Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Algers

[Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O), 1955, Privatsammlung
© Bridgeman Images / Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021]

This publication is a catalogue for an exhibition in Berlin (Museum Berggruen/Nationalgalerie, Berlin). The review is from the catalogue.

In 1954 Picasso began a series of variants of Eugene Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Alger (1834). This series was apparently prompted by three proximate causes. Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s new mistress and future wife, reminded him of a figure in Delacroix’s painting; the news coverage of the Algerian civil war kept Algeria in the public’s attention. The death of Matisse – the only contemporary artist that Picasso considered a true equal and rival – left Picasso in search of artists that he considered historical peers. Matisse (as was Delacroix) a genuine Orientalist. Matisse (unlike Picasso) had visited North Africa to paint, thus he had had memories and insights of the Orient that Picasso did not have. Matisse painted odalisques long after his trips to North Africa. One recurrent motif of Matisse’s (while residing in Nice in the 1920s) were of French models in harem pants, reclining in the painter’s hotel room. This exhibition included nine of these, plus art by Delacroix, Ingres, Matisse, Manet and others. The graphics by Picasso include drawings and prints. The exhibition includes art by contemporary Algerian artists.

[Henri Fantin-Latour, Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, d’après Eugène
Delacroix (Frauen von Algier in ihrem Gemach, nach Eugène Delacroix), 1875/76, Musée du
Louvre, Musée national Eugène Delacroix, Paris, © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand
Palais / Harry Bréjat]

Delacroix executed his painting in 1834, following his return from North Africa. It shows three women in an apartment (the artist made a point of calling it an “apartment”, not a harem) with a black servant. The walls are tiled and the floor covered with rugs. The figures sit around a ceramic brazier and a hookah pipe. Delacroix did several versions, including a print, which reduced the scene to two figures, one baring her breasts. Delacroix’s paintings (including street scenes and a Jewish wedding) became touchstones for both Orientalists and radicals. The Orientalists appreciated the subjects and the authenticity; the radicals admired the creativity and handling.

[Henri Matisse, Odalisque au coffret rouge (Odaliske mit roter Schatulle), 1927,
Musée Matisse, Nice. Legs de Madame Henri Matisse, 1960 © François Fernandez /
Succession H. Matisse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021]

Over the winter of 1954-5, Picasso painted 15 oil-on-canvas variants (given letters A to O) and made supplementary pictures. Picasso turned Delacroix’s chaste women in nude sexual athletes, twisting like tops. Poses are like those in the paintings and drawings are compared to a sequence of thumbnail sketches the young Picasso had drawn in 1905. The Algeriennes’ angular flat forms are bent like cardboard echo the planar sculptures Picasso was making at the time. While there is a sexual dimension to the variants, it seems more of a test of ability, imagination and audacity – taking on one of the masterworks of a great masters of French art.

[Eugène Delacroix, Deux femmes arabes assises (Zwei sitzende arabische Frauen),
ca.1832/34, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, ParisPhoto, © RMNGrand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado]

The initial versions are small – obviously started on blank canvases that were just to hand. The lines are curving. The figures’ positions are accurate to the original but they are nude. The four figures are reduced to three occasionally because Picasso tended to enlarge the figures, which meant he could not accommodate four figures in a painting. By canvas C, the figure on the right in reclining on her back. The lines become straighter. The later versions (H-M) are in grisaille, like ink wash drawings. These are probably the most satisfying because they tamp down the sexual provocation and the play of lines, forms and facets replaces the strident colours. Two are single figure studies. The final version is the most complete and settled. It balances the sensuality of the setting with the invention of Picasso and the harmonious colour combinations. A very useful double-page spread shows all of the paintings in sequence and in proportionate size.

This journey was recapitulated in four states of a lithograph made in 1955. His sketches show him wrestling with the figures and design, trying to emphasise this or that aspect. Some portraits of Jacqueline dressed as an Algerian show Picasso forcefully placing his mistress in the history of Orientalist art and the grand tradition of French painting. The famous linocut after a Cranach portrait is another venture into the variant territory, which Picasso had been mining since at least his Poussin variant of 1944. Of course, all artists have produced copies of older art as part of their apprenticeships and learning their craft. Academic artists and students in France often made copies that were sold to the state, which allocated them to regional museums. Picasso had many copies in his youth. He touched on pastiche in the 1900s with El Greco, then again in the 1910s with Ingres’s portraits and then again in 1930s with parodies of Van Gogh and El Greco. By the time of the Poussin variant of 1944, Picasso saw the Old Masters as a subject in themselves. More precisely, he saw himself responding to the Old Masters in a self-reflective, ironic manner as subject matter. That multi-processed production of masterpieces about masterpieces (with a critical apparatus, audience and a collector base ready to adulate the products without demur) detached Picasso from any subject other than himself.

[Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d’Alger (Version L), 1955, © Staatliche Museen zu
Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Roman März / Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021]

Whatever the value of the series, it marked a slump in Picasso’s creativity. It was followed by variations after Las Meninas (1957), Cranach portraits (1958), Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1960-1), Rape of the Sabine Women (1962) and others. Picasso entertained himself with these dialogues but they are of little value to others. Paradoxically, these tussles with the great masters indicate a lack of serious of Picasso’s part. Imagine Degas, Poussin or Manet spending months on making fanciful variations of old art in Picasso’s method. These painters did take up old art and made it new. Manet completely reimagined a Raphael composition as Déjeuner sur l’herbe, imbuing it with new meaning and extra significance. It commented on the sex politics of his age, referring obliquely to a source that viewers did not need to know in order to appreciate Manet’s painting. Picasso’s variants after Déjeuner sur l’herbe imbue the source with no new meaning and far from matching (or illuminating) the subject, Picasso’s art shows his weakness. His self-image as a great impaired his ability to make meaningful art and tackle subjects outside of himself.

Just as Picasso worked after Delacroix, so other artists worked after Picasso. The most notable example is Roy Lichtenstein’s Femme d’Alger (1963) a Pop art version of a single seated figure by Picasso. The model was a combination of versions K and L, flattened, schematised and colourised. Areas of solid tone and dotted tone in primary colours. It is an indirect portrait of Picasso as iconic creator of Modernist art, not intended to relate to Delacroix or Algeria.

The catalogue includes various essays on the production of Picasso’s series (excerpts of Leo Steinberg’s 1972 text), the reception of the series and Algerian responses to the art. The selection of art is limited but relevant. This catalogue is ideal for Picasso fans and those researching the production and reception of Orientalism in the modern era.

Gabriel Montua, Anna Wegenschimmel (eds.), Picasso & Les Femmes d’Algers, Hirmer, 2021, hardback, 192pp, 130 col. illus., German/French/English text, £39.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3584 8

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Delacroix at the Met

Allard

 

This summer’s exhibition of art by Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at the Louvre drew record-breaking attendance. The display attracted 540,000 visitors. In the last few years Delacroix’s art has undergone a thorough reappraisal in a series of exhibitions, monographs and specialist studies. That reappraisal continues as the Paris exhibition travels to New York. One of the leading centres for Delacroix studies is the Metropolitan Museum – the museum has the best collections of Delacroix’s art outside of France – so it is only fitting that the museum hosts the second stage of the exhibition of Delacroix’s art. Many of the exhibited works have travelled to New York and are complemented by unique works.

Delacroix (17 September 2018-6 January 2019, Metropolitan Museum, New York) presents oil paintings, sketches, drawings, pastels and prints by the artist. (This review is from the catalogue.) The authors of the catalogue text deftly recount the artist’s achievements and outline his career. Delacroix’s relationship with the administrators, critics and public of the annual Salon was – like that of most other French artists of the era – important and subject to variation. A series of early successes catapulted Delacroix to stardom and official patronage, yet he was never assured of positive responses to his competitions and the Salon submissions. He remained a divisive artist to the end and never became rich.

Delacroix became known for his radical reimagining of the rules of composition and content, by removing obvious protagonists, heroic figures and decentring of compositions, most especially noted upon by critics of Massacres in Chios (1824). His handling was also considered shockingly loose. He was accused of using brooms to apply paint and egregious quantities of impasto. His pursuit of sensuous colour combinations was exemplified by Women of Algiers.

Although Delacroix largest and most renowned paintings are unable to travel, they are reproduced and discussed in the catalogue. Luckily, some of the minor pictures will be able to shine. Two of those are Still-life with Lobsters (1826-7), with its rich range of colours and earthiness set against a vivid landscape, shows the influence of English landscapists. Female Academy Figure (Mlle Rose) (c. 1820-3) is a nude study which shows Delacroix using broken-colour brushwork; close observation led the painter to vary colour of different parts of the anatomy in an intense manner that prefigured Naturalism. It also shows Delacroix delight in paint and painting led him to neglect scrupulous drawing. Orphan Girl in the Cemetery (1824) is a study for one of the figures in Massacres at Chios. It is the most delicate, careful and life-like of his oil studies and is fresh and captivating. In terms of quality, Orphan Girl matches anything Delacroix ever painted.

Delacroix’s watercolours from his travels in North Africa are much celebrated. We see men and women in their typical garb – with the artist attracted to the most traditional and ornate costumes. Views of landscapes, buildings and doorways would be used in later paintings, providing settings for Orientalist paintings. The apparent ancient demeanour and physiognomies inspired Delacroix to make modern battle pictures that evoke the antique. The hunting scenes allowed Delacroix to produce original variants of Rubens’s pictures, which he admired. Rubens was Delacroix’s hero, both in his subjects and treatment of colour and brushwork, something that he mentioned often in his journals. Direct copies of Rubens and references to him in Delacroix’s original pictures abound.

The young artist was caught up in the wave of French lithography that flourished in the early years of the Bourbon Restoration. At this time lithography was a mass media and was used in the graphic arts to portray the suffering and heroism of Napoleon’s army and the plight of veterans. The included lithograph illustrations are well chosen and display Delacroix’s gift for the pithy summary and attraction to the human drama. Using sgraffito  to scratch a layer of wax crayon on the lithographic stone, Delacroix created a sfumato rendering of figures in nocturnal settings. A particularly good example of that is blacksmith (1833). The visible light source is the glowing metal; the low position adds excitement and theatricality through its unusualness.

The authors describe very well Delacroix’s innovative approach to colour technique.

Flochetage entailed a departure from the classical notion of local color, which is predicated on the essence of a thing. The principle assumes that every object possesses a natural color that can be isolated by precisely drawing the model. Black is then added to that color to produce shadows, in a subtle chiaroscuro. Delacroix realized that the addition of black only muddied the color because the shadows themselves are colored, resulting, as they do, from reflections. […] in Women of Algiers, Delacroix experimented intuitively and for the first time with the law of simultaneous contrast and the optical mixture of complementary colors. […] this manner of paint application confers on the viewer an active role, since the mixing of colors occurs in the eye and brain rather than on the palette. A more intense green is achieved, for instance, when a painter, instead of mixing a yellow with a blue and a dab of yellow on the canvas, following a method Delacroix would call flochetage.

This insight came from the artist’s time in North Africa, experiencing the strong light and bright colours there. His preference for Venetian colour over Florentine line and for developing designs on the canvas was definitely aligned to Romantic ideals rather than Neo-classical systematic preparation through extensive sketches, studies and set compositions.

The exhibition pays attention to the religious, mythological and theatrical paintings of Delacroix’s middle years, when he produced fewer iconic pictures. The artist’s passion for theatrical drama is reflected in his many illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays. The painter fretted about the impermanence of the pigments he had used. Tempted by bright strong colours developed using new chemical technology, Delacroix had succumbed to the will-o’-the-wisp of fugitive organic colours, leaving behind the proven endurance of time-tested mineral pigments. While the drive of his early years had been to establish his fame through Salon acclaim, his later years were devoted to making decorative and religious murals, with posterity his main concern. One overlooked aspect which this exhibition gives its due is the accomplishment and variety of the artist’s late landscapes and seascapes. The works are rarely reproduced so they feel fresh and exciting.

Much of Delacroix’s oil painting has suffered from grave cracking and fading (consider the faded blue robes of Dante in The Barque of Dante (1822)); the illustrations (crisp and large) show us some of the diminished glory of Delacroix’s colour. Excellent design provides fine juxtapositions of pictures, allowing easy comparison. Thorough notes, index and bibliography make this volume a useful study aid. In addition to the main body of the text, the catalogue includes original and intelligent essays on the influence upon Delacroix of Guérin and Gros (though sadly not of Géricault), Delacroix as a writer, the 1855 retrospective of his paintings and Courbet’s reaction to him. This exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are touchstones for anyone interested in Romantic art and the achievements of Delacroix.

 

Sébastien Allard, Côme Fabre, et al., Delacroix, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale University Press), cloth hardback, 328pp, 288 col. illus., $65, ISBN 978 1 588 396518

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Delacroix

delacroix

  1. Painter

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) is commonly considered both the first modern artist and last classical artist. He was an artist who would attempt to evoke a powerful response in the viewers to a point where it would distort paintings. He was also an artist who adulated the Old Masters. He revered Rubens and developed a style of broken-colour brushwork in a way which would influence the development of Impressionism. It was only natural that he would be seen as a link between an august past and an innovative future.

A newly revised version of Barthélémy Jobert’s monograph (originally published in 1997) surveys the artist’s whole career, taking advantage of recent studies, sustaining the recent revival of interest in Delacroix. Recent exhibitions in America, France, Germany and America – plus a forthcoming exhibition in at the Metropolitan Museum in New York – have given gallery-goers and historians opportunities to reassess the Delacroix.

Delacroix was the central artist in the French Romantic tradition following the early death of Géricault in 1824. The pair apprenticed Guérin’s studio. Géricault supported Delacroix and passed on a religious commission to him. Géricault modelled as one of the dead figures in The Raft of the Medusa. Jobert writes that the young painter was not as close as to Géricault as is supposed, the latter being senior and established. Although Delacroix was saddened by Géricault’s death, Jobert suspects Delacroix’s admiration for Géricault cooled posthumously. He notes Delacroix wrote little about the older painter, both for publication and privately. Delacroix is usually presented as an arch enemy of Ingres, in a battle between Romanticism and Neoclassicism. The primary differences come in attitudes towards colour, paint handling, tone and theme.

Jobert notes that Delacroix managed his rise to prominence by submitting serious, large and ambitious history paintings to the (biannual) Salons of 1822, 1824 and 1827-8. The main works of these Salons (respectively The Barque of Dante, Massacre at Chios and The Death of Sardanapalus) received increasingly polarised responses from critics and public, as Jobert astutely dissects. This book does well to draw attention to underrated battle pieces and historical paintings such as The Murder of the Bishop of Liège (1829). The author has researched and explained sources for the literary and history paintings, allowing readers to appreciate the full drama and significance of the scenes the artist chose to depict.

The 1832 visit to Morocco and Spain provided Delacroix with many drawings, watercolours and notes that he plundered for inspiration over the rest of his career. Thirty paintings and innumerable prints and sketches were made over the next thirty years and became inextricably associated with Delacroix’s public career. Delacroix found much admirable and strange in the daily life of the Arabs and Jews and he considered himself plunged back into antiquity when surrounded by the clothing, behaviour and appearance of the people of North Africa. His colour became bolder and he combined in more sophisticated ways following his return from Africa. To the influences of Rubens and Venetian painters was added the clarity and brightness of North Africa.

Jobert points out that some of Delacroix’s masterpieces – Massacre at Chios, The Death of Sardanapalus, Liberty Leading the People and Women of Algiers – are common touchstones yet Delacroix overall achievement and underlying concerns are poorly understood. Why is Delacroix not better understood as an artist? Jobert suggests that part of the reason is a reluctance of recent viewers to engage with narrative and an aversion to literary subjects. Jobert notes that the masterpieces of Delacroix at the Louvre are – with the exception of the ceiling painting – early works and that his later great works are distributed in provincial museums around France, leading to an unintended distortion to how we perceive his development when viewing his work at the Louvre.

Some of the decorative cycles are inaccessible or difficult to see properly. The curving cupolas and glossy encaustic surfaces (some of them recently cleaned) have been photographed judiciously and these illustrations give a good impression of how dramatic and impressive Delacroix’s murals are. Overall, the illustrations are strong. Unexpected images include a delicate sky study sketch in pastel, a watercolour of Greenwich Park and a wonderful still-life of game and a lobster in a landscape setting (painted in 1826-7). There are pages from the Moroccan sketchbooks.

Delacroix had grave faults and he was criticised extensively from his first Salon appearance up to the present day. His deficiencies in anatomy came to the fore when he became intoxicated by his subject. He relied on memory and fantasy too often and this sometimes undermined the veracity of his paintings. He used fugitive pigments because he loved their colour, heedless of warnings against using impermanent materials. As a consequence many of his oil paintings are severely diminished today. He failed to see the value that modest subjects had as the bases for serious works of art, instead remaining wedded to the grand subjects of religion and history. This is all the more sad considering the great vividness and delicacy of his life studies of animals, people and landscapes. He will never be an artist we can relate to completely. He held too much in reserve, was too attached the notion of artistic propriety, passed over too many opportunities which seem attractive to us now.

Jobert’s narrative is fluent and absorbing. His expertise regarding Delacroix’s art and writing allow him to guide us through the Delacroix’s many achievements. This is an excellent and thorough survey of Delacroix.

9781588396808

2. Draughtsman

A current exhibition features donations by Karen B. Cohen to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York of more than 106 drawings and other works on paper by Delacroix (Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17 July-12 November 2018). The museum houses one of the best collections of Delacroix in world outside of France, not least due to the generous donation of collector Karen Cohen.

The exhibited pieces cover every period of the artist’s long career and the many facets of his drawing practice. There are copies, caricatures, nature studies, compositional sketches (including overall compositional designs and tests for elements), observations from life, anatomical studies of men and animals. The techniques are very varied, including use of pencil, ink line, ink wash, watercolour, charcoal, pastel and chalk. A number of lithograph illustrations are included, showing how the public encountered Delacroix’s drawing. The artist generally kept his drawings private and the public only became aware of his 8,000 works on paper – and their outstanding quality and variety – when his studio contents were sold at auction after the artist’s death in 1863. One double-page spread in this catalogue presents a loose ink-wash landscape sketch, a lithographic illustration of Goethe and an anatomical study of a cadaver in chalks. Modern viewers may find such a multitude of subjects and open apprehensible techniques make these works on paper more approachable than Delacroix’s oil paintings.

What is clear from this exhibition is that Delacroix did not see his drawings as independent pieces but only steps. This mirrors his practice of copying, where the act of making informs the artist, improves his practice and assists him internalising the skills and effects that he may apply in his painting. Delacroix’s dedication to study and emulation are decidedly unselfconscious, humble even. There are sheets recording armour, costumes and interiors. There is evidence that Delacroix spent hours studying animals, including cats, tigers, lions and horses. In these cases he worked quickly from life, slowly from dead subjects and consulted anatomy books to develop detailed views.

Among the sheets are some connected with the artist’s best known paintings, including Massacre at Chios, Liberty Leading the People and Women of Algiers. There is a coloured drawing of decorative tiles in Seville which was used in the boudoir setting of the Women of Algiers. Delacroix used his observations made in foreign locales as a resource from which he could draw upon later. He made oriental fantasies using his Moroccan sketches and memories until the end of his life.

What characterises Delacroix’s drawings is their liveliness, spontaneity and incompleteness. The artist considered drawings as working material rather than presentation-quality pictures. Of these sheets, only a few watercolours (among which is the particularly noteworthy Goetz von Berichingen Being Dressed in Armour by his Page George (1826-7)) are signed and seem intended as a public statement. There is an exquisite pairing of the interior cover of a small sketchbook – with the pencil drawing of a woman’s head – and the first page, which has a brilliant watercolour of a castle surrounded by autumn foliage.

Marjorie Shelley suggests that a comprehensive assessment of Delacroix’s work on paper has not yet been attempted and that there are myriad unanswered questions regarding Delacroix’s materials, techniques and approaches to making drawings and watercolours. She points out that Delacroix’s habitual casualness with pigments can be seen in his choice of iron-gall ink. Iron-gall ink is corrosive and was known to be so in Delacroix’s age yet the artist persisted in using it even though more stable alternative inks were available.

The catalogue includes a short description of the Met’s history of acquisitions of Delacroix’s art and has entries describing exhibited items in technical detail, which is very welcome. Works in the Cohen collection not included in the exhibition are illustrated at the end of the catalogue with full data. Short essays cover different aspects of Delacroix’s drawing and altogether this catalogue is a good introduction to the great artist’s work on paper.

Barthélémy Jobert, Delacroix, new and expanded edition, 2018, Princeton University Press, paperback, 352pp, 249 col./47 mono illus., £47/$60, ISBN 978 0 691 18236 0

Ashley Dunn, Colta Ives, Marjorie Shelley, Delacroix Drawings: The Karen B. Cohen Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2018, paperback, 176pp, 205 col. illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 58839 680 8

© 2018 Alexander Adams