David Lynch: Digital Nudes

[Image: David Lynch, from Digital Nudes, publ. Fondation Cartier, 2017, copyright David Lynch 2017, used with permission from Fondation Cartier]

The close-up of Dorothy in Blue Velvet, the zoom into the severed ear in Blue Velvet, the zoom into a hole in a wall of a police interrogation room in Twin Peaks Series 2, the close-ups of characters in Mulholland Drive – and many others – all of these are evidence of David Lynch’s fascination with making the familiar strange through extreme close-up. Lynch’s sense of the beauty, strangeness and danger being ever present and lying latent below the surface of daily life and appearances, is a constant in his film work and (to a lesser extent) his photography. It does not, however, occur in the paintings, drawings and prints. Taking a tiny fragment of a real object and making a painting of that is time consuming and the result is often unsatisfactory, with the art appearing semi-abstract or unrealised. In photography, the extreme close-up has been a staple of art photography since the Surrealism of Man Ray and Brassaï.

Lynch is an accomplished photographer and has been taking photographs for his own pleasure since his time as an art student. They have been exhibited and published occasionally since then, but they should be seen as more than a side project. The majority of Lynch’s creative energy in the last two decades has gone into art and photography.

The book David Lynch: Digital Nudes includes photographs of female nudes. Most are close-ups of female bodies nude, in undefined setting, light in harsh artificial light and surrounded by dark. The photographs are (almost all) in colour, but muted or washed out. The subjects are all pale-skinned white women, with no tan-lines, tattoos or piercings. This stymies a spectator’s tendency to seek out identifiable models/subjects. Lynch wants to confront us with visions, not to get to know his subjects as people. In these nude photographs, Lynch wants to detach us from the notion of body-as-person and immerse us in body-as-place.   

The body as landscape is a common analogy. In the case of these photographs, it is a case of a foreign landscape. The cropping, angles and inversions mean we are often disoriented by what we see, even after we have cognitively processed exactly what we are seeing. This slipping back into unfamiliarity is due to the instability of cognitive grip when under the influence of uncertainty. The artificiality of framing and lighting and the incompleteness of the body make it alien, notwithstanding our cognitive processing of what we are witnessing. Lynch never intends to fool us; we are never completely baffled. The failure to retain comprehension, despite knowledge and attention, is what Lynch intends.

[Image: David Lynch, from Digital Nudes, publ. Fondation Cartier, 2017, copyright David Lynch 2017, used with permission from Fondation Cartier]

We find such effective means of destabilising our secure knowledge in Lynch’s discovery of mystery in the everyday, akin to Magritte’s. A heap of dirt (Fire Walk With Me) becomes an element with ritual power and creamed (sweet)corn (Fire Walk With Me) becomes invested with power as a symbol of pain and suffering. The intimation that what we see is not all there is – the intimation of a realm of magic or unseen power – is what makes Lynch’s cinema carry a potency beyond matters of plot, themes, character and so forth.  

Choosing a harsh single light source – artificial and directed – allows Lynch to sculpt with light. It is also a way of drawing in ink, with dark shades blocking us information about part of a form. Shadow is a vital component of Lynch’s aesthetics. It is the dark of the universe which is ever present. Darkness is the default normal. We cannot expect or demand otherwise; confronting shadows is to made aware of our existence as primitive, incomplete, fearful beings in the presence of the sublime.

The fact that Lynch chooses not to photograph the face makes empathetic response and humanisation of the object (as in the viewer as subject and viewed as object) more difficult. Lynch does not want us to distinguish one body from another. He has no ethnographic or psychological intent; biography does not come into it. There seems (from the outside) little by way of intimacy or chemistry between Lynch and his subjects, who are not identified. These photographs deny intimacy.

Are these photographs erotic? Lynch has produced erotic sequences in his films and there is an undercurrent of sexual passion in his work. However, these photographs have distinctly non-erotic qualities. The lighting is unremitting. Although one could say the figures of the subjects are healthy, young and shapely, with clean skin and good proportions, they seem uninviting. The unearthliness of them precludes any sense of ownership or intimacy in an imagined encounter. They are indifferent to the eye and – by inference – the touch. There is no rosy glow of stimulated skin or flushing of erogenous zones, no sweat. The poses and cropping are not salacious or even flattering. One might describe the handling of the photographer as clinical, definitely it is detached. There is nothing wayward or impulsive in the photograph’s creation of these images, which works against any presumption of erotic impulse.  

There are some photographs of whole single figures (perhaps one model in one session) on a curving Modernist couch. They are time-lapse multiple exposures, with the limbs and head moving and the trunk remaining relatively prone. This gives them a disturbing quality – like watching an animal in pain or a beast thrashing on a leash. These are close to Francis Bacon’s paintings of figures in the 1960s. Lynch has admitted Bacon as an influence on his art. The sense of movement (which Bacon partly got from Futurism) and confinement suggest us to fleshy, labile, discontented creatures – tangentially human. They are repellent and repelling.

[Image: David Lynch, from Digital Nudes, publ. Fondation Cartier, 2017, copyright David Lynch 2017, used with permission from Fondation Cartier]

By making the inexplicable mystery and power of the startling vision, Lynch’s nudes suggest that we should reconsider the world around us – look harder, think more clearly, reject the preconceived notion. This may be considered related to Lynch’s long-term commitment to transcendental meditation. In Lynch’s outlook, his meditative practices and his cinema and photography, we find this enchantment with mystery. This is not whimsical mystery or casual dreaminess, this is a willingness to open up the mind to experiences that may be unpleasant, shocking, even sanity altering. Consider the confrontations with evil that change or shock his characters. Lynch (like the Surrealists, whom he so admired as an art student) seems to suggest that a hidden reality is awaiting discovery by those brave enough to leave behind convention and received ideas, although some of the discoveries may be distressing or even dangerous to a seeker.

The dark core is more personal to Lynch than his other interests and tastes. This book is far from a coffee-table book of titillating images; it is closer to a thesis statement of the power of detachment and meditation in the face of the mysteries of the world.    

This article is related to (but is not a review of) David Lynch: Digital Nudes, Fondation Cartier, 2017, information here. Images used by kind permission of Fondation Cartier.

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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

Bukowski: The Shooting

[Image: © 1985/2020, Abe Frajndlich]

By the mid-1980s, Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was already both famous and infamous. As king of the West Coast underground poetry scene, Bukowski was a critical figure in the counter culture, on the verge of entering the mainstream. His verse – curt, pungent, profane, grand – spoke to many, even those who usually did not read poetry. During the 1970s he had filled university halls with his poetry readings. For decades he had published stories, poems and columns in the underground press and men’s magazines. He had appeared on radio and television and a documentary had already been made about him. His novels won critical acclaim and a cult following, not just in the USA but also Germany, with his works being translated into other languages yearly.

In 1985 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Magazin finally managed to get Bukowski – who was an increasingly well-known author in Germany – to agree to have his picture taken for a feature. Bukowski: The Shooting is the illustrated story of four days a young photographer spent with Bukowski.

Abe Frajndlich – a German-American professional photographer – got the assignment. Frajndlich used a personal contact to persuade the reluctant Bukowski to give him one day. He recounts in his essay his time with Bukowski and his fiancée Linda Lee Beighle. On 4 and 5 March, the photographer spent time with the couple in their house in San Pedro, California; he photographed the couple and Bukowski alone. He was allowed into the office. “Although most of the house was clean and tidy, his working room was complete, but creative, mess, with papers strewn about, beer and wine bottles and magazines lying about helter-skelter, and manuscripts over and under the desk and on the floor.” However, when he submitted the images, the picture editor rejected them all. He told Frajndlich that the photographs were too poor to be used. They were mere documentation and provided nothing exciting or visually powerful. Frajndlich was crestfallen and desperate to make emends. He half-begged, half-bullied Bukowski into letting him return for a second session. Bukowski agreed.

The photo shoot on 1 April was quite a different affair. The first had been low-key, unintrusive: Bukowski typing in the garden, in his office, with Linda. The second shoot had to be something special. Bukowski and Frajndlich decided to play up the author’s wild-man reputation with props, humour, play acting and excess. Frajndlich believed his career was on the line and Bukowski wanted to help him out; they tapped into Bukowski’s irreverent side.

When the feature was published, Bukowski received copies and was delighted with the result. He invited Frajndlich to his wedding in August. Frajndlich agreed to take a set of photographs for the couple, himself and a patron. The ceremony was performed by Linda’s guru (she was a Buddhist) and the day proved memorable for all, with Bukowski getting very drunk.    

The Shooting reproduces photographs from all three days. This captures a wide range of moods and aspects. The first shoot has Bukowski at work (or mimicking it), drinking at a garden table during an evidently not warm day. We see his office, dirty, chaotic and comfortable, chair at the desk facing a blank wall, books, magazines and manuscripts in profusion. Next to the electric typewriter is a lamp and a radio. (Bukowski preferred classical music to rock music.) We get a sense of Bukowski’s normal life and environment: working, smoking, drinking, under his lemon tree, with and without Linda. This is Bukowski’s subdued self, his sensitive and introspective side. Much of Bukowski’s power as a writer resides not in the declamatory, erotic and comic modes; rather, it lies in the thoughtful, reflective and tender side of the man, which does not undercut his dry humour, clear-sightedness and lack of false sentimentality. Bukowski was as much a reader and (in his youth) a frequenter of libraries as he was barroom brawler. The obscure historical asides and literary references in Bukowski’s verse demonstrate the writer’s time spent as a reader.

In the second shoot, Bukowski puts on Linda’s hat and glasses. He wears the glasses upside down. He draws his famous cartoon figures at giant size and poses with them. He strips off his shirt and he brandishes a knife. He plays the grotesque. In his mugging for the camera, Bukowski acts very similarly to how Picasso acted in his photoshoots of the 1960s, which Bukowski must have seen. We see the man unshackled from boredom and the routine of a professional writer with a fiancée, a mortgage and a BMW, allowed to play freely. We have drunk Bukowski, a sliver of the hostile, arrogant, lecherous drunk that acquaintances were accustomed to and wary of – yet, here, Bukowski is his other self more in jest than earnest.

[Image: © 1985/2020, Abe Frajndlich]

The final shoot was the wedding of Bukowski and Linda in August 1985. We see bride and groom, the Rolls Royce hired for the day and a shot of the couple in their marriage bed. On the covers is a drawing by the poet of his cartoon figures, with the legend “LEGAL, AT LAST! AFTER 8 YEARS! Hank & Linda”. On a photograph of cups and saucers set out on a table, Bukowski has written “FOR ABE – FILL THESE FUCKING THINGS WITH WINE!” We get a sense of the friendliness that developed between poet and photographer and a glimpse of the marriage that provided Bukowski with much needed stability and serenity.

Included is “The Pock-marked Poetry of Charles Bukowski” by Glenn Esterly. First published in 1976 in Rolling Stone, it is a long profile of the poet, describing a Bukowski reading in 1976 (not long before the poet ceased giving public readings) and featuring an interview with the poet at home. Public readings made Bukowski nervous, he often drank too much and antagonised the audience. By 1980, his royalties were so high that he no longer needed the money. Esterly captures the tone of the event and incorporates comment from Bukowski’s colleagues. The interview is good and the author is not afraid to challenge Bukowski, question his public image and present him with contradictions. It presents a snapshot of the poet just before he met Linda and his life settled into its late period of material comfort and emotional security (albeit with ructions).

The text is translated into German in full. The combination of new text and provocative and memorable images – both providing insights into the life of one the century’s great writers – make a winning combination. Fans of Bukowski will not be disappointed by The Shooting.

Abe Frajndlich, Glenn Esterly, Bukowski: The Shooting, Hirmer, 2020, hardback, 96pp, 65 col./mono illus., English/German, €29.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3667 8

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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


Philip Larkin: Collected Poems (Folio Society)

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This new edition of the collected poems of Philip Larkin (1922-1985) brings together Larkin’s poems published in his lifetime and his own photographs for the first time in book format. The book is handsome and pieces work very well.

This edition has introductions from editor Anthony Thwaite and biographer Andrew Motion. Motion discusses the connections between Larkin and photography. Larkin was influenced by photographs and made them the subject of some poems. The device allowed Larkin to use more temporal distance and emotional detachment whilst permitting detailed visual description. Yet Larkin did not always use emotional detachment, as Larkin knew and exploited the personal responses he had to viewing photographs. Photographs were ways of preserving memories and interacting with these images generated new responses – melancholic, wry, sad, cynical, sentimental.

From his teenage years on, Larkin was a proficient and enthusiastic amateur photographer. His hobby of cycling and church visiting went in tandem with his photograph taking. He also photographed friends and scenes around him. These have been the subject of exhibition and publication, although these have treated the photographs as adjuncts to Larkin the poet. Whether or not Larkin’s photography stands as an independent body remains to be determined. Photographs in this book include those of Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan (long-term romantic interests), his mother, himself and scenes of Hull and local countryside. Some of the selected images are those Larkin marked for cropping.

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[Image: Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020. ©2020 Estate of Philip Larkin/The Folio Society]

Larkin very rarely left Great Britain and his writing is characterised by its intense affection-repulsion complex regarding the British, specifically the English and Englishness. “Show Sunday” describes the course of a day at a country fair; “The Whitsun Weddings” is an account of travelling by train and observing newlywed couples boarding the train. “Going, Going” laments the commercialisation and industrialisation of England and the degradation of the country he considered irrevocably lost to him. He blames companies, social policies and people generally. “[…] greeds / and garbage are too thick-strewn / to be swept up now […]” Larkin’s misanthropy is never very far away. He sees the English working class as saviour and destroyer of English culture, a cultural ecosystem that is fragile and degrading yet still capable of coarse vitality. It reminds us that environmental concern is not the preserve of the political left or right but temperamental in outlook.

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[Image: Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020. ©2020 Estate of Philip Larkin/The Folio Society]

The selection and arrangement of verse by Thwaite is almost ideal. Thwaite admits being in error for the editing of the first Collected Poems of Larkin, performed just after Larkin’s death. Rather than abiding by Larkin’s carefully judged ordering of poems in their original collections, Thwaite broke up the poems and ordered them chronologically. This contradicted Larkin’s wishes. He stated often that he carefully arranged his selections in order to heighten drama and direct the mood of readers. This volume has the poems sequenced in the order of original publication in books, with a selection of published and uncollected verse at the end. Thwaite has correctly decided to exclude Larkin’s juvenilia, published while he was at Oxford University. He has also excluded all unpublished pieces, which is not entirely satisfactory. A few fine pieces, which Larkin deemed too raw to publish in his lifetime, are omitted. The means the volume lacks a couple of powerful poems (“Ape Experiment Room”, “Love Again”) and the unfinished “The Dance”, which is a loss.

I spotted one error. The couplet “When the Russian tanks roll westward” omits the prefatory quotation quoted in Larkin’s letter of 22 August 1969 to C.B. Cox. It is a small thing but as easy to get right as to get wrong. Thwaite knows the letter as he included it in his edition of Larkin’s letters.

The Folio Society is known for its attention to production detail and distinctive designs. A leaf-green cloth binding and an abstract geometric design (reminiscent of the 1950s) are attractive and appropriate for Larkin’s verse. The layout is unobtrusive and the number and choice of illustrations serve the texts rather than drawing attention to the designers. This is not just a bookshelf ornament but an edition that will be constantly re-read by the Larkin enthusiast. There is no reason why this edition will not become the go-to volume for readers. This collection is by far the best collection of Larkin’s verse ever published. It is comprehensive, respectful of Larkin’s wishes, beautiful printed and bound and including some of Larkin’s images. It omits weak and distracting material and is not encumbered by notes. This is not a book for scholars and researchers but a reader’s book, a book for lovers of Larkin’s writing.

 

Philip Larkin, (introductions) Andrew Motion, Anthony Thwaite, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020, three-quarter bound in blocked cloth with a paper front board, set in Berling, printed with a design by Richard Peacock, 280pp, colour title page, 12 integrated black & white photographs by Philip Larkin, 91/2˝ x 63/4˝, $49.95/£34.95. The book is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Dora Maar

DoraMaar-CVR

Although best known as the lover and muse of Picasso, Dora Maar (1907-1997) was notable creative figure in her own right. Respected as a fashion photographer, Surrealist artist and creator of collages, Maar produced art throughout her life. A new exhibition (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 5 June-29 July 2019; Tate Modern, London, 19 November 2019-15 March 2020; Getty Center, Los Angeles, 21 April-26 July 2020), reviewed from the catalogue, takes an overview of her art.

Born in Paris Henriette Théodora Markovitch in 1907, to a French mother and Croatian father, Dora pursued art from childhood supported by her parents. She studied art at the school of decorative arts and the cinegraphic technical school in Paris and painting under André Lhote (who taught, among others, Tamara de Lempicka). She first published photography as “Dora Markovitch” in 1930. By 1932 she had adopted the name Dora Maar as her professional moniker. She worked as a commercial photographer, providing images for advertisers and journals. Common subjects included fashion, beauty shots, architecture, interiors and nature. She also photographed street scenes, a common practice at the time.

She also produced erotic photography for Parisian journals ranging from the respectable to the trashy. She adopted styles that included the conventional and experimental. A frequent model for Maar was the Ukrainian-born model Assia Granatouroff (1911-1982), who the most successful nude model of the 1930s in Paris. She was noted for her athleticism, beauty and grace. The short hair and fit physique made her Granatouroff (publicly known as “Assia”) the epitome of the post-flapper sun- and sea-worshipper in the era of organised nudism. She modelled for many artists, including Maillol, Derain, Gromaire, Valadon and van Dongen.

The authors fail to note what seems to be a nude photograph of Maar herself (left figure, plate 45), published in Beautés magazine, January 1937. Maar did occasionally model nude but those photographs are rarely seen. Only a few have been published. No others are included in this catalogue.

At this stage she was developing strong formal concerns in both her commercial and private work, toying with Cubism and Expressionism. In this production of photography for commercial and artistic ends, Maar was in a similar position to Man Ray and Lee Miller. From the start of her career, Maar was inventive about combining elements.

In 1933 Maar photographed street life in Barcelona. This combined her political engagement (Spain was at this time a socialist republic) and artistic affiliation to Surrealism, with Spain (like Mexico) being seen as the quintessential Surrealist country.  In 1933 Maar was introduced to Surrealism and found a philosophical and political outlook that chimed with her pre-existing sympathy for the strange, buttressing her detachment from conventional aesthetics.

It was difficult for the women within Surrealism. Although encouraged to be free spirits, this often meant little more than modelling nude and submitting to the sexual advances of the male Surrealists. Musehood seemed to entail a fair amount of old-fashioned unliberated submission of the sexual variety. There were opportunities, however, and we can count more prominent women creators within the Surrealist movement than within any other pre-war art movement. Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Kay Sage, Meret Oppenheim, Frida Kahlo, Toyen, Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Remedios Varo and Maar – not to mention the creative influencers who did not leave bodies of work themselves, such as Gala Éluard (Dalí), Jacqueline Lamba (Breton), Nusch Éluard, Alice (Kiki de Montparnasse) Prin and others – all left a significant mark upon the Surrealist movement.

In documentary photographs taken around Paris in the mid-1930s, Maar used extreme close-ups of elements within their normal context, juxtaposing the distortion and oppressive size of an element contrasted with the apparent normality of the surroundings. This induces a sense of strangeness regarding our common surroundings. The irreverence towards public statuary is apparent in the close-up view of the detail of a Pont Alexandre III of a female statue’s hand holding a torch. The extreme cropping turns the civic symbolism of virtue bringing enlightenment into an explicit sexual image of the female hand manipulating a phallus. The departing ships in the Seine are the shed issue drifting away. Pont Mirabeau (1935) shows a female statue as if in peril suspended over a fall into the river. The angle of the shot and the animation of the allegorical figure’s face give the impression of a woman desperate to save herself from drowning. Thus a banal Belle Époque adornment becomes expressive of the hidden reality in a person’s life – an eruption of honest anxiety unperceived by the multitudes which pass by daily.

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[Image: Dora Maar, Untitled (1935), photomontage, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris
Repro © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Georges Meguerditchian]

Between 1934 and 1938 Maar produced and published 20 montages which are her best known works. Le Simulateur (1935) turns the curving barrel ceiling of the Orangerie into an inverted tunnel – part sewer, part race track – which is animated by a boy curved into an arch of hysteria. 29, rue d’Astorg (1935) has a kitsch ornament which is missing its head placed in a distorted arcade. Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska points that Maar’s montages bear a striking resemblance to a montage by Breton, Éluard and Suzanne Muzard, published in 1931 (dated “1931-3” here). Whether or not Maar’s approach was inspired by this example, she made it her own. What are the characteristics of Maar’s montages? Dark tonality, oneiric quality, claustrophic atmosphere, poetic sentiment, absence of easy humour, internal consistency in terms of scale/lighting/perspective/placement. These were frequently elements which she had photographed specifically with an end in mind, largely eschewing found photographs that were a staple of Surrealist montages. The catalogue reproduces the montages with the constituent photographs and some mock-ups.

There is a powerfully sinister undercurrent to Maar’s art that one does not find in even the more provocative art. Only in Bellmer’s obsessive erotic graphics and Magritte’s 1925-1929 dark claustrophic paintings do we find something comparable to Maar’s emotional darkness. In Maar’s montages there are disorientating inversions and compressions of space, as well as suffocating hermetically sealed spaces. It is worth noting that Maar maintained good standing with both Breton’s official Surrealist group and Georges Bataille’s renegade Documents faction. She photographed subjects from both factions, was Bataille’s lover and was a member of the anti-fascist Contre-Attaque group, which Breton left after a falling out with Bataille. Bataille’s outlook was considerably darker than Breton’s, steeped in mysticism, paganism and violence.

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[Image: Dora Maar, Portrait of Ubu (1936), gelatin silver print, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Philippe Migeat]

Maar’s contact with Picasso from 1935 onwards (ending in 1946) caused her to resume painting and drawing, activity that would last for subsequent decades. Maar photographed Picasso painting Guernica (1937) for the Spanish pavilion of the World Fair. She even painted sections under Picasso’s direction. Most of the art was derivative of Picasso’s style and content of the time. She received some praise but frankly much of the art is, whilst being competent, lugubrious and dull. Tonally dark, favouring cool colours and dwelling upon the straitened circumstances of the Occupation, the pictures do not have the urgency, inventiveness or the sardonic humour of Picasso. Picasso was attracted to Maar due to the air of danger, elegance and neuroticism apparent in her behaviour. A severe nervous breakdown in 1946 (for which she was hospitalised) is seen a contributing factor in her self-imposed retreat from public life. It was not a lasting state but what became a persistent trait was diffidence regarding exposing her new and old art, much of which she destroyed.

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[Image: Dora Maar, La Cage (1943), oil on canvas, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Private collection, Yann Panier, Courtesy Galerie Brame
& Lorenceau]

In the late 1940s Maar became increasingly attached to religious observance and became semi-reclusive, living alone. Starting in the late 1950s, Maar began working in abstracts, using very simple processes and forms. By the 1980s that had developed into the overlapping fields of photographs, paintings and photographed paintings that were abstract, relatively sparse, most of them imaginary landscapes. They are much closer to Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field Painting and Taschisme. In palette they are restrained. They are very engaging; they show an impressive detachment of ego and emotional and stylistic freedom. The only problem with appreciating these pieces is the fact that due to Maar’s practice of destroying art we lack large bodies of evolving work. The late abstracts here seem occasionally jerky or flighty, lacking the grounding in a larger legible corpus. The danger of this situation is that it pushes the viewer towards regarding these pieces as slight – always a potential response to lightly worked abstracts.

The best of Maar’s montages are as good as the best Surrealist art made in Paris in the 1930s. Her paintings and drawings of the 1930s to 1950s are occasionally atmospheric but ultimately derivative and second rate. The late abstract photographs are stimulating and more work is needed to exhibit and catalogue these works, establishing a chronology and assembling groups and themes. At her death, her studio contents were dispersed uncatalogued, which has made understanding her development – mostly secluded from public exposure – difficult. This catalogue contributes to Maar’s standing as a serious and inventive artist. Much critical work has still to be done but what is made clearer than before by this exhibition and catalogue is that Maar’s best art is strong and her output overall rewards attention.

 

Damarice Amao, Amanda Maddox, Karolina Ziebinska (eds.), Dora Maar, J. Paul Getty Museum, 7 January 2020, hardback, 208pp, 240 col. illus., $40, ISBN 978 1 60606 629 4

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation

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[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978) gelatin silver print, 4 1/4 x
5 3/4 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

The catalogue of a current exhibition (MCA, Denver, 20 September 2019-5 April 2020) includes early material from the short life of photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981). Portrait of a Reputation was the title of Woodman’s first photographic book, which had no text except the title.  Her choice of the title Portrait of a Reputation for a booklet made at a point when she was beginning her career and completely unknown is indicative of Woodman’s self-consciousness, awareness of art history and her huge ambition. The photographs and writings of this exhibition and publication mostly come from the time when Woodman began photographing herself at 13 up to her departure for New York. The photographs were taken in Denver, Colorado, Andover, Massachusetts and Providence, where Woodman studied (alongside Lange) at Rhode Island School of Art and Design (1975-8). This review is from the catalogue.

Some of this material is unfamiliar to followers of Woodman’s art. Some of it is unique and belongs to George Lange, a friend of Woodman’s youth. Some of the vintage prints (some poorly printed and uncropped) are Woodman’s first prints of images that have since become classics, given away in a flush of excitement and pride. There are teasing and affectionate letters from her to him. Also included are letters from within the Woodman family.

Lange preserved material by, and about, Woodman. That material is exposed in this new book and it provides glimpses of Woodman as a young woman, just emerging as an independent artist. Woodman was unusually precocious. Cultivated by her artist parents and steeped in Italian classical literature, Roman culture and contemporary Italian art, Woodman grew into art as a young teenager, taking her first self-portraits at 13. In one of her earliest photographs, Woodman took the opportunity of encountering dense exposed roots of a large mature tree to pose emerging from (or entangled with) the roots. Woodman was schooled in the classics and would have known Ovid’s Metamorphoses, many of which dealt with the transformation of people into animals and plants

There was a photo session at a cemetery involving friends. Woodman wore a semi-transparent dress and later undressed for photographs next to graves. The symbolism of the graveyard is too intrusive and obvious for the series to be effective but it seems a necessary experiment. An invitation card for an exhibition by Woodman has a photograph of her lying, seen from above, a common Woodman trope of the weightless woman. Profile 2 is titled by the artist in the margin and is one of the most memorable photographs in the exhibition. (Few of the individual photographs are titled or titled and the catalogue does not provide definitive labels for art works.)

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[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978), gelatin silver print, 7 x 5 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

Contact sheets are reproduced, with selected shots illustrated full page. There are shots that are fluffed – Woodman fails to strike a suitable pose, she smiles as she cannot get in position, she moves during an exposure, a shot is not suitably composed and so forth. These are the side-products of any photo session. There are also shots that are blurred and double-exposures that did not seem to Woodman suitable for selection. The material includes letters, postcards and notes by the artist. There is no transcript of the texts. While there is great value in facsimile reproduction – not least a degree of intimacy and a greater order of information – the absence of transcript will leave some readers straining to decipher Woodman’s handwriting.

In her essay Nora Burnett Abrams dwells upon the issue of seriality and instability of Woodman’s photographs; this seems to overlook Woodman’s conventionality: her desire to make great and powerful single photographs. One can consider her efforts in the context of East Coast American art of the late 1970s, namely conceptualism, land art, performance and interventions within existing environments. These referent contexts are certainly not invalid and unproductive as points of departure, but their selection by commentators today is most definitely in opposition to idea Woodman may have been driven to create powerful single images (with or without handwritten marginal texts) that encapsulate the artist’s skill, ideas and vision.

There is a misstep in discussions of gender in relation to Woodman’s photography. Abbot writes that “[…] Woodman does not make her body available for the easy consumption by a (male) gaze.” The first, primary and most important viewer of Woodman’s photographs was Woodman herself. She was the envisager, creator, model, editor and curator of her art. The gaze is primarily her own. Her art was made to satisfy her own gaze. Her own judgment was the ultimate test of suitability that would determine choices about her art. The consumption of her art was by men and women. It is often women who are far more critical, cruel and proscriptive about images of the female body than men are. Woodman’s art, so influenced by stories which intertwine myths of men, women, gods, monsters and animals, is poorly served by such pedestrian commentary.

Drew Sawyer’s essay outlines the material and influences Woodman was exposed to during her education at RISD and the material of photography that was published by editor Max Kozloff in Artforum, who was also a Woodman-family friend. Sawyer points out that a contemporary interest in Man Ray’s photographs may have led Woodman to paraphrase the image of Meret Oppenheim at the printer’s press in her own photograph of herself with a hand outline painted across her chest. Lady Hawarden and Duane Michals’s are also referenced.

Exhibited are photographs of Woodman by Lange. Lange visited Woodman’s apartment-cum-studio in New York and took photographs of her at work in the studio and relaxing. We see her at work in her studio, setting up props and testing poses. Another significant aspect of the photographs of Woodman out shopping is that they show Woodman in her own time. So much of Woodman’s Gothic, Victorian and anachronistic props and clothing serve to distance her from the life of her era. Encountering her wearing Chinese style coat in a Chinese good store is to see her outside of her curated setting.

The photographs of her by Lange show Woodman reflective and playful, though not guileless. A skilled and thoughtful artist, so self-conscious and self-crafted, is never guileless. The photographs of her beside her mother and friends are more intimate than her self-taken nudes. This is the artist as a woman off-guard, reacting to stimuli, sharing a joke, trying to amuse a friend or engaged in a dialogue. Her acting capacity – functioning as auteur, both director and actor – is suspended whilst she is out of her zone of absolute control. The portrait shots of Woodman against a white wall are beautiful.

It is strange to think of an iconic presence such as Woodman appearing so unguardedly and in new ways after so many years of us being familiar with a set group of her photographs. It makes it seem as though she is still alive somewhere, producing material and experimenting with her image and her art. These provisional attempts, failed shots and discarded art – along with images of her life – make Woodman peculiarly rematerialized (returned to ordinary actuality) and dematerialised (alive but absent). We see her interacting with friends, colleagues and models (categories that overlap to wide degree). Encountering the deeper (or broader) truth of Woodman’s life pushes us to confront the biographical fact that a young woman died at the age of 22. We are confronted by echoes of life cut short, one which could still be continuing today, with Woodman as the doyenne of women photographers who take themselves as their subject.

GL.003 copy

[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978), gelatin silver print, 7 7/8 x
10 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

Seeing this material – “new” material, as it were – awakens the pain of loss. The old wound makes itself known again because to be cognisant and admire the art of Woodman implies the acknowledgement of her premature death and curtailment of her artistic potential and her future life. Even without an explicitly biographical interpretation of Woodman’s photographs, the fact of her death adjusts our art historical response. She was a young woman when made this art; she was a young woman when she died; she had no opportunity to extend, revise, curate and revisit the art we know. We have no memoirs, interviews, few notes, few letters, no extended commentary by the artist upon her art. We will never have any. She had no chance to respond to the fame and acclaim her art would achieve posthumously.

However firmly we may attempt to separate the biographical from the artistic when assessing art, it is understandable that the admiration of many for the photographs of Francesca Woodman must be tempered by grief.

Nora Burnett Abrams, Drew Sawyer, Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation, Rizzoli Electa, September 2019, hardback, 176pp, fully illus., $55, ISBN 978 0 8478 6491 1

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Lee Miller: Surrealist, Photographer, Cook

Lee Miller (1907-1977) was an American Surrealist photographer and photo-journalist. She lived in Paris, London and New York and is most famous for her collaborations with the photographer Man Ray. Although successful and respected, in her later years she preferred to underplay her achievements, however since her death the standing of her photography and interest in her life has increased. These three books overlap to a degree but they also feature three different periods of Miller’s life and output. Surrealist Lee Miller covers Miller’s photography from the 1920s to 1960s but centres on the 1929 to 1945 period, which was her most creative period as an artist. The Home of the Surrealists covers the period 1949 to the 1960s, when Miller was living in Sussex and in contact with fellow artists and writers, frequently welcoming them to her home. A Life with Food explains her connection with Surrealism and how this fed into her preoccupation with making unusual and arresting dishes inspired by Surrealism, which was her focus in her last decades. All three books have value and offer unique material.

Surrealist Lee Miller is a short guide to the life and work of Miller and an excellent selection of photographs. It presents the most famous pieces and photographs that straddle the line between her private life and the milieu within which she lived. The breadth of her life is seen in the glamour photographs of her as a model in Art Deco New York, picnics with Picasso and the suicided Nazi officials of the defeated Third Reich.

Miller was born into a comfortably off middle class family in New York State. Her father was a keen amateur photographer and instilled in her a love of photography and an understanding of the techniques. In the 1920s she worked as a model for Condé Nast. A trip to Paris led her to think of becoming a photographer and working in the art world. She moved to Paris in 1929 and immediately sought out Man Ray, the American Surrealist photographer. They began a close and fruitful collaboration, with Miller working as muse, model, assistant and – ultimately – partner. At the same time they had a romantic relationship. Miller became a significant but somewhat fugitive presence in the Surrealist movement, mingling with luminaries who would become her friends.

Man Ray trusted Miller enough to deputise her to work on his commissions, relying on her judgment and her understanding of his approach to Surrealism to produce photographs that seamlessly blended with his autograph work. The portfolio L’Electricité (1931) contains pieces by Miller but we do not which. Although some works attributed to Ray were by Miller, it seems that attribution was not automatically a source of conflict. When Ray specifically allocated assignments to Miller (in order for him to concentrate on other projects), it was understandable that Ray was accorded authorship. When it came to the innovation of the solarisation technique, the development seems to have been collaborative but with Miller making most of the situation and recognising the value of the technique. It is understandable that she would want (and rightly deserved) credit for the creation – or at least the recognition and exploitation – of this radical technique. If one has to talk of that advance having a single author then that must be Miller. This matter caused notable friction between the pair.

In 1932 Miller left Paris in order to establish herself as a photographer in New York. The majority of her work was portraits of prominent people in the arts and commercial advertising photography, some of it in early colour processes. Some of the portraits were commissioned but others were unpaid and taken by Miller because she found the subjects engaging. The portrait photographs of Joseph Cornell and documentation of his assemblages are a rare record of Cornell before he became well known. Many of the delicate boxes that Cornell made in the 1930s no longer survive, so it was Miller’s keen eye for the spirit of Surrealism that has provided us with these photographs.

In 1934 Miller married businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and went to live in his native Cairo. The selection of photographs from her Egyptian period in Surrealist Lee Miller is especially rewarding, as this tends to get covered less in general selections that the Surrealist and war periods. Her eye for the incongruous and haunting meant that she produced good work throughout her life but the Paris and Cairo periods are high points in terms of art photography. The life experiment was not a success however. The couple separated soon. By 1937 Miller was chafing at the lack of artistic stimulation, notwithstanding the opportunities to take some remarkable photographs. She met English artist, writer and collector Roland Penrose (1900-1984) in 1937 and they began a romance. Penrose was one of the few early Surrealist acolytes from Britain. He had been married to French Surrealist poet Valentine Boué, though they were separated by the time Miller and Penrose met. In 1939 she moved in with Penrose in his London house.

The war provided Miller was a chance to work as a photo-journalist for American publications, notably for British Vogue. Her documentation of the Blitz is some of the best photography of the period and the natural incongruous juxtapositions of war and destruction mirror her Surrealist outlook. Keen to document the war first-hand, Miller gained press accreditation from the US Army, allowing her to a change to cover the Normandy campaign. She photographed the siege of St Malo and the Liberation of Paris. There are joyful photographs of her reunited with her artist friends, in particular Picasso. On the 30th of April 1945, Miller entered Dachau concentration camp one day after liberation. Miller photographed the scenes of starved survivors, bodies of the dead inmates and the crematorium with remains. She also photographed the corpses of killed camp guards and the beaten camp guards held in custody by the Americans. That afternoon Miller and fellow journalist David Scherman found a place to rest. It was Hitler’s flat in nearby Munich. Scherman photographed Miller washing in Hitler’s bathtub; her boots – next to the tub – are covered with the dirt and human ash of Dachau. That day Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. Subsequently she photographed the burning of Hitler’s Berchtesgaden residence and then travelled to Austria. One of the most powerful sets of photographs is of infants dying in a Vienna hospital – their medicines had been stolen and sold on the black market. She was already suffering from PTSD and sinking into depression. When she returned to England to re-join Penrose, Miller was compensating for her internalised distress through heavy drinking, an activity that would continue for the remainder of her life.

After the war, the couple divided their time between a London house and Farley Farm, near Chiddingley, Sussex. The country house became a haven of Surrealist, Modernist and European culture, with the couple’s artist, writer, journalist and intellectual friends visiting. Penrose became a founding member of the ICA in London just after the war. It meant devoting more energy to other people’s art than to his own. He later wrote one of the first important monographs on Picasso’s art. Penrose had to choose between being an artist and an enabler and ultimately chose the latter; at the same time Miller had also to choose between being a mother and being a professional photographer. In 1947 the birth of Anthony, her only child, put a full stop to Miller’s travelling and marked the end of her career as a professional photographer. When offered uninspiring commissions she preferred to decline rather than engage in journeyman activity, though with her connections she could surely have found more challenging options had she pursued them.

Lee Millers desk p99 © Lee Miller Archives

[Image: © 2019 Lee Miller Archives]

Motherhood (for which she was not suited), isolation from much cultural life, PTSD, depression and heavy drinking took their toll on Miller. Her final years were more sober although she never returned to photography in a sustained manner. There are some photographs of artist friends, many of which are included in the books, especially The Home of the Surrealists. Visitors included Ray, Miro, Picasso, Ernst, Tanning, Eluard, Leonora Carrington, Masson, Matta and their partners. Miller and Tanning were particularly good friends and the photographs of Miller, Penrose, Tanning and Ernst taken in Arizona, 1946 show a natural rapport. Miller and Penrose were generous about allowing students and scholars access to their collection – something that had to be restricted when the art became more valuable. The artworks were gradually sold and donated over the years. Some of the art (including many murals painted by Penrose) are still in the house, which has been restored and is available to tour.

Scherman claimed that cooking saved Miller’s life. A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes informs us that together with the reassuring rhythm of the seasons and the delights of nature (generally viewed from a comfortable chair – Miller was not much of a rambler), cooking helped Miller to cope. Miller found the role of grandmother suited her better than that of mother. (Anthony described her as an “arch child-hater”.) The elaborate meals and company of artist friends allowed her to allay boredom and anxiety. Miller and Penrose had a gift for friendship, staying friends with ex-lovers, colleagues and artists who had long left the Surrealist fold.

Dining Room p100 © Lee Miller Archives

[Image: © 2019 Lee Miller Archives]

In 1953, Miller lost out to Elizabeth David for the position of leading cookery writer for Vogue. They had a common love of French cuisine, recommending olive oil for cooking, but David had greater knowledge of Italian cuisine, which would prove to be so influential in post-war British culture. Miller’s wild imagination and shocking combinations would probably have tested her editor’s patience to the limit. In the late 1950s Penrose paid for Miller to attend a 6-month Cordon Bleu course in Paris. She accumulated a library of over 2,000 cookbooks, won prizes for her dishes and became an acknowledged expert.

A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes reproduces the text of an unpublished cookery article from 1951 (including Picasso’s response to Christmas pudding) and a 1973 article on Miller’s cookery from House & Garden including the photographs. A section of the book includes the recipes in full and there are photographs old and new of the food and convivial meals at Farley Farm. Recipes include champagne and camembert soup, fig and Pernod ice cream, marshmallow-cola ice cream and carrots in whiskey. There is chicken in edible gold and pink cauliflower breasts. Miller’s visual sensibility led her to make dishes that were highly original. Less outlandish dishes include Cretan lamb, summer pudding and olive and mint salad. For modern tastes the cooking may seem at times labour intensive and elaborate but Miller the cook is not overall too controlling and gives readers leeway on many aspects. Miller’s philosophy as a cook is to surprise and delight her guests – engaging all their senses. Tableware included a platter looted from Hitler’s apartment and vases decorated by Picasso.

There is a question about the seriousness with which Miller’s cooking has been treated. Although her cookery is relatively well known there is a common resistance regarding her cookery. Perhaps that is a reluctance to associate a female creator with a minor genre – especially a field associated with women’s domestic activity. Although we should not make too much of this point – for the cookery of any artist and their gastronomical proclivities are not matters of great attention generally – it is worth considering. It is hard to parse the free-wheeling Surrealist, the hard-bitten war journalist and the mischievous cook – with these three roles seeming to undermine each other.

Cookbook 5 v2 © Lee Miller Archives

[Image: © 2019 Lee Miller Archives]

Whenever she was asked about her early work, Miller claimed all the photographs had been lost and was evasive about the past. Following the death of Roland Penrose, Anthony Penrose recovered a horde of photographs, documents and possessions belonging to his mother – material that Miller had insisted no longer existed – and began to reconstruct his mother’s remarkable life and creative output. It is only since then that the extent of Miller’s art has become apparent. Anthony Penrose has written a number of books about his mother. Credit must be paid to the tireless stewardship of Anthony Penrose, only child of Miller and Penrose. His care and candour over the years regarding his mother’s art has been exemplary. He has allowed scholars and the public access to material that frankly shows the difficulties that his mother faced, especially during her years in England. It is Anthony Penrose’s honesty, his intelligent choices about exhibition and publication of Miller’s art which have together allowed Miller’s achievements to come to be fully recognised. Anthony Penrose has fully complemented his mother’s great abilities and unique character. Any artist would wish to have such a judicious legatee. There would be value in a dedicated book of Miller’s letters. The examples quoted are full of vigour, wit and unexpected views of major historical events and figures.

 

Anthony Penrose, The Home of the Surrealists: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose and their circle at Farley Farm, Penrose Film Productions Ltd, 2016, paperback, 144pp, fully illus., £19.95, ISBN 978 0 9532389 1 0

Anthony Penrose, Surrealist Lee Miller, Lee Miller Archives, 2019, paperback, 159pp, fully illus., £15, ISBN 978 0 9532389 34

Ami Bouhassane, Lee Miller: A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes, Grapefrukt Forlag, 2017, hardback, 352pp, fully illus., £29.95, ISBN 978 09532 38927

(Books distributed by Unicorn Books and www.leemiller.co.uk)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

Cindy Sherman

133_21_Untitled Film Still # 21_CS 21 NEW

[Image: Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman, 1978. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York]

The exhibition Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait Gallery (until 15 September 2019; Vancouver Art Gallery, 26 October 2019-8 March 2020) is a full retrospective of the American photographer’s work from her student pieces to art made this year. It shows Sherman’s work to be tricky, wide-ranging and inscrutable.

Sherman (b. 1954) grew up immersed in the American television and film world of the 1960s and 1970s. The dressing-up that all children do was a rehearsal for a deeper engagement in performance, role-play and drama that underpins her artistic work.

The photography of Sherman can viewed in light of two positions: artist as actress and woman as actress. Sherman studied film alongside fine art. There are head shots, where make-up tests seem to become a series of silent-movie era characters. In other student photographs of her full figure (sometimes maintaining a single pose between shots and sometimes performing a character) Sherman takes the role of an actress trying out characters or as the model for a costumier’s wardrobe tests. It raises the question of what is being and what is acting. How can we meaningfully separate pretending and existing? All pretence involves existing as a fiction and all existence includes an aspect of pretence.

The Cover Girls (1976) series show an original woman’s magazine cover of the period, with Sherman adding her own face. Leers, winks and pouts make the covers impossible, lurid or laughable. (There was quite a bit of laughter – albeit politely subdued – in the galleries.) These covers are like the scenes in horror films where pictures respond to characters, throwing their sanity into question and informing us that they have entered a world of distorted reality. To read these pieces as much more than cocking a snook or poking fun at the mass media would be going too far. The impact is humorous.

The Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980) are a lot more serious and ambitious and can be seen as the first mature work of the artist. These black-and-white photographs restage generic scenes from American films, Sherman performs the characters of the ingénue, plucky heroine, jilted girlfriend, maid, wild child, housewife, scheming criminal, American abroad, adventurous teenager, publicity-shy film star, budding starlet, preening teen, middle-aged lush, big-city hooker and soon-to-be murder victim.

133_15_Untitled Film Still # 15_CS 15

[Image: Untitled Film Still #15 by Cindy Sherman, 1978. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York]

She uses make-up, costumes, mise en scenes, cinematography and her abilities as an actress to create persuasive photographs that successfully pastiches American movies. She also enjoys horror movies, perhaps leading to the prevalence of images of the victim in her photographs.

The Color Studies and Pink Robes of 1981-2 provide a warm and intimate counterpoint to these series, moving into colour and showing Sherman in her least overtly artificial of appearances. We should not be deceived into thinking these present emotional candour but they function like that when seen as part of her oeuvre as a whole. They are least intellectually and emotionally demanding of Sherman’s work (including the humorous work) and show Sherman working like a painter, not afraid to indulge in the pleasure of colour and texture. The violet tints of the Color Studies and the warm pink and texture of the thick robe in the Pink Robes are the work of a sensual artist. It is a shame that we have not seen more photographs along these lines. However, this line inevitably leads to exploration of non-human subjects and would take Sherman away from her prime modus operandi.

Later Sherman would expand her skills and take her creativity to new extremes with a series of History Portraits (1988-90) re-stages images of women and men from classic paintings. With prosthetics, props and heavy make-up she reaches heights of artificiality and implausibility to recreate paintings. Body casts and medical-training prosthetics augment and contrast with her own body. These results are never convincing but toy with mimicry and the grotesque, evoking the uncanny. She invites us to guess how the photographer has deployed falsehoods in order to generate an image that is unnatural. It toys with the ideas of women as users of cosmetics to hide themselves and enhance their appearance – for purposes of convention, disguise, seduction, signalling, vanity and self-deceit. The National Portrait Gallery has loaned Ingres’s Mme Moitessier, one of his grand portraits of society ladies as Roman matrons. This was a source for one of Sherman’s history portraits, which is displayed nearby.

In three sequences of erotic (or perhaps we should say anti-erotic) photography from the 1990s, Sherman creates artificial hells. These are landscapes of sex toys and medical prosthetics, which address attitudes towards pornography and obscenity in art, especially as a protest against the political suppression of nudity in the publicly-funded arts of the 1980s and 1990s. The Society Portraits (2008) are painfully acute reinterpretations of the high-society photographs found in magazines, with their ostentatious settings, arch poses, heavy make-up and stilted positions.

The deliberate confusions of stylistic registers, emotional tones and semiotic languages makes individual photographs more interesting to read and harder to interpret in the absence of an overarching expressed authorial intention. Sherman has said that concerns about the “male gaze” are peripheral to her as a maker. In Sherman’s performances she makes an analogy between herself as an artist engaged in a project and a woman who habitually makes herself up to face the world. She has spoken about when she arrived in New York City she adopted a street persona to escape unwanted attention and to shield herself. Both situations of artist and woman involve artifice and presentation. One could say that Sherman implies the woman is working in the same field as the painter and cinematographer in the business of extreme artificiality to generate a response from viewers. Yet Sherman goes beyond this in late works, where she becomes a clown, a grotesque, a woman deformed by cosmetic surgery, the victim of a birth defect or the survivor of a life-changing injury. Here horror and cosmetic transformation become wedded.

The range of tones is wide – from comic to serious, even tragic. Approaches likewise vary from candid to highly staged. Sources include movies, television and photography of all types. Characters range through all classes and include the fantastical. More subtle transformations make figures that are androgynous or fantastical (Fairy Tales (1985)). Movie-quality prosthetics make Sherman elderly or young, almost unrecognisable, yet as we know she is the author and only living subject of her photographs, we understand she must be the actress in her tableaux. Francesca Woodman could tease the audience by using models hiding their faces behind photographs of her face. The selection of models of similar appearance to her own figure generated simulacra of the artist, which worked because she was so frequently subject of her own photographs that she knew viewers would be familiar with her face and figure. Sherman does the reverse: always depicting herself but never revealing herself. “The end product of my procedure is not about anything. It’s a picture of something entirely of itself not of me.”[vii] Sherman evades the attachment of an agenda to her photographs.

he assumption that Sherman is the subject of all photographs is proved false by the development of works comprising of props assembled to form personages. In some of these works – a few them extreme close-ups – we are confronted by characters who are entirely artificial. These are the cousins of special-effects for movies or equivalents of the effects of reconstructive surgery. Some  become as lush and involved in image creation as any still-life painter (Untitled # 324 (1996)).

Apart from some of the Untitled Film Stills, Sherman has worked alone.[ix] Most of the work is done in her New York studio, which functions as a film studio does, with various cameras and lights, alongside a vast array of props and costumes. Rear projects have also been used extensively. This exhibition includes one room which reproduces at life size her studio and bookshelves.

The Chanel Series (2010-2) and Murals (2010) put full-figure characters in landscapes settings. These seem to indicate an urge to tackle something other – the wildness, the expanses of the American landscape, the delights of living things for – with the exception of herself – almost everything Sherman has depicted is non-living. It is quite something to be a photographer and at the same time refuse so much – all that is candid and unstaged, the living world of flora and fauna, the drama of landscape, the effects of nature and weather, the microscopic and macroscopic. Sherman’s lifetime of work has been – in its way – as limited as that of Mondrian or Rothko.

This exhibition is very rewarding and a fascinating exhibition of a serious artist. Highly recommended.

Cindy Sherman is at the National Portrait Gallery from 27 June to 15 September 2019.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Impressionism in the Age of Industry

Camille Pissarro - Le pont Boieldieu a Rouen, temps mouille, 1896

[Image: Camille Pissarro, Le pont Boieldieu à Rouen, temps mouillé (1896), oil on canvas, 73.6 x 91.4 cm. Gift of Reuben Wells Leonard Estate, 1937 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario
2415]

Impressionism in the Age of Industry (16 February-5 May 2019, Art Gallery of Ontario) is a wide-ranging, informative and stimulating exhibition of Impressionist art and art produced by other French artists of the period. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The exhibition brings together leading Impressionists Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, Félix Braquemond, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte with lesser known associated figures. There is art by many artists who are not generally classed as Impressionists. It needs to be stated up front that there is a degree of separation between the title and the contents of the exhibition. The selection includes many artists who are not Impressionists, such as the Post-Impressionists (Van Gogh, Émile Bernard, Paul Sérusier, Armand Guillaumin), Divisionists (Maximilien Luce, Alfred William Finch, George Seurat, Paul Signac), Social Realists (Jules Dalou, Constantin Meunier), the Nabis (Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard) and others, such as honorary Impressionists Jean-François Raffaëlli, James Tissot, Edouard Manet and Eugène Louis Boudin. This exhibition should really be entitled “Late Nineteenth French Artists Respond to Modernity”. However, we can forgive AGO for choosing a title more accessible and appealing to the general public.

This exhibition is centred on the Impressionists’ painting of modernity, especially a modern Paris and its environs (with a handful of exceptions). The art was redolent of the anxiety of new social fluidity, centring on places where the middle class and working class fraternised in delimited spaces such as La Grande Jatte, Asnières, café-concerts and dance halls. Impressionist pictures are full of signs denoting disparities in class, occupation and status. Parts of the social disruption were the impact of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. The rebuilding of the Vendome Column (toppled during the Commune uprising) and the erection of Sacré Coeur (seen by many Parisians, especially of Montmartre, as punitive demonstration of the state’s definitive erasure of the Commune) were Parisians consciously reshaping of their city’s material structure to reflect its cultural values. The encroachment of factories (and their ever-visible smoke) and the Eiffel Tower were incontrovertible presentations of Paris’s future as a modern metropolis.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were forever including subjects at their places of work: Degas’s laundresses, dancers, prostitutes and cabaret singers, Van Gogh weavers and sowers, Pissarro’s peasants and market traders, Caillebotte’s builders and Luce’s foundry workers. The oeuvre of Meunier – a Social Realist rather than an Impressionist – was dominated by the image of the working man at manual labour. It was Meunier who went on to become the most influential sculptor of the Twentieth Century, held up as the ideal of the socially committed sculptor by Socialist artistic bodies and social-realist artists. Every realist statue dedicated to ennobling the working man owes something to Meunier’s example, whether or not creator or spectator realise it.

The catalogue essays discuss the approaches of artists to the modern city of Paris, including the ways in which artists depicted workers, construction and transport. The transport they found most captivating was trains. The bridges and stations were unapologetically up to date. Monet made a group of paintings of Gare Saint-Lazare, where train smoke was contained and illuminated by glazed skylights. Caillebotte painted a boldly modern railway bridge at Argenteuil in the 1880s – the very bridge which made this outlying settlement accessible to Parisian day-trippers and painters. Newly accessible Argenteuil was a favoured riverside spot for Parisians to relax on clement holidays, where they could row, dine and dance. It was frequented by many Impressionists, who frequently portrayed the landscape, setting and visitors there. Asnières was a location on the Seine which was site for new factories, which can be seen in the background of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884). La Grande Jatte – an island which featured in another landmark painting of Seurat – is a leisure space (at the time) on the outskirts of Paris, where families, courting couples, prostitutes, shop girls, factory workers, nannies and children and others from the middle and working classes mingled in a space that provided opportunities for cross-class interaction. It was a liminal space and locus for concerned discussion by clergy, politicians, journalists and other commentators celebrating and decrying social blending. The social communication of Impressionist art was a focal point of New Criticism from the 1960s onwards and one of the most fruitful areas that social historiography has addressed in the fine-art field. The research by Caroline Shields proves that there was commercial demand for Monet’s paintings of industrial subjects in the 1870s, which indicates that not only painters but collectors of art considered the changing face of the city an acceptable subject for fine art.

Photography by Craig Boyko

[Image: James Tissot, La Demoiselle de magasin (c. 1883-1885), oil on canvas, 146.1 x 101.6. Gift from Corporations’ Subscriptions Fund, 1968 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario 67/55]

The project of boulevardisation of central Paris by Baron Haussmann (over the period 1853-70), the expansion of the railways, the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the Basilica of Sacré Coeur all provided numerous instances of construction work for artists to study. The inclusion of photographs of Paris, and the subjects that Impressionists portrayed, acts as context and also art in its own right. Also projected at the exhibition (and included in the catalogue as stills) are Thomas Edison’s 1900 film of Paris and footage of workers leaving a factory filmed by the Lumiere Brothers.

A selection of pictures features rural workers – part of a conscious rejection of industrialisation by intellectuals in search of authentic peasantry and the back-to-the-soil romanticism of the urban-dwelling elite. Art by Van Gogh, Serusier, Bernard and – most prominently – Pissarro illustrate the utopian idealism of artists who never worked the land themselves but heroised those who did. There is sympathy and empathy, which make up for lack of understanding.

The inclusion of art by lesser known artists (not necessarily French but working in France in the 1860-1900 period) brings us art by Jean Béraud, Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Giuseppe de Nittis and others. The other material, such as maps, plans and publications will be unfamiliar to visitors.

There is a good selection of graphic art, including colour lithographs by Henry Rivière (particularly on the subject of the Eiffel Tower – perhaps a conscious homage to Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1830-2)) and the street scenes of Bonnard and Vuillard. A lithograph by Meunier sets a miners head against the ravaged surroundings of a mine, comparing the sturdiness of the working man to the rugged and harsh environment that had formed him. A belle époque poster by Georges Paul Leroux advertises the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, which welcomed the new century with an international display of science, technology and culture. Posters by Toulouse-Lautrec are famous posters for evening entertainments. Stylistically, it is a blend of Art Nouveau dramatic form and sinuous line and beaux arts realism. Three Pissarro prints represent his typical subjects of river views and working women. Braquemond’s etching of Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) is indicative of the Impressionist veneration for Turner as a precursor to Impressionist technique. Raffaëlli’s drypoint view of railway sidings is compared to a painting by Henri Ottmann.

Edgar Degas - Woman at Her Bath, c. 1895

[Image: Edgar Degas, Woman at Her Bath (c. 1895), oil on canvas, 71.1 × 88.9 cm. Purchase, Frank P. Wood Endowment, 1956 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario 55/49]

Raffaëlli’s famous ragpickers are in two paintings that show the thick impasto surfaces that led to him being admired by some painters of the time (including Van Gogh). Chromatically, the paintings are not sophisticated and leave one wondering if his popularity was anything more than a fad. Paintings by Caillebotte emphasise his brilliance as a painter of reflections. An atypical Monet painting shows colliers unloading barges at a bank of the Seine. This is one of the few Monet paintings to show people at work. The coloration is muted and the contre-jour effect of the repeated dark figures seen against the water and bank makes this a picture of unexpected terseness. There are views of Pontoise and Rouen by Pissarro. There are two excellent Sisley river views, showcasing his dappled brushwork.

The bronzes of figures by Degas, Dalou and Meunier are appealing and well chosen but few in number. There are paintings of laundresses by Degas and one nude bather, all very fine, delicate and adventurous. While Impressionists made sculpture, the most successful producer of Impressionist sculpture was Medardo Rosso. (See here for my review of his art.) Sculpture was a side line for Impressionist painters, with the exception of Degas, who devoted much effort, time and thought to working on his statuettes of dancers and horses.

“Impressionism in the Age of Industry” has art which forms multiple slices of social history as well as being satisfying as art. This exhibition will introduce many to the complicated factors motivating art that is often seen as primarily in pursuit of pleasure and optical fidelity.

 

Caroline Shields (ed.), Impressionism in the Age of Industry, Art Gallery of Ontario/Prestel/Delmonico Books, 2019, hardback, 248pp, 149 col./33 mono illus., £39.99/$50, ISBN 978 3791 358 451

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Bauhaus Women/Bauhaus Bodies

35_4_from Avantgarde Museum

[Image: Ivana Tomljenović, Bauhaus Students, Dessau, (1930). Marinko Sudac Collection]

I.

The year 2019 marks the centenary of the foundation of the Bauhaus. Founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus functioned as the most advanced art-and-design school in the world until its closure in 1933. The school would use advanced teaching techniques by Modernist artist- creators such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Oskar Schlemmer. Subjects taught included architecture, painting, textile design, weaving, interior design, industrial design, theatre design, graphic design and dyeing, with students encouraged to use concepts, materials and techniques from other disciplines. The Bauhaus moved a number of times, being based in Weimar (1919-1925), Dessau (1925-1932) and Berlin (1932-3). The nomadic existence of the school was due to politics. When the Nazi national government came about, the Bauhaus closed completely and its tutors and students dispersed.

The Bauhaus was remarkable in many respects: the combination of fine art and applied art, the interdisciplinary nature of teaching, the stress upon modernity, the embracing of advanced technology, the commercialisation of student production and the openness to experimentation. The Bauhaus is remembered as a beacon of progressive artistic and social ideas and is held up as a model of art education.

There were structural barriers for female students but despite that the Bauhaus was considered progressive by staff, students, journalists and outsiders. Falling short of a perfect ideal in a setting run by individual adults who had grown up with certain traditional cultural expectations was perhaps inevitable. Gropius had doubts about the high ratio of women in the school. He implemented a limit on the number of women students and the number of female teachers declined. This has been attributed to sexism. Perhaps it was so. There is an additional reason. It seems that Gropius thought that if the Bauhaus became widely known as a female-dominated institution that it may have been taken less seriously, particularly in light of the fact that arts and crafts were treated comparably at the Bauhaus. An art school that had many female students and tutors and was also advocating for crafts to have a higher status would have looked less like avant-garde inter-disciplinary educational modernity than an attempt to feminise fine arts and design by infusing them with the handicraft ethos. Gropius may have actually considered most women unsuited for the design professions, but his actions to limit their entry into the Bauhaus was an act of contingent reputation management. This managerial motivation does not contradict or override Gropius’s attitude towards women in the arts, whatever that may have been.

Bauhaus Women is a survey of 45 of the most noteworthy of the 462 female students (out of an alumni population of 1,276) who attended the institution, as well as women tutors and wives/partners of tutors. Following a brief introduction, the authors give condensed biographies of the creators, including images of the creators of their work. It is impossible to encapsulate an entire life’s oeuvre in a single image but the lesser-known creators benefit from the one or two introductory images.

It is impossible to assess contributions on such brief entries but there is enough to give us a flavour of the person and their creations. The bibliographic sources are skimpy, sometimes consisting of as little as an article in a specialist journal. The authors state that their selection was partly based on the amount of evidence they could gather about subjects. Many of the male colleagues of these female Bauhaus students – whose names come up in the text – have disappeared into historical oblivion. Readers will be satisfied to find a mixture of known and lesser-known names.

Some Bauhaus women followed a variety of activities; these included Lore Leudesdorff-Engstfeld (textiles, fabric design, film scriptwriting, printmaking) and Marianne Brandt (metalware design, photography, painting). The single 1930 masked photographic self-portrait of Gertrud Arndt (née Hantschk) (1903-2000) reproduced in the book uncannily anticipates the work of Cindy Sherman.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-11-20,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

[Image: Bauhaus Student ID card “Mityiko” Yamawaki]

Michiko Yamawaki (1910-2000), along with her husband, spent two at the Bauhaus before returning to Japan. The books, journals and photographs that they brought with them were eagerly scrutinised by Japanese designers and architects, spread European Modernism. The couple taught at the New Architecture and Design College, Tokyo. In 1939, the nationalist government, espousing Japanese cultural superiority, closed the progressive institution.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944) produced abstract collages, highly stylised metal sculpture and political montages in the style of John Heartfield. Dicker-Brandeis is one of the Bauhaus women who lost their lives in the Nazi holocaust. A number of these creators died in the Nazi death camps. It is reminder of not only the destruction of historical treasures of the war but the stunting of European (and especially German and Austrian) art due to the ideals of National Socialism.

Another victim was Otti Berger (1898-1944), born in Croatia, studied weaving. She proved to be a star student, popular teacher and admired textile designer. She struggled to maintain a career in Germany after 1933, but by 1936 she was unable to earn income from her patents. The following year she was offered work by a British firm. Unfortunate timing and acting against advice led to her visiting her mother in Yugoslavia in 1939. She was trapped due to the outbreak of war. Unable to leave Yugoslavia, she was eventually deported to Auschwitz along with her family, where she was killed.

Architects include Lotte Stam-Beese (1903), Kathe Both (1905-1985) and Wera Meyer-Waldeck (1906-1964), who was cut down by ill-health just as her career was taking off. One of the principal routes that Bauhaus ideas were dispersed internationally was the photographs of Lucia Moholy (1894-1989). Sadly, Moholy was separated from her invaluable negatives recording the architecture, art work and individuals of the Bauhaus. While exiled during the Nazi era, Moholy did not know that her negatives had survived and were in the possession of Gropius in the USA. While others benefitted from her precise memorable photographs while she had no control, accreditation or royalties. She eventually regained the negatives.

A 11485

[Image: Four ceramic objects by Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein (later Marks), produced by Haël-Werkstätten, Marwitz near Berlin, 1923-1934. Collection of the Jewish Museum Berlin]

Many German artists and architects viewed the accession of Hitler as presenting them with a direct choice. They thought they had to choose whether they should contribute support to the new regime, retire from public life, cease working or emigrate. While Jewish creators were clearly disadvantaged and had to act to protect themselves, their incomes and relatives, for non-Jewish creators (especially those without public commitment to Socialism) the choices were less clear cut. Some Bauhaus women approved of some Nazi actions, finding other actions objectionable. Protecting persecuted friends did not mean that creators also refused to benefit from government-sponsored events and organisations under National Socialist direction. Some emigrated in protest or due to necessity, while others had family members who joined the party. Aufruf der Kulturschaffenden was a 1934 declaration of loyalty to the National Socialist government made by prominent figures in the cultural sphere. However, the list was not exclusive and attestations of loyalty did not guarantee approval from the authorities. Mies van der Rohe, last director of the Bauhaus, signed this statement. His wife Lilly Reich (1885-1947) did not sign but she did continue to work with Nazi authorities on exhibitions. She was a considerable designer and it seems she may have played an important role in the conception of the Barcelona Chair, officially accredited to her husband.

Lydia Driesch-Foucar (1895-1980) was a ceramicist who was left destitute after her husband died in 1930. With young children to support, Driesch-Foucar used her skills to make and decorate biscuits. Her Lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) are wonderfully drawn in light icing, sureness of drawing, visual wit and appropriate elaboration raise these biscuits to the level of handicraft – something that was recognised by museums and a trade union.

3_Replacement 3_from Sammlung Driesch via Friedrichsdorf Archives

[Image: Two Lebkuchen designs by Lydia Driesch. Collection of the Sammlung Driesch, Cologne]

This recognition allowed her to participate in trade fairs. During the 1930s, her biscuits became a national success, which led to more orders than her workshop could cope with. Being associated with the National Socialist-supported folk art movement damaged her post-war career.

Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein (1899-1990) founded the Haël ceramics firm, which produced clean-cut unadorned sets of crockery. A signature set was the “Norma” tea-set, with plain coloured exteriors and white interiors. The firm exported worldwide and thrived despite the Great Depression. As a Jew in National Socialist Germany, she was left with little choice other than to sell up – selling her moulds, premises and client list for a pittance. She emigrated to England but not able to regain her former success.

The most famous name among the women creators associated with the Bauhaus is Anni Albers (1899-1994). She taught textiles at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and Yale. Her book On Weaving (1965) is now a set text on many textile courses. Her career is covered in summary fashion here because of the numerous exhibition catalogues and books about her weaving designs, rugs and printmaking, which are already available. Her work is becoming increasingly influential and valuable; her prominence is likely to lead people indirectly to the creations of her female colleagues. (For my review of Albers’s “On Weaving”, click here.)

0_1_from Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

[Image: Weavers on the Bauhaus staircase, 1927. From top to bottom: Gunta Stölzl (left), Ljuba Monastirskaja (right), Grete Reichardt (left), Otti Berger, (right), Elisabeth Müller (light patterned jumper), Rosa Berger (dark jumper), Lis Beyer-Volger (centre, white collar), Lena Meyer-Bergner (left), Ruth Hollós (far right) and Elisabeth Oestreicher. Photograph by T. Lux Feininger. Collection of the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin]

II.

In recent years scholars have adjudged that the way Bauhaus women (Bauhäuslerinen) saw and were seen presents a unique case history of the way women’s experiences intersected with cultural politics during the heyday of High Modernism. “Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School makes the bold claim that the Bauhaus cannot be fully understood without exploring the post-First World War culture of embodiment that was a seminal aspect of the school’s project of rethinking art and life.” The book consists of 14 essays by specialists on gender-related topics within the orbit of Bauhaus studies.

The Modernist art movement is inextricably linked to social causes and a negative critique of the traditional culture. This social critique is sometimes radically subversive. The incomprehension and derision that Modernist art faced was accompanied by fear of the seismic political change.Although the Nazi opposition to Modernism was extreme, it was by no means atypical of those Germans wedded to traditional views. The Bauhaus was the prime forum for Modernist artistic experimentation in Germany.  The public association between avant-garde ideas and social liberation in the setting of the Bauhaus was cemented in the popular press and the school’s own publications. To a degree, the political suspicions of conservatives about the Bauhaus were justified. In 1928 Gropius retired from directorship of the Bauhaus. His replacement was Hannes Meyer, who had a commitment to communism. His lead encouraged political activism among tutors and students. KoStuFra (the Communist Student Organisation) had an active cell in the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was under surveillance as a centre of subversion and Communist agitation placed its future in jeopardy. Additionally, the Bauhaus’s students – with their peculiar clothing, haircuts and incomprehensible art – were “mostly foreigners, in particular Jews”, which alarmed locals. When Mies van der Rohe took over in 1930 from Meyer (who was removed by the Mayor of Dessau and who subsequently left for the USSR), he attempted to curb political excesses with decisive action.This included expelling students and banning the remaining students from joining political organisations. However, Nazi seizure of total national power could mean nothing other than the end of the Bauhaus project.

7_1_from Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin

[Image: Portrait of Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein (later Heymann-Marks), c. 1925. Photographer unknown. Collection of the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin]

Not the least manifestation of Bauhaus’s modernity was its attitude to women. The overlap between gender liberation and left-wing politics is embodied in the New Woman (in the guise of the flapper, garçonne, athlete or businesswoman) was an archetype – or set of archetypes – which frequently appeared in films, newspapers and journals. The recent slaughter of German men and hyperinflation impoverishing middle-class families thrust German women into public life in a way they had not been previously. In the many photographs taken by Bauhaus students and staff we see women and men playing with gender roles. The cross-dressing and masculine hairstyles of some women echoed the adventurous New Women across Germany, enjoying the freedom of the constitution of the Weimar Republic (founded in 1919) which gave women equal rights. (It should be noted that the phenomenon of the New Woman was largely limited to younger women in urban or suburban locations, by no means universal even among that demographic.) The teachers at the Bauhaus actively promoted equality and fraternisation between male and female colleagues. In recent years there has been controversy about the gender division between students. There is testimony that women were discouraged and even strongly opposed from taking painting and industrial design courses, instead being directed to more traditionally feminine pursuit of studying textiles and weaving. The exact official policies of the Bauhaus regarding female students entering the courses on architecture, painting and industrial design are not quoted, leaving readers uncertain of what was implemented.

The influence of painter Johannes Itten (1888-1967) was partly pedagogical and partly mystical. He was a follower of Mazdaznan, a modern variation of Zoroastrianism. It included elements of phrenology and physiognomy, which he applied to assessing the students as character types. His primary contribution is viewed as being colour theory, but his spiritual and psychological ideas played a part in his teaching. Itten taught the Vorkurs (introductory course) that students passed through when they enrolled. This was associated with one aspect of the Bauhaus, that of Lebensreformbewegung. Lebensreformbewegung – the life-reform movement – was a widespread response to urbanisation, industrialistion and militarism. Although it originated in the last decade of the previous century, the movement flourished widely in Weimar Germany in the wake of the Great War, especially as it was seen as complementary to pacifism. Lebensreformbewegung took the forms of naturism, vegetarianism, naturopathy, teetotalism, communal living, eastern spiritualism (including yoga, meditation), exercise (including gymnastics, swimming and cycling), sunbathing, strict dieting and dress reform. Gymnastics and dance played a part in Bauhaus life. Gender non-conforming behaviour could be seen as linked to Lebensreformbewegung but we should not attempt to force connections.

Gertrud Grunow (1870-1944) based her teaching at the Bauhaus upon Itten’s lead. Her teaching is less well known than Itten’s and differs from it in some respect, being less theoretical and more therapeutic. The text published under her name (posthumously) is adapted from her manuscript and is not a true transcript, which makes it hard to assess what she actually taught at the Bauhaus. She believed that colour and human “psychophysicality” were spiritually connected and that bodily movement was associated with colour. This falls into the area of ideas of synaesthesia.

5_7_from St Annen-Museum

[Image: Gunta Stölzl: 5 Chöre (1928), jacquard weave; cotton, wool, rayon silk; 229 x 143 cm. Collection of the St Annen-Museum, Lübeck]

Kathleen James-Chakraborty notes that – unusually for an art school and in an era when nude sunbathing and naturism were widely practiced – there was a near complete absence of nude bodies in the art and photographs of the Bauhaus. (A confluence of asexual Mazdaznan spirituality and an emphasis on abstraction and design, possibly. One could also note the marked absence of eroticism of the Bauhaus art.) She goes on to discuss the way Bauhauslerinen dressed and paradox that none of them went into the fashion industry. Most of the fabrics produced by the Bauhaus were intended for furnishing rather than clothing.

Other essays discuss the Loheland dance group, political beliefs of Bauhaus staff, Klee’s images of dancers (including Greta Palucca and Karla Grosch), Bauhäuslerinen in the wall-painting department, androgynous personages in Schlemmer’s paintings, photographs with androgynous subjects, photographic double portraits and the socialism in the photographs of Irena Blühová, The work of Bauhaus administrator Ise Gropius, wife of the director, is examined. Her extensive daily chronicle of the Bauhaus 1924-8 seems to be a valuable and comprehensive source. Surprisingly, it has remained unpublished. It should be published as resource for researchers.

Although Bauhaus Bodies could be classified under the rubric “Gender Studies”, that should not put off fans of the Bauhaus and art-history scholars. The book is a serious advance in studies of the Bauhaus, European/German Modernism and Weimar Republic culture. It is a compliment to the intelligence and light on the political grandstanding that often disfigures otherwise useful research in the area we describe as Gender Studies. This is a model approach: measured, informative, analytical.

 

Elizabeth Otto, Patrick Rössler, Bauhaus Women: A Global Persepctive, Herbert Press (distr. Bloomsbury), March 2019, hardback, 192pp, fully illus., £30/$40, ISBN 978 1 912217 96 0

Elizabeth Otto, Patrick Rössler (eds.), Bauhaus Bodies: Gender, Sexuality, and Body Culture in Modernism’s Legendary Art School, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, March 2019, paperback, 392pp, 12 col./110 mono illus., £23.99, ISBN 978 1 5013 4478 7

© Alexander Adams 2019

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

Utopia & Collapse: Metsamor

Utopia_Collapse_p-191_observation-deck

[Image: Observation deck at the pond © Katharina Roters]

In 1966, Soviet authorities decided to situate a nuclear power station in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. Armenian architect Martin Mikaelyan, assisted by Karen Tiraturyan and Griman Hovespyan, designed an entire city of Metsamor from scratch to provide residences for power-plant workers. The site was near an ancient settlement and rural villages but was on previously agricultural land. The power station was situated 4 km from the city and 15 km from the Turkish border. Work on the city and power plant began in 1969. Metsamor is an atomograd – an atomic city, developed in a way similar to the other single-function urban centres of science cities, academic cities and military cities in the USSR. The USSR had no restrictions in term of permission or public expectation and could therefore exercise complete control over the location and design of new cities. The design of Metsamor would include different zones of housing and public buildings. The centrally planned organisation of the city was apparent in the decision to use a central boiler for heating, with a communal laundry and bathhouse planned.

The first phase was executed and the power station was made operational in 1974. However, the city was never completed. A severe earthquake in 1988 and the dissolution of the USSR sealed the fate of the project. The political and economic support for the Metsamor had already peaked by 1990. The completed city was intended to house a population of 36,000. The actual population level reached a maximum in 1989 (11,959). Although the station produces 40% of Armenia’s electricity supply, the town population is decreasing, now down to an estimated 8,000 (as of 2016). The small population is living with facilities that it cannot adequately use and which are falling into decay and abandonment. The contrast between, on one hand, the optimism of the plan and the assertiveness of the execution and, on the other hand, the incomplete state and dilapidation of town is poignant.

Utopia_Collapse_p-69_rare-facade_1971

Utopia & Collapse. Rethinking Metsamor: The Armenian Atomic City publishes the plans, architectural drawings and archive photographs of the city alongside new photographs of the current condition of the city. Chapters cover the types of buildings, setting out specifications and notable features. Expert essays examine Metsamor specifically and discuss the metaphorical aspects of this stalled utopian project. There are essays on Martin Mikaelyan and a testimony from a long-term resident of Metsamor. For anyone with an interest in Brutalism and Soviet architecture and society, Utopia & Collapse will be a rewarding read. Not least, the new photographs form a melancholy and beautiful journalistic essay on the plight of people dealing with the ramifications of grandiose top-down central planning and economic stagnation. The views of abandoned buildings – with their littered corridors, emptied rooms and crumbling concrete – are juxtaposed with images of the current residents living in buildings modified in haphazard fashion.

The post-Socialist era saw the liberation of building restrictions. This led to the building of extensions (some multi-storey) attached to the back of properties. The city was redistricted – a tacit acknowledgement that the full plan would never be fully carried out. The removal of municipal control of maintenance has generated gaps, conflict and uncertainty with regard to common spaces in shared buildings. Property owners sometimes refuse to cooperate to clean and maintain common areas – a particular drawback in a settlement consisting largely of shared buildings. Open spaces have been neglected or appropriated by families.

All this is in stark contrast to the original plans. There was a city centre placed between the main residential area with kindergartens and a smaller residential area with a school. This original centre is site of the House of Culture, Music School and hotel. In the post-Soviet era locals found that this division – especially with the city in its current unpopulated state – was unsuitable and formed an ad hoc centre in the middle of the main residential zone, featuring small shops.

Utopia_Collapse_p-73_power-plant

[Image: View on the city with power plant in the background © Katharina Roters]

The majority of residential buildings were five-storey, five-storey-linked and nine-storey apartment blocks. These were from standardised designs, using prefabricated components including concrete panels and reinforced concrete pillars and beams. This was usual for Soviet-era construction. All had open balconies, most of which have now been covered. Photographs show the mosaic appearance of different panels, blocks, tarpaulins and windows. These blocks were elevated on pillars, allowing free access for pedestrians below the buildings. The ground level was left open until the proliferation of cars and the deterioration of the Soviet system around 1990, which led to open space being used for parking and being partitioned for commercial use. The linked buildings were blocks connected by multi-level walkways. These were arranged around common courtyards, with curved paths and water features, both made from concrete.

The nine-storey buildings had lifts. Soviet typology regulations stipulated provision of two lifts for buildings over nine-storeys, thus the limiting of Metsamor’s tallest structures to nine storeys was a cost-efficiency measure. The balconies of these are closed and incorporate kitchens. The interconnectedness of the courtyards, provision of walking spaces below apartment blocks and the relatively small low-rise accommodation all worked well. Build control is not discussed but this was often low quality in the USSR. Post-Soviet modifications have not been unsuccessful and the incomplete nature of the city has provided residents with a degree of flexibility. It is the absence of funds for maintenance, lack of varied economic activity and low population which are Metsamor’s principle problems.

On the eastern and northern edges of the city were the sports complex and hospital. The large sporting centre (opened in 1980) is now partially overgrown. Its outdoor pool is drained and matted with weeds. The interior basketball court is still used but most of the structures have been proved too costly to maintain. The city has a strange lopsided imbalance due to the absences of important buildings, facilities and people – that ghostly quality of a city hosting fewer than 15% of its envisaged inhabitants. A spectacular tall water tower – elegant in a clean Brutalist fashion – was never built. (A design for it is illustrated.) Construction on a whole residential district was not started.

Utopia_Collapse_p-183_swimming-pool

The five-storey hotel was designed with guest-room windows orientated to face holy Mount Ararat, tantalisingly just outside Armenia’s borders. Between Metsamor and snow-capped Mount Ararat are the giant cooling towers of the nuclear power plant. (The plant itself is not photographed or described in this book.) The hotel had a capacity for 130 guests but now only the lower floor is used, with the upper floors abandoned. The House of Culture (designed 1975, construction commenced 1979, completed 1986) is one of the few buildings kept in its unmodified original state and in reasonable condition. It is the most important communal building for the populace and well attended for events. The building houses the town library and art school.

Utopia_Collapse_p-147_interior-view-house-culture

[Image: Interior view of the House of Culture © Katharina Roters]

There are some photographs which are heartening. The shots of the functional schools and kindergartens show fresh paint in pastel shades on re-plastered walls after renovation. The shabby Spartan kitchen displays a form of genteel dignity in making do with restricted means. The Music School and House of Culture are cared for as well as possible. Instead of the proposed Museum of Nuclear Power, a church was built in the 2000s, funded by ex-patriate Armenians. Yet the moribund character of the ghost city with its vacant buildings cannot help but recall for viewers Pripyat, the abandoned atomograd of Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The views of walls peeling paint, swimming pools missing tiles, climbing frames reduced to rusted skeletons and the graffiti has been incised on the plaster walls (the city seems relatively free of spray-paint defacement) make a deep impact. The books of photographs of the collapsing cinemas, decaying ballrooms and overrun townhouses in Detroit speak of the decline of an urban centre due to social and economic decline. Utopia & Collapse speaks of the failure of ideological totalitarianism and also the progressivist ideal of completely designed and controlled system being imposed on people. The project of Modernism – most apparent in the Brutalist architecture and centralised urban planning – offers profound problems for us in that it must work against human nature and the propensity of people to want to adapt, personalise and revise in an improvisatory manner. Both the decline of urban centres due to diminution of heavy industry in Detroit and the vulnerability of Modernist schemes in the face of changing political reality in Metsamor provide us with insights into life.

Metsamor faces seemingly inevitable decline, with its population is dwindling. The 1988 earthquake did not damage the power plant but it prompted concern that future earthquakes could cause serious damage. With obsolescence looming, closure of the nuclear power plant has been suggested for 2026. Although the Soviet experiment may be seen a distant event, its legacy casts a long shadow over the lives and land of today.

 

Katharina Roters, Sarhat Petrosyan (eds.), Utopia & Collapse. Rethinking Metsamor: The Armenian Atomic City, Park Books, 2018, 236pp, 229 col./82 mono illus., €48, ISBN 978 3 03860 094 7

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books on www.alexanderadams.art