21 March 2018

Spring Violets And A Perfect Poem

In this little urn is laid
Prudence Baldwin, once my maid,
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.

 - "Upon Prue, His Maid" by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), from The Norton Anthology of Poetry: Shorter Edition, ed. Arthur M. Eastman, New York, W.W. Norton: 1970.

Like the wood violets (and the daffodils) of March, this perfect little poem moves beyond the dichotomy of life and death to the transcendent vision of regeneration.

A child of Cheapside and one of seven children, Robert Herrick's father died when the boy was only a year old.  Apprenticed to an uncle at sixteen, Herrick went on to graduate from Cambridge University in 1617 and was ordained as a minister of the Church of England in 1623.  Ousted from his vicarage in 1647 during the English Civil War, he campaigned for his own restoration after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.  Herrick never married.  Hesperides, published in 1648, is a collection of some 1,200 of Herrick's lyric poems.

Image: Jean-Francois Miller - Narcisses et violettes (Narcissus and Violets), 1867, Kunsthalle, Hamburg.

14 March 2018

Georges Le Brun: The Man Who Passed By

The triptych is a familiar form in painting, long associated with Christian religious subjects.  What we have here in Georges Le Brun's La ferme de la Haase  (The Haase Farm) is something quite different, his affectionate rendering of his native Flemish countryside and a rich source of inspiration. And we know that Le Brun had seen his nation's most famous triptych.

Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece ( completed in 1432) is arguably the greatest work of art in Belgium, one that has inspired generations of visitors to make a pilgrimage to this Flemish city.  To grow up surrounded by the glorious works that artists created during the period when the Burgundian royal court sat in Flanders and not be affected by them would be difficult to imagine, especially for aspiring artists.  What originated as a painterly arrangement of the metaphysical world became an organizing principle in  paintings by Fernand Khnopff. (1858-1921).

Roughly contemporary, the artist Georges le Brun (1873-1914) felt the pull of those early Flemish primitive painters, too. "I remain convinced that being able to draw consists not so much in making no mistakes; but rather in revealing the individual psychological character of people and things by a judicious accentuation of every typical irregularity.  There is more art, more feeling and more poetry in one realist work done in the style of the primitive or one of the minor Dutch artists than in the stuffy compositions of the great masters."

There are other similarities, too.  Le Brun used the combination of charcoals and pastel to create a personal symbolism, notable for excellent draftsmanship.   Although Le Brun traveled, spending three months in Italy in 1900, the landscape he became attached to emotionally was the high fens (Haut Fanges) of the Ardennes in eastern Belgium.   During his times in Brussels, the lawyer/collector Octave Maus helped to advance the young artist's career, commissioning articles from Le Brun for his magazine L'Art Moderne. And Le Brun, as much as Khnopff, was a master of ambiguity. 

Although Le Brun's symbolism never quite gives up its meaning,  it  is situated in the everyday world. His depictions of quiet interiors and the unreachable aura that attaches to his human figures have invited comparisons to his contemporary, the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi.  The reading woman in The Vestibule reminds me of Seuart's  charcoal drawing of a floating woman (Art Institute of Chicago), found at last.   Le Brun had married Nathalie de Rossart of Brussels in 1904.  The couple bought a house in Theux, a small town in the Ardennes, where they had two children: Andre, born 1905 and Joan, born 1907.   In Le Brun's interiors, even empty rooms suggest domestic life in progress, if only by the sight of a coffee pot warming on a stove.  
The elaborate geometry of the vestibule is suggestive of some greater significance than its emptiness as is the wash of light where we might expect shadows.

A similar image whose title gives a different emphasis, The Man Who Passes directs us to regard its human as its subject.  Technically, what makes these images  appear odd is that the artist placed his focal point in the center of the image, violating a basic precept of composition.  As a result, the viewer's expectations  are upended.  A scene that appears at first ordinary may be the artist's  intimation of time and space stretching and curving before our eyes.

Le Brun heightened the symbolism in his pictures by using a limited palette Le Brun works with.  Compared to them, the mural (at top) La ferme de la Haase uses the same media to more realistic ends; we can imagine ourselves looking out a window at the fen lands.
Born in Verviers in 1873, Georges Le Brun grew up in a privileged environment. His life was marked by regular changes of of scenery and incessant journeys between Verviers, Brussels, and the Ardennes.  His love of nature found no outlet in medical school so he  resigned and after  a few months he registered at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels.

Belgium in the nineteenth century was at the forefront of industrialization and for several years Le Brun apportioned his time between painting and working as a representative for a steel company although he deplored its effects on the countryside and the peasants who bore the brunt of its upheavals.   In 1899 he exhibited at the Salon des Beaux-Arts in Ghent and participated in the group La Libre Esthétique. From 1903 to 1908, he collaborated on the magazine L'Art Moderne where he defended the works of the Nabi artists in France.
While on combat duty with the Belgian Army, Georges Le Brun disappeared near the Ysaer on October 28, 1914.  His body was never found.  

1. La ferme de la Haase, 1913, water and pastel, private collection, Belgium\
2. The Vestibule, c.1909, charcoal and pastel,  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
3. The Man Who Passes, 1900,  pastel and charcoal, Musee Communale de Verviers.

25 February 2018

Consider The Olive Tree

"Nobody knows how long it takes to kill an olive.
Drought, axe, fires, admitted failures.  Hack one down,
grub out a ton of mainroot for fuel, and  next spring
every side-root send up shoots.  A great frost
can leave the trees seedless for years; they revive.
Invading armies will fell them.  They return
through the burnt-out ribs of siege machines.

Only the patient goat, nibbling its way down the ages
has malice to master the olive. Sometimes, they say,
a man finds an orchard, fired and goat-cropped
centuries back.  He settles and fences;
The stumps revive.  His grandchildren family prosper
by the arduous oil-pressing trade.  Then wars
and disease wash over.  Goats return.  The olives
go under, waiting another age.

Their shade lies where Socrates disputed.
Gethsemane's withered groves are bearing yet."

 -  "The Olive Tree" by Mark O'Connor, Collected Poems, Alexandria, (N.S.W.), Hale & Iremonger: 2000.

Perhaps it was because I had been thinking about olive trees, but when I looked at Robin Gowen's painting Shades of Shadows VI, I  thought what a civilized landscape.   The trees and, even more, the hedgerow in the background at right are signs of a well tended meadow.   And the light washing over everything could easily be the light in Provence although it is not.

Writing to his editor, Richard Olney, an American expatriate painter and cookbook author, gave his reasons for living in France and the penultimate one was "the presence of olive trees in the landscape."  A civilized answer

Lost in the labyrinth of history, the Olea europea, or  edible olive, was first collected in the wild, probably in the Levant; certainly it is one of the earliest cultivated crops that we know of.   Evidence that the olive tree was farmed successfully on the island of Crete dates back to c. 3500 B.C.

The oil of the olive has been sacred to many cultures.  By the time of Homer (c. 900 B.C.), olive oil had become a luxury good, used to anoint the human body for ceremonial occasions.  (An olive tree appears in Book XXIII of The Odyssey, being the center post of the marriage bed).   In The Odes (c. 13 B.C.) the Roman poet Horace testified to the olive's delectable qualities as food:  "As for me, olives, endives, and smooth mallows provide sustenance."  According to the Bible, it was an olive leaf that the dove brought back to Noah's ark. 

Mark O'Connor (b. 1945) is an Australian poet who has collaborated on projects with nature photographers.

Robin Gowen (b. 1957) is an American artist who was raised in New Hampshire and Nigeria.  In recent years she has moved around the western United States.

Robn Gowen - Shades of Shadows VI, 2017, Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara.

13 February 2018

Patricia Chidlaw: Space,Time

Wonderful is this wall of stone,
wrecked by fate.
The city buildings crumble,
the bold works of the giants decay.
Reefs have caved in, towers collapsed.
Barred gates have gone,
gateways have gaping mouths,
Hoarfrost clings to the mortar.
  - anonymous poet, from The Battle Of Malden And Other Old English Poems, edited by B. Mitchell, London: 1965

Caught between the Romans and Christians; caught between a thousand year old organization of space and a new one taking form that we are too immersed in to fully comprehend, we are of (at least) two minds about the vernacular landscape we have made.

Superficially, they may look like street photography, but the paintings of Patricia Chidlaw are the creations of a different sensibility in a different medium.  A photographer may choose among negatives for the best one and that one may implicitly refer to moments before and after the picture was taken, whereas a painter works - and reworks - a single canvas until it satisfies her intentions.

In the current exhibition Patricia Chidlaw: The Moving Picture Show at Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery in Santa Barbara, California, the show in the title is often viewed from the vantage point of an implied passerby, possibly on foot but more likely  inside a car.  This immediately gives us a sense of the familiar, that we have seen these places before.  But look longer at many of the paintings and you notice that time is just as much their subject. 

The clock was introduced in Europe circa 1300 and the coordination of times from place to place was a byproduct of the demands of modern transportation, specifically of the railroads.  Paul Tillich,  theologian,  defined tragedy as coming from the gods of space, whereas justice belongs to "the God who acts in time an through time, united the separated spaces...."

And so a question arises: do we value a  sense of space more  than a sense of time, the medium through identify the brain as the seat of sight).   Whichever side of the question one comes down on, there is widespread agreement that roads disturb the peace and cause radical change by muting the distinction between the private and the public.

In Under the 280 an elevated highway casts a mammoth shadow over its surroundings and also functions as a de facto proscenium framing the view of a low rise street from an earlier era.  The woman in No Vacancy stands inside a "vintage" and rare phone booth stands under a motel sign that announces their rooms have cable television.  It may be titled Sunrise at the Palace but the Art Deco style theater looks as though its best days were over when the Deco style became passe.

The pedestrian ordering of life that goes back hundreds of thousands of years has only recently been forced to live side by side with a new type of road and a myriad of new metaphors.  Easier to impose on the sparsely settled North American continent by newcomers than on Europe, where most of them came from, the freedom to move from place to place and the freedom to use space as you see fit are not necessarily harmonious.

Streets are not just for movement from place to place; they are also places of work and socializing, sometimes they are even used for a refuge of privacy and solitude, uses that became problematic once humans got behind the wheel.  I'm guessing that The Red Chair is not a castoff but rather a seat for sociability.  And I fancy the idea  that the goldfish in Fish Bowl, looking out the window may have the red chair in view.

John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909-1991), was a pioneer in the study of cultural landscape and founder of the magazine  Landscape in 1951. He was known for his complex and humane stance on the state of what we call the environment than some radicals of recent decades, commenting that "death is seen as merely the first step in the producing of compost," a credo that resembles an early but short-lived Christian heresy.  Jackson, who was born in Dinard, France, taught at Harvard and lived in the American southwest for several decades.  His peripatetic life supplied the intimate familiarity with both new and old  landscapes that characterized his writing. Jackson had a toleration and, more than that, a taste for the contradictions  in human actions.

Although she was born in San Francisco, Patricia Chidlaw's childhood was, like Jackson's   a peripatetic one; her father was a military officer who was stationed in Germany and then in France, where Patricia first encountered art in its museums, cathedrals, and even flea markets.  When she began her university art education in 1969, she settled in Santa Barbara, where she now lives.

Images: by Patricia Chidlaw, 2017, Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara
1. Under the 280
2. Sunrise at the Palace
3. No Vacancy
4. The Red Chair
5. Fish Bowl

07 February 2018

Gaslight: Jozsef Rippl-Ronai's Park At Night

"Paris will be very beautiful in autumn...The town here is nothing, at night every thing is black.  I think that plenty of gas, which is after all yellow and orange, brightens the blue, because at night here the sky looks to me - and it's very odd - blacker than Paris.  And if I ever see Paris again, I shall try to paint some of the effects of gaslight on the boulevard."
 - Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, in a letter #500 

Ethereal and atypical, this delicate pastel by Jozsef Rippl-Ronai is suggestive of  much that is specific to the period when it was created (c.1892-95).  If you think of the works being created at the time by the Belgian symbolists, you can imagine its atmosphere is vaguely anxious.  The cluster of tree trunks appear as insubstantial as a group of hovering ghosts.  Rippl-Ronai creates this effect by making them appear as they would in a photographic negative: they are pale against the dark night.  And speaking of the Belgian, we will see similar trees in the 20th century paintings of a another Belgian, Leon Spilliaert (1861-1946), their (primarily) vertical lines suggesting interpretations as various as their individual trunks.

Like William Degouve de Nuncques' pastel Nocturne in the Parc Royale, Brussels, also in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Rippl-Ronai's Un parc la nuit is a love letter to artificial illumination.   We moderns may think about light pollution or the Dark Sky Society that supports the mission of astronomers but to people of the 19th century, gaslights offered the tantalizing prospect of nightlife, the nocturnal excitement offered by theaters, cafes, clubs, and bars.  We enjoy Un parc la nuit for the evanescent aesthetic it embodies but it can enrich our experience if we understand some measure of what its contemporaries saw in it.

Although the artist does not identify a location, he was living in Paris at the time and the cast-iron lamp posts peppered the French capitol; there were many thousands of them in place by the 1890s.  Robert Louis Stevenson, an enthusiast of the new lamps, called them "domesticated stars."  When they were superseded  by arc lights, he mourned their passing.  The lights hint at the presence of houses and roads in the distance, or maybe just more gaslights

Jozsef Rippl-Ronai (1861-1927) was from Kaposvar, Hungary.  He arrived in Paris in 1888, where he lived until 1901.  His  painting My Grandmother attracted the interest of Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, and Edouard Vuillard, who invited him into their group Les Nabis (Hebrew for Prophets), where his nickname was, naturally enough, the Hungarian Nabi.  When Rippl-Ronai returned home to Hungary he brought back with him the latest developments in art. Nothing the Hungarian artist ever did rivaled the glitter and magic of Un parc la nuit.

While in France he also became friends with the sculptor Aristide Maillol.  His portrait of Maillol won a gold medal at Vienna in 1914. In 1925, Rippl-Ronai was invited by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to contribute a self-portrait to their gallery of self-portraits.

To read more about the friendship between Jozsef Rippl-Ronai and Aristide Mailloll.

Jozsef Rippl-Ronai - Un parc la nuit (A Park at Night), c.1892-185, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

30 January 2018

Joan Murray: A New York Poet

We old dudes. We
White shoes. We

Golf ball. We
Eat mall. We

Soak teeth. We
Palm Beach. We

Vote red. We
Soon dead.
  - "We Old Dudes" by Joan Murray, Poetry Magazine, July 2006

Joan Murray (b.1945) is an American poet  whose verse novel Queen Of The Mist

is based on the true story of the first person to go over the Horseshoe at Niagara Falls and survive, a woman named Annie Taylor who dared the feat in 1901.  Although this has been known for more than century, most school children still learn about the first man to duplicate Taylor's feat.  Even Wikipedia can only bring itself to state that Taylor is known for "falling down Niagara Falls in a barrel on October 24, 1901.   The words we use matter; that's why poetry can be so powerful, I think.

Find more about The Visitor: Poems From the Eastman House by Joan Murray with photographs by Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934).
Murray has also been a poet in residence at Olana, the historic home, now a museum, to the painter Frederic Edwin Church (18261900).

For further reading:
Swimming For The Ark: New and Selected Poems, Buffalo, White Pine Press: 2015
Dancing On The Edge, Boston, Beacon Press: 2002
Looking For The Parade, New York, W.W. Norton: 2000
Queen Of The Mist: The Forgotten Heroine of Niagara, Boston, Beacon Press: 1999
The Same Water, Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press: 1990

1. Gertrude Kasebier - Amos Two Bulls, Dakota Sioux, c.1900, Library of Congress.
Gertrude Kasebier - Dorothy, 1903, private collection, courtesy of Artnet.

26 January 2018

La maison de Biala

There is no better time to revel in gorgeous color than in the middle of winter.

"I always had the feeling that I belong where my easel is." - Janice Biala.

Biala (1903-2000) was born in Biala Podlaska in Poland; her given name was Schenehaia Tworkovska but she took a name from her birthplace as her professional name.  Curious perhaps,  given her peripatetic life and her lack of ties to any single place.  The sentiment reads like a paraphrase of Johnny Mercer's lyric to "Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home."

"I have always Matisse in my belly." - Janice Biala

So Lloyd Goodrich, writing in The New York Times in the 1930s, was  early  to sense a connection between Biala and the Fauve painters, although I think he picked the wrong Fauve when he named Andre Derain.  In retrospect, Henri Matisse is the obvious choice.   But that may be because Biala subsequently formed so many friendships with artists of the New York School, those exuberant users of  color in abstract compositions, who were also indebted to Matisse's example.  After all, Matisse was still alive and painting.
Biala seems not have been bothered by any demarcation lines between realism and abstraction, but then she was not only a New Yorker.  She was French, and European, and before that she was Polish.  Or, again as in the later paintings of Pierre Bonnard, the picture plane is there to played with.  In Canaries in Their Cages, the birds are spectators to the real show - strips of venetian blind and sunlight traversing two separate spaces with compositional mastery.

There is a playful intimacy in Biala's paintings that never lapses into sentimentality.  Wilted tulips or a kitchen that looks to be a utilitarian, even unisex, room in a modern apartment rather than the  workshop of an immiserated  housewife, take the place of the sensuous odalisques that appear, sometimes incongruously, in Matisse.  But then nudes have a way of doing that in the works of painters in any style you can name.  On a more technical note, Biala using more shading than Matisse and the white areas of her canvases are not fetishized, either.  Art historians still argue over the relationship between Fauvism and Abstract Expressionism, the bridge being the bold use of color. Biala brought a unique intelligence to the orchestration of color and form, as you can see.

The Tworkoska family immigrated to the United States in 1913 because of political unrest in Europe.  Biala and her older brother Jack Tworkov, also a future painter (in the Abstract Expressionist style) both studied at the National Academy of Design and at the Arts Students League in New York.  The two also hitch-hiked together from New York to the Provincetown art colony in Massachusetts where they became friends with Charles Demuth and William and Marguerite Zorach.  It was William Zorach who suggested that Biala alter her name to differentiate it from her that of brother Jack.  Was this a hint of the  difficulties that his wife Marguerite had in keeping her work  - and her name - distinct in the public mind?

On a visit to France in 1930 Biala met and fell in love with British novelist Ford Madox Ford and that was that; she stayed in France until 1939, by which time Ford had died and there was political unrest roiling Europe once again.  In the meantime she received several much admired gallery exhibitions in New York.  Although she eventually married an Alsatian artist in New York and moved back to Paris in 1947, she always maintained a studio in the United States.

Biala’s paintings are in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

1. Biala - Horse and Carriage, 1983, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC.
2. Biala - Canaries in Their Cages, 1986, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC.
3. Biala - Five Tulips, 1997, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC.
4. Biala - Blue Kitchen, 1969, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC.
5. Biala - La maison de Biala, 1985,  Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC.
6. Biala - Vase fond noir - faude rose en haute - la rose, 1976, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, NYC.

17 January 2018

Anne Enright: Read Like An Irish Woman

It begins again.  Or it never ended.  Take your pick. The recently released Cambridge Companion To Irish Poets covers four plus centuries of Irish poetry but finds room to include only four women  along with twenty-six men.   So far, more than Irish 250 women writers have signed a pledge that begins: “The Companion is part of a larger process by which the significance of works by women is attenuated as they become inaccessible or obscured, simply by virtue of their absence from canonical textbooks.”   This state of affairs is not unique to Ireland, of curse.  Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright credits the #MeToo movement for stoking the head of steam powering this action.  “Prejudice against women is a universal crime with zero perpetrators. Irish men are lovely, Irish poets are especially lovely – what on earth could be the problem? There is an amazing series of defences between men and this conversation,” Enright notes wryly.

Anne Enright became  the inaugural Laureatefor irish Fiction in 2015.   Her most recent novel The Green Road (2015) was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize; she won the prize in 2007 for The Gathering.

I offer a few suggestions from my own recent reading for your delectation and look forward to yur responses.

"For two days people have been coming and going and now there is something near.  She wishes everyone would go home and let the house be quiet again.  The summer is gone.  Every days the leaves fall off the trees and blow down the avenue." - excerpt from Academy Street

Tess Lohan is a little girl living in rural Ireland whose world is irrevocably bent when her mother died from tuberculosis.  Mary Costello's debut novel Academy Street takes its title from the street where Tess Lohan finds a home when she emigrates to New York City.  A nurse, Tess is a quiet character, often overlooked by others, yet her seven decades are full of acute observation and passionate emotion.  Her lonely childhood has made it difficult for Tess to connect with other people, especially men.  She has a child but as he grows up they grow apart. Costello compels us to acknowledge how homesickness and  unattended sexuality shadow a life.

"There now.  There now.  That was just life.   And now." - excerpt from A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing

What Anne Enright calls "bog gothic" is the trio of a mentally troubled mother, disabled brother, and a pervert of an uncle who form the cast of Eimear McBride's novel.  Told through the brother, whose brain damaged condition is the cause of his sister's guilt as well as her only solace,  A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is a succinct, difficult book to read, but never less than riveting.  The sister is, of course, the half-formed girl of the title.  According to fellow author Anne Enright, it took Eimear McBride nine years to find a publisher for this startling first novel.  McBride, born 1976,  is from a generation that knows it stands on the achievements of Edna O'Brien and says frankly, "I'm sick of having to live the agenda of angry men."

"On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11, 521 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street.  One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege.  Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains." - excerpt from The Little Red Chairs

Even writers you think you know well  can surprise you.  In her first novel in a decade, Edna O'Brien, Ireland's most famous living writer, creates an undisputable masterpiece (there, I used that word!).  The Little Red Chairs is large, but no larger than need be, spectacularly plotted, and has a central character who shifts shape as the novel unfolds.  A war criminal who has fled his home in the Balkans, he washes up on the shore of Ireland.  The local garda don't quite manage to arrest him, a nun offers to test his claim to be a holistic healer, and a lonely woman named Fidelma challenges him to give her a child.  

O'Brien's sharp eye for the telling details of modern life is no surprise, as is her clear-eyed assessment of the grittiness of Irish life.  That she moves between rural Ireland and cosmopolitan London we take for granted from the author of The Country Girls Trilogy from the 1960s. What is dazzling  is the way that she moves between the minds of her characters with utter conviction  a conviction we marvel at as we accept it.  Leavened with  mordant humor that may seem surprising but is utterly true to life. 

Read the article "A Tipping Point " at The Guardian.

For further reading:
A Woman Without A Country by Eavan Boland, New York, W.W. Norton: 2014.
Academy Street by Mary Costello, New York, Farrar Straus and Giroux: 2015.
The Green Road by Anne Enright, New York, W.W. Norton: 2015.
A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press: 2014.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien, New York, Little, Brown and Company: 2016.

1. Alan Betson  for The Irish Times - Anne Enright, 2015
2. unidentified photographer for The Irish Times, Mary Costello, 2014
3. Eric Luke for The Irish Times - Eimear McBride, 2016
4. Bryan O'Brien for The Irish Times - Edna O'Brien, 2015

10 January 2018

Disturbing The Universe: Guido Gozzano


With its unkempt garden, its vast rooms, its fine
seventeenth-century balconies decked with greenery,
the villa seems cribbed from certain verses of mine,
a model villa, a piece of postcard scenery ...

It thinks of its past to ease its present gloom,
of jolly gatherings under ancient oaks,
of legendary feasts in the dining room,
and dances in the great hall, now stripped of antiques.

For where, in better times, the Ansaldos called,
or the d'Azelglios, or this or that contessa,
some motorcar now jerks up, its tires bald,
and hirsute foreigners batter the Medusa,

First comes a bark, then footsteps, then the lazy
creak of the door ... In that hush (think cloister or tomb)
lives Toto Merumeni with his ailing mum,
a grizzled great-aunt and an uncle who's crazy.

   excerpt from "Toto Merumeni" by Guido Gozzano, translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock, from The FSG Book Of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry,  New York, Farrar Straus Giroux: 2012.

"Toto Merumeni", taken from his second  collection I colloqui (The Talks, 1911), looks in the rear view mirror like a precursor of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."   (I should point out that although T. S. Eliot was working on his "Prufrock" at the same time, it did not appear in print until 1915.)  Whereas Guido Gozzano (1883-1916) spent most of his life in his native Turin, tried to study law at the university but dropped out, more attracted by evening literature lessons (Crepusculari Torinesi),   There he found an alternative to the pervasive and baneful influence of  conservative poet Gabriel D'Annunzio  through immersion in Dante, Petrach, and Leopardi.  From these illustrious examples he crafted a pessimistic but spiritual vision of a vaguely socialist future.   He died at age thirty-two from tuberculosis. 

T.S. Eliot called "Prufrock" (1911)  his first perfect poem; leaving aside any quibbles about that definition, it is still a poem most poets would be happy to claim as one of theirs.  It was "Prufrock" that attracted the attention of another  - already successful - American expat - Ezra Pound.

These two characters, Toto Merumeni and J. Alfred Profrock, are decidedly older than their  fledging creators (Prufrock worries that women will ridicule him for his baldness) but both share a wariness in the face of material progress accompanied as it is by changes in social relations, not least between women and men.  If no one has yet done a doctoral thesis comparing these two poems...

My favorite catch-all definition of free verse  has been attributed to the Englishman Richard Aldington (1916) who described it  a based on cadence, that is  "(I)t is the sense of perfect balance of flow and rhythm.  Not only must the syllables so fall as to increase and continue the movement, but the whole poem must be as rounded and recurring as the circular swing of a balanced pendulum."   That last bit really ups the ante on a poet.  While Eliot admired, with some reservations, Walt Whitman's versification, he was deeply moved by the example of Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), a short-lived poet (Laforgue was born in Uruguay to French expatriates but moved to France as a child). Laforgue was the first French translator of Walt Whitman so there is simpatico at work here.  Both the Symbolists and the Impressionist schools of French poetry have argued over  custody pf Laforgue for several times longer than Laforgue's own life.

As for our two imaginary gentlemen,  they appear like the Roman god Janus, fated to look both ways, to the future and the past.

1. Fortunato Depero - Cavalcata Fantastica, 1920, prate collection - Geneva, courtesy Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2. Umberto Boccioni - Visioni simultanee (Simultaneous vision), 1912, Van der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal.

02 January 2018

A Thousand And One Nights - More Or Less


           THE SWALLOWS
in refreshing capes of black satin
they're typing out the new aubade
daybreak just dictated

             WHAT FUN
to see how the gasping train
climbs the ladder of frail ties
to get to the mouth of the tunnel
and be sucked in like a licorice stick

I'm queasy this evening
bring me on of those 7-colored
cocktails like they drink in Paris
I wanna go somewhere over the rainbow

  --- three poems by Farfa, translated from the Italian by Fred Chappell, from The FSG Book Of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux: 2012.

Stile Liberty, as Art Nouveau was called in Italy, began more or less as a movement in decorative arts that proved too delectable to be ignored by painters or poets.  The English had adopted the French term nouveau from the French, the Italians borrowed the name of  Liberty Prints from the English- each thought they had coined the better name for an all-encompassing phenomenon.  What is obvious is that the Italian style was more colorful than its northern cousins, and that color lent itself to movement more than to languor.  Not to mention smiles and a sly joke or two.

Farfa was the  nome di arte of Vittorio Ossvaldo Tommasino, a polymath from Trieste (1879-1964) Futurist who made poetry, pottery, and paintings.   These short poems, as translated by the American Fred Chappelle,   are typical of the Futurist aesthetic,  wringing irony out of compression.  He died - accounts differ - after being hit by a car or  a motorcycle, not bad for someone who was named a "national champion" of Futurist poetry in 1932.

Discouraged by  the drabness and lack of imagination he encountered at the Venetian Art Academy, Vittorio Zecchin took an eight year detour as a civil servant, before having a second try at the art life.  It took five years (1909-14) and a dozen panels to complete the commission for The Thousand And One Nights, Zecchin's interpretation of the story of Aladdin.    Intended for the lobby of the aptly named Hotel Terminus, the ensemble was split up by the upheavals of  war.  Zecchin wisely set up his own hybrid laboratory/gallery where he could pursue painting, tapestry, and glass-making all at once and without interference.  Zecchin's stylistic debt to Gustav Klimt needs no underlining at this point.
Recently the Musee d'Orsay in Paris was fortunate to acquire one of the panels (above) however, like Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series (MoMA - NYC and The Philips Collection-Washington, DC) it remains split, some pieces in private collections and some at Ca'Pesaro in Venice,

Vittorio Zecchin - The Thousand and One Nights, 1914, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

25 December 2017


 "No matter what Vermeer may suggest or summarize of the outer world or invite the spectator to imagine, wisdom begins and ends in the room, conceived as a cube of shining space in which the figures and their transitory actions seem forever suspended in light." - Frederick Hartt, in A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall: 1993.

Even bad Presidents make good appointments.  When Warren G. Harding, the scandal-prone 29th President of the United States, appointed Andrew W. Mellon to be his Secretary of Treasury in 1921, he was looking for someone to rationalize the recently instituted national income tax system through something Mellon called "scientific taxation."   He did not bargain for Mellon, the art collector, who used his tenure at the Treasury Department to lay the foundation for a national gallery of art, to be located in the nation's capitol, and to fill it with his personal collection of Old Masters (Rembrandt, Van Dyke, Botticelli - and Vermeer), to go to the nation at his death.   Mellon and, ultimately, all of us, benefited from his perspicacity  in choosing his friend Henry Clay Frick to advise him on the finer points of assembling a collection.  His choice to purchase Vermeer's Girl With A Red Hat from the Knoedler Gallery in 1925 was entirely his own.  Mellon fell in love with the little painted panel just as countless others have before and since; he hung it in an intimate place of honor over his piano.

Although not so obviously based on the delicate glazes that mesmerize viewers of Girl With A Pearl Earring, their cunning use in Girl With A Red Hat harmonizes the muted colors of the tapestry that provides the background for the young woman in her theatrical red hat.   And what a hat the artist makes it: feathery strokes of orange shade gradually to vermillion, the underside of the hat definitely deep purple, reflecting light onto her face through flecks of white paint.  This is what luminance does, it makes us see light where it is not but ought to be. Luminance is the term of art for the relative brightness that enables us to interpret three-dimensional space in two dimensional representations.   

In his own lifetime Vermeer (1632-1675) was a moderately successful painter although his portraits and other commissions were sorely stretched to support the fifteen children Johan and his wife Catharina produced.  So it may be unsurprising that no documents in Vermeer's own words have come down to us.    Considering the silliness of some of the speculations that have been committed to paper about the origins of Vermeer's paintings, critics might do better to follow Vermeer's own example.

Johannes Vermeer - Girl With A Red Hat, c. 1665, dimensions: 9 1/8 x 7 1/8, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

21 November 2017

Stagedoom: A Caprice By Bob Thompson

"El si pronuncian y la mano alargan/
Al primero que llega."

"They swear to be faithful yet marry the first man who proposes."
Sometimes the way in to a picture begins with an emotional frisson.  Aesthetic appreciation or  historical underpinnings may add layers to the experience but the visceral response never lets go.   Stagedoom by Bob Thompson (1937-1966), one of several works the artist made  based on Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos of 1795-97, is that kind of work.  

In Goya's original (below), all the participants are morally compromised, from the nubile woman offering herself to the highest bidder and the church fathers who guide her, to the watching crowd.   Thompson made significant alterations to the image for Stagedoom.   Her nakedness emphasizes the young woman's vulnerability at the same time that the mask she wears dehumanizes her by hiding her facial expression.  The priests offer no comfort; their teachings imprison her.  And who could doubt the evil intentions of the hovering bird-like creatures, a frequent feature in Thompson's paintings.  The smiling death's head gives the game away.

Stagedoom, painted in 1962, the year Thompson visited Spain, exhibits a marked understanding of  the painful road to womanhood with its potential for physical and emotional violation.   In Goya's acerbic prints, Thompson recognized "the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual " he had experienced during his Kentucky childhood.
In an alternative  history of post-war art the paintings of Bob Thompson  would occupy a prominent place.  Though only thirty-nine when he died from a heroin overdose, Thompson (1937-1966) left behind more than a thousand paintings and drawings.   Based in New York during the 1960s when the city was the undisputed center of the art world, he was also close to avant-garde jazz musicians Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden, whose likenesses appeared in his works.

Stagedoom, while typical of  the intimate scale of Thompson's watercolors,  also shows the influences of Abstract Expressionism and  the  saturated colors of Pop Art.  Unlike Andy Warhol, whose appropriation of advertising images constituted a poke in the eye to all but a knowing few when they were made, Bob Thompson worked in utter, bold seriousness.   The artists he revered, Piero della Francesca, Titian, and Nicolas Poussin, all masters of classical European art,  gave him a symbolic vocabulary.  Their compositions provided Thompson a ready scaffolding for his technicolor nightmares of human and animal  interactions,   illustrating the varieties of human folly, as Goya had.

I began to think, my god, I look at Poussin and think he's got it all there.  Why are all these people running around trying to be original when they should just go ahead and be themselves and that's the originality of it all...You can't draw a new form... [the] human figure almost encompasses every form there is...it hit me that why don't I work with these things that are already there...because that is what I respond to most of all.” - Bob Thompson
I think...painting should be like the theater, a presentation of something...To relate, like painters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance... painters were employed to educate the people...they could walk into a cathedral, look at the wall and see what was happening...I am not specifically trying to do that...I have much more freedom, but in a certain way, I am trying to show what' happening, what's going on,,,in my own private way.” - Bob Thompson

1. Bob Thompson - Stagedoom, 1962,  opaque watercolor and charcoal on woven paper, approximately 21 x 18 inches, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
2. Francisco Goya - El si pronuncian y la mano alargan, plate number 2 from Los Caprichos, c. 1795-97,  intaglio print, Brooklyn Museum.

07 November 2017

Bacchus In Autumn

What a melancholy sight Bacchus and  his four sleepy little satyrs make on a cold November day.   The enigmatic smile on his face resembles no one so much as the Mona Lisa.  The party's over and even morning's coming light is low.   Until March, when the Maenads will gather to celebrate with rituals of wine and  liberation.  As for the ice crystals on the grapes, they suggest this early morning followed a night of serious drinking.  

This Bacchus was sculpted in lead and gilded with plomb dore by the Marsy Brothers according to a design by Charles Le Brun, court painter to Louis XIV, a man the king described  as "the greatest French artist of all time."  And who would dare to argue with a king?   Be that as it may, the quartet of fountains depicting the four seasons were among the glories of the first progress of  water features to be installed at Versailles.  If Bacchus was a god of excess, Louis XIV was his fervent acolyte.  Fully a third of the cost of the improvements to Versailles was spent on the waterworks to supply its fifty fountains. And the town that gave the palace its name has been the sole supplier of water ever since.  Thanks to Louis XIV,  water is a recurring problem at Versailles to this day; the fountains can be turned on for visitors only one Sunday each month.

The Marsy brothers, Balthazar (c. 1624-1681) and Gaspard (1628-1674) were among dozens of sculptors employed by Louis XIV.   Along with the fountain of Bacchus (Autumn), they executed Basins for Flora (Spring), Ceres (Summer), and Saturn (winter).

Like the devastation Jupiter rained down on the giants who attempted to storm Mount Olympus, a hurricane swooped down on the palace  of the Sun King on Christmas night of 1999.  Morning revealed that some 100,000 trees had been felled including many of the oldest  specimens dating from the 17th century.    Initial fears that the gardens would never recover were proved untrue thanks to heroic  efforts by the French government, led by an army of helicopters that landed even before power could be restored.  And then, just as in the Sun King's day, once again Versailles became a construction sight, full of dirt and noise.

For his stewardship of the restoration, Alain Baraton, head gardener of Versailles then and now, received so many awards from a grateful nation that he wrote "I have more decorations than a Christmas tree."  Baraton's memoir of his life in the world's "grandest garden" was a best seller in France and its charm is evident in translation.   A middle child in a family of seven children, Baraton did not excel at school;  he recalls his time at horticultural school as being more servitude than liberation.  An impromptu visit to Versailles in the summer of 1976 resulted in the dream job he hadn't even imagined: gardener to the Gods.

For furthers reading:
1. Alain Baraton - The Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World's Grandest Garden,  translated by Christopher Brent Murray, New York, Rizzoli: 2014.
2. Thomas Hedin, The Sculpture of Gaspard and Balthazar Marsy, Columbia (University of Missouri Press) 1983.
1.: Jean-Baptiste Leroux - Le bassin de Bacchus en automne -Chateau de Versailles,  c.1672-75, photo from the collection of Jean-Baptiste Leroux, Paris.
2.  Thomas Garnier -  Le Bassin de Bachus - no date given, Grand Palais, Paris.

02 November 2017

Linda Nochlin Looked At Art. Art Looked Back.

Kathleen Gilje's Linda Nochlin in Manet's Bar at the Olympia is a  tribute to a great historian that is as layered as Manet's original; a young woman stands in the public eye, meeting the gaze of all comers.  As an aspiring scholar, Nochlin looked beyond the popular Impressionists to their forebears, the Realists,  who offered a revolutionary reinterpretation of art history:  'II faut etre de son temps' [“It is necessary to be of one’s time.”]   In her studies of the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Nochlin saw more than just a magnificent recording eye  but more, an encyclopedic knowledge of visual prototypes.  Like Courbet, Nochlin would make her mark on history by reinventing it.   Gilje began her career as a conservator at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples Italy. From restoration to reinterpretation seemed a natural progression; her 'revised' version of Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Wedding would bring a smile to the face of all but the most hardened aesthetic sensibilities.   

She was born Linda Weinberg to a family of secular Jewish intellectuals living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And  lucky to grow up just as New York City was becoming the center of the art world, usurping the place long held by Paris, then recovering from the twin devastations of war and Nazi occupation.   Vassar College, even in 1947, was no artistic backwater on the Hudson; its campus galleries were hung with paintings by artists as various of Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Georgia O'Keeffe, Kay Sage, Florine Stettheimer and Veira da Silva.   Just as important for a developing aesthetic awareness was the presence on campus of women teachers and the school's brilliant background as a feminist institution.

When Nochlin posed the question "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?"  in Art News (January, 1971), she was already moving beyond its stated premise toward  a visioon more complex and more exciting than any previously dared.  Nochlin knew that she was creating a new version of art history that would require new materials as much or more than a new theory

Nochlin, together with Ann Sutherland Harris, curated Women Artists 1550-1950, an exhibition that premiered at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1976, followed by a satisfying appearance on Nochlin's home turf at the Brooklyn Museum  the following year.  If ever an exhibition deserved to be called earth-shaking,  this was it.  The doubters were forced to take notice. "The history of Western art will never be the same again" wrote John Perrault in Soho Weekly.     Even the reflexively misogynistic Robert Hughes, averred called it "one of the most significant thematic shows to come along in years."  Museums that had been asked to loan works for the exhibition began to brnig them out of storage for display more often after Women Artists was so enthusiastically received by critics and public alike.

Her interest in  history made artist Deborah Kass  alert to the ways Linda Nochlin turned art upside down and gave it a salutary shake.    A cursory look at images from The Warhol Project might lead the viewer to include Deborah Kass in the category of art appropriators that Andy Warhol  perfected with his Brillo Boxes.  In place of Warhol's cool detachment, Kass offers up heartfelt admiration for her subjects.  Orange Disaster - Linda Nochlin is, like others in The Warhol Project,  a series of variations on her chosen theme; its title is Kass's smiling critique of Andy Warhol's dead-ended irony.  One person's disaster becomes another's  turn of the world. Thank you, Linda Nochlin.

Read an obituary for Linda Nochlin (1931-2017) at New York Times.

For further reading:
Realism by Linda Nochlin, New York, Penguin Press: 1971.
Women, Art and Power by Linda Nochlin, New York HarperCollins: 1988.
Bathers, Bodies, Beauty: the visceral eye by Linda Nochlin, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press: 2006.
Courbet by Linda Nochlin, New York, Thames & Hudson: 2007.

1. Kathleen Gilje - Linda Nochlin in Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergere, 2005, courtesy of the artist.
2. Deborah Kass  - Orange Disaster - Linda Nochlin, 1997, Paul Kasmin Gallery, NYC.

22 October 2017

Harry Van Der Weyden: An American Tonalist Abroad

The first question most art-minded people ask about Harry Van der Weyden (1868-1952) is whether he was descended from the great Flemish painter Rogier Van der Weyden (c. 1399-1464).  Art historians answer with a resounding  "Maybe."
He was born in Boston, won a scholarship to the Slade School in London at age nineteen, and studied at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1890-1891.  Until World War I, he lived near Etaples  at Montreuil-sur-Mer on the Normandy coast.  During the war Van der Weyden worked as a camouflage officer with the British Royal Engineers from 1916 to 1918 when Etaples was a major transit point and storage depot for the British.  He died in London in 1952. Most of Van der Weyden's paintings are in private collections and tonalism, although a small part of his work, showed him at his best.
The sun was almost below the horizon on the evening in 1898 that Van der Weyden set out to paint.   In the shadow of the cliffs at left,  two men anchor a boat while another man rows toward shore and into  the shadows. Looking closely, you find a varied palette of tones has went into the making of this lavender-blue image.  The affinity with early photography is obvious in tonalism's monochromatic effects.  James McNeill Whistler and George Inness are the two American artists best known for their atmospheric paintings (and in Whistler's case, also prints).

For further reading, visit a review of the exhibition  American Tonalism
Image: Harry Van Der Weyden - Landscape, 1898, Museum of Franco-American Cooperation, Blerancourt.

08 October 2017

The Georgics: Charles Daubigny & Childe Hassam

This little beauty, Sunrise-Autumn  by Childe Hassam (1859-1935), is not in a museum but how well it would look paired with one that is - Charles-Francois Daubigny's Fields in the Month of June at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University.  At the time he painted Sunrise-Autumn Hassam  was still a young artist under the influence of the Barbizon School, fresh from his first trip abroad in 1882 and not yet ready to immerse himself in study in Paris at the Academie Julian.  In contrast, the Daubigny comes from the last years of a long, successful career, one that has been curiously overlooked until the recent exhibition Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape.

I had never thought much about Daubigny until I saw Fields in the Month of June.  But there it was and I came to relish the times I sat on a bench in front of it, absorbing it or being absorbed into it, the light coming down from a window high above, my own personal floating world of meadows and agriculture, made seamless by the drive to Ithaca through other similar meadows.  It hardly matters whether Hassam painted his meadow in England or the United States, any more than that Daubigny's meadow is French; there is something charming and familiar in this vision of agriculture as human handwriting on the land.

From a family of artists, Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878) had his first lessons at home with his father.   Like Hassam after him, Daubigny apprenticed with an engraver; indeed his first exhibited works were prints.  His attentiveness to landscape was intensified by the year Daubigny spent with his friend Jules Breton aboard Le Botin, a houseboat converted into a movable studio; the two artists floated along the rivers of northern France, the Seine the Marne, and the Oise, on a matchless  peripatetic painting trip.

Without Daubigny, the man who inspired Claude Monet to establish a studio in 1872, the development of Impressionism would have been different.  In his day, Daubigny's landscapes were often dismissed as "mere impressions" for his use of rapid brushstrokes and his preference for capturing fleeting aspects of light. Theophile Gauthier, the author doubling as critic lamented, "His pictures are no more than sketches barely begun."   Understanding backward, the specialty of art historians, we now think of Daubigny and his cohort as being more romantic and less naturalistic  than they did themselves while it is the Impressionists who are considered more objective because of what we have since learned about visual perception.

You can read The Georgics by Virgil, courtesy of MIT.

1. Childe Hassam - Sunrise - Autumn, 1884, oil on canvas, 12in. x 18in., Sullivan Goss: An American Art Gallery, Santa Barbara.
2. Charles-François Daubigny, Fields in the Month of June, 1874, oil on canvas,  88in. x 53in., Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca, NY.