Robert Motherwell: Open

 

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[Image: Robert Motherwell: Open, installation view (Dover Beach no. III (1974) on left), courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris & Brussels. Photo: B.Huet/Tutti]

 

A new exhibition in Paris showcases some striking examples of Abstract Expressionism by Robert Motherwell.

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) was one of leading figures in the first generation of Abstract Expressionism. He was something of an organiser and a committed teacher, helping to explain abstraction and spread its practice among American artists. He was a writer and editor and his facility with words was sometimes held against him. Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko were revered as the high priests (or rabbis) of the New York School but Motherwell was viewed as a professor – a bit earnest, a little dry. This is a little unfair because he was a talented painter and influenced many younger artists with his art.

Over a very productive career, Motherwell produced thousands of paintings, drawings and collages. He was the leading collagist of the New York School, combining scraps of printed paper, book pages, postage stamps and labels, with added dashes of paint and charcoal lines. Many of his collages reflect his love of French culture, particularly literature. His art is distinguished by its elegance, poise and brevity.

Much of Motherwell’s later work relies on the impact of large expanses of single colours, coming close to Colour-Field painting. Colour-Field painting is based on the effect of intense colour and large shapes, frequently using staining and avoiding prominent brushwork and gesture, as seen in Abstract Expressionism, which immediately preceded the Colour-Field movement. For a period, Motherwell was married to Helen Frankenthaler, who developed Colour-Field painting in collaboration with Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland. The influence of Matisse’s single-colour ground paintings (such as The Red Studio (1911)) is also apparent in Motherwell’s later work.

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[Image: Robert Motherwell: Open, installation view, courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris & Brussels. Photo: B.Huet/Tutti]

 

Robert Motherwell: Open, Galerie Templon, Paris (17 May-21 July 2018) gathers some Motherwell’s paintings from the Open series. These are some of his best paintings. Indeed, the array in the day-lit main gallery, which presents the large paintings, is as good as the centrepiece of a museum retrospective. The exhibition presents a very persuasive case for Motherwell as powerful and original painter.

The brushed bronze-gold hue of Untitled (1974) has a near metallic quality. Dover Beach no. III (1974) has more activity, with scribbled brushmarks imparting greater contrast and complexity. The dark blue swatch in the right side implies sky, turning the rectilinear motif into a closed window in a wall next to sky. There has been debate over how literally the Open series should be interpreted, with some seeing the drawn forms as apertures such as windows or doors, others claiming these are purely abstract designs. The Mexican Window (1974) is more concretely figural, with the open window and shutters distilled to a graphic summary.

RM13965 Robert Motherwell, The Mexican Window (2)

[Image: Robert Motherwell, The Mexican Window (1974), acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 194.3 x 243.8 cm, courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris & Brussels. Photo: B.Huet/Tutti]

 

The shutters cast narrow bands of shadow on the wall below. We feel the heat and glare of midday sunlight on a house wall. There is a West Coast ambience to many of the larger paintings, not dissimilar to Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. However, Motherwell’s Open paintings are much more successful than the Ocean Park series, having a great deal more energetic, rich colour and satisfying surfaces. The Ocean Park paintings have an unpleasant dry, drab surface and an insubstantial feeling.

The wet painterly washes of the thinned acrylic paint give the impression of the minor imperfections found in ordinarily painted stucco. The size of these paintings (frequently at or exceeding two metres in dimensions) reinforces the mural character of subjects. In a way, the Open series is itself a sequence of detached murals. In this respect they are curiously mimetic: painted sections of walls have been treated as detached sections of wall.

MOTHERWELL California Window 1975 401299 (2)

[Image: Robert Motherwell, California Window (1975), acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 182.9 x 213.4 cm, courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris & Brussels. Photo: B.Huet/Tutti]

 

The acrylic paint has held up well over the years and shows no sign of deterioration. One reason the paintings are in good condition is the fact they belong to the estate of the artist and have been carefully conserved. All of the 17 paintings in the exhibition come from the Motherwell Estate and all are for sale. The prices are reasonable considering the quality and importance of these paintings.

Critics have noted the lifting/ascending character of the uneven, open-topped forms placed high on the picture plane in this series. These paintings have a surprising amount of energy considering the limited range of expression. There is plenty to see, probably because of the subtle qualities of the energetic surfaces and how they change according to the light. For such simple paintings, they are actually lively.

There are a number of weak paintings. The black painting with a scraped curving outline is slight and unsatisfying. It lacks the substance of painted or drawn lines. Black Open (1973) and Royal Dirge (1972) are both predominantly black and both unsatisfying. Motherwell has a problem animating black and it shows how his art works when it is at its best – through complementing graphic elements with washed rich colour. In the black paintings half of that equation is missing. However, these weaker paintings serve to demonstrate how the series work in general by proving the rule.

In Great Wall of China no. 4 (1971) the yellow top coat covers darker forms in watery obscuration. In this piece we are made aware of a lost earlier state – something of a rarity in Motherwell’s work. Revision – certainly radical revision – is almost entirely absent from Motherwell’s late paintings and the Open pieces are only lightly worked. If anything, Motherwell is open to the criticism of being facile. On the whole, these paintings are very bold, confident and well-judged. Some of the smaller paintings risk the charge of being slight, but Open Study in Charcoal on Grey #1 (1974) has heft, despite its small size. Untitled (Red Open) (c. 1974) is a fine painting, rich in colour and satisfying in design.

This is a superb exhibition of one of abstract art’s best painters. Strongly recommended.

Galerie Templon, 30 rue Beaubourg, Paris 75003, https://www.templon.com/

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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Basil Beattie: A Passage of Time

Basil Beattie_Ins and Outs Series 1

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ins and Outs Series 1 (2004-5), mixed media on paper 28 x 36 cm, courtesy of the artist]

The current exhibition of works on paper by Basil Beattie RA (b. 1935) charts his progress from the 1980s to today. Beattie built his early career on pure abstraction, largely in line with his colleagues at the Royal Academy in the late 1950s. Influenced by American Abstract Expressionists and the Colour-Field painters, Beattie developed a language based on non-representational image making. In the mid-1980s he began the Circus series, where semi-recognisable imagery began to enter compositions. At the end of the 1980s Beattie felt he could no longer actively keep out the images that were in his mind and from then on his art has combined the solid sense of an abstract painter – with an attendant feeling for material and eye for form – with figural motifs. These are pictographs, simple and strong but not without ambiguity. Stairs, arches, doorways, ladders, corridors, roads, blocks, ziggurats and other forms become signs but signs with weight and earthiness.

The exhibition Basil Beattie RA: A Passage of Time (Hugh Casson Room, Royal Academy, London, 23 February-23 April 2018) picks up in 1986, with prints from the Circus series. Soon after these brightly coloured works, Beattie muted his colours. The work of the 1990s and early 2000s (paintings as well as graphics) were characterised by the use of black, white, ochre, cadmium red medium and grey. This is reflected in the art presented here: prints, drawings and paintings, all on paper.

There are a range of pieces covering many of Beattie’s motifs.

Basil Beattie - Ladder Series 1, 2017

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ladder Series 1 (2017), oil on paper, courtesy of the artist]

Some of the strongest works are the prints of 1998-9, made with Advanced Graphics in Deptford. These corridors and doorways have the presence of vital pictograms, signs with import, urgent warnings or even religious meditations. They are classic images made with confidence and asperity.   Beattie’s oil paintings have a strong physical presence, with wax-thickened impasto over raw linen, and this tactility and heft is difficult to convey in prints. (Beattie might achieve effective results using mixed etchings with the carborundum process, which produce heavily textured granular effects on heavy paper.) To increase texture and weight, Beattie worked with Bob Saich at Advanced Graphics, London to combine screenprint with woodcut in In or Out (1998) and Signs of Entry (1999).

The Janus series (2009-12) are sections with views of roads disappearing towards flat horizons. In one drawing strong colour intrudes. Beattie generally handles colour adroitly but Beyond Yonder (2012) is distractingly highly keyed. His pinks and yellows work best against earthy grounds or raw linen, where predominance of subdued colour and dim tones acts as a foil to small areas of pungent colour. Beyond Yonder fails because the dominance of the white paper fails to provide that foil.

Basil Beattie - Ladder Series 4, 2017

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ladder Series 4 (2017), oil on paper, 36 x 28 cm, courtesy of the artist]

There is a certain dry humour to Beattie’s art. His ladders are comically rustic and seem absurdly rickety. Anyone foolish enough to put weight on a rung would inevitably snap that rung and expose himself as an optimistic buffoon, as in a Buster Keaton movie. In Ladder Series 5 (2017) the ladder has been split and become two structures, almost totemic in their mute uselessness.

Basil Beattie - Ladder Series 5, 2017

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ladder Series 5 (2017), oil on paper, 36 x 28 cm, courtesy of the artist]

Tottering stacks of steps in other pictures induce unease in the viewer. These seem more ominous than comic.

The most recent work is Broken Promises (2017). It has a tottering stack, with the printed in grey over scarlet, which gives it a snappy contrast of flickers of fiery red under and around the grey top layer. The overprinting of different inks gives Beattie’s prints a particularly satisfying density and complexity.

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[Image: Basil Beattie, Above and Below I (2004), etching and chine collé, 72.5 x 57.5 cm, edition of 25, courtesy of the artist]

Pieces are for sale and prices modest. The exhibition is highly recommended. Let us hope there will be a British exhibition displaying the best of Beattie’s art over the last 30 years. Until then, enjoy this taster.

Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension

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[Image: Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension, 2018, installation view, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

Herbert Ferber (1906-1991) was a sculptor who was part of the New York School; his was part of the Abstract Expressionism movement. The touring exhibition Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension currently at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut (27 January-29 July 2018; previously at Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami) gives an opportunity to study Ferber’s art in depth. This review is from the exhibition catalogue.

Herbert Ferber Silvers trained and practised as a dentist part time. His art training was informal and received sporadically at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design and the National Academy of Design, in his native New York. His early sculpture was carved wood and stone and cast bronze; the subjects were Expressionist figures. He also etched and painted. Ferber’s first solo exhibition was held in 1937. This was a time when Regionalism held sway in the small arena of new American art. Ferber’s expressive figurative art put him between, on one hand, the traditionalism and straightforward illustration of Regionalists, Hopper and the Ashcan School and, on the other, the nascent Modernist movement including Stuart Davis, John Marin and young abstract painters.

Ferber committed to abstraction in 1945, at a time when Abstract Expressionism was hitting its stride. A new confidence infused American art. Americans realised that America was leading the way in art internationally and had no reason to feel inferior to Europe. A new generation of collectors were buying adventurous abstract art made by young Americans. Ferber’s art fitted in. In a way, perhaps it fitted in too well. If any vital quality is lacking from Ferber’s art – with the exception of Burning Bush (discussed below) – it is powerful memorability. If Ferber’s art had fitted in less well and stuck out as odd, discordant, pungent or hybrid, perhaps it would have garnered more enthusiastic support and strong aversion. In terms of reputation, Ferber’s art would have benefitted from having both more friends and enemies.

The influence of Giacometti’s Woman with her Throat Cut (1932) – which was frequently reproduced and exhibited in the 1930s and 1940s – is evident in Ferber’s bronzes Hazardous Encounter II (1947) and Dragon (1947). Giacometti’s biomorphic forms, jagged energy and emotive subject evidently struck a chord in Ferber.

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[Image: Herbert Ferber, Hazardous Encounter II (1947), bronze. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

The use of lead at the same time was unusual; Ferber soon discontinued using it as he found it prone to damage. He started to work in welded metal, which was his dominant method for the rest of career as a sculptor. The use of folded, curved and welded steel, brass and copper (often in juxtaposition) gave sculptures from the 1950s to 1991 greater variety of colour and surface. All of them are resolutely abstract. (Ferber apparently never returned to figuration the way Guston and de Kooning did.) The current exhibition includes one painted construction.

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[Image: Herbert Ferber, Roofed Sculpture with “S” Curve II (1954), cast bronze. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

The use of spikes, open linear forms and occasional horizontal orientation in table-top pieces aligns Ferber with David Smith around 1950. Such was Smith’s prominence and accomplishment that his work has tended to overshadow Ferber’s. Notable differences include Smith’s adaptation of recognisable manufactured elements, something less apparent in Ferber’s art. The exploitation of pre-made material gives Smith’s art a collage aspect and the frisson of duality: material as adapted source and material as plastic form. There is also little visual wit or punning in Ferber’s art. For better or worse, Ferber’s art is grave matter. There may be energy, exhilaration and inventiveness but there is no humour.

Ferber received the major commission to create a giant wall-mounted sculpture for the B’nai Israel Synagogue, Millburn, New Jersey. Burning Bush (1951-2) was a highly successful sculpture in brass, copper and lead depicting the burning bush through which God spoke to Moses. The dynamic forms, Modernist crispness and memorability made it very effective as art, decoration and icon. The piece benefits from the limitation as a relief, essentially. Ferber might have benefitted from making more wall reliefs.

In 1961 Ferber had the opportunity to experiment with interior sculptural installation in a work for the Whitney Museum of American Art. This informed later large exterior sculptures of steel that allowed viewers to inhabit the sculptural space. They demonstrated Ferber’s interest in dynamic open forms which defy gravity. Developing a sculptural language that consisted of space as much as solid forms became a central preoccupation for Ferber the sculptor.

Ferber returned to painting intermittently (but seriously) while being best known for his sculpture. His large paintings (made from the 1950s to the last years of his life) present simple forms with curving edges, saturated colour and – especially in late works – surfaces animated by vigorous and visible brushwork. The forms are akin to simple calligraphs and are less dramatic and abrupt than Franz Kline’s similar works. As Edith Devaney points out in her essay, the paintings are related to immersive sculpture of Ferber, with their suspended simple shapes. It is clear Ferber the painter looked at a lot of abstract painting and was close friends with many of the Abstract Expressionists. The Colour-Field paintings by Jules Olitski and Sam Gilliam may have led Ferber to develop his feathery working of surfaces and the introduction of sand as a way of diffusing light and creating texture.

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[Image: Herbert Ferber, Primo (1973), acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

In the 1970s Ferber’s paintings became strongly coloured, often with a hot palette. Triangular sections are softened by blurring brushstrokes, dribbles and dilution. The dancing organic forms in the sculptures become cleaner and clearer. Rods and frames were used to stabilise and support the curving forms. In the energetic rococo sculptures composed of suspended, soaring and curling shapes we can see ideas that Frank Stella developed in his metal reliefs.

Ferber was included in the landmark MoMA exhibition “Fifteen Americans” in 1952 and has featured regularly in publications and group exhibitions since then. He was respected by his peers and played a prominent role in the New York School’s group activities. However, today his art remains lesser known than that of his colleagues. His work was omitted from the recent Royal Academy survey of Abstract Expressionism, whereas Smith had 13 works included – a slightly unkind reflection on Ferber. Non-sculptor Barnett Newman was represented by a bronze. One would have thought Ferber should have had at least one piece also.

The 44 works illustrated in this touring catalogue cover 1943 to 1990 and display the core of Ferber’s art without amounting to a full retrospective. The essays describe the artist’s development, working habits and artistic affiliations. Ferber comes out looking a serious and articulate sculptor. He seems a competent and independent as a painter but not a maker of imposing or exciting paintings – at least in reproduction. For anyone interested in rounding out their knowledge and appreciation of Abstract Expressionism then this catalogue is an enjoyable exploration of Ferber’s art.

 

Jill Deupi, John B Ravenal & Edith Devaney, Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension, Lowe, 2017, paperback, 66pp, 56 col. & mono illus., $15, ISBN 978 0 9969489 5 1

Degas’s Human Animals

Dancer adjusting her Shoulder Strap, about 1896-99

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Dancer adjusting her Shoulder Strap, (c. 1896-9), charcoal and pastel on paper, 28 x 47 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.248), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell Collection (National Gallery, 20 September 2017-30 April 2018) is an exhibition of drawings, paintings and sculpture, mostly loaned from the collection of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow. It is held to mark the centenary of the death of Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Twenty-two paintings, pastels and drawings from the huge and wide-ranging art collection of Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) are united with a Degas pastel Burrell donated to Berwick-on-Tweed Museum and a handful of other Degas works to form a reasonable display of some of Degas’s typical subjects. Portraits, early academic studies, prints and landscapes are missing from the selection.

Degas became the quintessential modern artist by turning away from the classical art he knew so well and instead using poses taken from everyday life. His is the first art that features figures which slouch, stretch, yawn and scratch. Whereas these actions might have been confined to minor supporting characters or used in genre paintings for to moral or satirical purpose, Degas is the first to take such actions and present them without overt comment. We see figures contorted in instances of private ablution.

Woman in a Tub, about 1896-1901

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman in a Tub (c. 1896-1901), pastel on paper, 60.8 × 84.6 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.236), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Here we have humanity as it is, sometimes ungainly, sometimes ugly. Critics saw this and criticised Degas for treating human beings – and especially women – as animals. Of course, the day’s convention dictated that Degas’s images of human animals were considered unsightly treatment of the fairer sex. The aura of respect and romance regarding a woman’s figure was overturned in the series of Toilettes. Even in the portraits of woman there is the impression of imbalance and awkwardness that would become a commonplace aspect of Modernist art. Subjects are placed off centre, stiff, distracted, vulnerable – the opposite of the projections of confidence, authority and contentment that were standard in society portraiture. In group portraits such as that of the Bellelli family (c. 1867) and Sulking (c. 1870) we see the imperfect unions of temperamentally contrasting individuals in relationships.

Jockeys in the Rain, about 1883-86[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Jockeys in the Rain, (c. 1883-6), pastel on tracing paper, 46.9 x 63.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.241), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Degas had a keen interest in horses and studied animal locomotion. In the race-course scenes such as Jockeys in the Rain (c. 1883-6) the nervous tension of horses and men about to race is conveyed through the alert heads and raised forelegs of the horses. A drawing shows a horse exhausted after a race. It is unknown how much Degas knew of sequential photography of animal locomotion.

The End of the Race, about 1882

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, The End of the Race, (c. 1882-90), chalk on tracing paper, 14.6 × 19.6 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.233), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Sir William Burrell was a shipping magnate who built an eclectic collection. Although rich, he was unable to compete with the American magnate collectors, and his Degas works are mainly small and inexpensive works on paper. There are a number of larger works. The outstanding work in the group is a portrait of art critic Edmond Duranty (1879) in his study, a picture which has not travelled to London for the display. The catalogue essay by Vivien Hamilton discusses the detailed history of Burrell’s collection of Degas, much of it informed by his friendship with Alexander Reid (1854-1928), the Scottish art dealer who had been friends with Vincent and Theo van Gogh and had conducted picture-trading business with the latter.

Burrell’s collection of Degas (which tended to be on loan to museums rather than in his home) includes pieces various in subject, medium and finish. There are highly finished oil paintings on canvas, oil essence paintings on paper and densely worked pastels. A revealing drawing on canvas (c. 1897) of a woman washing herself over a basin is barely started.

Woman Bathing, about 1897

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman at her Toilette (c. 1897), pastel on canvas, 78.7 × 63.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.229), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

As an art work it is unsatisfying but as studio material witnessing the creative process it is interesting. Degas sketched out the whole composition in black and then roughly applied colour to some of the background, dresser top and hair but none to the basin or the skin of the body.

Girl Looking Through Field Glasses, about 1866-72

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman looking through Field Glasses, (c. 1869), pencil and oil (essence) on paper, 32 × 18.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.239), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

An early oil sketch on paper shows a spectator at a horse race, looking towards us through field glasses. There are several scenes of ballerinas practising, made in Degas’s early tight and realistic style.

 

The Green Room, about 1877-82

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Preparation for the Class (c. 1877), pastel on paper, 58 x 83 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.238), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

The realism is relative. The veracity of Degas’s observations is condensed into compilations of poses and figures which are fictitious. His frequent visits to the opera meant that the artist became familiar with poses, costumes, attitudes and settings, which he could combine according to his aesthetic aims.

Other works include some excellent nudes in pastel and a scene two women at a jeweller’s shop.

The Jewels, about 1887

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, At the Jewellers, (c. 1887), pastel on paper, 71.2 x 49 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.228), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Degas looked at human behaviour in anthropological terms, catching their expressions and body language as subjects interacted. This can be seen in the tableaux set in laundries, cafés and milliner’s shops. The subjects engage in work, leisure or shopping in ways that appear as though they are unaware they are being observed. Actually, these pictures were never created in situ – Degas often worked from memory, adjusted or invented settings and had models pose in his studio. The influence of photography can be seen in the odd cropping and decentred compositions, regardless of the fact actual photographs apparently almost never served as sources. (See especially Place de la Concorde (1876).) On a few occasions at the end of his life he used photographs as sources. His maxim was to create something artificial from memory and then add an accent of nature to make it persuasive.

Another essay explains the artist’s materials and techniques. Technical analysis has advanced in recent years. (For discussion of this see these article: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2017/10/19/degas-themes-and-finish/  and http://artwatch.org.uk/degas-and-the-problem-of-finish/) Degas was unusual among the Impressionists in his use of many academic techniques, wide range of materials and his adoption of pastel and mixed media. This makes Degas’s art rewarding and surprising to researchers of his materials.

This excellent and enjoyable exhibition (and catalogue) are recommended.

 

*     *     *     *

 

Degas and his Model is a first full English translation of a text published in 1919, published in two issues of Mercure de France. The author is Alice Michel – apparently a nom de plume. It purports to be the memoirs of a model called Pauline, who modelled for Degas over 1900-1910. There is debate about the authenticity of text, which seems to have been at least assisted by a professional writer. If it is a fake, it is a good one. It is full of both expected information and unexpected touches that convey have the touch of intimate observation – quite like a Degas pastel.

The short book tells us of Pauline’s experience of working for Degas as he worked on a Plastiline sculpture. Degas gives her a difficult pose and berates her when she struggles to hold the pose or requires breaks. He is demanding and impatient. He evades discussing or showing his art, though he is curious and a touch possessive when models talk about modelling for other artists. His studio is cluttered and dirty, as he forbids his servant from cleaning except around the coal stove. It is gloomy because the windows are covered to protect his eyes, which had grown sensitive by this time. (The 1900-1910 period was Degas’s last period of production. His blindness curtailed his productivity thereafter; in 1912 he was forced to leave his apartment and it is thought he made no work between 1912 and his death in 1917.) In a touching scene, he asks Pauline to tell him the colour of the pastel he is holding, demonstrating how damaged his eyesight was.

The account centres on the sessions for a statuette of a woman standing on one leg and studying the sole of her foot. It was a stressful pose and the pay was poor. The artist would have to feel her body sometimes as he worked on the figurine. He would use a compass or callipers to measure her dimensions. On many days he would grumble about the cost of everyday items and mock the pursuit of honours by artists. Yet he could also be kind and thoughtful. He would sing minuets from operas and mutter outlandish fables while he worked. There would be a touch of banter between artist and model and he would sometimes mention his past travels but he was wary about talking more generally about his ideas on art. There is very little about specific works of art by Degas or his great collection. Pauline may have been observant but Degas was reticent and volunteered to show her very little.

Degas and his Model is a glimpse of Degas in his twilight: nearly blind, frail, tired, working slowly but still working.

Alice Michel, Jeff Nagy (trans.), Degas and His Model, David Zwirner Books, 2017, paperback, 88pp, no illus., $12.95, ISBN 978 1 941 701 553

Vivien Hamilton et al., Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell Collection, The National Gallery, 2017, hardback, 112pp, 50 col. illus., £14.95, ISBN 978 1857096255

Le Cabaret de l’informe: The Sculpture of Medardo Rosso

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[Image: Medardo Ross, Ecce puer (Beyond the Child) (1906), plaster coated with sealant, Museo Medardo Rosso]

The current exhibition of art Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) is staged like an intimate cabaret performance. (Medardo Rosso: Sight Unseen, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, closes 10 February 2018; full catalogue) With the velvet curtains across the door, no natural light and the spotlighting from above, it could be an exclusive brothel or a scene from a David Lynch film. The few heads on display are beautiful, peculiar, delicious and troubling. In this exclusive and luxurious setting (and high-end location, in a street known for its super-expensive boutiques selling jewellery, watches and clothing), we come to commune with something hidden and rare that combines the beautiful and disconcerting.

The display uses lighting carefully. Contemporary writers noted Rosso’s obsession with controlling lighting to increase the impact of his sculptures.[i] The exhibition comprises ten heads and two groups of sculpture, with two vitrines of drawings and photographs of drawings. The photographs are largely vintage prints of drawings, which Rosso printed to exhibit in place of the drawings – a novel decision at the time. The plinths are rough and worn, echoing the rugged and weathered character of the casts they display. It is commendable that the exhibition designers have chosen not to put all behind glass. With such delicate and valuable objects that must have been a conscious gamble to refrain from using glazing. (NB: Images show all the works without glazing.)

[Images: installation view, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London . Paris . Salzburg. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates]

The selection of work, some of which is borrowed from Museo Medardo Rosso, Barzio, Italy, (including some of his best-known heads) is assembled in London. The early Carne altrui (The Flesh of Others) (1883-4) shows the head of a sleeping prostitute. It falls in line with the work of the Impressionists, with their interest in the anonymous members of the urban under-class, realistic subject matter and a desire to forge non-naturalistic styles to capture effects seen in life. A roughly modelled sculpture of a baby at a breast plays with illegibility, so strong are the marks of Rosso’s tools and fingers. Rosso was one of the few Italian artists who expressed an interest in the recent developments in French art. This played a part in Rosso’s decision to move to Paris, the centre of the avant-garde, in 1889.

The deep purple-mahogany woodgrain effect of Ecce puer (1906), cast in plaster stained with sealant, gives it an organic-mineral character. The impression of worn stone is common in Rosso’s heads. Features of anonymous figures are eroded or blurred as if by water or frost. We can also consider the sculpture of a veiled woman by Raffaelle Monti (1818-1881) especially in relation to Madame Noblet (c. 1897-8).

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[Image: Raffaelle Monti, Veiled Vestal (1847), marble]

Viewing statues of laughing figures is a curious experience in a way that it is not with paintings. Maybe it is the lack of pictorial distance and the existence of the insistent physical presence of an object sharing space with the viewer that makes sculpture more disconcerting to us. We are under the apprehension of being with a person and not having got the joke. Perhaps we are the subject of mockery or are in the presence of a hysteric. That freezing of a momentary action that is one of the more powerful and relatable instance of human contact we experience is significant. It is a joke we can never draw any amusement from, only observe in incomprehending alien fashion. Another unsettling aspect is the way figures are shown in motion, often close to toppling over. This adds to Rosso’s reputation as an Impressionist in that he captured transitory moments.

Rosso used colour in a manner that broke with the monochrome tradition of Italian statuary established in the Renaissance and furthered by Bernini. His colour choices depart from the monochromy of plain material, the tinting of stone by Canova and the polychromy of religious figures. He uses colour in an Impressionist manner – strong, non-naturalistic, roughly blended. In the wax cast of Bambino ebero (Jewish Boy) (c. 1892-4) is an assertively artificial yellow. This is an aspect of his art that is often overlooked.

Rosso produced only around 50 unique sculptures and nothing new after 1906. Most of these compositions were cast by the artist multiple times in different materials. He manipulated each cast, preferring to use fragile plaster and wax instead of bronze. Rosso became known in Paris for his theatrical casting, which privileged insiders, critics and collectors could witness. Rosso used casting as performance and photographs of his studio and his casts were sent by Rosso as postcards and published.

The vitrines contain drawings and vintage prints of photographs of drawings and sculptures which Rosso exhibited, distributed and published. Some of the drawings were made on scraps of hotel stationery, including envelopes. The drawings of figures and street scenes are small, rough, provisional and tonal. They are somewhat similar to Seurat’s, whose drawings Rosso should have known. As drawings they are not especially strong. The practice of using photographs of art as art is innovatory on a conceptual level and worthy of discussion.

Ropac Gallery24812

[Image: installation view, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London . Paris . Salzburg. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates]

The impression of viewing a form which fluctuates between being and not being is characteristic of Rosso’s late sculpture. This quality of extreme mutability generates a type of anxiety we may associate with Georges Bataille’s definition of l’informe. The form before us evades exact classification and calls into question our certitude regarding all categories by being simultaneously of a member of exclusive sets and not of any single one. The informe indicates chaos and entropy and breaches the human ambiguity-discomfort threshold. Thinking about it does not help: the horror of chaos only impinges further. As an animal which evolved to crave the certainty of discerning the edible from the inedible and the spoor of the prey animal from that of the predator animal, homo sapiens seeks certainty above all else. Humans are not developed for dwelling upon the boundary-crossing and profoundly ambiguous. Yet think we must, for as problem-solvers we are drawn to the ambiguous and seek to either resolve the problem or at least grade it as an insoluble or unimportant problem so it can be set aside (however temporarily).

The idea of the informe was broached by Bataille in 1929 in the Surrealist journal Documents; it was revived by art theorists in the 1990s, who put it forward as a historical precursor to one strand of Late Modernist practice and Post-Modernist theory, namely the entropic. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Allan Kaprow, Richard Serra, Eva Hess, Lynda Benglis and others used techniques which harnessed unpredictable physical properties of objects and substances to generate art they could not control in a fine manner, thereby violating one of traditions of art: that of the artist as a maker with supreme control of his materials. These artists did have some control over their materials in the way they selected and manipulated materials but this did not afford full control.

The informe of Rosso gives us material that resolutely refuses to subordinate itself to the designated form. It gives us the human form in fragmentary fashion but much of it remains unshaped; sometimes a majority of the material is unformed. In comparison to the quantity if figural matter, the proportionately large quantity of the unformed superfluous matter challenges the idea that the matter is in the service of representation. The unformed excess, the ostensible setting, takes on an importance by dint of its quantity. The lack of detail and degree of ambiguity in Rosso’s later heads give the impression of matter in the process of making form and form on the verge of returning to primordial matter. Rosso was known in his day for allowing the imperfections of his casts to remain and not be subject remedial post-casting processes. Thus rips, bubbles and cracks in casts, the prominent nails and sprues of the casting process and the excess slurry that would ordinarily have been removed or ameliorated remained as part of the final state of object.[ii] It is true that Rosso’s sculptures do display pure entropic formlessness but they infuse likenesses made in the consummate realistic Western tradition of modelled sculpture with the repugnant presence of unformed matter. Viewed retrospectively, these sculptures stand as precursors to both the abstraction of the Abstract Expressionists and the artful deformations of the Expressionists, Soutine and Francis Bacon.

[link to review of new books and catalogues on Rosso to be added here]

 

6 February 2018

[i] Sharon Hecker, Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form, 2018, Pulitzer , p. 19

[ii] We should not neglect the aspect of debasement that Bataille mentioned in his definition. Semi-liquid slurry – especially when seen in conjunction with the human form – has the connotation of bodily waste and internal bodily substance which we abhor seeing openly, as this associated with injury and death. More broadly, such indistinct matter reminiscent of excreta and internal bodily substance is repellent and horrible to us as dangerous, filthy or irredeemable (that is, an injury so extreme that substantial internal matter was exposed was almost invariably fatal and thus literally unredeemable or unrepairable).

Lake Keitele: Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Lake Keitele N-6574-00-000015-A5

[Image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele (1905), oil on canvas, 53 x 66 cm, National Gallery, London. Photo (c) The National Gallery, London.]

The National Gallery has staged a comparative exhibition (15 November 2017-4 February 2018, free entry) included one of its best loved paintings. Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931), depicts the landscape of the Finnish painter’s homeland. It is a post-glacial terrain of many lakes, extensive and dense fir forests and clear air. The composition – which shows a long view over a large lake, with a wooded islet near the high horizon, tumultuous cloud at the top of the picture – was painted by the artist a number of times. It is these versions which form the centrepiece of this exhibition.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) has become the Finnish painter par excellence. By biographical good fortune he happened to be the most nationally and internationally renowned Finnish painter working at the time of Finland’s independence from Russia (on 6 December 1917). He was also famous and beloved by compatriots due to his cycle of paintings retelling the Finnish myth of Kalevala. Gallen-Kallela was an unabashed patriot. He changed his name from Axel Waldemar Gallén to distance himself from the socially dominant Swedish culture, which formed the elite of the Russian controlled Grand Duchy of Finland, at a time when the Finnish independence movement reached a peak. One can see similar trends in the history of Norway (and other countries) at the same time.

He travelled to Paris to train at Académie Julian and Académie Cormon, studying the new French naturalism strain of realism pioneered by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884). He also came into contact with the Arts and Crafts Movement in London. As he became more interested in crafts – both European and Finnish – and began to design stained glass, tapestries and other applied art, his art diverged from the naturalism of his training. The skills and knowledge needed to create craft objects anchored the maker to a discipline at once refreshingly direct and yet steeped in refinement borne of generations of workers, mostly anonymous.

The influence of Art Nouveau and Symbolism came through both fine and applied arts and can be seen in non-naturalistic coloration and emphatic arabesques. Travels in southern latitudes (including Africa and New Mexico) also altered Gallen-Kallela’s palette, reducing the grey mid-tones, half-tones and muted light effects in his paintings. His art was taken up by Fauvists, die Brücke and Symbolists. The later work has tendency towards technical crudeness, a lessening of attention to nuance and garishness in colour.

Clouds, 1904

[Image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Clouds (1904), oil on canvas, 64 x 64 cm, Didrichsen Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo (c) Didrichsen Art Museum, Helsinki.]

The works on display in London are largely in the earlier period of realism with a few later canvases indicating the later period. Four versions of the iconic image are gathered  in London: the National Gallery’s version, two from museums in Finland and one from private collection. The differences in size and approach are small. Only the Art Nouveau/Symbolist style signature square and plainness of the lanes of wind-ruffled water distinguish the Lahti Art Museum version from the others.

Gallen-Kallela’s choice of the Kalevala is both a personal and political choice. His deep feeling for nature led to his best paintings. Lake Keitele was not only an example of quintessential of Finnish nature it was also the site for events in the Kalevala narrative. Thus the choice of the lake as image carries a double symbolic weight. The wooded islet close to the high horizon was a motif that appeared in other paintings in the artist’s work. There are other effective paintings and an attractive pastel of the motif. The figure paintings here are not the artist’s best but are included as examples of his portraits and mythological scenes. The 13 exhibited items act as a cross-section of Gallen-Kallela’s thematic, technical and stylistic range.

Lake Keitele X9630-A5

[Image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Landscape (1915), pastel on paper, 101 x 95 cm, private collection. Photo (c) courtesy of the owner.]

This exhibition represents the best of the artist’s work and highly recommended. The catalogue acts as a good primer for readers unfamiliar with Gallen-Kallela’s art and is clear and informative.

Anne Robbins, Lake Keitele: A Vision of Finland, National Gallery, 2017, hardback, 72pp, 35 col. illus., £14.95, ISBN 978 1 857 0 96248

 

Access to Apollo articles

A webpage now provides access to articles (text only, no illus.) by AA published in Apollo over 2011-4, including reviews of exhibitions and books on Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Delvaux, the Van Eyck brothers, Andreas Schlueter, Salvador Dali, Gustav Klimt, Josef Albers and Pablo Picasso. Access here: https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Adams%2c+Alexander-a12586

Death & Desire: Dalí & Schiaparelli, review

Schiaparelli_Dali[1]

(Image: details of Salvador Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli at Chez Lopez, Neuilly, 1950, (c) Universal Photo/SIPA; Image Rights of Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2017)

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was the very antithesis of the peintre maudit. He came from a comfortable bourgeois family, found acclaim and acceptance early in Paris and became the toast of Surrealist circles while in his mid-twenties. Later he found fame and riches in America in the late 1930s, staying there throughout the Second World War and only returned to Europe in 1948. In both Paris and America Dalí mixed with high society, which relished indulging its decadent side by patronising and promoting Dalí’s shocking art. Dalí’s patrons lived ostentatiously, using their entrees into the art world to acquire cutting-edge art and extravagant fashion. It was only natural that Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) would meet and share common interests. The meeting would lead to a number of fruitful collaborations and exchange of ideas over the years.

The exhibition “Dalí and Schiaparelli” at The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida (18 October 2017–14 January 2018) examines that collaboration between two stars of mid-century fashion and art. The exhibition includes paintings, drawings and prints by Dalí, many examples of Schiaparelli’s clothing and accessories, as well as jewellery, perfume bottles, photographs and publications relating to both of the creators. This is a review from the fittingly luxurious large-format catalogue.

Schiaparelli’s family was a line of distinguished Italian academics and scientists. After spells in Paris and London, then a period in New York (where she associated with the Dadaists who would later become the core of the Surrealist movement) Schiaparelli returned to Paris and began design work. Assisted by established couturier Paul Poiret, Schiaparelli began her solo career in Paris in 1927. Dalí’s debut exhibition in Paris, held in November 1929, with a catalogue introduction by André Breton, launched his career. Although Schiaparelli was older than Dalí, their careers in Paris commenced within two years of each other, within the world of the former Dadaists and the Surrealists.

Essayists in the catalogue point out that both her and Dalí were radicals who were devoted to the use of rigorous craft in the production of their unusual inventions. In Dalí’s case it was craft he personally learned through youthful independent studies and later at art school education; in Schiaparelli’s case she relied on the skills of craftsmen and others, as she never trained in the technical side of clothing production. Schiaparelli was an early adopter of artificial fibres and new materials, driven by the avant-garde aesthetic of her Surrealist friends. One of her closest friends was Gabrielle Picabia, first wife of the radical artist Francis Picabia.

Dalí and Schiaparelli’s first collaboration was a Schiaparelli telephone-rotary-dial powder compact, launched in 1935. The most famous collaboration was Schiaparelli’s High-heel shoe hat (1937). Dalí repurposed a high-heel shoe for his wife as a shocking novelty to be worn to a society ball; Schiaparelli refined the design and manufactured the hat in small numbers.

Gala Éluard Dalí (1894-1982), the artist’s wife, was an important link between designer and artist. Gala was obsessed with luxury, beauty and money and inevitably had a passion for haute couture. She had great influence control over Dalí, urging him to undertake work in order to make the maximum amount of money. He claimed to be financially illiterate and naïve. The evidence is that Gala was behind many of the artist’s business dealings and prompted some of the most questionable of his financially-motivated projects. While Dalí was avid for money, it seems that for him money was valuable mostly as a measure of fame, which he craved above all else. It was Gala who wanted the money for itself.

Before a social engagement, the painter introduced rips into one of Gala’s blouses and she wore it to the event. Subsequently, Schiaparelli made a dress with trompe l’oeil rips apparently revealing a pink under layer (1938). This same design was used on the cloth cover of the catalogue of Dalí’s 1979 Paris retrospective, considered to this day as one of the best publications on his art.

The intersection between art, fashion and money was the high-society ball. These lavish events allowed the aristocracy and newly rich to mix with stars and artists and to create a stir in society. Many attendees commissioned costumes from artists and a number of artists treated such occasions as a chance to make temporary art – or to become temporary art. (Leonor Fini was particularly known for her daring and beauty and used to make elaborate costumes for herself and a select few others.) The Dalís attended many society balls in the 1930s and 1940s, Gala sometimes wearing Schiaparelli couture. Gala wore a number of Dalí-inspired Schiaparelli outfits and hats and served as a proxy model, acting as a living link between artist and fashion designer. The events were covered by the press and thus acted as useful publicity for designers and artists.

Prominent photographers of the era documented the overlapping worlds of high society and fashion.  The catalogue includes a section of full-page photographs of the aristocracy, artists, actors and celebrities who the creators knew. Both creators worked with actors, Dalí painting stars (most notably Laurence Olivier) and Schiaparelli clothing stars of stage and screen. Dalí also worked sporadically on opera stage designs and costumes for performers. Included in the exhibition and catalogue are examples of the painter’s backdrops for operas, including Tristan and Isolde by Wagner, his favourite opera.

Both creators were wedded to the idea of expression through the expansion of technical parameters. Dalí experimented with early holograms, artist animation and tactile-assisted cinema. His installations, including the Bonwit Teller display and the World’s Fair of 1939, were innovatory though strictly speaking Surrealist exhibitions-cum-installations dated back to the 1920s. His lifting of imagery from the popular press and the use of ben-day dots has been led to critics hailing Dalí as a progenitor of Pop Art and Post-Modernism.

For her part, Schiaparelli was the first fashion designer to use zippers, certain artificial fibres and clear plastics. In terms of style, she introduced the wrap dress, wedge heels, power suits, jumpsuits and camouflage print as fashion. Her 1931 culotte designs scandalised Paris but soon gained a following among adventurous women. In her early career Schiaparelli favoured austere black and white. She introduced Shocking Pink in 1937 as a high-fashion colour; it would become her signature colour. Nineteen-thirty-seven was also the year she produced an organza dress in pale fabric which featured a painted lobster – a Dalinian motif.

1996.1_Aphrodisiac(Lobster)_Telephone[1]

(Image: Salvador Dalí, Aphrodisiac Telephone (1938), Plastic (Bakelite) and painted lobster, 7 x 12 x 4.5 inches, Collection of The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, FL; (c) Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017)

The design was reissued by the House of Schiaparelli in spring 2017. The catalogue illustrates new designs by the House of Schiaparelli, allowing readers to judge the influence of Surrealism and continuity from the design ethos of the house’s founder.

Both creators used motifs of insects, including ants, butterflies and grasshoppers. Dalí had genuine obsessions with ants and grasshoppers and they appeared in many early paintings. Schiaparelli used a transparent Rhodoid collar to hold insect jewellery. Her favourite motif was the butterfly.

Some clothing items included in the exhibition are true Surrealist statements, as peculiar as anything in a Surrealist painting. Boots with long fur (1938), and the later Woman’s sweater with long fur (1948), have long fur which makes them almost as impractical as Meret Oppenheim’s iconic Fur Teacup (1938). It is possible that Schiaparelli was inspired here by Oppenheim rather than Dalí. Schiaparelli’s designs flirt with the repulsive in the way so much Surrealism does.

Although the direction of influence seems to have been predominantly from artist to designer, there are instances where the direction is the other way. A Schiaparelli-style dress with a low-cut back appears in Dalí’s Woman with a Head of Roses (1935). It is possible that Schiaparelli’s fantasy of hiding her face behind a bouquet inspired Dalí’s flower-headed women, introduced in 1936.

Surrealism sought to blur the line between art and life. The Surrealist project of disrupting everyday life included the concept of wearable art, partly as a manifestation of the subconscious influence on our lives and also as an attempt to overturn established modes of thinking and acting. The use of unexpected objects as potential clothing was part of the Surrealist outlook on life. Mannequins were a staple of Surrealist art; one group exhibition consisted of Surrealist decoration of mannequins. (Mannequins had become objects of fascination since Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings of the 1910s.) It is perhaps not coincidental that the ideal exemplar of Surrealist beauty was the conjunction of a sewing machine and an umbrella, two items related to the creation of clothing and the protection of clothing from rain.

Both creators viewed the woman as an exotic object to be transformed and to be revealed through transformation. In Dalí’s case, the transformation is a metamorphosis. Dalí’s versions of Venus de Milo-with-drawers and woman-with-drawers motifs show the woman’s body as complex container. In the latter motif, the woman gazes into the open drawers of her torso in an act of introspection. The motif was translated by Schiaparelli into the Desk Suite (1936/7).

3._Dali's_sketch[1]

(Image: Salvador Dalí, Anthropomorphic Cabinet (undated), pencil on paper, Collection of Schiaparelli, (c) Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017)

4._Desk_suit_HC_FW_36_37[1]

(Image: Elsa Schiaparelli, Illustration of Bureau-Drawer Suit, Schiaparelli Haute Couture, (Fall/Winter 1936/7), courtesy of (c) Schiaparelli archives)

Gloves which have top tips of the fingers removed to reveal the nails below have a certain conceptual elegance, restating the idea of revealing parts which are expected to be covered by a clothing item.

There are many criticisms that can be levelled at Dalí but one of them is not lack of artistic ambition. His driving themes were beauty, temporality, fear of death, obsession with putrescence and the power of erotic desire. Comparatively speaking, Schiaparelli’s morbidity is less omnipresent. Her Skeleton dress (1938) is one of her most striking designs. A close-fitting black evening dress has ridges of padding which evoke the wearer’s bones beneath. It is a creation which fuses elegance and the macabre, something that can be seen in the work of other fashion designers including Alexander McQueen.

There are many parallels between the pair’s work in jewellery, perfumes and perfume bottles, though mostly this occurred late in their careers when they were not collaborating directly. The catalogue includes many quotes relating to the creators though there are no letters between them and one wonders what their personal relationship was and how they actually collaborated on specific projects. There is further investigation to be done in this area.

The catalogue is printed in an edition of 1,800 copies, of which 500 are hardback. Including generous illustration, essays and useful information, it is sure to become a collector’s item for committed Dalí fans, fashion aficionados and researchers on Surrealism and fashion.

 

John William Barger, Hank Hine, Dilys E. Blum, et al., Dalí and Schiaparelli, Salvador Dalí Museum, 275pp, 59 b&w/133 col. illus., paperback, $39.95, ISBN 978 0 9834799 9 4

“Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, exhibition review

I. Exhibition

dech4

(Image: “Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, Tornabuoni Art, London, installation view, 2017, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

“Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, the current exhibition at Tornabuoni Art, London (4 October 2017-12 January 2018) presents 24 paintings, two drawings and some lithographs in an overview of the Italian’s painterly output, with other documentary material. The complexity, accomplishment and breadth of the work here attest to the richness of de Chirico’s achievements.

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) is best known as the leading figure in the Italian Metaphysical Art movement, which had its heyday during the First World War. De Chirico established the style in 1910. There are two paintings here dating from that era: The Revolt of the Sage (1916; Estorick Collection) and The Great Tower (1915). Though Metaphysical Art was inspired by Italian art of the Early Renaissance (Uccello, Giotto, et al.), these two paintings demonstrate a Modernist audacity – the extreme format (the exaggerated vertical of the Tower) and the extreme close-up (The Revolt’s depiction of biscuits shown in the foreground of an ambiguous architectural setting).

De Chirico had been very familiar with Symbolism, having been a follower of Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin in his earliest years as a painter. This exhibition includes an early painting The Path (Temple of Apollo in Delphi) (1909) which employs the Swiss master’s typical gloomy local colour, flat non-directional lighting and disquieting atmosphere. The cult of Arnold Böcklin was intense and widespread in Europe in 1890s and 1900s, especially admiring of his five versions of The Isle of the Dead, which were best known through numerous reproduction prints and journal illustrations.

In 1919 de Chirico was one of the many Modernist artists who turned his back on the avant-garde and sought the comfort and security of Classical art, part the appel de l’ordre that promised a haven from the alienating modern world that had ravaged Europe. Just as Dada was metamorphosing into Surrealism and at a point when the early Surrealists were about idolise de Chirico’s Metaphysical art, he denounced Metaphysical Art and Modernism more generally and began to paint still-lifes, landscapes, horses, portraits and mythological scenes. He researched the materials and techniques of the Old Masters and Mannerists. He copied Classical art and painted his own mythological scenes in traditional style. A still-life with fish and another with fruit are typical works from the early 1920s. There is also a half-length nude of his wife Isa, painted in 1930.(1) It is complemented by a small self-portrait head.

Later de Chirico’s view on Metaphysical Art softened and he blended his disjointed motifs, Classical imagery and a Renoiresque touch and palette. The resultant beach scenes of nudes, antique figures, horses and ancient ruins are appealing and yet deceptively modern in their disjunctures and unusual colour combinations, including extensive passages of monochrome. However, the nagging suspicion is that the artist was indulging himself – and his viewers – too much. He repeated his motifs and compositions. Luckily, the examples here are varied and the monochrome aspect lends them a certain asperity that can be absent in other versions.

De Chirico became a Mannerist, Rococo painter and Romantic by turns and that shuffling of established anachronism can pall. De Chirico’s greatest weakness was his Old Master complex, the conceit that he only had to paint like the Old Masters to be considered an Old Master. He had skill and knowledge in abundance but it is ironic that the very art that would elevate him to the status of a Great Master was his accomplishments as a Metaphysical painter not as a recycler of Mannerism or Romanticism. The very art that was a unique contribution to Modernism was his entry into Parnassus. Did the artist ever recognise this one wonders?

Yet while de Chirico was indulging his Old Master complex he was also producing some radically modern and very unusual works. Warrior Mannequins (Two Archaeologists) (1926) is one of those experiments. Two fantastical figures fill the corner of a room. They are composed of architectural elements and wild pictorial components. The painting style is rough. There is evidence of radical reworking. It is a hard picture to love or even like but it shows terrific creativity and invention. It is bursting with strange ideas and improvisatory bravura. It will be a hard painting to sell, in many ways it is ugly and untypical, but it is as lively and puzzling as anything here. It is evidence of de Chirico’s mischievous spirit and confidence.

dech1

(Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Bagni misteriosi (Mysterious Baths) (1968), oil on canvas, 28.74 x 36.61 inch/73 x 93 cm, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

Another group of innovatory works from the inter-war years were the Mysterious Baths. In these paintings fantastically shaped baths filled with monochrome water animated by schematic zig-zag patterns (complete with multi-colour balls and changing huts) are distributed across de Chirico’s characteristic plains and piazzas. They are populated by undemonstrative bather-ciphers. These are more playful, puzzling and less decipherable than the earlier Metaphysical compositions.

Other common themes represented in the selection are mannequins of composite elements, gladiators and horse with rider. De Chirico painted at a general domestic scale; an exception is Divinities by the Sea (1936) at 122 x 244 cm. It shows gods and horses ranged among ruins on a shore. It is painted in near-monochrome with ground and sky in blue, appearing as a giant tinted drawing. The paint is applied very thinly. The use of board as a support is uncommon in de Chirico’s oeuvre.

dech3

(Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia con piedistallo vuoto (Italian Piazza with Empty Pedestal) (1955), oil on canvas, 21.65 x 13.97 inch/55 x 35.5 cm, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

Commercial pressures led de Chirico to start to paint copies, variants and – dare one say it? – pastiches of his classic Metaphysical pictures for the post-War market. Such was the demand for classic Metaphysical paintings that de Chirico even dated paintings with false early dates. One Italian dealer even stipulated in a contract which compositions had to be duplicated and at which sizes. One wonders what de Chirico thought when he was painting these duplicates. How did he feel – humiliated, bored, proud or just numb? Did he derive any pleasure from remaking his youthful works? Did he invest any of himself in these duplicates? How much does any painter invest of himself in anything he makes?

This exhibition includes letters, photographs, lithographic prints and contemporary publications related to the artist, which are presented in vitrines in the two levels of the gallery. De Chirico wrote poems, stories and novels and some of those publications are displayed here in early editions. A catalogue has also been published, which I have not seen. This exhibition provides a fair survey of de Chirico’s art in all its diverse, perplexing and surprising complexity.

(1) The catalogue establishes that the subject of this painting is actually Cornelia not Isa.

II. Catalogue

cover de chirico

This dual-language large hardback catalogue for the exhibition “Reading Giorgio de Chirico” at Tornabuoni Art, London (closes 12 January 2018) includes essays, illustrations and plentiful information which throw much light on the exhibition. De Chirico wrote poetry, fiction, memoirs and art criticism. Some of the painter’s thoughts on art were formed in a poetic allusive manner akin to that of prose poems.

The inclusion of much written material is the reason for the exhibition’s title “Reading de Chirico”. Poems and letters exhibited are reproduced in the catalogue and translated. They include and Metaphysical poems and love letters to Cornelia, written at a time of romantic turmoil. The artist had just married his long-standing partner Raissa before separating from her. This period (1929-30) was also when he met his future second wife, Isabella. Two important letters dated from 1910 and 1911 are printed. These establish the date of the foundation of Metaphysical Art. Recent attempts to locate the origins of Metaphysical Art to 1909 – and to attribute the foundational ideas to de Chirico’s brother Alberto Savinio – have not been generally accepted. These letters bolster the case for the accepted history, namely that de Chirico commenced painting in a Metaphysical style in the summer of 1910 in Florence.

The Metaphysical Art journal has been publishing de Chirico’s writing (and writing about him, as well as letters to him) over the last decade in Italian, French and English. This has contributed to a wider understanding of de Chirico as a writer and the links between his writing and art. This catalogue and exhibition further that aim.

There are two articles by the de Chirico on lesser known contemporary artists and other more general pieces on de Chirico’s art. There is an angry polemic against the domination of Modernism. “No one raised a voice in defence of reality with regard to art or to life itself. Fake intellectuals, having renounced truth, which they considered lost, tried to expel reality from all manifestations of the spirit. These fake intellectuals of our unfortunate age…” In another article he explains the persistent melancholy of absence in his art.

I remember the strange and profound impression a picture seen in an old book bearing the title The World before the Deluge made upon me as a child. It represented a landscape of the tertiary period. Man had not yet appeared I have often meditated on the strange phenomenon of “human absence” in metaphysical aspects.

The lithographic illustrations of Mysterious Baths images for Cocteau’s Mythologie (1934) are reproduced in full in the catalogue. (They are displayed only partially visible in the exhibition vitrine.) Illustrations of works such as The Daughters of Minos (Antique Scene in Pink and Blue II) (1933) show just how peculiar they are. In this small painting one sees classical motifs on a generic shore, predominantly blue in hue, with discrete areas painted in monochrome red-pink and orange-pink. Like an optical illusion, it gives the impression of being a classical work or art while aggressively asserting it is nothing of the kind. It exists in two states: classical and Modern. In this instance, the modes are incompatible and contradictory. In terms of figural motifs and iconography it is classical; in terms of handling and palette it is Modern. They fluctuate.  When we consider one the other does not impinge upon us; as soon as we consider the other aspect the first is forgotten (or at least impossible to incorporate into our consideration). Like the famous optical illusion, we can see the old woman and the young woman in one picture but never at the same time. If de Chirico understood what he was doing in this painting (in terms of optical perception and modal schematism) is unclear.

An essay by Gavin Parkinson discusses the reception by the Surrealists of de Chirico’s writing and the artist’s views on Symbolism, Impressionism, Courbet and other art. Parkinson’s mention of the criticism of Magritte, de Chirico and Picabia’s “bad painting” cites de Chirico’s use of bright colour in the post-War variations of classic Metaphysical compositions as a conscious response to that criticism or even a reaction to Pop Art. Parkinson suggests that de Chirico’s “bad” colour was an attempt to combat the fashionable connoisseurship that generated demand for his Metaphysical paintings. It seems much more likely that the artist, bored and belittled by the requirement to paint replicas at the behest of dealers and collectors, was simply attempting to retain engagement during the painting process by exaggerating the colours. The aim was most likely an attempt to see how variation might intensify a feeling or introduce an element of unpredictability into the stultifying work. The powerful palette is an attempt to stimulate the artist himself.

In the Neo-Metaphysical period (1960s-1978) the painter needed to sustain his engagement and bring something new to established compositions. The addition of the Mysterious Baths, sun-on-easel and the sun/moon-cord motifs were a means to provide the painter with a syncretic language, vary his art and summarise his former periods in his last period. It seems a private choice, one detached from consideration of the debate over “bad art”, Pop Art or the expectations of others. The Neo-Metaphysical works are one of de Chirico’s most important achievements. With droll wit and disconcerting mental agility de Chirico reassembled his artistic world in a theatre of cosmological paradox which is deeply unsettling and to this day barely understood.

Katherine Robinson (ed.), Reading de Chirico, Forma Edizioni/Tornabuoni Art, 2017, hardback, 256pp, fully illus., English/Italian, £45, ISBN 978-88-99534-49-3

 

 

Degas: Themes and Finish

Jane Munro, Degas: A Passion for Perfection, Yale University Press, 2017, 272pp, 250 col./mono illus., hb, £40, ISBN 978 0 300 22823 6

Daphne Barbour & Suzanne Quillen Lomax (eds.), Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, Volume 3: Degas, National Gallery of Art, distr. Yale University Press, 2017, 196pp, fully illus., pb, £50, ISBN 978 0 300 23011 6

 

To mark the centenary of the death of Degas, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge is holding an exhibition of his works (closes 14 January 2018), which will subsequently tour to Denver Art Museum (18 February to 20 May 2018). This is a review of the catalogue of that exhibition. Compared to the blockbuster shows of Degas in recent years, this is an intimate affair. It combines work from Cambridge and Denver with a few loans from other collections. Cambridge purchased a number of pieces from the posthumous auctions of Degas’s studio, work selected by John Maynard Keynes.

Items in the exhibition are divided into rough groups: Degas and England, copies of the masters, monotypes, landscapes, nudes, dancers and sculpture. There is a section of the catalogue and exhibition given over to Degas’s influence on following British artists. Degas made a handful of visits to England but unlike his youthful stay in Italy (admittedly a longer period) these made no discernible impression on his art. Degas rarely mentioned his English sojourns. Like his predecessor Gericault, Degas must have been impressed by the British passion for horse racing but whether it left much of an impression beyond that is an open question.

Although Degas did not win a scholarship to the French School in Rome, he had enough of an income to tour independently. He travelled with Moreau and they sometimes copied the same paintings and depicted each other. Degas spent time in Naples where he had family. Degas was the most academically gifted and inclined of the Impressionists and revered Ingres, himself a devotee of the Old Masters. The young Degas modelled himself on Ingres, using the same materials, spending hundreds of hours drawing, learning traditional techniques and acquiring the skills expected of an academic painter. This included long sessions copying paintings and sculpture in museums, including Greek and Roman sculpture, Donatello, Veronese and others. The exhibition includes copies by Ingres, showing parallels between the two painters.

Some of the most unfamiliar works are those actually typical to painters on a grand tour of Italy. The small landscape sketches in oils are acutely observed and sensitively painted views of Naples, Rome and other locales. As was common, these are painted on paper for convenience and later pasted on board for presentation. This was an easily portable medium though it is discouraged because of the technique’s unsuitability on both optical and conservation terms. However, the expediency was used for works that were not intended to be public and were only created as supporting studio material to be transcribed or adapted to more permanent works.

Degas never much cared for landscape. As for working en plein air, Degas derided painters who did so. Allegedly he had a good memory for landscape and produced his landscapes in monotype from memory in the studio. His adaptation of landscape as body suggests that forms rather than light or colour were a preoccupation and that he was willing to adapt in order to transform actual landscapes into more anthropomorphic images. One wonders whether those who claimed Degas had a good memory for landscape actually compared art to specific places. Most likely Degas did have a good visual memory but clearly the important thing was how the memory of the view seemed and how it might be adapted to suit the artist’s purpose, not the veracity of the art compared to the source.

Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, by Degas

(Image: Edgar Degas (18341917), Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, c.1856–9, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 36.7 x 32 cm, Howard and Nancy Marks)

So these landscape sketches, executed en situ, are anomalies in Degas’s practice as a whole but completely congruent with a young artist of the time. Degas used these views of legendary sites of history and culture as sources to be recorded the way he assiduously drew paintings of the Old Masters in the museums of Italy. Degas tended to use landscape as mere background for a subject wholly other and which was his real interest. In early paintings such as Scene from the Middle Ages it is obvious that Degas had no engagement with landscape and would have dispensed with it altogether if he had had the chance. (And he eventually would.) It was just a short step from Young Spartans Exercising (1860), with its perfunctory landscape, to Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the ballet “La Source” (c. 1867-8), with its artificial landscape in the form of a painted backdrop. The play of artifice and verisimilitude allowed Degas to turn his limitation into a feature. He no longer had to be concerned about “getting things right” when flatness and lack of integration became an absolutely truthful presentation of stage backdrops. He would have entirely dispensed with landscape painting if he had not had to use views as part of his paintings of horses and jockeys. One wonders if Degas’s deteriorating eyesight played any part in his rejection of landscape as a subject for his mature art. The artist, his long vision seriously impaired, simply could not see well enough to paint them. It seems likely that physical limitations accorded with his artistic preoccupations rather than the other way round.

On the evidence of these oil sketches Degas was a competent landscapist in the line of Corot and Ingres. Watercolour studies of rocks are also included.

Monotype printing, where a design is drawn in ink on a metal plate before being run through a press with paper which transfers ink to paper, was one of Degas’s principal means of artistic expression. His monotypes outnumber his prints of other types. Degas often reprinted from the same plate a second impression, which is always lighter than the first print. Degas would usually modify the second impression with pastel, gouache and body colour. These alterations sometimes became so involved and extensive that additions entirely cover the underlying print. The atmosphere, emphasis and appearance of print could be radically changed, as was apparent in the recent MoMA exhibition, New York which included comparative examples of first and second impression monotypes. (For my full review of that exhibition see “Degas monotypes”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. CLVIII, no. 1360, pp. 589-90; July 2016.)

Subjects of monotypes on display include landscapes, horse-and-jockey and street scene. A comparative print by VLN Lepic is included to show how free and expressive the prints of the French C19th monotype revival could be. French monotypes of this period share in common the approach of expressive inking of etchings, wherein plates were inked in highly individual and expressive ways which altered the appearance of the original design and introduced new elements. This made each impression as individual as a unique drawing, quite at variance with the usual practice of printers attempting to make an edition of an etching as uniform and neutral as possible.

Nudes, dancers and sculpture are related in Degas’s art. Dancers were often drawn nude – either from life or imagined – before being used in paintings and the nudes of women washing and drying often include difficult, peculiar and transient poses that echo those of dancers either in actions or resting and stretching. Degas figurines in wire, clay, Plastiline and coloured beeswax were often of dancers in motion. Some poses were so unstable that Degas had to introduce props to keep the figures upright. Other sculptures were of horses. Britain has few really good Degas pastels of nude figures, so the exhibition has usefully drawn upon American loans. One can see many poses reoccurring in different mediums and figures repeated in pictures. Degas used tracing paper to experiment with positioning, tracing and reversing. He also used tracing paper as the ground for large-scale finished pastels, an unconventional choice which has caused some conservation issues for collectors. Using a slick surface for a powdery medium is problematic; Degas relied on applying extensive layers of fixative throughout the drawing process to keep the pastel in position. Using water sometimes turned the pastel to a paste which he would manipulate with brushes, creating a fusion of wet and dry techniques.

The sculptures are discussed more extensively in Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, Volume 3: Degas, published by the National Gallery of Art, featuring works from its unique holding of original Degas statuettes.

Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, by Degas

(Image: Edgar Degas (18341917), Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, First Study, c.188295coloured wax over a commercially prefabricated metal wire armature, attached to a wooden base, 23.5 x 13.7 x 27.5 cm, © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

The posthumous repairing, editioning and distribution of bronze casts of Degas is involved and covers a multitude of archival, legal and moral issues about the reproduction of sculpture. These questions are of great financial importance considering the value of the pieces and the proliferation of fakes (or at least “unauthorised copies”). Degas considered casting some of his figures but never did; he exhibited only one sculpture during his lifetime, the famous Little Dancer aged Fourteen (1878-81), at the 1881 Impressionist exhibition. It was Degas’s heirs who decided to edition the statues in bronze and sell them.

The generously sized illustrations in the Cambridge catalogue allow us to get a good feeling for the originals. Both Facture and the Cambridge catalogue include x-rays which display the armature and internal components of the originals. Degas’s gimcrack, improvisatory approach to sculpture is apparent in evidence of hasty repairs, scraps of cloth and cork used as bulk and numerous breakages. Degas was apparently serious about his sculptural practice but treated the objects themselves in a rather casual manner. Extensive repairs were needed to many of the figures before they could be cast and some figures were just a jumble of fragments. It is fascinating to see the nails and wire holding the figures to their wooden bases and all the other touches of the artist which are obscured in the bronze casts.

There is debate about how finished the statues and the paintings are. Degas’s art is a difficult to assess in terms of finish. He left some works unfinished, exhibited art that seemed incomplete, revised finished work and wanted to “re-touch” sold pictures in private collectors (often to disastrous results). For discussion on that point, the bronzes and possible restorer intervention in a pastel, see my discussion of Facture on ArtWatch UK’s website here: http://artwatch.org.uk/degas-and-the-problem-of-finish/

For the general reader A Passion for Perfection is a good overview of Degas’s output, with new observations on his themes and techniques. Facture is an essential publication for scholars and collectors of Degas’s art.

18 October 2017