Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné

Kay Sage Catalogue Raisonne von

There has been a boom in publications and exhibitions relating to the female Surrealists in recent years. Leonora Carrington, Claude Cahun, Leonor Fini, Lee Miller and Aileen Agar have all benefitted from academics, curators and writers wanting to break new ground. Dorothea Tanning’s retrospective opens in London early in 2019. The latest figure to receive reappraisal is American artist Kay Sage. The imposing and lavish Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné finally makes available all known works by this intriguing and little understood figure.

Katherine Linn Sage (1898-1963), called Kay Sage and Kay Sage Tanguy, was born in New York State. At a young age she travelled in Europe with her family. She moved frequently, living an international lifestyle in New York, Washington DC and Rapallo and Rome in Italy, studying art as she did so. After a period of academic realism, Sage took up a Modernist style with reduced, geometric, semi-abstract forms. In 1936 she moved to Paris and committed to Surrealism. She deliberately did not meet the Surrealists in person until she considered she had painted enough work to be accepted on its merits. In 1938 she exhibited her Surrealist paintings and met the Surrealists. She was impressed both artistically and romantically by Yves Tanguy (1900-55), who was well disposed to her and her art. They began an affair. At the outbreak of war, the well-connected Sage (who knew Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford and T.S. Eliot) organised a fund to support the evacuation of artists from France. The couple fled France for New York City, where they married in 1940. They later moved from New York City to Woodbury, Connecticut, where they spent the rest of their lives.

Sage’s paintings are notable for an absence of figures. Her paintings typically show unidentified geometric objects, structures of lattices and rods and drapery set in imaginary landscapes with far-distant horizons. Sometimes there are personages wrapped in rumpled drapery. Sage’s best works – the mature paintings of landscapes occupied by a few elements, lit by harsh raking light – are locations one inhabits. JG Ballard often used the landscapes settings of Delvaux and Dalí as backgrounds in his stories but in many ways Sage’s mental landscapes are ideal analogues for Ballard’s harsh alien terrains.

Sage’s visions are bleak and arid. They are neat worlds – vast expanses of immaculate desert and steppe. (As an individual, Sage was compulsively tidy.) Even the seas seem orderly and dry. (You have never seen drier water.) These are vistas that have never seen a drop of rain fall or a blade of grass grow. If any beings ever inhabited these places, they are long gone, leaving only enigmatic structures and the detritus of obscure activity. Her visions are also static. The drapery she painted never seemed to be captured in movement. Everything is frozen. There is a touch of depressive paralysis to the art – that sense that change is both impossible and futile. The pleasure one gets is the complete immersion in a world utterly fixed, clear, dry and sparse. It is asperity in paint.

The comparison with Tanguy’s lunar/submarine terrains populated by biomorphic and petrological objects is unavoidable. Sage knew Tanguy’s art before she met him and her unpeopled world is related to his vision. Both were meticulous in technique – the oneiric or veristic branch of Surrealist painting. What distinguished her art from that of Tanguy is Tanguy’s multivalence. Tanguy’s worlds could microcosms or macrocosms, desert plain or seabed, something alien, ancient or many millions of years hence in a post-human universe. Sage’s world is human-proximate: these are potentially liveable places with signs of human (or pseudo-human) activity. The very indication of human life makes these deserted settings even bleaker. Sage’s palette was drab, exploiting the emotional muteness of earth colours, half-tones and greys. Her paintings are rarely enlivened by the rich colour that one finds in Tanguy’s biomorphs, and then only in small areas. Psychological research shows that individuals experiencing clinical depression are less receptive to colour than non-depressives are and Sage’s muted palette seems indicative of psychological numbness and isolation.

Another touchstone in evaluating Sage’s art is relating it to that of de Chirico, who influenced so many of the Surrealists. In de Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings we encounter everyday objects that carry the associations and emotional connections of their usual existence. In Sage’s paintings we encounter materials rather than objects. The materials form structures that are potentially useful but their uses are obscure to us; the structures might actually be useless. There is no way for us to understand the functions of the structures. Sage shares with de Chirico a predilection for bright sunlight, long shadows, clean lines and deep pictorial recession. Sage was closest to de Chirico’s Metaphysical art in the 1937-40 when she was formulating her mature style.

Sage takes de Chirico to an extreme by mostly eliminating figures. One of the few exceptions – and it is a notable one – is Le Passage (1956). This shows an adolescent woman with her bared back turned towards us, who looks out over a strange and desolate landscape. It is probably her most reproduced work, which is understandable. However, it is atypical and anyone seeking similar works in this catalogue will be disappointed. There are no other such combinations of realistic figure and Surrealist landscape. (One suspects that had she pursued such a line she would have achieved more prominence.) There are paintings of subdued light with shreds of cloud or fog (Tomorrow is Never (1955)). The best of Sage’s paintings are already known and reproduced; most of these are in American museums: In the Third Sleep (1944), Men Working (1951), Quote, Unquote (1958). A number of paintings, which were sold from early exhibitions, have not been located or photographed, so there may be a handful of fine Sage paintings in private collections, waiting to emerge.

It is accurate to say that Tanguy’s reputation overshadowed that of Sage but it is also unarguable that Tanguy’s art was more important to Surrealism – indeed it influenced Sage’s art. Tanguy’s art was innovative and came to the fore in the mid-1920s, when the movement came into existence, therefore it is natural that Tanguy was more prominent than Sage. Sage was devoted to Tanguy’s art and seems not to have resented his prominence. After his death she spent a lot of time to cataloguing and conserving his art. She seems very proud of her association with an artist she considered great. What this catalogue confirms is that Sage was also a serious and individual artist and that her painting deserves to be more well-known. How much Sage’s own choices played in limiting the dissemination of her art is not clear. She had solo exhibitions in New York and Paris and was included in Surrealist group exhibitions. The lack of sensational content (no burning giraffes, floating rocks or somnambulant nudes) definitely meant her art was less eye catching than those of her colleagues. One could not say that Sage has been treated any less well than Wols or Pierre Roy, two other lesser known Surrealists, and there is no indication her gender has contributed to her secondary status.

Kay_Sage_spine_shot

A detailed chronology and Mary Ann Caws’s introductory essay covering the life and work of Sage are followed by the catalogue section. The art is separated into oil paintings, collages, works on paper and objects; a selection of early academic works are reproduced; the comprehensive exhibition history, bibliography and index round up the book. Illustrations of the paintings are full-page, facing catalogue data. A handful of pictures have no known illustrations or only older black-and-white photographs. Generally, the reproductions are good and data is thorough.

One usually finds that painters produce a lot of drawings – scraps of visual notation, thumbnail scratches of ideas, studies of details, technical designs, compositional sketches, fully worked compositions and so forth. Kay Sage was not that type of painter. Her drawings were independent from her painting activity. The drawings and collages catalogued function are highly finished and act as independent pictures and there are relatively few of them. No artist’s prints are mentioned in the text. The objects Sage made are small, often in frames and include found objects. Some are ludic and pleasing but none of the objects have the gravity of the paintings. The drawings and collages do not attempt to replicate the pictorial completeness of the paintings.

The chronology includes photographs of the artist and her exhibitions. The Surrealists feature largely in that chronology. Sage and Tanguy travelled to Sedona, Arizona to visit Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. Sage and Andre Breton disliked each other. Breton and Tanguy had been close but Tanguy’s desertion of his first wife to marry Sage cooled the men’s relationship. The fact that Tanguy chose to remain in the USA after the war rather than return to France with the other formerly exiled artists was something Breton took as a patriotic slight. When, in 1953, Tanguy and Sage came to France for an exhibition of Tanguy’s art, Breton did not come to the gallery but instead rather aloofly suggested Tanguy make an appointment to visit him at his Parisian apartment. The couple did not visit Breton and never returned to France.

In 1955 Tanguy died. Sage entered a prolonged depression and this marked a long and permanent decline. Plagued by health issues, she became more reclusive than she had been. Her eyesight was seriously impaired by cataracts. Multiple operations were either unsuccessful or only partially successful. Unable to make the precise and clear paintings – the last of her around 200 oil paintings is dated 1958 – Sage turned to making sculptural objects and writing poetry. She had an affinity for verse and that verbal flair is apparent in her titles; the evolution was a natural one, albeit forced. Sage worked on an unpublished memoir China Eggs, covering her life before she joined the Surrealists. In 1962, fellow expatriate Surrealist Kurt Seligmann (the artist who introduced Sage to Surrealism) died in a hunting accident. He slipped on ice and shot himself with Tanguy’s hunting rifle. Sage took it as a premonition. Days after she had seen her third book of poems through to publication and posted inscribed copies to acquaintances, Sage locked herself in her bedroom and shot herself through the heart. Her final written words were “L’extinction des lumières inutiles” (extinction of useless lights).

A lot of care has been put into the design and production of this catalogue, which is likely to contribute to Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné becoming a prized collector’s piece as well as a useful reference work. The metallic-sateen-style cloth covering gives the book a touch of shimmering elusiveness, which is fitting for the artist, and the pictorial slipcase is sturdy and attractive. Sage appears to us here as a secondary but significant painter of the French Surrealist movement and this publication is sure to secure her reputation as a fastidious and imaginative creator. For any comprehensive library on Surrealism, this title should be a necessary addition.

 

Mary Ann Caws, Stephen Robeson Miller, Jessie Sentivan (ed.), Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné, Delmonico/Prestel, 2018, cloth hardback in slipcase, 520pp, fully col. illus., US$ 165/£120, ISBN 978 3 7913 5785 0

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

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The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature

RH International Beat Literature_2nd Proof-2

As the last unpublished writings of the original Beat Generation (Burroughs, Corso, Ginsberg and Kerouac, plus others) reach print, the memoirs of their most distant associates become public and text-critical editions of classic texts are issued, the seams of iconic writers become exhausted. Notwithstanding the academic study of ever more obscure aspects of those writers and application of new theoretical systems of interpretation, the scholarly searchlight inevitably moves to unfamiliar territory. In terms of the Beats, the unfamiliar is foreign writers who were liberated by the Beat example of free verse, Buddhist mysticism, sexual freedom, drug use and radical politics.

The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature is a survey of the non-American Beat writers, written by multiple specialists, divided by country. Many of the specialists are natives of these countries and understand their subjects from the inside. These texts have been marshalled by Professor A. Robert Lee, an authority of the subject of Beat literature and author and editor of previous landmark studies.

The core first-generation Beats travelled relatively widely and some lived abroad for periods. All lived long enough to become famous and lauded outside of their homeland. In old age, Burroughs and Ginsberg toured – reading their writings, signing books, attending events, teaching classes and performing various public duties which brought them into direct contact with fans and allies. Yet Beatism is not a socially transmittable disease. As Lee sets out in the book’s introduction, the Beat movement spread directly through books, newspapers, chapbooks and fanzines, quite independent of the proximate presence of the writers. Indirectly, it spread through films, documentaries, the lyrics of singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Jim Morrison and – most loosely – the pop-culture caricature of the Beatnik.

The definition of “Beat” in this handbook is somewhat elastic. Lee specifies no exact parameters for the authors. Is Beat a discrete period or is it open ended? Is Beat a movement (with a circumscribed set of stylistic tools, thematic concerns and political tenets) or is Beat an affiliation, tendency, influence or (in the most cynical light) simply mercenary appropriation of iconic cultural production of a past era? There is no manifesto, no defining compilation or event, no strict criteria for inclusion, no school, no necessity for apprenticeship and no arbiter’s blessing to confer Beatitude upon supplicants. Or rather, there are myriad manifestoes, compilations, events, criteria, schools, apprenticeships and arbiters – none authoritative.

The editor has allowed essayists to use their own judgment as to what “Beat creator” means in their studies, be that creators who claimed affiliation or lineage from the American Beats, those who created like them or those who adapted Beat principles to their native culture. In practice, it means all three groups. Katharine Streip covers the influence of the Beats on film maker David Cronenberg (director of Naked Lunch), musician-writer Arish Ahmad Khan and multi-media artist John Oswald. Much of Frida Forsgren’s essay deals with the sculptor Marius Heyerdahl, as one of the leading Beat creative figures in Norway.  We encounter snippets of unexpected information: women Beat creators in Italy were all involved primarily with music rather than writing; two of the leading German Beats were struck and killed by cars; the father of Lars Ulrich (Metallica drummer) is Torben Ulrich, professional Danish tennis player and Beat writer.

In some cases the reception of the Beats was impaired by cultural resistance. Alberto Escobar de la Garma notes, “Publishing houses in [Mexico] have been reluctant to make the Beats available in part because of historic antipathy towards the USA (to include its language) and in part because they so expressly flaunt Mexican conventions of conservative cultural manners and behaviour.” Conversely, there was sometimes antipathy from the American Beats towards creators in other countries. Luke Walker describes how Corso, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg all felt that the British poets who appeared at the Albert Hall International Poetry Incarnation in 1965 to be mediocre and derivative. They considered Great Britain a drab and socially constrained place, as did Burroughs, who lived there for a long period. When Corso read his poem “Bomb” it was denounced by the British audience as pro-war. Fiona Paton’s summary of the Scottish response to the Beats is called “Cosmopolitan Scum” and discusses Scottish writers Alexander Trocchi, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. Their response was more assertive, rebarbative – in short, more Scottish – than those of their English colleagues.

The essayists give a sense of the creators’ achievements and their significance (or insignificance) within their national scenes. Many of the writers were peripheral and published sporadically. Very little of this work has been published in translation, thus this Handbook provides valuable guidance regarding inaccessible work to international audiences. Authors acknowledge that often it was the example of the Beats and their literary liberation that freed foreign writers without those inspired writers becoming Beat themselves. This seems particularly true in the cases of Poland, Russia and China where access to imported subversive Western writings was tightly restricted and translations were almost non-existent. Pieces on Morocco and Turkey foreground the very different social, political and religious climates which shaped responses to Beat creativity. Essays on Japan and China take us even farther afield.

While writers sometimes closely analyse a poem and passage of prose, the essays are jargon-free, light on theory and highly readable. Quotations are necessarily restricted in length but even so one encounters some striking excerpts. Consider this by Leopoldo María Panero, quoted by Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo:

El palacio de la locura está

lleno de animals

verdes con

motas anaranjadas como ácidos y

cubierto de polvo: entra ven.

 

The palace of madness is

full of green

animals with

orange dots like acid

covered in dust: come inside.

 

The extensive bibliographies will send readers in search of the original texts. The footnotes and index will prove useful to researchers.

This book is an essential starting point for Beat fans’ parlour game of “debate the inclusion/omission”. No gathering of Beat academics or readers would be complete without fiery dissent on the status and relevance of writers included in the Beat canon and passionate advocacy in favour of omitted personal favourites. This book will be the starting point for such discussions for decades to come and a touchstone for Beat scholarship for a generation.

Let us hope that in time a cheaper paperback version is published, allowing the rich and enlightening scholarship in The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature to reach an even wider audience.

 

Contributors: Thomas Antonic (Austria), Franca Bellarsi (Belgium), Nicholas Birns (Australia), Thomas Epstein (Russia), Alberto Escobar de la Garma (Mexico), Frida Forsgren (Norway), Alexander Greiffenstern (Germany), Benjamin J. Heal (China), A. Robert Lee (Japan), El Habib Louai (Morocco), Polina Mackay (Greece), Erik Mortenson (Turkey), Lars Movin (Denmark), Lisa Avdic Öst (Sweden), Peggy Pacini (France), Fiona Paton (Scotland), Andrzej Pietrasz (Poland), Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo (Spain), Tomasz Sawczuk (Poland), Maria Anita Stefanelli (Italy), Katharine Streip (Canada), Jaap van der Bent (Netherlands and Flanders), Harri Veivo (Finland), Luke Walker (Great Britain).

A. Robert Lee (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature, Routledge, 2018, hardback, 350pp, £175, ISBN 978 0 415 78545 7 (also available as an eBook)

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

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

You Are Always With Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Carlos Rojas, Valley of the Fallen

“On 24 August this year, the Socialist government of Spain legislated to exhume General Franco from his tomb at Valle de los Caídos, near Madrid. The Valle de los Caídos basilica was built by Franco as a symbol of both reconciliation and conquest and it became his tomb in 1975. His remains are now being exhumed and relocated, ostensibly to prevent Franco supporters gathering, as they have done over the years, to pay respects to Spain’s former dictator. In truth, the move to relocate Franco’s remains is not about paramilitary displays causing disorder or resurgent militaristic Catholicism, neither of which have been a threat since the failed coup of 1981; it is a chance for the Socialists to posture against the hated fascist dictator, albeit posthumously enacted. This move is part of the recent trend to erase symbolic history in the USAustria and Ukraine and South Africa.

“Publication of a new translation of Carlos Rojas’s seminal 1978 novel El Valle de los Caídos – The Valley of the Fallen – could not be timelier. Written in the aftermath of Franco’s death, the novel blends the turbulent and sometimes barbarous history of Spain in a meditation on parallels between two eras: the last years of the Bourbon monarchy, and the twilight of the Francoist era. We encounter Goya, court painter, talking to the king, Fernando VII. Rojas recounts stories from the Napoleonic wars of Iberia and the thoughts of the elderly Goya. The other thread of the novel is the domestic life of Sandro, a biographer of Goya living through the final days of Franco. Struggling with his literary task and coping with a troubled romantic relationship, Sandro considers the legacy of Franco and the civil war that brought him to power…”

Read the full review online on Spiked here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/into-the-valley-of-the-fallen/21791#.W5t7E85KjIV

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Balthus

Balthus_Les-enfants-Blanchard_LAC_287x300mm

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

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

Welcome to the world of Balthus.

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

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

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

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

Balthus_La-Rue_LAC_243x300mm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balthus_Le-Chat-au-miroir-III_LAC_310x300mm

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

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

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

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

 

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

©2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Arshile Gorky: A Life in Documents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

© Alexander Adams

Willem de Kooning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Frida Kahlo: Art Trumps Identity

“Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, the new exhibition at the V&A London, examines Kahlo’s private world, displaying paintings, drawings, photographs and private possessions to form a powerful presentation of Kahlo the artist and the woman.

“Such an approach might seem intrusive. Yet Kahlo (1907-1954), one of the most famous painters of the 20th century, was an artist uniquely concerned with her self, displaying it in its various guises. Her symbolic portraits and self-portraits – combining Surrealism, Mexican painting and naive amateur art – and her personal life – her precarious health, commitment to Communism and tempestuous marriage to famed muralist Diego Rivera – all flowed into what is a strikingly autobiographical artistic enterprise, rich in allusion and metaphor. Indeed, fascination with her autobiography, combined with acclaim for her art, propelled Kahlo to stardom long after her death, spawning films, documentaries and numerous books…”

Read the full review online here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/frida-kahlo-art-trumps-identity/21529#.WzSbFe4vzIU

Innovative Impressions: Prints by Cassatt, Degas and Pissarro

Brooklyn_Cassatt La Toilette_39107

[Image: Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926), Woman Bathing (La Toilette) (c. 1890–91), Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund, 39.107]

Innovative Impressions: Prints by Cassatt, Degas, and Pissarro at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma (9 June-9 September 2018) examines the three most prominent printmaking painters of the Impressionist movement: Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Camille Pissarro (1855-1903). The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This exhibition shows us the complex interplay of collaboration and rivalry that influenced the printmaking of three leading painters of the age. All three artists trained in etching early in their careers then set aside the medium to concentrate on painting. At the time, etching was considered a component of a rounded education for professional artists and also pursued by hobbyists, thus it was a widespread skill. In the 1860s there was a revival in etching in France, with the Société des Aquafortistes was established in 1862. Publishers encouraged artist-printmakers to produce etchings which they then marketed to fine-art collectors in competition with lithographs.

Etchings by Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic (1839-1889) show us the work of a critical figure in Nineteenth Century French printmaking. Lepic is best known for eau-forte mobile, which is the creative inking of plates that – in the case of landscape designs – adds atmosphere, changes weather and lighting conditions and can even turn day to night. This is not pure etching, wherein the plate is inked uniformly throughout an edition and which remains faithful to the etcher’s original intentions, but instead it is a hybrid of etching and monotype, with impressions varying widely. While atmospheric inking can contribute to the impact of a line etching, it can go too far and become a game or a distraction, covering up for the inadequacies of the etching. Lepic was hugely influential among artists and master printers. Lepic’s practice was enriching but also impoverishing, causing printmakers to make etchings that were deliberately incomplete or ambiguous, which allowed the application of Lepic’s eau-forte mobile technique. (Compare this to the example of filmmaking. Some directors rely so heavily on computer-generated imagery, dubbing, digital editing and post-production effects that they become slapdash in the filming and directing of actors, which is the essence of good live-action films.) There is a viable case to be made that Lepic’s influence was more deleterious than beneficial.

Another significant figure was etcher Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914). The exhibition includes three of the ten states of Bracquemond’s masterful reproductive etching of Holbein’s portrait of Erasmus. Bracquemond joined the Impressionist movement, though his art was often not close stylistically to the most common Impressionist approach. He was a brilliant technician but it is clear why he is both less known and considered more of an associate of the Impressionists than an essential member of the movement. (To read my review mentioning Marie Bracquemond, the Impressionist painter married to him, click here.)

Catalogue essays direct us to consider notions of authorship and purity in fine art.

Richard R. Brettell discusses the collaboration between Corot, Dutilleux, Grandguillaume, Desavary and the Cuvelier brothers in Arras. Together they developed the cliché-verre printing technique, producing many prints for which the authorship is shared or uncertain. This risks giving the impression that the working relationship of Cassatt, Degas and Pissarro was closer than it actually was in 1879, though Bretell’s point is taken. The Impressionists occasionally worked in in pairs and groups in painting expeditions, arranging group exhibitions and preparing the Le Jour et la nuit journal. Bretell points out that collaboration, criticism and sharing of techniques and ideas was a significant part of the careers of many artists who are commonly considered in monographic isolation. Often in the catalogue text we encounter mentions that one of the artists gave advice to another on printing or actually helped to print certain proofs. They exchanged and purchased each other’s prints.

Many critics of the era condemned the finish of Impressionist art. (The very name Impressionism came from a critic’s slur about the supposed incomplete condition of a Monet painting.) The sequential nature of printmaking means that we have a chance to consider when a work of art is finished. It also raises the issue of how much importance we attach to a work of art and how much to the creation of that art. It is very common to read in catalogues more about the preparation for, development and revision of, a work of art than about the finished work itself.

In 1879 work began on Le Jour et la nuit which was intended to be a journal featuring the prints of Cassatt, Degas, Pissarro, Bracquemond and Caillebotte, Raffaëlli, Forain and Rouart. With little accompanying text, it would have been essentially a bound version of the print portfolios of loose sheets published at the time. The journal did not appear in 1880 partly (according to a contemporary) because Degas was late with his contribution. The journal was never published but a number of etchings were prepared for it and have been identified, including Cassatt’s In the Opera Box, Degas’s Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery and Pissarro’s Wooded Landscape at the Hermitage, Pontoise. Pissarro’s print (based on a painting) seems to have been straightforward. Cassatt made three versions of her print in a number of states, dramatically altering the lighting using aquatint. Degas developed his print to completion then developed a second print which used the figures in different position and setting in a distinctive vertical format. This print – Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery – was also translated into painting by the artist. It was perhaps the extended revision of the second print through 20 states that delayed Le Jour et la nuit.

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[Image: Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery (1879–80), Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Leonard C. Hanna Jr., 1947.459]

Sarah Lees writes that it is likely the Le Jour et la nuit prints were exhibited at the Impressionist exhibition of 1880. “It is even more revealing that each artist chose to show more than one state of the prints, much as Bracquemond had done in 1874 with his Erasmus. In this way they not only highlighted the significance of the creative process, but also undercut notions about the primacy of the finished, final work.” She notes that it is possible to show an etching plate in different states the way it is not possible to with a unique oil painting.

The exhibition includes many prints from before and after the Le Jour et la nuit project. Some of the highlights of the selection are Cassatt’s colour aquatints. The lines are drypoint – scratches which hold ink with a characteristic emphatic blur – and the colour shading is in speckled aquatint, with sparing use of soft-ground etching. This is a rare technique. Included are the most famous Cassatt prints The Letter (1990-1) and La Toilette (1890-1). They are exquisite and justifiably praised. The influence of Japanese colour woodblock prints (exhibited in Paris in 1890) is obvious but not distractingly so. Cassatt used adventurous colouring and the editions display wide variation in colouring. Unfortunately, Cassatt’s drawing sometimes went awry and a number of her prints are irretrievably marred by obvious and painful flaws in anatomy. In such clear, sparse and (relatively) realistic works, these faults gravely damage the prints.

Pissarro also made prints in aquatint and drypoint. The results are uneven. The weather in Rain Effect (1879) was an afterthought. The torrential rain makes the scene of two figures sitting and standing in a field seem ridiculous. Woman Emptying a Wheelbarrow (1880) is a lot better and may have been destined for Le Jour et la nuit.

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[Image: Camille Pissarro (French, 1830–1903), Woman Emptying a Wheelbarrow (1880), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.7311]

Pissarro and Degas experimented by proofing Pissarro’s Twilight with Haystacks (1879) in different colours. Examples in black, red and blue are reproduced in the catalogue. Degas preferred to add colour to his prints in pastel and paint, using the print (or counterproof) as the framework for a unique work of art. Included in the exhibition are three rare landscape monotypes that Degas made by painting dilute colour oil paint on a metal plate and running this through a press with paper. The exhibition also includes some monotypes of bathing nudes and brothel scenes.

Pissarro is not well known as a printmaker and his contributions are uneven. The colour etchings and monotypes from the 1890s of peasants and landscapes verge on the crude. The use of heavy outlines (perhaps derived from Cloissonisme) is unpleasant and works against the artist’s long experience in building forms in colour without drawn outlines. The overpowering outlines and casual draughtsmanship, combined with the unpleasant effects of oil on paper, have produced rather ugly prints. A late lithograph in monochrome is very good. The loose wash effects and emphatic shadow create drama and solidity that seem close to Romantic art or the wash drawings of Poussin.

It is heartening to encounter such a scrupulously researched art-historical exhibition, especially regarding prints, a medium often passed over as minor. Particular commendation is due for the meticulous cataloguing of technical data (including plate and paper size) and provenance, information which is often lacking in exhibition catalogues.

Sarah Lees (ed.) and Richard R. Bretell, Innovative Impressions: Prints by Cassatt, Degas, and Pissarro, Philbrook Museum of Art/Hirmer, 2018, hardback, 130pp, 100 col. illus., €39.90, ISBN 978 3 7774 2978 6

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

 

Obsession: Nudes collected by Scofield Thayer

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[Image: Egon Schiele, (Austrian, 1890–1918), Egon Schiele, (Austrian, 1890–1918)
Standing Nude with Orange Drapery (1914), Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper
18 1/4 x 12 in. (46.4 x 30.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982]

The sudden rise to prominence – and subsequent descent into obscurity – of Scofield Thayer (1889-1982) reads like an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. A young American playboy tours Europe then returns to the USA to marry. When he returns to Europe after the Great War, the young man is an editor of a literary journal and uses his fortune to support the literary lions of London, Vienna and Paris. He undergoes analysis with Dr Freud in Vienna. Now divorced from his wife, he is a dedicated libertine and decadent, his life devoted to the compulsive pursuit of novelty: principally promoting avant-garde writing, collecting erotic art and engaging in sexual conquests (both women and men). He amasses a great collection of art, some of it striking erotic art. On his return to the New York, he slowly descends into insanity and lives out the largest part of his long life in obscurity, spending periods in various institutions. By the time of his death, he has long outlived his notoriety and his death goes almost unnoticed.

Thayer edited Dial, one of the most important literary journals of the 1920s. It published ground-breaking prose and verse by T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and many others, famous and unknown. Dial also brought advanced European art to American readers. Thayer bought large quantities of art, mostly because he liked it but also a few pieces he intended to trade at a profit. In Vienna, he encountered the art if the recently deceased Klimt and Schiele. In war-impoverished Vienna, excellent drawings were cheap and Thayer could amass a fine collection of graphics, especially erotic drawings by the pair, some priced as low as $6 each. His collection of almost 600 pieces of art, ranging from German Renaissance prints and Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs to paintings by the Expressionists, Braque, Bonnard and Matisse, was bought before Thayer’s mental instability sent him into seclusion at the end of the 1920s. Some of collection was erotic in character. This uneven and partly salacious collection was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum on his death in 1982. One can only imagine the mingled pleasure and embarrassment among museum administrators and curators discovering the unabashed sexual nature of much of the art received into the collection. This catalogue documents the exhibition Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection of 52 nudes by three prominent Modernist artists: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Pablo Picasso. The exhibition will be held at the Met Breuer (Metropolitan Museum of Art), New York from 3 July to 7 October 2018.

Klimt drew thousands of studies – mainly figures – during pauses between painting sessions. He drew as preparation for his Symbolist paintings (including public commissions, such as the murals for Vienna university) and also as a general exercise to keep his skills sharp. Visitors to his studio recalled nude models lounging around, ready to inspire the artist with a gesture or position. Klimt had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ready models. The drawings of nudes in the Thayer collection are typical of the late period of Klimt. Slender young women with bountiful tresses drape themselves over undepicted beds, sometimes pleasuring themselves. The style is dreamy, with the often undifferentiated subjects drawn lightly, with little shading, most executed in pencil. Outlines – which are almost all there is to Klimt’s figures – are sometimes uncertain and repeatedly reworked to build up solid but insubstantial forms.

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[Image: Gustav Klimt, (Austrian, 1862–1918), Reclining Nude with Drapery, Back View (1917–1918), Graphite, 14 5/8 x 22 3/8 in. (37.1 x 56.8 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982]

The best of the drawings is a standing figure of 1906-7. The unusual rounded hairstyle, striking pose (with hip jutting) and evidence of a revised pose all make this piece stand out as memorable. The other pictures by Klimt are fair examples of their type but not very engaging.

Egon Schiele’s interests were even more frankly sexual. Unlike the more expensive and public oil paintings that he made, Schiele could use drawing on paper as medium in which to be more adventurous and explicit in imagery and subject matter. Thayer’s 32 drawings and prints (29 of which are reproduced in the catalogue) cover the whole of Schiele’s short career, starting in 1911 and ending the year of his death, 1918. The earliest drawings are sketchy, with simple lines picking out aspects, those lines sometimes floating as if detached from the motif.

Observed in a Dream (1911) is an unusual showpiece from Schiele’s early years. The fanciful title (prominently inscribed on the front), thorough colouring with watercolour paint and coquettishly sexual pose all indicate the artist aping the pornographic photographs and drawings easily to be found in Vienna in that period.  Ultimately, Schiele’s art became more sophisticated and personal without losing its sexual edge. One gets the impression that a more confident and independent Schiele would later collaborate with his models to explore expressions of sexuality that were less clichéd.

The drawings and drypoints of 1914 include the button eyes and doll faces typical of that phase. There are a few of Schiele’s typical line drawings coloured by broken patches of gouache diluted with gum arabic. By 1918, Schiele’s lines were fatter (conté crayon or black chalk replacing pencil) and the curves more emphatic. The models were no longer the scrawny adolescent waifs of the early years but adult women bursting with health, some of them buxom. There are drawings of a child model, who was apparently the child of a female model, as evidenced by a drawing showing the mother and child together.

The art by Picasso is less explicit in general. Although Picasso was often driven by erotic impulses, it came out in playful, indirect and witty ways rather than straightforward realistic depictions of nude figures. One exception is Erotic Scene (1902), showing a woman with long hair performing oral sex on the artist. The work is from the Blue Period. It is poorly painted, with little feeling or care. Picasso later disavowed the painting and refused to authenticate it. However, there is no doubt about its authenticity. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson had a dim opinion of the painting, suggesting that the artist painted it hastily for money.

11. Pablo Picasso. Youth in an Archway, 1906

[Image: Pablo Picasso, (Spanish, 1881–1973), Youth in an Archway (1906), Conté crayon on paper, 23 1/4 x 16 3/4 in. (59.1 x 42.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982. © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

Other drawings by Picasso are of standing nudes executed in Gosol and Paris in 1906 and bathers executed in the artist’s Neo-Classical period of the early 1920s. The gap is not accidental. Thayer disliked Cubism and abstract art, so had no desire to collect any art made by Picasso during the 1907-1917 period. There is a 1922 pastel portrait of an idealised woman (probably a composite of Sara Murphy and the artist’s wife Olga) which is more tender than erotic. Picasso’s art seems distinctly public; the art of Klimt and Schiele is definitely of a private character. Picasso seems to be engaged in dialogue with artists of the past; Klimt and Schiele were more concerned with depicting reality and establishing connections between artist and subject. Picasso deals with ideals; Klimt and Schiele deal with actual subjects. Picasso worked from memory; Klimt and Schiele worked from life.

The selection of works tells us about Thayer’s priorities. It is notable that despite his sexual preference for men (though Thayer was apparently bisexual), the majority of subjects of the art he purchased were female. This is partly due to the fact that erotic depictions of nudes by the most prominent artists of the period were female ones, made by heterosexual male artists, which meant that the majority of erotic art of the time featured female subjects. Thus most of the nudes available were of female subjects. It also tells us that the quality of the art was more important to Thayer than its erotic potency. There was plenty of homosexual erotica for sale but none of the artistic quality of the art that entered Thayer’s collection. Thayer’s collection of non-erotic art was excellent, including some fine pieces by Matisse, Bonnard, Chagall and Demuth.

The catalogue is a useful addition to the body of literature on erotic art. The exhibition promises to be a celebration of erotic desire, the urge to present the beautiful in art and the lasting appeal of this art for viewers.

 

Sabine Rewald and James Dempsey, Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale University Press), 2018, paperback, 132pp, 110 col. illus., $25, ISBN 978 1 588 39 65 25

[Revised on 21 June 2018 to correct factual inaccuracy]

© 2018 Alexander Adams