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

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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) 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

The New Berlin, 1912-32

Dodo

[Image: Dodo, Theatre Box Logic, for ULK magazine, (1929), watercolour and graphite, 40 x 30 cm, Krümmer Fine Art © Krümmer Fine Art]

The New Berlin, 1912-32 is a current exhibition which examines art that flourished in Berlin during the flowering of Modernism from 1912 to the end of the Weimar Republic in 1932 (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, 5 October 2018-27 January 2019). The exhibition (including more than 200 works of art in all media) focuses on advanced German art that made it to Belgium in those years and the art made by Belgians in response to that art. It features many names familiar to international visitors and figures from the Belgian art world who are lesser known internationally. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The exhibition opens in 1912, which was when (in March 1912) the Der Sturm gallery opened in Berlin. The gallery would feature much of the era’s most ground-breaking art. In collaboration (and competition) with Galerie Georges Giroux in Brussels and dealer Alfred Flechtheim, Der Sturm allowed art to reach Berliners and – through loans and publications – international audiences, including those in Belgium. Futurism, Cubist, Blaue Reiter, Expressionism and abstract art began to be diffused via publications such as Die Aktion. The influence of Expressionist woodcuts – being the most accessible and accurately reproducible art of the time – became apparent in the art of Frans Masereel and Gustave De Smet. Their woodcuts are stylistically identical to those produced by the German Expressionists.

The year 1912 was when Belgian art’s influence began to dramatically wane. Art Nouveau, Aestheticism, Symbolism, Luminism and Neo-Divisionism all had leading practitioners in Belgium, not least in the fields of illustration and poster design, and were popular Europe-wide from roughly 1890 to 1910. Belgium (particularly Brussels) was one of the artistic hubs of the period. The outbreak of the Great War decisively extinguished these movements as vital strands.

The Art Critic

[Image: Raoul Hausmann, The Art Critic (1919-20), lithograph and printed paper, 31.8 x 25.4 cm, Tate: Purchased 1974, Inv. T01918 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017]

Belgium was occupied by German forces from 1914 to 1918. At this point German art, through exhibition and publication, became dominant sources of new ideas in a Belgium isolated from the rest of Europe. Belgian artists exiled in the Netherlands found kinship with German Expressionists in artistic terms. Some of the Expressionists were anti-war, Socialist and internationalists, which struck a chord with foreign artists. During the war and into the 1920s and 1930s Expressionism became a distinct school in Belgium, influencing artists of École Laethem-Saint-Martin, Nervia and independent painters such as the young Paul Delvaux. Expressionism of Belgium (principally in Flanders) is characterised by its domestic subjects, muted coloration, emotional moderation and links to traditional subjects. The Belgian palette contrasts with the lurid aggression of the Germans. Belgians saw Expressionism as a way of connecting to an actual remembered past while the Germans wanted to connect to an imagined past of exotic savages. The exhibition includes paintings and prints by Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Pechstein, Ernst Barlach and Käthe Kollwitz. During the occupation many German artist-soldiers made the pilgrimage to the studio of James Ensor in Ostend. The elderly Ensor was considered a pioneer of Expressionism for his celebrated mask paintings, made decades earlier. While stationed in Belgium, Heckel made art and the exhibition includes one of his paintings of Bruges.

In aftermath of the war, the assertively Modern seemed the only adequate response to the horror of invasion, destruction and mass slaughter. In 1918 Art Nouveau seemed incomprehensibly archaic and Symbolism a feeble fantasy world. Art for a shattered world would have to break with tradition. Exposure to art of Germany led to many young Belgians looking East following liberation. They divided roughly into two camps: the angry Expressionists, Dadaists and satirists and the idealistic abstractionists. The former reacted to the social and emotional upheaval of the war; the latter decided to prevent suffering and disunity through the establishment of technical perfection, scientific social policy and aesthetic revolution. In Belgium over 1918-20 there was a burst of short-lived utopian artistic groups inspired by liberation and the Russian Revolution. With the ideals of pacificism, Modernism, Socialism and internationalism (advocating European unity), these groups espoused rejecting tradition rather than adapting or hybridising it. Much of the art that inspired Germans and Belgians was Russian: Naum Gabo, El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko and Kazimir Malevich.

Model for 'Constructed Torso'

[Image: Naum Gabo, Model for constructed Torso (1917), cardboard. 1917, reassembled 1981, 39,5 x 29 x 16 cm, Tate: Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1995, T06972, © Tate, London 2018]

Some of the leading Belgian abstract artists were Pierre-Louis Flouquet, Victor Servranckx and Marthe Donas. The radical ideas of Soviet architects found fertile ground with German architects and Bauhaus teachers. A number of uncompromisingly modern projections for redevelopment of Alexanderplatz, Berlin are shown here.

In the 1920s Berlin became a world metropolis, the third largest in the world (behind London and New York). Berlin was a city that was uniquely divided between the advanced and the regressive. It was home of the world-class pioneering technology, architecture and arts and was beset by widespread unemployment, hunger, prostitution, poverty, political violence and the persistent effects of wartime upon former soldiers, many severely crippled. This proved a stimulating environment for new art.

Dix_01

[Image: Otto Dix, Two Children (1920), oil on canvas, 95 x 76 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium, Brussels, inv. 7510, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn © SABAM Belgium]

Georg Simmel described the city dweller as free from traditional constraints of religion, morality and local political affiliations. The urban person had been liberated from the constraints of custom and – newly anonymous, mobile, freely associating – was able to develop his/her talents; these tastes might reach a state of extremity. Take a look at Hans Baluschek’s printed portraits of a drunk, carnival whore and cocaine addict – victims of urban degeneracy. Criminologists in Vienna and Berlin were engaged by the question of whether or not cities caused latent criminality and moral weakness to corrupt individuals. Two paradigms were at war: the utopian (cities allowed the fusion of individuals into superhuman forces of productivity, creativity and innovation) and the dystopian (cities allowed the moral and genetic dregs of society to spawn turpitude among the masses). As one looks through the art here, one cannot help but see the abstractionists, Bauhaus teachers and city planners as utopians and the political artists and Dadaists as dystopians.

The proclivity for people to seek out likeminded others led to the acceleration of tendencies and producing ever more extreme and specialised styles. In Modernism there has always been a craving for novelty. When the style of Weimar Berlin art was not Modernist, the subject matter was often contemporary. The Neue Sachlichkeit and Magic Realist artists painted modern places (such as cabaret clubs, cinemas, streets filled with automobiles) and modern people (drag artists, homosexuals, flappers, Communist and Nazi agitators). Dodo, Lotte Laserstein, Hannah Höch and others female artists were the so-called New Women, liberated from former constraints, and they portrayed New Women. Only Laserstein could be described as a Neue Sachlichkeit painter. (See my review of Laserstein’s current solo exhibition in the Städel Museum, Frankfurt in the next issue of The Jackdaw.)  Political satire often dictated the tone, especially in the work of George Grosz, Otto Dix, Raoul Hausmann and John Heartfield. This was the time when Heartfield made photomontage into a mass art and a political weapon. His attacks on Nazism featured on the covers of AIZ and other publications and are recognised as classics today. (Read my review of Heartfield’s photomontages here.)

Berlin was home to other leading creative figures, including filmmaker Fritz Lang, playwright Bertolt Brecht and novelist Alfred Döblin. The catalogue includes an informative essay on Expressionist cinema discussing the role of Nietzsche’s thought on the films by Robert Wiene and others. Other essays cover the changing character of Berlin, photomontage, the New Women of Berlin and political art. Groups of works are illustrated in sequences with brief written summaries. The texts (which are based on research rather than theory and are admirably free of jargon) ably map the importance of Berlin as a centre for the visual arts and explain links between Belgian artists and the capital of Germany during the period of High Modernism. The profuse illustrations of periodicals show what people were reading at the time and how they consumed art. This catalogue forms a good introduction to these subjects and will be of value to anyone wanting to understand the role of Berlin in European Modernism during its heyday.

 

Inga Rossi-Schrimpf et al, The New Berlin, 1912-32, Lannoo/Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, 2018, hardback, 256pp, fully col. illus., €34.99, ISBN 978 2390 250 739

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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

Frans Hals: A Family Reunion

978-3-7774-3007-2

A current touring exhibition reunites fragments of a giant family portrait painted by one of the masters of the Golden Age of Dutch painting, Frans Hals (1582/3-1666) (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, 13 October 2018-6 January 2019; touring to Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, 2 February-28 April 2019; Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris, 8 June-25 August 2019). This exhibition comprises nine paintings and one drawing. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.
Hals was born in Antwerp and was taken to Haarlem by his family, who fled the Eighty Year War in the South Netherlands. We know little of his artistic training and early career. He was principally a portrait painter. Four of his sons followed their father in the painting trade. Hals was innovatory as a portraitist, being known for the development of complex expanded multi-figure compositions, capturing informal and lifelike facial expressions and body language and for portraying the individual characters of sitters. He made his trademark the wet-on-wet finish for his paintings, although the paintings were built up in different sessions and it was only the final layer that was painted so vigorously.
Around 1623 Hals was commissioned by a Catholic wool merchant called Gijsbert Claesz of Leiden and his wife van Maria Jorisdr van Campen of Haarlem, who moved to Haarlem after their marriage. The prosperous merchant had a large family of thirteen children and could afford the grand painting that the size of his family necessitated. Only in 2013 was the family securely identified as the van Campens. The book contains a family tree of the van Campen family, documenting the individuals portrayed in the picture. The portrait was apparently commissioned after the birth of the couple’s thirteenth child. When a fourteenth (and final) child was born, it was added to the painting in 1628 but this infant was painted not by Hals but Salomon de Bray, who signed the addition. The choice of artist was a good one, as the figure is painted in a style congruent with the original.

4._the_van_campen_family_in_a_landscape

[Image: Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666), The Van Campen Family in a Landscape (fragment) (ca. 1623–25), oil on canvas. 151 x 163.6 cm. Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, inv. 2011.80]

The van Campen painting is the earliest surviving group portrait by Hals. It shows the couple Gijsbert Claesz and Maria Jorisdr van Campen and their children in an outdoor setting. One of the children is being pulled in a miniature cart by a goat. This caprice is seen in another painting of the era. The painting shows the children ranged across the painting, interacting with each other, playfully, attentively, considerately. Thus the family is seen as harmonious, achieving concert through interplay of the natural tendencies of members combining for the benefits of the group collectively. In some paintings of the time, nurses and servants were included but research shows that all of the figures here are related.
The painting shows Hals’s abilities at his best and clearest, also demonstrates the competence of the artist as a composer of complex multi-figure tableaux. The painting is full of observant touches and individuality without neglecting propriety. It is easy to see why Hals was so esteemed in his time and later. One wonders about the painter’s later poverty, whether this was down to changing fashion, financial incompetence or the effect of competition. This book does not discuss Hals career as a whole.
The principal reason the painting was dismembered was probably practicality. Originally, the canvas is estimated to have been 153.5 cm high and about 333 cm wide. Scrutiny reveals that there is also slight water damage. At some point before 1810, the canvas was cut into three or four pieces. The original group portrait was divided into at least three parts, namely The Van Campen Family in a Landscape (all c. 1623-5; Toledo Museum of Art), Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat-Cart (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels) and Portrait of a Boy of the Van Campen Family (private collection). There may have been a further fourth section with two children but that remains unidentified or has been lost. The exhibition reunites the three parts for the first time in two centuries. It also includes six other portraits by Hals, including the large group portrait from the National Gallery, London. The catalogue illustrates examples of Dutch painted portraits, including Rubens’s wonderful double portrait of the artist and his wife, which fleshes out the genre that Hals’s paintings occupied.

6._proposed_reconstruction_of_frans_halss_complete_the_van_campen_family_in_a_landscape._liesbeth_de_belie_and_catherine_van_herck_media

[Image: composite of full painting using 3 fragments and adapted additions]

The catalogue illustrates composites of the complete painting. A fascinating sequence of reconstructions shows how other experts have previously conjectured the original painting would have been, each limited by the circumstances. It includes forensic details that help to reconstruct the exact size of the original canvas. The authors present the current state of knowledge about the van Campen painting, discussing provenance, technical analysis, the extent of historic repainting and suggestions about the content of the lost section. This book studies Hals as a portrait painter and the practice of Seventeenth Century Dutch portraiture, with good examples reproduced. This succinct but informative title would make a good introduction to Dutch portraiture for students, as well as being an approachable addition to the corpus of Hals scholarship.

Lawrence W. Nichols, Liesbeth De Belie & Pieter Biesboer, Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion, 2018, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium/Hirmer, hardback, 112pp, 70 col., £20, illus., ISBN 978 3 7774 3007 2

© 2018 Alexander Adams
View my art and books at http://www.alexanderadams.art

Bruegel’s Winter Landscapes

COVER_Bruegel-s-Winter-Scenes
As part of a series of events to mark the 450th anniversary of death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) (including the giant exhibition currently open at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium has published a wide-ranging study of two Bruegel paintings owned by the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. The two oil paintings are Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565) and Census at Bethlehem (1566), paintings that were made when the artists lived in Brussels. This book is a follow-up to the excellent monograph on Bruegel’s Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) by Tine Luk Meganck, one of the authors of the present volume. (For a discussion of that book, see my review, The Jackdaw, no. 121, May/June 2015, p.20.)

This book collects essays by art historians and historians, so we get a mixture of assessment of the paintings as art and an appreciation of the actual social circumstances of the Brabant people at the time. Anne-Laure Van Bruaene has an essay explaining the distribution, functions, taxation and regulation of taverns in Brabant. There is another essay by Erik Aerts covering the census-taking and taxes. Census and taxation go hand in hand, from Roman times to today. There are essays on politics, religion and climate data.

Overall, the interpretations of Bruegel’s paintings by the contributing art historians and historians are somewhat more benign than others. They consider Bruegel less political and his moral instruction obscure. The writers state that the complexity and ambiguity of the vignettes and the rich variety of contemporary Dutch proverbs mean that Bruegel’s intentions in these paintings is unclear. There is evident wit and didacticism about Bruegel’s tableaux but the interpretations vary so greatly that Bruegel’s political, religious and social outlooks remain only partially legible to us. Perhaps his contemporaries thought the same.
Bruegel-8724dig
[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap (1565), oil on oak. RMFAB, Brussels, inv. 8724. © RMFAB, photo: J. Geleyns / Ro scan.]

Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565) shows a snow-blanketed village tableau filled with human activity: people playing golf, skating, curling stones and other undertaking other seemingly unproductive activities. On leafless branches in the foreground, birds sit. To the right in the foreground is a bird trap – an old door propped up over a scattering of crumbs. The crumbs attract birds. A cord runs from the prop to the window of a nearby house where an unseen person waits to pull away the prop in order to trap birds under the falling door. This was a common and easy way of securing bird meat in inclement weather. The authors do not mention a viable interpretation: that the setter of the trap is actually absent and thereby negligent by failing to attend to the current opportunity.

At the time Bruegel lived Europe was undergoing the Little Ice Age, so severe it caused sea ice on the North Sea coast along the Low Countries, trapping and freezing to death sailors. Writers suggest that 1564-5 was the harshest winter for many years. Was Bruegel was representing the weather of that famed season in these two paintings or recreating typical scenes derived from the traditional Book of Hours illustrations? It seems that Winter Landscape was the oil painting that popularised the winter landscape in Dutch art. While there were a few earlier paintings of snow – especially in miniature illustrations of Books of Hours – it was Bruegel’s painting which proved the keystone to the genre. The workshop of Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) produced many of the 131 known copies of the painting.

It is a perennial question as to how realistic this painting is. Our curiosity about the life of previous times leads us to seek out documentary proof. Bruegel would certainly have understood that his paintings used aspects of the real world without believing that the best art was realistic. The consensus is that Bruegel’s art described the real and used elements from reality without ever attempting to engage in what we would classify as Realism or Naturalism. His moral landscapes are didactic and satirical but also compassionate and generous in their depiction of the peasantry. They were not real but a reflection on the real. There are comparative images of hats, skates and mittens preserved in museums, so we can assess Bruegel’s veracity.
Bruegel-3637
[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Census at Bethlehem (1566), oil on oak. RMFAB, Brussels, inv. 3637. © RMFAB, photo: J. Geleyns / Ro scan]

While Winter Landscape is a painting full of space, Census at Bethlehem (1566) is the reverse. It is altogether a more complex picture, full of incident and much trickier to interpret. Mary and Joseph arrive at Bethlehem, which is not in the Levant but the Spanish South Netherlands in Bruegel’s century. Local people gather to register for a census and pay their annual taxes. The village is deep in winter and bustling. Men are carrying sacks over the frozen river, people take part in snowball fights, sledding, curling and engage in commercial activity. Payment of taxes was done by coin and goods, including grain and animals.

The characters with broad circular hats are gypsies, with descriptions so detailed and lifelike that the painter must have recalled them from life, if not from sketches made at the time. Gypsies were considered connected to the Near East and – by extension – the Holy Lands at the time of Christ. They were also considered dangerous and untrustworthy. There official proclamations in Brabant warning the populace against the interacting with gypsies and declaring that individuals who were swindled by gypsy fortune tellers had no legal recourse. In Census a gypsy steals vegetables from the garden of a leper.

Highly placed city residents with strong connections to authority seem to have been customers for Bruegel’s paintings, whereas his prints would have been affordable for merchants and artisans. The first owner of Census was Jan Vleminck Sebastiaenszoon, Lord of Wijnegem. He was a Brabantine landowner and merchant banker, described as a Catholic and royalist, which is enlightening. One line of interpretation among art historians is that Bruegel was sympathetic to Protestant peasantry’s opposition to occupation by the Spanish crown and its Catholic supporters. While there is much to support this view, this connection with Vleminck shows that Bruegel was at least on good terms with Catholic gentry, who would have had the money to purchase large panel paintings. Interestingly, Bruegel collectors Vleminck, Granvelle, Jongelinck and Ortelius were all Catholics but reformists and political moderates who urged clemency and tolerance of the Spanish. Sadly, the Spanish did not choose this course; the Duke of Alba began a campaign of terror and repression that led to war.

The census of Bethlehem is a fascinating choice for a subject as the commissioner was a tax collector himself. That meant that the very money Bruegel received for this painting came ultimately from the taxation of the peasantry. Bruegel’s view of the census is by no means as critical as it could have been. He shows the annual tax collection as a time of communal activity, including commerce and celebration connected to the mid-winter feast. So the paying taxes is both a time of loss of money and acquisition of money, an inevitable onerous burden which must be borne with fortitude, as one endures a winter or a bereavement. Likewise, the inn had a dual function; it was the place of tax collection and of drunken conviviality.

Meganck suggests that the famous Massacre of the Innocents is not the trenchant criticism of the Spanish it is discussed as. He points out that the uniforms of the officers and soldiers in the painting are dressed archaically, so viewers of Bruegel’s day would have understood the painting referred to the past rather commenting directly on the political crisis in Brabant in 1666. Meganck’s inference is that Bruegel was making a more general statement about the abuse of power and the savagery of military force unleashed upon civilians. This reading seems fair but it will be hard to shake the political anti-Spanish interpretation as the latter has the force of undiluted moral narrative and historically satisfying collocation.

The book illustrates the drawing of a farmhouse in Brabant that Bruegel included in the Census. This drawing (at the Louvre) is apparently a copy of a lost Bruegel original. The building is a farmhouse in Wijnegem that was most likely owned by Vleminck, thus including the patron’s home in the Census painting. Other drawings, prints and paintings by Bruegel show how these two featured paintings fit into his oeuvre. There are many illustrations of details which are necessary. Bruegel trained as a miniaturist and he included a lot of detail in his oil paintings. The illustrations show us incidents that we may have previously overlooked. Other images are of rare prints, illuminations and paintings by lesser-known artists help us place Bruegel’s art in a continuum of Christian devotional image making.

Technical analysis reveals a consistency in method that indicates Bruegel had no assistants, unlike his son and grandsons who had pupils and assistants. It is notable that in this book, contrary to the catalogue for the current Vienna exhibition, there is an absence of technical scientific analysis. It would have given us a broader understanding of the two paintings if we could have seen a technical description of them, which would at least tell us if they have been trimmed, restored, altered or damaged.

We are living in a time when Bruegel studies are being pushed to new levels; based on scientific analysis, new imaging technology and archival research, our understanding of one of the founders of post-renaissance painters – a critical figure in Western art – is becoming deeper and fuller. This absorbing book is a valuable part of the research. This book is warmly recommended for art historians, Bruegel fans, painters and anyone interested in 16th Century life.

Tine Luk Meganck & Sabine van Sprang (eds.), Bruegel’s Winter Scenes. Historians and Art Historians in Dialogue, RMFAB/Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), 2018, hardback, 248pp, fully illus., €54.95, ISBN 978 9462 302235

© 2018 Alexander Adams
See my art and books here: http://www.alexanderadams.art

Harald Sohlberg: Infinite Landscapes

Fig. 96 (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOR Vinternatt i Rondane, ENG Winter Night in the Mountains

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

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

Fig. 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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

Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné

Kay Sage Catalogue Raisonne von

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kay_Sage_spine_shot

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Van Gogh: A Life in Places

UNICORN_vangoghfinalCOVER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art