Renoir: Rococo Revival

The recently closed exhibition Renoir: Rococo Revival (Städel Museum, Frankfurt, 2 March-19 June 2022), relied on the excellent collection of both Rococo and Impressionist art to present Renoir and Impressionists as heirs to Eighteenth Century French painting. Rococo was the decorative style of late Baroque art in period 1715-1780, that originated in the court art of France, but which spread to Southern Germany, Italy and Austro-Hungary. It is characterised by the emphasis on curling natural forms, especially shells, lightness of tone, with an aim to titillate, amuse, arouse or instruct the viewer. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

Director of the museum, Philipp Demandt, sets out the thesis of the exhibition. “Unlike his colleagues Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and others, Renoir concentrated not on landscape but portraits and figural compositions in which he could easily pick up the thread of the Rococo’s genre scenes. And his depictions can indeed be read as new interpretations of Watteau’s fêtes galantes, Boucher’s pastorals and Fragonard’s elegant companies in fantastical gardens – now, however, freed of the moralistic undercurrent that had been a constitutive element of such works during the Ancien Régime. Instead, it was Renoir’s painterly representations of the lustre of skin, the iridescent sheen of glass and porcelain and the ever-magnificent and fashionable clothing of his female protagonists that forged links to the painting of that past age.”

During his lifetime, Renoir saw himself as a descendent of the Rococo painters. He supposedly said, “I am of the eighteenth century. I humbly consider not only that my art descends from Watteau, Fragonard, Hubert Robert, but even that I am one of them.” As curator Alexander Eiling points out, Rococo was a touchstone for discussion of Renoir’s art in the Nineteenth Century but that it became invisible in the following century, when referents became Dutch, Spanish and English painting, japonisme, Barbizon School and the realism of Courbet. Indeed, one might posit that Renoir’s occlusion in the later Twentieth Century is not just a matter of taste, but precisely because the emphasis on social realism, realism and foreign genre painting in Impressionist studies does not fit Renoir’s oeuvre. Rococo was an art of diversion and indulgence, a perfect grounding for Renoir, peintre du bonheur.   

From 1854 to c. 1858, Renoir had a job as a decorator of ceramics, working in the rococo tradition. He never rejected the decorative and pretty aspects of art. It seems that the humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War sparked a patriotic revival of support for Rococo as a national style, shorn of the connotations of decadent Ancien Régime. This does seem to push directly counter to interpretations of Impressionism as a fusion of realism, social critique and application of optical science. Add to this the “socially progressive” attitudes of some of the Impressionists (primarily Pissarro), and we find ourselves facing conflicting interpretations. Naturally, every movement (and in every complex artist) we see a confluence of influences that are to some degree contradictory. So, rather than seeing two opposite trends – “retrograde” Rococo and “progressive” social realism – struggling for the soul of Impressionism (or the credibility of historians of Impressionism), we would do better to consider the trends as co-existing sentimental attachments rather than considered conceptual positions.

Eiling points out that the Goncourt brothers and Théophile Thoré both “rediscovered” the Rococo as a distinctly French art form. The Louis La Caze donation to the Louvre, which went on display in 1870, making additional works by Fragonard and Watteau available to Parisians. Diderot considered Boucher a painter of (and for) women, characterising Boucher (and, by extension, Rococo painting) as feminine art, art that would be supplanted by the masculinity of David and Neo-Classicism. Certainly, this was how Neo-Classicism was regarded in its day and largely so since: the necessary cleansing of an era of decadent soft art with a purgative wave of moralistic hard art.

The fête galante is an ideal comparator for Renoir’s scenes of lower-class and lower-middle-class summer revelry. In Renoir’s early scenes set around Paris, on the café terraces of Montmartre and on the banks of the Seine, we get updated versions of Watteau’s scenes of nobility in cultivated pastoral settings engaging in flirtation and intrigue. The class levels have changed and the timelessness has been pinned down to explicitly the modern day (the latest bonnet, the current awning, the common matchbook), but the atmosphere and personal dynamics are carried over. Perhaps, we could say that revelry, flirtation, merriment and body language are nearly an unchanging constant in human relations.

In his catalogue essay, Guillaume Faroult investigates what Rococo art was on public display during the Nineteenth Century and consequently what the Impressionists would have seen. The reception of Rococo art via French museums was muted in the early half of the century, no doubt a lingering coolness to art associated with the French court and the dominance of Neo-Classical works acquired during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. In the 1820s Rococo paintings were sold for a pittance and the circle of knowledgeable collectors for the style small and not especially well-heeled. Only slowly – and by way of donation – did good Rococo paintings enter the Louvre from the 1840s to the 1870s.

Renoir’s taste for the art of courtly France is described as reactionary. The fact that he appreciated Fragonard, Boucher and Watteau as upholders of an older order – and not as paragons of proto-modernity – does tend to reinforce this view. Perhaps it is discernment of the connection between Boucher and Renoir that led to Renoir being so excoriated by critics. Both artists worked in ceramics and Renoir had copied Boucher on vases while working at the factory in his youth.

The selection of works for the exhibition – and illustrated full-page in the catalogue section of the book – are very good and include many unexpected delights. The fêtes galantes of Henri Baron, Émile Wattier, Jean-Baptiste Pater and Narcisse Diaz de la Peña are less familiar than Watteau’s. There is a full-length portrait of a woman by Ernest Meissonier, master of pompier art. The swathes of lace ruffles at the hem of the subject’s dress dominate the lower third of the canvas. This follows the sensuousness and attention to fabric paid by Boucher and Fragonard. Boucher’s (in)famous portrait of Louise O’Murphy travelled from Cologne to Frankfurt for the exhibition. The Renoirs come from around the world and include some masterpieces. It is nice to see Richard Guino’s bronzes, executed under supervision of the elderly Renoir, included in the display. Sculpture (and especially bas reliefs) were a feature of courtly decorative art, so it is understandable that Renoir was drawn to the field. Renoirs still-lifes are well paired with Chardin’s.

Essays by specialists discuss the drawings of Renoir, journal reproductions of Rococo, Renoir and decoration and Renoir’s portraiture and pastel painting of the Eighteenth Century. One text links Renoir, Charles Joshua Chaplin and Rococo art, looking at the distinction between decorative art and the art of the boudoir. Chaplin was noted for his Rococo brushwork and palette. Chaplin had also etched reproduction prints after Watteau. A fascinating article by Michela Bassu recounts the work done by Lionello Venturi towards a catalogue raisonné of Renoir, which remained unfinished and unpublished. Pages of notes, clipped illustrations and lists show Venturi gathering data and formulating assessments. Venturi (who wrote the first catalogue raisonné of Cézanne) considered Rococo art to be a key influence on Renoir. The footnotes and bibliography are extensive and Hatje Cantz have taken its usual care to ensure high production quality.  

Besides being a pleasurable book on Renoir – enthusiasts will not be disappointed by the illustrations – Renoir: Rococo Revival is a valuable source not only for those studying Renoir and the Impressionists, but also anyone seeking to understand the reception, and revival in fortunes of, Rococo art in Nineteenth Century France.

Alexander Eiling (ed.), Renoir: Rococo Revival, Hatje Cantz, 2022, cloth hardback, 328pp, 350 col./mono illus., €50, ISBN 978 3 7757 5134 6

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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

Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution

A central aspect of the art of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) is the adoption of ancient and non-Western visual languages and conventions. The exhibition Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution at the Albertina Museum, Vienna (17 September 2021-9 January 2022) set out to make clear what forms these affinities took in Modigliani’s art and compare those to primitive-inspired art by Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). All three were based in Paris. In short, the exhibition sought to explain how primitivism influenced the directions of leading Modernist artists in the École de Paris and also to look at the links between these three artists. This review is from the catalogue.

Modigliani arrived in Paris from his native Italy in 1906, intent on being a sculptor. The carved stone heads – some twenty – are evidence of his dedication to achieving a single ideal: a female head that would meld the sophistication of European beauty, the direct simplicity of non-European art and the mysterious dignity of ancient statuary. The artist required technical instruction on stone carving and so fell in with another newly arrived immigrant. Brâncuşi arrived in Paris from Romania in 1904. Modigliani was also friendly with Jacob Epstein, with whom he collaborated on a sculptural project in his early Paris years. Over the periods 1907-11 and 1912-4, Modigliani made many drawings of caryatids (some related the Epstein project), which translated into only a handful of sculptures.

One of the most striking aspects of Modigliani’s art is the incorporation of non-Western and archaic art. No viewer of his art can miss the references, albeit highly synthesised, to art generally considered outside of the European fine-art canon. These stylistic elements have been carried over into his paintings. Frontality, stiffness, reduction of modelling and lack of expression are all typical of primitive or archaic statuary and we see all of these is the art of primitive-influenced Modernists. The elongated faces and columnal necks are African innovations and recur often in Modigliani’s carved heads and portraits.  

Friedrich Teja Bach enumerates three reasons why Brâncuşi was so struck by encounters with African artefacts. Firstly, it liberated his imagination. Secondly, “the contemporary appreciation of African sculpture made him aware of the relevance of wood – something familiar to him from the arts and crafts of his Romanian homeland – as a material for modern sculpture of the context of the urban avant-garde. Third, as Sidney Geist has rightly pointed out, the abstractness of African sculpture, as found in some masks, probably made a significant contribution to opening for him a path to an abstract symbolic dimension.”

Archaic Greek carvings, Egyptian statuary and murals and other ancient art – in addition to non-European art – was of mutual interest to the pair. Brâncuşi worked in stone, wood, metal and plaster, whereas Modigliani worked only in stone. It was the irritation that the dust of carving caused his tuberculosis-weakened lungs that caused Modigliani to give up carving for painting by 1914. It seems that the friendship of the pair petered out at this time. Unlike Picasso, Modigliani displayed an attachment to primitive art throughout his career, starting in 1906 up to his premature death of tuberculosis. It is the case that Modigliani gradually moved away from primitive influences, especially as he strove for prettiness in his Nice period but one can discern the traits become more or less prominent between pictures.

Modigliani’s portrait painting Black Hair (1918) was bought or acquired by exchange by Picasso in the early 1940s. What exactly the relationship was between Modigliani and Picasso is disputed. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson (and Francis Carco) underplayed it, suggesting that Picasso avoided Modigliani, disliking his drunkenness. Richardson – like many prominent art historians – seemed to have a low opinion of Modigliani. The main charge against Modigliani is superficiality. The idea was Modigliani relied on a range of mannerisms (the long necks, the almond eyes, the long elegant nose) in place of open interaction with sitters and subjects. While that charge has validity, Modigliani’s adoption of the rough surfaces, unusually flattened facets and taut graphic lines – all common between Modernism and African carvings – counteract the tendency towards suaveness and the prioritisation of attractiveness.   

Picasso’s paintings from 1906-8 seem to parallel the art of Modigliani. The overwhelming flatness, drawn outlines, graphic shorthand replacing individualistic description, simplified forms, roughly painted facets making no concession to volumetric modelling – all of these are shared by Modigliani and Picasso. It is a moot point how many Picasso works – which seem to date slightly earlier than Modigliani’s, although dating to a precise month is not always possible – Modigliani saw. Many of these pieces were never exhibited during Picasso’s lifetime, so it was only through a studio visit that the Italian could have seen them.

Restellini attempts to reduce the role of debauchery and dissolution in the common view of Modigliani. He quotes the source of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s most committed collector and confidante, on the artist’s use of drugs. The author then adds, “Contrary to legend, Modigliani was neither an alcoholic nor a drug addict. He did not create under the influence of narcotics or drink: like a “seer,” he needed them to fathom the depths of the human soul, to penetrate the other and discover what lay hidden within himself: “Alcohol insulates us from the exterior, it helps us delve into our inner self, all while making use of the outside world.”

The influence of the West African traditions of mask making provided fresh alternatives for avant-garde artists. The radical simplification of the face and the use of symbols and flatness, all aligned with the tendencies already apparent in Post-Impressionist art. We can say that École de Paris artists found what they sought in non-Western art because many aspects of their existing art – and the preferences that they felt drawn towards – were present in the art they responded to. After all, had they been Symbolists such as Moreau, they might have been drawn to the ornate decoration of Khmer sculpture, intricate needlework of North American native textiles, the bas-reliefs of Coptic art, the vivid colours of India art or the narrative function of Aboriginal art. Instead, they found earthy colours, flatness, simplification and the incorporation of shells, feathers and nails in art of West Africa. What the admirers of primitivism found did not change the direct of their art; it confirmed the correctness of their existing trajectory (by antecedent endorsement) and accelerated their trajectory. It was a highly selective response to the breadth of material available.

Modigliani – like artists such as Picasso, Derain and Matisse – frequented the Musée d’Ethnographie at the Palais du Trocadéro, where he was captivated by art of Indochina, Africa and Oceania. At the time, the museum was disorganised, badly lit, overfull, inadequately labelled and unfriendly for any visitor wishing to gain information rather than simply immerse himself in the miasma of foreign cultures. Many readers will long for such a museum, repulsed by the excessive curation of politically active staff of recent days. Publications – especially with high quality illustrations – were less available in those days, which meant that a lot of artefacts that confronted visitors were utterly unexpected and alien. The jolt to the preconceptions of European artists was a shock that electrified and animated Modernist tendencies. Readers are advised to treat the discussion of primitivism by Restellini with caution. While it has some handy quotes from individuals from the lifetime of Modigliani, the historical analysis of primitivism is purely politically driven and of little worth.       

Modigliani and Picasso both exhibited at the Lyre et Palette exhibition, held at the studio of Émile Lejeune on 19 November 1916. This displayed modern art alongside 25 African carvings from the Paul Guillaume collection by work by Picasso, Modigliani, Kisling, Matisse and Julio Ortiz de Zarate, in a non-hierarchical approach. It was a recognition of the influence of non-European art and a sense of shared values and outlooks, to a degree.  

This exhibition brought together an impressive selection of paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs of lost sculptures. The quality of the art is excellent. There are plenty of drawings by Modigliani, especially those that anticipate sculptures. There is Picasso’s rough unfinished wooden carving of his mistress Fernande as a primeval Venus, made in Gósol in 1906. This is contrasted with a rarely seen gouache of 1905 of harlequin applying make-up, accompanied by a seated woman. At this time, Picasso was looking at ancient Iberian art and the African statues and masks at the Trocadéro. There are many seated portraits in elongated vertical format, which became a feature of his late output. Some of his best portraits are included, such as the profile portrait of his mistress Jeanne Hébuterne (1918) with extravagant curved neck a tapering hairdo. It is notably how few drawings by Modigliani use shading as a modelling technique. When shading appears, it is mainly to separate a figure from a ground, emphasise a line or indicate a block of tone. The paintings deploy modelling techniques, which are handled with a delicacy. The rough dabbing and scumbling of the 1914-5 era is turned into soft smudging in Nice, reminiscent of two local painters: Renoir and Bonnard.

Brâncuşi’s lost wooden figure of a child (The First Step (c. 1914)) is represented by a vintage photograph and a drawing. The sculptor radically simplified the form of an infant walking, following the approach found in West African carving. An oil painting of bathers (1908) by Derain presents art by another Modernist who was inspired by African figures at the Trocadéro. This painting seems as one with Picasso’s African period of 1907-8. The exhibition includes only a few non-Modern/non-Western works (West African carvings, Cycladic stone statuettes, a Khmer head), but there are numerous illustrations of other pieces, some of which may have been personally encountered by the three artists.

Considering today’s political climate, it is unfortunate (but entirely expected) that any approach to primitivism in art leaves the conventional curator tied up in agonised knots of shame. Every statement is preceded by elaborate unequivocal condemnations of the vast ignorance and shameful chauvinism of European artists, even those who demonstrated an intellectual and artistic engagement with non-Western art. “The predominant analysis of this artistic revolution, as articulated by Rubin in the 1980s and persisting until the end of the 1990s, is tinged with racism: this claims that the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas were more at ease in expressing emotion due to their “indigenous” and “primitive” nature.” The curators perform such elaborate obsequious performances to demonstrate their political virtue that they end up damning everyone who came before and failed to meet today’s standards. This leads to an impression that the artist subjects – who were sympathetic towards, and engaged by, non-Western art – are being tried for crimes against 2021’s left-liberal norms.

For those of us who require historical accounts of art that treat us as intelligent, empathetic and morally-informed individuals, we must firmly and clearly reject the presumptions of curators who often know less than their audiences about topics on which they opine.

Notwithstanding this reservation, the catalogue summarises well the inspiring spark that non-Western and archaic art provided for artists of the École de Paris.

Marc Restellini (ed.), Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution, Hirmer/Albertina, 2021, 216pp, 222 col. illus., £39.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3566 4

Suggested illus.

113, Picasso, female head, 1908, p. 178

114, Fang mask, p. 179

7, Brancusi, The First Step, 1914, p. 62

42, early cycladic figure, p. 102

43, Modigliani, female nude with crossed arms, 1911, p. 102

80, Modigliani, head, 1911-2, p. 146

21 April 2022

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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


The body laid bare: Art of Anatomy

Anatomical study, art and medicine are bound up with criminality. Not only were the bodies of criminals the few samples available to physicians for dissection in the centuries before 1800, teachers of anatomy relied on the activities of the Resurrection Men. These grave robbers, body thieves and murderers provided bodies for teaching hospitals and universities. Even as late at the mid-Sixteenth Century, anatomical dissection was a criminal activity, undertaken in secret by medical men and artists. Painter Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540) even resorted to graverobbing to prepare a Deposition of Christ. Famed anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) attended a hanging and quartering in Padua to observe the body dissected while still alive. Even after the threats of legal sanction and excommunication were lifted, the air of disreputability lingered around the practice of dissecting the dead. There is something shockingly intimate about the exposure of the hidden intricacies of the human body, as J.G. Ballard recalled in his memoirs The Kindness of Women (1991).    

To mark a wide-ranging exhibition of anatomical art and art inspired by anatomical illustration at the Getty Research Institute, Getty Center, Los Angles (22 February-10 July), the catalogue Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy has been published. The exhibition gathers together notable examples from the beginning of modern anatomy science in the Renaissance up to art of recent years. The new art is not compelling or distinguished, so – aside from noting that anatomy still inspires artists today – we shall pass over that and look at the anatomy art of the pre-Modernist era.

Present-day divisions between science, art and philosophy arose precisely out of the increase in specialised knowledge that came about through the work of anatomists in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. The explanations of what these scientists discovered required published descriptions with clear illustrations. What we find in these illustrations is a combination of precision and imaginative invention. Of these illustrations, those by Jan Steven van Calcar (c. 1515-1546) are most famous. His illustrations for Vesalius’s ground-breaking De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1543) – including views of a human skeleton seemingly contemplating a skull, a skeleton resting an elbow on a stave and a flayed man gesturing dramatically in a pastoral landscape – are widely celebrated. Today, these can be found on album sleeves, book covers and T-shirts. The book was the first printed anatomy book to fully integrate text and image.  

By placing anatomies in architectural and scenic surroundings in his illustrations, van Calcar gave his subjects liveliness and nobility. He also explicitly linked the physiological information presented with the ability of the artist to use this data in the creation of art that fused fact and imagination. As writers here note, these animated cadavers have the stoicism of martyrs in contemporaneous sacred paintings, with their eyes cast upward to heaven as their mortal forms are scourged. Écorchés (French: flayed cadavers) stand nonchalantly, their skins draped over an outstretched arm. Another practice was anatomia all’antica (Italian, “anatomy after the antique”). This consisted of creating anatomically-exposed versions of famous antique statues, such as the Borghese Gladiator, the Discobolus and others, showing the master of the ancients and endowing dissection with the authority of art. Such poses recreated sometimes exposed shortcomings of the ancient sculptors, as they failed to incorporate bunched muscles or taut tendons.

Illustrations by Jan Wandelaar (1690-1759) presented flayed figures standing in groves with fragments of antique masonry at their sides. At the other end of the spectrum, some views filled empty space with assorted details, using the printing plate surface as efficiently (if inelegantly) as possible. 

These illustrations became as important for other artists as they did for students of medicine. As figures in paintings became more anatomical sound, so scientific illustrations became elaborate, with mises-en-scènes becoming pictures within which the dissected body acted as still-life or dramatic character. Rembrandt’s two anatomy-lesson paintings are scenes of professional men at work (as seen in similar paintings by him of jewellers, scholars and burghers) but they also differ little from the complex frontispieces found in anatomy textbooks. On occasion, physicians were competent enough as artists to draw the illustrations for their own texts. New illustration techniques had to be conceived of by anatomical artists in order to depict on a page the nature of a complex multi-layered three-dimensional organism. 

Some of the reproduced images are startling. One print by Cornelis Huyberts (1669/70-c. 1712) shows the skeletons of foetuses posed on a stand around an artful pile of pebbles and twigs. One has a feather fixed to its skull. Such macabre dioramas were – in real life – a staple of curiosity cabinets and would become features of travelling shows of oddities in following centuries, dying out only the last decades of the Twentieth Century. This irreverent (even jocular) attitude towards the dead (especially children) will leave some with modern sensibilities uneasy. Other images are so peculiar it is hard to know what to make of them. Only the field of comparative anatomy could give rise to an illustration entitled The penis and testicles of a young boy, the skin from the hand of a young boy, a bundle of pubic hair, and three chicken eggs (1703). (Salvador Dalí would have relished such a title.) In an illustration from William Hunter’s giant anatomy book, a curled late-term foetus is exposed in the womb of his dead mother – a poignantly pitiful image.

Some obscurities were deliberate. In some books, genitals were not reproduced. Descriptions of female genitals were sometimes given in Latin, excluding the uneducated. In one anatomy book, ovine reproductive organs substituted human ones, which were considered too indecent. 

This book includes essays from top-level specialists on topics such as illustration of anatomy, anatomy books, antiquity and others. The catalogue section has individual works – mainly illustrative prints that have detailed discussion facing full-page images. The development of anatomical art is fleshed out – if you’ll pardon the pun – in these commentary texts that explain the purpose and significance of these selected art works. Studying this field, we can see the changing technology of reprographics. In the Sixteenth Century illustrations were made by carving designs from wooden blocks, soon after can engravings and etchings in copper sheets. Readers will be impressed at the level of detail and care in these prints, with the dense curvilinear cross-hatching describing the muscles, tendons and bones of the body. Mezzotint (where shade is indicated through stippling of printing plates) allowed colour printing, something that was later achieved much more easily through lithographic printing. Such skills have almost disappeared in art. Later developments include the inclusion of flaps and fold-outs.

This catalogue is a welcome and engrossing testimony to the nearly lost art of both anatomy illustration. The book contains numerous illustrations of anatomical illustration, casts, scenes of academy studios, three-dimensional coloured models with moveable parts and some early photographs. The bibliography, footnotes and index will assist researchers.

Monique Kornell, with Thisbe Gensler, Naoko Takahatake, Erin Travers, Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy, Getty Research Institute, 1 March 2022, 248 pages, 8 x 11 inches, 163 col. illus., hardcover, $50, ISBN 978-1-60606-769-7  

(c) Alexander Adams 2022

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

Roger Raveel, Belgian proto-Pop artist

[Image: Roger Raveel, Woman with Make-up Mirror, 1953, Collection of the Flemish Community/Roger Raveel Museum © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on hardboard, 122 × 88 cm]

Roger Raveel (1921-2013) was one leading artists of Belgian Modernism. His pungently coloured, simplified, schematic paintings of figures and still-lifes are startlingly modern. He has been acclaimed as an important proto-Pop artist. By 1948, Raveel was already juxtaposing passages of volumetric modelling and flat strong colour. Linear forms emphasise the artificiality of a picture and the seeming arbitrariness of visual languages. The boisterous clash in styles and modes forms a precursor to not only Pop Art but Post-Modernism. His pictures still seem powerfully original and fresh, lacking the consumer culture references that date Pop Art.

This catalogue is for the 2021 centenary exhibition at BOZAR (Brussels, 18 April-21 July 2021), including about 120 art works from all periods of Raveel’s output. This edition of the catalogue is a trilingual publication in Dutch, French and English, with the English text prioritised. The catalogue is an excellent survey of Raveel corpus, including a chronology and a good selection of colour plates. The English text will make this catalogue a valuable resource for non-Belgians, permitting them to acquaint themselves with this artist.

Raveel was born in Machelen-aan-de-Leie, Flanders and remain there most of his life, a path not followed by most ambitious Belgian artists, who tended to converge on Brussels or Ostend. Raveel studied art at Deinze and Ghent over 1933-45, his studied disrupted by war. His teacher recommended that Raveel move away from Belgian Expressionism towards realism. Henceforward, his palette brightened and realism tended to be Raveel’s stylistic touchstone, as he incorporated other elements and influences throughout the years. The painter destroyed many of his paintings from the 1930s and early-mid-1940s.

There is a case to be made that the war and subsequent occupation – which Raveel saw first-hand – destroyed the idea of national and regional isolation and a concomitant attachment localism in artistic terms. The world intrudes. The heterodox nature of Raveel’s post-war art is forcefully heterogenous and non-regional. The paintings of the late 1940s could be seen as naïve or simplified. Raveel rejected his previous use of atmospheric colour in favour of local colour. The views of kitchens and local fields are deliberately homely and content. Only in 1950, do we see other aspects intrude – muted colour and objects reduced to the point of ambiguity.

 In 1948, Raveel married Zulma De Nijs. They lived in modest circumstances, in the centre of their small town. Lack of resources meant Raveel materials were limited, forcing him to improvise and perhaps instigating his use of found materials. In the early Fifties Raveel came into the orbit of CoBrA and had contact with members. The directness (both thematic and stylistic), assertiveness and accessibility of these artists lined up with Raveel’s temperament. Raveel never joined the movement but some of his painting in the 50s and 60s shares much in common with these artists. There are more than a few parallels between Raveel and Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet’s late linear paintings, with bold patterns and reduced palette, are close to Raveel’s paintings.

[Image: Roger Raveel, Man, Bucket, etc., 1967, Private collection © Raveel – MDM, Oil on canvas, 150 × 120 cm]

Over the period 1956-62, Raveel turns to almost completely abstraction in his production. The bodies and buildings are replaced by surfaces, simple forms, brushwork, patches of strong colour, repeated marks. These are not inert or hollow – the painted forms are like handles that would be used to manipulate things but the things themselves are gone, leaving only the handles. The stakes are lowered – the viewer cannot engage deeply, protest a proposition, take away in insight into lived reality. As a result, these are the least satisfactory of Raveel’s output.  Commencing again in 1962, recognisable forms return amidst abstract surfaces. Geometric forms intervene, disrupting, displacing and obscuring figural depictions. The patterns appear on the clothing and replace the heads of the working men.

The working man, in cap and suit of matching colour/material becomes a staple figure in Raveel’s paintings. At once an evocation of the average Belgian labourer and human presence in everyday settings, the figure rarely has a face and retains a degree of mystery, anonymity and a touch of the sinister. The head is often replaced by an area of abstraction or pattern Homely and unhomely (Heimlich and unheimlich) simultaneously, the working man becomes Raveel’s prime actor, even if he never became an alter ego. It is possible that these figures represent the artist’s father, who worked in the flax trade. That oddness adds a vital touch to Raveel’s art, which could become whimsical or flippant or lightweight. Raveel is rarely pedestrian. Perhaps his weakest work are the abstracts, where we enter territory that is arbitrary and vacant.

Raveel’s interiors animate the dazzling Modernist world of De Stijl, with figures peopling these notional utopian places. This renders them accessible, banal, subject to entropy and decay. The faded, tinged quality of past projected utopias is one of the aspects that turn shimmering pristine ideals into compromised, discarded and discredited propositions. This is the essence of the melancholy of the Modern. Raveel’s art is not bleak but it has this sense of loss. The instances of alienation are matched by the scenes of domestic contentment – the cat asleep on the chair, the seated figure, the garden view from the window. Raveel is not sceptical of Modernism as such, more playful and inquiring; he proposes that Modernism is real life (figures transformed into characters in a Modernist painting-cum-architectural-setting) and real life incorporates Modernism (in the form of domestic furniture and decoration). The language in his paintings has many modes, stylistic and tonal. That plastic diversity and spirit of inquiry keeps Raveel’s art lively, laconic, unsettled. Father in a Modern Emptiness (1980) is a very adept and appealing example of this contrast between personal and familial material and the somewhat chilly, anti-human content of Modernist art, architecture and furniture.        

[Image: Roger Raveel, Father in a Modern Emptiness, 1980, Private collection © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on canvas, 145 × 195 cm]

The Surrealism of Magritte – especially the incorporation of mundane realities, everyday life and figures as ciphers – clearly led to the atmosphere and some of the visual repertoire of Raveel. The standing figures of men have an oblique quality we find in Magritte. Magritte was the most prominent of Belgian artists in the 1950s and 1960s, so it is natural that Raveel would have seen a lot of his paintings. The Surrealist practice (most clearly seen in Francis Picabia’s combine paintings) of including actual objects in paintings became characteristic of Raveel. He included objects such as doors, bicycle wheels, windows, mirrors and curtains in his combine paintings. Robert Rauschenberg’s combines precede them by about five years. Raveel saw Rauschenberg’s combines at an exhibition in Bern, in 1962. One piece by Raveel includes a birdcage with a pigeon and another one has a cage with canaries. Raveel responded strongly to Pop Art and he is most often categorised as a Pop artist. Actually, by the time that Pop art became known in Belgium, Raveel had already developed elements that were Pop, which is why is viewed as proto-Pop. In Raveel’s art, there is a fusion of styles and influences. A portrait drawing of the head of a worker (1952) is partly realist, highly stylised and echoes the early drawings of Van Gogh, whom Raveel admired. The heavy outlines of forms is common throughout all of Raveel’s mature output. Raveel’s domestic scenes combining description and blank grounds recalls Hockney of the 1960s and 1970s. The painterly rounded forms and strong colour of Raveel’s interiors and landscapes will remind British viewers of the paintings of David Hockney from the 1980s and 1990s. The pair met at least once, in 1973; a photograph of them is illustrated in the catalogue. Raveel’s art gained added relevance in the 1980s, when the New Figuration and Neo-Expressionism movements returned to painting the figure, expressive paint use and absence of irony to the centre of art production.

In 1960, Raveel began teaching at the Municipal Academy, Deinze and the use of a loaned studio at the local school allowed him to make work of a greater size. He also became more involved in printmaking at this time. in 1966, Raveel was commissioned to paint murals in the basement of Beervelde Castle, near Ghent, which he painted from 1966 to 1967 in collaboration with Raoul De Keyser, Etienne Elias and Reinier Lucassen. Zulma handled the couple’s finances; the Raveels could afford to move to a larger modern house by 1968, the year the artist represented Belgium at the Venice Biennale. The honours and exhibitions only increased. In 1999, the Roger Raveel Museum opened in Machelen-aan-de-Leie. In 2009 Zulma died; Raveel remarried in 2011. In 2013, Raveel died in Deinze, at the age of 91.

The 2021 exhibition relied heavily on the comprehensive collection of Roger Raveel Museum and commences with a 1941 landscape: modest, mundane, muted in coloration, realist in execution. By 1948, the rejection of realism is apparent in the faux naïf treatment of farm animals and reduced palette. The catalogue is arranged by subject. Raveel made self-portraits that range from Flemish Expressionism to linear-proto-Pop to 1970s Pop, as well as images with the face or head replaced by blank zones. The latest painting in the exhibition is dated 1995. Some of Raveel’s best known paintings are included and his murals are illustrated. His famous Man with Wire in Garden (1952-3) is a welcome inclusion.

[Image: Roger Raveel, Man with Wire in Garden, 1952–53, Collection of the Flemish Community/Roger Raveel Museum © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on paper on plywood, 75.5 × 91 cm]

The motif was used in many drawings, paintings and prints. It exemplified the use of the working-man figure, abstracted head, simplified landscape and reference to Raveel’s domestic situation. Woman with Make-up Mirror (1953) and Man Bucket, etc. (1967) are celebrated examples of his horizontally striped figures engaging in everyday activities. A drawing from 1950 shows Raveel admiration for Van Gogh. The coffee pot is drawn like Van Gogh; the handling of perspective and the revolver on the table are influenced by children’s art.

The combines with curtains and windows reach deep into art history, the trompe-l’œil of the Renaissance and Baroque. The mirror pieces play with incorporating the viewer’s image into the painting. Alone in the Backyard (1967) has the mirror in the centre, positioning the viewer’s reflection in a bare yard in Caulfield-style drawn images, with a colourful sliver of landscape confined to one corner. An extension of this was a street-vendor’s cart, clad in mirror cube, partially overpainted. Raveel did a number of street performances, bringing his paintings into non-gallery settings and eliciting public responses. Regrettably, there is not much written material in the catalogue discussing his murals.

Apart from the cart, no sculpture per se is presented. The exhibition includes paintings, combines and drawings but no prints. Understandably, for a survey retrospective, supplementary material such as documents (sketchbooks, letters, posters) are virtually omitted from the catalogue. Clearly, the aim of the catalogue is to spread knowledge of Raveel outside of the Low Countries, and the editors have made the right decision. This is a broad survey of Raveel, full of wonderful images and with a few introductory essays and a handy chronology. The art is very enjoyable and the design of the catalogue is thoughtful and easy to negotiate. Recommended for any fans of Low Countries art, Pop Art and New Figuration.   

Roger Raveel Museum website: https://www.rogerraveelmuseum.be/

Franz W. Kaiser, Kurt De Boodt, Paul Demets, Ann Geeraerts, Marie Claes, Roger Raveel: Retrospective, BOZAR/Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), hardback, 224pp, fully illus., text English, French, Dutch, €34.95, ISBN 978-0-300-25994-0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

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


Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Algers

[Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O), 1955, Privatsammlung
© Bridgeman Images / Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021]

This publication is a catalogue for an exhibition in Berlin (Museum Berggruen/Nationalgalerie, Berlin). The review is from the catalogue.

In 1954 Picasso began a series of variants of Eugene Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Alger (1834). This series was apparently prompted by three proximate causes. Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s new mistress and future wife, reminded him of a figure in Delacroix’s painting; the news coverage of the Algerian civil war kept Algeria in the public’s attention. The death of Matisse – the only contemporary artist that Picasso considered a true equal and rival – left Picasso in search of artists that he considered historical peers. Matisse (as was Delacroix) a genuine Orientalist. Matisse (unlike Picasso) had visited North Africa to paint, thus he had had memories and insights of the Orient that Picasso did not have. Matisse painted odalisques long after his trips to North Africa. One recurrent motif of Matisse’s (while residing in Nice in the 1920s) were of French models in harem pants, reclining in the painter’s hotel room. This exhibition included nine of these, plus art by Delacroix, Ingres, Matisse, Manet and others. The graphics by Picasso include drawings and prints. The exhibition includes art by contemporary Algerian artists.

[Henri Fantin-Latour, Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, d’après Eugène
Delacroix (Frauen von Algier in ihrem Gemach, nach Eugène Delacroix), 1875/76, Musée du
Louvre, Musée national Eugène Delacroix, Paris, © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand
Palais / Harry Bréjat]

Delacroix executed his painting in 1834, following his return from North Africa. It shows three women in an apartment (the artist made a point of calling it an “apartment”, not a harem) with a black servant. The walls are tiled and the floor covered with rugs. The figures sit around a ceramic brazier and a hookah pipe. Delacroix did several versions, including a print, which reduced the scene to two figures, one baring her breasts. Delacroix’s paintings (including street scenes and a Jewish wedding) became touchstones for both Orientalists and radicals. The Orientalists appreciated the subjects and the authenticity; the radicals admired the creativity and handling.

[Henri Matisse, Odalisque au coffret rouge (Odaliske mit roter Schatulle), 1927,
Musée Matisse, Nice. Legs de Madame Henri Matisse, 1960 © François Fernandez /
Succession H. Matisse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021]

Over the winter of 1954-5, Picasso painted 15 oil-on-canvas variants (given letters A to O) and made supplementary pictures. Picasso turned Delacroix’s chaste women in nude sexual athletes, twisting like tops. Poses are like those in the paintings and drawings are compared to a sequence of thumbnail sketches the young Picasso had drawn in 1905. The Algeriennes’ angular flat forms are bent like cardboard echo the planar sculptures Picasso was making at the time. While there is a sexual dimension to the variants, it seems more of a test of ability, imagination and audacity – taking on one of the masterworks of a great masters of French art.

[Eugène Delacroix, Deux femmes arabes assises (Zwei sitzende arabische Frauen),
ca.1832/34, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, ParisPhoto, © RMNGrand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado]

The initial versions are small – obviously started on blank canvases that were just to hand. The lines are curving. The figures’ positions are accurate to the original but they are nude. The four figures are reduced to three occasionally because Picasso tended to enlarge the figures, which meant he could not accommodate four figures in a painting. By canvas C, the figure on the right in reclining on her back. The lines become straighter. The later versions (H-M) are in grisaille, like ink wash drawings. These are probably the most satisfying because they tamp down the sexual provocation and the play of lines, forms and facets replaces the strident colours. Two are single figure studies. The final version is the most complete and settled. It balances the sensuality of the setting with the invention of Picasso and the harmonious colour combinations. A very useful double-page spread shows all of the paintings in sequence and in proportionate size.

This journey was recapitulated in four states of a lithograph made in 1955. His sketches show him wrestling with the figures and design, trying to emphasise this or that aspect. Some portraits of Jacqueline dressed as an Algerian show Picasso forcefully placing his mistress in the history of Orientalist art and the grand tradition of French painting. The famous linocut after a Cranach portrait is another venture into the variant territory, which Picasso had been mining since at least his Poussin variant of 1944. Of course, all artists have produced copies of older art as part of their apprenticeships and learning their craft. Academic artists and students in France often made copies that were sold to the state, which allocated them to regional museums. Picasso had many copies in his youth. He touched on pastiche in the 1900s with El Greco, then again in the 1910s with Ingres’s portraits and then again in 1930s with parodies of Van Gogh and El Greco. By the time of the Poussin variant of 1944, Picasso saw the Old Masters as a subject in themselves. More precisely, he saw himself responding to the Old Masters in a self-reflective, ironic manner as subject matter. That multi-processed production of masterpieces about masterpieces (with a critical apparatus, audience and a collector base ready to adulate the products without demur) detached Picasso from any subject other than himself.

[Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d’Alger (Version L), 1955, © Staatliche Museen zu
Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Roman März / Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021]

Whatever the value of the series, it marked a slump in Picasso’s creativity. It was followed by variations after Las Meninas (1957), Cranach portraits (1958), Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1960-1), Rape of the Sabine Women (1962) and others. Picasso entertained himself with these dialogues but they are of little value to others. Paradoxically, these tussles with the great masters indicate a lack of serious of Picasso’s part. Imagine Degas, Poussin or Manet spending months on making fanciful variations of old art in Picasso’s method. These painters did take up old art and made it new. Manet completely reimagined a Raphael composition as Déjeuner sur l’herbe, imbuing it with new meaning and extra significance. It commented on the sex politics of his age, referring obliquely to a source that viewers did not need to know in order to appreciate Manet’s painting. Picasso’s variants after Déjeuner sur l’herbe imbue the source with no new meaning and far from matching (or illuminating) the subject, Picasso’s art shows his weakness. His self-image as a great impaired his ability to make meaningful art and tackle subjects outside of himself.

Just as Picasso worked after Delacroix, so other artists worked after Picasso. The most notable example is Roy Lichtenstein’s Femme d’Alger (1963) a Pop art version of a single seated figure by Picasso. The model was a combination of versions K and L, flattened, schematised and colourised. Areas of solid tone and dotted tone in primary colours. It is an indirect portrait of Picasso as iconic creator of Modernist art, not intended to relate to Delacroix or Algeria.

The catalogue includes various essays on the production of Picasso’s series (excerpts of Leo Steinberg’s 1972 text), the reception of the series and Algerian responses to the art. The selection of art is limited but relevant. This catalogue is ideal for Picasso fans and those researching the production and reception of Orientalism in the modern era.

Gabriel Montua, Anna Wegenschimmel (eds.), Picasso & Les Femmes d’Algers, Hirmer, 2021, hardback, 192pp, 130 col. illus., German/French/English text, £39.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3584 8

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Paul Delvaux: The Man who Loved Trains

Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) is best known as the painter of female nudes, but his second most favoured motif was the train and railway station. So often did Delvaux paint trains and stations that he has become known in some quarters as a “train-station painter”. Indeed, when the curator of Museum Delvaux (at St-Idesbald, on the Flanders coast) discussed visitors with a British art historian, he noted that the majority of British visitors were train enthusiasts rather than art connoisseurs.  

In the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, railways developed extensively across Belgium, accelerated by – and aiding – in the country’s advanced heavy industries of coal, iron and textile production. Anyone growing up in the Edwardian age, as Delvaux did, would have been aware of the great freedom train travel offered all but the very poorest. The network allowed one to reach the very edges of civilisation from one’s home district, had one the fare. Trains, railways and railway stations became nodes in the romantic imagination – highways to adventure, sophisticated metropolises, distant lands and amorous intrigues.

Camille Brasseur is the scientific director of collections at Fondation Paul Delvaux, St.-Idesbald. She has combed Delvaux’s archives, museum and art works, piecing together Delvaux’s deep fascination for trains. Brasseur outlines Delvaux’s student days and his early career, moving between realism and Impressionism. At times, Delvaux felt the tug of Symbolism, classicism and fantastic art – not least the illustrations of Jules Vernes novels – which gave him a sense that art could be more than a range of styles depicting the real.

Train stations appear in Delvaux’s paintings in 1921. They are accurate depictions of stations in central Brussels, such as Gare du Quartier-Léopold and Gare du Luxembourg. He adopted mainly high viewpoints (on bridges) and concentrated on freight carriages. The attention he paid to the rail workers (labourers and freight handlers rather than guards) puts him in the tradition of Constantin Meunier and the social realists. The evening light, smoke haze and palette overwhelmed by earth hues, all contributed to a stylistic correlation to social realism, though Delvaux never had a commitment to depicting the lives of the working class with a view to disseminating information about their plight or effecting political change. Delvaux was never a socially engaged artist.

In the 1930s, Delvaux made views of rural stations near Huy, the region of his birth. “Often going against traditional clichés, Delvaux chooses not to represent the station façades, but is interested instead in the interior views and the circulation of the machines. The equipment represented essentially consists of wagons and locomotives used for the transportation of goods.” Delvaux’s attention was captured by the least poetic and picaresque aspects of railway stations: the tracks, shunting yards, signals and freight wagons. The romance of travel and the opportunity for human comedy and drama in the form of interactions between passengers is entirely absent from these pictures.

When train stations reappeared in Delvaux’s art, it was in the late 1940s, at a point when Delvaux had established his Surrealist-Symbolist dreamlike repertoire and clearer style and palette. This time the stations foyers and waiting rooms were the settings for scenes occupied by nude women. The dirt and danger of clinker, smoke and heavy machinery has been banished; instead, belle-époque interiors function as theatrical sets for reveries of strange incongruity and erotic contemplation.

Brasseur notes that Delvaux’s house in Boitsfort (bought in 1954) was close to the station and railway (the Brussels-Namur line) and that his subsequent paintings used motifs that were drawn from life. Delvaux’s engines, wagons and signals were accurate and can be found in contemporary photographs or preserved items. Blueprints of wagons attest to Delvaux zeal for correctness. Vintage postcards provide evidence on how Delvaux adapted the locales to the necessities of his art. In the 1950s, the exterior of provincial stations started to feature in settings. The painter reduced the emotional intensity and spatial concentration by opening up his paintings. No longer are interiors and platforms under roofs central; instead, we are outside, in small country towns at night, under empty, cloudless skies, inhabiting sparsely populated squares or generously broad paths. The compositions become more diffuse. We get views across train tracks that run parallel to the picture plane.

The Last Wagon (1975) was one of the few Delvaux paintings set inside a train. The platforms, lamps and awnings of railways of Delvaux’s youth – he always preferred the old to the recent – appear detached from their origins in many scenes, the way in dreams objects become separated from their sources. Reproduced in this book are photographs of lanterns, signals, buildings and stations that Delvaux used in his pictures. His collection of authentic objects and models is viewable in his museum at St-Idesbald. Some of it is reproduced here.

It was to be expected that, considering Delvaux’s attachment to trains and his success, he would be commissioned to produce paintings for the national rail network in Belgium. The four paintings of 1963 are not his best nor most imaginative, but they form a set that will please rail enthusiasts. They were reproduced as stamps. He was commissioned to produce a great mural for the casino at Knokke, called The Legendary Journey (1973-4), which featured a railway. In 1984, Delvaux was made honorary stationmaster of St-Idesbald station. A peculiar omission – the only fault in this fine and thorough book – is the failure to discuss Delvaux’s mural for La Bourse metro station, Brussels, executed in 1978. Although it depicts trams rather than trains, it is the last flourishing in his art of track-based-transport imagery.

Overall, this book forms an excellent explanation of the role and extent of railway and train imagery Delvaux’s art. It also comprises a good discussion of Delvaux as a whole. Considering the dearth of good commentary in English on this artist, Brasseur’s contribution is an essential purchase for all Anglophone fans of Delvaux’s art.

Camille Brasseur, Paul Delvaux: The Man Who Loved Trains, Snoeck, 2019, 240pp, 200 illus., hardback, €34, ISBN 978 9 461 615732. English edition, French and Dutch editions available.

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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


Signac and the Independents

The exhibition Signac and the Indépendants (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) gives a cross-section of French art in the 1880-1940 period. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. This exhibition of the collection of Gilles Genty was organised around the subject of the Indépendants exhibition. The collection of Gilles Genty is a selection of avant-garde French and Belgian art from the 1880s to World War II. The collection follows the central line of avant-garde art that is preferred by art historians: Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism (Divisionism/Pointillism), Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism.

Paul Signac (1863-1935) founded the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in 1884 as means of avant-garde artists exhibiting outside of the academy. From 1908 to 1934 Signac was president of the group. It drew its inspiration from the independent exhibitions of the Impressionists (commenced 1874) and shared a number of artists with those displays. The annual exhibitions became the focal point for controversy regarding new art. Over the years it featured art by the Symbolists, Nabis, Fauves, Expressionists, Salon Cubists, Orphists, Dadaists and the École de Paris. Matisse made his name for his Fauvist paintings exhibited with the group.

Signac was a Divisionist or Pointillist, a close associate of Seurat and the leading proponent of the style following Seurat’s early death in 1891. Signac was wedded to Pointillism from 1884 until the end of his life. There are plausible suggestions that Signac’s political anarchism influenced his commitment to Pointillism, with its conception of individual marks playing their parts in a harmonious whole. (Pointillists sometimes believed in the inclusion of all parts of a spectrum in a painting.) Pissarro’s anarchism contributed in his adoption of “scientific” Pointillism as a companion to the “scientific” social solution of anarchism as a cure for social ills. Pissarro was doyen of artist-anarchists and the Neo-Impressionists.

As the Salon accepted and absorbed the avant-garde following a lag, so artists transferred their loyalty from the Indépendants to the more lucrative and highly attended. Both the Indépendants and the Impressionists resented artists defecting. (Manet was not eligible for the Impressionist exhibitions because he continued to exhibit at the Salon.) Signac commented, “For twenty years now, a few comrades and I have been running the Salon des Indépendants, where every artist has been free to exhibit what he liked and how he liked. Now, few of them stay with us! They prefer to be rejected or to reject others from exhibitions based on the detestable principle of Authority. (Société des Artistes Français, Société Nationale, Salon d’Automne). Too bad for the spineless!”

Among the art included are pictures by Impressionists Eva Gonzalès and Berthe Morisot, with a masterpiece by the former. The Sparrow (c. 1865-70) is a fine pastel, delicately made and sympathetically observed. It shows a bust in profile of the artist’s sister as a Roman woman holding a sparrow. It dates from her apprenticeship years, when she studied under Charles Chaplin, an academic painter.

Maximilien Luce was a social realist and anarchist who portrayed the industrial workers of Wallonia and scenes of steelworks and collieries on the Sambre river at Charleroi. (Constant Meunier – not part of this collection – took similar topics for his sculpture and paintings.) Luce became president of the Indépendants on Signac’s retirement. Luce’s oval-format views of Paris are pretty and would have considerable appeal if they were better known.

The Belgians who exhibited at the Indépendants included Spilliaert, Van Rysselberghe, Willy Finch, Khnopff and others. (Ensor is absent here.) Odilon Redon is represented by a large number of pastels and prints, typical of his output. It is useful to have pieces by Maurice Denis, who was an intermittently accomplished painter. There are artists who are not often covered in publications, such as Pointillist Achille Laugé, whose paintings are attractive – the best of the three shown here is a landscape. Louis Hayet is a lightweight painter of theatre interiors. Paul-Élie Ransom is a minor Nabi and involved in the religious syncretism; he is harsh colourist and unoriginal. Louis Valtat’s Woman with Fox Stole (1897-8) is a fine picture, crackling with energy. The proto-Fauvist brushwork and Cloissoniste outlines create a powerful image with the motif balanced by a swirling background. A good marine by him suggests there is more pictures worth attention, outweighing a few weaker Valtat pictures here. A curiosity is a group of early drawings by Claude-Émile Schuffenecker, an artist best known as a forger of Van Gogh than as an artist under his own recognisance. They are illustrations (from c. 1881 to 1885) of everyday scenes of Parisian life, competent, unambitious and somewhat banal.  Gauguin, Maillol, Derain and Braque are represented by minor works. Considering the rarity and cost of Seurat’s paintings, the drawings fill in. However, Seurat’s remarkable drawings are better than most artists’ best paintings.

There is a broad section on posters with classic poster artists. It is striking how these artists fall into different groups and movements yet could translate their art into commercial designs: Toulouse-Lautrec, Denis (Post-Impressionism), Bonnard, Vallotton (Nabi), Bottini (Cosmopolitan Realism), Grasset, Mucha, Steinlen (Art Nouveau). Jules Chéret defies classification. Although classified as Art Nouveau, Chéret syncretic style drew from many sources. His preference for facets and angles over curves makes his style not entirely compatible with Art Nouveau. It seems his simplified shapes may have influenced Seurat’s later depiction of figures.    

The Nabis were a group of Post-Impressionist artists who were deeply influenced by Japanese art, Gauguin and were committed to making art from street life and domesticity, especially in print format. All the leading members are included in this exhibition: Vuillard, Bonnard, Roussel, Riviere and Vallotton. The collection of art by Félix Vallotton is large and representative. The woodcuts (commenced 1891) are justly celebrated. The inclusion of a preparatory drawing for the 1897 print The Symphony is a pleasing addition to the prints themselves. Vallotton’s 1899 marriage gave him financial security and allowed him to pursue his ambitions. In 1901 he ceased making woodcuts and devoted himself to making oil paintings, principally nudes, landscapes and still-lifes. War (1915-6) was an exceptional return to the medium of woodcut. It was a suite of prints made to support the military effort of France. They are unsuccessful. Vallotton’s prints were not suitable for grave subjects or action and all fall flat.

The Bonnard works are mainly early Nabi graphics, including posters. There are some small marines with the skies in distinct horizontal strips. The dabbing of varying colours comes from Impressionism but Bonnard’s technique rejects the tenets of Impressionism. The École de Paris works by Matisse, Marcoussis, Modigliani, Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Maurice de Vlaminck, Albert Marquet and others are generally bagatelles. Marie Laurencin is never anything more than vapid; Othon Friesz is irredeemably third rate. Raoul Dufy is decorative and nothing more.  

There is a set of Picasso’s Saltimbanques prints. Produced from 1904 to 1905 and editioned in 1913, during the artist’s Blue and Rose periods. These 14 prints are inconsistent; the finish and detail of the prints varies dramatically and it is clear Picasso did not conceive of the group as having any connecting thread other than the subjects that attracted him at the time: portraits, acrobats, the poor, primitive people.  

This catalogue is full of information on the Salon des Indépendants and the avant-garde in Paris at a critical time. There are plenty of surprises. The biographies and bibliography are useful for specialist researchers, particularly anyone studying Neo-Impressionism and Pointillism.

Gilles Genty (ed.), Signac and the Indépendants, Hazan/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (distr. Yale), 2020, hardback, 384pp, 550 illus., $55, ISBN 978 0 300 25 1982 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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


Italian Novecento painting

Carrà - Marina 50x70 1941

[Image: Carlo Carra, Marine (1941), oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm. Courtesy of Tornabuoni Art]

This exhibition catalogue accompanied an exhibition at Tornabuoni Art, London (12 February-18 April 2020). This review is from the catalogue.

The 1920 to 1950 was an eventful period in Italian history. It saw the aftermath of World War I, the rise of Fascism, World War II, military occupation and defeat, a resurgence in Communist sympathy and the beginning of economic reconstruction. In the plastic arts, there were conflicting tendencies. The Futurist movement – with its bellicosity, militarism and adulation of technology – was discredited following the horrors of World War I. The rappel de l’ordre (call to order or return to order) was a movement advocating a return to realism, traditionalism and regional/national schools of art, mainly French. This movement of traditional figurative art (inflected by Modernism) derived from Metaphysical Art was called Novecento (“Twentieth Century”).

This exhibition selects art by leading Italian painters from the inter-war period. The curators describe critic Margherita Sarfatti (who was also Mussolini’s lover and biographer) as a lynchpin to the Novecento group, following its inaugural exhibition in 1922 at Galleria Pesaro, Milan. Prominent painters in Novecento were Giacomo Balla, Pompeo Borra, Anselmo Bucci, Achille Funi, Gian Emilio Malerba, Ubaldo Oppi, Fortunato Depero, Massimo Campigli, Carrà, Felice Casorati, de Chirico, Filippo De Pisis, Piero Marussig, Morandi, René Paresce, Ottone Rosai, Gino Severini, Mario Sironi, Ardengo Soffici, Mario Tozzi and others. Some of these were former Futurists. The Futurists were politically aligned to Fascism. Balla dropped his commitment to Futurist aesthetics in order to follow Fascism. Severini turned from Futurism to Cubism during World War I and then briefly to Neoclassicism before blending Cubist and Neoclassical styles and elements. Severini amalgams are some of the satisfactory painting in this exhibition. Marinetti – leading Futurist theorist – was not a practicing artist.

Writer Flavia Frigeri claims: “[…] the style of the works on view was far from unified. Heterogeneity was, in fact, at the heart of the Novecento project.” She cites Sironi claiming that the primary original figures in Novecento were independent painters who formed a loose alliance and that Novecentismo style only came later, with minor painters forming a style. However, even in these major artists in this exhibition, we can detect certain consistencies. The chief subjects of Novecento featured in this exhibition are landscapes, still-lifes, portraits and nudes (mainly female). Women are portrayed as passive. Most of the paintings of women in this exhibition are nudes, excluding the many portraits and maternities that can be found in exhibitions of the time. Novecento paintings are distinguished by their simplicity, clarity and solidity and the utilisation of the flat picture plane and inclusion of Cubist aspects (pattern, abstraction, planar aspects). There is a deliberate attempt to make art that was recognisably Italian and also timeless, avoiding references to contemporary life. We can discern a number of specific precursors, such as the portraits of women by Camille Corot portraits, Pablo Picasso (of his pre-Cubist and Neoclassical periods), Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and the Italian Primitives. Sarfatti cast Novecento as aspiring to the Quattrocento. Novecento painting has the restrained chalky colours of fresco painting.

As has been pointed out in numerous studies, Italian Fascism had a very different character to Nazism. The attitude to the arts in Italy was much broader than the stylistic prescriptions of German Fascism. The Italians not only permitted stylistic diversity, they encouraged it, stating that the strength of the nation under Fascism was great enough to resist the divisive effects of plurality of voices, as long as they did not conflict with the unity and good of the state. Thus, the Italian state in fine art did not impose requirements upon painters. (The situation in architecture is slightly different but this falls outside the parameters of this review.) Sarfatti rejected the excesses of Futurism – in style, breaking tradition and cultivating individualism – and she saw Novecento as an asset to nationalism and Fascism in its realism and reduction in individualism.

For enthusiasts of moderate Modernism, there is much here to give pleasure. Marussig’s Vase of Flowers (1917) is redolent of Gauguin’s still-lifes, with its restrained use of powerful separated by rough drawing and neutral-tone ground. Balla’s light-drenched landscape is atypically loose and focuses on the optical. One of the defining features of the Novecento is the tightness of drawing and the dryness of paint application. Novecento has a pre-Renaissance attitude rejection of later developments in art, such as the play of light, reflection, transparency and cool shadow. Overall, Balla’s landscape and Soffici’s smudged townscapes look out of place in this company.

Novecento art is static. None of the figures portrayed seem caught in movement. Novecento presents figures with pre-Renaissance hieratic stances. Even the nudes are rather inanimate. Severini’s Fashion Over Time (1945) typifies the Novecento’s borrowings from Braque and Picasso repurposed as a cosmetic addition to a composition that is unambitious. The rare, early Morandi portrait is as static as his still-lifes. Other Morandis are more familiar still-lifes and townscapes. Morandi reverses the expectations associated with landscape painting by making his landscapes horizontally orientated.

De Pisis’s painting of Venice seems an adaptation of Dufy. Carrà’s landscapes are disappointing: slight, blurred, chromatically muzzy. They lack the mystery of his Metaphysical period. Campigli seems to reach back to Etruscan funerary monuments and late Roman-period Egypt funerary portraits in encaustic for his portrait of 1950. His highly stylised figure paintings are deliberate rejections of both modernism and realism, constructing a personal archaism that turns away from the Italy of his own time. (Ironically, for all its archaism, it is very much of its time and could have met common comprehension and acceptance throughout the non-Fascist West.)

Added to the variety of Novecento is Sironi’s faux-naïf paintings that gather fragments, drawn in paint in quite a crude way, that steers a course equidistant from the sophistication of Futurism and the sophistication of Renaissance art. His paintings aim for timelessness of Roman murals made by a modern-day hermit. Viewers will have to decide whether they consider them persuasive. An early townscape parallels Beckmann. Sironi was the most ideologically committed to Fascism. Sironi aimed for his art to be politically persuasive. Given Fascism’s intention to combine modern technology and means to revival and extend long-standing collective nationalist identity, this blend of classical imagery and Modernist style makes sense. It also shows the distance between Italian Fascism and German National Socialism in the arts. Sironi’s art would have been inconceivable in Germany, certainly as art exhibited or in any way sanctioned by the state.

Casorati - Nudo di schiena

[Image: Felice Casorati, Nude Seen from the Rear (1939), oil on canvas, 160 x 74 cm. Courtesy of Tornabuoni Art”]

Casorati’s art is some of the best shown here. His Nude Seen from the Rear (1939) benefits from its simplicity, muted coloration and shallow picture space. It is both tender in tone while being severe in its stylistic austerity. The two other nudes are also strong. The bust of a nude woman (1942) recalls Beckmann in its uses of black and strong shadows lightly modelled. There is another picture that looks effective. Unfortunately, the page gutter of the catalogue obscures the pivotal figure of the painting, making it impossible to view accurately. This is a flaw in book design. Casorati’s 1922 portrait of Silvana Cenni is an iconic portrait of the movement, the period and Italian traditional art. Casorati is described as a Magical Realist.

chirico new (1)

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Still-Life (1930), oil on canvas, 53.5 x 74 cm. Courtesy of Tornabuoni Art.]

De Chirico’s art as a pictor classicus was not completely congruent with Novecento but Sarfatti’s inclusion of de Chirico’s still-lifes and nudes (and the art of Carrà) was perhaps a matter of prestige or credibility. In truth, their art is not dissonant in this company. Certainly, these two artists were deeply engaged with classical art, localism and a rejection of overt Modernism, which is Novecento at least, even if de Chirico’s engagement with Baroque art and Romanticism run counter to the austerity and primitivism of Fascist art. De Chirico’s nudes (including one exhibited here, dated 1923) and Carrà’s paint handling is more sensuous the other art in this catalogue. Morandi attached himself to Novecento because of a need to exhibit and sell art. He had the approval of Carrà’s positive approval in print in 1925. Sarfatti may have selected Morandi for his first Novecento group exhibition on the basis of this review.

The catalogue is in English and Italian and contains biographies of artists, facsimiles of documents (with translations) and a bibliography. Full-page illustrations face pages with comparative figures, often of pieces that were included in original Novecento exhibitions. Data gives information about the literature and exhibitions relating to the exhibits. This catalogue will help to spread knowledge of art beyond the well-known movements of Metaphysical Art and Futurism; that makes it a useful addition to any library covering Novecento and Modernist Italian and European art generally.

Flavia Frigeri, Janet Abramovicz, Morandi, Balla, de Chirico and Italian Painting 1920-1950, Tornabuoni Art, 2020, hardback, 175pp, fully illus., English/Italian text

For more information and buy the catalogue visit Tornabuoni website here: https://www.tornabuoniart.com/en/

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Bruegel: The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow

Abb. 1_Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige im Schnee 1[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1563), Sammlung Oskar Reinhart «Am Römerholz», Winterthur © Sammlung Oskar Reinhart «Am Römerholz», Winterthur]

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-30-1569) is celebrated for his paintings of snow. His blend of realism (accurate depictions of clothing and buildings) and artificiality (landscapes that combine Brabant environs and Alpine topography) made a profound impression at the time and – after a reputational lull – from the Nineteenth Century onwards.

A recent exhibition (23 November 2019-1 March 2020) at Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur, Switzerland collected art associated to its own Bruegel painting The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1563). This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. As is usual with Bruegel’s major painted compositions, numerous later copies were produced including a version exhibited here. One scholar catalogues 36 copies of this composition, 26 of which he attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638).

The painting shows the Holy Family sheltering in an adequate shelter in a Brabant town. Townsfolk are continuing with their daily lives – collecting water, cutting willow twigs, conveying tributes or seeking warmth. The scene is set in deep winter, with snow falling. The kings and the Holy Family are ignored by the people, just as the fall of Icarus is ignored by the ploughman in Bruegel’s famous painting in Brussels. There are political references in the picture – including the presence of Spanish troops and the Habsburg insignia on the tribute being sent. The Habsburg Spanish control of the Low Countries was creating resentment at the time the picture was made; it would break out into warfare (on the bases of Reformation theology and national independence) in 1568, the year before Bruegel’s death. The painting is oil on oak panel, 35 x 55cm, in generally good condition. The discovery of the date “1563” alongside the artist’s signature confirms that date of production.

Although a number of Bruegel paintings depict snow and ice, The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow is the only painting in which snow is falling. It is apparently the first surviving oil painting of falling snow in Western art. (There are earlier miniatures.) Later versions omit the falling snow, which strongly suggests the copyists (or at least Pieter Brueghel the Younger, whose version may have acted as a common source for later copyists) used a detailed drawing Bruegel that did not include snowfall. Other differences include coloration and small details. The older artist would have made such changes, altering his design as he went. Considering the high demand for Bruegel’s art, it is likely that Brueghel never saw a number of father’s paintings, all of which were painted before his son Pieter was born or while he was a small child.

Dendrochronology data proves that this painting was painted on an oak panel from the same plank that was used for Death of the Virgin (c. 1562-5), Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (1563) and Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565), imported from the Eastern Baltic. The Adoration panel is smaller than the others and shows evidence of being cut down on the top and right sides, which is corroborated by posthumous copies showing these areas of the composition. However, the copies may be based on drawings and Bruegel may never have actually painted these margins in his picture.Bruegel’s paint handling was new and Impressionistic, radically simplifying forms and allowing the qualities of paint and application to act as a shorthand for the physical bodies he was describing. “Bruegel’s treatment of figures in this small panel is often looser than in his larger works. This Adoration of the Kings in the Snow, with its novel snowflakes, may have represented a somewhat experimental work for Bruegel, which could explain the relatively spontaneous handling.”

The exhibition gathered 15 items, including paintings and engravings. Some of the engravings were derived from Bruegel drawings made specifically for engravers. When Bruegel commenced his career in Antwerp, he was solely a print designer; only later did he begin making oil paintings and move to Brussels. He painted a series of seasons but he was working on a series of prints of seasons, which was left unfinished at his death.

Abb. 6_Pieter van der Heyden nach Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._verlegt von Hieronymus Cock_Sommer (1)

[Image: Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, published by Hieronymus Cock, Summer,(1570), engraving, sheet from The Four Seasons, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich © Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich]

The print Summer (drawn 1569, cut and printed 1570, posthumously) displays Bruegel’s late ambition to imbue figures of peasants with grandeur and monumentality, inspired by Michelangelo. It also shows his ability to use foreshortening, with the foot and scythe projecting out of the picture plane. (Actually, it displays his lack of anatomical training, as the foot should be larger.) The other print designed was Spring, showing gardeners at work. Two classic compositions by Bruegel (St Jerome and Journey to Emmaus), where one foreground corner to close up and the rest of the low-land landscape is shown from an aerial perspective, with a high horizon line, were published by Hieronymous Cock. Cock also commissioned pastiches of Bruegel’s compositional style, due to the demand for his designs.

Abb. 2_Joannes und Lucas van Doetecum nach Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._verlegt von Hieronymus Cock_S. Hieronymus in Deserto (1)

[Image: Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, published by Hieronymus Cock, The Temptation of Saint Jerome, (1556), engraving, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich © Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich]

The catalogue contains a section summarising the main observations in French. Although a small volume, The Miracle in the Snow: Pieter Bruegel the Elder contains significant new information about a key painting by Bruegel and is an approachable book for non-specialist readers.

The Miracle in the Snow: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur (SOR)/Hirmer (distr. Hirmer), 2019, paperback, 96pp, 50 col. illus., £24.95, English text, some French, ISBN 978 3 7774 3498 8

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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