Harald Sohlberg: Infinite Landscapes

Fig. 96 (1)

[Image: Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage (1906), oil on canvas, 109 x 94cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edward Byron Smith. Photo copyright: Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY/Scala Firenze]

A new exhibition in Oslo showcases the evocative Symbolist landscapes of Norwegian painter Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) (National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo (28 September 2018-13 January 2019); touring to Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (13 February-2 June 2019) and Museum Wiesbaden (12 July-27 October 2019)). Any visitor to Norwegian art museums will have had his/her eye caught by Sohlberg’s striking landscapes. This selection shows the depth of the painter’s achievement and the arc of his career. (This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.)

Sohlberg was working in an era when the artists of Nordic nations (especially the newly independent Norway and Finland) were looking to establish truly national schools of art whilst not restricting themselves to parochial isolation. Artists (and other creative figures, along with politicians) had often studied, worked and travelled outside of their homelands due to the restricted opportunities they had faced at home. They therefore well understood their positions as pioneers of new national cultures with deep roots but shallow institutions and that their courses had to be steered between their nations’ adoption of certain international allegiances and the strong desire to distinguish themselves as independent – most especially independent of their former colonial rulers’ cultures.

Sohlberg’s course showed itself most obviously through his decision to paint Norwegian landscapes and rural townscapes. The latter featured typical vernacular Norwegian architecture of wooden buildings, strongly coloured exteriors and rough agricultural structures. It is no surprise that when the newly independent Norway organised exhibitions of its art at home and overseas, Sohlberg’s landscapes and townscapes proved suitable and popular inclusions. Norway’s conservative taste regarding Modernism in the visual arts meant that Sohlberg’s cautious Symbolism was ideal.

Sohlberg trained professionally extensively. He was first apprenticed to decorative painter Wilhelm Krogh (1885) then studied fine art, first at Kristiania (Oslo) (1889-90), then in Copenhagen under Kristian Zahrtmann (1892) (where he visited the home of Gauguin’s wife) and Kristiania under Harriet Backer and Elilif Peterssen (1894); he undertook a study trip to Paris (1895-6) and finally took classes in Weimar under Norwegian Frithjof Smith (1897-8). However, this is misleading, as Sohlberg was already a professional artist by the end of his studies and was widely exhibited, with works in museum collections. He was a skilled draughtsman of the figure and an adept portraitist. Sohlberg’s later eschewing of figures in his paintings was a choice not of necessity; he clearly had the capacity to portray people accurately. In Weimar, Sohlberg must have come into contact with the Symbolist art of Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger. Klinger’s prints especially provided a template for the sort of graphic art Sohlberg made. The drawings of fantasy characters in rural settings have grotesque and weird aspects, similar to illustrations for fairy stories.

This peculiarity comes to the fore in versions of Mermaid (1893). It shows a woman emerging from water, with her head thrown back, a mocking smile on her face, seen under a full moon which casts an elongated reflection on the water. In various versions, the mermaid’s face and torso ranges in appearance from coarse slattern and semi-piscine hybrid to beautiful adolescent. The pose of this dreamy temptress parallels Edvard Munch’s Madonna (1892-5) and the moon reflection is a motif commonly seen in Munch’s fjord views. The pair knew each personally and there are areas of overlap between their oeuvres. Some critics considered them rivals. This relationship would make a fascinating subject for extensive research and a book-length publication in English.

Symbolism was a movement that embodied a reaction against the idealism of Victorian salon painters and the quasi-scientific optical investigations of the Impressionists, Neo-Impressionists and Divisionists. The Symbolists – who to degree overlapped with Post-Impressionists, particularly Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis and others – asserted that the true function of art was to manifest the underlying reality of human existence by heightening the symbolic significance of images and using those images in ways that explored the underlying drives and archetypes of the human psyche. In relation to Sohlberg’s Symbolist landscapes, we should consider in particular the Belgian Symbolists Leon Spilliaert, Fernande Khnopff and Xavier Mellery, who are close in imagery, technique and mood to Sohlberg’s early work. Of Scandinavian painters, Munch is an obvious parallel (discussed below) and – less obviously – the brooding domestic scenes of Wilhelm Hammershøi have the mysterious quality of Sohlberg’s scenes. The Hammershøi’s landscapes have an air of idealised reality and pared-down appearance that Sohlberg’s share. Symbolism is an extension of Romanticism and it is right to consider Sohlberg’s landscapes as being close to those of JCC Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Caspar David Friedrich. Sohlberg’s magical landscapes could be classed as the last flourishing of the Northern Romantic tradition. A clear example of this is the late-period sunset paintings, which are Friedrichian in their bright yellow and orange skies dominating tranquil terrains.

The early oil paintings are like coloured drawings – lacking impasto or prominent brushwork. Squaring was used to transfer designs from drawings to canvas, with the pencil underdrawing often visible. From Gullikstad (1904) is an example of this coloured-drawing approach, where the colour is applied by staining. This extreme dilution of paint (with glaze medium, in Sohlberg’s case) is something that Schiele would do a decade later. The artificiality of the blue foliage in Sohlberg’s painting would also be echoed in Schiele’s landscapes. Sohlberg exhibited four paintings in the Künstlerbund Hagen exhibition in Vienna in 1912. Schiele very likely saw this exhibition and this may have led to Sohlberg’s style influencing the young Austrian.

Although the early Sohlberg paintings are detailed, the impression of naturalism is false. While many aspects are faithful descriptions of the sources, Sohlberg also made numerous and strong deviations from reality for the sake of emphasis or emotion. This effective blend of exaggeration and naturalism adds to the dreamlike feeling of the best pictures. As in dreams, we note the startling details but the whole adds up to something odd and unnatural. Variants of Winter Night in the Mountains, based on the Rondane Mountains, show how Sohlberg created this magic.

NOR Vinternatt i Rondane, ENG Winter Night in the Mountains

[Image: Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains (1914), oil on canvas, 160 x 180.5 cm, Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo/Børre Høstland]

Over a number of years, Sohlberg developed his motif of the twin peaks of the Rondane Mountains. This composition became Sohlberg’s best loved image. Under a night sky, the snowclad peaks of Rondane soar over the horizontal landscape in the foreground, which is studded by leafless trees. The artist exaggerated the shapes of the mountains for artistic effect. This is in line with the practice of Romantic landscapists and Symbolists. The versions with dark glaze applied at the bottom of the later paintings in oil paint are reminiscent of Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (c. 1808-10). Although much is made of the Symbolist limitation of the palette to blue and white, this is largely accurate to the effect of moonlight in clear air on snowy landscapes. The centrally positioned heavenly light is apparently the planet Venus, symbolic of the goddess of love. The essay writer who treats this subject (Øvind Storm Bjerk) mentions that Sohlberg probably associated this picture with his marriage to Lilli Hennum because of her joining him to live in the Rondane region while he worked on the painting, however Storm Bjerk does not suggest that Sohlberg may have also conceived of the twin peaks of Rondane as symbolising man and woman linked by the planet of love. This exhibition includes a number of full versions in oil alongside early painted and drawn sketches and studies.

Fig. 12

[Image: Harald Sohlberg, Night (1904), oil on canvas, 113 x 134 cm, Trondheim kunstmuseum MiST. Photo: Trondheim kunstmuseum]

One trait peculiar to Sohlberg is a strong proclivity for rigid – even fierce – symmetry, as seen in Night (1904; multiple versions). There a technical drawing of the church at Røros which is as much architectural elevation as painter’s preparatory study. Flower Meadow in the North (1905), the Rondane paintings and the late etching From Akershus Fortress, Evening (1926) (among many others) also display this artificiality and symmetry.

Despite the heights of his best works (described above) Sohlberg was not an artist with a consistent quality of output. There are minor pieces which – on this showing – seem somewhat aimless, as if they are detached from some illustration project. How is one supposed to interpret a scene of Christ preaching, in very simplified form, or a standing figure in a city alleyway? There are some paintings that are distinctly naïve (cats. 42 and 43). One aspect of naïve art is a certain muddiness, which comes from attempting to reproduce local colours without enough tonal variation to differentiate separate forms. Without more context, one gets the impression from these awkward pictures that Sohlberg could be an undisciplined (or, more generously, an unfocused) artist. Are these works abandoned experiments, diversions, commissions, parts of projects or otherwise explicable?

Sohlberg’s best work is his early mature art (roughly before 1915). The later work – especially when it is not a reiteration of an earlier composition – shows a marked softening in handling. Forms become repellently soft, colour cloying, compositions more diffuse. The late paintings are less forceful and memorable. The absence of a cool palette and lack of dryness in execution are detrimental to the quality of the pictures. The air of precision gives the best early work pictorial acuity and the coldness of hue gives it emotional veracity. There is a sense, in that early phase, of Sohlberg witnessing and recording things as they are; in the late work, Sohlberg is making things as he wishes them to be. There is a naïve quality to the simplified forms and pungent colour that is actively unpleasant compared to the astringency of the early period. Wisely, the curators have selected only a handful of late pieces, lest the decline dilute the impact of the early work. Only in the late prints does Sohlberg’s compositional toughness and asperity remain.

Printmaking was a supplementary activity for the artist. The prints prove his skill as a graphic artist and one wishes he had made more than 13 etchings and one colour lithograph (of the Rondane motif). He used dense cross-hatching to build tone and his approach was heavily stylised, influenced by contemporary book illustration. The scope of Sohlberg’s drawing practice is harder to assess on the basis of such a limited selection of images. The very detailed ink drawing of Røros at night stands as an independent work of art, as does the fairy-tale scene of a woman walking a country lane menaced by an ogre. The academies of his training in Weimar are in charcoal and are not related to his later work.

The exhibition includes 125 paintings (in oil or watercolour), drawings and prints. Sohlberg was also a skilful photographer of landscapes and towns; although these photographs are not exhibited, a selection is illustrated in the catalogue. The catalogue includes a useful chronology and index. From memory, I judge the illustrations accurate to life. The catalogue is generally very good, though not always thorough: catalogue entries list aquatints as “etchings” rather than giving a more complete description. Essays cover Sohlberg’s Rondane paintings, his training in Weimar, graphics, photography and a technical study of his painting style. This catalogue will be a prime English-language reference work on Sohlberg’s art, an enjoyable addition to literature on Symbolist art and another contribution to the expanding field of international engagement with Nordic art.

 

Mai Britt Guleng, et al., Harald Sohlberg: Infinite Landscapes, Hirmer, 2018, paperback, 240pp, 200 col. illus., £36, ISBN 978 82 8154 129 0 (English version; Norwegian and German versions also available)

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art

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The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature

RH International Beat Literature_2nd Proof-2

As the last unpublished writings of the original Beat Generation (Burroughs, Corso, Ginsberg and Kerouac, plus others) reach print, the memoirs of their most distant associates become public and text-critical editions of classic texts are issued, the seams of iconic writers become exhausted. Notwithstanding the academic study of ever more obscure aspects of those writers and application of new theoretical systems of interpretation, the scholarly searchlight inevitably moves to unfamiliar territory. In terms of the Beats, the unfamiliar is foreign writers who were liberated by the Beat example of free verse, Buddhist mysticism, sexual freedom, drug use and radical politics.

The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature is a survey of the non-American Beat writers, written by multiple specialists, divided by country. Many of the specialists are natives of these countries and understand their subjects from the inside. These texts have been marshalled by Professor A. Robert Lee, an authority of the subject of Beat literature and author and editor of previous landmark studies.

The core first-generation Beats travelled relatively widely and some lived abroad for periods. All lived long enough to become famous and lauded outside of their homeland. In old age, Burroughs and Ginsberg toured – reading their writings, signing books, attending events, teaching classes and performing various public duties which brought them into direct contact with fans and allies. Yet Beatism is not a socially transmittable disease. As Lee sets out in the book’s introduction, the Beat movement spread directly through books, newspapers, chapbooks and fanzines, quite independent of the proximate presence of the writers. Indirectly, it spread through films, documentaries, the lyrics of singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Jim Morrison and – most loosely – the pop-culture caricature of the Beatnik.

The definition of “Beat” in this handbook is somewhat elastic. Lee specifies no exact parameters for the authors. Is Beat a discrete period or is it open ended? Is Beat a movement (with a circumscribed set of stylistic tools, thematic concerns and political tenets) or is Beat an affiliation, tendency, influence or (in the most cynical light) simply mercenary appropriation of iconic cultural production of a past era? There is no manifesto, no defining compilation or event, no strict criteria for inclusion, no school, no necessity for apprenticeship and no arbiter’s blessing to confer Beatitude upon supplicants. Or rather, there are myriad manifestoes, compilations, events, criteria, schools, apprenticeships and arbiters – none authoritative.

The editor has allowed essayists to use their own judgment as to what “Beat creator” means in their studies, be that creators who claimed affiliation or lineage from the American Beats, those who created like them or those who adapted Beat principles to their native culture. In practice, it means all three groups. Katharine Streip covers the influence of the Beats on film maker David Cronenberg (director of Naked Lunch), musician-writer Arish Ahmad Khan and multi-media artist John Oswald. Much of Frida Forsgren’s essay deals with the sculptor Marius Heyerdahl, as one of the leading Beat creative figures in Norway.  We encounter snippets of unexpected information: women Beat creators in Italy were all involved primarily with music rather than writing; two of the leading German Beats were struck and killed by cars; the father of Lars Ulrich (Metallica drummer) is Torben Ulrich, professional Danish tennis player and Beat writer.

In some cases the reception of the Beats was impaired by cultural resistance. Alberto Escobar de la Garma notes, “Publishing houses in [Mexico] have been reluctant to make the Beats available in part because of historic antipathy towards the USA (to include its language) and in part because they so expressly flaunt Mexican conventions of conservative cultural manners and behaviour.” Conversely, there was sometimes antipathy from the American Beats towards creators in other countries. Luke Walker describes how Corso, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg all felt that the British poets who appeared at the Albert Hall International Poetry Incarnation in 1965 to be mediocre and derivative. They considered Great Britain a drab and socially constrained place, as did Burroughs, who lived there for a long period. When Corso read his poem “Bomb” it was denounced by the British audience as pro-war. Fiona Paton’s summary of the Scottish response to the Beats is called “Cosmopolitan Scum” and discusses Scottish writers Alexander Trocchi, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. Their response was more assertive, rebarbative – in short, more Scottish – than those of their English colleagues.

The essayists give a sense of the creators’ achievements and their significance (or insignificance) within their national scenes. Many of the writers were peripheral and published sporadically. Very little of this work has been published in translation, thus this Handbook provides valuable guidance regarding inaccessible work to international audiences. Authors acknowledge that often it was the example of the Beats and their literary liberation that freed foreign writers without those inspired writers becoming Beat themselves. This seems particularly true in the cases of Poland, Russia and China where access to imported subversive Western writings was tightly restricted and translations were almost non-existent. Pieces on Morocco and Turkey foreground the very different social, political and religious climates which shaped responses to Beat creativity. Essays on Japan and China take us even farther afield.

While writers sometimes closely analyse a poem and passage of prose, the essays are jargon-free, light on theory and highly readable. Quotations are necessarily restricted in length but even so one encounters some striking excerpts. Consider this by Leopoldo María Panero, quoted by Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo:

El palacio de la locura está

lleno de animals

verdes con

motas anaranjadas como ácidos y

cubierto de polvo: entra ven.

 

The palace of madness is

full of green

animals with

orange dots like acid

covered in dust: come inside.

 

The extensive bibliographies will send readers in search of the original texts. The footnotes and index will prove useful to researchers.

This book is an essential starting point for Beat fans’ parlour game of “debate the inclusion/omission”. No gathering of Beat academics or readers would be complete without fiery dissent on the status and relevance of writers included in the Beat canon and passionate advocacy in favour of omitted personal favourites. This book will be the starting point for such discussions for decades to come and a touchstone for Beat scholarship for a generation.

Let us hope that in time a cheaper paperback version is published, allowing the rich and enlightening scholarship in The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature to reach an even wider audience.

 

Contributors: Thomas Antonic (Austria), Franca Bellarsi (Belgium), Nicholas Birns (Australia), Thomas Epstein (Russia), Alberto Escobar de la Garma (Mexico), Frida Forsgren (Norway), Alexander Greiffenstern (Germany), Benjamin J. Heal (China), A. Robert Lee (Japan), El Habib Louai (Morocco), Polina Mackay (Greece), Erik Mortenson (Turkey), Lars Movin (Denmark), Lisa Avdic Öst (Sweden), Peggy Pacini (France), Fiona Paton (Scotland), Andrzej Pietrasz (Poland), Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo (Spain), Tomasz Sawczuk (Poland), Maria Anita Stefanelli (Italy), Katharine Streip (Canada), Jaap van der Bent (Netherlands and Flanders), Harri Veivo (Finland), Luke Walker (Great Britain).

A. Robert Lee (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature, Routledge, 2018, hardback, 350pp, £175, ISBN 978 0 415 78545 7 (also available as an eBook)

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Van Gogh: A Life in Places

UNICORN_vangoghfinalCOVER

Vincent Van Gogh lived in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and England. This small-format hardback book is a brief biography in the form of a guide to the places Van Gogh lived, illustrated with some of his art. There are many quotes from Van Gogh’s letters, which give his own words about his surroundings. Drawings from letters show how Van Gogh presented places to his family, mainly his chief correspondent brother Theo. Contemporary photographs show buildings and people the artist would have known. And – of course – the artist’s paintings are reproduced too.

Van Gogh’s stints in school teaching, bookselling, art selling and missionary work are presented summarily. Much of this time was before the artist’s commitment to become an artist, so there is little art to display. The majority of the book is taken up with the last decade of Van Gogh’s life, 1880-90, when he was producing art.

Van Gogh stayed in Kent, Isleworth and London, teaching boys. The author mentions Van Gogh’s lay preaching and church going around London, consumed with an evangelical fervour. A pencil sketch of two churches is included. Two of the best drawings are early large elaborate landscapes drawings in pencil heightened with white chalk. These are not often reproduced, so it is nice to see them. They well portray the gloom of the Dutch landscape. Nature inspired Van Gogh from a young age, when he drew and described insects and plants. Nature would underpin his best art. Van Gogh spent time in Drenthe, where the population harvested peat, which was transported away by barge. It was a singularly bleak region. Borinage in Belgium was a mining area. There Van Gogh ministered to the local population and made himself ill with his Spartan living, giving away all he had to the bemused mining families. He then decided to study art in Antwerp and Brussels.

The author strikes a good balance, explaining the significance of different locations while avoiding detailed specifics of individual pictures. Heslewood takes us around Paris and environs to show us the places the painter worked in when he absorbed Impressionism into his technique: Asnieres, with its distant factories and chimneys, Montmartre, with its windmills and dancehalls. When the artist moved to Arles he made a point of travelling in the region as much as he could afford to. Pictures and text refer to the Camargue, the coastal village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Montmajour and other locations.

For Van Gogh, Arles became the centre for a longed-for School of the South – to complement Schools of the North (Pont Aven) and West (Martinique) already pioneered by Gauguin, Laval and Bernard. Provence, for Van Gogh, resembled the Japanese woodcut prints that he had pored over in Paris. It had bright light and intense colour as well as a distinct (if not precisely exotic) regional culture. Provence could be their Japan.

Van Gogh’s painting excursions were curbed by his confinement to a hospital in Arles and later his voluntary commitment to the asylum in Saint-Rémy, following his infamous self-mutilation and breakdown. The grounds of the asylum and a view of a wheat field are the most common motifs for 1889. In the summer he moved to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, to be under the care of Dr Gachet. There he painted his last works – views of wheat fields, Daubigny’s house and garden, ivy thickets of undergrowth. This was a very productive period for the artist and some of his best loved landscapes come from this period.

This book would make an ideal addition to a school library and is recommended as reading for anyone passingly familiar with the art of Van Gogh who would like an introduction to his life.

 

Juliet Heslewood, Van Gogh: A Life in Places, Unicorn, 1 November 2018, hardback, 172pp, 85 illus., £15, ISBN 978 191 160 4648

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Delacroix at the Met

Allard

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Frida Kahlo: You are Always with Me. Letters to Mama

You Are Always With Me

You are Always with Me. Letters to Mama 1923-1932 is a collection of 54 letters and postcards written by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) to her mother. This is a translation of the original Spanish-language edition of 2016. They show the strong bond of the young artist and her mother and the formation of one Modern art’s greatest painters. This publication has been timed to coincide with the current exhibition of Kahlo’s art and personal possessions currently on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. For a review of that exhibition, click here.

Frida Kahlo’s father was Guillermo Kahlo (1871-1941), a German immigrant who worked as a photographer. Her mother was Matilde Calderón y González. Born in Oaxaca in 1876, she was mestiza – half Spanish-Mexican, half indigenous Mexican. The distinctiveness of Oaxaca tradition had an influence on Kahlo’s sense of herself, despite her spending most of her life in Mexico City. This appropriation of maternal lineage was reflected in the presence of traditional Oaxacan costumes in her unique fashion choices and in her art.

Kahlo suffered from polio as a youngster and was left with a deformed leg and a lifelong limp. (She may also have had hereditary scoliosis.) Kahlo was close to her father and his favourite child. When young she worked with him in the studio and was frequently his model, which gave her a reason to dress up, sometimes in masculine clothing. She was fascinated by the transformative power of controlling her own image, something that shaped her self-portraiture as a painter.

The earliest letters to her mother are written by Kahlo from her school about her social plans and disciplinary issues. We see her asking for money and excusing her mischievous behaviour at school. The first letter mentions the talk to be given at her school by Diego Rivera. Rivera was a revered artist who had just returned from an extended stay in Europe. Seen as a leader of the Mexican avant-garde, Rivera was an influential figure. When he joined the Communist Party and began a series of public paintings commissioned by the government, he became a key figure in the formation of a group called the Mexican Muralists. The group developed an approach that combined Social Realism with reference to Mexican history and traditional art. Kahlo and Rivera would later start a relationship and marry.

On 17 September 1925 Kahlo was severely injured when the streetcar she was travelling in was involved in an accident. Some passengers were killed and Kahlo was close to death and was left with serious disabilities which required repeated operations. The pain, immobility and distress caused by her conditions and surgery left her reliant on alcohol and pain medication. These early events and influences had a formative impact upon Kahlo as an artist and she sometimes returned to specific events in her life for paintings. A large part of Kahlo’s art is autobiographical but she took pains to frame her experiences in terms of universal subjects of suffering, regret, anger, pride and so forth, frequently drawing parallels to history and religious painting.

In 1929 Kahlo and Rivera married. In late 1930 the couple travelled to San Francisco, where Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural in the Pacific Stock Exchange Luncheon Club. The majority of the letters to her mother come from this period. She is excited to travel outside of Mexico for the first time. She describes her travels in California, unfavourably impressed by the wealth and luxury of the mansions of movie stars in Los Angeles compared to the housing stock inhabited by the poor. Comments on the Chinese immigrants living near her in San Francisco are frequent in the letters. Kahlo was pleased at the kindness shown to her and Rivera by the people she met in San Francisco. “The gringas have liked me very much and they are impressed by the dresses and shawls that I brought with me, my jade necklaces are amazing for them and all the painters want me to pose for their portraits.” She met the luminaries of the art scene in San Francisco and began an affair with Nickolas Muray and (probably) her doctor Leo Eloesser. While it is the case that her journals and private comments display pain caused by Rivera’s infidelities, she also had her own affairs. Their partnership was turbulent but stimulating, with deliberate provocation and selfish libido sporadically driving both Kahlo and Rivera at different times.

Translator and editor, Héctor Jaimes explains that Kahlo’s writing style was idiosyncratic. Her erratic punctuation belied her top-class education. She writes in an apparently unpremeditated way, passing on news and opinions as they occur to her. She obviously presented what she thought her mother wanted and ought to know. She asks after her relatives by name and enquires about their health. Her own health is naturally a topic which comes up repeatedly as she describes Dr Eloesser’s treatment, including endless injections. When she mentions her weight it is always to reassure her mother that she becoming less thin. Kahlo is often more concerned about her mother’s health than her own conditions. Her devotion shines out.

There are glimpses of the darkness of Depression-era USA is a description of a dance marathon that Kahlo observed. “You have no idea how interesting this spectacle was, but the most cruel and stupid; they chain the black people, a woman and a man; there was a woman with a kid in her arms; two died and an unfortunate woman became mad from walking and her husband, instead of exiting the rink, picked up another woman and kept on walking.”

There are many light-hearted moments. She describes parties, outings and airplane journeys. She makes catty comments about the gringas not being pretty and American food being not to her taste. (Not spicy enough for her.) She confesses to being an incompetent cook. Although she mentions in the letters that she is painting, she does not describe the subjects or the thinking behind the pictures. She frequently discusses Rivera’s work – which was supporting them both, with irregular payments going to Kahlo’s family – though gives few details about her husband’s art.

Over 1931 to 1932 she was in New York. Rivera was attending an exhibition of his art and was commissioned to paint murals there. Kahlo felt more at home in New York than San Francisco. She writes of the incomparable treasures of the Metropolitan Museum and watching children play in snowy Central Park. Kahlo was repelled at attending functions held by Rivera’s patron the Rockefellers at a time when the Great Depression had caused homelessness and poverty in New York. She saw the soup lines and beggars daily, something which deepened her commitment to Communism. On 15 September 1932 Matilde died of cancer. The death deprived not only the family of a beloved member but it also deprives us of more letters, including Kahlo’s period in Detroit.

You are Always with Me allows us to see the world through Frida Kahlo’s eyes. This attractive book includes a few well-chosen illustrations would appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in one of the most personal of painters.

 

Frida Kahlo, Héctor Jaimes (ed. and trans.), You are Always with Me: Letters to Mama 1923-1932, Virago, 6 September 2018, hardback, 176pp, col. & mono illus., £20, ISBN 978 0 349 01195 0

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Mexican Communist Art 1920-50

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In the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), the Mexican state started to reconstruct its social structure and establish a consensus. The new political situation entailed the working class of the agrarian nation would be the driving force behind land reform, anti-clericism and other dramatic changes. Communism took on new prominence as a leading force on the political Left following the Russian Revolution.

Compared to other Communist movements, the Communist Party of Mexico or PCM (Fondo Partido Comunista Mexicano) was judged weak in terms of membership and leadership in the early 1920s. Inspired by the example of the Russian Revolution, Mexican Leftists saw art as an important way of spreading the message of the PCM in the early years, be it through art or propaganda. The art would explain the party’s message and attract converts. Leading visual artists who joined the PCM in 1923 were the Muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Xavier Guerrero. The lives and work of the Muralists captured the imaginations of the public and were frequently covered by the newspapers. The artists (especially Rivera) were deemed politically unreliable but useful to the party. They edited the Communist newspaper El Machete for a time. The Mexican governments’ views of the PCM veered from wary collaboration to outright hostility, depending on the party in power. In 1929 the government banned the PCM and closed El Machete, which continued for a while as an underground operation.

Rivera was a problem for the PCM. He was the most prominent Mexican Communist, with an international reputation and wide popular appeal but he was wilfully independent and accepted mural commissions from the government, which was sporadically hostile towards the PCM. When Rivera left the PCM, Frida Kahlo, who was married to Rivera, left the PCM with him. The PCM undertook its other disciplinary procedures, expelling Siqueiros for inappropriate behaviour, risking revealing secret information about the now-banned party, plus various moral and financial infractions. Communist artists subject to hostile government action included Sergei Eisenstein and Tina Modotti, both of whom had to leave the country.

Smith discusses the associated Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR). Like the PCM at this time, LEAR was a banned organisation when it was formed, only later becoming legal. Its journal Frente a Frente included much Leftist and social realist art in the form of prints and photographs by LEAR members. Much visual material was propaganda explicitly dedicated to exulting collectivism and eschewing “the mystique of the individual”. In 1935 LEAR members persuaded the government to unban the PCM, El Machete and LEAR. A 1936 group exhibition of art organised by LEAR included amateur art and even politically sympathetic commentators described the display as a mess and criticised the standard of art. Steering a course between political orthodoxy and artistic accomplishment was an impossible task.

An article in Frente a Frente (May 1935) by Siqueiros was critical of Rivera’s Rockefeller Center fresco (1934). It led to a public debate between the artists later that year. They were divided on the appropriateness of murals as a revolutionary art form. Siqueiros – perhaps piqued by Rivera’s greater success – averred that murals were overrated as a political tool and that art should be international in character and closer to Socialist Realism than Rivera’s hybrid, which incorporated Modernism and native Mexican art. Rivera asserted that he wished to record the beauty and individuality of Mexican life in his art and that this was not incompatible with Communist principles. Siqueiros was pro-Stalin and Rivera pro-Trotsky. Deep enmities remained between the two painters for years afterwards.

Siqueiros became so involved in politics that he neglected art. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, as did Modotti. Rivera played a pivotal role in arranging for Trotsky’s successful petition for political asylum in Mexico. Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1937 and lived in the Riveras’ guest house for a time. Despite public and private support between the men, there were political tensions. Ultimately, Trotsky and Rivera’s alliance ended due to political differences in early 1939. Siqueiros and artists Luis Arenal and Antonio Pujol worked with NKVD in a plot to kill Trotsky. On the night of 24 May 1940 the trio broke into Trotsky’s house, failed to find the elderly dissident and – apparently inadvertently – injured his grandson. Months later an unrelated individual assassinated Trotsky.

Smith covers the founding of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the Popular Graphic Art Workshop; TGP) in 1937 without noting that this not simply an outgrowth of LEAR but an extension of a long-existing strand of popular Mexican art, namely social engagement of artists through the portrayal of the life of ordinary Mexicans via cheap and widely distributed graphic art. This uniquely Mexican blend of biting satire, political agitation and social realism – sometimes printed in newspapers – traced its origins to the iconic prints of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). TGP proved to be one of the world’s most enduring, influential and successful artist collectives in history, producing high-quality art distributed widely, fostering international connections and displaying a broadly united front on social issues. Aesthetically, it was hobbled by its commitment to realism – technically, in its founding principles, “art [that] must reflect the social reality of the times”. However, considering the political priorities of the TGP, that position could hardly have been avoided. Ultimately, it was the rigid anti-abstraction stance and limitations on artistic and commercial freedom which undid TGP as a significant force in the arts, though it exists to this day. For my review of artists working in the TGP see here.

Perhaps the most valuable service the FCM, TGP, LEAR and their various publications achieved in the arts was to present a warning of the dangers of fascism and raising funds for the Spanish anti-Falangists. Later, their activities would help the refugees who fled the fall of Spain and Nazi-occupied Europe.

The author has based her studies upon access to Mexican secret service files and internal papers of the PCM, LEAR and TGP, allowing her to present new information on major figures in the fine arts. However, the book has shortcomings. Considering the lack of published research based on primary sources, we would have benefitted from more economic data. For example, what was the commercial value of producing oil paintings for private collectors compared to painting murals for the state or issuing editions of cheap prints for ordinary people? What was the private market for oil paintings at the time? Roughly how much money did prominent artists make from state-subsidised work? On the political side, what did artists write in diaries and letters about politics in art and did that contrast with manifestoes they signed and their public activities? More space devoted to summarising such findings would have been valuable. While we do get to understand some of the political dynamics, economic context is sometimes hazy.

Considering her previous specialisation in the field, Smith is commendably restrained on the issue of gender politics. In this book, we see that Smith is sensitive to gender politics of the Communist movement in Mexico in this era but she wisely partitions her subjects and makes no hyperbolic claims. Overall, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico is an intelligent, accessible and well-judged account of an important aspect of Mexican art in the period 1920-50.

 

Stephanie J. Smith, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico, University of North Carolina Press, 2017, paperback, 288pp, 12 half-tone illus., $29.95, ISBN 978 1 4696 3568 2

© 2018 Alexander Adams

 

Anni Albers: On Weaving

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[Image: Anni Albers, On Weaving: New Expanded Edition. Princeton University Press, 2017]

 

Anni Albers (1899-1994) was one of the most respected and innovatory figures in the modern craft movement. She studied at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, where she met her future husband Josef Albers, a teacher there. (Josef Albers, a pioneering abstract painter, was an influential teacher, especially on the subject of colour.) In 1933 the couple moved to teach in the USA, first at Black Mountain College and later at Yale. In later years, living in Connecticut, she produced tapestries and weavings, as well as writing articles and books on design and textiles. She was the first designer to have a one-person exhibition at MoMA (in 1949) and became recognised as one of the pre-eminent designers of the Modern era. Two new publications give us an insight into her ideas and practice.

Anni Albers’s worked by weaving on hand-looms, producing designs which used the natural qualities of materials and a limited palette to produce (mainly) hard-edge abstract patterns. Frequently in her designs, simple geometric shapes on small scale are expanded over large areas. In her wall-hangings, she took care over having borders that complemented and also completed central designs. Triangles provide textural “tooth” and indicate visual dynamic flow. Her colours are usually restrained and are rarely more than two or three per design. She had a preference for white, black, grey and muted reds. She produced many striking and sophisticated wall-hangings (illustrated in On Weaving) and was a skilled designer of original artist’s prints, especially silkscreens and lithographs.

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[Image: Anni Albers, Vicara Rug I, 1959. Executed by Inge Brouard Brown. Vicara, wool, and cotton, 60 1/4 x 40 in. (153 x 101.6 cm). Neues Museum Nuremberg. © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

 

On Weaving, originally published in 1965, is a newly revised and expanded version of a classic text on the theory and history of weaving. Albers explains the principles and problems of weaving, drawing on her extensive research and expertise. She covers the manipulation of warp and weft, looks at the different looms and battens, reeds and other paraphernalia of the loom-weaver’s craft. Other topics include draft notation, weave variations, tactility, artificial fibres and tapestry.  Her rigorously anti-decorative function-as-form Bauhaus aesthetic comes to the fore in her comments on embroidery: “Embroidery, on the other hand, is a working of just the surface, since it does not demand that we give thought to the engineering task of building up a fabric. For this very reason, however, it is in danger of losing itself in decorativeness; for the discipline of constructing is a helpful corrective for the temptation to mere decoration.”

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[Image: Anni Albers, Drapery material, 1927. Cotton and rayon, 6 1/4 x 4 1/4 in. (15.9 x 10.8 cm). Gift of the Designer: The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

 

The illustrations Albers selected include images of weaving techniques and machinery, sample patterns, wall-hangings and pictorial tapestries. Close-up views and diagrams demonstrate the principles of knotting, lace, twills and other techniques. Pre-historic, historical and modern examples are taken from many cultures, including Mexico (which Albers visited a number of times), Norway, Congo and Japan; also presented are striking artist-made Modernist pieces.

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[Image: Serape, Querétaro, Mexico, late 19th to mid-20th century. Woven cotton, 81 x 50 in. (205.7 x 127 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, The Harriet Engelhardt Memorial Collection, gift of Mrs. Paul Moore.]

 

Albers particularly venerated pre-Columbian weaving from Peru and there are many illustrations of Peruvian textiles. This new edition adds an extensive selection of Albers’s own woven designs to complement the relatively short text. Most of the old black-and-white photographs have been replaced by high-resolution colour photographs, which are pinpoint sharp. Albers’s original photographs of ephemeral arrangements made specifically for the book are unique and reproduced in their original black and white. Albers experimented by producing texture studies made by pricking paper, arranging small items in patterns and by typing repeated characters on a manual typewriter.

The volume’s cloth binding is appropriately handsome and sturdy. Two new essays by specialists and an afterword by Nicholas Fox Weber, Director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, complement the original text. Fox Weber, Manuel Cirauqui and T’ai  Smith set On Weaving in the context of the artist’s training, milieu and own production. Albers herself chose not to concentrate on her own art in the book, though it perfectly exemplified many of the points she made in the text. Albers makes clear what she feels are the bases of good weaving – understanding the quality of materials, concentrating on design through structure rather than decoration and applying a truth-to-material ethos. The drive towards simplicity – that is, a distillation of the essence of a design – underpins her designs and advice to makers.

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[Image: Anni Albers: Notebook 1970–1980. David Zwirner Books, 2017]

 

Notebook, 1970-1980 is a facsimile publication of Albers’s only known sketchbook. This notebook with graph-paper pages (now coverless) is a typical school notebook as used in mathematics classes. This publication reproduces the book to exact size and includes all pages, including blank ones and those showing the ghost of the drawing on the other side of the page. Colour reproduction catches the slight yellowing of the paper and brown residue of adhesive tape.

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[Image: Interior spread from Anni Albers: Notebook 1970–1980. David Zwirner Books, 2017]

Readers will find themselves instinctively treating the book as if they were holding the fragile original. Designer and publisher deserve credit for the care they have lavished on the production of this book. A brief afterword by Anni Albers scholar Brenda Danilowitz discusses the sketchbook.

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[Image: Anni Albers, Drawing from a notebook, 1970, pencil on paper, 10 x 7 7/8 in. (25.4 x 20 cm) © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

 

The designs in the book relate to Albers’s textile designs and artist’s prints. They feature patterns of triangles and quadrilaterals drawn in pencil in several shades. Some are repeatable or potentially infinite patterns, while others are intended to be limited. Some introduce elements of apparent randomness. There are a few linear maze-like drawings (meanders) and some of Albers’s distinctive curvilinear forms based on curling rope or thread. The illustrations capture the nuances of the artist’s pencil shading, differentiating shades by pressure and grades of pencil. Little colour is employed. While a handful of drawings are doodles or incomplete, most are complete designs. There are few words other than notations of dates and titles of the relevant designs.

Both of these books would make excellent additions to college libraries as they are good examples of preparation and experimentation for students to learn from. Makers in general will also enjoy these impeccably produced volumes.

 

Anni Albers, Brenda Danilowitz, Notebook, 1970-1980, David Zwirner, 2017, hardback, 152pp, 148 col. illus., $30/£25, ISBN 978-1941-701-744

Anni Albers, Nicholas Fox Weber et al., On Weaving (New Expanded Edition), Princeton University Press, 2017, cloth hardback, 272pp, 105 col./28 mono illus., $49.95/£41.95, ISBN 978-069-1177-854

 

Collectors without Remorse: Dominique and John de Menil

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[Image © Alfred A. Knopf]

Patrons of the arts are not always given the respect or understanding due to them. Although it is artists, writers, composers and other creative figures which generate cultural products, it is the patronage of others who allow them to create (by commissioning art and providing stipends) and preserve the fruits of their labours in their private collections. Very often those collections become public and enrich the life of the state and population. Much culture would never have been produced if it were not for the generosity – and acquisitiveness – of collectors and patrons. Today, those who become wealthy are often scorned as exploiters and are unfairly maligned. Yet it is only through the patronage using funds derived from base commercial transactions that the most sublime cultural products of our eras are created and shared communally – be those sources the tithes of the Medieval church, the coal barons of South Wales, rail magnates of America, shipping tycoons of Greece or the income tax of modern Europe. It is only right that many museums today bear the names of the farsighted and adventurous members of the rich.

Two of the greatest benefactors of the visual arts in America were Dominique and John de Menil. They conducted their lives with a mixture of generosity, frugality, simplicity and attention to detail. Much of that came from their upbringings.

The ancestors of Dominique de Menil (1908-1997) included François Guizot (1787-1874), the renowned lawyer, statesman and historian. His father was guillotined during the Terror. Guizot went into public life and enacted lasting educational reforms, wrote many influential histories and founded La Revue française. Another branch of her relatives included the Schlumbergers, Protestant Alsatian industrialists. It was noted that Dominque’s austere attitudes and emotional restraint was derived from her Protestant upbringing. In Dominique’s family tree commerce, culture and public service were interwoven. In character she was cautious and abstemious.

Baron Jean de Menil (1904-1973) was descended from a line of soldiers and bankers. His great-grandfather was decorated by both Napoleon and Louis XVIII and conferred the title of baron. The de Menil’s were less favoured by fortune than the Schlumbergers – financially ruined then decimated by the Great War, the de Menils were in a poor state at the end of the Great War, at which time Jean was 14 years old. Jean went to work at Banque de I’Union Parisienne and became a rising star, rising to the level of executive by 26.

In 1930 the couple met and began a relationship that last until Jean’s death in 1973. In 1931 they married, the wife remaining Protestant and the husband Catholic. Using the bride’s dowry, they set up home together. Their first artistic commission – a portrait – was inauspicious. Their architect (who was converting their new home) introduced them to Max Ernst. While they liked the artist, they disliked the portrait of Dominique that he painted. They kept it in a cupboard for over a decade.

In the 1910s, Dominique’s father Conrad Schlumberger had established a method of using electrical resistance to prospect for oil. By the 1930s, Schlumberger International was a major player in oil exploration and extraction. In 1936 Conrad died and two years later Jean joined the Schlumberger firm, bringing with him a great deal of banking and financial experience. The war forced their hands. After the fall of France, Jean travelled to Texas. Houston had become an important area for Schlumberger’s business and Jean went to head the branch of Schlumberger there. Dominique and the children soon crossed the Atlantic to join them. As soon as they arrived, Jean and Dominique (who had technical expertise in oil exploration) went to Venezuela to assist the branch there. German submarines had been sinking oil tankers heading north and this vital route of oil transportation was at risk. The de Menils did their part for the Resistance and the Free French Government by raising money.

After the war, the de Menils returned to Houston and commissioned a Modernist house. John dropped the title baron and his name was more frequently anglicised to “John”. The couple began to form an impressive collection of art, which numbered 10,000 items by the late 1970s. The core collections consist of Surrealism, European Modernism, American Modernism (including Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), ancient art, African art and Native American and Latin American art. Out of these, the most important holdings are of Surrealism (particularly Max Ernst and René Magritte) and Abstract Expressionism (particularly Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman). The book includes colour plates of some of the best works in the collection, with many installation shots of landmark loan exhibitions they organised. They commissioned work by a range of world-class creative figures such as couturier Charles James, dancer Merce Cunningham, architects Philip Johnson and Renzo Piano and composers Morton Feldman and Pierre Boulez, among many others.

Although they agreed on all purchases, the couple’s personal tastes as collectors differed. John was the more acquisitive and enjoyed exuberant and combative art (especially Picasso). Dominique liked more meditative art, in particular Rothko and Magritte. It is curious that the de Menils formed such an attachment to Surrealism – a movement that was moribund by the time they started collecting seriously. By 1945, Surrealism looked tired, academic and meretricious, especially compared to the new American art emerging.  Moreover, a large impetus of Surrealism movement was anti-clericism, even atheist, which rather contrasted with the de Menils’ strong Christian faith. They considered collecting and supporting artists to be a moral responsibility but they did not generally judge art in moral terms. (An exception is Matta – one of the de Menils’ artists – whom Dominique considered to be borderline obscene, with all his inter-penetrating quasi-organic forms representing veritable painted orgies.)

There were sometimes gaps in the collection. Most of the best canvases by Braque, Matisse and Picasso were unavailable and the Abstract Expressionists were selling briskly by the late 1950s. “One would go to the Leo Castelli Gallery and the whole show would already have been sold,” Dominique lamented. They would buy classic Ernsts and Magrittes from New York-based dealer Alexandre Iolas, whose judgement they came to rely on. The de Menils formed personal ties to a number of artists, including Ernst and Magritte – with whom they could converse in French. Middleton includes titbits from the private notes that Dominique made when meeting artists: Brauner said Picasso’s art made him feel good and want to paint; Lipchitz was dismissive of de Chirico and Rouault; Giacometti was “exceptionally intelligent”.

In 1951 the de Menils curated a landmark exhibition of Van Gogh at a venue in Houston. The event was a sensation and established the couple as both cultural powerbrokers and curators of discernment. The de Menils became deeply involved in MoMA, with John becoming a trustee. They donated work to the museum but made clear that their civic duty was towards Houston. Dominique made a donation of major works (including The Deep (1953), Pollock’s greatest painting) to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, when it opened. The de Menils also funded research and commissioned the catalogues raisonnés of Ernst and Magritte.

The de Menils were committed supporters of civil rights, the promotion of non-Western art and inter-denominational dialogue. In 1960, the de Menils decided to build a non-denominational chapel at Rice University, Houston and dedicate it to the spiritual power of art. In 1964 they commissioned architect Philip Johnson (who later resigned over aesthetic differences with the de Menils) and interior paintings from Mark Rothko and acquired an exterior sculpture by Barnett Newman. It opened in 1971 and became a centre for art pilgrims and those in search of a contemplative sanctuary. Despite a predominance of positive reactions, opinions have varied about the success of the Rothko Chapel, though the seriousness and significance of the efforts of all involved are unquestioned. The chapel has become a centre for events relating to human rights and political dialogue, which drew Dominique towards former President Carter.

The de Menils had an interest in presenting black art, from African origins to contemporary American art. They travelled in Africa and Asia on trips that combined art buying, museum visiting and consultation with religious leaders, all part of a quest to fuse spirituality and art. Different religions derive their identities from their differences and grow through competition and suppression of competing religions; each religion claims exclusive superiority. The de Menils’ good intentions and genuine desire to harmonise discordant worldviews seem admirable but naïve.

After the death of John in 1973, Dominique continued their work and conceived of turning their art collection into a museum. The $25m museum, designed by Piano, opened on 4 June 1987. The design was a sober, discreet, elegant and dedicated to art, eschewing merchandising. Dominique was insistent it was free to entry. The Menil Collection became one of the world’s leading museums.

William Middleton has used access to the de Menil’s private papers, the Collection’s archives and interviews with colleagues and friends of the subjects to build a rich and sensitive portrait of the de Menils as public figures and private people. The book is thoroughly footnoted and illustrations are well chosen. The great diversity of activities and interests of the subjects – as well as the sheer industriousness of their collecting and curating – mean there are no dull passages or repetition in this narrative. The biography is a warm, balanced and respectful tribute to two major figures in American culture and philanthropy.

 

William Middleton, Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, hardback, 784pp, col. and mono illus., $40, ISBN 978 0 375 41543 2

Prints in Colour, France 1880-1900

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Laurence Schmidlin (ed.), Enraptured by Color: Printmaking in Late 19th-Century France/Vertige de la couleur: L’estampe en France à la fin de XIXe siècle, Scheidegger & Spiess (in co-operation with Musée Jenisch Vevey), 2017, 248pp, 217 col. illus., paperback, English/French text, €48, ISBN 978 3 85881 798 3

 

Coloured prints have existed for as long as printmaking itself. The earliest woodcuts were made in the expectation that that they would be coloured by hand, usually in aqueous medium, and some prints seemed to have been designed accordingly. The print designer and cutter – often different individuals – had little control over how that colouring was done. The exact extent of the practice is unknown. The vast majority of prints – not just proofs but all proofs of certain designs – have been lost. The attrition rate for prints is very high and for the majority of history, prints were not considered valuable or even worthy of collection. They were little more than newspapers or posters, roughly tacked to walls or pasted to furniture.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts (mainly Northern Italian) were developed using multiple plates – generally not more than three per image. True colour printing, using interaction of three colour plates which overlaid colour to build a range of other colours, was developed by Joseph Christoph Le Blon around 1710. The red- yellow-blue system was expanded to include one for black, which allowed tonal gradation.

This exhibition catalogue covers forms of colour printmaking from the late Nineteenth Century up to 1900, concentrating on French printmakers. The final decades of the Nineteenth Century saw a boom in colour printing in France, primarily Paris. The introduction of colour lithography led to a proliferation of colour-printed images including periodicals, posters, maps, packaging and other commercial products, which transformed the streets of major cities with splashes of vivid eye-catching colour. This change was not welcomed by many art critics and art connoisseurs, who found the colour to be garish and vulgar. This view permeated attitudes within the artist communities. The Bracquemond Pictorialist strand of art – characterised by the heavy inking of monochrome etching – was the dominant approach in printmaking. So alarmed was the Société des artistes français by the uptake of colour printing by fine artists, that it stipulated in 1891 that “no work in colour will be admitted” to the society’s exhibitions of prints.

The Impressionists did relatively little colour printmaking. Mary Cassatt and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were the artists who spent most time in the area. Paul Cézanne’s brief forays into colour etching are shown here also.

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[Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Le chapeau épinglé, first plate (1897), lithograph in nine colours on laid paper, 600 × 492 / 794 × 572 mm (image / support), private collection]

 

It was younger artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who felt a kinship with commercial artists such as Jules Chéret (who made posters using colour lithography) who embraced colour printmaking. In 1887 Toulouse-Lautrec made his first colour poster and broke with the monochrome aesthetic and blurred the boundary between commercial applied art and fine art. Other artists soon followed. The transfer was also in the other direction, with commercial posters being taken up as fashionable decoration and appreciated for their aesthetic quality. (For further discussion, see my “Prints in Paris, 1900” article.) Examples of posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, Chéret, Henri-Gabriel Ibels and James Ensor are included. The large size and areas of ungraduated tone present within poster-printing led artists to explore the depiction of space by the use of flat colour. That is an aberration in the development of post-Renaissance art, which developed artistic methods and conventions directed towards naturalism (albeit tempered by idealism).

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[Image: Paul Signac (1863–1935), Saint-Tropez – Le port, plank for L’Album d’estampes originales de la Galerie Vollard (never published) (1897–1898), lithograph in six colours on wove paper, 435 × 330 / 520 × 405 mm (image / support), Private collection.]

 

More complex conceptions of colour were investigated by the Neo-Impressionists. The Neo-Impressionists (a definition which overlaps to a degree with Divisionism and Pointillism) who most worked in colour printmaking were Paul Signac and Maximilien Luce. (Seurat did not make prints.) Félix Féneon was the critic who provided a theoretical underpinning for ideas of broken colour, complementary colour, colour circles, juxtaposition and so forth, drawing upon the writings of chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who had pioneered scientific analysis of colour. Artists have always had mixed approaches to theory, generally relying relatively less on theory than is often assumed. When confronted with clear choices, artists usually opt for the artistically satisfying course rather than the theoretically pure course. Printmaker Auguste Delâtre assisted painters in translating their art into colour etchings.

Test proofs with artist’s instructions to the master printmaker demonstrate how much adjustment and compromise was involved in the process of making satisfying products. On trial sheets Paul Signac notes for the attention of the master printmaker faults concerning colour separation and registration. Such working material is not commonly preserved, so these are illuminating documents.

The influence of Japanese prints encouraged new views on colour use and composition. Most Japanese art was transmitted to the West in the form of colour woodcut prints employing elaborate inking techniques. Some French artists went beyond taking aesthetic inspiration from these prints and actually began to make their own colour woodcuts with multiple blocks in the Japanese manner. Examples of prints by these artists – Henri Rivière, Henri Guérard and Auguste Lepère – are discussed by Valérie Sueur-Hermel. One print by Rivière is composed of 18 colours from eight blocks. While some of these prints are effective, none are as striking or flawless as the Japanese master printmakers, understandably so considering their lack of apprenticeship and lack of understanding of the art form’s unique skills and methods. The sheer difficulty and hard work required to produce these prints defeated even the most committed practitioners. Colour woodcuts did not become a widespread printmaking form in Europe. The woodcuts of Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin and the German Expressionists drew on non-Japanese sources and left a more lasting mark on Western printmakers.

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[Image: Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Intérieur aux tentures roses II, plate 6 of the serie Paysages et intérieurs (1899) (1898–1899), lithograph in five colours on China paper, 340 × 270 / 393 × 309 mm (image / support), Musée Jenisch Vevey – Cabinet cantonal des estampes, collection de la Ville de Vevey]

 

The Nabis were a group of young Post-Impressionist artists interested in domestic subjects and scenes of everyday life, which they depicted in colour and with areas of pattern and decoration, influenced by posters, commercial art and Japanese woodcuts. The catalogue includes colour prints and posters by painter-printmakers Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton and Maurice Denis. Author Gilles Genty notes that between 1894 and 1900 no fewer than 57 group shows including Nabi prints were held. The Nabis were encouraged – and their colour printmaking – was financed by publishers and dealers such as Ambroise Vollard, whose speciality was the publication of illustrated books and print portfolios. By 1900 most artist attention was turning from posters to small prints for portfolios and books.

There are many curious and little-known pieces included in this catalogue. Théophile Alexandre Steinlen used rudimentary colour lithography for covers of the journal Gil Blas. Charles Maurin’s drypoint in two colours (depicting a woman washing an infant) is particularly beautiful and an example of the power and effectiveness of restraint in colouring and the effect of colour drawing.

This book – which includes an extensive glossary of technical terms – supplies useful information, introduces surprising ideas and presents a wide variety of colour prints.

Mexican Graphic Art

9783858817990

Milena Oehy, Kunsthaus Zürich (ed.), Mexican Graphic Art, Kunsthaus Zürich/Scheidegger & Spiess, 2017, paperback, 320pp, 386 col. illus./80 mono illus., paperback, €38/£35, ISBN 978-3-85881-799-0

 

The exhibition Mexican Graphic Art, was held at Kunsthaus Zürich 19 May-27 August 2017. This accompanying catalogue provides an overview of the printmaking in Mexico from the 1880s to the 1970s. Armin Haab (1919-1991) was a Swiss photographer who had an attachment to Mexico – the country, its people and its art. He photographed in Mexico and collected Mexican prints. His lifetime collection of Mexican prints (about 1,000 sheets) was donated to Kunsthaus Zürich the year before his death; that collection formed the core of the exhibition. The catalogue has a biography of Haab and some of his photographs of Mexican life are included in the catalogue.

The book contains a summarised history of Mexico and the milestones in the Mexican graphic arts. This allows readers to determine the many links between Mexican history and art. For the majority of its existence, Mexican fine arts (in the Western sense) have been motivated by social issues and representations of everyday life, with a strong strand of devotional art. In this exhibition the political and social aspects were in the foreground, reflecting Haab’s taste as a collector. Exactly how representative this collection is of Mexican graphic art as a whole is hard to tell. Many of the staples of Western art did not feature largely in Mexican art if this survey is accurate. There are few landscapes, still-lifes, nudes, mythological allegories or images of buildings.

Prominence is given to a quote stressing the importance of pre-Hispanic culture for Mexican art. This claim may be true but it is not fully substantiated here. While a number of Twentieth Century Mexican printmakers had an ethnographic engagement with native peoples, means transmission (and importance) of pre-Hispanic craft and imagery into modern Mexican art is not explicated here. On this subject, readers will have to turn to other books for detailed discussion.

The first printing press in the Americas arrived in Mexico in 1535. Early illustrated books and prints were devotional or instructional, carefully monitored by Spanish colonial authorities and the Catholic Church. Woodcut (and later linocut) was the major print form in Mexico due to the technique’s cheapness and the ease of hand-proofing. The cheapness of the paper used means the prints were not robust and because the prints were directed to the general public they were usually not preserved by collectors of the time. For numerous prints no proof exists – the print has entirely been lost to the depredation of time.

In 1835 the first lithographic press was imported to Mexico. Lithographs – as newspaper or pamphlet illustrations, often satirical in nature – became the dominant art Mexicans encountered in daily life. Following Mexico’s independence in 1821, the graphic arts and popular press played an important role in the country’s search for a coherent independent identity and as a display of resistance towards colonial interference with the country’s self-governance, including French imperial intervention.

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[Image: José Guadalupe Posada, Calavera Catrina / Revolutionary Calavera (1900-1913), zinc-etching, paper: 34.5 x 23 cm; image: 29.5 x 16 cm]

José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) is considered one of the founding fathers of Mexican prints. His social commentary, journalistic reportage and macabre political satires (frequently including skeletons), were directed to a general readership not collectors of fine art. The combination of Western technique and the flatness of folk art gives his prints a touch of modernity akin to Le Douanier Rousseau’s.

The undemocratic regime of Porfirio Díaz (r. 1877-1880 and 1884-1911) was the subject of much commentary and criticism. In 1910 a popular revolution began, leading to the overthrow of Díaz. The civil war continued until 1920 and caused the death of over 2 million people. During this period (and immediately afterwards) anti-war positions inspired many artists – coinciding with anti-war sentiments in war-ravaged Europe, typified by artists such as Dix, Grosz and Kollwitz, whose work parallels that of Mexican artists.

In the immediate post-Revolution era, a new group of artists came to dominate the fine arts in Mexico. The Mexican Muralists José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974). They were all Socialists and committed to making art for the general public – often as murals or public artworks – addressing the history and everyday life of the Mexican people in clear narratives, using a Leftist political narrative. In stylistic terms, this could be called Social Realism. A manifesto stated the Muralists’ beliefs included “to socialise art; to destroy bourgeois individualism; […] to produce only monumental works for the public realm.”[1] The Muralists travelled widely and knew American art of their era. They were consciously fine artists not folk artists or printmakers working for newspapers. They were receptive to ideas of Western Modernism and incorporated those techniques and ideas but were committed to representational art and communicating directly with the masses, putting them in variance to artists such as Léger, the Surrealists and abstractionists who were also Socialists. The Muralists were in favour of forging a style that was Modern but were keen to incorporate Mexico’s pre-Hispanic history and culture in their art. All of the Muralists made prints, which was a method of working that perfectly fitted their aesthetic and political beliefs.

In 1937 the Socialist government founded the Taller de Gráfica Popular, which gathered together leading practitioners to produce Social Realist broadsides and posters. Artists worked as part of a collective and many were members of the Communist party; all agreed with the political programme of the TGP. Notable TGP artists included Leopoldo Méndez, Raúl Anguiano, Mariana Yamplosky and Alberto Beltrán. Socialist Mexico became a haven for Spanish Republicans fleeing Franco’s Spain in the closing stages of the civil war and, later, for Europeans escaping World War II. The 1940s was the TGP’s heyday, when it published a large number of prints and reached a wide audience. In 1960 a split divided the group as members sought greater political and artistic autonomy, influenced in part by the rise of abstraction in the USA in the 1950s. The TGP still operates, though it is less overtly political today.

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[Image: Alberto Beltrán, El guerillero Pancho Villa/The Guerillero Pancho Villa (1877–1923) (1946), linocut, paper: 42.7 x 32.1 cm; image: 29.5 x 21.9 cm]

The rival Sociedad Mexicana de Grabadores was founded in 1947 to provide a support network for apolitical and avant-garde artists who did not subscribe to TGP’s ethos. Other independent artists, including Rufino Tamayo and the Surrealists are mentioned in passing. No prints by Frida Kahlo, Mexico’s most internationally famous artist, are included in this book.

Some individual prints are discussed and the volume includes short artist biographies, a bibliography and a list of exhibited items. Short texts introduce areas of significance and major figures in the field. Overall, the catalogue makes a good case for the high quality of Mexican printmaking and its importance in the fine arts of the country. This is a valuable reference book for any Anglophone researcher studying Mexican art.

The unusual binding of the volume bears comment. The cover is attached to the rear of the book and folds round the spine and front only loosely. It allows readers to see the signature-bound spine, making clear the physical construction of the book, fitting the directness of Mexican art. The binding and cover seem robust and this touch of invention is welcome.

[1] P. 121