Helen Frankenthaler’s Woodcuts

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Freefall, 1993. Twelve color woodcut from 1 plate of 21 Philippine
Ribbon mahogany plywood blocks on hand-dyed paper in 15 colors, 199.4 x 153.7 cm ©
2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Tyler Graphics Ltd.,
Mount Kisco, NY]

The exhibition Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 11 September 2021-18 April 2022) displays in the UK for the first time the woodcuts of Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), on the tenth anniversary of her death.

During the 1950s-70s there was a boom in American printmaking, especially in the fields of lithography, screenprinting and etching. The development of new techniques and the rise of styles that were well matched to printmaking (Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, geometric abstraction) all contributed to a golden age of Late Modernist printmaking. Woodcuts – aside from the related wood engravings, which also had a lesser revival – did not receive much attention but for a painter who always responded strongly to the surface qualities of her supports, Frankenthaler realised the potential of woodcuts. In the use of plates which displayed grain, Frankenthaler saw an equivalence between the grain of canvas (usually cotton duck) and the more irregular and organic grain of the wood block. Additionally, she was used to staining canvases irregularly and these wash, tide or drying edges resemble the swaying swoops of woodgrain. Nature had ready prepared her supports for her.

Tatyana Grosman of Universal Limited Art Editions, New York introduced Frankenthaler to the experience of making woodcut prints in 1973. She would go on to make 29 editioned woodcut prints. Kenneth Tyler of Tyler Graphics, New York proved to be the perfect collaborator for Frankenthaler, expanding the scope and ambition of Frankenthaler as a printmaker. The large size of Freefall (1993) (199 x 153 cm) and its delicately graduated inking providing an intense ultramarine void at its centre, would have been beyond the ability of less experienced printmakers. The graduated colour comes from Japanese woodblock prints, the abrasions to the plate partly come from Surrealism and pre-war abstract art. The use of jigsaw plates for different colours, each revealing the grain of the wood (it would been possible to use cross-cut wood, which would not have displayed grain) inevitably evokes the radical woodcuts of Edvard Munch. However, Munch printed his proofs in one pull with the separately inked blocks assembled, whereas Frankenthaler had her colours separately applied, each carefully registered to make sure the blocks were in position. Munch was not perturbed by the inevitably outlines with no ink that bounded each block. For Frankenthaler, the joints had to be crisp or deliberately overlapping to generate composite colours. Munch’s aesthetic is primal and figurative; Frankenthaler’s is reflective and abstract. Munch reused blocks until they wore out, becoming distressed. (Against standard practice, Munch used to weather his paintings by placing them outside to remove their newness by introducing fading, cracking, staining.)

The exhibition includes finished impressions and some test proofs, along with a couple of paintings. The prints vary in effectiveness. The earliest print is East and Beyond (1973), an 8-colour print which beautifully combined the large organic swatches of delicate colour with slivers and nodes of more intense hues. They work well on the Nepalese handmade paper, with its organic fragments complimenting the grain of the wood. Machine-made paper, especially stark white, often has a deadening or sterilising effect on art. The gentle natural tinting of the paper allows the print to rest easily, whereas a harsh white would fix the edges more, acting as a sharp (almost reproving) demarcation. Similarly, inside the prints, lightly inked plates with fine grain act like veils or muslin, with connotations of delicacy. The weakness of wood – the cracks and splintering – add a human element of flaws and of individual character in a way that the regularity of cotton duck and dilute acrylic paint do not. A certain obduracy obtains and Frankenthaler’s art benefits thereby. Had Frankenthaler ever tackled stone carving, she would have faced such flaws and strengths and had to adapt herself to these qualities. Frankenthaler does seem at her best when she has to negotiate or struggle, which is why her woodcuts are even more rewarding than her paintings.  

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Snow Pines, 2004. Thirty-four color Ukiyo-e style woodcut from 16
blocks on Torinoko paper and mounted onto Fabriano Classico paper, 95.3 x 66 cm © 2021
Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Pace Editions, Inc., NY]

Essence Mulberry (1977) shows a sequence of trial proofs where artist experimented with colour combinations. The edition itself incorporated blank space at the bottom of the elongated vertical-format sheet. Tales of Genji I and II (1998) are less successful. The introduction of graphic lines is a mistake as they are too assertive and intrusive. III is very much more effective, lacking that graphic intervention and relying much more on modulation of intense colour. IV and V are compromises between the two compositions, prettier, more detached in character. Radius (1993) feels both inconsequential and too self-consciously made, redolent of performance. The Grove (1991) and The Clearing (1991) are rougher, closer to Munch, not aiming to please or delight or dazzle. Freefall (1993) is a showstopper, a grand spectacle both visually and technically impressive.

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly, 2000. One-hundred-two color woodcut from 46
blocks of birch, maple, lauan, and fir on 1 sheet of light sienna (center sheet) and 2 sheets of
sienna (left and right sheet) TGL handmade paper, triptych 106 x 201.9 cm, each sheet 106 x
67.3 cm © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Tyler
Graphic Ltd., Mount Kisco, NY]

Madame Butterfly (2000) required 46 blocks, producing 102 colours in an extended printing process that required one year. It straddles Abstract Expressionism, Colour-Field Painting and the Aesthetic Movement. Whistler’s japonaiserie and limpid smoky evocations of water and sky are not too far distant from Frankenthaler’s expansive print, composed of three sheets assembled. It has a landscape format and (like many of her woodcuts) evokes the landscape. Japanese Maple (2005) conjures a landscape in its dark central form lying horizontal in a horizontally oriented sheet, with the suggestion of a reflection of mountains on placid water. Madame Butterfly is shown in a room with the original painting on plywood that inspired that painting and a working proof, adjusted by the artist. The final print is beautiful and a fitting end to the exhibition. Personally, I feel Geisha (2003) (23 colours from 15 blocks) surpasses it by a touch, due to its compactness and the vivid conjunction of yellow and crimson. It has a firmness not found in the paintings. The quasi-knotholes act as motifs in disguise, while the jagged parapets do Clyfford Still-style work, imparting a rugged grandiosity to the print. This was made with Yasuyuki Shibata at Pace Editions, who had participated in the creation of Madame Butterfly at Tyler’s workshop. It would be the print I would most like to live with.    

The collaborative process and the lengthy indirect means by which the proofs came into being – and came into being piecemeal in a highly artificial manner – was quite different to Frankenthaler’s painting. Most Colour-Field and Abstract Expressionist painting is direct, with material being added or covered over in a sequential, direct and spontaneous manner. It is alla prima and it is observable as it is made. Print-making is highly organised, indirect, slow, technical, sometimes working through composite means which cannot intuitively understood during the making process. Printmaking is also conceptual, because it requires artist, master printmaker and technicians to envisage something that does not exist and cannot be made directly. Shapes are inverted, colour and tonal values reversed, stencils are used for their negative space not positive space and so forth. It requires thinking ahead and deducing from that projection the steps that will be required. The fact that Frankenthaler managed these challenges shows her versatility and her ability to work in collaboration with technicians, a system that required accepting as well as giving advice and responding to technical difficulties. Few Abstract Expressionists and Colour-Field painters made good prints, probably due to these issues.    

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Cedar Hill, 1983. Ten color woodcut from 13 blocks, 5 mahogany and 8
linden, on light pink Mingei Momo handmade paper, 51.4 x 62.9 cm © 2021 Helen
Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Crown Point Press, Oakland, CA]

In a different room, Frankenthaler’s acrylic painting Feather (1979) is paired with Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and Agapanthus (c. 1916-7), lent from Musée Marmottan, Paris. The Frankenthaler canvas does seem a legitimate successor (or offspring) of the Impressionist expanse of colour holding painting motifs. It is an intelligent comparison, out of which Frankenthaler emerges unscathed. Both paintings benefit from the encounter.    

Sometimes in Frankenthaler’s paintings there is problematic disjuncture of the stained surface and the impasto paint. These often conflict visually and physically. It is as if one is trying to understand a poem written in two different languages, both of which the audience speaks but one tongue is more comfortable for each member. One comprehends both the physically distant ethereal staining and physically assertive tangible impasto, but seeing them together forces the viewer to switch between these modes in a way that can be difficult or require conscious effort. This is not the case with art by Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock, where areas of stain and impasto are broken up into pattern, thus dissolving the boundary between ground and motif, staining and impasto. The regularity of the fat paint (vis a vis the lean paint) forms a net, which acts a totalising device, making any single impasto mark uninformative and not singly significant. With Frankenthaler (and Feather is a good example of this), motifs or marks over the ground retain significance. They are large enough and small enough to act as devices and are given space to gain attention; they are not part of a surface covering repetition. This is probably the single greatest obstacle to the acceptance and enjoyment of Frankenthaler’s painting, even though individual viewers might not understand why they do not feel as at home with a Frankenthaler compared to a Lee Krasner Little Image painting or a painting by Pollock or Tobey (or Sam Francis, in his early classic style).

In the woodcut prints, this inherent tension between ground and motif in Frankenthaler’s painting is resolved. The applied ground and motif – and intermediary areas of expansive motifs or shapes – are all on the surface in the prints. Ground and motif have the same optical qualities and density and they lie flatly on surface of the paper. Absorption of applied pigment into the support does not occur, so there is no ambiguity between applied pigment and pre-existing support. In the prints, there is no recession, with pigment mingling with the material of the canvas (or, in this case, paper). Hence, there is no division between the visual qualities of stain and impasto, ground and motif and therefore no need for viewers to struggle assimilating different pictorial and optical languages. This sense of completeness, of containment and parity between elements in a Frankenthaler woodcut makes them easier viewing than her paintings; for some, this make the woodcuts better art than her paintings.

The exhibition is carefully designed, lit and set out, the catalogue is informative and the video presentation is to the point and not intrusive visually or aurally. Best of all, the art is often beautiful and sometimes genuinely great – comparable to the best works in the genre by artists of different eras, traditions and countries. This exhibition is open until April next year and is highly recommended.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

“Why talented artists are leaving fine art behind”

“Imagine that you are young and you have a passion for a sport, say, javelin throwing. You watch videos of javelin competitions. You buy your own javelin and throw it in a nearby field for hours every day. You then join a javelin club with expectations of becoming a professional sportsman. But the club is not what you expect.

“Club members don’t seem to practice javelin throwing much. And they not only admit members who don’t throw javelins, but they also actively dislike javelins and javelin-throwers. They call javelin-throwers supporters of racial oppression and reactionary politics. You stop going to the club, regretting that you devoted so much energy to the pastime.

“It sounds odd but that’s not far from the situation in fine art. If you love making skilful images of figures, objects and landscapes, it is highly likely that members of your profession will sneer at you – at worst, you will be accused of upholding exclusionary standards. Even art tutors struggle to teach the skills now because they themselves have not been taught them.

“So when using skill to depict worlds in two dimensions in the field of fine art is deemed suspect, where do traditional art-makers go? The new book, Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration, which explores the diverse and dynamic art that comprises fantasy illustration, provides a hint….”

Read the full review on Spiked here.

Wyndham Lewis’s “The Art of Being Ruled” and Elite Theory

In 1926 the British artist-author Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) published The Art of Being Ruled. This treatise of social and political issues was an unusual book in a number of respects. It argued that democracy was not the crowning achievement of Western civilisation but rather a means of suppressing the true wants and needs of the populace. Contrary to liberal intellectuals and supporters of socialism, Lewis argued that mankind in West neither wanted or benefited from democracy. It made no concessions to Lewis’s social milieu, which was predominantly Fabian and Marxist in outlook. A reprint of a selection of Lewis’s prose includes lengthy passages from The Art of Being Ruled, therefore a summary of its arguments is timely.

Lewis, Sorel and reactionary thought

During the early 1900s, Lewis was living in Paris and took an interest in politics as well as the arts. By 1906, Lewis knew of the writing of political theorist and advocate of syndicalism, Georges Sorel – “the key to all contemporary political thought”.[i] Sorel was translated by another Man of 1914, T.E. Hulme, who shared Lewis’s reactionary outlook. Sorel, a late convert to Leninism, may seem a curious hero for Lewis, unless we realise the overlap – or ambiguous adjacency – of Sorel’s traditional and reactionary views. Sorel admired Marxist analyses but conceded, “[Marx] did not understand that the feeling for socialism (as he conceived it) was extremely artificial.”[ii] Socialism is something that is imposed from above, not yearned for from below.

What attracted Lewis was precisely the anti-Modern, illiberal confinement that syndicalism imposed. “[…] the more you specialize people, the more power you can obtain over them, the more helpless and in consequence the more obedient they are. To shut people up in a water-tight, syndicalized, occupational unit is like shutting them up on an island.”[iii] Freedom from specialisation is to bar a working man from community; it robs him of purpose and solidarity. “The chief thing to remember in such a discussion is that no one wants to be ‘free’ in that sense.”[iv]

In his own book, Lewis took as his starting point Sorel, Spengler and Nietzsche. He first discounted the idea that social change is necessarily progress. He then critiqued democracy as a device not of liberation but of containment. “Bound up with the idea of progress in the democratic conception of social unification. It is this idea of unification inseparable from ‘democracy’ that Sorel, the syndicalist, is principally concerned to attack and if possible destroy. Democracy has for its principal object (both according to the revolutionary school to which Sorel belonged, and equally according to Leninism) the disappearance of the class feeling. The idea is to mix all the citizens of a given society into one whole, in which the most intelligent would automatically ‘better themselves’ and rise, by their talents, into the higher ranks. Such social climbing would be of the essence of this democratic society.”[v]

The delusion of democracy

Lewis identifies the functions of democracy as the undermining caste legitimacy and class stability, noting the mechanism of social climbing, analogous to the phenomenon that Pareto had previously described as “circulation of elites”. “For this up and down, this higher and lower, this betterment of ‘progress’ and democratic snobbery, with its necessary unification into a whole, suppressing of differences and substituting for them an arbitrary sale of values, with the salon at the top […]”[vi] Lewis states that syndicalism – considered a branch of Marxist class theory – implicitly accepts an anti-democratic principle of resistance to class mobility in favour of class solidarity for the advancement of that class or tradesman/artisan group.

There is a critique of the mass man – “crushed by debt and threatened with every form of danger, without and within”[vii] – being bombarded by mass media, closely followed by a discussion of education. The main functions of state education are to keep man placid and to direct his trust towards democratic institutions. “His support for everything that he has been taught to support can be practically guaranteed. Hence, of course, the vote of the free citizen is a farce: education and suggestion, the imposition of the will of the ruler through press and other publicity channels, cancelling it. So ‘democratic’ government is far more effective than subjugation by physical conquest. […] So what we call conventionally the capitalist state is as truly an educationalist state.”[viii]

Lewis writes of class privilege substituting race privilege in terms of social status. As he would later write on this matter, Lewis was not a biological essentialist but rather a cultural essentialist and in a time before modern mass migration, he could – with the explicit exception of the USA – equate ethnicity of people with the societies of particular countries. He presents the idea of the English and Scots warring within decades should their public education values diverge and if old enmities were stirred by belligerent elites. He renames What the Public Wants to What the Puppets Want. Class division is as natural as division between species. What is unnatural is the claim by the aristocrats that there is no class division, something that the middle classes and the working man know to be the case.  

Lewis disagreed with Communism but he found the nakedly direct actions of the USSR elites refreshing. In a section entitled “The misuse of intellect”, Lewis describes how Soviet authorities curb the misuses of science and art as entertainment or diversion. By restricting the fields of science and art, the elite reinstate their essential qualities as mystery or craft. “They have taken in this respect the wisest and sanest step where both art and science are concerned, in curtailing the impossible freedom of art, and discouraging the people from gaping incessantly for new and disturbing novelties of science.”[ix] The freedom (real or apparent) afforded people in the Nineteenth Century was anomalous and unnatural. He suggests great books should be reserved for great people. “[A great book] should only be placed in the hands of those who are in a position to understand it. The people who read such books, after all, should be the rulers.”[x] It is worth noting that Lewis was opposed to abstraction in art, despite being the British artist who came close to pure abstraction in the 1910s.  

Ten years after The Art of Being Ruled was published, Lewis wrote, “Ninety per cent of men long at all times for a leader. They are on the look-out, whether they know it or not, for someone who will take all responsibility off their shoulders and tell them what to do.”[xi] For Lewis, the burden of choice for the average man with many concerns, was onerous and one which he would happily pass up, should the cost not be onerous. By extension, the cost demands of having to choose between political platforms of parties and then having the responsibility for being culpable through complicity with the results of endorsing a ruling party’s programme, are also unwelcome. In order to reach these conclusions, Lewis does not have to assume here that democracy actually functions as it is supposed to.

Lewis sees the promulgators of freedom are modern-day aristocrats, who have their own motives. “What is happening in reality in the West is that a small privileged class is playing at revolution, and aping a ‘proletarian’ freedom that the proletariat has not yet reached the conception of. The rich are always the first ‘revolutionaries’. They also mix up together the instincts, opportunities, and desires of the ruler and the ruled. They have the apple and eat it plan in full operation in their behaviour. It is they who have evolved the secondary, heterodox, quite impracticable notion of ‘liberty’ […] This type of freedom, synonymous with irresponsibility, and yet impregnated with privilege as well, is a very strange growth indeed. It will be found on examination to be the most utopian type of all.”[xii]

Later, there is a cutting disparagement of the notion of individuals being encouraged to “express their personality”. “Generally speaking, it can be said that people wish to escape from themselves (this by no means excluding the crudest selfishness). When people are encouraged, as happens in a democratic society, to believe that they wish ‘to express their personality’, the question at once arises as to what their personality is. For the most part, if investigated, it would be rapidly found that they had none. So what would it be that they would eventually ‘express’? and why have they been asked to express it? If they were subsequently watched in the act of ‘expressing’ their personality, it would be found that it was somebody else’s personality they were expressing. If a hundred of them were observed ‘expressing their personality’ all together and at the same time, it would be found that they all ‘expressed’ this inalienable, mysterious ‘personality’ in the same way. In short, it would be patent at once that they had only one personality between them to ‘express’ – some ‘expressing’ it with a little more virtuosity, some a little less. It would be a group personality they were ‘expressing’ – a pattern imposed on them by means of education and the hypnotism of cinema, wireless and press. Each one would, however, be firmly persuaded that it was ‘his own’ personality that he was ‘expressing’: just as when he voted he would be persuaded that it was the vote of a free man that was being cast, replete with the independence and free-will which was the birthright of a member of a truly democratic community.”[xiii]

People wish to be automata”

When we today are encouraged to express our personality, we are given a set range of options to choose from. It is a matter of selecting our favourite musical artist, mass-market (or arthouse) film, holiday destination or tattoo. The acceptable options are not rejection of materialist comforts or allegiance to the causes of holy war, racial purity or nationalistic superiority. Merely thinking such things is essentially criminal and saying the beliefs aloud is actually criminal. Lewis is describing a culture of conformity and expression through consumption which has come to pass. To Orwell, such social transgression was described in 1984 as “thoughtcrime”. “Lewis anticipated Orwell’s concept of “Doublethink” when he stated [in 1936]: “I mean independence in the real sense – not in the Alice in Wonderland sense of contemporary political jargon – where ‘Peace’ means War, ‘Neutrality’ means Intervention, and ‘Independence’ means Economic Servitude.””[xiv] Lewis is describing the modern type of the real-life NPC (non-player character in a video game), who has no interior monologue and repeats information from the mass media. Asking such a person to express his personality is little more than running a programme in order to check the output is as expected. It is a test or inspection, not any expression of individuality.  

“For in the mass[,] people wish to be automata: they wish to be conventional: they hate you teaching them or forcing them into ‘freedom’: they wish to be obedient, hard-working machines, as near dead as possible – as near dead (feelingless and thoughtless) as they can get, without actually dying.”[xv] Lewis detects in people a desire to be numb, to escape oneself, coupled with a strong sense of purpose and place. He dissects the modern state’s drive to dismantle the family, most particularly in the socialist state. He describes the state as becoming the breadwinner. Lewis is critical of feminism and female influence and foresees the rise of welfare state in a feminist era. “Since the great masses of the people are not likely to be in a position to prolong the family arrangement based on an individual ‘home’ (marriage and the family circle to which the European is accustomed), it will be abolished. That is the economic fact at the bottom of ‘feminism’.”[xvi]  

With mankind on the threshold of world government, what powers would authorities need and exercise? “People no doubt could be persuaded that they did not see the sun and moon […]” Consider how that applies to academia, mass media and social media of today and the way that impossibilities are advanced as unarguable truths.

The Art of Being Ruled is a remarkable book – remarkably prescient and remarkably brave. This reprinted edited version will make the ideas known to more. Let us hope that a press decides to issue an unedited republication. For now, alongside extracts of Lewis’s other social and philosophical writings, this version is a fascinating addition to any library of counter-liberal thought.

Wyndham Lewis, E.W.F. Tomlin (ed.), Volume 3: An Anthology of His Prose, Routledge Library Editions, 1969/2021, hardback, 397pp + ix, mono illus., £80, ISBN 978 1 03 211914 4

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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


[i] Prose, p. 122

[ii] Sorel, quoted Prose, p. 124

[iii] Prose, p. 153

[iv] Prose, p. 153

[v] Prose, p. 98

[vi] Prose, p. 99

[vii] Prose, p. 107

[viii] Prose, p. 108

[ix] Prose, p. 115

[x] Prose, p. 114

[xi] Quoted from Left Wings over Europe (1936), 296p Meyers

[xii] Prose, p. 136

[xiii] Prose, pp. 150-1

[xiv] Prose, p. 296

[xv] Prose, p. 153

[xvi] Prose, p. 185

Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800 is a current touring exhibition (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 30 September 2021-9 January 2022; Detroit Institute of Arts, 6 February-29 May 2022). The exhibition brings together some of the biggest names in art by Italian women. Gentileschi, Anguissola, Carriera are well known to students of art history and Fontana is familiar to anyone who has read a feminist art history; lesser-known figures give a wider view of the field. This review is from the catalogue.

Interest in women artists has grown apace in recent years. Of particular focus has been Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later), a Baroque Caravaggisti from Rome. The high standard of her best paintings and her life story have been taken up as proof of twin claims made broadly by feminists – that women are as equally talented as men, therefore their general absence from art history (until recently) is a deliberate act of erasure by men, and that women have suffered shaming and abuse at the hands of men which has made pursuit of profession and private fulfilment difficult unique to women. Despite the fact that women’s routes to the position of accredited artist were often less straightforward than those of male counterparts, historical research supports the fact that women did work in the art field in greater numbers than initially thought. The narrative of systemic oppression seems less tenable. Talent and determination has a way of finding an outlet and recognition, if only posthumously. All of the artists in this exhibition achieved some degree of professional success in their lifetimes.

Artemisia Gentileschi was daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), who acted as her master during her apprenticeship as a painter. Her style follows his, which was patterned on Caravaggio’s. In 1611 she was raped by the Agostino Tassi (1578-1644). After the rape, Tassi offered to marry Artemisia, which was a promise he subsequently broke. It was the breaking of this marriage contract that was brought to trial by Orazio, as well as a plan by Tassi to steal a painting by Orazio. Although Tassi was found guilty of breaking the contract and having committed other crimes (and of having planned to commit others), he was not punished. Artemisia’s subsequent paintings of women martyrs, and of Judith murdering Holofernes, are interpreted as a pointed response to the attack and failure of the court to implement just punishment. Almost all of her paintings feature women protagonists. This may be a personal fixation of hers or (as some historians have suggested) the artist trading on her notability as a high-profile woman artist by painting women. Gentileschi subsequently married and moved to Florence, where she achieved success as a court painter. Later periods in Venice, Rome, Naples and London led to steady commissions and respectful receptions by local academies and courts.  

[Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5), oil on canvas, 184 x 141.6 cm, Detroit Institute of Art]

The catalogue reproduces three Gentileschi self-portraits of 1615-7 and a prototype of c. 1613-4. The exhibition includes perhaps her great painting, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5). In it, the standing Judith holds a blooded cutlass. She holds out a hand to shade her left eye; that presents us with the audacious crescent of her profile shining in the darkness. The composition is a series of arcs tumbling down the composition. It is a fine picture, perhaps the best of her oeuvre. It has the usual weaknesses of Caravaggisti painting – poor articulation of space, breaks in logic (the shadow of Judith’s raised arm should throw her sleeve and shoulder into darkness, etc.), selective use of optical accuracy (gestures towards realistic shadows, no understanding of reflected light and colour) and the problems of proportion that stem from composite designs that combine discrete parts, which derives from (though is not in all instances caused by) use of the camera obscura. Historians tend to be overimpressed by the appearance of naturalism in Caravaggisti paintings, not crediting the degree to which artists deliberately fudge issues when they need to achieve a certain effect. Caravaggisti were primarily concerned to create an impression of truthfulness rather than record truth. It is a form of dishonesty and is their greatest fault.

Gentileschi’s non-Judith Biblical paintings and self-portraits are distinctly less persuasive, degrees weaker than the paintings of Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663). Cagnacci (despite his flaws) is a better, more exciting painter than Gentileschi. Lot and His Daughters (1636-8) has the three figures like cut-outs adjoining one another, figures casting no shadows on others; this undermines the artist’s intention to bond the three in an interlocked group. David and Bathsheba (c. 1636-7)is much poorer, with the architectural background (perhaps by an assistant) being both insistent and unpersuasive. The rearmost attendant is awkward; the others are little better. The placement of figures and spatial arrangement is risible, making a mockery of the attempted eye contact between Bathsheba and the rightmost attendant. Such paintings – the pedestrian and the poor – show Gentileschi to be a second-rate painter capable of a few flashes of brilliance.  

So, what of the quality of the rest of the art? Does it stand up to scrutiny?

Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535-1625) is a very inconsistent artist, as this selection proves. She is best known for self-portraits, which vary in treatment from the sensitive to the cursory. The lowest in quality seem to be casual efforts, trading on the novelty of being self-portraits of a woman artist.  (A painfully malproportioned self-portrait (now in Vienna) is illustrated.) The miniature self-portrait with giant medallion (oil on parchment, 3¼” x 2½”) is a handsome piece of work, well modelled, contemplative, technically well thought through. Self-Portrait at the Easel (1554-5) is one of the number of variants, showing the artist depicting a Virgin and Child. The portraits of children are good, one deriving from Giovanni Battista Moroni’s style. The Holy Family (1592) is rather unpleasant, with its pneumatic anatomies and slick handling. For more on this artist, read another review by me here.  

Diana Scultori (c. 1547-1612) was a Mantuan engraver working in the Roman style established by Marcantonio Raimondi. The composition after Giulio Romano is very effective; the translation of a Cornelius Cort drawing of The Spinario is somewhat less so. It is difficult to separate the weaknesses of this second engraving into errors of the original drawing and those of transcription.

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) is one of the female painters of the Bolognese School. She is represented by religious paintings, portraits and portrait drawings executed in black and red chalks. A small tondo portrait of a prelate (c. 1580) is arresting – sympathetic, engaged, carefully executed – but the other pictures are unremarkable. Fede Galizia (c. 1574-c. 1630) seems (on the evidence of her Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1596) and an attractive still-life of fruit (c. 1607)) to be of high calibre, but it is impossible to judge on the strength of only two paintings. It is hard to assess printmakers Isabella Catanea Parasole (active 1585-1625) and Anna Maria Vaiani (1604-c. 1655), painter Anna Bacherini Piattoli (1720-1788) and miniaturist Veronica Stern Telli (1717-1801) on these meagre showings. Painters Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596-1676) and Ginevre Cantofoli (1618-1672) and pastellist Marianna Carlevarijs (1703-after 1750) seem to be very slight talents.

Through illustration, it is hard to appreciate the religious dioramas of Caterina de Julianis (c. 1670-c. 1742). Dioramas (framed constructions of painted wax figures of saints in setting deep-relief settings are pieces) often get overlooked in art histories. Somewhere between fine art, devotional handicraft, ex voto and sculptural curiosity, such dioramas are hard to categorise. The common temperamental aversion of polychromy in sculpture, prejudice against the use of wax (redolent of anatomical teaching aides) and the fact that these diorama were often produced by nuns (often anonymously) rather than professionally accredited artists, all mean that dioramas of devotional character fall between academic disciplines and do not receive their due attention. The extreme delicacy of such pieces has caused a high attrition rate, leading to gaps in the historical records which has obscured the extent of the production. de Julianis’s piece in the catalogue has a coloured wax figurine of Penitent Magdalene, in woodland grotto with a deer drinking at a stream, with a painted landscape behind. The materials are listed as “beeswax, pigments, paper, glass, vellum, silk, feathers, wire, burlap, and varnish”. Such dioramas inspired recent art by contemporary sculptor Berlinde de Bruyckere.

The attractive and scrupulous tempera paintings on parchment of flora and fauna by Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) are a delight. She trained as a miniaturist and made portraits and religious paintings. They are sharp, accurate and display great versatility – they hark back to Dürer and anticipate the field of naturalist illustration. Despite the wealth of detail, they never become either fussy or stiff, enlivened by the use of hatched shading and blending of colours and line with stippling. The subjects have sculptural presence. They are the outstanding find of this exhibition.

Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was another Bolognese artist, adulated in her lifetime. She was a prolific painter, producing portraits, mythological paintings, Biblical scenes and etchings. We know of her production and development because she signed and dated many paintings. Aside from the original and intense Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664), there is nothing here that seems to separate Sirani from contemporaries. To prove her fortitude to her husband Brutus, Portia stabbed herself in the thigh. It is a rare subject in art. Portia’s expression is reserved and a touch dreamy. In a way, it anticipates the modern-day self-cutting craze, where bloodletting is a test of strength and self-control. Responses to Sirani and Fontana will likely depend on whether the viewer finds the art of the Bolognese School of this period agreeable  

Venetian pastellist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) is well known enough. As a portraitist in pastels, she was famed during her lifetime and (for afficionados of the period) she is still a star. Her miniature portraits in watercolour on ivory show the delicacy of her touch and flair for Rococo airiness and sensuality. Her technical grounding and brio in execution make her pastels and paintings attractive and stylistically consistent – internally and as a group. As with much Rococo art, there is the ever-present temptation for the artist to flatter both subject and viewer. A late invented head in pastel is looser and more expressive than her commissioned portraits.   

The exhibition also includes portraits of women artists by men. The best is a dramatic, sculptural and handsome 1627 painting by Simon Vouet (1590-1649), of his wife Virginia de Vezzo (1600-1638). This is a thoughtful addition but perhaps a counter-productive one. With the possible exception of Gentileschi’s Judith, Vouet’s portrait is the best painting in an exhibition dedicated to presenting the abilities of women artists.

[Image: Simon Vouet, Virginia da Vezzo, the Artist’s Wife, as the Magdalene (c. 1626), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 1649 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art]

Catalogue essays explore women artists as miniaturists and the professional standing of women artists in this period in Italy. Catalogue entries devote space to discussing issues related to exhibited items. The essays and catalogue entries are written by specialists Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, Sheila Barker, Babette Bohn, Claude-Douglas Dickerson III, Jamie Gabbarelli, Hilliard Goldfarb, Lara Lea Roney and Joaneath Spicer. The entries are sympathetic towards the situation of women artists but lack the stridency or partisan quality found in other books. This makes the catalogue a pleasure to read and endows the statements with greater credibility. The evidence of new scholarship is woven into informative entries on exhibits.

The more sweeping claims of first-generation feminist art historians are being picked apart by close study of records. “Beginning in the fourteenth century, women’s rate of matriculation in the artisanal guilds across Europe began to drop, yet women continues to work in similar numbers. Whereas this decline was formerly attributed to efforts to cast women out of guilds through exclusionary tactics, historians now widely agree that late medieval and early modern women may have deliberately avoided joining guilds, probably to save money and time, and to skirt requirements that could cut into their profit margins, productivity, employment opportunities, and market shares.”

The extensive exhibition list and bibliography will be a useful reference for students and academics seeking sources. The illustrations are generally very good. Overall, the catalogue and exhibition is a balanced overview of women artists in Italy in the pre-modern era. Some of the art is wonderful and the texts provide a survey of the achievements of Italian women artists.

Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, et al, By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Detroit Institute of Arts (distr. Yale), 2021, cloth hb, 208pp, 141 col. illus., $40/£30, ISBN 978 0 300 25636 9

Purchase the book here.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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


Botticelli, Artist and Designer

Ana Debenedetti, formerly Curator of Paintings at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has written a book on Botticelli, paying particular attention to him as head of a workshop and producer of designs for embroideries, tapestries, wood inlays and other non-painted art. It is the latest in the attractive series of artist monographs from Reaktion.

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (1445-1510), called Botticelli, was born in Florence into what we would describe today as a middle-class family. One brother (Antonio) was a goldsmith, another was a marriage broker. Botticelli was possibly apprenticed to Maso Finiguerra (1426-1464) as a teenager. Finiguerra was a goldsmith but part of a goldsmith’s activities included designing in stucco before gilding. It was a task that straddled metalwork, bas relief and painting and was one of multiple of decorative disciplines that could be employed on production of furniture, frames, altarpieces and liturgical objects. Botticelli painted a portrait of man (Antonio?) holding an actual gilded medallion attesting to his trade. Either of the brothers would have been capable of producing that element.

Botticelli seems to have received instruction on goldsmithing, stucco-work and drawing from Finiguerra. In 1459 or 1460 Botticelli became assistant to Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), already an established master of a higher calibre and status to Finiguerra. Debenedetti suggests that this may be because of the Botticelli family’s social or business connections with Fra Filippo. His reputation was high and his studio was busy, so it may not have taken much persuasion for the master to take on the talented young Botticelli. (Filippino Lippi (son of Filippo), upon the death of his father completed his apprenticeship under Botticelli.)

Under Fra Filippo, Botticelli learned panel and fresco painting in tempera. He was one of the last painters to be trained in tempera on panel and not to adapt to the incoming medium of oil painting on panel and canvas. By the time of his death, Botticelli’s style had fallen from fashion and his materials seemed hopelessly archaic. Botticelli used lighting to make his figures clear rather than to imitate light and shade in naturalistic fashion. In his early paintings some of his figures cast no shadows. There is no hint of reflected colour in Botticelli’s art. Note how the figures of Leonardo and Raphael are integrated into their surroundings, quite unlike Botticelli’s paintings. In other respects, Botticelli was advanced painter, observing nature and including details to heighten the richness of his scenes. “This wealth of detail echoes the rich apparatus of Fortitude [(1470)], and reveals Botticelli’s obsession with naturalistic features that would soon become a distinctive trait of his art. it is his capacity to depict the natural world as a veritable spectacle of marvels that made Botticelli one of the most successful translators of the Florentine devotional and mythological scenes alike.”

Botticelli’s painting bottega (shop, workshop) was one of the largest in Florence in the 1470s and 1480s. Apparently, his prices were not notably higher than those of other masters. It was in the family home. He lived in his brother’s family over the period 1482-94; after his brother’s death he lived there alone. Filippino Lippi, now fully trained, acted as Botticelli’s junior collaborator. Filippino may have inherited his father’s model books (or pattern books), which contained exemplary drawings used as designs for compositions, figures and details in paintings. There is a lot of crossover in terms of treatment and imagery in the many paintings of Virgin and Child made by Fra Filippo, Filippino and Botticelli. The facial type of the Virgin (the sweet countenance, pale skin and rounded forehead) rarely changes, though we see development of treatment of space and iconography. Likewise, in the portraits we see versatility and a degree of innovation. There is not space enough for the author to do more than discuss The Divine Comedy illustrations in brief.

Debenedetti assesses the reception and commissioning of art by the Botticelli’s workshop, doing some close reading of particularly notable works. Attention is paid to Botticelli’s contribution to a commission for symbolic paintings for the Merchants’ Guild court, executed in 1470. The original commission had gone to Piero del Pollaiolo for seven paintings, perhaps as the painted backs of chairs for the judges. For some reason, a senior politician intervened and had one of the paintings was made by Botticelli. It was the artist’s first public commission. It may be that the guild was irritated by Piero’s slow work. He was also young and inexperienced. Debenedetti says that technical analysis shows that Piero’s older brother Antonio may have stepped in to complete at least one painting to save the remainder of the commission.  

The author disagrees with the truth – or at least the totalising explanation – of a move to archaising influence of Girolamo Savonarola (during his influence on Florence, 1489-1498) upon Botticelli’s style. “Although this observation is undeniable, it cannot go unnoticed that Botticelli changed his style several times before this dark period.” It was Savonarola’s messianic preaching and message of devotion through civic renewal that made him popular and feared. The destruction of worldly luxuries that Savonarola called for resulted in the Bonfire of the Vanities. Botticelli and Lorenzo di Credi both allegedly gave paintings to be burned.

The author analyses Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. She considers that the revival of theatre by the court of Lorenzo Medici may have influenced Primavera (c. 1480) and The Birth of Venus (1478-82). His last recorded commission was made in 1505. By the time of his death, five years later, he was neglected and his possessions and copy books were considered of little monetary value. Debenedetti believes that his copy books did posthumously reach other artists before being broken up and the sheets almost all lost.

Illustrations of the relevant pictures are handy. The images of contemporaneous applied art using the painter’s designs are not often found and they prompt us to reconsider the master as collaborator and designer. The full endnotes, chronology, bibliography and index are a welcome addition for a relatively short book. Debenedetti’s Botticelli: Artist and Designer is a well-researched book that takes advantage of new scholarship.

Ana Debenedetti, Botticelli: Artist and Designer, 2021, Reaktion, hardback, 232pp, 73 col./1 mono illus., £15.95, ISBN 978 1 78914 438 3

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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


Toyen, Magnetic Woman

The first English-language overview of Czech Surrealist artist Toyen (Marie Čermínová, 1902-1980) corrects a longstanding lacuna in English literature on Surrealism. Surrealism studies has been expanding its range over decades. Central and Eastern Europe have been poorly served however, particularly because of lack of access to records during the Communist era and the relative dearth of Surrealist scholars able to speak the relevant languages.

As Karla Huebner, associate professor of art history at Wright State University, explains in her monograph Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic, neglect of Toyen’s art is in part her own making. Toyen was not keen to commit her artistic ideas or biographical information to paper, leaving many admirers in her lifetime unclear about the artist’s intentions. André Breton was an admirer of her art and she was involved in post-War Surrealism in Paris – she fled to Paris after the Iron Curtain fell – but she is seen as, if not second rank, certainly second generation. Huebner correctly discerns that post-War Surrealism was (and is) considered a spent force. Even in official histories of the movement, comparatively little attention is paid to the Paris group after 1945. Other reasons are discussed later.

Toyen was born Marie Čermínová, in Prague in 1902, to Catholic parents from Bohemia. Huebner sets out what little she can glean of Toyen’s early life, which (apart from official records) amounts is almost nothing. Between 1919 and 1922, Čermínová attended the Artistic-Industrial School, which was the applied art school in Prague. Her teacher was Emanuel Dítĕ the Younger was an academic painter, but Heubner points out that some notable Czech modernists started their careers under him, so his teaching must not have been deadening. In later years, the artist did not discuss her background with anyone, though it seems she was not estranged, simply keen to protect her privacy (or control public perceptions of her).

Čermínová dressed ambiguously, not presenting as a man but in working clothes more common for men than women. She also wore conventionally feminine clothes. She cut her hair short. Rather than intending to pass as the opposite sex, Čermínová’s diverse styles of dressing suggest variable intentions and moods, an understanding of appropriacy and a studied disregard for convention. “Descriptions of the artist as androgynous or of mutable gender identity emphasize four general characteristics: 1) cross-dressing, especially in rough and working-class manner; 2) walking with an unusual, apparently unladylike, gait; 3) use of the masculine gender in Czech (though not, apparently, in French); and 4) attraction to women.”

Image: “2.1 A studio photograph used for publicity. Toyen, circa 1928. Photographer unknown. LA PNP.”

Čermínová was a successful and prolific designer of book jackets and illustrations, starting in 1923. That was the same year she joined the Devĕtsil Modernist movement, which Huebner describes as an avant-garde movement with cosmopolitan attitudes, which saw itself as internationalist – partly to step outside the Czech nationalist revival (Nationalist Awakening), that had begun around 1900. The Devĕtsil members had their roots in the Decadent Movement of the 1890s. It was upon her joining the movement that she was given the name “Toyen”, which she would use for the rest of her life, personally and professionally (if not legally).

From 1922 until his death in 1942, Toyen was the partner of Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942). Štyrský started as a latter-day follower of the Decadents. He had an interest in potent provocative literature, dreams and occultism – a good grounding for a future Surrealist. He was a painter with a pronounced preoccupation with death, decay, ruin, as well as the erotic. He worked as a painter, although it is for his montages – especially with pornographic elements – that he is best known for today. The couple apparently collaborated on different levels, consulting each other about choices and sometimes working on pieces together. They frequently exhibited together, with prices comparable. Štyrský and Toyen were considered a social and artistic pairing, Toyen not as a junior partner or follower. Magazine spreads show that their art was given equal prominence. There seems to have been no condescension towards women in the Devĕtsil group, though (again) apparently few participated.

Huebner describes how the Prague proto-Surrealists were a vital force in the mid-1920s, just as the Paris group was graduating from Dadaism to Surrealism. (This was despite the fact that the Prague group was not officially founded until 1934.) There was apparently rivalry between the groups for intellectual leadership of the movement. In 1925 Toyen and Štyrský moved to Paris. The book contains much discussion of the pair’s personal and artistic fascination with sex, so much more easily accessible and public in Paris than elsewhere. Sex was a major theme of the pair’s art. Toyen’s paintings and sketches include revue bars, prostitution, lesbianism, orgies and other sexual imagery, made in a naïve style.

Image: “0.2. Toyen’s work began to signal an interest in androgyny by the early 1930s. Toyen, untitled drawing in the Erotická revue 2 (1932).”

Toyen’s erotic illustrations are playful and vary in detail, ranging from the primitive to the sophisticated over-layering found in Surrealist photomontages. The lines can be sensitive and elegant. The imagery includes the ribaldry of pornography, the sophistication of Beardsley and the juxtapositions of Surrealism. The sheer amount of work indicates Toyen’s serious artistic investment in this field. Toyen and Štyrský published illustrated erotic books and her illustrations in Štyrský’s Erotická Revue (1930–33). Štyrský was sympathetic to Bataille’s dissident Documents group, which focused on the power of sex, the concept of the informe and the concentration on sadism. This book should establish Toyen as a major artist of the erotic.

The pair’s work earliest art in Paris was semi-abstract paintings, influenced by Cubism and Purism; it was described as “artificialist”. It is tepid fare. The ambivalence of Breton and the Surrealist poets towards art meant that painting in early Surrealist period was ancillary. Breton started writing in 1925 of “Le surréalisme et la peinture”, distinguishing and dividing the two entities with the conjunctive “and”. Toyen and Štyrský spent the late 1920s resisting Surrealism, all the time becoming more familiar with it, swimming in the waters of the movement that dominated inter-war Paris. Huebner says that once Toyen committed to Surrealism, she did it wholeheartedly and became the central figure of Czech Surrealism – its unofficial leader. By this time, she was back in Prague. She and Štyrský had returned from Paris in 1928.

This book acts as a survey of Czech Surrealism. It explains the significance of major actors, important events and the tensions between Surrealism and Communism. The paucity of personal papers means that Toyen disappears a little in some sections. She comes back into focus during the Occupation and World War II, during which she stayed in Prague, sheltering a half-Jewish artist Jindřich Heisler (1914-1953) from Nazi arrest and transportation to concentration camps. In 1942, Štyrský died of pneumonia, exacerbated by alcoholism. It was in 1944 that Toyen produced Hide Yourself, War!, nine ink illustrations featuring animal skeletons in devastated landscapes. They are by far Toyen’s best art. The powerful bleakness, graphic crispness and wonderfully modulated shading give these apparitions tremendous impact.

Image: “5.22a–i Skeletal figures on flat expanses warn of war’s destruction. Toyen, Schovej se, válko! [Hide Yourself, War!/Cache-­toi guerre!], 1944 (Prague: F. Borový, 1946).”

Occupation of Prague by Soviet forces following the war and the artistically deadening influence of Czech Communists meant that Toyen, despite being politically left, realised her art had no future in her home country. In 1947, Toyen and Heisler (her new partner) moved to Paris. She would reside in France until her death.

It is a little ironic (given the author’s identification of the critical neglect Surrealists after 1945) that relatively little space is given to Toyen’s post-War production. This does turn out to be justified. The author describes how Toyen’s art became more diffuse, mystical in mood, suffused by darkness. This was congruent with Surrealism as a whole, as Breton directed followers to embrace the occult and mysticism. Single hybridised humanoid forms float in stygian voids. Collaged elements (such as mouths and hands cut from magazine pages) are incorporated into painted personages. It is hard not to think of this era as a decline. Toyen’s art was at its best with a sharp graphic bite and limpid clarity. We do find some flickers of success in her post-1945 line drawings but even these are less concisely arranged than her early Surrealism. Toyen’s painting (always weak) becomes forgettable. There is the implicit suggestion of laziness – covering backgrounds and settings with darkness, failing to resolve compositions, not fully articulating motifs. Viewing these pedestrian efforts, is it any wonder Toyen is considered a third-rate painter, when she is considered at all?

There are unanswered questions. Huebner does not discuss how the paintings were made. Did Toyen make preparatory drawings or were the paintings designed on the canvas? Hide Yourself, War! presumably had sources for the skeletons – were they taken from textbooks or drawn from museum specimens? Did Toyen keep sketchbooks? Did she write letters mentioning her technique or including thumbnail sketches? Also, Toyen’s income goes undiscussed. Did she make a living income from fine art or was she obliged to do book-design work? We do not know anything about her living arrangements or daily routines. Did she travel? This is no criticism of the author. It may be that such information is entirely lost. Huebner has rightly discerned that the main priority is to outline Toyen’s art and summarise methods of critiquing it.   

Pick up any large book on Surrealist art and you will find Toyen’s art, but rarely represented by more than a drawing or two or maybe a painting. Little text is given to her. (Less is given to Štyrský.) So, for what reasons (apart from neglect of the post-War period of Surrealism) are Toyen’s art not more reproduced or discussed?

Refreshingly, for an author writing on a female Surrealist, Huebner admits that gender is not the primary reason for the neglect of her subject. “The scholar in pursuit of Toyen encounters some of the usual problems in studying a female artist – the relative paucity of critical sources, the need to research her via male associates – yet not entirely for the usual reasons. Indeed, Toyen’s two artistic partners, Štyrský and Heisler, have received no more attention than she. It is less that her gender has obscured knowledge of her work than that historical circumstances – primarily arising from the Cold War – have obscured her from view.” This point is outlined in the second paragraph of this review.

The frankness of Toyen’s erotic art may have put off some publishers and art historians. The subject of sex is not unknown to the movement (Hans Bellmer made it his central concern), but mainstream publishers can be wary of unambiguously explicit art in titles intended for libraries and schools. The erect phallus (which one does not find in the art of other female Surrealists) is definitely on the indecent side of the line that separates mainstream publishing from specialist publishing. The compiler of any monograph on Toyen cannot avoid including her erotic pictures.

Huebner identifies a key difference between Toyen and other female Surrealists. There is lack of personalisation and a lack of personae in her art. There are no self-portraits, no alter egos and no glamorous avatars in Toyen’s dreamscapes. “Toyen’s avoidance of [the face of the artist] does not negate the possibility of self-referential imagery in her work, but indicates that she did not care to represent herself in an obvious way or as the kind of wild and beautiful woman found in the work of Carrington, Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, and even Valentine Hugo.” This is definitely to Toyen’s disadvantage in terms of popular reception. There is no accessible entry point and no character upon which the female viewer can project herself. Toyen was an attractive woman but unlike the other women Surrealists, she did not model nude for herself or anyone else. Toyen’s aversion to (even disguised/transposed) literary and pictorial autobiography makes her art less attractive to audiences and academics.

Image: “Plate 18. Does the gymnast emerge from or disappear into the wall? Toyen, Relâche [After the Performance], 1943, oil, 109 × 52.5 cm. Alsova Jihočeska galerie, Hluboká nad Vltavou.”

As already described, a strike against Toyen is the fact that she was not a natural painter, being better suited to collage and illustration. Her skill was for graphics – line, composition, reduction – rather than colour, texture and brushwork. This puts her at an immediate disadvantage compared to the major Surrealist artists, who (with the exceptions of sculptor Giacometti and photographer Man Ray) were all painters. Next to the paintings of rich patterns and colours of Leonor Fini, the fairy-tale characters of Leonora Carrington and the haunting plains of Kay Sage, Toyen’s paintings feel a little thin, a touch flat, even drab. The best of Toyen’s art is her illustrations. However unfairly, line drawings and illustrations are judged minor art forms and treated accordingly.  

I disagree with José Pierre’s assessment of Toyen, quoted by Huebner, as “the least acknowledged of the great surrealist painters”.Toyen is not a great painter; she is barely a competent painter. She is a very accomplished draughtsman – at times reaching true greatness. However, due to the minor status of drawing and the other limitations outlined above, Toyen will never be counted as a Surrealist of the highest level by the public. Huebner has very well evaluated and presented the case for Toyen and readers benefit from knowing Toyen and her unique contribution to Surrealism. Magnetic Woman is a major achievement, very enjoyable and greatly informative. The author’s diligence and the clarity of her writing are of the highest standard. The author is well informed about Surrealism and current discussions in gender theory.

For those claiming Toyen as a “transgender” artist, there is disappointing news. Huebner nowhere cites Toyen describing herself as anything other than a woman. Despite using both male and female pronouns regarding herself in Czech, for the majority of her life she spoke principally French. In French, she never used a male pronoun regarding herself. While there is evidence of cross-dressing and some linguistic reframing in one of her two languages, there is nothing here to suggest she considered herself in identity terms such as transgender, transman, transvestite, intersex or anything else. The most that can be said of her is that (at times) she did not act in ways that were considered normatively female – along with a number of other women in that era, who likewise did not consider themselves transgender. It seems that Toyen did not want to be thought of by others as a woman because that might limit her; there is no evidence in this book that she thought of herself as anything other than a woman. She was a woman who acted the ways she wanted to. That in itself is noteworthy and does not need embellishing.

This publication is a rare foray into art history by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Let us hope it will not be the last. The book is well illustrated and handsomely bound in buckram, doing both subject and author credit. A word of advice for anyone who is a devotee of Surrealism, Czech Modernism, erotic art and female Modernist artists: buy this book. Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic is certain to become an essential source book, much sought after and expensive. Buy it now, while you can.

Karla Huebner, Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020, cloth hb, 408pp, 28 col./many mono illus., $100, ISBN 978 0 8229 4647 2

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Arthur Conan Doyle: Playing with Fire

Reception of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional output has been unbalanced by the huge success of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Mike Ashley, editor of this selection of Doyle’s stories of the uncanny and incredible, notes that Doyle’s horror and supernatural stories outnumber his Holmes stories. Playing with Fire brings together his best stories, as well as the essay “Stranger Than Fiction” (1915), in which Doyle addresses his experiences in spiritualism and inexplicable (or highly improbable coincidence). He spent a night in a haunted house and was awoken by a fearful hammering coming from inside the house. He found no person or other cause was found; the doors and windows were bolted and locked.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a devoted reader and teller of strange tales. The morbid and uncanny often intrude into the Holmes stories and sometimes form the basis of them. “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” and “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” both play on the reader’s innate repulsion towards the unnatural. Doyle’s first submission to a professional story magazine (at the age of 18 or 19) was a horror story to Blackwood’s. They declined; the manuscript was discovered and published in 2000. He was published soon after that initial rejection. During his years as a medical student he published stories occasionally, along with some medical papers. In addition to his detective stories and weird tales, Doyle wrote historical novels and science-fiction stories.  

Doyle’s attachment to rationality, science and logic warred with his fixation – even obsession – with the macabre and supernatural. Fascinated by telepathy and parapsychology, Doyle was in contact with the Society for Psychical Research during the late 1880s and joined the organisation in 1893. He exposed hoaxes, as well as considering some experiences potentially authentic. Doyle treated seriously the quest to communicate with souls and spirits, considering such activity as an extension of science rather than a contradiction of it. This took on a painfully personal aspect when Doyle’s son died during service in the Great War. He was caught out by the 1920 Cottingley Fairies hoax, which damaged his credibility. The editor notes, “Doyle’s ability to convince himself of what others saw as fakery was the same ability with which he could create living and breathing characters in his fiction, and powerful and memorable imagery.”

“The Captain of the ‘Polestar’” (1883) is inspired Doyle’s voyage on board a Scottish whaler in the Arctic. His narrator writes a diary of a whaler steaming ever deeper into the ice floes, commanded by a captain blind with ambition that seems irrational. They risk being frozen in and their ship being crushed to matchwood by the power of the ice. The captain seems gripped by madness, while the crew see visions of a ghostly apparition on the sea ice. The narrator is a man of science, sceptical, attempting to ward off his disquiet with rationalisation. It is powerfully atmospheric tale, that should have been longer. As is common with Doyle, he tended to end his stories before the mystery was wrung out of them.  

“The Winning Shot” (1883) is a tale about a mysterious Swedish sailor whom a couple meet on Dartmoor. The sailor is invited to stay in the family home and he develops an infatuation with the female narrator. When he is rejected he wreaks his revenge. “John Barrington Cowles” (1884) is about a beautiful femme fatale who destroys the men who fall in love with her. Her powers may come from the Orient, though the exact connection is left for readers to infer. Other stories are “De Profundis”, “The Parasite”, “The Story of the Brown Hand”, “Playing with Fire”, “The Leather Funnel”, “The Terror of Blue John Gap”, “How it Happened”, “The Horror of the Heights” and “The Bully of Brocas Court”, which deal with ghosts, visions, mesmerism, spirit communication, monsters and mental imbalance.

Most could be called stories of mystery or the weird, a few (especially “The Leather Funnel” and “The Terror of Blue John Gap”) fall into the category of the horror story. The stories have the characteristic brisk pacing, broad well-judged vocabulary and crime story format of the author’s Sherlock Holmes tales. As was a common trope, many of the stories are framed as diary extracts or dialogues between fictional characters. Although some work better than others – the aerial dogfight with a gelatinous monster is as fun as it is silly – all are diverting and worth becoming reacquainted with. All the stories have been collected in different volumes; seeing them together in one volume themed on the supernatural is very welcome. They work very well as a group, building a feeling of unease. It is an ideal companion for long winter nights.  

The only fault in this book is a notice apologising for any offence taken by readers upset by racial stereotyping or outmoded idioms. “We acknowledge therefore that some elements in the stories selected for reprinting may continue to make uncomfortable reading for some of our audience.” This is unnecessary. The publishing arm of a national library should not be apologising for reproducing the work of classic authors loved and respected by generations of readers.     

Arthur Conan Doyle, Playing with Fire: The Weird Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, The British Library, 2021, hardback, 288pp, £14.99, ISBN  978 0 7123 5425 7

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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