Friday, October 28, 2016

Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950

Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 25, 2016 – January 8, 2017 

Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, February 3 – April 30, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950, is a tale of two struggles. The new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art presents a definitive retelling of the story of the Mexican Revolution and its brilliant artistic aftermath.

On December 1, 1920, a one-armed general named Álvaro Obregón  was elected President of Mexico. Obregón was a chickpea farmer turned military tactician. In 1915, his astute generalship won the bloody battle of Celaya, turning point of the Mexican Revolution. 

Obregón was also the "last man standing." He had survived the slaughter that had claimed the lives of over one million Mexicans, including more famous rivals like Emiliano Zapata.

Obregón's election brought the military phase of Mexico's revolutionary conflict to a close. A second, cultural revolution began as soon as the gunfire ceased. The time had arrived, as a perceptive U.S. journalist, John Dos Passos, observed, to "paint the Revolution."          

The Mexican Revolution was a vast, sprawling event, of "Russian novel" dimensions and a bewildering cast of protagonists. The second phase was no different. The sheer number of major artists of the Mexican Renaissance, as it is often called, is staggering: José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo,Tina Modotti, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and many more.

Paint the Revolution at the Philadelphia Museum of Art somehow encompasses this vast cast, giving due recognition to all. This is a major, insight-packed reappraisal of a hugely significant event.

Digital version of Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution (detail) by Diego River,1928-29

This brilliant exhibit also manages the seemingly impossible task of recreating the vast public murals that figured so prominently during Mexico's revolutionary era.Three major mural cycles are depicted using digital technology in a way that enables the scale and scope of these mighty works of art to be grasped.

The Mexican Revolution began in November 1910. Simmering rage over the expropriation of communal land erupted into revolt. The long-time dictator, Porfirio Diaz, was swiftly toppled from power. A succession of leaders beginning with Francisco I. Madero, however, failed to create a stable and equitable new government. Madero's assassination in 1913 detonated a brutal civil war.

A number of works of art are displayed that show the efforts to create a heroic myth for the Mexican Revolution. These are "after-the-fact" images, much like nineteenth century representations of the American Revolution. These present history as contending political factions wished it had happened - not necessarily as it did occur. 

David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) was an avowed Marxist, co-founder of El Machete, the newspaper that became the mouthpiece of the Mexican Communist Party. Siqueiros depicts Emiliano Zapata as a Proletarian hero in two works displayed in the exhibit. Zapata was indeed a champion for land reforms for Mexico's peasant class. But close scrutiny of these two works by Siqueiros raises red flags of a different sort.

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Zapata, 1931

This 1931 lithograph of Zapata presents him as a hard-riding guerrilla leader. It is the very image of a commander during the Mexican Revolution. Look closer at Zapata's features - and even more so at the portrait painted the same year, part of the Hirshorn Museum collection - and we see a different character altogether. Here is a Stalinist reworking of Zapata's image by Siqueiros. Apart from the carefully-groomed mustache (Zapata was rather vain about his mostacho), the resemblance is far closer to Stalin than to Zapata.                                                                                  
Siqueiros was such a staunch supporter of Stalin that he helped plan a botched-assassination of Leon Trotsky who had fled to Mexico to escape Stalin's agents. The eventual murder of Trotsky in 1940 was carried out by a professional Communist hit man. Siqueiros was a far better artist than an assassin.

A much more  convincing work of art related to the Mexican Revolution is Diego Rivera's searing depiction of the rescue of a peasant who had been brutally lashed and left to die in the desert. Revolutionary troops, having set fire to a rural estate, are tending to the wounds of their tortured compadre.

Diego Rivera, Liberation of the Peon, 1931

Diego Rivera (1886-1957) painted this "portable" mural in 1931, using the fresco technique popular during the Italian Renaissance. This profoundly moving work is in many ways a worthy successor to Renaissance painting. It conveys the same compassion and empathy expressed in Giotto's Lamentation. The horses in Liberation of the Peon express the almost surreal intensity of the war horses in the Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello.

Anne Lloyd, detail of Liberation of the Peon, 1931, by Diego Rivera

Rivera's Liberation of the Peon is a link between the Italian Renaissance and the Mexican Renaissance. However, the version of Rivera's Liberation of the Peon on view in the Philadelphia exhibit is an extremely significant work in its own right. Rivera painted it in 1931 in New York City, for the exhibition of his work organised by the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit - and Liberation of the Peon  -  later traveled to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Liberation of the Peon and its companion piece, Sugarcane, remained unsold after the MOMA show. When the Philadelphia Museum of Art sponsored a major exhibition, Mexican Art Today, in 1943, Liberation of the Peon and Sugarcane played a starring role and were purchased for the Philadelphia Museum of Art's permanent collection.

Rivera's Liberation of the Peon is based upon a much larger fresco, approx. 14' 4 3/8" x 11' 5", which he painted in the courtyard of the Education ministry in Mexico City. This brings us to one of the central protagonists of the Mexican cultural revolution, José Vasconcelos, appointed by President Obregón to head the Secretaría de Educación Pública.

In a bold move, Vasconcelos encouraged Rivera to return from Europe, where he had spent most of the years of the Mexican Revolution. Vasconcelos pressured Rivera and other artists awarded government contracts to paint in a style reflecting the lives and aspirations of Mexico's long-suffering peasants and growing urban work force.

Rivera responded with murals that obeyed Vasconcelos' guiding principle, "Action surpasses destiny. Conquer!" Like the stained glass depictions of religious scenes in Medieval cathedrals, Rivera's epic works were readily understandable to Mexicans of all social classes. 

Along with the digitized versions of classic murals by Rivera, Siqueiros  and Orozco, an actual mural, painted by Manuel Rodriguez Lozano, is displayed in the exhibit.

Anne Lloyd, gallery view of Pieta in the Desert by Manuel Rodriguez Lozano

Pieta in the Desert was originally painted on a prison wall, while Lozano was incarcerated in 1942. The mural  was later removed by the rather alarming technique called strappo. The mural is covered with resin, glue, fabric and tape and then pounded with a jackhammer which cracks the concrete on which it is painted enabling the mural to be lifted clear of the debris and remounted.

The Tres Grandes - Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros - went on to produce mural cycles in  the United States which influenced public art in New Deal America during the Great Depression. They also created controversy, Rivera's ill-fated mural in Rockefeller Center being the most notorious example, and confusion.

Almost all of the great themes of Mexican art during this revolutionary era were first exhibited in traditional easel paintings. The wonderful Futurist Portrait of Nahui Olin, by Gerardo Murillo, (1875–1964) who styled himself as Dr. Atl, was painted in 1921.

Anne Lloyd, gallery view of Futurist Portrait of Nahui Olin (1921) by Dr. Atl

Incredibly, easel paintings like this were dismissed by a radical 1924 manifesto as lacking in heroic vision. Easel paintings, the most easily transported art form, were declared to be unsuited to instruct the Mexican masses. 

However, government-sponsored mural projects paid poorly. Rich foreign patrons bought smaller scale works that supplied infusions of cash. Rivera and others painted "unheroic" easel paintings for sale to the "bourgeois individualists" they denounced.

It was Rivera's wife, the now celebrated Frida Kahlo, who would "square the circle" and use easel painting to create socially conscious works of art. Undeniable "heroism" was in her shattered, suffering body and soul. This courage she painted on easel-sized canvases.

There are five works by Kahlo in Paint the Revolution. The exhibition curators chose wisely, selecting paintings that exemplify Kahlo's focus on  social issues and Mexico's problematic relationship with the United States. 

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the U.S.,1932

Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, painted in 1932, brilliantly juxtaposes the industrial pipelines and electric wires of the smog-shrouded United States with symbols of "eternal" Mexico, rooted in the natural world.

The career of Maria Izquierdo (1902-1955) reveals the mural-easel, male-female fault lines running through Mexican Modernism. Izquierdo seemed an almost unstoppable artistic force during the late 1920's and 1930's. In 1930, Izquierdo had the first solo exhibit of a Mexican woman artist in the U.S. 

Izquierdo's work, combining religious and folk art themes was praised by the Surrealists and during the early 1940's she exerted a powerful presence throughout Latin America. However, her design submissions for a major mural commission which she received in 1944 were rejected. Rivera and Siqueiros, often at odds, united to sabotage Izquierdo's attempt to achieve the ultimate level of recognition in Mexican art, mural painting. 

When Izquierdo tried to regain the commission, the male-dominated art establishment thwarted her efforts. Her career and health went into a downward spiral. 

María Izquierdo, Our Lady of Sorrows, 1943 

Izquierdo bitterly declared that "it is a crime to be born a woman and have talent."

The same could be said for the brilliant photographic work of Tina Modotti - though she would not have said so herself. 

The Italian-born Modotti came to Mexico with the noted American photographer, Edward Weston, who was for a time her lover and teacher. Modotti revealed superlative gifts in photography, documenting the lives of Mexico's peoples with incredible artistic vision.

Modotti's career took a radical slant when she joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. She became entangled in the violent internal struggles of Leftist groups in Mexico and she was a prime-suspect in the murder of her new lover, the Cuban-born radical, Julio Antonio Mella, in 1929. Though cleared of the charges, Modotti left Mexico under clouds of suspicion. 

Tina Modotti, Woman of Tehuantepec, c. 1929

Modotti's subsequent fate was tragic. All her talents became subsumed in Marxist politics, especially related to the Spanish Civil War. She gave up photography in 1931 and her amazing body of work was only rediscovered in the late 1970's with the dawn of the Feminist movement.

The political radicalization of Modotti and almost all of the leading Mexican artists is symbolized by the wood engraving, Proletarian Hand, by Leopoldo Méndez. The finger bones are hanged prisoners and the wrist bomes are portraits of political martyrs, including Mella. It is a brilliant, unforgettable work, evoking the  great nineteenth century printmaker, José Guadalupe Posada (1852 – 1913), whose prints of demonic skeletons helped bring down Porfirio Diaz.

Leopoldo Méndez, Proletarian Hand, 1932

Proletarian Hand is very much  a work of the 1930's. It ignores the sacrifices and suffering of women. Likewise, it focuses on the international scene at the expense of Mexico. Two of the "martyrs" named in the print were Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian anarchists who were executed for murder in the U.S. in 1927. While the artistic elite of Mexico may have been radicalized by such political imagery, the impact on Mexico's workers was negligible. 

Mexican Modernism grew increasingly remote from the realities of Mexican life. The economy of Mexico strengthened, especially as Mexico's oil industry was needed by the Allied war effort in World War II. Many Mexicans, loyal to conservative traditions and the Catholic religion, deeply resented the Marxist ethos of the "Modernists."

There was also the inconvenient fact that many Mexican artists, including strident Marxists, depended on sales and commissions from "El Norte." Frida Kahlo's first big success was a sale of four paintings to the American actor, Edward G. Robinson, in 1938.

By 1950, the two-fold Mexican Revolution and Mexican Renaissance had run their course. But these events had entered into the heart and soul of the Mexican people. It is no surprise that whenever social ferment arises in Mexico, the vivid images displayed in Paint the Revolution are revived, coaxed back to life and action like the beaten prisoner in Liberation of the Peon

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the  Philadelphia Museum of Art

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Anne Lloyd, Detail of Liberation of the Peon, 1931, by Diego Rivera (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Cameron Morris, 1943-46-1) © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Anne Lloyd (2016), Detail of the digital version of Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution by Diego River, 1928-29, mural painted at the Ministry of Public Education, Mexico City. 

David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) Zapata, 1931, Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund from the Carl and Laura Zigrosser Collection, 1976-97-122) © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City

Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886-1957) Liberation of the Peon, 1931. Fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized steel framework, 73 x 94 1/4 inches (185.4 x 239.4 cm) (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Cameron Morris, 1943-46-1) © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Anne Lloyd (2016), Gallery view of Pieta in the Desert by Manuel Rodriguez Lozano. Fresco (removed by strappo from Lecumberri Prison) 6 ' 6 3/8" x 7'  9/16" (2.6 x 2.3 m) Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, INBA, Mexico City

Anne Lloyd (2016), Gallery view of Futurist Portrait of Nahui Olin (1921) by Dr. Atl. Oil and Atl color on cardboard, 39 3/8 x 55 7/8 inches (100 x 142 cm) collection of Maria and Manuel Reyero.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, 1932. (Colección Maria y Manuel Reyero, New York) © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

María Izquierdo (Mexican,1902 -1955) Our Lady of Sorrows, 1943. Oil on board, 23 1/4  x 19 5/8 inches  (59.1 x 49.8 cm ) Private collection

Tina Modotti (Italian, 1896–1942) Woman of Tehuantepec, c. 1929, (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Zigrosser

Leopoldo Méndez (Mexican,1902–1969) Proletarian Hand, 1932, Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Anne d’Harnoncourt in memory of Sarah Carr d'Harnoncourt), ©Leopoldo Mendez/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation at the Morgan Library & Museum

Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation

Morgan Library and Museum, New York City
October 7, 2016 - January 22, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Action really does speak louder than words. Martin Luther's life, the subject of a remarkable exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, testifies to the power of deeds. 

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is famous for asserting his opposition to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church with an immortal declaration, "Here I stand. I can do no other."

Luther never actually said these words himself. A later historian composed the brave, bold statement for him. 

This revelation might lead to the conclusion that "Here I Stand..." is a counterpart to "Washington's Cherry Tree" and other parables from the past. Yet the truth of these words is in their doing. Martin Luther did take a stand, with courage and candor, on behalf of his Christian faith.

Next year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's break with the Church hierarchy in Rome. The momentous events of the Protestant Reformation which followed Luther's defiance changed the course of history for good - and ill.

The title of the Morgan exhibit,Word and Image, is well chosen. The Reformation was the first major event in history marked by widespread use of the printing press, in this case to “spread the word” of religious dissent. Likewise, this "sundering" of Christendom was documented with accurate contemporary engravings of the major participants, also a major innovation.

In 1517, Luther composed the famous Ninety-Five Theses, which sparked the revolt against the Papacy's control of Christian doctrine throughout Europe. Unlike the purported "Here I stand" declaration, the Ninety-Five Theses were very real. Luther, or a supporter, did indeed nail this document to a church door in Wittenberg, the university town in Germany where he taught theology. 

Martin Luther, The Ninety-Five Theses, 1517

The Morgan exhibit displays one of the six remaining printed sheets listing the Ninety-Five Theses. A few copies of a pamphlet version have also survived. Why so few?

The Ninety-Five Theses were not intended to incite a revolution undermining Papal authority but rather were an announcement of a university debate. The subject of this rather routine affair was the sale of Indulgences which granted forgiveness of sins in return for cash contributions to the Church. These ninety-five "talking points," composed in scholarly Latin, mixed spirituality with bluntly speaking truth to power.

They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.  (#27)

The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. (#62)

The public debate never took place. But, via the power of the printing press, the Ninety-Five Theses found a wide audience.

Lucas Cranach, Luther as a Monk,1520

Luther had actually been quite respectful of the Pope, targeting the venal Indulgence sellers and emphasizing the need for sincere repentance. But Church leaders over-reacted, sending Cardinal Cajetin (who privately questioned Indulgences) from Rome to insist that Luther recant. Luther refused.

And so a publicity announcement for a debate that never happened became the spark for a revolution that was never intended or planned.

Luther waged a brilliant pamphlet campaign which left the Church hierarchy bewildered and beleaguered. Dissatisfaction - and not just with Indulgences - was rife throughout the Germanic-speaking regions of Europe. 

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of the Word and Image exhibit at the Morgan Library.
 A wooden chest used to collect payments for Papal Indulgences appears, lower left.

The "heavy artillery" of the Holy Roman Empire was deployed against Luther at a face-to-face meeting with Emperor Charles V in 1521. This pivotal conclave or Diet was held at the city of Worms, which has caused no end of merriment to English-speaking history students. But it was no laughing matter.

Luther refused to recant and went into hiding to prevent his arrest. Posing as "Squire George" at the castle of Wartberg, Luther spent the next ten months translating the New Testament into German from the original Greek text. 

 A complete translation of the Bible took a lot longer for Luther to achieve, appearing in 1534. He was assisted by several of his dedicated co-Reformers, including Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558). This "official" version in one huge volume was given the unmistakable title: Biblia, das ist: Die gantze heilige Schrifft: Deudsch (Bible: that is the entire Holy Scripture in German).

The Luther Bible, New and Old Testaments, created a sensation. In the process of reaching beyond the Latin Vulgate Bible, Luther shattered the ecclesiastical monopoly of the Roman curia and evoked a key concept known as the Priesthood of All Believers, based on his populist interpretation of the First Epistle of Peter.

Luther also transformed the German language into a dynamic cultural and political force, decisively shifting the political balance of the Holy Roman Empire away from the authoritative control of the Hapsburg dynasty. Christian unity and the Medieval world order collapsed as the first editions of Luther's Bible, the September Testament and December Testament, sold-out as soon as they came off the printing presses in 1522.

The Morgan exhibition covers these momentous events with an array of original documents - many written by Luther himself - and rare books from German collections. On view are the actual notes Luther prepared for his confrontation with Charles V at Worms, the manuscript of Luther's translation of the Old Testament and copies of the September and December Testaments.

Martin Luther, The  New Testament, in German (December Testament), 1522

The Lutheran Reformation was also a major event in art history. Later incidents of the Protestant Reformation, especially in the British Isles where the theology of John Calvin was preferred to Luther's, triggered a tragic destruction of religious images. Luther and Melanchthon denied that religious pictures or statues had spiritual power but asserted that such images could assist the faithful in understanding Christian principles. 

In order to grasp the impact of the Protestant Reformation, it is necessary to understand the late-Medieval world of Luther’s youth. The Morgan curators did a brilliant job evoking “the autumn of the Middle Ages” as this period is sometimes called.

Anne Lloyd, View of St. Anne with the Virgin Mary, by an Anonymous artist, ca. 1520

Among the late-Medieval art works on view is a carved limewood statue depicting St. Anne and the youthful Virgin Mary. St. Anne was the patron-saint of miners, Luther's father being a mine manager. In 1505, Luther, then a law student, was caught in a violent storm. He was nearly struck by lightning and vowed to St. Anne to become a monk if his life was spared. Luther continued to fondly recall St. Anne even after he came to question the role of saints as intercessors with God.

The statue of St. Anne is a fine example of German folk art. But an extraordinary bas- relief, carved by Peter Dell the Elder (1490-1552) is one of the most astonishing works of art on display in Word and Image

Sculpted in pearwood, two of the central incidents of Biblical history are depicted in Dell's Allegory of the Old and New Covenant. With a cinematic grasp of narrative and an absolute mastery of wood-carving, the temptation of Adam and Eve and the Crucifixion of Christ are brought to life. 

Anne Lloyd, Detail of Allegory of the Old and New Covenant by Peter Dell, ca. 1540 

Each of the protagonists portrayed on Dell’s bas-relief is presented as a unique individual, absolutely convincing in their role in the divine drama. Equally believable is the grimacing skull atop the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Death's Head intrudes into Paradise like a hellish apparition. But the striking sensuality of the nude Adam and Eve deflects our attention away from the specter of death.  

Anne Lloyd, Detail of Allegory of the Old and New Covenant by Peter Dell

This current of eroticism is not what you would expect in a work of Christian art from five centuries ago. Yet, it is a powerful, recurring theme in Word and Image, notably in works by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Lucas Cranach (1472 -1553) was one of Luther's closest friends and an unswerving supporter. Cranach was a brilliant portrait painter and, if not quite of the caliber of Albrecht Dürer or Hans Holbein, he had a knack for capturing the earthy elements in Luther's character and the sharp, hausfrau capability of his wife, Katrina von Bora. 

Lucas Cranach, Katrina von Bora, 1529

Cranach provided illustrations for the early editions of Luther's Bible-translations. But he also painted nudes - nude women from mythology and from the Bible. Almost all of them seem disconcertingly the same, whether they represent Eve, as in the work on display in the Morgan exhibit, or Greek goddesses being judged by Paris.  

In a brilliant book about the friendship of Luther and Cranach, Steven Ozment theorized that Cranach's portraits of women, clothed and nude, were a riposte to the creed of celibacy of the established Church. 

Lucas Cranach, Adam and Eve, 1532

In The Serpent and the Lamb (2011), Ozment writes: 

In the reformatory atmosphere of the early sixteenth century, Cranach’s nudes also confirmed the private desires of Everyman and Everywoman for companionship and intimacy with the opposite sex... Cranach’s alluring images of women drove home the awesome power and divine blessing of human sexuality in and through which new life is created.

Strange things happen during revolutions. Perhaps Ozment, a very perceptive scholar of the Reformation, is correct about this puzzling aspect of Cranach's work.

One thing is certain about the Reformation - and only a little time in the Morgan's Luther exhibit is needed to realize this. The Reformation was a Revolution, the first of modern times. In fact, the Reformation created "modern" times. 

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation.

For an institution which plans and organizes superb exhibits on a "routine" basis, the curators of the Morgan have seemingly surpassed themselves with Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation. Yet, an equally outstanding exhibition celebrating Charlotte Brontë (about which I'll be posting a forthcoming review) is currently upstairs at the Morgan and a major exhibit about Emily Dickenson is coming in January 2017.

Art exhibits take years to plan and only remain on display for three to four months. Great exhibits, however, loom large in the memories of those fortunate to visit them. Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation at the Morgan is sure to do exactly that.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the  Morgan Library and Museum, New York City

Introductory Image:  
Lucas Cranach (German, 1472 - 1553)  Martin Luther, 1529. 14 15/16 x 9 5/8 in. (37.9 x 24.4 cm) Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha

Martin Luther (German, 1483 - 1546) The Ninety-Five Theses, Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Nuremberg: Hieronymus Hötzel, 1517. 15 3/4 x 11 in. (40 x 28 cm) Österreichisches Staatsarchiv/Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv

Lucas Cranach (German, 1472 - 1553) Luther as a Monk. Wittenberg, 1520. Oil on panel:
14 15/16 x 9 5/8 in. (37.9 x 24.4 cm) Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt, Luther Memorials, Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt

Anne Lloyd (2016) Gallery View of the Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation Exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City

Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) The New Testament in German (December Testament) Leipzig: Melchior Lotter, December 1522 12 x 16 5/16 x 3 1/8 in. (30.5 x 41.5 x 8 cm)

Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt

Anne Lloyd (2016) Detail of St. Anne with Virgin and Child, ca. 1520, by an Anonymous Artist. Polychrome limewood , 22 7/16 x 14 15/16 x 8 11/16 in. (57 x 38 x 22 cm) Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhal

Anne Lloyd (2016) Detail of Peter Dell's Allegory of the Old and New Covenant,

Würzburg, ca. 1540. Pearwood, 16 15/16 x 29 13/16 x 13/16 in. (43 x 75.8 x 2 cm)
Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha

Anne Lloyd (2016) Detail of Peter Dell's Allegory of the Old and New Covenant.

Lucas Cranach (1472 - 1553) Katrina von Bora, Wittenberg, 1529. 15 1/16 x 9 13/16 in. (38.2 x 24.9 cm) Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha

Anne Lloyd (2016) Photo of Adam and Eve, 1532, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. 19 11/16 x 13 3/4 in. (50 x 35 cm) Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg

Anne Lloyd (2016) Gallery View of Word and Image: Martin Luther' Reformation at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt at the National Gallery, Washington

Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt  

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
October 4, 2016 - January 2, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt, which just opened at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., testifies to Thomas Edison's often-quoted remark.

"Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration."

Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt provides vital insights into the work habits and methodology of leading Dutch masters from the seventeenth century "golden" age. This exhibit shows how Dutch artists "perspired" in order to realize their inspiration on the canvas sheets stretched on the easels in front of them.

The focus of Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt really is on drawing rather than on painting. There was no color vs design controversy in the Netherlands as had been the case in Renaissance Italy. Dutch artists were determined to be expert at both drawing and painting, always with an eye on selling finished oil paintings. The National Gallery exhibit shows that they succeeded in both endeavors.

Gonzales Coques, Portrait of a Man Receiving a Letter from a Boy, c. 1660

A rare, unfinished work provides immediate insight into the importance of drawing for painting in the Netherlands during the 1600's. This painting is believed to be the work of a Flemish artist working in Holland, Gonzales Coque. It exemplifies the keen Dutch eye for capturing a subject's personality. The skill needed to position a painting's underdrawing, directly on the canvas or wood panel, is evident too. Why Coques, an associate of Anthony van Dyck, never finished this portrait, so splendidly begun, is unknown.

The catalog for Drawings for Paintings includes an insightful essay by the art scholar Ger Luitjen on the Dutch zeal for drawing. The ancient motto from the Roman writer Pliny, Nulla dies sine linea (No day without a line) struck a chord with the well-read, hard-working Dutch. A translation of Pliny's injunction to sketch predictably appeared: Geen dag zonder trek (No day without drawing).

Luitjen also notes that the Dutch emphasis on drawing had a wider impact than serving as a basis for painting. Other artists and artisans relied upon a facility in drawing too: sculptors, architects, tapestry designers. But the most profound implications of closely-observed drawing were psychological, in keeping with the leading role of the Dutch in the Scientific Revolution. The telescope and microscope were both Dutch inventions but neither would have been created had the Dutch not been an observant, imaginative people to begin with. 

"Undergirding the conviction that drawing was important lay the belief that it intensified the process of looking," Luitijen writes. "An added advantage was that someone with a trained drawing hand would benefit when wishing to record something while studying physics and mathematics."

The link between drawing and painting is most readily observed in two works by Salomon de Bray. De Bray sketched the infant children of his nephew with red chalk, the preferred medium for sketching. Close analysis revealed that de Bray did a light, preliminary drawing using black chalk before his more detailed effort with red chalk.

Salomon de Bray, The Twins Clara and Albert de Bray, August 12,1646

There are many differences between de Bray's final version in oil and this preparatory work. The open eyes of the two babies in the painting and the baptismal medals around their necks are only the most obvious changes from sketch to painting. Both of these details are very significant. Most portraits of infants in the Netherlands during the 1600's were memorials to deceased babies. The medals testify to the Roman Catholic faith of the de Bray family. This remarkable painting is a statement of religious faith and a celebration of the gift of life.

Salomon de Bray, The Twins Clara and Albert de Bray,1646

The differences between drawing and painting of The Twins Clara and Albert de Bray have led some scholars to believe that de Bray did an oil sketch as a second stage in the composition. But the astute commentary in the exhibit catalog concludes that he worked only from this simple sketch and from memory to create the superb and endearing final version in oils.

There are numerous examples of the exhibit's namesake on view. Rembrandt's somber painting, Joseph Telling His Dreams, is particularly noteworthy. Dating to 1633, this work was based in part upon a red chalk sketch of an elderly man, drawn two years previously, who reappears as the seated Jacob.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Joseph Telling His Dreams, 1633

The various biblical characters grouped around Joseph and Jacob were likely taken from multi-figured sketch book pages. Rembrandt utilized such sketches throughout his life, referring to these for a pose or a facial expression as needed.

A good example of such a sketch is on view in the exhibit, Studies of Mary, the Mother of Christ and Mary Magdalene. Rembrandt's The Entombment of Christ, c. 1635-39, was based upon it and no doubt similar drawings. After he was satisfied with the basic design of Entombment, Rembrandt would then have filed these sketches away for future use.

Rembrandt, Studies of Mary, the Mother of Christ & Mary Magdalene, 1635-1636 

There are no records of Dutch artists creating finished oil paintings en plein air as the Impressionists would do two centuries later. But the practice of sketching out of doors was surely widespread. One painter who ventured beyond his studio to record the world around him unwittingly documented the climate change known as The Little Ice Age.

Beginning around 1300, temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere began to cool, with periodic fluctuations that caused to such bizarre phenomena as the 1608 Frost Fair on the Thames River in England. The canals in Holland regularly froze enabling the Dutch to skate and play "kolf" on the ice. Kolf was a curious blend of street hockey and modern-day golf.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634), though a deaf-mute, became a master drafstman whose drawings were prized by other Dutch artists, Avercamp's painting, A Scene on the Ice, c. 1625, is based on a preliminary work such as A View of Kampen from Outside the Walls, done around 1620. This work was created with pen and brown ink with watercolor over graphite on paper. It shows the city of Kampen overlooking the river IJssel in warm weather.

Hendrick Avercamp, A Scene on the Ice, c. 1625

The 1620's saw some very cold winters - the Thames froze again in 1621. Avercamp, who lived in Kampen, had only to take his sketchbook down to the banks of the frozen IJssel and draw the sleighs, skaters and kolf players. 

His voluminous sketchbooks providing a wide-ranging selection of winter-clad characters and architectural details, Avercamp was well-prepared to compose his works in oil. With the setting already recorded, Avercamp could paint ice in place of water and skaters instead of sailboats. This he did and did repeatedly until he became the recognized expert in painting winter scenes

Dutch artists were meticulous and exacting draftsmen. But their drawings for the most part were intended for use and then discarded. What is displayed in this splendid exhibition, organized by Arthur Wheelock Jr., the National Gallery's dean of Dutch seventeenth century art, is a mere fraction of what was created during that prolific era. Many of the drawings that did survive come from a research institution in Paris, the Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, dedicated to the preservation of the art of the Dutch Golden Age.

The final gallery of the exhibition examines architectural works by such masters as Gerrit 
Berckheyde and Jacob Van Ruisdal. The exhibit uses the advanced technology of infrared reflectography to examine the underdrawings of these amazing paintings. Some exciting and unsuspected discoveries were made.

Gerrit Berckheyde, View of the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal in Amsterdam

For all of their emphasis on precise drawings, Dutch painters often used these as a guide, rather than directly transferring the image to the canvas and painting in the colors. We can see this process in a painting by Michiel van Musscher. In An Artist in His Studio with His Drawings, the painter has his sketches spread out around him which he is using to create an oil sketch. This in turn would serve as the source for the finished version.

Creating the final work in oil was an exacting and exhausting labor. Every artist had his - or her - own techniques and technical aids to guide their compositions, safeguarded to protect the "brand." Yet, the artistic process was never a routine, "cut and paste" process. Individuality, as well as hard-work, was the key to Dutch creative excellence.

Wheelock notes in the catalog that Berckyde "was so interested in topographical accuracy that he even amended drawings at a later date when new buildings were constructed."

Gerrit Berckheyde, The Grote Kerk or St. Bavokerk in Haarlem, 1666

Berckyde, however, was far from a pedantic recorder of architectural detail. He often chose unusual vantage points for his final versions. Likewise, the brilliant way that he articulated light and shadow gives an almost photographic effect to works like his 1666 oil on panel, The Grote Kerk or St. Bavokerk in Haarlem

The Dutch Golden Age is such an inspiring cultural phenomenon that it seems appropriate that  van Musscher's Artist in His Studio should be wearing his "Sunday best" attire while hard at work on his masterpiece.

The reality was far different, though the Dutch have always made a virtue of order and cleanliness. The work environment of most Dutch artists was closer to the shabby, sweat-soaked surroundings of Cornelis  Bega's The Alchemist.

The lighting of a Dutch master's studio would doubtless have been better than the dungeon-like atmosphere of the workshop of The Alchemist. But the pungent smells, the stacks of unfinished works requiring immediate attention to keep the bills paid, the very air of hard labor and anxious expectation - these would have been the same.

Cornelis Bega, The Alchemist, 1663

Genius is a messy business. But the result - when everything "comes together" - can sometimes create a "golden" age. That is what occurred in the Netherlands during the 1600's and the works on display in the National Gallery's Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt are proof of the Dutch work ethic and visionary dedication to art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Michiel van Musscher (Dutch, 1645-1705) An Artist in His Studio with His Drawings, mid-1660s. Oil on panel, 47 × 36 cm (18 1/2 × 14 3/16 in.) Liechtenstein. The Princely Collections, Vaduz-Vienna

Attributed to Gonzales Coques (Flemish,1614/18-1684) Portrait of a Man Receiving a Letter from a Boy, c. 1660. Oil on panel, 55.9 × 44.2 cm (22 × 17 3/8 in.) The Orsay Collection, London, Paris

Salomon de Bray (Dutch, 1597-1664) The Twins Clara and Albert de Bray, August 12, 1646. Red chalk, over faint indications in black chalk, on paper, sheet: 16 × 15.2 cm (6 5/16 × 6 in.) The Morgan Library & Museum, Purchased in 1909.

Salomon de Bray (Dutch 1597-1664) The Twins Clara and Albert de Bray,1646 or after.
Oil on canvas, unframed: 82.6 × 64.8 cm (32 1/2 × 25 1/2 in.) National Galleries of Scotland, Long loan in 1995

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Joseph Telling His Dreams, 1633. Grisaille on paper, 55.8 × 38.7 cm (21 15/16 × 15 1/4 in.) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt and the Stichting tot Bevordering van de Belangen van het Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Studies of Mary, the Mother of Christ, and Mary Magdalene, 1635-1636. Pen and brown ink, red chalk, sheet: 20.1 × 14.3 cm (7 15/16 × 5 5/8 in.) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Hendrick Avercamp (Dutch 1585-1634) A Scene on the Ice, c.1625. Oil on panel, 39.2 x 77 cm (15 7/16 x 30 5/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.

Gerrit Berckheyde (Dutch 1638-1698) View of the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal in AmsterdamGraphite, pen, and brown ink on paper, 16.9 × 27.6 cm (6 5/8 × 10 7/8 in.) Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap, Amsterdam

Gerrit Berckheyde (Dutch 1638-1698) The Grote Kerk or St. Bavokerk in Haarlem,1666.
Oil on panel, 60.3 x 84.5 cm (23 3/4 x 33 1/4 in.) Otto Naumann Ltd, New York

Cornelis Bega (Dutch 1631/32-1664) The Alchemist,1663. Oil on canvas mounted on panel
35 × 28.6 cm (13 3/4 × 11 1/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, From the Collection of Ethel and Martin Wunsch, 2013.34.1