Delacroix

delacroix

  1. Painter

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) is commonly considered both the first modern artist and last classical artist. He was an artist who would attempt to evoke a powerful response in the viewers to a point where it would distort paintings. He was also an artist who adulated the Old Masters. He revered Rubens and developed a style of broken-colour brushwork in a way which would influence the development of Impressionism. It was only natural that he would be seen as a link between an august past and an innovative future.

A newly revised version of Barthélémy Jobert’s monograph (originally published in 1997) surveys the artist’s whole career, taking advantage of recent studies, sustaining the recent revival of interest in Delacroix. Recent exhibitions in America, France, Germany and America – plus a forthcoming exhibition in at the Metropolitan Museum in New York – have given gallery-goers and historians opportunities to reassess the Delacroix.

Delacroix was the central artist in the French Romantic tradition following the early death of Géricault in 1824. The pair apprenticed Guérin’s studio. Géricault supported Delacroix and passed on a religious commission to him. Géricault modelled as one of the dead figures in The Raft of the Medusa. Jobert writes that the young painter was not as close as to Géricault as is supposed, the latter being senior and established. Although Delacroix was saddened by Géricault’s death, Jobert suspects Delacroix’s admiration for Géricault cooled posthumously. He notes Delacroix wrote little about the older painter, both for publication and privately. Delacroix is usually presented as an arch enemy of Ingres, in a battle between Romanticism and Neoclassicism. The primary differences come in attitudes towards colour, paint handling, tone and theme.

Jobert notes that Delacroix managed his rise to prominence by submitting serious, large and ambitious history paintings to the (biannual) Salons of 1822, 1824 and 1827-8. The main works of these Salons (respectively The Barque of Dante, Massacre at Chios and The Death of Sardanapalus) received increasingly polarised responses from critics and public, as Jobert astutely dissects. This book does well to draw attention to underrated battle pieces and historical paintings such as The Murder of the Bishop of Liège (1829). The author has researched and explained sources for the literary and history paintings, allowing readers to appreciate the full drama and significance of the scenes the artist chose to depict.

The 1832 visit to Morocco and Spain provided Delacroix with many drawings, watercolours and notes that he plundered for inspiration over the rest of his career. Thirty paintings and innumerable prints and sketches were made over the next thirty years and became inextricably associated with Delacroix’s public career. Delacroix found much admirable and strange in the daily life of the Arabs and Jews and he considered himself plunged back into antiquity when surrounded by the clothing, behaviour and appearance of the people of North Africa. His colour became bolder and he combined in more sophisticated ways following his return from Africa. To the influences of Rubens and Venetian painters was added the clarity and brightness of North Africa.

Jobert points out that some of Delacroix’s masterpieces – Massacre at Chios, The Death of Sardanapalus, Liberty Leading the People and Women of Algiers – are common touchstones yet Delacroix overall achievement and underlying concerns are poorly understood. Why is Delacroix not better understood as an artist? Jobert suggests that part of the reason is a reluctance of recent viewers to engage with narrative and an aversion to literary subjects. Jobert notes that the masterpieces of Delacroix at the Louvre are – with the exception of the ceiling painting – early works and that his later great works are distributed in provincial museums around France, leading to an unintended distortion to how we perceive his development when viewing his work at the Louvre.

Some of the decorative cycles are inaccessible or difficult to see properly. The curving cupolas and glossy encaustic surfaces (some of them recently cleaned) have been photographed judiciously and these illustrations give a good impression of how dramatic and impressive Delacroix’s murals are. Overall, the illustrations are strong. Unexpected images include a delicate sky study sketch in pastel, a watercolour of Greenwich Park and a wonderful still-life of game and a lobster in a landscape setting (painted in 1826-7). There are pages from the Moroccan sketchbooks.

Delacroix had grave faults and he was criticised extensively from his first Salon appearance up to the present day. His deficiencies in anatomy came to the fore when he became intoxicated by his subject. He relied on memory and fantasy too often and this sometimes undermined the veracity of his paintings. He used fugitive pigments because he loved their colour, heedless of warnings against using impermanent materials. As a consequence many of his oil paintings are severely diminished today. He failed to see the value that modest subjects had as the bases for serious works of art, instead remaining wedded to the grand subjects of religion and history. This is all the more sad considering the great vividness and delicacy of his life studies of animals, people and landscapes. He will never be an artist we can relate to completely. He held too much in reserve, was too attached the notion of artistic propriety, passed over too many opportunities which seem attractive to us now.

Jobert’s narrative is fluent and absorbing. His expertise regarding Delacroix’s art and writing allow him to guide us through the Delacroix’s many achievements. This is an excellent and thorough survey of Delacroix.

9781588396808

  1. Draughtsman

 

A current exhibition features donations by Karen B. Cohen to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York of more than 106 drawings and other works on paper by Delacroix (Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17 July-12 November 2018). The museum houses one of the best collections of Delacroix in world outside of France, not least due to the generous donation of collector Karen Cohen.

The exhibited pieces cover every period of the artist’s long career and the many facets of his drawing practice. There are copies, caricatures, nature studies, compositional sketches (including overall compositional designs and tests for elements), observations from life, anatomical studies of men and animals. The techniques are very varied, including use of pencil, ink line, ink wash, watercolour, charcoal, pastel and chalk. A number of lithograph illustrations are included, showing how the public encountered Delacroix’s drawing. The artist generally kept his drawings private and the public only became aware of his 8,000 works on paper – and their outstanding quality and variety – when his studio contents were sold at auction after the artist’s death in 1863. One double-page spread in this catalogue presents a loose ink-wash landscape sketch, a lithographic illustration of Goethe and an anatomical study of a cadaver in chalks. Modern viewers may find such a multitude of subjects and open apprehensible techniques make these works on paper more approachable than Delacroix’s oil paintings.

What is clear from this exhibition is that Delacroix did not see his drawings as independent pieces but only steps. This mirrors his practice of copying, where the act of making informs the artist, improves his practice and assists him internalising the skills and effects that he may apply in his painting. Delacroix’s dedication to study and emulation are decidedly unselfconscious, humble even. There are sheets recording armour, costumes and interiors. There is evidence that Delacroix spent hours studying animals, including cats, tigers, lions and horses. In these cases he worked quickly from life, slowly from dead subjects and consulted anatomy books to develop detailed views.

Among the sheets are some connected with the artist’s best known paintings, including Massacre at Chios, Liberty Leading the People and Women of Algiers. There is a coloured drawing of decorative tiles in Seville which was used in the boudoir setting of the Women of Algiers. Delacroix used his observations made in foreign locales as a resource from which he could draw upon later. He made oriental fantasies using his Moroccan sketches and memories until the end of his life.

What characterises Delacroix’s drawings is their liveliness, spontaneity and incompleteness. The artist considered drawings as working material rather than presentation-quality pictures. Of these sheets, only a few watercolours (among which is the particularly noteworthy Goetz von Berichingen Being Dressed in Armour by his Page George (1826-7)) are signed and seem intended as a public statement. There is an exquisite pairing of the interior cover of a small sketchbook – with the pencil drawing of a woman’s head – and the first page, which has a brilliant watercolour of a castle surrounded by autumn foliage.

Marjorie Shelley suggests that a comprehensive assessment of Delacroix’s work on paper has not yet been attempted and that there are myriad unanswered questions regarding Delacroix’s materials, techniques and approaches to making drawings and watercolours. She points out that Delacroix’s habitual casualness with pigments can be seen in his choice of iron-gall ink. Iron-gall ink is corrosive and was known to be so in Delacroix’s age yet the artist persisted in using it even though more stable alternative inks were available.

The catalogue includes a short description of the Met’s history of acquisitions of Delacroix’s art and has entries describing exhibited items in technical detail, which is very welcome. Works in the Cohen collection not included in the exhibition are illustrated at the end of the catalogue with full data. Short essays cover different aspects of Delacroix’s drawing and altogether this catalogue is a good introduction to the great artist’s work on paper.

 

Barthélémy Jobert, Delacroix, new and expanded edition, 2018, Princeton University Press, paperback, 352pp, 249 col./47 mono illus., £47/$60, ISBN 978 0 691 18236 0

Ashley Dunn, Colta Ives, Marjorie Shelley, Delacroix Drawings: The Karen B. Cohen Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2018, paperback, 176pp, 205 col. illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 58839 680 8

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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Charles Bukowski: The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way  

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Interviewer: What do you hold responsible for your success?

Bukowski: A brutal childhood, alcohol, half a dozen rotten jobs, a dozen rotten women, plus an overpowering fear of everything, plus a strange arrival of luck and bravery in sub-zero situations.

In this new collection of stories, essays, reviews, statements and interviews (compiled and introduced by Bukowski expert David Calonne) we read Bukowski meditating on writing: the experience of writing, how he judged writers, his writing process and why one could (and should) write. There are also a few unpublished items.

Charles Bukowski often thought about what writing was good for (and not) and which writers made it (and which did not). Writing was his occupation and trade. He did a lot of reading. He frequented libraries and read voraciously. Despite not finishing his college education he was familiar with the classics (verse, prose and drama) and the early Moderns, as well as pulp writing, Chinese poetry and a host of other writers recent and ancient. He formed and expressed strong opinions but he was prepared to qualify. For example, he said he greatly admired Hemingway when he was younger but had cooled towards Hemingway because his writing lacked humour. But he was prepared to admit Hemingway’s greatness and conceded his jealous rivalry with the giant of American Twentieth Century literature. This is amply apparent in a very ambivalent review of the posthumously published Islands in the Stream.

This book does not make it. I wanted this book to make it. I have been pulling for Hemingway to hit one out of the lot for a long time now […] Hemingway knows his drinks and his drunks and the bar scene is good and the conversation is a little bit on-stage but not bad. You can get thirsty reading this part. I didn’t. […] No, this book doesn’t make it. Few do.

Writers Bukowski expressly admired included Dostoevsky, Gorky, Céline, Li Po, Hamsun, John Fante, early Hemingway, early Saroyan. He did not tend to publicly praise contemporary poets. This was perhaps partly professional jealousy and ego, but he had reasons to be sceptical. In the 1960s and 1970s Bukowski read a large amount of verse in connection with his work on little magazines. He claimed that the poor quality of American verse published at the time did not come close to matching the awfulness of the verse not published. Reading the dregs that were submitted for publication led him to make sweeping public statements and the largely dismiss American verse of the era. Yet Bukowski is nothing if not honest and we see that in his warm and generous introductions to his fellow poet Steve Richmond’s poem collections. Doug Blazek, Al Masarik and Al Purdy all get words of praise of varying intensity. No matter how rebarbative and brusque he could be generally, when encountering specific poems Bukowski would be as sensitive and responsive as one could wish for in an intelligent commentator. Due to that, when Bukowski trained his critical gaze on writing and found it wanting his verdicts were all the more brutal.

The most brutal of reviews is the verdict on a book of poems by John William Corrington. The pair had been friends and written each other many letters. Bukowski cooled on Corrington’s craft and conduct, attributing highfalutin diction and lifeless conjunctions in Corrington’s verse to his university education and work as a professor of English. Bukowski provides many examples of terrible self-conscious verse (“the strum of lost evening”, “sob chill rumor of your sinking flesh”, “grief stands like squad of riflemen”, etc.) which will leave readers wincing. Bukowski identifies instances of derivativeness and near plagiarism. Yet even within such a crushing and closely argued demolition, he quotes and praises a fine poem. Bukowski’s honesty will not allow him to lie or elide an awkward truth to strengthen his hand. To be fair, Bukowski the critic applied the principle of minimum-necessary force. No one could have finished the review thinking that Corrington’s Lines to the South and Other Poems (1965) was anything other than a disappointing pretentious mess. This is poetry reviewing as bullfighting and there is a certain vicarious pleasure in seeing this matador drive the sword in to the hilt. Bukowski should have written more reviews.

The selected stories here are uncollected since their original publications, mostly in weekly columns published in National Underground Review, Candid Press, L.A. Free Press and other counter-cultural newspapers in the 1960s and early 1970s. Bukowski spins yarns about fellow writers, writing columns and giving poetry readings at universities. At events he would drink while reading poems, deal drily with hecklers, behave boorishly at faculty parties and fend off groupies. Or not fend them off. He admitted – or boasted, depending on your view – of bedding admiring students, aspiring poetesses and wives of faculty members on numerous tours and reading engagements. Bukowski rarely spares himself and no matter how selfish, hypocritical and shallow his characters are, the writer himself hardly emerges any more dignified. Many of the stories are based on true events and earned the ire of fellow writers. My favourite is supposedly a veiled tale about “Tony Kinnard”. The poet injures his back and retires to a sickbed while his wife collects money to support him, even after his death. The story’s origin is unclear. As others at the time did, Calonne identifies Kinnard as Kenneth Patchen. Patchen did have severe spinal injury that left him bedbound over the years but this story was published in 1971 – a year before Patchen’s actual death.

The stories make fun of the farcical contradictions and false piety regarding the life of famous writers while always upholding the importance of what writing is and what writing can do. Bukowski experienced the pain of rejection and poverty and so when the empty adulation and wealth of great fame became his life, he could view the business with a gimlet eye. He is disarming frank about the variable quality of his weekly column, admitting that they were written for money and that some were weak. However, Bukowski never suggests that writing for money is wrong or that it necessarily degrades the writer.

A handful of interview transcripts and some questionnaires allow Bukowski to explain his thoughts on writing. He admits in interviews that the character Henry Chinaski is actually himself, embellished only slightly. He also says that the raucous stories of fights and one-night stands are largely true but mainly from the 1940s and 1950s and played up for effect. He was aware of his reputation as a “badass poet”, prepared to brawl, puke, gamble and screw his way through life and turn that life into writing. Bukowski never suggests a solution to the quandary of the writer using his own life as material and perhaps living in a certain way in order to provide literary subject matter – and the implicit danger of self-consciousness and autobiographical cannibalisation that this situation gives rise to. He concedes it happens but it is content to rely on literary judgment on a case by case basis. Ultimately, that is a reasonable response – perhaps that only one he could have in his circumstances.

Bukowski’s comments on his writing process shed light on recent controversies regarding the posthumous editing of his verse.

I write right off the typer. […] I revise but not much. The next day I retype the poem and automatically make a change or two, drop out a line, or make two lines into one or one line into two, that sort of thing – to make the poem have more balls, more balance.

This late (1985) interview directly contradicts the idea that editor John Martin of Black Sparrow Press has put forth. Black Sparrow Press published all the collected volumes of Bukowski’s poems from the late 1960s until after his death. When readers commented on minor and major changes between original versions of poems Bukowski submitted to magazines and the poems Martin published posthumously, Martin implied that all the changes had been made by Bukowski. However, Martin never produced manuscripts to substantiate the claim that Bukowski had embarked on a late, major and secret campaign of revision. The revision that readers detected in posthumous volumes was not the revision the poet describes in this interview – light contemporaneous revision designed to “make the poem have more balls” – but in fact atypical revision that neutered poems. Unless holograph manuscripts in Bukowski’s hand are provided attesting to the veracity of the posthumously published revisions, I am happy to take the poet at his word.

David Calonne and City Lights Books have done fans proud by publishing so much rare material of high quality. Some of Bukowski’s original illustrations for his stories are reproduced. The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way is a rich, surprising and very enjoyable collection. It is warmly recommended to all Bukowski readers and to anyone curious about Bukowski’s deeply felt thoughts on his trade and craft.

 

Charles Bukowski, David Calonne (ed.), The Mathematics of the Breath and the Way: On Writers and Writing, City Lights Books, 2018, paperback, 292pp, some line illus., $15.95, ISBN 978 0 87286 759 8

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Innovative Impressions: Prints by Cassatt, Degas and Pissarro

Brooklyn_Cassatt La Toilette_39107

[Image: Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926), Woman Bathing (La Toilette) (c. 1890–91), Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund, 39.107]

Innovative Impressions: Prints by Cassatt, Degas, and Pissarro at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma (9 June-9 September 2018) examines the three most prominent printmaking painters of the Impressionist movement: Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Camille Pissarro (1855-1903). The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This exhibition shows us the complex interplay of collaboration and rivalry that influenced the printmaking of three leading painters of the age. All three artists trained in etching early in their careers then set aside the medium to concentrate on painting. At the time, etching was considered a component of a rounded education for professional artists and also pursued by hobbyists, thus it was a widespread skill. In the 1860s there was a revival in etching in France, with the Société des Aquafortistes was established in 1862. Publishers encouraged artist-printmakers to produce etchings which they then marketed to fine-art collectors in competition with lithographs.

Etchings by Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic (1839-1889) show us the work of a critical figure in Nineteenth Century French printmaking. Lepic is best known for eau-forte mobile, which is the creative inking of plates that – in the case of landscape designs – adds atmosphere, changes weather and lighting conditions and can even turn day to night. This is not pure etching, wherein the plate is inked uniformly throughout an edition and which remains faithful to the etcher’s original intentions, but instead it is a hybrid of etching and monotype, with impressions varying widely. While atmospheric inking can contribute to the impact of a line etching, it can go too far and become a game or a distraction, covering up for the inadequacies of the etching. Lepic was hugely influential among artists and master printers. Lepic’s practice was enriching but also impoverishing, causing printmakers to make etchings that were deliberately incomplete or ambiguous, which allowed the application of Lepic’s eau-forte mobile technique. (Compare this to the example of filmmaking. Some directors rely so heavily on computer-generated imagery, dubbing, digital editing and post-production effects that they become slapdash in the filming and directing of actors, which is the essence of good live-action films.) There is a viable case to be made that Lepic’s influence was more deleterious than beneficial.

Another significant figure was etcher Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914). The exhibition includes three of the ten states of Bracquemond’s masterful reproductive etching of Holbein’s portrait of Erasmus. Bracquemond joined the Impressionist movement, though his art was often not close stylistically to the most common Impressionist approach. He was a brilliant technician but it is clear why he is both less known and considered more of an associate of the Impressionists than an essential member of the movement. (To read my review mentioning Marie Bracquemond, the Impressionist painter married to him, click here.)

Catalogue essays direct us to consider notions of authorship and purity in fine art.

Richard R. Brettell discusses the collaboration between Corot, Dutilleux, Grandguillaume, Desavary and the Cuvelier brothers in Arras. Together they developed the cliché-verre printing technique, producing many prints for which the authorship is shared or uncertain. This risks giving the impression that the working relationship of Cassatt, Degas and Pissarro was closer than it actually was in 1879, though Bretell’s point is taken. The Impressionists occasionally worked in in pairs and groups in painting expeditions, arranging group exhibitions and preparing the Le Jour et la nuit journal. Bretell points out that collaboration, criticism and sharing of techniques and ideas was a significant part of the careers of many artists who are commonly considered in monographic isolation. Often in the catalogue text we encounter mentions that one of the artists gave advice to another on printing or actually helped to print certain proofs. They exchanged and purchased each other’s prints.

Many critics of the era condemned the finish of Impressionist art. (The very name Impressionism came from a critic’s slur about the supposed incomplete condition of a Monet painting.) The sequential nature of printmaking means that we have a chance to consider when a work of art is finished. It also raises the issue of how much importance we attach to a work of art and how much to the creation of that art. It is very common to read in catalogues more about the preparation for, development and revision of, a work of art than about the finished work itself.

In 1879 work began on Le Jour et la nuit which was intended to be a journal featuring the prints of Cassatt, Degas, Pissarro, Bracquemond and Caillebotte, Raffaëlli, Forain and Rouart. With little accompanying text, it would have been essentially a bound version of the print portfolios of loose sheets published at the time. The journal did not appear in 1880 partly (according to a contemporary) because Degas was late with his contribution. The journal was never published but a number of etchings were prepared for it and have been identified, including Cassatt’s In the Opera Box, Degas’s Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery and Pissarro’s Wooded Landscape at the Hermitage, Pontoise. Pissarro’s print (based on a painting) seems to have been straightforward. Cassatt made three versions of her print in a number of states, dramatically altering the lighting using aquatint. Degas developed his print to completion then developed a second print which used the figures in different position and setting in a distinctive vertical format. This print – Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery – was also translated into painting by the artist. It was perhaps the extended revision of the second print through 20 states that delayed Le Jour et la nuit.

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[Image: Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery (1879–80), Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Leonard C. Hanna Jr., 1947.459]

Sarah Lees writes that it is likely the Le Jour et la nuit prints were exhibited at the Impressionist exhibition of 1880. “It is even more revealing that each artist chose to show more than one state of the prints, much as Bracquemond had done in 1874 with his Erasmus. In this way they not only highlighted the significance of the creative process, but also undercut notions about the primacy of the finished, final work.” She notes that it is possible to show an etching plate in different states the way it is not possible to with a unique oil painting.

The exhibition includes many prints from before and after the Le Jour et la nuit project. Some of the highlights of the selection are Cassatt’s colour aquatints. The lines are drypoint – scratches which hold ink with a characteristic emphatic blur – and the colour shading is in speckled aquatint, with sparing use of soft-ground etching. This is a rare technique. Included are the most famous Cassatt prints The Letter (1990-1) and La Toilette (1890-1). They are exquisite and justifiably praised. The influence of Japanese colour woodblock prints (exhibited in Paris in 1890) is obvious but not distractingly so. Cassatt used adventurous colouring and the editions display wide variation in colouring. Unfortunately, Cassatt’s drawing sometimes went awry and a number of her prints are irretrievably marred by obvious and painful flaws in anatomy. In such clear, sparse and (relatively) realistic works, these faults gravely damage the prints.

Pissarro also made prints in aquatint and drypoint. The results are uneven. The weather in Rain Effect (1879) was an afterthought. The torrential rain makes the scene of two figures sitting and standing in a field seem ridiculous. Woman Emptying a Wheelbarrow (1880) is a lot better and may have been destined for Le Jour et la nuit.

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[Image: Camille Pissarro (French, 1830–1903), Woman Emptying a Wheelbarrow (1880), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.7311]

Pissarro and Degas experimented by proofing Pissarro’s Twilight with Haystacks (1879) in different colours. Examples in black, red and blue are reproduced in the catalogue. Degas preferred to add colour to his prints in pastel and paint, using the print (or counterproof) as the framework for a unique work of art. Included in the exhibition are three rare landscape monotypes that Degas made by painting dilute colour oil paint on a metal plate and running this through a press with paper. The exhibition also includes some monotypes of bathing nudes and brothel scenes.

Pissarro is not well known as a printmaker and his contributions are uneven. The colour etchings and monotypes from the 1890s of peasants and landscapes verge on the crude. The use of heavy outlines (perhaps derived from Cloissonisme) is unpleasant and works against the artist’s long experience in building forms in colour without drawn outlines. The overpowering outlines and casual draughtsmanship, combined with the unpleasant effects of oil on paper, have produced rather ugly prints. A late lithograph in monochrome is very good. The loose wash effects and emphatic shadow create drama and solidity that seem close to Romantic art or the wash drawings of Poussin.

It is heartening to encounter such a scrupulously researched art-historical exhibition, especially regarding prints, a medium often passed over as minor. Particular commendation is due for the meticulous cataloguing of technical data (including plate and paper size) and provenance, information which is often lacking in exhibition catalogues.

Sarah Lees (ed.) and Richard R. Bretell, Innovative Impressions: Prints by Cassatt, Degas, and Pissarro, Philbrook Museum of Art/Hirmer, 2018, hardback, 130pp, 100 col. illus., €39.90, ISBN 978 3 7774 2978 6

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

 

African Modernist Architecture

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[Image: Hotel President Yamoussoukro, (1973-9), Yamoussoukro, Cote d-Ivoire. Source: Wikimedia]

Decolonisation is not a simple subject and even its most basic points are a matter of fierce ideological debate. What is agreed is that independence is not a clear matter of binary opposites: a colonial possession does not become a fully autonomous state with the raising of a new flag. Independence is a process of negotiated detachment.

In a time when even the appearance of “cultural appropriation” sends ripples of guilt and moral opprobrium over alleged transgressors, it is good to be reminded of a period when cultural actors actively sought out foreign influences to solve practical problems. In the 1950s and 1960s a wave of African countries that had been the possessions of European states gained independence. Upper echelons of new independent governments wanted to make a clear break and to assert national confidence. Prominent public buildings of the new republics would be distinct not just from their colonial past but also from local traditional and vernacular idioms. New materials, new forms and new priorities would inspire the local population; they would also make a bold statement to foreign visitors. Late Modernist architecture would be the template for Africa just as it had been for developed nations worldwide.

With the spurs of new resources, international loans and nation pride, a building boom took place in African countries in the 50s, 60s and 70s. African leaders found Late Modernism provided a conveniently neutral style in states that were ethnically and religiously diverse. Indeed, the very heterogeneity of the states left the newly independent states with a need for neutral civic architecture to bind together groups with disparate traditions. African Modernism is a large book of over 600 pages that examines landmark examples of Modernist architecture in five Sub-Saharan countries that gained independence in the wave of decolonisation of the 1950s and 1960s, namely Ghana, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zambia. The book focuses on public buildings such as schools, universities, libraries, parliamentary buildings, markets, hotels, offices and flats.

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[Image: Kenyatta International Conference Centre KICC (1966-73), Nairobi, Kenya. Source: Wikimedia.]

The authors explain that relatively few black African architects had been trained by the early-independence period, so the primary architects of the period were European and Israeli. Israeli architects had experience of building in a hot sunny climate and were seen as fellow pioneers of independence from colonial power. Many of the architects came from the former colonial powers but there were also many Scandinavian architects. Even when European architects were commissioned, it was not a case of remote architects designing standardised buildings to be imposed upon African cities. Tropical Modernism was a branch of Late Modernism which was developed to respond to the challenge of construction in equatorial climates. Direct sunlight is limited by the use of brise-soleil, louvres and overhanging ledges that cast shade; intense heat is mitigated by open areas and perforations that allow air to circulate; large areas of glass are avoided. Concrete is the preferred material as it is resistant to rot and parasites. (In Zambia it is brick.)

It is too easy to dismiss the wave of building as vanity projects of dictators and generals. Some projects were undoubtedly unwise, hubristic or overbearing. There are photographs of ten-lane highways in Cote d’Ivoire entirely bereft of traffic, typical of the grandiose folly that is the country’s underpopulated capital. The country’s first president decreed that his rural home village would become the nation’s new capital and a lavish building programme turned Yamoussoukro into an outsize ghost-city full of landmark buildings.

Many of Africa’s new buildings did directly benefit ordinary people. New airports and hotels encouraged tourism and international trade; schools and universities provided advanced educational environments; infrastructure projects provided power and transport links that invigorated local economies. A number of these buildings were designed or built during the transitional phase, when colonial authorities prepared for independence by spending on civic infrastructure.

The book contains one section for each of the countries which includes a brief essay and a timeline discussing history and circumstances pertinent to the country. Buildings or complexes are given 2, 4, 6 or more pages each. Essays discuss different aspects of architecture in Africa. Specially commissioned photographs show buildings as they exist today – chosen in preference to photographs of the structures when they were pristine – and we see environments that are lived and worked in. Some of them are dilapidated and others are just in need of a coat of paint; a few are abandoned and close to ruin. The Pyramide Abidjan (1968-73) – a giant pyramid bisected by a Brutalist concrete block – is a dramatic and disastrous failure. Partly empty, poorly maintained and impractical, the building will no doubt be demolished. The temptation to use such failures as symbols of national decline is undercut by the examples of similar buildings in full use and cared for. The spectacular Hotel Ivoire, Abidjan (1963-70) (with its palm trees, swimming pool and wood-panelled lobby) looks like a lost fragment of 1970s jet-set glamour.

[Image: St. Paul’s Cathedral (1980-5), Abidjan, Senegal. Source: Wikimedia]

There is a melancholy aspect to some of the optimistic designs that have become anachronistic in the light of later poverty, strife and terrorism. The former American embassy in Accra (1965-9) is a model of welcoming openness, raised above the ground on tapered concrete pillars over an open-air seating area, surrounded by a lawn. Security considerations mean that embassies nowadays are fortified bunkers bounded by fencing and anti-traffic bollards. The buildings of Zambia bear witness to the burst of prosperity the populace enjoyed before a slump in copper prices impoverished the country and dispersed urban populations back to the country in search of work and food.

Senegal favoured a distinctly French form of Late Modernism, in line with its close affiliation with the mother country. President Senghor (in office 1960-80) had an aesthetic policy to promote a native Senegalese Modernism that would feature asymmetric parallelism, hence the abundance of triangular forms in Senegal’s architecture. Other unique developments include student accommodation inspired by mud-brick buildings of traditional villages. Photographs of an outdoor market in Nairobi show the stalls, vendors and buyers in riotous profusion. We see street vendors with their carts outside a ministry buildings, children playing football below apartment buildings, multi-coloured washing hanging from concrete balconies.

The variety of forms, materials and languages in these buildings epitomise Modernism that adapted to African resources, skills and traditions. This approach is now being superseded by less inventive contemporary architecture, which uses the brute force of expensive air-conditioning, standard designs and uniform materials in buildings which are increasingly homogenising skylines around the world. African Modernism is a unique record of a period when Internationalism meant optimism and when Africa played host to ingenious and elegant architectural solutions. It is a fascinating social record of African life of recent decades, as well as being a book full of beautiful and memorable images.

 

Manuel Herz (ed.), African Modernism, Park Books, 2015, flexi-cover, 640 pages, 909 colour and 54 b/w illustrations, 246 plans, €68, ISBN 978-3-906027-74-6

Mexican Communist Art 1920-50

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In the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), the Mexican state started to reconstruct its social structure and establish a consensus. The new political situation entailed the working class of the agrarian nation would be the driving force behind land reform, anti-clericism and other dramatic changes. Communism took on new prominence as a leading force on the political Left following the Russian Revolution.

Compared to other Communist movements, the Communist Party of Mexico or PCM (Fondo Partido Comunista Mexicano) was judged weak in terms of membership and leadership in the early 1920s. Inspired by the example of the Russian Revolution, Mexican Leftists saw art as an important way of spreading the message of the PCM in the early years, be it through art or propaganda. The art would explain the party’s message and attract converts. Leading visual artists who joined the PCM in 1923 were the Muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Xavier Guerrero. The lives and work of the Muralists captured the imaginations of the public and were frequently covered by the newspapers. The artists (especially Rivera) were deemed politically unreliable but useful to the party. They edited the Communist newspaper El Machete for a time. The Mexican governments’ views of the PCM veered from wary collaboration to outright hostility, depending on the party in power. In 1929 the government banned the PCM and closed El Machete, which continued for a while as an underground operation.

Rivera was a problem for the PCM. He was the most prominent Mexican Communist, with an international reputation and wide popular appeal but he was wilfully independent and accepted mural commissions from the government, which was sporadically hostile towards the PCM. When Rivera left the PCM, Frida Kahlo, who was married to Rivera, left the PCM with him. The PCM undertook its other disciplinary procedures, expelling Siqueiros for inappropriate behaviour, risking revealing secret information about the now-banned party, plus various moral and financial infractions. Communist artists subject to hostile government action included Sergei Eisenstein and Tina Modotti, both of whom had to leave the country.

Smith discusses the associated Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR). Like the PCM at this time, LEAR was a banned organisation when it was formed, only later becoming legal. Its journal Frente a Frente included much Leftist and social realist art in the form of prints and photographs by LEAR members. Much visual material was propaganda explicitly dedicated to exulting collectivism and eschewing “the mystique of the individual”. In 1935 LEAR members persuaded the government to unban the PCM, El Machete and LEAR. A 1936 group exhibition of art organised by LEAR included amateur art and even politically sympathetic commentators described the display as a mess and criticised the standard of art. Steering a course between political orthodoxy and artistic accomplishment was an impossible task.

An article in Frente a Frente (May 1935) by Siqueiros was critical of Rivera’s Rockefeller Center fresco (1934). It led to a public debate between the artists later that year. They were divided on the appropriateness of murals as a revolutionary art form. Siqueiros – perhaps piqued by Rivera’s greater success – averred that murals were overrated as a political tool and that art should be international in character and closer to Socialist Realism than Rivera’s hybrid, which incorporated Modernism and native Mexican art. Rivera asserted that he wished to record the beauty and individuality of Mexican life in his art and that this was not incompatible with Communist principles. Siqueiros was pro-Stalin and Rivera pro-Trotsky. Deep enmities remained between the two painters for years afterwards.

Siqueiros became so involved in politics that he neglected art. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, as did Modotti. Rivera played a pivotal role in arranging for Trotsky’s successful petition for political asylum in Mexico. Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1937 and lived in the Riveras’ guest house for a time. Despite public and private support between the men, there were political tensions. Ultimately, Trotsky and Rivera’s alliance ended due to political differences in early 1939. Siqueiros and artists Luis Arenal and Antonio Pujol worked with NKVD in a plot to kill Trotsky. On the night of 24 May 1940 the trio broke into Trotsky’s house, failed to find the elderly dissident and – apparently inadvertently – injured his grandson. Months later an unrelated individual assassinated Trotsky.

Smith covers the founding of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the Popular Graphic Art Workshop; TGP) in 1937 without noting that this not simply an outgrowth of LEAR but an extension of a long-existing strand of popular Mexican art, namely social engagement of artists through the portrayal of the life of ordinary Mexicans via cheap and widely distributed graphic art. This uniquely Mexican blend of biting satire, political agitation and social realism – sometimes printed in newspapers – traced its origins to the iconic prints of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). TGP proved to be one of the world’s most enduring, influential and successful artist collectives in history, producing high-quality art distributed widely, fostering international connections and displaying a broadly united front on social issues. Aesthetically, it was hobbled by its commitment to realism – technically, in its founding principles, “art [that] must reflect the social reality of the times”. However, considering the political priorities of the TGP, that position could hardly have been avoided. Ultimately, it was the rigid anti-abstraction stance and limitations on artistic and commercial freedom which undid TGP as a significant force in the arts, though it exists to this day. For my review of artists working in the TGP see here.

Perhaps the most valuable service the FCM, TGP, LEAR and their various publications achieved in the arts was to present a warning of the dangers of fascism and raising funds for the Spanish anti-Falangists. Later, their activities would help the refugees who fled the fall of Spain and Nazi-occupied Europe.

The author has based her studies upon access to Mexican secret service files and internal papers of the PCM, LEAR and TGP, allowing her to present new information on major figures in the fine arts. However, the book has shortcomings. Considering the lack of published research based on primary sources, we would have benefitted from more economic data. For example, what was the commercial value of producing oil paintings for private collectors compared to painting murals for the state or issuing editions of cheap prints for ordinary people? What was the private market for oil paintings at the time? Roughly how much money did prominent artists make from state-subsidised work? On the political side, what did artists write in diaries and letters about politics in art and did that contrast with manifestoes they signed and their public activities? More space devoted to summarising such findings would have been valuable. While we do get to understand some of the political dynamics, economic context is sometimes hazy.

Considering her previous specialisation in the field, Smith is commendably restrained on the issue of gender politics. In this book, we see that Smith is sensitive to gender politics of the Communist movement in Mexico in this era but she wisely partitions her subjects and makes no hyperbolic claims. Overall, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico is an intelligent, accessible and well-judged account of an important aspect of Mexican art in the period 1920-50.

 

Stephanie J. Smith, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico, University of North Carolina Press, 2017, paperback, 288pp, 12 half-tone illus., $29.95, ISBN 978 1 4696 3568 2

© 2018 Alexander Adams

 

Precisionism 

 

[Images: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]

The current exhibition Cult of the Machine (currently at de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (24 March-8 September 2018); touring to Dallas Museum of Art (16 September 2018-6 January 2019)) examines American artists’ fascination with machinery. This review is from the exhibition catalogue.

Precisionism was a tendency in American art that arose after World War I and flourished until the early 1940s. The central figure in any discussion of Precisionism is Charles Sheeler (1883-1965). His scenes of industrial complexes, machinery and modern architecture are representative of Precisionist engagement with new forms, materials, processes and places in America. This exhibition includes many fine examples of art by Sheeler and the Precisionists and related material.

Precisionism was seen as one answer to the perennial problem that had dogged American art ever since the mid-Nineteenth Century: what was American art? To that question had been added a further complication: could art be both American and Modern? Many American traditionalists said no, as Modernism was a European invention that reflected the culture of Europe not America. Regionalism (views of rural locations painted in a realistic manner) and Precisionism (views of urban and industrial locations painted in a realistic, photographic or stylised manner) were contemporaneous attempts to define what American art could be. The former was viewed as traditionalist, rural and retrograde; the latter Modernist, urban and progressive. While there are inaccuracies in these summaries, they contain a fair degree of general truth. Precisionism’s legacy is most clearly seen in the Photorealism of the 1960s.

Characteristics of Precisionist art are: clarity of technique and subject; typical subjects being machinery, industrial artefacts, architecture, manufacturing and manufactured objects and the act of building and built structures; handling of materials in a neutral and impersonal manner, with smoothly painted surfaces downplaying the physical and tactile aspects of art; subdued colour;  a relative absence of figures; absence of overt social commentary; a dry approach, eschewing humour; a preference for the geometric, regular and unflawed; a balance of simplified realism and post-Cubist flatness of picture surface; extreme angles and close-ups are favoured; lack of flux or movement; and there is an emphasis on the microcosm and macrocosm, often drawing parallels between the extremes.

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shot in studio master

[Image: Paul Strand, “Wall Street, New York,” 1915. Platinum/palladium print, 9 5/8 x 12 5/8 in. (24.4 x 32.1 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Michael E. Hoffman, New York, in honor of Mr. Joseph Folberg for his generous support and commitment to photographers and photography, 1992.96.2. Photograph by Randy Dodson © Aperture Foundation, Inc, Paul Strand Archive Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

In contrast to the Ashcan School of John Sloane and the New York School – which provided candid social-realist views of everyday city life – Precisionism was detached in tone. The Ashcan painters presented dirty, discordant cities teeming with life and incident; the Precisionists viewed the same cities cleansed of the impurities of traffic, billboards, inclement weather and even people. One significant curatorial decision is to include rural subjects in this exhibition. Precisionism was largely urban and rural in its locales but agricultural buildings formed a reasonable proportion of the subjects chosen by Precisionists.

Precisionism was a tendency or trend rather than a movement and no formulation of stipulations or list members. The style had parallels in European art in Neue Sachlichkeit, Stanley Spencer, Tristram Hillier, et al. What goes unmentioned in the catalogue texts are posters and commercial art. Art Deco echoes Precisionism in the preference for simplification, impersonality, mechanical subjects, subdued colour and so forth. Art Deco is not discussed in the catalogue essays.

In addition to paintings, the exhibition includes a range of sculpture, prints, drawings, and photographs. The remainder of the 136 items in the show are examples of excellent and uncompromising design from the inter-war period: book-covers, furniture, a lamp, radio, even a 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton automobile.

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[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]

Sheeler is not only the leading Precisionist, he is one of the most important figures in the history of early Modernist art in America. Paintings, photographs, prints and drawings show the artist’s competence in multiple mediums. His realism is a touch dry but is never pedantic. He knew enough to keep pictures free of fussiness and he simplified to the degree necessary.

Charles Sheeler_Classic Landscape_1931

[Image: Charles Sheeler, “Classic Landscape,” 1931. Oil on canvas, 25 x 32 1/4 in. (63.5 x 81.9 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2000.39.2 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

A colleague of Sheeler’s, Morton Livingston Schamberg (1881-1918), is identified by curators as a link between Dada and Precisionism. His machine paintings are freer than the art that came afterwards. Joseph Stella (1877-1946) is unusual in the degree of freedom and dynamism in his art. His views of the Brooklyn Bridge emphasise the swooping tension of the cables. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) painted views of New York City before her retreat to rural isolation and natural forms as subjects.

OKeeffe City Night 1926

[Image: Georgia O’Keeffe, “City Night,” 1926. Oil on canvas, 48 x 30 in. (121.0 x 76.2 cm). Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of funds from the Regis Corporation, Mr. and Mrs. W. John Driscoll, The Beim Foundation, the Larsen Fund, and by public subscription, 80.28. © 2017 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

This exhibition includes one of her night-time views of skyscrapers and the catalogue illustrates another, the famous Radiator Building – Night, New York (1927). Scenes of Pittsburgh’s ironworks and factories by Elsie Driggs (1898-1992) are included. They show buildings rather than the workers or the dramatic (even picturesque) smelting of iron. The paintings of Charles Demuth (1883-1935) are less naturalistic and feature the multiple lines and flat planes that one can find in Orphism and Cubism. The radically simplified bridge views of Ralston Crawford (1906-1978) are as concise as Art Deco posters.

Cunningham Fageol Ventilators 1934

[Image: Imogen Cunningham, “Fageol Ventilators,” 1934. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/8 x 9 in. (17.9 x 22.7 cm). Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © 1934-2017 Imogen Cunningham Trust Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

Much of Precisionism relies on photography: it is either photography or derived from photographs. The exhibition contains photographs by Precisionists. Paul Strand is the best known of the Precisionist photographers and film makers. His documentary film Manhatta (1920) (made in collaboration with Sheeler) is a landmark of American cinema. Photographs in the exhibition include well-chosen examples by Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Jean Steichen, Ralph Steiner and a number of photographs taken by painters. Where the sources and paintings can be matched, both are included for purposes of comparison.

Gerald Murphy (1888-1964) is acclaimed as one of America’s great painters. The fact that he only painted between 1921 and 1929 is a painful loss to us. Only eight paintings by him survive. In terms of quality of production, Murphy’s art is as strong as Vermeer and Giorgione’s.

Gerald Murphy_Watch_1925

[Image: Gerald Murphy, “Watch,” 1925. Oil on canvas, 78 ½ x 78 1/2 in. (199.4 x 200.4 cm). Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, Gift of the artist, 1963.75.FA. Photograph by Brad Flowers © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

The exhibited Watch (1925) is one of the masterpieces of Modern art. Its restrained colour, flat facets, accuracy and exquisite finish make it stylistically closer to Post-Cubism than Precisionism but the spirit of the art is pure Precisionism. Analysis by horologists suggests that while the depiction of the workings of the watch is accurate, the main spring appears defective. It may be that this poignant impairment was deliberately introduced by the artist, who had a lifelong struggle with his homosexuality, and may have wished to use symbolism of dysfunction.

The find of the exhibition is George Copeland Ault (1891-1948). Technically, his paintings conform to most aspects of Precisionism in approach and subject; where they differ is tone and implication. His architectural views are imbued with more atmosphere than those by other Precisionists. The views of unpeopled scenes in snow, mist and at night have a degree of melancholy and ambivalence absent from other Precisionist art. His Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946) is similar in clarity, calm and peculiar intensity to Magritte’s Domain of Light. Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944) has something akin to bleak orderliness, the white snow blanket a dull antiseptic white under a murky sky. His best paintings have a meditative quality missing from more typical examples of Precisionism. It is not great art but it is powerfully compelling – all the more so because it exerts its hold in an inexplicable manner.

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[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Far left: George Copeland Ault, Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944), far right: George Copeland Ault, Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946)]

Judging on this evidence, political critiques of Precisionism seem misplaced. A better approach is the psychological reading. The primary drive behind Precisionism is psychological not political. The paintings – with their dearth of human figures, signalling of the supremacy of artifice over nature and absence of entropy – indicate their creators’ misanthropy and discomfort with disorder. Precisionist art speaks of perfectionism, attempts to impose control over external chaos and hypersensitivity towards disruption. It is a pathological response akin to phobia of germs or insecurity in the face of change. Precisionism is the art of those averse to imprecision; it speaks of fear of decay and worry about ambiguity and doubt. Sheeler’s stated aspiration of achieving “purity of plastic expression [through] objective forms” is indicative of deep attachment to certitude and impersonality. Any reading of Precisionism which does not include discussion of the psychological drive of its artists is incomplete.

Catalogue essays by experts discuss various aspects of the style, complemented by full-page illustrations, a chronology and notes. The book itself is excellent and handsome. The use of silver chimes with the metallic subjects of the art. The only aspect which could have been improved is to have increased the inner margin between text and page gutter on verso pages, which gets uncomfortably close while never impairing legibility. Personally, I would have chosen a serif typeface in preference to this sans serif. Sans serif is tiring on the eye over extended passages of reading. Cult of the Machine is a wide-ranging, balanced and at time surprising survey of one of the key American art movements.

 

Emma Acker, et al, Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in association with Yale University Press, April 2018, cloth hardback, 244pp, 150 col. illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 300 234 022

© 2018 Alexander Adams

 

Anni Albers: On Weaving

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[Image: Anni Albers, On Weaving: New Expanded Edition. Princeton University Press, 2017]

 

Anni Albers (1899-1994) was one of the most respected and innovatory figures in the modern craft movement. She studied at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, where she met her future husband Josef Albers, a teacher there. (Josef Albers, a pioneering abstract painter, was an influential teacher, especially on the subject of colour.) In 1933 the couple moved to teach in the USA, first at Black Mountain College and later at Yale. In later years, living in Connecticut, she produced tapestries and weavings, as well as writing articles and books on design and textiles. She was the first designer to have a one-person exhibition at MoMA (in 1949) and became recognised as one of the pre-eminent designers of the Modern era. Two new publications give us an insight into her ideas and practice.

Anni Albers’s worked by weaving on hand-looms, producing designs which used the natural qualities of materials and a limited palette to produce (mainly) hard-edge abstract patterns. Frequently in her designs, simple geometric shapes on small scale are expanded over large areas. In her wall-hangings, she took care over having borders that complemented and also completed central designs. Triangles provide textural “tooth” and indicate visual dynamic flow. Her colours are usually restrained and are rarely more than two or three per design. She had a preference for white, black, grey and muted reds. She produced many striking and sophisticated wall-hangings (illustrated in On Weaving) and was a skilled designer of original artist’s prints, especially silkscreens and lithographs.

Kunsthalle Nurnberg_Anni Albers_Vicara Rug

[Image: Anni Albers, Vicara Rug I, 1959. Executed by Inge Brouard Brown. Vicara, wool, and cotton, 60 1/4 x 40 in. (153 x 101.6 cm). Neues Museum Nuremberg. © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

 

On Weaving, originally published in 1965, is a newly revised and expanded version of a classic text on the theory and history of weaving. Albers explains the principles and problems of weaving, drawing on her extensive research and expertise. She covers the manipulation of warp and weft, looks at the different looms and battens, reeds and other paraphernalia of the loom-weaver’s craft. Other topics include draft notation, weave variations, tactility, artificial fibres and tapestry.  Her rigorously anti-decorative function-as-form Bauhaus aesthetic comes to the fore in her comments on embroidery: “Embroidery, on the other hand, is a working of just the surface, since it does not demand that we give thought to the engineering task of building up a fabric. For this very reason, however, it is in danger of losing itself in decorativeness; for the discipline of constructing is a helpful corrective for the temptation to mere decoration.”

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[Image: Anni Albers, Drapery material, 1927. Cotton and rayon, 6 1/4 x 4 1/4 in. (15.9 x 10.8 cm). Gift of the Designer: The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

 

The illustrations Albers selected include images of weaving techniques and machinery, sample patterns, wall-hangings and pictorial tapestries. Close-up views and diagrams demonstrate the principles of knotting, lace, twills and other techniques. Pre-historic, historical and modern examples are taken from many cultures, including Mexico (which Albers visited a number of times), Norway, Congo and Japan; also presented are striking artist-made Modernist pieces.

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[Image: Serape, Querétaro, Mexico, late 19th to mid-20th century. Woven cotton, 81 x 50 in. (205.7 x 127 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, The Harriet Engelhardt Memorial Collection, gift of Mrs. Paul Moore.]

 

Albers particularly venerated pre-Columbian weaving from Peru and there are many illustrations of Peruvian textiles. This new edition adds an extensive selection of Albers’s own woven designs to complement the relatively short text. Most of the old black-and-white photographs have been replaced by high-resolution colour photographs, which are pinpoint sharp. Albers’s original photographs of ephemeral arrangements made specifically for the book are unique and reproduced in their original black and white. Albers experimented by producing texture studies made by pricking paper, arranging small items in patterns and by typing repeated characters on a manual typewriter.

The volume’s cloth binding is appropriately handsome and sturdy. Two new essays by specialists and an afterword by Nicholas Fox Weber, Director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, complement the original text. Fox Weber, Manuel Cirauqui and T’ai  Smith set On Weaving in the context of the artist’s training, milieu and own production. Albers herself chose not to concentrate on her own art in the book, though it perfectly exemplified many of the points she made in the text. Albers makes clear what she feels are the bases of good weaving – understanding the quality of materials, concentrating on design through structure rather than decoration and applying a truth-to-material ethos. The drive towards simplicity – that is, a distillation of the essence of a design – underpins her designs and advice to makers.

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[Image: Anni Albers: Notebook 1970–1980. David Zwirner Books, 2017]

 

Notebook, 1970-1980 is a facsimile publication of Albers’s only known sketchbook. This notebook with graph-paper pages (now coverless) is a typical school notebook as used in mathematics classes. This publication reproduces the book to exact size and includes all pages, including blank ones and those showing the ghost of the drawing on the other side of the page. Colour reproduction catches the slight yellowing of the paper and brown residue of adhesive tape.

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[Image: Interior spread from Anni Albers: Notebook 1970–1980. David Zwirner Books, 2017]

Readers will find themselves instinctively treating the book as if they were holding the fragile original. Designer and publisher deserve credit for the care they have lavished on the production of this book. A brief afterword by Anni Albers scholar Brenda Danilowitz discusses the sketchbook.

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[Image: Anni Albers, Drawing from a notebook, 1970, pencil on paper, 10 x 7 7/8 in. (25.4 x 20 cm) © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

 

The designs in the book relate to Albers’s textile designs and artist’s prints. They feature patterns of triangles and quadrilaterals drawn in pencil in several shades. Some are repeatable or potentially infinite patterns, while others are intended to be limited. Some introduce elements of apparent randomness. There are a few linear maze-like drawings (meanders) and some of Albers’s distinctive curvilinear forms based on curling rope or thread. The illustrations capture the nuances of the artist’s pencil shading, differentiating shades by pressure and grades of pencil. Little colour is employed. While a handful of drawings are doodles or incomplete, most are complete designs. There are few words other than notations of dates and titles of the relevant designs.

Both of these books would make excellent additions to college libraries as they are good examples of preparation and experimentation for students to learn from. Makers in general will also enjoy these impeccably produced volumes.

 

Anni Albers, Brenda Danilowitz, Notebook, 1970-1980, David Zwirner, 2017, hardback, 152pp, 148 col. illus., $30/£25, ISBN 978-1941-701-744

Anni Albers, Nicholas Fox Weber et al., On Weaving (New Expanded Edition), Princeton University Press, 2017, cloth hardback, 272pp, 105 col./28 mono illus., $49.95/£41.95, ISBN 978-069-1177-854

 

Collectors without Remorse: Dominique and John de Menil

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[Image © Alfred A. Knopf]

Patrons of the arts are not always given the respect or understanding due to them. Although it is artists, writers, composers and other creative figures which generate cultural products, it is the patronage of others who allow them to create (by commissioning art and providing stipends) and preserve the fruits of their labours in their private collections. Very often those collections become public and enrich the life of the state and population. Much culture would never have been produced if it were not for the generosity – and acquisitiveness – of collectors and patrons. Today, those who become wealthy are often scorned as exploiters and are unfairly maligned. Yet it is only through the patronage using funds derived from base commercial transactions that the most sublime cultural products of our eras are created and shared communally – be those sources the tithes of the Medieval church, the coal barons of South Wales, rail magnates of America, shipping tycoons of Greece or the income tax of modern Europe. It is only right that many museums today bear the names of the farsighted and adventurous members of the rich.

Two of the greatest benefactors of the visual arts in America were Dominique and John de Menil. They conducted their lives with a mixture of generosity, frugality, simplicity and attention to detail. Much of that came from their upbringings.

The ancestors of Dominique de Menil (1908-1997) included François Guizot (1787-1874), the renowned lawyer, statesman and historian. His father was guillotined during the Terror. Guizot went into public life and enacted lasting educational reforms, wrote many influential histories and founded La Revue française. Another branch of her relatives included the Schlumbergers, Protestant Alsatian industrialists. It was noted that Dominque’s austere attitudes and emotional restraint was derived from her Protestant upbringing. In Dominique’s family tree commerce, culture and public service were interwoven. In character she was cautious and abstemious.

Baron Jean de Menil (1904-1973) was descended from a line of soldiers and bankers. His great-grandfather was decorated by both Napoleon and Louis XVIII and conferred the title of baron. The de Menil’s were less favoured by fortune than the Schlumbergers – financially ruined then decimated by the Great War, the de Menils were in a poor state at the end of the Great War, at which time Jean was 14 years old. Jean went to work at Banque de I’Union Parisienne and became a rising star, rising to the level of executive by 26.

In 1930 the couple met and began a relationship that last until Jean’s death in 1973. In 1931 they married, the wife remaining Protestant and the husband Catholic. Using the bride’s dowry, they set up home together. Their first artistic commission – a portrait – was inauspicious. Their architect (who was converting their new home) introduced them to Max Ernst. While they liked the artist, they disliked the portrait of Dominique that he painted. They kept it in a cupboard for over a decade.

In the 1910s, Dominique’s father Conrad Schlumberger had established a method of using electrical resistance to prospect for oil. By the 1930s, Schlumberger International was a major player in oil exploration and extraction. In 1936 Conrad died and two years later Jean joined the Schlumberger firm, bringing with him a great deal of banking and financial experience. The war forced their hands. After the fall of France, Jean travelled to Texas. Houston had become an important area for Schlumberger’s business and Jean went to head the branch of Schlumberger there. Dominique and the children soon crossed the Atlantic to join them. As soon as they arrived, Jean and Dominique (who had technical expertise in oil exploration) went to Venezuela to assist the branch there. German submarines had been sinking oil tankers heading north and this vital route of oil transportation was at risk. The de Menils did their part for the Resistance and the Free French Government by raising money.

After the war, the de Menils returned to Houston and commissioned a Modernist house. John dropped the title baron and his name was more frequently anglicised to “John”. The couple began to form an impressive collection of art, which numbered 10,000 items by the late 1970s. The core collections consist of Surrealism, European Modernism, American Modernism (including Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), ancient art, African art and Native American and Latin American art. Out of these, the most important holdings are of Surrealism (particularly Max Ernst and René Magritte) and Abstract Expressionism (particularly Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman). The book includes colour plates of some of the best works in the collection, with many installation shots of landmark loan exhibitions they organised. They commissioned work by a range of world-class creative figures such as couturier Charles James, dancer Merce Cunningham, architects Philip Johnson and Renzo Piano and composers Morton Feldman and Pierre Boulez, among many others.

Although they agreed on all purchases, the couple’s personal tastes as collectors differed. John was the more acquisitive and enjoyed exuberant and combative art (especially Picasso). Dominique liked more meditative art, in particular Rothko and Magritte. It is curious that the de Menils formed such an attachment to Surrealism – a movement that was moribund by the time they started collecting seriously. By 1945, Surrealism looked tired, academic and meretricious, especially compared to the new American art emerging.  Moreover, a large impetus of Surrealism movement was anti-clericism, even atheist, which rather contrasted with the de Menils’ strong Christian faith. They considered collecting and supporting artists to be a moral responsibility but they did not generally judge art in moral terms. (An exception is Matta – one of the de Menils’ artists – whom Dominique considered to be borderline obscene, with all his inter-penetrating quasi-organic forms representing veritable painted orgies.)

There were sometimes gaps in the collection. Most of the best canvases by Braque, Matisse and Picasso were unavailable and the Abstract Expressionists were selling briskly by the late 1950s. “One would go to the Leo Castelli Gallery and the whole show would already have been sold,” Dominique lamented. They would buy classic Ernsts and Magrittes from New York-based dealer Alexandre Iolas, whose judgement they came to rely on. The de Menils formed personal ties to a number of artists, including Ernst and Magritte – with whom they could converse in French. Middleton includes titbits from the private notes that Dominique made when meeting artists: Brauner said Picasso’s art made him feel good and want to paint; Lipchitz was dismissive of de Chirico and Rouault; Giacometti was “exceptionally intelligent”.

In 1951 the de Menils curated a landmark exhibition of Van Gogh at a venue in Houston. The event was a sensation and established the couple as both cultural powerbrokers and curators of discernment. The de Menils became deeply involved in MoMA, with John becoming a trustee. They donated work to the museum but made clear that their civic duty was towards Houston. Dominique made a donation of major works (including The Deep (1953), Pollock’s greatest painting) to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, when it opened. The de Menils also funded research and commissioned the catalogues raisonnés of Ernst and Magritte.

The de Menils were committed supporters of civil rights, the promotion of non-Western art and inter-denominational dialogue. In 1960, the de Menils decided to build a non-denominational chapel at Rice University, Houston and dedicate it to the spiritual power of art. In 1964 they commissioned architect Philip Johnson (who later resigned over aesthetic differences with the de Menils) and interior paintings from Mark Rothko and acquired an exterior sculpture by Barnett Newman. It opened in 1971 and became a centre for art pilgrims and those in search of a contemplative sanctuary. Despite a predominance of positive reactions, opinions have varied about the success of the Rothko Chapel, though the seriousness and significance of the efforts of all involved are unquestioned. The chapel has become a centre for events relating to human rights and political dialogue, which drew Dominique towards former President Carter.

The de Menils had an interest in presenting black art, from African origins to contemporary American art. They travelled in Africa and Asia on trips that combined art buying, museum visiting and consultation with religious leaders, all part of a quest to fuse spirituality and art. Different religions derive their identities from their differences and grow through competition and suppression of competing religions; each religion claims exclusive superiority. The de Menils’ good intentions and genuine desire to harmonise discordant worldviews seem admirable but naïve.

After the death of John in 1973, Dominique continued their work and conceived of turning their art collection into a museum. The $25m museum, designed by Piano, opened on 4 June 1987. The design was a sober, discreet, elegant and dedicated to art, eschewing merchandising. Dominique was insistent it was free to entry. The Menil Collection became one of the world’s leading museums.

William Middleton has used access to the de Menil’s private papers, the Collection’s archives and interviews with colleagues and friends of the subjects to build a rich and sensitive portrait of the de Menils as public figures and private people. The book is thoroughly footnoted and illustrations are well chosen. The great diversity of activities and interests of the subjects – as well as the sheer industriousness of their collecting and curating – mean there are no dull passages or repetition in this narrative. The biography is a warm, balanced and respectful tribute to two major figures in American culture and philanthropy.

 

William Middleton, Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, hardback, 784pp, col. and mono illus., $40, ISBN 978 0 375 41543 2

Itō Shinsui

Hair_

[Image: Itō Shinsui, Hair (1952), woodblock print, ink and pigments on paper, © Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, Japan, 2018]

 

The opening up of Japan to the West in 1868 and the drive to modernise and industrialise presented Japanese artists with serious questions. How could Japanese art stay truly Japanese in the face of Western art and technology? Would modernity rob Japanese culture of vital aspects? Could an artist be both Japanese and modern or was that an inherent contradiction?

Japanese society was changing rapidly and the arts reflected that. While japonisme became the fashion in the West, Japan was adjusting to incorporate Western influence. Shin hanga (new prints) was an element of the traditional nihonga (Japanese-style painting) movement, which was set up in opposition to the sōsaku hanga (creative prints) part of yōga (Western-style painting). Nihonga commenced as an official tendency in 1890 expressly to counter Western influence in culture. Shin hanga was promoted by publishers as a revival of the traditional ukiyo-e school and used traditional woodblock-printing methods and division of labour. At this time many of the skills of the ukiyo-e (Edo period) printmakers were dying out as new technology (such as lithography) were rendering the labour-intensive woodblock printing process outmoded. Shin hanga was an attempt to capitalise on the Western demand for Japanese prints, by effectively reviving the tradition of ukiyo-e, but it was also popular among the Japanese. The traditional subjects had a nostalgic appeal and presented Japan in idealised form at a time when daily life was becoming divorced from the rural routine of life.   

The exhibition Itō Shinsui: Tradition and Modernity, Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona (1 March-20 May 2018) presents the art of one of the most renowned shin hanga printmakers, Itō Shinsui (1898-1972). Joan Miró visited Japan and was influenced by East Asian art – and his art was popular in Japan – so it is only fitting that this survey as a modern Japanese master is presented at his foundation in Barcelona.

Before the mirror

[Image: Itō Shinsui, Before the Mirror (1916), woodblock print, ink and pigments on paper, © Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, Japan, 2018]

 

Shinsui was trained by Kaburagi Kiyokata (1878-1972). Shinsui, who trained as a painter, made his first print Before the Mirror (1916) aged 18. It was the epitome of the approach and subject matter that would come to dominate the 147 prints he designed: the young beautiful woman, seen in a moment of private reflection, depicted with clarity, elegance and refinement. Although Shinsui’s subjects were traditional, he was not an avowed traditionalist in his style. The unusual and innovative compositions and colour choices make his art distinct from the masters of the ukiyo-e. Close-ups and angles make his work distinct. His decision to leave some marks of the baren (printing paddle) used to rub the paper over the inked block distinguishes his prints from the smooth inking of the ukiyo-e printers. At first glance, this makes his prints look like lithographs, with the crayon marks visible. Could this decision be related to the late Nineteenth Century French practice of heavy inking of etching plates? In this way printers and artists could make impressions unique by varying the inking to highlight certain qualities. Before the Snow (1926) seems to employ a patterned embossing on the woman’s fur collar but this goes unremarked upon in the catalogue.

The trilingual catalogue is published by the Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, Japan, lender of the 100 prints exhibited in Barcelona. It is an attractive book, with Japanese-paper flyleaves. It includes discussions of Shinsui’s art, handsome illustrations and a chronology of the artist’s life. A section covers the process of Japanese woodblock printmaking. The only absence is a discussion of how Shinsui’s printmaking relates to his painting. However, for Westerners unfamiliar with even the best known of Shinsui’s paintings, that would have required too much space. It is disappointing that the page gutter bisects two-page illustrations. Illustrations should never be placed over two pages. Otherwise the catalogue is faultless.

The women have the pallid skin colour typical of Japanese conventions of beauty, with slight rosy flushes on the cheeks and nipples. Faces are stylised. Clothing is generally traditional, featuring the flowing robes, sashes and printed fabrics with bold designs typical of the Edo period. In some prints Shinsui presents modern Japanese women in Western clothes: in berets, skirts and neckties, with hair short, curled or parted. In one print he showed a woman next to a Western clock. Although Shinsui advocated for the portrayals of life to include elements that were characteristic of the period – as a form of historical record – his own practice erred strongly in favour of the showing scenes typical of the past periods. In perhaps only the slightest detail do some of the prints show us the reality of Twentieth century Japan.

In Shinsui’s prints we find the crisp lines and strong patterns we would expect. Typical to Japanese prints are areas of pattern, such as blinds, walls, waves, raindrops and printed fabrics. In a handful of prints the style is Western, following the current styles of colour illustration that were widely available in Japan. These are the least successful prints. Midday in a Summer Resort (1941) is an example. The generic colour scheme, cartoon-style abbreviations and the deep and cluttered pictorial field all go against the strengths of shin hanga and Shinsui’s style. Shinsui’s printmaking evolved relatively little in terms of style, though his subjects varied over the different series he made.

Mount Fuji as seen from Mitohara beach_

[Image: Itō Shinsui, Mount Fuji as seen from Mitohama Beach (1938), woodblock print, ink and pigments on paper, © Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, Japan, 2018]

 

Many landscape prints are included in the exhibition. They are rural scenes in the main: a hut in a snowy mountains, a river bridge in the rain, a coastal view, fields below mountains. These are conventional subjects. The images were drawn from personal observation rather than ideal fabrications or variations upon existing archetypes. The dramatic tonal range and juxtapositions of strong colours distinguish Shinsui’s landscapes.

This excellent book is the most comprehensive book in English on the artist and would make an essential addition to any library covering Japanese art.

Akiko Katsuta, Katsuyama Shigeru & Khanh Trinh, Itō Shinsui, Taiyo no Hikari Foundation, 2018, text Spanish/Catalan/English, paperback, 210pp, fully col. illus., €25, ISBN 978 84 16411 37 5

Alberto Giacometti

“Three recent catalogues have been published by Kunsthaus Zürich/Scheidegger & Spiess, Tate and Gagosian on the subject of the art of Alberto Giacometti (1901-66). Giacometti worked in sculpture, painting, drawing and – to a lesser extent – printmaking. The Tate catalogue includes Giacometti’s sculpture and paintings; the Zürich catalogue focuses exclusively on Giacometti’s sculpture, principally original sculptures rather than the bronzes cast from them; the Gagosian catalogue gives us new photographs of classic sculptures by the artist.

The catalogue Giacometti was published for the retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern (10 May-10 September 2017). The selection is representative and many excellent pieces are included. There are early works: the plaster and stone portrait heads, post-Cubist plaster carvings and marble carvings influenced by Cycladic art.

Around 1928 Giacometti formulated his Surrealist style, which combined his sensibility for plastic form with a sense of drama. Using combinations of multiple materials, the artist created violent, unsettling and mysterious psycho-sexual dramas…”

Read the full review online on 3rd Dimension website here: https://3rd-dimensionpmsa.org.uk/reviews/2018-03-13-alberto-giacometti-exhibition-catalogues-reviewed