Angela Gregory and Antoine Bourdelle in Paris

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A Dream and a Chisel is the memoirs of Angela Gregory (1903-1990), one of Louisiana’s leading artists and an honoured sculptor of public statues and busts. Gregory is a link to the past. She trained in the Paris atelier system developed in the Nineteenth Century. Born into an age of steam trains and telegraphs, Gregory trained in Paris before the Great Depression and died in an era of satellite television and computers.

This book is an amalgam of extracts from Gregory’s contemporaneous diaries and letters, augmented by many interviews with Nancy Penrose, which were conducted throughout the 1980s. Penrose and Gregory collaborated on the manuscript and finished it shortly before Gregory’s death in 1990. Gregory intended the memoir to centre on Bourdelle, the teacher she revered, hence the focus on her Paris years. The tone is lively, reflective and candid. We get a sense of her character, as well as her attitudes during the 1920s and her reflective perspective in old age. Extensive footnotes by Penrose identify many of the individual artists mentioned and supply biographical data.

This book describes the three years that Gregory spent in Paris, but there is sufficient commentary to explain the trajectory of her life. Gregory was born into a cultured middle-class family in New Orleans. Her father was a university professor and her mother was a successful artist who had stopped working to raise her children. Gregory was trained in art at Newcomb College, New Orleans. However, she wanted more. Despite the good reputation of Newcomb, Gregory was unsatisfied. She wanted to experience the most advanced art of the period first hand. She had her heart set on studying in the studio of Bourdelle. Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) was the leading sculptor of his generation. He was widely admired and considered to have taken on the mantle of Rodin, with whom he had studied. Bourdelle produced numerous large works, mostly modelled and cast in bronze. He was also viewed as a Modernist, who combined expressiveness with the influence of archaic art, which gave his sculpture added vitality. His giant studio in Paris was a hive of activity, with numerous assistants working on maquettes, carvings and giant models in plaster.

In 1925 Gregory was granted funds to travel to the Paris. She arrived in June 1925 and commenced attendance at the Paris branch of the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (later Parsons School of Design). In the spring of 1926 she worked up enough courage to knock on the door of the master. A maid gave her his telephone number and she called to arrange a brief meeting. Meeting a young American woman who wanted to learn stone carving piqued the master’s interest and he agreed to take her on. This made Gregory the only American student to work in his private studio. Leaving Parsons, she worked in Bourdelle’s studio in tandem with instruction at Académie de la Grande Chaumière (where Bourdelle taught).

The memoirs include some of the standard staples of bohemian Paris. She saw Josephine Baker dance. “When I was in Bourdelle’s studio, however, and taking classes at the Grande Chaumière, I would occasionally run across to the [Café du] Dôme for a quick cup of coffee to get warm while the model was taking a break from posing.” She evocatively the experience of studying at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. “There was a concierge at the door from whom I bought several little aluminium admission tickets to the modeling and sketch classes. I walked into the classroom and found it filled with students of all nationalities. The cigarette smoke was so thick it was hard to see, but a strong spotlight was leveled at one of the best models I had seen in Paris.” The school was “open” and did not monitor attendance strictly and students kept their own hours (or failed to keep them). Students without masters brought their own materials and came for a place to work, access to models and the chance to have work corrected by established artists.

Bourdelle was only five feet four inches tall, bearded and dressed in clothes of his own design. He was modest in character and full of dignity, which impressed the young American. He described his students as confrères (colleagues) and refused to accept payment from Gregory. Gregory recalled Bourdelle’s critiques as incisive, considerate and marked by humour. He did not seek to mould artists in his own image but to bring out the character of the young artist. According to Gregory, Bourdelle described advice he got from Rodin. “’But you should exaggerate, exaggerate.’ But you cannot exaggerate until you know what you are exaggerating. ‘You cannot make a centaur until you can make a man.’”

Gregory was assisted by a Swiss instructor at Bourdelle’s studio, named Otto Bänninger. Bänninger would become the husband of Germaine Richier; when Gregory met him, he was friends with Alberto Giacometti. Gregory and Giacometti worked in Bourdelle’s studio at the same time but she never met him, something she regretted in years to come. A fellow student was Jeanne Bergson, the deaf daughter of philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson was impressed by the sculptor’s generosity towards Jeanne and Bourdelle’s ideas. Bergson arranged a meeting and the men became fast friends.

The book describes Bourdelle’s skills, methods and attitudes. Gregory characterises his approach as architectural and forceful, contrasted against Rodin’s art as naturalistic and sensual. Bourdelle emphasised feeling over talent, though he proffered constructive practical criticism. She writes that his fair direct comments prepared her for professional life dealing with committees. She describes the origins of his most famous statue – Hercules the Archer (1910). The model could only pose for ten hours so Bourdelle had to work fast on the maquette. The man was later killed in the Great War. It is a testament to the admiration Bourdelle generated that Gregory’s first thought when considering her memoirs was to memorialise her master rather than herself. Our admiration for both Bourdelle and Gregory increases as we read more. Evidence of Bourdelle’s respect for his student is apparent in his copying of an original portrait bust by Gregory. His version adds his qualities. Bourdelle was very supportive and arranged for exhibition opportunities and wrote a letter of warm recommendation. Bourdelle had no prejudice against female students. It is striking that when he was photographed at the Salon of 1928, the students around him are almost all women.

Gregory returned to New Orleans in 1928 while her art was on display at the Paris Salon. She embarked on a long a successful career. She made a speciality of portraying black subjects, treating them in a particularly sympathetic manner. She later ascribed some resistance to these pieces to a racially conditioned aversion to black portrait subjects. Some examples of those, and publicly commissioned decoration and monuments, are reproduced in the book. A check list of over 100 of Gregory’s sculptures is given in an appendix. In 1941, she was appointed state supervisor for the WPA Louisiana Art Project. Aside from her many commissions and exhibitions, she taught and was a participant in a number of organisations. She was inducted into the Chevalier de I’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1982 and received other awards.

What about Gregory’s life as a woman artist? She was encouraged by her family. She admired her mother’s ability as a potter; she was taught by a female art teacher (whom she notes by name) and was inspired by a woman sculptor (whose name she did not remember but Penrose has discovered was Clyde Giltner Chandler (1879-1961)). Although professional women artists were uncommon, by her testimony, Gregory encountered disapproval and disappointment rather than hostility and opposition. She was accepted to study in the studios of Newcomb, Parsons and Bourdelle, France’s most prestigious sculptor. Nowhere in her narrative does she note that she was refused entry or service, dismissed or barred from acting like her male colleagues. Within her chosen field, she was considered a novelty because of her nationality and gender. While that patronisation might have been irksome it did not prevent her progress. On the contrary, she comments that some individuals offered her favourable treatment precisely because of her nationality and gender. In the USA, she won grants, commissions, awards and held exhibitions. She was entrusted a senior position in the WPA. One should not assume any of this was easy; Gregory was clearly an unusually determined and adept as a professional artist.

Overall, the book paints a vivid picture of Angela Gregory, Antoine Bourdelle and the Paris art world of the 1920s. Special commendation must go to the designers for the attractive and clear layout. The cloth cover is handsome. A Dream and a Chisel has the appearance fitting a classic book describing the excitement of an American artist at the epicentre of Parisian Modernism.

 

Angela Gregory, Nancy L. Penrose (ed.), A Dream and a Chisel: Louisiana Sculptor Angela Gregory in Paris, 1925-1928, University of South Carolina Press, 2019, cloth hb, 248pp, 25 mono illus., $39.99, ISBN 978 1 61117 977 4

 

© Alexander Adams 2019

To view my art and books, visit www.alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com

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Arshile Gorky: A Life in Documents

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Arshile Gorky (1904?-1948), born Vostanig Manoug Adoian, was an Armenian-American painter who became a seminal figure in the development of the New York School. His art fused European Surrealist painting and the art that would become American Abstract Expressionism. The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents is a new edition of Goats on The Roof (2009). This new expanded edition collects the artist’s letters, statements and interviews, along with newspaper articles, letters, statements, memoirs and interviews with people who knew him.

Gorky was probably born in 1904 in Armenia. He and his sisters lived through the Armenian Genocide (1915-23) though his mother starved to death. In 1920 Gorky emigrated to the USA. He began studying art in Boston and later New York before being appointed to a fine-art teaching job in New York whilst still young. He worked assiduously and became technically proficient, mastering multiple techniques which allowed him to make art similar to that of the Impressionists, Miró, Cézanne, Léger and Picasso. While this ability was admired, observers had reservations. Who exactly was Gorky when he wanted to be himself as an artist? Was this uncanny ability to adopt the mannerisms of senior artists an extended apprenticeship or a way of evading committing to an individual style?

Gorky complicated matters by embroidering his past: he claimed to be born in Russia or Georgia and be a relative of Maxim Gorky, he said he was a student of Kandinsky and that he had studied in Paris and Rhode Island. Gorky became seen as a living master and romantic figure who was a link to Europe, despite the fact that he came directly to the USA from Armenia/Turkey and never visited Western Europe. He was ambivalent about his Armenian past. He loved to Armenian music and dance and to spend time with ex-patriate Armenians; he wore traditional woven garments. Yet he also hid his true origins from others. His second wife did not know he was Armenian until after his death. He was committed to being an American and achieving recognition in the USA as an American painter.

Gorky made a great impression on people he met. His imposing height, distinctive handsome features and air of tragedy struck interlocutors. He stocked his immaculate Union Square studio with masses of the finest materials, dazzling visitors such as the young Willem de Kooning. His air of foreign sophistication further impressed people. He held himself aloof from artistic groups and chose mostly not to exhibit in mixed exhibitions.

Gorky worked in the mural section of the Federal Art Project, the government programme intended to support artists during the Depression. The programme was launched in 1933 by the Roosevelt administration, with the FAP mural division providing paintings for public buildings. Gorky’s ambitious design for Newark Airport was accepted and completed in 1937. (The mural was destroyed during World War II. Such large projects by the FAP mural division met similar fates.)

The majority of Gorky’s letters were to his sister Vartush and mainly dealt with family matters and news of his latest commissions and exhibitions, taking pride in his advances through the tiny and competitive art world of New in the 1930s. Gorky also wrote to his second wife, Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder, whom he married on 5 September 1941. They had two children together. The brief notes that Gorky and Mougouch wrote to each other when apart testify to Gorky’s affection for his family but do not reveal much about his art. Mougouch’s letters to friends and patrons of Gorky give us more information.

In September 1939 the centre of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. Refugee artists and uprooted collectors converged on New York and the American artists, who until then had been outsiders, found themselves rubbing shoulders with legendary figures. Stimulated by dialogue and competition, American artists and collectors began to assert themselves as pioneers. Gorky was well placed to take advantage of the situation.

Stimulated by the art of young Surrealist Matta, Gorky changed his Miroesque abstractions into paintings that were more dynamic, organic and sensual. His biomorphic forms related to plants and animals he observed in New England and remembered from Armenia. Colours became richer and more expressive; his lines became energetic; his brushwork more varied. He did not fully back the automatist position of the Surrealists, preferring to develop his forms and compositions thoroughly in complex and heavily worked drawings, often with colour. Only now did he find a personal synthesis that marked him as unique.

A solo exhibition of Gorky’s paintings (with a catalogue written by Andre Breton) in March 1945 at Julien Levy’s gallery in New York established Gorky as a major modern painter who presented a new link, connecting American art to Surrealism. However, the succès d’estime did not translate into financial security for him and his family. Additionally, the support of Breton and the Surrealists marked Gorky’s art as French, not truly American. By allying himself to Breton, Gorky had committed himself an artist seeking the stamp of sophisticated foreign tastemakers. Fellow painters felt that Gorky’s detachment was perhaps snobbery. Although that was not the case – many close associates realised that Gorky was shy and secretive rather egotistical – the idea took root.

Financial problems, a 1947 studio fire which destroyed much of recent art, a major medical operation which permanently debilitated him, marital breakdown and a road accident that left his painting arm weakened: these catastrophes weighed down the proud and sensitive man. On 21 July 1948 Gorky committed suicide. His loss was mourned by collectors, critics and – particularly – fellow artists. Many tributes were paid in the following years.

The two versions of this collection supersede another previous publication which included passages forged by a relative and ascribed to Gorky. Gorky was powerfully influenced by childhood memories but he did not write about this much. Much of his letter writing was brief, to the point and concerned with family and career news, not dwelling upon the past. The forging of childhood reminiscences came about because Gorky is a talismanic artist for Armenians. He is one of the few Armenian artists who achieved international fame, acclaim and influence. For such a prominent figure – especially one who personally witnessed the Armenian Genocide – not to have written more directly about his homeland is a nagging absence for Armenians seeking a public voice for their history, motivated by national pride and a desire to have a cultural hero for the Armenian diaspora. Gorky’s The Artist and his Mother (two versions) has become a treasured icon memorialising the national tragedy.

It is impossible to do Gorky’s art justice in a brief review. The Plow and The Song is an authoritative source on the artist’s development. There are generous colour illustrations of art and photographs of Gorky and friends and family. This volume alone allows us an inside understanding of Gorky’s approach, sometimes seeing it through the eyes of the newspaper critics who reviewed the work as it was first exhibited. The Plow and The Song is a fitting publication documenting one of abstraction’s – and Armenia’s – most significant artists.

 

Arshile Gorky, Matthew Spender (ed.), The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents, Hauser & Wirth, 2018, cloth flexicover, 584pp, fully col./mono illus., £40/$50, ISBN 978 3 906915 08 1

© Alexander Adams