Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Sat, 28 Nov 2015 02:22:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Companion Piece Tue, 24 Nov 2015 19:50:35 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A show at the Denver Art Museum highlights the work of two lifelong friends and fellow painters of the Taos School.

E. Martin Hennings, Passing By

E. Martin Hennings, Passing By, circa 1924, oil on canvas, 44 x 49 inches;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Walter Ufer, Me and Him, 1918 E. Martin Hennings, Beneath Clouded Skies E. Martin Hennings, A Friendly Encounter E. Martin Hennings, Passing By

Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings, friends and colleagues who lived and painted in Taos, N.M., in the early decades of the 20th century, are getting a double retrospective at the Denver Art Museum. Today, their work is appreciated mainly as “Western American art,” but as practicing artists they were fully integrated into the wider American art world, and both had been formed artistically in European academies. “A Place in the Sun: The Southwest Art of Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings” (December 13–April 24), through 38 major paintings, intends to place these artists back into their full and proper context and to show them in relation to each and to national and international art trends of their era.
Both Ufer and Hennings were members of the Taos Society of Artists, a group that came into being in 1898, when painters Oscar E. Berninghaus and Bert Geer Phillips accidentally discovered the picturesque town nestled in the northern New Mexico mountains when their wagon broke down during a road trip. Eventually the ranks included Kenneth Adams, Ernest L. Blumenschein, E. Irving Couse, W. Herbert “Buck” Dunton, Victor Higgins, and Joseph H. Sharp; the group formally disbanded in 1927. While their styles and subjects differed, these artists had in common a fascination with the region’s unique landscape and Native American culture and a propensity for applying traditional European techniques and styles (with the occasional dash of modernism) to this exotic subject matter.

For Ufer and Hennings, European meant German, and one of the main themes of this exhibition is the tremendous cultural clout Germany had in this country up until World War I. Both men were of German origin; Ufer was born there but grew up in Louisville, Ky., while Hennings was born in New Jersey to German immigrant parents who soon moved the family to Chicago. Both were patronized by a syndicate of German-American businessmen, led by the mayor of Chicago, who subsidized their trips to Taos and collected and helped market their works.

Chicago where was both got their start, as commercial artists, but they yearned for fine art training abroad. Fluent in German, they felt more comfortable going to the mother country than to Paris, the usual choice for young Americans seeking Old World academic training. Ufer and Hennings chose Munich, where they met and became friends as fellow members of the American Artists Club there. The city at this period was a major center of international art study, both academic and avant-garde, and the Munich Secession actually predated the Vienna and Berlin Secessions. Hennings studied with the leader of the Secessionists, the Symbolist painter Franz von Stuck, whose other notable students included Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Paul Klee.

Ufer chose the more old-fashioned Walther Thor, an exacting teacher who specialized in portraiture and favored the alla prima method, in which wet paint was layered on top of wet paint, giving the result an especially rich quality but making it basically uncorrectable. The story goes that when Ufer was working on a portrait of a peasant woman, Thor stopped by, grabbed a palette knife, and scraped the whole thing right off the canvas. He explained that he thought it was very good work but wanted to see “if it was an accident.” Ufer was enraged but called the model back and redid it, and when Thor saw the result, he commented, “It’s better than the first—now I know you can paint.”

And Ufer certainly could paint. His large canvases are tours de force of brush handling, brilliant light and color, and unusual perspectives. He loved the American Southwest and especially its indigenous peoples, among whom he found the subject matter that inspired his best work. In 1916 he wrote, “Here, some day, will be written the great American epic, the great American opera. … The very cliffs cry out to be painted. The world in all of its history has never seen such models as these survivors of the cliff dwellers. These mountains are the American Parnassus.”

Nonetheless, Ufer’s work celebrates the everyday, and he always made sure to depict the Indians as they really were in the 20th century, not some romanticized archetype. One of his best works, Bob Abbott and His Assistant (1935) shows an Indian in traditional garb sitting on the bumper of a trashed Reo touring car (Ufer’s own) as the auto mechanic leans against the fender. In the background, negating all of man’s contraptions, loom the snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range. In Me and Him (1918), two Indian laborers with braided hair glare skeptically down at the viewer. Always sensitive to color, Ufer used the Indians’ habit of wearing colorful blankets to populate his paintings with bold hues juxtaposed as often as possible in complementary fashion. His preference for odd angles was a trademark; for example, in Luncheon at Lone Locust (1923), Ufer takes a view that looks as if it had been a photograph snapped in haste and lavishes all his painterly technique on it, a striking incongruity that brings the painting as close to modernism as this artist chose to get.

While Ufer had a long career, his best period lasted just seven years, from 1916 to 1923, after which alcoholism caused him to become very erratic. His friend Hennings was a far steadier worker and a less dramatic character. He is best known for depictions of the forests around Taos, usually with Indians in and among them but basically dwarfed by nature, as in a Chinese landscape. As the curators of the exhibition point out, Hennings’ renderings of trees and other foliage were strongly influenced by Jungendstil (the German version of Art Nouveau), which he had absorbed from von Stuck and the Munich milieu. But that was about as modern as Hennings was willing to get. He called himself a conservative, insisting that there were “fundamentals to be observed, which must embody all the elements of art which I term draftsmanship, design, form, rhythm, color.” And for him, as for Ufer, all those elements came together best when brought to bear on the land and people of New Mexico.

By John Dorfman

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The Medium is the Magic Tue, 24 Nov 2015 19:42:32 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A show at LACMA puts the fantastical aspects of photography on display.

Harold Edgerton, Bullet through Jack of Hearts

Harold Edgerton, Bullet through Jack of Hearts 1960, printed later, gelatin silver print.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Portrait of 3 Unidentified Men, circa 1850 Eugène Atget, Eclipse, 1911 Lucas Samaras, Photo Transformation 8/19/76 Harold Edgerton, Bullet through Jack of Hearts

In his 1987 book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Ioan P. Couliano discusses society’s interaction with technological development: “Magic and science,” he writes, “represent needs of the imagination, and the transition from a society dominated by magic to a predominately scientific society is explicable primarily by a change in the imaginary.” Couliano’s point could guide a reading of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it was written 20 years later. Márquez’s novel, arguably the best-known example of magical realism, describes the Buendía family’s foundation of the fictional Colombian town of Macondo. Various extraordinary occurrences befall the family and the town, while simultaneously, new technologies, such as the automobile, cinema, and the daguerreotype are slowly introduced, disrupting Macondo’s highly spiritual and somewhat fantastical way of life. The daguerreotype camera is met with confusion, if not mistrust—it’s easier for the family to comprehend their own belief system than a new-fangled machine that captures human likenesses. (Once the technology is embraced, however, one family member sets out to capture the image of God.)

Historically, the members of the Buendía family are not photography’s only reluctant sitters. A machine that could automatically turn a moment or experience into a tangible object seems like magic, until, as Couliano suggests, the imagination accepts it as a scientific reality and not a fantastical illusion, or something entirely more sinister. However, photography’s history as an artistic medium is punctuated by illusion. Photographers are able to create pictures that seem at once to be reality and fantasy. “The Magic Medium,” a current show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (until February 7), puts 19 works from the museum’s permanent collection on view. Spanning 150 years, the exhibition explores how photographers have used process, composition, and the decisive moment to conjure spells and perform tricks.

Dhyandra Lawson, curatorial administrator in the Wallis-Annenberg Photography Department at LACMA and the curator of “The Magic Medium,” says that magical realism was an entry point for the show and that she reread One Hundred Years of Solitude in preparation. Lawson cites Untitled (hallway), a 2008 coupler print by Los Angeles-based artist Matt Lipps as an example of a “mystical moment.” Part of Lipps’ 2008 “Home” series, Untitled (hallway) depicts a puff of smoke in the artist’s childhood home. In this series, Lipps affixed cut-outs of Ansel Adams’ photographs to cardboard backgrounds and propped up them up on a table in front of multi-tonal images of his former home, taking a photograph of the standing collage. The result is a combination of the familiar and normal with the unknown and spectacular.

Similarly, William Eggleston, whose photograph Untitled [Building with strange cloud] (circa 1974) is in the show, has an uncanny ability to turn ordinary aspects of life into alluring images. “It’s about finding magic in the ordinary,” says Lawson. “Looking at the roof in this photograph is a valuable endeavor.” A photograph by Eugène Atget shows revelers crowding together on a city street to see something extraordinary—an eclipse. The photography, appropriately titled Eclipse, was taken by the French photographer in 1911, with this silver print printed in 1956.

Harold Edgerton’s Bullet through Jack of Hearts (1960, printed later) features a magician’s prop (is this your card?), but showcases a photographer’s trick. Edgerton captured the bullet sailing through the air, just after it punctured the card, by using ultra-fast stroboscopic lights. Whereas Nic Nicosia’s gelatin silver print Love + Lust #5 (1990) pulls off another form of trickery: the two lovers seen caught in a passionate kiss are hired actors. Says Lawson, “This print in particular is my nod to the cinema.”

This exhibition marks the first time that examples from LACMA’s daguerreotype collection will be on public display. Portrait of 3 Unidentified Men (circa 1850), a daguerreotype plate secured in a four-bracket preserver and leather case, shows three men posing closely together, while Untitled (circa 1850), a daguerreotype with a scallop brass mat, shows a woman regally sitting for her portrait. Daguerreotypes, which were exposed in the dark and developed with the vapor of mercury onto a sheet of silver-coated copper, are reminiscent of the purest crossroads between magic and science: alchemy.

By Sarah E. Fensom

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Perfect Timing Tue, 24 Nov 2015 19:20:34 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Starting in the late 18th century horologists and other artisans poured all their ingenuity and fantasy into extravagantly decorated mantel and desk clocks.

18th-century ormolu and Derby porcelain annular timepiece

A late 18th-century ormolu and Derby porcelain annular timepiece by Justin Vulliamy, with probably royal provenance.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) 18th-century ormolu and Derby porcelain annular timepiece Mahogany tambour shelf clock Chinese tribute clock in the form of a double gourd American brilliant cut glass clock by Bergen Egyptian Revival clock by Cartier

Benjamin Franklin said, “Remember, time is money,” in 1762, and people have taken that advice to heart ever since—though not always in the manner that the man on the hundred-dollar bill meant. Exquisite clocks unite time and money in the form of status symbols that wowed when they were new and still inspire awe as antiques. Prosperous homes of the 18th and 19th centuries had to have a tall-case clock, but one timepiece was not, and could never be, enough. Smaller clocks, variously called mantel, shelf, bracket, or table clocks, often graced the homes of the wealthy, and as technology advanced, even smaller timepieces—desk clocks—started appearing in the late 19th century. Both styles of design prove the adage that small is beautiful.

The term mantel clock, so called because many were placed on the mantel above a fireplace, refers to any timepiece that isn’t made to hang on a wall or sit on a floor. Spring-driven mechanisms, which didn’t need to rely on falling weights for power, freed these clocks to sit on flat surfaces. This freedom also encouraged designers to pay attention to every surface of the clock, the back included. With all sides visible, all sides deserved decoration. A great example is a 1795 George III painted satinwood bracket clock, now on offer at Mallett Antiques, a gallery with branches in London and New York. The delicate woodwork on the clock’s back is of a piece with the lavish decoration on its front and sides.

“Keep in mind the important function of a mantel,” says Ludovic Rousset of M.S. Rau of New Orleans. “It was the prominent spot in the main room, the focus. It was a very important place in the house. Generally, you had a mirror above the mantel. [The clocks] became really three-dimensional because you could show the back.”

Some of these free-standing clocks could be incredibly elaborate. A circa-1830 Austrian mantel clock at Delaney Antique Clocks in West Townsend, Mass., revels in its own details, which include gilt-painted lions, flowers, and an eagle, alabaster columns, and a brass-mounted porcelain dial. As if that weren’t enough, the dial showcases automata: a pair of cupids forging arrows. The one on the left strikes his anvil to mark the hour. Other antique clocks are desirable for their beauty as well as their innovations. Delaney also has a shelf model of a rosewood veneer acorn clock made by J.C. Brown of Bristol, Conn., in the mid- to late 1830s. Its looks are complimented by its works, which feature fusees, a function that enabled the eight-day spring-driven clock to behave more like a weight-driven clock. Spring-driven clocks had the disadvantage of running faster in the days after the clock is wound and running slower in the days prior to its next winding. The fusees equalized the effects of the springs and improved the clock’s accuracy.

The mantel clock form served as a magnificent platform for sculpture, and clock-makers exploited this to the fullest. Earlier this year Bonhams London auctioned a late 18th-century timepiece that likely belonged to the Prince of Wales. Created by Justin Vulliamy, of the noted Vulliamy family of British clockmakers, its construction posed special difficulties. Vulliamy did not make the biscuit porcelain figure of Andromache under his own roof; he contracted a British porcelain factory for the task. James Stratton, clock specialist at Bonhams, estimates that 5 to 10 pieces of this type might have been made. The steep price did as much to limit the numbers as the complexities of production. “It cost a lot of money,” Stratton says. “You had to be a member of the royal family or a member of the aristocracy to buy one.” A May 1784 bill addressed to the Prince of Wales for 90 guineas that describes a clock matching the Andromache’s description bears this out. After 50 years off the market, the Vulliamy sold for £120,100 ($184,145) in March.

The mantel clock that burns in Stratton’s memory was created to please another crowned head, and was even more complicated and elaborate. Delivered by Hartmann, Paris, for an 1801 forerunner of the World’s Fair held in the French capital, the gilt-clad marvel boasted no fewer than eight dials, three of which referenced the Republican calendar that Napoleon established in 1793. A now-curious dial devoted to the months of the year relied on a system invented after the French Revolution that replaced the months’ traditional names with new ones derived from words such as “foggy” and “snowy.” Stratton says that he and his colleagues were “100 percent sure that Napoleon saw this clock when he walked around [the exhibition floor] in 1801.” Auctioned at Bonhams’ New Bond Street location in June 2011, it garnered £322,400 ($354,600).

The name of Napoleon is forever linked to mantel clocks. Probably the best-known form of mantel clock is a tambour, which is commonly called a Napoleon clock because its shape recalls the silhouette of the French emperor’s iconic hat. So well-known is this form that E. Howard, a Massachusetts clock-maker, felt free to riff on it by blowing it up to delightfully absurd proportions. A handsome circa 1910 E. Howard mahogany tambour shelf clock on display at Delaney Antique Clocks could only fit the mantel of a giant: It measures 63 inches across, 38-and-a-half inches tall, and 7-and-a-half inches deep.

Another interesting spin on the Napoleon mantel clock is available at M.S. Rau. Dating to around 1825 and credited to André of Paris, the elegant timepiece spotlights a porcelain insert, painted to recall Jacques-Louis David’s famous equestrian portrait of Napoleon, and surrounds it with ormolu. As with the Vulliamy clock, André of Paris almost certainly looked to an outside specialist for the porcelain, but only one name is on the finished clock. The omission of the contributor’s name could have been calculated. Rousset speculates that “maybe they didn’t want the quality of the painting to take over the quality of the clock.”

Clocks were among the few areas within the decorative arts in which the Chinese relied on imports from the West—at least in part. In March, Bonhams New York sold a captivating late 18th-century Chinese tribute clock driven by English-made works. It stands out for its combination of Chinese details (the bejeweled Chinese character above the clock face means “great auspiciousness”) and European details (the four kneeling figures who hoist the double-gourd shaped case are Western in appearance). “I’ve never seen anything quite like this, though the materials and the methods of making are all quite common,” says Bonhams expert Jonathan Snellenburg, adding, “When Chinese buyers viewed the clock, they saw it as European, and when Europeans saw it, they saw it as Chinese.” (The winning bidder was American.) While it would have been given by an individual to a higher-ranking person, it does not seem to have been intended for the Emperor. And though it might look lavish, it’s actually on the modest side for a Chinese tribute clock, according to Snellenburg, who reports seeing far grander ones. Estimated at $80,000–120,000, it commanded $161,000.

As the 20th century approached, mantel clocks continued to change with the times and fashions. Macklowe Gallery of Manhattan recently sold a jaw-droppingly gorgeous circa-1900 Art Nouveau mahogany clock by Parisian furniture-maker Georges Ernest Nowak. “It’s unusual and pretty rare,” says Lary Matlick, vice president of the gallery. “It’s also finished very, very well. There’s a lot of three-dimensionality that’s lost in the photo.” Though it would have been contemporary-looking in its time, its manufacture was traditional in that it demanded contributions from a range of different artisans—bronze for the face and other details, inlay work, blue rippled glass for the back, cabinetry, and clockworks, among others. By 1940, the mantel clock had transformed to the point that Gübelin of Switzerland could create a timepiece that expertly combined the present and the past. The Renaissance-era scene places ivory figures against an ormolu background, but the clock itself is small and slim (under a foot tall and less than three inches deep) and calls to mind another standard mantel decoration: a framed painting. The Gübelin is now in the possession of M.S. Rau.

Desk clocks are mainly defined by their size—if they’re under 12 inches, they qualify, and most are significantly smaller than a foot. The same technological advances that gave rise to the pocket watch permitted freestanding clocks to shrink. M.S. Rau now has an interesting outlier among desk clocks-—a circa-1880 desk with a built-in clock. The desk is a copy of one originally built circa 1765 for the Duc de Choiseul-Praslin, Prime Minister under King Louis XV. He was among the very few people in the world then who would have needed to slice his day in precise-to-the-minute slivers to greet and hear as many petitioners as he could. If he did not control the time, he lost control of so much more. Having an impressive gilt-bronze clock hovering above the prime minister and his sitters as they conferred kept things moving and reinforced awareness of who was in charge.

That exception aside, desk clocks typically sport petite dimensions that lend themselves to jewelers’ flights of fancy. Cartier began offering timepieces in the late 19th century in styles ranging from clocks with guilloche enamel up to gem-laden, over-the-top confections. Hancocks of London currently has a circa-1930 Egyptian Revival Art Deco clock by Cartier that combines lapis lazuli, nephrite, rubies, and diamonds on a black enamel base. Other manufacturers of the era, such as Boucheron and J.E. Caldwell, raised simplicity to a virtue by employing a single slab of marble or onyx for a clock case. But arguably the finest desk clocks of the early 20th century gain their grandeur from a Russian-born dial-maker whose name deserves to be better known.

Vladimir Makovsky lent his talents to several Paris-based companies that produced clocks during the 1920s. A photograph of his inlay work should illustrate the dictionary definition of the word “breathtaking.” Steven Fox, a jewelry dealer in Greenwich, Conn., is an eloquent advocate for Makovsky and happens to have an Art Deco Chinoiserie clock featuring one of his dials. Graced with a coiling dragon with golden claws and a gold-fringed tail set against a mother-of-pearl backdrop of sky and waves, it is a tour de force. (Fox recently chose to consign the clock to Sotheby’s, which will offer it in its Important Watch Sale in New York on December 10.)

While Makovsky left Russia for Paris in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, he does not appear to have trained in the ateliers of Fabergé. “We’ve owned a number of Fabergé pieces, and this has a different sensibility,” Fox says. “This is an art form that he’s really good at.” And while he would have had assistants, the physical work of creating the dial—hours upon hours of toil—seemingly fell to him. “From what I’ve seen, he did this work himself, but sure, he had men who did work with him,” he says. “He was involved with the placement of the stones and the building of the dial.”

The labor-intensive nature of the work limited Makovsky’s yield. Fox estimates that he has seen about a hundred pieces by the inlay artist, a census that includes cigarette cases, compacts, and vanity cases as well as desk clocks. At least two clocks with Makovsky dials were available as this article went to press in late October, the other being a circa-1925 Art Deco chinoiserie clock with a mother-of-pearl-heavy dial and a provenance from the royal family of Savoy. Even more notable is the fact that both clock dials bear Makovsky’s signature; not all his pieces do. Fortunately, by Makovsky’s day, there was no question that he would avoid the anonymity imposed on the 19th-century painter of the porcelain plaque on the André of Paris Napoleon clock. “He was so talented in what he did, anyone would have allowed him to sign it,” Fox says. “It came to that point.”

It’s not clear why the desk clock Fox has was commissioned, but it’s certainly special, and a perfect example of how 20th-century artisans elevated the clock from a precision device to a bijou. “Pieces of this sort were very rare. It’s such a strong visual piece,” he says. “Everything about this has a very strong sense of its time period, and of romance.” It may have been made to display in a department store window to lure holiday shoppers inside to buy. True or no, Fox has tested the idea by placing the clock in his own shop window and found that its pulling power is strong. “I put it in, and it never ceases to draw someone,” he says. “It never changes.”

By Sheila Gibson Stoodley

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Joachim Wtewael: Myths, Monsters, and Mannerism Wed, 28 Oct 2015 21:25:27 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The astonishing art of Joachim Wtewael, full of wild imagination, shows a little-seen side of 17th-century Dutch painting.

Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Lot and His Daughters, circa 1597–1600

Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Lot and His Daughters, circa 1597–1600, oil on canvas, 64 x 81 inches.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Lot and His Daughters, circa 1597–1600 Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, 1602 Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Self-Portrait, 1601 Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, The Apulian Shepherd, circa 1600–05 Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, 1604–08

When we think of Dutch Golden Age painting, we automatically envision homey scenes of everyday life, sumptuous arrangements of foodstuffs and flowers, or portraits of respectable burghers, all rendered with close attention to naturalistic detail. With those expectations in mind, the works of Joachim Wtewael come as a shock. A riot of mythological activity unfolds in his pictures, with Greek gods and goddesses disporting themselves without regard for the censors; sea monsters, satyrs, and putti popping out of nearly every corner; and lovers embracing passionately while floating by on clouds. There are scenes from the Christian religion, too, but painted with such sensuality and dynamism that they seem more like pagan dreams. Wtewael (pronounced OO-te-val), though very successful during his lifetime (1566–1638), became obscure in subsequent centuries, partly due to his style and subject matter but also for other reasons—obscure enough, in fact, that he had to wait the better part of five centuries for his first retrospective exhibition.

That overdue event is now under way, opening on November 1 at the Museum of Fine Art, Houston, after runs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, the city where Wtewael was born and spent his life. Through January 31, visitors to “Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael” will have the opportunity to be astonished by the variety and verve of the artist’s oeuvre. Over 50 works will be on view—a sizable number in light of the fact that this artist was not particularly prolific—oils on canvas and panel, oils on copper (a favorite medium of Wtewael’s), and drawings in both ink and chalk. Through these, a fuller and more nuanced picture of Dutch art at the turn of the 17th century begins to emerge, a picture that takes in the diversity of cultural, religious, and artistic trends that came together at that pivotal time.

In 1581, when Wtewael was still a teenager, the Netherlands declared independence from Spanish rule and set up a Republic, under terms defined by a treaty ratified in the artist’s home town. While Spain would not formally acknowledge Dutch independence for nearly 70 more years—during which time war was intermittently waged—the tenor of life in the Low Countries changed forever, from an aristocratic, Catholic- and foreign-dominated one to a nationalist, fundamentally bourgeois, and religiously tolerant society in which Catholics and Protestants shared power and co-existed more or less harmoniously. A change in the arts went along with this political and cultural shift, reflected in a new enthusiasm for everyday-life subjects drawn from the bourgeois environment. But as with most times of transition, there was no rigid line, and there was much overlap between the new styles and subjects and those that were an inheritance from the previous era.

The art of Wtewael falls under the general category of Mannerism, an international style that was very popular in both Southern and Northern Europe during the second half of the 16th century and can be recognized easily by its penchant for elongated, even distorted, figures in exaggerated postures; its use of unnatural pastel colors; and an emotional tendency toward dramatic moods, eroticism, and general artifice. Today the most famous Mannerists are Italian and Spanish, like Parmigianino and El Greco, but Wtewael’s principal inspiration came from the Flemish Mannerist Bartholomeus Spranger (himself the subject of a monographic show at the Met earlier this year), a court painter for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II at Prague whose work became widely known through reproductive prints made by the Dutch engraver and painter Hendrik Goltzius. Haarlem, Goltzius’ base of operations, was one of the two main centers of Mannerism in Holland, where he and Cornelis van Haarlem held sway. The other was Utrecht, where Wtewael and Abraham Bloemaert championed the style. And even though Wtewael turned out to be the last great Dutch Mannerist, at the time none of these artists was thought of as a throwback.

Wtewael’s first teacher was his father, Anthonis, a glassworker who also practiced painting on glass. At the age of 20, after a two-year apprenticeship with another local artist, Joos de Beer, Wtewael set off for Italy and then France, where he was no doubt exposed to international contemporary art, though it is not clear with whom he studied or even if he did. When he returned to Utrecht six years later, he joined a guild, set up a workshop, and started accepting apprentices of his own. Before long, major collectors throughout the country were acquiring his works. But painting was never to be Wtewael’s only pursuit—or even, arguably, his main pursuit. In the true Dutch entrepreneurial spirit, he went into business as a flax merchant and made so much money at it that he no longer needed to sell paintings to live, or even to maintain a high standard of living. By 1596 he was able to afford a house large and luxurious enough to remain in for the rest of his life. There he raised four children to adulthood, at least one of whom, Peter, carried on his art practice.

With the money he made from flax dealing, Wtewael bought municipal bonds as well as shares in the United Dutch East India Company, and he more than dabbled in real estate. He also involved himself in Utrecht politics, serving on the town council more than once. And while his art might suggest otherwise, Wtewael was a staunch Calvinist and a pillar of the Dutch Reformed Church who filled a number of offices in two congregations—deacon, regent, churchwarden, first warden, and dispenser of the poor box.

Despite these diverse and energetic extracurricular activities, Wtewael made such an impact as a artist, and so soon after opening his studio, that by 1604 Karel van Mander, the most influential Dutch critic and art historian of the era, felt comfortable calling him one of Holland’s best painters. In his Schilder-boeck (“Book of Painting”), a key text published that year, van Mander praised Wtewael’s “excellent judgment and intellect” and noted that he was one of those artists who painted from the imagination (uyt den gheest) rather than from nature or life (naer het leven). He also noted, with a touch of humor, that Wtewael’s work was so diverse that it was hard to imagine that one artist could be responsible for all of it. On the other hand, van Mander did take the opportunity to chide him for not fully devoting himself to his art, writing that it was surprising that the goddess Pictura had so favored Wtewael, since he clearly assigned painting second place in his life.

Be that as it may, Wtewael seems to have had no regrets about his life choices. He was secure enough about both his art and his financial standing that he felt no pressure to sell his works and in fact held quite a number of them back from the market, keeping them for his own enjoyment and that of his family and his intimate circle of friends. According to Arthur K. Wheelock, curator of Northern European Painting at the National Gallery and a co-author of the exhibition’s catalogue, this practice of Wtewael’s is one reason for his later obscurity. So many works remained in the possession of his descendants—the last one died childless in 1972—that much of the rest of the world remained not-so-blissfully ignorant of the wonders of Wtewael.

Those wonders are on full view in the current show, which includes all phases of Wtewael’s work—mythological scenes, biblical narratives, portraits, and the occasional genre picture. The mythological ones make the strongest impact, in terms of sheer pictorial virtuosity and storytelling powers. The Apulian Shepherd (circa 1600–1605) is emblematic in many ways. For one thing, it is an oil on copper, which Wtewael favored because the smooth, burnished surface of a copper plate allowed him maximum precision with tiny brushstrokes and yielded a particularly lustrous finished product. For another, it manages to fit an almost unbelievable amount of narrative detail, a dizzying number of figures, and several distinct textures of painting into one very small frame (the object is only about 6 by 8 inches in size, typical for copper paintings, which were meant to be held in the hand for the close contemplation of connoisseurs).

The story being told here comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the favorite font of Classical myth for centuries’ worth of European artists and poets. The Southern Italian shepherd has stumbled upon a group of nymphs, some clothed, some nude, who having been ousted from their cave by the god Pan, are passing the time by dancing in a glade. Instead of paying the supernatural beings due respect, the crude shepherd mocks and abuses them, and in return they transform him into an olive tree. Out of this simple yet powerful little mythical anecdote, Wtewael has made a very strong visual statement that is also a pretext for showing off pretty much everything he could do with paint and brush. The choreography of the nymphs is so palpably full of motion and grace that it seems to incarnate the very essence of Mannerism. Every figure, from the shepherd at far left, already sprouting olive branches from his arms, to Pan holding his pipes in the cave at the lower left, to the lute-playing musician at the far right, seems to be in motion. The dynamism of the figures corresponds to the dynamism of the entire composition, in which multiple spaces coexist without any loss of clarity or meaning. The whole painting has a narrative drive that makes it seem like a window on a world that just might be more real than our own.

Another oil on copper—Wtewael’s largest, at around 12 by 16 inches—takes this exuberance to the limit and beyond. The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (1602), a depiction of a joyous event that nonetheless prefigures the disaster of the Trojan War, is so crowded with swirling divine, semi-divine, and human wedding guests, suspended on clouds seemingly miles above the landscape, that the eye can barely take it all in. We experience this painting as a generalized explosion of pagan energy. In Perseus and Andromeda (1611), the cavorting sea monster and the winged horse flying overhead convey a similar sense of a magical universe in perpetual motion. In other mythological works, however, Wtewael took a calmer approach. For example, Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Grows Cold (Sine Cerere et Baccho Friget Venus), an oval-shaped oil on copper from around 1600–05, places the wine god at the center of a tight composition, one hand raising a full glass and the other wrapped around the shoulders of Venus. One his other side is Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, holding a cornucopia, while a little Cupid with rainbow wings emerges from the bottom, being hugged by both goddesses. Here there is nothing to distract from the message of the picture, a sentiment taken from the ancient Roman playwright Terence: Love needs food and drink in order to thrive.

Even in his Christian paintings, Wtewael deployed both sensuality and a sense of fun that sometimes belies the topics at hand. In his Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (1600), he chose to portray the saint in the moment before he was riddled with arrows by his Roman executioners. Instead of a pitiable pincushion, we get a graceful, well-muscled figure, posed in contrapposto against a thick tree trunk in a densely forested landscape. Over his head a rosy, plump putto hovers, while the executioners crouch in shadows at the bottom of the frame. In an Old Testament subject, Lot and His Daughters (circa 1597–1600), Wtewael chose to emphasize the fruit, cheese, bread, and wine with which the sinful girls plied their hapless father, also dwelling rather intently on their perfectly Mannerist nude bodies, complete with alabaster flesh and elongated necks.

The appeal of pagan myth in Christian Europe is a long story. It begins with moralistic reinterpretations of Ovid in the Middle Ages, goes through the passionate embrace of Classical culture in the Italian Renaissance—abetted by the widespread belief that myths were an expression of Platonic philosophy—and devolves into a more lighthearted appreciation of the myths’ imaginative power and ability to reflect aspects of human nature, not excluding the erotic. This is the spirit in which the sophisticated Dutch art aficionados and litterateurs of the 17th century seem to have taken them.

In a magisterial self-portrait, done in a realistic, un-Mannerist style in 1601, Wtewael gave subtle expression to the meaning of myth in his own life. The artist, holding his palette and brushes, dressed in black with a huge white ruff, stares challengingly out at the viewer, his pointed beard seeming to deliver a little jab of its own. In a catalogue essay, Liesbeth Helmus observes that typically, a self-portrait of this type would show a dab of white paint on the tip of the artist’s brush. Here, however, Wtewael has made the paint blood-red, which Helmus argues is a covert reference to Mars, the god of war, with whom Wtewael deeply identified.

One of Wtewael’s favorite stories was the one in which the cuckolded god Vulcan surprises his wife, Venus, in flagrante delicto with Mars. He painted it in 1601, and then again a few years later. These two pictures (both in the current exhibition), which are among the very few from the 17th century in which sexual intercourse is openly depicted, were intended for the private viewing of collectors. The later one, dated to 1604–08, was long kept hidden in various ways. In the early 19th century it was placed in a hinged frame behind a more innocuous painting by another artist, a portrait of a viol player. Sometime after that, it was enclosed in a folding dark-brown leather case, like the binding of a book, and surreptitiously stored in a bookcase. Only in 1983, when the Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired it, were Mars and Venus allowed to see the light of day again. Wtewael’s oeuvre has had a similar fate, and now, after centuries on the shelf, it can be revealed in all its splendor.

By John Dorfman

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Oswaldo Vigas: Worthy Proponent Wed, 28 Oct 2015 21:13:05 +0000 Continue reading ]]> As modernism evolved, the Venezuelan artist Oswaldo Vigas was its messenger and champion in Latin America.

Oswaldo Vigas, Composición IV, 1943

Oswaldo Vigas, Composición IV, 1943, oil on cardboard, 13 x 13 inches; Bruja de la Culebra, 1951, oil on canvas, 75 x 23 inches.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Oswaldo Vigas, Géminis, 1962 Oswaldo Vigas, Composición IV, 1943 Oswaldo Vigas, Bruja de la Culebra, 1951 Oswaldo Vigas, Aparecido Azul, 1976 Oswaldo Vigas, Y Echaron a Andar, 1995

When examining the ideas, creations and trends of a particular period in a particular culture, country or region, often it appears that the movers and shakers of a certain era can be divided between those who were path-clearing, visionary innovators and those who, in a more responsive manner, reacted to the new thinking of their time and helped move it forward in effective ways. This phenomenon was evident time and time again during the long, complex evolution of modernism’s styles, techniques and outlooks. There was only one Picasso who contributed, as he did, to Cubism’s development, or Andy Warhol, who definitively helped shape Pop Art, or Yoko Ono, who indelibly influenced Conceptual Art’s tone, themes and varieties of formless form. Such artistic pioneers inspired many followers.

Looking back to a pre-Internet age, in which news about art’s latest developments often traveled by way of the artists themselves, it seems that almost as soon as Cubism’s revolutionary ideas had emerged from the Paris studios of Picasso and Georges Braque roughly a century ago, they were seized upon by art-makers in many other places who were intrigued by its new approach to depicting space and form.

Fast-forward through subsequent modern-art developments and trends and place numerous dots on the maps of Mexico and South America, where modernism’s radical new languages captured the attention of countless painters, sculptors, designers, and architects. Among them was Oswaldo Vigas (1923–2014), a Venezuelan who, growing up in the early decades of the 20th century, demonstrated an impressive aptitude for art. In time he became a major purveyor of the lessons of modernism he assimilated at home and abroad, as well as one of his homeland’s modern-art icons. (A traveling retrospective exhibition of Vigas’ work, “Antológica: 1943–2013,” will be on view in Sao Paulo in 2016.)

Vigas, whose father was a doctor, was born in Valencia, the capital of the state of Carabobo, which lies to the west of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. An old black-and-white photo shows a 19-year-old Oswaldo sitting in front of an easel with one hand holding a paint-covered palette and the other a brush; part of what appears to be a complex composition-in-progress awaits his attention. A few years earlier, having designed sets for school plays and created illustrations for poems, the youth already had won the first of a long career’s worth of prizes for his artistic prowess.

Even though Vigas earned a degree in medicine in Caracas, he never went on to practice as a doctor. Instead, throughout his university years in the late 1940s, he continued learning about and making art. Deeply interested in modernist abstraction, he fell in with a group of artists and thinkers who were associated with the Taller Libre de Arte de Caracas, a cultural center that had emerged as an alternative-ideas forum and exhibition space for those who had broken away from the mainstream represented by the capital’s central fine arts school.

By this time, Vigas had created such signature early pictures as Composición IV (Composition IV, oil on cardboard, 1944), with its melding of abstract forms, layered Cubist pictorial space and a palette recalling that of Old Master canvases. Soon to come were the images in his oil-on-canvas Brujas (Witches) series of the early 1950s, whose semi-abstracted bodies he defined with Picassoesque lines, and whose surfaces he scraped or incised.

In 1950, Vigas met the French art history professor and critic Gaston Diehl, who had been trained at the Institute of Art and Archeology and at the École du Louvre in Paris and was teaching at the main university and at the main art academy in Caracas. That same year, also in the Venezuelan capital, Diehl curated a large exhibition, “De Manet à nos jours” (“From Manet to Our Time”). Vigas and Diehl got to know each other and became lifelong friends, and over the years the well-connected French critic became one of Vigas’ steadfast champions. (He would also aid the Venezuelans Carlos Cruz-Diez and Jesús Rafael Soto in gaining recognition in Europe for their kinetic-art creations.)

Two years later, Vigas’ work was showcased in a solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Caracas, and the artist harvested a bumper crop of honors, including Venezuela’s top national art prize. He then headed to Paris, where he studied at the legendary École des Beaux-Arts and at the artist Marcel Jaudon’s lithography workshop and took art-history classes at the Sorbonne. Vigas spent 12 years in Paris, during which time he met or became friendly with many artists from Europe and other parts of the world—the Cuban Wifredo Lam; the Chilean Roberto Matta; the Argentine Emilio Pettoruti; and many others—who had gravitated to the French capital in the period following the end of World War II (a time when, in fact, modern art’s most vibrant center had shifted to New York, where a market for inventive new art forms was also developing).

Throughout these early decades of his career, Vigas regularly exhibited his work. In 1954, he represented Venezuela at the 27th Venice Biennale. Sometimes he organized group exhibitions, too, like a large survey of work by European modernists, including such artists as Picasso, Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, René Magritte, Hans Hartung, Bram van Welde, and many others, which was presented in Caracas in 1955. That year, in conjunction with his planning of that big show, Vigas visited Picasso at the Spanish-born maestro’s home in the south of France. A photo of their encounter shows a beaming, youthful Vigas wrapping his arm around the bare shoulders of modern art’s living legend.

With such curatorial activities in mind, along with the sophisticated manner in which Vigas appreciated the forms modern art could take, the themes it could address, and the ideals it could reflect, an assessment of his accomplishments points to someone who served as a vital bridge between Europe’s active center of pioneering art developments and the distant outpost of his homeland and Latin America in general. Surely his role as a messenger on behalf of new art ideas was acknowledged when, also in the 1950s, Carlos Raúl Villanueva, Venezuela’s most renowned 20th-century architect, who had been charged with developing the main campus of the Central University of Venezuela, invited Vigas to create mosaic murals for some of its buildings. The boldly colored geometric-abstract designs he produced still look fresh today.

Vigas made geometric abstract paintings throughout the 1950s. In them, he employed narrower or thicker black outlines to lay out sections of complex compositions, many of which he filled in with colors in more or less elaborate palettes. Some of these images feel fussy; a viewer can almost feel the artist’s brush searching to find and make visible a grouping of well-balanced forms. By contrast, some of his most successful works of this kind and of this period, like a knotty, monochromatic oil-on-canvas effort of 1956 from his Objeto Negro (Black Object) series, feel more confident, cohesive, and organically whole.

In 1964, eager to participate actively in his homeland’s social, cultural, and political development, Vigas left Paris and moved back to Venezuela, where he became involved, in various roles, in a wide range of arts-development and arts-administration projects. Exhibitions, his own and those of other artists; documentary film and music festivals; the founding of a new artists’ association; visits to museums and historic sites in the United States, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and other countries; the organizing of an art critics’ conference—there was almost no kind of culture-related initiative in which Vigas did not have a responsible, influential hand.

In either hard-edged or looser, brushier, oil-on-canvas abstractions of the 1960s and 1970s, which became known as his “neo-figurative” works, Vigas used patches or broad strokes of black along with limited combinations of colors or more explosive gatherings of bright hues to create a diverse range of compositions. Sometimes, as in Lúdicas (Playful Women), from 1966, or Señora de la Aguas Marinas (Lady of the Sea Waters), from 1967, their central motifs were highly abstracted human figures. In other instances, these works appear to be explorations of the expressive power of color, textures, and abstract shapes. That spirit of form-seeking adventure pulses through the work of the last phases of his career, including, characteristically, such oil paintings as Paraíso Inconcluso (Unfinished Paradise), from 1990, and Y Echaron a Andar (And They Started Walking), from 1995. (Vigas made tapestries and cast-bronze sculptures during this period, too, in which he interpreted similar abstract or semi-abstract shapes in other materials.)

In 1957, on the occasion of a Vigas solo exhibition at the Galería de Arte Contemporáneo in Caracas, Diehl wrote in the accompanying brochure-catalogue that he could tell that the Venezuelan artist was someone who would “reject easy effects, abandon too-descriptive figuration [and] subject himself to the strict discipline of a rigorous simplification of forms.” In fact, such working methods did become enduring, recognizable aspects of Vigas’ approach to making art. In retrospect, it seems, such a sense of focus and dedication to his craft, which could very well have been regarded as a sign of artistic integrity, may help explain why Vigas was held in such high esteem by his peers— in addition to their respect for the many leadership roles he had assumed and promotional efforts he had pursued for the benefit of their collective community.

In a text Vigas himself wrote, which was published in Venezuela in 1975, he observed that “artistic expression is not a ‘crazy cog’ within the philosophic and political gears of a country.” In this pamphlet, he argued forcefully that only if his fellow Venezuelan artists together were to choose their “own destiny” would the “values and forms of expression” they had to offer their country, their region, and the world be “recognized and incorporated” into the wider panorama— and, implicitly, the canonical history—of modern art’s development on the world stage.

As much a booster for his country’s artistic offerings and legacy as he was a bridge-builder across continents and cultures, Vigas is remembered today for the broad scope of his accomplishments, the adventurous spirit of his art-making, and the vigor with which he pursued a richly creative life.

By Edward Gomez

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Marie Spartali Stillman: Renaissance and Renascence Wed, 28 Oct 2015 20:56:26 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition at the Delaware Museum of Art rediscovers the art of Marie Spartali Stillman, a Pre-Raphaelite muse turned painter.

Marie Spartali Stillman, Kelmscott Manor: From the Field

Marie Spartali Stillman, Kelmscott Manor: From the Field, not dated, watercolor and gouache on paper laid on panel, 7 x 12 inches.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Marie Spartali Stillman, The Pilgrim Folk, 1914 Marie Spartali Stillman, Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni, 1884, Marie Spartali Stillman, Kelmscott Manor: From the Field Marie Spartali Stillman, Beatrice, 1896

When Algernon Charles Swinburne met Marie Spartali, the decadent poet was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. “She is so beautiful I feel as if I could sit down and cry,” was all he could come out with. That sort of reaction was typical for Spartali, who was nearly six feet tall with Classical features and long, thick brown hair. She and her sister Christina, the daughters of Michael Spartali, a wealthy Greek-born businessman and Consul-General of Greece in London, cut a broad swath though the city’s artistic and literary salons of the 1860s. Thomas Armstrong, an artist, met the two young women at a Sunday get-together at their parents’ house in 1863 and recalled, “We were all à genoux before them, and of course every one of us burned with a desire to try to paint them.”

One of Armstrong’s companions that day, James A. McNeill Whistler, got his wish. On other occasions, Marie sat for the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron—exhausting, because Cameron required complex poses and absolute immobility for long stretches of time—and modeled for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who recast her in a 14th-century Italianate mold in his Vision of Fiammetta and Dante’s Dream. However, not content to be the recipient of gazes, male or otherwise, Spartali began studying painting with Ford Madox Brown, the eldest member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle (he also painted her), and before long she was making significant contributions to the Pre-Raphaelite movement herself.

Marie Spartali Stillman, as she is known to art history (she married American journalist William Stillman in 1871, over the objections of her parents), is still less familiar to the public than many lesser artists of the era. That is in large part due to Spartali Stillman’s own choice not to pursue a professional career with maximum vigor, according to Margaretta Frederick, curator of a major monographic exhibition, “Poetry in Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Marie Spartali Stillman,” which runs November 7–January 31 at the Delaware Museum of Art. “She abhorred publicity,” says Frederick. “She never wanted to put herself forward, because she was suspicious of critics and publicity.” She was also a victim of the Victorian mentality that dictated that a woman should not compete with men, or at least not appear to do so. Frederick explains that even Spartali Stillman’s choice of medium—watercolor—was guided by this code of conduct: “In a middle- to upper-middle-class family, women painted in watercolor. So she was fixated on this medium that allowed her to situate herself next to the men and compete on their level without transgressing too many social barriers.”

Not that Spartali Stillman labored in obscurity. She exhibited at the Royal Academy starting in 1870 and had dealers selling her work on both sides of the Atlantic. Her paintings, at first, tracked very closely with what the Pre-Raphaelites had been doing and with the neo-medievalism of William Morris and his circle, among whom she had many friends. Her Beatrice (1896) is typically Pre-Raphaelite, a red-haired beauty in rich fur-trimmed garments, surrounded by roses, her finger pointing to a line in a book that looks like it could have been printed by the Kelmscott Press (Spartali Stillman actually painted Morris’ Kelmscott Manor on several occasions). However, this Beatrice is not the otherworldly, unapproachable demi-goddess of Dante Alighieri and Dante Rossetti, existing only to be pined after; the tender expression in her eyes suggests that she has feelings of her own. In Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni (1884), Spartali Stillman goes into a fantastical mode. With one hand holding a crystal ball and the other suspending a branch full of mysteriously glowing flowers above her head, this Madonna looks more like a woodland-dwelling sorceress than like the mother of God. After moving to Italy when her husband became the New York Times’ bureau chief in Rome, Spartali Stillman absorbed even more Italian influence into her work. She continued to be fascinated by the Early Renaissance and found rich material in Rome and Florence, but she was also drawn very strongly to the Tuscan landscape, which she painted often.

Putting together the current exhibition was not easy. According to Frederick, about half of Spartali Stillman’s body of work is missing or unaccounted for. And most of what is extant is in private collections. With nine works in its collection, the Delaware Museum actually has the largest public holding of Spartali Stillman in the world. Many of the works in the Delaware show are on loan from the artist’s relatives or those of her husband, most of whom live in the U.S.

Frederick hopes that the show will give Spartali Stillman the attention she deserves, not only as a figure from history, a member of a circle, but as an artist in her own right. “It’s amazing the way female artists get written out of things,” she says. Referring to Rossetti’s famous painting of Fiammetta, the beloved of the Florentine poet Boccaccio, Frederick points out, “Spartali Stillman is best known because she sat for Rossetti’s Fiammetta. But she did a version of Fiammetta first! Then she sat for Rossetti and he painted her in a red dress, and within a year or two she did another version, in a red dress. They wrote some letters to each other about working on Fiammetta. It’s just fascinating. There was a real mutual respect between these artists.”

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Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Temple Guard Wed, 28 Oct 2015 19:29:35 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Piranesi’s drawings of the Temples of Paestum, rendered late in his career, are a revelation of draftsmanship, detail, and archeological discovery.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Temple of Neptune, View of the Interior from the West, 1777

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Temple of Neptune, View of the Interior from the West, 1777, black chalk, pencil, brown and grey washes, pen and ink.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Temple of Neptune, View of the Interior from the West, 1777 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Paestum, Interior of the Temple of Neptune from the West, 1777 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Paestum, Italy: Interior of the Basilica, from the West, 1777

Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s imagination was captivated by fantastic spaces. Born in 1720, the son of a stonemason and master builder, he spent 20 years training in architecture and stage design. After he moved to Rome in 1740, the dearth of practical architecture jobs led him to the tourism market, selling high-end souvenir etchings to the Grand Tour set. He would become an important figure to the Neoclassicists, known for his topographical engravings, of which he completed over 1,000 unique examples in his lifetime. The creation of “unreal cities” moved him, and as he studied ancient structures, he drew buildings and architectural features purely out of his own mind. The plates of his first publication, Prima Parte di Architettura e Prospettive, printed in 1743, were occupied with capricci, works of architectural fantasy and efforts to solve architectural problems. Complete with loggias and arches, the Ponte Magnifico, a plate in the volume, held the story that it was erected by some imagined Roman emperor of unknown lineage, bearing his equestrian statue. The vantage point from which Piranesi renders the bridge is complicated, with the viewer forced to look through an anchoring arch on the side of the bridge in order to see the main path of the structure. The design proves to be both highly technical and fanciful at the same time.

Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione, or prison fantasies, were first published as a series of 14 etchings in 1750. The labyrinthine settings, replete with winding stairways and cruel contraptions, were reprinted in 1761 and numbered I–XVI, with an addition of two more. In Thomas De Quincey’s 1820 autobiographical work Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the writer, who certainly had consciousness-altering experiences on the brain, describes the works as a record of Piranesi’s visions while hallucinating during a fever. De Quincey insists on the intensely personal nature of the plates, so much so that he writes, “Creeping along the side of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards was Piranesi himself.”

Piranesi’s oeuvre also had a heavy dose of reality. Vedute di Roma, a series of 135 plates depicting notable Roman architectural sites such as the Arch of Constantine, the Arch of Septimius Severus, and the Pantheon, was an ongoing project Piranesi began in 1748. Le Antichità Romane, a four-volume, 250-plate series produced in 1756 highlighted the decorative and technical elements of ancient Roman architecture. Piranesi’s treatise, a veritable Vitruvian-level architectural manual, helped shed light on the era of Greek Revival among architects and designers. The 1760s saw folios commissioned by the Venetian pope, Clement XIII Rezzonico, as well the design for an unrealized tribune for San Giovanni in Laterano and the reconstruction of the Santa Maria del Priorato Church in Rome between 1764 and 1766. His designs for the latter, which are still viewable today, combined Roman and Etruscan influences, an example of Piranesi’s grab-bag style, which drew from the constructions of the ancient Romans, their Umbrian ancestors, the Greeks, and even the Egyptians. Towards the end of his career, he turned his focus toward restoring antiquities.

The exhibition “Piranesi’s Paestum: Master Drawings Uncovered” is currently at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University (through January 4), showcasing a set of 15 drawings completed by Piranesi in 1777, the year before his death. The drawings are in the collection of British Neoclassical architect and major Piranesi fan Sir John Soane, who acquired much of the Italian artist’s work during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The suite, which were purchased at auction in 1817, has never been seen outside of Soane’s museum in London until this exhibition, which will be making its sole stop on the West Coast at the Cantor.

Typically, after a basic sketch, Piranesi would draw the lion’s share of his compositions directly on the copper plates for engraving. These drawings, however, composed of rich layers of pencil, brown and gray washes, pen and ink, and occasional flourishes of white or red chalk, are highly detailed. It is thought that, perhaps knowing he did not have much longer to live, Piranesi flooded the sketches with every pertinent detail so that his son Francesco could finish and print them. Piranesi, using his stage design background, employed scena per angolo, a perspective technique of high baroque scenography. Coined by Ferdinando Galli Bibiena in L’Architettura Civile (1711), the drafting method furnished views through interiors and courtyards—and in Piranesi’s case colonnades—by the application of multiple vanishing points and complicated diagonals. Tricking the eye into thinking the space expands into infinity, Piranesi’s use of the technique makes the Paestum drawings seem boundless.

The set is Piranesi’s largest body of work devoted to one topographical site. During the artist’s lifetime, Paestum was an archeological revelation. The site of three abandoned Doric temples, it was rediscovered in 1746, during the building of a new road. According to Strabo it had been Poseidonia, a Greek colony of Magna Graecia founded by Achaeans from Sybaris around 600 B.C. When the Romans conquered it, they gave it the name Paestum. The temples there were originally thought to be a Roman Basilica, or civic building, a Temple of Poseidon and a Temple of Juno or Ceres. Inscriptions determined that two of the temples are dedicated to Hera—one circa 550 B.C. and the other 460–450 B.C.—and the third, dating to around 500 B.C., to Athena.

Piranesi, suffering from poor health, made the journey to Paestum, on the Bay of Salerno in Campania, in 1777 with his son, his assistant Benedetto Mori, and the architect Augusto Rosa (who took measurements for cork souvenir models). Back in Rome, Piranesi used extensive surveys and studies to create the Paestum drawings. He began—with difficulty—making a series of 20 vedute and frontispieces for what was designed to be his final publication. Less than two months after he received a papal imprimatur for the publication, he died. His son finished and issued the plates later that year.

While Piranesi lived his life around the vestiges of ancient Rome, surrounded by the buildings he was rendering, Paestum was far away and newly found. It was not unlike Piranesi’s capricci—structures only recently discovered and completely by chance, as if they had been dreamt into existence. And as the Greek Revival was gaining steam, the temples were schooling designers and architects in the minimal lines of Doric construction, helping to solve architectural problems as the capricci had attempted to. It’s as if the ruins of Paestum were rediscovered in the Italy of Piranesi’s imagination.

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Japanese Printmaking: New Impressions Wed, 28 Oct 2015 19:21:22 +0000 Continue reading ]]> In the early 20th century, Japanese artists reimagined traditional printmaking for the modern age, as revealed in a show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Ito Shinsui, A Woman in Western Dress, 1960

Ito Shinsui, A Woman in Western Dress, 1960, published by Watanabe Shozaburo, 14 x 16 inches.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Kawase Hasui, Spring Dusk at the Tosho Shrine in Ueno, 1948 Friedrich (Fritz) Capelari, Umbrellas (Kasa), 1915 Ito Shinsui, A Woman in Western Dress, 1960 Yamakawa Shuho, Approaching Snow, 1927 Yamamura Koka, The Actor Morita Kan’ya XIII as Jean Valjean, 1921

By the end of the 19th century, the 300-year-old Japanese art form of ukiyo-e (woodblock printmaking) seemed moribund. The public, weary of old themes and styles, was being seduced by Westernized arts, and the old methods of printmaking were being supplanted by new ones such as lithography and photoengraving. Ukiyo-e artists were being lured away to do illustrations for the newspapers. One master, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, singlehandedly championed the traditional techniques, and his astonishingly dramatic and often macabre works, created in the twilight of ukiyo-e, are among its greatest achievements. When he died in miserable circumstances in 1892, it looked as if ukiyo-e would die with him.

But less than 20 years later, Japanese woodblock printing was reborn. A small group of publishers and artists reimagined ukiyo-e in a form that fitted the economics and taste patterns of the early 20th century. In some ways, the new prints were actually of finer quality than the old ones. Traditional ukiyo-e were made by hand, of course, but they were mass-produced to the extent possible in their time, to reach as large a viewership as possible. The publishers of the new-style prints cannily recognized that to succeed in an era of mass-production, their artworks would have to be produced in severely limited editions. To deepen their appeal to collectors, the prints were executed with techniques that emphasized luxury, such as embossing the surfaces with relief texture and applying a silvery finish. Finally, artists began taking control of the entire printmaking process. In the old system, the artist only created a design in the form of a drawing; the carving of the block and the printing on paper were carried out by others. Yamamoto Kanae, a wood engraver who studied European-style art at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, is credited with creating the first Japanese print wholly executed by one artist, without intermediaries, in 1904.

Instead of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world,” a reference to the geisha houses and nightlife scenes that were among the favorite subjects of the early artists), these works on paper were called shin hanga, or “new prints.” One of the best collections of shin hanga outside Japan—over 500 strong—resides at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Most were donated by an avid collector, Frederick B. Wells III, a trustee of the MIA who died in 2005. Currently, the museum is mounting “Seven Masters: 20th-Century Japanese Woodblock Prints from the Wells Collection” (through March 13), which shows how these artists and their publishers found a way to keep fine-art printmaking viable in the modern era.

The story of shin hanga has a great deal to do with the encounter between between Eastern and Western aesthetics in Japan. During the Meiji Restoration, which began in 1868, European culture was aggressively imported, and by the turn of the century, Japanese art schools were teaching oil painting and urging students to model their work on classical European prototypes. Many shin hanga exhibit a mix of Japanese and Western aesthetics and subjects. Liberated “modern girls” (moga in Japanese) and movie stars loom large, and subtle gradations of color, unlike the bold flatness of ukiyo-e, were introduced to simulate European-style watercolors, particularly in landscapes.

Ironically, when the pioneering publisher of shin hanga, Watanabe Shozaburo, started out in 1915, the first artists he commissioned were Western rather than Japanese. He asked Fritz Capelari, an Austrian painter whose watercolors he had seen in a show in Tokyo, to make designs for woodblock prints on Japanese subjects to be be executed by Japanese carvers and aimed at the foreign market. He also published some rather touristy prints of Asian scenes by an Englishman, William Bartlett. After this somewhat unpromising beginning, however, Watanabe gained confidence and hired a Japanese
printmaker and graphic designer, Hashiguchi Goyo.

While Goyo did some landscapes, including Shinto temples and snowy scenes reminiscent of Hiroshige, he specialized in images of beautiful women. Woman at the Bath (1915) is typical of his closely-observed, clean-lined approach. This print is sensual in a traditionally Japanese way, whereas other Goyo prints, such as Woman in Summer Clothing (1920) feature figures whose elongated, ultra-slim shapes seem indebted to 20th-century Western ideals. Other prints in the exhibition show women tentatively experimenting with modern approaches to femininity. In Ito Shinsui’s Woman Looking at a Mirror (1916), the figure is seen from an unconventional angle, is boldly dressed in red, and has on red lipstick, something unthinkable in traditional Japan.

As in classic ukiyo-e, Kabuki actors, with their outlandish makeup and costumes, provided rich material for shin hanga printmakers. Natori Shunsen, another of the “seven masters,” was particularly attracted to this subject. The Actor Matsumoto Kashiro VII as the White-Bearded Ikyu (1929) was definitely ready for his close-up when Natori got to him. The whiteness of the hair, eyebrows, and beard contrast wonderfully with the riotous color of his robe, which is covered with writhing green, gold, and red dragons on a deep blue field. In The Actor Nakamura Kichiemon I as Otokonosuke (1931) the artist revels in the rich orange and pale blue of the actor’s face makeup, which stands out against a background of dark gray. An interesting mix of Japanese and Western aesthetics and subject matter can be seen in Yamamura Koka’s The Actor Morita Kan’ya XIII as Jean Valjean (1921).

Shin hanga are by no means daring experiments in modernism. The movement was a fundamentally conservative attempt to keep a classic art form relevant and reestablish it in the art market. That attempt succeeded for several decades, producing beautiful and appealing works aimed at a select audience of connoisseurs. However, the fundamentally democratic and wildly inventive spirit of ukiyo-e had to wait a little longer to be reincarnated—as manga, poster art, and Japanese Pop.

By John Dorfman

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Second City Surrealism Wed, 28 Oct 2015 19:12:13 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A new exhibition at the MCA Chicago chronicles the emergence of Surrealism and collections of Surrealist work in postwar Chicago.

René Magritte, Les merveilles de la nature (The Wonders of Nature), 1953

René Magritte, Les merveilles de la nature (The Wonders of Nature), 1953, oil on canvas, 30 1⁄2 x 39 inches;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Wangechi Mutu, That’s my death mask you’re wearing, 2004 René Magritte, Les merveilles de la nature (The Wonders of Nature), 1953 Paul Delvaux, Penelope, 1945 Enrico Baj, Profile of a General, 1961 201511_chicago_02

“Surrealism was, if not the first, then one of the first global art movements that emanated from Europe,” says Lynne Warren, the curator of the exhibition “Surrealism: The Conjured Life” at the MCA Chicago (November 21–June 5). “Then things reverted to national boundaries, like associating Abstract Expressionism with America, Arte Povera with Italy, and so on.” The art movement, which was formally described by André Breton in Paris with the penning of the Surrealist Manifesto in Paris in 1924, spread its seed stateside, as Warren notes, during the middle of the 20th century, not missing Chicago’s artists or collectors. However, the first major exhibition of American Surrealism did miss the Windy City.

The show “Abstract and Surrealist Art in the United States,” which was curated by collector and curator Sidney Janis, held court at the Cincinnati Art Museum and the San Francisco Art Museum in 1944. Three years later, Frederick A. Sweet and Katharine Kuh curated Chicago’s Fifty-Eighth Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture (running November 6, 1947, through January 11, 1948). Its focus was “Abstract and Surrealist American Art,” and it put on view a broad conception of American artists working in a Surrealist and Abstract style. In his forward to the exhibition’s catalogue, the Art Institute of Chicago’s then-director Daniel Catton Rich wrote of the curators’ thirst for fresh blood. “No painting or sculpture previously shown in one of the large national exhibitions has been invited by [the curators] and all works have been produced in the last five years,” wrote Rich, “The result is an exhibit truly national in scope and strictly contemporary in spirit. Of the 252 artists exhibiting, some 85 are newcomers to museum annuals and 113 have never previously exhibited at the Art Institute.” That exhibition and the present exhibition at the MCA have a short list of artists in common—Alexander Calder, Roberto Matta, Kay Sage, Kurt Seligmann, Dorothea Tanning, and Yves Tanguy—but none of the same works return. William Baziotes’ Cyclops (1947) won the exhibition’s “Purchase Prize” and was priced at $950 according to the catalogue, while his Cat (1950), presumably of a much higher value today than Cyclops was then, will be shown at the MCA.

Rich’s forward points to the vanguard nature of abstraction in America, explaining that some don’t get it but that the avant-garde—particularly those under 30—see it as the prevailing art movement in the country. With works by Pollock, Hofmann, and Albers showing the movement’s roots in America, it seems that the exhibition’s organizers had an easy time explaining its emergence (the idea of national boundaries that Warren speaks of for Abstract Expressionism rings true here). “Surrealism, on the other hand,” wrote Rich, “has had no comparable development, though a number of painters and sculptors have not hesitated to blend its elements with abstraction, producing a style for which no adequate term has yet been coined.” This blending that Rich speaks of lead to the majority of the works on view in “Surrealism: The Conjured Life.”

Paying homage to the forefathers and mothers of Surrealism, the exhibition at the MCA, which is mined exclusively from its own collection, includes works by René Magritte, Balthus, Leonora Carrington, and Dorothea Tanning, among others. From there it splits into two groups: contemporary international artists such as Wangechi Mutu, Mark Grotjahn, Cindy Sherman, and Jeff Koons who consistently or on occasion flirt with Surrealism; and artists like Gertrude Abercrombie, Leon Golub, and Jim Nutt, who have a strong connections to both Chicago and Surrealism. The former echoes the global reach of Surrealism and the mixture of Surrealist notions with other styles that Rich spoke of. The latter—a deep, unshakable connection between the Windy City and Surrealism after 1950—is a testament to Chicago’s collectors as well as the artists based or educated there.

“Within that context, in our roots, our DNA, there is this Surrealist thing going on, and that influenced the subsequent art production in Chicago,” says Warren. “The Art Institute of Chicago taught the immediate postwar generation of artists, like Leon Golub. Th next generation is the Chicago Imagists—Jim Nutt, the Hairy Who artists—and they were very influenced by Surrealism. It seems, historically, like that’s a current that shapes what happened, which hasn’t been terribly well explored.” In the case of Nutt, who was educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before it had amassed a healthy collection of Surrealist works, teachers like Whitney Halstead and Ray Yoshida were instrumental in introducing the movement. Though Nutt’s work is surely a cocktail of many influences (Pop Art, comics, and Psychedelic rock come to mind), his notions of perverted figuration, which come up repeatedly in his work, seem to have roots in Surrealism. Nutt and his Chicago cohorts—now known as the Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists—shared this inclination. Says Warren, “If you’re interested in the figure, you’ll come up with some of the same ideas, and the Surrealists were mostly figurative artists. The distorted body was a characteristic of the Chicago Imagists.”

In a 1985 essay about the Chicago Imagists and Surrealism, Peter Selz writes that their connection lies somewhere between the refusal of the art world’s status quo and the acceptance of the unreal. “Aside from their attention to Expressionists like Ensor, Munch, and Nolde, who themselves gave form to demonic aspects of life, the young Chicago artists shared with the Surrealists an interest in tribal, primitive, and exotic art, as well as the art of children and the insane,” wrote Selz, “Both groups searched for art that embodied myth, magic, and psychic power and rejected the tradition of Western art, which seemed to have gone stale. It was the Surrealists’ glorification of the absurd and the irrational that seemed like a logical and rational response to a world-out-of-joint, the troubled and turbulent years between the World Wars.”

The Chicago Imagists, working in the mid-to-late ’60s and ’70s, were creating art in a turbulent, highly engaged social and political landscape, as well. According to Warren, Chicago at the time was also a pretty weird place. “It was a very strange city in the ’40s through ’70s,” says Warren. “Back then, there were strange manufacturing things going on, and a lot of merchandising—things were created to sell and market, and there were mannequins everywhere. A lot of the life of the city was about coming down on Christmas to see the windows at Marshall Fields; there were automatons in there. It was a very surreal place.” Warren notes that just as there were slaughterhouses and factories, there was also the University of Chicago and important intellectuals in town. “Real culture was going on as well,” she says.

Viewers of the show at the MCA will receive a primer on the Chicago Imagists and Hairy Who artists and their connections to Surrealism, with works like Giant Bird (1971) by Gladys Nilsson, Sunburn (1970) by Ed Paschke, Muscular Alternative (1979) by Christina Ramberg, and Summer Salt (1970) by Jim Nutt on view. These are a mix of highly refined technical skill and subversive underground sleaze—a true reflection of the city at the time.

Postwar Chicago also had its upper crust. There were a handful of pioneering art collectors in the Windy City at the time who had just as much of an eye for the surreal as the artists. According to Warren, Joseph Randall Shapiro, the founding board president of the MCA and Edwin and Lindy Bergman set the tone for collecting in Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s. Influenced by theories of psychoanalysis and Freudian symbolism, they turned to the Surrealists. Shapiro started by collecting prints and moved to oils in the ’50s. He liked “tough works,” as Warren put it, collecting Francis Bacon before he was hot. Shapiro was a fan of Hans Bellmer’s drawings, Kurt Seligmann’s paintings, H.C. Westermann’s pieces, and had an Enrico Baj Weeble-style sculpture titled Punching General (1969) that he would punch (an action the artist intended) upon welcoming guests into his home. This casual attitude mixed with a sharp collecting eye had an influence on Chicago’s younger artists. “Joe was so supportive of Chicago-based artists, which is one huge thread of the show,” says Warren. “Many of the artists, like Irving Petlin, got to get in and see these great collections of Surrealism. Joe’s apartment had normal furniture—it wasn’t decorated up. You put your drink on the Noguchi table; people smoked all the time back then, and there were smoke stains over the Dalí. That whole immersion in the material was very important to artists.”

The MCA owes its collection of works by Texas painter and visionary artist Forrest Bess to Mary and Earle Ludgin. After discovering his work at the Betty Parsons gallery in New York, the Chicago collectors became Bess’ main patrons. “They bought from him when they felt he needed some support,” says Warren. Bess, who corresponded with Carl Jung, met Parsons after writing her letters. The works in the MCA collection, which will be on view in “The Conjured Life,” are for the most part small landscapes from the late ’40s and early ’50s. Homage to Ryder, a 1951 driftwood-framed tribute to Albert Pinkham Ryder, captures the dreamlike quality of Ryder’s work (a proto-Surrealist one might argue).

“The Conjured Life” will be showing familiar artists in unfamiliar contexts. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #188, a 1989 chromogenic development print, will be on view, reinterpreted amid Surrealist works. “Cindy Sherman is neither a Chicago artist nor a Surrealist. But the work in the show is very surrealist Cindy Sherman!” says Warren. “Mirrors, doll, lipstick smeared, abject human body, mannequin, automaton, dream state notions that we associate with the visual arts of Surrealism, are present in works like that. We’re not claiming she’s a Surrealist, but those works can be seen very productively in light of works that formed Surrealism.” Similarly Jeff Koons’ bronze Lifeboat (1985) finds a place in the show. Of Koons, Warren says, “He’s more open about this now—that he was influenced by Dali. One piece we have, of the lifeboat, is a realistic cast done in bronze—right there is a Surrealist idea. It has one appearance and a very different function, which is a Surrealist trope.” This shape-shifting interpretation of the Surrealist movement seems wholeheartedly in the Chicago tradition.

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Elmer Bischoff: The Art of Friendship Mon, 12 Oct 2015 17:52:02 +0000 Continue reading ]]> From Abstract Expressionism to figuration and back again to abstraction, Elmer Bischoff’s work was a search for unity not only aesthetic but social.

Elmer Bischoff, Untitled, 1952

Elmer Bischoff, Untitled, 1952, oil on canvas, 58 x 68 inches

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Elmer Bischoff, Figure with White Lake, 1964 Elmer Bischoff, Self-Portrait, 1955 Elmer Bischoff, Untitled, 1952 Elmer Bischoff, Untitled, 1950 Elmer Bischoff, Untitled, 1952

“Abstract Expressionism” may be the most misleading bit of art jargon to have appeared in the past century or so. It sounds like the name of a shared style, and yet we use it to designate a group of painters whose work ranged from Willem de Kooning’s painterly bravura at one extreme to Barnett Newman’s imposing geometries at the other. Abstract Expressionism was not so much a style as a declaration of independence from European precedent. Emerging in New York in the late 1940s, its liberating message spread with startling rapidity to advanced art circles throughout the United States. In the process, a degree of lexicographical clarity developed. So, for example, when Abstract Expressionism arrived in the San Francisco Bay area, it was understood almost exclusively as a style of painterly painting—and welcomed for the permissions it granted. Among the first to embrace this new development was Elmer Bischoff.

Born in Berkeley, Calif., in 1916, Bischoff studied painting at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, receiving his Master of Arts in 1939. Decades later, he recalled the rigorous formal training he had undergone in an art department shaped by the legacy of Hans Hofmann, who taught at Berkeley in the early 1930s. Drawing on precedents set by Paul Cézanne and early Cubism, Hofmann stressed modernism’s capacity to refine and elaborate the formal bases of Western painting: line, color, effects of light and space. All were to contribute to a harmonious and unified composition. Hofmann did not see himself as a radical. For him, progress required not a rejection of the past but its fully theorized clarification. As a result of his influence, the curriculum at Berkeley bordered on academicism during the 1930s—or so Bischoff felt, and when Abstract Expressionism arrived on the West Coast, he responded immediately.

One of the major Abstract Expressionists, Clyfford Still, taught at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), from 1946 to 1950. In 1943, he had been given his first solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Four years later, his second took place at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, also in San Francisco. Though Still’s heavily-troweled version of painterly painting had a powerful influence on several of Bischoff’s friends—Hassel Smith, in particular—Bischoff was more deeply affected by the work of Mark Rothko, which was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1946. On the verge of the “multiform” paintings that would lead to the luminous color expanses of his mature style, Rothko was still employing his version of Surrealist automatism to produce delicately linear images of imaginary creatures in an environment at once airy and liquid. Bischoff painted variations on these works for a season and then plunged into a vigorously gestural version of Abstract Expressionism.

The Second World War had recently ended with the victory of the Allies. The United Nations was newly formed. The state of Israel had just been founded. Buoyed up by the optimism of the times, Bischoff conceived of the style he had just embraced as the medium of “a timeless, universal feeling.” Abstract Expressionist gestures, he said, comprised “a sign language, potentially readable by everybody … a sort of visual Esperanto, liberating to all who had eyes.” By then, Bischoff was teaching at the California School of Fine Arts, a congenial place where, in his words, there were few “who did not feel that their work might play a part in forming a better world—that it might assist toward a deeper understanding between people, even peoples.” Bischoff’s friend David Park, also a member of the faculty at the School of Fine Arts, had turned from his early, Picassoid work to Abstract Expressionism, as had many others on the Bay Area scene. Then, in 1951, Park suddenly started painting figuratively. Bischoff was shocked, as was everyone else in Park’s milieu.

In 1950s Willem de Kooning had launched a painting that, after two years, became Woman I. This was, strictly speaking, a figurative painting, yet de Kooning built his images from brushwork easily read as abstract. There is a similarly hybrid, abstract-figurative quality to the figures that emerged in Jackson Pollock’s black-on-white paintings of the early ’50s. However, Park’s paintings of nudes and dancers and musicians are too obviously the product of direct observation to count as abstractions, despite their vigorous brushwork. He and his friends had understood Abstract Expressionism not just as a pictorial option but as a force for cultural progress. Why this backward step? Park, of course, did not feel that his new work was regressive, nor did Bischoff when he turned to the figure in 1953.

Giving up Abstract Expressionism was, Bischoff later said, like “the end of a love affair.” As the passion went out of the painterly gesture, it began to feel “inauthentic … cooked-up.” Passion returned to his art when he turned to the external world and its inhabitants. Each of his subjects, he said, is something “that I have a certain response to, that I have a certain love for, possibly, and I want to show that in a canvas.” Bischoff’s subjects are recognizable, and yet his figurative paintings are not precise records of appearances. Driven to spontaneity by vivid intuitions, he rendered other people, their postures and their settings, as a kind of testimony to his feelings about them. No longer an abstractionist, he was still an Expressionist. And a veteran of the studio program at Berkeley. Never forgetting early lessons, he was guided by pictorial “ideas about space and about light and movement, about the proportions of things.” Above all, he strove to give a picture the traditional virtue of “unity,” which, he said, “I hold sacred.”

By 1956, Richard Diebenkorn, one of the most promising graduate students at the California School of Fine Arts, had followed Park and Bischoff’s path from abstraction to figuration. And the three of them became close friends. They visited one another’s studios often and during the mid-1950s met in the life-drawing classes they organized. The sense of community was strong and extended to colleagues who had not converted to figuration—among them Hassel Smith, who had developed distinctive variations on Still’s slabs of color. In 1952, when the administration of the School of Fine Arts announced plans to fire Smith, Bischoff and Park threatened to resign in protest. Smith was fired and they made good on their threat, which left Bischoff unemployed. Scrambling to make a living, he found work as a delivery truck driver. In his spare time he sketched and searched for a new teaching position. After a year and a half, he was made the head of the art department at Yuba College, in Marysville, a town northeast of San Francisco.

In 1955, Bischoff won first prize at the annual exhibition of Richmond Art Center Annual, just north of Berkeley. This distinction led to a solo show at the Paul Kantor Gallery in Los Angeles. The following year, he was rehired by the California School of Fine Arts, as the head of the graduate department. The movement that Bischoff had such a powerful hand in defining was by now known as “Bay Area Figurative Painting.” An exhibition by that name was organized by the Oakland Museum in 1957 to celebrate what had come to be recognized as one of the most significant developments in postwar American art. Park continued to paint figuratively until his death in 1960. Diebenkorn returned to abstraction in 1966, as Bischoff had done the previous year.

While he was still making pictures of recognizable things, Bischoff had said, “Ideally, one would wish to do away with the tangible facts of the thing seen.” For that would allow the painter to “deal directly with the matter of feeling.” After more than a decade of responding to “tangible facts,” Bischoff found in abstraction a more directly expressive path. Moreover, non-figurative painting may have still held for him the promise of universality he once found in Abstract Expressionism. In the abstract canvases he made from 1965 until his death in 1991 streaks and zigzags, swirls and blocks of color fill the surface, each incident a response to the pictorial activity in its vicinity. It’s as though these forms were having a conversation, lively and unscripted. Yet the overall effect is of calm and balance. Bischoff nearly always achieves the “unity” that early on became his ideal—along with a luminous “thereness,” an elusive quality he saw in the Impressionist paintings he admired at every stage of his career.

From 1965 until his retirement in 1985, Bischoff taught at the University of California, Berkeley. A student named Ellen Singer recalled him as a “paternal” presence. “There was a stillness about him,” she said. “He would come around and quietly look at our work. There wasn’t a lot of direct instruction, and his teaching was more about asking questions. He didn’t talk to us about technique. He asked us ‘why’ questions including why we wanted to portray something.” Behind those questions was a larger one: why be a painter? Bischoff never answered that question directly, yet his early belief that painting could bring people together seems never to have left him. To make art was not, for him, a narrowly aesthetic endeavor. His sense of the aesthetic encompassed social ideals and the best hopes for our culture. And the values he cultivated in art were indistinguishable, ultimately, from those of the personal character that endeared him to his students and made him such a good friend to the artists in his circle.

David Park’s daughter Helen Park Bigelow once asked him, “If you were an art critic, evaluating the work of Park, Diebenkorn, and Bischoff, and if you were obliged to make a … negative comment about each painter’s work, what would you say?” Park said that perhaps Diebenkorn’s paintings were “a bit too intellectual.” As for himself, “I guess I’d have to say that sometimes I’m a little bit lugubrious.” And Bischoff? A touch “sentimental,” as Park saw him. These judgments originated in deep respect, for himself and his two closest colleagues. And of course they are open to question. Perhaps Park at his darkest is not so much lugubrious as saturnine, a painter alert to all that is troubling—and troubled—in human beings. Bischoff, by contrast, is not sentimental but sanguine, an artist sustained by a faith that his art is not merely an occasion for pleasant experiences. Viewed with the openness he brought to the work of others, whether colleagues or students or members of the modernist canon, Bischoff’s paintings, whether abstract or figurative, are alive with quietly magisterial joy.

By Carter Ratcliff

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