Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Letters

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

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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

Helen Frankenthaler’s Woodcuts

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Freefall, 1993. Twelve color woodcut from 1 plate of 21 Philippine
Ribbon mahogany plywood blocks on hand-dyed paper in 15 colors, 199.4 x 153.7 cm ©
2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Tyler Graphics Ltd.,
Mount Kisco, NY]

The exhibition Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 11 September 2021-18 April 2022) displays in the UK for the first time the woodcuts of Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), on the tenth anniversary of her death.

During the 1950s-70s there was a boom in American printmaking, especially in the fields of lithography, screenprinting and etching. The development of new techniques and the rise of styles that were well matched to printmaking (Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism, geometric abstraction) all contributed to a golden age of Late Modernist printmaking. Woodcuts – aside from the related wood engravings, which also had a lesser revival – did not receive much attention but for a painter who always responded strongly to the surface qualities of her supports, Frankenthaler realised the potential of woodcuts. In the use of plates which displayed grain, Frankenthaler saw an equivalence between the grain of canvas (usually cotton duck) and the more irregular and organic grain of the wood block. Additionally, she was used to staining canvases irregularly and these wash, tide or drying edges resemble the swaying swoops of woodgrain. Nature had ready prepared her supports for her.

Tatyana Grosman of Universal Limited Art Editions, New York introduced Frankenthaler to the experience of making woodcut prints in 1973. She would go on to make 29 editioned woodcut prints. Kenneth Tyler of Tyler Graphics, New York proved to be the perfect collaborator for Frankenthaler, expanding the scope and ambition of Frankenthaler as a printmaker. The large size of Freefall (1993) (199 x 153 cm) and its delicately graduated inking providing an intense ultramarine void at its centre, would have been beyond the ability of less experienced printmakers. The graduated colour comes from Japanese woodblock prints, the abrasions to the plate partly come from Surrealism and pre-war abstract art. The use of jigsaw plates for different colours, each revealing the grain of the wood (it would been possible to use cross-cut wood, which would not have displayed grain) inevitably evokes the radical woodcuts of Edvard Munch. However, Munch printed his proofs in one pull with the separately inked blocks assembled, whereas Frankenthaler had her colours separately applied, each carefully registered to make sure the blocks were in position. Munch was not perturbed by the inevitably outlines with no ink that bounded each block. For Frankenthaler, the joints had to be crisp or deliberately overlapping to generate composite colours. Munch’s aesthetic is primal and figurative; Frankenthaler’s is reflective and abstract. Munch reused blocks until they wore out, becoming distressed. (Against standard practice, Munch used to weather his paintings by placing them outside to remove their newness by introducing fading, cracking, staining.)

The exhibition includes finished impressions and some test proofs, along with a couple of paintings. The prints vary in effectiveness. The earliest print is East and Beyond (1973), an 8-colour print which beautifully combined the large organic swatches of delicate colour with slivers and nodes of more intense hues. They work well on the Nepalese handmade paper, with its organic fragments complimenting the grain of the wood. Machine-made paper, especially stark white, often has a deadening or sterilising effect on art. The gentle natural tinting of the paper allows the print to rest easily, whereas a harsh white would fix the edges more, acting as a sharp (almost reproving) demarcation. Similarly, inside the prints, lightly inked plates with fine grain act like veils or muslin, with connotations of delicacy. The weakness of wood – the cracks and splintering – add a human element of flaws and of individual character in a way that the regularity of cotton duck and dilute acrylic paint do not. A certain obduracy obtains and Frankenthaler’s art benefits thereby. Had Frankenthaler ever tackled stone carving, she would have faced such flaws and strengths and had to adapt herself to these qualities. Frankenthaler does seem at her best when she has to negotiate or struggle, which is why her woodcuts are even more rewarding than her paintings.  

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Snow Pines, 2004. Thirty-four color Ukiyo-e style woodcut from 16
blocks on Torinoko paper and mounted onto Fabriano Classico paper, 95.3 x 66 cm © 2021
Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Pace Editions, Inc., NY]

Essence Mulberry (1977) shows a sequence of trial proofs where artist experimented with colour combinations. The edition itself incorporated blank space at the bottom of the elongated vertical-format sheet. Tales of Genji I and II (1998) are less successful. The introduction of graphic lines is a mistake as they are too assertive and intrusive. III is very much more effective, lacking that graphic intervention and relying much more on modulation of intense colour. IV and V are compromises between the two compositions, prettier, more detached in character. Radius (1993) feels both inconsequential and too self-consciously made, redolent of performance. The Grove (1991) and The Clearing (1991) are rougher, closer to Munch, not aiming to please or delight or dazzle. Freefall (1993) is a showstopper, a grand spectacle both visually and technically impressive.

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly, 2000. One-hundred-two color woodcut from 46
blocks of birch, maple, lauan, and fir on 1 sheet of light sienna (center sheet) and 2 sheets of
sienna (left and right sheet) TGL handmade paper, triptych 106 x 201.9 cm, each sheet 106 x
67.3 cm © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Tyler
Graphic Ltd., Mount Kisco, NY]

Madame Butterfly (2000) required 46 blocks, producing 102 colours in an extended printing process that required one year. It straddles Abstract Expressionism, Colour-Field Painting and the Aesthetic Movement. Whistler’s japonaiserie and limpid smoky evocations of water and sky are not too far distant from Frankenthaler’s expansive print, composed of three sheets assembled. It has a landscape format and (like many of her woodcuts) evokes the landscape. Japanese Maple (2005) conjures a landscape in its dark central form lying horizontal in a horizontally oriented sheet, with the suggestion of a reflection of mountains on placid water. Madame Butterfly is shown in a room with the original painting on plywood that inspired that painting and a working proof, adjusted by the artist. The final print is beautiful and a fitting end to the exhibition. Personally, I feel Geisha (2003) (23 colours from 15 blocks) surpasses it by a touch, due to its compactness and the vivid conjunction of yellow and crimson. It has a firmness not found in the paintings. The quasi-knotholes act as motifs in disguise, while the jagged parapets do Clyfford Still-style work, imparting a rugged grandiosity to the print. This was made with Yasuyuki Shibata at Pace Editions, who had participated in the creation of Madame Butterfly at Tyler’s workshop. It would be the print I would most like to live with.    

The collaborative process and the lengthy indirect means by which the proofs came into being – and came into being piecemeal in a highly artificial manner – was quite different to Frankenthaler’s painting. Most Colour-Field and Abstract Expressionist painting is direct, with material being added or covered over in a sequential, direct and spontaneous manner. It is alla prima and it is observable as it is made. Print-making is highly organised, indirect, slow, technical, sometimes working through composite means which cannot intuitively understood during the making process. Printmaking is also conceptual, because it requires artist, master printmaker and technicians to envisage something that does not exist and cannot be made directly. Shapes are inverted, colour and tonal values reversed, stencils are used for their negative space not positive space and so forth. It requires thinking ahead and deducing from that projection the steps that will be required. The fact that Frankenthaler managed these challenges shows her versatility and her ability to work in collaboration with technicians, a system that required accepting as well as giving advice and responding to technical difficulties. Few Abstract Expressionists and Colour-Field painters made good prints, probably due to these issues.    

[Image: Helen Frankenthaler, Cedar Hill, 1983. Ten color woodcut from 13 blocks, 5 mahogany and 8
linden, on light pink Mingei Momo handmade paper, 51.4 x 62.9 cm © 2021 Helen
Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London / Crown Point Press, Oakland, CA]

In a different room, Frankenthaler’s acrylic painting Feather (1979) is paired with Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and Agapanthus (c. 1916-7), lent from Musée Marmottan, Paris. The Frankenthaler canvas does seem a legitimate successor (or offspring) of the Impressionist expanse of colour holding painting motifs. It is an intelligent comparison, out of which Frankenthaler emerges unscathed. Both paintings benefit from the encounter.    

Sometimes in Frankenthaler’s paintings there is problematic disjuncture of the stained surface and the impasto paint. These often conflict visually and physically. It is as if one is trying to understand a poem written in two different languages, both of which the audience speaks but one tongue is more comfortable for each member. One comprehends both the physically distant ethereal staining and physically assertive tangible impasto, but seeing them together forces the viewer to switch between these modes in a way that can be difficult or require conscious effort. This is not the case with art by Mark Tobey or Jackson Pollock, where areas of stain and impasto are broken up into pattern, thus dissolving the boundary between ground and motif, staining and impasto. The regularity of the fat paint (vis a vis the lean paint) forms a net, which acts a totalising device, making any single impasto mark uninformative and not singly significant. With Frankenthaler (and Feather is a good example of this), motifs or marks over the ground retain significance. They are large enough and small enough to act as devices and are given space to gain attention; they are not part of a surface covering repetition. This is probably the single greatest obstacle to the acceptance and enjoyment of Frankenthaler’s painting, even though individual viewers might not understand why they do not feel as at home with a Frankenthaler compared to a Lee Krasner Little Image painting or a painting by Pollock or Tobey (or Sam Francis, in his early classic style).

In the woodcut prints, this inherent tension between ground and motif in Frankenthaler’s painting is resolved. The applied ground and motif – and intermediary areas of expansive motifs or shapes – are all on the surface in the prints. Ground and motif have the same optical qualities and density and they lie flatly on surface of the paper. Absorption of applied pigment into the support does not occur, so there is no ambiguity between applied pigment and pre-existing support. In the prints, there is no recession, with pigment mingling with the material of the canvas (or, in this case, paper). Hence, there is no division between the visual qualities of stain and impasto, ground and motif and therefore no need for viewers to struggle assimilating different pictorial and optical languages. This sense of completeness, of containment and parity between elements in a Frankenthaler woodcut makes them easier viewing than her paintings; for some, this make the woodcuts better art than her paintings.

The exhibition is carefully designed, lit and set out, the catalogue is informative and the video presentation is to the point and not intrusive visually or aurally. Best of all, the art is often beautiful and sometimes genuinely great – comparable to the best works in the genre by artists of different eras, traditions and countries. This exhibition is open until April next year and is highly recommended.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Toyen, Magnetic Woman

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.”

Image: “2.1 A studio photograph used for publicity. Toyen, circa 1928. Photographer unknown. LA PNP.”

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.

Image: “0.2. Toyen’s work began to signal an interest in androgyny by the early 1930s. Toyen, untitled drawing in the Erotická revue 2 (1932).”

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.

Image: “5.22a–i Skeletal figures on flat expanses warn of war’s destruction. Toyen, Schovej se, válko! [Hide Yourself, War!/Cache-­toi guerre!], 1944 (Prague: F. Borový, 1946).”

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.

Image: “Plate 18. Does the gymnast emerge from or disappear into the wall? Toyen, Relâche [After the Performance], 1943, oil, 109 × 52.5 cm. Alsova Jihočeska galerie, Hluboká nad Vltavou.”

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.

Karla Huebner, Magnetic Woman: Toyen and the Surrealist Erotic, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020, cloth hb, 408pp, 28 col./many mono illus., $100, ISBN 978 0 8229 4647 2

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York

I. The Book

Alexander Nemerov (a professor at Stanford University) has written a series of biographical episodes about the art and life of Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). Frankenthaler was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and founder of Colour-field Painting (Post-Painterly Abstraction). Nemerov has taken 11 dates, one per year from 1950 to 1960, to write about. These are entrances into different parts of the artist’s life, situating the chapters around specific events. This works adequately. Nemerov has to be flexible about what to include and how much the significance the day has to the chapter, but the framework is secondary to content.  

The 1950s were a decade in which Frankenthaler achieved an astronomical rise in prominence. When the account begins, Frankenthaler was a young painter, a recent graduate, searching for a unique style and place. She had graduated in 1949 from Bennington College, Vermont. Frankenthaler came from a wealthy upper-class Jewish family from New York. Her father had been a New York State Supreme Court justice. His unexpected death in 1940 left the family of a wife and three young girls grieving but financially secure.  

Frankenthaler participated in the 1951 exhibition at a venue on Ninth Street. Only in retrospect was it seen as ground breaking. Frankenthaler became close to Grace Hartigan, who exhibited in that show. More important for Frankenthaler was her first solo exhibition in November of that year. By that time she had already started an affair with Clement Greenberg. Much her elder, Greenberg was the most influential critic of the era. His backing had not exactly made Pollock the most famous (or notorious) painter in America, but his support had certainly seen both Pollock and Greenberg’s stars rise. Frankenthaler met Pollock and his wife Krasner via Greenberg. By this time, Pollock and Krasner lived on Long Island. Greenberg and Frankenthaler went out to visit them. Frankenthaler took much from Pollock. He was an example of a great and serious painter. His art was exhilarating. She viewed Pollock’s 1950 exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, which contained Pollock’s greatest drip paintings, and this transformed her idea of what painting could be.

On 26 October 1952, Frankenthaler painted Mountains and Sea. It was painted on raw canvas and unstretched, as Pollock painted. Frankenthaler diluted her paint so that it soaked and stained, rather than remained where poured. This diffuseness was radical. It was lyrical and sensuous. It was different from gestural painting of Pollock and the tight, impermeable surfaces of Malevich and Mondrian. This is seen as the starting point for the Colour-field Painting. Friedel Dzubas, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and others were excited by the painting as saw potential in that art. Others would soon follow. For the first time in history, two occurrences had taken place: a woman had founded a major art movement and a style had been established on a single identifiable day.

On 27 July 1953, Frankenthaler visited the Prado, seeking cultural release from domestic frustrations. Her encounter with Tintoretto and painters of the Spanish Golden Age led her to tackle larger canvases, referring back to art history. On 12 August 1956, Frankenthaler was in Paris with Krasner when the news reached them that Pollock had been killed in a car crash. Frankenthaler did her best to comfort Krasner as she made funeral and travel arrangements by telephone. Following Pollock’s lengthy deterioration into a violent angry drunk, his death ended up freeing both Krasner and Frankenthaler. As Nemerov puts it, “Whatever personal feelings it occasioned, Pollock’s death was also a release. That fall Helen’s paintings became freer, more improvisational, more brazenly indifferent to protocols of “finish.” Some new joy came with the master’s demise; some liberation, inseperable from the pall, fueled her work.”

On 1 August 1958 Frankenthaler and Motherwell were on their honeymoon in Spain and visited the caves of Altamira.  On 16 July they had visited the caves of Lascaux. This was Frankenthaler’s second pilgrimage to the Altamira caves. That had been with a crowd. This time, she and her husband were alone, having bribed the keeper to allow them in during the lunch break. Viewing the paintings by candlelight, surrounded by darkness and silence, the couple wondered at the paintings of bison, horses and deer that had once inhabited ancient Spain. For two painters strongly committed to the primal power of painting and dedicated to paint as a medium, it was a profound experience. Both later made reference to the experience in statements and art.

The year 1959 was a stressful one for Frankenthaler and Motherwell. They took custody of Motherwell’s two young children from his ex-wife, due to her break down. Frankenthaler was at first anxious and disconcerted by the responsibilities of being a stepmother. However, the couple adjusted, had enough money for a nanny and the children grew to trust and like Frankenthaler. It was a bittersweet moment when the girls returned to their mother two years later. Frankenthaler would have no children of her own. Frankenthaler’s 1960 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York, brought a curtain down on the 1950s and her youth. By this time, Pop, Happenings and Conceptual art was in the wings. Politics would drive a wedge between the student artists and the grand Abstract Expressionists. Over barely two decades, Abstract Expressionism would rise, freeze and fade, its practitioners turned into bankable Old Masters in late middle age.    

The book is a brisk read, written in a direct style but informed by a solid grounding in 1950s American culture and the New York School. Nemerov’s familiarity with the biography and art of his subject (and of others in her milieu) is evident. The thorough footnotes will help students and scholars track down sources; the illustrations – colour images of art, photographs of the artist at work and socialising – fill out the narrative. This book will be welcomed by fans of the painter and anyone interested in the New York School.

II. Frankenthaler as “a woman artist”

Discussions about Frankenthaler and the circumstances of women artists is complex. She was a talented painter who made original art – started a new school of painting – and was acclaimed by her peers. On that level, she is a success story, a self-actualised woman artist in a time when there were few top-level female artists. Yet her close connections to critic Clement Greenberg, artist Robert Motherwell and curator Bryan Robertson leave open the inference that her prominence was assisted by these men. If we examine interpretations of Krasner’s career, we find authors and associates suggesting Krasner’s marriage to Pollock impeded her during his lifetime (making her a supernumerary, causing people to view her art as relational to Pollock’s, reducing her productivity) and assisted her after his lifetime (proceeds from the Pollock estate making her financially secure, dealers interested in Pollock’s art treating Krasner’s art favourably in order to win access to his art). Yet Frankenthaler was already part of the New York Abstract Expressionist scene before her relationship with Greenberg. She was already exhibiting and selling art before the affair started. Greenberg may have increased the attention given her art before 1953 (the year Mountains and Sea was first exhibited), but it was in that year that Frankenthaler earned her reputation and had artist followers. It is difficult to see how her romantic connections translated into measurable career advantages, certainly after 1953.

It seems inevitable that an artist as original and driven as Frankenthaler would have broken through in the way she did, even without the encouragement of influential male partners. Greenberg was not a great champion of women artists as a whole. It is possible that the main boost he provided to Frankenthaler was forming a strong social bond with Pollock and Krasner and thereby allowing Frankenthaler to see their art first hand and discuss techniques, material and ideas with two of the most advanced artists in the scene. She admitted that seeing Pollock’s art was a seminal experience for her as a fellow painter. In that sense, Greenberg’s assistance was to help her develop her art, not to advantage her public career.

Frankenthaler’s signature style of staining was seen by some critics and artists as distinctly feminine. The style tended to conform to assumptions about womanly delicacy, as did the lack of evidence of raw physical energy or cultivated athletic dexterity, as found in the art of Pollock and Kline. The paintings contained blooming optical sensations and enveloping expanses rather than staccato brushwork or whipped drips. There were the inferences of woman as producer of fluids, passive, unfirm, labile, unpredictable, unfocused, avatar of untrammelled nature. Such talk betrayed the assumptions of the commentator more than it identified any trait in the painter. Woman as dyer of cloth, maker of decoration and laundress were the cultural shadows flickering through the minds of some in the 1950s and 1960s who saw photographs of Frankenthaler. These same viewers had seen Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of Pollock at work, the comparisons were somewhere between boxer and farmer; Pollock was described as a cowboy spinning lariats of paint instead of a lasso.

Frankenthaler’s art was well regarded – especially by the art cognoscenti of Manhattan, Long Island and Provincetown – possibly in part because it was seen as a (incidentally feminine) variant of an existing (incidentally largely masculine) discipline. It was an offshoot or evolution. In stylistic terms, this is correct. Colour-field Painting was developed by Abstract Expressionist painters, in their search to expand their formal range and technical capacities. The inference that it was secondary and subsequent, was one that artists and critics at the time were aware of and it did frame discussions. It is ironic that the first style inescapably founded by a female artist was one that was considered primarily as a development or continuation of a pre-existing school of painting. Even as a leader, Frankenthaler was seen at a secondary rank, as the head of a group which was behind a vanguard. This is a touch unfair whilst being accurate. Frankenthaler was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and Colour-field Painting did develop from that existing movement.      

This book does present a good overview of how Frankenthaler’s art was received by contemporaries, though the author is limited by his biographical focus. This book is a suitable entry point for those wishing to investigate this subject in more depth.

Alexander Nemerov, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, Penguin Press, 2021, hardback, 269pp + xviii, illus., $28, ISBN 978 0 525 56018 0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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