Frida Kahlo: You are Always with Me. Letters to Mama

You Are Always With Me

You are Always with Me. Letters to Mama 1923-1932 is a collection of 54 letters and postcards written by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) to her mother. This is a translation of the original Spanish-language edition of 2016. They show the strong bond of the young artist and her mother and the formation of one Modern art’s greatest painters. This publication has been timed to coincide with the current exhibition of Kahlo’s art and personal possessions currently on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. For a review of that exhibition, click here.

Frida Kahlo’s father was Guillermo Kahlo (1871-1941), a German immigrant who worked as a photographer. Her mother was Matilde Calderón y González. Born in Oaxaca in 1876, she was mestiza – half Spanish-Mexican, half indigenous Mexican. The distinctiveness of Oaxaca tradition had an influence on Kahlo’s sense of herself, despite her spending most of her life in Mexico City. This appropriation of maternal lineage was reflected in the presence of traditional Oaxacan costumes in her unique fashion choices and in her art.

Kahlo suffered from polio as a youngster and was left with a deformed leg and a lifelong limp. (She may also have had hereditary scoliosis.) Kahlo was close to her father and his favourite child. When young she worked with him in the studio and was frequently his model, which gave her a reason to dress up, sometimes in masculine clothing. She was fascinated by the transformative power of controlling her own image, something that shaped her self-portraiture as a painter.

The earliest letters to her mother are written by Kahlo from her school about her social plans and disciplinary issues. We see her asking for money and excusing her mischievous behaviour at school. The first letter mentions the talk to be given at her school by Diego Rivera. Rivera was a revered artist who had just returned from an extended stay in Europe. Seen as a leader of the Mexican avant-garde, Rivera was an influential figure. When he joined the Communist Party and began a series of public paintings commissioned by the government, he became a key figure in the formation of a group called the Mexican Muralists. The group developed an approach that combined Social Realism with reference to Mexican history and traditional art. Kahlo and Rivera would later start a relationship and marry.

On 17 September 1925 Kahlo was severely injured when the streetcar she was travelling in was involved in an accident. Some passengers were killed and Kahlo was close to death and was left with serious disabilities which required repeated operations. The pain, immobility and distress caused by her conditions and surgery left her reliant on alcohol and pain medication. These early events and influences had a formative impact upon Kahlo as an artist and she sometimes returned to specific events in her life for paintings. A large part of Kahlo’s art is autobiographical but she took pains to frame her experiences in terms of universal subjects of suffering, regret, anger, pride and so forth, frequently drawing parallels to history and religious painting.

In 1929 Kahlo and Rivera married. In late 1930 the couple travelled to San Francisco, where Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural in the Pacific Stock Exchange Luncheon Club. The majority of the letters to her mother come from this period. She is excited to travel outside of Mexico for the first time. She describes her travels in California, unfavourably impressed by the wealth and luxury of the mansions of movie stars in Los Angeles compared to the housing stock inhabited by the poor. Comments on the Chinese immigrants living near her in San Francisco are frequent in the letters. Kahlo was pleased at the kindness shown to her and Rivera by the people she met in San Francisco. “The gringas have liked me very much and they are impressed by the dresses and shawls that I brought with me, my jade necklaces are amazing for them and all the painters want me to pose for their portraits.” She met the luminaries of the art scene in San Francisco and began an affair with Nickolas Muray and (probably) her doctor Leo Eloesser. While it is the case that her journals and private comments display pain caused by Rivera’s infidelities, she also had her own affairs. Their partnership was turbulent but stimulating, with deliberate provocation and selfish libido sporadically driving both Kahlo and Rivera at different times.

Translator and editor, Héctor Jaimes explains that Kahlo’s writing style was idiosyncratic. Her erratic punctuation belied her top-class education. She writes in an apparently unpremeditated way, passing on news and opinions as they occur to her. She obviously presented what she thought her mother wanted and ought to know. She asks after her relatives by name and enquires about their health. Her own health is naturally a topic which comes up repeatedly as she describes Dr Eloesser’s treatment, including endless injections. When she mentions her weight it is always to reassure her mother that she becoming less thin. Kahlo is often more concerned about her mother’s health than her own conditions. Her devotion shines out.

There are glimpses of the darkness of Depression-era USA is a description of a dance marathon that Kahlo observed. “You have no idea how interesting this spectacle was, but the most cruel and stupid; they chain the black people, a woman and a man; there was a woman with a kid in her arms; two died and an unfortunate woman became mad from walking and her husband, instead of exiting the rink, picked up another woman and kept on walking.”

There are many light-hearted moments. She describes parties, outings and airplane journeys. She makes catty comments about the gringas not being pretty and American food being not to her taste. (Not spicy enough for her.) She confesses to being an incompetent cook. Although she mentions in the letters that she is painting, she does not describe the subjects or the thinking behind the pictures. She frequently discusses Rivera’s work – which was supporting them both, with irregular payments going to Kahlo’s family – though gives few details about her husband’s art.

Over 1931 to 1932 she was in New York. Rivera was attending an exhibition of his art and was commissioned to paint murals there. Kahlo felt more at home in New York than San Francisco. She writes of the incomparable treasures of the Metropolitan Museum and watching children play in snowy Central Park. Kahlo was repelled at attending functions held by Rivera’s patron the Rockefellers at a time when the Great Depression had caused homelessness and poverty in New York. She saw the soup lines and beggars daily, something which deepened her commitment to Communism. On 15 September 1932 Matilde died of cancer. The death deprived not only the family of a beloved member but it also deprives us of more letters, including Kahlo’s period in Detroit.

You are Always with Me allows us to see the world through Frida Kahlo’s eyes. This attractive book includes a few well-chosen illustrations would appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in one of the most personal of painters.

 

Frida Kahlo, Héctor Jaimes (ed. and trans.), You are Always with Me: Letters to Mama 1923-1932, Virago, 6 September 2018, hardback, 176pp, col. & mono illus., £20, ISBN 978 0 349 01195 0

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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Balthus

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[Image: Balthus, Les Enfants Blanchard (1937), oil on canvas, 125 x 130 cm
Musée national Picasso-Paris, Donation by the heirs of Picasso, 1973/1978
© Balthus. Photo: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau]

The art of Balthus (1908-2001) is hard to place. It is not Surrealist, although it was linked to Surrealism. It is not realism, though it is derived from life. It is allied to tradition but is not traditional. It is not Modernist but could not have existed without Modernism. It is erotic but it is not erotica. To class it as Post-Modern would be completely erroneous. What is its lineage? It is European but – like its chameleon creator – it cannot be placed. The artist was born in France of Polish descent, growing up in France, Germany and Switzerland, later spending many years in Italy before moving to Switzerland with his Japanese wife. To think accurately about this European painter you need to know Japanese art and Persian miniatures; to discuss this friend and associate of Artaud, Giacometti, Picasso and Derain you will need to remember Chardin, Piero della Francesca, Georges de la Tour and Courbet. Through extended study you will come to recognise his models yet they are transformed through art into images distinctly different from life and artificial. If you expect anything to be straightforward about Balthus then you are misapprehending the art. No matter how complex, allusive and humorous the artist becomes, he is never less than absolutely serious.

Welcome to the world of Balthus.

The current exhibition Balthus (2 September 2018-1 January 2019, Fondation Beyeler, Basel; touring to Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) forms a lean retrospective. (Reviewed here from the catalogue.) The exhibition consists of 40 oil paintings from all periods, starting when the artist was aged 20 and ending with his last completed painting, made when the artist was in his eighties. Considering the relatively small number of paintings, it is perhaps wise that drawings and watercolours have been excluded. The aim is establish a clear view of Balthus main subjects in a selection of representative paintings from the full span of his career.

All of Balthus’s subjects are included: portraits, conversation pieces, street scenes, landscapes and nudes. There is a hybrid work where a still-life is presented with a figure in the form of an incidental profile, not dissimilar to pictures by Bonnard of set tables. Paintings have been brought from around the world for this two venue tour.

Balthus’s first paintings were views of Paris, his home city. Place de l’Odéon, Quai Malaquais and Jardin de Luxembourg appear as they did in the 1920s. The youthful pictures are peopled by stock figures among sturdy trees and roughly painted architecture. They display a sure sense of colour and establish some of the staples of his later street scenes, though the skill and complexity are yet to manifest themselves fully.

The 1934 solo exhibition at Pierre Loeb’s Paris gallery established Balthus’s reputation as a singular – even wayward – painter of figures and assaulter of public morals. His most provocative early nudes – Alice dans le miroir (1933) and La leçon de guitare (1934), the latter of which was considered so sensational it was hidden behind a curtain at the Loeb gallery – have not travelled to Basel. However a number of works from that exhibition are here, including a scene from Wuthering Heights showing Cathy at her toilette.

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[Image: Balthus, La Rue (1933), oil on canvas, 195 x 240 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Bequeathed by James Thrall Soby. © Balthus. Photo: © 2018. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence]

La Rue (1933) the large showstopper of the Paris exhibition has travelled to Switzerland from MoMA. The Parisian street is animated by figures who seem nearly wholly allegorical, lifted from book illustrations or old paintings, disconnected from each other. These atomised personages seem oblivious of each other and immersed in their own dreams, with the exception of the youth groping the girl. Whether or not is understands that she is being assaulted is unclear. Her face is impassive and her body language is stilted, not in motion (fighting or fleeing); it is hard to read her response. The youth was originally groping her crotch. The first owner demanded that Balthus alter La Rue to make it less indecorous, which he did. Balthus wavered on the subject of sexual provocativeness. He repainted a number of pictures to make them less overtly erotic. How much of that was genuinely held regret and how much was social positioning is unclear. In early years he shocked to gain attention and notoriety; in later years he curbed his earlier provocations in a bid for acceptance. That said, he did continue to paint nudes in his late years. It may be that he was simply swayed by the requests of his sitters and collectors to make their pictures more genteel. The famous narcissist and headstrong loner may have been less indomitable than he is sometimes presented.

In the late 1930s Balthus painted portraits. Sadly, the imposing and psychologically astute portraits of Derain and Miró have not travelled to Basel but the La Jupe blanche (1937) has. This full length portrait of Antoinette, Balthus’s first wife, shows the model in white clothing, rumpled creamy drapery clinging to the flesh and mimicking the pallor of her skin. The subject is a sensual and languorous object of desire while remaining detached and melancholic, sulky and bored; the subject is ultimately unreachably distant. That, of course, only makes the subject more alluring and memorable.

The late 1930s were Balthus’s Thérèse period, when Thérèse Blanchard modelled for 11 paintings, including a double-portrait with her brother. That painting was bought by Picasso and is loaned by Musée Picasso, Paris. Girls at the point of puberty or in adolescence henceforward became a constant subject. Girls at the threshold of becoming women present potent and changeable subjects because of the daily fluctuation and overlap between childhood and maturity, innocence and knowledge, timidity and adventurousness. In today’s society older girls are subjects bounded by taboos that go unspoken and sometimes unrecognised until they are transgressed.

Compare Balthus’s girls with depictions of girls of the same age by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805).

[Images: (left) Balthus, Thérèse (1938), oil on cardboard on wood, 100.3 x 81.3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequeathed by Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1987. © Balthus, Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence; (right) Jean-Baptiste Greuze, The Broken Pitcher (1770)]

In Greuze’s tableaux the subjects are deflowered waifs and violated innocents. Although the purpose of Greuze was ostensibly moral and didactic, the subjects are salacious confections of wretchedness. The paintings are not so much moral warnings of the dangers of abuse as sadistic lingering upon the impact of that abuse. In contrast, Balthus’s subjects are mysterious beings, distant, playful and autonomous. Balthus’s paintings are as ambiguous and rich as people are, whereas Greuze’s paintings are shallow, one-note and fundamentally dishonest: ostensibly moral yet actually prurient. In Balthus’s paintings of adolescents we find an innovation in portraiture of the young that had not been seen since the portraits of children by Géricault in the 1810s.

In 1940, demobilised from the French army and living in the countryside, Balthus turned seriously to the subject of landscape. Two landscapes from the 1940s are included. Clarity and solidity are two of the primary attributes of Balthus’s landscapes. Balthus’s work became more mannered and artificial. When he was appointed director of the French Academy in Rome in 1961, Balthus became ever more engaged in ancient and non-Western art. He paid careful attention to every detail of the restoration of the academy’s home, the Renaissance Villa Medici. Balthus took pleasure in building surfaces in his paintings that evoke the thick encrusting of pigment on old plaster. References to Greek and Roman art abound. A visit to Japan is seen in several paintings and the relationship with his future second wife, Setsuko. The Basel exhibition includes the fragile and laboriously worked La Chambre turque (1965-6), which combines Persian and Japanese art in a painting of Setsuko. Experimentation with casein and tempera allowed Balthus to accentuate flatness and matte surfaces but at the expense of pliability. The increased rigidity led to thick and brittle paint surfaces which are fragile, especially on flexible canvas.

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[Image: Balthus, Le Chat au miroir III (1989-94), Oil on canvas, 220 x 195 cm. Private collection, Asia. © Balthus]

Le Chat au miroir III (1989-94) shows a seated girl looking into a mirror, accompanied by a cat (a familiar motif for the artist). It is the artist’s last complete work. It is a summation of what came before but it is undercut by weaknesses in handling and conception. The extended gestation of the painting and frequent revisions are not so much evidence of a meditative patience but of a reluctance to finish, perhaps even of uncertainty. The artist may have felt the work was his last and was fearful of finishing and thereby cutting a cord to his working life and legacy. Too much rested on the painting and the desire to imbue it with a lifetime of knowledge and insight may have held the artist back. It might have been better to have worked on a number of minor pictures instead. It is some distance from his best work.

The catalogue is large format and profusely illustrated. The decision to place some illustrations as double-page spreads is regrettable. Illustrations should never be treated this way because it distorts the image by introducing a band of shadow and compression. Otherwise the production is good. Using strong (though not overpowering) colours for the margins of illustrations is effective. Brilliant white margins can clash with images, especially with richly coloured and tonally muted paintings such as Balthus’s.

Catalogue texts discuss works in the exhibition and illustrate others not included, including key works such as La leçon de guitare and the Miró portrait. One particularly useful text by Juan Ángel López-Manzanares deals with Balthus’s relationship with Antonin Artaud. The pair met in 1932 or 1933 and Balthus designed the sets for Les Cencis, the 1935 staging Artaud’s adaptation of Shelley’s verse drama. Balthus painted some portraits of actresses, including two of Iya Abdy. There are passing references to Balthus’s art as an expression Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. The Theatre of Cruelty was the idea that naturalism and character had robbed Western theatre of the power of spectacle and mystery and that in order to restore the role of the sacred in theatre the dramatist and actors had to connect to the audience through transformational action and powerful emotion. The idea of Balthus’s early art running parallel to the Theatre of Cruelty – especially in the still-lifes of destroyed objects and the more aggressively erotic nudes – is a feasible thesis.

 

Raphaël Bouvier & Fondation Beyeler (eds.), Balthus, Fondation Beyeler/Hatje Cantz, 2018, paperback, 176pp, 120 illus., CHF62.50/€58.00, ISBN 978 3 7757 4445 4 (German and hardback versions available)

©2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Interview with Rowan Metzner

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Professional photographer and author of Erotic Masters, Rowan Metzner. © 2018 Rowan Metzner

 

Rowan Metzner, a native of New Orleans, is an award-winning photographer. Her photographs have been exhibited in the USA and Europe and are in the permanent collections of the Aaron Siskind Center at the RISD Museum and the American History Museum at the Smithsonian. She is currently based in Los Angeles.

Her new book Erotic Masters: A photographic exploration of the provocative works by Rodin, Schiele and Picasso presents a series of photographs of models in poses taken from the art of these artists. I spoke to her about this project and her thoughts about the crossover between erotica and pornography and the status of nude photography.

 

Alexander Adams: Are there particular challenges a photographer of nudes faces?

Rowan Metzner: It depends on the type of nude imagery, but potential lawsuits are a risk. For this project, before every shoot, I sent example images of every scene to each person coming to set so there were no surprises and to make sure everyone was comfortable. As a nude photographer documentation is key. Every nude photographer must have a record of identification of the models. STD testing is not required but if a model picks something up they can sue you. Not fun.

AA: How do you draw a distinction between erotic art and pornography? Is the distinction especially difficult in the field of photography?

RM: That is the question and purpose behind my book. Is there a difference and if so what is it? I asked a lot of people this question as I was working on the project and the overwhelming answer was intention, intention of the artist and the viewer.  What was the artist thinking when they created the work, what do they want the audience to feel, what do they feel? I don’t answer these questions in the book as I want to leave it up to the viewer to decide.

As far as is the distinction particularly difficult in photography, perhaps. People have a tendency to view works done by hand differently than photography. It often does not register that a living model posed for the drawing/painting/etc. and quite possible for a very long time. There is no room for denial in a photograph. The model is right there. In Erotic Masters I give the audience an opportunity to experience the same imagery as they might have seen in museums but without that separation. This amplifies the question is it erotic art or pornography?

AA: Do you think there is degree of snobbery regarding critical evaluations of erotic art between painted/drawn art and photography?

RM: Absolutely. Largely I think because of the reasons I just mentioned. Photography in general often gets overlooked. With the event of the smartphone there is the attitude that photography is easy and anyone can do it. Photography has become a dirty word. Erotic photography might as well be a synonym for pornography.

AA: Why did you choose Picasso, Schiele and Rodin for your book Erotic Masters?

RM: I started with a long list of artists and the more I researched instead of shrinking it only got larger. I wanted to show that erotic images are not unique to one time period or style. There was no way I could include everyone I wanted; I had to make hard choices.

Rodin was on my short list from the beginning. Years ago, while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, I visited the Rodin Museum in Paris. Impressions of the exhibit of Rodin’s erotic works have stayed with me. Schiele’s work is so different from Rodin. Where Rodin has a fluidity and playful nature, Schiele’s is controlled. Picasso is something else entirely. Each one pushed me to work in different ways, which was fantastic.

AA: Will you do more work in this series focusing on different artists?

RM: I go back on forth on this one. I would love to but I am not sure if the point has been made. I might need some distance to get the perspective need to decide.

AA: One of your models – Stoya – is a well-known pornographic actress. Why did you choose to work with her and was it your intention for viewers to recognise her?

RM: About half of my models are in the pornography industry and half not. I thought about it for a long time and made a very conscience, deliberate decision. I did not want anyone to be able to say either “these are not porn actors so it is not porn” or “these are all porn performers so it is porn.” This way there is no easy way out. I chose Stoya because she was the perfect fit for Schiele. I tried to cast as close to the drawing as possible. She is well known and I knew that there would be people that would recognize her but just as many that wouldn’t. I think it works just as well either way.

AA: Were there poses that you photographed but found were too explicit or strange?

RM: Strange yes, explicit no. I didn’t want to put any limits on that. There are also several I did not get to that I would love to have been able to photograph. It was difficult to find the right models for each scene. I was limited on space in the book so there are several images I love that didn’t make it. As far as too strange, that would be Picasso. I did attempt some of his more abstract work but that became about something else. It no longer asked the question of erotic vs porn so it got the axe.

AA: What lessons have you learned for your future photography?

RM: Patience! That is a big one for me. Every step of the way with this project I had to exercise patience. I was also working with a team, models, hair and makeup, I had to learn what was important to fight for in executing my vision and what I could let go. It was a great experience and I am better photographer for it.

AA: Do you have any forthcoming projects or events you would like to mention?

RM: I am working on more gallery showings of Erotic Masters as well as opening my own studio in Los Angeles. Currently I am working on photographing athletes, particularly aerialists, highlighting their bodies and movement.

AA: Thank you for your time, Rowan.

Rowan’s art can be viewed on her website: www.rowanmetzner.com

© September 2018 Rowan Metzner & Alexander Adams

Arshile Gorky: A Life in Documents

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Arshile Gorky (1904?-1948), born Vostanig Manoug Adoian, was an Armenian-American painter who became a seminal figure in the development of the New York School. His art fused European Surrealist painting and the art that would become American Abstract Expressionism. The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents is a new edition of Goats on The Roof (2009). This new expanded edition collects the artist’s letters, statements and interviews, along with newspaper articles, letters, statements, memoirs and interviews with people who knew him.

Gorky was probably born in 1904 in Armenia. He and his sisters lived through the Armenian Genocide (1915-23) though his mother starved to death. In 1920 Gorky emigrated to the USA. He began studying art in Boston and later New York before being appointed to a fine-art teaching job in New York whilst still young. He worked assiduously and became technically proficient, mastering multiple techniques which allowed him to make art similar to that of the Impressionists, Miró, Cézanne, Léger and Picasso. While this ability was admired, observers had reservations. Who exactly was Gorky when he wanted to be himself as an artist? Was this uncanny ability to adopt the mannerisms of senior artists an extended apprenticeship or a way of evading committing to an individual style?

Gorky complicated matters by embroidering his past: he claimed to be born in Russia or Georgia and be a relative of Maxim Gorky, he said he was a student of Kandinsky and that he had studied in Paris and Rhode Island. Gorky became seen as a living master and romantic figure who was a link to Europe, despite the fact that he came directly to the USA from Armenia/Turkey and never visited Western Europe. He was ambivalent about his Armenian past. He loved to Armenian music and dance and to spend time with ex-patriate Armenians; he wore traditional woven garments. Yet he also hid his true origins from others. His second wife did not know he was Armenian until after his death. He was committed to being an American and achieving recognition in the USA as an American painter.

Gorky made a great impression on people he met. His imposing height, distinctive handsome features and air of tragedy struck interlocutors. He stocked his immaculate Union Square studio with masses of the finest materials, dazzling visitors such as the young Willem de Kooning. His air of foreign sophistication further impressed people. He held himself aloof from artistic groups and chose mostly not to exhibit in mixed exhibitions.

Gorky worked in the mural section of the Federal Art Project, the government programme intended to support artists during the Depression. The programme was launched in 1933 by the Roosevelt administration, with the FAP mural division providing paintings for public buildings. Gorky’s ambitious design for Newark Airport was accepted and completed in 1937. (The mural was destroyed during World War II. Such large projects by the FAP mural division met similar fates.)

The majority of Gorky’s letters were to his sister Vartush and mainly dealt with family matters and news of his latest commissions and exhibitions, taking pride in his advances through the tiny and competitive art world of New in the 1930s. Gorky also wrote to his second wife, Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder, whom he married on 5 September 1941. They had two children together. The brief notes that Gorky and Mougouch wrote to each other when apart testify to Gorky’s affection for his family but do not reveal much about his art. Mougouch’s letters to friends and patrons of Gorky give us more information.

In September 1939 the centre of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. Refugee artists and uprooted collectors converged on New York and the American artists, who until then had been outsiders, found themselves rubbing shoulders with legendary figures. Stimulated by dialogue and competition, American artists and collectors began to assert themselves as pioneers. Gorky was well placed to take advantage of the situation.

Stimulated by the art of young Surrealist Matta, Gorky changed his Miroesque abstractions into paintings that were more dynamic, organic and sensual. His biomorphic forms related to plants and animals he observed in New England and remembered from Armenia. Colours became richer and more expressive; his lines became energetic; his brushwork more varied. He did not fully back the automatist position of the Surrealists, preferring to develop his forms and compositions thoroughly in complex and heavily worked drawings, often with colour. Only now did he find a personal synthesis that marked him as unique.

A solo exhibition of Gorky’s paintings (with a catalogue written by Andre Breton) in March 1945 at Julien Levy’s gallery in New York established Gorky as a major modern painter who presented a new link, connecting American art to Surrealism. However, the succès d’estime did not translate into financial security for him and his family. Additionally, the support of Breton and the Surrealists marked Gorky’s art as French, not truly American. By allying himself to Breton, Gorky had committed himself an artist seeking the stamp of sophisticated foreign tastemakers. Fellow painters felt that Gorky’s detachment was perhaps snobbery. Although that was not the case – many close associates realised that Gorky was shy and secretive rather egotistical – the idea took root.

Financial problems, a 1947 studio fire which destroyed much of recent art, a major medical operation which permanently debilitated him, marital breakdown and a road accident that left his painting arm weakened: these catastrophes weighed down the proud and sensitive man. On 21 July 1948 Gorky committed suicide. His loss was mourned by collectors, critics and – particularly – fellow artists. Many tributes were paid in the following years.

The two versions of this collection supersede another previous publication which included passages forged by a relative and ascribed to Gorky. Gorky was powerfully influenced by childhood memories but he did not write about this much. Much of his letter writing was brief, to the point and concerned with family and career news, not dwelling upon the past. The forging of childhood reminiscences came about because Gorky is a talismanic artist for Armenians. He is one of the few Armenian artists who achieved international fame, acclaim and influence. For such a prominent figure – especially one who personally witnessed the Armenian Genocide – not to have written more directly about his homeland is a nagging absence for Armenians seeking a public voice for their history, motivated by national pride and a desire to have a cultural hero for the Armenian diaspora. Gorky’s The Artist and his Mother (two versions) has become a treasured icon memorialising the national tragedy.

It is impossible to do Gorky’s art justice in a brief review. The Plow and The Song is an authoritative source on the artist’s development. There are generous colour illustrations of art and photographs of Gorky and friends and family. This volume alone allows us an inside understanding of Gorky’s approach, sometimes seeing it through the eyes of the newspaper critics who reviewed the work as it was first exhibited. The Plow and The Song is a fitting publication documenting one of abstraction’s – and Armenia’s – most significant artists.

 

Arshile Gorky, Matthew Spender (ed.), The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents, Hauser & Wirth, 2018, cloth flexicover, 584pp, fully col./mono illus., £40/$50, ISBN 978 3 906915 08 1

© Alexander Adams

Jack Kerouac as Artist

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Kerouac: Beat Painting is the catalogue for an exhibition held at Museo MAGA, Gallarate (2 December 2017-22 April 2018) of the art of Jack Kerouac (1922-1968). Jack Kerouac was one of the founders of – and most famous member of – the Beat Generation of the 1950s and early 1960s. He was elevated to fame and notoriety by the success of On The Road (1957) and series of popular semi-autobiographical novels published thereafter. The seminal On The Road established many of the staples of Beat counter culture: Buddhism and Oriental spirituality, jazz, black culture, drugs, drink, sexual freedom and the lure of the road.

Kerouac was an amateur artist, something that he mentioned in his writings. The examples exhibited in Gallarate included drawings and paintings on paper and canvas. Subjects are portraits, symbolic tableaux, isolated figures, abstracts, religious imagery, scenes of everyday life, a handful of landscapes and doodles. There are palimpsests within which overall pattern and figural forms interact. There is one scene of boats on shore. There is a pencil drawing of a sea view from the roof terrace of Burroughs’ Tangiers residence, Hotel El Muniria. Kerouac visited his friend in 1957 and (being a skilled and speedy typist) he typed up the manuscript of Naked Lunch – until it gave him nightmares.

The portraits are symbolic portraits, portraits of famous personalities (including Truman Capote and Joan Crawford) and some generic figures. There are a few recognisable portraits of people Kerouac knew, including his father, lover Dody Muller and a powerful profile of William Burroughs.

There are images which depict memories of family scenes from Kerouac’s childhood, reframed as religious scene. His strongly Catholic upbringing coloured his outlook – no more obviously than in his conception of his family life. The death of his brother Gerard was treated by Kerouac as nothing less than the death of saint or a holy innocent. There are drawings of crucifixion crosses without Christ figures. There is a painting of a sacred heart which has a touch of Guston to it – although made before Guston’s celebrated return to figuration in 1968-9. Other images are related to mandalas, cosmic forms and over-layered figures (referring to reincarnation?) which are connected to Buddhism. Much of Kerouac’s thoughts about spirituality revolved around developing a syncretic synthesis of Buddhism and Catholicism.

During 1958-1960 Kerouac had an affair with Dody Muller, a painter who introduced him to abstract art first hand. The art of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists impressed Kerouac and influenced his own art. He was friends with Franz Kline and worked alongside his neighbour in Northport, NY painter Stanley Twardowicz. Some of Kerouac’s art could be described as Abstract Expressionist. His abstracts include brushed and puddled paint, also finger painting. The art is roughly and lightly worked, with much of the ground showing through. A pastel of blurred forms is vaporous, contrasting with the visceral impasto and strong forms of paintings, some with metallic paint – an aspect of Pollock’s painting that he may have picked up from artist friends. Kerouac spent time in San Francisco, which had a vigorous abstract art scene, which he would have known about.

Kerouac wrote “USE BRUSH SPONTANEOUSLY without drawing; without long pause or delay; without erasing… pile it on.” This accords to the principle of automatism of the Abstract Expressionists which had been taken the concept from Surrealism. “28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better.” That refers to writing but equally apply to Kerouac’s art.

In some respects this lack of revision accords with the Beat idea of creativity untrammelled, in a version of stream-of-consciousness monologue. Likewise, the directness of application was in line with Kerouac’s aesthetic of personal directness, which differed from Burroughs’ aesthetic of using mechanical means to process pre-existing material, as we find in the Cut-Ups.

The Beats often debated art, especially Cézanne, Van Gogh, the ideas of Artaud and the example of William Blake, an eccentric visionary poet who also made art. There are obvious links between be-bop jazz, Charlie Parker, Action Painting, improvisation and Kerouac’s creative output, which is briefly covered in catalogue texts.

There are certain characteristics common to amateur artists that we can discern in Kerouac’s art: frequent changes of idioms, experimental use of materials which are widely divergent, a lack of sustained effort to forge a consistent style, a wide variety of genre and subjects, inconsistent palette, modest size, cheap craft materials. The majority of pictures are on paper, with some sheets from a spiral-bound sketchbook.

It is clear from these examples that Kerouac is classifiable as an amateur. The art manifests an absence of skill which contrasts with the ingrained care and flair for language abundant in his writing. One of the essential points of amateur artists is that their production does not have a core – it is episodic not serial in nature. This results in not an erratic artist but effectively a dozen artists existing in one creator, most unrelated to each other.

Almost none of the sheets are dated. One question that is not resolved in the catalogue texts is how representative of his output as a whole this selection is. With the work of an unknown/little-known artist it is fundamental to use early publications to outline the extent of the corpus. This information fundamentally shapes our view of what we are seeing and is a basis for later studies.

How Beat are these pictures? Probably more Beat in approach and tone rather than content. What does Beat mean in terms of content? The life of the Beats and people following the ostensible Beat lifestyle; art encapsulating the Beat worldview; the subjects of Beat writings, namely refuseniks and the refused, junkies and drifters, radiant rent boys and beatific whores, truth-seekers and vision-chasers, petty criminals and cracked prophets. It is hard to find much of this in terms of imagery in Kerouac’s art.

This raises the question, is everything that Kerouac produced Beat? That is, is everything creative that Kerouac produced during maturity necessarily congruent with Beat ideas? Do the most idiosyncratic fusions of personal memories and religious associations function publically in a Beat manner at all? And why should they? It could be asserted that the Beat movement had little by way of aesthetic programme; its principle of freeing the individual from group-enforced convention covers the free expression of Beat creators and Beat followers. That should include Kerouac’s art, which we could call “Beat enabled” if not “Beat directed”.

How serious was Kerouac as an artist? It is hard to tell. In some respects his art is similar to that of Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs, both in approach and style. Although Kerouac was emotionally attached to art making and often mentioned that in his letters, judging his art – albeit on this limited selection and in ignorance of the composition of his visual corpus – suggests that he did not convert that affiliation into a sustained effort.

Catalogue texts discuss Kerouac’s contacts with artists, links between his writing and art, his use of religious symbolism and his improvisation in art and writing. All works are reproduced in colour. Generally these are high quality but a few photographs of art are not adequately focused. That should not detract from the pleasure readers will have discerning links between the author’s writings and his art.

 

Sandrina Bandera, Alessandro Castiglioni, Emma Zanella (eds.), Kerouac: Beat Painting, Skira/MAGA, 2018, hardback, 176pp, 87 col. illus., $39.95/C$50/£30/€34, ISBN 978 88 572 37794

© Alexander Adams

Tunirrusiangit / ᑐᓂᕐᕈᓯᐊᖏᑦ

Photography by Ian Lefebvre[Image: Kenojuak Ashevak, Seamaids (1978). Stonecut on paper, Sheet: 61.7 × 91.8 cm. Gift of Samuel and Esther Sarick, Toronto, 2002. © Estate of Kenojuak Ashevak]

Tunirrusiangit / ᑐᓂᕐᕈᓯᐊᖏᑦ Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak is the current exhibition at Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (16 June-12 August 2018) examining art made by two Inuit artists. Tunirrusiangit is the Inuktitut for “their gifts”, which is how members of the Inuit see the art of these two major figures in the Canadian-Inuit art world. Both artists lived in the Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homelands in Canada) and their art is a personal response to the lives and the traditions of their people. Both artists developed unique voices by departing from tradition in some respects. This review is from the catalogue.

Inuit art comprises many aspects and materials and it is not possible to accurately summarise in a short review. However, characteristics of earlier Inuit art that are relevant are a reliance on abstract patterns (especially curvilinear petal/feather forms), flat colour, a distinctly linear character, frequent use of profile and a preference for flatter as opposed to rounded modelling. Subjects often include nature, mythology, hunting, domestic and family life and essential human themes of birth, death and daily life. Materials include bone (especially whalebone), ivory (especially walrus tusk), stone carving, weaving and sewing. This has broadened in recent years to incorporate some elements of Western art and now Inuit artists use many of the tools, materials and techniques common worldwide. Tradition and modernity exist side by side – no more apparent than when a traditional theme is treated with new imported materials or a new aspect of daily life is depicted using time-honoured techniques and local materials.

Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013) lived her early life as a nomadic hunter and became involved in making art during a prolonged hospital stay in 1952-5.  She took art seriously when a co-operative was founded in 1959, assisting Inuit artists to promote and sell their work. For Kenojuak, she made art to support her family in the same way that she had hunted in her youth. She said, “There is no word for art. We say it is to transfer something from real to the unreal.” Thus art existed as a tool to feed and clothe herself and her family and also had a status similar to a nameless magic – the transformation of reality. Owls, geese, waders and other birds are visable in the graphics; more fantastic birds with rainbow plumage abound. Elongated feathers take on decorative beguiling qualities. The sun is a symbol of life with a female face and dotted tattoos. Fish, bears and dogs appear less often. Usually the motif floats free of any surroundings and exists as a symbol or icon.

Photography by Ian Lefebvre

[Image: Kenojuak Ashevak, The Woman Who Lives in the Sun (1960), Stonecut on paper, Overall: 49.7 x 66.2 cm. Gift of Samuel and Esther Sarick, Toronto, 2002. © Estate of Kenojuak Ashevak.]

The artist described her approach as intuitive, rarely making mistakes and allowing the image to develop without planning. Her art has bold curvilinear petal forms typical of Inuit art and dense patterning (in both descriptive and schematic forms). The stonecut prints, with raised designs carved on slabs of soft soapstone and inked with graduated colours on the matrix, are sometimes printed on Himalayan or Japanese mulberry paper. The clarity and forcefulness of these prints makes them ideal works for collectors. The artist also made intaglio engravings and lithographs. Most of her prints and later drawings bear her name in Inuktitut script.

Kenojuak’s colours are strong and usually limited in number. The most striking works are those with only a few colours. Many of the drawings were made with felt-tip pens, attesting to the importance of colour to Kenojuak. Unfortunately, such materials are not lightfast so careful conservation will be required. Happily, since Kenojuak’s art is now valuable, these drawings should receive the conservation attention it may need.

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[Image: Kenojuak Ashevak © Couvrette/Ottawa.]

A documentary film was made about her in 1963 and in 1970 her drawing Red Owl (1960) was featured in a sought after stamp. Over the years her art received a great deal of exposure, becoming Canada’s first high profile Inuit artist. She was awarded Canada’s highest honours and her art now achieves high prices. It is easy to see the appeal of her art from even this limited selection.

Timootee “Tim” Pitsiulak (1967-2016) was an artist, sculptor, jeweller and hunter resident at Cape Dorset. Subjects of his drawings were myth, animals, landscape and everyday life. Pitsiulak drew using coloured pencils of pastels on paper, sometimes on black paper. A particularly amusing drawing is Hero 4 (2015) in which two walruses sit on a beach. From the edge a digital camera taped to a stick waves towards the animals, encapsulating the juxtaposition of untamed nature and modern technology wielded by the wary spectator. Hunting wild animals is still a vital cultural, dietary and economic activity for the Inuit. In this case the bystander is intending on shooting video footage, the next day he might be shooting the animals dead. Inuit artists never present hunting as a moral quandary because it is not one. There is no conflict between admiring the strength and beauty of animals, revering them as spirits, and killing for necessity.

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[Image: Tim Pitsiulak, Morning Commute (2015), Pastel on Arches black paper, 76.2 x 111.8 cm. TD Bank Group Corporate Art Collection & The TD Gallery of Inuit Art © Estate of Tim Pitsiulak.]

Pitsiulak’s style varied from the realistic to the highly schematic, the latter reminiscent of traditional linear Inuit style. In the pastel-on-black-paper drawing How They Caught Big Game (2016) we see at the centre a depiction of a carved comb with net motif; at the edge of the drawing along a partial frame are simplified hunters in kayaks killing and hauling walruses. Whale and Hunters (2014) is a sophisticated distillation. This pastel drawing presents a dead whale seen at eye level, hunters in kayaks in traditional polar-bear-skin garments are stark against the black-paper ground.

Tim Pitsiulak walruses

[Image: Tim Pitsiulak, Hero 4 (2015), Pastel, 76.2 x 111.8 cm. Collection of Craig Wilbanks and Monty Kehl © Estate of Tim Pitsiulak.]

In GoPro Hydrophone (2016) shows the artist using his GoPro camera to monitor the sound of fish, whale and seal, something that he did on hunting expeditions. Pitsiulak does not shy away from the bloody end of the hunt in his art: there are scenes of killing, dragging and butchering. Pitsiulak compared making art to hunting, needing patience and skill.

There are some striking landscapes and views of ice floes, strongly colour and employing black and white grounds effectively. Qalupalik Maqgoo (2012) is a rendering of a the underwater monsters of folk tales told to children to warn them off thin spring ice. A huge drawing (1.2 x 2.4m) shows a whale covered with glyphs of Inuit life: sleds and dogs, igloo, kayaks, caribou, fish and topographic plans. As the life of the whale makes life possible for the Inuit, so the whale’s exterior is inscribed with a macrocosm of Inuit life. It is a daring visualisation that is symbolically meaningful and visually rich.

The catalogue displays Pitsiulak’s strength as an artist and his early death in 2016 is a real loss to Inuit (and Canadian) art. All of Pitsiulak’s art in this exhibition is from 2007 and after, most of it from the last few years of his life. Let us hope a full retrospective exhibition and catalogue can be produced to mark his achievements.

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[Image: Tim Pitsiulak, artist in residence at Open Studio in Toronto. Photo © Cheryl Rondeau.]

This catalogue reproduces many works by the two artists, includes photographs of the artists at work, commentary on that art by fellow Inuit creators, poems and images of their art. The poems of Taqralik Partridge are particularly good – sharp imagery, clean diction, concise. This catalogue is recommended to anyone interested in finding out more about the world’s most northerly artists.

 

Koomuatak Curley, Taqralik Partridge et al, Tunirrusiangit / ᑐᓂᕐᕈᓯᐊᖏᑦ Kenojuak Ashevak and Tim Pitsiulak, Goose Lane Editions/Art Gallery of Ontario, 2018, hardback, 160pp, fully col. illus., C$45, ISBN 978 1 77310 091 3

© Alexander Adams

31 July 2018

Angela de la Cruz: Bare

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[Image: Angela de la Cruz, installation view, ‘Bare’, Lisson Gallery London, July 2018, © Angela de la Cruz; Courtesy Lisson Gallery]

In a medium-size top-lit gallery just off the Edgeware Road – with its bustling traffic, delivery vans and shops selling used office furniture – is a display of painted sculptures/sculpture as paintings. At Angela de la Cruz’s new exhibition Bare (Lisson Gallery, 27 Bell Street, London; 4 July-18 August 2018) four rectangular mounts are set on the walls. Sloughing down them are metal shutter bands. The bands and frames form objects that resemble roller shutters used to cover windows of commercial properties. They are dented. Each set of bands is painted a different colour: navy blue, turquoise, burgundy, scarlet. The frames are bare aluminium. There is an inevitable redolence of grimy urban existence notwithstanding the warmth and energy of the immaculate paintwork. (The shutters were painted after deformation.)

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[Image: Angela de la Cruz, Shutter (Turquoise), 2017, Oil and acrylic on aluminium, 154 x 159 x 15 cm, 60 5/8 x 62 5/8 x 5 7/8 in, CRUZ170018, © Angela de la Cruz; Courtesy Lisson Gallery]

In the centre of the space are four sculptures. Rectangular box-like forms in folded aluminium are rammed into old-fashioned steel filing cabinets. The metal is crumpled, meaning that the tall forms tilt. The outside of the forms are painted, each one in navy blue, turquoise, burgundy or scarlet, to match the shuttered forms. The insides are pristine unpainted metal. The filing cabinets remain in their original state, patinated through a legacy of use then obsolescence and neglect.

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[Image: Angela de la Cruz, Crate (Turquoise), 2017, Oil and acrylic on aluminium, filing cabinet, 165 x 63 x 42 cm, 65 x 24 3/4 x 16 1/2 in, CRUZ170014, © Angela de la Cruz; Courtesy Lisson Gallery]

On the wall is the only canvas in the exhibition. Bare (Red) (2018) is a square painting with a square burgundy form is surrounded by an edge of scarlet. The front has been sliced free of its edges then reattached to the stretcher with a heavy nails pounded through each corner. There is no escape from being painting; it must go on as a mutilated painting, nearly pristine, its centre sagging slightly. It is so close to being both perfect and ruined and must go on existing in this dual state for as long as it is art. At some stage this object will cease to be art, as all art must do. Obliteration is the inevitable future for every art work, every object, every person and – eventually – all objects and humanity.

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[Image: Angela de la Cruz, installation view, ‘Bare’, Lisson Gallery London, July 2018, © Angela de la Cruz; Courtesy Lisson Gallery]

This exhibition extends the artist’s continued investigation of the humbled object – the abject form. Previous pieces have been broken paintings draped over chairs, crumpled into corners, sagging off walls, concertinaed into glossy curtains, hammered into scrap wood. There is no rip, slash, trampling, nailing, stapling, crumpling, contortion or other violation that her paintings have not endured. De la Cruz’s art shows us art objects as surrogate people. It is also partly us who project our feelings on to these objects. We understand what art looks like when it is new and de la Cruz adapts her objects in clear and comprehensible ways; this means we carry in our imaginations the ideal original object as it would have looked. The Platonic ideal, as it were. Thus when we study her objects as they are now, we have the impaired reality in our eyes and the perfect originals in our minds. The pity is therefore more poignant. De la Cruz’s art succeeds by being failures by not matching their Platonic pristine states and thereby becoming embodiments of human weakness, achieving poignancy as art.

Thus the Crates stand on spindly legs like personages facing in different directions. The painted outsides of the Crates are folded around, so that we see the colour from every vantage point. On the inside we see the virgin metal. This reveals the substance of what we see and harks back to the idea of making art that is explicable and “true to materials” as the direct carvers of the abstract art in the 1930s and the Minimalist artists of the 1960s would have put it. It also related to the inclusion of the Platonic form in de la Cruz’s art. Viewers have a point of reference by which to measure how far this art has fallen from its ideal. The notable aspect of this show is that de la Cruz has given us sumptuousness alongside the sombreness. The nasty vinyl blacks, discoloured yellows and nauseating tobacco browns of her previous works remind us of the Spanish genius for ugliness. Here we have clear strong hues, immaculate surfaces and play of carefully unmodified sheet metal alongside waxy glowing painted surfaces. The reflectiveness of the metal under the paint seems to shine through the paint under strong light, though that may be an illusion. Despite the suggestion of melancholy and introspection, the art has a muted joyfulness. There is the pleasure of attractive colour, the tactility of clean surfaces and simple deformation and the satisfaction of pure states of metal and paint. There is the satisfaction of seeing Crates and Shutters in matching colours, with the scarlet and burgundy reprised in the single canvas. For the first time de la Cruz has made art which looks stronger than it looks weak. This, combined with new qualities of beauty in de la Cruz’s art, makes this exhibition the most emotionally satisfying display of her art that I have seen.

This exhibition could be seen as Angela de la Cruz at her most emotionally introspective. What we get is a masterful display of colour and forms that are generous, tactile and delicious. There is humour but circumscribed by sombreness. The group of works are acutely judged as an ensemble. Once the pieces are split up some of the charge may be lost. The pieces will function differently when separated.

If we are lucky, the artist will continue further along this line of approach.

© 2018 Alexander Adams

27 July 2018

Willem de Kooning

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This new book in a series on Modernist artists approaches the art of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). This small book consists of two short essays, a chronology and a selection of quotes from the artist. The author Corinna Thierolf is the Chief Curator of the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich and this book presents her heavily German-centred perspective on de Kooning. Thierolf suggests that Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc are previously unrecognised influences upon the Dutch-born American Abstract Expressionist. Thierolf draws analogies between the scatterings of hard-edge planes in Marc’s quasi-Cubist paintings and the fractured planes of de Kooning’s Women series and abstract paintings of the 1940s. The paintings of this period were heavily worked and revised frequently, producing paintings with dense layers of impasto and visible revision – very dissimilar to Marc’s animal paintings. In character, appearance and tone, the painting of Marc and de Kooning are very different.

The second essay centres on de Kooning’s last paintings and links to Marc and Kandinsky. In the 1970s de Kooning’s paintings tessellations of vivid blue, white, yellow and alizarin in liquid form exist between colliding lines, with plentiful spatterings and drips. As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, a noticeable simplification to de Kooning’s paintings became apparent. New paintings had less pentimenti, were less heavily worked and had fewer colours. Lines became less energetic. The paint was less messy and drips disappear. The last paintings seem unfinished, dominated by white. The artist at the time was in the early stages of dementia. It was revealed that assistants used transparencies from old paintings to draw outlines on to blank canvases to start the artist. De Kooning would paint over these drawings, sometimes changing and elaborating as he went along. In the last years, there were fewer changes; the paintings were reduced to calm flowing lines and few colours. These comprise de Kooning’s Ribbon series.

Mondrian is mentioned in relation to these late pieces. This seems a viable connection. Like de Kooning, the Dutch abstract artist also worked in New York in the 1940s. The clarity of colour and emphatic division using colour lines could legitimately be seen as an analogue of de Kooning’s Ribbon paintings.

There are two drives to reassess de Kooning’s late work: academic and commercial. Academics are looking for new work to do and new territory to survey. De Kooning’s late paintings were ignored, not exhibited and not discussed seriously until relatively recently. The art trade initially dismissed the late work and the de Kooning family did not permit the sale or exhibition of late works while the artist was alive. Only now are academics finding the late art accessible and are pioneering research on the late work, allowing such studies as this one.

The second motive is more questionable. There is a quantity of unsold late paintings in the de Kooning Estate and dealers are keen to raise the profile (and price) of these paintings via academic and critical discussion and wider exhibition of this art. There is a tendency to treat late paintings seriously because this increases the value of material resources in which the artist’s estate, dealers and auction houses all have vested interests. There are real doubts that the Ribbon paintings are comparable to the early works in terms of accomplishment, energy, complexity and originality. There is a further doubt about the value of these works as fully “of de Kooning” on two grounds: firstly, the involvement of assistants and, secondly, the fact that de Kooning was less himself as dementia slowly robbed him of his faculties. Thierolf does not approach either of these issues.

The emphasis on Der Blaue Reiter/Blauer Vier artists is less persuasive than the link with Mondrian. De Kooning was most influenced by Matisse, Picasso, Ingres and Rubens from the previous eras, in addition to looking closely at contemporary American art, especially Kline, Pollock, Gorky, Graham and others. If there is a German influence, Thierolf perhaps could have turned her gaze towards Max Beckmann, who was a figure who had direct influence and prominence in the US art scene in the late 1940s. He taught and exhibited in the USA from 1947 onwards, his work was widely reproduced in earlier years. When he died in late 1950 in New York, there was a burst of publicity regarding Beckmann. There are stylistic links between Beckmann’s figures and de Kooning’s Women series, which started in 1950. (For a fuller discussion about links between Beckmann and de Kooning, see my review of the MoMA retrospective of de Kooning, The Jackdaw, no. 100, December 2011.)

While the suggested connections are technically plausible, it seems farfetched and to a degree more derived from Thierolf’s familiarity with the paintings by Marc and Kandinsky in the collection of Pinakothek der Moderne than with any established link between their art and de Kooning. De Kooning’s first and strongest known affinities were for Ingres and Rubens. We should be cautious about yoking de Kooning with other artists because his greatest influence was always his own art. In the very last paintings clearly his older paintings were a literal starting point, transcribed by assistants. The idea that just as de Kooning’s grasp on reality was loosening he was reaching for an entirely new influence in the forms of Marc and Kandinsky is an improbable proposition. Readers are invited to judge Thierolf’s thesis for themselves.

Corinna Thierolf, Willem de Kooning, Hirmer, 2018, 72pp, 51 illus., hardback, £9.95/$13, ISBN 978 3 7774 3073 7

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Delacroix

delacroix

  1. Painter

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) is commonly considered both the first modern artist and last classical artist. He was an artist who would attempt to evoke a powerful response in the viewers to a point where it would distort paintings. He was also an artist who adulated the Old Masters. He revered Rubens and developed a style of broken-colour brushwork in a way which would influence the development of Impressionism. It was only natural that he would be seen as a link between an august past and an innovative future.

A newly revised version of Barthélémy Jobert’s monograph (originally published in 1997) surveys the artist’s whole career, taking advantage of recent studies, sustaining the recent revival of interest in Delacroix. Recent exhibitions in America, France, Germany and America – plus a forthcoming exhibition in at the Metropolitan Museum in New York – have given gallery-goers and historians opportunities to reassess the Delacroix.

Delacroix was the central artist in the French Romantic tradition following the early death of Géricault in 1824. The pair apprenticed Guérin’s studio. Géricault supported Delacroix and passed on a religious commission to him. Géricault modelled as one of the dead figures in The Raft of the Medusa. Jobert writes that the young painter was not as close as to Géricault as is supposed, the latter being senior and established. Although Delacroix was saddened by Géricault’s death, Jobert suspects Delacroix’s admiration for Géricault cooled posthumously. He notes Delacroix wrote little about the older painter, both for publication and privately. Delacroix is usually presented as an arch enemy of Ingres, in a battle between Romanticism and Neoclassicism. The primary differences come in attitudes towards colour, paint handling, tone and theme.

Jobert notes that Delacroix managed his rise to prominence by submitting serious, large and ambitious history paintings to the (biannual) Salons of 1822, 1824 and 1827-8. The main works of these Salons (respectively The Barque of Dante, Massacre at Chios and The Death of Sardanapalus) received increasingly polarised responses from critics and public, as Jobert astutely dissects. This book does well to draw attention to underrated battle pieces and historical paintings such as The Murder of the Bishop of Liège (1829). The author has researched and explained sources for the literary and history paintings, allowing readers to appreciate the full drama and significance of the scenes the artist chose to depict.

The 1832 visit to Morocco and Spain provided Delacroix with many drawings, watercolours and notes that he plundered for inspiration over the rest of his career. Thirty paintings and innumerable prints and sketches were made over the next thirty years and became inextricably associated with Delacroix’s public career. Delacroix found much admirable and strange in the daily life of the Arabs and Jews and he considered himself plunged back into antiquity when surrounded by the clothing, behaviour and appearance of the people of North Africa. His colour became bolder and he combined in more sophisticated ways following his return from Africa. To the influences of Rubens and Venetian painters was added the clarity and brightness of North Africa.

Jobert points out that some of Delacroix’s masterpieces – Massacre at Chios, The Death of Sardanapalus, Liberty Leading the People and Women of Algiers – are common touchstones yet Delacroix overall achievement and underlying concerns are poorly understood. Why is Delacroix not better understood as an artist? Jobert suggests that part of the reason is a reluctance of recent viewers to engage with narrative and an aversion to literary subjects. Jobert notes that the masterpieces of Delacroix at the Louvre are – with the exception of the ceiling painting – early works and that his later great works are distributed in provincial museums around France, leading to an unintended distortion to how we perceive his development when viewing his work at the Louvre.

Some of the decorative cycles are inaccessible or difficult to see properly. The curving cupolas and glossy encaustic surfaces (some of them recently cleaned) have been photographed judiciously and these illustrations give a good impression of how dramatic and impressive Delacroix’s murals are. Overall, the illustrations are strong. Unexpected images include a delicate sky study sketch in pastel, a watercolour of Greenwich Park and a wonderful still-life of game and a lobster in a landscape setting (painted in 1826-7). There are pages from the Moroccan sketchbooks.

Delacroix had grave faults and he was criticised extensively from his first Salon appearance up to the present day. His deficiencies in anatomy came to the fore when he became intoxicated by his subject. He relied on memory and fantasy too often and this sometimes undermined the veracity of his paintings. He used fugitive pigments because he loved their colour, heedless of warnings against using impermanent materials. As a consequence many of his oil paintings are severely diminished today. He failed to see the value that modest subjects had as the bases for serious works of art, instead remaining wedded to the grand subjects of religion and history. This is all the more sad considering the great vividness and delicacy of his life studies of animals, people and landscapes. He will never be an artist we can relate to completely. He held too much in reserve, was too attached the notion of artistic propriety, passed over too many opportunities which seem attractive to us now.

Jobert’s narrative is fluent and absorbing. His expertise regarding Delacroix’s art and writing allow him to guide us through the Delacroix’s many achievements. This is an excellent and thorough survey of Delacroix.

9781588396808

  1. Draughtsman

 

A current exhibition features donations by Karen B. Cohen to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York of more than 106 drawings and other works on paper by Delacroix (Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17 July-12 November 2018). The museum houses one of the best collections of Delacroix in world outside of France, not least due to the generous donation of collector Karen Cohen.

The exhibited pieces cover every period of the artist’s long career and the many facets of his drawing practice. There are copies, caricatures, nature studies, compositional sketches (including overall compositional designs and tests for elements), observations from life, anatomical studies of men and animals. The techniques are very varied, including use of pencil, ink line, ink wash, watercolour, charcoal, pastel and chalk. A number of lithograph illustrations are included, showing how the public encountered Delacroix’s drawing. The artist generally kept his drawings private and the public only became aware of his 8,000 works on paper – and their outstanding quality and variety – when his studio contents were sold at auction after the artist’s death in 1863. One double-page spread in this catalogue presents a loose ink-wash landscape sketch, a lithographic illustration of Goethe and an anatomical study of a cadaver in chalks. Modern viewers may find such a multitude of subjects and open apprehensible techniques make these works on paper more approachable than Delacroix’s oil paintings.

What is clear from this exhibition is that Delacroix did not see his drawings as independent pieces but only steps. This mirrors his practice of copying, where the act of making informs the artist, improves his practice and assists him internalising the skills and effects that he may apply in his painting. Delacroix’s dedication to study and emulation are decidedly unselfconscious, humble even. There are sheets recording armour, costumes and interiors. There is evidence that Delacroix spent hours studying animals, including cats, tigers, lions and horses. In these cases he worked quickly from life, slowly from dead subjects and consulted anatomy books to develop detailed views.

Among the sheets are some connected with the artist’s best known paintings, including Massacre at Chios, Liberty Leading the People and Women of Algiers. There is a coloured drawing of decorative tiles in Seville which was used in the boudoir setting of the Women of Algiers. Delacroix used his observations made in foreign locales as a resource from which he could draw upon later. He made oriental fantasies using his Moroccan sketches and memories until the end of his life.

What characterises Delacroix’s drawings is their liveliness, spontaneity and incompleteness. The artist considered drawings as working material rather than presentation-quality pictures. Of these sheets, only a few watercolours (among which is the particularly noteworthy Goetz von Berichingen Being Dressed in Armour by his Page George (1826-7)) are signed and seem intended as a public statement. There is an exquisite pairing of the interior cover of a small sketchbook – with the pencil drawing of a woman’s head – and the first page, which has a brilliant watercolour of a castle surrounded by autumn foliage.

Marjorie Shelley suggests that a comprehensive assessment of Delacroix’s work on paper has not yet been attempted and that there are myriad unanswered questions regarding Delacroix’s materials, techniques and approaches to making drawings and watercolours. She points out that Delacroix’s habitual casualness with pigments can be seen in his choice of iron-gall ink. Iron-gall ink is corrosive and was known to be so in Delacroix’s age yet the artist persisted in using it even though more stable alternative inks were available.

The catalogue includes a short description of the Met’s history of acquisitions of Delacroix’s art and has entries describing exhibited items in technical detail, which is very welcome. Works in the Cohen collection not included in the exhibition are illustrated at the end of the catalogue with full data. Short essays cover different aspects of Delacroix’s drawing and altogether this catalogue is a good introduction to the great artist’s work on paper.

 

Barthélémy Jobert, Delacroix, new and expanded edition, 2018, Princeton University Press, paperback, 352pp, 249 col./47 mono illus., £47/$60, ISBN 978 0 691 18236 0

Ashley Dunn, Colta Ives, Marjorie Shelley, Delacroix Drawings: The Karen B. Cohen Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2018, paperback, 176pp, 205 col. illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 58839 680 8

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Italian Chiaroscuro Woodcuts

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[Image: Andrea Andreani, after Giovanni Fortuna (?), A Skull, c. 1588, chiaroscuro woodcut from 5 blocks in light brown, light gray, medium gray, dark gray, and black, 11 × 13 1/4 in., The British Museum, London, 1861,0518.199, photo © 2018 The Trustees of the British Museum]

 

In 1516 Ugo da Carpi petitioned the Venetian senate for an exclusive privilege to produce chiaroscuro woodcuts by a method over which he claimed rights. He would later receive the same privilege from the pope, with the threat of excommunication for anyone infringing his privilege, equivalent to a patent. The system of printing was so noteworthy that Vasari described it at length in his Lives of the Artists. Yet evidence shows that Ugo had not invented anything. Hans Burgkmair produced chiaroscuro woodcuts in Augsburg at least as early as 1508. It seems Ugo himself was using another artist’s system.

This catalogue accompanies the current exhibition The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy (3 June-3 September 2018, Los Angeles County Museum; touring to National Gallery of Art, Washington, 14 October 2018-10 January 2019). While this could be viewed as a purely art-historical exhibition, it could also be considered an assessment of a cutting-edge reprographic technology developed during the Renaissance.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts were colour prints made via the relief method, where the raised surface of a wooden block was cut and inked then impressed on a sheet of paper. This was done with multiple blocks with different designs each inked a distinct colour. The block designs ranged from those giving a base colour and highlights, ones with areas of tone to ones with line drawing. Together these different layers formed a unified composition somewhat akin to a line-and-wash ink drawing or a drawing in line and white highlight on colour paper. The broad areas of tone meant forms could be built using distribution of shadows and – to a very limited extend – shading, thus they were called chiaroscuro (Italian “light-dark”).

It was time-consuming to produce the wooden blocks and to print them. Aligning the blocks (called registration) was achieved by various means but none of those were easy or flawless. The specialist skills and effort required to proof chiaroscuro woodcuts meant that there were a limited number of printers capable of producing editions. Although over 200 Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts were produced before the style fell out of fashion, this represents only a small fraction of prints produced over this period. The technique never became common and once the skills needed to cut and print the blocks were lost, the chiaroscuro woodcut became a moribund medium.

The chiaroscuro woodcut was used not to produce a full range of colour (separately and by over layering of transparent inks) but to create pictures of tone using muted colour. The makers chose to evoke and reproduce tonal drawings, ink-wash drawings or grisaille paintings. The rise of this type of print was partly spurred by the market for tonal drawings on tinted paper, which was popular in the German states, hence Burgkmair pioneering the technique north of the Alps. It seems Ugo had studied one of these prints and deduced the process in 1515 or 1516 before petitioning the Venetian state for a privilege.

Designers, block-cutters and printers belonged to different guilds and often worked in different workshops. Anthony Griffiths suggests in his essay that there was a professional division that meant that multicolour prints were not produced by the chiaroscuro method. There existed a guild for colourists of woodcut prints. They painted line prints with water-based paint. These were mass-market and often crudely made devotional images which were sold cheaply. As few of these survive – due to casual treatment and an absence of connoisseur interest in collecting them – nowadays we overlook these prints. Griffiths suggests that the guild of print colourists may have actively opposed the introduction of multicolour prints but felt that tonal prints presented no competition. Thus Europe never developed the full-colour woodblock print that was so spectacularly perfected in Japan.

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[Image: Ugo da Carpi, after Titian, Saint Jerome, c. 1516, chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks in gray-brown and black, 6 1/8 × 3 3/4 in., The British Museum, London, 1860,0414.100, photo © 2018 The Trustees of the British Museum]

The exhibition opens with a print by Ugo da Carpi (c. 1468/70-1532) from a drawing by Titian. Ugo and many of the printmakers who followed used designs from painters, with or without their permission. Saint Jerome (c. 1516) is modest in size and hardly more than a fragment of larger composition, but it is an effective translation of Titian’s vigorous curving hatching and emotional expressiveness. When Ugo moved from Venice to Rome he began to work with Raphael, mostly indirectly it seems. He used Marcantonio Raimondi’s engravings for some designs, as in the case of his adaptation of The Massacre of the Innocents.

Ugo and Antonio da Trenta (fl. c.1527-1540s) both worked with Parmigianino, turning his Mannerist compositions with Madonnas with extended necks into effective prints. According to Vasari, Parmigianino’s drawings and printing blocks were stolen by Antonio da Trento and although he later recovered the blocks, he never saw his drawings again. One drawing by Parmigianino is exhibited with its printed version (Nude Man seen from behind (Narcissus) (c. 1527/30)), which allows us to compare a rare surviving source with a print. The cutting of blocks led to the destruction or discarding of many drawings.

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[Image: Antonio da Trento, after Parmigianino, Nude Man Seen from Behind (Narcissus), c. 1527–30, chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks in green and black, 11 1/4 × 7 in., Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gray Collection of Engravings Fund, G7500, photo: Imaging Department © 2018 President and Fellows of Harvard College]

Domenico Beccafumi (1484/86-1551) was exceptional among chiaroscuro-woodcut printmakers in that he was a professional painter who not only designed prints but also cut the blocks and printed proofs personally. His restless experimentation can be seen in the varied inking. There are examples of engraved intaglio plates being printed over tonal designs made with relief woodcut blocks, of which Beccafumi’s Three Male Nudes (River Gods) (c. 1540s) is one. His greatest achievements are a suite of large Apostles, which have the grandeur of statues. Indeed, these are thought to relate to a sculptural project Beccafumi planned but never executed. The boldness of the designs, variety of mark making, strong colours and the force of the images make these some of the best prints produced in the chiaroscuro-woodcut technique.

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[Image: Domenico Beccafumi,Saint Philip, c. 1540s, chiaroscuro woodcut from 3 blocks in light red, medium red, and black, 15 5/8 × 8 1/2 in., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC, FP-XVI-B388, no. 41 (B size), photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC]

Following a selection of various Italian printmakers, the exhibition concludes with the art of Andrea Andreani (c.1580-1610), who brought Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts to a dazzling climax. The clarity and complexity of his designs are exceptional, particularly as seen in the Washington impression of Allegory of Virtue (1585) and reproductions of Giambologna’s sculpture Rape of a Sabine (c. 1583-4). Two prints of skulls, an allegory of death and a print of a woman contemplating a skull attest to the compulsion that vanitas and death exerted over Andreani.

The catalogue includes essays covering the production of prints and the market for them. Essays situate chiaroscuro woodcuts in the overall print production of the time and explain some of the motivation behind the brief flourishing of the chiaroscuro woodcut in Sixteenth Century Northern Italy. Authors analyse the meaning of the prints, authorship and technical details, explaining how the blocks were reprinted, repaired and altered over their lifetimes. Other proofs are illustrated to demonstrate different choices of ink or the effects of ageing. Illustrated are variant states of prints and drawings, paintings and sculptures that served as sources. New scholarship has cleared up some matters of attribution and dating and illuminated issues which have not yet been clarified. A section on watermarks includes data that has helped to date these (usually undated) prints. The only shortcoming of the section on watermarks was that photographs were not accompanied by line drawings of the marks. Line illustrations would be helpful to scholars seeking to identify marks.

A particularly useful section in the catalogue shows experiments with printing. Blocks were cut to conform to an actual Italian design and printed using a variety of papers, inks, binders and so forth. The close-up photographs and technical analysis describe the causes of problems and how differing printing practices affected the production of prints. Paper was used dry or moistened, showing how the even reception of ink on moist paper had to be balanced against the issue of shrinkage, which made registration of plates imperfect. Overprinting on wet or dry ink alter how inks interact and adhere. Such data demonstrates the many decisions printers and cutters had to make to achieve satisfactory results.

The design and production qualities of this book are exceptional. The care and thought put into every aspect of this book make it a great pleasure to consult and handle, quite aside from the valuable content.

 

Naoko Takahatake (ed.), The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy, Prestel, 2018, hardback, 288pp, 192 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 3 7913 5739 3

© 2018 Alexander Adams