Friday, December 25, 2015

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World at the National Gallery, Washington D.C.

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World

                      National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.            
        December 13, 2015 –  March 20, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves 

In 1845, Edgar Allen Poe revised a poem written a decade, entitled To Helen. Poe evoked the beauty of Helen of Troy. He also created a haunting image of the lost civilizations upon which the shared culture of Europe and America was founded:

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,                                                                                 Thy Naiad airs have brought me home                                                                               To the glory that was Greece,                                                                                           And the grandeur that was Rome.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. recently opened a brilliant exhibition of ancient statues which recalls the bygone "glory" and "grandeur" which Poe recalled so memorably. But there is a twist to Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World. The word Hellenistic is a key to the riddle.                                                                                                                                                                                                        
                                                                                                                                           Unknown Artist, Medallion with Athena and Medusa200–150 B.C. 

Power and Pathos displays some fifty bronze statues from the age following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. Greek culture spread all over the Mediterranean world during this period. Marching armies, trade and colonies carried Greek ways of life and thought as far as India to the east and westward to the seven hills of Rome, at that point a minor political state with few pretensions to grandeur.

The civilization of Greece or Hellas had grandeur to spare - sometimes at sword's point. 

Hellenistic means "relating to the Hellenists." Not all of these exponents of Greek culture were Greeks. Power and Pathos displays examples of Greek-styled  art from Italy, North African and Georgia in the Caucasus. For the first time in world history, a global style of art, entitled "Hellenistic," was embraced in many lands and by many different peoples.

Amazingly, the Hellenistic period is one of the most unappreciated epochs of ancient times. To Poe and his Victorian contemporaries, the Athens of Pericles and Socrates, during the fifth century BC, was the age of "the glory that was Greece." The tumultuous era of Cicero and Caesar four hundred years later held center stage in the popular memories of Rome.

One of the reasons why the Hellenistic period is not better known may be that the supreme art form of that era, bronze statuary, has largely been lost. Of the thousands of bronze statues from Hellenistic times, a mere handful have survived.

Power and Pathos is dedicated to uniting many of the remaining bronze statues from the Hellenistic age in a single exhibit for study and appreciation. This exhibition, largely organized by curators of the Getty Museum in California, enables us for the first time to grasp the scale of Hellenistic achievement in a way that simply could not be done by looking at these art works in isolation.

Along with these rare bronze survivors, Power and Pathos displays a battered stone pedestal upon which a lost statue once stood. The pedestal is inscribed with the name of Lysippos of Sikyon (c. 390–305 BC). Lysippos, the great sculptor favored by Alexander the Great, was credited in ancient times with creating 1,500 bronze works of art.

Not one of the bronze sculptures of Lysippos has survived. Perhaps one of his works will be discovered by deep sea divers, as the celebrated Riace bronzes were found in 1972 off the coast of Italy. But the vast number of ancient bronzes were melted down long ago, the metal of these masterpieces being recycled into cheap coinage or implements of war.

The "pathos" of Power and Pathos does not refer to the tragic loss of so much great art. Rather, it underscores the great psychological revolution of the Hellenistic age. 

Individuality and the underlying emotional depths of the human character came to dominate bronze portraiture in the Hellenistic age. Alexander's achievements gave a massive impetus to the idea that human beings were able to take charge of their own lives.

The bronze statues of the post-Alexander period were primarily depictions of real people. Before the extraordinary career of Alexander, Greek statues were principally idealized representations of the gods, albeit in human form. Classically featured portraits of gods and people continued to be made after Alexander's death, but with a degree of naturalism that is evident in many of the works of art in Power and Pathos

Unknown Artist, Artemis with Deer1st Century B.C.- 1st Century AD

 A beautiful statue group of Artemis or Diana with a companion deer is a "show-stopper" in this respect. The two statues are displayed before a recreation of a wall-painting from Pompeii. The superlative effect of the skirts of her chiton billowing about the legs of Artemis makes it entirely believable that the goddess is striding across a field or woodland glade.

Why did this tremendous shift in consciousness and naturalism take place? In his pioneering reappraisal of the Hellenistic era, From Alexander to Cleopatra (1982), Michael Grant wrote: 

Reality was one keynote of the time... just as the scientists were making new efforts to explain what happens in the universe, so writers and artists wanted to show life as it is. And to show life as it is meant showing the individual as he or she is: this was the age, the first age, of the recognition, development and delineating of the individual person.  

Grant continued his analysis to show that a "cult of personality," fostered by government decrees, spurred the creation of many of these individualized bronze portraits. Though the study of psychology may ultimately have profited, the short-term effect was bloodshed and war.

Many of the Hellenistic bronze statues depicted the generals on Alexander's staff. These warlords were called the Diadochi or "successors". After Alexander's early death in 323, they  engaged in a series of "dog-eat-dog" military campaigns to divide up the vast empire. It was important to the various Diadochi like Ptolmey I, who seized control of Egypt, or Antiochus III, who built a big power base in the Middle East, that their portraits show them as strong, yet caring individuals.

One of the fascinating conventions of Hellenistic bronze sculpture was the range of expressiveness of these portraits. In an age of anxiety, it was not enough to be strong.  A ruler needed to be shown as caring but also as care-worn. Awareness, tension, even a hint of apprehensiveness, were important attributes to be included in the modeling of these portraits.

Unknown Artist, Portrait of a ManAbout 100 B.C. 

Portrait of a Man, dated to 100 BC, displays the psychological expressiveness of Hellenistic art to perfection. The inlaid eyes of the statue have survived, a rare feature of these already rare works of art. Moreover, these eyes are superbly integrated into the statue. The unknown protagonist is gazing at us and looking inward, producing a state of awareness still palpable after two thousand years.

We should not project too much into the character of this unknown individual with his wrinkled brow. He was likely a local politician or a Roman official on the island of Delos. Located in the Aegean Sea, Delos was the chief slave-trading center of the later (Roman-dominated) part of the Hellenistic era. It was the site of untold suffering. The empathy we see in those marble eyes was not likely to have been shown to the victims of war on sale in the market place of Delos.

Propaganda thus became a key component in the creation of these wonderful bronzes. This is especially true, since many of these statues were commissioned by civic groups to honor the "great" for a whole range of successes, from war to athletic victories.
The portrait head used as the introductory image to this review is a case in point. It is believed to depict a Roman general, Quintus Fufius Calenus, an ally of Julius Caesar who died in 40 BC. Was Calenus such a benign Imperial proconsul that the Greek citizens of Megara erected a statue in his honor? Or were they grateful that he exacted less tribute and loot from Megara than the Romans usually did?

The creation of this striking work (which of course was originally attached to a now lost body) was likely based on a careful calculus of motives. But the difficulties encountered by historians in distinguishing between the real and imagined traits of ancient leaders based on these bronze portraits are enormous. 

Unknown Artist, Portrait of a Ruler(Demetrius the Besieger?) 310–290 B.C. 

This can be briefly outlined by the fate of a Hellenistic bronze head in the collection of the Prado. Once thought to be  a portrait of Hephaestion, the beloved friend of Alexander the Great, this bronze head  has recently been identified as Demetrius I (337–283 BC), nicknamed "The Besieger."  A greater disparity could hardly be imagined between the devoted comrade of Alexander and the brutal, sabre-rattling "Successor." Yet this sensitive portrait has been identified as both.
These bronze portraits, then, were created as acts of homage to the "movers and shakers" of the era. Fortunately, Hellenistic art also includes wonderful representations of women from the dynasties who ruled over the divided parts of Alexander's domain. 

Particularly in Egypt under Ptolemy and his successors, Greek women had a degree of influence and freedom far in excess to the circumscribed lives of their grandmothers during the golden age of Athens.

Unknown Artist, Head of a Woman (Arsinoë II?)About 300–270 B.C

The striking portrait of the Greek queen of Egypt, Arsinoë II (316 BC -270 BC), conveys the beauty and the power of one of the most influential people of the Hellenistic era. This remarkable bronze head (again detached from its body) also evokes the most famous Hellenistic queen of all, Cleopatra (69 BC-30 BC), whose celebrated reign closed out the last vestiges of Greek autonomy before Caesar Augustus marched in and turned Egypt into the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. 

Power and Pathos also displays several revealing depictions of adolescent youths and even young children. The latter age-group appears in the guise of Sleeping Eros

Unknown Artist, Sleeping Eros300–100 B.C. 

This uncanny representation of a sleeping infant has a degree of realism that the angel wings cannot disguise. Sleeping Eros is a beloved work, well-known to the visitors to the Metropolitan Museum's Greek and Roman galleries. Yet its sensational modeling never had the effect on me at that the Met to the degree I felt, seeing it among the other Hellenistic bronzes of Power and Pathos

The ability to study in Hellenistic art in detail, contrasting these wondrous bronzes from antiquity, is best exemplified by several full figure statues of adolescent boys.

Unknown Artist, Boy Runner1st Century B.C.- 1st century AD

Boy Runner, found in 1754 during the initial excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii, is a study of poetry in motion. 

Unknown Artist, Portrait Statue of an Aristocratic Boy, 27 BC-AD 14

The nude athlete might well be the same youth as the one depicted in the Portrait Statue of an Aristocratic Boy.  Naked to the waste, a handsome young man posed with the thoughtful eloquence of a student of philosophy. Here we see the classical mind-body ideals of Greco-Roman civilization embodied to almost impossible degrees of physical perfection.

Life is not perfect. 

A third statue of a youth, found on Crete, almost certainly is a memorial to a young aristocrat from that island. He clutches his cloak about him sheathing his body in the clothing he wore in life, but which now serve as a kind of shroud. The superb handling of his body beneath his cloak, of a type known as a himation, is worthy of comparison with Auguste Rodin's Monument to Balzac.

Rodin's controversial tribute to the great poet, Honoré de Balzac, was first presented (and rejected by the commissioning group) as a plaster model in 1898. Rodin's Monument to Balzac was not cast as a bronze statue until 1939, over twenty years after his death.

The relevance here a Rodin's experience with his Balzac to the Portrait of a Boy from Crete is that both statues flew in the face of accepted norms. Statues in Europe around 1900 were not supposed to look like Rodin's Monument to Balzac. We don't have any documentation at all about the "Boy from Crete" but all the canons of Greek art were broken or ignored in the creation of this stunning work of art.

Unknown Artist, Portrait of a Boy, 100–50 B.C. 

The Greeks gloried in the male nude. The melancholy boy clutches his himation to himself with desperate will-power. Greek portraits were supposed to present images of serene self-control. The face of the "Boy from Crete" is anguished and despondent. Life has been snatched from him all too early and philosophy proved to be of no consolation.

The "pathos" of the Hellenistic period led increasingly to cynicism and despair. This down-beat outlook imposed severe limitations on the the sense of individualism which Michael Grant cogently described in From Alexander to Cleopatra

Grant noted that the Hellenistic era witnessed the rise of Tyche, the spirit of chance or luck. Everyone hoped that the happy face of Tyche - Agathe Tyche - would smile upon them. But as the endless, uncivil wars of the Diadochi raged-on, most people felt they "were adrift in an uncaring universe, and that everything was hazardous, beyond human control or understanding or prediction."

The Hellenistic world, and later the Roman Empire as well, were gripped, as Grant wrote, "by an unreasonable, dismal, desperate conviction that everything in the world was under the total control of Tyche."

This is the way that I think that the "Boy from Crete" should be interpreted. This powerful, disturbing work of art is a potent symbol of the limitations of the "glory" and "grandeur" of Greece and Rome. As belief waned in the gods of Olympus, people confronted the harsh realities of life and death without spiritual reassurance of any sort.

In the place of Tyche would come a widespread reliance on mystery religions and redeemer cults from Egypt and the Middle East. These would transform the emotional landscape of late antiquity. 

Eventually, the image of another tortured young man would take center stage in Western art. Unlike the "Boy from Crete" huddled beneath his cloak, this young man would stretch forth his arms to save the world.

The oldest known depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, circa 420-430 AD. One of the Maskell Passion Ivories in the British Museum, it does not appear in Power and Pathos.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the  National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and the British Museum, London

Introductory Image:
Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Portrait of a Man, 50- 25 BC, Bronze, copper, and marble, overall size: 32 × 22 × 22 cm (12 5/8 × 8 11/16 × 8 11/16 in.,) height of head: 22.5 cm (8 7/8 in.) Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Medallion with Athena and Medusa, 200–150 B.C. 
Bronze and glass, H 27.2 cm; W 27.1 cm; D 19 cm. The Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs. The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, 17540 

Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Artemis with Deer, 100 BC- AD 100, Bronze, height: 48 3/4 in. (123.8 cm) Private Collection Photograph Courtesy of Sotheby's, Inc. © 2015

Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze)Portrait of a ManAbout 100 BC, Bronze, copper, glass, and stone, H 32.5 cm; W 22 cm; D 22 cm  The Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education and Religious Affairs. The National Archaeological Museum, Athens, inv. X 14612 

Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Portrait of a Ruler(Demetrius the Besieger?) 310–290 B.C., Bronze, H 45 cm; W 35 cm; D 39 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, E-99 

Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Head of a Woman (Arsinoë II?) About 300–270 BC, Bronze, H 25.5 cm The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Catharine Page Perkins Fund, 96.712

Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Sleeping Eros, 300- 100 BC, Bronze (with a modern marble base) overall size: 41.9 × 85.2 × 35.6 cm (16 1/2 × 33 9/16 × 14 in.) height: 45.7 cm (18 in.) weight: 275 lb (124.7 kg) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1943

Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Boy Runner, 100 BC- 1st century AD, Bronze, stone, and bone, overall: 118 x 107 x 46 cm (46 7/16 x 42 1/8 x 18 1/8 in.) The National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy (MANN) © Archivio dell'arte, Luciano Pedicini

Unknown Artist, (Hellenistic Bronze), Portrait Statue of an Aristocratic Boy, 27 BC-AD 14, Bronze, H 132.4 cm; W 50.8 cm D 41.9 cm Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. no 14.130.1

Unknown Artist (Hellenistic Bronze), Portrait of a Boy, 100-50 BC, Bronze and copper, overall size: 140 × 57 × 45.1 cm (55 1/8 × 22 7/16 × 17 3/4 in.) height of the head: 23 cm (9 1/16 in.) height of the base: 4.5 cm (1 3/4 in.) weight: 200 lb. Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Education, and Religious Affairs. The Archaeological Museum, Heraklion

Unknown Artist, Crucifixion, Panel of Maskell Passion Ivories, Circa 420-430 AD, Carved Ivory, H: 75 mm W: 98 mm W: 106 grams, British Museum, 1856,0623.5 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland at the Phillips Collection

Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland

The Staechelin and Im Obersteg Collections

October 10, 2015 to January 10, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

No one knows for certain what was the last painting created by Vincent van Gogh. That sad honor may well belong to a work currently on view in a special exhibit at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. Van Gogh's The Garden of Daubigny, painted during the early summer of 1890, is one of the remarkable works appearing in Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland - the Staechelin and Im Obersteg Collections.

The selected works from the two Swiss collections at the Phillips Collection include other masterpieces of early Modernism. But it is appropriate to begin this review with The Garden of Daubigny. For one thing, this poignant work was the first painting to greet my eyes in the exhibit. It was the work of art that I most wanted to see - and it did not disappoint.
Vincent van Gogh, The Garden of Daubigny, 1890

There is a wistful note to the presence of The Garden of Daubigny in the exhibit at the Phillips. This "double-square" sized painting was purchased by the Swiss businessman, Rudolf Staechelin, during World War I. Staechelin was a far-sighted collector. Van Gogh was still a controversial figure to many in the art establishment nearly three decades afer his death. One can only wonder what the course of van Gogh's life - and of Modern art  - might have been had there been a figure like Staechelin or the other Swiss patron of art, Karl Im Obersteg, willing to purchase works by the tortured Dutch artist while he lived.

If one is looking for a significant "message" in Gauguin to Picasso at the Phillips Collection it is the vital role of the patron in the nurturing of art. Rudolf Staechelin, Karl Im Obersteg and their American contemporary, Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection, played a vital role in the story of Modern art. Without such patrons - willing to take a risk to their bank accounts and their reputations - many of the artists  whose works appear in the exhibition and in the galleries of the Phillips would have starved or faded into oblivion.

If one is looking for a note of controversy in the exhibit, Paul Gauguin’s NAFEA faaipoipo (When Will You Marry?) will provide it. This painting, removed from the Swiss museum where it was long displayed, was sold by Staechelin's descendants for a record-smashing $300 million. This has raised serious questions about the viability of the public display of privately-owned art works.

Paul Gauguin, NAFEA faaipoipo (When Will You Marry?), 1892

Rudolf Staechelin bought NAFEA faaipoipo (When Will You Marry?) during a brief but brilliant collecting campaign as war raged throughout Europe. His collection has been on extended loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel for much of the period since his death in 1946. 

When the Kunstmuseum Basel closed recently for renovations, the Staechelin Family Trust planned a travelling exhibition. The Kunstmuseum Basel, unwisely, balked at the idea. The contract was cancelled by the Staechelin Family Trust and 18 paintings, including NAFEA faaipoipo (When Will You Marry?), were withdrawn from the museum.

The Staechelin Family Trust stated that their action was based on opposition to a legal sanction known as the Undroit Convention. This was originally established to prevent the export of stolen works of art. But the ambiguous phrasing of the document has led to protests by other art groups and institutions besides the Staechelin Family Trust. 

The sale of NAFEA faaipoipo (When Will You Marry?) hardly seems in keeping with opposition to "red tape" and  bureaucracy. With much of their family assets tied up in these masterpieces, no doubt the Staechelin Family Trust felt that one of these works needed to be sold to generate some revenue.

Everyone has bills to pay.

This episode, in turn, underlines the importance of private institutions like the Phillips Collection.  Duncan Phillips established his museum during the 1920's to afford a lasting venue for the care, study and display of great works of art. That is the reason why the Phillips Collection is the perfect site to to consider the role of the patrons of Modernism.

Duncan Phillips (1886–1966) was an almost exact contemporary of Rudolf Staechelin (1881-1946) and Karl Im Obersteg (1883-1969). Staechelin relied on art agents like Bernheim-Jeune from whom he puchased The Garden of Daubigny for 35,000 Swiss francs in February 1918.  

Pablo Picasso, Harlequin with Black Mask, 1918

Staechelin excelled at making a quick strike based on agents' reports. He purchased Picasso's Harlequin with Black Mask, 1918, soon after it was painted. This was just as the rappel à l'ordre (call to order) was being proclaimed by Jean Cocteau, who called for a revived classicism in art.

Phillips bought works from art agents too, notably Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, which he purchased in 1923 from the firm of Durand-Ruel. More importantly, Phillips supported living artists, some yet to make their mark. Others like Arthur Dove were established figures, but struggling in the Depression decade of 1930's.There is a gallery adjacent to the Gauguin to Picasso exhibit where the philosophy in action of Duncan Phillips is brilliantly illustrated.

This nurturing approach to art was shared by the second of the Swiss collectors, Karl Im Obersteg. Given the masterpiece status of many of Staechelin's paintings, it is easy to glide by the works by Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941). This Russian-born painter had been a member of the Blue Rider group, organized by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Jawlensky fled to Switzerland at the outbreak of World War I. Im Obersteg was a loyal patron, amassing a major collection of Jawlensky's works, which are comparatively rare in American museums and collections.

Alexej von Jawlensky, Abstract Head: Mysterium, 1925

Diversity of theme and style characterizes Jawlensky's work. Many of his paintings, like Abstract Head: Mysterium, painted in 1925, possess a symbolical or mystical nuance. This was also true of the paintings of Georges Rouault, another painter favored by Karl Im Obersteg.

Georges Rouault, Landscape with Red Sail, 1939

If Jawlensky and Rouault lack name recognition in the U.S., that does not mean that Karl Im Obersteg only specialized in lesser known painters. He too purchased  works by Picasso like the remarkable The Absinthe Drinker. This work was created in 1901, on one side of a double-sided canvas, with Woman at the Theater on the other. Im Obersteg also bought a fine portrait by Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Mrs. Dorival, painted around 1916.

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Mrs. Dorival, c.1916

These signature works may establish the range of Im Obersteg's taste as a collector. But Marc Chagall's three rabbi paintings from 1914 evoke an almost prophetic stature for both the painter and the patron. Whether you focus on each individual painting, as in Jew in Black and White, or study all three together, they form a triptych-like presentation of living faith. 

Marc Chagall, Jew in Black and White, 1914

In many ways, these outstanding works by Chagall form the heart of the Gauguin to Picasso exhibition, rendering all the attention to NAFEA faaipoipo (When Will You Marry?) a bit wide of the mark.

As you make your way through the exhibit, you may be struck by the "safeness" of much of the art bought by Rudolf Staechelin and Karl Im Obersteg. 

It needs to be kept in mind, however, that the first purchase of a Cezanne for an American art museum only occurred in 1913. This was Cezanne's View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph, painted around 1888  and bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the New York Armory Show. 

Paul Cézanne, Glass and Apples, 1879–1882

If not radicals or revolutionaries, Rudolf Staechelin and Karl Im Obersteg were patrons of vision whose astute purchases of Modern art helped establish the great artists of Modernism. Staechelin and Im Obersteg  were members of a generation of collectors of genius which included Samuel Courtauld in Great Britain, Dr. Albert Barnes and Duncan Phillips in the United States.
All of these men attempted to find ways of sharing their treasured works of art with the public. And for decades their various methods of collection display, either at public museums like Kunstmuseum Basel or at independent facilities which they created, like the Barnes Foundation or the Phillips Collection, seemed to work.   

Then the BIG MONEY hit the art world during the 1980's. Noblesse oblige was no longer enough to raise the funds to purchase (or in some cases protect) notable works of art. 

This is the "way of the world" of the art world these days. We need to carefully consider this disturbing trend. Not only does it apply to "pros and cons" related to the sale of NAFEA faaipoipo (When Will You Marry?). The viability of museum trusteeship of great art is at risk. 

The role of patrons in supporting creative artists and of public museums to conserve and display their work cannot be dismissed as relics of a bygone era. Whatever the next phase in the world of art, anyone involved in the decision-making behind endowments and museum policy would be well to reflect on these wise words by Duncan Phillips:
The really good things of all ages and all periods can be brought together in one room with such delightful result that we recognize the universality of art and the special affinities of artists.                                                                                                                                                                                     
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

Introductory Image: 
Pablo Picasso, The Absinthe Drinker [verso:Woman at the Theater], 1901. Oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 23 5/8 in. Im Obersteg Foundation,  permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel
© 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Vincent van Gogh, The Garden of Daubigny, 1890. Oil on canvas, 22 x 40 in. The Rudolf Staechelin Collection © Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler

Paul Gauguin, NAFEA faaipoipo (When Will You Marry?), 1892. Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 1/2 in. The Rudolf Staechelin Collection © Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler

Pablo Picasso, Harlequin with Black Mask, 1918. Oil on wood, 45 5/8 x 35 in. The Rudolf Staechelin Collection © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Alexej von Jawlensky, Abstract Head: Mysterium, 1925. Oil on linen-finish paper laid down on cardboard, 16 3/4 x 12 3/4 in. Im Obersteg Foundation, permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Georges Rouault, Landscape with Red Sail, 1939. Oil on paper laid down on gauze, 19 3/4 x 33 in. Im Obersteg Foundation, permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel. Photo © Mark Gisler, Müllheim. Image © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait of Mrs. Dorival, c.1916. Oil on canvas, 24 x 15 in. Im Obersteg Foundation, permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel © Mark Gisler, Müllheim

Marc Chagall, Jew in Black and White, 1914. Oil on cardboard laid down on canvas, 39 3/4 x 31 1/2 in. Im Obersteg Foundation, permanent loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Paul Cézanne, Glass and Apples, 1879–1882. Oil on canvas, 12 3/8 x 15 3/4 in. The Rudolf Staechelin Collection © Kunstmuseum Basel, Martin P. Bühler

Monday, November 30, 2015

Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts at the Morgan Library & Museum

Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts 

Morgan Library and Museum
October 30, 2015 through January 18, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Vive la différence! To many, these words embody the passionate commitment of the French people to individualism, to the unique differences that define the character of each person. 

For Henri Matisse, the meaning of " la différence" had an added significance. Embracing "la différence" enables an artist to depict a character, a scene or a theme in a way that represents a personal conception of reality. While doing so, the artist may ignore or contradict the "here and now" details of superficial existence - and yet achieve a vision of transcendence. 

"Exactitude," Matisse famously proclaimed, "is not truth."

Pierre Matisse, Henri Matisse in the Bois de Boulogne (ca. 1931–1932)

The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City is currently displaying an exhibit of Matisse's unconventional book illustrations. Graphic Passion: Matisse and the Book Arts is the second Matisse exhibit of note to appear during 2015 in New York City. Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs was mounted by MOMA to huge acclaim earlier in the year. Graphic Passion is a smaller, more focused exhibit but equally brilliant. 

Most of the works on view in Graphic Passion were collected by an art loving couple, Frances and Michael Baylson, who donated their collection to the Morgan in 2010.

Matisse possessed the singular ability to create images that often had only a thin, barely recognizable connection to the original source. Graphic Passion surveys the illustrations which Matisse created to grace the pages of limited edition books of a type called livre d'artiste.

Henri Matisse, Dessins: Thèmes et variations, 1943 

Other great artists besides Matisse illustrated livre d'artiste. Picasso, Braque, Miró and other "old masters" of Modernism created memorable images to complement the literary content of these books. 

"To complement" is indeed the appropriate verb to use when describing the artistic process involved in a livre d'artiste. As the name suggests, these books recognized the primacy of the artist. In a livre d'artiste, the text takes on a secondary role to the picture. 

In the case of his art work for Pasiphaé, Chant de Minos, Matisse created images in the traditional mode of book illustration. For this livre d'artiste, published in 1944, Matisse closely correlated his pictures with the poems of Henri de Montherlant. These poems rework the story from Greek mythology of the queen, cursed by the gods, who gives birth to the dreaded Minotaur. Matisse used a form of engraving on linoleum to produce white lined images on a black background. This worked brilliantly to evoke the eroticism and horror of this ancient tale.

Henri Matisse, Pasiphaé, Chant de Minos, 1944 

Matisse seldom repeated his success with Pasiphaé of closely matching image and text. The Morgan exhibition commentary - always enlightening, but especially well-done for Graphic Passion - affirms that for the most part Matisse regarded his livre d'artiste illustrations as independent works of art.

Usually ... Matisse preferred to maintain a respectful distance from the text, which he believed should not have to be “completed” by his visual interpretation. He thought that illustration should be decorative in the best sense of the word, a separate and “parallel” form of artistic expression acknowledging and complementing the achievements of the author.

When obscenity charges were withdrawn in U.S. courts against Ulysses by James Joyce, Matisse signed a contract in 1934 to illustrate an expensive American edition of the book. Matisse kept such a "respectful distance" from the text that many were perplexed, Joyce included, as to the effect on readers.

One of the Ulysses pictures, on view in the Morgan exhibit, illustrates the serendipitous route which Matisse followed to create his images. Matisse chose a female circus performer he had witnessed at the Concert Mayol in Paris - who walked down a flight of steps on her hands - for his model in the brothel scene of Joyce's Ulysses

Henri Matisse, preliminary study of Circe, 1934

Joyce had earlier agreed to Matisse evoking the Odyssey in his drawings rather than directly representing episodes in Ulysses. Joyce grasped Matisse's idea, as the scene representing the alluring Circe is close enough to what transpires in a brothel. 

The American publisher of the new edition, William Macy, however, was upset. With Joyce's text difficult enough to grasp, he felt that the pictures should make it easier, not harder to comprehend the book.

Matisse would not change his approach, even when Macy initially withheld payment.

Vive la différence!

Matisse worked on over fifty book design projects between 1912 and 1952. A number of these illustrated the works of writers whom Matisse cherished, especially poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire. 

A devoted reader of classic French poetry, Matisse was involved in a major publishing venture to illustrate Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal. One of the poems in Les fleurs du mal contained the line, “Luxe, calme et volupté" (Luxury, peace, and pleasure), that provided the title for the famous 1904 painting by Matisse. 

This livre d'artiste, pairing Baudelaire and Matisse, should have been a triumph easily brought to success. Instead, it was a trial from the start. 

Originally planned before the Second World War, the project suffered from repeated miscues and mishaps, mostly related to the war. Matisse was unable to start working in earnest until his beloved daughter Marguerite, arrested by the Gestapo, had been liberated in 1944.

Matisse eventually matched spare portrait lithographs with a selection of Baudelaire's poems from Les fleurs du mal. The portraits are mostly of youthful women, Matisse's models, including his devoted assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya, a refugee from Russia. Despite the current of eroticism that flows through the poems of Baudelaire, Matisse's young women radiate simplicity and beauty. 

Henri Matisse, rejected cover design for Les fleurs du mal, 1946

For the cover illustration, to evoke the decadence and evil of the title of Baudelaire’s anthology, Matisse briefly considered an image of an octopus. Before it was discovered to be a shy and harmless creature (to humans) the octopus was viewed as a sinister menace. But Matisse changed his mind about the sea creature, substituting an amorphic, abstract design.

Neither youthful, unassuming women nor an octopus are characteristic elements of Les fleurs du mal. What was Matisse aiming at with these images? Perhaps the date of publication is a key to the mystery - 1947.

Matisse created these images for a new edition of Les fleurs du mal in the aftermath of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. How can an artist grapple with the crushing reality of evil or evoke ideals of beauty in the wake of such horrors?

"I have always thought," Matisse wrote "that a large part of a painting's beauty derives from the artist's combat with his own limited means of expression."

With this quote we have an answer for the difficult-to-fathom nature of the often mysterious works of art in the Morgan exhibit. Matisse aimed to overcome "his own limited means of expression" to summon the spirit, if not always the outward form, of his subjects.

The same year of Matisse's illustrations of Les fleurs du mal, 1947, also saw the publication of Jazz. This is the greatest Matisse livre d'artiste and one of the greatest of the genre.

The origin of Jazz can be traced to 1941 when Matisse was recuperating from surgery for abdominal cancer in 1941. Confined to his bed, Matisse began to "paint with scissors." He cut-out delicate designs from colored paper, a skill that may be traced back to the scissors-craft of his cloth-making ancestors in the north of France. These images were pinned to a  paper background (or sometimes the walls of Matisse's room) to form works of art of primal intensity.

It was a high-point for me to go the recent MOMA exhibition and view Matisse's The Fall of Icarus (1943) with the pins still inserted. It was no less inspirational to see the prints that were made of Icarus, first  in 1945 for the French art magazine, Verve, and then as Plate VIII for Jazz

Henri Matisse, Icarus, plate VIII, Jazz, 1947

Icarus may seem an odd choice to be included in Jazz. As we will shortly see, some of the images Matisse created for Jazz are evocations of joy and exhilaration. Matisse's Icarus in the 1943 cut-out and the 1947 pochoir or fine-grade stencil print is another matter.

Matisse's Icarus is surrounded by bursting flashes of light, reminiscent of the "star shells" used to illuminate the battlefields of World War I. Icarus is not merely falling, wingless as in the ancient myth by flying too near the sun. He is reeling like a soldier hit by bullet. Here there is no sun melting his wings, just jagged gashes of flame which reveal his death throws. 

Henri Matisse, The Tobaggan, plate XX, Jazz, 1947

It's more than a bit disconcerting to look at the female figure sliding, head over heels in The Tobaggan, Plate XX of Jazz, and then glance back to the dying fall of Icarus. But the more time that one spends studying Jazz, the realization grows that pleasure and pain are balanced in almost equal measure.  

Jazz is often said to have a circus theme. If so, it's a tight wire act without a safety net for our emotions. One of the most lyrical plates in Jazz shows a pair of jaunty circus horses pulling a colorfully decorated cart. It is not a circus wagon bringing  performers to the Big Top. Rather, Plate X shows a hearse. The high-stepping circus horses are carrying the clown Pierrot to his grave.

The time span covered by Graphic Passion runs from 1912 to 1952. Yet, it is the last decade that really counts. 

The 1940's were a tough time to be a Frenchman or an artist, or just a person of conscience and vision. Matisse was all of these, as well as being elderly and in poor health. Taken in unison, these factors did not defeat him. Instead, Matisse rose to the challenge. He embraced the role of champion of civilization at a time when it was not certain it would survive the Nazi war on culture. 

In 1942, having recuperated somewhat from his cancer operation, Matisse selected the poems of the French poet of the late Middle Ages, Charles d’Orleans (1394-1465)  as the subject of a livre d'artiste.

Henri Matisse, Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans, 1950

A great aristocrat with links to the royal family of France, Charles d’Orleans found that his blue blood and gilded armor did not protect him from the vicissitudes of life during the Hundred Years War. In 1415, he was pulled, dazed and battered, from under a pile of corpses at the Battle of Agincourt. He spent the next quarter of a century as a prisoner in England during which he wrote his immortal poetry.

Matisse was moved by the life and poetry of Charles d’Orleans.The experience of a poet who had triumphed over the horrors of war in the fifteenth century greatly appealed to an artist who did likewise in the twentieth century. Matisse not only did illustrations for Poèmes de Charles d’Orleans but copied the poems in a flowing calligraphic script that was reproduced  by his publishers, Tériade, when this remarkable book was published in 1950.

Matisse had but one decade of life left to him as he labored on Poèmes de Charles d’Orleans, Jazz and Les fleurs du mal. Working against the hourglass of mortality, Matisse summoned a lifetime of experience to create his livre d'artiste images.

Thanks to this wonderful exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, we are privileged to see how the aging Matisse created illustrations of profound beauty and power. Graphic Passion leaves little doubt that Matisse's book images can truly be described as being immortal - if any work of art can ever be so.                

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

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

Introductory Image:          
Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Circus, pochoir, plate II in Jazz (1947). Courtesy of Frances and Michael Baylson © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Pierre Matisse (1900–1989), photograph of Henri Matisse in the Bois de Boulogne (ca. 1931–1932). Gift of the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, 1997, The Morgan Library & Museum. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Dessins: Thèmes et variations ... précédés de “Matisse-en-France” par Aragon. Paris: Martin Fabiani, 1943. Frances and Michael Baylson Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), linocut illustration and initial in Henry de Montherlant (1895–
1972), Pasiphaé, Chant de Minos (Les Crétois).Paris: Martin Fabiani, 1944. Frances and Michael Baylson Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), preliminary study for the etching in the Circe chapter, Ulysses
(1934). Collection of The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), rejected cover design for Les fleurs du mal (1946). Collection
of The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights
Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Icarus, pochoir, plate VIII, Jazz (1947). Courtesy of Frances and Michael Baylson © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Le Toboggan, pochoir, plate XX in Jazz (1947). Courtesy of Frances and Michael Baylson © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954), frontispiece and title page, Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans. Paris: Tériade Éditeur, 1950. Frances and Michael Baylson Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2015.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks

Edward S.Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks

Delmonico Books & Prestel/$65/184 pages
Reviewed by Ed Voves

If I were asked to select one artist to represent the American experience or what Robert Hughes called "American visions,"  I would pick the photographer, Edward S. Curtis. 

Pages and pages of explanation for my choice would never suffice. But even a brief perusal of the new book, Edward S.Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks, will quickly confirm Curtis as a defining genius of American expression.

Edward S. Curtis was the self-appointed champion of the Native American peoples of North America. Curtis, born in 1868 in Wisconsin and reared in Minnesota, was a bona fide Western pioneer. Like earlier frontiersmen, Daniel Boone and David Crockett, Curtis had an empathy for Native Americans which enabled him to see them as human beings rather than as savages.  

With his camera, Curtis recorded the traditional way of life of tribes from the Arctic Circle to the Rio Grande. The result of his determination to pursue this challenging - and occasionally dangerous - task is the subject of this compelling  book  published by Delmonico and Prestel.

The photographs comprising Edward S.Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks represent the "best of the best" taken by Curtis.  In the multi-volume The North American Indian, the career-defining work of Curtis, there were 2,234 photographs richly produced in photogravure. The quality of the One Hundred Masterworks photos is worthy of the now legendary earlier effort, produced in a limited run of 300 copies of each volume.

It needs to be highlighted and underscored that Curtis, a largely self-taught photographer, was not only an artist of the first rank. He was also a driven, obsessive picture taker and a methodical ethnographic researcher. Curtis was known as "Shadow Catcher" to the Native Americans he photographed. Between 1896 and 1927, Curtis captured 40,000 "shadows," a staggering 40,000 photographs.

Edward S.Curtis, Canyon de Chelly- Navaho, 1904 

The law of photographic averages or being "at the right spot at the right time," however, does not account for astounding images like Canyon de Chelly - Navaho, 1904, or Sioux Mother and Child, taken a year later. Curtis entered into a state of spiritual communion with those he photographed. There are 40,000 souls in the pictures Curtis took - and the soul of America.

In some ways, Curtis was indeed "the right man at the right spot at the right time." 

Six years before Curtis began his quest, the last "stand" of Native American resistance to the loss of their independence took place in the infamous "battle" at Wounded Knee, South Dakota on December 23, 1890. Three years later, at a meeting of the American Historical Association, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his "frontier thesis" which explained U.S. history in terms of the westward expansion of Anglo-Saxon society from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

Where the original inhabitants of North America were to fit into the post-frontier scheme of the U.S. was a loaded question. Many people expected the "Red Man" to simply vanish. Rapid demographic decline among Native Americans in the years following Wounded Knee seemed to confirm this. In 1900, there were only 248,253 Native Americans living in the continental U,S., while the estimate in 1800 had been 600,000, almost certainly an under count. 

Edward S.Curtis, Sioux Mother and Child, 1905

Given the explosive rate of population increase in the U.S. by natural birth alone during the nineteenth century, the days of the Native Americans as a separately identifiable racial group seemed numbered. Even Curtis, for all his spiritual kinship with Native Americans, half-expected this to happen. Some of his most haunting images have titles like The Vanishing Race - Navaho, 1904.

The "Red Man" did not vanish. Thanks in large measure to Curtis, Native American culture was documented and to a considerable degree preserved. A series of richly produced photographic volumes, The North American Indian, introduced Curtis' stunning images to collectors and the public beginning in 1907.

In just over thirty years, Edward Curtis conducted a single-handed campaign to save some vestiges of the traditional way of life of Native Americans from oblivion. Adept at still photography and motion picture camera work, Curtis created imagery that is enchantingly beautiful and historically accurate. With grudging financial backing from J.P. Morgan and the emotional support of President Theodore Roosevelt, Curtis forged ahead. 

Edward S.Curtis, Self--portrait with baleen whale, Pacific Northwest, ca.1914

Against incredible odds, Curtis succeeded in publishing the last of the lavishly produced photo books in 1930. Publication was literally in the "nick of time" because many of the "old ways"  of the tribes had been undermined and effaced by U.S. Government agents and Christian missionaries in the years since Curtis commenced his venture in 1896. 

It was a bittersweet triumph for Curtis. The Great Depression began in earnest just as the final volumes of his magnum opus came off the press. Curtis had beggared himself in the process, wrecked his marriage and endangered his health.  Few people had the money to purchase his books or copies of his photos - or even cared to. 

Curtis scratched out a living for himself doing still photography and some motion picture work for the Hollywood studios. He worked on The Plainsman starring Gary Cooper, one of the rare adult Westerns of the 1930's. Curtis tried his hand at some wildcat mining schemes and died in obscurity in 1952. 

Curtis and The North American Indian nearly vanished from collective memory. Then in 1971, the Morgan Library in New York City mounted an exhibition of Curtis' works, based on the financial support which J.P. Morgan had provided. Scholars took note and slowly Curtis' astonishing achievement began to be realized.

The present volume and the related museum exhibits of Edward Curtis' "masterworks" are the result of the devoted study of one of these scholars. Christopher Cardozo is the leading contemporary authority on Curtis. Cardozo has created an impressive collection of the photographs taken by Curtis, authored or edited eight books about Curtis and curated major exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world.

The North American Indian was notable for Curtis' scholarly text as well as his stunning photographs. The same is true of Edward S.Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks. Cardozo and fellow historian, A.D. Coleman, have provided a brilliant assessment of Curtis as a photographer, ethnographer and environmentalist. 

Edward S.Curtis, An Oasis in the Badlands,1905

Coleman  notes perceptively that Curtis' photographic style occasionally reflected the Pictorialist school of photography and Alfred Stieglitz's journal Camera Work, both influential during the early 1900's. Certainly, the deliberately romantic poses of a small sample of the photos in The North American Indian like An Oasis in the Badland - Sioux, 1905 showed that Curtis was a man of his own time. 

Yet Cardozo cogently argues that "Curtis' pictures transcend by far the merely informational and illustrative: they can stand alone as autonomous, fully realized works of visual art." 

The importance of the individuality of the subjects of Curtis' photos cannot be stressed too much. The Native Americans who posed for Curtis emerge from his pictures as "autonomous, fully realized" human beings. This is in contrast to the pseudo-scientific titles that Curtis occasionally bestowed on some of the photos like "Lummi type" or "Kalispel type." Perhaps, he did this to satisfy the sociologists of his era, fixated on finding representative samples of the world's inhabitants.

Edward S.Curtis, Lummi Type,1899

Yet, when you stop to examine the strong, sensitive face of this matriarch of the Lummi tribe, you realize the absurdity of any attempt to categorize human beings as "typical." This woman came from Curtis' home ground, on the coast of Washington State. She was in essence a neighbor. One can only wonder why he did not record her name or devise a romantic-sounding title for her as did for others.

Whatever the reason, the unique, God-given self-hood of this Native American woman rips asunder the straight jacket of categorization in any shape or form. And you have to give Curtis part of the credit for this. Curtis, a master of the techniques of photography, was equally adept at capturing  the spiritual essence of his subjects and conveying this to us, the viewer.

Louise Erdrich and Eric Jolly both emphasize this shared experience in their essays in Edward S.Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks.  It should be noted that both are Native Americans. Jolly writes:

Edward S.Curtis, A Walpi Man, 1903

Look into the eyes of Qahatika girl and A Hopi Man and recognize that they are looking back at us across time. These are haunting images that depict pride, strength and a sense of a future, that give us hope for the generations to follow ... As you experience the stories that emanate from these photographs, you have a rare opportunity to connect across time and generations to the heart and soul of these people. In so doing, you too may become stewards of their story. In the end, this work is breathtakingly, though simply, a collective act of stewardship.

This brilliant insight is really the best way - perhaps the only way - to interpret Curtis' achievement. 

Curtis, remarkable individualist though he was, helped to create a bond of empathy between racial and ethnic groups that was held by many in his time to be unbridgeable. And this achievement is rendered even more extraordinary by the way that he fostered an "intensity of regard" between generations, past, present and to come, as Louise Erdrich also wisely discerns.

Perhaps without quite knowing it, Edward S. Curtis, the last pioneer from the Old West, was the first to explore an America without frontiers, an America whose people are truly "from the many ... one." 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of Delmonico Books and Prestel Publishing Co.

Introductory Image: Edward S.Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks 2015 (cover) Image credit:  Delmonico Books and Prestel Publishing

Edward S.Curtis (American, 1868-1952), Canyon de Chelly- Navaho, 1904 Photogravure 12" x 16", Southwest

Edward S.Curtis (American, 1868-1952), Sioux Mother and Child, 1905, Platinum, 7 11/16" x 5 7/16", Great Plains

Edward S.Curtis (American, 1868-1952), Edward S.Curtis, (Self--portrait with baleen whale, Pacific Northwest), ca.1914, Toned Gelatin Silver, Northwest

Edward S.Curtis (American, 1868-1952), An Oasis in the Badlands,1905, Photogravure 12" x 16", Great Plains

Edward S.Curtis (American, 1868-1952), Lummi Type,1899, Photogravure, 16" x 12", Northwest

Edward S.Curtis (American, 1868-1952), A Walpi Man, 1903, Platinum, 15 3/16" x 10 1/2", Southwest