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.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Look Into the Life of Henry James, in His Own Unsimple Words

by Dwight Garner

New York Times

February 16, 2016

“I hate American simplicity,” Henry James (1843-1916) said to his niece Peggy, who had the sense to write his comment down. “I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort. If I could pronounce the name James in any different or more elaborate way I should be in favor of doing it.”

James’s most elaborate books were his late novels, “The Wings of the Dove” (1902) and “The Golden Bowl” (1904) among them. He stacked clause upon clause in their sentences, constructing towering and often opaque chains of thought and feeling. These books don’t merely abstain from American simplicity; they poke it in the sternum.

James’s autobiographical books — “A Small Boy and Others” (1913), “Notes of a Son and Brother” (1914) and the uncompleted and posthumously published “The Middle Years” — are among his final works, and they too are prime examples of his radically unsimple late style.

The Library of America has now, on the 100th anniversary of James’s death, gathered together these three books, and added a selection of his other personal writing, to create the most comprehensive and the handsomest one-volume edition of his autobiographical work we have.

This is not easy reading. James’s prose here is so ornate you often feel you are groping in a giant box of wrapping tissue into which no gift has been placed. You hike backward along his snaking sentences, searching for antecedents to distant pronouns, while experiencing vague terrors, as if you should leave a trail of breadcrumbs. How else will you get safely home?


Saturday, February 6, 2016

Street Life In London

Spitalfields Life
February 6, 2016

In Brick Lane these days, almost everyone carries a camera to capture the street life, whether traders, buskers, street art or hipsters parading fancy outfits. At every corner in Spitalfields, people are snapping. Casual shutterbugs and professional photoshoots abound in a phantasmagoric frenzy of photographic activity.

It all began with photographer John Thomson in 1876 with his monthly magazine Street Life in London, publishing his pictures accompanied by pen portraits by Adolphe Smith as an early attempt to use photojournalism to record the lives of common people. I like to contemplate the set of Thomson’s lucid pictures preserved in the Bishopsgate Institute – both as an antidote to the surfeit of contemporary imagery, and to grant me a perspective on how the street life of London and its photographic manifestation has changed in the intervening years.

For centuries, this subject had been the preserve of popular prints of the Cries of London and, in his photography, Thomson adopted compositions and content that had become familiar archetypes in this tradition – like the chairmender, the sweep and the strawberry seller. Yet although Thomson composed his photographs to create picturesque images, in many cases the subjects themselves take possession of the pictures through the quality of their human presence, aided by Adolphe Smith’s astute texts underlining the harsh social reality of their existence.

When I look at these pictures, I am always startled by the power of the gaze of those who look straight at the lens and connect with us directly, while there is a plangent sadness to those with eyes cast down in subservience, holding an internal focus and lost in time. The instant can be one of frozen enactment, like the billboard men above, demonstrating what they do for the camera, but more interesting to me are the equivocal moments, like the dealer in fancy ware, the porters at Covent Garden and the strawberry seller, where there is human exposure. There is an unresolved tension in these pictures and, even as the camera records a moment of hiatus, we know it is an interruption before a drama resumes – the lost life of more than one hundred and thirty years ago.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

David Bowie: Invisible New Yorker

by Steven Kurutz

New York Times

January 16, 2016

About 10 years ago, the playwright John Guare got a call asking if he wanted to meet David Bowie to discuss a theater project.

As Mr. Guare remembered it, Mr. Bowie was “in a very dark place” (it was shortly after he had had a heart attack onstage in Berlin), and a mutual friend, the English producer Robert Fox, was trying to coax him back to a creative life. Mr. Guare immediately said yes.

He and Mr. Bowie met at each other’s homes in New York to throw around ideas, and sometimes they went out. “We would take walks around the East Village,” Mr. Guare said. “And I was always praying somebody would run into us so I could say, ‘Do you know my friend David Bowie?’”

It never happened.

Mr. Guare was at first puzzled and then amazed at how Mr. Bowie — the stage creature, the persona, the guy he saw command an audience at Radio City Music Hall in 1973 with his spiky orange hair and snow-white tan — could walk the city streets unrecognized.

“He traveled with this cloak of invisibility — nobody saw him,” Mr. Guare said. “He just eradicated himself.”

People often forgot, but up until his death, on Sunday at age 69, Mr. Bowie was a New Yorker. He said so himself, emphatically. “I’m a New Yorker!” he declared to SOMA magazine in 2003, after he’d been here a decade.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Splendors of the Dead

by Garry Wills

New York Review of Books

December 10, 2015

Twenty-one Greek museums and four North American museums have cooperated to collect over five hundred artifacts from Ancient Greece in an extraordinary exhibition called “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great.” The show went first to Canada (Montreal, then Ottawa), where it had 280,000 visitors. It is now on view at the Field Museum in Chicago, in a series of superbly lit rooms, and will continue to Washington, D.C., in May. The Greek museums were able to make good choices of a variety of important items to lend to the exhibition, including many works that had never been outside Greece. Richard Lariviere, the president of the Field Museum, told me he was glad to see the Greeks coordinate their effort without a need for him to negotiate with twenty-one different institutions.

After a few fertility-goddess figurines from the Cyclades, the show begins with a bang from Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations of sixteenth-century BC Mycenae, and it ends with a bang in the fourth-century tomb of Alexander’s father Philip II of Macedon at Vergina. The finds revealed a spectacular prosperity in both periods—not only in the profusion of gold artifacts but in the training of large numbers of craftsmen executing intricate designs. An elaborately sculptural vessel for sacrificial libations from Mycenae is as full of interactive curves as a Frank Gehry building, but it is carved from one solid block of alabaster.

From the twelve centuries between the Mycenae and the Vergina findings, we are treated to well-selected vases, jewels, and statues. There are two kouroi from Boeotia—life-size nude statues of stylized young men, imitated from Egypt and teaching Greek sculptors how to carve large figures. There is also a kore—life-size young woman stylishly dressed. The vases include a black-figure lekythos that shows Achilles dragging the body of Hektor around the walls of Troy, and a red-figure kylix from Athens that shows Herakles defeating Antaeus by holding him away from his restorative earth.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Dickens’ fascination with London

by Daniel Tyler

Oxford University Press Blog

October 29, 2015

At the height of his career – during the time he was writing Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend – Dickens wrote a series of sketches, mostly set in London, which he collected as The Uncommercial Traveller. The persona of the ‘Uncommercial’ allowed Dickens to unify his series of occasional articles by linking them through a shared narrator. Travelling the streets of London he describes and comments upon the city, its inhabitants, commerce and entertainment. Scenes of poverty and social injustice are interwoven with childhood experiences and adult memories. In the interactive map below, you can explore the areas of London visited by Dickens throughout his travels.


Monday, October 5, 2015

Sargent & His People

by Jean Strouse

New York Review of Books

October 5, 2015

At the age of fifty-one, with his work in high demand on both sides of the Atlantic, John Singer Sargent swore off painting portraits. He had been eager for some time to escape the confines of the studio, the pressures of multiple sittings, and society portraiture altogether. “No more paughtraits,” he wrote to a friend in 1907. “I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classes.” He had been charging a thousand guineas a portrait “in order to have fewer to do,” he told another friend, but price did not discourage his affluent clientele.1 A Max Beerbohm cartoon shows the portly, bearded artist peering out the window of his London studio in alarm at a queue of fashionably dressed ladies, with uniformed bellhops holding places in line for more.

Sargent made exceptions to the portrait ban for friends, and for eminences such as Lord Curzon, the archbishop of Canterbury, John D. Rockefeller, and Woodrow Wilson (he turned down Pierpont Morgan). Yet for the most part, once he had slipped the silken shackles of commissions, he turned his attention to painting murals for the Boston Public Library, and to doing more of what he had loved all his life: traveling, often with artist friends, and working outdoors in natural light.

The “off-duty” paintings he did primarily for his own pleasure tend, not surprisingly, to be looser, more intimate and experimental than his formal grand-manner portraits, and about ninety of them are currently on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in an exhibition called “Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends.” Organized by the National Portrait Gallery in London, where it opened last spring, and curated by Richard Ormond with Elaine Kilmurray, the coauthors of the definitive Sargent catalogue raisonné (eight volumes so far), it brings together from public and private collections a glorious selection of some of the artist’s finest work. For New York, the Met’s Elizabeth Kornhauser and Stephanie L. Herdrich have added works from the museum’s own extensive Sargent collections, including twenty-one on paper.

Sargent seems to have known everyone, and his cultural tastes ranged from Wagner and Voltaire to Javanese dancers and Charlie Chaplin. Very much in evidence here are the vitality and technical virtuosity of his work, his insistence, as Richard Ormond describes it, “on the material of paint, on the flux and instability of surface textures, on condensed forms and odd angles of perspective.” The exhibition traces the arc of Sargent’s career over geography and time. Among its abundant pleasures is a quiet sense that the paintings trace the reticent artist’s own profile through his life in art, which is where he most intensely lived.


Monday, August 17, 2015

‘Death and Mr. Pickwick,’ by Stephen Jarvis

by Michael Upchurch

New York Times

July 17, 2015

You don’t normally wish a novel would come with a bibliography, but Stephen Jarvis’s new book practically begs for one. Death and Mr. Pickwick makes some eyebrow-raising claims: that Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers was “so widely circulated that only the Bible, Shakespeare and perhaps the Book of Common Prayer can better its circulation”; that for a century or more Samuel Pickwick, the book’s genial bumbling hero, was “the most famous character in fiction there has ever been”; and that Dickens didn’t name or invent Samuel Pickwick.

It isn’t just a character in the novel who argues these points. It’s Jarvis who, in a prefatory note, insists that Death and Mr. Pickwick departs from traditional accounts of the origin of The Pickwick Papers because “the accepted origin is not true.” Instead, he credits the caricaturist Robert Seymour with dreaming up the concept of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (to give the novel its full title).

Death and Mr. Pickwick is, after a fashion, Seymour’s story, and it has some compelling elements. But it’s so weighted down with minutiae that it may defeat even the most rabid Pickwick Papers fan. Moreover, if you haven’t read the Dickens novel recently and don’t have it fresh in your memory, you won’t pick up on half of the games Jarvis is playing.

His novel, in broad outline, sticks to the known facts. There’s little doubt that Seymour and his publisher decided on the format The Pickwick Papers would initially take. The idea was to chronicle the pastimes of an imaginary gentlemen’s club in a pretend periodical whose “editor” would, in fact, write the whole text. The 24-year-old Dickens — already being published under the pseudonym “Boz” — was recruited to be that “editor” after other writers didn’t work out. By Dickens’s own later account, he balked at the constraint of allowing Seymour’s illustrations to shape his story­telling. The collaboration lasted for only two issues — featuring seven Seymour etchings — before Seymour killed himself in April 1836.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

On Edward Hopper

by Mark Strand

New York Review of Books

June 25, 2015

This essay by Mark Strand was originally written for The New York Review of Books as a review of the exhibition of Edward Hopper’s drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2013. It was found as a handwritten text in his notebook after he died in November 2014 and transcribed by his literary executor, Mary Jo Salter.

—The Editors

Paints and scrapes, paints and scrapes to get something right, the something that is not there at the outset but reveals itself slowly, and then completely, having traveled an arduous route during which vision and image come together, for a while, until dissatisfaction sets in, and the painting and scraping begin again. But what is it that determines the success of the final work? The coincidence of vision—his idea, vague at first, of what the painting might be—and the brute fact of the subject, its plain obdurate existence, just “out there” with an absolutely insular existence.

Until, that is, Edward Hopper sees something about it as a possible subject for a painting and this image with its possibilities lodges itself in Hopper’s imagination and the formation of the painting’s content begins—content being, of course, what the artist brings to his subject, that quality that makes it unmistakably his, so when we look at the painting of a building or an office or a gas station, we say it’s a Hopper. We don’t say it’s a gas station. By the time the gas station appears on canvas in its final form it has ceased being just a gas station. It has become Hopperized. It possesses something it never had before Hopper saw it as a possible subject for his painting. And for the artist, the painting exists, in part, as a mode of encountering himself. Although the encountered self may not correspond to the vision of possibility that a particular subject seemed to offer up. When Hopper said, in an interview with Brian O’Doherty, “I’m after ME,” this is undoubtedly what he meant.

Hopper’s avowed uncertainty over whether or not he ever succeeded is perhaps what many painters experience. The point of arrival or the point when the painting is done cannot be known beforehand and yet cannot be totally unknown. A sense—it is no more than that, increasingly clearer and more convincing—of what the painting will look like when it is finished is all that guides the painter. And there is rarely any assurance that the painting is finally completed; the possibility always exists that a wrong turn has been taken, that what he ended up with bears little resemblance to that vague suggestion or hope of what the painting might be. And so, the scraping and painting begin yet again. With the uncertainty under which the painter labors, extended periods of doubt, it is a wonder that he can ever be free of anxiety or finish a work. Even the prodigiously talented Picasso needed constant reassurance.