Impressionism in the Age of Industry

Camille Pissarro - Le pont Boieldieu a Rouen, temps mouille, 1896

[Image: Camille Pissarro, Le pont Boieldieu à Rouen, temps mouillé (1896), oil on canvas, 73.6 x 91.4 cm. Gift of Reuben Wells Leonard Estate, 1937 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario
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Impressionism in the Age of Industry (16 February-5 May 2019, Art Gallery of Ontario) is a wide-ranging, informative and stimulating exhibition of Impressionist art and art produced by other French artists of the period. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The exhibition brings together leading Impressionists Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, Félix Braquemond, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte with lesser known associated figures. There is art by many artists who are not generally classed as Impressionists. It needs to be stated up front that there is a degree of separation between the title and the contents of the exhibition. The selection includes many artists who are not Impressionists, such as the Post-Impressionists (Van Gogh, Émile Bernard, Paul Sérusier, Armand Guillaumin), Divisionists (Maximilien Luce, Alfred William Finch, George Seurat, Paul Signac), Social Realists (Jules Dalou, Constantin Meunier), the Nabis (Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard) and others, such as honorary Impressionists Jean-François Raffaëlli, James Tissot, Edouard Manet and Eugène Louis Boudin. This exhibition should really be entitled “Late Nineteenth French Artists Respond to Modernity”. However, we can forgive AGO for choosing a title more accessible and appealing to the general public.

This exhibition is centred on the Impressionists’ painting of modernity, especially a modern Paris and its environs (with a handful of exceptions). The art was redolent of the anxiety of new social fluidity, centring on places where the middle class and working class fraternised in delimited spaces such as La Grande Jatte, Asnières, café-concerts and dance halls. Impressionist pictures are full of signs denoting disparities in class, occupation and status. Parts of the social disruption were the impact of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. The rebuilding of the Vendome Column (toppled during the Commune uprising) and the erection of Sacré Coeur (seen by many Parisians, especially of Montmartre, as punitive demonstration of the state’s definitive erasure of the Commune) were Parisians consciously reshaping of their city’s material structure to reflect its cultural values. The encroachment of factories (and their ever-visible smoke) and the Eiffel Tower were incontrovertible presentations of Paris’s future as a modern metropolis.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were forever including subjects at their places of work: Degas’s laundresses, dancers, prostitutes and cabaret singers, Van Gogh weavers and sowers, Pissarro’s peasants and market traders, Caillebotte’s builders and Luce’s foundry workers. The oeuvre of Meunier – a Social Realist rather than an Impressionist – was dominated by the image of the working man at manual labour. It was Meunier who went on to become the most influential sculptor of the Twentieth Century, held up as the ideal of the socially committed sculptor by Socialist artistic bodies and social-realist artists. Every realist statue dedicated to ennobling the working man owes something to Meunier’s example, whether or not creator or spectator realise it.

The catalogue essays discuss the approaches of artists to the modern city of Paris, including the ways in which artists depicted workers, construction and transport. The transport they found most captivating was trains. The bridges and stations were unapologetically up to date. Monet made a group of paintings of Gare Saint-Lazare, where train smoke was contained and illuminated by glazed skylights. Caillebotte painted a boldly modern railway bridge at Argenteuil in the 1880s – the very bridge which made this outlying settlement accessible to Parisian day-trippers and painters. Newly accessible Argenteuil was a favoured riverside spot for Parisians to relax on clement holidays, where they could row, dine and dance. It was frequented by many Impressionists, who frequently portrayed the landscape, setting and visitors there. Asnières was a location on the Seine which was site for new factories, which can be seen in the background of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884). La Grande Jatte – an island which featured in another landmark painting of Seurat – is a leisure space (at the time) on the outskirts of Paris, where families, courting couples, prostitutes, shop girls, factory workers, nannies and children and others from the middle and working classes mingled in a space that provided opportunities for cross-class interaction. It was a liminal space and locus for concerned discussion by clergy, politicians, journalists and other commentators celebrating and decrying social blending. The social communication of Impressionist art was a focal point of New Criticism from the 1960s onwards and one of the most fruitful areas that social historiography has addressed in the fine-art field. The research by Caroline Shields proves that there was commercial demand for Monet’s paintings of industrial subjects in the 1870s, which indicates that not only painters but collectors of art considered the changing face of the city an acceptable subject for fine art.

Photography by Craig Boyko

[Image: James Tissot, La Demoiselle de magasin (c. 1883-1885), oil on canvas, 146.1 x 101.6. Gift from Corporations’ Subscriptions Fund, 1968 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario 67/55]

The project of boulevardisation of central Paris by Baron Haussmann (over the period 1853-70), the expansion of the railways, the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the Basilica of Sacré Coeur all provided numerous instances of construction work for artists to study. The inclusion of photographs of Paris, and the subjects that Impressionists portrayed, acts as context and also art in its own right. Also projected at the exhibition (and included in the catalogue as stills) are Thomas Edison’s 1900 film of Paris and footage of workers leaving a factory filmed by the Lumiere Brothers.

A selection of pictures features rural workers – part of a conscious rejection of industrialisation by intellectuals in search of authentic peasantry and the back-to-the-soil romanticism of the urban-dwelling elite. Art by Van Gogh, Serusier, Bernard and – most prominently – Pissarro illustrate the utopian idealism of artists who never worked the land themselves but heroised those who did. There is sympathy and empathy, which make up for lack of understanding.

The inclusion of art by lesser known artists (not necessarily French but working in France in the 1860-1900 period) brings us art by Jean Béraud, Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Giuseppe de Nittis and others. The other material, such as maps, plans and publications will be unfamiliar to visitors.

There is a good selection of graphic art, including colour lithographs by Henry Rivière (particularly on the subject of the Eiffel Tower – perhaps a conscious homage to Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1830-2)) and the street scenes of Bonnard and Vuillard. A lithograph by Meunier sets a miners head against the ravaged surroundings of a mine, comparing the sturdiness of the working man to the rugged and harsh environment that had formed him. A belle époque poster by Georges Paul Leroux advertises the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, which welcomed the new century with an international display of science, technology and culture. Posters by Toulouse-Lautrec are famous posters for evening entertainments. Stylistically, it is a blend of Art Nouveau dramatic form and sinuous line and beaux arts realism. Three Pissarro prints represent his typical subjects of river views and working women. Braquemond’s etching of Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) is indicative of the Impressionist veneration for Turner as a precursor to Impressionist technique. Raffaëlli’s drypoint view of railway sidings is compared to a painting by Henri Ottmann.

Edgar Degas - Woman at Her Bath, c. 1895

[Image: Edgar Degas, Woman at Her Bath (c. 1895), oil on canvas, 71.1 × 88.9 cm. Purchase, Frank P. Wood Endowment, 1956 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario 55/49]

Raffaëlli’s famous ragpickers are in two paintings that show the thick impasto surfaces that led to him being admired by some painters of the time (including Van Gogh). Chromatically, the paintings are not sophisticated and leave one wondering if his popularity was anything more than a fad. Paintings by Caillebotte emphasise his brilliance as a painter of reflections. An atypical Monet painting shows colliers unloading barges at a bank of the Seine. This is one of the few Monet paintings to show people at work. The coloration is muted and the contre-jour effect of the repeated dark figures seen against the water and bank makes this a picture of unexpected terseness. There are views of Pontoise and Rouen by Pissarro. There are two excellent Sisley river views, showcasing his dappled brushwork.

The bronzes of figures by Degas, Dalou and Meunier are appealing and well chosen but few in number. There are paintings of laundresses by Degas and one nude bather, all very fine, delicate and adventurous. While Impressionists made sculpture, the most successful producer of Impressionist sculpture was Medardo Rosso. (See here for my review of his art.) Sculpture was a side line for Impressionist painters, with the exception of Degas, who devoted much effort, time and thought to working on his statuettes of dancers and horses.

“Impressionism in the Age of Industry” has art which forms multiple slices of social history as well as being satisfying as art. This exhibition will introduce many to the complicated factors motivating art that is often seen as primarily in pursuit of pleasure and optical fidelity.

 

Caroline Shields (ed.), Impressionism in the Age of Industry, Art Gallery of Ontario/Prestel/Delmonico Books, 2019, hardback, 248pp, 149 col./33 mono illus., £39.99/$50, ISBN 978 3791 358 451

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

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Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné

Kay Sage Catalogue Raisonne von

There has been a boom in publications and exhibitions relating to the female Surrealists in recent years. Leonora Carrington, Claude Cahun, Leonor Fini, Lee Miller and Aileen Agar have all benefitted from academics, curators and writers wanting to break new ground. Dorothea Tanning’s retrospective opens in London early in 2019. The latest figure to receive reappraisal is American artist Kay Sage. The imposing and lavish Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné finally makes available all known works by this intriguing and little understood figure.

Katherine Linn Sage (1898-1963), called Kay Sage and Kay Sage Tanguy, was born in New York State. At a young age she travelled in Europe with her family. She moved frequently, living an international lifestyle in New York, Washington DC and Rapallo and Rome in Italy, studying art as she did so. After a period of academic realism, Sage took up a Modernist style with reduced, geometric, semi-abstract forms. In 1936 she moved to Paris and committed to Surrealism. She deliberately did not meet the Surrealists in person until she considered she had painted enough work to be accepted on its merits. In 1938 she exhibited her Surrealist paintings and met the Surrealists. She was impressed both artistically and romantically by Yves Tanguy (1900-55), who was well disposed to her and her art. They began an affair. At the outbreak of war, the well-connected Sage (who knew Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford and T.S. Eliot) organised a fund to support the evacuation of artists from France. The couple fled France for New York City, where they married in 1940. They later moved from New York City to Woodbury, Connecticut, where they spent the rest of their lives.

Sage’s paintings are notable for an absence of figures. Her paintings typically show unidentified geometric objects, structures of lattices and rods and drapery set in imaginary landscapes with far-distant horizons. Sometimes there are personages wrapped in rumpled drapery. Sage’s best works – the mature paintings of landscapes occupied by a few elements, lit by harsh raking light – are locations one inhabits. JG Ballard often used the landscapes settings of Delvaux and Dalí as backgrounds in his stories but in many ways Sage’s mental landscapes are ideal analogues for Ballard’s harsh alien terrains.

Sage’s visions are bleak and arid. They are neat worlds – vast expanses of immaculate desert and steppe. (As an individual, Sage was compulsively tidy.) Even the seas seem orderly and dry. (You have never seen drier water.) These are vistas that have never seen a drop of rain fall or a blade of grass grow. If any beings ever inhabited these places, they are long gone, leaving only enigmatic structures and the detritus of obscure activity. Her visions are also static. The drapery she painted never seemed to be captured in movement. Everything is frozen. There is a touch of depressive paralysis to the art – that sense that change is both impossible and futile. The pleasure one gets is the complete immersion in a world utterly fixed, clear, dry and sparse. It is asperity in paint.

The comparison with Tanguy’s lunar/submarine terrains populated by biomorphic and petrological objects is unavoidable. Sage knew Tanguy’s art before she met him and her unpeopled world is related to his vision. Both were meticulous in technique – the oneiric or veristic branch of Surrealist painting. What distinguished her art from that of Tanguy is Tanguy’s multivalence. Tanguy’s worlds could microcosms or macrocosms, desert plain or seabed, something alien, ancient or many millions of years hence in a post-human universe. Sage’s world is human-proximate: these are potentially liveable places with signs of human (or pseudo-human) activity. The very indication of human life makes these deserted settings even bleaker. Sage’s palette was drab, exploiting the emotional muteness of earth colours, half-tones and greys. Her paintings are rarely enlivened by the rich colour that one finds in Tanguy’s biomorphs, and then only in small areas. Psychological research shows that individuals experiencing clinical depression are less receptive to colour than non-depressives are and Sage’s muted palette seems indicative of psychological numbness and isolation.

Another touchstone in evaluating Sage’s art is relating it to that of de Chirico, who influenced so many of the Surrealists. In de Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings we encounter everyday objects that carry the associations and emotional connections of their usual existence. In Sage’s paintings we encounter materials rather than objects. The materials form structures that are potentially useful but their uses are obscure to us; the structures might actually be useless. There is no way for us to understand the functions of the structures. Sage shares with de Chirico a predilection for bright sunlight, long shadows, clean lines and deep pictorial recession. Sage was closest to de Chirico’s Metaphysical art in the 1937-40 when she was formulating her mature style.

Sage takes de Chirico to an extreme by mostly eliminating figures. One of the few exceptions – and it is a notable one – is Le Passage (1956). This shows an adolescent woman with her bared back turned towards us, who looks out over a strange and desolate landscape. It is probably her most reproduced work, which is understandable. However, it is atypical and anyone seeking similar works in this catalogue will be disappointed. There are no other such combinations of realistic figure and Surrealist landscape. (One suspects that had she pursued such a line she would have achieved more prominence.) There are paintings of subdued light with shreds of cloud or fog (Tomorrow is Never (1955)). The best of Sage’s paintings are already known and reproduced; most of these are in American museums: In the Third Sleep (1944), Men Working (1951), Quote, Unquote (1958). A number of paintings, which were sold from early exhibitions, have not been located or photographed, so there may be a handful of fine Sage paintings in private collections, waiting to emerge.

It is accurate to say that Tanguy’s reputation overshadowed that of Sage but it is also unarguable that Tanguy’s art was more important to Surrealism – indeed it influenced Sage’s art. Tanguy’s art was innovative and came to the fore in the mid-1920s, when the movement came into existence, therefore it is natural that Tanguy was more prominent than Sage. Sage was devoted to Tanguy’s art and seems not to have resented his prominence. After his death she spent a lot of time to cataloguing and conserving his art. She seems very proud of her association with an artist she considered great. What this catalogue confirms is that Sage was also a serious and individual artist and that her painting deserves to be more well-known. How much Sage’s own choices played in limiting the dissemination of her art is not clear. She had solo exhibitions in New York and Paris and was included in Surrealist group exhibitions. The lack of sensational content (no burning giraffes, floating rocks or somnambulant nudes) definitely meant her art was less eye catching than those of her colleagues. One could not say that Sage has been treated any less well than Wols or Pierre Roy, two other lesser known Surrealists, and there is no indication her gender has contributed to her secondary status.

Kay_Sage_spine_shot

A detailed chronology and Mary Ann Caws’s introductory essay covering the life and work of Sage are followed by the catalogue section. The art is separated into oil paintings, collages, works on paper and objects; a selection of early academic works are reproduced; the comprehensive exhibition history, bibliography and index round up the book. Illustrations of the paintings are full-page, facing catalogue data. A handful of pictures have no known illustrations or only older black-and-white photographs. Generally, the reproductions are good and data is thorough.

One usually finds that painters produce a lot of drawings – scraps of visual notation, thumbnail scratches of ideas, studies of details, technical designs, compositional sketches, fully worked compositions and so forth. Kay Sage was not that type of painter. Her drawings were independent from her painting activity. The drawings and collages catalogued function are highly finished and act as independent pictures and there are relatively few of them. No artist’s prints are mentioned in the text. The objects Sage made are small, often in frames and include found objects. Some are ludic and pleasing but none of the objects have the gravity of the paintings. The drawings and collages do not attempt to replicate the pictorial completeness of the paintings.

The chronology includes photographs of the artist and her exhibitions. The Surrealists feature largely in that chronology. Sage and Tanguy travelled to Sedona, Arizona to visit Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. Sage and Andre Breton disliked each other. Breton and Tanguy had been close but Tanguy’s desertion of his first wife to marry Sage cooled the men’s relationship. The fact that Tanguy chose to remain in the USA after the war rather than return to France with the other formerly exiled artists was something Breton took as a patriotic slight. When, in 1953, Tanguy and Sage came to France for an exhibition of Tanguy’s art, Breton did not come to the gallery but instead rather aloofly suggested Tanguy make an appointment to visit him at his Parisian apartment. The couple did not visit Breton and never returned to France.

In 1955 Tanguy died. Sage entered a prolonged depression and this marked a long and permanent decline. Plagued by health issues, she became more reclusive than she had been. Her eyesight was seriously impaired by cataracts. Multiple operations were either unsuccessful or only partially successful. Unable to make the precise and clear paintings – the last of her around 200 oil paintings is dated 1958 – Sage turned to making sculptural objects and writing poetry. She had an affinity for verse and that verbal flair is apparent in her titles; the evolution was a natural one, albeit forced. Sage worked on an unpublished memoir China Eggs, covering her life before she joined the Surrealists. In 1962, fellow expatriate Surrealist Kurt Seligmann (the artist who introduced Sage to Surrealism) died in a hunting accident. He slipped on ice and shot himself with Tanguy’s hunting rifle. Sage took it as a premonition. Days after she had seen her third book of poems through to publication and posted inscribed copies to acquaintances, Sage locked herself in her bedroom and shot herself through the heart. Her final written words were “L’extinction des lumières inutiles” (extinction of useless lights).

A lot of care has been put into the design and production of this catalogue, which is likely to contribute to Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné becoming a prized collector’s piece as well as a useful reference work. The metallic-sateen-style cloth covering gives the book a touch of shimmering elusiveness, which is fitting for the artist, and the pictorial slipcase is sturdy and attractive. Sage appears to us here as a secondary but significant painter of the French Surrealist movement and this publication is sure to secure her reputation as a fastidious and imaginative creator. For any comprehensive library on Surrealism, this title should be a necessary addition.

 

Mary Ann Caws, Stephen Robeson Miller, Jessie Sentivan (ed.), Kay Sage: Catalogue Raisonné, Delmonico/Prestel, 2018, cloth hardback in slipcase, 520pp, fully col. illus., US$ 165/£120, ISBN 978 3 7913 5785 0

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art