Friday, April 21, 2017

The Forgotten Women Artists of America

by Terry Tempest Williams

Pacific Standard

April 21, 2017

Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists by Donna Seaman is a passage through the lives of various extraordinary women—all of them largely forgotten in death but revived now on these pages in vivid detail. Working in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., throughout the 20th century, each of these seven women artists, as Seaman writes “must have felt like a lone traveler without papers traversing a hostile land as she struggled to live a freely creative life.” These artists didn’t just live a creative life — they also created vibrant communities around them.

Seaman’s portraits include Louise Nevelson, a mythmaker whose medium was discarded wood; Gertrude Abercrombie, a painter who created a surreal world from her dreams; Lois Mailou Jones, a painter whose vibrant palette vivified her African roots and love of the natural world; Ree Morton, who explored the borders between science and art; Joan Brown, an advocate for public art, whose search for God served a spiritual and communal vision; Christina Ramberg, an artist who explored the erotic tension of the female body through gestures of bondage and engagement; and Lenore Tawney, the animating spirit behind fiber arts who saw her handwork as prayer.

Why did these women create art? Tawney’s response is representative: “I didn’t have to please anyone but myself.” Indeed, Donna Seaman reveals how each of these artists defied convention with fresh vision and a fierce devotion to their work. Freedom was their reward, artful integrity their legacy. These artists created visual disturbances that asked their public to revisit the world in a different way — whether it was Louise Nevelson creating sculptural landscapes made out of wooden scraps, or Joan Brown’s arresting self-portrait, “Year of the Tiger,” where she depicts herself as half-woman and half-tiger and thereby confronts us with our own animal nature.


Monday, April 17, 2017

The Quiet Firebrand Feminism of Emily Dickinson

by Katie Kilkenny

Pacific Standard

April 17, 2017

Though biopics of famous and important people are all the rage these days, it’s little wonder Emily Dickinson has been largely absent from the silver screen. Dickinson lived the majority of her life at her family’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts, save for a brief stay at an all-female seminary. And though she wrote over 1,800 poems, Dickinson published only 11 during her lifetime. She died at 55 having never received the acclaim she deserved.

But then, independent filmmaker Terence Davies, the director of the new Dickinson film A Quiet Passion, has never made films with obvious commercial prospects. Two of Davies’ previous films — Distant Voices, Still Lives, and The Long Day Closes — chronicled the lives of ordinary, blue-collar English characters; in his The House of Mirth and Sunset Song, Davies adapted books by Edith Wharton and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, seemingly only for the English-major demographic.

A Quiet Passion takes place almost entirely at The Homestead, where Dickinson struggles with her lack of renown despite her voluminous poetic output (she also suffers from some serious existential angst). And yet, Davies’ Dickinson is far from dull; Davies writes Dickinson (portrayed by Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon) as a firebrand feminist before her time. In one scene, she tells off her brother when he implies that women lead an easy, domestic life; in another, she snaps at a suitor who she fears might steal her independence.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

A Marvelous Moment for French Writers and Artists

by Julian Barnes

New York Review of Books

April 6, 2017

You see her from a distance, at the end of a long enfilade of rooms. As you approach, you notice that she is already turned toward you. She is in her fortified underwear: a light blue bodice, white slip, light blue stockings; in her raised right hand, a powder puff like a vast carnation. To the left, over a chair, is the blue dress she will soon put on. To the right, though you might not at first observe him, is an impatient, mustachioed figure in evening dress, his top hat still—or already—on his head. But once again, you are aware that she has eyes only for you.

She is Manet’s Nana, in the Hamburg Kunsthalle, benefiting from a recent rehang that makes her even more of a cynosure. Nana is the courtesan protagonist of Zola’s 1880 novel of the same name, and you might reasonably assume that Manet’s painting is, apart from anything else, one of the great book illustrations. But it is more interesting than this. Nana first appeared as a minor character in Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877). Manet spotted her there, and painted his portrait of her. When Zola saw it, he realized that, yes indeed, she was worth a novel in her own right. So, far from Manet illustrating Zola, what actually happened was that Zola was illustrating Manet.

The close friendship, interaction, and parallelism between writers and artists in nineteenth-century France are the subject of Anka Muhlstein’s The Pen and the Brush. Balzac put more painters into his novels than he did writers, constantly name-checking artists and using them as visual shorthand (old men looked like Rembrandts, innocent girls like Raphaels). Zola, as a young novelist, lived much more among painters than writers, and told Degas that when he needed to describe laundresses he had simply copied from the artist’s pictures. Victor Hugo was a fine Gothicky-Romantic artist in his own right, and an innovative one too, mixing onto his palette everything from coffee grounds, blackberry juice, and caramelized onion to spit and soot, not to mention what his biographer Graham Robb tactfully terms “even less respectable materials.”

Flaubert’s favorite living painter (also that of Huysmans’s Des Esseintes) was Gustave Moreau, and his Salammbô is like a massive, bejeweled, wall-threatening Salon exhibit—this being both the novel’s strength and its weakness. Baudelaire, Zola, Goncourt, Maupassant, and Huysmans were excellent art critics (Monet thought Huysmans the best of all). The subject is enormous, and might threaten to go off in every direction. What about photography? And book illustration? And sculpture? What about poets and pictures, both real and imaginary? Anka Muhlstein wisely limits herself to prose writers, and to five who speak to her most clearly: Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and—a slight chronological cheat—Proust. The result is a personal, compact, intense book that provokes both much warm nodding and occasional friendly disagreement.


Friday, January 20, 2017

‘I’m Nobody’? Not a Chance, Emily Dickinson

by Holland Cotter

New York Times

January 19, 2017

“In the Trumpian sense of the term, she’s the ultimate ‘nasty woman.’ An inspiration. Volcanic. When I start to write about her, I always feel, uh-oh.” The volcano referred to is Emily Dickinson, as described by the contemporary poet Susan Howe in the catalog for an exhibition, “I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” opening on Friday at the Morgan Library & Museum.

The show is one of the largest gatherings ever of prime Dickinson relics, and it comes with an aura the size of a city block. It instantly turns the Morgan into a pilgrimage site, a literary Lourdes, a place to come in contact with one aspect of American culture that truly can claim greatness, which we sure can use in an uh-oh political moment.

The show has a mission: To give 21st-century audiences a fresh take on Dickinson. Gone is the white-gowned Puritan nun, and that infantilized charmer, the Belle of Amherst. At the Morgan we get a different Dickinson, a person among people: a member of a household, a village-dweller, a citizen.

She was born in 1830 to rural gentry in Western Massachusetts, and one of the earliest items in the show gives an impression of modest Yankee privilege. It’s a portrait of Dickinson at around age 10 with her older brother, Austin, and young sister, Lavinia, done by a local artist, Otis Allen. It’s sort of a big deal to have it here: This is the first time it has left Houghton Library at Harvard since it arrived there in 1950. And the Morgan displays it well, against rose-patterned wallpaper that replicates the original, only recently uncovered, in Emily’s Amherst bedroom. In a sweet coincidence, the roses on the paper echo the flower the poet-to-be holds in her portrait.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

David Hockney and the joy of looking

by Emma Crichton-Miller


February 2017

We think we know David Hockney. He is one of the most recognisable and best-loved artists in the world—whether in his early incarnation as the boy from Bradford with bleached hair and round glasses who painted boys in swimming pools, or in his latter years as the trainer-wearing celebrant of East Yorkshire’s rolling landscape. His photo collage Pearblossom Hwy, 11-18th April 1986, #2 is the most popular image at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. His 1967 painting A Bigger Splash—with its meticulously realised explosion of white water in a scene of rectilinear calm—is regularly in the top 10 most popular British paintings. In 2011, British art students voted Hockney the most influential artist of all time.

On the one hand, Hockney seems reassuringly conservative in his focus on still life, landscape and portraiture. On the other, his bright-hued optimism and excited embrace of technology, from fax machines to the iPhone and iPad, have endeared him to new audiences. As two recent exhibitions at the Royal Academy—Yorkshire landscapes in 2012 and portraits in 2016—have proven, crowds flock to his abundant, inquisitive and joyful art.

In Hockney’s 80th year, however, Tate Britain is hoping to present a more comprehensive and nuanced account of his achievement in a new retrospective exhibition that runs from 9th February to 29th May.


Friday, January 6, 2017

‘Monet: The Early Years’ Reviews: A Youthful Visionary

by Karen Wilkin

Wall Street Journal

January 5, 2017

In the summer of 1858, Eugène Boudin, the painter of Normandy seacoasts, took his 17-year-old protégé, Claude Monet (1840-1926), to work from the landscape in a village near Le Havre. The gifted teenager’s canvas, “View Near Rouelles” (1858), begins “Monet: The Early Years,” at the Kimbell Art Museum: a sunlit, verdant field, sliced by a narrow river and framed by trees. A fisherman sits on the bank. It’s an astonishing picture—not only because of its precocious accomplishment, but also because it anticipates the way the mature Monet evokes the play of light on leaves, flowers, grasses and water, at a particular moment, in a particular season, without describing anything literally. More presciently, a row of tall, ragged poplars silhouetted against the sky is reflected in the river below, a motif Monet would return to more than three decades later, in one of his most daring series. And for further prescience, nearby, there’s a long horizontal painting of grainstacks under a spectacular sunset sky, made by the 24-year-old painter, along with some windswept views of the Normandy coast, at different times of day.

When Monet submitted these seaside paintings to the Salon of 1865—his first try—they were not only accepted but also admired and bought by a dealer. Encouraged by success, he began the enormous, extraordinarily ambitious “Luncheon on the Grass” (1865-66), a broadly painted picnic in a sun-dappled clearing in the forest of Fontainebleau, with the women’s wide skirts competing for attention with the pattern of light on a wall of trees. Intended for the 1866 Salon, but not completed in time, the vast picture was badly stored and damaged. Monet salvaged the two tantalizing fragments exhibited at the Kimbell and apparently kept them all his life. A full-length painting of his mistress, Camille Doncieux, in a green dress, was sent to the Salon instead and, again, accepted and praised. This, however, wasn’t a foretaste of the future. All but one of Monet’s later submissions to the Salon were rejected.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

World War I — The Quick. The Dead. The Artists.

by Holland Cotter

New York Times

January 5, 2017

The idea lingers that art can be separated from politics. But it can’t. All art — high, low; illustrative, abstract — is embedded in specific political histories, and direct links, however obscured, are always there. Such links are the unswerving focus of “World War I and American Art” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, a panoramic show that has the narrative flow of a documentary, and the suspenseful, off-kilter emotional texture of live drama.

World War I lasted roughly four years, from 1914 to 1918, with the United States joining the fray in 1917. The brevity of that engagement has led Americans to play down the war, but we shouldn’t. Although politicians at the time spun the conflict — which the public increasingly understood to be a murderous mistake — as the war that would end all wars, it did the opposite. It set the model for World War II, Vietnam, Iraq. And it departed from previous models of war only in ramping up their barbarities with modern technology.

With World War I, invisibility became a deadly weapon. Submarines turned oceans into minefields. Airplanes, used in regular combat for the first time, killed through stealth and distance. Silent death emerged: poisonous gases enveloped victims, blinding them, eating their flesh, leaving them to drown in their own fluids. Add to these grisly innovations the high-power guns that, dronelike, pulverize bodies outside the range of vision, and you can see how warfare became depersonalized. It felt like a scientific experiment, not a human engagement.

For a long time, the United States watched from afar, as the Allied Powers (France, Britain, Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire) battled each other in Europe. At the same time, America had its own wars of opinion, as citizens, artists among them, lined up on either side of the question of whether their country should stay neutral or gear up for battle.


America's National Gallery of Art

by Philip Kopper and the Publishing Office of the National Gallery of Art

Princeton University Press
January 2017

Seventy-five years ago, on the brink of America’s entry into World War II, the National Gallery of Art opened in Washington, DC. Founded by Andrew W. Mellon and accepted on behalf of the nation by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mellon’s gift included his magnificent art collection and the neoclassical structure that is today’s West Building. Since its opening in 1941, the Gallery’s singular status as the nation’s art museum has continued to attract public-spirited donors. Their generosity has added tens of thousands of superb works of art and has made possible the construction of I. M. Pei’s East Building in 1978, the Sculpture Garden in 1999, and most recently a rooftop terrace and new tower galleries in the East Building.

In celebration of the 75th anniversary of a beloved cultural institution, America’s National Gallery of Art takes readers on a definitive inside tour through the museum’s remarkable history. With lively prose and abundant illustrations, this richly detailed volume recounts the development of the Gallery under its four directors—David Finley, John Walker, J. Carter Brown, and currently Earl A. Powell III—and highlights the museum’s collections, exhibitions, architecture, and ambience. Later chapters explore the Gallery’s new emphasis on contemporary art and its historic 2014 agreement to accept custody of the Corcoran Collection, giving readers and visitors a window onto the future of this national treasure.

Philip Kopper is publisher and chief editorial officer of Posterity Press in Bethesda, MD. He is the author of New Southern Classicism and Colonial Williamsburg and coauthor of The National Museum of Natural History.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

‘Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity’ Review: Sundials and Stargazing

by Edward Rothstein

Wall Street Journal

January 3, 2017

Isn’t measuring time a fairly simple matter? It seems complicated only because of the mechanical clock’s intricate assemblage of clicking gears or the atomic clock’s reliance on oscillating atomic energy states. But imagine a world in which time’s passing is measured by the sun or stars. Could anything be more elementary? The world is itself a clock: Look closely, and you can take time’s measure.

But visit the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University to see its remarkable exhibition, “Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” and that notion will quickly disappear. Many artifacts in these two modest galleries are large irregular stone fragments of strange shapes, with curved sides and carved lines. They are almost all ruins of calendars and sundials going back to the late fourth century B.C., when time really was measured by the sun and stars. And their cryptic markings, we learn, incorporate complex conceptions of the ancient cosmos.

It took five years to arrange the loans of these objects from museums all over the world. From Salzburg, Austria, is a fragment of a bronze disc with engraved images; watch a short animation and we see that in the first or second century, it was part of a Roman waterclock used at the frontier of the Empire—one of the few surviving relics of such fragile timepieces.


Monday, January 2, 2017

The 25 best books I read in 2016 (by Prof. Aristides N. Hatzis)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Jean Cocteau: The Clown Prince of Modernism

by James Campbell

Wall Street Journal

December 23, 2016

The title of Jean Cocteau’s second book, published in 1910, was Le Prince Frivole, and it is as a flighty, upper-crust character that the novelist, painter, filmmaker and playwright has been treated by commentators ever since. “He is incapable of seriousness,” André Gide said of him. Gide was not a prince but a king in the interwar French literary world, and one of Cocteau’s idols. Picasso, another, more enduring friend, suggested that if Cocteau could sell his talent, “we could spend our whole lives going to the pharmacy to buy some Cocteau pills.” Cocteau felt belittled by those remarks, but they chime with the compliment paid to him by W.H. Auden some 30 years later: “The lasting feeling that his work leaves is one of happiness.” The ability to be serious while being at the same time frivolous is what makes Cocteau dear to his admirers.

It is not altogether surprising to learn that the dominant feeling of Cocteau’s life was unhappiness, at least as it unfolds in Claude Arnaud’s massive biography. His Cocteau is a vain, self-seeking, drug-addicted figure, repeatedly thwarted in love, who by the end felt that he had “spent his life wasting his talent.” Read as an account of Cocteau’s daytime insouciance and nocturnal anguish, Mr. Arnaud’s book might seem to reflect its subject’s own verdict accurately enough. Chapter after chapter outlines a trail of calculation and treachery, repeated failure and only occasional success. Artistic life in Paris between 1910 and 1950, one of the most fertile cultural epochs in history, appears in this telling to have been marked at every stage by spite, sometimes progressing to physical violence. At one stage, the poet Paul Eluard threatened to murder Cocteau; another poet, Robert Desnos, “actually tried to kill Cocteau back in the Dada days” and made anonymous phone calls to Cocteau’s mother informing her “that her son had just been run over by a car.” Both were associates of the Surrealist emperor and principal hater André Breton, who warned Tristan Tzara that Cocteau was “the most detestable being of this time.” Breton’s supporters, Mr. Arnaud writes, “would not have been surprised or disappointed to learn he had actually committed suicide.”

The reasons for this degree of enmity never become clear. Some of the Surrealists’ feeling was rooted in anti-homosexual prejudice, but Mr. Arnaud’s speculative remark that “the symbolic death of this homosexual would help them recover their own virility” sounds glib. Other homosexual artists, including Proust (who enjoyed Cocteau’s company), were spared menacing phone calls.


Friday, December 23, 2016

In Trying Times, the Balm of Jane Austen

by Susan Chir

New York Times

December 23, 2016

There are grim passages in our lives when each day begins and ends with dread, when endurance is a form of victory. In one such time, when the life of someone I loved was hanging in the balance, I turned to reading for solace. The diagnosis was grave, the treatment arduous and life-threatening in itself. My days and nights were kaleidoscopes of terror: weekslong hospitalizations, middle-of-the-night sprints to emergency rooms, daylong drug infusions at clinics, beeping monitors, doctors’ verdicts.

Though I read voraciously in good times and bad, it soon became clear that not just any book would do. I couldn’t get through a new book; it was too hard to summon the energy to concentrate. I needed the comfort and relative ease of familiarity, the literary equivalent of a warm bath.

I picked up my worn copy of Pride and Prejudice. An uncle who had a secondhand-book store in the East Village gave it to me as a birthday present when I was 11. I was too young to appreciate much of it, and struggled with the archaic language. But the enduring delights of this novel seduced me then as now: the spirit and wit of Elizabeth Bennet, who defies convention by spurning the hand of the wealthy, haughty Mr. Darcy; the pomposity of Mr. Collins; the vulgarity of Mrs. Bennet; and the slow journey toward self-knowledge that finally unites the lovers.

In Pride and Prejudice, tragedy is held at bay. The suspense revolves around whether Bingley or Darcy will fall in love or be driven away by inferior social standing, or how badly the Bennet family will embarrass itself at the next ball. The most serious crisis is the seduction of Elizabeth’s sister and how it affects her marriageability.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Painting Damnation: Celebrating 500 Years of Bosch

by Nina Siegal

New York Times

December 22, 2016

In case you missed it, we’re coming to the end of “Bosch Year 2016,” the quincentenary celebration of the death of the late-medieval Dutch master known for his surrealistic images of the hereafter, and particularly for the fantastical hybrid demons that populate his hell.

Global commemorative events throughout the year have included major retrospectives in the artist’s hometown, ’s-Hertogenbosch, in the Netherlands, and at the Prado in Madrid.

In the run-up to the year, scholars raced to complete new examinations of Bosch’s artworks all over the world and to advance new theories about his life and art, and the result is a profusion of hefty Bosch tomes, which range from authoritative technical analyses to a novelist’s art travelogue.

The landmark achievement of these efforts is a comprehensive catalog raisonné, produced by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project in ’s-Hertogenbosch, through an exhaustive examination by a group of art historians and scientists who traveled the world to examine and document every single work attributed to the artist. The 600-page illustrated catalog is accompanied by a 460-page volume of technical studies of the paintings (but not the drawings), made using infrared photography, infrared reflectography and X-radiography.


Monday, December 12, 2016

Kafka’s metamorphosis

by Tim Martin


January 2017

In the summer of 1911, on holiday in Switzerland, Franz Kafka was working on a string of bestsellers. With his friend Max Brod, the 28-year-old writer devised the plan for a quintessentially modern set of books, which could be “translated into every language,” would “energise the whole person” and would provide their creators with “a business venture worth millions.” None of them would contain the man-sized insects, opaque legal machinations, ghastly bureaucratic punishments or anything else for which the name Kafka later became famous. Instead, they were to be a series of stripped-down travel guides for tourists on a budget, which Kafka and Brod intended to call Billig, or On the Cheap.

Armed with a volume of Billig, frugal travellers would enjoy straight talk from Kafka and Brod about decent hotels, fast trains and clean brothels as they travelled “On the Cheap Through Italy,” “On the Cheap Through Switzerland,” “On the Cheap in Paris” or “On the Cheap in the Bohemian Spas and Prague.” “NB the candour of our guide,” wrote Brod in his business plan, next to excited notes on buying “pineapples and madeleines” in the French capital and blagging free exhibition tickets “like a local.” Kafka, meanwhile, promised in his cautious, spidery handwriting that “exact tipping amounts” would be noted throughout.

The “On the Cheap” books were never written. Brod mangled the publishing negotiations, and his friend Franz soon had other things to distract him. The following year he would write The Judgment, his first mature story, and meet Felice Bauer, a tango-dancing marketing rep with whom he pursued a bizarre epistolary courtship that lasted five years; it produced more than 500 letters, two broken engagements, a bare handful of meetings and some of the most famous literary works of the 20th century. Those who regard Kafka as a prophetic writer, however, may care to note that a travel book called Across Asia on the Cheap, published 62 years later, was the first of what we now know as the Lonely Planet Guides.


Friday, December 9, 2016

French Lessons: Seminal Works by Mallarmé and Camus

by John Simon

New York Times

December 9, 2016

France has always been the cynosure of the world’s culture watch. What happens there has influenced philosophy and the arts throughout the world. Just why this is so is hard to say. But Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry and Albert Camus’s prose fiction — notably the poem “One Toss of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance” (1897) and the novel The Stranger (1942) — set the tone for much that followed. Now we have two new books about them: R. Howard Bloch’s One Toss of the Dice and Alice Kaplan’s Looking for ‘The Stranger.’

Each has a significant subtitle: Bloch’s The Incredible Story of How a Poem Made Us Modern, Kaplan’s Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic. Despairingly, I defy anyone to fully explicate “Dice,” whereas “Stranger” has already been analyzed to a fare-thee-well. Bloch’s book is really two books. First, an account of Mallarmé’s uneventful life as a not very stimulating English teacher, early on in the provinces and later in Paris, until a relieved early retirement and premature death in 1898 at the age of 56. This includes an introduction to his work, progressively more difficult, as well as amusing anecdotes about the man and his contemporaries. Second, a translation of “Dice,” plus a dubious attempt to explicate the poem, and questionable claims for its influence on just about every major writer thereafter, including scientists and philosophers.

We get a detailed interpretation of the 20-page “Dice” as translated by the noted American poet J.D. McClatchy, who unfortunately takes some minor liberties, as well as mistranslating “parages du vague” (“region of vagueness”) as “region of waves.” I wonder also about the title’s rendering “A Throw” as the somewhat misleading “One Toss,” perhaps just to differ from Gordon Millan’s fine biography, correctly entitled “A Throw of the Dice.”

The poem employs everything from huge to tiny print, and is to be read across pairs of facing pages as single units, with the long title winding its way, word by single word, through the whole work. Much blank space surrounds the slender text, meant to evoke an all-embracing nothingness. It seems to involve a shipwreck, symbolizing the ultimate failure of a poem meant to be experienced as sound, meaning and look on the page. Mallarmé, like the alchemists, wanted to achieve the “great work,” but, rather than to create gold, to transform the whole world into a book or poem.


A Free-Spirited Family Gave Rise to Oscar Wilde

by Deborah Lutz

New York Times

December 9, 2016

By all accounts, Oscar Wilde put his true art into being Oscar Wilde. He spoke in faultless sentences and, with his brilliance of dress and force of presence, drew beauty out of transient moments. His writing then recounted this perfection of daily being, this ability to be steeped in the immediacy of place and time. The aesthetic philosophy he lived was developed in part by his mentor, Walter Pater, an Oxford professor; Wilde gave flesh to Pater’s ideas, especially the notion that success is “to burn always with this hard gemlike flame.” Yet an even greater influence was Wilde’s mother, with her gift for loading each instant with poetic passion.

While Wilde’s imprisonment for “acts of gross indecency with male persons” was a tragedy, he may have avoided the misfortune outlined in one of his many bons mots: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” In her deeply researched biography of the Wilde family, Emer O’Sullivan reminds us of the influence of Jane Wilde, a bluestocking who sometimes called herself Speranza and invented for herself a romantic Italian family tree.

A wildly erudite member of the Young Ireland movement, Jane made her name as a poet, intellectual and supporter of women’s rights. Her salons gathered together the key thinkers of the day — W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Robert Browning and Eleanor Marx (Karl’s socialist daughter). Jane walks right off the page in The Fall of the House of Wilde, and I wished for more of her, especially when it came to her many publications and how they colored Oscar’s writing. “Listening to their mother’s reading and embellishing the lyrics,” O’Sullivan writes of Jane reciting Whitman to her sons, “would have created in the boys a visceral bond between the maternal and the word, a place of storied memories of desire, loss and sensual pleasure.”


When Pushkin Came to Shove: How Nabokov and Edmund Wilson Fell Out Over a Poem

by Eric Bennett

New York Times

December 9, 2016

In 1964, Vladimir Nabokov published an English translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, regarded by many as the supreme treasure of Russian poetry, in an edition that spanned four volumes. The poem took up a fraction of their 1,895 pages. From the bowels of his dictionary, Nabokov dislodged words that might as well have been invented. If you’re looking for “mollitude,” “ancientry,” “shandrydans,” “agrestic,” “muzzlet” and “scrab,” all in one poem, your search is over. Yet, for some reason, to translate Pushkin’s robust Russian word for “friend,” Nabokov reached for “pal.” The volumes were also heavy on extras — sermons on prosody, disquisitions on usage, vitriolic reproofs of all the strained translations of Pushkin out there.

For a quarter-century, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, Nabokov’s pal, had remained publicly silent about Nabokov’s fiction. So when Wilson panned the translation in The New York Review of Books, he plunged to absolute zero a friendship that had been cooling only gradually. The ensuing quarrel drew in a crowd of what Alex Beam calls “1960s eminentos,” from Robert Lowell and Christopher Ricks to the historian Alexander Gershenkron.

In The Feud, Beam deems Wilson’s 6,600-word appraisal “an overlong, spiteful, stochastically accurate, generally useless but unfailingly amusing hatchet job.” Beam’s own account is unfailingly amusing, not overlong, winningly useless and not entirely free of spite for Wilson, who, based on the evidence Beam provides, seems to deserve it.


Friday, December 2, 2016

The Story of Claude Monet’s Water-Lily Masterworks

by Deborah Solomon

New York Times

December 2, 2016

Is there anything left to be said about Claude Monet, the celebrated Impressionist who took painting out of the studio and into the breezy, sneezy countryside? He gave us the defining view of French leisure and remains a perpetually bankable subject of museum blockbusters. His images of poplar trees and stacks of wheat, of stone cliffs off the coast of Normandy, of women strolling beneath the shade of their tilted parasols — they suggest that life is inherently pleasurable, a series of languorous afternoons whose only hazard is overexposure to the sun.

Yet Monet was plenty radical, especially in his Grande Décoration, as he referred to his wall-to-wall paintings of water lilies. He began the series in 1914, at the age of 73, setting up his easel beside his pond in Giverny and staying put as World War I flared around him. Ross King’s Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies is an engaging and authoritative portrait of the aged artist and his travails. By 1920, Monet was twice widowed and suffering from cataract-clouded vision. His confidence was at such a low that he frequently destroyed finished paintings. He had been famous for so long that many people assumed he was dead. As the last surviving French Impressionist, he pined for the company of absent friends — Renoir and Cézanne, especially — and felt estranged from a younger generation that considered his work passé beside the razzmatazz of Picasso’s demoiselles.

Les Nymphéas, as his water lilies paintings were officially titled, are among art history’s greatest last acts. Compared with Monet’s earlier paintings, with their direct transcriptions of the countryside, the water lilies dispense with contours and boundaries and veer toward abstraction. They mark the advent of “all-over painting,” a phrase that was coined in New York in the 1950s, when Monet was abruptly rediscovered. Critics who were eager to construct an instant lineage for Jackson Pollock’s then-new drip paintings looked to Monet, who, though trained as a 19th-century realist, helped pioneer the 20th-century belief that vision is fundamentally subjective, a rush of shifting sensations, a stream (or pond?) of consciousness.


David Hockney: A Book of Paintings and ‘A History of Pictures’

by Chloe Wyma

New York Times

December 2, 2016

Beloved for his cool, crystalline paintings of sunlit California bungalows and poolside male nudes of the 1960s and ’70s, David Hockney is often called Britain’s greatest living artist and even the world’s most popular living painter. The cult of Hockney, who is now 79, continues with a batch of new books, including the catalog to 82 Portraits and 1 Still-Life, mounted at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last summer, and A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen, a lavishly illustrated dialogue between the artist and the art critic Martin Gayford. (For the friend who has everything, there’s also David Hockney: A Bigger Book, Taschen’s 75-pound whale of a monograph that comes with a Marc Newson-designed bookstand and a $2,500 price tag.)

Pictures, Hockney and Gayford write in their preface, hinting at their thesis, “have seldom been considered as a single category in themselves.” Photography, painting and cinema, Gayford elaborates, all belong to a common history that “spills over the normal boundaries between high and low culture, moving images and still ones, even good and bad ones.”

Many of the ideas in A History of Pictures are indebted to Hockney’s 2001 book Secret Knowledge, which controversially argued that old master painters from Van Eyck to Ingres employed various proto-photographic gadgets — such as the camera obscura, the camera lucida and the convex mirror — in their optical capture of the world. But A History of Pictures is less a coherent theory than a very sophisticated chat, embellished with a princely collection of images guided by Hockney’s particular tastes. Unimpeachable masterpieces like Velázquez’s Las Meninas join art historical rarities: a woozy early Vermeer; a seminude Orientalist photo shoot art-directed by Eugène Delacroix; Ellsworth Kelly’s abstraction of two contiguous curved volumes said to slyly represent “two boys’ bums together”; a composite photograph of Abraham Lincoln with a Mathew Brady head shot of the president grafted onto the body of the pro-slavery statesman John C. Calhoun.


Dada and Beyond: The Many Artistic Lives of Francis Picabia

by Albert Mobilio

New York Times

December 2, 2016

“Paintings are made for dentists,” Francis Picabia declared in Jésus-Christ Rastaquouère, a manifesto (one among many he wrote) that offers ample evidence of this avant-garde artist and poet’s subversive, disdainful sensibility toward art and art making. Still, the very next line — “So what! Let’s get on with it!” — aptly characterizes the eager, if not promiscuous approach to his own career, one that spanned the first half of the 20th century and engaged nearly every movement of that period. From his earliest Impressionist efforts, through Cubist, Dadaist, Surrealist and realist work, to the abstract iterations that marked the years before his death in 1953, Picabia shifted fluidly with the cultural moment, all the while vigorously denouncing the style he’d just left behind. His leave-taking was often as cryptic as it was vehement: “I separated from Dada because I believe in happiness and I loathe vomiting; the smells of cooking make a rather unpleasant impression on me.”

With copious illustrations and 16 essays, this hefty catalog for the current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art attempts to chart a zigzag career that made up in energy what it lacked in depth of exploration. Anne Umland, one of the show’s curators and an editor of the volume, notes in her introduction that unlike Picasso’s “stylistic pluralism,” Picabia’s “style-switching involves extremes that exude — and provoke — skepticism and doubt.” She goes on to quote the art historian Benjamin Buchloh, who observed a “specter of derivativeness” in the artist’s work. This imitative quality and its attendant “pluralism” (noted to some degree or another by most of the critics assembled here) doesn’t only bother art historians; it’s readily apparent to those less schooled. In a single year, 1922, Picabia produced geometric abstractions, figurative silhouettes (La Nuit Espagnole is perhaps the most notable), and conventional, vaguely impressionistic watercolors of women draped in floral fabrics. It can be hard to reconcile such aesthetic dissonances.


A Look at J. M. W. Turner, Master of Landscapes and Networking

by Nicholas Fox Weber

New York Times

December 2, 2016

Ever since he made his brave, experimental paintings exalting both natural truth and pigment as pigment, J.M.W. Turner has been a hero to art lovers. A technical dynamo, he captured the atmosphere surrounding the Earth, as well as land and sea, and he stretched the experience of seeing in unprecedented ways.

Some 45 years ago, the renowned Bauhaus-trained color theorist Josef Albers told me he deemed Turner a master of hue and light intensity. When I took my job running the foundation Josef and Anni Albers created, I knew my task was to foster pioneering and imaginative vision akin to Turner’s. Connoisseurs with sharp opinions deify him. At a wedding reception at Tate Britain, the sparky television journalist Morley Safer, known for his passionate opinions about art, came up to me gleefully returning from the men’s room and said, “I mean, who ever heard of asking the way to the loo at a party and being instructed, ‘Just go through the Turner gallery.’ Incredible! There is no greater handler of paint, Nick.” I am not reporting this to name-drop. Turner is not famous like Rembrandt and Picasso, but he is the aficionado’s god.

We want to know what drove the man, how he acquired such courage and breadth. Mike Leigh’s popular 2014 biopic offered no answers. Its Turner is all bombast in historical clothing, the heavy-handed film devoid of insights into Turner’s creative spark. Could this wonderfully subtle, sensitive painter really have been such a blunderbuss?