Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution

A central aspect of the art of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) is the adoption of ancient and non-Western visual languages and conventions. The exhibition Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution at the Albertina Museum, Vienna (17 September 2021-9 January 2022) set out to make clear what forms these affinities took in Modigliani’s art and compare those to primitive-inspired art by Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). All three were based in Paris. In short, the exhibition sought to explain how primitivism influenced the directions of leading Modernist artists in the École de Paris and also to look at the links between these three artists. This review is from the catalogue.

Modigliani arrived in Paris from his native Italy in 1906, intent on being a sculptor. The carved stone heads – some twenty – are evidence of his dedication to achieving a single ideal: a female head that would meld the sophistication of European beauty, the direct simplicity of non-European art and the mysterious dignity of ancient statuary. The artist required technical instruction on stone carving and so fell in with another newly arrived immigrant. Brâncuşi arrived in Paris from Romania in 1904. Modigliani was also friendly with Jacob Epstein, with whom he collaborated on a sculptural project in his early Paris years. Over the periods 1907-11 and 1912-4, Modigliani made many drawings of caryatids (some related the Epstein project), which translated into only a handful of sculptures.

One of the most striking aspects of Modigliani’s art is the incorporation of non-Western and archaic art. No viewer of his art can miss the references, albeit highly synthesised, to art generally considered outside of the European fine-art canon. These stylistic elements have been carried over into his paintings. Frontality, stiffness, reduction of modelling and lack of expression are all typical of primitive or archaic statuary and we see all of these is the art of primitive-influenced Modernists. The elongated faces and columnal necks are African innovations and recur often in Modigliani’s carved heads and portraits.  

Friedrich Teja Bach enumerates three reasons why Brâncuşi was so struck by encounters with African artefacts. Firstly, it liberated his imagination. Secondly, “the contemporary appreciation of African sculpture made him aware of the relevance of wood – something familiar to him from the arts and crafts of his Romanian homeland – as a material for modern sculpture of the context of the urban avant-garde. Third, as Sidney Geist has rightly pointed out, the abstractness of African sculpture, as found in some masks, probably made a significant contribution to opening for him a path to an abstract symbolic dimension.”

Archaic Greek carvings, Egyptian statuary and murals and other ancient art – in addition to non-European art – was of mutual interest to the pair. Brâncuşi worked in stone, wood, metal and plaster, whereas Modigliani worked only in stone. It was the irritation that the dust of carving caused his tuberculosis-weakened lungs that caused Modigliani to give up carving for painting by 1914. It seems that the friendship of the pair petered out at this time. Unlike Picasso, Modigliani displayed an attachment to primitive art throughout his career, starting in 1906 up to his premature death of tuberculosis. It is the case that Modigliani gradually moved away from primitive influences, especially as he strove for prettiness in his Nice period but one can discern the traits become more or less prominent between pictures.

Modigliani’s portrait painting Black Hair (1918) was bought or acquired by exchange by Picasso in the early 1940s. What exactly the relationship was between Modigliani and Picasso is disputed. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson (and Francis Carco) underplayed it, suggesting that Picasso avoided Modigliani, disliking his drunkenness. Richardson – like many prominent art historians – seemed to have a low opinion of Modigliani. The main charge against Modigliani is superficiality. The idea was Modigliani relied on a range of mannerisms (the long necks, the almond eyes, the long elegant nose) in place of open interaction with sitters and subjects. While that charge has validity, Modigliani’s adoption of the rough surfaces, unusually flattened facets and taut graphic lines – all common between Modernism and African carvings – counteract the tendency towards suaveness and the prioritisation of attractiveness.   

Picasso’s paintings from 1906-8 seem to parallel the art of Modigliani. The overwhelming flatness, drawn outlines, graphic shorthand replacing individualistic description, simplified forms, roughly painted facets making no concession to volumetric modelling – all of these are shared by Modigliani and Picasso. It is a moot point how many Picasso works – which seem to date slightly earlier than Modigliani’s, although dating to a precise month is not always possible – Modigliani saw. Many of these pieces were never exhibited during Picasso’s lifetime, so it was only through a studio visit that the Italian could have seen them.

Restellini attempts to reduce the role of debauchery and dissolution in the common view of Modigliani. He quotes the source of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s most committed collector and confidante, on the artist’s use of drugs. The author then adds, “Contrary to legend, Modigliani was neither an alcoholic nor a drug addict. He did not create under the influence of narcotics or drink: like a “seer,” he needed them to fathom the depths of the human soul, to penetrate the other and discover what lay hidden within himself: “Alcohol insulates us from the exterior, it helps us delve into our inner self, all while making use of the outside world.”

The influence of the West African traditions of mask making provided fresh alternatives for avant-garde artists. The radical simplification of the face and the use of symbols and flatness, all aligned with the tendencies already apparent in Post-Impressionist art. We can say that École de Paris artists found what they sought in non-Western art because many aspects of their existing art – and the preferences that they felt drawn towards – were present in the art they responded to. After all, had they been Symbolists such as Moreau, they might have been drawn to the ornate decoration of Khmer sculpture, intricate needlework of North American native textiles, the bas-reliefs of Coptic art, the vivid colours of India art or the narrative function of Aboriginal art. Instead, they found earthy colours, flatness, simplification and the incorporation of shells, feathers and nails in art of West Africa. What the admirers of primitivism found did not change the direct of their art; it confirmed the correctness of their existing trajectory (by antecedent endorsement) and accelerated their trajectory. It was a highly selective response to the breadth of material available.

Modigliani – like artists such as Picasso, Derain and Matisse – frequented the Musée d’Ethnographie at the Palais du Trocadéro, where he was captivated by art of Indochina, Africa and Oceania. At the time, the museum was disorganised, badly lit, overfull, inadequately labelled and unfriendly for any visitor wishing to gain information rather than simply immerse himself in the miasma of foreign cultures. Many readers will long for such a museum, repulsed by the excessive curation of politically active staff of recent days. Publications – especially with high quality illustrations – were less available in those days, which meant that a lot of artefacts that confronted visitors were utterly unexpected and alien. The jolt to the preconceptions of European artists was a shock that electrified and animated Modernist tendencies. Readers are advised to treat the discussion of primitivism by Restellini with caution. While it has some handy quotes from individuals from the lifetime of Modigliani, the historical analysis of primitivism is purely politically driven and of little worth.       

Modigliani and Picasso both exhibited at the Lyre et Palette exhibition, held at the studio of Émile Lejeune on 19 November 1916. This displayed modern art alongside 25 African carvings from the Paul Guillaume collection by work by Picasso, Modigliani, Kisling, Matisse and Julio Ortiz de Zarate, in a non-hierarchical approach. It was a recognition of the influence of non-European art and a sense of shared values and outlooks, to a degree.  

This exhibition brought together an impressive selection of paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs of lost sculptures. The quality of the art is excellent. There are plenty of drawings by Modigliani, especially those that anticipate sculptures. There is Picasso’s rough unfinished wooden carving of his mistress Fernande as a primeval Venus, made in Gósol in 1906. This is contrasted with a rarely seen gouache of 1905 of harlequin applying make-up, accompanied by a seated woman. At this time, Picasso was looking at ancient Iberian art and the African statues and masks at the Trocadéro. There are many seated portraits in elongated vertical format, which became a feature of his late output. Some of his best portraits are included, such as the profile portrait of his mistress Jeanne Hébuterne (1918) with extravagant curved neck a tapering hairdo. It is notably how few drawings by Modigliani use shading as a modelling technique. When shading appears, it is mainly to separate a figure from a ground, emphasise a line or indicate a block of tone. The paintings deploy modelling techniques, which are handled with a delicacy. The rough dabbing and scumbling of the 1914-5 era is turned into soft smudging in Nice, reminiscent of two local painters: Renoir and Bonnard.

Brâncuşi’s lost wooden figure of a child (The First Step (c. 1914)) is represented by a vintage photograph and a drawing. The sculptor radically simplified the form of an infant walking, following the approach found in West African carving. An oil painting of bathers (1908) by Derain presents art by another Modernist who was inspired by African figures at the Trocadéro. This painting seems as one with Picasso’s African period of 1907-8. The exhibition includes only a few non-Modern/non-Western works (West African carvings, Cycladic stone statuettes, a Khmer head), but there are numerous illustrations of other pieces, some of which may have been personally encountered by the three artists.

Considering today’s political climate, it is unfortunate (but entirely expected) that any approach to primitivism in art leaves the conventional curator tied up in agonised knots of shame. Every statement is preceded by elaborate unequivocal condemnations of the vast ignorance and shameful chauvinism of European artists, even those who demonstrated an intellectual and artistic engagement with non-Western art. “The predominant analysis of this artistic revolution, as articulated by Rubin in the 1980s and persisting until the end of the 1990s, is tinged with racism: this claims that the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas were more at ease in expressing emotion due to their “indigenous” and “primitive” nature.” The curators perform such elaborate obsequious performances to demonstrate their political virtue that they end up damning everyone who came before and failed to meet today’s standards. This leads to an impression that the artist subjects – who were sympathetic towards, and engaged by, non-Western art – are being tried for crimes against 2021’s left-liberal norms.

For those of us who require historical accounts of art that treat us as intelligent, empathetic and morally-informed individuals, we must firmly and clearly reject the presumptions of curators who often know less than their audiences about topics on which they opine.

Notwithstanding this reservation, the catalogue summarises well the inspiring spark that non-Western and archaic art provided for artists of the École de Paris.

Marc Restellini (ed.), Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution, Hirmer/Albertina, 2021, 216pp, 222 col. illus., £39.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3566 4

Suggested illus.

113, Picasso, female head, 1908, p. 178

114, Fang mask, p. 179

7, Brancusi, The First Step, 1914, p. 62

42, early cycladic figure, p. 102

43, Modigliani, female nude with crossed arms, 1911, p. 102

80, Modigliani, head, 1911-2, p. 146

21 April 2022

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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


Hans Purrmann

A recent addition to Hirmer’s Great Masters of Art series is a short book on German Modernist Hans Purrmann (1880-1966). Purrmann was born in Speyer, Rhineland-Palatinate. He was trained in decorative art and took courses at the Applied Arts School, Karlsruhe, before going to study painting at Academy of Fine Arts, Munich (1897-1905). All of this gave him great craft skills and sensitivity towards colour. He had an affinity for Munich Impressionism. Park in Svinar (1903) is close to Max Liebermann’s Impressionism and Seated Nude (“Polish Equestrienne”) (1905) follows Lovis Corinth’s expressive diagonal brushwork and lush painterliness. The former is a dazzling tour de force depiction of shadow and dappling sunlight effects. Painting as pleasure-giving is never far from Purrmann’s thinking. Purrmann also respected Max Slevogt.

While in Munich, Purrmann developed an admiration for Cézanne. He immersed himself in the power of colour and the cultivation of facture, as means to vitalise painting. He moved to Paris in 1905 and the following year commenced studying in the studio of Henri Matisse. The master proved a major influence; so much so, that Purrmann is often called “the German Matisse”. It did not help Purrmann’s standing as an independent painter the fact that he vigorously promoted Matisse’s paintings in Germany. His combination of bluish greens and viridian – and his preference for blocks of unmodulated, unshaded colour – was developed at this time.

Purrmann could be classed as a late-period Fauve. His paintings from 1905 onwards share characteristics with those of Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain, as well as Matisse. The energy of Purrmann’s early Fauve paintings is akin to Vlaminck’s. The hot-coloured landscapes are a blend of Derain and Cézanne.

The painter admitted that he painted that which he enjoyed looking at and being around – sunny gardens, interiors of his handsome home, family members, nude models. Purrmann’s sumptuous interiors – juxtaposing reds and oranges against saturated greens and blue – of 1917-8 display his feeling for colour. The richness of the colour, restrained brushwork and deft use of detailing in compositions that exaggerate forms and spaces without reaching levels of unreality are highly satisfying and typical of Purrmann. That also demonstrates Purrmann’s weakness in comparison to Matisse. He is too restrained and too genteel to take up the risks that Matisse undertook. His art is gorgeous but genteel; it is the gentility of a consummate craftsman rather than the rawness and risk of genius.

Interestingly, Purrmann’s art was classed as degenerate by the Nazis and included in the 1937 exhibition. The content of his art was unobjectionable, had it been painted in a realist or mild Impressionist manner, but his style was tied to the unapologetic Modernism. This led to him being perceived as belonging to a subversive group (or tendency). The author admits he cannot explain how this condemned artist came to be appointed director of Villa Romana, Florence, a German-owned villa used for artist residencies. Purmann held the position from 1935 until 1943, the breakdown of the Fascist government during the pressure of Allied invasion and German occupation. (That summer his wife died in Munich after a long illness.) In 1939, the “Italian branch of the Nazi Party” wrote to the German Embassy in Rome, calling Purrmann a “proponent of an altogether un-German concept of art”. Purrmann was known to have assisted dissident artists and writers during his time there.

Purrmann’s painting during his years in Florence feature the villa and display the artist’s appreciation for his surroundings. The views of rooms, including glimpses of the garden and trees beyond the balcony, recall Matisse’s Nice and Cannes paintings. After the war, Purrmann settled in Lugano, Switzerland. His studio had a spectacular mountain view. His art did not develop much in later years; it did not need to. He continued painting after 1959, when he was confined to a wheelchair by a stroke. His dedication to pleasure was richly rewarded in his last decades by increasing acclaim and financial security. In 1955, his art was selected for the first Documenta exhibition in Cassel, chosen in part by the German curators because Purrmann was seen as untainted by Naziism, Modernist in character and representative of the taste and artists of France. Purrmann was, for Germans burdened by war-guilt, an embodiment of “the good German artist”: cosmopolitan in outlook and association.

Purrmann’s painting is definitely worth becoming acquainted with, especially if one is a fan of the Fauves or early Matisse. It is highly accomplished and enjoyable. Wagner’s book is the perfect introduction. The book contains a general essay, a thorough chronology and a handful of documents from Purrmann, alongside colour illustrations. The illustrations are well chosen and large enough. Recommended for all fans of Matisse, Modernist painting and German art.

Christoph Wagner, Hans Purrmann, Hirmer, 2021, hardback, 80pp, 55 col. illus., £9.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3679 1

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

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

The Decadence and Darkness of Symbolism

“Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie exhibition of Belgian Symbolists, Decadence and Dark Dreams: Belgian Symbolism, closed last month. As few were able to attend, for obvious reasons, this article will review the exhibition from the catalogue.

“Symbolism – like its precursor, Romanticism – is a school that thrived, and had its premier exponents reside, in Northern Europe. Belgium produced some of the best Symbolist art in the era 1860-1914. Artists of the new nation of Belgium in search of an identity reached back to the Flemish Primitives as a strong regional model and nation achievement.

Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland

“Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland. In the same way the Arts & Crafts movement was a reaction against industrialisation, Symbolism was a reaction against rationalism…”

To read the full article visit The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2021/02/26/the-decadence-and-darkness-of-symbolism/

Bukowski: The Shooting

[Image: © 1985/2020, Abe Frajndlich]

By the mid-1980s, Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was already both famous and infamous. As king of the West Coast underground poetry scene, Bukowski was a critical figure in the counter culture, on the verge of entering the mainstream. His verse – curt, pungent, profane, grand – spoke to many, even those who usually did not read poetry. During the 1970s he had filled university halls with his poetry readings. For decades he had published stories, poems and columns in the underground press and men’s magazines. He had appeared on radio and television and a documentary had already been made about him. His novels won critical acclaim and a cult following, not just in the USA but also Germany, with his works being translated into other languages yearly.

In 1985 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Magazin finally managed to get Bukowski – who was an increasingly well-known author in Germany – to agree to have his picture taken for a feature. Bukowski: The Shooting is the illustrated story of four days a young photographer spent with Bukowski.

Abe Frajndlich – a German-American professional photographer – got the assignment. Frajndlich used a personal contact to persuade the reluctant Bukowski to give him one day. He recounts in his essay his time with Bukowski and his fiancée Linda Lee Beighle. On 4 and 5 March, the photographer spent time with the couple in their house in San Pedro, California; he photographed the couple and Bukowski alone. He was allowed into the office. “Although most of the house was clean and tidy, his working room was complete, but creative, mess, with papers strewn about, beer and wine bottles and magazines lying about helter-skelter, and manuscripts over and under the desk and on the floor.” However, when he submitted the images, the picture editor rejected them all. He told Frajndlich that the photographs were too poor to be used. They were mere documentation and provided nothing exciting or visually powerful. Frajndlich was crestfallen and desperate to make emends. He half-begged, half-bullied Bukowski into letting him return for a second session. Bukowski agreed.

The photo shoot on 1 April was quite a different affair. The first had been low-key, unintrusive: Bukowski typing in the garden, in his office, with Linda. The second shoot had to be something special. Bukowski and Frajndlich decided to play up the author’s wild-man reputation with props, humour, play acting and excess. Frajndlich believed his career was on the line and Bukowski wanted to help him out; they tapped into Bukowski’s irreverent side.

When the feature was published, Bukowski received copies and was delighted with the result. He invited Frajndlich to his wedding in August. Frajndlich agreed to take a set of photographs for the couple, himself and a patron. The ceremony was performed by Linda’s guru (she was a Buddhist) and the day proved memorable for all, with Bukowski getting very drunk.    

The Shooting reproduces photographs from all three days. This captures a wide range of moods and aspects. The first shoot has Bukowski at work (or mimicking it), drinking at a garden table during an evidently not warm day. We see his office, dirty, chaotic and comfortable, chair at the desk facing a blank wall, books, magazines and manuscripts in profusion. Next to the electric typewriter is a lamp and a radio. (Bukowski preferred classical music to rock music.) We get a sense of Bukowski’s normal life and environment: working, smoking, drinking, under his lemon tree, with and without Linda. This is Bukowski’s subdued self, his sensitive and introspective side. Much of Bukowski’s power as a writer resides not in the declamatory, erotic and comic modes; rather, it lies in the thoughtful, reflective and tender side of the man, which does not undercut his dry humour, clear-sightedness and lack of false sentimentality. Bukowski was as much a reader and (in his youth) a frequenter of libraries as he was barroom brawler. The obscure historical asides and literary references in Bukowski’s verse demonstrate the writer’s time spent as a reader.

In the second shoot, Bukowski puts on Linda’s hat and glasses. He wears the glasses upside down. He draws his famous cartoon figures at giant size and poses with them. He strips off his shirt and he brandishes a knife. He plays the grotesque. In his mugging for the camera, Bukowski acts very similarly to how Picasso acted in his photoshoots of the 1960s, which Bukowski must have seen. We see the man unshackled from boredom and the routine of a professional writer with a fiancée, a mortgage and a BMW, allowed to play freely. We have drunk Bukowski, a sliver of the hostile, arrogant, lecherous drunk that acquaintances were accustomed to and wary of – yet, here, Bukowski is his other self more in jest than earnest.

[Image: © 1985/2020, Abe Frajndlich]

The final shoot was the wedding of Bukowski and Linda in August 1985. We see bride and groom, the Rolls Royce hired for the day and a shot of the couple in their marriage bed. On the covers is a drawing by the poet of his cartoon figures, with the legend “LEGAL, AT LAST! AFTER 8 YEARS! Hank & Linda”. On a photograph of cups and saucers set out on a table, Bukowski has written “FOR ABE – FILL THESE FUCKING THINGS WITH WINE!” We get a sense of the friendliness that developed between poet and photographer and a glimpse of the marriage that provided Bukowski with much needed stability and serenity.

Included is “The Pock-marked Poetry of Charles Bukowski” by Glenn Esterly. First published in 1976 in Rolling Stone, it is a long profile of the poet, describing a Bukowski reading in 1976 (not long before the poet ceased giving public readings) and featuring an interview with the poet at home. Public readings made Bukowski nervous, he often drank too much and antagonised the audience. By 1980, his royalties were so high that he no longer needed the money. Esterly captures the tone of the event and incorporates comment from Bukowski’s colleagues. The interview is good and the author is not afraid to challenge Bukowski, question his public image and present him with contradictions. It presents a snapshot of the poet just before he met Linda and his life settled into its late period of material comfort and emotional security (albeit with ructions).

The text is translated into German in full. The combination of new text and provocative and memorable images – both providing insights into the life of one the century’s great writers – make a winning combination. Fans of Bukowski will not be disappointed by The Shooting.

Abe Frajndlich, Glenn Esterly, Bukowski: The Shooting, Hirmer, 2020, hardback, 96pp, 65 col./mono illus., English/German, €29.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3667 8

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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


Natela Iankoshvili

Autumn at Kiziki

[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Autumn at Kiziki (1976), oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm | 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]

Natela Iankoshvili (1918-2007) is one of the most prominent painters of Georgia, former state of USSR. This survey of Iankoshvili’s painting is published by Hirmer and Galerie Kornfeld, the Berlin gallery representing her estate. This book is a good guide to the life and work of this celebrated Georgian artist. Essays outline the artist’s biography and career, her work as an illustrator, the important support her marriage provided, her achievements in a Georgian context and contemporary reactions to her art. The publication includes a chronology and a bibliography. The selection of illustrated paintings covers broadly 1960 to her last years. (The only weakness of the catalogue is that a few of the illustrations are not crisp enough.)

Iankoshvili was born on 30 August 1918. In 1937 she entered the Academy of Art, Tiblisi and graduated in 1943, in the midst of World War II. She destroyed the art of her student and early years, which was Socialist Realist in character, later stating that it seemed artificial and insincere to her. One of the few paintings to escape the flames was the 1951 realist portrait of her husband Lado Avaliani (1913-1998), a noted author and biographer.

By 1960, when her solo exhibition (of 250 paintings) at the Georgian State Gallery of Painting (National Gallery) took place, her mature personal style was established, in which she painted over 2,000 pictures. The exhibition of 250 paintings was a breakthrough for her and a significant distinction for any Georgian artist, let alone a female painter. Iankoshvili’s mature painting is characterised by vigorous application of paint, heavy impasto, use of broad brushes and palette knives, strong local colour, an Expressionist palette and lack of academic finish. She frequently used square-format canvases. The paintings appear to be painted in a direct manner in few sessions, maybe only one. The artist commonly painted and drew over black or dark green backgrounds. (An example of a drawing employing this technique is a portrait – real or imagined – of a black Cuban.) The landscapes were principally black with motifs depicted in pungent colour. Her landscapes are remembered, invented and reconfigured. A particularly effective one is Landscape of Shatili from Above (1985), which the artist in green over black – almost without another hue, a few touches of yellow blended in the green.

Shales Forest in Kakheti

[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Shales Forest in Kakheti (1987), oil on canvas, 110 x 75 cm | 43 1/3 x 29 1/2 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]

Her subjects were not typical genres of official Soviet painters: local landscapes, wildlife, portraits of exotic figures rather than workers or party officials. She did also paint portraits of authors she admired, including Ana Kalandadze and Boris Pasternak. Depicting glamorous women in bourgeois costumes was a clear rejection of the official aesthetic and a way of connecting to Western European painting and art of the pre-Modern era and thus an act of defiance – albeit not a dangerous one by the 1960s. Her attachment to the religious and vernacular architecture and traditions of Georgia also distanced her from Socialist Realism. The cerebral light-filled optimism of an everlasting present of official Soviet art is supplanted in Iankoshvili’s art by a darkly luminescent night, redolent of intrigue, romance and history.

Authors note that Iankoshvili took inspiration for her work on black grounds from Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918), a famed Georgian painter. Pirosmani’s painting is not dissimilar to that of Douanier Rousseau’s primitivist painting. He used black sail canvas because he could not afford proper artist’s materials. In allying her practice to Pirosmani’s, Iankoshvili can be seen as drawing upon her Georgian heritage and seeking to take vitality from folk art, uncontaminated by the political correctness of her time. Another guiding light was the art of El Greco. His colours, sense of movement and spatial ambiguity seem points of attraction for the Georgian. Her 1965-6 illustrations to the epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin were done on black paper.

The year after her landmark 1960 exhibition, Iankoshvili was one of the artists who travelled to Cuba and Mexico in 1961 on a state-sponsored mission for the collaboration between the nations’ artists. She was attracted by the racial variety of the people and the lush vegetation and fauna of the island.

Iankoshvili had numerous exhibitions in exhibitions within the USSR and, from 1976 onwards, exhibited internationally. In 1977 she was awarded a gold medal for a portrait by her exhibited in Paris. In 1995 she received the Shota Rustaveli State Prize and the following year she was awarded the Medal of Honour of the State of Georgia. In 2000 a museum dedicated to her art opened in Tiblisi. Contemporaries commented that the painter’s attitude towards commerce seemed to be a blend idealism, cussedness and naivety: she gave away pictures rather than selling them, limiting the exposure her art would have generated through commercial dissemination, especially after the demise of the USSR in 1991. In recent years, her art has been shown worldwide, championed by Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin.

Iankoshvili’s individualism (which expressed itself in her decision to forego the official style and thereby limiting her opportunities for official commissions) is as important as her art. Although she benefited eventually from taking such a brave decision in the long run, her initial choice seems to have been based on a question of conscience. In the West today, we are too cynical. Our default response to acts of conscience and risk-taking in the face of consensus are to diminish them as careerism or motivated by materialism or ulterior motives. We should be more responsive and respectful of acts of honest conscience.

Enigma

[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Enigma (1983), oil on canvas, 125 x 155 cm | 49 1/4 x 61 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]

Her art (developed independently) parallels the 1970s and 1980s school of German, Italian and American Neo-Expressionism. The directness, vigour, romanticism and glamour of her art shrugs off the caginess of art based on systems, unashamedly embracing the subjects of the past without apology and self-consciousness. For artists seeking an antidote to the irony and insincerity of Post-Modernism, art such as Iankoshvili’s is a route to an alternative future. Regardless of what one thinks of her art, Iankoshvili’s heroic individualism and love of art was in direct opposition to the anonymity and utilitarianism of Socialist Realism of the 1940s, yet it also (inadvertently) opposes the caution of Conceptualism, the irony of Post-Modernism and the utilitarianism of artivism of today.

The vitality, humanity and complete commitment to the principle of art-for-art’s-sake are what can make Natela Iankoshvili an inspiration for future artists who wish to reject the sterile cynicism of today’s art movements.

Mamuka Bliadze, Natela Iankoshvili: An Artist’s Life between Coercion and Freedom, Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin/Hirmer (distr. Hirmer), 2020, hardback, 160pp, 66 col. illus., £32, ISBN 978 3 7774 3513 8

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Bruegel: The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow

Abb. 1_Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige im Schnee 1[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1563), Sammlung Oskar Reinhart «Am Römerholz», Winterthur © Sammlung Oskar Reinhart «Am Römerholz», Winterthur]

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-30-1569) is celebrated for his paintings of snow. His blend of realism (accurate depictions of clothing and buildings) and artificiality (landscapes that combine Brabant environs and Alpine topography) made a profound impression at the time and – after a reputational lull – from the Nineteenth Century onwards.

A recent exhibition (23 November 2019-1 March 2020) at Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur, Switzerland collected art associated to its own Bruegel painting The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1563). This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. As is usual with Bruegel’s major painted compositions, numerous later copies were produced including a version exhibited here. One scholar catalogues 36 copies of this composition, 26 of which he attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638).

The painting shows the Holy Family sheltering in an adequate shelter in a Brabant town. Townsfolk are continuing with their daily lives – collecting water, cutting willow twigs, conveying tributes or seeking warmth. The scene is set in deep winter, with snow falling. The kings and the Holy Family are ignored by the people, just as the fall of Icarus is ignored by the ploughman in Bruegel’s famous painting in Brussels. There are political references in the picture – including the presence of Spanish troops and the Habsburg insignia on the tribute being sent. The Habsburg Spanish control of the Low Countries was creating resentment at the time the picture was made; it would break out into warfare (on the bases of Reformation theology and national independence) in 1568, the year before Bruegel’s death. The painting is oil on oak panel, 35 x 55cm, in generally good condition. The discovery of the date “1563” alongside the artist’s signature confirms that date of production.

Although a number of Bruegel paintings depict snow and ice, The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow is the only painting in which snow is falling. It is apparently the first surviving oil painting of falling snow in Western art. (There are earlier miniatures.) Later versions omit the falling snow, which strongly suggests the copyists (or at least Pieter Brueghel the Younger, whose version may have acted as a common source for later copyists) used a detailed drawing Bruegel that did not include snowfall. Other differences include coloration and small details. The older artist would have made such changes, altering his design as he went. Considering the high demand for Bruegel’s art, it is likely that Brueghel never saw a number of father’s paintings, all of which were painted before his son Pieter was born or while he was a small child.

Dendrochronology data proves that this painting was painted on an oak panel from the same plank that was used for Death of the Virgin (c. 1562-5), Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (1563) and Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565), imported from the Eastern Baltic. The Adoration panel is smaller than the others and shows evidence of being cut down on the top and right sides, which is corroborated by posthumous copies showing these areas of the composition. However, the copies may be based on drawings and Bruegel may never have actually painted these margins in his picture.Bruegel’s paint handling was new and Impressionistic, radically simplifying forms and allowing the qualities of paint and application to act as a shorthand for the physical bodies he was describing. “Bruegel’s treatment of figures in this small panel is often looser than in his larger works. This Adoration of the Kings in the Snow, with its novel snowflakes, may have represented a somewhat experimental work for Bruegel, which could explain the relatively spontaneous handling.”

The exhibition gathered 15 items, including paintings and engravings. Some of the engravings were derived from Bruegel drawings made specifically for engravers. When Bruegel commenced his career in Antwerp, he was solely a print designer; only later did he begin making oil paintings and move to Brussels. He painted a series of seasons but he was working on a series of prints of seasons, which was left unfinished at his death.

Abb. 6_Pieter van der Heyden nach Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._verlegt von Hieronymus Cock_Sommer (1)

[Image: Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, published by Hieronymus Cock, Summer,(1570), engraving, sheet from The Four Seasons, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich © Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich]

The print Summer (drawn 1569, cut and printed 1570, posthumously) displays Bruegel’s late ambition to imbue figures of peasants with grandeur and monumentality, inspired by Michelangelo. It also shows his ability to use foreshortening, with the foot and scythe projecting out of the picture plane. (Actually, it displays his lack of anatomical training, as the foot should be larger.) The other print designed was Spring, showing gardeners at work. Two classic compositions by Bruegel (St Jerome and Journey to Emmaus), where one foreground corner to close up and the rest of the low-land landscape is shown from an aerial perspective, with a high horizon line, were published by Hieronymous Cock. Cock also commissioned pastiches of Bruegel’s compositional style, due to the demand for his designs.

Abb. 2_Joannes und Lucas van Doetecum nach Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._verlegt von Hieronymus Cock_S. Hieronymus in Deserto (1)

[Image: Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, published by Hieronymus Cock, The Temptation of Saint Jerome, (1556), engraving, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich © Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich]

The catalogue contains a section summarising the main observations in French. Although a small volume, The Miracle in the Snow: Pieter Bruegel the Elder contains significant new information about a key painting by Bruegel and is an approachable book for non-specialist readers.

The Miracle in the Snow: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur (SOR)/Hirmer (distr. Hirmer), 2019, paperback, 96pp, 50 col. illus., £24.95, English text, some French, ISBN 978 3 7774 3498 8

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

 

Frans Hals: A Family Reunion

978-3-7774-3007-2

A current touring exhibition reunites fragments of a giant family portrait painted by one of the masters of the Golden Age of Dutch painting, Frans Hals (1582/3-1666) (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, 13 October 2018-6 January 2019; touring to Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, 2 February-28 April 2019; Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris, 8 June-25 August 2019). This exhibition comprises nine paintings and one drawing. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.
Hals was born in Antwerp and was taken to Haarlem by his family, who fled the Eighty Year War in the South Netherlands. We know little of his artistic training and early career. He was principally a portrait painter. Four of his sons followed their father in the painting trade. Hals was innovatory as a portraitist, being known for the development of complex expanded multi-figure compositions, capturing informal and lifelike facial expressions and body language and for portraying the individual characters of sitters. He made his trademark the wet-on-wet finish for his paintings, although the paintings were built up in different sessions and it was only the final layer that was painted so vigorously.
Around 1623 Hals was commissioned by a Catholic wool merchant called Gijsbert Claesz of Leiden and his wife van Maria Jorisdr van Campen of Haarlem, who moved to Haarlem after their marriage. The prosperous merchant had a large family of thirteen children and could afford the grand painting that the size of his family necessitated. Only in 2013 was the family securely identified as the van Campens. The book contains a family tree of the van Campen family, documenting the individuals portrayed in the picture. The portrait was apparently commissioned after the birth of the couple’s thirteenth child. When a fourteenth (and final) child was born, it was added to the painting in 1628 but this infant was painted not by Hals but Salomon de Bray, who signed the addition. The choice of artist was a good one, as the figure is painted in a style congruent with the original.

4._the_van_campen_family_in_a_landscape

[Image: Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666), The Van Campen Family in a Landscape (fragment) (ca. 1623–25), oil on canvas. 151 x 163.6 cm. Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, inv. 2011.80]

The van Campen painting is the earliest surviving group portrait by Hals. It shows the couple Gijsbert Claesz and Maria Jorisdr van Campen and their children in an outdoor setting. One of the children is being pulled in a miniature cart by a goat. This caprice is seen in another painting of the era. The painting shows the children ranged across the painting, interacting with each other, playfully, attentively, considerately. Thus the family is seen as harmonious, achieving concert through interplay of the natural tendencies of members combining for the benefits of the group collectively. In some paintings of the time, nurses and servants were included but research shows that all of the figures here are related.
The painting shows Hals’s abilities at his best and clearest, also demonstrates the competence of the artist as a composer of complex multi-figure tableaux. The painting is full of observant touches and individuality without neglecting propriety. It is easy to see why Hals was so esteemed in his time and later. One wonders about the painter’s later poverty, whether this was down to changing fashion, financial incompetence or the effect of competition. This book does not discuss Hals career as a whole.
The principal reason the painting was dismembered was probably practicality. Originally, the canvas is estimated to have been 153.5 cm high and about 333 cm wide. Scrutiny reveals that there is also slight water damage. At some point before 1810, the canvas was cut into three or four pieces. The original group portrait was divided into at least three parts, namely The Van Campen Family in a Landscape (all c. 1623-5; Toledo Museum of Art), Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat-Cart (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels) and Portrait of a Boy of the Van Campen Family (private collection). There may have been a further fourth section with two children but that remains unidentified or has been lost. The exhibition reunites the three parts for the first time in two centuries. It also includes six other portraits by Hals, including the large group portrait from the National Gallery, London. The catalogue illustrates examples of Dutch painted portraits, including Rubens’s wonderful double portrait of the artist and his wife, which fleshes out the genre that Hals’s paintings occupied.

6._proposed_reconstruction_of_frans_halss_complete_the_van_campen_family_in_a_landscape._liesbeth_de_belie_and_catherine_van_herck_media

[Image: composite of full painting using 3 fragments and adapted additions]

The catalogue illustrates composites of the complete painting. A fascinating sequence of reconstructions shows how other experts have previously conjectured the original painting would have been, each limited by the circumstances. It includes forensic details that help to reconstruct the exact size of the original canvas. The authors present the current state of knowledge about the van Campen painting, discussing provenance, technical analysis, the extent of historic repainting and suggestions about the content of the lost section. This book studies Hals as a portrait painter and the practice of Seventeenth Century Dutch portraiture, with good examples reproduced. This succinct but informative title would make a good introduction to Dutch portraiture for students, as well as being an approachable addition to the corpus of Hals scholarship.

Lawrence W. Nichols, Liesbeth De Belie & Pieter Biesboer, Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion, 2018, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium/Hirmer, hardback, 112pp, 70 col., £20, illus., ISBN 978 3 7774 3007 2

© 2018 Alexander Adams
View my art and books at http://www.alexanderadams.art

Harald Sohlberg: Infinite Landscapes

Fig. 96 (1)

[Image: Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage (1906), oil on canvas, 109 x 94cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edward Byron Smith. Photo copyright: Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY/Scala Firenze]

A new exhibition in Oslo showcases the evocative Symbolist landscapes of Norwegian painter Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) (National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo (28 September 2018-13 January 2019); touring to Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (13 February-2 June 2019) and Museum Wiesbaden (12 July-27 October 2019)). Any visitor to Norwegian art museums will have had his/her eye caught by Sohlberg’s striking landscapes. This selection shows the depth of the painter’s achievement and the arc of his career. (This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.)

Sohlberg was working in an era when the artists of Nordic nations (especially the newly independent Norway and Finland) were looking to establish truly national schools of art whilst not restricting themselves to parochial isolation. Artists (and other creative figures, along with politicians) had often studied, worked and travelled outside of their homelands due to the restricted opportunities they had faced at home. They therefore well understood their positions as pioneers of new national cultures with deep roots but shallow institutions and that their courses had to be steered between their nations’ adoption of certain international allegiances and the strong desire to distinguish themselves as independent – most especially independent of their former colonial rulers’ cultures.

Sohlberg’s course showed itself most obviously through his decision to paint Norwegian landscapes and rural townscapes. The latter featured typical vernacular Norwegian architecture of wooden buildings, strongly coloured exteriors and rough agricultural structures. It is no surprise that when the newly independent Norway organised exhibitions of its art at home and overseas, Sohlberg’s landscapes and townscapes proved suitable and popular inclusions. Norway’s conservative taste regarding Modernism in the visual arts meant that Sohlberg’s cautious Symbolism was ideal.

Sohlberg trained professionally extensively. He was first apprenticed to decorative painter Wilhelm Krogh (1885) then studied fine art, first at Kristiania (Oslo) (1889-90), then in Copenhagen under Kristian Zahrtmann (1892) (where he visited the home of Gauguin’s wife) and Kristiania under Harriet Backer and Elilif Peterssen (1894); he undertook a study trip to Paris (1895-6) and finally took classes in Weimar under Norwegian Frithjof Smith (1897-8). However, this is misleading, as Sohlberg was already a professional artist by the end of his studies and was widely exhibited, with works in museum collections. He was a skilled draughtsman of the figure and an adept portraitist. Sohlberg’s later eschewing of figures in his paintings was a choice not of necessity; he clearly had the capacity to portray people accurately. In Weimar, Sohlberg must have come into contact with the Symbolist art of Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger. Klinger’s prints especially provided a template for the sort of graphic art Sohlberg made. The drawings of fantasy characters in rural settings have grotesque and weird aspects, similar to illustrations for fairy stories.

This peculiarity comes to the fore in versions of Mermaid (1893). It shows a woman emerging from water, with her head thrown back, a mocking smile on her face, seen under a full moon which casts an elongated reflection on the water. In various versions, the mermaid’s face and torso ranges in appearance from coarse slattern and semi-piscine hybrid to beautiful adolescent. The pose of this dreamy temptress parallels Edvard Munch’s Madonna (1892-5) and the moon reflection is a motif commonly seen in Munch’s fjord views. The pair knew each personally and there are areas of overlap between their oeuvres. Some critics considered them rivals. This relationship would make a fascinating subject for extensive research and a book-length publication in English.

Symbolism was a movement that embodied a reaction against the idealism of Victorian salon painters and the quasi-scientific optical investigations of the Impressionists, Neo-Impressionists and Divisionists. The Symbolists – who to degree overlapped with Post-Impressionists, particularly Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis and others – asserted that the true function of art was to manifest the underlying reality of human existence by heightening the symbolic significance of images and using those images in ways that explored the underlying drives and archetypes of the human psyche. In relation to Sohlberg’s Symbolist landscapes, we should consider in particular the Belgian Symbolists Leon Spilliaert, Fernande Khnopff and Xavier Mellery, who are close in imagery, technique and mood to Sohlberg’s early work. Of Scandinavian painters, Munch is an obvious parallel (discussed below) and – less obviously – the brooding domestic scenes of Wilhelm Hammershøi have the mysterious quality of Sohlberg’s scenes. The Hammershøi’s landscapes have an air of idealised reality and pared-down appearance that Sohlberg’s share. Symbolism is an extension of Romanticism and it is right to consider Sohlberg’s landscapes as being close to those of JCC Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Caspar David Friedrich. Sohlberg’s magical landscapes could be classed as the last flourishing of the Northern Romantic tradition. A clear example of this is the late-period sunset paintings, which are Friedrichian in their bright yellow and orange skies dominating tranquil terrains.

The early oil paintings are like coloured drawings – lacking impasto or prominent brushwork. Squaring was used to transfer designs from drawings to canvas, with the pencil underdrawing often visible. From Gullikstad (1904) is an example of this coloured-drawing approach, where the colour is applied by staining. This extreme dilution of paint (with glaze medium, in Sohlberg’s case) is something that Schiele would do a decade later. The artificiality of the blue foliage in Sohlberg’s painting would also be echoed in Schiele’s landscapes. Sohlberg exhibited four paintings in the Künstlerbund Hagen exhibition in Vienna in 1912. Schiele very likely saw this exhibition and this may have led to Sohlberg’s style influencing the young Austrian.

Although the early Sohlberg paintings are detailed, the impression of naturalism is false. While many aspects are faithful descriptions of the sources, Sohlberg also made numerous and strong deviations from reality for the sake of emphasis or emotion. This effective blend of exaggeration and naturalism adds to the dreamlike feeling of the best pictures. As in dreams, we note the startling details but the whole adds up to something odd and unnatural. Variants of Winter Night in the Mountains, based on the Rondane Mountains, show how Sohlberg created this magic.

NOR Vinternatt i Rondane, ENG Winter Night in the Mountains

[Image: Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains (1914), oil on canvas, 160 x 180.5 cm, Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo/Børre Høstland]

Over a number of years, Sohlberg developed his motif of the twin peaks of the Rondane Mountains. This composition became Sohlberg’s best loved image. Under a night sky, the snowclad peaks of Rondane soar over the horizontal landscape in the foreground, which is studded by leafless trees. The artist exaggerated the shapes of the mountains for artistic effect. This is in line with the practice of Romantic landscapists and Symbolists. The versions with dark glaze applied at the bottom of the later paintings in oil paint are reminiscent of Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (c. 1808-10). Although much is made of the Symbolist limitation of the palette to blue and white, this is largely accurate to the effect of moonlight in clear air on snowy landscapes. The centrally positioned heavenly light is apparently the planet Venus, symbolic of the goddess of love. The essay writer who treats this subject (Øvind Storm Bjerk) mentions that Sohlberg probably associated this picture with his marriage to Lilli Hennum because of her joining him to live in the Rondane region while he worked on the painting, however Storm Bjerk does not suggest that Sohlberg may have also conceived of the twin peaks of Rondane as symbolising man and woman linked by the planet of love. This exhibition includes a number of full versions in oil alongside early painted and drawn sketches and studies.

Fig. 12

[Image: Harald Sohlberg, Night (1904), oil on canvas, 113 x 134 cm, Trondheim kunstmuseum MiST. Photo: Trondheim kunstmuseum]

One trait peculiar to Sohlberg is a strong proclivity for rigid – even fierce – symmetry, as seen in Night (1904; multiple versions). There a technical drawing of the church at Røros which is as much architectural elevation as painter’s preparatory study. Flower Meadow in the North (1905), the Rondane paintings and the late etching From Akershus Fortress, Evening (1926) (among many others) also display this artificiality and symmetry.

Despite the heights of his best works (described above) Sohlberg was not an artist with a consistent quality of output. There are minor pieces which – on this showing – seem somewhat aimless, as if they are detached from some illustration project. How is one supposed to interpret a scene of Christ preaching, in very simplified form, or a standing figure in a city alleyway? There are some paintings that are distinctly naïve (cats. 42 and 43). One aspect of naïve art is a certain muddiness, which comes from attempting to reproduce local colours without enough tonal variation to differentiate separate forms. Without more context, one gets the impression from these awkward pictures that Sohlberg could be an undisciplined (or, more generously, an unfocused) artist. Are these works abandoned experiments, diversions, commissions, parts of projects or otherwise explicable?

Sohlberg’s best work is his early mature art (roughly before 1915). The later work – especially when it is not a reiteration of an earlier composition – shows a marked softening in handling. Forms become repellently soft, colour cloying, compositions more diffuse. The late paintings are less forceful and memorable. The absence of a cool palette and lack of dryness in execution are detrimental to the quality of the pictures. The air of precision gives the best early work pictorial acuity and the coldness of hue gives it emotional veracity. There is a sense, in that early phase, of Sohlberg witnessing and recording things as they are; in the late work, Sohlberg is making things as he wishes them to be. There is a naïve quality to the simplified forms and pungent colour that is actively unpleasant compared to the astringency of the early period. Wisely, the curators have selected only a handful of late pieces, lest the decline dilute the impact of the early work. Only in the late prints does Sohlberg’s compositional toughness and asperity remain.

Printmaking was a supplementary activity for the artist. The prints prove his skill as a graphic artist and one wishes he had made more than 13 etchings and one colour lithograph (of the Rondane motif). He used dense cross-hatching to build tone and his approach was heavily stylised, influenced by contemporary book illustration. The scope of Sohlberg’s drawing practice is harder to assess on the basis of such a limited selection of images. The very detailed ink drawing of Røros at night stands as an independent work of art, as does the fairy-tale scene of a woman walking a country lane menaced by an ogre. The academies of his training in Weimar are in charcoal and are not related to his later work.

The exhibition includes 125 paintings (in oil or watercolour), drawings and prints. Sohlberg was also a skilful photographer of landscapes and towns; although these photographs are not exhibited, a selection is illustrated in the catalogue. The catalogue includes a useful chronology and index. From memory, I judge the illustrations accurate to life. The catalogue is generally very good, though not always thorough: catalogue entries list aquatints as “etchings” rather than giving a more complete description. Essays cover Sohlberg’s Rondane paintings, his training in Weimar, graphics, photography and a technical study of his painting style. This catalogue will be a prime English-language reference work on Sohlberg’s art, an enjoyable addition to literature on Symbolist art and another contribution to the expanding field of international engagement with Nordic art.

 

Mai Britt Guleng, et al., Harald Sohlberg: Infinite Landscapes, Hirmer, 2018, paperback, 240pp, 200 col. illus., £36, ISBN 978 82 8154 129 0 (English version; Norwegian and German versions also available)

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art

Willem de Kooning

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This new book in a series on Modernist artists approaches the art of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). This small book consists of two short essays, a chronology and a selection of quotes from the artist. The author Corinna Thierolf is the Chief Curator of the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich and this book presents her heavily German-centred perspective on de Kooning. Thierolf suggests that Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc are previously unrecognised influences upon the Dutch-born American Abstract Expressionist. Thierolf draws analogies between the scatterings of hard-edge planes in Marc’s quasi-Cubist paintings and the fractured planes of de Kooning’s Women series and abstract paintings of the 1940s. The paintings of this period were heavily worked and revised frequently, producing paintings with dense layers of impasto and visible revision – very dissimilar to Marc’s animal paintings. In character, appearance and tone, the painting of Marc and de Kooning are very different.

The second essay centres on de Kooning’s last paintings and links to Marc and Kandinsky. In the 1970s de Kooning’s paintings tessellations of vivid blue, white, yellow and alizarin in liquid form exist between colliding lines, with plentiful spatterings and drips. As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, a noticeable simplification to de Kooning’s paintings became apparent. New paintings had less pentimenti, were less heavily worked and had fewer colours. Lines became less energetic. The paint was less messy and drips disappear. The last paintings seem unfinished, dominated by white. The artist at the time was in the early stages of dementia. It was revealed that assistants used transparencies from old paintings to draw outlines on to blank canvases to start the artist. De Kooning would paint over these drawings, sometimes changing and elaborating as he went along. In the last years, there were fewer changes; the paintings were reduced to calm flowing lines and few colours. These comprise de Kooning’s Ribbon series.

Mondrian is mentioned in relation to these late pieces. This seems a viable connection. Like de Kooning, the Dutch abstract artist also worked in New York in the 1940s. The clarity of colour and emphatic division using colour lines could legitimately be seen as an analogue of de Kooning’s Ribbon paintings.

There are two drives to reassess de Kooning’s late work: academic and commercial. Academics are looking for new work to do and new territory to survey. De Kooning’s late paintings were ignored, not exhibited and not discussed seriously until relatively recently. The art trade initially dismissed the late work and the de Kooning family did not permit the sale or exhibition of late works while the artist was alive. Only now are academics finding the late art accessible and are pioneering research on the late work, allowing such studies as this one.

The second motive is more questionable. There is a quantity of unsold late paintings in the de Kooning Estate and dealers are keen to raise the profile (and price) of these paintings via academic and critical discussion and wider exhibition of this art. There is a tendency to treat late paintings seriously because this increases the value of material resources in which the artist’s estate, dealers and auction houses all have vested interests. There are real doubts that the Ribbon paintings are comparable to the early works in terms of accomplishment, energy, complexity and originality. There is a further doubt about the value of these works as fully “of de Kooning” on two grounds: firstly, the involvement of assistants and, secondly, the fact that de Kooning was less himself as dementia slowly robbed him of his faculties. Thierolf does not approach either of these issues.

The emphasis on Der Blaue Reiter/Blauer Vier artists is less persuasive than the link with Mondrian. De Kooning was most influenced by Matisse, Picasso, Ingres and Rubens from the previous eras, in addition to looking closely at contemporary American art, especially Kline, Pollock, Gorky, Graham and others. If there is a German influence, Thierolf perhaps could have turned her gaze towards Max Beckmann, who was a figure who had direct influence and prominence in the US art scene in the late 1940s. He taught and exhibited in the USA from 1947 onwards, his work was widely reproduced in earlier years. When he died in late 1950 in New York, there was a burst of publicity regarding Beckmann. There are stylistic links between Beckmann’s figures and de Kooning’s Women series, which started in 1950. (For a fuller discussion about links between Beckmann and de Kooning, see my review of the MoMA retrospective of de Kooning, The Jackdaw, no. 100, December 2011.)

While the suggested connections are technically plausible, it seems farfetched and to a degree more derived from Thierolf’s familiarity with the paintings by Marc and Kandinsky in the collection of Pinakothek der Moderne than with any established link between their art and de Kooning. De Kooning’s first and strongest known affinities were for Ingres and Rubens. We should be cautious about yoking de Kooning with other artists because his greatest influence was always his own art. In the very last paintings clearly his older paintings were a literal starting point, transcribed by assistants. The idea that just as de Kooning’s grasp on reality was loosening he was reaching for an entirely new influence in the forms of Marc and Kandinsky is an improbable proposition. Readers are invited to judge Thierolf’s thesis for themselves.

Corinna Thierolf, Willem de Kooning, Hirmer, 2018, 72pp, 51 illus., hardback, £9.95/$13, ISBN 978 3 7774 3073 7

© 2018 Alexander Adams