René Magritte, Philosopher Painter

04. R. Magritte_La m├®moire_1948

[Image: René Magritte, La mémoire (1948), oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm. Collezione della Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles (FWB) Ministère de la Communauté française, Bruxelles
© 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

Magritte: Life Line is catalogue is produced for the solo exhibition of René Magritte (1898-1967) at Amos Rex, Helsinki (8 February-19 May 2019) and Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana, Lugano (16 September 2018-6 January 2019). The basis of this exhibition is a lecture given in 1938 by Magritte. The curator and writers have taken his biographical lecture as a starting point for the selection of art by Magritte, using it to illustrate the themes he identified as his most important ones.

The lecture “Life Line” was delivered on 20 November 1938 at Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. The text is reprinted here in full. The artist greeted his audience with the words “Ladies, Gentlemen, Comrades” and included a swipe at Hitler. Magritte’s political commitment was never entirely full and it fluctuated. His support always seemed more an expression of anti-authoritarianism and opposition to Fascism rather than any desire to see a dictatorship of the proletariat. Surrealism implied members’ allegiance to Communism, as repeatedly stated in the movement’s manifestoes and statements. The speech was more about an undermining of our assumptions regarding reality and the natural laws than anything more polemical. He talks about the origins of his fascination with painting.

In my childhood, I used to enjoy playing with a little girl in the old disused cemetery in a small provincial town. We visited the underground vaults, whose heavy iron door we could lift up, and we would come up into the light, where a painter from the capital was painting in a very picturesque avenue in the cemetery with its broken stone pillars strewn over the dead leaves, the art of painting then seemed to me to be vaguely magical, and the painter gifted with superior powers.

For Magritte, art was bound up with magic and eroticism. His wish to make himself and others wonder in order to experience the world anew and the erotic impulse were twin motivations for Magritte as artist during his whole life.

Encounters with paintings by first the Futurists and then Giorgio de Chirico inspired Magritte to turn away from realism. When Magritte read the manifestoes and saw the art of Surrealism, he located a means of combining wonder and eroticism. In 1925 he began to explore the terrain which would come to be considered typically and uniquely Magrittean. Through inversion, metamorphosis, replacement of images by words and juxtaposition Magritte transformed aspects of the real world into something remarkable. In the early years unknown and impossible substances and painterly effects were part of his repertoire but in the years after 1930 this part diminished and Magritte dealt henceforth mainly with materials and objects that we recognise.

One night in 1936, I woke up in a room with a bird asleep in a cage. Due to a mahnificent delusion I saw not a bird but an egg inside a cage. Here was an amazing new poetic secret, for the shock I felt was caused precisely by an affinity between the two objects, cage and egg, whereas before, this shock had been caused by bringing together two unrelated objects.

Hereafter, Magritte treated his ideas as more consistent and less arbitrary. In Hegel’s Vacation a glass of water is balanced on an open umbrella. The conjunction is between an object which is used to contain water and one that is designed to repel water. This is typical of the newly refined process of image creation.

Magritte goes on to give some examples of his paintings as representative of his thought, rejecting the idea that painting was to give sensual pleasure. This was a position he temporarily reversed in the Second World War, creating paintings in the Impressionist style of Renoir to delight the senses in delicate brushwork and spectacular warm colour. The lecture text is accompanied by the original glass slides that the artist projected on the evening.

The catalogue includes an interview with Suzi Gablik. She stayed with the Magrittes in 1960 while preparing her landmark monograph on the artist. She discusses her memories of the Magrittes domestic life. Other texts analyse Magritte’s interest in Futurism, his relations with the Paris Surrealists and his partnership with his America-based dealer Alexandre Iolas. There is a bibliography and chronology.

There are versions of famous paintings included in the exhibition. Among these are The Red Model (with boots metamorphosing into feet), The Castle in the Pyrenees (a castle on a rock which floats over a sea), The Listening Room (a giant apple fills a room), Memory (a plaster cast of a woman’s head is splashed with blood), The Son of Man (a man in a bowler hat, face obscured by a hovering apple) and other compositions. The Marches of Summer (1938) has the awe-inspiring conceit of the sky and earth broken into giant perfect cubes, turning the world into a puzzle for titans.

Le grand Siècle

[Image: René Magritte, Le grand siècle (1954), oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. Kunstmuseum Gelsenkirchen. © 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

The exhibition also features less familiar paintings that are arrested and absorbing. The Great Century (1954) has a man looking across a sunlit park and a grand villa, all of which are under a vast ceiling. It gives us a strange sensation of contained in a building so vast that encompasses – perhaps – the entire world. (Something of a parallel to concept of existence as a simulation within an incomprehensibly sophisticated computer.) Countryside (1927) shows an irregular flat fragment of tree foliage dissipating, smoke-like, into the air; it is a placed in an alien landscape and under a cloudless sky. Celestial Muscles (1927) is a torn part of grey mist (or cloud) intruding into a room. The mist has a lovely silvered-lead quality and its formlessness is contrasted with its crisp arabesque outline; the conjunction creating a delicious frisson. These paintings appeal due to its combination of colours, textures and shapes, demonstrating how Magritte’s early period was largely intuitive rather than reasoned. These are examples of the sensual appeal of Magritte’s art, despite his avowal of a detached intellectual manner of creation. Magritte also talked of art showing us the poetry of the world and we can think of Magritte’s pre-1930 art as poetry without metre, with his art after 1929 (and especially after 1935) a more structured form of poetry.

One example of Magritte’s art entering the territory of the crime story (a genre Magritte enjoyed) is The Night Walker (1927-8). A man in hat and coat is strolling through a normal dining room which is lit by a streetlamp. It is a poetic rendering of the strangeness of our everyday world rearranged, drawing attention to a threat and mystery of the ordinary.

01. R. Magritte_Le noctambule_1928

[Image: René Magritte, Le noctambule (1927-8), oil on canvas, 55 x 74 cm. Museum Folkwang, Essen. © Museum Folkwang Essen – ARTOTHEK / 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

The famous “Words and Images” illustrated text is included in its original manuscript form. This short explanation of Magritte’s ideas was published in La Révolution surréaliste in December 1929 and has since been frequently reproduced. His paintings with words substituting for images provide further demonstrations of the ideas in “Words and Images”.  Art by Giacomo Balla, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico puts Magritte’s practice into perspective.

The selection is excellent and enjoyable. It is representative of Magritte’s main themes and includes pictures from his Impressionist phase and the Vache period, when he painted pictures that were crude, scatological and bawdy. Prints, painted bottles and bronze sculptures show Magritte’s work outside conventional picture-painting. The pairing of drawings and paintings with sculptures allows us to judge how satisfactory the translations into three dimensions for bronze casting by Italian craftsmen are. This catalogue is a fine book for anyone wanting to gain a general understanding of Magritte, as well as providing thoughtful analyses and a key text by the artist.

 

Xavier Canonne (ed.), Magritte Life Line, Skira, 2018, hardback, 176pp, 120 col. illus., £32.00/$40.00, (Italian version available), ISBN 978 88 572 3897 5

* * * *

9781138054271

 

In René Magritte and the Art of Thinking Lisa Lipinski situates Magritte’s art in the context of phenomenology of Merleau Ponty and other thinkers of the Twentieth Century. Lipinski, assistant professor of art history at George Washington University, presents Magritte’s use of pâpier collé and words as an extension of the inventions of the Cubists. The introduction of extrinsic elements of language into the field of painting opens up questions regarding semiotics and linguistics.

[Cubist] collage was a way of probing not only the reality or relationship of signifier and signified, but also the differences between words and images in terms of meaning, which according to structural linguistics is a function of the system rather than of the world. Unlike some kinds of images, words possess no natural relationship to the things to which they refer.

This has been subject of study by Foucault and other philosophers already. Lipinski presents a summary of the conclusions that she finds most salient. Instances of trompe l’oeil painting are discussed in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s proposition of “becoming-imperceptible”. For the artist his “painting has to resemble the world in order to evoke its mystery.” Summoning the mystery of the world into existence in his art required the quasi-deception of illusionism – a compact entered into by artist and viewer with the understanding that their suspension of disbelief will be mutually beneficial. Bloodletting (1939) – which shows a painting of a section of brick wall hanging on an interior wall – becomes a locus for examining the literalness of Magritte’s talk of the visible concealing the visible in levels. It makes us aware of the way signifiers in pictures relate to signified subjects and thus refer to the absent subject. Magritte’s art makes this matter the subject of a picture by playing with such notions of absent signified and by revealing of the should-be-hidden matter makes apparent the codes of representation that we accept.

The Human Condition is a series of paintings which use the motif of the painting mirroring the reality around it in a way that makes it indistinguishable from the surroundings. The surface of the depicted painting becomes as one with the surface of the actual painting, toying with ideas of verisimilitude, semiotics and language. The recurrent use of the picture as subject, the view seen through a window and the empty frame are other types of analysis of visual language.

There is some discussion of the Renoiresque paintings but Lipinski seems to misunderstand the rejection of these pictures. Viewers rejected the art because the style was incongruent with subject and in fact detracted from the legibility that Magritte’s art required to function effectively. The viewers may not have termed their unease and impatience in such terms but this was what caused these pictures to be rejected. Inside of the controlled dissonance and incongruity that Magritte habitually deployed, he was prey to unconscious dissonance by taking up a position where his language and subject short-circuited each other. The paintings fail to be pleasurable because the viewers intuit their inherent and unhelpful internal inconsistency. The Vache period is discussed briefly. The book concludes with a discussion of the photograph portraits of Magritte as indicative of the painter’s ideas.

This book provides a digestible overview of the Magritte’s themes as considered in the light of philosophy, semiotics and post-structuralism and will be of most value to university students.

Lisa Lipinski, René Magritte and the Art of Thinking, Routledge, 2019, hardback, 140pp, 14 col./40 mono illus., £115, ISBN 978 1 138 05427 1

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

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Re-reading John Wyndham, II: The Enemy Within

In the first two novels published by John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris as John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Kraken Wakes (1953)), the author examines the conflict between sophisticated predatory species. He thought such conflicts were inevitable and would be pursued with absolute ruthlessness, leading to extermination of the weaker group by the stronger one. This was a lesson of evolutionary science applied to human history, specifically in the form of Social Darwinism. (That discussion is here.) They form a pair of thematically-linked novels; the following two novels form another pair addressing related issues. Although it seems this was not a conscious plan, the pairing seems apparent. The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) both explore the responses of human societies to the danger of infiltration by distinct sub-groups which threaten the unity and even survival of those societies or species.

The Chrysalids

The Chrysalids is set in a future after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed our current civilisation (whom they call the “Old People”), made much of the world uninhabitable and caused substantial genetic mutations in living things due to radiation. We follow David Strorm, who is a member of a fundamentalist Christian society located in Eastern Canada, which has strict definitions of physical normality and which exiles people and destroys animals and plants which deviate from the society’s standards. Technology is reduced to pre-industrial levels, travel is limited and the land is sparsely populated. Knowledge of history and science is greatly reduced. The society venerates the pre-holocaust civilisation yet its natural wariness of innovation – each scientific discovery potentially undermines Christian teaching – means the society is only slowly and piecemeal recovering the technology and knowledge of the Old People.  As a child, David befriends Sophie, a girl who lives locally but does not form part of his community because her parents keep her existence secret. She has a minor deformity which would lead to her exile (or death) in the Fringes (an area beyond the boundaries of cultivated land) if she were examined by an official of the main community. Eventually Sophie is discovered and her and her family are banished. David comes to recognise the potential of banishment for abnormality. When David realises he was born physically normal but with the very rare power of telepathic communication, he understands that he could be classed as a deviation.

David, his cousin Rosalind and a small group of other local children are telepaths who bond as a result of their sense of communal closeness. He and his fellow telepaths must deal with the constant fear of exposure and expulsion. They develop a code of silence to protect themselves. As the children age they realise that there are instances of people evading normality standards applied to domestic animals, crops and even people and that standards within their community are debated and applied with varying degrees of strictness. David’s Uncle Axel discovers David’s telepathic deviation and chooses to conceal the boy’s condition; he advises and supports the telepaths. He has travelled widely as a sailor and has heretical views on the purity standards, believing that they are subjective and too rigid.

David and the telepaths discover David’s younger sister Petra is a telepath of greater power than the others in the group. A series of accidents and slips lead to the community discovering the existence of the telepaths and their persecution of members of the group which they can identify. David, Rosalind and Petra attempt to escape to the Fringes and are pursued by a posse; others in the telepath group are captured and tortured for information by the community, which is alarmed at the presence of this secret group of deviations. The strength of Petra’s projections alerts a technologically advanced society in New Zealand, where most inhabitants are telepaths and telepathy is considered the norm. The New Zealanders send an aircraft to rescue the fleeing telepaths. The aircraft arrives during the climactic battle between the Fringes band of outcasts and the community posse; David, Rosalind and Petra are rescued by the New Zealanders and are taken to their city.

The novel is written as an adventure story particularly suited to young adults. It features a rich cast of characters and describes David’s community in varying degrees of detail – especially detailed on the matter of the identification and treatment of deviations – all of which combines to present a vivid world with many memorable images and exciting action. Beyond the world of the story, Wyndham’s intention is to examine ideas of purity, nature v. science and pragmatism v. dogmatism. Wyndham looks at how a community forms its ethical and economic standards by combining the demands of viability in an environment prone to accelerated heritable variation while cleaving to a long-established religious code.

The Midwich Cuckoos

The Midwich Cuckoos is a story set in a small fictional English village of Midwich. The village becomes subject to an inexplicable force field caused by an extra-terrestrial intelligence. All people inside the affected zone fall unconscious, as does anyone entering the zone. Before the authorities can decide on a response to this situation, the force field disappears, as does what was apparently an alien spacecraft that had landed in the centre of the village. It is subsequently discovered that all women of child-bearing age are pregnant.

The authorities monitor the situation. Our narrator is Richard Gayford, a resident of the village who was outside of the village at the time of the event. Military intelligence ask Gayford (who served in the army during the Second World War) to provide updates on subsequent developments in the village. We do not get strong impressions of most of the villagers. The exception is Roger Zellaby, a scientific authority and writer, who provides an informed commentary and is a something of an investigator of the developments in the village. Zellaby and his family are the only villagers who have distinct characters.

Sixty-one babies are born and seem to be human-alien hybrids: appearing largely human but with silver-gold hair and golden irises. “The Children” develop fast and are discovered to have powers of telepathic communication and learn as a group in the manner of a hive entity. The Children are emotionally detached from the host community and use powers of telepathic control to coerce their mothers to support and protect them. They also prevent the mothers from taking the Children out of the village. Some of the babies are abandoned by their mothers and those are brought up by foster families. While the Children are infants the narrator leaves the country for work reasons. We also leave the narrative at this point, to resume seven years later, with the Gayfords returning to Midwich.

Despite the passing of only seven years, the Children have developed at an abnormally fast rate and are physically equivalent to human children of twice the age. They share their knowledge telepathically, therefore their schooling is done by teaching a single girl and single boy, who pass on their knowledge to the hive mind. We discover Children are using their mental powers of coercion and collective intelligence to control the behaviour of villagers in order to protect themselves. The villagers are frightened of the Children and resent them but are unable to confront them. The Children are acting as parasites, using a mixture of collective action, psychic powers and the hosts’ residual (but ebbing) maternal sentiment to provide for them.

Gayford learns from his military contacts that other such groups have been recorded in different places in the world. There are suspicions that the Midwich Children may be in communication with (or aware of) the experiences of other groups and may become super-intelligent. Zellaby summons the Children for a film display, during which he explodes a bomb which kills him and the Children. He sacrifices his life to destroy the Children, whom many villagers and military/governmental authorities consider an increasing threat to society. We learn that in the USSR, a colony of Children has been destroyed with a nuclear explosion and that the Children in Midwich may have soon acted more brutally to preserve themselves.

Although Richard and his wife Janet are the readers’ viewpoint on events, most of the writing is omniscient and the first-person perspective is a dramatic device for artificially limiting the information provided to us. Gayford is inactive as a protagonist; he and Janet mainly act as insiders who can observe events and acquire official intelligence by liaising with authorities. Out of Wyndham’s first four published novels, The Midwich Cuckoos is the one that is closest to a pure novel of ideas. Character, environment, mood and prose description are at a minimum; plot and concepts dominate, though we do get vivid glimpses of how the villagers respond to events. Midwich is perhaps the least satisfactory novel of the four for those reading for enjoyment. The denouement is unsatisfactorily convenient and also a plot hole. If the Children learn through only one girl and one boy experiencing events, why do all of the Children gather for a film showing? Surely only two Children would have needed to attend the film showing, which one presumes the Children would have treated as an educational experience, as they do not seem to be much swayed by sensory pleasure.

Discussion

Both novels succeed on their own terms and are replete with insights into human nature. They are novels of ideas but sustain tension and narrative drive, though Midwich largely lacks the striking images and dramatic scenes that make Wyndham’s other novels so memorable. The only event that we experience close-at-hand through the narrator’s eyes is the foiled revenge shooting by a villager. Everything else is reported second hand or alluded to.

Midwich misses the distinctive characters (other than Roger Zellaby) that people Wyndham’s mature novels; the police officer and the village doctor are only ciphers. Wyndham’s specific ideas and approach in Midwich meant that elaboration of character or complex interplay between characters would have slowed the pace and distracted the reader. The dramatis personae fall into three groups: the Children, the villagers and the outside authorities. Distinctions within these groups are minimal; the names of individuals hardly register with readers.

Chrysalids has many memorable characters – even the minor ones leave strong impressions. The imagery is powerful and Wyndham’s writing flourishes. There is action, drama, romance, adventure and humour. The most horrifying passage is the story of Uncle Axel, where he recounts the devastated world sailors encountered. The weird imagery gives us a nightmare vision of a post-nuclear-holocaust world, complete with blasted lands, radiation sickness and glowing horizons. This is one of our only views of the outside world which the Christian enclave in Canada has turned its back upon. Wyndham thoroughly presents the social and psychological realities of fundamentalist religion as a refuge from the horrors of devastation and as a template for a society in search of stability in a world ravaged by genetic fluctuation. For young readers, Chrysalids serves as a primer for how it is to live in a deeply conservative society and encourages empathy for freethinkers and minorities. In terms of skill and power, Chrysalids is Wyndham’s greatest accomplishment. The deeply emotional scenes of young David mourning the loss of his friend Sophie (whom he thinks he has betrayed) and the confrontation between David’s mother and aunt about the birth of a deformed baby are tours de force that brilliantly impart the moral implications and emotional impact of the novel’s drama. Chrysalids is Wyndham’s most sustained imaginative feat.

Chrysalids presents us with a degree of ambiguity regarding the two competing societies. He shows us the Canadian society as capable of instilling solidarity and bravery and of being an effective means of supporting people, including eccentrics. (Consider the characters of Uncle Axel and the passing mention of a local man who runs a steam engine as a novelty). His New Zealand society of technologically advanced telepaths is welcoming to the telepaths but dismissive and hostile towards the non-telepaths, whom they regard as an inferior sub-species due to fall into extinction as the Old People had. The representative of the New Zealand telepaths is portrayed as cold, lacking empathy, morally complacent and arrogant. As readers, we wonder how we would cope in a society composed of individuals who read emotions and thoughts so clearly. How would be able to retain any privacy?

The novels interweave drama, action and adventure in stories that raise serious intellectual, political and moral ideas. Indeed, there is no way of separating these. Midwich is considerably less successful as a reading experience than Chrysalids because we lack the characters to care about and we do not relate strongly to the narrator. The absence of emotional involvement makes Midwich something of a thought experiment or exercise in applied morality rather than a compelling story. There is no adventure to speak of, more a series of logically extrapolated steps. The protagonist does not take part in the action merely observes and engages in discussion. In Triffids we see the multiple routes and alternative scenarios played out in a novel that has great organic and narrative consistency, making Midwich’s limitations appear even more unfavourable. As a novel of ideas, Midwich does not need to be rich or engaging but it would have benefited had Wyndham found some way of developing the story in a way that was closer to Triffids or Chrysalids. However, the limitations of Midwich are perhaps inevitable as Triffids and Chrysalids are adventures, character-driven dramas and immersions in alternative worlds, whereas Midwich is an investigation into morality in a very limited scenario, admitting little room for character investigation or world-building.

The Enemy Within

The theme which links the two novels most strongly is that of societies dealing with sub-groups that present a threat to their standards and even their existence. In Chrysalids and Midwich, Wyndham presents us with two stories that deal with inter-species rivalry that he had already addressed in The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, this time in a new form: inter-species rivalry within the human race. The telepaths in Chrysalids and the Children in Midwich are both human in form, with familial relatives, names, schooling and places in their societies, yet they are also different from the society around them. Telepathy and brood parasitism are phenomenon that separate humanity in these stories into two groups: majority and a newly emergent minority. In Chysalids we view the minority group from the inside and grow to care about and support the minority; in Midwich we view the minority group from outside and grow to fear them and recognise the danger they pose to the majority (and, implicitly, us as we conceive of ourselves). Wyndham’s pessimistic view that inter-species rivalry between apex predators in a world of limited resources inevitably leads to warfare resulting in the extermination of the loser here takes a chilling turn: the enemy is within. In a situation where no compromise is possible between different strands of humanity, our conflicts present us with existential annihilation of opponents who are almost identical to ourselves and may even be members of our own families.

The pair of novels raises awful questions which force us to address the most essential moral questions. How do we differentiate between competing formulations of humanity and society? What makes us human? How far would we be prepared to go to defend our civilisation and society? Would we kill members of our society or our own family to preserve our society? Encountering a superior society or sub-species of humanity which is incompatible with ours, what can and should we do?

The themes of religious persecution, inter-species competition and cultural conflict are pressing matters. The revival of Socialism among the young in the West, the morality of human genetic engineering, the possibility of viable artificial intelligence and the rise of Islamist terrorism in Europe all present us again with the Wyndham’s questions of how do we define our societies, how do we decide to include or exclude individuals, how do we deal with fundamental ideas which are incompatible with our societies, how do we respond to dissident groups and what does it mean to be human. How fair is it for us to regard supporters of totalitarian absolutist ideologies as members of competing groups which threaten our societies? How far can we go to defend our civilisations without becoming totalitarian ourselves? Too much resistance and we become monstrously intolerant; too little resistance and we are swept away by murderous opponents convinced of their righteousness.

Wyndham’s view that conflict is inevitable, pursued ruthlessly and resultant in extermination of the losing group is as far from the “cosy catastrophe” as can be imagined.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Picasso’s Jacqueline Period

Jacqueline in a Turkish Costume_1955 copy

[Image: Pablo Picasso, Jacqueline in a Turkish Costume (1955), oil on canvas, Collection Catherine Hutin © Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019. Photo: Claude
Germain]

In Picasso studies, the Jacqueline period (1955-1973) is the least studied and least highly regarded. It is viewed as the one with the lowest amount of noteworthy innovation and with the least amount of career-defining art. This is in part because it coincides with the period of worldwide fame, frequent photoshoots for magazines and books, celebrity visits, honours and memoirs or acquaintances. The publicity overload generated a critical backlash that was part boredom, part snobbery, part rejection of the advocacy-cum-promotion. It was also a reflection of the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s Picasso finally seemed a part of history for artists. It was ironic that as Picasso became ubiquitous in Paris Match, Time Life and The Sunday Times colour supplement was exactly the period his art disappeared from the walls of art schools and the scrapbooks of art students.

The exhibition The Late Work from the Collection of Jacqueline Picasso (Museum Barberini, Potsdam, 9 March-16 June 2019) presents art by Picasso from a period that is usually evaluated comparatively by weighing it against the production of earlier decades (an approach both valid and invalid, as discussed below). The exhibition consists of 136 prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures and ceramics. There are some very fine pictures (especially the very late works) and many of them are rarely exhibited. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The departure of Françoise Gilot of 1953, his break from the Partie Communiste français and the death of Matisse in 1954, left Picasso adjusting his life. From 1955 until the end of his life, Picasso lived with Jacqueline Roque, a young divorcée who he had met in 1952 while working at the pottery works in Vallauris, where Picasso made ceramic pots, plates, dishes, jugs and other objects. The couple were wed in 1961. As with previous relationships, Picasso’s art of this era was called the Jacqueline period. The Jacqueline period consists of two phases: the open (1955-1965) and the secluded (1965-1973). The later phase of the Jacqueline period is much higher in quality and much more consistent. The vacant copies of Old Masters are gone, the landscapes-by-rote are gone, the tired artist-and-model scenes are gone. In the final paintings there is only the artist and his lover. There is nothing else left. Yet the forms are strong, the line inventive, the decoration bold, the colour rich. The paintings are as full and ambitious as anything Picasso made.

picasso_h_369_liegender_akt_mit_blumenkrone_1970 copy

[Image: Pablo Picasso, Reclining Nude with a Crown of Flowers (1970), oil on canvas, Collection Catherine Hutin © Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019. Photo: Claude Germain]

Before we can get to that art we encounter art that is variable in quality and commitment. The period started poorly, in terms of art. The best of the art are the portraits of Jacqueline and the female nudes. The most well-known art of the late 1950s are the variations after Velazquez, Manet and Delacroix. There was genuinely terrible art – such as the variations after Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe are abysmal – and many pedestrian five-finger exercises. The Delacroix variations are the best of the suites, partly because of their overall surface activation.

An essay describes the major exhibitions of Picasso in the 1950-70 period, many of which were influenced by the artist and his dealers. Picasso’s control and participation in these events varied. In a number Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler would suggest (or leave no alternative for) curators to accept new art by Picasso, which the public and critics were not enthusiastic about. What fans of Picasso loved was the Blue and Rose periods, Cubism and some pictures from the 1920s and 1930s, not the post-War work. Kahnweiler determined that promoting the later period through exhibiting and publishing it alongside the classic pictures that people accepted. This promoted and legitimised the new art by associating it with the earlier art.

Standing Woman_1958 copy

[Image: Pablo Picasso, Standing Woman (1958), oil on canvas, Collection Catherine Hutin © Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019. Photo: Claude Germain]

This exhibition contains art of all types and subjects which Jacqueline was given and kept separate from the main body of Picasso’s art. Many of the pictures have dedications from the artist. (On the reverse of a still-life of onion and cutlery is written, “In homage to Jacqueline, for a matelote she made for lunch 12.3.60, and offering her this painting with nothing but the immense desire to please her. Picasso.”.) The legal wrangles over Picasso’s estate were lengthy and resulted in his children and Jacqueline retaining some art and the remainder being donated to the French state to cover death duties. The donated works are now housed at Musée Picasso, Paris.

Thankfully we are spared most of the variations after Old Masters. Picasso associated Jacqueline with one of the figures in Delacroix’s Orientalist fantasy The Women of Algiers. There are some graphics of that subject and pictures of Jacqueline in a Turkish costume. Thusly Picasso combined his new lover with a model from a great work of art. There are a series of interiors of La Californie, the villa which Picasso and Jacqueline moved into in the summer of 1955. The paintings range from the stark stenographic lines on primed canvas to fully painted scenes. There are multiple portraits of Jacqueline and nudes with her face, though Picasso generally worked from imagination rather than life. The move to the south France and proximity to bullfights encouraged Picasso to return to the subject of bullfighting scenes, bulls and the Minotaur – subjects that he rarely left for long. There is a single still-life from 1960. At this stage Picasso had little engagement with this genre, which he had so successfully explored earlier in his career.

Head (1958) and Figure (1958) are two typical assemblage sculptures cast in bronze. These extend the modus operandi of Bull (1942) by using minimally altered found objects in combination to evoke figures or animals. It is ludic, mordant and witty. It would make a fascinating exhibition to display the cast assemblages of Picasso and Miró together with an extensive catalogue. These bodies of work overlap but differ substantially, particularly in Miró’s use of paint and wax incision. Picasso always preferred his originals to the casts, disliking the qualities of bronze, whereas Miró’s sculptures relied upon the transformed outcome that the casting process entailed.

The artist was as open-minded about materials as he was about concepts and procedures. He used colour pencils and felt-tip pens. He would work on scrap paper and cardboard. His folded card sculptures would be used as maquettes for large versions in folded steel with drawn and painted adornment. There were even larger versions made in poured reinforced concrete which were subsequently sgraffitoed with a sandblaster to reveal darker aggregate stone below. This exhibition includes Picasso’s cardboard maquettes of figures and faces and his embellished steel cut-out sculptures. Associated drawings and paintings play with figures as schematised and planar forms in an ambiguous space. In these his lines are both decorative and also descriptive of the edges of figures. Picasso, of course, playfully negotiates this ambiguity (or duality).

It has been previously observed that Picasso failed to successfully incorporate anything modern in his art. The few appearances of bicycles and guns are feeble and poorly grasped (witness the awkward Night Fishing at Antibes embarrassing Massacre in Korea). The two exhibited items of football players in folded-flat sculptures are examples of Picasso’s cursory engagement with team sports. The single great exception to Picasso’s pictorial blind spot regarding recent culture is the lightbulb – as seen in the Guernica series and the beautiful linocuts of table still-lifes. These are surrogate torches or miniature suns.

These are all from the first phase of the Jacqueline period. None of them are technically or thematically distinct from earlier works, with the possible exception of the folded-sheet sculptures. It is the later pieces that are most radical and startling. We can discern indirect reflections of the art, photography and cinema (high and low) that was available to the artist on television, in newspapers, magazines and books. This plenitude of source material was synthesised – or one could say jumbled or composted – in such a complete manner that tracing elements to potential origins is impossible. Authors of catalogue essays make intelligent suggestions about published material that might have fed into the art, with illustrations.

The prints of last years (including the 347 Suite) show Picasso’s command of line and the effort he put into elaborate shading and numerous successive states. The last drawings reach the very limits of comprehension, with swooping arabesque lines, extreme close-ups and multiple angles (which some attribute to special-lens photography and 1960s erotic cinema). Our gaze floats untethered over a landscape of naked flesh described through only line, hair, facial features and orifices. Pupils are arrestingly stark and dark. We are in the harems and fleshpots of brothels and dressing rooms, engaging in voyeuristic delight instead of carnal satisfaction.

The Matador_1970 copy

[Image: Pablo Picasso, The Matador (1970), oil on canvas, Collection Catherine Hutin © Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019. Photo: Claude Germain]

Rougher and more urgent are the heads of men in the late oil paintings. The heads are seen as self-portraits, something that the artist admitted in an earlier interview, in which he stated that all male figures are (to a degree) self-portraits. The many musicians are obvious performers as performers rather than music-related comments. Picasso himself was not particularly fond of music and had limited taste and enthusiasm for it. The freedom of paint application and improvisatory quality of the designs was due to confidence and haste – Picasso made up to three large paintings per day. The open application of paint and leaving raw primer exposed in places gave the pictures a refreshing vitality, contrasting with the way La Californie series seem only cursory. Yet, it was high risk. These last paintings seem both assured and on the edge. The exhibition includes Figures (1972-3) Picasso’s last painting, left unfinished at his death. He had been working on it the hours before his death. It is one of his starkest pictures: raw and uncompromising.

 

Ostrud Westheider, Michael Philipp (eds.), Picasso: The Late Work from the Collection of Jacqueline Picasso, Prestel, April 2019,hardback, 248pp, 200 col. illus., $50/£39.99, ISBN 978 3 7913 5811 6

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books on www.alexanderadams.art

De Chirico’s Metaphysical and Post-Metaphysical Art

Piazza d'Italia con piedistallo vuoto, 1955

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia con piedistallo vuoto (1955), oil on canvas, 55 x 35.5 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

The current exhibition Giorgio de Chirico: Il volto della Metafisica (Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, 30 March-7 July 2019) explores the recurring manifestations of Metaphysical Art (and definitely non-Metaphysical Art) in the oeuvre of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). The exhibition covers the artist’s Metaphysical, Neoclassical, Neo-Baroque and Neo-Metaphysical periods; the only era not represented adequately is the Symbolist (or Böcklin) period. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This catalogue, written in part by the exhibition curator Victoria Noel-Johnson, will be useful standalone publication because it goes beyond the standard iconic Metaphysical paintings that are commonly reproduced in books. Readers get a good view of de Chirico’s lifetime production in all its diversity, reiterations, inconsistencies and peculiar paradoxes. The art is arranged by theme rather than style or period. The English version of this volume has been designed specifically to act as a survey of Giorgio de Chirico in the English language rather than acting as an exhibition catalogue per se.

After studying in Munich and cultivating a youthful infatuation of the Symbolism of Italy-based Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin, de Chirico initiated Metaphysical painting in 1910. These scenes of Italianate architecture, generally public spaces, mostly deserted, seen at twilight. The raking shadows, illogical perspective and pungent colours (with green skies) were powerfully original. They made a strong impression in the last Salons before the First World War and elicited praise from Apollinaire. He moved to Paris to advance his career in the city most receptive to new art. During the war he served in the Italian army and was stationed in Ferrara. The art that he left in Paris was taken by his landlord to recompense for rent payment and were sold for a pittance against the artist’s wishes. There, when he had time to paint, he developed a more complicated detailed approach to Metaphysical Art over 1915-8. These paintings included maps, pictures, more interior scenes and new elements (such as mannequins, biscuits, geometrical apparatuses and so forth). Upon returning to Rome on New Year’s Day, 1919, de Chirico renounced Metaphysical Art and embarked on a period of Neo-classicism. The influence of Antonello de Messina, Perugino, Raphael and other artists can be seen in the early post-Metaphysical periods. In the Neo-Baroque period (described c. 1938-early 1960s) was influenced by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Fragonard, Delacroix, Fragonard and Watteau.

Noel-Johnson describes the artist’s post-Metaphysical periods as such: “De Chirico spent several years producing pastiches of ancient and Old Master works shortly after arriving in Rome in 1919. […] He returned to the great masters with renewed fervour in c. 1938 through to the early 1960s, after which he dedicated the last decade of his life (the Neometaphysical period of 1968-78) to the reworking of popular themes found in his work of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, such as the Italian Squares, The Disquieting Muses, Ferrarese Interiors, Trophies, Horses on the Seashore, Gladiators, Mysterious Baths, Furniture in a Room, and Furniture in the Valley.”[i]

The long shadow of Metaphysical Art over the production of the artist was apparent to him. He was well aware of the criticism that his post-1918 output was dismissed outright by the Surrealists and other supporters of his early period. De Chirico’s later production is a battleground for those holding opposing positions on matters of authenticity and reproduction. Was de Chirico making variants of his own paintings that were genuinely felt and engaged the artist?

de Chirico muse inquiet 97x66

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Le muse inquietanti (late 1950s), oil on canvas, 97 x 66 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

De Chirico had difficult interactions with Surrealists. He appreciated the support and income he gained from their support for his Metaphysical paintings in the 1920s, when he struggled to sell his art. The Surrealists considered his Metaphysical paintings as revolutionary and liberating; they imitated them and tried to replicate their atmosphere; they rejected his Neo-classical paintings. He participated in some meetings, events and exhibitions arranged by the Breton group but he was sceptical of the value of these activities and critical of their Communism. He resented their rejection of his later art and he was angry at the abuse (some of it very personal) he received from them. He was furious about the faking of his paintings by Oscar Dominguez, encouraged by Breton, which were exhibited at Galerie Allard in June 1946. De Chirico would later suffer more pernicious faking activity which undermined his oeuvre so thoroughly that experts, the artist’s foundation and the artist himself noted that some forgeries had been included in early catalogues of his art. For the rest of his life, the painter struggled with attributions – real, fake and ante-dated.

The selection of art is satisfyingly broad. It is difficult to gain loans of the most valuable and rarest Metaphysical paintings, but this exhibition is an opportunity to use these limitations to our advantage by mixing well-known pieces with less famous pictures. The versions of classic compositions are later variants or copies by the artist. The most startling pictures are the Neo-Metaphysical paintings. The assertive colouring and the sun and moon symbols – linked by cables or tubes to their unilluminated negatives – are departures from the Metaphysical works. The brushwork is also denser and the pigmentation is heavier. The clarity of lighting of later pictures contrasts with the crepuscular quality of the Metaphysical pictures.

Offering to the Sun (1968) has a stylised sun at the horizon, connected to fire on an outdoor hearth. A black crescent moon is linked to a red moon, secreted within a building, like a prop in a stage play or a tool in a garden shed. It is an extraordinarily bold concept and an inspired inclusion. The Ferrarese interiors are in versions of the 1960s or 1970s. Clusters of props, tools and armatures inhabit rooms with views upon Italianate towns, New York City skylines and seashores. These present conundrums of representation – the relative validity and inter-relations of parts of differing registers. In The Great Mysterious Trophy (1973) has a group of architectural fragments, sculpture parts and a painting in an interior; through windows, we view Classical temples and pillar sections in landscapes. De Chirico treats temples quite differently from post-ancient Italian buildings. While the post-ancient Italian buildings are inhabited and situated within streets, squares and yards which afford communal spaces which contain (or possess the possibility to contain) objects, architectural parts, monuments and figures, the temples are isolated, uninhabited and bereft of life, isolated on rocky slopes with no paths or agoras. The Italianate buildings are permeable, habitable and locations of encounter; the temples are solid, uninhabitable and exist as symbols only. De Chirico’s temples are like building blocks – generic, self-contained, arbitrarily placed.

Corazze con cavaliere, 1940

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Corazze con cavaliere (natura morta ariostea) (1940), oil on canvas, 87 x 112 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

Portraits and especially self-portraits are typical of de Chirico’s emphatically conservative contributions to this traditional genre. They are extensions of Renaissance and Baroque painting, only the heavy, direct handling of the paint and strong contrasts mark out de Chirico’s art as different. Whether that difference came from choice or instinct is not clear. The artist’s numerous recursions to Metaphysical art and combined styles during all periods show that he was never fully immersed in the traditions and techniques of the Old Masters, despite his reading of Cennini and his writings on grounds, glazes and paint formulae. Rather than being a resident of Old Master territory, de Chirico was a visitor – albeit a respectful and attentive one.

The paintings are supplemented by prints and drawings, of varying degrees of finish. The full suite of 10 lithograph illustrations for Cocteau’s book Mythologie (1934) is exhibited. They feature de Chirico’s Mysterious Baths. The memory of seeing reflections on a waxed parquet floor inspired the development of stylised water in the group called the Mysterious Baths. The pencil-drawing illustrations for Siepe a nordovest (1922) by Massimo Bontempelli play with tradition and conventional illustration, with touches of de Chirico’s theatrical Modernism. The characters are depicted as ersatz marionettes. A handful of highly finished drawings of Metaphysical compositions show de Chirico’s skill as a draughtsman. (A handful of nudes from 1930s-1950s show de Chirico was a sensitive painter of the figure when he took time. It would be worth isolating these and investigating this theme in a discrete exhibition and publication.)

An essay by Ara H. Merjian examines Roberto Longhi’s 1919. This negative review was said to have damaged de Chirico’s reputation in Italy at the point when he had hoped to establish himself as an inheritor of the Italian Renaissance. Another essay draws parallels between the statements and principles of Renoir and de Chirico. Other essays address other aspects; large reproductions of the exhibited art fill a section; a chronology will be of use as a guide for general readers; a handful of short reviews and polemical texts by the artist allow us to judge de Chirico’s ideas first hand. Overall, this catalogue can be warmly recommended as a good survey of de Chirico’s art and ideas.

 

Victoria Noel-Johnson (ed.), Giorgio de Chirico: The Changing Face of Metaphysical Art, Skira, 2019, hardback, 256pp, 209 col. illus., $40/£29.95, IBSN 978 8 857 240 589

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Women as Creators and Subjects in Soviet Art

YANSON-MANIZER SCULPTURE  ULANOVA

[Image: Sculptor Elena Yanson-Manizer (1890–1971) working on the portrait of Galina Ulanova as Odette from the ballet ‘Swan Lake’]

The Government of the proletarian dictatorship, together with the Communist Party and trade unions, is of course leaving no stone unturned in the effort to overcome the backward ideas of men and women. […] That will mean freedom for the woman from the old household drudgery and dependence on man. That enables her to exercise to the full her talents and inclinations.

So stated Lenin. The advantages that middle-class women had secured in the decades before the Russian Revolution were not to be reserved to them alone. In the USSR, gender equality would be extended to all in a classless society. It was made clear by Party statements that women would be liberated whether or not they wanted to be. This meant work outside the home. However, as the husbands would also be working and there would no established support network of paid domestic help, this effectively doubled the workload of working women, with no extra support. Key workers would be moved around the country without consideration for their family life, imposing burdens on those remaining regarding childcare. The mother in the USSR was faced with less choice over how to live her life than before the Revolution. She had less control over the raising and education of her children, less free time and she had to – as all citizens of the USSR did – recognise she was no longer a private individual.

While there were such restrictions, women received access to improved educational opportunities. In the early years of the USSR, women had the chance to participate in careers that had been male-only preserves. One of these was not fine art, which had been open to women for many decades. However, barriers of cost and class that had prevented all but women of the wealthiest families from training at academies were removed by the new Soviet regime. Theoretically, women artists were permitted to exercise their skills to the utmost, free of financial restrictions.

Soviet Women and Their Art includes essays dealing with Soviet women as the subjects and producers of art in the USSR, from 1917 to the dissolution of the state in 1991. Profiles describe the lives and work of female artists and illustrations give us an idea of the character of their art.

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[Image: Alexandra Exter, City at Night (1919), oil on canvas, 88 × 71 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Russia / Bridgeman Images]

In early years of the Revolution, women artists flourished. There were already many women involved in the advanced art scene of the major cities. Cubism, Cubo-futurism, Suprematism and Constructivism were all current during the 1910s, some instances predating the 1917 Revolution by years. Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) is omitted from the profile section because her story is woven into an essay deals with avant-gardism. This tale includes Ksenia Boguslavskaia, Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), Nadezhda Udaltsova (1885-1961), Natalia Davydova, Evgeniia Pribylskaia, Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958) and Lyubov Popova (1889-1924). These creators or fine art and applied art worked on numerous publications, exhibitions and collaborative production before and after the October Revolution. It was a sense of community of likeminded artists that motivated this co-operation. After the Revolution, such community action was not so much mandated as officially authorised and encouraged. These collaborations included plays, ballets and parades. Early theorists suggested that complete social revolution and the smashing of traditions would be reflected in (and be promoted by) art of revolutionary character. Thus avant-garde art was the vanguard of an era of absolute change in all areas of human existence.

In a form of arts-and-crafts ethic, a number of fine artists produced designs for textiles, clothing, fabrics and household objects. This movement parallels the leftist-inspired Bauhaus. There were a number of close ties between the political and artistic left-wing movements of USSR and Germany during the 1917-1933 period before the advent of National Socialism.

p29

[Image: Olga Rozanova, Ksenia Boguslavskaia and Kazimir Malevich at the Last Futurist 0.10 Exhibition, December 1915, Petrograd. Photo © Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, Moscow /Bridgeman Images]

The greatest star and most painful loss to the Russian avant-garde movement of the era was Olga Rozanova (1886-1918). She was deeply involved in advanced painting. In 1912 she was making angular strongly coloured figurative paintings drawing from Fauvism and Expressionism. At an accelerating speed she cycled through other styles. The following year she was making Cubo-Futurist still-lifes and street views. By 1916 she was experimenting with Suprematism, pioneered by Malevich. She approached abstraction and by 1917 she had produced a fascinating, hypnotic painting Green Stripe, which is a vertical emerald stripe on a white ground. It presages Barnett Newman formally but it is more complex. Its irregular transparency in the edges of the stripe suggests some form that is both a strong presence and an emanation. It suggests two white walls converging or dissolving.

1.8_M91APN

[Image: Olga Rozanova, Green Stripe (1917), oil on canvas, 71.2 x 49cm. Kremlin State Museum, Rostov, Russia – Godong/Alamy Stock Photo]

Rozanova died aged only 32, which some have ascribed to her exertions to complete a decorative project in November 1918. There would be great value in a proper retrospective in the West and a comprehensive English-language catalogue of Rozanova’s art. She is the single best Russian avant-gardist artist not well known in the West. For preference, I rate her higher than Goncharova.

By the mid-1920s there was serious political resistance to such avant-garde art. The problem was of accessibility. Art that was abstract or highly stylised began to be condemned at the highest level as “bourgeois formalism”. In other words, advanced art was the games of educated elites that excluded and alienated the uninitiated, such as the ordinary peasant, soldier and factory worker. This theoretical objection to avant-gardism was solidified into Party policy by 1936. At that time, the main purpose of Soviet Communism was the preservation of the USSR and advancement of the material condition of the people. Rather than being a style as such, it was a principle that placed style below content, message below form, the political above the private, the recognisable above the strange, the direct above the ambiguous. No longer would artists strive for a cosmic universal language of liberation of humanity; instead, artists would work to advance the interests of Socialism as an extension of the development of the nation. The result was realist art that was patriotic, positive, uncritical, easy to understand, attractive and unchallenging. This meant that avant-garde artists had to adapt their style or cease producing art. Artists who were educated at this time were trained under the tenets of Socialist Realism.

Socialist Realism was not an actual style, so there was latitude for personal adaptation and incorporation of old or foreign influences. Anyone studying the range of art produced by officially supported artists will note the variety of styles though they will also note the absence of variation in tone and content – a complete absence of satire, humour, tragedy and criticism regarding life in the USSR. Soviet women artists had no immunity from the ravages of the political persecution. Their close relatives were imprisoned, exiled or executed. Some were driven to suicide or silence. Others relinquished their commitment to abstraction and turned to conventional subjects acceptable to the Union of Soviet Artists.

The most celebrated woman artist, and one of the most respected artists in the Socialist Realism era, was sculptor Vera Mukhina (1889-1953). She studied under Antoine Bourdelle in Paris (1912-4), the most advanced sculptor of the era, and at Académies Colarossi, de la Palette and de la Grande Chaumière. She made statues primarily by modelling and casting in bronze. Early influences seem to École de Paris sculptors such as Bourdelle, Lipchitz and Picasso, as well Boccioni and the Futurists. She adapted to the expectations of the Socialist Realism and produced her own form of academic realism. This extended to heroic realism, found most prominently in Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, her gigantic figures (24.5m tall) for the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair.

p103

[Image: Vera Mukhina (1889–1953), Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937), stainless steel, H. 24.5 m. Photo © Peter Phipp / Travelshots / Bridgeman Images]

It was a triumph of propaganda and became an iconic symbol for both the USSR and for socialism. It has to be acknowledged as a brilliant achievement in its attempt to stir emotion and inspire belief. Her various figure sculptures are illustrated. Generally, her art is not bellicose or stentorian in tone. One notable characteristic is her fidelity to life in the form of commitment to working with the nude figure. Overcoming the official tendency to produce anti-erotic depictions of figures and her commitment to working from life were major contributions. Her work in glass led to other artists following this practice. Her art is worth knowing beyond the iconic Worker and Kolkhoz Woman.

In an essay looking at the role of women in the new nation, the authors note the importance of fizkultura (physical culture) in society. Both men and women were expected to be physically fit and able to perform the tasks the state required of them, be they gymnastics, military service, dancing, working in the fields or factory, excelling in sports or mothering – always group or social activities. Men should be prepared for defence of their country. The demonstrations of co-ordinated gymnastics or military parades bonded individuals into units, drilled them to follow commands, awed participants and spectators and demonstrated the control of the state over its subjects. It was both practical and ideological. It was an expression of solidarity and unity of purpose. Fizkultura was also associated to the demonstration of the superiority of Communism through athletics and sports. These new subjects allowed Soviet artists to use semi-nude figures in action, overcoming state disapproval of academic history, mythological and the sensual nude as subjects. People engaged in sports were a particularly productive subject for sculptors. There is nothing stylistically or thematically to distinguish female from male sculptors. Leading male painters of the female nude were Arkady Plastov (1893-1972), Alexander Samokhvalov (1894-1971) and Aleksandr Deineka (1899-1969).

Three female ideals of the USSR were the lean lithe adolescent, the resolute factory worker and the sturdy fertile peasant. There was a premium placed upon the asexual: the athlete was narrow-hipped, small-breasted and with short hair; the factory worker wore unisex practical clothing and no make-up; the peasant mother was stoic and generous but was dutiful rather than attractive, more mother than wife. In each archetype individuality was reduced. In portraits we have the richness, tenderness of feeling and psychological insight of the best art of all ages and countries, but in the tradition of Social Realism there was a tendency to treat figures in scenes as archetypes.

The death of Stalin led to a period of political and social reform was called the Khrushchev Thaw. In the arts this meant a loosening of restrictions. Abstract or “non-objective” art became acceptable even if it did not become part of official projects or murals. Although the subsequent stagnation of the Brezhnev era led to the halting or retraction of some economic and social reforms of the late 1950s and early 1960s, there seems to have been little appetite for the restoration of heroic realism or the more anodyne forms of Socialist Realism at that time. An example of this new freedom may be found in the art of Lydia Masterkova (1927-2008). Her art informel, which incorporates tachiste and Abstract Expressionist elements into abstract paintings and drawings, is much closer to the mainstream of Western European art of the time than the art of her Socialist Realist predecessors. She attempts to recapture the commitment to development of the plastic content of art seen in the 1910s avant-gardism. She eventually emigrated to France.

One area of unresolved ambiguity that involved women and the arts was the ballet. Although Russian ballet was an import of French courtly culture, and was reserved for Russian royalty, it developed its own traditions and standards which made it unique and revered worldwide. So although the Party disapproved of the origins and conventions of ballet – not least its reliance on stories and music replete with bourgeois morals – the Party could make the ballet (especially the Bolshoi Ballet and Ballets Russes) available to the people as a form of Russian culture. The government of the USSR was also aware of the cachet of Russian ballet and how the art form could be used in soft diplomacy through foreign tours.

p151

[Image: Zinaida  Serebryakova, Portrait of A.A. Cherkesova-Benois with her Son Alexander (1922), oil on canvas, 80 × 68 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg – Photo © 2018 Scala, Florence]

Zinaida Serebryakova (1884-1967) specialised in ballet scenes, mostly focusing upon the practice and preparation rather than the performance. Her paintings are not idealistic and do not engage in the ambitious technical and formal aspects of Degas’s paintings of dancers. Instead they attractive, complex and emotionally sympathetic portrayals of women at work. The dressing room tableaux allowed Serebryakova to paint partial nudes which have a delight of the sensual without being sexual or gratuitous. Serebryakova was also an extremely accomplished painter of portraits and still-lifes. Again, like Rozanova, Serebryakova is a painter whose work deserves greater recognition. Although she lived in Paris from 1924 onwards, her early work is in public collections in Russia, and it is this which is illustrated and discussed in the book.

An essay discusses appearances of women in the art of Soviet era, including as military personnel, workers, athletes and mothers, as well as pictures where their roles are unstated. Other essays discuss female sculptors and the final stage of Soviet art from the 1960s to 1991. This was an era when the unofficial artists worked outside of the Union of Soviet Artists and official exhibitions and commission competitions to produce art of abstract, conceptual or non-conformist character. They existed in a half-world. They were neither persecuted nor approved; unable to publicly exhibit, their activities were confined to private showings for private networks of supporters and colleagues. At this time, Valentina Kropivnitskaya (1924-2008) produced elaborate drawings of Russian settings inhabited by quasi-human beings. They have a Surrealistic character, with the detailed foliage and clear detail that one associates with dreams. By the time feminist theory reached Soviet artists and began to appear in art there, the Soviet Union was on the point of dissolution.

The book omits poster art in favour of the fine arts. Although propaganda has been covered in other publications, it might have been useful to mention women’s involvement in propaganda production. Perhaps more could have been written about female self-portraits. The book is a fine summary of the subject and includes much art that will be unfamiliar to Western readers. While the illustrations are generally good, inexplicably there are some weak photographs of art works that were better reproduced in Unicorn’s recent Art of the Soviet Union. It is puzzling that the better quality images were not reused in this book.

 

Rena Lavery, Ivan Lindsay, et al., Soviet Women and Their Art: The Spirit of Equality, Unicorn, 12 April 2019, paperback, col. illus., 224pp, £19.99, ISBN 978 1 911 604 761

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Minoru Onoda

9783858818218_300dpi

Minoru Onoda (1937-2008) is best known as a member of the Gutai movement. Gutai was a group of Japanese artists determined to practise radical art in the avant-garde Western manner. It was founded in 1954. They produced painting influenced by Abstract Expressionism. It placed an emphasis on the procedure of production, in effect engaging in Process Art. There was inherent theatricality in the production of their art, which were presented as spectacles involving music and non-art materials. The events were sometimes public and recorded, with the production sometimes more important than the resultant material. Art was made by destroying material or painting while swinging from a harness over a horizontal surface. The group defiantly opposed many of the conventions of Japanese art, adopting non-Japanese practices and standards. It has been seen as a rejection of Japanese nationalism and unique culture. (Onoda was born in occupied Manchuria.) Gutai attracted attention worldwide but also criticism from Japanese traditionalists and from Western critics, who decried its spectacle as shallow and derivative. The group was dissolved in 1972.

This new book examines Onoda as an independent artist. He worked in paint primarily, but his paintings included sculptural elements. The gently undulating surfaces created on the plywood panels he used play with our sense of depth and light and shade. He painted irregular swirling lines and circles of colour which filled picture surfaces, forming surfaces that seem in motion both across the surface and inwards and outwards. The patterns recede and project, growing tiny then large. This impression is enhanced by the swells on the panel surface. The ground colour that Onoda favoured was yellow, usually with lines and circles in warm colours. One essay author compares them to psychedelic art that became fashionable a few years later.

Minoru-Onoda_p91_WORK63-F_1963

[Image: Minoru Onoda, WORK63-F (1963), oil, gofun and glue on plywood, 93.3 x 93 cm. © Estate of Minoru Onoda, courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie, Basel]

This work began in 1962 and marks Onoda’s maturation as an artist and his first original contribution to the art of his time. In 1965 (the year that he joined the Gutai group) Onoda started using red grounds and began producing circular patterns on square boards.

Minoru-Onoda_p122_WORK66-13_1963

[Image: Minoru Onoda, WORK66-13 (1966), oil, gofun and glue on plywood, 93.8 x 93.8 cm. © Estate of Minoru Onoda, courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie, Basel]

This developed into sets that were hung in triptychs, lines and grids. By the early 1970s Onoda began a group of works using circular motifs in blue. He used electric blue acrylic paint applied with an airbrush over stencils. The softness of the graduated tones gives these pieces an air of otherworldliness; the sharp edges and clarity are those of technical designs and industrially manufactured products. These are more meditative, detached pictures than the playful swelling organic patterns. In these airbrushed paintings (all of the works have numbered titles) we find some kind of conciliation with the practice of Buddhist mindful contemplation. The versions in red-pink and black-grey have different affects; they are more assertive. In 1974 Onoda founded the New Geometric Art Group. The hard-edge paintings, with their fine patterns and brushless application of colour, are associated with Op Art, which was then popular.

Minoru-Onoda_p165_WORK79-BLUE47_1979

[Image: Minoru Onoda, WORK79-Blue 47 (1979), Acrylic spray paint on cotton on plywood, 80 x 80 cm. © Estate of Minoru Onoda, courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie, Basel]

Starting in 1984 Onoda commenced painted monochrome works on shaped panels, often placed over panels of different colour. The panels were usually square, with wavy edges and drilled holes at the edge or dramatically crossing the centre at a tangent. The last works (starting in 1991) were paintings of dark colours applied with blades. These are the least engaging works of Onoda’s career. Essays discuss Onoda’s aesthetic and associations (he had a natural tendency to participate in group activities) and discuss his career trajectory. Shoichi Hirai states that Onada’s dramatic changes in style led to a degree of scepticism in observers. Examples of the artist’s sketchbook drawings show rehearsals and projections.

Onoda claimed in a review that his drive was not negative but oblivious. “I am not rebelling against anything. Nor do I favor the new over the old or the old over the new. I am rejecting anything, pushing any ideology or expressing any: the works are simply works. There is nothing I would like to communicate through them except the works themselves. It is my belief that communication ceases the moment a work is completed.” This generous selection of paintings, drawings and sculptures – along with installation shots of exhibitions – along with helpful essays will allow readers to judge Onoda’s statement.

 

Anne Mosseri-Marlio (ed.), Minoru Onoda, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2018, hardback, 232pp, 176 col./7 mono illus., €68, ISBN 978 3 858 818218

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

The Renaissance Nude

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[Image: installation view, Conegliano St Sebastian (1500-2), right: Titian Venus]

One of the central parts of the Renaissance of thought and culture in Europe, starting around 1400, was acceptance of the unclothed human figure. For the previous millennium, Christianity had disapproved of depictions of the unclothed figure, decisively rejecting the heritage and practices of Mediterranean art. The engagement by philosophers, clerics, scholars and artists with the ideas of Greece and Roman opened up a willingness to use the nude as a viable and respectable part of culture. As a component of mythological and Biblical subjects in art – and anatomical study as a part of the technical training of a professional artist – the nude became a locus for both finished artistic products and the basis for artist education.

The current exhibition The Renaissance Nude currently at the Royal Academy (2 March-2 June 2019, previously at the J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, 30 October 2018-27 January 2019) includes a selection of the vast range of material including the nude, all taken from European art made over the Early (1400-1495) and High Renaissance (1495-1520), with a handful of pieces from the Late Renaissance (1520-1550). (This review is from the catalogue.) In an age when feminist pressure and progressive education has made even politically uncommitted experts hesitant about presenting nude imagery, honest discussion and scholarship about nudity in art has become politicised. Has the influence of gender studies and New Criticism undone traditional art historiography?

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Neoplatonist thought sought to achieve a synthesis between Christian values and classical learning, despite the obvious conflicts that this entailed. Art was the one area where the two traditions could be fused with little internal contradiction. Apollo of the Greeks could become the template for Christ. The sinners in hell are naked and unprotected from demons. Adam and Eve could appear in realistic form taken from study of live models by an artist who was not simple an artisan but a thinker. It would be inaccurate to talk of a classical thaw from the Mediterranean south travelling northward from Italy to Germany and the Low Countries. The first full-length nudes of the period came from the Low Countries and were spread Southward via engravings and woodcuts, and were in part extensions of traditions that came from native schools drawing from fragments of Roman art. (The Medieval nude can be found in the numerous decorative carvings of churches.) We could say that Northern and Southern traditions developed in parallel but both looked to incorporate nudity into Biblical art and used the legitimacy of classical art to support this. This exhibition acknowledges the contribution of German, Netherlandish and Swiss artists and includes paintings by Martin Schoengauer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Memling, Jan Gossart, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung (Grien) and others.

The exhibition comprises paintings, drawings, prints, manuscript illustration and sculpture (statues, bas reliefs, reliquaries, medals). Catalogue illustrations cover the sweep of Renaissance art featuring the nude, with the most notable works being by Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo, Signorelli, Mantegna, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Titian and others. The great diversity of forms and approaches to the nude remind us of the breadth of Renaissance visual and intellectual culture.

The human body was the locus of medieval and Renaissance science. Scholars, theologians, artists, mathematicians and architects attempted to correlate the physical body with the heavenly bodies, the dimensions of the perfect church, orders of architecture and other apparently ordered systems. The music of the spheres and the uncanny correlation between mathematics, science, arts and other systems including supposed scales or harmonies. The hidden order of life was seen to link various fields. The prints of ideal human figures designed by Vitruvius are included. They seem more derived from theory than observation. While observation sometimes suggested correlations, it often undermined assumptions of philosophers and scientists. We find in Dürer, Signorelli and Leonardo artists getting closer to reality than Vitruvius, doubtless due to their deference to reality over theory.

As the body was a product of order, so ugliness and illness were signs of disorder of earthly or divine origin. There are images of unideal figures – the elderly, the sick and others. The prime form of the nude that evokes horror and aversion is Death personified. Death and the Maiden is a great subject of the Northern European artists of this time, showing the healthy attractive nude with the morbid repulsive cadaver. This is something that only the Northern artists mastered. German carvings of grotesques are distinctly geographically specific subjects found during the 1480-1500 period. The Northern genius for the wild, bizarre and gothic always surpassed the Italian imagination, so attuned as it was the graceful, grand and beautiful. Even the inventions of Leonardo and Piero di Cosimo pale compared to Baldung and Grunewald.

A piquant instance of sex-war politics is Hans Baldung’s woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513). This print illustrates the anecdote of Phyllis enslaving and humiliating Aristotle by riding him nude around a garden to demonstrate to Alexander the Great her domination of the great thinker. For society of the time, free-spirited sexually assertive women were dangerous temptresses capable of humiliating men and bringing shame on themselves and others. This finds further expression in Baldung’s many pictures of witches, where naked women are objects of desire and derision.

The print of a male bathhouse scene by Dürer is an example of homo-eroticism. It is widely conjectured that the artist was homosexual and this print suggests a sympathy or attraction for the nude male in the homosocial environment. Prints by various printmakers of German lands show full-nude figures. From the Netherlandish artists we see Adam and Eve and scenes of sinners tormented in the afterlife.

Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

[Image: Raphael, The Three Graces (c. 1517-18), red chalk on paper, 20.3 x 25.8 cm. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019]

The exhibition reminds us the grace and charm of Piero di Cosimo, particularly in a sweet profile portrait of a young woman, presumed to be a friend or lover of the artist whom he took as his muse. Many great masterpieces could not be included in the exhibition but they are illustrated in the catalogue. There is new art to encounter in the exhibition. The Lucretia (c. 1510-5) of Conrad Meit displays the extreme emotionality that we associate with Northern art. Her face is a mask of tragic suffering, underlining the nobility of her self-sacrifice. Again we see the primacy of expression in German art.

Kren writes of the Limbourg Brothers illuminated manuscript Trés riches heures (1405-1408/9), suggesting that the Biblical scenes featuring sensual nudity were adapted to the erotic proclivities of the Duke of Berry, the commissioner of the book. Other favourite subjects that permitted depiction of female nudes were Bathsheba Bathing and Susannah and the Elders. Adam and Eve allowed an artist to demonstrate his command of anatomy of both sexes.

The mixed-sex public nude bathing in Basel, shocked an Italian visitor in 1461. Nudity was apparent in Northern and Central European tableaux vivants. Today we still have an impression of a medieval and Renaissance attitude of strict conservative attitudes towards nudity. This exhibition and catalogue demonstrates the diversity in attitudes.

It can be considered some instances of nudity in art were gratuitous and came about due to sheer pleasure and fascination. Pisanello’s Luxuria seems strikingly modern. The gamine woman, slender and unashamed, with her afro of vegetation, is like a glossy magazine photo-shoot or Instagram Goth. It was drawn around 1426.

Some depictions of religious scenes including nudity apparently went too far. There was the case of Fra Bartolommeo’s St Sebastian installed in a church which, female parishioners confessed caused them sinful thoughts. The clerics decided to sell the painting. There is a silver relief of around 1510 of Madonna and Child accompanied by St Sebastian, who is completely nude – effectively a classical nude.

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[Image: Moderno, Virgin and Child with Saints (c. 1510), cast silver with gilding, 13.9 x 10.2 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Kunstkammer]

Sandro Botticelli is represented here as an important artist of the period using the nude, most famously in The Birth of Venus. Botticelli fell under the influence of religious zealot Savonarola and subsequently supposedly burned some of his depictions of nude figures, deciding they were impious.

In the mid-Sixteenth Century the rising Lutheranism and the responsive Counter Reformation both were critical of the use of nudes in Christian image making, which effectively ended the Late Renaissance and the proliferation of nude figures in art. Although we see the nude appearing in Mannerist and Baroque, it is no longer the centre of advances or a battle ground for art during this time.

The personalisation of painting particular subjects comes to the fore in paintings of mythological, religious and symbolic content that are of specific people. One case is Jean Fouquet’s celebrated Virgin and Child (c. 1452-5). The pale Virgin and Child are surrounded by red and blue cherubs. The subjects are as white as linen, unsullied, exquisite as porcelain. The Virgin’s nursing breast is exposed, released from her tight corset. She is apparently based upon the lover of the donor, King Charles VII, a woman named Agnès Sorel. Sorel had died in 1450, at the age of about 27, before the painting was made. Thus the painting was religious but based upon a profane love; for the donor, viewing the painting would have combined the devotion of worship and the pleasure of the erotic and would have been a pleasure of seeing a close companion to the level of the mother of God and a sensation of deep loss and grief. Inadvertently, this painting is an embodiment of the myriad functions and interpretations of art that were current in the Renaissance period.

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[Image: Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) (c. 1520), oil on canvas, 75.8 x 57.6 cm. National Galleries of Scotland. Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government (hybrid arrangement) and allocated to the Scottish National Gallery, with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and the Scottish Executive, 2003]

The Renaissance Nude tells of the many reasons for the existence of imagery of the nude – didactic and sensual, moral and licentious, realistic and idealised – and draws on new technical research and historical data. The catalogue essays and entries on individual exhibited items balance detail and general overview. The illustrations are large and the production quality is excellent. This catalogue makes an intelligent and comprehensive introduction to the various roles of the nude in Renaissance art.

We can be relieved that we have escaped an exhibition based on the gender politics of our age. Although the writers are aware and informed about discussions regarding gender and sexual studies (and the semiological readings of recent decades), they wisely elected to elucidate the attitudes and theories of the Renaissance rather than impose their views. Thus they give us an informed basic understanding of why a picture may have come into existence and how it was seen at the time, leaving us to interpret ourselves how we wish to understand it today. In that respect, the curators have credited us with discernment and sophistication equivalent that of the artists, writers and thinkers presented in this exhibition and catalogue.

 

 

Thomas Kren (ed.), The Renaissance Nude, Getty Publications, November 2018, cloth hardback, illus., $65/£48, 432pp, 273 col. illus., ISBN 978 1 60606 584 6

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Georgia O’Keeffe & Feminism

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Linda M Grasso’s aim in Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism (originally published in 2017, reissued this month) is to explore Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) in relation to two distinct phases of feminism (historically, first and second waves) in the 1910s and 1970s and the way O’Keeffe has been taken up as an iconic figure by feminists during her lifetime and since. This is a significant topic because O’Keeffe is one of the most prominent – perhaps the most prominent – female artists of the previous century; she lived through eras of feminist public activity and responded to it. The difficulty for feminists is that O’Keeffe had mixed responses to feminism and feminists – often decidedly hostile. So although O’Keeffe was a great and successful woman artist – and thus an ideal candidate as a feminist icon – her own reactions against feminism and to being classed a “woman painter” make her a problematic subject for feminists.

Grasso’s position is openly pro-feminist. The difficulty with a politically committed academic following a line of scholarship that has political ramifications is that the academic wants to advance a cause even if the evidence is ambiguous. Bearing this in mind, let us examine Grasso’s evidence, reasoning and conclusions.

“The feminism [O’Keeffe] embraced and practiced ennobled individualism, self-expressionism, and professional achievement as ultimate forms of liberty.” To the average person, this seems a positive good, yet this wilful individualism displays a distinct lack of the class solidarity which is necessary to effective feminist activism. While the ostensible goal of feminism is individual liberation, its nature demands commitment to group goals such as emotional solidarity, directed activism and conformity to shared principles. This is manifest in vehement denunciation of “choice feminism”. This is on the ostensible basis that individual choices of women – to work more or less, have children or not, adopt traditional standards of feminine dress or not and so forth – actually conceal the systematic nature of societal oppression and effectively act as a cover for the coercion of women. Thus choice feminism perpetuates the illusion that any woman is actually free to choose – or at least has equivalent freedom to that granted to men. In reality, one suspects that this ideological opposition to choice feminism is tactical. If women can opt in and out of feminism, express disagreement with feminist principles and enact independent discrimination in everyday life, feminism as a political movement – which relies on homogeneity and unity – becomes splintered.

Significantly, during the formative period of O’Keeffe’s adulthood (the 1900s and 1910s) she was in agreement with first-wave feminism which advocated for legal/electoral rights. It was this position she held throughout her life, that women should have the chance to act in whatever ways men acted and to choose what they did with such freedom. O’Keeffe was unequivocally a “choice feminist”. For today’s feminist, who views choice feminism as selfish individualism which perpetuates patriarchal structures, O’Keeffe’s views are incompatible with true feminism. (O’Keeffe’s responses to later feminism are discussed below.)

In Grasso’s very next sentence we encounter another plank of modern feminism. “Arguably, however, O’Keeffe’s art could have inspired women and men of all races, classes, politics, and statuses to imagine worlds not governed by industrial logic, stultifying labor, and multiple discriminations.” This is an example of intersectionality, the idea that we exist in multiple classes, often determined by demographic factors (such a sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and so forth) and that these categorisations intersect in ways that frame our existences in multiple co-variant manners. The idea that art by a producer of certain demographic(s) will be understood best by other members of that demographic(s) has become pervasive in leftist cultural theory. Grasso tentatively asserts that although O’Keeffe’s art may have been the result of an attempt to liberate the white heterosexual affluent woman artist, it may have performed a political function for others.

Grasso gathers evidence from the artist’s early years, when she was an indirect supporter of women’s suffrage through her friendship with active campaigners, to show that O’Keeffe later omitted this sympathy from her late-career management of her public image. Grasso may be correct to suggest O’Keeffe wanted to distance herself from the cultural expressions of artists-as-women that had become common currency in the era of second-wave feminism in the fine arts, causing her to neglect to mention activities that could be seen as affiliated to feminism (albeit of an earlier generation). Grasso’s observations seem apposite but the evidence presented is very limited. O’Keeffe was a member of the National Woman’s Party and was a sponsor of the World Center for Women’s Archives.

Alfred Stieglitz’s role in refining her ideas and promoting O’Keeffe’s art is looked at in a gendered way. O’Keeffe’s acknowledgement of the encouragement, ideas and publicity that Stieglitz’s provided her professionally is seen as a comparative dismissal of Anita Pollitzer, a friend who supported her before she met Stieglitz. An objective assessment of the relative amount and nature of the help Pollitzer and Stieglitz provided the artist must favour the latter. To cast Pollitzer’s role in O’Keefe’s career as valuable but subordinate to Stieglitz’s – as O’Keeffe did – is not unreasonable nor is it evidence of systematic privileging of man’s power over woman’s friendship. Grasso is correct in suggesting that O’Keeffe was begrudging in overlooking her friend Pollitzer in retrospective accounts. The artist blocked Pollitzer’s biography of her and used that manuscript to source material for her subsequently published autobiography.

Generally, the artist refused association with societies and events relating women’s art.  She refused permission for feminist writers to use her art and declined interviews with them. She was dismissive of the idea of women artists being distinct and claimed that her career had never been impaired sexual discrimination. Certainly, in public she wished to be known as a painter, a modern artist and an American artist but not as a woman artist. O’Keeffe’s view was that to achieve equality, her accomplishments should not be limited as “female”. She had to have her art accepted as she wished it to be: genderless and hung among the art of men. Other female artists thought the same, considering separate art to be a way of avoiding competition with the best and accepting lower standards. Of course, to many feminists O’Keeffe’s denial of her sex was a concession to earn acclaim as a desexed artist in a male-dominated field.

The book summarises the lifetime articles written about O’Keeffe, with a focus on how her gender was discussed. Special attention is paid to the attitude of female journalists. Wealthy women, including Elizabeth Arden and Abby Rockefeller, were among the artist’s collectors. The collection of fan letters written to the artist (and preserved by her) is mined to examine what women of the time found to admire in O’Keeffe and her paintings. In old age, she was a national celebrity and an icon of a liberated woman.

Although much of the information is useful, and discussions about O’Keeffe’s actions are plausible, these rest on a foundation of contentious assumptions. The idea that society is a system of mechanisms developed to suppress opponent groups (rather than a complex evolving structure of traditions, systems, values and hierarchies that favours people with different qualities in varying ways that alter over time) seems to be a goal-orientated assessment directed by political allegiance.

These assumptions can be seen in instances of over-interpretation.

In 1970 the Whitney Museum of American Art did not practise “exclusion of white and black women artists in their annual exhibition”. Declining art submitted to an open-exhibition jury is not exclusion. When feminists targeted the museum by “conducting sit-ins, demonstrating outside the building holding placards and blowing whistles, and utilizing theatrical tactics such as planting uncooked eggs and sanitary napkins inside galleries,” is it any wonder that O’Keeffe wished to disassociate herself from such a movement? An artist who had conquered the art world through tenacity and talent and who had never benefited from – or had need of – quotas had nothing in common with these activists.

Grasso concludes that O’Keeffe systematically stripped her autobiography of all traces of feminist example and enablement in order to present her achievements as being personal ones. Grasso’s position echoes the slogan “You didn’t build this”. She suggests that O’Keeffe’s work could only have come about following the advances in education, emancipation and empowerment achieved by pioneering feminist and proto-feminist activists generally, as well as the help certain specific associates of the artist (including critics, journalists, teachers and artists) whom Grasso classes as feminists. Well, so be it. Should O’Keeffe have acknowledged the scientists, engineers, doctors, politicians, soldiers and educators who made her country safe, prosperous and free? Grasso’s criticism is – most pertinently – implied criticism of choice feminism and a deprecation of O’Keeffe’s apparent lack of gender solidarity.

Grasso concludes that O’Keeffe’s life, art and example enacted a form of feminist practice. In aspiring for equality, even though she eschewed identification as a woman artist, O’Keeffe was a feminist in Grasso’s view. However, the artist’s distancing of herself from her gender, makes her “incomplete” for many feminists. With all its ideological limitations, even neutral readers will find Equal Under the Sky a thought-provoking book full of useful research and new perspectives.

 

Linda M. Grasso, Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism, University of New Mexico Press, 2019, hardback, 336pp, mono illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 8263 5881 3 (other editions available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

Thomas Sowell: Discrimination and Disparities

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A revised and enlarged edition of Thomas Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities, first published last year, has been published. This is not a full review. My review of that first edition see “Poisoned by Welfare”, The Salisbury Review, vol. 37 no. 1, pp. 49-51, Autumn 2018. The main changes are the addition of two new chapters (nos. five and seven), though there are other changes throughout. This edition of 308pp compares to the 179pp of the first edition, although the second edition has marginally larger font. We should recap Sowell’s arguments.

Sowell describes how discrimination can be interpreted two ways. The first is the exercise of general prejudice; the other is as informed judgment. Sowell’s point is that these are variations of the same function: discerning differences. The question is merely the accuracy and detail of these assessments. He sorts discrimination into judgment at an individual level and at a group level. So a person can judge another person on their individual qualities, skills and personality or he/she can judge on broader group criteria: age, gender, place of residence, nationality, ethnicity and so forth. Obviously, the first level provides more detailed and accurate information about the subject but the cost (in terms of money and time) is much higher to assessing at a group level. Sometimes sorting individuals at a low-detail group level is the only viable method when time or money is short.

Sowell points out that disparities exist in all areas of geography and human geography. Some countries are rich in resources and others poor. Mountain regions have poor populations; lowland areas by navigable waterways have richer ones. Wealth and crime are also unevenly spread. Among people height, health conditions, physical attributes and so forth vary between populations and between individuals. A startling fact is that there is a measurable and constant pattern of (on average) first-born children being more intelligent than their younger siblings, with an average of declining intelligence for later-born children. Even within the same settings, social conditioning and genetic make-up in family members, uneven but predictable distributions form.

Sowell uses statistics on crime and income to show that culture rather than residual or active racism are the main contribution to the disparities that black Americans face. He shows that in certain circumstances that blacks do better than whites.

“The poverty rate of married blacks is not only lower than that of blacks as a whole, but in some years has also been lower than that of whites as a whole. In 2016, for example, the poverty rate for blacks was 22 percent, for whites was 11 percent, and for black married couples was 7.5 percent. Do racists care whether someone black is married or unmarried? If not, then why do married blacks escape poverty so much more often than other blacks, if racism is the main reason for black poverty? If the continuing effects of past evils such as slavery play a major causal role today, were the ancestors of today’s black married couples exempt from slavery and other injustices?”

He suggests a number of factors which contribute to blacks having lower income than whites, noting that at certain times and locations black Americans overall had higher income than white Americans. Sowell’s position is that cultural and actuarial factors influence the disparities noted in income differences by ethnicity. Incomes vary partly according to age, with young workers being more junior and lower skilled, thus lower paid than older workers. The median age of Japanese Americans is 51; the median age of Mexican Americans is 27. Therefore at least some of the disparity in median income between the groups is due to career progression. Sowell adduces from the notable successes of Asian-Americans and Indian-British transcend any supposed racism and that a culture of hard work, educational attainment and familial stability leave this group with decided advantages over other ethnic groups. Sowell provides little comfort to those seeking a genetic/racial explanation for disparities, just as he likewise undermines those who believe “structural racism” or “the legacy of slavery” have systematically disadvantaged groups.

In the new chapter 5, “The World of Words”, the author looks at the way words are distorted and redefined by elites (principally through education and the media) to strengthen the preferred cases or misrepresent detrimental actions in a positive light. Sowell has previously expressed his suspicion of elites imposing their visions upon the general population and preventing revealed preferences of individuals influencing the markets. In relation to explaining disparities and discrimination, language is used to disguise the truth. Those with an authoritarian outlook justify tightening their grip on control and directing power by presenting that as a matter of assisting the disadvantaged, all the while assuming they know what the causal factors for the disparities are.

Sowell points out that the famed “1%” is an income category which individuals move in and out of, not a lifelong descriptor of specific individuals. Couples and families have financial mobility, as do individuals who progress (and sometimes regress) in terms of financial income throughout their careers. “The 1%” is shorthand for the undeserving rich. This group is viewed as a “problem” and groups of the self-righteous discuss how they might punitively appropriate the goods of the 1%. “Privilege” is a description not derived from statistical standards but a vague term applied tactically as an argumentative device. Nowadays we are acquainted with the use of “violence” to mean the upset caused by an infraction or insult (actual or perceived). It seems like a neologism, so readers may be surprised to learn that this conflation of physical injury and metaphorical harm dates back at least as far as 1964.

The final chapter tackles “solutions” to the “problems” of disparities. As anyone familiar with Sowell’s work will be unsurprised to learn, Sowell places little trust in the efficacy of imposed systems derived without evidence. Such solutions often fail to produce the expected results, sometimes produce detrimental results and even unintended consequences that cause difficulties. (“Surrogate decision-makers often pay no price for being wrong, no matter how wrong or how catastrophic the consequences for those whose decisions they have pre-empted.”) So Sowell’s suggestions are to evaluate people according to productivity not moral merit and advocate for better education. He states that we do better to have process goals (free markets, transparent laws) rather than outcome goals (income equality, gender parity in employment). The latter approach smacks of an ideologue’s shaping of the world to the way he/she thinks it ought to be, as opposed to the liberal pragmatist who sees life as a matter of trade-offs and attempting to reduce interference in private choice.

As is usual for Sowell’s books, Discrimination and Disparities is written in lucid plain English, with thorough statistical grounding given in the footnotes. Sowell’s considerable work in this area while researching previous books serves him well. Using his knowledge of the international employment, wealth, productivity and legal discrimination give him perspective that American-centred commentators lack. The book provides a timely warning about our proclivity to interpret unknowns as evidence supporting our personal politically-orientated outlooks on society.

 

Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities (revised and enlarged version), Basic Books, 2019, hardback, 308pp, $30, ISBN 978 1 5416 4563 9

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Bauhaus Women/Bauhaus Bodies

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[Image: Ivana Tomljenović, Bauhaus Students, Dessau, (1930). Marinko Sudac Collection]

I.

The year 2019 marks the centenary of the foundation of the Bauhaus. Founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus functioned as the most advanced art-and-design school in the world until its closure in 1933. The school would use advanced teaching techniques by Modernist artist- creators such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Oskar Schlemmer. Subjects taught included architecture, painting, textile design, weaving, interior design, industrial design, theatre design, graphic design and dyeing, with students encouraged to use concepts, materials and techniques from other disciplines. The Bauhaus moved a number of times, being based in Weimar (1919-1925), Dessau (1925-1932) and Berlin (1932-3). The nomadic existence of the school was due to politics. When the Nazi national government came about, the Bauhaus closed completely and its tutors and students dispersed.

The Bauhaus was remarkable in many respects: the combination of fine art and applied art, the interdisciplinary nature of teaching, the stress upon modernity, the embracing of advanced technology, the commercialisation of student production and the openness to experimentation. The Bauhaus is remembered as a beacon of progressive artistic and social ideas and is held up as a model of art education.

There were structural barriers for female students but despite that the Bauhaus was considered progressive by staff, students, journalists and outsiders. Falling short of a perfect ideal in a setting run by individual adults who had grown up with certain traditional cultural expectations was perhaps inevitable. Gropius had doubts about the high ratio of women in the school. He implemented a limit on the number of women students and the number of female teachers declined. This has been attributed to sexism. Perhaps it was so. There is an additional reason. It seems that Gropius thought that if the Bauhaus became widely known as a female-dominated institution that it may have been taken less seriously, particularly in light of the fact that arts and crafts were treated comparably at the Bauhaus. An art school that had many female students and tutors and was also advocating for crafts to have a higher status would have looked less like avant-garde inter-disciplinary educational modernity than an attempt to feminise fine arts and design by infusing them with the handicraft ethos. Gropius may have actually considered most women unsuited for the design professions, but his actions to limit their entry into the Bauhaus was an act of contingent reputation management. This managerial motivation does not contradict or override Gropius’s attitude towards women in the arts, whatever that may have been.

Bauhaus Women is a survey of 45 of the most noteworthy of the 462 female students (out of an alumni population of 1,276) who attended the institution, as well as women tutors and wives/partners of tutors. Following a brief introduction, the authors give condensed biographies of the creators, including images of the creators of their work. It is impossible to encapsulate an entire life’s oeuvre in a single image but the lesser-known creators benefit from the one or two introductory images.

It is impossible to assess contributions on such brief entries but there is enough to give us a flavour of the person and their creations. The bibliographic sources are skimpy, sometimes consisting of as little as an article in a specialist journal. The authors state that their selection was partly based on the amount of evidence they could gather about subjects. Many of the male colleagues of these female Bauhaus students – whose names come up in the text – have disappeared into historical oblivion. Readers will be satisfied to find a mixture of known and lesser-known names.

Some Bauhaus women followed a variety of activities; these included Lore Leudesdorff-Engstfeld (textiles, fabric design, film scriptwriting, printmaking) and Marianne Brandt (metalware design, photography, painting). The single 1930 masked photographic self-portrait of Gertrud Arndt (née Hantschk) (1903-2000) reproduced in the book uncannily anticipates the work of Cindy Sherman.

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[Image: Bauhaus Student ID card “Mityiko” Yamawaki]

Michiko Yamawaki (1910-2000), along with her husband, spent two at the Bauhaus before returning to Japan. The books, journals and photographs that they brought with them were eagerly scrutinised by Japanese designers and architects, spread European Modernism. The couple taught at the New Architecture and Design College, Tokyo. In 1939, the nationalist government, espousing Japanese cultural superiority, closed the progressive institution.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944) produced abstract collages, highly stylised metal sculpture and political montages in the style of John Heartfield. Dicker-Brandeis is one of the Bauhaus women who lost their lives in the Nazi holocaust. A number of these creators died in the Nazi death camps. It is reminder of not only the destruction of historical treasures of the war but the stunting of European (and especially German and Austrian) art due to the ideals of National Socialism.

Another victim was Otti Berger (1898-1944), born in Croatia, studied weaving. She proved to be a star student, popular teacher and admired textile designer. She struggled to maintain a career in Germany after 1933, but by 1936 she was unable to earn income from her patents. The following year she was offered work by a British firm. Unfortunate timing and acting against advice led to her visiting her mother in Yugoslavia in 1939. She was trapped due to the outbreak of war. Unable to leave Yugoslavia, she was eventually deported to Auschwitz along with her family, where she was killed.

Architects include Lotte Stam-Beese (1903), Kathe Both (1905-1985) and Wera Meyer-Waldeck (1906-1964), who was cut down by ill-health just as her career was taking off. One of the principal routes that Bauhaus ideas were dispersed internationally was the photographs of Lucia Moholy (1894-1989). Sadly, Moholy was separated from her invaluable negatives recording the architecture, art work and individuals of the Bauhaus. While exiled during the Nazi era, Moholy did not know that her negatives had survived and were in the possession of Gropius in the USA. While others benefitted from her precise memorable photographs while she had no control, accreditation or royalties. She eventually regained the negatives.

A 11485

[Image: Four ceramic objects by Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein (later Marks), produced by Haël-Werkstätten, Marwitz near Berlin, 1923-1934. Collection of the Jewish Museum Berlin]

Many German artists and architects viewed the accession of Hitler as presenting them with a direct choice. They thought they had to choose whether they should contribute support to the new regime, retire from public life, cease working or emigrate. While Jewish creators were clearly disadvantaged and had to act to protect themselves, their incomes and relatives, for non-Jewish creators (especially those without public commitment to Socialism) the choices were less clear cut. Some Bauhaus women approved of some Nazi actions, finding other actions objectionable. Protecting persecuted friends did not mean that creators also refused to benefit from government-sponsored events and organisations under National Socialist direction. Some emigrated in protest or due to necessity, while others had family members who joined the party. Aufruf der Kulturschaffenden was a 1934 declaration of loyalty to the National Socialist government made by prominent figures in the cultural sphere. However, the list was not exclusive and attestations of loyalty did not guarantee approval from the authorities. Mies van der Rohe, last director of the Bauhaus, signed this statement. His wife Lilly Reich (1885-1947) did not sign but she did continue to work with Nazi authorities on exhibitions. She was a considerable designer and it seems she may have played an important role in the conception of the Barcelona Chair, officially accredited to her husband.

Lydia Driesch-Foucar (1895-1980) was a ceramicist who was left destitute after her husband died in 1930. With young children to support, Driesch-Foucar used her skills to make and decorate biscuits. Her Lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) are wonderfully drawn in light icing, sureness of drawing, visual wit and appropriate elaboration raise these biscuits to the level of handicraft – something that was recognised by museums and a trade union.

3_Replacement 3_from Sammlung Driesch via Friedrichsdorf Archives

[Image: Two Lebkuchen designs by Lydia Driesch. Collection of the Sammlung Driesch, Cologne]

This recognition allowed her to participate in trade fairs. During the 1930s, her biscuits became a national success, which led to more orders than her workshop could cope with. Being associated with the National Socialist-supported folk art movement damaged her post-war career.

Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein (1899-1990) founded the Haël ceramics firm, which produced clean-cut unadorned sets of crockery. A signature set was the “Norma” tea-set, with plain coloured exteriors and white interiors. The firm exported worldwide and thrived despite the Great Depression. As a Jew in National Socialist Germany, she was left with little choice other than to sell up – selling her moulds, premises and client list for a pittance. She emigrated to England but not able to regain her former success.

The most famous name among the women creators associated with the Bauhaus is Anni Albers (1899-1994). She taught textiles at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and Yale. Her book On Weaving (1965) is now a set text on many textile courses. Her career is covered in summary fashion here because of the numerous exhibition catalogues and books about her weaving designs, rugs and printmaking, which are already available. Her work is becoming increasingly influential and valuable; her prominence is likely to lead people indirectly to the creations of her female colleagues. (For my review of Albers’s “On Weaving”, click here.)

0_1_from Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

[Image: Weavers on the Bauhaus staircase, 1927. From top to bottom: Gunta Stölzl (left), Ljuba Monastirskaja (right), Grete Reichardt (left), Otti Berger, (right), Elisabeth Müller (light patterned jumper), Rosa Berger (dark jumper), Lis Beyer-Volger (centre, white collar), Lena Meyer-Bergner (left), Ruth Hollós (far right) and Elisabeth Oestreicher. Photograph by T. Lux Feininger. Collection of the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin]

II.

In recent years scholars have adjudged that the way Bauhaus women (Bauhäuslerinen) saw and were seen presents a unique case history of the way women’s experiences intersected with cultural politics during the heyday of High Modernism. “Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School makes the bold claim that the Bauhaus cannot be fully understood without exploring the post-First World War culture of embodiment that was a seminal aspect of the school’s project of rethinking art and life.” The book consists of 14 essays by specialists on gender-related topics within the orbit of Bauhaus studies.

The Modernist art movement is inextricably linked to social causes and a negative critique of the traditional culture. This social critique is sometimes radically subversive. The incomprehension and derision that Modernist art faced was accompanied by fear of the seismic political change.Although the Nazi opposition to Modernism was extreme, it was by no means atypical of those Germans wedded to traditional views. The Bauhaus was the prime forum for Modernist artistic experimentation in Germany.  The public association between avant-garde ideas and social liberation in the setting of the Bauhaus was cemented in the popular press and the school’s own publications. To a degree, the political suspicions of conservatives about the Bauhaus were justified. In 1928 Gropius retired from directorship of the Bauhaus. His replacement was Hannes Meyer, who had a commitment to communism. His lead encouraged political activism among tutors and students. KoStuFra (the Communist Student Organisation) had an active cell in the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was under surveillance as a centre of subversion and Communist agitation placed its future in jeopardy. Additionally, the Bauhaus’s students – with their peculiar clothing, haircuts and incomprehensible art – were “mostly foreigners, in particular Jews”, which alarmed locals. When Mies van der Rohe took over in 1930 from Meyer (who was removed by the Mayor of Dessau and who subsequently left for the USSR), he attempted to curb political excesses with decisive action.This included expelling students and banning the remaining students from joining political organisations. However, Nazi seizure of total national power could mean nothing other than the end of the Bauhaus project.

7_1_from Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

[Image: Portrait of Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein (later Heymann-Marks), c. 1925. Photographer unknown. Collection of the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin]

Not the least manifestation of Bauhaus’s modernity was its attitude to women. The overlap between gender liberation and left-wing politics is embodied in the New Woman (in the guise of the flapper, garçonne, athlete or businesswoman) was an archetype – or set of archetypes – which frequently appeared in films, newspapers and journals. The recent slaughter of German men and hyperinflation impoverishing middle-class families thrust German women into public life in a way they had not been previously. In the many photographs taken by Bauhaus students and staff we see women and men playing with gender roles. The cross-dressing and masculine hairstyles of some women echoed the adventurous New Women across Germany, enjoying the freedom of the constitution of the Weimar Republic (founded in 1919) which gave women equal rights. (It should be noted that the phenomenon of the New Woman was largely limited to younger women in urban or suburban locations, by no means universal even among that demographic.) The teachers at the Bauhaus actively promoted equality and fraternisation between male and female colleagues. In recent years there has been controversy about the gender division between students. There is testimony that women were discouraged and even strongly opposed from taking painting and industrial design courses, instead being directed to more traditionally feminine pursuit of studying textiles and weaving. The exact official policies of the Bauhaus regarding female students entering the courses on architecture, painting and industrial design are not quoted, leaving readers uncertain of what was implemented.

The influence of painter Johannes Itten (1888-1967) was partly pedagogical and partly mystical. He was a follower of Mazdaznan, a modern variation of Zoroastrianism. It included elements of phrenology and physiognomy, which he applied to assessing the students as character types. His primary contribution is viewed as being colour theory, but his spiritual and psychological ideas played a part in his teaching. Itten taught the Vorkurs (introductory course) that students passed through when they enrolled. This was associated with one aspect of the Bauhaus, that of Lebensreformbewegung. Lebensreformbewegung – the life-reform movement – was a widespread response to urbanisation, industrialistion and militarism. Although it originated in the last decade of the previous century, the movement flourished widely in Weimar Germany in the wake of the Great War, especially as it was seen as complementary to pacifism. Lebensreformbewegung took the forms of naturism, vegetarianism, naturopathy, teetotalism, communal living, eastern spiritualism (including yoga, meditation), exercise (including gymnastics, swimming and cycling), sunbathing, strict dieting and dress reform. Gymnastics and dance played a part in Bauhaus life. Gender non-conforming behaviour could be seen as linked to Lebensreformbewegung but we should not attempt to force connections.

Gertrud Grunow (1870-1944) based her teaching at the Bauhaus upon Itten’s lead. Her teaching is less well known than Itten’s and differs from it in some respect, being less theoretical and more therapeutic. The text published under her name (posthumously) is adapted from her manuscript and is not a true transcript, which makes it hard to assess what she actually taught at the Bauhaus. She believed that colour and human “psychophysicality” were spiritually connected and that bodily movement was associated with colour. This falls into the area of ideas of synaesthesia.

5_7_from St Annen-Museum

[Image: Gunta Stölzl: 5 Chöre (1928), jacquard weave; cotton, wool, rayon silk; 229 x 143 cm. Collection of the St Annen-Museum, Lübeck]

Kathleen James-Chakraborty notes that – unusually for an art school and in an era when nude sunbathing and naturism were widely practiced – there was a near complete absence of nude bodies in the art and photographs of the Bauhaus. (A confluence of asexual Mazdaznan spirituality and an emphasis on abstraction and design, possibly. One could also note the marked absence of eroticism of the Bauhaus art.) She goes on to discuss the way Bauhauslerinen dressed and paradox that none of them went into the fashion industry. Most of the fabrics produced by the Bauhaus were intended for furnishing rather than clothing.

Other essays discuss the Loheland dance group, political beliefs of Bauhaus staff, Klee’s images of dancers (including Greta Palucca and Karla Grosch), Bauhäuslerinen in the wall-painting department, androgynous personages in Schlemmer’s paintings, photographs with androgynous subjects, photographic double portraits and the socialism in the photographs of Irena Blühová, The work of Bauhaus administrator Ise Gropius, wife of the director, is examined. Her extensive daily chronicle of the Bauhaus 1924-8 seems to be a valuable and comprehensive source. Surprisingly, it has remained unpublished. It should be published as resource for researchers.

Although Bauhaus Bodies could be classified under the rubric “Gender Studies”, that should not put off fans of the Bauhaus and art-history scholars. The book is a serious advance in studies of the Bauhaus, European/German Modernism and Weimar Republic culture. It is a compliment to the intelligence and light on the political grandstanding that often disfigures otherwise useful research in the area we describe as Gender Studies. This is a model approach: measured, informative, analytical.

 

Elizabeth Otto, Patrick Rössler, Bauhaus Women: A Global Persepctive, Herbert Press (distr. Bloomsbury), March 2019, hardback, 192pp, fully illus., £30/$40, ISBN 978 1 912217 96 0

Elizabeth Otto, Patrick Rössler (eds.), Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, March 2019, paperback, 392pp, 12 col./110 mono illus., £23.99, ISBN 978 1 5013 4478 7

© Alexander Adams 2019

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