History of Art in Japan

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[Image: Unkei, Asanga (1212), carved and painted wood. Source: Wikimedia]

The scope of this volume is extensive. The author intends to outline the main features, persistent ideas and developments in Japanese fine arts, crafts and architecture from pre-history to today. Tsuji outlines the development of Japan’s culture through artefacts from its early eras of Jōmon, Yayoi, Kofun, Nara, Heian and Medieval. The subsequent Edo and Modern periods are much more familiar to non-Japanese readers and these are covered in more detail because of the complexity and large amount of documentation and artefacts from this time.

The cord patterning and stippling in winding linear layouts of the pot decoration in the Jōmon period (9300-500 BCE) can be seen as forerunners of Japanese fine art of our day, such as that by Minoru Onoda. Prefigured Modernism abounds in Japanese art. “[…] another dogū [freestanding ceramic figurines], discovered in 1992 at the Nishinomae site in Yamagata prefecture and designated as a National Treasure in 2012, whose legs suggest that the figure is wearing pants; the sharp drop along the back recalls the forms of sculptor Ossip Zadkine.” Debates continue about the relative levels immigration from Korea in the Yayoi period; what is not in dispute was the importance of their visual culture.

According to tradition, in 522 Buddhism arrived in Japan from China and in 538 it began to be incorporated into the imperial court. In the following centuries, carvings of the Buddha were fusions of indigenous Japanese culture and imported Korean and Chinese statuary. These were made from stone or wood, often gilded or intricately painted with paint and lacquer. Later statues showed sophisticated manipulation of pattern, emphatic volume, simplified forms and drapery, even with the loss of polychromy. Buddhist temples became more sophisticated and the Izumo-taisha (Izumo grand shrine) was constructed on giant pillars that may have been as tall as 100 metres, reached by a long straight staircase. The use of wood and paper in architecture has meant that early structures have been lost and rebuilt. At this time shōgon (sacred ornament) became a major strand in craft production. Tsuji explains the theological basis for the statues, mandalas and narrative paintings that dominate art in the following eras.

In the Middle Heian period (894-1086), isolation from the continent led to development of a more synthesised Japanese style (wayō). By this stage the main pillars of Japanese visual culture are well established. The art and craft are all recognisably Japanese, with architecture being more closely tied to Chinese models. Zōchōten (Virudhaka) (839) (carved wood with lacquer, colour and gold leaf, 182.5 cm high) has the guardian king in an imposing martial stance, the elaborate drapery and clothing emphasising rather than concealing his stature. His fierce visage is turned in profile, powerfully framed by a halo of fire. There is nothing of such accomplishment from the same period in Europe. The author comments on similarities between this group of statues and Indian carving.

Lacquer work and inlay on furniture had an established repertoire of decorative motifs by the early C12th – waves, flowers and other plants, mountains, clouds, animals. Painting was executed on scrolls, silk, fans, plaster walls, paper-panel walls and screens. Many paintings from temples or monasteries were discoloured by soot or destroyed by fire. The survival of painted screens from 1050-1100 allows us to get a glimpse of painting from the Late Heian period. Paintings at this time were religious, narrative or decorative in character; painting qua painting did not exist as a separate approach at this time. Japanese fans of the time were prized in China. The history of calligraphy is intertwined with those of handscrolls and fans. Buddhist scripture provided opportunities for imagination in the depiction of realms of heaven and hell, some of which are used as examples. Vivid scenes of suffering, famine, degradation and torture seem to be a mixture of observation of life at the time and pure imagination. The suffering of human existence is an important teaching of the Buddha, so such scenes are common throughout the region. A notable example is a grisly scene of the C13th of putrefaction and bodily dissolution, Aspects of the Unclean Human Path. In the late C13th a wave of Ch’an monks from China fleeing the Mongol invasion brought Zen teaching to Japan. It subsequently became the predominant school of Buddhism in the Japanese islands. Much of Japanese art continued to be influenced by China. One transplanted idea that the Japanese monks perfected was the idea of the dry garden, where water features were replaced by areas of raked gravel.

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[Image: Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara. Source: Wikimedia: By 663highland – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4369910%5D

The key architectural masterpiece in Japan is the Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara featuring the classic double-roof, top roof steeply pitched, lower roof shallow, both with lifted corners. It houses two brilliantly expressive statues (1203) carved in wood by Unkei and Kaikei. For an analogue of great art that fuses realism and emotional hyper-expression we in the west could think of Grünewald’s Colmar Altarpiece (1512-6). Unkei’s other works display a forceful, reserved realism, including a masterful portrait of the monk Asanga (1212). Kaikei was more indebted to Song-style religious statuary. Wood carving at this time reached remarkable heights of competence and expressiveness without compromising the need to convey dignity and restraint. In contrast, painted portraits attributed to Fujiwara no Takanobu (d. 1204/5) situate the stylistic but realistic heads on bodies that are rendered geometric by their costumes.

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[Image: Fujiwara no Takanobu (attr.), Portrait of Yoritomo (1179), ink on silk scroll, 29 x 236 cm. Source: Wikimedia]

The Nanbokuchō (1333-92) and Muromachi (1392-1573) periods brought advances in landscape painting and genre scenes of everyday life. Detached from historical and religious content, these areas allowed greater freedom for artists and patrons. (This coincides with the emergence of secular subjects in art in Renaissance Europe.) In the late C16th Christian missionaries made a few converts in Japan and some Japanese painters began to mimic Western-style painting. Most of this was later destroyed in anti-Christian riots but what survives seems to have been of more historical curiosity than aesthetic value. Likewise, periodic fires destroyed temples and cities built using wood and paper, depriving us of a clear picture of early phases of Japanese architecture.

The modern period of Japan is the Edo period, lasting from 1615 to 1867. At this time, art became increasingly realistic and secular. The spectacular sliding-door decoration of Kanō Sanraku (1559-1635) and son Kanō Sansetsu (1590-1651), incorporating exquisite depiction of natural elements against a gold-leaf ground shows the sophistication of the period and the effortless application of fine-art technique to architectural use.

In the 1680s the ukiyo-e (floating world style) was established by Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). These were genre scenes of everyday life in the pleasure quarters of Edo, featuring musicians, actors, geishas, courtesans and street life. Although best known in the prints of the time, the genre encompasses art in all forms. It is during the Edo period that the classic art of the colour woodblock print was developed (in 1765, by Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-1770)) and became for Westerners the epitome of Japanese visual culture. The economic sophistication of the system combined the skills of designer (eshi/gakō), cutter (horishi), printer (surishi) and publisher (hanmoto) (not neglecting the sellers) to produce an intricate system for the mass-production of great art.

In 1854 Japan was forcibly opened up to international trade and the 1867 appearance of a Japanese pavilion at the Paris international exposition marked the end of Japan’s isolation. This would mark the boom in japonisme in Europe and North America, which came to dominate the decorative arts and influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. For better and worse, the art of the West also came to Japan, to very mixed results. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was the most successful artist to adopt elements of Western style while remaining wedded to the advantages and traditions of Japan, working in prints. The adoption of copperplate engraving and oil paint used in conjunction with half-understood Western use of shading, perspective and so forth led to art that ranged from the beguiling to the deeply deficient. Many potentially competent Japanese artists ended up as makers of failed hybrids that seem ugly, ungainly and crude. Oil paint seems to have been disastrous for Japanese art, robbing it of its crispness, clarity, concision and planar qualities.

In 1867 Japanese society impressed Westerners as uniquely “Western” in its highly stratified social structure and very advanced literature and art, though lacking the widespread literacy and high average income that was beginning to begin standard in the West following the Industrial Revolution. Beyond less advanced societies in Asia, the Japanese were considered honorary Westerners in some respects. Even the tendency for women to paint their faces white was seen as a link to pale-skinned Westerners.

Japanese art of the Meiji and later periods is so wildly heterogeneous and mixed in character that it is hard for the author to describe or evaluate it. Making any general comments about Japanese art at this time is almost impossible and this is the weakest section of the book. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) stands out among the printmakers, making the most of Japanese subject matter and Western style in his colour prints. It is among the artists of nihonga (Japanese style) that we find the best of C20th art in Japan. The story reaches present day with some frames of anime and manga drawings, as well as fine-art paintings.

Tsuji explains the significance of the waves of different Buddhist teaching which directed cultural production, as well as how the art of Japan relates to the social, military, economic and imperial history of the nation. The use of proper terms will allow non-Japanese readers to acquire some familiarity – as they are defined as they are introduced – but the use does not seem excessive to this reviewer. The book has numerous illustrations of key works and typical examples. Even at 631 pages (of which 150 are reference), this book does seem long or overly detailed. Readers will likely close this book satisfied and inspired to search out monographs on certain artists and periods. As a guide History of Art in Japan meets its author’s intentions handsomely.

 

Tsuji Nobuo, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (trans.), History of Art in Japan, Columbia University Press, October 2019, paperback, 664pp, fully illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 23119 341 2 (hardback available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

John Edgar Platt, Printmaker

John Edgar Platt

John Edgar Platt (1886-1967) is one of the most prominent of the British printmakers of the inter-war period. This catalogue accompanied a solo exhibition of Platt’s art at St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire, held in 2018. Using Platt’s studio archives, Hilary Chapman has assembled this catalogue which outlines the artist’s life and work and cataloguing all his prints. The catalogue data includes much technical detail and edition sizes (both projected and achieved), which will be of value to collectors. The catalogue includes an explanation of the process of Japanese woodblock printing.

Born in Leek, the young Platt had originally intended to train as an engineer but changed to study art, studying successively at Margate Art School, Newcastle School of Art and Leek School of Art before finishing his training at the Royal College of Art. He went on to have an impressive record as a teacher in various art schools around the country. His final appointment was as head of Blackheath School of Art from 1929 until his retirement in 1950. During this time he made many of the prints in this catalogue. He gained a reputation as a representative of the colour woodblock method through writing a book (Colour Woodcuts: a Book of Reproductions and a Handbook of Method (1938)) and holding the position of President of the Society of Graver Painters in Colour.

During the Great War, Platt was instructed in Japanese colour woodblock technique by Seaby and Fletcher while at Reading School of Art. Later he would alongside British-resident, expert printer Yoshijiro Urushibara (1889-1953). Platt was part of the inter-war print revival, alongside the wood engravers such as Charles Tunnicliffe, etchers such as Graham Sutherland, the Grosvenor School linocut printmakers and British masters of colour woodblock prints Allen William Seaby, Frank Morley Fletcher, William Giles and others. This boom was ended by the Great Depression, which led to a subsequent contraction in the amount of prints produced in the 1930s.

Platt made his first colour print in 1916. It is in the Arts & Craft style, influenced by line-block illustration. It was a pastiche of the faux medieval imagery that was popular in the 1890s. Platt utilised little of the medium’s potential. Like his other early prints, it failed to make use of the drama and pictorial depth of the European chiaroscuro woodcut or the sharpness and brightness of the Japanese technique. It was in 1921 that Platt began to exploit the medium’s potential for large areas of graded colour that give Japanese woodblock prints their distinctive mixture of crisp black line work and sweeping areas of colour.

The Jetty, Sennen Cove, 1921

[Image: J.E. Platt, The Jetty, Sennen Cove (1921), colour woodblock print on paper, (c) The Estate of the Artist]

The Jetty, Sennen Cove (1921) effectively employs the graded tone and overprinting for shadow that makes the green sea in this harbour scene so clear and restful. The high horizon, aerial viewpoint and expanses of flat colour or pattern are also traits of Japanese art. Red Chestnut (1927) is a pastiche of Japanese prints. This should not be considered a derogatory assessment. The imitation was clearly an expression of devotion and fascination with the classic printmakers of Japan. Another offering (The Plough (1937)) comes directly from Japanese practice. It is a single composition printed on three vertically oriented sheets aligned horizontally but with gaps; this was commonly done by Japanese printmakers. It seems to have exhausted Platt and – with the exception of two insignificant later prints – it marked the end of his work as a printmaker. It was his largest print, was complicated by being divided between multiple sheets and he only made seven proofs.

His principal subjects in his prints are animals (wild and domestic) and harbour views. His early prints include playing children and a few later prints depict workers. A single female nude is essentially decorative, not marking a deep engagement with the subject. A pared-down, clean-line, clear-facetted style becomes apparent in 1930. This works very well for the prints of  harbour-side views including water and sky. Platt’s palette is cool and low-keyed, reliant on earth hues and tertiary colours.

By the time Brixham Trawler (1940) was made, Platt had selected to a more realistic style – or at least a hybridised style that included more concessions to realism. In the watercolour view of a harbour of 1942 (illustrated in the catalogue) we see Platt’s full realistic mode, which was sustained through to the post-war period. A patriotic scene of VE-Day from December is a touch disappointing. It is a rather ordinary scene, which looks to have been produced to mark an event rather than as an expression of artistic engagement with the topic. Platt’s late paintings are muted in coloration, subdued in tonal range and equal balancing of linearity and painterliness. At least in reproduction, the paintings lack presence, impact and distinctiveness. For today’s taste, Platt’s time as a producer of stylised Modernist prints is liable to be found the single appeal. This book well covers this area and will provide pleasure to casual readers and ideas to artists.

As well as colour woodblock prints by Platt, the catalogue includes his few engravings. The engravings date from 1929-30 and are stylistically consistent: realistic, late Arts & Crafts style, influenced by Renaissance etching. Cataloguer Hilary Chapman writes that Platt’s five engravings, made over a period of fourteen months, were the only prints that he made that were not woodblock prints.

The fact that there are only 35 woodblock prints in this catalogue is due to the arduous work involved in the producing editions from each matrix. The Japanese system involved divided labour, with designer, cutter and printer generally being discrete trades, the specialists of which could work fast and efficiently in order to mass produce colour prints. In the artisanal manner that Western printmakers had to work, they performed all stages in person, most gruellingly the printing of multiple blocks to make a single impression. To produce a single impression could involve eight over-printings per sheet, each one carefully inked, registered and rubbed with a baren. Platt did not fully edition all his prints, only making proofs as demand prompted. By 1953 the Colour Woodcut Society was defunct: commercially redundant, critically moribund and technically superseded.

This catalogue makes a fair case for Platt to be considered a serious and respected – though minor – British printmaker from the 1920s and 1930s.

 

Hilary Chapman, John Edgar Platt: Master of the Colour Woodcut, Sansom & Company/St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, 2018, paperback, 72pp, fully illus., £12.50, ISBN 978 1 911408 30 7

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

21 October 2019

Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism

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[Image: Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners (1857), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (donation subject to usufruct of Mrs. Pommery)]

One of the leading French painters of mid-19th Century was Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). He was hailed as a realist, a champion of rural France, ally of the peasant and aesthetic pioneer. The current exhibition Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 4 October 2019-12 January 2020; touring to Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 16 February-17 May 2020) situates Millet at the root of much of what became known as French Modernism. It includes works by artists influenced by Millet’s example, with special attention paid to his seminal influence on Van Gogh. This review is from the catalogue.

For the average viewer Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) is as unknown as he is famous. His life and oeuvre – beyond a handful of famous works – are shadowy. It is Courbet and Manet who are revolutionary painters of modern life in the country and town respectively; it is Géricault and Delacroix who are the adventurous titans developing sophisticated hybrid styles; it is Moreau who is a mysterious hermetic artist in dialogue with an imagined Orient; it is Degas who is the multifaceted technical chameleon; it is Ingres who wrestles with reinventing history painting whilst finding new ways to paint distinguished portraits. All of these artists excite scholars and curators set on proving theories and overturn art historical assumptions. One artist who does not command frequent monographic publications and exhibitions is Millet. Why should that be so?

It may largely be down to taste. Millet’s art so comfortably fits the mould of the anecdotal illustration or idealised pastoral that our sensibilities are left cool and unengaged. This is perhaps an incorrect appreciation, as noted later in this review, but it is an understandable conclusion. On a casual level judging themes and motifs, Millet seems a serving of stodgy worthiness drenched in saccharine sentimentality. On a technical level, Millet presents us no problems. He is not an artist of fragments; he is not wracked by doubt and his paintings are not conspicuously hard wrought. Although he is a painter of working people, his art is not overtly reformist. For the leftist, he is not radical enough politically. For the critic and student, his art is certainly rich veins of social and artistic material but offers few clear new “angles”. His art has seemingly nothing to say about the industrial revolution, the growth of the cities or the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. One would search in vain for signs indicating his sympathies regarding the uprising of February 1848 and the Paris Commune. Quite the contrary – Millet appears to revel in the timeless and universal. Again, that is not quite so but superficially there is nothing particularly contemporary to his art.

Millet’s art is a place people retreat to, turning their back on novelty and difficulty. Millet, being a serious artist, has more to him than that but that part is there. One can decide the see the eternal peasant in harmony with the land he cultivates tirelessly and nothing else. Those people are not wrong and – if one is conservatively minded – Millet’s art does provide comfort in its stability and conventionality. Hence it is intriguing to anticipate what curators and scholars of today have to say about this artist to an audience who may be indifferent or even hostile to his vision of rural life.

During his lifetime and for decades after his death, Millet was a hugely popular figure domestically and internationally. His art was widely reproduced. Artists frequently copied Millet’s compositions from original paintings and prints or reproduction prints. A sale of a collection of pastels soon after the artist’s death garnered high prices. On 1 July 1889 The Angelus (c. 1857-9) sold for 553,000 francs, the highest ever price in France for a modern painting. The following year it was sold again for 750,000 francs.

Millet was born in the Normandy countryside. He pursued traditional academic training, and worked in Cherbourg and Paris. Millet was one of the most prominent figures in the Barbizon School, located in the Barbizon region, dedicated to the cause of realist depictions of landscapes and people. They advocated plein air painting and are best known for their naturalistic landscapes.

Simon Kelly states that “by the late 1850s, Millet was supplanting Gustave Courbet as the most subversive painter of peasant life as the latter turned to landscapes and hunting scenes.” Although at least one writer claimed him as a political radical upon his death, most judged him in retrospect as a link in the chain of French art. A key example is the painting that made his name at the 1857 Salon, The Gleaners. It seems that conservatives reacted against The Gleaners for the artist’s apparent sympathy for the workers gathering grain for free after a harvest, at a time when farmers had begun selling the right to glean. He did however not shy from depicting women agricultural workers (fruit pickers, shearers, milkmaids, field hands, sewers). Such unvarnished portrayals of the physical toil and the occasional indignity – particularly upon the fairer sex – drew criticism from more conservative critics when the art appeared in Salons. The ugliness of the figures was caricatured in newspapers.

Late in life, the painter turned to the creation of unpeopled landscape. These were unusual in some respects, departing from the Barbizon credo of composing from direct observation. These are manipulated compositions. One influence on these landscapes was of Japanese prints. The dramatic cropping, high horizon, aerial perspective, tonal recession, blocks of pattern without features all indicate Millet in his last decade drew upon Japanese woodblock prints the way the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists did after him.

His drawings in conté crayon were considered more modern than his paintings. They were looser in execution and less finished; some of them were studies of individual figures. The building of modelling through dense shading prompted much later art, for example Redon and the smoky sfumato of Carrière. Rightly selected for this exhibition are drawing by Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891). The conté drawings of Seurat are wonderful – atmospheric, stark and deeply ambiguous.

The pastels are more vigorous and brightly hued than his paintings. It may be that the pigments of the pastels have fared better than the oils, which is often the case when the oils, siccatives, fillers and adulterants of oil paint deteriorate over time in comparison to the more pigment-heavy medium of pastel. For whatever reason, viewers of a more modern aesthetic temperament may find themselves responding more strongly to the pastels. The Plain (c. 1868) is a fantastic example of tonal recession in a pastel landscape of a featureless expanse of land. The flatness of the ground is contrasted with the dramatic cloud and shafts of sunlight breaking upwards. The grey-blues and pale browns flicker across the depiction, becoming thicker at the horizon and starting to dematerialise the earth and vegetation. It conveys the impression of fine mist gathering between the tussocks of grass. For those who think of Millet as a painter of hearty peasants and sentimental family vignettes, this landscape alone will dispel their assumptions. It is easy to see why Monet revered him. The pastel paintings of sea cliff done by Millet in the 1860s and early 1870s may have been direct influences on Monet, prompting him to tackle the same subject at Honfleur and elsewhere in the 1880s. The pastels where the black conté outlining is too prominent in the landscapes the effects are less successful. These are coloured drawings, rigid and fixed by the demands of “colouring inside the lines”. Recession is diminished, energy confined, immersion broken. The two versions of The Cliffs of Gréville (1871 and 1871-2) have all the tedium of a diligent book illustration.

His great painting Haystacks: Autumn (c. 1874) has travelled from New York. It shows what Millet might yet have developed upon had he not died so soon after finishing this masterpiece. It is a painting full of excitement – the massive alien bulks of haystacks dwarfing the sheep, shepherd and buildings. The transporting inversion is the light lower area and dark sky during daytime, with heavy clouds threatening rain and dramatic shafts of direct sunlight illuminating the ground. In temperate zones we commonly encounter (and hence instinctively understand) landscapes to be dark material below a light sky. With the regular exception of winter snow, this is a rule that holds true almost all the time. When we find the rule inverted, with a dark sky and light ground, it is unusual and striking. Millet did this more than a few times (Spring (c. 1868-73)) and he must have instinctively understood the drama of the inversion even if he did not understand its perceptual basis.

Reproduction prints of Millet by Alfred Delauney (1830-1894) and Jacques Adrien Lavieille (1818-1862) are exhibited. They form an important link because it was frequently the intermediation of illustrators who summarised and transmitted Millet’s art to the broad public, including artists. One of the artists who spent more time with illustrations of Millet than with originals was Van Gogh. The catalogue contains a long essay by Nienke Bakker about Van Gogh’s veneration of Millet and numerous ways he emulated the master: copying directly in sketches, fuller drawings and paintings; adapting Millet’s motifs; adopting Millet’s manner and the peasant genre; invoking his spirit. Van Gogh decided to live in a rural agricultural setting to be closer to working life and garner material for his art. His Potato-Eaters (multiple versions; 1885) was a homage to Millet but envisaged in Dutch chromatic terms.

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Siësta (after Millet) (1889-1890), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (gift of Mrs. Fernand Halphen, née Koenigswarter, 1952)]

 

Painting prints after Millet’s compositions in colour oils was a therapy for Van Gogh while recovering in the asylum of 1889-90. These 20 paintings were a way of forming an emotional bond with common people and families while Van Gogh was deeply depressed and isolated in the asylum, coming to terms with the fact his illness (whatever exactly it was) was serious, chronic and incurable. Abandoning his dream of marriage and fatherhood, realising that he would be forever cut off from ordinary people by his behaviour and the severity of his mental collapses and mania, Van Gogh’s paintings after Millet were a way of adjusting to a radically curtailed future. It was both a way of assuaging his loneliness and finding models when there were few people around him to pose. None of the Millet translations are great paintings. None has the spark of even one of the painted wheat fields, yet the Millet translations are heartfelt and painted with gusto and accomplishment.

Millet’s paintings of country people appealed to Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who was enamoured by the idea of primitivism revitalising art. For that reason he looked to the “less advanced” civilisations, such as those of Panama, Martinique and Tahiti, and also to the less urban, least cosmopolitan parts of France, such as Pont-Aven, Brittany and Arles, Provence. Related to this search for raw authenticity in the nativist French culture and its people, Millet’s art seemed to offer an approach that seemed fruitful for Gauguin. It may be that Millet’s influence was also transmitted to Gauguin via his mentor Pissarro. Art by Post-Impressionists Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Paul Sérusier (1864-1927) is exhibited and discussed in relation to the model of Millet and his ideas.

Maite van Dijk writes of the influence that Millet had around 1900, at a time when Neo-Impressionism was exhausted and Symbolism and Post-Impressionism were giving way to the radical movements that largely disposed of naturalism (Suprematism, Cubism, Surrealism). Art included in Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism is by Degas, Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli, Jan Toorop, Edvard Munch, Ferdinand Hodler, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and others.

 

[Image: (left) Jean-François Millet, The Angelus (1857-1859), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (bequest of Alfred Chauchard, 1910); (right) Salvador Dalí, Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus (1933-1935), oil on panel, © Salvador Dali, Fundacion Gala-Salvador Dali, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2019]

One of the more notable inclusions is Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). His attachment to the art of Millet may have been part emotional, part fealty to the traditional art of his childhood, but it is in part perverse. What could be more subversive in an avant-garde than to praise pompier painters, academicians and a beloved old warhorse such as Millet? We could say that Dalí was embodying the true spirit of perversity and rebellion that Surrealism demanded by flouting every norm of Modernity. To give his perverse attachment a further twist, Dalí opined publicly about his sexual complex regarding the The Angelus. Dalí’s delirious fantasies fused the personal and universal, the nobility of religion and the animal desire of sex. He interpreted the couple as praying over the body of their son and that the woman was a praying mantis, about to devour the man. The pitchfork in the earth, Dalí saw as a Freudian symbol of copulation. The Angelus was quoted or copied by Dalí in a number of striking paintings and seems to have been a genuine obsession for the artist. The outcome was a sequence of paintings and drawings in the early 1930s. These turned out to some of the best works made during his prime period (roughly 1929-1936, at a stretch up to 1938) and have become art that is fully integrated into Dalí peculiar cosmology and expressed through his “paranoiac-critical method”. Dalí’s responses to Millet are some of the strangest and fertile in this survey.

The absence of Constantin Meunier (1831-1905) from the exhibition and catalogue is a peculiar and serious omission. Meunier is one of the most influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. His working figures were the template for the realism, social realism and Socialist Realism that dominated the period. Indeed, if we were to measure importance according to the quantity of art that followed his lead directly and indirectly, we might say Meunier was much more influential that Van Gogh or Picasso. It may be that Meunier’s preference for the miners, ironworkers, stevedores and other workers in the heavy industries of coal country may have made his art appear dissimilar to Millet. Far from it. Meunier comes directly from Millet. Woman Baking Bread (1854) is a direct forerunner to Meunier’s scenes of workers at a furnace. One does not need to know his bronze reliefs of scything peasants (Musée Meunier, Brussels) to recognise the artistic and temperamental debt that Meunier owes Millet. Surely one of the tangentially related artists could have been dropped from this exhibition to make space for Meunier.

While Millet may never be considered as revolutionary as Courbet, as daring as Gericault and Delacroix, as frank as Degas or as sophisticated as Ingres, this exhibition makes a cogent and carefully presented case for Millet being an important early pioneer of Modernism and one who had a deep influence on the artists who came directly after him. (In much the same way the recent Daubigny exhibition restored his reputation as an innovator in landscape painting.) It is most fitting that this exhibition brings Millet to Van Gogh’s museum. One can imagine the pleasure such an event would have brought Van Gogh. In a way the community of artist he longed to bring together around him has indeed happened posthumously and in his own museum in Amsterdam.

 

Simon Kelly, Maite van Dijk (eds.), Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Saint Louis Art Museum/Thoth, October 2019, paperback, 208pp, 192 col. illus., €29.95, ISBN 978 90 6868 796 5  (Dutch version available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950

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[Image: Mabel Dwight (American, 1876 – 1955), Night Work (1931), lithograph, image: 25.4 × 19.4 cm (10 × 7 5/8 in.). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Hannah S. Kully]

The new exhibition True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 15 October 2019-19 January 2020) brings together iconic images from early Twentieth Century American realism alongside a collection of lesser known prints. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The two fathers of American realism are Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Robert Henri (1865-1929). Both had troubled relationships with the art establishment. Eakins can be viewed as establishing the discipline of pictorial realism – plein air painting, thorough anatomical classes and application of perspective and use of photography – while Henri is thought of as a founder of social realism, mainly in urban settings. Henri’s contribution was attitudinal rather than technical. Henri studied under a former student of Eakins at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was wanted to realism that Eakins had pioneered in America to be applied to subjects that would not typically be considered the province of fine arts. Eakins had led the way in depicting common activities such as sports as a subject for oil painting but Henri sought to apply this new American realism to be applied to life in the modern American world.

Henri’s progressive artistic and political sensibility was influential, spreading via to his students (through his teaching at Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the Art Students League, New York) and artists (through his book The Art Spirit (1923)). He exhibited widely and his ideas were disseminated by these and associated reviews. Henri opposed prettiness and what he thought of as the stiffness of conventionally sanctioned fine art. Henri’s passion for depicting everyday life entailed a degree of social realism. This tendency became movement, centred in New York, which became called the Ashcan School. Followers and associates included George Bellows, John Sloan and William Glackens. Edward Hopper was commonly grouped with the Ashcan School but he stands a little aside, more closely influenced by French painting and cinema than the others. Hopper is more interested in exploring the emotional distance and psychological isolation of his characters than in the general social/political commentary that Ashcan School tenets tended to produce. We might also view this group as a rejection of haute mondaine clientele, ostentatious internationalism and insulated hedonism of the Cosmopolitan Realists Boldini, Singer Sargent, Sorolla and Zorn.

After a brief heyday, by the early 1930s the Ashcan School had been quickly overtaken by Modernism, with its emphasis on abstraction and pictorially advanced styles such as Cubism, Orphism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Ironically, the exploration of realism found a home in the 1930s in Regionalism, a movement that combined nativism and social conservatism with social realism and satirical commentary on modern life, often in rural settings. Precisionism of the 1930s applied realism, photorealism and hyperrealism to modern life but it was largely centred on buildings, objects, landscapes and townscapes rather than people within urban settings and it entirely lacked the satirical element.

Such developments are not covered within True Grit – admittedly, not a large exhibition – which confines itself to socially-centred art. Artists include Bellows, Hopper, Sloan and others. The prints in True Grit range over the most common mediums: aquatints, drypoints, etchings, lithographs and a wood engraving. The exhibition provides a view of modern city life as seen through the eyes of socially conscious artists of the 1920s and 1930s.

It would be wrong to entirely ascribe the choice of the working class as subjects for art to a political commitment on the part of artists. It was also an element of the younger generation wanting to slay their predecessors and surpass them in audacity by using working people to inject energy and rawness, courting attention through controversy. This is certainly true of Bellows and the printmakers here who focus on making outright social critiques. The subjects of prints are art classes, street scenes, park views, nightclubs, courting couples, tramps, vamps and crowds participating in entertainment and on public transport.

Two classic images of urban America are Hopper’s Night Shadows (1921) – showing a man walking alone in a street, seen from a high window and accompanied on by his own shadow – and Bellows’s A Stag at Sharkey’s (1917). The latter is Bellows’s most famous composition – a boxing match in a darkened room, where the smoke and din are almost palpable. Other Hopper etchings are of a couple in a subway train and woman alone in a bedroom. Hopper is the quintessential urban artist of the inter-war period, his eye trained on the telling moment or the poignant interlude. Nothing is happening in Hopper’s pictures and that is the point. They are moments of reflection for the subject or moments that are later recalled because they impressed a witness. Hopper’s proto-existentialist ennui is manifest in the metropolitan anomie and the melancholic vignette. Hopper is lacking as a painter and draughtsman – none of figures actually seems comprised of flesh, skin, hair and all the other matter of a human body; he has little instinctive feeling for his mediums – but he is a consummate image-maker. His etchings are technically more fluent than his paintings.

Alexander Nemerov’s essay investigates the impact of Bellows’s death upon Hopper. The artists had been colleagues and allies, in many ways pursuing similar goals. Both Bellows and Hopper were former students of Henri. Hopper, Henri and other artists were recorded as being distraught at the sudden death of Bellows due to appendicitis. Nemerov suggests that Hopper experienced survivor’s life-long guilt. It was only in 1925 that Hopper achieved his critical and popular breakthrough – something which perhaps could only have happened with the disappearance of his colleague-competitor. In other words, Hopper may have considered his success to have been dependent on Bellows’s death. It is too much to attribute the pervasive melancholy of Hopper’s isolated characters to the reverberations to this 1925 event but Nemerov’s case is thoughtful and well put.

John Sloan (1871-1951) is credited as the leader of the Ashcan School. He was a prominent advocate of realism and taught many students in New York. Rather than selecting the subjects generally considered ennobling in the fine arts, Sloan encouraged students to depict typical scenes of everyday life. He is best known for his street scenes. Stephanie Schrader notes that the juxtaposition of public and private spaces was typical of Ashcan art. Glimpsing domestic interiors through windows from other buildings or whilst travelling on elevated metro tracks was a common experience for city dwellers. Schrader is condemnatory of Sloan’s etchings of interiors with women in a state of undress. Her criticism is redolent of the moral certitude that critics displayed towards Degas’s candid female nudes, which they thought to be positively bestial. Viewers may have a more relaxed and charitable attitude than Schrader towards Sloan’s etchings. When passing moral judgment in art criticism, critics should be aware that their audience has a moral sense (informed by different life experiences) that is at least as developed as their own.

What of these lesser known printmakers? The Kyra Markham (1891-1967) was a producer of satirical and socially conscious lithographs in the 1920s and 1930s.  Her scenes depart from realism through the exaggerated features of figures and invention of settings which use fantasy and magic realism. Peggy Bacon (1895-1987) was an unabashed satirist, whose prints we could expect to see in journals. The beautifully effective Night Work (1931) by Mabel Dwight (1875-1955) is a lithograph showing a nocturnal vista with a glimpse of a person working in a studio – the artist? – under a moon and the silhouettes of chimneys and water towers. It is a fitting choice for the catalogue cover. Arnold Rönnebeck, Ellison Hoover, Howard Norton Cook and Howard Pennell are represented by views of skyscrapers in New York. These unpeopled vertiginous views show the American metropolis at its most inhuman but exhilarating. However, despite their concentration on the architecture and spatial effects of city design without figures, these prints should be seen as extensions of Futurism and Expressionism (including Expressionist cinema) rather than instances of Precisionism. They lack the emotional coolness and technical clarity of Precisionism in order to achieve the impact the printmakers intended.

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[Image: Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881 – 1962), Glow of the City (1929), drypoint, image: 28.6 × 36.2 cm (11 1/4 × 14 1/4 in.). © Estate of Martin Lewis. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Purchased with funds from Russel I. and Hannah S. Kully.]

The outstanding artist of the exhibition is an artist of whom I had never previously heard. Martin Lewis (1881-1962) two etchings leave a lasting impression. A brilliant evocative print (Glow of the City (1929)) by Lewis shows a woman in profile on an apartment fire escape, a skyscraper illuminated in the background, seen behind a row of house backs and washing lines. This is another night scene – something of a speciality of these artists, at least on the basis of this selection. It is easy to see why Hopper credited Lewis’s tuition in etching for advancing his compositional abilities. Lewis’s Down to the Sea at Night (1929) is a masterclass in tenebrous realism. A group of women walk into the surf, illuminated by the headlamps of a parked car. The handling of light and shade, silhouette and modelling, and a single in-scene but concealed light source, are all exquisitely conceived and executed. Lewis will be the discovery and star of the exhibition on the basis of these two prints alone. More than a handful of visitors will leave the exhibition with the intention of scouring for sources on Lewis.

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[Image: Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881 – 1962), Down to the Sea at Night (1929), drypoint and sand-ground etching, image: 20.3 × 33 cm (8 × 13 in.). © Estate of Martin Lewis. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of
Hannah S. Kully]

The three essays have footnotes and there is an index. Illustrations include other prints and photographs of the era, as well as some paintings for comparison. Overall the catalogue is well designed and informative. Compliments go to the designers of the catalogue, which includes colophons and signatures in the illustrated prints. However, no paper sizes are given in the text and no editions or colophon markings are indicated, which is disappointing. True Grit is an enjoyable and stimulating tour of American realist graphics and social realism of the inter-war era.

 

Stephanie Schrader, James Glisson, Alexander Nemerov, True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950, J. Paul Getty Museum, September 2019, hardback, 112pp, 83 col. illus., $35/£28, ISBN 978 1 60606 627 0

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

Rembrandt etchings, Holburne Museum, Bath

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[Image: Rembrandt, Jan Lutma, goldsmith (1656), etching]

To mark the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt (1606-1669), the Holburne Museum, Bath is hosting an exhibition of Rembrandt etchings (4 October 2019-5 January 2020). All 50 of the exhibited prints are from the Ashmolean Museum collection, Oxford. The turquoise walls and spotlighting create an air of drama within the single gallery housing this exhibition. The impressions are good and not disfigured by collector stamps. The range is also representative, though the more earthy subjects are largely omitted from the Ashmolean collection. Alongside his Biblical and mythological scenes, self-portraits, portraits and landscapes, it has oddities such as an impression of the 1650 etching of a sea shell, Rembrandt’s only still-life in print form.

Rembrandt was an unusually experimental printmaker. He stands alongside Callot, Seghers, Degas and Picasso in his drive to reshape the parameters of his field’s possibilities in order to accommodate his artistic ambitions. Rembrandt began his career as an artist at a time when certain eras were ending and others beginning. He used silverpoint just as it became an anachronistic material and fell into disuse. He became a printmaker as a time when engraving was being supplanted by etching for artists, while engraving continued to be favoured for copyist print cutters for reproduction prints. Rembrandt favouring etching, using its flexible and correctable form as a kind of drawing with the looseness of sketching but the potential to be built up in elaborations that generate chiaroscuro similar to wash-drawings. This search for darkness was aided by the use of drypoint, which could be periodically reworked as it got worn down through repeated passes through the press. He used etching as a form of drawing not due to ignorance of the medium’s capacities but with the intention of expanding what was done with the medium. In Rembrandt’s prints we find use of hatching, crosshatching, contour shading and silhouette and contre-jour effects. In pursuit of these effects, the artists pushed printmaking to its limits by combining etching, drypoint and engraving. In prints we find dense blackness that is effectively a mezzotint avant la lettre. In pursuit of the effect and the evocation of emotion, Rembrandt reaches for any tool, any method.

The grandeur of Rembrandt’s expanses of darkness – his shadowy rooms, billowing thunderclouds at dusk and stygian night – is matched by daintiness of needle lines and minute details. The latter remind us directly of why full-time print cutters had short careers, curtailed by damaged eyesight. The museum has provided several looking glasses to aid visitors in appreciating the fine work.

One innovation of Rembrandt was the use of multiple sketches on single plates. Among sketches of peasants is an unrelated view of Rembrandt’s wife ill in bed, perhaps with the tuberculosis that killed her a few later. It is possible to describe Rembrandt as a point of origin for autobiographical art, that is, when the private life of the artist intrudes into the public art (as opposed to the private sketching). It inaugurated the aesthetics of incompleteness – something that we can find Rops fetishising in his own printed sketches.

The portrait of Jan Cornelius Sylvius, preacher (1646) has the subject reaching through his framing oval towards the viewer. It is typical of the painting style of the time, with its play of verisimilitude and deception. So universal is Rembrandt’s art, it is possible to overlook how much of an artist of his time he was. The illusionism and trompe-l’oeil tricks were very current in Dutch Seventeenth Century painting. When we encounter them in Rembrandt’s art, we might wonder why such a master of narration and emotional nuance was engaging in trite or ignoble attention-grabbing eye-deceiving viewer-impressing strategies.

The realistic nudes and one erotic mythological scene are placed on a pink-beige wall. (A symbolic choice?) The realistic nudes break new ground by showing models with few or no attributes as characters. Thus we have the advent of the nude as nude in art for consumption by the public – albeit a rarefied, discreet public of print connoisseurs. No longer does the nude have to be a character from history or the Bible. Caravaggio had previously painted nudes that were realistic but grounded in canon and artists had drawn for reference unsparing nudes but these were not public. Rembrandt’s nudes have canon set aside and assume their places as subjects of human interest.

The frankness of the nudes is verisimilitude and humane – recognising the weaknesses and imperfections of the body. It is also related to carnality. The erotic scenes (Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, Monk in a Cornfield, Lit à la française and two plates of Jupiter and Antiope) are as honest about the artist and viewer’s sexual curiosity as it is about the physical impulses of characters in the pictures. The desire and abandon we see depicted is also a reflection of our own weaknesses. Rembrandt’s nudes and erotic scenes are carnal mirrors. The exhibition includes Jupiter and Antiope, larger plate (1659) is an etching with engraving for emphasis and drypoint for shading. Jupiter gazes as Antiope’s crotch with undisguised fascination.

There are a few of Rembrandt’s many self-portraits, an uncommon genre in printmaking at that period. Rembrandt plays the role of Rembrandt-as: Rembrandt-as-gentleman-of-yesteryear, Rembrandt-as-actor, Rembrandt-as-businessman, Rembrandt-as-brooding-prophet, Rembrandt-as-husband, Rembrandt-as-artist, Rembrandt-as-everyman. A wall of portraits shows the market impetus behind the making of prints. Some are of notable figures who would have bought copies and of whom people could have been expected to buy portraits. The print of Jan Lutma, goldsmith (1656) is typical of Rembrandt’s male portraits: detailed, atmospheric, grand yet also reflective. Some portraits, like The Great Jewish Bride (1635), seem to have been of emblematic archetypes which would have been of interest to scholars, collectors and educated men with historical, literary and ethnographical curiosity. This is true of the heads of Orientals (not in exhibition). Jan Uytenbogaert, the Goldweigher (1639) is more of a genre scene or interior than a portrait. The subject is wearing his finest clothing (or perhaps a selection of Rembrandt’s grandest costumes?), seated at his desk, the balance before him, gold in small cloth bags. His assistant is crouched at his feet, packing the bags into caskets.

The Flight into Egypt, altered from Seghers (c. 1653) adapts a plate already used by Hercules Seghers (c. 1653). The landscape has been retained but the figures by Seghers were burnished away and new figures added. (Rembrandt also did this with an oil painting by Seghers.) Another Flight into Egypt (1651) is as dark as a mezzotint with its drypoint tonal scratching. (The blur of drypoint ink is like the bled quality of wetted water-soluble ink. This is most apparent in the lightly worked topographic views around Amsterdam.) The iconic landscape Three Trees (1643) is the most powerful, tonally dramatic and pictorially deep composition. It embodies the greatness of Dutch landscape painting of the Seventeenth Century in a small etching of only black and white.

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[Image: Rembrandt, Three Trees (1643), etching]

The first state of Christ presented to the people, oblong plate (1655) is the version with the figures in the foreground. Masterfully presented as the crowd is, Rembrandt realised that it detracted from the focus upon Christ, so he removed it in the second state. It is one of his few drypoint-only prints. St. Jerome reading an Italian landscape (c. 1654) shows Rembrandt’s familiarity with Italian art. It remains unfinished but we must come to understand this as a stylistic and conceptual step in the artist’s thinking. As the sketch montages were a demonstration of the fragmentary as an aesthetic proposition, so prints such as St Jerome are an assertion of the unfinished aesthetic. Whereas Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi was appreciated for its unfinished quality, it was understood at the time as an incomplete picture. In the Rembrandt etchings, the premature halting of a picture is the preservation of the open quality that an unfinished picture has.

The exhibition is a good survey of Rembrandt’s prints. It does not include alternate proofs or proofs of different states of plates, so one could call this a layman’s display rather than an art-historical display. There is no dedicated exhibition catalogue but a catalogue of Ashmolean’s Rembrandt’s prints is available at the venue.

 

Henri Matisse: Master of Line (4 October 2019-5 January 2020) is the accompanying exhibition of a collection of prints of the 1920s and 1930s, mainly from the collection of London dealer Paul Kasmin. Most of the etchings are of female figures and portraits. Matisse does not consistently hit the target with his etchings in the way he does with his paintings. Unable to significantly revise the etchings the way he habitually did with the paintings, the etchings have the precariousness of ink drawings – linear, spare, fast and uncorrectable. There are some fine prints here and it is well worth spending time with this complementary exhibition.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Lucian Freud: Herbarium

_Lucian Freud Herbarium jacket, high res

Lucian Freud (1922-2011) had a partiality for painting living things – people, animals and plants. Although there is no dearth of cloth, furniture and domestic interiors, these were hardly ever the subject of a Freud painting. He had a fascination for the way organic matter grows and degrades.

Herbarium collects paintings and drawings of plants by Freud, starting in his teenage years in the 1930s and ending a few years before his death. The drawings, pastels, paintings and etchings encompass the subjects of fruit, domestic plants, trees and bushes, with or without human companions. This attractive clothbound hardback includes two essays on Freud’s art of plants and a selection of illustrations, many with commentaries.

On the Greek island of Poros – holidaying with John Craxton in 1946 – Freud created a self-portrait with a thistle. The spiky sparse form of the leaf matched the psychological tension visible in Freud’s tense expression. There is a echoing of the psychology of sitters in the choice of plant attribute in a class of pathetic fallacy, when natural matches and amplifies the mood of the narrator or subject. When staying in Jamaica with Ruth and Ian Fleming, Freud painted a number of pictures of banana plants. Freud was responding to the proximity of a plant that was – in British terms – exotic. Freud took the opportunity of access to stretch himself in terms of subject matter. In later years, Freud did not travel much outside London and such fruitful encounters became less common.

The early Freud style was naïve, with exaggerations, flashes of precision and invented juxtaposition of real elements. Bold stylisation in line ink drawings – developed to suit the demands of book and magazine illustration – developed in the mid-1940s. Sprigs of plants (gorse, fig, thistle) were isolated enough to make an impact yet undemanding in terms of time and suited his preference for linearity. When fruit appeared, they took up relatively little space on the picture surfaces, surrounded by plain space. Drawings in pencil on tinted paper were tinted with chalk and pastel. In the late 1940s Freud developed the potential of plants as a foil or amplifier of human emotions by including them in portraits and self-portraits. This was accompanied by greater realism.

Interior at Paddington, 1951 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Lucian Freud, Interior at Paddington (1951), oil on canvas, 60×45 in. (152.4×114.3 cm), Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. Image credit: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Image]

This approach culminated in Interior at Paddington (1951), a portrait of future photographer Harry Diamond. It became an icon of post-war austerity and pictorial existentialism, layered with detachment, abandonment, anxiety and decay. The later Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait) (1967-8) is just as striking but cannot help but be more affected, using montage and abstract filling achieve its impact.

His small still-lifes of highly perishable fruit are not bagatelles but necessarily constrained by the fast decay of the subject. Whereas Freud would spend months painting people, he could not command time to halt to allow him to paint buttercups or strawberries at his leisure. His plant paintings have an intensity that turns them into plant portraits. It is something of a relief to enjoy Freud’s perspicacity and meticulousness without the psychological harshness of his portraits. One wishes he had painted more plant and animal pictures – perhaps even a few more townscapes – over his career. Another attraction of Freud’s plant paintings is that his habitual mannerist distortions are less distracting (or less noticeable) in these than his anatomy exaggerations in his figure pictures. The viewer with a botanist, farmer or gardener’s trained eye is less attuned to discerning minor distortions in plants than the average viewer is sensitive to the slightly elongated forearm or outsize forehead.

We can see Freud trying out ways of painting unusual subjects in a handful of canvases before dropping the subject entirely from his repertoire. (The lemons of 1946, for example.) That is not to say that lessons learned go unapplied in later paintings of different subjects. Certainly Freud showed that he liked working in intense colours that one does not find in the unclothed figure, as a form of break. Working in these strong non-human colours in plant pictures did presage passages of paintwork describing strongly coloured clothing. Other plants – such as yucca, zimmerlinde and buddleias – became recurrent subjects. Friends recall that the artist had definite preferences in plants and allowed his garden to become overgrown so that he paint surrounded by foliage. It is telling that Freud took on the challenge of painting such disordered, changing and dense foliage rather than regulating it, which would have made the task of painting it easier. In 2006, Freud completed his final plant painting, which was of his garden. Included in a corner – almost indiscernible – was the grave marker of his beloved whippet Pluto, forming an incidental memento mori.

The artist’s method of painting the motif over a blank ground then filling the background meant that sometimes when he stopped a painting incomplete it left the motif crisp and floating free from surroundings. This seems to have become a deliberate effect cultivated by the artist, especially apparent in his murals of cyclamen, which seem to been left a freestanding forms without contextual interpolation. In some canvases (Cyclamen (1960), Plant Fragment (1970)) the plants stand out crisp, bright and solid against a scuffed and inchoate primer ground.

Two Plants, 1977-80 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Lucian Freud, Two Plants (1977–80), oil on canvas, 59×47 1⁄4 in (150×120 cm), Tate, London. Image credit: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

]In a handful of paintings and etchings Freud completely filled picture planes with foliage (Two Plants (1977-80), Garden, Notting Hill (1997)). Taking on such dense, patterned surfaces must have proved highly taxing in terms of concentration and stamina – with little respite from repeated forms and limited colours. Non-artists perhaps do not realise the great demands that these tasks pose to artists. It must have been only a minor release for Freud to know that he could create shortcuts by inventing and omitting with a fair degree of latitude in these pictures in a way that he could not in a picture of more commonplace and recognisable objects with regular geometry or anatomy. Two Plants almost drove him “round the bend. […] When I took one tiny leaf, and changed it, it affected all other areas of it, and so on.”[i]

Giovanni Aloi is a knowledgeable companion, having written previously on botany and art. He outlines the history of botanical art and the significance of plants in symbolism in art. He discusses the significance plants had for Freud the artist. His intelligent commentary and familiarity with Freud’s life and output is well judged and reliable. Herbarium is sure to bring pleasure to Freud fans and aficionados of realist (and Expressionist) art and is warmly recommended.

 

Giovanni Aloi, Lucian Freud Herbarium, Prestel, 5 September 2019, 176pp, 100 col. illus., cloth hardback, £39.99/$60, ISBN 978 3 7913 8533 4

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

New York Mid-Century Women Printmakers

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Artist Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988) founded his printmaking workshop Atelier 17 on the Left Bank of Paris in 1927/8. Hayter as an artist and teacher was close to Surrealism, particularly the practice and theory of automatism. He encouraged students to experiment but accepted artists of outlooks contrary to his. At the outbreak of war, Hayter left Paris. In October 1940 he re-opened Atelier 17 in New York. Christina Weyl’s The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York is a new study of women who trained in Atelier 17 in its New York incarnation. It focuses on eight of the most adventurous and committed women artists who worked at the studio: Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Minna Citron (1896-1991), Worden Day (1912-1986), Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994), Sue Fuller (1914-2006), Alice Trumbull Mason (1904-1971), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) and Anne Ryan (1889-1954).

Hayter moved back to Paris in 1950 to re-establish his studio there. A number of replacement directors maintained the New York studio. The New York studio closed for financial reasons in September 1955. The Paris studio of Atelier 17 only closed in 1988, upon Hayter’s death; a replacement studio has since been run under the name Atelier Contrepoint.

Weyl’s thesis is that the activities of Hayter’s studio allowed women in the 1940s and 1950s to develop proto-feminist practices and associations. “My reading of women artists’ affiliation with Atelier 17 and their experiences both inside and outside the studio is shaped by feminist art history and gender theory. The scaffolding provided by theorists and feminist scholars such as Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Griselda Pollock, Rozsika Parker, and Lucy Lippard allows for a more sophisticated analysis of this moment in history and of this particular group of women artists and makes it possible to reframe Atelier 17 through a feminist lens.” Weyl says she intends to continue “the scholarly trajectory of decentering and demythologizing [American modernism] that began decades ago”.

Weyl admits her thesis is partial. “Giving women artists a space in which they could flex their artistic muscles was radical for the 1940s and 1950s.” This is followed by an admission that often women outnumbered men at art school and that the WPA in the 1930s provided equal treatment of women artists. Weyl overlooks Black Mountain College, Hans Hofmann’s studio and any number of places where women could train without sexist prejudice. When Weyl writes about the limited career options open to women artists, she could just have easily written the same about male artists. There was great competition and few opportunities for all young artists and they had difficulty selling any non-traditional art. At the outset, one senses that Weyl has overstated her case to prove a point and by the mid-point of the book this judgment seems well founded.

The residual fallacy persists throughout the book. Whenever female artists do not pursue their studies, are discouraged, fail to exhibit, leave the studio prematurely and so forth, Weyl’s first resort is to explain this as the outcome of sexist obstruction. Environments are “coded masculine”; “ambivalent attitudes” are “largely unspoken but no less impactful”, nonetheless Weyl seems to be to unerringly identify it at a distance of seven decades. “Given the prevalence of wartime and postwar messaging about personal hygiene and hand care, female members of Atelier 17 had to be cognizant that their ink-stained hands were nonconforming to gender norms.” This sums up the approach and tone of The Women of Atelier 17.

When Hayter was peremptorily dismissive of some applicants (whom he disparaged as dilettantes), Weyl interprets this as sexism rather than impatience with less dedicated artists. Whether or not Hayter was fair in his assessments is not easy to weigh. This was a question of reciprocal respect – not just the master printmaker judging the seriousness of prospective students but of students realising that by studying with Hayter but not treating the work seriously they would be wasting the time of a busy teacher who could have been expending energy on more receptive students. Teachers such as Hayter had justifiably little patience for students who were dabblers. This was a serious problem for artist-teachers, who needed to guard their reputations and to assess how best to apportion limited resources and spaces. When Weyl chides Hayter for being too domineering, this contrasts with the reader’s sympathy regarding Hayter’s protectiveness towards his materials and tools, which were shared and sometimes expensive to replace. The author displays a measurable deficit of empathy towards Hayter, the individual who provided so much support, encouragement and opportunity for women artists.

The place of women in Atelier 17 is an interesting subject worth studying. Simply reviewing commonalities between eight female printmakers and discussing how their working approaches overlap and diverge is worthwhile. The illustrations are numerous and important, as many of these prints are obscure and rarely exhibited or discussed. There is also a useful guide to the societies, open exhibitions and co-operatives that were used by printmakers of the period. Notes of sources and summary biographies of artists will be of use to researchers. Weyl identifies a verifiable case of a woman being overlooked by colleagues. Fuller revived the sugar-lift technique detailed in E.S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which went on to be a popular technique in the 1940s.

The author’s vexation with the two most prominent women artists of Atelier 17, Bourgeois and Nevelson, is apparent. “[They] had indecisive relationships with feminism. Though often touted as the two greatest women artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Bourgeois and Nevelson were not overly supportive of other women artists and treated those from younger generations, especially, with suspicion or ambivalence.” Weyl has a very definite idea that women artists are by nature more collegial than their male colleagues. Therefore great women artists should be greatly collegial. Why would they be?  Wouldn’t unusually competent, ambitious and individualistic artists act in ways that are the opposite of collegial? Why would tough exceptional female artists act any different from tough exceptional male artists and why would those female artists be feminists?

Weyl is insistent on the importance of group solidarity between women artists. “Women taught women, women promoted their fellow sisters’ new editions or current gallery exhibitions, and they supported each other’s business ventures in the print world.” Networking happens at all levels. The most successful artists will tend to network with their successful peers but not be dependent on those connections. One suspects that class solidarity tends to appeal to less competent and less successful practitioners who profit from pooling resources. It is not a matter of gender or temperament but of success. In a modern age when artists do not have or need apprentices, very successful artists usually do not teach. It is less successful artists who teach, print other artists’ editions, promote each other’s work, share studios and form co-operative groups. We might posit that the success of Bourgeois and Nevelson caused them to be less in need of group activity.

Worryingly, there are a number of statements that are inaccurate. “[…] transitioning from social realism to abstraction was not as simple or seamless for women as it was for their male colleagues (think of [Camilo] Egas or someone like Jackson Pollock).” This is overlooks the resistance that Pollock faced as a former student of Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton from that trained by European abstract artist Hans Hofmann. Lee Krasner commented – as did a number of other artists of the time – that Pollock was taken less seriously precisely because his background was in realism and American art rather than European Modernism. One way in which Egas and Pollock earned a degree of respect from the Modernist camp was having worked with the Mexican Muralists, who were seen as the acceptable face of realism. The Muralists blended social realism with Modernism. Formerly realist artists (male and female) faced resistance from the influential New York School supporters of Surrealism, abstract or Modernist sympathies if they had not displayed some sort of engagement with a “more advanced” semi-Modern form of realism before they came to abstraction.

“At Atelier 17, women artists not only upended centuries-old gender boundaries guiding the division of labor within printmaking, but also participating in redefining beliefs about men’s and women’s work in American society  at midcentury.” Setting aside the second clause, the first clause can be identified as absolutely false. Not only have women have been engaged in every part of printmaking since the Middle Ages, it is widely known to be an area where they practiced effectively in every area of workshop activity. Weyl will be aware of the New York Public Library’s exhibition Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers: 1570-1900 (October 2015-January 2016) which covered just this topic. Exaggeration, distortion or falsehood – the quoted statements deserve no place in a reputable study.

Weyl, who has done enough research to know the common sources that I am familiar with, must know that such aspersions of sexism are unfounded. The authority of her statements relies upon the unfamiliarity of general readers with the wider body of literature. Additionally, there are errors of fact (such as technical descriptions on pp. 79, 156, etc.).

The persistent political direction of interpretation distorts the subject. When Nevelson was criticised for using too much ink, it was not a critique of her violating gender roles but of using too much communal material and creating mess that inconvenienced others. “Though Citron ultimately admired Nevelson’s resulting prints, she, Grippe, and others perceived Nevelson’s methods as slapdash and, implicitly, inappropriate for a woman.” Or colleagues may have found her use of shared materials reckless and a bad example to other students. “[…] she was unwilling to concede to postwar expectations and instead transgressed feminine norms with her bold and outsized personality.” Or she was thoughtless, egocentric and entitled. “Citron asked her friend, the sculptor Ibram Lassaw, to solder the plate parts back together. (Her aversion to the soldering gun is revealing because it follows the post-war taboo against women embracing home repair equipment.)” Or Citron was unfamiliar with a dangerous tool and asked an expert to perform the work for her using his tool. You see how hopeless the “gendered reading” is in practice. The best work in the book is in the second half, which contains an informative discussion about the market, distribution, exhibition, collection and status of Modernist prints in the period – material that is unrelated to gender.

The Women of Atelier 17 is a title that should be treated as partial and in some respects misleading. It is likely to cause of much misunderstanding if it is used liberally by writers unaware of the wider art historical scholarship on this period.

 

Christina Weyl, The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York, Yale University Press, 2019, hardback, 296pp, 76 col./63 mono illus., £50, ISBN 978 0 300 238501

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Picasso’s Jacqueline Period

Jacqueline in a Turkish Costume_1955 copy

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

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

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

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

picasso_h_369_liegender_akt_mit_blumenkrone_1970 copy

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

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

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

Standing Woman_1958 copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Matador_1970 copy

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

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

 

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

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books on www.alexanderadams.art

Anna Coatalen, Printmaker

1 Quay 1938_edit

[Image: Anna Coatalen, Quay (1938), wood engraving on paper. © Annik Coatalen Heal, 2019]

Anna Coatalen, née Hook (1916-2011) was born in Bristol. In 1935 she enrolled at Byam Shaw School of Art, London, where she studied printmaking, with a focus on the woodblock engraving. The great boom of the woodblock engraving and woodcuts revival of the 1920s had ended with the Great Crash of 1929 but that was an economic recession rather than a change in aesthetic fashion. (This was precisely the period that Escher struggled to find collectors for his woodblock engravings.) There was a market – albeit reduced – for book illustrations. Her prints are in the style of Agnes Miller Parker and Eric Ravilious.

Quay (1938) is a fine example of a complex design playing with space, transparency, layers and depth in which the artist has deployed a wide range of mark-making. It is her most ambitious and successful print. Other subjects are rustic types, views of vernacular architecture and animals. These prints are more modest in scale and complexity. They are charming but slight. The wood engravings build tones and textures through parallel lines. There are a handful of lithographs (including colour lithographs) were made just before the war. Many of the prints are undated.

The Second World War interrupted her work. Following her marriage to a Frenchman in 1946, she moved to France. This period is when she made linocut prints and greetings cards. These have a degree of freedom when they are independent prints but they are necessarily simpler and stylised when they are illustrating cards. The subjects are her new surroundings – fishing boats and people in traditional Breton clothing. These seem to become more sporadic over the 1950s and cease at this time. The text does not explain how many prints Coatalen produced and over which period. Most of the post-war prints are undated.

From the 1950s until her death, Coatalen produced watercolour and oil paintings and drawings of landscapes, buildings, family members and animal pictures, created in her Berkshire and Brittany homes. There is evident desire to produce art that records the pleasurable and to give pleasure. Also documented are the attractive stained-glass windows she designed for a church on Ile Tudy, Brittany over 2003-8.

 

Annik Coatalen Heal, Lachlan Goudie, Anna Coatalen: Art for Happiness et Bonheur, Unicorn, 19 April 2019, hardback, 140pp, col. illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 912 690 077

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

The Renaissance Nude

Renaissance Nude-22

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

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

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

Renaissance Nude-46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

key 26

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

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

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

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

NG 2751

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

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

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

 

 

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

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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