British Geometric Abstract Art

 

[Image: (left) Marc Vaux, OV.M.13 (2014), acrylic on MDF, 132 x 115.5 cm; (right) John Carter, © courtesy of the Artist. Three Turns Variant (2007), acrylic with marble powder on plywood, 65 x 70 x 8 cm, © courtesy of the Artist.]

Geometric abstract art has generally been poorly received in Great Britain. Britain was late to visual Modernism and accepted only its most tepid forms until at least the mid-twentieth century. The hostility towards Modernism translated into especially strong disapproval of the most uncompromising avant-gardism: geometric abstraction.

In this book, James Bartos looks at the geometric abstraction in British art and provides case studies six artists: Alan Reynolds (1926-2014), Peter Joseph (b. 1929), Marc Vaux (b. 1932), John Carter (b. 1942), Callum Innes (b. 1962) and Luke Frost (b. 1976).

The author is unequivocally in favour of beauty, no matter how spurned that term is by the sophisticated consumers of advanced social and artistic theory. The publishers are to be commended for the decision to publish a book that advocates contemporary art, painting and beauty – a shamefully rare intersection of vectors in contemporary art publishing. Bartos uses Tim Craven’s tripartite categorisation of abstract art into biomorphic, expressive (gestural) and geometric. He comments on the associations between geometric abstraction and Minimalism.

I think painting can be minimal, and I think of minimalist art as being a sort of quiet art. Most art today is very shouty art. It shouts slogans and politics and social issues; it shouts with bizarre objects, chaotic graphics, loud colours, shiny surfaces, cacophonic sounds coming out of multiple speakers, multiple images coming out of multiple TV screens, complicated back-stories, hard-to-understand scenes of dystopia and jumbled installations that are difficult to take in or to walk through. Among this shouty cacophony, minimalist art seems at rest, creating within itself and around itself a quietude, a harmony or balance and a space for contemplation.

In the first part of the book, Bartos recounts the international development of the style, starting with Constructivism and de Stijl and running through later phases. Those phases and artists include Bauhaus, Naum Gabo, Josef Albers, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Minimalism (including Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt). The emphasis on prints and painting is expanded to include Judd’s sculptures made of painted aluminium components. Minimalism was a major area of experimentation for geometric art. A left-field addition is Larry Bell as a representative of California Light and Space. (The most well-known member of the group is James Turrell.) Commenced in 1964, his sculptures in glass and mirror, with addition coloration effects, are the light and subtly coloured West Coast counterpart to East Coast Minimalism. The example illustrated is striking – with its sprayed graduated opaque pigment combining with the glass box to form a cube of smoke. Apparently, Judd admired the art of Bell and Robert Irwin, so the Californians were far from peripheral in terms of influence. Fellow Californian Robert Mangold is also discussed. His combinations of solid colour and applied line designs place the coloured surfaces into the dual aspects of being solid material and immaterial colour inhabited by linear forms.        Callum Innes, Untitled, from the Cento series

[Image: Callum Innes, Untitled from the Canto series (1992), oil and turpentine on paper, 210 x 100 cm, © courtesy of the Artist.]

A separate section discusses the evolution of hard-edge abstraction in Britain. Vorticism was the first serious engagement with abstraction. It was only a brief eruption, with most of the artists retreating to the figurative neo-classical pastoralism of l’appel d’ordre in the immediate post-war period. In the 1930s continental abstraction had filtered into the consciousness of younger advanced artists and there came renewed engagement with hard-edge abstraction. Ben Nicholson was the most prominent and original member of this group. His geometric reliefs and circular incisions utilised clean lines and absence of colour to achieve their vigorous clarity. Bartos notes that these artists struggled for patronage. Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery and leading figure in the public arts, used the War Artists scheme to acquire art of figurative and Neo-Romantic artists for the nation. The documentary function of the war art project meant that abstract artists were excluded, which conformed to Clark’s taste. In the post-war period, British Constructionists Victor Pasmore, Adrian Heath, Kenneth and Mary Martin and others took up the baton. However, Bartos acknowledges that it was in the architecture of Brutalism that hard-edge abstraction found its greatest impact, most serious notoriety and vigorous expression in Britain after the 1945. A serious omission is Op Art, especially the art of Bridget Riley. Riley is the British artist most associated with hard-edge geometry in painting and printmaking in British Modernism. She is also an important figure.

This account is solid, illustrated with appropriate examples and could be used as a set text on the development of Modernist painting in Great Britain.

Deep Primary Cyan Volts.tif

[Image: Luke Frost, Deep primary cyan volts (2014), acrylic on aluminium, 84 x 84cm. © courtesy of the Artist. ]

The individual texts on artists include interviews, with context provided. In the case of the recently deceased Alan Reynolds, the interviews are with his dealers. The other artists consented to participate in interviews which provide a record of their progress and affiliations. Their interviews are sometimes unexpected and revealing. (Marc Vaux found more to admire in Pasmore’s abstract paintings than in his geometric relief sculptures. Peter Joseph never formally studied art. Luke Frost’s greatest influence is Dan Flavin.) Comments from their dealers and extracts from reviews of exhibitions explicate why the art appealed to viewers and how the art was accepted (sometimes reluctantly) by the public and museums. The interview transcriptions provide us with a record of the artists’ attitudes towards art and a glimpse of their working practices. Bartos adds his own thoughts about salient elements in the way the art operates. This is difficult because art which relies on visual effect – and very little else – is the hardest to write about.

The artists talk about their influences and what art they were looking at when they developed their signature styles. There are a lot of relief constructions and the multiple views from different angles allow us to appreciate the construction of these pieces, which straddle the line between painting and sculpture, surface and object. Some of this art is not well known, having been crowded out by more aggressive showy art that is easier to summarise verbally and which allows itself to be used for political causes. The attention paid to such restrained and careful art is thoroughly welcome. Let’s hope that publishers such as Unicorn and authors such as Bartos are held up as examples of independence and encourage others to investigate art that demands and rewards patient observation and prolonged interaction.

 

James Bartos, The Geometry of Beauty: The Not Very British Art of Six British Artists, Unicorn, 2019, hardback, 320pp, fully illus., £30, ISBN 978 1 912690 34 3

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com

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Le Corbusier: 5 x Unités d’habitation

Unite_Cover_hires Kopie

Unité d’habitation was a concept of integrated housing developed by Le Corbusier in collaboration with Nadir Afonso. The concept was intended to provide a unified solution to the challenges of modern life by providing for inhabitants by making a single building for vertical living. It was intended as an advance in urban planning by centralising various services and facilities within the residential area, creating a mixed function building. Although initially conceived in 1920, the Unités d’habitation, as they came to be called, were designed over the period 1945 to 1965. Five blocks were constructed in Marseille (1947-52), Nantes-Rezé (1955), Berlin (1957), Briey-en-Forêt (1963) and Firminy-Vert (1965). Although the plan was intended to have universal application, the Berlin block was the only one built outside France.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Marseille, 2018]

The creation of different zones (including private living spaces, hotel, common passages, a shopping area and a roof with kindergarten, gymnasium, running track, paddling pool, open space and amphitheatre) was intended to provide inhabitants with a wide range of facilities within a single building, making it a convenient and efficient location within which to live. The independence of the design meant that this building could be reproduced in multiple locations, theoretically obviating the need to the costs and time of producing unique architectural plans. The Marseille building was the first. It was the most complex and expensive. Later buildings were cheaper and had lower specifications. It is the Marseille building which has become iconic, with the other Unités overshadowed by the ground-breaking pioneer project. The Berlin iteration was noticeably different, partly due to climatic reasons. There was no open roof space and the shopping area was omitted. The relative isolation of the Berlin Unité – which is twice the size of the Marseille one, and therefore the largest of the Unités – and the absence of shops has made it a somewhat inconvenient and unappealing place to live, apparently. Briey-en-Forêt is on the periphery of a suburban area and residents rely on public transport and private cars to travel outside of the grounds. This seems to be a fault of the situation rather than of the building.  

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Briey, 2018]

The apartments are appealing. The balconies have grand views (particularly in the upper storeys), sense of privacy and good soundproofing gave residents a living experience previously enjoyed by only a few. Unlike other high-rise designs, the Unités tended to foster frequent contact with neighbours in communal areas and did not (automatically) engender alienation. For everyday needs, the buildings (with the exception of the Berlin one) are relatively convenient and self-contained.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Berlin, 2018]

There is a case to be made that the Marseille Unité d’habitation was perhaps the single most influential Modernist residential structure. The ideas, appearance and materials of the Unités d’habitation influenced the nascent Brutalist movement. The buildings are largely unadorned, much of the structure of shutter-cast unpainted concrete (béton brut). The roofs are flat and the apartments are modular in nature. The internal designs, fittings and even furniture was designed specifically for the buildings. There were no architectural references to past styles and no concessions to local materials. Every part of the building displayed its function in its appearance. The architect attempted to shun the limitations of its surroundings; there was a refusal to compromise to existing architecture. The buildings are not orientated to align with the streets around them. This is in part to permit the buildings to be placed to the maximum advance to residents in terms of views and light, but it is also an act of defiant independence on the part of Le Corbusier.

Artist and photographer Arthur Zalewski has visited all of the buildings multiple times in recent years and photographed them as they are, with inhabitants and current conditions included. The photographs, curated by Peter Ottmann, are currently being exhibited at C834, Corbusierhaus, Berlin (April-November 2019). The photographs in five changing displays will be of each Unité in turn: Marseille, April-June 2019; Revé, June-July; Berlin, July-August; Briey-en-Forêt, August-October; Firminy, October-November.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski,  Unité d’habitation Firminy, 2018]

Zalewski eschewed photographing portraits of the residents, realising that this would make the body of photographs very distinct in character. Instead we get medium-distance shots of figures within the spaces, giving us atmosphere and showing everyday functioning of the buildings. The photographs are distant views of the building, the situation of the Unités within the streets and the landscape more broadly, close views, interiors of different parts of the building and certain sample apartment interiors. The photographs are a mixture of black and white and colour. The shots show the conditions of the buildings today. Compared to many Modernist buildings by less prominent architects, the Unités are in an adequate state of preservation and maintenance, with few alterations and no apparent graffiti. The materials have aged in a largely sympathetic manner, with lichen spotting the stairwell walls in Nantes-Rezé (a block built partially over water, which in these shots is algae covered). The climatic conditions are distinct and contribute to the impressions of the buildings and how they have aged. The sheltered parapets of Briey-en-Forêt have acquired a rich patina of lichens and moss on the untreated concrete. The Firminy’s mountainous wooded location is in contrast with the situation of the Marseille’s Cité radieuse in its arid sunny setting. Briey-en-Forêt’s foggy climate and tree surrounding give the large building an incongruous impression of being hidden and protected.

The only substantial text in this large-format book is the transcript of a three-person discussion between Arthur Zalewski, architect Peter Ottmann and author Anne König. This is published in French, German and English versions. The interview is very enlightening about the varying histories and characters of the five Unités, including information about how the residents view their buildings. This book is suitable for any fan of Modernist architecture, Brutalism and Le Corbusier; it would also appeal to anyone studying social history.

 

Arthur Zalewski, Peter Ottmann (ed.), Le Corbusier: 5 x Unité. Marseille, Nantes-Rezé, Berlin, Briey, Firminy, Spector Books, 2019, paperback, 384pp, 300 illus., English/French/German text, €34, ISBN 978 39 59 05301 3

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime

9783030207656

In Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime, Penelope Jackson explores the multiple roles that women have played in art crimes major and minor. As well as crimes, the discussion includes infractions and misdemeanours. The author sets out her case as such: “I am hoping that the material here will encourage curiosity. For me it is the obligation of art historians to research and write about artists and aspects of art history that have been neglected by others. In my opinion, the cases and issues around about women, art, and crime, fulfils a much-neglected area.”

Jackson covers female vandals, fraudsters, art destroyers con women, thieves and assistors of criminals. Curiously, as Jackson notes, no (heretofore unmasked) art forgers have been women. If there have been some they have not yet been exposed. She recounts the stories of each, though she does not reach particular conclusions about how women as women might be adept or unsuited to such roles. Jackson is somewhat unreliable about the causes of the dearth of women’s art in museum collections and accepts too readily the feminist narrative of patriarchal exclusion. However, once one has recognised these deficiencies the book has much to commend it to the general reader.

Women as destroyers of art have included Clementine Churchill, known to have destroyed at least three portraits of her husband Winston Churchill. Other destroyers include the legatees of American Ashcan realist Robert Henri, who destroyed a large quantity of art they considered substandard. Women have been complicit in art theft and forgery actively and indirectly as the mothers and girlfriends of thieves and forgers. In at least two cases, the mothers of thieves destroyed paintings before the police could search, locate and confiscate the stolen art. Although they thought they were helping out their sons by concealing their crimes, they compounded the crime by making restitution impossible. The saddest section of the book is the description of how Marielle Schwengel (mother of thief Stéphane Breitwieser) destroyed historical paintings by Boucher, Dürer, Watteau and Cranach the Elder by hacking them to pieces, throwing them in a canal or leaving them out for the refuse collectors. Likewise, Olga Dogaru (mother of thief Radu Dogaru) burned he paintings he stole from a Rotterdam museum in an attempt to conceal his crime. These paintings included a Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Gauguin and Freud. The ashes in her stove were forensically analysed and found to contain the remnants of canvases and nails.

A chapter is devoted to vandals, either mentally unbalanced or politically motivated. The best known example is the Suffragette campaign of the 1910s. As prominent women were being arrested, imprisoned and injured (even accidentally killed) in acts of civil disobedience, a core of dedicated supporters took to the museums of Great Britain with the intention of outraging public morals by damaging art. The author’s sympathy for Suffragette iconoclasm (“[…] if there were ever a case of legitimate art vandalism, the Suffragettes take the cake hands down.”) will disappoint readers who realise that vandalising art for political reasons inevitably leads to the question “At which point do you consider legitimate political violence could be enacted by you?” The logic puts the security of cultural heritage in the hands of righteous activists who reserve the authority to destroy cultural material because of supposed inequities of society at large. This position risks sanctioning future iconoclasm, with the arbiters being the attackers and the degree of their indignation.

An additional area which is one of deception rather than outright fraud is the use of pseudonyms. Traditionally, women faced social disapproval, so it was relatively common for women to use aliases, initials or male names if they wrote or made art. Walter and Margaret worked together, starting in the 1950s. Although Walter Keane was known as an artist of kitsch children with large eyes, it was actually Margaret who painted them. Walter was the better salesman and for the apparently tenuous reason that buyers wanted contact with the artist, Walter claimed authorship of Margaret’s paintings. She permitted them to be sold as original “Walter Keanes” and shared in the profits. Even after their divorce, Margaret continued to paint as Walter, sending him finished pictures to exhibit and sell.

Whether he had the idea or not, it was Margaret Keane who executed the paintings and Walter Keane who took the credit for them, which is criminal given they were sold deceitfully. Walter Keane’s signing of Margaret Keane’s work was fraudulent. That Margaret was part of this deceit can also be viewed as criminal. Margaret Keane must have been aware of the implications but, because of the difficulty this would involve, she chose not to do anything about it until she was in a ‘safe’ time and place [i.e. not until after their divorce].

Strictly speaking, this is incorrect. Artists frequently employ assistants to work in their studios, always uncredited. The work can range to the menial, mundane and administrative to the highly technically demanding production of finished art. This practice started in the medieval period and continues today, with the most successful artists frequently employing assistants to do much work in a prescribed style, under the artist’s direction. The Keane studio system may have been domestic in character, emotionally abusive and highly secretive but it was by no means unprecedented or illegal. Artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons produce paintings in studios using unnamed assistants, a fact known to dealers and collectors.

A fascinating case is Australian painter Elizabeth Durack (1915-2000) taking up the alias of Eddie Burrup. Already a successful artist under her own name, Durack identified so closely with Aboriginal people that in 1995 she adopted an artistic persona as a male Aboriginal artist, complete with fictional biography. She painted in the distinctive style of the native Australians, using a pseudonym “Eddie Burrup”. The paintings were exhibited, sold and entered into prize competitions as by Burrup, with only a handful of insiders knowing the truth. When it was revealed by the artist, there was considerable controversy, with Durack being criticised for deception, appropriation and cultural insensitivity.

Females in the Frame provides a diverting and informative overview of the subject of women in art crime for general readers.

[NB: This review is from an electronic file, therefore paper, print quality, layout, binding and illustration detail could not be assessed.]

Penelope Jackson, Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, paperback, 223pp + xv, 13 col./5 mono illus., €20, ISBN 978-3-030-20765-6

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

Alexander Trocchi: “Cosmopolitan Scum”

Young Adam

When Glaswegian writer Alexander Trocchi appeared at the Edinburgh Writers Festival in 1962, his reputation preceded him. Disreputable, dissolute, addicted to heroin, fugitive from the law, a confirmed libertine and author of books with description of sex, violence and drug abuse, Trocchi was marked as a subversive and potentially dangerous figure. When Trocchi appeared to talk on a panel, he became involved in a verbal altercation with Scots nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who called him “cosmopolitan scum”. Trocchi took great pride in the insult.

For Scots authors of gritty fiction, such as James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, Trocchi is a point of origin. Tough, unsparing, tautly written, unsentimental, identifiably Scots but tempered by French existentialism and Beckett’s interiority, Trocchi’s books are a touchstone for ambitious Scottish writers of later generations. The international acclaim afforded Trocchi was a badge of approval from the cognoscenti. As an individual, Trocchi’s extreme lifestyle – including drug taking, drug dealing, facing the death penalty, flight from US legal jurisdiction and pimping out his own wife to feed the couple’s heroin addictions – is full of palpable authenticity. By turns pathologically selfish, pitifully squalid and creatively barren, Trocchi’s life and long writer’s block act as a warning to creative artists those who are tempted to dabble in depravity. At his death in 1984, there was little unpublished material in his estate.

One can read all of Trocchi’s serious fiction over a long afternoon, if one is minded to. If one excludes eight erotic pulp novels, written to make money, the entirety of Trocchi’s prose fiction comprises Young Adam (1954), Cain’s Book (1960) and The Holy Man and Other Stories (1965), the latter of which consists of four stories. Man at Leisure (1972) is a collection of verse and completes the quartet of Trocchi’s substantial output published by Calder Publications, now owned by Alma Books.

Trocchi is generally grouped with the Beat Generation, particularly William Burroughs in his early hard-bitten documentary period, but John Calder comments that Trocchi actually belongs to “the “damned” French writers, from Baudelaire and Rimbaud to Céline and Genet. One could almost also mention Cocteau, who was responsible for introducing him to heroin, the cause of [Trocchi’s] eventual downfall and death.” Trocchi was also an active member of the Situationist movement.

Young Adam is a quasi-crime mystery novel. Our narrator recounts his collection of a woman’s body from a canal, coloured by indifference, where his responses to his breakfast are as stronger than his reaction to handling of a dead body. A observes a naked leg hang from below the blanket as the body is carried on a stretcher, looking like “a parsnip”. A boy watches the scene while eating an apple. The novel is situated in a world that has remained almost unchanged since Victorian times – low wages, simple meals, manual labour, newspapers read in pub saloons, no presence of radio and television – with hardly a glimpse of the post-war world of the time. We are immersed in the narrator’s ennui and his detachment. His only strong motivation is to seduce his colleague’s wife. We find out the narrator’s connection to the dead woman and watch his reactions as the story of the consequences of her death is played out. The blend of indifference and intimacy is affecting. The narrator’s pathologically cold and selfish psychology is mapped out indirectly through his observations of his reactions to events, from which he seems detached.

CAIN'S BOOK

Cain’s Book is about a scowman working the waters of New York. The narrator works maintaining and piloting a scow (a barge used in inland waters to transport cargo), filling in time between fixes. He is a junky who also uses marijuana. He is also writing a novel. We meet his fellow scowmen and scowwomen, individuals whose company he seeks out or avoids. His writing seems no more or less engaging than the reading he does or the conversations he has. He is unthreateningly unambitious, drifting in the moment, occasionally recalling events from his past and his failed marriage. Fragments of the narrator’s past in Scotland and his sojourns to Greenwich Village intersperse his waiting moored in the river off Manhattan. It is worth comparing the book to Trawl (1966) by B.S. Johnson. In that book, the narrator is a writer seeking material by taking passage on a fishing vessel. We are immersed in his internal monologue and preoccupation with his romantic failures and the privations of confined living and seasickness. In Trawl the subject of a writer is a very self-conscious preoccupation and plot point. In Cain’s Book, the writing is incidental and one could imagine the book without that aspect not being thematically different from the book Trocchi wrote. Trocchi writes perceptively about addiction, but it is not a core of the novel, being no more than a single factor in the narrator’s guiding conditions.

Junkies in New York are often desperate. To be a junkie is to live in a madhouse. Laws, police forces, armies, mobs of indignant citizenry crying mad dog. We are perhaps the weakest minority which ever existed; forced into poverty, filth, squalor, without even the protection of a legitimate ghetto. There was never a wandering Jew who wandered further than a junkie, without hope. Always moving. Eventually one must go where the junk is and one is never certain where the junk is, never sure that where the junk is is not the anteroom of the penitentiary.

There are other novels which bear comparison with Trocchi’s. Beckett’s internal monologues of isolated individuals (which Trocchi uses as an epigraph of Malone Dies (1951) in Cain’s Book) and the stripped nouveau romans of the period both parallel Trocchi’s novels. Another book from the preceding era which also relates is Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1941). It is a crime novel which follows the struggles and deterioration of George Bone, as a wrestles with the unreciprocated desire for Netta Longdon, a bit-part actress. Netta exploits her looks, drifting in a dissolute lifestyle of sleeping, drinking, fancy restaurant meals and borrowed money, cultivating a façade of indifference. In the end, Bone murders Netta and her lover, then takes his own life. The isolation of the main characters of Hangover Square – socially and familially disconnected, emotionally and financially atomised – who seem to have few ties or duties and are immersed in a demi-monde centred on immediate gratification and calculated cynicism are not dissimilar to Trocchi’s dissociated protagonists. The undeclared and unspoken part-time prostitution of the women is another thread connecting Hamilton and Trocchi. While the prose style is leaner in Trocchi’s novels, the internal monologues, character behaviour and ambience are close. Both Hangover Square and Cain’s Book include quotes as –somewhat elliptical – chapter introductions.

The Holy Man

The Holy Man and Other Stories collects four short stories. “A Being of Distances”, a description of a family funeral, reuses material that is in Cain’s Book. “The Holy Man” is about the outcast inhabitants of a tenement building in Paris. It shows a debt to Beckett in terms of tone. “To live, to grow old and to die: the process excited little interest.” He downplays the comic and anecdotal potential and instead emphasises the existential aspect of a holy man living in squalor in an attic. “Peter Pierce” concerns a man going into business with a disfigured ragman. “A Meeting” is a description of a clerk’s afternoon’s work in a small office and his conversation with a secretary. As a story, this is the most engaging and subtle story in The Holy Man – apparently the entirety of Trocchi’s short fiction.

Man at Leisure

Man at Leisure is a collection of poems, with a foreword by publisher John Calder and introduction by William Burroughs. Calder recounts that he had to illegally enter Trocchi’s residence to take possession of the manuscript, for which Trocchi had signed a contract but had repeatedly delayed to deliver.  The manuscript was not thoroughly revised by the poet. The 49 poems date from the writer’s time in Glasgow in 1951, through his wide-ranging travels in Europe and time in New York, up to his residence in London in 1972; they range widely in style. Burroughs correctly discerns the influence of John Donne’s Metaphysical poetry in some of Trocchi’s verse. Myrtle with the Light Blue Hair: “[…] what she / showed the toad, & not coy… / the slicks, flats, elastic tensions / of her great, her imperial thighs, the torque of her hot delta […]”It is striking how many times “thighs”, “belly”, “loins” and “sperm” appear in the poems – a debt to Marvell and Donne, as well as the pulp erotica of Trocchi’s era. At other times we get the jibber-jabber wild listings and political mottos of a Ginsberg: “[…] foreign policy implies / apes showing teeth / black ape-teeth / white ape-teeth / brown ape-teeth / yalar ape-teeth / gritting their prongs / all ape / all them aliens / sounding their gongs”.

Some poems are rather slight, hardly more than occasional pieces, and very short. The flippancy and flimsiness of some of the poems is not balanced by wit, insight or skill. However, that is not to suggest that Trocchi was a poor poet, just a poet who tried only sporadically and achieved uneven results. The most ambitious poem is “A Little Geography Lesson for my Sons and Daughters”, a sweeping description of the West and East, is delicately descriptive and carefully worked but still with energy and originality. In it, Trocchi expounds the common counter-culture view that the West is rational and male, enervated and played out (“The west is boudoirs and actresses / and a dwindling aristocracy”); the East is intuitive and female, fecund, unknowable and vital (“The east is a dark uterus, / darker than the waters of the Nile or the Euphrates. / she is female & her spawn / is a seeping alluvial silt […]”). It reiterates the tropes of Orientalism and anti-capitalism in terms of the human sexes. Regardless of what one thinks of the politics, it is an effective and powerful poem. Sadly, little else rises to that standard in Trocchi’s poetic output. “How at Thebes Tiresias, the Prophet, Told…” is Trocchi’s effort at recasting Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, complete with mixture of ancient myth and modern life, anachronistic parody, multilingual interjections and multi-part format. It is the longest poem here but still unfinished. One cannot help thinking that Trocchi was rambling, enjoying the writing but directionless. Verse allowed Trocchi to detach himself too much from argument, description and unambiguous meaning and to attach himself too much to undirected asides, free association and the minor pleasure of word play.  Trocchi’s gifts of description and insight shine forth in prose.

 

Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam, 2018, Calder Publications, paperback, 139pp + xiii, £7.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4462 5

Alexander Trocchi, Cain’s Book, 2017, Calder Publications, paperback, 212pp + xx, £8.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4460 1

Alexander Trocchi, The Holy Man and Other Stories, 2019, Calder Publications, paperback, 115pp, £8.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4847 0

Alexander Trocchi, Man at Leisure, 2019, Calder Publications, paperback, 85pp + viii, £10.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4944 6

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

The Bestiary in the Medieval World

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[Image: Unknown English artist, Lions (c. 1250), from Bestiary, parchment, leaf: 29.6 × 19 cm (11 5/8 × 7 1/2 in.), The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Bodl. 764, fols. 2v
EX.2019.2.93]

During the Middle Ages in Northern Europe, books of real and imaginary creatures and animal lore were made. These bestiaries were frequently variations on established texts, the main ones being the Bestiary of Philippe de Thaon and Physiologus by Theobaldus. Others were looser collections of animal images and knowledge. Some were illustrated and these are at the centre of a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (14 May-19 August 2019). Although many were unillustrated and were essentially copies of earlier texts, the illuminations in some of the late 12th Century to mid-15th Century (but most in the earlier part of this period) are large, detailed and beautiful. This review is from the catalogue.

The standard list of animals contained in bestiaries was lion, tiger, panther, antelope, lynx, eagle, fishes, weasel, fox, monkey, camel, snake, walrus and whales, as well as more amazing creatures, such as the griffin, dragon, hydrus and phoenix. Some of the illustrations of real animals are so attenuated that they become incredible in our eyes – the crocodile is shown with long legs, bird feet and ears. There are half-human animals such as centaurs and sirens and more peculiar deviants, like relations of Boschian hybrids. The images of animals are accompanied by short texts describing the animals’ physiognomies, characters, behaviour and habitats. Early bestiaries included a few entries on exceptional trees and gemstones, however these were later dropped. The information is a mixture of the observed and invented. (For example, elephants only eat human children “if they are exceptionally hungry”.) Some of the animals are part of symbolic tales, such The Romance of Alexander, a diverse set of impossible tales about the doings of Alexander the Great. There is one in which Alexander descends to the bottom of the sea in a glass ship and encounters a whale.

The life of animals were often invented and presented as moral lessons from God. The unicorn the symbol of fidelity, purity and virginity and was associated with the Virgin Mary. Pelicans were often depicted as piercing their own hearts to feed its young, making its self-sacrifice as an analogue to the suffering of Christ. There is a damaged wooden sculpture of a pelican sacrificing itself for its brood, with the blood painted on. Polychromy was common in sculpture of the time.

These bestiaries were sometimes part of longer theological texts. The texts are mainly in Latin or French, written by monks and nuns for the large part. This catalogue is very thorough and includes essays by specialists and detailed discussion of individual items, explaining background, symbolism and peculiarities of the exhibits. Analysis shows that the texts are copies but frequently incorporating variations (additions and subtractions, as well as reordering), with attempts to make the texts more comprehensive or artistic by conforming meter and line length. The artistry of the illustrators is sometimes fantastic and individualistic, all working in what we would class the international Gothic style. Some of the volumes were broken up or had choice pages cut out. A handful has been defaced; many have been annotated.

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[Image: Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Grid with Nine Animals, France, about 1400–1415, from On the Properties of Things, parchment, leaf: 29 × 38 cm (11 7/16 × 14 15/16 in.). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA, HM 27523
EX.2019.2.4]

The books are of a theological character. Whilst incorporating some older learning from Greek times, the books focus on the moral aspect, showing how God’s order is present in the animal kingdom as it is among people. There are aspects of what we would call science and history. They show the typical blend of the Medieval worldview – observation and book learning filtered through a Christian lens, with some knowledge classical mythology. The vast majority of material on display originated from the regions of modern-day France, England, Germany, northern Italy and the Low Countries. The loans come from museums and private collections in Europe and America.

The medieval world was rich with symbols. There were draughts of ivory cut with animal designs. Noble escutcheons used animals to symbolise attributes, which were codified and recorded in books. The exhibition includes metal aquamanilia, water containers for the washing of the hands of nobility. These were hollow vessels shaped as animals, often lions (the king of the beasts), and included handles and spigots. The horns of ibexes were presented as griffin claws; narwhal tusks were carved and mounted on silver, described as unicorn horns. Other items include combs and embossed metalwork.

Animals feature as part of church architectural decoration. These are illustrated in the catalogue and a handful of stone capitals and other ecclesiastical relief carvings are displayed in the exhibition. The best of the non-painted animals must be the embroideries and tapestries, some diminished by age but still vigorous in design, coloration and execution. The later encyclopaedia of animals featured comments on the ethics of animals – if they were brave or cowardly, if they stood and fought, if they were prepared to die to defend their territory and offspring. This strays into the area of comparative ethics, contrasting the behaviour of animals with that of people. The mixture of diligence, scholarship, assumption and falsehoods persists in these books as it did in the earlier bestiaries, often providing no more accurate picture of reality. However, we should not assume that scientific knowledge was the aspiration of writers and patrons of these books. They were often as much in search of spiritual sustenance as accurate information.

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[Image: Unknown English artist, Bee; Peridexion Tree; Serpent; Dragon (c. 1240–50) from Bestiary, parchment, leaf: 28 × 16.5 cm (11 × 6 1/2 in.). The British Library. Image: GRANGER EX.2019.2.58]

The later section of the exhibition includes a few examples of natural history, herbal miscellanies, maps and paintings of animals from the Renaissance and later. The exhibition here loses its way, with the strands becoming too numerous, diverse and separated to cohere – especially in small selections. Study of geography and natural history can be found in the bestiaries but that transition – and the contradictions and contrasts between the areas – requires a dedicated monograph (with or without monographic  exhibition). To have maximum impact and coherence, this exhibition should have terminated in the Renaissance and been limited to fewer areas. Nevertheless, the catalogue and exhibition Book of Beasts shed light on the Medieval mindset and allow us to see the complicated overlaps and schisms between theology, natural science, mythology and speculative art that later gave birth to the modern world. The catalogue is a grand affair, with large pin-sharp illustrations, thorough data, bibliography and index. Care has been taken to balance scholarship with approachable text for the engaged non-specialist reader.

 

Elizabeth Morrison (ed.), Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, J. Paul Getty Museum, June 2019, half-cloth hardback, 354pp, 281 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 1 60606 590 7

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

The war on America’s past continues

In the wake of recent attempts – some successful – to have Confederate statues removed from the US south, what is the future of colonialist statues in the US west? In Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory, Cynthia Culver Prescott, a professor of history at the University of North Dakota, senses a reluctance to apply to pioneer monuments the ideological zeal that was turned on Confederate memorials. ‘We resist applying the insights of settler colonial studies to American pioneer narratives because to do so would call into question foundational myths of Jeffersonian agrarianism and American exceptionalism, and lay bare white conquest of native lands and peoples.’ She outlines the cases against statues of colonialists, and particularly against female settlers, who took part in the drive to colonise the American west in the 19th century.

“Statues depicting women have been criticised by academics and campaigners for being idealising, inaccurate, generalising and stereotypical. There is a sense that campaigners direct such ire at statues of women settlers not just because they embody sexism and colonialism but because they show women as complicit in the act of dispossessing native peoples. There is a residual resentment that – in intersectional terms – a political minority took part in a project to oppress another minority….”

Read my article on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/07/29/the-war-on-americas-past-continues/

Cicero: How to Win and Rule

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Cicero (106-43 BC) was a Roman orator, lawyer, statesman and philosopher. His writings are a major source of information about the politics and history of the end of the Roman Republic. He had been a brilliant student and one of the ancient world’s greatest orators. He studied philosophy and argument in Greece, including Platonism in Athens. His political and legal manoeuvring in Rome endangered him under the reign of dictator Sulla and his time in Greece was partly self-imposed exile to escape the vengeance of Sulla. His later advocacy of a return to principles of republicanism meant that fell afoul of Mark Antony and was assassinated an influential enemy of the new Caesar.

Cicero is considered a leading progenitor of humanism and liberalism by later moral philosophers and political thinkers, although he was opposed democracy. Instead, he preferred a productive tension between aristocrats and Plebs, which checks the power of each and forces the opposing sides to accommodate the interests of their opponents. His advancement of restraint and republicanism align him with Stoicism, a philosophy he expressed as a personal position in Paradoxa Stoicorum. However, he has been accused of opportunism and hypocrisy, using his brilliant speech as a cloak for self-serving arguments. Cicero was never reluctant to offer advice to students, important figures and the public. Two volumes of Cicero’s distilled wisdom are How to Win an Argument and How to Run a Country. The first addresses rhetoric and oratory and the second addresses statesmanship. These are two attractive small volumes which include English translations, Latin original texts, introductions and notes, making them self-contained and approachable for non-specialist readers.

How to Win an Argument has advice for politicians, lawyers and public speakers of all types. He discusses the Aristotelian triad of logos, ethos and pathos in the art of speech. The book includes not only Cicero’s advice to speakers but examples from his own speeches, legal and political. This gives us a chance to see Cicero using his own ideas in practice. A central example is Cicero’s 52 BC defence of Titus Annius Milo against the charge of murder of Publius Clodius. It was a defence that was unsuccessful partly due to interference in the trial and the political manoeuvring that demanded the exiling of Milo.

Cicero exhorts the speaker not to use obscure language or to use excessive rhetorical devices. He likens this to the use of strong perfume, which can be overwhelming. “[…] I don’t mind hearing people say “great!” and “outstanding!” about us, however often, but I don’t like to hear “charming!” or “how pretty!” too often. Certainly, the popular exclamation, “couldn’t do better!” I would want to hear repeatedly.” Of all the aspects that Cicero believed key to good speaking was delivery. “[…] the most effective element in our delivery, next to the voice, is the expression on our face; and this controlled by our eyes.” He quotes Demosthenes, the Greek who was considered that greatest orator in the ancient world. “People generally agreed that, when delivering these words, [Demosthenes] used his eyes, voice, and gestures to such effect that even his enemies could not contain their tears. I am talking about this in some detail because the orators, who act in real life, have abandoned this entire field, while the actors, who are only imitators of reality, have appropriated it.” The great speaker learns to use his body like a musical instrument.

Editor James M. May has compiled a summary list of key points: 1. Nature, art, and practice, practice, practice; 2. Eloquence is a powerful weapon; 3. Identify, arrange, memorise; 4. Not by logic alone; 5. Know your audience; 6. Be clear, be correct; 7. Delivery matters; 8. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and more; 9. The pen is often mightier than the sword; 10, Words, without substance, are hollow things

Once you have won election, how should one govern? How to Run a Country contains Cicero’s comments on how to act as a ruler and politician, a subject he had expertise in. Cicero recalls how, upon returning from a successful governorship of a Sicilian province, he was thunderstruck to encounter some holidaying Romans who had never heard of him. He reminds us of the humility we should exercise to keep our achievements in perspective. “Why should I say more? At this point, I gave up and joined the crowd on the beach.”

His advice to orators is incisive and succinct. “An orator must be able to choose the right language and arrange his words carefully. He must also understand the full range of emotions that nature has given us, for the ability to rouse or calm a crowd is the greatest test of both the understanding and the practical ability of the speaker. An orator also needs a certain charm and wit, the cultured ways of a gentleman, and the ability to strike fiercely when attacking an opponent. In addition he needs a subtle grace and sophistication. Finally, an orator must have a keen mind capable of remembering a vast array of relevant precedents and examples from history, along with a thorough knowledge of the law and civil statutes.” In principle, Cicero is correct. However access to plentiful written sources has allowed the role of memory to diminish for anyone other than a participant in a spoken debate or private argument.  Feats of memory were considered a prerequisite of many roles in public life. Imitation of the masters is recommended to gain command of technique and to learn the application of theory in practice.

Generally, he warns against excessive taxation, corruption and unwise foreign adventures in war. He vaunts service and duty – on both ethical and pragmatic grounds. He warns against tyranny, stating “Whoever tries to govern a country through fear is quite mad. For no matter how much a tyrant might try to overturn the law and crush the spirit of freedom, sooner or later it will rise up again either through public outrage or the ballot box.” Ultimately, Cicero would pay with his life for his opposition to the tyranny of Antony.

Cicero’s insights are as valid as they were 2,000 years ago and his advice could be beneficially applied perennially by speakers and rulers today.

 

 

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Philip Freeman (ed., trans., introduction), How to Run a Country, Princeton University Press, 2013, 132pp, half-cloth hardback, Latin/English text, $12.95, ISBN 978 0 691 156576

Marcus Tullius Cicero, James M. May (ed., trans., introduction), How to Win an Argument, Princeton University Press, 2016, 263pp, half-cloth hardback, Latin/English text, $16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 164335

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

Lee Miller: Surrealist, Photographer, Cook

Lee Miller (1907-1977) was an American Surrealist photographer and photo-journalist. She lived in Paris, London and New York and is most famous for her collaborations with the photographer Man Ray. Although successful and respected, in her later years she preferred to underplay her achievements, however since her death the standing of her photography and interest in her life has increased. These three books overlap to a degree but they also feature three different periods of Miller’s life and output. Surrealist Lee Miller covers Miller’s photography from the 1920s to 1960s but centres on the 1929 to 1945 period, which was her most creative period as an artist. The Home of the Surrealists covers the period 1949 to the 1960s, when Miller was living in Sussex and in contact with fellow artists and writers, frequently welcoming them to her home. A Life with Food explains her connection with Surrealism and how this fed into her preoccupation with making unusual and arresting dishes inspired by Surrealism, which was her focus in her last decades. All three books have value and offer unique material.

Surrealist Lee Miller is a short guide to the life and work of Miller and an excellent selection of photographs. It presents the most famous pieces and photographs that straddle the line between her private life and the milieu within which she lived. The breadth of her life is seen in the glamour photographs of her as a model in Art Deco New York, picnics with Picasso and the suicided Nazi officials of the defeated Third Reich.

Miller was born into a comfortably off middle class family in New York State. Her father was a keen amateur photographer and instilled in her a love of photography and an understanding of the techniques. In the 1920s she worked as a model for Condé Nast. A trip to Paris led her to think of becoming a photographer and working in the art world. She moved to Paris in 1929 and immediately sought out Man Ray, the American Surrealist photographer. They began a close and fruitful collaboration, with Miller working as muse, model, assistant and – ultimately – partner. At the same time they had a romantic relationship. Miller became a significant but somewhat fugitive presence in the Surrealist movement, mingling with luminaries who would become her friends.

Man Ray trusted Miller enough to deputise her to work on his commissions, relying on her judgment and her understanding of his approach to Surrealism to produce photographs that seamlessly blended with his autograph work. The portfolio L’Electricité (1931) contains pieces by Miller but we do not which. Although some works attributed to Ray were by Miller, it seems that attribution was not automatically a source of conflict. When Ray specifically allocated assignments to Miller (in order for him to concentrate on other projects), it was understandable that Ray was accorded authorship. When it came to the innovation of the solarisation technique, the development seems to have been collaborative but with Miller making most of the situation and recognising the value of the technique. It is understandable that she would want (and rightly deserved) credit for the creation – or at least the recognition and exploitation – of this radical technique. If one has to talk of that advance having a single author then that must be Miller. This matter caused notable friction between the pair.

In 1932 Miller left Paris in order to establish herself as a photographer in New York. The majority of her work was portraits of prominent people in the arts and commercial advertising photography, some of it in early colour processes. Some of the portraits were commissioned but others were unpaid and taken by Miller because she found the subjects engaging. The portrait photographs of Joseph Cornell and documentation of his assemblages are a rare record of Cornell before he became well known. Many of the delicate boxes that Cornell made in the 1930s no longer survive, so it was Miller’s keen eye for the spirit of Surrealism that has provided us with these photographs.

In 1934 Miller married businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and went to live in his native Cairo. The selection of photographs from her Egyptian period in Surrealist Lee Miller is especially rewarding, as this tends to get covered less in general selections that the Surrealist and war periods. Her eye for the incongruous and haunting meant that she produced good work throughout her life but the Paris and Cairo periods are high points in terms of art photography. The life experiment was not a success however. The couple separated soon. By 1937 Miller was chafing at the lack of artistic stimulation, notwithstanding the opportunities to take some remarkable photographs. She met English artist, writer and collector Roland Penrose (1900-1984) in 1937 and they began a romance. Penrose was one of the few early Surrealist acolytes from Britain. He had been married to French Surrealist poet Valentine Boué, though they were separated by the time Miller and Penrose met. In 1939 she moved in with Penrose in his London house.

The war provided Miller was a chance to work as a photo-journalist for American publications, notably for British Vogue. Her documentation of the Blitz is some of the best photography of the period and the natural incongruous juxtapositions of war and destruction mirror her Surrealist outlook. Keen to document the war first-hand, Miller gained press accreditation from the US Army, allowing her to a change to cover the Normandy campaign. She photographed the siege of St Malo and the Liberation of Paris. There are joyful photographs of her reunited with her artist friends, in particular Picasso. On the 30th of April 1945, Miller entered Dachau concentration camp one day after liberation. Miller photographed the scenes of starved survivors, bodies of the dead inmates and the crematorium with remains. She also photographed the corpses of killed camp guards and the beaten camp guards held in custody by the Americans. That afternoon Miller and fellow journalist David Scherman found a place to rest. It was Hitler’s flat in nearby Munich. Scherman photographed Miller washing in Hitler’s bathtub; her boots – next to the tub – are covered with the dirt and human ash of Dachau. That day Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. Subsequently she photographed the burning of Hitler’s Berchtesgaden residence and then travelled to Austria. One of the most powerful sets of photographs is of infants dying in a Vienna hospital – their medicines had been stolen and sold on the black market. She was already suffering from PTSD and sinking into depression. When she returned to England to re-join Penrose, Miller was compensating for her internalised distress through heavy drinking, an activity that would continue for the remainder of her life.

After the war, the couple divided their time between a London house and Farley Farm, near Chiddingley, Sussex. The country house became a haven of Surrealist, Modernist and European culture, with the couple’s artist, writer, journalist and intellectual friends visiting. Penrose became a founding member of the ICA in London just after the war. It meant devoting more energy to other people’s art than to his own. He later wrote one of the first important monographs on Picasso’s art. Penrose had to choose between being an artist and an enabler and ultimately chose the latter; at the same time Miller had also to choose between being a mother and being a professional photographer. In 1947 the birth of Anthony, her only child, put a full stop to Miller’s travelling and marked the end of her career as a professional photographer. When offered uninspiring commissions she preferred to decline rather than engage in journeyman activity, though with her connections she could surely have found more challenging options had she pursued them.

Lee Millers desk p99 © Lee Miller Archives

[Image: © 2019 Lee Miller Archives]

Motherhood (for which she was not suited), isolation from much cultural life, PTSD, depression and heavy drinking took their toll on Miller. Her final years were more sober although she never returned to photography in a sustained manner. There are some photographs of artist friends, many of which are included in the books, especially The Home of the Surrealists. Visitors included Ray, Miro, Picasso, Ernst, Tanning, Eluard, Leonora Carrington, Masson, Matta and their partners. Miller and Tanning were particularly good friends and the photographs of Miller, Penrose, Tanning and Ernst taken in Arizona, 1946 show a natural rapport. Miller and Penrose were generous about allowing students and scholars access to their collection – something that had to be restricted when the art became more valuable. The artworks were gradually sold and donated over the years. Some of the art (including many murals painted by Penrose) are still in the house, which has been restored and is available to tour.

Scherman claimed that cooking saved Miller’s life. A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes informs us that together with the reassuring rhythm of the seasons and the delights of nature (generally viewed from a comfortable chair – Miller was not much of a rambler), cooking helped Miller to cope. Miller found the role of grandmother suited her better than that of mother. (Anthony described her as an “arch child-hater”.) The elaborate meals and company of artist friends allowed her to allay boredom and anxiety. Miller and Penrose had a gift for friendship, staying friends with ex-lovers, colleagues and artists who had long left the Surrealist fold.

Dining Room p100 © Lee Miller Archives

[Image: © 2019 Lee Miller Archives]

In 1953, Miller lost out to Elizabeth David for the position of leading cookery writer for Vogue. They had a common love of French cuisine, recommending olive oil for cooking, but David had greater knowledge of Italian cuisine, which would prove to be so influential in post-war British culture. Miller’s wild imagination and shocking combinations would probably have tested her editor’s patience to the limit. In the late 1950s Penrose paid for Miller to attend a 6-month Cordon Bleu course in Paris. She accumulated a library of over 2,000 cookbooks, won prizes for her dishes and became an acknowledged expert.

A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes reproduces the text of an unpublished cookery article from 1951 (including Picasso’s response to Christmas pudding) and a 1973 article on Miller’s cookery from House & Garden including the photographs. A section of the book includes the recipes in full and there are photographs old and new of the food and convivial meals at Farley Farm. Recipes include champagne and camembert soup, fig and Pernod ice cream, marshmallow-cola ice cream and carrots in whiskey. There is chicken in edible gold and pink cauliflower breasts. Miller’s visual sensibility led her to make dishes that were highly original. Less outlandish dishes include Cretan lamb, summer pudding and olive and mint salad. For modern tastes the cooking may seem at times labour intensive and elaborate but Miller the cook is not overall too controlling and gives readers leeway on many aspects. Miller’s philosophy as a cook is to surprise and delight her guests – engaging all their senses. Tableware included a platter looted from Hitler’s apartment and vases decorated by Picasso.

There is a question about the seriousness with which Miller’s cooking has been treated. Although her cookery is relatively well known there is a common resistance regarding her cookery. Perhaps that is a reluctance to associate a female creator with a minor genre – especially a field associated with women’s domestic activity. Although we should not make too much of this point – for the cookery of any artist and their gastronomical proclivities are not matters of great attention generally – it is worth considering. It is hard to parse the free-wheeling Surrealist, the hard-bitten war journalist and the mischievous cook – with these three roles seeming to undermine each other.

Cookbook 5 v2 © Lee Miller Archives

[Image: © 2019 Lee Miller Archives]

Whenever she was asked about her early work, Miller claimed all the photographs had been lost and was evasive about the past. Following the death of Roland Penrose, Anthony Penrose recovered a horde of photographs, documents and possessions belonging to his mother – material that Miller had insisted no longer existed – and began to reconstruct his mother’s remarkable life and creative output. It is only since then that the extent of Miller’s art has become apparent. Anthony Penrose has written a number of books about his mother. Credit must be paid to the tireless stewardship of Anthony Penrose, only child of Miller and Penrose. His care and candour over the years regarding his mother’s art has been exemplary. He has allowed scholars and the public access to material that frankly shows the difficulties that his mother faced, especially during her years in England. It is Anthony Penrose’s honesty, his intelligent choices about exhibition and publication of Miller’s art which have together allowed Miller’s achievements to come to be fully recognised. Anthony Penrose has fully complemented his mother’s great abilities and unique character. Any artist would wish to have such a judicious legatee. There would be value in a dedicated book of Miller’s letters. The examples quoted are full of vigour, wit and unexpected views of major historical events and figures.

 

Anthony Penrose, The Home of the Surrealists: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose and their circle at Farley Farm, Penrose Film Productions Ltd, 2016, paperback, 144pp, fully illus., £19.95, ISBN 978 0 9532389 1 0

Anthony Penrose, Surrealist Lee Miller, Lee Miller Archives, 2019, paperback, 159pp, fully illus., £15, ISBN 978 0 9532389 34

Ami Bouhassane, Lee Miller: A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes, Grapefrukt Forlag, 2017, hardback, 352pp, fully illus., £29.95, ISBN 978 09532 38927

(Books distributed by Unicorn Books and www.leemiller.co.uk)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

Flemish Primitives in Bruges

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[Image: Jan Van Eyck, Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436), oil on panel, Groeningemuseum, Bruges]

Flemish Primitives in Bruges is a new book presenting paintings by Flemish painters from the Early and High Renaissance (also called the South (or Early) Netherlandish School). Till-Holger Borchert outlines the history of the city and how that affected the development of South Netherlandish painting. The story of art of the time is inextricably linked to the cloth trade in the Low Countries, especially in Flanders. The wealth and growing sophistication of the urban cloth merchants provided demand for religious objects of beauty and high cost. From around 1250 trade via the Hanseatic League, Baltic timber merchants and Flemish cloth merchants (aided by innovative Italian bankers) made the port city of Bruges an important hub for trade. With trade and wealth came culture. It was as part of the Burgundian state (the Duchy of Burgundy) that Bruges hosted the most advanced artists of the age. At this time the production of polychromed statuary, painted panels, painted furniture, manuscript illumination and book production were overlapping fields and makers often had multiple skills.

In 1431-2 Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) settled in Bruges, having moved from Ghent, where he had painted the Ghent Altarpiece with his now deceased brother Hubert. It has been suggested that whereas panel painting in Northern Italy became elevated over mere ornamentation due to the example of the fresco painting, it seems that the innovations in panel painting of the Van Eyck siblings Jan, Hubert, Lambert and Margaret derived from manuscript illustration. They may have trained as manuscript limners. (The famed manuscript illuminator Barthélemy d’Eyck (c. 1420-after 1470) was probably related to them.) The earliest painted panel here is from c. 1420. “Stylistically, there are interesting correspondences with Brabant painting, but also close links with Bruges manuscript illumination of the same period. Unfortunately, comparably early paintings in Bruges have not survived.” These paintings are only a fraction of art that adorned public and private places in the immediate pre-Reformation era. An earlier panel by Melchior Broederlam (c. 1350-after 1409), now housed in the Dijon, is illustrated. The skilful use of oil paint in this diptych of about 1396-9 is the forerunner to the Van Eycks’ advancement of the technique. Till-Holger Borchert writes, “The few surviving panel paintings that can be situated in Flanders with some probability – and did not originate in the immediate vicinity of the Burgundian court – are not sufficient in number to demonstrate the alleged continuity between the time of Van Eyck and the preceding period.”

Van Eyck’s achievements are well known and he was famous within his lifetime. Most Early Netherlandish painting springs directly from Van Eyck’s model. Exactly the competence of achievements and competence of his siblings is unknown as there are no firm attributions to anyone but Jan, with two pieces being attributed in part to Hubert. Jan’s authorship is secure because of his habit of signing and dating paintings.

Jan Van Eyck died in 1441 and his brother Lambert apparently continued the workshop for a time, at least finishing commissions and perhaps accepting new ones. In 1444 Petrus Christus (c. 1410-20-c. 1475/6) arrived in Bruges and became the leading painter of the following generation. His followed the Eyckian approach of elaborate detail, high finish, fidelity to nature and the production of large devotional paintings and small portraits, all painted in oil. He was also influenced by the Brussels painter Rogier van der Weyden. The German painter Hans Memling (c. 1430-1494) trained with Rogier in Brussels and moved to Bruges in 1465 and worked there until his death. His synthesis of Van Eyck and Rogier’s styles is considered the epitome of the Bruges School.

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[Image: Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Woman (1480), oil on panel, Hopsital Museum, Bruges]

Gerard David (c. 1455-1523) trained in Gouda or Haarlem. In 1484 he became a member of the Guild of St Luke. His art represents an advance towards the High and Late Renaissance for the Bruges School. The chiaroscuro, naturalistic light and shade and subdued colours all mark a departure from the Netherlandish Early Renaissance. Although the facial physiognomies and clothing is distinctly Flemish, the pictorial language (and appearance) is now more Italianate and in line with Swiss, French and German painting of that time. The emerging Dutch style – within which David had developed – also exerted an influence on the painter, who arrived in Bruges as a master painter aged about 30. Borchert reports that David possibly travelled to Italy to install an altarpiece that was commissioned for an abbey in Liguria. “This would make him one of the first Flemish artists – before Joos van Cleve and Quinten Metsys – to be directly influenced by Italian painting. The journey could help explain the hitherto-unknown sfumato technique that characterized his later works […]”

There are many named masters to whom the many anonymous paintings cannot be connected, though undoubtedly these masters and paintings must overlap in authorship. Three of the most outstanding works are St Veronica presenting the Sudarium (c. 1495), the St Lucy paintings (1480) and Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1500). Other paintings have been associated with these masters and the process of teasing out the complicated and tenuous connections between pictures, painters and patrons continues today.

Later painters (Adriaen Isenbrant, Ambrosius Benson), influenced by David, are less noteworthy and have largely lost their Bruges character. An exception is Jan Provoost (c. 1465, who came from Hainaut (Mons). In 1494 he arrived in Bruges. In some ways Provoost owes more to Germanic painting than Early Netherlandish art. We can find touches of Grunewald and Bosch in his macabre Death and the Miser (c. 1515-21), where a wealthy merchant holds out a (promissory?) note to a skeletal Death.

Around 1500, the Zwin channel, which provided ships access to Bruges, began to silt up. Bruges lost status and income as trade moved to other cities, notably Antwerp. This led to artistic activity largely transferring to other cities. Bruges became a backwater. Happily, this neglect meant that there was a lack of funds for rebuilding, renovation and extensive alterations to the city layout, which caused the preservation of the centre of Bruges as a largely late Medieval city.

Borchert guides us through art of related centres of art production including Tournai, Artois, Ghent, Valenciennes, Brabant and ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Thus he discusses Rogier, Robert Campin, Jacques Daret and the mysterious Master of Flémalle, who may not have been a separate painter but rather the putative author of art by Campin, Rogier, Daret and others. Simon Marmion, Dieric Bouts, Bosch, Hugo van der Goes is mentioned in passing. All of these are presented with many illustrations and include recent scholarly conclusions about the activities of these artists.

The plates section shows the highlights of Bruges-related painters currently in the museums of Bruges. The paintings are located in the Goeningemuseum, Hospital Museum, Treasury of St Salvator’s Cathedral, Sint-Jacobskerk, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, our Lady’s Church, Museum van de Edele Confrérie van het Heilig Bloed, Grootseminarie and Public Library. Notable pictures include Jan Van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436) and portrait of the artist’s wife, Memling’s Triptych of the Two Saints John (1479), a fine portrait diptych (with a Madonna and Child on one panel and a donor portrait on the other) and a painted and gilded reliquary in the shape of a shrine, David’s Triptych of the Baptism of Christ (1502-8) and the gruesome scene of the flaying of Judge Sisamnes (1498), Jan Provoost’s Crucifixion (1505-10), and van der Goes’s completion of Dieric Bouts’s unfinished Triptych of the Martyrdom of St Hippolytus (1475-80). The single oversight is the omission of dimensions and medium details (although one presumes they are all oil paint on panel).

In short (two-page) side discussions, the author describes the origins of oil painting technique (which made Early Netherlandish art so distinctive), the triptych format and social conventions of art donation for religious purposes. A bibliography is included. This guide will be of use to visitors to Bruges, those studying the Bruges School and anyone who likes the painting of the Early and High Renaissance in the Low Countries.

 

Till-Holger Borchert, Flemish Primitives in Bruges, Ludion, 2019, paperback, 128pp, fully illus., English language version (Dutch and French versions available), €19, ISBN 978 9 493039117

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Manet and Modern Beauty

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[Image: Édouard Manet (French, 1832 – 1883), Jeanne (Spring) (1881), oil on canvas, 74 × 51.5 cm (29 1/8 × 20 1/4 in.), 2014.62. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles]

The J. Paul Getty Museum is celebrating its 2014 acquisition of a little-seen minor masterpiece by Édouard Manet (1832-1883) with an exhibition and two publications. Manet and Modern Beauty: The Artist’s Last Years is at the Art Institute of Chicago (26 May-8 September 2019) then transfers to the Getty Center, Los Angeles (8 October 2019-12 January 2020). The exhibition is reviewed from the publications. Jeanne (Spring) (1881) was a late painting by Manet, while he was physically limited and often immobilised (suffering from tertiary syphilis). At this this time, Manet was painting many still-lifes of flowers and fruit, as well as portraits of women. It was one of his two submissions to the 1882 Salon, where it was entitled Jeanne. The next time it was exhibited it was called Spring. The subject was Mlle Jeanne Demarsy, a teenage beauty who would later become an actress. She also sat to Renoir at about the same time.

This was part of a proposed series of seasons in the form of half-length portraits of women, commissioned by a famed art critic Antonin Proust. The series seems to have been cut short by Manet’s death because only two paintings from the seasons are known today. (Autumn is included in the exhibition.) The painting was admired at the time but has been rarely seen, residing in a private collection until 2014, when it was auctioned and acquired by the Getty. It was not available for scholars and that – combined with its apparent guileless prettiness – meant that the painting was not discussed much in critical literature. This exhibition covers the years 1876-1883 and comprises 92 items, including paintings, pastels, prints and supplementary material, such as Manet’s illustrated letters and journal illustrations. Oddities include painted fans and a tambourine. The works include some superb pieces, most especially the late still-lifes of fruit and flowers.

Critics portrayed these late painting as soft, lapses in mental fortitude and a retreat from the ground-breaking paintings such as Olympia (1863) and Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863). Were the late still-lifes and portraits of women a search for approval from picture buyers and collectors of middle-brow taste? “These early accounts helped form the now familiar cliché of Manet’s late work as symptomatic of his declining health and his friendship with loose women: a sign, in short, of decadence. In the twentieth century modernist art historians explained the late work’s perceived failings in similar terms.” Thus the subjects of delightful blossoms, delicious fruit and beautiful women were cast as both indicative of epicurean decadence and product of the limitations imposed through disability contracted due to that decadence, in the form of venereal disease.

While Manet was called the leader of the Impressionists, he did participate in the independent exhibitions of the Impressionists, preferring to exhibit at the Salon. He was committed to the Salon, exhibited there until his death and even won a medal. Manet’s attachment to the Salon earned him gibes of being bourgeois by Degas, that despite Degas’s support of, and friendship with, James Tissot and Henri Gervex, two prominent Salon painters markedly less daring than Manet.

Scott Allan draws parallels between Manet’s M. Eugène Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter (1881) and the celebrated Hay Making (1877) by Jules Bastien-Lepage. He suggests the large size, near-square format and composition set outdoors were are influenced by the earlier Naturalist painting. The work launched Naturalism as an artistic school.

Scientific analysis of Jeanne show that in some parts five separate layers were applied in different sessions. Despite that, Manet used the primer layer as a counter to the oil paint. There is a pigment analysis which compares the painting to other paintings by Manet. Micro-photography, x-rays and close examination shows how Manet painted the picture.

Manet’s paintings of parisiennes were not only studies of timeless beauty but also studies of temporal beauty. He had a fascination for fashion and closely followed the changing types of clothing and the use of signifiers. He was known to choose clothing for his female sitters, buying it sometimes. He expressed a desire to capture the very precise alterations in dress codes and types for women. The parisienne was an embodiment of both eternal and temporal beauty, in the form of a uniquely French form of civilisation. Observed and recorded with accuracy, lace cuffs, bonnet trimming and seams of gloves could precisely date a painting to a precise year, even an exact season. Illustrations of paintings not in the exhibition show that modern femininity became a central subject for Manet’s late oil paintings destined for the Salon. The painting of Nana – central character of a realist novel by his Manet’s friend Zola – is an example of this approach. Comparison with other portraits and nudes reveals Manet’s attachment to the female face in profile. His male subjects are never shown in profile in the later period.

The exhibition includes other, more cursory portraits of Jeanne. The catalogue is illustrated with photographs (and portraits by Renoir) of her, allowing us to judge the balance between veracity and flattery that the artist struck. Important paintings loaned for this exhibition include Boating (1874-5), Plum Brandy (c. 1877), In The Conservatory (1877-9), The Café-Concert (c. 1878-9), Portrait of Antonin Proust (1880), Eugène Pertuiset and other late works. The pastel portraits are decidedly weaker than the painted ones. A number of these paintings are unfinished, cut short by the artist’s death. Apparently some were finished by other artists at the request of the estate, in order to make these pictures saleable. Manet produced pastels in his last years because they were faster to make and less strenuous than oil painting. Unable to stand for long periods and – towards the end – unable to stand at all, Manet’s scope of subjects and media were restricted.

In the essays, specialist scholars outline the influence of Chardin as the starting point for the still-lifes and the precedents of Boucher, Fragonard and Watteau for Manet’s figure paintings.

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[Image: Édouard Manet (French, 1832 – 1883), Letter Decorated with a Snail on a Leaf (1880), Watercolor over gray wash (design); pen and ink (text) on machine-made laid paper, 15.8 × 11.7 cm (6 1/4 × 4 5/8 in.), 2019.7. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles]

The late letters were illustrated with watercolour motifs of fruit and flowers. They are extensively reproduced and translated. One writer notes that Manet’s correspondence has never been extensively published, a serious oversight. Another essayist examines the late still-lifes. This large, richly illustrated and highly informative catalogue will become an essential addition to the literature on Manet and can be enjoyed by experts and non-specialists alike.

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In Richard R. Brettell’s small book On Modern Beauty examines three masterpieces in the Getty, featuring beauty, both conventional and strange. Manet’s Jeanne is compared to paintings by Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne.

Paul Gauguin’s Arii matamoe (La fin royale) (1892) shows the head of a Tahitian man on a table, like a spectacular and morbid still-life. The head rests on a cushion, with flowers in its hair. In the background there are other figures. The painting is richly coloured and beautiful, despite its subject matter. The title translates as the “royal end”, “the sleeping king” and “king’s end”. It relates to a public beheading the artist witnessed in 1889, rather be made from life. This is a portrait as a still-life, as well as being an ethnographic curiosity. Brettell speculates that when he painted Arii matamoe, Gauguin may have had in mind a painting by Cézanne, which he owned for a time. The still-life featured a skull and unlit candle. Gauguin was greatly depressed by the colonial usurpation of Tahitian culture and his painting depicting the ending of a vital native nobility is a metaphor for the demise of indigenous traditions.

The third painting is Cézanne’s Young Italian Woman at a Table (c. 1895-1900) shows the subject in a voluminous blouse leaning upon an ornate rug over a table. It is a surprisingly attractive subject on a superficial basis. The model is thought to be Italian, a paid model. The artist did not leave many writings that would help us date pictures or identify portrait subjects. Brettell points out the similarity between the position of subject of this painting and that of Dürer’s print Melancolia (1514) and some female portraits by Corot. Cézanne is a difficult artist to write about because so much of the effect of his art is absorbed through perceptual reception of impressions rather than iconography, narrative and other factors more amenable to verbal description.

On Modern Beauty is a well-illustrated and thought-provoking book about different aspects of beauty in French painting of the period.

 

Scott Allan, Emily A. Beeny, Gloria Groom (eds.), Manet and Modern Beauty, Getty Publications, 2019, hardback, 400pp, 206 col./97 mono illus., £50/$65, ISBN 978 1 60606 604 1

Richard R. Brettell, On Modern Beauty: Three Paintings by Manet, Gauguin and Cézanne, Getty Publications, 2019, paperback, 108pp, 63 col./4 mono illus., $19.95, IBSN 978 1 60606 606 5

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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