“Reading de Chirico”, book review

cover de chirico

This dual-language large hardback catalogue for the exhibition “Reading Giorgio de Chirico” at Tornabuoni Art, London (closes 12 January 2018) includes essays, illustrations and plentiful information which throw much light on the exhibition. De Chirico wrote poetry, fiction, memoirs and art criticism. Some of the painter’s thoughts on art were formed in a poetic allusive manner akin to that of prose poems.

The inclusion of much written material is the reason for the exhibition’s title “Reading de Chirico”. Poems and letters exhibited are reproduced in the catalogue and translated. They include and Metaphysical poems and love letters to Cornelia, written at a time of romantic turmoil. The artist had just married his long-standing partner Raissa before separating from her. This period (1929-30) was also when he met his future second wife, Isabella. Two important letters dated from 1910 and 1911 are printed. These establish the date of the foundation of Metaphysical Art. Recent attempts to locate the origins of Metaphysical Art to 1909 – and to attribute the foundational ideas to de Chirico’s brother Alberto Savinio – have not been generally accepted. These letters bolster the case for the accepted history, namely that de Chirico commenced painting in a Metaphysical style in the summer of 1910 in Florence.

The Metaphysical Art journal has been publishing de Chirico’s writing (and writing about him, as well as letters to him) over the last decade in Italian, French and English. This has contributed to a wider understanding of de Chirico as a writer and the links between his writing and art. This catalogue and exhibition further that aim.

There are two articles by the de Chirico on lesser known contemporary artists and other more general pieces on de Chirico’s art. There is an angry polemic against the domination of Modernism. “No one raised a voice in defence of reality with regard to art or to life itself. Fake intellectuals, having renounced truth, which they considered lost, tried to expel reality from all manifestations of the spirit. These fake intellectuals of our unfortunate age…” In another article he explains the persistent melancholy of absence in his art.

I remember the strange and profound impression a picture seen in an old book bearing the title The World before the Deluge made upon me as a child. It represented a landscape of the tertiary period. Man had not yet appeared I have often meditated on the strange phenomenon of “human absence” in metaphysical aspects.

The lithographic illustrations of Mysterious Baths images for Cocteau’s Mythologie (1934) are reproduced in full in the catalogue. (They are displayed only partially visible in the exhibition vitrine.) Illustrations of works such as The Daughters of Minos (Antique Scene in Pink and Blue II) (1933) show just how peculiar they are. In this small painting one sees classical motifs on a generic shore, predominantly blue in hue, with discrete areas painted in monochrome red-pink and orange-pink. Like an optical illusion, it gives the impression of being a classical work or art while aggressively asserting it is nothing of the kind. It exists in two states: classical and Modern. In this instance, the modes are incompatible and contradictory. In terms of figural motifs and iconography it is classical; in terms of handling and palette it is Modern. They fluctuate.  When we consider one the other does not impinge upon us; as soon as we consider the other aspect the first is forgotten (or at least impossible to incorporate into our consideration). Like the famous optical illusion, we can see the old woman and the young woman in one picture but never at the same time. If de Chirico understood what he was doing in this painting (in terms of optical perception and modal schematism) is unclear.

An essay by Gavin Parkinson discusses the reception by the Surrealists of de Chirico’s writing and the artist’s views on Symbolism, Impressionism, Courbet and other art. Parkinson’s mention of the criticism of Magritte, de Chirico and Picabia’s “bad painting” cites de Chirico’s use of bright colour in the post-War variations of classic Metaphysical compositions as a conscious response to that criticism or even a reaction to Pop Art. Parkinson suggests that de Chirico’s “bad” colour was an attempt to combat the fashionable connoisseurship that generated demand for his Metaphysical paintings. It seems much more likely that the artist, bored and belittled by the requirement to paint replicas at the behest of dealers and collectors, was simply attempting to retain engagement during the painting process by exaggerating the colours. The aim was most likely an attempt to see how variation might intensify a feeling or introduce an element of unpredictability into the stultifying work. The powerful palette is an attempt to stimulate the artist himself.

In the Neo-Metaphysical period (1960s-1978) the painter needed to sustain his engagement and bring something new to established compositions. The addition of the Mysterious Baths, sun-on-easel and the sun/moon-cord motifs were a means to provide the painter with a syncretic language, vary his art and summarise his former periods in his last period. It seems a private choice, one detached from consideration of the debate over “bad art”, Pop Art or the expectations of others. The Neo-Metaphysical works are one of de Chirico’s most important achievements. With droll wit and disconcerting mental agility de Chirico reassembled his artistic world in a theatre of cosmological paradox which is deeply unsettling and to this day barely understood.

Katherine Robinson (ed.), Reading de Chirico, Forma Edizioni/Tornabuoni Art, 2017, hardback, 256pp, fully illus., English/Italian, £45, ISBN 978-88-99534-49-3

 

 

(This review will be attached to the exhibition review soon:  https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/reading-giorgio-de-chirico-exhibition-review/ )

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Death & Desire: Dalí & Schiaparelli, review

Schiaparelli_Dali[1]

(Image: details of Salvador Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli at Chez Lopez, Neuilly, 1950, (c) Universal Photo/SIPA; Image Rights of Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2017)

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was the very antithesis of the peintre maudit. He came from a comfortable bourgeois family, found acclaim and acceptance early in Paris and became the toast of Surrealist circles while in his mid-twenties. Later he found fame and riches in America in the late 1930s, staying there throughout the Second World War and only returned to Europe in 1948. In both Paris and America Dalí mixed with high society, which relished indulging its decadent side by patronising and promoting Dalí’s shocking art. Dalí’s patrons lived ostentatiously, using their entrees into the art world to acquire cutting-edge art and extravagant fashion. It was only natural that Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) would meet and share common interests. The meeting would lead to a number of fruitful collaborations and exchange of ideas over the years.

The exhibition “Dalí and Schiaparelli” at The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida (18 October 2017–14 January 2018) examines that collaboration between two stars of mid-century fashion and art. The exhibition includes paintings, drawings and prints by Dalí, many examples of Schiaparelli’s clothing and accessories, as well as jewellery, perfume bottles, photographs and publications relating to both of the creators. This is a review from the fittingly luxurious large-format catalogue.

Schiaparelli’s family was a line of distinguished Italian academics and scientists. After spells in Paris and London, then a period in New York (where she associated with the Dadaists who would later become the core of the Surrealist movement) Schiaparelli returned to Paris and began design work. Assisted by established couturier Paul Poiret, Schiaparelli began her solo career in Paris in 1927. Dalí’s debut exhibition in Paris, held in November 1929, with a catalogue introduction by André Breton, launched his career. Although Schiaparelli was older than Dalí, their careers in Paris commenced within two years of each other, within the world of the former Dadaists and the Surrealists.

Essayists in the catalogue point out that both her and Dalí were radicals who were devoted to the use of rigorous craft in the production of their unusual inventions. In Dalí’s case it was craft he personally learned through youthful independent studies and later at art school education; in Schiaparelli’s case she relied on the skills of craftsmen and others, as she never trained in the technical side of clothing production. Schiaparelli was an early adopter of artificial fibres and new materials, driven by the avant-garde aesthetic of her Surrealist friends. One of her closest friends was Gabrielle Picabia, first wife of the radical artist Francis Picabia.

Dalí and Schiaparelli’s first collaboration was a Schiaparelli telephone-rotary-dial powder compact, launched in 1935. The most famous collaboration was Schiaparelli’s High-heel shoe hat (1937). Dalí repurposed a high-heel shoe for his wife as a shocking novelty to be worn to a society ball; Schiaparelli refined the design and manufactured the hat in small numbers.

Gala Éluard Dalí (1894-1982), the artist’s wife, was an important link between designer and artist. Gala was obsessed with luxury, beauty and money and inevitably had a passion for haute couture. She had great influence control over Dalí, urging him to undertake work in order to make the maximum amount of money. He claimed to be financially illiterate and naïve. The evidence is that Gala was behind many of the artist’s business dealings and prompted some of the most questionable of his financially-motivated projects. While Dalí was avid for money, it seems that for him money was valuable mostly as a measure of fame, which he craved above all else. It was Gala who wanted the money for itself.

Before a social engagement, the painter introduced rips into one of Gala’s blouses and she wore it to the event. Subsequently, Schiaparelli made a dress with trompe l’oeil rips apparently revealing a pink under layer (1938). This same design was used on the cloth cover of the catalogue of Dalí’s 1979 Paris retrospective, considered to this day as one of the best publications on his art.

The intersection between art, fashion and money was the high-society ball. These lavish events allowed the aristocracy and newly rich to mix with stars and artists and to create a stir in society. Many attendees commissioned costumes from artists and a number of artists treated such occasions as a chance to make temporary art – or to become temporary art. (Leonor Fini was particularly known for her daring and beauty and used to make elaborate costumes for herself and a select few others.) The Dalís attended many society balls in the 1930s and 1940s, Gala sometimes wearing Schiaparelli couture. Gala wore a number of Dalí-inspired Schiaparelli outfits and hats and served as a proxy model, acting as a living link between artist and fashion designer. The events were covered by the press and thus acted as useful publicity for designers and artists.

Prominent photographers of the era documented the overlapping worlds of high society and fashion.  The catalogue includes a section of full-page photographs of the aristocracy, artists, actors and celebrities who the creators knew. Both creators worked with actors, Dalí painting stars (most notably Laurence Olivier) and Schiaparelli clothing stars of stage and screen. Dalí also worked sporadically on opera stage designs and costumes for performers. Included in the exhibition and catalogue are examples of the painter’s backdrops for operas, including Tristan and Isolde by Wagner, his favourite opera.

Both creators were wedded to the idea of expression through the expansion of technical parameters. Dalí experimented with early holograms, artist animation and tactile-assisted cinema. His installations, including the Bonwit Teller display and the World’s Fair of 1939, were innovatory though strictly speaking Surrealist exhibitions-cum-installations dated back to the 1920s. His lifting of imagery from the popular press and the use of ben-day dots has been led to critics hailing Dalí as a progenitor of Pop Art and Post-Modernism.

For her part, Schiaparelli was the first fashion designer to use zippers, certain artificial fibres and clear plastics. In terms of style, she introduced the wrap dress, wedge heels, power suits, jumpsuits and camouflage print as fashion. Her 1931 culotte designs scandalised Paris but soon gained a following among adventurous women. In her early career Schiaparelli favoured austere black and white. She introduced Shocking Pink in 1937 as a high-fashion colour; it would become her signature colour. Nineteen-thirty-seven was also the year she produced an organza dress in pale fabric which featured a painted lobster – a Dalinian motif.

1996.1_Aphrodisiac(Lobster)_Telephone[1]

(Image: Salvador Dalí, Aphrodisiac Telephone (1938), Plastic (Bakelite) and painted lobster, 7 x 12 x 4.5 inches, Collection of The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, FL; (c) Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017)

The design was reissued by the House of Schiaparelli in spring 2017. The catalogue illustrates new designs by the House of Schiaparelli, allowing readers to judge the influence of Surrealism and continuity from the design ethos of the house’s founder.

Both creators used motifs of insects, including ants, butterflies and grasshoppers. Dalí had genuine obsessions with ants and grasshoppers and they appeared in many early paintings. Schiaparelli used a transparent Rhodoid collar to hold insect jewellery. Her favourite motif was the butterfly.

Some clothing items included in the exhibition are true Surrealist statements, as peculiar as anything in a Surrealist painting. Boots with long fur (1938), and the later Woman’s sweater with long fur (1948), have long fur which makes them almost as impractical as Meret Oppenheim’s iconic Fur Teacup (1938). It is possible that Schiaparelli was inspired here by Oppenheim rather than Dalí. Schiaparelli’s designs flirt with the repulsive in the way so much Surrealism does.

Although the direction of influence seems to have been predominantly from artist to designer, there are instances where the direction is the other way. A Schiaparelli-style dress with a low-cut back appears in Dalí’s Woman with a Head of Roses (1935). It is possible that Schiaparelli’s fantasy of hiding her face behind a bouquet inspired Dalí’s flower-headed women, introduced in 1936.

Surrealism sought to blur the line between art and life. The Surrealist project of disrupting everyday life included the concept of wearable art, partly as a manifestation of the subconscious influence on our lives and also as an attempt to overturn established modes of thinking and acting. The use of unexpected objects as potential clothing was part of the Surrealist outlook on life. Mannequins were a staple of Surrealist art; one group exhibition consisted of Surrealist decoration of mannequins. (Mannequins had become objects of fascination since Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings of the 1910s.) It is perhaps not coincidental that the ideal exemplar of Surrealist beauty was the conjunction of a sewing machine and an umbrella, two items related to the creation of clothing and the protection of clothing from rain.

Both creators viewed the woman as an exotic object to be transformed and to be revealed through transformation. In Dalí’s case, the transformation is a metamorphosis. Dalí’s versions of Venus de Milo-with-drawers and woman-with-drawers motifs show the woman’s body as complex container. In the latter motif, the woman gazes into the open drawers of her torso in an act of introspection. The motif was translated by Schiaparelli into the Desk Suite (1936/7).

3._Dali's_sketch[1]

(Image: Salvador Dalí, Anthropomorphic Cabinet (undated), pencil on paper, Collection of Schiaparelli, (c) Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017)

4._Desk_suit_HC_FW_36_37[1]

(Image: Elsa Schiaparelli, Illustration of Bureau-Drawer Suit, Schiaparelli Haute Couture, (Fall/Winter 1936/7), courtesy of (c) Schiaparelli archives)

Gloves which have top tips of the fingers removed to reveal the nails below have a certain conceptual elegance, restating the idea of revealing parts which are expected to be covered by a clothing item.

There are many criticisms that can be levelled at Dalí but one of them is not lack of artistic ambition. His driving themes were beauty, temporality, fear of death, obsession with putrescence and the power of erotic desire. Comparatively speaking, Schiaparelli’s morbidity is less omnipresent. Her Skeleton dress (1938) is one of her most striking designs. A close-fitting black evening dress has ridges of padding which evoke the wearer’s bones beneath. It is a creation which fuses elegance and the macabre, something that can be seen in the work of other fashion designers including Alexander McQueen.

There are many parallels between the pair’s work in jewellery, perfumes and perfume bottles, though mostly this occurred late in their careers when they were not collaborating directly. The catalogue includes many quotes relating to the creators though there are no letters between them and one wonders what their personal relationship was and how they actually collaborated on specific projects. There is further investigation to be done in this area.

The catalogue is printed in an edition of 1,800 copies, of which 500 are hardback. Including generous illustration, essays and useful information, it is sure to become a collector’s item for committed Dalí fans, fashion aficionados and researchers on Surrealism and fashion.

 

John William Barger, Hank Hine, Dilys E. Blum, et al., Dalí and Schiaparelli, Salvador Dalí Museum, 275pp, 59 b&w/133 col. illus., paperback, $39.95, ISBN 978 0 9834799 9 4

“Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, exhibition review

I. Exhibition

dech4

(Image: “Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, Tornabuoni Art, London, installation view, 2017, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

“Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, the current exhibition at Tornabuoni Art, London (4 October 2017-12 January 2018) presents 24 paintings, two drawings and some lithographs in an overview of the Italian’s painterly output, with other documentary material. The complexity, accomplishment and breadth of the work here attest to the richness of de Chirico’s achievements.

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) is best known as the leading figure in the Italian Metaphysical Art movement, which had its heyday during the First World War. De Chirico established the style in 1910. There are two paintings here dating from that era: The Revolt of the Sage (1916; Estorick Collection) and The Great Tower (1915). Though Metaphysical Art was inspired by Italian art of the Early Renaissance (Uccello, Giotto, et al.), these two paintings demonstrate a Modernist audacity – the extreme format (the exaggerated vertical of the Tower) and the extreme close-up (The Revolt’s depiction of biscuits shown in the foreground of an ambiguous architectural setting).

De Chirico had been very familiar with Symbolism, having been a follower of Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin in his earliest years as a painter. This exhibition includes an early painting The Path (Temple of Apollo in Delphi) (1909) which employs the Swiss master’s typical gloomy local colour, flat non-directional lighting and disquieting atmosphere. The cult of Arnold Böcklin was intense and widespread in Europe in 1890s and 1900s, especially admiring of his five versions of The Isle of the Dead, which were best known through numerous reproduction prints and journal illustrations.

In 1919 de Chirico was one of the many Modernist artists who turned his back on the avant-garde and sought the comfort and security of Classical art, part the appel de l’ordre that promised a haven from the alienating modern world that had ravaged Europe. Just as Dada was metamorphosing into Surrealism and at a point when the early Surrealists were about idolise de Chirico’s Metaphysical art, he denounced Metaphysical Art and Modernism more generally and began to paint still-lifes, landscapes, horses, portraits and mythological scenes. He researched the materials and techniques of the Old Masters and Mannerists. He copied Classical art and painted his own mythological scenes in traditional style. A still-life with fish and another with fruit are typical works from the early 1920s. There is also a half-length nude of his wife Isa, painted in 1930.(1) It is complemented by a small self-portrait head.

Later de Chirico’s view on Metaphysical Art softened and he blended his disjointed motifs, Classical imagery and a Renoiresque touch and palette. The resultant beach scenes of nudes, antique figures, horses and ancient ruins are appealing and yet deceptively modern in their disjunctures and unusual colour combinations, including extensive passages of monochrome. However, the nagging suspicion is that the artist was indulging himself – and his viewers – too much. He repeated his motifs and compositions. Luckily, the examples here are varied and the monochrome aspect lends them a certain asperity that can be absent in other versions.

De Chirico became a Mannerist, Rococo painter and Romantic by turns and that shuffling of established anachronism can pall. De Chirico’s greatest weakness was his Old Master complex, the conceit that he only had to paint like the Old Masters to be considered an Old Master. He had skill and knowledge in abundance but it is ironic that the very art that would elevate him to the status of a Great Master was his accomplishments as a Metaphysical painter not as a recycler of Mannerism or Romanticism. The very art that was a unique contribution to Modernism was his entry into Parnassus. Did the artist ever recognise this one wonders?

Yet while de Chirico was indulging his Old Master complex he was also producing some radically modern and very unusual works. Warrior Mannequins (Two Archaeologists) (1926) is one of those experiments. Two fantastical figures fill the corner of a room. They are composed of architectural elements and wild pictorial components. The painting style is rough. There is evidence of radical reworking. It is a hard picture to love or even like but it shows terrific creativity and invention. It is bursting with strange ideas and improvisatory bravura. It will be a hard painting to sell, in many ways it is ugly and untypical, but it is as lively and puzzling as anything here. It is evidence of de Chirico’s mischievous spirit and confidence.

dech1

(Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Bagni misteriosi (Mysterious Baths) (1968), oil on canvas, 28.74 x 36.61 inch/73 x 93 cm, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

Another group of innovatory works from the inter-war years were the Mysterious Baths. In these paintings fantastically shaped baths filled with monochrome water animated by schematic zig-zag patterns (complete with multi-colour balls and changing huts) are distributed across de Chirico’s characteristic plains and piazzas. They are populated by undemonstrative bather-ciphers. These are more playful, puzzling and less decipherable than the earlier Metaphysical compositions.

Other common themes represented in the selection are mannequins of composite elements, gladiators and horse with rider. De Chirico painted at a general domestic scale; an exception is Divinities by the Sea (1936) at 122 x 244 cm. It shows gods and horses ranged among ruins on a shore. It is painted in near-monochrome with ground and sky in blue, appearing as a giant tinted drawing. The paint is applied very thinly. The use of board as a support is uncommon in de Chirico’s oeuvre.

dech3

(Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia con piedistallo vuoto (Italian Piazza with Empty Pedestal) (1955), oil on canvas, 21.65 x 13.97 inch/55 x 35.5 cm, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

Commercial pressures led de Chirico to start to paint copies, variants and – dare one say it? – pastiches of his classic Metaphysical pictures for the post-War market. Such was the demand for classic Metaphysical paintings that de Chirico even dated paintings with false early dates. One Italian dealer even stipulated in a contract which compositions had to be duplicated and at which sizes. One wonders what de Chirico thought when he was painting these duplicates. How did he feel – humiliated, bored, proud or just numb? Did he derive any pleasure from remaking his youthful works? Did he invest any of himself in these duplicates? How much does any painter invest of himself in anything he makes?

This exhibition includes letters, photographs, lithographic prints and contemporary publications related to the artist, which are presented in vitrines in the two levels of the gallery. De Chirico wrote poems, stories and novels and some of those publications are displayed here in early editions. A catalogue has also been published, which I have not seen. This exhibition provides a fair survey of de Chirico’s art in all its diverse, perplexing and surprising complexity.

(1) The catalogue establishes that the subject of this painting is actually Cornelia not Isa.

II. Catalogue

cover de chirico

This dual-language large hardback catalogue for the exhibition “Reading Giorgio de Chirico” at Tornabuoni Art, London (closes 12 January 2018) includes essays, illustrations and plentiful information which throw much light on the exhibition. De Chirico wrote poetry, fiction, memoirs and art criticism. Some of the painter’s thoughts on art were formed in a poetic allusive manner akin to that of prose poems.

The inclusion of much written material is the reason for the exhibition’s title “Reading de Chirico”. Poems and letters exhibited are reproduced in the catalogue and translated. They include and Metaphysical poems and love letters to Cornelia, written at a time of romantic turmoil. The artist had just married his long-standing partner Raissa before separating from her. This period (1929-30) was also when he met his future second wife, Isabella. Two important letters dated from 1910 and 1911 are printed. These establish the date of the foundation of Metaphysical Art. Recent attempts to locate the origins of Metaphysical Art to 1909 – and to attribute the foundational ideas to de Chirico’s brother Alberto Savinio – have not been generally accepted. These letters bolster the case for the accepted history, namely that de Chirico commenced painting in a Metaphysical style in the summer of 1910 in Florence.

The Metaphysical Art journal has been publishing de Chirico’s writing (and writing about him, as well as letters to him) over the last decade in Italian, French and English. This has contributed to a wider understanding of de Chirico as a writer and the links between his writing and art. This catalogue and exhibition further that aim.

There are two articles by the de Chirico on lesser known contemporary artists and other more general pieces on de Chirico’s art. There is an angry polemic against the domination of Modernism. “No one raised a voice in defence of reality with regard to art or to life itself. Fake intellectuals, having renounced truth, which they considered lost, tried to expel reality from all manifestations of the spirit. These fake intellectuals of our unfortunate age…” In another article he explains the persistent melancholy of absence in his art.

I remember the strange and profound impression a picture seen in an old book bearing the title The World before the Deluge made upon me as a child. It represented a landscape of the tertiary period. Man had not yet appeared I have often meditated on the strange phenomenon of “human absence” in metaphysical aspects.

The lithographic illustrations of Mysterious Baths images for Cocteau’s Mythologie (1934) are reproduced in full in the catalogue. (They are displayed only partially visible in the exhibition vitrine.) Illustrations of works such as The Daughters of Minos (Antique Scene in Pink and Blue II) (1933) show just how peculiar they are. In this small painting one sees classical motifs on a generic shore, predominantly blue in hue, with discrete areas painted in monochrome red-pink and orange-pink. Like an optical illusion, it gives the impression of being a classical work or art while aggressively asserting it is nothing of the kind. It exists in two states: classical and Modern. In this instance, the modes are incompatible and contradictory. In terms of figural motifs and iconography it is classical; in terms of handling and palette it is Modern. They fluctuate.  When we consider one the other does not impinge upon us; as soon as we consider the other aspect the first is forgotten (or at least impossible to incorporate into our consideration). Like the famous optical illusion, we can see the old woman and the young woman in one picture but never at the same time. If de Chirico understood what he was doing in this painting (in terms of optical perception and modal schematism) is unclear.

An essay by Gavin Parkinson discusses the reception by the Surrealists of de Chirico’s writing and the artist’s views on Symbolism, Impressionism, Courbet and other art. Parkinson’s mention of the criticism of Magritte, de Chirico and Picabia’s “bad painting” cites de Chirico’s use of bright colour in the post-War variations of classic Metaphysical compositions as a conscious response to that criticism or even a reaction to Pop Art. Parkinson suggests that de Chirico’s “bad” colour was an attempt to combat the fashionable connoisseurship that generated demand for his Metaphysical paintings. It seems much more likely that the artist, bored and belittled by the requirement to paint replicas at the behest of dealers and collectors, was simply attempting to retain engagement during the painting process by exaggerating the colours. The aim was most likely an attempt to see how variation might intensify a feeling or introduce an element of unpredictability into the stultifying work. The powerful palette is an attempt to stimulate the artist himself.

In the Neo-Metaphysical period (1960s-1978) the painter needed to sustain his engagement and bring something new to established compositions. The addition of the Mysterious Baths, sun-on-easel and the sun/moon-cord motifs were a means to provide the painter with a syncretic language, vary his art and summarise his former periods in his last period. It seems a private choice, one detached from consideration of the debate over “bad art”, Pop Art or the expectations of others. The Neo-Metaphysical works are one of de Chirico’s most important achievements. With droll wit and disconcerting mental agility de Chirico reassembled his artistic world in a theatre of cosmological paradox which is deeply unsettling and to this day barely understood.

Katherine Robinson (ed.), Reading de Chirico, Forma Edizioni/Tornabuoni Art, 2017, hardback, 256pp, fully illus., English/Italian, £45, ISBN 978-88-99534-49-3

 

 

Degas: Themes and Finish

Jane Munro, Degas: A Passion for Perfection, Yale University Press, 2017, 272pp, 250 col./mono illus., hb, £40, ISBN 978 0 300 22823 6

Daphne Barbour & Suzanne Quillen Lomax (eds.), Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, Volume 3: Degas, National Gallery of Art, distr. Yale University Press, 2017, 196pp, fully illus., pb, £50, ISBN 978 0 300 23011 6

 

To mark the centenary of the death of Degas, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge is holding an exhibition of his works (closes 14 January 2018), which will subsequently tour to Denver Art Museum (18 February to 20 May 2018). This is a review of the catalogue of that exhibition. Compared to the blockbuster shows of Degas in recent years, this is an intimate affair. It combines work from Cambridge and Denver with a few loans from other collections. Cambridge purchased a number of pieces from the posthumous auctions of Degas’s studio, work selected by John Maynard Keynes.

Items in the exhibition are divided into rough groups: Degas and England, copies of the masters, monotypes, landscapes, nudes, dancers and sculpture. There is a section of the catalogue and exhibition given over to Degas’s influence on following British artists. Degas made a handful of visits to England but unlike his youthful stay in Italy (admittedly a longer period) these made no discernible impression on his art. Degas rarely mentioned his English sojourns. Like his predecessor Gericault, Degas must have been impressed by the British passion for horse racing but whether it left much of an impression beyond that is an open question.

Although Degas did not win a scholarship to the French School in Rome, he had enough of an income to tour independently. He travelled with Moreau and they sometimes copied the same paintings and depicted each other. Degas spent time in Naples where he had family. Degas was the most academically gifted and inclined of the Impressionists and revered Ingres, himself a devotee of the Old Masters. The young Degas modelled himself on Ingres, using the same materials, spending hundreds of hours drawing, learning traditional techniques and acquiring the skills expected of an academic painter. This included long sessions copying paintings and sculpture in museums, including Greek and Roman sculpture, Donatello, Veronese and others. The exhibition includes copies by Ingres, showing parallels between the two painters.

Some of the most unfamiliar works are those actually typical to painters on a grand tour of Italy. The small landscape sketches in oils are acutely observed and sensitively painted views of Naples, Rome and other locales. As was common, these are painted on paper for convenience and later pasted on board for presentation. This was an easily portable medium though it is discouraged because of the technique’s unsuitability on both optical and conservation terms. However, the expediency was used for works that were not intended to be public and were only created as supporting studio material to be transcribed or adapted to more permanent works.

Degas never much cared for landscape. As for working en plein air, Degas derided painters who did so. Allegedly he had a good memory for landscape and produced his landscapes in monotype from memory in the studio. His adaptation of landscape as body suggests that forms rather than light or colour were a preoccupation and that he was willing to adapt in order to transform actual landscapes into more anthropomorphic images. One wonders whether those who claimed Degas had a good memory for landscape actually compared art to specific places. Most likely Degas did have a good visual memory but clearly the important thing was how the memory of the view seemed and how it might be adapted to suit the artist’s purpose, not the veracity of the art compared to the source.

Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, by Degas

(Image: Edgar Degas (18341917), Italian Landscape seen through an Arch, c.1856–9, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 36.7 x 32 cm, Howard and Nancy Marks)

So these landscape sketches, executed en situ, are anomalies in Degas’s practice as a whole but completely congruent with a young artist of the time. Degas used these views of legendary sites of history and culture as sources to be recorded the way he assiduously drew paintings of the Old Masters in the museums of Italy. Degas tended to use landscape as mere background for a subject wholly other and which was his real interest. In early paintings such as Scene from the Middle Ages it is obvious that Degas had no engagement with landscape and would have dispensed with it altogether if he had had the chance. (And he eventually would.) It was just a short step from Young Spartans Exercising (1860), with its perfunctory landscape, to Portrait of Mlle Fiocre in the ballet “La Source” (c. 1867-8), with its artificial landscape in the form of a painted backdrop. The play of artifice and verisimilitude allowed Degas to turn his limitation into a feature. He no longer had to be concerned about “getting things right” when flatness and lack of integration became an absolutely truthful presentation of stage backdrops. He would have entirely dispensed with landscape painting if he had not had to use views as part of his paintings of horses and jockeys. One wonders if Degas’s deteriorating eyesight played any part in his rejection of landscape as a subject for his mature art. The artist, his long vision seriously impaired, simply could not see well enough to paint them. It seems likely that physical limitations accorded with his artistic preoccupations rather than the other way round.

On the evidence of these oil sketches Degas was a competent landscapist in the line of Corot and Ingres. Watercolour studies of rocks are also included.

Monotype printing, where a design is drawn in ink on a metal plate before being run through a press with paper which transfers ink to paper, was one of Degas’s principal means of artistic expression. His monotypes outnumber his prints of other types. Degas often reprinted from the same plate a second impression, which is always lighter than the first print. Degas would usually modify the second impression with pastel, gouache and body colour. These alterations sometimes became so involved and extensive that additions entirely cover the underlying print. The atmosphere, emphasis and appearance of print could be radically changed, as was apparent in the recent MoMA exhibition, New York which included comparative examples of first and second impression monotypes. (For my full review of that exhibition see “Degas monotypes”, The Burlington Magazine, vol. CLVIII, no. 1360, pp. 589-90; July 2016.)

Subjects of monotypes on display include landscapes, horse-and-jockey and street scene. A comparative print by VLN Lepic is included to show how free and expressive the prints of the French C19th monotype revival could be. French monotypes of this period share in common the approach of expressive inking of etchings, wherein plates were inked in highly individual and expressive ways which altered the appearance of the original design and introduced new elements. This made each impression as individual as a unique drawing, quite at variance with the usual practice of printers attempting to make an edition of an etching as uniform and neutral as possible.

Nudes, dancers and sculpture are related in Degas’s art. Dancers were often drawn nude – either from life or imagined – before being used in paintings and the nudes of women washing and drying often include difficult, peculiar and transient poses that echo those of dancers either in actions or resting and stretching. Degas figurines in wire, clay, Plastiline and coloured beeswax were often of dancers in motion. Some poses were so unstable that Degas had to introduce props to keep the figures upright. Other sculptures were of horses. Britain has few really good Degas pastels of nude figures, so the exhibition has usefully drawn upon American loans. One can see many poses reoccurring in different mediums and figures repeated in pictures. Degas used tracing paper to experiment with positioning, tracing and reversing. He also used tracing paper as the ground for large-scale finished pastels, an unconventional choice which has caused some conservation issues for collectors. Using a slick surface for a powdery medium is problematic; Degas relied on applying extensive layers of fixative throughout the drawing process to keep the pastel in position. Using water sometimes turned the pastel to a paste which he would manipulate with brushes, creating a fusion of wet and dry techniques.

The sculptures are discussed more extensively in Facture: Conservation, Science, Art History, Volume 3: Degas, published by the National Gallery of Art, featuring works from its unique holding of original Degas statuettes.

Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, by Degas

(Image: Edgar Degas (18341917), Arabesque over the Right Leg, Left Arm in Front, First Study, c.188295coloured wax over a commercially prefabricated metal wire armature, attached to a wooden base, 23.5 x 13.7 x 27.5 cm, © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

The posthumous repairing, editioning and distribution of bronze casts of Degas is involved and covers a multitude of archival, legal and moral issues about the reproduction of sculpture. These questions are of great financial importance considering the value of the pieces and the proliferation of fakes (or at least “unauthorised copies”). Degas considered casting some of his figures but never did; he exhibited only one sculpture during his lifetime, the famous Little Dancer aged Fourteen (1878-81), at the 1881 Impressionist exhibition. It was Degas’s heirs who decided to edition the statues in bronze and sell them.

The generously sized illustrations in the Cambridge catalogue allow us to get a good feeling for the originals. Both Facture and the Cambridge catalogue include x-rays which display the armature and internal components of the originals. Degas’s gimcrack, improvisatory approach to sculpture is apparent in evidence of hasty repairs, scraps of cloth and cork used as bulk and numerous breakages. Degas was apparently serious about his sculptural practice but treated the objects themselves in a rather casual manner. Extensive repairs were needed to many of the figures before they could be cast and some figures were just a jumble of fragments. It is fascinating to see the nails and wire holding the figures to their wooden bases and all the other touches of the artist which are obscured in the bronze casts.

There is debate about how finished the statues and the paintings are. Degas’s art is a difficult to assess in terms of finish. He left some works unfinished, exhibited art that seemed incomplete, revised finished work and wanted to “re-touch” sold pictures in private collectors (often to disastrous results). For discussion on that point, the bronzes and possible restorer intervention in a pastel, see my discussion of Facture on ArtWatch UK’s website here: http://artwatch.org.uk/degas-and-the-problem-of-finish/

For the general reader A Passion for Perfection is a good overview of Degas’s output, with new observations on his themes and techniques. Facture is an essential publication for scholars and collectors of Degas’s art.

18 October 2017

Getting into Hemingway’s Head

“On the morning of 2 July 1961, Ernest Hemingway took his favourite shotgun and shot himself in the head at his home in rural Idaho. He had finally done it. He had threatened suicide, described the suicides of others and even play-acted it with empty guns. He had been talked out of suicide, and physically restrained from doing it, twice before. Dogged by declining health, difficulty in writing and now a chronic writer’s block, Hemingway chose death. He was haunted by the knowledge that his father had shot himself. Two of Hemingway’s siblings would later commit suicide, with suicide being the suspected cause of death for another sibling. Suicide was a hereditary risk for the Hemingways.

“In Hemingway’s Brain, Andrew Farah, a clinical psychiatric practitioner, has analysed the causes of the mental decline that precipitated Hemingway’s suicide and has come up with a new diagnosis.

“Born in 1899, Hemingway lived a life that was physically precarious. Sometimes due to accident, sometimes by placing himself in dangerous situations, Hemingway courted danger and death. This was in his character and it underpinned a heroic persona that found its way into his writings. As a boxer, deep-sea angler, big-game hunter, trainee bullfighter, war correspondent and hard-drinker, Hemingway lived a life that transcended the macho and became epic.

“During the First World War in northern Italy, Hemingway was wounded by a mortar explosion and hit by machine-gun bullets. He suffered shrapnel and bullet wounds and experienced concussion…”

Read the full review online on Spiked website, 28 July 2017, here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/getting-into-hemingways-head/20130#.WXtJioTyvIU

America after the Fall

“America between the wars (and specifically between the Crash of 1929 and the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack) was at a crossroads. The economic boom and expansion of American power following victory in the First World War had led to prosperity and optimism for many in the 1920s. The Crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression and – in a way – a Great Retreat. America First, isolationism and a backlash against globalism and Modernism caused Americans to view modern and foreign influences with mistrust. A new exhibition, America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, at the Royal Academy, explores American art at this crossroads.

“It includes pictures by some of the big names of American realist painting and includes an American icon: Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930). Although it is seen as typical of American homespun simplicity and Puritan honesty, the male figure is Wood’s dentist dressed as a farmer. The picture is subtle, well-painted and tinged by irony; it deserves its iconic status not only because of its popular appeal but also because of its artistry.

“Wood was part of the Regionalist movement, a group of artists who sought to depict American life and landscapes in a realist manner, often with sentimental or nostalgic overtones…”

Read the full review online at Spiked, 5 May 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/america-after-the-fall/19775#.WQxuoWkrLIU

Lucio Fontana, Constellations and Injured Bodies

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(Image: Lucio Fontana, Pillola (1961-5), polished and lacquered copper, 36 x 22 x 40cm. Image (c) M&L Fine Art, London.)

Lucio Fontana: From the Earth to the Cosmos, M&L Fine Art, 15 Old Bond Street, London W1 (7 March-12 May 2017). Catalogue available.

M&L Fine Art is a new London exhibition venue which is a joint project of two Italian galleries. The current exhibition, Lucio Fontana: From the Earth to the Cosmos, brings together work from different phases of the career of Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) as a sculptor. It starts with a maquette the Italian-Argentinian sculptor made for a public commission in Italy. The bronze cast of two rearing horses (1936, no. 1) shows Fontana’s directness, lack of artifice and ability to convey an impression of energy.

Polychrome ceramics of the 1940s and early 1950s display the theatrical and baroque side to Fontana, which may have been imbued through his training and the influence of his sculptor father. These glazed, vigorously moulded figures are speckled by highlights, which give them a strongly pictorial appearance. In the large plates or plaques embellished with high relief motifs and scorings we notice a demonstration of Fontana’s hypertactility. His works are unusually tactile in form, baroque in character, full of flowing energy. The scene of a bull fight (executed at the same time as the early Spatial Concept (Concetto spaziale) series) is a masterpiece of dynamic form.

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(Image: Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale (1954), terracotta, 25 x 32cm. Image (c) M&L Fine Art, London.)

The most typical works are Spatial Concept works, started in the early 1950s. Those in the exhibition are fired clay tablets which have been punctured and scored while wet. In the 1954 example, white glaze has been applied to the holes, giving the impression of stars radiating light. The impression is further confirmed by gouaches on paper on the subject of constellations which were made as illustrations for the volume of poems Il prato del silenzio by Lina Angioletti. In these simple pieces the black void is punctuated by white dots, dotted lines and slashes. These are Fontana’s meditations on cosmic energy and spatial orders. The drawing-paintings balance chromatic austerity and formal exuberance.

The more highly coloured ceramics (Concetto spaziale: Natura morta (1957, nos. 15 and 16)) are altogether less successful. Restrained coloured forms on white discs look like nothing so much as nouvelle cuisine in ceramic shorthand. The glare of the areas of white and strongly coloured motifs work against each other and strain the eye, not least because the relief forms are unclear. (A case of Bataille’s informe revolting the eye which seeks clarity and order.) The more chromatically restrained yet dynamically energetic reliefs on circular supports – with their slashes of high relief and spatters of glaze – are very satisfying (1956, nos. 13 and 14). They are brusque and elegant, energetic and circumscribed.

The brightly coloured lacquer-surface ovoid forms dominated by single straight slashes are the Pillolas (1961-5, no. 20, red version and white version). As well as being the sculptures that come closest to Fontana’s slashes in canvases, these pieces (designed to be produced as multiples in different colours) are homages to industrial manufacturing and scientific progress. (Apparently, Fontana was impressed by the social liberation that contraceptive pills provided.) These Pillolas are mounted on rods above bases, similar to scientific models, something reinforced by the perfection of the surfaces. Even the slashes are immaculate.

The Pillolas can be interpreted in different ways. They could be seen as stagings of incisions (the creation of objects designed to carry or hold incisions). They could be seen as meditations on exteriority and interiority of forms. The incisions reveal the interiors of the body (or hint at it, they are inscrutably dark) but by doing so they literally make the interior a concave exterior of a form which no longer has a hermetically sealed interior. That is what makes them paradoxical. By ostensibly showing us the interior of a body, the very displaying of that interior eliminates that interior by making the interior part of the exterior which just happens to be extremely concave and illegible.

One could also see the holes as motifs. They are paradoxical kinds of motifs in that their only presence resides in the concentrated instances of an absence of ground.

Fontana, concetto spaziale, 1960-65

(Image: Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale (1960-5), terracotta, 21 x 45 x 21 cm. Image (c) M&L Fine Art, London.)

The most surprising work in the exhibition is Concetto spaziale (1960-5, no. 19). The black, terracotta ovoid form (a kind of Euclidean and Platonic solid) is puckered by a line of gouges and a single curving incised line is very sensual. The tiniest of wrinkles on the surface resemble skin, or the processed skin of leather; an impression which is deepened by the delicate soft surface texture of the whole of the body. It is the most visually arresting of the works here.

The aesthetics of the cuts in the exhibited pieces is significant. There is the slit, the line, the hole, the wrinkled hole, the gouge, the puckered rip, the partially incomplete injury (the scratch, the scuff, the divot). It is hard to observe these markings as anything other than violent and anything other than corporeal. One is reminded of bodily injuries, surgical incisions, orifices, soft bodies afflicted by distortions. This is especially true of the forms in soft clay, less so for cuts in smooth hard surfaces, still less for slits in canvases, least of all for holes in paper. Fontana may have publicly discussed ideas of cosmology and atomic science, but the cuts and punctures in soft clay are often viewed of proxies for flesh. This does not seem an invalid response to the pieces. Our responses to seeing a hard object smashed or damaged by a blow is very different to how we see these pieces.

Our first response to all art is as viewers inhabiting human bodies, with bodily knowledge and concerns. We automatically relate material resembling flesh in terms of flesh, our own and that of others we have known.

When we view visibly and humanly manipulated material we understand how it feels to make such manipulations. We imagine making those marks. We mentally re-enact the manipulations and thus we experience a kind of theatre of the imagination where we participate in making the object before us. We imagine holding the stick and stabbing the clay tablet; we imagine holding the gouge and goring the perfect form; we imagine holding the knife and slashing the canvas. We are artist surrogates and the object is something we have – in our theatre of imagination – made. We take the art personally because we feel able to have done the act that made the art; we have imagined making it; we feel responsible for the art. Mentally, we run our hands over the surface, noticing the clamminess of the wet clay under our hands; we weigh the objects; we feel the tools in our hands. There is no mystery. It is our art. The only odd thing is that somehow the work we made in our theatre of the imagination happens to be on a plinth and happens to be venerated as art. Everything about it is fathomable and prosaic except that step of status elevation.

This well-chosen and carefully displayed exhibition reminds us of some of the fundamentals of what art is and how it operates.

26 April 2017