“Swedish-born American sculptor Claes Oldenburg (1929-2022) died in his home city of New York, on Monday, aged 93. He was one of the leading figures of the US counter-culture in the 1960s and early 1970s. Ironically, some his most distinctive achievements became a template for corporate art of the 2000s.
“Oldenburg studied art in at the Art Institute, Chicago before relocating to New York. At a time, the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko dominated the galleries and art schools. Soon they would come to dominate the auction rooms. Once rebellious modernist abstraction would grace the walls of tycoons’ office walls of tycoons and socialites’ Long Island homes. Young artists in the late 1950s rebelled against what they saw as the commodification of art by staging free art performances (called “Happenings”). Oldenburg and his first wife participated in these.
“Oldenburg had been born in Stockholm and moved to the USA in the 1930s, where his father was a diplomat. He became an American citizen in the 1950s and is considered culturally American. Growing up in economic boom of World War II and the post-war period, the young artist was struck by the plethora of cheap food and consumer goods. He started to produce plaster sculptures of food, which he then painted. The results were like window-display samples. He sold these in an improvised gallery that he called The Shop.”
A central aspect of the art of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) is the adoption of ancient and non-Western visual languages and conventions. The exhibition Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution at the Albertina Museum, Vienna (17 September 2021-9 January 2022) set out to make clear what forms these affinities took in Modigliani’s art and compare those to primitive-inspired art by Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). All three were based in Paris. In short, the exhibition sought to explain how primitivism influenced the directions of leading Modernist artists in the École de Paris and also to look at the links between these three artists. This review is from the catalogue.
Modigliani arrived in Paris from his native Italy in 1906, intent on being a sculptor. The carved stone heads – some twenty – are evidence of his dedication to achieving a single ideal: a female head that would meld the sophistication of European beauty, the direct simplicity of non-European art and the mysterious dignity of ancient statuary. The artist required technical instruction on stone carving and so fell in with another newly arrived immigrant. Brâncuşi arrived in Paris from Romania in 1904. Modigliani was also friendly with Jacob Epstein, with whom he collaborated on a sculptural project in his early Paris years. Over the periods 1907-11 and 1912-4, Modigliani made many drawings of caryatids (some related the Epstein project), which translated into only a handful of sculptures.
One of the most striking aspects of Modigliani’s art is the incorporation of non-Western and archaic art. No viewer of his art can miss the references, albeit highly synthesised, to art generally considered outside of the European fine-art canon. These stylistic elements have been carried over into his paintings. Frontality, stiffness, reduction of modelling and lack of expression are all typical of primitive or archaic statuary and we see all of these is the art of primitive-influenced Modernists. The elongated faces and columnal necks are African innovations and recur often in Modigliani’s carved heads and portraits.
Friedrich Teja Bach enumerates three reasons why Brâncuşi was so struck by encounters with African artefacts. Firstly, it liberated his imagination. Secondly, “the contemporary appreciation of African sculpture made him aware of the relevance of wood – something familiar to him from the arts and crafts of his Romanian homeland – as a material for modern sculpture of the context of the urban avant-garde. Third, as Sidney Geist has rightly pointed out, the abstractness of African sculpture, as found in some masks, probably made a significant contribution to opening for him a path to an abstract symbolic dimension.”
Archaic Greek carvings, Egyptian statuary and murals and other ancient art – in addition to non-European art – was of mutual interest to the pair. Brâncuşi worked in stone, wood, metal and plaster, whereas Modigliani worked only in stone. It was the irritation that the dust of carving caused his tuberculosis-weakened lungs that caused Modigliani to give up carving for painting by 1914. It seems that the friendship of the pair petered out at this time. Unlike Picasso, Modigliani displayed an attachment to primitive art throughout his career, starting in 1906 up to his premature death of tuberculosis. It is the case that Modigliani gradually moved away from primitive influences, especially as he strove for prettiness in his Nice period but one can discern the traits become more or less prominent between pictures.
Modigliani’s portrait painting Black Hair (1918) was bought or acquired by exchange by Picasso in the early 1940s. What exactly the relationship was between Modigliani and Picasso is disputed. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson (and Francis Carco) underplayed it, suggesting that Picasso avoided Modigliani, disliking his drunkenness. Richardson – like many prominent art historians – seemed to have a low opinion of Modigliani. The main charge against Modigliani is superficiality. The idea was Modigliani relied on a range of mannerisms (the long necks, the almond eyes, the long elegant nose) in place of open interaction with sitters and subjects. While that charge has validity, Modigliani’s adoption of the rough surfaces, unusually flattened facets and taut graphic lines – all common between Modernism and African carvings – counteract the tendency towards suaveness and the prioritisation of attractiveness.
Picasso’s paintings from 1906-8 seem to parallel the art of Modigliani. The overwhelming flatness, drawn outlines, graphic shorthand replacing individualistic description, simplified forms, roughly painted facets making no concession to volumetric modelling – all of these are shared by Modigliani and Picasso. It is a moot point how many Picasso works – which seem to date slightly earlier than Modigliani’s, although dating to a precise month is not always possible – Modigliani saw. Many of these pieces were never exhibited during Picasso’s lifetime, so it was only through a studio visit that the Italian could have seen them.
Restellini attempts to reduce the role of debauchery and dissolution in the common view of Modigliani. He quotes the source of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s most committed collector and confidante, on the artist’s use of drugs. The author then adds, “Contrary to legend, Modigliani was neither an alcoholic nor a drug addict. He did not create under the influence of narcotics or drink: like a “seer,” he needed them to fathom the depths of the human soul, to penetrate the other and discover what lay hidden within himself: “Alcohol insulates us from the exterior, it helps us delve into our inner self, all while making use of the outside world.”
The influence of the West African traditions of mask making provided fresh alternatives for avant-garde artists. The radical simplification of the face and the use of symbols and flatness, all aligned with the tendencies already apparent in Post-Impressionist art. We can say that École de Paris artists found what they sought in non-Western art because many aspects of their existing art – and the preferences that they felt drawn towards – were present in the art they responded to. After all, had they been Symbolists such as Moreau, they might have been drawn to the ornate decoration of Khmer sculpture, intricate needlework of North American native textiles, the bas-reliefs of Coptic art, the vivid colours of India art or the narrative function of Aboriginal art. Instead, they found earthy colours, flatness, simplification and the incorporation of shells, feathers and nails in art of West Africa. What the admirers of primitivism found did not change the direct of their art; it confirmed the correctness of their existing trajectory (by antecedent endorsement) and accelerated their trajectory. It was a highly selective response to the breadth of material available.
Modigliani – like artists such as Picasso, Derain and Matisse – frequented the Musée d’Ethnographie at the Palais du Trocadéro, where he was captivated by art of Indochina, Africa and Oceania. At the time, the museum was disorganised, badly lit, overfull, inadequately labelled and unfriendly for any visitor wishing to gain information rather than simply immerse himself in the miasma of foreign cultures. Many readers will long for such a museum, repulsed by the excessive curation of politically active staff of recent days. Publications – especially with high quality illustrations – were less available in those days, which meant that a lot of artefacts that confronted visitors were utterly unexpected and alien. The jolt to the preconceptions of European artists was a shock that electrified and animated Modernist tendencies. Readers are advised to treat the discussion of primitivism by Restellini with caution. While it has some handy quotes from individuals from the lifetime of Modigliani, the historical analysis of primitivism is purely politically driven and of little worth.
Modigliani and Picasso both exhibited at the Lyre et Palette exhibition, held at the studio of Émile Lejeune on 19 November 1916. This displayed modern art alongside 25 African carvings from the Paul Guillaume collection by work by Picasso, Modigliani, Kisling, Matisse and Julio Ortiz de Zarate, in a non-hierarchical approach. It was a recognition of the influence of non-European art and a sense of shared values and outlooks, to a degree.
This exhibition brought together an impressive selection of paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs of lost sculptures. The quality of the art is excellent. There are plenty of drawings by Modigliani, especially those that anticipate sculptures. There is Picasso’s rough unfinished wooden carving of his mistress Fernande as a primeval Venus, made in Gósol in 1906. This is contrasted with a rarely seen gouache of 1905 of harlequin applying make-up, accompanied by a seated woman. At this time, Picasso was looking at ancient Iberian art and the African statues and masks at the Trocadéro. There are many seated portraits in elongated vertical format, which became a feature of his late output. Some of his best portraits are included, such as the profile portrait of his mistress Jeanne Hébuterne (1918) with extravagant curved neck a tapering hairdo. It is notably how few drawings by Modigliani use shading as a modelling technique. When shading appears, it is mainly to separate a figure from a ground, emphasise a line or indicate a block of tone. The paintings deploy modelling techniques, which are handled with a delicacy. The rough dabbing and scumbling of the 1914-5 era is turned into soft smudging in Nice, reminiscent of two local painters: Renoir and Bonnard.
Brâncuşi’s lost wooden figure of a child (The First Step (c. 1914)) is represented by a vintage photograph and a drawing. The sculptor radically simplified the form of an infant walking, following the approach found in West African carving. An oil painting of bathers (1908) by Derain presents art by another Modernist who was inspired by African figures at the Trocadéro. This painting seems as one with Picasso’s African period of 1907-8. The exhibition includes only a few non-Modern/non-Western works (West African carvings, Cycladic stone statuettes, a Khmer head), but there are numerous illustrations of other pieces, some of which may have been personally encountered by the three artists.
Considering today’s political climate, it is unfortunate (but entirely expected) that any approach to primitivism in art leaves the conventional curator tied up in agonised knots of shame. Every statement is preceded by elaborate unequivocal condemnations of the vast ignorance and shameful chauvinism of European artists, even those who demonstrated an intellectual and artistic engagement with non-Western art. “The predominant analysis of this artistic revolution, as articulated by Rubin in the 1980s and persisting until the end of the 1990s, is tinged with racism: this claims that the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas were more at ease in expressing emotion due to their “indigenous” and “primitive” nature.” The curators perform such elaborate obsequious performances to demonstrate their political virtue that they end up damning everyone who came before and failed to meet today’s standards. This leads to an impression that the artist subjects – who were sympathetic towards, and engaged by, non-Western art – are being tried for crimes against 2021’s left-liberal norms.
For those of us who require historical accounts of art that treat us as intelligent, empathetic and morally-informed individuals, we must firmly and clearly reject the presumptions of curators who often know less than their audiences about topics on which they opine.
Notwithstanding this reservation, the catalogue summarises well the inspiring spark that non-Western and archaic art provided for artists of the École de Paris.
Marc Restellini (ed.), Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution, Hirmer/Albertina, 2021, 216pp, 222 col. illus., £39.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3566 4
113, Picasso, female head, 1908, p. 178
114, Fang mask, p. 179
7, Brancusi, The First Step, 1914, p. 62
42, early cycladic figure, p. 102
43, Modigliani, female nude with crossed arms, 1911, p. 102
Anatomical study, art and medicine are bound up with criminality. Not only were the bodies of criminals the few samples available to physicians for dissection in the centuries before 1800, teachers of anatomy relied on the activities of the Resurrection Men. These grave robbers, body thieves and murderers provided bodies for teaching hospitals and universities. Even as late at the mid-Sixteenth Century, anatomical dissection was a criminal activity, undertaken in secret by medical men and artists. Painter Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540) even resorted to graverobbing to prepare a Deposition of Christ. Famed anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) attended a hanging and quartering in Padua to observe the body dissected while still alive. Even after the threats of legal sanction and excommunication were lifted, the air of disreputability lingered around the practice of dissecting the dead. There is something shockingly intimate about the exposure of the hidden intricacies of the human body, as J.G. Ballard recalled in his memoirs The Kindness of Women (1991).
To mark a wide-ranging exhibition of anatomical art and art inspired by anatomical illustration at the Getty Research Institute, Getty Center, Los Angles (22 February-10 July), the catalogue Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy has been published. The exhibition gathers together notable examples from the beginning of modern anatomy science in the Renaissance up to art of recent years. The new art is not compelling or distinguished, so – aside from noting that anatomy still inspires artists today – we shall pass over that and look at the anatomy art of the pre-Modernist era.
Present-day divisions between science, art and philosophy arose precisely out of the increase in specialised knowledge that came about through the work of anatomists in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. The explanations of what these scientists discovered required published descriptions with clear illustrations. What we find in these illustrations is a combination of precision and imaginative invention. Of these illustrations, those by Jan Steven van Calcar (c. 1515-1546) are most famous. His illustrations for Vesalius’s ground-breaking De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1543) – including views of a human skeleton seemingly contemplating a skull, a skeleton resting an elbow on a stave and a flayed man gesturing dramatically in a pastoral landscape – are widely celebrated. Today, these can be found on album sleeves, book covers and T-shirts. The book was the first printed anatomy book to fully integrate text and image.
By placing anatomies in architectural and scenic surroundings in his illustrations, van Calcar gave his subjects liveliness and nobility. He also explicitly linked the physiological information presented with the ability of the artist to use this data in the creation of art that fused fact and imagination. As writers here note, these animated cadavers have the stoicism of martyrs in contemporaneous sacred paintings, with their eyes cast upward to heaven as their mortal forms are scourged. Écorchés (French: flayed cadavers) stand nonchalantly, their skins draped over an outstretched arm. Another practice was anatomia all’antica (Italian, “anatomy after the antique”). This consisted of creating anatomically-exposed versions of famous antique statues, such as the Borghese Gladiator, the Discobolus and others, showing the master of the ancients and endowing dissection with the authority of art. Such poses recreated sometimes exposed shortcomings of the ancient sculptors, as they failed to incorporate bunched muscles or taut tendons.
Illustrations by Jan Wandelaar (1690-1759) presented flayed figures standing in groves with fragments of antique masonry at their sides. At the other end of the spectrum, some views filled empty space with assorted details, using the printing plate surface as efficiently (if inelegantly) as possible.
These illustrations became as important for other artists as they did for students of medicine. As figures in paintings became more anatomical sound, so scientific illustrations became elaborate, with mises-en-scènes becoming pictures within which the dissected body acted as still-life or dramatic character. Rembrandt’s two anatomy-lesson paintings are scenes of professional men at work (as seen in similar paintings by him of jewellers, scholars and burghers) but they also differ little from the complex frontispieces found in anatomy textbooks. On occasion, physicians were competent enough as artists to draw the illustrations for their own texts. New illustration techniques had to be conceived of by anatomical artists in order to depict on a page the nature of a complex multi-layered three-dimensional organism.
Some of the reproduced images are startling. One print by Cornelis Huyberts (1669/70-c. 1712) shows the skeletons of foetuses posed on a stand around an artful pile of pebbles and twigs. One has a feather fixed to its skull. Such macabre dioramas were – in real life – a staple of curiosity cabinets and would become features of travelling shows of oddities in following centuries, dying out only the last decades of the Twentieth Century. This irreverent (even jocular) attitude towards the dead (especially children) will leave some with modern sensibilities uneasy. Other images are so peculiar it is hard to know what to make of them. Only the field of comparative anatomy could give rise to an illustration entitled The penis and testicles of a young boy, the skin from the hand of a young boy, a bundle of pubic hair, and three chicken eggs (1703). (Salvador Dalí would have relished such a title.) In an illustration from William Hunter’s giant anatomy book, a curled late-term foetus is exposed in the womb of his dead mother – a poignantly pitiful image.
Some obscurities were deliberate. In some books, genitals were not reproduced. Descriptions of female genitals were sometimes given in Latin, excluding the uneducated. In one anatomy book, ovine reproductive organs substituted human ones, which were considered too indecent.
This book includes essays from top-level specialists on topics such as illustration of anatomy, anatomy books, antiquity and others. The catalogue section has individual works – mainly illustrative prints that have detailed discussion facing full-page images. The development of anatomical art is fleshed out – if you’ll pardon the pun – in these commentary texts that explain the purpose and significance of these selected art works. Studying this field, we can see the changing technology of reprographics. In the Sixteenth Century illustrations were made by carving designs from wooden blocks, soon after can engravings and etchings in copper sheets. Readers will be impressed at the level of detail and care in these prints, with the dense curvilinear cross-hatching describing the muscles, tendons and bones of the body. Mezzotint (where shade is indicated through stippling of printing plates) allowed colour printing, something that was later achieved much more easily through lithographic printing. Such skills have almost disappeared in art. Later developments include the inclusion of flaps and fold-outs.
This catalogue is a welcome and engrossing testimony to the nearly lost art of both anatomy illustration. The book contains numerous illustrations of anatomical illustration, casts, scenes of academy studios, three-dimensional coloured models with moveable parts and some early photographs. The bibliography, footnotes and index will assist researchers.
Monique Kornell, with Thisbe Gensler, Naoko Takahatake, Erin Travers, Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy, Getty Research Institute, 1 March 2022, 248 pages, 8 x 11 inches, 163 col. illus., hardcover, $50, ISBN 978-1-60606-769-7
The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280 is the “first book to situate the sacred and sensuous bronze statues from India’s Chola dynasty in social context”. This book is an attempt to synthesise art historical and connoisseurial appreciation of temple bronzes of the Chola dynasty (855-1279) but also to consider the social, economic and religious significance of the bronzes. The Chola dynasty flourished in South and South-Eastern India and northern Sri Lanka; its influence expanded over of the territory of Bengal and Malaysia. Its art is considered by some to be the Indian renaissance. Author Vidya Dehejia, professor of Indian and South Asian art at Columbia University, claims that this book a first full attempt to cover the breadth of the reception and production of the famed temple bronzes.
Dehejia faced certain hurdles in preparing this handsome book. Firstly, not all of the bronzes are either documented or even listed. Secondly, getting reliable data on the bronzes is difficult, not least because – as sacred objects – access to them is limited and photography of some is forbidden. Thus, even making an overall assessment of the estimated 3,700 statues over hundreds of holy sites is a task so large that it will require further even more work. One question the author raises is where did roughly 153 tons of copper used to cast the statues come from, considering there are no copper deposits in the Cholas region? She thinks that evidence of copper mines in Sri Lanka probably indicates trade or conquest prompted Chola expansion to Sri Lanka. Additionally, the pearl fisheries of Sri Lanka were greatly valued by Chola kings.
These devotional works were fitted with fixings for carrying poles and – in temples – are routinely clothed, daubed with substances and have offerings applied. Years’ worth of accretion of incense, ointments and soot have patinated the statues that are kept in situ in temples. Some statues have been removed to museums (in India and worldwide, especially Great Britain and the USA). The author explains the subjects of the statues, which are of gods and goddesses (mainly Shiva, Uma, Skanda, Vishnu, Kali, Ganesha) and saints. Included are plentiful photographs of statues dressed in their holy-day finery, showing how worshippers have seen these statues for over a thousand years. In the Valuvur temple in Nagapattinam, the brahmins put a diamond-studded foot cover on the raised foot of dancing Shiva.
As Dehejia explains, the original sculpture that be modelled in a mixture of wax, resin and oil. This is then coated with plaster, surrounded by sand and molten bronze poured in, which replaces the original model entirely. This makes the Chola bronze solid, not hollow as the lost-wax method generates. “All Chola bronzes are the product of this direct lost-wax process in which the mold must be broken to release the image. There is no mold left for reuse, so each Chola bronze is a singular piece that may not be replicated in any mechanical fashion.” Statues are sometimes worn smooth by the touch of priests. Periodically, worn details would be cut back in by sculptors. Some statues and laws on copper plates have been unearthed in recent years, offering further knowledge of the period. In 1310 an invading army of Muslims was pillaging temples for valuable materials, so priests in the region buried their statues and the threat of defilement and destruction lasted until 1378. The hiding places of the bronzes and valuables was secret information. It seems that not all of the bronzes were recovered at the time.
Dehejia notes that the earliest of Chola bronzes (c. 855/860) display remarkable accomplishment. “No evidence exists of hesitant beginnings. Where did this Master come from? Where is his other work? Might it emerge from an underground burial site? Since the entire art of processional bronzes was in its infancy, we must assume that the artist who created this couple [Shiva and Uma] in the mid-ninth century trained as a sculptor in a wood- or stone-carving workshop. The markedly flattened form of the images that is strikingly evident in side view is noteworthy; it is almost as if the figures were extracted from a bas relief in stone or wood.”
The domination of Shiva worship outstrips worship of other deities. “[…] of the 311 temples in the extended Kaveri delta (the present-day districts Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur, and Nagapattinam), 295 honor god Shiva, while only 16 are dedicated to god Vishnu.” It seems that the sinuous lithe forms of dancing Shiva (Shiva as Lord of the Dance, often with four arms) in bronze statues came from Chola Shiva worship and accelerated the preference for Shiva over other gods.
The tapering torso, smooth chest, wide shoulders and elongated face is typical of Shiva and some of the other male statues. The figure type of the women is famous: the wide hips, sloping shoulders, elongated torso, narrow waist and large bust (sometimes exposed). The men exude strength and grace; the women are fecund and youthful. Faces of gods are generally serene. Sometimes figures are accompanied by smaller companions, children and animals. These sometimes support the main figures structurally, as do other forms, such as halos of fire (aureole) and mandalas. Deferral to elegance over verisimilitude is apparent, with some poses being improbable or impossible.
The stone carvings are considered and amply illustrated. The author sees many parallels between the stone and bronzes. The stone (the type is not described) is weathered when exposed to the elements and thus the bronzes are better examples of the sculpture of the period. Most of the bronzes are kept inside the temples. The weathering and alteration of inscriptions in stone walls – sometimes so extensive that they cover all the ground-level walls, alcoves and pilasters – has made reading dedications and instructions difficult. Also written on the walls are donations made by the devout.
Dehejia discusses the co-existence of Tamil Hindus and Sinhalese Buddhists on Sri Lanka. The Cholas were Hindus but understood the value of patronage of Buddhist temples as well as supporting the Tamil merchants’ Hindu temples. Apparently, the sculptors also made Buddhas and Dehejia compares holy statues of Hindu and Buddhist subjects and finds many stylistic and technical points of overlap.
An overview of the classes of individuals who founded the temples is assessed by Dehejia, following the known inscriptions in Sanskrit and Tamil. She concludes that women donors frequently donated statues of Uma. Artists in this period are anonymous. There has been an effort to discern separate masters in certain places and eras, in order to permit an artist-centred appreciation of sacred art, as is possible in modern Europe. Dehejia tentatively assigns specific statues to certain single unnamed masters.
The standard of the art is excellent. The grace of the figures and skill of the artists are comparable to art of any era and region. The stylised and hieratical character of the bronzes can make them look to the uninitiated as led by formalist concerns, but Dehejia explains the subtle psychology expressed in certain groups – for example, the shyness of Uma before her wedding and protective but insistent guidance of her protector. The restrained expressions belie the distinct characterisations of individual gods.
“Today, many small Chola-era temples, including Vadakkalathur, Tandantottam, and Tiruvilakudi, have no bronzes at all. In the light of the smuggling that, unfortunately, has accompanied the thriving art market in India and overseas, all bronzes from many temples have been removed to safe-houses, referred as “Icon Centers”. […] When sequestered in Icon Centers, these exquisite bronzes with deep religious significance and aesthetic reputation are not available to priests, to devotees, or to art lovers, thereby deptiving the bronzes of their many consequential levels of meaning.”
Dehejia’s book does much to illuminate the meaning and importance of the holy statues of the Cholas. The illustrations are generally very good, the level of information is appropriate for the educated non-Hindu reader. The appendices, notes and glossary make the book a self-contained reference work on the subject. Highly recommended.
The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280 is part of the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts National Gallery of Art, Washington Center for Advanced Study in Visual Arts Bollingen Series XXXV: 65.
Vidya Dehejia, The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardback, 336pp, 242 col./3 mono illus., $75/£58, ISBN 9780691202594
William Simmonds (1876-1968) was an English sculptor and puppet-maker whose work has long been appreciated and who is now the subject of a thorough and sympathetic biography. Author Jessica Douglas-Home recalls visiting the artist while she was a child. She has consulted primary sources, including the letters and diaries of the artist and his wife, as well as archives of museums. The author situates Simmonds as a late practitioner of direct woodcarving in a line stretching back through the Arts and Crafts Movement to the artisanal creators working in traditional materials and idioms from the medieval period onward. Douglas-Home takes care to describe accurately places, people and events of Simmonds life, weaving a rich tapestry of Edwardian and early Twentieth Century life in England. Her touch is light and the book is a pleasure to read.
William Simmonds was the son of John Simmonds, a successful carpenter. An apprenticeship at his father’s firm proved unstimulating and he successfully petitioned his father to release him from the apprenticeship so he could pursue an artistic vocation. Simmonds studied art at the National Art Training School (later the Royal College of Art) (1893-8) and the Royal Academy Schools (1899-1904). Simmonds came into contact with the Arts and Crafts Movement, through his tutor Walter Crane at the NATS, which left an indelible mark on him and would guide his artistic career.
Simmonds found work as an illustrator of classic literature. Simmonds received commissions for illustrations in the golden age for book illustration – after the invention of low-cost colour metal-plate lithography, in a time when line-block graphics were common in books and newspapers before waves of austerity and photography made illustration into supplementary (and ultimately dispensable) ornamentation. Examples show Simmonds to be skilled but unremarkable as a pictorial artist.
Simmonds was hired as an assistant on a mural project under Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911), his former RA tutor. Abbey was an American illustrator who had entered the RA as a painter and was enjoying considerable success as both a painter and illustrator – too much success. His huge workload was onerous and sapped his health. Abbey’s refusal to compromise on historical accuracy meant that his work was slower than it would otherwise have been. Simmonds worked on portable murals for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, though he is not always credited for his contribution.
In 1912 Simmonds and Eve Peart were married in London. Peart was a former student of Sickert at Westminster School of Art. Her knowledge, judgment and skills would make her an ideal companion and collaborator with her husband. She was noted for her embroidery and sewing skills. She would become the more financially astute of the pair. That same year Simmonds began carving wooden puppets for private family performances. Eve would design and sew the clothing. Eve was an accomplished keyboard player and would perform popular, folk and classical songs as accompaniment to the puppet performances. Performances ranged from vignettes and comic sketches to whole plays. Douglas-Home has not entirely solved the difficulty of how to convey the content of these ephemeral performances or the impression they had upon audiences, though she does quote contemporary accounts. Puppet performances were popular and highly regarded at the time and the author effectively explains the prestige that the art form had.
Simmonds found that carving his puppets and independent sculptures (principally of animals) in wood and stone appealed to him more than painting. Thereafter, sculpture became his primary medium. He took up modelling in clay in his last years as his dexterity and strength ebbed.
In 1915 Simmonds was invited to work on the development of a prototype of a landship, which became the first tank. Simmonds’s experience with joints and traction in marionettes came in useful in this project and he was apparently pleased to be contributing to the war effort in a way few could. The tank proved to be effective and broke the stalemate on the Western Front. Simmonds never received any patent compensation for his innovations. Simmonds then transferred to the drafting department of the de Havilland aircraft company. It was an occupation he would keep until the conclusion of the war. Eve worked at Kensington War Hospital. Some of the best sections of the book are those blending the personal experiences of the Simmondses and their friends into a narrative of the First World War. Douglas-Home’s account of the Zeppelin and Gotha air raids on London reminds us of the suffering and stress Londoners endured.
In 1919, released from war work, the couple moved to the Cotswold village of Far Oakridge. The house (with thatched barn, to be used as a workshop) was close to other artists and creative figures, thus was not as isolated as it might been. They were to remain there for the remainder of their lives. The connection to nature, immersion in English pastoral tradition and intimate contact to the living culture of rural working people provided comfort and inspiration to the couple. Simmonds frequently walked the lanes and was a patient observer of the fauna he encountered. His sharp memory and sensitivity is reflected in his carvings, which elicit warm responses from observers. The carvings were unpainted and with eyes of ebony inset. His artistic approach combines strong understanding of animal anatomy and a drive towards realism tempered by adroit use of simplification and stylisation.
One constant visitor and active supporter was William Rothenstein. Rothenstein was a well-known painter, public figure and head of the RCA. He made valuable professional contacts for Simmonds and was a link to the heart of the London art world. Rothenstein made sympathetic chalk portrait of Simmonds, illustrated in the book. Simmonds and Rothenstein became lifelong friends and Douglas-Home touchingly describes their companionship and the sense of loss Simmonds suffered when his friend died in 1945.
The Simmondses were part of the set of Fabian Socialists and Arts and Crafts progressives, though it seems the couple did not have strong political beliefs, more temperamental sympathies. Other members of their social circle included the Bloomsbury Group and prominent figures in the arts and politics. Famous names crop up frequently in asides. Despite this stellar group of friends and collectors it is easy to see how – though still respected by current connoisseurs, dealers and collectors – Simmonds’s art is not as well-known as that of Gaudier-Brzeska, Gertler, Dora Carrington, Bomberg and other British artists of the era. The natural modesty of Simmonds’s subjects and the relatively small scale he worked at, have meant it is easy to overlook his work. General public taste has swung to Modernism and the appetite for the biographical content of Bloomsbury-related art finds nothing in Simmonds’s carvings.
Regular submissions of carved animals to the RA Summer Exhibition maintained Simmonds’ reputation as a sculptor. The 1922 “International Theatre Exhibition” at the V&A led to prominent newspaper reviews and his name became widely known in Britain. Performances of the Simmondses’ marionette shows in their region and at London venues were very successful, drawing large audiences and enthusiastic newspaper notices. Later performances included celebrity attendees, including Churchill and H.G. Wells. The author notes the financial support that Muriel Rose’s Little Gallery in London provided during the years of the Great Depression. Her famous clientele (including royalty) added prestige to the material benefits artists reaped. Sadly, we do not get much indication of exact figures paid for pieces or an overview of how much the Simmondses’ income was and whence it came.
When war broke out in 1939, Simmonds volunteered for ARP work. There were many RAF airfields in Gloucestershire and there were bombing raids and dogfights over the area. When Sir Stafford Cripps moved to Far Oakridge, he and his family became good friends with the Simmondses. Simmonds’s natural charm and modesty won over many, it seems. As their social circle narrowed in the post-war years, their lives became less eventful, it seems. Simmonds died in 1968 and Eva in 1980.
Illustrations include photographs of the Simmondses, their friends and the marionettes and sculptures. Although the range is necessarily limited, the images give a fair impression of Simmonds’ skill. Examples include carvings of rabbits, dormice, owls, swans, horses, hares, ducks and dogs. Vintage photographs of puppets and miniature theatres give us a sense of what the public saw of Simmonds’s marionettes at the time they were in use. A few of the artist’s book illustrations are included. Researchers may be disappointed by the paucity of endnotes; the author has opted for a general list of published sources and archives instead. General readers will not miss detailed references; there is an index.
Overall, this biography is a wide-ranging, intelligent and fair assessment of the life and work of a much-respected English sculptor. Let us hope that this raises Simmonds’s profile with the general public.
Jessica Douglas-Home, William Simmonds: The Silent Heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Unicorn, hardback, 28 col. illus./mono illus., 284pp, £25, ISBN 978 1 911604 75 4
“Brutalism has seen a surge in interest among young people keen on bold uncompromising Modernist design. Whole books of moody photographic studies of concrete buildings are snapped up by fans of urban life and retro design. A crop of new books explores the Brutalism of socialist states.
“While Constructivism and avant-gardism in fine art came to prominence during the October Revolution, it was suppressed in favour of Socialist Realism by the mid-1930s. In architecture more adventurous forms and materials persisted, although in the minority. Under Stalin there was a degree of stylistic conformity and austerity, yet adventurous architecture was not seen as “bourgeois formalism” as it was in art. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, historicism receded and a greater variety of art, design and architecture (including Modernist architecture) became possible. While supposedly for the masses, many of the showpiece constructions were moribund from the start: inverted ziggurat hotels that were barely occupied and shopping centres with few consumer goods to offer. Much of this architecture was completed less than a decade before the economic and political collapse of the Eastern Bloc….”
[Image: Panel with Striding Lion, Babylon, Processional Way, Neo-Babylonian period, reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, 605–562 BC, Ceramic, glaze, 97.2 x 227.3 x 12 cm (38 1⁄4 x 89 1⁄2 x 4 3⁄4 in.), New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 31.13.1, Fletcher Fund, 1931]
This catalogue is for an exhibition of Mesopotamian artefacts planned for 18 March-27 July 2020 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, touring from the Louvre, Lens. The majority of the items in the selection are from the Louvre collection.
Within the territory of northern Iraq and Syria, between the Euphrates and Tigris, the great cities of Ur, Babylon and Nineveh were founded and the Uruk, Jemdet Nasr, Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and Hellenistic periods (among others) succeeded one another between 3900 BC and 642 AD. The centres of population began close to the Persian Gulf and slowly moved northward, due to increasing salinity of the marshes. The Persian era ended with defeat by Alexander the Great and the burning of Persepolis. The Seleucid dynasty ruled before the rise of the Parthians then the Sassanians, who vied for control of the Near East with the Byzantine Empire. The fall of the Sassanian Empire to the Muslims ended many of the traditions that are characteristic of Mesopotamian civilisations.
Mesopotamian innovations (according to current knowledge) seem to include irrigation, weaving, moulded bricks, glassware and alcoholic beverages and – it is thought – writing and written laws. (Tablets are illustrated and translated, with one breaking down the mixture of cuneiform and pictogram script. Others are in pure cuneiform.) These were the first agrarian settled civilisations and cities, made possible by commerce and specialised trades. Foreign trade exchanged woollen textiles for perfumes, spices and metals. Bureaucracy developed to manage the construction of large structures and distribution of wages of food or silver. Fields such as astronomy, mathematics, geometry and music were honed in ways that had not been possible before. History was recorded and the world’s first museum was Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon’s collection of inscriptions and objects, some up to a thousand years old in the first half of the sixth century BC. Inscribed histories, declarations and laws provided precedent and continuity.
The Western scrutiny and collection of Mesopotamian history began in earnest in the 1840s, somewhat later than the fieldwork in Egypt. The French took the lead, bringing back treasures to Paris. Excavations by European teams uncovered Persepolis in the 1930s. In recent decades, Saddam Hussein ordered excavated more and reconstructed the gate of Ishtar at Babylon at full scale to perpetuate the glory of Iraq. A chapter presents conceptions of Sumerian history, including art by John Martin, Degas, Delacroix, Bruegel, Rembrandt and D.W. Griffiths.
[Image: Seated Statue of Gudea, Sumer, Tello (ancient Girsu), Neo-Sumerian period, Second Dynasty of Lagash, reign of Gudea, ca. 2120 BC, Diorite, 44 x 21.5 x 29.5 cm (17 3⁄8 x 8 1⁄2 x 11 5⁄8 in.), New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. 59.2,Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1959]
The 133 exhibits here include statuettes, cuneiform tablets, glazed bricks, seals, stelae, plaques, jewellery, large sculpture and paintings. Metal-plating was used on objects of wood and stone, inlays being used on statuettes. Line engraving, appliqué, repoussé, cloisonné, glazing and stamping were all used as forms of decoration. A rare silver vase used at a temple has a dedication inscription and engraved images of animals. Small stone cylindrical seals with intricate carvings of historical, royal and mythological scenes were rolled over strips of clay to make terracotta bas-reliefs.
While this art does not rise to the level of the masterpieces of Assyrian civilisation – although there are some artefacts from this era – the selection covers many aspects of Mesopotamian cultures, which permits us to consider Assyrian art that we are familiar as part of a continuum. One of the outstanding images of Assyria – the Lamassu, man-headed, winged bull – appears in a Neo-Sumerian period (c. 2150-2000 BC) chlorite statuette, dating from before the Assyrian era. The stylised patterned depictions of hair, fur, water and drapery is one of the most remarkable and effective devices of Assyrian art. Another aspect is the use of profile in murals. The utilisation of moulds allowed the mass production of glazed bricks which were used to make multiple roaring lions which lined walls.
The most striking art works are statues of Prince Gudea – in dark stone carved in the round, showing the prince in a turban or cap. The musculature of the larger standing piece (no. 107) (and to a lesser degree in the others) is well observed and hints at an appreciation of realistic anatomy in Akkadian art. The schematic and rounded statues of rulers of the Neo-Sumerian and Akkadian eras will recall for many viewers the art of Egypt, however, the breadth and ambition of both the Egyptians and Assyrians eclipse these pieces.
The Mesopotamian cultures were polytheistic, without central codification; set religious practices were apparently not enforced by the state. The chapter on religion exposes how different Mesopotamian approaches to religion were to the religions that replaced them. The gods were considered fallible, inconstant and even mortal; that is reflected in the iconography, which shows the gods as only differentiated from royalty by attributes. Royalty lived in palaces and gods lived in temples. Visages in busts are relatable and human. Nudity is common in the art of all stages of Mesopotamian civilisations; even sexual acts were depicted. Wall paintings rarely survived. The remaining pieces are crude in comparison to contemporary relief carving of the time.
The catalogue outlines the development of the societies, providing up to date information, some derived from technological discoveries. Computer visualisations present aerial-viewpoint reconstructions of cities. The catalogue includes an index and extensive bibliography. Expert commentaries give us an overview of the subject.
Ariane Thomas, Timothy Potts (eds.), Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins, J. Paul Getty Museum, April 2020, hardback, 236pp, fully illus., £50, ISBN 978 1 60606 649 2
How does Impressionism – a style that exploited the materiality of oil paint, the optical characteristic of broken brushwork, colour harmony and contrast – translate into sculpture, which is generally monochrome? How can a style so dependent on qualities of flatness be translated into three dimensions? How can art that depends on delicacy of touch and the impression of fleetingness find any sort of analogy in solid objects cast in metal? There has always been an idea that the very heart of Impressionist technique and priorities make it essentially difficult to translate into solid plastic matter. The reliance on spatial ambiguity presented a particular problem to artists working in a concrete medium.
A recent exhibition explored this paradox. En Passant: Impressionism in Sculpture was an exhibition held at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. The artists covered in detail are Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Medardo Rosso (1858-1928), Paolo Troubetzkoy (1866-1938) and Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916).
The subjects of landscapes, theatre scenes, shops and café interiors lent themselves to descriptions of space as much as of objects. How could these subjects be adapted to solid sculpture modelled in the round. The lighting of sculpture was also – aside from photography sessions and the controlled environment of an exhibition – out of the hands of sculptors. Lighting can reveal the great depth and subtlety of a sculpture; insensitive lighting renders a sculpture illegible.
What is the definition of sculptural Impressionism? Is it defined by the new subjects of art, the style, loose finish, concentration on fleeting motion, a break with tradition (anti-academicism), use of new materials, execution en plein air or in front of the motif, lack of preparation to fix the finished work before it was started or some other measure?
The independent group’s exhibitions at the studio of photographer Nadar, on Boulevard des Capuchines, Paris – which would become known as the Impressionist exhibitions – included sculpture. Seventeen sculptures would be exhibited in the eight Impressionist exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886. The works were by Auguste-Louis-Marie Ottin (1811-1890), whose works were not Impressionist in any meaningful sense, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Degas. Gauguin’s pieces were varied: traditional marble busts, carved wooden reliefs and an adapted wooden statuette with a waxen head. The relief of a child combing her hair and the wood-wax bust of his son Clovis are the most innovative of the pieces. The former could be considered Impressionist due to the handling. Gauguin’s work received some critical praise.
The catalogue for the 1880 announced a statue by Degas, but it did not appear and the case remained empty. It was announced again in 1881 and was late. When it did appear, it caused a furore. Modelled in reddish wax, the statue was a below-life-size representation of a dancer in real clothes: Little Dancer at the age of Fourteen (1878-9/1881), pigmented beeswax, clay, human hair, cotton tutu, silk ribbon, linen slippers, wooden base, 99 cm high. This could be said to be the first Impressionist sculpture: it was a modern subject, created in front of the source; the artist deployed modern materials; the finish was rougher than usual; it had a realist’s engagement with the subject, not an idealistic approach.
The debut of the Little Dancer provoked a powerful reaction in 1881 – most of it negative. Critics found the piece shocking. It was too lifelike; in its glass case, it was more of a carnival sideshow waxwork than a sculpture fit for a display of fine art; it was ugly; it violated so many rules of decorum that it was nothing more than a provocation. Parisians were used to seeing ballet dancers at a distance in theatrical lighting, not close up. The reality (as refracted through Degas’s sculpture) was coarse and ungainly. There was palpable class snobbery about the responses. In an age when phrenology and physiognomy were treated as quasi-science, it was thought that one could tell a person’s character from the shape of their skull and their appearance. Everything about the subject shouted to the urbane Parisian that she was part of the underclass and that her presence in the gallery was an unwelcome intrusion of a sordid reality.
There were kind words from some critics. Huysmans wrote, the Little Dancer was “the only truly modern attempt at sculpture.” However, Degas never exhibited sculpture again.
The piece was not a one off. He made sculptures from the 1860s onwards, though it seems the early pieces no longer exist. Degas would build armatures of wire and wood then model statuettes of nudes (dancers and bathers) and horses using unconventional combinations of material: pastiline, clay, plaster, corks, coloured beeswax and other materials. The figurines were often fairly roughly finished; limbs would crack and fall off. When the estate assessed the contents of Degas’s house following his death in 1917, around 150 statuettes were found, many crumbled to dust and fragments. About half were rescued and repaired, with 72 being editioned in bronze.
Whether or not Degas’s decision not to exhibit other sculptures was due to the public mauling his debut had instigated, we cannot know. The artist had an ambivalent attitude towards his sculpture. He spent a lot of time on the art form over decades, he made certain pieces more permanent by casting them in plaster and displayed some in his dining room. At the same time, he never cast anything in bronze, never exhibited anything after the Little Dancer and (according to memoirs of acquaintances) he claimed he was glad that the pieces would crumble.
By the summer of 1886 a new name was added to the Impressionist group: Italian sculptor, Medardo Rosso, who exhibited his work at the Paris Salon. Medardo Rosso was an Italian sculptor from Milan. He specialised in busts and heads, though he sometimes added backgrounds – something he developed from his work on grave monuments. In the absence of public access to Degas’s sculptural work – aside from one piece – Rosso came to be seen as the Impressionist sculptor even though he never exhibited at the Impressionist displays. Rosso’s output was original and influential. A radical departure was use of wax as a finished medium. Wax is very delicate and subject to damage in high temperatures. It is commonly used in the modelling and casting processes but it had been considered too fragile to be a permanent medium. (Rosso cast a coloured wax outer layer around a plaster core.) Rosso also cast work in bronze, mainly of statuettes. Rosso’s sculpture found echoes in the art of Antoine Bourdelle and Bourdelle’s student Alberto Giacometti. Rosso was close to Eugène Carrière, who worked in a tenebrist style in print and paint. Carrière was later the neighbour of Bourdelle. Carrière was also in regular communication with Rodin. Rosso developed a rivalry with Rodin; as Rodin became ever more famous, so Rosso accused him of stealing his ideas.
Rosso’s output was very limited, confined to about 50 original works in 20 years is meagre. For the last 20 years he made no original work, only casting making new casts of old works. Rosso lived in Paris for 1889 but failed to capitalise on his art’s brilliance until 1902. He then achieved some acclaim but once the Cubist craze took over Paris in 1910, Rosso’s minor star was eclipsed except in Italy, where he moved during World War I. Regrettably, Rosso secrecy and mistrust means we do not have much written material by or about him during his heyday.
Rosso used photography very effectively to control the viewing experience of his art, favouring electric light. His use of coloured wax to mimic qualities of stone, flesh and wood gives the same design different implications. Rosso is considered an Impressionist for several reasons. Firstly, his subjects are modern and taken from everyday life, including street scenes. Secondly, his surfaces imitate the effect of veils, shadow, blurring, movement and speckled highlights. Thirdly, the quality of the finish is deliberately rough – very rough in places – that defies the standards of academic sculpture. From a distance, Rosso’s pieces seem to be hunks of unworked material. Only when approached closer and examined do they reveal their figurative forms. Thus Rosso’s sculptures are the optical inversions of Impressionist paintings. Impressionist paintings appear realistic from a distance and become increasingly abstract close up; Rosso’s sculptures appear abstract from a distance and become increasingly realistic close up. Finally, his use of the mise en scene or tableau introduces a sensation of space and indicates a context for the figure. Some of his pieces verge on the abstract. (For further discussion of Rosso see my review here.)
Rodin is often seen in connection with the older sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, collaborator Camille Claudel or viewed as a founder of Modernist sculptor – particularly in the light of his sawing up of plaster casts of his pieces. So realistic was the early Age of Bronze figure (1875-7) that Rodin was accused of passing off a life-cast as a modelled sculpture – a very modern tactic, but one which Rodin vigorously disputed. Rodin’s work sometimes remained unfinished, which gave it an affinity with Impressionist practice. The case for Rodin as an Impressionist is more tangential than with the others. Rodin’s radical approach to the Burghers of Calais (1884-9) was compared to that of Monet, whom he exhibited beside once in 1889.
Paolo Troubetzkoy was born in Italy, son of a Russian diplomat. He approached his portrait busts without using preparatory sketches of modelli. His working methods and aesthetic preferences produced bronze busts that showed evidence of their process of creation, with areas showing lesser worked areas along with highly finished areas – akin to a range of focus. He could be seen as a member of the Cosmopolitan Realist movement/tendency, which encompassed Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, Giovanni Boldini and others.
Rembrandt Bugatti is now as celebrated as any animalier artist. His small bronze statues of animals (domestic, agricultural and exotic) are justly treasured. The catalogue associates the Italian Bugatti with German Impressionism (Corinth and others). The Nineteenth Century saw the rise of animal art – Landseer, Bonheur, Barye and others – and Bugatti is the end of the classic period. His short working life coincides with the termination of realism and figurative styles as qualities of the avant garde. His bronzes combine naturalism, movement and a lively finish, characterised by a dappled pattern of highlights, giving the impression of movement.
Other sculptors who could be considered potential Impressionist sculptors are listed: Ernesto Bazzaro, Antoine Bourdelle, Ferruccio Crespi, Honoré Daumier, Leonardo Bistolfi and others. (More discussion of Daumier’s sculpture would have been welcome.) There is a section on the display of Impressionist sculpture and another on the way photographs were created and received (with the photographs becoming Pictorialist works of art). The catalogue includes many photographs, drawings and paintings which relate to the sculptures or images related to subjects of sculptures. Often, the sculptural treatment is palpable in the drawings. Rosso’s drawings and photographs will be new to some, though they have been widely published in recent books. Degas’s output is so large that there are always new drawings to encounter. This is an excellent survey of the problems of classification and the shared aesthetics of a set of advanced sculptors working in the 1880-1930 period. Highly recommended.
Alexander Eiling, Eva Mongi-Vollmer (eds.), En Passant: Impressionism in Sculpture, Prestel/Städel Museum (distr. Prestel), 2020, hardback, 360pp, 335 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 3 7913 5961 8
“When a mob toppled a statue of merchant and slave trader Edward Colston in central Bristol on Sunday, the scenes were reminiscent of the collapse of a tyrannical regime. The mob stamped the fallen statue with rage and delight. Yet the mob was composed of individuals who had experienced no struggle or strife, and live in one of the safest, most prosperous nations in history.
“Most of the crowd were white, middle-class university students who have never done anything to oppose actual slavery. Not one of those warriors against slavery will offer a word of criticism regarding the (internally disputed) Islamic practice of slavery, which persists in some parts of Africa to this day. Toppling a statue is a summer carnival; researching and criticising a world religion is a little less of a rush. For most people today, virtue is not embodied through persistent and difficult private acts. Rather, it is demonstrated through momentary public performance and posted on Instagram.
“Far from fighting the power, the mob was acting in accordance with guidance it has received from schools, universities and mainstream media. Bristol council and the mayor did not decry destruction of public property, but applauded it….“
Matisse: Metamorphoses is an exhibition that examines the master’s work in sculpture and how it relates to his two-dimensional art (Kunsthaus Zürich, 30 August-8 December 2019; Musée Matisse, Nice, 7 February-6 May 2020). This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.
[…] in order to express form, I sometimes engage with sculpture, which allows me to move around the object in order to get to know it better , instead of remaining in front of a flat surface.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) made sculpture throughout his career and it was always close to his heart. He was often photographed making sculpture though the pieces themselves met mixed critical receptions and were exhibited only irregularly until his last years. Nearly the entirety of his sculptures was figures – either as nudes or portrait heads – most of them small in stature. The exhibition includes 58 pieces from Musée Matisse, Nice the world’s largest collection of Matisse’s relatively small sculptural oeuvre of just over 80 (mostly small) works. The exhibition includes all states of key works, namely Madeleine I-II, Henriette I-III, Jeanette I-V and Back I-IV. Some of the catalogue texts address certain pieces. The reading of Reclining Nude I (Aurora) (1907) is particularly acute.
This exhibition includes drawings, prints and paintings which are connected to the sculpture. Matisse commonly used his sculptures in still-life paintings. There are drawings and prints of the same model who appeared in a sculpture. Matisse spent periods of years working with only one or two models, allowing us to connect art with specific individuals. The identity and stories of Matisse’s models was the subject of an exhibition and catalogue. Even so, in some cases there is very little public information – quite a contrast with some of the celebrated models of Maillol, Picasso and others. Also included are photographs of sculpture in progress and lost works. The artist at work suggests his approach and the studio setting within which he worked.
From early in his career, evidence tells us that Matisse was serious about his sculpture. Matisse took lessons from Antoine Bourdelle in 1900 and worked in his studio. He returned to modelling in clay and plaster periodically throughout his career. At the end of his life Matisse was pleased to have his sculpture recognised as a significant part of his output. He commented with satisfaction the late exhibitions that featured his sculpture. One reason Matisse’s sculpture has not received the attention it perhaps should have, is that Matisse – despite his achievements as a draughtsman – is seen as a master of colour. His achromatic carvings and bronze castings do not contribute anything to discussion of Matisse as a painter in colour, arranger of colour and generator of light. It is understandable that critics have therefore not known how to fit the sculpture into the story of Matisse or his major contributions to art.
One catalogue essayist suggests that the interviews, writings and photographs of intermediate states were all – partly at least – a campaign to explain how complex and difficult his work was to counteract the frequent comments that his art looked effortless. This was manifest in his decision to exhibit (in a 1945 exhibition in Paris) finished paintings alongside photographs of unfinished states of these works. This was a veritable demonstration that his art was not simple or effortless to create. This inevitably raises the matter of whether any of the anxiety at these comments (not necessarily criticisms, but possibly intended – or perceived – that way) influenced how Matisse worked. Was there a possibility that this desire to prove his art was hard won led to Matisse performing this in the form of extra stages for photographic records and complication of the facture of his art? This seems unlikely but if the essayist’s hypothesis is correct then these are considerations worth entertaining.
Matisse made extensive use of artistic and ethnographic publications of female nudes. Straddling the blurred line of erotica, anthropology and anatomical reference works, the publications Mes Modèes, L’Étude académique, L’Humanité feminine offered Matisse access to Africa and the Orient without having to travel, though he later would visit Algeria and Morocco. The varied anatomies, “typical” poses and artificial positioning of models as ethnographic examples provided a visual stimuli that was not otherwise available. The exhibition and catalogue include the magazine pages that Matisse used as working sources. The Serpentine (1909) is a standing female nude with one elbow resting on a plinth, an image found in a commercial photograph. What caught Matisse’s imagination was curving serpentine through line that moved from elbow to foot.
Matisse collected art from Africa (and Oceania) and that provided him with a non-Western sculptural syntax, allowing him to see a different route to figuration. It provided necessary rupture. Art nègre became a touchstone for the Fauvists, as it later did for Picasso, and it could be seen at the Musée Trocadéro and shops in Paris. The abrupt alien formulations and brusque geometry of art nègre were so adeptly incorporated into visual Modernism that they seem natural to us. The conceptualisation of body parts in African carving as autonomous masses not organically connected or articulated offered Matisse a radically new way of assembling figures – one sees that very clearly in the artificiality of the Matisse’s portraits of the 1910s. Using geometry for anatomy and treating body parts as solid, discrete and non-realistic forms also presented an approach to sculpture that offered an alternative to the Egyptian, Hellenic and impressionistic methods. Vladimir Markov’s insightful observations of 1913 on the subject of art nègre are quoted in the catalogue essay on this. The exhibition includes works by Rodin, Bourdelle, Maillol, Renoir and Picasso – much of which Matisse would have known. There are pieces of African art and Greco-Roman statues from the artist’s collection, and a selection of pieces from other collections.
“Really, Latin perfection, I don’t care about it, and all this complexity of modelling. It is only the Negroes that concern me any longer, since my last visit to the Trocadéro…” – Matisse, c. 1927
Ellen McBreen’s reading of European Modernists’ subsequent disavowal of the importance of African primitivism in their development as a strategy to cover their tracks is too harsh. There was a degree of self-serving reinvention about these disavowals but they are no different from the common reframing of the past to favour the author in late-life memoirs.
Matisse commonly used system of series in his sculpture. He would take a work to a state he was satisfied with, have it cast and begin the subsequent work in the series using the original or a cast of the first work. We should not see this as expressly a series of provisional stages preceding a final resolution; rather we should see it as a completed work giving rise to subsequent commentary or correction of the previous work but which exists independently. This is different from Matisse’s habit of having his oil paintings photographed at different stages. In those cases, the initial stages were incorrect or otherwise deficient and were subsumed by an improvement. Matisse could of course have resumed work on a painting by starting a new version and preserving the preceding one. He did not lack for materials, after all. He did keep records for his own edification. Apparently, Matisse’s studio was next to Rodin’s when Matisse resumed sculpting seriously in 1908-9 (and teaching painting, drawing and sculpting). Sandra Gianfreda suggests that Rodin’s practice of taking and using casts of states of sculpture in progress would probably have been known to Matisse, who was deeply influenced by Rodin at the start of his career as a sculptor. Apparently, Matisse did not conceive of his sculptures as needing to be considered in relation to one another. “The Backs were never understood by the artist to be a series; all four bronzes were only grouped retrospectively, the more so as The Back II was only discovered posthumously.”[iii]
Although Matisse asserted in public that single paintings developed in a direct sequential fashion, incrementally advancing to resolution, in private he commented that sometimes he would find himself dissatisfied with a painting and entirely reconceive it at the beginning of a session.[iv] Thus there was no secure path to completion and any logic of progression in a sequence of working photographs could be a retrospective conceit of the viewer – at least in the case of some paintings. (Contrast this with Picasso’s sequences, such as the Bull lithograph, which seems deliberately schematic in its approach.) The issue of seriality is addressed in the display of a number of photolithographs of drawing sequences. This helps to demonstrate points that are relevant to Matisse’s sculpture.
An essay is devoted to the Backs series, fittingly, as it is Matisse’s most significant achievement in sculpture. It notes the existence of a first (“version 0”) lost version, which is known only from photographs. This sculpture reconceived of the rear view of a female nude, with different emphases. This series is also the closest to painting because it is a bas relief, thus is simultaneously pictorial and sculptural, flat and modelled. The Backs were not typical of Matisse’s sculpture, which were very volumetric, fully modelled and sometimes conceived in the round. Almost all Matisse’s sculptures were produced through modelling not carving, and none by assemblage. That said, Matisse’s three-dimensional art can be strikingly linear.
This exhibition catalogue presents a broad and serious treatment of Matisse’s sculpture in depth and in context. For anyone interested in Matisse’s art will find surprises and new information therein.