Modern Art – Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Tue, 09 Jul 2019 01:51:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Modern Art – Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Enough for a Lifetime Thu, 02 May 2019 00:32:02 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Carl Holty, a bridge between European modernism and the American art scene of the ’60s and ’70s, found original solutions to some of the deepest problems in abstract painting.

Carl Holty, Flowering, 1961

Carl Holty, Flowering, 1961, oil on canvas, 37 x 32 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Carl Holty, Flowering, 1961 Carl Holty, Ascending, mid-1950s Carl Holty, Russet, 1966

To call someone “an artist’s artist” is generally considered to be damning with faint praise, but in the case of the abstract painter Carl Holty, it is both literally true and in no way derogatory. Born in 1900, Holty started doing important work in the 1930s but really came into his own during the ’50s. His best paintings were made during the ’60s and early ’70s, right up until his death in 1973. Throughout all these decades of steady work, Holty never found fame with the general public, but he was held in extremely high regard by his peers—for his artistic achievement first and foremost, but also for his efforts as a theorist and teacher to define the nature of modern painting and, not least, for his genial and unselfish collegiality.

His friend and fellow artist George L. K. Morris recalled his first encounter with Holty, at the 1936 meeting in New York at which the American Abstract Artists group was founded. During the ’30s, abstract art had a hard row to hoe in this country, due to the dominance of social realism and the more figurative aspects of Surrealism. Those artists who wanted to work in a purely abstract mode felt the need to band together for mutual support and to promote their ideas. Morris later wrote, “It soon became apparent that Holty provided just what the organization needed. Although complete as an artist, he was by nature pragmatic—he had no patience with nebulous comments. In other respects he was also unique; many of the New York abstractionists of that period—for good reason—were suffused with perpetual Weltschmerz. Not Carl Holty, who seemed possessed of a native buoyancy. I never saw him shy or retiring; he always had a way of countering negativism with some pertinent anecdote.”

Holty’s own life could furnish the materials for many an anecdote. While, as a Midwesterner, hailing from Milwaukee, he might seem provincial with respect to the New York art world he inhabited, in fact he was a very cosmopolitan man. During the 1920s and early ’30s he lived and studied in Germany and France, absorbing the principles and practices of modern art at its source. His background also opens a window onto a lost world of vibrant German-American culture that was still very deeply connected to the Old World. Holty’s father had emigrated from Germany to Milwaukee, which was then home to one of the biggest German communities in the U.S. There, he worked first as an actor in the German-language theater and then became a medical doctor. In 1899, in search of more medical training, he took his family back to Germany, which was, in the years before World War I, a destination for seekers of scientific and artistic education from all over the world. In the city of Freiburg, the next year, Carl was born. When the future painter was less than a year old, the Holty family returned to Wisconsin.

As a boy in Milwaukee, Holty used to go on walks and errands with his grandfather, and on one of those occasions, when he was 10, they wandered into the Layton Art Gallery (its collection is now incorporated into that of the Milwaukee Art Museum). Holty recalled, “When we turned to our right and entered the first picture gallery my emotional reaction was almost frightening. I believe that my hand reached out for my grandfather’s because he asked me if something was wrong. Nothing was wrong, but everything about that day and all other days had been transformed, and I had my first glimpse of what was to be the medium of the most real sensations of my life.” Of that encounter, Holty also said, on another occasion, “This is the day I would say I was born.”

A few years later, in 1914, Holty got his first exposure to modern art when a group of 100 Cubist paintings from Paris were exhibited in Milwaukee thanks to Gimbel’s department store, which commissioned the works for a U.S. tour in the wake of the 1913 Armory Show. By then he was taking private art lessons and painting constantly in the attic of his family’s house. After high school graduation, Holty studied art—in the traditional academic way, with much copying of casts of Greek and Roman sculpture—at the Milwaukee Normal School; his teacher there was Gustave Moeller, who had been a fellow art student, some 20 years earlier in Milwaukee, of Edward Steichen. At the age of 20, Holty left for New York, where he spent two years studying at the Parsons School of Design and the National Academy of Design. After a few years back in Milwaukee supporting himself with portrait commissions, Holty received a family bequest that enabled him to live independently for the following 25 years. With this money, he went to Munich, Germany, in 1926, to study with Hans Hofmann, the great teacher of modernism who would eventually come to America and whose influence spans several generations of artists on both sides of the Atlantic.

While studying with Hofmann, Holty mastered a precise, structured style, based on the reduction of forms and elements of space to geometric shapes, that remained dominant in his work until the 1950s. In 1930, he moved to Paris. There he befriended Robert Delaunay, whose Orphic school espoused an intensely color-based type of abstraction. Through Delaunay, Holty was invited to join an international cenacle called the Abstraction-Creation group, whose members included such luminaries as Theo van Doesburg, Jean Hélion, Albert Gleizes, and Jean Arp. The only other American in the group was Alexander Calder. The influences from van Doesburg and Mondrian’s Neoplasticism and other “non-objective” currents absorbed in Paris led to Holty’s leaving virtually all references to nature and the external world behind by the mid-1930s.

In 1936 Holty was back in New York, which would be his base from then on—although he returned to Milwaukee at regular intervals throughout his life. It was in that year that he co-founded American Abstract Artists; as an emissary from the avant-garde of Europe and an accomplished practitioner of hard-edged geometric abstraction, he naturally had the standing to do so. His fellow members included Morris, Albert E. Gallatin, Josef Albers, Burgoyne Diller, Ibram Lassaw, Giorgio Cavallon, and Ilya Bolotowsky. The AAA’s formation was partly motivated by outrage at the fact that MoMA’s 1936 exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art” included almost no Americans.

Paradoxically, after his heroic efforts for the cause of abstraction, during the early 1940s Holty allowed figuration to return to his compositions. His paintings from this period seem haunted by the recurring figures of a horse and rider, which must have had a deep psychic resonance for him. He felt that there was a necessary awkwardness in this imagery, and wrote, by way of explanation or justification, “We will struggle long before we arrive at a complete new imagery…and our work will perhaps have a fanciful character for a long while, but its indistinctness will be like the shadows on the wall from Plato’s fire. The images that cast the shadows cannot yet be discerned.”

After again abandoning figuration as a dead end, Holty continued to search for the “images that cast the shadows” in other ways. The late ’40s and early ’50s saw him experimenting with an “all-over” style using tiny recurring formal elements like tesserae, and striving for greater and greater flatness—a preoccupation at the time of both painters and critics, notably Clement Greenberg. “Every bit of ‘background’ must be dissolved,” wrote Holty, “and brought into two dimensional equilibrium with the forms and lines invented.” His canvases from this period seek solutions to the same problems of space, structure, and form as before, but with a painterly rather than a hard-edged approach.

In 1957, Holty had a breakthrough that led to the last and greatest phase of his work. He began working with thinned-out washes of color, which allowed him to express himself in a more lyrical, contemplative way. It was as if a Romantic spirit had enlivened the Classical rigor of his former hard-edged, analytic abstraction. And while figuration did not reappear, Holty’s abstract paintings from this time on must be seen in reference to nature, a source of inspiration that the artist associated with his Wisconsin roots. Light coming through clouds, various colors of the sky, and even suggestions of rural landscapes can clearly be seen—albeit very much abstracted—in his later paintings. This interest in nature put Holty at odds with some of his earlier associates and mentors; in a theoretical book called The Painter’s Eye (1969), Holty and his co-author and friend Romare Bearden wrote, “Mondrian like Kandinsky, whom he detested, fell into the same trap—namely, to destroy the memory of the world as seen and sensed.” In his last body of work, Holty was painting at many removes from sight and sense, neither literally nor even metaphorically; but he was painting, in a very subtle way, the memories or psychic traces of the experiences of seeing and sensing.

Bearden described his friend’s method of working during the 1960s—placing the canvas in a horizontal position so that the washes of diluted paint, applied with big house-painting brushes, wouldn’t drip downward, and then walking around the canvas to check the composition from all sides, because “Holty’s composition depended on an interpenetration of color planes from each side of the canvas, as opposed to the usual method of planes moving in varying approximations of depth from a frontal position.”

Despite an early start and exposure to the best minds at a formative age, Holty had to wait a long time before all the elements coalesced into an art that fully satisfied him. While he created strong and distinctive work throughout his career, he is an example—J.M.W. Turner is another—of the liberation that comes with “late work.” With certain creators, age brings not declining powers but the ability to relax into spontaneity and make a surprising new statement. And no wait is too long. As Holty himself put it, “If the problem is solved in a lifetime, why that is soon enough.”

By John Dorfman

Pierre Bonnard: Warm Color Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:07:37 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A sweeping exhibition at the Tate Modern reintroduces Pierre Bonnard as a great painter of the 20th century.

Pierre Bonnard, Coffee (Le Café), 1915

Pierre Bonnard, Coffee (Le Café), 1915, oil paint on canvas, 730 x 1064 mm;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Pierre Bonnard, Window Open on the Seine (Vernon) (Fenêtre ouverte sur la Seine (Vernon)), 1911-12 Pierre Bonnard, The Garden (Le Jardin) , 1936 Pierre Bonnard, Dining Room in the Country, 1913 Andre Ostier, Pierre Bonnard, 1941 Pierre Bonnard, Coffee (Le Café), 1915

In 1911, Pierre Bonnard bought a flashy car. The French painter was entering his mid-40s, and he had experienced nearly 15 years of success in the art world. In the previous year alone he had shown in several cities throughout Europe, completed four panels for pianist and woman-about-town Misia Sert, and started a triptych for Russian collector Ivan Morosov. The Renault 11 CV, which Bonnard had painted pale yellow, was an uncharacteristically ostentatious purchase for the notoriously shy artist but, it could be argued, a well-earned one. So was the small home in Normandy he purchased—“Ma Roulotte” as he called it—which was in Vernonnet, close to Vernon and Claude Monet’s house in Giverny, which he frequently visited.

But there’s a stereotype about men who buy flashy cars in their mid-40s (though in these early days of motoring it may not have crystallized yet). And though it may be a leap to claim Bonnard was going through a mid-life crisis, he was definitely undergoing a change during this period. He had entered the Parisian art world of the 1890s at the height of Post-Impressionism. A member of the group Les Nabis, he and comrades like Édouard Vuillard and Félix Vallotton created a cutting-edge style of painting that melded the graphic, decorative elements of Art Nouveau and Japanese prints with cues from late Gauguin and the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. But by 1910, as Cubism and other movements like Abstraction and Expressionism were captivating the avant-garde, the work of Bonnard and Les Nabis, though still appreciated for its beauty, had begun to feel old-fashioned. Reflecting on the period when Cubism, and later Surrealism, swept into the studios and salons of Paris, recalibrating the direction of painting, Bonnard would say that he, Vuillard and Vallotton “found themselves suspended in mid-air in some way.”

In 1912, reinvigoration came not through a zippy automobile (though probably it helped) but through a shift in his approach to painting. Bonnard gave himself over to an exploration of color that manifested on canvas as an exuberantly sensory, almost sublime experience. In still lifes and domestic interiors, his mastery of color and light imbued the objects and spaces of daily life with emotion and intensity. Lest he become entirely swept away by color—a tendency Bonnard himself acknowledged—he launched headlong into an indefatigable drawing practice. His sketches served as the genesis for his large-scale paintings, which he developed slowly over time, often working on several at once. Memory served as his primary source material, and he painted objects—often his own; figures—often his wife; and interiors—often his home—from recollection. As a result, his compositions grew less and less literal, his perspectives more disorienting, and his work more spectral. The paintings from this second period of Bonnard’s oeuvre seem almost like a collection of dreams.

“Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory”, a sweeping exhibition that opened late last month at the Tate Modern, focuses on Bonnard’s output between 1912 and his death in 1947. The show makes the case that the work from this period cements Bonnard as a great 20th-century painter with modern sensibilities. It is an important point to argue, as Bonnard’s reputation has been under scrutiny for decades. Pablo Picasso said, “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard. That’s not painting, what he does,” and insisted he wasn’t “really a modern painter.” Shortly after Bonnard’s death, Christian Zervos, the Greek-French art critic, who was close to Picasso, famously wrote the scathing article “Pierre Bonnard: Is He a Great Painter?” in his magazine Cahiers d’Art. The question in the article’s title was answered in the negative and it shaped a long-held view of Bonnard’s work—that he was either a painter who held on to Impressionism far too long, or worse.

In 1910, before Bonnard changed his work or bought his car, Guillaume Apollinaire, poet and high priest of the early 20th-century avant-garde, also called Bonnard’s modernity into question. “I like Bonnard’s painting very much. It is simple, sensual, witty in the best sense of the word,” he said. “It is true that my taste in general leans towards more ambitious painters, toward painters who are straining towards the sublime in plasticity.” What the Tate exhibition posits is that Bonnard was in fact an ambitious painter, though perhaps not in the same way Picasso or the nameless foils to which Apollinaire was referring or any other great artists of the early 20th century were.

The Tate has been advocating “slow looking” in the lead-up to its exhibition, which puts 100 important works on view. Bonnard’s paintings warrant close examination to be fully grasped, the museum insists—a potentially harrowing assignment for the ever-shrinking attention spans of museum-goers today. But Bonnard’s paintings really do merit meditation, if not to adjust to their flurries of intense color than to discern surreptitious objects and emotions. In Dining Room in the Country, a 1913 oil on canvas that comes to the exhibition from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, objects, figures, even shadows and light take a while to appear to the viewer. Its colors—the reds and oranges of the walls, the light blues of the door that are washed with the iridescent yellows and greens of the outdoor light, the verdant greens of the landscape seen through the window and doorway—seem to vibrate off the canvas, overcoming the eye at first. Its perspective, flattened in the style of Japonisme, make it hard to notice the two cats on the dining chair and armchair, and the curtain behind the shutter that flows to the ground in an intricate web of shapes that look like cut-outs melting into each other. The figure, Bonnard’s wife, Marthe, does not fully register at first. Clad in a tomato-colored top, she leans on the opened window from the outside. It is through Marthe that we can feel Bonnard in the image. When her gaze meets the viewer’s casually, if a bit crabbily, it registers that she is looking at Bonnard and that we inhabit his view. “Are we done yet?” she seems to ask, which is funny because Bonnard would be painting from memory, not a staged sitting. The interior’s forms—the ovoid table, the rectangular door, the squared window—coalesce in a sort of geometric dance, opening out to the landscape, an Eden of Impressionist brush strokes. If the interior and Marthe are Bonnard’s memory, the landscape is another: the memory of what painting was in late 19th-century France.

The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said Picasso “had no tenderness”—that’s how he described the Spanish artist’s dislike for Bonnard. Though Bonnard’s domestic interiors and portrayals of Marthe do at times exude tenderness, they are often cut with a sense of strange familiarity, or melancholy, or even fragility. Marthe, whom the artist met in 1893 and with whom he stayed until her death in 1942, appears in over 300 of Bonnard’s works. She serves as a conduit at times, interjecting humanity or acting as a sort of mirror or guide, and other times appears as just a part of the landscape, a figure around the house.

Bonnard became known for his depictions of women bathing, with some of the most famous picturing Marthe in or around the bathtub, as in Bathing Woman, Seen from the Back (circa 1919), Nude Bending Down (1923), and Nude in the Bath (1925). The Bath (Baignoire [Le Bain]), a 1925 oil on canvas, is in the Tate’s collection. It shows Marthe lying in the bath, from above. Though she would have been in her 50s at the time of its painting, Marthe is depicted as a young woman, her fair skin and soft body seemingly tinged blue with bathwater. As she cranes her neck slightly in the curvature of the tub, her gaze projects forward, hitting, one imagines, her feet, which are only partially pictured. Though at first the intimacy of the image may impart a sense of tenderness, there is also a sense of sorrow. Marthe was known to spend hours in the bathroom, a habit that has led scholars to posit she suffered from tuberculosis (water therapy was used as a popular treatment) or spells of anxiety. Her position in the bath, coupled with the removal of the tub’s edges has often elicited a comparison to a body lying in a tomb. Nude in the Bath (Nu dans le bain), was painted over 10 years later (1936–38) but also has then sense of a body lying in state. Marthe, though her dark hair is more of a rust color, has the same young body—even the curvature of her stomach and her navel look the same. Offering a wider view of the bathroom, Nude in the Bath, is awash in glittering, intricate color. The deep marine blue of the floor’s tiles mix with flecks of gold, and evening light paints the walls of the room orange, violet, and yellow.

Among these familiar images in the show, are two that are rarely shown: A Village in Ruins near Ham, painted in 1917, and The Fourteenth of July, painted in 1918, providing different views of World War I. The exhibition marks the first time the paintings have been together in the United Kingdom since they were painted 100 years ago. It is rare to see Bonnard handle subject matter that has a sense of social or political bearing, but the two works, with their views of both battle and celebration, reveal the impression the war made on the artist.

During World War I, Bonnard was 47 and thus, like Matisse, Vuillard, and other artists of his generation, too old to serve on the front lines. Instead, Bonnard joined Missions d’artistes aux armées, which took artists to conflict zones in order to capture the imagery of war. Bonnard was stationed in Somme, and his painting A Village in Ruins Near Ham showcases the destruction he saw in nearby Ham. His canvas shows the town razed to the ground, dotted by a line of soldiers whose bodies form an intricate chain. A Red Cross vehicle is seen in the background, adding to the sense of hopelessness. By contrast, The Fourteenth of July, shows bodies massed together in a thick, jubilant quilt, while magic and merriment seem to float in the air. If A Village in Ruins Near Ham pictures something so dismal as to almost seem beyond death, The Fourteenth of July depicts life at its most lively. The painting showcases revelers on Bastille Day. Bonnard, placing his perspective in the heart of the action—in between dancing and hugging bodies and flickering lights—creates a perspective that seems unfixed, almost constantly in motion. Faces, though static on canvas, twirl, shout, appear and disappear. Everything is stretched and abstracted. It is, as Apollinaire might say, “straining towards the sublime.”

By Sarah E. Fensom

Moving to the Center Fri, 30 Nov 2018 03:46:14 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The art of Central America, long left out of the story of Latin American modernism, is getting new attention due to the efforts of two determined U.S. dealer-researchers.

Omar d’Leon, Las devoradoras, 1962

Omar d’Leon, Las devoradoras, 1962, oil on canvas;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Alejandro Aróstegui, Estrella fugaz, 1995 Omar d’Leon, Las devoradoras, 1962 Rafa Fernandez, Me busco, 2016 Benjamin Cañas, Scarce offering, 1980 Benigno Gomez, sin título / untitled

Central America is world-renowned for its Pre-Columbian art, but when it comes to modern art, the region has long been overshadowed by its neighbor Mexico as well as by South America. No discussion of Latin American modernism, however, can be complete without taking into the account the vibrant, culturally diverse creations of the six Central American countries—Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama. For North Americans—as for the global art world in general—knowledge about Central American modern art has been hard to come by, but a just-published book by two U.S. dealers and researchers, Mark Morgan Ford and Suzanne Brooks Snider, is about to make an important difference in that regard. Ford and Snider, who are partners in Ford Fine Art in Delray Beach, Fla., are launching their bilingual, lavishly illustrated volume, Central American Modernism/Modernismo en Centroamérica, at Pinta Miami, the Latin American art fair held at Mana Wynwood from December 5–9.

Ford, an entrepreneur and investor who has published many books on business strategy under the pen name of Michael Masterson, became fascinated by Latin American art because of a chance visit to the Southern California gallery of Bernard Lewin, a dealer and one of the most important collectors in the field (before his death in 2003, he and his wife donated over 2,000 works to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Initially focusing on Mexican artists, Ford was intrigued by the blending of influences in Latin American modern art—Native American cultural background, European classical traditions, and European and North American avant-garde modernism—and began putting together a collection of his own. He had business ventures in Central America and connected with Snider, who had lived in Costa Rica for several years and already had an interest in Central American art. Together, they conceived the idea of using their access to the region to promote and sell Central American modern art in the U.S. However, they soon found that the idea was more difficult to execute than they had expected.

While there are many great artists from Central America, the region has few museum holdings of modern and contemporary art and a small number of reputable commercial galleries. Much of the best modern art is in the private collections of wealthy families or in corporate art collections, most of which belong to banks. About eight years ago, Ford and Snider decided that in order to foster an international market for Central American modern art, it was necessary to spread knowledge about that art. In the course of their research, they found that there was no book that took in the art of the region as a whole, and so they decided to write one themselves. In order to do that, they needed to become deeply versed in the full range of Central American art, which entailed multiple trips to the countries to visit collections; interview historians, museum directors, dealers, collectors, artists, and artists’ families; and collect documents and photographs of artworks.

Despite the daunting nature of the task, Snider found the experience to be very rewarding. “What was good was that in every single country, I was welcomed,” she recalls, “because I was there on a mission to make the art of their country known. In homes—sometimes modest, sometimes elegant—always, always, people greeted me graciously.” Commenting on the differences among art-viewing opportunities in the various countries, she says, “El Salvador has a beautiful museum, the Museo Forma, where you can see the work of their masters. In Honduras, on the other hand, you have to go to a bank, and in Nicaragua they take the artwork from the rich and put it into government collections that they rarely let you into.” Eventually, Snider and Ford succeeded in buying enough Central American art to start the gallery in Delray Beach and another in Nicaragua. More recently, they’ve expanded the business by opening another gallery in Coral Cables, Fla.

Central American Modernism/Modernismo en Centroamérica reveals that the modern art of the region tends to reflect the political and social character of each country. The Pre-Columbian heritage is especially important in Guatemala and El Salvador—in the former, artists inspired by Maya art and architecture created monumental facades and bas reliefs for public buildings, while in the latter, indigenous myths transformed into modernist imagery instilled sense of the surreal. In Costa Rica, printmaking and sculpture were the most popular art media (think of the international fame of the sculptor Francisco Zúñiga), while Honduran art was informed by the nation’s ongoing search for a distinct identity. In Nicaragua, artistic modernism was closely tied to literary modernism, due to the influence of the late 19th–early 20th-century poet Rubén Darío, the founder of the school of Spanish poetry called modernismo. And in Panama, the U.S.-built canal has been a powerful presence, both literally and figuratively, in the nation’s modern art.

Central American modernism was born when local artists traveled to Europe and brought back what they had learned from avant-garde artists and critics there, combining these influences with indigenous iconography and themes from their national history. The European influence was key as far as modernism was concerned, because art instruction in Central America at the beginning of the 20th century was extremely conservative. For example, Nicaragua, as Snider and Ford point out in their book, was culturally isolated due to political instability, and through the 1930s, artists there adhered to late 19th-century standards that were an inheritance from colonialism, concentrating on realist landscape, portraiture, and still life.

The career of the Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida is emblematic of the formation of a distinct Central American modernism. After availing himself of the few artistic advantages the capital of Guatemala City could afford, in 1910 the young Mérida went to Paris. He stayed four years, during which he made the acquaintance of Picasso, Mondrian, and Modigliani, as well as of Mexican modernists who had preceded him there, including Diego Rivera and Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo). Having absorbed the lessons of Cubism and the School of Paris, Mérida returned to Guatemala, where he became deeply interested in indigenous art and culture—an interest that reflects the general orientation of the modernist avant-garde toward “primitive” art from various world cultures. In Mérida’s case, as with most Central American artists, that inspiration could be found at home, not in a museum of African and Oceanic tribal art, as for, say, Picasso. For Mérida, it was also a very personal quest, because he himself was partly of Mayan descent. He integrated indigenous materials into his art in a quite different way from that of Rivera and the Mexican muralist school; he did not just depict iconography and historical episodes but transformed them graphically according to the lessons of modernist abstraction that he had learned in Paris.

Mérida’s career prefigured the pattern followed by others, but modernism was later to arrive in the other Central American republics. The Nicaraguan artist Rodrigo Peñalba returned after two decades spent in the U.S., Mexico, Spain, and Italy, and became head of Nicaragua’s Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1948. He encouraged his students to integrate local subject matter and imagery with modernist formalism and academic traditionalism, and from this unique mixture evolved what is now known as Nicaraguan modern art. One of Peñalba’s students was Armando Morales, who went on to become the country’s most famous artist, internationally. Another of his students, Omar d’León, was not only an artist but an art impresario who founded a gallery in Managua, Museo Galería 904, that served as a meeting place for artists during the 1970s, in the years of the Sandinista revolution, which dramatically altered the Nicaraguan art world, promoting monumental, mural-oriented work.

Another Managua gallery, Galería Praxis, also had a major influence on the country’s art. Founded in the 1960s by the artist Alejandro Aróstegui, it was inspired by a concern for the working class and radical politics in general; the associated group of artists who called themselves Praxis took as their motto “action, dynamism, and a permanent state of restlessness.” Praxis was quite effective at getting foreign critics and art historians, including the New York Times’ John Canaday, to visit Nicaragua and see the artistic revolution for themselves.

The works found and brought to the wider public by Snider and Ford are extremely diverse in both style and subject. They range from the classic European-style abstraction of the Honduran Benigno Gómez to the more indigenously derived abstraction of the Guatemalan Rodolfo Abularach, the folkloric style of d’León, the expressionism of Peñalba, the bold graphics of the Costa Rican printmaker Francisco Amighetti, the brightly colored surrealism of the Salvadoran Benjamin Cañas, and the cave-art-inspired effects of the Panamanian Guillermo Trujillo. What they all share, though, is a uniquely Central American openness to influences from within and without, and the creativity to integrate those influences in a powerfully emotional art.

By John Dorfman

Ida O’Keeffe: Sister Act Wed, 24 Oct 2018 23:10:19 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition and new research shed light on the life and work of Ida O’Keeffe, sister of Georgia and an under-recognized modernist painter.

Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, Creation, date unknown

Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, Creation, date unknown, oil on canvas.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, Creation, date unknown Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, Variation on a Lighthouse Theme II, circa 1931–32 Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, Variation on a Lighthouse Theme IV, circa 1931–32 Alfred Stieglitz, Ida O’Keeffe, 1924

Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the best-known names in American modern art, maybe the best-known. Her sister Ida, on the other hand, is one of the least well-known. Only now, almost 60 years after her death, is her achievement as a painter and printmaker even beginning to be recognized in the world of art history. Instrumental in that reclamation process is an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art titled “Ida O’Keeffe” Escaping Georgia’s Shadow.” Organized by Sue Canterbury, the Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art at the DMA, it runs from November 18, 2018–February 24, 2019. Canterbury and her team followed every available thread, piecing together the fragments of a life that was often difficult and that in some ways still remains opaque. Beyond considering her art in detail, the exhibition’s catalogue is also the first biography of Ida O’Keeffe, which is appropriate given that the reasons why her art slipped into obscurity have a great deal to do with the circumstances of her life and her relationship with her famous sister.

Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe was born in Wisconsin in 1889, two years after Georgia. She was one of five O’Keeffe sisters, and there were also two brothers. In this large, competitive, culturally ambitious, and financial insecure family, Ida stood out as particularly independent and self-willed. She showed an early interest in drawing, coupled with talent. When she was 13, the O’Keeffes moved to Williamsburg, Va., where she went through high school, after which she attended some summer school courses at the University of Virginia, including drawing. From 1913–17 she taught drawing in elementary schools in rural districts of southwestern Virginia. When the U.S. entered World War I, Ida moved to New York, where Georgia and two of the other sisters were living, to study nursing and thereby help the war effort. This led to a somewhat intermittent career in nursing over the next decade.

It wasn’t until she was over 35 years old, in 1925, that Ida took up painting and decided to become a serious artist. Her inspiration came at least in part from seeing Georgia’s career take off, as well as from the time she and her sisters spent with the photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz—Georgia’s dealer, mentor, and eventually husband—at his summer home in Lake George, N.Y. Stieglitz flirted heavily with Ida, which made Georgia jealous and Ida uncomfortable. But he did recognize her skill at flower arranging, which she eventually transformed into floral still life painting. He also introduced Ida to a circle of artists and writers including the sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck and the critic Paul Rosenfeld, whom she came within a hair’s breadth of marrying.

In 1927, after about two years of dedicated painting, Ida had her first exhibition, in a group show of mostly women artists organized by Georgia at the well-named Opportunity Gallery in Manhattan. In order to avoid any appearance of nepotism, she dropped her surname and was listed in the catalogue as “Ida Ten Eyck.” The works she showed, which were straight-ahead realist still lifes for the most part and not particularly modernist in style, received some good notices, including one in the recently-launched New Yorker. But it was when she enrolled in the art program at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1929 that she truly came into her own as a modernist painter.

Ida’s teacher there was Charles James Martin, who had been a student of Arthur Wesley Dow. Martin espoused “essence rather than form” and “interpretation rather than faithful representation,” although he also emphasized the importance of geometry. After graduating in 1932, Ida spent time on Cape Cod, and there she encountered a subject that would serve as the basis for her most highly regarded body of work, the Lighthouse Series. The Highland Light at North Truro was built in 1797 and is a piece of New England history, but Ida, in a personal artistic breakthrough, made it into a beacon of modernism. Of the seven paintings she made of the lighthouse, only the first (now lost) was a literal depiction. In the rest, she recast the straight lines of the structure as curves, made the beams of light emanating from it seem as solid as the building itself, and took one maritime iconographic element—such as a seagull or a fish—and embedded it into the composition in a completely organic way. For colors, she used only black, white, blue, and yellow.

She explained her thinking as follows: “I developed the other pictures in an abstract way, experimenting with the power of color. With each progressive lighthouse, new colors and compositions were introduced, each one becoming more radiant in color and more complicated in composition.” She may also have used the method of Dynamic Symmetry, a system based on the Fibonacci series or “golden number” that was propounded by the Yale art professor Jay Hambidge during the 1920s and became quite influential. A fascinating chapter of the catalogue, by Francesca Soriano, is devoted to a computer analysis of the Lighthouse series that superimposes the geometric patterns of Dynamic Symmetry on the paintings, showing how well they fit.

The 1930s and ’40s were the high point of Ida’s career as an artist, during which she exhibited fairly widely. She painted in a variety of modes—modernist floral still life, American Scene-style regionalism, and even full abstraction, as in Creation, an astonishing work that synthesizes two- and three-dimensional geometric shapes and a palette of swirling, blending colors. Unlike her sister Georgia, however, she was never able to make a living from her art. Throughout her life, she cycled between nursing, teaching, writing, and painting, never achieving financial security. She moved around the country 13 times in search of work, eventually settling in Whittier, Calif., and this lack of stability also made it harder for her to gain traction as an artist. After her death in 1961, some of her works became lost; some ended up in thrift shops, and one of the great Lighthouse paintings was found at an antique flea market in Glendale, Calif.

The authors of the catalogue title their concluding section “If Only She Had Had a Stieglitz,” referring to the decisive effect that Stieglitz’s advocacy of Georgia’s work had on her career. By contrast, they write, “Ida’s life proves that exceptional talent and ambition don’t necessarily ensure success and acclaim for an artist.” In that era, for a woman artist in particular success in the art world could be very difficult indeed, and Ida may have had some personal traits, such as her tendency to sacrifice her own needs for those of others, that further hindered her progress. But her work that survives will now have a life of its own, and this exhibition should do much to open people’s eyes to a valuable and enduring contribution to modern art.

By John Dorfman

Fighting for the Future Wed, 29 Aug 2018 17:00:21 +0000 Continue reading ]]> At the dawn of the Soviet era, in a revolutionary art school in the city of Vitebsk, two different visions of modernism struggled for dominance.

Vera Ermolaeva, Design for Futuristic Opera “Victory over the Sun”,

Vera Ermolaeva, Design for Futuristic Opera “Victory over the Sun”, 1920, woodcut with watercolor additions

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) David Yakerson, Sketch for the Composition “Panel with the Figure of a Worker,” Marc Chagall, Anywhere out of the World El Lissitzky, The Fire Came and Burnt the Stick, Had Gadya Suite (Tale of a Goat) Vera Ermolaeva, Design for Futuristic Opera “Victory over the Sun”, Lazar Khidekel, Suprematist Composition with Blue Square

In the conclusion to his 1902 monograph The History of Russian Painting in the 19th Century, Alexandre Benois—painter, stage designer, writer, and founder of the influential movement and magazine World of Art—gave his assessment of the state of art in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century and what he imagined might follow:

“Generally speaking, all art of our time lacks direction. It is very vivid, powerful, full of passionate enthusiasm, but while being entirely consistent in its basic idea, it is uncoordinated, fragmented into separate individuals. Perhaps we only imagine this, perhaps the future historian will see our general characteristics in perspective and will outline our general physiognomy. But for the time being, this cannot be done; any unsuccessful attempt would be pernicious because it would create a theory, a program, where, essentially there should not be one. Moreover, it is quite probable that the future will not be on the side of individualism. Most likely a reaction stands on the other side of the door.”

Benois’ prediction for the future of art in Russia turns out to have been eerily prescient. After the Revolution of 1917, new approaches to art would explode in the country, with competing factions battling on canvas and in theoretical texts. Indeed, art, particularly painting, toward the end of the 19th century had already seen major changes and the growth of factions, some Russophile and others influenced by modernist developments in Europe. After the Revolution, though, with the a new utopian society in its nascent stage, fundamental questions arose about the function of art and its possible utility. What had been merely theoretical before began to take on a new social and political reality. Movements such as Suprematism, Constructivism, Rayism, and others would attempt to utilize the revolutionary energy and potential of the historically unprecedented situation. Artists and theorists would vie for dominance in texts until, as Benois predicted, this multiplicity of approaches was quashed and art was given a state-mandated form with the final, official imposition of Socialist Realism in 1932.

The post-Revolutionary moment of radical possibility, however short-lived, was a vital one. This relatively short span of time presented a laboratory for new ideas not only in painting, sculpture, design, architecture, and literature but in the organization and dissemination of art education as well. Collectivist ideas were applied to art education, and citizens (the definition of which was newly expanded under protelatarian rule to include Jews) who hitherto would not have been able to study art, now had the opportunity.

Painter Marc Chagall, a Russian-born Jew who had left his homeland to study and work, was elated and intoxicated by the new freedoms the revolution promised. Newly married and enjoying full citizenship, Chagall’s optimism is evident in his 1917–18 oil on canvas Double Portrait with Wine Glass, in which two figures, a man and a woman (presumably Chagall and his beloved wife Bella), one on the other’s shoulders, stand tall, smiling and toasting the new world with an angel close overhead.

After being appointed the Fine Arts Commissar of the Vitebsk region, Chagall seized the moment and established the The People’s Art School in his native city, where local citizens, many of whom were Jewish, could receive art education under the tutelage of established artists free of charge and with no age restrictions. It was to be the realization of a beautiful collectivist dream of art for all and for the good of all, with students and teachers, in some instances, taking their work to the streets of Vitebsk, decorating the town with the “new art” and leaving some inhabitants scratching their heads. The story of the The People’s Art School was not a Chagallian fairy tale, however, but a tragedy of sorts. The school’s fate mirrors that of the avant-garde in Russia, where idealism and ideology would confront each other, and pedagogical and artistic antinomies would sow the seeds of eventual collapse.

The Centre Pompidou in Paris is helping to bring the story of the The People’s Art School, somewhat recently excavated from the avalanche of time, to a wider public by presenting “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918–1922” at the Jewish Museum in New York (September 14–January 6, 2019). The show which was organized by the Centre Pompidou, in collaboration with the Jewish Museum, allows visitors the chance to learn about Chagall’s idealistic venture through a selection of 120 works and documents made possible by extensive loans from several American and European institutions as well as collections in Minsk and Vitebsk.

Jewish Museum curator Claudia Nahson has been collaborating with the Centre Pompidou to bring the show to New York for over a year, and she explains, “A year and a half ago I was actually working on an exhibition on Pierre Chereau. We received many loans from the Pompidou, and I was in constant in contact with them. I heard about the show and this sounded like a really interesting exhibition for us. It’s an exciting moment, brief but important, that hasn’t been talked about much.”

Of particular rarity and interest are those of the school’s students (some of whom were as young as 15 or 16 years old) which will be seen for the first time by many visitors. The bulk of the show, however, presents the work of the school’s illustrious faculty—Marc Chagall (represented by some 30 works), Kazimir Malevich (showing for the first time at the Jewish Museum), and El Lissitzky. The works by these visionary artists, seen in conjunction and counterpoint, help to illustrate the theoretical, pedagogical, and formal tensions that would characterize the school’s utopian project and ultimately, be its undoing.

Chagall brought in Malevich and Lissitzky as faculty members at the newly formed school, and as Centre Pompidou curator Angela Lampe points out, “Chagall knew he was playing with fire by bringing together figurative and abstract artists.” Chagall was no theorist; his approach was intuitive and individualistic. He believed in the passion and freedom of the Revolution, but, in a sense, lacked a concrete ideological agenda. Lissitzky was an artist whose work Chagall held in high esteem, and beyond that, the two men were friends and both had boyhood connections to Vitebsk. Lissitzky accepted Chagall’s invitation to teach at The People’s Art School, and with Lissitzky’s help, Malevich, Lissitzky’s former teacher, was persuaded to come to the new school as well.

Malevich and Chagall had shown work together in exhibitions before the Revolution, including a show organized by Alexandre Benois under the auspices of his World of Art group. In their respective approaches to the theory of art, however, there was a wide chasm separating the two—namely, Chagall had little, and Malevich had theory to spare. Chagall’s work was often fantastical and folkish, playful and personal, but Malevich’s approach was vastly more abstract and dense. Of his own system of Suprematism (the name seems to say it all), he wrote, “I am only free when—by means of critical and philosophical substantiation-—I can extract a substantiation of new phenomena from what already exists.” His was not exactly a “go with the flow” approach.

Lissitzky, a photographer, designer, and architect, was torn between Chagall’s intuitive, figurative creations and Malevich’s radical Suprematism, which extolled the use of geometric forms almost exclusively and a limited color range. The school’s students, many of whom were quite young, gravitated toward the more structured and theoretically concrete classes of Malevich and Lissitzky, and as Lampe observes, “The students were grateful for this structure and base of theory.” Chagall’s intuitive yet classical approach was based on his own memories and dreams and nurtured by his time in Paris and association with other visionary artists. It ultimately, proved too “old fashioned” and nebulous for the students, many of whom were encountering “fine art” for the first time. “These very young students maybe lacked the internal richness that Chagall could draw from as an adult,” says Lampe, and as result, Malevich gained a group of enthusiastic followers. By 1920 it seems that Lissitzky had found his allegiance as well, writing (presumably exploiting the recently invented “shift lock” function on typewriters), “AFTER THE OLD TESTAMENT THERE CAME THE NEW—AFTER THE NEW THE COMMUNIST—AND AFTER THE COMMUNIST THERE FOLLOWS FINALLY THE TESTAMENT OF SUPREMATISM.”

After Malevich’s ascension within the school, Chagall would leave in 1920, and Malevich and Lissitzky would continue on the path of Suprematism, staging exhibitions in Vitebsk and major Russian cities. By 1922, however, the state began to eliminate artistic movements that did not serve the ideological agenda of the party, Socialist Realism was “on the other side of the door,” and soon the school was defunct, having produced only a single graduating class. The People’s Art School would be lost to history for a time, another shining Camelot that had risen and fallen in the gloriously optimistic revolutionary fervor between 1917 and 1922.

The history of the school caught the attention of Lampe, who hoped to bring this fascinating and edifying moment in the history of art to an audience beyond academics and historians. Nahson worked closely with Lampe to bring the Jewish Museum’s iteration of the exhibition to fruition on a somewhat smaller scale but with some new works on loan from local American sources. Some of the exhibition’s most exciting revelations are works by less-known students and faculty of The People’s Art School; the work of artist David Yakerson (who came to the school at the age of 22) is particularly interesting and illustrative. Yakerson’s move from modernist figuration to Suprematism is emblematic of the school’s shift, and two works seen side by side, his 1918 Sketch for the Composition “Panel with the Figure of a Worker,” on paper with watercolor and ink, and his 1920 pencil and ink drawing Suprematist Composition (Walking Robot) tell the tale. The figures in the former are rounded and folkish, their scale symbolic, the colors cool, moody pastels—in a sense, Chagallian. The Suprematist work created only two years later under the influence of Malevich is a dense maze of geometric shapes, interconnected, forming a mechanical, futurist action figure.

Drawings and paintings like these by faculty and students including Lazar Khidekel, Nikolai Suetin, Il’ia Chashnik, Vera Ermolaeva, and Yehuda (Yury) Pen, help fill in the space between the theories and approaches expounded and the work that resulted. These works make clear that the bridge the school sought to build from reality to utopia was bifurcated, Malevich’s fork passing through the material and Chagall’s through dreams. The destination, however, was in many senses the same. “Utopia is by definition no-place,” says Lampe, “but for a short time, maybe, in Vitebsk Utopia may have found a place.”

As art seems to isolate itself more and more in the logic of its own industry and market, where trends and movements appear somewhat cut off from the world at large and art schools nurture individual practice with only a veneer of utility or political engagement, “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918–1922” presents an alternative. The moment that reaches out through history to us is a moment of radical and crucial political art that sought to change the way people lived for the better, and to give form to a new way of life that promised, for the first time in history, true freedom and equality. For a span of four years in Vitebsk, theories and practices wrestled, students and teachers were challenged, and the very purpose of art was thrown into question. For Chagall, Lissitzky, and Malevich, at The People’s Art School during those four precious years, the only thing at stake was everything.

By Chris Shields

Modernist Material Wed, 29 Aug 2018 16:22:17 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A show at the Corning Museum of Glass explores the role of glass in early 20th-century Viennese design.

Installation view of “Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937”

Installation view of “Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937” at the Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Designed by Emanuel Josef Margold, Vase with Lid Designed by Oswald Haerdtl, Candy Dishes, designed in 1925 Designed by Josef Hoffmann, Tableware Set of Nine Blown Vessels Installation view of “Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937” Installation view of “Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937” Designed by Adolf Loos, Vase with Birds

Deeply embedded in the Vienna modernist movement is the notion that applied art could be designed, crafted, and appreciated as fine art. To the designers and craftsmen of the Vienna Secession and Wiener Werkstätte, objects made for everyday use were not to be ghettoized as “low” art. Instead, they thought that applied art objects, with their recurrent presence in users’ lives, could imbue the mundane with beauty and meaning.

Otto Wagner, who became the chair of the special school of architecture at the Vienna Academy of Arts in 1894, wrote in his influential 1895 book Modern Architecture that contemporary architecture and art could create new or evolved forms if they were developed in response to new materials, uses, and human demands. The Siebener-Club (Club of Seven), a group that included Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and several of Wagner’s colleagues and students, was formed with this idea in mind. The Vienna Secession, a spinoff of that group, emerged in 1897, taking inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement in England while focusing on the development of a sense of modernity that was expressly Viennese (the group famously designed every detail of the interiors of Vienna’s striking Café Fledermaus).

In 1903, Hoffmann and Moser started the Wiener Werkstätte, a workshop and artists’ collective that focused on the applied arts. A 1905 pamphlet about the workshop summed up its genesis: “The limitless harm done in the arts and crafts field by low quality mass production on the one hand and by the unthinking imitation of old styles on the other is affecting the whole world like some gigantic flood…It would be madness to swim against this tide. Nevertheless, we have founded our workshop.”

This thinking extended to glass, which became, theoretically speaking, a vessel for the progressive concepts of the Viennese modernists. Ironically, artists looking to explore ideas with the medium had tradition on their side: fine glass and glass craftsmanship were long established in the North Bohemian provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, both through arts and crafts schools and manufactories. With elevated quality and skill endemic to the region, glass was popular not only as an art form unto itself but as a favored design element of Viennese architects and artists. Wagner labeled glass “modernist material,” and for the modernists working in Vienna, firms like J. & L. Lobmeyr and E. Bakowits Sohne acted as commissioning retailers, helping create and sell new forms of this ancient medium.

“Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937,” an exhibition that is on view at the Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) in Corning, N.Y., through January 7, explores the moment when glass became modern in early 20th-century Vienna. The show, which is a tripartite effort between the CMoG, the MAK in Vienna, and the LE STANZE DEL VETRO in Venice, had runs at the Austrian and Italian museums prior to its move stateside.

Many of the works in the show come from the collection of the MAK. Founded in 1864, it is the second-oldest museum of decorative arts in the world and the progenitor of the University of Applied Arts (Kunstgewerbeschule), a hub for the cross-section of art, architecture, and glassmaking. The MAK gives the show not only 100 pieces but also a bird’s-eye-view perspective, explains Alexandra Ruggiero, Assistant Curator at the CMoG and the curator of the museum’s version of the show. “The MAK has been around since before this period, so they were collecting directly from these artists and manufacturers in real time.” Similarly, J. & L. Lobmeyr, which is still active today, has loaned several pieces of glass and artists’ drawings from the period, giving insight into the design and fabrication process at the time.

The CMoG’s iteration of the exhibition includes some 170 works, 50 of which are additions from its own permanent collection. Loans from a private collection of period works—furniture, textiles, metalwork, etc.—create context and ambience for the glass pieces. “Our audience here isn’t as familiar with this period as they are in Vienna,” says Ruggiero. “There, you can easily see examples of this style of architecture and design, but here we wanted to set the stage for this movement and show how these pieces would be displayed together.”

One standout of the show, a tableware set of nine blown vessels designed by Hoffmann for the Wiener Werkstätte in 1916, comes from the CMoG’s collection. With their spare decoration and striking blue coloration, the mold-blown glass pieces seem almost a precursor to abstract art’s geometric fields of color. Hoffman, who studied with Wagner, excelled at prioritizing form and stripping away extraneous detail.

Another showpiece of the CMoG’s collection is Vase with Birds, a 1916 piece manufactured by Joh. Oertel & Co. and Glasfachschule Haida (Novy Bor). A cylindrical vase that flares to the rim, it is an example of colorless glass that is mold-blown, enameled, stained, and polished. It features an intricate pattern with black birds at the top and columns of yellow spirals and bells toward the base. The interlocking shapes of its decoration, which are at once energetic and restrained, bring Klimt’s work to mind.

Jardiniere, a piece designed by Urban Janke and manufactured by J. & L. Lobmeyr in 1912, showcases the Bronzit decoration style. Hoffmann developed Bronzit, which involved the application of a black or brown coating with a metallic sheen to the glass surface, in 1910. Its motifs married thick geometric forms with vegetal patterns. In Jardiniere, a piece in the MAK collection, a heavy geometric pattern is broken up by animal figures. Developed by Janke and Heinrich Jungnickel, two members of the Wiener Werstätte, Bronzit pieces with animal figures such as this became quite popular.

In Vase with Lid, a cut and cased glass piece designed by Emanuel Josef Margold and manufactured by Carl Schappel, the marriage between the applied arts and architecture in Vienna seems particularly clear. “This piece really ties traditional glass-making techniques with the new aesthetics of the period,” says Ruggiero. “It has such a an architectural quality with its pagoda-shaped lid.” The piece’s roof-like top seems to point upward into a new era of design.

By Sarah E. Fensom

M.C. Escher: Impossible Possibilities Thu, 24 May 2018 21:50:30 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The eye-popping, mind-bending art of M.C. Escher goes on display in Brooklyn.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands, lithograph.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere M.C. Escher, Three Words M.C. Escher, Stars M.C. Escher, Day and Night M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands M.C. Escher, Relativity

On June 8, the largest exhibition of the work of Dutch 20th-century printmaker M.C. Escher ever mounted in the U.S. will open—not in a museum but in a huge converted warehouse on Brooklyn’s Sunset Park waterfront called Industry City. Over 200 works will be on view, in an exhibition curated by Mark Veldhuysen, longtime curator of the M.C. Escher Foundation Collection, and Federico Giudiceandrea, an Italian tech executive and one of the world’s top Escher collectors and experts. The show, titled “Escher: The Exhibition and Experience” (through February 13, 2019), is produced and organized by Arthemisia, an Italian company that has staged some 500 exhibitions since 2000.

An unconventional venue is fitting for an Escher show, since Escher himself never really fit into the mainstream art world during his lifetime (1898–1972). He didn’t have a retrospective until he was 70, and throughout his career he pursued his own aims and developed his own technique without particular regard for the directions the rest of the art world was taking. Nonetheless, some of his preoccupations—mathematics, visual paradox, distortions of space, and enigmas—were not at all alien to the modernist avant-garde, although his style of work—rigorously precise and polished printmaking with an Old Master feel—definitely was. In any case, Escher’s work has continued to delight the mind and eye of viewers around the world, including many who have no knowledge of modern art. Escher’s work has this universal appeal because it brings fundamental philosophical concepts to vivid life.

The son of a well-known civil engineer, Maurits Cornelis Escher studied decorative arts and printmaking with the Dutch Sephardic Jewish artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, a proponent of Art Nouveau. In 1922 Escher visited Italy, which greatly impressed him; he ending up staying there from 1923 to 1935, only leaving after the increasing harshness of the Mussolini regime made it unbearable for him to remain. The woodcuts Escher made in Italy are more naturalistic than the brain-teasing, mathematically-driven images he is most famous for, but there is a certain commonality between the bodies of work. His views of the Italian hill towns are vertiginous, the convoluted spaces handled in such a way as to make them look almost like physical impossibilities.

It was Spain rather than Italy that set Escher off in the direction of the really impossible impossibilities. In 1936, the tiles on Moorish buildings such as the Alhambra in Granada and La Mezquita in Cordoba got him thinking about tessellation, in which interlocking, asymmetrical geometrical elements are endlessly repeated to fill up a space without any gaps or overlaps. Escher’s absorption with this phenomenon reached the point of obsession; he wrote of being actually unable to tear himself away from working on it. One of the seven themed sections of the New York show is devoted to tessellation and the revolution it produced in Escher’s work. Usually, Escher engages in illusionistic tessellation, in which the shapes gradually transform into other shapes as they work their way across the composition. For example, in Regular Division of the Plane, a woodcut printed in red ink, a basic checkerboard pattern eventually becomes a pattern of interlacing birds and then flying fish. In Day and Night, the checkerboard pattern of farmers’ fields as seen from the air similarly morphs into two flocks of birds, one black, one white. Metamorphosis, a very long panoramic, multicolored woodcut, takes the concept to its ultimate development, joining together multiple spaces and even genres of art under the rubric of tessellation.

The illusions for which Escher is best known involve manipulations of space, or rather our perception of space, that make our eyes believe that something is real while our intellect, simultaneously, is telling us that it cannot be. In Relativity, notions of up and down and side to side are subverted in a gravity-defying way. The image, which is square, is equally valid no matter how it is oriented. In Belvedere, the perspective of the building depicted is off, such that two structures that are apparently at right angles to each other nonetheless line up as if they were parallel. As in many of Escher’s works, fantasy architecture is the backbone of the composition, and the buildings and the little figures that inhabit them suggest an Italian Renaissance of the imagination, a dream-world based on the Italian scenes that Escher imprinted during the time he spent living there.

One of Escher’s most indelible images is the lithograph Drawing Hands. Here we have a restatement of the chicken-and-egg paradox, with each hand drawing the other into existence, going from mere outline into fully-shaded illusionistic three-dimensionality. Whether one thinks of it as a meditation on creativity or as a sort of optical Zen koan, once seen, this work is hard to forget. In works based on reflections, Escher found distortions of space ready-made, in the way polished curved or spherical surfaces render an image. Hand with Reflecting Sphere is an eloquent self-portrait in which the artist’s hand is the only part of his body that is directly seen; his face and torso, as well as the room he occupies, are all magically encompassed, by way of reflection, in the metallic globe the hand is holding.

In keeping with the populist appeal of Escher, the “Experience” part of the exhibition provides play areas, scientific experiments and interactive, walk-in environments that are intended to help visitors understand and more fully experience the artworks. “Immersive photo booths” will allow visitors to place themselves inside some of Escher’s scenes, and a “relativity room” will confound normal ideas of size and scale. There will also be a section devoted to work that Escher did on commission for clients, such as bookplate designs and visiting cards, and one called “Eschermania” for works created by others—including comic books, advertising images, and record sleeves—that were directly inspired by Escher.

By John Dorfman

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle Thu, 26 Apr 2018 00:39:29 +0000 Continue reading ]]> René Magritte’s genius was to subvert our assumptions and even undermine art itself, while bringing joy and delight.

René Magritte, The Fifth Season, 1943

René Magritte, The Fifth Season, 1943; oil on canvas;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) René Magritte, The Listening Room, 1952 René Magritte, The Happy Donor, 1966 René Magritte, Son of Man, 1964 René Magritte, The Enchanted Domain I, 1953 René Magritte, The Fifth Season, 1943 René Magritte, Personal Values, 1952

With his bowler-hatted men, green apples, and ubiquitous cloud-dotted blue skies, René Magritte is an almost comforting figure in the modern-art pantheon, a familiar, if slightly bizarre friend whom it is always good to see again. He would probably be gratified by that, for notwithstanding his revolutionary ideas, Magritte considered the providing of pleasure and delight to be one of his—and art’s—most important goals. On the other hand, since he also believed discomfort to be a hallmark of the experience of true art, he didn’t hold back from providing that, as well—and never more so than when he radically changed his style at the beginning of World War II, after a decade of producing Surrealist work.

In Nazi-occupied Brussels, Magritte launched what he termed “sunlit Surrealism,” followed by his “vache” paintings, bodies of work that were both greeted with immediate and utter incomprehension and derision. Critics labeled them wrong turns at best, if not signs of waning powers or simply “bad painting.” Even today, the works from this period, which lasted until the late ’40s, have a hard time finding appreciation. However, an exhibition opening this month at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) aims to make sense of them in the context of Magritte’s thought and to show how they led to the final, and arguably greatest, phase, in which he flew free of Surrealist dogma to achieve a completely original and personal art. “René Magritte: The Fifth Season” (May 19–October 28) brings together some 70 works to present a portrait of the artist in transition.

The exhibition takes its name from a 1943 painting, The Fifth Season, which exemplifies Magritte’s “sunlit” style, basically a deliberately debased imitation of Impressionism, especially that of Renoir. Here Magritte combines heavy pseudo-Renoir brushwork with two of the characteristic tropes of his earlier work—frames within the frame and men in hats. The paintings within the painting, carried under the arms of two men, are executed with the same kind of brushstrokes as the primary scene; one is a dense forest landscape, while the other is just a blue sky with clouds in it. Both motifs are typical of Magritte’s 1930s paintings, but painted as if someone else had done them. The anonymous-looking bowler-hatted bourgeois gentlemen about to pass each other are like Magritte’s omnipresent alter-egos, yet different.

What the artist seems to have been doing here is to deconstruct himself, to try and make himself disappear, as a painter. And yet he is not exactly disappearing into Renoir’s identity; the paint handling in The Fifth Season is an absolutely inept parody of Renoir rather than an homage. As SFMOMA curator and show organizer Caitlin Haskell writes in a catalogue essay, “…the capriciousness and mindless patterning of the brushstrokes suggest that they convey almost no reliable information. There is no trace of their maker’s temperament, feeling, or disposition.” By using a transparently fake style, Magritte was removing the last traces of the artist’s “hand,” or personal imprint, from the work, similar to what Marcel Duchamp was after with his “an-art,” or non-art, or even Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “artless art.” Haskell argues that with sunlit Surrealism, Magritte “broke the brushstroke as an expressive tool, bypassing the transmission from an eye and hand of a sensing subject to the eye and mind of a sensing viewer.”

Magritte was always interested in showing how vision is not to be trusted, and his subversion of the art of painting itself was a natural extension of this project. “Everything we see hides another thing,” he told an interviewer in 1965, two years before his death. “We always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible.” Exploring the problem of picturing, paintings such as The Human Condition (1933) and Where Euclid Walked (1955) depict a canvas on an easel that seems to blend with the “real” scene in the background, and our eyes make the assumption that what lies behind the canvas matches what is painted on it. But that need not be the case. Magritte’s method is almost the reverse of trompe l’oeil; instead of trying to convince us that something unreal is real, he makes us question our vision and suspect the “real” of being unreal.

Such tactics tend to make viewers uncomfortable, as Magritte well knew. He wrote, “A picture which is really alive should make the spectator feel ill, and if the spectators aren’t ill, it is because 1) they are too insensitive, 2) they have got used to this uneasy feeling, which they take to be pleasure…. Contact with reality (not the symbolic reality which allows social exchanges and social violence) always produces this feeling.” But paradoxically, Magritte also believed that giving pleasure was one of art’s highest goals: “I feel it lies within us, who have some notion of how feelings are invented, to make joy and pleasure, which are so ordinary and beyond our reach, accessible to us all. It is not a question of abandoning knowledge of objects and feelings that Surrealism has given birth to, but to use it for purposes different from the previous ones, otherwise people will be bored stiff in surrealist museums just as much as in any others.”

In his “vache” paintings, Magritte did for (or to) Expressionism what he had done for Impressionism in sunlit Surrealism. The almost crazed exuberance of the vache works, which definitely come across as kitschy or even grotesque, was intended to inject a dose of joy back into Surrealist art, which Magritte felt had become ossified or “crystallized.” But even here, the ambiguities remain—is it really pleasure, and if so, of what kind? One of the “sunlit” works in the SFMOMA show is titled Seasickness (1948), and its rough-around-the-edges technique and wild color palette might well induce in the viewer some of that queasy feeling that Magritte had spoken of. Certainly the effect on the collector market was not salutary, and by 1949 Magritte had suspended these experiments and resumed the line of development that he had started before the war, again painting with his characteristic precision and eye for the uncanny and the paradoxical.

In his late work, from the 1950s and ’60s, Magritte comes into his own as a post-Surrealist artist, working completely from within, intent on solving, or at least posing solutions, to the problems he cared about. Gone are the obvious shock tactics, like the boots turning into feet or vice versa (The Red Model, 1935), and the language games (The Treachery of Images [This Is Not a Pipe], 1929). The art that emerged, as if reborn, from the crucible of the “bad painting” years is beautiful, lyrical, yet still undeniably weird and downright aggressive in its attempt to make us question the relationship between our senses, our minds, and the world we find ourselves placed in.

In his one notable series from the ’50s, Magritte depicted ordinary objects blown up to enormous size, literally filling the rooms they occupy. In Personal Values (1952), a giant shaving brush, bar of soap, and drinking glass are placed in a domestic interior that would be claustrophobic if not for the fact that its walls are painted like a sky with clouds, which seems to open up the space and even make it unclear where interior ends and exterior begins. Other works in the series do a similar thing with natural objects like a rock (The Anniversary, 1959) and an apple (The Listening Room, 1952). Perhaps these paintings are Communist-inspired spoofs of the bourgeoisie; after all, when consumer goods are swollen beyond normal proportions, they cease to be useful or even usable. On the other hand, Magritte’s playing around with scale and with the interior/exterior dichotomy could be seen as yet another way to expose the arbitrariness of our perceptual habits and the illusory nature of their results. Interestingly it was Personal Values, rather than a grotesque vache piece, that made Magritte’s dealer, Alexander Iolas, feel physically ill, prompting the response from the artist quoted above. Iolas’ sick feeling was more metaphysical than aesthetic in origin.

In his series “L’Empire des Lumières” (The Dominion of Light), Magritte again deployed the cloud-studded skies he had been developing for years, but this time in a weirdly depopulated urban setting. The paradox here is the coexistence of natural and artificial light. While the skies are daylight skies, the streets and trees below are shrouded in a thick darkness that is broken only by a solitary street lamp. Again, the accuracy and reliability of human vision is called into question—when we see or think we see, by what light are we seeing? And who made that light?

In the late Magritte, the bowler-hatted figures that cropped up in his earlier paintings come to center stage, and it becomes increasingly clear that they are stand-ins for the artist, or even abstracted self-portraits. Just as he made his own painting style disappear in the pseudo-Impressionist works, now he makes himself disappear—into faceless anonymity (as the bowler-hatted man is seen from the rear or with his facial features obscured, say by an apple floating in front of it) or even, during the mid-1960s, into absolute transparency, when the figure becomes an outlined aperture through which the archetypal sky can be seen. This auto-vanishing act is the culmination of the magician’s decades-long, ever-varying stage act.

Magritte’s work, though visually expressed, can seem more like a practice of philosophy than of art. He was using art to penetrate behind visual experience into the mind and then beyond the mind, to what he called the “amental.” In a 1946 manifesto titled Surrealism in the Sunshine, he wrote, “The notion that the amental exists is the only notion we can have concerning the amental.” However, he felt that we need to press on anyway: “We must go in search of enchantment, revealing the unknown quality in each object presented with unambiguous delight.”

By John Dorfman

To Be Precise Wed, 28 Mar 2018 22:43:52 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Precisionism, a style of art that embraced the mechanical, flourished in 1920s and ’30s America.

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 81.9 cm

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Gerald Murphy, Watch, 1925 Morton Livingston Schamberg, Painting (Formerly Machine), 1916 Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931 Charles Sheeler, Rolling Power, 1939 Charles Sheeler, Upper Deck, 1929 Clarence Holbrook Carter, War Bride, 1940

While technological progress has always aided art, it was really only in the 20th century that it became a subject for art. During the early years of the Industrial Revolution in England, artists for the most part spurned the “dark Satanic mills,” as William Blake put it, opting instead for a range of escapist strategies from neo-Romantic landscape to neo-medieval Pre-Raphaelitism. But as the Industrial Revolution gave way to a true Machine Age and technology pervaded the lives of most people, artists began to engage seriously with it. In the United States between the two World Wars, a modernist style developed that came to be called Precisionism, not only for its portrayal of precision machines but for the machine-like precision that many of its proponents adopted in their technique. Although there was never a formal group by that name, and although the artists varied in their attitudes toward technology—some celebrated it, while others approached it with ambivalence—there is enough in common between them and their works for the term to make art-historical sense.

Precisionism in all its forms is on display in a massive exhibition that opened at the end of last month at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art” (through August 12), the first large-scale show devoted to the movement in 20 years, gathers together over 100 paintings by artists including Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Demuth, alongside related photographs, prints, industrial-design objects, and ephemera. The aggregated effect of this material is to show Precisionism’s connections not only to the urban and rural American scene but also to the Art Deco style and the European avant-garde. As a tour of the exhibition makes clear, the umbrella term Precisionism—which was originally used by the critic Louis Kalonyme in a New York Times piece in 1927 but didn’t really take hold until the 1940s, after the style itself had lapsed—covers a very wide range of artistic, cultural, and emotional responses to technology.

Of all the artists in the show, Sheeler is the one most closely identified with the label “Precisionism.” Born in Philadelphia in 1883, he studied painting with William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then, during a stay in Europe in 1909, absorbed both Cubism and the dry, precise style of the Early Italian Renaissance. Back in the States, he found it impossible to earn a living as a painter and therefore took up commercial photography. In the late 1920s Sheeler got a commission, through a Philadelphia advertising agency, from the Ford Motor Company to take pictures of its River Rouge factory near Dearborn, Mich. The 32 photos that Sheeler ended up submitting frankly glorified Henry Ford’s industrial ideas, finding an almost timeless beauty in the relentlessly time-efficient assembly lines churning out the affordable Model Ts that put the nation on wheels. To his friend and patron Walter Arensberg, Sheeler wrote, “What wouldn’t I give for the pleasure of showing you through this unbelievable establishment. It defies description and even having seen it one doesn’t believe it possible that one man could be capable of realizing such a conception…the subject matter is undeniably the most thrilling I have had to work with.”

Off the clock, Sheeler was inspired to paint the same scenes he photographed, turning the black and white into color. The resulting works epitomize the Precisionist style, with their clean, straight lines, idealized atmosphere, and absence of human figures. Classic Landscape (1931) somewhat simplifies the forms in the corresponding photograph, giving them an abstract quality. The railroad tracks define a vanishing point and give the composition depth, while the vertical orange silos provide a center. With its cool light emanating from outside the frame, the picture has an almost De Chiricoesque feel. Like the Italian metaphysical painter, Sheeler is aiming for a 20th-century version of Greco-Roman classicism. In this Classic Landscape, there is no visible landscape, and no people, either; just architecture and sky, and the vapor from the smokestack blends into the clouds above. Instead of the air of Dearborn, we could be breathing the unattainably pure air of an imaginary Athens.

Classic Landscape was purchased by none other than Henry Ford’s son Edsel, in 1932, which was a clear indication that Sheeler’s work was experienced by viewers as an unmitigated celebration of American industry and its practices. Other paintings by the artist, if somewhat less rhapsodic than the River Rouge series, still revel in the machined surfaces of their subjects; for example, Rolling Power (1939) is an quasi-photorealist treatment of the wheels and undercarriage of a railroad car. Nearly monochrome, in shades of brown, it could almost be a technical illustration, except for the little puff of steam that emanates from one of the valves, representing, perhaps, the “ghost in the machine.” Clearly, this is a loving portrayal of the product of man’s ingenuity.

While Sheeler has been accused of whitewashing or at least glossing over the sins of Ford and other industrialists, it was not only pro-capitalist artists who fell for the allure of the machine. The photographer Paul Strand, a lifelong radical leftist, used an Akeley motion-picture camera for his filmmaking work (including the path-breaking imagist documentary Manhatta, on which he collaborated with his close friend Sheeler) and was so enthralled by the beauty of the camera itself that he exhaustively photographed its various parts with a still camera. Ralph Steiner, a socialist activist and a member of the left-oriented Film and Photo League in New York, paid a similar homage to a bank of high-voltage power switches in a 1930 photograph, which is in the de Young exhibition.

In fact, enthusiasm for the machine was very much a part of anti-capitalist culture. In the Soviet Union, the Constructivists, such as El Lissitsky and Alexander Rodchenko, extolled technology as a means of bringing about better conditions for the proletariat, while happily incorporating mechanical imagery into their artworks. The “New Objectivity” (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement in Weimar Germany also adopted a somewhat machine-like approach, which embodies, if not a starry-eyed view of technology, then at least a desire for order and rationality after the chaos of World War I.

One of the most interesting things about this exhibition is the way it relates Precisionism to Dada—not a movement that one normally associates with American boosterism. In 1915, the Franco-Spanish artist Francis Picabia made a portrait of Alfred Stieglitz, titled Here, This Is Stieglitz Here, in which he depicted the perfectionistic photographer and art impresario as a bellows camera and tripod with the word “ideal” perched on top. While partaking of the typical waggish humor of the Dadaists, the portrait is also a meticulously, indeed precisely, rendered image of a piece of modern technology, and the idea of identifying a human being with a machine is very characteristic of a number of different strains of social thought at the time. For the Dadaists, the dehumanizing effect of machines on society was something to be viewed with the gimlet eye of satire, to be accepted with philosophical ambivalence rather than embraced.

Marcel Duchamp comes into the equation here; residing in the U.S. in 1917 and participating in the New York Dada group, he was part of the Arensberg circle and friendly with Sheeler. As early as 1911, he had adopted a “machine aesthetic” that is on full display in Nine Malic Moulds (1914–15), a replica of which is in the de Young show. This piece, a study for his magisterial The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23), melds human and mechanical traits in its nine enigmatic figures. Duchamp’s readymades, most of which were originally industrial objects, also can be considered within the artistic climate which gave rise to Precisionism. With Duchamp, the emphasis is on irony and an almost fatalistic acceptance, amounting to embrace, of man being subsumed by the machines he has invented. Duchamp’s machine aesthetic involves a preference for cold, rational precision over emotive art and for what he called “an-art” (or non-art) over art.

Another important early Precisionist is Morton Livingston Schamberg, an under-recognized Philadelphia-based artist who produced some strikingly original work. He and Sheeler were best friends, and his premature death in the flu pandemic of 1918 was a terrible blow to Sheeler. Schamberg’s Painting (Formerly Machine) (1916) is a diagrammatic-looking cross-section of an imaginary machine, which the artist apparently found interesting more for graphic reasons than because of any real-world functionality. It could even be seen, like Picabia’s camera, as a portrait. Schamberg, who was also friends with Duchamp, participated in some Dada experiments, including photographing the readymade God (1917), a curved length of plumbing pipe, in collaboration with Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

There is plenty of wonderful work in this exhibition, much of which is more noteworthy for its sheer graphic power than for any sociopolitical subtext. Gerald Murphy, who after an intense and short-lived artistic career became the general manager of the Mark Cross luxury goods store, painted striking works that portray ordinary domestic mechanical objects. His Watch (1925) looks like an exploded view of a pocket watch, except that the works seem to overflow the bounds of the watch case to penetrate to the corners of the composition, and according to horological experts, the mainspring is depicted as broken. Elsie Driggs’ Queensboro Bridge (1927) is reminiscent of Futurist painting, using shafts of light to make the bridge look like it is in motion and vibrating with energy. Driggs, one of the few women Precisionists (O’Keeffe also experimented briefly with the style), apparently also shared the Futurists’ passion for aeronautics. Her 1928 Aeroplane is a portrayal of a Ford Tri-Motor, an all-metal plane that made Ford the biggest manufacturer of commercial aircraft in the world.

With one foot in the avant-garde world of Dada, Futurism, and Cubism, Precisionism had the other one firmly planted in the American Scene. The forward-looking attitude had a way of shading over into a more nostalgic point of view, as if the artists were tiring of the relentless pace of modernization. Or perhaps it was just that precision could be found in older things as well as newer ones. In Kitchen, Williamsburg (1937), Sheeler lavishes the same kind of attention on the pots and pans and furniture of a 19th-century rural interior that he gave to the industrial design products of his own time. George Ault started out working in a hard Precisionist mode; in 1937, fleeing personal demons, he left New York City and settled in Woodstock, N.Y., where he painted what he saw there in a style that is more classic American realist. In his January Full Moon (1941), there are elements of Precisionism that carry over into this timeless country scene. The barn, shown as a black silhouette, is reduced to the most basic modernist geometric shapes, its sharp edges bounded and defined by the snow and the electric-blue sky.

In its own time, Precisionism met with mixed reviews from art critics. Some praised it, either for its “technical refinement” or its “true, American, Puritan” qualities, while others called it “soul-less” and “afflicted with anemia.” Almost 80 years after the movement came to a close, we can appreciate Precisionism with fresh eyes, not least because we live in an era that is equally obsessed with new technology and its effects on society—albeit a kind of technology that is far harder to depict in oil on canvas.

By John Dorfman

It’s Alive Mon, 29 Jan 2018 21:17:26 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A new exhibition at the Tate Britain examines how British artists of the 20th century represent human life in their work.

Cecily Brown, Boy with a Cat, 2015

Cecily Brown, Boy with a Cat, 2015, oil, pastel on linen, 1092 x 1651 mm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Cecily Brown, Boy with a Cat, 2015 F.N. Souza, Two Saints in a Landscape, 1961 Francis Bacon, Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1966 Lucian Freud, Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, 1996 Paula Rego, The Family, 1988

In an often-quoted interview with David Sylvester, the celebrated Irish-born British painter Francis Bacon said, “Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses.” The response came to Sylvester’s prodding about the correlation between the artist’s depictions of hanging carcasses of meat and crucified human figures. Bacon, side-stepping a bit, instead discussed how the human body—he cites, for instance, a Degas pastel in the National Gallery, London, that articulates the top of a woman’s spine and x-ray photographs—can look rather similar to the meat found in a butcher shop. He added that the slight protrusion of the women’s spine in the Degas pastel (After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, circa 1890–95) makes the viewer “more conscious of the vulnerability of the rest of the body.”

One of the most arresting aspects of Bacon’s own work is just that—the vulnerability of his figures and their bodies. Bacon’s figures suffer trauma and mutilation; they are twisted and shuffled around; they shriek and shout with open mouths. The experiences and the suffering his figures seemingly undergo are representative of the ancient Greek concept of pathos as defined by Greek philosophers even before Aristotle’s Rhetoric. The viewer is moved emotionally by what seems to be a plea from these figures and feels a deeply—yes, almost ancient—human response to their plight. This is made perhaps most clear with Bacon’s repeated portrayals of crucifixions—in which a body suffers and it is understood, in a historical sense and in the sense of the viewer in a gallery, that others look on.

When Bacon recreates the textural material of the human body in paint he showcases the vulnerability he saw in the Degas pastel. This perceived vulnerability has the ability to create an intoxicating horror in the viewer. If our bodies are so pliable and putty-like and our feelings are so primal, then are we not at any time susceptible to agony and mutilation? Or worse, to the soulless state after death when our body parts are little more than the carcasses Bacon referred to? It is this vision of the human body that the goriest horror films succeed in imparting—one that Bacon’s paintings can certainly share.

The portraits Bacon painted of his close friends are similarly celebrated for expressing a sense of vulnerability. Bacon painted his friend and fellow artist Lucian Freud, who also famously portrayed the realism of the human body in paint (Freud painted Bacon, as well). The German-born British painter said, “I want the paint to work as flesh does.” In Freud’s work the paint lusciously recreates skin, musculature, fat, bone structure, and hair. In the 1950s, he set his focus on portraiture, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 1960s that he began creating the works for which he is best known: full-scale nudes. Freud’s treatment of the nude human body marries the detail of Renaissance studies with the personality of modern portraiture—balancing a sense of intimacy with the sitter and a cold, almost clinical look at the human physique. In favor of honesty, Freud’s nudes lack the mythological, otherworldly, or idealized qualities of the nudes that populated art history from the Classical period through the 19th century, and at times even lack a sense of dignity. Instead, Freud’s figures portray how harrowing and yet how banal it can be to inhabit a human body.

Capturing humanity in paint is the subject of “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud, and a Century of Painting Life,” an exhibition that opens at the Tate Britain on February 28 (through August 27). Using Bacon and Freud as anchors, the show will examine the portrayal of the human experience in art and provide an expansive picture of figurative painting in the 20th century, particularly in Britain. The exhibition features some 100 works by artists such as Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, R.B. Kitaj, Leon Kossoff, Paula Rego, Jenny Saville, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and many others.

Through examining the careers of Bacon and Freud, two of the most revered artists working in Britain during the 20th century and also famous drinking buddies, the show reveals what ties their work together and what separates it. One major difference is their process. Freud worked from life, with his models typically making large time commitments to sit for him. His studio, which frames the sitters in his work, serves as both a stage and a subject for his paintings. The repeated use of his studio as setting also brings awareness of Freud’s physical presence in it—it seems vital to remember that the sitter and Freud were occupying the same space and that the view we have of the model was Freud’s view. In Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, a 1996 painting in the show, Sue Tilley, a frequent subject of Freud’s in the 1990s, is seen draped in a chair. Her face, overcome by sleep, is scrunched into her hand—a position perfected by most of us in an airplane seat. Freud himself seems very close, looking on silently, as a birdwatcher or biologist might watch a sleeping species of interest. Behind her, crouching lions can be seen on the motif of a carpet—the kings of the jungle seeming so inferior to this larger, more majestic animal.

Freud’s portrait of fellow British painter Frank Auerbach (Frank Auerbach, 1975–76), also features a rather close, intimate view. Freud depicts the artist on a downward angle from the crown of his head to the top of his green t-shirt-clad chest. Freud’s brush delights in every detail of Auerbach’s face—emphasizing the thinning of his hair, the tonal disparities of his skin, the furrows of his brow and cheeks, and the teeth-grinding scowl of his mouth. The painting captures what appears to be a moment of anxious frustration or intense concentration—the type of moment we typically have alone. For the viewer, it feels like a rare and intrusive look at man’s face and state of mind. Freud’s presence, which hovers over Auerbach and the painting itself, simultaneously exposes and soothes the other artist.

Unlike Freud, Bacon used photographs as a starting point for his paintings. Of this process Bacon said, “What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance.” Bacon frequently used the work of friend and Vogue photographer John Deakin for his paintings. Deakin, who was in the habit of photographing the figures of the mid-century Soho art scene, such as Freud, Auberbach, and Eduardo Paolozzi, also took portraits for Bacon on commission, including the source material for Bacon’s 1963 Portrait of Henrietta Moraes and the 1969 work Three Studies of Lucian Freud. Deakin’s photograph Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (circa 1966-67), which was commissioned by the painter, was used to create one of Bacon’s most celebrated paintings, Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho (1967). Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, a 1966 painting in the exhibition, also depicts the inimitable Rawsthorne, a painter, designer, and model for Picasso and Giacometti.

Works by other members of Bacon and Freud’s circle also appear in the show. Auerbach’s 1967–68 painting Primrose Hill is a highlight. The oil on board work is essentially an abstract landscape, inspired by Auerbach’s frequent visits to the park at Primrose Hill in north London. The artist compiled an excess of 50 working drawings for the painting, made during all four seasons and all different times of day and night. Working on it daily for over a year, Auerbach fell into the nearly incessant process of scraping paint away and adding more. The result is a pan-season, pan-weather, pan-hour, expressionist rendering of life, both observed and lived.

The show isn’t limited to a single generation of artists. Walter Sickert’s Nuit d’Été (circa 1906), for instance, with its chilly portrayal of a female nude sprawled on a bed, is a perfect precursor for viewing Freud’s work. Sickert, a member of the Aesthetic movement and student of James McNeill Whistler who is thought by some conspiracy theorists to have been the serial killer Jack the Ripper, painted a series of nude women in sparsely decorated, cheap London bedrooms. Unlike the intimacy of Freud’s work, Sickert’s paintings are dark, distant, and even a bit menacing at times (perhaps there is something to those rumors?).

The exhibition also features several paintings by women artists. Paula Rego’s The Family (1980), depicts a group of figures in action within a bedroom setting. A man, dressed in a grey suit, sits on the edge of an unmade bed, his cuff and jacket being fussed over by two women—perhaps a maid and his wife, or his wife and older daughter. A girl, who is presumably a young daughter, looks on from several feet a way, standing in front of an open window. In the corner near the bed sits a Portuguese retablo depicting St. Joan and St. George slaying the dragon, while on a chest below it, an image of Aesop’s fable The Fox and the Stork is illustrated.

Cicely Brown’s 2015 oil and pastel on linen Boy with a Cat quickly brings Renoir’s ghostly 1868 nude The Boy with the Cat to mind. However, Brown’s chaotic, reclining nude takes from de Kooning’s work the sense of forms appearing within abstraction, and it is oddly exhilarating to watch the faces and bodies of cats emerge and recede in the painting as one looks at it. The artist sops up the machismo of Abstract Expressionism only to wring it out as one would a wet washcloth. What’s left is an engrossing, erotic work that surges with energy and playfulness.

Another more recent work in the show and a painting in the Tate’s collection is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s 10 pm Saturday (2012). Yiadom-Boakye, a London native of Ghanaian descent, looks to the historical European tradition of portraiture but paints largely fictional characters. Born of her imagination, her figures are typically placeless and timeless and are left susceptible to the interpretations and readings of the viewer. 10 pm Saturday shares with many of Bacon’s portraits a dark, vacuum-like background. Yiadom-Boakye’s figure stands in profile, looking side-eyed past the viewer over his own shoulder. Wearing a red and white striped shirt and black pants, he seems so familiar and yet he is a man who has never lived.

By Sarah E. Fensom