Publishers, How to Get More Book Reviews

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Publisher press departments, press officers and agents, do you want to get more book reviews published? Have you ever wondered why some books seem to be all over the newspaper and specialist-press review pages and yet equally good books fail to make any impact? Have you wondered how to get more reviews without expending a great deal more time, effort or money? Here is some advice from a seasoned reviewer…

I have been a book reviewer, art critic, essayist and journalist for 20 years. During that time, I must have received between 1,500 and 2,500 books and journals for direct review or as part of broader articles. Generally, I have had good relations with publishers, galleries, museums and their press agents. Any long-time reviewer receives a fair quantity of books he/she would not otherwise have owned or perhaps even read and I am grateful for all the copies I have received.

Here are some tips from the perspective of a reviewer, intended to be practical and enlightening. Some of the points may seem obvious but even very respected houses have fallen short on basic points. Please feel free to share a link to this article with colleagues.

 

  1. No printed copy, no review

Although it is good practice to offer reviewers both printed and e-versions (e-books, PDFs, Word docs), my personal rule is “no printed copy, no review”. I cannot commit to reading an entire book on screen for the sake of practicality and health. I cannot tell my readers that what I see on screen is exactly what they will get as a book, as changes may be made. Also, reviews cover the quality and appropriateness of printing, paper, covers, binding and illustration quality, which cannot be judged digitally. This is especially true for my main field, which is the art book. (I have previously outright criticised otherwise good art books because of poor colour printing – something that would not have been obvious in a PDF.) I cannot recommend a virtual copy of a book to readers who may end up paying for a shoddy or unsuitable printed book bought on my recommendation. I have used e-versions as references but virtually never for full book reviews.

  1. Maintain a single point of contact

Difficult as it may be, try to have one or two staff members deal with a single book or reviewer. This prevents confusion and lapses of contact. A reviewer is much more inclined to turn to a company where s/he knows the press officer. Building a relationship will likely increase the number of books reviewed.

  1. Big publishers, do better

If a potential review title is published by a big house or an imprint part of a conglomerate, my heart sinks. I often avoid even contacting big presses about review copies. Websites are cumbersome; imprint delineations unclear and hard to contact directly. There is rarely a named press contact and international houses often lose requests in extended email chains. No one takes responsibility. Response times are frequently long. Big houses, you regularly lose reviews through your indifferent service and cumbersome websites. Advice: A) Make your websites clearer to use, easier to search and more logical. B) If you have different imprints, make sure there is a clear press contact for each or a general contact that will respond consistently.

  1. Have images ready

Have a cover image and author photographs ready. If your book features art, have a selection of cleared illustration images and full captions (and T&Cs) available before you launch. Have the images available in different file sizes. If you have a website with press images that require security-code access, be prepared to email images directly upon request if reviewers have trouble accessing these files.

  1. Museums and galleries, have a dedicated page

Museums and galleries, always have a page for your publications. This should be searchable if it isn’t a small selection. Don’t leave reviewers scrolling through fridge magnets and mugs on the “Shop” page in search of exhibition catalogues. In this case, it is sometimes hard to tell what books you publish and what you just sell. Treat your publication department seriously and you’ll earn the respect of reviewers. If a reviewer is left unclear about how to contact a publisher/museum then s/he will have doubts about how readers can access the book and that may lead to the idea of a review getting dropped. Remember, this is especially important if you are a smaller venue. A book review in a foreign journal may alert the readership to your existence. Every book review is publicity for your institution.

  1. Provide email addresses

If possible, provide email addresses for your press office not just contact forms on websites. A reviewer may have a set email to send and also want to cc editors. Reviewers often use emails to organise their schedules and check the progress of requests/pitches.

  1. Know your distribution

If you don’t distribute outside your country (or set of defined regions), make that clear on your website and link to your foreign offices and distributors. If you send email replies to the effect that you cannot send a review copy, cc the appropriate distributor/foreign colleague. If you reply without that information you have almost certainly lost a review and potentially ever hearing from that reviewer again.

  1. Email about new books

If you have a list of forthcoming titles or a catalogue (or link to a page or PDF), email reviewers. This makes their job easier and allows them to pitch suggestions to editors ahead of time. Do this every 2-3 months (or less frequently, if your list is shorter). Do not do it more frequently.

  1. No misleading publicity

One of the banes of reviewers and editors is misleading promo material. Promotion for a book can be enthusiastic but it must be honest. Do not oversell a book. Reviewers are sometimes specialists who know more about the subject than the author. Get a book peer-reviewed before taking the author’s word that their title is what s/he claims. If your title is unsuitable then you have wasted the time of everyone involved and the cost of sending the book. The review will not get published – leaving reviewer, editor and publisher dissatisfied.

Edit: Remember that reviewers pitch ideas to editors sometimes months in advance. They rely on the promo material being accurate. Review commissions depend on what the publishers claim about their books. If a book turns out to be different from the what advance publicity had led reviewers and editors to expect then this leaves everyone in an awkward position.

  1. Include a printed press release

Enclose with the book a printed press release. This should have data such as a book summary, author data, selected pre-publication quotes, press contact info and book data, including page no., ISBN, size, no. and type of illus., price(s), format(s), etc. Make sure this is accurate. Regularly, I have had sheets which describe a previous specification that has been changed. Books described as clothbound often turn out to be paper-covered boards. Getting this right and giving the data to the reviewer will mean you won’t have queries to handle.

  1. Condition matters

While it is true that reviewers do not pay for books, a book in damaged condition creates a poor impression. It may cost you a superlative or complimentary adjective or two. It isn’t churlishness but a greater degree of reservation. Also, if buyers receive comparable mail-order service, a reviewer will be more cautious about recommending a title from that publisher. Make sure you send a good quality copy and package it adequately

  1. Please don’t ask for returns

Reviewers are often poorly paid or even unpaid. All they may get from a review is a press clipping and review copy, so don’t ask for the book back. It is an unwritten agreement that the reviewer gets to keep the review copy as part payment. On one occasion I was asked to return the copy of a heavy book at my own expense for an unpaid review – which drew the combined protests of my editors and me. In cases where a book is very rare or expensive, make sure you have the express agreement in advance with reviewer and editor that the review copy will be returned at the expense of the publisher/agent before you send the book

13. Inform about delays

Delays are common in publishing. If a review has been agreed, then contact the reviewer/editor when you know there is a delay. This will assist with scheduling. It may mean a deadline or tie-in article cannot be achieved, so this information could be important to the editor. It may even lead to the review being cancelled – which will save you sending a copy that will not receive a review.

14. Reviews get spiked

As everyone knows, reviews get spiked occasionally. This may be due to a scheduling issue, a negative review, internal politics, misleading publicity, a change of editor or editorial policy, closure of a publication or other causes. This is disappointing for all involved but it is sometimes out of the hands of reviewers. Reviewers should let publishers know if no review will appear. In my case, I find an alternate outlet to publish the review (with the consent of the original commissioning editor).

15. Reviewers are not editors

Occasionally, press departments/agents contact reviewers about scheduled publication of reviews. This is a reasonable contact point but often – more often than publishers realise – the appearance of the review is out of the hands of reviewer. Editors generally change publication dates, write headlines, choose illustrations and insert by-lines without consulting (or even informing) the reviewer. Sometimes the reviewers do not receive copies of their reviews. Long delays are as frustrating for reviewers as for publishers. If you have the editor’s email address, it is best to consult him/her (rather than the reviewer) about publication details. Reviewers should provide the editor’s work email address to you.

* * *

I am sure you could write such a list to help reviewers, as we undoubtedly have failings. I hope that the above list helps you to better understand the position of reviewers and will allow you to increase the number of reviews your titles get. Once again, thank you to publishers and agents for your assistance and patience.

[Edit: minor grammatical corrections, 28 May 2020]

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

 

“Belgian light amid the gloom”

“I once lived in Belgium by mistake. I moved into a flat in Ixelles, a district of central Brussels, and spent my free time in museums, where I encountered art by remarkable artists of whom I had never heard. Among these artists were two who are receiving current attention: Fernand Khnopff and Léon Spilliaert.

“Symbolism is a late manifestation of Romanticism, the movement dedicated to the irrational, mystical and emotional in art. Symbolism (which flourished from 1840-1914) was an approach which allowed artists to deal with fundamental fears, desires and the meaning of human life through use of general symbols to induce strong emotions in the audience. Both Symbolism and Romanticism were founded on morbidity — a hyperawareness of death and the brevity of life — and a sense of loss at a receding past of heroism. The greatest Symbolists came from Northern Europe (and Switzerland), as if a hostile climate and long cold nights nurture a melancholy attachment to a fantastic past…” 

Read the full review here: https://thecritic.co.uk/belgian-light-amid-the-gloom/

Philip Larkin: Collected Poems (Folio Society)

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This new edition of the collected poems of Philip Larkin (1922-1985) brings together Larkin’s poems published in his lifetime and his own photographs for the first time in book format. The book is handsome and pieces work very well.

This edition has introductions from editor Anthony Thwaite and biographer Andrew Motion. Motion discusses the connections between Larkin and photography. Larkin was influenced by photographs and made them the subject of some poems. The device allowed Larkin to use more temporal distance and emotional detachment whilst permitting detailed visual description. Yet Larkin did not always use emotional detachment, as Larkin knew and exploited the personal responses he had to viewing photographs. Photographs were ways of preserving memories and interacting with these images generated new responses – melancholic, wry, sad, cynical, sentimental.

From his teenage years on, Larkin was a proficient and enthusiastic amateur photographer. His hobby of cycling and church visiting went in tandem with his photograph taking. He also photographed friends and scenes around him. These have been the subject of exhibition and publication, although these have treated the photographs as adjuncts to Larkin the poet. Whether or not Larkin’s photography stands as an independent body remains to be determined. Photographs in this book include those of Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan (long-term romantic interests), his mother, himself and scenes of Hull and local countryside. Some of the selected images are those Larkin marked for cropping.

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[Image: Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020. ©2020 Estate of Philip Larkin/The Folio Society]

Larkin very rarely left Great Britain and his writing is characterised by its intense affection-repulsion complex regarding the British, specifically the English and Englishness. “Show Sunday” describes the course of a day at a country fair; “The Whitsun Weddings” is an account of travelling by train and observing newlywed couples boarding the train. “Going, Going” laments the commercialisation and industrialisation of England and the degradation of the country he considered irrevocably lost to him. He blames companies, social policies and people generally. “[…] greeds / and garbage are too thick-strewn / to be swept up now […]” Larkin’s misanthropy is never very far away. He sees the English working class as saviour and destroyer of English culture, a cultural ecosystem that is fragile and degrading yet still capable of coarse vitality. It reminds us that environmental concern is not the preserve of the political left or right but temperamental in outlook.

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[Image: Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020. ©2020 Estate of Philip Larkin/The Folio Society]

The selection and arrangement of verse by Thwaite is almost ideal. Thwaite admits being in error for the editing of the first Collected Poems of Larkin, performed just after Larkin’s death. Rather than abiding by Larkin’s carefully judged ordering of poems in their original collections, Thwaite broke up the poems and ordered them chronologically. This contradicted Larkin’s wishes. He stated often that he carefully arranged his selections in order to heighten drama and direct the mood of readers. This volume has the poems sequenced in the order of original publication in books, with a selection of published and uncollected verse at the end. Thwaite has correctly decided to exclude Larkin’s juvenilia, published while he was at Oxford University. He has also excluded all unpublished pieces, which is not entirely satisfactory. A few fine pieces, which Larkin deemed too raw to publish in his lifetime, are omitted. The means the volume lacks a couple of powerful poems (“Ape Experiment Room”, “Love Again”) and the unfinished “The Dance”, which is a loss.

I spotted one error. The couplet “When the Russian tanks roll westward” omits the prefatory quotation quoted in Larkin’s letter of 22 August 1969 to C.B. Cox. It is a small thing but as easy to get right as to get wrong. Thwaite knows the letter as he included it in his edition of Larkin’s letters.

The Folio Society is known for its attention to production detail and distinctive designs. A leaf-green cloth binding and an abstract geometric design (reminiscent of the 1950s) are attractive and appropriate for Larkin’s verse. The layout is unobtrusive and the number and choice of illustrations serve the texts rather than drawing attention to the designers. This is not just a bookshelf ornament but an edition that will be constantly re-read by the Larkin enthusiast. There is no reason why this edition will not become the go-to volume for readers. This collection is by far the best collection of Larkin’s verse ever published. It is comprehensive, respectful of Larkin’s wishes, beautiful printed and bound and including some of Larkin’s images. It omits weak and distracting material and is not encumbered by notes. This is not a book for scholars and researchers but a reader’s book, a book for lovers of Larkin’s writing.

 

Philip Larkin, (introductions) Andrew Motion, Anthony Thwaite, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020, three-quarter bound in blocked cloth with a paper front board, set in Berling, printed with a design by Richard Peacock, 280pp, colour title page, 12 integrated black & white photographs by Philip Larkin, 91/2˝ x 63/4˝, $49.95/£34.95. The book is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Kenojuak Ashevak/ᕿᓐᓄᐊᔪᐊᖅ ᐋᓯᕙᒃ, Inuktitut artist

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This monograph covers highlights from the art of Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013). Kenojuak was an Inuit artist, part of one the Canadian First Nations of Nunavut. She is the most acclaimed and beloved native artist of Canada’s Northern Territories, considered to be one of the founders of modern Inuit art. She received many national awards and honours, dating from 1967 up to her death. Her art has continued to receive more recognition since her death.

The book gives an overview of the artist’s eventful life. Kenojuak was born into a nomadic Inuktitut clan in a haumuq (igloo) on South Baffin Island. Her family were hunters. Seal hunting was dangerous work and income low. Her father was murdered in a clan dispute, victim of summary justice. Any tale of Kenojuak’s life must include local hunter and part-time artist Johnniebo Ashevak (1923-1972), whom she married in 1946. His art is less well known than hers, although it is well regarded and in national collections. Kenojuak experienced forcible hospital confinement due to tuberculosis (1952-5) and lost children in infancy due to illness. She married twice after Johnniebo’s death and was mother to 16 children over the years, five adopted; seven did not survive infancy.

She learned traditional crafts from her family. Her skill was noticed and encouraged during her hospital stay. Some of her bags, dolls, boots and tapestries used stencils monochrome motifs.

Like other Inuit artists of the Cape Dorset region, her creativity was harnessed and disseminated by the couple Alma and James Archibald Houston. In the 1930s Houston had sold native crafts to Canadians in the South and the couple’s establishment of the print studio in 1956 proved highly successful, causing a sensation and leading to the introduction of Inuit art to Canadians nationwide. The studio allowed Inuit craftsmen to reach new markets and gain a significant source of income

One of the key artistic mediums of Canadian First Nations artists is the soapstone print. Blocks of local soapstone – soft enough to be cut with a knife – are flattened then a matrix cut in relief. The matrix is inked with a roller then a sheet of paper applied over it, taking the ink. The use of stencils allows variation in inking.

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[Image: copyright 2020 Kenojuak Ashevak]

This catalogue for a touring exhibition (2020-2, Saskatoon, Dawson City, Kelowna, Ontario, Winnipeg and Medicine Hat) features Kenojuak’s late art, especially the bird pictures that she was famed for. The well-known late style contrasts with the few examples here of Kenojuak’s work of the 1960s. These pencil drawings lack colour and show less concern for neat shading. They are less visually appealing than the colour works but they have greater rawness and intensity. The freedom apparent compensates for the less polished finish.  As new materials became available she adapted her style to take advantage of colours.

Exhibited art includes drawings (in black and coloured inks), soapstone prints, colour lithographs and an etching with aquatint. Most of the art is late drawings from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, alongside colour prints. Double-page spreads compare the original drawing to the subsequent print. Between the two, there are few changes in composition, only minimal changes to conform to the characteristics of the print medium. (Most of the prints were made by printmakers who transcribed drawings as matrices and editioned the prints.) Most typical of Kenojuak’s art in this book is the single animal or groups of few animals set against a blank background. Often the there are no picture borders, with the motif existing free of setting. Kenojuak favoured horizontal axes.

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[Image: copyright 2020 Kenojuak Ashevak]

Kenojuak’s art shows animals frontally or in profile using curvilinear outlines, patterned shading and bold decorative fans of appendages, referring to feathers and spines. These extravagant appendages induce a hypnotic effect on the viewers. The animals are mainly birds and fishes, with frequent changes of scale. Owls, loons, swans, ravens, gulls, foxes, hares and chars all feature; Kenojuak rarely depicted whole figures in her mature work. Sometimes the animals are in the process of transformation or engaged in unclear (or unspecified) interactions.

This attractive book (trilingual in English, French and Inuktitut) provides an enjoyable introduction to one of Canada’s most beloved artists.

Leslie Boyd, Silaqi Ashevak, Kenojuak Ashevak: Life and Legacy, Pomegranate, 2020, hardback, 109pp, fully col. illus., English/French/Inuktitut text, $29.95/C$39.95, ISBN 978 0 7649 9818 8

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

The Renaissance of Etching

 

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/358012

[Image: Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola), The Lovers (1527-1530), etching; second state of two, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.70.3(102), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

This review evaluates the catalogue for The Renaissance of Etching, a recent exhibition of the earliest etchings, charting the development of the medium and its partial (and eventual total) eclipse of engraving (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 23 October 2019-20 January 2020; scheduled for Albertina Museum, Vienna, 12 February-10 May 2020). The exhibition covers artists from the Low Countries, Germany, Italy and France, including others, such as the Swiss Urs Graf (c. 1485-c. 1528).

The oldest forms of printmaking are woodcut or wood engraving (relief method, with the raised matrix on the block holding the ink). A later development was engraving on sheet metal. Originally, iron was used until the 1540s, when it was supplanted by copper; this lasted until now, with zinc becoming a common alternative metal in the Twentieth Century. In etchings the matrix design is cut with a fine gouge, being intaglio printmaking where the ink is held in the depressed lines. The plates were inked, with ink on/in the matrix, damp paper laid on the plate and then ran through a roller press, thereby transferring ink from plate to paper.

Engraving is generally made by a specialist cutter who was not always the designer. It is carefully planned in advance and very difficult to correct. It favours parallel hatching – straight or curvilinear – and sometimes cross hatching and stippling. Etching is an intaglio printmaking system done by drawing lines with a fine needle in a wax (or oil paint) covering the metal plate. This design is then bitten with a mordant (a corrosive solution), leaving the matrix in the metal, which holds the ink. Technically, the engraved plate and the etched plate are similar in appearance and structure. However, etching allows styles that imitate engraving but also permits much greater freedom of handling, design and correction. It favours a more spontaneous approach and permits creation of prints that have the style of a sketch. It is also quicker to execute.

The exhibition The Renaissance of Etching explores the origins of etching and its birth as a regularly practiced printing medium during the Renaissance in Northern Europe and Italy. Etching technique was long established. It arrived as a means of printmaking via metalsmiths and armorers in the production of armour, arms and tableware with elaborate incised decoration. The designs included floral, vegetal, abstract, heraldic and pictorial ones. It was the artists of Augsburg and Nuremberg – a noted centre for metalwork in Bavaria – who pioneered print etching on iron plate. This group included Daniel Hopfer (1471-1536), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), his pupil Sebald Beham (1500-1550) and Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531) and Hans Burgkmair the Younger (1500-c. 1562).

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/336272

[Image: Daniel Hopfer, Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c. 1515), etching.
The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951 (51.501.383), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The first etchings as flat-metal-plate intaglio prints were made around 1490. The earliest illustrated examples are from that time. The first print in the exhibition is dated c. 1500, made by Hopfer, who was the most prolific and creative among the Augsburg etchers. Hopfer is thought to have etched three excellent religious figures on a steel cuirass, with a deep and dense border, exhibited in the display. Hopfer was a brilliant innovator in the field of etching. Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c. 1510-5) is an etching in the style of Dürer (the dramatic cover illustration). Hopfer used brush effects to create wash-like shading. Beham produced work in various genres, adding to his extensive print corpus. Dürer only made a few pieces through etching, preferring to return to the established mediums of woodcut and engraving. His etchings are not qualitatively different from his more numerous and famous engravings.

Damage to plates and prints caused by rusting was only overcome by moving to copper, a move that seems to have been led by Dutch master printmaker Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), following the development of a new mordant. The Germans adopted the copperplate in the 1540s, finding that although the softer metal was less durable than iron, it allowed finer lines and suffered less from corrosion. Later, steel facing of copper plates would increase the durability. Microscopic scrutiny of plates and proofs reveal matrices cut by combinations of engraving, etching and drypoint. We find a range of approaches to craftsmanship, with Dürer and Leyden exhibiting consummate care and Schiavone at the opposite end. “The hastiness of execution and the sketchy, free quality of Schiavone’s paintings, drawings, and prints proved alarming to his contemporaries, who expressed a mixture of admiration and frustration with his technique, considering it at once admirable for its spirit and grace but careless for its lack of finish.”

Leyden, Jan Gossart (Mabuse) (c. 1478-1532), Frans Crabbe (c. 1480-1553), Nicolaas Hogenberg (c. 1500-1539), Dirck Vellert (c. 1480/85-c. 1547) and Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen (c. 1504-1559) are discussed as practitioners of etching in the Netherlands. Other prominent artists who produced etchings include Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538), Flemish artists Hieronymous Cock (1518-1570) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526/30-1569). Bruegel made a sequence of drawings recalling his journey over the Alps, which would leave such a dramatic legacy in his art, which is ostensibly set in Flanders yet with mountainous terrain. Bruegel’s Alpine landscape drawings no longer exist but we have the etchings, some of which are illustrated. Bruegel started his career in Antwerp as a designer of prints; his Rabbit Hunt (1560) is the only print by his hand. There is no extant painting of this composition.

The Rabbit Hunt, 1560

[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Rabbit Hunt (1560), etching and engraving. Published by Hieronymus Cock. The Albertina Museum, Vienna (DG 1955/37) (Etch-170)]

Francesco Parmigianino (1503-1540) produced numerous etchings. The fast and free medium lent itself to the artist’s temperament. Parmigianino made designs for block cutters to translate into chiaroscuro woodcuts – a specialist skill – but was able to express himself quickly and directly in etching. His art was noted for its grace and elegance. His chalk and highlight drawings feature extensive contrapposto, exaggerated proportions and sweeping lines.

There was a burst of activity in France of the 1540s, particularly at Fountainebleau palace, a centre of court patronage. Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (c. 1511-1585) produced some very detailed and precise architectural etchings. Large Architectural Composition (1551) is of an invented Italianate Renaissance palace. It is so detailed and realistically lit that it functions as a painting or advanced computer generated imagery that one finds in architectural presentations or video games.

Compositions in all of the major genres make an appearance in etched form: biblical, proverb, portrait, landscape, history, mythology, topography, cartography, architecture, scenography and ornamental. There are some appealing images illustrated, including those with backstories. Altdorfer made a pair of etchings of the interior of the synagogue at Regensburg in 1519 just as it was being demolished. The Jews of the city were expelled and their synagogue replaced by a church. Altdorfer documents a building in the knowledge that it was due to be destroyed and that life in the city was about to change.

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[Image: Albrecht Altdorfer, The Entrance Hall of the Regensburg Synagogue (1519), etching, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.72.68), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

A view of a village by Augustin Hirschvogel (1503-1553) is printed on blue paper. A handful of these etchings were handcoloured with watercolour, presumably by assistants in the print studio. Non-guild members (including women and children) were sometimes paid a pittance to colour prints individually. Hirschvogel designed the defences of Vienna in preparation for Turkish invasion. His map of Vienna is included. Mannerist Juste de Juste (1501-1559) produced a peculiar etching of nude male acrobats in a highly artificial pose. The body forms, lack of faces and extreme stylisation prefigure (and perhaps inspired?) Salvador Dalí’s playful nude drawings of the 1930s and 1940s, as seen illustrated in his autobiography.

The use of comparative illustrations and multiple impressions gives a broad view of the practices and products of early printmakers who used etching. In some cases the original compositional sketch in ink is displayed next to the resultant print. The essayists are specialists who explain the development of etching in terms of national schools and regional centres of activity. The essays and catalogue entries are informative, clearly written and present the latest research (including original research) on exhibited items. A glossary, notes, bibliography and index comprise appendices. The Renaissance of Etching is an ideal reference work for anyone interested in the development of printmaking and the art of the Late Renaissance.

 

Catherine Jenkins, Nadine M. Orenstein, Freyda Spira, The Renaissance of Etching, Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale), 2019, hardback, 304pp, 237 illus., $65, ISBN 978 1 58839 649 5

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Fernand Khnopff: Between Eros and Thanatos

7.9 bis - meduse - via Galerie Nagy

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Study for Le sang de Meduse (1898), pencil and coloured pencil on paper, 22 x 15 cm. Private collection, courtesy of Richard Nagi, Dover Street Gallery, London]

Featuring prominently in this important contribution to studies of international Symbolism is the house-studio of Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921). Khnopff was one of the most influential artists in this field, yet outside of enthusiasts of fin-de-siècle beaux-arts the artist is not well understood. His art has recently come to be reassessed. Khnopff was a widely known and influential figure in the international Symbolist movement of the 1890-1914 period. He exhibited with the leading vanguard group of the 1890s Les XX, beside Ensor, Van Gogh, Seurat, Redon and Rops. He also exhibited abroad and his art was widely reproduced. He exchanged pictures with fellow artists, including Burne-Jones. This is the English translation of the extensive monographic exhibition, held at the Petit Palais, Paris 2018-9.

Khnopff funded the building of a unique domicile, meticulously designed by him. This house-studio was constructed between 1900 and 1902, in the Ixelles district of Bruxelles. It was designed as an immersive spectacle, in the modern style. The building featured high ceilings, dramatic drapes and clean lines, with much painted white. It lacked dado rails and strongly patterned carpets. Its public rooms lacked furniture. There were satin curtains rather than internal doors. It was designed in a Secession style, with polished walls give the interior a chilly unearthly atmosphere.

Despite Khnopff’s reputation for isolation, according to the testimony of visitors he used his studio in a way that was no different from those of other artists. At this time, the studios of artists were social spaces where the artist could hold court, show his wares and entertain. It was a place where an artist could control an environment for the display of his art and even make the spaces art. His own was prominently positioned in all rooms, with a few key pieces by fellow Symbolist artists. His house was featured in a journal article that included photographs of the public rooms. The press described the artist-designed building as a coded self-portrait: imposing, inscrutable, elegant and individual. Regrettably, this experience is unrecoverable. The art was dispersed by auction after the artist’s death in 1922 and the house was demolished in 1938.

Khnopff grew up in Bruges. He studied law at university in Bruxelles before undergoing extensive studies in fine art, partly under Xavier Mellery. Although he is seen as anti-academic (specifically his non-narrative, ahistorical, Romantic, Tonalist tendencies), his grounding was in academic art. Some of his heroes (Naturalists, James McNeill Whistler, Gustave Moreau, Burne-Jones and Alfred Stevens) contributed to Salons and won prizes, as well as exhibiting with independent groups. Khnopff followed the same approach. His preference for drawing (especially with limited tints) rather than painting is a deliberate distancing from Salon art. Yet his fastidious technique and aversion to the spontaneous effects or materials that are difficult to control marks out Khnopff as a temperamentally conservative artist and character. His attachment to art fulfilled emotional needs and his art reflects that; it is almost devoid of intellectual content. It is poetic in character.

A good example of that is the frontispiece Khnopff illustrated for the first edition of Georges Rodenbach’s landmark novella Bruges-la-Morte (1894), which involves death of a wife, a widower’s grief and the appearance of a doppelganger, set in the moribund city in Flanders. It is essentially an extended dream and mediation on loss and yearning. Khnopff’s frontispiece was partly based on a photograph. Khnopff was an avid user of photography, both to provide sources and to reproduce his art. This catalogue includes many of the sources beside the art. Khnopff also augmented photographs of his art with additional touches.

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[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Portrait of Jeanne Kefer (1885), oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. The Getty Museum of Art, Los Angeles]

Khnopff earned a living from his society portraits, as did Klimt. Some of his early portraits are very fine. Khnopff shared with Klimt the use of the peculiar modern format of the square – a surpassing rarity as a ratio for easel paintings before the 1880s. It seems to have been a Secession proclivity. Khnopff used it for his portraits, Klimt for his landscapes and (later) Schiele for his early (1909-10) nudes. Khnopff also used the extremely elongated vertical for drawings of standing figures; Klimt did likewise, as well for the vertical of his controversial (censored) poster design; Klinger also used the extreme horizontal in a number of paintings and prints (including The Glove suite).

One of Khnopff’s outstanding square-format portraits – Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer (1885) – is now owned by the Getty Museum, LA. In it, the young child (dressed formally for the outdoors) is at the back of the shallow pictorial space, standing with her back touching a closed door. It curiously prefigures the distanced, alienated children of Schiele’s drawings, emphasising her physical and emotional isolation from the viewer. This approach reinforces the impression of vulnerability.

Khnopff used his younger sister Marguerite as his model for face and clothed figures. His source photographs are reproduced. Presumably, his nudes are of erotic photographs (sources not reproduced). The faces and unclothed bodies generally look unpersuasive, like poor montages. Marguerite’s visage was re-imagined through the visage through the lens of Greek statuary. His figures are types rather than individuals.

Khnopff’s preferred landscapes were rather bucolic views around the forest at Fosset, a village close to Brussels. The landscapes are minor scenes played in a minor key. They are not substantial and while naturalistic lack the punch of Harald Sohlberg and Nikolai Astrup. The oddly lack the Pictorialist approach that unifies his more artificial scenes. The townscapes – typified by An Abandoned City (1904), which shows a few Flemish townhouses being encroached upon by the sea – are the best of Khnopff’s views, using vignetting and unifying tone. I almost wrote “art set outdoors”, yet in his airless oneiric art, with its stress upon motifs rather than elaborated compositions, the distinction between indoors and outdoors is a muzzy one. The forest landscapes are so tamed they could be the corner of a drawing room; figure motifs float in suspension as if they are in misty gorges. It seems there is not a single picture by Khnopff that includes direct sunlight. Colour is muted, definition is misty, lighting is crepuscular. Streets are largely or entirely unpeopled.

A Souvenir of Flanders (A Canal) 1904 (pencil & pastel on paper)

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Des souvenirs de la Flandre: Un canal (1904), pencil, charcoal and pastel on paper, 25 x 42cm. The Hearn Family Trust, New York]

What are the other qualities of Khnopff’s art? Timelessness, stasis, immobility, lack of vitality. His nudes are idealistic and detached. They are erotic but sexless, eschewing the sordid and corporeal qualities of the female body. (There appears to be no male nudes – aside from academies from his student years – made by Khnopff.) His nudes, sexes decorously concealed, are too vaporous to be carnal. One cannot imagine touching or kissing the subjects of Khnopff’s unearthly visions, except in a dream or fever, so beloved of Symbolist novelists. This is the art of a man who venerates women greatly but probably does not understand them much. In this sacralising approach we find indications of a degree of squeamishness on the matter of the sex act. (His only attempt at marriage was late, uncomfortable and soon dissolved.)

Passing thoughts. In 1886 Ensor would accuse Khnopff of plagiarising Ensor’s painting. The two artists are seen as embodying two poles of Flemish art: the Symbolist v. the realist, the mystical v. the satirical, the fastidious v. the painterly, the Flemish Primitives v. Rembrandt/Rubens. En passant boulevard du Régent (1881) bears a strong resemblance to Degas’s Place de la Concorde (1875), something which bears closer investigation. Khnopff is more an artist of morbidity than of eroticism.

The exhibition selection is broad. Sketchbook pages catch the artist at his least guarded and most spontaneous. Variants – some original drawings and variants juxtaposed with modified photographic reproductions – and a wide selection of art and sources provide us with a good understanding of the artist’s output and working methods. As with fellow artists of his movement, Khnopff paid a great attention to framing his art – a common trait among the Symbolists, Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau. This catalogue includes reproductions of works with elaborate original frames that Khnopff commissioned.

Author Michel Draguet is director general of Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, an academic expert and a writer of the highest ability. (One wishes heads of all major museums had such impeccable grasp of the subjects of their institutions.) His knowledge of Belgian and French art and the fin-de-siècle movements is vast; he has excelled in curation and publications on the subjects and Khnopff is a subject placed centrally within his area of expertise. This catalogue covers a wide range of subjects in great detail, tying together literary and artistic influences, including detailed discussion of iconography. Links to Romanticism, Stéphane Mallarmé, Maurice Maeterlinck and Rodenbach are discussed extensively. The role of polychromed plaster statuary is set out with Khnopff’s rarely reproduced examples presented as an active attempt to revivify Greek precedents. An account of the operation of Les XX, Rose-Croix, Munich Secession and La Libre Esthétique and Khnopff’s level of engagement with these is particularly interesting for those studying those groups.

This is a beautiful and serious book about a significant artist and can be warmly recommended.

 

Michel Draguet, Fernand Khnopff, 2020, Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), hardback, 304 pages, 210 col. illus., $60, ISBN 978 0 300 24650 6

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

“True Feminism has never been Tried, Comrade”

“Before starting Women Can’t Paint: Gender, The Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art I was filled with apprehension. Having read dozens of books on feminism in recent months, I expected something turgid and dispiriting. I should not have worried. Women Can’t Paint is one of the funniest books of the year and unintentional comedy gold. If Titania McGrath had written a polemic on the art world, this is the book she would have produced. Andrew Doyle’s latest comic creation is pitch perfect. According to the back cover, Helen Gørrill is an “artist, futurist, writer, editor and educator”. In the opening pages, she describes how her article for The Guardian on gender inequality in the arts received so much derision that its comments section had to be closed. By page 2 I was laughing aloud.

In 2018, I wrote a new Access art and design course for a prestigious Scottish university,underpinning the contextual studies design with equality rather than the traditional white heteromasculinist canon […] Two male colleagues made attempts to remove this vanguard, but I stuck to my guns and received a tremendous backlash […] Sadly, as soon as I left the institution the vanguard was immediately quashed, with only a tokenistic selection of women and BME artists (less than 6 per cent of the total) represented […] The white masculine canon alas endures […]

“Moral indignation, grandiloquence, reduction of art to quotas, use of jargon and the lack of self-awareness typify the feminist woke scolds of art administration and university faculties. The author’s imperiousness and lack of humour allow her to deliver towering inanities and spiteful asides in a manner surely not even our most skilful comic writers could contrive….”

Read the full review in The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/true-feminism-has-never-been-tried-comrade/

Learning to Love Edward Hopper

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[Image: Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning (1950), oil on canvas. © Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation, VG Bild Kunst]

Part of growing up is learning to identify and correct your errors. This is different from taste changing. It is easy to have a misapprehension and for it to go unchallenged due to laziness or preoccupation with subjects that fully hold one’s attention. One assumption I had as a young artist was that Edward Hopper was easy. He went for the obvious; he relied on movie iconography and cinematographic techniques; he dealt in clichés. Whilst these observations are true, they are not the whole truth. The obvious can sometimes be the iconic that we remember; Hopper’s use of the cinematographic brought some new imagery and references to his art; clichés can be moving. My painting tutor at college said “I’ve been painting sunsets recently. I know they are clichés but I find myself attracted to them because they are beautiful. Even clichés can be beautiful while still being clichés.”

There are tough criticisms to be made of the art of Edward Hopper (1882-1967). These weaknesses are apparent in two new books on his art, published to coincide with the current exhibition Edward Hopper: American Landscapes (Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 26 January-17 May). Hopper is weak as a figure painter. There is no getting around it. His anatomies are creaky; his facial expressions are wooden; his skin tones are unpersuasive. There is no reason why should have been so. He could imbue his art with variety, energy and panache – see his drawings of trees and some very solid watercolours. Yet, for whatever reason, Hopper’s figures fail. This is not universal. Night on the El Train (1918) is an early etching which shows a couple in a subway carriage. The positions and attitudes of the couple are natural, telling and fluently depicted. The style is vigorous and fluent. Yet more often, Hopper’s figures are waxen mannequins.

A pertinent question is: do Hopper’s limitations as a figure painter make his paintings less effective? Many viewers note the poignancy of the situations, commenting on the emotional tenor of Hopper’s characters – muted, reserved and melancholy. Perhaps Hopper’s characters are more plangent for their lack of expressiveness. It is their very inexpressiveness which is expressive. On a point of principle, we can find Hopper’s shortcomings of an artist as an overall detriment, notwithstanding his achievements in spite of these limitations.

Edward Hopper A-Z is a collection of snippets collated by Ulf Küster, curator and author, during his work on the Swiss exhibition of Hopper’s art. It covers various aspects of Hopper’s life and art, including many illustrations, in a small hardback handbook. The miscellaneous facets include movies, cars, Paris, his wife Josephine Nivison and an expected fondness for German literature.

Hopper is not truly a realist. Some of his art is realist but even cursory study reveals compositions that include impossible juxtapositions, unfeasible perspectives and false horizons. Montage, viewpoint alteration, simplification and other techniques are used to create fictions that have the air – but not the substance – of reality. Doorways open directly on to oceans. Houses stand in fields without paths. Hopper’s realism is a distillation; it is a world pruned and tuned; streets are scrubbed, the posters and signage tamped down; pedestrians are reduced to sparse punctuation in the terse sentences of cityscapes. It is not especially different from the streets of Magritte, that other master deadpan painter of townscapes. Stairway (1949) is like a Magritte canvas from his 1926-9 era.

Once you understand that Hopper is not truly a realist – either a documenter of everyday life or a social realist – then you start to see him as the theatre director that he is. He is a poet who is mistaken for documentarian. Evidence of the early art (especially the watercolours executed en plein air) in Edward Hopper: American Landscapes (catalogue for the current exhibition) shows that Hopper was capable of capturing direct representations of his surroundings, sometimes with flair and feeling. Once you stop seeing his paintings as inadequate representations of real life but as artificial constructions expressive of states of meditation, loss, yearning and other intangible experiences. (“I am interested primarily in the vast field of experience and sensation which neither literature nor a purely plastic art deals with.”)

A problem which remains is Hopper’s handling of oil paint. Hopper was a talented draughtsman with pencil, pastel and etching needle. He used watercolour with accuracy, delicacy and care. He was a poor painter of oil paint. His canvases look better in reproduction than in life. The handling is dry, lifeless, a matter of filling in inside the lines, betraying their set qualities rather than emergent properties of a painting which comes about through the artist discerning new opportunities as the paint is put down. He worked as an illustrator when he was young and although this seems not to have hampered his drawing and painting in watercolour; his canvases betray all the failings of an illustrator. Despite his limitations, his canvases still work as images, scenes and evocations of place and time. If I had to own a Hopper, I would choose a work on paper.

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[Image: Edward Hopper, Houses on a Hill (1926 or 1928), watercolour on paper. Private Collection, VG Bild-Kunst]

The catalogue of the current exhibition includes many great images – Gas (1940) (a man at gasoline pumps at a country filling station, Lighthouse Hill (1927) (a lighthouse and house on a headland in afternoon sunlight), Railroad Sunset (1929) (a vivid sunset is seen over a silhouetted horizon, punctuated by a rail signal box). Coastal views feature in many pictures exhibited, most of New England. Although Hopper and Jo travelled widely, most of the imagery is local to New York State and the Massachusetts and Maine coasts.

An early, atypically finely-handled canvas Valley of the Seine (1909) shows aerial recession of a deep landscape. The position is high. It is notable that Hopper rarely showed distant land horizons; instead preferring the high close horizon of a hill or nearby wood. In Hopper’s scenes, distance would undercut the sense of intimacy and interiority. A vast panorama would work against his intentions of showing people contemplating themselves or the off-scene. His characters do not confront the infinite as the Rückenfiguren of Friedrich. That would lend them a Romantic majesty and isolation. For Hopper, it is the banal commonality of moments of reflection creeping up on one unawares that is truer of human life. None of Hopper’s characters are ever anywhere that would cause them to meditate upon the sublime. They are never dislocated – or at least never dislocated in a way that differs from everyday ennui and alienation.

Second Storey Sunlight (1960) shows two women on a balcony, the figures positioned under two gable ends of a classic wooden house. It is an allegory of the stages of life, with the grey-haired woman seated with a newspaper and a young woman in sunbathing clothing. The blinds of the windows on the young woman’s side are pulled lower than those of the old woman’s side – a metaphor of some kind.

Freight Cars, Gloucester, 1928 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Edward Hopper, Freight Cars, Gloucester (1928), oil on canvas. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, gift of Edward Wales Root in recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the Addison Gallery, 1956.7 Foto: Bridgeman Images, VG Bild-Kunst]

Some paintings show Jo painting during their outings in search of scenery. The couple bought their first car (a Dodge) in 1927. From then until a few years before Hopper’s death, they travelled around America to collect motifs for their art. Their successive automobiles made fleeting appearances in Hopper’s paintings. Jo was also a model for Hopper. However, reading Hopper’s enticing yet inscrutable tableaux in an autobiographical manner is not straight forward and is best avoided. The best Hopper paintings allow us to daydream and inhabit these deceptively artless American landscapes.

Marine scenes, paintings of buildings, views of railways and roads, and studies of trees round out this selection of Hopper’s landscapes. The catalogue includes essays addressing various aspects of Hopper’s landscapes, a chronology and a good selection of large-format illustrations. American Landscapes is a very suitable introduction to one of America’s most significant artists. The smaller A-Z book is a handy supplement for anyone already familiar with Hopper.

 

Ulf Küster (ed.), Edward Hopper: American Landscapes, Hatje Cantz, 2020, hardback, 148pp, 88 col. illus., €58, ISBN 978 3 7757 4654 0

Ulf Küster, Edward Hopper A-Z, Hatje Cantz, 2020, hardback, 120pp, 37 col. illus., €18, ISBN 978 3 7757 4656 4

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit: www.alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com

Sofonisba Anguissola: Lady and Painter

Cole_Sofonisba's Lesson

During high summer of the year 1624 a brilliant young painter Anthony van Dyck visited a nonagenarian widow in her home in Palermo. She was blind but still mentally acute. After their conversation, van Dyck claimed he learned more art from her than from studying some of the Old Masters. The woman was a living link to the age of Michelangelo, Titian and the court of Philip II of the Bourbon monarchy. Her name was Sofonisba Anguissola.

Michael W. Cole’s new monograph on Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535-1625) revises her corpus of around 150 works and discusses her art in the light of what relatively little we know of her life. She worked with sisters and has been considered alongside other female artists, so a monographic treatment for her is uncommon. The state of expert scholarship on her art is uneven, primarily due to the paucity of signed paintings leaving attribution uncertain. That figure of 150 individual works could be fewer than 50 authentic works.

The artist was born into a downwardly mobile aristocratic family in Cremona. There is some debate over her actual date of birth, with some assigning it to c. 1531/2. Cole gives c. 1535, which will become tangentially significant later. Her father Hamilcare had a classical education and named his children after figures from ancient history and mythology. Hamilcare wrote letters on Sofonisba’s behalf to potential patrons and sent sample paintings and drawings to demonstrate her accomplishment. (Michelangelo apparently received two drawings and was complimentary.) Sofonisba’s father effectively acted as her manager until she moved to Spain.

The eldest Anguissola sister took holy orders; the others were sent to apprentice with Bernadino Campi – a highly unusual decision that led to the sisters (and especially Sofonisba) becoming notable public figures in Cremona, celebrated for their ladylike accomplishment as well as artistic ability. Sofonisba (hereafter called “Anguissola”) later worked under Bernadino Gatti. There is debate about a picture apparently showing Gatti in the act of painting Anguissola. It has been assigned to her but it may be by Gatti and a sign of him wishing to associate with a student of noble birth and who had gone on to achieve royal esteem. Cole inclines toward assigning the painting to Gatti.

As a young artist, Anguissola made her name with striking portraits (some of family members) and many self-portraits, including miniatures. She is especially notable as the Renaissance artist who painted self-portraits more frequently than any other. She worked in the prevailing Late Renaissance/Mannerist style, which rested upon artificiality and placed the striking and unusual over harmony and idealism.

The Chess Game (1555) depicts three of the painter’s younger sisters alongside a servant. They are engaged in noble pastime which demanded intellect and reason (the domain of men) rather than in the manual handicrafts usually befitting womankind. This also suggests these women belong to the upper classes, reinforced by their fine clothing. All of her art exhibits deficiencies in anatomy – which may be attributable to lack of access to nude models – and in perspective, which could have been corrected by consulting the many treatises on the subject.

Anguissola arrived Spain in 1559, to become a lady-in-waiting for the Queen Isabel de Valois (1545-1568) and her daughters. She went as a lady of culture, able to sing and converse on the arts; she was also to act as painting tutor to the queen. She did paint portraits there but it was not her primary function there. For her years there, she was documented more as a courtier than artist. Many of the Spanish pictures are unsigned, adding to confusion about attribution, particularly vis-à-vis Alonso Sánchez Coello. It may be that Anguissola, employed as a lady-in-waiting and royal tutor, was reticent about art made in her private time. (The division between public and private life in the court is a rather fluid distinction.) A seriously abraded portrait of Isabel survives. One wonders about what the original would have told us about artist and sitter. Cole suggests that the stultifying rigidity of court portraiture in Spain was possibly alleviated by the subtleties of dress, comportment and attributes which would have been discernible to members of the court.

The death of Isabel in 1568 entailed the dispersal of her courtiers. Anguissola was subject to an arranged marriage but she proved intractable and it was not until 1573 that a marriage contract was concluded. She was at oldest about 42, at youngest 38. Cole’s late birth date for Anguissola means that she was still of childbearing years in his timeline. Hitherto, Anguissola had assiduously maintained her independence and the burden (and danger) of childbirth. The wishes of King Philip II were not ones even Anguissola could oppose. By whichever cause (natural or willed), Anguissola did not fall pregnant (or at least give birth) and she was able to sustain her devotion to art.

In 1573 she went to Italy with her husband, governor to a town in Sicily. He drowned in a pirate attack in 1578. In 1579 she remarried and moved to Palermo, where she remained until her death. There is little to commend her religious paintings. They are not attractive or original and derivative. Much of her late works painted in Palermo are lost.

Anguissola signed her early work SOFONISBA ANGUISSOLA VIRGO – a signal of her independence – and was potentially inspired by the paintings of Catharina van Hemessen. It would be hard to co-opt her into the sisterhood. We have very little writing by her, so it is hard to assess her attitude towards her situation as a woman painter. What little we can glean is from decoding her art. Cole suggests that interpreting her as a woman artist or thinking of her career progression is not the only approach, indeed, not the most useful. Cole believes that Anguissola’s significance rests more in her example than her art. “She showed that a life devoted to painting was a real possibility for women, and she showed what such a life might look like.”

The first half of the book is a survey of the artist’s life and work and issues surrounding attribution and interpretation of her paintings. The catalogue section treats works in groups of varying connection to the hand of the artist, including lost works, copies and so forth. Colour illustrations are used, though many are small. Both experts and enthusiasts will find Cole’s scholarship approachable and clear-eyed. This book is a serious and honest examination of a second-tier Mannerist painter who painted a handful of excellent portraits.

Michael W. Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson: A Renaissance Artist and Her Work, Princeton University Press, 2019, hardback, 208pp, fully col. illus., £50, ISBN 978 0 691 19832 3

 

© Alexander Adams 2020

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

E.M. Lilien and his Images of Jewish Women

Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation HD

The subject of Lynne M. Swarts’s study Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation: Women in the Work of Ephraim Moses Lilien at the German is Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874-1925), acclaimed as the premier visual artist of the nascent Zionist/Jewish nationalist movement among German-speaking Jews in the 1900-25 period. Lilien was an ardent Zionist and his works were aimed at a Jewish audience. Swarts examines how Lilien’s art supports and undermines views of Jews that were current among the Jewish and non-Jewish population. Swarts believes that the subject of the new Jewish women has been overlooked by writers and that Lilien’s deliberate construction of a distinctive female counterpart to the New Jewish Man (found in his numerous and popular Biblical illustrations) is worthy of special examination.

Lilien was born in Drohobycz, Austrian Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied painting in Krakow under Jan Matejko. After a period in Vienna, Lilien moved to Munich and made illustrations for Jugend, a Jugendstil/Art Nouveau journal. He later moved to Berlin. His line illustrations for Juda (1900) – a collection of poems about Hebrew subjects written by the Gentile Börries von Münchhausen – sold well and became a popular among German Jews. Lilien became acclaimed as the first Zionist artist and was commissioned to illustrate the books of the Old Testament, which brought him further acclaim, although the series was not completed. In 1906 he travelled to Palestine to photograph Biblical sites and Jewish types of physiognomy and clothing in preparation for that project. He made later visits to Palestine.

“Lilien retold the narrative of national identity in terms of old-new heroes: powerful, strong, manly men, as muscular and physically fit as their athletic Teutonic brothers. These new corporeal bodies claimed progressive socialist and utopian readings of modern Jewish life, incorporating the return to authentic Jewish labouring or tilling of the soil in the Biblical homeland of Zion or Eretz Israel. His model of Jewish manliness, developed at the fin de siècle, was a form of cultural resistance, a crucial strategy in the struggle to overcome the twin dilemmas of Jewish ‘otherness’ or alterity: antisemitism and assimilation.” Although the emancipation of Jews (in 1867 in Austro-Hungary and 1871 in Germany) offered the fullfilment of potential, it also presented a threat to Jewish identity. No longer were Jews shunned by law. The possibility of assimilation and integration offered a secular reward for the shedding of Jewish identity and integration into secular civic society that had been barred to them hitherto.

A common iconography is one of the pillars of a nation. Thus the rise of an international Zionist movement to unify the Jewish diaspora and restore it to a homeland stimulated a search for the trappings of nationhood and (ultimately) statehood. Lilien’s imagery was a conscious attempt to contribute to this effort. An exhibition of art by Jews was held in 1901 in relation to a Zionist congress, although the art was disparate and not overtly Jewish in style or Zionist in content.[ii] Lilien wanted to restore pride in Jewishness by forging new (or reviving old) archetypes of heroic masculinity. Lilien made a point of showing typical male Jews as handsome, healthy and unambiguously heterosexual – countering negative anti-Semitic stereotypes. Some of Lilien’s images of patriarchs were based on the appearance of Theodor Herzl, founder of the modern Zionist movement, who he personally met.

Lilien’s career coincided with the rise of the New Woman – the embodiment of legal, social and sexual emancipation of women, initially in the USA and Great Britain but later across Western Europe – which was celebrated and attacked with equal vehemence by progressives and conservatives. Thus Lilien’s images of women have an added layer of significance. He was not only attempting to distinguish the Jewess from Gentile, he was responding to the irreligious challenge posed by New Womanhood to traditional gender roles.

Concern regarding liberated women – guided by feminism – having fewer (or no) children caused nationalists to worry about nation birth rates. Zionism had to reconcile newly emancipated Jews (and Jewish women tempted by the attractive advantages of becoming a New Woman) with the demands of piety, fidelity to tradition and the raising of a new generation of Jews within a definitively Jewish homeland. In the women of Art Nouveau we find the contradictory iconography of woman as ethereal spirit, supernatural force, untrammelled avatar of humanity, seeker of sensual gratification, femme fatale and sophisticated consumer. The symbolism was advantageously malleable in that it allowed artists to make women Christian maidens, pagan temptresses or discerning modern trendsetters in multiple manifestations with the minimum of differentiation. Swarts typifies the woman in fin-de-siècle art as passive, romanticised, aestheticized and essentially ornamental. She was a damsel in need of chivalric rescue (in a story illustration) or the latest perfume (in a poster on the side of an omnibus). Lilien was inspired by the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, the paintings of Gustav Klimt and the posters of Alphonse Mucha.

“The belle Juive was an ideal an earlier nineteenth-century depiction of the Jewess as an ideal, oriental, exotic beauty. Raven-haired and dark-eyed, she was often named Sarah, Rachel, or Judith […] The conflation of the dark racial physiognomy of the Jewess with the belle Juive as ‘exotic and beautiful’ added to the new Jewish woman’s appeal as the artistic muse or model par excellence.”For many Europeans in 1900 ideas of the Jewish women, Jewishness as a subset of Orientalism and the New Women phenomenon formed a nexus within which the Jewish woman was a unique figure of dangerous sensuality, sexuality and subversion, liminal to some areas of mainstream society.

Lilien wanted to show Jewish women as healthy, fit, supreme examples of humanity in harmony with culture, nature and their religion. In his Biblical illustrations, the model women are chaste and dignified – with Esther apparently based upon Lilien’s wife Helene. Rahab, the prostitute of legendary beauty, is shown as graceful and desirable in Juda (1900); by the time she appears in the Bible illustrations (in Vol. I, 1908) her face incorporates some Helene’s appearance combined with that of an anonymous model photographed by the artist (illustrated in the book). In other illustrations there is abundant carnal display. (“[Lilien was] the first to portray the Jewish woman as an active participant in sensual and sexual pleasure […]”) In The Song of Songs, the women seduce and are seduced, with partial nudity complementing the flowing arabesque lines of the style. In other illustrations for ex-libris bookplates, nude women are shown as partially seductive, partially innocent, always attractive.

Swarts touches on the cultural friction between the Ostjude and the Westjude, with the assumptions and perceptions about the historical position of the Jew in Europe. Western Jews (often urban) in 1900 held often strong feelings about their Eastern brethren, with their greater religiosity, longer period of historical continuity and stronger connection with the land as farmers and shtetl dwellers. For a Western Jew committed to Zionism, the Eastern Jew had real or purported authenticity – yet attachment to such a notion (often sentimental and unrealistic) brought out the Western Jew’s ambivalence towards his own family’s history of partial assimilation. Too often Jewish women were caught between the alien, exotic and dangerous East and the over-cultivated West, stigmatised on either (or both) counts, adding to the ambivalence that Jews generally had towards the division between Ostjude and Westjude.

Swarts concludes that Lilien’s ambivalence towards the emancipation of Jewish women in light of his commitment to Zionism influenced his portrayals of women. He was also influenced by the fine art and illustration of the time and was to a degree directing his work towards an underserved (Zionist) audience using the visual language of his time. Lilien’s art remains pungent and effective and merits attention (quite aside from its historical value) as fine art of a high standard. His early death, the dispersal and (deliberate and accidental) destruction of his papers and original art – plus changing taste – has meant that Lilien’s illustration and printmaking is not as well known in the Anglosphere.

If there is criticism to be made of this title, it is that the author pays too much deference to Post-Modernist, feminist and Post-Colonial theory. Swarts proves herself capable of assessing contemporary responses to Lilien’s art and how the art has subsequently been interpreted and repurposed. We do not benefit from the theory nor does this book. Happily for us, there is not enough to detract from Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation, which is a sound and informative analysis of a rich subject. Although it has a strong academic basis, the book is approachable, with many specialist historical aspects outlined. The many illustrations give us a view of Lilien’s art and related images.

Lynne M. Swarts, Gender, Orientalism and the Jewish Nation: Women in the Work of Ephraim Moses Lilien at the German Fin de Siècle, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020, hardback, 328pp + xxxiv, mono/32 col. illus., £95, ISBN 978 1 5013 3614 0

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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