Signac and the Independents

The exhibition Signac and the Indépendants (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) gives a cross-section of French art in the 1880-1940 period. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. This exhibition of the collection of Gilles Genty was organised around the subject of the Indépendants exhibition. The collection of Gilles Genty is a selection of avant-garde French and Belgian art from the 1880s to World War II. The collection follows the central line of avant-garde art that is preferred by art historians: Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism (Divisionism/Pointillism), Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism.

Paul Signac (1863-1935) founded the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in 1884 as means of avant-garde artists exhibiting outside of the academy. From 1908 to 1934 Signac was president of the group. It drew its inspiration from the independent exhibitions of the Impressionists (commenced 1874) and shared a number of artists with those displays. The annual exhibitions became the focal point for controversy regarding new art. Over the years it featured art by the Symbolists, Nabis, Fauves, Expressionists, Salon Cubists, Orphists, Dadaists and the École de Paris. Matisse made his name for his Fauvist paintings exhibited with the group.

Signac was a Divisionist or Pointillist, a close associate of Seurat and the leading proponent of the style following Seurat’s early death in 1891. Signac was wedded to Pointillism from 1884 until the end of his life. There are plausible suggestions that Signac’s political anarchism influenced his commitment to Pointillism, with its conception of individual marks playing their parts in a harmonious whole. (Pointillists sometimes believed in the inclusion of all parts of a spectrum in a painting.) Pissarro’s anarchism contributed in his adoption of “scientific” Pointillism as a companion to the “scientific” social solution of anarchism as a cure for social ills. Pissarro was doyen of artist-anarchists and the Neo-Impressionists.

As the Salon accepted and absorbed the avant-garde following a lag, so artists transferred their loyalty from the Indépendants to the more lucrative and highly attended. Both the Indépendants and the Impressionists resented artists defecting. (Manet was not eligible for the Impressionist exhibitions because he continued to exhibit at the Salon.) Signac commented, “For twenty years now, a few comrades and I have been running the Salon des Indépendants, where every artist has been free to exhibit what he liked and how he liked. Now, few of them stay with us! They prefer to be rejected or to reject others from exhibitions based on the detestable principle of Authority. (Société des Artistes Français, Société Nationale, Salon d’Automne). Too bad for the spineless!”

Among the art included are pictures by Impressionists Eva Gonzalès and Berthe Morisot, with a masterpiece by the former. The Sparrow (c. 1865-70) is a fine pastel, delicately made and sympathetically observed. It shows a bust in profile of the artist’s sister as a Roman woman holding a sparrow. It dates from her apprenticeship years, when she studied under Charles Chaplin, an academic painter.

Maximilien Luce was a social realist and anarchist who portrayed the industrial workers of Wallonia and scenes of steelworks and collieries on the Sambre river at Charleroi. (Constant Meunier – not part of this collection – took similar topics for his sculpture and paintings.) Luce became president of the Indépendants on Signac’s retirement. Luce’s oval-format views of Paris are pretty and would have considerable appeal if they were better known.

The Belgians who exhibited at the Indépendants included Spilliaert, Van Rysselberghe, Willy Finch, Khnopff and others. (Ensor is absent here.) Odilon Redon is represented by a large number of pastels and prints, typical of his output. It is useful to have pieces by Maurice Denis, who was an intermittently accomplished painter. There are artists who are not often covered in publications, such as Pointillist Achille Laugé, whose paintings are attractive – the best of the three shown here is a landscape. Louis Hayet is a lightweight painter of theatre interiors. Paul-Élie Ransom is a minor Nabi and involved in the religious syncretism; he is harsh colourist and unoriginal. Louis Valtat’s Woman with Fox Stole (1897-8) is a fine picture, crackling with energy. The proto-Fauvist brushwork and Cloissoniste outlines create a powerful image with the motif balanced by a swirling background. A good marine by him suggests there is more pictures worth attention, outweighing a few weaker Valtat pictures here. A curiosity is a group of early drawings by Claude-Émile Schuffenecker, an artist best known as a forger of Van Gogh than as an artist under his own recognisance. They are illustrations (from c. 1881 to 1885) of everyday scenes of Parisian life, competent, unambitious and somewhat banal.  Gauguin, Maillol, Derain and Braque are represented by minor works. Considering the rarity and cost of Seurat’s paintings, the drawings fill in. However, Seurat’s remarkable drawings are better than most artists’ best paintings.

There is a broad section on posters with classic poster artists. It is striking how these artists fall into different groups and movements yet could translate their art into commercial designs: Toulouse-Lautrec, Denis (Post-Impressionism), Bonnard, Vallotton (Nabi), Bottini (Cosmopolitan Realism), Grasset, Mucha, Steinlen (Art Nouveau). Jules Chéret defies classification. Although classified as Art Nouveau, Chéret syncretic style drew from many sources. His preference for facets and angles over curves makes his style not entirely compatible with Art Nouveau. It seems his simplified shapes may have influenced Seurat’s later depiction of figures.    

The Nabis were a group of Post-Impressionist artists who were deeply influenced by Japanese art, Gauguin and were committed to making art from street life and domesticity, especially in print format. All the leading members are included in this exhibition: Vuillard, Bonnard, Roussel, Riviere and Vallotton. The collection of art by Félix Vallotton is large and representative. The woodcuts (commenced 1891) are justly celebrated. The inclusion of a preparatory drawing for the 1897 print The Symphony is a pleasing addition to the prints themselves. Vallotton’s 1899 marriage gave him financial security and allowed him to pursue his ambitions. In 1901 he ceased making woodcuts and devoted himself to making oil paintings, principally nudes, landscapes and still-lifes. War (1915-6) was an exceptional return to the medium of woodcut. It was a suite of prints made to support the military effort of France. They are unsuccessful. Vallotton’s prints were not suitable for grave subjects or action and all fall flat.

The Bonnard works are mainly early Nabi graphics, including posters. There are some small marines with the skies in distinct horizontal strips. The dabbing of varying colours comes from Impressionism but Bonnard’s technique rejects the tenets of Impressionism. The École de Paris works by Matisse, Marcoussis, Modigliani, Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Maurice de Vlaminck, Albert Marquet and others are generally bagatelles. Marie Laurencin is never anything more than vapid; Othon Friesz is irredeemably third rate. Raoul Dufy is decorative and nothing more.  

There is a set of Picasso’s Saltimbanques prints. Produced from 1904 to 1905 and editioned in 1913, during the artist’s Blue and Rose periods. These 14 prints are inconsistent; the finish and detail of the prints varies dramatically and it is clear Picasso did not conceive of the group as having any connecting thread other than the subjects that attracted him at the time: portraits, acrobats, the poor, primitive people.  

This catalogue is full of information on the Salon des Indépendants and the avant-garde in Paris at a critical time. There are plenty of surprises. The biographies and bibliography are useful for specialist researchers, particularly anyone studying Neo-Impressionism and Pointillism.

Gilles Genty (ed.), Signac and the Indépendants, Hazan/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (distr. Yale), 2020, hardback, 384pp, 550 illus., $55, ISBN 978 0 300 25 1982 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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


Seneca on Generosity, Horace on Contentment

In the latest selections from the classics, we receive advice from the ancients regarding perennial subjects, published in Princeton’s attractive pocket-sized volumes.

Seneca the Younger (4 BC-65 AD) wrote De Beneficiis (On Benefits) around 59 AD. Stoicism can sometimes be presented as justification for aloofness and indifference. The mantra of self-reliance and resistance to the sway of emotion aligns with anti-social tendencies. These are not entirely accurate readings but easy assumptions to make. Therefore, the issue of altruism is important in Stoic ethics. Beneficiis means benefits, gifts, favour or good turn, so Romm has varied his translation of the word dependent on context, also using “giving” as a gerund when talking about the practice of bestowing benefits. This edition is extracts of the original Latin facing the English translation.

Seneca believes true giving is not transactional. Reciprocity or gratitude – although they may be forthcoming – can neither be expected or demanded. Giving is a matter of character and ethics. “Here’s the mark of great and good hearts: To seek good deeds for their own sake, and to look for good people even after meeting bad ones.” Thus knowing how to give is congruent with having a balance of outlook. Seneca recommends mindful giving, describing profligate or thoughtless giving as a loss. He warns that slights and ingratitude leave more of a mark than gratitude. Seneca is too generous in encouraging the reader to give regardless of the reception afforded the gifts. He lays the reader open to exploitation by the cynical and the political. His advice displays a certain want of discernment.  

According to Seneca’s code, generosity must be accompanied by a lack of chiding or account keeping. A gift given grudgingly is like a loaf of bread laced with stone grit. He describes instances of giving: “Alexander the Great […] was about to give a city to someone. When the man to whom he was giving it took his own measure and rejected the gift on the grounds that it would spur envy, saying it did not consort with his station, Alexander replied: “I’m not asking what’s fitting for you to get, but what’s fitting for me to give.””  

Seneca condemns ingratitude, seeing it as a moral lapse on the part of the recipient and disrespectful towards the giver. From his perspective, ingratitude is akin to sin because God gives us gifts great and small in abundance and failing to appreciate them is a failure to acknowledge our good fortune. Failure to acknowledge a worldly gift is a reflection of similar poor judgement. Giving and gratitude are marks of fellowship, a connection that separates man from the beasts and therefore an indication of man’s unique moral nature. Seneca ties giving and gratitude into a conception of cosmic order at the end of his treatise.

Romm’s moral wrangling over Seneca’s use of male pronouns is entirely redundant. Readers of good faith understand that societal expectations of ancient Rome are not those of today. In one passage, Seneca writes of deducing the correct gift for a recipient and of making errors. “We’ll at least be careful not to send any useless gifts, such as hunting gear to woman […]” Romm steps in with a footnote admonishing Seneca’s sexism. It is not a sexist statement. Worldwide, the majority of those who hunt due to necessity or pleasure are men. Seneca is correct whereas his translator is only politically correct. This book reminds us why we revere on the sages of Rome not the sagacity of Romm.

Horace (65-8 BC) was a highly esteemed poet from the court of Emperor Augustus. His poetry ranges from the lyric to satirical. He composed lyrics for state events, commissioned by Augustus, who counted Horace as a friend. This selection of odes and satires has been chosen and translated by Stephen Harrison. The original Latin texts are provided with English translation and surrounded by commentary that is generally informative, brisk and well judged. There are sections on contentment, friendship, love and death.  

How does it come about, Maecenas, that none of us can live

Content with the lot that choice has accorded or chance has cast in our way,

But rather praise those who follow different paths?

Criticism of envy was a staple of Horace, as was contentment at one’s station in life. This is a pointed counter to the entitled ingrates who defile cities and burn businesses. Carpe diem is a refrain for Horace. “Endure whatever will be! […] Harvest the present day, trust minimally in the next.” “Sweet is the hour that comes that’s not expected.”

Horace wrote a panegyric to the country life, implicitly contrasting the delights of his country villa with the heat, smell and cramped conditions of Rome. “Is the water that on city blocks strains to burst the lead piping | Purer than that which hurries along in a downward stream?” Horace advises modesty and appreciation of the simple essential pleasures of life. It is usually a person’s nature that determines their contentment rather than their material circumstances. Acquisition of riches does not lead to contentment. However, Horace was aware of criticisms that could be made against himself. He calls himself “a hog from Epicurus’s herd.”

Many poems concern Horace’s patron Maecenas, an important political advisor to the Emperor. In one poem addressed to Maecenas, Horace writes

If some force were to steal you away earlier than me,

You, one half of my soul, why should I hold back the other,

Equally dear to no one else and destined not to be whole

Should I survive you?

As it happened, Horace did die a mere two months after Maecenas’s death. On Cleopatra’s death, Horace wrote she grasped “serpents | Rough to touch, so as to drink deep | The dark venom with her body.”

As with the previous volume, the translator feels he has to excuse his subject’s ideas. “[Horace’s] commendations of Roman racial exceptionalism and Rome’s aspiration to world domination, like those of his friend Vergil, are hard to read in our times, though they were much more congenial to readers of past colonial eras.” They are not “hard to read”. What sort of trembling emotionally labile readers does Harrison expect to be shocked by discovering than that an inhabitant of ancient Rome had different views to some people today? Again, leave us to decide what it is in Horace’s writing with which we agree or disagree.

Perhaps editors at Princeton University Press should have a word with their translators and ask them to dial down their political commentary. The readership is quite informed enough to draw their own conclusions about parallels and disparities between Rome and our societies. In their quest for relevance, these translators achieve merely topicality. While their translations are robust, the commentary is sometimes partisan. It would be a shame if this overwhelmingly admirable series from Princeton were to be tainted by the label of the “politically correct classics”.

Seneca, James S. Romm (trans./intro.), How to Give, Princeton University Press, 2020, hardback (cloth spine), 288pp, English/Latin, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 691 19209 3

Horace, Stephen Harrison (trans./intro.), How to be Content, Princeton University Press, 2020, hardback (cloth spine), 256pp, 2 mono illus., English/Latin, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 691 18252 0

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit http://www.alexanderadams.art


UbuWeb: Culture meets the Internet

“Founded in 1996, UbuWeb is a pirate shadow library consisting of hundreds of thousands of freely downloadable avant-garde artifacts. By the letter of the law, the site is illegal; we openly violate copyright norms and almost never ask for permission. Most everything on the site is pilfered, ripped, and swiped from other places, then reposted.” So Kenneth Goldsmith describes the website he started in 1996. It has survived copyright claims because it is non-profit, so it does not extract financial gain from its appropriation.

The website was named after Alfred Jarry’s anarchic protagonist Ubu Roi. The website contains avant-garde artistic and cultural material such as verse, prose, audio, video and images. The site hosts little-known side-projects of major artists, such as Salvador Dalí’s film Haute Mongolie – hommage á Raymond Roussel (1976) and Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People (1973). Goldsmith is a poet and so there is a particular emphasis on poetry and spoken poetry, including concrete poetry and sound poems. UbuWeb is a resource replete with ephemeral material, side projects, creative dead-ends, aborted forays and one-off collaborations. It does not host mainstream music, video or texts. The material sometimes comes from official releases; other times it is recorded (with varying degrees of competence and fidelity) from radio or television by private individuals. Sometimes it is bootleg or clandestine. UbuWeb is the sort of place a person can spend a whole evening following a meandering trail through the cultural jetsam of the Twentieth Century.

Goldsmith explains that he uses basic coding and simple systems that have not changed in over 20 years. The relative crudity of such procedures makes the website robust, as well as charmingly old-fashioned. Without relying on cloud data storage or specialised database systems, Goldsmith has (so far) avoided the dangers of redundancy or dispute with programmers, which could have taken the site offline. “Don’t trust the cloud. Use it, enjoy it, but don’t believe in it.” He warns, “don’t bookmark. Download. Hard drives are cheap. Fill them up with everything you think you might need to consult, watch, read, listen to, or cite in the future.” We live in a time of encroaching censorship, when cloud/online access is at the mercy of increasingly censorious governments and overbearing social-media websites. Organisations make themselves vulnerable to pressure from activist lobby groups and Twitter mobs of a few hundred ill-informed virtue-signallers.

Pirating is a compliment, as Goldsmith views it. “If your work is well regarded enough to be pirated, that means you have achieved some level of success that most artists will never have. When we decide to pirate an artists’ work, it means that we think that work is worth knowing about and worth preserving.” The diffuse, unregulated distribution of material increases the chance of preservation and transmission. However, technological obsolescence has rendered some formats more inaccessible than some dead languages. Do you know anyone who has the technology to read a floppy disk or Betamax video cassette? The technology exists but it is rare, specialised and diminishing yearly. This will inevitably apply to digital files also.

Goldsmith calls the guerilla collaborative project of UbuWeb the product of “folk archiving”. “[…] we’re no fans of licenses of any kind. We’d prefer the materials be used without any restrictions whatsoever.” Fine in itself but beside the point because the material is not produced or owned by UbuWeb, as Goldsmith freely admits. He is applying his principles to the products of others but yields ground when challenged by rights holders. Sometimes artists submit material or make arrangements with their agents to permit material to remain on the website.

UbuWeb falls into an ethical grey area, even if the legal situation is fairly obvious. The UbuWeb modus operandi is to post first and wait for artists or representatives to react. Strictly speaking, the fact that UbuWeb is not monetised and is a non-profit body does not take precedence of copyright violation, which is a matter of intellectual property rather than income claiming. Copyright strikes come from those copyright holders important and financed sufficiently to pursue take-down notices. UbuWeb does accede to requests from copyright owners. (Search for the films of Francesca Woodman on UbuWeb and you will encounter the message “These films have been temporarily removed by request of the Marian Goodman Gallery.”) However, much of the work on the site is so gloriously shoddy, awful and poorly recorded – or simply obscure – that it is not material that could generate income worth claiming.

Goldsmith explains how automated notices triggered by file titles – often filed by bodies with no authorisation to do so – claim copyright and demand compensation. As UbuWeb gains no income from the material, there is no gain to be paid. (Legally, the issue is deprivation of benefit and unauthorised use of protected material.) These automatic copyright claims are now commonplace and even inhibit legitimate criticism and educational use permitted under law. Among ISPs, rights holders and pirates, there is recognition that digitisation of data and the advent of the internet has meant that copying and distribution are beyond complete control.

There are odd cases when works are caught in limbo: not financially viable enough to license and release and still restricted by copyright. This means that non-profit file-sharing is the only way to make (unofficially) available material of documentary, historical or cultural value. In the case of artist videos, the material is seen so rarely and in specific locations that – unless one happens to have access to a specialised university library – one can live a whole lifetime without seeing pieces. The stills reproduced in monographs or old magazines become the entirety of one’s understanding of the videos. Gallerists consider UbuWeb a competitor, which devalues the rarity if their commodity, although it is possible to view UbuWeb as a promotional channel, exciting and stimulating viewers and collectors, especially with regard to lesser known artists. The often poor quality of the videos on UbuWeb (compressed, pixellated, muffled, samizdat) means that ardent collectors or enthusiasts seek out high-quality versions they have pre-viewed on UbuWeb. Some creators offer material to Goldsmith and use it as a channel to reach an audience, although Goldsmith notes that UbuWeb is a repository for material already existing rather than a channel for new work.

The birth of digitisation and the internet has revived the readership of concrete poetry. Now original books and journal pages can be copied and shared accurately, allowing readers access to visual-verbal poetry that is not financially viable to publish conventionally. Kurt Schwitters is a favourite of Goldsmith’s. He discusses the importance of words to Shwitters the artist and how his writing overlaps with his celebrated reading of his Ursonate. All of this maps neatly on to UbuWeb’s capacity to store examples of visual, verbal and aural art. UbuWeb contains scans of every page of Aspen, RE/Search and Fuck You, famous channels for the counter culture. Likewise, the 27 Tellus audio cassettes of music, poetry and sound are available complete on UbuWeb.

The book ends with 101 of Goldsmiths favourite gems of UbuWeb: Céline singing his songs accompanied by accordion, Don Cherry and Terry Riley playing live in Cologne, a rare very early Steve Reich tape piece taken from secret recordings, Captain Beefheart reciting his verse, Alice B. Toklas reading Brion Gysin’s recipe for hashish fudge.

The author is generous in his appreciation for the countless donors who have sent files and physical material and he tells the stories of some pioneers – poets, collectors, fans, obsessives (or an admixture) – with whom he has interacted. Some wish to remain anonymous, concerned about stigmatisation as pirates or the threat of legal action. Their enthusiasm is infectious and we can well imagine the excitement of discovering troves of material – some of it considered permanently lost.

Goldsmith makes a common error of writing of material being “excluded from the canon”, which is an impossibility, as the canon is not exclusionary. No material can be excluded from a canon, only included or omitted and is a corporate effort; the canon cannot be imposed or enforced, hence exclusion is impossible.

Goldsmith has a lively and informal style and a lithe mind. He blends erudition and irreverence. Although the writing style is witty and readable, Goldsmith does include some footnotes. Duchamp is My Lawyer would prove a valuable book for law students and jurists as it explains how copyright works in practice not just law and how “folk law” tends to regulate copyright disputes through give-and-take personal interactions rather than court rulings. Interested parties reach informal, cost-effective, non-arbitrated understandings through negotiation in cases regarding material of little monetary worth.  

Duchamp is My Lawyer is an approachable and even-handed discussion of UbuWeb and issues regarding copyright in the digital age. It also provides an insight into the evolution of the counter culture in the internet age and the practical, legal and financial issues of producing and consuming art today. Well worth seeking out.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Duchamp is my Lawyer: Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb, Columbia University Press, paperback, 2020, 318pp + x, $26/£20, ISBN 978 0 231 18695 7

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

James Ensor: Chronicle of his Life

Xavier Tricot, Ensor scholar and author of his catalogue raisonné, has written James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, a summary biography of James Ensor (1860-1949). Ensor is a significant artist in the development of Post-Impressionism and the foundation of Expressionism and has gone to be one of the most influential of Belgian artists. This book illustrates paintings and photographs, giving an account of major events and relationships, with lengthy quotations from letters and press articles.

Ensor was born in Ostend in 1860. His mother was Belgian and his father English. He met his future wife while on holiday in her native city. Ensor revered his father, whom he described as exceptionally intelligent, handsome and athletic. He had hoped to start a new life for the family in the USA but his foray across the Atlantic coincided with the Civil War and he had to return. It seems the set-back left him increasingly resentful of narrow materialism and limited intellectual scope of Ostend. More than a little of this attitude seems to have been adopted by his son. The family ran a gift, curio and seashell shop. The many masks in the shop and the apartment above provided Ensor with his most compelling subject, one that make him famous.

Ensor studied fine art in Brussels from 1877 to 1880. His art education in Ostend had been limited and traditional. At the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts he received more traditional training. He did not do well in examinations and tended to be placed in the middle or bottom of the class. One of his fellow students was Fernand Khnopff. Ensor worked alongside Willy Finch (1854-1930). They sometimes painted the same still-life side by side and they used similar styles; they painted each other’s portraits.

Ensor was disillusioned by the expectations of the academy and the opportunities for advanced art in Belgium in 1880. That year he left both the academy and the capital, to return to live with his parents in Ostend. Advanced art was synonymous with Impressionism and Realism. Ensor enthusiastically explored both avenues, relishing the use of paint that made clear its materiality. The Oyster-eater (1882) is a good example of Impressionist-inflected Realism.

His early paintings were marines, townscapes, still-lifes and interiors. They show careful observation and the adoption of a Realist palette, enlivened by attention to facture. Tricot has included seminal works by Ensor, stressing the paintings rather than the drawings or etchings. The book amounts to a biography of Ensor through his own words and art as Chronicle contains quotes from Ensor’s own writings, which were extensive. He wrote some articles and many letters, few of which are available in English translation. The reproductions are largely accurate and all the paintings are reproduced in colour.

Ensor’s paintings earned respect from critics and fellow artist when they were exhibited in numerous group exhibitions over the 1880s. He was building the reputation of being a leading painter, without there being anything unique about his paintings. His association with Les XX (the Belgian group of avant-gardists, operational 1883-1893) and La Libre Esthétique group (the successor group, 1893-1914) helped to spread knowledge of Ensor’s art. Despite this recognition, sales were slow and prices low.

In 1883 Ensor began painting his mask series in earnest. These paintings were of figures wearing carnival and theatrical masks – and the masks with figures – as well as skeletons, each interacting with each other and with figures who seem unaware of their presence. They were to prove Ensor’s greatest achievement. They destabilised the narrative of Realist art and took on aspects of caricature, satire and dream imagery. They extended gothic art and fantasy art. Ensor was playing with the boundaries between real and unreal, living and inanimate, high and low art, entering the territory that Symbolists were examining in the same period. What made Ensor different was his wit and the use of images and conventions found in satirical prints. The Symbolists were rather averse to humour, satire and social commentary, which can make their art rather self-important, grand and detached.

He started to overpaint his older pictures, adding masks which mock the oblivious subjects. Ensor’s mask paintings were not his sole output during this time. He was as likely to exhibit a still-life, view of Ostend or a religious drawing. Ensor’s religious paintings are almost all centred on Christ, interpreting the life of Christ through a personal fusion of Ensor’s own surroundings and the art he loved. They are highly idiosyncratic pieces and vary in tone from the devotional to satirical and the autobiographical. His spurt of originality lasted from around 1883 to 1900, when Ensor’s verve diminished rapidly. His love of Turner blunted his earthy palette. He reprised old subjects but never recaptured his fire. Ironically, it was after 1900 that artistic taste caught up with Ensor and collector interest increased substantially.  

Ensor participated in the 1901 Venice Biennale. A series of publications and exhibitions raised his profile. He was knighted in 1903. In 1904 he met art dealer François Franck and in 1910 the well-connected gallerist Herbert von Garvens-Garvensburg, both of whom bought and exhibited his art. Ensor ended up painting replicas of his old paintings to meet the demand of collectors but his new compositions were generally unremarkable. In 1925 Ensor was admitted to the Académie Royale. In 1929 a huge retrospective was held in Brussels, including 337 paintings, 325 drawings and 135 etchings. The same year he was awarded a barony.   

Tricot has uncovered new data about Ensor’s life from memoirs and Ensor’s own letters. It seems his father was brutally attacked in 1885 and was hospitalised, apparently mentally unstable, and died in 1887. Tricot reveals links between Ensor and a number of artists well-known and obscure. He quotes letters written to (and from) Ensor’s publishers and collectors. He discusses matters of price and provenance that allow us to understand Ensor’s attitude towards the disposal of his art. In particular, Tricot provides information about how Ensor attempted to place key pictures with certain museums. Although this is not a full biography, the inclusion of the artist’s words gives a vivid sense of his character and views. His sardonic humour, wild wit, self-pity and capriciousness emanate from his comments. Memoirs and letters of others tell us how he was seen. Tricot has corrected the dating of At the Conservatoire from 1902 to 1893, altering his position the publication of his 2009 catalogue raisonné.

Overall, this is a very useful guide to Ensor’s life and art, especially when read in conjunction with larger catalogues. Perhaps the only shortcoming is the absence of graphic work, which may be less familiar to readers but was a key aspect of Ensor’s oeuvre.

Xavier Tricot, James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, 1860-1949, Mercatorfonds/Yale University Press (distr. Yale), 2020, paperback, 224pp, 200 col. and mono illus., £30, ISBN 978 0 300 25397 9

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Late Stalinism: Marxist Magic Realism

“In Late Stalinism: The Aesthetics of Power, Evgeny Dobrenko (professor of Russian studies at University of Sheffield) characterises Late Stalinism as a state of low-level civil war with the overt features of “aggressive nationalism […] anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, imperialism”. That imperialism extended both outside the USSR (the Eastern Bloc) and inside the USSR, by suppressing the distinct cultural identities of non-Russian states. Stalinist culture was propaganda made during the Cold War, created for the purpose of maintaining the status quo domestically and internationally, preventing escalation to military conflict (externally) and political dissent (internally).

“Andrei Zhdanov’s 1934 definition is “Socialist Realism, as the fundamental method of Soviet artistic literature and literary criticism, demands of the artist a truthful, historically concrete portrayal of reality in its revolutionary development….”

Read the full review on The Critic website here: https://thecritic.co.uk/marxist-magic-realism/

London Street Signs

Although we see them daily, we often do not notice them. Indeed, if we fail to notice the street sign (like a sports referee) then that is evidence of their effectiveness. The street signs of London are very diverse, not least because of the size of London and its varied history. If you have not already noticed how diverse London street signs then this is the book for you: Alistair Hall has noticed for you. In London Street Signs, Hall has compiled photographs of hundreds of signs, showing the full range of materials, sizes, styles, conventions and placements that can be found in London signs. Alistair Hall, who teaches at Central Saint Martins and The Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, provides informative observations, sometimes with some background research. He has limited his scope to Greater London.

The variety of street signage in London is caused by multiple factors. Firstly, there is no uniform regulation for manufacture of signs. Black lettering on a white background is standard but not mandatory; there are places (such as Hampstead) where white lettering is used on black tiles. Secondly, there has never been a concerted drive to replace old signs, some dating back to the Seventeenth Century. Happily, that preserves for us glimpses of London past. This ensures that a cross-section of signs survives. Some are lost entirely. The lamp-post signs went with the lamp posts; wooden signs of the pre-1850 era have long gone. Likewise, fragile glass signs are prone to damage. Lastly, signs are repaired or replaced by individual borough councils, each with different approaches. Periodically, boroughs rebrand themselves through street signage.

[Image: (c) 2020 Alistair Hall]

There is guidance for manufacturing new and replacement signs which imposes a degree of conformity in size, lettering, format and additional information, such as postcode and borough name. This book includes extracts of regulations guiding sign design from the last century, with samples. Luckily, this has kept signage clear and relatively standardised but tolerant care has been exercised to preserve older signage.

The book opens with some old name tablets built into houses in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Some have an elegance that reminds us of the care and pride of owners and builders, with their civic-mindedness. Other signs – such as a handsome cartouche in Fleet Street – are designed into the buildings. In the case of Savile Row W1, the letters are cast metal and applied to the wall of a police station. Painted signs have been repainted over the years and some are maintained still by residents. The designs date from the pre-Victorian era up to the sans-serif designs of the 1960s.

[Image: (c) 2020 Alistair Hall]

Fonts vary surprisingly. Not even sans-serif is a constant, with serif versions being used in some new signs. Some choices are eccentric and lack legibility as lettering to be viewed quickly and in poor light. Hall highlights quirks and even a few errors. Spacing can a significant factor in legibility and the author has some choice words for those sign writers who make poor decisions. Borough councils have attempted to distinguish themselves by adopting slightly different lettering styles: Albertus (Lambeth), Northwood (Lambeth), Kindersley (Kensington & Chelsea), Transport (Camden, Brent). Colour borders are also deployed sometimes.  

Vitreous enamel signs, with white lettering on dark blue ground, is rarely used now, though it works very well in suburban, low-rise brick-built areas. Heavy cast-metal signs can still be found but they require regular maintenance and – like painted signs – these signs suffer due to a shrinking pool of skilful craftsmen. Clumsy restoration or neglect are the result of this dearth. Uniformity – so beloved of big-thinkers and bureaucrats – has made in-roads into London street names. There was a concerted effort to remove duplication of common names and this can be seen with some old signs remaining next to signs with new names. Lost boroughs of Stepney, St Marylebone and Deptford linger on in unrevised signs.

[Image: Hampstead, (c) 2020 Alistair Hall]

Hall explains the mysterious vanished postcodes. There are a handful of old signs which include the postcodes S and NE. The NE postcode was introduced in 1856 but dropped in 1866, ostensibly because it received much less post than the other districts. NE was absorbed into E and only a few street signs now remain. Hall reproduces the only two surviving S signs, for Lark Hall Rise and The Pavement, now both SW4. (S was divided between SE and SW in 1868.)  

New signs are covered in the Greenwich Peninsula development and around the Olympic Village in Stratford. Innovations such as the QR code already look as dated as arrows and pointing hands visible on old signs.

With touches of humour and erudition, Hall guides through both typical samples and rare survivors. Hall’s acute eye for detail has espied numerous deviations and variations in lettering, pointing out instances in brief image captions. In an era of iconoclasm, when zealots erase history to impose their values upon the past, London Street Signs makes the case for retaining and celebrating our heritage.

Alistair Hall, London Street Signs, Batsford, 2020, hardback, 192pp, fully col. illus., £14.99/$19.95/C$26.95, ISBN 978 1 84994 6216

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

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