21 November 2017

Stagedoom

"El si pronuncian y la mano alargan/
Al primero que llega."

"They swear to be faithful yet marry the first man who proposes."
Sometimes the way in to a picture begins with an emotional frisson.  Aesthetic appreciation or  historical underpinnings may add layers to the experience but the visceral response never lets go.   Stagedoom by Bob Thompson (1937-1966), one of several works the artist made  based on Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos of 1795-97, is that kind of work.  

In Goya's original (below), all the participants are morally compromised, from the nubile woman offering herself to the highest bidder and the church fathers who guide her, to the watching crowd.   Thompson made significant alterations to the image for Stagedoom.   Her nakedness emphasizes the young woman's vulnerability at the same time that the mask she wears dehumanizes her by hiding her facial expression.  The priests offer no comfort; their teachings imprison her.  And who could doubt the evil intentions of the hovering bird-like creatures, a frequent feature in Thompson's paintings.  The smiling death's head gives the game away.

Stagedoom, painted in 1962, the year Thompson visited Spain, exhibits a marked understanding of  the painful road to womanhood with its potential for physical and emotional violation.   In Goya's acerbic prints, Thompson recognized "the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual " he had experienced during his Kentucky childhood.
In an alternative  history of post-war art the paintings of Bob Thompson  would occupy a prominent place.  Though only thirty-nine when he died from a heroin overdose, Thompson (1937-1966) left behind more than a thousand paintings and drawings.   Based in New York during the 1960s when the city was the undisputed center of the art world, he was also close to avant-garde jazz musicians Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden, whose likenesses appeared in his works.

Stagedoom, typical of  the intimate scale of his watercolors,  is reminiscent of such 19th century predecessors as Granet or Harpignes, while his oil paintings combine the influences of Abstract Expressionism with  the  saturated colors of Pop Art.  Unlike Andy Warhol, whose appropriation of advertising images constituted a poke in the eye to all but a knowing few when they were made, Bob Thompson worked in utter, bold seriousness.   The artists he revered, Piero della Francesca, Titian, and Nicolas Poussin, all masters of classical European art,  gave him a symbolic vocabulary.  Their compositions provided Thompson a ready scaffolding for his technicolor nightmares where humans and animals  interact,  often interchangeably, to illuminate human folly.

I began to think, my god, I look at Poussin and think he's got it all there.  Why are all these people running around trying to be original when they should just go ahead and be themselves and that's the originality of it all...You can't draw a new form... [the] human figure almost encompasses every form there is...it hit me that why don't I work with these things that are already there...because that is what I respond to most of all.” - Bob Thompson
I think...painting should be like the theater, a presentation of something...To relate, like painters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance... painters were employed to educate the people...they could walk into a cathedral, look at the wall and see what was happening...I am not specifically trying to do that...I have much more freedom, but in a certain way, I am trying to show what' happening, what's going on,,,in my own private way.” - Bob Thompson

Images:
1. Bob Thompson - Stagedoom, 1962,  opaque watercolor and charcoal on woven paper, approximately 21 x 18 inches, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
2. Francisco Goya - El si pronuncian y la mano alargan, plate number 2 from Los Caprichos, c. 1795-97,  intaglio print, Brooklyn Museum.

14 November 2017

A Sapphire Blue Sea












“The most beautiful country in the universe inhabited by the most idiotic species.” – Marquis de Sade from Voyage d’Italie, 1775-76.`

It was a disgruntled Marquis who wrote these words from exile  while under threat of imprisonment at home, Voyage d'Italie  being the best face he could put on his scandalous predicament. The peripatetic Stendhal (1783-1824), who served as the French consul to Trieste,  wrote that only Naples had "the true makings of a capital."  As for the other cities on the Italian peninsula, they were merely "glorified provincial towns like Lyon."   Rather mean-spirited commentary to heap on one of the world's oldest cities; when the Greeks arrived in the 8th century BCE they gave the name Neapolis (Greek for 'new city') to their place of exile.

Despite all evidence to the contrary,  legends persist that Horace and Virgil wrote there.  Beauty does that to people, inspiring poetry and bending the evidence.  An old Neapolitan superstition  has it  that  the Possuoli Bay is so beautiful that when moonlight strikes the water even  fish fall under its spell.  The usually rigorous W.H. Auden insisted, without much evidence,  that the German poet Goethe finally lost his virginity in Naples, at the age of thirty-seven.

Would there have been the mass influx of artists in the 18th and 19th centuries without an expanding international art market and the taste for exotic travel writing?  Voltaire, Joseph Wright of Derby, and Thomas Jones of Wales, were just a few who came and were beguiled the scenery - and the chance to witness an eruption by  Mt. Vesuvius.  Although most artists were not so fortunate (!) and had to rely on historical accounts, notably that of Pliny the Elder's Natural History, written, to be sure,  before he died on August 24, 79 CE, choked by ash and smoke when he sailed across the Bay of Naples to get a closer look at the eruption that buried Pompeii.  Still, it comes as a disappointment to discover that a great and upright painter like J.M.W. Turner fabricated his Vesuvius From Naples from the accounts of other lesser artists.

Veduta, an Italian word meaning view, has come to be associated with paintings of grand urban vistas, which include large expanses of water.  And mountains are helpful, too.  Naples has both, including one of the most mythologized and ill-tempered of mountains, the volcano Mt. Vesuvius. One impressive example is The Bay of Possuoli Off the Coast of Naples by the German artists August Wilhelm Julius Ahlborn (1796-1857); it dazzles the  viewer with the intense lavender blue of the water, and is typical of its origins.  The veduta appears to have sprung from the paintbrushes of northern Europeans struck by the sublimity of beauty and terror in close proximity. Even spare and unromantic images, like Rooftops of Naples by Thomas Jones, of ordinary vernacular buildings that are now familiar from a million photographs, seem to hint at thrilling vistas just out of sight.













 Images:
 1. August Wilhlem Julius Ahlborn - The Bay of Possuoili Off the Coast of Naples, 1832, National Gallery, Berlin.
 2. Thomas Jones (1742-1803)- Rooftops in Naples, Aprile (sic) 1782, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

07 November 2017

Bacchus In Autumn

























What a melancholy sight Bacchus and  his four sleepy little satyrs make on a cold November day.   The enigmatic smile on his face resembles no one so much as the Mona Lisa.  The party's over and even morning's natural light is low.   Until March, when the Maenads will gather to celebrate with rituals of wine and  liberation.  As for the ice crystals on the grapes, they suggest this early morning followed a night of serious drinking.  

This Bacchus was sculpted in lead and gilded with plomb dore by the Marsy Brothers according to a design by Charles Le Brun, court painter to Louis XIV, a man the king described  as "the greatest French artist of all time."  And who would dare to argue with a king?   Be that as it may, the quartet of fountains depicting the four seasons were among the glories of the first progress of  water features to be installed at Versailles.  If Bacchus was a god of excess, Louis XIV was his fervent acolyte.  Fully a third of the cost of the improvements to Versailles was spent on the waterworks to supply its fifty fountains. And the town that gave the palace its name has been the sole supplier of water ever since.  Thanks to Louis XIV,  water is a recurring problem at Versailles to this day; the fountains can be turned on for visitors only one Sunday each month.

The Marsy brothers, Balthazar (c. 1624-1681) and Gaspard (1628-1674) were among dozens of sculptors employed by Louis XIV.   Along with the fountain of Bacchus (Autumn), they executed Basins for Flora (Spring), Ceres (Summer), and Saturn (winter).

Like the devastation Jupiter rained down on the giants who attempted to storm Mount Olympus, a hurricane swooped down on the palace  of the Sun King on Christmas night of 1999.  Morning revealed that some 100,000 trees had been felled including many of the oldest  specimens dating from the 17th century.    Initial fears that the gardens would never recover were proved untrue thanks to heroic  efforts by the French government, led by an army of helicopters that landed even before power could be restored.  And then, just as in the Sun King's day, once again Versailles became a construction sight, full of dirt and noise.

For his stewardship of the restoration, Alain Baraton, head gardener of Versailles then and now, received so many awards from a grateful nation that he wrote "I have more decorations than a Christmas tree."  Baraton's memoir of his life in the world's "grandest garden" was a best seller in France and its charm is evident in translation.   A middle child in a family of seven children, Baraton did not excel at school;  he recalls his time at horticultural school as being more servitude than liberation.  An impromptu visit to Versailles in the summer of 1976 resulted in the dream job he hadn't even imagined: gardener to the Gods.


For furthers reading:
1. Alain Baraton - The Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World's Grandest Garden,  translated by Christopher Brent Murray, New York, Rizzoli: 2014.
2. Thomas Hedin, The Sculpture of Gaspard and Balthazar Marsy, Columbia (University of Missouri Press) 1983.
Images
1.: Jean-Baptiste Leroux - Le bassin de Bacchus en automne -Chateau de Versailles,  c.1672-75, photo from the collection of Jean-Baptiste Leroux, Paris.
2.  Thomas Garnier -  Le Bassin de Bachus - no date given, Grand Palais, Paris.

02 November 2017

Linda Nochlin Looked At Art. Art Looked Back.



















Kathleen Gilje's Linda Nochlin in Manet's Bar at the Olympia is a  tribute to a great historian that is as layered as Manet's original; a young woman stands in the public eye, meeting the gaze of all comers.  As an aspiring scholar, Nochlin looked beyond the popular Impressionists to their forebears, the Realists,  who offered a revolutionary reinterpretation of art history:  'II faut etre de son temps' [“It is necessary to be of one’s time.”]   In her studies of the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Nochlin saw more than just a magnificent recording eye  but more, an encyclopedic knowledge of visual prototypes.  Like Courbet, Nochlin would make her mark on history by reinventing it.   Gilje began her career as a conservator at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples Italy. From restoration to reinterpretation seemed a natural progression; her 'revised' version of Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Wedding would bring a smile to the face of all but the most hardened aesthetic sensibilities.   

She was born Linda Weinberg to a family of secular Jewish intellectuals living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And  lucky to grow up just as New York City was becoming the center of the art world, usurping the place long held by Paris, then recovering from the twin devastations of war and Nazi occupation.   Vassar College, even in 1947, was no artistic backwater on the Hudson; its campus galleries were hung with paintings by artists as various of Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Georgia O'Keeffe, Kay Sage, Florine Stettheimer and Veira da Silva.   Just as important for a developing aesthetic awareness was the presence on campus of women teachers and the school's brilliant background as a feminist institution.

When Nochlin posed the question "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?"  in Art News (January, 1971), she was already moving beyond its stated premise toward  a visioon more complex and more exciting than any previously dared.  Nochlin knew that she was creating a new version of art history that would require new materials as much or more than a new theory

Nochlin, together with Ann Sutherland Harris, curated Women Artists 1550-1950, an exhibition that premiered at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1976, followed by a satisfying appearance on Nochlin's home turf at the Brooklyn Museum  the following year.  If ever an exhibition deserved to be called earth-shaking,  this was it.  The doubters were forced to take notice. "The history of Western art will never be the same again" wrote John Perrault in Soho Weekly.     Even the reflexively misogynistic Robert Hughes, averred called it "one of the most significant thematic shows to come along in years."  Museums that had been asked to loan works for the exhibition began to brnig them out of storage for display more often after Women Artists was so enthusiastically received by critics and public alike.

Her interest in  history made artist Deborah Kass  alert to the ways Linda Nochlin turned art upside down and gave it a salutary shake.    A cursory look at images from The Warhol Project might lead the viewer to include Deborah Kass in the category of art appropriators that Andy Warhol  perfected with his Brillo Boxes.  In place of Warhol's cool detachment, Kass offers up heartfelt admiration for her subjects.  Orange Disaster - Linda Nochlin is, like others in The Warhol Project,  a series of variations on her chosen theme; its title is Kass's smiling critique of Andy Warhol's dead-ended irony.  One person's disaster becomes another's  turn of the world. Thank you, Linda Nochlin.

Read an obituary for Linda Nochlin (1931-2017) at New York Times.

For further reading:
Realism by Linda Nochlin, New York, Penguin Press: 1971.
Women, Art and Power by Linda Nochlin, New York HarperCollins: 1988.
Bathers, Bodies, Beauty: the visceral eye by Linda Nochlin, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press: 2006.
Courbet by Linda Nochlin, New York, Thames & Hudson: 2007.

Images:
1. Kathleen Gilje - Linda Nochlin in Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergere, 2005, courtesy of the artist.
2. Deborah Kass  - Orange Disaster - Linda Nochlin, 1997, Paul Kasmin Gallery, NYC.