Art Reviews

Art Review: William Kentridge, “9 Drawings for Projection”

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Sunday, December 11th, 2016

[Note: To respect copyright concerns, the slide show that accompanies the following review is available only for private viewing. Interested readers should contact the writer:]

Moving Pictures:
The Moral Aesthetic of
William Kentridge

[slide 2]
“…a drawing is a membrane between the world coming toward us and our projected understanding of the world, a negotiation between ourselves and that which is outside…”
William Kentridge, 2014

Wandering into his father’s study when he was six years old, William Kentridge became curious about the contents of a large, flat, yellow box sitting on the desk.  Thinking it might contain chocolates, he lifted the lid to find not the expected treats, but photographs of victims of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the families of whom his father was representing in court (Fig. 2).

[slide 3]
In recounting the story in 2001, the artist described two of the images, “…a woman with her back blown off” and “someone with only half her head visible.”

Over a dozen years later, he told the story again, with added details and a description of several other pictures, including this sequence of two: “A man lies face downward, a dot and a dark stain in the center of his checkered jacket…the man rolled over…the whole chest disintegrated by the exit wound of the bullet,” and a third, “[a]nother chest…blown apart.”  The resulting jolt of “nonrecognition,” as the artist called it, eventually wore off, leaving in its wake a lifelong yearning to recapture the intense clarity of that childhood moment, before repeated exposures to pictures of “extraordinary adult violence” rendered them too familiar to elicit the same powerful reaction.

The theme of memory and its temporal degradation weaves through Kentridge’s oeuvre, a collection of stand-alone works on paper, drawings turned into animated films, multimedia installations, stage designs, theater productions, puppet shows–even a couple of operas, and a performance piece in which he took the role of narrator.  A prolific and versatile artist, Kentridge–who is white–grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the era of apartheid–a system of laws promulgated by the reigning Nationalist Party–aimed at consolidating white minority rule by exiling people of color to the outskirts of economic and social life.  The “brutal enforcement” of these laws increasingly separated Kentridge’s country from the rest of the world as foreign nations imposed sanctions and limited travel in mounting protest.

An exceptionally accessible and articulate artist, Kentridge has often ruminated publicly about the relationship between his life and his art. Yet in descriptions of his early brushes with the stark realities of apartheid (Fig. 3), his words fall short of the expressive power of his drawings, which render graphically far more dramatically the ravages wrought by the South African government and, indirectly, the profound impact on the artist of living among them for his first forty years.

[slide 4]

Acknowledging a preference for images over “language and logic,” Kentridge explained that among other reasons for his becoming an artist was his need to find a field “in which the construction of fictional authorities and imagined quotes would be a cause for celebration, rather than rustication and disgrace.”  More specifically, noting that his father’s being a lawyer “was not incidental to this narrative,” he wanted to construct a self “impervious to cross-examination.”  Art made it permissible for him to live with uncertainty, and his studio provided “a safe space for stupidity.”

As a young man, even as he reluctantly surrendered to the internal imperative to pursue art as a career, Kentridge wondered whether he had “the right to be an artist.”  With characteristic gravitas and a conceptualization of “art as a moral and philosophical calling,” he believed that to be an artist required “considerable self-examination and maturation.”  That he came from a long line of illustrious lawyers added to the difficulty of choosing such a divergent path, especially one for which he felt undeserving and unqualified.

By the time Kentridge committed to a life of art, he had already earned an undergraduate degree in politics and African studies, had taken courses in art, including printmaking–which he eventually taught–and had spent time working in theater.  Not quite ready to abandon acting for art, he spent a year in Paris studying mime and other theater arts, but quickly returned home to his first love, drawing.

[slide 5]
Over the years, Kentridge has sought to understand both his desire to draw and the images that emerge from his charcoal-smudged hands (Fig. 4), but for the most part he simply surrenders to a process that starts with an impulse rather than a well-formed concept.  He tracks his engagement with art to drawing lessons he took as a nine-year-old, where in answer to his teacher’s questions about what he wanted to draw and with what, his young self replied, “Landscape” and “Charcoal”–answers that a much older self still can’t explain.

Intuitive knowing has always characterized Kentridge’s studio practice, which begins with a desire to draw–usually joined by some vague notion of where he wants to go–and delivers meaning along the way.  He’s learned that “…things occur during the process that may modify, consolidate or shed doubts on what [he] know[s],” and likens the act of drawing to a mode of thought with the potential to provide new insights on life.

[slide 6]
When the impetus to draw fails to generate action,  Kentridge often paces around his studio for many minutes or hours (Fig. 5), waiting for “…the disconnected ideas and images to pull together,” despite experience having taught him that “…images or ideas will only clarify themselves in action–the charcoal on paper, the ink in the book.”  But still he’ll pace.

By allowing himself this “space for uncertainty,” Kentridge invites unconscious material onto the page–a byproduct of his process not entirely unknown to him.  What else could he be describing when he observes that “…parts of the world, and parts of us, are revealed, that we neither expressed nor knew, until we saw them–when we realized we always did know them.”  That’s exactly what happened with one of the drawings he developed for his film Felix in Exile.  To portray a body on the veld,

[slide 7]
Kentridge used a police photograph for reference.  Only much later did he recognize in his new picture the bloody bodies of the Sharpeville massacre victims that had shocked him as a child (Figs. 2 and 6).  A memory he was sure had lost its power lay dormant until an event reminiscent of the original trauma called it back.

Most artists can’t avoid intrusion of the autobiographical into their work, though the extent of its presence varies depending on their artistic practices. While not deliberately drawing attention to himself, Kentridge usually discovers after the fact–and willingly shares it with his listeners–the ways in which his personal history has melded–in his art–with stories of Johannesburg and its inhabitants.

[slide 8]
Although in the mid-1980s (when he resumed drawing with a passion) Kentridge was inspired by early French artists, later Impressionists, and more recent German Expressionists, he could not keep South Africa from insinuating itself into even these early graphic musings.  In the right panel of his triptych The Boating Party (1985, Fig. 7)–a riff on Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), the flaming tire falling from above directly references the “burning necklaces” used by authorities (and others) to sadistically torture and kill Blacks (Fig. 8).  In the center panel, the tabletop gallows from which hangs a noose requires no additional explanation.

[slide 9]
Future favorites also made their debuts in these early explorations on paper.  The nude man in the background who turns his back on the party-goers as he exits the scene (a la Velazquez’s Las Meninas) in the left panel of the three-paneled The Conservationists’ Ball (1985, Fig. 9) later became Kentridge’s never-clothed alter-ego Felix Teitlebaum.  The binoculars displayed prominently on the table, in the middle panel, foregrounds Kentridge’s future preoccupation with instruments of sight, and leads the eye to the rhinoceros on a serving stand behind it.  The hyena in the right panel further announces the African setting, as does the cheetah on the left.

Of art in the 1960s and 1970s, Kentridge recalled:

“Much of what was contemporary in Europe and America…seemed distant and incomprehensible to me..the impulses behind the work did not make the transcontinental jump to South Africa.  The art that seemed most immediate and local dated from the early twentieth century, when there still seemed to be hope for political struggle rather than a world exhausted by war and failure…one had to look backwards…”

The unique case that was South Africa demanded its own brand of art.  The boy in his grandfather’s car as it drove past a side street in Johannesburg, noticing a man lying in the gutter surrounded by four men kicking him in his body and head, had to “rearrange” his worldview to accommodate this new reality of adult violence.  The same boy, a little older, flipping through that grandfather’s gift book of great-artists’ landscape paintings, had to reconcile the idyllic beauty reproduced in it with the “barbed-wire fences [and] hill with stones and thorns” he encountered on country-picnic outings with his family.

With his heart belonging to both dramatic and graphic arts, and perhaps feeling moved to merge them in the service of potentiating each, in 1988 Kentridge began creating Drawings for Projection, a fifteen-year project that concluded as 9 Drawings for Projection.  Devoting time and energy to the graphic arts had never pulled this artist away from filmmaking and theater.  Nor would work on his new long-term project mean there were not to be other animated films emerging from his studio during those years.  Kentridge has always stayed busy.

Coming at the time that it did–during the last few years of apartheid and several more leading up to the first free elections and later establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 9 Drawings for Projection encapsulates the artist’s personal reflections on his country of birth, its immoral treatment of native Africans and its rapacious exploitation of its mineral resources.  Throughout, Kentridge mulls over witnessing, memory, personal responsibility, love and forgiveness.

[slide 10]
In the first film, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris (1989), the artist introduced the dramatis personae for the series, one of which is the city itself (Figs. 10 and 11), about which Kentridge confessed,

“I have been unable to escape Johannesburg.  The four houses I have lived in, my school, studio, have all been within three kilometers of each other.  And in the end all my work is rooted in this rather desperate provincial city.”

Indeed, he is held as captive as Felix in Johannesburg (Fig. 12), simultaneously confounded and enthralled by a city the serendipity of birth made his.  The oddness of this hometown rests partially on a vein of gold–the mining of which has left hills of pulverized stone dotting the land–and the need over a century ago to put to work a surfeit of dangerously unemployed soldiers.  Kept occupied planting a million suburban trees, they created “the largest man-made forest in the world.”

From the first of these films until the last in 2003, Kentridge scattered much charcoal attempting to come to grips with an internal agitation that has never quite left him.  He wrestled with the dilemma of time’s inevitable absorption of the years of apartheid horrors and in the end could find no respite from misery in the middle of an unrelenting AIDS epidemic.

[slide 11]
Drawing on many years of visual material, including his own memories, Kentridge created Soho Eckstein (Fig. 13), only afterwards realizing–as is his way–that the unstoppable capitalist in a pin-striped suit had his origins in an old photograph of his paternal grandfather, sitting on a beach in full business attire.  Kentridge’s name for this hard-hearted entrepreneur–Eckstein means “cornerstone” in German–alludes to the intractability of South Africa, just as does the rock he inserts intermittently throughout the series.

The businessman’s foil, Felix Teitlebaum (Fig. 12)–whose surname derives from a Yiddish/Germanic word for “date palm” and given name resembles that of the artist’s mother’s,  Felicia (both associations inadvertent)–never acquires a wardrobe lest he get fixed in time by the specificity of fashion that a pin-striped suit somehow manages to avoid.  While Soho’s driving passion is acquisition, that of Felix is love, though mostly experienced as reverie and longing.

At the outset, needing Felix to have the same consistency of appearance and personality that the far easier-to-stereotype Soho does, Kentridge turned to the mirror.  With his dreamer taken from his own self-reflection, the draftsman–finding himself inextricably identified with his new character–“had to take responsibility for his actions,” a turn of events that enhanced the autobiographical potential of the film.

[slide 12]
The action opens with lover boy already ensconced in an affair with Mrs. Eckstein, a woman who never develops a name of her own as she moves in and then out of the illicit affair–and unfolds before the desolate Johannesburg landscape traversed by desperate Africans.  Kentridge graphically contrasted the needy tenderness of Felix (Fig. 16) with the greedy hardness of Soho (Fig. 17), although the vulnerable cloak of nakedness worn by the former doesn’t stop him from besting his fully-suited rival in an old-fashioned fist fight.

[slide 13]
The dark cloud of the violent reality of their milieu coalesces into a bookcase stacked with disembodied heads, overflowing onto the surrounding plain (Fig. 18).  A composition originally explored in the etching Casspirs Full of Love (1989, Fig. 19), the subject alludes to the theme of callous impenetrability.  Casspirs are mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that for decades were used to control the South African populace.  “Casspirs full of love” was a radio greeting sent by parents to their servicemen sons during 1974 military operations protecting the country’s borders against the newly liberated Portuguese colonies next door.  In the end, the bookcase and heads will disappear into the earth, leaving behind a ground unmarked by slaughter.

[slide 14]
In Monument (1990), the next film in the series, Soho aggrandizes himself by unveiling a commemorative statue dedicated to the black African worker.  Bent under the weight of an outsized burden, a flesh-and-blood man petrifies into the statue (Fig. 20), but the stone of his artificially constructed being soon yields to an irresistible urge to raise his head against the weight, lift his swollen eyelids and confront the not-so-innocent bystander.

Sensitive to the history accruing around him, Kentridge embodied within his work–not always intentionally–the story of South Africa’s slowly evolving deliverance from the black hole of apartheid.  Pivotal among the nine films, Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old (1991) and Felix in Exile (1994) reflect the dramatic shifts effected by a 1989 change in the country’s administration, within a year of which freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela was released from prison.  In 1994 free elections were held for the first time.

The release dates of these two films roughly coincided with those developments, capturing Kentridge’s hope for, and adjustment to, a newly imaginable world.  In Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old (1991), Felix and Mrs. Eckstein continue their affair against a backdrop of emboldened workers–chanting, carrying signs and parading through the bleak urban landscape.  Soho–torturing himself with erotic fantasies of his errant wife with her lover, humanized in his longing for her, presides over a collapsing empire and cries aloud for his eloped wife to “come home.”

[slide 15]
Early on in the film, Kentridge set a mining mountain and its barren location against the very modern cityscape of Johannesburg (Fig. 22), with its erect buildings in the background.  Later, when Soho’s monument to capitalism dissolves into dust in a scene all too evocative of the still-to-happen demise of the World Trade Towers (Fig. 23), it leaves behind a ghost of imperfectly erased charcoal (Fig. 24), expressive of Kentridge’s consternation over the mind’s ability to normalize absence even in the presence of cataclysmic events.

[slide 16]
Daring to conjure a new reality but still haunted by violent memories not so easily expunged, in Felix in Exile (1994) Kentridge conjures up Nandi, a land surveyor who uses a theodolite to bravely take the measure of her people’s losses.  Alone in a room sparsely furnished with chair, desk, bed, sink and fly-surrounded light bulb hanging from the ceiling, artist Felix rifles through his stash of drawings (Fig. 25), a window into the activities of his new beloved, Nandi.  Seeing through her eyes, quite literally in a mirror scene where each views the other from opposite ends of a double-sided scope, Felix must reckon now with the same carnage that she does (Fig. 26).

Through the power of animation, Kentridge transformed the remembered stills of the Sharpeville massacre into moving pictures of bodies bleeding on the veld.  A seismograph attempts to record the earth’s convulsed reaction but the line remains flat even after a bullet finds Nandi (Fig. 27) and the ground absorbs all traces of her life and violent death.  Throughout the film, a poignant native song cues the desired emotional response.

More redolent still of childhood memories of violence, History of the Main Complaint (1996) finds Soho in a hospital bed under intense internal scrutiny by doctors with their surveying instruments, and by his psyche through an eidetic nightmare that begins with a view through the windshield of a moving vehicle.

[slide 17]
A pair of eyes visible in the rear-view mirror registers the sudden appearance of a Black man lying on the road ahead (Fig. 28), being kicked in the face by two assailants, then subjected to body blows with a stick (Fig. 29), then kicked again and again in the head and body, each strike recording red crosses on related x-rays of torso and skull.  The latter of the two anatomical images soon morphs into Soho’s profile, glimpsed through the car window.  When night falls, taking visibility with it, Soho’s car hits one of a number of figures that dart out in front of him.  The sound of breaking glass wakes him with a start.  Despite the return of these repressed memories, the hospital patient magically mends and returns to his desk to conduct business as usual, albeit with noticeably less frenzy.

[slide 18]
No hint of Felix appears in the rest of the series as Soho becomes increasingly subdued, even self-reflective.  In Stereoscope (1999), amid bright-blue-on-black representations of communication devices and networks, besieged by lists of numbers and reminiscences of brutality (Figs. 30, 31 and 32), Soho is sometimes seen in a split screen that Kentridge left to the viewer to combine into “a true representation of the world,” effectively avoiding the daunting task of integrating disparate aspects of himself.

In its own way chronicling the challenges faced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the film ends with a block-lettered, blue-on-black “give,” soon joined by its partner “for,” to finally form “forgive,” repeated several times in that order of word appearance (Fig. 33).  In the end, Soho stands with eyes downcast and head bowed, watching water–a recurring motif in these films–cascade from first his breast pocket and then the others, till his sorrow floods the room and threatens to drown him (Fig. 34).

Tide Table (2003), the final film of the series, begins with pin-stripe-suited Soho, like Kentridge’s original reference photo for him, sitting on a beach (Fig. 35).  Children watched by their women caregivers, play in the sand and cavort in the water to the strains of upbeat music.  Within minutes, the tone darkens as these carefree activities come under the scrutiny of military men perched on the balconies of a nearby art deco resort, peering through binoculars.  The scene switches to an overcrowded hospital ward–a medical setting in complete contrast to the spacious private room Soho occupied in the History of the Main Complaint.

[slide 19]
For Kentridge, the AIDS epidemic in South Africa raised the question of “inappropriate mortality, of people dying very young…unnecessarily” because of “the inability of the society to deal with it.”  In vignettes of sick and dying men, the artist conveyed the sorrow of survivors (Figs. 37 and 38) yet still found his way back to up-tempo, wistful shots of a boy playing on the rocks and in the sand, and Soho at the water’s edge, skimming stones across the swells.  The film series ends as the tide takes with it memories of loved ones lost to AIDS, just as the land had consumed all traces of the country’s violent history.

Despite Kentridge’s expressed concern about the unreliability of memory and time’s inevitable dulling of initial shock and/or outrage (a clouding of clarity) in response to traumatic events, when realizing “some months or years later” the connection between the bodies he drew in Felix in Exile and the photographs of the Sharpeville massacre victims, he was “sure that, in a sense, it was trying to tame that horror of seeing those images.”  In using the third person “it” rather than first person “I,” Kentridge unintentionally demonstrated the power of the unconscious to keep unbearable memories at a safe remove.

In this series of nine films, the adult artist deliberately and repeatedly affirmed memory’s inevitable erosion, using the natural behavior of land and water as visual metaphors for the process.  But his child-artist self refused to abide by that precept, consistently ejecting onto the page violent memories that defiantly remained very much alive in the deep recesses of his brain, ready to be summoned by the slightest evocation of those original experiences.


Notes and references available upon request.

A special note of appreciation
for making the films available to the writer goes to:

Marian Goodman Gallery
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
Tel : 212-977-7160

William Kentridge’s art can be visited there.


Art Review: Art Objects?

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Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

All That Glitters…
Art Museums Making It Art

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.  But I know it when I see it…1

When Justice Potter Stewart penned those word in a 1964 concurring opinion on a case involving a motion picture, he had in mind pornography.  Today the statement could easily apply to a certain attitude held by many people toward art, unaware as they are of the vulnerability to manipulation of their belief.

Attempting to define the “kinds of material embraced within that shorthand description” art has been a favorite pastime of deep thinkers from at least as far back as Plato, with neuroscientists recently adding their voices to the cacophony.2  When creative types stepped outside accepted norms (as they are wont to do), they further complicated this age-old struggle to determine the nature of art.

The terminology problem achieved critical mass when in April 1917 Marcel Duchamp–pushing the limits of the Society of Independent Artists’ policy of accepting all proffered objects–presented to its hanging committee a urinal he purchased from the J. L. Mott Iron Works company, having affixed to it the signature “R. Mutt” and anointed it Fountain.3  In another sphere of activity but also during the early part of the twentieth century, a boom in archaeological digs coupled with a proliferation of publications for a general audience introduced yet another set of objects for consideration as art.4  Contemporaneously, indigenous works from Africa began to migrate from ethnic collections to art galleries,5 setting in motion a reevaluation of comparable items brought from analogous cultures elsewhere.

The legacy of these developments can be found today gracing the interiors of art museums, where (among other factors) a simple change in accompanying label can alter the meaning of an object on display.6

Theaster Gates, In Case of Race Riot II (2011, wood, metal and hoses, 32 x 25 x 6 in [81.3 x 63.5 x 15.2 cm]). Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Theaster Gates, In Case of Race Riot II (2011, wood, metal and hoses, 32 x 25 x 6 in [81.3 x 63.5 x 15.2 cm]). Brooklyn Museum, New York.

 Tucked away in a corner in the American Identities galleries of the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York on the wall of a section headed “Everyday Life/A Nation Divided,” behind a framed sheet of glass, a length of coiled hose invites associations with its primary purpose of extinguishing fires.  One could be forgiven for expecting the accompanying wall text to announce, “In case of fire, break glass.”

Instead, the explanatory label begins with a name–Theaster Gates, adds a title–In Case of Race Riot II, and includes a list of materials used in its assemblage.  The story of the piece follows.  The viewer is cued to consider the object a work of art by the box that frames it, the label that describes it, the spotlighting that illuminates it, and the art museum that placed it in the company of other similarly designated pieces.  The power of this image to evoke an emotional response in beholders is enhanced by any personal recollections of the civil rights events of the 1960s to which it refers.  Such reminiscences are encouraged by the declared theme of the gallery, “A Nation Divided.”

Clearly art museums do far more than simply collect and display artwork.  These structures have been variously described as: ritual spaces ”designed to induce in viewers an intense absorption with artistic spirits of the past;”7  “philosophical instruments” that “propose taxonomies of the world” and “encourage aesthetic engagement with their contents,”8 “optical instrument[s] for the refracting of society;”9 places for the “staging of objects relative to other objects in a plotting system that transforms juxtaposition and simple succession into an evolutionary narrative of influence and descent…a configured story culminating in our present;”10 guarantors of the “artificial longevity” of ultimately perishable commodities,11 which attempt to “contradict the irreversibility of time and its end result in death;”12 and–most relevant to this exploration–an institution with the purpose of teaching “the difference between pencils and works of art”13 or more generally, “works of art and mere real things.”14

Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964 [prototype, 1915], wood and galvanized-iron snow shovel, 52 in [132 cm] high). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964 [prototype, 1915], wood and galvanized-iron snow shovel, 52 in [132 cm] high).  Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Enter Marcel Duchamp with his readymades and insistence that “‘[a]n ordinary object’ can be ‘elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist,’”15 which is to say that intention trumps all.  Of course, minus the hallowed halls of art museums and related gallery spaces such pieces would lose the foils so essential to their argument.16

The heights of absurdity possible when artists (or art museums or the art market) become sole arbiters of an object’s artistic status found dramatic expression in 1998 when Alan Alda played Marc, an outraged skeptic in the Broadway production of Art.  When Marc’s longtime friend proudly displayed the latest (and very expensive) addition to his modern art collection–a totally white canvas, the ensuing conflict over the nature of art (which included a third pal as intermediary) threatened to derail a fifteen-year friendship.17  Such is the passion invoked by the question, “What is art?”

An alternative way of posing the question–“When is art?”18–underscores the importance of context.  One can designate as art a found, constructed, fabricated or handcrafted work, but its definitive determination as such seems to rely on its ultimate resting place.  Art museums display art.  Natural history museums house ethnographic collections and archaeological finds.  Design museums celebrate human’s ingenuity.  Large enough encyclopedic museums show it all.  Or so it would seem.

The visitor to a Surrealism exhibit, encountering Duchamp’s snow shovel suspended in the museum gallery, can’t see how it differs from the one that leans against the wall in a suburban garage.  Titled In Advance of the Broken Arm, the readymade proves that “a thing may function as a work of art at some times and not at others.”19

Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing (c. 1940, rag-filled Bakelite and metal, 13¾ x 91/16 x 26⅜ in [35 x 23 x 67 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing (c. 1940, rag-filled Bakelite and metal, 13¾ x 91/16 x 26⅜ in [35 x 23 x 67 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Constantin Brancusi, Sleeping Muse II (c. 1926, polished bronze, 6½ x 7½ x 11½ in [16.5 x 19.1 x 29.2 cm]). Harvard Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Constantin Brancusi, Sleeping Muse II (c. 1926, polished bronze, 6½ x 7½ x 11½ in [16.5 x 19.1 x 29.2 cm]).  Harvard Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s Design Museum in New York, ensconced in a vitrine (those ubiquitous glass cases that prepare visitors for an art experience), an oblate spheroid tapering to a point at one end, with the appearance of wood but actually composed of “the first entirely synthetic plastic,”20 rests on a base of metal that functions as a stand.  Relocated to the sculpture wing of a modern/contemporary art museum, this Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing from about 1940 would nestle comfortably up against the Jean Arps and Henry Moores.  But even more striking is its formal resemblance to the Constantin Brancusi Sleeping Muse II (c. 1926) that resides in the Harvard Art Museums.

Henry Dreyfuss, Design for Acratherm Gauge (1943, brush and gouache, graphite, pen and black ink on illustration board, 11 × 8½ in [27.9 × 21.6 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Henry Dreyfuss, Design for Acratherm Gauge (1943, brush and gouache, graphite, pen and black ink on illustration board, 11 × 8½ in [27.9 × 21.6 cm]).  Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

This ambiguity is also evident on the first floor of the Cooper Hewitt amid an assemblage of aids to mobility and handling, where a framed gouache drawing by Henry Dreyfuss called Design for Acratherm Gauge presents the observer with a tour de force of trompe l’oeil effect.  This picture’s placement in a room with other useful instruments and its clear designation as a product of design attempt unsuccessfully to differentiate it from an artist’s finished work on paper.

Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House (1878, oil on canvas mounted on canvas, 24⅛ x 18 in [61.3 x 45.7 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House (1878, oil on canvas mounted on canvas, 24⅛ x 18 in [61.3 x 45.7 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Label for Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House.

Label for Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House.

Upstairs at the same design museum, great pains have been taken to ensure that visitors don’t mistake a bona fide artwork for an architect’s rendering of a domestic interior.  The first word on the label for Walter Launt Palmer’s painting of the Interior of Henry de Forest House (1878) is “painting.”

Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, dimensions vary). Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

Displayed on “Tools” floor of Cooper Hewitt. Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, 9⅓ x 13⅓ x 15 ft [2.85 x 4.06 x 4.55 m]).  Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

Displayed in art gallery. Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, dimensions vary). Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

Displayed in art gallery. Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, dimensions vary). Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

The Cooper Hewitt is filled with objects harboring this potential for dual identities.  A relative of Duchamp’s snow shovel (functional identity)/In Advance of the Broken Arm (art identity) appears in Damián Ortega’s Controller of the Universe (2007) as one element in a starburst of tools through the axis of which visitors can wander.  This central attraction of the design museum’s “Tools” floor makes a solo appearance in a room with white walls in a photo posted on the museum’s website.21  Reassembled to fit into an art gallery, this spatially condensed version transforms the viewers’ experience from active participation to passive contemplation of an esteemed work of art.

Unidentified (French) artist, Salt Cellar with the Episodes from the Life of Hercules and Salt Cellar with Allegorical Scenes (c. 1550, enamel on copper, 2⅞ x 3 in [7.3 x 7.6 cm]). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Unidentified (French) artist, Salt Cellar with the Episodes from the Life of Hercules and Salt Cellar with Allegorical Scenes (c. 1550, enamel on copper, 2⅞ x 3 in [7.3 x 7.6 cm]). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Likewise, stepping into the Harvard Art Museums–whose august exterior signals visitors to expect an elevated cultural experience, then ambling through acres of paintings, sculptures and less definable objects, and coming upon a vitrine with an array of utilitarian things of venerable pedigree, one is already well primed to see two attractive French salt cellars from about 1550 as works of art.  That impression gets considerable assistance from a painting on the wall immediately behind them–of Martin Luther (1546, from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder), and an additional boost from an identifying label that calls their maker an “Unidentified artist.”

Egmont Arons, designer, Meat Slicer (c. 1935, steel, 12½ x 17 x 20½ in [31.8 x 43.2 x 52.1 cm]) and Edo Period, Japan, Pothook Hanger (Jizai-Gake) (18th to 19th century, iron and wood, 18 x 16 x 4½ in [45.7 x 40.6 x 11.4 cm]). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Egmont Arons, designer, Meat Slicer (c. 1935, steel, 12½ x 17 x 20½ in [31.8 x 43.2 x 52.1 cm]) and Edo Period, Japan, Pothook Hanger (Jizai-Gake) (18th to 19th century, iron and wood, 18 x 16 x 4½ in [45.7 x 40.6 x 11.4 cm]). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Less clear is the message communicated by the Brooklyn Museum of Art in its “Connecting Cultures” exhibit, a room hosting a hodgepodge of paintings, sculpture, ethnic objects and useful things from across millennia. Putting aside the impossibility of getting close enough to see some of them (placed on shelves that soar above eye level), one confronts a dilemma in a vitrine containing a twentieth-century American-made, shiny steel Meat Slicer and a two-hundred-year-old, dark-hued Edo period iron-and-wood Pothook Hanger (Jizai-Gake).

Visitors might be less inclined to regard the all-too-familiar deli appliance as art and feel similarly about the slicer’s neighbor, the large hook.  Situate the much older, exotic Japanese piece in the Asian wing of any art museum, hang it on a wall under spotlighting and affix to the display a typical artwork label, and responses will likely change.

“University Collections Gallery: African Art,” Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“University Collections Gallery: African Art,” Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ample evidence of this “museum effect–the tendency to isolate something from its world, to offer it up for attentive looking and thus to transform it into art like our own”22 exists in the University Collections Gallery of African Art at the Harvard Art Museums.  There a select group of products from several countries in Africa, sparsely arranged in various shaped glass enclosures, hangs on the walls–a collection small enough in number for a single wall label to comfortably contain descriptions of all the pieces.

Axe, Songya, Democratic Republic of Congo (1914 or earlier, iron, copper and wood). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Axe, Songya, Democratic Republic of Congo (1914 or earlier, iron, copper and wood).  Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts

A stunningly beautiful axe, with a wooden handle and complex wrought iron head, shares its glass box frame with a less ornate companion, emitting conflicting messages about its identity.  Everything about the setup, especially the segregation of the axes in their own display cases, emphasizes the uniqueness of each piece, connecting it with the art just seen in nearby galleries.

Shown in an exhibit hall at a natural history museum among many other examples of its type, these implements might be classified as artifacts, things that have “primarily the status of tools, of instruments or objects of use.”23  In a more inclusive definition, the dictionary describes them as “object[s] made by a human being, typically…of cultural or historical interest,”24 a category that can range from “sophisticated and culturally valuable the smallest everyday thing.”25

The pool of opinion on what qualifies something as art teems with dangerous life forms, but the variables of “complex abstract thinking,”26 embodiment of a thought and expression of meaning,27 and evocation of emotions28 that include aesthetic delight,29 serve to classify most of them.  While that last trait is both an unnecessary and insufficient determinant of artistic status, it can easily seduce observers into believing they are in the presence of real art (whatever that might be).  Art museums, intentionally or not, often cash in on that response.

With barrier. Ai Weiwei, Untitled (2014, edition of 60, mixed media, primarily stainless steel). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

With barrier. Ai Weiwei, Untitled (2014, edition of 60, mixed media, primarily stainless steel).  Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

On a wall near the ticket counter at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a glittery silver city bike hangs behind a barrier, its artist Ai Weiwei having given it the noncommittal tag of Untitled.  In the list of materials provided by either him or the museum–“mixed media, primarily stainless steel”30–the word bicycle is conspicuously absence, perhaps in hopes of enticing some unsuspecting bike-riding enthusiast, smitten by the beauty of the artifact glowing before her, to perceive the object as a work of art by world-famous Chinese artist Ai (as the label, lighting, ribbon barrier and placement on an art museum wall encourage) and part with the asking price of $27,500, an amount designed to offset the cost of the artist’s now past exhibition, Ai Weiwei: According to What?

Tooling around the city mounted on this splendid bike might turn it back into a “mere real thing,” diminishing its monetary though not aesthetic value.  Hanging it back on a wall would restore its identity as art, the preference of any art collector (or curator).  But for the rider, whose delight derives from speeding along on wheels, immobilizing such an exquisitely crafted bicycle would rob it of its raison d’être and, incidentally, extinguish the pleasure of exhibiting a prized possession in an arena markedly different from the interior of any art museum.


1 Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), p. 197.

2 Anjan Chatterjee, The  Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

3 Thierry de Duve, “‘This is Art’: Anatomy of a Sentence,” ArtForum, April 2014, 2.

4 Ably demonstrated in From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, an exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, February 12- June 7, 2015.

5 In 1914, Alfred Stieglitz mounted at his Gallery 291 “what he claimed to be the first exhibition anywhere to present African sculpture as fine art rather than ethnography.”  See Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and his New York Galleries, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.  Accessed March 15, 2015, exhibitions/modart_2.shtm.

6 Chatterjee, The  Aesthetic Brain, 140.

7 Carol Duncan, “The  Art Museum as Ritual,” Art Bulletin LXXVII, no. 1 (March 1995): 12.

8 Ivan Gaskell, “The Riddle of a Riddle,” Contemporary Aesthetics 6 (2008): 7.

9 Donald Preziosi, “Brain of the Earth’s Body: Museums and the Framing of Modernity,” in Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts, edited by Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004), 77.

10 Ibid., 78.

11 Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2008), 38.

12 Duncan, 12.

13 E. H. Gombrich, “The Museum: Past, Present and Future,” Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (Spring 1977), 465.

14 Arthur C. Danto, “Artifact and Art,” in ART/artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections (New York: The Center for African Art, 1988), 23.

15 Museum of Modern Art, catalog entry for In Advance of the Broken Arm.  Accessed March 17, 2015. advance-of-the-broken-arm-august-1964-fourth-version-after-lost-original-of-november-1915.

16 Groys, “On the New.”

17 “Art (play),” Wikipedia.  Accessed March 19, 2015: Art_(play).

18 Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978), 66.

19 Ibid.

20 Object label, Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing, Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

21 “Controller of the Universe, 2007,” Cooper Hewitt website.  Accessed March 19, 2015:

22 Svetlana Alpers, “The Museum as a Way of Seeing” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1991), 27.

23 Google definition.  Accessed March 19, 2015: search?q=define:+arbiters+&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=define:+artifact.

24 Danto, “Artifact and Art,” 28.

25 Gaskell, “The Riddle of the Riddle,” 4.

26 Ibid.

27 Danto, “Artifact and Art,” 32.

28 Chatterjee, The  Aesthetic Brain, 131.

29 E. H. Gombrich, “The Museum: Past, Present and Future,” 450.

30 Object label, Ai Weiwei, Untitled, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.


Art Review: Mummy Portrait Panels

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Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

Identity Dilemma:
Greco-Roman Egyptian
Mummy Portraits at
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View of “Young Woman with Gilded Wreath” in Vitrine, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

View of “Young Woman with Gilded Wreath” in Vitrine, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Crowned by light, the lovely young lady with forehead-framing corkscrew curls and golden hair ornament inhabits a tall, slim vitrine intended to suggest a coffin to the viewer, providing a reminder of her original function as a portrait panel nesting in the linen wrappings of an Egyptian mummy.1 The encaustic painting, set off dramatically against a warm red display mat, might feel far more at home exhibited with other representatives of early Western European artistic traditions.

When asked how this work, Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, came to reside in the gallery of Egypt Under Roman Rule 40 B.C. – 400 A.D. at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Marsha Hill (co-curator of the 2000 show Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt) replied that when the work became available for purchase in 1909 from Cairo antiquities collector and dealer Maurice Nahman, the Egyptian Art Department pursued its acquisition using Rogers Fund money; at the time, the Greco-Roman Art Department expressed no interest in any of the Egyptian panel paintings then appearing on the market. Thus, the circumstances of the artwork’s acquisition largely determined its ultimate context2 and how future museum goers would come to perceive this example of Greek-influenced Roman-era painting.

In the early twentieth century, the Met’s Egyptian Art Department demonstrated impressive foresight with its enthusiasm for artwork from the land of the Nile deemed a “classical development” by most Egyptologists and of little importance to classicists who associated the mummy portraits with Egypt (not Greece or Rome).3 Even in the twenty-first century, a recent book about ancient Egyptian art failed to include any reference to these mummy portraits,4 and an exhibition catalog on Egyptian portraiture concluded with a beautiful example of a Roman mummy plaster mask but failed to mention the contemporaneous and identically used panel paintings.5

Across the Great Hall from the Egyptian wing at The Metropolitan Museum, in the relatively new Greco-Roman galleries, there are only four examples of Greek painting displayed–all small murals and predating by several centuries Young Woman and her kind. One is Lucanian from southern Italy; the other three are from the Alexandria region of Egypt. Whether or not an argument was ever advanced for placing the latter in the Egyptian wing, a case could certainly have been made for exhibiting the Greco-Roman Egyptian mummy portraits somewhere among the museum’s extensive holdings of Roman wall paintings.

When the Ptolemies took control of Egypt after the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, they drained part of the Fayum lake and built an advanced irrigation system to create additional arable land that they then gave to their Greek soldiers, following an already existing practice. Egyptians were later recruited to work on this newly inhabited farmland and after 30 BCE, both these groups were joined by Romans carrying out the business of empire.6 Art like Young Woman, emerging from this conglomeration, was bound to defy easy categorization.

Conceding that they represent a “confluence of Greek painting, Roman portraiture and Egyptian burial practices,” curator Hill explained that an effort has been made to provide a context for the mummy portraits in the room with Young Woman and in the area where the display continues past the nearby gallery-titled doorway. As an example, she pointed to a vitrine there that encases an intact mummy7 intricately wrapped in linen bands with its portrait panel still in place. Rather than serving to emphasize the Egyptian pedigree of these Roman-period portraits, the mummy highlights the startling contrast between the ancient and contemporary burial and artistic practices of its time.

View of “Egypt Under Roman Rule” Gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

View of “Egypt Under Roman Rule” Gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

The museum succeeded in situating Young Woman in an Egyptian context primarily through its physical location. Entering the gallery that contains the painting, visitors are introduced to the entire Egyptian wing by a sign containing text and photos highlighting the collection, and an ancient tomb structure from Saqqara. Crossing the large room on the way to the far wall of mummy plaster masks, painted shrouds and panel portraits, they encounter two coffins from the Roman period decorated with images of deities associated with Egyptian burial practices.

Object Label for “Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo © Deborah Feller.

Object Label for “Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Casual viewers attracted to Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath who read the picture’s accompanying label learn nothing of how an object so uncharacteristic of Egyptian art came to be displayed in that wing. The text describes the painting as a work of art–with notes on technique, appearance and dating–and gives nothing of its history.8

Visitors never learn that before being displayed as an art object, Young Woman functioned to ensure safe passage to the netherworld and, consequently, eternal life for its subject. Meant to act as backup in case harm came to the physical self (preservation of the body being essential to the continuation of the ka [spirit]),9 long ago severed from its body and home, now exhibited out of context, the mummy portrait as shown tells an incomplete story.

Map of Fayum Lake District from Paul Roberts, Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (London: the British Museum Press, 2008.

Map of Fayum Lake District from Paul Roberts, Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (London: the British Museum Press, 2008).

For The Metropolitan Museum, that story probably began in the late 1880s with the rediscovery of mummies with painted faces in the Fayum lake district in northern Egypt. Tempera examples were already saturating the market when British archaeologist, Flinders Petrie, excavating at Hawara in that area, came across a trove of encaustic portraits10–soon to prove more appealing to contemporary Western eyes than the previously discovered tempera ones.11

Most of Petrie’s finds ended up in London at the National Gallery and British Museum;12 some found their way to dealers like Nahman. Over the course of time, mummy portraits were unearthed throughout Egypt, though they still continued to carry the epithet “Fayum.”13 Unprovenanced, if Young Woman did originate from that lake district, the discoverer might have provided a service by rescuing it from likely destruction had its burial place been in the path of mid-nineteenth-century farmland expansion, a response to economic incentives and technical assistance from England for Egypt to produce more cotton.14

The civil war tearing apart the United States in the 1860s had halted that country’s exportation of cotton and created new European markets for Egyptian farmers in the fertile Fayum region. “[F]armers…in search of sebbakh,…Nile mud enriched with human- and animal-produced organic materials”–a cheap source of excellent fertilizer, and raw material for mudbricks and saltpeter (used in gunpowder)15–widened their search for this much prized commodity. As farmland reached ancient settlements, and ruins became more valuable as agricultural resources, farmers lost motivation to preserve and sell unearthed antiquities as was their previous custom.16

While sebbakh was more plentiful around town mounds–not necessarily in the area of necropolises,17 related population expansion and its attendant pressures constituted other threats. Had Petrie and his ilk not excavated and removed these paintings–and in the case of the former, given many to public institutions–the portraits might have been destroyed, or hidden away in private collections, Egyptian antiquities law at the time being as lax as it was.18

In the current century, objects of questionable provenance are increasingly repatriated to the countries from which they were removed,19 and national and international antiquities laws make legal exportation of cultural patrimony almost impossible.20 But up until 1912, Egyptian laws on the books since 1835 allowed for easy acquisition of excavation permits with the proviso that finds be split equally with the state.21

Digging up mummies, separating them from their masks, shrouds and/or panel paintings, and then removing them and their accessories for sale by dealers headquartered in Cairo would have been considered sacrilegious by the elite, mostly Greek and Egyptian early-first-century residents of the Fayum region22 who entombed their dead in accordance with ancient beliefs, but at the time it was happening it wasn’t even illegal. With no constituency left to speak for them, the two-thousand-year-old mummies were fair game.

This contrasts with far more recent twentieth-century disinterments, a potent example of which was the 1991 discovery of human remains in downtown New York City during a “cultural resource survey” that included “archeological field-testing” in advance of the construction of a federal building. Identified as a burial ground for African slaves, the site quickly attracted attention from the African-American community and its supporters. After years of productive research agreed upon by all parties, the long-ago-forgotten Africans were reburied at the original site, now a national monument–the African Burial Ground Memorial.23

Similarly, in 1990 the United States passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, providing a process for the return of Native American remains and their related artifacts already in museum and federal agency collections. The law also set down procedures respecting new burial ground discoveries, acknowledging their spiritual importance to surviving tribes.24

The mummies that Petrie, other archaeologists, treasure hunters and farmers were unearthing in the late 1800s, early 1900s, and even before, don’t seem to have been considered by anyone as ancestral remains. Egyptian statutes governing these practices regulated antiquities dealers, not the treatment of the buried dead.25 When The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Young Woman in 1909, the action engendered no controversy, their being no Greco-Roman-Egyptian descendants to make a fuss.

In fact, probably with the motivation to present the mummy portrait Young Woman as a work of art rather than a funerary object, someone had flattened what was originally a convex panel and mounted it on a board. Whether the curve was part of the original form or had developed over time with use,26 the retaining of that bowed shape by the excavator/dealer/collector would have made storage and/or shipping inconvenient, rendering the piece less desirable.

Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, Egypt, Roman Period (120–140 CE, encaustic with gold leaf on wood , 14⅜ x 7 in [36.5 x 17.8 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

According to curator Hill, other than the alteration in the panel’s shape the surface of Young Woman appears pretty much as it was when found.27 Although the four vertical fissures that probably resulted from the flattening were filled in, along with some minor cuts,28 the painting underwent no comprehensive restoration by a conservator intent on imposing upon it some contemporary aesthetic ideal. Fortunately, the portrait retains enough of its original wax pigment and gold leaf to satisfy as both a thing of beauty and a historical document.

If any record chronicled something of Young Woman’s original condition, it would be found in the Maurice Nahman Archives.29 In the absence of such a reference, it seems safe to assume that this portrait panel belonged with others described by Petrie “as [being] fresh as the day they were painted.”30

Displayed to emphasize its aesthetic value, Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath showcases its creator’s skill in the rendering of three-dimensionality, rarely of interest to Pharaonic Egyptian painters. Illumination from the upper left throws warm shadows to the right of prominent forms, while a cool grey tone signals where these forms turn from the light, an effect most obvious along the bridge of the nose and the front plane of the face where it meets the only side visible to the viewer.

Those tricks of the trade surely originated with the great masters of Greek painting chronicled by Pliny the Elder (around 77-79 CE) in Book XXXV of his Natural History31 and took on a new life during the Renaissance, Baroque and later Neoclassical periods of European painting. Nature is not the only teacher here, however. Young Woman’s larger-than-life eyes–like those found on many other mummy portraits–bring to mind ancient Egyptian wall paintings of profile faces with over-sized, kohl-lined eyes.

Viewer in the “Gallery of Egypt Under Roman Rule 30 B.C. to 400 A.D.” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Viewer in the “Gallery of Egypt Under Roman Rule 30 B.C. to 400 A.D.” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Photo © Deborah Feller.

Ordinary museum goers, stopping to admire the dramatically-lit, unusual painting in the corner of a room containing a reconstructed Egyptian tomb, probably wouldn’t notice its finer points of technique nor, because of the way Young Woman is currently presented, would they be aware of the critical function the painting once served. For that matter, no person can know the thoughts of the aggrieved who commissioned the portrait for someone so young32 when seeing it for the first time, probably already held in place by the linen enwrapping the mummified body. In these many ways, the identity of Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath has yet to be fully understood and adequately presented.
1 Marsha Hill, Curator of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, interview by author, New York, October 28, 2014.
2 Ibid.
3 Morris Bierbrier, “The Discovery of the Mummy Portraits” in Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, edited by Susan Walker (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), 33.
4 Gay Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt, revised edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008).
5 Donald Spanel, Through Ancient Eyes: Egyptian Portraiture (Birmingham, Alabama: Birmingham Museum of Art, 1988).
6 R. S. Bagnall, “The Fayum and its People” in Ancient Faces, 26-28.
7 Hill, interview.
8 The Metropolitan Museum, object label, Young Woman with a Gilded Wreath, read on October 28, 2014.
9 John Taylor, “Before the Portraits: Burial Practices in Pharaonic Egypt” in Ancient Faces, 9.
10 Nicholas Reeves, Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries, A Year-by-Year Chronicle (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2000), 76-78.
11 Ibid.
12 Bierbrier in Ancient Faces, 32.
13 Ibid., 33.
14 Paola Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History,” The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri Lecture Series, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, n.d., accessed October 24, 2014,
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Hill, interview.
18 Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History.”
19 For example see: Jason Felch, “Getty ships Aphrodite statue to Sicily,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2011, accessed November 4, 2014,; and Elisabetta Povoledo, “Ancient Vase Comes Home to a Hero’s Welcome,” New York Times, January 19, 2008, accessed November 4, 2014, arts/design/19bowl.html.
20 “International Antiquities Law Since 1900,” Archaeology, April 22, 2002, accessed November 4, 2014,
21 Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History.”
22 R. S. Bagnall in Ancient Faces, 28-29.
23 “African Burial Ground Memorial, New York, NY,” Historic Buildings, US General Services Administration, accessed November 8, 2014,
24 “National NAGPRA, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” National Park Service, U. S. Department of the Interior, accessed November 8, 2014,
25 Davoli, “Papyri, Archaeology, and Modern History.”
26 Hill, interview.
27 Ibid.
28 Catalog entry, Ancient Faces, 109.
29 “Maurice Nahman, Antiquaire. Visitor book and miscellaneous papers. 1909-2006 (inclusive),” Wilbour Library of Egyptology.  Special Collections Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Brooklyn Museum, accessed November 8, 2014,
30 Reeves, Ancient Egypt: The Great Discoveries, 78.
31 Pliny the Elder, Natural History, translated by D. E. Eichholz (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann, 1949-54), Vol. 10, Book XXXV, 38-53.
32 The existence of portraits of young children as well as the very old make it unlikely the paintings were done during the lifetime of the subject, and CAT scans of mummies show age and sex consonant with still-attached portraits. See Susan Walker, “Mummy Portraits and Roman Portraiture” in Ancient Faces, 24.


Art Review: “Young Husband, First Marketing” by Lilly Martin Spencer

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Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Lilly Martin Spencer
Playfully Paints
Her Husband’s Travails

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½  x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½ x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

In the newly appointed American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entering gallery 758 one encounters a rectangular painting of modest size (a couple of feet wide by a little more than that tall) in a gilded frame with ornate corners and a similarly colored plaque that announces in black lettering the subject (Young Husband, First Marketing) and artist (Lilly Martin Spencer), and includes dates that seem to indicate the maker’s life span (1822 and 1902).

In the vertical center of this oil-on-canvas composition, a man clutches in his right hand a folded black umbrella, while with his other hand he grabs the far side (from him) of a wicker basket and one of the legs of a chicken carcass attempting to escape from it. Roped to the feet of that fowl another one has already broken free and dangles head first in front, and to the proper left, of the burden bearer at an angle reflecting that of the right leg the man has raised so that his knee might function as a platform–albeit an unsteady one–to support this cornucopia of foodstuff in danger of toppling over.

On the glistening ground to his right, a bunch of carrots straddles some stalks of rhubarb, the collective leaves of which abut a splayed head of lettuce on which two cracked eggs spill out their contents. Close by, a lone tomato has come to rest on the center of the lower border of the painting, below the shoe heel of the man wrestling for control of his charges.

Light directs the eye to the man’s neatly bearded face with its furrowed, knitted brow capping lowered lids and eyes that gaze down at the vegetables on the ground. Lest anyone miss the ongoing drama of the basket contents, the artist has reserved the brightest painted value for the white eggs participating in it. Keeping them company are a bunch of asparagus, three tomatoes, an orange gourd, a pineapple, some greens, a cut of meat and the aforementioned dead chicken. Only a small portion (perhaps a third) of the basket’s lid rests on those contents, effectively revealing them as it slips back and to the proper right of the protagonist.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½  x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lilly Martin Spencer, Young Husband, First Marketing (1854, oil on canvas, 29½ x 24¾ in [74.9 x 62.9 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This struggling man is dressed in black top coat, dark brown pants and stack-heeled black shoes with buttoned grey spats. Under his coat, he has piled on several layers of clothing, including something black (perhaps a sweater) fastened just under his white collar, and a maroon vest. On his head he sports a squat, brimmed hat.

To his proper right and a few steps behind him, another even more carefully bearded man strides toward the left edge of the painting, elegantly attired in black top hat, leather gloves, brown coat, black pants, similarly styled shoes, black vest with a row of light paint spots crossing his vest (perhaps a gold chain for a pocket watch), and a light-colored shirt with two small areas of dark paint near the collar that might be a bow tie. He holds over his head a large open umbrella and leans forward while turning his head toward the painting’s center of interest. His eyes on the basket, this striding man’s upturned mouth corners, bared upper teeth, puffed out left cheek that catches the only high-value light falling on him, all indicate the action of the zygomatic muscle pulling his expression into a smile.

In the far background, two other figures walk toward each other in front of a wall covered with posters. The one to the left of the two foregrounded men, a woman, lifts up her heavy-cloth brown skirt and lacy petticoat to reveal legs clad in white hose and black shoes. A dark-turquoise-and-rust-colored scarf covers her head, and a waist-length reddish-brown jacket of thick material protects her upper body. The umbrella she holds open over her head runs parallel to the one held by the striding man, pairing her with him in the same way as does the turn of her head toward the man with the basket. Her sufficiently lighted face with its open eyes, upturned lip corners and puffed cheek echoes, too, that other onlooker’s amusement.

The other background figure, a man (more sketchily rendered), walks onto the scene from the right, leaning forward at an angle parallel to that of the uselessly folded umbrella gripped by the man with the tilting basket. Carrying a pail on his left arm, this ruggedly dressed character steadies it with his right, far more successful in this task than his counterpart up front. Although similarly not protected by an umbrella, he wears a tall, wrinkled hat with a brim ample enough to shade his eyes, and wide-cuffed boots that reach almost to his knees.

The curb of the sidewalk on which they walk forms the horizontal midline of the composition. Green-crowned trees of differing heights rise up behind the wall that runs along the length of this sidewalk, turning a corner on the far left and ending at that edge of the canvas.

Behind the foliage, several structures comprise an urban skyline, all vaguely indicated except for the one seen in the space between the open umbrella of the dapper strider and the hat of the man with the basket. On the roof of that more well-defined, light-grey house sit several reddish-brown chimneys. Across its face, two rows of windows are visible, each window framed by sills and flanking shutters.

The painting has an overall warm, brown tone, punctuated by the red of the tomatoes, white and orange of the cracked eggs, and white, red and green of the basket contents. Highlights on the face and hands of the foremost figure, on the butt of the hanging chicken carcass and on the cheek of the striding man provide additional areas of contrast.

Splashes of low-value highlights on the cobblestone street and stone-slab sidewalk create the impression of moisture. Resembling water stains on the four-stepped stoop that occupies half of the lower right quadrant, a brown wash trickles over thicker light-brown paint. The grey-green trees, turquoise of the woman’s scarf, green of a row of grass growing along the base of the wall and of some of the produce, all combine to complement the reddish-brown elements in the rest of the painting.

Time and the environment have affected the painting’s surface. The hanging chicken’s head, neck and upper body have become transparent, revealing the sidewalk and cobblestones behind it, and the basket’s handle has practically disappeared. Craquelure has developed in the lightest areas of the sidewalk, helpfully in the broken eggs on the ground but also in the basketed ones, and throughout the rest of the painting, including in the darks. There are two prominent areas of concentric cracks, one between the lifted right foot of the man balancing the basket and the forward foot of the man walking behind him, and the other at the right shoulder of the latter.

The bright light that falls on the protagonist conflicts with the many cues that this beleaguered man is caught in a windy downpour, unable to open his umbrella because of an uncooperative basket of provisions. Yet that doesn’t detract from the whimsical way in which Spencer has successfully poked fun at a young husband grappling with the challenges of his new role.


Art Review: Decorated Glass Lamps from Mamluk Mosques at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Glittering Gold &
Colorful Enamel Glazes
Illuminated Medieval Mosques

Mosque Lamp of Ahmir Ahmad al-Mahmandar, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk Period (c. 1325, enameled and gilded glass) and others.

Mosque Lamp of Ahmir Ahmad al-Mahmandar, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (c. 1325, enameled and gilded glass) and others.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

Illuminated in their vitrines in a relatively dark gallery, the glass lamps created in Mamluk Egypt and Syria during the fourteenth century attract immediate attention with their colorfully enameled and gilded calligraphic designs. Among the ones displayed in gallery 454 in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, four line up in a vitrine against a wall, while in a case in the center of the room, a fifth appears with two non-lamp glass pieces.

Blue and gold, with accents of red and the occasional green and yellow, spell out Qur’anic texts and florid blessings related to the donor and those he served.1 Produced during the Mamluk period (and the previous Ayyubid one) primarily in factories in Damascus and Aleppo, decorated glass had been around for centuries. Building on advances in technique achieved during those years, Islamic craftsmen perfected a tricky process that required a different firing temperature for the colors than for the gold.2

Enameled and gilded glassware from Syria and Egypt.

Enameled and gilded glassware from Syria and Egypt, Mamluk period.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

This glassware from the Near East during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries acquired an international reputation, so much so that in the next century the renowned factories of Venice adopted what was probably the Syrian method. Closer to home, Syrian suqs abounded with multicolored examples fabricated by local artisans who also catered to Egyptian demand.3 A contemporary commentator wrote of glass items so wondrous in Aleppo markets that visitors did not want to leave.4

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the invasion by the Central Asian Timur (also known as Tamerlane) devastated Syria, shattering the glassmaking centers in Damascus and Aleppo. Rumor had it that he also made off with the craftsmen. By 1500, trade in enameled glassware was totally reversed, with Venice now supplying the Mamluks.5

Such valued objects as those of fourteenth-century Syria would of course over time spawn knock-offs, and samples from the nineteenth century were particularly difficult to differentiate from originals until the conservation laboratory associated with the Musée du Louvre trained Raman spectroscopes on some Syrian glassware to identify the chemical composition of the colors used in known originals.6

Mosque Lamp of Sultan Barquq, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (c. 1382-99, enameled and gilded glass).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Mosque Lamp of Sultan Barquq, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (c. 1382-99, enameled and gilded glass).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

As expected, lapis lazuli was used for blue and when mixed with Naples yellow, to derive green. Alternatively, cobalt blue was also used to make green. White came from tin oxide and sometimes calcium phosphate. These pigments differed significantly from those used by the nineteenth century imitators–arsenate white, cobalt blue and lead chromate yellow.7

To craft their masterpieces, Syrian artisans would first apply gold to the bare glass shape, using either a pen for lines or a brush for fill. Then a first firing would occur to fix the gold in place. Next came an outline of the design in red and the application of the other enamel colors, followed by another firing8 at temperatures ranging from 600 to 900 degrees Celsius.9 Since the gold and enamels required different temperatures to fuse with the glass, the trick was to find the sweet spot where colors wouldn’t run, the job would get done and the glass wouldn’t be compromised.10

Mosque Lamp, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (14th century, enameled and gilded glass).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Photo by D. Feller.

Mosque Lamp, Egypt or Syria, Mamluk period (14th century, enameled and gilded glass).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by D. Feller.

The resulting enameled and gilded glass lamps were hung on chains festooned with glass balls. Inside them, smaller glass vessels held oil, to be ignited when needed to illuminate the prayer hall.11 Inscriptions appropriately quoted the “Light Verse” from the Qur’an:

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
the likeness of His Light is as a niche
wherein is a lamp
(the lamp in a glass,
the glass as it were a glittering star)
kindled from a Blessed Tree,
an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it;
Light upon Light;
(God guides to His Light whom He will.)12

Elements of this poem form part of the inscriptions of at least two of The Metropolitan Museum’s lamps.13

Visitors enjoying the beauty of these objects are afforded a close-up view denied to worshipers for whom the lamps were originally intended, but undoubtedly afforded to like-minded connoisseurs wandering the stalls of a fourteenth-century Aleppo suq in search of a vendor to craft a lamp with inscriptions powerful enough to ensure the patron a place in heaven.
1 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, online object information, accessed December 7, 2014, =Mosque+lamp.
2 Object label text, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
3 M. S. Dimand, “An Enameled-Glass Bottle of the Mamluk Period, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, no date but probably 1930s, 73.
4 Marilyn Jenkins, “Islamic Glass: A Brief History,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Fall 1986, 41.
5 Ibid.
6 CNRS (Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique), “Chemistry sheds light on Mamluk lamps,” press release, September 11, 2012, accessed December 7, 2014,
7 Ibid.
8 Dimand, 74.
9 CNRS press release.
10 Object label text.
11 Dimand, 74.
12 Jenkins, 41.
13 Online object information.


Art Historical Musing: Art Historical Methods

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Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Doing Together
What Can’t Be Done Alone:
An Integrative Approach to
Raped by Käthe Kollwitz


The Blind Men and the Elephant
by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!

“The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

Raped (Vergewaltigt) (1907/08, etching on heavy cream wove paper, 11¾

Raped (Vergewaltigt) (1907/08, etching on heavy cream wove paper, 11¾″ x 20⅝″ [29.9 x 52.4 cm)].  Plate 2 from the cycle Peasant War.  Proof before the edition of about 300 impressions of 1908.  Knesebeck 101/Va.  Photo © Kollwitz Estate.

The way to the blockbuster show led through a long corridor that at its beginning widened into an area whose walls the museum exploited for temporary exhibitions of works on paper too light-sensitive for permanent display.  Attracted by the drawings and prints in this accidental gallery, some visitors slow for a more sustained look.

One image, which looked like an ill-kept garden, revealed itself via the wall text to be a 1907/8 etching called Raped by a German artist named Käthe Kollwitz,1 who lived between 1867 and 1945.  Viewers who took the time to look more closely would detect amid the foliage a woman with legs splayed and head thrown back, the subject of the picture’s title.  At that point most would move on to look at other works.  Some few would linger, wanting to learn more about this depiction of sexual assault.

The only other information available at that moment–the description nearby on the wall–identified the brown-ink print as a plate from the Peasant War series executed on heavy cream wove paper.  Although unschooled in art historical methods, an intrigued viewer might intuitively know that much could be gained by exploring every aspect of this simply-framed etching.

Drawing the viewer’s immediate attention and bisecting the bottom of the almost-double-square (approximately 12-by-21-inch) composition, the woman’s foot–set off from lighter surroundings by its dark sole–meets the picture plane and beckons the onlooker to follow its arch to the foreshortened, thick-set leg that disappears under a skirt.  The eye continues along an arc, through the torso and extended neck, stopping at the chin beyond which lies the shadowed face with its features distorted by the angle of view.

Searching for the rest of her, the observer discovers behind a bent-over, wilted sunflower the right leg, forming a horizontal line with the top edge of the skirt and ending in a foot that points toward the upper left corner.  Assisted by a nearby still-upright flower slanted at an angle running parallel to it, the foot directs the gaze to a blossoming sunflower in the background’s deep shadow, the form of which echoes the head of a barely discernible child with a pony tail (or braid) who drapes her right arm over a fence and looks down at the body before her.  Faintly silhouetted against a patch of open space, the young girl can easily be missed by all but the most attentive viewers as she blends in with the leafy plants around her.

Once noticed, the child leads the eye to a structure suggested by two sets of vertical lines hiding in the dark recesses of the upper register–perhaps a house.  Across the rest of this small patch of verdant landscape, damaged plants and flowers tell a story of struggle and recent destruction in what might have been a well-tended, backyard vegetable garden.

A shadow originating from outside the picture plane on the left ends in a point that meets the prone woman’s right foot and relates to her dark skirt.  Cast by a structure with straight edges and therefore of human origin, its top boundary becomes one side of a flattened diamond, the other three edges of which are the overgrown part of the fence that supports the girl, its dark extension to the right, and the left side of the woman on the ground.  Ominous in nature, the sharply angled shadow seems a stand-in for the recently-fled rapist.

Following the perimeter of that diamond shape brings the inquisitive observer to the figure’s left hand, the fingers of which curl around the edge of her torn garment near some trickles of blood on her torso and provide the final clue to the story.  A peasant woman working in her garden has been raped and stabbed, then left for dead.  Hearing the commotion and perhaps some screams, her daughter has come to see what happened and now stares sadly at the sight of her mother, wondering what to do.

Having followed the trail of clues and figured out the narrative, the formerly-naive tourist, seduced by a compelling work of art, has unwittingly entered the empirical world of the connoisseur.  Questions tumble forth about the decisions that went into creating the etching.  Who was Käthe Kollwitz?  What was the Peasant War and why did the artist choose it as a subject?  Why did she make a print instead of a painting?  If this is a series, what does the rest of it look like?  Most curious, why didn’t Kollwitz just tell her story directly and not force her audience to work so hard?

As often happens in exhibits, another visitor approaches and, noticing the engrossed tourist with nose scant inches from the print’s protective glass, engages in conversation about the piece.  An art historian by trade, the newcomer eagerly offers information about a favorite artist, her work and her art.  An exchange ensues.

First they talk about the etching itself.  When the tourist points out the little girl in the background and the trickles of blood near the victim’s left hand, the art historian is surprised, having never before engaged closely enough with the image to notice these elements.  More concerned with Kollwitz’s subject matter in general and how it relates to the context in which the artist lived and worked, the art historian appreciated this new insight and resolved to be more attentive in the future to the object itself.

Uprising (1902-03, etching on heavy beige wove paper. 20¼

Uprising (1902-03, etching on heavy beige wove paper, 20¼″ x 23⅜″ [51.4 x 59.4 cm]).  Plate 5 from the cycle Peasant War.  From the 1908 edition of approximately 300 impressions.  Knesebeck 70/VIIIb.  Private collection.  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Familiar with most of Kollwitz’s oeuvre, this knowledgeable viewer knew that Raped was the second plate of seven in the print cycle Peasant War, commissioned by the Association for Historical Art in Germany following submission for consideration of the first completed etching of the series, Uprising (originally called Outbreak).2  In that print, a powerful woman, Black Anna, leads a contingent of fellow peasants armed with makeshift weapons against their feudal lords.3

Revolt (1899, etching on heavy cream wove paper. 11⅝

Revolt (1899, etching on heavy cream wove paper, 11⅝” x 12½” [29.5 x 31.8 cm]).  First concept for plate 5 (Knesebeck 70) from the cycle Peasant War.  Knesebeck 46/V.  Private collection.  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

The idea for the cycle began in 1899 with a plate Kollwitz etched, variously translated as Uprising and Revolt, that pictured a rag-tag but triumphant mob of scythe-wielding farmers accompanied by a nude woman flying above, carrying a torch from which a flame leaps into the distant background to set ablaze the manor house, home of the oppressors.  Coming from a long line of socialists,4 Kollwitz had already explored the topic a few years earlier in her gold-medal-winning first cycle, A Weaver’s Rebellion.

From childhood, when the young Käthe had enacted barricade scenes with her father and brother, she had imagined herself a revolutionary.  It followed that as an artist she would draw strong women into her narratives, depicting them as they sharpened scythes, galvanized men into action, cared for the wounded and identified the dead.  When Kollwitz read Wilhelm Zimmermann’s 1841 General History of the Great Peasants’ War and discovered Black Anna, an actual participant in the 1525 revolt by peasants against their overseers, the idea for this cycle was born.

Answering the tourist’s questions about Kollwitz’s choice of printmaking, the art historian explained that after struggling unsuccessfully to master color in her studies at a Berlin academy for women and later in a painter’s studio, and being introduced in 1884 to the work of master printmaker Max Klinger, the young artist finally gave up on painting and in 1890 took up etching, a technique at which she soon excelled.  Although Kollwitz later devoted herself to the medium of sculpture, in which she modeled emotionally compelling figurative pieces, she never abandoned printmaking.  Expanding her practice to include lithographs and woodcuts, she valued the reproductive capabilities inherent in these mediums, guaranteeing the widest possible audience for her socio-political ideas.

The composition of Raped differs markedly from Kollwitz’s usual images of women who are shown in active roles, not supine on the ground.  It is also the only instance where she tackled landscape with enough details to identify cabbage leaves, sunflowers and other plants.5  As for its narrative, in correspondence about this print the artist referred to Raped as “the next to the last plate,” which would have made it the sixth out of seven (though it was published as Plate 2) and described it as “an abducted woman, who after the devastation of her cottage is left lying in the herb garden, while her child, who had run away, looks over the fence.”6

Knowing the artist’s intentions and how she came to etch Raped served only to whet the tourist’s appetite for more information.  Just then someone else approached, walking directly up to the two viewers who were blocking access to the print.  As chance would have it, the latest arrival turned out to be a psychotherapist who worked with trauma survivors and had a long-standing interest in art depicting sexual abuse and other forms of personal violence.

Käthe Kollwitz, whose work is permeated with meditations on struggle and death, naturally aroused the psychotherapist’s curiosity, especially with respect to how the artist came to focus on those themes.  Joining the already in-progress discussion, the clinician related how the printmaker’s son, Hans, had nagged his mother into writing about her life and her development as an artist, and how despite her initial objections, she had surprised him with a manuscript in 1922 that he later augmented with diary entries and letters, and published in 1955.7  Hearing what had already been learned by exploring the image and its creation, the therapist added to the discourse aspects of Kollwitz’s psychosocial history crucial to understanding her choice of subject matter for the etching.8

In recounting her early years, Kollwitz described seeing a photo of her stoic mother holding her firstborn son, “‘the holy child,’” who had died within a year of his birth.  Her mother lost a second son before Kollwitz’s older brother Konrad was born.  When Käthe was nine, her mother had Benjamin, who also failed to survive beyond his first year, dying from the same meningitis that took the firstborn.

The artist remembered how one night, during her baby brother’s illness, the nurse had burst into the kitchen where her mother was dishing out soup and yelled that the infant was throwing up again.  Her mother had stiffened and then went on serving dinner, her refusal to cry in front of her family failing to conceal her suffering from her young daughter, to whom it was obvious.

After that dinner, Käthe–with her younger sister Lise–was sent to play in the nursery where she built with her blocks a temple to Venus and began preparing a sacrifice to a goddess she had learned about in a book on mythology, and who she had chosen to worship over the Christian “Lord”–a stranger to her despite her family’s devotion to him.  When her parents walked into the room to convey the bad news that her little brother had died, Käthe was certain “God had taken him” as punishment for her disbelief and sacrifice to Venus.

Because the family’s way was to grit teeth and carry on, with no discussion or even expression of loss and grief, Käthe carried the burden of guilt for her brother’s death into her adult years.  Her mother’s unexpressed sorrow suffused their home and her oldest daughter lived in fear that her parents would come to harm.

Stopping the story at that point, the psychotherapist retrieved an ebook reader from a handbag and read from Kollwitz’s autobiography.  “I was always afraid [my mother] would come to some harm…If she were bathing…I feared she would drown.”  Reflecting on watching through the apartment window as her mother walked by, Kollwitz continued, “I felt the oppressive fear in my heart that she might get lost and never find her way back to us…I became afraid Mother might go mad.”

As the clinician tucked away the ebook reader, the trio of observers turned back to the etching Raped.  Suddenly they understood what the artist might not have known herself, that the young girl looking over the fence was nine-year-old Käthe and the woman on the ground was her mother, finally felled by a trauma too insistent to be repelled.

As the three viewers continued contemplating the poignant image before them, another person approached.  They eagerly began sharing their recent discoveries as they made room for the newcomer who, noticing the dates of the artist’s life, explained that Käthe Kollwitz was not a twentieth century artist but a woman born, raised and educated in the second half of the nineteenth century.9 Living in Germany in the late 1800s must have affected her art, they all agreed.

But that’s a story for another time.
1A print of the etching was displayed for a while in the Drawing and Print Gallery of The Metropolitan Museum of Art several years ago.  The work under consideration, a proof, is in the private collection of the writer.

2Martha Kearns, Käthe Kollwitz: Woman and Artist (New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1976), 85.

3See Elizabeth Prelinger, Käthe Kollwitz (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 30-39, for a description of the evolution and content of The Peasant War cycle.

4See Jane Kallir, “Käthe Kollwitz: The Complete Print Cycles” (Galerie St. Etienne, exhibit essay, October 8 through December 28, 2013) for additional information about Kollwitz’s print cycles.

5 Hildegard Bachert, “Käthe Kollwitz: The Complete Print Cycles,” gallery talk (Galerie St. Etienne, November 7, 2013).

6Käthe Kollwitz, quoted in Käthe Kollwitz: Werkverzeichnis der Graphik, by Alexandra von dem Knesebeck, trans. James Hofmaier (Bern: Verlag Kornfeld, 2002), 291.  Relevant excerpt of text included in provenance documents accompanying the proof.

7The Diary and Letters of Kaethe Kollwitz, ed. Hans Kollwitz, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1955).

8See Ibid., 18-20, for information about Kollwitz’s childhood experiences of loss.

9Bachert, gallery talk.

Käthe Kollwitz: The Complete Print Cycles
The Galerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019

Now till December 28, 2013.


Art Review: Burst of Light: Caravaggio & His Legacy

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Sunday, August 4th, 2013

An Unlikely Master,
Caravaggio Brings Light
To the World of Painting

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ (detail) (1602, oil on canvas, 135.5 x 169.5 cm). National Gallery of Ireland. Courtesy of the Jesuit Community, Leeson St. Dublin. Photograph © National Gallery of Ireland.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ (detail) (1602, oil on canvas, 135.5 x 169.5 cm).  National Gallery of Ireland.  Courtesy of the Jesuit Community, Leeson St. Dublin.  Photograph © National Gallery of Ireland.

In 1610 in the Italian coastal city of Port’Ercole, at the all-too-young age of 38, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio succumbed to either malarial fever (historically preferred version) or violence (supported by newer research).1  He left behind several paintings on a boat wending its way without him (another story) to his patrons in Rome and more critically, a new way of painting that had already changed the practices of many of his contemporaries, and would continue to inspire artists in the near and distant future.

In the spring of 2013, Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art hosted the final stop on an international tour of the exhibition, Burst of Light: Caravaggio and His Legacy.  The multi-venue show, which grew out of a collaboration among the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Atheneum and several French museums, displayed a selection of works by Caravaggio and his many followers that could be seen in its entirety in the finely illustrated catalog but only enjoyed in part at each site.

For the movie-going, novel-reading public, facts and fantasies about Caravaggio’s tumultuous social life might be better known than the significance of his contributions to the practice of figurative painting.  Two well-attended gallery talks in the space of a few hours on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in June demonstrated that given the opportunity, a contemporary audience could be captivated by the images that centuries ago first attracted fans.

A visitor asking at the Atheneum information desk for directions to the exhibit was told that straight ahead at the top of the grand staircase was a room with the Caravaggios and on either side of it, ones with the work of other artists.  Unlike with the usual blockbuster that sprawls over an endless succession of galleries, the close proximity of these 32 paintings allowed for comparisons among them via a short walk from one to the other.

Only four of the five Caravaggios originally slated for the show were on display.  Apparently the Metropolitan Museum of Art had decided to hold onto its jewel, The Denial of Saint Peter (1610), for the spring opening of its new European painting galleries.  A late work, the painting demonstrates how far the master had gone in his ability to pick out light from darkness with just a few deftly applied swipes of high-value color.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (c.1595–96, oil on canvas, 36⅜

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (c.1595–96, oil on canvas, 36⅜″ x 50¼″ [92.5 cm x 127.8 cm]).  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

Caravaggio’s potential to do a lot with a little was already evident fifteen years earlier when he created Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (c.1595–96).  In a three-by-four composition with a sweeping diagonal, an angel with a highlighted bare left shoulder supports the weight of Saint Francis, whose head is thrown back in dreamy contentment as he indicates with his right hand a chest wound similar to the one inflicted on Christ when he was crucified.

In the right half of the painting, Caravaggio’s light draws attention to the action as it lands on the angel’s face, upper body and right hand (which tugs on the rope around the saint’s habit), and Francis’s face and hands.  Following the sweep of the brown cloth brings the viewer to a bright spot that opens up the rest of the scene where a man curled in a fetal position leans against a tree and props up his head with his hand, perhaps sleeping, unaware of the drama taking place nearby.

Behind him several much smaller figures gather around the bright spot–a fire–intent on something outside the picture on the left.  Further back, light of unknown origin, either from an unseen full moon or a spiritual presence, illuminates a body of water.

The tenderness with which the spiritual being gazes upon and cradles in his arms the ecstatic mortal borders on a far more profane tableau of post-coital bliss.  The barely open, unfocused eyes, slightly upturned corners of the mouth, and limp body of the saint remind the viewer of the thin line between religious ecstasy and sexual arousal.

That double entendre was probably not accidental.  Caravaggio ran with a wild bunch of like-minded painters in Rome and when not working in his studio to “destroy the art of painting”2 with his rebellious naturalism, managed to repeatedly come into conflict with the law.  As unconventional with his sexual behavior as he was with his brush, the great iconoclast enjoyed an intimate relationship with one of his young followers nicknamed Cecco del (as in belonging to) Caravaggio.  An accomplished artist in his own right, Cecco modeled for his master and accompanied him on his travels.3

Caravaggio, having lost his father at age six and a brother several years later, sent by the time he was thirteen to live in the house of the painter with whom he apprenticed, then having his mother die when he was nineteen,4 arrived in Rome at age twenty–a young man with a history of many losses and maybe even exploitation.  Born in Milan in 1571 as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, this fledgling artist soon after his mother’s death cashed in his inheritance and headed to Rome where, within the next few years, he found a wealthy supporter and developed a revolutionary style of painting.

Proclaiming Nature as his teacher, Caravaggio painted from life; he found his models among the street people he met on his usual rounds and portrayed them as they appeared–without idealization.  Using a single source of light that raked across figures placed in a shallow, dark space without an identifying context, the artist sometimes encountered outright rejection of his in-your-face realism when one patron or another refused to accept a commissioned piece (usually one bound for a church).  But the look caught on and others emulated it, though none except perhaps Jusepe de Ribera came close to wielding a brush the way this virtuoso could.

Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595–96, oil and tempera on canvas, 39⅜

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595–96, oil and tempera on canvas, 39⅜″ x 53″ [100 x 134.5 cm]).  Detroit Institute of Arts.

In what was to become that signature style, in another early work, Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595–96), Caravaggio again used light to differentiate between the spiritual and material.  Bright spotlighting on the compositionally central Magdalen’s face emphasizes her enlightenment at the same time it draws attention to her cleavage-revealing low-cut dress, a reminder of her former attachment to worldly things.  A bright island amid an area of dark colors, her left hand points to an almost pure white rectangle in a mirror that supports her arm.  While probably meant to represent the presence of the Divine, the reflection also suggests Caravaggio’s light source: a small (basement?) window high up in an otherwise very dark room.

The curve of Mary’s red-satin-clad right arm leads to a white flower held close to her heart and onwards to the yellow sash that ends at a sponge in a bowl near a comb, all of symbolic value.  Open-mouthed Martha, in the midst of a debate with her sister, enumerates her first point with brightly defined hands.  Her shadowed face and far more sober attire attest to her attachment to good deeds as the path to spiritual attainment in contrast to Mary’s preferred life of contemplation.

The purple of Mary’s dress, green of the cloth near the mirror, and variety of hues of Martha’s attire, painted in large areas of local color, would continue for a while in Caravaggio’s early paintings and later be supplanted by mostly monochromatic images with an occasional bright red section, perhaps because of the high cost of other pigments.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Salome Receives the Head of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1606–10, oil on canvas, 36

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Salome Receives the Head of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1606–10, oil on canvas, 36″ x 42″ [91.5 x 106.7 cm]).  The National Gallery, London.

The late work Salome Receives the Head of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1606–10) is a good example of the way Caravaggio eventually distilled his style to a tenebristic scene of light and dark with few hints of color.  In a setting lacking description, three half-length figures joined by the head of another are caught in the moment immediately following a decapitation.  Looking at something outside the picture frame, Salome turns her head away from the platter she holds on which the executioner places that part of Saint John she had requested, while an elderly, ghost-like woman behind her rests head on clasped hands and looks downward.  The grim-faced executioner, with his characteristically Caravaggio light-bathed bared shoulder, extends his arm to deliver Salome’s trophy, as if to create distance between himself and his deed.

Similar in style and format to The Denial of Saint Peter, the Salome seems to have been cut off on the left.  A few more inches on that side would bring it closer to the three-by-four proportion of the Denial and other Caravaggio paintings.  Also, although identified as Salome, the woman receiving the head is entirely too dressed down to be the seductress of myth.

At this point in his career, Caravaggio painted with light.  Notorious for having left behind few if any drawings, he scratched his ideas directly onto a wet underpainting and built upon that with observations from life.  In the Salome, unhesitant brush strokes of almost pure white describe the folds in the cloths and pick out the highlights on the cross-like sword.  The few notes of warm color can be seen in the slight blush on Salome’s face and in the sun-exposed visage of the executioner, in the still-flushed ear of the saint’s head and the neat little trickle of blood below it, pooling in the dish.  The artist’s true genius can be found in his ability to model barely perceptible form in very dark shadows.

Early on, Caravaggio’s rapid rise to artistic prominence in Rome, along with his notoriety, attracted the attention of the many other young artists who had come to the ancient city in search of fame and fortune.  Among them was Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622), who adopted his teacher’s tenebrism and half-length figures set in dramatic, often violent, tableaux, and eventually influenced future generations of artists with what came to be known as the Manfrediana methodus.5

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Salome Receives the Head of Saint John the Baptist (c. 1606–10, oil on canvas, 36

Bartolomeo Manfredi, Christ Crowned with Thorns (c. 1620, oil on canvas, 33″x 44″ [82.6 x 110.5 cm]).  Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts.

Caravaggio’s influence on this older artist was especially evident in one of the two Manfredi paintings at the exhibit, Christ Crowned with Thorns (c. 1620).  In a zoomed-in view of Christ’s tormentor yanking on a rope that seems to simultaneously force his captive to bend over while at the same time embedding the wreath of thorns securely into the skin, Manfredi emulated Caravaggio’s use of dramatically lit half-length figures–even including a spotlighted bare shoulder–and the latter’s often imitated head-bowed Christ as seen in his The Crowning with Thorns (1604).

Neither Manfredi nor most of the others desirous of cashing in on this much-in-demand new style of painting could approach Caravaggio’s drawing ability and paint handling.  Where the master’s brushstrokes demonstrate the same swaggering self-confidence that was his undoing in the streets, Manfredi’s reveal the effort required to accurately render his intentions.

Orazio Riminaldi, Daedalus and Icarus (c. 1625, oil on canvas, 52

Orazio Riminaldi, Daedalus and Icarus (c. 1625, oil on canvas, 52″ x 37″ [132 x 96.1 cm]).  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

Another member of the club was Orazio Riminaldi (1593-1630), whose Icarus with open mouth, red lips and come-hither expression in the homoerotic show stopper Daedalus and Icarus (c. 1625) shares an affinity with the lute player in Caravaggio’s The Concert (c. 1595), who presents himself to the onlooker in much the same way.

Ostensibly, Riminaldi has illustrated the myth of the architect of the Labyrinth, imprisoned with his son in his own creation, who fashioned wings from wax and feathers to enable their escape, and is here seen affixing them to the boy, who will fly too close to the sun and perish.  Interpreted by some as an allegory of the risks of creative genius,6 the subject affords this artist an opportunity to exquisitely contrast the freshness of youth with the weathered appearance of maturity.

The wrinkled skin on the forehead of the older man, his tan and muscular right arm, and the prominent veins on the hand holding the wing are set against the curly hair, silky smooth pale complexion and less developed musculature of the boy.  The brightly lit, perfectly painted flesh of the latter’s thigh, the softness of which is alluded to by the nearby downy feathers, invites the viewer to caress it.

Taking away the wings and the title, one sees a much older man about to embrace a rather fey, nude, prepubescent boy who supports himself with his right arm as he leans back, perhaps in response to the pressure of the other between his legs.  Riminaldi discreetly draped a red cloth down the front of the man’s body to avoid the appearance of skin-to-skin contact in the area of the youth’s genitals.  The boy’s raised arm, which provides freer access to his body, parallels that of the man’s and avoids direct contact with it.

Riminaldi’s compositions indicate substantial knowledge of Caravaggio’s paintings, primarily via Orazio Gentileschi (1565-1639) and Manfredi but also from Simon Vouet (1590-1649).7  Much more challenging to trace was how Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652) came to incorporate in his own work the tenebrism and brute naturalism of Caravaggism.

Jusepe de Ribera, Protagoras (1637, oil on canvas, 48⅞

Jusepe de Ribera, Protagoras (1637, oil on canvas, 48⅞″ x 38¾″ [124 x 98 cm]).  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

A Spanish artist working for a while in Rome and later in Naples–called Lo Spagnoletto by the Italians–Ribera produced a large body of work during his stay in the birthplace of Caravaggism, enough to push back his dates of residence to those contemporaneous with Manfredi and his cohorts (as early as 1604-5), and allow for at least eight of his formative years for absorbing their influence.8

Tucked away in a small room where visitors could thumb through the exhibition catalog and other relevant books was Ribera’s Protagoras (1637), a prime example of Roman lessons well learned.  Luminescent thanks in part to direct lighting, this exquisitely drawn and painted oil places in a nondescript setting a three-quarter length figure whose hands hold a book that abuts the picture plane.  Other black-infused canvases from these later years, epitomized by the 1637 Apollo Flaying Marsyas, demonstrate the continued appeal to Ribera of Caravaggio’s use of starkly lit figures in the depiction of suffering, martyrdom and death.

Simon Vouet, The Fortune Teller (c. 1620, oil on canvas, 47

Simon Vouet, The Fortune Teller (c. 1620, oil on canvas, 47″ x 67″ [120 x 170 cm]).  National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Another arrival from foreign shores, Simon Vouet (1590-1649) built a very successful career in Rome by cashing in on the Caravaggism craze, initially with portraits of spotlighted subjects and later with amusing genre subjects like The Fortune Teller (c. 1620), the subject of which was popularized by Caravaggio with at least two versions of The Gypsy Fortune Teller (1595).  In these scenes, costume-clad characters enact comical scripts of chicanery for the entertainment and perhaps instruction of the viewer, not unlike theater performances.

In Vouet’s reading, the shining smile of the fancily dressed woman on the right, who makes eye contact with the audience, directs attention to the unfolding events.  An astounding interplay of five hands in the center of the composition distract the eye from the missing three hands of the expected eight possible among four actors.

The scruffy looking guy with the strange mouth rests his right hand on the lady’s shoulder in a too-familiar gesture, points at her with his other hand, and looks toward the other man who raises a finger in a just-a-moment pose while ransacking the gypsy’s shoulder bag for means of payment.  The lack of jewelry (other than a simple ring) on the well-dressed woman adds yet another clue that she is not some wealthy woman visiting a poor neighborhood to find out her future. The fortune teller seems poised to drop a coin into the extended hand while looking across at its owner with the slightly raised eyebrows of curiosity and expectancy.

Lest anyone miss the joke, Vouet painted a red sash on the brown-skinned woman’s bag, leading the eye straight to the action.  Likewise, the high-value white of the fortune teller’s blouse in contrast with the dark tone of her skin draws focus to the right side of the painting and the man in the shadows behind her.  Each facial expression adds to the drama played out by three-quarter length figures set close to the picture plane in an indeterminate setting lit in typical Caravaggesque fashion.

Simon Vouet, Saint Jerome and the Angel (c. 1622, oil on canvas, 57

Simon Vouet, Saint Jerome and the Angel (c. 1622, oil on canvas, 57″ x 70″ [144.8 x 179.8 cm]).  The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Picking up on another well-known Caravaggio theme, Vouet painted his own Saint Jerome and the Angel (c. 1622), a tour de force of gesture and facial expression with even more dramatic lighting accenting the action.  The same red garment, exposed torso, balding head and white beard that characterize the protagonist in Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing (c. 1606) appear in Vouet’s rendition of the story.  The debt to his predecessor is further evident in the angel’s right hand, which takes its pose from the left hand of the Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1595), an early painting by Caravaggio.

Arriving trumpet in hand to announce to Jerome his imminent death, the curly-haired angel with its sweet smile of compassion encounters the busy scholar in the midst of his work transcribing ancient Greek and Hebrew biblical texts into Latin.9  Jerome turns from his work, makes eye contact with his visitor and raises his left hand as if to say, “Give me a break!  I’ve barely made a dent in this stuff.”

Vouet choreographs the figures within a diamond shape, the top point of which is the angel’s left wing and the bottom the foremost corner of the table, lying just beyond the picture plane.  All but one of the their combined four arms synchronize with each other in their movement upwards.  The rebellious exception remains adamantly planted on the desk, its hand poised to continue writing if given the chance.

Despite wrinkles, receding hairline and long white beard, Jerome sports the musculature of a much younger man.  The red drapery against which his left arm must work to achieve levitation serves to define part of the lower left side of the diamond while doing nothing to cover that by-now-familiar, well-lighted, bare male shoulder.

Some of the abilities that made Vouet so successful in Rome are apparent in his modeling in the dark of the angel’s face and his skill in rendering a great variety of textures, especially the characters’ hair and skin.  Never fully wedded to Caravaggism, however, this artist went on to paint in other styles.

Nicolas Tournier, The Denial of Saint Peter (c. 1625, oil on canvas, 63

Nicolas Tournier, The Denial of Saint Peter (c. 1625, oil on canvas, 63″ x 94″ [160 x 240 cm]).  High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia.

In contrast, Nicolas Tournier (1590-1639) completely adopted the current fashion of painting in Rome when he arrived there sometime around 161910–quite obvious in The Denial of Saint Peter (c. 1625), his one work in the exhibit.  Eager to demonstrate his skill at depicting the prevailing themes among the Caravaggisti, Tournier combined two separate stories in his one large canvas.

On the left, Peter denies to the soldier about to arrest him that he knows Christ.  On the right, another soldier watches three colorfully dressed men in a game of dice.  The beautifully painted sword that adorns the one in the skin-tight leggings and blousy, yellow shirt, and the hilt of another peaking out from the dice player who stares with wide-eyed, open-mouthed alarm at the events unfolding nearby, bring to mind the artists who originally ran with Caravaggio; they also carried blades and often got into street brawls.  Perhaps Tournier’s idea was to show on one side a biblical scene a la Caravaggio and Manfredi, and on the other, the artists who looked closely at their work.

This multi-figured composition contains plenty of action along an arc that begins with the head of the sleeping disciple on the left and travels through all the heads to the back of the young man on the far right.  Tournier adeptly portrays facial expression and packs into the painting lots of opportunity to display his talent for depicting texture, from hard, shiny armor to coarse cloth, and throws in a pail of very convincing burning coals for viewers’ enjoyment.  While his artistic model was Caravaggio, unlike the master, Tournier applied paint in thin and carefully applied layers to slowly build up form and define surfaces.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Serapion (1628, oil on canvas, 475/16

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Serapion (1628, oil on canvas, 475/16″ x 4015/16″ [120.2 x 104 cm]).  Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

A Spanish artist with a much thinner connection to the crowd in Rome, Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) might have been chosen by the Atheneum’s curators because a stunning example of his work, Saint Serapion (1628), already hung on their walls.  Studying in Seville when awareness of Ribera’s work ran high,11 he seems to have incorporated the tenebristic lighting of Caravaggism, if little else.

Zurbarán brilliantly summarizes the martyrdom of Serapion–by crucifixion, beheading and quartering–in the pose.  The slumping saint’s body held up by ropes that fix his outstretched arms above his head represents death on the cross.  His head falling to the side, disconnected from his body by the hood of his habit, suggests decapitation.  And the securely tied rope around his right wrist references his quartering.

Lacking the usual bloody drama of Caravaggesque martyrdom scenes, Zurbarán’s almost square composition provides a sense of stability.  His placement of the saint’s head in repose on his right shoulder and the calm look on his face have little in common with the theatrics found among other works in the exhibit.

By affixing to the canvas with a tromp l’oeil pin a torn scrap of paper with his signature in ultra thin lettering, and rendering the red and yellow shield of Serapion’s monastic order in a decidedly unrealistic fashion, Zurbarán calls attention to the artifice of painting.  Unlike the three-dimensional drapery folds, and the hands and head of the figure, the shield–with its central placement and sole use of color in this monochromatic picture–loudly calls attention to the two-dimensional nature of the canvas by appearing to float on the picture plane rather than be attached to the robe.

Gerrit van Honthorst, Christ Crowned with Thorns (c. 1617, oil on canvas, 51⅜

Gerrit van Honthorst, Christ Crowned with Thorns (c. 1617, oil on canvas, 51⅜″ x 67⅜″ [146 x 207 cm]).  Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Unlike Zurbarán with his attenuated connection to Caravaggio’s circle of followers, Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) lived and painted in Rome starting in 1616.  Part of a small community of other Dutch artists, he quickly adapted the latest style of painting, especially apparent in Christ Crowned with Thorns (c. 1617), one of three of his paintings in the exhibit.

Taking compositional ideas from Manfredi and company, particularly in his choice of subject matter,12 tenebristic lighting, undefined background and zoomed-in view, van Honthorst followed his own path in the material execution of the painting.  Figures are contained within their own contours.  Fabrics are devoid of identifying details.  And brushstrokes are barely detectable.  He differed too in his choice of body types for his figure of Christ, which lacks the buff male body with its bared shoulder(s) so popular among the Roman crowd.

Instead, van Honthorst’s mocked man, with sad resignation, gracefully submits to the humiliation and physical pain being forced upon him; though he bows his head, he doesn’t resist the thorns being implanted there.  Slightly slumped forward, Christ accepts the stick placed in his hand by one of his tormentors, a man whose open-mouthed laugh, wrinkled brow and wide-open eye express a sadistic enjoyment rarely depicted among Christ’s torturers.

Georges de La Tour, Old Man (c. 1618–19, oil on canvas, 35⅞

Georges de La Tour, Old Man (c. 1618–19, oil on canvas, 35⅞″ x 23″ [91 x 60.5 cm]).  The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California.

Georges de La Tour, Old Woman (c. 1618–19, oil on canvas, 35⅞

Georges de La Tour, Old Woman (c. 1618–19, oil on canvas, 35⅞″ x 23″ [91 x 60.5 cm]).  The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California.

Awareness of the work of northern European artists like van Honthorst contributed to the spread of Caravaggism beyond the Alps and might have been how Georges de La Tour acquired knowledge of this new way of painting.  Whether or not he ever made it to Rome remains indeterminable and his inclusion seemed like an afterthought, quite literally since his were the last three works in the exhibit.

Unlike the first of those (de La Tour’s much later candlelit scene of The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame [1638-40]), the other two–a pair of full length figures, Old Man and Old Woman (c. 1618–19)–were far from Caravaggesque.  These striking portrayals of an elderly couple lack most of what had come to be associated with artists inspired by the works of Caravaggio.

The man, whose painting was displayed to the left of the woman’s, supports his weight on a walking stick, leans over as if to peer around the picture frame, and casts a sidelong glance at the woman in the other picture.  The object of his gaze stands with hands on hips–perhaps removing the apron that falls away as her left hand slips under it–and looks back at him with her mouth open, as if in midsentence.

De La Tour made the man the more colorful subject, with his green jacket, orange-red pants, yellow leggings and suntanned skin, and indicated his age with a bald head, grey hair, white beard and need for a stick to prop him up.  For the woman, the artist used stark white for her hat and blouse without benefit of modifying colors, a flat green with revealing bits of brown underpainting for the bodice of her dress, and a golden hue for the fold-creased apron that covers most of a burgundy skirt, a sliver of which turns lavender under the light on the left.  Giving her far fewer wrinkles than her mate, the artist somehow still managed to convey her seniority.

In each painting, de La Tour made the background dark for the lighted area of the figure and lighter for the shadowed side.  The man’s right leg hides the point where diagonal lines meet convincingly to indicate a corner at the base of the walls.  The woman’s body covers most of the edge where dark walls meet light ones, but the horizontal line running along their base would destroy any illusion that this is a corner were one to look too closely at it.  In his skillful rendering of an elderly woman in the midst of an interaction, de La Tour manages to provide enough distractions for the viewer not to notice.

The inclusion of de La Tour in an exhibit on Caravaggism demonstrated just how far afield Caravaggio’s groundbreaking approach to figurative painting reached, extending its spread throughout Europe over the next few hundred years.  One man’s impulse to transmute his inner turmoil into art resulted in a new way of constructing images, one still practiced in the present by artists who place emotionally expressive, ordinary characters within tenebristically lighted settings, and assign them roles in emotionally and/or spiritually significant stories, hoping to engage their audience in the contemplation of the often violent drama of human relationships.
1 Spike, John T.  Caravaggio (New York: Abbeville Press, 2001), 239.

2 Papi, Gianni.  “Some Reflections and Revisions on Caravaggio, His Method, and his ‘Schola’” in Caravaggio and His Legacy, ed. J. Patrice Marandel (New York: Prestel Verlag, 2012), 14.

3 Ibid., footnote 21, 30-31.

4 All biographical information from Spike, Caravaggio.

5 Marandel, J. Patrice.  “Caravaggio and His Legacy” in Caravaggio and His Legacy, 13.

6 Zafran, Eric.  “Orazio Riminaldi, Daedalus and Icarus” in Caravaggio and His Legacy, 62.

7 Ibid.

8 Papi, 24-26

9 Exhibit object label.

10 Caravaggio and His Legacy, 78.

11 Ibid, 109.

12 Ibid, 118.

Burst of Light: Caravaggio and His Legacy
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
600 Main Street
Hartford, Connecticut 06103
(860) 278-2670

Catalog available.


Art Review: George Bellows

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Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

In Search of George Bellows

Self Portrait (1921, lithograph, 10½

Self Portrait (1921, lithograph, 10½″ x 7⅞″ [26.67 x 20 cm]).  Collection of Max and Heidi Berry.  Courtesy Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington.  Photograph by Ric Blanc.

In his 1921 lithograph, Self Portrait, George Bellows poses in formal attire: white shirt with link-adorned cuffs, bow tie and large-buttoned jacket.  Calling attention to the artistic process, he includes the mirror that reflects back his image and draws the sketchbook in which he works.  His proper right hand–the one that would hold the lithograph crayon and here holds a cigarette–casually rests on something, perhaps the back of a chair.

The 39-year-old Bellows of this self-portrait, concentrating intensely on the task at hand, had already achieved major recognition and can be forgiven for such self-aggrandizement.  He shows off not just with his fancy clothes but also with the way he plays with space, from the mirror frame as picture frame and the placement of the artist in the viewer’s space to the background view of a terrace or window overlooking an outdoor scene–beyond the artist and behind the viewer.

This sophisticated urbanite, who in the following year would have the resources to build his own house in Woodstock, New York, began his career with far more earthy fare.  Born in 18821 in Columbus, Ohio, Bellows dropped out of college there in 1904 and headed to New York City to pursue an art career.  Checking into the YMCA and wandering around the city, he discovered a demimonde that became the subject of his art for a number of years.  He was encouraged by his teacher, Robert Henri (pronounced hen-rye), who espoused a manner of working (practiced by a group of artists who came to be known as the Ashcan School) that began with the inner spirit and reached out to encompass the grit of life.

Turn-of-twentieth-century New York City provided abundant material for artists bored with classical subject matter.  For Bellows, it was its teeming hoards.  Children on the streets and in the rivers seeking relief from overcrowded tenements, crowds in Times Square waiting for results on election night, and spectators at sporting events and revival meetings, all came to life in his drawings, paintings and prints as he set out to establish his artistic identify.

Kids (1906, oil on canvas, 32

Kids (1906, oil on canvas, 32″ x 42″ [81.3 x 106.7]). James W. and Frances G. McGlothin.  © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.  Photograph by Katherine Wetzel.

The painterly canvas Kids (1906) was among the earliest of Bellows’s paintings on display at a ten-room retrospective held during the winter of 2012-13 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized in association with the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC) and Royal Academy of Arts (London).  The first comprehensive review of the artist’s work in over 30 years, the exhibit gave the viewer an opportunity to track Bellows over time as he struggled to find the perfect way to conceptualize, construct and execute a work of art.

In Kids, Bellows quickly sketched a scene of children hanging around, tussling with each other, sharing some food, smoking and on the left–emphasized by highlighting on a street cart behind him, a boy painting a wooden object, perhaps destined to be a wagon.  Bellows’s adept draftsmanship guides his sure application of paint as he craftily relates the two discreet groups by having the blond girl in the white dress and her canine companion stare at the action to their left.  These are not portraits of individuals so much as they are portrayals of types engaged in defining activities.

River Front No. 1 (1915, oil on canvas, 45⅜

River Front No. 1 (1915, oil on canvas, 45⅜″ x 63⅛″ [115.3 x 160.3 cm]).  Columbus Museum of Art.

In Bellow’s time, the New York waterfront–of which there is plenty–hosted large groups of swimmers from all socioeconomic classes depending on the level of amenities provided.  For children looking to escape overcrowded Lower East Side tenements in the sweltering summer, the broken-down piers and under-development docks became their beaches.  Where they went, Bellows followed.

Forty-two Kids (1907, oil on canvas, 42¼

Forty-two Kids (1907, oil on canvas, 42¼″ x 60¼″ [106.7 x 153 cm]).  Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington.  Photograph by Mark Gulezian.

Like Thomas Eakins’s not-so-innocent composition of six male Swimmers (1884-5), Forty-two Kids (1907) is a pedophile’s paradise.  Mostly nude, young boys in assorted poses unabashedly bare their asses to an unseen audience and frolic among themselves, in and out of the water.  Bellows’s voyeuristic fascination with males naked together finds a reprise in the more upscale oil, River Front No. 1 (1915) and the later lithograph, The Shower-Bath (1917), the latter perhaps a revery on his brief stay at the YMCA.

With the boys indicated by just a few strokes of color, in Forty-two Kids Bellows massed the figures on the left side of the dilapidated dock to open up the space on the right, directing the eye through the diver to the swimmers, the dark river and the rowboat in the background.  Were one to trace the strong diagonals of the wooden planks and draw the horizontal and vertical lines where they intersect, one would glimpse the underlying geometry that already had Bellows in its thrall.

Spontaneity in paint application would ultimately lose ground to a driving need for structure–and perhaps legitimacy–that eventually drained the life from much of this gifted artist’s work.  Bellows succumbed to untreated appendicitis at age 42 when some of his work held hints that he might once again throw paint freely.  Nonetheless, for connoisseurs of the less fettered work, the exhibit at The Met offered much to admire.

Paddy Flannigan (Winter 1908, oil on canvas, 30¼

Paddy Flannigan (Winter 1908, oil on canvas, 30¼″ x 25″ [76.8 x 63.5 cm]).  Erving and Joyce Wolf.

Chief among those paintings was a Ribera-like portrait of one of the street kids who posed for Bellows.  Intentional or not, Paddy Flannigan (1908) pays homage to that old master’s portrayal of St. Jerome (1640) with its exposed flesh, semi-draped upper torso and elongated brushstrokes that follow the length of the arm.  While Jusepe de Ribera’s saint–poised to pound his chest with the rock he grasps–turns his eyes heavenward, Bellows’s street urchin looks out at the viewer/painter from under almost-closed lids; with one hand on his hip and the other in his lap, this young model broadcasts both an invitation and a challenge.

Bellows infused the face with sun-toned red and gave Paddy’s ear the same color as the drapery he holds.  Here again, underlying what appears to be a free-wheeling application of paint reminiscent of other American portraitist of that time (think John Singer Sargent and Cecilia Beaux), a geometric system determined the placement of the arms and the cut of the torn shirt in relationship to the frame of the composition.

Robert Henri extolled the virtues of “a thorough knowledge of geometry” for “the artist whose ideas are to be expressed in apparently magical proportions.”2  Following his teacher’s suggestion probably came easily for Bellows, who seemed to find renewed inspiration from every freshly encountered scientific theory about color and composition, though after a while each new ideology proved insufficient to carry him through self-doubts and frustrations about his work.3

Regarding composition, Bellows drew from a long history of proportional schemes,4 including rebatment, the Golden Section and its close relative, the Fibonacci Spiral.  Likewise, he could choose among a plethora of approaches on setting up the perfect palette, one guaranteed to insure repeated success.

In his early explorations of composition and color, Bellows’s inner vision remained paramount as he trawled the streets of his newly adopted city in search of subjects.  He must have found irresistible the eight-acre pit covering more than two full blocks that began to appear in midtown the same year the artist arrived in New York.  By 1909, the hole was occupied by Pennsylvania Station, a magnificent beaux-arts building later sacrificed for a succession of structures culminating in the current eyesore.

A major attraction for both complaint and celebration, the magnificent feat of engineering that became the first Penn Station served as the foundation for several oils in The Met’s exhibit, the best among them being Excavation at Night (1908).  The image is a masterpiece of composition but like any fine painting, the thought behind it takes a back seat to its visual lushness.

Bellows masterfully uses light to direct the eye from the brightly illuminated wall–white on the right and steamy blue on the left–contrasting with and leading to the warmly lit tenements in the background, the orange and yellow of which brings the eye to the foreground and the fire where workers attempt to get warm.  Once here, the gaze finds the other light spot in the front, a patch of snow on the left from which a track travels back to streaks of snow in the middle ground that lead right back to the cliffs.

In Excavation at Night, it’s easy enough to see the rebatted squares.  Measure the horizontal length along the bottom from first one lower corner and then the other.  Where each point falls imagine a vertical line ascending from it.  Notice the way Bellows has arranged the composition to fit those vertical lines.

Pennsylvania Excavation (1907, oil on canvas, 33⅞

Pennsylvania Excavation (1907, oil on canvas, 33⅞″ x 44″ [86 x 111.8 cm]).  Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton.

In another view of the pit, Pennsylvania Excavation (1907), the emphasis seems to be on diagonals forming a diamond shape that, along with the bright white steam originating from behind some massive machinery in the foreground, brings the onlooker right down into the belly of the beast.  Deploying a nearly monochromatic palette, Bellows conveyed the shivering grey cold of the city in winter.  In the lower right, set against a triangle of bright snow, two men bundled up in stone-hued clothing work at something in the ground, their size an indication of the distance separating them from the laborers below.

In both excavation canvases, Bellows seems to have reveled in the application of paint, with a variety of brush and palette-knife strokes.  That same freedom was evident in his first fight paintings, one of the best–Stag at Sharkey’s (1907)–was featured in the publicity for the retrospective and on the catalog’s cover.

Stag at Sharkey's (1909, oil on canvas, 36¼

Stag at Sharkey’s (1909, oil on canvas, 36¼″ x 48¼″ [92 x 122.6 cm]).  The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection.

The usual four seconds most viewers accord a painting reveal a dynamic composition of two fighters going at it amidst male spectators attentively following their moves, perhaps anticipating the illegal knee to the groin that Bellows’s choreography implies and the referee seems to expect.  A more sustained engagement reveals the underlying isosceles triangle with its left edge running from the right fighter’s head down through the left fighter’s leg and the other edge going down through the left arm of the referee.  The three-by-four ratio of the outer dimensions lends itself to other geometric manipulations that Bellows used and can be ferreted out by any interested reader.

Peering over the ring’s canvas on the far side to the right might be Bellows looking up from his sketch pad,5 identified by his balding pate.  To capture the action, he needed his expert drawing skills, quite apparent in the persuasive way the figures occupy space and interact.  Notice especially the foreshortened raised legs and how each fighter balances perfectly on the limb that supports his weight.

Despite its appeal, Stag at Sharkey’s suffers from Bellows’s too heavy reliance on white; colors lose their intensity in the lights.  Here as in his other crowd scenes, faces look more like caricatures than those of real folk.  An image best viewed from a distance, this glimpse into the once not-quite-legal world of boxing still pulsates with the frenetic energy conveyed by Bellows’ brushstrokes and composition.

Dempsey and Firpo (1924, oil on canvas, 51

Dempsey and Firpo (1924, oil on canvas, 51″ x 63¼″ (129.5 x 160.7 cm]).  Whitney Museum of American Art.  Photograph by Sheldon C. Collins.

The same can’t be said for Dempsey and Firpo (1924), a late work completed in the year before Bellows died.  With a drawing style evocative of comic book art, using formulaically applied colors in a compositional schema so obvious as to command more attention than the action (triangles galore, diagonals and verticals relating to rebatted squares), Bellows seems to have lost his way in pursuit of perfection in both art and life.

The Studio (1919, oil on canvas, 48

The Studio (1919, oil on canvas, 48″ x 38″ [121.9 x 96.5 cm]).  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The artist exposes his craving for an orderly, middleclass life along with his working methods in the stage-set painting, The Studio (1919).  Here in a spotless work space, his two daughters sit among their newly opened Christmas presents while their father, decked out in white shirt, jacket and cuffed slacks, rebats the square and draws the diagonals that will underpin his portrait of their mother (Emma) who, clothed in an evening dress, sits raised on a model’s platform.

In the upper register, Bellows’s printmaker works a printing press on a balcony from which hang red and green drapery (the complementary colors of the season) and a spotted wildcat’s hide.  In the background, Emma’s mother holds the phone to her ear while a dark-skinned servant looks on, as if awaiting instructions.

The organized mess of the earlier work has disappeared.  Growing success and its attendant financial rewards couldn’t compete with Bellows’s feelings of inadequacy.  He seemed driven to infuse his work with the gravitas he associated with great art, and many of the later paintings displayed in the last two galleries of the retrospective suffer from it.  In trying too hard, Bellows only succeeded in producing deadeningly serious paintings.

Emma at the Piano (1914, oil on panel, 28¾

Emma at the Piano (1914, oil on panel, 28¾″ x 37″ [73 x 94 cm]).  Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk.  © Courtesy of the Bellows Trust.

Contrast, for example, Emma at the Piano (1914) with Emma and her Children (1923), a portrait done almost a decade later.  The earlier, far more colorful painting is a tenebristic study in blues that draws attention to the exasperated Emma’s face.  A slightly lower-valued arm leads the eye to the keyboard, where bright white defines the edge of the keys and highlights the hand striking a chord.

The inclusion of Emma’s left hand in her lap and the tension inherent in the twist of her torso as she turns to face her husband belie the spontaneity that the setup implies of Bellows’s interrupting his wife in the middle of practicing; in fact she looks uncomfortable in that position.  Although Emma might not be animated, the brushstrokes are–especially the ones vaguely defining the flowers in the vase that’s centered behind the music back.

Emma and her Children (1923, oil on canvas, 59¼

Emma and her Children (1923, oil on canvas, 59¼″ x 65⅜″ [150.5 x 166.1 cm]).  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Photograph © 2012 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Discomfort also inhabits Emma and her Children in the stiffness of the poses and the expressions on their faces.  Bellows’s wife and two daughters, twelve-year-old Anne and eight-year-old Jean, are here dressed in the antique clothing the artist came to favor–and each seems in a world of her own.  Emma sternly/sadly casts an inward glance in the general direction of her serious-looking youngest child who almost makes eye contact with her father.  The older girl, the unhappiest among the pictured family, gazes toward her little sister and holds a fan in one hand while trying to figure out what to do with the other.

Using an almost monochrome palette and reined-in brushstrokes, Bellows has done an exquisite job of rendering a variety of textures, including hair, fabric and the wood of the settee.  Less successful is the placement of the figures in their respective seats.  In particular, Jean’s legs, bent at right angles, are more indicative of the chair upon which she sat for the artist’s study than of a heavy eight-year-old’s sitting on her mother’s lap.

Mrs. T in Cream Silk, No. 1 (1919, oil on canvas, 48

Mrs. T in Cream Silk, No. 1 (1919, oil on canvas, 48″ x 38″ [121.9 x 96.5 cm]).  Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington.

On his way from the relative openness of Emma at the Piano to the stilted Emma and her Children, Bellows tried his hand at other portraits.  For Mrs. T in Cream Silk, No. 1 (1919), the artist requested the sitter, a socialite he’d met while teaching in Chicago, to pose in her 1863 cream silk wedding gown6 in keeping with his fascination with vintage clothing, perhaps as a way to create a link between his art and that of the old masters.

Mrs. T maintained her wasp-waist figure but the aged skin on her face and neck offers stark contrast to the youthful dress she wears, the skirt of which still bears the fold marks from its time in storage.  Looking off to the side, just short of eye contact with the artist, Mrs. T holds a fan in one of her white-gloved hands, the rendering of which is not entirely convincing.  Bellows has smoothed over not just the now-concealed wrinkles of those hands but also almost all the creases in the gloves’ fabric, lavishing on them little of the brushstroke bravura so liberally distributed across the rest of the canvas.

The bowl of fruit on the sitter’s left includes a pineapple’s crown and perhaps a mango, both tropical in origin.  On her other side, on a bright orange tablecloth, rests what looks to be the base of the corsage she would have held on her way to the altar.  A bookcase and its contents blend into the dark background and a patterned gold-and-black cloth hanging behind her brings to mind those behind the Virgin in early Renaissance images.  Bellows was clearly making a statement about the passage of time, though once again he might have overdone it.

The same can be said for a great deal of the art he created in 1918 in response to reports of atrocities committed by Germans during The Great War.  Many of these–some paintings, but mostly drawings and lithographs–were part of this panoramic retrospective that demonstrated the wide array of subjects that Bellows tackled.  Pieces like The Barricade (1918) are overwrought while others like the lithograph Murder of Edith Cavell (1918) show what Bellows could accomplish when he got out of his own way.

In other rooms the artist’s prodigious drawing skills and sensibilities were on view in several highly political pieces, including the lithograph Electrocution (1917) of a man being executed, and both the preparatory drawing and lithograph for The Law is Too Slow (1923) of a black man being burned alive by a lynch mob.  These contrast dramatically with paintings in other rooms of tennis matches set among the well heeled.

Blue Snow, The Battery (1910, oil on canvas, 34

Blue Snow, The Battery (1910, oil on canvas, 34″ x 44″ [86.4 x 111.8 cm]).  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.

In the last room of The Met exhibit hung an oil sketch, My House, Woodstock (1924), that seemed an attempt by Bellows to find his way back to brighter colors and freer paint application.  It pales in comparison with Blue Snow, The Battery (1910), one of his many accomplished landscapes displayed in the first part of the show.

The icy blue monochrome of the wintry scene is sparingly punctuated by the orange in the blankets on the horses and in the faces of the pedestrians in the foreground.  With an economy of means, Bellows used color and form in Blue Snow, The Battery to create a sweeping view of shivering-cold lower Manhattan, peopled by passersby intent on reaching some destination or just out for a stroll.

In the shadow side of the structure in the visual center of the painting, the viewer gets a peek into Bellows’s working process.  A thinly applied underpainting of brown (also evident in the shaded large building in the left background) was brushed away to denote the horizontal boards of the wall.  Thick, opaque, high-value color was applied throughout to reflect the crystal-clear light of winter.  The geometries that the artist certainly used in devising his composition dissolve in the wonder of how simple marks, placed expertly, can come together to form such a believable picture.

In his best work–from disheveled street urchins, New York’s dock workers and its  resident poor, to well-dressed ladies and gents in other wintry settings, and landscapes of the city’s changing faces–George Bellows was at his best at the beginning of his career before the ordinary self-doubts inherent in the life of any artist overwhelmed him, compelling him to pursue techniques ill suited to his nature.  He died in 1924 at the age of 42 before he could find his way back home.
1 All biographical material comes from Quick, Michael, et al. The Paintings of George Bellows.   (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992).

2 Henri, Robert.  The Art Spirit (1923).  (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 155.

3 Quick, Michael.  “Technique and Theory: The Evolution of George Bellows’s Painting Style” in The Paintings of George Bellows.

4 See Bouleau, Charles.  The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art.  (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963).

5 Exhibit wall text.

6 Ibid.

George Bellows
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street)
New York, NY 10028

Catalog available.


Art Review: Egon Schiele’s Women

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Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Breaking the Code:
Jane Kallir Deciphers
Egon Schiele’s Images of Women

Self-Portrait with Long Hair (1907, oil on canvas, 14″ x 11¼″ [35.5 x 28.5 cm]). Private collection.

Once upon a time there was a little boy named Egon who loved to draw. He lived in fin-de-siècle Vienna with his mother, father and two older sisters, Elvira and Melanie.1 When Egon was three years old, ten-year-old Elvira died from meningitis. A year later his baby sister Gertrude (Gerti) was born.

The story of how Egon’s parents got together was typical for those times. When his father Adolf was 23 he fell in love with twelve-year-old Marie but waited till she was seventeen to marry her. Having contracted syphilis some time before then and refusing to have it treated, Adolf soon gave it to his new wife. Because of complications from her conjugally acquired venereal disease, Egon’s mother suffered three stillbirths before she had her first live baby, Elvira, whose later death probably resulted from the syphilis passed on to her at birth.

By the time Egon was twelve, his ill father’s behavior had become unpredictable and violent, symptoms of his end-stage syphilis. On one occasion, the increasingly erratic man “set fire to all of [his son’s] carefully executed railroad car drawings.”2

“Following a final fit of madness that involved a suicide attempt and the burning of all of the family’s stock certificates,”3 Egon’s father died. The relief that the fourteen-year-old boy must have felt could not have lasted long. The uncle enlisted by his mother to share guardianship of her two minor children (Egon and Gertrude), forbade the talented child from pursuing an art career.

Egon’s school performance had suffered greatly during his father’s decline and, after another couple of years of lackluster grades, the young teenager left school under threat of being held back. In 1906 his mother, against his uncle’s dictates, enrolled Egon in the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, where the rebellious sixteen-year-old who had been drawing independently for many years, collided with the regimentation of its classic academy curriculum, though not before acquiring some useful drawing techniques.

Portrait of a Lady in Profile Facing Right (1907, charcoal on paper, 20⅝″ x 13⅝″ [52.4 x 34.6 cm]). Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne.

To qualify for admission to the Academy, Egon submitted portraits of women he encountered in his day-to-day world: his older sister, his mother and a maid. The style was not unlike Portrait of a Lady in Profile Facing Right (1907), one of his student drawings. At seventeen, Egon drew with the confidence and skill of a master, able to capture subtleties of texture, from the model’s fur wrap to her smooth, young skin.

After two years of butting heads with one professor in particular, Egon stopped regular attendance at the Academy and sought other sources of inspiration. He had plenty to choose from, gravitating toward Gustav Klimt and his fellow Austrian Expressionists, as well as a bevy of other contemporary artists breaking new ground elsewhere in Europe.

Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted Above Head (1910, watercolor and charcoal on paper, 17¾″ x 12½″ [45.1 x 31.7 cm]). Private collection. Courtesy Neue Galerie, New York.

Fifteen years later another young man with a taste for Expressionism opened the Neue Galerie in Vienna with “the first posthumous Egon Schiele retrospective.”4 During the years that this gallerist, Otto Kallir, maintained his exhibition space, he continued to champion Schiele and his cohorts. When Hitler’s invasion of Austria forced Kallir to emigrate to the United States in 1939, he set up shop in Manhattan, opening the Galerie St. Etienne with Hildegard Bachert.5

When Otto died in 1978, his granddaughter Jane Kallir inherited not just the gallery but also a passion for the art of Austrian and German Expressionists, especially that of Egon Schiele, about whom she has written tomes. The publication of her latest volume, Egon Schiele’s Women, a coffee-table-sized book lavishly illustrated with over 200 high-quality reproductions of the artist’s drawings and paintings, was well timed to coincide with the similarly titled exhibition at Galerie St. Etienne.

In the book and the essay accompanying the exhibit’s checklist, Kallir positions Schiele within the particular milieu that was turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna, where Darwin’s theory of evolution, Freud’s uncovering of the unconscious, and women’s new opportunities for participation outside the home (thanks to industrialization) threatened the previously entrenched patriarchy. The backlash unleashed by the established order in reaction to those threats still reverberates down through the decades, blinding investigators in all fields to a reality possible in Viennese (and all other) families that for a while Freud and some colleagues could not ignore.

In 1896, the founder of psychoanalysis presented an earthshaking paper “The Aetiology of Hysteria”6 to an audience of esteemed Viennese doctors, in which he described eighteen case histories of mostly women whose symptoms now fit the criteria for post-traumatic stress and dissociative disorders. “[A]t the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experiences…[that] belong to the earliest years of childhood,”7 he declared, going on to say that in most cases the aggressor was the father. (Emphasis in original.)

Cowed by the ostracism such blasphemy engendered, Freud soon began backtracking and within a few years had repudiated his original observations. In its place grew his convoluted theory of infant sexuality, part of which entailed the girl child’s lusting after her father and developing sexual fantasies about him, the later repression of which during adolescence accounted for her acute psychological distress. On a parallel track, other doctors had determined that children were, by nature, pathological liars, effectively eliminating the need for adults to pay any attention to reports of childhood sexual assault.

Kallir references a variety of other contemporary writers who likewise endeavored to demonize women’s sexuality. Some believed the female sex’s primal nature–a morass of urges that had to be contained–to be the antithesis of male’s rationality. Others insisted that proper bourgeois women had no interest in sex at all, relegating such desires to the lower classes. One popular belief held that premarital masturbation by women led to neuroses.

By sequestering adolescent upperclass girls, society protected the guarantee of their virginity, if not necessarily the fact of it. Boys like Egon, who were denied sexual access to them until reaching sufficient financial maturity to marry (usually in their mid-twenties) could in the meantime avail themselves of prostitutes. Demand drove supply and Vienna became “the capital of European prostitution,”8 with women of the lower classes filling the many openings created by the myth of the asexual bourgeois female. Within that societal context and his more immediate family environment, Egon traversed his adolescence.

Once the teenager left the Academy, he needed to secure his own models. At home, continuing his habit of using family members as subjects, he turned to his vulnerable younger sister. By the time she was thirteen, Gerti had become her older brother’s favorite model, frequently posing for him in the nude. Commenting on the siblings’ relationship, Kallir described the way the publicly shy artist would bully his sister: “In the morning he was at her bedside, clock in hand, to wake her. At the count of three she had to be up and ready to pose.”9

Nude Girl with Folded Arms (Gertrude Schiele) (1910, watercolor and black crayon on paper, 19¼″ x 11″ [48.8 x 28 cm]). Albertina, Vienna.

Egon also used his power over Gerti to force her company on train rides around the Austro-Hungarian Empire, perks he enjoyed by virtue of his family’s employment by the railroad. In one of their several trips to Trieste, sixteen-year-old Egon checked into his parents’ honeymoon hotel with twelve-year-old Gerti.10

In connection with that jaunt, Kallir raised the question of incest, defining it vaguely as behavior that “went beyond the realm of what would today be considered permissible, or resulted in any overtly sexual escapades.”11 A four-year age difference and a male’s gender advantage enabled Egon to enjoy a control over something/somebody in his life that had heretofore been unattainable. Whether that included actual sexual contact with Gerti remains unknown, but it’s clear that Egon abused the authority he had over his younger sister for his own gratification. Poor Gerti. One also has to wonder what precious possession she might have lost to the out-of-control father who could destroy his son’s prized drawings and his wife’s major means of financial support.

Pregnant Woman (1910, watercolor and charcoal on paper, 17¾″ x 12¼″ [45.1 x 31.1 cm]). Private collection. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

Other sources of models for Schiele included street urchins and prostitutes, and–in exchange for an oil portrait of a gynecologist at a women’s clinic–pregnant women and their babies. Among several of those works on display at the exhibit, Pregnant Woman (1910) stood out for its geometricity and idiosyncratic use of color: the circle of the abdomen contrasts with the right angles of the arms; the green wash of the face and belly complement the red orange of the breasts and arms; and the brown of her stockings relates to that of her hair.

Schiele captured his subject with her arms stretched out to the sides, handless forearms dangling. Her head droops onto her shoulder, her heavy-lidded eyes roll upwards and reveal space under the pupils, suggestive of a trance/hypnotic/drugged state. The artist disappeared the setting, focusing all attention on the exposed woman who might have been premedicated in advance of an examination and now found herself visited by some strange young man with paper and paint.

Nude Girl with Arms Raised (1910, pencil on tan wove paper, 17⅜″ x 12¼″ [44.1 x 31.1 cm]). Private Collection. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

Girls willing to model for some change were easy enough for Schiele to come by in lower-class neighborhoods throughout the city. Part of a series depicting a pair of black-haired girls he hired to pose for him, the pencil drawing Nude Girl with Arms Raised (1910) epitomizes the command that Schiele exercised over his line.

In this sketch, the artist confidently traced the contour of his subject’s body and added marks to sparely indicate nipples, navel, facial features and pubis. By drawing extra lines to darken the eyes and pubic hair, Schiele set them off as brackets for the torso. By having the young girl lift her arms, he assured the viewer visual access to her body. Compositionally, Schiele managed to suggest his model’s thighs, bent knees and lower limbs by discontinuing her legs just short of the bottom edge of the page, and picking them up again at her left ankle and foot.

Because he was only twenty, Schiele’s predilection for young girls as models might seem less jarring than had he been a seasoned artist, but it still highlights the disparity in status between male and female, bourgeois and working class. Kallir makes a case for the artist’s being motivated by both his own natural curiosity about sex (he was still developmentally an adolescent) and his desire to overturn conventional mores by placing women’s sexuality on an equal footing with men’s, thus liberating them at least pictorially.

Kallir also acknowledges the discomfiting nature of most of Schiele’s images of women, including later ones of his lover, his wife and other portrait sitters. Unlike Schiele’s mentor, the older Klimt, whose “numerous meaningful romantic affairs”12 gave him firsthand experience with women’s sexual practices and informed his own erotic drawings, the much younger artist could only draw on his limited exposure: what he had witnessed in his family, any dalliances with models and prostitutes that he might have had, and the prevailing ideas about women gleaned from the misogynistic society in which he lived.

By whatever route, Schiele arrived at a unique graphic form, especially evident in his figurative work. Kallir, in her opening night gallery talk, observed the care with which the artist constructed each piece. Every element, including his signature, was precisely placed on the sheet so that negative space would be part of the overall composition and there would be spatial balance in relationship to the surrounding edges of the page.13

Girl with Black Hair (1911, watercolor and pencil on paper, 22¼″ x 14¼″ [56.5 x 36.2 cm]). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

Schiele’s singular sense of composition is evident in Girl with Black Hair (1911), where concentric arcs emanate from an ambiguous area that might be a view of pubic hair through a slit in an undergarment of some sort or simply the artist’s perception of a woman’s genitals. They radiate upwards from there, encompassing the lower and upper perimeter’s of the model’s skirt and big black hair.

Schiele left out his model’s arms except for a sliver of her right one–the shape of which echoes that of the dark and light areas that define the skirt–and amputated her legs below the knees. Typical of his drawings of that period, the eyes lack pupils, only hinted at here by a grey-green wash. Although his composition targets her sex, and her facial expression could be read as aroused (parted red lips and vacant gaze), something about the absence of limbs and oddness of her crotch repels rather than attracts.

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1911, pencil on tan paper, 17⅝″ x 12½″ [45.2 x 31.6 cm]). Private Collection. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

Not all of Schiele’s depictions of females oozed sexuality. The same year he was churning out titillating images, he was also applying his prodigious drawing skills to other portrayals of women. In one, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1911), he used pencil on tan paper that was either dark at the time or has since darkened, making it difficult to see even in the well-lighted gallery.

To the grown Schiele, his mother still loomed large, much like she did when he was small. He positioned the almost-fifty-year-old widow considerably above eye level so that she looks down her nose at the viewer (and artist), and crowded her onto the page, letting the upper edge clip off the very top of her coiffure.

With sensitively rendered lines, Schiele economically indicated his subject’s form, bearing down more with his pencil when outlining the head and hair. The shadowy reflections on the glasses, which give the eyes a skeletal quality, and the corpselike way the hands rest on the chest combine to create a sepulchral mood.

Lady with Hat and Coat (1911, pencil on heavy tan wove paper, 17 ⅞″ x 12⅜″ [45.2 x 31.6 cm]). Private Collection. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

Despite the rapidity with which Schiele executed his works on paper, the marks and their placement indicate careful deliberation prior to execution. The effect of the pencil lines in Lady with Hat and Coat (1911) differs from that in the sketch of his mother, the face of which lacks the youthful smoothness found in that of the younger woman.

In depicting the model in Lady with Hat and Coat, Schiele outsized her head, eliminated her limbs except for a slight indication of arms and, with a line that retraces itself (quite different from the sure way he traced the clothing in Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), outlined her dress. Her head and torso seem to belong to two different women, creating tension between them.

Here again Schiele called attention to the face, this time by framing it with the brim of a hat and delicately smudging pencil around the eyes, the most alluring parts of the portrait. A few dark lines form the pupils and reserve the tone of the paper for their highlights. With shading and a couple of marks above the proper right nostril, a nose appears. The only other filled-in area is the carefully drawn mouth that, with the eyes and brows, contributes to the overall intensity with which the subject stares in the general direction of her observer.

Schiele, along with the other Expressionists, challenged the traditional passivity of the female model, giving her an active role in relationship to her audience and/or herself. In an age when peeling away surfaces in the quest for new knowledge brought breakthroughs in many of the sciences, including the development of psychoanalysis, Schiele and his cohorts sought to express the unconscious in visual form.

The Red Host (1911, watercolor and pencil on cream wove paper, 19″ x 11⅛″ [48.2 x 28.2]). Private Collection. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

Schiele’s choices of subject, medium and style reflected his determination to include in his work pieces of himself as well as a deeper truth about his subjects. In The Red Host (1911) he let it all hang out. A realistically rendered portrait of his penis, maintained erect by the obliging woman who grasps it tightly at its base, invites the viewer to reflect on–among other mysteries–how he managed to pose and draw at the same time.

The erection points to the man’s head–tilted all the way to his right–and to his face, with its slightly parted lips and heavy-lidded eyes, one of which rolls upwards to his left while the other looks straight ahead (to the mirror? to the viewer?). The expression, which could be one of sexual arousal, seems more unhappy than orgasmic.

While the man is covered from the waist up (and ankles down), the woman’s body is exposed; cut off below the navel, she’s been robbed of her own organ of pleasure. Her face, with red wash around the eyes and on her cheek bones, looks less flushed from pleasure than from physical exertion–like Atlas holding up the world.

Already 21 when he painted this watercolor, Schiele revealed a sexual angst that had its roots in the repressive culture in which he lived and the chaotic home in which he was raised, watching his syphilitic father go mad and die from a sexually transmitted disease. Surely Schiele must have feared the same fate would befall him. The conflict between the young man’s own natural desires and the anxiety and shame attached to sexuality impacted not just his artistic production but also his relationships with women.

Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees (1913, watercolor, gouache and pencil on heavy cream wove paper, 12⅝″ x 19⅜″ [32.1 x 49 cm]). Private Collection. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

The same year that he painted The Red Host, Schiele hired Wally Neuzil to model for him. Four years younger than Schiele (same as Gerti), Wally soon became his lover and muse, and later his assistant.

The connection they shared is evident in Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees (1913). Wally insists on watching the man who renders her form on paper, straining against the pose he has set for her. To make visual contact with him, she must fight against her lowered head, raise her eyelids and force her pupils to their far right corners, yet she insists on doing it. Her furrowed-brow expression of pique and unsmiling mouth challenge her demanding partner, who paints her as the dynamic woman he sees.

Wally’s unusual position (torso and upper legs at a right angle, as if seated) brings to mind Kallir’s observation that Schiele was known to pose his models in a vertical position then flip the paper and sign his name in its new horizontal orientation, or vice versa.14 Wally in Red Blouse with Raised Knees makes sense either way.

In addition to playing these compositional games, Schiele masterfully deployed color to convey emotions. The dominant orange-red of this watercolor with its touches of red on the sleeves of Wally’s blouse, and the golden brown of her hair that repeats the tone of her shoes/slippers, combine to deliver a feeling of warmth. With an outline and wash fill, Schiele convincingly established the sheerness of her bloomers and in similar fashion used a solid orange-red on the garters, which relates them to the blouse and, by contrasting them to the orange wash of the stockings, implies their transparency.

Had Egon and Wally lived in another time and place, they could have rode off into the sunset together. But when Schiele found himself reaching the age where he could choose a wife, he looked across the street rather than in his studio in search of appropriate marriage material. Despite his rebellious spirit, he remained a product of his era, though the subsequent difficulty with which he let go of Wally showed he was not without some heartache at having to discard her.

To properly court Edith and her older sister Adele, attractive and available young women living nearby, he enlisted Wally as a chaperone. Ultimately choosing the flirtatious Edith, Schiele wed her in 1915, then three days later was called up for service in the army. In a familiar scenario, Egon dragged his unhappy wife along with him to wherever he was stationed.

Unlike Wally, Edith wasn’t interested in shedding her clothes whenever her husband felt like drawing or painting her in the nude, although on the few occasions when she did succumb to his demands, she posed in the same sexually provocative manner as did his other models. None of those works appeared in the exhibit but a couple are in the book.

Woman Holding Flower (Edith Schiele) (1915, pencil on cream wove paper, 18¼″ 12⅜″ [46.4 x 31.4 cm]). Private Collection. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

In Woman Holding Flower (Edith Schiele) (1915), the artist portrayed his wife gently holding the stem of a wilted flower, leaning into the picture from the left with her body swaying in a reverse S curve. Anxious, retraced lines define the contours of her textured jacket but surer ones denote her expressive hands. Her eyes, out of convergence and with lowered lids, fall short of direct confrontation with the viewer.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing, with Hands on Hips (1915, black crayon on paper, 18″ x 11¼″ [45.7 x 28.5 cm]). Private Collection. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

Wearing a striped dress that reappears in many of Schiele’s pictures of her, Edith takes a far more active stance in Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Standing, with Hands on Hips (1915). In this drawing, her eyes open wide and stare straight ahead. Her lowered brows and thin, drawn-back lips signal annoyance; the upright posture and hands on hips announce her impatience. Schiele demonstrates his talent for conveying attitude while Edith obliges with plenty of it.

Embrace (Egon and Edith Schiele) (1916, pencil on cream wove paper, 12⅜″ x 18⅛″ [31.4 x 46 cm]). Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

The rag-doll-like appearance, enhanced by button eyes,15 of the couple in Embrace (Egon and Edith Schiele) (1916) belong to a style Schiele developed a few years earlier and increasingly employed in his figurative work. As he matured, he also showed interest in three-dimensionality, able to convincingly suggest solidity with just a few lines.

In Embrace, the ambiguous lines marking where the artist’s arms and hands find the woman he holds barely define the action in that area. A three-pronged extension of what might be his left arm could be a hand, but a superimposed darker mark directs the eye to a position more consonant with the embrace of the drawing’s title. The woman, Edith, rests her chin on a right hand, which can’t comfortably be hers and clasps her legs from under the knees with her right hand, barely indicated by a continuous line that goes on to create a wrist.

Schiele drew quickly but each line carried thoughtful intent. The closely spaced parallel lines of his forehead repeat in a patch of Edith’s hairline, in her ear/earring, the hand immediately under it, her three fingers, and the pattern on her skirt, linking them graphically. With his head, the man’s arms form an equilateral triangle that subsumes within it the woman’s head and upper body, enveloping her in a symbiotic embrace.

Despite the ferocity with which Schiele attempted to hang on to Edith, they were often separated by military orders that took him away from Vienna. Although in the beginning she had joined him as he was moved from one isolated outpost to another, she reached her limit and ultimately stayed behind in the city.

In 1917 with the help of an influential art dealer, Schiele was able to permanently return to Vienna to much lighter military duties, allowing him to devote more time to his career. Despite the cloud of war that continued to hover, he found supporters and a market for his work. The improved finances from his sudden success allowed him to hire professional models and with growing acceptance by the bourgeoisie and with his own maturation, his style evolved into a more traditional realism. The antithesis of his earlier adolescent work, the nudes from the period 1917-18 are his best known, most coveted and least radical.16

Reclining Woman (1918, charcoal on paper, 11⅝″ x 18¼″ [29.5 x 46.4 cm]). Private Collection. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

In one of the more sexually explicit works on the gallery walls, Reclining Woman (1918) demonstrates Schiele’s gravitating toward a more conventional depiction of bodies. Using shading as well as his characteristic line, he continued to delight and confuse the viewer with such touches as the lady’s right thumb disappearing into a line related to the collar of her shirt. While her torso hasn’t been allocated enough space for its full volume, the artist has tricked the viewer’s eye into believing in its full existence.

All parts of the model have been equally developed, with her face getting as much attention as her crotch, the dark shaded hair of which parallels that of her tresses. By fixing her gaze on something of great interest off to her right, she disengages herself from the activity of her body, which seductively displays its privates to anyone present.

Reclining Woman with Green Stockings (1917, gouache and black crayon on cream wove paper, 11⅝″ x 18 ⅛″ [29.4 x 46 cm]). Private Collection. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

Despite the solidity with which Schiele constructed the figure in Reclining Woman with Green Stockings (1917), she remains an exercise in rhythmic design. An S curve begins with her face, continues down her right upper arm to its elbow, slides over onto her right buttock, descends to her right thigh and sweeps along her stockinged leg to her shoe. The lower part of her right arm–which disappears beneath her left calf–emerges at the wrist and hand, and points upward to form a continuous contour with her torso. It then loops back around via her camisole strap to her face, directing the eye to the bent arm that supports her weight, the angle of which parallels that of the hooked leg.

The model, who makes eye contact with the viewer, exists nowhere in space. Yet the manner in which the weight of her body rests on her left elbow and the calf of her left leg flattens as though pressing down against something, strongly implies a floor and by extension, a horizon line. Schiele has engaged the viewer as an active participant in completing the construction of his composition.

Portrait of a Woman (Lilly Steiner) (1918, watercolor and black crayon on paper, 17⅜″ x 11⅜″]). Private Collection. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

As his renown spread, Schiele began to get portrait commissions from women, where in the past they had come mostly from men. One of several sketches he did of the Steiner family, Portrait of a Woman (Lilly Steiner) (1918), doesn’t spare the subject from the artist’s piercing gaze. Steiner’s lowered lids and brows coupled with her pursed lips give the appearance of anger. Here again Schiele positions one eye looking straight ahead and the other fixed on something to her left, effectively creating movement in an otherwise static, two-dimensional image.

With just a few lines depicting his sitter’s shoulders and the sleeves of her garment, Schiele leads the observer to imagine her upper body and arms. Ever conscious of the overall design, he has posted his signature at the base of Steiner’s left sleeve, just below its lowest lacy curl.

Throughout his artistic life, Schiele never gave up his fascination with women’s identity as sexual beings. Even as his younger, idiosyncratic linear style gave way to a more evolved volumetric one, he continued to churn out paintings and drawings of nudes exposing themselves. Fewer of those were on view at Galerie St. Etienne but the reader of the book, Egon Schiele’s Women, from which this exhibit was drawn, will find many tantalizing examples of the shameless ways in which this artist could position a model.

With the death of Gustav Klimt in February of 1918, Schiele moved into his former mentor’s spot as leading artist of Austria. For Egon and Edith, life was good. With prosperity they were able to live well; the artist could rent a larger studio. When his wife became pregnant early in 1918 with their first child, Schiele was inspired to meditate artistically on mothers and babies.

Egon Schiele on his deathbed, November 1, 1918. Photo courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

Beginning in the winter of 1918, a worldwide flu pandemic began a devastation that lasted several years, took the lives of upwards of fifty million people, and sickened many others. In October, Edith succumbed to it and just a few days later on October 31st Egon, already ill, followed her. The passing of this brilliant artist who, at 28, had barely entered his prime, left the world a little dimmer and robbed it of the promise of the boy who had always wanted to draw.

1 Unless otherwise indicated, all biographical information comes from Jane Kallir, Egon Schiele’s Women (New York: Prestel Publishing), 2012.

2 Alessandra Comini, Egon Schiele (New York: George Braziller, Inc.), 1976, 11.

3 Kallir, Egon Schiele’s Women, 39.

4 “A Brief History of the Galerie St. Etienne.” Fields of Study / About. Galerie St. Etienne website, accessed November 18, 2012.

5 Ibid.

6 Sigmund Freud, “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” trans. James Strachey, in The Assault on Truth by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (New York: Viking Penguin, 1984).

7 Ibid, 271.

8 Kallir, Egon Schiele’s Women, 83.

9 Ibid, 54.

10 Comini, Egon Schiele, 11.

11 Kallir, Egon Schiele’s Women, 77.

12 Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (New York: Random House, 2012), 91.

13 Jane Kallir, Gallery Talk, October 23, 2012.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

Egon Schiele’s Women
The Galerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019

Egon Schiele’s Women by Jane Kallir
Available at the gallery and online.


Art Review: Eric Fischl

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Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Constructing Narrative
Eric Fischl Paints the Unconscious

Eric Fischl in His Studio © Edgar Howard, Checkerboard Film Foundation.

When psychologists use the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)–a projective technique–they show drawings to their subjects and ask them to tell a story about each one.  Research has demonstrated that the narratives thus produced reflect projections from the unconscious and therefore can be used to assess mental states.  Unfortunately, in the case of the TAT, the images are hopelessly dated and far from neutral; reminiscent of film noir, they tend to produce rather depressive narratives.1

Untitled (Poolside, 3 Figures) (1979, charcoal on paper, 43″ x 94″).  Courtesy of the artist.

In developing compositions for his paintings, Eric Fischl relies on the same mechanism of projection that underpins the use of the TAT.  Beginning with disparate elements (initially drawings and more recently photographs), he plays with them until they assemble into an intriguing tableau.  Relying on his responses to these random arrangements to let him know when it’s time to paint, Fischl explains: “…for me it’s not a preconceived narrative, it’s a discovered narrative.”2

Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of Painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) “…let audiences look at the art of painting over Fischl’s shoulder,”3 an idea that grew out of a conversation between the artist and Susan Krane, executive director of the San José Museum of Art, where the show originated in collaboration with PAFA.  The accompanying catalog includes the transcript of an interview with Fischl about his artistic process, the film of which continuously played in a room at the exhibit.

Saturday Night (The Aftermath Bath) (1980, oil on glassine, 72″ x 84″).  Courtesy of the artist.

Fischl’s working method is far more obvious in early sketches like Saturday Night (The Aftermath Bath) (1980), where one can readily see the four painted glassine overlays, each with its own subject.  In the later digitally manipulated photographs, the artist’s hand is less evident.

In Saturday Night, the bathtub sets the scene within which a nude man shaves, a woman in a black slip and high heels–lit cigarette in hand–sits on the rim of a tub, crosses her legs and casually glances over her shoulder at her audience, while a young boy, standing in the tub, looks down at his small penis, held in his hands.  Despite the casual intimacy suggested by the setup, the figures are absorbed in their own concerns, oblivious to one another–a perfect depiction of the disengaged family.

Born in 1948, growing up during the fifties and sixties, Fischl has written candidly about his family.  “I came out of a white, upper-middle-class, Protestant suburban background…I lived in essentially a secretive environment.  My mother was a ferocious alcoholic…It was a family shame, something you kept out of public.”  He went on to describe the contrast between the outside, which was “nicely kept yards, clean pressed clothes, and going to school on time,” and the inside, “frightening and tumultuous and violent and dirty and disgusting.”4  Afterimages of scenes observed by the boy he was pervade Fischl’s oeuvre.

Now able to direct the cast of characters–both created and found–the grownup Fischl has become the puppet master, shedding the role of helpless bystander to the drama that played out between his parents.  In the scenes of suburbia that he produced in the 1980s, Fischl intimated all was not well.  In many of them, boundaries dissolved and left the viewer wondering, “What’s going on here?”

That’s just the kind of question Fischl likes to imagine people asking when they look at his pictures.  It’s also part of what happens to him.  “I’m just sitting there looking at it and basically I’m going, what the fuck is going on here?!  Who are these people and why are they this way?”5  Rather than getting mired in such musings, Fischl revels in the ambiguity, picks up his oil-paint-loaded brush, and takes swipes at a large canvas.  This artist is no “knuckle painter.”  He is at least a “wrist” if not an “elbow painter.”6  Creating an active surface covered with perfectly placed colors, he fills the rectangle with figures vaguely relating to each other and engaged in activities that seem oddly familiar yet totally strange.

In roughly chronological order, the exhibit followed Fischl as he experimented with different methods of discovering narratives.  Works were grouped according to their relationship to each other, particularly enlightening when photographs taken on the beach at Saint Tropez (1982-1988) and for the Krefeld Project (2003) appeared in the vicinity of their respective paintings.  Sketches, sculptures and the occasional print revealed the breadth of Fischl’s gifts and the depth of his explorations.

Dog Days (1983, oil on canvas, diptych, 84″ x 168″). Collection of the Hall Art Foundation.

With the diptych, Dog Days (1983), the artist exposed a private moment of early-adolescent lust juxtaposed with a cryptic comment on it.  Attention is drawn first to the right panel (rather than to the more usual left) of the two-painting set where on a balcony overlooking a tropical beachside road, a white cloth (perhaps a towel) has been spread out across a section of its sun-drenched concrete floor.  On it stands a boy wearing only a tee shirt (and perhaps briefs) who sports an erection as he reverentially touches the bare skin just above his nude companion’s red pubic hair as she, not quite finished kicking out of the bikini bottom that threatens to trip her, leans back and thrusts her crotch in his direction, making it easier for him to reach his prize.  Curiosity animates both their faces.

In the left panel, standing on a similar terrace, a grown woman clad only in white sandals and carrying a beach bag with a large water bottle emerging from its front opening, looks down at two mutts who return her gaze.  Her expression asks, “What do you want?” in response to their expectant looks.  A whisper of humor in both images lightens what could easily get crushed under the weight of psychological interpretation.  Fischl’s playful nature shines through in much of his work.

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man (1984, oil on linen, 85″ x 70″).  San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

At the ripe old age of 36, riffing on the title of Joyce’s slim novel by gazing into the future instead of reflecting on the past, Fischl painted Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man (1984).  Hardly aggrandizing, this self-portrait positions the artist in front of a Jullian easel lacking palette and brushes but supporting a canvas with a thin wash demarcating sand and sky.  The white-haired, toothless old man, who wears only an open, short-sleeved blue shirt, looks up at the intruder from behind dark glasses and either modestly covers his partial nakedness or has been caught in the act of getting off, like a flasher exposing himself from beneath a newspaper discreetly positioned across his lap.

Defying compositional rules, Fischl placed the figure dead center, connecting the elderly artist visually via his shirt to the dark blue sky above, and to the ground underfoot by way of his skin tones.  He balanced the bright white of the surf on the left with the high value of the canvas on the right, sandwiching a band of bright yellow grasses between green immediately above and below.  The consummate craftsman, Fischl used a golden light and long shadows to denote late afternoon, a time of great opportunity for a landscape painter.

Untitled (1988, charcoal on paper, 29″ x 23″).  Courtesy of the artist.

Similar questions of propriety surfaced in a quartet of charcoal drawings–grouped together in a two-by-two grid at the exhibit–of a nude man seen from behind, a series providing the viewer with a wonderful example of the artist’s imaginative wanderings.  The original idea for the first one, Untitled (Study for a Man Exposing Himself) (1987), seems to have sprung from Fischl’s photographs of bathers at St. Tropez.  A very young girl runs off across the sand with her back to a man with wrinkled skin suggestive of aging; he stands awkwardly in the foreground as though caught off balance.

That both wear nothing creates little tension in the context of the outdoor setting of the picture and the photos of a predominantly nude beach displayed nearby.  With the title, the artist invites the viewer to project malevolence onto the story; a pleasant seaside scene holds little interest for him.  Commenting on the impetus behind his work, Fischl explained, “I long for a stronger reality, I long for a drama, I long for a life-and-death experience that makes me feel alive.  And so I paint these people…these desperate people trying to find a better life.”7  “I don’t paint heaven.  I’ve never painted heaven.  I wouldn’t know how.”8

Untitled (Study for a Man Exposing Himself) (1987, charcoal on paper, 24″ x 18″).  Courtesy of the artist.

In the other three drawings–each labeled Untitled (1988), Fischl anchored the compositions with the nude man seen from behind, then drew in different elements and erased others, searching for that stronger feeling.  The most neutral arrangement puts flippers in the protagonist’s right hand and places him poolside, facing a swimsuited man standing in front of a beach chair, arms raised perhaps in greeting.

Untitled (1988, charcoal on paper, 29″ x 23″).  Courtesy of the artist.

In a particularly quizzical version, the old man–maybe clothed in swim trunks–still carries flippers but now follows a woman whose headcovering and gown allude to wedding attire.  The lines Fischl used for the figures unite them as a couple, lending a sense of the ordinary to this most unusual pairing.

In the final drawing, confronting the nakedness of the man opposite her, a woman in full evening dress and highly-coiffed black hair stares directly at him with wide-open dark eyes and left hand on hip–her expression a cross between anger and alarm.  Ambiguity reigns.

Fischl found similar mystery in the lacunae he noted in the paintings of Thomas Eakins: “What’s compelling is what’s not there.”9  Several of the latter artist’s photographs were featured in the exhibit, their characters beckoning Fischl to incorporate them into fresh scenarios.  One especially compelling series showed the nude Eakins carrying a similarly undressed woman whose limply hanging arm, thrown-back head and closed eyes implied she’s sleeping or dead.

Once Where We Looked to Put Down Our Dead (1996, oil on linen, 98″ x 80″).  The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection, Los Angeles.  Photo: Zindman/Fremont.

Undoubtedly intrigued by the narrative potential of those images, Fischl borrowed one for his monumental Once Where We Looked to Put Down Our Dead (1996).  Extracting Eakins’s nude duo from its original studio setting, situating it in a church interior and bathing it in sunlight streaming in from an unidentified source, Fischl confronted the enormity of death and questioned religion’s ability to provide solace in the face of it.

The painting was inspired, along with others in his Italian series, by the artist’s trip to Rome soon after his father died.  “If you need to mourn…Rome is the best place to do it…In Rome you live with great art, and great art talks to you about life and about death, about grief and about loss, and gives you permission to have all those feelings attached to them.”10

Toying with scale, Fischl shrunk the figures to enhance their vulnerability.  Bathed in light, the man carrying his dead moves in a dark and impersonal interior furnished with pews; a sarcophagus and memorial portrait speak to the traditional role of the church as a place to entomb the dead.  In this oil on canvas where forms have been blurred with smooth brushstrokes, lending them an insubstantiality, the figures’ starkly light impasto emphasizes their physicality and imperfections, setting them in opposition to the angular geometry of their surroundings.

For Fischl, the Eakins’s photo suggested “an essentially profoundly tragic moment, a scene of a man carrying a dead woman, presumably a lover.”11  In placing them in a church, he asked, “Is this a place that I can lay down my dead, my pain, my love, my tragedy?  Is this it and will it take care of it?  And again, that doesn’t get answered.”12

An opportunity to further ponder questions of attachment and loss arose in the early 2000s when Fischl was invited to develop a project using one of the Mies van der Rohe houses in Krefeld, Germany.  Whatever its architectural significance, to the artist the structure was first and foremost “a house, people did live there…I’d furnish [it], hire some actors, and take a bunch of photographs as if they lived [there].”13  To drive the action, using a common improvisation technique, Fischl would “set up these situations where I would only tell one of them something and the other one had to figure out what was going on.”14

The result was a collection of photographs (many at the exhibit, some matched with their paintings) from which Fischl selected and recombined elements to produce the Krefeld Project series.  Comparing a particular painting with its source photo did indeed offer a peak over the artist’s shoulder; one could pick out the elements he kept, the ones he changed and those he excluded.

Krefeld Project: Living Room, Scene #4 (2002, oil on linen, 63½” x 92″).  Courtesy of the artist.

A symphony in primary colors, Krefeld Project: Living Room, Scene #4 (2002) depicts a voluminous red robe inhabited by a blond woman with pasty face and hands emerging from it.  She is bracketed on the left by a curvaceous modern recliner–with cobalt blue highlights defining its arms and back–and in the right background by a bright orange vertical stripe and a deep-yellow vase whose color repeats in the shadows of its flowers.  A ghostly man stands near the right edge of the canvas, his lower half sized for a position in front of a nearby table, his upper half small enough to belong further back.  On the table rests an exquisitely constructed cup and saucer accompanied by a teaspoon, all economically indicated with just a few strokes of white.

With her back to him, the woman looks down, attending to the complicated process of securing her wrap around her.  Likewise clothed in a robe, the man directs his attention to the open magazine he’s reading.  The scene begs for an explanatory title but the mischievous Fischl leaves it to his audience.

A precursor to the Krefeld Project, the painting The Bed, The Chair, The Sitter (2000) also arose out of a colleague’s challenge to the artist.  Asked to “[enter] into a dialogue with Edward Hopper, specifically using two paintings…Summer in the City (1949) and…Excursion into Philosophy (1959),”15  Fischl sat with the idea for a couple of years before coming up with The Philosopher’s Chair (1999), a painting he described as being about “the inability to connect, to find satisfaction in relationships, or to realize sexual desire.”16

The Bed, The Chair, The Sitter (2000, oil on linen, 78″ x 93″).  Courtesy of the artist.

The chair featured in that work reappeared in a number of other compositions including The Bed, The Chair, The Sitter, of which an earlier, more fully developed version (1999) exists.  On a very smooth linen surface, cool dark colors wash across the top of the painting, forming a backdrop for the action down in front.  Starkly illuminated by hot light originating off-stage to the right, a bare-legged woman sits on the floor with knees drawn up and head supported by her right hand.  She stares straight ahead as if watching something (television?) while a brown-suited man looms over her from behind, a few almost-white splotches for his hand and face set them off against the darkness from which he emerges.

A centrally situated overstuffed chair with wooden legs grabs focus, its red-on-beige vegetal pattern looking more like blood stains than decoration.  Washes of bright orange heat up the lower half of the picture, covering the floor, parts of both figures and the shadowed twin of the philosopher’s chair.  He (fully dressed) looks at her (minimally clothed) while she looks intently elsewhere.

Fischl’s quest for narrative is reminiscent of the small child trying to run away from home who endlessly circles his city block because he’s not allowed to cross the street.  This artist ends up at the same dimly lit corners of human relationships where estrangement rules.

Scenes from Late Paradise: The Parade (2006-07, oil on linen, 76″ x 108″).  Collection of the Hall Art Foundation.

Fischl’s attempt to connect isolated figures enhances the feeling of their separation.  Even when compressed together in a telephoto lens effect, like in Scenes from Late Paradise: The Parade (2006-07), his characters seem miles apart, including the three practically identical dogs who set the pace.  In preparing for that very large canvas, the artist photoshopped together several different groups of beachgoers from his St. Tropez shots.

Using broad bristle brushes, and long strokes, squiggles and dabs, Fischl captured the glaring sun of the Mediterranean through high-value lights and warmer, dark tones, emphasizing the heat of midday by setting them off against a chilly blue sea, spots of blue for the bikini on the right, and green striping on the towel, the sweep of which creates an arch connecting the couple to its left with the two men marching in front of it.  The three men in the lead bend their right legs in unison while shadows announce disparate light sources; the paraders head in the same direction but inhabit different worlds.

Once again Fischl has subtly portrayed the disconnect among cohorts of a particular socioeconomic class, the one in which he was raised.  With wit, skill and a spirit of adventure, this artist bravely probes the depth of his unconscious, uncovering a treasure trove of material from which to fashion thought-provoking images.  He challenges his viewers to join him in discovering new narratives based on his offerings and their own projections.  The APA17 could do worse than to commission him to create a new set of pictures for the TAT.
1 Feller, Deborah, The Effect of Color on the Emotional Response to the Thematic Apperception Test, unpublished master’s thesis, 1977.

2 Philbrick, Harry, et al, Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of Painting (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania of the Fine Arts), 2012, 18.

3 Ibid, 11.

4 Danto, Arthur C., et al, Eric Fischl 1970-2007 (New York: The Monaceli Press, Inc.), 2008, 43.

5 Fischl quoted in Philbrick, Dive Deep, 20.

6 Ibid, 29.

7 Ibid, 22.

8 Ibid, 21.

9 Ibid, 29.

10 Fischl quoted in Canto, Eric Fischl 1970-2007, 197.

11 Philbrick, Dive Deep, 29.

12 Ibid.

13 Canto, Eric Fischl 1970-2007, 312.

14 Ibid, 313.

15 Ibid, 102.

16 Ibid.

17 American Psychological Association.

Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and
The Process of Painting
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
128 North Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Catalog available.