Collectors without Remorse: Dominique and John de Menil

Cover_Final

[Image © Alfred A. Knopf]

Patrons of the arts are not always given the respect or understanding due to them. Although it is artists, writers, composers and other creative figures which generate cultural products, it is the patronage of others who allow them to create (by commissioning art and providing stipends) and preserve the fruits of their labours in their private collections. Very often those collections become public and enrich the life of the state and population. Much culture would never have been produced if it were not for the generosity – and acquisitiveness – of collectors and patrons. Today, those who become wealthy are often scorned as exploiters and are unfairly maligned. Yet it is only through the patronage using funds derived from base commercial transactions that the most sublime cultural products of our eras are created and shared communally – be those sources the tithes of the Medieval church, the coal barons of South Wales, rail magnates of America, shipping tycoons of Greece or the income tax of modern Europe. It is only right that many museums today bear the names of the farsighted and adventurous members of the rich.

Two of the greatest benefactors of the visual arts in America were Dominique and John de Menil. They conducted their lives with a mixture of generosity, frugality, simplicity and attention to detail. Much of that came from their upbringings.

The ancestors of Dominique de Menil (1908-1997) included François Guizot (1787-1874), the renowned lawyer, statesman and historian. His father was guillotined during the Terror. Guizot went into public life and enacted lasting educational reforms, wrote many influential histories and founded La Revue française. Another branch of her relatives included the Schlumbergers, Protestant Alsatian industrialists. It was noted that Dominque’s austere attitudes and emotional restraint was derived from her Protestant upbringing. In Dominique’s family tree commerce, culture and public service were interwoven. In character she was cautious and abstemious.

Baron Jean de Menil (1904-1973) was descended from a line of soldiers and bankers. His great-grandfather was decorated by both Napoleon and Louis XVIII and conferred the title of baron. The de Menil’s were less favoured by fortune than the Schlumbergers – financially ruined then decimated by the Great War, the de Menils were in a poor state at the end of the Great War, at which time Jean was 14 years old. Jean went to work at Banque de I’Union Parisienne and became a rising star, rising to the level of executive by 26.

In 1930 the couple met and began a relationship that last until Jean’s death in 1973. In 1931 they married, the wife remaining Protestant and the husband Catholic. Using the bride’s dowry, they set up home together. Their first artistic commission – a portrait – was inauspicious. Their architect (who was converting their new home) introduced them to Max Ernst. While they liked the artist, they disliked the portrait of Dominique that he painted. They kept it in a cupboard for over a decade.

In the 1910s, Dominique’s father Conrad Schlumberger had established a method of using electrical resistance to prospect for oil. By the 1930s, Schlumberger International was a major player in oil exploration and extraction. In 1936 Conrad died and two years later Jean joined the Schlumberger firm, bringing with him a great deal of banking and financial experience. The war forced their hands. After the fall of France, Jean travelled to Texas. Houston had become an important area for Schlumberger’s business and Jean went to head the branch of Schlumberger there. Dominique and the children soon crossed the Atlantic to join them. As soon as they arrived, Jean and Dominique (who had technical expertise in oil exploration) went to Venezuela to assist the branch there. German submarines had been sinking oil tankers heading north and this vital route of oil transportation was at risk. The de Menils did their part for the Resistance and the Free French Government by raising money.

After the war, the de Menils returned to Houston and commissioned a Modernist house. John dropped the title baron and his name was more frequently anglicised to “John”. The couple began to form an impressive collection of art, which numbered 10,000 items by the late 1970s. The core collections consist of Surrealism, European Modernism, American Modernism (including Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), ancient art, African art and Native American and Latin American art. Out of these, the most important holdings are of Surrealism (particularly Max Ernst and René Magritte) and Abstract Expressionism (particularly Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman). The book includes colour plates of some of the best works in the collection, with many installation shots of landmark loan exhibitions they organised. They commissioned work by a range of world-class creative figures such as couturier Charles James, dancer Merce Cunningham, architects Philip Johnson and Renzo Piano and composers Morton Feldman and Pierre Boulez, among many others.

Although they agreed on all purchases, the couple’s personal tastes as collectors differed. John was the more acquisitive and enjoyed exuberant and combative art (especially Picasso). Dominique liked more meditative art, in particular Rothko and Magritte. It is curious that the de Menils formed such an attachment to Surrealism – a movement that was moribund by the time they started collecting seriously. By 1945, Surrealism looked tired, academic and meretricious, especially compared to the new American art emerging.  Moreover, a large impetus of Surrealism movement was anti-clericism, even atheist, which rather contrasted with the de Menils’ strong Christian faith. They considered collecting and supporting artists to be a moral responsibility but they did not generally judge art in moral terms. (An exception is Matta – one of the de Menils’ artists – whom Dominique considered to be borderline obscene, with all his inter-penetrating quasi-organic forms representing veritable painted orgies.)

There were sometimes gaps in the collection. Most of the best canvases by Braque, Matisse and Picasso were unavailable and the Abstract Expressionists were selling briskly by the late 1950s. “One would go to the Leo Castelli Gallery and the whole show would already have been sold,” Dominique lamented. They would buy classic Ernsts and Magrittes from New York-based dealer Alexandre Iolas, whose judgement they came to rely on. The de Menils formed personal ties to a number of artists, including Ernst and Magritte – with whom they could converse in French. Middleton includes titbits from the private notes that Dominique made when meeting artists: Brauner said Picasso’s art made him feel good and want to paint; Lipchitz was dismissive of de Chirico and Rouault; Giacometti was “exceptionally intelligent”.

In 1951 the de Menils curated a landmark exhibition of Van Gogh at a venue in Houston. The event was a sensation and established the couple as both cultural powerbrokers and curators of discernment. The de Menils became deeply involved in MoMA, with John becoming a trustee. They donated work to the museum but made clear that their civic duty was towards Houston. Dominique made a donation of major works (including The Deep (1953), Pollock’s greatest painting) to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, when it opened. The de Menils also funded research and commissioned the catalogues raisonnés of Ernst and Magritte.

The de Menils were committed supporters of civil rights, the promotion of non-Western art and inter-denominational dialogue. In 1960, the de Menils decided to build a non-denominational chapel at Rice University, Houston and dedicate it to the spiritual power of art. In 1964 they commissioned architect Philip Johnson (who later resigned over aesthetic differences with the de Menils) and interior paintings from Mark Rothko and acquired an exterior sculpture by Barnett Newman. It opened in 1971 and became a centre for art pilgrims and those in search of a contemplative sanctuary. Despite a predominance of positive reactions, opinions have varied about the success of the Rothko Chapel, though the seriousness and significance of the efforts of all involved are unquestioned. The chapel has become a centre for events relating to human rights and political dialogue, which drew Dominique towards former President Carter.

The de Menils had an interest in presenting black art, from African origins to contemporary American art. They travelled in Africa and Asia on trips that combined art buying, museum visiting and consultation with religious leaders, all part of a quest to fuse spirituality and art. Different religions derive their identities from their differences and grow through competition and suppression of competing religions; each religion claims exclusive superiority. The de Menils’ good intentions and genuine desire to harmonise discordant worldviews seem admirable but naïve.

After the death of John in 1973, Dominique continued their work and conceived of turning their art collection into a museum. The $25m museum, designed by Piano, opened on 4 June 1987. The design was a sober, discreet, elegant and dedicated to art, eschewing merchandising. Dominique was insistent it was free to entry. The Menil Collection became one of the world’s leading museums.

William Middleton has used access to the de Menil’s private papers, the Collection’s archives and interviews with colleagues and friends of the subjects to build a rich and sensitive portrait of the de Menils as public figures and private people. The book is thoroughly footnoted and illustrations are well chosen. The great diversity of activities and interests of the subjects – as well as the sheer industriousness of their collecting and curating – mean there are no dull passages or repetition in this narrative. The biography is a warm, balanced and respectful tribute to two major figures in American culture and philanthropy.

 

William Middleton, Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, hardback, 784pp, col. and mono illus., $40, ISBN 978 0 375 41543 2

Advertisements

Van Gogh and Japan

ENG softcover Van Gogh & Japan

 

For Vincent Van Gogh, Japan was an ideal – a place of light, pleasure and a productive society framed by awe-inspiring nature. Van Gogh had a typically Western view of the Orient, with Japan being a fantasy composition of familiarity with some cultural objects, travellers’ tales and assumptions. So, in many ways, the exhibition Van Gogh and Japan is an examination of the artist’s conceptions about a distant land he never visited and his deep involvement in the art of Japan, as it was understood in France of 1880-90. This review is of the catalogue for the current exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (23 March-24 June 2018; previously Hokkaidō Museum of Modern Art (Sapporo), Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, National Museum of Art (Kyoto)).

Although Van Gogh’s knowledge of Japan and its culture was fragmentary, the relationship was important to Van Gogh and influenced the artistic production of his last years. The influence is apparent in the art but there is a degree of uncertainty about how much the artist knew of Japanese art and culture. He perused the stock Parisian print dealers (including Siegfried Bing), bought as much as he could and discussed the art with others. His brother Theo was in the art trade and they frequently discussed the qualities of Japanese prints and tried to build a collection of the art that appealed to them. This was an easy task as Paris was still in the grip of japonisme, the craze for all things Japanese, especially art, clothing and furnishings, so there was much to see in museums, shops and new publications. This was the effect of Japan being opened up to the West in the 1860s. Japan, it seemed to Westerners, was a blend of the primitive and sophisticated – an exotic paradise that was culturally, linguistically and geographically inaccessible.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in September 1888, “We wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful.” In the West there is the frequent longing for a return to simplicity to combat the effects of industrial production, complex social systems and political sophistication in a participatory democracy. The exotic non-Western society is a fantastic release from the demands and complexities of life. Such views tell us about escapism and discontent in the West, but not anything meaningful about the actual lives of those in the East.

Often idioms of non-Western cultures are used by to inject a dose of invigorating “primitivism” into Western art (Tahitian culture for Gauguin, West African masks for Picasso, Oceanic art for Surrealism, and so on). While such incorporations are often based on misapprehensions, they sometimes successfully introduce new elements or ideas into Western art. One of the most prominent examples of this is the art of Japan, as viewed by Vincent Van Gogh.

Van Gogh’s attitudes towards Japanese culture essentially matched the prevailing European view of Japan. In that respect he was conventional. What is distinctive about Van Gogh was how he found a way to express his admiration for an alien culture by incorporating elements of that into the Western art tradition. Certain elements of Japanese woodblock prints appeared in his art: emphatic contours; clearly delineated areas of strong unmixed colour; increased planar flatness as opposed pictorial depth; horizons placed high in compositions; aerial perspective; strong diagonals; cropping and enlargement of foreground elements; absence of chiaroscuro; emphasis on the decorative over the naturalistic description. Van Gogh’s success is not in how noticeable these elements are but in how well – generally – they mesh with the Western tradition within which he worked. The uninformed viewer comparing a late Van Gogh landscape to a traditional Nineteenth Century Dutch landscape will feel the former is powerful and dynamic but – apart from noticing the strong colour and visible brushwork – will not sense how Van Gogh’s art differs. Likewise, it is not clear to the average viewer that the influence is non-Western.

Included in the exhibition are two oval paintings made on wooden panels. The panels are Japanese in manufacture. Photographs show the reverse of the panels, complete with manufacturer’s name.

228 - s0181V1962_gca_mt02_it01_co01_x01

[Image: Vincent van Gogh, Three Novels (1887), oil on panel, 31.1 × 48.5 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

113 -s0181V1962_vs_gbca

[Image: Back of Three Novels, with mention of the firm Kiryū Kōshō Kaisha, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

One aspect that seems to have passed unremarked is how the two still-life paintings are set on tables and the oval format evokes the shape of a round table viewed obliquely. Van Gogh, who was familiar with classic Dutch painting including illusionistic and trompe l’oeil painting, may possibly have used the unusual format to evoke perspectival distortion. It seems relatively unlikely. There is little in the way of visual wit in Van Gogh’s art. It was not in his outlook.

123 - A549227g

[Image: Katsushika Hokusai, Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry, from an untitled series known as Small Flowers and Birds (c. 1834), from an untitled series known as Small Flowers and Birds (c. 1834), colour woodcut, 25.5 × 17.1 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Clarence Buckingham Collection, 1925, Photo credit: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence, © 2017]

 

In two double-page spreads, two versions of Portrait of Père Tanguy (both 1887) – which show a supporter of Van Gogh seated beside an array of Japanese woodblock prints – are juxtaposed with illustrations of the prints, allowing us to compare the sources with the transcriptions. The painter made substantial changes to the images but the spirit is carried over. For the artist, his positive feelings regarding his patron were expressed visually in a montage of Japanese art, which he associated with pleasure and exuberance.

On three occasions the artist transcribed Japanese prints as oil paintings, tracing the originals for accuracy. (The tracings still exist.)

104 - n0081V1962_bca

[Image: Utagawa Hiroshige, Sudden Evening Shower on the Great Bridge near Atake, from the series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo (1857), colour woodcut, 33.8 × 22.6 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

015 - s0114V1962_gbca

[Image: Vincent van Gogh, Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887), oil on canvas, 73.3 × 53.8 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

Inspired by the slightly wrinkled surface of prints on thin Japanese paper – called crépons by the French, after the uneven surfaces of pancakes – Van Gogh began to produce paintings with textured surfaces. The regular impasto brushstrokes formed a crinkled appearance. He adapted his drawing technique to imitate Japanese masters, by using blends of blue and black ink and working with reed pens. He adopted a stenographic style of drawing: creating areas of pattern by making rapid repeated (simple) marks. Thus with dashes, dots, circles and so forth, he could describe discrete areas of grass, foliage, roadway or sky in ways that had distinct vibrancy and density. These marks are clear enough to be legible but small enough to generate an overall impression. One could almost describe the vibrancy of the areas as “colour”. (Compare to Bonnard’s style of drawing, which took Van Gogh’s approach one step further by using differing weights of touch.)

The catalogue includes fascinating glimpses of Van Gogh’s enchantment – and possible late disenchantment – with Japanese art, including contact with two Western artists (Louis Dumoulin and Edmund Walpole Brooke) who had visited Japan. It seems Van Gogh was interested to hear first-hand testimony about life in the Far East or was assessing the practicality of actually visiting Japan.  One essay examines the Van Gogh brothers’ collection of Japanese prints.  The number of Japanese prints that entered the Van Gogh Museum in 1973 was 482. Originally there were at least 660 prints but some were disposed of by the brothers. Vincent bought 660 prints by early 1888, though apparently he never paid the full price due. The artist had initially thought of exhibiting and selling on the prints but had little success in the one display he arranged. His admiration was genuine and daily acquaintance with his stock influenced his art. His collection included a wide range of subjects – except for warrior and war scenes and erotic prints – and items varied in quality and condition. It notably excludes Hokusai, whose prints were more highly priced than those by other by other printmakers. Chris Uhlenbeck concludes that “Van Gogh quickly formed the collection, within his own limited means, based on aesthetic considerations such as outspoken colour, striking compositional elements in landscapes or sumptuously clad beauties in kimonos. The collection, together with other Japanese art that the artist may have encountered in Paris, provided a new, exotic aesthetic that profoundly influenced Van Gogh’s own artistic voice.”

The catalogue includes a chronology covering Van Gogh’s links to Japanese art and covers some works only tangential to the subject, which gives the publication a satisfying breadth of scope. The reproductions are crisp and largely accurate. For anyone interested in understanding key stylistic aspects of Van Gogh’s art, this catalogue will become essential.

 

Louis van Tiborgh, Nienke Bakker, Cornelia Homburg, Tsukasa Kōdera & Chris Uhlenbeck, Van Gogh and Japan, Van Gogh Museum, 2018, paperback, 240pp, 200 col. illus., €29.95, French & Dutch versions available, ISBN 978 9 462 302204

Prints in Colour, France 1880-1900

170517_Couleur_Schutzumschlag.indd

Laurence Schmidlin (ed.), Enraptured by Color: Printmaking in Late 19th-Century France/Vertige de la couleur: L’estampe en France à la fin de XIXe siècle, Scheidegger & Spiess (in co-operation with Musée Jenisch Vevey), 2017, 248pp, 217 col. illus., paperback, English/French text, €48, ISBN 978 3 85881 798 3

 

Coloured prints have existed for as long as printmaking itself. The earliest woodcuts were made in the expectation that that they would be coloured by hand, usually in aqueous medium, and some prints seemed to have been designed accordingly. The print designer and cutter – often different individuals – had little control over how that colouring was done. The exact extent of the practice is unknown. The vast majority of prints – not just proofs but all proofs of certain designs – have been lost. The attrition rate for prints is very high and for the majority of history, prints were not considered valuable or even worthy of collection. They were little more than newspapers or posters, roughly tacked to walls or pasted to furniture.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts (mainly Northern Italian) were developed using multiple plates – generally not more than three per image. True colour printing, using interaction of three colour plates which overlaid colour to build a range of other colours, was developed by Joseph Christoph Le Blon around 1710. The red- yellow-blue system was expanded to include one for black, which allowed tonal gradation.

This exhibition catalogue covers forms of colour printmaking from the late Nineteenth Century up to 1900, concentrating on French printmakers. The final decades of the Nineteenth Century saw a boom in colour printing in France, primarily Paris. The introduction of colour lithography led to a proliferation of colour-printed images including periodicals, posters, maps, packaging and other commercial products, which transformed the streets of major cities with splashes of vivid eye-catching colour. This change was not welcomed by many art critics and art connoisseurs, who found the colour to be garish and vulgar. This view permeated attitudes within the artist communities. The Bracquemond Pictorialist strand of art – characterised by the heavy inking of monochrome etching – was the dominant approach in printmaking. So alarmed was the Société des artistes français by the uptake of colour printing by fine artists, that it stipulated in 1891 that “no work in colour will be admitted” to the society’s exhibitions of prints.

The Impressionists did relatively little colour printmaking. Mary Cassatt and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were the artists who spent most time in the area. Paul Cézanne’s brief forays into colour etching are shown here also.

Vertige-couleur_p046u-Renoir-1897_72dpi

[Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Le chapeau épinglé, first plate (1897), lithograph in nine colours on laid paper, 600 × 492 / 794 × 572 mm (image / support), private collection]

 

It was younger artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who felt a kinship with commercial artists such as Jules Chéret (who made posters using colour lithography) who embraced colour printmaking. In 1887 Toulouse-Lautrec made his first colour poster and broke with the monochrome aesthetic and blurred the boundary between commercial applied art and fine art. Other artists soon followed. The transfer was also in the other direction, with commercial posters being taken up as fashionable decoration and appreciated for their aesthetic quality. (For further discussion, see my “Prints in Paris, 1900” article.) Examples of posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, Chéret, Henri-Gabriel Ibels and James Ensor are included. The large size and areas of ungraduated tone present within poster-printing led artists to explore the depiction of space by the use of flat colour. That is an aberration in the development of post-Renaissance art, which developed artistic methods and conventions directed towards naturalism (albeit tempered by idealism).

Vertige-couleur_p068-Signac-1897-98_72dpi

[Image: Paul Signac (1863–1935), Saint-Tropez – Le port, plank for L’Album d’estampes originales de la Galerie Vollard (never published) (1897–1898), lithograph in six colours on wove paper, 435 × 330 / 520 × 405 mm (image / support), Private collection.]

 

More complex conceptions of colour were investigated by the Neo-Impressionists. The Neo-Impressionists (a definition which overlaps to a degree with Divisionism and Pointillism) who most worked in colour printmaking were Paul Signac and Maximilien Luce. (Seurat did not make prints.) Félix Féneon was the critic who provided a theoretical underpinning for ideas of broken colour, complementary colour, colour circles, juxtaposition and so forth, drawing upon the writings of chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who had pioneered scientific analysis of colour. Artists have always had mixed approaches to theory, generally relying relatively less on theory than is often assumed. When confronted with clear choices, artists usually opt for the artistically satisfying course rather than the theoretically pure course. Printmaker Auguste Delâtre assisted painters in translating their art into colour etchings.

Test proofs with artist’s instructions to the master printmaker demonstrate how much adjustment and compromise was involved in the process of making satisfying products. On trial sheets Paul Signac notes for the attention of the master printmaker faults concerning colour separation and registration. Such working material is not commonly preserved, so these are illuminating documents.

The influence of Japanese prints encouraged new views on colour use and composition. Most Japanese art was transmitted to the West in the form of colour woodcut prints employing elaborate inking techniques. Some French artists went beyond taking aesthetic inspiration from these prints and actually began to make their own colour woodcuts with multiple blocks in the Japanese manner. Examples of prints by these artists – Henri Rivière, Henri Guérard and Auguste Lepère – are discussed by Valérie Sueur-Hermel. One print by Rivière is composed of 18 colours from eight blocks. While some of these prints are effective, none are as striking or flawless as the Japanese master printmakers, understandably so considering their lack of apprenticeship and lack of understanding of the art form’s unique skills and methods. The sheer difficulty and hard work required to produce these prints defeated even the most committed practitioners. Colour woodcuts did not become a widespread printmaking form in Europe. The woodcuts of Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin and the German Expressionists drew on non-Japanese sources and left a more lasting mark on Western printmakers.

Vertige-couleur_p191-Vuillard-1898-99_72dpi
[Image: Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Intérieur aux tentures roses II, plate 6 of the serie Paysages et intérieurs (1899) (1898–1899), lithograph in five colours on China paper, 340 × 270 / 393 × 309 mm (image / support), Musée Jenisch Vevey – Cabinet cantonal des estampes, collection de la Ville de Vevey]

 

The Nabis were a group of young Post-Impressionist artists interested in domestic subjects and scenes of everyday life, which they depicted in colour and with areas of pattern and decoration, influenced by posters, commercial art and Japanese woodcuts. The catalogue includes colour prints and posters by painter-printmakers Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton and Maurice Denis. Author Gilles Genty notes that between 1894 and 1900 no fewer than 57 group shows including Nabi prints were held. The Nabis were encouraged – and their colour printmaking – was financed by publishers and dealers such as Ambroise Vollard, whose speciality was the publication of illustrated books and print portfolios. By 1900 most artist attention was turning from posters to small prints for portfolios and books.

There are many curious and little-known pieces included in this catalogue. Théophile Alexandre Steinlen used rudimentary colour lithography for covers of the journal Gil Blas. Charles Maurin’s drypoint in two colours (depicting a woman washing an infant) is particularly beautiful and an example of the power and effectiveness of restraint in colouring and the effect of colour drawing.

This book – which includes an extensive glossary of technical terms – supplies useful information, introduces surprising ideas and presents a wide variety of colour prints.

The Liquidation of History

“One day after a bloody clash between white supremacists and a mixture of non-violent, anti-fascist marchers and violent Antifa activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mob of activists destroyed a Confederate war statue in Durham, North Carolina. Fearing more violent action, authorities are concealing or removing potentially controversial public monuments nationwide. Far from easing tensions, this is likely to worsen the situation.

“From South Africa to Ukraine, statues have become proxy targets for political violence. Statues are soft targets. Often unprotected, easy to deface or destroy and unable to retaliate, they make ideal symbolic targets for those unwilling to endanger themselves. In an age when groups can be quickly mobilised via social-media postings and attacks can be livestreamed around the world, such assaults on cultural property are liable to become more common. Police rarely intervene, prosecutions for these attacks are uncommon and punishment light.

“Now the Culture Wars in the US are being fought on the streets between left-wing and right-wing activists. Civil War statues and memorials are flashpoints for this conflict…”

Read the full article online on Spiked 21 August 2017 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-liquidation-of-history/20226#.WZrPc1V97IU

America after the Fall

“America between the wars (and specifically between the Crash of 1929 and the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack) was at a crossroads. The economic boom and expansion of American power following victory in the First World War had led to prosperity and optimism for many in the 1920s. The Crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression and – in a way – a Great Retreat. America First, isolationism and a backlash against globalism and Modernism caused Americans to view modern and foreign influences with mistrust. A new exhibition, America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, at the Royal Academy, explores American art at this crossroads.

“It includes pictures by some of the big names of American realist painting and includes an American icon: Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930). Although it is seen as typical of American homespun simplicity and Puritan honesty, the male figure is Wood’s dentist dressed as a farmer. The picture is subtle, well-painted and tinged by irony; it deserves its iconic status not only because of its popular appeal but also because of its artistry.

“Wood was part of the Regionalist movement, a group of artists who sought to depict American life and landscapes in a realist manner, often with sentimental or nostalgic overtones…”

Read the full review online at Spiked, 5 May 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/america-after-the-fall/19775#.WQxuoWkrLIU

Prints in Paris 1900

Vallotton-Raison

(Image: Felix Vallotton, La Raison Probante (Intimacies) (1897-8), woodcut

Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, Prints in Paris 1900. From Elite to the Street, Van Gogh Museum/Mercatorfonds, hardback, 192pp, 200 col. illus., €45, ISBN 978 94 6230 169 6 (English edition, French, Dutch and German editions available)

 

Vincent Van Gogh loved English prints from the popular press, French Realist art, woodcut prints (especially Doré’s wood engravings and other book illustrations) and classic Dutch prints. Both he and his brother Theo collected prints and corresponded on the subject at length, as Theo was in the art trade and had access to most commercially available prints. Although Van Gogh made only a few etchings and one lithograph, he was an avid scrutiniser of prints by other artists; he would surely have found much to admire in this current selection of the best prints made in the decade following his death. The current exhibition Prints in Paris 1900. From Elite to the Street (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 3 March-11 June 2017; Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo, 17 October 2017-17 January 2018) includes some of the 1,800 prints in the Van Gogh Museum collection, showing some of the highlights of printmaking from the period 1890-1905. The collection includes prints owned by Vincent and Theo and prints acquired by the museum recently to form an overview of art of Van Gogh’s era. This large-format catalogue documents not only the eye-catching posters of the era but also prints more specifically made as works of art, including colour and monochrome lithographs, woodcuts, etchings, drypoints and mixed techniques.

The world of prints in 1900 was vast, ranging from common illustrations or decorations in posters, books, tracts and other printed matter up to the most sophisticated and considered artistic productions, produced in editions of as low as a handful of proofs. Good examples of renowned prints of the past (Dürer, Rembrandt and other Old Masters) commanded high prices and were collected by private owners and public museums. To a lesser extent recent and living masters of the craft were also appreciated but the market was relatively limited in size and knowledge about prints generally was not great. In this catalogue, print scholar Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho discusses the role of journals devoted to prints and print collecting, asserting that that they played a significant part in raising the profile of printmaking as an art form and informing the readers about historical and modern prints. Writers and readers had in-depth knowledge of prints and were avid aficionados, most with collections of their own. The journals intended to act as guides for collectors, making recommendations and assessing reputations, and were not mass-market publications.

“Virtually all the champions of original printmaking – Charles Baudelaire, Philippe Burty and Henri Beraldi in the case of etching, and Roger Marx and André Mellerio for lithography – were keen to protect the private print [as opposed to the public poster] from the misunderstanding and vulgarity of the masses. Baudelaire, for instance, considered that the intimate outpourings of the artistic etching were too ‘personal’ and ‘aristocratic’ to be shared beyond the circle of artists and collectors.”

This private character of prints was a matter of practicality – for reasons of conservation and size, prints were usually in books or portfolios and could only be viewed by one or two persons at a time – and a matter of content, as the art was often informal, intimate or erotic, and as such less suitable for general public consumption. The notion of exclusivity played to the intellectual vanity and artistic discernment of collectors and critics, it also assisted dealers in the marketing of hard-to-acquire items. Attempts to broaden the appeal of prints met some resistance from inside the artist’s-print circle.

Things were changing though. By 1890 the development of metal-plate, offset and motorised lithography had inaugurated an age of high-quality colour posters on large sheets, in large print runs and relatively low in cost. An array of large colourful posters dazzled Parisians daily on a scale historically unprecedented. The relative cheapness of lithographic printing meant that prints flooded every area of life, from menus and maps to sheet music. It transformed image production and distribution both in the everyday commercial field and the world of the arts, though lithography remained only one of the numerous printmaking methods.

Posters had a lower status than prints made by methods most traditionally linked to artists, such as etching and aquatint, though some artists (including Toulouse-Lautrec) appreciated the effect of posters as much as drawings and paintings. There was vigorous debate among artists, critics and collectors as to the value of the new methods of reprographics. For those buyers who required the cachet of fine art collected posters avant-la-lettre (before the words had been added) or bought proofs from special editions printed on high-quality paper. The battle of High Art and Low Culture had begun earlier than this and can be seen in the critical responses to the subject choices of Impressionist pictures (though paintings of the common people attending dances had existed at least as far back as Bruegel’s paintings of peasants). Here the problem was not the subjects – which did not endear the pictures to the hearts of traditionalists – but the method itself, which was considered too new and too distanced from the artist’s hand to be considered fine art. The demands of multi-plate printing required collaboration between artist and master printmaker, which diluted the authenticity that some collectors craved, and some prints were so distanced from the artist that truly the prints are more “after” an artist than “by” that artist. The fact that the posters were essentially examples of vulgar commercialism – advertising venues and products – put them beyond the pale for many commentators. While some acclaimed colour posters as a new democratic form of art, others complained it was strident visual pollution that assaulted the eye.

Van Gogh died just too early (1890) to experience the boom in artist’s colour lithography. Over the period 1890-1905 the Post-Impressionist, Symbolist, Nabi and Art Nouveau artists made a plethora of prints now considered classics of French Modernism. Many of the prints in this exhibition were a contemporary French response to Japanese colour woodcuts, which began to be collected and appreciated in the 1880s. Japanese prints had originally found their way to France as waste-paper used to wrap imported ceramics; only when a few curious French art collectors expressed an interest in the strange images did anyone realise that there was a potential market in France for Japanese woodcuts. Van Gogh greatly admired Japanese prints and collected them. He painted some and included them in the background of his portraits. The compositional devices of the prints, such as clearly defined areas of bold colour, shaped the direction of his late painting style. Japanese influence is obvious in the prints of the Post-Impressionists and Nabi artists.

Cheret,_Jules_-_La_Diaphane_(pl_121)

(Image: Jules Chéret, La Diaphane. Poudre de Riz (1890), colour lithograph)

Jules Chéret (1836-1932) set the standard for colour posters and the general standard was high. His example inspired a number of established fine artists to poster design and some of the poster artists (especially the Art Nouveau designers) reached the level of classic art. Chéret commonly used elegant young female figures in radically simplified designs with strong colours, which intended to be seen from a distance. So well-known did this female type become that similar female figures were called “chérettes”. His designs influenced the painter Seurat and he was called “the Fragonard of the street” by critic Roger Marx. Chéret was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1890 and ascended to the firmament of the French artistic pantheon.

The proliferation of posters and the craze for collecting them were commented on in foreign guidebooks to Paris. Dealers and collectors began to hoard the best examples of fine posters. Many would follow bill-stickers at a distance and once he was out of sight they would peel away the still-wet poster. Others bribed bill-stickers for unpasted copies. There sprang up a minor trade in reduced prints that were of more manageable sizes and proofs signed by the artists, though purists disapproved. Specialists offered to mount posters on canvas; others designed giant portfolios to accommodate the posters. Posters became chic additions to the modern home, adding boldness and colour to a room. Carvahlo mentions the elaborate and costly library of Robert de Montesquiou, which was designed to accommodate rare books and portfolios of prints; in the process of creation, the library evolved into a work of art.

This exhibition displays prints by artists who were stars of their era but are less esteemed today. Eugène Carrière’s portraits in monochrome chiaroscuro were immensely influential in their time. Carrière was considered a modern Rembrandt but today his smoky portrait heads appear at most mildly atmospheric and unremarkable.

reopening-of-the-chat-noir-cabaret-theophile-alexandre-steinlen

(Image: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, Le Chat Noir (1896), colour lithograph)

Likewise, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen was acclaimed as an artist comparable to Dickens, with his domestic scenes and his strand of social realism. Steinlen was considered a campaigning artist highly engaged by the issues of deprivation and social reform. (The fact that he was solely a graphic artist meant that his supporters described his art as truly democratic because the originals were not in museums but pasted on street corners.) Today it is his colour posters of At La Bodinière (1894) and Le Chat Noir (1896) that appeal and the monochrome social satires raise barely a flicker of interest. It is hard to comprehend that hosts of artists (including Picasso) were under his sway in 1900.

l-exode-1915-1

(Image: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, The Exodus (1915), lithograph (not in catalogue))

The star of the catalogue is Toulouse-Lautrec, whose best prints are included, with and without lettering. Other artists included are Carrière, Chéret, Steinlen, Odilon Redon, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Gauguin, Edouard Vuillard, Félicien Rops, Maurice Denis and more obscure figures. Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) has undergone a recent revival that has included a large retrospective held in Paris, 2013-4. Vallotton’s art straddles different styles: Nabi, Intimiste and Art Deco. His woodcuts Intimacies (1897-8) are brilliant reductions of domestic vignettes to simple woodcuts deploying large areas of solid black or white, decorative patterns and arabesque lines. What is happening in the scenes (which are independent and only connected thematically) is unclear. There are intimations of infidelity, seduction, estrangement and traumatic revelation, which undercut the comfortable bourgeois settings. The suite is Vallotton’s greatest achievement, frequently reproduced and rightly beloved. It manages to be concise yet enigmatic and the suite of ten prints is reproduced in full here. The cancellation print is rather elegant. Cancellation prints are usually single prints of the defaced plate, demonstrating that the plate has been rendered unusable after the edition is printed and that the edition is therefore limited. In the case of Intimacies the cancellation plate is a montage of details of each plate sawed from its block and printed together.

The range of the catalogue and the broadly representative nature of the collection make this title a useful general reference work for French prints of this period (including a timeline, bibliography and index). The mixture of iconic posters alongside lesser known pieces, some by artists almost forgotten, is successful though it just scratches the surface. The author discusses the participation of the Nabis in the production of staging and programmes for Symbolist dramatic productions and other topics related to printmaking. The inclusion of examples of paintings, drawings, photography, furniture and bookbinding (some of which are rare loans from private collections) allows the curator to situate printmaking in a continuum of visual culture of the period. The printing and binding is excellent and the size of the book allows the dramatic prints to come across strongly.

7 March 2017

A Guerilla Attack on Artistic Value

“”Is it even worse in Europe?’, a campaign launched by arts pressure group Guerrilla Girls at the beginning of October, implicitly criticises the apparent lack of diversity of the artists represented in European museums. ‘We focus on the understory, the subtext, the overlooked and the downright unfair’, state the Guerrilla Girls. ‘Art can’t be reduced to the small number of artists who have won a popularity contest among bigtime dealers, curators and collectors.’

“This is familiar territory for the Guerrilla Girls, who have been challenging the relative dearth of female artists in museum collections for years. Their principal charge is that institutional bias has led to the underrepresentation of female artists and artists from minority backgrounds.

“But the assumption that institutions are biased against certain sections of society doesn’t hold up….”

Read the full article on gender politics, identity politics and fine art on Spiked website, 29 October 2016 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/a-guerrilla-attack-on-artistic-value/18903#.WBSUe_ldU5k

Smashing Statues: The Chilling Desire to be Free from History

“In the previous week, two examples of iconoclasm have been in the news.

“In the first, one colonial-era statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Townwas removed from campus after protests. What’s more, a statue of Queen Victoria, among others, was defaced with paint in the coastal town of Port Elizabeth. The University of Cape Town authorities had initially suggested the compromise of moving the Rhodes statue to a less prominent position. On 8 April, the statue was removed with no agreed plan to have it relocated. The leading activists who are supporting the destruction and defacement of the monuments are members of South Africa’s black majority.

“In the second case, the Ukrainian government has passed a law ordering the removal of all Soviet-era statues. (In an audacious display of apparent even-handedness, the government also banned public Nazi monuments – there is none.) All public buildings, spaces and streets named after Soviet figures will be renamed. The destruction began on 11 April, with activists destroying three statues in Kharkov. Although the law had not yet been approved by the president, Ukrainian police did not intervene to protect the statues.

“Soviet-era heroes are targets for Ukrainian nationalists. They do not fear a re-imposition of Soviet communism, but do fear Russian nationalism, because of the military strength of Russia and the ethnic mixture of the Ukrainian population. There is a paucity of overt, Russian nationalist public symbols in Ukraine, so Soviet-era statues act as proxies. During the Stalinist era, policies were put in place to suppress Ukrainian nationalism and subjugate the population, and so Soviet symbols are widely considered Russian nationalist in character.

“In both South Africa and Ukraine, the iconoclastic activities were instigated for political reasons and were not spontaneous. They were parts of long-term struggles for political supremacy between ethnic factions….”

Read the full article on SPIKED, 14 April 2015 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/smashing-statues-the-chilling-desire-to-be-free-from-history/16870#.Vd-QCPldU5k

Read the German translation of this article on NOVO-ARGUMENTE here:

http://www.novo-argumente.com/magazin.php/novo_notizen/artikel/0002031

Hermann Nitsch: Blood on the Museum Floor

“Another example of censorship through petition power has come to light this month. An exhibition by Actionist Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch was scheduled to take place in February at Fundación Jumex, Ecatepec de Morelos, on the outskirts of Mexico City. But on 31 January it was cancelled. This followed an online petition against the Nitsch display, though, in its announcement, Jumex does not link the petition to the cancellation. The Nitsch exhibition has been replaced by a group exhibition of works by other artists in the Jumex collection – a mix of contemporary and modern art, including works by the usual names familiar from the network of state-supported museums, private foundations and international galleries, including Cy Twombly, Martin Creed and Lawrence Wiener.

Seventy-six-year-old Nitsch is considered a serious artist, with works in many museum collections worldwide, including the Tate Gallery, MoMA and Centre Pompidou, and who has exhibited frequently over a 50-year career. He came to prominence as part of the Viennese Actionist School that emerged in the 1960s, which is characterised by performances involving violence and humiliation. He is most notorious for his theatrical presentations which combine live action, nudity, bloodletting, blood drinking and degradation as spectacle…”

Read the full article on SPIKED, 13 February 2015 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/hermann-nitsch-blood-on-the-museum-floor/16692#.Vd-OA_ldU5k