Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art at the National Gallery, London

Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art

National Gallery, London

February 17 – May 22, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

There is an intangible element to the character and achievement of  Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) that makes it easy to describe him as "the last of the Old Masters" or the "last Romantic." 

The provocative exhibit at the National Gallery in London, Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art, considered him from a different vantage point. Delacroix was the first of the New Masters.

When I recently visited Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art, I was struck by some basic similarities with an earlier exhibit, Cezanne and Beyond at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in  2009. The exhibits featured major works by Delacroix or Cezanne, and by artists whom they inspired.

This comparative approach enables us to grasp how Delacroix and Cezanne created new paths for painting which subsequent generations of artists were to follow. There was an all-important difference, however, in their respective legacies.

Cezanne and Beyond charted the efforts of Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, Ellsworth Kelly and others to articulate the motifs and techniques of the "Father of Modern Art." Delacroix's paintings,  on the other hand, were used by his successors more as a source of broad artistic themes. 

Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers in their Apartment, 1847-9

Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art displayed sixty paintings, one-third of which were by Delacroix. This relatively small number was unavoidable since much of Delacroix's work cannot leave France. Delacroix was a major mural painter, covering the walls of government institutions and churches in Paris with paintings that rank high in his life work. Likewise, his most famous painting, Liberty Leading the People, is so central to the identity of the French nation that even a short visit to London is out of the question.

Thanks to judicious selection and an excellent short film about Delacroix's murals, the range of Delacroix's oeuvre was surveyed with admirable balance. 

The display of one of Delacroix's early works underscores the effort that went into the design of this exhibition. The Death of Sardanapalus, painted in 1827, is essential to understanding Delacroix's bravura use of color and his anti-authoritarian political views. As Kenneth Clark wrote, "It is the most liberated of all his works, the one in which he most unreservedly gratified all of his appetites."

Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1844

Yet The Death of Sardanapalus was simply too big to transport from the Louvre, measuring 12 ft 10 in x 16 ft 3 in.  Fortunately, Delacroix painted a smaller, personal copy in 1844. This version was displayed in the exhibition, illustrating major themes in Delacroix's art without overwhelming the exhibit as the huge original would have done. 

Delacroix's influence on the rise of Modernism was  thus well established by this fine exhibition.  With works like The Death of Sardanapalus, Delacroix bequeathed a manifesto of artistic freedom to  those who followed him.

"O young artist," Delacroix exclaimed, "you want a subject? Everything is a subject; the subject is yourself; they are your impressions, your emotions before nature. You must look within yourself and not around yourself.” 

Eugène Delacroix, View of Tangier, 1852-53
In a bold move, Delacroix went to Morocco in 1833 as the official artist on a diplomatic mission. While in North Africa,  Delacroix sketched "living antiquity" in a setting little touched by European civilization.  When he returned to France, he had source material for a lifetime of painting.

Delacroix never traveled  beyond the borders of France again. But the trip to Morocco was not an isolated act. Repeatedly, Delacroix ventured to realms left unexplored by other artists.

Following an earlier visit to Great Britain in 1824, Delacroix incorporated techniques of English landscape painting in his work. This was an unthinkable act for French painters. At a time when still-life painting was considered fit only for women artists, he revived the genre as a bold exploration of color. And though a skeptic in matters of faith, Delacroix's murals at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris rank among the greatest masterpieces of religious art since the Renaissance.

Eugène Delacroix, A Basket of Fruit in a Flower Garden,1848-49

An excellent vantage point for considering the legacy factor of Delacroix's career is a comparison of his A Basket of Fruit in a Flower Garden (1848-49) with The Trellis, painted by Gustave Courbet in 1862. 

The French term for still-life is nature morte. There is nothing "dead" about Delacroix's painting. The flowers and fruit are bursting with life, thanks to the vibrancy of color and the exceptional skill of the modeling. 

Delacroix's work evokes the fertility of nature, the recurring cycle of life - seeds, flowers, fruit - that propels earthly existence. Courbet's The Trellis takes this a step further by including a young woman in contemporary dress, "blooming" with health and vitality. 

Gustave Courbet, The Trellis, or Young Woman arranging Flowers, 1862

The influence of Delacroix on succeeding generations of painters is particularly notable in landscape painting. Delacroix had been friends with the tragically short-lived Richard Parkes Bonnington (1802-1828), who might well have succeeded J.M.W. Turner as the pillar of British landscape painting. After Bonnington's death, Delacroix carried on with vivid depictions of English Channel seascapes. 

Long before Courbet and Monet immortalized  the rocky coast around Etretat, Delacroix was there painting in water color and oil sketch. Some of Delacroix's seascapes (and landscapes) were imaginative evocations of nature, such as Shipwreck on the Coast. Whether Delacroix witnessed the aftermath of an actual maritime disaster is beside the point. Here he depicted the living sea, the source of life and the taker of life.

Eugène Delacroix, Shipwreck off a Coast,1862

Delacroix was a master technician of painting. He closely studied the new theories about complementary colors which  Michel-Eugène Chevreul began to promulgate in 1828. Delacroix created a new method of painting called flochetage which blended short strokes of complementary colors to brilliant effect.     

Delacroix's experimental use of color led to claims that he was a pioneer of scientific painting. No artist was more determined to lionize Delacroix in that respect than Paul Signac, the great pointillist painter who was born in 1863, the same year that Delacroix died.

Taking on the leadership of pointillism after the early death of Georges Seurat, Signac invoked Delacroix's name and achievements to promote this exacting school of painting. In 1899, Signac published a polemical book, From Eugéne Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism. Intending to establish the credentials of Post-Impressionism, Signac traced the movement's signature "dots" back to Delaroix's flochetage.

Paul Signac, Snow: Boulevard de Clichy, Paris, 1886

Signac was personally generous, for all his doctrinaire theorizing. He supported Matisse emotionally and financially during a very difficult period of his life and after the First World War, he led the effort to preserve Delacroix's Paris studio as a museum. I surmise that Delacroix would have enjoyed Signac's company - Signac was a superb sailor - while brusquely rejecting an honorary role as the apostle of Post-Impressionism. 

Delacroix is likely to have been displeased with the later appreciation of his paintings from Morocco, as well. His vivid depictions of life in North Africa were linked to one of the less praiseworthy genres of nineteenth century art, Orientalism. 

Delacroix's expedition to Morocco enabled him to grasp the humanity and nobility of the people there. Unfortunately, as the "scramble for Africa" commenced, a cultural veneer was applied to the crass, ruthless exploitation of African peoples by the colonial powers of Europe. By stressing exotic, sensual and violent themes, Orientalism was used to justify the conquest of the "Dark Continent."

Eugène Delacroix, Lion Hunt, 1861

Delacroix's scenes of savage lion hunts and sultry Moroccan women were interpreted in ways that he never intended. Orientalism, as in the Arab slave market scenes of Jean-Léon Gérôme, provided jaded Western audiences with erotic images, discretely bordering on pornography. At the same time, paintings of this genre asserted the superiority of European civilization.

As his writings reveal, Delacroix's complex character was not without elements of chauvinism. He did not, however, engage in the hypocrisy of colonialism. His portraits of the common people of North Africa, women in particular, were respectful and conveyed a real sense of their humanity.

Henri Matisse, The Red Carpet (Le Tapis rouge), 1906

Several of Delacroix's heirs, Renoir and Matisse, continued his more benign treatment of North African themes. Matisse, who visited Morocco in 1912, drew upon Delacroix's vision and empathy, painting his famous Moroccan Triptych, now in Moscow's Pushkin Museum. 

The National Gallery exhibit illustrated Matisse's debt to Delacroix with a work dating to 1906. The Red Carpet, shows how a spiritual affinity between two artists can flourish, even when one of them had not (yet) visited the country whose culture both evoked.

Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees, 1889

Vincent van Gogh was another of Delacroix's heirs. In September 1889, while convalescing at Saint-Rémy, van Gogh wrote his brother Theo about the influence of Delacroix and the way it inspired him to continue with his own art. The letter beautifully sums up the essential message of the National Gallery exhibit. Van Gogh wrote:

Although I am well aware of the worth and originality and superiority of Delacroix or Millet, for example, I can still say, yes, I too am something, I too can achieve something

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the National Gallery, London                                                
Introductory Image:
Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) Self Portrait, ca. 1837. Oil on canvas, 65 x 54.5 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris (RF 25) © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Jean-Gilles Berizz

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) Women of Algiers in their Apartment, 1847-9. Oil on canvas, 85 x 112 cm. Musée Fabre, Montpellier (868.1.38) © Musee Fabre, Montpellier aglomeration

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) The Death of Sardanapalus, 1844. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 82.4 cm. © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania   Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986 (1986-2617)

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) View of Tangier, 1852-53. Oil on canvas, 45.09 x 54.61 cm. © The Minneapolis Institute of Art  Gift of Georgiana Slade Reny

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) A Basket of Fruit in a Flower Garden, 1848-9. Oil on canvas, 106.7 x 142.2 cm. © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania  John G. Johnson Collection, 1917 (1917,974)

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) The Trellis, or Young Woman arranging Flowers, 1862. Oil on canvas, 109.2 x 135.3 cm. © The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1950.309

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) Shipwreck off a Coast, 1862. Oil on canvas, 38.1 × 45.1 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas. Museum purchase funded by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund (2004.1693) © The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas / Bridgeman Images

Paul Signac (1863-1935) Snow: Boulevard de Clichy, Paris, 1886. Oil on canvas, 66 x 43.2 cm. © The Minneapolis Institute of Art Bequest of Putnam Dana McMillan 61.36.16

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) Lion Hunt, 1861. Oil on canvas, 76.3 x 98.2 cm. © The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois Potter Palmer Collection, 1922.404

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) The Red Carpet (Le Tapis rouge), 1906. Oil on canvas, 89 x 116 cm. Musée de Grenoble Agutte-Sembat Bequest © Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015; photo © Musée de Grenoble

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) Olive Trees, 1889. Oil on canva, 73.7 x 92.7 cm © The Minneapolis Institute of Art The William Hood Dunwoody Fund 51.7

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty at the Museum of Modern Art

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty

Museum of Modern Art, New York City

March 26, 2016–July 24, 2016

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty at the Museum of Modern Art follows in the footsteps of MOMA's 2014 exhibit, Gauguin: Metamorphoses. Both exhibitions treat an aspect of creative expression - printmaking - normally regarded as secondary to the main focus of two artists renowned as painters.  

Gauguin: Metamorphoses charted the familiar, if exotic, venture to the "savage, primitive" world of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. MOMA's exhibit of Degas goes even further. It reveals creative endeavors by this enigmatic artist which until now most of us never knew existed.

Amazingly, Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty is the first MOMA exhibit to focus exclusively upon Degas. Brilliantly organised by MOMA curator, Jodi Hauptman, this exhibition definitively transforms the appreciation of Degas' already towering achievements.
Fittingly, the focus of this solo exhibit is the printing format which preoccupied Degas, known as monotype. This was a "one of a kind' form of printing, as we shall see, created by a very singular artist.   

Degas became interested in printmaking very early in his career when he closely studied the etchings of Rembrandt. The influence of a less famous artist, however, stimulated Degas' embrace of monotype printing. This was Ludovic Napoleon Lepic (1839-1899), a cigar smoking, dog-loving aristocrat who was a close friend of Degas.

There are several etchings by Lepic from the early 1870's in the MOMA show, with "variable inking" done to the print. Such a work strictly speaking is a monoprint, one in a series, with changes made to produce distinctive prints rather than make exact copies.

Edgar Degas, Dancer Onstage with a Bouquet, c.1876

What really intrigued Degas were monotypes. In this process, the artist draws directly with ink on a metal plate, usually copper, which is pressed with a sheet of dampened paper and run through a hand-operated press. The result is a truly unique work of art.

As if the distinction between monoprints and monotypes was not complicated enough, there are two methods of creating monotypes.

The drawing method is known as "light-field." The resultant print resembles a conventional sketch. The plate, however, can be inked with other colors and run though the press with the print again to add a further layer of color. This process can be repeated multiple times to produce almost full-color images. 

A second method, “dark-field manner,” is even more dramatic. The plate is entirely covered with ink and the image is created by removing ink with a pen, brush or rag - or fingers. In a way, creating dark-field monotypes is akin to sculpture. Just as marble is chipped away to reveal the body "concealed" inside the stone, so the ink is wiped clear, allowing the form of a person to take shape or a mountain to emerge.

Degas became quite a master of monotypes. One can surmise that the monotype process, exacting and unpredictable, engaged him on an emotional level usually held in check by his austere demeanor.

Degas also grasped that monotypes could capture the essence of modern life. One of Degas' most notable monotypes, Heads of a Man and a Woman, leaves the faces of this pair unformed and out-of-focus. This brilliantly evokes the sensation of having only a fleeting glimpse of a person's features as they pass us by in the "stream of consciousness" of daily living.

Edgar Degas, Factory Smoke, 1877-79

Another example of the way that Degas depicted modernity is the unprecedented work, Factory Smoke. Except for Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, there is not a more evocative work of art dealing with the Industrial Revolution than this stunning monotype from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The energy and risk-defying zeal that Degas devoted to these monotypes was prodigious.  A friend and fellow printmaker, Marcellin Desboutin, left an unforgettable description of Degas, totally absorbed in the challenging art of monotypes.

Degas, Desboutin declared “is no longer a friend, a man, an artist! He’s a zinc or copper plate blackened with printer’s ink, and plate and man are flattened together by his printing press whose mechanism has swallowed him completely!”

Degas created his first monotype with Lepic's assistance and both artists signed the finished work. This was The Ballet Master, most likely done in 1876. The theme may be a predictable choice by Degas. What he did with this print had huge implications for his continued exploration of the potential of monotypes. 

When a monotype is successfully rolled through the press, most artists are content to have produced a unique work of art. Not Degas. He saw the possibility of adding detail and depth to his monotypes with the application of chalk or pastel crayon. Occasionally, Degas dampened his pastels to create a watercolor effect. 

Edgar Degas, The Ballet Master, c. 1876

The Ballet Master provides telling insight into this process. Degas applied pearly white color (most likely opaque watercolor) to the dancer's legs and skirt in such a way that they seem to be illuminated by the stage lights. Only an artist of Degas' stature could have contrived to evoke "limelight" in a monotype. 

Degas kept pushing the monotype to new levels of artistic brilliance. He began making second prints with the residue of the inked copper plate - a seeming contradiction for a monotype. This second print, termed a cognate, is better understand by its nickname, "ghost." Using pastels or other media, Degas transformed this barely discernible print into an entirely new work of art. A comparison of the two versions of Three Ballet Dancers testifies to Degas' technical mastery in this respect.

Edgar Degas, Three Ballet Dancers, c. 1878

Edgar Degas, Ballet Scene, c. 1879

Degas exhibited several monotypes at the Third Impressionist Salon in 1877. Afterwards, a number of his colleagues, particularly Camille Pissarro, began to experiment with monotype printing. None of his fellow Impressionists ever matched Degas in skill and diversity of monotype printing.

The sheer variety of subject matter in Degas' monotypes is what struck me with such force and surprise. Degas seemed absolutely determined to overturn his reputation as a talented painter of a restricted range of subjects. Perhaps the one person Degas really needed to convince was an arch-traditionalist who worshiped the memory of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and spurned the title of Impressionist - himself. 

Edgar Degas, The Singer, c. 1875-1880

In some of his monotypes, Degas achieved profound levels of individuality and spontaneity, as in The Singer. One can almost feel the electrical charge surge through the chanteuse de café-concert  as she prepares to sing. It is a virtuoso image, a depiction of the act of song, of the incarnation of melody.

With his Frieze of Dancers, on the other hand, Degas created an image of poetry in motion. This monotype approaches the effect of Eadweard Muybridge's human and animal "locomotion" photo series. 

Edgar Degas, Frieze of Dancers, 1895

Instead of a scene of marble gods and satyrs, frozen in time on a temple pediment, Degas' Frieze of Dancers depicts potential energy turning kinetic. His ballerinas, lacing their slippers, are like coiled metal-springs at the moment of release.

There were other aspects of his embrace of monotype printing that confirm and confound what we thought we knew about Degas. There are the expected Degas nudes, views of women sponging themselves, emerging from their baths. But more unsettling are the haggard prostitutes, "waiting for the client." Their sad faces and tired bodies mark them as drudges in the nineteenth century sex industry. 

Degas' brothel scenes are devastating, more so than Picasso's Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In their frank, matter-of-fact depiction of bodies for hire, they reduce both the artist and the art lover to the status of voyeur. There is no gawking at these unfortunate women for the sake of discussing the influence of African motifs as in Demoiselles. If you look at Degas' nude women, you are implicated. It is that straightforward. Degas does not let us - or himself - off the hook. 

Fortunately, the Degas exhibit has a further surprise in store - a most pleasant one. In 1890, Degas visited Burgundy and was inspired to create landscapes, more ethereal than realistic. This uncharacteristic interest in landscape art revived Degas' utilization of monotype printing which had declined during the late 1880's.

Edgar Degas, Landscape with Rocks, c. 1892

Except in two or three cases, the scenery depicted by Degas in these astonishing monotypes did not correspond to actual geographic localities. Like the "late Turner" landscapes, which are now viewed as a foundation of Modern Art, these sites existed in a distant realm not to be found on any map.

Both Degas and Turner were aging artists, struggling against time and bodily infirmity. As they created their near-abstract landscapes, the "real" world faded around them. This was literally the case for Degas, whose eyesight began to fail in the mid-1870's, just as he took up printing and pastels to create these incredible monotypes. 

Edgar Degas, Forest in the Mountains, c. 1890

The "mind's eye" of  Degas, however, remained unimpaired. The poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, fittingly described the monotypes of Degas as having "a strange new beauty." 

Thanks to this MOMA exhibit we are finally able to appreciate Degas' character and the courage and honesty which he brought to the creation of great art, monotypes in particular. These previously overlooked prints help us to realize that Degas was not a man of contradiction but rather struggled to achieve inner harmony through his art.

Degas declared that he "should like to be famous and unknown." In their first major Degas exhibit, MOMA has insured that his fame will grow, even as his life becomes a little less of an enigma.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City                                                                                                                                                                                     Introductory Image: 
Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Heads of a Man and a Woman (Homme et femme, en buste), c. 1877–80. Monotype on paper. Plate: 2 13/16 x 3 3/16 in. (7.2 x 8.1 cm). British Museum, London. Bequeathed by Campbell Dodgson                                                                                                                                                     
Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Dancer Onstage with a Bouquet, c.1876. Pastel over monotype on laid paper. Plate: 10 5/8 × 14 7/8 in. (27 × 37.8 cm). Private collection

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Factory Smoke (Fumées d’usines), 1877–79. Monotype on paper. Plate: 4 11/16 x 6 5/16 in. (11.9 x 16.1 cm), sheet: 5 13/16 x 6 13/16 in. (14.7 x 17.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1982.
Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). The Ballet Master (Le Maître de ballet), c. 1876. White chalk or opaque watercolor over monotype on paper. Plate: 22 1/4 x 27 9/16 in. (56.5 x 70 cm), sheet: 24 7/16 x 33 7/16 in. (62 x 85 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Rosenwald Collection, 1964.

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Three Ballet Dancers (Trois danseuses), c. 1878-80. Monotype on cream laid paper. Plate: 7 13/16 × 16 3/8″ (19.9 × 41.6 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Ballet Scene (Scène de ballet), c. 1879. Pastel over monotype on paper. Plate: 8 x 16 in. (20.3 x 40.6 cm). William I. Koch Collection

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). The Singer (Chanteuse de café-concert), 1875-1880 Pastel over monotype on paper Plate: 6 1/4 x 4 1/2" (15.9 x 11.4 cm) Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania. Gift, Miss Martha Elizabeth Dick Estate 

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Frieze of Dancers (Danseuses attachant leurs sandales), c. 1895. Oil on fabric. 27 9/16 × 78 15/16″ (70 × 200.5 cm). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Hanna Fund. © The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Landscape with Rocks (Paysage avec rochers), 1892. Pastel over monotype in oil on wove paper. Sheet: 10 1/8 × 13 9/16″ (25.7 × 34.4 cm). High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Purchase with High Museum of Art Enhancement Fund.

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Forest in the Mountains (Forêt dans la montagne), c. 1890. Monotype in oil on paper. Plate: 11 13/16 x 15 3/4″ (30 x 40 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Louise Reinhardt Smith Bequest.