Picasso’s Jacqueline Period

Jacqueline in a Turkish Costume_1955 copy

[Image: Pablo Picasso, Jacqueline in a Turkish Costume (1955), oil on canvas, Collection Catherine Hutin © Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019. Photo: Claude
Germain]

In Picasso studies, the Jacqueline period (1955-1973) is the least studied and least highly regarded. It is viewed as the one with the lowest amount of noteworthy innovation and with the least amount of career-defining art. This is in part because it coincides with the period of worldwide fame, frequent photoshoots for magazines and books, celebrity visits, honours and memoirs or acquaintances. The publicity overload generated a critical backlash that was part boredom, part snobbery, part rejection of the advocacy-cum-promotion. It was also a reflection of the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s Picasso finally seemed a part of history for artists. It was ironic that as Picasso became ubiquitous in Paris Match, Time Life and The Sunday Times colour supplement was exactly the period his art disappeared from the walls of art schools and the scrapbooks of art students.

The exhibition The Late Work from the Collection of Jacqueline Picasso (Museum Barberini, Potsdam, 9 March-16 June 2019) presents art by Picasso from a period that is usually evaluated comparatively by weighing it against the production of earlier decades (an approach both valid and invalid, as discussed below). The exhibition consists of 136 prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures and ceramics. There are some very fine pictures (especially the very late works) and many of them are rarely exhibited. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The departure of Françoise Gilot of 1953, his break from the Partie Communiste français and the death of Matisse in 1954, left Picasso adjusting his life. From 1955 until the end of his life, Picasso lived with Jacqueline Roque, a young divorcée who he had met in 1952 while working at the pottery works in Vallauris, where Picasso made ceramic pots, plates, dishes, jugs and other objects. The couple were wed in 1961. As with previous relationships, Picasso’s art of this era was called the Jacqueline period. The Jacqueline period consists of two phases: the open (1955-1965) and the secluded (1965-1973). The later phase of the Jacqueline period is much higher in quality and much more consistent. The vacant copies of Old Masters are gone, the landscapes-by-rote are gone, the tired artist-and-model scenes are gone. In the final paintings there is only the artist and his lover. There is nothing else left. Yet the forms are strong, the line inventive, the decoration bold, the colour rich. The paintings are as full and ambitious as anything Picasso made.

picasso_h_369_liegender_akt_mit_blumenkrone_1970 copy

[Image: Pablo Picasso, Reclining Nude with a Crown of Flowers (1970), oil on canvas, Collection Catherine Hutin © Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019. Photo: Claude Germain]

Before we can get to that art we encounter art that is variable in quality and commitment. The period started poorly, in terms of art. The best of the art are the portraits of Jacqueline and the female nudes. The most well-known art of the late 1950s are the variations after Velazquez, Manet and Delacroix. There was genuinely terrible art – such as the variations after Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe are abysmal – and many pedestrian five-finger exercises. The Delacroix variations are the best of the suites, partly because of their overall surface activation.

An essay describes the major exhibitions of Picasso in the 1950-70 period, many of which were influenced by the artist and his dealers. Picasso’s control and participation in these events varied. In a number Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler would suggest (or leave no alternative for) curators to accept new art by Picasso, which the public and critics were not enthusiastic about. What fans of Picasso loved was the Blue and Rose periods, Cubism and some pictures from the 1920s and 1930s, not the post-War work. Kahnweiler determined that promoting the later period through exhibiting and publishing it alongside the classic pictures that people accepted. This promoted and legitimised the new art by associating it with the earlier art.

Standing Woman_1958 copy

[Image: Pablo Picasso, Standing Woman (1958), oil on canvas, Collection Catherine Hutin © Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019. Photo: Claude Germain]

This exhibition contains art of all types and subjects which Jacqueline was given and kept separate from the main body of Picasso’s art. Many of the pictures have dedications from the artist. (On the reverse of a still-life of onion and cutlery is written, “In homage to Jacqueline, for a matelote she made for lunch 12.3.60, and offering her this painting with nothing but the immense desire to please her. Picasso.”.) The legal wrangles over Picasso’s estate were lengthy and resulted in his children and Jacqueline retaining some art and the remainder being donated to the French state to cover death duties. The donated works are now housed at Musée Picasso, Paris.

Thankfully we are spared most of the variations after Old Masters. Picasso associated Jacqueline with one of the figures in Delacroix’s Orientalist fantasy The Women of Algiers. There are some graphics of that subject and pictures of Jacqueline in a Turkish costume. Thusly Picasso combined his new lover with a model from a great work of art. There are a series of interiors of La Californie, the villa which Picasso and Jacqueline moved into in the summer of 1955. The paintings range from the stark stenographic lines on primed canvas to fully painted scenes. There are multiple portraits of Jacqueline and nudes with her face, though Picasso generally worked from imagination rather than life. The move to the south France and proximity to bullfights encouraged Picasso to return to the subject of bullfighting scenes, bulls and the Minotaur – subjects that he rarely left for long. There is a single still-life from 1960. At this stage Picasso had little engagement with this genre, which he had so successfully explored earlier in his career.

Head (1958) and Figure (1958) are two typical assemblage sculptures cast in bronze. These extend the modus operandi of Bull (1942) by using minimally altered found objects in combination to evoke figures or animals. It is ludic, mordant and witty. It would make a fascinating exhibition to display the cast assemblages of Picasso and Miró together with an extensive catalogue. These bodies of work overlap but differ substantially, particularly in Miró’s use of paint and wax incision. Picasso always preferred his originals to the casts, disliking the qualities of bronze, whereas Miró’s sculptures relied upon the transformed outcome that the casting process entailed.

The artist was as open-minded about materials as he was about concepts and procedures. He used colour pencils and felt-tip pens. He would work on scrap paper and cardboard. His folded card sculptures would be used as maquettes for large versions in folded steel with drawn and painted adornment. There were even larger versions made in poured reinforced concrete which were subsequently sgraffitoed with a sandblaster to reveal darker aggregate stone below. This exhibition includes Picasso’s cardboard maquettes of figures and faces and his embellished steel cut-out sculptures. Associated drawings and paintings play with figures as schematised and planar forms in an ambiguous space. In these his lines are both decorative and also descriptive of the edges of figures. Picasso, of course, playfully negotiates this ambiguity (or duality).

It has been previously observed that Picasso failed to successfully incorporate anything modern in his art. The few appearances of bicycles and guns are feeble and poorly grasped (witness the awkward Night Fishing at Antibes embarrassing Massacre in Korea). The two exhibited items of football players in folded-flat sculptures are examples of Picasso’s cursory engagement with team sports. The single great exception to Picasso’s pictorial blind spot regarding recent culture is the lightbulb – as seen in the Guernica series and the beautiful linocuts of table still-lifes. These are surrogate torches or miniature suns.

These are all from the first phase of the Jacqueline period. None of them are technically or thematically distinct from earlier works, with the possible exception of the folded-sheet sculptures. It is the later pieces that are most radical and startling. We can discern indirect reflections of the art, photography and cinema (high and low) that was available to the artist on television, in newspapers, magazines and books. This plenitude of source material was synthesised – or one could say jumbled or composted – in such a complete manner that tracing elements to potential origins is impossible. Authors of catalogue essays make intelligent suggestions about published material that might have fed into the art, with illustrations.

The prints of last years (including the 347 Suite) show Picasso’s command of line and the effort he put into elaborate shading and numerous successive states. The last drawings reach the very limits of comprehension, with swooping arabesque lines, extreme close-ups and multiple angles (which some attribute to special-lens photography and 1960s erotic cinema). Our gaze floats untethered over a landscape of naked flesh described through only line, hair, facial features and orifices. Pupils are arrestingly stark and dark. We are in the harems and fleshpots of brothels and dressing rooms, engaging in voyeuristic delight instead of carnal satisfaction.

The Matador_1970 copy

[Image: Pablo Picasso, The Matador (1970), oil on canvas, Collection Catherine Hutin © Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019. Photo: Claude Germain]

Rougher and more urgent are the heads of men in the late oil paintings. The heads are seen as self-portraits, something that the artist admitted in an earlier interview, in which he stated that all male figures are (to a degree) self-portraits. The many musicians are obvious performers as performers rather than music-related comments. Picasso himself was not particularly fond of music and had limited taste and enthusiasm for it. The freedom of paint application and improvisatory quality of the designs was due to confidence and haste – Picasso made up to three large paintings per day. The open application of paint and leaving raw primer exposed in places gave the pictures a refreshing vitality, contrasting with the way La Californie series seem only cursory. Yet, it was high risk. These last paintings seem both assured and on the edge. The exhibition includes Figures (1972-3) Picasso’s last painting, left unfinished at his death. He had been working on it the hours before his death. It is one of his starkest pictures: raw and uncompromising.

 

Ostrud Westheider, Michael Philipp (eds.), Picasso: The Late Work from the Collection of Jacqueline Picasso, Prestel, April 2019,hardback, 248pp, 200 col. illus., $50/£39.99, ISBN 978 3 7913 5811 6

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books on www.alexanderadams.art

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De Chirico’s Metaphysical and Post-Metaphysical Art

Piazza d'Italia con piedistallo vuoto, 1955

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia con piedistallo vuoto (1955), oil on canvas, 55 x 35.5 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

The current exhibition Giorgio de Chirico: Il volto della Metafisica (Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, 30 March-7 July 2019) explores the recurring manifestations of Metaphysical Art (and definitely non-Metaphysical Art) in the oeuvre of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). The exhibition covers the artist’s Metaphysical, Neoclassical, Neo-Baroque and Neo-Metaphysical periods; the only era not represented adequately is the Symbolist (or Böcklin) period. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This catalogue, written in part by the exhibition curator Victoria Noel-Johnson, will be useful standalone publication because it goes beyond the standard iconic Metaphysical paintings that are commonly reproduced in books. Readers get a good view of de Chirico’s lifetime production in all its diversity, reiterations, inconsistencies and peculiar paradoxes. The art is arranged by theme rather than style or period. The English version of this volume has been designed specifically to act as a survey of Giorgio de Chirico in the English language rather than acting as an exhibition catalogue per se.

After studying in Munich and cultivating a youthful infatuation of the Symbolism of Italy-based Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin, de Chirico initiated Metaphysical painting in 1910. These scenes of Italianate architecture, generally public spaces, mostly deserted, seen at twilight. The raking shadows, illogical perspective and pungent colours (with green skies) were powerfully original. They made a strong impression in the last Salons before the First World War and elicited praise from Apollinaire. He moved to Paris to advance his career in the city most receptive to new art. During the war he served in the Italian army and was stationed in Ferrara. The art that he left in Paris was taken by his landlord to recompense for rent payment and were sold for a pittance against the artist’s wishes. There, when he had time to paint, he developed a more complicated detailed approach to Metaphysical Art over 1915-8. These paintings included maps, pictures, more interior scenes and new elements (such as mannequins, biscuits, geometrical apparatuses and so forth). Upon returning to Rome on New Year’s Day, 1919, de Chirico renounced Metaphysical Art and embarked on a period of Neo-classicism. The influence of Antonello de Messina, Perugino, Raphael and other artists can be seen in the early post-Metaphysical periods. In the Neo-Baroque period (described c. 1938-early 1960s) was influenced by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Fragonard, Delacroix, Fragonard and Watteau.

Noel-Johnson describes the artist’s post-Metaphysical periods as such: “De Chirico spent several years producing pastiches of ancient and Old Master works shortly after arriving in Rome in 1919. […] He returned to the great masters with renewed fervour in c. 1938 through to the early 1960s, after which he dedicated the last decade of his life (the Neometaphysical period of 1968-78) to the reworking of popular themes found in his work of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, such as the Italian Squares, The Disquieting Muses, Ferrarese Interiors, Trophies, Horses on the Seashore, Gladiators, Mysterious Baths, Furniture in a Room, and Furniture in the Valley.”[i]

The long shadow of Metaphysical Art over the production of the artist was apparent to him. He was well aware of the criticism that his post-1918 output was dismissed outright by the Surrealists and other supporters of his early period. De Chirico’s later production is a battleground for those holding opposing positions on matters of authenticity and reproduction. Was de Chirico making variants of his own paintings that were genuinely felt and engaged the artist?

de Chirico muse inquiet 97x66

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Le muse inquietanti (late 1950s), oil on canvas, 97 x 66 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

De Chirico had difficult interactions with Surrealists. He appreciated the support and income he gained from their support for his Metaphysical paintings in the 1920s, when he struggled to sell his art. The Surrealists considered his Metaphysical paintings as revolutionary and liberating; they imitated them and tried to replicate their atmosphere; they rejected his Neo-classical paintings. He participated in some meetings, events and exhibitions arranged by the Breton group but he was sceptical of the value of these activities and critical of their Communism. He resented their rejection of his later art and he was angry at the abuse (some of it very personal) he received from them. He was furious about the faking of his paintings by Oscar Dominguez, encouraged by Breton, which were exhibited at Galerie Allard in June 1946. De Chirico would later suffer more pernicious faking activity which undermined his oeuvre so thoroughly that experts, the artist’s foundation and the artist himself noted that some forgeries had been included in early catalogues of his art. For the rest of his life, the painter struggled with attributions – real, fake and ante-dated.

The selection of art is satisfyingly broad. It is difficult to gain loans of the most valuable and rarest Metaphysical paintings, but this exhibition is an opportunity to use these limitations to our advantage by mixing well-known pieces with less famous pictures. The versions of classic compositions are later variants or copies by the artist. The most startling pictures are the Neo-Metaphysical paintings. The assertive colouring and the sun and moon symbols – linked by cables or tubes to their unilluminated negatives – are departures from the Metaphysical works. The brushwork is also denser and the pigmentation is heavier. The clarity of lighting of later pictures contrasts with the crepuscular quality of the Metaphysical pictures.

Offering to the Sun (1968) has a stylised sun at the horizon, connected to fire on an outdoor hearth. A black crescent moon is linked to a red moon, secreted within a building, like a prop in a stage play or a tool in a garden shed. It is an extraordinarily bold concept and an inspired inclusion. The Ferrarese interiors are in versions of the 1960s or 1970s. Clusters of props, tools and armatures inhabit rooms with views upon Italianate towns, New York City skylines and seashores. These present conundrums of representation – the relative validity and inter-relations of parts of differing registers. In The Great Mysterious Trophy (1973) has a group of architectural fragments, sculpture parts and a painting in an interior; through windows, we view Classical temples and pillar sections in landscapes. De Chirico treats temples quite differently from post-ancient Italian buildings. While the post-ancient Italian buildings are inhabited and situated within streets, squares and yards which afford communal spaces which contain (or possess the possibility to contain) objects, architectural parts, monuments and figures, the temples are isolated, uninhabited and bereft of life, isolated on rocky slopes with no paths or agoras. The Italianate buildings are permeable, habitable and locations of encounter; the temples are solid, uninhabitable and exist as symbols only. De Chirico’s temples are like building blocks – generic, self-contained, arbitrarily placed.

Corazze con cavaliere, 1940

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Corazze con cavaliere (natura morta ariostea) (1940), oil on canvas, 87 x 112 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

Portraits and especially self-portraits are typical of de Chirico’s emphatically conservative contributions to this traditional genre. They are extensions of Renaissance and Baroque painting, only the heavy, direct handling of the paint and strong contrasts mark out de Chirico’s art as different. Whether that difference came from choice or instinct is not clear. The artist’s numerous recursions to Metaphysical art and combined styles during all periods show that he was never fully immersed in the traditions and techniques of the Old Masters, despite his reading of Cennini and his writings on grounds, glazes and paint formulae. Rather than being a resident of Old Master territory, de Chirico was a visitor – albeit a respectful and attentive one.

The paintings are supplemented by prints and drawings, of varying degrees of finish. The full suite of 10 lithograph illustrations for Cocteau’s book Mythologie (1934) is exhibited. They feature de Chirico’s Mysterious Baths. The memory of seeing reflections on a waxed parquet floor inspired the development of stylised water in the group called the Mysterious Baths. The pencil-drawing illustrations for Siepe a nordovest (1922) by Massimo Bontempelli play with tradition and conventional illustration, with touches of de Chirico’s theatrical Modernism. The characters are depicted as ersatz marionettes. A handful of highly finished drawings of Metaphysical compositions show de Chirico’s skill as a draughtsman. (A handful of nudes from 1930s-1950s show de Chirico was a sensitive painter of the figure when he took time. It would be worth isolating these and investigating this theme in a discrete exhibition and publication.)

An essay by Ara H. Merjian examines Roberto Longhi’s 1919. This negative review was said to have damaged de Chirico’s reputation in Italy at the point when he had hoped to establish himself as an inheritor of the Italian Renaissance. Another essay draws parallels between the statements and principles of Renoir and de Chirico. Other essays address other aspects; large reproductions of the exhibited art fill a section; a chronology will be of use as a guide for general readers; a handful of short reviews and polemical texts by the artist allow us to judge de Chirico’s ideas first hand. Overall, this catalogue can be warmly recommended as a good survey of de Chirico’s art and ideas.

 

Victoria Noel-Johnson (ed.), Giorgio de Chirico: The Changing Face of Metaphysical Art, Skira, 2019, hardback, 256pp, 209 col. illus., $40/£29.95, IBSN 978 8 857 240 589

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Anna Coatalen, Printmaker

1 Quay 1938_edit

[Image: Anna Coatalen, Quay (1938), wood engraving on paper. © Annik Coatalen Heal, 2019]

Anna Coatalen, née Hook (1916-2011) was born in Bristol. In 1935 she enrolled at Byam Shaw School of Art, London, where she studied printmaking, with a focus on the woodblock engraving. The great boom of the woodblock engraving and woodcuts revival of the 1920s had ended with the Great Crash of 1929 but that was an economic recession rather than a change in aesthetic fashion. (This was precisely the period that Escher struggled to find collectors for his woodblock engravings.) There was a market – albeit reduced – for book illustrations. Her prints are in the style of Agnes Miller Parker and Eric Ravilious.

Quay (1938) is a fine example of a complex design playing with space, transparency, layers and depth in which the artist has deployed a wide range of mark-making. It is her most ambitious and successful print. Other subjects are rustic types, views of vernacular architecture and animals. These prints are more modest in scale and complexity. They are charming but slight. The wood engravings build tones and textures through parallel lines. There are a handful of lithographs (including colour lithographs) were made just before the war. Many of the prints are undated.

The Second World War interrupted her work. Following her marriage to a Frenchman in 1946, she moved to France. This period is when she made linocut prints and greetings cards. These have a degree of freedom when they are independent prints but they are necessarily simpler and stylised when they are illustrating cards. The subjects are her new surroundings – fishing boats and people in traditional Breton clothing. These seem to become more sporadic over the 1950s and cease at this time. The text does not explain how many prints Coatalen produced and over which period. Most of the post-war prints are undated.

From the 1950s until her death, Coatalen produced watercolour and oil paintings and drawings of landscapes, buildings, family members and animal pictures, created in her Berkshire and Brittany homes. There is evident desire to produce art that records the pleasurable and to give pleasure. Also documented are the attractive stained-glass windows she designed for a church on Ile Tudy, Brittany over 2003-8.

 

Annik Coatalen Heal, Lachlan Goudie, Anna Coatalen: Art for Happiness et Bonheur, Unicorn, 19 April 2019, hardback, 140pp, col. illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 912 690 077

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

Iconoclasm & the Erasing of History

“At 1:32am on the morning of 8 March 1966, a loud explosion was heard in the center of Dublin. When dawn came, visitors to O’Connell Street were greeted by the sight of a pile of rubble and the sheered column base of Nelson’s Pillar. Completed in 1809 in British-administered Ireland, the monument had honored the late Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had defeated Napoleon’s navy at the Battle of Trafalgar. The statue, on its Doric column, reached 134ft (40m) into the sky—almost the same height as Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Although Irish sailors and soldiers had died in the Napoleonic wars in the British armed forces, the statue of a British military hero in the Independent Republic of Ireland still grated with Irish Nationalists, even 150 years after the erection of the monument….”

My first article for Areo Magazine is on iconoclasm. Read the article here: https://areomagazine.com/2019/04/11/iconoclasm-and-the-erasing-of-history/

Women as Creators and Subjects in Soviet Art

YANSON-MANIZER SCULPTURE  ULANOVA

[Image: Sculptor Elena Yanson-Manizer (1890–1971) working on the portrait of Galina Ulanova as Odette from the ballet ‘Swan Lake’]

The Government of the proletarian dictatorship, together with the Communist Party and trade unions, is of course leaving no stone unturned in the effort to overcome the backward ideas of men and women. […] That will mean freedom for the woman from the old household drudgery and dependence on man. That enables her to exercise to the full her talents and inclinations.

So stated Lenin. The advantages that middle-class women had secured in the decades before the Russian Revolution were not to be reserved to them alone. In the USSR, gender equality would be extended to all in a classless society. It was made clear by Party statements that women would be liberated whether or not they wanted to be. This meant work outside the home. However, as the husbands would also be working and there would no established support network of paid domestic help, this effectively doubled the workload of working women, with no extra support. Key workers would be moved around the country without consideration for their family life, imposing burdens on those remaining regarding childcare. The mother in the USSR was faced with less choice over how to live her life than before the Revolution. She had less control over the raising and education of her children, less free time and she had to – as all citizens of the USSR did – recognise she was no longer a private individual.

While there were such restrictions, women received access to improved educational opportunities. In the early years of the USSR, women had the chance to participate in careers that had been male-only preserves. One of these was not fine art, which had been open to women for many decades. However, barriers of cost and class that had prevented all but women of the wealthiest families from training at academies were removed by the new Soviet regime. Theoretically, women artists were permitted to exercise their skills to the utmost, free of financial restrictions.

Soviet Women and Their Art includes essays dealing with Soviet women as the subjects and producers of art in the USSR, from 1917 to the dissolution of the state in 1991. Profiles describe the lives and work of female artists and illustrations give us an idea of the character of their art.

p143

[Image: Alexandra Exter, City at Night (1919), oil on canvas, 88 × 71 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Russia / Bridgeman Images]

In early years of the Revolution, women artists flourished. There were already many women involved in the advanced art scene of the major cities. Cubism, Cubo-futurism, Suprematism and Constructivism were all current during the 1910s, some instances predating the 1917 Revolution by years. Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) is omitted from the profile section because her story is woven into an essay deals with avant-gardism. This tale includes Ksenia Boguslavskaia, Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), Nadezhda Udaltsova (1885-1961), Natalia Davydova, Evgeniia Pribylskaia, Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958) and Lyubov Popova (1889-1924). These creators or fine art and applied art worked on numerous publications, exhibitions and collaborative production before and after the October Revolution. It was a sense of community of likeminded artists that motivated this co-operation. After the Revolution, such community action was not so much mandated as officially authorised and encouraged. These collaborations included plays, ballets and parades. Early theorists suggested that complete social revolution and the smashing of traditions would be reflected in (and be promoted by) art of revolutionary character. Thus avant-garde art was the vanguard of an era of absolute change in all areas of human existence.

In a form of arts-and-crafts ethic, a number of fine artists produced designs for textiles, clothing, fabrics and household objects. This movement parallels the leftist-inspired Bauhaus. There were a number of close ties between the political and artistic left-wing movements of USSR and Germany during the 1917-1933 period before the advent of National Socialism.

p29

[Image: Olga Rozanova, Ksenia Boguslavskaia and Kazimir Malevich at the Last Futurist 0.10 Exhibition, December 1915, Petrograd. Photo © Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, Moscow /Bridgeman Images]

The greatest star and most painful loss to the Russian avant-garde movement of the era was Olga Rozanova (1886-1918). She was deeply involved in advanced painting. In 1912 she was making angular strongly coloured figurative paintings drawing from Fauvism and Expressionism. At an accelerating speed she cycled through other styles. The following year she was making Cubo-Futurist still-lifes and street views. By 1916 she was experimenting with Suprematism, pioneered by Malevich. She approached abstraction and by 1917 she had produced a fascinating, hypnotic painting Green Stripe, which is a vertical emerald stripe on a white ground. It presages Barnett Newman formally but it is more complex. Its irregular transparency in the edges of the stripe suggests some form that is both a strong presence and an emanation. It suggests two white walls converging or dissolving.

1.8_M91APN

[Image: Olga Rozanova, Green Stripe (1917), oil on canvas, 71.2 x 49cm. Kremlin State Museum, Rostov, Russia – Godong/Alamy Stock Photo]

Rozanova died aged only 32, which some have ascribed to her exertions to complete a decorative project in November 1918. There would be great value in a proper retrospective in the West and a comprehensive English-language catalogue of Rozanova’s art. She is the single best Russian avant-gardist artist not well known in the West. For preference, I rate her higher than Goncharova.

By the mid-1920s there was serious political resistance to such avant-garde art. The problem was of accessibility. Art that was abstract or highly stylised began to be condemned at the highest level as “bourgeois formalism”. In other words, advanced art was the games of educated elites that excluded and alienated the uninitiated, such as the ordinary peasant, soldier and factory worker. This theoretical objection to avant-gardism was solidified into Party policy by 1936. At that time, the main purpose of Soviet Communism was the preservation of the USSR and advancement of the material condition of the people. Rather than being a style as such, it was a principle that placed style below content, message below form, the political above the private, the recognisable above the strange, the direct above the ambiguous. No longer would artists strive for a cosmic universal language of liberation of humanity; instead, artists would work to advance the interests of Socialism as an extension of the development of the nation. The result was realist art that was patriotic, positive, uncritical, easy to understand, attractive and unchallenging. This meant that avant-garde artists had to adapt their style or cease producing art. Artists who were educated at this time were trained under the tenets of Socialist Realism.

Socialist Realism was not an actual style, so there was latitude for personal adaptation and incorporation of old or foreign influences. Anyone studying the range of art produced by officially supported artists will note the variety of styles though they will also note the absence of variation in tone and content – a complete absence of satire, humour, tragedy and criticism regarding life in the USSR. Soviet women artists had no immunity from the ravages of the political persecution. Their close relatives were imprisoned, exiled or executed. Some were driven to suicide or silence. Others relinquished their commitment to abstraction and turned to conventional subjects acceptable to the Union of Soviet Artists.

The most celebrated woman artist, and one of the most respected artists in the Socialist Realism era, was sculptor Vera Mukhina (1889-1953). She studied under Antoine Bourdelle in Paris (1912-4), the most advanced sculptor of the era, and at Académies Colarossi, de la Palette and de la Grande Chaumière. She made statues primarily by modelling and casting in bronze. Early influences seem to École de Paris sculptors such as Bourdelle, Lipchitz and Picasso, as well Boccioni and the Futurists. She adapted to the expectations of the Socialist Realism and produced her own form of academic realism. This extended to heroic realism, found most prominently in Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, her gigantic figures (24.5m tall) for the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair.

p103

[Image: Vera Mukhina (1889–1953), Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937), stainless steel, H. 24.5 m. Photo © Peter Phipp / Travelshots / Bridgeman Images]

It was a triumph of propaganda and became an iconic symbol for both the USSR and for socialism. It has to be acknowledged as a brilliant achievement in its attempt to stir emotion and inspire belief. Her various figure sculptures are illustrated. Generally, her art is not bellicose or stentorian in tone. One notable characteristic is her fidelity to life in the form of commitment to working with the nude figure. Overcoming the official tendency to produce anti-erotic depictions of figures and her commitment to working from life were major contributions. Her work in glass led to other artists following this practice. Her art is worth knowing beyond the iconic Worker and Kolkhoz Woman.

In an essay looking at the role of women in the new nation, the authors note the importance of fizkultura (physical culture) in society. Both men and women were expected to be physically fit and able to perform the tasks the state required of them, be they gymnastics, military service, dancing, working in the fields or factory, excelling in sports or mothering – always group or social activities. Men should be prepared for defence of their country. The demonstrations of co-ordinated gymnastics or military parades bonded individuals into units, drilled them to follow commands, awed participants and spectators and demonstrated the control of the state over its subjects. It was both practical and ideological. It was an expression of solidarity and unity of purpose. Fizkultura was also associated to the demonstration of the superiority of Communism through athletics and sports. These new subjects allowed Soviet artists to use semi-nude figures in action, overcoming state disapproval of academic history, mythological and the sensual nude as subjects. People engaged in sports were a particularly productive subject for sculptors. There is nothing stylistically or thematically to distinguish female from male sculptors. Leading male painters of the female nude were Arkady Plastov (1893-1972), Alexander Samokhvalov (1894-1971) and Aleksandr Deineka (1899-1969).

Three female ideals of the USSR were the lean lithe adolescent, the resolute factory worker and the sturdy fertile peasant. There was a premium placed upon the asexual: the athlete was narrow-hipped, small-breasted and with short hair; the factory worker wore unisex practical clothing and no make-up; the peasant mother was stoic and generous but was dutiful rather than attractive, more mother than wife. In each archetype individuality was reduced. In portraits we have the richness, tenderness of feeling and psychological insight of the best art of all ages and countries, but in the tradition of Social Realism there was a tendency to treat figures in scenes as archetypes.

The death of Stalin led to a period of political and social reform was called the Khrushchev Thaw. In the arts this meant a loosening of restrictions. Abstract or “non-objective” art became acceptable even if it did not become part of official projects or murals. Although the subsequent stagnation of the Brezhnev era led to the halting or retraction of some economic and social reforms of the late 1950s and early 1960s, there seems to have been little appetite for the restoration of heroic realism or the more anodyne forms of Socialist Realism at that time. An example of this new freedom may be found in the art of Lydia Masterkova (1927-2008). Her art informel, which incorporates tachiste and Abstract Expressionist elements into abstract paintings and drawings, is much closer to the mainstream of Western European art of the time than the art of her Socialist Realist predecessors. She attempts to recapture the commitment to development of the plastic content of art seen in the 1910s avant-gardism. She eventually emigrated to France.

One area of unresolved ambiguity that involved women and the arts was the ballet. Although Russian ballet was an import of French courtly culture, and was reserved for Russian royalty, it developed its own traditions and standards which made it unique and revered worldwide. So although the Party disapproved of the origins and conventions of ballet – not least its reliance on stories and music replete with bourgeois morals – the Party could make the ballet (especially the Bolshoi Ballet and Ballets Russes) available to the people as a form of Russian culture. The government of the USSR was also aware of the cachet of Russian ballet and how the art form could be used in soft diplomacy through foreign tours.

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[Image: Zinaida  Serebryakova, Portrait of A.A. Cherkesova-Benois with her Son Alexander (1922), oil on canvas, 80 × 68 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg – Photo © 2018 Scala, Florence]

Zinaida Serebryakova (1884-1967) specialised in ballet scenes, mostly focusing upon the practice and preparation rather than the performance. Her paintings are not idealistic and do not engage in the ambitious technical and formal aspects of Degas’s paintings of dancers. Instead they attractive, complex and emotionally sympathetic portrayals of women at work. The dressing room tableaux allowed Serebryakova to paint partial nudes which have a delight of the sensual without being sexual or gratuitous. Serebryakova was also an extremely accomplished painter of portraits and still-lifes. Again, like Rozanova, Serebryakova is a painter whose work deserves greater recognition. Although she lived in Paris from 1924 onwards, her early work is in public collections in Russia, and it is this which is illustrated and discussed in the book.

An essay discusses appearances of women in the art of Soviet era, including as military personnel, workers, athletes and mothers, as well as pictures where their roles are unstated. Other essays discuss female sculptors and the final stage of Soviet art from the 1960s to 1991. This was an era when the unofficial artists worked outside of the Union of Soviet Artists and official exhibitions and commission competitions to produce art of abstract, conceptual or non-conformist character. They existed in a half-world. They were neither persecuted nor approved; unable to publicly exhibit, their activities were confined to private showings for private networks of supporters and colleagues. At this time, Valentina Kropivnitskaya (1924-2008) produced elaborate drawings of Russian settings inhabited by quasi-human beings. They have a Surrealistic character, with the detailed foliage and clear detail that one associates with dreams. By the time feminist theory reached Soviet artists and began to appear in art there, the Soviet Union was on the point of dissolution.

The book omits poster art in favour of the fine arts. Although propaganda has been covered in other publications, it might have been useful to mention women’s involvement in propaganda production. Perhaps more could have been written about female self-portraits. The book is a fine summary of the subject and includes much art that will be unfamiliar to Western readers. While the illustrations are generally good, inexplicably there are some weak photographs of art works that were better reproduced in Unicorn’s recent Art of the Soviet Union. It is puzzling that the better quality images were not reused in this book.

 

Rena Lavery, Ivan Lindsay, et al., Soviet Women and Their Art: The Spirit of Equality, Unicorn, 12 April 2019, paperback, col. illus., 224pp, £19.99, ISBN 978 1 911 604 761

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Minoru Onoda

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Minoru Onoda (1937-2008) is best known as a member of the Gutai movement. Gutai was a group of Japanese artists determined to practise radical art in the avant-garde Western manner. It was founded in 1954. They produced painting influenced by Abstract Expressionism. It placed an emphasis on the procedure of production, in effect engaging in Process Art. There was inherent theatricality in the production of their art, which were presented as spectacles involving music and non-art materials. The events were sometimes public and recorded, with the production sometimes more important than the resultant material. Art was made by destroying material or painting while swinging from a harness over a horizontal surface. The group defiantly opposed many of the conventions of Japanese art, adopting non-Japanese practices and standards. It has been seen as a rejection of Japanese nationalism and unique culture. (Onoda was born in occupied Manchuria.) Gutai attracted attention worldwide but also criticism from Japanese traditionalists and from Western critics, who decried its spectacle as shallow and derivative. The group was dissolved in 1972.

This new book examines Onoda as an independent artist. He worked in paint primarily, but his paintings included sculptural elements. The gently undulating surfaces created on the plywood panels he used play with our sense of depth and light and shade. He painted irregular swirling lines and circles of colour which filled picture surfaces, forming surfaces that seem in motion both across the surface and inwards and outwards. The patterns recede and project, growing tiny then large. This impression is enhanced by the swells on the panel surface. The ground colour that Onoda favoured was yellow, usually with lines and circles in warm colours. One essay author compares them to psychedelic art that became fashionable a few years later.

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[Image: Minoru Onoda, WORK63-F (1963), oil, gofun and glue on plywood, 93.3 x 93 cm. © Estate of Minoru Onoda, courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie, Basel]

This work began in 1962 and marks Onoda’s maturation as an artist and his first original contribution to the art of his time. In 1965 (the year that he joined the Gutai group) Onoda started using red grounds and began producing circular patterns on square boards.

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[Image: Minoru Onoda, WORK66-13 (1966), oil, gofun and glue on plywood, 93.8 x 93.8 cm. © Estate of Minoru Onoda, courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie, Basel]

This developed into sets that were hung in triptychs, lines and grids. By the early 1970s Onoda began a group of works using circular motifs in blue. He used electric blue acrylic paint applied with an airbrush over stencils. The softness of the graduated tones gives these pieces an air of otherworldliness; the sharp edges and clarity are those of technical designs and industrially manufactured products. These are more meditative, detached pictures than the playful swelling organic patterns. In these airbrushed paintings (all of the works have numbered titles) we find some kind of conciliation with the practice of Buddhist mindful contemplation. The versions in red-pink and black-grey have different affects; they are more assertive. In 1974 Onoda founded the New Geometric Art Group. The hard-edge paintings, with their fine patterns and brushless application of colour, are associated with Op Art, which was then popular.

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[Image: Minoru Onoda, WORK79-Blue 47 (1979), Acrylic spray paint on cotton on plywood, 80 x 80 cm. © Estate of Minoru Onoda, courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie, Basel]

Starting in 1984 Onoda commenced painted monochrome works on shaped panels, often placed over panels of different colour. The panels were usually square, with wavy edges and drilled holes at the edge or dramatically crossing the centre at a tangent. The last works (starting in 1991) were paintings of dark colours applied with blades. These are the least engaging works of Onoda’s career. Essays discuss Onoda’s aesthetic and associations (he had a natural tendency to participate in group activities) and discuss his career trajectory. Shoichi Hirai states that Onada’s dramatic changes in style led to a degree of scepticism in observers. Examples of the artist’s sketchbook drawings show rehearsals and projections.

Onoda claimed in a review that his drive was not negative but oblivious. “I am not rebelling against anything. Nor do I favor the new over the old or the old over the new. I am rejecting anything, pushing any ideology or expressing any: the works are simply works. There is nothing I would like to communicate through them except the works themselves. It is my belief that communication ceases the moment a work is completed.” This generous selection of paintings, drawings and sculptures – along with installation shots of exhibitions – along with helpful essays will allow readers to judge Onoda’s statement.

 

Anne Mosseri-Marlio (ed.), Minoru Onoda, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2018, hardback, 232pp, 176 col./7 mono illus., €68, ISBN 978 3 858 818218

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Seneca on Anger, Thucydides on War

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Two timely additions to the Ancient Wisdom series of Princeton University Press have been published. They bring us insights from yesteryear which apply to our age.

In our age of Twitter storms and online petitions, of aggressive demonstrations and refusals to accept the validity of an opposing argument, this extract of Seneca’s Stoic text On Anger is welcome. Seneca was the most noted Roman orator of his age – perhaps in all the ancient world – and his measured words and apt insights bring his philosophy of restraint, decency, leniency and empathy vividly to life. In our age polarised by politics and atomised by social media, Seneca’s instructions guide us to put our petty frustrations and over reactions into perspective.

Some men have called anger a brief madness; in equal degrees, it is unable to govern itself, forgetful of decorum, ignorant of friendships, obstinate and intent on finishing what it begins, deaf to reason and advice, stirred up by empty provocations, unsuited to distinguishing what’s just and true.

Anger is a disaster – “No plague has done more harm to humankind” – or a disease, akin to unsightly swelling indicating an inner malady. It makes us mad and turns us into animals. It makes us ugly and deformed. To give in to anger is akin to throwing ourselves off a cliff. Once we abandon our control we are unable to regain control and can only fall to an ignominious and unnecessary end. Anger hurts us more than any other emotion because it causes us to act against ourselves.

In the following passage Seneca could be describing the iGen, the youngest generation which grew up tethered to smartphones and social media, and its helicopter parents.

The more an only child is indulged, or the more that’s permitted to an orphaned ward, the more corrupt the mind becomes. The one who was never denied anything, whose tears a worried mother wiped away, for whose sake a babysitter got the blame, will have no resources against shocks to the system. Don’t you see how a greater wrathfulness accompanies a greater fortune?

If one looks at the university students furiously protesting real or imagined infractions of politeness, one sees these fortunate ones driven to the heights of fury. These are the individuals that Haidt and Lukianoff describe in The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind – pampered, protected and unable to resist the mildest of challenges. Their rage is not an expression of an attachment to justice but the petulance of an affronted child. Instinctive ire at a sign of disrespect comes not from a position of confident self-knowledge but of insecurity.

In an age when we rush to judgment and post our first thoughts to public forums, we would do well to heed Seneca’s warning against rashness and credulity. We should treat news stories with caution and wait. Often enough, we will see what a trifling matter it was and undeserving of comment or emotion. Your restraint ennobles you – consider the bearing of great men.

Seneca urges us to set aside our selfish anger and instead remember our commitment to duty. He reminds us that none of us are innocent and that we must accept fair rebuke. This is contrary to the advice we get today to express our emotions, to make ourselves important, to indulge our emotions and expect others to accommodate us. Seneca’s Stoicism is tempered by consideration. His belief is that we do others a courtesy by not imposing on them demeaning emotions. We injure ourselves by giving in to anger. “Surely no one would choose to hit a foe so hard as to have his hand get stuck in the wound and be unable to withdraw from the blow.”

To avoid the temptation of ire, Seneca recommends we keep the company of calm people and try not to attempt tasks that are beyond us, for that will frustrate us. When needed, w should be able to turn our backs on the senate and forum – today, that would be switch off the news and unplug from social media. (“It is not to your benefit to see and hear everything.”) We should not seek information which personally insults us. Be wary of drinking parties. He concludes with examples of superhuman self-control by individuals in the face of monstrous provocation and cruelty. The message is clear – if these individuals could restrain themselves, so can you. In lives as short as ours, why poison them with anger?

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How to Think About War is a compilation of speeches from Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian, considered one of most accomplished and important of all histories. The author was a general in the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th Century BC. Athens had established a trading league which became an association of colonies and allies which paid Athens to protect them from hostile forces. This league had a treasury at Delos and thus became known as the Delian League. However, it was known by all – not least the Athenians themselves – that the Delian League was actually an Athenian Empire, with tithes paying not only for the building of warships but buildings in Athens, including the Parthenon. There was “mission creep” or imperial hubris which led to the Athenians seeking to expand their empire. When client city-states revolted, these uprisings were put down with force and compensation extracted. Thus Athens – acknowledged birthplace of democracy and home to the flourishing of Ancient Greek civilisation and the wonders of art, drama, architecture and writing – was also a powerful military power which used a combination of soft power, wily diplomacy and overwhelming force to expand its influence across its neighbours. They prided themselves on propagating (and sometimes imposing) democracy on their client states. However, although Sparta agitated for the freedom of Greek states, it was a society founded upon slave labour. Additionally, Athens had a navy that could protect all of the Greek states from the threat of invasion by Persia. So although Athens was repressive, it also offered protection from foreign threat. The picture is a complicated one.

Not surprisingly, this history (left incomplete) has been seen as a parallel for subsequent imperial ventures. The most recent analogies have been between the Athenian venture and the foreign policy of the USA. Thucydides’s history has been seen as a warning of globalist ambition, military hubris and strategic overreach. Some have found justifications for a nation wishing to spread its values overseas, while others see it as a critique of that tendency. Thucydides position is opaque. While he was an Athenian, he was also critical of the failures in policy and philosophy behind the conflict. Thucydides lived to see the end of the war but he died before he could complete his history, so he knew that the ultimate military defeat of Athens was the outcome for his polis (city-state). He tries to be as objective as possible, compiling the views of participants and attempting to establish the correctness of the statements he has.

One of Thucydides main narrative devices is to record the speeches of various statesmen and generals. Some of these he actually heard, others he had reported to him. The speeches are not verbatim but they convey the position of the speaker accurately even if Thucydides considered the speaker disingenuous or misguided. This book is a collection of the speeches, each preceded by a short introduction.

On the patriotic enthusiasm for war, Pericles says: “I do realize that people are often more passionate when they are first convinced to go to war than when they actually wage it; that as circumstances change, so too does resolve.” Pericles warns that refusing to fight over small matters risks appeasing and encouraging further infractions which infringe the principles of Athens. If Athenians truly hold certain beliefs then they must be prepared to fight and die for them not to allow them to be breached. However, once the decision has been made, Athenians must be willing to fight to win and not disavow their commitment should the conflict prove trying for them. There is tactical advice on the weaknesses of a divided enemy unable to mount a sustained campaign and advantages and disadvantages of winning territory.

The principles which Athens subscribes to are outlined in Pericles famous funeral oration, included here. In this he sets out the achievements of their ancestors who fought and died to protect their people from barbarians. He speaks of Athens ability to overcome obstacles while never falling prey to the weaknesses of other cultures. He praises the education and creativity of Athenians. Grief and suffering are the cost of protecting such freedoms.

On the morale of a divided people, Pericles says: “I am convinced that people are much better off when their whole city is flourishing than when certain citizens prosper but the community has gone off course. When a man is doing well for himself but his country is falling to pieces he goes to pieces along with it, but a struggling individual has much better hopes if his country is thriving. A city can bear its people’s various sufferings but no single person can bear the whole city’s.”

A barb from leader Pericles chastising his mutinous fellow citizens demonstrates his legendary oratorical skills: “Apparently, the real flaw in my policy is the weakness of your resolve.”  He manoeuvres Athenians into supporting the continuing war by stating that whether or not they supported the establishment of the empire, they are burdened by its existence and must bear that burden. “Even if you think it was wrong to establish the empire in the first place, letting it go now would be exceptionally dangerous.” He casts opposition to war as the bind of the free riders and pacifists, who benefit from the actions of others without personally engaging. “One person’s disengagement is untenable unless bolstered by someone else’s commitment.”

A debate between Cleon and Diodotus on the fate of the Mytileneans frames the matters of realpolitik and justice. The Athenians had voted for the execution of every Mytilenean men after their failed revolt but had second thoughts and two Athenians debated whether or not to rescind the order. Clemency and punishment have implicit costs and are weighed in terms of both ethics and pragmatism. In the Melian Dialogue we see Athenians arguing that nothing between submission or defeat of Melos is acceptable because neutrality would present other nations with an alternative and encourage Athenian client states to seek neutrality. The Melians are urged to surrender because they are militarily inferior and war could only lead to their defeat, yet still the Melians claim that the unlikely prospect of victory is better than the sure prospect of submission and associated shame. A final debate is on the wisdom of Athens launching an invasion of Sicily.

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The translation is very readable and is printed facing the original Latin/Greek in matching parallel. The introductions and notes allow new readers to appreciate the texts to the full without preparation. These handsome small books (with cloth spines) introduce people to the classics in a way which makes these ancient writers seem as relevant and wise as any famous author of our own times. The issues in these books are as relevant now as they were 2000 years ago.

 

Seneca, James Romm (ed./trans.), How to Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management, Princeton University Press, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 220pp + xviii, English/Latin text, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 961 18195 0

Thucydides, Johanna Hanink (ed./trans.), How to Think About War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy, Princeton University Press, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 276pp + liv, English/Greek text, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 961 19015 0

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

The Renaissance Nude

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[Image: installation view, Conegliano St Sebastian (1500-2), right: Titian Venus]

One of the central parts of the Renaissance of thought and culture in Europe, starting around 1400, was acceptance of the unclothed human figure. For the previous millennium, Christianity had disapproved of depictions of the unclothed figure, decisively rejecting the heritage and practices of Mediterranean art. The engagement by philosophers, clerics, scholars and artists with the ideas of Greece and Roman opened up a willingness to use the nude as a viable and respectable part of culture. As a component of mythological and Biblical subjects in art – and anatomical study as a part of the technical training of a professional artist – the nude became a locus for both finished artistic products and the basis for artist education.

The current exhibition The Renaissance Nude currently at the Royal Academy (2 March-2 June 2019, previously at the J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, 30 October 2018-27 January 2019) includes a selection of the vast range of material including the nude, all taken from European art made over the Early (1400-1495) and High Renaissance (1495-1520), with a handful of pieces from the Late Renaissance (1520-1550). (This review is from the catalogue.) In an age when feminist pressure and progressive education has made even politically uncommitted experts hesitant about presenting nude imagery, honest discussion and scholarship about nudity in art has become politicised. Has the influence of gender studies and New Criticism undone traditional art historiography?

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Neoplatonist thought sought to achieve a synthesis between Christian values and classical learning, despite the obvious conflicts that this entailed. Art was the one area where the two traditions could be fused with little internal contradiction. Apollo of the Greeks could become the template for Christ. The sinners in hell are naked and unprotected from demons. Adam and Eve could appear in realistic form taken from study of live models by an artist who was not simple an artisan but a thinker. It would be inaccurate to talk of a classical thaw from the Mediterranean south travelling northward from Italy to Germany and the Low Countries. The first full-length nudes of the period came from the Low Countries and were spread Southward via engravings and woodcuts, and were in part extensions of traditions that came from native schools drawing from fragments of Roman art. (The Medieval nude can be found in the numerous decorative carvings of churches.) We could say that Northern and Southern traditions developed in parallel but both looked to incorporate nudity into Biblical art and used the legitimacy of classical art to support this. This exhibition acknowledges the contribution of German, Netherlandish and Swiss artists and includes paintings by Martin Schoengauer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Memling, Jan Gossart, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung (Grien) and others.

The exhibition comprises paintings, drawings, prints, manuscript illustration and sculpture (statues, bas reliefs, reliquaries, medals). Catalogue illustrations cover the sweep of Renaissance art featuring the nude, with the most notable works being by Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo, Signorelli, Mantegna, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Titian and others. The great diversity of forms and approaches to the nude remind us of the breadth of Renaissance visual and intellectual culture.

The human body was the locus of medieval and Renaissance science. Scholars, theologians, artists, mathematicians and architects attempted to correlate the physical body with the heavenly bodies, the dimensions of the perfect church, orders of architecture and other apparently ordered systems. The music of the spheres and the uncanny correlation between mathematics, science, arts and other systems including supposed scales or harmonies. The hidden order of life was seen to link various fields. The prints of ideal human figures designed by Vitruvius are included. They seem more derived from theory than observation. While observation sometimes suggested correlations, it often undermined assumptions of philosophers and scientists. We find in Dürer, Signorelli and Leonardo artists getting closer to reality than Vitruvius, doubtless due to their deference to reality over theory.

As the body was a product of order, so ugliness and illness were signs of disorder of earthly or divine origin. There are images of unideal figures – the elderly, the sick and others. The prime form of the nude that evokes horror and aversion is Death personified. Death and the Maiden is a great subject of the Northern European artists of this time, showing the healthy attractive nude with the morbid repulsive cadaver. This is something that only the Northern artists mastered. German carvings of grotesques are distinctly geographically specific subjects found during the 1480-1500 period. The Northern genius for the wild, bizarre and gothic always surpassed the Italian imagination, so attuned as it was the graceful, grand and beautiful. Even the inventions of Leonardo and Piero di Cosimo pale compared to Baldung and Grunewald.

A piquant instance of sex-war politics is Hans Baldung’s woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513). This print illustrates the anecdote of Phyllis enslaving and humiliating Aristotle by riding him nude around a garden to demonstrate to Alexander the Great her domination of the great thinker. For society of the time, free-spirited sexually assertive women were dangerous temptresses capable of humiliating men and bringing shame on themselves and others. This finds further expression in Baldung’s many pictures of witches, where naked women are objects of desire and derision.

The print of a male bathhouse scene by Dürer is an example of homo-eroticism. It is widely conjectured that the artist was homosexual and this print suggests a sympathy or attraction for the nude male in the homosocial environment. Prints by various printmakers of German lands show full-nude figures. From the Netherlandish artists we see Adam and Eve and scenes of sinners tormented in the afterlife.

Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

[Image: Raphael, The Three Graces (c. 1517-18), red chalk on paper, 20.3 x 25.8 cm. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019]

The exhibition reminds us the grace and charm of Piero di Cosimo, particularly in a sweet profile portrait of a young woman, presumed to be a friend or lover of the artist whom he took as his muse. Many great masterpieces could not be included in the exhibition but they are illustrated in the catalogue. There is new art to encounter in the exhibition. The Lucretia (c. 1510-5) of Conrad Meit displays the extreme emotionality that we associate with Northern art. Her face is a mask of tragic suffering, underlining the nobility of her self-sacrifice. Again we see the primacy of expression in German art.

Kren writes of the Limbourg Brothers illuminated manuscript Trés riches heures (1405-1408/9), suggesting that the Biblical scenes featuring sensual nudity were adapted to the erotic proclivities of the Duke of Berry, the commissioner of the book. Other favourite subjects that permitted depiction of female nudes were Bathsheba Bathing and Susannah and the Elders. Adam and Eve allowed an artist to demonstrate his command of anatomy of both sexes.

The mixed-sex public nude bathing in Basel, shocked an Italian visitor in 1461. Nudity was apparent in Northern and Central European tableaux vivants. Today we still have an impression of a medieval and Renaissance attitude of strict conservative attitudes towards nudity. This exhibition and catalogue demonstrates the diversity in attitudes.

It can be considered some instances of nudity in art were gratuitous and came about due to sheer pleasure and fascination. Pisanello’s Luxuria seems strikingly modern. The gamine woman, slender and unashamed, with her afro of vegetation, is like a glossy magazine photo-shoot or Instagram Goth. It was drawn around 1426.

Some depictions of religious scenes including nudity apparently went too far. There was the case of Fra Bartolommeo’s St Sebastian installed in a church which, female parishioners confessed caused them sinful thoughts. The clerics decided to sell the painting. There is a silver relief of around 1510 of Madonna and Child accompanied by St Sebastian, who is completely nude – effectively a classical nude.

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[Image: Moderno, Virgin and Child with Saints (c. 1510), cast silver with gilding, 13.9 x 10.2 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Kunstkammer]

Sandro Botticelli is represented here as an important artist of the period using the nude, most famously in The Birth of Venus. Botticelli fell under the influence of religious zealot Savonarola and subsequently supposedly burned some of his depictions of nude figures, deciding they were impious.

In the mid-Sixteenth Century the rising Lutheranism and the responsive Counter Reformation both were critical of the use of nudes in Christian image making, which effectively ended the Late Renaissance and the proliferation of nude figures in art. Although we see the nude appearing in Mannerist and Baroque, it is no longer the centre of advances or a battle ground for art during this time.

The personalisation of painting particular subjects comes to the fore in paintings of mythological, religious and symbolic content that are of specific people. One case is Jean Fouquet’s celebrated Virgin and Child (c. 1452-5). The pale Virgin and Child are surrounded by red and blue cherubs. The subjects are as white as linen, unsullied, exquisite as porcelain. The Virgin’s nursing breast is exposed, released from her tight corset. She is apparently based upon the lover of the donor, King Charles VII, a woman named Agnès Sorel. Sorel had died in 1450, at the age of about 27, before the painting was made. Thus the painting was religious but based upon a profane love; for the donor, viewing the painting would have combined the devotion of worship and the pleasure of the erotic and would have been a pleasure of seeing a close companion to the level of the mother of God and a sensation of deep loss and grief. Inadvertently, this painting is an embodiment of the myriad functions and interpretations of art that were current in the Renaissance period.

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[Image: Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) (c. 1520), oil on canvas, 75.8 x 57.6 cm. National Galleries of Scotland. Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government (hybrid arrangement) and allocated to the Scottish National Gallery, with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and the Scottish Executive, 2003]

The Renaissance Nude tells of the many reasons for the existence of imagery of the nude – didactic and sensual, moral and licentious, realistic and idealised – and draws on new technical research and historical data. The catalogue essays and entries on individual exhibited items balance detail and general overview. The illustrations are large and the production quality is excellent. This catalogue makes an intelligent and comprehensive introduction to the various roles of the nude in Renaissance art.

We can be relieved that we have escaped an exhibition based on the gender politics of our age. Although the writers are aware and informed about discussions regarding gender and sexual studies (and the semiological readings of recent decades), they wisely elected to elucidate the attitudes and theories of the Renaissance rather than impose their views. Thus they give us an informed basic understanding of why a picture may have come into existence and how it was seen at the time, leaving us to interpret ourselves how we wish to understand it today. In that respect, the curators have credited us with discernment and sophistication equivalent that of the artists, writers and thinkers presented in this exhibition and catalogue.

 

 

Thomas Kren (ed.), The Renaissance Nude, Getty Publications, November 2018, cloth hardback, illus., $65/£48, 432pp, 273 col. illus., ISBN 978 1 60606 584 6

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art