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

 

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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

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.

***

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

Léon Spilliaert

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[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Self-Portrait with Moon (1908), Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 488 x 630 mm, Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, inv. 6923]

Visitors to the Modern section of art museums in Belgium will soon come across stark and dramatic art by an unfamiliar name. Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) was a Belgian artist, associated with but not part of the Symbolist and Art Nouveau movements of the period. Curator and scholar Anne Adriaens-Pannier has become the world’s leading expert on Spilliaert. She prepared the catalogue raisonné and has assembled the most detailed body biographical information about the artist, not least due to her extensive and long-lasting contact with his descendants.

This publication is a major advance in making Spilliaert’s art known outside Belgium. His art is in private hands in Europe and in Belgian museums but has only recently been exhibited more internationally. This major monograph makes an excellent guide to the artist’s life and work, provides detailed information, a bibliography, chronology and plentiful information about the artist’s output, career and ideas.

The early work moves between modes of satire, social criticism, mythology, caricature and cartoon. Early pieces include the gamut of juvenile subjects: interiors, street scenes, solitary figures, caricatures, fantastic figures, symbolic characters and humorous scenes. Almost all were drawn in stylised forms and – with the exception of some self-portraits and interiors – produced from memory or imagination. There is often a bold stylisation with swathes of black. It is close to the sort of art published in illustrated journals and newspapers. We can relate it to the Modernisme of Barcelona, Jugenstil from Vienna and the closer influences of Belgian Art Nouveau and French Symbolism. This was also the time when Aubrey Beardsley’s black-and-white style was at its most popular. We can detect common refrains in Spilliaert’s art – the preoccupation with the morbid and grotesque, the artificial and synthesised, the decadent and uncanny, the ambiguous and androgynous. However, Spilliaert is never overtly erotic, as Rops and Beardsley were. There is a fascination with the strange but never an obsession. For Spilliaert, excess is a matter of detached speculation rather than something in which he indulged in his everyday life. Spilliaert was an early reader of Comte de Lautrémont’s Les chants de Maldoror, a fan of Nietzsche (of whom he drew some portraits) and someone familiar with Symbolist poetry.

Peculiarly, in his best work Spilliaert hardly went beyond the adolescent stage of art, with its interiority, self-absorption, heightened emotion, small size and lack of externally derived correction. Although indebted to Symbolism and Art Nouveau, Spilliaert was artistically and professionally isolated. He always preferred working on paper to using canvas; he stayed with ink, pencil, charcoal, watercolour and pastel, never achieving much in oil paint or sculpture. (His oil paintings were produced at the behest of gallerists who found those easiest to sell.) His palette is most effective when limited to cool hues, with little contrast in colour. The impressive thing is how he managed to extract the very best from a narrow emotional and thematic base.

He was essentially self-taught, spending only a few months studying in Bruges. He spent most of his life in his birth town of Ostend. The most important artist of Ostend was James Ensor, who was a minor celebrity in the town by the time Spilliaert started working. (Ensor outlived Spilliaert by a few years, dying in 1949.) Spilliaert greatly admired Ensor’s interiors. Ensor’s marines were very painterly and reliant on the effects of oil paint, so they could not be a direct influence on an artist using Spilliaert’s materials. Pannier includes an excellent and illuminating discussion about the personal and artistic links between the two artists. Ensor’s satirical drawings and prints directly inspired Spilliaert to produce his own interpretations on the subjects, though usually less scabrous and bitter.

Spilliaert did join societies, participate in group exhibitions  and form connections to other artists. Spilliaert is best thought of as an individualist associated with Symbolism, alongside Vilhelm Hammershøi, Helene Schjerfbeck, Félix Vallotton and others. Other artists such as Alfred Kubin, Odilon Redon and Félicien Rops are suitable comparators. An extended chapter relates Spilliaert to Fernand Khnopff, Xavier Mellery (who taught Spilliaert briefly in Bruges), Munch, Ensor, Constant Permeke, the Nabis and Japanese prints. Adriaens-Pannier helpfully weighs up the specialist literature (mostly available only in Flemish), which allows us to understand the debates which have shaped the reception of the artist’s work. She describes the artistic and literary affiliations that added to the formation of the art and is particularly good at setting his work in a historical context. Whilst not all of Spilliaert’s art will be to single viewer’s tastes – indeed there is a chasm between later colourful work and the early tenebrous style – Adriaens-Pannier even-handedly informs us about the multiple interests of the artist.

The interiors are domestic, generally, and still-lifes are of everyday objects (boxes, bottles, house plants). His early self-portraits are characteristic of Spilliaert. His slender form, strong facial shapes and flamboyant coif of hair provided a base upon which to exaggerate with powerful shadows and highlights. (He often posed under a raking overhead light at night.) His clothing is formal, with a high collar and dark jacket. He is the epitome of a damned artist or anguished aesthete. Coloration in muted, sometimes little more than a touch of isolated colour in an otherwise black-and-white picture.

Pictures of other figures depend on mood. When the figures are simple, dark, dramatic and isolated they work best. The caricatures, portraits (aside from the self-portraits) and pieces in high colour are much less successful. In the latter, the influence of the Nabis leads Spilliaert away from his strengths. Realism is not an issue, as the art that is realistic (the self-portraits) and unrealistic (the dream-like compositions) are both effective – just as the art which blends verisimilitude and artificiality. Contrasting or bright colour diminishes the impact of Spilliaert’s art.

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[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Promenade and Lighthouse, 1908, Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 505 x 395 mm (day)]

Much of the artist’s work concerns the sea. A constant presence in Ostend, a repeated subject for local artists, the sea provided Spilliaert with a chance to approach nature as vast and temperamental. The fields of flowing water, dramatic elongated reflections and counterpoints between Ostend’s seafront architecture and areas of water all allowed Spilliaert to address subjects such as the infinite, nature, the frisson of fear and wonder in tranquillity. The sea and beach gave his art greater breadth of expression and subject. Receding tides, reflections and ripples gave Spilliaert a chance to use the bold curving lines the dominate Art Nouveau aesthetic. The lone figure on the beach was a staple of contemporary art. These scenes show the introverted artist reaching for boundless expanses without leaving his home.

The beach became a dream-like stage that took on existential qualities, with lone figures free of ties and given freedom in return for lonely isolation. The sweeping beach and promenade are scenes of contemplation, free of detail, cut adrift from the society which made the structures. In a sense it prefigures de Chirico’s dark shadows, empty plazas and stripped down imagery. In some brilliant and haunting images, Spilliaert showed fans of light emanating from doorways in the elongated promenade building, placing us in the dark night, removed from light and life but still able to access those human necessities. These are images that embody existential art and should be as well-known as the art of de Chirico and Edvard Munch.

It is admitted even by his supporters that a fair quantity of Spilliaert’s art is unsuccessful. The pictures of women are types rather than individuals, lacking memorability or appeal. Late-career excursions into brighter landscapes are absolute failures and make painful viewing. His religious art scenes (the deployment of icons in abstract spaces) are oddities. The oil paintings he made to satisfy gallerist requests are not a natural fit for Spilliaert’s strengths. The best of the late works are scenes of trees.

His forays into lithography were much more successful. He produced single-colour images using the grain of the plates and paper to produce equivalents of conté drawings. The outstanding works are The Avenue (1899) and Woman Sewing (1899).

In 1917 Spilliaert moved to Brussels to improve his income (he was now married and they were expecting a child). The coloured watercolour scenes of bathers of this time are light-weight. His return to Ostend in 1922 apparently came as a relief to him and his wife. The high colour of later years – influenced by Fauvism and Expressionism – makes the later period of less interest. His society portraits and commercial work (aside from some illustrations) are uninvolving. Apart from some early flirtation with social commentary, Spilliaert was politically unengaged. Depictions of fishermen and fishwives in Ostend became a recurrent theme (something he shared with his friend Permeke). The artist’s interest seems more sentimental than attached to any desire to delve into social realism. Spilliaert became more established over the 1920s to the 1940s, assisted by a return to Brussels in 1935.

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[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Promenade, Light Reflections (1908), Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 480 x 394 mm, Paris, Musée d’Orsay]

Overall, Spilliaert is uneven. One could hardly react so warmly to all his contradictory styles and subjects. He has weaknesses – a tendency to decorativeness, an infelicity handling certain materials, a poor sense of colour outside of a near-monochrome approach, a certain aimlessness in his last decades – but at his best he is brilliant. The early interiors, self-portraits, beach and sea views and moody isolated figures are haunting and wonderful. They have the power to impress themselves upon your memory and strike a deep chord.

Adriaens-Pannier has used family testimony, contemporary sources (including the artist’s own writings), archive photographs, access to archives, a wide knowledge of the period and an unparalleled understanding of Spilliaert’s life and art to produce an absorbing book. The illustrations are extensive and high quality, many full page. They reproduce key pieces and less accessible works in private collections. This excellent monograph can be unreservedly recommended and will become the standard reference work for any English-language researchers studying Spilliaert.

 

Anne Adriaens-Pannier, Léon Spilliaert: From the Depths of the Soul, Ludion, 2019, cloth hardback, 336pp, €59.90, fully illus., ISBN 978 94 9181 990 2

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

New York Mid-Century Women Printmakers

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Artist Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988) founded his printmaking workshop Atelier 17 on the Left Bank of Paris in 1927/8. Hayter as an artist and teacher was close to Surrealism, particularly the practice and theory of automatism. He encouraged students to experiment but accepted artists of outlooks contrary to his. At the outbreak of war, Hayter left Paris. In October 1940 he re-opened Atelier 17 in New York. Christina Weyl’s The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York is a new study of women who trained in Atelier 17 in its New York incarnation. It focuses on eight of the most adventurous and committed women artists who worked at the studio: Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Minna Citron (1896-1991), Worden Day (1912-1986), Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994), Sue Fuller (1914-2006), Alice Trumbull Mason (1904-1971), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) and Anne Ryan (1889-1954).

Hayter moved back to Paris in 1950 to re-establish his studio there. A number of replacement directors maintained the New York studio. The New York studio closed for financial reasons in September 1955. The Paris studio of Atelier 17 only closed in 1988, upon Hayter’s death; a replacement studio has since been run under the name Atelier Contrepoint.

Weyl’s thesis is that the activities of Hayter’s studio allowed women in the 1940s and 1950s to develop proto-feminist practices and associations. “My reading of women artists’ affiliation with Atelier 17 and their experiences both inside and outside the studio is shaped by feminist art history and gender theory. The scaffolding provided by theorists and feminist scholars such as Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Griselda Pollock, Rozsika Parker, and Lucy Lippard allows for a more sophisticated analysis of this moment in history and of this particular group of women artists and makes it possible to reframe Atelier 17 through a feminist lens.” Weyl says she intends to continue “the scholarly trajectory of decentering and demythologizing [American modernism] that began decades ago”.

Weyl admits her thesis is partial. “Giving women artists a space in which they could flex their artistic muscles was radical for the 1940s and 1950s.” This is followed by an admission that often women outnumbered men at art school and that the WPA in the 1930s provided equal treatment of women artists. Weyl overlooks Black Mountain College, Hans Hofmann’s studio and any number of places where women could train without sexist prejudice. When Weyl writes about the limited career options open to women artists, she could just have easily written the same about male artists. There was great competition and few opportunities for all young artists and they had difficulty selling any non-traditional art. At the outset, one senses that Weyl has overstated her case to prove a point and by the mid-point of the book this judgment seems well founded.

The residual fallacy persists throughout the book. Whenever female artists do not pursue their studies, are discouraged, fail to exhibit, leave the studio prematurely and so forth, Weyl’s first resort is to explain this as the outcome of sexist obstruction. Environments are “coded masculine”; “ambivalent attitudes” are “largely unspoken but no less impactful”, nonetheless Weyl seems to be to unerringly identify it at a distance of seven decades. “Given the prevalence of wartime and postwar messaging about personal hygiene and hand care, female members of Atelier 17 had to be cognizant that their ink-stained hands were nonconforming to gender norms.” This sums up the approach and tone of The Women of Atelier 17.

When Hayter was peremptorily dismissive of some applicants (whom he disparaged as dilettantes), Weyl interprets this as sexism rather than impatience with less dedicated artists. Whether or not Hayter was fair in his assessments is not easy to weigh. This was a question of reciprocal respect – not just the master printmaker judging the seriousness of prospective students but of students realising that by studying with Hayter but not treating the work seriously they would be wasting the time of a busy teacher who could have been expending energy on more receptive students. Teachers such as Hayter had justifiably little patience for students who were dabblers. This was a serious problem for artist-teachers, who needed to guard their reputations and to assess how best to apportion limited resources and spaces. When Weyl chides Hayter for being too domineering, this contrasts with the reader’s sympathy regarding Hayter’s protectiveness towards his materials and tools, which were shared and sometimes expensive to replace. The author displays a measurable deficit of empathy towards Hayter, the individual who provided so much support, encouragement and opportunity for women artists.

The place of women in Atelier 17 is an interesting subject worth studying. Simply reviewing commonalities between eight female printmakers and discussing how their working approaches overlap and diverge is worthwhile. The illustrations are numerous and important, as many of these prints are obscure and rarely exhibited or discussed. There is also a useful guide to the societies, open exhibitions and co-operatives that were used by printmakers of the period. Notes of sources and summary biographies of artists will be of use to researchers. Weyl identifies a verifiable case of a woman being overlooked by colleagues. Fuller revived the sugar-lift technique detailed in E.S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which went on to be a popular technique in the 1940s.

The author’s vexation with the two most prominent women artists of Atelier 17, Bourgeois and Nevelson, is apparent. “[They] had indecisive relationships with feminism. Though often touted as the two greatest women artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Bourgeois and Nevelson were not overly supportive of other women artists and treated those from younger generations, especially, with suspicion or ambivalence.” Weyl has a very definite idea that women artists are by nature more collegial than their male colleagues. Therefore great women artists should be greatly collegial. Why would they be?  Wouldn’t unusually competent, ambitious and individualistic artists act in ways that are the opposite of collegial? Why would tough exceptional female artists act any different from tough exceptional male artists and why would those female artists be feminists?

Weyl is insistent on the importance of group solidarity between women artists. “Women taught women, women promoted their fellow sisters’ new editions or current gallery exhibitions, and they supported each other’s business ventures in the print world.” Networking happens at all levels. The most successful artists will tend to network with their successful peers but not be dependent on those connections. One suspects that class solidarity tends to appeal to less competent and less successful practitioners who profit from pooling resources. It is not a matter of gender or temperament but of success. In a modern age when artists do not have or need apprentices, very successful artists usually do not teach. It is less successful artists who teach, print other artists’ editions, promote each other’s work, share studios and form co-operative groups. We might posit that the success of Bourgeois and Nevelson caused them to be less in need of group activity.

Worryingly, there are a number of statements that are inaccurate. “[…] transitioning from social realism to abstraction was not as simple or seamless for women as it was for their male colleagues (think of [Camilo] Egas or someone like Jackson Pollock).” This is overlooks the resistance that Pollock faced as a former student of Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton from that trained by European abstract artist Hans Hofmann. Lee Krasner commented – as did a number of other artists of the time – that Pollock was taken less seriously precisely because his background was in realism and American art rather than European Modernism. One way in which Egas and Pollock earned a degree of respect from the Modernist camp was having worked with the Mexican Muralists, who were seen as the acceptable face of realism. The Muralists blended social realism with Modernism. Formerly realist artists (male and female) faced resistance from the influential New York School supporters of Surrealism, abstract or Modernist sympathies if they had not displayed some sort of engagement with a “more advanced” semi-Modern form of realism before they came to abstraction.

“At Atelier 17, women artists not only upended centuries-old gender boundaries guiding the division of labor within printmaking, but also participating in redefining beliefs about men’s and women’s work in American society  at midcentury.” Setting aside the second clause, the first clause can be identified as absolutely false. Not only have women have been engaged in every part of printmaking since the Middle Ages, it is widely known to be an area where they practiced effectively in every area of workshop activity. Weyl will be aware of the New York Public Library’s exhibition Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers: 1570-1900 (October 2015-January 2016) which covered just this topic. Exaggeration, distortion or falsehood – the quoted statements deserve no place in a reputable study.

Weyl, who has done enough research to know the common sources that I am familiar with, must know that such aspersions of sexism are unfounded. The authority of her statements relies upon the unfamiliarity of general readers with the wider body of literature. Additionally, there are errors of fact (such as technical descriptions on pp. 79, 156, etc.).

The persistent political direction of interpretation distorts the subject. When Nevelson was criticised for using too much ink, it was not a critique of her violating gender roles but of using too much communal material and creating mess that inconvenienced others. “Though Citron ultimately admired Nevelson’s resulting prints, she, Grippe, and others perceived Nevelson’s methods as slapdash and, implicitly, inappropriate for a woman.” Or colleagues may have found her use of shared materials reckless and a bad example to other students. “[…] she was unwilling to concede to postwar expectations and instead transgressed feminine norms with her bold and outsized personality.” Or she was thoughtless, egocentric and entitled. “Citron asked her friend, the sculptor Ibram Lassaw, to solder the plate parts back together. (Her aversion to the soldering gun is revealing because it follows the post-war taboo against women embracing home repair equipment.)” Or Citron was unfamiliar with a dangerous tool and asked an expert to perform the work for her using his tool. You see how hopeless the “gendered reading” is in practice. The best work in the book is in the second half, which contains an informative discussion about the market, distribution, exhibition, collection and status of Modernist prints in the period – material that is unrelated to gender.

The Women of Atelier 17 is a title that should be treated as partial and in some respects misleading. It is likely to cause of much misunderstanding if it is used liberally by writers unaware of the wider art historical scholarship on this period.

 

Christina Weyl, The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York, Yale University Press, 2019, hardback, 296pp, 76 col./63 mono illus., £50, ISBN 978 0 300 238501

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Claude Cahun

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The artist-writer Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob in 1894. She grew up in a middle-class family in Nantes. In some respects her childhood was conventional – financial security, good education – but Cahun (as she called herself from 1919 onwards) felt disturbed by undercurrents at home, which intensified over the years. Her father was Jewish at a time when the Dreyfuss affair was dividing the nation. Her mother was mentally ill and for some of the time confined a mental asylum.  Her mother was finally committed to an asylum permanently, with family visits forbidden. She and her brother were moved between relatives who were not always affection or considerate towards them.

Slight of build, not pretty, burdened with a Jewish surname at a time of anti-Semitism, disturbed by the emotional extremities of her parents and troubled by the spectre of hereditary madness, Cahun developed feelings of inadequacy. She found refuge in books. She had access to the books in her father’s office (a journal publication house) and read the classics to her blind grandmother, which gave her unusually broad exposure to literature. She began to write fiction. While a teenager she began a lifelong love affair with Suzanne Malherbe, who later changed her name to Marcel Moore (called Moore hereafter). The two women would be inseparable companions and collaborate in the production of books, photographs and artistic projects. Despite certain misgivings, their families tacitly approved of the unconventional relationship.

Cahun went to study philosophy and letters at the Sorbonne and Moore studied fine art in Nantes. Cahun conceived of herself as a failure in any of the available roles open to women of the time. In 1919 she changed her name to Claude Cahun partly to use as a nom de plume but also as a way of breaking with femininity. She shaved her head. She took as her heroes the Symbolist and Decadent writers, as well as André Gide. Their subjects of forbidden homosexual love, the morbid and grotesque, the renegade and flâneur, struck a chord in her. Her admiration for Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and John Addington Symmonds was related to her Anglophilia. The family holidayed in Jersey, she was schooled in England for a time and spoke English fluently. (When, a few later, Malherbe adopted the name “Moore” it may have been a conscious expression of affiliation for non-French culture.) Moore’s illustrations for Cahun’s first book (a restrained, stylised story about forbidden love) are derived from Aubrey Beardsley.

Moore was providing illustrations to journals and Cahun at that time was writing journalism. Cahun was following the Dada movement, which blew away the cultivated cobwebs of decadence. She dabbled in Buddhism and Eastern spirituality, something that was particularly current in the inter-war period, when people disgusted with the horrors of war turned their back on the traditions of their parents. Cahun became friends with Henri Michaux, René Crevel and André Breton. She met Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney and Chana Orloff, as well as visiting Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co.

The most important work of the 1920s was the commencement of a series of photographs of Cahun by Moore. It is this for which Cahun has become recognised posthumously. It seems that both Cahun and Moore worked to arrange the striking images, with Cahun alone as the subject in various incarnations: as a marionette, schoolgirl, clown, androgyne, mime, swimmer, dancer, Buddhist nun, scientific exhibit and other less identifiable types. Most of the photographs were only seen after Moore’s death, found as unprinted and untitled negatives. Some prints were marked with crop lines, others exist in unedited sequences. Some were published and displayed during Cahun’s lifetime – some in collage form – but it seems closer to a private project that occasionally bore fruit only to be exposed selectively. How serious are these works? What degree of importance did Cahun and Moore accord to them? The very fact that these questions are so important yet so unanswerable makes the asking significant.

The authorship issue is pertinent. Whose work is this: the subject’s or the photographer’s? Who came up with the ideas? Cahun and Moore are given joint credit but it is Cahun’s name on the book. Shaw points out that in early publications and posthumous exhibitions Cahun was credited as sole creator. “The perception that Disavowals [Aveux non avenus] and all of the photographic work associated with Cahun were the product Cahun’s singular vision was, for a long time, reinforced by the fact that the photomontages and photographs were attributed solely to Cahun in museum entries, catalogues and essays.”

More elaborate photo-collages (using original photographs, found photographs and handwritten texts) from the Aveux non avenus (1930) Shaw attributes to Cahun and Moore together, though she acknowledges that other experts believe Cahun was the principal creator. Shaw attributes to Cahun solely the photographs of temporary assemblages and miniature dioramas. They show serio-comic figures, toys, trinkets, plants and so forth in improvised settings. The photographs are jaunty and unsettling, adding a touch of the uncanny to assemblages that are childish. Other than photographs and photo-collages, the only other art Cahun produced were a few drawings and objects.

As the 1930s progressed greater political engagement was demanded of alert artists. Impelled by political commitment and artistic proclivity, Cahun became ever more closely involved in the Surrealist movement, specifically the circle around Breton. In 1932 Cahun and Moore joined the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, an organisation for Communist-supporting writers and artists. AEAR was anti-Fascist, pro-Communist and non-Surrealist. Relations between the PCF and the Surrealists were complicated and shifting. The Surrealists could not fully reconcile their search for freedom with the PCF and the USSR’s increasingly conservative artistic policy. Over the next few years the division between Trotsky and Breton’s position of free creativity by politically alert artists and the PCF and USSR’s directives enjoining adherence to Socialist Realism. Cahun found it difficult to align herself with a political organisation, as she admitted, and left in 1933.

In 1935 the group Contre-Attaque was co-founded by Cahun, alongside Breton, Bataille and others. It was an attempt to provide a unified front of Surrealists against Fascism. Breton and Bataille had different temperaments. Bataille has been characterised as a proponent of “Left Fascism” – essentially Socialism achieved through Fascist methods of force, not dissimilar to Strasserism – whereas Breton was a more conventional Marxist. Breton was also an authoritarian who saw Surrealism as his personal fiefdom and he mistrusted the group centred on Bataille’s Documents journal. Cahun, Moore and Breton resigned from Contre-Attaque due to the group’s “super fascist tendencies”.

Cahun seems to have been omitted from early retrospective monographs on Surrealism due to multiple reasons. First, much of her photography was unpublished and unexhibited, thus unknown to historians. The public works – seen in isolation and detached from the body of her work – might have seemed slight to critics. Second, with the exception of Man Ray, photographs have been assigned a supplementary role in histories of visual Surrealism behind paintings, sculpture and the graphic arts. Third, she did not sign many manifestoes, therefore is easy to overlook in compilations of official documents.

In 1937 Cahun and Moore moved to Jersey. In 1940 the British government demilitarised the Channel Islands as indefensible and evacuated much of the population. Cahun and Moore remained in the expectation of German occupation, with the intention of performing active resistance. Their house was requisitioned by the German army, yet still they engaged in small acts of subversion which carried a severe penalty. They distributed written propaganda to undermine occupiers’ authority and confidence; they smuggled food to starving slave labourers building defences. They retained a radio after a ban was imposed and passed on war news.

The couple were arrested whilst carrying anti-German propaganda. They attempted suicide but their overdoses were non-fatal. Their deportation to the continent was forestalled by the Allied victory in Saint-Malo. The German occupiers were now cut off from mainland Europe. They both attempted suicide again, believing the other to be dead. They were tried for listening to the radio, having a weapon and camera and distributing anti-German propaganda. Found guilty, they were sentenced to death. It seems that the Germans did want to carry out the execution and that there was no expectation that so late in the war two elderly women would be executed.

Much of the personal archive and collection of art, books and letters were burned by the Gestapo. Disillusioned by the perceived passivity of islanders to the occupation, the couple lived on in Jersey, with Cahun health failing. She died in 1954. Moore died in 1972.

Shaw is thoroughly familiar with her subject and intelligently guides us through the writing, art and life of Cahun and Moore. She is careful not to adduce an autobiographical reading of the photographs and does not over interpret the writings. She draws parallels between Cahun’s ideas and later gender theory without interpreting Cahun through that lens, though she has been and will be subject to such treatment. She summarises Cahun’s writings, which are not widely available in English. Appendices include translations of selections from Cahun’s writing. The book is thorough, sensitive, informative and absorbing. Shaw’s Exist Otherwise makes an important addition to Surrealism studies.

Cahun has in recent decades become one of the most influential photographers for a generation of artists and it is easy to see why. Alongside Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman, Cahun is seen as the supreme exponent of the ambiguous, elusive, disruptive photographic featuring the artist as subject. Cahun is a lodestar for women photographers, the ultimate trickster. Her collaborative mode of art creation is a very current concern, with more and more artists seeking to sublimate their identities in partnerships. Her roleplaying seems grist to the mill of gender-studies students and professors concerned with Judith Butler’s ideas of gender as performance.

Cahun’s work is liminal. It crosses boundaries between the performative and autobiographical, private and public, male and female, art and documentation, personal and political, singular and collaborative, serious and humorous, professional and amateur. It is unstable and unclear, sometimes existing in binary states simultaneously. This is why it appeals to artists and critics in the Post-Modernist age with its insistent fetishisation of boundary-breaking and genre-bending. What makes Cahun’s art better than the art that emulates it is a lack of affect, a genuine fascination with ambiguity and an absence of self-consciousness. There is a real question about whether this is art or not, whereas the knowing art students of the 1990s never intended anything other of their activities, realising that everything could be fed into the voracious, undiscriminating, unobjecting, uncritical maw of art exhibition and publication. Cahun’s art has a magical risk that is missing from the activities of the 1990s. It also has that now mocked attribute of originality.

 

Jennifer L. Shaw, Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun, Reaktion Books, 2017, hardback, ISBN 978 1 78023 728 2

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Arshile Gorky in Venice

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[Image: Arshile Gorky,  Portrait of Master Bill (ca. 1937), oil on canvas / Olio su tela, 52⅛x 40⅛in. (132.4 x 101.9 cm). Private collection/ Collezione privata]

In May 2019 Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia opened a major exhibition of the work of Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) in Venice (Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Ca’ Pesaro – International Gallery of Modern Art, Venice, 9 May-22 September 2019). It is the first solo exhibition of Gorky’s art in Venice, though his art was exhibited a number of times at the Biennale. The retrospective exhibition includes 81 works, paintings and drawings, from all periods of the artist’s career. Curated by Gabriella Belli and Edith Devaney, the exhibition is realised in cooperation with The Arshile Gorky Foundation. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This exhibition presents the full range of Gorky’s art, starting with a response to Cézanne, painted about 1927-8. Gorky was famous in his early years for his fastidious craftsmanship, the high quality of his materials and his fascination with incorporating and reworking the ideas of leading Modernists. Cézanne, Léger, de Chirico, Picasso and Miró his idols and his art before 1940 was heavily influenced by these painters. In still-lifes he made work that was resolutely European. (He claimed to have studied in Paris but he travelled from his native Armenia via Greece to the USA without studying art in Europe. Gorky was always vague about his origins in Armenia and was unwilling to talk about his past.) Gorky’s portraits from the 1930s are more independent and the demands of representing particular sitters (in life and from photographs) seem to have encouraged Gorky to develop more personal solutions in terms of styles and forms. The exhibition includes portraits, some of named subjects (including Gorky, his mother, Frederick Kiesler and friend Willem de Kooning), others of unidentified heads.

At this time Gorky was teaching art and painting in New York. He was employed on the WPA painting murals (one for Newark Airport), receiving coverage that portrayed him as an heir to the famous European master of Modernism. He formed close bonds with some artists in New York, particularly de Kooning. It was around the time the first artist wartime emigres arrived from Europe in late 1939 and 1940 that Gorky raised his game. Like many of the American artists interested in the avant-garde, they were impressed and disappointed to meet the trailblazers such as Ernst, Tanguy, Mondrian and others. They discovered that these pioneers were human, subject to fallibilities such as cupidity and vanity. Sparked by Surrealism in particular, the American artists took the ideas of automatism and developed it into ambitious abstract painting. Gorky was in the vanguard, developing his late style: biomorphic forms, intense colours, technical virtuosity, visible materiality. Gorky had synthesised his influences and applied a unique style (associated to Tanguy and Matta but independent) to his natural surroundings.

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[Image: Arshile Gorky, The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb / Il fegatoèla cresta del gallo (1944), oil on canvas/ Olio su tela73 ¼ x 98⅜in. (186.1 x 249.9 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New YorkGift of / Dono di Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1956, K1956:4Image courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery]

The landscapes of Virginia and Connecticut over the summers of 1942-1945 are considered high points. André Breton visited the Gorky family and invented titles of some works. The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944) is one of the great lyrical masterpieces – full of vigorous forms, delicate and energetic brushwork and intense colour. The energy belies the fact that at least some of Gorky’s classic Surrealist compositions were drawn on paper before being carefully transferred to canvas. From 1944 to the year of his death, Gorky’s oil paintings were thinly painted, with dilute paint forming light veils. An early colourful example is One Year the Milkweed (1944). Delicate Game (1946) has a drawn design barely covering the canvas surface. It includes only a few washes and most of the painting is bare primer. Painting (1947) is as translucent as a watercolour, with no firm lines. Only in his final months did Gorky use opaque oil paint, as seen in Dark Green Painting (c. 1948). Some unfinished paintings indicate how Gorky started his oil paintings.

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[Image: Arshile Gorky, Dark Green Painting / Pittura verde scuroca (1948), oil on canvas / Olio su tela43 3/4 x 55 1/2 in.(111.1 x 141 cm)Philadelphia Museum of ArtGift (by exchange) of / Dono (in scambio) di Mr. and Mrs. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee and R. Sturgis and Marion B. F.Ingersoll, 1995, 1995-54]

The drawings supplement paintings and show Gorky’s virtuosity. The early portrait drawing of his mother stands in for the two painted versions of that subject, which did not travel to Venice. The ink drawings and gouache paintings are related to his mural works. Apple Orchard (c. 1943-6) is one of the pastels which show the artist fusing forms of leaves, fruits and flowers. Other drawings allow us to compare the preparation with the final paintings.  There is an experimental drawing where a sheet has been smudged and the forms are indicated by erasing them. Ink wash and line are indicative of Gorky’s command of many materials and approaches, served by his long apprenticeship following the art of his heroes.

Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948 includes works loaned from museums and private collections across the USA and Europe and gives a strong overview of the artist’s work. The generously sized catalogue has full illustrations, essays describing the artist’s career, an essay discussing the reception of Gorky’s art in Italy and a chronology, all in Italian and English languages. It comprises a good introduction to Gorky’s achievements.

 

Gabriella Belli, Edith Devaney, Saskia Spender, Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948, Hauser & Wirth (distr. Artbook), June 2019, hardback, 240pp, 118 col. illus., Italian/English text, $55/C$75, ISBN 978 3 906915 34 0

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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