Art Reviews

Art Review: Van Gogh Up Close

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Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Zooming In on
Van Gogh’s
Zooming In

Sunflowers (1887, oil on canvas, 17″ x 24″ [43.2 x 61 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Naturally the Philadelphia Museum of Art opened the Van Gogh Up Close exhibit with its well known treasure, Sunflowers (1888 or 1889), but it was the far more striking Sunflowers (1887) from the master colorist’s Paris years that stole the show.  Two yellow ocher blooms, one presenting its face to the viewer, the other its back, vibrate against a background of mostly cobalt blue.  Assured brushstrokes of crimson limn the edges of the petals (actually leaves) and crisscross each other, not quite capturing the Fibonacci spiral of the flower’s brown center (a collection of tiny florets).  One can imagine the obsessed artist squinting intently at his slowly wilting subjects to better grasp the complex patterns of nature.

Because the wildly popular Vincent Willem van Gogh guarantees a crowd for any museum mounting an exhibit in his name, many such shows have cropped up over the years.  Remarkably, guest curator Cornelia Homburg managed to conjure up a fresh perspective from which to examine this artist’s oeuvre.  Noticing within his body of work paintings that share a cluster of traits, she proposed the current show to the National Gallery of Canada in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum.

Homburg began her exploration with the 33-year-old van Gogh’s sojourn in Paris (1886-1888), during which time he lived with his art-dealing, younger brother Theo, met and socialized with fellow artists in art class and at exhibitions, and absorbed the radiant hues of Impressionism and the alluring compositions of Japanese prints.  During this brief respite from inner turmoil that invariably surfaced,1 van Gogh diligently applied himself to learning the newfangled painting techniques of his peers in hopes of churning out a more marketable product.

Many paintings from then and the rest of his all-too-brief life (he died of a gunshot wound to his abdomen in 1890) display close-up views of still-life objects in simplified settings, and foreground details in landscape views with high horizons.  Influenced by Japanese printmakers like Utawaga Hiroshige I and others (on view in their own room at the exhibit) and drawn to their philosophy of contemplation, van Gogh sought elusive solace in emulation of them.

In 1889, from the asylum in St. Remy, the artist wrote to his sister Wilhelmien, “I…am always obliged to go and gaze at a blade of grass, a pine-tree branch, an ear of wheat, to calm myself.”2  In choosing to focus his visual attention in that way, van Gogh practiced a now well-recognized method of trance induction.

The central thesis of Van Gogh Up Close–that his propensity for zooming in on nature, still or wild, was unique to his last few years and certain of his paintings–overlooks the obsession with which van Gogh approached all endeavors in his life.  While honing his draftsmanship early in his career, the fledgling artist wrote to his brother, “I still believe that the way to get that boldness and daring later is to quietly carry on observing as faithfully as possible now.”3

In learning to draw the figure, van Gogh demonstrated a monomaniacal ability to focus in on one object, spending hours intensely concentrating on his poor beleaguered models4 and, in landscapes like Behind the Schenkweg, The Hague (1882),5 demonstrated the same fascination with details and dramatic shifts in perspective that characterize his later work.

Perhaps there was something about Paris–that Vincent was manifesting his long dreamed of artistic reunion with Theo, that he was participating in the albeit often strained comradery of other artists–that allowed him to again sit still for a while.  Whatever the fortuitous precipitants, the results of those labors enjoyed expert illumination (no glare here despite all the framing under glass) throughout the exhibit and especially in the introductory gallery, which featured six floral still lifes and one pair of shoes.

Bowl with Zinnias and Other Flowers (1886, oil on canvas, 19¾″ x 24″ [50.2 x 61 cm]).  National Gallery of Canada.

In one offering, Bowl with Zinnias and Other Flowers (1886), van Gogh sculpted the flowers with abbreviated strokes of impasto, working wet on wet with great precision.  A transparent, thinly applied reddish brown backdrop contrasts with the thickly brushed table on which sits a vase whose form is modeled with green and highlighted with pure white.  A bloom in the lower left of the bouquet, defined by the red one behind it, begs to be smelled.  The ocher flower surrounded by all the white ones and set off by the light blue abutting it, might that represent the artist himself?

Vase with Cornflowers and Poppies (1887, oil on canvas, 31½″ x 26⅜″ [80 x 67 cm.]). Triton Foundation, Belgium.

Further along, the visitor encountered the stunning Vase with Cornflowers and Poppies (1887), a prime specimen of van Gogh’s attachment to the power of simultaneous contrast, a concept he knew from Charles Blanc’s treatise on a subject6 originally explained by textile chemist Michel Eugéne Chevreul.7  In this animated painting, a profusion of pale blue flowers and a similarly hued background provide the stage for impossibly bright red-orange blossoms that crown the spray and lead the eye to a red-accented green table with a vase that adds more blue.

Adhering to the theory of simultaneous contrast, which states that a color’s chroma is intensified when placed adjacent to its color wheel opposite, in Vase with Cornflowers and Poppies, van Gogh juxtaposed red-orange with its complement blue, and green with its antithesis red.  Then he scattered strokes of dark blue and added a number of pure white daisies, using extremes of value for heightened impact.

Crown Imperial (Fritillaria) in a Copper Vase (1887, oil on canvas, 28¾″ x 2313/16″ [73 x 60.5 cm]). Musée d’Orsay, France.

With a nod to the pointillists in the somewhat different Crown Imperial (Fritillaria) in a Copper Vase (1887), van Gogh sprinkled stars across the dark blue background, adding a bit of heaven to his art.  With smooth strokes, he blended yellow into red to describe the fritillaries, and stippled yellow onto the red-brown vase to suggest copper, varying his paint application as the object required, in complete control of his medium.

A Pair of Shoes (1887, oil on canvas, 12⅞″ x 165/16″ [32.7 x 41.5 cm]). The Baltimore Museum of Art.

Thrown in among the pretty plants, A Pair of Shoes (1887) provides humble evidence of van Gogh’s accomplished draftsmanship.  Like the pair of Sunflowers sharing views from above and below, these shoes show off their tops and bottoms.  In this study of blues, red-browns and pinks, the artist used smaller brushes to rim the shoes’ edges, dot in the cleats and squiggle on the laces, indicating the concentration with which he painted during those years.

Grapes, Lemons, Pears and Apples (1887, oil on canvas, 185/16″ x 21¾″ [46.5 x 55.2 cm]). Art Institute of Chicago.

Accompanied by some other still lifes in the last room of the exhibit, Grapes, Lemons, Pears and Apples (1887) epitomizes van Gogh’s aptitude for innovatively integrating disparate artistic styles.  While channeling Cezanne in his apples and pears, the artist also referenced Dutch Golden Age still-life painters in the translucent quality of his grapes.  With radiating and encircling dashes of pastel colors, he suggested the opening of a cornucopia and, after the paint had dried, layered on deep blue marks of shadow.  In the upper right, a starburst of olive and ocher enliven a pointed leaf while a barely begun one in the foreground already casts a shadow, marking the work as still in progress.

In between the first and last galleries, landscapes predominated and mirrored van Gogh’s change of scenery.  In the winter of 1888, the artist fled the overstimulating environment of Paris and headed south to rural Arles.  There he hoped to establish a community of artists practicing a new art in a contemplative setting like that of his Japanese idyll.

Blossoming Acacia Branches (1890, oil on canvas, 13″ x 9½″ [33 x 24.2 cm]). Nationalmuseum, Sweden.

Throughout the last two years of his life, van Gogh reflected in his work both his growth as an artist and his deteriorating mental state.8  The high horizon line that he borrowed from Japanese prints disappeared entirely in closeups like Iris (1889), and in paintings like Blossoming Acacia Branches (1890) and Ears of Wheat (1890), which border on total abstraction, van Gogh took the lead in the race toward modernity.

Iris (1889, oil on thinned cardboard, mounted on canvas, 24½″ x 19″ [62.2 x 48.3 cm]). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

With Iris, the artist zoomed in on a single plant thriving in its natural environment instead of dying in a vase.  The shock of the bright blue bloom and its accompanying buds saves the painting from dissolving into a mass of hyperactive green brushstrokes.  Unsure of when his mind might desert him again, van Gogh unwittingly represented in this and many of his other late landscapes his futile efforts to stanch the flood of agitated thoughts that beset him during bouts of illness.

Wheatfield (1888, oil on canvas, 21¾″ x 26¼″ [55.2 x 66.7 cm]). Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii.

Representing a time of clarity and control, Wheatfield embodies perfectly van Gogh’s perception of the seasons.  Writing to Theo in 1884, the artist waxed poetical: “The spring is tender green (young wheat) and pink (apple blossom).  The autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones.  The winter is the snow with the little black silhouettes.”9

In a field of purple earth with yellow stubble, three sheaves of wheat crowned with flecks of gold lean against each other like the three Graces.  Behind them stretches an expanse of ocher interrupted by stripes of green and yellow that stop before a horizontal band of deep blue mountains and trees that turns green as it extends to the right.  Clouds of white applied wet on wet over a green-blue sky demonstrate the dexterity with which van Gogh could throw paint.  A single cypress towers above all else on the right while a smaller tree occupies the center, perhaps expressing the gulf between the artist and his world.

By the end of 1888, van Gogh’s dream of establishing a studio in the south had dissolved along with his mental health in the acid of his neighbors’ reactions to his off-putting behavior and the fallout from his cohabitation with Paul Gauguin.  After several bouts of illness and hospitalizations, the bedraggled artist conceded defeat and admitted himself to an asylum in St. Remy, where he remained until the spring of 1890 when, frustrated by the restrictions of institutional living, he headed north.

At the asylum, van Gogh took advantage of his good days to first draw and then paint the fields and mountains visible from his window.  Once stabilized and permitted to venture off the grounds, he resumed his habit of trekking around the countryside in search of subjects.

Road Menders at Saint-Remy (1889, oil on canvas, 28⅞″ x 36⅛″ [73.4 x 91.8 cm]). The Cleveland Museum of Art.

In Road Menders at Saint-Remy (1889), the artist’s attention settled on three giant London plane trees and some workers repairing a road glistening with puddles alongside a wavy street in town.  Although some blue peeks out from behind the houses and background trees, the overall air is one of claustrophobia.

Borrowing pastel tones from the Impressionists, van Gogh created drama with bright green shutters, deep blue figures, and dark outlines that contain the busy grey, violet, pink and blue of the peeling bark.  Perhaps the solid, enduring qualities of these ancient plants attracted him and contemplating them brought him some small comfort.

Almond Blossom (1890, oil on canvas, 2815/16″ x 36¼″ [73.5 x 92 cm]). Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Ever chasing an elusive family reunion, van Gogh was elevated to new heights of hope by news of the birth of his nephew and namesake, Theo’s firstborn, early in 1890.  To celebrate the new arrival, he painted in the dead of winter a symbol of spring and renewal as a gift for the child.10

Inspired to levels of concentration often missing in many of the rapidly executed landscapes of his last few years, van Gogh spent sufficient time on Almond Blossom (1890) to layer wet paint over dry and carefully delineate the outlines of branches where they abut the background blue.  Like he did in his Parisian still lifes, the artist here constructs the flowers with impasto white, hints of green and touches of red, once again in complete command of his brush.

The dream did not last long.  Van Gogh crashed along with his hopes in the spring of 1890 during a brief stay in Paris at Theo’s.  After a blowup with his financially stressed brother who, despite having new responsibilities of wife and child, continued to support the demanding, chronically broke Vincent, the unnerved artist relocated yet again, this time to Auvers-sur-Oise, a short train ride from the big city.

Undergrowth with Two Figures (1890, oil on canvas, 19½″ x 39¼″ [49.5 x 99.7 cm]). Cincinnati Art Museum.

Undergrowth with Two Figures (1890) emerged soon after van Gogh’s flight.  Related to other images of the forest floor (sous-bois) but distinct in its bright coloring and the inclusion of figures, this double-square painting is tinged with foreboding.  Oddly, in describing the picture, “[v]an Gogh never mentioned the human inhabitants…instead describing its colour [sic] and composition.”11

An alignment of trees outlined in black and covered with blue and pink bark pens in a well-dressed couple strolling arm in arm amid a profusion of yellow and green underbrush and shadowed by a midnight blue background.  The scene obliquely references the nature walks conducted regularly by van Gogh’s parents for the benefit of their children back in the artist’s rural hometown of Zundert.

Born into a family too conventionally close and religiously observant for his inquisitive and singular temperament, Vincent quickly acquired the role of problem child.  Shipped out for schooling and then employment, eventually banished completely from returning home, van Gogh spent his life dreaming up artist colonies and instant families.

In Undergrowth with Two Figures, a much thicker tree, centrally placed, bars entrance to the flowered walk and parental figures, a representation of the impossibility of ever returning home.  But in his unrelenting pursuit of that longed for reunion, van Gogh adopted mentors, sought fellowship with others, absorbed a variety of artistic styles and created an art that only he could.

_______________________________________

1 See Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life (London: Profile Books, 2011) for the pre-cradle to post-grave details of van Gogh’s tumultuous and tragic life.

2 Anabelle Kienle, “Poetic Nature: A Reading of Van Gogh’s Letters” in Van Gogh Up Close (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 43.

3 Quoted in Cornelia Homburg, editor, Vincent van Gogh: Timeless Country–Modern City (Milan: Skira, 2010), 228.

4 See Colta Ives, et al, Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), the catalog for the show of the same name, for a look at van Gogh’s earliest artwork.

5 See Timeless Country–Modern City, plate 5.

6 Charles Auguste-Alexandre-Phillipe Blanc, Grammaire des arts du dessin, 1867.

7 Michel Eugéne Chevreul, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and Their Applications to the Arts, translated by Charles Martel, 1854.

8 Convincingly diagnosed as the inherited disease of acute intermittent porphyria by Wilfred Niels Arnold in “The Illness of Vincent van Gogh,” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 13:1 (2004), 22-43.

9 Quoted in Timeless Country–Modern City, 243.

10 Exhibit wall text for Almond Blossom.

11 Jennifer A. Thompson, “Sous-Bois” in Van Gogh Up Close, 208.

Van Gogh Up Close
Philadelphia Museum of Art
26th Street & Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19130
(215)763-8100

National Gallery of Canada
380 Sussex Drive
P.O. Box 427, Station A
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1N 9N4
(613)990-1985, (800)319-ARTS
May 25 – September 3, 2012.

Catalog available.

 

Addendum: Degas and the Nude

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Thursday, March 1st, 2012

Clarification of Degas’s
Visual Abilities

The following paragraphs and related notes have been inserted into the review of Degas and the Nude.  They appear after the explanation for the omission of Degas’s visual problems from the discussion of his later work:

Ambrose Vollard thought the same and insisted in his Degas: An Intimate Portrait that the artist “…used to pretend to be more blind than he was in order to not recognize people he wanted to avoid…Immediately after such a refusal, Degas took out his watch and said, without the slightest hesitation, ‘It’s a quarter past two.’”9

The statements of both the curator and Vollard “…reflect the simplistic view that vision is all about acuity and little more.”10 But such a dichotomy is “…not at all inconsistent [with] serious central vision loss.”11 “The fine details of a person’s face…would not have been clear to a person affected by central retinal disease…However, a watch face with large, dark hands [on] a light-colored background would have been easily seen…It’s image spread out broadly on the retina.”12

 

Art Review: Degas & the Nude

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Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Peering into Women’s Private Places
Degas Re-envisions the Nude

Degas seated, beside a sculpture by Albert Bartholomé (c. 1895, gelatin silver print, 11¼″ x 16½″ [28.6 x 39.4 cm]). Musée d’Orsay. Photo © Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Stepping into the subdued lighting of the brown-walled first gallery of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ comprehensive exhibit, Degas and the Nude, the visitor noticed on the far side the artist’s early foray into the high-prestige genre of history painting, Young Spartans Exercising (1860-62).  A supporting cast of student academies and preparatory drawings adorned the walls around it.

Steeped in the classical tradition, counseled by Ingres when seeking his advice to “[d]raw lines, young man…whether from memory or after nature,”1 apprenticed to the masters on display at the Louvre where he copied almost daily, enrolled in classes where he drew from the nude, and by age 22 ensconced in Italy for three years of onsite study, Hilaire-Germaine-Edgar Degas began his career with a deep respect and natural talent for rendering the details of his observed world.

Upon landing in Naples in 1856, the young artist assumed a humble attitude in relationship to the antique and Renaissance masters he was determined to study; he wrote in his diary, “…I get it into my head that I know nothing at all.  That is the only way to go forward.”2

Several highly resolved drawings in this first of the exhibit’s nine themed rooms speak to the young artist’s delight in describing through line and shading the intricacies of the human form.  In the penciled Standing Male Nude (1856-58), the model strikes a pose similar to that of the classical Greek sculpture Apoxyomenos, depicting an athlete scraping oil off his body following an athletic competition.  Here and in Study of a Male Nude from the same period, Degas used pencil/graphite to sensitively render true-to-life details of bone and muscle, and to describe the individual character of each male model to the level of portraiture.

Apparent in many of the displayed drawings from Degas’ sojourn in Italy (images of which were unavailable), the artist’s intense visual engagement with his subjects demonstrated his patience and discipline, and also suggested his profound enjoyment of the very act of seeing.

Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65, oil on paper, 337/16″ x 57″ [85 x 147 cm]). Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo © Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In the second gallery, themed The Body in Peril, an array of drawings related to the painting Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65) introduced Degas’s fascination with the vulnerability of women’s bodies and his total lack of interest in their faces, almost always obscured.

One in particular, Nude Woman Lying on Her Back, Study for Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65), drawn in black chalk, exemplifies the artist’s command of his medium.  Using parallel chalk marks, he emphasizes the elongation of the injured/dead victim in a pose that exposes her defenselessness.  In the painting she lies on the mound of earth in the lower left corner.

Interior (c. 1868-1869, oil on canvas, 32″ x 45″ [81.3 x 114.3 cm]). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In the same gallery and accompanied by perhaps only one relevant study, hangs the tension-filled Interior (c. 1868-1869), a masterpiece of narrative art.  The scene takes place in a dimly lit room where a woman sits hunched over on the left, facing away from a man who leans with his back against a door on the far right.  Toward the center, the only visible sources of light–a background lamp and a glowing fireplace–illuminate her white dress, bare shoulder and the bottom corner of her turned-away face.  Despite his cast shadow behind him, he seems shrouded in darkness.

Following from left to right, the viewer discovers:  a heavy brown garment on her lap on which she rests her left arm; a table on which sits a scissor, some lace and a hinged wooden box opened to reveal its brightly lit, blood-red lining–with a piece of white cloth hanging over its edge; on the floor nearby, a white camisole, perhaps the recent object of some mending; and on the bed, a woman’s ribboned bonnet near a coat draped over the bed’s foot grill.  A man’s top hat occupies the surface of the dresser in the background just to her right, on a level with her head so as not to be missed.

He glares at her.  She brings her right hand to her face and presses it against her mouth.  A mirror on the far wall reflects the lamp and the part of the interior within which the viewer stands.  Three framed pictures adorn the walls.

Although some have called the painting The Rape, Degas reportedly described it as a “family portrait,”3 implying a married couple, siblings, or even father and daughter since the age of the woman is indeterminable.  Whatever the precipitant, her posture suggests recovery from a slap, his hat on the dresser that he’s been there for a while, the items on the table and floor that she was interrupted abruptly while sewing, and her bonnet on the bed that she’s not been in the room very long.  Great narratives leave room for myriad interpretations and visitors are welcome to invent their own.

With Interior, Degas crystallized his fascination with women in their unguarded moments.  Whether observing them backstage at the ballet, intruding into their private quarters in brothels or watching them at their toilette, Degas barely managed to camouflage his voyeurism behind the respectable subject of the classical nude.

Degas and the Nude visually documents that particular obsession yet fails to take into account an even more significant development, one that was to have a profound impact on the artist’s subsequent work.  By the late 1870s, when Degas produced his brothel monotypes, showcased in the next gallery–The Body Exploited, the intensity with which he could regard his world was already compromised by failing vision.

Tracing those visual difficulties back to his military service in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, Degas attributed his sensitivity to light to the cold weather he endured there and to the bright sunlight of New Orleans, where in 1872 he visited family and did some painting.  In a letter he sent to a friend from the states, he complained, “What lovely things I could have done, and done rapidly if the bright daylight were less unbearable for me.  To go to Louisiana to open one’s eyes, I cannot do that.  And yet I kept them sufficiently half open to see my fill”4 and to successfully complete The Cotton Office, New Orleans.

Despite his belief that he would eventually go blind, Degas continued to draw and paint and, when he got back to Paris, gravitated toward the comfortable darkness of the ballet and opera.  By 1890 (at age 56) he was complaining to some friends, “I can no longer read.  My maid reads me the paper.”5 Troubled by glare, he also had problems “establishing outlines ”6 and identifying colors, and suffered a loss of central vision.7 In an exhibit where much was made of Degas’s pioneering late work, to omit consideration of this critical variable minimized the artist’s heroic achievements.

The research assistant working with curator George T. M. Shackelford (no longer with the museum), explained this curatorial decision: “…we do not have a clear sense of how much he was impacted by this problem.  There are some anecdotes [that] relate that Degas would complain of his inability to see one moment, and then the next [be] looking at his watch to get the time.  Perhaps because of this lack of quantifiable information about his loss of/or impaired sight the curator decided that it was not a point he wished to make.”8

Ambrose Vollard thought the same and insisted in his Degas: An Intimate Portrait that the artist, “…used to pretend to be more blind than he was in order to not recognize people he wanted to avoid…Immediately after such a refusal, Degas took out his watch and said, without the slightest hesitation, ‘It’s a quarter past two.’”9

The statements of both the curator and Vollard “…reflect the simplistic view that vision is all about acuity and little more.”10 But such a dichotomy is “…not at all inconsistent [with] serious central vision loss.”11 “The fine details of a person’s face…would not have been clear to a person affected by central retinal disease…However, a watch face with large, dark hands [on] a light-colored background would have been easily seen…It’s image spread out broadly on the retina.”12

Dealing with the question of Degas’s vision would surely have demanded a rethinking of his late work, perhaps an undertaking beyond the scope of the exhibit.  But including it would have enhanced visitors’ appreciation of his artwork and opened up scholarly discussion on the impact of artists’ visual problems on their work.

In the mid-1870s Degas produced his brothel monotypes, a striking departure from his early classical work.  His decision to hang out in rooms where women commodified their bodies represented a natural extension of his curiosity about their intimate spaces and men’s intrusion into them.  The dramatic change in drawing style–including the use of monotypes–might have been determined by the nature of his subject matter (hardly academic) but perhaps was also dictated by his decrease in visual acuity.

As risqué as the now extant images can be, even more pornographic versions never made their way to daylight, probably destroyed at the time of Degas’s death.13 In the brothel pictures, any façade of respectability has been giddily discarded by the artist, as he pokes his nose into all kinds of places, wryly commenting on the other men who join him there.

The Serious Client (1876-77, monotype on wove paper, 53¼″ x 47½″ [135.3 x 120.7 cm]), National Gallery of Canada. Photo © National Gallery of Canada. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In The Serious Client (1876-77), a prostitute’s hand clasps that of the customer atop his phallic cane as four ordinary-looking women entice him to sample their wares.  Here Degas’s particular fascination with derrieres crops up–in the back view of the woman reaching across the divide and in the mirror’s reflection of two globes hanging from the ceiling.  The technique has a cartoonish quality, reminiscent of Honoré Daumier’s graphics.

Nude Woman Combing Her Hair (1877-1880, pastel over monotype in black ink on paper, 127/16″ x 815/16″ [31.6 x 22.7 cm]). Photo © Musée d’Orsay/rmn. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The attention to detail that Degas lavished on the pastel-colored monotype Nude Woman Combing Her Hair (1877-1880)–bottles on the sink shelf; hairbrush, basin and pitcher on the counter; open draw in the cabinet; towel over the back of the chair; and colorful fabric patterns–leads one to wonder about the effect it would have had were this petite print realized as a grand painting.  In its current form it reads as an inside joke to anyone familiar with prostitutes’ tales of their johns; rendered large it would have become a scathing commentary.

Performing an activity suggestive of a peri-sexual moment, the stocking-clad woman, with her back to the viewer, combs her hair for the benefit of the business-suited man who leans back and casts a wide-eyed, glazed expression in her direction.  His left hand grips either a pouch of coins (payment for imminent pleasures) or an ice pack (cooling for his ardor).  Whichever, the position of his hand on the neck of the bag strongly suggests masturbation.

Degas continued to create monotypes, narrowing his focus to women at their toilette and experimenting with inky interiors.  These prints, displayed in the next room, The Body Observed, date from the late 1870s to early 1880s.  In another section, Bodies in Motion: Degas and the Dancer, sculptures and sketches demonstrated Degas’s penchant for awkward, off-balance poses that border on model torture.  The gallery contained numerous bronzes, all cast after Degas died, and drawings that spanned a couple of decades.

From this point on (mid-1880s to late 1890s), though each room carried theme names, the art appeared in mostly chronological order.  Consisting primarily of works on paper and an occasional painting, the later galleries reflected Degas’s reliance on pastels as he continued his pursuit of women in their intimate quarters.  As his eyesight grew worse, he devised new ways to keep working.  When he could no longer see his subjects, he traced much earlier pieces and reconfigured them with bold outlines and dramatic colors.

La Toilette (1884-86, pastel over monotype laid down on board, 13″ x 117/16″ [33 x 29 cm]). Private collection.
Woman Leaving Her Bath (c. 1886, pastel over monotype, 1013/16″ x 1415/16″ [27.5 x 38 cm]). Private collection.

In both La Toilette (1884-86) and Woman Leaving  Her Bath (c. 1886), Degas comes upon his subject from behind, catching her unaware as she engages in her ablutions.  In the latter image, she has just grabbed hold of her towel and seems about to stand up, fixed in a precarious position she cannot hold much longer.  Degas brilliantly exploits the chromatic power of pastels, juxtaposing cool blues against fiery red-oranges and yellows, and revels in the cacophony of patterns on the wall and in the drapery.

The black and grey outlines in both pictures result from Degas’s technique of pulling a second print from the inked monotype plate, producing a muted echo of the original print to which he could then apply color.  Because of their manner of creation, monotypes can’t deliver the same level of detail as engraving or etching–a suitable choice for an artist no longer able to discern them.

Instead of the delineation of form through line and shading that captivated him in his youth, Degas now lavished his talent on developing all manner of pastel marks and on experimenting with novel combinations of colors, especially apparent in La Toilette in the blue squiggles adorning the yellow drapes to the right of the figure, the touches of blue in the basin and pitcher before her, and the thick white highlight in the red-filled glass jar on the shelf to the left of her head.

The Tub (1886, pastel, 23⅝″ x 3211/16″ [60 x 83 cm]). Musée d’Orsay.

In The Tub (1886), Degas retained the black outline of his monotypes in a pure pastel drawing.  In a tour de force of composition, the artist contrasted the ovoid tub with the rectangular shelf, mirrored the curve of the bather’s body in the copper and porcelain pitchers on the ledge, and directed the viewer’s attention to the woman’s butt with an orange-handled brush and a white highlight in the tub.

Despite his early years of perfect-pitch nude studies, in The Tub Degas’s anatomical knowledge deserts him.  Perhaps he took artistic license for the sake of its effect or maybe the poor model just couldn’t hold the pose long enough for him to work things out, but there’s something awry in the lower portion of her body and in the position of her feet.  Nonetheless, in the arena of color, he excelled with his coppery reds, golden oranges and bright aqua blues.

After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck (1895-98, pastel on wove paper, 247/16″ x 259/16″ [62 x 65 cm]), Musée d’Orsay.

Under the rubric The Body Transformed: Degas’s Late Years, which grouped together work from the mid-1880s to the late 1890s, After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck (1895-98) epitomizes the artist’s ingenious adjustments to his encroaching blindness.  That he could barely see by that time was common knowledge among close associates like Daniel Halévy who noted in his diary entry of November 4, 1895, after accompanying Degas to an art auction, “…he couldn’t even see the pictures he bought…He would lean over to his neighbors and ask, ‘Is it beautiful?’”14 At the same time, Degas could churn out dazzling pastels like this one.

One of many pictures–charcoal and/or pastel–where fly-on-the-wall Degas eyes a woman from behind as she sits on the edge of a tub, leans forward and towels herself, After the Bath, Woman Drying Her Neck arranges a riot of colors and strokes into vertical stripes of decorative wall panels relieved by the diagonal line of the tub and, going in the opposite direction, a patch of floor.  The bather, centrally located, leans toward the left.

Close examination of the drawing’s surface reveals the inventiveness of Degas’s strokes.  The variety of lines, splotches, hatch marks and masses of color also imply a physicality and tactility in pastel application, perhaps evolving as a substitute for the artist’s lost vision.  Ever the colorist, Degas added notes of cool blue to the woman’s auburn hair and to the red shadows of her back.  A hint of warm yellow in the lower right sets off the steel grey of the tub while a hot orange throw enlivens the blue patterned chaise longue and reverberates where the form turns around the shaded edge.

One comes away from a visit to Degas and the Nude with a sense that the artist, feeling locked out of women’s private worlds, entered through a side door of artistic intent.  By posing women with their backs to him, Degas eluded their scrutiny and spied on their naked bodies with complete impunity.  When gradual loss of vision threatened to interfere with these personal pleasures, he enlisted the power of his creative genius and gifted the world with a beautiful new art.
_________________________________________________
1 Daniel Halévy, My Friend Degas, trans. & ed., Mina Curtiss, from Degas Parles (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1964), 50.

2 Anne Roquebert, “The Classical Body: Degas’s Beginnings” in Degas and the Nude (Boston: MFA Publications, 2011), 18.

3 Roquebert, “The Body in Peril” in Degas and the Nude, 62.

4 Eliana Coldham, et al, “Degas’ [sic] Visual Disorder: Retinopathy,” Art, Vision and the Disordered Eye (Vision & Aging Lab-Pace Program, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary, 2002).  <http://www.psych.ucalgary.ca/pace/va-lab/avde-website/degas.html>

5 Halévy, 41.

6 Halévy, 22.

7 Coldham, et al.

8 Email from Katharine Mohana, Public Relations, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, January 30, 2012.

9 Quoted in Michael Marmor and James Ravin, The Artist’s Eyes: Vision and the History of Art (New York:Abrams, 2009), 191.  Thanks to Donald Kline (see note 10) for providing this reference.

10 Email from Donald Kline, Vision & Aging Lab, Departments of Psychology & Surgery (Ophthalmology), University of Calgary, February 22, 2012.

11 Ibid.

12 Marmor and Ravin, The Artist’s Eyes, 191.

13 Xavier Rey, “The Body Exploited: Degas’s Brothel Works in Degas and the Nude, 40.

14 Halévy, 69.

Degas and the Nude
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Avenue of the Arts
465 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
(617)267-9300

Musée d’Orsay
62, rue de Lille
75343 Paris Cedex 07
France
+33 (0)1 40 49 48 14
Now until July 1, 2012.

Catalog available.

 

Art Review: The Lady and the Tramp

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Sunday, December 25th, 2011

The Good, the Bad & the Mother:
Images of Women in Early 20th Century
Austrian & German Art

Egon Schiele, Woman with Hat and Veil (1918, black crayon, 18⅜″ x 11¾″ [46.7 x 29.8 cm]).  Private Collection, photo courtesy Galerie St. Etienne.
Egon Schiele, Seated Female Nude (1911, pencil, 22⅛″ x 14¾″ [56.2 x 37.5 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Good girls faced off against bad girls, introducing The Lady and the Tramp: Images of Women in Austrian and German Art.  Displayed on the wall behind the large desk at The Galerie St. Etienne, Egon Schiele’s drawing, Woman with Hat and Veil (1918), joined a possible portrait of his mother and a third ladylike image.

On the opposite wall another Schiele drawing, the euphemistically titled Seated Female Nude, was flanked by other nude images–his own and that of Gustav Klimt.  In the vitrine beneath them, Alfred Kubin’s two naked witches brandished brooms and did battle on donkey and oversized pig in Witches’ Sabbath.

Much of Schiele’s art reflects his unabashed obsession with the erotic potential of the female body, the younger the better.  In this particular Seated Female Nude, the model’s head recedes into the background while her pubis, partially covered by her left hand with its disappearing middle finger, advances toward the viewer.  Shifting his perspective, Schiele could also depict Wally–for a time the great love of his life–with tender respect for her purity.

Creatively curated by the gallery’s co-director Jane Kallir (also the author of the accompanying scholarly essay), the exhibit physically situated artwork to emphasize the split epitomized in the still-current view of woman as madonna/whore, spotlighted chronic male fear of women’s sexuality and illustrated women’s own conflicts about wielding their considerable power.

Past the desk, on the way to the elongated alcove on the left, the visitor could ponder an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner lithograph in which an elegantly dressed lady, with handless arms that meld into her torso, strolls along an avenue.  A man in a tall hat with his back to the viewer enters the scene from the lower right and gazes in her direction.  The print is titled Streetwalker.

Lovis Corinth, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1910, lithograph in three colors, 10⅝″ x 9¼″ [27 x 23.5 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Beyond the Kirchner, on what Kallir called “the wall of bad sex” (when asked about the rationale behind the exhibit layout), men’s castration anxieties found florid expression in Lovis Corinth’s novel conceptualization of Judith Beheading Holofernes.  This is not the intensely serious Judith of Artemisia Gentileschi or Caravaggio but a gleefully villainous vamp with exposed breasts who wields a sword too long to fit within the picture frame and sits on the bed right next to her victim.  The thrown-back head of the poor guy seems awash in blood and his arms extend helplessly beside him.

The wall progresses (so to speak) from there to Max Klinger’s The Proposition (1884) from his series A Life, a pictorial account of a woman’s descent from jilted lover to performer, then to prostitute and, finally, homeless wretch.  Redeemed by Christ, she falls back into depredation, apparently unable to sustain such an elevated spiritual existence.1 In this etching, the nude woman lies stretched out on a bed, one leg extended with its foot pressed up against the face of the overdressed propositioner trying to get at her.  A combination of anger and disgust animates her face.

George Grosz, Sex Murder in the Ackerstrasse (1916-17, photo-lithograph, 7⅛″ x 7½″ [18.1 x 19.1 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Several tamer pictures later, the viewer encounters a pair of blood baths: images of Lustmord (sex murder), a subject of widespread fascination in Weimar Germany following the end of World War I.  “Men’s fear of women was heightened by the feelings of vulnerability and impotence that soldiers had experienced during the war,” Kallir observes in her essay.  “The carnage of combat had accustomed men to violence, and both Otto Dix and [George] Grosz vented their post-traumatic rage on female subjects.”2

In his Sex Murder in the Ackerstrasse (1916-17), Grosz used tilted perspective, angular lines, and clutter to accentuate the organized chaos of the scene.  A decapitated female body stains the bed where it lies, legs draped over a pillow and a bloodied axe nearby.  A large, white, room-dividing screen acts as a backdrop for the corpse.  A man’s jacket and cane draped over it indicate the recent disrobing of the murderer who, in the background, worriedly attempts to rid himself of the stains of his heinous act by scrubbing his hands in a small sink.

Grosz leads the viewer to the perpetrator through his canny arrangement of objects on the table at the foot of the bed, directing the eye up the right edge of the lithograph through the furniture leg behind it, to the clutter on the vanity, and onto the tall lamp with its face-like decoration mimicking the man’s wide-eyed expression.  The culprit’s hanging suspenders, another indication of his recent undressed state, complete the loop by pointing to blood stains on the screen that connect with the dead woman’s right shoulder.  One is left to puzzle out the location of the missing head.

Otto Dix, Sex Murder from the series Death and Resurrection (1922, etching, 10⅞″ x 13⅝″ [27.6 x 34.6 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Not to be outdone, Otto Dix gave the world Sex Murder (1922), one of six etchings in his series Death and Resurrection, which includes such titles as Suicide, Dead Soldier and Funeral.  Nothing subtle here.  Blood streams from the dead woman’s mouth and from the chasm carved into her abdomen, continues in a line to the separation between her labia, and forms a puddle on the bed between her spreadeagled legs.  It spurts from several other wounds sliced into her body.

On the floor in the foreground, a neatly arranged lace-trimmed, short-skirted dress and a brimmed hat, along with a dark-colored bottle, suggest a nonviolent prelude to the murder that followed.  Lest there be any doubt about the nature of that earlier interaction, a black, scraggly mutt mounts a white, shaggy purebred who turns a bewildered gaze at the viewer.

In such images, men take revenge on Judith and Salome, women over whom they lost their heads in the past.  Male fear of female sexual power necessitates strong defensive maneuvers.  Today the burqa keeps women under wraps and in too many places the punishment for adultery is stoning to death, and for being raped, ostracism from one’s family and community.

Käthe Kollwitz, Inspiration (1904-1905, etching in brown on cream wove
paper, 22⅛″ x 11¾″ [56.2 x 29.8 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY
.

Opposite the “bad sex” wall, two etchings by Käthe Kollwitz pictured a very different female role, that of warrior.  In Outbreak (1903), part of the series Peasants’ War, a woman reaches skyward, her back to the viewer, as she urges on a crowd of peasants brandishing farm tools as weapons.

In another print, related to Peasants’ War but ultimately not part of it, a woman is cradled from behind between the legs of a crouched man, perhaps her husband.  He reaches a long arm down to cover her right hand with his as she grasps the handle of what, on close inspection, looks like a straw broom but could easily be mistaken for an axe or a scythe.  His large right fist rests on her left shoulder and her head obscures his features.  The furrowed brow on her rugged face along with her protruding lower lip express a determination that the man is either restraining or encouraging.  The title, Inspiration, hints at the latter.

Egon Schiele, Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer (1913, gouache, watercolor, and pencil, 18⅞″ x 11⅜″ [48 x 28.9 cm]).  Private Collection.  Photo courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Exiting the battle-strewn alcove on the way to a large room in the back where the women gathered as artists and subjects, the visitor encountered two watercolors by Egon Schiele.  One of them, the hauntingly beautiful Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer, (1913) contrasts a pose of virginal self containment with a facial expression that mixes come-hither sweetness (mouth) with only-if-you-dare cruelty (black-lined eyes capped with inwardly descending eyebrows).

The mass of black hair and deeply colored facial features barely manage to draw attention away from the figure’s lower torso, where insistent areas of red, blue and aqua connect with a body-dividing black belt.  Hands resting in her lap, one in the other at the end of curving lower arms, protect their underlying treasure much as the broach on the wide collar secures the neckline.

Egon Schiele, Seated Pregnant Nude (1910, watercolor and black crayon, 17⅝″ x 12¼″ [44.8 x 31.1 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.
Käthe Kollwitz, Pregnant Woman (1910, etching, 14⅜″ x 9⅜″ [37.7 x 23.5 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

In the adjacent watercolor, Seated Pregnant Nude (1910), Schiele presents quite a different view of pregnancy from that of Kollwitz in her etching, Pregnant Woman (1910).  Here, a male artist reduces a woman’s reproductive power to a formal play of circles (abdomen and breasts) and squares (arms and thighs), strips her of individuality by omitting her face, and renders her impotent by amputating her hands and cutting off her legs at the knees.  Schiele focuses the viewer instead on the mysterious black triangle that occupies the space between her legs.

Kollwitz, on the other hand, portrayed her Pregnant Woman with gravitas.  She cloaked her in a heavy black blanket decorated with a pattern reminiscent of a chain-link fence and gave her heavy-lidded eyes and a down-turned mouth to reflect the burden of late-term pregnancy and working-class status.  The bright patch of light that is her neck emphasizes the grey of her face against the darkness of the background.  Her form fills the modest sized space, bestowing on this pregnant woman a monumentality foreign to Schiele’s conceptualization.

Pregnant Woman was displayed in the far corner of the large back gallery amidst images by other women.  To counter the unrelenting desexualized view of women as peasants, workers or mothers, Kallir included several paintings by Marie-Louise Motesiczky that illustrated women’s romantic relationships with men.  Unfortunately, in none of them are women represented in a one-up position.

Käthe Kollwitz, Worker Woman with Earring (1910, etching, 13″ x 9¾″ [33 x 24.8 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.
Paula Modersohn-Becker, Peasant Woman in Profile, Facing Left (1898, charcoal on heavy brownish paper,15¼″ x 13⅝″ [38.8 x 34.6 cm]).  Private Collection.  Photo Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Nearby, in a departure from the bifurcated exhibit theme, a Kollwitz etching injects sensuality into a portrait of a working-class woman.  In Worker Woman with Earring (1910), the artist has modeled in three-quarter view a handsome, black-haired woman with bony features.  The subject’s small loop earring and shiny hair, coupled with her regal bearing, confer on her the stature of queen.  Despite a weariness implied by her lowered eyelid and frowning mouth, she retains a masculine beauty not yet snuffed out by her circumstances.  Neither maternal nor aged, she seems to dare any but the most well-intentioned of men to approach her.

In contrast to the Kollwitz print and more in keeping with the tendency of women artists to rebel against the sexual objectification of women by desexing them, Paula Modersohn-Becker presented for contemplation an old woman in a babushka.  In this large charcoal drawing of a Peasant Woman in Profile, Facing Left (1898), the fineness of the technique easily eclipses the personality of the sitter.

More a type than an individual, Modersohn-Becker’s peasant woman displays little emotion other than a slightly upturned mouth.  Gazing straight ahead, her open eye barely discernable amid the engulfing grey shadow, she is more personification than person.

Käthe Kollwitz, Mother with Boy (1933, transfer lithograph, 14⅛″ x 8⅝″ [35.9 x 21.9 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Kollwitz’s images of motherhood similarly focus on a female role rather than on individual women.  Undoubtedly influenced by her own experience raising two sons and losing one of then to the carnage of World War I, she paid homage to mothers as seed bearers, protectors and nurturers of the next generation.

One of four parenting-focused prints by Kollwitz included in the exhibit, Mother with Boy (1933) expresses well the joy of tending young children.  The mother, smiling face in shadow, supports her child as he encircles her neck with his baby arms.  While the boy directs his attention to something below, effectively turning his head away from his mother, she beams down contentedly at him, relishing the pleasure of his freely given hug.

Otto Dix, Sailors in Antwerp (1924 etching, 9½″ x 11¾″ [24.1 x 29.8 cm]).  Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Too often life circumstances interfere with a woman’s ability to safeguard her children and they are left to fend for themselves like the girl in Dix’s etching, Sailors in Antwerp (1924).  As part of his fifty-piece series Der Krieg (War), the artist here takes the viewer into a darkened room, perhaps a parlor, where each of three men eagerly pulls toward himself a female in a dress.

As the scene reveals itself to the viewer, it becomes clear that while two of the objects of desire respond with welcoming embraces, the third does not.  Much shorter than the five others, she stands in high-heeled shoes while her seated suitor attempts to kiss her.  Turning her head away and looking up toward the heavens, she grabs his head as if to restrain it.

Dix never flinched in his portrayals of war and in Sailors in Antwerp, he illustrates how societal upheaval leaves children susceptible to predation.  Likewise, when women acquiesce to their own subjugation by donning the preferred costumes and customs of their overlords, they abandon their powers of generativity, forsaking their responsibility to protect and nurture the vulnerable who depend on them.
_______________________________
1 Jane Kallir, exhibition essay, 2011, 2.

2 Ibid, 3.

The Lady and the Tramp:
Images of Women in Austrian and German Art

The Galerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
(212)245-6734

 

Art Review: Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus

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Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Recognizing Rembrandt:
Searching for a Master’s Signature
In Unsigned Work

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1644, oil on panel, 33″ x 25¾″). The National Gallery, London.

Glowing under its spotlight, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery graced the far wall of the first gallery, an immediate reward for visitors who had advanced slowly on a snaking line waiting for admission to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibit, Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus.  In a large room with no other artwork, the painting showcased the best of the master draftsman, printmaker and painter, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn.

Dark paintings like this one photograph poorly, so a first-time viewer might be surprised at the delicate brushstrokes of pure color and sparkling highlights that describe the smallest of details.  In a modest area (about three by two feet), Rembrandt implies a monumental temple interior by shrinking his figures and staging them at the base of the scene.

Within the area of action, Jesus towers over the men around him, listening to the case against the kneeling woman who dons a penitent face and attempts to either cover her face in shame or wipe a tear from her eye–or both.  The accuser lifts the veil to show the audience the face of an adulteress.  His gesturing hand, brightly painted against a background of dark cloth, directs the eye to the narrative’s protagonist.

Close scrutiny of the faces in Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery quickly reveals Rembrandt’s interest in individual character types and facial expressions, and his skill in depicting them.  That passion for portraying emotions seems to have been there from the beginning of his career.

After his father died in 1630, the twenty-four-year-old Rembrandt spent the year producing mostly small etchings (perhaps at the expense of his painting practice), many of them self-portraits titled with descriptive phrases like: “…frowning,” “…open-mouthed, as if shouting,” and “…laughing.”1 In another one, the artist stares out at the viewer with wide-eyed concern and pursed lips.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Christ and Two Disciples on Their Way to Emmaus (1655-56, pen and brown ink with traces of white body color on paper, 6½″ x 813/16″). Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

Whether in a fully realized painting like The Supper at Emmaus (1648) (shown below), where the face of the surprised pilgrim on the right registers perfectly both his recognition and attendant awe, or in a rapidly executed sketch like Christ and Two Disciples on Their Way to Emmaus (1655-56), where just a few lines convey Christ’s sorrowful attention as he listens to the disciple on his left, Rembrandt demonstrates his devotion to, and unerring ability for, expressing a wide range of human experience.

Just as a person’s physiology and educational background produce a signature not so easily replicated, so too do artists manifest their physical selves and histories in lines drawn and brushstrokes applied.  A quick scan of Rembrandt’s ink sketches reveals the spontaneity and confidence with which he used his quill pen to create an assortment of lines from faint to bold.  His paintings delight with occasional accents of color, lights scratched out of the darks, and deftly applied impasto highlights.  Those marks constitute a unique signature to be sought when attributing work to this artist.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Christ Preaching (1643, pen and brown ink on paper, 713/16″ x 91/16″). Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

In most of the securely attributed brown ink drawings on display, the sureness and variety of line set a standard of comparison for the questionable pieces.  In Christ Preaching (1643), thick lines indicate shadowed areas like that of the small child in the foreground, while thinner ones suggest light in the center of the sketch.  Note, too, the brilliance with which Rembrandt develops composition: a diagonal mark runs from the child’s outstretched leg straight to the top of Christ’s proper left foot.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1654, pen and brown ink on paper, 5⅞″ x 97/16″). Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

When thinking on paper Rembrandt worked with abandon, having no qualms about going over figures that didn’t seem quite right, as with the kneeling Thomas and leg of the man to his left in The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1654).  Those pentimenti (in Italian, plural for repentance) reveal the artist’s process.  One can imagine him loading his quill with enough ink to leave lines heavy enough to clarify initial explorations or superimpose fresh ideas over original ones.

In the exhibit, drawings with titles that begin with “Studio of,” “Pupil of” and “Copy after” lack Rembrandt’s assuredness, economy and variety of lines.  They also fail to mobilize gestures and facial features to convey the emotional expression so present in the master’s work.

After queuing up to examine these small ink drawings, visitors enjoyed quicker access to the works in the next gallery, site of the main event.  There on the right wall hung a group of seven paintings, each titled Head of Christ.  Although all were originally attributed to Rembrandt, some have since been demoted to “attributed to” or “studio copy.”  Dated between 1648 and 1656,2 they depart from the standard portrayal of Jesus in that the models inspiring them were Jewish men, most likely secured from the artist’s immediate environment.

From at least 1639, Rembrandt lived and worked in a house (now The Rembrandt House Museum) in a Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam.  Two years before having to vacate the house in 1658 because of dire financial straits, the artist petitioned the court for relief.  As part of the subsequent bankruptcy proceedings, an inventory of his assets was conducted.  It listed among his personal possessions two heads of Christ painted by their owner and an unattributed one with the curious description “done from life.”3

That the ultimate destination of those three paintings remains unknown has not prevented hoards of historians from weighing in over the years with their speculations.  In Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus, recent scholarship combined with technical analysis of the relevant portraits, complicated by the deteriorated condition of some of the pieces, raised questions about all the attributions.

With that in mind, visitors could play connoisseur and decide for themselves which paintings came from the brush Rembrandt.

Attributed to Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn and Studio, Head of Christ (c.1648-56, oil on oak panel, laid into larger oak panel, 141/16″ x 125/16″). Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection.

The Philadelphia Museum’s own portrait seems to embody the best of the master’s touches.  Here the underlying drawing situates the model’s features accurately, unlike in some others where the eyes don’t line up correctly–a common mistake in three-quarter-view heads.

The paint application includes many deft touches such as a brushstroke that creates a shadow under the sitter’s right eyelid.  The hair–on the head and in the beard–reflects the confidence and experience that Rembrandt brought to its creation.  He used transparent darks to define the masses of waves and indicate a few strands, scratched in a couple of lights at the hairline to the left of the part, and produced highlights with a thin layer of opaque color.

Looking down to his right, Jesus parts his lips as if speaking.  His lowered eyelids and slightly knitted brow imply sadness.  Rembrandt portrays Christ with an expression of world-weariness that perhaps echoed his own state of mind at the time.

In another version of the Head of Christ (in a private collection, for which no photograph was available), the artist briefly indicated–in the same dark color as the garment–hands clasped in supplication; the eyes, with white showing under their pupils, direct the request heavenward.

Where in the Philadelphia head the shadow between the lips curves slightly upwards at the corners, mitigating the sad expression, here the shadow pulls the mouth corners down, imparting a sense of despair that, coupled with the lowered upper eyelids, suggests this study might have been for a painting of Christ shortly before his crucifixion.

In addition to being one of the most expressive of the paintings, the private collection version (one strains to imagine it hanging over someone’s couch!) retains a rich variety of brushstrokes and color.  Red in the corners of the eyes, in the complexion and in the lips infuses the image with warmth, emphasizing Christ’s mortal aspect.  The combination of thick impasto in the lights and thin washes in the darks, focuses attention on the exquisitely drawn facial expression.

Attributed to Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn and Studio, Head of Christ (c. 1655, oil on oak panel, 9⅜″ x 77/16″). Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, on loan to Bijbels Museum, Amsterdam.
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Portrait of a Young Jew (c. 1648, oil on panel 9⅝″ x 89/16″). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Germany.

A beautiful painting in its own right regardless of its creator, the Head of Christ from Amsterdam depicts Jesus looking down with eyes almost closed, a hint of pupil peaking from beneath the lid of his left eye.  The portrait contains the same fine drawing and confident use of color seen in the other Rembrandts.

A refined quality in the paint handling, however, differs from the gruffness with which Rembrandt could apply paint, most notably in his Portrait of a Young Jew, on display opposite in the same gallery.  Perhaps in this Head of Christ the artist deliberately suppressed his exuberant brushstrokes to reinforce a quiet mood of contemplation.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, The Supper at Emmaus (1648, oil on mahogany panel, 26¾″ x 259/16″). Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

Before exiting the room filled with paintings, the viewer encountered The Supper at Emmaus, another modestly sized painting with grand proportions.  Rembrandt’s signature touch reveals itself in the strokes of red-orange that define the shirt sleeves of the pilgrim on the right, in the sweeps of grey that create the metal plates, in the red wash that hints at blood down the front of Christ’s garment, and in the light patches of color in the aura that surrounds him.

Dwarfed by architecture suggestive of a holy space, the ordinary looking pilgrims and serving boy contrast with the otherworldly-appearing risen Christ, whose oddly drawn face calls attention to eyes that seem to peer into an ethereal realm.  The brightest area of the composition, the tablecloth, leads to the blessing of the challah bread, while the handle of a knife projects over the edge of the table in typical still-life fashion.

In The Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt referenced the Jewishness of Christ (the challah) in like manner as the Semitic models he used for the head studies.  In the exhibit, earlier prints in the first gallery set the stage for the dramatic changes to come in the artist’s vision of Jesus, as evident in the later prints in the final galleries.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Raising of Lazarus: The Larger Plate (c. 1632, engraving and etching on paper; plate: 14½″ x 101/16″; sheet: 14⅝″ x 103/16″). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In one of those early prints, Raising of Lazarus: The Larger Plate (1632), the barely visible face of Christ allows for a generic depiction of his countenance.  Likewise, the faces of those gathered around him contain few discriminating characteristics.

Rembrandt focuses on the drama inherent in the story.  The raised arm of Jesus begins a curve that flows down through the shaded back of his robe, ending at a darkly inked figure who recoils in astonishment at the miracle beheld.  Bright light floods the scene from the right, revealing the opening eyes and mouth of what minutes before had been an inert corpse.  Christ stands above the action, hand on hip, bathed in the glory of the power of the divine he channels.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Christ Preaching (“La Petite Tombe”) (c. 1652, etching, engraving, and drypoint on paper; plate: 61/16″ x 8⅛″; sheet: 6¼″ x 85/16″). National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Flash forward twenty years to Christ Preaching (“La Petite Tombe”) (c. 1652).  Rembrandt still uses compositional devices to set Jesus apart from others but now portrays him as a man not so unlike those encircling him.  In the lower third of the print the artist leaves several patches of paper unmarked, effectively creating a triangle at the apex of which stands Christ.  The outstretched leg of the seated onlooker in the lower left quadrant, coupled with some hatching below it, leads to a boy who has abandoned his toy to direct his attention to something on the ground.  Jesus seems to look at the child.

The head of the preaching man tilts downward, his humble appearance reminiscent of the faces in the Head of Christ paintings.  The attitudes of audience members reflect Rembrandt’s longstanding skill at using gestures and facial features to portray emotional expression, and his later interest in exploring character types.

The grandeur of Christ in the earlier print, created when Rembrandt was in his mid-twenties, was replaced twenty years later by a naturalism that puts emphasis on the real-life struggles of Jesus and his followers.  The shift seems to echo the course of Rembrandt’s own life.

In 1634 he married his beloved Saskia van Uylenburgh, but their first child–a boy–survived only two months and by 1640, the couple had lived through the birth and immediate death of two daughters.  The next year they welcomed into their lives a son, Titus, who years later would predecease his father by a year.  In 1642, only eight years into their marriage, Saskia died and left Rembrandt with an infant son for whom he had to secure care.

Troubles did not end there.  The nursemaid he hired became his mistress and later sued for breach of promise when Rembrandt took up with another woman, whom he never married but who bore him a daughter in 1654.  The artist had the nursemaid committed to avoid having to deal with her.  As already noted, several years later with finances in complete disarray, Rembrandt was forced to sell first the contents of his house and then the house itself to raise money to pay his debts.4

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, The Hundred Guilder Print (Christ Preaching; Bring Thy Little Children unto Me) (c. 1649, etching, engraving, and drypoint on paper, 11″ x 15½″). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The young man who perhaps had identified with the creative power involved in breathing life into the dead had grown to view the world with a realism borne of serial losses.  In The Hundred Guilder Print, Rembrandt gathered on the right a mass of afflicted humanity desperately seeking healing from their radiant savior in the center of the composition.  On the left, less graphically resolved, stand and debate the skeptics.

Dated 1649 in the midst of Rembrandt’s tribulations, the print depicts Jesus with the same heavy-lidded eyes of sorrow that came to imbue the artist’s later faces of Christ.  While retaining his ability to transform suffering through divine inspiration, the great man now shouldered the burden of repeated exposure to life’s hardships.
________________________________________________
1 Gary Schwartz, editor.  The Complete Etchings of Rembrandt Reproduced in Original Size: Rembrandt van Rijn (1977), 8.

2 Mark Tucker, Lloyd DeWitt and Ken Sutherland. “The Heads of Christ: A Technical Survey” in Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus (2011), 45.

3 Lloyd DeWitt, editor.  Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus (2011), x.

4 Schwartz, 9-11.

Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus
Philadelphia Museum of Art
26th Street & Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19130
(215) 763-8100

Catalog available.

 

Art Review: 19th Century French Drawings

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Sunday, October 16th, 2011

Ingres & Company
Strut Their Stuff
At the Morgan

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Guillaume Guillon Lethière (1760-1832) (1815, pencil on wove paper). Photograph by Graham Haber, 2011.

Fans of the endangered art and craft of drawing had a visual feast at a banquet laid out by The Morgan Library & Museum.  The appetizer–taken from the museum’s own holdings–was an array of seventeen images on paper (plus three letters) by the not-so-neoclassical master, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of a Young Boy (Graphite with red & green watercolor). Photograph by Graham Haber, 2011.

On display in the Morgan’s intimate Thaw gallery just off the atrium, the exhibit led off with a small graphite drawing, Portrait of a Young Boy, whose subject is not much younger than Ingres was at the time.  Undated, the skillfully rendered profile portrait, perhaps a copy from a print, is all the more remarkable considering that the artist “was a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old student at the Académie Royale in Toulouse when he executed this roundel portrait.”1

Developmentally, early adolescence does not lend itself to such feats of sustained attention and concentration.  Hormones rage and limbs grow faster than the torso, resulting in emotional turmoil and physical awkwardness.  Yet even at eleven, Ingres could skillfully copy a drawing.  His earliest known work, Jean Moulet (1791), obediently replicated in red chalk from a profile portrait by his artist father, demonstrates the child’s talent and the parent’s determination to foster it.2

Born in 1780 in the south of France, the eldest of seven children, Ingres received encouragement and instruction in art at home.  In the same year as that first drawing, he was whisked off to Toulouse for formal schooling.  Chaperoned by his father, who seemed to have made a project of developing the boy’s artistic ability, the young Ingres earned several prizes in drawing during his six years in attendance at the Académie Royale de Peinture, Sculpture et Architecture.3

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Frau Reinhold and her Daughters (1815, graphite). Photograph by Graham Haber, 2011.

The graphite portraits comprising most of the exhibit at The Morgan attest to Ingres’s skill as a draftsman.  Appreciated by today’s art lovers, they held little value for the artist who produced them.  Instead, Ingres aspired to create magnificent, acclaim-winning history paintings, in his time the genre at the top of the artistic food chain.

In pursuit of that goal, the young artist advanced to Paris in 1797, joining the studio of then art star Jacques-Louis David.  Within two years, Ingres qualified for admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, the prestigious school of fine arts.  By 1801 he had won the Prix de Rome, an award that included funding for study abroad in the eponymous city.  Unfortunately, because of France’s precarious financial situation–a result of recent internal tumult and too many wars–the artist had to wait until 1806 to travel.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Forestier Family (1806, graphite). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Michèle Bellot.

Shortly before leaving, the up-and-coming Ingres became engaged to Julie Forestier.  His affection for her is evident in The Forestier Family (1806), drawn for her before his departure to Italy.  Julie’s uncle (left) and her father (right) gaze admiringly at the star of the production, whose hand on the keyboard speaks to her own talents, while her mother, wearing an expression of smug satisfaction, looks out at her daughter’s catch.  Curiously, Ingres depicted the exiting maid (left) casting a mildly disapproving glance at the proceedings.  Despite the de rigueur symbol of loyalty–the well-drawn dog–this graphically celebrated relationship was not to endure.

Soon after arriving for his four-year term at the Académie de France in Rome, Ingres had several paintings accepted to the 1806 Paris Salon.  Undoubtedly looking forward to rave reviews, when word reached him about the critics’ less-than-favorable comments, he witnessed his dreams of glory dissolve.

Angered at the French art elites for their inability to recognize his worth, he determined never to exhibit at their Salon again.4 Deciding to stay in Rome, he wrote to Julie and broke off their engagement; she eventually sent him back the commemorative drawing of happier times.5

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Charles-Désiré Norry (1796-1818) (1817, pencil on wove paper). Photograph by Graham Haber, 2011.

Though history paintings garnered more respect, commissions produced income.  Having already established himself as a portrait painter, Ingres could peddle those wares within the French community in Rome–hence the many astutely observed and sensitively drawn graphite portraits constituting the majority of work in the Thaw Gallery.

Painting commissions followed, rebuilding Ingres’s self-confidence.  By 1814, he was ready to again send work to the Salon in Paris.  The disappointing critical response that followed seems not to have deterred the French aristocracy in Italy from bestowing lucrative painting commissions on the artist.  The ensuing financial success enabled him to comfortably establish two studios in central Florence by 1820.6

After finally gaining the critics’ blessings for work he brought to Paris in 1824 and then receiving the Cross of the Legion of Honor, Ingres resettled in Paris.  At the time, the city of the Salon and the École was home to a crowd of artists engaged in challenging the prevailing neoclassicism of David.

Evidence of that desire to break with the past was on view at The Morgan just a brief stroll away from the Ingres show where, in a large gallery, the visitor could wander among eighty examples of nineteenth century French drawings in David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France: Drawings from the Louvre.  There, keeping Ingres company, were luminaries from in and out of the French academy.

Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), The Artist’s Left Hand (1824, watercolor with black & red chalk). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Michèle Bellot.

One of the pieces included, The Artist’s Left Hand (1824) by Théodore Géricault, a brilliant painter (think cnt_id=10134198673226914&CONTENT<>cnt_id=10134198673327664&CURRENT_LLV_CHEMINEMENT<>cnt_id=10134198673327664&bmLocale=en” target=”_blank”>Raft of the Medusa) whose life was truncated by a riding accident and recurring illness, illustrates an artist’s passion for his craft.  On his deathbed, Géricault occupied time creating pictures of his hand, the only accessible subject, by tracing and then watercoloring it.7 The act of making art absorbed the ailing artist’s attention, and provided a respite from suffering.

Historically, drawing was used primarily for preparatory studies leading to finished paintings.  When several sketches coalesced into a final version, an artist prepared it for transfer.  One technique–squaring–involved drawing a grid on the finished image and a proportional one on the support, be it canvas, panel or wall.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Sabine Women Intervening to Stop the Fight Between the Romans and the Sabines (ca. 1799, graphite, retouching in pen & black ink, gray wash, heightened with white, on two joined sheets of beige paper). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Thierry Le Mage.

In The Sabine Women Intervening to Stop the Fight Between the Romans and the Sabines (ca, 1799), David worked out his first ideas for the painting, cnt_id=10134198673225717&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE<>cnt_id=10134198673225717&FOLDER<>folder_id=9852723696500815&baseIndex=35&bmLocale=en” target=”_blank”>Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799).  Tacked-on changes bring the artist’s process to life.8 Here the grid might have assisted him in transferring initial thoughts to subsequent sketches.

For draftsmen like Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, drawing was an end in itself.  Known for his splendid académies (nude studies from life) like the example here, Standing Female Nude Resting Her Arms on a Branch (n.d.), he epitomized the classical approach.  Using black chalk on blue paper with occasional white chalk highlights, the artist elevated such studies to a new level.

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758–1823), Portrait of Constance Mayer (ca. 1804, black & white chalk, with stumping on blue paper, darkened to brown). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY.

Early on in his love affair with one of his students, Prud’hon captured the sweetness and youth of the object of his affections in Portrait of Constance Mayer (ca. 1804).  Although time has turned his blue paper brown, it has not altered the magical effect of black and white chalk on toned paper, a technique unparalleled for depicting three-dimensional form in space.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Rouecy-Trioson, Portrait of Firmin Didot (1823, black chalk, stumped and heightened with white chalk). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photograph by Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

In a roomful of great works on paper, another portrait catches the attention by virtue of its solidity and attention to detail.  In Portrait of Firmin Didot (1823), Anne-Louis Girodet de Rouecy-Trioson (called Girodet), wielding black and white chalk, and a stump to smooth and darken, conjured up a moving representation of his close friend, an accomplished typographer.9

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Study for Liberty Leading the People (ca. 1830, graphite & black chalk lightly heightened with white chalk, on wove). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photograh by Thierry Le Mage.

The next generation of French artists followed the lead of Eugène Delacroix who broke from the constraints of the academy in favor of a more dynamic approach to painting.  In his Study for Liberty Leading the People (ca. 1830), the viewer can sense the artist’s presence as he grappled to come up with just the right pose for the protagonist of his great painting, cnt_id=10134198673237674&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE<>cnt_id=10134198673237674&FOLDER<>folder_id=9852723696500815&baseIndex=2&bmLocale=en” target=”_blank”>July 28: Liberty Leading the People (1830).

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Louis-François Bertin (1832, graphite). Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY. Photoraph by Thierry Le Mage.

In contrast to Delacroix’s sketch, which reveals his preliminary thoughts on paper, Ingres’s Portrait of Louis-François Bertin (1832) represents the end of an agonizing process.  Legend has it that Ingres, having sketched Bertin in other poses for an oil cnt_id=10134198673226310&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE<>cnt_id=10134198673226310&FOLDER<>folder_id=9852723696500815&bmLocale=en” target=”_blank”>painting (completed the same year as the drawing), caught his subject during a casual moment with friends and knew immediately he had found the solution.

The painting captures the toughness of the sitter who, at the time, was a force to be reckoned with in the newspaper business.10 In the drawing, perhaps done to accompany the portrait of Bertin’s wife (also in the exhibit), Ingres softened his friend’s expression but used the same commanding pose as in the painting.

By 1834 Ingres was back in Italy, though he would continue to move between Rome and Paris as work dictated, and to react strongly in the face of occasional lackluster responses to his paintings.  After one particular disappointment, he vowed to restrict his output to requests from friends.11

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Odalisque and Slave (1839, graphite, black and white chalk, white gouache, gray and brown wash). Photograph by Graham Haber, 2011.

In Odalisque and Slave (1839), a drawing at The Morgan related to one such commission, the viewer encountered the draftsman at the height of his powers.  Fully realized, perhaps for use by a printmaker,12 the finely wrought piece dazzled first with its composition.

In an interior packed with decorative elements, Ingres’s placement of the three figures and his use of one-point perspective draws the eye to the background, establishing convincing depth in a compact work.

Like a classical sculpture, the undulating form and marmoreal flesh of the odalisque’s torso attracts immediate attention.  Her hair, cascading over her left arm, intercepts the feathery fan and echoes the shape of the satin cloth, the triangular end of which points to the musician strumming a tambour, which in turn leads to the man in the background.  His flowing robe completes the circuit where it is overlapped by a portion of the satin cloth on the far side of the bare-breasted woman.  The picture abounds with such relationships and it can be great sport to discover them.

Ingres rendered every detail with exquisite care and took his usual license with female anatomy.  Unmarred by any suggestion of creases, muscles or bones, the skin of the odalisque is flawless–a perfect object for the omnipresent male gaze.

These epitomes of draftsmanship almost took to their graves the skills required to develop their artistic talent.  With the rise of Impressionism and subsequent modern modes of representation culminating in abstraction, followed by exaggerated rumors of the death of painting, academic training all but disappeared.

A few devoted practitioners of figurative and other realistic art kept alive those traditions and today, with a growing number of ateliers and schools offering opportunities to study the way the old masters did, classical training has become a burgeoning industry.  Perhaps not too far in the future, The Morgan will host an exhibit showcasing new master drawings of the 21st century and, this time, not have any trouble finding women artists to include.
_________________________________
1 Morgan label text for Portrait of a Young Boy.

2 Philip Conisbee in Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch, 1999, 25.

3 Ibid, 26.

4 Ibid, 546.

5 Louvre, Prints and Drawings: 19th Century, The Forestier Family
(http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres).

6 Conisbee, 548.

7 Morgan label for The Artist’s Left Hand.

8 Morgan label for The Sabine Women Intervening to Stop the Fight Between the Romans and the Sabines.

9 Morgan label for Portrait of Firmin Didot.

10 Conisbee, 300-303.

11 Morgan label for Odalisque and Slave.

12 Ibid.

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016-3405
(212)685-0008

 

Art Review: Lyonel Feininger

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Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Living at the Edge:
The World of Lyonel Feininger

On April 29, 1906, Lyonel Feininger launched his comic strip, The Kin-der-Kids, with a charming caricature of himself as puppeteer and the caption, “FEININGER THE  FAMOUS GERMAN ARTIST EXHIBITING THE CHARACTERS HE WILL CREATE.”  A tag affixed to his ear by a loop of string identifies him as “your Uncle Feininger.”

Self-Portrait (Selbstbildnis) (1915, oil on canvas, 39½” x 31½”), Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Skip ahead nine years and Feininger, now a successful and “serious1 fine artist using oil on canvas, reveals a decidedly different aspect of himself.  No longer the impish uncle introducing his rag-tag crew, he seems to scowl angrily at a visitor’s intrusion or perhaps the adult in the mirror’s reflection.

In a wide-ranging retrospective, Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World, the Whitney Museum of American Art chronicled Feininger’s evolution from cartoonist to painter and printmaker, early adopter of photography for its own qualities and for preparatory studies, and in later years, a proponent of abstraction in the service of the spiritual.

The conflicting tugs on Feininger’s psyche originated in his childhood.  Born in 1871 to a German emigre and civil-war-veteran father and a German-American mother, Feininger spent his first sixteen years living in Manhattan’s East Village.  Raised in an environment permeated by the sounds of German compositions played by his parents, accomplished musicians, by age nine he was studying the violin with his father and by twelve, performing.

Both his parents believed in the power of music to act as a conduit between the artist and a beneficent almighty, a tenet that found its way into Feininger’s art.  He wrote as an adult of his “‘unbounded faith in the goodness of the Almighty’ and in art’s capacity to express it,”2 and he strove to create work in the service of those beliefs.

Frequently left alone by what he would later refer to as his “‘almost hypothetical parents,’”3 who traveled abroad to perform, young Feininger spent many hours with his running buddy and life-long friend, Frank Kortheuer, observing trains in Grand Central Terminal’s rail yards and ships on the island’s two rivers.  They sketched what they saw and used their drawings to enrich the stories they told each other about the two fantasy kingdoms they devised and inhabited, and continued to embellish over time.

A Group of Houses and Figures (c.1949, painted wood, dimensions variable), Art Institute of Chicago, © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph © The Art Institute of Chicago.

Like many a child left to his own devices, young Feininger found comfort in imagined worlds like these, where events unfolded and characters acted in ways he could control.  That childlike delight in conjuring alternative worlds and their inhabitants, “like something out of a fairy tale,”4 animates his most engaging work–the comic strips and early paintings–and finds literal embodiment in small wooden toys he carved over the years (between about 1920 and 1955) as gifts for his and others’ children.

Well into the exhibition and in their own gallery, in one large central vitrine and four smaller peripheral ones, these handcrafted figures populate streets and houses amid other architectural structures, trains and animals.  Here the visitor encounters Feininger at his most charming and whimsical.  Not surprisingly, many of the objects make appearances in his paintings, prints and drawing, perhaps indications of an ongoing desire to find a way back to a childhood paradise lost.

And lost it was, precipitously, when at age sixteen Feininger was shipped off to Germany to pursue a career in music.  Despite the boy’s superficial obedience to his parents’ wishes, evidence suggests some subterfuge.  The facts are fuzzy, but apparently upon arrival, when learning of the absence of his intended music teacher, the teenager gathered up the drawings he had been unable to leave behind and applied to art school.  He gained immediate admission and quickly excelled.

The rest of the story unfolded, though not quite chronologically, on the white-box walls of the Whitney.  Opening in a large room with the artist’s early paintings–his first forays into the world of fine art–the exhibit announced its focus on Feininger’s oils on canvas, which began about 1906.

The tale of the career that Feininger abandoned at age 35, one in which he achieved prominence as a cartoonist and illustrator, remained tucked away in an easily-missed gallery, on the left, of mostly comics, a few cartoons and several illustrations.  For much of his life, Feininger entertained himself and others with caricatures and then, during his first few years in Germany, parlayed his hobby into income-producing commissions from a humor magazine, hoping to save enough money to return home.

Family circumstances intervened and mandated a two-year stint at a Jesuit college in Belgium after which Feininger managed to convince his father to finance his art education.  Soon turned off by the staid academics with whom he regularly came into conflict, the young artist struck out on his own and, by illustrating stories for a Berlin publication, raised enough money to travel to Paris in 1892.  Combining time in front of art-class nudes with on-the-street sketching, the 21-year-old artist ignored the groundbreaking work being produced at the time by Monet and his ilk.

Wee Willie Winkie’s World, from The Chicago Sunday Tribune, November 25, 1906 (Commercial lithograph, 23½” x 17 13/16″), © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Back in Berlin after less than a year, Feininger found work for an American publisher  and then as a cartoonist for a weekly humor magazine.  His illustrations were soon published by others and in 1906 he was approached by the Chicago Tribune to pen a comic strip.  The Kin-der-Kids were born and following that, Wee Willie Winkie’s World.

Feininger reinvented Sunday comics.  He broke through the traditional rectangular frame, filling the spaces around them with decorative elements that enhanced the mood of each episode.  In the borders of the strip of November 25, 1906 (pictured above), roosters perch atop art deco style houses while a centrally located, sideways-glancing sun menacingly flashes its teeth.

In Wee Willie Winkie’s World, a small child describes to Uncle Feininger his impressions of a world where everything in the outsized landscape–trees, clouds, houses and even a locomotive–sports a face and occasionally limbs.  At turns his surroundings amuse, awe and threaten him.

In one episode, Wee Willie Winkie notices a row of dormer windows in a house roof.  To the imaginative child, “There is one tiny garret window, like a squalling little baby, with a drowsy, grumpy old nurse next it, who seems to say:  ‘Let it squall if it will;  I’m tired and can’t be bothered.’”5 Such is Wee Willie Winkie’s experience of adult’s attitudes toward upset children and a hint at what it was like for Feininger when his parents tossed him unceremoniously into a foreign land.

In a Village Near Paris (Street in Paris, Pink Sky) (1909, oil on canvas, 39¾” x 32″), © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

The rich fantasy life that sustained the artist as a youngster and brought him fame and prosperity as a cartoonist remained a vital source of imagery even after he moved on from illustration commissions and comic strip creations.  The pedestrians going about their business In a Village Near Paris (Street In Paris, Pink Sky) (1909) step right out of Uncle Feininger’s imagination and onto the canvas.

By 1906 when Feininger was finally able to afford a second trip to Paris, the garish colors of Fauvism had been around for a while and Cubism was coming into its own.  That year Picasso completed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the death of Cezanne inspired a memorial retrospective in his honor, making his radical ideas about painting more widely available.

Carnival in Arcueil (1911, oil on canvas, 41.3″ x 37.8″), © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph © The Art Institute of Chicago.

The influence of the Paris art scene followed Feininger back to Germany and appears in paintings like Carnival in Arcueil (1911) where the yellow of the buildings complements the violet of their roof tops and of the viaduct, setting up a visual vibration that enhances the action of the paraders who march off the canvas in the lower left.

In a departure from the gaiety of many of Feininger’s fanciful pictures, Untitled (Deserted Child) (1915)–a watercolor produced during the war years–depicts atop a hill three men with walking canes, outfitted in brown suits and turning their backs as they walk off, two to the left and one toward the background, while an orange-colored man heads off to the right.  They leave behind a small, seated, blue figure positioned at the base of the hill, bent over by its contours and the booted foot of the central adult, a reflection of the artist’s position during World War I.

Weighed down by the constant news of the deaths, injuries and psychological traumas suffered by many of his artist friends, Feininger was unbearably torn between his loyalty to Germany and his status as an American citizen.  While some of the work he produced during those years, like Untitled (Deserted Child) and Self-Portrait (Selbstbildnis) (pictured above), suggest this emotional state, others reflect the minimal impact the war had on the practical aspects of his daily life.

The Green Bridge II (Grüne Brücke II) (1916, oil on canvas, 49⅜” x 39½”), © Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Feininger continued to labor at his oil paintings and The Green Bridge II (Grüne Brücke II) (1916), a remake of an earlier version, demonstrates the mastery he eventually achieved.  Brush strokes are deliberate, colors are thoughtfully layered, and the artist has fully developed his characteristic style of indicating form with gradations of tone across each surface, dark meeting light wherever one plane turns into another.

Entering the sixth gallery of the Whitney exhibit, the visitor meets Feininger after he joined the Bauhaus, one of many organizations that sprouted up after the war, when the establishment of a German republic sparked new optimism for the country’s future.  His new status as faculty member, with its accompanying studio space, served as a tonic for the war-wearied artist, providing him with financial stability.  In 1921, disillusioned with the Bauhaus’s shift away from nature, Feininger was relieved to be freed of his tedious teaching duties and to accept the appointment as head of the school’s print workshop.

Nearing his fiftieth birthday, Feininger began to incorporate into his paintings an awareness of Cubism and lessons learned about light from his experiments with photography.  In a tour-de-force of color and contrast, the awesomely beautiful Church of the Minorites II (Barfüsserkirche II) (1926) epitomizes the unique qualities that set this artist apart from others.

Like many of Feininger’s paintings from this time onward, the Church of the Minorites II brings to mind the geometric elements and luminescent clarity of stained glass windows.  In this oil on canvas, the artist portrays the figures with the same angularity as the forms of the church and, by miniaturizing them, establishes a humbling effect similar to that engendered by the interiors of many towering cathedrals.  Here he comes closest to fulfilling his quest for the spiritual in art.

A few years later, Feininger painted Calm at Sea III (Stiller Tag am Meer III) (1929), another example of his singular vision.  Using variations on the primary colors of red, yellow and blue, he has taken two sailboats and created an abstract study in stillness.  Indicative of the relative obscurity of this artist, few images can be found online for referencing, providing yet another motivation for seeing the exhibit and/or buying the excellently written and lusciously illustrated catalog.

In 1933 when Hitler came to power, Feininger–despite having a Jewish wife–was initially enthusiastic about the possibilities such a strong leader offered Germany.  After awhile, unable to maintain his denial of the dangers of Nazism, and determined to keep his art a central focus, he sought refuge in a seaside village that he knew well from previous visits.  Though producing few oil paintings between 1932 and 1936, he continued to express himself in drawings and watercolors, finding solace in his peaceful surroundings.

By 1937, realizing that as a modern artist and an American it was no longer safe to remain in Germany, and invited to teach at a college in the United States, Feininger fled back to his country of origin, where he would reside until his death in 1956.

Docking in his hometown after fifty years abroad was disorienting for the 66-year-old adult.  Where once low-lying buildings had brought visual access to rail yards and docks, now canyons flanked by tall buildings limited the view.  In an effort to get his bearings, Feininger once again sought comfort in scenes of boats on water.  Paintings done years later in his eighties have the ephemeral quality of a late Turner, depicting light on water and sky, in search of the sublime.

In the last gallery of the Whitney show, sharing the walls with more familiar subjects were new ones of Manhattan skyscrapers.  Returning to New York seemed to have stirred to life the imaginative child for whom the city had once served as playground.  Like the young child that had been drawn to trains and boats, the now much older one looked up at towering buildings, the new emblems of progress.

In a small and simply rendered watercolor, Untitled (Manhattan at Night) (1937),  the artist places the viewer high above the street looking up at a powder blue sky punctuated with four twinkling stars between office buildings covered with rows of lit windows.  Overwhelm turned to wonder.  Inspired by the Manhattan cityscape, Feininger recovered the playfulness of his earlier years.  Buildings took on cartoon shapes again and in Moonwake (1945), a gigantic figure walks among the houses.

Uncle Feininger reappeared with watercolors done in the fifties of odd looking creatures called “Ghosties” (1954).  Most notably, in a watercolor and ink of Montmartre, Paris (1938), two cartoon characters, looking for all the world like Boris and Natasha of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame, approach each other from opposite directions on a night-darkened street.  One longs to see the next frame of this nascent comic strip.

______________________________

1 Barbara Haskell, Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World, 2011, 24.

2 Ibid, 3.

3 Ibid, 2.

4 Overheard comment at exhibit in front of The Green Bridge II.

5 Wee Willie Winkie’s World, The Chicago Sunday Tribune, September 16, 1906.

Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York, NY 10021
(212)570-3633

Catalog available.

 

Art Review: German Expressionist Graphics

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Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

Art For Our Time:
German Expressionism
at Galerie St. Etienne & MoMA

Max Pechstein, Dancer in the Mirror (woodcut, 19-7/16″ x 15¾”), © 2011
Max Pechstein/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

The stars must have aligned over New York City for a niche gallery and major museum to concurrently exhibit drawings and prints by German Expressionist artists, all taken from their extensive holdings.  Galerie St. Etienne, a venue that specializes in Expressionism and self-taught art, planned its exhibition, Decadence & Decay: Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, well in advance and not in connection with The Museum of Modern Art’s German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse.  The shows offered viewers two very different perspectives, but only at the gallery could art lovers walk away with a favorite–once they’d left some money behind.

Accompanied by a catalog primarily written by curator Starr Figura and heralding the digitalization of the museum’s 3,400 plus Expressionist works on paper, the exhibit at MoMA set out to define, illustrate and track the rise and fall of the movement in Germany and Austria from 1905 with the formation of the artists’ groups Die Brücke in Dresden and–several years later–Der Blaue Reiter in Munich, until the confiscation and destruction by the Nazis of hundreds of works of “degenerate art” in the late 1930s.

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait in Bowler Hat, (1921, drypoint, 12¾” x 9¾”), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

The Galerie St. Etienne showcased the work of three Weimar-era artists who did not identify strongly with any one group and whose most powerful images lean toward the left of the political spectrum.  In Jane Kallir’s concise and informative essay accompanying the checklist, she distinguished between these “Verists,” with their uncompromising images of the underside of life, and the “Magic Realists” with their revival of Italian classicism, well suited for the Nazi propaganda to come.  (See review of the Guggenheim’s Chaos and Classicism show.)

Erich Heckel, Portrait of a Man (1919, woodcut, 18-3/16″ x 12¾”), © 2011 Erich Hecke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/VG Bild-Kunst, Germany.

Expressionism, as originally conceived, emphasized “personal expression” and was “characterized by simplified or distorted forms and exaggerated color.”1 Prints–especially woodcuts–and other works on paper became the media of choice, allowing for spontaneity, experimentation and wider dissemination.

The (almost exclusively male) artists presented in both shows are celebrated for their development of printmaking as an artistic form in its own right, but Berlin-based Käthe Kollwitz preceded them by over a decade with her series, A Weavers’ Rebellion (1894–98), soon following it with her Peasants’ War (1902–08).

Although the MOMA exhibit displayed a fair number of Kollwitz’s works, including all seven of the woodcuts that make up her poignant commentary War (1921-22), the main text of the catalog fails to give her the same biographical treatment afforded other prominent artists.  Readers will find only descriptions of her work and, oddly, a first mention of her (p. 29) by last name only, implying a prior reference where none exists.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Winter Moonlit Night, (1919, woodcut, 12-11/16″ x 12-5/16″), © Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer, Wichtrach, Bern.

The art of Die Brücke (The Bridge) members reflects their counter-cultural attitudes.  Ernst Ludwig Kirchner seems to have been the de facto leader, attracting like-minded artists and their friends to his studio to celebrate chaos with decoration and dancing.  Both there and at their favorite beach resorts they cavorted nude and sought to “bring art and life into harmony with each other.”2

Franz Marc, Riding School After Ridinger (1913, woodcut, 12-13/16″ x 14¾”), The Museum of Modern Art, NY.

The prime mover of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) group, Vasily Kandinsky (mythic father of abstract painting), had a similar interest in the ethereal.  Author of Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1913), Kandinsky and his cohorts, Franz Marc among them, revealed in their work a “fascination with themes of spiritual rebirth and cosmic conflict.”3

Oskar Kokoschka, Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat (1909, oil on canvas, 30⅛” x 55⅝”), © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/Pro Litteris, Zurich.
Egon Schiele, Standing Male Nude with Arm Raised, Back View (1910, watercolor & charcoal on paper, 17⅝” x 12⅜”), The Museum of Modern Art, NY.

In Austria, two unaffiliated Viennese artists, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, created images aimed at “the facade of complacency and conformity that dominated”4 the culture of their city.  More inclined to compete than band together, they produced a far more unsettling brand of Expressionism.  Hardly idealistic or other-worldly, their work confronts the viewer with overtly sexual and violent images, insisting on spotlighting the darker reaches of the human psyche.

Displayed in the first four galleries at the MoMA show, the pieces by Kokoschka and Schiele stand out among those of dancing nudes and idyllic nature blithely executed by their German contemporaries.  The advent of World War I erased any such disparity among most of these artists.  Forced to confront the uglier aspects of human nature, they responded in various ways.  Many of them served in the military.  Of those, none escaped physically or psychologically unharmed.  Several were killed in action.  A few committed suicide.

Stepping into the next room, one encountered a dramatic shift in subject matter that reflected this altered European landscape.  Kirchner, that espouser of all things beautiful, produced a lithograph depicting a sex murder, an emerging theme at the time.  In his Murderer (1914), a black-suited man stands over a nude woman bleeding from a gaping wound in her neck from which blood trickles down to her crotch where it pools, then spreads to provide much of the color in the print.

Kirchner’s lithograph shared a wall with Night (1914), a drypoint by Max Beckmann of what might be a murder in a brothel.  A man’s body, still partially on the bed, slides onto the floor where a stream of blood runs from the back of his head.  Nearby, an overturned nightstand spills objects onto the floor.  Two women and a man look on with mild interest.

Otto Dix, Skull, 1924 (etching, 10⅛” x 7¾”), © Otto Dix/2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Moving along, viewers entered a gallery at the far end of which hung images of war’s brutal reality.  Not since Francisco Goya inked his print series, Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War), has another artist captured the nightmare of armed conflict like Otto Dix did in his series of etchings, Der Krieg (War).  As an artilleryman for the duration of the war, the artist learned first hand about the horrors and deprivations of trench warfare, relying on drawing to maintain some semblance of sanity.  Years later he observed, “You have to have seen people in this untamed state to know anything about them.”5

MoMA mounted, salon style, all fifty prints of Der Krieg.  In four uneven rows, the etchings depicted trench warfare in all its gory:  Those still living fight amid corpses strewn across lunar landscapes.  People lose their minds: a woman with a crazed look kneels over a dead baby; a boy with an ash-blackened head stares with wild eyes.  Prostitutes stroll along streets and men seek relief from women they pay.  Body parts hang on trees, and skull and limb bones accumulate in piles.  At night, a man comes over the rim of a trench to stab its unsuspecting occupant in the chest.  War cripples trudge along in a line, bringing to mind John Singer Sargent’s painting of mustard gas victims, Gassed (1918).  Broken bodies hang from a bombed-out building while in front of it a bloody-headed baby leans on the corpse of a woman.  Drunks fight in a bar.  A bright rising sun mocks two soldiers crawling on their hands and knees, leaving skeletons behind them.  Three rigid legs of a gutted horse point skyward.

Otto Dix, Bombs Are Dropped on Lens (1924, etching, 11¾” x 9⅝”), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Several of Dix’s War prints also appeared at Galerie St. Etienne.  These, displayed at eye level, afforded a more intimate viewing experience than was possible at the MoMA show.   Also at the gallery were two drawings, Grenade Trench with Dead Men and Man Reading in Foxhole (both 1917).  Sketched on site using the side of a black chalk crayon to create broad, dark marks, they bring the viewer into the trenches with Dix.

No stranger to war’s tragedies, Käthe Kollwitz directed her energies toward exposing the hidden casualties of war:  the parents asked to offer up their children.  Having lost her son early in the conflict (like many caught up in nationalistic fervor, he had quickly enlisted), she suffered acutely from his death.  Her belief in the futility of war finds expression in her series, War, all seven of which appeared in the MoMA exhibit.

Exploiting the expressive power of black ink set against wide expanses of white paper, these woodcuts feature mothers attempting to protect children threatened by the demands of a war machine that would devour them.  In The Parents, an elderly couple form a compact monumental unit; the father, one arm raised to cover his face with a gnarled hand, embraces his wife, who bends over to bury her head in the crook of his other arm.  Their grief is palpable.

In another woodcut from War, The Widow II, Kollwitz places the viewer behind the thrown-back head of a foreshortened body of a woman holding a baby draped across her chest.  Her eyes, in a face that appears upside down to the onlooker, suggest those of the living dead.

Max Beckmann, Lovers I (1916, drypoint, 9⅜” x 11¾”), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

On a wall perpendicular to the one with Kollwitz’s woodcuts, MoMA displayed all eleven of Max Beckmann’s lithographs of war’s aftermath, straightforwardly titled Hell.  Characteristic of much of this artist’s work, the prints overflow with chaotically jumbled figures who chat, orate, sing patriotic songs, go hungry and torture others.  Breaking through their pictorial boundaries, many of these images demand deliberate and sustained focus for full comprehension, requiring more than casual viewing.

George Grosz, Saxon Miniatures (1921, ink, 26″ x 19⅝”), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Another critic of post-war German society, George Grosz excelled at the equivalent of scathing political cartoons.  At the Galerie St. Etienne, one found a generous selection of these works on paper.

In Saxon Miniatures, Grosz reveals his view of German manhood.  By positioning figures from background to foreground, he suggests a kind of evolutionary timeline, beginning with a withered old man and moving forward with a military man, then a cleric, and ultimately, a Saxon tribesman armed with a club.

Grosz’s 1921 ink drawing, Let Those Swim Who Can–The Heavy May Sink, speaks to the deprivation suffered by the less fortunate members of post-war Germany.  Grosz poignantly depicts a wrinkled man clad in slippers, jacket and slacks, with a cravat tied tightly around his neck.  Leaning over to rest his skull-like head on one arm while gripping the cane that supports him with the other, the occupant of this small room containing little more than a bed and a couple of chairs looks to be dying from starvation.

In addition to many of Grosz’s works on paper, the MoMA show included two of his 1917 paintings, Metropolis and Explosion.  In both, predominant red tones, heightened by occasional blues and greens, heat up exploding urban views.

In the vertical Metropolis, floating men in suits hurry across the canvas while two bare-breasted women dressed in stockings are destined for a different kind of business.  In the other painting, the eponymous explosion shatters glass, tumbles buildings and scatters lives, an apt metaphor for the hit taken by any society engaging in war.

Like much of the art in both shows, the eleven lithographs comprising Beckmann’s Trip to Berlin (1922) highlighted the chasm between those who benefit from armed conflict and those who suffer because of it.  In this series, shown in its entirety at MoMA, Beckmann juxtaposes The Theater Lobby with Tavern, and in Striptease, unhappy, mostly-nude women attempt to entertain a well-dressed but inattentive audience.  The Disillusioned in formal wear sit around a table while The Beggars in the street look for handouts.

Otto Dix, Apotheosis (1919, woodcut, 11⅛” x 7⅞”), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY.

Apotheosis, a 1919 woodcut by Dix bridges past with present in its elevation to godhood of a bare-breasted, corseted woman wearing black stockings and heeled boots.  Spinning around her in a cubistic array, heads and appendages of men share the background with pieces of buildings.  Dix seems to be addressing both the commodification of sex and the increasing pace of life brought on by industrialization and the growth of cities.

Flash forward.  The mechanical morphs into the digital.  Wars rage, sex sells, cement spreads, rich and poor collide in urban settings.  One wonders how Grosz and Dix would react to 21st century life.

Kollwitz died in April 1945, just months before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fortunate to be spared witnessing the blood-hued dawn of the nuclear age.  What images would she have created in response to such mass murder that might have moved viewers to better safeguard this precious gift of life?
________________________________
1 Starr Figura, German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse, 2011, 10.

2 Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig (1913), quoted in German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse, 11.

3 Figura, 18.

4 Ibid, 90.

5 Quoted by Dietrich Schubert in Otto Dix, 2010, 37.

Decadence & Decay: Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz
Galerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
(212)245-6734

German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, NY 10019
(212)708-9400

 

Art Review: Marie-Louise von Motesiczky

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Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Emerging from Obscurity:
Artist Marie-Louise von Motesiczky

The Old Song (1959, oil on canvas, 40″ x 60-1/8″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

The name required pronunciation assistance (think “ch” for “cz”) and bore no hint of familiarity, but the image on the card announcing the first United States exhibition of the work of Austrian artist Marie-Louise von Motesiczky encouraged further investigation.  Accompanying the invitation, a brief biography of the artist written by Jane Kallir, the psychologically insightful co-director of The Galerie St. Etienne (the show’s host), provided more than enough reason to visit.

Greeting the viewer entering the room devoted to the story of Motesiczky’s relationship with her mother, The Old Song (1959) depicts the 77-year-old woman in the bed where she’d spent many daytime hours over the course of her life.  With one of her loyal greyhounds watching from under the bed, Henriette von Motesiczky listens to her neighbor strum a harp while an eagle floats nearby.  The harpist, with ashen face and bright red nails, portends approaching death, though Henriette went on to live another 19 years and to inspire other paintings and drawings by her daughter, many of which joined this work in the gallery.

Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (1937, oil on canvas, 21-7/8″ x 15-1/4″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

Paradise Lost & Found, the exhibit’s title, refers not to any one particular painting, but more broadly to the life of Motesiczky.  Born in 1906 in Vienna into an aristocratic Jewish family inextricably linked to other wealthy Jews through bloodlines and social standing, the artist fled with her mother first to Amsterdam and ultimately to England when the Nazi onslaught began decimating the world they had known.  More immediately, young Marie-Louise’s life changed dramatically with the sudden death of her father in 1909.1

Henriette, devastated but emancipated after the death of her husband, and with ample means to live large with few restraints, glommed onto Marie-Louise and never released her.  The other child, six-year-old Karl, remained invisible to his mother but benefited from the close friendship and comforting of his loving sister.  He would die in Auschwitz in 1944, several months after his arrest by the Gestapo for helping Jews escape from Poland.

To insure her daughter’s continued availability, Henriette intervened whenever romance threatened to shift attachment elsewhere.  When 16-year-old Marie-Louise fell in love with her cousin, her mother shipped her off to Holland for a few months and when six years later she wanted to marry a man with whom she shared a serious relationship, her mother forbade it.

Despite her mother’s narcissistic dependence on her, Marie-Louise enjoyed remarkable freedom, perhaps better described as not-so-benign neglect.  In early adolescence, she could choose to drop out of school and begin pursuing her interest in art, taking drawing lessons privately.

After World War I ended, new laws designed to ease housing shortages mandated owners of large residences to take in borders.  The Motesiczky family, mostly insulated from the upheaval of World War I, became host to a steady stream of paying guests, many with intellectual and/or artistic credentials, who provided illustrious company for the very young Marie-Louise.  One, an American architecture student, became a first lover.  The tender age of the girl and the laissez-faire attitude of her mother raises troubling questions about the nature of that liaison.

Fräulein Engelhardt (1926-27, oil on canvas, 24-5/8″ x 23-3/8″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

During the summer of 1920, the German artist Max Beckmann, introduced by a family member, paid a visit to the Motesiczky’s.  By playfully entertaining the teenager with an impromptu dinner skit involving a piece of straw dipped in wine, he enthralled the 14-year-old Marie-Louise with his personality, and later his art, laying the foundation for their deep and lasting friendship.

Motesiczky’s educational travels during her teens and early twenties brought her into contact with Dutch art in The Hague and the avant-garde in Paris.  Spending time in Frankfurt am Main, she studied directly with Beckmann, already a strong influence on her early art.

As the young artist gained skill and experience, she developed her own unique and emotionally powerful style, evident in the 1926-27 portrait of Henriette’s close friend, the elderly Fraulein Engelhardt.  The work blends the angular, flat planes of color and thick application of paint favored by her teacher Beckmann with Motesiczky’s own balanced composition, subtle color, and empathic rendering of the woman’s likeness.  Sitting on a cushion-backed chair, the subject of the painting gazes at and points toward a brown, autumnal leaf that rests on the table upon which she leans, as if indicating to the visitor her awareness of approaching death.

Siesta (1933, pastel & charcoal on tan laid paper, 10″ x 16-3/4″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.
Hunting (1936, pastel & charcoal on paper, 18-1/8″ x 22-3/8″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

The painter did not intentionally set out to focus her art on charting the ravages of time but did so in the many portraits of her mother, whose omnipresence in her life and inclination to recline in bed made her a perfect subject.

At The Galerie St. Etienne, the viewer first meets Henriette at the start of the exhibit in a pair of pastel drawings, Siesta (1933, pastel and charcoal) and Hunting (1936, pastel).  In the first, the ample woman, wide-eyed and red-nosed, appears abed, partially covered, hugging her pillow.  In the other, Henriette engages in another favorite pastime, hunting.  Attired in blue dress, legs splayed to balance herself in a rowboat, she looks down the sight of a brown-handled rifle, intent on her prey.

Reclining Woman with Pipe (1954, oil on canvas, 28-1/8″ x 40″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

In the room with The Old Song, joining other portraits of the artist’s mother, Reclining Woman with Pipe (1954, oil) captures Henriette at 72.  Marie-Louise depicts her mother sporting a grey wig, propped up in bed, enjoying a pipe.  Though now much older, the woman appears robust and alert, enlivened by the bright yellow pillow upon which she rests and the red nightgown that slips from her left shoulder, exposing pink skin.

Mother in the Garden (1975, oil, pastel & charcoal on canvas, 32″ x 20″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

Advanced age suffuses Marie-Louise’s Mother in the Garden (1975, oil, pastel and charcoal).  The shadow on the garden wall, cast by sunlight falling on the spectral figure, attests to the old woman’s substance.  Stooped over and almost bald at 93, Henriette continues to tend her beloved garden.  She would live another three years.

The Greenhouse (1979, oil & charcoal on canvas, 21-7/8″ x 32-1/8″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

In homage to her mother, Motesiczky created The Greenhouse (1979, oil and charcoal) a year after Henriette’s death.  At 73, as an accomplished artist with major portrait commissions and work displayed internationally including a 1966 multi-venue solo exhibition, she confronted not just her mother’s mortality but also her own.

The figure of the artist’s mother, now practically transparent, bends over to rake some fallen leaves in her garden.  Close by, two of her greyhounds look toward the barely visible third, a mere outline in front of the brown wood of the pictured structure.  A rising/setting sun in a high-value sky illuminates the glass of the greenhouse, less an actual reflection than an imagined one, with a blue stream flowing through bulrushes, a reference perhaps to Henriette’s love of hunting.

Canetti, London (1965, oil on canvas, 12″ x 10″), traveling exhibition, no. 63, Schlenker 200, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

Although her mother succeeded in preventing Marie-Louise from ever marrying, she could not stop her from succumbing to the allure of fellow émigré Elias Canetti, a married writer she met in 1939 soon after their relocations to London.  Marie-Louise sustained this romantic obsession, with all its pleasure and pain, until her death.

Involved in an affair that afforded her the luxury of maintaining her own autonomy, after the war Motesiczky provided Canetti with a place to write in her new London flat, a great way to insure his company.  The arrangement lasted until 1957.  Expecting that her status as the other woman would finally change in 1963 when her paramour became a widower, Marie-Louise suffered a devastating shock when ten years later she learned from a friend that he had remarried and fathered a child.

Self-Portrait with Canetti (1960s, oil on canvas, 20″ x 32-1/4″), courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, NY, © The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Trust.

Her Self Portrait with Canetti (1960s) illuminates well Motesiczky’s plight.  Dolefully staring at the object of her affection, the artist portrays herself to the left of the items separating them: six paint brushes, two quills and a large flowering plant.  Canetti’s attention remains fixed on the newspaper he holds open on his desk; his bushy-haired head, on the right side of the composition, balances not with Motesiczky’s on the left, but with the vegetal display that sits on the table (perhaps representing the wife that Motesiczky blamed for Canetti’s unavailability).  Further highlighting their divide, two shining ovals hover in the open space between them.

As she aged, Motesiczky became more open to sharing her art with the world.  In 1985, the Goethe Institut in London mounted her first retrospective; others followed elsewhere.  The artist, who had always traveled widely, visited Egypt at the age of 84, spent her 87th birthday doing volunteer work in a prison, and continued painting and attending art exhibits during her later years.

In 1996, Marie-Louise von Motesiczky died in London, a few months before her 90th birthday.  Four years prior, she had established The Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust in keeping with her initial impulse to create art:

My longing is to paint beautiful pictures, to become happy in doing so, and to make other people happy through them.2
__________________________________________
1 All biographical information from Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, 1906-1996, The  Painter, Jeremy Adler and Birgit Sander, editors, 2006.

2 Ibid, dedication page.

Marie-Louise Motesiczky
Paradise Lost & Found

The Galerie St. Etienne
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
(212)245-6734

 

Art Review: Salvador Dalí – The Late Work

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Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Forever Young, Outsider Dalí
Danced with Old, Sparred with New

When photographer and friend Phillipe Halsman asked Salvador Dalí during a photo shoot, “Why do you wear a mustache?”, he received the response, “In order to pass unobserved.”

Judging from the size of one of the massive crates required to ship his mural-sized paintings (revealed by an obliging museum guard in a behind-the-scenes peek) and the intense efforts Dalí expended to brand himself (long before anyone used that noun as a verb), he clearly intended that every endeavor generate attention, including the series of photographs that emerged from his work with Halsman.

Those Halsman-Dalí photos welcomed visitors to the High Museum of Art’s exhibit, Salvador Dalí: The Late Work.  They combined portraits of Dalí with accompanying repartee.  Following the question, “Why do you paint?”, and its answer, “Because I love art,” came an image of the artist with his mustache formed into an S turned into the American dollar sign with the addition of two paint brushes.  Coins framed the face.

For only a time a Surrealist but forever associated with that movement, and famous for the melting clocks of The Persistence of Memory (1931), Dalí fell from grace early on because of his unapologetic commercialization of art.  Assembled for the show at the High by guest curator Elliott H. King, a collection of Dalí’s late work aimed to situate this initiator of happenings and multimedia events, innovative sculptor, and expert draftsman and painter where he rightfully belongs: in the pantheon of great artists of the twentieth century.

In the first room of paintings, a vitrine contains Dalí’s copy of The Geometry of Art and Life by Matila Ghyka, opened to the page describing the Golden Section on which the book’s owner penciled notes that chronicled his efforts to understand it.  In The Study for Leda Atomica (1947), Dalí inscribed a couple of phone handsets, a fully inked swan and Leda/Gala within an encircled pentagram, the construction lines for which intersect to divide into segments that relate to each other in accordance with the Golden Ratio.

Such geometric magic along with other scientific interests figured prominently in Dalí’s peculiar thought processes.  The smashing of the atom, especially, captured his imagination and inspired depictions of disintegrating forms.  Conceptualizing matter as reducible to an invisible state of energy suited Dalí’s philosophical and artistic wanderings in the insubstantial worlds of fantasy, dreams and the unconscious.

In addition to his prodigious visual output, Dalí wrote extensively on his favorite subject: himself.  Among other topics, his musings expound upon his artistic choices, beginning with the paranoiac mechanism of his Surrealism days.  Caught up in a multi-tracked train of thought, Dalí arrived at his Paranoiac-Critical mysticism, the underlying inspiration for much of the work in this exhibit.

Writing about his unique view of the world, Dalí aligned himself with paranoiacs who, he observed take “…advantage of associations and facts so refined as to escape normal people [to] reach conclusions that often cannot be contradicted or rejected and that in any case nearly always defy psychological analysis.”1 Indeed, this artist found relationships few others saw, morphing one object into another with his deft wielding of pen and brush.

Devoted to Dalí’s expeditions into the graphic arts, two rooms in the exhibit contained an array of styles and modalities that served as a good introduction to his extensive accomplishments in this arena.  Unfortunately, late in his life he became fast and loose with his signature in a way that challenged future collectors and dealers in their attempts at authentication.  On display, engravings from Ten Recipes for Immortality (1973) and colored lithographs from Don Quixote (1957) (both series inexplicably absent from the catalog) demonstrated Dalí’s expert draftsmanship.  The High could do well to mount an exhibition devoted solely to this aspect of Dalí’s oeuvre.

Among the few early works included in the exhibit, Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone (1938) combined both Dalí’s paranoiac ability and his facility with both ends of a brush.  On a dark ground, the artist scraped off paint to reveal form-defining lights and applied small dabs of color as highlights on the horse’s rump.  With a radiator to its left, an automobile wheel in place of one of its forelegs and a fender over its other, this bio-mechanical animal bites down with a vengeance on a phone’s receiver, leaving the viewer to ponder what it might mean.

Dalí’s later works drew upon his fascination with quantum physics.  In his Mystical Manifesto (1951), he unraveled the secrets of the Paranoiac-Critical approach and rallied aspiring artists to perfect their craft.  When he wrote that the “mystical ecstasy is ‘super-cheerful,’ explosive, disintegrated, supersonic, undulatory and corpuscular, and ultra-gelatinous…,”2 Dalí included a reference to the quantum theory that energy exists in either wave (undulatory) or particle (corpuscular) form depending on the instrument used to observe it.

In an instructive example of his method, the Paranoic-Critical Study of Vermeer’s “Lacemaker” (1955), Dalí exploded his copy of the Dutch artist’s painting, at which he had spent an hour staring during a visit to the Louvre and then reproduced from memory (so the story goes).  Insisting that he found four rhinoceros horns in Vermeer’s small image, Dalí included those in his updated version along with a recognizable face surrounded by strands and corpuscles of color and light.

The title of Saint Surrounded by Three Pi-Mesons (1956) directly references subatomic particles.  Where others might see a person, Dalí utilized his paranoiac vision to reduce the holy figure to a mass of individual elements.  This relatively small painting, housed in a protective glass-covered frame box, revealed a deftness of touch in the artist’s application of mostly grisaille daubs of paint interspersed with strokes of occasional blue in the face area and bronze on the hands.  Golden tassels dangle at the bottom.  An entire world exists in this assemblage of forms; reproductions barely hint at the effort required for its realization.

A devoted classicist, Dalí took issue with the art trends of his time.  In a preparatory sketch for a page in his Fifty Secrets of Master Craftsmanship (ca.1948), displayed in the vitrine with the book on geometry, Dalí used parameters like “Grafmanschip, coleur, dessino” [all sic] to rate Mondrian, Picasso and himself alongside old masters such as Raphael, Leonardo and Velázquez.  Picasso faired all right.  Mondrian earned almost all zeroes, but so did Bouguereau.

Further expressing his negative feelings about nonobjective art, Dalí painted Fifty Abstract Paintings Which as Seen from Two Yards Change into Three Lenins Masquerading as Chinese and as Seen from Six Yards Appear as the Head of a Royal Bengal Tiger (1962), the name of which says it all.  In the same room as that statement hung The Sistine Madonna (Quasi-grey picture which, closely seen, is an abstract one; seen from two meters is the Sistine Madonna of Raphael; and from fifteen meters is the ear of an angel measuring one meter and a half; which is painted with anti-matter; therefore with pure energy) (1958).  A tromp l’oeil piece of paper and a cherry tied to the end of a string contrast in technique with the benday-dotted ear containing an image of a face.

Possibly one of Dalí’s most beautifully rendered paintings, The Madonna of Port Lligat (1950) showcases the wizardry with which this master could transform two-dimensional canvas into an imagined three-dimensional reality.  With invisible brush strokes, Dalí lavished the same attention to detail on each object pictured.  Brilliantly conceived, the Christ child that sits on the Madonna’s/Gala’s lap looks just like the neighbor’s kid, except for the end piece of a bread loaf that floats in the rectangular space carved into the youngster’s torso.

Two other floor-to-ceiling canvases deserve mention.  In Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951), Dalí depicts the crucified figure from above, within an equilateral triangle, and suspends the cross high above a boat anchored in a large lake.  Perhaps he intended the perspective to suggest God’s view of the event.

Using a photograph of a horse’s head as reference, paranoiac Dalí noticed that the highlight on the creature’s neck resembled an angel.  In Santiago El Grande (1957), the image reverberates throughout the huge painting.  Over a blue latticework background, a rider mounted on a rearing stead hoists a golden cruciform figure.  Fiery orange objects fly around in the uppermost lefthand corner.  In the lower right, shrouded Gala peers out from behind her partly hidden face, confronting the onlooker with her one visible eye.

Not the last artwork displayed in the show but definitely a coda of sorts, The Truck (We’ll be arriving later, about 5 o’clock) (1983) captures the devastation Dalí suffered when his beloved wife and muse, Gala, died in 1982.  Using a combination of oil paint and collage on canvas, this view from the inside of an opened-back truck alludes to “André Breton’s: ‘I demand that they take me to the cemetery in a removal van.’  The subtitle invokes Garcia Lorca’s ‘Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter’ (1935) refrain: ‘at five in the afternoon.’”3 Using a diluted brown and black wash, Dalí painted the interior with a seated figure silhouetted against a brightly lit exterior.  A much darker mass close by looks like the painter at his easel, capturing the love of his life for eternity.

After Gala’s death, Dalí slipped away from life.  His best work behind him, he spent the last years of his life an invalid.  In 1989 when his heart gave out, the world lost a unique and gifted madman–and genius.
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1 “Selected Writings by Salvador Dalí,” Dalí, 2004, 550.

2 Ibid, 564.

3 Exhibit wall text.

Salvador Dalí: The Late Work
High Museum of Art
1280 Peachtree Street, NE
Atlanta, GA 30309
(404)733-4437

Catalog available.