Flemish Primitives in Bruges

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[Image: Jan Van Eyck, Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436), oil on panel, Groeningemuseum, Bruges]

Flemish Primitives in Bruges is a new book presenting paintings by Flemish painters from the Early and High Renaissance (also called the South (or Early) Netherlandish School). Till-Holger Borchert outlines the history of the city and how that affected the development of South Netherlandish painting. The story of art of the time is inextricably linked to the cloth trade in the Low Countries, especially in Flanders. The wealth and growing sophistication of the urban cloth merchants provided demand for religious objects of beauty and high cost. From around 1250 trade via the Hanseatic League, Baltic timber merchants and Flemish cloth merchants (aided by innovative Italian bankers) made the port city of Bruges an important hub for trade. With trade and wealth came culture. It was as part of the Burgundian state (the Duchy of Burgundy) that Bruges hosted the most advanced artists of the age. At this time the production of polychromed statuary, painted panels, painted furniture, manuscript illumination and book production were overlapping fields and makers often had multiple skills.

In 1431-2 Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) settled in Bruges, having moved from Ghent, where he had painted the Ghent Altarpiece with his now deceased brother Hubert. It has been suggested that whereas panel painting in Northern Italy became elevated over mere ornamentation due to the example of the fresco painting, it seems that the innovations in panel painting of the Van Eyck siblings Jan, Hubert, Lambert and Margaret derived from manuscript illustration. They may have trained as manuscript limners. (The famed manuscript illuminator Barthélemy d’Eyck (c. 1420-after 1470) was probably related to them.) The earliest painted panel here is from c. 1420. “Stylistically, there are interesting correspondences with Brabant painting, but also close links with Bruges manuscript illumination of the same period. Unfortunately, comparably early paintings in Bruges have not survived.” These paintings are only a fraction of art that adorned public and private places in the immediate pre-Reformation era. An earlier panel by Melchior Broederlam (c. 1350-after 1409), now housed in the Dijon, is illustrated. The skilful use of oil paint in this diptych of about 1396-9 is the forerunner to the Van Eycks’ advancement of the technique. Till-Holger Borchert writes, “The few surviving panel paintings that can be situated in Flanders with some probability – and did not originate in the immediate vicinity of the Burgundian court – are not sufficient in number to demonstrate the alleged continuity between the time of Van Eyck and the preceding period.”

Van Eyck’s achievements are well known and he was famous within his lifetime. Most Early Netherlandish painting springs directly from Van Eyck’s model. Exactly the competence of achievements and competence of his siblings is unknown as there are no firm attributions to anyone but Jan, with two pieces being attributed in part to Hubert. Jan’s authorship is secure because of his habit of signing and dating paintings.

Jan Van Eyck died in 1441 and his brother Lambert apparently continued the workshop for a time, at least finishing commissions and perhaps accepting new ones. In 1444 Petrus Christus (c. 1410-20-c. 1475/6) arrived in Bruges and became the leading painter of the following generation. His followed the Eyckian approach of elaborate detail, high finish, fidelity to nature and the production of large devotional paintings and small portraits, all painted in oil. He was also influenced by the Brussels painter Rogier van der Weyden. The German painter Hans Memling (c. 1430-1494) trained with Rogier in Brussels and moved to Bruges in 1465 and worked there until his death. His synthesis of Van Eyck and Rogier’s styles is considered the epitome of the Bruges School.

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[Image: Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Woman (1480), oil on panel, Hopsital Museum, Bruges]

Gerard David (c. 1455-1523) trained in Gouda or Haarlem. In 1484 he became a member of the Guild of St Luke. His art represents an advance towards the High and Late Renaissance for the Bruges School. The chiaroscuro, naturalistic light and shade and subdued colours all mark a departure from the Netherlandish Early Renaissance. Although the facial physiognomies and clothing is distinctly Flemish, the pictorial language (and appearance) is now more Italianate and in line with Swiss, French and German painting of that time. The emerging Dutch style – within which David had developed – also exerted an influence on the painter, who arrived in Bruges as a master painter aged about 30. Borchert reports that David possibly travelled to Italy to install an altarpiece that was commissioned for an abbey in Liguria. “This would make him one of the first Flemish artists – before Joos van Cleve and Quinten Metsys – to be directly influenced by Italian painting. The journey could help explain the hitherto-unknown sfumato technique that characterized his later works […]”

There are many named masters to whom the many anonymous paintings cannot be connected, though undoubtedly these masters and paintings must overlap in authorship. Three of the most outstanding works are St Veronica presenting the Sudarium (c. 1495), the St Lucy paintings (1480) and Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1500). Other paintings have been associated with these masters and the process of teasing out the complicated and tenuous connections between pictures, painters and patrons continues today.

Later painters (Adriaen Isenbrant, Ambrosius Benson), influenced by David, are less noteworthy and have largely lost their Bruges character. An exception is Jan Provoost (c. 1465, who came from Hainaut (Mons). In 1494 he arrived in Bruges. In some ways Provoost owes more to Germanic painting than Early Netherlandish art. We can find touches of Grunewald and Bosch in his macabre Death and the Miser (c. 1515-21), where a wealthy merchant holds out a (promissory?) note to a skeletal Death.

Around 1500, the Zwin channel, which provided ships access to Bruges, began to silt up. Bruges lost status and income as trade moved to other cities, notably Antwerp. This led to artistic activity largely transferring to other cities. Bruges became a backwater. Happily, this neglect meant that there was a lack of funds for rebuilding, renovation and extensive alterations to the city layout, which caused the preservation of the centre of Bruges as a largely late Medieval city.

Borchert guides us through art of related centres of art production including Tournai, Artois, Ghent, Valenciennes, Brabant and ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Thus he discusses Rogier, Robert Campin, Jacques Daret and the mysterious Master of Flémalle, who may not have been a separate painter but rather the putative author of art by Campin, Rogier, Daret and others. Simon Marmion, Dieric Bouts, Bosch, Hugo van der Goes is mentioned in passing. All of these are presented with many illustrations and include recent scholarly conclusions about the activities of these artists.

The plates section shows the highlights of Bruges-related painters currently in the museums of Bruges. The paintings are located in the Goeningemuseum, Hospital Museum, Treasury of St Salvator’s Cathedral, Sint-Jacobskerk, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, our Lady’s Church, Museum van de Edele Confrérie van het Heilig Bloed, Grootseminarie and Public Library. Notable pictures include Jan Van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436) and portrait of the artist’s wife, Memling’s Triptych of the Two Saints John (1479), a fine portrait diptych (with a Madonna and Child on one panel and a donor portrait on the other) and a painted and gilded reliquary in the shape of a shrine, David’s Triptych of the Baptism of Christ (1502-8) and the gruesome scene of the flaying of Judge Sisamnes (1498), Jan Provoost’s Crucifixion (1505-10), and van der Goes’s completion of Dieric Bouts’s unfinished Triptych of the Martyrdom of St Hippolytus (1475-80). The single oversight is the omission of dimensions and medium details (although one presumes they are all oil paint on panel).

In short (two-page) side discussions, the author describes the origins of oil painting technique (which made Early Netherlandish art so distinctive), the triptych format and social conventions of art donation for religious purposes. A bibliography is included. This guide will be of use to visitors to Bruges, those studying the Bruges School and anyone who likes the painting of the Early and High Renaissance in the Low Countries.

 

Till-Holger Borchert, Flemish Primitives in Bruges, Ludion, 2019, paperback, 128pp, fully illus., English language version (Dutch and French versions available), €19, ISBN 978 9 493039117

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

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Manet and Modern Beauty

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[Image: Édouard Manet (French, 1832 – 1883), Jeanne (Spring) (1881), oil on canvas, 74 × 51.5 cm (29 1/8 × 20 1/4 in.), 2014.62. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles]

The J. Paul Getty Museum is celebrating its 2014 acquisition of a little-seen minor masterpiece by Édouard Manet (1832-1883) with an exhibition and two publications. Manet and Modern Beauty: The Artist’s Last Years is at the Art Institute of Chicago (26 May-8 September 2019) then transfers to the Getty Center, Los Angeles (8 October 2019-12 January 2020). The exhibition is reviewed from the publications. Jeanne (Spring) (1881) was a late painting by Manet, while he was physically limited and often immobilised (suffering from tertiary syphilis). At this this time, Manet was painting many still-lifes of flowers and fruit, as well as portraits of women. It was one of his two submissions to the 1882 Salon, where it was entitled Jeanne. The next time it was exhibited it was called Spring. The subject was Mlle Jeanne Demarsy, a teenage beauty who would later become an actress. She also sat to Renoir at about the same time.

This was part of a proposed series of seasons in the form of half-length portraits of women, commissioned by a famed art critic Antonin Proust. The series seems to have been cut short by Manet’s death because only two paintings from the seasons are known today. (Autumn is included in the exhibition.) The painting was admired at the time but has been rarely seen, residing in a private collection until 2014, when it was auctioned and acquired by the Getty. It was not available for scholars and that – combined with its apparent guileless prettiness – meant that the painting was not discussed much in critical literature. This exhibition covers the years 1876-1883 and comprises 92 items, including paintings, pastels, prints and supplementary material, such as Manet’s illustrated letters and journal illustrations. Oddities include painted fans and a tambourine. The works include some superb pieces, most especially the late still-lifes of fruit and flowers.

Critics portrayed these late painting as soft, lapses in mental fortitude and a retreat from the ground-breaking paintings such as Olympia (1863) and Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863). Were the late still-lifes and portraits of women a search for approval from picture buyers and collectors of middle-brow taste? “These early accounts helped form the now familiar cliché of Manet’s late work as symptomatic of his declining health and his friendship with loose women: a sign, in short, of decadence. In the twentieth century modernist art historians explained the late work’s perceived failings in similar terms.” Thus the subjects of delightful blossoms, delicious fruit and beautiful women were cast as both indicative of epicurean decadence and product of the limitations imposed through disability contracted due to that decadence, in the form of venereal disease.

While Manet was called the leader of the Impressionists, he did participate in the independent exhibitions of the Impressionists, preferring to exhibit at the Salon. He was committed to the Salon, exhibited there until his death and even won a medal. Manet’s attachment to the Salon earned him gibes of being bourgeois by Degas, that despite Degas’s support of, and friendship with, James Tissot and Henri Gervex, two prominent Salon painters markedly less daring than Manet.

Scott Allan draws parallels between Manet’s M. Eugène Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter (1881) and the celebrated Hay Making (1877) by Jules Bastien-Lepage. He suggests the large size, near-square format and composition set outdoors were are influenced by the earlier Naturalist painting. The work launched Naturalism as an artistic school.

Scientific analysis of Jeanne show that in some parts five separate layers were applied in different sessions. Despite that, Manet used the primer layer as a counter to the oil paint. There is a pigment analysis which compares the painting to other paintings by Manet. Micro-photography, x-rays and close examination shows how Manet painted the picture.

Manet’s paintings of parisiennes were not only studies of timeless beauty but also studies of temporal beauty. He had a fascination for fashion and closely followed the changing types of clothing and the use of signifiers. He was known to choose clothing for his female sitters, buying it sometimes. He expressed a desire to capture the very precise alterations in dress codes and types for women. The parisienne was an embodiment of both eternal and temporal beauty, in the form of a uniquely French form of civilisation. Observed and recorded with accuracy, lace cuffs, bonnet trimming and seams of gloves could precisely date a painting to a precise year, even an exact season. Illustrations of paintings not in the exhibition show that modern femininity became a central subject for Manet’s late oil paintings destined for the Salon. The painting of Nana – central character of a realist novel by his Manet’s friend Zola – is an example of this approach. Comparison with other portraits and nudes reveals Manet’s attachment to the female face in profile. His male subjects are never shown in profile in the later period.

The exhibition includes other, more cursory portraits of Jeanne. The catalogue is illustrated with photographs (and portraits by Renoir) of her, allowing us to judge the balance between veracity and flattery that the artist struck. Important paintings loaned for this exhibition include Boating (1874-5), Plum Brandy (c. 1877), In The Conservatory (1877-9), The Café-Concert (c. 1878-9), Portrait of Antonin Proust (1880), Eugène Pertuiset and other late works. The pastel portraits are decidedly weaker than the painted ones. A number of these paintings are unfinished, cut short by the artist’s death. Apparently some were finished by other artists at the request of the estate, in order to make these pictures saleable. Manet produced pastels in his last years because they were faster to make and less strenuous than oil painting. Unable to stand for long periods and – towards the end – unable to stand at all, Manet’s scope of subjects and media were restricted.

In the essays, specialist scholars outline the influence of Chardin as the starting point for the still-lifes and the precedents of Boucher, Fragonard and Watteau for Manet’s figure paintings.

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[Image: Édouard Manet (French, 1832 – 1883), Letter Decorated with a Snail on a Leaf (1880), Watercolor over gray wash (design); pen and ink (text) on machine-made laid paper, 15.8 × 11.7 cm (6 1/4 × 4 5/8 in.), 2019.7. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles]

The late letters were illustrated with watercolour motifs of fruit and flowers. They are extensively reproduced and translated. One writer notes that Manet’s correspondence has never been extensively published, a serious oversight. Another essayist examines the late still-lifes. This large, richly illustrated and highly informative catalogue will become an essential addition to the literature on Manet and can be enjoyed by experts and non-specialists alike.

***

In Richard R. Brettell’s small book On Modern Beauty examines three masterpieces in the Getty, featuring beauty, both conventional and strange. Manet’s Jeanne is compared to paintings by Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne.

Paul Gauguin’s Arii matamoe (La fin royale) (1892) shows the head of a Tahitian man on a table, like a spectacular and morbid still-life. The head rests on a cushion, with flowers in its hair. In the background there are other figures. The painting is richly coloured and beautiful, despite its subject matter. The title translates as the “royal end”, “the sleeping king” and “king’s end”. It relates to a public beheading the artist witnessed in 1889, rather be made from life. This is a portrait as a still-life, as well as being an ethnographic curiosity. Brettell speculates that when he painted Arii matamoe, Gauguin may have had in mind a painting by Cézanne, which he owned for a time. The still-life featured a skull and unlit candle. Gauguin was greatly depressed by the colonial usurpation of Tahitian culture and his painting depicting the ending of a vital native nobility is a metaphor for the demise of indigenous traditions.

The third painting is Cézanne’s Young Italian Woman at a Table (c. 1895-1900) shows the subject in a voluminous blouse leaning upon an ornate rug over a table. It is a surprisingly attractive subject on a superficial basis. The model is thought to be Italian, a paid model. The artist did not leave many writings that would help us date pictures or identify portrait subjects. Brettell points out the similarity between the position of subject of this painting and that of Dürer’s print Melancolia (1514) and some female portraits by Corot. Cézanne is a difficult artist to write about because so much of the effect of his art is absorbed through perceptual reception of impressions rather than iconography, narrative and other factors more amenable to verbal description.

On Modern Beauty is a well-illustrated and thought-provoking book about different aspects of beauty in French painting of the period.

 

Scott Allan, Emily A. Beeny, Gloria Groom (eds.), Manet and Modern Beauty, Getty Publications, 2019, hardback, 400pp, 206 col./97 mono illus., £50/$65, ISBN 978 1 60606 604 1

Richard R. Brettell, On Modern Beauty: Three Paintings by Manet, Gauguin and Cézanne, Getty Publications, 2019, paperback, 108pp, 63 col./4 mono illus., $19.95, IBSN 978 1 60606 606 5

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Francis Bacon: Couplings

The exhibition Francis Bacon: Couplings (Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, London, until 3 August 2019) allows viewers the chance to see some of Bacon’s best paintings in a space which is very suitable. The generous size of the galleries and the ambient décor of medium-dark wooden floor and gray walls allows the colour to come out strongly without having to fight against the white walls that often impair the viewing experience.

The paintings are from the 1950s to 1970s and include a classic triptych and some very well-known paintings. The paintings feature couples copulating or single figures. There is one painting (Marching Figures (c. 1952)), showing many figures rendered stick-like, which depicts marching figures which deviates from this. These are by no means all of the paintings on the subject. Bacon had trouble creating multiple-figure compositions. His most frequent and successful involve depictions of sex, usually homosexual. These began in a time when homosexual acts were illegal, so his paintings had a frisson of danger. When the earliest paintings were exhibited in London they were shown in rooms with curtains.

Two Figures with a Monkey, 1973

[Image: FRANCIS BACON, Two Figures with a Monkey (1973), oil on canvas, 78 x 58 1/8 in, 198 x 147.5 cm. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2019. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Courtesy Gagosian]

Painting (1950) has travelled from Leeds. It shows what could be one figure seen twice or two figures, perhaps in a shower or bathroom. It goes well next to Two Men Working a Field (1971) and near the latest painting in the show, Two Figures with a Monkey (1973). The colours of the copulating figures are offset by the malachite and viridian block below them.  The painting features the tubular metal armature that recalls Modern furniture, railings or the equipment of physical therapy rooms. Despite the charge of perversity or eccentricity, it does succeed as a picture. The monkey adds to the air of unpredictability and balances the vertical format.

BACON 2019 Couplings installation view 4

There is a rare chance to see one of Bacon most anomalous paintings, Figures in a Landscape (1954). It is oil paint on cardboard and is unusually small. The uncharacteristic size and support, rough technique and unclear subject (the nude figures in the grass could just as likely be one) show this as a test painting. It was catalogued in the Ronald Alley catalogue raisonné as an abandoned painting and it looks completely authentic, though odd experimental piece. It fits the period when Bacon was painting in a rich way and developing areas of grass with multiple rich hues, generally on a dark stained ground. The tawny grass is a recurring aspect in Bacon’s paintings of the 1950s.

An underappreciated work is Two Men Working a Field (1971). The lack of prominence of this picture in literature is partly due to the fact it has been in private collections. Additionally, it is probably overlooked because the subject is atypical for Bacon, showing as it does figures involved in work. It belongs to a small group of works from the early 1970s when he painted doubles – figures who not only look alike but mirror each other’s posture. The best known examples are the lying figures in the Tehran triptych (Two Figures Lying on a bed with Attendants (1968) and the more accessible Triptych (1967) at the Hirshhorn. The subject seems to be the loss of self – the way intimacy of sex or the efficiency of work leads to bodies echoing each other. This was not a subject that Bacon developed to such a degree as he might have. The few paintings he made are not seen as a discrete group but they warrant further consideration because they are unusual and arresting.  The soil shows Bacon indulging his painterly side by creating a loam soil through brushing impasto burnt umber, ochre, sienna with a few dashes of crimson. This has been vigorously over-brushed, blurring the original application, adding more complexity to the areas.

Portrait of a Man Walking (c. 1953) is a painting of the artist’s most famous critical champion and lead interviewer, David Sylvester. The work is from the time of the men in dark blue rooms. Though these paintings are atmospheric, as paintings they are little lacklustre, with the artist tending to rely on an established format. Marching Figures (c. 1952) features  what is commonly interpreted as a polar bear surmounting a phalanx of marching soldiers (or SA Stormtroopers) probably derived from photographs of Nazi rallies. It was recovered from a collection in a Chelsea warehouse after Bacon’s death. The paintings with which he was dissatisfied he sent to his colourman for the stretchers to be reused. The canvases were not destroyed but kept without the artist’s knowledge. The heavy-gauge canvas used for this painting was also used for Figures in the Grass (1954). It shows a homosexual copulation in a field.

Three Studies of Figures on Beds (1972) is a triptych of figures having sex in brightly lit rooms (or a single room). It features a mattress from photographs given to the artist in Tangiers by Allen Ginsberg. To Bacon Ginsberg gave a series of photographs of Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky having sex, hoping Bacon would paint them. Bacon did not care for the figures but claimed to appreciate the “squalid” mattress, which he subsequently included in this triptych. Observation shows that rollers were used on carpet but not on the other areas. In the areas of brushed and stained paint, broken  bristles are present, showing the use of cheap brushes or a lack of care for the brushes. For the figures one finds places where Bacon has blotted with textured fabric. Brown aerosol paint has been applied over the motif.

The female nude in Lying Figure (1959) fails, the motif being too congested and to sharply delineated. It seems to have no connection to the sofa and wall. The shape overall is ugly and uninformative, telling us little truthful about the nature of lying and the qualities of a lying figure and this figure in particular. Likewise, the horizontal lying male figure on a couch (Sleeping Figure (1959)) is also a failure. The face has become a caricature and the anatomy is ugly and uninvolving. The format suggests it was cut down from a larger painting in a standard Baconian upright format. This picture has little value. These are the only two disappointing pictures in a show of a high standard.

Two Figures, 1953

[Image: Francis Bacon, Two Figures (1953), oil on canvas. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2019. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Courtesy Gagosian]

The final gallery holds the most celebrated painting in the display, Two Figures (called The Wrestlers) (1953), loaned from the Estate of Lucian Freud. It shows Bacon’s flexibility as a painter. The canvas was stained and the forms brushed in afterwards. The flesh of the figures is based on pale violet. The sheets are white, which has been applied impasto, in places with a palette knife. The same knife was used to scrape down that white, leaving the dark ground to create a speckled effect through the white. The head and base boards to the bed are illustrated, rather daintily and with a degree of clumsiness, setting the figures in a definite situation. Flickers of dilute monastrel (phthalocyanine) blue has been added last, heightening the pallor of figures and sheets. It is a marvellous sustained effort of execution and effective conceptualisation. It is justly regarded as one of Bacon’s finest works.

The decision not to include supplementary material benefits the exhibition. Over recent years there has been a tendency to include drawings, photographs, sources and archival material. While this is stimulating and important for understanding Bacon’s methods and approaches to creation, it also distracts from the power and independence of the paintings. Most of the time we are better off looking at and thinking about the finished paintings of an artist.

This exhibition is beautifully laid out and a chance to see Bacon at his carnal best. A full catalogue will be published in October.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Lee Krasner: Living Colour

9. Lee Krasner, Polar Stampede, 1960, Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, San Francisco MoMA © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery

[Image: Lee Krasner, Polar Stampede (1960). The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York]

The exhibition Lee Krasner: Living Colour Barbican, London (30 May-1 September 2019; Schirnhalle, Frankfurt, 11 October 2019-12 January 2020; Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, 7 February-10 May 2020; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, 29 May-6 September 2020) is the first European retrospective of Krasner’s work since 1965. It displays the contributions of one of the major figures in the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Arranged over two floors and a touch confusingly laid out, the exhibition takes us from the 1920s to the 1970s. The large spaces in the downstairs galleries allow the big paintings to be hung and viewed adequately. There is a film which uses interviews with the artist to shed light on her opinions.

Lee Krasner (1908-1984) was from a Jewish family in Brooklyn. Born Lena Krassner, Krasner took an independent course from the start. She studied painting at the Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, New York. She attached herself to the idea of advanced art but in America in the late 1920s that was at that time plein air Impressionism. Her self-portrait of c. 1928 shows her skill and ambition to be thought of as avant-garde. Competence is evident in here other self-portraits and life drawings in conté crayon from her student years.

In the 1930s two events changed her approach to art. The first was the birth of the WPA, which (among other things) provided artists with work making murals to decorate public space and producing easel paintings for government buildings. Krasner was employed by the WPA and became a trusted employee, heading teams and taking a prominent role. She was given high praise by her instructors. At the time she did not see herself as a woman artist because women artists were if not common  then not uncommon. For artists of the time, in a country that had no developed market for Modernist art and an economy reeling from the Great Depression, the WPA provided not only work and income, it forged a community of artists. Committees, unions, action groups and informal clubs brought artists together and allowed them to exchange professional advice and artistic ideas. Some photographs of montages by Krasner made in 1942 for window displays are projected in one gallery. They are effective at large size.

The second change was studying under Hans Hofmann, starting in 1937. Hofmann was a German émigré and a bona fide Modernist who painted abstract work (which he tended not to display, for fear of influencing his students). He treated Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, Expressionism, Fauvism and abstract art as viable routes for artists. Previously only a handful of artists around Alfred Stieglitz and the 291 Gallery were standard-bearers for Modernism in America since the landmark Amory Show of 1913. While there a degree of credibility and seriousness attached to that group in the 1913-1933 period, they made little headway with the general public and even in the art world of the USA. Hofmann was a key figure, alongside artists such as the Mexican Muralists and Arshile Gorky, who advanced the idea of Modernism being the destiny of American art. She exhibited alongside respected artists and earned the reputation as a good painter. However, in the early 1940s the market for abstract and semi-abstract art was miniscule and prices – when work was sold – were low. She dabbled in Surrealism and produced paintings that owed a debt to the School of Paris but were creditable efforts.

In the early 1940s Krasner met Jackson Pollock. They started a romantic relation, married in 1945 and remained together until his death in 1956. They talked about art, shared materials and visited exhibitions together. It seems as though Krasner developed strategies to avoid provoking professional jealousy of Pollock. They moved out of New York City to Springs, Long Island, then a rural backwater a convenient distance from the city. They only had one large workspace – the barn. It was natural that Pollock should have it as he was earning more money from his art than Krasner was. Supported by Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock’s income kept the impoverished couple above water financially. She worked in the bedroom, which was small and had poor light. This was a factor in the creation of the Little Image series. These were abstract paintings that not only featured grids and patterns of little images but the pictures themselves were of modest or small size. This series is the highlight of the Barbican show. They are some of the most beautiful paintings to have emerged from Abstract Expressionism. They have glints of gem-like colour showing through webs of black webs, caused by the multiple layers and variety of colours used in tiny amounts. In Abstract No. 2 (1946-8) the black web dances in an inverted depiction of water – with the overlaying pattern in black not white. It is a great conceit.

Krasner was part of the trend to work in black and white paint, which was the rage in the late 1940s. She excelled at it. The all-over patterns in some paintings recall the white writing of Mark Tobey and the speckled paintings of Janet Sobel. These pictures have  satisfying quality. The square line designs over dark colour in patterns is very much of its time and it recalls swatches of wallpaper design. This is not a denigration of these paintings, which are very dense and yet have a calligraphic astringency. The weighting of elements is brilliantly judged. One black-and-white block patterned painting (Untitled (c. 1948-9)) has been reworked with dark red dashes in a grid fashion. It seems a tribute to Mondrian’s New York paintings. Krasner met and greatly admired Mondrian.

3. Lee Krasner Abstract No. 2 , 1947, IVAM Centre, Spain. © The Pollock Krasner Foundation. Photo provided by IVAM.

[Image: Lee Krasner, Abstract No. 2 (1947). IVAM Centre, Spain. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy IVAM]

Restrictions sometimes provide stimulating challenges. The constraints on size directed Krasner to produce her what turned out to be her best works. The lack of opportunity to expand meant that she compressed the energy and expanses into small pictures. That gives the pictures their density and heft. A related work is her Mosaic Table (1947), which is a superb work. Reproduction cannot convey the rich colours and satisfying range of textures. Getting close allows one to see the coins and keys among the tesserae and glass, placed within a circular surface within a wagon wheel which had been left at her new country home. It is a beautiful object. It is a shame that Krasner did not create more works along these lines. Krasner’s strength is that she was willing to take risks; her weakness was that did not allow herself enough time to work out a seam thoroughly.

4. Lee Krasner Mosaic Table, 1947 Private Collection. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

[Image: Lee Krasner, Mosaic Table (1947) Private Collection. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York]

The later collages used torn up drawings that Krasner had been dissatisfied. When she returned to work, she found that the torn strips had attractive qualities. The arrangement of diagonal elongated strips is redolent of Cubism, Cubo-Futurism and Russian abstract art. Collage appealed to other artists of the time, including Robert Motherwell. Krasner, Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler were friendly at this time.

Prophecy (1956) and related paintings are a little obvious. The unrelenting pink seems too close to Matisse, the drawn curving verticals are too close to Wilfredo Lam. Later collages on a large size seem to parallel Matisse’s decoupages. After Pollock’s death she started to use his studio and produced her largest paintings. Few are fully successful. Polar Stampede (1960) is full of lashed liquid paint. Standing in front of it is like drowning in a stormy sea – a peculiar suffocating quality that is perhaps unintended and memorable even if it is not especially pleasant. However, the thinner works, were the raw canvas shows through are less satisfying. Krasner works best when her surfaces have depth in two or more layers and some kind of tensile strength of mark-making. The drawn calligraphic paintings of the 1960s are slight. Play is made of the fact that Clement Greenberg disapproved of the works of 1960, even though they went on to be praised. But Greenberg was correct. These are weak pieces. The brown colour is disagreeable, the surfaces lightly worked, the absence of palette variation a problem, the sizes too large. These are not good paintings. Too often one gets the impression these large pictures are flailings – spattered loops dancing in space which are made with the hope that brio will carry off the work. The density and tension of her best art is sorely missed here.

11. Lee Krasner, Another Storm, 1963 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery

[Image: Lee Krasner, Another Storm (1963), Private Collection. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York]

Another Storm (1963) is better. Technically similar to Polar Stampede, the alizarin relieves the claustrophobia and the mark-making knits the surface satisfactorily. Unfortunately, the painting has suffered extensive cracking. Krasner welcomed the change in fashion when it advanced hard-edge abstract at the end of the 1960s. Pop Art and a reaction against the stained surfaces of Colour-Field painting – along with the rise of Minimalism – had revived sharp lines and flat planes of colour in the painting of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These pictures work better than the preceding period, but one still has to like geometric abstraction to warm to them. The late collages include a series made out of sliced life drawings, cut into slivers. There is a gallery with a selection of works on paper, which feature staining and calligraphic signs and biomorphic marks.

Krasner died in 1984, while her solo retrospective was touring the USA. She was receiving the attention she had long deserved. The curators acknowledge that Krasner’s status as a woman painter has complicated the reception of her work.  In 1945 she rejected an offer to participate in the exhibition The Women. She did not feel an automatic affinity with other women painters. The was tough and self-reliant in her marriage to a major painter and she was just as impervious to her colleagues, male and female. Not least, the shadow of Jackson Pollock – one of the most influential painters in history – has inevitably fallen over Krasner. Happily, it is easy to judge her as an independent talent without reference to Pollock. On the quality of her best work, Krasner well deserves her place as a founder of Abstract Expressionism. Her participation in the touchstones of the New York School experience and her innate abilities make her a key figure in the history of American abstraction. This exhibition is a fine and long overdue tribute to an important painter.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Cindy Sherman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

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Léon Spilliaert

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[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Self-Portrait with Moon (1908), Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 488 x 630 mm, Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, inv. 6923]

Visitors to the Modern section of art museums in Belgium will soon come across stark and dramatic art by an unfamiliar name. Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) was a Belgian artist, associated with but not part of the Symbolist and Art Nouveau movements of the period. Curator and scholar Anne Adriaens-Pannier has become the world’s leading expert on Spilliaert. She prepared the catalogue raisonné and has assembled the most detailed body biographical information about the artist, not least due to her extensive and long-lasting contact with his descendants.

This publication is a major advance in making Spilliaert’s art known outside Belgium. His art is in private hands in Europe and in Belgian museums but has only recently been exhibited more internationally. This major monograph makes an excellent guide to the artist’s life and work, provides detailed information, a bibliography, chronology and plentiful information about the artist’s output, career and ideas.

The early work moves between modes of satire, social criticism, mythology, caricature and cartoon. Early pieces include the gamut of juvenile subjects: interiors, street scenes, solitary figures, caricatures, fantastic figures, symbolic characters and humorous scenes. Almost all were drawn in stylised forms and – with the exception of some self-portraits and interiors – produced from memory or imagination. There is often a bold stylisation with swathes of black. It is close to the sort of art published in illustrated journals and newspapers. We can relate it to the Modernisme of Barcelona, Jugenstil from Vienna and the closer influences of Belgian Art Nouveau and French Symbolism. This was also the time when Aubrey Beardsley’s black-and-white style was at its most popular. We can detect common refrains in Spilliaert’s art – the preoccupation with the morbid and grotesque, the artificial and synthesised, the decadent and uncanny, the ambiguous and androgynous. However, Spilliaert is never overtly erotic, as Rops and Beardsley were. There is a fascination with the strange but never an obsession. For Spilliaert, excess is a matter of detached speculation rather than something in which he indulged in his everyday life. Spilliaert was an early reader of Comte de Lautrémont’s Les chants de Maldoror, a fan of Nietzsche (of whom he drew some portraits) and someone familiar with Symbolist poetry.

Peculiarly, in his best work Spilliaert hardly went beyond the adolescent stage of art, with its interiority, self-absorption, heightened emotion, small size and lack of externally derived correction. Although indebted to Symbolism and Art Nouveau, Spilliaert was artistically and professionally isolated. He always preferred working on paper to using canvas; he stayed with ink, pencil, charcoal, watercolour and pastel, never achieving much in oil paint or sculpture. (His oil paintings were produced at the behest of gallerists who found those easiest to sell.) His palette is most effective when limited to cool hues, with little contrast in colour. The impressive thing is how he managed to extract the very best from a narrow emotional and thematic base.

He was essentially self-taught, spending only a few months studying in Bruges. He spent most of his life in his birth town of Ostend. The most important artist of Ostend was James Ensor, who was a minor celebrity in the town by the time Spilliaert started working. (Ensor outlived Spilliaert by a few years, dying in 1949.) Spilliaert greatly admired Ensor’s interiors. Ensor’s marines were very painterly and reliant on the effects of oil paint, so they could not be a direct influence on an artist using Spilliaert’s materials. Pannier includes an excellent and illuminating discussion about the personal and artistic links between the two artists. Ensor’s satirical drawings and prints directly inspired Spilliaert to produce his own interpretations on the subjects, though usually less scabrous and bitter.

Spilliaert did join societies, participate in group exhibitions  and form connections to other artists. Spilliaert is best thought of as an individualist associated with Symbolism, alongside Vilhelm Hammershøi, Helene Schjerfbeck, Félix Vallotton and others. Other artists such as Alfred Kubin, Odilon Redon and Félicien Rops are suitable comparators. An extended chapter relates Spilliaert to Fernand Khnopff, Xavier Mellery (who taught Spilliaert briefly in Bruges), Munch, Ensor, Constant Permeke, the Nabis and Japanese prints. Adriaens-Pannier helpfully weighs up the specialist literature (mostly available only in Flemish), which allows us to understand the debates which have shaped the reception of the artist’s work. She describes the artistic and literary affiliations that added to the formation of the art and is particularly good at setting his work in a historical context. Whilst not all of Spilliaert’s art will be to single viewer’s tastes – indeed there is a chasm between later colourful work and the early tenebrous style – Adriaens-Pannier even-handedly informs us about the multiple interests of the artist.

The interiors are domestic, generally, and still-lifes are of everyday objects (boxes, bottles, house plants). His early self-portraits are characteristic of Spilliaert. His slender form, strong facial shapes and flamboyant coif of hair provided a base upon which to exaggerate with powerful shadows and highlights. (He often posed under a raking overhead light at night.) His clothing is formal, with a high collar and dark jacket. He is the epitome of a damned artist or anguished aesthete. Coloration in muted, sometimes little more than a touch of isolated colour in an otherwise black-and-white picture.

Pictures of other figures depend on mood. When the figures are simple, dark, dramatic and isolated they work best. The caricatures, portraits (aside from the self-portraits) and pieces in high colour are much less successful. In the latter, the influence of the Nabis leads Spilliaert away from his strengths. Realism is not an issue, as the art that is realistic (the self-portraits) and unrealistic (the dream-like compositions) are both effective – just as the art which blends verisimilitude and artificiality. Contrasting or bright colour diminishes the impact of Spilliaert’s art.

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[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Promenade and Lighthouse, 1908, Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 505 x 395 mm (day)]

Much of the artist’s work concerns the sea. A constant presence in Ostend, a repeated subject for local artists, the sea provided Spilliaert with a chance to approach nature as vast and temperamental. The fields of flowing water, dramatic elongated reflections and counterpoints between Ostend’s seafront architecture and areas of water all allowed Spilliaert to address subjects such as the infinite, nature, the frisson of fear and wonder in tranquillity. The sea and beach gave his art greater breadth of expression and subject. Receding tides, reflections and ripples gave Spilliaert a chance to use the bold curving lines the dominate Art Nouveau aesthetic. The lone figure on the beach was a staple of contemporary art. These scenes show the introverted artist reaching for boundless expanses without leaving his home.

The beach became a dream-like stage that took on existential qualities, with lone figures free of ties and given freedom in return for lonely isolation. The sweeping beach and promenade are scenes of contemplation, free of detail, cut adrift from the society which made the structures. In a sense it prefigures de Chirico’s dark shadows, empty plazas and stripped down imagery. In some brilliant and haunting images, Spilliaert showed fans of light emanating from doorways in the elongated promenade building, placing us in the dark night, removed from light and life but still able to access those human necessities. These are images that embody existential art and should be as well-known as the art of de Chirico and Edvard Munch.

It is admitted even by his supporters that a fair quantity of Spilliaert’s art is unsuccessful. The pictures of women are types rather than individuals, lacking memorability or appeal. Late-career excursions into brighter landscapes are absolute failures and make painful viewing. His religious art scenes (the deployment of icons in abstract spaces) are oddities. The oil paintings he made to satisfy gallerist requests are not a natural fit for Spilliaert’s strengths. The best of the late works are scenes of trees.

His forays into lithography were much more successful. He produced single-colour images using the grain of the plates and paper to produce equivalents of conté drawings. The outstanding works are The Avenue (1899) and Woman Sewing (1899).

In 1917 Spilliaert moved to Brussels to improve his income (he was now married and they were expecting a child). The coloured watercolour scenes of bathers of this time are light-weight. His return to Ostend in 1922 apparently came as a relief to him and his wife. The high colour of later years – influenced by Fauvism and Expressionism – makes the later period of less interest. His society portraits and commercial work (aside from some illustrations) are uninvolving. Apart from some early flirtation with social commentary, Spilliaert was politically unengaged. Depictions of fishermen and fishwives in Ostend became a recurrent theme (something he shared with his friend Permeke). The artist’s interest seems more sentimental than attached to any desire to delve into social realism. Spilliaert became more established over the 1920s to the 1940s, assisted by a return to Brussels in 1935.

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[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Promenade, Light Reflections (1908), Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 480 x 394 mm, Paris, Musée d’Orsay]

Overall, Spilliaert is uneven. One could hardly react so warmly to all his contradictory styles and subjects. He has weaknesses – a tendency to decorativeness, an infelicity handling certain materials, a poor sense of colour outside of a near-monochrome approach, a certain aimlessness in his last decades – but at his best he is brilliant. The early interiors, self-portraits, beach and sea views and moody isolated figures are haunting and wonderful. They have the power to impress themselves upon your memory and strike a deep chord.

Adriaens-Pannier has used family testimony, contemporary sources (including the artist’s own writings), archive photographs, access to archives, a wide knowledge of the period and an unparalleled understanding of Spilliaert’s life and art to produce an absorbing book. The illustrations are extensive and high quality, many full page. They reproduce key pieces and less accessible works in private collections. This excellent monograph can be unreservedly recommended and will become the standard reference work for any English-language researchers studying Spilliaert.

 

Anne Adriaens-Pannier, Léon Spilliaert: From the Depths of the Soul, Ludion, 2019, cloth hardback, 336pp, €59.90, fully illus., ISBN 978 94 9181 990 2

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

New York Mid-Century Women Printmakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Claude Cahun

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The artist-writer Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob in 1894. She grew up in a middle-class family in Nantes. In some respects her childhood was conventional – financial security, good education – but Cahun (as she called herself from 1919 onwards) felt disturbed by undercurrents at home, which intensified over the years. Her father was Jewish at a time when the Dreyfuss affair was dividing the nation. Her mother was mentally ill and for some of the time confined a mental asylum.  Her mother was finally committed to an asylum permanently, with family visits forbidden. She and her brother were moved between relatives who were not always affection or considerate towards them.

Slight of build, not pretty, burdened with a Jewish surname at a time of anti-Semitism, disturbed by the emotional extremities of her parents and troubled by the spectre of hereditary madness, Cahun developed feelings of inadequacy. She found refuge in books. She had access to the books in her father’s office (a journal publication house) and read the classics to her blind grandmother, which gave her unusually broad exposure to literature. She began to write fiction. While a teenager she began a lifelong love affair with Suzanne Malherbe, who later changed her name to Marcel Moore (called Moore hereafter). The two women would be inseparable companions and collaborate in the production of books, photographs and artistic projects. Despite certain misgivings, their families tacitly approved of the unconventional relationship.

Cahun went to study philosophy and letters at the Sorbonne and Moore studied fine art in Nantes. Cahun conceived of herself as a failure in any of the available roles open to women of the time. In 1919 she changed her name to Claude Cahun partly to use as a nom de plume but also as a way of breaking with femininity. She shaved her head. She took as her heroes the Symbolist and Decadent writers, as well as André Gide. Their subjects of forbidden homosexual love, the morbid and grotesque, the renegade and flâneur, struck a chord in her. Her admiration for Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and John Addington Symmonds was related to her Anglophilia. The family holidayed in Jersey, she was schooled in England for a time and spoke English fluently. (When, a few later, Malherbe adopted the name “Moore” it may have been a conscious expression of affiliation for non-French culture.) Moore’s illustrations for Cahun’s first book (a restrained, stylised story about forbidden love) are derived from Aubrey Beardsley.

Moore was providing illustrations to journals and Cahun at that time was writing journalism. Cahun was following the Dada movement, which blew away the cultivated cobwebs of decadence. She dabbled in Buddhism and Eastern spirituality, something that was particularly current in the inter-war period, when people disgusted with the horrors of war turned their back on the traditions of their parents. Cahun became friends with Henri Michaux, René Crevel and André Breton. She met Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney and Chana Orloff, as well as visiting Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co.

The most important work of the 1920s was the commencement of a series of photographs of Cahun by Moore. It is this for which Cahun has become recognised posthumously. It seems that both Cahun and Moore worked to arrange the striking images, with Cahun alone as the subject in various incarnations: as a marionette, schoolgirl, clown, androgyne, mime, swimmer, dancer, Buddhist nun, scientific exhibit and other less identifiable types. Most of the photographs were only seen after Moore’s death, found as unprinted and untitled negatives. Some prints were marked with crop lines, others exist in unedited sequences. Some were published and displayed during Cahun’s lifetime – some in collage form – but it seems closer to a private project that occasionally bore fruit only to be exposed selectively. How serious are these works? What degree of importance did Cahun and Moore accord to them? The very fact that these questions are so important yet so unanswerable makes the asking significant.

The authorship issue is pertinent. Whose work is this: the subject’s or the photographer’s? Who came up with the ideas? Cahun and Moore are given joint credit but it is Cahun’s name on the book. Shaw points out that in early publications and posthumous exhibitions Cahun was credited as sole creator. “The perception that Disavowals [Aveux non avenus] and all of the photographic work associated with Cahun were the product Cahun’s singular vision was, for a long time, reinforced by the fact that the photomontages and photographs were attributed solely to Cahun in museum entries, catalogues and essays.”

More elaborate photo-collages (using original photographs, found photographs and handwritten texts) from the Aveux non avenus (1930) Shaw attributes to Cahun and Moore together, though she acknowledges that other experts believe Cahun was the principal creator. Shaw attributes to Cahun solely the photographs of temporary assemblages and miniature dioramas. They show serio-comic figures, toys, trinkets, plants and so forth in improvised settings. The photographs are jaunty and unsettling, adding a touch of the uncanny to assemblages that are childish. Other than photographs and photo-collages, the only other art Cahun produced were a few drawings and objects.

As the 1930s progressed greater political engagement was demanded of alert artists. Impelled by political commitment and artistic proclivity, Cahun became ever more closely involved in the Surrealist movement, specifically the circle around Breton. In 1932 Cahun and Moore joined the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, an organisation for Communist-supporting writers and artists. AEAR was anti-Fascist, pro-Communist and non-Surrealist. Relations between the PCF and the Surrealists were complicated and shifting. The Surrealists could not fully reconcile their search for freedom with the PCF and the USSR’s increasingly conservative artistic policy. Over the next few years the division between Trotsky and Breton’s position of free creativity by politically alert artists and the PCF and USSR’s directives enjoining adherence to Socialist Realism. Cahun found it difficult to align herself with a political organisation, as she admitted, and left in 1933.

In 1935 the group Contre-Attaque was co-founded by Cahun, alongside Breton, Bataille and others. It was an attempt to provide a unified front of Surrealists against Fascism. Breton and Bataille had different temperaments. Bataille has been characterised as a proponent of “Left Fascism” – essentially Socialism achieved through Fascist methods of force, not dissimilar to Strasserism – whereas Breton was a more conventional Marxist. Breton was also an authoritarian who saw Surrealism as his personal fiefdom and he mistrusted the group centred on Bataille’s Documents journal. Cahun, Moore and Breton resigned from Contre-Attaque due to the group’s “super fascist tendencies”.

Cahun seems to have been omitted from early retrospective monographs on Surrealism due to multiple reasons. First, much of her photography was unpublished and unexhibited, thus unknown to historians. The public works – seen in isolation and detached from the body of her work – might have seemed slight to critics. Second, with the exception of Man Ray, photographs have been assigned a supplementary role in histories of visual Surrealism behind paintings, sculpture and the graphic arts. Third, she did not sign many manifestoes, therefore is easy to overlook in compilations of official documents.

In 1937 Cahun and Moore moved to Jersey. In 1940 the British government demilitarised the Channel Islands as indefensible and evacuated much of the population. Cahun and Moore remained in the expectation of German occupation, with the intention of performing active resistance. Their house was requisitioned by the German army, yet still they engaged in small acts of subversion which carried a severe penalty. They distributed written propaganda to undermine occupiers’ authority and confidence; they smuggled food to starving slave labourers building defences. They retained a radio after a ban was imposed and passed on war news.

The couple were arrested whilst carrying anti-German propaganda. They attempted suicide but their overdoses were non-fatal. Their deportation to the continent was forestalled by the Allied victory in Saint-Malo. The German occupiers were now cut off from mainland Europe. They both attempted suicide again, believing the other to be dead. They were tried for listening to the radio, having a weapon and camera and distributing anti-German propaganda. Found guilty, they were sentenced to death. It seems that the Germans did want to carry out the execution and that there was no expectation that so late in the war two elderly women would be executed.

Much of the personal archive and collection of art, books and letters were burned by the Gestapo. Disillusioned by the perceived passivity of islanders to the occupation, the couple lived on in Jersey, with Cahun health failing. She died in 1954. Moore died in 1972.

Shaw is thoroughly familiar with her subject and intelligently guides us through the writing, art and life of Cahun and Moore. She is careful not to adduce an autobiographical reading of the photographs and does not over interpret the writings. She draws parallels between Cahun’s ideas and later gender theory without interpreting Cahun through that lens, though she has been and will be subject to such treatment. She summarises Cahun’s writings, which are not widely available in English. Appendices include translations of selections from Cahun’s writing. The book is thorough, sensitive, informative and absorbing. Shaw’s Exist Otherwise makes an important addition to Surrealism studies.

Cahun has in recent decades become one of the most influential photographers for a generation of artists and it is easy to see why. Alongside Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman, Cahun is seen as the supreme exponent of the ambiguous, elusive, disruptive photographic featuring the artist as subject. Cahun is a lodestar for women photographers, the ultimate trickster. Her collaborative mode of art creation is a very current concern, with more and more artists seeking to sublimate their identities in partnerships. Her roleplaying seems grist to the mill of gender-studies students and professors concerned with Judith Butler’s ideas of gender as performance.

Cahun’s work is liminal. It crosses boundaries between the performative and autobiographical, private and public, male and female, art and documentation, personal and political, singular and collaborative, serious and humorous, professional and amateur. It is unstable and unclear, sometimes existing in binary states simultaneously. This is why it appeals to artists and critics in the Post-Modernist age with its insistent fetishisation of boundary-breaking and genre-bending. What makes Cahun’s art better than the art that emulates it is a lack of affect, a genuine fascination with ambiguity and an absence of self-consciousness. There is a real question about whether this is art or not, whereas the knowing art students of the 1990s never intended anything other of their activities, realising that everything could be fed into the voracious, undiscriminating, unobjecting, uncritical maw of art exhibition and publication. Cahun’s art has a magical risk that is missing from the activities of the 1990s. It also has that now mocked attribute of originality.

 

Jennifer L. Shaw, Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun, Reaktion Books, 2017, hardback, ISBN 978 1 78023 728 2

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Arshile Gorky in Venice

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[Image: Arshile Gorky,  Portrait of Master Bill (ca. 1937), oil on canvas / Olio su tela, 52⅛x 40⅛in. (132.4 x 101.9 cm). Private collection/ Collezione privata]

In May 2019 Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia opened a major exhibition of the work of Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) in Venice (Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Ca’ Pesaro – International Gallery of Modern Art, Venice, 9 May-22 September 2019). It is the first solo exhibition of Gorky’s art in Venice, though his art was exhibited a number of times at the Biennale. The retrospective exhibition includes 81 works, paintings and drawings, from all periods of the artist’s career. Curated by Gabriella Belli and Edith Devaney, the exhibition is realised in cooperation with The Arshile Gorky Foundation. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This exhibition presents the full range of Gorky’s art, starting with a response to Cézanne, painted about 1927-8. Gorky was famous in his early years for his fastidious craftsmanship, the high quality of his materials and his fascination with incorporating and reworking the ideas of leading Modernists. Cézanne, Léger, de Chirico, Picasso and Miró his idols and his art before 1940 was heavily influenced by these painters. In still-lifes he made work that was resolutely European. (He claimed to have studied in Paris but he travelled from his native Armenia via Greece to the USA without studying art in Europe. Gorky was always vague about his origins in Armenia and was unwilling to talk about his past.) Gorky’s portraits from the 1930s are more independent and the demands of representing particular sitters (in life and from photographs) seem to have encouraged Gorky to develop more personal solutions in terms of styles and forms. The exhibition includes portraits, some of named subjects (including Gorky, his mother, Frederick Kiesler and friend Willem de Kooning), others of unidentified heads.

At this time Gorky was teaching art and painting in New York. He was employed on the WPA painting murals (one for Newark Airport), receiving coverage that portrayed him as an heir to the famous European master of Modernism. He formed close bonds with some artists in New York, particularly de Kooning. It was around the time the first artist wartime emigres arrived from Europe in late 1939 and 1940 that Gorky raised his game. Like many of the American artists interested in the avant-garde, they were impressed and disappointed to meet the trailblazers such as Ernst, Tanguy, Mondrian and others. They discovered that these pioneers were human, subject to fallibilities such as cupidity and vanity. Sparked by Surrealism in particular, the American artists took the ideas of automatism and developed it into ambitious abstract painting. Gorky was in the vanguard, developing his late style: biomorphic forms, intense colours, technical virtuosity, visible materiality. Gorky had synthesised his influences and applied a unique style (associated to Tanguy and Matta but independent) to his natural surroundings.

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[Image: Arshile Gorky, The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb / Il fegatoèla cresta del gallo (1944), oil on canvas/ Olio su tela73 ¼ x 98⅜in. (186.1 x 249.9 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New YorkGift of / Dono di Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1956, K1956:4Image courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery]

The landscapes of Virginia and Connecticut over the summers of 1942-1945 are considered high points. André Breton visited the Gorky family and invented titles of some works. The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944) is one of the great lyrical masterpieces – full of vigorous forms, delicate and energetic brushwork and intense colour. The energy belies the fact that at least some of Gorky’s classic Surrealist compositions were drawn on paper before being carefully transferred to canvas. From 1944 to the year of his death, Gorky’s oil paintings were thinly painted, with dilute paint forming light veils. An early colourful example is One Year the Milkweed (1944). Delicate Game (1946) has a drawn design barely covering the canvas surface. It includes only a few washes and most of the painting is bare primer. Painting (1947) is as translucent as a watercolour, with no firm lines. Only in his final months did Gorky use opaque oil paint, as seen in Dark Green Painting (c. 1948). Some unfinished paintings indicate how Gorky started his oil paintings.

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[Image: Arshile Gorky, Dark Green Painting / Pittura verde scuroca (1948), oil on canvas / Olio su tela43 3/4 x 55 1/2 in.(111.1 x 141 cm)Philadelphia Museum of ArtGift (by exchange) of / Dono (in scambio) di Mr. and Mrs. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee and R. Sturgis and Marion B. F.Ingersoll, 1995, 1995-54]

The drawings supplement paintings and show Gorky’s virtuosity. The early portrait drawing of his mother stands in for the two painted versions of that subject, which did not travel to Venice. The ink drawings and gouache paintings are related to his mural works. Apple Orchard (c. 1943-6) is one of the pastels which show the artist fusing forms of leaves, fruits and flowers. Other drawings allow us to compare the preparation with the final paintings.  There is an experimental drawing where a sheet has been smudged and the forms are indicated by erasing them. Ink wash and line are indicative of Gorky’s command of many materials and approaches, served by his long apprenticeship following the art of his heroes.

Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948 includes works loaned from museums and private collections across the USA and Europe and gives a strong overview of the artist’s work. The generously sized catalogue has full illustrations, essays describing the artist’s career, an essay discussing the reception of Gorky’s art in Italy and a chronology, all in Italian and English languages. It comprises a good introduction to Gorky’s achievements.

 

Gabriella Belli, Edith Devaney, Saskia Spender, Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948, Hauser & Wirth (distr. Artbook), June 2019, hardback, 240pp, 118 col. illus., Italian/English text, $55/C$75, ISBN 978 3 906915 34 0

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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