Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation

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[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978) gelatin silver print, 4 1/4 x
5 3/4 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

The catalogue of a current exhibition (MCA, Denver, 20 September 2019-5 April 2020) includes early material from the short life of photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981). Portrait of a Reputation was the title of Woodman’s first photographic book, which had no text except the title.  Her choice of the title Portrait of a Reputation for a booklet made at a point when she was beginning her career and completely unknown is indicative of Woodman’s self-consciousness, awareness of art history and her huge ambition. The photographs and writings of this exhibition and publication mostly come from the time when Woodman began photographing herself at 13 up to her departure for New York. The photographs were taken in Denver, Colorado, Andover, Massachusetts and Providence, where Woodman studied (alongside Lange) at Rhode Island School of Art and Design (1975-8). This review is from the catalogue.

Some of this material is unfamiliar to followers of Woodman’s art. Some of it is unique and belongs to George Lange, a friend of Woodman’s youth. Some of the vintage prints (some poorly printed and uncropped) are Woodman’s first prints of images that have since become classics, given away in a flush of excitement and pride. There are teasing and affectionate letters from her to him. Also included are letters from within the Woodman family.

Lange preserved material by, and about, Woodman. That material is exposed in this new book and it provides glimpses of Woodman as a young woman, just emerging as an independent artist. Woodman was unusually precocious. Cultivated by her artist parents and steeped in Italian classical literature, Roman culture and contemporary Italian art, Woodman grew into art as a young teenager, taking her first self-portraits at 13. In one of her earliest photographs, Woodman took the opportunity of encountering dense exposed roots of a large mature tree to pose emerging from (or entangled with) the roots. Woodman was schooled in the classics and would have known Ovid’s Metamorphoses, many of which dealt with the transformation of people into animals and plants

There was a photo session at a cemetery involving friends. Woodman wore a semi-transparent dress and later undressed for photographs next to graves. The symbolism of the graveyard is too intrusive and obvious for the series to be effective but it seems a necessary experiment. An invitation card for an exhibition by Woodman has a photograph of her lying, seen from above, a common Woodman trope of the weightless woman. Profile 2 is titled by the artist in the margin and is one of the most memorable photographs in the exhibition. (Few of the individual photographs are titled or titled and the catalogue does not provide definitive labels for art works.)

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[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978), gelatin silver print, 7 x 5 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

Contact sheets are reproduced, with selected shots illustrated full page. There are shots that are fluffed – Woodman fails to strike a suitable pose, she smiles as she cannot get in position, she moves during an exposure, a shot is not suitably composed and so forth. These are the side-products of any photo session. There are also shots that are blurred and double-exposures that did not seem to Woodman suitable for selection. The material includes letters, postcards and notes by the artist. There is no transcript of the texts. While there is great value in facsimile reproduction – not least a degree of intimacy and a greater order of information – the absence of transcript will leave some readers straining to decipher Woodman’s handwriting.

In her essay Nora Burnett Abrams dwells upon the issue of seriality and instability of Woodman’s photographs; this seems to overlook Woodman’s conventionality: her desire to make great and powerful single photographs. One can consider her efforts in the context of East Coast American art of the late 1970s, namely conceptualism, land art, performance and interventions within existing environments. These referent contexts are certainly not invalid and unproductive as points of departure, but their selection by commentators today is most definitely in opposition to idea Woodman may have been driven to create powerful single images (with or without handwritten marginal texts) that encapsulate the artist’s skill, ideas and vision.

There is a misstep in discussions of gender in relation to Woodman’s photography. Abbot writes that “[…] Woodman does not make her body available for the easy consumption by a (male) gaze.” The first, primary and most important viewer of Woodman’s photographs was Woodman herself. She was the envisager, creator, model, editor and curator of her art. The gaze is primarily her own. Her art was made to satisfy her own gaze. Her own judgment was the ultimate test of suitability that would determine choices about her art. The consumption of her art was by men and women. It is often women who are far more critical, cruel and proscriptive about images of the female body than men are. Woodman’s art, so influenced by stories which intertwine myths of men, women, gods, monsters and animals, is poorly served by such pedestrian commentary.

Drew Sawyer’s essay outlines the material and influences Woodman was exposed to during her education at RISD and the material of photography that was published by editor Max Kozloff in Artforum, who was also a Woodman-family friend. Sawyer points out that a contemporary interest in Man Ray’s photographs may have led Woodman to paraphrase the image of Meret Oppenheim at the printer’s press in her own photograph of herself with a hand outline painted across her chest. Lady Hawarden and Duane Michals’s are also referenced.

Exhibited are photographs of Woodman by Lange. Lange visited Woodman’s apartment-cum-studio in New York and took photographs of her at work in the studio and relaxing. We see her at work in her studio, setting up props and testing poses. Another significant aspect of the photographs of Woodman out shopping is that they show Woodman in her own time. So much of Woodman’s Gothic, Victorian and anachronistic props and clothing serve to distance her from the life of her era. Encountering her wearing Chinese style coat in a Chinese good store is to see her outside of her curated setting.

The photographs of her by Lange show Woodman reflective and playful, though not guileless. A skilled and thoughtful artist, so self-conscious and self-crafted, is never guileless. The photographs of her beside her mother and friends are more intimate than her self-taken nudes. This is the artist as a woman off-guard, reacting to stimuli, sharing a joke, trying to amuse a friend or engaged in a dialogue. Her acting capacity – functioning as auteur, both director and actor – is suspended whilst she is out of her zone of absolute control. The portrait shots of Woodman against a white wall are beautiful.

It is strange to think of an iconic presence such as Woodman appearing so unguardedly and in new ways after so many years of us being familiar with a set group of her photographs. It makes it seem as though she is still alive somewhere, producing material and experimenting with her image and her art. These provisional attempts, failed shots and discarded art – along with images of her life – make Woodman peculiarly rematerialized (returned to ordinary actuality) and dematerialised (alive but absent). We see her interacting with friends, colleagues and models (categories that overlap to wide degree). Encountering the deeper (or broader) truth of Woodman’s life pushes us to confront the biographical fact that a young woman died at the age of 22. We are confronted by echoes of life cut short, one which could still be continuing today, with Woodman as the doyenne of women photographers who take themselves as their subject.

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[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978), gelatin silver print, 7 7/8 x
10 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

Seeing this material – “new” material, as it were – awakens the pain of loss. The old wound makes itself known again because to be cognisant and admire the art of Woodman implies the acknowledgement of her premature death and curtailment of her artistic potential and her future life. Even without an explicitly biographical interpretation of Woodman’s photographs, the fact of her death adjusts our art historical response. She was a young woman when made this art; she was a young woman when she dies; she had no opportunity to extend, revise, curate and revisit the art we know. We have no memoirs, interviews, few notes, few letters, no extended commentary by the artist upon her art. We will never have any. She had no chance to respond to the fame and acclaim her art would achieve posthumously.

However firmly we may attempt to separate the biographical from the artistic when assessing art, it is understandable that the admiration of many for the photographs of Francesca Woodman must be tempered by grief.

 

Nora Burnett Abrams, Drew Sawyer, Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation, Rizzoli Electa, September 2019, hardback, 176pp, fully illus., $55, ISBN 978 0 8478 6491 1

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

John Edgar Platt, Printmaker

John Edgar Platt

John Edgar Platt (1886-1967) is one of the most prominent of the British printmakers of the inter-war period. This catalogue accompanied a solo exhibition of Platt’s art at St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire, held in 2018. Using Platt’s studio archives, Hilary Chapman has assembled this catalogue which outlines the artist’s life and work and cataloguing all his prints. The catalogue data includes much technical detail and edition sizes (both projected and achieved), which will be of value to collectors. The catalogue includes an explanation of the process of Japanese woodblock printing.

Born in Leek, the young Platt had originally intended to train as an engineer but changed to study art, studying successively at Margate Art School, Newcastle School of Art and Leek School of Art before finishing his training at the Royal College of Art. He went on to have an impressive record as a teacher in various art schools around the country. His final appointment was as head of Blackheath School of Art from 1929 until his retirement in 1950. During this time he made many of the prints in this catalogue. He gained a reputation as a representative of the colour woodblock method through writing a book (Colour Woodcuts: a Book of Reproductions and a Handbook of Method (1938)) and holding the position of President of the Society of Graver Painters in Colour.

During the Great War, Platt was instructed in Japanese colour woodblock technique by Seaby and Fletcher while at Reading School of Art. Later he would alongside British-resident, expert printer Yoshijiro Urushibara (1889-1953). Platt was part of the inter-war print revival, alongside the wood engravers such as Charles Tunnicliffe, etchers such as Graham Sutherland, the Grosvenor School linocut printmakers and British masters of colour woodblock prints Allen William Seaby, Frank Morley Fletcher, William Giles and others. This boom was ended by the Great Depression, which led to a subsequent contraction in the amount of prints produced in the 1930s.

Platt made his first colour print in 1916. It is in the Arts & Craft style, influenced by line-block illustration. It was a pastiche of the faux medieval imagery that was popular in the 1890s. Platt utilised little of the medium’s potential. Like his other early prints, it failed to make use of the drama and pictorial depth of the European chiaroscuro woodcut or the sharpness and brightness of the Japanese technique. It was in 1921 that Platt began to exploit the medium’s potential for large areas of graded colour that give Japanese woodblock prints their distinctive mixture of crisp black line work and sweeping areas of colour.

The Jetty, Sennen Cove, 1921

[Image: J.E. Platt, The Jetty, Sennen Cove (1921), colour woodblock print on paper, (c) The Estate of the Artist]

The Jetty, Sennen Cove (1921) effectively employs the graded tone and overprinting for shadow that makes the green sea in this harbour scene so clear and restful. The high horizon, aerial viewpoint and expanses of flat colour or pattern are also traits of Japanese art. Red Chestnut (1927) is a pastiche of Japanese prints. This should not be considered a derogatory assessment. The imitation was clearly an expression of devotion and fascination with the classic printmakers of Japan. Another offering (The Plough (1937)) comes directly from Japanese practice. It is a single composition printed on three vertically oriented sheets aligned horizontally but with gaps; this was commonly done by Japanese printmakers. It seems to have exhausted Platt and – with the exception of two insignificant later prints – it marked the end of his work as a printmaker. It was his largest print, was complicated by being divided between multiple sheets and he only made seven proofs.

His principal subjects in his prints are animals (wild and domestic) and harbour views. His early prints include playing children and a few later prints depict workers. A single female nude is essentially decorative, not marking a deep engagement with the subject. A pared-down, clean-line, clear-facetted style becomes apparent in 1930. This works very well for the prints of  harbour-side views including water and sky. Platt’s palette is cool and low-keyed, reliant on earth hues and tertiary colours.

By the time Brixham Trawler (1940) was made, Platt had selected to a more realistic style – or at least a hybridised style that included more concessions to realism. In the watercolour view of a harbour of 1942 (illustrated in the catalogue) we see Platt’s full realistic mode, which was sustained through to the post-war period. A patriotic scene of VE-Day from December is a touch disappointing. It is a rather ordinary scene, which looks to have been produced to mark an event rather than as an expression of artistic engagement with the topic. Platt’s late paintings are muted in coloration, subdued in tonal range and equal balancing of linearity and painterliness. At least in reproduction, the paintings lack presence, impact and distinctiveness. For today’s taste, Platt’s time as a producer of stylised Modernist prints is liable to be found the single appeal. This book well covers this area and will provide pleasure to casual readers and ideas to artists.

As well as colour woodblock prints by Platt, the catalogue includes his few engravings. The engravings date from 1929-30 and are stylistically consistent: realistic, late Arts & Crafts style, influenced by Renaissance etching. Cataloguer Hilary Chapman writes that Platt’s five engravings, made over a period of fourteen months, were the only prints that he made that were not woodblock prints.

The fact that there are only 35 woodblock prints in this catalogue is due to the arduous work involved in the producing editions from each matrix. The Japanese system involved divided labour, with designer, cutter and printer generally being discrete trades, the specialists of which could work fast and efficiently in order to mass produce colour prints. In the artisanal manner that Western printmakers had to work, they performed all stages in person, most gruellingly the printing of multiple blocks to make a single impression. To produce a single impression could involve eight over-printings per sheet, each one carefully inked, registered and rubbed with a baren. Platt did not fully edition all his prints, only making proofs as demand prompted. By 1953 the Colour Woodcut Society was defunct: commercially redundant, critically moribund and technically superseded.

This catalogue makes a fair case for Platt to be considered a serious and respected – though minor – British printmaker from the 1920s and 1930s.

 

Hilary Chapman, John Edgar Platt: Master of the Colour Woodcut, Sansom & Company/St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, 2018, paperback, 72pp, fully illus., £12.50, ISBN 978 1 911408 30 7

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

21 October 2019

True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950

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[Image: Mabel Dwight (American, 1876 – 1955), Night Work (1931), lithograph, image: 25.4 × 19.4 cm (10 × 7 5/8 in.). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Hannah S. Kully]

The new exhibition True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 15 October 2019-19 January 2020) brings together iconic images from early Twentieth Century American realism alongside a collection of lesser known prints. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The two fathers of American realism are Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Robert Henri (1865-1929). Both had troubled relationships with the art establishment. Eakins can be viewed as establishing the discipline of pictorial realism – plein air painting, thorough anatomical classes and application of perspective and use of photography – while Henri is thought of as a founder of social realism, mainly in urban settings. Henri’s contribution was attitudinal rather than technical. Henri studied under a former student of Eakins at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was wanted to realism that Eakins had pioneered in America to be applied to subjects that would not typically be considered the province of fine arts. Eakins had led the way in depicting common activities such as sports as a subject for oil painting but Henri sought to apply this new American realism to be applied to life in the modern American world.

Henri’s progressive artistic and political sensibility was influential, spreading via to his students (through his teaching at Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the Art Students League, New York) and artists (through his book The Art Spirit (1923)). He exhibited widely and his ideas were disseminated by these and associated reviews. Henri opposed prettiness and what he thought of as the stiffness of conventionally sanctioned fine art. Henri’s passion for depicting everyday life entailed a degree of social realism. This tendency became movement, centred in New York, which became called the Ashcan School. Followers and associates included George Bellows, John Sloan and William Glackens. Edward Hopper was commonly grouped with the Ashcan School but he stands a little aside, more closely influenced by French painting and cinema than the others. Hopper is more interested in exploring the emotional distance and psychological isolation of his characters than in the general social/political commentary that Ashcan School tenets tended to produce. We might also view this group as a rejection of haute mondaine clientele, ostentatious internationalism and insulated hedonism of the Cosmopolitan Realists Boldini, Singer Sargent, Sorolla and Zorn.

After a brief heyday, by the early 1930s the Ashcan School had been quickly overtaken by Modernism, with its emphasis on abstraction and pictorially advanced styles such as Cubism, Orphism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Ironically, the exploration of realism found a home in the 1930s in Regionalism, a movement that combined nativism and social conservatism with social realism and satirical commentary on modern life, often in rural settings. Precisionism of the 1930s applied realism, photorealism and hyperrealism to modern life but it was largely centred on buildings, objects, landscapes and townscapes rather than people within urban settings and it entirely lacked the satirical element.

Such developments are not covered within True Grit – admittedly, not a large exhibition – which confines itself to socially-centred art. Artists include Bellows, Hopper, Sloan and others. The prints in True Grit range over the most common mediums: aquatints, drypoints, etchings, lithographs and a wood engraving. The exhibition provides a view of modern city life as seen through the eyes of socially conscious artists of the 1920s and 1930s.

It would be wrong to entirely ascribe the choice of the working class as subjects for art to a political commitment on the part of artists. It was also an element of the younger generation wanting to slay their predecessors and surpass them in audacity by using working people to inject energy and rawness, courting attention through controversy. This is certainly true of Bellows and the printmakers here who focus on making outright social critiques. The subjects of prints are art classes, street scenes, park views, nightclubs, courting couples, tramps, vamps and crowds participating in entertainment and on public transport.

Two classic images of urban America are Hopper’s Night Shadows (1921) – showing a man walking alone in a street, seen from a high window and accompanied on by his own shadow – and Bellows’s A Stag at Sharkey’s (1917). The latter is Bellows’s most famous composition – a boxing match in a darkened room, where the smoke and din are almost palpable. Other Hopper etchings are of a couple in a subway train and woman alone in a bedroom. Hopper is the quintessential urban artist of the inter-war period, his eye trained on the telling moment or the poignant interlude. Nothing is happening in Hopper’s pictures and that is the point. They are moments of reflection for the subject or moments that are later recalled because they impressed a witness. Hopper’s proto-existentialist ennui is manifest in the metropolitan anomie and the melancholic vignette. Hopper is lacking as a painter and draughtsman – none of figures actually seems comprised of flesh, skin, hair and all the other matter of a human body; he has little instinctive feeling for his mediums – but he is a consummate image-maker. His etchings are technically more fluent than his paintings.

Alexander Nemerov’s essay investigates the impact of Bellows’s death upon Hopper. The artists had been colleagues and allies, in many ways pursuing similar goals. Both Bellows and Hopper were former students of Henri. Hopper, Henri and other artists were recorded as being distraught at the sudden death of Bellows due to appendicitis. Nemerov suggests that Hopper experienced survivor’s life-long guilt. It was only in 1925 that Hopper achieved his critical and popular breakthrough – something which perhaps could only have happened with the disappearance of his colleague-competitor. In other words, Hopper may have considered his success to have been dependent on Bellows’s death. It is too much to attribute the pervasive melancholy of Hopper’s isolated characters to the reverberations to this 1925 event but Nemerov’s case is thoughtful and well put.

John Sloan (1871-1951) is credited as the leader of the Ashcan School. He was a prominent advocate of realism and taught many students in New York. Rather than selecting the subjects generally considered ennobling in the fine arts, Sloan encouraged students to depict typical scenes of everyday life. He is best known for his street scenes. Stephanie Schrader notes that the juxtaposition of public and private spaces was typical of Ashcan art. Glimpsing domestic interiors through windows from other buildings or whilst travelling on elevated metro tracks was a common experience for city dwellers. Schrader is condemnatory of Sloan’s etchings of interiors with women in a state of undress. Her criticism is redolent of the moral certitude that critics displayed towards Degas’s candid female nudes, which they thought to be positively bestial. Viewers may have a more relaxed and charitable attitude than Schrader towards Sloan’s etchings. When passing moral judgment in art criticism, critics should be aware that their audience has a moral sense (informed by different life experiences) that is at least as developed as their own.

What of these lesser known printmakers? The Kyra Markham (1891-1967) was a producer of satirical and socially conscious lithographs in the 1920s and 1930s.  Her scenes depart from realism through the exaggerated features of figures and invention of settings which use fantasy and magic realism. Peggy Bacon (1895-1987) was an unabashed satirist, whose prints we could expect to see in journals. The beautifully effective Night Work (1931) by Mabel Dwight (1875-1955) is a lithograph showing a nocturnal vista with a glimpse of a person working in a studio – the artist? – under a moon and the silhouettes of chimneys and water towers. It is a fitting choice for the catalogue cover. Arnold Rönnebeck, Ellison Hoover, Howard Norton Cook and Howard Pennell are represented by views of skyscrapers in New York. These unpeopled vertiginous views show the American metropolis at its most inhuman but exhilarating. However, despite their concentration on the architecture and spatial effects of city design without figures, these prints should be seen as extensions of Futurism and Expressionism (including Expressionist cinema) rather than instances of Precisionism. They lack the emotional coolness and technical clarity of Precisionism in order to achieve the impact the printmakers intended.

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[Image: Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881 – 1962), Glow of the City (1929), drypoint, image: 28.6 × 36.2 cm (11 1/4 × 14 1/4 in.). © Estate of Martin Lewis. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Purchased with funds from Russel I. and Hannah S. Kully.]

The outstanding artist of the exhibition is an artist of whom I had never previously heard. Martin Lewis (1881-1962) two etchings leave a lasting impression. A brilliant evocative print (Glow of the City (1929)) by Lewis shows a woman in profile on an apartment fire escape, a skyscraper illuminated in the background, seen behind a row of house backs and washing lines. This is another night scene – something of a speciality of these artists, at least on the basis of this selection. It is easy to see why Hopper credited Lewis’s tuition in etching for advancing his compositional abilities. Lewis’s Down to the Sea at Night (1929) is a masterclass in tenebrous realism. A group of women walk into the surf, illuminated by the headlamps of a parked car. The handling of light and shade, silhouette and modelling, and a single in-scene but concealed light source, are all exquisitely conceived and executed. Lewis will be the discovery and star of the exhibition on the basis of these two prints alone. More than a handful of visitors will leave the exhibition with the intention of scouring for sources on Lewis.

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[Image: Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881 – 1962), Down to the Sea at Night (1929), drypoint and sand-ground etching, image: 20.3 × 33 cm (8 × 13 in.). © Estate of Martin Lewis. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of
Hannah S. Kully]

The three essays have footnotes and there is an index. Illustrations include other prints and photographs of the era, as well as some paintings for comparison. Overall the catalogue is well designed and informative. Compliments go to the designers of the catalogue, which includes colophons and signatures in the illustrated prints. However, no paper sizes are given in the text and no editions or colophon markings are indicated, which is disappointing. True Grit is an enjoyable and stimulating tour of American realist graphics and social realism of the inter-war era.

 

Stephanie Schrader, James Glisson, Alexander Nemerov, True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950, J. Paul Getty Museum, September 2019, hardback, 112pp, 83 col. illus., $35/£28, ISBN 978 1 60606 627 0

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

The Bestiary in the Medieval World

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[Image: Unknown English artist, Lions (c. 1250), from Bestiary, parchment, leaf: 29.6 × 19 cm (11 5/8 × 7 1/2 in.), The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Bodl. 764, fols. 2v
EX.2019.2.93]

During the Middle Ages in Northern Europe, books of real and imaginary creatures and animal lore were made. These bestiaries were frequently variations on established texts, the main ones being the Bestiary of Philippe de Thaon and Physiologus by Theobaldus. Others were looser collections of animal images and knowledge. Some were illustrated and these are at the centre of a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (14 May-19 August 2019). Although many were unillustrated and were essentially copies of earlier texts, the illuminations in some of the late 12th Century to mid-15th Century (but most in the earlier part of this period) are large, detailed and beautiful. This review is from the catalogue.

The standard list of animals contained in bestiaries was lion, tiger, panther, antelope, lynx, eagle, fishes, weasel, fox, monkey, camel, snake, walrus and whales, as well as more amazing creatures, such as the griffin, dragon, hydrus and phoenix. Some of the illustrations of real animals are so attenuated that they become incredible in our eyes – the crocodile is shown with long legs, bird feet and ears. There are half-human animals such as centaurs and sirens and more peculiar deviants, like relations of Boschian hybrids. The images of animals are accompanied by short texts describing the animals’ physiognomies, characters, behaviour and habitats. Early bestiaries included a few entries on exceptional trees and gemstones, however these were later dropped. The information is a mixture of the observed and invented. (For example, elephants only eat human children “if they are exceptionally hungry”.) Some of the animals are part of symbolic tales, such The Romance of Alexander, a diverse set of impossible tales about the doings of Alexander the Great. There is one in which Alexander descends to the bottom of the sea in a glass ship and encounters a whale.

The life of animals were often invented and presented as moral lessons from God. The unicorn the symbol of fidelity, purity and virginity and was associated with the Virgin Mary. Pelicans were often depicted as piercing their own hearts to feed its young, making its self-sacrifice as an analogue to the suffering of Christ. There is a damaged wooden sculpture of a pelican sacrificing itself for its brood, with the blood painted on. Polychromy was common in sculpture of the time.

These bestiaries were sometimes part of longer theological texts. The texts are mainly in Latin or French, written by monks and nuns for the large part. This catalogue is very thorough and includes essays by specialists and detailed discussion of individual items, explaining background, symbolism and peculiarities of the exhibits. Analysis shows that the texts are copies but frequently incorporating variations (additions and subtractions, as well as reordering), with attempts to make the texts more comprehensive or artistic by conforming meter and line length. The artistry of the illustrators is sometimes fantastic and individualistic, all working in what we would class the international Gothic style. Some of the volumes were broken up or had choice pages cut out. A handful has been defaced; many have been annotated.

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[Image: Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Grid with Nine Animals, France, about 1400–1415, from On the Properties of Things, parchment, leaf: 29 × 38 cm (11 7/16 × 14 15/16 in.). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA, HM 27523
EX.2019.2.4]

The books are of a theological character. Whilst incorporating some older learning from Greek times, the books focus on the moral aspect, showing how God’s order is present in the animal kingdom as it is among people. There are aspects of what we would call science and history. They show the typical blend of the Medieval worldview – observation and book learning filtered through a Christian lens, with some knowledge classical mythology. The vast majority of material on display originated from the regions of modern-day France, England, Germany, northern Italy and the Low Countries. The loans come from museums and private collections in Europe and America.

The medieval world was rich with symbols. There were draughts of ivory cut with animal designs. Noble escutcheons used animals to symbolise attributes, which were codified and recorded in books. The exhibition includes metal aquamanilia, water containers for the washing of the hands of nobility. These were hollow vessels shaped as animals, often lions (the king of the beasts), and included handles and spigots. The horns of ibexes were presented as griffin claws; narwhal tusks were carved and mounted on silver, described as unicorn horns. Other items include combs and embossed metalwork.

Animals feature as part of church architectural decoration. These are illustrated in the catalogue and a handful of stone capitals and other ecclesiastical relief carvings are displayed in the exhibition. The best of the non-painted animals must be the embroideries and tapestries, some diminished by age but still vigorous in design, coloration and execution. The later encyclopaedia of animals featured comments on the ethics of animals – if they were brave or cowardly, if they stood and fought, if they were prepared to die to defend their territory and offspring. This strays into the area of comparative ethics, contrasting the behaviour of animals with that of people. The mixture of diligence, scholarship, assumption and falsehoods persists in these books as it did in the earlier bestiaries, often providing no more accurate picture of reality. However, we should not assume that scientific knowledge was the aspiration of writers and patrons of these books. They were often as much in search of spiritual sustenance as accurate information.

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[Image: Unknown English artist, Bee; Peridexion Tree; Serpent; Dragon (c. 1240–50) from Bestiary, parchment, leaf: 28 × 16.5 cm (11 × 6 1/2 in.). The British Library. Image: GRANGER EX.2019.2.58]

The later section of the exhibition includes a few examples of natural history, herbal miscellanies, maps and paintings of animals from the Renaissance and later. The exhibition here loses its way, with the strands becoming too numerous, diverse and separated to cohere – especially in small selections. Study of geography and natural history can be found in the bestiaries but that transition – and the contradictions and contrasts between the areas – requires a dedicated monograph (with or without monographic  exhibition). To have maximum impact and coherence, this exhibition should have terminated in the Renaissance and been limited to fewer areas. Nevertheless, the catalogue and exhibition Book of Beasts shed light on the Medieval mindset and allow us to see the complicated overlaps and schisms between theology, natural science, mythology and speculative art that later gave birth to the modern world. The catalogue is a grand affair, with large pin-sharp illustrations, thorough data, bibliography and index. Care has been taken to balance scholarship with approachable text for the engaged non-specialist reader.

 

Elizabeth Morrison (ed.), Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, J. Paul Getty Museum, June 2019, half-cloth hardback, 354pp, 281 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 1 60606 590 7

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Arshile Gorky in Venice

Master Bill GORKY79829

[Image: Arshile Gorky,  Portrait of Master Bill (ca. 1937), oil on canvas / Olio su tela, 52⅛x 40⅛in. (132.4 x 101.9 cm). Private collection/ Collezione privata]

In May 2019 Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia opened a major exhibition of the work of Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) in Venice (Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Ca’ Pesaro – International Gallery of Modern Art, Venice, 9 May-22 September 2019). It is the first solo exhibition of Gorky’s art in Venice, though his art was exhibited a number of times at the Biennale. The retrospective exhibition includes 81 works, paintings and drawings, from all periods of the artist’s career. Curated by Gabriella Belli and Edith Devaney, the exhibition is realised in cooperation with The Arshile Gorky Foundation. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This exhibition presents the full range of Gorky’s art, starting with a response to Cézanne, painted about 1927-8. Gorky was famous in his early years for his fastidious craftsmanship, the high quality of his materials and his fascination with incorporating and reworking the ideas of leading Modernists. Cézanne, Léger, de Chirico, Picasso and Miró his idols and his art before 1940 was heavily influenced by these painters. In still-lifes he made work that was resolutely European. (He claimed to have studied in Paris but he travelled from his native Armenia via Greece to the USA without studying art in Europe. Gorky was always vague about his origins in Armenia and was unwilling to talk about his past.) Gorky’s portraits from the 1930s are more independent and the demands of representing particular sitters (in life and from photographs) seem to have encouraged Gorky to develop more personal solutions in terms of styles and forms. The exhibition includes portraits, some of named subjects (including Gorky, his mother, Frederick Kiesler and friend Willem de Kooning), others of unidentified heads.

At this time Gorky was teaching art and painting in New York. He was employed on the WPA painting murals (one for Newark Airport), receiving coverage that portrayed him as an heir to the famous European master of Modernism. He formed close bonds with some artists in New York, particularly de Kooning. It was around the time the first artist wartime emigres arrived from Europe in late 1939 and 1940 that Gorky raised his game. Like many of the American artists interested in the avant-garde, they were impressed and disappointed to meet the trailblazers such as Ernst, Tanguy, Mondrian and others. They discovered that these pioneers were human, subject to fallibilities such as cupidity and vanity. Sparked by Surrealism in particular, the American artists took the ideas of automatism and developed it into ambitious abstract painting. Gorky was in the vanguard, developing his late style: biomorphic forms, intense colours, technical virtuosity, visible materiality. Gorky had synthesised his influences and applied a unique style (associated to Tanguy and Matta but independent) to his natural surroundings.

The Liver Is The...GORKY82535-hires

[Image: Arshile Gorky, The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb / Il fegatoèla cresta del gallo (1944), oil on canvas/ Olio su tela73 ¼ x 98⅜in. (186.1 x 249.9 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New YorkGift of / Dono di Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1956, K1956:4Image courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery]

The landscapes of Virginia and Connecticut over the summers of 1942-1945 are considered high points. André Breton visited the Gorky family and invented titles of some works. The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944) is one of the great lyrical masterpieces – full of vigorous forms, delicate and energetic brushwork and intense colour. The energy belies the fact that at least some of Gorky’s classic Surrealist compositions were drawn on paper before being carefully transferred to canvas. From 1944 to the year of his death, Gorky’s oil paintings were thinly painted, with dilute paint forming light veils. An early colourful example is One Year the Milkweed (1944). Delicate Game (1946) has a drawn design barely covering the canvas surface. It includes only a few washes and most of the painting is bare primer. Painting (1947) is as translucent as a watercolour, with no firm lines. Only in his final months did Gorky use opaque oil paint, as seen in Dark Green Painting (c. 1948). Some unfinished paintings indicate how Gorky started his oil paintings.

Dark Green painting GORKY94811-hires_EDIT

[Image: Arshile Gorky, Dark Green Painting / Pittura verde scuroca (1948), oil on canvas / Olio su tela43 3/4 x 55 1/2 in.(111.1 x 141 cm)Philadelphia Museum of ArtGift (by exchange) of / Dono (in scambio) di Mr. and Mrs. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee and R. Sturgis and Marion B. F.Ingersoll, 1995, 1995-54]

The drawings supplement paintings and show Gorky’s virtuosity. The early portrait drawing of his mother stands in for the two painted versions of that subject, which did not travel to Venice. The ink drawings and gouache paintings are related to his mural works. Apple Orchard (c. 1943-6) is one of the pastels which show the artist fusing forms of leaves, fruits and flowers. Other drawings allow us to compare the preparation with the final paintings.  There is an experimental drawing where a sheet has been smudged and the forms are indicated by erasing them. Ink wash and line are indicative of Gorky’s command of many materials and approaches, served by his long apprenticeship following the art of his heroes.

Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948 includes works loaned from museums and private collections across the USA and Europe and gives a strong overview of the artist’s work. The generously sized catalogue has full illustrations, essays describing the artist’s career, an essay discussing the reception of Gorky’s art in Italy and a chronology, all in Italian and English languages. It comprises a good introduction to Gorky’s achievements.

 

Gabriella Belli, Edith Devaney, Saskia Spender, Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948, Hauser & Wirth (distr. Artbook), June 2019, hardback, 240pp, 118 col. illus., Italian/English text, $55/C$75, ISBN 978 3 906915 34 0

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

 

Impressionism in the Age of Industry

Camille Pissarro - Le pont Boieldieu a Rouen, temps mouille, 1896

[Image: Camille Pissarro, Le pont Boieldieu à Rouen, temps mouillé (1896), oil on canvas, 73.6 x 91.4 cm. Gift of Reuben Wells Leonard Estate, 1937 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario
2415]

Impressionism in the Age of Industry (16 February-5 May 2019, Art Gallery of Ontario) is a wide-ranging, informative and stimulating exhibition of Impressionist art and art produced by other French artists of the period. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The exhibition brings together leading Impressionists Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, Félix Braquemond, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte with lesser known associated figures. There is art by many artists who are not generally classed as Impressionists. It needs to be stated up front that there is a degree of separation between the title and the contents of the exhibition. The selection includes many artists who are not Impressionists, such as the Post-Impressionists (Van Gogh, Émile Bernard, Paul Sérusier, Armand Guillaumin), Divisionists (Maximilien Luce, Alfred William Finch, George Seurat, Paul Signac), Social Realists (Jules Dalou, Constantin Meunier), the Nabis (Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard) and others, such as honorary Impressionists Jean-François Raffaëlli, James Tissot, Edouard Manet and Eugène Louis Boudin. This exhibition should really be entitled “Late Nineteenth French Artists Respond to Modernity”. However, we can forgive AGO for choosing a title more accessible and appealing to the general public.

This exhibition is centred on the Impressionists’ painting of modernity, especially a modern Paris and its environs (with a handful of exceptions). The art was redolent of the anxiety of new social fluidity, centring on places where the middle class and working class fraternised in delimited spaces such as La Grande Jatte, Asnières, café-concerts and dance halls. Impressionist pictures are full of signs denoting disparities in class, occupation and status. Parts of the social disruption were the impact of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. The rebuilding of the Vendome Column (toppled during the Commune uprising) and the erection of Sacré Coeur (seen by many Parisians, especially of Montmartre, as punitive demonstration of the state’s definitive erasure of the Commune) were Parisians consciously reshaping of their city’s material structure to reflect its cultural values. The encroachment of factories (and their ever-visible smoke) and the Eiffel Tower were incontrovertible presentations of Paris’s future as a modern metropolis.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were forever including subjects at their places of work: Degas’s laundresses, dancers, prostitutes and cabaret singers, Van Gogh weavers and sowers, Pissarro’s peasants and market traders, Caillebotte’s builders and Luce’s foundry workers. The oeuvre of Meunier – a Social Realist rather than an Impressionist – was dominated by the image of the working man at manual labour. It was Meunier who went on to become the most influential sculptor of the Twentieth Century, held up as the ideal of the socially committed sculptor by Socialist artistic bodies and social-realist artists. Every realist statue dedicated to ennobling the working man owes something to Meunier’s example, whether or not creator or spectator realise it.

The catalogue essays discuss the approaches of artists to the modern city of Paris, including the ways in which artists depicted workers, construction and transport. The transport they found most captivating was trains. The bridges and stations were unapologetically up to date. Monet made a group of paintings of Gare Saint-Lazare, where train smoke was contained and illuminated by glazed skylights. Caillebotte painted a boldly modern railway bridge at Argenteuil in the 1880s – the very bridge which made this outlying settlement accessible to Parisian day-trippers and painters. Newly accessible Argenteuil was a favoured riverside spot for Parisians to relax on clement holidays, where they could row, dine and dance. It was frequented by many Impressionists, who frequently portrayed the landscape, setting and visitors there. Asnières was a location on the Seine which was site for new factories, which can be seen in the background of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884). La Grande Jatte – an island which featured in another landmark painting of Seurat – is a leisure space (at the time) on the outskirts of Paris, where families, courting couples, prostitutes, shop girls, factory workers, nannies and children and others from the middle and working classes mingled in a space that provided opportunities for cross-class interaction. It was a liminal space and locus for concerned discussion by clergy, politicians, journalists and other commentators celebrating and decrying social blending. The social communication of Impressionist art was a focal point of New Criticism from the 1960s onwards and one of the most fruitful areas that social historiography has addressed in the fine-art field. The research by Caroline Shields proves that there was commercial demand for Monet’s paintings of industrial subjects in the 1870s, which indicates that not only painters but collectors of art considered the changing face of the city an acceptable subject for fine art.

Photography by Craig Boyko

[Image: James Tissot, La Demoiselle de magasin (c. 1883-1885), oil on canvas, 146.1 x 101.6. Gift from Corporations’ Subscriptions Fund, 1968 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario 67/55]

The project of boulevardisation of central Paris by Baron Haussmann (over the period 1853-70), the expansion of the railways, the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the Basilica of Sacré Coeur all provided numerous instances of construction work for artists to study. The inclusion of photographs of Paris, and the subjects that Impressionists portrayed, acts as context and also art in its own right. Also projected at the exhibition (and included in the catalogue as stills) are Thomas Edison’s 1900 film of Paris and footage of workers leaving a factory filmed by the Lumiere Brothers.

A selection of pictures features rural workers – part of a conscious rejection of industrialisation by intellectuals in search of authentic peasantry and the back-to-the-soil romanticism of the urban-dwelling elite. Art by Van Gogh, Serusier, Bernard and – most prominently – Pissarro illustrate the utopian idealism of artists who never worked the land themselves but heroised those who did. There is sympathy and empathy, which make up for lack of understanding.

The inclusion of art by lesser known artists (not necessarily French but working in France in the 1860-1900 period) brings us art by Jean Béraud, Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Giuseppe de Nittis and others. The other material, such as maps, plans and publications will be unfamiliar to visitors.

There is a good selection of graphic art, including colour lithographs by Henry Rivière (particularly on the subject of the Eiffel Tower – perhaps a conscious homage to Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1830-2)) and the street scenes of Bonnard and Vuillard. A lithograph by Meunier sets a miners head against the ravaged surroundings of a mine, comparing the sturdiness of the working man to the rugged and harsh environment that had formed him. A belle époque poster by Georges Paul Leroux advertises the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, which welcomed the new century with an international display of science, technology and culture. Posters by Toulouse-Lautrec are famous posters for evening entertainments. Stylistically, it is a blend of Art Nouveau dramatic form and sinuous line and beaux arts realism. Three Pissarro prints represent his typical subjects of river views and working women. Braquemond’s etching of Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) is indicative of the Impressionist veneration for Turner as a precursor to Impressionist technique. Raffaëlli’s drypoint view of railway sidings is compared to a painting by Henri Ottmann.

Edgar Degas - Woman at Her Bath, c. 1895

[Image: Edgar Degas, Woman at Her Bath (c. 1895), oil on canvas, 71.1 × 88.9 cm. Purchase, Frank P. Wood Endowment, 1956 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario 55/49]

Raffaëlli’s famous ragpickers are in two paintings that show the thick impasto surfaces that led to him being admired by some painters of the time (including Van Gogh). Chromatically, the paintings are not sophisticated and leave one wondering if his popularity was anything more than a fad. Paintings by Caillebotte emphasise his brilliance as a painter of reflections. An atypical Monet painting shows colliers unloading barges at a bank of the Seine. This is one of the few Monet paintings to show people at work. The coloration is muted and the contre-jour effect of the repeated dark figures seen against the water and bank makes this a picture of unexpected terseness. There are views of Pontoise and Rouen by Pissarro. There are two excellent Sisley river views, showcasing his dappled brushwork.

The bronzes of figures by Degas, Dalou and Meunier are appealing and well chosen but few in number. There are paintings of laundresses by Degas and one nude bather, all very fine, delicate and adventurous. While Impressionists made sculpture, the most successful producer of Impressionist sculpture was Medardo Rosso. (See here for my review of his art.) Sculpture was a side line for Impressionist painters, with the exception of Degas, who devoted much effort, time and thought to working on his statuettes of dancers and horses.

“Impressionism in the Age of Industry” has art which forms multiple slices of social history as well as being satisfying as art. This exhibition will introduce many to the complicated factors motivating art that is often seen as primarily in pursuit of pleasure and optical fidelity.

 

Caroline Shields (ed.), Impressionism in the Age of Industry, Art Gallery of Ontario/Prestel/Delmonico Books, 2019, hardback, 248pp, 149 col./33 mono illus., £39.99/$50, ISBN 978 3791 358 451

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

René Magritte, Philosopher Painter

04. R. Magritte_La m├®moire_1948

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le grand Siècle

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

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

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

01. R. Magritte_Le noctambule_1928

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

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

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

 

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

* * * *

9781138054271

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

Picasso’s Jacqueline Period

Jacqueline in a Turkish Costume_1955 copy

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

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

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

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

picasso_h_369_liegender_akt_mit_blumenkrone_1970 copy

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

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

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

Standing Woman_1958 copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Matador_1970 copy

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

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

 

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

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books on www.alexanderadams.art

The Renaissance Nude

Renaissance Nude-22

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

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

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

Renaissance Nude-46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

key 26

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

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

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

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

NG 2751

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

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

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

 

 

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

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

David Lynch as Artist

David Lynch in his studio ©David Lynch

[Image: David Lynch in his studio ©David Lynch]

The film director David Lynch (b. 1946) started his career as an artist and trained at art school before switched to cinema. Since his youth he has made art and in recent years this art – painting, drawing, photography and other mediums – has been recognised in numerous exhibitions. The current exhibition David Lynch: Someone is in my House at Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht (30 November 2018-28 April 2019) brings together a wide range of Lynch’s fine art from his students years up until today. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

Interested in art from an early age, Lynch studied painting at Museum School, Boston in 1964 and transferred to Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia in 1966. At this more progressive institution, Lynch developed his ambitions as a creator. He recalled in an interview that while he was painting some grass, he imagined the grass being animated. This event was something that led him towards film. His first short films varied between animation, live action and a mixture of the two. Six Men Getting Sick (1967) was an animation projected on to a painted assemblage with plaster heads, which was filmed. It is the recording of the animated painting/assemblage that has become the film Six Men Getting Sick that we know today. From this point onwards, Lynch considered painting as an approach that could include sculpture, film projection, found objects and other material. These are not so much hybrid works as mongrel ones – crossbreeds of ambiguous appearance, uncertain origin, unclear taxonomy and undeniable vitality.

David Lynch, Six Men Getting Sick, 1967, film still, courtesy ABSURDA

[Image: David Lynch, Six Men Getting Sick (1967), film still, courtesy ABSURDA]

In 1970 Lynch went to study at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. At this point his creative energy was increasing focussed on films, such as The Grandmother (1970) then Eraserhead (1977, started 1972) – projects that occupied his time at the AFI and the immediate period after he left. There is relatively little large-scale work from around 1968 up until after 2000. At this time Lynch was busiest with directing. After 2006, the time when Lynch’s last feature film (Inland Empire) was released, art became his primary field of creativity activity again. It is fair to classify Lynch of recent years as more of an artist than a director, although his recent work on the third series of Twin Peaks showed he is still as original and masterful as he ever was as a director.

The early drawings are small, in pencil or ballpoint on standard size sheets of paper. These drawings of the late 1960s are typical of the period, working along the same lines as pop artists such as Richard Lindner and counter culture art, also art made in the wake of Surrealism. The mixture of pop culture imagery and subversive counter culture/underground attitude was common at the time. The art of Francis Bacon falls into this overlap. Lynch acknowledges Bacon as a major influence on his art, especially after Lynch visited Bacon’s exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, New York in 1968. In the art (and also cinema) of Lynch we find the following Baconian elements: isolation of figures, predominantly dark background (from Bacon of the 1940s up to 1956), use of figural deformity, an atmosphere of emotional tension or distress, cages/tanks/frameworks as devices of confinement, use of drapes as backdrops, the eruption of carnal imagery, signs of violence, combination of domesticity and theatricality, the imperative of intense psychological trauma and the spectacle of sensation. Beyond the elements described above, it was the example of Bacon as an artist willing to explore the dark and alarming aspects of human existence in a striking, sumptuous and often beautiful manner in art that created a powerful impact which gave Lynch permission to explore his dark imagination in the area of fine art.

The placing of characters on a black ground (or immersed in darkness) is something common to Lynch and Bacon. Lynch has said, “Color to me is too real. It’s limiting. It doesn’t allow too much of a dream. The more you throw black into a color, the more dreamy it gets.” This is very apparent in the paintings of 1968 and 1988, as well as the later lithographs.

David Lynch, Woman With Tree Branch, 1968, oil and acrylic on canvas, courtesy Rodger LaPelle and Christine McGinnis

[Image: David Lynch, Woman With Tree Branch (1968), oil and acrylic on canvas, courtesy Rodger LaPelle and Christine McGinnis]

The large format of the paintings and expansive areas of black in them immerse us in darkness. Lynch wishes us to be consumed by the dark. Lynch is keen to keep in touch with the basic elements of existence: darkness, fire, smoke, soil, lightning, wood, water, oil, flesh. This matter prevents visions from becoming insubstantial or capriciously fantastical. This desire to keep material real is evident in the use of found objects and non-art materials which appear consistently in Lynch’s assemblage-constructions. The incorporation of found objects into life-size assemblage-paintings makes them similar to funk-art installations by Ed Kienholz. They certainly share a (critical) fascination with Americana, centring on the seediness of common culture.

David Lynch, untitled (Lodz), 2000, archival pigment print, courtesy the artist (2)

[Item: David Lynch, Untitled (Lodz) (2000), archival pigment print, courtesy the artist]

Since the early 1970s, Lynch has taken photographs of abandoned industrial installations. He was inspired by the industry of Philadelphia and this inspirational encounter with artificial environments (contrasting so strongly with Lynch’s outdoors childhood in Montana and Idaho) carried over to the culverts and overpasses of Los Angeles which Lynch visited while at film school. These became the setting for Eraserhead. While on location in various places (including England and Poland), Lynch has recorded abandoned factories, warehouses, refineries, pumping stations and other buildings in black-and-white photographs. Some are included in this catalogue, though the photographs have previously been exhibited en masse and reproduced more extensively in other publications.

Uncanniness comes to the fore in a series of modified vintage erotic photographs. The original photographs were taken in the Nineteenth Century and have been republished since then. Manipulated by Lynch, the unclothed figures have become truncated, distorted and deformed. They engage in obscure activity, themselves obscure and sinister presences. They are ghostly – not dissimilar to spiritualist photographs of 1900-1920. These are the closest to deliberately nightmarish images, created to unsettle and disturb. In recent decades, Lynch has made a number of series of photographs of nude women. None of those photographs have been included in this exhibition.

There are two series of lithographs that Lynch has made at the Paris studio of Idem. The first was a series of abstract designs in three colours and was a short series; the second is figural and much more extensive – continuing intermittently to this day. The initial three-colour lithographs were derived from the post-it drawings of the 1980s. They have a Keith Haring feeling – a bit Pop, a bit graffiti, a bit graphic design. They are the sort of designs one would find on an inner sleeve of New Wave LP from 1989. They seem decorative and undirected. Lynch’s non-photographic art needs the compulsion of the figure, figural element or animal to be at its best. These lithographs (and related drawings) are the least successful of the series Lynch has made.

David Lynch, Someone is in My House, 2014, lithograph, courtesy the artist and Item Editions

[Image: David Lynch, Someone is in My House (2014), lithograph, courtesy the artist and Idem Editions]

The later lithographs are much more successful. In 2007 Lynch stopped Lynch making colour lithographs and started drawing on stones using only black ink; the imagery included figures, animals, buildings and shadowy landscapes. This series has continued to this day. The prints employ the full range of artistic effects that traditional lithography is capable. Lynch has developed into a skilled lithographer, exploiting the capacities of stone lithography as a platform for his imagery. The sooty washes of ink diluted by turpentine make swirling clouds of dust and smoke. The scratching out of ink gives a graphic bite of light lines and provides relief to these dark scenes. The dabbing of fingerprints impart a touch of earnestness though not clumsiness and increase our engagement by adding tactility. As with other works, fragmentary phrases – be they snippets of dialogue or authorial commentary – appear in the pictures. These lithographs fit closely to Lynch’s large paintings in terms of appearance, imagery and tone. We witness incidents of violence and human contact (humorous, passionate, bizarre, inexplicable) in shadowy settings. These black lithographs are consistently the most effective pieces of art Lynch has produced to date.

In watercolours (primarily in greys and black) bleeding and soaking treat whole sheets of papers as objects. The scratching and abrasion of paper highlight the textural qualities of the materials. The watercolour Fight on a Hill (c. 2008-9) shares certain characteristics – not least the strange ambivalent tone somewhere between horrific thuggery and slapstick knockabout – with Goya’s Fight with Cudgels (1819-23) from his Black Paintings. Goya’s Black Paintings have a predominantly dark coloration and use of black, the artist’s use of grotesque and troubling imagery and ambiguity of subject matter all parallel Lynch’s ink drawings and lithographs. It seems that Lynch has few meaningful connections to contemporary artists and that his art has developed in relative isolation, with him exhibiting relatively rarely until the 2000s. Most of Lynch’s social and artistic milieu is centred on the film world rather than the fine-art world. It would be hard to assign Lynch to any current art movement.

Comedy plays an important part in Lynch’s creative output. This comes in the form of non sequiturs, colloquial dialogue or comments laced with underlying oddness or menace. There is a terrible form of black humour in scenes of catastrophic injury or deformity accompanied by laconic commentary. Part of the humour comes from the severity of the physical evidence and the mildness of the commentary. Often it is hard to judge the tone the texts – lacking context and verbal delivery – and this makes leaves viewers feeling wrong footed. The comic precision of titles such as This Man was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago (2004) recalls the baroque extravagance of Dalí’s titles.

David Lynch, Change The Fuckin Channel Fuckface, 2008-2009, mixed media on panel, courtesy the artist

[Image: David Lynch, Change The Fuckin Channel Fuckface (2008-9), mixed media on panel, courtesy the artist]

Another example of black humour is Change the Fuckin’ Channel Fuckface (2008-9), where a pathetic but sinister figure of a woman seated on a bed faces us and speaks. The text in the picture reads “woman with broken neck and electric knife speaks to her husband”. We are in a scene with narrative content. We are in the position of the husband, threatened by his angry and dangerous wife. Drawing an analogy with cinema is obvious but it seems a valid approach in this case. We have characters with emotional charge between them, dramatic tension, black humour, incidental details, a domestic setting and a degree of realism.

Lynch sometimes reaches for the cosmic. This can be seen in the films Eraserhead, Dune and The Straight Story. In his art it comes in the form of vortices and starry skies. His wastelands, perhaps inspired the Californian desert near Lynch’s home, also have a timeless quality. (The haunting isolation of the desert can be seen near the end of Lost Highway.) There is certainly work to be done by researchers on describing exactly how American Lynch is as a maker of fine art. In some respects he conforms to the stereotype of an American artist – a fascination with pop culture, American vernacular speech, imagery processed through the mass media, the American landscape, casual violence – and other respects he is a European artist in his ambiguity, his allusions to past art, evident fascination with deep existential horror and his refusal to accept simple answers. In this mixture, he is close to Abstract Expressionist behaviour, tastes and allegiances, though his art has little in common with theirs.

The abstract has appeared in Lynch’s films in the form of ambiguous spaces, starry skies, unknown terrain, water, fire and smoke. Lynch uses abstract elements in his cinema for reasons of pacing, atmosphere and symbolism. This carries over into his art. One only needs to think of the interludes in Twin Peaks series one and two, when see trees in the wind or a hanging traffic light against the night sky.

David Lynch, Boy Lights Fire, 2010, mixed media on cardboard, courtesy the artist. Collection Bonnefantenmuseum

[Image: David Lynch, Boy Lights Fire (2010), mixed media on cardboard, courtesy the artist. Collection Bonnefantenmuseum]

How accomplished is the art here? Generally, the art is effective. Lynch is intelligent, thoughtful and resourceful and judges his art well. His proclivities are very individual and not every piece will please viewers – with some pieces too peculiar, forced, comic or macabre for viewers. There is art here that verges on the trivial. The drawing on the inside of matchbook covers (Lynch is a compulsive smoker) could also fall into this territory but they do not. The common imagery recurs but there seems greater attention and a willingness to reach an unexpected outcome.

One of the few direct connections to Lynch’s primary professional career is evident in the drawing on the front page of the first draft of Blue Velvet. The question arises: how does our familiarity with the films of Lynch influence our reading of the art? This is difficult to answer. If one knows the films and television of Lynch then one can find clear references in the art. The catalogue texts do not address the crossover between Lynch’s cinema and his art. This is probably wise. The important motivation behind presenting the art is to establish the seriousness of the Lynch as an artist and the nature and extent of his artistic output as an independent oeuvre.

For enthusiasts of Lynch’s films the links to his art are obvious. For example, Lynch from his earliest years not only enjoyed making props for his films but insisted on making materials for the films, treating the mise en scene as inhabitable paintings. The lamps in the exhibition are part of Lynch’s activity stretching back to Eraserhead, Elephant Man and Blue Velvet. The flickering lamp is one of the motifs of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, as found in the unwelcoming diner in Deer Meadow. The strobe effect has been a staple of Lynch’s imagery from the earliest years. Lynch made a short film of himself making a lamp in 2011. Even when Lynch the filmmaker had the funds to pay for expert prop makers, he chose to make his own, despite the heavy demands of directing. The dual practices of small-filmmaker as jack-of-all-trades and artist-as-director inform Lynch’s continuing desire to involve himself in prop making. Settings from Lynch’s films do appear in his art but those pictures have not been selected for this exhibition – perhaps because a curatorial intention to establish Lynch’s art as separate from his films.

As with his films, Lynch does not provide verbal interpretations of art works. Although he talks in general terms about how he works and his preferences, he eschews any discussion of the content of individual pictures. The catalogue authors do not examine specific works but write in general terms about Lynch’s art. That art is various, including prints (lithographs), original photographs (direct and manipulated), adapted vintage photographs, drawings, watercolours, oil paintings with assemblage, lamp sculptures and stills from films. Much of the art is undated, though it can be broken down into periods by style and material. Likewise, a fair amount is untitled.

There are a few slips in the catalogue. Idem Studio in Paris is repeatedly referred to as “Item Studio” and “Premonition Following an Evil Deed” becomes “…Evil Dead”. Generally, the catalogue is accurate and clear. The catalogue is a very informative and rounded view of Lynch’s activity as an artist and is likely to advance the cause of Lynch as an artist. Lynch is driven by deep fascinations and private engagements. The fact that this is clear in all of Lynch’s art, from adolescence to recent years, regardless of audience, demonstrates the seriousness of his practice. These are the hallmarks of a committed artist.

 

Stijn Huijts (ed.), David Lynch: Someone is in my House, Prestel, 2019, 304pp, fully col. illus., hardback, $65/£49.99, ISBN 978 3 7913 8470 2

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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