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?


Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Private Life of Victorians

by Leah Price

New York Times

December 1, 2016

Have you ever dreamed of getting hired as an extra on Downton Abbey? Did you grow up coveting the bonnets on Little House on the Prairie? Do you fantasize about the good old days when your gentleman caller would have serenaded you instead of sexting you?

Be careful what you wish for, Therese Oneill warns in Unmentionable. For starters, you might miss the crotch of your panties: Victorian women’s underwear was slit down the middle, which facilitated peeing but complicated things at that time of the month. You might miss your little pink pill, too, if the alternative was a vaginal suppository designed to kill “germs. And possibly things that rhyme with ‘germ.’ ”

Unmentionable transports us back to the world of middle-class 19th-century women, with special emphasis on the messy details that costume dramas airbrush out. Acting as tour guide to her time-traveling reader, Oneill, a humor writer, tells us what we’ll wear (a lot of layers, none very clean), how we’ll power our vibrators (galvanic batteries) and where we’ll park our excrement (under the bed). With a 4-year-old’s scatological glee, Oneill details the logistics of old-time peeing, pooping, gestating, menstruating and mating — or, as the Victorians termed the carnal act, “jiggery-pokery,” “frickle-frackle,” “rumbusticating” and the “featherbed jig.”


Monday, November 28, 2016

Wentworth Woodhouse is no Pemberley: Jane Austen didn’t use it as the model for Mr Darcy’s home

by Maureen Stiller


November 28, 2016

In his autumn statement, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced he would grant the sum of £7.6m towards the preservation of Wentworth Woodhouse, a stately home near Rotherham in Yorkshire. “It is said to be the inspiration for Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,” he told the Commons. Although Austen’s portrait will grace the new £10 note issued next year, this may be the first time she has been invoked as a rationale for the expenditure of public funds.

One of the charms of Austen is that her subjects seem so real, and some of her devoted readers have tried to identify the characters and settings in her books with real people and places. The Yorkshire Wentworths were an ancient, extended family who occupied not only Wentworth Woodhouse but nearby Wentworth Castle. The names of Fitzwilliam, D’Arcy, Wodehouse (Woodhouse), Watson and Vernon, as well as Wentworth, featured among the inhabitants of both houses; names that Jane Austen sprinkled among her novels and co-opted for her hero in Pride and Prejudice.

Perhaps this persuaded someone that Jane Austen had used an actual contemporary owner of Wentworth Woodhouse as the model for Mr Darcy. The Wentworths were the über-celebrities of their day and their portraits, political rivalries, scandals, inheritance issues, house remodeling and landscape improvements featured regularly in newspapers and journals. Jane Austen, being extremely well-read and cognizant of contemporary issues, would have been well aware of this. However, most academics acknowledge that there is no evidence for her having travelled further north than Lichfield in Staffordshire, and that therefore she would not have visited Wentworth Woodhouse.


Friday, November 4, 2016

Next Stop, Valhalla

by Geoffrey O’Brien

New York Review of Books

November 4, 2016

Rossini’s Guillaume Tell—now being staged at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time since 1931, and for the first time ever there in its original French—is as powerful a piece of operatic machinery as Parisian opera had to offer in 1829. Its broad and spacious structure is animated by warm and full-bodied surges of feeling, and when set in motion this nearly five-hour work can still deliver a sustained experience of sensory and emotional overabundance. Here Rossini, having come to Paris five years earlier as the renowned thirty-one-year-old composer of thirty-three operas, created in what would be his last work for the stage a perfected fusion of the approaches available to him, by turns epic and delicate and charged with dramatic bravura.

As a French opera by an Italian composer based on a German play adapted from a Swiss legend, it is tempting to think of Guillaume Tell as a symptom of transnational yearning, with Swiss patriotism serving as the emblem of a wider union. William Tell is not much more historical a figure than Robin Hood, and so makes a perfect hero for an all-purpose celebration of liberty and solidarity with none of the ambivalences and mixed motives of actual politics. The story of the master archer Tell ordered to shoot an apple off his son’s head by the Austrian tyrant Gessler, was supposed to have transpired sometime in the early fourteenth century. A signal event of the Swiss national saga, it was already the stuff of children’s tales when Schiller wrote his play in 1805. Rossini’s French librettists—four of them in the end, churning out successive rewrites like screenwriters at Warner Brothers—streamlined Schiller’s chronicle-like structure to place Tell more decisively at the center of events, while concocting an appropriately conflicted love interest between the Swiss patriot Arnold Melchthal and the Austrian princess Mathilde. The result was a template for the political sublime: politics without messy political details and therefore without doubt or confusion, an ecstatic rallying point for sentiments like “independence or death” and “liberty, come down once more from the sky.”

It is a momentarily realized dream of national victory understood as synonymous with the triumph of liberty and of every form of domestic tenderness, a triumph synonymous in turn with the “pure air,” “radiant day,” and “boundless horizon” of the Swiss landscape when the mist finally lifts at the opera’s end. Rossini’s music becomes for all those things the ultimate metaphor, enacting every shade of exultation and liberty and radiance and boundlessness. The heroism of Tell’s compatriots in their struggle against the Austrian yoke finds its natural expression in jubilant singing, while the roles of Gessler and his soldiers reveal not tortured complexity but simple brute cruelty. Communal celebrations, protests, laments, vows of loyalty, and calls to arms are embodied in successive waves of choral singing, each seeming to attain the highest imaginable peak until the next advances further. The whole work functions as a massive act of encouragement, constructed to induce in the audience the sense of a brave and finally invulnerable collective spirit: “For us no more servile fear, /Let us be men, and we shall conquer!”


Friday, October 28, 2016

What the Brontës Made

by Francine Prose

New York Review of Books

October 28, 2016

Even those who think they know all there is to know about the Brontë family will likely be surprised by many of the documents and artifacts included in “Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will,” currently on view at New York’s Morgan Library. Many of these revelations have to do with size and scale, with the contrast between the breadth and depth of Charlotte Brontë’s imagination and her physical delicacy, between the forcefulness of her and her siblings’ prose and the neat, astonishingly miniscule handwriting (not unlike Robert Walser’s microscript) in which she, Emily, and their brother Branwell penned their early work.

The first thing we see, on entering the gallery, is a glass case containing one of Charlotte Brontë’s dresses and a pair of her shoes, objects that make us acutely aware—more effectively than any description or photograph of these items could—of how diminutive (by modern standards) this strong and resilient woman was. Tiny books and magazines, including a copy of a satirical play about the art of writing, The Poetaster, that Charlotte wrote when she was fourteen, offer a view of the way in which the Brontë children saw writing as an imaginative game; to them, these miniature, handmade volumes—meticulously printed, and in some cases illustrated with watercolors—were, essentially, toys. Included also is the manuscript of a poem that Emily Brontë wrote when she was nineteen, a work of three hundred words, divided in forty-six lines, on a page that is only ten centimeters tall.

Anne Brontë’s Bible and a group of family prayer books provide a sense of the intensely religious atmosphere in which the siblings were raised by their clergyman father. Other volumes—a world atlas that Charlotte decorated with doodled portraits of women, Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds—increase our understanding of what the family read, and of the ways in which they supplemented the sparse and punitive education that Charlotte and Emily received at the nightmarish boarding school that appears, thinly disguised as Lowood, in Jane Eyre. Among the most affecting documents are letters and journal entries in which Charlotte expresses the unhappiness and loneliness she experienced as a teacher (“neither is my heart in the task, the theme or the exercise”), as a governess (“I am miserable when I allow myself to dwell on the necessity of spending my life as Governess”), and as a student in Brussels (“I am tired of being amongst foreigners it is a dreary life”).


‘Icons of Modern Art’: Picassos, Matisses, Monets, Oh, My!

by Jason Farago

New York Times

October 28, 2016

The history of collecting, the development of painterly style, the changing fortunes of individuals and nations: You will think about all these things on your second go-through of “Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection,” which opened last week at the Fondation Louis Vuitton here.

Your first visit will probably elicit another, less intellectual reaction: dumbstruck awe.

This titanic exhibition assembles 127 works of French painting — by Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso and many more artists on the Modernist hit parade — that belonged to the Russian textile magnate Sergei Shchukin (1854–1936).

He acquired them in a concentrated buying spree of just 15 years, and displayed his collection in a palace in Moscow — capped by “Dance” and “Music,” the monumental panels that stand among Matisse’s boldest works. By 1918, though, Lenin was in the Kremlin, Shchukin had gone into exile, and the collection was nationalized and dispersed; some works ended up in Siberia. The group’s partial reassembly here amounts to the blockbuster of blockbusters, and a welcome coda features works by Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko and other artists whose study of Shchukin’s French pictures was decisive for the development of the Russian avant-garde.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Growing Charm of Dada

by Alfred Brendel

New York Review of Books

October 27, 2016

During World War I, Zurich, the largest city in neutral Switzerland, was a refuge for artists, writers, intellectuals, pacifists, and dodgers of military service from various countries. A handful of these decided in 1916 to create a new kind of evening entertainment. They called it Cabaret Voltaire and established it at Spiegelgasse 1, not far from the room that was occupied by an occasional visitor to the cabaret, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The group, which became known as Dadaists, consisted of three Germans (Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Emmy Hennings), one Alsatian (Hans Arp), two Romanians (Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara), and the Swiss Sophie Taeuber. They were soon joined by Walter Serner, an Austrian born in Bohemia. The youngest, Tzara, was twenty; Hennings was the oldest at thirty-one. All were united in their loathing of the war.

The initiator of the group appears to have been Hugo Ball. He was, like most Dadaists, a writer but had also worked in the theater and performed in cabarets. After having to leave Germany as a pacifist, he settled with Emmy Hennings in Zurich where, pale, tall, gaunt, and near starving, he was regarded as a dangerous foreigner. At the Voltaire, he declaimed his groundbreaking phonetic poem “Karawane” (Caravan)—written in nonsensical sounds—to the bewilderment of the public. After a few intense months of Dada activity he left the group, turned to a gnostic Catholicism, and died in the Swiss countryside, regarded as a kind of saint. His diary Die Flucht aus der Zeit (The Flight from Time) remains one of the principal accounts of Dadaism.

For Richard Huelsenbeck, noise seems to have been the most natural form of virility. Within Dada, he was the champion of provocation. A poet and journalist who subsequently traveled the world as a ship’s doctor and practiced as a psychoanalyst for a time in New York, Huelsenbeck remained with Dada and helped to establish in 1917 its very different Berlin branch.



The Chase

by Inigo Thomas

London Review of Books

October 20, 2016

J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway hangs in a corner of Room 34 at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. The painting remains close to where it was first exhibited in 1844 when the Royal Academy occupied the gallery’s east wing. ‘There comes a train down upon you,’ Thackeray wrote after seeing the painting. ‘The viewer had best make haste … lest it dash out of the picture and be away to Charing Cross through the wall opposite.’ The National Gallery has been refashioned, the RA has moved to Piccadilly, but the train in Rain, Steam and Speed is forever hurtling towards Charing Cross.

The only other painting at the National Gallery that comes close to its depiction of speed is Titian’s Death of Actaeon, which shows Diana, the goddess of hunting, running through woods to witness Actaeon’s death: she has already transformed him into a stag as punishment for coming across her and her nymphs bathing. His own hounds have caught up with him, they don’t recognise their master and they’re about to tear him apart – just as certainly as the train will destroy a hare in Rain, Steam and Speed.

‘Always take advantage of an accident,’ Turner once said. ‘A painter can only represent the instant of an action, and what is seen at first sight’ was another of his aphorisms, one that he borrowed from Gotthold Lessing or John Opie, magpie that he was. ‘Every glance is a glance for study,’ he also said. The scene in Rain, Steam and Speed is of an imminent death, the instant of an action caught by a glance. A train rushes across a bridge and is bearing down on a hare that’s running over the washed-brown bed of a railway track. The hare isn’t immediately obvious because it is partially obscured by the driving rain. The train will catch up with the hare and kill it: there’s no escape, the track is encased by walls. The hare’s typical act of self-defence, to turn back on itself so dramatically that it throws off its pursuers, marvelled at by hunters for centuries, isn’t available: the locomotive blocks its path. ‘Each outcry of the hunted hare/A fibre from the brain does tear,’ Blake said, but this hare’s death looks as if it will be instantaneous.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

‘Picasso Portraits’ Review: Face to Many Faces With a Modern Master

by Tom L. Freudenheim

Wall Street Journal

October 10, 2016

It’s likely that any Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) show will assure the exhibiting museum of high visitor numbers. Nevertheless, such a project requires the Sisyphean task of plowing through the work of one of art history’s most prolific and protean artists. So it’s a relief that the judicious selection of 87 works in “Picasso Portraits,” which recently opened at the National Portrait Gallery, is tighter and more focused than the 200-plus works in MoMA’s memorable 1996 Picasso portraiture survey. It’s a persuasive case for the “less is more” advice that NPG guest curator Elizabeth Cowling, a University of Edinburgh emeritus professor and Picasso authority, says she was given during the planning (and, presumably, winnowing) process. The resulting manageable, and even somewhat unexpected, Picasso survey includes works both familiar and previously unexhibited in a range of mediums, deftly organized in a chronological, yet also topical, installation.

A perceptive teenage self-portrait of 1896, executed while Picasso was studying art in Barcelona, asserts the maturity of his juvenilia. This, in turn, prepares us for the constant shifting of depictive modes with which the artist, over the course of his lifetime, shocked and delighted viewers while concurrently confounding curators and scholars. A large and familiar, completely different, self-portrait of 1906 not only channels Cézanne but also prepares us for Picasso’s lifelong dialogue with other artists, seen throughout the show, even while he was being very self-consciously inventive.

By the time of his 1910 Cubist portrait of noted art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the artist has forcefully challenged our understanding of portraiture’s possibilities. Reportedly the outcome of 20 to 30 sittings, the Kahnweiler image fuses an assemblage of tonal geometric forms in so-called Analytic Cubism, the most radical painting of the day, with the most conventional pose of a gentleman in waistcoat with watch chain, hands clasped, sitting for his portrait. It’s astonishing to note how far Picasso has moved from the several 1901 portraits on view, which range from suggestions of Toulouse-Lautrec to the brilliantly colored smirking image of Bibi-la-Purée, the “King of Bohemia” in artistic Paris.


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

‘Abstract Expressionism’ Review: Some Americans Abroad

by Tom L. Freudenheim

Wall Street Journal

October 4, 2016

It’s a spine-tingling experience for an American visitor to encounter the spectacular Abstract Expressionism exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. The truly patriotic may also see it as a confirmation of, as art historian and critic Irving Sandler put it in the title of his 1970 book on the movement, The Triumph of American Painting. Perhaps that’s why, on entering the RA’s courtyard, one can’t help but chuckle at the life-size bronze of the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), first president of the Royal Academy, apparently looking away from the imposing group of David Smith (1906-1965) abstract metal sculptures installed as an introduction to the show.

As the heir to various modes of European abstract painting, American Abstract Expressionism was understood to be a home-grown approach to art that exercised a powerful force from the 1940s into the 1960s. This first major U.K. exhibition in almost six decades on a subject so central to American art history—163 works in a splendid sequential visual package with beginning, middle and end—is meant to present these works as “informed by new thinking.” But it mostly confirms the canonical and heroic mythology of an art world commandeered by a small group of macho guys that’s long been the primary way in which this historical yarn has been spun.

So the London show may disappoint those who want to reset the inclusiveness button in regard to gender equity, despite several paintings by Lee Krasner, and single works by Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Janet Sobel and Louise Nevelson (strangely, the only sculptor of any gender other than Smith to merit inclusion). A far greater number of artists and their variant styles—especially the inclusion of more sculpture than only the splendid Smiths here—would have presented a more complete and complex view of what comes off as a fairly neat and familiar package.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

He Made It American

by Sanford Schwartz

New York Review of Books

October 13, 2015

If there is a message in the Whitney’s large gathering of the work of Stuart Davis, it may be simply that time hasn’t dented the power of the painter’s work. While some of the pictures breathe merely a period air, a great many continue to give pleasure, and, as an added attraction—as the artist with his love for everyday turns of phrase might have said—it isn’t easy to say why.

In his day, and perhaps for viewers first coming to him now, Davis—who died in 1964, at seventy-one—was a Cubist of sorts whose special contribution was to give the style an American look. Into his Cubist-type arrangements of so many flat, interlocking shapes he incorporated details that conjured up an American world at its most generic: gasoline pumps and barbershop poles, New York City subway entrances and street lamps, and the masts of boats visible just beyond the warehouses in New England fishing towns. Bringing into his pictures words and phrases—whether from advertising, or a line from a Duke Ellington hit of 1931, or single words such as “now” and “cat” and “else”—Davis brought to Cubism as well an American sound and voice.

A populist and a man who was much given to propounding theories, Davis saw his Americanisms as part of his plan. He was convinced that a modern painter needed to give a sense of his or her time and place and to convey somehow what was novel and urgent about it. He would probably have liked knowing that the last major show of his art in New York, which was at the Metropolitan Museum twenty-five years ago, was called “Stuart Davis: American Painter.”

Yet what makes a larger impression on viewers now, I believe, is less Cubism, which is in itself a far less vital or pressing style for us, or Davis’s American note, which, certainly in his best pictures, is something we don’t take all that seriously. (It helps that he also had a long-running affair with things French, and mixed Paris in with New York.) What counts more is the way that over four decades he kept reimagining, and making more imposing, his art of form and color. Davis stands to the side of painters of his own era, such as Marsden Hartley and Edward Hopper—and of the next, such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock—in that his work seems hardly touched by psychology, or by any sense of mysteriousness, poignance, or raw tensions. At the same time, for all his evident gifts as a designer of abstract forms, his painting isn’t analytical or measured in spirit.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

‘American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals’ Review

by Lance Esplund

Wall Street Journal

August 16, 2016

Six miles off the Atlantic coastline, where New Hampshire abuts Maine, is the archipelago known as the Isles of Shoals. The largest of its nine landmasses is Maine’s Appledore Island—95 weather-beaten acres of rocky coves, tidal pools and knobby shrubbery, all anchored by nature-cleaved mounds of white-and-gray granite. From 1848 to 1914, its western shores were the site of Appledore House, a grand, rambling hotel owned and operated by the family of the poet, artist and naturalist Celia Thaxter (1835-1894).

Thaxter, Appledore’s resident cultural luminary, lived in an adjacent cottage. Vacationers craned to spy, through Thaxter’s vine-cloaked, wraparound porch, the celebrities at her summer soirées, including writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson and painters William Morris Hunt and Frederick Childe Hassam.

But like the artists who frequented Appledore, resort guests were probably more transfixed by the views from their own porches: surf driving against rocky shores; active, New England skies; the surrounding smaller islands and distant, hazy mainland horizon; glorious sunsets.

These sweeping vistas entranced Hassam (1859-1935), who nearly every summer visited and painted Appledore between 1886 and 1916. And those pictures are the subject of American Impressionist: Childe Hassam and the Isles of Shoals, a handsome exhibition of more than 40 marine oils and watercolors at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum. Curated at PEM by Austen Barron Bailly, the museum’s curator of American art, the show was co-organized with the North Carolina Museum of Art in cooperation with the Shoals Marine Laboratory.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Showtime at the Musée d’Orsay: Watching Varnish Dry

by Doreen Carvajalaug

New York Times

August 15, 2016

It’s showtime at the Musée d’Orsay — the electric moment when visitors pause in the grand public art galleries here, all to watch varnish dry.

They gather in silence to gawk at the paint whisperers — small teams of conservators poised on scaffolding and encased in two glass cubes. From these makeshift stages, they swipe away centuries-old dark grime on precious works — from Gustave Courbet’s enormous oil painting of his crowded studio to Auguste-Barthélemy Glaize’s violent battle of a stone-throwing female revolt against Roman invaders, “The Women of Gaul.”

Ordinarily such a delicate task is carried out in the tranquillity of a laboratory. But the once mysterious craft is increasingly turning into a high-end reality show — long-running spectacles that appeal to donors who lavish money on makeovers, but trouble some conservators accustomed to quiet and absolute concentration.

In Cincinnati, the city’s public museum featured its chief conservator, Serena Urry, last winter in a three-month exhibition, “Conservation on View: Zaragoza’s Retablo of St. Peter.” She worked in a white lab coat in the middle of a public gallery across from a cafe — her work table spread with tools and swabs to remove varnish and overpaint from a gilded, 600-year-old Spanish altarpiece.

“People were really enjoying it, but it’s not something I would do again, Ms. Urry said. “Conservation is not performance art.”


Thursday, August 11, 2016

One Helluva Fella: The Horrifically Contemporary World of Hieronymus Bosch

by Ulrike Knöfel


August 11, 2016

Impaled heads and burning bodies: Hieronymus Bosch, the great Dutch painter whose images depicted the horrors and terror of the past, present and future, died 500 years ago. In the era of Abu Ghraib and Islamic State, his work feels as contemporary as ever.

The artist Hieronymus Bosch probably had the most prodigious imagination of his day. He was the great surrealist of the waning Middle Ages. His paintings were both a promise and a threat, intended to convey an idea of what would happen in paradise and, even more so, in hell. He created labyrinths of atrocities and a vocabulary of the bestial. He depicted devils and monsters, but also people being tortured, naked people whose throats were being slit, almost as if they were part of a scene in the latest propaganda video from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). And then there are images and motifs that seem comedic in their sheer absurdity.

Bosch, this mysterious painter whose motives were unclear, died 500 years ago, in August 1516. One thing is certain: The Dutchman from the Duchy of Brabant did not spare his audience. He painted what no one had painted before him. And he must have had his own dark humor. In one painting, he depicts a dwarflike being with an upper body that resembles an egg, while the lower body is reminiscent of a lizard. But the gaunt face is that of a human being, with glasses perched on his nose. It is often speculated that this may have been the face of Bosch himself.

He painted this curious being in the corner of a plate, next to Saint Mark the Evangelist foreseeing the End of Time. Did Bosch also perceive himself as a visionary? As someone who wanted to make mankind squirm as it learned of its future? Are his paintings a painted version of gallows humor?


Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Mystery of Hieronymus Bosch

by Ingrid D. Rowland

New York Review of Books

August 18, 2016

There has never been a painter quite like Jheronimus van Aken, the Flemish master who signed his works as Jheronimus Bosch. His imagination ranged from a place beyond the spheres of Heaven to the uttermost depths of Hell, but for many of his earliest admirers the most striking aspect of his art was what they described as its “truth to nature.” The five hundredth anniversary of his death in 1516 has inspired two comprehensive exhibitions, at the Noordbrabants Museum in his hometown of ’s-Hertogenbosch and at Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado, as well as an ambitious project to analyze all of his surviving work, drawn, painted, and printed, according to the latest scientific techniques (the Bosch Research and Conservation Project). Yet despite all we have learned through these undertakings—and it is a great deal—the man his neighbors knew as “Joen the painter” remains as mysterious as ever.

How could it be otherwise with so strange and masterful an artist? His early admirers celebrated the boundless ingenuity of his work, but they also recognized the sureness of his hand and his unerringly observant eye. In the precision of his draftsmanship, his sensitivity to landscape, his fascination with animals, he shows some surprising affinities with his contemporary from Florence, Leonardo da Vinci—who else but Leonardo would have noticed, and recorded, as Bosch does, the way that evening light can turn the waters of a distant river into a radiant mirror? Both artists were fascinated by grotesque human faces, but Bosch also detailed grotesque human behavior with a bawdy abandon all his own. No matter how closely we look at his minutely particular works, there is always something more to see.

The earthly life of Jheronimus van Aken is sparsely documented; the clues to his inner life are fewer still. He grew up on the northernmost border of the Flemish-speaking, Burgundian-ruled Duchy of Brabant, in a city whose name means “the duke’s forest”: Silva Ducis in Latin, s’-Hertogenbosch in Flemish, Bois-le-Duc in French, Herzogenbusch in German, Bolduque in Spanish—all languages in common use in his times and in his region. The forest itself was probably an ancient memory by the time of his birth around 1450, replaced by an emporium that ranked only behind Brussels and Antwerp for size and importance within its area, famous for its steel knives and its cloth market.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Botticelli: Love, Wisdom, Terror

by Andrew Butterfield

New York Review of Books

May 26, 2016

Sometime around 1490 Sandro Botticelli set out to make a book unlike any ever seen before. Prompted by a patron, and inspired by his own deep love of Dante, the artist planned the first fully illustrated edition of the Divine Comedy. Almost since the poem was completed around 1321, painters had decorated manuscripts of it with illuminations of selected scenes. But the very qualities that drew so many readers to the poem—its vivid accounts of the horrors of Hell and the splendors of Heaven, its sprawling narrative, its penetrating descriptions of emotion, its philosophical gravity, and its unequaled mix of realism and what Dante called alta fantasia—were all far beyond the skills of earlier painters to convey. Even the most elaborate illuminated manuscripts of the book, including those made for humanist rulers such as Alfonso V of Aragon, king of Naples, were illustrated with comparatively naif and rudimentary images. Botticelli was determined to be the first painter to do justice to the great poem.

An exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London allows us to see what he hoped to achieve. It features thirty of the surviving ninety-two parchment sheets he made for the book. The sheets are relatively large—about 12 1/2 by 18 1/2 inches—and they are arranged in what is commonly called landscape format. Each sheet bears on its back Botticelli’s illustration for a canto, and on its front the text of the following canto, written in the neat lettering of a Florentine scribe. Most scholars agree the plan was to bind the sheets together in a codex, with its spine on the top, like a modern-day calendar. When opened to a spread it would present Botticelli’s picture of a canto on the upper page, and the text of the same canto on the lower page. In all earlier illustrated versions of the Divine Comedy most of the images are small and tucked among the blocks of script, or placed at the foot of the page. By contrast, in Botticelli’s the pictures and the text were to be given equal space, and the pictures were to go above the writing. This format was unprecedented in Italian book design.

Three of the illustrations—although none in the London show—are at least partially colored, and it is generally thought that Botticelli had originally meant to paint all the illustrations in the book. In the event, however, he never completed the drawings for the project, stopping while at work on Canto 32 of the Paradiso, seemingly defeated by the challenge of depicting the utmost reaches of Heaven, which by Dante’s own account are outside the capacity of human representation. It is perhaps fortunate for us that he did not finish. Made with pen and brown ink over faint preliminary sketches, Botticelli’s drawings for the Divine Comedy are among the most lively, tender, and psychologically searching works he ever created.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Degas Invents a New World

by Anka Muhlstein

New York Review of Books

May 12, 2016

Edgar Degas was a paradoxical man, disconcerting in both his actions and his appearance. “With his silk hat on his head, his blue spectacles over his eyes—not to forget the umbrella—he is the image of a notary, a bourgeois of the time of Louis-Philippe,” according to Paul Gauguin. A notary, really? Not to the eyes of Paul Valéry, who describes him opening the door of his atelier, “shuffling about in slippers, dressed like a pauper, his trousers hanging, never buttoned.” The portrait painter Jacques-Émile Blanche saw him as neither a bourgeois nor an artist, but as

a platoon commander on a drill field; if he makes a gesture, that gesture is imperious, as expressive as his hand in drawing; but he quickly retreats to a pose as defensive as that of a woman concealing her nakedness, the habit of a solitary soul who veils or protects his personality.

Degas himself, toward the end of his life, nearly blind, painted a self-portrait and said that he looked like an old dog, while his friend the sculptor Bartholomé found him to be “more beautiful than ever, like an old Homer with his eyes fixed on eternity.”

He never had one quality without having its opposite:

Degas could be charming or unpleasant. He possessed—and affected—the worst possible disposition; yet there were days when he was quite unpredictably delightful.