René Magritte, Philosopher Painter

04. R. Magritte_La m├®moire_1948

[Image: René Magritte, La mémoire (1948), oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm. Collezione della Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles (FWB) Ministère de la Communauté française, Bruxelles
© 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

Magritte: Life Line is catalogue is produced for the solo exhibition of René Magritte (1898-1967) at Amos Rex, Helsinki (8 February-19 May 2019) and Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana, Lugano (16 September 2018-6 January 2019). The basis of this exhibition is a lecture given in 1938 by Magritte. The curator and writers have taken his biographical lecture as a starting point for the selection of art by Magritte, using it to illustrate the themes he identified as his most important ones.

The lecture “Life Line” was delivered on 20 November 1938 at Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. The text is reprinted here in full. The artist greeted his audience with the words “Ladies, Gentlemen, Comrades” and included a swipe at Hitler. Magritte’s political commitment was never entirely full and it fluctuated. His support always seemed more an expression of anti-authoritarianism and opposition to Fascism rather than any desire to see a dictatorship of the proletariat. Surrealism implied members’ allegiance to Communism, as repeatedly stated in the movement’s manifestoes and statements. The speech was more about an undermining of our assumptions regarding reality and the natural laws than anything more polemical. He talks about the origins of his fascination with painting.

In my childhood, I used to enjoy playing with a little girl in the old disused cemetery in a small provincial town. We visited the underground vaults, whose heavy iron door we could lift up, and we would come up into the light, where a painter from the capital was painting in a very picturesque avenue in the cemetery with its broken stone pillars strewn over the dead leaves, the art of painting then seemed to me to be vaguely magical, and the painter gifted with superior powers.

For Magritte, art was bound up with magic and eroticism. His wish to make himself and others wonder in order to experience the world anew and the erotic impulse were twin motivations for Magritte as artist during his whole life.

Encounters with paintings by first the Futurists and then Giorgio de Chirico inspired Magritte to turn away from realism. When Magritte read the manifestoes and saw the art of Surrealism, he located a means of combining wonder and eroticism. In 1925 he began to explore the terrain which would come to be considered typically and uniquely Magrittean. Through inversion, metamorphosis, replacement of images by words and juxtaposition Magritte transformed aspects of the real world into something remarkable. In the early years unknown and impossible substances and painterly effects were part of his repertoire but in the years after 1930 this part diminished and Magritte dealt henceforth mainly with materials and objects that we recognise.

One night in 1936, I woke up in a room with a bird asleep in a cage. Due to a mahnificent delusion I saw not a bird but an egg inside a cage. Here was an amazing new poetic secret, for the shock I felt was caused precisely by an affinity between the two objects, cage and egg, whereas before, this shock had been caused by bringing together two unrelated objects.

Hereafter, Magritte treated his ideas as more consistent and less arbitrary. In Hegel’s Vacation a glass of water is balanced on an open umbrella. The conjunction is between an object which is used to contain water and one that is designed to repel water. This is typical of the newly refined process of image creation.

Magritte goes on to give some examples of his paintings as representative of his thought, rejecting the idea that painting was to give sensual pleasure. This was a position he temporarily reversed in the Second World War, creating paintings in the Impressionist style of Renoir to delight the senses in delicate brushwork and spectacular warm colour. The lecture text is accompanied by the original glass slides that the artist projected on the evening.

The catalogue includes an interview with Suzi Gablik. She stayed with the Magrittes in 1960 while preparing her landmark monograph on the artist. She discusses her memories of the Magrittes domestic life. Other texts analyse Magritte’s interest in Futurism, his relations with the Paris Surrealists and his partnership with his America-based dealer Alexandre Iolas. There is a bibliography and chronology.

There are versions of famous paintings included in the exhibition. Among these are The Red Model (with boots metamorphosing into feet), The Castle in the Pyrenees (a castle on a rock which floats over a sea), The Listening Room (a giant apple fills a room), Memory (a plaster cast of a woman’s head is splashed with blood), The Son of Man (a man in a bowler hat, face obscured by a hovering apple) and other compositions. The Marches of Summer (1938) has the awe-inspiring conceit of the sky and earth broken into giant perfect cubes, turning the world into a puzzle for titans.

Le grand Siècle

[Image: René Magritte, Le grand siècle (1954), oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. Kunstmuseum Gelsenkirchen. © 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

The exhibition also features less familiar paintings that are arrested and absorbing. The Great Century (1954) has a man looking across a sunlit park and a grand villa, all of which are under a vast ceiling. It gives us a strange sensation of contained in a building so vast that encompasses – perhaps – the entire world. (Something of a parallel to concept of existence as a simulation within an incomprehensibly sophisticated computer.) Countryside (1927) shows an irregular flat fragment of tree foliage dissipating, smoke-like, into the air; it is a placed in an alien landscape and under a cloudless sky. Celestial Muscles (1927) is a torn part of grey mist (or cloud) intruding into a room. The mist has a lovely silvered-lead quality and its formlessness is contrasted with its crisp arabesque outline; the conjunction creating a delicious frisson. These paintings appeal due to its combination of colours, textures and shapes, demonstrating how Magritte’s early period was largely intuitive rather than reasoned. These are examples of the sensual appeal of Magritte’s art, despite his avowal of a detached intellectual manner of creation. Magritte also talked of art showing us the poetry of the world and we can think of Magritte’s pre-1930 art as poetry without metre, with his art after 1929 (and especially after 1935) a more structured form of poetry.

One example of Magritte’s art entering the territory of the crime story (a genre Magritte enjoyed) is The Night Walker (1927-8). A man in hat and coat is strolling through a normal dining room which is lit by a streetlamp. It is a poetic rendering of the strangeness of our everyday world rearranged, drawing attention to a threat and mystery of the ordinary.

01. R. Magritte_Le noctambule_1928

[Image: René Magritte, Le noctambule (1927-8), oil on canvas, 55 x 74 cm. Museum Folkwang, Essen. © Museum Folkwang Essen – ARTOTHEK / 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

The famous “Words and Images” illustrated text is included in its original manuscript form. This short explanation of Magritte’s ideas was published in La Révolution surréaliste in December 1929 and has since been frequently reproduced. His paintings with words substituting for images provide further demonstrations of the ideas in “Words and Images”.  Art by Giacomo Balla, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico puts Magritte’s practice into perspective.

The selection is excellent and enjoyable. It is representative of Magritte’s main themes and includes pictures from his Impressionist phase and the Vache period, when he painted pictures that were crude, scatological and bawdy. Prints, painted bottles and bronze sculptures show Magritte’s work outside conventional picture-painting. The pairing of drawings and paintings with sculptures allows us to judge how satisfactory the translations into three dimensions for bronze casting by Italian craftsmen are. This catalogue is a fine book for anyone wanting to gain a general understanding of Magritte, as well as providing thoughtful analyses and a key text by the artist.

 

Xavier Canonne (ed.), Magritte Life Line, Skira, 2018, hardback, 176pp, 120 col. illus., £32.00/$40.00, (Italian version available), ISBN 978 88 572 3897 5

* * * *

9781138054271

 

In René Magritte and the Art of Thinking Lisa Lipinski situates Magritte’s art in the context of phenomenology of Merleau Ponty and other thinkers of the Twentieth Century. Lipinski, assistant professor of art history at George Washington University, presents Magritte’s use of pâpier collé and words as an extension of the inventions of the Cubists. The introduction of extrinsic elements of language into the field of painting opens up questions regarding semiotics and linguistics.

[Cubist] collage was a way of probing not only the reality or relationship of signifier and signified, but also the differences between words and images in terms of meaning, which according to structural linguistics is a function of the system rather than of the world. Unlike some kinds of images, words possess no natural relationship to the things to which they refer.

This has been subject of study by Foucault and other philosophers already. Lipinski presents a summary of the conclusions that she finds most salient. Instances of trompe l’oeil painting are discussed in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s proposition of “becoming-imperceptible”. For the artist his “painting has to resemble the world in order to evoke its mystery.” Summoning the mystery of the world into existence in his art required the quasi-deception of illusionism – a compact entered into by artist and viewer with the understanding that their suspension of disbelief will be mutually beneficial. Bloodletting (1939) – which shows a painting of a section of brick wall hanging on an interior wall – becomes a locus for examining the literalness of Magritte’s talk of the visible concealing the visible in levels. It makes us aware of the way signifiers in pictures relate to signified subjects and thus refer to the absent subject. Magritte’s art makes this matter the subject of a picture by playing with such notions of absent signified and by revealing of the should-be-hidden matter makes apparent the codes of representation that we accept.

The Human Condition is a series of paintings which use the motif of the painting mirroring the reality around it in a way that makes it indistinguishable from the surroundings. The surface of the depicted painting becomes as one with the surface of the actual painting, toying with ideas of verisimilitude, semiotics and language. The recurrent use of the picture as subject, the view seen through a window and the empty frame are other types of analysis of visual language.

There is some discussion of the Renoiresque paintings but Lipinski seems to misunderstand the rejection of these pictures. Viewers rejected the art because the style was incongruent with subject and in fact detracted from the legibility that Magritte’s art required to function effectively. The viewers may not have termed their unease and impatience in such terms but this was what caused these pictures to be rejected. Inside of the controlled dissonance and incongruity that Magritte habitually deployed, he was prey to unconscious dissonance by taking up a position where his language and subject short-circuited each other. The paintings fail to be pleasurable because the viewers intuit their inherent and unhelpful internal inconsistency. The Vache period is discussed briefly. The book concludes with a discussion of the photograph portraits of Magritte as indicative of the painter’s ideas.

This book provides a digestible overview of the Magritte’s themes as considered in the light of philosophy, semiotics and post-structuralism and will be of most value to university students.

Lisa Lipinski, René Magritte and the Art of Thinking, Routledge, 2019, hardback, 140pp, 14 col./40 mono illus., £115, ISBN 978 1 138 05427 1

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

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Picasso’s Jacqueline Period

Jacqueline in a Turkish Costume_1955 copy

[Image: Pablo Picasso, Jacqueline in a Turkish Costume (1955), oil on canvas, Collection Catherine Hutin © Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019. Photo: Claude
Germain]

In Picasso studies, the Jacqueline period (1955-1973) is the least studied and least highly regarded. It is viewed as the one with the lowest amount of noteworthy innovation and with the least amount of career-defining art. This is in part because it coincides with the period of worldwide fame, frequent photoshoots for magazines and books, celebrity visits, honours and memoirs or acquaintances. The publicity overload generated a critical backlash that was part boredom, part snobbery, part rejection of the advocacy-cum-promotion. It was also a reflection of the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s Picasso finally seemed a part of history for artists. It was ironic that as Picasso became ubiquitous in Paris Match, Time Life and The Sunday Times colour supplement was exactly the period his art disappeared from the walls of art schools and the scrapbooks of art students.

The exhibition The Late Work from the Collection of Jacqueline Picasso (Museum Barberini, Potsdam, 9 March-16 June 2019) presents art by Picasso from a period that is usually evaluated comparatively by weighing it against the production of earlier decades (an approach both valid and invalid, as discussed below). The exhibition consists of 136 prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures and ceramics. There are some very fine pictures (especially the very late works) and many of them are rarely exhibited. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The departure of Françoise Gilot of 1953, his break from the Partie Communiste français and the death of Matisse in 1954, left Picasso adjusting his life. From 1955 until the end of his life, Picasso lived with Jacqueline Roque, a young divorcée who he had met in 1952 while working at the pottery works in Vallauris, where Picasso made ceramic pots, plates, dishes, jugs and other objects. The couple were wed in 1961. As with previous relationships, Picasso’s art of this era was called the Jacqueline period. The Jacqueline period consists of two phases: the open (1955-1965) and the secluded (1965-1973). The later phase of the Jacqueline period is much higher in quality and much more consistent. The vacant copies of Old Masters are gone, the landscapes-by-rote are gone, the tired artist-and-model scenes are gone. In the final paintings there is only the artist and his lover. There is nothing else left. Yet the forms are strong, the line inventive, the decoration bold, the colour rich. The paintings are as full and ambitious as anything Picasso made.

picasso_h_369_liegender_akt_mit_blumenkrone_1970 copy

[Image: Pablo Picasso, Reclining Nude with a Crown of Flowers (1970), oil on canvas, Collection Catherine Hutin © Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019. Photo: Claude Germain]

Before we can get to that art we encounter art that is variable in quality and commitment. The period started poorly, in terms of art. The best of the art are the portraits of Jacqueline and the female nudes. The most well-known art of the late 1950s are the variations after Velazquez, Manet and Delacroix. There was genuinely terrible art – such as the variations after Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe are abysmal – and many pedestrian five-finger exercises. The Delacroix variations are the best of the suites, partly because of their overall surface activation.

An essay describes the major exhibitions of Picasso in the 1950-70 period, many of which were influenced by the artist and his dealers. Picasso’s control and participation in these events varied. In a number Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler would suggest (or leave no alternative for) curators to accept new art by Picasso, which the public and critics were not enthusiastic about. What fans of Picasso loved was the Blue and Rose periods, Cubism and some pictures from the 1920s and 1930s, not the post-War work. Kahnweiler determined that promoting the later period through exhibiting and publishing it alongside the classic pictures that people accepted. This promoted and legitimised the new art by associating it with the earlier art.

Standing Woman_1958 copy

[Image: Pablo Picasso, Standing Woman (1958), oil on canvas, Collection Catherine Hutin © Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019. Photo: Claude Germain]

This exhibition contains art of all types and subjects which Jacqueline was given and kept separate from the main body of Picasso’s art. Many of the pictures have dedications from the artist. (On the reverse of a still-life of onion and cutlery is written, “In homage to Jacqueline, for a matelote she made for lunch 12.3.60, and offering her this painting with nothing but the immense desire to please her. Picasso.”.) The legal wrangles over Picasso’s estate were lengthy and resulted in his children and Jacqueline retaining some art and the remainder being donated to the French state to cover death duties. The donated works are now housed at Musée Picasso, Paris.

Thankfully we are spared most of the variations after Old Masters. Picasso associated Jacqueline with one of the figures in Delacroix’s Orientalist fantasy The Women of Algiers. There are some graphics of that subject and pictures of Jacqueline in a Turkish costume. Thusly Picasso combined his new lover with a model from a great work of art. There are a series of interiors of La Californie, the villa which Picasso and Jacqueline moved into in the summer of 1955. The paintings range from the stark stenographic lines on primed canvas to fully painted scenes. There are multiple portraits of Jacqueline and nudes with her face, though Picasso generally worked from imagination rather than life. The move to the south France and proximity to bullfights encouraged Picasso to return to the subject of bullfighting scenes, bulls and the Minotaur – subjects that he rarely left for long. There is a single still-life from 1960. At this stage Picasso had little engagement with this genre, which he had so successfully explored earlier in his career.

Head (1958) and Figure (1958) are two typical assemblage sculptures cast in bronze. These extend the modus operandi of Bull (1942) by using minimally altered found objects in combination to evoke figures or animals. It is ludic, mordant and witty. It would make a fascinating exhibition to display the cast assemblages of Picasso and Miró together with an extensive catalogue. These bodies of work overlap but differ substantially, particularly in Miró’s use of paint and wax incision. Picasso always preferred his originals to the casts, disliking the qualities of bronze, whereas Miró’s sculptures relied upon the transformed outcome that the casting process entailed.

The artist was as open-minded about materials as he was about concepts and procedures. He used colour pencils and felt-tip pens. He would work on scrap paper and cardboard. His folded card sculptures would be used as maquettes for large versions in folded steel with drawn and painted adornment. There were even larger versions made in poured reinforced concrete which were subsequently sgraffitoed with a sandblaster to reveal darker aggregate stone below. This exhibition includes Picasso’s cardboard maquettes of figures and faces and his embellished steel cut-out sculptures. Associated drawings and paintings play with figures as schematised and planar forms in an ambiguous space. In these his lines are both decorative and also descriptive of the edges of figures. Picasso, of course, playfully negotiates this ambiguity (or duality).

It has been previously observed that Picasso failed to successfully incorporate anything modern in his art. The few appearances of bicycles and guns are feeble and poorly grasped (witness the awkward Night Fishing at Antibes embarrassing Massacre in Korea). The two exhibited items of football players in folded-flat sculptures are examples of Picasso’s cursory engagement with team sports. The single great exception to Picasso’s pictorial blind spot regarding recent culture is the lightbulb – as seen in the Guernica series and the beautiful linocuts of table still-lifes. These are surrogate torches or miniature suns.

These are all from the first phase of the Jacqueline period. None of them are technically or thematically distinct from earlier works, with the possible exception of the folded-sheet sculptures. It is the later pieces that are most radical and startling. We can discern indirect reflections of the art, photography and cinema (high and low) that was available to the artist on television, in newspapers, magazines and books. This plenitude of source material was synthesised – or one could say jumbled or composted – in such a complete manner that tracing elements to potential origins is impossible. Authors of catalogue essays make intelligent suggestions about published material that might have fed into the art, with illustrations.

The prints of last years (including the 347 Suite) show Picasso’s command of line and the effort he put into elaborate shading and numerous successive states. The last drawings reach the very limits of comprehension, with swooping arabesque lines, extreme close-ups and multiple angles (which some attribute to special-lens photography and 1960s erotic cinema). Our gaze floats untethered over a landscape of naked flesh described through only line, hair, facial features and orifices. Pupils are arrestingly stark and dark. We are in the harems and fleshpots of brothels and dressing rooms, engaging in voyeuristic delight instead of carnal satisfaction.

The Matador_1970 copy

[Image: Pablo Picasso, The Matador (1970), oil on canvas, Collection Catherine Hutin © Succession Picasso/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019. Photo: Claude Germain]

Rougher and more urgent are the heads of men in the late oil paintings. The heads are seen as self-portraits, something that the artist admitted in an earlier interview, in which he stated that all male figures are (to a degree) self-portraits. The many musicians are obvious performers as performers rather than music-related comments. Picasso himself was not particularly fond of music and had limited taste and enthusiasm for it. The freedom of paint application and improvisatory quality of the designs was due to confidence and haste – Picasso made up to three large paintings per day. The open application of paint and leaving raw primer exposed in places gave the pictures a refreshing vitality, contrasting with the way La Californie series seem only cursory. Yet, it was high risk. These last paintings seem both assured and on the edge. The exhibition includes Figures (1972-3) Picasso’s last painting, left unfinished at his death. He had been working on it the hours before his death. It is one of his starkest pictures: raw and uncompromising.

 

Ostrud Westheider, Michael Philipp (eds.), Picasso: The Late Work from the Collection of Jacqueline Picasso, Prestel, April 2019,hardback, 248pp, 200 col. illus., $50/£39.99, ISBN 978 3 7913 5811 6

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books on www.alexanderadams.art

De Chirico’s Metaphysical and Post-Metaphysical Art

Piazza d'Italia con piedistallo vuoto, 1955

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia con piedistallo vuoto (1955), oil on canvas, 55 x 35.5 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

The current exhibition Giorgio de Chirico: Il volto della Metafisica (Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, 30 March-7 July 2019) explores the recurring manifestations of Metaphysical Art (and definitely non-Metaphysical Art) in the oeuvre of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). The exhibition covers the artist’s Metaphysical, Neoclassical, Neo-Baroque and Neo-Metaphysical periods; the only era not represented adequately is the Symbolist (or Böcklin) period. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This catalogue, written in part by the exhibition curator Victoria Noel-Johnson, will be useful standalone publication because it goes beyond the standard iconic Metaphysical paintings that are commonly reproduced in books. Readers get a good view of de Chirico’s lifetime production in all its diversity, reiterations, inconsistencies and peculiar paradoxes. The art is arranged by theme rather than style or period. The English version of this volume has been designed specifically to act as a survey of Giorgio de Chirico in the English language rather than acting as an exhibition catalogue per se.

After studying in Munich and cultivating a youthful infatuation of the Symbolism of Italy-based Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin, de Chirico initiated Metaphysical painting in 1910. These scenes of Italianate architecture, generally public spaces, mostly deserted, seen at twilight. The raking shadows, illogical perspective and pungent colours (with green skies) were powerfully original. They made a strong impression in the last Salons before the First World War and elicited praise from Apollinaire. He moved to Paris to advance his career in the city most receptive to new art. During the war he served in the Italian army and was stationed in Ferrara. The art that he left in Paris was taken by his landlord to recompense for rent payment and were sold for a pittance against the artist’s wishes. There, when he had time to paint, he developed a more complicated detailed approach to Metaphysical Art over 1915-8. These paintings included maps, pictures, more interior scenes and new elements (such as mannequins, biscuits, geometrical apparatuses and so forth). Upon returning to Rome on New Year’s Day, 1919, de Chirico renounced Metaphysical Art and embarked on a period of Neo-classicism. The influence of Antonello de Messina, Perugino, Raphael and other artists can be seen in the early post-Metaphysical periods. In the Neo-Baroque period (described c. 1938-early 1960s) was influenced by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Fragonard, Delacroix, Fragonard and Watteau.

Noel-Johnson describes the artist’s post-Metaphysical periods as such: “De Chirico spent several years producing pastiches of ancient and Old Master works shortly after arriving in Rome in 1919. […] He returned to the great masters with renewed fervour in c. 1938 through to the early 1960s, after which he dedicated the last decade of his life (the Neometaphysical period of 1968-78) to the reworking of popular themes found in his work of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, such as the Italian Squares, The Disquieting Muses, Ferrarese Interiors, Trophies, Horses on the Seashore, Gladiators, Mysterious Baths, Furniture in a Room, and Furniture in the Valley.”[i]

The long shadow of Metaphysical Art over the production of the artist was apparent to him. He was well aware of the criticism that his post-1918 output was dismissed outright by the Surrealists and other supporters of his early period. De Chirico’s later production is a battleground for those holding opposing positions on matters of authenticity and reproduction. Was de Chirico making variants of his own paintings that were genuinely felt and engaged the artist?

de Chirico muse inquiet 97x66

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Le muse inquietanti (late 1950s), oil on canvas, 97 x 66 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

De Chirico had difficult interactions with Surrealists. He appreciated the support and income he gained from their support for his Metaphysical paintings in the 1920s, when he struggled to sell his art. The Surrealists considered his Metaphysical paintings as revolutionary and liberating; they imitated them and tried to replicate their atmosphere; they rejected his Neo-classical paintings. He participated in some meetings, events and exhibitions arranged by the Breton group but he was sceptical of the value of these activities and critical of their Communism. He resented their rejection of his later art and he was angry at the abuse (some of it very personal) he received from them. He was furious about the faking of his paintings by Oscar Dominguez, encouraged by Breton, which were exhibited at Galerie Allard in June 1946. De Chirico would later suffer more pernicious faking activity which undermined his oeuvre so thoroughly that experts, the artist’s foundation and the artist himself noted that some forgeries had been included in early catalogues of his art. For the rest of his life, the painter struggled with attributions – real, fake and ante-dated.

The selection of art is satisfyingly broad. It is difficult to gain loans of the most valuable and rarest Metaphysical paintings, but this exhibition is an opportunity to use these limitations to our advantage by mixing well-known pieces with less famous pictures. The versions of classic compositions are later variants or copies by the artist. The most startling pictures are the Neo-Metaphysical paintings. The assertive colouring and the sun and moon symbols – linked by cables or tubes to their unilluminated negatives – are departures from the Metaphysical works. The brushwork is also denser and the pigmentation is heavier. The clarity of lighting of later pictures contrasts with the crepuscular quality of the Metaphysical pictures.

Offering to the Sun (1968) has a stylised sun at the horizon, connected to fire on an outdoor hearth. A black crescent moon is linked to a red moon, secreted within a building, like a prop in a stage play or a tool in a garden shed. It is an extraordinarily bold concept and an inspired inclusion. The Ferrarese interiors are in versions of the 1960s or 1970s. Clusters of props, tools and armatures inhabit rooms with views upon Italianate towns, New York City skylines and seashores. These present conundrums of representation – the relative validity and inter-relations of parts of differing registers. In The Great Mysterious Trophy (1973) has a group of architectural fragments, sculpture parts and a painting in an interior; through windows, we view Classical temples and pillar sections in landscapes. De Chirico treats temples quite differently from post-ancient Italian buildings. While the post-ancient Italian buildings are inhabited and situated within streets, squares and yards which afford communal spaces which contain (or possess the possibility to contain) objects, architectural parts, monuments and figures, the temples are isolated, uninhabited and bereft of life, isolated on rocky slopes with no paths or agoras. The Italianate buildings are permeable, habitable and locations of encounter; the temples are solid, uninhabitable and exist as symbols only. De Chirico’s temples are like building blocks – generic, self-contained, arbitrarily placed.

Corazze con cavaliere, 1940

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Corazze con cavaliere (natura morta ariostea) (1940), oil on canvas, 87 x 112 cm. Roberto Casamonti collection, courtesy of Tornabuoni Arte, Florence]

Portraits and especially self-portraits are typical of de Chirico’s emphatically conservative contributions to this traditional genre. They are extensions of Renaissance and Baroque painting, only the heavy, direct handling of the paint and strong contrasts mark out de Chirico’s art as different. Whether that difference came from choice or instinct is not clear. The artist’s numerous recursions to Metaphysical art and combined styles during all periods show that he was never fully immersed in the traditions and techniques of the Old Masters, despite his reading of Cennini and his writings on grounds, glazes and paint formulae. Rather than being a resident of Old Master territory, de Chirico was a visitor – albeit a respectful and attentive one.

The paintings are supplemented by prints and drawings, of varying degrees of finish. The full suite of 10 lithograph illustrations for Cocteau’s book Mythologie (1934) is exhibited. They feature de Chirico’s Mysterious Baths. The memory of seeing reflections on a waxed parquet floor inspired the development of stylised water in the group called the Mysterious Baths. The pencil-drawing illustrations for Siepe a nordovest (1922) by Massimo Bontempelli play with tradition and conventional illustration, with touches of de Chirico’s theatrical Modernism. The characters are depicted as ersatz marionettes. A handful of highly finished drawings of Metaphysical compositions show de Chirico’s skill as a draughtsman. (A handful of nudes from 1930s-1950s show de Chirico was a sensitive painter of the figure when he took time. It would be worth isolating these and investigating this theme in a discrete exhibition and publication.)

An essay by Ara H. Merjian examines Roberto Longhi’s 1919. This negative review was said to have damaged de Chirico’s reputation in Italy at the point when he had hoped to establish himself as an inheritor of the Italian Renaissance. Another essay draws parallels between the statements and principles of Renoir and de Chirico. Other essays address other aspects; large reproductions of the exhibited art fill a section; a chronology will be of use as a guide for general readers; a handful of short reviews and polemical texts by the artist allow us to judge de Chirico’s ideas first hand. Overall, this catalogue can be warmly recommended as a good survey of de Chirico’s art and ideas.

 

Victoria Noel-Johnson (ed.), Giorgio de Chirico: The Changing Face of Metaphysical Art, Skira, 2019, hardback, 256pp, 209 col. illus., $40/£29.95, IBSN 978 8 857 240 589

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Women as Creators and Subjects in Soviet Art

YANSON-MANIZER SCULPTURE  ULANOVA

[Image: Sculptor Elena Yanson-Manizer (1890–1971) working on the portrait of Galina Ulanova as Odette from the ballet ‘Swan Lake’]

The Government of the proletarian dictatorship, together with the Communist Party and trade unions, is of course leaving no stone unturned in the effort to overcome the backward ideas of men and women. […] That will mean freedom for the woman from the old household drudgery and dependence on man. That enables her to exercise to the full her talents and inclinations.

So stated Lenin. The advantages that middle-class women had secured in the decades before the Russian Revolution were not to be reserved to them alone. In the USSR, gender equality would be extended to all in a classless society. It was made clear by Party statements that women would be liberated whether or not they wanted to be. This meant work outside the home. However, as the husbands would also be working and there would no established support network of paid domestic help, this effectively doubled the workload of working women, with no extra support. Key workers would be moved around the country without consideration for their family life, imposing burdens on those remaining regarding childcare. The mother in the USSR was faced with less choice over how to live her life than before the Revolution. She had less control over the raising and education of her children, less free time and she had to – as all citizens of the USSR did – recognise she was no longer a private individual.

While there were such restrictions, women received access to improved educational opportunities. In the early years of the USSR, women had the chance to participate in careers that had been male-only preserves. One of these was not fine art, which had been open to women for many decades. However, barriers of cost and class that had prevented all but women of the wealthiest families from training at academies were removed by the new Soviet regime. Theoretically, women artists were permitted to exercise their skills to the utmost, free of financial restrictions.

Soviet Women and Their Art includes essays dealing with Soviet women as the subjects and producers of art in the USSR, from 1917 to the dissolution of the state in 1991. Profiles describe the lives and work of female artists and illustrations give us an idea of the character of their art.

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[Image: Alexandra Exter, City at Night (1919), oil on canvas, 88 × 71 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Russia / Bridgeman Images]

In early years of the Revolution, women artists flourished. There were already many women involved in the advanced art scene of the major cities. Cubism, Cubo-futurism, Suprematism and Constructivism were all current during the 1910s, some instances predating the 1917 Revolution by years. Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) is omitted from the profile section because her story is woven into an essay deals with avant-gardism. This tale includes Ksenia Boguslavskaia, Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), Nadezhda Udaltsova (1885-1961), Natalia Davydova, Evgeniia Pribylskaia, Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958) and Lyubov Popova (1889-1924). These creators or fine art and applied art worked on numerous publications, exhibitions and collaborative production before and after the October Revolution. It was a sense of community of likeminded artists that motivated this co-operation. After the Revolution, such community action was not so much mandated as officially authorised and encouraged. These collaborations included plays, ballets and parades. Early theorists suggested that complete social revolution and the smashing of traditions would be reflected in (and be promoted by) art of revolutionary character. Thus avant-garde art was the vanguard of an era of absolute change in all areas of human existence.

In a form of arts-and-crafts ethic, a number of fine artists produced designs for textiles, clothing, fabrics and household objects. This movement parallels the leftist-inspired Bauhaus. There were a number of close ties between the political and artistic left-wing movements of USSR and Germany during the 1917-1933 period before the advent of National Socialism.

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[Image: Olga Rozanova, Ksenia Boguslavskaia and Kazimir Malevich at the Last Futurist 0.10 Exhibition, December 1915, Petrograd. Photo © Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, Moscow /Bridgeman Images]

The greatest star and most painful loss to the Russian avant-garde movement of the era was Olga Rozanova (1886-1918). She was deeply involved in advanced painting. In 1912 she was making angular strongly coloured figurative paintings drawing from Fauvism and Expressionism. At an accelerating speed she cycled through other styles. The following year she was making Cubo-Futurist still-lifes and street views. By 1916 she was experimenting with Suprematism, pioneered by Malevich. She approached abstraction and by 1917 she had produced a fascinating, hypnotic painting Green Stripe, which is a vertical emerald stripe on a white ground. It presages Barnett Newman formally but it is more complex. Its irregular transparency in the edges of the stripe suggests some form that is both a strong presence and an emanation. It suggests two white walls converging or dissolving.

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[Image: Olga Rozanova, Green Stripe (1917), oil on canvas, 71.2 x 49cm. Kremlin State Museum, Rostov, Russia – Godong/Alamy Stock Photo]

Rozanova died aged only 32, which some have ascribed to her exertions to complete a decorative project in November 1918. There would be great value in a proper retrospective in the West and a comprehensive English-language catalogue of Rozanova’s art. She is the single best Russian avant-gardist artist not well known in the West. For preference, I rate her higher than Goncharova.

By the mid-1920s there was serious political resistance to such avant-garde art. The problem was of accessibility. Art that was abstract or highly stylised began to be condemned at the highest level as “bourgeois formalism”. In other words, advanced art was the games of educated elites that excluded and alienated the uninitiated, such as the ordinary peasant, soldier and factory worker. This theoretical objection to avant-gardism was solidified into Party policy by 1936. At that time, the main purpose of Soviet Communism was the preservation of the USSR and advancement of the material condition of the people. Rather than being a style as such, it was a principle that placed style below content, message below form, the political above the private, the recognisable above the strange, the direct above the ambiguous. No longer would artists strive for a cosmic universal language of liberation of humanity; instead, artists would work to advance the interests of Socialism as an extension of the development of the nation. The result was realist art that was patriotic, positive, uncritical, easy to understand, attractive and unchallenging. This meant that avant-garde artists had to adapt their style or cease producing art. Artists who were educated at this time were trained under the tenets of Socialist Realism.

Socialist Realism was not an actual style, so there was latitude for personal adaptation and incorporation of old or foreign influences. Anyone studying the range of art produced by officially supported artists will note the variety of styles though they will also note the absence of variation in tone and content – a complete absence of satire, humour, tragedy and criticism regarding life in the USSR. Soviet women artists had no immunity from the ravages of the political persecution. Their close relatives were imprisoned, exiled or executed. Some were driven to suicide or silence. Others relinquished their commitment to abstraction and turned to conventional subjects acceptable to the Union of Soviet Artists.

The most celebrated woman artist, and one of the most respected artists in the Socialist Realism era, was sculptor Vera Mukhina (1889-1953). She studied under Antoine Bourdelle in Paris (1912-4), the most advanced sculptor of the era, and at Académies Colarossi, de la Palette and de la Grande Chaumière. She made statues primarily by modelling and casting in bronze. Early influences seem to École de Paris sculptors such as Bourdelle, Lipchitz and Picasso, as well Boccioni and the Futurists. She adapted to the expectations of the Socialist Realism and produced her own form of academic realism. This extended to heroic realism, found most prominently in Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, her gigantic figures (24.5m tall) for the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair.

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[Image: Vera Mukhina (1889–1953), Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937), stainless steel, H. 24.5 m. Photo © Peter Phipp / Travelshots / Bridgeman Images]

It was a triumph of propaganda and became an iconic symbol for both the USSR and for socialism. It has to be acknowledged as a brilliant achievement in its attempt to stir emotion and inspire belief. Her various figure sculptures are illustrated. Generally, her art is not bellicose or stentorian in tone. One notable characteristic is her fidelity to life in the form of commitment to working with the nude figure. Overcoming the official tendency to produce anti-erotic depictions of figures and her commitment to working from life were major contributions. Her work in glass led to other artists following this practice. Her art is worth knowing beyond the iconic Worker and Kolkhoz Woman.

In an essay looking at the role of women in the new nation, the authors note the importance of fizkultura (physical culture) in society. Both men and women were expected to be physically fit and able to perform the tasks the state required of them, be they gymnastics, military service, dancing, working in the fields or factory, excelling in sports or mothering – always group or social activities. Men should be prepared for defence of their country. The demonstrations of co-ordinated gymnastics or military parades bonded individuals into units, drilled them to follow commands, awed participants and spectators and demonstrated the control of the state over its subjects. It was both practical and ideological. It was an expression of solidarity and unity of purpose. Fizkultura was also associated to the demonstration of the superiority of Communism through athletics and sports. These new subjects allowed Soviet artists to use semi-nude figures in action, overcoming state disapproval of academic history, mythological and the sensual nude as subjects. People engaged in sports were a particularly productive subject for sculptors. There is nothing stylistically or thematically to distinguish female from male sculptors. Leading male painters of the female nude were Arkady Plastov (1893-1972), Alexander Samokhvalov (1894-1971) and Aleksandr Deineka (1899-1969).

Three female ideals of the USSR were the lean lithe adolescent, the resolute factory worker and the sturdy fertile peasant. There was a premium placed upon the asexual: the athlete was narrow-hipped, small-breasted and with short hair; the factory worker wore unisex practical clothing and no make-up; the peasant mother was stoic and generous but was dutiful rather than attractive, more mother than wife. In each archetype individuality was reduced. In portraits we have the richness, tenderness of feeling and psychological insight of the best art of all ages and countries, but in the tradition of Social Realism there was a tendency to treat figures in scenes as archetypes.

The death of Stalin led to a period of political and social reform was called the Khrushchev Thaw. In the arts this meant a loosening of restrictions. Abstract or “non-objective” art became acceptable even if it did not become part of official projects or murals. Although the subsequent stagnation of the Brezhnev era led to the halting or retraction of some economic and social reforms of the late 1950s and early 1960s, there seems to have been little appetite for the restoration of heroic realism or the more anodyne forms of Socialist Realism at that time. An example of this new freedom may be found in the art of Lydia Masterkova (1927-2008). Her art informel, which incorporates tachiste and Abstract Expressionist elements into abstract paintings and drawings, is much closer to the mainstream of Western European art of the time than the art of her Socialist Realist predecessors. She attempts to recapture the commitment to development of the plastic content of art seen in the 1910s avant-gardism. She eventually emigrated to France.

One area of unresolved ambiguity that involved women and the arts was the ballet. Although Russian ballet was an import of French courtly culture, and was reserved for Russian royalty, it developed its own traditions and standards which made it unique and revered worldwide. So although the Party disapproved of the origins and conventions of ballet – not least its reliance on stories and music replete with bourgeois morals – the Party could make the ballet (especially the Bolshoi Ballet and Ballets Russes) available to the people as a form of Russian culture. The government of the USSR was also aware of the cachet of Russian ballet and how the art form could be used in soft diplomacy through foreign tours.

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[Image: Zinaida  Serebryakova, Portrait of A.A. Cherkesova-Benois with her Son Alexander (1922), oil on canvas, 80 × 68 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg – Photo © 2018 Scala, Florence]

Zinaida Serebryakova (1884-1967) specialised in ballet scenes, mostly focusing upon the practice and preparation rather than the performance. Her paintings are not idealistic and do not engage in the ambitious technical and formal aspects of Degas’s paintings of dancers. Instead they attractive, complex and emotionally sympathetic portrayals of women at work. The dressing room tableaux allowed Serebryakova to paint partial nudes which have a delight of the sensual without being sexual or gratuitous. Serebryakova was also an extremely accomplished painter of portraits and still-lifes. Again, like Rozanova, Serebryakova is a painter whose work deserves greater recognition. Although she lived in Paris from 1924 onwards, her early work is in public collections in Russia, and it is this which is illustrated and discussed in the book.

An essay discusses appearances of women in the art of Soviet era, including as military personnel, workers, athletes and mothers, as well as pictures where their roles are unstated. Other essays discuss female sculptors and the final stage of Soviet art from the 1960s to 1991. This was an era when the unofficial artists worked outside of the Union of Soviet Artists and official exhibitions and commission competitions to produce art of abstract, conceptual or non-conformist character. They existed in a half-world. They were neither persecuted nor approved; unable to publicly exhibit, their activities were confined to private showings for private networks of supporters and colleagues. At this time, Valentina Kropivnitskaya (1924-2008) produced elaborate drawings of Russian settings inhabited by quasi-human beings. They have a Surrealistic character, with the detailed foliage and clear detail that one associates with dreams. By the time feminist theory reached Soviet artists and began to appear in art there, the Soviet Union was on the point of dissolution.

The book omits poster art in favour of the fine arts. Although propaganda has been covered in other publications, it might have been useful to mention women’s involvement in propaganda production. Perhaps more could have been written about female self-portraits. The book is a fine summary of the subject and includes much art that will be unfamiliar to Western readers. While the illustrations are generally good, inexplicably there are some weak photographs of art works that were better reproduced in Unicorn’s recent Art of the Soviet Union. It is puzzling that the better quality images were not reused in this book.

 

Rena Lavery, Ivan Lindsay, et al., Soviet Women and Their Art: The Spirit of Equality, Unicorn, 12 April 2019, paperback, col. illus., 224pp, £19.99, ISBN 978 1 911 604 761

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Minoru Onoda

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Minoru Onoda (1937-2008) is best known as a member of the Gutai movement. Gutai was a group of Japanese artists determined to practise radical art in the avant-garde Western manner. It was founded in 1954. They produced painting influenced by Abstract Expressionism. It placed an emphasis on the procedure of production, in effect engaging in Process Art. There was inherent theatricality in the production of their art, which were presented as spectacles involving music and non-art materials. The events were sometimes public and recorded, with the production sometimes more important than the resultant material. Art was made by destroying material or painting while swinging from a harness over a horizontal surface. The group defiantly opposed many of the conventions of Japanese art, adopting non-Japanese practices and standards. It has been seen as a rejection of Japanese nationalism and unique culture. (Onoda was born in occupied Manchuria.) Gutai attracted attention worldwide but also criticism from Japanese traditionalists and from Western critics, who decried its spectacle as shallow and derivative. The group was dissolved in 1972.

This new book examines Onoda as an independent artist. He worked in paint primarily, but his paintings included sculptural elements. The gently undulating surfaces created on the plywood panels he used play with our sense of depth and light and shade. He painted irregular swirling lines and circles of colour which filled picture surfaces, forming surfaces that seem in motion both across the surface and inwards and outwards. The patterns recede and project, growing tiny then large. This impression is enhanced by the swells on the panel surface. The ground colour that Onoda favoured was yellow, usually with lines and circles in warm colours. One essay author compares them to psychedelic art that became fashionable a few years later.

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[Image: Minoru Onoda, WORK63-F (1963), oil, gofun and glue on plywood, 93.3 x 93 cm. © Estate of Minoru Onoda, courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie, Basel]

This work began in 1962 and marks Onoda’s maturation as an artist and his first original contribution to the art of his time. In 1965 (the year that he joined the Gutai group) Onoda started using red grounds and began producing circular patterns on square boards.

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[Image: Minoru Onoda, WORK66-13 (1966), oil, gofun and glue on plywood, 93.8 x 93.8 cm. © Estate of Minoru Onoda, courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie, Basel]

This developed into sets that were hung in triptychs, lines and grids. By the early 1970s Onoda began a group of works using circular motifs in blue. He used electric blue acrylic paint applied with an airbrush over stencils. The softness of the graduated tones gives these pieces an air of otherworldliness; the sharp edges and clarity are those of technical designs and industrially manufactured products. These are more meditative, detached pictures than the playful swelling organic patterns. In these airbrushed paintings (all of the works have numbered titles) we find some kind of conciliation with the practice of Buddhist mindful contemplation. The versions in red-pink and black-grey have different affects; they are more assertive. In 1974 Onoda founded the New Geometric Art Group. The hard-edge paintings, with their fine patterns and brushless application of colour, are associated with Op Art, which was then popular.

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[Image: Minoru Onoda, WORK79-Blue 47 (1979), Acrylic spray paint on cotton on plywood, 80 x 80 cm. © Estate of Minoru Onoda, courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio Galerie, Basel]

Starting in 1984 Onoda commenced painted monochrome works on shaped panels, often placed over panels of different colour. The panels were usually square, with wavy edges and drilled holes at the edge or dramatically crossing the centre at a tangent. The last works (starting in 1991) were paintings of dark colours applied with blades. These are the least engaging works of Onoda’s career. Essays discuss Onoda’s aesthetic and associations (he had a natural tendency to participate in group activities) and discuss his career trajectory. Shoichi Hirai states that Onada’s dramatic changes in style led to a degree of scepticism in observers. Examples of the artist’s sketchbook drawings show rehearsals and projections.

Onoda claimed in a review that his drive was not negative but oblivious. “I am not rebelling against anything. Nor do I favor the new over the old or the old over the new. I am rejecting anything, pushing any ideology or expressing any: the works are simply works. There is nothing I would like to communicate through them except the works themselves. It is my belief that communication ceases the moment a work is completed.” This generous selection of paintings, drawings and sculptures – along with installation shots of exhibitions – along with helpful essays will allow readers to judge Onoda’s statement.

 

Anne Mosseri-Marlio (ed.), Minoru Onoda, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2018, hardback, 232pp, 176 col./7 mono illus., €68, ISBN 978 3 858 818218

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

The Renaissance Nude

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[Image: installation view, Conegliano St Sebastian (1500-2), right: Titian Venus]

One of the central parts of the Renaissance of thought and culture in Europe, starting around 1400, was acceptance of the unclothed human figure. For the previous millennium, Christianity had disapproved of depictions of the unclothed figure, decisively rejecting the heritage and practices of Mediterranean art. The engagement by philosophers, clerics, scholars and artists with the ideas of Greece and Roman opened up a willingness to use the nude as a viable and respectable part of culture. As a component of mythological and Biblical subjects in art – and anatomical study as a part of the technical training of a professional artist – the nude became a locus for both finished artistic products and the basis for artist education.

The current exhibition The Renaissance Nude currently at the Royal Academy (2 March-2 June 2019, previously at the J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, 30 October 2018-27 January 2019) includes a selection of the vast range of material including the nude, all taken from European art made over the Early (1400-1495) and High Renaissance (1495-1520), with a handful of pieces from the Late Renaissance (1520-1550). (This review is from the catalogue.) In an age when feminist pressure and progressive education has made even politically uncommitted experts hesitant about presenting nude imagery, honest discussion and scholarship about nudity in art has become politicised. Has the influence of gender studies and New Criticism undone traditional art historiography?

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Neoplatonist thought sought to achieve a synthesis between Christian values and classical learning, despite the obvious conflicts that this entailed. Art was the one area where the two traditions could be fused with little internal contradiction. Apollo of the Greeks could become the template for Christ. The sinners in hell are naked and unprotected from demons. Adam and Eve could appear in realistic form taken from study of live models by an artist who was not simple an artisan but a thinker. It would be inaccurate to talk of a classical thaw from the Mediterranean south travelling northward from Italy to Germany and the Low Countries. The first full-length nudes of the period came from the Low Countries and were spread Southward via engravings and woodcuts, and were in part extensions of traditions that came from native schools drawing from fragments of Roman art. (The Medieval nude can be found in the numerous decorative carvings of churches.) We could say that Northern and Southern traditions developed in parallel but both looked to incorporate nudity into Biblical art and used the legitimacy of classical art to support this. This exhibition acknowledges the contribution of German, Netherlandish and Swiss artists and includes paintings by Martin Schoengauer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Memling, Jan Gossart, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung (Grien) and others.

The exhibition comprises paintings, drawings, prints, manuscript illustration and sculpture (statues, bas reliefs, reliquaries, medals). Catalogue illustrations cover the sweep of Renaissance art featuring the nude, with the most notable works being by Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo, Signorelli, Mantegna, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Titian and others. The great diversity of forms and approaches to the nude remind us of the breadth of Renaissance visual and intellectual culture.

The human body was the locus of medieval and Renaissance science. Scholars, theologians, artists, mathematicians and architects attempted to correlate the physical body with the heavenly bodies, the dimensions of the perfect church, orders of architecture and other apparently ordered systems. The music of the spheres and the uncanny correlation between mathematics, science, arts and other systems including supposed scales or harmonies. The hidden order of life was seen to link various fields. The prints of ideal human figures designed by Vitruvius are included. They seem more derived from theory than observation. While observation sometimes suggested correlations, it often undermined assumptions of philosophers and scientists. We find in Dürer, Signorelli and Leonardo artists getting closer to reality than Vitruvius, doubtless due to their deference to reality over theory.

As the body was a product of order, so ugliness and illness were signs of disorder of earthly or divine origin. There are images of unideal figures – the elderly, the sick and others. The prime form of the nude that evokes horror and aversion is Death personified. Death and the Maiden is a great subject of the Northern European artists of this time, showing the healthy attractive nude with the morbid repulsive cadaver. This is something that only the Northern artists mastered. German carvings of grotesques are distinctly geographically specific subjects found during the 1480-1500 period. The Northern genius for the wild, bizarre and gothic always surpassed the Italian imagination, so attuned as it was the graceful, grand and beautiful. Even the inventions of Leonardo and Piero di Cosimo pale compared to Baldung and Grunewald.

A piquant instance of sex-war politics is Hans Baldung’s woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513). This print illustrates the anecdote of Phyllis enslaving and humiliating Aristotle by riding him nude around a garden to demonstrate to Alexander the Great her domination of the great thinker. For society of the time, free-spirited sexually assertive women were dangerous temptresses capable of humiliating men and bringing shame on themselves and others. This finds further expression in Baldung’s many pictures of witches, where naked women are objects of desire and derision.

The print of a male bathhouse scene by Dürer is an example of homo-eroticism. It is widely conjectured that the artist was homosexual and this print suggests a sympathy or attraction for the nude male in the homosocial environment. Prints by various printmakers of German lands show full-nude figures. From the Netherlandish artists we see Adam and Eve and scenes of sinners tormented in the afterlife.

Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

[Image: Raphael, The Three Graces (c. 1517-18), red chalk on paper, 20.3 x 25.8 cm. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019]

The exhibition reminds us the grace and charm of Piero di Cosimo, particularly in a sweet profile portrait of a young woman, presumed to be a friend or lover of the artist whom he took as his muse. Many great masterpieces could not be included in the exhibition but they are illustrated in the catalogue. There is new art to encounter in the exhibition. The Lucretia (c. 1510-5) of Conrad Meit displays the extreme emotionality that we associate with Northern art. Her face is a mask of tragic suffering, underlining the nobility of her self-sacrifice. Again we see the primacy of expression in German art.

Kren writes of the Limbourg Brothers illuminated manuscript Trés riches heures (1405-1408/9), suggesting that the Biblical scenes featuring sensual nudity were adapted to the erotic proclivities of the Duke of Berry, the commissioner of the book. Other favourite subjects that permitted depiction of female nudes were Bathsheba Bathing and Susannah and the Elders. Adam and Eve allowed an artist to demonstrate his command of anatomy of both sexes.

The mixed-sex public nude bathing in Basel, shocked an Italian visitor in 1461. Nudity was apparent in Northern and Central European tableaux vivants. Today we still have an impression of a medieval and Renaissance attitude of strict conservative attitudes towards nudity. This exhibition and catalogue demonstrates the diversity in attitudes.

It can be considered some instances of nudity in art were gratuitous and came about due to sheer pleasure and fascination. Pisanello’s Luxuria seems strikingly modern. The gamine woman, slender and unashamed, with her afro of vegetation, is like a glossy magazine photo-shoot or Instagram Goth. It was drawn around 1426.

Some depictions of religious scenes including nudity apparently went too far. There was the case of Fra Bartolommeo’s St Sebastian installed in a church which, female parishioners confessed caused them sinful thoughts. The clerics decided to sell the painting. There is a silver relief of around 1510 of Madonna and Child accompanied by St Sebastian, who is completely nude – effectively a classical nude.

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[Image: Moderno, Virgin and Child with Saints (c. 1510), cast silver with gilding, 13.9 x 10.2 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Kunstkammer]

Sandro Botticelli is represented here as an important artist of the period using the nude, most famously in The Birth of Venus. Botticelli fell under the influence of religious zealot Savonarola and subsequently supposedly burned some of his depictions of nude figures, deciding they were impious.

In the mid-Sixteenth Century the rising Lutheranism and the responsive Counter Reformation both were critical of the use of nudes in Christian image making, which effectively ended the Late Renaissance and the proliferation of nude figures in art. Although we see the nude appearing in Mannerist and Baroque, it is no longer the centre of advances or a battle ground for art during this time.

The personalisation of painting particular subjects comes to the fore in paintings of mythological, religious and symbolic content that are of specific people. One case is Jean Fouquet’s celebrated Virgin and Child (c. 1452-5). The pale Virgin and Child are surrounded by red and blue cherubs. The subjects are as white as linen, unsullied, exquisite as porcelain. The Virgin’s nursing breast is exposed, released from her tight corset. She is apparently based upon the lover of the donor, King Charles VII, a woman named Agnès Sorel. Sorel had died in 1450, at the age of about 27, before the painting was made. Thus the painting was religious but based upon a profane love; for the donor, viewing the painting would have combined the devotion of worship and the pleasure of the erotic and would have been a pleasure of seeing a close companion to the level of the mother of God and a sensation of deep loss and grief. Inadvertently, this painting is an embodiment of the myriad functions and interpretations of art that were current in the Renaissance period.

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[Image: Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) (c. 1520), oil on canvas, 75.8 x 57.6 cm. National Galleries of Scotland. Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government (hybrid arrangement) and allocated to the Scottish National Gallery, with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and the Scottish Executive, 2003]

The Renaissance Nude tells of the many reasons for the existence of imagery of the nude – didactic and sensual, moral and licentious, realistic and idealised – and draws on new technical research and historical data. The catalogue essays and entries on individual exhibited items balance detail and general overview. The illustrations are large and the production quality is excellent. This catalogue makes an intelligent and comprehensive introduction to the various roles of the nude in Renaissance art.

We can be relieved that we have escaped an exhibition based on the gender politics of our age. Although the writers are aware and informed about discussions regarding gender and sexual studies (and the semiological readings of recent decades), they wisely elected to elucidate the attitudes and theories of the Renaissance rather than impose their views. Thus they give us an informed basic understanding of why a picture may have come into existence and how it was seen at the time, leaving us to interpret ourselves how we wish to understand it today. In that respect, the curators have credited us with discernment and sophistication equivalent that of the artists, writers and thinkers presented in this exhibition and catalogue.

 

 

Thomas Kren (ed.), The Renaissance Nude, Getty Publications, November 2018, cloth hardback, illus., $65/£48, 432pp, 273 col. illus., ISBN 978 1 60606 584 6

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Art for All: British Socially Committed Art

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During the early and middle decades of the Twentieth Century, the tradition of social realism in the West extended the realism, naturalism and social realism schools of the preceding century but with a more explicitly advocatory role. Inspired by the Russian Revolution, the foundation of the USSR and development of Socialist art in Mexico, these artists had specific ideals to work towards, with the hope that such changes could be enacted in the West. Christine Lindey’s Art for All documents the work of British socially committed artists working from 1930s to 1962 – the height of the period when social realism was disapproved of by the British establishment and when realism was under attack from Modernists.

It should be said that Art for All is a necessary book, exploring as it does the overlooked history of politically committed left-wing art during the mid-century era. In the ideological war of the period, realism decisively lost to Modernism. Consequently, the true span of art of this period has been obscured because of a concentration on explaining the development of Modernism over this period. The efforts of social realists during the period are irrelevant for tracing the development of abstraction and Modernist schools, thus they have been dropped in most accounts. Art history is more École de Paris than École de Manchester.

There is the question of quality. In many historical accounts the only glimpse of inter-war realism in Britain one gets is Stanley Spencer’s figure paintings. Yet this obscures the fact that Spencer himself was an eccentric for the period. Spencer is one of the more engaging artists of the period and his Modernist credentials make him acceptable for Modernist-inclined studies. But Spencer was neither typical nor representative of realism in Britain. In some ways the realism of the artists in Art for All is more representative of the blend of Modernism and realism that characterised non-academic figurative painting in the period.

Lindey describes the socially-committed artist as a stylistic realist with some of the following attributes: documenting working people and ordinary life; highlighting specific social inequities; campaigning in favour of pacifism; agitating for improvement in working/living conditions of the poor; advocating adoption of socialism or socialistic policies; opposing the British Empire; opposing Fascism; supporting Socialist nations. While Lindey rightly stresses the gender-equal aspirations for Marxism, she leaves unmentioned the movement’s hostility towards the traditional family. One of the principle foundations of socialist states (deriving primarily from Engels) is the destruction of the family as a root of iniquitous inheritance, private loyalty and traditional morality.

Lindey’s list of artists is assembled transparently (excluding left-wing Modernists and the intermittently committed) and the spread of artists seems representative. Artists selected include Peter de Francia, Priscilla Thornycroft, Paul Hogarth, Clive Branson, Cliff Rowe, James Boswell, Josef Herman, Eva Frankfurther, George Fullard and Ruskin Spear. There is no doubting the seriousness of these artists. Many endured poverty for their principles or imprisonment for their conscientious objection. Felicia Browne died fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Lindey does well to cover the problems artists faced to survive and make work. World War II was the first time when Social Realists felt their anti-Fascist position matched their country’s policies, though many were ambivalent until the invasion of the USSR made it a clear the war was an anti-Fascist enterprise. Some artists enlisted, others became war artists or designed posters. Exhibitions selling low-cost prints proved both artistically and financially satisfying, spreading the word and allowing ordinary people the chance to own art. The book mentions the endless cycle of May Day demonstrations, Spanish Republican fundraising exhibitions, banner painting for protest marches and the role of organisations such as Artists International Association and publications such as Left Review and The Daily Worker. In addition to the official art of the USSR, British realists took as their models Grosz, Dix, Kollwitz and the Neue Sachlichkeit, Mexican Muralists and graphics, Frans Masereel and art of previous generations, such as Daumier, Meunier and others.

The twin blows of 1956 (the revelation of Stalin’s terror and the Invasion of Hungary) led to the haemorrhaging of support for Socialism. The UK and US support for the plurality of Modernism undermined realism stylistically, while the increasing influence of US popular culture undermined Socialist values and post-war material prosperity undercut the Marxist economic case. The 1950s and 1960s marked the long decline of social realism in the UK. While France and Italy had strong Communist parties, the already weak British branch rapidly diminished into insignificance, leaving British socially committed artists isolated morally and financially. Leftist artists had ambivalent attitudes to socialist realism. Some maintained it was an ideal only to be undertaken in Socialist states; others claimed it infringed on artists’ independent courses towards raising class consciousness. The charge that social (and Socialist) realism was a political imposition which contrasted to the true freedom artistic Modernism offered became a difficult claim to refute. The point that most people preferred realist art was also being quickly eroded by changes in taste (or fashion).

The point that the School of London painters “convey the malaise of the helpless, alienated individual” is the common Marxist accusation. What the Marxist means by this is that the ordinary man has to deal with life whereas the middle-class bohemian can indulge his emotional frailties. Surely the point about existential art is that it applies to every person living in the world, regardless of class and background. Why cannot the working man address the acute internal fear and doubt he experiences? Why should a baron but not a bricklayer relate to this type of art? Opening the door to matters of private revelation, inner searching, individual reflection and philosophical contemplation contravenes the Marxist’s social-economic model, leaving the subject dangerous latitude in matters of private self-interested morality and personal conduct. Refusal to suborn discussion to the Marxist level leads to general attacks, of which this is a common one: Comrade, the working man is a cheerful capable fellow who requires more labour councils and does not deserve to have his head bothered with this personal angst nonsense. This displays the Marxist’s terrible fear of individuals dwelling upon the meaning of life and concluding that Marxism does not provide what they require. It is extra evidence of the paternalistic attitude of Marxists towards to subjects of its charity.

By and large, if one accepts the premise of the approach, then politics are not too intrusive in the narrative. Even so, at times the relentless class warfare can grate. Making jibes at a society portrait compared to portraits of working women is not any kind of considered criticism – it is inverted snobbery and lessens one’s respect for the author’s judgment in matters of discrimination. It would have been possible to engage a debate on aesthetic merits of portraits but serious debate is never entertained.

Illustrations are plentiful and enlightening. On matters of fact, Art for All is informative, using a broad range of sources to provide documentation of the activities of artists. Interpretatively, the book is less reliable. Lindey does not given an unbiased presentation of the parallels between art of National Socialism and Socialist Realism, claiming that the latter allowed more variety in subject and style and was therefore entirely dissimilar. Actually, it is only a toleration of more stylistic variation that distinguishes Socialist Realism. In Fascist and Socialist states we find the bureaucratic management of public art, persecution of dissident Modernist art (“degenerate formalism”), imposition of punitive sanctions on artists, complete control of artist associations, publications and education, all directed towards the production of politically directed realist/heroic art. The two authoritarian ideologies converge in their utilitarian functionalist attitudes towards art.

So, is the art any good? Some is appealing and thoughtful. Herman is striking; de Francia is a skilled painter (though too close to Guttaso); Fullard’s realistic sculpture is effective; Rowe’s compositions are strong and well handled, as seen in his murals; Spear is a top-drawer portraitist. Much is indifferent; some is awful. It would be a difficult proposition to suggest that this art deserves a place in a general art history, other than as isolated examples of the currents of political and realist art. The truth is that there is nothing really compelling or exciting about this art. One cannot help thinking that all the artists who were genuinely ambitious and committed to art over politics had already joined the Modernist movement, leaving the social realists rather shorthanded when it came to the ability to make first-rate art. In an open market of art, people buy more posters of Picasso, Mondrian, Van Gogh, Monet, Rothko and Chagall than realist art. The human appetite craves pungent tastes, originality, eccentricity and élan – all the accoutrements of bourgeois formalism and individualistic self-absorption, if one were to get Marxist about it. For all the social realists’ grousing about capitalistic individualism, one El Greco or Rembrandt on their side would have won over legions of supporters. While the social realists have been unfairly written out of history, the evidence seems to be that they lost to the Modernists – in part – because they failed to recruit and retain the best artists.

Christine Lindey, Art for All: British Socially Committed Art from the 1930s to the Cold War, Artery Publications, 2018, paperback, 224pp, col. illus., £20

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Edited on 26 Feb. 2019: grammatical errors

Aesthetic Life: Beauty and Art in Modern Japan

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The performance of beauty by women – and artistic representations of that performance – during the Meiji period (1868-1912) is the subject of new academic study by Miya Elise Mizuta Lippit.

Bijin is a beautiful person, most usually by the Meiji era (and later) a beautiful woman. Bijinga is fine art featuring beautiful women. The bijinga genre was unofficially inaugurated through its presence in the 1907 Ministry of Education Art Exhibition, though it was grounded in developments over preceding decades. Lippit states that the shift in definition of bijin from a gender-neutral term to one being exclusively applicable to women is in part related to Japanese responses to foreign ideas. This accompanied other ideas, such as division of art into fine art and applied art and even the idea of a national style. “Just as the concept of a Japanese-style art (Nihonga) as such did not exist until artists started creating in the Western or non-traditional Japanese style (yōga), there was no totalizing concept of the artistic process until the modern encounter with Western aesthetics.” She concludes: “The bijin should not only be viewed, but its layers of pure covering – adornment on adornment – read as a statement on Japanese artistic style itself, a visual style that appears to have achieved a victory over the “spirit” of content: bijinga, an art that celebrates the aesthetic self-production of Japan – Japan as an artifact in the encounter between East and West.”

The birth of Nihonga and bijinga came about just as some Japanese felt the need to draw distinctions which separated its art from Western pictorial influences, which marks the intersection between nationalism and aesthetics. The categorisation of aspects of Japanese culture that had previously already existed in art could be considered an attempt to purify Japanese art and to clarify Japanese ethnic distinctiveness. Cultural critics of the late Meiji era theorised that Nihonga was characterised by idealism, in opposition to the supposed realism of Western art. Yōga cannot – because of its Western influence and greater realism – produce bijinga, which must be both Japanese in style and idealistic (and idealising) in character.

The term “geisha” appeared during the period of japonisme in the West (c. 1860-1930). Strictly speaking, a female performer and hostess and (slightly less strictly speaking) a prostitute of the Shin Yoshiwara red-light district of Tokyo, “geisha” came to be used in the West as any “beautiful Japanese woman”. For Westerners not informed about the original meaning of the word, this seems a casual elision rather than an intentional conflation of beautiful woman and prostitute. During this period, the Japanese woman as bijin who exists as a living work of art became a persistent subject for art and literature both inside and outside Japan.

The geographic and demographic distance between Japan and Europe/USA meant that what was known in the West about Japan was principally through its art. The sophistication of Japanese art and visual culture marked it out in the eyes of Westerners as a fellow civilised nation – if not an equal then certainly one worthy of respect. Visitors to Japan sometimes found the difference between the images they were used to and the reality of the extraordinarily elaborate artificiality of Japanese cosmetics repelled them. “Self-inflicted ugliness” was how one outspoken chronicler described Japanese cosmetic practice. Other travellers were simply disappointed by the reality of Japanese women, having been primed by extravagant praise.

Just as a complete woman was seen to be combination of innate qualities and effort of society (in the forms of education and culture) and effort of the individual (in the form of the acquisition of admirable skills and exercise of informed judgment), so it seems the bijin could come into being as a composite of natural beauty and unnatural beauty. It was through the grace of nature, the correct application of cosmetics and costume and exercise of decorum that the bijin came into existence. Thus when the artist of bijinga used both the model and ideal, he too created a composite.

One could also mention here the Japanese aesthetic appreciation of nature as perfected in mixtures of raw nature and tamed nature – like the bijin, that other prominent conjunction of natural and artificial beauty. There is certainly much to be written drawing out the parallels between bijin and distinctive gardens and temple grounds, all long cultivated and much celebrated as typical of Japan. In the bijin, we see the performance of beauty in an effort that is willed by both individual and the society of which she is a part. Once again – it cannot be stressed too strongly – the bijin is both self-actualisation and a product of aesthetic culture, one who necessarily fuses nature and artifice in a social performance of beauty.

In a publication for the 1904 St Louis World Fair, to which Japan sent 350 “geisha girls” as part of its pavilion, it is the nation of Japan alone that is represented by a women’s face in a montage of national/ethnic types. All other ethnic types in the illustration are represented by men. “Strategically nurtured as one of the images of the collective people as Japan was being constituted as a national subject, the nation of Japan performed its aesthetic self-production through the figure of the bijin, turning itself into a feminine artifact.” It is interesting that Japan would choose to present herself in such a way, eschewing the priestly and samurai classes and the iconic images of the Noh or Kabuki theatre, which were greatly esteemed in the country. It is the most pacific of national archetypes which we see so willingly presented by the Japanese and consumed by the West with so much alacrity. Just as the brief Russo-Japanese War was ongoing, it was the geisha who were sent by the Japanese government to enchant and beguile Americans.

In the bijin there is a necessary conflation of the real and the imaginary to produce a synthetic work of art – a melding of the two realms. It was in the figure of woman (or Woman) that an attempt was made to synthesise the natural and artificial, the actual and ideal, the universal and specific and the present and timeless, in what could be seen as what could be seen as a national achievement. The bijin could be considered a work of genius embodying national spirit and an expression of refinement of two thousand years of civilisation. The degree to which demographic isolation of Japan bred a cultural and ethnic difference from neighbouring nations – and how that influenced national standards of female beauty – is not examined in this book.

The bijinga seems to have been a matter of isolated single figures (in full-figure and portrait formats, with limited background) rather than what in West we would call genre pictures. The banning of the publication of nudes by the Japanese government in 1888 circumscribed shunga (erotic art) but may not have had a noticeable impact upon bijinga. Traditionally, the Japanese had no category of the nude as a self-contained subject. Bijinga is notably not a field of the nude figure, though this matter is only briefly touched upon here. The female nude when it appeared in Meiji art seems to have been more prominent in yōga, with its Western categories of the nude, rather than bijinga. The Japanese of the Meiji period, when introduced to nudes in Western art, adopted the artistic term of rataiga – “naked body”. This description precisely fails to convey the Western distinction between nudity and nakedness, the naked and the nude.

The author addresses the role of photographically illustrated bijin journals around 1910 and discussion of bijin by Japanese and foreign critics. There are some close readings of Japanese novels including of bijin figures. Lippit notes the importance of bijin fūzoku, namely the attendant customs, conventions and attributes of the bijin in bijinga. These allow viewers to read the pictures in a way in which our iconography allows us to interpret the symbolism of art. Some readers may wish that Lippit had further developed the issue of the conflict between timeless beauty of the bijin and the influence of ryūkō (fashion or trend). Lippit notes the etymological link between uses of ryūkō as “fashion” and “disease”. “Disease and fashion shared the characteristics of arriving from the outside, spreading rapidly, and mostly affecting urban areas. [..] It retained the sense of a dangerous current that could, in passing through a culture, potentially infect it en masse.”

This book is an absorbing study of the origins and uses of bijin in Japanese art of the Meiji period. It will feed curiosity about this subject and prompt more academic and popular studies of this fascinating topic.

 

Miya Elise Mizuta Lippit, Aesthetic Life: Beauty and Art in Modern Japan, Harvard University Asia Center, 2019, paperback, 315pp, 45 col. illus., $45, ISBN 978 0 674 237330 8

 

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

© Alexander Adams 2019

Two Lives in Colour: Fred Dubery & Joanne Brogden

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[Image: Fred Dubery, Anemones, oil on board, 30.5 x 25.5cm. © The Estate of Fred Dubery and Joanne Brogden]

The paintings of Fred Dubery ARCA, Hon. NEAC (1926-2011) are woven into this book which recounts the story of two lives, his and his wife’s, Joanne Brogden (d. 2013). Dubery studied at Croydon School of Art in 1944-8, then at the Royal College (1950-3). Studying under Rodrigo Moynihan he became friends with fellow students Carel Weight and Ruskin Spear. He taught at Walthamstow School of Art from 1958. While at Walthamstow, Dubery taught Peter Greenaway, who contributes his memories of his tutor to this book. Other friends assisted author Ian Collins with their memories. It was at Walthamstow, in 1960, that Dubery met fashion tutor Joanne Brogden. She had previously studied at Harrow School of Art and the RCA. Brogden was admired her skill and meticulous eye for detail. She went on to become a lecturer and later head of the fashion department at the RCA. (Dubery also taught occasionally at the RCA.) Always dressed immaculately, she became a respected teacher and author and well-connected figure in the British fashion world of the 1960s and 1970s. She retired from the RCA in 1989. The couple married in 1965. Dubery later taught at the Royal Academy Schools, becoming Professor of Perspective in 1984. Although he exhibited at RA Summer Exhibitions from 1950 onwards, he was not elected ARA or RA. He was elected a member of NEAC in 1956.

When the couple took a country house in Stowmarket, Suffolk Dubery had ample opportunities to paint congenial subjects both indoors and outdoors. The couple spent Easters in France while they were teaching, spending longer spells there after their retirements. They also visited Italy and Belgium. Much of Dubery’s art celebrated the quiet comforts of domestic life. The paintings seek to capture Dubery’s pleasure and transmit it to others. His most frequent subjects were landscapes of Suffolk and France, garden views, flowers, still-lifes and interiors. Some of the best outdoor paintings are the pictures including frameworks in the form of fences, gates, scaffolding, beach greenhouse frames, aviaries and other regular linear structures. He painted portraits but most of his figures are part of interior pictures rather than sole or dominant motifs. Some of the portraits were commissioned. Nudes appear only rarely. His Seated Model (u.d.) is a fine painting in the tradition of Sickert’s Camden Town series of female nudes. A Sickertian approach is also apparent in Dubery’s views of Venice.

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[Image: Fred Dubery, Arsenale, Venice, oil on board, 71.1x 35.6cm. © The Estate of Fred Dubery and Joanne Brogden]

His style ranges between realism – at times close to the photo-derived realism popular in the late 1960s early 1970s – to the looser application of paint used by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Paintings reminiscent of the French Post-Impressionists and the Intimists Bonnard and Vuillard are commonplace in Dubery’s output. In this book no dates are given for paintings. This makes it difficult to discern whatever developments there were in Dubery choice of subjects and technique. There are few direct quotes from Dubery to reflect his views on art (his own and that of others).   The book includes some fashion drawings and animal sculptures by Brogden, the latter made after her retirement.

The couple lived a full life, travelling, socialising and viewing and making art until the end. After Dubery’s death, Brogden dedicated herself to the preservation and promotion of his art. The couple’s joint grave is next to that of the DJ John Peel, a fellow resident of Stowmarket.

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[Image: Fred Dubery, The Straw Hat, oil on board, 40.6×30.5cm. © The Estate of Fred Dubery and Joanne Brogden]

Most of the book’s illustrated pictures are from the estate of the couple, now owned by the East Anglia Art Fund. The EAAF now sells the art from the estate of the couple to fund scholarships for art and fashion students from East Anglia.

While the book is very good on the life and times of the couple, their milieu and memories of friends, it is light on discussion of Dubery’s art. Perhaps it would be best to consider this book a lavishly illustrated celebration of their lives rather than a painter’s monograph. Let us hope that the EAAF sets aside some funds to publish a traditional artist monograph on Dubery and a biography of Brogden to complement this enjoyable introduction to their lives.

 

Ian Collins, Two Lives in Colour: Fred Dubery & Joanne Brogden, Unicorn, 2019, hardback, 159pp, fully illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 911604 73 0

Forthcoming exhibitions of art by Fred Dubery: East Gallery, Norwich University of the Arts, Norwich (22 January-16 March 2019); Coningsby Gallery, London (10-19 June 2019); Holt Festival, Holt (20-27 July 2019). Proceeds of sales support EAAF’s student scholarship programme.

 

© Alexander Adams 2019

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Picasso: Blue and Rose Periods

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The Young Picasso: Blue and Rose Periods, Fondation Beyeler, Basel (3 February-26 May 2019 ***** EXTENDED TO 16 JUNE 2019 *****) is an exhibition which explores a period of rapid development from 1901 to 1907 in the art of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). It traces changes from painterly Post-Impressionism through the Blue, Rose, Gósol periods up to and including the proto-Cubism. This exhibition is from the catalogue Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods.

The Birth of the Blue Period

The earliest art in the exhibition was made in Madrid, where Picasso was briefly based. He was attempting to launch an art-orientated publication called Arte Joven, one of a wave of European avant-garde art journals aimed at celebrating Symbolism, Art Nouveau and Post-Impressionism. While in Madrid Picasso heard of the death of his artist friend Carlos Casagemas in Paris. Depressed, Casagemas had invited friends to a restaurant where he attempted to kill his girlfriend then shot himself dead. The event preyed on Picasso’s imagination and later influenced his art.

Picasso’s art in early 1901 is an amalgam of Post-Impressionism and Symbolism, painted in a bravura manner. When he arrived in Paris in May he agreed his first exhibition in Paris, at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in June 1901. The exhibition starts with portraits (including Yo Picasso (1901)) inspired by Van Gogh and El Greco. Subjects ranged from nightclub demi-monde types to self-portraits. The Vollard show exhibition launched Picasso’s public career in Paris and received good notices. Alongside Francisco Iturrino, Picasso exhibited 64 paintings and an unrecorded number of drawings. Some show evidence of being very hastily (and carelessly) painted, for example Femme dans la loge (1901). Most of the art was made over the course of a month before the exhibition.

In the summer, freed from the pressure of making pictures for his June exhibition, Picasso turned to the subject of Casagemas. Four critical works in the evolution of the blue period are included in the exhibition: two versions of the dead Casagemas, The Burial of Casagemas (1901) and a scene of mourning. It was the public suicide of Picasso’s friend Carlos Casagemas that inspired the use of blue to indicate his grief and led to a new preoccupation with the tragedy of life. The demi-monde gives way to the outright destitute and impoverished as subjects: beggars, prostitutes, cripples, mistletoe sellers. These blue paintings did not sell when exhibited in 1902, unlike the colourful paintings of the Vollard exhibition. Picasso spent January to October 1902 in Barcelona with his parents, unable to afford rent on a room in Paris. For the only time in his life Picasso was genuinely poor. Many paintings are made over old pictures because the artist could not sell much; he had little money for new materials. Paintings were also made on cardboard for cost reasons.

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[Image: Pablo Picasso, La Vie (1903), The Cleveland Museum of Art, Schenkung Hanna Fund. © Succession Picasso / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich Foto: © The Cleveland Museum of Art]

The exhibition includes his masterpiece of La Vie (1903). From sketches and X-rays, we know that when this picture was started it featured Picasso and a model in a studio with a painting in the background. Later the face of the man was changed to that of Casagemas. The woman and child on the right were also added. Interpretations vary: “(1) an allegory of sacred and profane love conveyed through the opposition between the standing naked couple on the left and the mother and child on the right; (2) as a symbolic representation of the cycle of life, progressing from the infant to the cadaverous woman in the lower center; and (3) as a working-class couple facing the hazards of real life, including potential pregnancy and venereal disease.” John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer, suggests that poet friend Max Jacob’s fascination with tarot and palm-reading may have suggested to Picasso various themes which directed La Vie.

Iconic exhibited Blue paintings are La Soupe (1902-3), The Blind Man’s Meal (1903) and La Célestine (1904). The fine self-portrait of 1901 is also in the display. It shows the artist as impoverished bohemian. Apart from a little exaggeration of the facial features to accentuate Picasso’s gauntness, that presentation as a starving artist was not far from the truth. The mystique of the bohemian poor youth of a genius is part of the reason people respond so strongly to Picasso’s early art.

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[Image: Pablo Picasso, Self-portrait (1901), Musée national Picasso – Paris. © Succession Picasso / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau]

Picasso’s Sculpture

Accounts of Picasso’s sculpture often kick into gear with Cubism, featuring his Head of Fernande (1909) and the sheet-metal Guitar (1914). This selection demonstrates that sculpture – and sculptural thinking – played a larger part in Picasso’s early art than generally noticed. Picasso’s main form of sculpture in the Blue and Rose periods is modelled clay for both stoneware ceramics and (later) bronze casts. Picasso was deeply influenced by the example of Gauguin. Picasso’s dealer Vollard had many works by Gauguin. Additionally, Picasso was friendly with Paris-based Spanish sculptor Paco Durrio (1875-1940), who assisted Gauguin in making stoneware figures of based on Gauguin’s imagery of Tahitian culture. Durrio had some original ceramic pieces by Gauguin and Picasso would have seen them. Durrio trained Picasso in making ceramics in Durrio’s workshop and assisted him technically to make some of the pieces in this exhibition.

The heads of types are striking and the most impressive is Mask of a Blind Singer (1903), a small modelled head, cast in bronze in 1960. The physiognomy is the same as the acrobat and some of the beggars who appear in paintings and the celebrated Frugal Repast (1904), which is included in the exhibition. The image of the emaciated face with hollow eye sockets and open mouth is haunting. It is a vision of an outsider which blurs the line between living action and deathly repose. So often in Symbolist paintings the poor and starving exist in a liminal space between life and death. This sculpture is little known but very effective. Picasso’s output is so vast and various that such wonderful discoveries are a common occurrence, even for seasoned followers of Picasso’s art.

The wooden carvings of 1907 show Picasso replicating the lessons he was learning from African tribal art. The combination of paint and carving shows a wish to fuse painting and carving, which is very apparent in the volumetric modelling of figures in his paintings. He did not exhibit these totemic figures and was later sensitive about discussing African art in relation to the origins of Cubism. He was reluctant to provide evidence which might be used against him. He had already suffered accusations during the Great War that his Cubism was a German plot to undermine French art. He did not want to go into details about his links with African carvings only for that to be used against him.

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[Image: Pablo Picasso, Femme à la chemise (Madeleine) (ca. 1905), Tate: Donation C. Frank Stoop 1933. © Succession Picasso / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich © Tate, London 2017]

From Blue to Pink

From summer 1904 to spring 1905 Picasso’s mistress was Madeleine – a shadowy figure in Picasso studies, with even her full name unknown. Her thinness and delicate features appear in a number of art works at the time and her presence coincided with the transition from Blue to Rose periods. Picasso met Fernande Olivier in late 1904 and she would become his first celebrated mistress and muse. Picasso’s art is often divided into periods defined by Picasso’s mistress of the time. Madeleine is the “missing mistress”, whose influence has been overlooked due to the shortness of her relationship with Picasso and the paucity of information about her.

In early 1905 the unrelenting blues give way to touches of pink, sienna and ochre, mostly on figures. At first these co-exist with blue backgrounds but gradually greater colour variety takes over. At this time the waifs and beggars begin to be replaced by new characters: acrobats, circus performers, comedians, Harlequin and others. The melancholy is partly relieved. The art is stylistically Symbolism. The outright appeals to pity recede in the Rose period. The mood is lightened and varied now. A summer visit to Holland gave Picasso sturdy healthy farm girls to draw, taking him away from his raddled urban drifters. The new characters were still outsiders but ones who seemed more purposeful – outsiders by choice rather than victims of circumstance. One could imagine these individuals leading full lives and reaching old age, whereas the people in the Blue-period paintings seem unable to escape their fate to live tragic shortened lives.

The soulful Symbolism, picturesque content and accessibility of the Rose paintings make them perhaps Picasso’s most loved paintings. Picasso’s life was changing his art. The comfort and pleasure of a long-lasting romantic relationship with Fernande, a larger circle of French friends and the financial support of Gertrude Stein and her brothers (who became his collectors) all made Picasso feel more at home in Paris. A number of witnesses (including Fernande) noted that Picasso became in involved in occasional opium smoking at this time. Boy with a Pipe (1905) may be related to opium smoking, with the flower wreathing the boy’s head and appearing behind him perhaps representing intoxication.

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[Image: Pablo Picasso, Acrobate et jeune arlequin (1905), Private Collection. © Succession Picasso / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich]

Many of the Rose-period paintings are gouache on cardboard, a technique that Picasso largely neglected in later periods. He paints larger canvases too, daring to be more ambitious, as in the paintings of an actor on stage, acrobats and a boy leading a horse. This last is an image which seems to have been inspired by antiquity rather than circus life. Richardson suggests that it was related to a homage to Gauguin called The Watering Place, a picture that was never painted. Classicism was seemingly on the artist’s mind at the time, particularly Ingres, David and ancient art. The modish sentimentality is replaced by something tougher.

There is one aspect that makes Picasso’s art of 1901-6 melancholy, beyond the melancholy of sentiment and the predicament of the impoverished characters. The melancholy is seeing for the last time a top-flight artist animating characters in a meaningful way, as a director directs actors. We see Picasso bring to life his figures. We get to recognise them. We see their dramas and interactions. We attempt to read their expressions and discern their personalities. At the same time, Matisse and the Fauves were taking apart the unspoken Symbolist assumptions about the value of human drama in pictorial form. They shattered forms and detached colour from observation-derived description. When Picasso took on their achievements to develop a visual language that became called Cubism, he abandoned the possibility of narrative and entered the territory of fine art as a purely visual non-narrative field, rarely to leave it again.

From Gósol to Proto-Cubism

In 1906 Picasso and Fernande visited Barcelona then travelled to spend the summer in Gósol, a remote Pyrenean village in Catalonia. The rural setting and simplicity of the people and architecture charmed the couple. Picasso’s changed from pink to ochre, reflecting the stone and soil of the region. Picasso became increasingly engaged by the primitive. He connected with the simple archaic style of the Madonna and Child in Santa Maria del Castell (the local church) and memories of the Iberian primitives that he had seen in the Palais du Trocadéro Museum, Paris. He reached back into ancient history to revivify his art and purge himself of affectation. The inexpressive carved faces led to Picasso’s use of simplified masklike faces in the coming years. (The reduction in expression directed how he finished his portrait of Gertrude Stein, which he had left incomplete before departing for Spain.)

He painted nude figures – women of the appearance of Fernande, Fondevila (an old man whom Picasso befriended), ideal youths and children in a state of nature. The scenes he chose were generic. Mood was more important than story. Figures exist is uncomplicated situations, many of them nude. As Gauguin had found sought simplicity in ancient cultures in the Pacific, so Picasso thought he had found something personal, primitive and profound in Gósol. Moreover, it was in his adopted homeland of Catalonia; he had not had to travel to the other side of the world. Picasso completed a number of canvases and small works on paper and card, as well as a number of rough wood carvings. Although Picasso was not much attached to landscape painting, he recorded views of the village. The landscapes he did there, with their facets of muted earthen colours, seem to anticipate his Cubist landscapes.

Fernande becomes increasingly present in Picasso’s art, becoming the template for multiple figures (sometimes in the same picture). Her dark hair, high cheekbones and almond eyes represented an archetype for the artist. The couple were in close proximity constantly and deprived of distractions other than the communal festivals of the village. Fernande wrote in her memoirs that the couple were never happier or closer than during their three months in Gósol.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

On his return to Paris, he continued to make invented figures painted in earth hues, simply modelled forms and with inexpressive faces. The women become thicker, like earth goddesses – fertile and ponderous. Picasso thought of his art as a series of grand tours de force. (La Vie and Les Saltimbanques had been conceived in such a spirit). He worked towards a new allegorical painting of a sailor and a medical student in a brothel. As he worked on the preparatory material, he cut the two men and reduced the composition to the prostitutes. This became Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Inspired by the energy of El Greco and the late paintings of Cézanne (which suggested to him to flatten his pictorial depth) – and wanting to make his figures as alarming as they were alluring – Picasso radically simplified the forms. He later altered the two figures on the right to make their faces resemble the African masks he saw in Paris museums and galleries.

A few of the numerous preparatory studies for the painting are here. Some of them are unfinished – or rather they were just tests that were not intended to be considered as finished paintings for display. The main area was the heads of the women. The forms not so much drawn as hewn with curving strokes, with forms built of facets. The studies are in a variety of colours but it seems that the artist was just using what was to hand, scrubbing in areas to model the figures and space. The final colour selection for the painting is limited and restrained. Picasso realised that to use strong colour would have distracted from the innovations in design, line and pictorial space that the painting developed.

The Catalogue

The exhibition contains some 70 paintings, prints and sculptures. One of the key strengths of this exhibition is the loan of works from Russian museums, which left Paris before the Russian Revolution. Obviously, with the great value and fame of the paintings, it is difficult to arrange for masterpieces dispersed around the world to come together for exhibitions. The selection cannot include all of the most famous paintings but the selection is broad and covers all relevant aspects of the period. The inclusion of minor pieces allows us to give time to art that is often not included in general studies of Picasso. In the catalogue, each exhibited art work is given a full-page illustration with full data and commentary on the facing page. Concise yet informative summaries cover the development in the art and Picasso’s life and career. There is an interview with John Richardson about Picasso’s early work. The large size (31.5 x 28 cm) allows larger reproductions, which are of good quality.

Picasso’s art at this critical period would change the direction of Western art. In addition to its role in art history, the art of the Blue and Rose periods is widely respected and loved, which is why it has been so commonly emulated. The catalogue Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods does a good job of displaying and explaining Picasso’s art 1901-7 in an attractively produced publication. It is highly recommended for fans of Picasso and those interested in the development of Modern art.

 

Fondation Beyeler/Raphäel Bouvier (ed.), Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods, Fondation Beyeler/Hatje Cantz, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 300pp, 171 illus., €60, ISBN 978 377 5745055 (German edition also available)

© Alexander Adams 2019

See my art and books at: www.alexanderadams.art