Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Art Eyewitness Review: Modigliani Up Close at the Barnes Foundation


Modigliani Up Close

Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
October 16, 2022 - January 29, 2023

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Original Photography by Anne Lloyd 

Modigliani Up Close, the title of the new exhibit at the Barnes Foundation, was aptly chosen. The very fiber of Modigliani's art, the chisel marks of his sculpting tools on limestone blocks, the brush strokes of his controversial paintings - these comprise the subject matter of this fascinating Barnes exhibition. 

As a result of such intimate study, our perception of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) shifts from regarding him as a doomed, self-destructive victim of his own excesses to a more balanced appraisal. Modigliani was one of the greatest figurative artists, in stone and paint, of the twentieth century. In a decade and a half of prodigious effort, he joined in shifting the trajectory of modern art while maintaining its human face.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Gallery view of Modigliani Up Close, showing The Little Peasant, c. 1918

Art lovers who relish the harrowing details of the lives of "tragic" artists may - at first - be disappointed with the theme of the Barnes exhibition.  Examining the art of Modigliani with few digressions about his personal life is seemingly to ignore a compelling part of his story. Modigliani certainly was one of art history's great "hell-raisers" - though hardly in the same league with Caravaggio or Jackson Pollock. 

The great "tragedy" of Modigliani is the mystery of how he so quickly adapted his classical art training to the radical innovations of Modernism. There is so much we don't know about the young Modigliani. Many of his early works have not survived. Short of cash, Modigliani frequently abandoned art works when he slipped out of his studio/living quarters because he could not pay the rent.

When Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906, he identified himself as a sculptor. It was a surprising declaration. He had no systematic training in sculpting as a student in Italy. Indeed, there is little evidence of Modigliani investigating and copying any of the great masters of art, except for Cezanne.

Yet, Modigliani quickly demonstrated his ability as a portrait painter after arriving in Paris. Even more dramatically, in October 1912, at the Salon d' Automne, seven of his carved stone heads were prominently displayed. Where did Modigliani find the creative spark for these sensational works of art?  How had this stunning transformation occurred? 

Modigliani was fortunate in finding an enthusiastic supporter, Dr. Paul Alexandre, during his early years in Paris. Alexandre, at Modigliani's request, supplied an introduction to the Romanian sculptor, Constantin Brancusi. This evolved into a key relationship from the standpoint of artistic development. Brancusi taught Modigliani the basics of carving and his example as an independent sculptor was huge.

Modigliani's sculptures and paintings are so unique, however, that no single source can have supplied the impetus for the creative revolution which led him to create these incomparable works of art. Scholars of Modigliani's work rightly note the influence of African art, so important for many of the artists of his era. But there is so much more to consider.

One of the intriguing theories about Modigliani's sculptures is that he created these enigmatic stone heads with a group presentation in mind. There are stories of him placing candles on top of some of these heads. The Barnes exhibit catalog entry for the Head of a Woman (1912) notes that "waxy surface accretions extend in long drips from the oblong area at the crown of the head down the proper-left side."

The effect of the flickering candles in Modigliani's darkened studio, according to Jacob Epstein, "was that of a primitive temple."

Such an unearthly scene is unlikely to ever take place in a museum. However, by some unintended trick of overhead lighting in the Barnes exhibit gallery, my wife Anne took a photo of Head of a Women which provides a sense of the numinous atmosphere in Modigliani's candle-lit studio. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Amedeo Modigliani's Head of a Woman, 1912

It was just a coincidence of course, but it did cause my eyebrows to rise a bit when I realized that this wax-dripped Head of a Woman was likely one that Epstein had seen!

If the Barnes curators refrained from lighting any candles, they did replicate the Salon d' Automne display with eight of Modigliani's sculpted heads. It is an extraordinary sight to behold.

Anne Lloyd, Photo, (2022)
Sculpture gallery at Modigliani Up Close at the Barnes Foundation

Between 1909 and 1915, Modigliani carved twenty-three stone heads and two standing/crouching figures. Accurately dating these sculptures has bedeviled art scholars for decades. The earliest-presumed one is in the collection of Harvard's Fogg Museum. It is believed to have been created in 1911 and shows little influence of African art. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 View of Modigliani Up Close at the Barnes Foundation,
 with Amedeo Modigliani's Head, c. 1911, in the foreground

A 1910 painting, now in a private collection, likely served as a model for this stone head (also known as Head Vlll). The major difference between the painting and the sculpted head is that the latter is graced by an enigmatic smile.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
  Amedeo Modigliani's Head, c. 1911, from the Fogg Museum

This unearthly smile recalls the facial expression appearing on the kouros and kore statues of archaic-era Greece. With his training in classical art in Florence and Venice, Modigliani would have been familiar with these early Greek statues.

African and Oceanic art was all the rage in the avant-garde communities of  Montmartre and Montparnasse. Modigliani enthusiastically joined in the celebration of "primitive" art. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
MOMA's Head, c. 1915, on display at Modigliani Up Close

All 22 of the remaining stone heads Modigliani created have elongated, mask-like faces. There are slight, but telling, differences among the various heads. The unfinished one now in the Hirshhorn Museum has a concave face unlike all the others. It is a fascinating piece to study, leading us to ponder its likely shape and expression had it been completed.

 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
Amedeo Modigliani's Head (unfinished), 1911-12

The most finished areas of some of the heads, at the rear of the blocks, were the result of being polished by industrial tools - not by Modigliani's hand.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Profile view of Amedeo Modigliani's Head, c. 1915, from MOMA 

Modigliani secured these limestone blocks from Parisian construction workers, sometimes after sharing a bottle of brandy with them. On other occasions, he slipped into building sites under the cover of darkness and made-off with a block of stone. It was a fairly common practice.

As noted, the Barnes exhibition and the related catalog do not cover Modigliani's "bohemian" life style in any detail. Instead, very detailed analysis is devoted to his artistic techniques and the materials he used. If not a "page-turning" read, the catalog leaves no doubt about the dedication and zeal of Modigliani as he labored in carving limestone blocks into a body of sculpture that is both monumental and deeply moving.

Here is a sample of the catalog text, dealing with Head of a Woman (1911-12) in the Chester Dale Collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Known for his direct-carving method and impatience with clay modeling, Modigliani took advantage of limestone's excellent carving properties and employed a standard array of stone-carving tools... He likely began by roughing out the shape from the large mass of stone using a hammer and point chisel before switching to a flat chisel to delineate two shallow arcs - one for the top of the forehead,  the other to define the extent of the top layer of hair.

Even with the intensity of his work ethic and increasing facility in carving, Modigliani could not sustain his vocation as a sculptor. By 1915, his already weakened lungs (from childhood ailments) were endangered by daily exposure to a barrage of limestone chips and dust particles. He switched back to painting and, in the four years of frenzied life remaining to him, produced the striking portraits and nudes which fill the galleries of the Barnes exhibition space.

As a portrait painter, Modigliani was daring and uncompromising. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Amedeo Modigliani's The Amazon, 1909

In 1909, Dr. Alexandre secured a commission for "Modi" to paint an aristocratic woman, Baroness Marguerite de Hasse de Villiars, in her riding apparel. Modigliani refused his sitter's demand to depict her in a red English hunting jacket. Modigliani insisted that it be a golden-orange hue, which worked brilliantly against the dark, Velazquez-style background. Baroness de Hasse refused to pay for her portrait and the indulgent Alexandre bought it, now titled The Amazon.

As Modigliani's interest in African and Oceanic art deepened, he began to incorporate the insights he derived from these new and - for many - alarming sources into his portraits. We can readily see this transition in his 1915 portrait of the English writer, Beatrice Hastings. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Amedeo Modigliani's Madam Pompadour, 1915

Ironically bearing the title Madam Pompadour (an indication of their tempestuous relationship), the painting blends African mask-like treatment with Hastings' actual features.

Modigliani was often so hard-up for funds that he reused a canvas for a new portrait or painted on the back of one, as we see in Maud Abrantes (1908), painted on the verso of his unsettling Nude with a Hat.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Amedeo Modigliani's Maud Abrantes (1908)

The curatorial team of Modigliani Up Close scrutinizes Modigliani's paintings with the same exactitude  as they did for the carved heads. Important consideration is given to Modigliani's switch to using a blue-gray base coat for his later paintings. The curators even count the average number of threads per .cm on the canvases of some of Modigliani's paintings (albeit in the footnotes).

For visitors to Modigliani Up Close, the results of the close-examination of Modigliani's works are displayed in numerous large format photos of the X-radiograph scans of his paintings. These are placed side-by-side with the originals. This allows for fascinating, comparative study of how  Modigliani worked and revised his paintings.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
 Patron compares Modigliani's Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919,
 with an X-radiograph of the painting.

Modigliani's reuse of canvases allowed him to scrap-off paint or leave it, depending on the kind of surface texture he wanted on the new painting. This can be seen by comparing the finished version of Portrait of a Girl (c. 1916-17), now in the Tate's collection, with the X-radiograph.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Amedeo Modigliani's Portrait of a Girl (c. 1916-17) and X-radiograph

Along with the working revisions of Portrait of a Girl, the X-radiograph shows that an earlier portrait, almost certainly of Beatrice Hastings, which was painted over. Modigliani was certainly not a sentimentalist.

Nor was Modigliani coy about acknowledging his sexuality. The Barnes exhibition displays an impressive array of his nudes. These are among the most erotically-charged nudes in the canon of Western art. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Gallery view of Modigliani Up Close, showing Reclining Nude, 1917

Modigliani painted unclothed women in ways which definitely straddle the "nude/naked" categorization. But they are not pornographic by any standard, even in 1917. There was little to see that Manet or Courbet had not depicted decades earlier. The infamous closure of Modigliani's one exhibition on charges of public indecency was due mostly to the location of the Berthe Weil Gallery, where some of these nudes were on prominent display in the window. It was directly across the street from a police station!

As the Barnes exhibition text reveals, the age of sexual consent in France during the World War I years was thirteen. Modigliani, red-blooded male that he was, showed that he was aware of that stipulation. His sensitive portrait of a young-teen girl named Elvira is a tribute to her physical beauty and also to her legal status and her emotional well-being.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
 Amedeo Modigliani's Standing Nude (Elvira), c. 1918

Moreover, Modigliani never painted any of the women in his life in the nude. He was respectful to Beatrice Hastings, despite public displays of anger, and the same was true of the last - and most tragic - love of his life, Jeanne Hébuterne.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
A patron examines Modigliani's Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918

The row of three-quarter length portraits of Jeanne Hébuterne is one of the highlights of the exhibition. In a demonstration of the true alchemy of art, Modigliani translated his love for Jeanne into incomparable, profoundly beautiful portraits. Part-Botticelli Madonna, part-tribal goddess, entirely a unique person in her own right! This was how Modigliani depicted the young woman who could not live without him.

Amedeo Modigliani,
 Blue Eyes (Portrait of Madame Jeanne Hébuterne), 1917

After the disaster of the Bethe Weil Gallery exhibition, Modigliani went to the south of France to try and regain his health. The life force was draining from him, as his lungs gave way to the tuberculosis he had contracted as a boy. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Detail of Amedeo Modigliani's Self-Portrait, 1919

This was a difficult period, in many ways, marked by the last bloody months of fighting of World War I, the pandemic of the Spanish influenza and the tense uncertainty that the November 11, 1918 Armistice would hold.

Modigliani responded to his dwindling health and the global tragedy by painting a moving series of portraits of anonymous young people. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Amedeo Modigliani's The Boy, c.1919

I was particularly struck by the image of a young boy wearing a horizon-blue military tunic such as the troops of the French Army wore. As France scrapped the "bottom of the barrel" to find recruits to fill the depleted ranks of its army, was this pensive youth wondering if he would be called upon to fight the last battle of the War to End All Wars?

We will never know, but the important lesson of these final paintings of Modigliani's brief life was what he chose for his subject matter -  hope rather than despair, not death but life.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Amedeo Modigliani's Head, 1911-12, from the Guggenheim Museum 

Years before, in 1912, Modigliani joined with Jacob Epstein in a visionary plan to create a "temple of beauty" filled with their sculptures. It was, as we know to our sorrow, never built.

Some dreams, however, do not die. Modigliani Up Close, at the Barnes Foundation, has summoned Modigliani's dream back to life and made it real.

For the next few months, in Philadelphia, Amedeo Modigliani's Temple of Beauty will be on view for all to see.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd, All rights reserved

Introductory image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Amedeo Modigliani's Head, 1911-12. Limestone: 25 x 6 x 8 1/4 in, (63.5 x 15.2 x 21 cm.) Guggenheim Museum, 55.1421

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)  Gallery view of Modigliani Up Close, showing Amedeo Modigliani's The Little Peasant, c. 1918, from the Tate Collection, London.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Amedeo Modigliani's Head of a Woman, 1912. Limestone: 28 1/2 x 6 5/16 x 9 1/2 in., (71.4 x 16 x 24.1 cm.) Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Maurice J. Speiser. # 1950-2-1

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Modigliani Up Close at the Barnes Foundationshowing the sculpture gallery display of 8 carved heads by Amedeo Modigliani.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of Modigliani Up Close at the Barnes Foundation, with Amedeo Modigliani's Head, c. 1911 in the foreground.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)  Amedeo Modigliani's Head, c. 1911. 15 1/2 x 12 1/4 x 7 3/8 in., (39.4 x 31.1 x 18.7 cm.) Fogg Museum – Harvard. #1992.254

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of the Modigliani Up Close exhibition. In the foreground is the Museum of Modern Art’s Head, c. 1915, by Amedeo Modigliani. Limestone: 22 1/4 x 5 x 14 3/4" (56.5 x 12.7 x 37.4 cm) Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in memory of Mrs. Cornelius J. Sullivan. #593.1939

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Amedeo Modigliani's Head, 1911-12. Stone: 19 5/8 x 7 1/4 x 9 in. (49.5 x 18.4 x 22.8 cm) Hirshhorn Museum #66.3582

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Profile view of Amedeo Modigliani's Head, c. 1915, from the MOMA collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Amedeo Modigliani's The Amazon, 1909. Oil on canvas: 36 1/4 x 25 9/16 inches (92 x 65 cm)  Private collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Amedeo Modigliani's Madam Pompadour, 1915Oil on canvas: 24 1/16 x 19 3/4 inches (61.1 x 50.2 cm) Art Institute of Chicago, Winterbotham Collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Amedeo Modigliani's Maud Abrantes (1908)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of the Modigliani Up Close exhibition. Patron is comparing Modigliani's Jeanne Hébuterne, 1919, with an X-radiograph of the painting.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Amedeo Modigliani's Portrait of a Girl (c. 1916-17) Oil on canvas: 31 3/4 x 23 1/2 inches (80.6 x 59.7 cm) Tate Collection, London.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) X-radiograph of Portrait of a Girl. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of the Modigliani Up Close exhibition, showing Amedeo Modigliani's Reclining Nude, 1917, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)  Amedeo Modigliani's Standing Nude (Elvira), c. 1918. Oil on Canvas: 36 1/4 x 23 5/8 in. (92 x 60 cm.) Kunstmuseum – Bern, Switzerland.   

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of the Modigliani Up Close exhibition. Patron is examining Modigliani's Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, 1918

Amedeo Modigliani Italian (1884-1920) Blue Eyes (Portrait of Madame Jeanne Hébuterne), 1917. Oil on canvas:  21 1/2 x 16 7/8 inches (54.6 x 42.9 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Samuel S. White 3rd and Vera White Collection, 1967. #1967-30-59

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of Amedeo Modigliani's Self-Portrait, 1919. Oil on canvas:  39 3/8 x 25 37/8 inches (100 x 64.5 cm)  Museu of Art Contemporanea, Universidade de Sao Paulo.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Amedeo Modigliani's The Boy, c.1919. Oil on canvas: 36 1/4 x 23 3/4 inches (92.1 x 60.3 cm) Indianopolis Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Julian Bobbs in memory of Wiliam Ray Adams, 46.22

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Amedeo Modigliani's Head, 1911-12, from the Guggenheim Museum collection.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Sargent and Spain at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Sargent and Spain

National Gallery of Art, Washington, Oct. 2, 2022–Jan. 2, 2023

Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco, Feb. 11–May 14, 2023

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Original Photos by Anne Lloyd

In May 1876, John Singer Sargent traveled to the United States to insure that his U.S. citizenship did not lapse. Sargent, the son of American parents, had been born in Florence, Italy, in 1856. For the next two decades, his expatriot family sojourned in Europe. They did so ostensibly for health reasons, though none suffered from any notable illnesses or injuries. 

By U.S. law all young citizens, born abroad, had to return to American soil by their twentieth year or forfeit their citizenship. So Sargent ventured to his ancestral shores. But it was not much of a homecoming. He visited tourist sites like Niagara Falls and the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Then he went back to the familiar surroundings of the painting academies and museums of Europe.

Art galleries and the annual cycle of salons and exhibitions, however glittering, are not enough to nurture a creative soul. Every artist needs a spiritual home. Sargent found his in an unlikely place: Spain.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. has recently opened a sensational presentation of Sargent’s oil paintings, water colors, sketches and photos. These detail the special relationship of this “expat” American artist with the alluring, mystical realm stretching from the Pyrenees Mountains to the Straits of Gibraltar. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
Gallery view of Sargent and Spain at the National Gallery of Art

Sargent and Spain upholds the grand tradition of landmark National Gallery exhibitions devoted to giants of nineteenth century art. These exhibits usually focus on an important aspect of the respective artist's oeuvre to better understand the whole. Thus, greater insight into Cezanne may be attained by studying his portraits and self-portraits. Degas' obsession with the crowded stage of the Paris Opera helps us probe his illusive, enigmatic character.

John Singer Sargent, Self-Portrait, 1906
(Not shown in the Sargent and Spain exhibit)

So too, with John Singer Sargent and the art created during his travels in Spain.

Spain likely was a favored motif for Sargent because this land of deeply-ingrained traditions appealed to him, given his own lack of roots. Spain, however, was not an automatic choice for the theme of a Sargent exhibition. He never lived in Spain for an extended period of time and his seven visits were spread over thirty-three years, from 1879 to 1912. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Photo of John Singer Sargent painting at the Alhambra

Nor was Sargent the only American artist to fall in love with the Spain. A splendid exhibition in 2021 at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, VA, and the Milwaukee Art Museum surveyed the century-long American infatuation with the art and culture of the Iberian Peninsula which began with Washington Irving's three-year odyssey in 1826 and extended to the paintings of William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri and Mary Cassatt.

If Sargent joined in the widespread appreciation of the "romance" of Spain, his trips there were part-working-vacations and part-pilgrimages. In Sargent's case the object of his devotion was the cult of the seventeenth century Spanish master, Diego Velasquez.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Detail of John Singer Sargent's copy of Velazquez' Las Meninas, 1879

The first gallery of Sargent and Spain shows numerous sketches and more finished studies in oil of famous works by Velazquez. Predictably, there is a copy of Las Meninas (1879) which clearly shows Sargent exploring his way through the composition of Velazquez' most celebrated painting. This would serve Sargent well  when he came to paint his own ensemble portrait of  American "meninas" a few years later, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882).  

Also on view is Sargent's version of Velazquez' masterful interpretation of the fable of Arachne, The Spinners. Painted the same year as the copy of Las Meninas, it is a much more finished, polished work. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 John Singer Sargent's copy after Velazquez' The Spinners, 1879

Significantly, Sargent limited his version of The Spinners to only a portion of the original painting. Sargent's objective may have been to concentrate on bringing his brush technique and handling of color up to Velazquez' exceptional level of skill rather than to reprise the original painting. If so, he succeeded to a very considerable degree.

The opening gallery of Sargent and Spain is dominated by a stunning portrait of a young English boy, Cecil Harrison, painted in 1888. Sargent was friends with the boy's parents and the painting was a watershed moment in his career. This was Sargent's first portrait of a child to be painted in Britain. As an evocation of youthful innocence and of future promise, this style of portraiture appealed mightily to Sargent's British clients. 

These personal details, however, do not account for the prominent placement of Cecil Harrison in the exhibition.This painting plays such a key role in Sargent and Spain because it forcefully illustrates the enduring influence of Velazquez upon Sargent's development as a artist.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
John Singer Sargent's Cecil Harrison, c. 1888

The technical mastery displayed in Cecil Harrison was clearly inspired by Sargent's study of Velazquez during his 1879 painting visits to the Prado. The burnished browns and shadowy blacks of the background, so vital in fixing the subject before our eyes without distraction, are straight-out of Velazquez. Indeed, the painterly skill demonstrated in the background coloration is so high that Velazquez might well have painted it himself.

Sargent and Velazquez shared another, poignant, connection. Both artists painted society portraits in nations at the zenith of power and success. Both Spain and Britain were quickly to suffer the ravages of "Great" wars during the later years of both artists. The fresh-faced boy in a sailor suit would sacrifice his life in World War I. Major Cecil Harrison of the Rifle Brigade was killed in action at the battle of Neuve Chappelle in March 1915.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Gallery view of the Sargent and Spain exhibition at the National Gallery, showing John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita, 1890

The second gallery of Sargent and Spain is also dominated by a full-length portrait. But the impact of this work has a far different effect. This time, Sargent's painting summons to life a woman who personified the pride and the passion of the soul of Spain. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita, 1890

Carmen Dauset Moreno (1868-1910), known as Carmencita, was a world-famous dancer. Such was her renown that Carmencita performed before a  film camera at the Edison studio in West Orange, N.J. This is believed to be the first cinematic recording of dance for commercial distribution. A video of this "genesis" moment of the Silver Screen is on view in conjunction with the Sargent portraits of Carmencita.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Edison Manufacturing Co. film of Carmencita the Spanish Dancer, 1894

The presence of Velazquez is immediately noticeable in the standing portrait of Carmencita. So is the influence of El Greco, in the soaring, elongated figure of the dancer. But the same year that Sargent painted this imposing, statuesque image of Camencita, he also attempted to portray her dancing, in a frenzy of motion.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita Dancing

Looking at this fascinating painting, one might excused to surmise that Sargent tried to depict Carmencita as she whirled in kinetic movement to  compete with the Edison film sequence. But that performance took place in 1894, four years after Sargent painted both portraits. 

The challenge of depicting the stirring motions of Spanish dance had intrigued Sargent since his first visit to Spain in 1879. Along with the two portraits and the video of the 1894 dance, there are numerous sketches in this gallery showing how Sargent attempted to capture both the emotional fervor of Spanish dance. Many of these truly "moving" drawings relate to his first great success as an artist, the wondrous painting El Jaleo.

At this point, the absence of El Jaleo, Sargent's greatest Spanish-themed work, from this exhibition needs to be addressed. Given the monumental size of El Jaleo, roughly 7 1/2 x 11 1/2 feet, and its importance to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, it cannot be transported to a traveling exhibition like Sargent and Spain.

The National Gallery and the Gardner Museum compensate for the understandable omission of El Jaleo by the presentation of Sargent's preliminary drawings for this mighty work of art and a post-painting sketch, along with a large - though not life-sized - color print of the painting.

John Singer Sargent,  Sketch of a Dancer, c. 1879–1881

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
John Singer Sargent's Sketch after "El Jaleo", 1882

Together with the portraits of Carmencita, the El Jaleo-related sketches by Sargent insures that the spirit of Spanish dance is well-represented in the exhibition.

If Spain became a spiritual home - or at least a place of pilgrimage for Sargent, it was because he engaged very closely with the the dramatic landscape of Spain in a way that he did not do with the countryside of France or that of Italy, excepting Venice for which he certainly felt a great attachment. 

Chief among the depictions of the spectacular topography of Spain is a magnificent work in oils, Sierra Nevada. This view of the Spanish mountain range, from a private collection, was painted in 1912. It is intriguing to speculate that Sargent's experience in this, his last, visit to Spain, may have inspired his subsequent excursion to the Rocky Mountains in 1916.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
John Singer Sargent's Sierra Nevada, 1912

From this feeling for the land of Spain came an empathy for its people and a very close friendship with the greatest Spanish painter of his day,  Joaquin Sorolla.

At the exhibition entrance, the curators of the National Gallery have placed an excellent map of Spain detailing the locations  visited by Sargent during his seven visits.  As can be seen thanks to the color-coded itinerary of his trips to Spain, 1879 to 1912, Sargent branched-out from study sessions in the Prado and the fabled Alhambra in the south of Spain to remote such as Santiago de Compostela and Camprodón to the island of Majorca.

Art lovers who have had the opportunity to study Sargent's watercolors will not be surprised to see outstanding examples of this medium on display in Sargent and Spain. Even with my memories of the exceptional works which the curators of the Philadelphia Museum of Art displayed in the 2017 exhibition on nineteenth century American watercolor painting, I was not prepared for the astonishing level of mastery which Sargent achieved in Spain.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 John Singer Sargent's Gourds, 1908

 Sargent ranged far and wide over Spain, painting everything except "castles of Spain." And it was in some of the most humble, tumble-down dwellings of the proud, impoverished citizens of that nation that Sargent found his piritual home. After years of painting the portraits of the Anglo-American high society, Sargent found true nobility in peasant hovels and the careworn courtyard of a seemingly unremarkable dwelling, the Casa del Chapiz.

John Singer Sargent, Spanish Roma Dwelling, 1912

John Singer Sargent, Courtyard, Casa del Chapiz, 1912–1913

Sargent did not return to Spain after his 1912 visit - but he took much of its soulful traditions with him. Sargent's later years were preoccupied with many projects, notably his moving tribute to the martyred soldiers of World War I.

It was in his murals for the Boston Public Library that the memories of his Spanish adventures were to resurface. These murals, devoted to the Triumph of Religion, emphasized allegorical and symbolical themes already under question by the early years of the twentieth century and now almost entirely ignored. Paul Johnson in his magisterial Art: a New History (2003) lavished well-deserved praise on Sargent but regarded the Boston murals as a "serious error of judgement" which prevented him from painting "great and original works."

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 The Sargent and Spain gallery display related to The Triumph of Religion murals created  for the Boston Public Library

Whatever modern appraisals may be, Sargent cared deeply about the murals and devoted himself to bring his commission to fulfillment. The final gallery of Sargent and Spain presents a selection of Sargent's studies for the murals,  based on religious masterpieces he had studied and copied in Spain. These are displayed in a magnificent setting (above) which does justice to them and to the completed murals in Boston.

John Singer Sargent, Sketch for the Sorrowful Mysteries, the Crucifixion—Torso (Boston Public Library Murals), 1903–1916

That being said, I do have to wonder what Sargent might have achieved if, instead of expending so much effort on the Boston murals, he had gone back to Spain for more explorations of that wondrous land. Perhaps he would have painted more portraits of the Spanish people, ordinary folk rather than grandees. If so, it is a great loss to us that he did not do so.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Detail of John Singer Sargent's Spanish Roma Woman, 1879–1882

And yet, on second thought, when we behold the portraits which Sargent did paint while in Spain, we must banish all thoughts of judgment and regret. Standing before these works in the galleries of Sargent and Spain can only be an occasion for gratitude and inspiration.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd, All rights reserved                                                                                
introductory image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita Dancing, ca. 1890. Oil on canvas:  54 x 35 in. (137.2 x 88.9 cm)  Private Collection

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of Sargent and Spain exhibition at The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) Self-Portrait, 1906. Oil on canvas:27 1/2 × 20 7/8 in. (69.8 × 53 cm) Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Photograph of John Singer Sargent painting at the Alhambra. On view at the Sargent and Spain exhibition, National Gallery of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of John Singer Sargent's copy after Diego Velazquez' Las Meninas, 1879. Oil on canvas:113.67 x 100.33 cm (44 3/4 x 39 1/2 in.) Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, 2019.19

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's copy after Velazquez' The Spinners ("Las Hilanderas"), 1879. Oil on canvas: 58.42 x 71.12 cm (23 x 28 in.) Alfred Beit Foundation, Russborough House, County Wicklow, Ireland, ABF.0558

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's Cecil Harrison, c.1888.
Oil on canvas:172.8 x 83.6 cm (68 1/16 x 32 15/16 in.) Southampton City Art Gallery.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of the Sargent and Spain exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., showing John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita, 1890.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita, 1890. Oil on canvas: 229 x 140 cm (90 3/16 x 55 1/8 in.) Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Acquired in 1892.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Edison Manufacturing Company film of Carmencita the Spanish Dancer, 1894.William Heise, camerman. Duration: 21 seconds at 30 fps. Filmed March 1894 at Edison's Black Maria studio, West Orange, N.J. Collection of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C. #00694116

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita Dancing, on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925) Sketch of a Dancer, c. 1879–1881 Graphite on white laid paper: overall: 12.54 x 17.62 cm (4 15/16 x 6 15/16 in.) Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond.
Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's Sketch after "El Jaleo", 1882. Pen and ink on paper, laid down on paper: 9 x 13 in. (22.9 x 33 cm.) Private Collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's Sierra Nevada, 1912.
Oil on canvas: overall: 55.88 x 64.77 cm (22 x 25 1/2 in.) Barty Smith

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's Gourds, 1908.
Watercolor over graphite, with gouache, on paper: 33.5 x 50.01 cm (13 3/16 x 19 11/16 in.) Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by Special Subscription 09.822.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925) Spanish Roma Dwelling, 1912.
Oil on canvas: 71.44 x 91.44 cm (28 1/8 x 36 in.) Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, gift of anonymous donor, 1931.13.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925) Courtyard, Casa del Chapiz, 1912–1913. Oil on canvas: 71.12 x 91.44 cm (28 x 36 in.) Myron Kunin Collection of American Art Photo: Minneapolis Institute of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) The Sargent and Spain exhibition gallery showing display of preliminary sketches and photos related to The Triumph of Religion murals created by John Singer Sargent for the Boston Public Library.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925) Sketch for the Sorrowful Mysteries, the Crucifixion—Torso (Boston Public Library Murals), 1903–1916. Charcoal on paper: sheet: 47.94 x 61.44 cm (18 7/8 x 24 3/16 in.)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Sargent Collection—Gift of Miss Emily Sargent and Mrs. Violet Ormond in memory of their brother, John Singer Sargent. Photograph © 2022 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of John Singer Sargent's Spanish Roma Woman, c. 1879–1882. Oil on canvas:73.66 x 60.01 cm (29 x 23 5/8 in.) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George A. Hearn, 1910 (10.64.10)

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Art Eyewitness Book Review: How Art Can Change Your Life by Susie Hodge

How Art Can Change Your Life 

by Susie Hodge

Thames & Hudson/$19.95/191 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

While reading Susie Hodge's new book, How Art Can Change Your Life, the lyrics of one of the songs from the 1980's musical, Barnum, came to mind.

Bigger isn't better                                                                                        Taller isn't braver                                                                                        Stronger isn't always wise

Smaller isn't necessarily the lesser                                                                Guts can come in any size

The song lyrics were entirely appropriate given the book's surprisingly small size -  191 pages - and the audacious scope of its subject. 

How Art Can Change Your Life deals with human emotions and the many challenges to our identity and well-being. Susie Hodge sets herself the daunting task of showing how appreciating great works of art can help address the problematic situations which plant themselves in the path of our journey through life. That took a lot of courage on Hodge's part, a lot of "guts."

How Art Can Change Your Life
, it should be noted, is not a lightweight "pocket book." However, I was a bit surprised at the comparative brevity of Hodge's new book, given her recent Thames and Hudson publications. Art in Detail (2016) tipped the scales at 432 pages. Modern Art in Detail, published the following year, covered the century since Vincent van Gogh in 336 pages. Both  were large format volumes, lavishly illustrated, with a unique design allowing for key aspects of major paintings to be analyzed and understood by the general public.

"Bigger isn't better," Tom Thumb proclaims in Barnum and Hodge proves him right.

How Art Can Change Your Life presents 72 masterpieces of art, mostly paintings, beginning with Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes and extending to contemporary artists like Yinka Shonibare. These are examined thematically in twelve sections dealing with vital issues such as confronting anxiety, relieving stress, overcoming sorrow, inspiring self-reflection and embracing happiness.

Each of the 72 entries in How Art Can Change Your Life consists of a full-color illustration of the masterpiece and one-page commentary. 

       Page display from How Art Can Change Your Life, showing          Aelbrecht Bouts' The Mater Dolorosa, mid-1490's

The basic format of each text entry begins with an illuminating quote, followed by a succinct artist biography and an analysis of the work. The commentary concludes with a reflection on how understanding the respective masterpiece might help deal with one of the many psychological or spiritual problems we face in the disturbing world of the twenty-first century.

All of these tasks are accomplished on a single page. Like the Wanderer above a Sea of Clouds by Caspar David Friedrich, we need to travel light in the quest of How Art Can Change Your Life.

Hodge begins the book with a short, three page introduction. As readers familiar with the "In Detail" books will know, Hodge is a master of concise, informative prose and an able stylist. In this brief intro, she incorporates moving quotes from some of the artists whose works are later analyzed. She follows with findings from scientific studies on the cognitive and emotional effects of looking at art and then sets the stage for the bold venture into art appreciation in the succeeding pages.

Yet, at the starting gate, Hodge almost stumbles. The first topic she deals with is the most difficult: dissipating anger. Hodge deserves credit for her sincere attempt to provide constructive channels for anger management. But to try and get a "grip" on explosive human emotions in six brief art critiques is to risk falling back on formulaic responses or suggestions, such as the following: 

Feelings of anger can be reduced or neutralized by making a list of things to be grateful for, or focusing on what is good in life.

This is quite sensible advice and, from the standpoint of anger prevention, it is wise counsel indeed. But once the flashpoint of anger is reached, I doubt that Hodge's good intentions will be of much help.

Moreover, two of Hodge's choices of art works to be examined in conjunction with anger are very problematical. Pipilotti Rist's car-window smashing video, Ever is Over All, seems an act of fomenting violence or enjoying it vicariously. Whatever Rist's motives in making her protest in defiance of modern mechanized society, its inclusion in How Art Can Change Your Life strikes me as inappropriate to the goals of the book.

The other unsettling work of art is so famous and controversial - especially in the last few decades - that an entire book might not be enough to it justice. This is Artemesia Gentileschi's Judith Beheading Holofernes, painted around 1620.

Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1620

If ever an artist had a right to be angry or to try and vent her rage with a powerful work of art such as this, it was Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1656). Yet, her life's meaning is not to be comprehended by concentrating on this painting at the expense of the rest of her oeuvre

After being raped by her father's colleague and then outrageously abused by the legal tribunal investigating the crime, Gentileschi went on to paint other masterpieces, which are sadly less familiar than this one. Judith Beheading Holofernes appears over-and-over in art history books. 

Thus, Gentileschi's story illustrates Hodge's theme of utilizing art to overcome anguish or anger. But the inclusion of this celebrated depiction of violence detracts from grasping that point. It would have been far more in keeping with the spirit of How Art Can Change Your Life to have used one of Gentileschi's later works, notably her moving, visionary self-portrait now in the Royal Collection in Great Britain.

Once Hodge moves beyond the contested ground of anger-dissipation, How Art Can Change Your Life is on firmer ground. That does not mean that Hodge avoids dangerous or difficult situations to rack-up debating points in support of her thesis. Throughout this fine book, Hodge looks at great works of art in conjunction with many of history's most harrowing ordeals.

With keen insight, Hodge reminds us that Claude Monet could hear the barrages of World War I artillery as he worked to depict the effect of light and shadow on the lily pond and gardens of his private paradise of Giverny. 

Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899

Through all the turmoil of war, Monet waged his own private battles, as well, contending with family loss, cataracts and old age. In doing so, Monet "created a sense of peace around him...This enabled him to reset and overcome his anxiety." 

Like Monet, Paul Klee used his art as a shield against stress, in his case of the most direct and oppressive form. Driven from his teaching position at the Dusseldorf Academy by Nazi aggression, Klee created his own, interior Giverny. During the last years of his life, Klee painted over 1,000 works of art, each an affirmation of the creative spirit vs. the soulless mindset of totalitarianism.

Paul Klee, Red Balloon, 1922 

Klee's response to adversity is a process available to us too, as Hodge notes :

...Klee was a Transcendentalist, and one aspect of transcendentalist belief is that the material world is only one of several realities and that creativity comes from beyond consciousness. Klee used the process of making art as meditation, saying that it helped him live in an "intermediate world."

This is precisely the situation of millions of people today, shadowed by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the growing fear of global warfare. 

Hodge continues her reflections on Klee with a discussion of Post-Traumatic Growth through which "people who have suffered extreme stress use the experience to enhance and appreciate life and also learn to embrace new opportunities..."

This is a brilliant illustration of Hodge's skillful pairing of incisive art analysis with thoughtful suggestions for life-enhancing activities.

Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1830-32

Many of the art works Hodge selected are "old friends" from museum visits or hours spent leafing through exhibition catalogs. Hokusai's Under the Wave off Kanagawa appears in the topical section on "creating energy." It is a curious placement, given that Hodge envisions this fabled work as a "vision of human fragility and defencelessness..."

Energy is the keynote of Under the Wave off Kanagawa - of nature and of humankind. When your boat is about to be swamped - literally or metaphorically - you row all the harder. And you create all the more. Claude Debussy (1862-1918) composed LeMer (1903-05) with the imagery of  Hokusai's masterpiece ever in his mind.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) is another work studied in How Art Can Change Your Life. It is one of the highlights of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I am fortunate to see this work frequently and I never cease to be amazed and inspired.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021)
Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Annunciation 
on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Annunciation, in which the Virgin Mary is informed by the Angel Gabriel that she will be the mother of Jesus, is one of the most ancient subjects of Christian art. Here Tanner re-envisions the sacred scene in terms of startling, psychological drama. Gabriel appears as "pillar" of fire, pure energy rather than a humanized form. Mary, is surrounded by bands of deep, rich color, These represent a fabric screen, rugs and blankets but exert a similar effect to the ethereal color blocks of Mark Rothko.

All of this visual alchemy took place in 1898, years before the radical stages of Modern Art began. Yet the most revolutionary feature of Tanner's Annunciation - and the reason it appears in Hodge's section on empathy - is that Tanner depicted Mary as Jewish girl with dark Middle Eastern ethnic features at a time when Jews were facing racial and religious prejudice.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021)
Detail of Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Annunciation

It was a bold step - but one based on personal experience. Tanner was an African-American artist who, as a student, had experienced discrimination himself.  Fortunately, Tanner became the protege of Thomas Eakins and received support from Rodman Wanamaker, of the famous department store fortune. None-the-less, Tanner was risking the esteem of his White patrons by painting the Virgin Mary as a young Jewish woman.  

Choosing Henry Ossawa Tanner's Annunciation was a masterstroke on the part of Hodge. Just as The Annunciation is an example of empathy in action, so too is How Art Can Change Your Life.

One could - and should - treat Susie Hodge's How Art Can Change Your Life as a "tract for the times." But given the genuine worth of this inspiring, provocative volume, it will, I believe, prove a "ready-reference" book to be consulted and cherished for a long time to come.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved  Original Photos: Copyright of Anne Lloyd                                                                                          

Cover art and page display from How Art Can Change Your Life © Thames & Hudson 

Introductory Image: Caspar David Friedrich (German, 1774-1840) Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, c. 1818. Oil on canvas: 94.8 cm × 74.8 cm (37.3 in × 29.4 in.) Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Artemesia Gentileschi (Italian, (1593-c.1656) Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1620. Oil on canvas: 146.5 cm × 108 cm (57 2/3 × 42 1/2 in.) Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) The Japanese Footbridge, 1899. Oil on canvas: 81.3 cm × 101.6 cm (32 × 40 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Paul Klee (Swiss-German, 1879-1940) Red Balloon,1922. Oil on gauze on board: 31.7 cm × 31 cm (12 1/2 × 12 1/4 in.) Guggenheim Museum, New York City.

Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760-1849)Under the Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1830-32. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper: 25.7 cm × 37.9 cm (10 1/8 × 15 in.) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Annunciation, 1898. Oil on canvas: 144.8 cm × 181 cm (57 × 711/4 in.) Philadelphia Museum of Art