Flemish Primitives in Bruges

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[Image: Jan Van Eyck, Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436), oil on panel, Groeningemuseum, Bruges]

Flemish Primitives in Bruges is a new book presenting paintings by Flemish painters from the Early and High Renaissance (also called the South (or Early) Netherlandish School). Till-Holger Borchert outlines the history of the city and how that affected the development of South Netherlandish painting. The story of art of the time is inextricably linked to the cloth trade in the Low Countries, especially in Flanders. The wealth and growing sophistication of the urban cloth merchants provided demand for religious objects of beauty and high cost. From around 1250 trade via the Hanseatic League, Baltic timber merchants and Flemish cloth merchants (aided by innovative Italian bankers) made the port city of Bruges an important hub for trade. With trade and wealth came culture. It was as part of the Burgundian state (the Duchy of Burgundy) that Bruges hosted the most advanced artists of the age. At this time the production of polychromed statuary, painted panels, painted furniture, manuscript illumination and book production were overlapping fields and makers often had multiple skills.

In 1431-2 Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) settled in Bruges, having moved from Ghent, where he had painted the Ghent Altarpiece with his now deceased brother Hubert. It has been suggested that whereas panel painting in Northern Italy became elevated over mere ornamentation due to the example of the fresco painting, it seems that the innovations in panel painting of the Van Eyck siblings Jan, Hubert, Lambert and Margaret derived from manuscript illustration. They may have trained as manuscript limners. (The famed manuscript illuminator Barthélemy d’Eyck (c. 1420-after 1470) was probably related to them.) The earliest painted panel here is from c. 1420. “Stylistically, there are interesting correspondences with Brabant painting, but also close links with Bruges manuscript illumination of the same period. Unfortunately, comparably early paintings in Bruges have not survived.” These paintings are only a fraction of art that adorned public and private places in the immediate pre-Reformation era. An earlier panel by Melchior Broederlam (c. 1350-after 1409), now housed in the Dijon, is illustrated. The skilful use of oil paint in this diptych of about 1396-9 is the forerunner to the Van Eycks’ advancement of the technique. Till-Holger Borchert writes, “The few surviving panel paintings that can be situated in Flanders with some probability – and did not originate in the immediate vicinity of the Burgundian court – are not sufficient in number to demonstrate the alleged continuity between the time of Van Eyck and the preceding period.”

Van Eyck’s achievements are well known and he was famous within his lifetime. Most Early Netherlandish painting springs directly from Van Eyck’s model. Exactly the competence of achievements and competence of his siblings is unknown as there are no firm attributions to anyone but Jan, with two pieces being attributed in part to Hubert. Jan’s authorship is secure because of his habit of signing and dating paintings.

Jan Van Eyck died in 1441 and his brother Lambert apparently continued the workshop for a time, at least finishing commissions and perhaps accepting new ones. In 1444 Petrus Christus (c. 1410-20-c. 1475/6) arrived in Bruges and became the leading painter of the following generation. His followed the Eyckian approach of elaborate detail, high finish, fidelity to nature and the production of large devotional paintings and small portraits, all painted in oil. He was also influenced by the Brussels painter Rogier van der Weyden. The German painter Hans Memling (c. 1430-1494) trained with Rogier in Brussels and moved to Bruges in 1465 and worked there until his death. His synthesis of Van Eyck and Rogier’s styles is considered the epitome of the Bruges School.

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[Image: Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Woman (1480), oil on panel, Hopsital Museum, Bruges]

Gerard David (c. 1455-1523) trained in Gouda or Haarlem. In 1484 he became a member of the Guild of St Luke. His art represents an advance towards the High and Late Renaissance for the Bruges School. The chiaroscuro, naturalistic light and shade and subdued colours all mark a departure from the Netherlandish Early Renaissance. Although the facial physiognomies and clothing is distinctly Flemish, the pictorial language (and appearance) is now more Italianate and in line with Swiss, French and German painting of that time. The emerging Dutch style – within which David had developed – also exerted an influence on the painter, who arrived in Bruges as a master painter aged about 30. Borchert reports that David possibly travelled to Italy to install an altarpiece that was commissioned for an abbey in Liguria. “This would make him one of the first Flemish artists – before Joos van Cleve and Quinten Metsys – to be directly influenced by Italian painting. The journey could help explain the hitherto-unknown sfumato technique that characterized his later works […]”

There are many named masters to whom the many anonymous paintings cannot be connected, though undoubtedly these masters and paintings must overlap in authorship. Three of the most outstanding works are St Veronica presenting the Sudarium (c. 1495), the St Lucy paintings (1480) and Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1500). Other paintings have been associated with these masters and the process of teasing out the complicated and tenuous connections between pictures, painters and patrons continues today.

Later painters (Adriaen Isenbrant, Ambrosius Benson), influenced by David, are less noteworthy and have largely lost their Bruges character. An exception is Jan Provoost (c. 1465, who came from Hainaut (Mons). In 1494 he arrived in Bruges. In some ways Provoost owes more to Germanic painting than Early Netherlandish art. We can find touches of Grunewald and Bosch in his macabre Death and the Miser (c. 1515-21), where a wealthy merchant holds out a (promissory?) note to a skeletal Death.

Around 1500, the Zwin channel, which provided ships access to Bruges, began to silt up. Bruges lost status and income as trade moved to other cities, notably Antwerp. This led to artistic activity largely transferring to other cities. Bruges became a backwater. Happily, this neglect meant that there was a lack of funds for rebuilding, renovation and extensive alterations to the city layout, which caused the preservation of the centre of Bruges as a largely late Medieval city.

Borchert guides us through art of related centres of art production including Tournai, Artois, Ghent, Valenciennes, Brabant and ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Thus he discusses Rogier, Robert Campin, Jacques Daret and the mysterious Master of Flémalle, who may not have been a separate painter but rather the putative author of art by Campin, Rogier, Daret and others. Simon Marmion, Dieric Bouts, Bosch, Hugo van der Goes is mentioned in passing. All of these are presented with many illustrations and include recent scholarly conclusions about the activities of these artists.

The plates section shows the highlights of Bruges-related painters currently in the museums of Bruges. The paintings are located in the Goeningemuseum, Hospital Museum, Treasury of St Salvator’s Cathedral, Sint-Jacobskerk, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, our Lady’s Church, Museum van de Edele Confrérie van het Heilig Bloed, Grootseminarie and Public Library. Notable pictures include Jan Van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436) and portrait of the artist’s wife, Memling’s Triptych of the Two Saints John (1479), a fine portrait diptych (with a Madonna and Child on one panel and a donor portrait on the other) and a painted and gilded reliquary in the shape of a shrine, David’s Triptych of the Baptism of Christ (1502-8) and the gruesome scene of the flaying of Judge Sisamnes (1498), Jan Provoost’s Crucifixion (1505-10), and van der Goes’s completion of Dieric Bouts’s unfinished Triptych of the Martyrdom of St Hippolytus (1475-80). The single oversight is the omission of dimensions and medium details (although one presumes they are all oil paint on panel).

In short (two-page) side discussions, the author describes the origins of oil painting technique (which made Early Netherlandish art so distinctive), the triptych format and social conventions of art donation for religious purposes. A bibliography is included. This guide will be of use to visitors to Bruges, those studying the Bruges School and anyone who likes the painting of the Early and High Renaissance in the Low Countries.

 

Till-Holger Borchert, Flemish Primitives in Bruges, Ludion, 2019, paperback, 128pp, fully illus., English language version (Dutch and French versions available), €19, ISBN 978 9 493039117

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

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Lee Krasner: Living Colour

9. Lee Krasner, Polar Stampede, 1960, Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, San Francisco MoMA © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery

[Image: Lee Krasner, Polar Stampede (1960). The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York]

The exhibition Lee Krasner: Living Colour Barbican, London (30 May-1 September 2019; Schirnhalle, Frankfurt, 11 October 2019-12 January 2020; Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, 7 February-10 May 2020; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, 29 May-6 September 2020) is the first European retrospective of Krasner’s work since 1965. It displays the contributions of one of the major figures in the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Arranged over two floors and a touch confusingly laid out, the exhibition takes us from the 1920s to the 1970s. The large spaces in the downstairs galleries allow the big paintings to be hung and viewed adequately. There is a film which uses interviews with the artist to shed light on her opinions.

Lee Krasner (1908-1984) was from a Jewish family in Brooklyn. Born Lena Krassner, Krasner took an independent course from the start. She studied painting at the Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, New York. She attached herself to the idea of advanced art but in America in the late 1920s that was at that time plein air Impressionism. Her self-portrait of c. 1928 shows her skill and ambition to be thought of as avant-garde. Competence is evident in here other self-portraits and life drawings in conté crayon from her student years.

In the 1930s two events changed her approach to art. The first was the birth of the WPA, which (among other things) provided artists with work making murals to decorate public space and producing easel paintings for government buildings. Krasner was employed by the WPA and became a trusted employee, heading teams and taking a prominent role. She was given high praise by her instructors. At the time she did not see herself as a woman artist because women artists were if not common  then not uncommon. For artists of the time, in a country that had no developed market for Modernist art and an economy reeling from the Great Depression, the WPA provided not only work and income, it forged a community of artists. Committees, unions, action groups and informal clubs brought artists together and allowed them to exchange professional advice and artistic ideas. Some photographs of montages by Krasner made in 1942 for window displays are projected in one gallery. They are effective at large size.

The second change was studying under Hans Hofmann, starting in 1937. Hofmann was a German émigré and a bona fide Modernist who painted abstract work (which he tended not to display, for fear of influencing his students). He treated Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, Expressionism, Fauvism and abstract art as viable routes for artists. Previously only a handful of artists around Alfred Stieglitz and the 291 Gallery were standard-bearers for Modernism in America since the landmark Amory Show of 1913. While there a degree of credibility and seriousness attached to that group in the 1913-1933 period, they made little headway with the general public and even in the art world of the USA. Hofmann was a key figure, alongside artists such as the Mexican Muralists and Arshile Gorky, who advanced the idea of Modernism being the destiny of American art. She exhibited alongside respected artists and earned the reputation as a good painter. However, in the early 1940s the market for abstract and semi-abstract art was miniscule and prices – when work was sold – were low. She dabbled in Surrealism and produced paintings that owed a debt to the School of Paris but were creditable efforts.

In the early 1940s Krasner met Jackson Pollock. They started a romantic relation, married in 1945 and remained together until his death in 1956. They talked about art, shared materials and visited exhibitions together. It seems as though Krasner developed strategies to avoid provoking professional jealousy of Pollock. They moved out of New York City to Springs, Long Island, then a rural backwater a convenient distance from the city. They only had one large workspace – the barn. It was natural that Pollock should have it as he was earning more money from his art than Krasner was. Supported by Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock’s income kept the impoverished couple above water financially. She worked in the bedroom, which was small and had poor light. This was a factor in the creation of the Little Image series. These were abstract paintings that not only featured grids and patterns of little images but the pictures themselves were of modest or small size. This series is the highlight of the Barbican show. They are some of the most beautiful paintings to have emerged from Abstract Expressionism. They have glints of gem-like colour showing through webs of black webs, caused by the multiple layers and variety of colours used in tiny amounts. In Abstract No. 2 (1946-8) the black web dances in an inverted depiction of water – with the overlaying pattern in black not white. It is a great conceit.

Krasner was part of the trend to work in black and white paint, which was the rage in the late 1940s. She excelled at it. The all-over patterns in some paintings recall the white writing of Mark Tobey and the speckled paintings of Janet Sobel. These pictures have  satisfying quality. The square line designs over dark colour in patterns is very much of its time and it recalls swatches of wallpaper design. This is not a denigration of these paintings, which are very dense and yet have a calligraphic astringency. The weighting of elements is brilliantly judged. One black-and-white block patterned painting (Untitled (c. 1948-9)) has been reworked with dark red dashes in a grid fashion. It seems a tribute to Mondrian’s New York paintings. Krasner met and greatly admired Mondrian.

3. Lee Krasner Abstract No. 2 , 1947, IVAM Centre, Spain. © The Pollock Krasner Foundation. Photo provided by IVAM.

[Image: Lee Krasner, Abstract No. 2 (1947). IVAM Centre, Spain. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy IVAM]

Restrictions sometimes provide stimulating challenges. The constraints on size directed Krasner to produce her what turned out to be her best works. The lack of opportunity to expand meant that she compressed the energy and expanses into small pictures. That gives the pictures their density and heft. A related work is her Mosaic Table (1947), which is a superb work. Reproduction cannot convey the rich colours and satisfying range of textures. Getting close allows one to see the coins and keys among the tesserae and glass, placed within a circular surface within a wagon wheel which had been left at her new country home. It is a beautiful object. It is a shame that Krasner did not create more works along these lines. Krasner’s strength is that she was willing to take risks; her weakness was that did not allow herself enough time to work out a seam thoroughly.

4. Lee Krasner Mosaic Table, 1947 Private Collection. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

[Image: Lee Krasner, Mosaic Table (1947) Private Collection. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York]

The later collages used torn up drawings that Krasner had been dissatisfied. When she returned to work, she found that the torn strips had attractive qualities. The arrangement of diagonal elongated strips is redolent of Cubism, Cubo-Futurism and Russian abstract art. Collage appealed to other artists of the time, including Robert Motherwell. Krasner, Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler were friendly at this time.

Prophecy (1956) and related paintings are a little obvious. The unrelenting pink seems too close to Matisse, the drawn curving verticals are too close to Wilfredo Lam. Later collages on a large size seem to parallel Matisse’s decoupages. After Pollock’s death she started to use his studio and produced her largest paintings. Few are fully successful. Polar Stampede (1960) is full of lashed liquid paint. Standing in front of it is like drowning in a stormy sea – a peculiar suffocating quality that is perhaps unintended and memorable even if it is not especially pleasant. However, the thinner works, were the raw canvas shows through are less satisfying. Krasner works best when her surfaces have depth in two or more layers and some kind of tensile strength of mark-making. The drawn calligraphic paintings of the 1960s are slight. Play is made of the fact that Clement Greenberg disapproved of the works of 1960, even though they went on to be praised. But Greenberg was correct. These are weak pieces. The brown colour is disagreeable, the surfaces lightly worked, the absence of palette variation a problem, the sizes too large. These are not good paintings. Too often one gets the impression these large pictures are flailings – spattered loops dancing in space which are made with the hope that brio will carry off the work. The density and tension of her best art is sorely missed here.

11. Lee Krasner, Another Storm, 1963 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery

[Image: Lee Krasner, Another Storm (1963), Private Collection. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York]

Another Storm (1963) is better. Technically similar to Polar Stampede, the alizarin relieves the claustrophobia and the mark-making knits the surface satisfactorily. Unfortunately, the painting has suffered extensive cracking. Krasner welcomed the change in fashion when it advanced hard-edge abstract at the end of the 1960s. Pop Art and a reaction against the stained surfaces of Colour-Field painting – along with the rise of Minimalism – had revived sharp lines and flat planes of colour in the painting of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These pictures work better than the preceding period, but one still has to like geometric abstraction to warm to them. The late collages include a series made out of sliced life drawings, cut into slivers. There is a gallery with a selection of works on paper, which feature staining and calligraphic signs and biomorphic marks.

Krasner died in 1984, while her solo retrospective was touring the USA. She was receiving the attention she had long deserved. The curators acknowledge that Krasner’s status as a woman painter has complicated the reception of her work.  In 1945 she rejected an offer to participate in the exhibition The Women. She did not feel an automatic affinity with other women painters. The was tough and self-reliant in her marriage to a major painter and she was just as impervious to her colleagues, male and female. Not least, the shadow of Jackson Pollock – one of the most influential painters in history – has inevitably fallen over Krasner. Happily, it is easy to judge her as an independent talent without reference to Pollock. On the quality of her best work, Krasner well deserves her place as a founder of Abstract Expressionism. Her participation in the touchstones of the New York School experience and her innate abilities make her a key figure in the history of American abstraction. This exhibition is a fine and long overdue tribute to an important painter.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit http://www.alexanderadams.art

Cindy Sherman

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[Image: Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman, 1978. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York]

The exhibition Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait Gallery (until 15 September 2019; Vancouver Art Gallery, 26 October 2019-8 March 2020) is a full retrospective of the American photographer’s work from her student pieces to art made this year. It shows Sherman’s work to be tricky, wide-ranging and inscrutable.

Sherman (b. 1954) grew up immersed in the American television and film world of the 1960s and 1970s. The dressing-up that all children do was a rehearsal for a deeper engagement in performance, role-play and drama that underpins her artistic work.

The photography of Sherman can viewed in light of two positions: artist as actress and woman as actress. Sherman studied film alongside fine art. There are head shots, where make-up tests seem to become a series of silent-movie era characters. In other student photographs of her full figure (sometimes maintaining a single pose between shots and sometimes performing a character) Sherman takes the role of an actress trying out characters or as the model for a costumier’s wardrobe tests. It raises the question of what is being and what is acting. How can we meaningfully separate pretending and existing? All pretence involves existing as a fiction and all existence includes an aspect of pretence.

The Cover Girls (1976) series show an original woman’s magazine cover of the period, with Sherman adding her own face. Leers, winks and pouts make the covers impossible, lurid or laughable. (There was quite a bit of laughter – albeit politely subdued – in the galleries.) These covers are like the scenes in horror films where pictures respond to characters, throwing their sanity into question and informing us that they have entered a world of distorted reality. To read these pieces as much more than cocking a snook or poking fun at the mass media would be going too far. The impact is humorous.

The Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980) are a lot more serious and ambitious and can be seen as the first mature work of the artist. These black-and-white photographs restage generic scenes from American films, Sherman performs the characters of the ingénue, plucky heroine, jilted girlfriend, maid, wild child, housewife, scheming criminal, American abroad, adventurous teenager, publicity-shy film star, budding starlet, preening teen, middle-aged lush, big-city hooker and soon-to-be murder victim.

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[Image: Untitled Film Still #15 by Cindy Sherman, 1978. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York]

She uses make-up, costumes, mise en scenes, cinematography and her abilities as an actress to create persuasive photographs that successfully pastiches American movies. She also enjoys horror movies, perhaps leading to the prevalence of images of the victim in her photographs.

The Color Studies and Pink Robes of 1981-2 provide a warm and intimate counterpoint to these series, moving into colour and showing Sherman in her least overtly artificial of appearances. We should not be deceived into thinking these present emotional candour but they function like that when seen as part of her oeuvre as a whole. They are least intellectually and emotionally demanding of Sherman’s work (including the humorous work) and show Sherman working like a painter, not afraid to indulge in the pleasure of colour and texture. The violet tints of the Color Studies and the warm pink and texture of the thick robe in the Pink Robes are the work of a sensual artist. It is a shame that we have not seen more photographs along these lines. However, this line inevitably leads to exploration of non-human subjects and would take Sherman away from her prime modus operandi.

Later Sherman would expand her skills and take her creativity to new extremes with a series of History Portraits (1988-90) re-stages images of women and men from classic paintings. With prosthetics, props and heavy make-up she reaches heights of artificiality and implausibility to recreate paintings. Body casts and medical-training prosthetics augment and contrast with her own body. These results are never convincing but toy with mimicry and the grotesque, evoking the uncanny. She invites us to guess how the photographer has deployed falsehoods in order to generate an image that is unnatural. It toys with the ideas of women as users of cosmetics to hide themselves and enhance their appearance – for purposes of convention, disguise, seduction, signalling, vanity and self-deceit. The National Portrait Gallery has loaned Ingres’s Mme Moitessier, one of his grand portraits of society ladies as Roman matrons. This was a source for one of Sherman’s history portraits, which is displayed nearby.

In three sequences of erotic (or perhaps we should say anti-erotic) photography from the 1990s, Sherman creates artificial hells. These are landscapes of sex toys and medical prosthetics, which address attitudes towards pornography and obscenity in art, especially as a protest against the political suppression of nudity in the publicly-funded arts of the 1980s and 1990s. The Society Portraits (2008) are painfully acute reinterpretations of the high-society photographs found in magazines, with their ostentatious settings, arch poses, heavy make-up and stilted positions.

The deliberate confusions of stylistic registers, emotional tones and semiotic languages makes individual photographs more interesting to read and harder to interpret in the absence of an overarching expressed authorial intention. Sherman has said that concerns about the “male gaze” are peripheral to her as a maker. In Sherman’s performances she makes an analogy between herself as an artist engaged in a project and a woman who habitually makes herself up to face the world. She has spoken about when she arrived in New York City she adopted a street persona to escape unwanted attention and to shield herself. Both situations of artist and woman involve artifice and presentation. One could say that Sherman implies the woman is working in the same field as the painter and cinematographer in the business of extreme artificiality to generate a response from viewers. Yet Sherman goes beyond this in late works, where she becomes a clown, a grotesque, a woman deformed by cosmetic surgery, the victim of a birth defect or the survivor of a life-changing injury. Here horror and cosmetic transformation become wedded.

The range of tones is wide – from comic to serious, even tragic. Approaches likewise vary from candid to highly staged. Sources include movies, television and photography of all types. Characters range through all classes and include the fantastical. More subtle transformations make figures that are androgynous or fantastical (Fairy Tales (1985)). Movie-quality prosthetics make Sherman elderly or young, almost unrecognisable, yet as we know she is the author and only living subject of her photographs, we understand she must be the actress in her tableaux. Francesca Woodman could tease the audience by using models hiding their faces behind photographs of her face. The selection of models of similar appearance to her own figure generated simulacra of the artist, which worked because she was so frequently subject of her own photographs that she knew viewers would be familiar with her face and figure. Sherman does the reverse: always depicting herself but never revealing herself. “The end product of my procedure is not about anything. It’s a picture of something entirely of itself not of me.”[vii] Sherman evades the attachment of an agenda to her photographs.

he assumption that Sherman is the subject of all photographs is proved false by the development of works comprising of props assembled to form personages. In some of these works – a few them extreme close-ups – we are confronted by characters who are entirely artificial. These are the cousins of special-effects for movies or equivalents of the effects of reconstructive surgery. Some  become as lush and involved in image creation as any still-life painter (Untitled # 324 (1996)).

Apart from some of the Untitled Film Stills, Sherman has worked alone.[ix] Most of the work is done in her New York studio, which functions as a film studio does, with various cameras and lights, alongside a vast array of props and costumes. Rear projects have also been used extensively. This exhibition includes one room which reproduces at life size her studio and bookshelves.

The Chanel Series (2010-2) and Murals (2010) put full-figure characters in landscapes settings. These seem to indicate an urge to tackle something other – the wildness, the expanses of the American landscape, the delights of living things for – with the exception of herself – almost everything Sherman has depicted is non-living. It is quite something to be a photographer and at the same time refuse so much – all that is candid and unstaged, the living world of flora and fauna, the drama of landscape, the effects of nature and weather, the microscopic and macroscopic. Sherman’s lifetime of work has been – in its way – as limited as that of Mondrian or Rothko.

This exhibition is very rewarding and a fascinating exhibition of a serious artist. Highly recommended.

Cindy Sherman is at the National Portrait Gallery from 27 June to 15 September 2019.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit http://www.alexanderadams.art

New York Mid-Century Women Printmakers

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Artist Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988) founded his printmaking workshop Atelier 17 on the Left Bank of Paris in 1927/8. Hayter as an artist and teacher was close to Surrealism, particularly the practice and theory of automatism. He encouraged students to experiment but accepted artists of outlooks contrary to his. At the outbreak of war, Hayter left Paris. In October 1940 he re-opened Atelier 17 in New York. Christina Weyl’s The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York is a new study of women who trained in Atelier 17 in its New York incarnation. It focuses on eight of the most adventurous and committed women artists who worked at the studio: Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Minna Citron (1896-1991), Worden Day (1912-1986), Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994), Sue Fuller (1914-2006), Alice Trumbull Mason (1904-1971), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) and Anne Ryan (1889-1954).

Hayter moved back to Paris in 1950 to re-establish his studio there. A number of replacement directors maintained the New York studio. The New York studio closed for financial reasons in September 1955. The Paris studio of Atelier 17 only closed in 1988, upon Hayter’s death; a replacement studio has since been run under the name Atelier Contrepoint.

Weyl’s thesis is that the activities of Hayter’s studio allowed women in the 1940s and 1950s to develop proto-feminist practices and associations. “My reading of women artists’ affiliation with Atelier 17 and their experiences both inside and outside the studio is shaped by feminist art history and gender theory. The scaffolding provided by theorists and feminist scholars such as Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Griselda Pollock, Rozsika Parker, and Lucy Lippard allows for a more sophisticated analysis of this moment in history and of this particular group of women artists and makes it possible to reframe Atelier 17 through a feminist lens.” Weyl says she intends to continue “the scholarly trajectory of decentering and demythologizing [American modernism] that began decades ago”.

Weyl admits her thesis is partial. “Giving women artists a space in which they could flex their artistic muscles was radical for the 1940s and 1950s.” This is followed by an admission that often women outnumbered men at art school and that the WPA in the 1930s provided equal treatment of women artists. Weyl overlooks Black Mountain College, Hans Hofmann’s studio and any number of places where women could train without sexist prejudice. When Weyl writes about the limited career options open to women artists, she could just have easily written the same about male artists. There was great competition and few opportunities for all young artists and they had difficulty selling any non-traditional art. At the outset, one senses that Weyl has overstated her case to prove a point and by the mid-point of the book this judgment seems well founded.

The residual fallacy persists throughout the book. Whenever female artists do not pursue their studies, are discouraged, fail to exhibit, leave the studio prematurely and so forth, Weyl’s first resort is to explain this as the outcome of sexist obstruction. Environments are “coded masculine”; “ambivalent attitudes” are “largely unspoken but no less impactful”, nonetheless Weyl seems to be to unerringly identify it at a distance of seven decades. “Given the prevalence of wartime and postwar messaging about personal hygiene and hand care, female members of Atelier 17 had to be cognizant that their ink-stained hands were nonconforming to gender norms.” This sums up the approach and tone of The Women of Atelier 17.

When Hayter was peremptorily dismissive of some applicants (whom he disparaged as dilettantes), Weyl interprets this as sexism rather than impatience with less dedicated artists. Whether or not Hayter was fair in his assessments is not easy to weigh. This was a question of reciprocal respect – not just the master printmaker judging the seriousness of prospective students but of students realising that by studying with Hayter but not treating the work seriously they would be wasting the time of a busy teacher who could have been expending energy on more receptive students. Teachers such as Hayter had justifiably little patience for students who were dabblers. This was a serious problem for artist-teachers, who needed to guard their reputations and to assess how best to apportion limited resources and spaces. When Weyl chides Hayter for being too domineering, this contrasts with the reader’s sympathy regarding Hayter’s protectiveness towards his materials and tools, which were shared and sometimes expensive to replace. The author displays a measurable deficit of empathy towards Hayter, the individual who provided so much support, encouragement and opportunity for women artists.

The place of women in Atelier 17 is an interesting subject worth studying. Simply reviewing commonalities between eight female printmakers and discussing how their working approaches overlap and diverge is worthwhile. The illustrations are numerous and important, as many of these prints are obscure and rarely exhibited or discussed. There is also a useful guide to the societies, open exhibitions and co-operatives that were used by printmakers of the period. Notes of sources and summary biographies of artists will be of use to researchers. Weyl identifies a verifiable case of a woman being overlooked by colleagues. Fuller revived the sugar-lift technique detailed in E.S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which went on to be a popular technique in the 1940s.

The author’s vexation with the two most prominent women artists of Atelier 17, Bourgeois and Nevelson, is apparent. “[They] had indecisive relationships with feminism. Though often touted as the two greatest women artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Bourgeois and Nevelson were not overly supportive of other women artists and treated those from younger generations, especially, with suspicion or ambivalence.” Weyl has a very definite idea that women artists are by nature more collegial than their male colleagues. Therefore great women artists should be greatly collegial. Why would they be?  Wouldn’t unusually competent, ambitious and individualistic artists act in ways that are the opposite of collegial? Why would tough exceptional female artists act any different from tough exceptional male artists and why would those female artists be feminists?

Weyl is insistent on the importance of group solidarity between women artists. “Women taught women, women promoted their fellow sisters’ new editions or current gallery exhibitions, and they supported each other’s business ventures in the print world.” Networking happens at all levels. The most successful artists will tend to network with their successful peers but not be dependent on those connections. One suspects that class solidarity tends to appeal to less competent and less successful practitioners who profit from pooling resources. It is not a matter of gender or temperament but of success. In a modern age when artists do not have or need apprentices, very successful artists usually do not teach. It is less successful artists who teach, print other artists’ editions, promote each other’s work, share studios and form co-operative groups. We might posit that the success of Bourgeois and Nevelson caused them to be less in need of group activity.

Worryingly, there are a number of statements that are inaccurate. “[…] transitioning from social realism to abstraction was not as simple or seamless for women as it was for their male colleagues (think of [Camilo] Egas or someone like Jackson Pollock).” This is overlooks the resistance that Pollock faced as a former student of Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton from that trained by European abstract artist Hans Hofmann. Lee Krasner commented – as did a number of other artists of the time – that Pollock was taken less seriously precisely because his background was in realism and American art rather than European Modernism. One way in which Egas and Pollock earned a degree of respect from the Modernist camp was having worked with the Mexican Muralists, who were seen as the acceptable face of realism. The Muralists blended social realism with Modernism. Formerly realist artists (male and female) faced resistance from the influential New York School supporters of Surrealism, abstract or Modernist sympathies if they had not displayed some sort of engagement with a “more advanced” semi-Modern form of realism before they came to abstraction.

“At Atelier 17, women artists not only upended centuries-old gender boundaries guiding the division of labor within printmaking, but also participating in redefining beliefs about men’s and women’s work in American society  at midcentury.” Setting aside the second clause, the first clause can be identified as absolutely false. Not only have women have been engaged in every part of printmaking since the Middle Ages, it is widely known to be an area where they practiced effectively in every area of workshop activity. Weyl will be aware of the New York Public Library’s exhibition Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers: 1570-1900 (October 2015-January 2016) which covered just this topic. Exaggeration, distortion or falsehood – the quoted statements deserve no place in a reputable study.

Weyl, who has done enough research to know the common sources that I am familiar with, must know that such aspersions of sexism are unfounded. The authority of her statements relies upon the unfamiliarity of general readers with the wider body of literature. Additionally, there are errors of fact (such as technical descriptions on pp. 79, 156, etc.).

The persistent political direction of interpretation distorts the subject. When Nevelson was criticised for using too much ink, it was not a critique of her violating gender roles but of using too much communal material and creating mess that inconvenienced others. “Though Citron ultimately admired Nevelson’s resulting prints, she, Grippe, and others perceived Nevelson’s methods as slapdash and, implicitly, inappropriate for a woman.” Or colleagues may have found her use of shared materials reckless and a bad example to other students. “[…] she was unwilling to concede to postwar expectations and instead transgressed feminine norms with her bold and outsized personality.” Or she was thoughtless, egocentric and entitled. “Citron asked her friend, the sculptor Ibram Lassaw, to solder the plate parts back together. (Her aversion to the soldering gun is revealing because it follows the post-war taboo against women embracing home repair equipment.)” Or Citron was unfamiliar with a dangerous tool and asked an expert to perform the work for her using his tool. You see how hopeless the “gendered reading” is in practice. The best work in the book is in the second half, which contains an informative discussion about the market, distribution, exhibition, collection and status of Modernist prints in the period – material that is unrelated to gender.

The Women of Atelier 17 is a title that should be treated as partial and in some respects misleading. It is likely to cause of much misunderstanding if it is used liberally by writers unaware of the wider art historical scholarship on this period.

 

Christina Weyl, The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York, Yale University Press, 2019, hardback, 296pp, 76 col./63 mono illus., £50, ISBN 978 0 300 238501

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Arshile Gorky in Venice

Master Bill GORKY79829

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

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

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

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

The Liver Is The...GORKY82535-hires

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

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

Dark Green painting GORKY94811-hires_EDIT

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

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

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

 

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

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

 

René Magritte, Philosopher Painter

04. R. Magritte_La m├®moire_1948

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le grand Siècle

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

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

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

01. R. Magritte_Le noctambule_1928

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

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

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

 

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

* * * *

9781138054271

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

Picasso’s Jacqueline Period

Jacqueline in a Turkish Costume_1955 copy

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

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

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

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

picasso_h_369_liegender_akt_mit_blumenkrone_1970 copy

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

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

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

Standing Woman_1958 copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Matador_1970 copy

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

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

 

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

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books on www.alexanderadams.art

De Chirico’s Metaphysical and Post-Metaphysical Art

Piazza d'Italia con piedistallo vuoto, 1955

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia con piedistallo vuoto (1955), oil on canvas, 55 x 35.5 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

The current exhibition Giorgio de Chirico: Il volto della Metafisica (Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, 30 March-7 July 2019) explores the recurring manifestations of Metaphysical Art (and definitely non-Metaphysical Art) in the oeuvre of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). The exhibition covers the artist’s Metaphysical, Neoclassical, Neo-Baroque and Neo-Metaphysical periods; the only era not represented adequately is the Symbolist (or Böcklin) period. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This catalogue, written in part by the exhibition curator Victoria Noel-Johnson, will be useful standalone publication because it goes beyond the standard iconic Metaphysical paintings that are commonly reproduced in books. Readers get a good view of de Chirico’s lifetime production in all its diversity, reiterations, inconsistencies and peculiar paradoxes. The art is arranged by theme rather than style or period. The English version of this volume has been designed specifically to act as a survey of Giorgio de Chirico in the English language rather than acting as an exhibition catalogue per se.

After studying in Munich and cultivating a youthful infatuation of the Symbolism of Italy-based Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin, de Chirico initiated Metaphysical painting in 1910. These scenes of Italianate architecture, generally public spaces, mostly deserted, seen at twilight. The raking shadows, illogical perspective and pungent colours (with green skies) were powerfully original. They made a strong impression in the last Salons before the First World War and elicited praise from Apollinaire. He moved to Paris to advance his career in the city most receptive to new art. During the war he served in the Italian army and was stationed in Ferrara. The art that he left in Paris was taken by his landlord to recompense for rent payment and were sold for a pittance against the artist’s wishes. There, when he had time to paint, he developed a more complicated detailed approach to Metaphysical Art over 1915-8. These paintings included maps, pictures, more interior scenes and new elements (such as mannequins, biscuits, geometrical apparatuses and so forth). Upon returning to Rome on New Year’s Day, 1919, de Chirico renounced Metaphysical Art and embarked on a period of Neo-classicism. The influence of Antonello de Messina, Perugino, Raphael and other artists can be seen in the early post-Metaphysical periods. In the Neo-Baroque period (described c. 1938-early 1960s) was influenced by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Fragonard, Delacroix, Fragonard and Watteau.

Noel-Johnson describes the artist’s post-Metaphysical periods as such: “De Chirico spent several years producing pastiches of ancient and Old Master works shortly after arriving in Rome in 1919. […] He returned to the great masters with renewed fervour in c. 1938 through to the early 1960s, after which he dedicated the last decade of his life (the Neometaphysical period of 1968-78) to the reworking of popular themes found in his work of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, such as the Italian Squares, The Disquieting Muses, Ferrarese Interiors, Trophies, Horses on the Seashore, Gladiators, Mysterious Baths, Furniture in a Room, and Furniture in the Valley.”[i]

The long shadow of Metaphysical Art over the production of the artist was apparent to him. He was well aware of the criticism that his post-1918 output was dismissed outright by the Surrealists and other supporters of his early period. De Chirico’s later production is a battleground for those holding opposing positions on matters of authenticity and reproduction. Was de Chirico making variants of his own paintings that were genuinely felt and engaged the artist?

de Chirico muse inquiet 97x66

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Le muse inquietanti (late 1950s), oil on canvas, 97 x 66 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

De Chirico had difficult interactions with Surrealists. He appreciated the support and income he gained from their support for his Metaphysical paintings in the 1920s, when he struggled to sell his art. The Surrealists considered his Metaphysical paintings as revolutionary and liberating; they imitated them and tried to replicate their atmosphere; they rejected his Neo-classical paintings. He participated in some meetings, events and exhibitions arranged by the Breton group but he was sceptical of the value of these activities and critical of their Communism. He resented their rejection of his later art and he was angry at the abuse (some of it very personal) he received from them. He was furious about the faking of his paintings by Oscar Dominguez, encouraged by Breton, which were exhibited at Galerie Allard in June 1946. De Chirico would later suffer more pernicious faking activity which undermined his oeuvre so thoroughly that experts, the artist’s foundation and the artist himself noted that some forgeries had been included in early catalogues of his art. For the rest of his life, the painter struggled with attributions – real, fake and ante-dated.

The selection of art is satisfyingly broad. It is difficult to gain loans of the most valuable and rarest Metaphysical paintings, but this exhibition is an opportunity to use these limitations to our advantage by mixing well-known pieces with less famous pictures. The versions of classic compositions are later variants or copies by the artist. The most startling pictures are the Neo-Metaphysical paintings. The assertive colouring and the sun and moon symbols – linked by cables or tubes to their unilluminated negatives – are departures from the Metaphysical works. The brushwork is also denser and the pigmentation is heavier. The clarity of lighting of later pictures contrasts with the crepuscular quality of the Metaphysical pictures.

Offering to the Sun (1968) has a stylised sun at the horizon, connected to fire on an outdoor hearth. A black crescent moon is linked to a red moon, secreted within a building, like a prop in a stage play or a tool in a garden shed. It is an extraordinarily bold concept and an inspired inclusion. The Ferrarese interiors are in versions of the 1960s or 1970s. Clusters of props, tools and armatures inhabit rooms with views upon Italianate towns, New York City skylines and seashores. These present conundrums of representation – the relative validity and inter-relations of parts of differing registers. In The Great Mysterious Trophy (1973) has a group of architectural fragments, sculpture parts and a painting in an interior; through windows, we view Classical temples and pillar sections in landscapes. De Chirico treats temples quite differently from post-ancient Italian buildings. While the post-ancient Italian buildings are inhabited and situated within streets, squares and yards which afford communal spaces which contain (or possess the possibility to contain) objects, architectural parts, monuments and figures, the temples are isolated, uninhabited and bereft of life, isolated on rocky slopes with no paths or agoras. The Italianate buildings are permeable, habitable and locations of encounter; the temples are solid, uninhabitable and exist as symbols only. De Chirico’s temples are like building blocks – generic, self-contained, arbitrarily placed.

Corazze con cavaliere, 1940

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Corazze con cavaliere (natura morta ariostea) (1940), oil on canvas, 87 x 112 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

Portraits and especially self-portraits are typical of de Chirico’s emphatically conservative contributions to this traditional genre. They are extensions of Renaissance and Baroque painting, only the heavy, direct handling of the paint and strong contrasts mark out de Chirico’s art as different. Whether that difference came from choice or instinct is not clear. The artist’s numerous recursions to Metaphysical art and combined styles during all periods show that he was never fully immersed in the traditions and techniques of the Old Masters, despite his reading of Cennini and his writings on grounds, glazes and paint formulae. Rather than being a resident of Old Master territory, de Chirico was a visitor – albeit a respectful and attentive one.

The paintings are supplemented by prints and drawings, of varying degrees of finish. The full suite of 10 lithograph illustrations for Cocteau’s book Mythologie (1934) is exhibited. They feature de Chirico’s Mysterious Baths. The memory of seeing reflections on a waxed parquet floor inspired the development of stylised water in the group called the Mysterious Baths. The pencil-drawing illustrations for Siepe a nordovest (1922) by Massimo Bontempelli play with tradition and conventional illustration, with touches of de Chirico’s theatrical Modernism. The characters are depicted as ersatz marionettes. A handful of highly finished drawings of Metaphysical compositions show de Chirico’s skill as a draughtsman. (A handful of nudes from 1930s-1950s show de Chirico was a sensitive painter of the figure when he took time. It would be worth isolating these and investigating this theme in a discrete exhibition and publication.)

An essay by Ara H. Merjian examines Roberto Longhi’s 1919. This negative review was said to have damaged de Chirico’s reputation in Italy at the point when he had hoped to establish himself as an inheritor of the Italian Renaissance. Another essay draws parallels between the statements and principles of Renoir and de Chirico. Other essays address other aspects; large reproductions of the exhibited art fill a section; a chronology will be of use as a guide for general readers; a handful of short reviews and polemical texts by the artist allow us to judge de Chirico’s ideas first hand. Overall, this catalogue can be warmly recommended as a good survey of de Chirico’s art and ideas.

 

Victoria Noel-Johnson (ed.), Giorgio de Chirico: The Changing Face of Metaphysical Art, Skira, 2019, hardback, 256pp, 209 col. illus., $40/£29.95, IBSN 978 8 857 240 589

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Anna Coatalen, Printmaker

1 Quay 1938_edit

[Image: Anna Coatalen, Quay (1938), wood engraving on paper. © Annik Coatalen Heal, 2019]

Anna Coatalen, née Hook (1916-2011) was born in Bristol. In 1935 she enrolled at Byam Shaw School of Art, London, where she studied printmaking, with a focus on the woodblock engraving. The great boom of the woodblock engraving and woodcuts revival of the 1920s had ended with the Great Crash of 1929 but that was an economic recession rather than a change in aesthetic fashion. (This was precisely the period that Escher struggled to find collectors for his woodblock engravings.) There was a market – albeit reduced – for book illustrations. Her prints are in the style of Agnes Miller Parker and Eric Ravilious.

Quay (1938) is a fine example of a complex design playing with space, transparency, layers and depth in which the artist has deployed a wide range of mark-making. It is her most ambitious and successful print. Other subjects are rustic types, views of vernacular architecture and animals. These prints are more modest in scale and complexity. They are charming but slight. The wood engravings build tones and textures through parallel lines. There are a handful of lithographs (including colour lithographs) were made just before the war. Many of the prints are undated.

The Second World War interrupted her work. Following her marriage to a Frenchman in 1946, she moved to France. This period is when she made linocut prints and greetings cards. These have a degree of freedom when they are independent prints but they are necessarily simpler and stylised when they are illustrating cards. The subjects are her new surroundings – fishing boats and people in traditional Breton clothing. These seem to become more sporadic over the 1950s and cease at this time. The text does not explain how many prints Coatalen produced and over which period. Most of the post-war prints are undated.

From the 1950s until her death, Coatalen produced watercolour and oil paintings and drawings of landscapes, buildings, family members and animal pictures, created in her Berkshire and Brittany homes. There is evident desire to produce art that records the pleasurable and to give pleasure. Also documented are the attractive stained-glass windows she designed for a church on Ile Tudy, Brittany over 2003-8.

 

Annik Coatalen Heal, Lachlan Goudie, Anna Coatalen: Art for Happiness et Bonheur, Unicorn, 19 April 2019, hardback, 140pp, col. illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 912 690 077

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

Women as Creators and Subjects in Soviet Art

YANSON-MANIZER SCULPTURE  ULANOVA

[Image: Sculptor Elena Yanson-Manizer (1890–1971) working on the portrait of Galina Ulanova as Odette from the ballet ‘Swan Lake’]

The Government of the proletarian dictatorship, together with the Communist Party and trade unions, is of course leaving no stone unturned in the effort to overcome the backward ideas of men and women. […] That will mean freedom for the woman from the old household drudgery and dependence on man. That enables her to exercise to the full her talents and inclinations.

So stated Lenin. The advantages that middle-class women had secured in the decades before the Russian Revolution were not to be reserved to them alone. In the USSR, gender equality would be extended to all in a classless society. It was made clear by Party statements that women would be liberated whether or not they wanted to be. This meant work outside the home. However, as the husbands would also be working and there would no established support network of paid domestic help, this effectively doubled the workload of working women, with no extra support. Key workers would be moved around the country without consideration for their family life, imposing burdens on those remaining regarding childcare. The mother in the USSR was faced with less choice over how to live her life than before the Revolution. She had less control over the raising and education of her children, less free time and she had to – as all citizens of the USSR did – recognise she was no longer a private individual.

While there were such restrictions, women received access to improved educational opportunities. In the early years of the USSR, women had the chance to participate in careers that had been male-only preserves. One of these was not fine art, which had been open to women for many decades. However, barriers of cost and class that had prevented all but women of the wealthiest families from training at academies were removed by the new Soviet regime. Theoretically, women artists were permitted to exercise their skills to the utmost, free of financial restrictions.

Soviet Women and Their Art includes essays dealing with Soviet women as the subjects and producers of art in the USSR, from 1917 to the dissolution of the state in 1991. Profiles describe the lives and work of female artists and illustrations give us an idea of the character of their art.

p143

[Image: Alexandra Exter, City at Night (1919), oil on canvas, 88 × 71 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Russia / Bridgeman Images]

In early years of the Revolution, women artists flourished. There were already many women involved in the advanced art scene of the major cities. Cubism, Cubo-futurism, Suprematism and Constructivism were all current during the 1910s, some instances predating the 1917 Revolution by years. Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) is omitted from the profile section because her story is woven into an essay deals with avant-gardism. This tale includes Ksenia Boguslavskaia, Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), Nadezhda Udaltsova (1885-1961), Natalia Davydova, Evgeniia Pribylskaia, Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958) and Lyubov Popova (1889-1924). These creators or fine art and applied art worked on numerous publications, exhibitions and collaborative production before and after the October Revolution. It was a sense of community of likeminded artists that motivated this co-operation. After the Revolution, such community action was not so much mandated as officially authorised and encouraged. These collaborations included plays, ballets and parades. Early theorists suggested that complete social revolution and the smashing of traditions would be reflected in (and be promoted by) art of revolutionary character. Thus avant-garde art was the vanguard of an era of absolute change in all areas of human existence.

In a form of arts-and-crafts ethic, a number of fine artists produced designs for textiles, clothing, fabrics and household objects. This movement parallels the leftist-inspired Bauhaus. There were a number of close ties between the political and artistic left-wing movements of USSR and Germany during the 1917-1933 period before the advent of National Socialism.

p29

[Image: Olga Rozanova, Ksenia Boguslavskaia and Kazimir Malevich at the Last Futurist 0.10 Exhibition, December 1915, Petrograd. Photo © Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, Moscow /Bridgeman Images]

The greatest star and most painful loss to the Russian avant-garde movement of the era was Olga Rozanova (1886-1918). She was deeply involved in advanced painting. In 1912 she was making angular strongly coloured figurative paintings drawing from Fauvism and Expressionism. At an accelerating speed she cycled through other styles. The following year she was making Cubo-Futurist still-lifes and street views. By 1916 she was experimenting with Suprematism, pioneered by Malevich. She approached abstraction and by 1917 she had produced a fascinating, hypnotic painting Green Stripe, which is a vertical emerald stripe on a white ground. It presages Barnett Newman formally but it is more complex. Its irregular transparency in the edges of the stripe suggests some form that is both a strong presence and an emanation. It suggests two white walls converging or dissolving.

1.8_M91APN

[Image: Olga Rozanova, Green Stripe (1917), oil on canvas, 71.2 x 49cm. Kremlin State Museum, Rostov, Russia – Godong/Alamy Stock Photo]

Rozanova died aged only 32, which some have ascribed to her exertions to complete a decorative project in November 1918. There would be great value in a proper retrospective in the West and a comprehensive English-language catalogue of Rozanova’s art. She is the single best Russian avant-gardist artist not well known in the West. For preference, I rate her higher than Goncharova.

By the mid-1920s there was serious political resistance to such avant-garde art. The problem was of accessibility. Art that was abstract or highly stylised began to be condemned at the highest level as “bourgeois formalism”. In other words, advanced art was the games of educated elites that excluded and alienated the uninitiated, such as the ordinary peasant, soldier and factory worker. This theoretical objection to avant-gardism was solidified into Party policy by 1936. At that time, the main purpose of Soviet Communism was the preservation of the USSR and advancement of the material condition of the people. Rather than being a style as such, it was a principle that placed style below content, message below form, the political above the private, the recognisable above the strange, the direct above the ambiguous. No longer would artists strive for a cosmic universal language of liberation of humanity; instead, artists would work to advance the interests of Socialism as an extension of the development of the nation. The result was realist art that was patriotic, positive, uncritical, easy to understand, attractive and unchallenging. This meant that avant-garde artists had to adapt their style or cease producing art. Artists who were educated at this time were trained under the tenets of Socialist Realism.

Socialist Realism was not an actual style, so there was latitude for personal adaptation and incorporation of old or foreign influences. Anyone studying the range of art produced by officially supported artists will note the variety of styles though they will also note the absence of variation in tone and content – a complete absence of satire, humour, tragedy and criticism regarding life in the USSR. Soviet women artists had no immunity from the ravages of the political persecution. Their close relatives were imprisoned, exiled or executed. Some were driven to suicide or silence. Others relinquished their commitment to abstraction and turned to conventional subjects acceptable to the Union of Soviet Artists.

The most celebrated woman artist, and one of the most respected artists in the Socialist Realism era, was sculptor Vera Mukhina (1889-1953). She studied under Antoine Bourdelle in Paris (1912-4), the most advanced sculptor of the era, and at Académies Colarossi, de la Palette and de la Grande Chaumière. She made statues primarily by modelling and casting in bronze. Early influences seem to École de Paris sculptors such as Bourdelle, Lipchitz and Picasso, as well Boccioni and the Futurists. She adapted to the expectations of the Socialist Realism and produced her own form of academic realism. This extended to heroic realism, found most prominently in Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, her gigantic figures (24.5m tall) for the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair.

p103

[Image: Vera Mukhina (1889–1953), Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937), stainless steel, H. 24.5 m. Photo © Peter Phipp / Travelshots / Bridgeman Images]

It was a triumph of propaganda and became an iconic symbol for both the USSR and for socialism. It has to be acknowledged as a brilliant achievement in its attempt to stir emotion and inspire belief. Her various figure sculptures are illustrated. Generally, her art is not bellicose or stentorian in tone. One notable characteristic is her fidelity to life in the form of commitment to working with the nude figure. Overcoming the official tendency to produce anti-erotic depictions of figures and her commitment to working from life were major contributions. Her work in glass led to other artists following this practice. Her art is worth knowing beyond the iconic Worker and Kolkhoz Woman.

In an essay looking at the role of women in the new nation, the authors note the importance of fizkultura (physical culture) in society. Both men and women were expected to be physically fit and able to perform the tasks the state required of them, be they gymnastics, military service, dancing, working in the fields or factory, excelling in sports or mothering – always group or social activities. Men should be prepared for defence of their country. The demonstrations of co-ordinated gymnastics or military parades bonded individuals into units, drilled them to follow commands, awed participants and spectators and demonstrated the control of the state over its subjects. It was both practical and ideological. It was an expression of solidarity and unity of purpose. Fizkultura was also associated to the demonstration of the superiority of Communism through athletics and sports. These new subjects allowed Soviet artists to use semi-nude figures in action, overcoming state disapproval of academic history, mythological and the sensual nude as subjects. People engaged in sports were a particularly productive subject for sculptors. There is nothing stylistically or thematically to distinguish female from male sculptors. Leading male painters of the female nude were Arkady Plastov (1893-1972), Alexander Samokhvalov (1894-1971) and Aleksandr Deineka (1899-1969).

Three female ideals of the USSR were the lean lithe adolescent, the resolute factory worker and the sturdy fertile peasant. There was a premium placed upon the asexual: the athlete was narrow-hipped, small-breasted and with short hair; the factory worker wore unisex practical clothing and no make-up; the peasant mother was stoic and generous but was dutiful rather than attractive, more mother than wife. In each archetype individuality was reduced. In portraits we have the richness, tenderness of feeling and psychological insight of the best art of all ages and countries, but in the tradition of Social Realism there was a tendency to treat figures in scenes as archetypes.

The death of Stalin led to a period of political and social reform was called the Khrushchev Thaw. In the arts this meant a loosening of restrictions. Abstract or “non-objective” art became acceptable even if it did not become part of official projects or murals. Although the subsequent stagnation of the Brezhnev era led to the halting or retraction of some economic and social reforms of the late 1950s and early 1960s, there seems to have been little appetite for the restoration of heroic realism or the more anodyne forms of Socialist Realism at that time. An example of this new freedom may be found in the art of Lydia Masterkova (1927-2008). Her art informel, which incorporates tachiste and Abstract Expressionist elements into abstract paintings and drawings, is much closer to the mainstream of Western European art of the time than the art of her Socialist Realist predecessors. She attempts to recapture the commitment to development of the plastic content of art seen in the 1910s avant-gardism. She eventually emigrated to France.

One area of unresolved ambiguity that involved women and the arts was the ballet. Although Russian ballet was an import of French courtly culture, and was reserved for Russian royalty, it developed its own traditions and standards which made it unique and revered worldwide. So although the Party disapproved of the origins and conventions of ballet – not least its reliance on stories and music replete with bourgeois morals – the Party could make the ballet (especially the Bolshoi Ballet and Ballets Russes) available to the people as a form of Russian culture. The government of the USSR was also aware of the cachet of Russian ballet and how the art form could be used in soft diplomacy through foreign tours.

p151

[Image: Zinaida  Serebryakova, Portrait of A.A. Cherkesova-Benois with her Son Alexander (1922), oil on canvas, 80 × 68 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg – Photo © 2018 Scala, Florence]

Zinaida Serebryakova (1884-1967) specialised in ballet scenes, mostly focusing upon the practice and preparation rather than the performance. Her paintings are not idealistic and do not engage in the ambitious technical and formal aspects of Degas’s paintings of dancers. Instead they attractive, complex and emotionally sympathetic portrayals of women at work. The dressing room tableaux allowed Serebryakova to paint partial nudes which have a delight of the sensual without being sexual or gratuitous. Serebryakova was also an extremely accomplished painter of portraits and still-lifes. Again, like Rozanova, Serebryakova is a painter whose work deserves greater recognition. Although she lived in Paris from 1924 onwards, her early work is in public collections in Russia, and it is this which is illustrated and discussed in the book.

An essay discusses appearances of women in the art of Soviet era, including as military personnel, workers, athletes and mothers, as well as pictures where their roles are unstated. Other essays discuss female sculptors and the final stage of Soviet art from the 1960s to 1991. This was an era when the unofficial artists worked outside of the Union of Soviet Artists and official exhibitions and commission competitions to produce art of abstract, conceptual or non-conformist character. They existed in a half-world. They were neither persecuted nor approved; unable to publicly exhibit, their activities were confined to private showings for private networks of supporters and colleagues. At this time, Valentina Kropivnitskaya (1924-2008) produced elaborate drawings of Russian settings inhabited by quasi-human beings. They have a Surrealistic character, with the detailed foliage and clear detail that one associates with dreams. By the time feminist theory reached Soviet artists and began to appear in art there, the Soviet Union was on the point of dissolution.

The book omits poster art in favour of the fine arts. Although propaganda has been covered in other publications, it might have been useful to mention women’s involvement in propaganda production. Perhaps more could have been written about female self-portraits. The book is a fine summary of the subject and includes much art that will be unfamiliar to Western readers. While the illustrations are generally good, inexplicably there are some weak photographs of art works that were better reproduced in Unicorn’s recent Art of the Soviet Union. It is puzzling that the better quality images were not reused in this book.

 

Rena Lavery, Ivan Lindsay, et al., Soviet Women and Their Art: The Spirit of Equality, Unicorn, 12 April 2019, paperback, col. illus., 224pp, £19.99, ISBN 978 1 911 604 761

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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