Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) was a multi-disciplinary Swiss artist who worked in painting, sculpture, dance, architecture and applied arts. She trained art schools in Switzerland and Germany before World War I. In 1922 she married German-French Surrealist sculptor Jean Hans Arp (1886-1966).
Twenty-four letters and eleven postcards sent by the artist to the Basel art collectors Annie (1893-1964) and Oskar (1887-1956) Müller-Widmann are reproduced and translated into English. The correspondence commenced in 1932 and ends in 1942, the year before the artist’s accidental death, due to carbon-monoxide poisoning. The replies were not preserved. It seems most of the correspondence was addressed between the wives.
The Müller-Widmanns were collectors and patrons of the arts. They bought a painter by Taeuber-Arp and met the Arps in Basel. The couple were taken with Taeuber-Arp’s design of her home in Meudon, France and consequently commissioned her to design a house for them. A drawing for the house is illustrated, but the project never got further than the planning stage. The Müller-Widmanns subsequently paid Arp a monthly stipend to support his art.
In the letters, which grow increasingly friendly, the artist discusses art by herself and husband and makes passing comment on other artists – Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian and others. “Last Saturday we were with Man Ray in St. Germain, where he has a charming country house, full of ingenious inventions; he is the only surrealist who has a sharp sense for modern furnishing. We saw Duchamp and Picasso the other day, they are all hard at work.”[i] At this time, Taeuber-Arp was the editor of the journal plastique plastic, featuring abstract and Surrealist art and literature, so she was closely involved in the trends of the Modernist art world. As expected, exhibitions and catalogues are frequently mentioned. Taeuber-Arp touches upon current events by criticising the Nazis, who had put her and her husband on a list of entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”). She passes cutting comment on the quality of the Paris World Fair of 1937.
Correspondence was disrupted during the war. “[Hans] was inconsolable as he had to leave his sculptures and everything he’s been working on for fifteen years without knowing when or how we’ll see these works again. The air raid alarms disturbed him a lot less than they did me, but all this destruction, all these horrors, are extremely distressing to us. Hans has lost a lot of weight […]”[ii] The Arps relocated from Paris to Grasse, Southern France, then to Switzerland to escape potential internment by the occupying Nazis, following the fall of France. Fascinatingly, she discusses the fact that the Arps had a passage to America booked. The evacuation of Modernist artists was arranged by the U.S. Emergency Rescue Committee and the Arps were granted visas, although they ultimately decided to remain in Europe.
The book reproduces the paintings that the collectors acquired, photographs of the couples together and facsimiles of some of the letters and cards. Included is a brief chronology of the artist’s life, as is an index. The introduction and extensive footnotes are invaluable, helping the reader understand the glancing references and circumstances of correspondents. Overall, this attractive book will be of interest to those researching the life of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, the inter-war abstract art scene and Modernist-art collecting culture in the 1930s.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Waldburga Krupp, Fondazione Marguerite Arp (eds.), Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Letters to Annie and Oskar Müller-Widmann, Scheidegger & Spiess/Fondazione Marguerite Arp, 2022, paperback, 128pp, 32 col./7 mono illus., $30, ISBN 978 3 03942 068 1
The first English-language overview of Czech Surrealist artist Toyen (Marie Čermínová, 1902-1980) corrects a longstanding lacuna in English literature on Surrealism. Surrealism studies has been expanding its range over decades. Central and Eastern Europe have been poorly served however, particularly because of lack of access to records during the Communist era and the relative dearth of Surrealist scholars able to speak the relevant languages.
As Karla Huebner, associate professor of art history at Wright State University, explains in her monograph Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic, neglect of Toyen’s art is in part her own making. Toyen was not keen to commit her artistic ideas or biographical information to paper, leaving many admirers in her lifetime unclear about the artist’s intentions. André Breton was an admirer of her art and she was involved in post-War Surrealism in Paris – she fled to Paris after the Iron Curtain fell – but she is seen as, if not second rank, certainly second generation. Huebner correctly discerns that post-War Surrealism was (and is) considered a spent force. Even in official histories of the movement, comparatively little attention is paid to the Paris group after 1945. Other reasons are discussed later.
Toyen was born Marie Čermínová, in Prague in 1902, to Catholic parents from Bohemia. Huebner sets out what little she can glean of Toyen’s early life, which (apart from official records) amounts is almost nothing. Between 1919 and 1922, Čermínová attended the Artistic-Industrial School, which was the applied art school in Prague. Her teacher was Emanuel Dítĕ the Younger was an academic painter, but Heubner points out that some notable Czech modernists started their careers under him, so his teaching must not have been deadening. In later years, the artist did not discuss her background with anyone, though it seems she was not estranged, simply keen to protect her privacy (or control public perceptions of her).
Čermínová dressed ambiguously, not presenting as a man but in working clothes more common for men than women. She also wore conventionally feminine clothes. She cut her hair short. Rather than intending to pass as the opposite sex, Čermínová’s diverse styles of dressing suggest variable intentions and moods, an understanding of appropriacy and a studied disregard for convention. “Descriptions of the artist as androgynous or of mutable gender identity emphasize four general characteristics: 1) cross-dressing, especially in rough and working-class manner; 2) walking with an unusual, apparently unladylike, gait; 3) use of the masculine gender in Czech (though not, apparently, in French); and 4) attraction to women.”
Čermínová was a successful and prolific designer of book jackets and illustrations, starting in 1923. That was the same year she joined the Devĕtsil Modernist movement, which Huebner describes as an avant-garde movement with cosmopolitan attitudes, which saw itself as internationalist – partly to step outside the Czech nationalist revival (Nationalist Awakening), that had begun around 1900. The Devĕtsil members had their roots in the Decadent Movement of the 1890s. It was upon her joining the movement that she was given the name “Toyen”, which she would use for the rest of her life, personally and professionally (if not legally).
From 1922 until his death in 1942, Toyen was the partner of Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942). Štyrský started as a latter-day follower of the Decadents. He had an interest in potent provocative literature, dreams and occultism – a good grounding for a future Surrealist. He was a painter with a pronounced preoccupation with death, decay, ruin, as well as the erotic. He worked as a painter, although it is for his montages – especially with pornographic elements – that he is best known for today. The couple apparently collaborated on different levels, consulting each other about choices and sometimes working on pieces together. They frequently exhibited together, with prices comparable. Štyrský and Toyen were considered a social and artistic pairing, Toyen not as a junior partner or follower. Magazine spreads show that their art was given equal prominence. There seems to have been no condescension towards women in the Devĕtsil group, though (again) apparently few participated.
Huebner describes how the Prague proto-Surrealists were a vital force in the mid-1920s, just as the Paris group was graduating from Dadaism to Surrealism. (This was despite the fact that the Prague group was not officially founded until 1934.) There was apparently rivalry between the groups for intellectual leadership of the movement. In 1925 Toyen and Štyrský moved to Paris. The book contains much discussion of the pair’s personal and artistic fascination with sex, so much more easily accessible and public in Paris than elsewhere. Sex was a major theme of the pair’s art. Toyen’s paintings and sketches include revue bars, prostitution, lesbianism, orgies and other sexual imagery, made in a naïve style.
Toyen’s erotic illustrations are playful and vary in detail, ranging from the primitive to the sophisticated over-layering found in Surrealist photomontages. The lines can be sensitive and elegant. The imagery includes the ribaldry of pornography, the sophistication of Beardsley and the juxtapositions of Surrealism. The sheer amount of work indicates Toyen’s serious artistic investment in this field. Toyen and Štyrský published illustrated erotic books and her illustrations in Štyrský’s Erotická Revue (1930–33). Štyrský was sympathetic to Bataille’s dissident Documents group, which focused on the power of sex, the concept of the informe and the concentration on sadism. This book should establish Toyen as a major artist of the erotic.
The pair’s work earliest art in Paris was semi-abstract paintings, influenced by Cubism and Purism; it was described as “artificialist”. It is tepid fare. The ambivalence of Breton and the Surrealist poets towards art meant that painting in early Surrealist period was ancillary. Breton started writing in 1925 of “Le surréalisme et la peinture”, distinguishing and dividing the two entities with the conjunctive “and”. Toyen and Štyrský spent the late 1920s resisting Surrealism, all the time becoming more familiar with it, swimming in the waters of the movement that dominated inter-war Paris. Huebner says that once Toyen committed to Surrealism, she did it wholeheartedly and became the central figure of Czech Surrealism – its unofficial leader. By this time, she was back in Prague. She and Štyrský had returned from Paris in 1928.
This book acts as a survey of Czech Surrealism. It explains the significance of major actors, important events and the tensions between Surrealism and Communism. The paucity of personal papers means that Toyen disappears a little in some sections. She comes back into focus during the Occupation and World War II, during which she stayed in Prague, sheltering a half-Jewish artist Jindřich Heisler (1914-1953) from Nazi arrest and transportation to concentration camps. In 1942, Štyrský died of pneumonia, exacerbated by alcoholism. It was in 1944 that Toyen produced Hide Yourself, War!, nine ink illustrations featuring animal skeletons in devastated landscapes. They are by far Toyen’s best art. The powerful bleakness, graphic crispness and wonderfully modulated shading give these apparitions tremendous impact.
Occupation of Prague by Soviet forces following the war and the artistically deadening influence of Czech Communists meant that Toyen, despite being politically left, realised her art had no future in her home country. In 1947, Toyen and Heisler (her new partner) moved to Paris. She would reside in France until her death.
It is a little ironic (given the author’s identification of the critical neglect Surrealists after 1945) that relatively little space is given to Toyen’s post-War production. This does turn out to be justified. The author describes how Toyen’s art became more diffuse, mystical in mood, suffused by darkness. This was congruent with Surrealism as a whole, as Breton directed followers to embrace the occult and mysticism. Single hybridised humanoid forms float in stygian voids. Collaged elements (such as mouths and hands cut from magazine pages) are incorporated into painted personages. It is hard not to think of this era as a decline. Toyen’s art was at its best with a sharp graphic bite and limpid clarity. We do find some flickers of success in her post-1945 line drawings but even these are less concisely arranged than her early Surrealism. Toyen’s painting (always weak) becomes forgettable. There is the implicit suggestion of laziness – covering backgrounds and settings with darkness, failing to resolve compositions, not fully articulating motifs. Viewing these pedestrian efforts, is it any wonder Toyen is considered a third-rate painter, when she is considered at all?
There are unanswered questions. Huebner does not discuss how the paintings were made. Did Toyen make preparatory drawings or were the paintings designed on the canvas? Hide Yourself, War! presumably had sources for the skeletons – were they taken from textbooks or drawn from museum specimens? Did Toyen keep sketchbooks? Did she write letters mentioning her technique or including thumbnail sketches? Also, Toyen’s income goes undiscussed. Did she make a living income from fine art or was she obliged to do book-design work? We do not know anything about her living arrangements or daily routines. Did she travel? This is no criticism of the author. It may be that such information is entirely lost. Huebner has rightly discerned that the main priority is to outline Toyen’s art and summarise methods of critiquing it.
Pick up any large book on Surrealist art and you will find Toyen’s art, but rarely represented by more than a drawing or two or maybe a painting. Little text is given to her. (Less is given to Štyrský.) So, for what reasons (apart from neglect of the post-War period of Surrealism) are Toyen’s art not more reproduced or discussed?
Refreshingly, for an author writing on a female Surrealist, Huebner admits that gender is not the primary reason for the neglect of her subject. “The scholar in pursuit of Toyen encounters some of the usual problems in studying a female artist – the relative paucity of critical sources, the need to research her via male associates – yet not entirely for the usual reasons. Indeed, Toyen’s two artistic partners, Štyrský and Heisler, have received no more attention than she. It is less that her gender has obscured knowledge of her work than that historical circumstances – primarily arising from the Cold War – have obscured her from view.” This point is outlined in the second paragraph of this review.
The frankness of Toyen’s erotic art may have put off some publishers and art historians. The subject of sex is not unknown to the movement (Hans Bellmer made it his central concern), but mainstream publishers can be wary of unambiguously explicit art in titles intended for libraries and schools. The erect phallus (which one does not find in the art of other female Surrealists) is definitely on the indecent side of the line that separates mainstream publishing from specialist publishing. The compiler of any monograph on Toyen cannot avoid including her erotic pictures.
Huebner identifies a key difference between Toyen and other female Surrealists. There is lack of personalisation and a lack of personae in her art. There are no self-portraits, no alter egos and no glamorous avatars in Toyen’s dreamscapes. “Toyen’s avoidance of [the face of the artist] does not negate the possibility of self-referential imagery in her work, but indicates that she did not care to represent herself in an obvious way or as the kind of wild and beautiful woman found in the work of Carrington, Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, and even Valentine Hugo.” This is definitely to Toyen’s disadvantage in terms of popular reception. There is no accessible entry point and no character upon which the female viewer can project herself. Toyen was an attractive woman but unlike the other women Surrealists, she did not model nude for herself or anyone else. Toyen’s aversion to (even disguised/transposed) literary and pictorial autobiography makes her art less attractive to audiences and academics.
As already described, a strike against Toyen is the fact that she was not a natural painter, being better suited to collage and illustration. Her skill was for graphics – line, composition, reduction – rather than colour, texture and brushwork. This puts her at an immediate disadvantage compared to the major Surrealist artists, who (with the exceptions of sculptor Giacometti and photographer Man Ray) were all painters. Next to the paintings of rich patterns and colours of Leonor Fini, the fairy-tale characters of Leonora Carrington and the haunting plains of Kay Sage, Toyen’s paintings feel a little thin, a touch flat, even drab. The best of Toyen’s art is her illustrations. However unfairly, line drawings and illustrations are judged minor art forms and treated accordingly.
I disagree with José Pierre’s assessment of Toyen, quoted by Huebner, as “the least acknowledged of the great surrealist painters”.Toyen is not a great painter; she is barely a competent painter. She is a very accomplished draughtsman – at times reaching true greatness. However, due to the minor status of drawing and the other limitations outlined above, Toyen will never be counted as a Surrealist of the highest level by the public. Huebner has very well evaluated and presented the case for Toyen and readers benefit from knowing Toyen and her unique contribution to Surrealism. Magnetic Woman is a major achievement, very enjoyable and greatly informative. The author’s diligence and the clarity of her writing are of the highest standard. The author is well informed about Surrealism and current discussions in gender theory.
For those claiming Toyen as a “transgender” artist, there is disappointing news. Huebner nowhere cites Toyen describing herself as anything other than a woman. Despite using both male and female pronouns regarding herself in Czech, for the majority of her life she spoke principally French. In French, she never used a male pronoun regarding herself. While there is evidence of cross-dressing and some linguistic reframing in one of her two languages, there is nothing here to suggest she considered herself in identity terms such as transgender, transman, transvestite, intersex or anything else. The most that can be said of her is that (at times) she did not act in ways that were considered normatively female – along with a number of other women in that era, who likewise did not consider themselves transgender. It seems that Toyen did not want to be thought of by others as a woman because that might limit her; there is no evidence in this book that she thought of herself as anything other than a woman. She was a woman who acted the ways she wanted to. That in itself is noteworthy and does not need embellishing.
This publication is a rare foray into art history by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Let us hope it will not be the last. The book is well illustrated and handsomely bound in buckram, doing both subject and author credit. A word of advice for anyone who is a devotee of Surrealism, Czech Modernism, erotic art and female Modernist artists: buy this book. Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic is certain to become an essential source book, much sought after and expensive. Buy it now, while you can.
The films, television series and video projects of David Lynch have vexed and stimulated viewers since the 1970s. Authors James D. Reid and Candace R. Craig have taken of the films and one television series by Lynch as subject for their discussion about agency in Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch. Each chapter relates to Lynch’s films Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE and the third season of the television series Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks season 1 and 2, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,Dune and the short films are excluded. (On the absence of Dune, they write: “[…] we both find the film to be unwatchable.” Many viewers find INLAND EMPIRE far more unwatchable.)
They point out that Lynch does not seem to be setting forth a coherent articulated philosophical worldview in his films. “However, the search for thematic coherence in the director’s body of work need not entail a unified philosophical position in evidence throughout Lynch’s oeuvre.”[i] This comes position comes as a relief, as attempts to present any body of complex cinematic work as a fixed, purposeful, consistent and didactic system seems a chimera, more of a projection of a need for certainty and confirmation on the part of the interpreter than any empirically derived assessment of the work as it is.
Lynch’s background as an artist, his absolute control over most of his projects (as writer, director and editor, as well as his contributions to the music and occasionally acting of his films) make Lynch an archetypal auteur and (as such) an ideal subject for an assessment of overarching ideas and themes. His freedom in combining disparate imagery, genres, tones and themes means his work is very rich. Within films, even within scenes, Lynch juxtaposes (rather than blending) humour, eroticism, the aesthetically striking and the unsettling in ways that allow the exploration of deep emotions, contradictory feelings and rarely posed philosophical questions, particularly regarding reality, desire, memory and understanding.
Alvin from The Straight Story is attributed a high degree of agency because of his active participation and pursuit of self-determined goals in his quest to travel to see his sick brother. The story centres on Alvin driving hundreds of miles with a tractor because he has no driver’s licence and features the encounters he has along the way. In some respects, The Straight Story is judged an atypical Lynch film in that it features little eroticism, horror, gore and Surrealism; what is not mentioned is that the protagonist is atypically assured and purposeful, also able to enact his aims in a straightforward manner. It is uncharacteristically straight. The authors demure at the suggestion that Alvin’s quest is an embodiment of the value of rugged individualism, mentioning the assistance he gets and the framing of his journey as an act of recuperation.
Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer is a character with weak agency. Henry evades responsibility, avoids making firm decisions, initiates little, is passive in most situations and thereby gains his classic Kafkaesque character of the man buffeted by circumstance. He seems barely in control of anything yet is held responsible for the burden of fatherhood to a creature which is not human but has human traits. He fails as a husband and provider and ultimately catastrophically fails as a father by inadvertently killing his “child” whilst trying to alleviate its suffering. He seems to have gained little understanding of his world or what is expected of him, surrendering his agency through ignorance and timidity than any sort of malice. The authors write of Henry as an example of Aristotle’s akrasia (weakness of will), as he is man stuck in stasis which seems (at least in part) of his own doing. Yet, as the authors note, Henry’s infanticide is an act of liberation for him, displaying some agency, perhaps a powerful subconscious selfishness. The problem of drawing any line between reality and fantasy in Lynch’s works means it is not clear whether of not Henry commits infanticide or merely imagines doing so. The deliberate ambiguity of the director leaves the matter in irresolvable doubt.
John (Joseph) Merrick of The Elephant Man is a case of a person whose agency is limited by environment. In that film, based on the true story of a Victorian Englishman afflicted by a severe deformity, Merrick is unable to test his intellectual and emotional capacities due to the cruelty and hostility of a society repelled by his ugliness. His life is so circumscribed by his medical condition, which left him seriously disabled, and by the rejection of society that it is only the intervention of an enlightened surgeon, Dr Frederick Treves, that Merrick is permitted to engage in polite society rather than being confined to a freak show. Ironically, it is through the intervention of another that the character achieves limited liberation from societal hostility, though his medical condition remains unchanged.
Merrick’s situation and his ability to further his desires rests upon eliciting the empathy of others. Merrick’s intelligence and sensitivity are revealed through the charity and compassion of the high society people who were introduced to him through his guardian, Treves. Once enabled by this, Merrick can explore new experiences and develop his artistry (his ability to construct elaborate architectural models). It is seems slightly off the mark to critique The Elephant Man for taking “considerable liberties with historical fact and seems to ignore the ways in which socioeconomic forces govern human lives, presenting the viewer with stark moral alternatives more in keeping with bad Hollywood Westerns. If there is exploitation to be addressed, its proper target is something larger, and more impersonal, than the individuals directly involved in Merrick’s fate.”[ii] The authors seem to have pre-judged how any socio-economic critique might lay blame. Such matters are not cut and dried and it is unwise to assume their views to be objective and universally shared. Lynch is not an analytical or especially socially-directed creator, so expecting any approach of this type is puzzling.
In Blue Velvet Jeffrey Beaumont investigates and becomes sexually entangled with club singer Dorothy Vallens and thereby incurs the wrath of Frank Booth. For the first time in Lynch’s work, there is an active antagonist, one who exercises powerful self-directed agency. Frank threatens Dorothy and Jeffrey, kills Dorothy’s husband, kidnaps her son and dominates the crime scene of Lumberton. Jeffrey overcomes his own weak agency and the opposition of Frank to defeat Frank and restore order to Lumberton, returning a degree of comfort to Dorothy by (indirectly) freeing her son. In the film, Dorothy and Sandy have the least power of control or self-actualisation, limited by the actions of others. However, significantly, it is Dorothy’s command of sexual attractiveness that is used to dominate Jeffrey and to demand of him sexual violence against her.
“Blue Velvet is a film about seeing and, importantly, about seeing as an instrument of knowing. This is a film that asks obsessively what it is to know something, how vision enters into the search for truth, and how far the capacity to see reaches in the work of acquiring knowledge, in a Kantian register what the scope and limits of vision can be said to be.”[iii] In the most famous scene, Jeffrey secrets himself in a closet in Dorothy’s flat to avoid discovery and inadvertently observes her unawares. He inadvertently witnesses the emotional abuse and sexual assault of Dorothy by Frank. What was intended as an enactment of a mystery investigation – a staple of detective novels and old films – becomes a shocking insight into depravity and the depths of the human psyche, something for which Jeffrey is completely unprepared. The authors examine the difference between experiencing and understanding. “One of the central events of Blue Velvet boils down to the unmasking of a misguided conception of what it is to come to know. Jeffrey is, it seems, actuated by curiosity, the desire to know simply for the sake of knowing, and, more specifically, as we saw, by the desire to see.”[iv]
Wild at Heart is a violent road movie with two main protagonists, Sailor and Lula. “If Sailor and Lula frequently appear to be failing as agents, this is partly because they bring with them all the existential anxieties associated with their pasts, in the shape of experience, but also in the guise of significant others, whose lives, past and present, form a web into which their current efforts invariably fall. Sailor and Lula cannot easily escape (or escape too easily in spurious forms of release) because they carry with them the potent influences of those responsible for helping create the contexts out of which they grew and developed and against which they now struggle.”[v]
Interpretation of Lynch’s subsequent films Lost Highway, INLAND EMPIRE and (to a lesser extent) Mulholland Drive is complicated by structural and character ambiguity. It is harder to discuss the characters in these films because disentangling fact from fantasy in these (fictional) films is almost impossible. The reality of the characters resides both in their actions and dreams; their actual selves and their imagined selves (including doppelgangers and alternate selves) overlap. The authors do their best but much of what they conclude is necessarily more debatable due to the complications the material presents. I contend that the discussion of the third season of Twin Peaks is flawed because it does not sufficiently incorporate an analysis of the first two seasons and (especially) Fire Walk With Me. Although Twin Peaks Season 3 has many aspects that make it self-contained, a discussion of character agency cannot be understood without recourse the viewer expectations and experiences of the excluded material, and the way pre-experienced tropes are extended and subverted by the third season.
The book is readable, with a minimum of jargon is used. In its seriousness, the authors do not sacrifice accessibility. The authors apply philosophy and philosophy of cinema at various points whilst not making such discussion too intrusive. They compare Lynch’s cinema to films by others and refer to cinema-theory writings. This title will be most value to students of cinema theory and those analysing Lynch’s unique contributions to film.
James D. Reid and Candace R. Craig, Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch, 2020, Lexington Books, hardback, 267pp + xi, £69, ISBN 978 1 4985 5593 7
NB: This is a notice, not a review. It is derived from the final version on PDF, not a published copy of the book. Hence, I cannot provide a complete review as I am unable to discuss print quality, binding, etc. All information below is accurate to the PDF I have viewed.
Leonor Fini (1907-1996) was an Argentinian-born Italian Surrealist painter. She grew up in Trieste and received no formal training as an artist, teaching herself. She joined the Surrealists in 1933. She was part of the oneiric (or dreamlike) strand of Surrealism, led by Dalí, who became a friend, although it would not be until 1938 that she would produce her first mature Surrealist paintings. These feature women in elegant dresses inhabiting fantastic invented settings, with mythological references. Throughout her career, invented female portraits and self-portraits would be a major part of her oeuvre. Her art would centre on women, sensuality and sexuality. She portrayed male lovers nude and painted scenes of lesbianism in later years. The atmosphere of her scenes is mysterious and often sinister. Her art developed through different phases. In the 1950s, her art became more decorative and abstract, with figures floating in fields of organic patterning. These verge on the psychedelic. In the 1960s and 1970s, Fini’s figures become paler and less modelled. The increasing stylisation, flattened forms, area of strong colour and shallower picture plane indicate the influence of Pop Art. In the 1980s the backgrounds darkened and her art becomes more serene and less playful. She painted until a few months before her death in 18 January 1996.
This catalogue raisonné is in two volumes. The first volume contains essays on various aspects of the life and art of Fini, with illustrations including photographs of the artist, her famous ball costumes and sketches, along with a selection of colour plates of paintings. The second volume contains a catalogue of all Fini’s known paintings, with colour images and information, concluding with a detailed chronology, bibliography, exhibition list and other source data. The texts are informative and thorough, with Overstreet and Webb already proven Fini experts. The bibliography is extensive but not complete. The illustrations (judging from the digital file) are high quality. This publication will be a vital resource for collectors and dealers, though its price will put it out of the reach of many enthusiasts.
Richard Overstreet and Neil Zukerman (eds.), with Peter Webb and Rowland Weinstein, Leonor Fini: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2021, hardback, 2 vols. in slipcase, 648pp, 1082 col., 339 mono illus., €350, ISBN 978-3-85881-843-0
he life stories of Suzanne Malherbe (1892-1972) and Lucy Schwob (1894-1954) are the stuff of fiction. Jeffrey H. Jackson’s Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis is a new telling of a tale that has received increasing attention in the last two decades.
The Schwob and Malherbe families were friends and their daughters played together. Suzanne was a talented artist and Lucy wrote prolifically from childhood onwards. They collaborated on a book of drawings (Suzanne) and poems (Lucy), published in 1919. The book was published pseudonymously.
Professionally, Schwob adopted the gender-ambiguous name Claude Cahun; Malherbe chose the masculine nom-de-plume Marcel Moore. They would be professionally known by those names, though their everyday and legal names remained unchanged. As this review is biographical rather than artistic, I, like Jackson, will use their given forenames. Jackson is alive to the way the pair have been appropriated as cons of transgenderism. He points out that although they presented themselves in ambiguous ways (Cahun shaving her head), “they always talked about themselves as women” and used female pronouns. Suzanne and Lucy arrived in the early 1920s from Nantes in search of fulfilment; mainly artistic and literary….
Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) is best known as the painter of female nudes, but his second most favoured motif was the train and railway station. So often did Delvaux paint trains and stations that he has become known in some quarters as a “train-station painter”. Indeed, when the curator of Museum Delvaux (at St-Idesbald, on the Flanders coast) discussed visitors with a British art historian, he noted that the majority of British visitors were train enthusiasts rather than art connoisseurs.
In the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, railways developed extensively across Belgium, accelerated by – and aiding – in the country’s advanced heavy industries of coal, iron and textile production. Anyone growing up in the Edwardian age, as Delvaux did, would have been aware of the great freedom train travel offered all but the very poorest. The network allowed one to reach the very edges of civilisation from one’s home district, had one the fare. Trains, railways and railway stations became nodes in the romantic imagination – highways to adventure, sophisticated metropolises, distant lands and amorous intrigues.
Camille Brasseur is the scientific director of collections at Fondation Paul Delvaux, St.-Idesbald. She has combed Delvaux’s archives, museum and art works, piecing together Delvaux’s deep fascination for trains. Brasseur outlines Delvaux’s student days and his early career, moving between realism and Impressionism. At times, Delvaux felt the tug of Symbolism, classicism and fantastic art – not least the illustrations of Jules Vernes novels – which gave him a sense that art could be more than a range of styles depicting the real.
Train stations appear in Delvaux’s paintings in 1921. They are accurate depictions of stations in central Brussels, such as Gare du Quartier-Léopold and Gare du Luxembourg. He adopted mainly high viewpoints (on bridges) and concentrated on freight carriages. The attention he paid to the rail workers (labourers and freight handlers rather than guards) puts him in the tradition of Constantin Meunier and the social realists. The evening light, smoke haze and palette overwhelmed by earth hues, all contributed to a stylistic correlation to social realism, though Delvaux never had a commitment to depicting the lives of the working class with a view to disseminating information about their plight or effecting political change. Delvaux was never a socially engaged artist.
In the 1930s, Delvaux made views of rural stations near Huy, the region of his birth. “Often going against traditional clichés, Delvaux chooses not to represent the station façades, but is interested instead in the interior views and the circulation of the machines. The equipment represented essentially consists of wagons and locomotives used for the transportation of goods.” Delvaux’s attention was captured by the least poetic and picaresque aspects of railway stations: the tracks, shunting yards, signals and freight wagons. The romance of travel and the opportunity for human comedy and drama in the form of interactions between passengers is entirely absent from these pictures.
When train stations reappeared in Delvaux’s art, it was in the late 1940s, at a point when Delvaux had established his Surrealist-Symbolist dreamlike repertoire and clearer style and palette. This time the stations foyers and waiting rooms were the settings for scenes occupied by nude women. The dirt and danger of clinker, smoke and heavy machinery has been banished; instead, belle-époque interiors function as theatrical sets for reveries of strange incongruity and erotic contemplation.
Brasseur notes that Delvaux’s house in Boitsfort (bought in 1954) was close to the station and railway (the Brussels-Namur line) and that his subsequent paintings used motifs that were drawn from life. Delvaux’s engines, wagons and signals were accurate and can be found in contemporary photographs or preserved items. Blueprints of wagons attest to Delvaux zeal for correctness. Vintage postcards provide evidence on how Delvaux adapted the locales to the necessities of his art. In the 1950s, the exterior of provincial stations started to feature in settings. The painter reduced the emotional intensity and spatial concentration by opening up his paintings. No longer are interiors and platforms under roofs central; instead, we are outside, in small country towns at night, under empty, cloudless skies, inhabiting sparsely populated squares or generously broad paths. The compositions become more diffuse. We get views across train tracks that run parallel to the picture plane.
The Last Wagon (1975) was one of the few Delvaux paintings set inside a train. The platforms, lamps and awnings of railways of Delvaux’s youth – he always preferred the old to the recent – appear detached from their origins in many scenes, the way in dreams objects become separated from their sources. Reproduced in this book are photographs of lanterns, signals, buildings and stations that Delvaux used in his pictures. His collection of authentic objects and models is viewable in his museum at St-Idesbald. Some of it is reproduced here.
It was to be expected that, considering Delvaux’s attachment to trains and his success, he would be commissioned to produce paintings for the national rail network in Belgium. The four paintings of 1963 are not his best nor most imaginative, but they form a set that will please rail enthusiasts. They were reproduced as stamps. He was commissioned to produce a great mural for the casino at Knokke, called The Legendary Journey (1973-4), which featured a railway. In 1984, Delvaux was made honorary stationmaster of St-Idesbald station. A peculiar omission – the only fault in this fine and thorough book – is the failure to discuss Delvaux’s mural for La Bourse metro station, Brussels, executed in 1978. Although it depicts trams rather than trains, it is the last flourishing in his art of track-based-transport imagery.
Overall, this book forms an excellent explanation of the role and extent of railway and train imagery Delvaux’s art. It also comprises a good discussion of Delvaux as a whole. Considering the dearth of good commentary in English on this artist, Brasseur’s contribution is an essential purchase for all Anglophone fans of Delvaux’s art.
Camille Brasseur, Paul Delvaux: The Man Who Loved Trains, Snoeck, 2019, 240pp, 200 illus., hardback, €34, ISBN 978 9 461 615732. English edition, French and Dutch editions available.
“Brigitte Benkemoun, French journalist and author, bought a vintage Hermès pocket diary through eBay for €70. It was a replacement for a lost diary. When she opened it, she found it was made in 1951 and the address portion was intact and used. She saw a startling list of contacts: Cocteau, Lacan, Balthus, Chagall, Giacometti and Breton. There was no name in the diary but Benkemoun realised this diary had belonged to someone at the heart of post-war Parisian art and intellectual circles. Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, an Address Book, a Life is Benkemoun’s discovery of the provenance of the address book and what it told her about the owner’s life.
“It seemed clear the owner was someone with ties to Paris but it was the mention of Ménerbes, Southern France which tipped off Benkemoun. Dora Maar had moved to the town in the 1940s. It was not clear how the book had come to be sold but research proved that this was Maar’s address book. Benkemoun consulted Picasso’s son, John Richardson and other Picasso scholars to piece together Maar’s connections with the people listed in her diary.
“Before this year if you had heard of Dora Maar (1907-1997) then it would have been in connection with Picasso…”
Although best known as the lover and muse of Picasso, Dora Maar (1907-1997) was notable creative figure in her own right. Respected as a fashion photographer, Surrealist artist and creator of collages, Maar produced art throughout her life. A new exhibition (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 5 June-29 July 2019; Tate Modern, London, 19 November 2019-15 March 2020; Getty Center, Los Angeles, 21 April-26 July 2020), reviewed from the catalogue, takes an overview of her art.
Born in Paris Henriette Théodora Markovitch in 1907, to a French mother and Croatian father, Dora pursued art from childhood supported by her parents. She studied art at the school of decorative arts and the cinegraphic technical school in Paris and painting under André Lhote (who taught, among others, Tamara de Lempicka). She first published photography as “Dora Markovitch” in 1930. By 1932 she had adopted the name Dora Maar as her professional moniker. She worked as a commercial photographer, providing images for advertisers and journals. Common subjects included fashion, beauty shots, architecture, interiors and nature. She also photographed street scenes, a common practice at the time.
She also produced erotic photography for Parisian journals ranging from the respectable to the trashy. She adopted styles that included the conventional and experimental. A frequent model for Maar was the Ukrainian-born model Assia Granatouroff (1911-1982), who the most successful nude model of the 1930s in Paris. She was noted for her athleticism, beauty and grace. The short hair and fit physique made her Granatouroff (publicly known as “Assia”) the epitome of the post-flapper sun- and sea-worshipper in the era of organised nudism. She modelled for many artists, including Maillol, Derain, Gromaire, Valadon and van Dongen.
The authors fail to note what seems to be a nude photograph of Maar herself (left figure, plate 45), published in Beautés magazine, January 1937. Maar did occasionally model nude but those photographs are rarely seen. Only a few have been published. No others are included in this catalogue.
At this stage she was developing strong formal concerns in both her commercial and private work, toying with Cubism and Expressionism. In this production of photography for commercial and artistic ends, Maar was in a similar position to Man Ray and Lee Miller. From the start of her career, Maar was inventive about combining elements.
In 1933 Maar photographed street life in Barcelona. This combined her political engagement (Spain was at this time a socialist republic) and artistic affiliation to Surrealism, with Spain (like Mexico) being seen as the quintessential Surrealist country. In 1933 Maar was introduced to Surrealism and found a philosophical and political outlook that chimed with her pre-existing sympathy for the strange, buttressing her detachment from conventional aesthetics.
It was difficult for the women within Surrealism. Although encouraged to be free spirits, this often meant little more than modelling nude and submitting to the sexual advances of the male Surrealists. Musehood seemed to entail a fair amount of old-fashioned unliberated submission of the sexual variety. There were opportunities, however, and we can count more prominent women creators within the Surrealist movement than within any other pre-war art movement. Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Kay Sage, Meret Oppenheim, Frida Kahlo, Toyen, Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Remedios Varo and Maar – not to mention the creative influencers who did not leave bodies of work themselves, such as Gala Éluard (Dalí), Jacqueline Lamba (Breton), Nusch Éluard, Alice (Kiki de Montparnasse) Prin and others – all left a significant mark upon the Surrealist movement.
In documentary photographs taken around Paris in the mid-1930s, Maar used extreme close-ups of elements within their normal context, juxtaposing the distortion and oppressive size of an element contrasted with the apparent normality of the surroundings. This induces a sense of strangeness regarding our common surroundings. The irreverence towards public statuary is apparent in the close-up view of the detail of a Pont Alexandre III of a female statue’s hand holding a torch. The extreme cropping turns the civic symbolism of virtue bringing enlightenment into an explicit sexual image of the female hand manipulating a phallus. The departing ships in the Seine are the shed issue drifting away. Pont Mirabeau (1935) shows a female statue as if in peril suspended over a fall into the river. The angle of the shot and the animation of the allegorical figure’s face give the impression of a woman desperate to save herself from drowning. Thus a banal Belle Époque adornment becomes expressive of the hidden reality in a person’s life – an eruption of honest anxiety unperceived by the multitudes which pass by daily.
Between 1934 and 1938 Maar produced and published 20 montages which are her best known works. Le Simulateur (1935) turns the curving barrel ceiling of the Orangerie into an inverted tunnel – part sewer, part race track – which is animated by a boy curved into an arch of hysteria. 29, rue d’Astorg (1935) has a kitsch ornament which is missing its head placed in a distorted arcade. Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska points that Maar’s montages bear a striking resemblance to a montage by Breton, Éluard and Suzanne Muzard, published in 1931 (dated “1931-3” here). Whether or not Maar’s approach was inspired by this example, she made it her own. What are the characteristics of Maar’s montages? Dark tonality, oneiric quality, claustrophic atmosphere, poetic sentiment, absence of easy humour, internal consistency in terms of scale/lighting/perspective/placement. These were frequently elements which she had photographed specifically with an end in mind, largely eschewing found photographs that were a staple of Surrealist montages. The catalogue reproduces the montages with the constituent photographs and some mock-ups.
There is a powerfully sinister undercurrent to Maar’s art that one does not find in even the more provocative art. Only in Bellmer’s obsessive erotic graphics and Magritte’s 1925-1929 dark claustrophic paintings do we find something comparable to Maar’s emotional darkness. In Maar’s montages there are disorientating inversions and compressions of space, as well as suffocating hermetically sealed spaces. It is worth noting that Maar maintained good standing with both Breton’s official Surrealist group and Georges Bataille’s renegade Documents faction. She photographed subjects from both factions, was Bataille’s lover and was a member of the anti-fascist Contre-Attaque group, which Breton left after a falling out with Bataille. Bataille’s outlook was considerably darker than Breton’s, steeped in mysticism, paganism and violence.
Maar’s contact with Picasso from 1935 onwards (ending in 1946) caused her to resume painting and drawing, activity that would last for subsequent decades. Maar photographed Picasso painting Guernica (1937) for the Spanish pavilion of the World Fair. She even painted sections under Picasso’s direction. Most of the art was derivative of Picasso’s style and content of the time. She received some praise but frankly much of the art is, whilst being competent, lugubrious and dull. Tonally dark, favouring cool colours and dwelling upon the straitened circumstances of the Occupation, the pictures do not have the urgency, inventiveness or the sardonic humour of Picasso. Picasso was attracted to Maar due to the air of danger, elegance and neuroticism apparent in her behaviour. A severe nervous breakdown in 1946 (for which she was hospitalised) is seen a contributing factor in her self-imposed retreat from public life. It was not a lasting state but what became a persistent trait was diffidence regarding exposing her new and old art, much of which she destroyed.
In the late 1940s Maar became increasingly attached to religious observance and became semi-reclusive, living alone. Starting in the late 1950s, Maar began working in abstracts, using very simple processes and forms. By the 1980s that had developed into the overlapping fields of photographs, paintings and photographed paintings that were abstract, relatively sparse, most of them imaginary landscapes. They are much closer to Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field Painting and Taschisme. In palette they are restrained. They are very engaging; they show an impressive detachment of ego and emotional and stylistic freedom. The only problem with appreciating these pieces is the fact that due to Maar’s practice of destroying art we lack large bodies of evolving work. The late abstracts here seem occasionally jerky or flighty, lacking the grounding in a larger legible corpus. The danger of this situation is that it pushes the viewer towards regarding these pieces as slight – always a potential response to lightly worked abstracts.
The best of Maar’s montages are as good as the best Surrealist art made in Paris in the 1930s. Her paintings and drawings of the 1930s to 1950s are occasionally atmospheric but ultimately derivative and second rate. The late abstract photographs are stimulating and more work is needed to exhibit and catalogue these works, establishing a chronology and assembling groups and themes. At her death, her studio contents were dispersed uncatalogued, which has made understanding her development – mostly secluded from public exposure – difficult. This catalogue contributes to Maar’s standing as a serious and inventive artist. Much critical work has still to be done but what is made clearer than before by this exhibition and catalogue is that Maar’s best art is strong and her output overall rewards attention.
Damarice Amao, Amanda Maddox, Karolina Ziebinska (eds.), Dora Maar, J. Paul Getty Museum, 7 January 2020, hardback, 208pp, 240 col. illus., $40, ISBN 978 1 60606 629 4
[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.
[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.
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)
Lee Miller (1907-1977) was an American Surrealist photographer and photo-journalist. She lived in Paris, London and New York and is most famous for her collaborations with the photographer Man Ray. Although successful and respected, in her later years she preferred to underplay her achievements, however since her death the standing of her photography and interest in her life has increased. These three books overlap to a degree but they also feature three different periods of Miller’s life and output. Surrealist Lee Miller covers Miller’s photography from the 1920s to 1960s but centres on the 1929 to 1945 period, which was her most creative period as an artist. The Home of the Surrealists covers the period 1949 to the 1960s, when Miller was living in Sussex and in contact with fellow artists and writers, frequently welcoming them to her home. A Life with Food explains her connection with Surrealism and how this fed into her preoccupation with making unusual and arresting dishes inspired by Surrealism, which was her focus in her last decades. All three books have value and offer unique material.
Surrealist Lee Miller is a short guide to the life and work of Miller and an excellent selection of photographs. It presents the most famous pieces and photographs that straddle the line between her private life and the milieu within which she lived. The breadth of her life is seen in the glamour photographs of her as a model in Art Deco New York, picnics with Picasso and the suicided Nazi officials of the defeated Third Reich.
Miller was born into a comfortably off middle class family in New York State. Her father was a keen amateur photographer and instilled in her a love of photography and an understanding of the techniques. In the 1920s she worked as a model for Condé Nast. A trip to Paris led her to think of becoming a photographer and working in the art world. She moved to Paris in 1929 and immediately sought out Man Ray, the American Surrealist photographer. They began a close and fruitful collaboration, with Miller working as muse, model, assistant and – ultimately – partner. At the same time they had a romantic relationship. Miller became a significant but somewhat fugitive presence in the Surrealist movement, mingling with luminaries who would become her friends.
Man Ray trusted Miller enough to deputise her to work on his commissions, relying on her judgment and her understanding of his approach to Surrealism to produce photographs that seamlessly blended with his autograph work. The portfolio L’Electricité (1931) contains pieces by Miller but we do not which. Although some works attributed to Ray were by Miller, it seems that attribution was not automatically a source of conflict. When Ray specifically allocated assignments to Miller (in order for him to concentrate on other projects), it was understandable that Ray was accorded authorship. When it came to the innovation of the solarisation technique, the development seems to have been collaborative but with Miller making most of the situation and recognising the value of the technique. It is understandable that she would want (and rightly deserved) credit for the creation – or at least the recognition and exploitation – of this radical technique. If one has to talk of that advance having a single author then that must be Miller. This matter caused notable friction between the pair.
In 1932 Miller left Paris in order to establish herself as a photographer in New York. The majority of her work was portraits of prominent people in the arts and commercial advertising photography, some of it in early colour processes. Some of the portraits were commissioned but others were unpaid and taken by Miller because she found the subjects engaging. The portrait photographs of Joseph Cornell and documentation of his assemblages are a rare record of Cornell before he became well known. Many of the delicate boxes that Cornell made in the 1930s no longer survive, so it was Miller’s keen eye for the spirit of Surrealism that has provided us with these photographs.
In 1934 Miller married businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and went to live in his native Cairo. The selection of photographs from her Egyptian period in Surrealist Lee Miller is especially rewarding, as this tends to get covered less in general selections that the Surrealist and war periods. Her eye for the incongruous and haunting meant that she produced good work throughout her life but the Paris and Cairo periods are high points in terms of art photography. The life experiment was not a success however. The couple separated soon. By 1937 Miller was chafing at the lack of artistic stimulation, notwithstanding the opportunities to take some remarkable photographs. She met English artist, writer and collector Roland Penrose (1900-1984) in 1937 and they began a romance. Penrose was one of the few early Surrealist acolytes from Britain. He had been married to French Surrealist poet Valentine Boué, though they were separated by the time Miller and Penrose met. In 1939 she moved in with Penrose in his London house.
The war provided Miller was a chance to work as a photo-journalist for American publications, notably for British Vogue. Her documentation of the Blitz is some of the best photography of the period and the natural incongruous juxtapositions of war and destruction mirror her Surrealist outlook. Keen to document the war first-hand, Miller gained press accreditation from the US Army, allowing her to a change to cover the Normandy campaign. She photographed the siege of St Malo and the Liberation of Paris. There are joyful photographs of her reunited with her artist friends, in particular Picasso. On the 30th of April 1945, Miller entered Dachau concentration camp one day after liberation. Miller photographed the scenes of starved survivors, bodies of the dead inmates and the crematorium with remains. She also photographed the corpses of killed camp guards and the beaten camp guards held in custody by the Americans. That afternoon Miller and fellow journalist David Scherman found a place to rest. It was Hitler’s flat in nearby Munich. Scherman photographed Miller washing in Hitler’s bathtub; her boots – next to the tub – are covered with the dirt and human ash of Dachau. That day Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. Subsequently she photographed the burning of Hitler’s Berchtesgaden residence and then travelled to Austria. One of the most powerful sets of photographs is of infants dying in a Vienna hospital – their medicines had been stolen and sold on the black market. She was already suffering from PTSD and sinking into depression. When she returned to England to re-join Penrose, Miller was compensating for her internalised distress through heavy drinking, an activity that would continue for the remainder of her life.
After the war, the couple divided their time between a London house and Farley Farm, near Chiddingley, Sussex. The country house became a haven of Surrealist, Modernist and European culture, with the couple’s artist, writer, journalist and intellectual friends visiting. Penrose became a founding member of the ICA in London just after the war. It meant devoting more energy to other people’s art than to his own. He later wrote one of the first important monographs on Picasso’s art. Penrose had to choose between being an artist and an enabler and ultimately chose the latter; at the same time Miller had also to choose between being a mother and being a professional photographer. In 1947 the birth of Anthony, her only child, put a full stop to Miller’s travelling and marked the end of her career as a professional photographer. When offered uninspiring commissions she preferred to decline rather than engage in journeyman activity, though with her connections she could surely have found more challenging options had she pursued them.
Motherhood (for which she was not suited), isolation from much cultural life, PTSD, depression and heavy drinking took their toll on Miller. Her final years were more sober although she never returned to photography in a sustained manner. There are some photographs of artist friends, many of which are included in the books, especially The Home of the Surrealists. Visitors included Ray, Miro, Picasso, Ernst, Tanning, Eluard, Leonora Carrington, Masson, Matta and their partners. Miller and Tanning were particularly good friends and the photographs of Miller, Penrose, Tanning and Ernst taken in Arizona, 1946 show a natural rapport. Miller and Penrose were generous about allowing students and scholars access to their collection – something that had to be restricted when the art became more valuable. The artworks were gradually sold and donated over the years. Some of the art (including many murals painted by Penrose) are still in the house, which has been restored and is available to tour.
Scherman claimed that cooking saved Miller’s life. A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes informs us that together with the reassuring rhythm of the seasons and the delights of nature (generally viewed from a comfortable chair – Miller was not much of a rambler), cooking helped Miller to cope. Miller found the role of grandmother suited her better than that of mother. (Anthony described her as an “arch child-hater”.) The elaborate meals and company of artist friends allowed her to allay boredom and anxiety. Miller and Penrose had a gift for friendship, staying friends with ex-lovers, colleagues and artists who had long left the Surrealist fold.
In 1953, Miller lost out to Elizabeth David for the position of leading cookery writer for Vogue. They had a common love of French cuisine, recommending olive oil for cooking, but David had greater knowledge of Italian cuisine, which would prove to be so influential in post-war British culture. Miller’s wild imagination and shocking combinations would probably have tested her editor’s patience to the limit. In the late 1950s Penrose paid for Miller to attend a 6-month Cordon Bleu course in Paris. She accumulated a library of over 2,000 cookbooks, won prizes for her dishes and became an acknowledged expert.
A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes reproduces the text of an unpublished cookery article from 1951 (including Picasso’s response to Christmas pudding) and a 1973 article on Miller’s cookery from House & Garden including the photographs. A section of the book includes the recipes in full and there are photographs old and new of the food and convivial meals at Farley Farm. Recipes include champagne and camembert soup, fig and Pernod ice cream, marshmallow-cola ice cream and carrots in whiskey. There is chicken in edible gold and pink cauliflower breasts. Miller’s visual sensibility led her to make dishes that were highly original. Less outlandish dishes include Cretan lamb, summer pudding and olive and mint salad. For modern tastes the cooking may seem at times labour intensive and elaborate but Miller the cook is not overall too controlling and gives readers leeway on many aspects. Miller’s philosophy as a cook is to surprise and delight her guests – engaging all their senses. Tableware included a platter looted from Hitler’s apartment and vases decorated by Picasso.
There is a question about the seriousness with which Miller’s cooking has been treated. Although her cookery is relatively well known there is a common resistance regarding her cookery. Perhaps that is a reluctance to associate a female creator with a minor genre – especially a field associated with women’s domestic activity. Although we should not make too much of this point – for the cookery of any artist and their gastronomical proclivities are not matters of great attention generally – it is worth considering. It is hard to parse the free-wheeling Surrealist, the hard-bitten war journalist and the mischievous cook – with these three roles seeming to undermine each other.
Whenever she was asked about her early work, Miller claimed all the photographs had been lost and was evasive about the past. Following the death of Roland Penrose, Anthony Penrose recovered a horde of photographs, documents and possessions belonging to his mother – material that Miller had insisted no longer existed – and began to reconstruct his mother’s remarkable life and creative output. It is only since then that the extent of Miller’s art has become apparent. Anthony Penrose has written a number of books about his mother. Credit must be paid to the tireless stewardship of Anthony Penrose, only child of Miller and Penrose. His care and candour over the years regarding his mother’s art has been exemplary. He has allowed scholars and the public access to material that frankly shows the difficulties that his mother faced, especially during her years in England. It is Anthony Penrose’s honesty, his intelligent choices about exhibition and publication of Miller’s art which have together allowed Miller’s achievements to come to be fully recognised. Anthony Penrose has fully complemented his mother’s great abilities and unique character. Any artist would wish to have such a judicious legatee. There would be value in a dedicated book of Miller’s letters. The examples quoted are full of vigour, wit and unexpected views of major historical events and figures.
Anthony Penrose, The Home of the Surrealists: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose and their circle at Farley Farm, Penrose Film Productions Ltd, 2016, paperback, 144pp, fully illus., £19.95, ISBN 978 0 9532389 1 0
Anthony Penrose, Surrealist Lee Miller, Lee Miller Archives, 2019, paperback, 159pp, fully illus., £15, ISBN 978 0 9532389 34
Ami Bouhassane, Lee Miller: A Life with Food, Friends & Recipes, Grapefrukt Forlag, 2017, hardback, 352pp, fully illus., £29.95, ISBN 978 09532 38927