Two anthologies on Aesthetics

These two newly issued anthologies collect important texts on the subject of aesthetics by salient authors. These anthologies contain texts by the following authors, with some of the selected extracts or essays are used in both collections:

Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology – Paul Oskar Kristeller, James O. Young, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Edmund Burke, Gotthold Lessing, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, J.-J. Rousseau, G.W.F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Eduard Hanslick, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Edward Bullough, Clive Bell, R.G. Collingwood, John Dewey, Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Arthur Danto, George Dickie, Berys Gaut, Nelson Goodman, Richard Wollheim, Stephen Davies, Jerrold Levinson, Amie L. Thomasson, Frank Sibley, Kendall L. Walton, George Dickie, Alan H. Goldman, Malcolm Budd, Mary Mothersill, Jenefer Robinson, Noël Carroll, Alexander Nehamas, Eileen John, Peter Livy, Mary Devereaux, A.W. Eaton, Yuriko Saito, Carolyn Korsmeyer, with texts by the editors. Editors Steven M. Cahn (City University, New York), Stephanie Ross (University of Missouri-St. Louis) and Sandra Shapshay (City University, New York).

Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art – Danto, Dickie, Monroe C. Beardsley, Denis Dutton, Dominic McIver Lopes, Catharine Abell, Levinson, Julian Dodd, Aaron Ridley, Thomassen, Sibley, Walton, Nick Zangwill, Robert Hopkins, Carroll, Torsten Pettersson, Stephen Davies, Jack W. Meiland, Malcolm Budd, Gaut, Eileen John, Eaton, Jerome Stolnitz, Cynthia A. Freedland, Eileen John, John Searle, Richard Moran, Tamar Szabó Gendler, Stacie Friend, Wollheim, Abell, David Davies, Roger Scruton, Dawn M. Phillips, Paisley Livingston, Katherine J. Thomson-Jones, Jenefer M. Robinson, Peter Kivy, Jeanette Bicknall, Aaron Meskin, Matthew Kieran, Allen Carlson, Patricia Matthews, Emily Brady, Yuriko Saito, Sherri Irvin, with texts by the editors. Editors Peter Lamarque (University of York) and Stein Haugom Olsen (Bilkent University, Ankara).

The volumes overlap to a degree, with Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology a more comprehensive collection, starting early and taking a general view of aesthetics from the ancients to the modern day. Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art has a more modern selection and has primary focus on visual fine art. Of the two, the latter covers Critical Theory, New Criticism and Post-Modernism. Themed sections are: identifying art, ontology of art, aesthetic properties and aesthetic experience, intention and interpretation, values of art, art and knowledge, fictionality and imagination, pictorial art, photography and film, literature, music, popular arts, aesthetics of nature and everyday aesthetics. Older texts are more extracts from longer treatises; newer texts are often complete essays; the former tend not have authorial footnotes and sources, the latter do have footnotes and sources, given here. Both books have introductory essays, bibliographies and indices.

The two books are valuable compendiums of influential short essays, extracts of classics and selections of newer texts that are harder to find. The translations selected favour modern publications over early translations and that generally serves the readers well. Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology has summaries written by experts which outline the importance of various thinkers and concepts, grouped by subject or period. Each text has a brief biographic introduction, suggesting the context of the text.

Overall the selections in both anthology are thoughtfully chosen. The translations preferred are modern ones, meaning they largely supersede the old translations of pre-modern texts which are out of copyright. Although every expert will have his own preferences and there may be quibbles of selections but there is no doubting the value of the extracts for the areas covered. The richness of thought is enlightening and stimulating, especially in Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. The production quality of both volumes is good, the spines are suitably sturdy and the margins generous for marginalia.  

Both volumes are highly recommended for students and tutors of aesthetics, philosophy of aesthetics and history of art. If one needed an essential source book on aesthetics, either volume would be suitable, although many would prefer Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology because it starts with the ancients and runs unbroken through the modern day.

Peter Lamarque, Stein Haugom Olsen (eds.), Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition. An Anthology, Second Edition, Wiley Blackwell, 2018, paperback, 744pp, £32.99, ISBN 978 1 119 22244 6

Steven M. Cahn, Stephanie Ross, Sandra Shapshay (eds.), Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, Second Edition, Wiley Blackwell, 2020, paperback, 848pp, £34.99, ISBN 978 1 118 94832 3

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

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

Whistler, Ruskin, Tonalism and the Falling Rocket

“In November 1878 one of the defining events of Modernism and aesthetics took place. A libel case was brought to court in London. The plaintiff was the flamboyant and notorious London-based American painter-printmaker and the defendant (who did not appear to testify) was a famous art critic.

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was the leading painter of the Aesthetic Movement. He was witty and erudite and made a point of provoking audiences with his statements on taste. He is (understandably) often assessed in relation to Wilde, whom he knew. There was a degree of competition between the pair. The young Wilde attended events Whistler spoke at and it was commonly thought that many of Wilde’s beliefs on aesthetics and art came from Whistler. Famously, Whistler and Wilde were at a gathering together and Whistler uttered a witticism. Wilde exclaimed, “I wish I had said that,” to which, Whistler replied, “You will, Oscar, you will.” Wilde addressed the painter as “Butterfly”, a symbol of ornate beauty and delicacy. Later, the pair became estranged, their egos rather than their outlooks conflicting. Not least, Whistler was a skilled writer, well known for his elegantly barbed letters to the press. Wilde may have felt, as a mere writer and no more, that the multi-talented Whistler was intimidatingly skilled and sophisticated….”

To read the full article for free, visit my Substack page: https://alexanderadamsart.substack.com/p/whistler-ruskin-tonalism-and-the?s=w

Hidden Masterpieces, John Soane Museum

“Architecture often seems something of a modern miracle: sheets and sheets of plans show buildings with every conceivable shadow mapped out by science and adjusted for time of day and season, and the existing environment is shown in high-tech images taken by drones. 

“So, when greeted by an impressively clear overhead view of Stonehenge — complete with shapes of shadows and measurements — one might be forgiven for assuming this is the work of some contemporary architectural firm. But, the large watercolour dates from 1817, and was drawn by architectural draughtsman Henry Parke for his employer Sir John Soane. 

“This drawing is on display in the exhibition Hidden Masterpieces at Sir John Soane’s Museum. Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was the most celebrated British architect of the Georgian period. He designed the Bank of England, Dulwich Picture Gallery and a number of other significant public buildings. He collected the archive material from his practice, and added drawings by other architects and artists, mainly of buildings, fittings and furnishings, which amounted to a lifetime collection of 30,000 drawings. This collection – held in the house designed by the architect himself in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – was bequeathed as a museum, which has remained virtually unchanged in almost two centuries…”

Read the full review at The Critic online here: https://thecritic.co.uk/crumbling-is-not-an-instants-act/

Publication: “Towards a Based Barbican”

Book

Alexander Adams,Towards a Based Barbican: Outline for a Dissident Arts Centre, Golconda Fine Art Books, March 2022, first edition, 16pp, English, 80gsm cream paper, one-colour blue paper cover, A5 size, ISBN : 978-1-9999614-3-5, 50 copies, each signed and numbered, £2.50 + £2 p&p (UK and worldwide). Any future edition will be in cream covers and will not be signed.

“This pamphlet covers the potential advantages and disadvantages of a dedicated arts centre that would be committed to presenting dissident, dissenting, reactionary, anti-progressive and traditionalist cultural material. It is partly an expansion upon three articles: an opinion piece published on Bournbrook Magazine website, a book review published on The Brazen Head website, both written in February 2022, and “Towards a based Eisteddfod”, Bournbrook Magazine website, October 2021. This pamphlet includes new material and expands the discussion about the Barbican Arts Centre, London to present a wider view. Here, I take an overview of the challenges facing any cultural venture in this field. These steps and principles may be taken up by other writers with specialist experience.” 

Purchasing

This book may be purchased directly from me (by emailing), via Amazon (UK residents only) or by visiting this page and contacting me https://www.alexanderadams.art/contact. Payments are £4.50 per book or £2 p&p + £2.50 per book for multiple orders. Payments can be received by bank transfer, cheque, cash and PayPal.

The Phoenicians

The latest addition to the series on lost civilisations by Reaktion Books is a book on the Phoenicians. Phoenician civilisation flourished from roughly 1200-332 BC along the Levant coast, principally along the modern-day Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian/Israeli coast. Vadim S. Jigoulov, lecturer at Morgan State University and Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, provides the general reader with a history of Phoenician history from prehistoric times to its final demise in 332 BC, with the conquest of Tyre by Alexander the Great. Carthage, the great city in Modern Tunisia, was extinguished as a distinct military and cultural outpost of the Phoenicians in 146 BC by Rome in the Third Punic War. Language, art, religion, coinage, trade and seacraft are given their own sections.

The author points out that the Phoenicians did not have a single civilisation but rather a group of poli (city-states) that pursued individual interests and shared a common language, alphabet and culture without a single monarch or central authority. The Phoenicians did not seem to see themselves as a single unified nation and it seems others did mainly for ease of reference, though certain poli had special links with other nations and foreign cities. It may be that the limited area of cultivatable land meant that a growing population had to seek income from foreign travel, hence the rise in maritime activities. (A Phoenician expedition is supposed to have circumnavigated Africa.) The search for resources also drove Phoenicians to found trading and production ports around the Mediterranean. This book outlines the sites of Phoenician population.

The city-island-ports of Arwad and Tyre protected the coast and the mountains provided some protection from the interior of Near Asia. Sidon and Byblos were also significant centres. Phoenicia came into existence due to the exploitation of natural resources of timber (principally cedar), tree resin, olives (and olive oil) and wine. Phoenicia’s access to the sea and its production of raw materials and manufactured goods made it an advantageous tributary. It seems that the Assyrians were content to allow the Phoenicians autonomy once a tribute was regularly paid. (When the Persian Empire rose, a similar pattern continued.) The decline of Assyria apparently drove the Phoenicians to be more active as traders, particularly in the Western Mediterranean and Egypt. The ties were such that Phoenician royalty were sometimes entombed in sarcophagi made in the Egyptian style, as found in the tomb of Tabnit, king of Sidon, early 5th Century BC. Trade with the Greeks and the islands exported Phoenician goods and coinage. Although the Phoenicians did set up coastal colonies, they were not an imperial power. The degree of trade and expertise in maritime travel meant that the Phoenicians were known in the region from an early time.

A chapter on coinage assesses what we can glean from numismatics. For a trading nation, the Phoenicians adopted coinage late, in the mid-5th Century BC – 150 years after the Greeks and Persians. Jigoulov’s estimation is that coinage was adopted from the Greeks to ease transactions between Phoenician poli. Commonly, payment was made in ingots of silver and gold. Coins were more valuable than the raw metals, thus was lighter to use and easier to handle than ingots between citizens of different poli. Other reasons are discussed. The plausible reason that coins were used to pay rowers and mercenaries has been disfavoured because little Phoenician coinage has been found in the Persian interior, suggesting the coins circulated mainly between coastal cities. Experts read the iconography, weights/denominations and distribution to infer facts about the society’s economics and the way the rulers intended to project power, allegiance and deference. A Tyrian coin featured a dolphin and a murex shell. Murex was the crustacean that produced the dye that made Tyrian purple that made the city rich and renowned. Sidonian royals sought to affirm their allegiance to Persia by adopting common standards and symbols.

The Greek alphabet was developed from Phoenician, as the Greeks themselves noted. It is assumed that the widespread use of the easy-to-follow-and-use Phoenician script throughout the Mediterranean Sea region led to its adoption by different peoples. Over 10,000 inscriptions in Phoenician and Punic have been deciphered but longer writings have proved elusive. Disagreement regarding the rate of literacy among Phoenicians continues; writings that have survived tend to be legal or commercial in character. The author suggests that common people may have understood little more than numbers and common signs, with merchants restricting their writing to accounts, records and agreements. Although libraries of Phoenician writings did exist, it seems that these writings on parchment, papyrus or other organic supports have not survived and were not transmitted through copying by other civilisations. Thus, although we have written accounts of the Phoenicians, they come mainly from the Greeks and Romans. References acknowledge the trading influence and maritime accomplishments of the Phoenicians, but tend to characterise this merchant race (as encountered in trade) to be untrustworthy and oath breakers.   

On Jewish literary sources (Biblical and non-Biblical) the author writes: “Though not devoid of ideological bias, they nevertheless point out the core qualities associated with the Phoenicians – their skills in maritime navigation, trade and their ability to manoeuvre the political landscape by making treaties with other royals. In treating Tyre and Sidon as independent city-states, the ancient Jewish writings also offer a unique Near Eastern, as opposed to Mediterranean or Homeric, view of Phoenicia and the Phoenicians.”[i] It seems that the Sidonians acted as envoys and delegates between their Persian overlords and the Athenians. Sidonians resident in Athens were accorded special status and exempt from a common tax there.  

The gods of Phoenicia had different levels of devotion in different poli. The main gods were: Astarte (or Inanna and Ishtar), consort of Melqart, goddess of procreation and sexuality, most venerated in Sidon; Eshmun, god of healing and well-being; Melqart, god of death and resurrection, worshipped in Tyre; Baal (judge and god of weather and the natural cycle), Baal Shamem (god of seafaring) and Baal Zaphon (god of storms) were sometimes considered separate entities; Baalat Gubal, who was consort of Baal, worshipped in Byblos; Baal Hammon and his consort Tanit (protector of Carthage and guide to sailors), were worshipped in Carthage (potentially through the sacrifice of children). Lack of written records and the brief character of inscriptions mean information on Phoenician religion is sparse. Temples have been overbuilt or converted. Later accounts describe Phoenician priestesses as shaven headed, barefoot and celibate. Common ritual worship included feasts, drinking, processions with musicians and burned offerings. It seems the afterlife was a staple of the religion, with offerings left in tombs to accompany the dead to their afterlife – practices that seem close to those of the Egyptians.

It is thought that there may have been Phoenician influence on the architecture and technical aspects of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, as we are told that Phoenicians provided at least bronze fittings for it. There is also an absence of icons, which suggests that although the Bible mentions worship of Baal and sometimes statues to him, aniconism may have been a feature of Phoenician religion and that this may have influenced the Judaic prohibition of icons.

For a nation of traders, travellers and artisans – a nation with a distinctly diffuse and undirected character – the cultural production of the Phoenicians is difficult to summarise, understandably. Artistically and architecturally, Phoenicia was mixed, with tendencies towards “syncretism, eclecticism and multiculturalism”.[ii] This can be seen in the coinage. “In terms of iconography, Byblian coinage was syncretistic, as it frequently featured Egyptian, Greek, Sidonian and Persian images.”[iii] The borrowings came from the schools of the Greeks, Persians and Egyptians. The destruction of Carthage and overbuilding of other Phoenician poli has eradicated much of the architecture and the literature (whatever that may have comprised of) has been lost. Being in centres of continuous occupation has meant that archaeological sites have been compromised or are now inaccessible.

Phoenician artefacts found abroad are hard to classify as they display multiple influences and iconography. The pottery is often classed as mediocre, comparatively, and it seems that there was a class stratification, with the rich using metal vessels (often imported from Greece and Cyprus) and the poor using crockery that imitated the metal objects. Domestic and ritual vessels were not differentiated. Phoenician glass production was a major contribution to Mediterranean culture and a source of income for Phoenician cities, especially Sidon. Engraved and embossed silver platters and bowls were highly prized abroad but it is unclear where and why these were produced. It may be that the Phoenician style became imitated and diffused, because few have been found at Phoenician sites. Relief carvings in ivory were used for decoration and displayed strong Egyptian influence and apparently went into decline when ivory supplies petered out as Syrian elephant herds were depleted.

Terracotta figurines were cheap and commonly used in Phoenician settlements. Often associated with domestic worship, these figures and reliefs were sometimes crude. Some are decorated with metal insets and overlays. Of all the figurative art, these terracottas are the most original and indigenous of the products of Phoenicians. Several remarkable and powerful masks are reproduced in this book. Local sandstone and limestone is easily eroded, so many statues have not come down intact. Imported Greek marble was used for high-status statuettes and sarcophagi, which show a high degree of craftsmanship (albeit with little originality) and much Egyptian influence.

Overall, The Phoenicians is a clear, up-to-date and balanced assessment of one of the less known great civilisations of the past. It has maps, photographs of objects and recreation illustrations. Suitable for anyone keen to understand the basics, become familiar with current historical debates and comprehend Phoenicia in relation to historical rivals and partners.

Vadim S. Jigoulov, The Phoenicians, Reaktion Books, November 2021, hardback, 248pp, 23 mono/39 col. illus, £15, ISBN 978 1789 144 789

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

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


[i] P. 78

[ii] P. 40

[iii] P. 105

Review: “Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future”

Artivism (political and social activism using the forms and language of art) is set to become the predominant art movement of the early 21st Century. For both supporters and critics (both large groups that are growing), it is necessary to understand the movement, in order to promote or oppose it. Artivism tends to come from the left of political spectrum, though it remains to be seen if this holds true long term. After all, anti-migrant artivism is as viable as pro-migrant artivism and (judging from public surveys) the former would engender more popular support.

Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future is written by Carlos Garrido Castellano, a Hispano-Lusophone specialist in the intersection of culture and politics in Central and South America and Africa. This book looks at artivism as a branch of “anticolonial, postcolonial, and decolonial struggles”.[i] The use of Western avant-garde art forms – the installation, conceptual art, land art, performance, street art and other approaches – are ripe for non-Western practitioners to use (or appropriate) to advance their interests. “[…] through excavating “postcolonial” art histories, it becomes impossible to identify socially engaged art as a recent phenomenon, and the idea of this kind of art as an outcome of Western art histories is also called into question.”[ii]

The opening paragraph sets out the racialised identity-politics beliefs of the author. “Following Cedric Robinson’s incisive observation that capitalism is always racial capitalism, and that social inequalities are shaped by (and shape in turn) racial categorizations, Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future maintains that art activists and socially engaged artists are equipped with a decades-long experience of challenging the reasoning that lies behind neoliberal capitalism.”[iii] Garrido Castellano notes characteristics of socially engaged art are anti-commodification, pro-collaboration and anti-aestheticism.

The decision to take as a subject art biennales is by no means an obvious one. The author writes, “[…] biennials [are] the main space where art becomes global, where local and transnational art interactions are negotiated.”[iv] Yet the only people who pay attention to biennales are top-level curators and collectors. Most gallerists, artists, collectors, museum visitors, academics and historians ignore them. However, biennales have permitted political curators to showcase their arguments over recent decades, although the only people who notice are other post-colonial activists. “Three central elements can be deduced from here. First, biennials are not the new, nor is the kind of art they promote. Second, the impact of that kind of art goes far beyond the space and time of the biennial itself, directly conditioning what Jones calls “the global work of art” and having an impact on taste, tourism, and consumption. Finally, and this is crucial, the aesthetic resulting from biennials will not be determined so much by the objects as by experience.”[v] The chapter suffers from the excess of perhaps-this-perhaps-that, with the author quoting post-colonial theorists contradicting each other on the subject of biennales.

Garrido Castellano discusses the theoretical foundations of post-colonialism, looking closely at African nationalist Amílcar Cabral and Trinidadian historian-essayist C.L.R. James. These figures are considered as post-colonial thinkers, as they have no connection to art. The author chose Cabral as a case study because he had no cultural hinterland. He was – according to the quotes here from his biographer – a Machiavellian man of action, lacking any ideological encumbrances, dedicated to national unity under rule of a black citizenry. He was a collectivist, materialist and technocrat. “Cabral’s mistrust of individualism in cultural matters remains invaluable as part of a genealogy of socially committed cultural production. For Cabral, culture constituted a perfect and necessary platform for turning his idea of emancipatory and political practice into reality.”[vi] He had a utilitarian, materialist approach to culture. He criticised the bourgeois black Cape Verdeans and Bissau-Guineans for preferring Western Modernism in the visual arts over the collectivist socially functional production of the black proletariat, that Cabral favoured as socially valuable. Cabral, like other post-colonial leaders, advocated an outright rejection of Western taste and thinking. In the following chapter, Garrido Castellano seeks to place James as a key precursor to socially-engaged cultural production.

Ugandan projects Lilian Mary Nabulime’s HIV/AIDS “social sculpture” and the Disability Art Project Uganda are described. The author then considers reactions of writers to the wave of “do-good activism” in Africa, considering if the urge to benefit local people conflicts with a duty to critique a social system or socio-political economy that (supposedly) produced the imbalance in need of correction. Artivist groups Taring Padi, Ruangrupa and Kunci Cultural Studies Center are presented as critical voices negotiating the complex political situation in Indonesia during the 1990s and 2000s. The establishment of democracy after the departure of President Suharto in 1998 and the struggle between regional separatists, Islamists and the national military forces was a time of political and civil turbulence. The heterogenous and conflicting interests of ethnic, regional and religious groups were suppressed by the government until 1998; in the era immediately after Suharto Taring Padi made public street art that raised the possibility of a non-authoritarian society (along the idealistic lines of Western humanism), it is one which actually supports sectarian identification whilst proposing an idealist multiculturalism to contain anyone acting according to that sectarian identification.   

Temporary Art Platform, Beirut is “a curatorial and interventionist collective that focuses on producing and researching public art projects. TAP facilitates site-specific art interventions and mediates between artists and private and public powers. Seeking to understand how public art can become more context-sensitive, the platform also conducts research on legal and practical aspects surrounding existing and ongoing initiatives. Finally, TAP has recently started lobbying for production budgets for public art.”[viii] The organisation published a handbook for artivists, explaining the law in layman’s terms and detailing how to acquire permits and funding from public bodies. It was published in Arabic and English. Garrido Castellano outlines the difficulties facing activists in Lebanon in the post-civil war period (after 1990).

“Ensayos is a nomadic educational and research platform located in the southernmost part of Chile. Ensayos was initiated in 2010 through the collaboration of curator Camila Marambio and the scientists and conservationists working at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Karukinka Natural Park in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego.”[ix] Two topics of Marambio were local sovereignty and the impact of introduced species. One problem of deconstruction is that the issue of utility becomes immediately locked into competing claims and definitions. If colonial and post-colonial/indigenous priorities define utility, where does sex, sexuality, religion and age come into the equation? What about trans-species rights, especially pertinent to projects centring on conservation? However rigorous the language of discussion, intersectionality (and standpoint theory) cannot help but nakedly foreground the priorities of speaker’s preferred metric or group allegiance.

Regrettably, Garrido Castellano misuses the term “alt right” to refer to populist movements in the UK, USA and Brazil. In October 2017 in Lisbon a statue of Padre António Vieira was the centre of a protest by left-wing activists and conservatives and rightists, this is compared to the events of Charlottesville, in 2017, “where the alt-right protestors impeded any approach to the statue, gathering in a circle around it in order to “protect” it from defacement.”[x] The protestors were not exclusively alt right; they also included conservatives, traditionalists and local residents. Preventing vandalism or iconoclasm is protection; there is no need for the scare quotes. Whether one approves of defacement or not, protection is protection. “[…] the attitude of the persons supposedly “protecting” the sculpture of Vieira was only the result of a more widespread defensive nationalism that despite the articulation of new iterations of portugalidade remains alive and well in broader segments of present-day Portuguese society.”[xi] One only has to look at the violence and defacement of colonial statuary common during this period in the USA and Europe to understand that those who wished to preserve their physical culture from attack were justified in being highly concerned. As the author of the book Iconoclasm, I can attest to this, having thoroughly researched the subject.

There is ambiguity in the political impact of activism through art. In what respect is agitation for Western liberalist values of egalitarianism, universal suffrage, state-provided healthcare, parliamentary democracy and freedom of conscience actually rooted in native cultures and to what degree is it imported by NGOs, activists and academics? Does a Lebanese agitator for collectivism have to drop the tenet of religious superiority ingrained in his people’s culture? Is he permitted to pick and choose between native beliefs and enmities? What if an Indonesian artivist wished to lobby for reinstatement of royalty, sharia, a strict caste system or expulsion of a tribe historically in competition with his tribe? As with the question of agency, the question of legitimacy of native causes is very much a case of post-colonial theorists being highly selective about what they consider authentic and appropriate. What if a local population wanted individualistic laissez-faire capitalism as route to independence, provision of healthcare and material comfort? It is often the case that such aspirations are dismissed by post-colonialists, temperamentally opposed to capitalism and individualism. We hit again the Neo-Marxist dismissal of the proletariat’s attachment to capitalism as “false consciousness”, that term used to discredit its opponents.

How much of post-colonial theory is simply taking away the role of gatekeeping from governments, museums and local leaders (colonial and decolonised) and giving it to artists, curators, critics and academics, as arbitrators of agency and commitment? After all, it is this latter group that designates itself as assessors of self-determined artistic activism carried out in the field, applying (often abstruse) theoretical measures without recourse to dialogue with local people.

One suspects that much of post-colonial theory is post facto justification for the occupation of spaces and use of resources by political actors. After all, as Marxists and Neo-Marxists admit, theory is nothing if not backed by power and their theory is almost solely concerned with power. Engaging with the post-colonial theory could be viewed as beside the point, as the theory is never the proximate cause – or even the explanation – for a tactical seizure of space, be that space academic, artistic, financial, civic, economic or any other category.

This book is a useful demonstration of that. Post-colonial artivism cannot remain at the theoretical level; it cannot be framed by a Western perspective; it must be applied or it is useless; it must be taught to students as a tool for liberation and agency. These positions are not so much Garrido Castellano’s, as the sources he quotes; he seeks to set out these positions in Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future. The book includes thorough endnotes, a bibliography and index. Unreliable as the author is on iconoclasm and contemporary politics, Garrido Castellano knows his field well and has read the latest literature in depth. He seeks to avoid jargon where possible but some passages will mean more to academics and students in his field than to the general reader. Overall, this is a stimulating and serious study of the reception and understanding of post-colonial artivism in non-Western settings.

The artivism discussed in this book offers a template for indigenous populations across the world; there is no reason it should be restricted to those in the political Global South. Nativist causes, self-determination and freedom from globalist interference provide counter-narratives opposed to international capital – all of these are causes of the political right in the West. It remains to be seen if progressivist positions will dominate the field of artivism wholly.

Carlos Garrido Castellano, Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future, State University of New York Press, 2021, 338pp + x, 24 mono illus., hardback, $95, ISBN 978 1 4384 85737

Alexander Adams’s book Artivism will be published by Imprint Academic in 2022. Details here.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

[i] Back cover

[ii] P. 56

[iii] P. 1

[iv] P. 27

[v] P. 33

[vi] P. 98

[vii] P. 193

[viii] P. 199

[ix] P. 223

[x] P. 243

[xi] P. 243

Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800 is a current touring exhibition (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 30 September 2021-9 January 2022; Detroit Institute of Arts, 6 February-29 May 2022). The exhibition brings together some of the biggest names in art by Italian women. Gentileschi, Anguissola, Carriera are well known to students of art history and Fontana is familiar to anyone who has read a feminist art history; lesser-known figures give a wider view of the field. This review is from the catalogue.

Interest in women artists has grown apace in recent years. Of particular focus has been Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later), a Baroque Caravaggisti from Rome. The high standard of her best paintings and her life story have been taken up as proof of twin claims made broadly by feminists – that women are as equally talented as men, therefore their general absence from art history (until recently) is a deliberate act of erasure by men, and that women have suffered shaming and abuse at the hands of men which has made pursuit of profession and private fulfilment difficult unique to women. Despite the fact that women’s routes to the position of accredited artist were often less straightforward than those of male counterparts, historical research supports the fact that women did work in the art field in greater numbers than initially thought. The narrative of systemic oppression seems less tenable. Talent and determination has a way of finding an outlet and recognition, if only posthumously. All of the artists in this exhibition achieved some degree of professional success in their lifetimes.

Artemisia Gentileschi was daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), who acted as her master during her apprenticeship as a painter. Her style follows his, which was patterned on Caravaggio’s. In 1611 she was raped by the Agostino Tassi (1578-1644). After the rape, Tassi offered to marry Artemisia, which was a promise he subsequently broke. It was the breaking of this marriage contract that was brought to trial by Orazio, as well as a plan by Tassi to steal a painting by Orazio. Although Tassi was found guilty of breaking the contract and having committed other crimes (and of having planned to commit others), he was not punished. Artemisia’s subsequent paintings of women martyrs, and of Judith murdering Holofernes, are interpreted as a pointed response to the attack and failure of the court to implement just punishment. Almost all of her paintings feature women protagonists. This may be a personal fixation of hers or (as some historians have suggested) the artist trading on her notability as a high-profile woman artist by painting women. Gentileschi subsequently married and moved to Florence, where she achieved success as a court painter. Later periods in Venice, Rome, Naples and London led to steady commissions and respectful receptions by local academies and courts.  

[Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5), oil on canvas, 184 x 141.6 cm, Detroit Institute of Art]

The catalogue reproduces three Gentileschi self-portraits of 1615-7 and a prototype of c. 1613-4. The exhibition includes perhaps her great painting, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5). In it, the standing Judith holds a blooded cutlass. She holds out a hand to shade her left eye; that presents us with the audacious crescent of her profile shining in the darkness. The composition is a series of arcs tumbling down the composition. It is a fine picture, perhaps the best of her oeuvre. It has the usual weaknesses of Caravaggisti painting – poor articulation of space, breaks in logic (the shadow of Judith’s raised arm should throw her sleeve and shoulder into darkness, etc.), selective use of optical accuracy (gestures towards realistic shadows, no understanding of reflected light and colour) and the problems of proportion that stem from composite designs that combine discrete parts, which derives from (though is not in all instances caused by) use of the camera obscura. Historians tend to be overimpressed by the appearance of naturalism in Caravaggisti paintings, not crediting the degree to which artists deliberately fudge issues when they need to achieve a certain effect. Caravaggisti were primarily concerned to create an impression of truthfulness rather than record truth. It is a form of dishonesty and is their greatest fault.

Gentileschi’s non-Judith Biblical paintings and self-portraits are distinctly less persuasive, degrees weaker than the paintings of Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663). Cagnacci (despite his flaws) is a better, more exciting painter than Gentileschi. Lot and His Daughters (1636-8) has the three figures like cut-outs adjoining one another, figures casting no shadows on others; this undermines the artist’s intention to bond the three in an interlocked group. David and Bathsheba (c. 1636-7)is much poorer, with the architectural background (perhaps by an assistant) being both insistent and unpersuasive. The rearmost attendant is awkward; the others are little better. The placement of figures and spatial arrangement is risible, making a mockery of the attempted eye contact between Bathsheba and the rightmost attendant. Such paintings – the pedestrian and the poor – show Gentileschi to be a second-rate painter capable of a few flashes of brilliance.  

So, what of the quality of the rest of the art? Does it stand up to scrutiny?

Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535-1625) is a very inconsistent artist, as this selection proves. She is best known for self-portraits, which vary in treatment from the sensitive to the cursory. The lowest in quality seem to be casual efforts, trading on the novelty of being self-portraits of a woman artist.  (A painfully malproportioned self-portrait (now in Vienna) is illustrated.) The miniature self-portrait with giant medallion (oil on parchment, 3¼” x 2½”) is a handsome piece of work, well modelled, contemplative, technically well thought through. Self-Portrait at the Easel (1554-5) is one of the number of variants, showing the artist depicting a Virgin and Child. The portraits of children are good, one deriving from Giovanni Battista Moroni’s style. The Holy Family (1592) is rather unpleasant, with its pneumatic anatomies and slick handling. For more on this artist, read another review by me here.  

Diana Scultori (c. 1547-1612) was a Mantuan engraver working in the Roman style established by Marcantonio Raimondi. The composition after Giulio Romano is very effective; the translation of a Cornelius Cort drawing of The Spinario is somewhat less so. It is difficult to separate the weaknesses of this second engraving into errors of the original drawing and those of transcription.

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) is one of the female painters of the Bolognese School. She is represented by religious paintings, portraits and portrait drawings executed in black and red chalks. A small tondo portrait of a prelate (c. 1580) is arresting – sympathetic, engaged, carefully executed – but the other pictures are unremarkable. Fede Galizia (c. 1574-c. 1630) seems (on the evidence of her Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1596) and an attractive still-life of fruit (c. 1607)) to be of high calibre, but it is impossible to judge on the strength of only two paintings. It is hard to assess printmakers Isabella Catanea Parasole (active 1585-1625) and Anna Maria Vaiani (1604-c. 1655), painter Anna Bacherini Piattoli (1720-1788) and miniaturist Veronica Stern Telli (1717-1801) on these meagre showings. Painters Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596-1676) and Ginevre Cantofoli (1618-1672) and pastellist Marianna Carlevarijs (1703-after 1750) seem to be very slight talents.

Through illustration, it is hard to appreciate the religious dioramas of Caterina de Julianis (c. 1670-c. 1742). Dioramas (framed constructions of painted wax figures of saints in setting deep-relief settings are pieces) often get overlooked in art histories. Somewhere between fine art, devotional handicraft, ex voto and sculptural curiosity, such dioramas are hard to categorise. The common temperamental aversion of polychromy in sculpture, prejudice against the use of wax (redolent of anatomical teaching aides) and the fact that these diorama were often produced by nuns (often anonymously) rather than professionally accredited artists, all mean that dioramas of devotional character fall between academic disciplines and do not receive their due attention. The extreme delicacy of such pieces has caused a high attrition rate, leading to gaps in the historical records which has obscured the extent of the production. de Julianis’s piece in the catalogue has a coloured wax figurine of Penitent Magdalene, in woodland grotto with a deer drinking at a stream, with a painted landscape behind. The materials are listed as “beeswax, pigments, paper, glass, vellum, silk, feathers, wire, burlap, and varnish”. Such dioramas inspired recent art by contemporary sculptor Berlinde de Bruyckere.

The attractive and scrupulous tempera paintings on parchment of flora and fauna by Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) are a delight. She trained as a miniaturist and made portraits and religious paintings. They are sharp, accurate and display great versatility – they hark back to Dürer and anticipate the field of naturalist illustration. Despite the wealth of detail, they never become either fussy or stiff, enlivened by the use of hatched shading and blending of colours and line with stippling. The subjects have sculptural presence. They are the outstanding find of this exhibition.

Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was another Bolognese artist, adulated in her lifetime. She was a prolific painter, producing portraits, mythological paintings, Biblical scenes and etchings. We know of her production and development because she signed and dated many paintings. Aside from the original and intense Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664), there is nothing here that seems to separate Sirani from contemporaries. To prove her fortitude to her husband Brutus, Portia stabbed herself in the thigh. It is a rare subject in art. Portia’s expression is reserved and a touch dreamy. In a way, it anticipates the modern-day self-cutting craze, where bloodletting is a test of strength and self-control. Responses to Sirani and Fontana will likely depend on whether the viewer finds the art of the Bolognese School of this period agreeable  

Venetian pastellist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) is well known enough. As a portraitist in pastels, she was famed during her lifetime and (for afficionados of the period) she is still a star. Her miniature portraits in watercolour on ivory show the delicacy of her touch and flair for Rococo airiness and sensuality. Her technical grounding and brio in execution make her pastels and paintings attractive and stylistically consistent – internally and as a group. As with much Rococo art, there is the ever-present temptation for the artist to flatter both subject and viewer. A late invented head in pastel is looser and more expressive than her commissioned portraits.   

The exhibition also includes portraits of women artists by men. The best is a dramatic, sculptural and handsome 1627 painting by Simon Vouet (1590-1649), of his wife Virginia de Vezzo (1600-1638). This is a thoughtful addition but perhaps a counter-productive one. With the possible exception of Gentileschi’s Judith, Vouet’s portrait is the best painting in an exhibition dedicated to presenting the abilities of women artists.

[Image: Simon Vouet, Virginia da Vezzo, the Artist’s Wife, as the Magdalene (c. 1626), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 1649 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art]

Catalogue essays explore women artists as miniaturists and the professional standing of women artists in this period in Italy. Catalogue entries devote space to discussing issues related to exhibited items. The essays and catalogue entries are written by specialists Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, Sheila Barker, Babette Bohn, Claude-Douglas Dickerson III, Jamie Gabbarelli, Hilliard Goldfarb, Lara Lea Roney and Joaneath Spicer. The entries are sympathetic towards the situation of women artists but lack the stridency or partisan quality found in other books. This makes the catalogue a pleasure to read and endows the statements with greater credibility. The evidence of new scholarship is woven into informative entries on exhibits.

The more sweeping claims of first-generation feminist art historians are being picked apart by close study of records. “Beginning in the fourteenth century, women’s rate of matriculation in the artisanal guilds across Europe began to drop, yet women continues to work in similar numbers. Whereas this decline was formerly attributed to efforts to cast women out of guilds through exclusionary tactics, historians now widely agree that late medieval and early modern women may have deliberately avoided joining guilds, probably to save money and time, and to skirt requirements that could cut into their profit margins, productivity, employment opportunities, and market shares.”

The extensive exhibition list and bibliography will be a useful reference for students and academics seeking sources. The illustrations are generally very good. Overall, the catalogue and exhibition is a balanced overview of women artists in Italy in the pre-modern era. Some of the art is wonderful and the texts provide a survey of the achievements of Italian women artists.

Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, et al, By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Detroit Institute of Arts (distr. Yale), 2021, cloth hb, 208pp, 141 col. illus., $40/£30, ISBN 978 0 300 25636 9

Purchase the book here.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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


“Museums Deconstructed by Degrees”

Photo by Shvets Anna on Pexels.com

“Colchester and Ipswich Museums held a video conference event on the subject of decolonisation and democratisation. The organisers invited two activist historians to give talks. The organisers revealed their view by staging the event, as well as in their choice of speakers. Heritage organisations are run by managerial leftist elites, who dislike compromised artefacts and resent the populations they serve.

As part of the event, a video talk was given by Tristram Hunt, Director of The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) on the September 29th. He spoke positively about adapting museum presentations to target “new communities”. When asked about the possibility of laws allowing mass deaccessioning of artefacts, he stepped carefully and pointed out that this would require an Act of Parliament. He also avoided fully endorsing a question that advocated making audiences uncomfortable – a reframing of the “no white comfort” slogan of BLM – calling it “a very great question”, saying: “I get the point and I think that intellectual challenge and feeling uncomfortable about some of these histories is part of what we should do but I think at the same time don’t lose sight of the fact that we’ve trusted institutions to make that happen.”…”

Read the full article here: https://www.bournbrookmag.com/home/museums-deconstructed-by-degrees

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Review: “The World According to Colour”

James Fox, The World According to Colour: A Cultural History, Allen Lane

“In 1856, eighteen-year-old William Henry Perkin was at home, messing around with the dreck of a failed experiment. He had not made the compound he expected. When the black sediment was diluted on blotting paper it flowered purple — the rarest of pure colours. This dyeing substance (mauveine) would revolutionise the worlds of fashion, furnishing and art, making Perkin the equivalent of a multi-millionaire. Aniline dyes would provide a range of vivid, cheap colours in a world where colour had previously come from substances that were rare, expensive and poisonous.”This is one story from James Fox’s book The World According to Colour. Fox treats the seven colours of black, red, yellow, blue, white, purple and green, providing stories related to pigments, perceptions and uses of these colours. There are biological responses to colour. We react strongly to red (colour of blood) and feel instinctive aversion to aposematic colour combinations (the black-and-yellow stripes of wasp and snakes is now a standardised hazard warning signifier). Divergences between cultural connotations are familiar. Different societies marry and mourn in different colours.

“Conceptual linguistic constructions around colour extend from figures of speech (“caught red-handed”, “blackmail”, “yellow belly”) to the existence (and absence) of words….”

To read the full article go to The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/out-of-the-blue/

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Review: “Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern”

Charles Dellheim, Professor of History at Boston University, sets out in Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern to show how Jews made a disproportionately large contribution to the ascendancy of Modernist art. As discussed in a previous review, Jews are commonly linked to the avant-garde and Modernism. Dellheim’s project is to explain why Jews entered the European art trade and were particularly supportive of Modern art. In Vienna of the belle époque under Franz Joseph I (an era of industrialisation, expansion and modernisation of the city, as capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) the arts were open to all people of means. The exclusion from certain fields of Jews (voluntarily or involuntarily), left them with free rein in the arts. “This left the Jewish bourgeoisie an unprecedented opportunity to seize the aesthetic initiative. And they made the most of it.”

Dellheim – a descendant of German Jewish refugees – defines Jews as ethnic Jews rather than just those practising Judaism. He rejects the idea that there is anything inherent in Jewish genetics that makes Jews inclined towards, and proficient in, art dealing and appreciation, preferring to see the matter as one of acculturation, law (Jews being restricted in certain matters) and economics (again, determined by law as well as broader economic opportunities). Strong in-group preference facilitated the establishment of profitable and long-lasting family businesses, some of which have lasted over 150 years.  

Jewish art dealers

Dellheim notes that entry of Jews into art collecting, dealing and creating was a late development. Jews were concerned with religion, scholarship, law, trade and finance, not much with the visual arts until the second half of the Nineteenth Century. (Before the emancipation of the Jews in France in 1791, Jews had no right to join a guild – including the Guild of St Luke – or trade fine art.) The public art gallery and the annual salon opened art to the general public. The crisis of academies and salons being unwilling or unable to absorb and co-opt new artistic forms sufficiently rapidly led to a new opportunity for private dealers and middlemen to act as bridges between avant-garde producers and prospective bourgeois collectors. The new entrants into this field included Jews, who had some natural advantages by having preferential access to credit from Jewish financiers to establish businesses, finance speculative acquisitions and sustain businesses during downturns. Some of these networks had been well established in the preceding century, during which the ending of absolute monarchies, the reduction of power in the hands of the aristocracy and the transfer of capital to industrialists all led to a professionalised art market, public auction houses, specialist publications and the foundation of art history as a professional discipline (a movement originating in Vienna) lubricated by the dispersal of noble collections. Thus, a network of Jewish art historians, collectors, publishers and dealers – working with Jewish bankers – led to the flourishing of the European art trade, albeit primarily in Old Masters, in the pre-1850 period.

So, when the rise of the Realists, the Barbizon School and the Impressionists took place over the 1850-75 period, the Jewish art network was already established and ready to take up the opportunity and absorb new entrants. Nathan Wildenstein started selling minor paintings by Old Masters in the 1870s, while working as a textile merchant. His motto was, “Boldness in buying. Patience in selling. Time does not matter.”

Wildenstein became a partner of Ernest Gimpel, another Alsatian Jew, who had worked for Jewish bankers as a commodities broker. These bankers had social access to the richest families in France, who were hungry for social status through art acquisition. Gimpel and Wildenstein made their fortunes through selling French art from Colnaghi in London. Colnaghi had acquired most of his stock from the descendants of French émigrés who had fled the revolution. Watteau’s The Poet’s Dream was bought from Colnaghi for 10,000 francs; ten years later it was sold to a French banker for 150,000 francs. When he established Hôtel Wildenstein at 57 rue la Boëtie, it was a palace of culture and statement of ambition to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the high society of Paris.  

[Image: Hotel Wildenstein, Paris]

The Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain are a legacy of the Duveen family of art dealers, founded by Joel Duveen, a Dutch Jewish immigrant to Hull, where the family trade was import-export. If anything, the liquidation of aristocratic collections was even more rapid and extensive in Britain than elsewhere. Dealers facilitated the transfer of art masterpieces from British stately homes to magnate mansions in American cities. The Duveens had branches in London, Paris and New York. They formed a secret partnership with Italian-art expert Bernard Berenson, a Lithuanian Jew. Denied a professorship at Harvard University, Berenson went on to become a scholar, critic and populariser of Renaissance art. He is attributed with stimulating rich Americans to collect European art, thereby accelerating the transatlantic art trade and elevating prices. Berenson was a close adviser to Isabella Stewart Gardner – leading cultural light of Boston high society and one of foremost American art collectors. Berenson acted as an authenticator and insider contact for the Duveens – which clashed with scholarly detachment and disinterest. His high public and credibility made him an invaluable ally for a dealing house.

Gimpel, Wildenstein and the Seligmann brothers followed the Duveens by opening branches in New York to feed the apparently insatiable demand for Old Master art for New Money collectors. At the end of the century, the collections of Jewish bankers joined the inherited art of the British aristocracy entered the art trade, with much of it heading West to the USA. “The rise of Jewish art collectors provided an opening for Jewish art dealers who social connections mattered more inside their own communities than outside of such.” Having favoured status gave Jewish collectors and dealers access to art (and credit) that allowed the creation of great collections at a slightly lower financial and time cost than would have been the case for gentiles. The establishment of dynasties cemented this. After all, when grandfather died and his collection had to be sold by his legatees, they could turn to the art-dealer grandson of the dealer who had sold the art originally to buy it back.

[Image: Paul Rosenberg, Paris, c. 1920]

Modernism and Jewishness

The Rosenbergs (father Alexandre, sons Paul and Léonce) and the Bernheims backed avant-garde art, collecting and selling Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. The Bernheims were big backers of Impressionism and benefited when it occupied centre-stage in the French art scene (at least, commercially) for over half a century. Paul and Bruno Cassirer paved the way for the Post-Impressionists in German through a Berlin gallery and a publishing house (which published van Gogh’s letters in German). The Secession movement of Vienna and Berlin was backed by many Jewish collectors. Gustav Klimt’s portrait subjects form a veritable checklist for the wealthiest Jewish women of Vienna.

In Vienna, Franz Joseph I found himself patronising the Secession exhibitions despite being temperamentally ill-disposed to Modernism – he particularly loathed the Loos House that faced the entrance to his palace. The Kaiser was politically supportive of Modernism because his fractured, multi-cultural, multi-lingual composite empire was being torn apart by separatist movements and Modernism was the only school of art that had no distinctive national character, did not assert an ethnic identity and was not supported by anyone except the cosmopolitan liberal elite and a few radical artists and architects. Thus, the art patronised by the wealthy Jewish upper class found itself a de facto empire style despite being (or perhaps because it was) widely despised.

Hitler lived in Vienna at this time and grew to detest Modernism. When Hitler inaugurated the House of German Art in Munich in 1937, this Nazi brainchild was declared to be explicitly intended to reverse the tide of Modernism. “[…] art and art activities are lumped together with the handiwork of our modern tailor shops and fashion industries. And to be sure, following the maxim: Every year something new. One day Impressionism, then Futurism, Cubism, maybe even Dadaism, etc. A further result is that even for the most insane and inane monstrosities thousands of catchwords to label them will have to be found, and have indeed been found.” We can see the typical Nazi condemnation of Kulturbolshewismus (cultural Bolshevism) in Hitler’s linkage of Modernism to Jewry. “Judaism was very clever indeed, especially in employing its position in the press with the help of so-called art criticism and succeeding not only in confusing the natural concepts about the nature and scope of art as well as its goals, but above all in undermining and destroying the general wholesome feeling in this domain.” As Dellheim writes, “The conviction that modernism was a Jewish threat to German culture became a staple of reactionary ideology. It fit in easily with the image of the rootless, abstract, cosmopolitan Jew, always consuming, never producing, and greedily sucking the life out of the true Germany.”

Dellheim is equivocal on whether Modernism was (at least partly) Jewish. He notes the Jewish Modernist artists (Pissarro, Leibermann, Modigliani, Soutine, Chagall, Lipchitz), collectors (the Stein siblings, the Cone sisters, Peggy Guggenheim) and critics (C.R. Marx, W George, Vauxcelles, Salmon). He then goes on:

Both Jewish entrepreneurs and avant-garde artists were archetypal outsiders, whose social paths otherwise might not have crossed. Both were largely excluded from the old regime in art and society and, moreover, stood to benefit from its destruction. Both were on the margins of their respective worlds as a small religious minority in largely homogenous societies with long histories of antisemitism. Prejudice made it extremely difficult for Jewish bourgeois to attain the degree of social status or respectability that their non-Jewish compatriots could take for granted. Avant-garde were on the margins of the official art world that upheld classical standards and shaped professional success. Neither Jewish entrepreneurs nor avant-garde artists were willing to remain on the periphery, however. Both craved professional success and social acceptance to one extent or another. They were outsiders who were determined to become insiders. But they wanted to do so, if possible, on their own terms rather than by capitulating to traditional ways or majority opinion. The need to circumvent entrenched authority provided common ground for avant-garde artists and their Jewish champions.

Readers might consider that the author could have pursued further this posited division between Jews and the traditions of the nations they inhabit. He lays out this powerful case and does not draw out its implications.

According to Dellheim, Modernism was not a Jewish project – the majority of its producers, dealers and consumers were non-Jewish, and it was not initiated by Jews – Dellheim sees that Modernism was a unique social, financial and artistic opportunity for Jews to acquire advantage. It must be said that many Jewish dealers and collectors were heavily invested in traditional art; however, there was nothing to prevent them from either additionally or successively transferring their backing to Modernism. We might see Modernism as speculative and risky compared to the Old Masters, and that new entrants might see openings that more conservative bodies might miss or disdain. “Marketing modern art – like many of the endeavors in which Jews clustered – was a middleman business that offered limited barriers to entry, the prospect of high returns, competitive advantages to family firms and ethnic networks, scope for international trading, and geographical mobility. The barriers to entry were few, the required capital modest, the competition limited, and professional hierarchies only beginning to gel. Successive waves of artists and schools created openings for dealers seeking a foothold in the commerce of art.” This is the rapid turnover of schools and styles in the Modern era – a hyper-charged cycle of innovation, popularisation, exploitation and obsolescence that can be found in movements lasting less than a decade, as artists, dealers, critics and collectors scrambled to establish themselves as pre-eminent before the next generation displaced them.

The course of history

Dellheim outlines the Intimiste circle, Berthe Weill and Alfred Flechtheim (dealer of Otto Dix). Picasso would have numerous Jewish dealers: Weill, D.-H. Kahnweiler, the Rosenbergs, Louise Leiris, Georges Wildenstein and others. So associated was Picasso (and Cubism) with Jewish and German names, that he kept a low profile during the Great War, for fear that French patriots would attack his art. (Spotting the non-French “k” in a Picasso painting was enough to stir ire.) Paul Rosenberg was a great champion of Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard, Braque and other top-level Modernists. René Gimpel made a point of supporting Modernist artists who were Jewish (Modigliani and Soutine).

The bulk of the book is a lively and well-sourced account of the Modernist art market from the 1910s up to the return of dealers following the end of World War II. The travails of art restitution bodies and the Monuments Men are raised here, though Dellheim acknowledges the extensive coverage of that subject already. Although those familiar with the major dealers and artists will know the outlines already, lesser-known incidents catch the attention. For instance, a Dusseldorf auction arranged by Flechtheim was bombed by the SA on 11 March 1933. The explosion did not kill anyone and was presumably an effort to frighten the Jewish art dealer and to damage his display of “un-German” Modernist art. He recounts the sad end of Paul Cassirer. Married to the beautiful actress Tilla Durieux (painted by Franz Stuck), Cassirer was so suicidal or reckless due to her rejection of him that he fatally wounded himself in the courthouse during their 1926 divorce proceedings.

[Image: Tilla Durieux at Paul Cassirer’s funeral, 1926, Berlin]

The wartime pillaging of Jewish collections is the “betrayal” in the title. Many colleagues and friends of the dealers – who fled, leaving behind most of their collections – collaborated with the Nazis, due to cupidity, envy or fear. Some Jews in neutral countries profited through acting as dealers for art that was stolen or extorted from fleeing collectors and dealers. The dispersal of Jewish collections has still not been entirely resolved to this day. It has been the subject of many books and documentaries and now is almost its own branch of law.

The scope of Dellheim’s subject is so huge that the book cannot help but have omissions. The Jewish patronage of the Secession in Vienna is only lightly sketched and the role of Jews around the early vanguard Modernism of the USSR is omitted. This book nicely sets up what could be a follow-up – an examination of Jewish dealers, artists and critics in the next phase of Modernism, the School of New York. A large percentage of the actors in 1940s Abstract Expressionism and dealers in the New York art scene were Jewish. Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Irving Sandler were pioneer critics and artists such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Philip Guston addressed explicitly Jewish themes in their art. All the time Leo Castelli, Frank Lloyd and Ileana Sonnabend were waiting in the wings, ready to advance following art movements.  

Dellheim has had to balance storytelling and analysis and has generally prioritised the former, which is to the benefit of general readers. His chapter “Between Bohemian and Bourgeois” (about the competing drives of Jews to rebel or to assimilate) seems tantalisingly inconclusive. He correctly ascertains that the bourgeois and the bohemian are not diametrically opposed but takes it little further. We could say that both bourgeois and bohemian are archetypes of liberalism – the support of progress (in whatever form that takes), consumers of culture (in whatever form that takes), self-regarding keepers of the flame of modernity (in whatever form that takes), opposers of tradition, religion and aristocracy (right or wrong, regardless). Bourgeois and bohemian are two sides of the same coin, two stages (youthful rebellion, materialist maturity) of conformity within the modern Western middle-class. One hungers for a little elaboration from Dellheim on this.

Belonging and Betrayal is a fine account of the broad and controversial subject of Jewish participation in the rise of Modernism in European art. Dellheim is well informed, thoughtful, sympathetic and a good writer. This book is suitable for anyone studying the history of the art trade, Modernism in the fine arts and the Jewish contributions to European culture.

Charles Dellheim, Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern, Brandeis University Press, 21 September 21 2021, hardback, 674pp, 24 col./96 mono illus., £32.00, ISBN: 978-1-68458-056-9

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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