Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Wed, 24 Oct 2018 23:24:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 The Light Is Back On Wed, 24 Oct 2018 23:24:33 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Paris has definitively re-emerged as a major venue for contemporary art.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant, 1912

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant, 1912, oil and gouache on wood. 32.2 x 39.8 cm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982 Georges Mathieu, Composition, circa 1970 View inside the Georges Mathieu exhibition at Galerie Templon Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant, 1912 John Armleder, Suigei, 2018

I arrived in Paris as a foreign correspondent four decades ago, in the midst of a bitter debate over the newly inaugurated Centre Georges Pompidou. Controversy swirled about the museum’s architecture—the building by Renzo Piano, Richard Rodgers, and Gianfranco Francini was unfavorably compared to a derelict factory—but equally acrimonious was the thought that so much space was needed to display postwar art. And when record crowds streamed into the building, the local press insisted that most visitors were American tourists—in other words, people of questionable cultural taste.

It’s good to recall those antediluvian times when considering the recent, unexpected emergence of the City of Light as a leading torchbearer for contemporary art. The building blocks of this turnaround are the collectors large and small, the path-breaking gallerists, and finally, the impressive privately and publicly owned spaces that are drawing astonishing numbers of viewers.

So let me begin with an example of the less-known contemporary art lover who is helping to propel the phenomenon. Jean-François Keller, 60, inherited an impressive Old Master collection from his father, owner of a textile business. But on a visit to New York in 1995, he had an aesthetic conversion while viewing a Piet Mondrian retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. “Suddenly, I realized this is the kind of art I want to collect,” he recalls.

Keller began to frequent the Paris galleries that were sprouting up between the Centre Pompidou and the Marais neighborhood. He was fortunate to connect early on with Galerie Lahumière, a pioneer in contemporary art. The owner, Diane Lahumière, recognized in Keller the symptoms of so many other recent converts among her compatriots. “Contemporary art came quite late to Paris, and French collectors needed time to absorb it,” she says. “But once that happened, they have gone about collecting with enthusiasm. And some want to acquire only works from artists of their own generation.”

That was Keller’s case. He focused on young, relatively unknown Europeans. “Sometimes I was one of the first to discover an artist,” he says. “And sometimes I made mistakes. But it’s exciting to take risks.” Nowadays, he’s confident enough to invite friends and others to his home to display and discuss his acquisitions. He is increasingly asked by museums around Europe to lend works from his collection. His commitment to contemporary art became irrevocable. “One day I began to think: ‘Why am I keeping my Old Masters?’” recalls Keller. “And I sold them all.”

While today nobody disputes Paris’s emergence as a focus of contemporary art, that wasn’t the case at the turn of the new millennium, when Anne-Claudie Couric, a gallerist, returned to Paris. She had moved to New York in the early 1990s because she was enamored with contemporary art but saw no future for it in Paris. Then in 2002, she surprised her friends by agreeing to become executive director of Galerie Templon, a leading Parisian gallery, a post she still holds today. “People told me there was still nothing happening here,” recalls Couric.

But she sensed that a new appreciation of contemporary art was stirring. The Centre Pompidou put on more provocative exhibitions. Regional initiatives by the government aimed at stimulating interest in late 20th-century art were finally bearing fruit, as the opening of smaller provincial museums and local galleries attested. With the lifting of legal restrictions on auction houses, sales of contemporary art boomed at the local outposts of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. “Paris very quickly developed a deep, large base of collectors,” says Couric. “And they buy from Parisian galleries—unlike London, where most of the clients are foreigners.”

French collectors also became less secretive. Traditionally, collectors feared that disclosing their art holdings might lead to tax audits. But over the last 20 years, well-known entertainment figures like actor Alain Delon and director Claude Berri lent out their collections to museums. They were followed by entrepreneurs, particularly in the fashion business, who not only showed their collections but built museums and exhibition spaces to display contemporary art.

In 2002, the Galerie des Galeries opened at the upscale department store Galeries Lafayette. This year, it was joined by Lafayette Anticipations, a contemporary art and performance space in a former 19th-century industrial building in the Marais. Next year, the luxury goods billionaire François Pinault will put his vaunted contemporary art collection on display at a private museum in the Bourse de Commerce building near the Louvre.

But for now, pride of place among the Parisian private museums belongs to Pinault’s great rival in the luxury business and art collecting, Bernard Arnault, whose architecturally startling Fondation Louis Vuitton was inaugurated in 2014. Designed by Frank Gehry in the shape of a deconstructed ship with a dozen glass sails, the museum is berthed in the Bois de Boulogne on park acreage with a 55-year lease. Afterwards, the museum will be donated to the city of Paris.

The use of public parkland by a private entity would have been unimaginable a generation ago. But there has been a retreat by the French state as financier and arbiter of the arts, due partly to budget cuts and also because of the rise of deep-pocketed private collectors like Arnault and Pinault as purveyors of contemporary art. “Private museums are more flexible and pay in advance to borrow and insure collections,” says Suzanne Pagé, artistic director of the Fondation Louis Vuitton and former director of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Pagé isn’t at all surprised that fashion entrepreneurs have leapt to the forefront of contemporary art as collectors and exhibitors. “Although they are not artists, they are involved in creative work,” she says. Partly to emphasize this point, one of the highlights at the museum last year was a selection of modern art from the collection of the early 20th-century Russian fabric magnate, Sergei Shchukin, with whom Arnault identifies both as a businessman and collector.

The Fondation then followed with an exhibition of some 200 works from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, ranging from Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso to Jasper Johns and Cindy Sherman, which ended this past March. Attendance for both the Shchukin and MoMA exhibits soared past one million. Those attendance marks will probably be shattered by the current blockbuster exhibitions of 120 works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and 100 works by Egon Schiele, on view in tandem through January 14, 2019. Between special exhibitions, Arnault displays portions of his own contemporary holdings. The most recent show from this permanent collection, which closed August 27, included works by 29 artists, among them Matthew Barney, Kiki Smith, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Dan Flavin, and Takashi Murakami.

The Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain, or FIAC, is yet another testament to the transformation of Paris into a center for contemporary art. Jennifer Flay, the New Zealand-born director of FIAC, took up her post in 2003, on the fair’s 30th year of existence. She recalls the headline on a leading art magazine’s cover about FIAC: Birthday or Burial? “And it was absolutely the truth,” says Flay. “FIAC was a mess.” At the time, the fair existed literally on the margins of the art world. It was held in a sprawling trade exhibition space at the Porte de Versailles on the southwestern outskirts of Paris. Traffic roared on the freeway over the roof. Flay remembers that the art stands were hemmed in by a lingerie trade show.

That was then. FIAC, which ran this year from October 18–21, is held in the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais and spills into the streets in stands between those two regal art venues. Among the 200 or so participating galleries, about two thirds are European. After the French, the Americans are the largest contingent and include the usual heavyweights—Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner, Marian Goodman, Paula Cooper—along with smaller upstarts from Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, Los Angeles, and other markets.

“Even people who cannot afford to collect—students, office employees, young families with children—come to FIAC to see what’s new,” says Templon director Couric. “Paris has become more confident about contemporary art. We no longer feel overwhelmed by the power of the Americans.” At the time, her gallery had on exhibit the latest works of Jim Dine. He may have been born in Cincinnati, but he has the good sense to now live and work in Paris.

By Jonathan Kandell

Bill Traylor: Traylor Made Wed, 24 Oct 2018 23:15:32 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A sweeping exhibition examines the breadth of Bill Traylor’s life and work.

Bill Traylor, Mean Dog (Verso: Man Leading Mule), ca. 1939–1942

Bill Traylor, Mean Dog (Verso: Man Leading Mule), ca. 1939–1942, poster paint and pencil on cardboard.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Bill Traylor, Red Man, ca. 1939–1942 Bill Traylor, Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog), July 1939 Bill Traylor, Black Turkey, ca. 1939–1942 Bill Traylor, Untitled (Event with Man in Blue and Snake), 1939 Bill Traylor, Mean Dog (Verso: Man Leading Mule), ca. 1939–1942

Bill Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama in 1853. He lived for nearly a century, dying in 1949. In the course of his life he experienced the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow laws. He didn’t begin making art until he was in his 80s, over a decade after he moved from rural Alabama to Montgomery, a segregated city. Though relatively brief, the period that he spent creating paintings and drawings was immensely fruitful. Not all of his work survived, but when he died he left behind more than 1,000 artworks.

Posthumously, Traylor has emerged as a leading figure in Outsider art. His bold, instantly recognizable figures seem almost poster-children for this ever-burgeoning corner of the art market. Yet, the art world is, rightfully, grappling with the way it represents self-taught artists and their oeuvres, as “insider” distinctions such as “outsider,” “primitive,” and the severely outdated, Jean Dubuffet-coined, “art brut” seem only to reinforce the social, economic, and aesthetic hierarchies of art history and history in general. Recent, large-scale museum exhibitions such as “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” which ran at the National Gallery earlier this year, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift,” which closed earlier this fall, have had a hand in shaping a new context for self-taught artists—specifically, one that benefits from the vast resources of big, prestigious institutions.

“The Art of Bill Traylor,” a new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), is the largest and most comprehensive showing of Traylor’s work to date, with 155 pieces on view. Seventeen of these come from SAAM’s own collection, of which 14 have been acquired since 2015. The show posits Traylor as an American artist first and a self-taught artist second, emphasizing the latter as a point of biography rather than status.

Leslie Umberger, SAAM’s curator of folk and self-taught art, researched Traylor for some seven years, organizing and synthesizing an oeuvre that was fragmented and poorly documented—works were lost or un-photographed and not titled by Traylor to begin with, and ownership records were not well kept. What’s more, the body of work that has become known to the public over the years is actually quite small, providing only a narrow view of Traylor’s accomplishments. Umberger set out to expand this understanding. She also delved deeply into the artist’s personal history, a task she likened to “walking into quicksand.” Much of Traylor’s biography had been made up or revised over time, like a game of telephone. The research for this project was complicated by the fact that African Americans in the antebellum South were not included in government census records. In the decades after, records still exhibited a racial bias. However, interviews with Traylor’s relatives and the people in his purview make up a large part of Umberger’s vision of the artist, and the folk stories and oral histories of the South contribute to a broader understanding of his work.

Traylor spent the first 10 years of his life on the plantation of John Getson Traylor in Dallas County, Ala. He and his family then moved to Traylor’s brother’s plantation in Lowndes County, where they would stay as land laborers after Emancipation. Bill was married three times (two legal, one common-law), and had 15 children. But in 1927 or 1928, after the death of his third wife, he moved from the outskirts of Montgomery, where he was a tenant farmer, to the area’s urban center. There, he lived predominately on the streets. While sitting in a favorite spot on Monroe Street, he began to make art with what limited materials he had—typically pencil or paint on paper or cardboard.

Charles Shannon, a well-known white Montgomery artist, took notice of Traylor’s work in 1939 and began collecting it. Shannon essentially became the liaison for Traylor’s work. In 1940, he mounted a show, “Bill Traylor: People’s Artist,” at New South, a cultural center he founded. The show, which was the only one Traylor was present for, generated press but no sales. Shannon secured a show for Traylor at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, N.Y., in 1942. Organized by the Museum of Modern Art’s education director at the time, the show garnered the attention of MoMA’s staff and the institution’s famed director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Without negotiating with Shannon, Barr sent checks for the purchase of pieces for both the museum’s collection and his own; he offered $2 for larger drawings and $1 for smaller ones. Shannon refused the offer. Though exhibitions of Traylor’s work were mounted throughout the ensuing decades, it wasn’t until the 1982 exhibition “Black Folk Art in America” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., that Traylor’s work garnered major attention and sales.

The work of Traylor’s that gained popularity and is known today is from a brief slice of his art making, 1939–42. Work from after this period has not survived. It is known that Shannon, Traylor’s main collector, and essentially his de facto archivist, did not consider this work worth keeping. Thus, this is also the period from which SAAM’s show draws.

Traylor created a rich personal lexicon of figures, which both draw from existing narratives and create their own. His pictorial language, not unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs, features figures primarily in profile—his men with tall brimmed hats and pipes and bottles of liquor in their hands, and running dogs and animals all rendered with a sophisticated reduction of form and color. He had an uncanny ability to freeze animation, creating evocative scenes that seem paused in time—often to comic effect. As with the oral history carried from slavery, Traylor could hide the meaning of his work in plain sight through abstraction.

For the most part, Traylor did not paint specific urban or rural structures in his work, save for the domestic house, as in Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog) (July 1939, colored pencil on paperboard) and House (circa 1940–42, watercolor and graphite on cardboard). However, he did use certain visual devices for locating his imagery—a table, mechanisms from the plantation, a tree, or a fountain in a Montgomery square.

Traylor’s action scenes, which Shannon categorized as “Exciting Events,” often featured altercations with hatchets, rifles, animals, and people in the midst of chaos. He often employed chase motifs, as in Untitled (Event with Man in Blue and Snake) (1939, colored pencil and pencil on cardboard). Traylor also frequently employed snakes as agents of chaos or peril, as well. In this drawing, which features several male and female figures in a sort of pursuit, a snake slithers along the bottom of the composition uninvolved, yet suggesting turmoil by its mere presence. Biblical suggestions aside, on plantations, the threat of snakebites, which increased during the warm weather or “snake season,” was a very real and at times fatal threat. Traylor’s chase scenes revolve around the stealing of something, often a chicken, which at the time was also a racist trope in the South.

His animals, like Rabbit (circa 1940–42, watercolor and graphite on cardboard), Yellow Chicken (circa 1939–40, gouache and pencil on cardboard), and Black Turkey (circa 1939-1942, poster paint and pencil on cardboard), were painted magisterially and on their own, like entries in a reference book. However, Traylor also used animals to showcase one creature’s dominance over another. He sometimes does this subtly as with Dog and Cow, wherein the two animals are simply stacked up vertically, and sometimes there is a literal battle as with Untitled (Dog Fight with Writing) (circa 1939–40, opaque watercolor and pencil on paperboard), in which the animals lunge at each other.

Dogs Traylor knew emerged as recurring characters in his work—some as pets, either in rural or urban life, others as hunting dogs, and others as aggressors. For slaves, trained dogs posed a deadly threat, as bloodhounds often tracked down escapees. In the urban atmosphere, police dogs could impose a similar threat. The notion of dog as menace is clear in works like Mean Dog (Verso: Man Leading Mule) (circa 1939–42, poster paint and pencil on cardboard), which shows a large brown dog in the middle of a vicious bark. Still, farm and urban life had their share of canine companions, and this is on display in works like Sickle-Tail Dog, which is filled with sensitivity.

Traylor had a predilection for blue—a bright, cobalt, Yves Klein type of hue. Though he occasionally used the color for women or animals, it was men that were most often blue. Typically with a sense of distinction, his blue men seem a bit older in years, but spry and sly, as in Truncated Blue Man with Pipe (circa 1939–1942, poster paint and pencil on cardboard). Notably, in Self-Portrait (circa 1939–40, gouache and pencil on cardboard), the artist, a cane in each hand, walks along the composition in bright blue pants.

By Sarah E. Fensom

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

Ruth Asawa: Divine Wire Wed, 24 Oct 2018 23:07:24 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Ruth Asawa’s material-driven sculptures spanning 60 years are on view at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation.

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.130, Freestanding Vessel Form), 1996

Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.130, Freestanding Vessel Form), 1996, bronze, golden green patina, 35.6 x 33.7 x 33.7 cm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.089, Hanging Asymmetrical Twelve Interlocking Bubbles), circa 1957 Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.095, Hanging Single-Lobed, Six-Layered Continuous Form within a Form), circa 1952 Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.130, Freestanding Vessel Form), 1996 Ruth Asawa, Untitled (S.132, Freestanding Electroplated Tied-Wire, Organic Form Based on Nature), circa 1963

Unless you’re a native San Franciscan, it’s likely you haven’t heard of Ruth Asawa. The sculptor and arts activist, who died in 2013 at age 86, was many things—a survivor of the Japanese internment camps, an alumna of Black Mountain College, a dedicated advocate for public arts education, and a mother of six. She was also a committed, visionary artist who worked primarily in one material—wire—and explored it to its fullest extent. In Asawa’s artworks, wire is tied, cast, looped, bundled, and divided. It’s woven into geometric shapes and intricately formed into delicate, branch-like sculptures.

Despite its uniqueness in both style and execution, her work has been generally overlooked. That is beginning to change, however, This fall, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis is presenting the major exhibition “Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work,” featuring 60 sculptures and 20 works on paper that span more than 60 years of the artist’s career. “Up to this point she’s been very largely unknown, except in San Francisco,” says Pulitzer Foundation curator Tamara Schenkenberg, who is curating the exhibition. “But if you look across her body of work, she has six decades of creating really innovative sculptures. That’s what I was interested in bringing recognition to.”

Loosely divided into four groups, the art on display spans a wide variety of forms. Asawa’s best-known works, looped wire sculptures, are ethereal, transparent creations constructed of fine, almost mesh-like wire. Many are suspended from the ceiling, and the shadows they cast are as much a part of the pieces as the wire forms themselves. Asawa also made tied wire sculptures, in which she created delicate branching by dividing and bundling wires; electroplated wire sculptures, which used a chemical process to give her material a strikingly different expression; and cast bronze sculptures, within which are the same wire structures she used elsewhere, but in an entirely different form.

But “Life’s Work” is designed to look deeply into not only Asawa’s art itself, but also her methods and artistic values. Schenkenberg says, “She made it a lifelong goal to investigate the properties of wire. Ruth Asawa was very material-driven, and this exhibition will contribute to our understanding of her because it seeks to look more deeply into the material.”

Asawa was very much an artist by choice, not by upbringing. She was born in Southern California in 1926, a first-generation Japanese-American. From the time she was a small child, she worked on her family’s farm, helping with chores and spending a great deal of time outside. That immersion in nature and farm life was a lifelong influence on her artistic vision; in fact, she realized in her later years that her sculptures, with their geometric forms within forms, were the same shapes that, as a child, she used to trace in the dirt with her feet as she rode along the back of the horse-drawn leveler.

Farm life ended cruelly for Asawa and her family in the early 1940s, when first her father, and then she, her mother, and her siblings were sent to the Japanese internment camps. After graduating from high school in the camp, and after her family was released, she studied in Wisconsin to be an art teacher. Discrimination against Japanese-Americans, however, prevented her from being hired as a student teacher, and she left school without obtaining a degree. At a crossroads, unable to become a teacher but unsure of what else to pursue, she discovered the experimental, art-centric Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Home to inspirational and avant-garde teachers like choreographer Merce Cunningham, inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, and artist Josef Albers, Black Mountain was a highly progressive community that encouraged interdisciplinary education. Ultimately, Asawa spent three years there and carried its ethos regarding the vitality of art in education with her throughout her life.

It was during this time that the seeds of her artistic practice were sown. In 1947, Asawa took what would be a life-changing visit to Mexico, where she became interested in the wire baskets that market sellers used to hold their wares. She learned how to craft them herself, using what was to become her signature looping technique, from a local craftsperson. Wire became her material of choice, and her experiments with it, which began in Mexico and at Black Mountain College, continued throughout her life and career as she married, moved to San Francisco, and raised six children—all the while making a living as a working artist.

Asawa’s works are striking for a number of reasons. First, there’s the intricacy—many of her pieces are created with a single piece of wire that is looped over and over into a teardrop or lobe-like shape. Certain of these sculptures seem almost to travel within themselves, creating an interior shape that is connected to the larger one by a single, continuous surface. Then there’s the interesting play of transparency and self-enclosure. Despite being fully enclosed creations, Asawa’s looped wire sculptures are, indeed, transparent—you can see each form within the others, even when, as in some cases, there are five or six lobes nested together. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Asawa’s work, however, is that endless fascination she had with her material. “She was committed to fully investigating the character of wire, and what it can express,” Schenkenberg says. “It’s a very simple means, but she’s able to achieve a huge range of expression.”

It’s easy to just how large that range is in Life’s Work. The tied wire sculptures, for example, are created out of as many as 1,000 bundles of wires that Asawa pulled apart and shaped into delicate, fine lines. They resemble the natural shapes of trees, tumbleweeds, even molecules. Although these pieces maintain the obvious interest in form and method that drove all of Asawa’s work, they look wilder and less geometric, than her looped wire creations. Then there are the electroplated pieces. This body of work consists of sculptures made with copper wire, which Asawa submerged in tanks of chemicals for months at a time. When they emerged, they were covered with gritty, green growths.

Visitors to Life’s Work will also see several of Asawa’s works on paper, as well as cast bronze pieces. These bronze sculptures are unusual because of the way she created them: by using her looping method to create the shape she wanted, then dipping it in wax, and finally casting the form in bronze. This method allowed her to transform the wire into something entirely new, creating a vastly different expression.

Taken as a whole, “Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work” is a nuanced exploration of how this radically curious, highly methodical artist developed her own unique voice. “She’s really multitalented, and very ambitious across different spheres,” Schenkenberg says. “We wanted to look at how Asawa built her form, how her artistic vision evolved. That’s what we’re doing with this show.”

By Elizabeth Pandolfi

Nordic Art: The Idea of North Wed, 24 Oct 2018 23:03:53 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Phillips Collection surveys two centuries of Nordic art.

Nils Dardel, The Dying Dandy, 1918

Nils Dardel, The Dying Dandy, 1918, oil on canvas, 55 1/8 x 70 7/8 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Per Kirkeby, Inferno V, 1992 Akseli Gallen-Kallela, The Defense of The Sampo, 1896 Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait, 1895 I. K. Inha, Sortavala, Rock of Kaarnesaari, 1895 Nils Dardel, The Dying Dandy, 1918

The Danish artist Per Kirkeby, who died last May at 79, warned in an essay titled “Nordic!” against overgeneralizing about the art of Scandinavia: “To write something about what is ‘Nordic’ in art is a tall order indeed. I would prefer not to bother. The easiest thing is to discharge the clichés, the accumulated annoyances. The complacent, homespun ‘Nordicness’ that is self-protective and lends legitimacy to what is only half done. Right down to the belief in peculiarly ‘Nordic’ materials as constituting the space of our art. … Occasionally underpinned by heady accounts of ‘Northern Light’ spreading out across the landscape like some sour unwashed dishcloth. All of which is pretty unwholesome, and certainly fatal for any artist to claim ownership of.”

The most prudent, and also the most intellectually rigorous thing to do, then, is not to generalize too much. That is the approach that the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., has wisely taken in organizing a survey exhibition dedicated to two centuries worth of art from five countries and their territories. “Nordic Impressions: Art from Aland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, 1821–2018,” on view from October 13, 2018 through January 13, 2019, is the result of a years-long collaboration between the Phillips and the embassies in Washington of the Nordic countries. In addition to the fact that the show’s time period spans the early Romantic period to today, the cultural diversity is great enough that any effort to find an artistic common factor would devolve into the most simplistic kind of essentialism. Instead of falling victim to that, the organizers have placed 52 well-chosen works in front of the viewer, ranging from the purest of landscapes to contemporary video performances, and then stepped back in order to allow him or her to absorb the wild creativity of a region that has often been seen as remote or isolated but is actually nothing of the kind.

The earliest work in the show is a visionary work by Johan Christian Dahl, Norwegian Landscape with a Rainbow (1821). Dahl, who was famous for his ability to paint translucent rainbows, created this canvas as a memory piece while he was living and teaching in Dresden, Germany. Instead of working en plein air, he painted an idealized version of the natural surroundings he grew up with, imbuing it with a rather abstract sense of Norwegianness.

Helmer Osslund’s A Summer Evening at Lake Kallsjön (circa 1910) takes a different approach to landscape. A student of Gauguin, the Swedish painter rendered a real scene from direct observation, simplifying forms and textures. Osslund’s technique, like those of many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, was decisively influenced by Japanese printmaking. The green, wet lushness of the valley and the contrasting snow-capped rocky summit of the mountain give the unmistakable sense that this is a landscape of the far north.

Some of the works on view in “Nordic Impressions” are more inward-looking, mindscapes rather than landscapes. One of the most striking is The Dying Dandy (1918), by the expatriate Swedish artist Nils Dardel. The dandy in question, dressed in a green suit and with a complexion that almost matches, lies fainting on a pillow, attended by grieving friends dressed in other bright colors. The composition is obviously modeled on Annibale Carracci’s The Dead Christ Mourned (circa 1604). Dardel lived in Paris, where he associated with the Surrealists and Dadaists and created a style called “Dardelism,” which portrayed a fanciful dreamlike world in which the artist himself was the main character. Dardel had a heart condition and experienced several premonitions of his death, which actually occurred in 1943, a quarter-century after this picture was painted.

No exhibition of Nordic art would be complete without Edvard Munch, the dark prince of depression and ecstasy. His 1895 lithograph Self-Portrait is also a vision of death. The artist, aged only 32 at the time, floats as a ghostly, disembodied head and neck in a pitch-black background. At the bottom of the composition is a severed skeletal arm, a memento mori more befitting an artist than a skull, because it is the hand that draws, paints, and makes prints.

A very different type of visionary was the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. His Defense of the Sampo (1896) illustrates a famous scene from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, in which the Sampo, a magical artifact, is stolen by the magician Vainamoinen. The witch of the dark north, Louhi, for whom the Sampo was made, turns herself into a griffin to menace Vainamoinen’s ship. The painting, while self-consciously Finnish in an archaicizing way, is also influenced by Japanese mythological ukiyo-e, both in its technique of squeezing space and deploying bold flat colors and in its use of monstrous grotesquerie. It was so grotesque that the wife of the man who commissioned it refused to allow it in the house, and it ended up being sold to a public arts society.

The Kalevala, a cycle of folk poems collected orally by the linguist Elias Lönrot in the 19th century, had a huge influence on the Finnish cultural revival. The photographer I.K. Inha made an albumen print in 1895 titled Sortavala, Rock of Kaarnesaari. It shows a scene in Karelia, the eastern portion of Finland which borders Russia, where Lönrot collected much of his material. Here the oldest traditions of Finland survived, and the people with the longest memories lived. Inha preserved a visual record of old-fashioned rural Finland, while Gallen-Kallela gave visual reality to the old legends. Both were associated with the movement known as Karelianism, which regarded Karelia as the source of aboriginal Finnishness.

Per Kirkeby himself is represented in the exhibition by a painting from 1992, Inferno V. The title is likely a reference to August Strindberg’s autobiographical novel Inferno, which makes particular sense because Strindberg was not only a writer but a painter of great skill and vision who strongly influenced Kirkeby. In addition to his painting, Kirkeby was also a trained geologist, and this oil on canvas is not only an abstracted landscape but a look beneath the surface of the northern landscape, into layers upon layers of rock and minerals.

By John Dorfman

Al Thani Collection: Royal Splendor Wed, 24 Oct 2018 22:53:44 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition of the Al Thani Collection in San Francisco highlights the currents of mutual admiration and influence that flowed back and forth between Indian and Western jewelry traditions.

Nawanagar ruby necklace, Cartier, London, 1937

Nawanagar ruby necklace, Cartier, London, 1937, platinum, rubies, and diamonds, 20.5 x 19.5 cm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Pendant, India, circa 1575–1625 Nawanagar ruby necklace, Cartier, London, 1937 Arcot II diamond, India, circa 1760 Turban ornament, India, circa 1900 Taj Mahal emerald, India, 1650–1700 Rosewater sprinkler, North India, 1675–1725 Aigrette Robert Linzeler, Paris, 1910

In India, it was the men of power, rather than the women, who wore the biggest jewels. Not only elaborate rings but brooches, turban ornaments, bracelets, and necklaces adorned kings, princes, and courtiers of the Muslim and Hindu princely states that predated the British Raj, uneasily coexisted with it, and finally came to an end with the creation of the independent nations of India and Pakistan in 1947. In particular, the members of the Mughal dynasty—descendants of Central Asian Turks who invaded India in the early 16th century and ruled the greater part of it until their decline in the 18th century and demise in the 19th—sported the most magnificent jewels, richly colorful creations that captured the imagination of Western travelers, traders, and jewelers alike.

They also captured the imagination of a modern-day Muslim prince, the very deep-pocketed Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani of Qatar, who has managed to acquire an array of Indian royal jewels, as well as jeweled objets d’art and pieces of ceremonial weaponry, that is unparalleled in today’s world. Originally the collection was a personal quest, inspired by his admiration for the work of two contemporary jewelers, one Indian and one American, and his love for Mughal paintings, which frequently portray jewels and their wearers. However, in the past eight years, the Al Thani trove has grown into a truly comprehensive historical jewel archive which is a source of loans for museum exhibitions and book publications. A major show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2009–10 revealed to the world a cross-section of the Al Thani collection, using it as means of chronicling the history of taste in India, Britain, and Europe. In 2014–15, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted around 60 pieces in the exhibition “Treasures from India: Jewels From the Al Thani Collection,” and portions of the collection have also been loaned to exhibitions in Paris, Venice, and Kyoto.

On November 3, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will open “East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection” at the Legion of Honor, showcasing a larger selection of pieces in order to demonstrate how the jewelry arts of the Indian courts both transmitted their influence to Europe and received influences from it, starting at the beginning of the Mughal era and going up through the Art Deco period and right down to the present moment. Organized by Martin Chapman, Curator in Charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Amin Jaffer, Senior Curator of the Al Thani Collection, the exhibition will be on view at the Legion of Honor through February 24, 2019.

“This show is much larger than the Met show and incorporates the collection according to a different agenda,” says Chapman. “It is concerned with the intersection between India and West, as well as with gender roles and their expression though jewelry.” By way of illustration, he points to some of the royal portraits that are included in the exhibition as documentary supplements.” A photograph of Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII, taken on the day of her husband’s coronation as King of England and Emperor of India, shows the queen draped in string upon string of large pearls—a look originated by the Mughal Emperors of India. Although there is political truth and a degree of irony in this look, Alexandra’s act of appropriation doesn’t just reflect the British takeover of India; it reflects the Indian conquest of the world of fashion. A style of jewelry created for Eastern men of power became de rigueur for women of taste in the West and eventually all over the world. The reverse of this gender-to-gender movement (and geographic movement) can be observed in another photo in the exhibition, a portrait of Sir Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, from 1911. The multiple loops of pearls with pendant gems adorning the neck and chest of this modern-day Indian prince, so elaborate that they look almost like a breastplate, were originally made for the jewelry trendsetter Empress Eugénie of France, wife of Napoleon III.

India has long been a source of gemstones—most famously from the mines of Golconda, which supplied most of the diamonds in the world until the modern discovery of diamonds in South America and then in South Africa. Kashmir produced the best sapphires, and Badakhshan the finest spinels. India also occupies a fortunate position at a trade-route crossroads which allowed it to obtain gems from Ceylon and Burma, and pearls from the Persian Gulf. So it is hardly surprising that jewelry has always occupied a special place in the Indian aesthetic cosmos and rose to a level of artistry that is unique. In Hindu culture, each stone had mythic and magical associations with astrological signs and talismanic properties, as well as cultural associations with rank, marital status, and political and military power. Gazing into the depths of a gemstone, one may imagine oneself contemplating a tiny universe; for Indian connoisseurs, this was literally true.

The Mughals, who were Muslim and foreign-descended, assimilated native Indian jewelry and gemological traditions and added touches of their own, deriving not only from the Islamic and Chinese traditions that traveled over the Silk Road. At their court, based in Delhi, the art of jewelry and jewelry appreciation reached a level that is arguably the highest of any culture in the world at any time. In this exhibition, the sense of wonder inspired by Muslin courtly jewelry arts comes through particularly powerfully when viewing the non-wearable objets d’art, such as a rosewater sprinkler from circa 1675–1725 encrusted with rubies, emeralds, and pearls held in a matrix of gold strips, a circa 1740–80 flask from North India or the Deccan made of pure rock crystal with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds set in gold and silver embedded in it, or a magnificent 18th-century figure of a green parrot mounted on a jeweled stand and carrying an emerald in its beak. Another astonishing piece is the Wine Cup of Jahangir, from 1607–08, made of jade on personal commission from the Emperor and covered with ornamental script spelling out Persian poetry and the titles of Jahangir. There is also a profusion of artistry on view in the form of intricately jeweled and enameled sword and knife hilts and scabbards.

The eclectic Mughals also absorbed influences from the West, even at the very beginning of their reign, since Portuguese traders had already set up shop in Goa, on India’s west coast, before the Mughals even established their empire. (In fact, the emeralds so prized by the Mughals were imported to India from Colombia, in South America, by the Portuguese.) Among the European techniques the Mughals made their own was gemstone carving, which, Chapman explains, “is an art that is partly elevated under the influence of the West, as Venetian gem cutters reached India and were working in the trading posts.” The Mughals came to especially favor carved gemstones, particularly emeralds and spinels. These frequently featured Persian and Arabic inscriptions, primarily of a religious nature. Such stones, Chapman says, were worn with the inscription against the skin, since the writing was meant for the wearer, who would thus absorb its beneficent energies. Sometimes they carried inscriptions betokening rank, such as the famous Shah Jahan Emerald, a massive 30.31-carat cabochon-cut stone which is carved with the name and title of the Emperor who built the Taj Mahal (it actually dates from 1621–22, around six years before he became Emperor).

Mughal openness to Western influence extended to gemological technology. The 17th-century French gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier did a lot of business in Mughal India, helping to create a taste for diamonds in the French court, “establishing the preeminence of diamonds in the West never dreamt of before,” says Chapman. “In a way, Louis XIV is echoing what the Mughals do. Before him, although diamonds are much admired in the West, they are not worn in the same profusion or acquired with the same passion.” At the same time, in the West there came about a change in the way diamonds were cut, prefiguring the modern brilliant cut. “This runs directly counter to the Indian culture, where they polished the existing facets of the stone to preserve the weight, because the value is in the weight,” explains Chapman. “In the West, they took an approach that is, in a way, braver. Working with the principles of reflection and refraction, which is a different science, they lose weight and gain sparkle, proportion, and symmetry.” This approach to cutting caught on with the Mughal emperors, especially Jahangir and Shah Jahan. “At the height of its confidence, the Mughal Empire is outward-looking—toward other cultures, toward Western technology and innovations,” says Chapman. “Diamond culture is part of this.”

With the decline of Mughal and other native Indian power in the 19th century, Western influence on Indian court jewelry became stronger and stronger. Some maharajas, as we have seen, were quite happy to wear pieces that had been designed for Western women, and many had their own traditional Indian pieces sent to Europe to be reset or recast in Western styles. The French jeweler Cartier became the go-to source for this, and it was Cartier that ushered in the next phase of the often paradoxical and ironic history of cultural interchange between India and Europe in the arena of jewelry. In the 1920s and ’30, during the Art Deco period, Cartier (and other jewelers) created completely new and in many ways modernistic designs that incorporated influences from traditional Indian courtly jewelry. For example, multicolored arrays of carved gemstones became the basis for Cartier’s iconic “tutti-frutti” style, so called because of its perceived resemblance to hard candies.

In the 21st century, contemporary art jewelers are taking inspiration from older Indian styles and even techniques, and the San Francisco exhibition ends with a section on their work. When the Sheikh Al Thani started his collection, he was particularly enthused by the American-born, Paris-based craftsman JAR (Joel Arthur Rosenthal) and the Mumbai-based Indian jeweler Bhagat. Both are interested in Indian approaches to gem cutting that go against the prevailing practice of geometric faceting. In search of this look, JAR has incorporated historic stones into his pieces, some of which also draw on classic Indian motifs. Bhagat uses custom-cut flat diamonds in his work, which is more modernist and even minimalist in style, while adhering to the ancient Indian technique of kundan, or setting gems in almost invisible settings. With these artists, the East-West circle closes—or at least takes one more turn.

By John Dorfman

Surrealism: Winds of War Wed, 24 Oct 2018 22:49:37 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A new exhibition reveals how Surrealism, the movement that captivated the art world from the 1920s through the 1940s, was held captive by war.

André Masson, There Is No Finished World, 1942

André Masson, There Is No Finished World, 1942, oil on canvas.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Salvador Dalí, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), 1936 Max Ernst, The Barbarians, 1937 André Masson, There Is No Finished World, 1942 Joan Miró, Seated Personages, 1936 Victor Brauner, The Indicator of Space, circa 1934

Of the aftermath of World War I, the renowned German-born artist Max Ernst said, “We young people came back from the war in a state of stupefaction at the absurdity, the total swinishness and imbecility of what had gone on for four years. We had to get back somehow at the ‘civilization’ which was responsible for the war.”

Like so many other artists of his generation, Ernst fought in World War I. He served in the German army from nearly the inception of the conflict until its end, and his discharge, in 1918 (among his ranks he was nicknamed “the man with the iron skull” for being impervious to even the heaviest blow on the head; several of his comrades in art, such as August Macke and Franz Marc of the “Young Rhineland” group, were not so lucky, however, dying during the first weeks of combat). Though he somehow managed to make art during wartime, even showing work in Berlin in 1916, it wasn’t until fighting’s end that his career and the normal functions of the art world could officially begin again. For Ernst, “getting back” at the civilization responsible for the war meant creating provocative and even troublesome work, first as part of the Dada group (a Dada show in Cologne of which he was a part was shut down by the police), and soon after, following his move to Paris in 1922, as a star in the firmament of the budding Surrealist group.

Surrealism rose from the wreckage of World War I. The movement’s forefather, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (he coined the term “surrealism” in 1917 in reference to the work of composer Erik Satie) died of the Spanish flu in 1918 after being wounded in the war. The group essentially formed two factions in the early ’20s—one led by André Breton, the other, by Yvan Goll (for what it’s worth, Breton served in the war; Goll escaped conscription in Switzerland). However, Breton’s penning of the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 served as an official foundation for the movement. With an emphasis on the unconscious, abnormal psychology, and the writings of Freud, the movement sought to re-imagine the landscape of art amid a fractured world.

But what began as a reconstruction soon evolved into a warning and later, a coping device. As Surrealism grew into an international phenomenon throughout the ’20s and ’30s, so did fascism, and eventually, with the advent of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, the movement found itself responding to war yet again.

The influence that fascism and conflict had on the Surrealists is the subject of “Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s,” an exhibition co-organized by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). The show, which runs at the Wadsworth through January 13 (before opening at the BMA and later the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville), examines the way in which totalitarianism was dealt with in the work itself. It also showcases how war influenced the lives of the artists, with many of them fleeing to America as tensions rose in Europe. The exile of these artists had a hand in expanding the audience for Surrealism and in turn growing the movement even further.

In 1942, shortly after his move to the United States, Breton delivered a lecture at Yale University on the one-year anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In his talk he said, “I insist on the fact that Surrealism can be understood historically only in relation to war; I mean—from 1919 to 1939—in relation at the same time to the war from which it issues and the war to which it extends.” It was necessary, noted Breton, that his generation rethink every previously held norm in the wake of World War I. In the exhibition’s catalogue Oliver Shell, associate curator of European painting and sculpture at the BMA and Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles curator of European Art at the Wadsworth, refer to this lecture, writing, “Following Breton’s thinking, Surrealism is thus best understood as a kind of intellectual research project that sought to comprehend the dominant impulses produced by war. Opposed to the nationalism that had led to the horrors of both world wars, Surrealism universally championed revolutionary and Leftist causes. Concurrently, it embraced individualistic modes of thought by exploring the unconscious.”

When reviewing the breadth of the Surrealist movement, the curators found that as the 1930s wore on and nationalist sentiments increased in Europe, so did the presence of monsters and mythological subject matter in Surrealist works. Though the group had long been fascinated by classical mythology and the imagery of dreams and fantasy, these figures seemed to take on a more prescient tone over time. As the exhibition makes clear, the curators deduced that these monsters were metaphors for fascism. Minotaurs, demons, human-animal hybrids, deformed or menacing figures, and unsettling manipulations of space—either through crowding or emptiness—all served as dark omens, harbingers of war, and stand-ins for corruption and evil.

Ernst began using bird-like figures in his work in the late 1920s. Culled from childhood memories and steeped in personal mythology, these figures took on ominous connotations, especially when coupled with apocalyptic landscapes, which they often were. John Russell, in his biography of Ernst, pinpointed these figures as expressions of the artist’s fear of an impending world war. In The Barbarians (1937, oil on cardboard), which comes to the exhibition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two hulking figures, one a birdlike female and the other an octopus-like male, take threatening strides across a verdant landscape. Grotesque creatures perch on their limbs. Their skin, which appears rough and scaly, was created using Ernst’s pioneering method of grattage—in which the artist pressed objects into wet paint in order to produce various textures. Below their enormous feet, a tiny figure of a woman clings to a strange winged creature. The painting, which is part of a series, is thought to represent democracy’s dissent into barbarism. The bird with her right hand stretched heavenward seems to be holding up the earth; the male figure meanwhile is armed for a melee.

With paintings such as Europe After the Rain I (1933), Ernst attracted the disfavor of the Nazis nearly from the beginning of their rise to power. He fled to Avignon, France in 1938 with the painter Leonora Carrington, only to be deemed an enemy alien by the French at the onset of World War II. He escaped to New York in 1941 with Peggy Guggenheim (who would become his fourth wife). Representing this period is Europe After the Rain II (1940–42, oil on canvas), which is in the collection of the Wadsworth. A highlight of the exhibition, the painting is thought to have been begun in France and finished in America. It depicts a ruined, apocalyptic landscape in which a helmeted birdlike figure prods a female figure with a spear. As with its precursor, which was a sort of relief map of a devastated Europe, Europe After the Rain II appears to be the aftermath of the biblical flood or a reign of terror. Its craggy forms, achieved again through grattage, are the sharp remains of an inhospitable world, the land and the inhabitants of which are all monstrous.

Salvador Dalí’s stance on fascism was not initially clear, and in the early 1930s, Breton even accused the artist of defending Hitler. Dalí proclaimed, “I am not Hitlerian neither in fact nor intention.” In 1934, Breton mounted a council in Paris in efforts to oust Dalí from the group, which likely spurred on a talk Dalí led in Barcelona two months later with a left-wing youth group, denouncing fascism and backing leftist causes. But his true opinions on despotic leadership aside, Dalí went on to create several works during this time that dealt with the threat of war and corruption of power.

On the eve of the Spanish Civil War, he created Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) (1936, oil on canvas), a work that comes to the exhibition from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In this painting, a giant, grotesque figure towers above the Catalonian landscape. Thought to be an allegory for the Spanish conflict, the figure rips itself apart in agony, while severed limbs crowd the ground below it. Dalí described the picture as a “vast human body breaking out into monstrous excrescences of arms and legs tearing at one another in a delirium of autostrangulation.”

The exhibition investigates the preponderance of the figure of the Minotaur in the work of the Surrealists. In Greek mythology, and later as explained by the Roman poet Ovid, the half-man, half-bull figure is trapped in the labyrinth, a complicated maze designed by the architect Daedalus under command of King Minos of Crete. The creature is slain by Theseus, the son of Aegeus, the King of Athens and enemy of Minos. Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, who falls in love with Theseus, helps the Athenian navigate the maze using a ball of string. The Minotaur and all its related imagery—the labyrinth, bull, toreador, and bullfight—found its way into the ideology and artwork of the Surrealists, while also coming to symbolize its fight against fascism. The Surrealist journal Minotaure, which was overseen by Breton, ran from 1933 through 1939. In October 1942, an exhibition in New York titled First Papers of Surrealism featured a labyrinth of twine, which led nowhere—an apt metaphor for the cycle of repetitive history the Surrealists experienced between the two world wars.

Pablo Picasso’s Minotauromachy (1935, etching on cream laid paper), which is in the collection of the BMA, is featured in the show. This inclusion suggests a tonal alignment with the Surrealist group during this period. Picasso was fascinated by the mythological figure and depicted it often, as on the cover of the Surrealist journal Minotaure in 1933, and, perhaps most notably, in his masterpiece Guernica (1937). Though his use of the Minotaur is thought to be largely apolitical, it appears in the latter as part of protest against the fascist bombing of Guernica, a Basque market town, in April 1937.

The French artist André Masson, whose work was condemned by the Nazis as degenerate during the German occupation of France, dubbed the era “Minotaurian.” He used the figure quite a few times, influenced in part by a sojourn to Spain in the mid-1930s, when the country was on the cusp of civil war.

“Monsters & Myths” features several works by Masson, which were bequeathed to the BMA by Saidie A. May. The BMA mounted a retrospective of the artist at the museum in 1941, soon after Masson fled to the United States, and has thus had a long relationship with his work. Tower of Sleep, which was painted in 1938 after Masson’s return to France from Spain, though thematically surrealist, takes cues from both Cubism and abstraction. It features a massive, flayed figure at its center, whose exposed muscles and tendons ripple as it storms through a cacophonous, burning tower. This destroyed architectural monstrosity courses with violence as it devolves into sputtering, senseless abstraction. Masson said that the figure represented “the memory of war,” of which the artist surely had some, having served in World War I. Monstrous, nearly alien figures populate the other Masson canvases in the show, such as The Metaphysical Wall (1940, watercolor with pen and black ink over traces of graphite on wove paper) and There is No Finished World (1942, oil on canvas).

By Sarah E. Fensom

Al Loving: Flight to Freedom Wed, 10 Oct 2018 16:50:02 +0000 Continue reading ]]> From hard edge to soft fabric, Al Loving’s abstract creations explore the farther reaches of perception and emotion.

Al Loving, Septahedron 31, 1970

Al Loving, Septahedron 31, 1970, acrylic on canvas , 228.6 x 264.2 cm., signed and dated, verso. Courtesy the Estate of Al Loving and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Al Loving, Untitled, 1975 Al Loving, New Morning #2, 1991 Al Loving, 55 Fair Street ACK #1, 1999 Al Loving, Spatial Collage #3, 2004 Al Loving, Septahedron 31, 1970

Throughout his career, Al Loving maintained that he was an Abstract Expressionist. Whether working with paint, fabric, paper collage, or mixed media, he saw his work as an ever-evolving project creating new dimensions and possibilities for personal expression. At first glance, Loving’s hard-edged abstract paintings of interlocking cubes from the 1960s might appear as anything but personal. The cube, however, held special significance for the artist, and finding new iterations of the form and, through it, new possibilities for abstraction became his chosen path for personal and artistic growth and exploration—not unlike Kazimir Malevich with his square-based Suprematism.

Loving explained, “I didn’t know what to paint. At the end of my graduate school year I went back and started painting a box, or square canvas, maybe three feet by three feet. I would just draw a square in the middle of that with the paint brush. I would proceed to paint the square, the inside of the square and the outside; it was an Albers square. I decided I would paint the square until I could no longer paint squares.” Like Giorgio Morandi’s bottles, with each new creation the cube became imbued with Loving’s essence, the work a record of his technical and intellectual reckoning with the form and thus with himself as an artist. The artist saw no contradiction between abstraction and autobiography.

Loving’s artistic trajectory began in a seemingly more representational vein, as he painted scenes from his own life and experience. He struggled to find his mode of expression, vacillating between abstraction and representation. An early work pictured his wife “conking” her hair. Conking was a particularly significant hair trend among African Americans from the 1920s through the 1960s. The conk hairstyle (derived from congolene, a hair-straightening gel made from lye) involved chemically straightening naturally kinky hair. Black musicians such as Louis Jordan and Little Richard were known for their shining conked pompadours. The process is sometimes described as a painful one, and this attempt to achieve straight, Caucasian-like hair, seems to reflect the strain and discomfort of cultural adaptation endured by many African Americans. In the late ’60s, the conk would be rejected and pointed to as an oppressive tool of internalized cultural domination, and black Americans would move toward allowing their hair to grow naturally, as a political, stylistic, and cultural expression.

Like hair, art was grappling with the idea of what black expression was. Articles from the ’60s and ’70s in art publications attempted to define “black art,” and Loving’s staunchly abstract work resisted overly simple definition. Born in Detroit in 1935, Loving studied painting at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and became associated with the Once Group organization, alongside icons like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. In 1968, Loving relocated to New York City, and his association with the Once Group and its iconic alumni allowed him entry into the New York art world. In 1969, he famously became the first African American to have a one-person show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Alvin Loving: Paintings.” Loving remembers, “I said to Dick Van Buren, my downstairs neighbor, ‘Dick, how come the Whitney Museum wants to give me a one-person show when I’ve only been here 10 months?’ He said, ‘Don’t ask questions. Do the show.’” The exhibition featured only six works—four large assemblages of shaped canvases, and two cube-shaped canvases, including Three Solid Questions. The painting embodies the spirit of Loving’s endeavor, seeming to unfold before the viewer’s eyes with a slow and pensive deliberateness, at one moment seemingly simple and at the next glance a complex hall of mirrors reflecting alternate ways of seeing the cube. Color, also an important element for Loving, is employed both for illusionist effects and expressive beauty—warm gold, cool blue gray, and hard green lines. The work is a collection of visual ideas; it thinks out loud.

This whirlwind of success could threaten to overshadow the work at its center. Loving’s paintings, however, were technically brilliant and compositionally impeccable. He was an unapologetic abstractionist, carrying on a tradition that followed from his teacher Al Mullen and Mullen’s mentor, the great theorist of abstraction, Hans Hofmann. Loving saw Hofmann as a towering figure: “I felt [Hofmann] was the artist who had to be transcended in order to make a contribution to the history of art,” he said. Loving was also an admirer of M.C. Escher’s visual puzzles, and his own work dealt in similar spatial illusions, emptied of Escher’s representational content and set free to function as pure visual games. When viewing Loving’s two-dimensional cubes, visual pleasure is paramount. His paintings are breathtakingly elegant and yet mind-bendingly complex experiences that bring together the eye and the intellect.

Throughout his career, Loving’s work was exhibited widely in the United States and collected by prestigious institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The National Gallery of Art. The artist was the recipient of his share of solo shows at galleries such as June Kelly and at institutions such as The Studio Museum in Harlem, but none was to rival his groundbreaking Whitney solo show in prestige and visibility.

By the time that show was mounted, however, Loving had already begun to “hate” hard-edged abstraction. The interlocking two-dimensional planes that had filled his canvases would soon emerge into three-dimensionality, but in a new, softened state. In the 1970s, the artist began to construct works using pieces of fabric, at first painted and later dyed. The initial spark of inspiration came after Loving’s daughter spilled paint on an unstretched canvas. Seeing the potential of this moment, he tore countless canvases into shreds and began recombining them, not unlike the work of the Italian-American artist Salvatore Scarpitta, who was also using canvases liberated from their wooden frames.

The abstract hanging sculptures that resulted were inspired in part by Loving’s encounter with quilts at the Whitney’s exhibition “Abstract Design in American Quilts” and by fabric works by contemporaries such as Alan Shields, Sam Gilliam, and Richard Moch. In these sculptural works of material abstraction (which the artist still considered Abstract Expressionist), Loving would employ his preternatural knack for composition to organize long strips of fabric into collections of layered planes. Loving was engaging with form in a new way, with works inhabiting a strange space between two-dimensional abstraction and three-dimensional sculpture. These new works appeared to not only bring Loving’s earlier creations into three-dimensions but to deconstruct them, as well, adding just a hint of visual chaos. The precise lines that created the artist’s canvas cubes were now exploded and reassembled, stacked upon each other like so much lumber awaiting its mission.

Loving’s fabric works (and his paper collage works to come) bring to mind John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” (a term coined by jazz critic Ira Gitler to describe the saxophonist’s unique improvisational style). Coltrane’s technique of rapidly moving from high to low notes at intervals sometimes outpacing even 16th notes, created new dimensions of sonic texture. These innovations appear to be given physical form in the long bars of colored fabric which Loving composed with a similar combination of daring and precision. Coltrane and Loving were simultaneously working from tradition while deconstructing it, one musically, one pictorially. Both artists however, saw the heart of their work as expression, or as Coltrane would put it, “feeling.” In Loving’s fabric sculptures, feeling was more evident than previously, the materials allowing for a sensual warmth that his radically geometric canvases seemed to lack.

The approachability and warmth of Loving’s fabric works would continue through his next formal evolution. The artist began to produce large-scale paper collages, which would herald a new freedom and spontaneity. Composed of torn cardboard assembled and glued into intensely complex, large compositions, these works represent a meeting place between his soft, hanging sculptures and his harder-edged earlier paintings. Some of the works of this period measure as much as nine feet across and function, similarly to his hanging fabric works, as both sculptural relief and painting. Gravity, however, has been taken out of the equation, and the artist’s cardboard shreds are allowed to find a variety of directions besides straight down. Never before had Loving had so much access to compositional immediacy. There had always been a barrier before, whether it was the brush or the sewing machine. With these new works, composition seemed as simple as tearing and gluing, the result being a direct line to Loving’s compositional acuity. Here the textural and visual density of collage was combined with an experienced artist’s precision and instinct unfiltered, and the overall effect was quite personal. In his 1974 New York Times appraisal of Loving’s new work, Peter Schjeldahl wrote, “Indeed, he has titled this packed and sprightly new work with the names of friends: “Paul”, “Roger”, etc. And one might say that it is on a kind of first-name basis with the viewer. There is a colloquial mood to its use of an abstract visual idiom—not descending to slang, but eschewing formal precisions in favor of the mixed, flowing tones and stresses of conversation.”

Loving would continue his collages, and as spiral forms found their way into his compositions, some speculated on a connection to African artistic inheritance. On the occasion of the 2004 solo exhibition “Lighter than Air” at Chicago’s G.R N’Namadi Gallery, critic Bridget Goodbody would go as far as to use the term “funkadelic” in describing Loving’s work. It would seem that as Loving grew as an artist and a man, black cultural heritage and experience would come to bear more and more on his work in obvious ways. He would explore more organic forms with connections to the natural world, and eventually even return to the cube, which had defined his early artistic identity. Looking back over Loving’s career, one gets the sense of growing confidence and comfort with himself and his work, the early struggles with the square giving way to a total mastery of the expressive potential of abstraction.

The search for “blackness” in Al Loving’s art seems to be the bogeyman haunting much of the critical writing about his work. It seems akin to the hunt for President Obama’s birth certificate—a pursuit that says more about the art establishment than the artist. Nevertheless, one theme recurs through the various forms of Loving creations: There is the need to break free of the bonds of two-dimensionality, whether through illusionistic spatial effects in painting, sculptural wall hangings, or paper collage and to push the expressive capability of abstraction as far as possible. What unifies Al Loving’s career is a pursuit of something the tightly-framed, privileged view of white America can scarcely appreciate or conceive of: freedom.

By Chris Shields

The Defiant One Sat, 29 Sep 2018 13:53:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A new exhibition on Edward Burne-Jones thinks outside the Pre-Raphaelite box.

Edward Burn-Jones, Adoration of the Magi, 1894

Edward Burn-Jones, Adoration of the Magi, 1894, tapestry, 2580 x 3840 mm;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Edward Burn-Jones, Adoration of the Magi, 1894 Edward Burn-Jones, Atlas Turned to Stone, circa 1878 Frederick Hollyer, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, 1874 Edward Burn-Jones, Love Among the Ruins, 1870-3 Edward Burn-Jones, The Death of Medusa (I), circa 1882 Edward Burn-Jones, The Doom Fulfilled, 1888

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones has long been the figure in the pantheon of British artists to present art historians with a conundrum. As a painter, Burne-Jones was an absolute outsider, having the audacity to experiment with tried-and-true media like watercolor and oil and painting “what he likes in defiance of what he is,” as his hero John Ruskin once said. As an insult, that sounds fairly innocuous, even inspiring, today, but in Victorian England it must have been a low blow in all its gendered disapproval, for Ruskin elaborated, “Jones, with all his power, paints still weakly as a woman—is essentially a woman.” As a designer and draughtsman, Burne-Jones was also misunderstood, partly due to the dichotomy between the fine arts and the “lesser arts”—as his lifelong friend and collaborator William Morris himself even called them—that had become more or less codified during the 19th century.

“Edward Burne-Jones,” a new exhibition at Tate Britain (October 24, 2018–February 24, 2019) tackles these notions and more, enabling us to reconsider and readjust our understanding of Burne-Jones, who was so often simultaneously lauded and disparaged. It is the first show in the United Kingdom to focus on the artist since 1975 and the first at the Tate since 1933. Organized by Alison Smith, Chief Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, and Tim Batchelor, Assistant Curator at Tate Britain, the exhibition emphasizes that Burne-Jones’ artistic and literary skills were largely self-taught, stemming from his own deep personal interests, and thus bore no resemblance to those of his academically-trained peers. At the heart of the curators’ conception is the belief—nay, fact—that “Burne-Jones was not a fine artist,” as exhibition contributor Elizabeth Prettejohn, Professor at the University of York, puts it. “Art-historical interpretations fail,” she adds, “when they attempt to treat him as though he were.”

And so for much of the last century, scholars didn’t know quite what to do with him. Tate Britain (then known as the National Gallery of British Art) did acquire its first work by Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884), in 1900, two years after his death, but by then the artist had already fallen far from grace, and prices for his art had dropped still further. In 1904, his widow Georgiana attempted to rehabilitate his image with her two-volume Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, now considered the most important reference book for anyone writing about the artist.

The next decades were even less kind to him, undoubtedly due to the depreciation of the medieval and Renaissance revivalism—and any other historicist or “neo-” style—that had been central to (and had become the namesake of) the Pre-Raphaelite ethos, in favor of the clean slate of modernism. In his classic Pioneers of the Modern Movement, first published in 1936, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner blamed Burne-Jones for what he interpreted as the lack of simplicity or, in his words, “decorative economy,” of Morris & Co.’s stained glass—despite Pevsner’s overwhelming praise for those windows in his other writings. According to Pevsner, William Morris, the grandfather of all that ushered in the new, had been held back by Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones simply wasn’t modern enough.
Three years prior, in 1933, the Tate attempted to resurrect Burne-Jones in an exhibition held on the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday. Eighty-five years have passed since that centennial show, during which the critical reception of Burne-Jones has swung back around. The mid-century flatly saw Burne-Jones as old-fashioned, but the artist’s reputation finally began its full conservation and restoration when the Hayward Gallery in London presented a retrospective in 1975, at the height of England’s infatuation with Victoriana. This was followed in 1998 across the pond by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, not to mention a laundry list of international shows on the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement.

Burne-Jones never attended the usual art academies for designers and artists. In 1853, at 20, he enrolled at Exeter College, Oxford, where he met Morris. The two quickly gave up their study of theology and found other mutual passions. Within a few years, they had befriended their idols, Ruskin and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the former shepherding the young Burne-Jones in Italy twice, the latter becoming his informal bottega master. Burne-Jones and Morris quickly reoriented their goals from religion toward the cult of beauty, working together as artist-designers with the establishment of the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.

As an untrained painter—with the exception of that self-imposed apprenticeship under Rossetti—he did not remain fixed in his ideas on sources for artwork; while other artists painted more conventional subjects from Shakespeare and 19th-century novels, Burne-Jones mined arcane classical and medieval literature. The same went for his use of varied media, leading to experimentation that may not have been possible for an artist working within the rigid parameters of a school. Going against academic art convention, Burne-Jones preferred to use oils as though they were a glaze to be built up and to thickly layer his watercolors to create opacity, most noticeable today in the bright highlights of zinc white. Very often his works in watercolor, already considered a forbiddingly feminine medium for a man, were mistaken for oil paintings and vice versa. Such criticism probably fueled his departure from the Old Water Colour Society in 1870.

He also designed across an extraordinarily wide range of arts: paintings, drawings, prints, books (including those for Morris and Rossetti), furniture, and musical instruments, to name just some. Lagter, these ventures were sometimes dismissed in favor of calling him only a painter. (Again, Pevsner comes to mind.) In reality, Burne-Jones was so prolific as a designer—he produced over 270 designs for stained glass between 1872 and 1878 alone—that his oeuvre remains nearly impossible to solidify in a single catalogue raisonné.

As demand for his work soared in the 1860s and ’70s, particularly the stained glass, Burne-Jones moved still farther from what history has come to understand as the archetypal 19th-century role of the artist and closer to an Italian Renaissance model of a workshop, employing artisans and students to work from his designs. Not unlike with Raphael and his sought-after cartoons for tapestries, Burne-Jones’s designs in wool proved enduring; Morris & Co. first executed the artist’s Adoration of the Magi tapestry in the late 1880s for their not-quite alma mater Exeter College, and over the next 20 years, the firm produced nine more tapestries, including the 1894 version later presented to the city of Manchester and now on view in London.

This practice probably is not surprisingly given that the artist-designer would return to Italy twice more. During these trips he learned to retreat from Rossetti’s painterly example, taking instead as his guides Botticelli, Mantegna, and Luca Signorelli, among other quattrocento and cinquecento masters, whose oeuvres underlie the intricate and mysterious iconographic program of works like The Golden Stairs (1880). Desiderium (1873), given to the Tate in 1910 by the artist’s son Sir Philip Burne-Jones, is an exercise in both Michelangelesque materiality and ethereality. The androgynous head of Cupid in profile (a prime example of the effeminacy critics often accused Burne-Jones’ subjects of having) rests on an impossibly long and strong Mannerist neck, yet the rendering is so delicate, even diaphanous, that Cupid might lift off the paper and float away.

In 1877, the Grosvenor Gallery displayed eight paintings by Burne-Jones to great fanfare, including The Beguiling of Merlin (1872–77). The following year, that canvas, along with the icon of post-troubadourian amour Love Among the Ruins (1870–73), traveled to the Exposition Universelle in Paris, opening the artist up to powerful, albeit brief, international accolades, especially among the Symbolists.

In many ways, the Tate show picks up where these admirers left off more than a century ago. In 1890, The Legend of Briar Rose had been a must-see for any Londoner when Thomas Agnew & Sons on Old Bond Street displayed the four canvases together. The ladies’ magazine The Woman’s World called it “the art-sensation of the season.” Alexander Henderson, 1st Baron Faringdon, immediately purchased the Briar Rose series (for the princely sum of £15,000, or nearly $800,000 in today’s terms) to be installed at Buscot Park, Oxfordshire, with a series of custom friezes that tied the story together and integrated the scenes within Lord Faringdon’s music room. The canvases proved so popular, both in England and abroad, that Agnew’s Gallery published a widely circulated set of photogravures (a French technique combining photography and etching) after the four paintings.

“Edward Burne-Jones” is no doubt the art sensation of this season. At Tate Britain, where the artist’s drawings, furnishings, instruments, and even caricatures will receive due attention alongside his better-known and more often-exhibited watercolors and oils, audiences will finally have a comprehensive picture of this versatile artist. They will also have the opportunity, for the first time ever, to see together his two masterpieces of painting cycles—and probably his two most important private commissions—The Legend of Briar Rose and Perseus.

These two are exemplary of Burne-Jones’ mastery of the unconventional, both artistic and literary. Through his singular storytelling ability, by which passages and figures are dramatically duplicated—and further enhanced in Briar Rose by Morris’ added verses—Burne-Jones created visions of the fairy tale and the myth that seem both firmly rooted in Victorian England and timeless. In The Legend of Briar Rose, we witness the single moment of Sleeping Beauty’s repose from four perspectives—but all fundamentally the vision of Burne-Jones interpreting centuries of visual culture. The slumber of the kingdom and the Briar Wood encompasses three canvases, with the fourth, The Rose Bower (1885–90), culminating in the protagonist asleep with her attendants. Burne-Jones also paints The Death of Medusa from two distinct angles, essentially presenting the scene to the viewer in the round, lest we forget that the artist went to the trouble of making a wax model of the Gorgon. In the first version (1881), Burne-Jones depicted Perseus in the act, pulling Medusa’s head back while Pegasus looms over the body, which looks more like a Roman marble fragment of an Amazon warrior than a corpse so freshly decapitated that it has yet to hit the ground. In the second version (1881–82), Perseus reaches to place the head in a bag in order to avoid being turned to stone by her gaze.

In 1875, Arthur Balfour (who would in 1902 become Prime Minister of England) commissioned Perseus for his London home, but the artist’s grandiose and ambitious proposal for a 10-scene cycle was never completed. At Tate Britain, the Perseus cycle’s original four unfinished canvases, now at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, will be joined by the accompanying studies now preserved at the Southampton City Art Gallery and in the museum’s own collection, presenting for the first time Burne-Jones’s complex iconographic program in all its overwhelming glory.

The exhibition also boasts an incredible array of works that museumgoers rarely get to glimpse, including those from private collections like Love Among the Ruins and the Orphic piano (1879–80) commissioned by the Glasgow MP William Graham for his daughter Frances, as well as several artworks lent by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jimmy Page. Where such figures of pop-cultural appreciation are concerned, Burne-Jones has been at the center of a post-Victorian reawakening since the 1970s Anglo-American revival of interest in his circle. The curators even point to Burne-Jones’s modern influence in art and music, suggesting that the anti-Pre-Raphaelite mantle of yesteryear’s historians has finally been completely shed.

If the 20th-century reverence for anti-establishment art tells us anything at all, it’s that an artist of the untouchable caliber of Burne-Jones should probably receive the reverence due a demigod. Maybe museumgoers don’t need to go to quite those lengths, despite Burne-Jones’s own spiritual leanings, but the Tate’s exhibition does drive home that Burne-Jones—the painter, draughtsman, designer, alchemist—did not paint “in defiance of who he [was],” but rather in defiance of who everyone else was.

By Martina D’Amato

A Writer’s Wordless Visions Sat, 29 Sep 2018 13:52:48 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The artwork of Victor Hugo is revealed at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

Victor Hugo, Ma destinée (My destiny), 1867

Victor Hugo, Ma destinée (My destiny), 1867, brown ink and wash and white gouache on paper, 17.2 x 26.4 cm.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Victor Hugo, Ma destinée (My destiny), 1867 Victor Hugo, Silhouette de château illuminé par un orage (Silhouette of a castle struck by lightning), circa 1854-57 Victor Hugo, Silhouette de l’Ermitage (Silhouette of l’Ermitage), circa 1855 Victor Hugo, Taches (Stains), circa 1875 Victor Hugo, Souvenir d’un burg des Vosges (Souvenir of a castle in the Vosges), 1857

Some of the most astonishing and advanced artworks of of the 19th century were created by an amateur, part-time artist—Victor Hugo. Famous in France and throughout Europe for his poetry and epic novels such as Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), Hugo was also a passionate practitioner of ink-and-wash drawing, which he pursued privately, with no desire to make a name for himself as a visual artist. (In fact, he was concerned that his drawings might encroach on his literary reputation.) It was not until 1888, three years after his death at the age of 83, that any of his drawings were exhibited in public, although he occasionally allowed prints to be made from a few of them.

Delacroix admired his work and claimed that if he had wanted to, Hugo could have been the greatest artist of his age. Baudelaire, a fellow writer who was also deeply attracted to the visual arts (as a critic), wrote of Hugo, “Our poet is the king of landscape painters.” And Théophile Gautier wrote that Hugo “excels at combining, in his somber and fierce fantasies, the effects of the chiaroscuro of Goya and the terrifying architecture of Piranesi.” While Hugo’s drawings are clearly rooted in the aesthetics of the Romantic movement, to our eyes they look remarkably contemporary. With their bold use of form and texture, some of them seem to prefigure 20th-century abstraction, like the late works of Turner.

The Hammer Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles is now giving American viewers a rare opportunity to appreciate Hugo’s drawings. “Stones to Stains: The Art of Victor Hugo,” which opened on September 27 and continues through December 30, exhibits more than 75 drawings and photographs spanning the artist’s career, loaned from major European and American collections including those of the Maisons de Victor Hugo, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Musée d’Orsay, the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Morgan Library. Curated by the Hammer’s Cynthia Burlingham and Allegra Pesenti, this exhibition is the first to focus on Hugo’s drawings since a show at the Drawing Center in New York in 1998. It is accompanied by a catalogue with essays by Burlingham, Pesenti, and Swiss independent scholar Florian Rodari and a chronology by Matthieu Vahanian, curatorial assistant at UCLA’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts.

Despite the fact that he devoted far more time to writing than drawing, Hugo produced a vast visual oeuvre of over 3,000 sheets. It seems that doing them was therapeutic for him, a retreat into a purely visual, contemplative realm after the effort of writing. Although he drew throughout his life, his greatest volume of production was between 1848 and 1851, when he all but gave up writing in favor of spolitical activity in support of the revolutionary liberal cause of that period. After the failure of this cause and the accession to power of Napoleon III, Hugo was exiled to the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey, where he spent the years 1852–70; this time was also a particularly fertile one for his drawing practice.

Hugo was inspired by the rocky landscape of the islands, as he had been earlier by the human-hewn stones of Paris’ architecture. His more realistic drawings include dramatic, moody images of castles, cathedral spires, cityscapes, and the famous Eddystone lighthouse. One drawing from 1866, of a staircase leading up to a barred window inside a Guernsey lighthouse, makes clear why Gautier compared Hugo to Piranesi; the image, though not of a prison, strongly suggests the Carceri of the Italian master. The window glows with the light of freedom yet unattained, and one thinks of the years Jean Valjean spent in jail in Les Misérables. Another consistent theme in Hugo’s drawings is water, which held multiple meanings for him—power, mutability, destiny. It also had a tragic connotation because of his daughter Léopoldine’s accidental death by drowning in the Seine in 1843, at the age of 19. This event forever changed Hugo, and for several years thereafter his depression was so severe that he could barely write. One memorable sheet in the exhibition, made in 1867, shows a huge wave curling, cresting, and foaming, over the inscription “Ma Destinée” (“my destiny”).

Water is, of course, also the medium of Hugo’s drawings, in the form of the ink washes, mostly brown, that he employed to make them. In his use of wash, and, in fact, all his techniques, Hugo took the maximum liberty, completely indifferent to academic conventions and public taste alike. He would let the pooling of the ink-and-water mix on the paper create its own shapes; this process is what led to the seemingly unprecedented abstraction of Hugo’s works on paper. Sometimes he would fold the paper to create a Rohrschach-like blotting effect. These drawings he called his taches (stains). He would add texture with impressions made with his fingertips or with objects such as leaves or bits of lace, and sprinkle graphite powder over the drawing. Further departing from traditional methods, he made extensive use of stencils that he cut himself to create irregular forms; one of the most memorable of these depicts a castle on a rocky crag in silhouette, almost dwarfed by jagged shapes overhead that look like black lightning bolts. Hugo’s wild, untethered experimentation with techniques and materials, making the fullest use of the medium’s expressive possibilities, marks him as a proto-modernist and proto-abstractionist.

Unlike the modernists who came on the scene a half-century later, Hugo had no particular doctrine to promulgate or mission to accomplish. If anything, the artistic spirit in his drawings, as in his writings, is Romantic. His most abstract drawings are passionately expressive of the power of spirit and nature, with a pervasive dark atmosphere that is almost Gothic. And in keeping with the rapid growth of scientific knowledge during the 19th century, some of Hugo’s drawings go beyond earthly nature to embrace the cosmos, such as his otherworldly tache images of the planets and the moon. “Poets have invented a metaphorical moon, scientists an algebraic moon,” wrote Hugo. “The real moon is halfway between the two. That is the moon my eyes beheld.”

By John Dorfman