Dora Maar

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Although best known as the lover and muse of Picasso, Dora Maar (1907-1997) was notable creative figure in her own right. Respected as a fashion photographer, Surrealist artist and creator of collages, Maar produced art throughout her life. A new exhibition (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 5 June-29 July 2019; Tate Modern, London, 19 November 2019-15 March 2020; Getty Center, Los Angeles, 21 April-26 July 2020), reviewed from the catalogue, takes an overview of her art.

Born in Paris Henriette Théodora Markovitch in 1907, to a French mother and Croatian father, Dora pursued art from childhood supported by her parents. She studied art at the school of decorative arts and the cinegraphic technical school in Paris and painting under André Lhote (who taught, among others, Tamara de Lempicka). She first published photography as “Dora Markovitch” in 1930. By 1932 she had adopted the name Dora Maar as her professional moniker. She worked as a commercial photographer, providing images for advertisers and journals. Common subjects included fashion, beauty shots, architecture, interiors and nature. She also photographed street scenes, a common practice at the time.

She also produced erotic photography for Parisian journals ranging from the respectable to the trashy. She adopted styles that included the conventional and experimental. A frequent model for Maar was the Ukrainian-born model Assia Granatouroff (1911-1982), who the most successful nude model of the 1930s in Paris. She was noted for her athleticism, beauty and grace. The short hair and fit physique made her Granatouroff (publicly known as “Assia”) the epitome of the post-flapper sun- and sea-worshipper in the era of organised nudism. She modelled for many artists, including Maillol, Derain, Gromaire, Valadon and van Dongen.

The authors fail to note what seems to be a nude photograph of Maar herself (left figure, plate 45), published in Beautés magazine, January 1937. Maar did occasionally model nude but those photographs are rarely seen. Only a few have been published. No others are included in this catalogue.

At this stage she was developing strong formal concerns in both her commercial and private work, toying with Cubism and Expressionism. In this production of photography for commercial and artistic ends, Maar was in a similar position to Man Ray and Lee Miller. From the start of her career, Maar was inventive about combining elements.

In 1933 Maar photographed street life in Barcelona. This combined her political engagement (Spain was at this time a socialist republic) and artistic affiliation to Surrealism, with Spain (like Mexico) being seen as the quintessential Surrealist country.  In 1933 Maar was introduced to Surrealism and found a philosophical and political outlook that chimed with her pre-existing sympathy for the strange, buttressing her detachment from conventional aesthetics.

It was difficult for the women within Surrealism. Although encouraged to be free spirits, this often meant little more than modelling nude and submitting to the sexual advances of the male Surrealists. Musehood seemed to entail a fair amount of old-fashioned unliberated submission of the sexual variety. There were opportunities, however, and we can count more prominent women creators within the Surrealist movement than within any other pre-war art movement. Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Kay Sage, Meret Oppenheim, Frida Kahlo, Toyen, Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Remedios Varo and Maar – not to mention the creative influencers who did not leave bodies of work themselves, such as Gala Éluard (Dalí), Jacqueline Lamba (Breton), Nusch Éluard, Alice (Kiki de Montparnasse) Prin and others – all left a significant mark upon the Surrealist movement.

In documentary photographs taken around Paris in the mid-1930s, Maar used extreme close-ups of elements within their normal context, juxtaposing the distortion and oppressive size of an element contrasted with the apparent normality of the surroundings. This induces a sense of strangeness regarding our common surroundings. The irreverence towards public statuary is apparent in the close-up view of the detail of a Pont Alexandre III of a female statue’s hand holding a torch. The extreme cropping turns the civic symbolism of virtue bringing enlightenment into an explicit sexual image of the female hand manipulating a phallus. The departing ships in the Seine are the shed issue drifting away. Pont Mirabeau (1935) shows a female statue as if in peril suspended over a fall into the river. The angle of the shot and the animation of the allegorical figure’s face give the impression of a woman desperate to save herself from drowning. Thus a banal Belle Époque adornment becomes expressive of the hidden reality in a person’s life – an eruption of honest anxiety unperceived by the multitudes which pass by daily.

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[Image: Dora Maar, Untitled (1935), photomontage, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris
Repro © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Georges Meguerditchian]

Between 1934 and 1938 Maar produced and published 20 montages which are her best known works. Le Simulateur (1935) turns the curving barrel ceiling of the Orangerie into an inverted tunnel – part sewer, part race track – which is animated by a boy curved into an arch of hysteria. 29, rue d’Astorg (1935) has a kitsch ornament which is missing its head placed in a distorted arcade. Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska points that Maar’s montages bear a striking resemblance to a montage by Breton, Éluard and Suzanne Muzard, published in 1931 (dated “1931-3” here). Whether or not Maar’s approach was inspired by this example, she made it her own. What are the characteristics of Maar’s montages? Dark tonality, oneiric quality, claustrophic atmosphere, poetic sentiment, absence of easy humour, internal consistency in terms of scale/lighting/perspective/placement. These were frequently elements which she had photographed specifically with an end in mind, largely eschewing found photographs that were a staple of Surrealist montages. The catalogue reproduces the montages with the constituent photographs and some mock-ups.

There is a powerfully sinister undercurrent to Maar’s art that one does not find in even the more provocative art. Only in Bellmer’s obsessive erotic graphics and Magritte’s 1925-1929 dark claustrophic paintings do we find something comparable to Maar’s emotional darkness. In Maar’s montages there are disorientating inversions and compressions of space, as well as suffocating hermetically sealed spaces. It is worth noting that Maar maintained good standing with both Breton’s official Surrealist group and Georges Bataille’s renegade Documents faction. She photographed subjects from both factions, was Bataille’s lover and was a member of the anti-fascist Contre-Attaque group, which Breton left after a falling out with Bataille. Bataille’s outlook was considerably darker than Breton’s, steeped in mysticism, paganism and violence.

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[Image: Dora Maar, Portrait of Ubu (1936), gelatin silver print, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Philippe Migeat]

Maar’s contact with Picasso from 1935 onwards (ending in 1946) caused her to resume painting and drawing, activity that would last for subsequent decades. Maar photographed Picasso painting Guernica (1937) for the Spanish pavilion of the World Fair. She even painted sections under Picasso’s direction. Most of the art was derivative of Picasso’s style and content of the time. She received some praise but frankly much of the art is, whilst being competent, lugubrious and dull. Tonally dark, favouring cool colours and dwelling upon the straitened circumstances of the Occupation, the pictures do not have the urgency, inventiveness or the sardonic humour of Picasso. Picasso was attracted to Maar due to the air of danger, elegance and neuroticism apparent in her behaviour. A severe nervous breakdown in 1946 (for which she was hospitalised) is seen a contributing factor in her self-imposed retreat from public life. It was not a lasting state but what became a persistent trait was diffidence regarding exposing her new and old art, much of which she destroyed.

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[Image: Dora Maar, La Cage (1943), oil on canvas, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Private collection, Yann Panier, Courtesy Galerie Brame
& Lorenceau]

In the late 1940s Maar became increasingly attached to religious observance and became semi-reclusive, living alone. Starting in the late 1950s, Maar began working in abstracts, using very simple processes and forms. By the 1980s that had developed into the overlapping fields of photographs, paintings and photographed paintings that were abstract, relatively sparse, most of them imaginary landscapes. They are much closer to Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field Painting and Taschisme. In palette they are restrained. They are very engaging; they show an impressive detachment of ego and emotional and stylistic freedom. The only problem with appreciating these pieces is the fact that due to Maar’s practice of destroying art we lack large bodies of evolving work. The late abstracts here seem occasionally jerky or flighty, lacking the grounding in a larger legible corpus. The danger of this situation is that it pushes the viewer towards regarding these pieces as slight – always a potential response to lightly worked abstracts.

The best of Maar’s montages are as good as the best Surrealist art made in Paris in the 1930s. Her paintings and drawings of the 1930s to 1950s are occasionally atmospheric but ultimately derivative and second rate. The late abstract photographs are stimulating and more work is needed to exhibit and catalogue these works, establishing a chronology and assembling groups and themes. At her death, her studio contents were dispersed uncatalogued, which has made understanding her development – mostly secluded from public exposure – difficult. This catalogue contributes to Maar’s standing as a serious and inventive artist. Much critical work has still to be done but what is made clearer than before by this exhibition and catalogue is that Maar’s best art is strong and her output overall rewards attention.

 

Damarice Amao, Amanda Maddox, Karolina Ziebinska (eds.), Dora Maar, J. Paul Getty Museum, 7 January 2020, hardback, 208pp, 240 col. illus., $40, ISBN 978 1 60606 629 4

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Matisse: Metamorphoses

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[Image: Exhibition view «Matisse – Metamorphoses»,Kunsthaus Zürich, 2019. Photo: Kunsthaus Zürich, Franca Candrian, works © Succession Henri Matisse/2019ProLitteris, Zurich]

Matisse: Metamorphoses is an exhibition that examines the master’s work in sculpture and how it relates to his two-dimensional art (Kunsthaus Zürich, 30 August-8 December 2019; Musée Matisse, Nice, 7 February-6 May 2020). This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

[…] in order to express form, I sometimes engage with sculpture, which allows me to move around the object in order to get to know it better , instead of remaining in front of a flat surface.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) made sculpture throughout his career and it was always close to his heart. He was often photographed making sculpture though the pieces themselves met mixed critical receptions and were exhibited only irregularly until his last years. Nearly the entirety of his sculptures was figures – either as nudes or portrait heads – most of them small in stature. The exhibition includes 58 pieces from Musée Matisse, Nice the world’s largest collection of Matisse’s relatively small sculptural oeuvre of just over 80 (mostly small) works. The exhibition includes all states of key works, namely Madeleine I-II, Henriette I-III, Jeanette I-V and Back I-IV. Some of the catalogue texts address certain pieces. The reading of Reclining Nude I (Aurora) (1907) is particularly acute.

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[Image: Henri Matisse, Madeleine I (1901), bronze, 54.6 x 19.4 x 17.2 cm, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bequest of Harriet Lane Levy. Photo: Ben Blackwell© Succession Henri Matisse/2019 ProLitteris, Zurich]

This exhibition includes drawings, prints and paintings which are connected to the sculpture. Matisse commonly used his sculptures in still-life paintings. There are drawings and prints of the same model who appeared in a sculpture. Matisse spent periods of years working with only one or two models, allowing us to connect art with specific individuals. The identity and stories of Matisse’s models was the subject of an exhibition and catalogue. Even so, in some cases there is very little public information – quite a contrast with some of the celebrated models of Maillol, Picasso and others. Also included are photographs of sculpture in progress and lost works. The artist at work suggests his approach and the studio setting within which he worked.

From early in his career, evidence tells us that Matisse was serious about his sculpture. Matisse took lessons from Antoine Bourdelle in 1900 and worked in his studio. He returned to modelling in clay and plaster periodically throughout his career. At the end of his life Matisse was pleased to have his sculpture recognised as a significant part of his output. He commented with satisfaction the late exhibitions that featured his sculpture.  One reason Matisse’s sculpture has not received the attention it perhaps should have, is that Matisse – despite his achievements as a draughtsman – is seen as a master of colour. His achromatic carvings and bronze castings do not contribute anything to discussion of Matisse as a painter in colour, arranger of colour and generator of light. It is understandable that critics have therefore not known how to fit the sculpture into the story of Matisse or his major contributions to art.

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[Image: Hans Marsilius Purrmann, Matisse in his studio, 1900–1903, Archives Henri Matisse, Issy-les-Moulineaux, © 2019 ProLitteris, Zurich]

One catalogue essayist suggests that the interviews, writings and photographs of intermediate states were all – partly at least – a campaign to explain how complex and difficult his work was to counteract the frequent comments that his art looked effortless. This was manifest in his decision to exhibit (in a 1945 exhibition in Paris) finished paintings alongside photographs of unfinished states of these works. This was a veritable demonstration that his art was not simple or effortless to create. This inevitably raises the matter of whether any of the anxiety at these comments (not necessarily criticisms, but possibly intended – or perceived – that way) influenced how Matisse worked. Was there a possibility that this desire to prove his art was hard won led to Matisse performing this in the form of extra stages for photographic records and complication of the facture of his art? This seems unlikely but if the essayist’s hypothesis is correct then these are considerations worth entertaining.

Matisse made extensive use of artistic and ethnographic publications of female nudes. Straddling the blurred line of erotica, anthropology and anatomical reference works, the publications Mes Modèes, L’Étude académique, L’Humanité feminine  offered Matisse access to Africa and the Orient without having to travel, though he later would visit Algeria and Morocco. The varied anatomies, “typical” poses and artificial positioning of models as ethnographic examples provided a visual stimuli that was not otherwise available. The exhibition and catalogue include the magazine pages that Matisse used as working sources. The Serpentine (1909) is a standing female nude with one elbow resting on a plinth, an image found in a commercial photograph. What caught Matisse’s imagination was curving serpentine through line that moved from elbow to foot.

Matisse collected art from Africa (and Oceania) and that provided him with a non-Western sculptural syntax, allowing him to see a different route to figuration. It provided necessary rupture. Art nègre became a touchstone for the Fauvists, as it later did for Picasso, and it could be seen at the Musée Trocadéro and shops in Paris. The abrupt alien formulations and brusque geometry of art nègre were so adeptly incorporated into visual Modernism that they seem natural to us. The conceptualisation of body parts in African carving as autonomous masses not organically connected or articulated offered Matisse a radically new way of assembling figures – one sees that very clearly in the artificiality of the Matisse’s portraits of the 1910s. Using geometry for anatomy and treating body parts as solid, discrete and non-realistic forms also presented an approach to sculpture that offered an alternative to the Egyptian, Hellenic and impressionistic methods. Vladimir Markov’s insightful observations of 1913 on the subject of art nègre are quoted in the catalogue essay on this. The exhibition includes works by Rodin, Bourdelle, Maillol, Renoir and Picasso – much of which Matisse would have known. There are pieces of African art and Greco-Roman statues from the artist’s collection, and a selection of pieces from other collections.

“Really, Latin perfection, I don’t care about it, and all this complexity of modelling. It is only the Negroes that concern me any longer, since my last visit to the Trocadéro…” – Matisse, c. 1927

Ellen McBreen’s reading of European Modernists’ subsequent disavowal of the importance of African primitivism in their development as a strategy to cover their tracks is too harsh. There was a degree of self-serving reinvention about these disavowals but they are no different from the common reframing of the past to favour the author in late-life memoirs.

 

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Matisse commonly used system of series in his sculpture. He would take a work to a state he was satisfied with, have it cast and begin the subsequent work in the series using the original or a cast of the first work. We should not see this as expressly a series of provisional stages preceding a final resolution; rather we should see it as a completed work giving rise to subsequent commentary or correction of the previous work but which exists independently. This is different from Matisse’s habit of having his oil paintings photographed at different stages. In those cases, the initial stages were incorrect or otherwise deficient and were subsumed by an improvement. Matisse could of course have resumed work on a painting by starting a new version and preserving the preceding one. He did not lack for materials, after all. He did keep records for his own edification. Apparently, Matisse’s studio was next to Rodin’s when Matisse resumed sculpting seriously in 1908-9 (and teaching painting, drawing and sculpting). Sandra Gianfreda suggests that Rodin’s practice of taking and using casts of states of sculpture in progress would probably have been known to Matisse, who was deeply influenced by Rodin at the start of his career as a sculptor. Apparently, Matisse did not conceive of his sculptures as needing to be considered in relation to one another. “The Backs were never understood by the artist to be a series; all four bronzes were only grouped retrospectively, the more so as The Back II was only discovered posthumously.”[iii]

Although Matisse asserted in public that single paintings developed in a direct sequential fashion, incrementally advancing to resolution, in private he commented that sometimes he would find himself dissatisfied with a painting and entirely reconceive it at the beginning of a session.[iv] Thus there was no secure path to completion and any logic of progression in a sequence of working photographs could be a retrospective conceit of the viewer – at least in the case of some paintings. (Contrast this with Picasso’s sequences, such as the Bull lithograph, which seems deliberately schematic in its approach.) The issue of seriality is addressed in the display of a number of photolithographs of drawing sequences. This helps to demonstrate points that are relevant to Matisse’s sculpture.

An essay is devoted to the Backs series, fittingly, as it is Matisse’s most significant achievement in sculpture. It notes the existence of a first (“version 0”) lost version, which is known only from photographs. This sculpture reconceived of the rear view of a female nude, with different emphases. This series is also the closest to painting because it is a bas relief, thus is simultaneously pictorial and sculptural, flat and modelled. The Backs were not typical of Matisse’s sculpture, which were very volumetric, fully modelled and sometimes conceived in the round. Almost all Matisse’s sculptures were produced through modelling not carving, and none by assemblage. That said, Matisse’s three-dimensional art can be strikingly linear.

This exhibition catalogue presents a broad and serious treatment of Matisse’s sculpture in depth and in context. For anyone interested in Matisse’s art will find surprises and new information therein.

 

Kunsthaus Zürich (ed.), Matisse: Metamorphoses, Kunsthaus Zürich/Musée Matisse/Scheidegger & Spiess, 2019, paperback, 232pp, fully illus., €48, ISBN 978 3 85881 836 2 (French-language version available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

John Frederick Lewis

John Frederick Lewis, In the Bezestein, El Khan Khalil, Cairo, c. 1860. Watercolour, wash, graphite under drawing. Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

[Image: John Frederick Lewis, In the Bezestein, El Khan Khalil, Cairo (c. 1860), watercolour, wash, graphite under drawing, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.]

For anyone who missed the exhibition John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame (Watts Gallery, Surrey, 9 July-3 November 2019) Briony Llewellyn’s small but informative catalogue provides an informative consolation. This review of the exhibition is from the catalogue.

John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876) was one the leading British Orientalist painters from the middle of the C19th. He began his career as a watercolourist, painting portraits, animal paintings, hunting and fishing scenes and landscapes around the British Isles. His elaborate but painterly realism was in the English tradition. He trained in the family workshop rather than the academy.

A journey to Spain 1832-3 turned Lewis on to the subject of Orientalism. Spain, with its heritage of Arab occupation and Moorish architecture, was seen as an amalgam of Oriental and Occidental. It provided a safe glimpse of Islamic-influenced culture without the dangers of Islam for European travellers. At that time the bandit (along with the Gypsy) offered artists and writers a chance to embody the rebellious romantic archetype of the outsider living by private tribal loyalty and ancient codes of solidarity in the face of norms of social conventions.

In 1837 Lewis left England for the Mediterranean, travelling through Italy, Greece and Albania to reach Constantinople. He stayed there, painting Ottoman subjects, along with other artists, including David Wilkie. He later moved to Cairo. Llewellyn recounts the success of the watercolour The Hhareem [sic] (1850) when exhibited in London. It played on the fascination with the Arab slave trade, which exerted a powerful moral repugnance mixed with sadistic attraction over European viewers. The subject of the painting was an Ethiopian woman. French author Achille Constant Théodore Émile Prisse d’Avennes reports that Lewis had a friend buy the slave in order to allow him access to her as a model but the model had a strong aversion to Lewis. This may or may not be true but Llewellyn suspects Prisse’s account to be at least biased. In England his reputation was spread by the picturesque anecdotes of William Makepeace Thackery.

John Frederick Lewis, The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, Cairo, 1872. Watercolour and bodycolour on paper, Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford)

[Image: John Frederick Lewis, The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, Cairo (1872), watercolour and bodycolour on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford).]

He returned to England with his new bride Marian in 1851. Thereafter he spent his career creating images of the Near East, especially Egypt, using his sketches, memories and costumes and props in his studio. (Some of his Eastern garments were down through inheritance and survive today.) Upon his return to England, Lewis resigned from the Society of Painters in Water Colours (of which he had been a member since 1829), which is seen as a tactical decision, because no artist was permitted to become elected a member of the Royal Academy whilst also being a member of any other professional association. He was elected ARA in 1859 and elected RA in 1865. Despite his high profile and the many honours bestowed him, he was a private man – even described as reclusive. He disliked his duties and proved a poor teacher during the stipulated attendances as visiting tutor at the academy schools. Lewis preferred to remain in Walton-on-Thames (from 1854 until his death), Surrey rather than spend much time in London not dictated by his duties.

Lewis used himself as a model for Oriental men, his visage and beard looking suitable for the roles. There are photographs of him in Eastern costume. This was partly symbolic and partly a practical consideration. Llewellyn points out that artists modelling themselves as Arabs was commonplace and that sometimes this fact was known to viewers. In Lewis’s case this is unclear and she did not find contemporary references to the artist being recognised by the general viewers within his paintings. Marian posed for some of the European wives within harem scenes. Llewellyn wisely does not become caught up on “cultural appropriation” and other such anachronistic retrospective views and instead talks about the then-current conventions. However, the use of “Orient”, “Oriental”, “Eastern”, “Arab” and so forth in quotation marks nearly throughout in discussions of the Victorian reception of Lewis’s art is an unnecessary concession to political fashion. Readers are informed enough to recognise that the historical conceptualisation of these terms is culturally freighted and thus not necessarily accurate. Such ostentatious authorial signalling is irksome and mars Llewellyn’s informative, clear and otherwise well judged text.

John Frederick Lewis, The Pipe Bearer, 1859. Watercolour, pencil and bodycolour on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford)

[Image: John Frederick Lewis, The Pipe Bearer (1859), watercolour, pencil and bodycolour on paper. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford).]

Typical scenes included views of bazaars, grand interiors, hareems, wall gardens, schools, courtyards and other recognisably Oriental settings. The figures are prominent and accurately painted, with attention paid to mood and expression. Some paintings are of single figures, with the setting reduced to background details. Other paintings are what could be described as interiors with figures. This exhibition contained pages from Lewis’s early sketchbooks, his pre-travel watercolour scenes of Britain, art made in Egypt and oil paintings executed back in England for exhibition. These are loaned from various collections. Also exhibited but not illustrated or transcribed in the catalogue are letters relating to Lewis. The catalogue makes a good introduction to one of Britain’s most celebrated Orientalists.

 

Briony Llewellyn, John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame, Watts Gallery Artist Village, 2019, paperback, 55pp, fully illus., ISBN 978 0 9933902 4 1

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

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

truegritprint7_low

[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.

truegritprint8_low

[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.

truegritprint9_low

[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

gm_369767EX1_1000x1000

[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.

gm_369680EX1_2000x2000

[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.

gm_369732EX1_2000x2000

[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
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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

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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