Sam Francis, “Light on Fire”

Sam Francis (1923-1994) was one of the titans of Abstract Expressionism. No survey of the movement is complete without the inclusion of Francis’s distinctive, watery abstracts and expansive surfaces. Yet, Francis is also an outsider. A West Coast painter, with no ties to New York, Francis’s life is not integrated into the New York School scene and thus has been summarily described and is not well known by even enthusiasts of the movement. Now, Gabrielle Selz’s biography corrects that omission by painting a vivid picture of the difficult and unexpected life of this important Late Modernist painter. Selz’s father was Peter Selz, an important curator and administrator in the American post-war art scene, who was a supporter of Francis. Consequently, the author knew the artist and his work from a young age.

Outdoor life was an important part of Francis’s youth. Raised in the Depression in San Mateo (near San Francisco) California and Nova Scotia, Francis took a keen interest in nature. This would first stimulate his study of biology and later art. In 1936, young Francis was involved in a tragic accident. He had been handed a loaded gun by a student in the boys toilets. The students believed the pistol was defective or in some way disabled. When Francis pulled the trigger, none of the three students expected it to fire. Francis shot a fellow student, killing the boy. Although the family of the boy (who had found he pistol in the family home) absolved Francis of the killing, the death left a lasting mark on him, as did the death of his mother at the age of 44. 

Inspired by religion, mysticism, experiences of nature and romantic literature, Francis strove for to embrace the most powerful and ineffable. Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky captured the young man’s attention. “Like Sam [Francis], Ouspensky had lost a parent as a child and then embarked on a quest for secrets and hidden teachings that might lift the veil between the visible realm and the existence of something beyond.” Ouspensky’s ideas enlivened Francis’s imagination and liberated his conception of space and matter.   

Francis opted for biology at University of California, Berkeley and was intent on a career as a doctor. He had enrolled in the navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the USA declared war, he was called up. He switched to the air force and was transferred to various airbases across the country during his training period. Francis chose to specialise in reconnaissance flying – a dangerous branch. As it happened, he would never see military action.

Injured during training accidents in late 1943 – which, at this time, were common and frequently fatal in a rapidly expanding air corps – Francis’s spine became degeneratively impaired. Stricken with pain that doctors could not diagnose – and actually described as psychosomatic – Francis was in a grave condition by the time spinal tuberculosis was detected. He underwent surgery in a military hospital in Denver, followed by immobilisation in a body cast while fixed to a bed frame. Dosed on morphine, Francis drifted in and out of consciousness, hallucinating about strange visitors. In one vision, colours on the walls bled. Close to death and almost written off by medical staff, Francis received newly discovered antibiotics, which saved his life. As part of his recovery, he was given a set of watercolours, which he could paint with suspended over the paper.  

“With the gift of the watercolors, Sam started to paint and draw. He copied from art books, cartoons, postcards, magazines, movie posters […] Eventually he began painting remembered landscapes from his childhood. Soon he was working on his art sixteen hours a day. […] He hung his finished work around him, transforming his room into a studio and his nurses and aides into assistants.”

At the end of the two years of his illness (which left him immobilised for many months), Francis had a vision. “He was awake when a great orb of light like an enormous electric current appeared at the foot of his bed. It seemed to have come out of the wall, yet he could see the wall behind it. Slowly, the swirling, brilliant, transparent ball of energy moved toward him. Then the current was inside him, and it travelled through his entire body. One week later, Sam claimed, his doctor said to him he was almost cured. Whether or not he was cured so suddenly, Sam believed that the transparent orb he’d seen completely altered him. Trapped in the darkness of his cage, he had beheld a light. “It was a gift,” Sam said. From then on, he determined to move toward this apparition, toward the current.” This had a great impact on the imagery of Francis’s mature art and his visionary approach to painting.

In January 1947, Francis was discharged from hospital; the following month he married Vera, his childhood sweetheart. However, it turned out that they were sexually incompatible but they attempted to reach a harmonious modus vivendi. That attempt ended in 1949, in separation.

Francis re-enrolled in University of California, Berkeley, this time to study fine art on the GI Bill, earning his BA in 1949 and his MA in 1950. By this time, he was working in an abstract style, with soft biomorphic forms in a single colour tessellating the grounds. These evoked misty or watery forms placed in undetermined space, although painted in an unambiguous and painterly manner. Apparently, Francis rarely attended classes and – distanced by age and disability – was viewed as distant and aloof, even arrogant. Francis was closely studying the art of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Edward Corbett, which influenced his direction. At Berkeley, Francis studied with Corbett, who was working on paintings of Bay Area misty landscapes.

Francis departed for Paris in 1950. Paris had been the birth place of Modernism, but by 1950 Paris was much reduced in stature in the art world. American painters were seen as leaders of the avant-garde, not least for going beyond what the École de Paris had done. Francis received GI Bill stipend of $75 per month only if enrolled at a college. He signed up to Atelier Fernand Léger but did not see eye to eye with the master and it seems they hardly interacted. He visited the Les Trois Marroniers café, where Georges Duthuit and his wife Marguerite Matisse held court, and spent time with Jean Paul Riopelle. He drew his greatest inspiration from Monet’s panoramic canvases of waterlilies. This was a highly productive period, and one in which Francis’s originality was recognised by French and American observers. In Lovely Blueness (No. 1) (1955-7) was a massive canvas, which played with ultramarine, flecked with yellow, flanked by patches of orange, pink and red – reflecting the influence of Byzantine mosaics. Selz conveys the excitement of this period with brio.

In 1953, Francis married long-term girlfriend, Muriel Goodwin. It was another open marriage, which led to turbulent emotions and separations, some due to financial struggles. In 1954, Francis went to New York, where he was treated as a peculiarity – an American painter who had made his name and found his form in France. He was generally well received by the New York painters and a few dealers courted him. However, when his first solo exhibition in the USA opened (in February 1956) it was met by reasonable sales but biting reviews. Francis departed for France disillusioned. His second marriage foundered. “By now, there was a pattern in Sam’s relationships with women, especially during his outward-turning moments. He’d find a younger woman, usually an aspiring artist who was good, just not too competitive with him, and run off with her. He’d left the hospital with Vera, he’d left Vera and America with Muriel, he’d split with Muriel and gone off to Mexico with [Carol] Haerer. The pattern would continue throughout much of his life.”

In 1957 Francis went to undertake an artist residency in Tokyo, to paint a mural Sōgetsu school. In the following years, he would be feted as a great American and world painter, invited to paint and exhibit globally. Selz describes the sequence of affairs, children, exhibitions, prizes and landmark paintings. In 1959, Francis set up home in New York City with his third wife, who was expecting their child, only to uproot all three of them in 1960, due to his wanderlust and appetite for experiences.  

Selz puts the case of Francis as a counter-culture figure. She notes the shift around 1955-60, when abstract art went from being oppositional and liberated to being commodities for millionaires and geopolitical tools for Western governments. Non-conformist to the core, Francis prioritised freedom and expression above all else, so it is unsurprising that he sympathised with anarchistic and revolutionary aims of youthful protestors in the 1960s. He was troubled by the escalating prices of his art and spent compulsively. He experimented with performance art as a way of removing the price element of art production. He also collaborated in mixed media projects, which challenged expectations of fine art. One was a sky painting in coloured smoke released from a helicopter, executed above Tokyo in 1966.

In 1961 Francis experienced a recurrence of tuberculosis, which threatened his life and left him once again hospitalised, this time in Switzerland. As previously, he painted in watercolour from his hospital bed. The painted series of Blue Balls (1961-3) was a reference to the tubercular infection of Francis’s genitals, as well as a reference back to Pollock’s landmark Blue Poles (1952). Selz backs the idea that Francis’s Blue Balls were a bridging of introspective, existential Abstract Expressionism and cool, detached Pop Art. Feeling unmoored – he had separated from his third wife – Francis decided to settle back in California (this time Southern California, Santa Monica), while all the time maintaining studios in New York, Paris and Zurich.

In Santa Monica, Francis took up printmaking at Tamarind Workshop, Los Angeles, finding colour lithography congenial. He formed friendships with local artists such as Richard Diebenkorn and James Turrell. Francis was also critical in shaping the nascent Los Angeles art scene, which lagged far behind other major American cities. A large sailmaker’s workshop gave him enough space to paint huge canvases flat on the floor. (Canvases with edges as long as 215”/5.46 m.) At this time, Francis began his Edge or ma paintings; ma means space or gap in Japanese. The Edge paintings confine mark making to the edges of the canvases, with blank space at the centre. One of which was Berlin Red (1969-70), the world’s largest painting on canvas. Francis would spend time considering preparatory material and doing menial tasks to settle himself, before launching into extended periods of painting, walking over the surface, usually in his underwear alone. The work was so absorbing that he did not feel his back pain.

Such large projects demanded assistants. They also acted as packers and hangers of his huge canvases. One of them studied paint technology and developed paints using vivid pigments and of special viscosity and transparency. Selz is particularly good on the personal dynamics of Francis’s interactions with studio assistants. Francis was apparently generous, loyal, engaging and personable. He also had another side. “But Sam could also be capricious and manipulative. […] He was frequently fickle, giving one set of instructions to one assistant and contradictory instructions to another. He fostered divisions as a way to maintain control, and he expected the assistants who lived in the guesthouse to be available at any hour of the day or night. He was moody and arrogant.”

Wealth facilitated Francis’s access to indulgence. “Sam had many compulsions, especially women and food. By the 1980s, he was addicted to vitamins and healers. Ill health continued to plague him. He traveled with a suitcase packed with nutritional and mineral supplements. If there was a pseudoscientist in the vicinity – someone who practiced with crystals, magnets, beet juice, or hands-on magic touches; someone who drove up in a Rolls-Royce and charged exorbitant fees – Sam employed them.”

Francis’s painting was constantly evolving. It is entirely to his credit (albeit, compatible with his nature) that he never remained complacent. He developed a new system, of applying water with wetting agents in lattices, then applying acrylic paint so that it was bleed and spread within these wet areas. However, detached from the restrictions of limited materials, space and market for his art, Francis’s ego would expand to fill spaces his status afforded him. He created the biggest painting in the world, used the world’s largest printing press, had a canvas made for him that was a fifth of a mile long. Francis’s technique allowed giant areas to be covered, but this was not necessarily a wise or effective deployment of his creativity. Too much of his late work tended towards emptiness and even bombast.

In 1989, Francis was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Delays caused by Francis and his unwillingness to undergo treatment that would leave him impotent, his condition declined. After conventional medication worked, Francis switched to alternative medicine. His cancer grew and metastasised. The account of Francis’s last months presents a chaotic circus of “up to thirty  caregivers from around the world thronged the house”. He died on 4 November 1994, aged 71. His estate was valued at over $79 million and became the subject of a multi-party legal struggle.

Francis’s status is muddied by huge overproduction and unwillingness to edit his output. Painting was his life and a compulsive activity; especially in his last years, Francis carried on painting regardless of quality. At his best, Francis is a great painter, but he was not often at his best. The catalogue raisonné of oil paintings tacitly acknowledged this problem, by issuing a partial printed catalogue and a full catalogue on an accompanying disc. A full printed catalogue raisonné of oil paintings would have diluted esteem and lowered values of his paintings. In fairness, it seems unwise to assess Francis’s painting as a whole because this diminishes his standing. Any artist wants to be remembered at his best.

Selz obviously admires Francis’s skill as an artist and his zest for life but is honest enough not to conceal the artist’s frequent selfishness (regarding relationships) and arrogance (regarding his artistic status). Light on Fire is a biographical portrait that is as rich and contradictory as its subject. Definitely recommended for fans of Francis, Abstract Expressionism and American Modernism.

Gabrielle Selz, Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis, University of California Press, October 2021, hardback, 392pp, mono/11 col. illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 520 31071 1

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

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


Helen Frankenthaler’s Woodcuts

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Freefall, 1993. Twelve color woodcut from 1 plate of 21 Philippine
Ribbon mahogany plywood blocks on hand-dyed paper in 15 colors, 199.4 x 153.7 cm ©
2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Tyler Graphics Ltd.,
Mount Kisco, NY]

The exhibition Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 11 September 2021-18 April 2022) displays in the UK for the first time the woodcuts of Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), on the tenth anniversary of her death.

During the 1950s-70s there was a boom in American printmaking, especially in the fields of lithography, screenprinting and etching. The development of new techniques and the rise of styles that were well matched to printmaking (Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, geometric abstraction) all contributed to a golden age of Late Modernist printmaking. Woodcuts – aside from the related wood engravings, which also had a lesser revival – did not receive much attention but for a painter who always responded strongly to the surface qualities of her supports, Frankenthaler realised the potential of woodcuts. In the use of plates which displayed grain, Frankenthaler saw an equivalence between the grain of canvas (usually cotton duck) and the more irregular and organic grain of the wood block. Additionally, she was used to staining canvases irregularly and these wash, tide or drying edges resemble the swaying swoops of woodgrain. Nature had ready prepared her supports for her.

Tatyana Grosman of Universal Limited Art Editions, New York introduced Frankenthaler to the experience of making woodcut prints in 1973. She would go on to make 29 editioned woodcut prints. Kenneth Tyler of Tyler Graphics, New York proved to be the perfect collaborator for Frankenthaler, expanding the scope and ambition of Frankenthaler as a printmaker. The large size of Freefall (1993) (199 x 153 cm) and its delicately graduated inking providing an intense ultramarine void at its centre, would have been beyond the ability of less experienced printmakers. The graduated colour comes from Japanese woodblock prints, the abrasions to the plate partly come from Surrealism and pre-war abstract art. The use of jigsaw plates for different colours, each revealing the grain of the wood (it would been possible to use cross-cut wood, which would not have displayed grain) inevitably evokes the radical woodcuts of Edvard Munch. However, Munch printed his proofs in one pull with the separately inked blocks assembled, whereas Frankenthaler had her colours separately applied, each carefully registered to make sure the blocks were in position. Munch was not perturbed by the inevitably outlines with no ink that bounded each block. For Frankenthaler, the joints had to be crisp or deliberately overlapping to generate composite colours. Munch’s aesthetic is primal and figurative; Frankenthaler’s is reflective and abstract. Munch reused blocks until they wore out, becoming distressed. (Against standard practice, Munch used to weather his paintings by placing them outside to remove their newness by introducing fading, cracking, staining.)

The exhibition includes finished impressions and some test proofs, along with a couple of paintings. The prints vary in effectiveness. The earliest print is East and Beyond (1973), an 8-colour print which beautifully combined the large organic swatches of delicate colour with slivers and nodes of more intense hues. They work well on the Nepalese handmade paper, with its organic fragments complimenting the grain of the wood. Machine-made paper, especially stark white, often has a deadening or sterilising effect on art. The gentle natural tinting of the paper allows the print to rest easily, whereas a harsh white would fix the edges more, acting as a sharp (almost reproving) demarcation. Similarly, inside the prints, lightly inked plates with fine grain act like veils or muslin, with connotations of delicacy. The weakness of wood – the cracks and splintering – add a human element of flaws and of individual character in a way that the regularity of cotton duck and dilute acrylic paint do not. A certain obduracy obtains and Frankenthaler’s art benefits thereby. Had Frankenthaler ever tackled stone carving, she would have faced such flaws and strengths and had to adapt herself to these qualities. Frankenthaler does seem at her best when she has to negotiate or struggle, which is why her woodcuts are even more rewarding than her paintings.  

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Snow Pines, 2004. Thirty-four color Ukiyo-e style woodcut from 16
blocks on Torinoko paper and mounted onto Fabriano Classico paper, 95.3 x 66 cm © 2021
Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Pace Editions, Inc., NY]

Essence Mulberry (1977) shows a sequence of trial proofs where artist experimented with colour combinations. The edition itself incorporated blank space at the bottom of the elongated vertical-format sheet. Tales of Genji I and II (1998) are less successful. The introduction of graphic lines is a mistake as they are too assertive and intrusive. III is very much more effective, lacking that graphic intervention and relying much more on modulation of intense colour. IV and V are compromises between the two compositions, prettier, more detached in character. Radius (1993) feels both inconsequential and too self-consciously made, redolent of performance. The Grove (1991) and The Clearing (1991) are rougher, closer to Munch, not aiming to please or delight or dazzle. Freefall (1993) is a showstopper, a grand spectacle both visually and technically impressive.

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly, 2000. One-hundred-two color woodcut from 46
blocks of birch, maple, lauan, and fir on 1 sheet of light sienna (center sheet) and 2 sheets of
sienna (left and right sheet) TGL handmade paper, triptych 106 x 201.9 cm, each sheet 106 x
67.3 cm © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Tyler
Graphic Ltd., Mount Kisco, NY]

Madame Butterfly (2000) required 46 blocks, producing 102 colours in an extended printing process that required one year. It straddles Abstract Expressionism, Colour-Field Painting and the Aesthetic Movement. Whistler’s japonaiserie and limpid smoky evocations of water and sky are not too far distant from Frankenthaler’s expansive print, composed of three sheets assembled. It has a landscape format and (like many of her woodcuts) evokes the landscape. Japanese Maple (2005) conjures a landscape in its dark central form lying horizontal in a horizontally oriented sheet, with the suggestion of a reflection of mountains on placid water. Madame Butterfly is shown in a room with the original painting on plywood that inspired that painting and a working proof, adjusted by the artist. The final print is beautiful and a fitting end to the exhibition. Personally, I feel Geisha (2003) (23 colours from 15 blocks) surpasses it by a touch, due to its compactness and the vivid conjunction of yellow and crimson. It has a firmness not found in the paintings. The quasi-knotholes act as motifs in disguise, while the jagged parapets do Clyfford Still-style work, imparting a rugged grandiosity to the print. This was made with Yasuyuki Shibata at Pace Editions, who had participated in the creation of Madame Butterfly at Tyler’s workshop. It would be the print I would most like to live with.    

The collaborative process and the lengthy indirect means by which the proofs came into being – and came into being piecemeal in a highly artificial manner – was quite different to Frankenthaler’s painting. Most Colour-Field and Abstract Expressionist painting is direct, with material being added or covered over in a sequential, direct and spontaneous manner. It is alla prima and it is observable as it is made. Print-making is highly organised, indirect, slow, technical, sometimes working through composite means which cannot intuitively understood during the making process. Printmaking is also conceptual, because it requires artist, master printmaker and technicians to envisage something that does not exist and cannot be made directly. Shapes are inverted, colour and tonal values reversed, stencils are used for their negative space not positive space and so forth. It requires thinking ahead and deducing from that projection the steps that will be required. The fact that Frankenthaler managed these challenges shows her versatility and her ability to work in collaboration with technicians, a system that required accepting as well as giving advice and responding to technical difficulties. Few Abstract Expressionists and Colour-Field painters made good prints, probably due to these issues.    

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Cedar Hill, 1983. Ten color woodcut from 13 blocks, 5 mahogany and 8
linden, on light pink Mingei Momo handmade paper, 51.4 x 62.9 cm © 2021 Helen
Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Crown Point Press, Oakland, CA]

In a different room, Frankenthaler’s acrylic painting Feather (1979) is paired with Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and Agapanthus (c. 1916-7), lent from Musée Marmottan, Paris. The Frankenthaler canvas does seem a legitimate successor (or offspring) of the Impressionist expanse of colour holding painting motifs. It is an intelligent comparison, out of which Frankenthaler emerges unscathed. Both paintings benefit from the encounter.    

Sometimes in Frankenthaler’s paintings there is problematic disjuncture of the stained surface and the impasto paint. These often conflict visually and physically. It is as if one is trying to understand a poem written in two different languages, both of which the audience speaks but one tongue is more comfortable for each member. One comprehends both the physically distant ethereal staining and physically assertive tangible impasto, but seeing them together forces the viewer to switch between these modes in a way that can be difficult or require conscious effort. This is not the case with art by Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock, where areas of stain and impasto are broken up into pattern, thus dissolving the boundary between ground and motif, staining and impasto. The regularity of the fat paint (vis a vis the lean paint) forms a net, which acts a totalising device, making any single impasto mark uninformative and not singly significant. With Frankenthaler (and Feather is a good example of this), motifs or marks over the ground retain significance. They are large enough and small enough to act as devices and are given space to gain attention; they are not part of a surface covering repetition. This is probably the single greatest obstacle to the acceptance and enjoyment of Frankenthaler’s painting, even though individual viewers might not understand why they do not feel as at home with a Frankenthaler compared to a Lee Krasner Little Image painting or a painting by Pollock or Tobey (or Sam Francis, in his early classic style).

In the woodcut prints, this inherent tension between ground and motif in Frankenthaler’s painting is resolved. The applied ground and motif – and intermediary areas of expansive motifs or shapes – are all on the surface in the prints. Ground and motif have the same optical qualities and density and they lie flatly on surface of the paper. Absorption of applied pigment into the support does not occur, so there is no ambiguity between applied pigment and pre-existing support. In the prints, there is no recession, with pigment mingling with the material of the canvas (or, in this case, paper). Hence, there is no division between the visual qualities of stain and impasto, ground and motif and therefore no need for viewers to struggle assimilating different pictorial and optical languages. This sense of completeness, of containment and parity between elements in a Frankenthaler woodcut makes them easier viewing than her paintings; for some, this make the woodcuts better art than her paintings.

The exhibition is carefully designed, lit and set out, the catalogue is informative and the video presentation is to the point and not intrusive visually or aurally. Best of all, the art is often beautiful and sometimes genuinely great – comparable to the best works in the genre by artists of different eras, traditions and countries. This exhibition is open until April next year and is highly recommended.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800 is a current touring exhibition (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 30 September 2021-9 January 2022; Detroit Institute of Arts, 6 February-29 May 2022). The exhibition brings together some of the biggest names in art by Italian women. Gentileschi, Anguissola, Carriera are well known to students of art history and Fontana is familiar to anyone who has read a feminist art history; lesser-known figures give a wider view of the field. This review is from the catalogue.

Interest in women artists has grown apace in recent years. Of particular focus has been Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later), a Baroque Caravaggisti from Rome. The high standard of her best paintings and her life story have been taken up as proof of twin claims made broadly by feminists – that women are as equally talented as men, therefore their general absence from art history (until recently) is a deliberate act of erasure by men, and that women have suffered shaming and abuse at the hands of men which has made pursuit of profession and private fulfilment difficult unique to women. Despite the fact that women’s routes to the position of accredited artist were often less straightforward than those of male counterparts, historical research supports the fact that women did work in the art field in greater numbers than initially thought. The narrative of systemic oppression seems less tenable. Talent and determination has a way of finding an outlet and recognition, if only posthumously. All of the artists in this exhibition achieved some degree of professional success in their lifetimes.

Artemisia Gentileschi was daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), who acted as her master during her apprenticeship as a painter. Her style follows his, which was patterned on Caravaggio’s. In 1611 she was raped by the Agostino Tassi (1578-1644). After the rape, Tassi offered to marry Artemisia, which was a promise he subsequently broke. It was the breaking of this marriage contract that was brought to trial by Orazio, as well as a plan by Tassi to steal a painting by Orazio. Although Tassi was found guilty of breaking the contract and having committed other crimes (and of having planned to commit others), he was not punished. Artemisia’s subsequent paintings of women martyrs, and of Judith murdering Holofernes, are interpreted as a pointed response to the attack and failure of the court to implement just punishment. Almost all of her paintings feature women protagonists. This may be a personal fixation of hers or (as some historians have suggested) the artist trading on her notability as a high-profile woman artist by painting women. Gentileschi subsequently married and moved to Florence, where she achieved success as a court painter. Later periods in Venice, Rome, Naples and London led to steady commissions and respectful receptions by local academies and courts.  

[Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5), oil on canvas, 184 x 141.6 cm, Detroit Institute of Art]

The catalogue reproduces three Gentileschi self-portraits of 1615-7 and a prototype of c. 1613-4. The exhibition includes perhaps her great painting, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5). In it, the standing Judith holds a blooded cutlass. She holds out a hand to shade her left eye; that presents us with the audacious crescent of her profile shining in the darkness. The composition is a series of arcs tumbling down the composition. It is a fine picture, perhaps the best of her oeuvre. It has the usual weaknesses of Caravaggisti painting – poor articulation of space, breaks in logic (the shadow of Judith’s raised arm should throw her sleeve and shoulder into darkness, etc.), selective use of optical accuracy (gestures towards realistic shadows, no understanding of reflected light and colour) and the problems of proportion that stem from composite designs that combine discrete parts, which derives from (though is not in all instances caused by) use of the camera obscura. Historians tend to be overimpressed by the appearance of naturalism in Caravaggisti paintings, not crediting the degree to which artists deliberately fudge issues when they need to achieve a certain effect. Caravaggisti were primarily concerned to create an impression of truthfulness rather than record truth. It is a form of dishonesty and is their greatest fault.

Gentileschi’s non-Judith Biblical paintings and self-portraits are distinctly less persuasive, degrees weaker than the paintings of Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663). Cagnacci (despite his flaws) is a better, more exciting painter than Gentileschi. Lot and His Daughters (1636-8) has the three figures like cut-outs adjoining one another, figures casting no shadows on others; this undermines the artist’s intention to bond the three in an interlocked group. David and Bathsheba (c. 1636-7)is much poorer, with the architectural background (perhaps by an assistant) being both insistent and unpersuasive. The rearmost attendant is awkward; the others are little better. The placement of figures and spatial arrangement is risible, making a mockery of the attempted eye contact between Bathsheba and the rightmost attendant. Such paintings – the pedestrian and the poor – show Gentileschi to be a second-rate painter capable of a few flashes of brilliance.  

So, what of the quality of the rest of the art? Does it stand up to scrutiny?

Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535-1625) is a very inconsistent artist, as this selection proves. She is best known for self-portraits, which vary in treatment from the sensitive to the cursory. The lowest in quality seem to be casual efforts, trading on the novelty of being self-portraits of a woman artist.  (A painfully malproportioned self-portrait (now in Vienna) is illustrated.) The miniature self-portrait with giant medallion (oil on parchment, 3¼” x 2½”) is a handsome piece of work, well modelled, contemplative, technically well thought through. Self-Portrait at the Easel (1554-5) is one of the number of variants, showing the artist depicting a Virgin and Child. The portraits of children are good, one deriving from Giovanni Battista Moroni’s style. The Holy Family (1592) is rather unpleasant, with its pneumatic anatomies and slick handling. For more on this artist, read another review by me here.  

Diana Scultori (c. 1547-1612) was a Mantuan engraver working in the Roman style established by Marcantonio Raimondi. The composition after Giulio Romano is very effective; the translation of a Cornelius Cort drawing of The Spinario is somewhat less so. It is difficult to separate the weaknesses of this second engraving into errors of the original drawing and those of transcription.

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) is one of the female painters of the Bolognese School. She is represented by religious paintings, portraits and portrait drawings executed in black and red chalks. A small tondo portrait of a prelate (c. 1580) is arresting – sympathetic, engaged, carefully executed – but the other pictures are unremarkable. Fede Galizia (c. 1574-c. 1630) seems (on the evidence of her Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1596) and an attractive still-life of fruit (c. 1607)) to be of high calibre, but it is impossible to judge on the strength of only two paintings. It is hard to assess printmakers Isabella Catanea Parasole (active 1585-1625) and Anna Maria Vaiani (1604-c. 1655), painter Anna Bacherini Piattoli (1720-1788) and miniaturist Veronica Stern Telli (1717-1801) on these meagre showings. Painters Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596-1676) and Ginevre Cantofoli (1618-1672) and pastellist Marianna Carlevarijs (1703-after 1750) seem to be very slight talents.

Through illustration, it is hard to appreciate the religious dioramas of Caterina de Julianis (c. 1670-c. 1742). Dioramas (framed constructions of painted wax figures of saints in setting deep-relief settings are pieces) often get overlooked in art histories. Somewhere between fine art, devotional handicraft, ex voto and sculptural curiosity, such dioramas are hard to categorise. The common temperamental aversion of polychromy in sculpture, prejudice against the use of wax (redolent of anatomical teaching aides) and the fact that these diorama were often produced by nuns (often anonymously) rather than professionally accredited artists, all mean that dioramas of devotional character fall between academic disciplines and do not receive their due attention. The extreme delicacy of such pieces has caused a high attrition rate, leading to gaps in the historical records which has obscured the extent of the production. de Julianis’s piece in the catalogue has a coloured wax figurine of Penitent Magdalene, in woodland grotto with a deer drinking at a stream, with a painted landscape behind. The materials are listed as “beeswax, pigments, paper, glass, vellum, silk, feathers, wire, burlap, and varnish”. Such dioramas inspired recent art by contemporary sculptor Berlinde de Bruyckere.

The attractive and scrupulous tempera paintings on parchment of flora and fauna by Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) are a delight. She trained as a miniaturist and made portraits and religious paintings. They are sharp, accurate and display great versatility – they hark back to Dürer and anticipate the field of naturalist illustration. Despite the wealth of detail, they never become either fussy or stiff, enlivened by the use of hatched shading and blending of colours and line with stippling. The subjects have sculptural presence. They are the outstanding find of this exhibition.

Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was another Bolognese artist, adulated in her lifetime. She was a prolific painter, producing portraits, mythological paintings, Biblical scenes and etchings. We know of her production and development because she signed and dated many paintings. Aside from the original and intense Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664), there is nothing here that seems to separate Sirani from contemporaries. To prove her fortitude to her husband Brutus, Portia stabbed herself in the thigh. It is a rare subject in art. Portia’s expression is reserved and a touch dreamy. In a way, it anticipates the modern-day self-cutting craze, where bloodletting is a test of strength and self-control. Responses to Sirani and Fontana will likely depend on whether the viewer finds the art of the Bolognese School of this period agreeable  

Venetian pastellist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) is well known enough. As a portraitist in pastels, she was famed during her lifetime and (for afficionados of the period) she is still a star. Her miniature portraits in watercolour on ivory show the delicacy of her touch and flair for Rococo airiness and sensuality. Her technical grounding and brio in execution make her pastels and paintings attractive and stylistically consistent – internally and as a group. As with much Rococo art, there is the ever-present temptation for the artist to flatter both subject and viewer. A late invented head in pastel is looser and more expressive than her commissioned portraits.   

The exhibition also includes portraits of women artists by men. The best is a dramatic, sculptural and handsome 1627 painting by Simon Vouet (1590-1649), of his wife Virginia de Vezzo (1600-1638). This is a thoughtful addition but perhaps a counter-productive one. With the possible exception of Gentileschi’s Judith, Vouet’s portrait is the best painting in an exhibition dedicated to presenting the abilities of women artists.

[Image: Simon Vouet, Virginia da Vezzo, the Artist’s Wife, as the Magdalene (c. 1626), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 1649 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art]

Catalogue essays explore women artists as miniaturists and the professional standing of women artists in this period in Italy. Catalogue entries devote space to discussing issues related to exhibited items. The essays and catalogue entries are written by specialists Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, Sheila Barker, Babette Bohn, Claude-Douglas Dickerson III, Jamie Gabbarelli, Hilliard Goldfarb, Lara Lea Roney and Joaneath Spicer. The entries are sympathetic towards the situation of women artists but lack the stridency or partisan quality found in other books. This makes the catalogue a pleasure to read and endows the statements with greater credibility. The evidence of new scholarship is woven into informative entries on exhibits.

The more sweeping claims of first-generation feminist art historians are being picked apart by close study of records. “Beginning in the fourteenth century, women’s rate of matriculation in the artisanal guilds across Europe began to drop, yet women continues to work in similar numbers. Whereas this decline was formerly attributed to efforts to cast women out of guilds through exclusionary tactics, historians now widely agree that late medieval and early modern women may have deliberately avoided joining guilds, probably to save money and time, and to skirt requirements that could cut into their profit margins, productivity, employment opportunities, and market shares.”

The extensive exhibition list and bibliography will be a useful reference for students and academics seeking sources. The illustrations are generally very good. Overall, the catalogue and exhibition is a balanced overview of women artists in Italy in the pre-modern era. Some of the art is wonderful and the texts provide a survey of the achievements of Italian women artists.

Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, et al, By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Detroit Institute of Arts (distr. Yale), 2021, cloth hb, 208pp, 141 col. illus., $40/£30, ISBN 978 0 300 25636 9

Purchase the book here.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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


Botticelli, Artist and Designer

Ana Debenedetti, formerly Curator of Paintings at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has written a book on Botticelli, paying particular attention to him as head of a workshop and producer of designs for embroideries, tapestries, wood inlays and other non-painted art. It is the latest in the attractive series of artist monographs from Reaktion.

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (1445-1510), called Botticelli, was born in Florence into what we would describe today as a middle-class family. One brother (Antonio) was a goldsmith, another was a marriage broker. Botticelli was possibly apprenticed to Maso Finiguerra (1426-1464) as a teenager. Finiguerra was a goldsmith but part of a goldsmith’s activities included designing in stucco before gilding. It was a task that straddled metalwork, bas relief and painting and was one of multiple of decorative disciplines that could be employed on production of furniture, frames, altarpieces and liturgical objects. Botticelli painted a portrait of man (Antonio?) holding an actual gilded medallion attesting to his trade. Either of the brothers would have been capable of producing that element.

Botticelli seems to have received instruction on goldsmithing, stucco-work and drawing from Finiguerra. In 1459 or 1460 Botticelli became assistant to Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), already an established master of a higher calibre and status to Finiguerra. Debenedetti suggests that this may be because of the Botticelli family’s social or business connections with Fra Filippo. His reputation was high and his studio was busy, so it may not have taken much persuasion for the master to take on the talented young Botticelli. (Filippino Lippi (son of Filippo), upon the death of his father completed his apprenticeship under Botticelli.)

Under Fra Filippo, Botticelli learned panel and fresco painting in tempera. He was one of the last painters to be trained in tempera on panel and not to adapt to the incoming medium of oil painting on panel and canvas. By the time of his death, Botticelli’s style had fallen from fashion and his materials seemed hopelessly archaic. Botticelli used lighting to make his figures clear rather than to imitate light and shade in naturalistic fashion. In his early paintings some of his figures cast no shadows. There is no hint of reflected colour in Botticelli’s art. Note how the figures of Leonardo and Raphael are integrated into their surroundings, quite unlike Botticelli’s paintings. In other respects, Botticelli was advanced painter, observing nature and including details to heighten the richness of his scenes. “This wealth of detail echoes the rich apparatus of Fortitude [(1470)], and reveals Botticelli’s obsession with naturalistic features that would soon become a distinctive trait of his art. it is his capacity to depict the natural world as a veritable spectacle of marvels that made Botticelli one of the most successful translators of the Florentine devotional and mythological scenes alike.”

Botticelli’s painting bottega (shop, workshop) was one of the largest in Florence in the 1470s and 1480s. Apparently, his prices were not notably higher than those of other masters. It was in the family home. He lived in his brother’s family over the period 1482-94; after his brother’s death he lived there alone. Filippino Lippi, now fully trained, acted as Botticelli’s junior collaborator. Filippino may have inherited his father’s model books (or pattern books), which contained exemplary drawings used as designs for compositions, figures and details in paintings. There is a lot of crossover in terms of treatment and imagery in the many paintings of Virgin and Child made by Fra Filippo, Filippino and Botticelli. The facial type of the Virgin (the sweet countenance, pale skin and rounded forehead) rarely changes, though we see development of treatment of space and iconography. Likewise, in the portraits we see versatility and a degree of innovation. There is not space enough for the author to do more than discuss The Divine Comedy illustrations in brief.

Debenedetti assesses the reception and commissioning of art by the Botticelli’s workshop, doing some close reading of particularly notable works. Attention is paid to Botticelli’s contribution to a commission for symbolic paintings for the Merchants’ Guild court, executed in 1470. The original commission had gone to Piero del Pollaiolo for seven paintings, perhaps as the painted backs of chairs for the judges. For some reason, a senior politician intervened and had one of the paintings was made by Botticelli. It was the artist’s first public commission. It may be that the guild was irritated by Piero’s slow work. He was also young and inexperienced. Debenedetti says that technical analysis shows that Piero’s older brother Antonio may have stepped in to complete at least one painting to save the remainder of the commission.  

The author disagrees with the truth – or at least the totalising explanation – of a move to archaising influence of Girolamo Savonarola (during his influence on Florence, 1489-1498) upon Botticelli’s style. “Although this observation is undeniable, it cannot go unnoticed that Botticelli changed his style several times before this dark period.” It was Savonarola’s messianic preaching and message of devotion through civic renewal that made him popular and feared. The destruction of worldly luxuries that Savonarola called for resulted in the Bonfire of the Vanities. Botticelli and Lorenzo di Credi both allegedly gave paintings to be burned.

The author analyses Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. She considers that the revival of theatre by the court of Lorenzo Medici may have influenced Primavera (c. 1480) and The Birth of Venus (1478-82). His last recorded commission was made in 1505. By the time of his death, five years later, he was neglected and his possessions and copy books were considered of little monetary value. Debenedetti believes that his copy books did posthumously reach other artists before being broken up and the sheets almost all lost.

Illustrations of the relevant pictures are handy. The images of contemporaneous applied art using the painter’s designs are not often found and they prompt us to reconsider the master as collaborator and designer. The full endnotes, chronology, bibliography and index are a welcome addition for a relatively short book. Debenedetti’s Botticelli: Artist and Designer is a well-researched book that takes advantage of new scholarship.

Ana Debenedetti, Botticelli: Artist and Designer, 2021, Reaktion, hardback, 232pp, 73 col./1 mono illus., £15.95, ISBN 978 1 78914 438 3

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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


Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York

I. The Book

Alexander Nemerov (a professor at Stanford University) has written a series of biographical episodes about the art and life of Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). Frankenthaler was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and founder of Colour-field Painting (Post-Painterly Abstraction). Nemerov has taken 11 dates, one per year from 1950 to 1960, to write about. These are entrances into different parts of the artist’s life, situating the chapters around specific events. This works adequately. Nemerov has to be flexible about what to include and how much the significance the day has to the chapter, but the framework is secondary to content.  

The 1950s were a decade in which Frankenthaler achieved an astronomical rise in prominence. When the account begins, Frankenthaler was a young painter, a recent graduate, searching for a unique style and place. She had graduated in 1949 from Bennington College, Vermont. Frankenthaler came from a wealthy upper-class Jewish family from New York. Her father had been a New York State Supreme Court justice. His unexpected death in 1940 left the family of a wife and three young girls grieving but financially secure.  

Frankenthaler participated in the 1951 exhibition at a venue on Ninth Street. Only in retrospect was it seen as ground breaking. Frankenthaler became close to Grace Hartigan, who exhibited in that show. More important for Frankenthaler was her first solo exhibition in November of that year. By that time she had already started an affair with Clement Greenberg. Much her elder, Greenberg was the most influential critic of the era. His backing had not exactly made Pollock the most famous (or notorious) painter in America, but his support had certainly seen both Pollock and Greenberg’s stars rise. Frankenthaler met Pollock and his wife Krasner via Greenberg. By this time, Pollock and Krasner lived on Long Island. Greenberg and Frankenthaler went out to visit them. Frankenthaler took much from Pollock. He was an example of a great and serious painter. His art was exhilarating. She viewed Pollock’s 1950 exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, which contained Pollock’s greatest drip paintings, and this transformed her idea of what painting could be.

On 26 October 1952, Frankenthaler painted Mountains and Sea. It was painted on raw canvas and unstretched, as Pollock painted. Frankenthaler diluted her paint so that it soaked and stained, rather than remained where poured. This diffuseness was radical. It was lyrical and sensuous. It was different from gestural painting of Pollock and the tight, impermeable surfaces of Malevich and Mondrian. This is seen as the starting point for the Colour-field Painting. Friedel Dzubas, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and others were excited by the painting as saw potential in that art. Others would soon follow. For the first time in history, two occurrences had taken place: a woman had founded a major art movement and a style had been established on a single identifiable day.

On 27 July 1953, Frankenthaler visited the Prado, seeking cultural release from domestic frustrations. Her encounter with Tintoretto and painters of the Spanish Golden Age led her to tackle larger canvases, referring back to art history. On 12 August 1956, Frankenthaler was in Paris with Krasner when the news reached them that Pollock had been killed in a car crash. Frankenthaler did her best to comfort Krasner as she made funeral and travel arrangements by telephone. Following Pollock’s lengthy deterioration into a violent angry drunk, his death ended up freeing both Krasner and Frankenthaler. As Nemerov puts it, “Whatever personal feelings it occasioned, Pollock’s death was also a release. That fall Helen’s paintings became freer, more improvisational, more brazenly indifferent to protocols of “finish.” Some new joy came with the master’s demise; some liberation, inseperable from the pall, fueled her work.”

On 1 August 1958 Frankenthaler and Motherwell were on their honeymoon in Spain and visited the caves of Altamira.  On 16 July they had visited the caves of Lascaux. This was Frankenthaler’s second pilgrimage to the Altamira caves. That had been with a crowd. This time, she and her husband were alone, having bribed the keeper to allow them in during the lunch break. Viewing the paintings by candlelight, surrounded by darkness and silence, the couple wondered at the paintings of bison, horses and deer that had once inhabited ancient Spain. For two painters strongly committed to the primal power of painting and dedicated to paint as a medium, it was a profound experience. Both later made reference to the experience in statements and art.

The year 1959 was a stressful one for Frankenthaler and Motherwell. They took custody of Motherwell’s two young children from his ex-wife, due to her break down. Frankenthaler was at first anxious and disconcerted by the responsibilities of being a stepmother. However, the couple adjusted, had enough money for a nanny and the children grew to trust and like Frankenthaler. It was a bittersweet moment when the girls returned to their mother two years later. Frankenthaler would have no children of her own. Frankenthaler’s 1960 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York, brought a curtain down on the 1950s and her youth. By this time, Pop, Happenings and Conceptual art was in the wings. Politics would drive a wedge between the student artists and the grand Abstract Expressionists. Over barely two decades, Abstract Expressionism would rise, freeze and fade, its practitioners turned into bankable Old Masters in late middle age.    

The book is a brisk read, written in a direct style but informed by a solid grounding in 1950s American culture and the New York School. Nemerov’s familiarity with the biography and art of his subject (and of others in her milieu) is evident. The thorough footnotes will help students and scholars track down sources; the illustrations – colour images of art, photographs of the artist at work and socialising – fill out the narrative. This book will be welcomed by fans of the painter and anyone interested in the New York School.

II. Frankenthaler as “a woman artist”

Discussions about Frankenthaler and the circumstances of women artists is complex. She was a talented painter who made original art – started a new school of painting – and was acclaimed by her peers. On that level, she is a success story, a self-actualised woman artist in a time when there were few top-level female artists. Yet her close connections to critic Clement Greenberg, artist Robert Motherwell and curator Bryan Robertson leave open the inference that her prominence was assisted by these men. If we examine interpretations of Krasner’s career, we find authors and associates suggesting Krasner’s marriage to Pollock impeded her during his lifetime (making her a supernumerary, causing people to view her art as relational to Pollock’s, reducing her productivity) and assisted her after his lifetime (proceeds from the Pollock estate making her financially secure, dealers interested in Pollock’s art treating Krasner’s art favourably in order to win access to his art). Yet Frankenthaler was already part of the New York Abstract Expressionist scene before her relationship with Greenberg. She was already exhibiting and selling art before the affair started. Greenberg may have increased the attention given her art before 1953 (the year Mountains and Sea was first exhibited), but it was in that year that Frankenthaler earned her reputation and had artist followers. It is difficult to see how her romantic connections translated into measurable career advantages, certainly after 1953.

It seems inevitable that an artist as original and driven as Frankenthaler would have broken through in the way she did, even without the encouragement of influential male partners. Greenberg was not a great champion of women artists as a whole. It is possible that the main boost he provided to Frankenthaler was forming a strong social bond with Pollock and Krasner and thereby allowing Frankenthaler to see their art first hand and discuss techniques, material and ideas with two of the most advanced artists in the scene. She admitted that seeing Pollock’s art was a seminal experience for her as a fellow painter. In that sense, Greenberg’s assistance was to help her develop her art, not to advantage her public career.

Frankenthaler’s signature style of staining was seen by some critics and artists as distinctly feminine. The style tended to conform to assumptions about womanly delicacy, as did the lack of evidence of raw physical energy or cultivated athletic dexterity, as found in the art of Pollock and Kline. The paintings contained blooming optical sensations and enveloping expanses rather than staccato brushwork or whipped drips. There were the inferences of woman as producer of fluids, passive, unfirm, labile, unpredictable, unfocused, avatar of untrammelled nature. Such talk betrayed the assumptions of the commentator more than it identified any trait in the painter. Woman as dyer of cloth, maker of decoration and laundress were the cultural shadows flickering through the minds of some in the 1950s and 1960s who saw photographs of Frankenthaler. These same viewers had seen Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of Pollock at work, the comparisons were somewhere between boxer and farmer; Pollock was described as a cowboy spinning lariats of paint instead of a lasso.

Frankenthaler’s art was well regarded – especially by the art cognoscenti of Manhattan, Long Island and Provincetown – possibly in part because it was seen as a (incidentally feminine) variant of an existing (incidentally largely masculine) discipline. It was an offshoot or evolution. In stylistic terms, this is correct. Colour-field Painting was developed by Abstract Expressionist painters, in their search to expand their formal range and technical capacities. The inference that it was secondary and subsequent, was one that artists and critics at the time were aware of and it did frame discussions. It is ironic that the first style inescapably founded by a female artist was one that was considered primarily as a development or continuation of a pre-existing school of painting. Even as a leader, Frankenthaler was seen at a secondary rank, as the head of a group which was behind a vanguard. This is a touch unfair whilst being accurate. Frankenthaler was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and Colour-field Painting did develop from that existing movement.      

This book does present a good overview of how Frankenthaler’s art was received by contemporaries, though the author is limited by his biographical focus. This book is a suitable entry point for those wishing to investigate this subject in more depth.

Alexander Nemerov, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, Penguin Press, 2021, hardback, 269pp + xviii, illus., $28, ISBN 978 0 525 56018 0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Hans Purrmann

A recent addition to Hirmer’s Great Masters of Art series is a short book on German Modernist Hans Purrmann (1880-1966). Purrmann was born in Speyer, Rhineland-Palatinate. He was trained in decorative art and took courses at the Applied Arts School, Karlsruhe, before going to study painting at Academy of Fine Arts, Munich (1897-1905). All of this gave him great craft skills and sensitivity towards colour. He had an affinity for Munich Impressionism. Park in Svinar (1903) is close to Max Liebermann’s Impressionism and Seated Nude (“Polish Equestrienne”) (1905) follows Lovis Corinth’s expressive diagonal brushwork and lush painterliness. The former is a dazzling tour de force depiction of shadow and dappling sunlight effects. Painting as pleasure-giving is never far from Purrmann’s thinking. Purrmann also respected Max Slevogt.

While in Munich, Purrmann developed an admiration for Cézanne. He immersed himself in the power of colour and the cultivation of facture, as means to vitalise painting. He moved to Paris in 1905 and the following year commenced studying in the studio of Henri Matisse. The master proved a major influence; so much so, that Purrmann is often called “the German Matisse”. It did not help Purrmann’s standing as an independent painter the fact that he vigorously promoted Matisse’s paintings in Germany. His combination of bluish greens and viridian – and his preference for blocks of unmodulated, unshaded colour – was developed at this time.

Purrmann could be classed as a late-period Fauve. His paintings from 1905 onwards share characteristics with those of Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain, as well as Matisse. The energy of Purrmann’s early Fauve paintings is akin to Vlaminck’s. The hot-coloured landscapes are a blend of Derain and Cézanne.

The painter admitted that he painted that which he enjoyed looking at and being around – sunny gardens, interiors of his handsome home, family members, nude models. Purrmann’s sumptuous interiors – juxtaposing reds and oranges against saturated greens and blue – of 1917-8 display his feeling for colour. The richness of the colour, restrained brushwork and deft use of detailing in compositions that exaggerate forms and spaces without reaching levels of unreality are highly satisfying and typical of Purrmann. That also demonstrates Purrmann’s weakness in comparison to Matisse. He is too restrained and too genteel to take up the risks that Matisse undertook. His art is gorgeous but genteel; it is the gentility of a consummate craftsman rather than the rawness and risk of genius.

Interestingly, Purrmann’s art was classed as degenerate by the Nazis and included in the 1937 exhibition. The content of his art was unobjectionable, had it been painted in a realist or mild Impressionist manner, but his style was tied to the unapologetic Modernism. This led to him being perceived as belonging to a subversive group (or tendency). The author admits he cannot explain how this condemned artist came to be appointed director of Villa Romana, Florence, a German-owned villa used for artist residencies. Purmann held the position from 1935 until 1943, the breakdown of the Fascist government during the pressure of Allied invasion and German occupation. (That summer his wife died in Munich after a long illness.) In 1939, the “Italian branch of the Nazi Party” wrote to the German Embassy in Rome, calling Purrmann a “proponent of an altogether un-German concept of art”. Purrmann was known to have assisted dissident artists and writers during his time there.

Purrmann’s painting during his years in Florence feature the villa and display the artist’s appreciation for his surroundings. The views of rooms, including glimpses of the garden and trees beyond the balcony, recall Matisse’s Nice and Cannes paintings. After the war, Purrmann settled in Lugano, Switzerland. His studio had a spectacular mountain view. His art did not develop much in later years; it did not need to. He continued painting after 1959, when he was confined to a wheelchair by a stroke. His dedication to pleasure was richly rewarded in his last decades by increasing acclaim and financial security. In 1955, his art was selected for the first Documenta exhibition in Cassel, chosen in part by the German curators because Purrmann was seen as untainted by Naziism, Modernist in character and representative of the taste and artists of France. Purrmann was, for Germans burdened by war-guilt, an embodiment of “the good German artist”: cosmopolitan in outlook and association.

Purrmann’s painting is definitely worth becoming acquainted with, especially if one is a fan of the Fauves or early Matisse. It is highly accomplished and enjoyable. Wagner’s book is the perfect introduction. The book contains a general essay, a thorough chronology and a handful of documents from Purrmann, alongside colour illustrations. The illustrations are well chosen and large enough. Recommended for all fans of Matisse, Modernist painting and German art.

Christoph Wagner, Hans Purrmann, Hirmer, 2021, hardback, 80pp, 55 col. illus., £9.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3679 1

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Van Gogh’s Finale

[Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows (1890), oil on canvas, 51 x 103cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam]

The esteemed art historian and journalist Martin Bailey – noted for his expertise on Van Gogh – has completed his trilogy of books on Van Gogh. Van Gogh’s Finale: Auvers & The Artist’s Rise to Fame succeeds Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence and Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum. This final book examines the last few weeks of the artist’s life. It was an intensely productive period, during which the artist completed 70 paintings in 70 days.

When Van Gogh was recovering slowly in the asylum in Saint Rémy, he was in need of a place to stay when he departed. It was Pissarro who recommended to Theo Van Gogh as a suitable place Auvers-sur-Oise. Pissasso had stayed in Pontoise, near the village, and knew the local doctor, Paul Gachet. Gachet was an amateur artist and printmaker and had an interest in assisting artists. On 16 May 1890 Van Gogh took the train from Saint-Rémy to Paris to see Theo, Jo and their baby son. After staying a few days in Paris, visiting art exhibitions, meeting people and buying art supplies (on Theo’s money), Van Gogh travelled to Auvers-sur-Oise, met Dr Gachet and took up lodgings at Auberge Ravoux. The Ravoux’s café and lodging house was officially “Café de la Mairie”. Van Gogh’s attic room was small, with only a skylight for natural light, although he could use a storeroom for materials and finished pictures. The cost of bed and board was 3.50 francs.

Bailey describes Gachet’s peculiar collection: Florentine stained glass, Impressionist paintings, human skulls and casts of the decapitated heads of executed prisoners. The dark rooms crammed with furniture, books and curios made a strong impression on visitors. He painted the doctor’s portrait, complete with yellow-jacketed novels and a sprig of foxgloves, grown as a medicine; the doctor appears melancholy and detached. (Van Gogh considered him a strange character.) He also painted his garden at least twice, one including the doctor’s daughter. Another painting of Maguerite Gachet at a piano used a canvas typically used for landscape. The double-square format (1:2 proportion, 50 x 100 cm) was one that Van Gogh took up as a tribute to Daubigny, whose favourite format it had been for landscapes. Daubigny lived in Auvers and had died in 1878. Daubigny’s widow still lived in his house when Van Gogh stayed in the village.  

Bailey includes vintage photographs and postcards of places and people in Auvers that Van Gogh knew or painted. The many illustrations – all well-chosen – make reading a fast experience, which is quite appropriate given the hectic pace of the subject’s last weeks. He was painting so fast that he ran out of canvases and had to use a tea towel to paint on. One of the reasons Van Gogh did not sell paintings was that he was willing to give them away. Gachet did not have to pay for his “26 Van Gogh paintings, 14 drawings, 3 prints and a letter with a drawing.” The Van Goghs and almost 50 paintings by Cézannes and Pissarros owned by Gachet would be valued today at over a billion dollars.  

In artistic terms, it is hard to pinpoint anything characteristic of the Auvers period outside of an increase in green hues and a slightly darker tonality, due to the cloudier northern climate. He took as subjects picturesque rural cottages, gardens, wheatfields and the local church. Ears of Wheat (1890), with the absence of horizon or sky and the repeated marks and patterning filling the picture plane, verges on abstraction. There were flower paintings (perhaps on rainy days, when painting outside was impossible) and portraits.

Although it is a common misconception that Van Gogh’s last painting was Wheatfield with Crows (1890) – probably because of the iconic scene in the biopic Lust for Life (1956). His last completed painting was of tree roots. It recalls his curious paintings of caves. The caves and roots both seem to frame portals to the underworld. Only in 2020 was the spot identified. It was depicted in the vintage postcard of a bank next to a road close to the artist’s lodging.

[Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Tree Roots (1890), oil on canvas, 50 x 100 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam]

The standard account of Van Gogh’s suicide was that he left his lodgings late in the evening of 27 July (“just after 7pm”) and walked towards the chateau. Standing by the walls, isolated, he shot himself through the chest – a fatal wound. Finding himself still alive, he managed to walk back to his lodging. When the Ravouxs realised he was injured, they summoned a local doctor and Dr Gachet. Theo was summoned from Paris. He arrived in time to comfort the painter in his last hours. He died in the early hours of 29 July. Bailey recounts the touching scenes from the hasty funeral on the following day.  

Bailey investigates the question of the artist’s death. In 2011 the Smith-Naifeh biography of Van Gogh presented an alternative story about that fateful 27 July 1890. They recount that late in life, René Secrétan, who was a schoolboy who visited Auvers in 1890 and had known the painter. Secrétan said that he had borrowed the pistol from the owner of the Auberge Ravoux (where the painter was staying) in order to play cowboys and Indians. He had seen the painter painting near the walls of the chateau. He had tussled with the painter – whom he often taunted – and the gun went off. Van Gogh had staggered back to Auberge Ravoux and had refused to implicate the boy, intimating that it was the result of a suicidal act.

Bailey is sceptical. He points out that Secrétan did not say the gun went off in scuffle but that Van Gogh took the gun – then killing himself, on purpose or by accident. “The very limited forensic evidence about the wound has so far failed to resolve the debate.” He gives five reasons for favouring suicide as a cause of death: “suicidal tendencies, Cor’s death and Wil’s depression, Theo’s problems, Vincent’s last words, everyone at the time believed it was suicide”. Van Gogh had self-harmed (the famous ear-slashing attack in December 1888 caused such blood los that he almost died) and contemplated suicide before. Van Gogh’s brother Cor committed suicide in South Africa in 1900 and his sister Wil suffered complete mental collapse in 1902, subsequently diagnosed as dementia (possibly schizophrenia); so, there was serious mental instability in the family. Van Gogh was under the impression his brother was on the verge of quitting his job (or being fired) – imperilling not only Theo’s own livelihood but also Van Gogh’s soul source of income. Actually, the crisis had been averted, but Theo had inexplicably failed to mention this to his brother. Van Gogh, in his last hours, seemed resolved to die, never saying anything otherwise. Theo, Gachet, Ravoux, the police and the painter’s friends all believed the shooting was a deliberate suicide. On balance, Bailey’s defence of the suicide theory is more persuasive than the Smith-Naifeh accident/manslaughter theory.

Barely had Van Gogh been buried when Theo attempted a posthumous exhibition, eventually settling on a display in his Parisian apartment. He was quickly overtaken by tertiary syphilis, dying less than six months after his brother. Bailey wonders whether or not by the May 1890 meeting Theo had known his condition and fate (syphilis was then untreatable and usually fatal) and whether or not information had been transmitted to Van Gogh, effectively warning him that his sole income was threatened. I suspect not. Considering how generally frank the brothers were, it seems letters would have contained explicit references or allusions. Knowing Van Gogh’s precarious emotional, health and financial situation, I believe that Theo did know (or suspect his condition) but chose to conceal that grisly news from Van Gogh and Jo.

The story of Van Gogh’s rise to fame is well known and often recounted but (as with every account) there are new details. Bailey suggests that the reason there are few mentions in the Van Gogh correspondence of press articles about Van Gogh in his lifetime is that he was unaware of some of the pieces. This seems very surprising, considering Theo’s central position in avant-garde art in Paris. Even more remarkably Gachet never wrote anything substantial on Van Gogh, despite his intentions. His notes (both memoirs and any medical notes) were destroyed or lost. The publication of the letters (in 1914), in tandem with a number of group and solo exhibitions, brought Van Gogh to worldwide fame by the early 1920s. By then, the Expressionists had already mined Van Gogh for the emotionally expressive use of colour, brushwork and exaggeration.

[Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Garden in Auvers (1890), oil on canvas, 64 x 80 cm, private collection, France]

Bailey discusses the trade in fakes and the problems of attribution – there are waves of attribution and deattribution, as experts seek to assert their taste and knowledge. There is kudos in being scrupulously rigorous in exclusion and in being perspicuously open-minded. He includes a gallery of shame, comprising four book covers featuring fake Van Goghs. He provides examples of paintings that have been denounced only to be reinstated. Garden in Auvers is one painting that is seen as atypically decorative and was hobbled by doubts, making it difficult to sell. Now authenticated by the Van Gogh Museum, the painting is commonly accepted. He also discounts the famous myth that a Japanese businessman (Ryoei Saito) with cremated with his Portrait of Doctor Gachet (1890) – a black joke, apparently.   

Bailey makes a judicious, informative and passionate companion for those of us seeking to understand Van Gogh’s last days. Bailey’s masterful familiarity with artist, art and artistic and social setting pays off. The text is effortlessly readable, thoughtful and well-sourced. The images are rich and rewarding. Highly recommended.

Martin Bailey, Van Gogh’s Finale: Auvers & The Artist’s Rise to Fame, Frances Lincoln, 21 September 2021, hardback, 240pp, fully illus., £25/$40, ISBN 978 0 7112 5700 0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Museum Mayer van den Berghe: A Conservative Vision of Past and Future?

Centre: portrait of Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh by Jozef Van Lerius © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.
  1. History in the Past

The concept of private patronage is especially important in a time when the state-controlled institutions are increasingly falling into the hands of individuals driven by politics. Private museums and collections are bulwarks against an erosion of culture. In that light, this new monograph makes valuable reading. Ulrike Müller’s At Home in a Museum: The Story of Henriëtte and Fritz Mayer van den Bergh examines the nature and history of a famous private collection of art located in Antwerp. Although the museum seems like a burgher’s home, it is actually not a home and was built as a museum. This richly illustrated book recounts the development and character of a collection of a remarkable historical art sited in its purpose-built museum.

Belgian aristocrats Emil Mayer (1824-1879) and Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh(1838−1920) established both prestige through charitable deeds and wealth through income from shipping, distilleries and land. Emil bought some Jan Brueghel paintings and perhaps his lead influenced his son. Today, the remarkable Mayer van den Bergh Collection remains unchanged in Antwerp. With the exception of Emil’s few acquisitions, the entirety of the collection was assembled by Fritz Mayer van den Bergh (1858−1901). Upon his sudden death (due to a riding accident) his mother Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh decided to build a suitable museum as a tribute to her son’s collection. The museum was inaugurated in 1904, with a foundation established in 1906 to maintain continuity and integrity of the collection. This volume traces how that collection came to be, what it consists of and how it remained independent as a museum.

© 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

From the start, Fritz’s collection had a consciously, unashamedly connoisseurial character. It was not planned to have a tight historical or geographical focus; it would prioritise aesthetic considerations over documentary value; it would prefer the major over the minor. In some ways, it was – and appears – wilfully eccentric, both in senses of being unusual and also off centre. There are Japanese woodblock prints, medieval carvings, Gothic altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts, Golden Era Flemish paintings, Dutch genre pieces and Nineteenth-Century Belgian society portraits. Fritz “did not limit himself to collecting art from the past; he also expressed an interest in contemporary fine and applied arts. […] The wallpaper in Fritz’s death chamber, for example, features an Art Nouveau floral motif, which, at first glance, may seem unexpected. The motif recalls the wallpaper of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement […] Fritz also actively sought out contemporary artists who shared his historical interest and aesthetic preferences.” He was not a purist other than the most essential aspect of a great collector – he cleaved purely to his own taste without consideration of outside approval or disapproval.

Fritz scoured Europe for treasures of fine- and applied-art from Flanders, Holland, Italy, Germany and Austro-Hungary, sometimes accompanied by his mother. He bought during the great age when South Netherlandish masterpieces were in circulation following the centuries of neglect that had seen these pictures put in storage or sold for a pittance by collectors and church authorities, who considered them primitives (hence Flemish Primitives). (Read my review here.) He bought and sold from the collection, refining his holdings. Knowledge that American collectors were buying Netherlandish art on a huge scale worried connoisseurs in the Low Countries. The relatively few early paintings in private and national collections (especially Belgian museums) prompted collectors to purchase work deliberately to keep art close to the location where they were created. Fritz’s activities were an expression of taste rather than a tightly organised investigation.

© 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

At the same time as American magnates were assembling collections of European masterpieces, one Belgian was doing the same. The boom in the international art trade in the 1880-1940 period saw the massive movement of art from their places of origin to museums and private collectors, many of them in the USA.

Fritz commissioned the De Scalden artist Edmond Van Offel (1871-1959) to illustrate a collection of German legends. This book was not published until after Fritz’s premature death. The one drawing here seems derivative of Beardsley’s illustrations. The De Scalden movement (1889-1914) was a Flemish school drawing on historical roots, something like the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement. It was a Catholic movement that sought to break away from academic art. However, rather than taking the optical/Modernist road laid out by the avant-garde (Impressionists and Post-Impressionists), it sought to revive the regional, national and Gothic art. There was a clear sympathy between De Scalden and the Symbolists, Aesthetic Movement and the Decadents. It did parallel – constituted as it was as a society – the more adventurous groups Les XX, De XIII, Les Independants, La Libre Esthétique and Kunst van Heden.

Cornelius Mahu (attrib.), Still-life with Goblet Holder (C17th), oil on panel, 52 x 74 cm © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

So, what are the highlights of the museum?

Master Heinrich von Konstanz’s Christ and St John the Evangelist Group (c. 1280-90) is a polychromed walnut carving. It shows the two figures in identical golden robes. St John the Evangelist rests his head on Christ’s shoulder and rests his hand in Christ’s. The portrayal catches the modern eye by St John’s apparent effeminacy in his pose. It is an unusual sculpture and it is not surprising it captured Fritz’s attention. Wilhelm Bode wanted to acquire the sculpture for the Berliner Gemäldegalerie and even wrote to Fritz about the possibility.

The Mayer van den Bergh collection houses two great paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1565). The little-known Twelve Proverbs (1558) has 12 scenes of figures illustrating common Dutch proverbs, arranged in a grid format. In 1894, Fritz bought for 300 marks a painting from a Cologne auction house. It was thought to be a fantasy painting by Jan “Hell” Brueghel. It turned out to be Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s lost original panel painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1563) – a sensational find. Bruegel’s reputation was on the rise during the period, after a long stretch of obscurity and indifference. His art was considered too grotesque, scatological and crude for most art historians. Only with the acceptance of the Romantics and the rise of Symbolism were precursors appreciated more. The rise of Flemish nationalism in the 1890s provided an impetus to greater interest in Bruegel as a great original Fleming.    

Pieter Bruegel, Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1563), oil on panel, 117 x 162 cm © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

The collection comprised Medieval and Renaissance art. David Teniers the Younger’s painting of The Temptation of St Anthony (c. 1640-60) and typical panel by Joachim Patinir are familiar sights for museum goers. Other artefacts include stained-glass windows, stone carvings of many periods, bas reliefs in metal, Japanese prints and netsukes, coins and furniture.

Within months after her son’s death, a grieving Henriëtte had commenced work on a museum to house her son’s collection. The building of the museum was finished in 1904. It was maintained by a board of regents and was initially only opened to invited guests. “After the 1880s, a large number of collector’s museums were founded, across Europe and in North America. Some of the best-known examples include the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan (which opened in 1881), the Musée Condé in Chantilly (1898), the Wallace Collection in London (1900), the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (1903), the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris (1913) and the Frick Collection in New York (1935).”

The house was built with period features, including fittings such as panelling and fireplaces that were either original or replicated. There was antique furniture also. The rooms represented different periods of Flemish history: Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque, Louis XVI. The rooms varied from the baronial to the bourgeois in character and size; it was not by any means a massive building, taking up only the land allotted to two adjoining residential buildings. It was a private vision of cultural history, on made without the control of state-accredited experts. Both the collector and his mother were averse to publicity and guarded their privacy actively. Few personal papers survive and there were no diaries or memoirs written by them, so there is relatively little personal information about their lives, which seems to have been their intention.

This book includes numerous photographs of the interior of the museum, both recent and vintage. It includes a selection of images of notable works in the collection but is nothing like a comprehensive catalogue. For those of deprived of international travel, this book provides a glimpse of one of Belgium’s most distinctive and original museums.

View of the museum facade, 1905 © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.
  • History in the Future

Dr Müller explains that the Ghent collecting culture of the Nineteenth Century was different from that of Brussels. Brussels collections were concentrated on art that was produced in the territories that became Belgium in 1830, and tended to be more recent in a deliberate or subconscious attempt to reinforce a national identity; Ghent (and Antwerp) collectors focused on art of Flanders, eschewing the state for the cultural nation, and preferred medieval artefacts. Reproduced in the book are photographs of the 1894 World Fair in Antwerp, which was used as a chance to celebrate Flemish culture. (Fritz was a member of a society promoting preservation and restoration of distinguished buildings and monuments.) Although Fritz was forming his collection at this time, his taste was broader than Flemish art alone. (As already discussed.) The revival of historic architecture and patriotism in this period would play a part in the building of the Mayer van den Bergh Museum, which was in a historicist revival style.  

Fritz’s amateur collection grew at a time when museums were becoming professionalised. The first university degrees in art history (at Belgian universities) were commenced at the time the museum opened. Fritz did research on his acquisitions, buying books and auction catalogues and subscribing to journals. He also consulted foreign art historians and museum personnel and was consulted in return, earning the respect of professionals. Fritz assisted in providing information to writers who published articles about his acquisitions but did not publish himself.

Fritz’s study at his parental home, c. 1900. © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

“It seems Henriëtte and Fritz were mainly interested in the archaeological and aesthetic aspects of the reconstruction of the 16th-century city centre of Antwerp. They did not identify with the dominant bourgeois Liberal interpretation of history that was so prominent in Oud Antwerpen. As members of the Catholic upper class, with strong ties to the nobility, the Mayer van den Berghs espoused very different ideals than the Liberal – and mainly anticlerical – bourgeoisie. Catholics focused on the traditional values of Christian faith and charity and on the conservation of existing societal structures. The Liberal Party, meanwhile, mainly pursued economic progress, striving to limit the Church’s interference in society and education.”

“After Fritz’s death in 1901, Henriëtte deliberately opted to establish her own foundation rather than bequeath his collection to the city, the state or another institution. She did this despite a long-standing Antwerp tradition of donations to the Museum of Fine Arts. […] Fritz and his mother did not maintain particularly close ties with members of the city’s Liberal cultural circles […] Fritz was not exactly well disposed to the Liberal municipal municipal council […]” Her caution was well deserved. In only one instance – fixed by bequest – was a donated collection kept intact by state or municipal authorities. In all other cases, the collections were dispersed.

Rogier van der Weyden (school of), Maria Lactans (c. 1450-1500), oil on panel, 59 x 43 cm © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

Henriëtte wrote, “My poor Fritz would not have liked it at all that his art treasures were managed by the Liberals – whom he detested.” She established an enduring trust to preserve the museum from the city’s control. “I am mainly in favour of a tontine, to ensure that I cannot be forced to leave the collections that my son amassed to the city.” Her expressed hostility to the liberal city municipality, written into foundation documents, preserved her legacy. Namely: “The museum shall always bear the name ‘Museum Mayer van den Bergh’. The collections will remain unchanged in the state that they were upon my death. Nothing may be added or removed from the collections. No object that belongs to the collection shall ever leave the museum.”

Since that time, a compromise has been reached. Since 1974, the city employs the staff and allows access to visitors but the regents of the museum retain ownership and control of the museum and contents. Loans are rarely permitted. This is something we have seen modern authorities do repeatedly to bequests that were specifically left to be non-loan collections. (See the Burrell Collection, Barnes Collection, etc.) We should bear in mind James Burnham’s observation. “The truth is that, whatever its legal merits, the concept of “the separation of ownership and control” has no sociological or historical meaning. Ownership means control; if there is no control, then there is no ownership.” We might harshly view the regents’ position as little more than titular figureheads, politely permitted to maintain the illusion of control, while not having the capacity to pay its staff. We might generously view the compromise as maintaining the character and contents of the museum whilst permitting some useful flexibility. I recall seeing Dulle Griet in the 2018 Vienna exhibition of Bruegel.

She did not see the need or value of debasing the privacy and seclusion of her museum to the general public. Her dismissal of the possibility shows her aristocratic mindset. Did she foresee the compromises that would have had to have been made to allow mass viewership? She commissioned scholarly catalogues documenting the collection.

In early years, the number of visitors was between 30 and 50 per month. With so few visitors (almost all of them previously known to Henriëtte), the tours could be led by the owner herself. When questioned about the possibility of the museum becoming fully public, Henriëtte responded: “This depends what you mean by ‘public’. Do you mean everyone, the masses? No. Are you referring to my friends, art lovers from Antwerp and abroad, famous people or people who were recommended to me? Yes, they will have access to the museum and I will be happy that so many of them have demonstrated an interest in my artistic endeavours.”

This is a pressing issue today, as conservative and reactionary groups are struggling to re-establish core values through cultural production and collection in the face of the pro-globalist establishment which is hostile to Western values, Christianity and localism. The model of the Mayer van den Berghs could provide a profitable one for those who need to keep their culture away from the influence of an expanding state. Disappointing as the compromises since Henriëtte’s death are, conservatives have to address the issue of pragmatism. What happens if a museum is not financially viable? Who will pay for necessary repair and security measures in an old building? Can a museum be maintained in an urban district that becomes inhabited by a new population that is hostile towards the museum? Should a museum refuse a gift of a valuable complementary artefact because of its charter? All of these problems – squalidly prosaic and expansive as they are – have to be considered by collectors considering preserving their collections in toto.

Unlikely as it may seem, this book could become a handbook for cultural conservatives looking for inspiration in their quest to preserve their culture. Highly recommended.

Ulrike Müller, At Home in a Museum: The Story of Henriëtte and Fritz Mayer van den Bergh, Hannibal/Museum Mayer van den Bergh, 2021, 240pp, fully illus., hardback, €39.95, ISBN 978 9 463 88 7717

Website: https://www.museummayervandenbergh.be/en

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

John Craxton, A Life of Gifts

[Image: (right) John Craxton, 1997. (c) Matthew Thomas]

The recent biographies of Bacon and Freud return us to the post-war milieu of Soho and Fitzrovia. A significant artist from this period was John Craxton (1922-2009). He was a luminary of the Neo-Romantic movement of the 1930s and early 1940s, which sought to depict not so much the events and characters of heroic myths – and the pastoralism of historical past – as to evoke an atmosphere of a pre-industrial age, at times bucolic and primeval, by using milder forms of pictorial Modernism. Like Freud (with whom he had a close but short friendship), Craxton was another well-connected boy wonder in London’s constricted wartime cultural scene.

According to Ian Collins’s new biography John Craxton: A Life of Gifts (not to be confused with a separate 2011 monograph on Craxton by Collins), Craxton had an unsettled childhood and a patchy education, spending time in Sussex, Dorset and elsewhere. He visited Paris in 1939 in search of contact with modern art and attended the Louvre. He took a few classes at the Académie Julian but was essentially self-taught. He was picked up by a publisher in 1940 and his Neo-Romantic illustrations provided him with an entry into the art world. Influenced by Samuel Palmer, Craxton’s early works are monochrome drawings and graphics on paper with paint in muted colours; they feature figures in densely drawn landscapes.

Craxton was part of the (not exclusively homosexual) circle around millionaire collector Peter Watson in that setting that included Freud, Cyril Connolly, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, John Minton and Kenneth Clark. Craxton was homosexual himself and – like many in the Fitzrovia/Soho sets – did not disguise the fact. Craxton fell in with Freud, a contemporary misfit and another enfant terrible of the Fitzrovia set. They met in 1941 and became inseparable until 1947. Both were engaged by pastoral landscapes and the figure, made portraits, admired realism but produced faux naïf art. Collins recounts with élan the pair’s hijinks in bombed London. They worked side by side in their shared Abercorn Place flat, sometimes working on pictures together, sometimes drawing each other. Their styles and subjects overlapped noticeably and it is hard to distinguish a leader and a follower. Later, some of the works in Craxton’s possession were sold as Freuds, much to the latter’s displeasure.   

Watson paid for Craxton to attend life-drawing classes at Goldsmiths College. When he taught there unhappily and unsuccessfully, for only a term. The future art forger Tom Keating responded badly to being corrected by him. Craxton and Freud worked alongside Sutherland on the South Wales coast. Craxton’s range was expanding from ink drawing to conté-and-white-chalk on tinted paper (animal still-lifes, very close to Freud’s) and oil paintings. These have slightly less intensity and detail than Freud’s but have better overall composition and cropping and are slightly more pleasing as pictures.

The Greece that Craxton first visited in 1946 had not begun recovering from war, occupation and civil war. There was a civil war between nationalists and communists ongoing at the time, which would eventually see the communists defeated. Craxton had already acquired an affinity for Greek cuisine in Soho and thought that a hot dry climate would help his health. (Unbeknownst to him, he had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis in London, the cause of constant weakness and inability to put on weight.) The sunshine and good food of Greece inspired Craxton the man, restoring him to health. His new surroundings were immediately evident in his paintings of coastal views, still-lifes, landscapes and figures (mainly sailors, objects of attraction). His landscapes are heavily derived from early Miró.

Craxton went to Poros – lauded by Lawrence Durrell, George Seferis and Henry Miller – where Freud joined him in September 1946. “Lucian would remain in Greece for five months during which he produced the most beautiful work of his life. John never really left, in every sense finding himself in Greece.” Freud painted Craxton and himself, largely deprived of portrait subjects, and made still-lifes of fruit. Craxton was painting simplified townscapes, using the smooth surfaces and subtle brushwork the pair liked. They tapped Lady Norton, wife of diplomat Sir Clifford Norton, in order to sustain themselves in necessities.

Planning a joint exhibition of their Greek art, the pair returned to London in time for the severest winter of the century in Britain, exacerbated by a chronic fuel shortage. Craxton went to Crete in autumn 1947 and responded strongly to the mixture of Greek culture and Minoan art and architecture. Craxton mingled with shepherds and lived in the mountains; he also courted danger by seeking out bandits. Crete would become the centre of his imaginative world and he would henceforth live and work in Crete and London.

The London Gallery showed Craxton and Freud together and separately. Craxton sold well and was more prolific than Freud. Craxton’s scenes of Mediterranean life offered the deprived, ration-bound residents of Great Britain a sunny escape. Wyndham Lewis thought his pictures to be lightweight: “a prettily tinted cocktail, that’s good but does not quite kick hard enough.” While Craxton’s Picasso-inflected art of scenes and people of the sunny South struck a chord and found collectors, they came be viewed as increasingly out of step with the age of Existentialism and the Geometry of Fear.     

In 1951 Frederick Ashton invited Craxton to design the set for the Covent Garden production of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloë. Craxton formed a close but short-lived friendship with lead ballerina Margot Fonteyn, who visited Crete, accompanied by Ashton. The production was considered cutting edge for its modern dress and décor, only receiving full appreciation after it had closed.

Craxton settled in Chania, a port on the coast of Crete. In 1955, Craxton’s penchant for sailors caught him out. He was accused of being a spy who had informed on a gun-running operation to Cyprus. As a foreign bohemian who travelled to London frequently, had links to the British Embassy and caroused with Greek naval men, Craxton was an obvious suspect. It was not true but the suspicion lingered even after his death. Craxton came to speak demotic Greek well and became involved in preserving Cretan heritage, which was disregarded by locals, especially when buildings dated to the Muslim occupation. Once he was suspected of harbouring antiquities. Craxton announced, “I have absolutely nothing Greek (ie antiquities) in the house except men and wine.”  

Exhibitions at Mayor and Leicester galleries met collector demand. His art developed modestly. The curvilinear style that Picasso and Braque used was also found in Minoan murals. The mixture of Modernism and ancient art turned to decorative ends also incorporated Pop Art. The Butcher (1964-6) shows the influence of Patrick Caulfield, Pop Art and hard-edge abstraction, with its emphatic straight outlines and planes of uninflected strong colour. Breaking up surfaces into parallel lines of alternating colour (such as Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67)) the appearance of a tapestry. It is not coincidental that at this time Craxton was examining Byzantine mosaics.


[Image: John Craxton, Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67), oil on canvas, 122 x 244 cm. (c) John Craxton Estate.]

His apparently impressive retrospective in 1967 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery confirmed his ability and the pleasure-giving capacity of his art and also his definitive distance from the critical consensus and fashion. During the Greek military junta (1967-74) Craxton went into exile, considered an undesirable by the regime. He wandered the ports of the Mediterranean in search of a substitute utopia. In 1973 a compensation came in the form of Richard Riley, who became his romantic partner for the rest of Craxton’s life.

When a group of drawings by Craxton and Freud surfaced, Freud disputed them, claiming they had been tampered with. He threatened the gallery with a lawsuit but the exhibition went ahead in 1984. The friendship, which had become distant over the years, was now dead. Freud’s capacity for grudge-bearing and feud-starting was legendary. Although the exhibition was a success, Craxton was hurt by Freud’s anger and Freud’s cutting remarks lingered in his mind until he died, according to friends.

However satisfying the art from the 1940s and 1950s is, one might find a lack of development in Craxton’s production disappointing. He was ultimately somewhat conservative in nature and timid. In his Neo-Romantic work, we see Samuel Palmer resuscitated with Miró and Picasso – all of whom laid out the styles and devices Craxton would use. It is true that not all artists must be original to be dazzling or wonderful, but greatness requires an essential forcefulness and daring, which Craxton lacked. Anyone painting in the 2000s as he did in the 1950s is someone who has the temperament of an artisan rather than an artist.

Another travail of old age was the incident when Craxton was drugged and thieves stole art from his house – including a Miró and a Sutherland. The thieves did not take any Craxtons. “Never losing a sense of humour, he claimed to have been not only robbed but insulted.” His final years were spent in London, where he died in 2009. His ashes were taken to Crete. Shortly before his death, he consented to be interviewed by Ian Collins for this biography and a monograph on his art. Collins has done well to search out personal acquaintances and track down photographs of the art, artist and his circle.

Elements of Craxton the painter remain a little elusive. Did Craxton write statements about his art, have a diary or pen useful letters? How productive was he? Did he destroy much? Did he disavow or criticise any of his work? What was his taste in art made by others? Although Collins adds a little near the end about Craxton’s routine and practices, readers may wish for more time inside the artist’s studio and his head. Yes, the art is enjoyable but did Craxton have strong ideas about what art – specifically his art – should do and not do?    

These cavils should not deter anyone interested in Craxton and his art from reading this thoroughly researched, attractive and vivid biography.

Ian Collins, John Craxton: A Life of Gifts, Yale University Press, 11 May 2021 (UK)/22 June 2021 (USA), hardback, 384pp, 160 illus., $35/£25, ISBN 9780300255294

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Jonathan Freedman, “Jewish Decadence”

Jonathan Freedman is a professor at the University of Michigan, who has published critiques of literary Modernism, high and low culture and the role (and perception) of Jews and Judaism in Anglo-American culture. The Jewish Decadence: Jews and Aesthetics of Modernity is a study of Jewish creators played a role in fin-de-siecle Modernism and the Decadent Movement, in the process coming to be identified with vanguardism and all the connotations of formal progressivism and moral turpitude. Freedman appears to agree with Potolsky’s suggestion that “[…]“decadence” is perhaps the first transnational, cosmopolitan literary/cultural formation in the West […]”.

“As Jews entered European and Anglo-American cultures in the long fin-de-siècle, they faced a vexing dilemma. When they confronted decadence the cultural movement, they also encountered decadence the cultural smear: the claim that Jews were themselves exemplars, if not bearers, of cultural and social decline. With roots in German philosophy and support from the burgeoning eugenics movement, with an impetus from reactionary political movements and from established medical authorities, the identification of Jews as decadent took two opposing forms. On the one hand, they were seen as decayed representatives of a declining race, atavistically clinging to their outmoded rituals and superseded faith. On the other, they were identified as citified, hystericized, sexually dysfunctional avatars of a degenerate futurity.”

The author takes the fin-de-siècle to be 1870-1920, somewhat broader than purists would prefer, but it does permit the inclusion of Jewish precursors and retardataire followers of Decadent movements. It also allows him to include early cinema and Proust.

How much importance Jewish people have as instigators or participants in the avant-garde is a very open question that will never be fully answered. Is a Jew as an outsider (if we are to accept that Jews are indeed outsiders, which is a thorny issue) naturally more open to the unusual, the strange, the disturbing or the extreme? Why should that be? Is it just a matter of timing, with the influx of Jews into civil society and wider Western European culture dating to the series of emancipatory acts of the 19th Century, coinciding with the decadent phase of culture pre-1914? The deracinatory effect of expansion of the suburbs, industrialisation, mass mobility, dwindling religiosity and social emancipation, combined with relative civil stability and improving prosperity, necessarily gives rise to the pleasure-seeking phase for the urban elites – the anomie that Durkheim writes of in Suicide – and the degree to which Jews contributed to that (rather than simply following the trend and embodying the zeitgeist) is something that Freedman cannot answer. To be fair, such a vast question is not even formulated by Freedman.

“Decadence was, to be sure, largely a high-cultural phenomenon; indeed, its promotion of art t a near-cultish status may be said to have served as a powerful reaction-formation to the rise of mass culture.” Although, Freedman goes on to note that the sensation value of creators such as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Gustave Moreau made them figures of popular currency and allowed them to reach audiences through non-high-cultural means. Much of that knowledge was second hand and indistinct – along with the understanding of Decadence and related movements as a whole – but it was clearly not secret or forbidden knowledge. One could say that such high-art forms as atonalism or automatism did not reach a mass audience at the time, even though the material was nominally accessible to anyone who wished to acquire it. It is the sensational quality of Decadent art and the moral peril to consumers and producers – and by extension to society more broadly – that fired the imagination of the general population at a distance.

Jews played a prominent role in the art trade, involved in the promotion of avant-garde art. Berthe Weill, Charles Ephrussi, Paul Cassirer, Alfred Flechtheim, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Wilhelm Uhde, Murray Marks and the Bernheim, Durlacher, Wildenstein and Rosenberg families are just a few of the most successful Jewish dealers who played a part in the marketing of Modernist art. Likewise, Jewish collectors heavily bought in the field. Regrettably, Freedman does not dig deeper into what it meant to be a Jewish vanguardist in the visual fine arts.

The question of what a people with a strong visual tradition but lacking a distinct school of pictorial art will do when they move into a secular society causes us to consider the neophilia of the more adventurous members of the vanguard who were also Jewish. Is it unreasonable to see Jewish neophilia in secular culture as an attempt to shape and claim a portion of a new territory as a response to a notable absence of Jewish influence in a long-standing national culture? This situation is separate from (though it is undoubted related to) the issue of the difficult negotiation of the loss/reward balance that comes with assimilation into host societies.   

We should not overlook the drive of the Westjuden to distinguish themselves from their Ostjuden cousins. There was an ambivalent attitude of the urban dislocated Westjuden in Western and Central Europe towards the rural Ostjuden with long-standing links to the land and traditions, whom they viewed with a mixture of sentimental religious reverence and repulsion at the crudity and poverty of their lives. For the Westjuden, the prohibition against image-making had been loosened, whilst (famously) painter Chaïm Soutine fled his Lithuanian shtetl because he was beaten for making images in his youth. One freedom and way of distinguishing the sophistication of the Westjuden was art making.

Freedman devotes a chapter to support by Jews for Oscar Wilde, including the commissioning (by William Rothenstein) and execution of his tomb (Jacob Epstein). Wilde proposed to Charlotte Montefiore (a Jewess) after the death of her brother (Leonard), to whom Wilde felt particularly close. Wilde would patronise the disgraced Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon (1840-1905), who had to retreat from public life after two prosecutions for homosexual acts and ended up an alcoholic inhabitant of a workhouse. (Freedman suggests an affinity between homosexuals and Jews as outsiders in the Victorian period, although without overstressing the point.) Wilde’s American theatrical tour and admiration for socialism brought him into contact with Jews in both fields. The Leversons, who took in Wilde during his trial, were steadfast supporters. Reggie Turner (an acculturated Jew) who was one of Wilde’s closest companions and was with Oscar’s deathbed. Freedman notes Turner’s ambivalence about his Jewish ethnicity and absence of Judaic belief; identified as Jewish by others, he oscillated between an adopted Anglicanism and anti-Semitic remarks and a passionate defence of the Dreyfusard.    

However, despite Wilde’s admiration for certain Jewish writers and artists, one cannot detect anything in his writing or outlook as specifically Jewish, with the sole exception of the selection of Salome as a subject. It seems Salomé was translated into Yiddish, published and performed on stage by 1907. “When Salomé was finally performed in English, critics saw it as a creaky anachronism, and it is The Importance of Being Earnest that lays his claim to theatrical immortality. But Jewish literary culture responded with equal enthusiasm to Wilde’s incandescently vengeful Salomé, with her over-the-top desires for mutilation and necrophilia.”

According to Freedman, by the last decades of the 19th Century “pervert” and “Jew” were virtually interchangeable in the discussions of sexologists and criminologists. Both Jewish men and women were seen as predatory and unnatural, not least because of the powerfully strong endogamic tradition of Judaism made sexual relations between gentiles and Jews taboo. This context made depictions of Salome, a prominent Jewess who used her sexual allure to procure the death of John the Baptist, particularly potent at the time.

[Image: Romaine Brooks, La Venus triste (1917), oil on canvas, 150 x 271 cm, Musees de la Ville de Poitiers, copyright Jean Pierre Prevost/Pascal Legrand]

Salome became a favoured character for Jewish actresses and dancers, from Sarah Bernhardt, Theda Bara, Alla Nazimova, Bessi Thomashefsky, Ida Rubinstein to Fanny Brice, who were (when young) strikingly slim and slight – contradicting the stereotype of Jewish women as zaftig or matronly. The character was an Orientalist costume, to be donned in order to perform sexual provocation, comedic lasciviousness, neurotic narcissism or unearthly beauty, forming an ideally malleable role for Jewish actresses seeking to exploit their ethnicity, be that due to reasons as negative as absence of other roles or as positive as an opportunity to take a starring role and expand their range. For the abovenamed performers, it was a chance to use their apparently atypical appearance in a starring role, which was one of few Jewish characters commonly known in Christian societies. Bernhardt’s thinness became a raging fashion among women of the 1880s, even though it was also mocked in caricature as being unhealthy. (Freedman puts the case that Bernhardt was the first vamp-goth-style archetype in popular culture.) Ida Rubinstein was a link from Bernhardt to the Modernist age in dance and Alla Nazimova’s flapper costume and vamp make up in Salomé was the actress’s own design, done to exploit her taut physique.

Studying the Western press, a Jewess could be forgiven for thinking that she could not win: she was either a zaftig temptress (of unnaturally strong libido) or a starkly slim waif (harbourer of tuberculosis or syphilis), either way a malevolent threat to gentile normality. (Read my review of E.M. Lilien and his Images of Jewish Women here.)  

For painters such as Klimt and Moreau, Salome became a topic in which could be invested all the eroticism and Orientalism that they could conjure. Freedman notes that Moreau turned to the subject of Salome at least 70 times in his career. (One might posit a psychoanalytical reading of a never-married painter of notoriously opaque sexual taste becoming obsessed by the story of a beautiful woman symbolically castrating the object of her spurned desire by having him publicly beheaded.) In Salome Dancing before Herod (c. 1874), the tattooed character displays her slender, almost androgynous physique, in a hieratical pose. Moreau never conveyed movement in anything like a persuasive manner; each of his pictures (respectively) benefits or suffers from a quality of Byzantine stillness.

[Image: Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing before Herod (c. 1874), oil on canvas, Musee Moreau, Paris]

Freedman gives a chapter to Proust – an equivocal half-Jew – and depictions of Jews in his À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust’s tangled attitude towards his Jewish inheritance was tied into his other hidden identity as a homosexual. Freedman notes that Proust dedicated one volume to Léon Daudet, a virulent anti-Semite. “Decadent culture, sexuality, and Jewishness were conflated in Proust’s own life as well as in the public sphere of his moment,” the author comments before quoting a letter from Proust (of 1888) disavowing decadence. Proust notes “the religious belief in beautiful forms of language, a perversion of the senses, a sickly sensibility that finds pleasures in exotic occurrences, in musics more suggestive than real….”, which seems an ideal definition of decadence.

Another chapter deals with Jewish responses to Schopenhauer, a giant figure in Germanic thought, deeply pessimistic, with a tragic outlook. Freedman summarises the responses of Freud, Italo Svevo, Isaac Bashevis Singer and (somewhat anachronistically) Saul Bellow to Schopenhauer. Another chapter considers Walter Benjamin as a critic of French anti-Semitism. Freedman’s discussion of An-Sky’s The Dybbuk (1914) (dybbuk is a malevolent possessing spirit) includes an illuminating discussion of Count Dracula as a stereotypical Jew. A final chapter mentions Claude Cahun (a subject covered by me here and here). Claude Cahun (Lucie Schwob) was the niece of Wilde’s French translator Marcel Schwob. Freedman deals with the Jewish dance of adopting and dropping their religious/ethnic identity through necessity and choice.     

Overall, The Jewish Decadence is a richly rewarding read, blending deep knowledge, provocative insight and unsparing honesty to the role Jews have played in fin-de-siècle culture of Europe and the USA. Barely a page goes by with an insight into cultural production and consumption and unexpected links between creators, places and ideas. This book will be of value to anyone wishing to under early Modernism and Jewish contribution to vanguard art.

Jonathan Freedman, The Jewish Decadence: Jews and Aesthetics of Modernity, April 2021, University of Chicago Press, paperback, 304pp, 41 mono illus., $30, ISBN 978 0 226 58108 8 (cloth edition available)

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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