Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation

GL.014 copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GL.003 copy

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

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

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

 

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

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

History of Art in Japan

Muchaku_(detail,_2)

[Image: Unkei, Asanga (1212), carved and painted wood. Source: Wikimedia]

The scope of this volume is extensive. The author intends to outline the main features, persistent ideas and developments in Japanese fine arts, crafts and architecture from pre-history to today. Tsuji outlines the development of Japan’s culture through artefacts from its early eras of Jōmon, Yayoi, Kofun, Nara, Heian and Medieval. The subsequent Edo and Modern periods are much more familiar to non-Japanese readers and these are covered in more detail because of the complexity and large amount of documentation and artefacts from this time.

The cord patterning and stippling in winding linear layouts of the pot decoration in the Jōmon period (9300-500 BCE) can be seen as forerunners of Japanese fine art of our day, such as that by Minoru Onoda. Prefigured Modernism abounds in Japanese art. “[…] another dogū [freestanding ceramic figurines], discovered in 1992 at the Nishinomae site in Yamagata prefecture and designated as a National Treasure in 2012, whose legs suggest that the figure is wearing pants; the sharp drop along the back recalls the forms of sculptor Ossip Zadkine.” Debates continue about the relative levels immigration from Korea in the Yayoi period; what is not in dispute was the importance of their visual culture.

According to tradition, in 522 Buddhism arrived in Japan from China and in 538 it began to be incorporated into the imperial court. In the following centuries, carvings of the Buddha were fusions of indigenous Japanese culture and imported Korean and Chinese statuary. These were made from stone or wood, often gilded or intricately painted with paint and lacquer. Later statues showed sophisticated manipulation of pattern, emphatic volume, simplified forms and drapery, even with the loss of polychromy. Buddhist temples became more sophisticated and the Izumo-taisha (Izumo grand shrine) was constructed on giant pillars that may have been as tall as 100 metres, reached by a long straight staircase. The use of wood and paper in architecture has meant that early structures have been lost and rebuilt. At this time shōgon (sacred ornament) became a major strand in craft production. Tsuji explains the theological basis for the statues, mandalas and narrative paintings that dominate art in the following eras.

In the Middle Heian period (894-1086), isolation from the continent led to development of a more synthesised Japanese style (wayō). By this stage the main pillars of Japanese visual culture are well established. The art and craft are all recognisably Japanese, with architecture being more closely tied to Chinese models. Zōchōten (Virudhaka) (839) (carved wood with lacquer, colour and gold leaf, 182.5 cm high) has the guardian king in an imposing martial stance, the elaborate drapery and clothing emphasising rather than concealing his stature. His fierce visage is turned in profile, powerfully framed by a halo of fire. There is nothing of such accomplishment from the same period in Europe. The author comments on similarities between this group of statues and Indian carving.

Lacquer work and inlay on furniture had an established repertoire of decorative motifs by the early C12th – waves, flowers and other plants, mountains, clouds, animals. Painting was executed on scrolls, silk, fans, plaster walls, paper-panel walls and screens. Many paintings from temples or monasteries were discoloured by soot or destroyed by fire. The survival of painted screens from 1050-1100 allows us to get a glimpse of painting from the Late Heian period. Paintings at this time were religious, narrative or decorative in character; painting qua painting did not exist as a separate approach at this time. Japanese fans of the time were prized in China. The history of calligraphy is intertwined with those of handscrolls and fans. Buddhist scripture provided opportunities for imagination in the depiction of realms of heaven and hell, some of which are used as examples. Vivid scenes of suffering, famine, degradation and torture seem to be a mixture of observation of life at the time and pure imagination. The suffering of human existence is an important teaching of the Buddha, so such scenes are common throughout the region. A notable example is a grisly scene of the C13th of putrefaction and bodily dissolution, Aspects of the Unclean Human Path. In the late C13th a wave of Ch’an monks from China fleeing the Mongol invasion brought Zen teaching to Japan. It subsequently became the predominant school of Buddhism in the Japanese islands. Much of Japanese art continued to be influenced by China. One transplanted idea that the Japanese monks perfected was the idea of the dry garden, where water features were replaced by areas of raked gravel.

SONY DSC

[Image: Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara. Source: Wikimedia: By 663highland – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4369910%5D

The key architectural masterpiece in Japan is the Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara featuring the classic double-roof, top roof steeply pitched, lower roof shallow, both with lifted corners. It houses two brilliantly expressive statues (1203) carved in wood by Unkei and Kaikei. For an analogue of great art that fuses realism and emotional hyper-expression we in the west could think of Grünewald’s Colmar Altarpiece (1512-6). Unkei’s other works display a forceful, reserved realism, including a masterful portrait of the monk Asanga (1212). Kaikei was more indebted to Song-style religious statuary. Wood carving at this time reached remarkable heights of competence and expressiveness without compromising the need to convey dignity and restraint. In contrast, painted portraits attributed to Fujiwara no Takanobu (d. 1204/5) situate the stylistic but realistic heads on bodies that are rendered geometric by their costumes.

Minamoto_no_Yoritomo

[Image: Fujiwara no Takanobu (attr.), Portrait of Yoritomo (1179), ink on silk scroll, 29 x 236 cm. Source: Wikimedia]

The Nanbokuchō (1333-92) and Muromachi (1392-1573) periods brought advances in landscape painting and genre scenes of everyday life. Detached from historical and religious content, these areas allowed greater freedom for artists and patrons. (This coincides with the emergence of secular subjects in art in Renaissance Europe.) In the late C16th Christian missionaries made a few converts in Japan and some Japanese painters began to mimic Western-style painting. Most of this was later destroyed in anti-Christian riots but what survives seems to have been of more historical curiosity than aesthetic value. Likewise, periodic fires destroyed temples and cities built using wood and paper, depriving us of a clear picture of early phases of Japanese architecture.

The modern period of Japan is the Edo period, lasting from 1615 to 1867. At this time, art became increasingly realistic and secular. The spectacular sliding-door decoration of Kanō Sanraku (1559-1635) and son Kanō Sansetsu (1590-1651), incorporating exquisite depiction of natural elements against a gold-leaf ground shows the sophistication of the period and the effortless application of fine-art technique to architectural use.

In the 1680s the ukiyo-e (floating world style) was established by Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). These were genre scenes of everyday life in the pleasure quarters of Edo, featuring musicians, actors, geishas, courtesans and street life. Although best known in the prints of the time, the genre encompasses art in all forms. It is during the Edo period that the classic art of the colour woodblock print was developed (in 1765, by Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-1770)) and became for Westerners the epitome of Japanese visual culture. The economic sophistication of the system combined the skills of designer (eshi/gakō), cutter (horishi), printer (surishi) and publisher (hanmoto) (not neglecting the sellers) to produce an intricate system for the mass-production of great art.

In 1854 Japan was forcibly opened up to international trade and the 1867 appearance of a Japanese pavilion at the Paris international exposition marked the end of Japan’s isolation. This would mark the boom in japonisme in Europe and North America, which came to dominate the decorative arts and influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. For better and worse, the art of the West also came to Japan, to very mixed results. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was the most successful artist to adopt elements of Western style while remaining wedded to the advantages and traditions of Japan, working in prints. The adoption of copperplate engraving and oil paint used in conjunction with half-understood Western use of shading, perspective and so forth led to art that ranged from the beguiling to the deeply deficient. Many potentially competent Japanese artists ended up as makers of failed hybrids that seem ugly, ungainly and crude. Oil paint seems to have been disastrous for Japanese art, robbing it of its crispness, clarity, concision and planar qualities.

In 1867 Japanese society impressed Westerners as uniquely “Western” in its highly stratified social structure and very advanced literature and art, though lacking the widespread literacy and high average income that was beginning to begin standard in the West following the Industrial Revolution. Beyond less advanced societies in Asia, the Japanese were considered honorary Westerners in some respects. Even the tendency for women to paint their faces white was seen as a link to pale-skinned Westerners.

Japanese art of the Meiji and later periods is so wildly heterogeneous and mixed in character that it is hard for the author to describe or evaluate it. Making any general comments about Japanese art at this time is almost impossible and this is the weakest section of the book. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) stands out among the printmakers, making the most of Japanese subject matter and Western style in his colour prints. It is among the artists of nihonga (Japanese style) that we find the best of C20th art in Japan. The story reaches present day with some frames of anime and manga drawings, as well as fine-art paintings.

Tsuji explains the significance of the waves of different Buddhist teaching which directed cultural production, as well as how the art of Japan relates to the social, military, economic and imperial history of the nation. The use of proper terms will allow non-Japanese readers to acquire some familiarity – as they are defined as they are introduced – but the use does not seem excessive to this reviewer. The book has numerous illustrations of key works and typical examples. Even at 631 pages (of which 150 are reference), this book does seem long or overly detailed. Readers will likely close this book satisfied and inspired to search out monographs on certain artists and periods. As a guide History of Art in Japan meets its author’s intentions handsomely.

 

Tsuji Nobuo, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (trans.), History of Art in Japan, Columbia University Press, October 2019, paperback, 664pp, fully illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 23119 341 2 (hardback available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

John Edgar Platt, Printmaker

John Edgar Platt

John Edgar Platt (1886-1967) is one of the most prominent of the British printmakers of the inter-war period. This catalogue accompanied a solo exhibition of Platt’s art at St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire, held in 2018. Using Platt’s studio archives, Hilary Chapman has assembled this catalogue which outlines the artist’s life and work and cataloguing all his prints. The catalogue data includes much technical detail and edition sizes (both projected and achieved), which will be of value to collectors. The catalogue includes an explanation of the process of Japanese woodblock printing.

Born in Leek, the young Platt had originally intended to train as an engineer but changed to study art, studying successively at Margate Art School, Newcastle School of Art and Leek School of Art before finishing his training at the Royal College of Art. He went on to have an impressive record as a teacher in various art schools around the country. His final appointment was as head of Blackheath School of Art from 1929 until his retirement in 1950. During this time he made many of the prints in this catalogue. He gained a reputation as a representative of the colour woodblock method through writing a book (Colour Woodcuts: a Book of Reproductions and a Handbook of Method (1938)) and holding the position of President of the Society of Graver Painters in Colour.

During the Great War, Platt was instructed in Japanese colour woodblock technique by Seaby and Fletcher while at Reading School of Art. Later he would alongside British-resident, expert printer Yoshijiro Urushibara (1889-1953). Platt was part of the inter-war print revival, alongside the wood engravers such as Charles Tunnicliffe, etchers such as Graham Sutherland, the Grosvenor School linocut printmakers and British masters of colour woodblock prints Allen William Seaby, Frank Morley Fletcher, William Giles and others. This boom was ended by the Great Depression, which led to a subsequent contraction in the amount of prints produced in the 1930s.

Platt made his first colour print in 1916. It is in the Arts & Craft style, influenced by line-block illustration. It was a pastiche of the faux medieval imagery that was popular in the 1890s. Platt utilised little of the medium’s potential. Like his other early prints, it failed to make use of the drama and pictorial depth of the European chiaroscuro woodcut or the sharpness and brightness of the Japanese technique. It was in 1921 that Platt began to exploit the medium’s potential for large areas of graded colour that give Japanese woodblock prints their distinctive mixture of crisp black line work and sweeping areas of colour.

The Jetty, Sennen Cove, 1921

[Image: J.E. Platt, The Jetty, Sennen Cove (1921), colour woodblock print on paper, (c) The Estate of the Artist]

The Jetty, Sennen Cove (1921) effectively employs the graded tone and overprinting for shadow that makes the green sea in this harbour scene so clear and restful. The high horizon, aerial viewpoint and expanses of flat colour or pattern are also traits of Japanese art. Red Chestnut (1927) is a pastiche of Japanese prints. This should not be considered a derogatory assessment. The imitation was clearly an expression of devotion and fascination with the classic printmakers of Japan. Another offering (The Plough (1937)) comes directly from Japanese practice. It is a single composition printed on three vertically oriented sheets aligned horizontally but with gaps; this was commonly done by Japanese printmakers. It seems to have exhausted Platt and – with the exception of two insignificant later prints – it marked the end of his work as a printmaker. It was his largest print, was complicated by being divided between multiple sheets and he only made seven proofs.

His principal subjects in his prints are animals (wild and domestic) and harbour views. His early prints include playing children and a few later prints depict workers. A single female nude is essentially decorative, not marking a deep engagement with the subject. A pared-down, clean-line, clear-facetted style becomes apparent in 1930. This works very well for the prints of  harbour-side views including water and sky. Platt’s palette is cool and low-keyed, reliant on earth hues and tertiary colours.

By the time Brixham Trawler (1940) was made, Platt had selected to a more realistic style – or at least a hybridised style that included more concessions to realism. In the watercolour view of a harbour of 1942 (illustrated in the catalogue) we see Platt’s full realistic mode, which was sustained through to the post-war period. A patriotic scene of VE-Day from December is a touch disappointing. It is a rather ordinary scene, which looks to have been produced to mark an event rather than as an expression of artistic engagement with the topic. Platt’s late paintings are muted in coloration, subdued in tonal range and equal balancing of linearity and painterliness. At least in reproduction, the paintings lack presence, impact and distinctiveness. For today’s taste, Platt’s time as a producer of stylised Modernist prints is liable to be found the single appeal. This book well covers this area and will provide pleasure to casual readers and ideas to artists.

As well as colour woodblock prints by Platt, the catalogue includes his few engravings. The engravings date from 1929-30 and are stylistically consistent: realistic, late Arts & Crafts style, influenced by Renaissance etching. Cataloguer Hilary Chapman writes that Platt’s five engravings, made over a period of fourteen months, were the only prints that he made that were not woodblock prints.

The fact that there are only 35 woodblock prints in this catalogue is due to the arduous work involved in the producing editions from each matrix. The Japanese system involved divided labour, with designer, cutter and printer generally being discrete trades, the specialists of which could work fast and efficiently in order to mass produce colour prints. In the artisanal manner that Western printmakers had to work, they performed all stages in person, most gruellingly the printing of multiple blocks to make a single impression. To produce a single impression could involve eight over-printings per sheet, each one carefully inked, registered and rubbed with a baren. Platt did not fully edition all his prints, only making proofs as demand prompted. By 1953 the Colour Woodcut Society was defunct: commercially redundant, critically moribund and technically superseded.

This catalogue makes a fair case for Platt to be considered a serious and respected – though minor – British printmaker from the 1920s and 1930s.

 

Hilary Chapman, John Edgar Platt: Master of the Colour Woodcut, Sansom & Company/St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, 2018, paperback, 72pp, fully illus., £12.50, ISBN 978 1 911408 30 7

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

21 October 2019

Unsolved!: Tackling the world’s greatest ciphers

In Unsolved! The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers, Craig P Bauer examines a great array of ciphers, taking us from Egyptian sarcophagi to unexplained internet puzzles, via landmark mysteries such as the Zodiac Killer and Somerton Man.

“Ciphers have existed for as long as writing itself. As soon as man began writing, he needed a means to keep his messages secret. Bauer describes examples from Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Viking Scandinavia. There are cases which will be beyond the ability of virtually all readers even to attempt. And there are instances where ciphers turn out not to be ciphers. On Greek vases, for instance, there seemed to be nonsense inscriptions beside legible words. Greek scholars thought that maybe an illiterate artist was writing nonsense or filling in space, yet when an expert in ancient languages was given these transcriptions, he discovered the Greek nonsense was actually a transliteration of local languages such as Scythian, Circassian and Abkhazian…”
 

To read my complete review on Spiked, visit here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/10/16/unsolved-tackling-the-worlds-greatest-ciphers/

Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism

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[Image: Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners (1857), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (donation subject to usufruct of Mrs. Pommery)]

One of the leading French painters of mid-19th Century was Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). He was hailed as a realist, a champion of rural France, ally of the peasant and aesthetic pioneer. The current exhibition Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 4 October 2019-12 January 2020; touring to Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 16 February-17 May 2020) situates Millet at the root of much of what became known as French Modernism. It includes works by artists influenced by Millet’s example, with special attention paid to his seminal influence on Van Gogh. This review is from the catalogue.

For the average viewer Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) is as unknown as he is famous. His life and oeuvre – beyond a handful of famous works – are shadowy. It is Courbet and Manet who are revolutionary painters of modern life in the country and town respectively; it is Géricault and Delacroix who are the adventurous titans developing sophisticated hybrid styles; it is Moreau who is a mysterious hermetic artist in dialogue with an imagined Orient; it is Degas who is the multifaceted technical chameleon; it is Ingres who wrestles with reinventing history painting whilst finding new ways to paint distinguished portraits. All of these artists excite scholars and curators set on proving theories and overturn art historical assumptions. One artist who does not command frequent monographic publications and exhibitions is Millet. Why should that be so?

It may largely be down to taste. Millet’s art so comfortably fits the mould of the anecdotal illustration or idealised pastoral that our sensibilities are left cool and unengaged. This is perhaps an incorrect appreciation, as noted later in this review, but it is an understandable conclusion. On a casual level judging themes and motifs, Millet seems a serving of stodgy worthiness drenched in saccharine sentimentality. On a technical level, Millet presents us no problems. He is not an artist of fragments; he is not wracked by doubt and his paintings are not conspicuously hard wrought. Although he is a painter of working people, his art is not overtly reformist. For the leftist, he is not radical enough politically. For the critic and student, his art is certainly rich veins of social and artistic material but offers few clear new “angles”. His art has seemingly nothing to say about the industrial revolution, the growth of the cities or the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. One would search in vain for signs indicating his sympathies regarding the uprising of February 1848 and the Paris Commune. Quite the contrary – Millet appears to revel in the timeless and universal. Again, that is not quite so but superficially there is nothing particularly contemporary to his art.

Millet’s art is a place people retreat to, turning their back on novelty and difficulty. Millet, being a serious artist, has more to him than that but that part is there. One can decide the see the eternal peasant in harmony with the land he cultivates tirelessly and nothing else. Those people are not wrong and – if one is conservatively minded – Millet’s art does provide comfort in its stability and conventionality. Hence it is intriguing to anticipate what curators and scholars of today have to say about this artist to an audience who may be indifferent or even hostile to his vision of rural life.

During his lifetime and for decades after his death, Millet was a hugely popular figure domestically and internationally. His art was widely reproduced. Artists frequently copied Millet’s compositions from original paintings and prints or reproduction prints. A sale of a collection of pastels soon after the artist’s death garnered high prices. On 1 July 1889 The Angelus (c. 1857-9) sold for 553,000 francs, the highest ever price in France for a modern painting. The following year it was sold again for 750,000 francs.

Millet was born in the Normandy countryside. He pursued traditional academic training, and worked in Cherbourg and Paris. Millet was one of the most prominent figures in the Barbizon School, located in the Barbizon region, dedicated to the cause of realist depictions of landscapes and people. They advocated plein air painting and are best known for their naturalistic landscapes.

Simon Kelly states that “by the late 1850s, Millet was supplanting Gustave Courbet as the most subversive painter of peasant life as the latter turned to landscapes and hunting scenes.” Although at least one writer claimed him as a political radical upon his death, most judged him in retrospect as a link in the chain of French art. A key example is the painting that made his name at the 1857 Salon, The Gleaners. It seems that conservatives reacted against The Gleaners for the artist’s apparent sympathy for the workers gathering grain for free after a harvest, at a time when farmers had begun selling the right to glean. He did however not shy from depicting women agricultural workers (fruit pickers, shearers, milkmaids, field hands, sewers). Such unvarnished portrayals of the physical toil and the occasional indignity – particularly upon the fairer sex – drew criticism from more conservative critics when the art appeared in Salons. The ugliness of the figures was caricatured in newspapers.

Late in life, the painter turned to the creation of unpeopled landscape. These were unusual in some respects, departing from the Barbizon credo of composing from direct observation. These are manipulated compositions. One influence on these landscapes was of Japanese prints. The dramatic cropping, high horizon, aerial perspective, tonal recession, blocks of pattern without features all indicate Millet in his last decade drew upon Japanese woodblock prints the way the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists did after him.

His drawings in conté crayon were considered more modern than his paintings. They were looser in execution and less finished; some of them were studies of individual figures. The building of modelling through dense shading prompted much later art, for example Redon and the smoky sfumato of Carrière. Rightly selected for this exhibition are drawing by Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891). The conté drawings of Seurat are wonderful – atmospheric, stark and deeply ambiguous.

The pastels are more vigorous and brightly hued than his paintings. It may be that the pigments of the pastels have fared better than the oils, which is often the case when the oils, siccatives, fillers and adulterants of oil paint deteriorate over time in comparison to the more pigment-heavy medium of pastel. For whatever reason, viewers of a more modern aesthetic temperament may find themselves responding more strongly to the pastels. The Plain (c. 1868) is a fantastic example of tonal recession in a pastel landscape of a featureless expanse of land. The flatness of the ground is contrasted with the dramatic cloud and shafts of sunlight breaking upwards. The grey-blues and pale browns flicker across the depiction, becoming thicker at the horizon and starting to dematerialise the earth and vegetation. It conveys the impression of fine mist gathering between the tussocks of grass. For those who think of Millet as a painter of hearty peasants and sentimental family vignettes, this landscape alone will dispel their assumptions. It is easy to see why Monet revered him. The pastel paintings of sea cliff done by Millet in the 1860s and early 1870s may have been direct influences on Monet, prompting him to tackle the same subject at Honfleur and elsewhere in the 1880s. The pastels where the black conté outlining is too prominent in the landscapes the effects are less successful. These are coloured drawings, rigid and fixed by the demands of “colouring inside the lines”. Recession is diminished, energy confined, immersion broken. The two versions of The Cliffs of Gréville (1871 and 1871-2) have all the tedium of a diligent book illustration.

His great painting Haystacks: Autumn (c. 1874) has travelled from New York. It shows what Millet might yet have developed upon had he not died so soon after finishing this masterpiece. It is a painting full of excitement – the massive alien bulks of haystacks dwarfing the sheep, shepherd and buildings. The transporting inversion is the light lower area and dark sky during daytime, with heavy clouds threatening rain and dramatic shafts of direct sunlight illuminating the ground. In temperate zones we commonly encounter (and hence instinctively understand) landscapes to be dark material below a light sky. With the regular exception of winter snow, this is a rule that holds true almost all the time. When we find the rule inverted, with a dark sky and light ground, it is unusual and striking. Millet did this more than a few times (Spring (c. 1868-73)) and he must have instinctively understood the drama of the inversion even if he did not understand its perceptual basis.

Reproduction prints of Millet by Alfred Delauney (1830-1894) and Jacques Adrien Lavieille (1818-1862) are exhibited. They form an important link because it was frequently the intermediation of illustrators who summarised and transmitted Millet’s art to the broad public, including artists. One of the artists who spent more time with illustrations of Millet than with originals was Van Gogh. The catalogue contains a long essay by Nienke Bakker about Van Gogh’s veneration of Millet and numerous ways he emulated the master: copying directly in sketches, fuller drawings and paintings; adapting Millet’s motifs; adopting Millet’s manner and the peasant genre; invoking his spirit. Van Gogh decided to live in a rural agricultural setting to be closer to working life and garner material for his art. His Potato-Eaters (multiple versions; 1885) was a homage to Millet but envisaged in Dutch chromatic terms.

Gogh-Siesta_HR

[Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Siësta (after Millet) (1889-1890), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (gift of Mrs. Fernand Halphen, née Koenigswarter, 1952)]

 

Painting prints after Millet’s compositions in colour oils was a therapy for Van Gogh while recovering in the asylum of 1889-90. These 20 paintings were a way of forming an emotional bond with common people and families while Van Gogh was deeply depressed and isolated in the asylum, coming to terms with the fact his illness (whatever exactly it was) was serious, chronic and incurable. Abandoning his dream of marriage and fatherhood, realising that he would be forever cut off from ordinary people by his behaviour and the severity of his mental collapses and mania, Van Gogh’s paintings after Millet were a way of adjusting to a radically curtailed future. It was both a way of assuaging his loneliness and finding models when there were few people around him to pose. None of the Millet translations are great paintings. None has the spark of even one of the painted wheat fields, yet the Millet translations are heartfelt and painted with gusto and accomplishment.

Millet’s paintings of country people appealed to Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who was enamoured by the idea of primitivism revitalising art. For that reason he looked to the “less advanced” civilisations, such as those of Panama, Martinique and Tahiti, and also to the less urban, least cosmopolitan parts of France, such as Pont-Aven, Brittany and Arles, Provence. Related to this search for raw authenticity in the nativist French culture and its people, Millet’s art seemed to offer an approach that seemed fruitful for Gauguin. It may be that Millet’s influence was also transmitted to Gauguin via his mentor Pissarro. Art by Post-Impressionists Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Paul Sérusier (1864-1927) is exhibited and discussed in relation to the model of Millet and his ideas.

Maite van Dijk writes of the influence that Millet had around 1900, at a time when Neo-Impressionism was exhausted and Symbolism and Post-Impressionism were giving way to the radical movements that largely disposed of naturalism (Suprematism, Cubism, Surrealism). Art included in Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism is by Degas, Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli, Jan Toorop, Edvard Munch, Ferdinand Hodler, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and others.

 

[Image: (left) Jean-François Millet, The Angelus (1857-1859), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (bequest of Alfred Chauchard, 1910); (right) Salvador Dalí, Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus (1933-1935), oil on panel, © Salvador Dali, Fundacion Gala-Salvador Dali, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2019]

One of the more notable inclusions is Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). His attachment to the art of Millet may have been part emotional, part fealty to the traditional art of his childhood, but it is in part perverse. What could be more subversive in an avant-garde than to praise pompier painters, academicians and a beloved old warhorse such as Millet? We could say that Dalí was embodying the true spirit of perversity and rebellion that Surrealism demanded by flouting every norm of Modernity. To give his perverse attachment a further twist, Dalí opined publicly about his sexual complex regarding the The Angelus. Dalí’s delirious fantasies fused the personal and universal, the nobility of religion and the animal desire of sex. He interpreted the couple as praying over the body of their son and that the woman was a praying mantis, about to devour the man. The pitchfork in the earth, Dalí saw as a Freudian symbol of copulation. The Angelus was quoted or copied by Dalí in a number of striking paintings and seems to have been a genuine obsession for the artist. The outcome was a sequence of paintings and drawings in the early 1930s. These turned out to some of the best works made during his prime period (roughly 1929-1936, at a stretch up to 1938) and have become art that is fully integrated into Dalí peculiar cosmology and expressed through his “paranoiac-critical method”. Dalí’s responses to Millet are some of the strangest and fertile in this survey.

The absence of Constantin Meunier (1831-1905) from the exhibition and catalogue is a peculiar and serious omission. Meunier is one of the most influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. His working figures were the template for the realism, social realism and Socialist Realism that dominated the period. Indeed, if we were to measure importance according to the quantity of art that followed his lead directly and indirectly, we might say Meunier was much more influential that Van Gogh or Picasso. It may be that Meunier’s preference for the miners, ironworkers, stevedores and other workers in the heavy industries of coal country may have made his art appear dissimilar to Millet. Far from it. Meunier comes directly from Millet. Woman Baking Bread (1854) is a direct forerunner to Meunier’s scenes of workers at a furnace. One does not need to know his bronze reliefs of scything peasants (Musée Meunier, Brussels) to recognise the artistic and temperamental debt that Meunier owes Millet. Surely one of the tangentially related artists could have been dropped from this exhibition to make space for Meunier.

While Millet may never be considered as revolutionary as Courbet, as daring as Gericault and Delacroix, as frank as Degas or as sophisticated as Ingres, this exhibition makes a cogent and carefully presented case for Millet being an important early pioneer of Modernism and one who had a deep influence on the artists who came directly after him. (In much the same way the recent Daubigny exhibition restored his reputation as an innovator in landscape painting.) It is most fitting that this exhibition brings Millet to Van Gogh’s museum. One can imagine the pleasure such an event would have brought Van Gogh. In a way the community of artist he longed to bring together around him has indeed happened posthumously and in his own museum in Amsterdam.

 

Simon Kelly, Maite van Dijk (eds.), Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Saint Louis Art Museum/Thoth, October 2019, paperback, 208pp, 192 col. illus., €29.95, ISBN 978 90 6868 796 5  (Dutch version available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950

truegritprint7_low

[Image: Mabel Dwight (American, 1876 – 1955), Night Work (1931), lithograph, image: 25.4 × 19.4 cm (10 × 7 5/8 in.). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Hannah S. Kully]

The new exhibition True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 15 October 2019-19 January 2020) brings together iconic images from early Twentieth Century American realism alongside a collection of lesser known prints. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The two fathers of American realism are Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Robert Henri (1865-1929). Both had troubled relationships with the art establishment. Eakins can be viewed as establishing the discipline of pictorial realism – plein air painting, thorough anatomical classes and application of perspective and use of photography – while Henri is thought of as a founder of social realism, mainly in urban settings. Henri’s contribution was attitudinal rather than technical. Henri studied under a former student of Eakins at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was wanted to realism that Eakins had pioneered in America to be applied to subjects that would not typically be considered the province of fine arts. Eakins had led the way in depicting common activities such as sports as a subject for oil painting but Henri sought to apply this new American realism to be applied to life in the modern American world.

Henri’s progressive artistic and political sensibility was influential, spreading via to his students (through his teaching at Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the Art Students League, New York) and artists (through his book The Art Spirit (1923)). He exhibited widely and his ideas were disseminated by these and associated reviews. Henri opposed prettiness and what he thought of as the stiffness of conventionally sanctioned fine art. Henri’s passion for depicting everyday life entailed a degree of social realism. This tendency became movement, centred in New York, which became called the Ashcan School. Followers and associates included George Bellows, John Sloan and William Glackens. Edward Hopper was commonly grouped with the Ashcan School but he stands a little aside, more closely influenced by French painting and cinema than the others. Hopper is more interested in exploring the emotional distance and psychological isolation of his characters than in the general social/political commentary that Ashcan School tenets tended to produce. We might also view this group as a rejection of haute mondaine clientele, ostentatious internationalism and insulated hedonism of the Cosmopolitan Realists Boldini, Singer Sargent, Sorolla and Zorn.

After a brief heyday, by the early 1930s the Ashcan School had been quickly overtaken by Modernism, with its emphasis on abstraction and pictorially advanced styles such as Cubism, Orphism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Ironically, the exploration of realism found a home in the 1930s in Regionalism, a movement that combined nativism and social conservatism with social realism and satirical commentary on modern life, often in rural settings. Precisionism of the 1930s applied realism, photorealism and hyperrealism to modern life but it was largely centred on buildings, objects, landscapes and townscapes rather than people within urban settings and it entirely lacked the satirical element.

Such developments are not covered within True Grit – admittedly, not a large exhibition – which confines itself to socially-centred art. Artists include Bellows, Hopper, Sloan and others. The prints in True Grit range over the most common mediums: aquatints, drypoints, etchings, lithographs and a wood engraving. The exhibition provides a view of modern city life as seen through the eyes of socially conscious artists of the 1920s and 1930s.

It would be wrong to entirely ascribe the choice of the working class as subjects for art to a political commitment on the part of artists. It was also an element of the younger generation wanting to slay their predecessors and surpass them in audacity by using working people to inject energy and rawness, courting attention through controversy. This is certainly true of Bellows and the printmakers here who focus on making outright social critiques. The subjects of prints are art classes, street scenes, park views, nightclubs, courting couples, tramps, vamps and crowds participating in entertainment and on public transport.

Two classic images of urban America are Hopper’s Night Shadows (1921) – showing a man walking alone in a street, seen from a high window and accompanied on by his own shadow – and Bellows’s A Stag at Sharkey’s (1917). The latter is Bellows’s most famous composition – a boxing match in a darkened room, where the smoke and din are almost palpable. Other Hopper etchings are of a couple in a subway train and woman alone in a bedroom. Hopper is the quintessential urban artist of the inter-war period, his eye trained on the telling moment or the poignant interlude. Nothing is happening in Hopper’s pictures and that is the point. They are moments of reflection for the subject or moments that are later recalled because they impressed a witness. Hopper’s proto-existentialist ennui is manifest in the metropolitan anomie and the melancholic vignette. Hopper is lacking as a painter and draughtsman – none of figures actually seems comprised of flesh, skin, hair and all the other matter of a human body; he has little instinctive feeling for his mediums – but he is a consummate image-maker. His etchings are technically more fluent than his paintings.

Alexander Nemerov’s essay investigates the impact of Bellows’s death upon Hopper. The artists had been colleagues and allies, in many ways pursuing similar goals. Both Bellows and Hopper were former students of Henri. Hopper, Henri and other artists were recorded as being distraught at the sudden death of Bellows due to appendicitis. Nemerov suggests that Hopper experienced survivor’s life-long guilt. It was only in 1925 that Hopper achieved his critical and popular breakthrough – something which perhaps could only have happened with the disappearance of his colleague-competitor. In other words, Hopper may have considered his success to have been dependent on Bellows’s death. It is too much to attribute the pervasive melancholy of Hopper’s isolated characters to the reverberations to this 1925 event but Nemerov’s case is thoughtful and well put.

John Sloan (1871-1951) is credited as the leader of the Ashcan School. He was a prominent advocate of realism and taught many students in New York. Rather than selecting the subjects generally considered ennobling in the fine arts, Sloan encouraged students to depict typical scenes of everyday life. He is best known for his street scenes. Stephanie Schrader notes that the juxtaposition of public and private spaces was typical of Ashcan art. Glimpsing domestic interiors through windows from other buildings or whilst travelling on elevated metro tracks was a common experience for city dwellers. Schrader is condemnatory of Sloan’s etchings of interiors with women in a state of undress. Her criticism is redolent of the moral certitude that critics displayed towards Degas’s candid female nudes, which they thought to be positively bestial. Viewers may have a more relaxed and charitable attitude than Schrader towards Sloan’s etchings. When passing moral judgment in art criticism, critics should be aware that their audience has a moral sense (informed by different life experiences) that is at least as developed as their own.

What of these lesser known printmakers? The Kyra Markham (1891-1967) was a producer of satirical and socially conscious lithographs in the 1920s and 1930s.  Her scenes depart from realism through the exaggerated features of figures and invention of settings which use fantasy and magic realism. Peggy Bacon (1895-1987) was an unabashed satirist, whose prints we could expect to see in journals. The beautifully effective Night Work (1931) by Mabel Dwight (1875-1955) is a lithograph showing a nocturnal vista with a glimpse of a person working in a studio – the artist? – under a moon and the silhouettes of chimneys and water towers. It is a fitting choice for the catalogue cover. Arnold Rönnebeck, Ellison Hoover, Howard Norton Cook and Howard Pennell are represented by views of skyscrapers in New York. These unpeopled vertiginous views show the American metropolis at its most inhuman but exhilarating. However, despite their concentration on the architecture and spatial effects of city design without figures, these prints should be seen as extensions of Futurism and Expressionism (including Expressionist cinema) rather than instances of Precisionism. They lack the emotional coolness and technical clarity of Precisionism in order to achieve the impact the printmakers intended.

truegritprint8_low

[Image: Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881 – 1962), Glow of the City (1929), drypoint, image: 28.6 × 36.2 cm (11 1/4 × 14 1/4 in.). © Estate of Martin Lewis. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Purchased with funds from Russel I. and Hannah S. Kully.]

The outstanding artist of the exhibition is an artist of whom I had never previously heard. Martin Lewis (1881-1962) two etchings leave a lasting impression. A brilliant evocative print (Glow of the City (1929)) by Lewis shows a woman in profile on an apartment fire escape, a skyscraper illuminated in the background, seen behind a row of house backs and washing lines. This is another night scene – something of a speciality of these artists, at least on the basis of this selection. It is easy to see why Hopper credited Lewis’s tuition in etching for advancing his compositional abilities. Lewis’s Down to the Sea at Night (1929) is a masterclass in tenebrous realism. A group of women walk into the surf, illuminated by the headlamps of a parked car. The handling of light and shade, silhouette and modelling, and a single in-scene but concealed light source, are all exquisitely conceived and executed. Lewis will be the discovery and star of the exhibition on the basis of these two prints alone. More than a handful of visitors will leave the exhibition with the intention of scouring for sources on Lewis.

truegritprint9_low

[Image: Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881 – 1962), Down to the Sea at Night (1929), drypoint and sand-ground etching, image: 20.3 × 33 cm (8 × 13 in.). © Estate of Martin Lewis. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of
Hannah S. Kully]

The three essays have footnotes and there is an index. Illustrations include other prints and photographs of the era, as well as some paintings for comparison. Overall the catalogue is well designed and informative. Compliments go to the designers of the catalogue, which includes colophons and signatures in the illustrated prints. However, no paper sizes are given in the text and no editions or colophon markings are indicated, which is disappointing. True Grit is an enjoyable and stimulating tour of American realist graphics and social realism of the inter-war era.

 

Stephanie Schrader, James Glisson, Alexander Nemerov, True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950, J. Paul Getty Museum, September 2019, hardback, 112pp, 83 col. illus., $35/£28, ISBN 978 1 60606 627 0

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

Painting of the Low Countries Golden Age

142 Vermeer_View of Delft ©Mauritshuis

[Image: Jan Vermeer, View of Delft (c. 1660-1), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 115 cm, The Hague, Mauritshaus. (c) Maurithaus, The Hague]

Low Countries painting from the Seventeenth Century is a high point in the arts of Western civilisation and justly called a Golden Age. A new book lavishly presents a selection of its highlights. The German art historian Norbert Wolf examines the Golden Age of art of the Seventeenth Century in the Low Countries, today the states of the Netherlands and Belgium. As befits its prestigious subject, the production of this book is lavish. The large (37 x 31 cm) format and pictorial slipcase are imposing. Wolf’s formidable historical knowledge allows us to trust his judgment as he guides us through the highlights of the century.

The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 brought an end to an eighty-year war of independence in the Low Countries. The States General of the Netherlands gained autonomy from Spanish Habsburg rule, while the South Netherlands remained under the control of the Spanish as the Spanish Netherlands and would eventually become the territory called Belgium. In the North the decline of the aristocracy, foreign control and the religious restrictions of Habsburg control fostered a burgeoning of science, commerce, global exploration and a growth of a prosperous merchant class. Independence also brought about an abrupt end to the Counter Reformation in the North.

The international commerce and colonial expansion led to war with England and a degree of uncertainty about the future. Despite this, the increase in Dutch income and the commensurate spending on the arts was prodigious. The art of the North was predominantly secular and non-religious, though Biblical scenes were made and sold. The religious climate of the North fostered principally portraiture, still-lifes, marines, landscapes and genre scenes. There was morality but it was symbolic and indirect. Wolf points out that there was a fair degree of religious tolerance in the North, with Calvinism a minority sect and diverse Protestant doctrines and Catholicism permitted to be followed by citizens in the North. The situation was less lenient for Protestants in the Catholic South.

In the North the dichotomy between the austerity of Calvinist and Puritan doctrine and the desire of the merchant class to invest (and display) their disposable wealth in the form of art is visible when we look at the art. It was a balance between conspicuous consumption and a belief in moral and aesthetic restraint. The slow decline of art in the Southern Netherlands can be attributed to the effects of its status as a possession of the Spanish crown, notwithstanding the importance of cloth and wool trade of Brabant and Flanders. Only Antwerp and Brussels were significant centres of art production in the South during the Seventeenth Century. Wolf points out that artists migrated between the two states and sought patronage from collectors outside of their home regions. He posits that a fondness for morality contained in genre and peasant scenes common between Northerners and Southerners.

It is possible to see Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) as the dividing point when Netherlandish art becomes the schools of Dutch and Flemish painting, with Bruegel becoming the first stylistically Flemish painter. For convenience we can date 1550 as the point when this division begins to occur. Baroque has a dual meaning: pertaining to Baroque character and the Baroque period. Flemish painting is of both, whereas Dutch painting proper is only Baroque in period, its austere character and lack of ecstatic transcendent religious tone prevent it from being Baroque in content. All of these gradual changes occur before the formal division of the lands in 1648.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) was the son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The sweetness, sentimentality and ethereal fantasies – as well as Catholic religious painting – of Jan Brueghel embody the Flemish school. His paintings of landscapes are characterised by a softness of touch and delicate graduation of depth. He was also noted for his flower pieces. He collaborated with Rubens and formed a link between the first stage of distinctly Flemish art and the art of Rubens and the Baroque period Counter Reformation in the Spanish Netherlands. Rubens can in some respects be seen as the counterpart to Jan’s painterly temperament.

064 Rubens_View of Het Steen ©National Gallery London

[Image: Peter Paul Rubens, A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (c. 1636), oil on wood, 131 x 229 cm, The National Gallery, London. (c) The National Gallery, London]

The scope of the study allows the author to discuss Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), those twin pillars (or poles) of Low Countries Golden Age painting. In addition there was a wealth of art produced by artists not influenced or associated with these two artists. Consider the still-lifes of Willem Kalf, Willem Claesz. Heda and Pieter Claesz, here represented by magnificent examples that are unsurpassed in deftness, clarity and impact. These are instances of the ideal of verisimilitude that Dutch art theorists of the time advanced.

Rubens was a revolutionary figure more for his landscapes than for his figure painting – although his nudes are now his best known motifs. It is curious that Wolf includes the Samson and Delilah (c. 1609?) ascribed to Rubens. This painting was recently bought by the National Gallery, London but is suspected to be a later copy, as it deviates from Rubens standard practice and its composition differs in some important respects from an early engraved copy of the original composition. (For more discussion about this attribution read this post on ArtWatch.)

Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) was Rubens assistant and seen as the artist who best took the mantle of portraitist to the aristocracy. His portrait of Charles I of England is a dazzling extension of Rubens colour and sensitivity, combined with Van Dyck’s flair. Wolf explains the relative statuses of Van Dyck and Rubens as such: “[…] Why does present-day art history nevertheless place Rubens above van Dyck? Primarily because van Dyck’s œuvre does not possess the same versatility, even universality, of that of his teacher, because van Dyck achieved greatness only in the genre of portraiture, whereas Rubens excelled at the portrait as well as the landscape and animal painting, at the monumental altarpiece, as well as at mythological scenes and allegorical sequences.”[i]

Jacob (Jacques) Jordaens (1593-1678) became the painter favoured by the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands after Rubens’s death, furthering the Counter Reformation in his giant canvases. The artist’s undeniable flair for depicting flesh and various textures and for organising a composition made him a worthy recipient of patronage. Wolf illustrates a large genre painting which proves that Jordaens range was larger than the allegories, myths and Biblical scenes by him that are most prominent in museums. He notes that in these genre paintings he is the descendent of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The Utrecht Caravaggisti formed the vanguard of Baroque sophistication in the early decades of the Seventeenth Century, influencing following painters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. There is little new to be said about Rembrandt. Wolf outlines Rembrandt’s principal contributions to painting, though he cannot mention his comparable innovations in drawing and printmaking. It is regrettable that for reasons of space, non-painting fine and decorative arts have had to have been excluded. The subject of painting of the period (believed to have generated the total production of 5 million paintings) is vast enough without consideration of these other arts. The size and quality of the illustrations allow readers to see Rembrandt’s daring painterly techniques and the emotional range. He rightly holds centre stage in this survey, with only Rubens and Vermeer rivalling him for significance.

Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is seen as the linking figure between Rembrandt and Vermeer. Although long believed that Fabritius – who had been one of Rembrandt’s assistants – was the tutor of Vermeer, this seems not to be the case. However, emotionally and technically, Fabritius’s brilliance, painterly restraint, technical skill, narrative reticence and subtlety lead from Rembrandt to Vermeer. If Fabritius had not been killed at the age of 32 by a giant gunpowder explosion in Delft – which also destroyed many of his paintings – he could have matched Rembrandt and Vermeer in achievement. As with the early deaths of Giorgione, Schiele and Raphael, one wonders what posterity was robbed of due to Fabritius’s untimely death.

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) used the camera obscura in his realistic depictions of women in interiors, although he apparently deviated from the image projected by the optical device. He needed the flexibility or electing to emphasis, remove and change motifs in the images the device produced. It is the second-rate artist who fixes upon a system, device or approach and applies it without deviation. It is the great artist who knows how to apply a system and when to change it to increase the effectiveness of a work of art. It is his judgment that allows him to understand how viewers will see and understand the art and he knows when to suspend the rules he usually implements. His best works are illustrated and the reproduction of the View of Delft benefits especially from the large size allowing us to see the intricate detail so clearly.

Frans Hals is the most significant Dutch portraitist after Rembrandt. His bravura brushwork is on display in the illustrated work. Adriaen Brouwer, David Teniers the Younger (son-in-law of Jan Breughel the Elder) and Adriaen and Isaak van Ostade are fine exponents of the genre painting of the working class engaged in drunken ribaldry. The more genteel scenes of middle-class people in domestic interiors were made by Gerard Dou, Gerard Terborch, Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer. These also included coded moral stories about virtues of chastity, fidelity and restraint, among others. Alongside the still-life, the moralistic genre scene is a Dutch specialisation which has become synonymous with Dutch art. Cornelis Norbertus Gjisbrechts and Samuel van Hoogstraten specialised in trompe-l’œil still-lifes. Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael are representative of the landscape painting that proved so influential in Western and Northern European national schools. The whole of English landscape is essentially an extension of Dutch principles inflected by Italianate topographic features and light. Jan van Goyen was a landscapist who relied on the animation of his scenes with people or animals. The selection seems a touch light on still-lifes and marines and touch heavy on the portraits and figure paintings, but every readers taste will vary. By no means is this selection a distortion or misrepresentation of the character of the best art of this region and era.

111 Rembrandt_Isaac and Rebecca ©Rijksmuseum

[Image: Rembrandt, Isaac and Rebecca (also called The Jewish Bride) (c. 1665), oil on canvas, 121 x 166 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. (c) Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam]

Although most of the names are familiar, some of choices for illustrations are not obvious and some lesser known painters will engage readers. One of the less recognisable paintings is the brilliant Self-Portrait (c. 1651) by David Bailly (1584-1657). This large painting is unusually complex, with the seated figure of the artist placed beside an elaborate still-life with pictures, symbolic attributes, indications of his profession, references to his private life, as well as objects included for their optical variety and attractiveness. The bubbles refer to the briefness of life; the skull acts as a memento mori; the recorder indicates the sensory pleasure of music; the pipe is for the pleasure of smoking; money is the acquisition of worldly riches; the flowers are the brevity of earthly existence. The picture is playful with the complexity of symbolism, yet it is also a commentary on the deceptiveness of art. The painter is shown as a young man yet the painter was aged 67 when he made the picture. It seems that the portrait that the artist holds is not – as we might have guessed – a portrait of his father but actually a true likeness of the artist as he was at the time the self-portrait was created. It is the “real” figure of the artist that is based upon an earlier painting. The portrait of his deceased wife is placed behind the snuffed-out candle. Bailly dazzles us with his technique skill and his command of symbolism – complimenting our wisdom and discernment – at the same time he deceives us with by misrepresenting his age and thereby turning his past self into his present self.

The author concludes with discussion about the nature of the Baroque, the theatricality of painting, symbolism and concludes with some examples of the way Low Countries painting influenced art of later periods and other countries. The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting is an excellent guide to the highlights of this age of giants in the Flemish and Dutch schools.

 

Norbert Wolf, The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting, Prestel, 3 October 2019,  272pp, fully col. illus., hardback in pictorial slipcase, $140/£99, ISBN 978 3 7913 8406 1

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Serving Dead Clients by the Hour: William Burroughs, Cutting Up the Century

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Published by Indiana University Press, this book is a platform for the latest expert scholarship on William S. Burroughs, William S. Burroughs: Cutting Up the Century collects essays and interviews by a number of Burroughs experts on various aspects of his contributions to the arts. The book includes unseen texts by Burroughs from the Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

There are transcripts and facsimiles of previously unpublished texts by Burroughs. They are as follows: various short letters, “Metamorphosis” (William Burroughs Junior poem, 1963), “Adios Saturn” (cut-up poem, 1963), “Cut-Ups of Critics” (cut-ups, 1960-4; including the memorable line “he is se [sic] serving dead clinets [sic] by the hour”), “The Permissive Society” (essay, 1971), collage of news cuttings (1960s), “On China” (essay, 1969), “P.S. to ACADEMY 23” (text collage, 1967), “On Addiction” (text, 1957-9/1970),  “Opium” (text collage, 1970), “la chute de l’art une poeme moderne” (text, collage and photographs, 1970), “Thinking in Colors” (cut-ups, c. 1961), “On the Cut-Up” (cut-ups, 1960-1), “Watergate” (text collage, 1973), “Cutting Up Scientology” (cut-ups, 1963-5), “Dream Note on Indictment for Murdering Joan” (note, 1970) and “Cut-Ups of Last Words” (cut-ups, 1960-1). The most substantial piece is the 1972 Wild Boys Screenplay (actually a treatment or proposal rather than a script) for a pornographic film. Stimulated by the experience of seeing explicit homosexual pornography in cinemas in New York City in 1972, Burroughs decided to get into the erotic-movie business. The treatment opens with “We intend to make a beautiful film that will make some beautiful money.” Burroughs himself concluded with regret that “I finally decided the whole idea was impractical both from a financial standpoint and from the stand point of making a good film within our budget.”

The extensive illustrations present Burroughs’s complex collage/montages and cut-up creations in a form that makes them comprehensible. The opening up of the Burroughs archive acquired by the New York Public Library in 2009 has allowed scholars access to a treasure trove of material both published and published, alongside rare publications and various biographical materials. Burroughs is a particularly complex and multi-layered creator, whose huge output contains many contradictions, dead-ends and unexplored detours. There is no lack of Burroughsian material which seems to presage current cengagement regarding ecological thought, queer aesthetics, anti-corporate activism, globalisation, multi-culturalism and post-modern deconstructionism.

Oliver Harris explores Burroughs’s battle with publisher Henry Luce over a libellous article about the writer, published in LIFE (30 November 1959). Luce was publisher of TIME, LIFE and Fortune magazines. Burroughs brought a civil suit against the magazine. He won the case but the damages were paltry. Burroughs worked off his aggression in a series of cut-ups that were part venting and part an attempt to curse LIFE. (Burroughs had an abiding fascination with magic and superstition and later cursed a milk bar where he had a particularly bad meal. He attributed its later closure to his acts of psychic sabotage.) Harris excavates the Luce-owned material that was incorporated into Burroughs’s cut-ups and into his transcribed texts.

Kathelin Gray covers Burroughs’s ecological awareness, concern about species extinction and eco-activism in his later American years. The illustrations of paintings link Burroughs apocalyptic cosmology with his concern about environmental exploitation and degradation. He took an interest in the Biosphere 2 project in the early 1990s. Katharine Streips writes about Burroughs in relation to “transcendent porn”, especially relating to The Ticket That Exploded (1962).

Burroughs writing of Tangiers interzone as a paradigm of globalisation is the topic of Timothy S. Murphy. Genre in the Naked Lunch novel and film is the subject of Joshua Vasquez’s essay. Kristen Galvin documents the 1978 Nova Convention in Downtown Manhattan. A table lists events and speakers over the weekend 1-3 December 1978. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Cage, Gysin, Calder, Girodias, Seaver and others spoke or read at the event and a stellar cast of musicians and artists contributed performances. She briefly summarises the 1996 Kansas Nova Convention Revisited. The commendable essay (by Eric Sandweiss) on Burroughs in St Louis is particularly well researched and informative. The writer had deep roots in the city but was ambivalent about the class and racial situation of his youth. In 1964-5 he made a rare return to write an article about the city.

Biographer Barry Miles is interviewed by Oliver Harris. They discuss Miles’s approach to his two biographies of Burroughs and the problems that subject posed. Harris is interviewed by Davis Schneiderman about the satisfaction and quandaries of editing Burroughs. A transcript of a panel discussion by Ann Douglas, Anne Waldman and Regina Weinreich covers the contentious matter of Burroughs’s treatment of women. They remember their personal interactions with him and characterise him as courtly and accommodating towards women, notwithstanding his negative comments in his writing – and the near uniform exclusion of women in his fictional worlds. Anne Waldman writes of Burroughs the visionary.

Alex Wermer-Colan uses Burroughs’s early novels as a starting point to present Burroughs as an anti-imperialist and satirist. Aaron Nyerges puts the case for Burroughs as a regionalist, a Mexican Beat regionalist specifically. He relates Burroughs’ killing of his wife Joan to the resistance of feminist Beat scholars towards Burroughs. (Kathelin Gray recounts that Burroughs raised the subject of the killing of his wife and was overcome by deep grief. It is an incident – however fleeting – of Burroughs feelings towards women, which is a live-wire issue for feminists due especially to the misogynist sentiments of many of his texts in the 1960s.) Blake Stricklin writes on the word as written image. Landon Palmer’s discusses Burroughs’s voice and the Burroughsian voice. In an unusually clear and informed essay Véronique Lane explores Burroughs responses to Rimbaud and Genet. Chad Weidner – an expert on the links between Burroughs and ecological thought – returns to his eco-literary analysis by examining early cut-ups.

Kurt Hemmer’s essay on Burroughs’s search for outlaw role models is a satisfying read. The source of Jack Black’s You Can’t Win is a cornerstone of the Burroughs’s thoughts on the subject and it shaped his responses to other models, such as Captain Mission’s utopian pirate colony. The use of outlaw argot, private codes of honour and a system of signs form a community ethos for Burroughs, which he sees as a method resisting the social mores of the day and the arbitrary authority of cops, courts and corporations. Combined with the stories of Western cowboys, robbers and pioneers, Burroughs invented an imagined community and canon – effectively a lineage of resistance. This is encountered in The Wild Boys (1971), Port of Saints (1973) and The Western Lands trilogy (1981-7).

Allen Hibbard examines some of Burroughs’s collaborations – with Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gysin and Kurt Cobain. He omits the work with filmmaker Anthony Balch and technical wizard Ian Sommerville. The latter was perhaps his closest and most fruitful direct collaboration. However, the non-textual character of the Burroughs-Sommerville creations (photographs, tape recordings and the Dream Machine) makes the partnership complicated to discuss verbally. The loss of the Burroughs letters to Sommerville (destroyed by his family after his death) has further obscured his importance in Burroughs studies. If there is one line of Burroughsian scholarship which has not been exhausted – which has hardly been adequately outlined – it is the life, work and relationship of Sommerville vis-à-vis Burroughs.

The tone, depth of reading, insight and importance of the texts is necessarily heterogeneous, as it must be in such collections. The content of the texts is of variable quality and utility but is never less than engaging and thoughtful. By and large, the academic abstruseness is at a minimum. All texts provide source texts though not detailed footnotes. The original Burroughs texts range from the beautiful (“Thinking in Colors”) to the expected. It is good to have them – especially the facsimiles – but they are undeniably minor pieces. Overall, this is book for those already knowledgable about Burroughs and keen to follow recent developments in the crowded and industrious field of Burroughs Studies.

 

Joan Hawkins, Alex Wermer-Colan (eds.), William S. Burroughs: Cutting Up the Century, Indiana University Press, 2019, paperback, 434pp, fully col. and mono illus., $35 (hardback $85), ISBN 978 0 253 041333

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit http://www.alexanderadams.art

 

Women Artists in Victorian, Edwardian and Modern Eras

Two republications in the Routledge Revivals series make available once again two significant scholarly texts regarding women’s art of the late Nineteenth Century. Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, (originally published 2000) surveys the situation of women artists in Edinburgh and Glasgow; Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament (originally published 2002) collects essays by experts on various women in the arts-and-craft field in a slightly later period.

In Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, Janice Helland examines the exhibition catalogues and sales records of various organisations to gather data on women artists. She concludes that women were relatively numerous – certainly enough to make associations, clubs and associated exhibitions functional – and that while women artists had fewer options than make counterparts, determined women willing to network with others could exhibit and sell regularly, in some cases enough to make a living. Helland points out that women had a less difficult task being taken seriously as artists (namely training, exhibiting and selling art) than women had at becoming physicians.

Helland recounts the experiences of the well-documented careers of Christina Paterson Ross (1843-1906), Georgina Greenlees (1849-1932), Margaret Dempster (1863-?), Kate Macauley (c. 1849-1914) and others. Included in the book are some sample images of art to give us an idea of the production of female artists. As Helland notes, much of the art has disappeared with little trace – as has much unremarkable realist art of that period – and some line drawings from periodical reviews have been reproduced.

Arts societies and clubs were formed by artists in the Nineteenth Century. Women were no exceptions in this regard. The status of professional bodies conferred authority upon member artists and helped to distinguish them from amateurs – an important point for female artists. Artist associations in Great Britain took on the role of artist guilds, permitting members privileges and excluding non-members from operating on parity with members. This became effectively a restriction of trade and a bar to competition within the public-arts field. When faced by the operative restriction of being denied opportunities to train or exhibit alongside male colleagues, the women artists of Scotland (and other Western countries) formed their own quasi-guilds to advance their art and exclude the art of male colleagues, as well as that of their amateur sisters in order to protect the quality of their exhibitions. Additionally, excluding amateur female artists combatted the accusation that women’s art was product of pursuit of ladylike accomplishment rather than professional-level endeavour. Professional women artists in this period had to fight on two fronts – against men who tended to dominate organisations and receive the lion’s share of plaudits and rewards and against women who practised as hobbyists, whose activities undermined the professionals’ claim to legitimacy.

Art by Scottish women received respectful reviews, by and large. Articles, reviews and letters published in the newspapers were encouraging towards women artists and sympathetic to the plight of ill-served students who had to endure lacklustre teaching, cancelled classes, a poor library and lack of access to nude models. This swell of support was due partly to gallantry, an innate sense of fairness among writers and a consensus that this situation did not reflect well upon the cultural aspirations of the Scots vis-à-vis the situation in London. Apparently the conditions of display shaped the tone of reviews.Mary Cameron is presented as an example of traveling woman artist who was celebrated for her pictures of bullfights. The glowing praise by the press is evidence (if needed) that the public and press were willing to set aside reservations about women as painters if they earned respect through competence and – in this case – the novelty of her subject matter.

The author fairly discusses the monetary impetus in the production of art without squeamishness. Helland errs in suggesting that lower price for art by women is an instance of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. It was the result of a market mechanism pricing the desirability of unique goods in an open market, with price determined by demand, availability and utility. In Scotland in the Nineteenth Century there was simply less demand for art by lesser known artists than by more prestigious artists. Helland knows – or should have known – that women’s art has often commanded prices higher than that for art by men (e.g. Lavinia Terlinc, Rachel Ruysch, Angelica Kauffmann, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and others). This is a lapse into ideological cant that mars an otherwise generally even-handed account.

* * * * * *

Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament  comprises 10 essays on different subjects. Elizabeth Cumming assesses the links between craftswomen Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936) and Mary Seton Watts née Fraser-Tytler (1849-1938; wife of painter George Frederick Watts). Traquair was an illustrator, mural painter and embroiderer who worked in the Scottish Arts and Crafts movement. Watts was a potter and textile designer, based in Surrey. Whereas Traquair preferred to work alone, Watts collaborated with skilled artisans and technicians. The Watts’s interior decoration for the Compton Chapel (1890), attached to the house-studio she shared with her husband, was informed by her consultation of Traquair, who had previous experience of decorative schemes. Jan Marsh writes on May Morris (1862-1938), an Arts and Crafts embroiderer. She was the daughter of William Morris and founder of the Women Guild of Arts in 1907, records of which are apparently not extant. Australian commercial artist Thea Proctor (1879-1966) is considered as the epitome of Art Deco modernism by Pamela Gerrish Nunn. This essay is particularly enjoyable and worth thinking of in relation to the women linocut artists of the Grosvenor School, who flourished contemporaneously to Proctor. The last word in sophistication in Australian taste in the inter-war period, Proctor’s reputation has not experienced a revival comparable to Lempicka’s. Illustrations show Proctor was a gifted designer of posters and journal covers.

Other topics include ceramic design; British court dress; the 1920s film sets of Natacha Rambova; Hungarian embroiderer Laura Nagy; the 1913 Women’s Exhibition, Amsterdam; Romaine Brooks, Gluck and Eileen Gray; American artist, costume designer and interior designer Florine Stettheimer. Monochrome illustrations provide sufficient indication of these uncommon subjects. This title and the former are both serious and thought-provoking re-evaluations of lesser-known creative women.

 

Janice Helland, Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, Routledge Revivals, 2019, hardback, 212pp + xiii, 40 mono illus., £90, ISBN 978 1 138 723 184

Bridget Elliott, Janice Helland (eds.), Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament, Routledge Revivals, 2019, hardback, 229pp + xiv, 47 mono illus., £29.99, ISBN 978 1 138 72145 6

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Lucian Freud: Herbarium

_Lucian Freud Herbarium jacket, high res

Lucian Freud (1922-2011) had a partiality for painting living things – people, animals and plants. Although there is no dearth of cloth, furniture and domestic interiors, these were hardly ever the subject of a Freud painting. He had a fascination for the way organic matter grows and degrades.

Herbarium collects paintings and drawings of plants by Freud, starting in his teenage years in the 1930s and ending a few years before his death. The drawings, pastels, paintings and etchings encompass the subjects of fruit, domestic plants, trees and bushes, with or without human companions. This attractive clothbound hardback includes two essays on Freud’s art of plants and a selection of illustrations, many with commentaries.

On the Greek island of Poros – holidaying with John Craxton in 1946 – Freud created a self-portrait with a thistle. The spiky sparse form of the leaf matched the psychological tension visible in Freud’s tense expression. There is a echoing of the psychology of sitters in the choice of plant attribute in a class of pathetic fallacy, when natural matches and amplifies the mood of the narrator or subject. When staying in Jamaica with Ruth and Ian Fleming, Freud painted a number of pictures of banana plants. Freud was responding to the proximity of a plant that was – in British terms – exotic. Freud took the opportunity of access to stretch himself in terms of subject matter. In later years, Freud did not travel much outside London and such fruitful encounters became less common.

The early Freud style was naïve, with exaggerations, flashes of precision and invented juxtaposition of real elements. Bold stylisation in line ink drawings – developed to suit the demands of book and magazine illustration – developed in the mid-1940s. Sprigs of plants (gorse, fig, thistle) were isolated enough to make an impact yet undemanding in terms of time and suited his preference for linearity. When fruit appeared, they took up relatively little space on the picture surfaces, surrounded by plain space. Drawings in pencil on tinted paper were tinted with chalk and pastel. In the late 1940s Freud developed the potential of plants as a foil or amplifier of human emotions by including them in portraits and self-portraits. This was accompanied by greater realism.

Interior at Paddington, 1951 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Lucian Freud, Interior at Paddington (1951), oil on canvas, 60×45 in. (152.4×114.3 cm), Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. Image credit: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Image]

This approach culminated in Interior at Paddington (1951), a portrait of future photographer Harry Diamond. It became an icon of post-war austerity and pictorial existentialism, layered with detachment, abandonment, anxiety and decay. The later Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait) (1967-8) is just as striking but cannot help but be more affected, using montage and abstract filling achieve its impact.

His small still-lifes of highly perishable fruit are not bagatelles but necessarily constrained by the fast decay of the subject. Whereas Freud would spend months painting people, he could not command time to halt to allow him to paint buttercups or strawberries at his leisure. His plant paintings have an intensity that turns them into plant portraits. It is something of a relief to enjoy Freud’s perspicacity and meticulousness without the psychological harshness of his portraits. One wishes he had painted more plant and animal pictures – perhaps even a few more townscapes – over his career. Another attraction of Freud’s plant paintings is that his habitual mannerist distortions are less distracting (or less noticeable) in these than his anatomy exaggerations in his figure pictures. The viewer with a botanist, farmer or gardener’s trained eye is less attuned to discerning minor distortions in plants than the average viewer is sensitive to the slightly elongated forearm or outsize forehead.

We can see Freud trying out ways of painting unusual subjects in a handful of canvases before dropping the subject entirely from his repertoire. (The lemons of 1946, for example.) That is not to say that lessons learned go unapplied in later paintings of different subjects. Certainly Freud showed that he liked working in intense colours that one does not find in the unclothed figure, as a form of break. Working in these strong non-human colours in plant pictures did presage passages of paintwork describing strongly coloured clothing. Other plants – such as yucca, zimmerlinde and buddleias – became recurrent subjects. Friends recall that the artist had definite preferences in plants and allowed his garden to become overgrown so that he paint surrounded by foliage. It is telling that Freud took on the challenge of painting such disordered, changing and dense foliage rather than regulating it, which would have made the task of painting it easier. In 2006, Freud completed his final plant painting, which was of his garden. Included in a corner – almost indiscernible – was the grave marker of his beloved whippet Pluto, forming an incidental memento mori.

The artist’s method of painting the motif over a blank ground then filling the background meant that sometimes when he stopped a painting incomplete it left the motif crisp and floating free from surroundings. This seems to have become a deliberate effect cultivated by the artist, especially apparent in his murals of cyclamen, which seem to been left a freestanding forms without contextual interpolation. In some canvases (Cyclamen (1960), Plant Fragment (1970)) the plants stand out crisp, bright and solid against a scuffed and inchoate primer ground.

Two Plants, 1977-80 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Lucian Freud, Two Plants (1977–80), oil on canvas, 59×47 1⁄4 in (150×120 cm), Tate, London. Image credit: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

]In a handful of paintings and etchings Freud completely filled picture planes with foliage (Two Plants (1977-80), Garden, Notting Hill (1997)). Taking on such dense, patterned surfaces must have proved highly taxing in terms of concentration and stamina – with little respite from repeated forms and limited colours. Non-artists perhaps do not realise the great demands that these tasks pose to artists. It must have been only a minor release for Freud to know that he could create shortcuts by inventing and omitting with a fair degree of latitude in these pictures in a way that he could not in a picture of more commonplace and recognisable objects with regular geometry or anatomy. Two Plants almost drove him “round the bend. […] When I took one tiny leaf, and changed it, it affected all other areas of it, and so on.”[i]

Giovanni Aloi is a knowledgeable companion, having written previously on botany and art. He outlines the history of botanical art and the significance of plants in symbolism in art. He discusses the significance plants had for Freud the artist. His intelligent commentary and familiarity with Freud’s life and output is well judged and reliable. Herbarium is sure to bring pleasure to Freud fans and aficionados of realist (and Expressionist) art and is warmly recommended.

 

Giovanni Aloi, Lucian Freud Herbarium, Prestel, 5 September 2019, 176pp, 100 col. illus., cloth hardback, £39.99/$60, ISBN 978 3 7913 8533 4

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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