Roger Raveel, Belgian proto-Pop artist

[Image: Roger Raveel, Woman with Make-up Mirror, 1953, Collection of the Flemish Community/Roger Raveel Museum © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on hardboard, 122 × 88 cm]

Roger Raveel (1921-2013) was one leading artists of Belgian Modernism. His pungently coloured, simplified, schematic paintings of figures and still-lifes are startlingly modern. He has been acclaimed as an important proto-Pop artist. By 1948, Raveel was already juxtaposing passages of volumetric modelling and flat strong colour. Linear forms emphasise the artificiality of a picture and the seeming arbitrariness of visual languages. The boisterous clash in styles and modes forms a precursor to not only Pop Art but Post-Modernism. His pictures still seem powerfully original and fresh, lacking the consumer culture references that date Pop Art.

This catalogue is for the 2021 centenary exhibition at BOZAR (Brussels, 18 April-21 July 2021), including about 120 art works from all periods of Raveel’s output. This edition of the catalogue is a trilingual publication in Dutch, French and English, with the English text prioritised. The catalogue is an excellent survey of Raveel corpus, including a chronology and a good selection of colour plates. The English text will make this catalogue a valuable resource for non-Belgians, permitting them to acquaint themselves with this artist.

Raveel was born in Machelen-aan-de-Leie, Flanders and remain there most of his life, a path not followed by most ambitious Belgian artists, who tended to converge on Brussels or Ostend. Raveel studied art at Deinze and Ghent over 1933-45, his studied disrupted by war. His teacher recommended that Raveel move away from Belgian Expressionism towards realism. Henceforward, his palette brightened and realism tended to be Raveel’s stylistic touchstone, as he incorporated other elements and influences throughout the years. The painter destroyed many of his paintings from the 1930s and early-mid-1940s.

There is a case to be made that the war and subsequent occupation – which Raveel saw first-hand – destroyed the idea of national and regional isolation and a concomitant attachment localism in artistic terms. The world intrudes. The heterodox nature of Raveel’s post-war art is forcefully heterogenous and non-regional. The paintings of the late 1940s could be seen as naïve or simplified. Raveel rejected his previous use of atmospheric colour in favour of local colour. The views of kitchens and local fields are deliberately homely and content. Only in 1950, do we see other aspects intrude – muted colour and objects reduced to the point of ambiguity.

 In 1948, Raveel married Zulma De Nijs. They lived in modest circumstances, in the centre of their small town. Lack of resources meant Raveel materials were limited, forcing him to improvise and perhaps instigating his use of found materials. In the early Fifties Raveel came into the orbit of CoBrA and had contact with members. The directness (both thematic and stylistic), assertiveness and accessibility of these artists lined up with Raveel’s temperament. Raveel never joined the movement but some of his painting in the 50s and 60s shares much in common with these artists. There are more than a few parallels between Raveel and Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet’s late linear paintings, with bold patterns and reduced palette, are close to Raveel’s paintings.

[Image: Roger Raveel, Man, Bucket, etc., 1967, Private collection © Raveel – MDM, Oil on canvas, 150 × 120 cm]

Over the period 1956-62, Raveel turns to almost completely abstraction in his production. The bodies and buildings are replaced by surfaces, simple forms, brushwork, patches of strong colour, repeated marks. These are not inert or hollow – the painted forms are like handles that would be used to manipulate things but the things themselves are gone, leaving only the handles. The stakes are lowered – the viewer cannot engage deeply, protest a proposition, take away in insight into lived reality. As a result, these are the least satisfactory of Raveel’s output.  Commencing again in 1962, recognisable forms return amidst abstract surfaces. Geometric forms intervene, disrupting, displacing and obscuring figural depictions. The patterns appear on the clothing and replace the heads of the working men.

The working man, in cap and suit of matching colour/material becomes a staple figure in Raveel’s paintings. At once an evocation of the average Belgian labourer and human presence in everyday settings, the figure rarely has a face and retains a degree of mystery, anonymity and a touch of the sinister. The head is often replaced by an area of abstraction or pattern Homely and unhomely (Heimlich and unheimlich) simultaneously, the working man becomes Raveel’s prime actor, even if he never became an alter ego. It is possible that these figures represent the artist’s father, who worked in the flax trade. That oddness adds a vital touch to Raveel’s art, which could become whimsical or flippant or lightweight. Raveel is rarely pedestrian. Perhaps his weakest work are the abstracts, where we enter territory that is arbitrary and vacant.

Raveel’s interiors animate the dazzling Modernist world of De Stijl, with figures peopling these notional utopian places. This renders them accessible, banal, subject to entropy and decay. The faded, tinged quality of past projected utopias is one of the aspects that turn shimmering pristine ideals into compromised, discarded and discredited propositions. This is the essence of the melancholy of the Modern. Raveel’s art is not bleak but it has this sense of loss. The instances of alienation are matched by the scenes of domestic contentment – the cat asleep on the chair, the seated figure, the garden view from the window. Raveel is not sceptical of Modernism as such, more playful and inquiring; he proposes that Modernism is real life (figures transformed into characters in a Modernist painting-cum-architectural-setting) and real life incorporates Modernism (in the form of domestic furniture and decoration). The language in his paintings has many modes, stylistic and tonal. That plastic diversity and spirit of inquiry keeps Raveel’s art lively, laconic, unsettled. Father in a Modern Emptiness (1980) is a very adept and appealing example of this contrast between personal and familial material and the somewhat chilly, anti-human content of Modernist art, architecture and furniture.        

[Image: Roger Raveel, Father in a Modern Emptiness, 1980, Private collection © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on canvas, 145 × 195 cm]

The Surrealism of Magritte – especially the incorporation of mundane realities, everyday life and figures as ciphers – clearly led to the atmosphere and some of the visual repertoire of Raveel. The standing figures of men have an oblique quality we find in Magritte. Magritte was the most prominent of Belgian artists in the 1950s and 1960s, so it is natural that Raveel would have seen a lot of his paintings. The Surrealist practice (most clearly seen in Francis Picabia’s combine paintings) of including actual objects in paintings became characteristic of Raveel. He included objects such as doors, bicycle wheels, windows, mirrors and curtains in his combine paintings. Robert Rauschenberg’s combines precede them by about five years. Raveel saw Rauschenberg’s combines at an exhibition in Bern, in 1962. One piece by Raveel includes a birdcage with a pigeon and another one has a cage with canaries. Raveel responded strongly to Pop Art and he is most often categorised as a Pop artist. Actually, by the time that Pop art became known in Belgium, Raveel had already developed elements that were Pop, which is why is viewed as proto-Pop. In Raveel’s art, there is a fusion of styles and influences. A portrait drawing of the head of a worker (1952) is partly realist, highly stylised and echoes the early drawings of Van Gogh, whom Raveel admired. The heavy outlines of forms is common throughout all of Raveel’s mature output. Raveel’s domestic scenes combining description and blank grounds recalls Hockney of the 1960s and 1970s. The painterly rounded forms and strong colour of Raveel’s interiors and landscapes will remind British viewers of the paintings of David Hockney from the 1980s and 1990s. The pair met at least once, in 1973; a photograph of them is illustrated in the catalogue. Raveel’s art gained added relevance in the 1980s, when the New Figuration and Neo-Expressionism movements returned to painting the figure, expressive paint use and absence of irony to the centre of art production.

In 1960, Raveel began teaching at the Municipal Academy, Deinze and the use of a loaned studio at the local school allowed him to make work of a greater size. He also became more involved in printmaking at this time. in 1966, Raveel was commissioned to paint murals in the basement of Beervelde Castle, near Ghent, which he painted from 1966 to 1967 in collaboration with Raoul De Keyser, Etienne Elias and Reinier Lucassen. Zulma handled the couple’s finances; the Raveels could afford to move to a larger modern house by 1968, the year the artist represented Belgium at the Venice Biennale. The honours and exhibitions only increased. In 1999, the Roger Raveel Museum opened in Machelen-aan-de-Leie. In 2009 Zulma died; Raveel remarried in 2011. In 2013, Raveel died in Deinze, at the age of 91.

The 2021 exhibition relied heavily on the comprehensive collection of Roger Raveel Museum and commences with a 1941 landscape: modest, mundane, muted in coloration, realist in execution. By 1948, the rejection of realism is apparent in the faux naïf treatment of farm animals and reduced palette. The catalogue is arranged by subject. Raveel made self-portraits that range from Flemish Expressionism to linear-proto-Pop to 1970s Pop, as well as images with the face or head replaced by blank zones. The latest painting in the exhibition is dated 1995. Some of Raveel’s best known paintings are included and his murals are illustrated. His famous Man with Wire in Garden (1952-3) is a welcome inclusion.

[Image: Roger Raveel, Man with Wire in Garden, 1952–53, Collection of the Flemish Community/Roger Raveel Museum © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on paper on plywood, 75.5 × 91 cm]

The motif was used in many drawings, paintings and prints. It exemplified the use of the working-man figure, abstracted head, simplified landscape and reference to Raveel’s domestic situation. Woman with Make-up Mirror (1953) and Man Bucket, etc. (1967) are celebrated examples of his horizontally striped figures engaging in everyday activities. A drawing from 1950 shows Raveel admiration for Van Gogh. The coffee pot is drawn like Van Gogh; the handling of perspective and the revolver on the table are influenced by children’s art.

The combines with curtains and windows reach deep into art history, the trompe-l’œil of the Renaissance and Baroque. The mirror pieces play with incorporating the viewer’s image into the painting. Alone in the Backyard (1967) has the mirror in the centre, positioning the viewer’s reflection in a bare yard in Caulfield-style drawn images, with a colourful sliver of landscape confined to one corner. An extension of this was a street-vendor’s cart, clad in mirror cube, partially overpainted. Raveel did a number of street performances, bringing his paintings into non-gallery settings and eliciting public responses. Regrettably, there is not much written material in the catalogue discussing his murals.

Apart from the cart, no sculpture per se is presented. The exhibition includes paintings, combines and drawings but no prints. Understandably, for a survey retrospective, supplementary material such as documents (sketchbooks, letters, posters) are virtually omitted from the catalogue. Clearly, the aim of the catalogue is to spread knowledge of Raveel outside of the Low Countries, and the editors have made the right decision. This is a broad survey of Raveel, full of wonderful images and with a few introductory essays and a handy chronology. The art is very enjoyable and the design of the catalogue is thoughtful and easy to negotiate. Recommended for any fans of Low Countries art, Pop Art and New Figuration.   

Roger Raveel Museum website: https://www.rogerraveelmuseum.be/

Franz W. Kaiser, Kurt De Boodt, Paul Demets, Ann Geeraerts, Marie Claes, Roger Raveel: Retrospective, BOZAR/Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), hardback, 224pp, fully illus., text English, French, Dutch, €34.95, ISBN 978-0-300-25994-0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800

By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800 is a current touring exhibition (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 30 September 2021-9 January 2022; Detroit Institute of Arts, 6 February-29 May 2022). The exhibition brings together some of the biggest names in art by Italian women. Gentileschi, Anguissola, Carriera are well known to students of art history and Fontana is familiar to anyone who has read a feminist art history; lesser-known figures give a wider view of the field. This review is from the catalogue.

Interest in women artists has grown apace in recent years. Of particular focus has been Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later), a Baroque Caravaggisti from Rome. The high standard of her best paintings and her life story have been taken up as proof of twin claims made broadly by feminists – that women are as equally talented as men, therefore their general absence from art history (until recently) is a deliberate act of erasure by men, and that women have suffered shaming and abuse at the hands of men which has made pursuit of profession and private fulfilment difficult unique to women. Despite the fact that women’s routes to the position of accredited artist were often less straightforward than those of male counterparts, historical research supports the fact that women did work in the art field in greater numbers than initially thought. The narrative of systemic oppression seems less tenable. Talent and determination has a way of finding an outlet and recognition, if only posthumously. All of the artists in this exhibition achieved some degree of professional success in their lifetimes.

Artemisia Gentileschi was daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), who acted as her master during her apprenticeship as a painter. Her style follows his, which was patterned on Caravaggio’s. In 1611 she was raped by the Agostino Tassi (1578-1644). After the rape, Tassi offered to marry Artemisia, which was a promise he subsequently broke. It was the breaking of this marriage contract that was brought to trial by Orazio, as well as a plan by Tassi to steal a painting by Orazio. Although Tassi was found guilty of breaking the contract and having committed other crimes (and of having planned to commit others), he was not punished. Artemisia’s subsequent paintings of women martyrs, and of Judith murdering Holofernes, are interpreted as a pointed response to the attack and failure of the court to implement just punishment. Almost all of her paintings feature women protagonists. This may be a personal fixation of hers or (as some historians have suggested) the artist trading on her notability as a high-profile woman artist by painting women. Gentileschi subsequently married and moved to Florence, where she achieved success as a court painter. Later periods in Venice, Rome, Naples and London led to steady commissions and respectful receptions by local academies and courts.  

[Image: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5), oil on canvas, 184 x 141.6 cm, Detroit Institute of Art]

The catalogue reproduces three Gentileschi self-portraits of 1615-7 and a prototype of c. 1613-4. The exhibition includes perhaps her great painting, Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1623-5). In it, the standing Judith holds a blooded cutlass. She holds out a hand to shade her left eye; that presents us with the audacious crescent of her profile shining in the darkness. The composition is a series of arcs tumbling down the composition. It is a fine picture, perhaps the best of her oeuvre. It has the usual weaknesses of Caravaggisti painting – poor articulation of space, breaks in logic (the shadow of Judith’s raised arm should throw her sleeve and shoulder into darkness, etc.), selective use of optical accuracy (gestures towards realistic shadows, no understanding of reflected light and colour) and the problems of proportion that stem from composite designs that combine discrete parts, which derives from (though is not in all instances caused by) use of the camera obscura. Historians tend to be overimpressed by the appearance of naturalism in Caravaggisti paintings, not crediting the degree to which artists deliberately fudge issues when they need to achieve a certain effect. Caravaggisti were primarily concerned to create an impression of truthfulness rather than record truth. It is a form of dishonesty and is their greatest fault.

Gentileschi’s non-Judith Biblical paintings and self-portraits are distinctly less persuasive, degrees weaker than the paintings of Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663). Cagnacci (despite his flaws) is a better, more exciting painter than Gentileschi. Lot and His Daughters (1636-8) has the three figures like cut-outs adjoining one another, figures casting no shadows on others; this undermines the artist’s intention to bond the three in an interlocked group. David and Bathsheba (c. 1636-7)is much poorer, with the architectural background (perhaps by an assistant) being both insistent and unpersuasive. The rearmost attendant is awkward; the others are little better. The placement of figures and spatial arrangement is risible, making a mockery of the attempted eye contact between Bathsheba and the rightmost attendant. Such paintings – the pedestrian and the poor – show Gentileschi to be a second-rate painter capable of a few flashes of brilliance.  

So, what of the quality of the rest of the art? Does it stand up to scrutiny?

Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1535-1625) is a very inconsistent artist, as this selection proves. She is best known for self-portraits, which vary in treatment from the sensitive to the cursory. The lowest in quality seem to be casual efforts, trading on the novelty of being self-portraits of a woman artist.  (A painfully malproportioned self-portrait (now in Vienna) is illustrated.) The miniature self-portrait with giant medallion (oil on parchment, 3¼” x 2½”) is a handsome piece of work, well modelled, contemplative, technically well thought through. Self-Portrait at the Easel (1554-5) is one of the number of variants, showing the artist depicting a Virgin and Child. The portraits of children are good, one deriving from Giovanni Battista Moroni’s style. The Holy Family (1592) is rather unpleasant, with its pneumatic anatomies and slick handling. For more on this artist, read another review by me here.  

Diana Scultori (c. 1547-1612) was a Mantuan engraver working in the Roman style established by Marcantonio Raimondi. The composition after Giulio Romano is very effective; the translation of a Cornelius Cort drawing of The Spinario is somewhat less so. It is difficult to separate the weaknesses of this second engraving into errors of the original drawing and those of transcription.

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) is one of the female painters of the Bolognese School. She is represented by religious paintings, portraits and portrait drawings executed in black and red chalks. A small tondo portrait of a prelate (c. 1580) is arresting – sympathetic, engaged, carefully executed – but the other pictures are unremarkable. Fede Galizia (c. 1574-c. 1630) seems (on the evidence of her Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1596) and an attractive still-life of fruit (c. 1607)) to be of high calibre, but it is impossible to judge on the strength of only two paintings. It is hard to assess printmakers Isabella Catanea Parasole (active 1585-1625) and Anna Maria Vaiani (1604-c. 1655), painter Anna Bacherini Piattoli (1720-1788) and miniaturist Veronica Stern Telli (1717-1801) on these meagre showings. Painters Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596-1676) and Ginevre Cantofoli (1618-1672) and pastellist Marianna Carlevarijs (1703-after 1750) seem to be very slight talents.

Through illustration, it is hard to appreciate the religious dioramas of Caterina de Julianis (c. 1670-c. 1742). Dioramas (framed constructions of painted wax figures of saints in setting deep-relief settings are pieces) often get overlooked in art histories. Somewhere between fine art, devotional handicraft, ex voto and sculptural curiosity, such dioramas are hard to categorise. The common temperamental aversion of polychromy in sculpture, prejudice against the use of wax (redolent of anatomical teaching aides) and the fact that these diorama were often produced by nuns (often anonymously) rather than professionally accredited artists, all mean that dioramas of devotional character fall between academic disciplines and do not receive their due attention. The extreme delicacy of such pieces has caused a high attrition rate, leading to gaps in the historical records which has obscured the extent of the production. de Julianis’s piece in the catalogue has a coloured wax figurine of Penitent Magdalene, in woodland grotto with a deer drinking at a stream, with a painted landscape behind. The materials are listed as “beeswax, pigments, paper, glass, vellum, silk, feathers, wire, burlap, and varnish”. Such dioramas inspired recent art by contemporary sculptor Berlinde de Bruyckere.

The attractive and scrupulous tempera paintings on parchment of flora and fauna by Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670) are a delight. She trained as a miniaturist and made portraits and religious paintings. They are sharp, accurate and display great versatility – they hark back to Dürer and anticipate the field of naturalist illustration. Despite the wealth of detail, they never become either fussy or stiff, enlivened by the use of hatched shading and blending of colours and line with stippling. The subjects have sculptural presence. They are the outstanding find of this exhibition.

Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was another Bolognese artist, adulated in her lifetime. She was a prolific painter, producing portraits, mythological paintings, Biblical scenes and etchings. We know of her production and development because she signed and dated many paintings. Aside from the original and intense Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664), there is nothing here that seems to separate Sirani from contemporaries. To prove her fortitude to her husband Brutus, Portia stabbed herself in the thigh. It is a rare subject in art. Portia’s expression is reserved and a touch dreamy. In a way, it anticipates the modern-day self-cutting craze, where bloodletting is a test of strength and self-control. Responses to Sirani and Fontana will likely depend on whether the viewer finds the art of the Bolognese School of this period agreeable  

Venetian pastellist Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) is well known enough. As a portraitist in pastels, she was famed during her lifetime and (for afficionados of the period) she is still a star. Her miniature portraits in watercolour on ivory show the delicacy of her touch and flair for Rococo airiness and sensuality. Her technical grounding and brio in execution make her pastels and paintings attractive and stylistically consistent – internally and as a group. As with much Rococo art, there is the ever-present temptation for the artist to flatter both subject and viewer. A late invented head in pastel is looser and more expressive than her commissioned portraits.   

The exhibition also includes portraits of women artists by men. The best is a dramatic, sculptural and handsome 1627 painting by Simon Vouet (1590-1649), of his wife Virginia de Vezzo (1600-1638). This is a thoughtful addition but perhaps a counter-productive one. With the possible exception of Gentileschi’s Judith, Vouet’s portrait is the best painting in an exhibition dedicated to presenting the abilities of women artists.

[Image: Simon Vouet, Virginia da Vezzo, the Artist’s Wife, as the Magdalene (c. 1626), oil on canvas, 101.6 x 1649 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art]

Catalogue essays explore women artists as miniaturists and the professional standing of women artists in this period in Italy. Catalogue entries devote space to discussing issues related to exhibited items. The essays and catalogue entries are written by specialists Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, Sheila Barker, Babette Bohn, Claude-Douglas Dickerson III, Jamie Gabbarelli, Hilliard Goldfarb, Lara Lea Roney and Joaneath Spicer. The entries are sympathetic towards the situation of women artists but lack the stridency or partisan quality found in other books. This makes the catalogue a pleasure to read and endows the statements with greater credibility. The evidence of new scholarship is woven into informative entries on exhibits.

The more sweeping claims of first-generation feminist art historians are being picked apart by close study of records. “Beginning in the fourteenth century, women’s rate of matriculation in the artisanal guilds across Europe began to drop, yet women continues to work in similar numbers. Whereas this decline was formerly attributed to efforts to cast women out of guilds through exclusionary tactics, historians now widely agree that late medieval and early modern women may have deliberately avoided joining guilds, probably to save money and time, and to skirt requirements that could cut into their profit margins, productivity, employment opportunities, and market shares.”

The extensive exhibition list and bibliography will be a useful reference for students and academics seeking sources. The illustrations are generally very good. Overall, the catalogue and exhibition is a balanced overview of women artists in Italy in the pre-modern era. Some of the art is wonderful and the texts provide a survey of the achievements of Italian women artists.

Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, Oliver Tostmann, et al, By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art/Detroit Institute of Arts (distr. Yale), 2021, cloth hb, 208pp, 141 col. illus., $40/£30, ISBN 978 0 300 25636 9

Purchase the book here.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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


Ivan Morozov, Russian Art Collector

Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) was a wealthy Russian textile merchant who is best remembered today for his collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modernist art. In this biography, Russian art historian Natalyam Semenova seeks to resurrect the man who made the collection. Morozov is often spoken of in conjunction with his famous compatriot, businessman and supporter of the French avant-garde Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936). In many ways, their fates were intertwined. Both were Muscovites who made their income from manufacturing and trading, both visited Paris and met avant-garde artists personally and bought their art at the start of their careers. Both had their collections and properties confiscated by the Soviet government upon the 1917 Revolution without compensation. Both men died in exile in Paris.

Shchukin has been honoured and understood better (not least with a big exhibition of his collection 2016-7 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris), now this biography fleshes out the elusive figure of Morozov. (Semenova previously wrote a biography of Shchukin.) Evidence is that Morozov was deliberately reticent about his private life, giving only a single interview towards the end of his life. (It is reprinted in full here.) He seemed camera shy and averse to publicity. This biography coincides with an exhibition of the Morozov collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (22 September 2021-22 February 2022).

The Morozovs were descended from an Old Believer family of serfs who had made their fortune making and selling fabric over the course of the Nineteenth Century. Ivan’s mother was Varvara Khludova (1848-1917) of another wealthy cloth manufacturing family, the Khludovs. She married Abram Morozov (1839-1882) in 1869. Ivan was born in 1871. The marriage was cut short by Abram’s death through tertiary syphilis, a painful, humiliating and untreatable death. With a considerable legacy, the widow Morozov immersed herself in charity and philanthropy, especially for educational causes and treatment of the insane. Semenova paints the life of immense wealth, Russian Orthodox observance and civic duty in late Tsarist Russia, using quotes from the memoirs, diaries and letters of the participants. The benefits of wealth were attended by the duties of arts patronage and social fixtures.

Mikhail Morozov, Ivan’s older brother, was a noted biographer and critic. He was also an enthusiastic collector of new Russian painting and the first prominent supporter of Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910), a Symbolist who made paintings on historical, literary and religious subjects. A voracious glutton and drinker – as well as an impetuous collector – Mikhail Morozov died in 1903, but his legacy as a collector was taken up by his brother Ivan.  The third brother Arseny, died in 1908 following a drunken shooting accident.

Ivan Morozov studied chemistry at Zurich University (1892-4) and painted landscapes to relax. He took classes from Konstantin Korozov (1861-1939), Impressionist landscapist. Ivan worked in the family’s mill (Tver Textile Mill Company) but art collecting became his overriding passion and pastime. Following his brother’s example, Ivan started buying paintings in 1900. It seems Morozov was influenced in his collecting by connoisseur of modern painting, Sergei Vinogradov, a landscape painter. Unlike Shchukin, Morozov purchased art by Russians. These included famed Russian Modernists such as Larionov, Goncharova and Chagall, who need no introduction to Western art lovers but other figures are less familiar, some of whom belonged to the Wanderers Group (Peredvizhniki). Isaac Levitan (1860-1900), whose landscape paintings can best be described as tonalist in character, died young. Valentin Serov (1865-1911) was one of Russia’s great realists, capable of painting truthfully and with panache. He was a famed portraitist who developed a bravura manner, inflected by realism. His portrait of Morozov is on the book cover. Vrubel was also another artist Morozov collected.

However, it is for his collection of Ecole de Paris that Morozov is best remembered. He bought art by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Van Gogh (Night Café (1888)), Renoir, Cézanne, Maillol, the Independants (Post-Impressionists) and the Fauves. Morozov bought La Grenouillère (1869) by Renoir, an outstanding early Impressionist painting. He paid a very hefty 200,000 francs for a total of six Renoirs. He developed a passion for Gauguin paintings of Tahiti. He even progressed (cautiously) to freshly made and aesthetically challenging paintings by Vuillard, Bonnard, Picasso (the Rose-period Young Acrobat on Ball (1906)) and Matisse (still-lifes and Moroccan scenes). Profits from manufacturing uniforms for the catastrophic Russo-Japanese War of 1905 gave Morozov vast wealth to spend.

In total, Morozov bought 486 paintings and 30 sculptures. The sculptures included ones by Rodin, Maillol and Matisse. However, not all his collecting was of the highest discernment. His (early) taste for bar scenes of the demi-monde led to the acquisition of a large number of scenes by forgotten non-entities of voguish Cosmopolitan Realism (Guignet, Lempereur, Lissac, Morrice). To house this collection, he built a mansion in Moscow and commissioned Maurice Denis to paint mural panels. Denis travelled to Moscow to install the work, which proved a disappointment as the artist had not properly assessed the setting. Shchukin weekly opened his home to art lovers, allowing them a glimpse of the most advanced paintings that Paris had to offer. These experiences would help form the outlook of the Russian avant-garde. Morozov, in contrast, kept his mansion closed and his personal life secret.

“Can we see Shchukin and Morozov as competitors? Hardly. There were no instances of one poaching a painting from the other, although in respect of some artists their tastes coincided almost entirely. The main difference was in their approach to collecting. Morozov preferred to ‘wait, rather than rush in and make mistakes’, as Boris Ternovets put it. He was incredibly discriminating and thorough, carefully considering which work of each artist he would choose as representative, where exactly he would hang the canvas, and how it would fit in with the others. Sergei Shchukin gave not a moment’s thought to such matters.”

The Great War led to disruption to Morozov’s business and the general society. Travelling to Paris was out of the question. Come the 1917 revolution, Morozov’s mansion was occupied and his art confiscated by the state. Not that the state was sure what to make of the non-realist art – partly a daring strike against convention and partly bourgeois degeneracy. But it was property that had, at least, monetary value. Gangs of Communists and Anarchists stole, defaced and destroyed valuable art, books and furniture, ostentatiously demeaning the property of their former social superiors. Morozov initially stayed on, attempting to protect the collection which was no longer his. For whatever reason, he fled the USSR in 1919, travelling with his wife and daughter. He died in 1921, his (unwilling) contribution to Russian (and Soviet) culture went unrecognised.

Semenova narrates the crude and capricious treatment of the collection in the Soviet era. Morozov’s mansion was turned into a museum, with one floor converted into flats. The collection was later split up and moved. The Tretyakov Gallery got the best of Morozov and Shchukin’s collections. In 1933 a number of paintings were sold to provide valuable foreign currency, leading to the sale of Van Gogh’s Night Café, eventually to join the collection of Yale University – a matter of recent litigation.

The book includes an index, family tree and endnotes. The book is well illustrated with period photographs and a colour-plate section shows some of the masterpieces of Morozov’s collection. This book is a tribute to the commitment of a patron of the arts and a timely warning about the arbitrary power of the state to destroy and mishandle material that would have been better protected by a private owner.  

Natalya Semenova, Arch Tait (trans.), Morozov: The Story of a Family and a Lost Collection, Yale University Press, 17 November 2020, hardback, 288pp, 29 col./27 mono illus., $32.50/£25, ISBN 9780300249828

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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


John Craxton, A Life of Gifts

[Image: (right) John Craxton, 1997. (c) Matthew Thomas]

The recent biographies of Bacon and Freud return us to the post-war milieu of Soho and Fitzrovia. A significant artist from this period was John Craxton (1922-2009). He was a luminary of the Neo-Romantic movement of the 1930s and early 1940s, which sought to depict not so much the events and characters of heroic myths – and the pastoralism of historical past – as to evoke an atmosphere of a pre-industrial age, at times bucolic and primeval, by using milder forms of pictorial Modernism. Like Freud (with whom he had a close but short friendship), Craxton was another well-connected boy wonder in London’s constricted wartime cultural scene.

According to Ian Collins’s new biography John Craxton: A Life of Gifts (not to be confused with a separate 2011 monograph on Craxton by Collins), Craxton had an unsettled childhood and a patchy education, spending time in Sussex, Dorset and elsewhere. He visited Paris in 1939 in search of contact with modern art and attended the Louvre. He took a few classes at the Académie Julian but was essentially self-taught. He was picked up by a publisher in 1940 and his Neo-Romantic illustrations provided him with an entry into the art world. Influenced by Samuel Palmer, Craxton’s early works are monochrome drawings and graphics on paper with paint in muted colours; they feature figures in densely drawn landscapes.

Craxton was part of the (not exclusively homosexual) circle around millionaire collector Peter Watson in that setting that included Freud, Cyril Connolly, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, John Minton and Kenneth Clark. Craxton was homosexual himself and – like many in the Fitzrovia/Soho sets – did not disguise the fact. Craxton fell in with Freud, a contemporary misfit and another enfant terrible of the Fitzrovia set. They met in 1941 and became inseparable until 1947. Both were engaged by pastoral landscapes and the figure, made portraits, admired realism but produced faux naïf art. Collins recounts with élan the pair’s hijinks in bombed London. They worked side by side in their shared Abercorn Place flat, sometimes working on pictures together, sometimes drawing each other. Their styles and subjects overlapped noticeably and it is hard to distinguish a leader and a follower. Later, some of the works in Craxton’s possession were sold as Freuds, much to the latter’s displeasure.   

Watson paid for Craxton to attend life-drawing classes at Goldsmiths College. When he taught there unhappily and unsuccessfully, for only a term. The future art forger Tom Keating responded badly to being corrected by him. Craxton and Freud worked alongside Sutherland on the South Wales coast. Craxton’s range was expanding from ink drawing to conté-and-white-chalk on tinted paper (animal still-lifes, very close to Freud’s) and oil paintings. These have slightly less intensity and detail than Freud’s but have better overall composition and cropping and are slightly more pleasing as pictures.

The Greece that Craxton first visited in 1946 had not begun recovering from war, occupation and civil war. There was a civil war between nationalists and communists ongoing at the time, which would eventually see the communists defeated. Craxton had already acquired an affinity for Greek cuisine in Soho and thought that a hot dry climate would help his health. (Unbeknownst to him, he had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis in London, the cause of constant weakness and inability to put on weight.) The sunshine and good food of Greece inspired Craxton the man, restoring him to health. His new surroundings were immediately evident in his paintings of coastal views, still-lifes, landscapes and figures (mainly sailors, objects of attraction). His landscapes are heavily derived from early Miró.

Craxton went to Poros – lauded by Lawrence Durrell, George Seferis and Henry Miller – where Freud joined him in September 1946. “Lucian would remain in Greece for five months during which he produced the most beautiful work of his life. John never really left, in every sense finding himself in Greece.” Freud painted Craxton and himself, largely deprived of portrait subjects, and made still-lifes of fruit. Craxton was painting simplified townscapes, using the smooth surfaces and subtle brushwork the pair liked. They tapped Lady Norton, wife of diplomat Sir Clifford Norton, in order to sustain themselves in necessities.

Planning a joint exhibition of their Greek art, the pair returned to London in time for the severest winter of the century in Britain, exacerbated by a chronic fuel shortage. Craxton went to Crete in autumn 1947 and responded strongly to the mixture of Greek culture and Minoan art and architecture. Craxton mingled with shepherds and lived in the mountains; he also courted danger by seeking out bandits. Crete would become the centre of his imaginative world and he would henceforth live and work in Crete and London.

The London Gallery showed Craxton and Freud together and separately. Craxton sold well and was more prolific than Freud. Craxton’s scenes of Mediterranean life offered the deprived, ration-bound residents of Great Britain a sunny escape. Wyndham Lewis thought his pictures to be lightweight: “a prettily tinted cocktail, that’s good but does not quite kick hard enough.” While Craxton’s Picasso-inflected art of scenes and people of the sunny South struck a chord and found collectors, they came be viewed as increasingly out of step with the age of Existentialism and the Geometry of Fear.     

In 1951 Frederick Ashton invited Craxton to design the set for the Covent Garden production of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloë. Craxton formed a close but short-lived friendship with lead ballerina Margot Fonteyn, who visited Crete, accompanied by Ashton. The production was considered cutting edge for its modern dress and décor, only receiving full appreciation after it had closed.

Craxton settled in Chania, a port on the coast of Crete. In 1955, Craxton’s penchant for sailors caught him out. He was accused of being a spy who had informed on a gun-running operation to Cyprus. As a foreign bohemian who travelled to London frequently, had links to the British Embassy and caroused with Greek naval men, Craxton was an obvious suspect. It was not true but the suspicion lingered even after his death. Craxton came to speak demotic Greek well and became involved in preserving Cretan heritage, which was disregarded by locals, especially when buildings dated to the Muslim occupation. Once he was suspected of harbouring antiquities. Craxton announced, “I have absolutely nothing Greek (ie antiquities) in the house except men and wine.”  

Exhibitions at Mayor and Leicester galleries met collector demand. His art developed modestly. The curvilinear style that Picasso and Braque used was also found in Minoan murals. The mixture of Modernism and ancient art turned to decorative ends also incorporated Pop Art. The Butcher (1964-6) shows the influence of Patrick Caulfield, Pop Art and hard-edge abstraction, with its emphatic straight outlines and planes of uninflected strong colour. Breaking up surfaces into parallel lines of alternating colour (such as Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67)) the appearance of a tapestry. It is not coincidental that at this time Craxton was examining Byzantine mosaics.


[Image: John Craxton, Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67), oil on canvas, 122 x 244 cm. (c) John Craxton Estate.]

His apparently impressive retrospective in 1967 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery confirmed his ability and the pleasure-giving capacity of his art and also his definitive distance from the critical consensus and fashion. During the Greek military junta (1967-74) Craxton went into exile, considered an undesirable by the regime. He wandered the ports of the Mediterranean in search of a substitute utopia. In 1973 a compensation came in the form of Richard Riley, who became his romantic partner for the rest of Craxton’s life.

When a group of drawings by Craxton and Freud surfaced, Freud disputed them, claiming they had been tampered with. He threatened the gallery with a lawsuit but the exhibition went ahead in 1984. The friendship, which had become distant over the years, was now dead. Freud’s capacity for grudge-bearing and feud-starting was legendary. Although the exhibition was a success, Craxton was hurt by Freud’s anger and Freud’s cutting remarks lingered in his mind until he died, according to friends.

However satisfying the art from the 1940s and 1950s is, one might find a lack of development in Craxton’s production disappointing. He was ultimately somewhat conservative in nature and timid. In his Neo-Romantic work, we see Samuel Palmer resuscitated with Miró and Picasso – all of whom laid out the styles and devices Craxton would use. It is true that not all artists must be original to be dazzling or wonderful, but greatness requires an essential forcefulness and daring, which Craxton lacked. Anyone painting in the 2000s as he did in the 1950s is someone who has the temperament of an artisan rather than an artist.

Another travail of old age was the incident when Craxton was drugged and thieves stole art from his house – including a Miró and a Sutherland. The thieves did not take any Craxtons. “Never losing a sense of humour, he claimed to have been not only robbed but insulted.” His final years were spent in London, where he died in 2009. His ashes were taken to Crete. Shortly before his death, he consented to be interviewed by Ian Collins for this biography and a monograph on his art. Collins has done well to search out personal acquaintances and track down photographs of the art, artist and his circle.

Elements of Craxton the painter remain a little elusive. Did Craxton write statements about his art, have a diary or pen useful letters? How productive was he? Did he destroy much? Did he disavow or criticise any of his work? What was his taste in art made by others? Although Collins adds a little near the end about Craxton’s routine and practices, readers may wish for more time inside the artist’s studio and his head. Yes, the art is enjoyable but did Craxton have strong ideas about what art – specifically his art – should do and not do?    

These cavils should not deter anyone interested in Craxton and his art from reading this thoroughly researched, attractive and vivid biography.

Ian Collins, John Craxton: A Life of Gifts, Yale University Press, 11 May 2021 (UK)/22 June 2021 (USA), hardback, 384pp, 160 illus., $35/£25, ISBN 9780300255294

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Stolen Glories

“One of the first targets of an invading army is the art of the defeated. Once cities are secured, army officers of the occupying force seek museums, palaces and cathedrals, intent on retrieving art for the benefit of the victors. However politely done, it is no different from the pillaging of ancient history. Two new books examine the art theft of occupying armies in two different ages.

The Wedding Feast at Cana was painted by Paolo Veronese in 1563 for the wall of a Benedictine abbey on the Venetian isle of San Maggiore. Situated in the refectory, the picture depicts Christ seated at the centre of a wedding feast; the giant painting (almost 7 metres high by 10 metres wide) teems with brightly robed figures set in an illusionistically rendered architectural setting.  On completion, it was recognised as a masterpiece of the Late Renaissance/Mannerist era, with connoisseurs travelling from around Europe to marvel at the painting.

“Cynthia Saltzman’s Napoleon’s Plunder: The Theft of Veronese’s Feast recounts what happened when Napoleon defeated the Austrians and took control of northern Italy in 1796, and how his roving eye turned to art. Portable treasures were to be sold to finance the cost of the war effort; the greatest of the art would be reserved for the Musée Napoléon, the French Republic’s public art museum (sited in the Louvre). Saltzman outlines the extraction of art from not only Italy but Spain, Flanders, Holland, Vienna and Berlin, all intended for Napoleon’s museum….”

Read the full review at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/stolen-glories/

Joseph Wright of Derby – England’s Caravaggio


“”Long seen as a quintessentially modern and progressive figure – one of the artistic icons of the English Enlightenment – [Matthew] Craske overturns this traditional view of [Wright of Derby].” So states the publicity for a new study of England’s greatest realist artist, Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), the painter who has a claim to be called England’s Caravaggio. But Matthew Craske demonstrates “the extent to which Wright, rather than being a spokesman for scientific progress, was actually a melancholic and sceptical outsider, who increasingly retreated into a solitary, rural world of philosophical and poetic reflection, and whose artistic vision was correspondingly dark and meditative.”

“The standard view is that Wright lacks Caravaggio’s terribilità. While the Italian was a firebrand set on shocking society and overturning decorum with his blend of gory sensationalism and uncanny precision, Wright’s art has been seen as the embodiment of rationalism, the English polar opposite to the Italian trailblazer.

“However, Matthew Craske, of Oxford Brookes University, begs to differ. His thesis is that Wright was prey to dark psychological forces that drove him to depict the darkness in his famous scenes of science and industry in nocturnal settings. Wright’s astonishing A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1766, Derby Museum) and Experiment with a Bird in the Air Pump (1768, National Gallery) are masterpieces of clarity, composition and human insight. In Experiment, we see the master of ceremonies (part scientist, part magician) about to demonstrate the qualities of a vacuum by activating new apparatus that will kill the bird in the glass bulb….”

Read my full review in The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/englands-caravaggio/

Signac and the Independents

The exhibition Signac and the Indépendants (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) gives a cross-section of French art in the 1880-1940 period. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. This exhibition of the collection of Gilles Genty was organised around the subject of the Indépendants exhibition. The collection of Gilles Genty is a selection of avant-garde French and Belgian art from the 1880s to World War II. The collection follows the central line of avant-garde art that is preferred by art historians: Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism (Divisionism/Pointillism), Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism.

Paul Signac (1863-1935) founded the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in 1884 as means of avant-garde artists exhibiting outside of the academy. From 1908 to 1934 Signac was president of the group. It drew its inspiration from the independent exhibitions of the Impressionists (commenced 1874) and shared a number of artists with those displays. The annual exhibitions became the focal point for controversy regarding new art. Over the years it featured art by the Symbolists, Nabis, Fauves, Expressionists, Salon Cubists, Orphists, Dadaists and the École de Paris. Matisse made his name for his Fauvist paintings exhibited with the group.

Signac was a Divisionist or Pointillist, a close associate of Seurat and the leading proponent of the style following Seurat’s early death in 1891. Signac was wedded to Pointillism from 1884 until the end of his life. There are plausible suggestions that Signac’s political anarchism influenced his commitment to Pointillism, with its conception of individual marks playing their parts in a harmonious whole. (Pointillists sometimes believed in the inclusion of all parts of a spectrum in a painting.) Pissarro’s anarchism contributed in his adoption of “scientific” Pointillism as a companion to the “scientific” social solution of anarchism as a cure for social ills. Pissarro was doyen of artist-anarchists and the Neo-Impressionists.

As the Salon accepted and absorbed the avant-garde following a lag, so artists transferred their loyalty from the Indépendants to the more lucrative and highly attended. Both the Indépendants and the Impressionists resented artists defecting. (Manet was not eligible for the Impressionist exhibitions because he continued to exhibit at the Salon.) Signac commented, “For twenty years now, a few comrades and I have been running the Salon des Indépendants, where every artist has been free to exhibit what he liked and how he liked. Now, few of them stay with us! They prefer to be rejected or to reject others from exhibitions based on the detestable principle of Authority. (Société des Artistes Français, Société Nationale, Salon d’Automne). Too bad for the spineless!”

Among the art included are pictures by Impressionists Eva Gonzalès and Berthe Morisot, with a masterpiece by the former. The Sparrow (c. 1865-70) is a fine pastel, delicately made and sympathetically observed. It shows a bust in profile of the artist’s sister as a Roman woman holding a sparrow. It dates from her apprenticeship years, when she studied under Charles Chaplin, an academic painter.

Maximilien Luce was a social realist and anarchist who portrayed the industrial workers of Wallonia and scenes of steelworks and collieries on the Sambre river at Charleroi. (Constant Meunier – not part of this collection – took similar topics for his sculpture and paintings.) Luce became president of the Indépendants on Signac’s retirement. Luce’s oval-format views of Paris are pretty and would have considerable appeal if they were better known.

The Belgians who exhibited at the Indépendants included Spilliaert, Van Rysselberghe, Willy Finch, Khnopff and others. (Ensor is absent here.) Odilon Redon is represented by a large number of pastels and prints, typical of his output. It is useful to have pieces by Maurice Denis, who was an intermittently accomplished painter. There are artists who are not often covered in publications, such as Pointillist Achille Laugé, whose paintings are attractive – the best of the three shown here is a landscape. Louis Hayet is a lightweight painter of theatre interiors. Paul-Élie Ransom is a minor Nabi and involved in the religious syncretism; he is harsh colourist and unoriginal. Louis Valtat’s Woman with Fox Stole (1897-8) is a fine picture, crackling with energy. The proto-Fauvist brushwork and Cloissoniste outlines create a powerful image with the motif balanced by a swirling background. A good marine by him suggests there is more pictures worth attention, outweighing a few weaker Valtat pictures here. A curiosity is a group of early drawings by Claude-Émile Schuffenecker, an artist best known as a forger of Van Gogh than as an artist under his own recognisance. They are illustrations (from c. 1881 to 1885) of everyday scenes of Parisian life, competent, unambitious and somewhat banal.  Gauguin, Maillol, Derain and Braque are represented by minor works. Considering the rarity and cost of Seurat’s paintings, the drawings fill in. However, Seurat’s remarkable drawings are better than most artists’ best paintings.

There is a broad section on posters with classic poster artists. It is striking how these artists fall into different groups and movements yet could translate their art into commercial designs: Toulouse-Lautrec, Denis (Post-Impressionism), Bonnard, Vallotton (Nabi), Bottini (Cosmopolitan Realism), Grasset, Mucha, Steinlen (Art Nouveau). Jules Chéret defies classification. Although classified as Art Nouveau, Chéret syncretic style drew from many sources. His preference for facets and angles over curves makes his style not entirely compatible with Art Nouveau. It seems his simplified shapes may have influenced Seurat’s later depiction of figures.    

The Nabis were a group of Post-Impressionist artists who were deeply influenced by Japanese art, Gauguin and were committed to making art from street life and domesticity, especially in print format. All the leading members are included in this exhibition: Vuillard, Bonnard, Roussel, Riviere and Vallotton. The collection of art by Félix Vallotton is large and representative. The woodcuts (commenced 1891) are justly celebrated. The inclusion of a preparatory drawing for the 1897 print The Symphony is a pleasing addition to the prints themselves. Vallotton’s 1899 marriage gave him financial security and allowed him to pursue his ambitions. In 1901 he ceased making woodcuts and devoted himself to making oil paintings, principally nudes, landscapes and still-lifes. War (1915-6) was an exceptional return to the medium of woodcut. It was a suite of prints made to support the military effort of France. They are unsuccessful. Vallotton’s prints were not suitable for grave subjects or action and all fall flat.

The Bonnard works are mainly early Nabi graphics, including posters. There are some small marines with the skies in distinct horizontal strips. The dabbing of varying colours comes from Impressionism but Bonnard’s technique rejects the tenets of Impressionism. The École de Paris works by Matisse, Marcoussis, Modigliani, Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Maurice de Vlaminck, Albert Marquet and others are generally bagatelles. Marie Laurencin is never anything more than vapid; Othon Friesz is irredeemably third rate. Raoul Dufy is decorative and nothing more.  

There is a set of Picasso’s Saltimbanques prints. Produced from 1904 to 1905 and editioned in 1913, during the artist’s Blue and Rose periods. These 14 prints are inconsistent; the finish and detail of the prints varies dramatically and it is clear Picasso did not conceive of the group as having any connecting thread other than the subjects that attracted him at the time: portraits, acrobats, the poor, primitive people.  

This catalogue is full of information on the Salon des Indépendants and the avant-garde in Paris at a critical time. There are plenty of surprises. The biographies and bibliography are useful for specialist researchers, particularly anyone studying Neo-Impressionism and Pointillism.

Gilles Genty (ed.), Signac and the Indépendants, Hazan/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (distr. Yale), 2020, hardback, 384pp, 550 illus., $55, ISBN 978 0 300 25 1982 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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


James Ensor: Chronicle of his Life

Xavier Tricot, Ensor scholar and author of his catalogue raisonné, has written James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, a summary biography of James Ensor (1860-1949). Ensor is a significant artist in the development of Post-Impressionism and the foundation of Expressionism and has gone to be one of the most influential of Belgian artists. This book illustrates paintings and photographs, giving an account of major events and relationships, with lengthy quotations from letters and press articles.

Ensor was born in Ostend in 1860. His mother was Belgian and his father English. He met his future wife while on holiday in her native city. Ensor revered his father, whom he described as exceptionally intelligent, handsome and athletic. He had hoped to start a new life for the family in the USA but his foray across the Atlantic coincided with the Civil War and he had to return. It seems the set-back left him increasingly resentful of narrow materialism and limited intellectual scope of Ostend. More than a little of this attitude seems to have been adopted by his son. The family ran a gift, curio and seashell shop. The many masks in the shop and the apartment above provided Ensor with his most compelling subject, one that make him famous.

Ensor studied fine art in Brussels from 1877 to 1880. His art education in Ostend had been limited and traditional. At the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts he received more traditional training. He did not do well in examinations and tended to be placed in the middle or bottom of the class. One of his fellow students was Fernand Khnopff. Ensor worked alongside Willy Finch (1854-1930). They sometimes painted the same still-life side by side and they used similar styles; they painted each other’s portraits.

Ensor was disillusioned by the expectations of the academy and the opportunities for advanced art in Belgium in 1880. That year he left both the academy and the capital, to return to live with his parents in Ostend. Advanced art was synonymous with Impressionism and Realism. Ensor enthusiastically explored both avenues, relishing the use of paint that made clear its materiality. The Oyster-eater (1882) is a good example of Impressionist-inflected Realism.

His early paintings were marines, townscapes, still-lifes and interiors. They show careful observation and the adoption of a Realist palette, enlivened by attention to facture. Tricot has included seminal works by Ensor, stressing the paintings rather than the drawings or etchings. The book amounts to a biography of Ensor through his own words and art as Chronicle contains quotes from Ensor’s own writings, which were extensive. He wrote some articles and many letters, few of which are available in English translation. The reproductions are largely accurate and all the paintings are reproduced in colour.

Ensor’s paintings earned respect from critics and fellow artist when they were exhibited in numerous group exhibitions over the 1880s. He was building the reputation of being a leading painter, without there being anything unique about his paintings. His association with Les XX (the Belgian group of avant-gardists, operational 1883-1893) and La Libre Esthétique group (the successor group, 1893-1914) helped to spread knowledge of Ensor’s art. Despite this recognition, sales were slow and prices low.

In 1883 Ensor began painting his mask series in earnest. These paintings were of figures wearing carnival and theatrical masks – and the masks with figures – as well as skeletons, each interacting with each other and with figures who seem unaware of their presence. They were to prove Ensor’s greatest achievement. They destabilised the narrative of Realist art and took on aspects of caricature, satire and dream imagery. They extended gothic art and fantasy art. Ensor was playing with the boundaries between real and unreal, living and inanimate, high and low art, entering the territory that Symbolists were examining in the same period. What made Ensor different was his wit and the use of images and conventions found in satirical prints. The Symbolists were rather averse to humour, satire and social commentary, which can make their art rather self-important, grand and detached.

He started to overpaint his older pictures, adding masks which mock the oblivious subjects. Ensor’s mask paintings were not his sole output during this time. He was as likely to exhibit a still-life, view of Ostend or a religious drawing. Ensor’s religious paintings are almost all centred on Christ, interpreting the life of Christ through a personal fusion of Ensor’s own surroundings and the art he loved. They are highly idiosyncratic pieces and vary in tone from the devotional to satirical and the autobiographical. His spurt of originality lasted from around 1883 to 1900, when Ensor’s verve diminished rapidly. His love of Turner blunted his earthy palette. He reprised old subjects but never recaptured his fire. Ironically, it was after 1900 that artistic taste caught up with Ensor and collector interest increased substantially.  

Ensor participated in the 1901 Venice Biennale. A series of publications and exhibitions raised his profile. He was knighted in 1903. In 1904 he met art dealer François Franck and in 1910 the well-connected gallerist Herbert von Garvens-Garvensburg, both of whom bought and exhibited his art. Ensor ended up painting replicas of his old paintings to meet the demand of collectors but his new compositions were generally unremarkable. In 1925 Ensor was admitted to the Académie Royale. In 1929 a huge retrospective was held in Brussels, including 337 paintings, 325 drawings and 135 etchings. The same year he was awarded a barony.   

Tricot has uncovered new data about Ensor’s life from memoirs and Ensor’s own letters. It seems his father was brutally attacked in 1885 and was hospitalised, apparently mentally unstable, and died in 1887. Tricot reveals links between Ensor and a number of artists well-known and obscure. He quotes letters written to (and from) Ensor’s publishers and collectors. He discusses matters of price and provenance that allow us to understand Ensor’s attitude towards the disposal of his art. In particular, Tricot provides information about how Ensor attempted to place key pictures with certain museums. Although this is not a full biography, the inclusion of the artist’s words gives a vivid sense of his character and views. His sardonic humour, wild wit, self-pity and capriciousness emanate from his comments. Memoirs and letters of others tell us how he was seen. Tricot has corrected the dating of At the Conservatoire from 1902 to 1893, altering his position the publication of his 2009 catalogue raisonné.

Overall, this is a very useful guide to Ensor’s life and art, especially when read in conjunction with larger catalogues. Perhaps the only shortcoming is the absence of graphic work, which may be less familiar to readers but was a key aspect of Ensor’s oeuvre.

Xavier Tricot, James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, 1860-1949, Mercatorfonds/Yale University Press (distr. Yale), 2020, paperback, 224pp, 200 col. and mono illus., £30, ISBN 978 0 300 25397 9

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Late Stalinism: Marxist Magic Realism

“In Late Stalinism: The Aesthetics of Power, Evgeny Dobrenko (professor of Russian studies at University of Sheffield) characterises Late Stalinism as a state of low-level civil war with the overt features of “aggressive nationalism […] anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, imperialism”. That imperialism extended both outside the USSR (the Eastern Bloc) and inside the USSR, by suppressing the distinct cultural identities of non-Russian states. Stalinist culture was propaganda made during the Cold War, created for the purpose of maintaining the status quo domestically and internationally, preventing escalation to military conflict (externally) and political dissent (internally).

“Andrei Zhdanov’s 1934 definition is “Socialist Realism, as the fundamental method of Soviet artistic literature and literary criticism, demands of the artist a truthful, historically concrete portrayal of reality in its revolutionary development….”

Read the full review on The Critic website here: https://thecritic.co.uk/marxist-magic-realism/

“Belgian light amid the gloom”

“I once lived in Belgium by mistake. I moved into a flat in Ixelles, a district of central Brussels, and spent my free time in museums, where I encountered art by remarkable artists of whom I had never heard. Among these artists were two who are receiving current attention: Fernand Khnopff and Léon Spilliaert.

“Symbolism is a late manifestation of Romanticism, the movement dedicated to the irrational, mystical and emotional in art. Symbolism (which flourished from 1840-1914) was an approach which allowed artists to deal with fundamental fears, desires and the meaning of human life through use of general symbols to induce strong emotions in the audience. Both Symbolism and Romanticism were founded on morbidity — a hyperawareness of death and the brevity of life — and a sense of loss at a receding past of heroism. The greatest Symbolists came from Northern Europe (and Switzerland), as if a hostile climate and long cold nights nurture a melancholy attachment to a fantastic past…” 

Read the full review here: https://thecritic.co.uk/belgian-light-amid-the-gloom/