Harald Sohlberg: Infinite Landscapes

Fig. 96 (1)

[Image: Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage (1906), oil on canvas, 109 x 94cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edward Byron Smith. Photo copyright: Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY/Scala Firenze]

A new exhibition in Oslo showcases the evocative Symbolist landscapes of Norwegian painter Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) (National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo (28 September 2018-13 January 2019); touring to Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (13 February-2 June 2019) and Museum Wiesbaden (12 July-27 October 2019)). Any visitor to Norwegian art museums will have had his/her eye caught by Sohlberg’s striking landscapes. This selection shows the depth of the painter’s achievement and the arc of his career. (This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.)

Sohlberg was working in an era when the artists of Nordic nations (especially the newly independent Norway and Finland) were looking to establish truly national schools of art whilst not restricting themselves to parochial isolation. Artists (and other creative figures, along with politicians) had often studied, worked and travelled outside of their homelands due to the restricted opportunities they had faced at home. They therefore well understood their positions as pioneers of new national cultures with deep roots but shallow institutions and that their courses had to be steered between their nations’ adoption of certain international allegiances and the strong desire to distinguish themselves as independent – most especially independent of their former colonial rulers’ cultures.

Sohlberg’s course showed itself most obviously through his decision to paint Norwegian landscapes and rural townscapes. The latter featured typical vernacular Norwegian architecture of wooden buildings, strongly coloured exteriors and rough agricultural structures. It is no surprise that when the newly independent Norway organised exhibitions of its art at home and overseas, Sohlberg’s landscapes and townscapes proved suitable and popular inclusions. Norway’s conservative taste regarding Modernism in the visual arts meant that Sohlberg’s cautious Symbolism was ideal.

Sohlberg trained professionally extensively. He was first apprenticed to decorative painter Wilhelm Krogh (1885) then studied fine art, first at Kristiania (Oslo) (1889-90), then in Copenhagen under Kristian Zahrtmann (1892) (where he visited the home of Gauguin’s wife) and Kristiania under Harriet Backer and Elilif Peterssen (1894); he undertook a study trip to Paris (1895-6) and finally took classes in Weimar under Norwegian Frithjof Smith (1897-8). However, this is misleading, as Sohlberg was already a professional artist by the end of his studies and was widely exhibited, with works in museum collections. He was a skilled draughtsman of the figure and an adept portraitist. Sohlberg’s later eschewing of figures in his paintings was a choice not of necessity; he clearly had the capacity to portray people accurately. In Weimar, Sohlberg must have come into contact with the Symbolist art of Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger. Klinger’s prints especially provided a template for the sort of graphic art Sohlberg made. The drawings of fantasy characters in rural settings have grotesque and weird aspects, similar to illustrations for fairy stories.

This peculiarity comes to the fore in versions of Mermaid (1893). It shows a woman emerging from water, with her head thrown back, a mocking smile on her face, seen under a full moon which casts an elongated reflection on the water. In various versions, the mermaid’s face and torso ranges in appearance from coarse slattern and semi-piscine hybrid to beautiful adolescent. The pose of this dreamy temptress parallels Edvard Munch’s Madonna (1892-5) and the moon reflection is a motif commonly seen in Munch’s fjord views. The pair knew each personally and there are areas of overlap between their oeuvres. Some critics considered them rivals. This relationship would make a fascinating subject for extensive research and a book-length publication in English.

Symbolism was a movement that embodied a reaction against the idealism of Victorian salon painters and the quasi-scientific optical investigations of the Impressionists, Neo-Impressionists and Divisionists. The Symbolists – who to degree overlapped with Post-Impressionists, particularly Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis and others – asserted that the true function of art was to manifest the underlying reality of human existence by heightening the symbolic significance of images and using those images in ways that explored the underlying drives and archetypes of the human psyche. In relation to Sohlberg’s Symbolist landscapes, we should consider in particular the Belgian Symbolists Leon Spilliaert, Fernande Khnopff and Xavier Mellery, who are close in imagery, technique and mood to Sohlberg’s early work. Of Scandinavian painters, Munch is an obvious parallel (discussed below) and – less obviously – the brooding domestic scenes of Wilhelm Hammershøi have the mysterious quality of Sohlberg’s scenes. The Hammershøi’s landscapes have an air of idealised reality and pared-down appearance that Sohlberg’s share. Symbolism is an extension of Romanticism and it is right to consider Sohlberg’s landscapes as being close to those of JCC Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Caspar David Friedrich. Sohlberg’s magical landscapes could be classed as the last flourishing of the Northern Romantic tradition. A clear example of this is the late-period sunset paintings, which are Friedrichian in their bright yellow and orange skies dominating tranquil terrains.

The early oil paintings are like coloured drawings – lacking impasto or prominent brushwork. Squaring was used to transfer designs from drawings to canvas, with the pencil underdrawing often visible. From Gullikstad (1904) is an example of this coloured-drawing approach, where the colour is applied by staining. This extreme dilution of paint (with glaze medium, in Sohlberg’s case) is something that Schiele would do a decade later. The artificiality of the blue foliage in Sohlberg’s painting would also be echoed in Schiele’s landscapes. Sohlberg exhibited four paintings in the Künstlerbund Hagen exhibition in Vienna in 1912. Schiele very likely saw this exhibition and this may have led to Sohlberg’s style influencing the young Austrian.

Although the early Sohlberg paintings are detailed, the impression of naturalism is false. While many aspects are faithful descriptions of the sources, Sohlberg also made numerous and strong deviations from reality for the sake of emphasis or emotion. This effective blend of exaggeration and naturalism adds to the dreamlike feeling of the best pictures. As in dreams, we note the startling details but the whole adds up to something odd and unnatural. Variants of Winter Night in the Mountains, based on the Rondane Mountains, show how Sohlberg created this magic.

NOR Vinternatt i Rondane, ENG Winter Night in the Mountains

[Image: Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains (1914), oil on canvas, 160 x 180.5 cm, Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo/Børre Høstland]

Over a number of years, Sohlberg developed his motif of the twin peaks of the Rondane Mountains. This composition became Sohlberg’s best loved image. Under a night sky, the snowclad peaks of Rondane soar over the horizontal landscape in the foreground, which is studded by leafless trees. The artist exaggerated the shapes of the mountains for artistic effect. This is in line with the practice of Romantic landscapists and Symbolists. The versions with dark glaze applied at the bottom of the later paintings in oil paint are reminiscent of Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (c. 1808-10). Although much is made of the Symbolist limitation of the palette to blue and white, this is largely accurate to the effect of moonlight in clear air on snowy landscapes. The centrally positioned heavenly light is apparently the planet Venus, symbolic of the goddess of love. The essay writer who treats this subject (Øvind Storm Bjerk) mentions that Sohlberg probably associated this picture with his marriage to Lilli Hennum because of her joining him to live in the Rondane region while he worked on the painting, however Storm Bjerk does not suggest that Sohlberg may have also conceived of the twin peaks of Rondane as symbolising man and woman linked by the planet of love. This exhibition includes a number of full versions in oil alongside early painted and drawn sketches and studies.

Fig. 12

[Image: Harald Sohlberg, Night (1904), oil on canvas, 113 x 134 cm, Trondheim kunstmuseum MiST. Photo: Trondheim kunstmuseum]

One trait peculiar to Sohlberg is a strong proclivity for rigid – even fierce – symmetry, as seen in Night (1904; multiple versions). There a technical drawing of the church at Røros which is as much architectural elevation as painter’s preparatory study. Flower Meadow in the North (1905), the Rondane paintings and the late etching From Akershus Fortress, Evening (1926) (among many others) also display this artificiality and symmetry.

Despite the heights of his best works (described above) Sohlberg was not an artist with a consistent quality of output. There are minor pieces which – on this showing – seem somewhat aimless, as if they are detached from some illustration project. How is one supposed to interpret a scene of Christ preaching, in very simplified form, or a standing figure in a city alleyway? There are some paintings that are distinctly naïve (cats. 42 and 43). One aspect of naïve art is a certain muddiness, which comes from attempting to reproduce local colours without enough tonal variation to differentiate separate forms. Without more context, one gets the impression from these awkward pictures that Sohlberg could be an undisciplined (or, more generously, an unfocused) artist. Are these works abandoned experiments, diversions, commissions, parts of projects or otherwise explicable?

Sohlberg’s best work is his early mature art (roughly before 1915). The later work – especially when it is not a reiteration of an earlier composition – shows a marked softening in handling. Forms become repellently soft, colour cloying, compositions more diffuse. The late paintings are less forceful and memorable. The absence of a cool palette and lack of dryness in execution are detrimental to the quality of the pictures. The air of precision gives the best early work pictorial acuity and the coldness of hue gives it emotional veracity. There is a sense, in that early phase, of Sohlberg witnessing and recording things as they are; in the late work, Sohlberg is making things as he wishes them to be. There is a naïve quality to the simplified forms and pungent colour that is actively unpleasant compared to the astringency of the early period. Wisely, the curators have selected only a handful of late pieces, lest the decline dilute the impact of the early work. Only in the late prints does Sohlberg’s compositional toughness and asperity remain.

Printmaking was a supplementary activity for the artist. The prints prove his skill as a graphic artist and one wishes he had made more than 13 etchings and one colour lithograph (of the Rondane motif). He used dense cross-hatching to build tone and his approach was heavily stylised, influenced by contemporary book illustration. The scope of Sohlberg’s drawing practice is harder to assess on the basis of such a limited selection of images. The very detailed ink drawing of Røros at night stands as an independent work of art, as does the fairy-tale scene of a woman walking a country lane menaced by an ogre. The academies of his training in Weimar are in charcoal and are not related to his later work.

The exhibition includes 125 paintings (in oil or watercolour), drawings and prints. Sohlberg was also a skilful photographer of landscapes and towns; although these photographs are not exhibited, a selection is illustrated in the catalogue. The catalogue includes a useful chronology and index. From memory, I judge the illustrations accurate to life. The catalogue is generally very good, though not always thorough: catalogue entries list aquatints as “etchings” rather than giving a more complete description. Essays cover Sohlberg’s Rondane paintings, his training in Weimar, graphics, photography and a technical study of his painting style. This catalogue will be a prime English-language reference work on Sohlberg’s art, an enjoyable addition to literature on Symbolist art and another contribution to the expanding field of international engagement with Nordic art.

 

Mai Britt Guleng, et al., Harald Sohlberg: Infinite Landscapes, Hirmer, 2018, paperback, 240pp, 200 col. illus., £36, ISBN 978 82 8154 129 0 (English version; Norwegian and German versions also available)

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art

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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

Van Gogh: A Life in Places

UNICORN_vangoghfinalCOVER

Vincent Van Gogh lived in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and England. This small-format hardback book is a brief biography in the form of a guide to the places Van Gogh lived, illustrated with some of his art. There are many quotes from Van Gogh’s letters, which give his own words about his surroundings. Drawings from letters show how Van Gogh presented places to his family, mainly his chief correspondent brother Theo. Contemporary photographs show buildings and people the artist would have known. And – of course – the artist’s paintings are reproduced too.

Van Gogh’s stints in school teaching, bookselling, art selling and missionary work are presented summarily. Much of this time was before the artist’s commitment to become an artist, so there is little art to display. The majority of the book is taken up with the last decade of Van Gogh’s life, 1880-90, when he was producing art.

Van Gogh stayed in Kent, Isleworth and London, teaching boys. The author mentions Van Gogh’s lay preaching and church going around London, consumed with an evangelical fervour. A pencil sketch of two churches is included. Two of the best drawings are early large elaborate landscapes drawings in pencil heightened with white chalk. These are not often reproduced, so it is nice to see them. They well portray the gloom of the Dutch landscape. Nature inspired Van Gogh from a young age, when he drew and described insects and plants. Nature would underpin his best art. Van Gogh spent time in Drenthe, where the population harvested peat, which was transported away by barge. It was a singularly bleak region. Borinage in Belgium was a mining area. There Van Gogh ministered to the local population and made himself ill with his Spartan living, giving away all he had to the bemused mining families. He then decided to study art in Antwerp and Brussels.

The author strikes a good balance, explaining the significance of different locations while avoiding detailed specifics of individual pictures. Heslewood takes us around Paris and environs to show us the places the painter worked in when he absorbed Impressionism into his technique: Asnieres, with its distant factories and chimneys, Montmartre, with its windmills and dancehalls. When the artist moved to Arles he made a point of travelling in the region as much as he could afford to. Pictures and text refer to the Camargue, the coastal village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Montmajour and other locations.

For Van Gogh, Arles became the centre for a longed-for School of the South – to complement Schools of the North (Pont Aven) and West (Martinique) already pioneered by Gauguin, Laval and Bernard. Provence, for Van Gogh, resembled the Japanese woodcut prints that he had pored over in Paris. It had bright light and intense colour as well as a distinct (if not precisely exotic) regional culture. Provence could be their Japan.

Van Gogh’s painting excursions were curbed by his confinement to a hospital in Arles and later his voluntary commitment to the asylum in Saint-Rémy, following his infamous self-mutilation and breakdown. The grounds of the asylum and a view of a wheat field are the most common motifs for 1889. In the summer he moved to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, to be under the care of Dr Gachet. There he painted his last works – views of wheat fields, Daubigny’s house and garden, ivy thickets of undergrowth. This was a very productive period for the artist and some of his best loved landscapes come from this period.

This book would make an ideal addition to a school library and is recommended as reading for anyone passingly familiar with the art of Van Gogh who would like an introduction to his life.

 

Juliet Heslewood, Van Gogh: A Life in Places, Unicorn, 1 November 2018, hardback, 172pp, 85 illus., £15, ISBN 978 191 160 4648

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Colonialism & Realism in Art (Gauguin & Laval in Martinique)

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[Image: Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903), The Mango Trees, Martinique (1887), oil on canvas, 86 cm x 116 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

A current exhibition explores art made by Gauguin in Martinique, pairing him with a lesser known Post-Impressionist painter who worked beside him there (Gauguin & Laval in Martinique, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 5 October 2018-13 January 2019). This review is taken from the exhibition catalogue. That catalogue announces the forthcoming publication of a volume dedicated to scientific and historical analysis on the same subject, which should – considering the quality of the contributors and standards of the Van Gogh Museum – be a landmark in Post-Impressionist studies.

The art of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) is too well-known to need introduction; the art of Charles Laval (1861-1894) is hardly known at all. Laval was a young painter (Parisian by birth) who came into the orbit of the older Gauguin in July 1886, while they were in Brittany. Both had lived in Paris and exhibited at the annual Salon. Gauguin had the cachet of exhibiting in the final Impressionist exhibition (1886) following the tutelage of Pissarro and the patronage of Degas, though that had not translated into sales.

Gauguin and Laval decided to travel to Panama, planning to paint on the small island of Taboga. Gauguin’s brother-in-law could provide him with a job to finance living and material costs. At the time the French were building the Panama Canal (a project later taken over and completed by the Americans), so there was work available on the project. Gauguin summoned his wife from Denmark to collect their son before his departure. The couple had not seen each other in 22 months and spent only hours together before Gauguin left. (The more one learns about Gauguin the man, the more one dislikes him, regardless of how highly one rates his art.)

In search of noble savages and exotic locales, Gauguin and Laval embarked for Panama on 10 April 1887. On the way to Panama, the pair’s ship put in at Fort-de-France, Martinique. They arrived in Panama on 30 April. They were soon disappointed by Taboga (too touristic) and Panama City lived up to its notorious reputation for unpleasantness: hot, humid, impoverished, isolated and plagued by mosquito-borne diseases. Gauguin’s in-law had no work for him. A position in the canal-construction project that Gauguin secured independently lasted only days before political events led to mass lay-offs, causing Gauguin losing his job. Disillusioned, the pair decided to try Martinique, where they arrived on 11 June.

Martinique was in all respects more suitable for the artists. It was a healthier location with picturesque views, an efficient French colonial administration, relatively direct communication with Paris and some colonists with disposable income which could be spent on art. They found a shack in the hills near the port of Saint-Pierre. A very useful map shows the precise locations the artists painted. All are on tracks within a 3-km walk from their hut.

The exhibition gathers paintings by the two artists, as well as sketchbook pages, plus a selection of associated letters and later art. Relevant pieces not exhibited are illustrated in the catalogue. Doubtless the forthcoming scholarly volume will include the text of letters by the artists (seven extant by Gauguin, two by Laval), as well as more data about the places they visited and their interactions with the Martinican population. Gauguin produced 17 oil paintings in Martinique. Notable features of Gauguin’s Martinican landscapes are the warmth of his greens and light dabbing brushwork. These elements assist in creating an impression of tropical heat and profuse foliage. At this stage much of the artist’s approach can be considered Impressionist in character. Gauguin’s best works must be his still-lifes and landscapes with few small figures, those paintings where the artist’s ego has little scope to suffocate his considerable sensitivity and skill. His paintings of exotic fruits are richly coloured, with highlights deftly represented. Authors have taken time to identify the fruits, using information about the local produce and indigenous flora.

sketch Gaguin-001

[Image: Paul Gauguin, Head of a Woman from Martinique (1887), coloured chalk on paper, 36 × 27 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

Gauguin had a keen eye for the local women, whom he drew and wrote about. His pastel and watercolour sketches document faces and costumes. (There are almost no nudes.) To be fair to Gauguin, he did seem keen to record the ordinary lives and typical scenes of local people, albeit ones that conformed to his idea of picturesque. A number of Gauguin’s later carvings, ceramics and zincographs (lithographs on zinc plates) were inspired by memories of Martinique and these are included in the exhibition. There is a still-life with flowers in a vase and a statuette made by Gauguin himself. This works as a pseudo-landscape, with the flowers as a tree and the statuette as a seated porteuse (female native fruit carrier). It is wonderfully restrained in colouration and delicate in execution. The Martinique period is Gauguin’s painting at its best – carefully made, chromatically rich, well observed.

Laval’s landscapes are very similar in handling, coloration and tone to Gauguin’s. They have less intensity and confidence than the older artist’s. There are two landscapes in oil and one scene of people bathing in the sea. It seems much of Laval’s art made in Martinique has been lost or has gone unrecognised. The catalogue authors note, “Laval’s oeuvre is small and very poorly catalogued. New works crop up from time to time, shedding fresh light on his artistic production.” It is hard to assess Laval capabilities based on such a restricted sample. On the evidence of the art in this catalogue, Laval seems on par with Émile Bernard and Louis Anquetin – second-rank artists capable of producing attractive and memorable art but who made few powerful pictures. Bernard may get more credit of late as an innovator but he managed to turn relatively little of his original ideas into synthesised art works that satisfy.

vangoghmuseum-s0247V1962-800

[Image: Charles Laval (1861 – 1894), Self-Portrait (1888), oil on canvas, 50.7 cm x 60.4 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

The stay proved difficult for the two painters. Laval became sick; Gauguin contracted dysentery and caught malaria (the latter probably caught in Panama). Gauguin wrote letters requesting money so he could return to France. As soon as it arrived he left, leaving Laval behind. There is a case to be made that Laval was abandoned. Gauguin’s heroic self-interest necessitated the ditching of friends, colleagues, lovers and family members on a regular basis. It seems Laval’s adulation of Gauguin was untarnished, as he was wrote an admiring letter to him soon after Gauguin returned to France. Landscape on Martinique (1887-8), painted by Laval after Gauguin left, shows a degree of abstraction and greater ambition than his other paintings. The swirling brushwork of the clouds recalls the style Van Gogh would start to use in 1888. That year Laval, Gauguin and Bernard worked together in Pont Aven and all three sent to Van Gogh their self-portraits with dedications. Gauguin and Laval fell out when the jealous (and married) Gauguin resented Laval’s engagement to Bernard’s sister. Laval died of tuberculosis in 1894, aged 33.

The exhibition and catalogue open a window on to a fascinating episode in Post-Impressionist painting.

* * *

There is, regrettably, a misstep in the catalogue. It is a political one. Curator Dr Maite van Dijk writes: “The western image of the colonial world was remarkably unsubtle and superficial, creating a highly, subjective and misleading image.” One might equally write, “The post-colonial-studies image of the colonial world is remarkably unsubtle and superficial, creating a highly, subjective and misleading image.” Her extended passages on colonial attitudes are poorly judged – full of dismissive attitudes, application of retrospective moralising and omission of context.

There are numerous instances of Western travellers and administrators visiting colonies and engaging sympathetically and in an open-minded fashion with the local population, being critical of authorities and advocating for decolonisation. Many of these narratives have been subsequently published. The fact that the preponderant narratives that appeared in print at the time were largely favourable towards colonialism and overseas colonial-owned agricultural industry was in part due to the sponsors (and publishers) of those writers/artists being colonial authorities or agricultural companies. Often writers had vested personal interests in presenting the colonies in a good light. Missionaries had a theological imperative to present the Christianisation of the non-West as a virtuous mission, and so forth. There were many reasons of justifiable self-interest to present the colonial project as mainly favourable. Whether or not pro-colonialist viewpoints expressed publicly were sincerely and constantly held is another matter.

One finds similarly idyllic narratives regarding remote rural communities in colonial home countries. Consider all those bucolic paintings of buxom milkmaids, rosy-cheeked country children and sturdy fishermen, which were exhibited in salons and reproduced as lithographs in mass-circulation journals. Consider the Breton paintings of Gauguin and Laval and the Arlesian paintings of Van Gogh, both groups where the picturesque costumes, physiognomies and landscapes of remote rural regions were treated like those of the colonies. A dissenting attitude was inaugurated with Courbet’s Stone Breakers in 1849. The subsequent trends of Social Realism and Naturalism grew slowly and only became prominent strands in fine art in the 1870s. Even then, Social Realism, Naturalism and (later) Cosmopolitan Realism frequently had a maudlin, sentimental and essentially paternalistic attitude towards the rural poor of the painters’ homelands – exactly mirroring what one sees in art depicting the colonies.

Consider Van Gogh’s use of working-class types in his art. Although he frequently expressed his genuine heartfelt concern for the miners, labourers, weavers and prostitutes he lived beside, he almost never adapted his opinions or art after consulting his subjects. In his many letters he names hardly any of his numerous models and does not discuss their characters. He treats them as types, categorised by region or employment. He shared the working people’s suffering at times but was never accepted as one of them. Numerous statements attest to the fact Van Gogh was considered by locals to be the painter son of a middle-class Dutch pastor, who used workers as pictorial subjects. In other words, if we adopt a Marxist/post-colonial viewpoint we must consider Van Gogh hardly more than a class colonist or deprivation tourist. Yet this view is ultimately demeaning and devalues the insight and empathy elicited by Van Gogh’s art – and all successful art. If van Dijk’s assessment of colonialist patronisation and exploitation (dare one say “cultural appropriation”?) of the colonised natives holds true then practically every painter who has ever attempted to portray groups outside of his or her demographic origin is guilty of similar insensitivity – including Van Gogh.

In short, this line of reasoning is unhelpful, divisive and destructive. It is essentially a moralistic stance which simplifies the complexity of a historical situation (or – more accurately – multiple historical situations over many places and periods) in order to gratify the moraliser. Relations between colonisers and colonised were complex, interdependent, shifting and personal. Making gross generalisations about Nineteenth Century colonial visitors, administrators and journalists is as dismissively ignorant as the purported ignorance within those colonialist societies.

Dr Maite van Dijk is an esteemed scholar of Van Gogh and his era, whose work has earned her justified respect. In her text about the art of colonialism she has seriously erred. Curators and art historians should be wary of uncritically adopting tenets of feminist and post-colonialist studies. These fields are essentially political in content and purpose. It is right and valuable to selectively study and discuss art issues related to gender and colonialism – but not to take any of those ideas directly from fields which are specifically orientated to push express political agendas. Unless they are willing to assess evidential bases for claims regarding social issues considered indicative of injustice or power relationships (as opposed to taking on trust the interpretations of social activists holding academic positions), art historians might be best advised to largely avoid those approaches.

 

 

Maite van Dijk & Joost van der Hoeven, Gauguin & Laval in Martinique, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2018, paperback, 176pp, fully illus., €24.95, ISBN 978 90 6868 769 9 (hardback, Dutch and French versions available)

21 October 2018

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

Corot’s Women

La Femme ‡ la perle
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Woman with a Pearl, c. 1868–1870 oil on canvas overall: 70 x 55 cm (27 9/16 x 21 5/8 in.) framed: 93 x 74.5 x 9 cm (36 5/8 x 29 5/16 x 3 9/16 in.) Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo by Stéphane Maréchalle

While the best known art of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) is landscapes – those small, dreamy, smudged, grey-inflected views of northern France, which can be found in collections worldwide – the current exhibition in Washington DC displays a secondary facet of Corot’s output: his paintings of women (Corot: Women, 9 September-31 December 2018, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; formerly at Musée Marmottan, Paris). Forty-three paintings by Corot of women have been gathered to demonstrate Corot’s strengths (and weaknesses) as a figure painter. (Reviewed here from the thorough and attractive clothbound catalogue.)

The figure paintings comprise 10% of Corot’s output. “Most were done in his last two decades, the later 1850s through the early 1870s,” according to Mary Morton, curator of this exhibition. Although some of the nudes were exhibited, most of the figure paintings were done for Corot’s private satisfaction. Few are dated and many were in his possession at the time of his death. Corot followed the French academic fashion of painting picturesque types in the form of figures wearing national costumes. Examples in Corot’s output included national dress of Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Switzerland and Algeria. He also made a series of paintings of women in domestic settings. One (Woman Reading in the Studio (c. 1868)) is effectively a precursor to the paintings of Degas, Sickert, Vuillard, Bonnard and Valotton of disengaged preoccupied women absorbed by their own thoughts (or existential ennui, if you want to approach it intellectually).

5035-006
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Woman Reading in the Studio, c. 1868 oil on paperboard on wood overall: 32.5 x 41.3 cm (12 13/16 x 16 1/4 in.) framed: 50.5 x 59.1 x 6.4 cm (19 7/8 x 23 1/4 x 2 1/2 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Corot’s pallid figures in static poses against schematic landscape backgrounds as flat as stage backdrops are the starting point for almost Puvis de Chavannes painted.

In the portraits, Corot sometimes used Old Masters as sources. Woman with a Pearl (c. 1868-70) is based on Leonardo’s La Belle Ferroniere. The painting now belongs to the Louvre and rightly belongs there as it is a memorable and refreshing restatement of a standard portrait format, brought to life with a mixture of modesty, panache and directness of approach.

5035-019
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Young Greek Woman, c. 1870–1871 oil on canvas overall: 84.14 x 70.49 cm (33 1/8 x 27 3/4 in.) framed: 102.3 x 73.7 x 10.8 cm (40 1/4 x 29 x 4 1/4 in.) Collection of Shelburne Museum, Gift of the Electra Havemeyer Webb Fund, Inc.

Some of the portraits are very fine. In particular, Young Greek Woman (c. 1870-71) has the feeling of a very particular person caught in the act of posing. It combines a sense of a momentary rest with the monumental strength and an enduring classic beauty. The merest hints of the eye whites give a delicate hypnotism to the dark eyes. It is no wonder that Lucian Freud was an admirer of Corot and bought a portrait by him (included in this exhibition). The subject slumped in the studio while being observed is the core of Freud’s work.

Notable in Corot’s portraits is the simplicity of the compositions and forms. There is a near geometrical quality to many pictures. It was no wonder that the 1909 Salon d’automne of Corot figure paintings caught the attention of Braque and Picasso. A number of Corot portraits were reinterpreted through a Cubist lens. Corot can also be considered a major influence on Picasso during his Neoclassical period (1915-25). The plain modelling of faces, classical physiognomy, half-length figure format, minimal settings and pale pastose scumbling over darker underpainting that one finds in Picasso’s paintings of his wife Olga, Sara Murphy and fictional women all match Corot better than they do Ingres or Renoir, two other painters Picasso was looking at at the time.

Many of the pictures are sombre of palette and modest of size. These are the best. The energy of the brushwork and sense of freedom enliven these pictures. The larger more finished works (probably bound for specific buyers or public display) are considerably less engaging. This is not just a matter of our modern taste and eye. The larger pieces lack invention and intensity. The skins have an unpleasant lifeless overworked quality. All were painted in the studio. Even the paintings of figures outdoors are – from the evidence of the lighting – made in the indoors. Not until the Naturalist movement of the 1860s and 1870s did any artists attempt to portray figures in natural lighting conditions. Often these failed to replicate the unique effects of outdoor lighting in their studio-derived works.

There are similarities between Corot’s nudes and Courbet’s, though how much they knew of each other’s art is not covered in the catalogue essays. Both artists publicly exhibited their nudes in Paris so must have been familiar with other’s activity in the genre. Catalogue authors point out that Corot used the nascent genre of academic nude photography as a source for some of his paintings. Sebastien Allard notes in the catalogue that Corot’s move into making nudes may have been an attempt to display himself as a more versatile painter than the landscapist he was known as. His reputation was long established by the 1850s – in some respects too well established, as although his work sold well it was judged tired and repetitive.

5035-004
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot The Repose, 1860, reworked c. 1865/1870 oil on canvas overall: 57.8 x 101.6 cm (22 3/4 x 40 in.) framed: 83.8 x 127.3 x 12.1 cm (33 x 50 1/8 x 4 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection)

His nudes puzzled many viewers. While the artist invoked classical allusions, his figures were clearly drawn from living women (with all their imperfections) and his style fluctuated between the schematic, idealistic and realistic across the passages of the pictures. What were viewers supposed to make of Corot’s nudes? Was he mocking classical values or trying to revive them? The same questions would be asked in later controversies related to Courbet and Manet’s nudes. To the modern eye, Corot’s nudes are still awkward. They evoke the idyllic past and idealistic mission of classical art but fail to fulfil requirements of those touchstones, fail to meaningfully advance them and fail to effectively undermine the grounding for those aspects. In these respects, Corot’s nudes are less satisfactory than his portraits, as he is caught disadvantageously unable to fulfil the demands of an old tradition and unaware of how to liberate the genre in a suitable manner.

About 11 paintings in Corot’s studio series have been identified. These show women in Corot’s own studio. They differ from the portraits in that they include detailed depictions of the studio and its contents as well as the women. (Corot only rarely painted men.)  Some show women seated contemplating a painting on his easel or with a musical instrument. It is unknown what prompted these paintings or if they had any particular significance for the painter. These are not so much “problem pictures” and “puzzling pictures”. It may be that Corot wanted to nothing more than put women in strongly colour clothing in a dim earth-hue setting. It seems unlikely that these pictures will be decoded – indeed it is quite likely there is nothing to be decoded.

It is a disappointing that there is not more discussion given to the portraits in the catalogue. Nevertheless, both catalogue and exhibition provide welcome attention for an unusual and rich seam in this landscapist’s output. Although a couple of Corot’s portraits are recognised as fine examples, this exhibition should serve to establish Corot as an original and accomplished portraitist. As for the nudes, it may take more advocacy to gain Corot more than a footnote in studies of the nude in Nineteenth Century French painting. Visitors and readers can decide this for themselves.

 

Mary Morton et al, Corot: Women, National Gallery of Art (distr. Yale University Press), cloth hardback, 180pp, 99 col. illus., £39.95, ISBN 978 0 300 23673 6

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

Encountering Pontormo

Cat 3_Pontormo_Visitation

[Image: Jacopo da Pontormo (b. Pontorme, Empoli, Italy, 1494; d. Florence, 1557), Visitation (ca. 1528–29), oil on wood, 207 × 159 cm Carmignano, Pieve dei Santi, Michele e Francesco, © Antonio Quattrone, Florence]

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1557) was considered one of the leading painters of the Late Renaissance period in Florence. We define the Late Renaissance of Italy as commencing with the death of Raphael in 1520. It is his unfinished painting of the Transfiguration (1520; completed posthumously) which marked a move away from the combination of idealism and verisimilitude – typical of the High Renaissance – towards Mannerism, which is characterised by reduced realism and study from life, greater artificiality, more anatomical distortion in the service of emotional extremity and to display the artist’s originality, increased levels of strangeness and cultivation of the novel for its own sake.

Miraculous Encounters: Pontormo from Drawing to Painting (7 September 2018-6 January 2019, Morgan Library, New York; touring to J. Paul Getty Museum, 5 February-28 April 2019; previously at the Uffizi, Florence) is an exhibition which brings together some of Pontormo’s best paintings Visitation, Portrait of a Halbardier and Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap. All of these works are approximately located in the period 1528-30, a period of turmoil in Florentine history. From 1529-30 the city was besieged by forces intent on overthrowing the Florentine Republic, which they did in 1530 and installed Alessandro de’ Medici (r. 1531-7) as ruler of the city. During this time, able-bodied Florentine men were under arms defending the city, perhaps a reason why a number of Pontormo’s male portraits of that era show the subject with weapons.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the newly restored is Visitation (c. 1528-9), loaned from Pieve dei Santi Michele e Francesco, Florence. The painting shows the encounter between the Virgin Mary and her cousin Saint Elizabeth on the streets of Florence. They are watched by two female spiritual attendants. What is striking about the painting is the simplicity of the clothing, the clarity of the colour and the gentle rhyming of forms. The faces of the attendants echo each other; the cousins mirror each other. The cousins interlock their arms. There is essentially nothing in the picture other than this group of figures. While the drapery is realistically rendered, there is no sense that this is a scene taken from life: the colours are simplified, the setting rudimentary, the perspective is inaccurate. The faces of the two cousins are wonderfully vivid and tendered depicted. The attendants are more ciphers, less substantial in presence and appearance.

It seems that Pontormo set his painting beside a prison building in Florence. There may be symbolism to that. There is – perhaps more plausibly – a more pragmatic reason for the choice of that building: it has no windows and decorative detail visible from the position he chose and was thus an easy building to paint.

461 Figura

 

[Image: Jacopo da Pontormo, Study for the Visitation (ca. 1528–29), black chalk, traces of white chalk, squared with red chalk, paper, 32.6 × 24 cm, Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle, Stampe, inv. 461 F, © Roberto Palermo/Gabinetto Fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi/Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e del Turismo]

A preparatory chalk drawing has come from the Uffizi. It is squared and scans of the painting reveal a grid. So Pontormo used a grid to transfer his design rather than a cartoon. Both were common methods of the time. Vasari (who rather negative about Pontormo and his pupil Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72)) suggested that Pontormo was greatly influenced by Dürer’s prints. His engraving Four Naked Women (1497), a print that was known to have circulated in Italy by the time Pontormo painted Visitation. We know that Pontormo used Dürer’s print designs for a series of frescoes (now lost), so it is a possibility.

Portrait of a Halberdier (Francesco Guardi?)

[Image: Jacopo da Pontormo, Portrait of a Halberdier (Francesco Guardi?) (ca. 1529–30), oil on canvas (transferred from wood), 95.3 × 73 cm, Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, inv. 89.PA.49]

Two fine portraits of young gentlemen are of subjects who remain unidentified. Texts in the catalogue set out the suggestions of the identities of the paintings. Bronzino was a worthy successor to Pontormo as a portraitist. The exhibition and catalogue shed light on the collaborations and borrowings between master and pupil. For example, there is Pygmalion (c. 1530), which was designed by Pontormo but executed by Bronzino. Illustrated in the catalogue is a nude study by Pontormo that Bronzino used in his painting.

Exhibited is Martyrdom of Saint Acacius and the Ten Thousand (1529-30), Bronzino’s variation of his master’s painting of the same period, which was derived from a design Pontormo had made for a commission of 1521-2. The idea of originality and plagiarism was a complex one. During this period the transmission of figures, details and layouts through pattern books – shared by master and pupils and later passed down to other painters – as an example of the artisan creator in the manual arts, was being supplemented by the jealous guarding of prerogative of the artist as creator in the liberal arts, where artists began to guard their intellectual property. Dürer went to Venice (in part) to curb the activity of a copyist using his designs and Michelangelo was furious that his unfinished Sistine Ceiling was seen by Raphael, who incorporated Michelangelo’s innovations into his own frescoes. Yet shortly after Michelangelo made designs specifically for Sebastiano del Piombo to paint in competition with Raphael. Artists could be generous or stingy towards artists outside of their workshop.

There is a long essay on the Visitation and shorter essays on its restoration history and discoveries of new technical analyses. The results of visual analysis allow us to understand that creation process, showing underpainting and underdrawing. Restoration data is given in the information for the paintings. We shall see if this takes off in future catalogues. Such information is often kept confidential, not least due to some terribly destructive restorations. The footnotes are of heroic extensiveness and will be a mine for future researchers. For even an average reader, such long and thorough notes are an absorbing diversion. The catalogue illustrates the paintings and drawings and there is an index and bibliography. This book will be of value to anyone wanting to understand the Late Renaissance in Florence, Mannerism and the careers of Pontormo and Bronzino.

 

Bruce Edelstein and Davide Gasparotto (eds.), Miraculous Encounters: Pontormo from Drawing to Painting, J. Paul Getty Museum, 11 September 2018, hardback, 160pp, 60 col. illus., $40, ISBN 978 1 60606 589 1

 

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

© 2018 Alexander Adams

New Leonardo Paintings Discovered?

03_Madonna di Piazza

[Image: Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Lorenzo di Credi, The Madonna di Piazza (ca. 1475-85), Oil on panel. Cathedral of San Zeno, Pistoia, Chapel of the Sacrament. SCALA/Art Resource, N.Y.]

 

The corpuses of the Old Masters go through phases of expansion and contraction. Once most of the groundwork of scholarship is done – and with Renaissance painters, that material may be scanty and uninformative – the main work left to art historians is attribution. New historians prove themselves by revising established chronologies and corpuses. This is partly the process of bodies of knowledge evolving through incremental revision, addition and subtraction; it is partly a younger generation actively claiming status and authority by refuting the work of older generations. Thus we go through waves of attribution and de-attribution. Giorgione’s body of paintings was once counted close to three figures; now it consists of merely six paintings. Rembrandt’s oeuvre swells and contracts. When it deflates, the oeuvres of his students to inflate with rejected Rembrandts.

There is no more famous painter than Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), yet his painted oeuvre is tantalisingly small. Tales of unlocated, ruined and destroyed paintings torment our imaginations with treasures that have been lost to time. Leonardo worked notoriously slowly, finished little and undermined his only murals (The Last Supper and The Battle of Anghiari) through a predilection for reckless technical experimentation which caused the paintings to be declared ruins within his own lifetime. He was known during his time for devoting his time to invention, mathematics, architecture and anatomical study, neglecting his painting commissions. He is by some distance the least productive painter of the Italian High Renaissance. There is a natural urge to scour museums, churches and private collections for overlooked works by Leonardo. It is the dream of every art historian or picture dealer to identify a painting by the world’s most famous artist.

The current exhibition (29 June-7 October 2018, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven) (reviewed from the catalogue) examines Leonardo’s early work, at a time when he trained in the studio of Andrea del Verrochio (1435-1488) in Florence. Verrochio was an acclaimed master whose busy studio produced sculpture, engraved goldware, paintings, decorative fittings and other art of the highest quality. The best known of his art is the bronzes, which rival Donatello’s for accomplishment, vigour and invention. Paintings of that time were collaborative works. The master would design the composition, draw some detail studies, draw a cartoon and assign pupils to transfer the cartoon to a panel, canvas or wall. More able assistants would be assigned roles to execute areas of the painting, with the master painting some parts himself. It is common to find Renaissance paintings which display a variety of styles, abilities and techniques.

Vasari recorded that Leonardo’s first painting in the studio was the head of an angel in The Baptism of Christ (c. 1470-5). The attribution is accurate but partial. Examination reveals some of the landscape was by Leonardo. Yet these passages are so accomplished that it is impossible this was his first painting. So, since Leonardo was apparently apprenticed to Verrochio since the age of 16 (1468) or even 14 (1466), what had Leonardo painted before his contribution to the Baptism? As he was associated with Verrochio until at least 1476, what did Leonardo paint in the studio after the Baptism?

The three best known painters in the studio (from our perspective) were Verrochio, Leonardo and Lorenzo di Credi (1457/9-1536), who was nominated by Verrochio as his successor and chief artist of his Florence studio when he relocated to Venice. Extensive space is given to discussion of a large altarpiece The Madonna di Piazza (c. 1475-85; Cathedral of San Zeno) and two small panels which formerly comprised part of its frame, A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo (c. 1475-85; Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts) and The Annunciation (c. 1475-9; the Louvre). The main painting seems typical of Verrochio and Kanter assigns authorship to him, Lorenzo and Leonardo. Leonardo may have painted some of the drapery but the part of the painting that stands out as exceptional in quality – beyond both Verrochio and the (young) Lorenzo – is the ornate rug. It crisp and clear; the foreshortening of design as it lies over the steps is faultless. It is on the level of Van Eyck and the Netherlandish masters. It is strange to think of a young man who would go on to become a polymath universal man labouring over the recession of a carpet, but it could well be his work. In the Saint Donatus the robe of the saint and the landscape could be Leonardo’s. The gentle blue haze of the atmosphere occluding the mountains is something that Leonardo excelled in. In the Annunciation the wing of the angel and landscape are nominated. Considering that all three paintings (plus missing parts) were all painted in Verrochio’s workshop over a ten-year period (delayed by a payment dispute) during Leonardo’s apprenticeship, the attributions seem strong.

Two battle scenes painted on panels – either parts of cassone (decorated garment chests) or wall panels – show touches of unusual subtlety. Kanter explains that the atmospheric recession seen in the landscapes and the realist light on battlements is typical of Leonardo and rare among Florentine art of the period. The Battle of Pydna (c. 1472) seems the more likely candidate for entry into the canon.

08_Battle of Pydna

[Image: Leonardo da Vinci and collaborator, The Battle of Pydna (c. 1472), tempera on panel. Musée Jacquemart-André, Institut de France, Paris, inv. no. MJAP-P 1822.2. Photo: Hideaki Sugiura, Nagoya City Museum]

The painting medium is described as tempera – a medium in which Leonardo never used as a mature artist. Perhaps this is a one of Leonardo’s apprentice works made at time before he worked exclusively in oil. A possible companion work is National Gallery’s Tobias and the Angel (c. 1468), also painted in tempera. The dog and fish in the painting are painted in a much more sophisticated and lively manner than the rest of Verrochio’s painting. This is not a new attribution, as this observation has long been in the Leonardo literature. This is a more secure addition to the Leonardo canon than the battle scenes.

Cleaning of a number of Verrochio paintings of Madonna and Child have revealed differences in paint handling, artistic concentration and technique. The two most likely contenders for partial authorship by Leonardo are in the National Gallery, London and the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. The delicacy of the veils and sleeves are signs of superior painter.

"Maria mit dem Kind"
[Image: Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin with the Seated Child (c. 1468-70), tempera on panel. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, inv. no. 104A. bpk Bildagentur/Gemaeldegalerie, Staatliche Museum Berlin, Photo: Jörg P. Anders/Art Resource, N.Y.]

A less persuasive suggestion is the Edinburgh Madonna and Child (The Ruskin Madonna). Although linked through the Louvre Annunciation and preparatory drawings, the painting is very much weaker in design and execution than the others.

Kanter discusses the attribution of sculpture from the circle of Verrochio, including bas reliefs of maternities and the standing Christ child. We know that Leonardo was an adept modeller of clay. He made a number of sculptures – including a giant equestrian statue for the Sforzas in Milan, which was destroyed by the invading French soldiers – but no single sculpture by Leonardo has been firmly identified. Some delicate heads of infants seem the most credible attributions. It is a little disappointing that Kanter does not address Leonardo’s involvement in the sculptural productions of Verrochio’s workshop.

Two specialist essays examine of the Annunciation and Saint Donatus using technical analysis and a further essay draws conclusions. New scans reveal the underdrawing and how the paintings were created. Overall, the catalogue makes a fascinating glimpse into the origins of the world’s most celebrated painter and is sure to provoke debate and controversy for years to come.

As this catalogue and exhibition dwell upon Leonardo’s early years as a painter, it does not mention two recent controversial attributions to the mature Leonardo: La Bella Principessa and Salvator Mundi. In my view, both are stylistically inconsistent with the periods of Leonardo’s production to which they are assigned; neither has clear provenances (La Bella Principessa has no provenance before recent decades); ultimately, neither deserves acceptance. It is suggested that La Bella Principessa is a pastiche by a Nineteenth Century German artist but it may well be a modern forgery. Salvator Mundi is a design by Leonardo, possibly executed partly in his studio by assistants. The most credible attribution has been to one of Leonardo’s followers Bernardino Luini (1480/2-1532), as Leonardo expert Mathew Landrus put forth. It has been extensively restored and was only attributed to Leonardo in order to increase its value. At $450 million, it is the most expensive Luini painting in history.

For an extensive discussion of both works, visit www.artwatch.org.uk

 

Laurence Kanter, Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio, Yale University Art Gallery (distr. Yale University Press), September 2018, cloth hardback, $35, ISBN 978 0 300 23301 8

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my art and books by visiting www.alexanderadams.art

Delacroix at the Met

Allard

 

This summer’s exhibition of art by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at the Louvre drew record-breaking attendance. The display attracted 540,000 visitors. In the last few years Delacroix’s art has undergone a thorough reappraisal in a series of exhibitions, monographs and specialist studies. That reappraisal continues as the Paris exhibition travels to New York. One of the leading centres for Delacroix studies is the Metropolitan Museum – the museum has the best collections of Delacroix’s art outside of France – so it is only fitting that the museum hosts the second stage of the exhibition of Delacroix’s art. Many of the exhibited works have travelled to New York and are complemented by unique works.

Delacroix (17 September 2018-6 January 2019, Metropolitan Museum, New York) presents oil paintings, sketches, drawings, pastels and prints by the artist. (This review is from the catalogue.) The authors of the catalogue text deftly recount the artist’s achievements and outline his career. Delacroix’s relationship with the administrators, critics and public of the annual Salon was – like that of most other French artists of the era – important and subject to variation. A series of early successes catapulted Delacroix to stardom and official patronage, yet he was never assured of positive responses to his competitions and the Salon submissions. He remained a divisive artist to the end and never became rich.

Delacroix became known for his radical reimagining of the rules of composition and content, by removing obvious protagonists, heroic figures and decentring of compositions, most especially noted upon by critics of Massacres in Chios (1824). His handling was also considered shockingly loose. He was accused of using brooms to apply paint and egregious quantities of impasto. His pursuit of sensuous colour combinations was exemplified by Women of Algiers.

Although Delacroix largest and most renowned paintings are unable to travel, they are reproduced and discussed in the catalogue. Luckily, some of the minor pictures will be able to shine. Two of those are Still-life with Lobsters (1826-7), with its rich range of colours and earthiness set against a vivid landscape, shows the influence of English landscapists. Female Academy Figure (Mlle Rose) (c. 1820-3) is a nude study which shows Delacroix using broken-colour brushwork; close observation led the painter to vary colour of different parts of the anatomy in an intense manner that prefigured Naturalism. It also shows Delacroix delight in paint and painting led him to neglect scrupulous drawing. Orphan Girl in the Cemetery (1824) is a study for one of the figures in Massacres at Chios. It is the most delicate, careful and life-like of his oil studies and is fresh and captivating. In terms of quality, Orphan Girl matches anything Delacroix ever painted.

Delacroix’s watercolours from his travels in North Africa are much celebrated. We see men and women in their typical garb – with the artist attracted to the most traditional and ornate costumes. Views of landscapes, buildings and doorways would be used in later paintings, providing settings for Orientalist paintings. The apparent ancient demeanour and physiognomies inspired Delacroix to make modern battle pictures that evoke the antique. The hunting scenes allowed Delacroix to produce original variants of Rubens’s pictures, which he admired. Rubens was Delacroix’s hero, both in his subjects and treatment of colour and brushwork, something that he mentioned often in his journals. Direct copies of Rubens and references to him in Delacroix’s original pictures abound.

The young artist was caught up in the wave of French lithography that flourished in the early years of the Bourbon Restoration. At this time lithography was a mass media and was used in the graphic arts to portray the suffering and heroism of Napoleon’s army and the plight of veterans. The included lithograph illustrations are well chosen and display Delacroix’s gift for the pithy summary and attraction to the human drama. Using sgraffito  to scratch a layer of wax crayon on the lithographic stone, Delacroix created a sfumato rendering of figures in nocturnal settings. A particularly good example of that is blacksmith (1833). The visible light source is the glowing metal; the low position adds excitement and theatricality through its unusualness.

The authors describe very well Delacroix’s innovative approach to colour technique.

Flochetage entailed a departure from the classical notion of local color, which is predicated on the essence of a thing. The principle assumes that every object possesses a natural color that can be isolated by precisely drawing the model. Black is then added to that color to produce shadows, in a subtle chiaroscuro. Delacroix realized that the addition of black only muddied the color because the shadows themselves are colored, resulting, as they do, from reflections. […] in Women of Algiers, Delacroix experimented intuitively and for the first time with the law of simultaneous contrast and the optical mixture of complementary colors. […] this manner of paint application confers on the viewer an active role, since the mixing of colors occurs in the eye and brain rather than on the palette. A more intense green is achieved, for instance, when a painter, instead of mixing a yellow with a blue and a dab of yellow on the canvas, following a method Delacroix would call flochetage.

This insight came from the artist’s time in North Africa, experiencing the strong light and bright colours there. His preference for Venetian colour over Florentine line and for developing designs on the canvas was definitely aligned to Romantic ideals rather than Neo-classical systematic preparation through extensive sketches, studies and set compositions.

The exhibition pays attention to the religious, mythological and theatrical paintings of Delacroix’s middle years, when he produced fewer iconic pictures. The artist’s passion for theatrical drama is reflected in his many illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays. The painter fretted about the impermanence of the pigments he had used. Tempted by bright strong colours developed using new chemical technology, Delacroix had succumbed to the will-o’-the-wisp of fugitive organic colours, leaving behind the proven endurance of time-tested mineral pigments. While the drive of his early years had been to establish his fame through Salon acclaim, his later years were devoted to making decorative and religious murals, with posterity his main concern. One overlooked aspect which this exhibition gives its due is the accomplishment and variety of the artist’s late landscapes and seascapes. The works are rarely reproduced so they feel fresh and exciting.

Much of Delacroix’s oil painting has suffered from grave cracking and fading (consider the faded blue robes of Dante in The Barque of Dante (1822)); the illustrations (crisp and large) show us some of the diminished glory of Delacroix’s colour. Excellent design provides fine juxtapositions of pictures, allowing easy comparison. Thorough notes, index and bibliography make this volume a useful study aid. In addition to the main body of the text, the catalogue includes original and intelligent essays on the influence upon Delacroix of Guérin and Gros (though sadly not of Géricault), Delacroix as a writer, the 1855 retrospective of his paintings and Courbet’s reaction to him. This exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are touchstones for anyone interested in Romantic art and the achievements of Delacroix.

 

Sébastien Allard, Côme Fabre, et al., Delacroix, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale University Press), cloth hardback, 328pp, 288 col. illus., $65, ISBN 978 1 588 396518

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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

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