The body laid bare: Art of Anatomy

Anatomical study, art and medicine are bound up with criminality. Not only were the bodies of criminals the few samples available to physicians for dissection in the centuries before 1800, teachers of anatomy relied on the activities of the Resurrection Men. These grave robbers, body thieves and murderers provided bodies for teaching hospitals and universities. Even as late at the mid-Sixteenth Century, anatomical dissection was a criminal activity, undertaken in secret by medical men and artists. Painter Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540) even resorted to graverobbing to prepare a Deposition of Christ. Famed anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) attended a hanging and quartering in Padua to observe the body dissected while still alive. Even after the threats of legal sanction and excommunication were lifted, the air of disreputability lingered around the practice of dissecting the dead. There is something shockingly intimate about the exposure of the hidden intricacies of the human body, as J.G. Ballard recalled in his memoirs The Kindness of Women (1991).    

To mark a wide-ranging exhibition of anatomical art and art inspired by anatomical illustration at the Getty Research Institute, Getty Center, Los Angles (22 February-10 July), the catalogue Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy has been published. The exhibition gathers together notable examples from the beginning of modern anatomy science in the Renaissance up to art of recent years. The new art is not compelling or distinguished, so – aside from noting that anatomy still inspires artists today – we shall pass over that and look at the anatomy art of the pre-Modernist era.

Present-day divisions between science, art and philosophy arose precisely out of the increase in specialised knowledge that came about through the work of anatomists in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. The explanations of what these scientists discovered required published descriptions with clear illustrations. What we find in these illustrations is a combination of precision and imaginative invention. Of these illustrations, those by Jan Steven van Calcar (c. 1515-1546) are most famous. His illustrations for Vesalius’s ground-breaking De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1543) – including views of a human skeleton seemingly contemplating a skull, a skeleton resting an elbow on a stave and a flayed man gesturing dramatically in a pastoral landscape – are widely celebrated. Today, these can be found on album sleeves, book covers and T-shirts. The book was the first printed anatomy book to fully integrate text and image.  

By placing anatomies in architectural and scenic surroundings in his illustrations, van Calcar gave his subjects liveliness and nobility. He also explicitly linked the physiological information presented with the ability of the artist to use this data in the creation of art that fused fact and imagination. As writers here note, these animated cadavers have the stoicism of martyrs in contemporaneous sacred paintings, with their eyes cast upward to heaven as their mortal forms are scourged. Écorchés (French: flayed cadavers) stand nonchalantly, their skins draped over an outstretched arm. Another practice was anatomia all’antica (Italian, “anatomy after the antique”). This consisted of creating anatomically-exposed versions of famous antique statues, such as the Borghese Gladiator, the Discobolus and others, showing the master of the ancients and endowing dissection with the authority of art. Such poses recreated sometimes exposed shortcomings of the ancient sculptors, as they failed to incorporate bunched muscles or taut tendons.

Illustrations by Jan Wandelaar (1690-1759) presented flayed figures standing in groves with fragments of antique masonry at their sides. At the other end of the spectrum, some views filled empty space with assorted details, using the printing plate surface as efficiently (if inelegantly) as possible. 

These illustrations became as important for other artists as they did for students of medicine. As figures in paintings became more anatomical sound, so scientific illustrations became elaborate, with mises-en-scènes becoming pictures within which the dissected body acted as still-life or dramatic character. Rembrandt’s two anatomy-lesson paintings are scenes of professional men at work (as seen in similar paintings by him of jewellers, scholars and burghers) but they also differ little from the complex frontispieces found in anatomy textbooks. On occasion, physicians were competent enough as artists to draw the illustrations for their own texts. New illustration techniques had to be conceived of by anatomical artists in order to depict on a page the nature of a complex multi-layered three-dimensional organism. 

Some of the reproduced images are startling. One print by Cornelis Huyberts (1669/70-c. 1712) shows the skeletons of foetuses posed on a stand around an artful pile of pebbles and twigs. One has a feather fixed to its skull. Such macabre dioramas were – in real life – a staple of curiosity cabinets and would become features of travelling shows of oddities in following centuries, dying out only the last decades of the Twentieth Century. This irreverent (even jocular) attitude towards the dead (especially children) will leave some with modern sensibilities uneasy. Other images are so peculiar it is hard to know what to make of them. Only the field of comparative anatomy could give rise to an illustration entitled The penis and testicles of a young boy, the skin from the hand of a young boy, a bundle of pubic hair, and three chicken eggs (1703). (Salvador Dalí would have relished such a title.) In an illustration from William Hunter’s giant anatomy book, a curled late-term foetus is exposed in the womb of his dead mother – a poignantly pitiful image.

Some obscurities were deliberate. In some books, genitals were not reproduced. Descriptions of female genitals were sometimes given in Latin, excluding the uneducated. In one anatomy book, ovine reproductive organs substituted human ones, which were considered too indecent. 

This book includes essays from top-level specialists on topics such as illustration of anatomy, anatomy books, antiquity and others. The catalogue section has individual works – mainly illustrative prints that have detailed discussion facing full-page images. The development of anatomical art is fleshed out – if you’ll pardon the pun – in these commentary texts that explain the purpose and significance of these selected art works. Studying this field, we can see the changing technology of reprographics. In the Sixteenth Century illustrations were made by carving designs from wooden blocks, soon after can engravings and etchings in copper sheets. Readers will be impressed at the level of detail and care in these prints, with the dense curvilinear cross-hatching describing the muscles, tendons and bones of the body. Mezzotint (where shade is indicated through stippling of printing plates) allowed colour printing, something that was later achieved much more easily through lithographic printing. Such skills have almost disappeared in art. Later developments include the inclusion of flaps and fold-outs.

This catalogue is a welcome and engrossing testimony to the nearly lost art of both anatomy illustration. The book contains numerous illustrations of anatomical illustration, casts, scenes of academy studios, three-dimensional coloured models with moveable parts and some early photographs. The bibliography, footnotes and index will assist researchers.

Monique Kornell, with Thisbe Gensler, Naoko Takahatake, Erin Travers, Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy, Getty Research Institute, 1 March 2022, 248 pages, 8 x 11 inches, 163 col. illus., hardcover, $50, ISBN 978-1-60606-769-7  

(c) Alexander Adams 2022

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

Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins

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http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/322585

[Image: Panel with Striding Lion, Babylon, Processional Way, Neo-Babylonian period, reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, 605–562 BC, Ceramic, glaze, 97.2 x  227.3 x 12 cm (38 1⁄4 x 89 1⁄2 x 4 3⁄4 in.), New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 31.13.1, Fletcher Fund, 1931]

This catalogue is for an exhibition of Mesopotamian artefacts planned for 18 March-27 July 2020 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, touring from the Louvre, Lens. The majority of the items in the selection are from the Louvre collection.

Within the territory of northern Iraq and Syria, between the Euphrates and Tigris, the great cities of Ur, Babylon and Nineveh were founded and the Uruk, Jemdet Nasr, Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and Hellenistic periods (among others) succeeded one another between 3900 BC and 642 AD. The centres of population began close to the Persian Gulf and slowly moved northward, due to increasing salinity of the marshes. The Persian era ended with defeat by Alexander the Great and the burning of Persepolis. The Seleucid dynasty ruled before the rise of the Parthians then the Sassanians, who vied for control of the Near East with the Byzantine Empire. The fall of the Sassanian Empire to the Muslims ended many of the traditions that are characteristic of Mesopotamian civilisations.

Mesopotamian innovations (according to current knowledge) seem to include irrigation, weaving, moulded bricks, glassware and alcoholic beverages and – it is thought – writing and written laws. (Tablets are illustrated and translated, with one breaking down the mixture of cuneiform and pictogram script. Others are in pure cuneiform.) These were the first agrarian settled civilisations and cities, made possible by commerce and specialised trades. Foreign trade exchanged woollen textiles for perfumes, spices and metals. Bureaucracy developed to manage the construction of large structures and distribution of wages of food or silver. Fields such as astronomy, mathematics, geometry and music were honed in ways that had not been possible before.  History was recorded and the world’s first museum was Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon’s collection of inscriptions and objects, some up to a thousand years old in the first half of the sixth century BC. Inscribed histories, declarations and laws provided precedent and continuity.

The Western scrutiny and collection of Mesopotamian history began in earnest in the 1840s, somewhat later than the fieldwork in Egypt. The French took the lead, bringing back treasures to Paris. Excavations by European teams uncovered Persepolis in the 1930s. In recent decades, Saddam Hussein ordered excavated more and reconstructed the gate of Ishtar at Babylon at full scale to perpetuate the glory of Iraq. A chapter presents conceptions of Sumerian history, including art by John Martin, Degas, Delacroix, Bruegel, Rembrandt and D.W. Griffiths.

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[Image: Seated Statue of Gudea, Sumer, Tello (ancient Girsu), Neo-Sumerian period, Second Dynasty of Lagash, reign of Gudea, ca. 2120 BC, Diorite, 44 x 21.5 x 29.5 cm (17 3⁄8 x 8 1⁄2 x 11 5⁄8 in.), New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. 59.2,Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1959]

The 133 exhibits here include statuettes, cuneiform tablets, glazed bricks, seals, stelae, plaques, jewellery, large sculpture and paintings. Metal-plating was used on objects of wood and stone, inlays being used on statuettes. Line engraving, appliqué, repoussé, cloisonné, glazing and stamping were all used as forms of decoration. A rare silver vase used at a temple has a dedication inscription and engraved images of animals. Small stone cylindrical seals with intricate carvings of historical, royal and mythological scenes were rolled over strips of clay to make terracotta bas-reliefs.

While this art does not rise to the level of the masterpieces of Assyrian civilisation – although there are some artefacts from this era – the selection covers many aspects of Mesopotamian cultures, which permits us to consider Assyrian art that we are familiar as part of a continuum. One of the outstanding images of Assyria – the Lamassu, man-headed, winged bull – appears in a Neo-Sumerian period (c. 2150-2000 BC) chlorite statuette, dating from before the Assyrian era. The stylised patterned depictions of hair, fur, water and drapery is one of the most remarkable and effective devices of Assyrian art. Another aspect is the use of profile in murals. The utilisation of moulds allowed the mass production of glazed bricks which were used to make multiple roaring lions which lined walls.

The most striking art works are statues of Prince Gudea – in dark stone carved in the round, showing the prince in a turban or cap. The musculature of the larger standing piece (no. 107) (and to a lesser degree in the others) is well observed and hints at an appreciation of realistic anatomy in Akkadian art. The schematic and rounded statues of rulers of the Neo-Sumerian and Akkadian eras will recall for many viewers the art of Egypt, however, the breadth and ambition of both the Egyptians and Assyrians eclipse these pieces.

The Mesopotamian cultures were polytheistic, without central codification; set religious practices were apparently not enforced by the state. The chapter on religion exposes how different Mesopotamian approaches to religion were to the religions that replaced them. The gods were considered fallible, inconstant and even mortal; that is reflected in the iconography, which shows the gods as only differentiated from royalty by attributes. Royalty lived in palaces and gods lived in temples. Visages in busts are relatable and human. Nudity is common in the art of all stages of Mesopotamian civilisations; even sexual acts were depicted. Wall paintings rarely survived. The remaining pieces are crude in comparison to contemporary relief carving of the time.

The catalogue outlines the development of the societies, providing up to date information, some derived from technological discoveries. Computer visualisations present aerial-viewpoint reconstructions of cities. The catalogue includes an index and extensive bibliography. Expert commentaries give us an overview of the subject.

Ariane Thomas, Timothy Potts (eds.), Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins, J. Paul Getty Museum, April 2020, hardback, 236pp, fully illus., £50, ISBN 978 1 60606 649 2

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Racknitz, Architectural Taste and Orientalism

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[Image: “Modern Persian Taste” from Racknitz’s Presentation and History (1796-9), hand-coloured engraving. Photo courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.]

Part of the German Enlightenment that produced Alexander von Humboldt, was author and arts administrator Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz (1744-1818). His a treatise Darstellung und Geschichte des Geschmacks der vorzüglichsten Völker in Beziehung auf die innere Auszierung der Zimmer und auf die Baukunst (Presentation and History of the Taste of the Leading Nations) (4 vols., 1796-9) comprises an attempt to survey decorative styles of the great civilisations of the world, past and present. Racknitz’s book is an encyclopaedic study of the decorative arts. It is a rarely cited and little known work that sheds light on the German Enlightenment and the reception of historical and non-European decoration in this era. Simon Swynfen Jervis has translated, annotated and introduced the first complete English-language edition of this obscure publication.

The aristocratic family of Racknitz was a Protestant family which fled Bavaria for Saxony. They were resident in Dresden during Joseph’s lifetime, connected to the court. Racknitz spent early years studying music, geology, mineralogy and natural history. Saxony at this time was a centre of learning, publishing and industry, at the forefront of European ceramics. His first book was Briefe über die Kunst an eine Freundinn (Letters on Art to a Female Friend) (1792). “The summary index describes Racknitz’s exceedingly conventional hierarchy of painting. But this absence of originality renders the book an invaluable compilation of ideés reçues.” In that book he ranked the qualities of French and English landscape gardening, preferring the latter but conceding the former as “more appropriate and practical”.

In the mid-1790s Racknitz advocated the founding of a design school in Dresden and an exposition of art and design in the city to encourage advancement of the arts. He was involved in the planning of decorative and architectural schemes for the court and related bodies throughout the latter half of his life. Design of his own house was a project informed by his extensive knowledge of the arts. Much of his work was obliterated by the bombing of February 1945.

For the most part, Presentation and History of the Taste of the Leading Nations was respectfully received upon publication. The illustrations were highly praised; a few reviewers took exception to aspects of Racknitz’s project. Goethe and Schiller did not think highly of it, but aside from a few mocking epigrams they did not overtly criticise Racknitz. The lack of French or English translations limited international impact of the treatise and it subsequently fell into obscurity. When it was noticed during the subsequent centuries, it was principally for the illustrations.

This book text prints an unexpurgated translation of the full text of the four volumes, including line engraving illustrations, with a section at the end reproducing large hand-coloured engravings from the deluxe volumes held by the Getty Museum. Extensive introductory essays and notes cover Racknitz, his book and the reception of his work.

Peoples or regions Racknitz selected for inclusion are Moors, Jews, Turks, Ancient Egypt, France, Etruscans, Romans, Tahiti, China, Greece, India, Germanic, English, Persia, Mexico (Aztec) and Siberia (which Racknitz conflates with Western European Russia). The quixotic inclusion of primitive interiors of Kamchatka was for the sake of breadth and novelty rather than guidance they could provide designers and architects. Descriptions of unfamiliar cultures are short and are more ethnographic or anthropological in character. Racknitz spends more time on the daily routine of an average Tahitian than on island architecture.

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[Image: “Egyptian Taste” from Racknitz’s Presentation and History (1796-9), hand-coloured engraving. Photo courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.]

Architect Christian Traugott Weinlig (1739-1799) wrote sections that required detailed architectural knowledge and terminology. The engravers were various. Jervis lists 13 different engravers, with the largest contribution to the illustrations being that by Johann Gottfried Schmidt (1764-1803). The vignette illustrations are competent line engravings which generally would generate little comment separated from the book. An exception is the beautifully modulated cave engraving by Christian Friedrich Stoelzel. The full-page end illustrations are engravings with hand colouring are much more striking. Interiors of grand courtly residences are paired with separate illustrations of furniture, tiles, patches of decoration or images of different woods. The bright colours, schematic frontal designs and inclusion of picturesque views outside the interiors remind one of video-game backgrounds from 10 or 15 years ago. Figures are rarely included in the grand views but do appear in the vignettes. One does wonder about the accuracy the scales of the scenes are. There seem more than a few cases of Piranesi-style inflation.

The description of the discovery and recovery of objects from Herculaneum is particularly good, as it draws from recent sources explaining the methods and restrictions of excavation. There is an extensive summary of the Palais du Louvre, which Racknitz considered a paradigm of good design and taste.

The amount of space given to each subject depended upon a) the amount of material available to the author and b) the author’s relative enthusiasm for the subject. The book’s organisation was not logical or clear and the relative length of the volumes was inconsistent; Jervis suggests that this was in part due to the author adapting to the delivery of completed illustrations.

Racknitz is short on citing specific buildings and presenting figures regarding numbers of buildings, the economic imperatives at work and exact measurements of ideal proportions and layouts. He quotes and names sources but his arguments are replete with vague generalities and unsourced assumptions. Today Presentation and Treatise is of interest for its historical significance rather than as a source for anyone researching decoration and taste of the subjects discussed. As such, it functions as an example of the totalising quasi-analytical aspect of the German Enlightenment as it related to the applied arts.

We find typical examples of Enlightenment Orientalism, as Racknitz assesses Oriental modes of architecture and furnishing in a manner that seeks to be discriminating and dispassionate but which also reveal Racknitz to be a man of his era. The common view was applied art and architecture exemplified the outlook of a nation’s character. Here is Racknitz on the modern Persian:

Like other Orientals, the Persians may be compared to a man born in the lap of luxury who has been told from his childhood that he has more than enough, and that it requires no effort but only the exercise of his will and a small part of his treasure to set in motion the activity of other men, to satisfy his needs and fulfil his wishes; flattered and lulled by those notions he shies from any mental exertion, and has no other desire but to dream away his life in idle luxury and sensuality, and rather vegetates than lives in a dependence, unnoticed by him, on those whose knowledge and ability are indispensable to him.

Orientals are for the most part idle and are only inspired to action by the necessity to secure their most essential needs.

In contrast the Moors are a “bold and courageous people combined in an unusual manner a lively, cheerful temperament and manly gravity.” Arabs are “courageous, frugal, tireless, and inured to bear all hardships, fearing neither hunger and thirst nor death”. Turks are a “warlike, cruel, and proud people” restrained by their religion from taking up the advanced culture that they had conquered in Byzantium. Jervis notes that the sensitive and detailed chapter on Aztec design forms an early example of European Meso-American anthropology that would flourish in later decades.

This attractive and thorough scholarly presentation makes a contribution towards our understanding of Racknitz, the German Enlightenment and the origins of academic Orientalism in the German-speaking world.

Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz, Simon Swynfen Jervis (ed./trans.), A Rare Treatise on Interior Decoration and Architecture. Joseph Friedrich zu Racknitz’s Presentation and History of the Taste of the Leading Nations, Getty Publications, 2020, hardback, 368pp, 59 col./58 mono illus., $85, ISBN 978 1 60606624 9

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Dora Maar

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Although best known as the lover and muse of Picasso, Dora Maar (1907-1997) was notable creative figure in her own right. Respected as a fashion photographer, Surrealist artist and creator of collages, Maar produced art throughout her life. A new exhibition (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 5 June-29 July 2019; Tate Modern, London, 19 November 2019-15 March 2020; Getty Center, Los Angeles, 21 April-26 July 2020), reviewed from the catalogue, takes an overview of her art.

Born in Paris Henriette Théodora Markovitch in 1907, to a French mother and Croatian father, Dora pursued art from childhood supported by her parents. She studied art at the school of decorative arts and the cinegraphic technical school in Paris and painting under André Lhote (who taught, among others, Tamara de Lempicka). She first published photography as “Dora Markovitch” in 1930. By 1932 she had adopted the name Dora Maar as her professional moniker. She worked as a commercial photographer, providing images for advertisers and journals. Common subjects included fashion, beauty shots, architecture, interiors and nature. She also photographed street scenes, a common practice at the time.

She also produced erotic photography for Parisian journals ranging from the respectable to the trashy. She adopted styles that included the conventional and experimental. A frequent model for Maar was the Ukrainian-born model Assia Granatouroff (1911-1982), who the most successful nude model of the 1930s in Paris. She was noted for her athleticism, beauty and grace. The short hair and fit physique made her Granatouroff (publicly known as “Assia”) the epitome of the post-flapper sun- and sea-worshipper in the era of organised nudism. She modelled for many artists, including Maillol, Derain, Gromaire, Valadon and van Dongen.

The authors fail to note what seems to be a nude photograph of Maar herself (left figure, plate 45), published in Beautés magazine, January 1937. Maar did occasionally model nude but those photographs are rarely seen. Only a few have been published. No others are included in this catalogue.

At this stage she was developing strong formal concerns in both her commercial and private work, toying with Cubism and Expressionism. In this production of photography for commercial and artistic ends, Maar was in a similar position to Man Ray and Lee Miller. From the start of her career, Maar was inventive about combining elements.

In 1933 Maar photographed street life in Barcelona. This combined her political engagement (Spain was at this time a socialist republic) and artistic affiliation to Surrealism, with Spain (like Mexico) being seen as the quintessential Surrealist country.  In 1933 Maar was introduced to Surrealism and found a philosophical and political outlook that chimed with her pre-existing sympathy for the strange, buttressing her detachment from conventional aesthetics.

It was difficult for the women within Surrealism. Although encouraged to be free spirits, this often meant little more than modelling nude and submitting to the sexual advances of the male Surrealists. Musehood seemed to entail a fair amount of old-fashioned unliberated submission of the sexual variety. There were opportunities, however, and we can count more prominent women creators within the Surrealist movement than within any other pre-war art movement. Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Kay Sage, Meret Oppenheim, Frida Kahlo, Toyen, Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Remedios Varo and Maar – not to mention the creative influencers who did not leave bodies of work themselves, such as Gala Éluard (Dalí), Jacqueline Lamba (Breton), Nusch Éluard, Alice (Kiki de Montparnasse) Prin and others – all left a significant mark upon the Surrealist movement.

In documentary photographs taken around Paris in the mid-1930s, Maar used extreme close-ups of elements within their normal context, juxtaposing the distortion and oppressive size of an element contrasted with the apparent normality of the surroundings. This induces a sense of strangeness regarding our common surroundings. The irreverence towards public statuary is apparent in the close-up view of the detail of a Pont Alexandre III of a female statue’s hand holding a torch. The extreme cropping turns the civic symbolism of virtue bringing enlightenment into an explicit sexual image of the female hand manipulating a phallus. The departing ships in the Seine are the shed issue drifting away. Pont Mirabeau (1935) shows a female statue as if in peril suspended over a fall into the river. The angle of the shot and the animation of the allegorical figure’s face give the impression of a woman desperate to save herself from drowning. Thus a banal Belle Époque adornment becomes expressive of the hidden reality in a person’s life – an eruption of honest anxiety unperceived by the multitudes which pass by daily.

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[Image: Dora Maar, Untitled (1935), photomontage, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris
Repro © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Georges Meguerditchian]

Between 1934 and 1938 Maar produced and published 20 montages which are her best known works. Le Simulateur (1935) turns the curving barrel ceiling of the Orangerie into an inverted tunnel – part sewer, part race track – which is animated by a boy curved into an arch of hysteria. 29, rue d’Astorg (1935) has a kitsch ornament which is missing its head placed in a distorted arcade. Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska points that Maar’s montages bear a striking resemblance to a montage by Breton, Éluard and Suzanne Muzard, published in 1931 (dated “1931-3” here). Whether or not Maar’s approach was inspired by this example, she made it her own. What are the characteristics of Maar’s montages? Dark tonality, oneiric quality, claustrophic atmosphere, poetic sentiment, absence of easy humour, internal consistency in terms of scale/lighting/perspective/placement. These were frequently elements which she had photographed specifically with an end in mind, largely eschewing found photographs that were a staple of Surrealist montages. The catalogue reproduces the montages with the constituent photographs and some mock-ups.

There is a powerfully sinister undercurrent to Maar’s art that one does not find in even the more provocative art. Only in Bellmer’s obsessive erotic graphics and Magritte’s 1925-1929 dark claustrophic paintings do we find something comparable to Maar’s emotional darkness. In Maar’s montages there are disorientating inversions and compressions of space, as well as suffocating hermetically sealed spaces. It is worth noting that Maar maintained good standing with both Breton’s official Surrealist group and Georges Bataille’s renegade Documents faction. She photographed subjects from both factions, was Bataille’s lover and was a member of the anti-fascist Contre-Attaque group, which Breton left after a falling out with Bataille. Bataille’s outlook was considerably darker than Breton’s, steeped in mysticism, paganism and violence.

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[Image: Dora Maar, Portrait of Ubu (1936), gelatin silver print, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris. © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-CCI / Philippe Migeat]

Maar’s contact with Picasso from 1935 onwards (ending in 1946) caused her to resume painting and drawing, activity that would last for subsequent decades. Maar photographed Picasso painting Guernica (1937) for the Spanish pavilion of the World Fair. She even painted sections under Picasso’s direction. Most of the art was derivative of Picasso’s style and content of the time. She received some praise but frankly much of the art is, whilst being competent, lugubrious and dull. Tonally dark, favouring cool colours and dwelling upon the straitened circumstances of the Occupation, the pictures do not have the urgency, inventiveness or the sardonic humour of Picasso. Picasso was attracted to Maar due to the air of danger, elegance and neuroticism apparent in her behaviour. A severe nervous breakdown in 1946 (for which she was hospitalised) is seen a contributing factor in her self-imposed retreat from public life. It was not a lasting state but what became a persistent trait was diffidence regarding exposing her new and old art, much of which she destroyed.

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[Image: Dora Maar, La Cage (1943), oil on canvas, © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Private collection, Yann Panier, Courtesy Galerie Brame
& Lorenceau]

In the late 1940s Maar became increasingly attached to religious observance and became semi-reclusive, living alone. Starting in the late 1950s, Maar began working in abstracts, using very simple processes and forms. By the 1980s that had developed into the overlapping fields of photographs, paintings and photographed paintings that were abstract, relatively sparse, most of them imaginary landscapes. They are much closer to Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field Painting and Taschisme. In palette they are restrained. They are very engaging; they show an impressive detachment of ego and emotional and stylistic freedom. The only problem with appreciating these pieces is the fact that due to Maar’s practice of destroying art we lack large bodies of evolving work. The late abstracts here seem occasionally jerky or flighty, lacking the grounding in a larger legible corpus. The danger of this situation is that it pushes the viewer towards regarding these pieces as slight – always a potential response to lightly worked abstracts.

The best of Maar’s montages are as good as the best Surrealist art made in Paris in the 1930s. Her paintings and drawings of the 1930s to 1950s are occasionally atmospheric but ultimately derivative and second rate. The late abstract photographs are stimulating and more work is needed to exhibit and catalogue these works, establishing a chronology and assembling groups and themes. At her death, her studio contents were dispersed uncatalogued, which has made understanding her development – mostly secluded from public exposure – difficult. This catalogue contributes to Maar’s standing as a serious and inventive artist. Much critical work has still to be done but what is made clearer than before by this exhibition and catalogue is that Maar’s best art is strong and her output overall rewards attention.

 

Damarice Amao, Amanda Maddox, Karolina Ziebinska (eds.), Dora Maar, J. Paul Getty Museum, 7 January 2020, hardback, 208pp, 240 col. illus., $40, ISBN 978 1 60606 629 4

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950

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[Image: Mabel Dwight (American, 1876 – 1955), Night Work (1931), lithograph, image: 25.4 × 19.4 cm (10 × 7 5/8 in.). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Hannah S. Kully]

The new exhibition True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 15 October 2019-19 January 2020) brings together iconic images from early Twentieth Century American realism alongside a collection of lesser known prints. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The two fathers of American realism are Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Robert Henri (1865-1929). Both had troubled relationships with the art establishment. Eakins can be viewed as establishing the discipline of pictorial realism – plein air painting, thorough anatomical classes and application of perspective and use of photography – while Henri is thought of as a founder of social realism, mainly in urban settings. Henri’s contribution was attitudinal rather than technical. Henri studied under a former student of Eakins at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was wanted to realism that Eakins had pioneered in America to be applied to subjects that would not typically be considered the province of fine arts. Eakins had led the way in depicting common activities such as sports as a subject for oil painting but Henri sought to apply this new American realism to be applied to life in the modern American world.

Henri’s progressive artistic and political sensibility was influential, spreading via to his students (through his teaching at Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the Art Students League, New York) and artists (through his book The Art Spirit (1923)). He exhibited widely and his ideas were disseminated by these and associated reviews. Henri opposed prettiness and what he thought of as the stiffness of conventionally sanctioned fine art. Henri’s passion for depicting everyday life entailed a degree of social realism. This tendency became movement, centred in New York, which became called the Ashcan School. Followers and associates included George Bellows, John Sloan and William Glackens. Edward Hopper was commonly grouped with the Ashcan School but he stands a little aside, more closely influenced by French painting and cinema than the others. Hopper is more interested in exploring the emotional distance and psychological isolation of his characters than in the general social/political commentary that Ashcan School tenets tended to produce. We might also view this group as a rejection of haute mondaine clientele, ostentatious internationalism and insulated hedonism of the Cosmopolitan Realists Boldini, Singer Sargent, Sorolla and Zorn.

After a brief heyday, by the early 1930s the Ashcan School had been quickly overtaken by Modernism, with its emphasis on abstraction and pictorially advanced styles such as Cubism, Orphism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Ironically, the exploration of realism found a home in the 1930s in Regionalism, a movement that combined nativism and social conservatism with social realism and satirical commentary on modern life, often in rural settings. Precisionism of the 1930s applied realism, photorealism and hyperrealism to modern life but it was largely centred on buildings, objects, landscapes and townscapes rather than people within urban settings and it entirely lacked the satirical element.

Such developments are not covered within True Grit – admittedly, not a large exhibition – which confines itself to socially-centred art. Artists include Bellows, Hopper, Sloan and others. The prints in True Grit range over the most common mediums: aquatints, drypoints, etchings, lithographs and a wood engraving. The exhibition provides a view of modern city life as seen through the eyes of socially conscious artists of the 1920s and 1930s.

It would be wrong to entirely ascribe the choice of the working class as subjects for art to a political commitment on the part of artists. It was also an element of the younger generation wanting to slay their predecessors and surpass them in audacity by using working people to inject energy and rawness, courting attention through controversy. This is certainly true of Bellows and the printmakers here who focus on making outright social critiques. The subjects of prints are art classes, street scenes, park views, nightclubs, courting couples, tramps, vamps and crowds participating in entertainment and on public transport.

Two classic images of urban America are Hopper’s Night Shadows (1921) – showing a man walking alone in a street, seen from a high window and accompanied on by his own shadow – and Bellows’s A Stag at Sharkey’s (1917). The latter is Bellows’s most famous composition – a boxing match in a darkened room, where the smoke and din are almost palpable. Other Hopper etchings are of a couple in a subway train and woman alone in a bedroom. Hopper is the quintessential urban artist of the inter-war period, his eye trained on the telling moment or the poignant interlude. Nothing is happening in Hopper’s pictures and that is the point. They are moments of reflection for the subject or moments that are later recalled because they impressed a witness. Hopper’s proto-existentialist ennui is manifest in the metropolitan anomie and the melancholic vignette. Hopper is lacking as a painter and draughtsman – none of figures actually seems comprised of flesh, skin, hair and all the other matter of a human body; he has little instinctive feeling for his mediums – but he is a consummate image-maker. His etchings are technically more fluent than his paintings.

Alexander Nemerov’s essay investigates the impact of Bellows’s death upon Hopper. The artists had been colleagues and allies, in many ways pursuing similar goals. Both Bellows and Hopper were former students of Henri. Hopper, Henri and other artists were recorded as being distraught at the sudden death of Bellows due to appendicitis. Nemerov suggests that Hopper experienced survivor’s life-long guilt. It was only in 1925 that Hopper achieved his critical and popular breakthrough – something which perhaps could only have happened with the disappearance of his colleague-competitor. In other words, Hopper may have considered his success to have been dependent on Bellows’s death. It is too much to attribute the pervasive melancholy of Hopper’s isolated characters to the reverberations to this 1925 event but Nemerov’s case is thoughtful and well put.

John Sloan (1871-1951) is credited as the leader of the Ashcan School. He was a prominent advocate of realism and taught many students in New York. Rather than selecting the subjects generally considered ennobling in the fine arts, Sloan encouraged students to depict typical scenes of everyday life. He is best known for his street scenes. Stephanie Schrader notes that the juxtaposition of public and private spaces was typical of Ashcan art. Glimpsing domestic interiors through windows from other buildings or whilst travelling on elevated metro tracks was a common experience for city dwellers. Schrader is condemnatory of Sloan’s etchings of interiors with women in a state of undress. Her criticism is redolent of the moral certitude that critics displayed towards Degas’s candid female nudes, which they thought to be positively bestial. Viewers may have a more relaxed and charitable attitude than Schrader towards Sloan’s etchings. When passing moral judgment in art criticism, critics should be aware that their audience has a moral sense (informed by different life experiences) that is at least as developed as their own.

What of these lesser known printmakers? The Kyra Markham (1891-1967) was a producer of satirical and socially conscious lithographs in the 1920s and 1930s.  Her scenes depart from realism through the exaggerated features of figures and invention of settings which use fantasy and magic realism. Peggy Bacon (1895-1987) was an unabashed satirist, whose prints we could expect to see in journals. The beautifully effective Night Work (1931) by Mabel Dwight (1875-1955) is a lithograph showing a nocturnal vista with a glimpse of a person working in a studio – the artist? – under a moon and the silhouettes of chimneys and water towers. It is a fitting choice for the catalogue cover. Arnold Rönnebeck, Ellison Hoover, Howard Norton Cook and Howard Pennell are represented by views of skyscrapers in New York. These unpeopled vertiginous views show the American metropolis at its most inhuman but exhilarating. However, despite their concentration on the architecture and spatial effects of city design without figures, these prints should be seen as extensions of Futurism and Expressionism (including Expressionist cinema) rather than instances of Precisionism. They lack the emotional coolness and technical clarity of Precisionism in order to achieve the impact the printmakers intended.

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[Image: Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881 – 1962), Glow of the City (1929), drypoint, image: 28.6 × 36.2 cm (11 1/4 × 14 1/4 in.). © Estate of Martin Lewis. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Purchased with funds from Russel I. and Hannah S. Kully.]

The outstanding artist of the exhibition is an artist of whom I had never previously heard. Martin Lewis (1881-1962) two etchings leave a lasting impression. A brilliant evocative print (Glow of the City (1929)) by Lewis shows a woman in profile on an apartment fire escape, a skyscraper illuminated in the background, seen behind a row of house backs and washing lines. This is another night scene – something of a speciality of these artists, at least on the basis of this selection. It is easy to see why Hopper credited Lewis’s tuition in etching for advancing his compositional abilities. Lewis’s Down to the Sea at Night (1929) is a masterclass in tenebrous realism. A group of women walk into the surf, illuminated by the headlamps of a parked car. The handling of light and shade, silhouette and modelling, and a single in-scene but concealed light source, are all exquisitely conceived and executed. Lewis will be the discovery and star of the exhibition on the basis of these two prints alone. More than a handful of visitors will leave the exhibition with the intention of scouring for sources on Lewis.

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[Image: Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881 – 1962), Down to the Sea at Night (1929), drypoint and sand-ground etching, image: 20.3 × 33 cm (8 × 13 in.). © Estate of Martin Lewis. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of
Hannah S. Kully]

The three essays have footnotes and there is an index. Illustrations include other prints and photographs of the era, as well as some paintings for comparison. Overall the catalogue is well designed and informative. Compliments go to the designers of the catalogue, which includes colophons and signatures in the illustrated prints. However, no paper sizes are given in the text and no editions or colophon markings are indicated, which is disappointing. True Grit is an enjoyable and stimulating tour of American realist graphics and social realism of the inter-war era.

 

Stephanie Schrader, James Glisson, Alexander Nemerov, True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950, J. Paul Getty Museum, September 2019, hardback, 112pp, 83 col. illus., $35/£28, ISBN 978 1 60606 627 0

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

The Bestiary in the Medieval World

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[Image: Unknown English artist, Lions (c. 1250), from Bestiary, parchment, leaf: 29.6 × 19 cm (11 5/8 × 7 1/2 in.), The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Bodl. 764, fols. 2v
EX.2019.2.93]

During the Middle Ages in Northern Europe, books of real and imaginary creatures and animal lore were made. These bestiaries were frequently variations on established texts, the main ones being the Bestiary of Philippe de Thaon and Physiologus by Theobaldus. Others were looser collections of animal images and knowledge. Some were illustrated and these are at the centre of a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (14 May-19 August 2019). Although many were unillustrated and were essentially copies of earlier texts, the illuminations in some of the late 12th Century to mid-15th Century (but most in the earlier part of this period) are large, detailed and beautiful. This review is from the catalogue.

The standard list of animals contained in bestiaries was lion, tiger, panther, antelope, lynx, eagle, fishes, weasel, fox, monkey, camel, snake, walrus and whales, as well as more amazing creatures, such as the griffin, dragon, hydrus and phoenix. Some of the illustrations of real animals are so attenuated that they become incredible in our eyes – the crocodile is shown with long legs, bird feet and ears. There are half-human animals such as centaurs and sirens and more peculiar deviants, like relations of Boschian hybrids. The images of animals are accompanied by short texts describing the animals’ physiognomies, characters, behaviour and habitats. Early bestiaries included a few entries on exceptional trees and gemstones, however these were later dropped. The information is a mixture of the observed and invented. (For example, elephants only eat human children “if they are exceptionally hungry”.) Some of the animals are part of symbolic tales, such The Romance of Alexander, a diverse set of impossible tales about the doings of Alexander the Great. There is one in which Alexander descends to the bottom of the sea in a glass ship and encounters a whale.

The life of animals were often invented and presented as moral lessons from God. The unicorn the symbol of fidelity, purity and virginity and was associated with the Virgin Mary. Pelicans were often depicted as piercing their own hearts to feed its young, making its self-sacrifice as an analogue to the suffering of Christ. There is a damaged wooden sculpture of a pelican sacrificing itself for its brood, with the blood painted on. Polychromy was common in sculpture of the time.

These bestiaries were sometimes part of longer theological texts. The texts are mainly in Latin or French, written by monks and nuns for the large part. This catalogue is very thorough and includes essays by specialists and detailed discussion of individual items, explaining background, symbolism and peculiarities of the exhibits. Analysis shows that the texts are copies but frequently incorporating variations (additions and subtractions, as well as reordering), with attempts to make the texts more comprehensive or artistic by conforming meter and line length. The artistry of the illustrators is sometimes fantastic and individualistic, all working in what we would class the international Gothic style. Some of the volumes were broken up or had choice pages cut out. A handful has been defaced; many have been annotated.

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[Image: Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Grid with Nine Animals, France, about 1400–1415, from On the Properties of Things, parchment, leaf: 29 × 38 cm (11 7/16 × 14 15/16 in.). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA, HM 27523
EX.2019.2.4]

The books are of a theological character. Whilst incorporating some older learning from Greek times, the books focus on the moral aspect, showing how God’s order is present in the animal kingdom as it is among people. There are aspects of what we would call science and history. They show the typical blend of the Medieval worldview – observation and book learning filtered through a Christian lens, with some knowledge classical mythology. The vast majority of material on display originated from the regions of modern-day France, England, Germany, northern Italy and the Low Countries. The loans come from museums and private collections in Europe and America.

The medieval world was rich with symbols. There were draughts of ivory cut with animal designs. Noble escutcheons used animals to symbolise attributes, which were codified and recorded in books. The exhibition includes metal aquamanilia, water containers for the washing of the hands of nobility. These were hollow vessels shaped as animals, often lions (the king of the beasts), and included handles and spigots. The horns of ibexes were presented as griffin claws; narwhal tusks were carved and mounted on silver, described as unicorn horns. Other items include combs and embossed metalwork.

Animals feature as part of church architectural decoration. These are illustrated in the catalogue and a handful of stone capitals and other ecclesiastical relief carvings are displayed in the exhibition. The best of the non-painted animals must be the embroideries and tapestries, some diminished by age but still vigorous in design, coloration and execution. The later encyclopaedia of animals featured comments on the ethics of animals – if they were brave or cowardly, if they stood and fought, if they were prepared to die to defend their territory and offspring. This strays into the area of comparative ethics, contrasting the behaviour of animals with that of people. The mixture of diligence, scholarship, assumption and falsehoods persists in these books as it did in the earlier bestiaries, often providing no more accurate picture of reality. However, we should not assume that scientific knowledge was the aspiration of writers and patrons of these books. They were often as much in search of spiritual sustenance as accurate information.

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[Image: Unknown English artist, Bee; Peridexion Tree; Serpent; Dragon (c. 1240–50) from Bestiary, parchment, leaf: 28 × 16.5 cm (11 × 6 1/2 in.). The British Library. Image: GRANGER EX.2019.2.58]

The later section of the exhibition includes a few examples of natural history, herbal miscellanies, maps and paintings of animals from the Renaissance and later. The exhibition here loses its way, with the strands becoming too numerous, diverse and separated to cohere – especially in small selections. Study of geography and natural history can be found in the bestiaries but that transition – and the contradictions and contrasts between the areas – requires a dedicated monograph (with or without monographic  exhibition). To have maximum impact and coherence, this exhibition should have terminated in the Renaissance and been limited to fewer areas. Nevertheless, the catalogue and exhibition Book of Beasts shed light on the Medieval mindset and allow us to see the complicated overlaps and schisms between theology, natural science, mythology and speculative art that later gave birth to the modern world. The catalogue is a grand affair, with large pin-sharp illustrations, thorough data, bibliography and index. Care has been taken to balance scholarship with approachable text for the engaged non-specialist reader.

 

Elizabeth Morrison (ed.), Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, J. Paul Getty Museum, June 2019, half-cloth hardback, 354pp, 281 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 1 60606 590 7

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Manet and Modern Beauty

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[Image: Édouard Manet (French, 1832 – 1883), Jeanne (Spring) (1881), oil on canvas, 74 × 51.5 cm (29 1/8 × 20 1/4 in.), 2014.62. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles]

The J. Paul Getty Museum is celebrating its 2014 acquisition of a little-seen minor masterpiece by Édouard Manet (1832-1883) with an exhibition and two publications. Manet and Modern Beauty: The Artist’s Last Years is at the Art Institute of Chicago (26 May-8 September 2019) then transfers to the Getty Center, Los Angeles (8 October 2019-12 January 2020). The exhibition is reviewed from the publications. Jeanne (Spring) (1881) was a late painting by Manet, while he was physically limited and often immobilised (suffering from tertiary syphilis). At this this time, Manet was painting many still-lifes of flowers and fruit, as well as portraits of women. It was one of his two submissions to the 1882 Salon, where it was entitled Jeanne. The next time it was exhibited it was called Spring. The subject was Mlle Jeanne Demarsy, a teenage beauty who would later become an actress. She also sat to Renoir at about the same time.

This was part of a proposed series of seasons in the form of half-length portraits of women, commissioned by a famed art critic Antonin Proust. The series seems to have been cut short by Manet’s death because only two paintings from the seasons are known today. (Autumn is included in the exhibition.) The painting was admired at the time but has been rarely seen, residing in a private collection until 2014, when it was auctioned and acquired by the Getty. It was not available for scholars and that – combined with its apparent guileless prettiness – meant that the painting was not discussed much in critical literature. This exhibition covers the years 1876-1883 and comprises 92 items, including paintings, pastels, prints and supplementary material, such as Manet’s illustrated letters and journal illustrations. Oddities include painted fans and a tambourine. The works include some superb pieces, most especially the late still-lifes of fruit and flowers.

Critics portrayed these late painting as soft, lapses in mental fortitude and a retreat from the ground-breaking paintings such as Olympia (1863) and Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863). Were the late still-lifes and portraits of women a search for approval from picture buyers and collectors of middle-brow taste? “These early accounts helped form the now familiar cliché of Manet’s late work as symptomatic of his declining health and his friendship with loose women: a sign, in short, of decadence. In the twentieth century modernist art historians explained the late work’s perceived failings in similar terms.” Thus the subjects of delightful blossoms, delicious fruit and beautiful women were cast as both indicative of epicurean decadence and product of the limitations imposed through disability contracted due to that decadence, in the form of venereal disease.

While Manet was called the leader of the Impressionists, he did participate in the independent exhibitions of the Impressionists, preferring to exhibit at the Salon. He was committed to the Salon, exhibited there until his death and even won a medal. Manet’s attachment to the Salon earned him gibes of being bourgeois by Degas, that despite Degas’s support of, and friendship with, James Tissot and Henri Gervex, two prominent Salon painters markedly less daring than Manet.

Scott Allan draws parallels between Manet’s M. Eugène Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter (1881) and the celebrated Hay Making (1877) by Jules Bastien-Lepage. He suggests the large size, near-square format and composition set outdoors were are influenced by the earlier Naturalist painting. The work launched Naturalism as an artistic school.

Scientific analysis of Jeanne show that in some parts five separate layers were applied in different sessions. Despite that, Manet used the primer layer as a counter to the oil paint. There is a pigment analysis which compares the painting to other paintings by Manet. Micro-photography, x-rays and close examination shows how Manet painted the picture.

Manet’s paintings of parisiennes were not only studies of timeless beauty but also studies of temporal beauty. He had a fascination for fashion and closely followed the changing types of clothing and the use of signifiers. He was known to choose clothing for his female sitters, buying it sometimes. He expressed a desire to capture the very precise alterations in dress codes and types for women. The parisienne was an embodiment of both eternal and temporal beauty, in the form of a uniquely French form of civilisation. Observed and recorded with accuracy, lace cuffs, bonnet trimming and seams of gloves could precisely date a painting to a precise year, even an exact season. Illustrations of paintings not in the exhibition show that modern femininity became a central subject for Manet’s late oil paintings destined for the Salon. The painting of Nana – central character of a realist novel by his Manet’s friend Zola – is an example of this approach. Comparison with other portraits and nudes reveals Manet’s attachment to the female face in profile. His male subjects are never shown in profile in the later period.

The exhibition includes other, more cursory portraits of Jeanne. The catalogue is illustrated with photographs (and portraits by Renoir) of her, allowing us to judge the balance between veracity and flattery that the artist struck. Important paintings loaned for this exhibition include Boating (1874-5), Plum Brandy (c. 1877), In The Conservatory (1877-9), The Café-Concert (c. 1878-9), Portrait of Antonin Proust (1880), Eugène Pertuiset and other late works. The pastel portraits are decidedly weaker than the painted ones. A number of these paintings are unfinished, cut short by the artist’s death. Apparently some were finished by other artists at the request of the estate, in order to make these pictures saleable. Manet produced pastels in his last years because they were faster to make and less strenuous than oil painting. Unable to stand for long periods and – towards the end – unable to stand at all, Manet’s scope of subjects and media were restricted.

In the essays, specialist scholars outline the influence of Chardin as the starting point for the still-lifes and the precedents of Boucher, Fragonard and Watteau for Manet’s figure paintings.

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[Image: Édouard Manet (French, 1832 – 1883), Letter Decorated with a Snail on a Leaf (1880), Watercolor over gray wash (design); pen and ink (text) on machine-made laid paper, 15.8 × 11.7 cm (6 1/4 × 4 5/8 in.), 2019.7. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles]

The late letters were illustrated with watercolour motifs of fruit and flowers. They are extensively reproduced and translated. One writer notes that Manet’s correspondence has never been extensively published, a serious oversight. Another essayist examines the late still-lifes. This large, richly illustrated and highly informative catalogue will become an essential addition to the literature on Manet and can be enjoyed by experts and non-specialists alike.

***

In Richard R. Brettell’s small book On Modern Beauty examines three masterpieces in the Getty, featuring beauty, both conventional and strange. Manet’s Jeanne is compared to paintings by Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne.

Paul Gauguin’s Arii matamoe (La fin royale) (1892) shows the head of a Tahitian man on a table, like a spectacular and morbid still-life. The head rests on a cushion, with flowers in its hair. In the background there are other figures. The painting is richly coloured and beautiful, despite its subject matter. The title translates as the “royal end”, “the sleeping king” and “king’s end”. It relates to a public beheading the artist witnessed in 1889, rather be made from life. This is a portrait as a still-life, as well as being an ethnographic curiosity. Brettell speculates that when he painted Arii matamoe, Gauguin may have had in mind a painting by Cézanne, which he owned for a time. The still-life featured a skull and unlit candle. Gauguin was greatly depressed by the colonial usurpation of Tahitian culture and his painting depicting the ending of a vital native nobility is a metaphor for the demise of indigenous traditions.

The third painting is Cézanne’s Young Italian Woman at a Table (c. 1895-1900) shows the subject in a voluminous blouse leaning upon an ornate rug over a table. It is a surprisingly attractive subject on a superficial basis. The model is thought to be Italian, a paid model. The artist did not leave many writings that would help us date pictures or identify portrait subjects. Brettell points out the similarity between the position of subject of this painting and that of Dürer’s print Melancolia (1514) and some female portraits by Corot. Cézanne is a difficult artist to write about because so much of the effect of his art is absorbed through perceptual reception of impressions rather than iconography, narrative and other factors more amenable to verbal description.

On Modern Beauty is a well-illustrated and thought-provoking book about different aspects of beauty in French painting of the period.

 

Scott Allan, Emily A. Beeny, Gloria Groom (eds.), Manet and Modern Beauty, Getty Publications, 2019, hardback, 400pp, 206 col./97 mono illus., £50/$65, ISBN 978 1 60606 604 1

Richard R. Brettell, On Modern Beauty: Three Paintings by Manet, Gauguin and Cézanne, Getty Publications, 2019, paperback, 108pp, 63 col./4 mono illus., $19.95, IBSN 978 1 60606 606 5

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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