Bukowski: “Storm for the Living and the Dead”, book review

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Charles Bukowski (Abel Debritto, ed.), Storm for the Living and the Dead: Uncollected and Unpublished Poems, Ecco/HarperCollins, 2017, HB, 272pp, $25.99 ISBN 978 0 06 265651 3 (US version reviewed; British edition also available)

 

Storm for the Living and the Dead shows Bukowski at his earthiest, drunkest, most vulgar and most bawdy. The poet pukes, screws and argues; he sits in his room staring at his typewriter. He types as if he is manning the last remaining machine-gun on a high redoubt. His comrades Pound, Hemingway, Fante and Celine have all fallen and Bukowski is the last soldier left, gunning down opponents, knowing he will be next.

Bukowski’s ruminations on his past, his reputation and the approach of death dominate this new collection of previously uncollected and unpublished poems. It starts in 1959 and ends in 1994 with what is probably Bukowski’s final poem. To counter the posthumous editing which so neutered the collections published immediately after the poet’s death, editor Abel Debritto has transcribed the texts from original manuscripts and rare early chapbooks to give us Bukowski at his most pure. Topics covered include love, sex, gambling, drinking, writing and fatherhood. A parade of lovers, groupies, poets, editors and friends pass through the poems; few go unscathed. The most scathed is Bukowski himself. He shows his weaknesses and is weak enough to show himself grandiose, egocentric, petty, despairing, dying.

Charles Bukowski             disputes the indisputable

                                              used to work in the Post Office

                                              scares people on the streets

                                              is neurotic

                                              makes his shit up

especially the stuff about sex

 

Charles Bukowski             is the King of the Hard-Mouthed Poets

Charles Bukowski             used to work for the Post Office

Charles Bukowski             writes tough and acts scared

                                              acts scared and writes tough

                                              makes his shit up

especially the stuff about sex

 

Technically, the selection shows the breadth of the poet’s techniques. We have the standard Bukowski – free-verse, short lines, sparse capitalisation, clipped diction, telegraphic grammar. There are also rambling yarns – or shaggy-dog stories – as well as dialogue, paraphrase, letter-as-poem, poem-as-letter and other approaches which will surprise even seasoned Bukowski fans. The decision to transcribe exactly has paid off to show Bukowski unvarnished and experimental. “kuv stuff mox out” is a stream-of-consciousness flow where line ending sever words without hyphenation. There are cautionary tales, comic lampoons and family histories.

The collection has a number of multi-page apocalyptic fulminations against the madness of life. In these we have the sweeping array of the multitudes coming within the poet’s purview; “ice cream-men, necktie-salesman, corner paperboys, warehousemen, stockboys, messengerboys, pimps, elevator operators, plumbers, dentists, clowns, hot-walkers, jockeys, murderers (we’ve been hearing from the murdered), barbers, mechanics, waiters, bellboys, dope-runners, boxers, bartenders, others others others.” In other poems lists are of animals, activities and events. The dizzying list is one of Bukowski’s favourite approaches. Despite being too often an easy reach for the poet, it remains an effectively striking technique.

In many poems we find Bukowski sparring with the perennial heavyweights – Hemingway, Pound, Céline, Dostoyevsky and others – sometimes landing a stinging hook, sometimes coming out even or being outclassed. One of the more touching poems is “the way it goes”, about his writer friend John Fante, whom he greatly admired.

he wrote a clear simple line

a passionate line,

fine short stories and novels;

he was stricken late in life,

became blind, had both legs

amputated, and they kept cutting

at him…

 

While it is true that Bukowski had a large ego (and who, writing for publication, does not?), he admits as much and sometimes makes fun of himself. (In one poem Bukowski appears as a secondary character who the narrator rails against: “[that editor] prints Bukowski/so he’ll print anybody”.) Bukowski was also big enough as a man and a writer to pay tribute to his heroes. He also measured his work against theirs. One of the functions of the canon is to allow creative people to judge themselves against the best; another is that it offers the prize of immortality to those who measure up.

Some of Bukowski’s most effective poems are when he recounts events or recall people. “a rope of glass” is a beautifully concise yet descriptive poem which tells of an encounter with an old man on a train. The old man tells him about taking mules to the Italian front in the Great War.

we made bridges of rope from

mountain to mountain

always going up

and the mules pulled the cannon

across […]

when we got the cannon to the top

we pointed them down and

shelled the city below

us.

 

The sparseness and clarity is exhilarating. Some readers might wish this narrative prosodic mode appeared more often in Bukowski’s verse. Another fine example is a state-of-world poem (“Venice, Calif. nov. 1977:”) which compresses a set of observations of the Venice Beach into a single dense page. It is cynical, elegiac and pithy. It benefits from not having a grand theme and lacking the powerful emotion of poems such as “Dinosauria, we”.

Not all the poems connect. The poem about his father seems simply sour and self-regarding. Not that the poet should have been forgiving or modest, just that this poem failed. A handful of others seem slight (struggling with a typewriter ribbon, farting in the bath) or to be reworkings of ideas done better elsewhere. One rich premise falls flat: “the world of valets” is about the prosperous elderly Bukowski having power over valets while also submitting to their power, but it seems botched. On the whole, the quality is high. The inclusion of the poet’s comic drawings is welcome.

A number of very late poems show us the writer reflecting on his life and considering his own extinction. The title poem is one of Bukowski’s best late works. He describes being inside his house and hearing a storm outside. His wife enters his room and they talk. He feels cold. The sturm und drang has gone; “the party is over”. The storm has gone and Bukowski will follow soon enough. It is restated in a later poem:

you’re an old man in a chair

in a yard

in the world.

a leaf drops on your white belly

and that’s all there

is.

 

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Death & Desire: Dalí & Schiaparelli, review

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(Image: details of Salvador Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli at Chez Lopez, Neuilly, 1950, (c) Universal Photo/SIPA; Image Rights of Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2017)

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was the very antithesis of the peintre maudit. He came from a comfortable bourgeois family, found acclaim and acceptance early in Paris and became the toast of Surrealist circles while in his mid-twenties. Later he found fame and riches in America in the late 1930s, staying there throughout the Second World War and only returned to Europe in 1948. In both Paris and America Dalí mixed with high society, which relished indulging its decadent side by patronising and promoting Dalí’s shocking art. Dalí’s patrons lived ostentatiously, using their entrees into the art world to acquire cutting-edge art and extravagant fashion. It was only natural that Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) would meet and share common interests. The meeting would lead to a number of fruitful collaborations and exchange of ideas over the years.

The exhibition “Dalí and Schiaparelli” at The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida (18 October 2017–14 January 2018) examines that collaboration between two stars of mid-century fashion and art. The exhibition includes paintings, drawings and prints by Dalí, many examples of Schiaparelli’s clothing and accessories, as well as jewellery, perfume bottles, photographs and publications relating to both of the creators. This is a review from the fittingly luxurious large-format catalogue.

Schiaparelli’s family was a line of distinguished Italian academics and scientists. After spells in Paris and London, then a period in New York (where she associated with the Dadaists who would later become the core of the Surrealist movement) Schiaparelli returned to Paris and began design work. Assisted by established couturier Paul Poiret, Schiaparelli began her solo career in Paris in 1927. Dalí’s debut exhibition in Paris, held in November 1929, with a catalogue introduction by André Breton, launched his career. Although Schiaparelli was older than Dalí, their careers in Paris commenced within two years of each other, within the world of the former Dadaists and the Surrealists.

Essayists in the catalogue point out that both her and Dalí were radicals who were devoted to the use of rigorous craft in the production of their unusual inventions. In Dalí’s case it was craft he personally learned through youthful independent studies and later at art school education; in Schiaparelli’s case she relied on the skills of craftsmen and others, as she never trained in the technical side of clothing production. Schiaparelli was an early adopter of artificial fibres and new materials, driven by the avant-garde aesthetic of her Surrealist friends. One of her closest friends was Gabrielle Picabia, first wife of the radical artist Francis Picabia.

Dalí and Schiaparelli’s first collaboration was a Schiaparelli telephone-rotary-dial powder compact, launched in 1935. The most famous collaboration was Schiaparelli’s High-heel shoe hat (1937). Dalí repurposed a high-heel shoe for his wife as a shocking novelty to be worn to a society ball; Schiaparelli refined the design and manufactured the hat in small numbers.

Gala Éluard Dalí (1894-1982), the artist’s wife, was an important link between designer and artist. Gala was obsessed with luxury, beauty and money and inevitably had a passion for haute couture. She had great influence control over Dalí, urging him to undertake work in order to make the maximum amount of money. He claimed to be financially illiterate and naïve. The evidence is that Gala was behind many of the artist’s business dealings and prompted some of the most questionable of his financially-motivated projects. While Dalí was avid for money, it seems that for him money was valuable mostly as a measure of fame, which he craved above all else. It was Gala who wanted the money for itself.

Before a social engagement, the painter introduced rips into one of Gala’s blouses and she wore it to the event. Subsequently, Schiaparelli made a dress with trompe l’oeil rips apparently revealing a pink under layer (1938). This same design was used on the cloth cover of the catalogue of Dalí’s 1979 Paris retrospective, considered to this day as one of the best publications on his art.

The intersection between art, fashion and money was the high-society ball. These lavish events allowed the aristocracy and newly rich to mix with stars and artists and to create a stir in society. Many attendees commissioned costumes from artists and a number of artists treated such occasions as a chance to make temporary art – or to become temporary art. (Leonor Fini was particularly known for her daring and beauty and used to make elaborate costumes for herself and a select few others.) The Dalís attended many society balls in the 1930s and 1940s, Gala sometimes wearing Schiaparelli couture. Gala wore a number of Dalí-inspired Schiaparelli outfits and hats and served as a proxy model, acting as a living link between artist and fashion designer. The events were covered by the press and thus acted as useful publicity for designers and artists.

Prominent photographers of the era documented the overlapping worlds of high society and fashion.  The catalogue includes a section of full-page photographs of the aristocracy, artists, actors and celebrities who the creators knew. Both creators worked with actors, Dalí painting stars (most notably Laurence Olivier) and Schiaparelli clothing stars of stage and screen. Dalí also worked sporadically on opera stage designs and costumes for performers. Included in the exhibition and catalogue are examples of the painter’s backdrops for operas, including Tristan and Isolde by Wagner, his favourite opera.

Both creators were wedded to the idea of expression through the expansion of technical parameters. Dalí experimented with early holograms, artist animation and tactile-assisted cinema. His installations, including the Bonwit Teller display and the World’s Fair of 1939, were innovatory though strictly speaking Surrealist exhibitions-cum-installations dated back to the 1920s. His lifting of imagery from the popular press and the use of ben-day dots has been led to critics hailing Dalí as a progenitor of Pop Art and Post-Modernism.

For her part, Schiaparelli was the first fashion designer to use zippers, certain artificial fibres and clear plastics. In terms of style, she introduced the wrap dress, wedge heels, power suits, jumpsuits and camouflage print as fashion. Her 1931 culotte designs scandalised Paris but soon gained a following among adventurous women. In her early career Schiaparelli favoured austere black and white. She introduced Shocking Pink in 1937 as a high-fashion colour; it would become her signature colour. Nineteen-thirty-seven was also the year she produced an organza dress in pale fabric which featured a painted lobster – a Dalinian motif.

1996.1_Aphrodisiac(Lobster)_Telephone[1]

(Image: Salvador Dalí, Aphrodisiac Telephone (1938), Plastic (Bakelite) and painted lobster, 7 x 12 x 4.5 inches, Collection of The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, FL; (c) Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017)

The design was reissued by the House of Schiaparelli in spring 2017. The catalogue illustrates new designs by the House of Schiaparelli, allowing readers to judge the influence of Surrealism and continuity from the design ethos of the house’s founder.

Both creators used motifs of insects, including ants, butterflies and grasshoppers. Dalí had genuine obsessions with ants and grasshoppers and they appeared in many early paintings. Schiaparelli used a transparent Rhodoid collar to hold insect jewellery. Her favourite motif was the butterfly.

Some clothing items included in the exhibition are true Surrealist statements, as peculiar as anything in a Surrealist painting. Boots with long fur (1938), and the later Woman’s sweater with long fur (1948), have long fur which makes them almost as impractical as Meret Oppenheim’s iconic Fur Teacup (1938). It is possible that Schiaparelli was inspired here by Oppenheim rather than Dalí. Schiaparelli’s designs flirt with the repulsive in the way so much Surrealism does.

Although the direction of influence seems to have been predominantly from artist to designer, there are instances where the direction is the other way. A Schiaparelli-style dress with a low-cut back appears in Dalí’s Woman with a Head of Roses (1935). It is possible that Schiaparelli’s fantasy of hiding her face behind a bouquet inspired Dalí’s flower-headed women, introduced in 1936.

Surrealism sought to blur the line between art and life. The Surrealist project of disrupting everyday life included the concept of wearable art, partly as a manifestation of the subconscious influence on our lives and also as an attempt to overturn established modes of thinking and acting. The use of unexpected objects as potential clothing was part of the Surrealist outlook on life. Mannequins were a staple of Surrealist art; one group exhibition consisted of Surrealist decoration of mannequins. (Mannequins had become objects of fascination since Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings of the 1910s.) It is perhaps not coincidental that the ideal exemplar of Surrealist beauty was the conjunction of a sewing machine and an umbrella, two items related to the creation of clothing and the protection of clothing from rain.

Both creators viewed the woman as an exotic object to be transformed and to be revealed through transformation. In Dalí’s case, the transformation is a metamorphosis. Dalí’s versions of Venus de Milo-with-drawers and woman-with-drawers motifs show the woman’s body as complex container. In the latter motif, the woman gazes into the open drawers of her torso in an act of introspection. The motif was translated by Schiaparelli into the Desk Suite (1936/7).

3._Dali's_sketch[1]

(Image: Salvador Dalí, Anthropomorphic Cabinet (undated), pencil on paper, Collection of Schiaparelli, (c) Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017)

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(Image: Elsa Schiaparelli, Illustration of Bureau-Drawer Suit, Schiaparelli Haute Couture, (Fall/Winter 1936/7), courtesy of (c) Schiaparelli archives)

Gloves which have top tips of the fingers removed to reveal the nails below have a certain conceptual elegance, restating the idea of revealing parts which are expected to be covered by a clothing item.

There are many criticisms that can be levelled at Dalí but one of them is not lack of artistic ambition. His driving themes were beauty, temporality, fear of death, obsession with putrescence and the power of erotic desire. Comparatively speaking, Schiaparelli’s morbidity is less omnipresent. Her Skeleton dress (1938) is one of her most striking designs. A close-fitting black evening dress has ridges of padding which evoke the wearer’s bones beneath. It is a creation which fuses elegance and the macabre, something that can be seen in the work of other fashion designers including Alexander McQueen.

There are many parallels between the pair’s work in jewellery, perfumes and perfume bottles, though mostly this occurred late in their careers when they were not collaborating directly. The catalogue includes many quotes relating to the creators though there are no letters between them and one wonders what their personal relationship was and how they actually collaborated on specific projects. There is further investigation to be done in this area.

The catalogue is printed in an edition of 1,800 copies, of which 500 are hardback. Including generous illustration, essays and useful information, it is sure to become a collector’s item for committed Dalí fans, fashion aficionados and researchers on Surrealism and fashion.

 

John William Barger, Hank Hine, Dilys E. Blum, et al., Dalí and Schiaparelli, Salvador Dalí Museum, 275pp, 59 b&w/133 col. illus., paperback, $39.95, ISBN 978 0 9834799 9 4

“Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, exhibition review

I. Exhibition

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(Image: “Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, Tornabuoni Art, London, installation view, 2017, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

“Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, the current exhibition at Tornabuoni Art, London (4 October 2017-12 January 2018) presents 24 paintings, two drawings and some lithographs in an overview of the Italian’s painterly output, with other documentary material. The complexity, accomplishment and breadth of the work here attest to the richness of de Chirico’s achievements.

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) is best known as the leading figure in the Italian Metaphysical Art movement, which had its heyday during the First World War. De Chirico established the style in 1910. There are two paintings here dating from that era: The Revolt of the Sage (1916; Estorick Collection) and The Great Tower (1915). Though Metaphysical Art was inspired by Italian art of the Early Renaissance (Uccello, Giotto, et al.), these two paintings demonstrate a Modernist audacity – the extreme format (the exaggerated vertical of the Tower) and the extreme close-up (The Revolt’s depiction of biscuits shown in the foreground of an ambiguous architectural setting).

De Chirico had been very familiar with Symbolism, having been a follower of Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin in his earliest years as a painter. This exhibition includes an early painting The Path (Temple of Apollo in Delphi) (1909) which employs the Swiss master’s typical gloomy local colour, flat non-directional lighting and disquieting atmosphere. The cult of Arnold Böcklin was intense and widespread in Europe in 1890s and 1900s, especially admiring of his five versions of The Isle of the Dead, which were best known through numerous reproduction prints and journal illustrations.

In 1919 de Chirico was one of the many Modernist artists who turned his back on the avant-garde and sought the comfort and security of Classical art, part the appel de l’ordre that promised a haven from the alienating modern world that had ravaged Europe. Just as Dada was metamorphosing into Surrealism and at a point when the early Surrealists were about idolise de Chirico’s Metaphysical art, he denounced Metaphysical Art and Modernism more generally and began to paint still-lifes, landscapes, horses, portraits and mythological scenes. He researched the materials and techniques of the Old Masters and Mannerists. He copied Classical art and painted his own mythological scenes in traditional style. A still-life with fish and another with fruit are typical works from the early 1920s. There is also a half-length nude of his wife Isa, painted in 1930.(1) It is complemented by a small self-portrait head.

Later de Chirico’s view on Metaphysical Art softened and he blended his disjointed motifs, Classical imagery and a Renoiresque touch and palette. The resultant beach scenes of nudes, antique figures, horses and ancient ruins are appealing and yet deceptively modern in their disjunctures and unusual colour combinations, including extensive passages of monochrome. However, the nagging suspicion is that the artist was indulging himself – and his viewers – too much. He repeated his motifs and compositions. Luckily, the examples here are varied and the monochrome aspect lends them a certain asperity that can be absent in other versions.

De Chirico became a Mannerist, Rococo painter and Romantic by turns and that shuffling of established anachronism can pall. De Chirico’s greatest weakness was his Old Master complex, the conceit that he only had to paint like the Old Masters to be considered an Old Master. He had skill and knowledge in abundance but it is ironic that the very art that would elevate him to the status of a Great Master was his accomplishments as a Metaphysical painter not as a recycler of Mannerism or Romanticism. The very art that was a unique contribution to Modernism was his entry into Parnassus. Did the artist ever recognise this one wonders?

Yet while de Chirico was indulging his Old Master complex he was also producing some radically modern and very unusual works. Warrior Mannequins (Two Archaeologists) (1926) is one of those experiments. Two fantastical figures fill the corner of a room. They are composed of architectural elements and wild pictorial components. The painting style is rough. There is evidence of radical reworking. It is a hard picture to love or even like but it shows terrific creativity and invention. It is bursting with strange ideas and improvisatory bravura. It will be a hard painting to sell, in many ways it is ugly and untypical, but it is as lively and puzzling as anything here. It is evidence of de Chirico’s mischievous spirit and confidence.

dech1

(Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Bagni misteriosi (Mysterious Baths) (1968), oil on canvas, 28.74 x 36.61 inch/73 x 93 cm, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

Another group of innovatory works from the inter-war years were the Mysterious Baths. In these paintings fantastically shaped baths filled with monochrome water animated by schematic zig-zag patterns (complete with multi-colour balls and changing huts) are distributed across de Chirico’s characteristic plains and piazzas. They are populated by undemonstrative bather-ciphers. These are more playful, puzzling and less decipherable than the earlier Metaphysical compositions.

Other common themes represented in the selection are mannequins of composite elements, gladiators and horse with rider. De Chirico painted at a general domestic scale; an exception is Divinities by the Sea (1936) at 122 x 244 cm. It shows gods and horses ranged among ruins on a shore. It is painted in near-monochrome with ground and sky in blue, appearing as a giant tinted drawing. The paint is applied very thinly. The use of board as a support is uncommon in de Chirico’s oeuvre.

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(Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia con piedistallo vuoto (Italian Piazza with Empty Pedestal) (1955), oil on canvas, 21.65 x 13.97 inch/55 x 35.5 cm, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

Commercial pressures led de Chirico to start to paint copies, variants and – dare one say it? – pastiches of his classic Metaphysical pictures for the post-War market. Such was the demand for classic Metaphysical paintings that de Chirico even dated paintings with false early dates. One Italian dealer even stipulated in a contract which compositions had to be duplicated and at which sizes. One wonders what de Chirico thought when he was painting these duplicates. How did he feel – humiliated, bored, proud or just numb? Did he derive any pleasure from remaking his youthful works? Did he invest any of himself in these duplicates? How much does any painter invest of himself in anything he makes?

This exhibition includes letters, photographs, lithographic prints and contemporary publications related to the artist, which are presented in vitrines in the two levels of the gallery. De Chirico wrote poems, stories and novels and some of those publications are displayed here in early editions. A catalogue has also been published, which I have not seen. This exhibition provides a fair survey of de Chirico’s art in all its diverse, perplexing and surprising complexity.

(1) The catalogue establishes that the subject of this painting is actually Cornelia not Isa.

II. Catalogue

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This dual-language large hardback catalogue for the exhibition “Reading Giorgio de Chirico” at Tornabuoni Art, London (closes 12 January 2018) includes essays, illustrations and plentiful information which throw much light on the exhibition. De Chirico wrote poetry, fiction, memoirs and art criticism. Some of the painter’s thoughts on art were formed in a poetic allusive manner akin to that of prose poems.

The inclusion of much written material is the reason for the exhibition’s title “Reading de Chirico”. Poems and letters exhibited are reproduced in the catalogue and translated. They include and Metaphysical poems and love letters to Cornelia, written at a time of romantic turmoil. The artist had just married his long-standing partner Raissa before separating from her. This period (1929-30) was also when he met his future second wife, Isabella. Two important letters dated from 1910 and 1911 are printed. These establish the date of the foundation of Metaphysical Art. Recent attempts to locate the origins of Metaphysical Art to 1909 – and to attribute the foundational ideas to de Chirico’s brother Alberto Savinio – have not been generally accepted. These letters bolster the case for the accepted history, namely that de Chirico commenced painting in a Metaphysical style in the summer of 1910 in Florence.

The Metaphysical Art journal has been publishing de Chirico’s writing (and writing about him, as well as letters to him) over the last decade in Italian, French and English. This has contributed to a wider understanding of de Chirico as a writer and the links between his writing and art. This catalogue and exhibition further that aim.

There are two articles by the de Chirico on lesser known contemporary artists and other more general pieces on de Chirico’s art. There is an angry polemic against the domination of Modernism. “No one raised a voice in defence of reality with regard to art or to life itself. Fake intellectuals, having renounced truth, which they considered lost, tried to expel reality from all manifestations of the spirit. These fake intellectuals of our unfortunate age…” In another article he explains the persistent melancholy of absence in his art.

I remember the strange and profound impression a picture seen in an old book bearing the title The World before the Deluge made upon me as a child. It represented a landscape of the tertiary period. Man had not yet appeared I have often meditated on the strange phenomenon of “human absence” in metaphysical aspects.

The lithographic illustrations of Mysterious Baths images for Cocteau’s Mythologie (1934) are reproduced in full in the catalogue. (They are displayed only partially visible in the exhibition vitrine.) Illustrations of works such as The Daughters of Minos (Antique Scene in Pink and Blue II) (1933) show just how peculiar they are. In this small painting one sees classical motifs on a generic shore, predominantly blue in hue, with discrete areas painted in monochrome red-pink and orange-pink. Like an optical illusion, it gives the impression of being a classical work or art while aggressively asserting it is nothing of the kind. It exists in two states: classical and Modern. In this instance, the modes are incompatible and contradictory. In terms of figural motifs and iconography it is classical; in terms of handling and palette it is Modern. They fluctuate.  When we consider one the other does not impinge upon us; as soon as we consider the other aspect the first is forgotten (or at least impossible to incorporate into our consideration). Like the famous optical illusion, we can see the old woman and the young woman in one picture but never at the same time. If de Chirico understood what he was doing in this painting (in terms of optical perception and modal schematism) is unclear.

An essay by Gavin Parkinson discusses the reception by the Surrealists of de Chirico’s writing and the artist’s views on Symbolism, Impressionism, Courbet and other art. Parkinson’s mention of the criticism of Magritte, de Chirico and Picabia’s “bad painting” cites de Chirico’s use of bright colour in the post-War variations of classic Metaphysical compositions as a conscious response to that criticism or even a reaction to Pop Art. Parkinson suggests that de Chirico’s “bad” colour was an attempt to combat the fashionable connoisseurship that generated demand for his Metaphysical paintings. It seems much more likely that the artist, bored and belittled by the requirement to paint replicas at the behest of dealers and collectors, was simply attempting to retain engagement during the painting process by exaggerating the colours. The aim was most likely an attempt to see how variation might intensify a feeling or introduce an element of unpredictability into the stultifying work. The powerful palette is an attempt to stimulate the artist himself.

In the Neo-Metaphysical period (1960s-1978) the painter needed to sustain his engagement and bring something new to established compositions. The addition of the Mysterious Baths, sun-on-easel and the sun/moon-cord motifs were a means to provide the painter with a syncretic language, vary his art and summarise his former periods in his last period. It seems a private choice, one detached from consideration of the debate over “bad art”, Pop Art or the expectations of others. The Neo-Metaphysical works are one of de Chirico’s most important achievements. With droll wit and disconcerting mental agility de Chirico reassembled his artistic world in a theatre of cosmological paradox which is deeply unsettling and to this day barely understood.

Katherine Robinson (ed.), Reading de Chirico, Forma Edizioni/Tornabuoni Art, 2017, hardback, 256pp, fully illus., English/Italian, £45, ISBN 978-88-99534-49-3

 

 

Degas and the Problem of Finish

 

“The new title published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History. Volume 3: Degas, examines its large collection of art by Edgar Degas as a starting point for discussions about issues of interpretation, finish and conservation regarding Degas’s oeuvre. The problem of finish is one that applies more to Degas than any other French artist of the Nineteenth century. Contemporaries criticised (and, more rarely, praised) Degas’s art for its open and unfinished appearance. This was not a case of stuffy regressives wanting a glossy varnished surface to paintings but often genuinely perplexed viewers feeling the artist had not fully resolved matters. What Degas considered finished and unfinished was also unclear to the artist himself. He would exhibit pieces that seem to have been arrested at an early stage; at other times he would retrieve and rework paintings he had already signed, exhibited and sold. Multiple signatures on a work indicate radical revision of a piece as the artist reconsidered what he considered to be finished. His standards evolved over his long career but even experts have trouble deciding what is finished and what is unfinished, especially as the bulk of his art remained in the studio and much of it was unsigned.

Classicism and Radicalism

Visible pentimenti could be intrusive and Degas’s habit of sanding down surfaces of oil paintings but then not fully repainting them left viewers doubtful about whether the painting had actually been completed. (Specifically, the long working periods, extensive revisions and awkward and incomplete appearances of the canvases The Fallen Jockey and Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli make these “problem pictures”.) Signatures do not resolve such questions as Degas did not sign all works, especially drawings, which could be categorised as either working material or finished art depending on who was appraising it (or trying to sell it)….”

To read the full review go to ArtWatch UK Online: http://artwatch.org.uk/degas-and-the-problem-of-finish/  NB: This is a separate review to the one on this blog posted earlier this month.

Degas: Themes and Finish

Jane Munro, Degas: A Passion for Perfection, Yale University Press, 2017, 272pp, 250 col./mono illus., hb, £40, ISBN 978 0 300 22823 6

Daphne Barbour & Suzanne Quillen Lomax (eds.), Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, Volume 3: Degas, National Gallery of Art, distr. Yale University Press, 2017, 196pp, fully illus., pb, £50, ISBN 978 0 300 23011 6

 

To mark the centenary of the death of Degas, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge is holding an exhibition of his works (closes 14 January 2018), which will subsequently tour to Denver Art Museum (18 February to 20 May 2018). This is a review of the catalogue of that exhibition. Compared to the blockbuster shows of Degas in recent years, this is an intimate affair. It combines work from Cambridge and Denver with a few loans from other collections. Cambridge purchased a number of pieces from the posthumous auctions of Degas’s studio, work selected by John Maynard Keynes.

Items in the exhibition are divided into rough groups: Degas and England, copies of the masters, monotypes, landscapes, nudes, dancers and sculpture. There is a section of the catalogue and exhibition given over to Degas’s influence on following British artists. Degas made a handful of visits to England but unlike his youthful stay in Italy (admittedly a longer period) these made no discernible impression on his art. Degas rarely mentioned his English sojourns. Like his predecessor Gericault, Degas must have been impressed by the British passion for horse racing but whether it left much of an impression beyond that is an open question.

Although Degas did not win a scholarship to the French School in Rome, he had enough of an income to tour independently. He travelled with Moreau and they sometimes copied the same paintings and depicted each other. Degas spent time in Naples where he had family. Degas was the most academically gifted and inclined of the Impressionists and revered Ingres, himself a devotee of the Old Masters. The young Degas modelled himself on Ingres, using the same materials, spending hundreds of hours drawing, learning traditional techniques and acquiring the skills expected of an academic painter. This included long sessions copying paintings and sculpture in museums, including Greek and Roman sculpture, Donatello, Veronese and others. The exhibition includes copies by Ingres, showing parallels between the two painters.

Some of the most unfamiliar works are those actually typical to painters on a grand tour of Italy. The small landscape sketches in oils are acutely observed and sensitively painted views of Naples, Rome and other locales. As was common, these are painted on paper for convenience and later pasted on board for presentation. This was an easily portable medium though it is discouraged because of the technique’s unsuitability on both optical and conservation terms. However, the expediency was used for works that were not intended to be public and were only created as supporting studio material to be transcribed or adapted to more permanent works.

Degas never much cared for landscape. As for working en plein air, Degas derided painters who did so. Allegedly he had a good memory for landscape and produced his landscapes in monotype from memory in the studio. His adaptation of landscape as body suggests that forms rather than light or colour were a preoccupation and that he was willing to adapt in order to transform actual landscapes into more anthropomorphic images. One wonders whether those who claimed Degas had a good memory for landscape actually compared art to specific places. Most likely Degas did have a good visual memory but clearly the important thing was how the memory of the view seemed and how it might be adapted to suit the artist’s purpose, not the veracity of the art compared to the source.

Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, by Degas

(Image: Edgar Degas (18341917), Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, c.1856–9, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 36.7 x 32 cm, Howard and Nancy Marks)

So these landscape sketches, executed en situ, are anomalies in Degas’s practice as a whole but completely congruent with a young artist of the time. Degas used these views of legendary sites of history and culture as sources to be recorded the way he assiduously drew paintings of the Old Masters in the museums of Italy. Degas tended to use landscape as mere background for a subject wholly other and which was his real interest. In early paintings such as Scene from the Middle Ages it is obvious that Degas had no engagement with landscape and would have dispensed with it altogether if he had had the chance. (And he eventually would.) It was just a short step from Young Spartans Exercising (1860), with its perfunctory landscape, to Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the ballet “La Source” (c. 1867-8), with its artificial landscape in the form of a painted backdrop. The play of artifice and verisimilitude allowed Degas to turn his limitation into a feature. He no longer had to be concerned about “getting things right” when flatness and lack of integration became an absolutely truthful presentation of stage backdrops. He would have entirely dispensed with landscape painting if he had not had to use views as part of his paintings of horses and jockeys. One wonders if Degas’s deteriorating eyesight played any part in his rejection of landscape as a subject for his mature art. The artist, his long vision seriously impaired, simply could not see well enough to paint them. It seems likely that physical limitations accorded with his artistic preoccupations rather than the other way round.

On the evidence of these oil sketches Degas was a competent landscapist in the line of Corot and Ingres. Watercolour studies of rocks are also included.

Monotype printing, where a design is drawn in ink on a metal plate before being run through a press with paper which transfers ink to paper, was one of Degas’s principal means of artistic expression. His monotypes outnumber his prints of other types. Degas often reprinted from the same plate a second impression, which is always lighter than the first print. Degas would usually modify the second impression with pastel, gouache and body colour. These alterations sometimes became so involved and extensive that additions entirely cover the underlying print. The atmosphere, emphasis and appearance of print could be radically changed, as was apparent in the recent MoMA exhibition, New York which included comparative examples of first and second impression monotypes. (For my full review of that exhibition see “Degas monotypes”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. CLVIII, no. 1360, pp. 589-90; July 2016.)

Subjects of monotypes on display include landscapes, horse-and-jockey and street scene. A comparative print by VLN Lepic is included to show how free and expressive the prints of the French C19th monotype revival could be. French monotypes of this period share in common the approach of expressive inking of etchings, wherein plates were inked in highly individual and expressive ways which altered the appearance of the original design and introduced new elements. This made each impression as individual as a unique drawing, quite at variance with the usual practice of printers attempting to make an edition of an etching as uniform and neutral as possible.

Nudes, dancers and sculpture are related in Degas’s art. Dancers were often drawn nude – either from life or imagined – before being used in paintings and the nudes of women washing and drying often include difficult, peculiar and transient poses that echo those of dancers either in actions or resting and stretching. Degas figurines in wire, clay, Plastiline and coloured beeswax were often of dancers in motion. Some poses were so unstable that Degas had to introduce props to keep the figures upright. Other sculptures were of horses. Britain has few really good Degas pastels of nude figures, so the exhibition has usefully drawn upon American loans. One can see many poses reoccurring in different mediums and figures repeated in pictures. Degas used tracing paper to experiment with positioning, tracing and reversing. He also used tracing paper as the ground for large-scale finished pastels, an unconventional choice which has caused some conservation issues for collectors. Using a slick surface for a powdery medium is problematic; Degas relied on applying extensive layers of fixative throughout the drawing process to keep the pastel in position. Using water sometimes turned the pastel to a paste which he would manipulate with brushes, creating a fusion of wet and dry techniques.

The sculptures are discussed more extensively in Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, Volume 3: Degas, published by the National Gallery of Art, featuring works from its unique holding of original Degas statuettes.

Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, by Degas

(Image: Edgar Degas (18341917), Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, First Study, c.188295coloured wax over a commercially prefabricated metal wire armature, attached to a wooden base, 23.5 x 13.7 x 27.5 cm, © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

The posthumous repairing, editioning and distribution of bronze casts of Degas is involved and covers a multitude of archival, legal and moral issues about the reproduction of sculpture. These questions are of great financial importance considering the value of the pieces and the proliferation of fakes (or at least “unauthorised copies”). Degas considered casting some of his figures but never did; he exhibited only one sculpture during his lifetime, the famous Little Dancer aged Fourteen (1878-81), at the 1881 Impressionist exhibition. It was Degas’s heirs who decided to edition the statues in bronze and sell them.

The generously sized illustrations in the Cambridge catalogue allow us to get a good feeling for the originals. Both Facture and the Cambridge catalogue include x-rays which display the armature and internal components of the originals. Degas’s gimcrack, improvisatory approach to sculpture is apparent in evidence of hasty repairs, scraps of cloth and cork used as bulk and numerous breakages. Degas was apparently serious about his sculptural practice but treated the objects themselves in a rather casual manner. Extensive repairs were needed to many of the figures before they could be cast and some figures were just a jumble of fragments. It is fascinating to see the nails and wire holding the figures to their wooden bases and all the other touches of the artist which are obscured in the bronze casts.

There is debate about how finished the statues and the paintings are. Degas’s art is a difficult to assess in terms of finish. He left some works unfinished, exhibited art that seemed incomplete, revised finished work and wanted to “re-touch” sold pictures in private collectors (often to disastrous results). For discussion on that point, the bronzes and possible restorer intervention in a pastel, see my discussion of Facture on ArtWatch UK’s website here: http://artwatch.org.uk/degas-and-the-problem-of-finish/

For the general reader A Passion for Perfection is a good overview of Degas’s output, with new observations on his themes and techniques. Facture is an essential publication for scholars and collectors of Degas’s art.

18 October 2017

The artist who vanished: Bas Jan Ader

bas jan ader

Image: Bas Jan Ader, “I’m too sad to tell you”

“On 9 July 1975, a tiny dark-yellow yacht (less than 13-foot long) was towed from the bay of Chatham harbour, Massachusetts towards open sea. At the tiller of this yacht was a lean Dutchman named Bas Jan Ader whose intention was to sail singlehanded across the Atlantic Ocean in time to attend an exhibition of his art to be held in his native country. He called his venture an artistic act, entitled In Search of the Miraculous. From the stern of the towboat, Ader’s wife photographed the pilot looking impassively forward past the towboat to the watery immenseness ahead. Ader cast off the towline and sailed eastward until he was a speck on the horizon below an overcast sky. He was never seen again.

“The story of Bastiaan Johan Christiaan ‘Bas Jan’ Ader (1942-1975?) seems almost too good to be true. A conceptual artist who erased himself in an act of brilliant nihilism; a heroic individualist who turned his back on the commercialism of an art world within which he was unable to integrate; a troubled man facing personal and professional crises who threw himself into a fatalistic quest, allowing nature to determine his destiny. He seems like the creation of an inventive novelist or an artistic hoax dreamt up in a Hoxton studio, yet his story is true. Two new books examine the artist’s disappearance and artistic legacy….”

Read the full article on Spiked 1 September 2017 online here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-artist-who-vanished/20277#.Walegj597IU

The Liquidation of History

“One day after a bloody clash between white supremacists and a mixture of non-violent, anti-fascist marchers and violent Antifa activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mob of activists destroyed a Confederate war statue in Durham, North Carolina. Fearing more violent action, authorities are concealing or removing potentially controversial public monuments nationwide. Far from easing tensions, this is likely to worsen the situation.

“From South Africa to Ukraine, statues have become proxy targets for political violence. Statues are soft targets. Often unprotected, easy to deface or destroy and unable to retaliate, they make ideal symbolic targets for those unwilling to endanger themselves. In an age when groups can be quickly mobilised via social-media postings and attacks can be livestreamed around the world, such assaults on cultural property are liable to become more common. Police rarely intervene, prosecutions for these attacks are uncommon and punishment light.

“Now the Culture Wars in the US are being fought on the streets between left-wing and right-wing activists. Civil War statues and memorials are flashpoints for this conflict…”

Read the full article online on Spiked 21 August 2017 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-liquidation-of-history/20226#.WZrPc1V97IU

Getting into Hemingway’s Head

“On the morning of 2 July 1961, Ernest Hemingway took his favourite shotgun and shot himself in the head at his home in rural Idaho. He had finally done it. He had threatened suicide, described the suicides of others and even play-acted it with empty guns. He had been talked out of suicide, and physically restrained from doing it, twice before. Dogged by declining health, difficulty in writing and now a chronic writer’s block, Hemingway chose death. He was haunted by the knowledge that his father had shot himself. Two of Hemingway’s siblings would later commit suicide, with suicide being the suspected cause of death for another sibling. Suicide was a hereditary risk for the Hemingways.

“In Hemingway’s Brain, Andrew Farah, a clinical psychiatric practitioner, has analysed the causes of the mental decline that precipitated Hemingway’s suicide and has come up with a new diagnosis.

“Born in 1899, Hemingway lived a life that was physically precarious. Sometimes due to accident, sometimes by placing himself in dangerous situations, Hemingway courted danger and death. This was in his character and it underpinned a heroic persona that found its way into his writings. As a boxer, deep-sea angler, big-game hunter, trainee bullfighter, war correspondent and hard-drinker, Hemingway lived a life that transcended the macho and became epic.

“During the First World War in northern Italy, Hemingway was wounded by a mortar explosion and hit by machine-gun bullets. He suffered shrapnel and bullet wounds and experienced concussion…”

Read the full review online on Spiked website, 28 July 2017, here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/getting-into-hemingways-head/20130#.WXtJioTyvIU

Melismatic: the Prints of Ian Davenport

Poured_Triptych_Etching_Ambassadors_(After_Holbein)_2017~hi[1]

Ian Davenport, Poured Triptych Etching: Ambassadors (After Holbein) (2017), aquatint, 159 x 239cm, © Ian Davenport, 2017. Courtesy of artist and Alan Cristea Gallery, London

 

Ian Davenport & Michael Bracewell, Ian Davenport: Melismatic, Alan Cristea Gallery, 2017, paperback, 48pp, 41 col. illus., £20, ISBN 978 0 9955046 3 6

 

Ian Davenport’s new exhibition of prints (Alan Cristea Gallery, London, ends 31 July 2017) showcases series of prints which extend his interest in using chance in formats that evoke established rigid pictorial conventions. To these compositions Davenport has applied a positively sensual approach to colour.

Davenport’s vertical stripe prints take as their starting point his approach to making stripe paintings. He takes a rigid smooth surface and applies multiple streams of liquid paint until the whole surface is coloured. These lines run down the surface and mingle at the bottom. The bars of alternating colour relate to the Op Art and Neo-Geo schools of painting but the fluid dynamics of Davenport’s paint assert themselves in the slight blending that occurs at certain places in the edges of stripes and most dramatically at the bottom, where the liquid flows in a more unconstrained fashion.

The printmaking process involves the photographing of paintings specially made for the purposes of generating prints. The photographic images are split into colour transparencies and these sheets worked on by hand. The separate colours are photographically transferred to metal plates as areas of aquatint. (Etching is the process of ink being worked into incised lines on a metal sheet and paper being pressed over this sheet, transferring ink from plate to paper; aquatint is the method of gathering ink in large areas in tiny pits, thus creating washes or blocks of colour, an effect which is not possible in line etching.) The bands of colour are laboriously inked by hand before the paper is laid over the plates and run through a press. Thumbprint Editions studio in South London carry out this elaborate, time-consuming and sophisticated process under the guidance of the artist in collaboration with master printmakers.

The prints in this stripe series are up to 159 cm high by 239 cm wide and achieve the physical presence of paintings. They are large enough for a viewer to immerse him- or herself in. The colour palettes are sometimes derived from paintings Davenport admires. In this series some prints have the colours of paintings by Holbein, Van Gogh, Klimt and Perugino. The mind alternates between an instinctive search for patterns and pleasure in immersion in an undulating curtain of rich pure colours. In some instances Davenport requested plates be printed a second time without re-inking. This generates second proofs that are pale in colour, close to watercolours in appearance. This demonstrates his keen eye for opportunity and his flexibility.

Poured_Triptych_Etching_Primavesi_(After_Klimt)_2017~hi[1]

Ian Davenport, Poured Triptych Etching: Primavesi (After Klimt) (2017), aquatint, 159 x 239cm, © Ian Davenport, 2017. Courtesy of artist and Alan Cristea Gallery, London

 

Another series are the Colour Splat screenprints. In these images a scattering of splashes of liquid colour have been applied and their vertical drips below form curtains of alternating and mixed colour. These are less successful than the stripe prints because there is a visual struggle between the assertive incidents of the splashes (and their attendant spatters of colour) and the much less imposing drips. The imbalance is never resolved and it does not seem clear that the artist intended such an imbalance to be so prominent. Davenport’s art seems to work best when the struggle between formal order and fluid dynamics of materials are closely matched and constrain each other. In the Colour Splats the material characteristics overwhelm whatever the artist can do to try to constrain them. That said it is good to see an established artist taking chances even if the results are not – for this reviewer – wholly successful.

Unlike many artists of his generation, Davenport is genuinely engaged by the printmaking process and works carefully to find the best technique and approach to making his prints. While some artists simply photograph an existing work, tweak it on computer and send the file off to be printed, Davenport thinks through his work and collaborates with experts at every stage. He sometimes pushes master printmakers to innovate or to try methods that seem at first impossible but turn out to have beautiful and unique results. His decisions are not determined by what is easiest but by what will produce the best results.

The catalogue contains a brief interview with the artist and photographs of the prints being made, giving an idea of the process involved. The works themselves are reproduced in full, with complete technical data on technique, paper and edition sizes.

24 July 2017

Prints in Paris 1900

Vallotton-Raison

(Image: Felix Vallotton, La Raison Probante (Intimacies) (1897-8), woodcut

Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, Prints in Paris 1900. From Elite to the Street, Van Gogh Museum/Mercatorfonds, hardback, 192pp, 200 col. illus., €45, ISBN 978 94 6230 169 6 (English edition, French, Dutch and German editions available)

 

Vincent Van Gogh loved English prints from the popular press, French Realist art, woodcut prints (especially Doré’s wood engravings and other book illustrations) and classic Dutch prints. Both he and his brother Theo collected prints and corresponded on the subject at length, as Theo was in the art trade and had access to most commercially available prints. Although Van Gogh made only a few etchings and one lithograph, he was an avid scrutiniser of prints by other artists; he would surely have found much to admire in this current selection of the best prints made in the decade following his death. The current exhibition Prints in Paris 1900. From Elite to the Street (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 3 March-11 June 2017; Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo, 17 October 2017-17 January 2018) includes some of the 1,800 prints in the Van Gogh Museum collection, showing some of the highlights of printmaking from the period 1890-1905. The collection includes prints owned by Vincent and Theo and prints acquired by the museum recently to form an overview of art of Van Gogh’s era. This large-format catalogue documents not only the eye-catching posters of the era but also prints more specifically made as works of art, including colour and monochrome lithographs, woodcuts, etchings, drypoints and mixed techniques.

The world of prints in 1900 was vast, ranging from common illustrations or decorations in posters, books, tracts and other printed matter up to the most sophisticated and considered artistic productions, produced in editions of as low as a handful of proofs. Good examples of renowned prints of the past (Dürer, Rembrandt and other Old Masters) commanded high prices and were collected by private owners and public museums. To a lesser extent recent and living masters of the craft were also appreciated but the market was relatively limited in size and knowledge about prints generally was not great. In this catalogue, print scholar Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho discusses the role of journals devoted to prints and print collecting, asserting that that they played a significant part in raising the profile of printmaking as an art form and informing the readers about historical and modern prints. Writers and readers had in-depth knowledge of prints and were avid aficionados, most with collections of their own. The journals intended to act as guides for collectors, making recommendations and assessing reputations, and were not mass-market publications.

“Virtually all the champions of original printmaking – Charles Baudelaire, Philippe Burty and Henri Beraldi in the case of etching, and Roger Marx and André Mellerio for lithography – were keen to protect the private print [as opposed to the public poster] from the misunderstanding and vulgarity of the masses. Baudelaire, for instance, considered that the intimate outpourings of the artistic etching were too ‘personal’ and ‘aristocratic’ to be shared beyond the circle of artists and collectors.”

This private character of prints was a matter of practicality – for reasons of conservation and size, prints were usually in books or portfolios and could only be viewed by one or two persons at a time – and a matter of content, as the art was often informal, intimate or erotic, and as such less suitable for general public consumption. The notion of exclusivity played to the intellectual vanity and artistic discernment of collectors and critics, it also assisted dealers in the marketing of hard-to-acquire items. Attempts to broaden the appeal of prints met some resistance from inside the artist’s-print circle.

Things were changing though. By 1890 the development of metal-plate, offset and motorised lithography had inaugurated an age of high-quality colour posters on large sheets, in large print runs and relatively low in cost. An array of large colourful posters dazzled Parisians daily on a scale historically unprecedented. The relative cheapness of lithographic printing meant that prints flooded every area of life, from menus and maps to sheet music. It transformed image production and distribution both in the everyday commercial field and the world of the arts, though lithography remained only one of the numerous printmaking methods.

Posters had a lower status than prints made by methods most traditionally linked to artists, such as etching and aquatint, though some artists (including Toulouse-Lautrec) appreciated the effect of posters as much as drawings and paintings. There was vigorous debate among artists, critics and collectors as to the value of the new methods of reprographics. For those buyers who required the cachet of fine art collected posters avant-la-lettre (before the words had been added) or bought proofs from special editions printed on high-quality paper. The battle of High Art and Low Culture had begun earlier than this and can be seen in the critical responses to the subject choices of Impressionist pictures (though paintings of the common people attending dances had existed at least as far back as Bruegel’s paintings of peasants). Here the problem was not the subjects – which did not endear the pictures to the hearts of traditionalists – but the method itself, which was considered too new and too distanced from the artist’s hand to be considered fine art. The demands of multi-plate printing required collaboration between artist and master printmaker, which diluted the authenticity that some collectors craved, and some prints were so distanced from the artist that truly the prints are more “after” an artist than “by” that artist. The fact that the posters were essentially examples of vulgar commercialism – advertising venues and products – put them beyond the pale for many commentators. While some acclaimed colour posters as a new democratic form of art, others complained it was strident visual pollution that assaulted the eye.

Van Gogh died just too early (1890) to experience the boom in artist’s colour lithography. Over the period 1890-1905 the Post-Impressionist, Symbolist, Nabi and Art Nouveau artists made a plethora of prints now considered classics of French Modernism. Many of the prints in this exhibition were a contemporary French response to Japanese colour woodcuts, which began to be collected and appreciated in the 1880s. Japanese prints had originally found their way to France as waste-paper used to wrap imported ceramics; only when a few curious French art collectors expressed an interest in the strange images did anyone realise that there was a potential market in France for Japanese woodcuts. Van Gogh greatly admired Japanese prints and collected them. He painted some and included them in the background of his portraits. The compositional devices of the prints, such as clearly defined areas of bold colour, shaped the direction of his late painting style. Japanese influence is obvious in the prints of the Post-Impressionists and Nabi artists.

Cheret,_Jules_-_La_Diaphane_(pl_121)

(Image: Jules Chéret, La Diaphane. Poudre de Riz (1890), colour lithograph)

Jules Chéret (1836-1932) set the standard for colour posters and the general standard was high. His example inspired a number of established fine artists to poster design and some of the poster artists (especially the Art Nouveau designers) reached the level of classic art. Chéret commonly used elegant young female figures in radically simplified designs with strong colours, which intended to be seen from a distance. So well-known did this female type become that similar female figures were called “chérettes”. His designs influenced the painter Seurat and he was called “the Fragonard of the street” by critic Roger Marx. Chéret was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1890 and ascended to the firmament of the French artistic pantheon.

The proliferation of posters and the craze for collecting them were commented on in foreign guidebooks to Paris. Dealers and collectors began to hoard the best examples of fine posters. Many would follow bill-stickers at a distance and once he was out of sight they would peel away the still-wet poster. Others bribed bill-stickers for unpasted copies. There sprang up a minor trade in reduced prints that were of more manageable sizes and proofs signed by the artists, though purists disapproved. Specialists offered to mount posters on canvas; others designed giant portfolios to accommodate the posters. Posters became chic additions to the modern home, adding boldness and colour to a room. Carvahlo mentions the elaborate and costly library of Robert de Montesquiou, which was designed to accommodate rare books and portfolios of prints; in the process of creation, the library evolved into a work of art.

This exhibition displays prints by artists who were stars of their era but are less esteemed today. Eugène Carrière’s portraits in monochrome chiaroscuro were immensely influential in their time. Carrière was considered a modern Rembrandt but today his smoky portrait heads appear at most mildly atmospheric and unremarkable.

reopening-of-the-chat-noir-cabaret-theophile-alexandre-steinlen

(Image: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, Le Chat Noir (1896), colour lithograph)

Likewise, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen was acclaimed as an artist comparable to Dickens, with his domestic scenes and his strand of social realism. Steinlen was considered a campaigning artist highly engaged by the issues of deprivation and social reform. (The fact that he was solely a graphic artist meant that his supporters described his art as truly democratic because the originals were not in museums but pasted on street corners.) Today it is his colour posters of At La Bodinière (1894) and Le Chat Noir (1896) that appeal and the monochrome social satires raise barely a flicker of interest. It is hard to comprehend that hosts of artists (including Picasso) were under his sway in 1900.

l-exode-1915-1

(Image: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, The Exodus (1915), lithograph (not in catalogue))

The star of the catalogue is Toulouse-Lautrec, whose best prints are included, with and without lettering. Other artists included are Carrière, Chéret, Steinlen, Odilon Redon, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Gauguin, Edouard Vuillard, Félicien Rops, Maurice Denis and more obscure figures. Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) has undergone a recent revival that has included a large retrospective held in Paris, 2013-4. Vallotton’s art straddles different styles: Nabi, Intimiste and Art Deco. His woodcuts Intimacies (1897-8) are brilliant reductions of domestic vignettes to simple woodcuts deploying large areas of solid black or white, decorative patterns and arabesque lines. What is happening in the scenes (which are independent and only connected thematically) is unclear. There are intimations of infidelity, seduction, estrangement and traumatic revelation, which undercut the comfortable bourgeois settings. The suite is Vallotton’s greatest achievement, frequently reproduced and rightly beloved. It manages to be concise yet enigmatic and the suite of ten prints is reproduced in full here. The cancellation print is rather elegant. Cancellation prints are usually single prints of the defaced plate, demonstrating that the plate has been rendered unusable after the edition is printed and that the edition is therefore limited. In the case of Intimacies the cancellation plate is a montage of details of each plate sawed from its block and printed together.

The range of the catalogue and the broadly representative nature of the collection make this title a useful general reference work for French prints of this period (including a timeline, bibliography and index). The mixture of iconic posters alongside lesser known pieces, some by artists almost forgotten, is successful though it just scratches the surface. The author discusses the participation of the Nabis in the production of staging and programmes for Symbolist dramatic productions and other topics related to printmaking. The inclusion of examples of paintings, drawings, photography, furniture and bookbinding (some of which are rare loans from private collections) allows the curator to situate printmaking in a continuum of visual culture of the period. The printing and binding is excellent and the size of the book allows the dramatic prints to come across strongly.

7 March 2017