The Renaissance of Etching

 

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/358012

[Image: Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola), The Lovers (1527-1530), etching; second state of two, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.70.3(102), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

This review evaluates the catalogue for The Renaissance of Etching, a recent exhibition of the earliest etchings, charting the development of the medium and its partial (and eventual total) eclipse of engraving (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 23 October 2019-20 January 2020; scheduled for Albertina Museum, Vienna, 12 February-10 May 2020). The exhibition covers artists from the Low Countries, Germany, Italy and France, including others, such as the Swiss Urs Graf (c. 1485-c. 1528).

The oldest forms of printmaking are woodcut or wood engraving (relief method, with the raised matrix on the block holding the ink). A later development was engraving on sheet metal. Originally, iron was used until the 1540s, when it was supplanted by copper; this lasted until now, with zinc becoming a common alternative metal in the Twentieth Century. In etchings the matrix design is cut with a fine gouge, being intaglio printmaking where the ink is held in the depressed lines. The plates were inked, with ink on/in the matrix, damp paper laid on the plate and then ran through a roller press, thereby transferring ink from plate to paper.

Engraving is generally made by a specialist cutter who was not always the designer. It is carefully planned in advance and very difficult to correct. It favours parallel hatching – straight or curvilinear – and sometimes cross hatching and stippling. Etching is an intaglio printmaking system done by drawing lines with a fine needle in a wax (or oil paint) covering the metal plate. This design is then bitten with a mordant (a corrosive solution), leaving the matrix in the metal, which holds the ink. Technically, the engraved plate and the etched plate are similar in appearance and structure. However, etching allows styles that imitate engraving but also permits much greater freedom of handling, design and correction. It favours a more spontaneous approach and permits creation of prints that have the style of a sketch. It is also quicker to execute.

The exhibition The Renaissance of Etching explores the origins of etching and its birth as a regularly practiced printing medium during the Renaissance in Northern Europe and Italy. Etching technique was long established. It arrived as a means of printmaking via metalsmiths and armorers in the production of armour, arms and tableware with elaborate incised decoration. The designs included floral, vegetal, abstract, heraldic and pictorial ones. It was the artists of Augsburg and Nuremberg – a noted centre for metalwork in Bavaria – who pioneered print etching on iron plate. This group included Daniel Hopfer (1471-1536), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), his pupil Sebald Beham (1500-1550) and Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531) and Hans Burgkmair the Younger (1500-c. 1562).

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/336272

[Image: Daniel Hopfer, Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c. 1515), etching.
The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951 (51.501.383), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The first etchings as flat-metal-plate intaglio prints were made around 1490. The earliest illustrated examples are from that time. The first print in the exhibition is dated c. 1500, made by Hopfer, who was the most prolific and creative among the Augsburg etchers. Hopfer is thought to have etched three excellent religious figures on a steel cuirass, with a deep and dense border, exhibited in the display. Hopfer was a brilliant innovator in the field of etching. Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c. 1510-5) is an etching in the style of Dürer (the dramatic cover illustration). Hopfer used brush effects to create wash-like shading. Beham produced work in various genres, adding to his extensive print corpus. Dürer only made a few pieces through etching, preferring to return to the established mediums of woodcut and engraving. His etchings are not qualitatively different from his more numerous and famous engravings.

Damage to plates and prints caused by rusting was only overcome by moving to copper, a move that seems to have been led by Dutch master printmaker Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), following the development of a new mordant. The Germans adopted the copperplate in the 1540s, finding that although the softer metal was less durable than iron, it allowed finer lines and suffered less from corrosion. Later, steel facing of copper plates would increase the durability. Microscopic scrutiny of plates and proofs reveal matrices cut by combinations of engraving, etching and drypoint. We find a range of approaches to craftsmanship, with Dürer and Leyden exhibiting consummate care and Schiavone at the opposite end. “The hastiness of execution and the sketchy, free quality of Schiavone’s paintings, drawings, and prints proved alarming to his contemporaries, who expressed a mixture of admiration and frustration with his technique, considering it at once admirable for its spirit and grace but careless for its lack of finish.”

Leyden, Jan Gossart (Mabuse) (c. 1478-1532), Frans Crabbe (c. 1480-1553), Nicolaas Hogenberg (c. 1500-1539), Dirck Vellert (c. 1480/85-c. 1547) and Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen (c. 1504-1559) are discussed as practitioners of etching in the Netherlands. Other prominent artists who produced etchings include Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538), Flemish artists Hieronymous Cock (1518-1570) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526/30-1569). Bruegel made a sequence of drawings recalling his journey over the Alps, which would leave such a dramatic legacy in his art, which is ostensibly set in Flanders yet with mountainous terrain. Bruegel’s Alpine landscape drawings no longer exist but we have the etchings, some of which are illustrated. Bruegel started his career in Antwerp as a designer of prints; his Rabbit Hunt (1560) is the only print by his hand. There is no extant painting of this composition.

The Rabbit Hunt, 1560

[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Rabbit Hunt (1560), etching and engraving. Published by Hieronymus Cock. The Albertina Museum, Vienna (DG 1955/37) (Etch-170)]

Francesco Parmigianino (1503-1540) produced numerous etchings. The fast and free medium lent itself to the artist’s temperament. Parmigianino made designs for block cutters to translate into chiaroscuro woodcuts – a specialist skill – but was able to express himself quickly and directly in etching. His art was noted for its grace and elegance. His chalk and highlight drawings feature extensive contrapposto, exaggerated proportions and sweeping lines.

There was a burst of activity in France of the 1540s, particularly at Fountainebleau palace, a centre of court patronage. Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (c. 1511-1585) produced some very detailed and precise architectural etchings. Large Architectural Composition (1551) is of an invented Italianate Renaissance palace. It is so detailed and realistically lit that it functions as a painting or advanced computer generated imagery that one finds in architectural presentations or video games.

Compositions in all of the major genres make an appearance in etched form: biblical, proverb, portrait, landscape, history, mythology, topography, cartography, architecture, scenography and ornamental. There are some appealing images illustrated, including those with backstories. Altdorfer made a pair of etchings of the interior of the synagogue at Regensburg in 1519 just as it was being demolished. The Jews of the city were expelled and their synagogue replaced by a church. Altdorfer documents a building in the knowledge that it was due to be destroyed and that life in the city was about to change.

26.72.68

[Image: Albrecht Altdorfer, The Entrance Hall of the Regensburg Synagogue (1519), etching, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.72.68), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

A view of a village by Augustin Hirschvogel (1503-1553) is printed on blue paper. A handful of these etchings were handcoloured with watercolour, presumably by assistants in the print studio. Non-guild members (including women and children) were sometimes paid a pittance to colour prints individually. Hirschvogel designed the defences of Vienna in preparation for Turkish invasion. His map of Vienna is included. Mannerist Juste de Juste (1501-1559) produced a peculiar etching of nude male acrobats in a highly artificial pose. The body forms, lack of faces and extreme stylisation prefigure (and perhaps inspired?) Salvador Dalí’s playful nude drawings of the 1930s and 1940s, as seen illustrated in his autobiography.

The use of comparative illustrations and multiple impressions gives a broad view of the practices and products of early printmakers who used etching. In some cases the original compositional sketch in ink is displayed next to the resultant print. The essayists are specialists who explain the development of etching in terms of national schools and regional centres of activity. The essays and catalogue entries are informative, clearly written and present the latest research (including original research) on exhibited items. A glossary, notes, bibliography and index comprise appendices. The Renaissance of Etching is an ideal reference work for anyone interested in the development of printmaking and the art of the Late Renaissance.

 

Catherine Jenkins, Nadine M. Orenstein, Freyda Spira, The Renaissance of Etching, Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale), 2019, hardback, 304pp, 237 illus., $65, ISBN 978 1 58839 649 5

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Fernand Khnopff: Between Eros and Thanatos

7.9 bis - meduse - via Galerie Nagy

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Study for Le sang de Meduse (1898), pencil and coloured pencil on paper, 22 x 15 cm. Private collection, courtesy of Richard Nagi, Dover Street Gallery, London]

Featuring prominently in this important contribution to studies of international Symbolism is the house-studio of Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921). Khnopff was one of the most influential artists in this field, yet outside of enthusiasts of fin-de-siècle beaux-arts the artist is not well understood. His art has recently come to be reassessed. Khnopff was a widely known and influential figure in the international Symbolist movement of the 1890-1914 period. He exhibited with the leading vanguard group of the 1890s Les XX, beside Ensor, Van Gogh, Seurat, Redon and Rops. He also exhibited abroad and his art was widely reproduced. He exchanged pictures with fellow artists, including Burne-Jones. This is the English translation of the extensive monographic exhibition, held at the Petit Palais, Paris 2018-9.

Khnopff funded the building of a unique domicile, meticulously designed by him. This house-studio was constructed between 1900 and 1902, in the Ixelles district of Bruxelles. It was designed as an immersive spectacle, in the modern style. The building featured high ceilings, dramatic drapes and clean lines, with much painted white. It lacked dado rails and strongly patterned carpets. Its public rooms lacked furniture. There were satin curtains rather than internal doors. It was designed in a Secession style, with polished walls give the interior a chilly unearthly atmosphere.

Despite Khnopff’s reputation for isolation, according to the testimony of visitors he used his studio in a way that was no different from those of other artists. At this time, the studios of artists were social spaces where the artist could hold court, show his wares and entertain. It was a place where an artist could control an environment for the display of his art and even make the spaces art. His own was prominently positioned in all rooms, with a few key pieces by fellow Symbolist artists. His house was featured in a journal article that included photographs of the public rooms. The press described the artist-designed building as a coded self-portrait: imposing, inscrutable, elegant and individual. Regrettably, this experience is unrecoverable. The art was dispersed by auction after the artist’s death in 1922 and the house was demolished in 1938.

Khnopff grew up in Bruges. He studied law at university in Bruxelles before undergoing extensive studies in fine art, partly under Xavier Mellery. Although he is seen as anti-academic (specifically his non-narrative, ahistorical, Romantic, Tonalist tendencies), his grounding was in academic art. Some of his heroes (Naturalists, James McNeill Whistler, Gustave Moreau, Burne-Jones and Alfred Stevens) contributed to Salons and won prizes, as well as exhibiting with independent groups. Khnopff followed the same approach. His preference for drawing (especially with limited tints) rather than painting is a deliberate distancing from Salon art. Yet his fastidious technique and aversion to the spontaneous effects or materials that are difficult to control marks out Khnopff as a temperamentally conservative artist and character. His attachment to art fulfilled emotional needs and his art reflects that; it is almost devoid of intellectual content. It is poetic in character.

A good example of that is the frontispiece Khnopff illustrated for the first edition of Georges Rodenbach’s landmark novella Bruges-la-Morte (1894), which involves death of a wife, a widower’s grief and the appearance of a doppelganger, set in the moribund city in Flanders. It is essentially an extended dream and mediation on loss and yearning. Khnopff’s frontispiece was partly based on a photograph. Khnopff was an avid user of photography, both to provide sources and to reproduce his art. This catalogue includes many of the sources beside the art. Khnopff also augmented photographs of his art with additional touches.

4.2 -via symbolisme

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Portrait of Jeanne Kefer (1885), oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. The Getty Museum of Art, Los Angeles]

Khnopff earned a living from his society portraits, as did Klimt. Some of his early portraits are very fine. Khnopff shared with Klimt the use of the peculiar modern format of the square – a surpassing rarity as a ratio for easel paintings before the 1880s. It seems to have been a Secession proclivity. Khnopff used it for his portraits, Klimt for his landscapes and (later) Schiele for his early (1909-10) nudes. Khnopff also used the extremely elongated vertical for drawings of standing figures; Klimt did likewise, as well for the vertical of his controversial (censored) poster design; Klinger also used the extreme horizontal in a number of paintings and prints (including The Glove suite).

One of Khnopff’s outstanding square-format portraits – Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer (1885) – is now owned by the Getty Museum, LA. In it, the young child (dressed formally for the outdoors) is at the back of the shallow pictorial space, standing with her back touching a closed door. It curiously prefigures the distanced, alienated children of Schiele’s drawings, emphasising her physical and emotional isolation from the viewer. This approach reinforces the impression of vulnerability.

Khnopff used his younger sister Marguerite as his model for face and clothed figures. His source photographs are reproduced. Presumably, his nudes are of erotic photographs (sources not reproduced). The faces and unclothed bodies generally look unpersuasive, like poor montages. Marguerite’s visage was re-imagined through the visage through the lens of Greek statuary. His figures are types rather than individuals.

Khnopff’s preferred landscapes were rather bucolic views around the forest at Fosset, a village close to Brussels. The landscapes are minor scenes played in a minor key. They are not substantial and while naturalistic lack the punch of Harald Sohlberg and Nikolai Astrup. The oddly lack the Pictorialist approach that unifies his more artificial scenes. The townscapes – typified by An Abandoned City (1904), which shows a few Flemish townhouses being encroached upon by the sea – are the best of Khnopff’s views, using vignetting and unifying tone. I almost wrote “art set outdoors”, yet in his airless oneiric art, with its stress upon motifs rather than elaborated compositions, the distinction between indoors and outdoors is a muzzy one. The forest landscapes are so tamed they could be the corner of a drawing room; figure motifs float in suspension as if they are in misty gorges. It seems there is not a single picture by Khnopff that includes direct sunlight. Colour is muted, definition is misty, lighting is crepuscular. Streets are largely or entirely unpeopled.

A Souvenir of Flanders (A Canal) 1904 (pencil & pastel on paper)

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Des souvenirs de la Flandre: Un canal (1904), pencil, charcoal and pastel on paper, 25 x 42cm. The Hearn Family Trust, New York]

What are the other qualities of Khnopff’s art? Timelessness, stasis, immobility, lack of vitality. His nudes are idealistic and detached. They are erotic but sexless, eschewing the sordid and corporeal qualities of the female body. (There appears to be no male nudes – aside from academies from his student years – made by Khnopff.) His nudes, sexes decorously concealed, are too vaporous to be carnal. One cannot imagine touching or kissing the subjects of Khnopff’s unearthly visions, except in a dream or fever, so beloved of Symbolist novelists. This is the art of a man who venerates women greatly but probably does not understand them much. In this sacralising approach we find indications of a degree of squeamishness on the matter of the sex act. (His only attempt at marriage was late, uncomfortable and soon dissolved.)

Passing thoughts. In 1886 Ensor would accuse Khnopff of plagiarising Ensor’s painting. The two artists are seen as embodying two poles of Flemish art: the Symbolist v. the realist, the mystical v. the satirical, the fastidious v. the painterly, the Flemish Primitives v. Rembrandt/Rubens. En passant boulevard du Régent (1881) bears a strong resemblance to Degas’s Place de la Concorde (1875), something which bears closer investigation. Khnopff is more an artist of morbidity than of eroticism.

The exhibition selection is broad. Sketchbook pages catch the artist at his least guarded and most spontaneous. Variants – some original drawings and variants juxtaposed with modified photographic reproductions – and a wide selection of art and sources provide us with a good understanding of the artist’s output and working methods. As with fellow artists of his movement, Khnopff paid a great attention to framing his art – a common trait among the Symbolists, Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau. This catalogue includes reproductions of works with elaborate original frames that Khnopff commissioned.

Author Michel Draguet is director general of Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, an academic expert and a writer of the highest ability. (One wishes heads of all major museums had such impeccable grasp of the subjects of their institutions.) His knowledge of Belgian and French art and the fin-de-siècle movements is vast; he has excelled in curation and publications on the subjects and Khnopff is a subject placed centrally within his area of expertise. This catalogue covers a wide range of subjects in great detail, tying together literary and artistic influences, including detailed discussion of iconography. Links to Romanticism, Stéphane Mallarmé, Maurice Maeterlinck and Rodenbach are discussed extensively. The role of polychromed plaster statuary is set out with Khnopff’s rarely reproduced examples presented as an active attempt to revivify Greek precedents. An account of the operation of Les XX, Rose-Croix, Munich Secession and La Libre Esthétique and Khnopff’s level of engagement with these is particularly interesting for those studying those groups.

This is a beautiful and serious book about a significant artist and can be warmly recommended.

 

Michel Draguet, Fernand Khnopff, 2020, Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), hardback, 304 pages, 210 col. illus., $60, ISBN 978 0 300 24650 6

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Learning to Love Edward Hopper

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[Image: Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning (1950), oil on canvas. © Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation, VG Bild Kunst]

Part of growing up is learning to identify and correct your errors. This is different from taste changing. It is easy to have a misapprehension and for it to go unchallenged due to laziness or preoccupation with subjects that fully hold one’s attention. One assumption I had as a young artist was that Edward Hopper was easy. He went for the obvious; he relied on movie iconography and cinematographic techniques; he dealt in clichés. Whilst these observations are true, they are not the whole truth. The obvious can sometimes be the iconic that we remember; Hopper’s use of the cinematographic brought some new imagery and references to his art; clichés can be moving. My painting tutor at college said “I’ve been painting sunsets recently. I know they are clichés but I find myself attracted to them because they are beautiful. Even clichés can be beautiful while still being clichés.”

There are tough criticisms to be made of the art of Edward Hopper (1882-1967). These weaknesses are apparent in two new books on his art, published to coincide with the current exhibition Edward Hopper: American Landscapes (Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 26 January-17 May). Hopper is weak as a figure painter. There is no getting around it. His anatomies are creaky; his facial expressions are wooden; his skin tones are unpersuasive. There is no reason why should have been so. He could imbue his art with variety, energy and panache – see his drawings of trees and some very solid watercolours. Yet, for whatever reason, Hopper’s figures fail. This is not universal. Night on the El Train (1918) is an early etching which shows a couple in a subway carriage. The positions and attitudes of the couple are natural, telling and fluently depicted. The style is vigorous and fluent. Yet more often, Hopper’s figures are waxen mannequins.

A pertinent question is: do Hopper’s limitations as a figure painter make his paintings less effective? Many viewers note the poignancy of the situations, commenting on the emotional tenor of Hopper’s characters – muted, reserved and melancholy. Perhaps Hopper’s characters are more plangent for their lack of expressiveness. It is their very inexpressiveness which is expressive. On a point of principle, we can find Hopper’s shortcomings of an artist as an overall detriment, notwithstanding his achievements in spite of these limitations.

Edward Hopper A-Z is a collection of snippets collated by Ulf Küster, curator and author, during his work on the Swiss exhibition of Hopper’s art. It covers various aspects of Hopper’s life and art, including many illustrations, in a small hardback handbook. The miscellaneous facets include movies, cars, Paris, his wife Josephine Nivison and an expected fondness for German literature.

Hopper is not truly a realist. Some of his art is realist but even cursory study reveals compositions that include impossible juxtapositions, unfeasible perspectives and false horizons. Montage, viewpoint alteration, simplification and other techniques are used to create fictions that have the air – but not the substance – of reality. Doorways open directly on to oceans. Houses stand in fields without paths. Hopper’s realism is a distillation; it is a world pruned and tuned; streets are scrubbed, the posters and signage tamped down; pedestrians are reduced to sparse punctuation in the terse sentences of cityscapes. It is not especially different from the streets of Magritte, that other master deadpan painter of townscapes. Stairway (1949) is like a Magritte canvas from his 1926-9 era.

Once you understand that Hopper is not truly a realist – either a documenter of everyday life or a social realist – then you start to see him as the theatre director that he is. He is a poet who is mistaken for documentarian. Evidence of the early art (especially the watercolours executed en plein air) in Edward Hopper: American Landscapes (catalogue for the current exhibition) shows that Hopper was capable of capturing direct representations of his surroundings, sometimes with flair and feeling. Once you stop seeing his paintings as inadequate representations of real life but as artificial constructions expressive of states of meditation, loss, yearning and other intangible experiences. (“I am interested primarily in the vast field of experience and sensation which neither literature nor a purely plastic art deals with.”)

A problem which remains is Hopper’s handling of oil paint. Hopper was a talented draughtsman with pencil, pastel and etching needle. He used watercolour with accuracy, delicacy and care. He was a poor painter of oil paint. His canvases look better in reproduction than in life. The handling is dry, lifeless, a matter of filling in inside the lines, betraying their set qualities rather than emergent properties of a painting which comes about through the artist discerning new opportunities as the paint is put down. He worked as an illustrator when he was young and although this seems not to have hampered his drawing and painting in watercolour; his canvases betray all the failings of an illustrator. Despite his limitations, his canvases still work as images, scenes and evocations of place and time. If I had to own a Hopper, I would choose a work on paper.

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[Image: Edward Hopper, Houses on a Hill (1926 or 1928), watercolour on paper. Private Collection, VG Bild-Kunst]

The catalogue of the current exhibition includes many great images – Gas (1940) (a man at gasoline pumps at a country filling station, Lighthouse Hill (1927) (a lighthouse and house on a headland in afternoon sunlight), Railroad Sunset (1929) (a vivid sunset is seen over a silhouetted horizon, punctuated by a rail signal box). Coastal views feature in many pictures exhibited, most of New England. Although Hopper and Jo travelled widely, most of the imagery is local to New York State and the Massachusetts and Maine coasts.

An early, atypically finely-handled canvas Valley of the Seine (1909) shows aerial recession of a deep landscape. The position is high. It is notable that Hopper rarely showed distant land horizons; instead preferring the high close horizon of a hill or nearby wood. In Hopper’s scenes, distance would undercut the sense of intimacy and interiority. A vast panorama would work against his intentions of showing people contemplating themselves or the off-scene. His characters do not confront the infinite as the Rückenfiguren of Friedrich. That would lend them a Romantic majesty and isolation. For Hopper, it is the banal commonality of moments of reflection creeping up on one unawares that is truer of human life. None of Hopper’s characters are ever anywhere that would cause them to meditate upon the sublime. They are never dislocated – or at least never dislocated in a way that differs from everyday ennui and alienation.

Second Storey Sunlight (1960) shows two women on a balcony, the figures positioned under two gable ends of a classic wooden house. It is an allegory of the stages of life, with the grey-haired woman seated with a newspaper and a young woman in sunbathing clothing. The blinds of the windows on the young woman’s side are pulled lower than those of the old woman’s side – a metaphor of some kind.

Freight Cars, Gloucester, 1928 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Edward Hopper, Freight Cars, Gloucester (1928), oil on canvas. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, gift of Edward Wales Root in recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the Addison Gallery, 1956.7 Foto: Bridgeman Images, VG Bild-Kunst]

Some paintings show Jo painting during their outings in search of scenery. The couple bought their first car (a Dodge) in 1927. From then until a few years before Hopper’s death, they travelled around America to collect motifs for their art. Their successive automobiles made fleeting appearances in Hopper’s paintings. Jo was also a model for Hopper. However, reading Hopper’s enticing yet inscrutable tableaux in an autobiographical manner is not straight forward and is best avoided. The best Hopper paintings allow us to daydream and inhabit these deceptively artless American landscapes.

Marine scenes, paintings of buildings, views of railways and roads, and studies of trees round out this selection of Hopper’s landscapes. The catalogue includes essays addressing various aspects of Hopper’s landscapes, a chronology and a good selection of large-format illustrations. American Landscapes is a very suitable introduction to one of America’s most significant artists. The smaller A-Z book is a handy supplement for anyone already familiar with Hopper.

 

Ulf Küster (ed.), Edward Hopper: American Landscapes, Hatje Cantz, 2020, hardback, 148pp, 88 col. illus., €58, ISBN 978 3 7757 4654 0

Ulf Küster, Edward Hopper A-Z, Hatje Cantz, 2020, hardback, 120pp, 37 col. illus., €18, ISBN 978 3 7757 4656 4

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit: www.alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com

Dora Maar

DoraMaar-CVR

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.

 

[Image: ]

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

GL.014 copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

John Edgar Platt, Printmaker

John Edgar Platt

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

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

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

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

The Jetty, Sennen Cove, 1921

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

21 October 2019

True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

The Bestiary in the Medieval World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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