Brothers in Arms: Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti

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[Image: ALBERTO GIACOMETTI AND FRANCIS BACON, 1965, Gelatin silver print, © Graham Keen]

Bacon – Giacometti, Fondation Beyeler, Basel (29 April-2 September 2018) examines the bonds between Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). The two artists were near contemporaries – though Bacon was a late starter and so considered much more junior than the actual eight years between them – and shared social, intellectual and artistic connections. Bacon – usually so guarded in his compliments – was notably and publicly respectful of Giacometti. Giacometti was also an admirer of Bacon. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

When Bacon was emerging as a mature artist in the late 1940s, Giacometti was re-emerged from a prolonged retreat from the public art world. He had been a leading figure in the Surrealist movement in the early 1930s but by the late 1930s had left the movement. During the war he was isolated in Switzerland, working on figures that were allied to realism – or at least observation. In a series of photographs of Giacometti’s Paris studio published from 1946 onwards, the public became acquainted with an artist newly devoted to depicting the figure and his art. The startlingly primitive conditions of the studio were notably photogenic and the image of the artist in crumpled tweed suits, cigarette in mouth, hands working on a clay model, proved to be totemic. For a young artist seeking to be taken seriously, Giacometti’s art and life became a template. Exactly how much of the example of Giacometti was adopted consciously by Bacon – and how much simply coincided with Bacon’s pre-existing attitudes – is an open question, on that this exhibition and catalogue examine.

Both artists were influenced by Surrealism but rejected it as a doctrine. Both were committed to depicting observed figures in new ways. Both were artists of habit and routine. They had relatively little engagement with landscape. They were out of step with art of their time. Both artists were admirers of Egyptian sculpture. The many statements by Giacometti about Egyptian art, and reviews discussing this connection, may have led Bacon to investigate Egyptian art more deeply in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Bacon stated outright in later interviews that he preferred Egyptian carvings to any other sculpture.

The pair became acquaintances in the 1950s and friends in the 1960s. Among their common acquaintances were writer Michel Leiris, critic David Sylvester, dealer Ernst Beyeler and collectors Robert and Lisa Sainsbury. The catalogue includes photographs taken by Graham Keen of Bacon visiting Giacometti as he set up his exhibition at the Tate Gallery on the 13th of July 1965. They met infrequently in London and Paris. In a catalogue essay, biographer Michael Peppiatt points out that friendship could have deepened further, as Bacon spent increasing amounts of time in Paris in the late 1960s and 1970s.

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[Image: Alberto Giacometti, Head of Isabel, (1937 – 1939), Plaster and pencil, 21.6 x 16 x 17.4 cm, Fondation Giacometti, Paris, © Succession Alberto Giacometti / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich]

BPK 24.353

[Image: Francis Bacon, Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho (1967), Oil on canvas, 198 x 147 cm, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. 1967 acquired by the estate of Berlin, © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich, Photo: © bpk / Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Jörg P. Anders]

Both artists tended to work with portrait subjects they knew personally and tended to reject commissions. Though known for their portraits, they declined to use the demand for their ability to be used to portray subjects who could afford to pay for commissioned paintings. Isabel Rawsthorne (1912-1992) modelled for Giacometti and Derain in the 1930s and later, when she lived in London, she modelled for Bacon. Drawings and sculptures of Rawsthorne made by Giacometti in the late 1936-48 are displayed alongside Bacon’s small portrait paintings and the large full-figure portrait on canvas, loaned from the Nationalgalerie, Berlin. She became one of Bacon’s most significant models during the 1960s-1990s. She became an artist in her own right and exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery, London, Bacon’s dealer.

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[Image: Alberto Giacometti, Boule suspendue (1930), Plaster and metal, 61 x 36 x 33,5 cm
Kunstmuseum Basel, Depositum of the Foundation Alberto Giacometti, © Succession Alberto Giacometti / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich, Photo: © Kunsthaus Zürich]

Giacometti’s use of cuboid frames around his sculptures was initially pragmatic, allowing him to suspend objects in space. Consider Boule suspendue (1930) and La Nez (1947). Later, the frame became a formal device in tableaux (for example, La Cage (1950-1)). The space frames were then introduced into Giacometti’s paintings. In the paintings and drawings they situate the figure in space as well as on the picture plane. They would directly inspire Bacon to adopt the device by 1947 in his own painting. It became one of his most persistent aspects of his art.

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[Image: Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait VII, (1953), Oil on canvas, 152.3 x 117 cm,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A.M. Burden. Acc. N.: 254.1956. © 2017. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich ]

The cult of genius that sprang up around Giacometti was pervasive, certainly in the art world before Giacometti became a household name after his death. The example of a determined artist living in near squalid conditions in pursuit of his art – but who was a noted bon vivant and frequenter of public bars, cafés and clubs – was something that accorded with Bacon’s personal inclination to hard work in Spartan conditions and high living in public. Like Bacon, Giacometti was also a former Surrealist who had been rejected by the movement and sought a new direction. He was a defiantly figurative artist at a time when abstraction – especially from America – was ascendant.

The generously sized catalogue has full-page illustrations, which is particularly good for the unique painted Giacometti plasters. It is unfortunate that casting dates for the Giacometti bronzes are not given in the list of details, as this clarifies whether the artist oversaw the production and patination. The selection of works is adroit, with works taken from the Beyeler Foundation and loans from around the world, including triptychs by Bacon.

The co-operation of the Fondation Giacometti, Paris has allowed delicate unique plasters to travel to Switzerland. Giacometti embellished plasters with touches of paint and pencil lines. These have different qualities to the better known bronzes. The plasters have different coloration and the air of great fragility. The Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation, Monaco also loaned material for the exhibition.

Some of the art is the very best made by the artists. By Bacon there is the uncanny Head III (1949), the fine recovered Study of Velázquez (1950) and Figure with Meat (1954) with its richly coloured sides of beef, which has travelled from Chicago. The Study for Bullfight No. 2 (1969) is very effective in fusing the bullfight with a crowd from a Nazi rally. The analogy between these two group spectacles of primal anger, fear and catharsis is an intelligent one. The 1967 triptych showing two homosexual couplings flanking a crime scene is one of Bacon’s lush and visually satisfying paintings. The more austere triptych of 1972 includes a rare example of dry-brushing, where Bacon has applied paint in a rough veil over background elements. In Memory of George Dyer (1971) is a weak triptych. Whatever the strength of the emotions Bacon experienced in relation to the death of his lover Dyer, those did not translate into paint here. The triptych depicting Dyer’s death is much more powerful.

Giacometti’s pieces include busts of Annette, Diego, and Eli Lotar, some of them the original plasters of the artist’s last busts. There are versions of walking men and standing figures, including the Women of Venice. Grande tête mince (1954) has Diego Giacometti’s head reduced to the narrowness of a blade or flint arrowhead, while retaining the essence of the subject’s humanity. It does not appear freakish at all. La Nez (1947) is a strange piece, expressing a profound sense of horror and angst. The extended nose does not seem an affectation; it is less a distortion than visual expression of abnormality and distress.

Some pairings are questionable. Trois hommes qui marchent (petit plateau) (1948) is reproduced opposite Bacon’s Marching Figures (c. 1952). The former seems a study of random encounters in an urban setting, while the latter is probably derived from a photograph of marching soldiers. Most of the comparisons are apt and informative. There is single serious and inexplicable omission to the selection.  Head (of a Man on a Rod) (1947) is a key work of a head crying out, related to a traumatic memory Giacometti had of witnessing a man die. It is close in character to Bacon’s figures screaming, many of which are included. Head exists in numerous casts and would have been difficult to borrow for an exhibition of this quality.

The catalogue essays, illustrations and artist biographies allow people to track the parallels (and differences) between two of the most important figurative artists of the Late Modern period.

 

C Grenier, U Küster, M Peppiatt (eds.), Bacon – Giacometti, Hatje Cantz/Fondation Beyeler/Fondation Giacometti, 2018, hardback, 204pp, 162 col. illus. (incl. 4 fold-out pages), €58, ISBN 978 3 7757 4417 1  (German version available)

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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Amrita Sher-Gil: Unseen Brilliance

“Some grand claims have been made for the art of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941). Christie’s described her as ‘one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century’, yet few art-history students in Europe and America know her name. The reissue of Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters & Writings, which collects all of the artist’s writings and reproduces her 172 surviving paintings, allows us to judge the acclaim. In the foreword, Salman Rushdie explains how Sher-Gil became an inspiration for his character Aurora Zogoiby in The Moor’s Last Sigh.

“There is scarcely a day without a gallery press release announcing the rediscovery of a female artist who has not just been neglected but ‘excluded from the Western fine-art canon’. The claim that any artist can be excluded from the canon is nonsensical. The Western canon is a list of the most important good art that a person should know in order to understand the Western art tradition. The canon is not a set text, but a composite of opinions and has no central authority and changes over time. Therefore no art or artist can ever be excluded from the Western canon, whatever you may be told. (For an explanation, read my essay here.)

“Amrita Sher-Gil was born in 1913 in Budapest. Her family was middle class. Her father was Amrao Singh Sher-Gil, a Sikh writer and religious ascetic. He was a skilled photographer and his favourite subject was his family. Amrita’s mother was of French and Hungarian Jewish descent. The couple were mismatched in some respects and the conflict between an ascetic detached father and neurotic socialite mother would prove a source of instability in Amrita’s life. The family (including Amrita’s younger sister Indira) spent Amrita’s early years in Hungary before the family moved to Simla, India in 1924.

This two-volume book publishes all of Amrita’s writings, translated from the original French and Hungarian. She spoke English to her family and Indian colleagues, so much of the text is in her own words….”

Read the full review online at Spiked here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/amrita-sher-gil-unseen-brilliance/21365#.Wu7uNC7wbIU

Mexican Communist Art 1920-50

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In the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), the Mexican state started to reconstruct its social structure and establish a consensus. The new political situation entailed the working class of the agrarian nation would be the driving force behind land reform, anti-clericism and other dramatic changes. Communism took on new prominence as a leading force on the political Left following the Russian Revolution.

Compared to other Communist movements, the Communist Party of Mexico or PCM (Fondo Partido Comunista Mexicano) was judged weak in terms of membership and leadership in the early 1920s. Inspired by the example of the Russian Revolution, Mexican Leftists saw art as an important way of spreading the message of the PCM in the early years, be it through art or propaganda. The art would explain the party’s message and attract converts. Leading visual artists who joined the PCM in 1923 were the Muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Xavier Guerrero. The lives and work of the Muralists captured the imaginations of the public and were frequently covered by the newspapers. The artists (especially Rivera) were deemed politically unreliable but useful to the party. They edited the Communist newspaper El Machete for a time. The Mexican governments’ views of the PCM veered from wary collaboration to outright hostility, depending on the party in power. In 1929 the government banned the PCM and closed El Machete, which continued for a while as an underground operation.

Rivera was a problem for the PCM. He was the most prominent Mexican Communist, with an international reputation and wide popular appeal but he was wilfully independent and accepted mural commissions from the government, which was sporadically hostile towards the PCM. When Rivera left the PCM, Frida Kahlo, who was married to Rivera, left the PCM with him. The PCM undertook its other disciplinary procedures, expelling Siqueiros for inappropriate behaviour, risking revealing secret information about the now-banned party, plus various moral and financial infractions. Communist artists subject to hostile government action included Sergei Eisenstein and Tina Modotti, both of whom had to leave the country.

Smith discusses the associated Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR). Like the PCM at this time, LEAR was a banned organisation when it was formed, only later becoming legal. Its journal Frente a Frente included much Leftist and social realist art in the form of prints and photographs by LEAR members. Much visual material was propaganda explicitly dedicated to exulting collectivism and eschewing “the mystique of the individual”. In 1935 LEAR members persuaded the government to unban the PCM, El Machete and LEAR. A 1936 group exhibition of art organised by LEAR included amateur art and even politically sympathetic commentators described the display as a mess and criticised the standard of art. Steering a course between political orthodoxy and artistic accomplishment was an impossible task.

An article in Frente a Frente (May 1935) by Siqueiros was critical of Rivera’s Rockefeller Center fresco (1934). It led to a public debate between the artists later that year. They were divided on the appropriateness of murals as a revolutionary art form. Siqueiros – perhaps piqued by Rivera’s greater success – averred that murals were overrated as a political tool and that art should be international in character and closer to Socialist Realism than Rivera’s hybrid, which incorporated Modernism and native Mexican art. Rivera asserted that he wished to record the beauty and individuality of Mexican life in his art and that this was not incompatible with Communist principles. Siqueiros was pro-Stalin and Rivera pro-Trotsky. Deep enmities remained between the two painters for years afterwards.

Siqueiros became so involved in politics that he neglected art. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, as did Modotti. Rivera played a pivotal role in arranging for Trotsky’s successful petition for political asylum in Mexico. Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1937 and lived in the Riveras’ guest house for a time. Despite public and private support between the men, there were political tensions. Ultimately, Trotsky and Rivera’s alliance ended due to political differences in early 1939. Siqueiros and artists Luis Arenal and Antonio Pujol worked with NKVD in a plot to kill Trotsky. On the night of 24 May 1940 the trio broke into Trotsky’s house, failed to find the elderly dissident and – apparently inadvertently – injured his grandson. Months later an unrelated individual assassinated Trotsky.

Smith covers the founding of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the Popular Graphic Art Workshop; TGP) in 1937 without noting that this not simply an outgrowth of LEAR but an extension of a long-existing strand of popular Mexican art, namely social engagement of artists through the portrayal of the life of ordinary Mexicans via cheap and widely distributed graphic art. This uniquely Mexican blend of biting satire, political agitation and social realism – sometimes printed in newspapers – traced its origins to the iconic prints of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). TGP proved to be one of the world’s most enduring, influential and successful artist collectives in history, producing high-quality art distributed widely, fostering international connections and displaying a broadly united front on social issues. Aesthetically, it was hobbled by its commitment to realism – technically, in its founding principles, “art [that] must reflect the social reality of the times”. However, considering the political priorities of the TGP, that position could hardly have been avoided. Ultimately, it was the rigid anti-abstraction stance and limitations on artistic and commercial freedom which undid TGP as a significant force in the arts, though it exists to this day. For my review of artists working in the TGP see here.

Perhaps the most valuable service the FCM, TGP, LEAR and their various publications achieved in the arts was to present a warning of the dangers of fascism and raising funds for the Spanish anti-Falangists. Later, their activities would help the refugees who fled the fall of Spain and Nazi-occupied Europe.

The author has based her studies upon access to Mexican secret service files and internal papers of the PCM, LEAR and TGP, allowing her to present new information on major figures in the fine arts. However, the book has shortcomings. Considering the lack of published research based on primary sources, we would have benefitted from more economic data. For example, what was the commercial value of producing oil paintings for private collectors compared to painting murals for the state or issuing editions of cheap prints for ordinary people? What was the private market for oil paintings at the time? Roughly how much money did prominent artists make from state-subsidised work? On the political side, what did artists write in diaries and letters about politics in art and did that contrast with manifestoes they signed and their public activities? More space devoted to summarising such findings would have been valuable. While we do get to understand some of the political dynamics, economic context is sometimes hazy.

Considering her previous specialisation in the field, Smith is commendably restrained on the issue of gender politics. In this book, we see that Smith is sensitive to gender politics of the Communist movement in Mexico in this era but she wisely partitions her subjects and makes no hyperbolic claims. Overall, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico is an intelligent, accessible and well-judged account of an important aspect of Mexican art in the period 1920-50.

 

Stephanie J. Smith, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico, University of North Carolina Press, 2017, paperback, 288pp, 12 half-tone illus., $29.95, ISBN 978 1 4696 3568 2

© 2018 Alexander Adams

 

The Triumph of Discrimination

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Legacies are dangerous things. They endow wonderful treasures but make odd and awkward stipulations upon the recipients. Legacies are delicious traps set by the dead. A legatee receives a rich collection of art but one which cannot be tampered with. A great donation perpetuates the donor’s character and bows future custodians to his idiosyncratic will and its generosity is mixed with perverseness and not a little mischievousness. Every great deed has a touch of cruelty at its heart.

The pre-formed collection gathered on the basis of connoisseurship and bequeathed to an institution – bounded by restrictions on deaccessioning – is an antidote to the new self-lacerating identity-driven hierarchy-averse tendency that damages current trends in collecting and academic thought. Those dead white male plutocratic collectors, with their acquisitive tendencies, stubborn attachment to pleasure, independent views on aesthetics and wilful disregard of diversity-and-inclusion agendas, are actually bulwarks of the sheer love of art against forces of joyless political positioning. Connoisseurship is the apotheosis of discrimination – that is, of cultivating taste for the excellent and understanding that only the best, judged on its own terms, is sufficient of admiration.

The bequest of Herman Herzog Levy (1902-1990) to McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario has the delights and drawbacks of every bequest but an extra element. The current exhibition A Cultivating Journey (Vancouver Art Gallery, 3 March-21 May 2018; touring to Kelowna Art Gallery, 16 June-28 October 2018) catalogues the impressive collection of European art that Levy collected from the 1920s to the early 1970s.

Levy (who was born and resided in Hamilton) made his living in the gem trade. Habits of his profession carried over into his art collecting: the search for overlooked or undervalued works of beauty and rarity, the cultivation of discerning taste, long hours of contemplation and learning. All these qualities – combined with disposable surplus capital – allowed Levy to pursue his passion for art. He was civic minded and participated in many activities to benefit Hamilton and Hamiltonians. He was deeply involved with the administration of the Art Gallery of Hamilton and acquired works for it, as well as donating some of his own art. His taste was not parochial and he apparently had little appetite for Canadian art. He collected European fine art (particularly German prints), Chinese ceramics and Japanese woodcuts. His painting collection was donated to McMaster in 1984. In terms of the value that his bequest would provide to Hamilton, his European works of art provided a complement to donations of Canadian art. As a group, his collection forms a primer in European art, equivalent to that of a small regional museum in Europe.

What makes the Levy bequest unusual is that he set aside a legacy to be spent on non-North American fine art for McMaster. New works acquired with the fund were chosen to relate to the pieces in the collection and fill in gaps in areas. Areas of acquisition were Dutch painting, German graphics and School of London (Auerbach and Freud). The catalogue helpfully sets out which works were donated by Levy and which purchased later with his legacy.

The collection is eclectic. There are good prints by Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder and other Germans. The Dutch and Flemish portraits and still-lifes include one of only two identified paintings – a still-life including fish – by Philips Breughel (1635-c.1662), great-grandson of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and a fine anonymous still-life with oysters (possibly by Alexander Adriaenssen). Drawings include attractive works by Boucher, Gainsborough and Cassatt.

Bertin

[Image: Jean-Victor Bertin, Roman Figures in the Sabine Mountains (1825), oil on canvas, 82 x 114.5 cm, Herman H. Levy Bequest purchase 1993, McMaster Museum of Art]

Roman Figures in the Sabine Mountains (1825) by Jean-Victor Bertin (1767-1842) is an example of the academic tradition that dominated French Classical and Neoclassical painting, as practised in France and Rome. Bertin worked in Rome and is closer to the Classical than the Neoclassical. The latter more expressly political in content, was crisper in execution and – following the examples of David and Ingres – more coolly coloured than the Classical painting that came before. Bertin is much closer to Poussin than he is to his colleague Ingres. Like Poussin (who lived in Rome), Bertin went into the campagna to sketch and then compose his idealistic landscapes by combining motifs and observations from life. Bertin’s work is notable for being a last lingering of the Classical French painting made in Rome before the Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Realism overtook the approach.

There are good landscapes by Courbet, Monet and Pissarro. Albert Marquet’s river view in Hamburg is not his finest but strong. (Did Marquet ever let a bad picture out of his studio?) Marquet is at his best in the winter, capturing blues and greens and dank stone and foliage. This 1909 canvas of a sunlit view is too warm in coloration to be a classic. Other works of this period include an indifferent Sickert figure painting, Braque Cubist drypoint and a Klee watercolour.

There are curiosities such as bold but rather crude still-life by Émile Bernard and a sombre still-life by Bernard’s colleague Van Gogh. Still-life: Ginger Pot and Onions (1885) is an odd work.

Van Gogh

[Image: Vincent Van Gogh. Still-life: Ginger Pot and Onions (1885), oil on canvas, 34.5 x 49.5 cm, gift of Herman H. Levy, 1984, McMaster Museum of Art]

The oriental ginger pot (without lid) is contrasted with three onions. Painted in Neunen while the artist was living with his parents, it combines the aestheticism of a young painter keen to learn the technical and theoretical aspects of his craft while also reflecting ordinary life. The latter had drawn Van Gogh to painting peasants, miners and the urban poor and the onions – a staple food of the poor – can be related to the subject of frugal repasts. The ginger pot, probably owned by his parents, was an object of the exotic Orient coveted by the bourgeois for its inherent qualities and its status as an imported luxury. The painter may not have been concerned about symbolism and was more likely keen to add textural and colour variety to the ensemble. Whatever the inspiration, the muted colours and reciprocal rounded forms create a pleasing but slightly bleak picture.

OConor

[Image: Roderic O’Conor, Red Rocks and Foam (c. 1898), oil on canvas, 48.9 x 61 cm, gift of Herman H. Levy, 1984, McMaster Museum of Art]

One of the unexpected highlights of the collection is Red Rocks and Foam (c. 1898) by Roderic O’Conor. This marine by the Irish painter is an energetically painted, pungently coloured and robust picture that can be classed as an early Expressionist work. It has the exuberance of a Soutine landscape or a later Munch painting. O’Conor has used his own observation as the basis of the composition but improvised the brushwork and the serpentine forms of the foam. Dry-brush (scumbling) has described a speckling of spume and an ominous mauve sky has been briskly painted. Painted alla prima in bravura fashion, the painting need not have taken more than an hour to create. That vigorousness in approach – matching the energy of the waves – is part of the credo of Expressionism. The pathetic fallacy of Nature depicted as a mirror of the viewer’s emotions and the creator embodying what is present in Nature and conveying this in the art, both feed into Expressionist art as it was practised in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.

There is a typically thoughtful yet daring portrait by Chaim Soutine of a male painter. As the recent London exhibition attested, Soutine had acute sensitivity regarding his portrait subjects and never overwhelmed them by projecting too much of his own feelings in to his depictions. The subjects come across as quite different individuals.

Essays by specialists provide overviews of areas of the collection as well as selected commentaries on notable works. Many works are illustrated full page and a full list of works is included. All text is in English and French. The touring exhibition and catalogue are a fitting tribute to Levy’s generous bequest.

 

Barker, T. Bruce, L. DeWitt, I Holubizky, A Kidson, A McQueen, K. Ness, C. Pierre, A Cultivating Journey: The Herman H. Levy Legacy, McMaster Museum of Art, 2018, paperback, 250pp, col. illus., English/French text, ISBN 978 192 6632186

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Art of the Canadian Relief Camps: Alan Caswell Collier

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[Image: (c) UBC Press]

In the wake of the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, many ordinary people found themselves out of work. At the time, unemployment relief was limited or unavailable. The existing system had not been expected to cope with the vast numbers of men unable to support themselves and their families. In Canada the relief project to combat unemployment and save workers from destitution was a work programme established by the Department of National Defence. Although nominally a civilian organisation for labour, it operated with military austerity and discipline, administered by former military personnel and organised along military lines. Basic shelter and food was provided and men cut timber, dug, built and laboured for 20¢ per day. The scheme was partly to provide subsistence living for the unemployed, curb vagrancy and crime and to combat a rising tide of Communism.

One of the men who arrived at relief camp 506, Big Bend, British Columbia in September of 1934 was Alan Caswell Collier (1911-1990). Relief Stiff: An Artist’s Letters from Depression-Era British Columbia collects Collier’s letters to his fiancée while he was working in one of these camps. (A “relief stiff” is an unemployed man on government relief.”) Collier had trained as a painter at Ontario College of Art between 1929 and 1933. There he met and fell in love with Ruth Brown (1910-1993). The couple courted and intended to marry but by the time Collier graduated, the Depression was in its trough. Unable to secure a job, Collier went to work at a relief camp in the rural interior of British Columbia.

Peter Neary, professor emeritus of history at the University of Western Ontario, has compiled this reading edition of 120,000 words from a transcript of 281,000 words. He not only edited down the text but also made minor changes to increase the consistency and readability of the text, which is an intelligent decision. Neary explains the background and the context of the DND “royal twenty centers”, as the relief workers were called. He writes: “Readers of excerpts I have chosen will encounter in passing the language of racism, homophobia, ableism, nativism, anti-Semitism, sectarianism, and intolerance.” To which concern I am bound to reply that his readers are doubtless robust and adult enough to detach themselves when they encounter language and views they do not personally endorse. No warning was necessary.

The artist intended to document his time through art and letters, primarily to Ruth. He was a skilled letter writer and his lively narrative is free of pretension. He attempted to record the toughness of the life in a way that was authentic, while no doubt taking off a few rough edges and embellishing anecdotes, as all writers do. Collier took paints and paper with him and produced (according to his own records) 61 pictures during his time in the camps. He painted landscapes and portraits, oil on board. His landscapes are largely in the school of the Group of Seven, a prominent association of Canadian painters who depicted the rural landscapes of Canada in a Post-Impressionist manner. He also added to his letters sketches (many humorous) of life in the camps and the characters he knew. Photographs of the camps and men add to our immersion in the milieu.

As an artist, Collier judged his postings by the landscape as a sketching subject. He would go out to draw or paint the landscape most Sundays, painting oil on board. He drew caricatures of the men and painted portraits too, some of which he sold to the subjects for $1. Some portraits he kept for himself.

The camps where Collier worked constructed roads in inland British Columbia. The men were a mixture of working class and middle class, some skilled tradesmen and professionals, along with piece workers. Most of the men were young; some of the older ones were veterans of the Great War. There were many recent immigrants. “Out of forty in camp, 37.5% are Canadian born; 35% were born in the British Isles; and 20% are Scandinavians.” Some, such as explosives experts were employed for their expertise, others moved between jobs in the camps as needed. The men worked five and a half days a week (a half day on Saturday, Sunday off). There was no sick pay but free healthcare. Collier started as a labourer before moving to the less physically arduous but intellectually taxing position of storeman, where he issued, ordered and monitored clothing and equipment.

From these letters we learn about his daily routine, his reading and views on current events, especially relating to the economic situation. There is much talk of food, grumbling about the rations – daily expenditure on food was 23.34¢ per man – and the competence of the cook. Clothes were issued monthly. Collier sold his tobacco ration to earn an extra 50¢ a month.

Like soldiers on deployment, separated from friends and families, the relief-camp workers killed free-time with letter-reading and -writing, playing horseshoes, gambling, washing their own clothes by hand and sleeping. There are stories of fist fights, drunken escapades, strikes and petty pilfering. The writer does not shy away from the seedier aspects of life in the camps. He comments how locals had low opinions of camp workers, most of the times they encountered works them was when they came to town on payday to drink, fight and cause a rumpus.

He atmospherically describes life in the snowbound camp. “That train that was buried at Three Valley was completely buried, and part of it is still in there. There was forty feet of snow on top of the mail car and engine.” At another camp, an avalanche killed three camp workers. Workers at Camp 376, Tappen envied the workers at camps located near towns. Those workers could earn up to 40¢ per hour snow shovelling – quite an improvement on 20¢ per day.

Discontent with the economic situation and lack of security provided the resentment that allowed Communist ideas to flourish. While sympathetic to limited social change in areas, Collier was critical of Communism. He took a leading part in a camp strike when a foreman abused his authority and refused to listen to workers’ grievances but he was opposed to general strikes to further Communist-aligned goals. Relief Camp Worker, a Communist newspaper, incited strikes and disruption. Collier quoted an article discussing individuals killed in an accident. “’We do not regret the accident. We suggest that they represented the type which will have to be exterminated before a perfect society can be realized. This type is an obstacle to world sanity.’ […] Statements like that show what kind of men run the Red organization.”

The camp system was riven with inefficiency, profiteering, corruption and theft and Collier struggled to do right by the system and the men. He attempted to curb wastage and balance the books. He tried to protect hardworking amiable men and to retain the best cooks.

In the summer of 1935, Collier left camp, toured the USA and continued his art education in New York, joined by Ruth.

In these letters young artist comes across as serious, intelligent and independent. He seems – on the basis of these letters – a shrewd judge of character and sceptical of political ideology, fundamentally a pragmatist. His few casual slurs are typical of the time and – given the tough conditions – he seems free of malice or bitterness. He displays empathy and patience. His love of the landscape shines through in his descriptions of sketching trips.

The book contains an introduction, which sets out the methodology of the editorial process and explains the artist’s early life. The index is a useful addition and the footnotes are mostly informative and well judged. An afterword covers Alan and Ruth Collier’s subsequent lives and Alan’s art. During 1940s he painted photograph-derived montage-style paintings in a dry naturalistic style, produced art in mines and became a specialist in landscape painting. Each summer, from the 1950s until the end of his life, Alan and Ruth and their son Ian, toured Canada in a mobile home, Alan working on landscape paintings. He achieved considerable success in Canada and the USA as an artist, while Ruth chose to concentrate on home and family, ably supporting her husband’s career.

This book is an easy read and will appeal to general readers, as well as those interested in the 1930s life or Canadian art. This fascinating slice of social history forms a Canadian counterpart to the volume of Pollock family letters.

 

Alan Caswell Collier and Peter Neary (ed.), Relief Stiff: An Artist’s Letters from Depression-Era British Columbia, March 2018, hardback, UBC Press, 368pp, 89 mono illus., C$45, ISBN 978 0 7748 3498 8

Basil Beattie: A Passage of Time

Basil Beattie_Ins and Outs Series 1

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ins and Outs Series 1 (2004-5), mixed media on paper 28 x 36 cm, courtesy of the artist]

The current exhibition of works on paper by Basil Beattie RA (b. 1935) charts his progress from the 1980s to today. Beattie built his early career on pure abstraction, largely in line with his colleagues at the Royal Academy in the late 1950s. Influenced by American Abstract Expressionists and the Colour-Field painters, Beattie developed a language based on non-representational image making. In the mid-1980s he began the Circus series, where semi-recognisable imagery began to enter compositions. At the end of the 1980s Beattie felt he could no longer actively keep out the images that were in his mind and from then on his art has combined the solid sense of an abstract painter – with an attendant feeling for material and eye for form – with figural motifs. These are pictographs, simple and strong but not without ambiguity. Stairs, arches, doorways, ladders, corridors, roads, blocks, ziggurats and other forms become signs but signs with weight and earthiness.

The exhibition Basil Beattie RA: A Passage of Time (Hugh Casson Room, Royal Academy, London, 23 February-23 April 2018) picks up in 1986, with prints from the Circus series. Soon after these brightly coloured works, Beattie muted his colours. The work of the 1990s and early 2000s (paintings as well as graphics) were characterised by the use of black, white, ochre, cadmium red medium and grey. This is reflected in the art presented here: prints, drawings and paintings, all on paper.

There are a range of pieces covering many of Beattie’s motifs.

Basil Beattie - Ladder Series 1, 2017

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ladder Series 1 (2017), oil on paper, courtesy of the artist]

Some of the strongest works are the prints of 1998-9, made with Advanced Graphics in Deptford. These corridors and doorways have the presence of vital pictograms, signs with import, urgent warnings or even religious meditations. They are classic images made with confidence and asperity.   Beattie’s oil paintings have a strong physical presence, with wax-thickened impasto over raw linen, and this tactility and heft is difficult to convey in prints. (Beattie might achieve effective results using mixed etchings with the carborundum process, which produce heavily textured granular effects on heavy paper.) To increase texture and weight, Beattie worked with Bob Saich at Advanced Graphics, London to combine screenprint with woodcut in In or Out (1998) and Signs of Entry (1999).

The Janus series (2009-12) are sections with views of roads disappearing towards flat horizons. In one drawing strong colour intrudes. Beattie generally handles colour adroitly but Beyond Yonder (2012) is distractingly highly keyed. His pinks and yellows work best against earthy grounds or raw linen, where predominance of subdued colour and dim tones acts as a foil to small areas of pungent colour. Beyond Yonder fails because the dominance of the white paper fails to provide that foil.

Basil Beattie - Ladder Series 4, 2017

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ladder Series 4 (2017), oil on paper, 36 x 28 cm, courtesy of the artist]

There is a certain dry humour to Beattie’s art. His ladders are comically rustic and seem absurdly rickety. Anyone foolish enough to put weight on a rung would inevitably snap that rung and expose himself as an optimistic buffoon, as in a Buster Keaton movie. In Ladder Series 5 (2017) the ladder has been split and become two structures, almost totemic in their mute uselessness.

Basil Beattie - Ladder Series 5, 2017

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ladder Series 5 (2017), oil on paper, 36 x 28 cm, courtesy of the artist]

Tottering stacks of steps in other pictures induce unease in the viewer. These seem more ominous than comic.

The most recent work is Broken Promises (2017). It has a tottering stack, with the printed in grey over scarlet, which gives it a snappy contrast of flickers of fiery red under and around the grey top layer. The overprinting of different inks gives Beattie’s prints a particularly satisfying density and complexity.

Basil Beattie_Above and Below I

[Image: Basil Beattie, Above and Below I (2004), etching and chine collé, 72.5 x 57.5 cm, edition of 25, courtesy of the artist]

Pieces are for sale and prices modest. The exhibition is highly recommended. Let us hope there will be a British exhibition displaying the best of Beattie’s art over the last 30 years. Until then, enjoy this taster.

Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension

Ferber-Installation-images-12

[Image: Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension, 2018, installation view, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

Herbert Ferber (1906-1991) was a sculptor who was part of the New York School; his was part of the Abstract Expressionism movement. The touring exhibition Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension currently at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut (27 January-29 July 2018; previously at Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami) gives an opportunity to study Ferber’s art in depth. This review is from the exhibition catalogue.

Herbert Ferber Silvers trained and practised as a dentist part time. His art training was informal and received sporadically at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design and the National Academy of Design, in his native New York. His early sculpture was carved wood and stone and cast bronze; the subjects were Expressionist figures. He also etched and painted. Ferber’s first solo exhibition was held in 1937. This was a time when Regionalism held sway in the small arena of new American art. Ferber’s expressive figurative art put him between, on one hand, the traditionalism and straightforward illustration of Regionalists, Hopper and the Ashcan School and, on the other, the nascent Modernist movement including Stuart Davis, John Marin and young abstract painters.

Ferber committed to abstraction in 1945, at a time when Abstract Expressionism was hitting its stride. A new confidence infused American art. Americans realised that America was leading the way in art internationally and had no reason to feel inferior to Europe. A new generation of collectors were buying adventurous abstract art made by young Americans. Ferber’s art fitted in. In a way, perhaps it fitted in too well. If any vital quality is lacking from Ferber’s art – with the exception of Burning Bush (discussed below) – it is powerful memorability. If Ferber’s art had fitted in less well and stuck out as odd, discordant, pungent or hybrid, perhaps it would have garnered more enthusiastic support and strong aversion. In terms of reputation, Ferber’s art would have benefitted from having both more friends and enemies.

The influence of Giacometti’s Woman with her Throat Cut (1932) – which was frequently reproduced and exhibited in the 1930s and 1940s – is evident in Ferber’s bronzes Hazardous Encounter II (1947) and Dragon (1947). Giacometti’s biomorphic forms, jagged energy and emotive subject evidently struck a chord in Ferber.

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[Image: Herbert Ferber, Hazardous Encounter II (1947), bronze. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

The use of lead at the same time was unusual; Ferber soon discontinued using it as he found it prone to damage. He started to work in welded metal, which was his dominant method for the rest of career as a sculptor. The use of folded, curved and welded steel, brass and copper (often in juxtaposition) gave sculptures from the 1950s to 1991 greater variety of colour and surface. All of them are resolutely abstract. (Ferber apparently never returned to figuration the way Guston and de Kooning did.) The current exhibition includes one painted construction.

8-31-17_10069

[Image: Herbert Ferber, Roofed Sculpture with “S” Curve II (1954), cast bronze. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

The use of spikes, open linear forms and occasional horizontal orientation in table-top pieces aligns Ferber with David Smith around 1950. Such was Smith’s prominence and accomplishment that his work has tended to overshadow Ferber’s. Notable differences include Smith’s adaptation of recognisable manufactured elements, something less apparent in Ferber’s art. The exploitation of pre-made material gives Smith’s art a collage aspect and the frisson of duality: material as adapted source and material as plastic form. There is also little visual wit or punning in Ferber’s art. For better or worse, Ferber’s art is grave matter. There may be energy, exhilaration and inventiveness but there is no humour.

Ferber received the major commission to create a giant wall-mounted sculpture for the B’nai Israel Synagogue, Millburn, New Jersey. Burning Bush (1951-2) was a highly successful sculpture in brass, copper and lead depicting the burning bush through which God spoke to Moses. The dynamic forms, Modernist crispness and memorability made it very effective as art, decoration and icon. The piece benefits from the limitation as a relief, essentially. Ferber might have benefitted from making more wall reliefs.

In 1961 Ferber had the opportunity to experiment with interior sculptural installation in a work for the Whitney Museum of American Art. This informed later large exterior sculptures of steel that allowed viewers to inhabit the sculptural space. They demonstrated Ferber’s interest in dynamic open forms which defy gravity. Developing a sculptural language that consisted of space as much as solid forms became a central preoccupation for Ferber the sculptor.

Ferber returned to painting intermittently (but seriously) while being best known for his sculpture. His large paintings (made from the 1950s to the last years of his life) present simple forms with curving edges, saturated colour and – especially in late works – surfaces animated by vigorous and visible brushwork. The forms are akin to simple calligraphs and are less dramatic and abrupt than Franz Kline’s similar works. As Edith Devaney points out in her essay, the paintings are related to immersive sculpture of Ferber, with their suspended simple shapes. It is clear Ferber the painter looked at a lot of abstract painting and was close friends with many of the Abstract Expressionists. The Colour-Field paintings by Jules Olitski and Sam Gilliam may have led Ferber to develop his feathery working of surfaces and the introduction of sand as a way of diffusing light and creating texture.

8-4-17_10021_1

[Image: Herbert Ferber, Primo (1973), acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

In the 1970s Ferber’s paintings became strongly coloured, often with a hot palette. Triangular sections are softened by blurring brushstrokes, dribbles and dilution. The dancing organic forms in the sculptures become cleaner and clearer. Rods and frames were used to stabilise and support the curving forms. In the energetic rococo sculptures composed of suspended, soaring and curling shapes we can see ideas that Frank Stella developed in his metal reliefs.

Ferber was included in the landmark MoMA exhibition “Fifteen Americans” in 1952 and has featured regularly in publications and group exhibitions since then. He was respected by his peers and played a prominent role in the New York School’s group activities. However, today his art remains lesser known than that of his colleagues. His work was omitted from the recent Royal Academy survey of Abstract Expressionism, whereas Smith had 13 works included – a slightly unkind reflection on Ferber. Non-sculptor Barnett Newman was represented by a bronze. One would have thought Ferber should have had at least one piece also.

The 44 works illustrated in this touring catalogue cover 1943 to 1990 and display the core of Ferber’s art without amounting to a full retrospective. The essays describe the artist’s development, working habits and artistic affiliations. Ferber comes out looking a serious and articulate sculptor. He seems a competent and independent as a painter but not a maker of imposing or exciting paintings – at least in reproduction. For anyone interested in rounding out their knowledge and appreciation of Abstract Expressionism then this catalogue is an enjoyable exploration of Ferber’s art.

 

Jill Deupi, John B Ravenal & Edith Devaney, Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension, Lowe, 2017, paperback, 66pp, 56 col. & mono illus., $15, ISBN 978 0 9969489 5 1

Van Gogh and Japan

ENG softcover Van Gogh & Japan

 

For Vincent Van Gogh, Japan was an ideal – a place of light, pleasure and a productive society framed by awe-inspiring nature. Van Gogh had a typically Western view of the Orient, with Japan being a fantasy composition of familiarity with some cultural objects, travellers’ tales and assumptions. So, in many ways, the exhibition Van Gogh and Japan is an examination of the artist’s conceptions about a distant land he never visited and his deep involvement in the art of Japan, as it was understood in France of 1880-90. This review is of the catalogue for the current exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (23 March-24 June 2018; previously Hokkaidō Museum of Modern Art (Sapporo), Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, National Museum of Art (Kyoto)).

Although Van Gogh’s knowledge of Japan and its culture was fragmentary, the relationship was important to Van Gogh and influenced the artistic production of his last years. The influence is apparent in the art but there is a degree of uncertainty about how much the artist knew of Japanese art and culture. He perused the stock Parisian print dealers (including Siegfried Bing), bought as much as he could and discussed the art with others. His brother Theo was in the art trade and they frequently discussed the qualities of Japanese prints and tried to build a collection of the art that appealed to them. This was an easy task as Paris was still in the grip of japonisme, the craze for all things Japanese, especially art, clothing and furnishings, so there was much to see in museums, shops and new publications. This was the effect of Japan being opened up to the West in the 1860s. Japan, it seemed to Westerners, was a blend of the primitive and sophisticated – an exotic paradise that was culturally, linguistically and geographically inaccessible.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in September 1888, “We wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful.” In the West there is the frequent longing for a return to simplicity to combat the effects of industrial production, complex social systems and political sophistication in a participatory democracy. The exotic non-Western society is a fantastic release from the demands and complexities of life. Such views tell us about escapism and discontent in the West, but not anything meaningful about the actual lives of those in the East.

Often idioms of non-Western cultures are used by to inject a dose of invigorating “primitivism” into Western art (Tahitian culture for Gauguin, West African masks for Picasso, Oceanic art for Surrealism, and so on). While such incorporations are often based on misapprehensions, they sometimes successfully introduce new elements or ideas into Western art. One of the most prominent examples of this is the art of Japan, as viewed by Vincent Van Gogh.

Van Gogh’s attitudes towards Japanese culture essentially matched the prevailing European view of Japan. In that respect he was conventional. What is distinctive about Van Gogh was how he found a way to express his admiration for an alien culture by incorporating elements of that into the Western art tradition. Certain elements of Japanese woodblock prints appeared in his art: emphatic contours; clearly delineated areas of strong unmixed colour; increased planar flatness as opposed pictorial depth; horizons placed high in compositions; aerial perspective; strong diagonals; cropping and enlargement of foreground elements; absence of chiaroscuro; emphasis on the decorative over the naturalistic description. Van Gogh’s success is not in how noticeable these elements are but in how well – generally – they mesh with the Western tradition within which he worked. The uninformed viewer comparing a late Van Gogh landscape to a traditional Nineteenth Century Dutch landscape will feel the former is powerful and dynamic but – apart from noticing the strong colour and visible brushwork – will not sense how Van Gogh’s art differs. Likewise, it is not clear to the average viewer that the influence is non-Western.

Included in the exhibition are two oval paintings made on wooden panels. The panels are Japanese in manufacture. Photographs show the reverse of the panels, complete with manufacturer’s name.

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, Three Novels (1887), oil on panel, 31.1 × 48.5 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

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[Image: Back of Three Novels, with mention of the firm Kiryū Kōshō Kaisha, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

One aspect that seems to have passed unremarked is how the two still-life paintings are set on tables and the oval format evokes the shape of a round table viewed obliquely. Van Gogh, who was familiar with classic Dutch painting including illusionistic and trompe l’oeil painting, may possibly have used the unusual format to evoke perspectival distortion. It seems relatively unlikely. There is little in the way of visual wit in Van Gogh’s art. It was not in his outlook.

123 - A549227g

[Image: Katsushika Hokusai, Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry, from an untitled series known as Small Flowers and Birds (c. 1834), from an untitled series known as Small Flowers and Birds (c. 1834), colour woodcut, 25.5 × 17.1 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Clarence Buckingham Collection, 1925, Photo credit: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence, © 2017]

 

In two double-page spreads, two versions of Portrait of Père Tanguy (both 1887) – which show a supporter of Van Gogh seated beside an array of Japanese woodblock prints – are juxtaposed with illustrations of the prints, allowing us to compare the sources with the transcriptions. The painter made substantial changes to the images but the spirit is carried over. For the artist, his positive feelings regarding his patron were expressed visually in a montage of Japanese art, which he associated with pleasure and exuberance.

On three occasions the artist transcribed Japanese prints as oil paintings, tracing the originals for accuracy. (The tracings still exist.)

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[Image: Utagawa Hiroshige, Sudden Evening Shower on the Great Bridge near Atake, from the series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo (1857), colour woodcut, 33.8 × 22.6 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887), oil on canvas, 73.3 × 53.8 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

Inspired by the slightly wrinkled surface of prints on thin Japanese paper – called crépons by the French, after the uneven surfaces of pancakes – Van Gogh began to produce paintings with textured surfaces. The regular impasto brushstrokes formed a crinkled appearance. He adapted his drawing technique to imitate Japanese masters, by using blends of blue and black ink and working with reed pens. He adopted a stenographic style of drawing: creating areas of pattern by making rapid repeated (simple) marks. Thus with dashes, dots, circles and so forth, he could describe discrete areas of grass, foliage, roadway or sky in ways that had distinct vibrancy and density. These marks are clear enough to be legible but small enough to generate an overall impression. One could almost describe the vibrancy of the areas as “colour”. (Compare to Bonnard’s style of drawing, which took Van Gogh’s approach one step further by using differing weights of touch.)

The catalogue includes fascinating glimpses of Van Gogh’s enchantment – and possible late disenchantment – with Japanese art, including contact with two Western artists (Louis Dumoulin and Edmund Walpole Brooke) who had visited Japan. It seems Van Gogh was interested to hear first-hand testimony about life in the Far East or was assessing the practicality of actually visiting Japan.  One essay examines the Van Gogh brothers’ collection of Japanese prints.  The number of Japanese prints that entered the Van Gogh Museum in 1973 was 482. Originally there were at least 660 prints but some were disposed of by the brothers. Vincent bought 660 prints by early 1888, though apparently he never paid the full price due. The artist had initially thought of exhibiting and selling on the prints but had little success in the one display he arranged. His admiration was genuine and daily acquaintance with his stock influenced his art. His collection included a wide range of subjects – except for warrior and war scenes and erotic prints – and items varied in quality and condition. It notably excludes Hokusai, whose prints were more highly priced than those by other by other printmakers. Chris Uhlenbeck concludes that “Van Gogh quickly formed the collection, within his own limited means, based on aesthetic considerations such as outspoken colour, striking compositional elements in landscapes or sumptuously clad beauties in kimonos. The collection, together with other Japanese art that the artist may have encountered in Paris, provided a new, exotic aesthetic that profoundly influenced Van Gogh’s own artistic voice.”

The catalogue includes a chronology covering Van Gogh’s links to Japanese art and covers some works only tangential to the subject, which gives the publication a satisfying breadth of scope. The reproductions are crisp and largely accurate. For anyone interested in understanding key stylistic aspects of Van Gogh’s art, this catalogue will become essential.

 

Louis van Tiborgh, Nienke Bakker, Cornelia Homburg, Tsukasa Kōdera & Chris Uhlenbeck, Van Gogh and Japan, Van Gogh Museum, 2018, paperback, 240pp, 200 col. illus., €29.95, French & Dutch versions available, ISBN 978 9 462 302204

Degas’s Human Animals

Dancer adjusting her Shoulder Strap, about 1896-99

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Dancer adjusting her Shoulder Strap, (c. 1896-9), charcoal and pastel on paper, 28 x 47 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.248), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell Collection (National Gallery, 20 September 2017-30 April 2018) is an exhibition of drawings, paintings and sculpture, mostly loaned from the collection of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow. It is held to mark the centenary of the death of Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Twenty-two paintings, pastels and drawings from the huge and wide-ranging art collection of Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) are united with a Degas pastel Burrell donated to Berwick-on-Tweed Museum and a handful of other Degas works to form a reasonable display of some of Degas’s typical subjects. Portraits, early academic studies, prints and landscapes are missing from the selection.

Degas became the quintessential modern artist by turning away from the classical art he knew so well and instead using poses taken from everyday life. His is the first art that features figures which slouch, stretch, yawn and scratch. Whereas these actions might have been confined to minor supporting characters or used in genre paintings for to moral or satirical purpose, Degas is the first to take such actions and present them without overt comment. We see figures contorted in instances of private ablution.

Woman in a Tub, about 1896-1901

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman in a Tub (c. 1896-1901), pastel on paper, 60.8 × 84.6 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.236), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Here we have humanity as it is, sometimes ungainly, sometimes ugly. Critics saw this and criticised Degas for treating human beings – and especially women – as animals. Of course, the day’s convention dictated that Degas’s images of human animals were considered unsightly treatment of the fairer sex. The aura of respect and romance regarding a woman’s figure was overturned in the series of Toilettes. Even in the portraits of woman there is the impression of imbalance and awkwardness that would become a commonplace aspect of Modernist art. Subjects are placed off centre, stiff, distracted, vulnerable – the opposite of the projections of confidence, authority and contentment that were standard in society portraiture. In group portraits such as that of the Bellelli family (c. 1867) and Sulking (c. 1870) we see the imperfect unions of temperamentally contrasting individuals in relationships.

Jockeys in the Rain, about 1883-86[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Jockeys in the Rain, (c. 1883-6), pastel on tracing paper, 46.9 x 63.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.241), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Degas had a keen interest in horses and studied animal locomotion. In the race-course scenes such as Jockeys in the Rain (c. 1883-6) the nervous tension of horses and men about to race is conveyed through the alert heads and raised forelegs of the horses. A drawing shows a horse exhausted after a race. It is unknown how much Degas knew of sequential photography of animal locomotion.

The End of the Race, about 1882

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, The End of the Race, (c. 1882-90), chalk on tracing paper, 14.6 × 19.6 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.233), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Sir William Burrell was a shipping magnate who built an eclectic collection. Although rich, he was unable to compete with the American magnate collectors, and his Degas works are mainly small and inexpensive works on paper. There are a number of larger works. The outstanding work in the group is a portrait of art critic Edmond Duranty (1879) in his study, a picture which has not travelled to London for the display. The catalogue essay by Vivien Hamilton discusses the detailed history of Burrell’s collection of Degas, much of it informed by his friendship with Alexander Reid (1854-1928), the Scottish art dealer who had been friends with Vincent and Theo van Gogh and had conducted picture-trading business with the latter.

Burrell’s collection of Degas (which tended to be on loan to museums rather than in his home) includes pieces various in subject, medium and finish. There are highly finished oil paintings on canvas, oil essence paintings on paper and densely worked pastels. A revealing drawing on canvas (c. 1897) of a woman washing herself over a basin is barely started.

Woman Bathing, about 1897

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman at her Toilette (c. 1897), pastel on canvas, 78.7 × 63.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.229), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

As an art work it is unsatisfying but as studio material witnessing the creative process it is interesting. Degas sketched out the whole composition in black and then roughly applied colour to some of the background, dresser top and hair but none to the basin or the skin of the body.

Girl Looking Through Field Glasses, about 1866-72

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman looking through Field Glasses, (c. 1869), pencil and oil (essence) on paper, 32 × 18.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.239), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

An early oil sketch on paper shows a spectator at a horse race, looking towards us through field glasses. There are several scenes of ballerinas practising, made in Degas’s early tight and realistic style.

 

The Green Room, about 1877-82

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Preparation for the Class (c. 1877), pastel on paper, 58 x 83 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.238), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

The realism is relative. The veracity of Degas’s observations is condensed into compilations of poses and figures which are fictitious. His frequent visits to the opera meant that the artist became familiar with poses, costumes, attitudes and settings, which he could combine according to his aesthetic aims.

Other works include some excellent nudes in pastel and a scene two women at a jeweller’s shop.

The Jewels, about 1887

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, At the Jewellers, (c. 1887), pastel on paper, 71.2 x 49 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.228), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Degas looked at human behaviour in anthropological terms, catching their expressions and body language as subjects interacted. This can be seen in the tableaux set in laundries, cafés and milliner’s shops. The subjects engage in work, leisure or shopping in ways that appear as though they are unaware they are being observed. Actually, these pictures were never created in situ – Degas often worked from memory, adjusted or invented settings and had models pose in his studio. The influence of photography can be seen in the odd cropping and decentred compositions, regardless of the fact actual photographs apparently almost never served as sources. (See especially Place de la Concorde (1876).) On a few occasions at the end of his life he used photographs as sources. His maxim was to create something artificial from memory and then add an accent of nature to make it persuasive.

Another essay explains the artist’s materials and techniques. Technical analysis has advanced in recent years. (For discussion of this see these article: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2017/10/19/degas-themes-and-finish/  and http://artwatch.org.uk/degas-and-the-problem-of-finish/) Degas was unusual among the Impressionists in his use of many academic techniques, wide range of materials and his adoption of pastel and mixed media. This makes Degas’s art rewarding and surprising to researchers of his materials.

This excellent and enjoyable exhibition (and catalogue) are recommended.

 

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Degas and his Model is a first full English translation of a text published in 1919, published in two issues of Mercure de France. The author is Alice Michel – apparently a nom de plume. It purports to be the memoirs of a model called Pauline, who modelled for Degas over 1900-1910. There is debate about the authenticity of text, which seems to have been at least assisted by a professional writer. If it is a fake, it is a good one. It is full of both expected information and unexpected touches that convey have the touch of intimate observation – quite like a Degas pastel.

The short book tells us of Pauline’s experience of working for Degas as he worked on a Plastiline sculpture. Degas gives her a difficult pose and berates her when she struggles to hold the pose or requires breaks. He is demanding and impatient. He evades discussing or showing his art, though he is curious and a touch possessive when models talk about modelling for other artists. His studio is cluttered and dirty, as he forbids his servant from cleaning except around the coal stove. It is gloomy because the windows are covered to protect his eyes, which had grown sensitive by this time. (The 1900-1910 period was Degas’s last period of production. His blindness curtailed his productivity thereafter; in 1912 he was forced to leave his apartment and it is thought he made no work between 1912 and his death in 1917.) In a touching scene, he asks Pauline to tell him the colour of the pastel he is holding, demonstrating how damaged his eyesight was.

The account centres on the sessions for a statuette of a woman standing on one leg and studying the sole of her foot. It was a stressful pose and the pay was poor. The artist would have to feel her body sometimes as he worked on the figurine. He would use a compass or callipers to measure her dimensions. On many days he would grumble about the cost of everyday items and mock the pursuit of honours by artists. Yet he could also be kind and thoughtful. He would sing minuets from operas and mutter outlandish fables while he worked. There would be a touch of banter between artist and model and he would sometimes mention his past travels but he was wary about talking more generally about his ideas on art. There is very little about specific works of art by Degas or his great collection. Pauline may have been observant but Degas was reticent and volunteered to show her very little.

Degas and his Model is a glimpse of Degas in his twilight: nearly blind, frail, tired, working slowly but still working.

Alice Michel, Jeff Nagy (trans.), Degas and His Model, David Zwirner Books, 2017, paperback, 88pp, no illus., $12.95, ISBN 978 1 941 701 553

Vivien Hamilton et al., Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell Collection, The National Gallery, 2017, hardback, 112pp, 50 col. illus., £14.95, ISBN 978 1857096255

Lake Keitele: Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Lake Keitele N-6574-00-000015-A5

[Image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele (1905), oil on canvas, 53 x 66 cm, National Gallery, London. Photo (c) The National Gallery, London.]

The National Gallery has staged a comparative exhibition (15 November 2017-4 February 2018, free entry) included one of its best loved paintings. Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931), depicts the landscape of the Finnish painter’s homeland. It is a post-glacial terrain of many lakes, extensive and dense fir forests and clear air. The composition – which shows a long view over a large lake, with a wooded islet near the high horizon, tumultuous cloud at the top of the picture – was painted by the artist a number of times. It is these versions which form the centrepiece of this exhibition.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) has become the Finnish painter par excellence. By biographical good fortune he happened to be the most nationally and internationally renowned Finnish painter working at the time of Finland’s independence from Russia (on 6 December 1917). He was also famous and beloved by compatriots due to his cycle of paintings retelling the Finnish myth of Kalevala. Gallen-Kallela was an unabashed patriot. He changed his name from Axel Waldemar Gallén to distance himself from the socially dominant Swedish culture, which formed the elite of the Russian controlled Grand Duchy of Finland, at a time when the Finnish independence movement reached a peak. One can see similar trends in the history of Norway (and other countries) at the same time.

He travelled to Paris to train at Académie Julian and Académie Cormon, studying the new French naturalism strain of realism pioneered by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884). He also came into contact with the Arts and Crafts Movement in London. As he became more interested in crafts – both European and Finnish – and began to design stained glass, tapestries and other applied art, his art diverged from the naturalism of his training. The skills and knowledge needed to create craft objects anchored the maker to a discipline at once refreshingly direct and yet steeped in refinement borne of generations of workers, mostly anonymous.

The influence of Art Nouveau and Symbolism came through both fine and applied arts and can be seen in non-naturalistic coloration and emphatic arabesques. Travels in southern latitudes (including Africa and New Mexico) also altered Gallen-Kallela’s palette, reducing the grey mid-tones, half-tones and muted light effects in his paintings. His art was taken up by Fauvists, die Brücke and Symbolists. The later work has tendency towards technical crudeness, a lessening of attention to nuance and garishness in colour.

Clouds, 1904

[Image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Clouds (1904), oil on canvas, 64 x 64 cm, Didrichsen Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo (c) Didrichsen Art Museum, Helsinki.]

The works on display in London are largely in the earlier period of realism with a few later canvases indicating the later period. Four versions of the iconic image are gathered  in London: the National Gallery’s version, two from museums in Finland and one from private collection. The differences in size and approach are small. Only the Art Nouveau/Symbolist style signature square and plainness of the lanes of wind-ruffled water distinguish the Lahti Art Museum version from the others.

Gallen-Kallela’s choice of the Kalevala is both a personal and political choice. His deep feeling for nature led to his best paintings. Lake Keitele was not only an example of quintessential of Finnish nature it was also the site for events in the Kalevala narrative. Thus the choice of the lake as image carries a double symbolic weight. The wooded islet close to the high horizon was a motif that appeared in other paintings in the artist’s work. There are other effective paintings and an attractive pastel of the motif. The figure paintings here are not the artist’s best but are included as examples of his portraits and mythological scenes. The 13 exhibited items act as a cross-section of Gallen-Kallela’s thematic, technical and stylistic range.

Lake Keitele X9630-A5

[Image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Landscape (1915), pastel on paper, 101 x 95 cm, private collection. Photo (c) courtesy of the owner.]

This exhibition represents the best of the artist’s work and highly recommended. The catalogue acts as a good primer for readers unfamiliar with Gallen-Kallela’s art and is clear and informative.

Anne Robbins, Lake Keitele: A Vision of Finland, National Gallery, 2017, hardback, 72pp, 35 col. illus., £14.95, ISBN 978 1 857 0 96248