History of Art in Japan

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[Image: Unkei, Asanga (1212), carved and painted wood. Source: Wikimedia]

The scope of this volume is extensive. The author intends to outline the main features, persistent ideas and developments in Japanese fine arts, crafts and architecture from pre-history to today. Tsuji outlines the development of Japan’s culture through artefacts from its early eras of Jōmon, Yayoi, Kofun, Nara, Heian and Medieval. The subsequent Edo and Modern periods are much more familiar to non-Japanese readers and these are covered in more detail because of the complexity and large amount of documentation and artefacts from this time.

The cord patterning and stippling in winding linear layouts of the pot decoration in the Jōmon period (9300-500 BCE) can be seen as forerunners of Japanese fine art of our day, such as that by Minoru Onoda. Prefigured Modernism abounds in Japanese art. “[…] another dogū [freestanding ceramic figurines], discovered in 1992 at the Nishinomae site in Yamagata prefecture and designated as a National Treasure in 2012, whose legs suggest that the figure is wearing pants; the sharp drop along the back recalls the forms of sculptor Ossip Zadkine.” Debates continue about the relative levels immigration from Korea in the Yayoi period; what is not in dispute was the importance of their visual culture.

According to tradition, in 522 Buddhism arrived in Japan from China and in 538 it began to be incorporated into the imperial court. In the following centuries, carvings of the Buddha were fusions of indigenous Japanese culture and imported Korean and Chinese statuary. These were made from stone or wood, often gilded or intricately painted with paint and lacquer. Later statues showed sophisticated manipulation of pattern, emphatic volume, simplified forms and drapery, even with the loss of polychromy. Buddhist temples became more sophisticated and the Izumo-taisha (Izumo grand shrine) was constructed on giant pillars that may have been as tall as 100 metres, reached by a long straight staircase. The use of wood and paper in architecture has meant that early structures have been lost and rebuilt. At this time shōgon (sacred ornament) became a major strand in craft production. Tsuji explains the theological basis for the statues, mandalas and narrative paintings that dominate art in the following eras.

In the Middle Heian period (894-1086), isolation from the continent led to development of a more synthesised Japanese style (wayō). By this stage the main pillars of Japanese visual culture are well established. The art and craft are all recognisably Japanese, with architecture being more closely tied to Chinese models. Zōchōten (Virudhaka) (839) (carved wood with lacquer, colour and gold leaf, 182.5 cm high) has the guardian king in an imposing martial stance, the elaborate drapery and clothing emphasising rather than concealing his stature. His fierce visage is turned in profile, powerfully framed by a halo of fire. There is nothing of such accomplishment from the same period in Europe. The author comments on similarities between this group of statues and Indian carving.

Lacquer work and inlay on furniture had an established repertoire of decorative motifs by the early C12th – waves, flowers and other plants, mountains, clouds, animals. Painting was executed on scrolls, silk, fans, plaster walls, paper-panel walls and screens. Many paintings from temples or monasteries were discoloured by soot or destroyed by fire. The survival of painted screens from 1050-1100 allows us to get a glimpse of painting from the Late Heian period. Paintings at this time were religious, narrative or decorative in character; painting qua painting did not exist as a separate approach at this time. Japanese fans of the time were prized in China. The history of calligraphy is intertwined with those of handscrolls and fans. Buddhist scripture provided opportunities for imagination in the depiction of realms of heaven and hell, some of which are used as examples. Vivid scenes of suffering, famine, degradation and torture seem to be a mixture of observation of life at the time and pure imagination. The suffering of human existence is an important teaching of the Buddha, so such scenes are common throughout the region. A notable example is a grisly scene of the C13th of putrefaction and bodily dissolution, Aspects of the Unclean Human Path. In the late C13th a wave of Ch’an monks from China fleeing the Mongol invasion brought Zen teaching to Japan. It subsequently became the predominant school of Buddhism in the Japanese islands. Much of Japanese art continued to be influenced by China. One transplanted idea that the Japanese monks perfected was the idea of the dry garden, where water features were replaced by areas of raked gravel.

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[Image: Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara. Source: Wikimedia: By 663highland – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4369910%5D

The key architectural masterpiece in Japan is the Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara featuring the classic double-roof, top roof steeply pitched, lower roof shallow, both with lifted corners. It houses two brilliantly expressive statues (1203) carved in wood by Unkei and Kaikei. For an analogue of great art that fuses realism and emotional hyper-expression we in the west could think of Grünewald’s Colmar Altarpiece (1512-6). Unkei’s other works display a forceful, reserved realism, including a masterful portrait of the monk Asanga (1212). Kaikei was more indebted to Song-style religious statuary. Wood carving at this time reached remarkable heights of competence and expressiveness without compromising the need to convey dignity and restraint. In contrast, painted portraits attributed to Fujiwara no Takanobu (d. 1204/5) situate the stylistic but realistic heads on bodies that are rendered geometric by their costumes.

Minamoto_no_Yoritomo

[Image: Fujiwara no Takanobu (attr.), Portrait of Yoritomo (1179), ink on silk scroll, 29 x 236 cm. Source: Wikimedia]

The Nanbokuchō (1333-92) and Muromachi (1392-1573) periods brought advances in landscape painting and genre scenes of everyday life. Detached from historical and religious content, these areas allowed greater freedom for artists and patrons. (This coincides with the emergence of secular subjects in art in Renaissance Europe.) In the late C16th Christian missionaries made a few converts in Japan and some Japanese painters began to mimic Western-style painting. Most of this was later destroyed in anti-Christian riots but what survives seems to have been of more historical curiosity than aesthetic value. Likewise, periodic fires destroyed temples and cities built using wood and paper, depriving us of a clear picture of early phases of Japanese architecture.

The modern period of Japan is the Edo period, lasting from 1615 to 1867. At this time, art became increasingly realistic and secular. The spectacular sliding-door decoration of Kanō Sanraku (1559-1635) and son Kanō Sansetsu (1590-1651), incorporating exquisite depiction of natural elements against a gold-leaf ground shows the sophistication of the period and the effortless application of fine-art technique to architectural use.

In the 1680s the ukiyo-e (floating world style) was established by Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). These were genre scenes of everyday life in the pleasure quarters of Edo, featuring musicians, actors, geishas, courtesans and street life. Although best known in the prints of the time, the genre encompasses art in all forms. It is during the Edo period that the classic art of the colour woodblock print was developed (in 1765, by Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-1770)) and became for Westerners the epitome of Japanese visual culture. The economic sophistication of the system combined the skills of designer (eshi/gakō), cutter (horishi), printer (surishi) and publisher (hanmoto) (not neglecting the sellers) to produce an intricate system for the mass-production of great art.

In 1854 Japan was forcibly opened up to international trade and the 1867 appearance of a Japanese pavilion at the Paris international exposition marked the end of Japan’s isolation. This would mark the boom in japonisme in Europe and North America, which came to dominate the decorative arts and influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. For better and worse, the art of the West also came to Japan, to very mixed results. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was the most successful artist to adopt elements of Western style while remaining wedded to the advantages and traditions of Japan, working in prints. The adoption of copperplate engraving and oil paint used in conjunction with half-understood Western use of shading, perspective and so forth led to art that ranged from the beguiling to the deeply deficient. Many potentially competent Japanese artists ended up as makers of failed hybrids that seem ugly, ungainly and crude. Oil paint seems to have been disastrous for Japanese art, robbing it of its crispness, clarity, concision and planar qualities.

In 1867 Japanese society impressed Westerners as uniquely “Western” in its highly stratified social structure and very advanced literature and art, though lacking the widespread literacy and high average income that was beginning to begin standard in the West following the Industrial Revolution. Beyond less advanced societies in Asia, the Japanese were considered honorary Westerners in some respects. Even the tendency for women to paint their faces white was seen as a link to pale-skinned Westerners.

Japanese art of the Meiji and later periods is so wildly heterogeneous and mixed in character that it is hard for the author to describe or evaluate it. Making any general comments about Japanese art at this time is almost impossible and this is the weakest section of the book. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) stands out among the printmakers, making the most of Japanese subject matter and Western style in his colour prints. It is among the artists of nihonga (Japanese style) that we find the best of C20th art in Japan. The story reaches present day with some frames of anime and manga drawings, as well as fine-art paintings.

Tsuji explains the significance of the waves of different Buddhist teaching which directed cultural production, as well as how the art of Japan relates to the social, military, economic and imperial history of the nation. The use of proper terms will allow non-Japanese readers to acquire some familiarity – as they are defined as they are introduced – but the use does not seem excessive to this reviewer. The book has numerous illustrations of key works and typical examples. Even at 631 pages (of which 150 are reference), this book does seem long or overly detailed. Readers will likely close this book satisfied and inspired to search out monographs on certain artists and periods. As a guide History of Art in Japan meets its author’s intentions handsomely.

 

Tsuji Nobuo, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (trans.), History of Art in Japan, Columbia University Press, October 2019, paperback, 664pp, fully illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 23119 341 2 (hardback available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

“David Inshaw”, Redfern Gallery, 2019

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[Image: David Inshaw, Wansdyke and Landscape (2016), oil on canvas, 76 x 76 cm. © David Inshaw courtesy of The Redfern Gallery]

The current London exhibition of David Inshaw (b. 1943) (Redfern Gallery, London, 9 October-29 November 2019) brings together 35 oil paintings, 3 large drawings and a suite of new etchings. Much of the imagery is familiar but there are some new departures. Most of the paintings are of Inshaw’s native Wiltshire and West Country (including Berkshire) and dwell on the downs, farmland, copses and Stone Age earthworks of the region. His Wiltshire Monument (2018) is a statement of intent. It combines disparate motifs from the landscape combined in an artificial yet plausible manner, juxtaposing features prehistorical and C19th with a bonfire, oblongs of baled hay and a patchwork of fields under a sharp blue sky. It is well chosen as the cover for the catalogue (Andrew Lambirth, Redfern Gallery, 2019, £10). Silbury Hill appears in several compositions. Paul Nash’s influence is apparent in the handling of motifs such as barrows, copses and views of downs at sunset, but not intrusively so.

the wall 2019 36x36

[Image: David Inshaw, Engine House, Botallack (2018), oil on canvas, 91 x 91 cm. © David Inshaw courtesy of The Redfern Gallery]

Engine House, Botallack (2018) is a beautiful essay in tonal modulation, Vermeer-like in its evocation of exact visual phenomena noted in painterly shorthand which implies more than it describes. The patterning of the ruined stone wall and vegetation beneath work respectively as zones of loose and tight pattern, the former non-directional in character, the latter directional in character (brisk as hatching in a pencil sketch). These areas impart tension and energy in what is a static composition. The cerulean against the ochre sings, with the cool hue wrapping around the block of warm earth hue. It is the great invention of the exhibition and will leave painters jealous of Inshaw’s skills as painter and composer of pictures.

Another outstanding work is Wansdyke and Landscape (2016). This is a tour de force of painterly skill. The scumbling of light ochre over burnt umber ground evokes stubble, dry grass and ripe wheat. The scumbled dyke banks form a tawny pelt – feline even. They describe the animal qualities of topography. This is similar to Degas’s monotype landscapes worked with pastel, within which the features of the landscape are made analogous to human anatomy. The combination of foliage greens, raw earth colours and cerulean sky is Inshaw’s most felicitous palette selection. It is one which accurately and plangently captures the English countryside. However, the compression and high horizon make this painting positively Balthusian, with Balthus having taken these compositional devices from Japanese landscapes in woodblock prints. The catalogue illustration does not do full justice to this painting.

Elsewhere common motifs of fireworks, tents and the chalk White Horse are represented. Paintings of birds and cats provide thematic range. There is a painting of Clyro, Wales, where the artist lived in the mid-1990s. It is recognisable to Inshaw followers by the yellow pussy willow. Dating from 1995, this is the earliest painting here, with almost all of the work coming from the last decade and particularly from the last couple of years. It is heartening that so most of the strongest paintings come from recent years, showing Inshaw to be sustaining his invention and attention. The decision to exclude paintings which feature figures prominently is a judicious one in a selection of this sacle. Some of the paintings of small size, which works well in the more enclosed gallery spaces and suggest how these paintings would appear in a domestic setting. Concentrating on the landscape – with a few of animals, trees and buildings – gives the exhibition a pleasing consistency even if it limits an appreciation of Inshaw’s full range and taste.

All of the pictures are in square format. I demure from Andrew Lambirth’s observation in the catalogue about Inshaw’s habitual use of the square format. Far from being “a shape often associated with harmony and serenity” – something which is true in a decorative context – the square is actually an unstable format, which is why it was never used by the ancients or Old Masters. The origin of the Golden Section is the knowledge that the human brain has a preference for mildly asymmetrical formats, which allows the mind to anchor itself to the dominant axis. This gives a sense of “rightness” to a type of imagery in a format of a certain ratio. Hence a vertical landscape (or a very narrow panorama) feels “off” or discordant. In a square format (also the tondo (circular) format, albeit to a lesser degree), the untethered gaze wanders and feels homeless without a dominant axis. Contrary to Lambirth, I would say that Inshaw’s use of the square format for landscape – something that Klimt pioneered – is evidence of his assertive modernity as a picture maker (along with his montage compositions).

Three large drawings of mature trees as single motifs are a departure for the artist. Inshaw has selected large sheets of paper for these and applied a light loosely brushed wash of colour to cut the glare of the brilliant white paper. Inshaw’s exhibition of drawings has been slight over recent decades even though his elaborate full-composition sketches made in preparation for his paintings on the 1970s produced many striking and satisfying drawings. Inshaw is a sensitive draughtsman, whose eye is informed by his painting experience. The modelling, dense blocks of tone, patterning and dramatic fades all come from painting. They resemble the nature studies of Caspar David Friedrich, CC Dahl and the Nazarenes, though whether or not Inshaw modelled his approach on their or simply reached a convergence independently is not clear. These tree drawings (each at 122 x 122 cm) are impressive, sustained efforts and appealing but they lack something compared to the drawings of the 1970s. An emphatic outline? Anchoring within deep pictorial space? Exactly what is missing is hard to identify and it may just be a matter of personal taste.

Inshaw turns his preferences into competencies – or vice versa. His taste for local over atmospheric (or reflected) colour works well in most of these paintings. Sunset from Silbury Hill (2019) shows Inshaw breaking from this to use atmospheric recession in an achromatic landscape. Vale of Pewsey (2019) is less effective. Whether or not the reflection on the underside of the band of cloud is was so exactly similar to the greens of the land below when Inshaw observed it, the resultant effect in the painting is unpleasant and distracting. In Dorset Snow II (2018; ex cat.), a ruddy sunset sky surmounts a dim landscape of hedges and snowclad fields composed in dull blues and charcoal. Some may find the striking dichotomy between warm sky and cool earth too strong. Could a few touches of reflected colour on the snow have leavened and harmonised the painting, even at the cost of pure realism? For whatever reasons, Inshaw’s skies of red and orange seem to work less well than the skies of cerulean or midnight blue.

Let us hope we soon have a chance to see a selection of Inshaw’s best work over his whole career in a full retrospective at a major venue. Inshaw is the only living British painter of our era working in the figurative tradition who is deserving of such attention.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

John Edgar Platt, Printmaker

John Edgar Platt

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

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

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

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

The Jetty, Sennen Cove, 1921

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

21 October 2019

Lucian Freud: Herbarium

_Lucian Freud Herbarium jacket, high res

Lucian Freud (1922-2011) had a partiality for painting living things – people, animals and plants. Although there is no dearth of cloth, furniture and domestic interiors, these were hardly ever the subject of a Freud painting. He had a fascination for the way organic matter grows and degrades.

Herbarium collects paintings and drawings of plants by Freud, starting in his teenage years in the 1930s and ending a few years before his death. The drawings, pastels, paintings and etchings encompass the subjects of fruit, domestic plants, trees and bushes, with or without human companions. This attractive clothbound hardback includes two essays on Freud’s art of plants and a selection of illustrations, many with commentaries.

On the Greek island of Poros – holidaying with John Craxton in 1946 – Freud created a self-portrait with a thistle. The spiky sparse form of the leaf matched the psychological tension visible in Freud’s tense expression. There is a echoing of the psychology of sitters in the choice of plant attribute in a class of pathetic fallacy, when natural matches and amplifies the mood of the narrator or subject. When staying in Jamaica with Ruth and Ian Fleming, Freud painted a number of pictures of banana plants. Freud was responding to the proximity of a plant that was – in British terms – exotic. Freud took the opportunity of access to stretch himself in terms of subject matter. In later years, Freud did not travel much outside London and such fruitful encounters became less common.

The early Freud style was naïve, with exaggerations, flashes of precision and invented juxtaposition of real elements. Bold stylisation in line ink drawings – developed to suit the demands of book and magazine illustration – developed in the mid-1940s. Sprigs of plants (gorse, fig, thistle) were isolated enough to make an impact yet undemanding in terms of time and suited his preference for linearity. When fruit appeared, they took up relatively little space on the picture surfaces, surrounded by plain space. Drawings in pencil on tinted paper were tinted with chalk and pastel. In the late 1940s Freud developed the potential of plants as a foil or amplifier of human emotions by including them in portraits and self-portraits. This was accompanied by greater realism.

Interior at Paddington, 1951 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Lucian Freud, Interior at Paddington (1951), oil on canvas, 60×45 in. (152.4×114.3 cm), Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. Image credit: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Image]

This approach culminated in Interior at Paddington (1951), a portrait of future photographer Harry Diamond. It became an icon of post-war austerity and pictorial existentialism, layered with detachment, abandonment, anxiety and decay. The later Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait) (1967-8) is just as striking but cannot help but be more affected, using montage and abstract filling achieve its impact.

His small still-lifes of highly perishable fruit are not bagatelles but necessarily constrained by the fast decay of the subject. Whereas Freud would spend months painting people, he could not command time to halt to allow him to paint buttercups or strawberries at his leisure. His plant paintings have an intensity that turns them into plant portraits. It is something of a relief to enjoy Freud’s perspicacity and meticulousness without the psychological harshness of his portraits. One wishes he had painted more plant and animal pictures – perhaps even a few more townscapes – over his career. Another attraction of Freud’s plant paintings is that his habitual mannerist distortions are less distracting (or less noticeable) in these than his anatomy exaggerations in his figure pictures. The viewer with a botanist, farmer or gardener’s trained eye is less attuned to discerning minor distortions in plants than the average viewer is sensitive to the slightly elongated forearm or outsize forehead.

We can see Freud trying out ways of painting unusual subjects in a handful of canvases before dropping the subject entirely from his repertoire. (The lemons of 1946, for example.) That is not to say that lessons learned go unapplied in later paintings of different subjects. Certainly Freud showed that he liked working in intense colours that one does not find in the unclothed figure, as a form of break. Working in these strong non-human colours in plant pictures did presage passages of paintwork describing strongly coloured clothing. Other plants – such as yucca, zimmerlinde and buddleias – became recurrent subjects. Friends recall that the artist had definite preferences in plants and allowed his garden to become overgrown so that he paint surrounded by foliage. It is telling that Freud took on the challenge of painting such disordered, changing and dense foliage rather than regulating it, which would have made the task of painting it easier. In 2006, Freud completed his final plant painting, which was of his garden. Included in a corner – almost indiscernible – was the grave marker of his beloved whippet Pluto, forming an incidental memento mori.

The artist’s method of painting the motif over a blank ground then filling the background meant that sometimes when he stopped a painting incomplete it left the motif crisp and floating free from surroundings. This seems to have become a deliberate effect cultivated by the artist, especially apparent in his murals of cyclamen, which seem to been left a freestanding forms without contextual interpolation. In some canvases (Cyclamen (1960), Plant Fragment (1970)) the plants stand out crisp, bright and solid against a scuffed and inchoate primer ground.

Two Plants, 1977-80 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Lucian Freud, Two Plants (1977–80), oil on canvas, 59×47 1⁄4 in (150×120 cm), Tate, London. Image credit: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

]In a handful of paintings and etchings Freud completely filled picture planes with foliage (Two Plants (1977-80), Garden, Notting Hill (1997)). Taking on such dense, patterned surfaces must have proved highly taxing in terms of concentration and stamina – with little respite from repeated forms and limited colours. Non-artists perhaps do not realise the great demands that these tasks pose to artists. It must have been only a minor release for Freud to know that he could create shortcuts by inventing and omitting with a fair degree of latitude in these pictures in a way that he could not in a picture of more commonplace and recognisable objects with regular geometry or anatomy. Two Plants almost drove him “round the bend. […] When I took one tiny leaf, and changed it, it affected all other areas of it, and so on.”[i]

Giovanni Aloi is a knowledgeable companion, having written previously on botany and art. He outlines the history of botanical art and the significance of plants in symbolism in art. He discusses the significance plants had for Freud the artist. His intelligent commentary and familiarity with Freud’s life and output is well judged and reliable. Herbarium is sure to bring pleasure to Freud fans and aficionados of realist (and Expressionist) art and is warmly recommended.

 

Giovanni Aloi, Lucian Freud Herbarium, Prestel, 5 September 2019, 176pp, 100 col. illus., cloth hardback, £39.99/$60, ISBN 978 3 7913 8533 4

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

British Geometric Abstract Art

 

[Image: (left) Marc Vaux, OV.M.13 (2014), acrylic on MDF, 132 x 115.5 cm; (right) John Carter, © courtesy of the Artist. Three Turns Variant (2007), acrylic with marble powder on plywood, 65 x 70 x 8 cm, © courtesy of the Artist.]

Geometric abstract art has generally been poorly received in Great Britain. Britain was late to visual Modernism and accepted only its most tepid forms until at least the mid-twentieth century. The hostility towards Modernism translated into especially strong disapproval of the most uncompromising avant-gardism: geometric abstraction.

In this book, James Bartos looks at the geometric abstraction in British art and provides case studies six artists: Alan Reynolds (1926-2014), Peter Joseph (b. 1929), Marc Vaux (b. 1932), John Carter (b. 1942), Callum Innes (b. 1962) and Luke Frost (b. 1976).

The author is unequivocally in favour of beauty, no matter how spurned that term is by the sophisticated consumers of advanced social and artistic theory. The publishers are to be commended for the decision to publish a book that advocates contemporary art, painting and beauty – a shamefully rare intersection of vectors in contemporary art publishing. Bartos uses Tim Craven’s tripartite categorisation of abstract art into biomorphic, expressive (gestural) and geometric. He comments on the associations between geometric abstraction and Minimalism.

I think painting can be minimal, and I think of minimalist art as being a sort of quiet art. Most art today is very shouty art. It shouts slogans and politics and social issues; it shouts with bizarre objects, chaotic graphics, loud colours, shiny surfaces, cacophonic sounds coming out of multiple speakers, multiple images coming out of multiple TV screens, complicated back-stories, hard-to-understand scenes of dystopia and jumbled installations that are difficult to take in or to walk through. Among this shouty cacophony, minimalist art seems at rest, creating within itself and around itself a quietude, a harmony or balance and a space for contemplation.

In the first part of the book, Bartos recounts the international development of the style, starting with Constructivism and de Stijl and running through later phases. Those phases and artists include Bauhaus, Naum Gabo, Josef Albers, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Minimalism (including Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt). The emphasis on prints and painting is expanded to include Judd’s sculptures made of painted aluminium components. Minimalism was a major area of experimentation for geometric art. A left-field addition is Larry Bell as a representative of California Light and Space. (The most well-known member of the group is James Turrell.) Commenced in 1964, his sculptures in glass and mirror, with addition coloration effects, are the light and subtly coloured West Coast counterpart to East Coast Minimalism. The example illustrated is striking – with its sprayed graduated opaque pigment combining with the glass box to form a cube of smoke. Apparently, Judd admired the art of Bell and Robert Irwin, so the Californians were far from peripheral in terms of influence. Fellow Californian Robert Mangold is also discussed. His combinations of solid colour and applied line designs place the coloured surfaces into the dual aspects of being solid material and immaterial colour inhabited by linear forms.        Callum Innes, Untitled, from the Cento series

[Image: Callum Innes, Untitled from the Canto series (1992), oil and turpentine on paper, 210 x 100 cm, © courtesy of the Artist.]

A separate section discusses the evolution of hard-edge abstraction in Britain. Vorticism was the first serious engagement with abstraction. It was only a brief eruption, with most of the artists retreating to the figurative neo-classical pastoralism of l’appel d’ordre in the immediate post-war period. In the 1930s continental abstraction had filtered into the consciousness of younger advanced artists and there came renewed engagement with hard-edge abstraction. Ben Nicholson was the most prominent and original member of this group. His geometric reliefs and circular incisions utilised clean lines and absence of colour to achieve their vigorous clarity. Bartos notes that these artists struggled for patronage. Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery and leading figure in the public arts, used the War Artists scheme to acquire art of figurative and Neo-Romantic artists for the nation. The documentary function of the war art project meant that abstract artists were excluded, which conformed to Clark’s taste. In the post-war period, British Constructionists Victor Pasmore, Adrian Heath, Kenneth and Mary Martin and others took up the baton. However, Bartos acknowledges that it was in the architecture of Brutalism that hard-edge abstraction found its greatest impact, most serious notoriety and vigorous expression in Britain after the 1945. A serious omission is Op Art, especially the art of Bridget Riley. Riley is the British artist most associated with hard-edge geometry in painting and printmaking in British Modernism. She is also an important figure.

This account is solid, illustrated with appropriate examples and could be used as a set text on the development of Modernist painting in Great Britain.

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[Image: Luke Frost, Deep primary cyan volts (2014), acrylic on aluminium, 84 x 84cm. © courtesy of the Artist. ]

The individual texts on artists include interviews, with context provided. In the case of the recently deceased Alan Reynolds, the interviews are with his dealers. The other artists consented to participate in interviews which provide a record of their progress and affiliations. Their interviews are sometimes unexpected and revealing. (Marc Vaux found more to admire in Pasmore’s abstract paintings than in his geometric relief sculptures. Peter Joseph never formally studied art. Luke Frost’s greatest influence is Dan Flavin.) Comments from their dealers and extracts from reviews of exhibitions explicate why the art appealed to viewers and how the art was accepted (sometimes reluctantly) by the public and museums. The interview transcriptions provide us with a record of the artists’ attitudes towards art and a glimpse of their working practices. Bartos adds his own thoughts about salient elements in the way the art operates. This is difficult because art which relies on visual effect – and very little else – is the hardest to write about.

The artists talk about their influences and what art they were looking at when they developed their signature styles. There are a lot of relief constructions and the multiple views from different angles allow us to appreciate the construction of these pieces, which straddle the line between painting and sculpture, surface and object. Some of this art is not well known, having been crowded out by more aggressive showy art that is easier to summarise verbally and which allows itself to be used for political causes. The attention paid to such restrained and careful art is thoroughly welcome. Let’s hope that publishers such as Unicorn and authors such as Bartos are held up as examples of independence and encourage others to investigate art that demands and rewards patient observation and prolonged interaction.

 

James Bartos, The Geometry of Beauty: The Not Very British Art of Six British Artists, Unicorn, 2019, hardback, 320pp, fully illus., £30, ISBN 978 1 912690 34 3

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com

Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime

9783030207656

In Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime, Penelope Jackson explores the multiple roles that women have played in art crimes major and minor. As well as crimes, the discussion includes infractions and misdemeanours. The author sets out her case as such: “I am hoping that the material here will encourage curiosity. For me it is the obligation of art historians to research and write about artists and aspects of art history that have been neglected by others. In my opinion, the cases and issues around about women, art, and crime, fulfils a much-neglected area.”

Jackson covers female vandals, fraudsters, art destroyers con women, thieves and assistors of criminals. Curiously, as Jackson notes, no (heretofore unmasked) art forgers have been women. If there have been some they have not yet been exposed. She recounts the stories of each, though she does not reach particular conclusions about how women as women might be adept or unsuited to such roles. Jackson is somewhat unreliable about the causes of the dearth of women’s art in museum collections and accepts too readily the feminist narrative of patriarchal exclusion. However, once one has recognised these deficiencies the book has much to commend it to the general reader.

Women as destroyers of art have included Clementine Churchill, known to have destroyed at least three portraits of her husband Winston Churchill. Other destroyers include the legatees of American Ashcan realist Robert Henri, who destroyed a large quantity of art they considered substandard. Women have been complicit in art theft and forgery actively and indirectly as the mothers and girlfriends of thieves and forgers. In at least two cases, the mothers of thieves destroyed paintings before the police could search, locate and confiscate the stolen art. Although they thought they were helping out their sons by concealing their crimes, they compounded the crime by making restitution impossible. The saddest section of the book is the description of how Marielle Schwengel (mother of thief Stéphane Breitwieser) destroyed historical paintings by Boucher, Dürer, Watteau and Cranach the Elder by hacking them to pieces, throwing them in a canal or leaving them out for the refuse collectors. Likewise, Olga Dogaru (mother of thief Radu Dogaru) burned he paintings he stole from a Rotterdam museum in an attempt to conceal his crime. These paintings included a Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Gauguin and Freud. The ashes in her stove were forensically analysed and found to contain the remnants of canvases and nails.

A chapter is devoted to vandals, either mentally unbalanced or politically motivated. The best known example is the Suffragette campaign of the 1910s. As prominent women were being arrested, imprisoned and injured (even accidentally killed) in acts of civil disobedience, a core of dedicated supporters took to the museums of Great Britain with the intention of outraging public morals by damaging art. The author’s sympathy for Suffragette iconoclasm (“[…] if there were ever a case of legitimate art vandalism, the Suffragettes take the cake hands down.”) will disappoint readers who realise that vandalising art for political reasons inevitably leads to the question “At which point do you consider legitimate political violence could be enacted by you?” The logic puts the security of cultural heritage in the hands of righteous activists who reserve the authority to destroy cultural material because of supposed inequities of society at large. This position risks sanctioning future iconoclasm, with the arbiters being the attackers and the degree of their indignation.

An additional area which is one of deception rather than outright fraud is the use of pseudonyms. Traditionally, women faced social disapproval, so it was relatively common for women to use aliases, initials or male names if they wrote or made art. Walter and Margaret worked together, starting in the 1950s. Although Walter Keane was known as an artist of kitsch children with large eyes, it was actually Margaret who painted them. Walter was the better salesman and for the apparently tenuous reason that buyers wanted contact with the artist, Walter claimed authorship of Margaret’s paintings. She permitted them to be sold as original “Walter Keanes” and shared in the profits. Even after their divorce, Margaret continued to paint as Walter, sending him finished pictures to exhibit and sell.

Whether he had the idea or not, it was Margaret Keane who executed the paintings and Walter Keane who took the credit for them, which is criminal given they were sold deceitfully. Walter Keane’s signing of Margaret Keane’s work was fraudulent. That Margaret was part of this deceit can also be viewed as criminal. Margaret Keane must have been aware of the implications but, because of the difficulty this would involve, she chose not to do anything about it until she was in a ‘safe’ time and place [i.e. not until after their divorce].

Strictly speaking, this is incorrect. Artists frequently employ assistants to work in their studios, always uncredited. The work can range to the menial, mundane and administrative to the highly technically demanding production of finished art. This practice started in the medieval period and continues today, with the most successful artists frequently employing assistants to do much work in a prescribed style, under the artist’s direction. The Keane studio system may have been domestic in character, emotionally abusive and highly secretive but it was by no means unprecedented or illegal. Artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons produce paintings in studios using unnamed assistants, a fact known to dealers and collectors.

A fascinating case is Australian painter Elizabeth Durack (1915-2000) taking up the alias of Eddie Burrup. Already a successful artist under her own name, Durack identified so closely with Aboriginal people that in 1995 she adopted an artistic persona as a male Aboriginal artist, complete with fictional biography. She painted in the distinctive style of the native Australians, using a pseudonym “Eddie Burrup”. The paintings were exhibited, sold and entered into prize competitions as by Burrup, with only a handful of insiders knowing the truth. When it was revealed by the artist, there was considerable controversy, with Durack being criticised for deception, appropriation and cultural insensitivity.

Females in the Frame provides a diverting and informative overview of the subject of women in art crime for general readers.

[NB: This review is from an electronic file, therefore paper, print quality, layout, binding and illustration detail could not be assessed.]

Penelope Jackson, Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, paperback, 223pp + xv, 13 col./5 mono illus., €20, ISBN 978-3-030-20765-6

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

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

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

133_21_Untitled Film Still # 21_CS 21 NEW

[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