruined and must go on existing in this dual state for as long as it is art. At some stage this object will cease to be art, as all art must do. Obliteration is the inevitable future for every art work, every object, every person and – eventually – all objects and humanity.

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[Image: Angela de la Cruz, installation view, ‘Bare’, Lisson Gallery London, July 2018, © Angela de la Cruz; Courtesy Lisson Gallery]

This exhibition extends the artist’s continued investigation of the humbled object – the abject form. Previous pieces have been broken paintings draped over chairs, crumpled into corners, sagging off walls, concertinaed into glossy curtains, hammered into scrap wood. There is no rip, slash, trampling, nailing, stapling, crumpling, contortion or other violation that her paintings have not endured. De la Cruz’s art shows us art objects as surrogate people. It is also partly us who project our feelings on to these objects. We understand what art looks like when it is new and de la Cruz adapts her objects in clear and comprehensible ways; this means we carry in our imaginations the ideal original object as it would have looked. The Platonic ideal, as it were. Thus when we study her objects as they are now, we have the impaired reality in our eyes and the perfect originals in our minds. The pity is therefore more poignant. De la Cruz’s art succeeds by being failures by not matching their Platonic pristine states and thereby becoming embodiments of human weakness, achieving poignancy as art.

Thus the Crates stand on spindly legs like personages facing in different directions. The painted outsides of the Crates are folded around, so that we see the colour from every vantage point. On the inside we see the virgin metal. This reveals the substance of what we see and harks back to the idea of making art that is explicable and “true to materials” as the direct carvers of the abstract art in the 1930s and the Minimalist artists of the 1960s would have put it. It also related to the inclusion of the Platonic form in de la Cruz’s art. Viewers have a point of reference by which to measure how far this art has fallen from its ideal. The notable aspect of this show is that de la Cruz has given us sumptuousness alongside the sombreness. The nasty vinyl blacks, discoloured yellows and nauseating tobacco browns of her previous works remind us of the Spanish genius for ugliness. Here we have clear strong hues, immaculate surfaces and play of carefully unmodified sheet metal alongside waxy glowing painted surfaces. The reflectiveness of the metal under the paint seems to shine through the paint under strong light, though that may be an illusion. Despite the suggestion of melancholy and introspection, the art has a muted joyfulness. There is the pleasure of attractive colour, the tactility of clean surfaces and simple deformation and the satisfaction of pure states of metal and paint. There is the satisfaction of seeing Crates and Shutters in matching colours, with the scarlet and burgundy reprised in the single canvas. For the first time de la Cruz has made art which looks stronger than it looks weak. This, combined with new qualities of beauty in de la Cruz’s art, makes this exhibition the most emotionally satisfying display of her art that I have seen.

This exhibition could be seen as Angela de la Cruz at her most emotionally introspective. What we get is a masterful display of colour and forms that are generous, tactile and delicious. There is humour but circumscribed by sombreness. The group of works are acutely judged as an ensemble. Once the pieces are split up some of the charge may be lost. The pieces will function differently when separated.

If we are lucky, the artist will continue further along this line of approach.

© 2018 Alexander Adams

27 July 2018

Willem de Kooning

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This new book in a series on Modernist artists approaches the art of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). This small book consists of two short essays, a chronology and a selection of quotes from the artist. The author Corinna Thierolf is the Chief Curator of the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich and this book presents her heavily German-centred perspective on de Kooning. Thierolf suggests that Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc are previously unrecognised influences upon the Dutch-born American Abstract Expressionist. Thierolf draws analogies between the scatterings of hard-edge planes in Marc’s quasi-Cubist paintings and the fractured planes of de Kooning’s Women series and abstract paintings of the 1940s. The paintings of this period were heavily worked and revised frequently, producing paintings with dense layers of impasto and visible revision – very dissimilar to Marc’s animal paintings. In character, appearance and tone, the painting of Marc and de Kooning are very different.

The second essay centres on de Kooning’s last paintings and links to Marc and Kandinsky. In the 1970s de Kooning’s paintings tessellations of vivid blue, white, yellow and alizarin in liquid form exist between colliding lines, with plentiful spatterings and drips. As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, a noticeable simplification to de Kooning’s paintings became apparent. New paintings had less pentimenti, were less heavily worked and had fewer colours. Lines became less energetic. The paint was less messy and drips disappear. The last paintings seem unfinished, dominated by white. The artist at the time was in the early stages of dementia. It was revealed that assistants used transparencies from old paintings to draw outlines on to blank canvases to start the artist. De Kooning would paint over these drawings, sometimes changing and elaborating as he went along. In the last years, there were fewer changes; the paintings were reduced to calm flowing lines and few colours. These comprise de Kooning’s Ribbon series.

Mondrian is mentioned in relation to these late pieces. This seems a viable connection. Like de Kooning, the Dutch abstract artist also worked in New York in the 1940s. The clarity of colour and emphatic division using colour lines could legitimately be seen as an analogue of de Kooning’s Ribbon paintings.

There are two drives to reassess de Kooning’s late work: academic and commercial. Academics are looking for new work to do and new territory to survey. De Kooning’s late paintings were ignored, not exhibited and not discussed seriously until relatively recently. The art trade initially dismissed the late work and the de Kooning family did not permit the sale or exhibition of late works while the artist was alive. Only now are academics finding the late art accessible and are pioneering research on the late work, allowing such studies as this one.

The second motive is more questionable. There is a quantity of unsold late paintings in the de Kooning Estate and dealers are keen to raise the profile (and price) of these paintings via academic and critical discussion and wider exhibition of this art. There is a tendency to treat late paintings seriously because this increases the value of material resources in which the artist’s estate, dealers and auction houses all have vested interests. There are real doubts that the Ribbon paintings are comparable to the early works in terms of accomplishment, energy, complexity and originality. There is a further doubt about the value of these works as fully “of de Kooning” on two grounds: firstly, the involvement of assistants and, secondly, the fact that de Kooning was less himself as dementia slowly robbed him of his faculties. Thierolf does not approach either of these issues.

The emphasis on Der Blaue Reiter/Blauer Vier artists is less persuasive than the link with Mondrian. De Kooning was most influenced by Matisse, Picasso, Ingres and Rubens from the previous eras, in addition to looking closely at contemporary American art, especially Kline, Pollock, Gorky, Graham and others. If there is a German influence, Thierolf perhaps could have turned her gaze towards Max Beckmann, who was a figure who had direct influence and prominence in the US art scene in the late 1940s. He taught and exhibited in the USA from 1947 onwards, his work was widely reproduced in earlier years. When he died in late 1950 in New York, there was a burst of publicity regarding Beckmann. There are stylistic links between Beckmann’s figures and de Kooning’s Women series, which started in 1950. (For a fuller discussion about links between Beckmann and de Kooning, see my review of the MoMA retrospective of de Kooning, The Jackdaw, no. 100, December 2011.)

While the suggested connections are technically plausible, it seems farfetched and to a degree more derived from Thierolf’s familiarity with the paintings by Marc and Kandinsky in the collection of Pinakothek der Moderne than with any established link between their art and de Kooning. De Kooning’s first and strongest known affinities were for Ingres and Rubens. We should be cautious about yoking de Kooning with other artists because his greatest influence was always his own art. In the very last paintings clearly his older paintings were a literal starting point, transcribed by assistants. The idea that just as de Kooning’s grasp on reality was loosening he was reaching for an entirely new influence in the forms of Marc and Kandinsky is an improbable proposition. Readers are invited to judge Thierolf’s thesis for themselves.

Corinna Thierolf, Willem de Kooning, Hirmer, 2018, 72pp, 51 illus., hardback, £9.95/$13, ISBN 978 3 7774 3073 7

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Delacroix

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  1. Painter

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) is commonly considered both the first modern artist and last classical artist. He was an artist who would attempt to evoke a powerful response in the viewers to a point where it would distort paintings. He was also an artist who adulated the Old Masters. He revered Rubens and developed a style of broken-colour brushwork in a way which would influence the development of Impressionism. It was only natural that he would be seen as a link between an august past and an innovative future.

A newly revised version of Barthélémy Jobert’s monograph (originally published in 1997) surveys the artist’s whole career, taking advantage of recent studies, sustaining the recent revival of interest in Delacroix. Recent exhibitions in America, France, Germany and America – plus a forthcoming exhibition in at the Metropolitan Museum in New York – have given gallery-goers and historians opportunities to reassess the Delacroix.

Delacroix was the central artist in the French Romantic tradition following the early death of Géricault in 1824. The pair apprenticed Guérin’s studio. Géricault supported Delacroix and passed on a religious commission to him. Géricault modelled as one of the dead figures in The Raft of the Medusa. Jobert writes that the young painter was not as close as to Géricault as is supposed, the latter being senior and established. Although Delacroix was saddened by Géricault’s death, Jobert suspects Delacroix’s admiration for Géricault cooled posthumously. He notes Delacroix wrote little about the older painter, both for publication and privately. Delacroix is usually presented as an arch enemy of Ingres, in a battle between Romanticism and Neoclassicism. The primary differences come in attitudes towards colour, paint handling, tone and theme.

Jobert notes that Delacroix managed his rise to prominence by submitting serious, large and ambitious history paintings to the (biannual) Salons of 1822, 1824 and 1827-8. The main works of these Salons (respectively The Barque of Dante, Massacre at Chios and The Death of Sardanapalus) received increasingly polarised responses from critics and public, as Jobert astutely dissects. This book does well to draw attention to underrated battle pieces and historical paintings such as The Murder of the Bishop of Liège (1829). The author has researched and explained sources for the literary and history paintings, allowing readers to appreciate the full drama and significance of the scenes the artist chose to depict.

The 1832 visit to Morocco and Spain provided Delacroix with many drawings, watercolours and notes that he plundered for inspiration over the rest of his career. Thirty paintings and innumerable prints and sketches were made over the next thirty years and became inextricably associated with Delacroix’s public career. Delacroix found much admirable and strange in the daily life of the Arabs and Jews and he considered himself plunged back into antiquity when surrounded by the clothing, behaviour and appearance of the people of North Africa. His colour became bolder and he combined in more sophisticated ways following his return from Africa. To the influences of Rubens and Venetian painters was added the clarity and brightness of North Africa.

Jobert points out that some of Delacroix’s masterpieces – Massacre at Chios, The Death of Sardanapalus, Liberty Leading the People and Women of Algiers – are common touchstones yet Delacroix overall achievement and underlying concerns are poorly understood. Why is Delacroix not better understood as an artist? Jobert suggests that part of the reason is a reluctance of recent viewers to engage with narrative and an aversion to literary subjects. Jobert notes that the masterpieces of Delacroix at the Louvre are – with the exception of the ceiling painting – early works and that his later great works are distributed in provincial museums around France, leading to an unintended distortion to how we perceive his development when viewing his work at the Louvre.

Some of the decorative cycles are inaccessible or difficult to see properly. The curving cupolas and glossy encaustic surfaces (some of them recently cleaned) have been photographed judiciously and these illustrations give a good impression of how dramatic and impressive Delacroix’s murals are. Overall, the illustrations are strong. Unexpected images include a delicate sky study sketch in pastel, a watercolour of Greenwich Park and a wonderful still-life of game and a lobster in a landscape setting (painted in 1826-7). There are pages from the Moroccan sketchbooks.

Delacroix had grave faults and he was criticised extensively from his first Salon appearance up to the present day. His deficiencies in anatomy came to the fore when he became intoxicated by his subject. He relied on memory and fantasy too often and this sometimes undermined the veracity of his paintings. He used fugitive pigments because he loved their colour, heedless of warnings against using impermanent materials. As a consequence many of his oil paintings are severely diminished today. He failed to see the value that modest subjects had as the bases for serious works of art, instead remaining wedded to the grand subjects of religion and history. This is all the more sad considering the great vividness and delicacy of his life studies of animals, people and landscapes. He will never be an artist we can relate to completely. He held too much in reserve, was too attached the notion of artistic propriety, passed over too many opportunities which seem attractive to us now.

Jobert’s narrative is fluent and absorbing. His expertise regarding Delacroix’s art and writing allow him to guide us through the Delacroix’s many achievements. This is an excellent and thorough survey of Delacroix.

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  1. Draughtsman

 

A current exhibition features donations by Karen B. Cohen to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York of more than 106 drawings and other works on paper by Delacroix (Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17 July-12 November 2018). The museum houses one of the best collections of Delacroix in world outside of France, not least due to the generous donation of collector Karen Cohen.

The exhibited pieces cover every period of the artist’s long career and the many facets of his drawing practice. There are copies, caricatures, nature studies, compositional sketches (including overall compositional designs and tests for elements), observations from life, anatomical studies of men and animals. The techniques are very varied, including use of pencil, ink line, ink wash, watercolour, charcoal, pastel and chalk. A number of lithograph illustrations are included, showing how the public encountered Delacroix’s drawing. The artist generally kept his drawings private and the public only became aware of his 8,000 works on paper – and their outstanding quality and variety – when his studio contents were sold at auction after the artist’s death in 1863. One double-page spread in this catalogue presents a loose ink-wash landscape sketch, a lithographic illustration of Goethe and an anatomical study of a cadaver in chalks. Modern viewers may find such a multitude of subjects and open apprehensible techniques make these works on paper more approachable than Delacroix’s oil paintings.

What is clear from this exhibition is that Delacroix did not see his drawings as independent pieces but only steps. This mirrors his practice of copying, where the act of making informs the artist, improves his practice and assists him internalising the skills and effects that he may apply in his painting. Delacroix’s dedication to study and emulation are decidedly unselfconscious, humble even. There are sheets recording armour, costumes and interiors. There is evidence that Delacroix spent hours studying animals, including cats, tigers, lions and horses. In these cases he worked quickly from life, slowly from dead subjects and consulted anatomy books to develop detailed views.

Among the sheets are some connected with the artist’s best known paintings, including Massacre at Chios, Liberty Leading the People and Women of Algiers. There is a coloured drawing of decorative tiles in Seville which was used in the boudoir setting of the Women of Algiers. Delacroix used his observations made in foreign locales as a resource from which he could draw upon later. He made oriental fantasies using his Moroccan sketches and memories until the end of his life.

What characterises Delacroix’s drawings is their liveliness, spontaneity and incompleteness. The artist considered drawings as working material rather than presentation-quality pictures. Of these sheets, only a few watercolours (among which is the particularly noteworthy Goetz von Berichingen Being Dressed in Armour by his Page George (1826-7)) are signed and seem intended as a public statement. There is an exquisite pairing of the interior cover of a small sketchbook – with the pencil drawing of a woman’s head – and the first page, which has a brilliant watercolour of a castle surrounded by autumn foliage.

Marjorie Shelley suggests that a comprehensive assessment of Delacroix’s work on paper has not yet been attempted and that there are myriad unanswered questions regarding Delacroix’s materials, techniques and approaches to making drawings and watercolours. She points out that Delacroix’s habitual casualness with pigments can be seen in his choice of iron-gall ink. Iron-gall ink is corrosive and was known to be so in Delacroix’s age yet the artist persisted in using it even though more stable alternative inks were available.

The catalogue includes a short description of the Met’s history of acquisitions of Delacroix’s art and has entries describing exhibited items in technical detail, which is very welcome. Works in the Cohen collection not included in the exhibition are illustrated at the end of the catalogue with full data. Short essays cover different aspects of Delacroix’s drawing and altogether this catalogue is a good introduction to the great artist’s work on paper.

 

Barthélémy Jobert, Delacroix, new and expanded edition, 2018, Princeton University Press, paperback, 352pp, 249 col./47 mono illus., £47/$60, ISBN 978 0 691 18236 0

Ashley Dunn, Colta Ives, Marjorie Shelley, Delacroix Drawings: The Karen B. Cohen Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2018, paperback, 176pp, 205 col. illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 58839 680 8

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Charles Bukowski: The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way  

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Interviewer: What do you hold responsible for your success?

Bukowski: A brutal childhood, alcohol, half a dozen rotten jobs, a dozen rotten women, plus an overpowering fear of everything, plus a strange arrival of luck and bravery in sub-zero situations.

In this new collection of stories, essays, reviews, statements and interviews (compiled and introduced by Bukowski expert David Calonne) we read Bukowski meditating on writing: the experience of writing, how he judged writers, his writing process and why one could (and should) write. There are also a few unpublished items.

Charles Bukowski often thought about what writing was good for (and not) and which writers made it (and which did not). Writing was his occupation and trade. He did a lot of reading. He frequented libraries and read voraciously. Despite not finishing his college education he was familiar with the classics (verse, prose and drama) and the early Moderns, as well as pulp writing, Chinese poetry and a host of other writers recent and ancient. He formed and expressed strong opinions but he was prepared to qualify. For example, he said he greatly admired Hemingway when he was younger but had cooled towards Hemingway because his writing lacked humour. But he was prepared to admit Hemingway’s greatness and conceded his jealous rivalry with the giant of American Twentieth Century literature. This is amply apparent in a very ambivalent review of the posthumously published Islands in the Stream.

This book does not make it. I wanted this book to make it. I have been pulling for Hemingway to hit one out of the lot for a long time now […] Hemingway knows his drinks and his drunks and the bar scene is good and the conversation is a little bit on-stage but not bad. You can get thirsty reading this part. I didn’t. […] No, this book doesn’t make it. Few do.

Writers Bukowski expressly admired included Dostoevsky, Gorky, Céline, Li Po, Hamsun, John Fante, early Hemingway, early Saroyan. He did not tend to publicly praise contemporary poets. This was perhaps partly professional jealousy and ego, but he had reasons to be sceptical. In the 1960s and 1970s Bukowski read a large amount of verse in connection with his work on little magazines. He claimed that the poor quality of American verse published at the time did not come close to matching the awfulness of the verse not published. Reading the dregs that were submitted for publication led him to make sweeping public statements and the largely dismiss American verse of the era. Yet Bukowski is nothing if not honest and we see that in his warm and generous introductions to his fellow poet Steve Richmond’s poem collections. Doug Blazek, Al Masarik and Al Purdy all get words of praise of varying intensity. No matter how rebarbative and brusque he could be generally, when encountering specific poems Bukowski would be as sensitive and responsive as one could wish for in an intelligent commentator. Due to that, when Bukowski trained his critical gaze on writing and found it wanting his verdicts were all the more brutal.

The most brutal of reviews is the verdict on a book of poems by John William Corrington. The pair had been friends and written each other many letters. Bukowski cooled on Corrington’s craft and conduct, attributing highfalutin diction and lifeless conjunctions in Corrington’s verse to his university education and work as a professor of English. Bukowski provides many examples of terrible self-conscious verse (“the strum of lost evening”, “sob chill rumor of your sinking flesh”, “grief stands like squad of riflemen”, etc.) which will leave readers wincing. Bukowski identifies instances of derivativeness and near plagiarism. Yet even within such a crushing and closely argued demolition, he quotes and praises a fine poem. Bukowski’s honesty will not allow him to lie or elide an awkward truth to strengthen his hand. To be fair, Bukowski the critic applied the principle of minimum-necessary force. No one could have finished the review thinking that Corrington’s Lines to the South and Other Poems (1965) was anything other than a disappointing pretentious mess. This is poetry reviewing as bullfighting and there is a certain vicarious pleasure in seeing this matador drive the sword in to the hilt. Bukowski should have written more reviews.

The selected stories here are uncollected since their original publications, mostly in weekly columns published in National Underground Review, Candid Press, L.A. Free Press and other counter-cultural newspapers in the 1960s and early 1970s. Bukowski spins yarns about fellow writers, writing columns and giving poetry readings at universities. At events he would drink while reading poems, deal drily with hecklers, behave boorishly at faculty parties and fend off groupies. Or not fend them off. He admitted – or boasted, depending on your view – of bedding admiring students, aspiring poetesses and wives of faculty members on numerous tours and reading engagements. Bukowski rarely spares himself and no matter how selfish, hypocritical and shallow his characters are, the writer himself hardly emerges any more dignified. Many of the stories are based on true events and earned the ire of fellow writers. My favourite is supposedly a veiled tale about “Tony Kinnard”. The poet injures his back and retires to a sickbed while his wife collects money to support him, even after his death. The story’s origin is unclear. As others at the time did, Calonne identifies Kinnard as Kenneth Patchen. Patchen did have severe spinal injury that left him bedbound over the years but this story was published in 1971 – a year before Patchen’s actual death.

The stories make fun of the farcical contradictions and false piety regarding the life of famous writers while always upholding the importance of what writing is and what writing can do. Bukowski experienced the pain of rejection and poverty and so when the empty adulation and wealth of great fame became his life, he could view the business with a gimlet eye. He is disarming frank about the variable quality of his weekly column, admitting that they were written for money and that some were weak. However, Bukowski never suggests that writing for money is wrong or that it necessarily degrades the writer.

A handful of interview transcripts and some questionnaires allow Bukowski to explain his thoughts on writing. He admits in interviews that the character Henry Chinaski is actually himself, embellished only slightly. He also says that the raucous stories of fights and one-night stands are largely true but mainly from the 1940s and 1950s and played up for effect. He was aware of his reputation as a “badass poet”, prepared to brawl, puke, gamble and screw his way through life and turn that life into writing. Bukowski never suggests a solution to the quandary of the writer using his own life as material and perhaps living in a certain way in order to provide literary subject matter – and the implicit danger of self-consciousness and autobiographical cannibalisation that this situation gives rise to. He concedes it happens but it is content to rely on literary judgment on a case by case basis. Ultimately, that is a reasonable response – perhaps that only one he could have in his circumstances.

Bukowski’s comments on his writing process shed light on recent controversies regarding the posthumous editing of his verse.

I write right off the typer. […] I revise but not much. The next day I retype the poem and automatically make a change or two, drop out a line, or make two lines into one or one line into two, that sort of thing – to make the poem have more balls, more balance.

This late (1985) interview directly contradicts the idea that editor John Martin of Black Sparrow Press has put forth. Black Sparrow Press published all the collected volumes of Bukowski’s poems from the late 1960s until after his death. When readers commented on minor and major changes between original versions of poems Bukowski submitted to magazines and the poems Martin published posthumously, Martin implied that all the changes had been made by Bukowski. However, Martin never produced manuscripts to substantiate the claim that Bukowski had embarked on a late, major and secret campaign of revision. The revision that readers detected in posthumous volumes was not the revision the poet describes in this interview – light contemporaneous revision designed to “make the poem have more balls” – but in fact atypical revision that neutered poems. Unless holograph manuscripts in Bukowski’s hand are provided attesting to the veracity of the posthumously published revisions, I am happy to take the poet at his word.

David Calonne and City Lights Books have done fans proud by publishing so much rare material of high quality. Some of Bukowski’s original illustrations for his stories are reproduced. The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way is a rich, surprising and very enjoyable collection. It is warmly recommended to all Bukowski readers and to anyone curious about Bukowski’s deeply felt thoughts on his trade and craft.

 

Charles Bukowski, David Calonne (ed.), The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way: On Writers and Writing, City Lights Books, 2018, paperback, 292pp, some line illus., $15.95, ISBN 978 0 87286 759 8

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Italian Chiaroscuro Woodcuts

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[Image: Andrea Andreani, after Giovanni Fortuna (?), A Skull, c. 1588, chiaroscuro woodcut from 5 blocks in light brown, light gray, medium gray, dark gray, and black, 11 × 13 1/4 in., The British Museum, London, 1861,0518.199, photo © 2018 The Trustees of the British Museum]

 

In 1516 Ugo da Carpi petitioned the Venetian senate for an exclusive privilege to produce chiaroscuro woodcuts by a method over which he claimed rights. He would later receive the same privilege from the pope, with the threat of excommunication for anyone infringing his privilege, equivalent to a patent. The system of printing was so noteworthy that Vasari described it at length in his Lives of the Artists. Yet evidence shows that Ugo had not invented anything. Hans Burgkmair produced chiaroscuro woodcuts in Augsburg at least as early as 1508. It seems Ugo himself was using another artist’s system.

This catalogue accompanies the current exhibition The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy (3 June-3 September 2018, Los Angeles County Museum; touring to National Gallery of Art, Washington, 14 October 2018-10 January 2019). While this could be viewed as a purely art-historical exhibition, it could also be considered an assessment of a cutting-edge reprographic technology developed during the Renaissance.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts were colour prints made via the relief method, where the raised surface of a wooden block was cut and inked then impressed on a sheet of paper. This was done with multiple blocks with different designs each inked a distinct colour. The block designs ranged from those giving a base colour and highlights, ones with areas of tone to ones with line drawing. Together these different layers formed a unified composition somewhat akin to a line-and-wash ink drawing or a drawing in line and white highlight on colour paper. The broad areas of tone meant forms could be built using distribution of shadows and – to a very limited extend – shading, thus they were called chiaroscuro (Italian “light-dark”).

It was time-consuming to produce the wooden blocks and to print them. Aligning the blocks (called registration) was achieved by various means but none of those were easy or flawless. The specialist skills and effort required to proof chiaroscuro woodcuts meant that there were a limited number of printers capable of producing editions. Although over 200 Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts were produced before the style fell out of fashion, this represents only a small fraction of prints produced over this period. The technique never became common and once the skills needed to cut and print the blocks were lost, the chiaroscuro woodcut became a moribund medium.

The chiaroscuro woodcut was used not to produce a full range of colour (separately and by over layering of transparent inks) but to create pictures of tone using muted colour. The makers chose to evoke and reproduce tonal drawings, ink-wash drawings or grisaille paintings. The rise of this type of print was partly spurred by the market for tonal drawings on tinted paper, which was popular in the German states, hence Burgkmair pioneering the technique north of the Alps. It seems Ugo had studied one of these prints and deduced the process in 1515 or 1516 before petitioning the Venetian state for a privilege.

Designers, block-cutters and printers belonged to different guilds and often worked in different workshops. Anthony Griffiths suggests in his essay that there was a professional division that meant that multicolour prints were not produced by the chiaroscuro method. There existed a guild for colourists of woodcut prints. They painted line prints with water-based paint. These were mass-market and often crudely made devotional images which were sold cheaply. As few of these survive – due to casual treatment and an absence of connoisseur interest in collecting them – nowadays we overlook these prints. Griffiths suggests that the guild of print colourists may have actively opposed the introduction of multicolour prints but felt that tonal prints presented no competition. Thus Europe never developed the full-colour woodblock print that was so spectacularly perfected in Japan.

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[Image: Ugo da Carpi, after Titian, Saint Jerome, c. 1516, chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks in gray-brown and black, 6 1/8 × 3 3/4 in., The British Museum, London, 1860,0414.100, photo © 2018 The Trustees of the British Museum]

The exhibition opens with a print by Ugo da Carpi (c. 1468/70-1532) from a drawing by Titian. Ugo and many of the printmakers who followed used designs from painters, with or without their permission. Saint Jerome (c. 1516) is modest in size and hardly more than a fragment of larger composition, but it is an effective translation of Titian’s vigorous curving hatching and emotional expressiveness. When Ugo moved from Venice to Rome he began to work with Raphael, mostly indirectly it seems. He used Marcantonio Raimondi’s engravings for some designs, as in the case of his adaptation of The Massacre of the Innocents.

Ugo and Antonio da Trenta (fl. c.1527-1540s) both worked with Parmigianino, turning his Mannerist compositions with Madonnas with extended necks into effective prints. According to Vasari, Parmigianino’s drawings and printing blocks were stolen by Antonio da Trento and although he later recovered the blocks, he never saw his drawings again. One drawing by Parmigianino is exhibited with its printed version (Nude Man seen from behind (Narcissus) (c. 1527/30)), which allows us to compare a rare surviving source with a print. The cutting of blocks led to the destruction or discarding of many drawings.

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[Image: Antonio da Trento, after Parmigianino, Nude Man Seen from Behind (Narcissus), c. 1527–30, chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks in green and black, 11 1/4 × 7 in., Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gray Collection of Engravings Fund, G7500, photo: Imaging Department © 2018 President and Fellows of Harvard College]

Domenico Beccafumi (1484/86-1551) was exceptional among chiaroscuro-woodcut printmakers in that he was a professional painter who not only designed prints but also cut the blocks and printed proofs personally. His restless experimentation can be seen in the varied inking. There are examples of engraved intaglio plates being printed over tonal designs made with relief woodcut blocks, of which Beccafumi’s Three Male Nudes (River Gods) (c. 1540s) is one. His greatest achievements are a suite of large Apostles, which have the grandeur of statues. Indeed, these are thought to relate to a sculptural project Beccafumi planned but never executed. The boldness of the designs, variety of mark making, strong colours and the force of the images make these some of the best prints produced in the chiaroscuro-woodcut technique.

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[Image: Domenico Beccafumi,Saint Philip, c. 1540s, chiaroscuro woodcut from 3 blocks in light red, medium red, and black, 15 5/8 × 8 1/2 in., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC, FP-XVI-B388, no. 41 (B size), photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC]

Following a selection of various Italian printmakers, the exhibition concludes with the art of Andrea Andreani (c.1580-1610), who brought Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts to a dazzling climax. The clarity and complexity of his designs are exceptional, particularly as seen in the Washington impression of Allegory of Virtue (1585) and reproductions of Giambologna’s sculpture Rape of a Sabine (c. 1583-4). Two prints of skulls, an allegory of death and a print of a woman contemplating a skull attest to the compulsion that vanitas and death exerted over Andreani.

The catalogue includes essays covering the production of prints and the market for them. Essays situate chiaroscuro woodcuts in the overall print production of the time and explain some of the motivation behind the brief flourishing of the chiaroscuro woodcut in Sixteenth Century Northern Italy. Authors analyse the meaning of the prints, authorship and technical details, explaining how the blocks were reprinted, repaired and altered over their lifetimes. Other proofs are illustrated to demonstrate different choices of ink or the effects of ageing. Illustrated are variant states of prints and drawings, paintings and sculptures that served as sources. New scholarship has cleared up some matters of attribution and dating and illuminated issues which have not yet been clarified. A section on watermarks includes data that has helped to date these (usually undated) prints. The only shortcoming of the section on watermarks was that photographs were not accompanied by line drawings of the marks. Line illustrations would be helpful to scholars seeking to identify marks.

A particularly useful section in the catalogue shows experiments with printing. Blocks were cut to conform to an actual Italian design and printed using a variety of papers, inks, binders and so forth. The close-up photographs and technical analysis describe the causes of problems and how differing printing practices affected the production of prints. Paper was used dry or moistened, showing how the even reception of ink on moist paper had to be balanced against the issue of shrinkage, which made registration of plates imperfect. Overprinting on wet or dry ink alter how inks interact and adhere. Such data demonstrates the many decisions printers and cutters had to make to achieve satisfactory results.

The design and production qualities of this book are exceptional. The care and thought put into every aspect of this book make it a great pleasure to consult and handle, quite aside from the valuable content.

 

Naoko Takahatake (ed.), The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy, Prestel, 2018, hardback, 288pp, 192 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 3 7913 5739 3

© 2018 Alexander Adams