Whistler, Ruskin, Tonalism and the Falling Rocket

“In November 1878 one of the defining events of Modernism and aesthetics took place. A libel case was brought to court in London. The plaintiff was the flamboyant and notorious London-based American painter-printmaker and the defendant (who did not appear to testify) was a famous art critic.

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was the leading painter of the Aesthetic Movement. He was witty and erudite and made a point of provoking audiences with his statements on taste. He is (understandably) often assessed in relation to Wilde, whom he knew. There was a degree of competition between the pair. The young Wilde attended events Whistler spoke at and it was commonly thought that many of Wilde’s beliefs on aesthetics and art came from Whistler. Famously, Whistler and Wilde were at a gathering together and Whistler uttered a witticism. Wilde exclaimed, “I wish I had said that,” to which, Whistler replied, “You will, Oscar, you will.” Wilde addressed the painter as “Butterfly”, a symbol of ornate beauty and delicacy. Later, the pair became estranged, their egos rather than their outlooks conflicting. Not least, Whistler was a skilled writer, well known for his elegantly barbed letters to the press. Wilde may have felt, as a mere writer and no more, that the multi-talented Whistler was intimidatingly skilled and sophisticated….”

To read the full article for free, visit my Substack page: https://alexanderadamsart.substack.com/p/whistler-ruskin-tonalism-and-the?s=w

Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested illus.

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

114, Fang mask, p. 179

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

42, early cycladic figure, p. 102

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

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

21 April 2022

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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


“Damien Hirst, Natural History”

“The entrance to the Gagosian gallery is rather unsettling. A pair of calves suspended in formaldehyde solution; two flayed cows heads gaze at each other; a shoal of exotic fish — once vividly coloured — are faded to tawny grey. They have, in artistic terms, acquired the patina of an Old Master. 

Damien Hirst: Natural History (Gagosian, London) displays the past master of shock’s iconic animal sculptures and forces us to consider the question: is Hirst a serious artist? 

“When I was an art student at Goldsmiths College a couple of years after Hirst had graduated, tales of his unprecedented success while still a student loomed large. Hirst would send taxis to collect tutors so they could give him tutorials as he prepared works in galleries. For the art students who studied in the early 1990s, it was an impossible act to follow. 

“Like others, I made the pilgrimage to see Hirst’s exhibitions, including those at the Saatchi Gallery. The sight of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) — a giant tiger shark in a tank — is one of the most unforgettable experiences of the last 50 years of British art…”

To read the full review visit The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/the-decaying-master-of-shock/

Roger Raveel, Belgian proto-Pop artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

“Why talented artists are leaving fine art behind”

“Imagine that you are young and you have a passion for a sport, say, javelin throwing. You watch videos of javelin competitions. You buy your own javelin and throw it in a nearby field for hours every day. You then join a javelin club with expectations of becoming a professional sportsman. But the club is not what you expect.

“Club members don’t seem to practice javelin throwing much. And they not only admit members who don’t throw javelins, but they also actively dislike javelins and javelin-throwers. They call javelin-throwers supporters of racial oppression and reactionary politics. You stop going to the club, regretting that you devoted so much energy to the pastime.

“It sounds odd but that’s not far from the situation in fine art. If you love making skilful images of figures, objects and landscapes, it is highly likely that members of your profession will sneer at you – at worst, you will be accused of upholding exclusionary standards. Even art tutors struggle to teach the skills now because they themselves have not been taught them.

“So when using skill to depict worlds in two dimensions in the field of fine art is deemed suspect, where do traditional art-makers go? The new book, Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration, which explores the diverse and dynamic art that comprises fantasy illustration, provides a hint….”

Read the full review on Spiked here.

Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800 is a current touring exhibition (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 30 September 2021-9 January 2022; Detroit Institute of Arts, 6 February-29 May 2022). The exhibition brings together some of the biggest names in art by Italian women. Gentileschi, Anguissola, Carriera are well known to students of art history and Fontana is familiar to anyone who has read a feminist art history; lesser-known figures give a wider view of the field. This review is from the catalogue.

Interest in women artists has grown apace in recent years. Of particular focus has been Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later), a Baroque Caravaggisti from Rome. The high standard of her best paintings and her life story have been taken up as proof of twin claims made broadly by feminists – that women are as equally talented as men, therefore their general absence from art history (until recently) is a deliberate act of erasure by men, and that women have suffered shaming and abuse at the hands of men which has made pursuit of profession and private fulfilment difficult unique to women. Despite the fact that women’s routes to the position of accredited artist were often less straightforward than those of male counterparts, historical research supports the fact that women did work in the art field in greater numbers than initially thought. The narrative of systemic oppression seems less tenable. Talent and determination has a way of finding an outlet and recognition, if only posthumously. All of the artists in this exhibition achieved some degree of professional success in their lifetimes.

Artemisia Gentileschi was daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), who acted as her master during her apprenticeship as a painter. Her style follows his, which was patterned on Caravaggio’s. In 1611 she was raped by the Agostino Tassi (1578-1644). After the rape, Tassi offered to marry Artemisia, which was a promise he subsequently broke. It was the breaking of this marriage contract that was brought to trial by Orazio, as well as a plan by Tassi to steal a painting by Orazio. Although Tassi was found guilty of breaking the contract and having committed other crimes (and of having planned to commit others), he was not punished. Artemisia’s subsequent paintings of women martyrs, and of Judith murdering Holofernes, are interpreted as a pointed response to the attack and failure of the court to implement just punishment. Almost all of her paintings feature women protagonists. This may be a personal fixation of hers or (as some historians have suggested) the artist trading on her notability as a high-profile woman artist by painting women. Gentileschi subsequently married and moved to Florence, where she achieved success as a court painter. Later periods in Venice, Rome, Naples and London led to steady commissions and respectful receptions by local academies and courts.  

[Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5), oil on canvas, 184 x 141.6 cm, Detroit Institute of Art]

The catalogue reproduces three Gentileschi self-portraits of 1615-7 and a prototype of c. 1613-4. The exhibition includes perhaps her great painting, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5). In it, the standing Judith holds a blooded cutlass. She holds out a hand to shade her left eye; that presents us with the audacious crescent of her profile shining in the darkness. The composition is a series of arcs tumbling down the composition. It is a fine picture, perhaps the best of her oeuvre. It has the usual weaknesses of Caravaggisti painting – poor articulation of space, breaks in logic (the shadow of Judith’s raised arm should throw her sleeve and shoulder into darkness, etc.), selective use of optical accuracy (gestures towards realistic shadows, no understanding of reflected light and colour) and the problems of proportion that stem from composite designs that combine discrete parts, which derives from (though is not in all instances caused by) use of the camera obscura. Historians tend to be overimpressed by the appearance of naturalism in Caravaggisti paintings, not crediting the degree to which artists deliberately fudge issues when they need to achieve a certain effect. Caravaggisti were primarily concerned to create an impression of truthfulness rather than record truth. It is a form of dishonesty and is their greatest fault.

Gentileschi’s non-Judith Biblical paintings and self-portraits are distinctly less persuasive, degrees weaker than the paintings of Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663). Cagnacci (despite his flaws) is a better, more exciting painter than Gentileschi. Lot and His Daughters (1636-8) has the three figures like cut-outs adjoining one another, figures casting no shadows on others; this undermines the artist’s intention to bond the three in an interlocked group. David and Bathsheba (c. 1636-7)is much poorer, with the architectural background (perhaps by an assistant) being both insistent and unpersuasive. The rearmost attendant is awkward; the others are little better. The placement of figures and spatial arrangement is risible, making a mockery of the attempted eye contact between Bathsheba and the rightmost attendant. Such paintings – the pedestrian and the poor – show Gentileschi to be a second-rate painter capable of a few flashes of brilliance.  

So, what of the quality of the rest of the art? Does it stand up to scrutiny?

Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535-1625) is a very inconsistent artist, as this selection proves. She is best known for self-portraits, which vary in treatment from the sensitive to the cursory. The lowest in quality seem to be casual efforts, trading on the novelty of being self-portraits of a woman artist.  (A painfully malproportioned self-portrait (now in Vienna) is illustrated.) The miniature self-portrait with giant medallion (oil on parchment, 3¼” x 2½”) is a handsome piece of work, well modelled, contemplative, technically well thought through. Self-Portrait at the Easel (1554-5) is one of the number of variants, showing the artist depicting a Virgin and Child. The portraits of children are good, one deriving from Giovanni Battista Moroni’s style. The Holy Family (1592) is rather unpleasant, with its pneumatic anatomies and slick handling. For more on this artist, read another review by me here.  

Diana Scultori (c. 1547-1612) was a Mantuan engraver working in the Roman style established by Marcantonio Raimondi. The composition after Giulio Romano is very effective; the translation of a Cornelius Cort drawing of The Spinario is somewhat less so. It is difficult to separate the weaknesses of this second engraving into errors of the original drawing and those of transcription.

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) is one of the female painters of the Bolognese School. She is represented by religious paintings, portraits and portrait drawings executed in black and red chalks. A small tondo portrait of a prelate (c. 1580) is arresting – sympathetic, engaged, carefully executed – but the other pictures are unremarkable. Fede Galizia (c. 1574-c. 1630) seems (on the evidence of her Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1596) and an attractive still-life of fruit (c. 1607)) to be of high calibre, but it is impossible to judge on the strength of only two paintings. It is hard to assess printmakers Isabella Catanea Parasole (active 1585-1625) and Anna Maria Vaiani (1604-c. 1655), painter Anna Bacherini Piattoli (1720-1788) and miniaturist Veronica Stern Telli (1717-1801) on these meagre showings. Painters Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596-1676) and Ginevre Cantofoli (1618-1672) and pastellist Marianna Carlevarijs (1703-after 1750) seem to be very slight talents.

Through illustration, it is hard to appreciate the religious dioramas of Caterina de Julianis (c. 1670-c. 1742). Dioramas (framed constructions of painted wax figures of saints in setting deep-relief settings are pieces) often get overlooked in art histories. Somewhere between fine art, devotional handicraft, ex voto and sculptural curiosity, such dioramas are hard to categorise. The common temperamental aversion of polychromy in sculpture, prejudice against the use of wax (redolent of anatomical teaching aides) and the fact that these diorama were often produced by nuns (often anonymously) rather than professionally accredited artists, all mean that dioramas of devotional character fall between academic disciplines and do not receive their due attention. The extreme delicacy of such pieces has caused a high attrition rate, leading to gaps in the historical records which has obscured the extent of the production. de Julianis’s piece in the catalogue has a coloured wax figurine of Penitent Magdalene, in woodland grotto with a deer drinking at a stream, with a painted landscape behind. The materials are listed as “beeswax, pigments, paper, glass, vellum, silk, feathers, wire, burlap, and varnish”. Such dioramas inspired recent art by contemporary sculptor Berlinde de Bruyckere.

The attractive and scrupulous tempera paintings on parchment of flora and fauna by Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) are a delight. She trained as a miniaturist and made portraits and religious paintings. They are sharp, accurate and display great versatility – they hark back to Dürer and anticipate the field of naturalist illustration. Despite the wealth of detail, they never become either fussy or stiff, enlivened by the use of hatched shading and blending of colours and line with stippling. The subjects have sculptural presence. They are the outstanding find of this exhibition.

Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was another Bolognese artist, adulated in her lifetime. She was a prolific painter, producing portraits, mythological paintings, Biblical scenes and etchings. We know of her production and development because she signed and dated many paintings. Aside from the original and intense Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664), there is nothing here that seems to separate Sirani from contemporaries. To prove her fortitude to her husband Brutus, Portia stabbed herself in the thigh. It is a rare subject in art. Portia’s expression is reserved and a touch dreamy. In a way, it anticipates the modern-day self-cutting craze, where bloodletting is a test of strength and self-control. Responses to Sirani and Fontana will likely depend on whether the viewer finds the art of the Bolognese School of this period agreeable  

Venetian pastellist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) is well known enough. As a portraitist in pastels, she was famed during her lifetime and (for afficionados of the period) she is still a star. Her miniature portraits in watercolour on ivory show the delicacy of her touch and flair for Rococo airiness and sensuality. Her technical grounding and brio in execution make her pastels and paintings attractive and stylistically consistent – internally and as a group. As with much Rococo art, there is the ever-present temptation for the artist to flatter both subject and viewer. A late invented head in pastel is looser and more expressive than her commissioned portraits.   

The exhibition also includes portraits of women artists by men. The best is a dramatic, sculptural and handsome 1627 painting by Simon Vouet (1590-1649), of his wife Virginia de Vezzo (1600-1638). This is a thoughtful addition but perhaps a counter-productive one. With the possible exception of Gentileschi’s Judith, Vouet’s portrait is the best painting in an exhibition dedicated to presenting the abilities of women artists.

[Image: Simon Vouet, Virginia da Vezzo, the Artist’s Wife, as the Magdalene (c. 1626), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 1649 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art]

Catalogue essays explore women artists as miniaturists and the professional standing of women artists in this period in Italy. Catalogue entries devote space to discussing issues related to exhibited items. The essays and catalogue entries are written by specialists Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, Sheila Barker, Babette Bohn, Claude-Douglas Dickerson III, Jamie Gabbarelli, Hilliard Goldfarb, Lara Lea Roney and Joaneath Spicer. The entries are sympathetic towards the situation of women artists but lack the stridency or partisan quality found in other books. This makes the catalogue a pleasure to read and endows the statements with greater credibility. The evidence of new scholarship is woven into informative entries on exhibits.

The more sweeping claims of first-generation feminist art historians are being picked apart by close study of records. “Beginning in the fourteenth century, women’s rate of matriculation in the artisanal guilds across Europe began to drop, yet women continues to work in similar numbers. Whereas this decline was formerly attributed to efforts to cast women out of guilds through exclusionary tactics, historians now widely agree that late medieval and early modern women may have deliberately avoided joining guilds, probably to save money and time, and to skirt requirements that could cut into their profit margins, productivity, employment opportunities, and market shares.”

The extensive exhibition list and bibliography will be a useful reference for students and academics seeking sources. The illustrations are generally very good. Overall, the catalogue and exhibition is a balanced overview of women artists in Italy in the pre-modern era. Some of the art is wonderful and the texts provide a survey of the achievements of Italian women artists.

Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, et al, By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Detroit Institute of Arts (distr. Yale), 2021, cloth hb, 208pp, 141 col. illus., $40/£30, ISBN 978 0 300 25636 9

Purchase the book here.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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


Toyen, Magnetic Woman

The first English-language overview of Czech Surrealist artist Toyen (Marie Čermínová, 1902-1980) corrects a longstanding lacuna in English literature on Surrealism. Surrealism studies has been expanding its range over decades. Central and Eastern Europe have been poorly served however, particularly because of lack of access to records during the Communist era and the relative dearth of Surrealist scholars able to speak the relevant languages.

As Karla Huebner, associate professor of art history at Wright State University, explains in her monograph Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic, neglect of Toyen’s art is in part her own making. Toyen was not keen to commit her artistic ideas or biographical information to paper, leaving many admirers in her lifetime unclear about the artist’s intentions. André Breton was an admirer of her art and she was involved in post-War Surrealism in Paris – she fled to Paris after the Iron Curtain fell – but she is seen as, if not second rank, certainly second generation. Huebner correctly discerns that post-War Surrealism was (and is) considered a spent force. Even in official histories of the movement, comparatively little attention is paid to the Paris group after 1945. Other reasons are discussed later.

Toyen was born Marie Čermínová, in Prague in 1902, to Catholic parents from Bohemia. Huebner sets out what little she can glean of Toyen’s early life, which (apart from official records) amounts is almost nothing. Between 1919 and 1922, Čermínová attended the Artistic-Industrial School, which was the applied art school in Prague. Her teacher was Emanuel Dítĕ the Younger was an academic painter, but Heubner points out that some notable Czech modernists started their careers under him, so his teaching must not have been deadening. In later years, the artist did not discuss her background with anyone, though it seems she was not estranged, simply keen to protect her privacy (or control public perceptions of her).

Čermínová dressed ambiguously, not presenting as a man but in working clothes more common for men than women. She also wore conventionally feminine clothes. She cut her hair short. Rather than intending to pass as the opposite sex, Čermínová’s diverse styles of dressing suggest variable intentions and moods, an understanding of appropriacy and a studied disregard for convention. “Descriptions of the artist as androgynous or of mutable gender identity emphasize four general characteristics: 1) cross-dressing, especially in rough and working-class manner; 2) walking with an unusual, apparently unladylike, gait; 3) use of the masculine gender in Czech (though not, apparently, in French); and 4) attraction to women.”

Image: “2.1 A studio photograph used for publicity. Toyen, circa 1928. Photographer unknown. LA PNP.”

Čermínová was a successful and prolific designer of book jackets and illustrations, starting in 1923. That was the same year she joined the Devĕtsil Modernist movement, which Huebner describes as an avant-garde movement with cosmopolitan attitudes, which saw itself as internationalist – partly to step outside the Czech nationalist revival (Nationalist Awakening), that had begun around 1900. The Devĕtsil members had their roots in the Decadent Movement of the 1890s. It was upon her joining the movement that she was given the name “Toyen”, which she would use for the rest of her life, personally and professionally (if not legally).

From 1922 until his death in 1942, Toyen was the partner of Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942). Štyrský started as a latter-day follower of the Decadents. He had an interest in potent provocative literature, dreams and occultism – a good grounding for a future Surrealist. He was a painter with a pronounced preoccupation with death, decay, ruin, as well as the erotic. He worked as a painter, although it is for his montages – especially with pornographic elements – that he is best known for today. The couple apparently collaborated on different levels, consulting each other about choices and sometimes working on pieces together. They frequently exhibited together, with prices comparable. Štyrský and Toyen were considered a social and artistic pairing, Toyen not as a junior partner or follower. Magazine spreads show that their art was given equal prominence. There seems to have been no condescension towards women in the Devĕtsil group, though (again) apparently few participated.

Huebner describes how the Prague proto-Surrealists were a vital force in the mid-1920s, just as the Paris group was graduating from Dadaism to Surrealism. (This was despite the fact that the Prague group was not officially founded until 1934.) There was apparently rivalry between the groups for intellectual leadership of the movement. In 1925 Toyen and Štyrský moved to Paris. The book contains much discussion of the pair’s personal and artistic fascination with sex, so much more easily accessible and public in Paris than elsewhere. Sex was a major theme of the pair’s art. Toyen’s paintings and sketches include revue bars, prostitution, lesbianism, orgies and other sexual imagery, made in a naïve style.

Image: “0.2. Toyen’s work began to signal an interest in androgyny by the early 1930s. Toyen, untitled drawing in the Erotická revue 2 (1932).”

Toyen’s erotic illustrations are playful and vary in detail, ranging from the primitive to the sophisticated over-layering found in Surrealist photomontages. The lines can be sensitive and elegant. The imagery includes the ribaldry of pornography, the sophistication of Beardsley and the juxtapositions of Surrealism. The sheer amount of work indicates Toyen’s serious artistic investment in this field. Toyen and Štyrský published illustrated erotic books and her illustrations in Štyrský’s Erotická Revue (1930–33). Štyrský was sympathetic to Bataille’s dissident Documents group, which focused on the power of sex, the concept of the informe and the concentration on sadism. This book should establish Toyen as a major artist of the erotic.

The pair’s work earliest art in Paris was semi-abstract paintings, influenced by Cubism and Purism; it was described as “artificialist”. It is tepid fare. The ambivalence of Breton and the Surrealist poets towards art meant that painting in early Surrealist period was ancillary. Breton started writing in 1925 of “Le surréalisme et la peinture”, distinguishing and dividing the two entities with the conjunctive “and”. Toyen and Štyrský spent the late 1920s resisting Surrealism, all the time becoming more familiar with it, swimming in the waters of the movement that dominated inter-war Paris. Huebner says that once Toyen committed to Surrealism, she did it wholeheartedly and became the central figure of Czech Surrealism – its unofficial leader. By this time, she was back in Prague. She and Štyrský had returned from Paris in 1928.

This book acts as a survey of Czech Surrealism. It explains the significance of major actors, important events and the tensions between Surrealism and Communism. The paucity of personal papers means that Toyen disappears a little in some sections. She comes back into focus during the Occupation and World War II, during which she stayed in Prague, sheltering a half-Jewish artist Jindřich Heisler (1914-1953) from Nazi arrest and transportation to concentration camps. In 1942, Štyrský died of pneumonia, exacerbated by alcoholism. It was in 1944 that Toyen produced Hide Yourself, War!, nine ink illustrations featuring animal skeletons in devastated landscapes. They are by far Toyen’s best art. The powerful bleakness, graphic crispness and wonderfully modulated shading give these apparitions tremendous impact.

Image: “5.22a–i Skeletal figures on flat expanses warn of war’s destruction. Toyen, Schovej se, válko! [Hide Yourself, War!/Cache-­toi guerre!], 1944 (Prague: F. Borový, 1946).”

Occupation of Prague by Soviet forces following the war and the artistically deadening influence of Czech Communists meant that Toyen, despite being politically left, realised her art had no future in her home country. In 1947, Toyen and Heisler (her new partner) moved to Paris. She would reside in France until her death.

It is a little ironic (given the author’s identification of the critical neglect Surrealists after 1945) that relatively little space is given to Toyen’s post-War production. This does turn out to be justified. The author describes how Toyen’s art became more diffuse, mystical in mood, suffused by darkness. This was congruent with Surrealism as a whole, as Breton directed followers to embrace the occult and mysticism. Single hybridised humanoid forms float in stygian voids. Collaged elements (such as mouths and hands cut from magazine pages) are incorporated into painted personages. It is hard not to think of this era as a decline. Toyen’s art was at its best with a sharp graphic bite and limpid clarity. We do find some flickers of success in her post-1945 line drawings but even these are less concisely arranged than her early Surrealism. Toyen’s painting (always weak) becomes forgettable. There is the implicit suggestion of laziness – covering backgrounds and settings with darkness, failing to resolve compositions, not fully articulating motifs. Viewing these pedestrian efforts, is it any wonder Toyen is considered a third-rate painter, when she is considered at all?

There are unanswered questions. Huebner does not discuss how the paintings were made. Did Toyen make preparatory drawings or were the paintings designed on the canvas? Hide Yourself, War! presumably had sources for the skeletons – were they taken from textbooks or drawn from museum specimens? Did Toyen keep sketchbooks? Did she write letters mentioning her technique or including thumbnail sketches? Also, Toyen’s income goes undiscussed. Did she make a living income from fine art or was she obliged to do book-design work? We do not know anything about her living arrangements or daily routines. Did she travel? This is no criticism of the author. It may be that such information is entirely lost. Huebner has rightly discerned that the main priority is to outline Toyen’s art and summarise methods of critiquing it.   

Pick up any large book on Surrealist art and you will find Toyen’s art, but rarely represented by more than a drawing or two or maybe a painting. Little text is given to her. (Less is given to Štyrský.) So, for what reasons (apart from neglect of the post-War period of Surrealism) are Toyen’s art not more reproduced or discussed?

Refreshingly, for an author writing on a female Surrealist, Huebner admits that gender is not the primary reason for the neglect of her subject. “The scholar in pursuit of Toyen encounters some of the usual problems in studying a female artist – the relative paucity of critical sources, the need to research her via male associates – yet not entirely for the usual reasons. Indeed, Toyen’s two artistic partners, Štyrský and Heisler, have received no more attention than she. It is less that her gender has obscured knowledge of her work than that historical circumstances – primarily arising from the Cold War – have obscured her from view.” This point is outlined in the second paragraph of this review.

The frankness of Toyen’s erotic art may have put off some publishers and art historians. The subject of sex is not unknown to the movement (Hans Bellmer made it his central concern), but mainstream publishers can be wary of unambiguously explicit art in titles intended for libraries and schools. The erect phallus (which one does not find in the art of other female Surrealists) is definitely on the indecent side of the line that separates mainstream publishing from specialist publishing. The compiler of any monograph on Toyen cannot avoid including her erotic pictures.

Huebner identifies a key difference between Toyen and other female Surrealists. There is lack of personalisation and a lack of personae in her art. There are no self-portraits, no alter egos and no glamorous avatars in Toyen’s dreamscapes. “Toyen’s avoidance of [the face of the artist] does not negate the possibility of self-referential imagery in her work, but indicates that she did not care to represent herself in an obvious way or as the kind of wild and beautiful woman found in the work of Carrington, Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, and even Valentine Hugo.” This is definitely to Toyen’s disadvantage in terms of popular reception. There is no accessible entry point and no character upon which the female viewer can project herself. Toyen was an attractive woman but unlike the other women Surrealists, she did not model nude for herself or anyone else. Toyen’s aversion to (even disguised/transposed) literary and pictorial autobiography makes her art less attractive to audiences and academics.

Image: “Plate 18. Does the gymnast emerge from or disappear into the wall? Toyen, Relâche [After the Performance], 1943, oil, 109 × 52.5 cm. Alsova Jihočeska galerie, Hluboká nad Vltavou.”

As already described, a strike against Toyen is the fact that she was not a natural painter, being better suited to collage and illustration. Her skill was for graphics – line, composition, reduction – rather than colour, texture and brushwork. This puts her at an immediate disadvantage compared to the major Surrealist artists, who (with the exceptions of sculptor Giacometti and photographer Man Ray) were all painters. Next to the paintings of rich patterns and colours of Leonor Fini, the fairy-tale characters of Leonora Carrington and the haunting plains of Kay Sage, Toyen’s paintings feel a little thin, a touch flat, even drab. The best of Toyen’s art is her illustrations. However unfairly, line drawings and illustrations are judged minor art forms and treated accordingly.  

I disagree with José Pierre’s assessment of Toyen, quoted by Huebner, as “the least acknowledged of the great surrealist painters”.Toyen is not a great painter; she is barely a competent painter. She is a very accomplished draughtsman – at times reaching true greatness. However, due to the minor status of drawing and the other limitations outlined above, Toyen will never be counted as a Surrealist of the highest level by the public. Huebner has very well evaluated and presented the case for Toyen and readers benefit from knowing Toyen and her unique contribution to Surrealism. Magnetic Woman is a major achievement, very enjoyable and greatly informative. The author’s diligence and the clarity of her writing are of the highest standard. The author is well informed about Surrealism and current discussions in gender theory.

For those claiming Toyen as a “transgender” artist, there is disappointing news. Huebner nowhere cites Toyen describing herself as anything other than a woman. Despite using both male and female pronouns regarding herself in Czech, for the majority of her life she spoke principally French. In French, she never used a male pronoun regarding herself. While there is evidence of cross-dressing and some linguistic reframing in one of her two languages, there is nothing here to suggest she considered herself in identity terms such as transgender, transman, transvestite, intersex or anything else. The most that can be said of her is that (at times) she did not act in ways that were considered normatively female – along with a number of other women in that era, who likewise did not consider themselves transgender. It seems that Toyen did not want to be thought of by others as a woman because that might limit her; there is no evidence in this book that she thought of herself as anything other than a woman. She was a woman who acted the ways she wanted to. That in itself is noteworthy and does not need embellishing.

This publication is a rare foray into art history by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Let us hope it will not be the last. The book is well illustrated and handsomely bound in buckram, doing both subject and author credit. A word of advice for anyone who is a devotee of Surrealism, Czech Modernism, erotic art and female Modernist artists: buy this book. Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic is certain to become an essential source book, much sought after and expensive. Buy it now, while you can.

Karla Huebner, Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020, cloth hb, 408pp, 28 col./many mono illus., $100, ISBN 978 0 8229 4647 2

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York

I. The Book

Alexander Nemerov (a professor at Stanford University) has written a series of biographical episodes about the art and life of Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). Frankenthaler was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and founder of Colour-field Painting (Post-Painterly Abstraction). Nemerov has taken 11 dates, one per year from 1950 to 1960, to write about. These are entrances into different parts of the artist’s life, situating the chapters around specific events. This works adequately. Nemerov has to be flexible about what to include and how much the significance the day has to the chapter, but the framework is secondary to content.  

The 1950s were a decade in which Frankenthaler achieved an astronomical rise in prominence. When the account begins, Frankenthaler was a young painter, a recent graduate, searching for a unique style and place. She had graduated in 1949 from Bennington College, Vermont. Frankenthaler came from a wealthy upper-class Jewish family from New York. Her father had been a New York State Supreme Court justice. His unexpected death in 1940 left the family of a wife and three young girls grieving but financially secure.  

Frankenthaler participated in the 1951 exhibition at a venue on Ninth Street. Only in retrospect was it seen as ground breaking. Frankenthaler became close to Grace Hartigan, who exhibited in that show. More important for Frankenthaler was her first solo exhibition in November of that year. By that time she had already started an affair with Clement Greenberg. Much her elder, Greenberg was the most influential critic of the era. His backing had not exactly made Pollock the most famous (or notorious) painter in America, but his support had certainly seen both Pollock and Greenberg’s stars rise. Frankenthaler met Pollock and his wife Krasner via Greenberg. By this time, Pollock and Krasner lived on Long Island. Greenberg and Frankenthaler went out to visit them. Frankenthaler took much from Pollock. He was an example of a great and serious painter. His art was exhilarating. She viewed Pollock’s 1950 exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, which contained Pollock’s greatest drip paintings, and this transformed her idea of what painting could be.

On 26 October 1952, Frankenthaler painted Mountains and Sea. It was painted on raw canvas and unstretched, as Pollock painted. Frankenthaler diluted her paint so that it soaked and stained, rather than remained where poured. This diffuseness was radical. It was lyrical and sensuous. It was different from gestural painting of Pollock and the tight, impermeable surfaces of Malevich and Mondrian. This is seen as the starting point for the Colour-field Painting. Friedel Dzubas, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and others were excited by the painting as saw potential in that art. Others would soon follow. For the first time in history, two occurrences had taken place: a woman had founded a major art movement and a style had been established on a single identifiable day.

On 27 July 1953, Frankenthaler visited the Prado, seeking cultural release from domestic frustrations. Her encounter with Tintoretto and painters of the Spanish Golden Age led her to tackle larger canvases, referring back to art history. On 12 August 1956, Frankenthaler was in Paris with Krasner when the news reached them that Pollock had been killed in a car crash. Frankenthaler did her best to comfort Krasner as she made funeral and travel arrangements by telephone. Following Pollock’s lengthy deterioration into a violent angry drunk, his death ended up freeing both Krasner and Frankenthaler. As Nemerov puts it, “Whatever personal feelings it occasioned, Pollock’s death was also a release. That fall Helen’s paintings became freer, more improvisational, more brazenly indifferent to protocols of “finish.” Some new joy came with the master’s demise; some liberation, inseperable from the pall, fueled her work.”

On 1 August 1958 Frankenthaler and Motherwell were on their honeymoon in Spain and visited the caves of Altamira.  On 16 July they had visited the caves of Lascaux. This was Frankenthaler’s second pilgrimage to the Altamira caves. That had been with a crowd. This time, she and her husband were alone, having bribed the keeper to allow them in during the lunch break. Viewing the paintings by candlelight, surrounded by darkness and silence, the couple wondered at the paintings of bison, horses and deer that had once inhabited ancient Spain. For two painters strongly committed to the primal power of painting and dedicated to paint as a medium, it was a profound experience. Both later made reference to the experience in statements and art.

The year 1959 was a stressful one for Frankenthaler and Motherwell. They took custody of Motherwell’s two young children from his ex-wife, due to her break down. Frankenthaler was at first anxious and disconcerted by the responsibilities of being a stepmother. However, the couple adjusted, had enough money for a nanny and the children grew to trust and like Frankenthaler. It was a bittersweet moment when the girls returned to their mother two years later. Frankenthaler would have no children of her own. Frankenthaler’s 1960 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York, brought a curtain down on the 1950s and her youth. By this time, Pop, Happenings and Conceptual art was in the wings. Politics would drive a wedge between the student artists and the grand Abstract Expressionists. Over barely two decades, Abstract Expressionism would rise, freeze and fade, its practitioners turned into bankable Old Masters in late middle age.    

The book is a brisk read, written in a direct style but informed by a solid grounding in 1950s American culture and the New York School. Nemerov’s familiarity with the biography and art of his subject (and of others in her milieu) is evident. The thorough footnotes will help students and scholars track down sources; the illustrations – colour images of art, photographs of the artist at work and socialising – fill out the narrative. This book will be welcomed by fans of the painter and anyone interested in the New York School.

II. Frankenthaler as “a woman artist”

Discussions about Frankenthaler and the circumstances of women artists is complex. She was a talented painter who made original art – started a new school of painting – and was acclaimed by her peers. On that level, she is a success story, a self-actualised woman artist in a time when there were few top-level female artists. Yet her close connections to critic Clement Greenberg, artist Robert Motherwell and curator Bryan Robertson leave open the inference that her prominence was assisted by these men. If we examine interpretations of Krasner’s career, we find authors and associates suggesting Krasner’s marriage to Pollock impeded her during his lifetime (making her a supernumerary, causing people to view her art as relational to Pollock’s, reducing her productivity) and assisted her after his lifetime (proceeds from the Pollock estate making her financially secure, dealers interested in Pollock’s art treating Krasner’s art favourably in order to win access to his art). Yet Frankenthaler was already part of the New York Abstract Expressionist scene before her relationship with Greenberg. She was already exhibiting and selling art before the affair started. Greenberg may have increased the attention given her art before 1953 (the year Mountains and Sea was first exhibited), but it was in that year that Frankenthaler earned her reputation and had artist followers. It is difficult to see how her romantic connections translated into measurable career advantages, certainly after 1953.

It seems inevitable that an artist as original and driven as Frankenthaler would have broken through in the way she did, even without the encouragement of influential male partners. Greenberg was not a great champion of women artists as a whole. It is possible that the main boost he provided to Frankenthaler was forming a strong social bond with Pollock and Krasner and thereby allowing Frankenthaler to see their art first hand and discuss techniques, material and ideas with two of the most advanced artists in the scene. She admitted that seeing Pollock’s art was a seminal experience for her as a fellow painter. In that sense, Greenberg’s assistance was to help her develop her art, not to advantage her public career.

Frankenthaler’s signature style of staining was seen by some critics and artists as distinctly feminine. The style tended to conform to assumptions about womanly delicacy, as did the lack of evidence of raw physical energy or cultivated athletic dexterity, as found in the art of Pollock and Kline. The paintings contained blooming optical sensations and enveloping expanses rather than staccato brushwork or whipped drips. There were the inferences of woman as producer of fluids, passive, unfirm, labile, unpredictable, unfocused, avatar of untrammelled nature. Such talk betrayed the assumptions of the commentator more than it identified any trait in the painter. Woman as dyer of cloth, maker of decoration and laundress were the cultural shadows flickering through the minds of some in the 1950s and 1960s who saw photographs of Frankenthaler. These same viewers had seen Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of Pollock at work, the comparisons were somewhere between boxer and farmer; Pollock was described as a cowboy spinning lariats of paint instead of a lasso.

Frankenthaler’s art was well regarded – especially by the art cognoscenti of Manhattan, Long Island and Provincetown – possibly in part because it was seen as a (incidentally feminine) variant of an existing (incidentally largely masculine) discipline. It was an offshoot or evolution. In stylistic terms, this is correct. Colour-field Painting was developed by Abstract Expressionist painters, in their search to expand their formal range and technical capacities. The inference that it was secondary and subsequent, was one that artists and critics at the time were aware of and it did frame discussions. It is ironic that the first style inescapably founded by a female artist was one that was considered primarily as a development or continuation of a pre-existing school of painting. Even as a leader, Frankenthaler was seen at a secondary rank, as the head of a group which was behind a vanguard. This is a touch unfair whilst being accurate. Frankenthaler was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and Colour-field Painting did develop from that existing movement.      

This book does present a good overview of how Frankenthaler’s art was received by contemporaries, though the author is limited by his biographical focus. This book is a suitable entry point for those wishing to investigate this subject in more depth.

Alexander Nemerov, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, Penguin Press, 2021, hardback, 269pp + xviii, illus., $28, ISBN 978 0 525 56018 0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Hans Purrmann

A recent addition to Hirmer’s Great Masters of Art series is a short book on German Modernist Hans Purrmann (1880-1966). Purrmann was born in Speyer, Rhineland-Palatinate. He was trained in decorative art and took courses at the Applied Arts School, Karlsruhe, before going to study painting at Academy of Fine Arts, Munich (1897-1905). All of this gave him great craft skills and sensitivity towards colour. He had an affinity for Munich Impressionism. Park in Svinar (1903) is close to Max Liebermann’s Impressionism and Seated Nude (“Polish Equestrienne”) (1905) follows Lovis Corinth’s expressive diagonal brushwork and lush painterliness. The former is a dazzling tour de force depiction of shadow and dappling sunlight effects. Painting as pleasure-giving is never far from Purrmann’s thinking. Purrmann also respected Max Slevogt.

While in Munich, Purrmann developed an admiration for Cézanne. He immersed himself in the power of colour and the cultivation of facture, as means to vitalise painting. He moved to Paris in 1905 and the following year commenced studying in the studio of Henri Matisse. The master proved a major influence; so much so, that Purrmann is often called “the German Matisse”. It did not help Purrmann’s standing as an independent painter the fact that he vigorously promoted Matisse’s paintings in Germany. His combination of bluish greens and viridian – and his preference for blocks of unmodulated, unshaded colour – was developed at this time.

Purrmann could be classed as a late-period Fauve. His paintings from 1905 onwards share characteristics with those of Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain, as well as Matisse. The energy of Purrmann’s early Fauve paintings is akin to Vlaminck’s. The hot-coloured landscapes are a blend of Derain and Cézanne.

The painter admitted that he painted that which he enjoyed looking at and being around – sunny gardens, interiors of his handsome home, family members, nude models. Purrmann’s sumptuous interiors – juxtaposing reds and oranges against saturated greens and blue – of 1917-8 display his feeling for colour. The richness of the colour, restrained brushwork and deft use of detailing in compositions that exaggerate forms and spaces without reaching levels of unreality are highly satisfying and typical of Purrmann. That also demonstrates Purrmann’s weakness in comparison to Matisse. He is too restrained and too genteel to take up the risks that Matisse undertook. His art is gorgeous but genteel; it is the gentility of a consummate craftsman rather than the rawness and risk of genius.

Interestingly, Purrmann’s art was classed as degenerate by the Nazis and included in the 1937 exhibition. The content of his art was unobjectionable, had it been painted in a realist or mild Impressionist manner, but his style was tied to the unapologetic Modernism. This led to him being perceived as belonging to a subversive group (or tendency). The author admits he cannot explain how this condemned artist came to be appointed director of Villa Romana, Florence, a German-owned villa used for artist residencies. Purmann held the position from 1935 until 1943, the breakdown of the Fascist government during the pressure of Allied invasion and German occupation. (That summer his wife died in Munich after a long illness.) In 1939, the “Italian branch of the Nazi Party” wrote to the German Embassy in Rome, calling Purrmann a “proponent of an altogether un-German concept of art”. Purrmann was known to have assisted dissident artists and writers during his time there.

Purrmann’s painting during his years in Florence feature the villa and display the artist’s appreciation for his surroundings. The views of rooms, including glimpses of the garden and trees beyond the balcony, recall Matisse’s Nice and Cannes paintings. After the war, Purrmann settled in Lugano, Switzerland. His studio had a spectacular mountain view. His art did not develop much in later years; it did not need to. He continued painting after 1959, when he was confined to a wheelchair by a stroke. His dedication to pleasure was richly rewarded in his last decades by increasing acclaim and financial security. In 1955, his art was selected for the first Documenta exhibition in Cassel, chosen in part by the German curators because Purrmann was seen as untainted by Naziism, Modernist in character and representative of the taste and artists of France. Purrmann was, for Germans burdened by war-guilt, an embodiment of “the good German artist”: cosmopolitan in outlook and association.

Purrmann’s painting is definitely worth becoming acquainted with, especially if one is a fan of the Fauves or early Matisse. It is highly accomplished and enjoyable. Wagner’s book is the perfect introduction. The book contains a general essay, a thorough chronology and a handful of documents from Purrmann, alongside colour illustrations. The illustrations are well chosen and large enough. Recommended for all fans of Matisse, Modernist painting and German art.

Christoph Wagner, Hans Purrmann, Hirmer, 2021, hardback, 80pp, 55 col. illus., £9.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3679 1

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

“Getting Creative with History”

“From the first charcoal drawings on cave walls, to Rachel Whiteread’s Turner Prize-winning cast of a house interior, Creation attempts to chart the nature of artistic creativity worldwide. It is a comparative anthropological study of what creativity means within a differing but constant construct: society. The book offers a chronological survey of fine art, applied art and architecture, in that order of emphasis. We visit the highlights of major civilisations, respectively the Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Olmec, Mayans, Aztecs, Greek, Romans, Indians and others. Then we return to Europe for the majority of the remainder of the book.

“Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation — tracing the course of European culture from ancient Greece to the 20th century — was considered an encyclopaedic achievement. This is by some measure even more ambitious. Curator and cultural historian John-Paul Stonard takes us to ancient China, the lost civilisations of Central America and modern and prehistoric Africa, whilst also featuring art of Western societies from the medieval to modern era. Surely, Stonard is setting himself up for failure….”

John-Paul Stonard, Creation: Art Since The Beginning, Bloomsbury, 2021, hardback, 464pp, fully illus., £30, ISBN 978 1 4088 7968 9

Read the full review here: https://thecritic.co.uk/getting-creative-with-history/