New Leonardo Paintings Discovered?

03_Madonna di Piazza

[Image: Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Lorenzo di Credi, The Madonna di Piazza (ca. 1475-85), Oil on panel. Cathedral of San Zeno, Pistoia, Chapel of the Sacrament. SCALA/Art Resource, N.Y.]

 

The corpuses of the Old Masters go through phases of expansion and contraction. Once most of the groundwork of scholarship is done – and with Renaissance painters, that material may be scanty and uninformative – the main work left to art historians is attribution. New historians prove themselves by revising established chronologies and corpuses. This is partly the process of bodies of knowledge evolving through incremental revision, addition and subtraction; it is partly a younger generation actively claiming status and authority by refuting the work of older generations. Thus we go through waves of attribution and de-attribution. Giorgione’s body of paintings was once counted close to three figures; now it consists of merely six paintings. Rembrandt’s oeuvre swells and contracts. When it deflates, the oeuvres of his students to inflate with rejected Rembrandts.

There is no more famous painter than Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), yet his painted oeuvre is tantalisingly small. Tales of unlocated, ruined and destroyed paintings torment our imaginations with treasures that have been lost to time. Leonardo worked notoriously slowly, finished little and undermined his only murals (The Last Supper and The Battle of Anghiari) through a predilection for reckless technical experimentation which caused the paintings to be declared ruins within his own lifetime. He was known during his time for devoting his time to invention, mathematics, architecture and anatomical study, neglecting his painting commissions. He is by some distance the least productive painter of the Italian High Renaissance. There is a natural urge to scour museums, churches and private collections for overlooked works by Leonardo. It is the dream of every art historian or picture dealer to identify a painting by the world’s most famous artist.

The current exhibition (29 June-7 October 2018, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven) (reviewed from the catalogue) examines Leonardo’s early work, at a time when he trained in the studio of Andrea del Verrochio (1435-1488) in Florence. Verrochio was an acclaimed master whose busy studio produced sculpture, engraved goldware, paintings, decorative fittings and other art of the highest quality. The best known of his art is the bronzes, which rival Donatello’s for accomplishment, vigour and invention. Paintings of that time were collaborative works. The master would design the composition, draw some detail studies, draw a cartoon and assign pupils to transfer the cartoon to a panel, canvas or wall. More able assistants would be assigned roles to execute areas of the painting, with the master painting some parts himself. It is common to find Renaissance paintings which display a variety of styles, abilities and techniques.

Vasari recorded that Leonardo’s first painting in the studio was the head of an angel in The Baptism of Christ (c. 1470-5). The attribution is accurate but partial. Examination reveals some of the landscape was by Leonardo. Yet these passages are so accomplished that it is impossible this was his first painting. So, since Leonardo was apparently apprenticed to Verrochio since the age of 16 (1468) or even 14 (1466), what had Leonardo painted before his contribution to the Baptism? As he was associated with Verrochio until at least 1476, what did Leonardo paint in the studio after the Baptism?

The three best known painters in the studio (from our perspective) were Verrochio, Leonardo and Lorenzo di Credi (1457/9-1536), who was nominated by Verrochio as his successor and chief artist of his Florence studio when he relocated to Venice. Extensive space is given to discussion of a large altarpiece The Madonna di Piazza (c. 1475-85; Cathedral of San Zeno) and two small panels which formerly comprised part of its frame, A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo (c. 1475-85; Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts) and The Annunciation (c. 1475-9; the Louvre). The main painting seems typical of Verrochio and Kanter assigns authorship to him, Lorenzo and Leonardo. Leonardo may have painted some of the drapery but the part of the painting that stands out as exceptional in quality – beyond both Verrochio and the (young) Lorenzo – is the ornate rug. It crisp and clear; the foreshortening of design as it lies over the steps is faultless. It is on the level of Van Eyck and the Netherlandish masters. It is strange to think of a young man who would go on to become a polymath universal man labouring over the recession of a carpet, but it could well be his work. In the Saint Donatus the robe of the saint and the landscape could be Leonardo’s. The gentle blue haze of the atmosphere occluding the mountains is something that Leonardo excelled in. In the Annunciation the wing of the angel and landscape are nominated. Considering that all three paintings (plus missing parts) were all painted in Verrochio’s workshop over a ten-year period (delayed by a payment dispute) during Leonardo’s apprenticeship, the attributions seem strong.

Two battle scenes painted on panels – either parts of cassone (decorated garment chests) or wall panels – show touches of unusual subtlety. Kanter explains that the atmospheric recession seen in the landscapes and the realist light on battlements is typical of Leonardo and rare among Florentine art of the period. The Battle of Pydna (c. 1472) seems the more likely candidate for entry into the canon.

08_Battle of Pydna

[Image: Leonardo da Vinci and collaborator, The Battle of Pydna (c. 1472), tempera on panel. Musée Jacquemart-André, Institut de France, Paris, inv. no. MJAP-P 1822.2. Photo: Hideaki Sugiura, Nagoya City Museum]

The painting medium is described as tempera – a medium in which Leonardo never used as a mature artist. Perhaps this is a one of Leonardo’s apprentice works made at time before he worked exclusively in oil. A possible companion work is National Gallery’s Tobias and the Angel (c. 1468), also painted in tempera. The dog and fish in the painting are painted in a much more sophisticated and lively manner than the rest of Verrochio’s painting. This is not a new attribution, as this observation has long been in the Leonardo literature. This is a more secure addition to the Leonardo canon than the battle scenes.

Cleaning of a number of Verrochio paintings of Madonna and Child have revealed differences in paint handling, artistic concentration and technique. The two most likely contenders for partial authorship by Leonardo are in the National Gallery, London and the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. The delicacy of the veils and sleeves are signs of superior painter.

"Maria mit dem Kind"
[Image: Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin with the Seated Child (c. 1468-70), tempera on panel. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, inv. no. 104A. bpk Bildagentur/Gemaeldegalerie, Staatliche Museum Berlin, Photo: Jörg P. Anders/Art Resource, N.Y.]

A less persuasive suggestion is the Edinburgh Madonna and Child (The Ruskin Madonna). Although linked through the Louvre Annunciation and preparatory drawings, the painting is very much weaker in design and execution than the others.

Kanter discusses the attribution of sculpture from the circle of Verrochio, including bas reliefs of maternities and the standing Christ child. We know that Leonardo was an adept modeller of clay. He made a number of sculptures – including a giant equestrian statue for the Sforzas in Milan, which was destroyed by the invading French soldiers – but no single sculpture by Leonardo has been firmly identified. Some delicate heads of infants seem the most credible attributions. It is a little disappointing that Kanter does not address Leonardo’s involvement in the sculptural productions of Verrochio’s workshop.

Two specialist essays examine of the Annunciation and Saint Donatus using technical analysis and a further essay draws conclusions. New scans reveal the underdrawing and how the paintings were created. Overall, the catalogue makes a fascinating glimpse into the origins of the world’s most celebrated painter and is sure to provoke debate and controversy for years to come.

As this catalogue and exhibition dwell upon Leonardo’s early years as a painter, it does not mention two recent controversial attributions to the mature Leonardo: La Bella Principessa and Salvator Mundi. In my view, both are stylistically inconsistent with the periods of Leonardo’s production to which they are assigned; neither has clear provenances (La Bella Principessa has no provenance before recent decades); ultimately, neither deserves acceptance. It is suggested that La Bella Principessa is a pastiche by a Nineteenth Century German artist but it may well be a modern forgery. Salvator Mundi is a design by Leonardo, possibly executed partly in his studio by assistants. The most credible attribution has been to one of Leonardo’s followers Bernardino Luini (1480/2-1532), as Leonardo expert Mathew Landrus put forth. It has been extensively restored and was only attributed to Leonardo in order to increase its value. At $450 million, it is the most expensive Luini painting in history.

For an extensive discussion of both works, visit www.artwatch.org.uk

 

Laurence Kanter, Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio, Yale University Art Gallery (distr. Yale University Press), September 2018, cloth hardback, $35, ISBN 978 0 300 23301 8

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my art and books by visiting www.alexanderadams.art

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Delacroix at the Met

Allard

 

This summer’s exhibition of art by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at the Louvre drew record-breaking attendance. The display attracted 540,000 visitors. In the last few years Delacroix’s art has undergone a thorough reappraisal in a series of exhibitions, monographs and specialist studies. That reappraisal continues as the Paris exhibition travels to New York. One of the leading centres for Delacroix studies is the Metropolitan Museum – the museum has the best collections of Delacroix’s art outside of France – so it is only fitting that the museum hosts the second stage of the exhibition of Delacroix’s art. Many of the exhibited works have travelled to New York and are complemented by unique works.

Delacroix (17 September 2018-6 January 2019, Metropolitan Museum, New York) presents oil paintings, sketches, drawings, pastels and prints by the artist. (This review is from the catalogue.) The authors of the catalogue text deftly recount the artist’s achievements and outline his career. Delacroix’s relationship with the administrators, critics and public of the annual Salon was – like that of most other French artists of the era – important and subject to variation. A series of early successes catapulted Delacroix to stardom and official patronage, yet he was never assured of positive responses to his competitions and the Salon submissions. He remained a divisive artist to the end and never became rich.

Delacroix became known for his radical reimagining of the rules of composition and content, by removing obvious protagonists, heroic figures and decentring of compositions, most especially noted upon by critics of Massacres in Chios (1824). His handling was also considered shockingly loose. He was accused of using brooms to apply paint and egregious quantities of impasto. His pursuit of sensuous colour combinations was exemplified by Women of Algiers.

Although Delacroix largest and most renowned paintings are unable to travel, they are reproduced and discussed in the catalogue. Luckily, some of the minor pictures will be able to shine. Two of those are Still-life with Lobsters (1826-7), with its rich range of colours and earthiness set against a vivid landscape, shows the influence of English landscapists. Female Academy Figure (Mlle Rose) (c. 1820-3) is a nude study which shows Delacroix using broken-colour brushwork; close observation led the painter to vary colour of different parts of the anatomy in an intense manner that prefigured Naturalism. It also shows Delacroix delight in paint and painting led him to neglect scrupulous drawing. Orphan Girl in the Cemetery (1824) is a study for one of the figures in Massacres at Chios. It is the most delicate, careful and life-like of his oil studies and is fresh and captivating. In terms of quality, Orphan Girl matches anything Delacroix ever painted.

Delacroix’s watercolours from his travels in North Africa are much celebrated. We see men and women in their typical garb – with the artist attracted to the most traditional and ornate costumes. Views of landscapes, buildings and doorways would be used in later paintings, providing settings for Orientalist paintings. The apparent ancient demeanour and physiognomies inspired Delacroix to make modern battle pictures that evoke the antique. The hunting scenes allowed Delacroix to produce original variants of Rubens’s pictures, which he admired. Rubens was Delacroix’s hero, both in his subjects and treatment of colour and brushwork, something that he mentioned often in his journals. Direct copies of Rubens and references to him in Delacroix’s original pictures abound.

The young artist was caught up in the wave of French lithography that flourished in the early years of the Bourbon Restoration. At this time lithography was a mass media and was used in the graphic arts to portray the suffering and heroism of Napoleon’s army and the plight of veterans. The included lithograph illustrations are well chosen and display Delacroix’s gift for the pithy summary and attraction to the human drama. Using sgraffito  to scratch a layer of wax crayon on the lithographic stone, Delacroix created a sfumato rendering of figures in nocturnal settings. A particularly good example of that is blacksmith (1833). The visible light source is the glowing metal; the low position adds excitement and theatricality through its unusualness.

The authors describe very well Delacroix’s innovative approach to colour technique.

Flochetage entailed a departure from the classical notion of local color, which is predicated on the essence of a thing. The principle assumes that every object possesses a natural color that can be isolated by precisely drawing the model. Black is then added to that color to produce shadows, in a subtle chiaroscuro. Delacroix realized that the addition of black only muddied the color because the shadows themselves are colored, resulting, as they do, from reflections. […] in Women of Algiers, Delacroix experimented intuitively and for the first time with the law of simultaneous contrast and the optical mixture of complementary colors. […] this manner of paint application confers on the viewer an active role, since the mixing of colors occurs in the eye and brain rather than on the palette. A more intense green is achieved, for instance, when a painter, instead of mixing a yellow with a blue and a dab of yellow on the canvas, following a method Delacroix would call flochetage.

This insight came from the artist’s time in North Africa, experiencing the strong light and bright colours there. His preference for Venetian colour over Florentine line and for developing designs on the canvas was definitely aligned to Romantic ideals rather than Neo-classical systematic preparation through extensive sketches, studies and set compositions.

The exhibition pays attention to the religious, mythological and theatrical paintings of Delacroix’s middle years, when he produced fewer iconic pictures. The artist’s passion for theatrical drama is reflected in his many illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays. The painter fretted about the impermanence of the pigments he had used. Tempted by bright strong colours developed using new chemical technology, Delacroix had succumbed to the will-o’-the-wisp of fugitive organic colours, leaving behind the proven endurance of time-tested mineral pigments. While the drive of his early years had been to establish his fame through Salon acclaim, his later years were devoted to making decorative and religious murals, with posterity his main concern. One overlooked aspect which this exhibition gives its due is the accomplishment and variety of the artist’s late landscapes and seascapes. The works are rarely reproduced so they feel fresh and exciting.

Much of Delacroix’s oil painting has suffered from grave cracking and fading (consider the faded blue robes of Dante in The Barque of Dante (1822)); the illustrations (crisp and large) show us some of the diminished glory of Delacroix’s colour. Excellent design provides fine juxtapositions of pictures, allowing easy comparison. Thorough notes, index and bibliography make this volume a useful study aid. In addition to the main body of the text, the catalogue includes original and intelligent essays on the influence upon Delacroix of Guérin and Gros (though sadly not of Géricault), Delacroix as a writer, the 1855 retrospective of his paintings and Courbet’s reaction to him. This exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are touchstones for anyone interested in Romantic art and the achievements of Delacroix.

 

Sébastien Allard, Côme Fabre, et al., Delacroix, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale University Press), cloth hardback, 328pp, 288 col. illus., $65, ISBN 978 1 588 396518

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Carlos Rojas, Valley of the Fallen

“On 24 August this year, the Socialist government of Spain legislated to exhume General Franco from his tomb at Valle de los Caídos, near Madrid. The Valle de los Caídos basilica was built by Franco as a symbol of both reconciliation and conquest and it became his tomb in 1975. His remains are now being exhumed and relocated, ostensibly to prevent Franco supporters gathering, as they have done over the years, to pay respects to Spain’s former dictator. In truth, the move to relocate Franco’s remains is not about paramilitary displays causing disorder or resurgent militaristic Catholicism, neither of which have been a threat since the failed coup of 1981; it is a chance for the Socialists to posture against the hated fascist dictator, albeit posthumously enacted. This move is part of the recent trend to erase symbolic history in the USAustria and Ukraine and South Africa.

“Publication of a new translation of Carlos Rojas’s seminal 1978 novel El Valle de los Caídos – The Valley of the Fallen – could not be timelier. Written in the aftermath of Franco’s death, the novel blends the turbulent and sometimes barbarous history of Spain in a meditation on parallels between two eras: the last years of the Bourbon monarchy, and the twilight of the Francoist era. We encounter Goya, court painter, talking to the king, Fernando VII. Rojas recounts stories from the Napoleonic wars of Iberia and the thoughts of the elderly Goya. The other thread of the novel is the domestic life of Sandro, a biographer of Goya living through the final days of Franco. Struggling with his literary task and coping with a troubled romantic relationship, Sandro considers the legacy of Franco and the civil war that brought him to power…”

Read the full review online on Spiked here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/into-the-valley-of-the-fallen/21791#.W5t7E85KjIV

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Balthus

Balthus_Les-enfants-Blanchard_LAC_287x300mm

[Image: Balthus, Les Enfants Blanchard (1937), oil on canvas, 125 x 130 cm
Musée national Picasso-Paris, Donation by the heirs of Picasso, 1973/1978
© Balthus. Photo: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau]

The art of Balthus (1908-2001) is hard to place. It is not Surrealist, although it was linked to Surrealism. It is not realism, though it is derived from life. It is allied to tradition but is not traditional. It is not Modernist but could not have existed without Modernism. It is erotic but it is not erotica. To class it as Post-Modern would be completely erroneous. What is its lineage? It is European but – like its chameleon creator – it cannot be placed. The artist was born in France of Polish descent, growing up in France, Germany and Switzerland, later spending many years in Italy before moving to Switzerland with his Japanese wife. To think accurately about this European painter you need to know Japanese art and Persian miniatures; to discuss this friend and associate of Artaud, Giacometti, Picasso and Derain you will need to remember Chardin, Piero della Francesca, Georges de la Tour and Courbet. Through extended study you will come to recognise his models yet they are transformed through art into images distinctly different from life and artificial. If you expect anything to be straightforward about Balthus then you are misapprehending the art. No matter how complex, allusive and humorous the artist becomes, he is never less than absolutely serious.

Welcome to the world of Balthus.

The current exhibition Balthus (2 September 2018-1 January 2019, Fondation Beyeler, Basel; touring to Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) forms a lean retrospective. (Reviewed here from the catalogue.) The exhibition consists of 40 oil paintings from all periods, starting when the artist was aged 20 and ending with his last completed painting, made when the artist was in his eighties. Considering the relatively small number of paintings, it is perhaps wise that drawings and watercolours have been excluded. The aim is establish a clear view of Balthus main subjects in a selection of representative paintings from the full span of his career.

All of Balthus’s subjects are included: portraits, conversation pieces, street scenes, landscapes and nudes. There is a hybrid work where a still-life is presented with a figure in the form of an incidental profile, not dissimilar to pictures by Bonnard of set tables. Paintings have been brought from around the world for this two venue tour.

Balthus’s first paintings were views of Paris, his home city. Place de l’Odéon, Quai Malaquais and Jardin de Luxembourg appear as they did in the 1920s. The youthful pictures are peopled by stock figures among sturdy trees and roughly painted architecture. They display a sure sense of colour and establish some of the staples of his later street scenes, though the skill and complexity are yet to manifest themselves fully.

The 1934 solo exhibition at Pierre Loeb’s Paris gallery established Balthus’s reputation as a singular – even wayward – painter of figures and assaulter of public morals. His most provocative early nudes – Alice dans le miroir (1933) and La leçon de guitare (1934), the latter of which was considered so sensational it was hidden behind a curtain at the Loeb gallery – have not travelled to Basel. However a number of works from that exhibition are here, including a scene from Wuthering Heights showing Cathy at her toilette.

Balthus_La-Rue_LAC_243x300mm

[Image: Balthus, La Rue (1933), oil on canvas, 195 x 240 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Bequeathed by James Thrall Soby. © Balthus. Photo: © 2018. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence]

La Rue (1933) the large showstopper of the Paris exhibition has travelled to Switzerland from MoMA. The Parisian street is animated by figures who seem nearly wholly allegorical, lifted from book illustrations or old paintings, disconnected from each other. These atomised personages seem oblivious of each other and immersed in their own dreams, with the exception of the youth groping the girl. Whether or not is understands that she is being assaulted is unclear. Her face is impassive and her body language is stilted, not in motion (fighting or fleeing); it is hard to read her response. The youth was originally groping her crotch. The first owner demanded that Balthus alter La Rue to make it less indecorous, which he did. Balthus wavered on the subject of sexual provocativeness. He repainted a number of pictures to make them less overtly erotic. How much of that was genuinely held regret and how much was social positioning is unclear. In early years he shocked to gain attention and notoriety; in later years he curbed his earlier provocations in a bid for acceptance. That said, he did continue to paint nudes in his late years. It may be that he was simply swayed by the requests of his sitters and collectors to make their pictures more genteel. The famous narcissist and headstrong loner may have been less indomitable than he is sometimes presented.

In the late 1930s Balthus painted portraits. Sadly, the imposing and psychologically astute portraits of Derain and Miró have not travelled to Basel but the La Jupe blanche (1937) has. This full length portrait of Antoinette, Balthus’s first wife, shows the model in white clothing, rumpled creamy drapery clinging to the flesh and mimicking the pallor of her skin. The subject is a sensual and languorous object of desire while remaining detached and melancholic, sulky and bored; the subject is ultimately unreachably distant. That, of course, only makes the subject more alluring and memorable.

The late 1930s were Balthus’s Thérèse period, when Thérèse Blanchard modelled for 11 paintings, including a double-portrait with her brother. That painting was bought by Picasso and is loaned by Musée Picasso, Paris. Girls at the point of puberty or in adolescence henceforward became a constant subject. Girls at the threshold of becoming women present potent and changeable subjects because of the daily fluctuation and overlap between childhood and maturity, innocence and knowledge, timidity and adventurousness. In today’s society older girls are subjects bounded by taboos that go unspoken and sometimes unrecognised until they are transgressed.

Compare Balthus’s girls with depictions of girls of the same age by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805).

[Images: (left) Balthus, Thérèse (1938), oil on cardboard on wood, 100.3 x 81.3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequeathed by Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1987. © Balthus, Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence; (right) Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Broken Pitcher (1770)]

In Greuze’s tableaux the subjects are deflowered waifs and violated innocents. Although the purpose of Greuze was ostensibly moral and didactic, the subjects are salacious confections of wretchedness. The paintings are not so much moral warnings of the dangers of abuse as sadistic lingering upon the impact of that abuse. In contrast, Balthus’s subjects are mysterious beings, distant, playful and autonomous. Balthus’s paintings are as ambiguous and rich as people are, whereas Greuze’s paintings are shallow, one-note and fundamentally dishonest: ostensibly moral yet actually prurient. In Balthus’s paintings of adolescents we find an innovation in portraiture of the young that had not been seen since the portraits of children by Géricault in the 1810s.

In 1940, demobilised from the French army and living in the countryside, Balthus turned seriously to the subject of landscape. Two landscapes from the 1940s are included. Clarity and solidity are two of the primary attributes of Balthus’s landscapes. Balthus’s work became more mannered and artificial. When he was appointed director of the French Academy in Rome in 1961, Balthus became ever more engaged in ancient and non-Western art. He paid careful attention to every detail of the restoration of the academy’s home, the Renaissance Villa Medici. Balthus took pleasure in building surfaces in his paintings that evoke the thick encrusting of pigment on old plaster. References to Greek and Roman art abound. A visit to Japan is seen in several paintings and the relationship with his future second wife, Setsuko. The Basel exhibition includes the fragile and laboriously worked La Chambre turque (1965-6), which combines Persian and Japanese art in a painting of Setsuko. Experimentation with casein and tempera allowed Balthus to accentuate flatness and matte surfaces but at the expense of pliability. The increased rigidity led to thick and brittle paint surfaces which are fragile, especially on flexible canvas.

Balthus_Le-Chat-au-miroir-III_LAC_310x300mm

[Image: Balthus, Le Chat au miroir III (1989-94), Oil on canvas, 220 x 195 cm. Private collection, Asia. © Balthus]

Le Chat au miroir III (1989-94) shows a seated girl looking into a mirror, accompanied by a cat (a familiar motif for the artist). It is the artist’s last complete work. It is a summation of what came before but it is undercut by weaknesses in handling and conception. The extended gestation of the painting and frequent revisions are not so much evidence of a meditative patience but of a reluctance to finish, perhaps even of uncertainty. The artist may have felt the work was his last and was fearful of finishing and thereby cutting a cord to his working life and legacy. Too much rested on the painting and the desire to imbue it with a lifetime of knowledge and insight may have held the artist back. It might have been better to have worked on a number of minor pictures instead. It is some distance from his best work.

The catalogue is large format and profusely illustrated. The decision to place some illustrations as double-page spreads is regrettable. Illustrations should never be treated this way because it distorts the image by introducing a band of shadow and compression. Otherwise the production is good. Using strong (though not overpowering) colours for the margins of illustrations is effective. Brilliant white margins can clash with images, especially with richly coloured and tonally muted paintings such as Balthus’s.

Catalogue texts discuss works in the exhibition and illustrate others not included, including key works such as La leçon de guitare and the Miró portrait. One particularly useful text by Juan Ángel López-Manzanares deals with Balthus’s relationship with Antonin Artaud. The pair met in 1932 or 1933 and Balthus designed the sets for Les Cencis, the 1935 staging Artaud’s adaptation of Shelley’s verse drama. Balthus painted some portraits of actresses, including two of Iya Abdy. There are passing references to Balthus’s art as an expression Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. The Theatre of Cruelty was the idea that naturalism and character had robbed Western theatre of the power of spectacle and mystery and that in order to restore the role of the sacred in theatre the dramatist and actors had to connect to the audience through transformational action and powerful emotion. The idea of Balthus’s early art running parallel to the Theatre of Cruelty – especially in the still-lifes of destroyed objects and the more aggressively erotic nudes – is a feasible thesis.

 

Raphaël Bouvier & Fondation Beyeler (eds.), Balthus, Fondation Beyeler/Hatje Cantz, 2018, paperback, 176pp, 120 illus., CHF62.50/€58.00, ISBN 978 3 7757 4445 4 (German and hardback versions available)

©2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

New Representations in Japanese Architecture

9783038600541_300dpi

 

Pictures of the Floating Microcosm. New Representations of Japanese Architecture examines the way Japanese architecture is presented in graphic presentations. It covers the last twenty years of architectural design in commercial, civic and domestic fields. The illustrations consist of hand-drawn designs, plans, cross-sections, isometric elevations, 3D renderings and frames of CAD – alongside hybrid forms. These drawings are not rough sketches, working drawings or technical blueprints; they are representations made specifically for public display. They are pared down to their essence, conceptualised and aestheticised. There is an emphasis on clean space, elegance and clarity and a preference for schematic presentation over realism, as is common in the field. The layout of this book emphasises the clarity and sparseness of much Japanese architectural design.

Meystre discusses advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to drafting, including hybrid techniques and physical models, all viewed from the perspective of the digital age. There is a discussion of photographs of miniatures, an innovation from the Twentieth Century still used. Meystre notes the artistry of the photographer of models, commenting that frequently in Japan the photographer is credited with more creative input and control of these photographs than the architect or the builder of the model. As one would expect in a book dealing with architect presentations, there are no photographs of completed buildings. The author’s interviews with architects Ryūe Nishizawa, Kazuyo Sejima and others inform his discourse, with quotes illuminating views of practitioners.

The author notes that there is a generational change in Japanese architecture, which determined the 20-year limitation to his study. “One notable phenomenon of the recent history of Japanese architectural criticism is that whereas architects such as Kazao Shinohara, Fumihiko Maki, and Arata Isozaki wrote intensely and regularly throughout their careers, their younger colleagues have been very discreet regarding their theoretical positions.”

Meystre-Floating-Microcosm-p-187_Vision-for-Tokyo

[Image: Hideyuki Nakayama, My Vision for Tokyo (2009) © Hideyuki Nakayama]

In the last two decades, information technology has also radically altered the way architecture is presented and understood by creators and public. Meystre notes that the increasing sophistication and flexibility of imaging technology has allowed architects greater flexibility and permitted experimentation that would have been costly, difficult or time consuming previously. One example is the use of radically reduced-scale images, which has become more commonly lately. “There is no limit to zooming within a window. The upshot is that digital lines, intrinsically, have no scale. […] The result is a common tendency among many architects to make the lines of their drawings spiderlike, to the point of invisibility.”

Use of computers has allowed the development of multiple isolines – hypothetical lines linking positions sharing a common property, such as height, light, temperature, barometric pressure and so forth. The lines map not structures or physical features but qualities. These linear matrices are accurate in visual terms and which produce images that are almost unrecognisable (almost arbitrary) when compared to conventional plans and come close to abstraction. Isoline projections can act as aids to contemplative thinking, in that they disrupt our standard assumptions about what a built structure is and reveal unseen and unconsidered aspects of it, prompting us to think in unexpected ways.

Meystre-Floating-Microcosm-p-133_Senju-Museum

[Image: Ryūe Nishizawa, Hiroshi Senju Museum, Karuizawa (2013) © Ryūe Nishizawa]

The question of how Japanese these presentations are is reflected in the way designs are seen and discussed. In the Japanese language, words describing space have value connotations: omote is “front surface” and “superficial” (something similar to the use in English of “façade”); ura “hidden side” and “authentic”; yami “near darkness” which limits persons and objects in darkness to a level where they are sensed rather than seen, has its origin in the Shinto concept of intuition; yūgen (noun and adjective functioning as an epithet, attribute or noun) meaning (variously) “remote/enclosed/profound/calm/dark mystery/secrecy/depth”, of Buddhist origin, has multiple aesthetic and spiritual attributes. Thus the Japanese ascribe associations and an attendant codified hierarchy of values to their spatial vocabulary.

Hideyuki Nakayama, Maison O, in Hideyuki Nakayama, Sketching, 2010, p. 103

[Image: Hideyuki Nakayama, O House (2010) © Hideyuki Nakayama]

In practical terms, Meystre suggests this attachment to yami qualities of muted or dim light is reflected in a partiality towards depicting architectural spaces in light that is generally less intense than that encountered in typical Western presentations. However, Meystre goes on to point out that in Japanese architectural practices most cardboard models are made in white and photographed (or altered digitally) in ways that generate over-exposure. This apparent contradiction between a preference for muted light and overexposure in photography is not resolved by the author.

An oddity of the language used by new architects in Japan is the use of kawaii, “cute”, in the vocabulary of design. The term is usually used in relation to low art, animation, manga and discussion of attractiveness, especially in relation to animals and young women and girls. Kawaii in architecture is about ornamentation of plans through use of plants, decoration, furniture and moveable items.

Junya Ishigami, Maison en rangée, Tokyo, 2005, in JA n°66, 06 2007, pp. 54-55

[Image: Junya Ishigami, Row House, Tokyo (2008) © Junya Ishigami]

When these objects are included in illustrations they are necessarily miniaturised, those enhancing their kawaii quality through reduced toy-like, dream-like or charming appearance. This charm offsets the sparse clinical appearance of plans. Another reason the Japanese is linguistic or conceptual; inclusion of small utensils in Japanese designs – something Western designers usually omit – is partly due to the Japanese distinct conception of furniture. Kagu means “utensils for the house”, not differentiating from tables, beds and cutlery. Thus, for the Japanese, there is no threshold between the larger items and the smaller ones – which generates kawaii – whereas Western architects perceive firm qualitative differences between a vase and a table a Japanese does to a lesser extent.

Practicality and reality are not addressed in drawings, as is usual in such schemes. Like painters who cover their under-painting, ruler lines and adjusted positions with a final layer of paint – thereby concealing the secrets of their art – these architects show their final position as clear, unaltered and almost inevitable. There is a section which shows parallels between recent architectural projections and ukiyo-e colour woodblock prints. New designs even quote classic prints, linking illustrations to revered art. There is an essay about the genealogy of prominent architects of the last century and the way influence has been transmitted between them.

There are limitations to the book. The author intends this book to survey new aspects of architectural imagery from Japan rather than familiarise us with any single project. Dimensions are generally not included and rarely are settings or surrounding structures shown in designs. Although examples of approaches discussed in the text are shown, the priority is the overall survey of graphic representation rather than a close reading of any single image or project through a concentrated body of text and illustrations. (Many of the captions within illustrations are illegibly small, as we are not expected to read images in search of specific information.) It might have been illuminating to have a single building presented through various illustrations emphasising particular qualities.

Readers are left somewhat in the dark as to how effective the illustrations are at conveying an accurate or useful impression of the proposed structure. While Meystre is very good at presenting and explicating modes of illustration, he does not assess the efficacy of any of the modes nor of specific examples. Without that expert assessment, we – as lay readers – are left uncertain as to the usefulness and efficacy of the modes that are characteristic of recent Japanese illustration. Surely, functionality is one aspect that may be if not the primary then certainly a significant matter in our understanding of the material illustrated here.

Overall, Pictures of the Floating Microcosm offers a refreshing perspective on architectural presentation, giving a well-researched grounding for an analysis of recent developments and current trends in Japanese conceptualisations of architecture. It will also be of use to those interested in Japanese visual and linguistic culture.

 

Oliver Meystre, Pictures of the Floating Microcosm. New Representations of Japanese Architecture, Park Books, 2017, hardback, 240pp, 165 col. illus., English version (German version available), ISBN 978 3 03860 054 1

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Sylvia Plath: Alive in Letters

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I.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading the letters of Sylvia Plath, the advice I received was to take it slowly and take frequent breaks. The inference being that Plath’s letters would be a gruelling testament to suffering. It is a reasonable assumption. There is no major author in the post-war period more closely associated with numbing emotional isolation and excruciating depression than Plath. The short poems of her last weeks must be among the sourest, most sarcastic and seared expressions of suffering in modern poetry.

Those who know her work broadly know there is more to her but if you know little it is the last poems and her famous “Daddy” that you know. However, if one listens to the recording of Plath reading “Daddy” – that apparently bitter invective against a tyrannical father – you will hear the glee in her voice, undercutting the rage that a million young women have vicariously immersed themselves in. The likelihood that Plath wished to conflate into a single poem her mixed feelings about her father with the prevalent psychoanalytic preoccupation with the symbolic father figure – a poem as rife with absurdity as it is with anger – is not immediately obvious to the casual reader. The play of her humour and irony enliven the mosaic of cultural references she carefully arranged for us to find in her verse. This humour and learning is nowhere more evident than in her letters.

Born in 1932, Sylvia Plath grew up in a middle-class home in Massachusetts. The earliest extant letter is from 1940, the year her father died. Numerically, most of the letters are to Plath’s mother, the first ones written during summers spent with relatives, summer camps and at youth conferences. She wrote to a German pen pal for a number of years, explaining her life and displaying intense interest in German life. Her world was one of book-reading and stamp-collecting, cardigans, knee-socks, hamburgers and milk, blind double dates, picnics and bracing cycle rides.

She was accepted into Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. In almost daily postcards to her mother, she records her life. We follow her health, friends, studies and dates. Plath in these letters is an inquisitive, assiduous, intelligent, kind, thoughtful and creative young woman. She could be supercilious and self-impressed, as is only to be expected from an individual who had lived a sheltered life and received such praise and admiration while young. Even the most cynical reader would not be won over by her character.

She aspired to be a writer; she had been editor of the high-school newspaper. She started to write stories and poems. She wrote fiction that was published in women’s magazines and the new burgeoning market for girl’s magazines, such as Seventeen. At the same time she was submitting poems to The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other publications. Poems are included in the text and we see Plath growing as a writer. Photographs of Plath, her family and friends and images of her illustrated letters are included.

The core of the group is those letters written to her mother. One can see Plath sharing her pleasures and problems, delighting in magazine cheques and competition prizes, all the time wanting her mother to be impressed and proud. Performing for an audience and meeting her own punishingly high standards proved too much. She exhausted herself through overwork. In the summer of 1953 she had a nervous breakdown, experiencing insomnia and depression, which was treated with electroconvulsive therapy. Soon after, she attempted suicide not once but twice. The first time she tried drowning. In the most powerful letter in the book – made all the more memorable for Plath’s offhand dry humour – she described her failure to die.

Well, I tried drowning, but that didn’t work; somehow the urge to life, mere physical life, is damn strong, and I felt that I could swim forever straight out into the sea and sun and never be able to swallow more than a gulp or two of water and swim on. The body is amazingly stubborn when it comes to sacrificing itself to the annihilating directions of the mind.

She continued:

So I hit upon what I figured would be the easiest way out: I waited until my mother had gone to town, my brother was at work, and my grandparents were out in the back yard. Then I broke the lock of my mother’s safe, took out the bottle of 50 sleeping pills, and descended to the dark sheltered ledge in our basement, after having left a note to mother that I had gone on a long walk and would not be back for a day or so. I swallowed quantities and blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion. My mother believed my note, sent out searching parties, notified the police, and finally, on the second day or so, began to give up hope when she found that the pills were missing. In the meantime, I had stupidly taken too many pills, vomited them, and came to consciousness in a dark hell…

The search for the missing co-ed – prizewinning young authoress – made the pages of over 200 newspapers and Plath had to recover in hospital a figure of minor notoriety.

Plath’s failed attempt to meet Dylan Thomas and successful encounters with W.H. Auden and literary scholar I.A. Richards while she was still a student, show Plath’s ambition to rise to the status of these figures. Part fan adoration, part intellectual curiosity, part careerism, these events are recounted in her letters. In a letter of 4 November 1954, Plath wrote “I am really beat but beatific: my status quo.” The following year she applied to teach English at the American school in Tangiers. How different her life might have been if she had been in the company of Bowles and Burroughs rather than Hughes and the Movement poets…

Plath recounted a bohemian scene of a carefree outing with a boyfriend.

I was so tired, having slept about two hours all night, that I curled up in the backseat of the little car driving to new haven and fell deeply asleep. I awoke to consciousness of sunlight and a circle of people staring at me in unfeigned curiosity. [Richard] sassoon had stopped at a merritt parkway gas station for coffee, and the sight of a touseled girl sleeping soundly in the backseat of a volkswagon in the midst of empty wine bottles and books of baudelaire attracted attention, to put it mildly.  

There are absences – not least many letters to boyfriends. Perhaps we should be grateful to have some intimacy withheld. There are no surviving letters to Richard Sassoon. We have some extracts that Plath copied into her diaries. They are the most literary, allusive and passionate of her early letters.

Plath was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and went to study at Newnham College, Cambridge in September 1955. Plath arrived in England and was enchanted to an almost comical degree.

London is simply fantastic. So much better organized (beautiful “tubes” with artistic posters, two decker red busses, maps everywhere, all black cars and cabs, guides to theaters, all posted) than NYC; more beautiful than Washington (Parks with roses, pelicans, palaces, plane trees and fig trees and lakes and fountains) and infinitely more quaint and historic (obviously) than Boston). The “bobbies”” are all young, handsome, and exquisitely bred; I think they’ve all gone to Oxford. Flower girls, fruit stands with enormous peaches, grapes, etc. on every corner. […] Oh, mother, every alleyway is crowded with tradition, antiquity, and I can feel a peace, reserve, lack of hurry here which has centuries behind it.

In February 1956, the concluding year of this collection, she met Ted Hughes and began a relationship with him. She wrote about how excited she was to be with him and how he helped her creatively. “Ted is the most wonderful man in the world; I am constantly incredulous with joy at how much I love him and how magnificently well we work together.” Included is the text for “Ode for Ted”. They married in the summer of 1956 in secret because Plath feared (apparently erroneously) that she would lose her scholarship were it to become known she had married. There are long letters describing an idyllic honeymoon in the small obscure fishing village of Benidorm (“probably too small to be on your map”). She did not approve of the bullfight she saw. “The killing isn’t even neat, and with all the chances against it, we felt disgusted and sickened by such brutality.”

There are misjudgements in the editing of the volume. As is now house style for Faber & Faber correspondence present locations of letters are given (when that specialist information could have been given as end notes) yet no places are given for the location letters were written from. This is same as the Ted Hughes and T.S. Eliot letters. This was not always the case. The Larkin letters (published 1992) do have locations given.

The notes are prolific and detailed, sometimes excessively. When Plath mentions enclosing stamp hinges what is gained by annotating “The enclosed stamp hinges are no longer with the letter”? The biographical notes refer not just to recipients but individuals mentioned. Likewise, many of these are useful but footnotes for passing mentions to schoolmates could be considered excessive. It is sobering to see biographical notes on Plath’s school and university friends reading “(1932-   )”. Plath too could still be alive now if she had not taken her own life over 50 years ago.

As this first volume closes, the prospect of the second volume offers us more varied correspondents – editors, authors, in-laws and so on – as she becomes a public figure in the British literary scene. It also promises insight into her final painful months.

Plath is much more than a victim. To underplay her complexity and her cool calculation as a writer is to ascribe to her little more than reactive emotionality. Indeed, if she were primarily the caricature of a hot-housed daughter, spurned wife and troubled mother – as many academics and students reduce her to – then she would be no writer at all. Above all the epithet “tragic” is a sweeping patronising description of a life as richly varied as any and presents the poet to be a helpless hostage in the grip of malevolent circumstances. Tragedy is a concept that is necessarily a retrospective judgement and is enmeshed in the idea of inevitability. Supporters of Plath who are driven by gender-political motivations exaggerate both her brilliant originality as a poet and the overwhelming influence of her husband’s infidelity in her choice of suicide. Plath was a great poet but very much a product of her time, influenced by her reading and her peers. Plath was distressed by Hughes’s infidelity but she was also subject to internal pressures and psychological issues present since her youth, not to mention the difficulty of coping alone with two young children whilst on powerful mood-altering medication. To understand anything about Plath the writer we must acknowledge her cunning, her craft, her ambition, her immersion in literature and her ambivalence. This understanding opens us up to acknowledging Plath’s complexity as a person.

There is no better way to understand that complexity than to read her letters.

II.

In 1740 Samuel Richardson published one of the first novels in English, titled Pamela or Virtue Rewarded. In this book we are presented with a coherent directed narrative telling a story in the form of authentic letters between various characters. The author plays with boundaries of fiction and factuality, though readers can feel fairly certain they are reading a work of fiction. In this novel (and two subsequent ones) we get ostensibly independent documents which are really guided by the hand of the omniscient omnipotent author. We at once are immersed in a story, experience it through differing perspectives and appreciate the author’s ingenuity. It complements our intelligence and we in turn admire the craft put into this story. We enjoy the narrative and meta-narrative. Like Tristam Shandy, another experimental early novel, Richardson’s novels approach a near Post-Modernist play of pretence and self-awareness. The works were necessarily experimental as the English novel was only then being invented.

There is a peculiar aspect to reading collected letters by a single writer without replies. Unlike poems or stories, which although they might be related are individual communications, letters are incomplete. Lacking the chain of interchange, we confront something incomplete: a two-part musical score with half the pages missing.

Readers who are well informed about a subject find themselves reading letters through an external framework. If we read a book of collected letters in sequence, we read early letters with a degree of impatience, wanting to get to more accomplished writing and varied correspondents. We become tired of reading news repeated to multiple correspondents, especially in a complete (rather than selected) collection. We await significant career milestones, personal events and historical events, anticipating the writer’s responses. We search the last letter for profound insights into life or a final message to the world. Like attendees of a play we have seen before, we know what is in the characters’ future. The dramatic irony is that we know the accomplishments, tragedies, betrayals and reverses of fortune which lie ahead of the characters while those individuals do not. We are omniscient, watching characters struggling to overcome obstacles and challenges in their path, judging their morality and fortitude in their most private words. We have the power to skip ahead or go back – even of dismissing the spectacle by simply declining to read on.

Thus we as readers who consume a collection of letters have a unique response to the text – a text moreover that the author never actually wrote. The author wrote small texts and sent them to different readers without thought to how they would work together. It would be like printing a transcript of someone’s speech over the course of a day without context, pauses and responses. We encounter multiple discrete texts to different recipients in a totalised, cumulative and sequential manner. Books of letters do not have to be read in such a way and certainly researchers or students do use such books as reference resources. Our expectations adjust but we are beings formed of experience and temperament and it is impossible for us to entirely detach our expectations of narrative, drama and reading pleasure which colour our responses to a collection of letters. This is not to suggest that collections of letters and readings of them are misleading or intrinsically flawed. They are, of course, as every human endeavour and response must be but that is not the point. The point is that reading letters in collected form presents us with a distortion that we should constantly remind ourselves is a distortion.

Consider the case of diary reading. It has often been said that diaries are repositories of disappointment and disgruntlement, places where writers can unload their negative feelings to experience catharsis and meet no opposition or scrutiny. Consequently, diaries appear to readers as negative, bitter and petty. In truth they often are but they are a partial presentation of the self and as a record of character diaries can be very misleading, even if we constantly remind ourselves of the bias. With letters the matter we must bear in mind is not a distortion in the source (although it is natural that a writer communicates certain things and withholds other things on purpose) but that we are watching a film composed of multiple different silent films which flicker in and out and overlaying that is our historical understanding, which forms a continuous soundtrack which is anachronistic and not necessarily congruent with the film passages. Yet as we watch this film we naturally wish to consider it whole, narratively comprehensible and authored. Our human tendency forms this discordant fusion.

As long as we are aware of this tendency we can better understand our own reactions to reading volumes of letters and not succumbing to the temptation of believing we understand more than we actually do.

 

Sylvia Plath, (Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, eds.), The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume I: 1940-1956, Faber & Faber, 2017, hardback, 1,424pp, col. illus., £35, ISBN 978 0571 328 994

© Alexander Adams

Arshile Gorky: A Life in Documents

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Arshile Gorky (1904?-1948), born Vostanig Manoug Adoian, was an Armenian-American painter who became a seminal figure in the development of the New York School. His art fused European Surrealist painting and the art that would become American Abstract Expressionism. The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents is a new edition of Goats on The Roof (2009). This new expanded edition collects the artist’s letters, statements and interviews, along with newspaper articles, letters, statements, memoirs and interviews with people who knew him.

Gorky was probably born in 1904 in Armenia. He and his sisters lived through the Armenian Genocide (1915-23) though his mother starved to death. In 1920 Gorky emigrated to the USA. He began studying art in Boston and later New York before being appointed to a fine-art teaching job in New York whilst still young. He worked assiduously and became technically proficient, mastering multiple techniques which allowed him to make art similar to that of the Impressionists, Miró, Cézanne, Léger and Picasso. While this ability was admired, observers had reservations. Who exactly was Gorky when he wanted to be himself as an artist? Was this uncanny ability to adopt the mannerisms of senior artists an extended apprenticeship or a way of evading committing to an individual style?

Gorky complicated matters by embroidering his past: he claimed to be born in Russia or Georgia and be a relative of Maxim Gorky, he said he was a student of Kandinsky and that he had studied in Paris and Rhode Island. Gorky became seen as a living master and romantic figure who was a link to Europe, despite the fact that he came directly to the USA from Armenia/Turkey and never visited Western Europe. He was ambivalent about his Armenian past. He loved to Armenian music and dance and to spend time with ex-patriate Armenians; he wore traditional woven garments. Yet he also hid his true origins from others. His second wife did not know he was Armenian until after his death. He was committed to being an American and achieving recognition in the USA as an American painter.

Gorky made a great impression on people he met. His imposing height, distinctive handsome features and air of tragedy struck interlocutors. He stocked his immaculate Union Square studio with masses of the finest materials, dazzling visitors such as the young Willem de Kooning. His air of foreign sophistication further impressed people. He held himself aloof from artistic groups and chose mostly not to exhibit in mixed exhibitions.

Gorky worked in the mural section of the Federal Art Project, the government programme intended to support artists during the Depression. The programme was launched in 1933 by the Roosevelt administration, with the FAP mural division providing paintings for public buildings. Gorky’s ambitious design for Newark Airport was accepted and completed in 1937. (The mural was destroyed during World War II. Such large projects by the FAP mural division met similar fates.)

The majority of Gorky’s letters were to his sister Vartush and mainly dealt with family matters and news of his latest commissions and exhibitions, taking pride in his advances through the tiny and competitive art world of New in the 1930s. Gorky also wrote to his second wife, Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder, whom he married on 5 September 1941. They had two children together. The brief notes that Gorky and Mougouch wrote to each other when apart testify to Gorky’s affection for his family but do not reveal much about his art. Mougouch’s letters to friends and patrons of Gorky give us more information.

In September 1939 the centre of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. Refugee artists and uprooted collectors converged on New York and the American artists, who until then had been outsiders, found themselves rubbing shoulders with legendary figures. Stimulated by dialogue and competition, American artists and collectors began to assert themselves as pioneers. Gorky was well placed to take advantage of the situation.

Stimulated by the art of young Surrealist Matta, Gorky changed his Miroesque abstractions into paintings that were more dynamic, organic and sensual. His biomorphic forms related to plants and animals he observed in New England and remembered from Armenia. Colours became richer and more expressive; his lines became energetic; his brushwork more varied. He did not fully back the automatist position of the Surrealists, preferring to develop his forms and compositions thoroughly in complex and heavily worked drawings, often with colour. Only now did he find a personal synthesis that marked him as unique.

A solo exhibition of Gorky’s paintings (with a catalogue written by Andre Breton) in March 1945 at Julien Levy’s gallery in New York established Gorky as a major modern painter who presented a new link, connecting American art to Surrealism. However, the succès d’estime did not translate into financial security for him and his family. Additionally, the support of Breton and the Surrealists marked Gorky’s art as French, not truly American. By allying himself to Breton, Gorky had committed himself an artist seeking the stamp of sophisticated foreign tastemakers. Fellow painters felt that Gorky’s detachment was perhaps snobbery. Although that was not the case – many close associates realised that Gorky was shy and secretive rather egotistical – the idea took root.

Financial problems, a 1947 studio fire which destroyed much of recent art, a major medical operation which permanently debilitated him, marital breakdown and a road accident that left his painting arm weakened: these catastrophes weighed down the proud and sensitive man. On 21 July 1948 Gorky committed suicide. His loss was mourned by collectors, critics and – particularly – fellow artists. Many tributes were paid in the following years.

The two versions of this collection supersede another previous publication which included passages forged by a relative and ascribed to Gorky. Gorky was powerfully influenced by childhood memories but he did not write about this much. Much of his letter writing was brief, to the point and concerned with family and career news, not dwelling upon the past. The forging of childhood reminiscences came about because Gorky is a talismanic artist for Armenians. He is one of the few Armenian artists who achieved international fame, acclaim and influence. For such a prominent figure – especially one who personally witnessed the Armenian Genocide – not to have written more directly about his homeland is a nagging absence for Armenians seeking a public voice for their history, motivated by national pride and a desire to have a cultural hero for the Armenian diaspora. Gorky’s The Artist and his Mother (two versions) has become a treasured icon memorialising the national tragedy.

It is impossible to do Gorky’s art justice in a brief review. The Plow and The Song is an authoritative source on the artist’s development. There are generous colour illustrations of art and photographs of Gorky and friends and family. This volume alone allows us an inside understanding of Gorky’s approach, sometimes seeing it through the eyes of the newspaper critics who reviewed the work as it was first exhibited. The Plow and The Song is a fitting publication documenting one of abstraction’s – and Armenia’s – most significant artists.

 

Arshile Gorky, Matthew Spender (ed.), The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents, Hauser & Wirth, 2018, cloth flexicover, 584pp, fully col./mono illus., £40/$50, ISBN 978 3 906915 08 1

© Alexander Adams

Jack Kerouac as Artist

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Kerouac: Beat Painting is the catalogue for an exhibition held at Museo MAGA, Gallarate (2 December 2017-22 April 2018) of the art of Jack Kerouac (1922-1968). Jack Kerouac was one of the founders of – and most famous member of – the Beat Generation of the 1950s and early 1960s. He was elevated to fame and notoriety by the success of On The Road (1957) and series of popular semi-autobiographical novels published thereafter. The seminal On The Road established many of the staples of Beat counter culture: Buddhism and Oriental spirituality, jazz, black culture, drugs, drink, sexual freedom and the lure of the road.

Kerouac was an amateur artist, something that he mentioned in his writings. The examples exhibited in Gallarate included drawings and paintings on paper and canvas. Subjects are portraits, symbolic tableaux, isolated figures, abstracts, religious imagery, scenes of everyday life, a handful of landscapes and doodles. There are palimpsests within which overall pattern and figural forms interact. There is one scene of boats on shore. There is a pencil drawing of a sea view from the roof terrace of Burroughs’ Tangiers residence, Hotel El Muniria. Kerouac visited his friend in 1957 and (being a skilled and speedy typist) he typed up the manuscript of Naked Lunch – until it gave him nightmares.

The portraits are symbolic portraits, portraits of famous personalities (including Truman Capote and Joan Crawford) and some generic figures. There are a few recognisable portraits of people Kerouac knew, including his father, lover Dody Muller and a powerful profile of William Burroughs.

There are images which depict memories of family scenes from Kerouac’s childhood, reframed as religious scene. His strongly Catholic upbringing coloured his outlook – no more obviously than in his conception of his family life. The death of his brother Gerard was treated by Kerouac as nothing less than the death of saint or a holy innocent. There are drawings of crucifixion crosses without Christ figures. There is a painting of a sacred heart which has a touch of Guston to it – although made before Guston’s celebrated return to figuration in 1968-9. Other images are related to mandalas, cosmic forms and over-layered figures (referring to reincarnation?) which are connected to Buddhism. Much of Kerouac’s thoughts about spirituality revolved around developing a syncretic synthesis of Buddhism and Catholicism.

During 1958-1960 Kerouac had an affair with Dody Muller, a painter who introduced him to abstract art first hand. The art of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists impressed Kerouac and influenced his own art. He was friends with Franz Kline and worked alongside his neighbour in Northport, NY painter Stanley Twardowicz. Some of Kerouac’s art could be described as Abstract Expressionist. His abstracts include brushed and puddled paint, also finger painting. The art is roughly and lightly worked, with much of the ground showing through. A pastel of blurred forms is vaporous, contrasting with the visceral impasto and strong forms of paintings, some with metallic paint – an aspect of Pollock’s painting that he may have picked up from artist friends. Kerouac spent time in San Francisco, which had a vigorous abstract art scene, which he would have known about.

Kerouac wrote “USE BRUSH SPONTANEOUSLY without drawing; without long pause or delay; without erasing… pile it on.” This accords to the principle of automatism of the Abstract Expressionists which had been taken the concept from Surrealism. “28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better.” That refers to writing but equally apply to Kerouac’s art.

In some respects this lack of revision accords with the Beat idea of creativity untrammelled, in a version of stream-of-consciousness monologue. Likewise, the directness of application was in line with Kerouac’s aesthetic of personal directness, which differed from Burroughs’ aesthetic of using mechanical means to process pre-existing material, as we find in the Cut-Ups.

The Beats often debated art, especially Cézanne, Van Gogh, the ideas of Artaud and the example of William Blake, an eccentric visionary poet who also made art. There are obvious links between be-bop jazz, Charlie Parker, Action Painting, improvisation and Kerouac’s creative output, which is briefly covered in catalogue texts.

There are certain characteristics common to amateur artists that we can discern in Kerouac’s art: frequent changes of idioms, experimental use of materials which are widely divergent, a lack of sustained effort to forge a consistent style, a wide variety of genre and subjects, inconsistent palette, modest size, cheap craft materials. The majority of pictures are on paper, with some sheets from a spiral-bound sketchbook.

It is clear from these examples that Kerouac is classifiable as an amateur. The art manifests an absence of skill which contrasts with the ingrained care and flair for language abundant in his writing. One of the essential points of amateur artists is that their production does not have a core – it is episodic not serial in nature. This results in not an erratic artist but effectively a dozen artists existing in one creator, most unrelated to each other.

Almost none of the sheets are dated. One question that is not resolved in the catalogue texts is how representative of his output as a whole this selection is. With the work of an unknown/little-known artist it is fundamental to use early publications to outline the extent of the corpus. This information fundamentally shapes our view of what we are seeing and is a basis for later studies.

How Beat are these pictures? Probably more Beat in approach and tone rather than content. What does Beat mean in terms of content? The life of the Beats and people following the ostensible Beat lifestyle; art encapsulating the Beat worldview; the subjects of Beat writings, namely refuseniks and the refused, junkies and drifters, radiant rent boys and beatific whores, truth-seekers and vision-chasers, petty criminals and cracked prophets. It is hard to find much of this in terms of imagery in Kerouac’s art.

This raises the question, is everything that Kerouac produced Beat? That is, is everything creative that Kerouac produced during maturity necessarily congruent with Beat ideas? Do the most idiosyncratic fusions of personal memories and religious associations function publically in a Beat manner at all? And why should they? It could be asserted that the Beat movement had little by way of aesthetic programme; its principle of freeing the individual from group-enforced convention covers the free expression of Beat creators and Beat followers. That should include Kerouac’s art, which we could call “Beat enabled” if not “Beat directed”.

How serious was Kerouac as an artist? It is hard to tell. In some respects his art is similar to that of Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs, both in approach and style. Although Kerouac was emotionally attached to art making and often mentioned that in his letters, judging his art – albeit on this limited selection and in ignorance of the composition of his visual corpus – suggests that he did not convert that affiliation into a sustained effort.

Catalogue texts discuss Kerouac’s contacts with artists, links between his writing and art, his use of religious symbolism and his improvisation in art and writing. All works are reproduced in colour. Generally these are high quality but a few photographs of art are not adequately focused. That should not detract from the pleasure readers will have discerning links between the author’s writings and his art.

 

Sandrina Bandera, Alessandro Castiglioni, Emma Zanella (eds.), Kerouac: Beat Painting, Skira/MAGA, 2018, hardback, 176pp, 87 col. illus., $39.95/C$50/£30/€34, ISBN 978 88 572 37794

© Alexander Adams

Tunirrusiangit / ᑐᓂᕐᕈᓯᐊᖏᑦ

Photography by Ian Lefebvre[Image: Kenojuak Ashevak, Seamaids (1978). Stonecut on paper, Sheet: 61.7 × 91.8 cm. Gift of Samuel and Esther Sarick, Toronto, 2002. © Estate of Kenojuak Ashevak]

Tunirrusiangit / ᑐᓂᕐᕈᓯᐊᖏᑦ Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak is the current exhibition at Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (16 June-12 August 2018) examining art made by two Inuit artists. Tunirrusiangit is the Inuktitut for “their gifts”, which is how members of the Inuit see the art of these two major figures in the Canadian-Inuit art world. Both artists lived in the Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homelands in Canada) and their art is a personal response to the lives and the traditions of their people. Both artists developed unique voices by departing from tradition in some respects. This review is from the catalogue.

Inuit art comprises many aspects and materials and it is not possible to accurately summarise in a short review. However, characteristics of earlier Inuit art that are relevant are a reliance on abstract patterns (especially curvilinear petal/feather forms), flat colour, a distinctly linear character, frequent use of profile and a preference for flatter as opposed to rounded modelling. Subjects often include nature, mythology, hunting, domestic and family life and essential human themes of birth, death and daily life. Materials include bone (especially whalebone), ivory (especially walrus tusk), stone carving, weaving and sewing. This has broadened in recent years to incorporate some elements of Western art and now Inuit artists use many of the tools, materials and techniques common worldwide. Tradition and modernity exist side by side – no more apparent than when a traditional theme is treated with new imported materials or a new aspect of daily life is depicted using time-honoured techniques and local materials.

Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013) lived her early life as a nomadic hunter and became involved in making art during a prolonged hospital stay in 1952-5.  She took art seriously when a co-operative was founded in 1959, assisting Inuit artists to promote and sell their work. For Kenojuak, she made art to support her family in the same way that she had hunted in her youth. She said, “There is no word for art. We say it is to transfer something from real to the unreal.” Thus art existed as a tool to feed and clothe herself and her family and also had a status similar to a nameless magic – the transformation of reality. Owls, geese, waders and other birds are visable in the graphics; more fantastic birds with rainbow plumage abound. Elongated feathers take on decorative beguiling qualities. The sun is a symbol of life with a female face and dotted tattoos. Fish, bears and dogs appear less often. Usually the motif floats free of any surroundings and exists as a symbol or icon.

Photography by Ian Lefebvre

[Image: Kenojuak Ashevak, The Woman Who Lives in the Sun (1960), Stonecut on paper, Overall: 49.7 x 66.2 cm. Gift of Samuel and Esther Sarick, Toronto, 2002. © Estate of Kenojuak Ashevak.]

The artist described her approach as intuitive, rarely making mistakes and allowing the image to develop without planning. Her art has bold curvilinear petal forms typical of Inuit art and dense patterning (in both descriptive and schematic forms). The stonecut prints, with raised designs carved on slabs of soft soapstone and inked with graduated colours on the matrix, are sometimes printed on Himalayan or Japanese mulberry paper. The clarity and forcefulness of these prints makes them ideal works for collectors. The artist also made intaglio engravings and lithographs. Most of her prints and later drawings bear her name in Inuktitut script.

Kenojuak’s colours are strong and usually limited in number. The most striking works are those with only a few colours. Many of the drawings were made with felt-tip pens, attesting to the importance of colour to Kenojuak. Unfortunately, such materials are not lightfast so careful conservation will be required. Happily, since Kenojuak’s art is now valuable, these drawings should receive the conservation attention it may need.

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[Image: Kenojuak Ashevak © Couvrette/Ottawa.]

A documentary film was made about her in 1963 and in 1970 her drawing Red Owl (1960) was featured in a sought after stamp. Over the years her art received a great deal of exposure, becoming Canada’s first high profile Inuit artist. She was awarded Canada’s highest honours and her art now achieves high prices. It is easy to see the appeal of her art from even this limited selection.

Timootee “Tim” Pitsiulak (1967-2016) was an artist, sculptor, jeweller and hunter resident at Cape Dorset. Subjects of his drawings were myth, animals, landscape and everyday life. Pitsiulak drew using coloured pencils of pastels on paper, sometimes on black paper. A particularly amusing drawing is Hero 4 (2015) in which two walruses sit on a beach. From the edge a digital camera taped to a stick waves towards the animals, encapsulating the juxtaposition of untamed nature and modern technology wielded by the wary spectator. Hunting wild animals is still a vital cultural, dietary and economic activity for the Inuit. In this case the bystander is intending on shooting video footage, the next day he might be shooting the animals dead. Inuit artists never present hunting as a moral quandary because it is not one. There is no conflict between admiring the strength and beauty of animals, revering them as spirits, and killing for necessity.

TD 10

[Image: Tim Pitsiulak, Morning Commute (2015), Pastel on Arches black paper, 76.2 x 111.8 cm. TD Bank Group Corporate Art Collection & The TD Gallery of Inuit Art © Estate of Tim Pitsiulak.]

Pitsiulak’s style varied from the realistic to the highly schematic, the latter reminiscent of traditional linear Inuit style. In the pastel-on-black-paper drawing How They Caught Big Game (2016) we see at the centre a depiction of a carved comb with net motif; at the edge of the drawing along a partial frame are simplified hunters in kayaks killing and hauling walruses. Whale and Hunters (2014) is a sophisticated distillation. This pastel drawing presents a dead whale seen at eye level, hunters in kayaks in traditional polar-bear-skin garments are stark against the black-paper ground.

Tim Pitsiulak walruses

[Image: Tim Pitsiulak, Hero 4 (2015), Pastel, 76.2 x 111.8 cm. Collection of Craig Wilbanks and Monty Kehl © Estate of Tim Pitsiulak.]

In GoPro Hydrophone (2016) shows the artist using his GoPro camera to monitor the sound of fish, whale and seal, something that he did on hunting expeditions. Pitsiulak does not shy away from the bloody end of the hunt in his art: there are scenes of killing, dragging and butchering. Pitsiulak compared making art to hunting, needing patience and skill.

There are some striking landscapes and views of ice floes, strongly colour and employing black and white grounds effectively. Qalupalik Maqgoo (2012) is a rendering of a the underwater monsters of folk tales told to children to warn them off thin spring ice. A huge drawing (1.2 x 2.4m) shows a whale covered with glyphs of Inuit life: sleds and dogs, igloo, kayaks, caribou, fish and topographic plans. As the life of the whale makes life possible for the Inuit, so the whale’s exterior is inscribed with a macrocosm of Inuit life. It is a daring visualisation that is symbolically meaningful and visually rich.

The catalogue displays Pitsiulak’s strength as an artist and his early death in 2016 is a real loss to Inuit (and Canadian) art. All of Pitsiulak’s art in this exhibition is from 2007 and after, most of it from the last few years of his life. Let us hope a full retrospective exhibition and catalogue can be produced to mark his achievements.

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[Image: Tim Pitsiulak, artist in residence at Open Studio in Toronto. Photo © Cheryl Rondeau.]

This catalogue reproduces many works by the two artists, includes photographs of the artists at work, commentary on that art by fellow Inuit creators, poems and images of their art. The poems of Taqralik Partridge are particularly good – sharp imagery, clean diction, concise. This catalogue is recommended to anyone interested in finding out more about the world’s most northerly artists.

 

Koomuatak Curley, Taqralik Partridge et al, Tunirrusiangit / ᑐᓂᕐᕈᓯᐊᖏᑦ Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak, Goose Lane Editions/Art Gallery of Ontario, 2018, hardback, 160pp, fully col. illus., C$45, ISBN 978 1 77310 091 3

© Alexander Adams

31 July 2018

Japanese Prints in the Collection of Vincent Van Gogh

 

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[Image: Utagawa Hiroshige, The Outskirts of Koshigaya in Musashi Province, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, 1858, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

In 1886 Vincent Van Gogh bought a batch of around 660 Japanese woodblock prints from a Paris dealer. He intended to sell them on for a profit, benefitting from the fashion for Japonisme that had been current since the Exposition Universelle in 1878. As it turned out, he did not buy especially good examples of prints, opting for quantity over quality. His February-March 1887 display at the Le Tambourin café was a commercial failure (in a catalogue essay Chris Uhlenbeck suggests Van Gogh overpriced) and Van Gogh and his brother were left with unsold stock. Those unsold prints became a resource for the artist. Van Gogh was already aware of Japanese prints before but now, with a large selection to hand, he could examine them at length and absorb the style of masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige, Utagawa Kunisada and Utagawa Kunisada.

This catalogue adds more to the recent exhibition Van Gogh and Japan (see my review here).

He used the prints to decorate his rooms and planned to trade them for works of art, though apparently this did not come to pass. Some prints went to his sister Willemien and after her death these returned to the collection of Vincent Van Gogh junior (son of Theo). Thus most of the 660 prints Van Gogh bought passed eventually to the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The current count is 511 sheets.

The classic Japanese colour woodblock print was discovered in 1765, developing from the uncoloured print. It is characterised by prominent black linear designs separating flat planes of strong unmixed colour, strong diagonal and absence of chiaroscuro and shadow (in the early period). A lot of this fed into the paintings that Van Gogh made in south of France 1888-90. Indeed when he arrived in the region for the first time he wrote ecstatically to his brother about the intense light and vivid colours as being the Japan of Europe.

Hokusai’s manga (sketchbooks, published over many decades) included drawings of people, flora, fauna and supernatural beings. The manga were an inspiration for Van Gogh and led to his refining his drawing technique with ink and reed pen. This catalogue only touches upon that, as it is addressed in other books in detail.

Some sheets Van Gogh bought were only parts of triptychs. For practical reasons, Japanese prints used sheets at a standard size, so for larger pictures makers used multiple linked designs printed on individual sheets and hung them together. Uhlenbeck writes, “Van Gogh unfortunately never commented in writing on multiple-sheet compositions. It is possible that he did not know that many of the designs in his collection were incomplete, and this may have affected his conception of the Japanese rules of composition.”

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[Image: Utagawa Kunisada, View of the Spring Rain, central sheet of a triptych, 1820–29, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

There are a number of notable absences in the collection. There are few horizontal landscapes, which may have been in the Le Tambourin exhibition and later confiscated by creditors when the café was closed. The absence of war scenes may have been because fewer of those prints were exported by Japanese traders keen to downplay their country’s violent past. The absence of shunga (erotic prints) might have been because they were too pricey for Van Gogh. It is hard to know what exactly motivated Van Gogh’s choices, apart from cost and availability. Did he buy what he thought would appeal to general collectors or what he found appealing? Did he aim to collect work that presented a variety in terms of subject, age and format or were these aspects relatively unimportant?

While there are a number of fine prints, the majority are not outstanding pieces according to experts. For example, there are no prints by Hokusai, who was by 1886 already too well known and costly for Van Gogh. There are a number of prints featuring trees, particularly ones with jutting irregular trunks and branches and it is reasonable to assume that these images caught Van Gogh’s eye because they reminded him of the trees of his native Brabant. In these cases at least, Van Gogh was using his personal artistic taste in the selection.

Van Gogh was especially partial towards so-called “crépon” prints (technically chirimen-e), which were prints which had been subjected to a mechanical process which textured the paper. Uhlenbeck describes the process of crêping, which led to the paper crinkling and shrinking, the edges becoming uneven. He bought 20 examples. It seems at least some of the crépon prints in Van Gogh’s collection were recent and manufactured expressly for the export market.

This catalogue presents new information about the prints. Data regarding artists, subjects and dates have rounded out our knowledge about the collection. The conditions of prints have been assessed and the illustrations show the uncropped sheets, including the tattered margins and pinholes, showing how the prints were handled and used. Van Gogh is known to have pinned some to walls and specks of oil paint can be detected, meaning that they were hung near his easel. The prints that he copied have been identified. There are missing prints and Van Gogh did know other prints from books, magazines, illustrations and visits to galleries. Even so, this largely intact collection provides us with a useful resource which allows us to understand Van Gogh’s taste and knowledge.

 

Louis van Tilborgh (ed.), Japanese Prints: The Collection of Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Thames & Hudson, 2018, hardback, $45, 224pp, over 170 col. illus., ISBN 978 0500 23 9896

© Alexander Adams