Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism

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[Image: Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners (1857), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (donation subject to usufruct of Mrs. Pommery)]

One of the leading French painters of mid-19th Century was Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). He was hailed as a realist, a champion of rural France, ally of the peasant and aesthetic pioneer. The current exhibition Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 4 October 2019-12 January 2020; touring to Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 16 February-17 May 2020) situates Millet at the root of much of what became known as French Modernism. It includes works by artists influenced by Millet’s example, with special attention paid to his seminal influence on Van Gogh. This review is from the catalogue.

For the average viewer Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) is as unknown as he is famous. His life and oeuvre – beyond a handful of famous works – are shadowy. It is Courbet and Manet who are revolutionary painters of modern life in the country and town respectively; it is Géricault and Delacroix who are the adventurous titans developing sophisticated hybrid styles; it is Moreau who is a mysterious hermetic artist in dialogue with an imagined Orient; it is Degas who is the multifaceted technical chameleon; it is Ingres who wrestles with reinventing history painting whilst finding new ways to paint distinguished portraits. All of these artists excite scholars and curators set on proving theories and overturn art historical assumptions. One artist who does not command frequent monographic publications and exhibitions is Millet. Why should that be so?

It may largely be down to taste. Millet’s art so comfortably fits the mould of the anecdotal illustration or idealised pastoral that our sensibilities are left cool and unengaged. This is perhaps an incorrect appreciation, as noted later in this review, but it is an understandable conclusion. On a casual level judging themes and motifs, Millet seems a serving of stodgy worthiness drenched in saccharine sentimentality. On a technical level, Millet presents us no problems. He is not an artist of fragments; he is not wracked by doubt and his paintings are not conspicuously hard wrought. Although he is a painter of working people, his art is not overtly reformist. For the leftist, he is not radical enough politically. For the critic and student, his art is certainly rich veins of social and artistic material but offers few clear new “angles”. His art has seemingly nothing to say about the industrial revolution, the growth of the cities or the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. One would search in vain for signs indicating his sympathies regarding the uprising of February 1848 and the Paris Commune. Quite the contrary – Millet appears to revel in the timeless and universal. Again, that is not quite so but superficially there is nothing particularly contemporary to his art.

Millet’s art is a place people retreat to, turning their back on novelty and difficulty. Millet, being a serious artist, has more to him than that but that part is there. One can decide the see the eternal peasant in harmony with the land he cultivates tirelessly and nothing else. Those people are not wrong and – if one is conservatively minded – Millet’s art does provide comfort in its stability and conventionality. Hence it is intriguing to anticipate what curators and scholars of today have to say about this artist to an audience who may be indifferent or even hostile to his vision of rural life.

During his lifetime and for decades after his death, Millet was a hugely popular figure domestically and internationally. His art was widely reproduced. Artists frequently copied Millet’s compositions from original paintings and prints or reproduction prints. A sale of a collection of pastels soon after the artist’s death garnered high prices. On 1 July 1889 The Angelus (c. 1857-9) sold for 553,000 francs, the highest ever price in France for a modern painting. The following year it was sold again for 750,000 francs.

Millet was born in the Normandy countryside. He pursued traditional academic training, and worked in Cherbourg and Paris. Millet was one of the most prominent figures in the Barbizon School, located in the Barbizon region, dedicated to the cause of realist depictions of landscapes and people. They advocated plein air painting and are best known for their naturalistic landscapes.

Simon Kelly states that “by the late 1850s, Millet was supplanting Gustave Courbet as the most subversive painter of peasant life as the latter turned to landscapes and hunting scenes.” Although at least one writer claimed him as a political radical upon his death, most judged him in retrospect as a link in the chain of French art. A key example is the painting that made his name at the 1857 Salon, The Gleaners. It seems that conservatives reacted against The Gleaners for the artist’s apparent sympathy for the workers gathering grain for free after a harvest, at a time when farmers had begun selling the right to glean. He did however not shy from depicting women agricultural workers (fruit pickers, shearers, milkmaids, field hands, sewers). Such unvarnished portrayals of the physical toil and the occasional indignity – particularly upon the fairer sex – drew criticism from more conservative critics when the art appeared in Salons. The ugliness of the figures was caricatured in newspapers.

Late in life, the painter turned to the creation of unpeopled landscape. These were unusual in some respects, departing from the Barbizon credo of composing from direct observation. These are manipulated compositions. One influence on these landscapes was of Japanese prints. The dramatic cropping, high horizon, aerial perspective, tonal recession, blocks of pattern without features all indicate Millet in his last decade drew upon Japanese woodblock prints the way the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists did after him.

His drawings in conté crayon were considered more modern than his paintings. They were looser in execution and less finished; some of them were studies of individual figures. The building of modelling through dense shading prompted much later art, for example Redon and the smoky sfumato of Carrière. Rightly selected for this exhibition are drawing by Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891). The conté drawings of Seurat are wonderful – atmospheric, stark and deeply ambiguous.

The pastels are more vigorous and brightly hued than his paintings. It may be that the pigments of the pastels have fared better than the oils, which is often the case when the oils, siccatives, fillers and adulterants of oil paint deteriorate over time in comparison to the more pigment-heavy medium of pastel. For whatever reason, viewers of a more modern aesthetic temperament may find themselves responding more strongly to the pastels. The Plain (c. 1868) is a fantastic example of tonal recession in a pastel landscape of a featureless expanse of land. The flatness of the ground is contrasted with the dramatic cloud and shafts of sunlight breaking upwards. The grey-blues and pale browns flicker across the depiction, becoming thicker at the horizon and starting to dematerialise the earth and vegetation. It conveys the impression of fine mist gathering between the tussocks of grass. For those who think of Millet as a painter of hearty peasants and sentimental family vignettes, this landscape alone will dispel their assumptions. It is easy to see why Monet revered him. The pastel paintings of sea cliff done by Millet in the 1860s and early 1870s may have been direct influences on Monet, prompting him to tackle the same subject at Honfleur and elsewhere in the 1880s. The pastels where the black conté outlining is too prominent in the landscapes the effects are less successful. These are coloured drawings, rigid and fixed by the demands of “colouring inside the lines”. Recession is diminished, energy confined, immersion broken. The two versions of The Cliffs of Gréville (1871 and 1871-2) have all the tedium of a diligent book illustration.

His great painting Haystacks: Autumn (c. 1874) has travelled from New York. It shows what Millet might yet have developed upon had he not died so soon after finishing this masterpiece. It is a painting full of excitement – the massive alien bulks of haystacks dwarfing the sheep, shepherd and buildings. The transporting inversion is the light lower area and dark sky during daytime, with heavy clouds threatening rain and dramatic shafts of direct sunlight illuminating the ground. In temperate zones we commonly encounter (and hence instinctively understand) landscapes to be dark material below a light sky. With the regular exception of winter snow, this is a rule that holds true almost all the time. When we find the rule inverted, with a dark sky and light ground, it is unusual and striking. Millet did this more than a few times (Spring (c. 1868-73)) and he must have instinctively understood the drama of the inversion even if he did not understand its perceptual basis.

Reproduction prints of Millet by Alfred Delauney (1830-1894) and Jacques Adrien Lavieille (1818-1862) are exhibited. They form an important link because it was frequently the intermediation of illustrators who summarised and transmitted Millet’s art to the broad public, including artists. One of the artists who spent more time with illustrations of Millet than with originals was Van Gogh. The catalogue contains a long essay by Nienke Bakker about Van Gogh’s veneration of Millet and numerous ways he emulated the master: copying directly in sketches, fuller drawings and paintings; adapting Millet’s motifs; adopting Millet’s manner and the peasant genre; invoking his spirit. Van Gogh decided to live in a rural agricultural setting to be closer to working life and garner material for his art. His Potato-Eaters (multiple versions; 1885) was a homage to Millet but envisaged in Dutch chromatic terms.

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Siësta (after Millet) (1889-1890), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (gift of Mrs. Fernand Halphen, née Koenigswarter, 1952)]

 

Painting prints after Millet’s compositions in colour oils was a therapy for Van Gogh while recovering in the asylum of 1889-90. These 20 paintings were a way of forming an emotional bond with common people and families while Van Gogh was deeply depressed and isolated in the asylum, coming to terms with the fact his illness (whatever exactly it was) was serious, chronic and incurable. Abandoning his dream of marriage and fatherhood, realising that he would be forever cut off from ordinary people by his behaviour and the severity of his mental collapses and mania, Van Gogh’s paintings after Millet were a way of adjusting to a radically curtailed future. It was both a way of assuaging his loneliness and finding models when there were few people around him to pose. None of the Millet translations are great paintings. None has the spark of even one of the painted wheat fields, yet the Millet translations are heartfelt and painted with gusto and accomplishment.

Millet’s paintings of country people appealed to Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who was enamoured by the idea of primitivism revitalising art. For that reason he looked to the “less advanced” civilisations, such as those of Panama, Martinique and Tahiti, and also to the less urban, least cosmopolitan parts of France, such as Pont-Aven, Brittany and Arles, Provence. Related to this search for raw authenticity in the nativist French culture and its people, Millet’s art seemed to offer an approach that seemed fruitful for Gauguin. It may be that Millet’s influence was also transmitted to Gauguin via his mentor Pissarro. Art by Post-Impressionists Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Paul Sérusier (1864-1927) is exhibited and discussed in relation to the model of Millet and his ideas.

Maite van Dijk writes of the influence that Millet had around 1900, at a time when Neo-Impressionism was exhausted and Symbolism and Post-Impressionism were giving way to the radical movements that largely disposed of naturalism (Suprematism, Cubism, Surrealism). Art included in Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism is by Degas, Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli, Jan Toorop, Edvard Munch, Ferdinand Hodler, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and others.

 

[Image: (left) Jean-François Millet, The Angelus (1857-1859), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (bequest of Alfred Chauchard, 1910); (right) Salvador Dalí, Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus (1933-1935), oil on panel, © Salvador Dali, Fundacion Gala-Salvador Dali, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2019]

One of the more notable inclusions is Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). His attachment to the art of Millet may have been part emotional, part fealty to the traditional art of his childhood, but it is in part perverse. What could be more subversive in an avant-garde than to praise pompier painters, academicians and a beloved old warhorse such as Millet? We could say that Dalí was embodying the true spirit of perversity and rebellion that Surrealism demanded by flouting every norm of Modernity. To give his perverse attachment a further twist, Dalí opined publicly about his sexual complex regarding the The Angelus. Dalí’s delirious fantasies fused the personal and universal, the nobility of religion and the animal desire of sex. He interpreted the couple as praying over the body of their son and that the woman was a praying mantis, about to devour the man. The pitchfork in the earth, Dalí saw as a Freudian symbol of copulation. The Angelus was quoted or copied by Dalí in a number of striking paintings and seems to have been a genuine obsession for the artist. The outcome was a sequence of paintings and drawings in the early 1930s. These turned out to some of the best works made during his prime period (roughly 1929-1936, at a stretch up to 1938) and have become art that is fully integrated into Dalí peculiar cosmology and expressed through his “paranoiac-critical method”. Dalí’s responses to Millet are some of the strangest and fertile in this survey.

The absence of Constantin Meunier (1831-1905) from the exhibition and catalogue is a peculiar and serious omission. Meunier is one of the most influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. His working figures were the template for the realism, social realism and Socialist Realism that dominated the period. Indeed, if we were to measure importance according to the quantity of art that followed his lead directly and indirectly, we might say Meunier was much more influential that Van Gogh or Picasso. It may be that Meunier’s preference for the miners, ironworkers, stevedores and other workers in the heavy industries of coal country may have made his art appear dissimilar to Millet. Far from it. Meunier comes directly from Millet. Woman Baking Bread (1854) is a direct forerunner to Meunier’s scenes of workers at a furnace. One does not need to know his bronze reliefs of scything peasants (Musée Meunier, Brussels) to recognise the artistic and temperamental debt that Meunier owes Millet. Surely one of the tangentially related artists could have been dropped from this exhibition to make space for Meunier.

While Millet may never be considered as revolutionary as Courbet, as daring as Gericault and Delacroix, as frank as Degas or as sophisticated as Ingres, this exhibition makes a cogent and carefully presented case for Millet being an important early pioneer of Modernism and one who had a deep influence on the artists who came directly after him. (In much the same way the recent Daubigny exhibition restored his reputation as an innovator in landscape painting.) It is most fitting that this exhibition brings Millet to Van Gogh’s museum. One can imagine the pleasure such an event would have brought Van Gogh. In a way the community of artist he longed to bring together around him has indeed happened posthumously and in his own museum in Amsterdam.

 

Simon Kelly, Maite van Dijk (eds.), Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Saint Louis Art Museum/Thoth, October 2019, paperback, 208pp, 192 col. illus., €29.95, ISBN 978 90 6868 796 5  (Dutch version available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Women Artists in Victorian, Edwardian and Modern Eras

Two republications in the Routledge Revivals series make available once again two significant scholarly texts regarding women’s art of the late Nineteenth Century. Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, (originally published 2000) surveys the situation of women artists in Edinburgh and Glasgow; Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament (originally published 2002) collects essays by experts on various women in the arts-and-craft field in a slightly later period.

In Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, Janice Helland examines the exhibition catalogues and sales records of various organisations to gather data on women artists. She concludes that women were relatively numerous – certainly enough to make associations, clubs and associated exhibitions functional – and that while women artists had fewer options than make counterparts, determined women willing to network with others could exhibit and sell regularly, in some cases enough to make a living. Helland points out that women had a less difficult task being taken seriously as artists (namely training, exhibiting and selling art) than women had at becoming physicians.

Helland recounts the experiences of the well-documented careers of Christina Paterson Ross (1843-1906), Georgina Greenlees (1849-1932), Margaret Dempster (1863-?), Kate Macauley (c. 1849-1914) and others. Included in the book are some sample images of art to give us an idea of the production of female artists. As Helland notes, much of the art has disappeared with little trace – as has much unremarkable realist art of that period – and some line drawings from periodical reviews have been reproduced.

Arts societies and clubs were formed by artists in the Nineteenth Century. Women were no exceptions in this regard. The status of professional bodies conferred authority upon member artists and helped to distinguish them from amateurs – an important point for female artists. Artist associations in Great Britain took on the role of artist guilds, permitting members privileges and excluding non-members from operating on parity with members. This became effectively a restriction of trade and a bar to competition within the public-arts field. When faced by the operative restriction of being denied opportunities to train or exhibit alongside male colleagues, the women artists of Scotland (and other Western countries) formed their own quasi-guilds to advance their art and exclude the art of male colleagues, as well as that of their amateur sisters in order to protect the quality of their exhibitions. Additionally, excluding amateur female artists combatted the accusation that women’s art was product of pursuit of ladylike accomplishment rather than professional-level endeavour. Professional women artists in this period had to fight on two fronts – against men who tended to dominate organisations and receive the lion’s share of plaudits and rewards and against women who practised as hobbyists, whose activities undermined the professionals’ claim to legitimacy.

Art by Scottish women received respectful reviews, by and large. Articles, reviews and letters published in the newspapers were encouraging towards women artists and sympathetic to the plight of ill-served students who had to endure lacklustre teaching, cancelled classes, a poor library and lack of access to nude models. This swell of support was due partly to gallantry, an innate sense of fairness among writers and a consensus that this situation did not reflect well upon the cultural aspirations of the Scots vis-à-vis the situation in London. Apparently the conditions of display shaped the tone of reviews.Mary Cameron is presented as an example of traveling woman artist who was celebrated for her pictures of bullfights. The glowing praise by the press is evidence (if needed) that the public and press were willing to set aside reservations about women as painters if they earned respect through competence and – in this case – the novelty of her subject matter.

The author fairly discusses the monetary impetus in the production of art without squeamishness. Helland errs in suggesting that lower price for art by women is an instance of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. It was the result of a market mechanism pricing the desirability of unique goods in an open market, with price determined by demand, availability and utility. In Scotland in the Nineteenth Century there was simply less demand for art by lesser known artists than by more prestigious artists. Helland knows – or should have known – that women’s art has often commanded prices higher than that for art by men (e.g. Lavinia Terlinc, Rachel Ruysch, Angelica Kauffmann, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and others). This is a lapse into ideological cant that mars an otherwise generally even-handed account.

* * * * * *

Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament  comprises 10 essays on different subjects. Elizabeth Cumming assesses the links between craftswomen Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936) and Mary Seton Watts née Fraser-Tytler (1849-1938; wife of painter George Frederick Watts). Traquair was an illustrator, mural painter and embroiderer who worked in the Scottish Arts and Crafts movement. Watts was a potter and textile designer, based in Surrey. Whereas Traquair preferred to work alone, Watts collaborated with skilled artisans and technicians. The Watts’s interior decoration for the Compton Chapel (1890), attached to the house-studio she shared with her husband, was informed by her consultation of Traquair, who had previous experience of decorative schemes. Jan Marsh writes on May Morris (1862-1938), an Arts and Crafts embroiderer. She was the daughter of William Morris and founder of the Women Guild of Arts in 1907, records of which are apparently not extant. Australian commercial artist Thea Proctor (1879-1966) is considered as the epitome of Art Deco modernism by Pamela Gerrish Nunn. This essay is particularly enjoyable and worth thinking of in relation to the women linocut artists of the Grosvenor School, who flourished contemporaneously to Proctor. The last word in sophistication in Australian taste in the inter-war period, Proctor’s reputation has not experienced a revival comparable to Lempicka’s. Illustrations show Proctor was a gifted designer of posters and journal covers.

Other topics include ceramic design; British court dress; the 1920s film sets of Natacha Rambova; Hungarian embroiderer Laura Nagy; the 1913 Women’s Exhibition, Amsterdam; Romaine Brooks, Gluck and Eileen Gray; American artist, costume designer and interior designer Florine Stettheimer. Monochrome illustrations provide sufficient indication of these uncommon subjects. This title and the former are both serious and thought-provoking re-evaluations of lesser-known creative women.

 

Janice Helland, Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, Routledge Revivals, 2019, hardback, 212pp + xiii, 40 mono illus., £90, ISBN 978 1 138 723 184

Bridget Elliott, Janice Helland (eds.), Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament, Routledge Revivals, 2019, hardback, 229pp + xiv, 47 mono illus., £29.99, ISBN 978 1 138 72145 6

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Le Corbusier: 5 x Unités d’habitation

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Unité d’habitation was a concept of integrated housing developed by Le Corbusier in collaboration with Nadir Afonso. The concept was intended to provide a unified solution to the challenges of modern life by providing for inhabitants by making a single building for vertical living. It was intended as an advance in urban planning by centralising various services and facilities within the residential area, creating a mixed function building. Although initially conceived in 1920, the Unités d’habitation, as they came to be called, were designed over the period 1945 to 1965. Five blocks were constructed in Marseille (1947-52), Nantes-Rezé (1955), Berlin (1957), Briey-en-Forêt (1963) and Firminy-Vert (1965). Although the plan was intended to have universal application, the Berlin block was the only one built outside France.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Marseille, 2018]

The creation of different zones (including private living spaces, hotel, common passages, a shopping area and a roof with kindergarten, gymnasium, running track, paddling pool, open space and amphitheatre) was intended to provide inhabitants with a wide range of facilities within a single building, making it a convenient and efficient location within which to live. The independence of the design meant that this building could be reproduced in multiple locations, theoretically obviating the need to the costs and time of producing unique architectural plans. The Marseille building was the first. It was the most complex and expensive. Later buildings were cheaper and had lower specifications. It is the Marseille building which has become iconic, with the other Unités overshadowed by the ground-breaking pioneer project. The Berlin iteration was noticeably different, partly due to climatic reasons. There was no open roof space and the shopping area was omitted. The relative isolation of the Berlin Unité – which is twice the size of the Marseille one, and therefore the largest of the Unités – and the absence of shops has made it a somewhat inconvenient and unappealing place to live, apparently. Briey-en-Forêt is on the periphery of a suburban area and residents rely on public transport and private cars to travel outside of the grounds. This seems to be a fault of the situation rather than of the building.  

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Briey, 2018]

The apartments are appealing. The balconies have grand views (particularly in the upper storeys), sense of privacy and good soundproofing gave residents a living experience previously enjoyed by only a few. Unlike other high-rise designs, the Unités tended to foster frequent contact with neighbours in communal areas and did not (automatically) engender alienation. For everyday needs, the buildings (with the exception of the Berlin one) are relatively convenient and self-contained.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski, Unité d’habitation Berlin, 2018]

There is a case to be made that the Marseille Unité d’habitation was perhaps the single most influential Modernist residential structure. The ideas, appearance and materials of the Unités d’habitation influenced the nascent Brutalist movement. The buildings are largely unadorned, much of the structure of shutter-cast unpainted concrete (béton brut). The roofs are flat and the apartments are modular in nature. The internal designs, fittings and even furniture was designed specifically for the buildings. There were no architectural references to past styles and no concessions to local materials. Every part of the building displayed its function in its appearance. The architect attempted to shun the limitations of its surroundings; there was a refusal to compromise to existing architecture. The buildings are not orientated to align with the streets around them. This is in part to permit the buildings to be placed to the maximum advance to residents in terms of views and light, but it is also an act of defiant independence on the part of Le Corbusier.

Artist and photographer Arthur Zalewski has visited all of the buildings multiple times in recent years and photographed them as they are, with inhabitants and current conditions included. The photographs, curated by Peter Ottmann, are currently being exhibited at C834, Corbusierhaus, Berlin (April-November 2019). The photographs in five changing displays will be of each Unité in turn: Marseille, April-June 2019; Revé, June-July; Berlin, July-August; Briey-en-Forêt, August-October; Firminy, October-November.

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[Image: Arthur Zalewski,  Unité d’habitation Firminy, 2018]

Zalewski eschewed photographing portraits of the residents, realising that this would make the body of photographs very distinct in character. Instead we get medium-distance shots of figures within the spaces, giving us atmosphere and showing everyday functioning of the buildings. The photographs are distant views of the building, the situation of the Unités within the streets and the landscape more broadly, close views, interiors of different parts of the building and certain sample apartment interiors. The photographs are a mixture of black and white and colour. The shots show the conditions of the buildings today. Compared to many Modernist buildings by less prominent architects, the Unités are in an adequate state of preservation and maintenance, with few alterations and no apparent graffiti. The materials have aged in a largely sympathetic manner, with lichen spotting the stairwell walls in Nantes-Rezé (a block built partially over water, which in these shots is algae covered). The climatic conditions are distinct and contribute to the impressions of the buildings and how they have aged. The sheltered parapets of Briey-en-Forêt have acquired a rich patina of lichens and moss on the untreated concrete. The Firminy’s mountainous wooded location is in contrast with the situation of the Marseille’s Cité radieuse in its arid sunny setting. Briey-en-Forêt’s foggy climate and tree surrounding give the large building an incongruous impression of being hidden and protected.

The only substantial text in this large-format book is the transcript of a three-person discussion between Arthur Zalewski, architect Peter Ottmann and author Anne König. This is published in French, German and English versions. The interview is very enlightening about the varying histories and characters of the five Unités, including information about how the residents view their buildings. This book is suitable for any fan of Modernist architecture, Brutalism and Le Corbusier; it would also appeal to anyone studying social history.

 

Arthur Zalewski, Peter Ottmann (ed.), Le Corbusier: 5 x Unité. Marseille, Nantes-Rezé, Berlin, Briey, Firminy, Spector Books, 2019, paperback, 384pp, 300 illus., English/French/German text, €34, ISBN 978 39 59 05301 3

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Manet and Modern Beauty

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[Image: Édouard Manet (French, 1832 – 1883), Jeanne (Spring) (1881), oil on canvas, 74 × 51.5 cm (29 1/8 × 20 1/4 in.), 2014.62. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles]

The J. Paul Getty Museum is celebrating its 2014 acquisition of a little-seen minor masterpiece by Édouard Manet (1832-1883) with an exhibition and two publications. Manet and Modern Beauty: The Artist’s Last Years is at the Art Institute of Chicago (26 May-8 September 2019) then transfers to the Getty Center, Los Angeles (8 October 2019-12 January 2020). The exhibition is reviewed from the publications. Jeanne (Spring) (1881) was a late painting by Manet, while he was physically limited and often immobilised (suffering from tertiary syphilis). At this this time, Manet was painting many still-lifes of flowers and fruit, as well as portraits of women. It was one of his two submissions to the 1882 Salon, where it was entitled Jeanne. The next time it was exhibited it was called Spring. The subject was Mlle Jeanne Demarsy, a teenage beauty who would later become an actress. She also sat to Renoir at about the same time.

This was part of a proposed series of seasons in the form of half-length portraits of women, commissioned by a famed art critic Antonin Proust. The series seems to have been cut short by Manet’s death because only two paintings from the seasons are known today. (Autumn is included in the exhibition.) The painting was admired at the time but has been rarely seen, residing in a private collection until 2014, when it was auctioned and acquired by the Getty. It was not available for scholars and that – combined with its apparent guileless prettiness – meant that the painting was not discussed much in critical literature. This exhibition covers the years 1876-1883 and comprises 92 items, including paintings, pastels, prints and supplementary material, such as Manet’s illustrated letters and journal illustrations. Oddities include painted fans and a tambourine. The works include some superb pieces, most especially the late still-lifes of fruit and flowers.

Critics portrayed these late painting as soft, lapses in mental fortitude and a retreat from the ground-breaking paintings such as Olympia (1863) and Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863). Were the late still-lifes and portraits of women a search for approval from picture buyers and collectors of middle-brow taste? “These early accounts helped form the now familiar cliché of Manet’s late work as symptomatic of his declining health and his friendship with loose women: a sign, in short, of decadence. In the twentieth century modernist art historians explained the late work’s perceived failings in similar terms.” Thus the subjects of delightful blossoms, delicious fruit and beautiful women were cast as both indicative of epicurean decadence and product of the limitations imposed through disability contracted due to that decadence, in the form of venereal disease.

While Manet was called the leader of the Impressionists, he did participate in the independent exhibitions of the Impressionists, preferring to exhibit at the Salon. He was committed to the Salon, exhibited there until his death and even won a medal. Manet’s attachment to the Salon earned him gibes of being bourgeois by Degas, that despite Degas’s support of, and friendship with, James Tissot and Henri Gervex, two prominent Salon painters markedly less daring than Manet.

Scott Allan draws parallels between Manet’s M. Eugène Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter (1881) and the celebrated Hay Making (1877) by Jules Bastien-Lepage. He suggests the large size, near-square format and composition set outdoors were are influenced by the earlier Naturalist painting. The work launched Naturalism as an artistic school.

Scientific analysis of Jeanne show that in some parts five separate layers were applied in different sessions. Despite that, Manet used the primer layer as a counter to the oil paint. There is a pigment analysis which compares the painting to other paintings by Manet. Micro-photography, x-rays and close examination shows how Manet painted the picture.

Manet’s paintings of parisiennes were not only studies of timeless beauty but also studies of temporal beauty. He had a fascination for fashion and closely followed the changing types of clothing and the use of signifiers. He was known to choose clothing for his female sitters, buying it sometimes. He expressed a desire to capture the very precise alterations in dress codes and types for women. The parisienne was an embodiment of both eternal and temporal beauty, in the form of a uniquely French form of civilisation. Observed and recorded with accuracy, lace cuffs, bonnet trimming and seams of gloves could precisely date a painting to a precise year, even an exact season. Illustrations of paintings not in the exhibition show that modern femininity became a central subject for Manet’s late oil paintings destined for the Salon. The painting of Nana – central character of a realist novel by his Manet’s friend Zola – is an example of this approach. Comparison with other portraits and nudes reveals Manet’s attachment to the female face in profile. His male subjects are never shown in profile in the later period.

The exhibition includes other, more cursory portraits of Jeanne. The catalogue is illustrated with photographs (and portraits by Renoir) of her, allowing us to judge the balance between veracity and flattery that the artist struck. Important paintings loaned for this exhibition include Boating (1874-5), Plum Brandy (c. 1877), In The Conservatory (1877-9), The Café-Concert (c. 1878-9), Portrait of Antonin Proust (1880), Eugène Pertuiset and other late works. The pastel portraits are decidedly weaker than the painted ones. A number of these paintings are unfinished, cut short by the artist’s death. Apparently some were finished by other artists at the request of the estate, in order to make these pictures saleable. Manet produced pastels in his last years because they were faster to make and less strenuous than oil painting. Unable to stand for long periods and – towards the end – unable to stand at all, Manet’s scope of subjects and media were restricted.

In the essays, specialist scholars outline the influence of Chardin as the starting point for the still-lifes and the precedents of Boucher, Fragonard and Watteau for Manet’s figure paintings.

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[Image: Édouard Manet (French, 1832 – 1883), Letter Decorated with a Snail on a Leaf (1880), Watercolor over gray wash (design); pen and ink (text) on machine-made laid paper, 15.8 × 11.7 cm (6 1/4 × 4 5/8 in.), 2019.7. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles]

The late letters were illustrated with watercolour motifs of fruit and flowers. They are extensively reproduced and translated. One writer notes that Manet’s correspondence has never been extensively published, a serious oversight. Another essayist examines the late still-lifes. This large, richly illustrated and highly informative catalogue will become an essential addition to the literature on Manet and can be enjoyed by experts and non-specialists alike.

***

In Richard R. Brettell’s small book On Modern Beauty examines three masterpieces in the Getty, featuring beauty, both conventional and strange. Manet’s Jeanne is compared to paintings by Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne.

Paul Gauguin’s Arii matamoe (La fin royale) (1892) shows the head of a Tahitian man on a table, like a spectacular and morbid still-life. The head rests on a cushion, with flowers in its hair. In the background there are other figures. The painting is richly coloured and beautiful, despite its subject matter. The title translates as the “royal end”, “the sleeping king” and “king’s end”. It relates to a public beheading the artist witnessed in 1889, rather be made from life. This is a portrait as a still-life, as well as being an ethnographic curiosity. Brettell speculates that when he painted Arii matamoe, Gauguin may have had in mind a painting by Cézanne, which he owned for a time. The still-life featured a skull and unlit candle. Gauguin was greatly depressed by the colonial usurpation of Tahitian culture and his painting depicting the ending of a vital native nobility is a metaphor for the demise of indigenous traditions.

The third painting is Cézanne’s Young Italian Woman at a Table (c. 1895-1900) shows the subject in a voluminous blouse leaning upon an ornate rug over a table. It is a surprisingly attractive subject on a superficial basis. The model is thought to be Italian, a paid model. The artist did not leave many writings that would help us date pictures or identify portrait subjects. Brettell points out the similarity between the position of subject of this painting and that of Dürer’s print Melancolia (1514) and some female portraits by Corot. Cézanne is a difficult artist to write about because so much of the effect of his art is absorbed through perceptual reception of impressions rather than iconography, narrative and other factors more amenable to verbal description.

On Modern Beauty is a well-illustrated and thought-provoking book about different aspects of beauty in French painting of the period.

 

Scott Allan, Emily A. Beeny, Gloria Groom (eds.), Manet and Modern Beauty, Getty Publications, 2019, hardback, 400pp, 206 col./97 mono illus., £50/$65, ISBN 978 1 60606 604 1

Richard R. Brettell, On Modern Beauty: Three Paintings by Manet, Gauguin and Cézanne, Getty Publications, 2019, paperback, 108pp, 63 col./4 mono illus., $19.95, IBSN 978 1 60606 606 5

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Francis Bacon: Couplings

The exhibition Francis Bacon: Couplings (Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, London, until 3 August 2019) allows viewers the chance to see some of Bacon’s best paintings in a space which is very suitable. The generous size of the galleries and the ambient décor of medium-dark wooden floor and gray walls allows the colour to come out strongly without having to fight against the white walls that often impair the viewing experience.

The paintings are from the 1950s to 1970s and include a classic triptych and some very well-known paintings. The paintings feature couples copulating or single figures. There is one painting (Marching Figures (c. 1952)), showing many figures rendered stick-like, which depicts marching figures which deviates from this. These are by no means all of the paintings on the subject. Bacon had trouble creating multiple-figure compositions. His most frequent and successful involve depictions of sex, usually homosexual. These began in a time when homosexual acts were illegal, so his paintings had a frisson of danger. When the earliest paintings were exhibited in London they were shown in rooms with curtains.

Two Figures with a Monkey, 1973

[Image: FRANCIS BACON, Two Figures with a Monkey (1973), oil on canvas, 78 x 58 1/8 in, 198 x 147.5 cm. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2019. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Courtesy Gagosian]

Painting (1950) has travelled from Leeds. It shows what could be one figure seen twice or two figures, perhaps in a shower or bathroom. It goes well next to Two Men Working a Field (1971) and near the latest painting in the show, Two Figures with a Monkey (1973). The colours of the copulating figures are offset by the malachite and viridian block below them.  The painting features the tubular metal armature that recalls Modern furniture, railings or the equipment of physical therapy rooms. Despite the charge of perversity or eccentricity, it does succeed as a picture. The monkey adds to the air of unpredictability and balances the vertical format.

BACON 2019 Couplings installation view 4

There is a rare chance to see one of Bacon most anomalous paintings, Figures in a Landscape (1954). It is oil paint on cardboard and is unusually small. The uncharacteristic size and support, rough technique and unclear subject (the nude figures in the grass could just as likely be one) show this as a test painting. It was catalogued in the Ronald Alley catalogue raisonné as an abandoned painting and it looks completely authentic, though odd experimental piece. It fits the period when Bacon was painting in a rich way and developing areas of grass with multiple rich hues, generally on a dark stained ground. The tawny grass is a recurring aspect in Bacon’s paintings of the 1950s.

An underappreciated work is Two Men Working a Field (1971). The lack of prominence of this picture in literature is partly due to the fact it has been in private collections. Additionally, it is probably overlooked because the subject is atypical for Bacon, showing as it does figures involved in work. It belongs to a small group of works from the early 1970s when he painted doubles – figures who not only look alike but mirror each other’s posture. The best known examples are the lying figures in the Tehran triptych (Two Figures Lying on a bed with Attendants (1968) and the more accessible Triptych (1967) at the Hirshhorn. The subject seems to be the loss of self – the way intimacy of sex or the efficiency of work leads to bodies echoing each other. This was not a subject that Bacon developed to such a degree as he might have. The few paintings he made are not seen as a discrete group but they warrant further consideration because they are unusual and arresting.  The soil shows Bacon indulging his painterly side by creating a loam soil through brushing impasto burnt umber, ochre, sienna with a few dashes of crimson. This has been vigorously over-brushed, blurring the original application, adding more complexity to the areas.

Portrait of a Man Walking (c. 1953) is a painting of the artist’s most famous critical champion and lead interviewer, David Sylvester. The work is from the time of the men in dark blue rooms. Though these paintings are atmospheric, as paintings they are little lacklustre, with the artist tending to rely on an established format. Marching Figures (c. 1952) features  what is commonly interpreted as a polar bear surmounting a phalanx of marching soldiers (or SA Stormtroopers) probably derived from photographs of Nazi rallies. It was recovered from a collection in a Chelsea warehouse after Bacon’s death. The paintings with which he was dissatisfied he sent to his colourman for the stretchers to be reused. The canvases were not destroyed but kept without the artist’s knowledge. The heavy-gauge canvas used for this painting was also used for Figures in the Grass (1954). It shows a homosexual copulation in a field.

Three Studies of Figures on Beds (1972) is a triptych of figures having sex in brightly lit rooms (or a single room). It features a mattress from photographs given to the artist in Tangiers by Allen Ginsberg. To Bacon Ginsberg gave a series of photographs of Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky having sex, hoping Bacon would paint them. Bacon did not care for the figures but claimed to appreciate the “squalid” mattress, which he subsequently included in this triptych. Observation shows that rollers were used on carpet but not on the other areas. In the areas of brushed and stained paint, broken  bristles are present, showing the use of cheap brushes or a lack of care for the brushes. For the figures one finds places where Bacon has blotted with textured fabric. Brown aerosol paint has been applied over the motif.

The female nude in Lying Figure (1959) fails, the motif being too congested and to sharply delineated. It seems to have no connection to the sofa and wall. The shape overall is ugly and uninformative, telling us little truthful about the nature of lying and the qualities of a lying figure and this figure in particular. Likewise, the horizontal lying male figure on a couch (Sleeping Figure (1959)) is also a failure. The face has become a caricature and the anatomy is ugly and uninvolving. The format suggests it was cut down from a larger painting in a standard Baconian upright format. This picture has little value. These are the only two disappointing pictures in a show of a high standard.

Two Figures, 1953

[Image: Francis Bacon, Two Figures (1953), oil on canvas. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2019. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Courtesy Gagosian]

The final gallery holds the most celebrated painting in the display, Two Figures (called The Wrestlers) (1953), loaned from the Estate of Lucian Freud. It shows Bacon’s flexibility as a painter. The canvas was stained and the forms brushed in afterwards. The flesh of the figures is based on pale violet. The sheets are white, which has been applied impasto, in places with a palette knife. The same knife was used to scrape down that white, leaving the dark ground to create a speckled effect through the white. The head and base boards to the bed are illustrated, rather daintily and with a degree of clumsiness, setting the figures in a definite situation. Flickers of dilute monastrel (phthalocyanine) blue has been added last, heightening the pallor of figures and sheets. It is a marvellous sustained effort of execution and effective conceptualisation. It is justly regarded as one of Bacon’s finest works.

The decision not to include supplementary material benefits the exhibition. Over recent years there has been a tendency to include drawings, photographs, sources and archival material. While this is stimulating and important for understanding Bacon’s methods and approaches to creation, it also distracts from the power and independence of the paintings. Most of the time we are better off looking at and thinking about the finished paintings of an artist.

This exhibition is beautifully laid out and a chance to see Bacon at his carnal best. A full catalogue will be published in October.

 

© 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

Léon Spilliaert

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[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Self-Portrait with Moon (1908), Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 488 x 630 mm, Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, inv. 6923]

Visitors to the Modern section of art museums in Belgium will soon come across stark and dramatic art by an unfamiliar name. Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) was a Belgian artist, associated with but not part of the Symbolist and Art Nouveau movements of the period. Curator and scholar Anne Adriaens-Pannier has become the world’s leading expert on Spilliaert. She prepared the catalogue raisonné and has assembled the most detailed body biographical information about the artist, not least due to her extensive and long-lasting contact with his descendants.

This publication is a major advance in making Spilliaert’s art known outside Belgium. His art is in private hands in Europe and in Belgian museums but has only recently been exhibited more internationally. This major monograph makes an excellent guide to the artist’s life and work, provides detailed information, a bibliography, chronology and plentiful information about the artist’s output, career and ideas.

The early work moves between modes of satire, social criticism, mythology, caricature and cartoon. Early pieces include the gamut of juvenile subjects: interiors, street scenes, solitary figures, caricatures, fantastic figures, symbolic characters and humorous scenes. Almost all were drawn in stylised forms and – with the exception of some self-portraits and interiors – produced from memory or imagination. There is often a bold stylisation with swathes of black. It is close to the sort of art published in illustrated journals and newspapers. We can relate it to the Modernisme of Barcelona, Jugenstil from Vienna and the closer influences of Belgian Art Nouveau and French Symbolism. This was also the time when Aubrey Beardsley’s black-and-white style was at its most popular. We can detect common refrains in Spilliaert’s art – the preoccupation with the morbid and grotesque, the artificial and synthesised, the decadent and uncanny, the ambiguous and androgynous. However, Spilliaert is never overtly erotic, as Rops and Beardsley were. There is a fascination with the strange but never an obsession. For Spilliaert, excess is a matter of detached speculation rather than something in which he indulged in his everyday life. Spilliaert was an early reader of Comte de Lautrémont’s Les chants de Maldoror, a fan of Nietzsche (of whom he drew some portraits) and someone familiar with Symbolist poetry.

Peculiarly, in his best work Spilliaert hardly went beyond the adolescent stage of art, with its interiority, self-absorption, heightened emotion, small size and lack of externally derived correction. Although indebted to Symbolism and Art Nouveau, Spilliaert was artistically and professionally isolated. He always preferred working on paper to using canvas; he stayed with ink, pencil, charcoal, watercolour and pastel, never achieving much in oil paint or sculpture. (His oil paintings were produced at the behest of gallerists who found those easiest to sell.) His palette is most effective when limited to cool hues, with little contrast in colour. The impressive thing is how he managed to extract the very best from a narrow emotional and thematic base.

He was essentially self-taught, spending only a few months studying in Bruges. He spent most of his life in his birth town of Ostend. The most important artist of Ostend was James Ensor, who was a minor celebrity in the town by the time Spilliaert started working. (Ensor outlived Spilliaert by a few years, dying in 1949.) Spilliaert greatly admired Ensor’s interiors. Ensor’s marines were very painterly and reliant on the effects of oil paint, so they could not be a direct influence on an artist using Spilliaert’s materials. Pannier includes an excellent and illuminating discussion about the personal and artistic links between the two artists. Ensor’s satirical drawings and prints directly inspired Spilliaert to produce his own interpretations on the subjects, though usually less scabrous and bitter.

Spilliaert did join societies, participate in group exhibitions  and form connections to other artists. Spilliaert is best thought of as an individualist associated with Symbolism, alongside Vilhelm Hammershøi, Helene Schjerfbeck, Félix Vallotton and others. Other artists such as Alfred Kubin, Odilon Redon and Félicien Rops are suitable comparators. An extended chapter relates Spilliaert to Fernand Khnopff, Xavier Mellery (who taught Spilliaert briefly in Bruges), Munch, Ensor, Constant Permeke, the Nabis and Japanese prints. Adriaens-Pannier helpfully weighs up the specialist literature (mostly available only in Flemish), which allows us to understand the debates which have shaped the reception of the artist’s work. She describes the artistic and literary affiliations that added to the formation of the art and is particularly good at setting his work in a historical context. Whilst not all of Spilliaert’s art will be to single viewer’s tastes – indeed there is a chasm between later colourful work and the early tenebrous style – Adriaens-Pannier even-handedly informs us about the multiple interests of the artist.

The interiors are domestic, generally, and still-lifes are of everyday objects (boxes, bottles, house plants). His early self-portraits are characteristic of Spilliaert. His slender form, strong facial shapes and flamboyant coif of hair provided a base upon which to exaggerate with powerful shadows and highlights. (He often posed under a raking overhead light at night.) His clothing is formal, with a high collar and dark jacket. He is the epitome of a damned artist or anguished aesthete. Coloration in muted, sometimes little more than a touch of isolated colour in an otherwise black-and-white picture.

Pictures of other figures depend on mood. When the figures are simple, dark, dramatic and isolated they work best. The caricatures, portraits (aside from the self-portraits) and pieces in high colour are much less successful. In the latter, the influence of the Nabis leads Spilliaert away from his strengths. Realism is not an issue, as the art that is realistic (the self-portraits) and unrealistic (the dream-like compositions) are both effective – just as the art which blends verisimilitude and artificiality. Contrasting or bright colour diminishes the impact of Spilliaert’s art.

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[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Promenade and Lighthouse, 1908, Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 505 x 395 mm (day)]

Much of the artist’s work concerns the sea. A constant presence in Ostend, a repeated subject for local artists, the sea provided Spilliaert with a chance to approach nature as vast and temperamental. The fields of flowing water, dramatic elongated reflections and counterpoints between Ostend’s seafront architecture and areas of water all allowed Spilliaert to address subjects such as the infinite, nature, the frisson of fear and wonder in tranquillity. The sea and beach gave his art greater breadth of expression and subject. Receding tides, reflections and ripples gave Spilliaert a chance to use the bold curving lines the dominate Art Nouveau aesthetic. The lone figure on the beach was a staple of contemporary art. These scenes show the introverted artist reaching for boundless expanses without leaving his home.

The beach became a dream-like stage that took on existential qualities, with lone figures free of ties and given freedom in return for lonely isolation. The sweeping beach and promenade are scenes of contemplation, free of detail, cut adrift from the society which made the structures. In a sense it prefigures de Chirico’s dark shadows, empty plazas and stripped down imagery. In some brilliant and haunting images, Spilliaert showed fans of light emanating from doorways in the elongated promenade building, placing us in the dark night, removed from light and life but still able to access those human necessities. These are images that embody existential art and should be as well-known as the art of de Chirico and Edvard Munch.

It is admitted even by his supporters that a fair quantity of Spilliaert’s art is unsuccessful. The pictures of women are types rather than individuals, lacking memorability or appeal. Late-career excursions into brighter landscapes are absolute failures and make painful viewing. His religious art scenes (the deployment of icons in abstract spaces) are oddities. The oil paintings he made to satisfy gallerist requests are not a natural fit for Spilliaert’s strengths. The best of the late works are scenes of trees.

His forays into lithography were much more successful. He produced single-colour images using the grain of the plates and paper to produce equivalents of conté drawings. The outstanding works are The Avenue (1899) and Woman Sewing (1899).

In 1917 Spilliaert moved to Brussels to improve his income (he was now married and they were expecting a child). The coloured watercolour scenes of bathers of this time are light-weight. His return to Ostend in 1922 apparently came as a relief to him and his wife. The high colour of later years – influenced by Fauvism and Expressionism – makes the later period of less interest. His society portraits and commercial work (aside from some illustrations) are uninvolving. Apart from some early flirtation with social commentary, Spilliaert was politically unengaged. Depictions of fishermen and fishwives in Ostend became a recurrent theme (something he shared with his friend Permeke). The artist’s interest seems more sentimental than attached to any desire to delve into social realism. Spilliaert became more established over the 1920s to the 1940s, assisted by a return to Brussels in 1935.

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[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Promenade, Light Reflections (1908), Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 480 x 394 mm, Paris, Musée d’Orsay]

Overall, Spilliaert is uneven. One could hardly react so warmly to all his contradictory styles and subjects. He has weaknesses – a tendency to decorativeness, an infelicity handling certain materials, a poor sense of colour outside of a near-monochrome approach, a certain aimlessness in his last decades – but at his best he is brilliant. The early interiors, self-portraits, beach and sea views and moody isolated figures are haunting and wonderful. They have the power to impress themselves upon your memory and strike a deep chord.

Adriaens-Pannier has used family testimony, contemporary sources (including the artist’s own writings), archive photographs, access to archives, a wide knowledge of the period and an unparalleled understanding of Spilliaert’s life and art to produce an absorbing book. The illustrations are extensive and high quality, many full page. They reproduce key pieces and less accessible works in private collections. This excellent monograph can be unreservedly recommended and will become the standard reference work for any English-language researchers studying Spilliaert.

 

Anne Adriaens-Pannier, Léon Spilliaert: From the Depths of the Soul, Ludion, 2019, cloth hardback, 336pp, €59.90, fully illus., ISBN 978 94 9181 990 2

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit 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

Abstract Expressionist Women Painters

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As with other past art movements, these individuals are predominantly male; in this case, not only are they male, but their maleness, their heroic machismo spirit, has become a defining characteristic of the expansive, gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionism.[i]

So stated is the recent feminist case against Abstract Expressionism, an art style associated with hard-drinking, brawling men who wore workmen’s clothes and used industrial paint. For feminists, the discussion of such art is embodied in the language of criticism.

Discussion of the work of abstract expressionists abounds with highly gender-laden adjectives, it is “strong” “incisive”, “thrusting” and “aggressive”. Its image of barely controlled violence is reinforced by the frequent title of “Action Painting”, all these elements conforming to popular perceptions of masculinity. […] cultural stereotypes of female passivity made the function of the female artist within “Action Painting” difficult to define, hence the often peripheral position allocated to artists such as Lee Krasner or Helen Frankenthaler. […] in art as in so many other areas of activity, women were denied a central role in post-war western culture.[iii]

Critics such as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess would arbitrate on the quality of art using language that would lock in place a masculine set of virtues, the argument goes. “A so-called canon would arise that solidified Abstract Expressionism as male.” [iv] Yet one of the leading critics was Elaine de Kooning – a shrewd, intelligent and informed woman who was also a painter.  Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler enjoyably and thoroughly surveys the lives of five prominent female artists of the New York scene. Lee Krasner (1908-1984), Elaine de Kooning née Fried (1918-1989), Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) are all artists well worth biographical and critical attention, which have received to varying degrees over the decades.

The starting point of the book is the Ninth Street Show, a group show held in a building in New York due for demolition. The show displayed the depth and variety of the New York School as it became the vanguard style of world Modernist art. The show, held over May and June of 1951, brought together the leading artists of the first generation of newly prominent New York School (including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Krasner) alongside many members of the second generation (including Hartigan, Frankenthaler and Mitchell). The second generation were not much younger than the first generation (sometimes only a matter of ten years). The main differentiation was participation in the experiences of the 1930s as artists: the Great Depression, the conflict between Modernists and Regionalists, the WPA (which provided indigent artists with paid employment for public benefit) and the political activism of unionism and Socialist events.

Gabriel captures the excitement, poverty and cultural ferment of the arts starting in 1929, when artists divided into camps and argued vehemently (to the point of fistfights) about aesthetics. Social commitment meant being gaoled for affray during protests. The writing is lively, informed and strongly narrative. It is an approachable entrance in the atmosphere, politics and characters of the New York School. Although it is centred on five painters it weaves in the stories of other major (and a few of the minor) figures of the time: Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Hess, Rosenberg, Greenburg, Peggy Guggenheim, Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers and John Graham. Most prominent of the other figures are Pollock and de Kooning. The book closes in 1959, with a coda describing the later lives of the painters.

Krasner trained at the Cooper Union, New York. Discouraged by the limitations of social realism (the Ash Can School) and the politics of Communism in the wake of Stalin’s show trials, she turned to abstraction and Modernism by taking classes under Hans Hofmann. She became a committed Modernist and admired Mondrian; soon she had a chance to meet her hero when he moved to New York as part of the influx of emigre artists. During the war years she met Pollock, they moved in together and shared ideas. In 1945 they married. Together with Clement Greenberg, Krasner made Pollock’s career a joint effort, even to the extent of painting less. It seems that Pollock’s emotional demands and ego inhibited Krasner from working for a time, though they did co-operate for a number of joint exhibitions.

Elaine Fried studied at Leonardo da Vinci School. In 1938 she met de Kooning at about the same time as Gorky and John Graham, the painter and theoretician who wrote System and Dialectics of Art (1937). This eccentric book on the subject of Modern art was one of key references for the tiny group of American artists of the era. Well before their marriage in 1943, Elaine made de Kooning’s career her project, networking with critic Harold Rosenberg. Her art was portraiture of herself and fellow artists, executed with painterly bravura. In 1948 Hess, editor of ArtNews, commissioned Elaine de Kooning to write exhibition reviews. This made her an important figure in the New York art world and appreciated by artists, about whose work she could write with the knowledge and sympathy of an insider.

Frankenthaler studied at Bennington College and with Hans Hofmann and entered an art world where the nascent Abstract Expressionists were already being exhibited and sold. Unlike the first generation, she never experienced the pre-war scene. She was joining an art world where Modernism was in ascendant with the cognoscenti even if it was not widely accepted by the general public. While freshly graduated, she met Greenberg and began an affair with him. Although he did not write about her art, his status helped to open doors for Frankenthaler. On 26 October 1952 she painted Mountains and the Sea, which is made with diluted paint which she splashed and soaked into the canvas while it was horizontal on the floor of her studio. It is credited with starting the Colour Field School.

Hartigan, without art qualifications, she worked as a technical draughtsman during the war. Her future husband Harry Jackson was a painter and fan of Pollock. She met Pollock and Krasner in 1948 and the couples became friends. Hartigan’s rise was faster than that of most artists and she was soon exhibiting and selling paintings alongside veteran painters. The 1953 purchase of one of her paintings by MoMA marked a remarkable level of recognition for one of the second-generation of Abstract Expressionists.

Mitchell studied painting at the School of Art Institute, Chicago. She married fellow Chicagoan Barney Rosset, filmmaker and future publisher of Grove Press, in 1949. In New York she became an abstract painter, influenced by a tour of Europe. Critics consider her part of Abstract Impressionism, fusing Abstract Expressionism and the inheritance of Monet. Substance abuse and infidelity caused a split from Rosset. Later, Mitchell had a long-term relationship with French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle.

All of these artists knew each other and had periods of close friendships, sometimes working side by side, at other times estranged through personal differences. All achieved public and commercial recognition, sometimes slow, sometimes ebbing, subject to the changing critical tastes of their times. All achieved financial independence.

Reading Ninth Street Women we come to understand how important painting as painting was for this generation. Painting was a way of discovering the world and unlocking doors to new experiences; it was an expression of individual humanity in an era of Cold War. The earnest atmosphere of The Club and the boozy raucousness of the Cedar Tavern are conveyed in the author’s descriptions, augmented by recollections of artists. The poverty and neglect these artists faced brought (relative) camaraderie; with fame and money came (relative) rivalry. The main narrative ends in the year 1959, which marks the decline of Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field Painting and the rise of Pop Art. By 1959 American Modernist art had become mainstream, big business and a haven for speculators. Mitchell had moved to France to be closer to Riopelle and escape the drinking culture of the Five Spot (the replacement for the Cedar Tavern). Frankenthaler had married Robert Motherwell. Krasner was managing Pollock’s estate and making her own art on Long Island. Elaine was estranged from de Kooning, painting and teaching art; she would go on to paint portraits of many notable people, including President Kennedy. Hartigan was changing her art, leaving behind the sturm und drang of Ab Ex impasto and diluting her paint to washes, influenced by Colour Field Painting.

The hard-drinking uninhibited lifestyles of the New York School were punctuated by arguments that escalated to fistfights. Affairs were common and marriages and relationships imploding regularly. In 1956 Pollock died when he crashed his car whilst drunk. These women painters strove for equality and some of them – in their hard drinking, heavy smoking, drug taking, casual sex and flouting of conventions – sometimes partook of the freedoms and temptations of bohemian life as much as their male counterparts. Like the men, they suffered consequences. Mitchell experienced fits of depression after bouts of drunken wildness and earned a reputation as a hell raiser. In 1953 Mitchell attempted suicide attempt following an extreme party. By the mid-1950s many of the New York School were struggling with excessive alcohol consumption, a problem heightened by their increasing incomes.[v] “Marriages and relationships born in poverty and obscurity could not withstand the onset of fortune and fame.”[vi] Hartigan suffered depression[vii] and later experienced alcoholism and would attempt suicide. Like Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning overcame alcoholism. Elaine de Kooning died of cancer, possibly caused by lifelong smoking – the same cause as Mitchell.

Gabriel discusses the situation of women artists of the time with sensitivity and fairness. Gabriel uses the words of the artists to give us their views on the subject. “Throughout her career, Grace was loath to acknowledge any difference between the sexes when it came to making art – except in the case of children [i.e. childbearing and childcare].”[ix] Only one of these five women had a child; Hartigan spent prolonged periods apart from her only child.

Gabriel remembers her first interview with Hartigan. “As Grace [Hartigan] spoke, she didn’t dwell on the fact that she was a woman artist. […] but each time she mentioned a woman painter or sculptor, I found myself wondering why, in the official history, those names so rarely surfaced. Their contributions were significant. […] and yet, the story of that movement has been taught and accepted as the tale of a few heroic men.”[x] The story of these artists is worth telling but we should not think that these women artists have not been overly neglected. The question is where are the books advancing forgotten figures such as Milton Resnick, James Brooks, Jack Tworkov, Friedel Dzubas, Norman Lewis and Theodoros Stamos? The Abstract Expressionist movement is full of skilled artists who were successful for a brief heyday but subsequently suffered a slump in recognition and today we hear almost nothing about them. The tough truth is that if the curator of a group exhibition can include only 10 artists then the temptation is to exhibit work by the 10 most famous artists to attract visitors and press. There is also the weight of expectations. If the same 10 artists appear in histories then it is hard for any writer of a new history to exclude any of those 10 artists to include an unfamiliar artist because it will look like an omission. Expectation and complacency play a greater role than prejudice in generating histories.

In every art movement or school, vanguards get the majority of attention, influence, press and market appeal. It is only later – as the primary figures get played out biographically and critically (and their art becomes scarcer in the market) – that scholars and dealers move to lesser-known figures. This is a universal phenomenon observable in all cases in fine art. Why women artists might find themselves as secondary or peripheral figures is another matter but it is one that they share with male counterparts. In the case of these five painters, only one of them was part of the first generation of the Abstract Expressionists, so in any short account of the brief heyday of the movement only Lee Krasner seems like a necessary inclusion, though Frankenthaler is essential if one wants to discuss the transition between Abstract Expressionist and Colour Field Painting. Elaine de Kooning was not really an Abstract Expressionist in style. Hartigan and Mitchell are talented painters but not innovators. This book reminds us that the artists (male and female) who make a success of their careers are often abnormal – abnormally confident, selfish, dedicated (or obsessive), ambitious or in some other way outliers in psychological terms. One might also say they are also abnormally lucky. Among the dozens or hundreds or (in our era of widespread global higher education in the fine arts) thousands of aspiring artists, it is only a handful who become successful, respected and remembered. Elaine de Kooning, Krasner, Frankenthaler, Hartigan and Mitchell were such artists.

The advent of feminism in the 1960s was in some ways antithetical to these artists. None of them wanted to be judged as a “woman painter” and social issues did not feature in their art. They distanced themselves from trends towards conceptualism and performance, remaining resolutely painters. Many of the younger generation of women artists resented and despised them as upholders of tradition. In later years Frankenthaler endured insults from political critics and artists for her perceived aloofness and affluence.[xi]

The book includes photographs of the artists and the main movers of the art scene, as well as some colour images of paintings. Over 160 pages of detailed notes and bibliography attest to the formidably thorough work of the author. The book is a sweeping panorama of an excitingly dynamic period in Modernism, when the creation of advanced art was a prize worth sacrificing everything for. Ninth Street Women will stand as a classic and rich recounting of Abstract Expressionism alongside Naifeh and Smith’s biography of Pollock and Stevens and Swan’s biography of de Kooning.

 

Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art, Little, Brown, 2018, hardback, 927pp + xvi, col./mono illus., $35, ISBN 978 0 316 22618 9

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

 

 

[i] P. 10, Gwen F Chanzit, “Introduction to the Exhibition”, Marten etc.

[iii] Teresa Grimes, Judith Collins, Oriana Baddeley, Five Women Painters, Lennard, 1989, p. 179-180

[iv] P. 22, Joan Marten, “Missing in Action”, Marten etc.

[v] Elaine de Kooning “I was addicted to alcohol, and so was almost everyone else on the scene at that time.” p. 637

[vi] P. 587

[vii] “I had been seriously mentally ill those last two years in New York.” Quoted p. 678

[viii] P. 31

[ix] P. 288

[x] pp. xii-xiii

[xi] Pp. 713-6

Israeli Modernist Architecture

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“There is no Israeli style yet,” said Israeli designer Rafi Blumenfeld in 1972. “We have no original materials of beauty that can inspire style, no great traditions of design.”

In 1948 the new Israelis faced a question of how the build a state from nothing other than an ostensible ethno-religious loyalty binding together disparate émigrés. There was no unbroken geographically centred, national, architectural tradition for Jews. For many framing history, there has been a common perception that there is a correlation between Zionism and architectural Modernism. An assertive form of paradoxically modern architecture was employed for a state legitimised on a claim to an ancient foundational ancestry.

The Object of Zionism: The Architecture of Israel is a study Israeli architecture, with a stress on the early decades of the state’s attempts to establish an identity and provide both symbolic and critical architecture at a civic and residential level. Sections deal with different periods and issues, including original sources and retrospective analyses. Documents are reproduced, so we have a chance to read the original reviews, reports, letters and statements. Reproductions of official reports and journal articles (most in English, but some in Hebrew, German and French) give us a rich range of primary sources. Translations and transcriptions augment these facsimiles. Numerous photographs of locations, models, plans, maps, projections, blueprints and photographs of construction, completion and present states give us visual sources to accompany the text.

Author Zvi Efrat explains that the dispersal of the Bauhaus in 1933 led to many teachers and students schooled in the International Style, materials and techniques. Many of these were Jewish and gravitated to Mandatory Palestine, which led to a flourishing of Art Deco and Modernist architecture, especially in Tel Aviv, in the 1930s and early 1940s. “In Tel Aviv […] modern architecture became both compulsory and compulsive.” The International Style became ubiquitous in the 1930s. (Tel Aviv was later designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.) The dry climate and high levels of direct sunlight led were sympathetic to the Modernism style of flat roofs, terraces and brises soleils.

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[Image:Apartment building, Tel Aviv, 1959, architects: Avraham Yasky, Amnon Alexandroni]

The potentials for a Zionist state had been discussed for decades before the reality presented itself, so the various architectural inclinations had already been advanced prior to 1948. Consensus led to a rejection of colonial, indigenous and quasi-historical architectural approaches. Hannes Meyer wrote a letter in 1937 to his former student Arieh Sharon in Tel Aviv asking if there was a Jewish-national style of architecture. Sharon’s long reply is transcribed in full, with illustrations. Sharon, a Bauhaus graduate and prominent trade unionist, went on to be commissioned to found the Israeli Planning Department. His book Physical Planning in Israel (1951) became the Sharon Plan, which guided planners and architects in the early phase of Israeli history. It set out principles that could be applied locally without central guidance. This replication established a cellular dispersal.

The objectives of a national plan include: siting of agricultural settlements and location of agricultural areas; determination of a rational and sound distribution of urban centres; effective disposition of industry in the various regions of the country; indication of the road network and centres of communication, and provision of forests and national parks.

Sharon identified three determinant factors in the foundation of Israel: land, people and time. Land was limited and varied in climate; people were immigrants from multiple backgrounds and in need of clear realistic objectives and reasonable living conditions; time was short because of the rudimentary foundation circumstances, rapidly rising population level and need to establish a strong economic, agricultural and military framework in the face of foreign hostility.

The Object of Zionism_5

For a century, cities had been seen as sources of moral and physiological degeneration, causing writers, politicians, journalists and academics concern. The project of Israel would require a plan for numerous anti-urban garden towns (modelled on the British model) to be founded in a landscape that would be transformed. The settlements were seen as society in microcosm and the aspirations of the nation, encompassing all its conflicting values, so they were scrutinised and debated extensively. Zeev Sternhall identified a problem, as he saw it, with the new state idealising rural settlements:

The condemnation of the city and the cult of a return to nature, to the simplicity, authenticity, and rootedness of the village, was always one of the myths of radical nationalism, not of socialism. Socialism was oriented toward the modern world, industrialized and urban.

For Sternhall, inevitable development towards an urbanised society meant that the romantic rejection of the city as the Zionist ideal was in conflict with the travel of history. The implications of extreme nationalism in recent European history were a matter not lost on the Jewish Diaspora. Sternhall goes on to point out that even in the 1920s and 1930s Mandatory Palestine, 80% of Jews lived in towns. Proposals asserting rural settlements as an idealised target for the new nation (which could never have been a principally agricultural in character) therefore were only one instance of the actualisation of utopian symbolism.

Extensive afforestation, irrigation, desalination and soil conservation projects were initiated, turning barren desert into productive agricultural land. The de-desertification of the Negev Desert was a project of irrigation that was directed by the government. The one hand of the Israeli planners cleared former Palestinian villages was a necessary step in the process of creating the tabula rasa which the other hand thence transformed into the site for a Utopian project such as a kibbutz or a garden city. The Object of Zionism does not shy away from the removal of the Arab population in 1948, the later border wall and the illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories.

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[Image: Amal Lady Davis High Dchool, Tel Aviv, 1965-73, architects: Ram Karmi, Chaim Ketzef, Ben Peleg]

The Kibbutzim were first founded in 1910 as an implementation of the communal ideas of Zionism, Marxism and anarchism. (The name Kibbutz was first used in 1921.) Kibbutzim featured communal dining, group childcare, no fences and common public spaces such as libraries and temples. There were no leaders and decisions were taken by democratic vote. In the new state they would be multiplied across the land to enable national self-sufficiency. The national and political imperatives of independence, agrarian reforms and providing work for millions of migrants aligned in Israeli policies for land use in the first decades of the state’s existence.

New building methods were pioneered. “Cannon houses” made by the method of constructing shuttered structures into which concrete was poured by concrete mixers with long barrels which looked like cannon. The architecture of the desert was in the form of Neptun Hotel and the school in Eilat with wind-catching chimneys to control the interior control climates. “Centralization, serialization, standardization, reductivism, and ergonomic efficiency were not merely the idealized concepts and modes of operation of the Zionist establishment; they were its only option.” Various projects are discussed, showing how an entire nation had to be created from very little in a short period of time. Utopianism was sometimes sacrificed to contingency but a surprisingly strong ideological character can be detected in the urban planning of early periods.

Top architects who planned buildings for Mandatory Palestine and Israel included Erich Mendelsohn, Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson and Oscar Niemeyer. Over 1960-5 Isamu Noguchi was invited to design sculpture garden of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Philip Johnson designed Soreq Nuclear Research Centre (1956-9). This volume includes theory and projects by Frederick Kiesler, Alfred Neumann, Kahn and Niemeyer. There is discussion of significant buildings such as the Knesset, Israel Museum and Hebrew University.

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[Image: People’s culture house, Beersheba, 1955, architects: Zeev Rechter, Moshe Zarhi, Yaakov Rechter]

Later developments included Brutalism (Yafo City Hall (1957-65)) and I.M. Goodovitch’s saddle system, using undulating concrete slabs as roofs. There were advanced schemes that did not meet with success. The Ramot Polin housing (1972) of polygonal prefabricated cells met with considerable professional and press interest but was rejected by residents, who found the spaces impractical and unsettling. By the late 1960s native Israeli architects were rising to prominence.

The soft power of Israel is apparent in the official encouragement of Israeli architects to work in other states, particularly non-aligned countries in Africa. This was associated to Third Worldism and the Non-Aligned Movement and an attempt for Israel to position itself outside of the influence of the USA and USSR. Israel had more links to the USA than the USSR, not least because of USSR’s policy of engagement and support for Arab nations. Planning, concepts, consultancy and architects were exported to Africa and also Iraq and Iran. One of the most notable Israeli-led projects was the luxurious Abidjan Riviera hotel complex of the late 1960s, as part of Ivory Coast’s aspiration to become an international jet-set destination.

A serious and comprehensive survey, The Object of Zionism should become the foundational volume of any study of Israeli architecture.

 

Zvi Efrat, The Object of Zionism: The Architecture of Israel, Spector Books, 2018, cloth hardback, 951pp, fully illus., €62, ISBN 978 3959 051330

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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