Suffrage and the Arts

Suffrage and the Arts HD

This book (a paperback edition of a hardback) collects essays by specialists on the relationship between the arts and the movement for female suffrage in Great Britain in the 1890-1914 period. (In this review “suffrage” will used a term applied specifically only to the movement for women’s enfranchisement in Great Britain.) There were a number of organisations supporting the suffrage movement, including the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, Women’s Social and Political Union, Women’s Freedom League, Women’s Tax Resistance League, Women’s Liberal Federation and others. This collection focuses on the role of the arts and artists in the movement.

The production of pro-suffrage arts and crafts spanned the gamut of professional-level material made by skilled specialists to homemade folk craft. Some prominent supporters were artists and designers and they could produce and sell wares directly to their moneyed peers. Illustrated are tea sets, badges, brooches, banners and posters made for the cause, as well as some material opposing suffrage. The material was sold to demonstrate solidarity and also to raise money for the cause. To aid recognition, the movement developed a combination of colour: pale green, purple and white.

“Although the majority of artistic women did benefit from privileges due to their race and class, we wish to move away from the tendency to celebrate ‘exceptional’ London-based female painters, to instead reference a wider array of voices from across the country, particularly from those working in the applied arts, who often desperately needed to generate an income.” This is in line with the feminist Marxist critique, which holds to an aversion of discusses society in terms of individuals, instead viewing history as the movement of masses. There is a fear of falling into a seeming trap of admiring exceptional achievement.

The suffrage movement was seen – in its manifestations among the artistically inclined middle- and upper-class families – as an extension of the Arts and Crafts movement. The attachment to socialism, collectivism and the moral value of craftwork (for individual, guild and society) translated naturally into the collective action, class solidarity and craftwork in support of women’s emancipation. Authors deprecate “the work of ‘great’ men […] William Morris [and] John Ruskin”. However much the authors dislike veneration for men and exceptional individuals, the ideas of the Arts and Crafts movement did not appear like morning dew; it was thought, discussed, explicated and propagated by Morris and Ruskin, among others.

Despite the active participation of some members, women’s arts societies remained aloof to the subject of the suffrage campaign, seeming in a wish to remain independent. Had the societies become seen as tied to activism, it would have impaired the perception of the societies working to promote art because of its quality and instead of promoting art due to its political content. (This is in direct contrast to the artivism of today, which measures art by its political/social utility.) Zoe Thomas’s essay describes how internal debate raged between the political radicals and those committed to maintaining group neutrality. As the women’s societies were locked into disengaged stances, the Artists’ Suffrage League was founded. The atelier was opened in 1909, producing posters, banners (used in public gatherings), postcards, curtains, book covers and other items. The Suffrage Atelier admitted male artists.

Other essays discuss the interior design work of prominent campaigners Agnes Garrett (1845-1935), Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960), who used their work and social prominence to lobby for enfranchisement. The production of goods specifically aimed at pro-suffrage consumers is covered in Elizabeth Crawford’s text. Makers (many of them women) created newsletters (Votes for Women, The Common Cause, The Vote, The Suffragette), jewellery, leather goods, embroidered goods and clothing. Other pieces cover suffragette badges and portraits of suffragists. Oil paintings and drawings of prominent figures in the movement emphasise the resolution and composure of subjects; they were displayed and reproduced as a counter to the news photographs and negative cartoons which appeared in the press. Other essays consider the responses to the male supporters of male suffragists, the responses of Scottish and Irish women to the campaign in the light of nationalist sentiments in their nations and the representations of force-feeding of imprisoned suffragettes on hunger strike.

The discussion of suffragette attacks on art provides details and background on these public events. The underlying rationalisation was that because the demands of a lobby had not been met that collateral damage to cultural goods – some owned by the general public – was a proportionate response. It was a campaign of cultural terrorism. Feminists have recently written approvingly of these attacks as an expression of opposition to gender roles and class subjugation. Krista Cowman’s essay is clear and broadly neutral, which compliments the readers’ independence of thought on that matter. Her essay is more informative than the essay in the recent Tate catalogue on iconoclasm.

Overall, this book is a handy primer for the scholarship and debates regarding the suffragette movement in relation to the arts in the Edwardian period. The ample source notes, bibliographies and index will assist historians, academics and students. The illustrations are well chosen and complement the text. This paperback edition makes the welcome and affordable alternative to the rather expensive hardback edition.

 

Miranda Garrett, Zoe Thomas (eds.), Suffrage and the Arts: Visual Culture, Politics and Enterprise, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020, paperback, 281pp, 16pp col./30 mono illus., $34.95, ISBN 978 1 35012867 5

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Dora Maar

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Although best known as the lover and muse of Picasso, Dora Maar (1907-1997) was notable creative figure in her own right. Respected as a fashion photographer, Surrealist artist and creator of collages, Maar produced art throughout her life. A new exhibition (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 5 June-29 July 2019; Tate Modern, London, 19 November 2019-15 March 2020; Getty Center, Los Angeles, 21 April-26 July 2020), reviewed from the catalogue, takes an overview of her art.

Born in Paris Henriette Théodora Markovitch in 1907, to a French mother and Croatian father, Dora pursued art from childhood supported by her parents. She studied art at the school of decorative arts and the cinegraphic technical school in Paris and painting under André Lhote (who taught, among others, Tamara de Lempicka). She first published photography as “Dora Markovitch” in 1930. By 1932 she had adopted the name Dora Maar as her professional moniker. She worked as a commercial photographer, providing images for advertisers and journals. Common subjects included fashion, beauty shots, architecture, interiors and nature. She also photographed street scenes, a common practice at the time.

She also produced erotic photography for Parisian journals ranging from the respectable to the trashy. She adopted styles that included the conventional and experimental. A frequent model for Maar was the Ukrainian-born model Assia Granatouroff (1911-1982), who the most successful nude model of the 1930s in Paris. She was noted for her athleticism, beauty and grace. The short hair and fit physique made her Granatouroff (publicly known as “Assia”) the epitome of the post-flapper sun- and sea-worshipper in the era of organised nudism. She modelled for many artists, including Maillol, Derain, Gromaire, Valadon and van Dongen.

The authors fail to note what seems to be a nude photograph of Maar herself (left figure, plate 45), published in Beautés magazine, January 1937. Maar did occasionally model nude but those photographs are rarely seen. Only a few have been published. No others are included in this catalogue.

At this stage she was developing strong formal concerns in both her commercial and private work, toying with Cubism and Expressionism. In this production of photography for commercial and artistic ends, Maar was in a similar position to Man Ray and Lee Miller. From the start of her career, Maar was inventive about combining elements.

In 1933 Maar photographed street life in Barcelona. This combined her political engagement (Spain was at this time a socialist republic) and artistic affiliation to Surrealism, with Spain (like Mexico) being seen as the quintessential Surrealist country.  In 1933 Maar was introduced to Surrealism and found a philosophical and political outlook that chimed with her pre-existing sympathy for the strange, buttressing her detachment from conventional aesthetics.

It was difficult for the women within Surrealism. Although encouraged to be free spirits, this often meant little more than modelling nude and submitting to the sexual advances of the male Surrealists. Musehood seemed to entail a fair amount of old-fashioned unliberated submission of the sexual variety. There were opportunities, however, and we can count more prominent women creators within the Surrealist movement than within any other pre-war art movement. Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Kay Sage, Meret Oppenheim, Frida Kahlo, Toyen, Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Remedios Varo and Maar – not to mention the creative influencers who did not leave bodies of work themselves, such as Gala Éluard (Dalí), Jacqueline Lamba (Breton), Nusch Éluard, Alice (Kiki de Montparnasse) Prin and others – all left a significant mark upon the Surrealist movement.

In documentary photographs taken around Paris in the mid-1930s, Maar used extreme close-ups of elements within their normal context, juxtaposing the distortion and oppressive size of an element contrasted with the apparent normality of the surroundings. This induces a sense of strangeness regarding our common surroundings. The irreverence towards public statuary is apparent in the close-up view of the detail of a Pont Alexandre III of a female statue’s hand holding a torch. The extreme cropping turns the civic symbolism of virtue bringing enlightenment into an explicit sexual image of the female hand manipulating a phallus. The departing ships in the Seine are the shed issue drifting away. Pont Mirabeau (1935) shows a female statue as if in peril suspended over a fall into the river. The angle of the shot and the animation of the allegorical figure’s face give the impression of a woman desperate to save herself from drowning. Thus a banal Belle Époque adornment becomes expressive of the hidden reality in a person’s life – an eruption of honest anxiety unperceived by the multitudes which pass by daily.

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[Image: Dora Maar, Untitled (1935), photomontage, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris
Repro © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Georges Meguerditchian]

Between 1934 and 1938 Maar produced and published 20 montages which are her best known works. Le Simulateur (1935) turns the curving barrel ceiling of the Orangerie into an inverted tunnel – part sewer, part race track – which is animated by a boy curved into an arch of hysteria. 29, rue d’Astorg (1935) has a kitsch ornament which is missing its head placed in a distorted arcade. Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska points that Maar’s montages bear a striking resemblance to a montage by Breton, Éluard and Suzanne Muzard, published in 1931 (dated “1931-3” here). Whether or not Maar’s approach was inspired by this example, she made it her own. What are the characteristics of Maar’s montages? Dark tonality, oneiric quality, claustrophic atmosphere, poetic sentiment, absence of easy humour, internal consistency in terms of scale/lighting/perspective/placement. These were frequently elements which she had photographed specifically with an end in mind, largely eschewing found photographs that were a staple of Surrealist montages. The catalogue reproduces the montages with the constituent photographs and some mock-ups.

There is a powerfully sinister undercurrent to Maar’s art that one does not find in even the more provocative art. Only in Bellmer’s obsessive erotic graphics and Magritte’s 1925-1929 dark claustrophic paintings do we find something comparable to Maar’s emotional darkness. In Maar’s montages there are disorientating inversions and compressions of space, as well as suffocating hermetically sealed spaces. It is worth noting that Maar maintained good standing with both Breton’s official Surrealist group and Georges Bataille’s renegade Documents faction. She photographed subjects from both factions, was Bataille’s lover and was a member of the anti-fascist Contre-Attaque group, which Breton left after a falling out with Bataille. Bataille’s outlook was considerably darker than Breton’s, steeped in mysticism, paganism and violence.

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[Image: Dora Maar, Portrait of Ubu (1936), gelatin silver print, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Philippe Migeat]

Maar’s contact with Picasso from 1935 onwards (ending in 1946) caused her to resume painting and drawing, activity that would last for subsequent decades. Maar photographed Picasso painting Guernica (1937) for the Spanish pavilion of the World Fair. She even painted sections under Picasso’s direction. Most of the art was derivative of Picasso’s style and content of the time. She received some praise but frankly much of the art is, whilst being competent, lugubrious and dull. Tonally dark, favouring cool colours and dwelling upon the straitened circumstances of the Occupation, the pictures do not have the urgency, inventiveness or the sardonic humour of Picasso. Picasso was attracted to Maar due to the air of danger, elegance and neuroticism apparent in her behaviour. A severe nervous breakdown in 1946 (for which she was hospitalised) is seen a contributing factor in her self-imposed retreat from public life. It was not a lasting state but what became a persistent trait was diffidence regarding exposing her new and old art, much of which she destroyed.

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[Image: Dora Maar, La Cage (1943), oil on canvas, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Private collection, Yann Panier, Courtesy Galerie Brame
& Lorenceau]

In the late 1940s Maar became increasingly attached to religious observance and became semi-reclusive, living alone. Starting in the late 1950s, Maar began working in abstracts, using very simple processes and forms. By the 1980s that had developed into the overlapping fields of photographs, paintings and photographed paintings that were abstract, relatively sparse, most of them imaginary landscapes. They are much closer to Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field Painting and Taschisme. In palette they are restrained. They are very engaging; they show an impressive detachment of ego and emotional and stylistic freedom. The only problem with appreciating these pieces is the fact that due to Maar’s practice of destroying art we lack large bodies of evolving work. The late abstracts here seem occasionally jerky or flighty, lacking the grounding in a larger legible corpus. The danger of this situation is that it pushes the viewer towards regarding these pieces as slight – always a potential response to lightly worked abstracts.

The best of Maar’s montages are as good as the best Surrealist art made in Paris in the 1930s. Her paintings and drawings of the 1930s to 1950s are occasionally atmospheric but ultimately derivative and second rate. The late abstract photographs are stimulating and more work is needed to exhibit and catalogue these works, establishing a chronology and assembling groups and themes. At her death, her studio contents were dispersed uncatalogued, which has made understanding her development – mostly secluded from public exposure – difficult. This catalogue contributes to Maar’s standing as a serious and inventive artist. Much critical work has still to be done but what is made clearer than before by this exhibition and catalogue is that Maar’s best art is strong and her output overall rewards attention.

 

Damarice Amao, Amanda Maddox, Karolina Ziebinska (eds.), Dora Maar, J. Paul Getty Museum, 7 January 2020, hardback, 208pp, 240 col. illus., $40, ISBN 978 1 60606 629 4

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

A Confederacy of Dunces

CFD_S_11“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting

In John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) (reissued in an illustrated edition by the Folio Society) Ignatius J. Reilly is that genius. He dresses oddly, refuses to convert his university education into productive employment and lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is ashamed of his mother, who likes to drink and socialise, and she is beginning to tire of him. He speaks like so to a policeman: “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft.”

Ignatius mission is to act as truth teller for the 1960s. He attends the cinema to observe the lewd and tawdry content of films purely to glean insights into the descent of culture. “With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy,” he declares in his treatise on the decline of the Western world, written on pads which he illustrates.

Finally at the age of 30, forced by circumstance, Ignatius takes a clerical position at decrepit Levy Pants. In its squalid premises he seeks apply his acumen to the ignoble task of pursing trade. He engages in business correspondence with the arrogant vitriol of which society so necessarily curtails expression. “Mr I. Abelman, Mongoloid, Esq.: We have received via post your absurd comments about our trousers, the comments revealing, as they did, your total lack of contact with reality.”

Announcing that “I cannot tolerate social injustice,” Ignatius visits the factory floor to observe the inequities of capitalism in action. He is astute enough to realise that the black workers’ responses to jazz on the PA is mere Palovian conditioning, which the subjects mistake for pleasure. “In a sense I have always felt something of a kinship with the colored race because of its position is the same as mine: we both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Of course, my exile is voluntary. However, it is apparent that many of the Negroes wish to become active members of the American middle class. I can not imagine why. […] However, if they wish to join the bourgeoisie, it is really none of my business.”

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

Fired from Levy Pants for organising a (failed) riot, Ignatius becomes the world’s (or at least New Orleans’s) least satisfactory hot-dog vendor: arguing with customers, fighting bystanders and consuming the hot dogs himself. This brings him into contact with the seedy underbelly of New Orleans and into the orbit of yet more odd characters, which drive the story to a satisfying denouement.

Toole gives us some comedic set pieces without too much contrivance. These include an incipient lecture “Sex in Politics: Erotic Liberty as a Weapon Against Reactionaries”, the luncheon party and Ignatius’s follies. There is a plot and plenty of action and thus A Confederacy of Dunces does not suffer from the usual weaknesses of comic novels: passages of self-regarding clever prose and contrived authorial observations. The reader feels he is in the world of these characters and is invested in what happens to them. He is never irritated by the author incongruously taking him aside to deliver witty barbs about modern life.

Ignatius is a comic protagonist: he is a liar, glutton, sluggard, prig and sneak. Yet Toole keeps us engaged and we never lose sympathy despite our disapproval for his main character, who is somewhere between hero and anti-hero. Ignatius suffers consequences of his character flaws and his actions drive the plot. Ignatius is unfettered by social convention and we get the delight of seeing a person overturning politeness and saying the unsayable. He seems to lack the filter that most people have that prevents them from immediately voicing our views out loud. On the other hand, by reading his journal we see that he is driven by folie de grandeur and a series of peculiar convictions which distort his understanding. Thus Ignatius is both liberated by self-belief (having few behavioural inhibitions) and constricted in by delusion (having little wisdom). It is that friction between liberation and ignorance that makes Ignatius compelling as a character. That is why we can find him loveable – or at least appealing – while being aware of his foolishness and inadequacy.

Myrna Minkoff is Ignatius’s long-distance on-and-off-again Beatnik girlfriend. She wears black clothes, a beret and glasses purely to demonstrate her seriousness. From New York she writes letters diagnosing Ignatius’s dysfunction and urging sexual liberation. (To be fair, in this case Ignatius’s sexual repression does seem a contributing factor to his abnormal behaviour.) She reports on her activism. “At the moment my every waking hour is spent in helping some dedicated friends raise money for a bold and shattering movie that they are planning to film about interracial marriage. Although it will be a low-budget number, the script itself is chock full of disturbing truths and has the most fascinating tonalities and ironies.” She makes it her place to befriend the black actress. “She is such a real, vital person that I have made her my closest friend. I discuss her racial problems with her constantly, drawing her out even when she doesn’t feel like discussing them.” She carries a valise full of pamphlets on left-wing campaigns. Toole indirectly shows that her defiance of her parents is bound up with her libido. Although outwardly agitating for racial equality through political conviction, it is Myrna’s sex drive that directs her towards race-mixing and reveals a fetishisation of interracial relationships.

She is a great comic creation, although admittedly one drawn from Toole’s real-life experience. In her relentless moralism, lack of inhibition and absence of self-awareness, Myrna stands as a cutting portrait of a proto-SJW. Ignatius, likewise, is a precursor of a disaffected university-graduate anarchist who rails against the middle class whilst living with his mother. He suspects he is slandered by the forces of white supremacists. He is an armchair revolutionary who muses on how to restructure society and abolish the tyranny of commerce. He could be persuaded to engage in terrorism. “I am not above tossing a Molotov cocktail or two,” he confesses. His class solidarity allows him boundless compassion towards the masses but no patience in their execrable company.

In their forceful views, profanity, volcanic tempers and quick resorts to violence, Ignatius and Myrna are the embodiment of the minority-adulating, self-appointed class warriors.

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

The secondary characters are distinctive. Hapless Patrolman Mancuso, operates undercover as a vice operative; factory owner Mr Levy is a distracted and uninterested owner of a failing concern; his wife is discontent, mildly guilty about their income, she nags her husband to better himself; Darlene, the barmaid, wants to develop a striptease act with her pet cockatoo removing her garments; her boss Lana is a penny-pinching martinet overseeing a dive bar; Dorian Greene is a party-hopping trust-fund homosexual with a line of catty banter. Burma Jones is a stand-out character; he is a cool streetwise black man living on the boundary of the licit. Toole captures his patois accurately and without condescension. When he is employed to clean a bar for below minimum wage, Jones sourly rehearses a conversation he could have with the policeman who has harassed him to get a job. “Well, I gonna tell that po-lice I gainfully employ, keep him off my back, tell him I met up with a humanitaria payin me twenty dollar a week. He say “That fine, boy. I’m glad to see you straighten out.” And I say, “Hey!” And he say, “Now maybe you becomin a member of the community.” And I say, “Yeah, I got me a nigger job and nigger pay. Now I really a member of the community. Now I a real nigger. No vagran. Just nigger.””

Jones’s backchat with his employer shows him moving between leveraging historical injustice and following self-interest in a seamless manner, yet he is sympathetic and believable. He is not a rake, criminal or grifter but a smart-yet-lazy man who follows the line of least resistance, able to provide a dry self-deprecating commentary on his situation. We enjoy his company, appreciate his intelligent insight and wish him well. He is the closest to a neutral reader-perspective character in the book. It would be wrong to call A Confederacy of Dunces a collection of grotesques. Toole’s characters do not seem calculated to make social critiques or embody types but seem to have an internal life and faithfulness to life (albeit heightened) that renders them truer than outright caricatures.

This volume consists of the corrected text of the novel, an introduction covering the writing and publication history of the book and a preface by Bill Bailey, comedian and musician, explaining why he – like many comedians – finds Toole’s story strikes a chord. Production values of the Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces are characteristically high. Carefully designed, well printed and using high-quality materials, the book is a pleasure to read. Jonny Hannah has provided new illustrations for this edition. It comprises 7 illustrations plus a frontispiece, all full colour. He has also designed endpapers, cover and the design of the pictorial slipcase, as well as incidental figures in black and white, making the book a complete experience. The images are painted and drawn in a collage style, vigorous and striking. This riotous, informal and vibrant approach perfectly matches the tone and contents of the novel. Reading this new Folio Society is like being immersed in one of the best comic novels of the Twentieth Century.

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, Folio Society, 2019, cloth hardback in pictorial slipcase, 332pp, 8 col. illus., £39.95. The Folio Society edition of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, with preface by Bill Bailey and illustrated by Jonny Hannah, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Theophrastus’s Satirical Characters

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Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behaviour is a book of character sketches which describes common types that recur in perpetuity. These types survive today. Although we refuse to recognise ourselves among these characters, we all find some individuals here that we know in person. This attractive little book with new illustrations brings these eternal types to a new generation.

Tyrtamus, called Theophrastus (“divine in speech”) (c. 371-c. 287 BC) was a respected philosopher and teacher, who came from Lesbos to join Plato’s Academy, later studying with Aristotle in Athens. He became a favourite student of Aristotle. He survived the vicissitudes of Athenian politics through a combination of wits, rhetoric and popularity. His lectures drew large audiences. He went on to become a wealthy property owner – no mean feat for a foreigner with no voting rights or other entitlements of Athenian citizens. Most of his essays on grammar, ethics, history and nature are lost. His Characters has come down to us in damaged form.

The collection of comic portrait sketches is satirical, mocking the bad behaviour of Athenians, especially their venality. These were written during the immediate post-Alexandrian period, though only mention contemporary events rarely and tangentially and these types are universal rather than specific. Each description is only a page or so long. There is relatively little that is historically dependent in the text. In cases where amounts, places, people and customs are referred to there are footnotes. We pick up on the importance in Alexandrian Athens of public status, private litigation and personal money from Theophrastus’s targets and approaches.

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[Image: Andre Carrilho, The Authoritarian (2018). (c) 2018 Andre Carrilho]

The Babbler is an incessant talker who bores and distracts all around him. He prevents theatre-goers from enjoying the play and diners from eating in peace. His children tease him by, at bedtime, imploring him to bore them to sleep. The Obnoxious Man exhibits his genitals in public, belches loudly and makes a nuisance of himself at the theatre in order to attract attention. He stops in at the barbershop to announce that he is on his way to get drunk. “The Distrustful Man is the sort who, when he’s sent his slave to do some shopping, sends another along to find out how much the first one spent. Though he’s carrying his money himself, he sits down every two hundred yards to count it.”[i] Theophrastus describes him getting up at night to check that the doors and windows are locked, despite the assurances of his wife.

Particularly good is the Coward, who deliberately hides his sword under the pillow in his tent, so that he has to go through the pantomime of searching for it before he can go out to battle. His terror at being at sea is genuinely comic. The Authoritarian is today’s know-nothing, offering his opinion unwanted; he is the elitist who believes he is immune to the faults he ascribes to others. Others include the Social Climber, the Charlatan, the Vulgar Man (more an inconsiderate man, readers may think), the Arrogant Man and the Slanderer. There are multiple versions of the miser – Theophrastus obviously had strong feelings on the subject of parsimony…

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[Image: Andre Carrilho, The Slanderer (2018). (c) 2018 Andre Carrilho]

The illustrations by Andre Carrilho are vigorous, bold and highly stylised. Each character gets a drawing. The figures are both ancient and modern. The mixture of sweeping curves in line and shaded details used sparingly is distinctive and redolent of The New Yorker, a publication for which Carrilho has worked. The introduction is informative and the translation is very approachable whilst preserving the literal examples of obols, drachmas and agora as written by Theophrastus. The design is attractive and the binding a handsome scarlet cloth.

 

Theophrastus, Pamela Mensch (trans.), James Romm (introduction), Andre Carrilho (illus.), Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behaviour, Callaway, 2018, cloth hardback, $24.95, 111pp, mono illus., ISBN 978 0 935112 37 5

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

 

Hidden London: Discovering the Forgotten Underground

“When riding the Tube, passengers sometimes get flashing glimpses of lit side tunnels or abandoned stations. Before they fully register them, the sights are gone and passengers are left with a short-lived curiosity about the hidden life of their primary means of travel about London. The long complex history of the London Underground network has generated a legacy of disused stations, defunct lines and disregarded buildings. Hidden London: Discovering the Forgotten Underground (published by London Transport Museum in association with Yale University Press) presents some of those in pictorial format with extensive explanatory commentary.

“Parts of this story will be familiar to anyone who has disappeared down those rabbit holes of Wikipedia that beckon us when we are killing time. Closed stations, merged stations, tracks abandoned and service tunnels not open to the public are the inevitable by-product of a system that emerged piecemeal under multiple companies since 1863 and has had to serve a vast and changing city. Amateur historians of LU have long applied formidable scrutiny to plentiful available documentation, so there is little in this book that will be unknown to dedicated fans of LU trivia, but for general readers this is an ideal companion to lost elements of London’s underground rail system.

“There is a strange power to encountering these images of lost ages, at once melancholy and sinister. These are time capsules…”

Read the full review online at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/hidden-london/

Review: Airline Maps: A century of art and design

“From the beginning of scheduled commercial flights for the public, designers have used the excitement and liberation of air travel to inform innovative designs. Airline Maps: A Century of Art and Design collects a diverse range of plans and posters in a book that is truly global in ambition. It covers the period 1919 up to 2019 and includes material published for famous airlines of today and yesteryear. The book illustrates posters, sketches and original artwork for promotional material used by airlines.

 

“The book acts as a history of aviation. We see the birth of commercial carriers using unpressurised biplanes, through the period of colonial consolidation with turbo-prop craft and seaplanes for coastal or island stops through the heyday of national carriers with jet planes up to today’s budget carriers serving tiny regional airports. There is a roll call of lost companies: BOAC, Pan Am, Sabena, Air Ceylon. Imperial Airways embodies in its name and its routes the British Empire as it was it its final decades. Lesser known carriers, such as Iraqi Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, Sudan Airways and Air Jamaica are represented.

“Following the end of the Great War, the large number of aeroplanes and trained pilots found employment in postal carriage and – soon after – providing passenger services for the rich…”

Read the full review here: https://thecritic.co.uk/airline-maps-a-century-of-art-and-design/

Seven Books on Women Artists & Feminist Art

Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970 is a study of one of the planks of the second-wave of feminism: sexual violence. Rape, assault and subjugation are considered manifestations of the second-class status of women, so they are emblematic subjects for feminist art. Vivien Green Fryd writes: “Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970 examines how and why feminist artists, working from the 1970s to the second decade of the twenty-first century, represented and challenged the dominant narrative about sexual violence against women. I demonstrate in this book that for more than forty years, a key group of American artists has insisted on ending the silence and contributed to an anti-rape, anti-incest counternarrative […]” This is a peculiar characterisation. Rape, assault, incest and marital cruelty have been subject to legal penalty and social opprobrium for many centuries. There certainly was a culture of reticence and aversion to discussion of sexual matters and family violence but that does not equate to approval for legal and moral infractions.

Fryd includes art by male homosexual artists in this discussion. The idea is that this art critiques systematic faults of a patriarchal society and therefore aligns with the feminist position. Fryd has chronicled the plethora of feminist performances and exhibitions relating to the theme of sexual violence but cannot detach herself from the subject. The author’s accounts of historical activity are accurate and informative but the narrative becomes partial when discussing recent events. Fryd’s discussion of Emma Sulkowicz (famed as “Mattress Girl”), a Columbia University art student who claimed to have been raped and turned the allegation into part of an art performance, is disingenuous. The university settled with the accused and exonerated him of the accusation. When, at the close of the book, Fryd’s avows that she hope her book has contributed to the feminist cause, no reader will be surprised at this expression of a campaigning intent.

Nancy Princenthal’s Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s covers much of the same ground. Princenthal identifies 1970 and the few years following as a turning point in public attitudes to sexual assault. She nominates (in the American context) the sexual revolution, the women’s liberation movement and the Vietnam war as pivotal events socially and the rise of Conceptual Art, Body Art, performance, Land Art and allied movements as artistic currents that facilitated the adoption by women of the stories of rape and sexual violence. The unspoken element was the rise of Marxism in academia, with university lecturers pledging themselves to the New Left, which would use what we now call identity politics to advance socialism through lobbying for minority rights. It is within such a context that Feminist art would be artistically and politically sanctioned by the New Left. (It would be this very co-option that later gave rise to concerns voiced by some feminist academics.)

The line between sexual liberation and exploitation was a deliberately blurred one – and the inevitable consequence of deliberate transgression by activists at American universities. Within the counter-culture movements and terrorist groups, sex was offered and demanded in the service of the revolution. Princenthal exposes the cool dismissal of women’s issues by hard-line Marxists, the aggressive misogyny of Frantz Fanon and rape advocacy of Eldridge Cleaver and LeRoi Jones. The murders of the hippy commune/cult around Charles Manson were an expression of revolutionary violence, committed by a group including women willing to kill other women for thrills but ostensibly as part of a cultural war.

Princenthal, using quotes from primary sources and new interviews with participants, sets out some touchstones of literature on rape in the 1970s. She discusses early celebrated performances of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (first performed 1964) and those by Valie Export involving voyeurism and audience participation. Work by Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper and others are mentioned and key performances and publications are deftly summarised. Performance art and the theatre of public protest have numerous parallels and in the case of politically motivated art the two intersect. The importance of collective action and staged spectacle are foregrounded as important components of feminist performances.

New York, New Wave discusses the influence of feminist art of the 60s and 70s on recent artists, explaining that the diffusion of politics and multiple creative approaches are more important that gender politics for today’s postmodernists. The illustrations provide a handy survey of art discussed. The book is clearly written and approachable.

The Art of Feminism studies women’s art from Victorian times to the present day. Although most readers will be interested in art from the 1960s onwards, the most interesting material is the art produced during the suffrage and world wars periods. Skill and ingenuity were used to advance the case for women’s rights in posters that are brilliant, effective and beautiful; that art contrasts with feminist art of recent decades, which is intentionally ugly, angry and confrontational. (The authors mischaracterise the anti-suffrage movement, which in part was an earnest attempt by women to protect their privileges (exemptions from the draft, jury duty and debt liability) which it was assumed would be lost if they were made equal to men.) Oddly, the leading women Abstract Expressionist painters are omitted underlining the political scope of the survey, which limits its usefulness. The quoting of “gender pay gap” statistics indicates the lack of clarity when it comes to political hot topics.

The Bigger Picture: Women who Changed the Art World inspires mixed feelings. It is an attractive and informative book (including brief questionnaires with living artists) that will appeal to younger children. It does a good job explaining art to children but some of the art is tiresome and obscure even for informed adults. It also fails to acknowledge legitimate objections to feminism in art. Feminism has not changed art practice other than by promoting existing attitudes and approaches. It has failed to produce much art of worth. Plausibly feminists could claim that these were never their intention. What they have succeeded in doing is entrenching politics in art. Feminism has also shone a light on women artists (past and present) but at the cost of turning women artists into tokens.

The subtitle of “400 artists, 500 years” gives the outline of the dictionary Great Women Artists. This attractive hardback devotes one large-format page to a substantial illustration, biographical data and a paragraph devoted to a different artist. There is much material here that is unfamiliar – some of it very weak – but there are some real finds among the lesser-known figures: Ellen Altfest, Louise Jopling, Katsushika Ōl, Zinaida Serebryakova, Uemura Shōen. The artists share nothing in common except their sex.

Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women follows a similar format, with one to four pages devoted to buildings by women. The book contains a great breadth of architecture in diverse buildings, styles, sizes and locations. For those not following architecture, the names will be unfamiliar even if some of the structures are already known. Architecture allows less potential for expression but the startling, impressive and inventive designs – marrying function and aesthetics – are more satisfying than the majority of the art in Great Women Artists. Of the two books, it is Breaking Ground that is the more surprising and delightful book. This is a beautiful and essential book for anyone interested in modern and contemporary architecture.

 

Sophia Bennett, Manjit Thapp, The Bigger Picture: Women who Changed the Art World, Tate, 2019, hardback

Kathy Battista, New York, New Wave: The Legacy of Feminist Art in Emerging Practice, IB Tauris, 2019, paperback

Helena Reckitt, The Art of Feminism, Tate, 2019, hardback

Vivien Green Fryd, Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019, hardback

Nancy Princenthal, Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, Thames & Hudson, 2019, hardback

Rebecca Morrill (ed.), Great Women Artists, Phaidon, 2019, hardback

Jane Hall, Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women, Phaidon, 2019, hardback

 

Matisse: Metamorphoses

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[Image: Exhibition view «Matisse – Metamorphoses»,Kunsthaus Zürich, 2019. Photo: Kunsthaus Zürich, Franca Candrian, works © Succession Henri Matisse/2019ProLitteris, Zurich]

Matisse: Metamorphoses is an exhibition that examines the master’s work in sculpture and how it relates to his two-dimensional art (Kunsthaus Zürich, 30 August-8 December 2019; Musée Matisse, Nice, 7 February-6 May 2020). This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

[…] in order to express form, I sometimes engage with sculpture, which allows me to move around the object in order to get to know it better , instead of remaining in front of a flat surface.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) made sculpture throughout his career and it was always close to his heart. He was often photographed making sculpture though the pieces themselves met mixed critical receptions and were exhibited only irregularly until his last years. Nearly the entirety of his sculptures was figures – either as nudes or portrait heads – most of them small in stature. The exhibition includes 58 pieces from Musée Matisse, Nice the world’s largest collection of Matisse’s relatively small sculptural oeuvre of just over 80 (mostly small) works. The exhibition includes all states of key works, namely Madeleine I-II, Henriette I-III, Jeanette I-V and Back I-IV. Some of the catalogue texts address certain pieces. The reading of Reclining Nude I (Aurora) (1907) is particularly acute.

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[Image: Henri Matisse, Madeleine I (1901), bronze, 54.6 x 19.4 x 17.2 cm, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bequest of Harriet Lane Levy. Photo: Ben Blackwell© Succession Henri Matisse/2019 ProLitteris, Zurich]

This exhibition includes drawings, prints and paintings which are connected to the sculpture. Matisse commonly used his sculptures in still-life paintings. There are drawings and prints of the same model who appeared in a sculpture. Matisse spent periods of years working with only one or two models, allowing us to connect art with specific individuals. The identity and stories of Matisse’s models was the subject of an exhibition and catalogue. Even so, in some cases there is very little public information – quite a contrast with some of the celebrated models of Maillol, Picasso and others. Also included are photographs of sculpture in progress and lost works. The artist at work suggests his approach and the studio setting within which he worked.

From early in his career, evidence tells us that Matisse was serious about his sculpture. Matisse took lessons from Antoine Bourdelle in 1900 and worked in his studio. He returned to modelling in clay and plaster periodically throughout his career. At the end of his life Matisse was pleased to have his sculpture recognised as a significant part of his output. He commented with satisfaction the late exhibitions that featured his sculpture.  One reason Matisse’s sculpture has not received the attention it perhaps should have, is that Matisse – despite his achievements as a draughtsman – is seen as a master of colour. His achromatic carvings and bronze castings do not contribute anything to discussion of Matisse as a painter in colour, arranger of colour and generator of light. It is understandable that critics have therefore not known how to fit the sculpture into the story of Matisse or his major contributions to art.

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[Image: Hans Marsilius Purrmann, Matisse in his studio, 1900–1903, Archives Henri Matisse, Issy-les-Moulineaux, © 2019 ProLitteris, Zurich]

One catalogue essayist suggests that the interviews, writings and photographs of intermediate states were all – partly at least – a campaign to explain how complex and difficult his work was to counteract the frequent comments that his art looked effortless. This was manifest in his decision to exhibit (in a 1945 exhibition in Paris) finished paintings alongside photographs of unfinished states of these works. This was a veritable demonstration that his art was not simple or effortless to create. This inevitably raises the matter of whether any of the anxiety at these comments (not necessarily criticisms, but possibly intended – or perceived – that way) influenced how Matisse worked. Was there a possibility that this desire to prove his art was hard won led to Matisse performing this in the form of extra stages for photographic records and complication of the facture of his art? This seems unlikely but if the essayist’s hypothesis is correct then these are considerations worth entertaining.

Matisse made extensive use of artistic and ethnographic publications of female nudes. Straddling the blurred line of erotica, anthropology and anatomical reference works, the publications Mes Modèes, L’Étude académique, L’Humanité feminine  offered Matisse access to Africa and the Orient without having to travel, though he later would visit Algeria and Morocco. The varied anatomies, “typical” poses and artificial positioning of models as ethnographic examples provided a visual stimuli that was not otherwise available. The exhibition and catalogue include the magazine pages that Matisse used as working sources. The Serpentine (1909) is a standing female nude with one elbow resting on a plinth, an image found in a commercial photograph. What caught Matisse’s imagination was curving serpentine through line that moved from elbow to foot.

Matisse collected art from Africa (and Oceania) and that provided him with a non-Western sculptural syntax, allowing him to see a different route to figuration. It provided necessary rupture. Art nègre became a touchstone for the Fauvists, as it later did for Picasso, and it could be seen at the Musée Trocadéro and shops in Paris. The abrupt alien formulations and brusque geometry of art nègre were so adeptly incorporated into visual Modernism that they seem natural to us. The conceptualisation of body parts in African carving as autonomous masses not organically connected or articulated offered Matisse a radically new way of assembling figures – one sees that very clearly in the artificiality of the Matisse’s portraits of the 1910s. Using geometry for anatomy and treating body parts as solid, discrete and non-realistic forms also presented an approach to sculpture that offered an alternative to the Egyptian, Hellenic and impressionistic methods. Vladimir Markov’s insightful observations of 1913 on the subject of art nègre are quoted in the catalogue essay on this. The exhibition includes works by Rodin, Bourdelle, Maillol, Renoir and Picasso – much of which Matisse would have known. There are pieces of African art and Greco-Roman statues from the artist’s collection, and a selection of pieces from other collections.

“Really, Latin perfection, I don’t care about it, and all this complexity of modelling. It is only the Negroes that concern me any longer, since my last visit to the Trocadéro…” – Matisse, c. 1927

Ellen McBreen’s reading of European Modernists’ subsequent disavowal of the importance of African primitivism in their development as a strategy to cover their tracks is too harsh. There was a degree of self-serving reinvention about these disavowals but they are no different from the common reframing of the past to favour the author in late-life memoirs.

 

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Matisse commonly used system of series in his sculpture. He would take a work to a state he was satisfied with, have it cast and begin the subsequent work in the series using the original or a cast of the first work. We should not see this as expressly a series of provisional stages preceding a final resolution; rather we should see it as a completed work giving rise to subsequent commentary or correction of the previous work but which exists independently. This is different from Matisse’s habit of having his oil paintings photographed at different stages. In those cases, the initial stages were incorrect or otherwise deficient and were subsumed by an improvement. Matisse could of course have resumed work on a painting by starting a new version and preserving the preceding one. He did not lack for materials, after all. He did keep records for his own edification. Apparently, Matisse’s studio was next to Rodin’s when Matisse resumed sculpting seriously in 1908-9 (and teaching painting, drawing and sculpting). Sandra Gianfreda suggests that Rodin’s practice of taking and using casts of states of sculpture in progress would probably have been known to Matisse, who was deeply influenced by Rodin at the start of his career as a sculptor. Apparently, Matisse did not conceive of his sculptures as needing to be considered in relation to one another. “The Backs were never understood by the artist to be a series; all four bronzes were only grouped retrospectively, the more so as The Back II was only discovered posthumously.”[iii]

Although Matisse asserted in public that single paintings developed in a direct sequential fashion, incrementally advancing to resolution, in private he commented that sometimes he would find himself dissatisfied with a painting and entirely reconceive it at the beginning of a session.[iv] Thus there was no secure path to completion and any logic of progression in a sequence of working photographs could be a retrospective conceit of the viewer – at least in the case of some paintings. (Contrast this with Picasso’s sequences, such as the Bull lithograph, which seems deliberately schematic in its approach.) The issue of seriality is addressed in the display of a number of photolithographs of drawing sequences. This helps to demonstrate points that are relevant to Matisse’s sculpture.

An essay is devoted to the Backs series, fittingly, as it is Matisse’s most significant achievement in sculpture. It notes the existence of a first (“version 0”) lost version, which is known only from photographs. This sculpture reconceived of the rear view of a female nude, with different emphases. This series is also the closest to painting because it is a bas relief, thus is simultaneously pictorial and sculptural, flat and modelled. The Backs were not typical of Matisse’s sculpture, which were very volumetric, fully modelled and sometimes conceived in the round. Almost all Matisse’s sculptures were produced through modelling not carving, and none by assemblage. That said, Matisse’s three-dimensional art can be strikingly linear.

This exhibition catalogue presents a broad and serious treatment of Matisse’s sculpture in depth and in context. For anyone interested in Matisse’s art will find surprises and new information therein.

 

Kunsthaus Zürich (ed.), Matisse: Metamorphoses, Kunsthaus Zürich/Musée Matisse/Scheidegger & Spiess, 2019, paperback, 232pp, fully illus., €48, ISBN 978 3 85881 836 2 (French-language version available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

John Frederick Lewis

John Frederick Lewis, In the Bezestein, El Khan Khalil, Cairo, c. 1860. Watercolour, wash, graphite under drawing. Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

[Image: John Frederick Lewis, In the Bezestein, El Khan Khalil, Cairo (c. 1860), watercolour, wash, graphite under drawing, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.]

For anyone who missed the exhibition John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame (Watts Gallery, Surrey, 9 July-3 November 2019) Briony Llewellyn’s small but informative catalogue provides an informative consolation. This review of the exhibition is from the catalogue.

John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876) was one the leading British Orientalist painters from the middle of the C19th. He began his career as a watercolourist, painting portraits, animal paintings, hunting and fishing scenes and landscapes around the British Isles. His elaborate but painterly realism was in the English tradition. He trained in the family workshop rather than the academy.

A journey to Spain 1832-3 turned Lewis on to the subject of Orientalism. Spain, with its heritage of Arab occupation and Moorish architecture, was seen as an amalgam of Oriental and Occidental. It provided a safe glimpse of Islamic-influenced culture without the dangers of Islam for European travellers. At that time the bandit (along with the Gypsy) offered artists and writers a chance to embody the rebellious romantic archetype of the outsider living by private tribal loyalty and ancient codes of solidarity in the face of norms of social conventions.

In 1837 Lewis left England for the Mediterranean, travelling through Italy, Greece and Albania to reach Constantinople. He stayed there, painting Ottoman subjects, along with other artists, including David Wilkie. He later moved to Cairo. Llewellyn recounts the success of the watercolour The Hhareem [sic] (1850) when exhibited in London. It played on the fascination with the Arab slave trade, which exerted a powerful moral repugnance mixed with sadistic attraction over European viewers. The subject of the painting was an Ethiopian woman. French author Achille Constant Théodore Émile Prisse d’Avennes reports that Lewis had a friend buy the slave in order to allow him access to her as a model but the model had a strong aversion to Lewis. This may or may not be true but Llewellyn suspects Prisse’s account to be at least biased. In England his reputation was spread by the picturesque anecdotes of William Makepeace Thackery.

John Frederick Lewis, The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, Cairo, 1872. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford)

[Image: John Frederick Lewis, The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, Cairo (1872), watercolour and bodycolour on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford).]

He returned to England with his new bride Marian in 1851. Thereafter he spent his career creating images of the Near East, especially Egypt, using his sketches, memories and costumes and props in his studio. (Some of his Eastern garments were down through inheritance and survive today.) Upon his return to England, Lewis resigned from the Society of Painters in Water Colours (of which he had been a member since 1829), which is seen as a tactical decision, because no artist was permitted to become elected a member of the Royal Academy whilst also being a member of any other professional association. He was elected ARA in 1859 and elected RA in 1865. Despite his high profile and the many honours bestowed him, he was a private man – even described as reclusive. He disliked his duties and proved a poor teacher during the stipulated attendances as visiting tutor at the academy schools. Lewis preferred to remain in Walton-on-Thames (from 1854 until his death), Surrey rather than spend much time in London not dictated by his duties.

Lewis used himself as a model for Oriental men, his visage and beard looking suitable for the roles. There are photographs of him in Eastern costume. This was partly symbolic and partly a practical consideration. Llewellyn points out that artists modelling themselves as Arabs was commonplace and that sometimes this fact was known to viewers. In Lewis’s case this is unclear and she did not find contemporary references to the artist being recognised by the general viewers within his paintings. Marian posed for some of the European wives within harem scenes. Llewellyn wisely does not become caught up on “cultural appropriation” and other such anachronistic retrospective views and instead talks about the then-current conventions. However, the use of “Orient”, “Oriental”, “Eastern”, “Arab” and so forth in quotation marks nearly throughout in discussions of the Victorian reception of Lewis’s art is an unnecessary concession to political fashion. Readers are informed enough to recognise that the historical conceptualisation of these terms is culturally freighted and thus not necessarily accurate. Such ostentatious authorial signalling is irksome and mars Llewellyn’s informative, clear and otherwise well judged text.

John Frederick Lewis, The Pipe Bearer, 1859. Watercolour, pencil and bodycolour on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford)

[Image: John Frederick Lewis, The Pipe Bearer (1859), watercolour, pencil and bodycolour on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford).]

Typical scenes included views of bazaars, grand interiors, hareems, wall gardens, schools, courtyards and other recognisably Oriental settings. The figures are prominent and accurately painted, with attention paid to mood and expression. Some paintings are of single figures, with the setting reduced to background details. Other paintings are what could be described as interiors with figures. This exhibition contained pages from Lewis’s early sketchbooks, his pre-travel watercolour scenes of Britain, art made in Egypt and oil paintings executed back in England for exhibition. These are loaned from various collections. Also exhibited but not illustrated or transcribed in the catalogue are letters relating to Lewis. The catalogue makes a good introduction to one of Britain’s most celebrated Orientalists.

 

Briony Llewellyn, John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame, Watts Gallery Artist Village, 2019, paperback, 55pp, fully illus., ISBN 978 0 9933902 4 1

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation

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[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978) gelatin silver print, 4 1/4 x
5 3/4 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

The catalogue of a current exhibition (MCA, Denver, 20 September 2019-5 April 2020) includes early material from the short life of photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981). Portrait of a Reputation was the title of Woodman’s first photographic book, which had no text except the title.  Her choice of the title Portrait of a Reputation for a booklet made at a point when she was beginning her career and completely unknown is indicative of Woodman’s self-consciousness, awareness of art history and her huge ambition. The photographs and writings of this exhibition and publication mostly come from the time when Woodman began photographing herself at 13 up to her departure for New York. The photographs were taken in Denver, Colorado, Andover, Massachusetts and Providence, where Woodman studied (alongside Lange) at Rhode Island School of Art and Design (1975-8). This review is from the catalogue.

Some of this material is unfamiliar to followers of Woodman’s art. Some of it is unique and belongs to George Lange, a friend of Woodman’s youth. Some of the vintage prints (some poorly printed and uncropped) are Woodman’s first prints of images that have since become classics, given away in a flush of excitement and pride. There are teasing and affectionate letters from her to him. Also included are letters from within the Woodman family.

Lange preserved material by, and about, Woodman. That material is exposed in this new book and it provides glimpses of Woodman as a young woman, just emerging as an independent artist. Woodman was unusually precocious. Cultivated by her artist parents and steeped in Italian classical literature, Roman culture and contemporary Italian art, Woodman grew into art as a young teenager, taking her first self-portraits at 13. In one of her earliest photographs, Woodman took the opportunity of encountering dense exposed roots of a large mature tree to pose emerging from (or entangled with) the roots. Woodman was schooled in the classics and would have known Ovid’s Metamorphoses, many of which dealt with the transformation of people into animals and plants

There was a photo session at a cemetery involving friends. Woodman wore a semi-transparent dress and later undressed for photographs next to graves. The symbolism of the graveyard is too intrusive and obvious for the series to be effective but it seems a necessary experiment. An invitation card for an exhibition by Woodman has a photograph of her lying, seen from above, a common Woodman trope of the weightless woman. Profile 2 is titled by the artist in the margin and is one of the most memorable photographs in the exhibition. (Few of the individual photographs are titled or titled and the catalogue does not provide definitive labels for art works.)

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[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978), gelatin silver print, 7 x 5 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

Contact sheets are reproduced, with selected shots illustrated full page. There are shots that are fluffed – Woodman fails to strike a suitable pose, she smiles as she cannot get in position, she moves during an exposure, a shot is not suitably composed and so forth. These are the side-products of any photo session. There are also shots that are blurred and double-exposures that did not seem to Woodman suitable for selection. The material includes letters, postcards and notes by the artist. There is no transcript of the texts. While there is great value in facsimile reproduction – not least a degree of intimacy and a greater order of information – the absence of transcript will leave some readers straining to decipher Woodman’s handwriting.

In her essay Nora Burnett Abrams dwells upon the issue of seriality and instability of Woodman’s photographs; this seems to overlook Woodman’s conventionality: her desire to make great and powerful single photographs. One can consider her efforts in the context of East Coast American art of the late 1970s, namely conceptualism, land art, performance and interventions within existing environments. These referent contexts are certainly not invalid and unproductive as points of departure, but their selection by commentators today is most definitely in opposition to idea Woodman may have been driven to create powerful single images (with or without handwritten marginal texts) that encapsulate the artist’s skill, ideas and vision.

There is a misstep in discussions of gender in relation to Woodman’s photography. Abbot writes that “[…] Woodman does not make her body available for the easy consumption by a (male) gaze.” The first, primary and most important viewer of Woodman’s photographs was Woodman herself. She was the envisager, creator, model, editor and curator of her art. The gaze is primarily her own. Her art was made to satisfy her own gaze. Her own judgment was the ultimate test of suitability that would determine choices about her art. The consumption of her art was by men and women. It is often women who are far more critical, cruel and proscriptive about images of the female body than men are. Woodman’s art, so influenced by stories which intertwine myths of men, women, gods, monsters and animals, is poorly served by such pedestrian commentary.

Drew Sawyer’s essay outlines the material and influences Woodman was exposed to during her education at RISD and the material of photography that was published by editor Max Kozloff in Artforum, who was also a Woodman-family friend. Sawyer points out that a contemporary interest in Man Ray’s photographs may have led Woodman to paraphrase the image of Meret Oppenheim at the printer’s press in her own photograph of herself with a hand outline painted across her chest. Lady Hawarden and Duane Michals’s are also referenced.

Exhibited are photographs of Woodman by Lange. Lange visited Woodman’s apartment-cum-studio in New York and took photographs of her at work in the studio and relaxing. We see her at work in her studio, setting up props and testing poses. Another significant aspect of the photographs of Woodman out shopping is that they show Woodman in her own time. So much of Woodman’s Gothic, Victorian and anachronistic props and clothing serve to distance her from the life of her era. Encountering her wearing Chinese style coat in a Chinese good store is to see her outside of her curated setting.

The photographs of her by Lange show Woodman reflective and playful, though not guileless. A skilled and thoughtful artist, so self-conscious and self-crafted, is never guileless. The photographs of her beside her mother and friends are more intimate than her self-taken nudes. This is the artist as a woman off-guard, reacting to stimuli, sharing a joke, trying to amuse a friend or engaged in a dialogue. Her acting capacity – functioning as auteur, both director and actor – is suspended whilst she is out of her zone of absolute control. The portrait shots of Woodman against a white wall are beautiful.

It is strange to think of an iconic presence such as Woodman appearing so unguardedly and in new ways after so many years of us being familiar with a set group of her photographs. It makes it seem as though she is still alive somewhere, producing material and experimenting with her image and her art. These provisional attempts, failed shots and discarded art – along with images of her life – make Woodman peculiarly rematerialized (returned to ordinary actuality) and dematerialised (alive but absent). We see her interacting with friends, colleagues and models (categories that overlap to wide degree). Encountering the deeper (or broader) truth of Woodman’s life pushes us to confront the biographical fact that a young woman died at the age of 22. We are confronted by echoes of life cut short, one which could still be continuing today, with Woodman as the doyenne of women photographers who take themselves as their subject.

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[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978), gelatin silver print, 7 7/8 x
10 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

Seeing this material – “new” material, as it were – awakens the pain of loss. The old wound makes itself known again because to be cognisant and admire the art of Woodman implies the acknowledgement of her premature death and curtailment of her artistic potential and her future life. Even without an explicitly biographical interpretation of Woodman’s photographs, the fact of her death adjusts our art historical response. She was a young woman when made this art; she was a young woman when she dies; she had no opportunity to extend, revise, curate and revisit the art we know. We have no memoirs, interviews, few notes, few letters, no extended commentary by the artist upon her art. We will never have any. She had no chance to respond to the fame and acclaim her art would achieve posthumously.

However firmly we may attempt to separate the biographical from the artistic when assessing art, it is understandable that the admiration of many for the photographs of Francesca Woodman must be tempered by grief.

 

Nora Burnett Abrams, Drew Sawyer, Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation, Rizzoli Electa, September 2019, hardback, 176pp, fully illus., $55, ISBN 978 0 8478 6491 1

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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