Jean-Michel Basquiat: ‘Mind-blowing’ art? Well certainly a mind-blowing commercial transaction.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

 

Untitled” (1982), acrylic, spray paint and oilstick on canvas, 183.2 by 173 cm, just sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction on Thursday 18th May in New York, bought by a Japanese fan, Yusaku Maezawa , a fashion entrepeneur.

It’s mind-blowing,” said “collector” Mr. Larry Warsh.

Yes clearly a “mind-blowing” commercial transaction.

But “mind-blowing”art?

Well certainly it’s art, but it’s also fashion.

And as they say, money – and fashion – do funny things to people, and the more the money the funnier.

Like the sustained hyberbolic, hagiographical overdrive in Sotheby’s on-line write up of the art work, which dare one say does not come with an obvious disclaimer, ie their vested financial interest in this auction outcome, and in any relevant auctions in the future.

This self-serving commercial market phenomenon – involving dealers, auction houses, museums and collectors – applies to many other artists, usually dead but sometimes still alive. The late Cy Twombly is another prime example.

Yes Mr Basquiat’s work is eye-catching, distinctive.

And this seeds initial interest. But once he is “discovered”, and prices start to move up, the self-perpetuating promotion process takes hold and prices rise ever higher, a virtuous-circle, the process fuelled by its own exhaust.

Thus compare the painting of the moment with five broadly similar works for sale now though Sotheby’s in Paris in June 2017, all in a colourful animated neo-expressionist style, but estimated to sell for between only 10,000 and 200,000 Euros (US$11.2-224k), or 0.01-0.2% of Untitled (1982).

But Untitled (1982) is bigger – and scarier! – so say its art is “worth” 400,000 Euros, then that’s 0.4% art and 96.4% fashion.

On the other hand if Untitled (1982) is worth that much maybe Mr Appel et al are cheap?

Interestingly much the same commercial outcome has happened with the New York Abstract Expressionist (AE) school. Works of the main protagonists were executed soon after WW2 and some have sold for US$50-100m or more. A Pollock sold for US$140m in 2006.

But abstraction was alive and well in Europe at the same time, but these works sell for a tiny fraction of the priciest AE works.

The role of fashion in the matter is highlighted or emphasized by the AE school comprising markedly different abstraction styles, eg compare a Pollock gestural “drip” classic with Barnet Newman’s main works, in a stark simple geometric style. Thus what matters now is not so much the style and content of the painting as the now collectively celebrated specific historic early postwar artistic and commercial experience it was part of.

Compare …………

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) 1982, Untitled,  acrylic, spray paint and oilstick on canvas, 183.2 by 173 cm,  SOLD FOR US$110.5 million, 18 May 2017, Sotheby’s New York.

 And five similar works for sale in Europe …………..

     2

Karel Appel (1921 – 2006). 1958, UNTITLED, oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm;                 ESTIMATE 40,000 — 60,000 E

3

Karel Appel (1921 – 2006). 1958. BATAILLE D’ANIMAUX , oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm;  ESTIMATE 150,000 — 200,000 E

    4

Robert Combas (born 1957), 1989. UNTITLED. acrylic on canvas, 122 x 136,5 cm;  ESTIMATE 15,000 — 20,000 E

5

Toshimitsu Imaï (1928 – 2002), 1963, SOLEIL oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. ESTIMATE 30,000 — 50,000 E

6

Carl-Henning Pedersen (1913 – 2007), 1975, THE BLUE EYE AND RED FACE. oil on canvas, 101,2 x 83,5 cm;  ESTIMATE 10,000 — 15,000 E

Jackson Pollock: the Drip helped, but mostly right place, right time.

Paul Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, 44)

The pre-eminent Abstract Expressionist, but owes his reputation mostly to specific historic circumstances?

  • The Main Man (generically) of post WW2 New York Abstract Expressionism (AE)?

  • However Abstract Expressionism was not an art movement, having a coherent artistic common theme (eg compare Pollock and Barnett Newman), as much as an historic happening, a specific collective commercial art historic experience centred on a keen and diverse group of painters in immediate post WW2 New York, the cultural capital of America.

  • So the crazy prices for Pollock’s distinctive large-scale full bore Gestural action abstract paintings mostly reflect the eventual commercial success of AE, driven by powerful vested interests, and underwritten by the large US economy.

  • Thus another large-scale Gesturalist at the same time, French Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), who favoured impasto over the drip, sells for peanuts because he chose Paris over New York?

  • There is also the curious case of abstractionist American painter Janet Sobel (1894-1968), who painted “all-over” and whose work Pollock saw in 1944, but who quickly vanished into marriage and the suburbs.

  • However, while taste in art, let alone abstract art, is subjective, Pollock seems rightly to emerge as the pre-eminent AE exponent, for his obvious energetic creativity (especially his trademark intense “drip” paintings), and also the twists in his artistic journey, especially his clutch of final works, poignant and personal, his going away declaration, as alcohol sadly swallowed his life, and he knew it?

1

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). The Deep, 1953, 150.7 cm × 220.4 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris.

COMMENT: For its imagery and timing this is perhaps Pollock’s single most intriguing painting? More even than his then recent (1952) and now feted Blue Poles?

It shows a dramatic shift in style from the prolific “drip” phase, striking for its abstraction content quite unlike any other of his paintings.

Here he also returned to assigning a narrative title not another antiseptic number.

It was also among the last few works he would paint.

It means whatever it means to each viewer, but the title – and the timing – certainly suggest it did mean something to the artist. Thus we know in 1953 he was sliding personally, and terminally, having resumed drinking late 1950. A life apparently always near the edge was now surrendering to alcohol, and he obviously knew it. Knew too this time the surrender would likely be terminal.

So it seems deeply personal, poignant.

One obvious reading of the image is of eternity swallowing the “dark” drivers of his life.

SUMMARY

  • Clearly Jackson Pollock is the Main Man of Abstract Expressionism (AE), the best known and the priciest in the art market (though de Kooning and Rothko come close).
  • He is now famous for his expressive Gestural / Action / All-over abstract, ”automatist” “drip” paintings, many large and all executed approximately over the 6 year period 1947-53.
  • This art is claimed by many as “radical” and as distinctly “American”, enthusiastically by some, but mainly by parties with vested interests in the success (price) of this art, like critics, dealers, and collectors (including museums).
  • In reality, objectively, his art was not especially radical, or obviously “American” (other than geographically, ie was executed there), rather it continued the (Western) abstract art revolution which commenced in West Europe just before WW1, and was influenced by the subsequent (post WW1) intervening rise of Surrealism. So these artists simply pushed known approaches / techniques further.
  • Pollock’s competitive angles were, firstly (like most of his colleagues), painting large images, and, secondly, in particular his distinctive abstraction approach, ie particularly the “drip”, intensifying the detailed abstraction content by aggressively applying the drip (and pour) technique.
  • However the stratospheric prices now paid for works by the main AE NY School artists (ie Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko, plus Motherwell, Newman and Still) are driven not so much by their (largely) abstract art being especially different as by the specific historic commercial and artistic circumstances of their early postwar collective artistic experience in New York, by the fact they were Americans (though some were first generation, like Gorky and Rothko) working in New York soon after WW2 (which America had “won”, though helped hugely by Soviet Russia), backed by American money and American dealers and American critics.
  • Meanwhile, as is well known, abstraction was also alive and well in early postwar Europe, Paris and elsewhere.
  • Oddly the New York AE phenomenon benefited greatly from the influx into NY of a bevy of front rank modern European artists (like Duchamp, Masson, Mondrian, Matta) as refugees from the outbreak of WW2, bringing deep experience in abstraction and the two major art movements of Cubism and Surrealism, and their offspring.
  • Pollock was fortuitously helped by another refugee from WW2 Europe, the curious Peggy Guggenheim, another American, who in London just before WW2 launched herself as a keen and successful dealer in modern art. In NY she provided crucial early support for Pollock (mid 1943 – mid 1947).
  • Other ladies were important too, especially wife and fellow artist Lenore (“Lee”) Krasner (1908-84), and major art dealer Betty Parsons, who took up Pollock’s cause after Peggy decamped to Venice mid 1947, ie just as he settled into his signature “drip” phase.
  • Also, as for some other modern cultural “icons” (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis?) Pollock’s flame was fanned by his short life, marred by tragedy. After having largely stopped serious painting about 3 years earlier, and wracked by alcohol addiction, finally in August 1956 he killed himself at age only 44, in a car he crashed and which – even more sadly – also killed a lady passenger. He had battled alcohol most of his adult life but made periodic progress. However November 25th 1950, after a gap of about 2 years, he resumed drinking and for good.
  • Who knows what this art means?! Especially the later dense drip abstraction. He gave no clues in most of the titles, deliberately, and added nothing much with specific meaning in any other comment.
  • However, while taste in art, let alone abstract art, is subjective, Pollock seems to emerge as the pre-eminent AE exponent, for his obvious creativity (like his trademark intense “drip” painting), and the twists in his artistic journey, especially his clutch of powerful poignant final works, 1952 and 1953, as he sadly succumbed, surrendered to alcohol.
  • Also he mostly let his hands do the talking? He had words to offer too but resisted the wordy self-promotion of some of the AE school, which in some cases reached even unto pretentious babble.
  • Curiously too he was “all American”, born and raised in the West, not settling in New York till he was 34 (1934), and never travelling outside the US.

 

ART / WORK

  • Pollock’s work before 1938 shows the influence of contemporary Regionalist realist Thomas Hart Benton (who taught him in NY 1930), the older Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917), and the Mexican muralists, especially JC Orozco, eg Pollocks’ early The Flame (c1934-38). Also “in a workshop in 1936, the Mexican painter David Siqueiros had encouraged Pollock to fling, pour, and spatter paint.” (MOMA 1988 Pollock exhibition).
  • In 1938 Pollock’s drinking took him to hospital for 4 months for psychiatric treatment, including Jungian psychiatric advice from Dr Joseph Henderson who had him make therapeutic drawings, sparking an interest in “symbolism and Native American art”, reinforced in late 1939 by a Picasso show Pollock saw at MOMA.
  • Also around 1938 he renewed his interest in Mexican artists, like Jose Orozco, Diego Rivera, especially the “epic scale of their murals”. But he “avoided social content of the Mexicans”.
  • And he also showed interest in paintings by El Greco and Max Beckmann?
  • Pollock around 1938 met important well informed Russian-émigré artist–polemicist John Graham (1888-1961) who had arrived New York 1920, after meeting the Parisian avant-garde, including Picasso. In 1937 Graham published “Primitive Art and Picasso” (article, April) and a book, Systems and Dialectics of Art: Re-establish a lost contact with the unconscious.. with the primordial racial past..”, both influential in NY. The book “.. introduces two of Graham’s preoccupations: a mystical connection with his subject and the role of line in expressing sensations”.
  • Pollock’s early 1940s works are symbolic / Surrealist quasi-abstracts, influenced especially by 1/ Picasso; 2/ Surrealism, through interest in Native American art, mythic motifs, part inspired (along with Gorky, M Rothko and de Kooning) by John Graham, and by Jung’s psychoanalysis theories, also favoured by Graham.
  • The interest Surrealism (eg Meditation on an oak leaf 1942, and Pasiphae, 1943) was reinforced by meeting émigré Surrealists from Europe, like Andre Masson (1896-1987) (arrived NY 1941), his . „calligraphic autom line drawings…. swirling lines.. dark colors.. abstract imagery.. poetic titles..“ (Anna Mosynska).
    • Through Lee Krasner around mid 1942 he met William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell and especially Chilean-born Roberto Matta, who arrived New York 1941 from Europe where he was struck by Andre Masson et al.
    • Andre Masson’s style emphasized flatness, but Matta (influenced by Duchamp?) used “spatial ambiguity… whiplash line… large scale canvases”, eg Onyx of Electra (1944), which all influenced the younger artists. “his studio on 9th. a meeting place for Pollock, Motherwell, A Gorky…” (cf Anna Mosynska). Thus Matta became a close friend of A Gorky, R. Motherwell and W. Baziotes.
    • Then Motherwell and Baziotes “went to see Pollock and de Kooning and Hoffmann.. Peggy Guggenheim.. said that she would put on a show… so I [Motherwell] went around explaining the theory of automatism to everybody..”
    • Pollock also used “bright hues of American Indian art”? Pollock 1944: “Their colour is essentially Western, their vision has the basic universality of all real art. Some people find references to American Indian Art and calligraphy in parts of my pictures. That wasn’t intentional; probably was the result of early memories and enthusiasm.”
  • After 1945 motifs become more naturalistic? Partly influenced by his move to Long Island? “I am nature” he once said.
  • Pollock began “pouring” paint by 1943 (cf Composition with Pouring I and II), before his late 1945 move to Long Island, and the famous “drip” arrives fully around 1947, eg especially Full Fathom Five and Phosphorescence, ie formless, all-over, “intense gestural application”, lasting till 1953. Pollock’s “drip” style is a subset of Action Painting.
  • Precise origins of the Drip are debated. He may have seen Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros use painting-pouring in 1936 at a NY workshop. It may have been influenced by his contact with Masson, Matta etc, especially per Surrealist automatism. He may have heard of Max Ernst (Peggy Guggenheim’s husband, then in NY) trying to paint from a swinging can. He may have seen the same method in 1946 used in paintings by Janet Sobel (1894-1968) (born Jennie Lechovsky, in Ukraine), at a Peggy Guggenheim show in a visit with critic Clement Greenberg. And by Indian sand painting he saw in the 1940s.
  • Sounds in the Grass was a series of 7 relatively small paintings over the winter of 1946-47 (ie after moving to Long Island), partly preparation for a Jan 1947 show at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery. It included Eyes in the Heat, an important lead into the Drip phase.
  • For about 4 years, from 1948 through 1952, he switched to not naming his paintings, assigning them numbers.
  • The Drip phase, during which “a doctor…allayed his drinking with tranquillizers..” largely ended 1951 when he resumed drinking.
  • Then 1951-52 his preferred style changed abruptly when in a series sometimes called “black pourings” he mainly painted in black enamel on unprimed canvas and he revived earlier interest in calligraphical, “glyphic” quasi-abstraction, ie with some “representational elements”.
  • But two final emphatic twists remained.
  • In 1952 he completed two important large all-over “drip” abstracts, especially Blue Poles, also 10, Convergence.
  • And in 1953 followed four different important paintings, especially The Deep, a mighty and intriguing suddenly different abstract work, then Easter and the Totem, and Ocean Greyness, both of which recall much earlier (late 1930s/early 1940s) Pollock abstraction.
  • 1953’s Portrait and a Dream, is another extraordinary final – and again personal? – work, where a (self?) portrait creeps in, alongside a quasi-abstract “reclining female figure”.
  • He painted only two works after 1953 (age 41), one painting (another ‘drip” work) in 1954?
  • Most of Pollock’s earlier works were small? He discovered size through the Mexican muralists, and his first large image was the 1943 Mural.

 

LIFE

  • He was born Wyoming, one of five boys to Stella, nee McClure, and was almost never out of trouble. His family moved about the West. Pollock’s abusive alcoholic father (nee McCoy, Scottish-Irish descent, adopted by Mr and Mrs Pollock) left home in 1920 leaving his older brother Charles, an artist, in charge. Pollock briefly studied art in LA until expelled for fighting.
  • In late 1930, aged only 18, he moved to New York, lived with brother Charles in Greenwich Village and, importantly, studied under Charles’ teacher, well known Regionalist Realist painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) for about 3 years at the Art Student’s League, becoming close to Benton and his family, like sharing summer holidays.
  • Pollock was upset by his father’s death in 1933 and, drunk, started a fight with his brother Charles’ wife, axing one of his brother’s paintings. From 1934 to 1942 he lived with other brother Sanford.
  • He travelled the US widely in the 1930s, settled in NY from 1934. Here importantly he met some prominent Mexican muralist painters, José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) (later, 1940, Pollock saw him paint a mural at MOMA) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) (Pollock met him in Los Angeles 1932 and worked in his NY workshop, 1936, observed “experiments with nontraditional materials such as enamel paint, and with unconventional techniques of paint application: dripping, pouring, and airbrushing”).
  • The US Government’s Depression alleviating WPA program (cf Krasner, de Kooning, Rothko etc) paid some money from 1937-1943.
  • In 1938 he was 4 months in hospital for his alcoholism.
  • He briefly met Lee Krasner (1908-84) Xmas 1936, then again August 1942, marrying her Oct.1945. She became a key supporter, thus introduced him to her teacher, important refugee German abstract painter Hans Hoffman (1880-1966), also to Herbert Matter.
  • 1941 Pollock saw a Miró retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
  • His first NY show Jan 1942 was part of the McMillen Gallery’s American and French Painting, selected by John Graham, and alongside de Kooning, Krasner, Stuart Davis and some from Europe: Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Bonnard and Modigliani.
  • Spring 1942, “.. [Herbert] Matter invites James Johnson Sweeney to visit Pollock’s studio. Sweeney tells Peggy Guggenheim that Pollock is “doing interesting work” … suggests she visit the studio.”
  • Autumn 1942, Roberto Matta (1911-2002), with Motherwell’s support, wants to break with Breton’s Surrealists, and form their own “automatist artists” group. Pollock dines with them at Matta’s apartment on 12th but “becomes frustrated with the group”.
  • 1942 / Jan. 1943 the Met. Museum Of Art shows his The Flame (c1934-38) in Artists for Victory.
  • Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) becomes a major supporter. She opens her Art of This Century (AOTC) Gallery Oct 1942. She meets Pollock early 1943 at the (Solomon) Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting (where JP is working from May, as a “carpenter”?), shows his work in a group show (Spring Salon for Young Artists) at AOTC, May/June 1943, especially on the advice of older famous refugee abstract painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) (“I’m trying to understand what’s happening here. I think this is the most interesting work I’ve seen so far in America. . . . You must watch this man“).
  • On the advice of writer/dealer Howard Putzel (1898–1945) she visits his studio 23rd June 1943, but resists a solo show until 20th C art legend Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) visits and recommends it. Pollock’s first solo show (15 oils plus other works), hangs at AOTC in November 1943. It is the first solo show there by an American artist.
  • From July 1943 she paid JP a stipend for output, and she also commissioned what would become a famous mural for her NY town house on East 61st, executed Dec.1943 / Jan.1944.
  • Following the November 1943 solo show, on the advice of Duchamp, also Matta etc she then hung him as part of her AOTC show, Natural, Insane, Surrealist Art, with Calder, Klee, Masson, Motherwell etc.
  • PG held his second solo show March / April 1945, the third April 1946, the fourth Jan./Feb.1947.
  • She also helped he and Krasner buy a farmhouse on Long Island by Nov. 1945, heralding the “drip period” from 1947 through 1950, also now using alkyd enamel house paints.
  • May 1944 MOMA bought The She-Wolf (1943), recommended by Soby and Sidney Janis (1896-1989) (Head Acquisitions Committee) to Alfred C Barr.
  • In 1944 Pollock showed in Abstract and Surrealist Art in America (1944), organized by Sidney Janis (who published a book of same title) at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery, NY.
  • March 1945 he showed at the Arts Club of Chicago, then March/April at NY AOTC, drawing strong critical support from Clement Greenberg (1909-94).
  • 1946 / Jan. 1947, he showed for the first time in “the Whitney Annual”, the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at Whitney Museum of American Art.
  • 1947, April/May, Mural was shown by MOMA.
  • Peggy Guggenheim closed AOTC May 1947,
  • May / Sep. 1948 he was hung at 23rd Venice Biennale.
  • Peggy Guggenheim mounted Pollock’s first solo European show in July / Aug. 1950, in Venice. Thence he showed in Florence and Rome.
  • His “drip” paintings were first shown in Jan. 1948, 17 paintings at Betty Parson (1900-82)’s NY gallery (his 5th one man show in NY, the same year as de Kooning’s first show), to a quiet reaction, but “favourable reviews”.
  • His second Betty Parsons show was Jan./Feb.1949, a big show, including 26 works from 1948. “Critical response is varied”. And third solo show followed Nov./Dec 1949, with 35 works.
  • A famous 4-page spread on Pollock appeared in Life magazine, 9th1949, (“Is he the greatest living painter in the United States”) brought overnight success and changed their lives. In 1950 he was chosen by MOMA’s Alfred H Barr Jr for the US pavilion at 25th Venice Biennale (with Gorky and de Kooning).
  • Summer 1950 he was interviewed by William Wright for a radio program.
  • 1950, May, he signed a joint letter initiated by Barnett Newman attacking The Metropolitan Museum of Art for “contempt for modern painting. . . .”. Oct./Nov. 1950 he was hung in a group show (Young Painters in U.S. & France) by the Sidney Janis Gallery (opened 1948), and Nov./Dec. in a 4th solo show at Betty Parsons.
  • October 1950 he appeared in an influential Life magazine article on modern art, “along with Picasso, Miró, Georges Rouault, Matisse, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, William Baziotes, and Theodoros Stamos”.
  • 1951, January, Life published a photo of him among the Irascibles, 14 artists protesting the Met museum’s views on “contemporary” art. Nov./ Dec. saw a 5th solo show at Betty Parsons.
  • His first show in Paris was part of the 1952, Un Art Autre, catalogue by Tachisme writer Michel Tapie. April / July he appeared in a MOMA show.
  • Unhappy with sales at Betty Parsons Gallery in mid 1952 he moved “across the hall” to Sidney Janis, who mounted a solo show Nov. 1952. A 2nd followed Feb. 1954, and a 3rd/ Dec. 1955, though he was producing little new art then.
  • 1953, from April he appears in an American contemporary art show in Paris, thence 5 other cities.
  • But he did not handle growing fame well, and (November 25th 1950) resumed drinking, and stayed back. He also mostly (but not entirely, cf Blue Poles later in 1952) gave up the “drip”, retreating to mostly black and white paintings.
  • He also he mostly gave up name titles for his paintings, using numbers and dates.
  • Lee Krasner’s career was gaining traction (eg show by BP late 1951 etc) but in attending to the ailing Pollock she stopped painting and also asked his mother for help.
  • By 1956 he had stopped painting, kept drinking, and was seeing other women. Krasner took a break in Paris. And 11 August a drunk Pollock crashed his car a mile from home, killing himself and a lady passenger.
  • Krasner returned to the US to bury him. She also carefully managed his estate, the disposal of his remaining art, set up the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and finally returned to her own art.
  • MOMA’s planned mid-career show for JP became an impromptu retrospective, Dec 1956 / Feb.1957.

 

QUOTES

  • “It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.”
  • “The strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art.”
  • My paintings do not have a center, but depend on the same amount of interest throughout.”
  • “It doesn’t make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.”
  • When I’m painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a get acquainted period that I see what I’ve been about. I’ve no fears about making changes for the painting has a life of its own.”

APPENDICES

 Abstract Expressionism: not a coherent art movement, rather a specific historic collective art experience

 Abstract Expressionism was NOT an art movement in the sense of having a coherent artistic common there, a distinct artistic style and purpose.

About its only common theme was, simply, abstraction.

Its specific content comprised two „schools“ of abstraction styles:

1/ Expressive, Gestural.

Two subsets were i/ Intense „Automatiste“ Action Painting, like Pollock;

and ii/ broad coarse motifed abstration, like Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning (who also often included figuration), Robert Motherwell, and Clifford Still.

2/ Flat colour patch

Two subsets were i/ Color Field abstraction, like Mark Rothko;

and ii/ sharp-edged geometric abstraction, like Barnett Newman.

Rather the only useful definition of Abstract Expressionism is as a specific historic collective art experience or context, by a keen and diverse group of painters in New York soon after WW2, the first main images emerging in second half of the 1940s.

After a slow start it eventually became very successful commercially mainly because of keen support from dealers / galleries, museums and critics, underwritten by the large buoyant American economy. Once substantial success emerged – by the late 1950s? – then the mutual vested interests worked hard to sustain it, build on the momentum.

The diverse artistic content was essentially not radical, rather it derived and evolved from, capitalised on the crucial pioneering period for abstract art just before / during ww1, around 1910-1915, ie about 30years earlier.

But it was eye-catching, and therefore marketable. It was often large and striking in imagery, perhaps epitomised by Pollock’s densely intricate „drip“ paintings, and by Rothko’s atmospheric color patch works, at opposite ends of a spectrum.

EUROPEAN early postwar abstraction movements: paralleling New York Abstract Expressionism

All the labels below seem to overlap, to a greater or lesser degree. Though there is some contradiction? Most of these artists acknowledged important roots in Surrealism, but some (eg COBRA) rejected Surrealism?

All these movements clearly overlap with (American) Abstract Expressionism in terms of:

  1. time period, ie mid 40s to mid 50s, ie reflecting the aftermath of the macro-violence of WW2.
  2. image content
  3. image purpose

Thus many of these European “AE” images appear close to many from the “authentic” New York AE school, but they were European not US images.

They have been accorded far less market attention because of a vastly different commercial context in Europe after WW2.

  • Informalism? / Art Informel? / Tachisme / Abstraction lyrique? Art Informel was a term coined by important French art critic Michel Tapié in his 1952 book, Un Art Autre (“Art of Another Kind”) which strongly promoted modern art and especially then in France, Tachisme, a French term (from “tache” = stain) first used ~ 1951 by two French critics. It is also referred to as the School of Paris but in reality was very similar to AE? Spontaneous but meaningful “non form” abstract works, including calligraphy / dripping, in part a reaction to Cubism?
  • Important painters included: “Wols (1913-51), Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, the Catalan Antoni Tapies, the Italian Alberto Burri, George Mathieu, Nicholas De Stael, Serge Poliakoff, Hans Hartung, and Pierre Soulages.
  • And abstractionist Jean-Paul Riopelle who arrived Paris 1947 from Montreal, Canada, where he was part of Bordhaus’ important Les Automatistes.
  • This “warm” Expressive purposeful abstraction was in opposition to “cold” Geometric Abstraction, eg that stemming in particular from Mondrian, van Doesburg etc from Netherlands.
  • However Tapié’s book also served to simultaneously help promote American AE in Europe, and Tapie also helped prepare the catalogue for J Pollock’s first Paris show, in 1952.
  • There were relevant abstract art movements at the same time in England (St Ives), Germany and Italy.
  • Lyrical Abstraction / Abstraction Lyrique? Confusing term? Used mainly France, Europe? Makes sense only as opposite of “cold” superficial unthinking Geometric Abstraction?
  • CoBrA? (Copenhagen / Brussels/ Amsterdam). Movement formed by 5 artists in a Paris café 8 Nov 1948! Defined by: “complete freedom of colour and form… antipathy to Surrealism…. Spontaneity and experiment… [draw on] ..children’s drawings.. primitive art forms.. work of Klee and Miro..”. Like AE they favoured expressive immediacy of the gesture“!
  • They were opposed to Geometric Abstraction and (French) Social Realism. And they were more “political” than French abstraction? The group disbanded 1951. It included Karel Appel, Pierre Alechinsky.

   WORKS by Jean-Paul Riopelle

2

Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923 – 2002). 1951, Espagne, huile sur toile, 150 x 232 cm, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Québec, Canada

3

Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923 – 2002). Abstraction (Orange), 1952 Oil on canvas; 99 x 197.5 cm, Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisboa, Portugal

COMMENT: Museum, This work by Jean-Paul Riopelle belongs to the period of the so-called Grandes mosaïques, which occurred roughly between 1950 and 1960. The painted works – produced with palette knife and spatula – are made up of multi-coloured elements of notable thickness, superimposed and animated with extensive, vigorous lines. Large shapes dominate. It can be said that these ‘mosaics’ are undoubtedly inspired by those of St. Mark’s Basilica, which made a big impression on Riopelle during a trip to Venice in 1947. Very different from Pollock’s ‘dripping’ works, Riopelle paints on a canvas placed vertically on the easel; there is nothing ‘gestural’ about his work. Despite the given title (also referred to as untitled), this kind of painting is, for Riopelle, a means to express and share his strong relationship with nature. AC

 

SELECTED WORKS by Jackson Pollock

   4

Going West, 1934. Important early work, influence of TH Benton and Surrealism?

5

The Flame, c1934-38, Oil on canvas mounted on fiberboard, 51.1 x 76.2 cm, MOMA

 

6

1942, Stenographic Figure, Oil on linen, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 40 x 56 in

 

8

Mural, 1943, 247 x 605 cm, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1959. University of Iowa Museum of Art.      COMMENT: Commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for her NY townhouse. This is an important transitional work, towards all-over abstraction. Notice it is large, his first big painting? Part influenced by Mexican realist painters?

 10

1947. Full Fathom Five, 2 x 76.5 cm, MOMA.COMMENT: One of the first full bore “drip” paintings, but notice it is still relatively small.

11

Janet SOBEL (1894-1968). Untitled, 1946, 45.5 x 35.5 cm. COMMENT: Pollock saw Sobel’s work at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1944, “where it was seen and admired by both Pollock and Clement Greenberg, who later cited it as the first instance of ”all-over” painting he had seen. Sidney Janis wrote the catalogue preface for her solo show at Guggenheim’s gallery in 1946, noting her ”self-invented method for applying paint.””, ‘Roberta Smith, NY Times, 2002.

12

1948, Number 5, 244 x 122cm, private. COMMENT: One of Pollock’s major early Drip paintings. Sold for US140$m in 2006. Being larger helped.

13

  1. 1950. One: No 31, 270 x 531cm (8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″), MOMA.COMMENT: One of Pollock’s largest paintings. He retitled it „One“ because he felt one with it!? A large signature Drip painting.

14

 

1952, Blue Poles (No. 11), oil on canvas, 4.87 x 2.1 m, National Gallery of Australia Canberra. COMMENT: Originally titled, Number 11. The picture is important for departing from the pure all-over abstraction approach, by now introducing forms, structure, through “poles”. Whatever they might mean.

15

Ocean Greyness, 1953, 146.7 x 229 cm Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. COMMENT: Like Easter and the totem here the very late Pollock, in one of his final paintings, returns to the coarse textured, “glyphic” Surrealist like abstraction of his early years? Even going back to “The Flame” of 1934-38?

16

Portrait and a Dream, 1953, 342.2 x 148.5 cm. Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. COMMENT: a very personal painting.

Manierre Dawson: Intriguing pioneering American abstract artist, now mostly forgot because he quit and grew cherries.

Manierre Dawson (Dec. 1887 – Aug. 15, 1969, 81)

Intriguing pioneering American abstract artist, now mostly forgot because he quit and grew cherries.

  • Pioneering young American abstract painter from 1910, clearly one of first in Western art.
  • His Prognostic triptych of early 1910 clearly anticipates work of the later great Kandinsky.
  • But age 27, despite a remarkable busy and productive start, the retiring outsider curiously hung up his brushes after 4 years to farm cherries. Did not stay in, play the game.
  • This seems astonishing given his propitious start, including a visit in 1910 to Paris, of all times and places.
  • Striking too is he came from nowhere, from minimal formal training in art, notwithstanding Europe 1910.
  • Why did he quit despite the promising start? Basically not the fire in the belly?
  • But most oddly, despite his achievement, and being American, he was completely omitted from MOMA’s 2013-14 “comprehensive” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition.

 

FEATURED IMAGE:  1910, Prognostic (centre panel). Oil on canvas, triptych, 85.7 × 90.8 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum

2

1910. Coordinate Escape, Oil on Composition Board, 48.3 x 36.8cm, Collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Beverly Hills, California

COMMENT: striking abstract paintings from early 1910, from a young (22) untrained artist, without doubt near the earliest abstract paintings in Western art, and clearly derived from his maths training meeting a keen artistic mind.

3

1913 Wharf under mountain, 45.72 x 55.88 cm, Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach, Florida.

COMMENT:  striking is how different from his other work is his abstraction approach, both the imagery and bright bold colors. But is it abstract? Some will say there is clearly a ship there. Maybe sea below, a mountain behind, and green fields above that?

Famously it was his surreptitious entry to the Chicago (March/April 1913) version of the seminal 1913 Armory Show.

4

1913, Figure Party-Colored, Oil on board, 44 x 36 inches.

COMMENT:  another quasi-abstract Cubo-Futurist work, but more colourful.

 

SUMMARY

Dawson was a curious pioneering American modernist, an outsider, now largely forgot.

Though in his painting he struck abstraction / non-objective gold early – like from 1910 – he was completely omitted from MOMA’s 2013-14 “comprehensive” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 show.

This seems astonishing for a number of reasons.

First, not only was he clearly the first US abstract painter he was one of the first abstractionists in “Western” art, alongside the big names of Kandinsky, Kupka, Picabia et al in Europe.

Second, astonishing is that his Prognostic triptych of early 1910 clearly anticipates later work of the lauded Kandinsky. And some of his geometric abstraction motifs might even look ahead further to some Abstract Expressionists?

Third, he then mined this seam busily for about 4 years, fashioning his own take on Cubo-Futurist quasi-abstract modernist figuration.

So while his post 1911 Cubo-Futurist work is indeed derivative, and while his effective active career was only a brief 5 years or so, overall he left a remarkable and distinctive, if truncated, body of work, abstract and quasi-abstract.

Moreover one of his 1913 abstract works was hung in the Chicago showing of the seminal 1913 Armory exhibition.

Striking too is how, compared with peers, he came from nowhere. In 1910 he was young (23), had just finished an engineering degree and was painting part-time, working as a first year employee with an architects firm, had no formal training in art (but for one class in high school), and no exposure by then to the dynamic modern art scene.

 

Born and raised in Chicago, he started painting during his engineering degree (1905-09). Early 1910 he painted his first fully abstract works, then visited Europe for about 5 months in the back half of 1910.

But after painting keenly for about 4 years, after showing at the Armory in 1913, and in two significant exhibitions in 1914 (where he also sold some works), despite this achievement and his apparent passion, at 27 he quit full time art for good, disappeared to rural Michigan, his art with him, to become a full-time cherry farmer, and only an occasional artist.

 

Why did he abruptly abandon ship after such a promising start?

Dawson will remain something of an enigma.

Basically it appears he simply lacked the fire? He was not hungry and determined enough? Thus while he obviously recognised the importance of the 1913 Armory show he was timid in his response. Invited to show by the main organiser he refused, then when pressed by Pach he agreed to show a work in the Chicago viewing (ie his home town) but it went in late (so was omitted from the catalogue) and, at his request, was anonymous.

So he succumbed to short term domestic circumstances. Summer 1914 he met his future wife, from a family near his family’s country farm, the area where he then settled down, marrying July 1915.

Interesting too  is that, despite signs in 1912, he never really persevered with his pioneering bolt-from-the-blue 1910 abstraction approach. He was perhaps too distracted by the Cubo-Futurism he met in Europe 1910.

 

He was not to be “discovered” for about 50 years, until well after WW2, near the end of his life, after the ageing artist contacted a nearby Florida museum.

 

ART

Startling abstraction in Year 0: 1910

Manierre Dawson leaves quite a story.

There is no doubt this man (first name is his mother’s maiden name) from 1910 became a pioneering “Western” abstract painter, working keenly in Chicago for about 4 years, up there with the relevant big names in Europe, like Delaunay, Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian, and Picabia.

In 1910 appear six fully abstract paintings.

The most striking is Prognostic (1910), a triptych with a big centre panel 86 x 91cm) and two wings about 2/3 as big (62 x 51cm). The abstraction motifs are clearly prescient of Kandinsky, as also is the smaller Differential complex (1910). (“Differential” referring to calculus), but before Kandinsky by some years, even 10 years? Kandinsky’s abstraction is far denser, more intricate and colourful, but anticipate him Dawson clearly does.

The primary inspirational source of his abstraction – the lines and circles – is commonly associated with his engineering education (1905-09), called “geometric”, and that certainly fits his 1910 work, like Xdx, Co-ordinate escape, and Discal Procession (showing a nest of curves). Prognostic is more complex, seems to use both maths and natural landscape references?

Colour was not a preoccupation with Dawson. Most of his works were subdued, monohromatic. All his abstraction is subdued, in monochromatic browns / oranges.

 

Why abstract for him?

Interesting is that his motivation for going abstract, after a brief (2-3 year?) figurative phase, was not spiritual (as the Whitney exhibition text of 1988 claimed) or philosophical (like for Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich) but simply curiosity stemming from his academic engineering training, especially the mathematical content.

This seems entirely valid for mathematics is certainly abstract, yet also profoundly important, “real”, because maths is the universal language used to express the underlying laws of physics which describe, underlie, the visible world, and which apply across our known universe.

 

Dawson on where his art comes from?

Dawson wrote in April 1911: “In trying to answer the questions that are repeatedly thrown at me, “What does it mean?” “What does it represent?” I have to start with a statement that sometimes helps. Art is a human invention.

In nature there was no art except that all creations of the Almighty are part of that Almighty.

“Art” as a word for us to use describes the invention of that part of creation that is man.

All nature is bearing down on us day after day. We cannot avoid it. Every form that we could use is there.

But away from nature and in the seclusion of the mind we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else. One answer to the question, “What is it?” is to point to the picture and say, “It is that. It exists nowhere else.”

This doesn’t seem to say much?

Yet “we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else” seems the essence?

 

Outsider?

As an artist he was, like some other pioneers, an outsider. He was largely self-taught, driven by his powerful interest.

Yes he was exposed early to Europe and some of its art, like about 23, and there briefly touched Paris, meeting Gertrude Stein.

And yes back then in the US he engaged with Arthur B Davies et al in New York, which led to his 1913 Armory appearance, but he was never formally trained in art, and after his brief early brush with the industry (including being shown in two exhibitions in 1914) he basically disappeared to fruit farming in Michigan.

He never pursued a full time career in art, cultivating support from dealers and museums.

So he remained little known till well after WW2, only near the end of his life. So “the first real recognition.. [finally came].. 1966 ..a retrospective .. by the Grand Rapids Art Museum [Michigan]..”. Exhibitions followed 1967 in Florida, catching the attention of Robert Schoelkopf who showed his work in New York in April 1969 and March 1981.

 

Why overlooked so long – despite his obvious contribution?

Easy. After striking gold early, for about 4 years, he just disappeared, to work full-time as a farmer.

So the art scene –which end of the day is a business, is about selling products (art works, museum and galley visits) to make money – passed him by for about 50 years, did not re-engage with him till the mid 1960s.

 

But omission from MOMA’s 2013-14 “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25” seems absurd?

There is no doubt Dawson’s omission from MOMA’s 2013-14 Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition was an egregious oversight, especially as an American who (after first declining an invitation to the NY show) was famously hung in the Chicago chapter of the important 1913 Armory show which showcased leading modernist European painters. His entry of Wharf under a mountain (1913) – the only abstract painting there by any American – hung alongside Duchamp, Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky etc.

Also, unlike the German Otto Freundlich (1878-1943), another stunning omission from MOMA’s blockbuster, Dawson’s abstract oeuvre, from 1910, was prolific and substantial, creative and diverse, in the pioneering 4 year period to 1914.

Certainly he made it hard for the art scene to notice him, disappearing after only about 4 years. But that’s no excuse. And certainly by 2013 Dawson had been noticed by many in the field.

Thus his omission is even harder to understand given a 334 page catalogue raisonné (Ploog, Bairstow and Boyajian) of Dawson’s work was published 2011 by The Three Graces and Hollis Taggart Galleries.

The curators of Inventing Abstraction seem either careless or lazy, or perhaps possessed of some obscure political resistance to acknowledging this painter.

 

Arthur Dove (1880-1946), 7 years older, and who visited Europe and its art 1907-09 (ie before Dawson) is often cited as the first US abstract painter. He painted abstract early, motivated mainly by Nature, natural forms, and he was important, but he was not the first, clearly beaten by Dawson, in time (just) and also in terms of emphatic output, Dawson executing 6 meaningful such works in 1910.

But both Dawson and Dove were among the first abstractionists in Western art.

Dove is far better remembered simply because art remained his full time job, so he stayed painting, and he evolved. Returning from Europe in 1909 he was keen to stay in art and in this was strongly supported in New York by the keen photographer and pivotal modern art promoter Alfred Steiglitz, and his 291 gallery, where Dove showed 1910, again 1912 in a one man show.

 

Dove was included in MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, along with Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), another important American modernist who also contributed to abstraction early on, from around 1912.

 

Another important American modernist painter, briefly mentioned in MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, and who also showed in- made a splash in – the Armory, was Joseph Stella (1877–1946). Also supported by Steiglitz he contributed Futurist abstract images by 1914, but was energetic and imaginative across a wide range of styles.

 

What if?

The outcome invites speculation, like how might his art have evolved had he made it a full-time career – say in Chicago and maybe beyond, like NY – and how might his evolving output have impacted other artists?

Unfortunately we’ll never know, but we know he was industrious, committed and creative when for a short time he was focussed on art.

 

His path:  the first abstract painter in the US and one of first in Western art.

Pre 1910

Dawson started painting c1906, executed a few realist works before 1910, simple figurative outdoor scenes, a vase of flowers, and a modernist Still life (1908).

December 1908 he wrote in his journal, “This winter I am very hard at work . . . on several arbitrarily constructed paintings of arranged figures, blocking things out without rhyme or reason other than to make the picture look right.”.

1910 opened with two distinctive quasi-abstract paintings in monochrome browns, one (Rocky Pool) a landscape .

 

1910: abstraction

Then suddenly in 1910 appear six fully abstract paintings.

 

1911: after Europe, Cubo-Futurism

But still young (23), his 5 month trip to Europe abruptly shifted his art. He discovered Cubism, presumably in Paris and from 1911 he applied his version to interpreting a number of Classical subjects and Old Masters paintings, what Dawson himself referred to as his “museum paintings”.

Some critics have complained Dawson fell so madly for “Cubism” after Europe, “became a follower rather than a leader” (LACMA, Nov.2013), veering away from his distinctive abstraction. “He seems never to have been the same after Paris..” (Roberta Smith, NY Times August 1988). Thus there were no pure abstract works in 1911.

This is perhaps unfair, but is at least unfortunately he did not pursue his pioneering stark geometric abstraction of 1910.

His style did evolve, but mostly never far from variations on Cubo-Futurism?

So he painted a number of quasi-abstract figures, all in a distinctive modernist fractured monochromatic Cubo-Futurist style. And he did return to abstraction, albeit Cubist derived.

His Futurist reminds us of the approaches of some European modernists like Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in France / US, also the Englishman David Bomberg (1890-1957), cf Island of Joy (c1912).

Madonna (1911) apparently refers to Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. Other Cubo-Futurist figurative works of Classical subjects are Hercules, The Three Graces, Lucrece, and Birth of Venus (1912).

In 1912 he applied the dynamic Cubist style many times, now including three larger paintings, all around 1.5 x 1.2 metres, like The Three Graces, Desdemona.

 

1912: more abstraction

Interestingly 1912 Dawson returned to abstraction, in a number of ways.

Two simple works – the subdued simple glyphic Painted wood relief, and the “geometric” Untitled (Study #30) – do recall his “geometric”1910 approach.

Untitled abstraction is more colourful and is again in the vein of Kandinsky

Blue complex moves on, is busier, denser.

And Personal Presentation is abstract after Cubo-Futurist.

Also in 1912 he suddenly paints a more colourful modernist quasi-abstract landscape, Red mur, but the lines of which clearly relate to his abstract works.

And in 1912 we again see a number of figurative Cubo-Futurist paintings, like Figures in Action (Struggle).

 

1913: more abstraction

1913 is another busy year, sees his style meaningfully evolve, him execute some major works, mostly abstract, now less figuration.

It includes a suddenly different abstract / quasi-abstract work, the colourful Wharf under mountain which was hung in the Armory (Chicago) show, though only after Walter Pach insisted Dawson show it. Dawson wrote 4 April 1913, “Walter said he had no trouble getting the painting hung.” It’s a bolder, darker, more Expressionist painting, lots of royal blue and some green and an intriguing title.

Essay in Brown (1913) clearly advances his abstraction, shows a tumble of jagged “objects” apparently against a rectilinear background.

Afternoon II is again monochromatic but denser, more intricate, seems to blend geometric and Cubist abstraction? And Compages of Classical Figures and Conversation also shift his abstraction.

We see a lot more Cubist abstraction (like Arroyo, Ascension, Figure Party-Colored (more colourful than usual), Meditation, Observation, The gate, and Thirteen).

And we see much less Futurist figuration (eg the larger Hercules I and II, and Trio), still in subdued monochromatic pale orange-brown tones.

Finally, different, we see two small Arthur Dove-like quasi-abstract paintings, Night flower and Beech.

 

1913: Armory (Chicago, Mar. 24-Apr. 15, 1913)

Dec.1912, Arthur B Davies invited him to participate in the International Exhibition of Modern Art (now known as the Armory Show) in New York (Feb. 15-Mar. 15, 1913) but he declined! He said he had nothing handy (recent) worth hanging, and worried that in winter he could not transport paintings in time, from their location at the family farm, ie his earlier 1910 paintings, which even he knew then were more important.

For the Chicago show Walter Pach persuaded Dawson to change his mind. There too he visited the show a number of times, and bought two paintings: Marcel Duchamp’s’s Nu (esquisse) (Nude [study]) now known as Jeune homme triste dans un train (Sad Young Man on a Train) (1911-12?) and Amadéo de Souza Cardoso’s Return from the Chase.  Dawson was impressed by Duchamp’s work, not surprising because it chimes with his own. The painting he bought it now hangs in Guggenheim Venice because he had to sell ir not long after to pay the bills.

Chicago’s offering was a cut down version (634 works) of New York (where approx. 1300 works showed). Much of the American art was gone, most of the radical European art remained.”. The show was championed by a few, condemned by many. But “Scandal and outrage bred interest” and 189,000 visited in 23 days, averaging about 8,200 per day, a higher outcome than NY.

 

Around the time of the Armory in Chicago (April 1913) he left his job, and wrote:

Since I left Holabird and Roche I’ve had a glorious time painting. Hanging over the mantel in the library is the Duchamp. I am having a good look at it. These three paintings I am doing now, Hercules I, II, III, may show D’s influence. I am contemplating more colorful things to come.

Did his viewing the Armory show (eg seeing Duchamp) change his art? Not significantly? Thus his Cubo-Futurist style – evident after Armory in Hercules – was well established by then.

But 1913 was a big year for his art and he did evolve.

 

1914: Dawson bails from full time art, but still evolving.

1914 also sees some variety, and shifts, and a fateful emphatic career move.

Meanwhile his abstraction motifs evolved, like in the more colourful Equation, and like Figure in Pink and Yellow.

Letters and numbers is what it seems, shifts again, has a Stuart Davis feel.

The darker Futurist Night figures again recalls David Bomberg, while geometric derived Untitled (Pictogram II) again recalls Kandinsky, but showing Dawson’s finger prints.

Then there are two similar figurative works, one much larger, both showing Futurist friezes of groups of people, Seven and Configuration.

Then mid 1914 he suddenly quits full time art.

 

After 1915 Dawson, now farming full time, executes far fewer works, paints little, though is still valid, still moving, especially the colourful quasi-abstract Figure by the window.

His Loft (1918) seems another pioneering work, an abstract image carved from laminated wood then painted, again monochromatically.

Then the more colourful quasi-abstract glyphic Untitled(c1920) is different but still Dawsonian.

Later too he began to sculpt, using materials encountered through his work.

He struggled financially and Rauschenberg-style began to make art from whatever was lying around, “cement, scraps of lumber, pieces of plywood”. Sculptures he made from “sheets of composite wood .. laminated together ..”

 

Discovery

Dawson disappeared from the art world for 52 years, 1914 to 1966, when he showed at Grand Rapids Michigan, then 1967 at the John and Mable Ringing Museum in Sarasota, Florida, near his then home. There he was noticed by a NY dealer (Robert Schoelkopf) who showed him there 1969 and 1981.

He was shown in a 1977 retrospective at MCA Chicago, and 1988 at the Whitney.

 

Exhibitions

Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, Montross Gallery in New York, February 1914; the Detroit Museum of Art, March 1914; Cincinnati Museum of Art, March / April 5, 1914; and the Peabody Institute, Baltimore, April / May 1914.

Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture in ‘The Modern Spirit,’ Milwaukee Art Society, April 16–May 12, 1914.

Manierre Dawson, Milwaukee Art Institute, Jan. 1923.

Retrospective Paintings by Manierre Dawson, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan, April 1966.

Manierre Dawson: Paintings 1909-1913, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida November 1967, Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, January / February 1968.

Manierre Dawson, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, April / May 1969

A Retrospective Exhibition of Painting, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1977. Indiana University Art Museum

Manierre Dawson: Paintings 1910-1914, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, 1981

Manierre Dawson: American Modernist Painter, Tildon-Foley Gallery, New Orleans, May / June 1988.

Manierrre Dawson Early Abstractionist, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July / September 1988.

Manierre Dawson American Pioneer of Abstract Art, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, October 1999.

Manierre Dawson American Pioneer of Abstract Art, Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana, December 2000.

Manierre Dawson: New Revelations, Hollis Taggart Galleries, Chicago, May / June 2003.

Manierre Dawson: A Startling Presence, Illinois State Museum, Springfield, March / August 2006.

Manierre Dawson, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, April 2011.

 

LIFE

Manierre Dawson was the 2nd of 4 sons born to George Dawson and Eva (Manierre) Dawson in Chicago, a middle class family, father a lawyer, who supported the arts but as a hobby but not a career.

Dawson’s only formal art training came from classes with Miss Dorothy Dimock at high school in Chicago. Here he met Arthur W. Dow’s instruction manual Composition (1899). Dow favoured “beauty over representation.”, which can be read as “let your mind go.”

Dawson really discovered art during a 4 year civil engineering degree course at the Armour Institute of Technology [he wrote: “All these days of hard study at Armour Tech, where I am taking a course in civil engineering, are brightened by continuing the making of pictures on week-ends.”] so when he graduated 1909 he quickly switched to painting, commencing his first abstract paintings as early as spring of 1910, in this apparently influenced by some of his engineering training (analytic geometry?), while a first-year employee at the Chicago architectural firm.

But granted 6 months leave he departed in mid-June 1910 for his one and only trip abroad, to Europe. He travelled across England to France (Paris), south through Germany, across Switzerland to Italy (in Siena meeting John Singer Sargent), back north for a second stay in Paris, and around northern Germany, leaving for home late-November. On his 2nd visit to Paris he met Gertrude Stein (who reportedly bought a painting), saw paintings by Cézanne (and others?) in Ambrose Vollard’s gallery.

In NY, on the way home, he met painter Arthur B. Davies who introduced him to Albert Pinkham Ryder, another painter.

Inspired by Europe – and meeting Davies? – he painted keenly 1911 through 1914

Dec.1912, Davies invited him to participate in the Armory Show) in New York (Feb. 15-Mar. 15, 1913). He initially declined but did show one work in Chicago.

April 1913 he left his architectural job.

In 1914, Dawson participated in two group exhibitions. One called “Fourteen”, meaning 14 current American artists, was organized by Arthur B Davies and Walter Pach, sponsored by the Montrose Gallery in NY, highlighting abstract painting, and went to Detroit, Cincinnati and Baltimore (Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University).

The other, in Milwaukee, Paintings and Sculptures in “The Modern Spirit”, organized by the forerunner of the Milwaukee Art Museum (by a high school friend there) sold two paintings to collector Arthur Jerome Eddy. “The exhibition was a sort of recap of the Armory Show. It opened in April and included contemporary European and American work from Midwest collections.

Early he spent summers at the family farm in at Ludington, Mason County, Michigan (about 2/3 the way up the east side of L Michigan), where he also painted a lot.

Mid 1914 he quit full time art.

He wrote April 1914, “I know there is work to be done on a farm in winter, yet I have the hope that if the bridge is crossed I can find painting or carving time in that season..

Summer 1914 he met Lilian Boucher, the daughter of a local farmer, then by autumn 1914 had decided, and with help from his father, he moved permanently to lakeside Ludington, and July 1915 married Lilian, thereafter raising three children.

In the mid-1950s he and his wife began wintering in Sarasota, Florida. There, after diagnosed with cancer in 1968, he died August 1969 (25 days after Armstrong walked on the moon).

some works………

 

1910

 
5

1910, Xdx, Oil on paperboard attached to particleboard, 19 1/8 x 14 7/16 in. (48.6 x 36.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum

 

6

1910, Discal Procession, oil on wood 30 1/2 x 24 7/8 in. (77.5 x 63.2 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

 

7

1910, DIfferential complex, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x 30.cm, Tilden-Foley Gallery, New Orleans

 

 

1913

 

8

1913, Essay in Brown, oil on cardboard, 45.7 x 66.0cm, Illinois State Museum

COMMENT: Illinois State Museum, “Employing a now-familiar palette, Dawson created a group of paintings in 1913 which were completely abstract ….. With Essay in Brown the artist creates visual tension by contrasting a series of rectilinear shapes in the background with a cascade of overlapping forms that tumble from right to left. …… The interlocking and floating elements of this might be compared with Willem De Kooning’s Excavation (Art Institute of Chicago), created 37 years later.”

1914

9

1914, Equation , oil on cardboard, 91.44 x 70.17 cm, Joslyn Art Museum

 

1915

10

1915, Figure by the Window, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 61.0cm, Illinois State Museum

COMMENT: Illinois State Museum,”…  1915 was momentous for .. Manierre Dawson… decide to commit himself completely to farming…. t married Lillian Boucher, a neighboring farm girl ten years his junior….  We see a female looking out a window. …  a classic theme. … Randy Ploog, in his 2003 essay “Metaphor and Autobiography in the Art of Manierre Dawson”, posits that Dawson borrowed major compositional elements of his Figure by the Window from Johannes Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1660-67). Certainly Dawson has shifted the ambience of the picture. Vermeer’s young woman is a picture of calm composure. In Dawson’s treatment, an aura seems to emanate from the woman’s central position outward, like waves of energy affecting everything they encounter. The space folds and refolds until it is almost unrecognizable. Perhaps this is a visual metaphor for the newlyweds’ relationship.’

 

11

 

1920. Desert, oil on canvas. 22 by 28 inches, Illinois State Museum

 

12

 

Manierre Dawson, 1950s?

COMMENT: Still gripped by his trademark lightning bolt Cubo-Futurist motifs

Otto Freundlich: between the cracks

Otto Freundlich (1878-1943, 64).

Between the cracks: pioneering German Modernist painter/sculptor, but now overlooked, eg, mystifyingly, by MOMA’s big 2013/14 “Inventing Abstraction” exhibition.

 

SUMMARY

Otto Freundlich is an odd fish, an apparently awkward outsider, of Jewish extraction, born and raised in Germany but whose career and life became enmeshed with France, who left a handful of front rank pioneering Modernist works, but who as a Jew was betrayed by French collaborators and gassed by the Nazis in 1943.

His overall oeuvre was narrow, succumbing to relentless geometric abstraction, his art motivated by a vague didactic utopian sensibility, but his few signature works, especially the large 1911 abstract painting, are memorable.

Curiously he is now largely forgotten, overlooked in conventional histories, to the extent that – strikingly – he was completely ignored by the MOMA’s comprehensive 2013/2014 exhibition, “Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925”. Not one mention.

But by any reckoning his iconic large (2 x 2m) 1911 oil painting, Composition (now hanging at Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris) is an historically pioneering abstract work, given its date (alongside Kandinsky, Kupka, Picabia and Delaunay), its size, and its distinctive abstraction motif. Also it was painted in the then heart of contemporary art, in Paris, alongside now famous other relevant artists.

Three factors have worked against his ex-post recognition?

First, his pioneering contribution was restricted to a handful of works (the 1911 painting and some sculptures). Then for some reason, beyond WW1, for over 20 years his painting retreated to variations on “mosaical” coloured geometric abstraction.

Second, though he was widely connected in the art world, in Germany and Paris, and keenly pursued his art, thought and wrote about art, he largely worked alone, operated mainly on the edge of the wider art community, did not engage readily. Thus he also generally struggled financially. However he was acknowledged by many well known artists, particularly later in France, like at the June 1938 Paris exhibtion.

Third, a significant portion of his output was lost, destroyed by the Nazis, some through bombing of Germany in WW2. Also, in Paris a large museum owned triptych was lost during WW2.

Sadly during WW2 he was gassed by the Nazis. After a difficult war in France as a Jew, undergoing periodic internment, in early 1943 he was denounced by collaborators, arrested and railed by complicit French authorities to a Nazi death camp in Poland, dying the day he arrived, 9 March 1943.

ART

Abstraction was the heart of Freundlich’s art. But his painting oeuvre is oddly narrow.

In 1911 (age 33) he executed his striking large two metre square abstract Composition. He apparently thought about this work, basing it on “the curve”:Freundlich took the view that “The curve is the basic element of the corporeal and the three-dimensional (…) the arm that indicates a direction, the symbol of our link with the universe.” The painting embodies a new “cosmic ethic”(Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris).

 Thereafter all his paintings were variations on colourful “mosaical”, patchwork geometric abstraction and generally small, none of them as large as the singular 1911 work.

Freundlich worked in various other media, especially sculpture (but only a handful of works), also mosaics, stained glass and carpets.

And he wrote a lot, publishing in various journals.

Coming from an actively Leftist political mindset, and actively engaged with many relevant contemporary art groups, Abtsraction-Creation, Freundlich intended his art to have constructive socio-political meaning and purpose and therefore no particular aesthetic relevance. But though he was well connected with the Left the purpose of his art for him – ie the ubiquitous abstraction – was not overtly political (as it was say for artists like Dix and Grosz ) but rather socio-spiritual, centred on promoting a quasi-religious future-oriented utopian communism, freed of “possessiveness” and people being “objects’.

Thus he was keen on Spinoza, was religious but not conventionally. “Religion has nothing at all to do with God. A man may be religious without believing in God .” He seems to have been influenced too by German mysticism, by Swedenborg.

LIFE

He was born in then Prussia (in Stolp, today Slupsk in Poland, on the Baltic Coast of Eastern Pomerania), moved to Berlin, initially studied dentistry (!), then art. June-August 1905 he walked over the Alps to Florence, stayed till November, back to Munich January 1906, thence back to Florence October 1906 to January 1907.

He returned to Berlin, thence to Paris in 1908 (what a time), to Montmartre, to the famous artists’ boarding house there,, Bateau Lavoir, meeting Picasso, Braque, Gris, Derain and Apollinaire etc.

July 1908 he returned to Munich, but was back to Paris 1909, to Montparnasse (settling there March 1913) and Montmartre (where the Clovis Sagot gallery organised a show).

1909 he attended an artist colony in Fleury-en-Bière in the forest of Fontainebleau, but returned Berlin January 1910, joined the Berlin Secession, returning Paris in autumn 1910.

In Berlin 1911 with the Neue Sezession group he met Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (founder of Die Brücke) and also the historian Wilhelm Niemeyer, the Hamburg art historian Rosa Schapire, and collector Josef Feinhals from Cologne.

1911 back in Paris he now met with sculptor Brancusi, Piet Mondrian, and Modigliani. November, he began work on his famous sculpture Der neue Mensch, acquired 1912 by Musee de Hambourg..   

1913 he participated in the famous Berlin exhibition of Der Sturm.

1914 he worked at Chartres Cathedral, helping to restore the north tower “For five months I was prisoner of the world at Chartres and I have emerged marked for ever…”.

War in 1914 forced a return to Germany. He became political after WW1, a member of the Left wing /socialist November Group (Novembergruppe) along with Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch etc).

During WW1 he worked in the health service but stayed active in art with friends like Raoul Hausmann (also in the anarchist artists group Kommune ), Hannah Höch and those in the Dadaist circles of Berlin.

November 1919 he organised a Dada show in Koln, with Max Ernst.

He gained patrons during the war, like Cologne businessman Joseph Feinhals whose collection was alas destroyed in WW2.

1922 showed with Artistes Progressistes de Düsseldorf.

1925 he returned to Paris, reacquainted with Picasso, Braque, Derain and Max Jacob. There he showed regularly at the Salon des Indépendants.

May 1928, he began his monumental sculpture, Ascension, finished in the summer of 1929 and showed at the Abstrakte Kunst und Surrealismus exhibition in Zurich.

1930 he joined the “Cercle et Carré” (Circle and Square) abstraction group in Paris, founded 1929 and which mounted a big exhibition April 1930 at Galerie 23. He then joined Abtsraction-Creation (eg with with Ben Nicholson, Alexander Calder, Albert Gleizes, Herbin, Moholy-Nagy, Wolfgang Paalen, Alfred Reth, and Kurt Seligmann), which absorbed Cercle et Carré.

These groups consciously differentiated from Surrealism and the post WW1 return to representational art, like Classicism.

1934 he participated in the Salon des Independants in Paris, began seeking French nationality with support including Georges Braque, but was unable to raise enough money and was denied.

The Nazis came to power January 1933 in Germany, later condemned his work which was included in the 1937“ Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) show.

In Paris he joined Union of Artistes Allemands (Union of German Artists, or Freier Künstlerbund, founded autumn 1937, with Max Ernst, Hans Hartung etc

In June 1938 Gallery owner Jeanne Bucher-Myrbor organized an important exhibition of his work just before his 60th birthday. Over 20 friends and artist colleagues (including: Hans Arp, Georges Braque, Andre Derain , R. and S. Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Walter Gropius, Fernand Léger, Max Jacob, W. Kandinsky, J. Lipchitz, P. Picasso, S. Tauber-Arp, and Max Ernst) signed an appeal to the French government to purchase two works for the National Museum of Modern Art in order to support the destitute artist.

Until 1939 he worked in a ground-floor studio in a backyard of No. 38 Rue Denfert Rochereau (now Rue Barbusse), near the Luxembourg Gardens.

September 1939 as a German national he was interned in France, with fellow Germans, Max Ernst, Wols, and Springer. Numerous artists signed an appeal of support, including: Hans Arp, Georges Braque, Andre Derain , R. and S. Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Walter Gropius, Fernand Léger, Max Jacob, W. Kandinsky, J. Lipchitz, P. Picasso, S. Tauber-Arp, and Max Ernst.

Between September 1939 and March 1942 he was detained in about 9 establishmnts.

On release in February 1940 he declined advice to emigrate to Switzerland and was detained again mid May 1940, released 20 June. Now he took refuge in the eastern Pyrenees at Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet. But foolishly attracted attention by protesting at having to register as a Jew. In 1942 he was hidden by a farm family in Saint-Martin-de-Fenouillet. He was betrayed and arrested on 23 February 1943. Railed via Drancy in Paris to Majdanek (Poland) on 4 March, he was murdered the day he arrived, 9th March 1943.

2017 Otto Freundlich: Cosmic Communism”, exhibition, February 18 – Mai 14, 2017; Mu­se­um Lud­wig, Cologne

Selected works………..

00

1911. Composition 200 x 200cm, Musée d’Art Moderne (MAM) de la Ville de Paris.

COMMENT: This is a pioneering abstract image, using an unusual abstract style, by the artist’s own words based on the “curve”, “The curve is the basic element of the corporeal and the three-dimensional (…) the arm that indicates a direction, the symbol of our link with the universe.”).

It was completed in the early days of the emergence of abstraction, alongside the now famous names like Mondrian and Kandinsky, and other pioneers like Delaunay and Kupka and Picabia, but executed by an artist very few know.

The abstraction patterning could be construed as organic or even mineralogical.

MAM (Paris): This early abstract painting by Otto Freundlich (1978-1943), painted in Paris in 1911…. contemporary with the paintings that established abstraction by Kandinsky, Kupka and Delaunay. Composition (1911), which is a perfect square, is a pivotal, large-scale work, typical of the passage from expressionism to the early phase of abstraction. In this painting… observation of nature is the point of departure for new “representations”. Freundlich took the view that “The curve is the basic element of the corporeal and the three-dimensional (…) the arm that indicates a direction, the symbol of our link with the universe.”.

 02

1912 ‘Large Head’ / Großer Kopf (labelled The New Man / Der Neue Mensch by the Nazis), plaster, 1.39m high.

COMMENT: Owing to its provenance this became Freundlich’s most famous work. Thus it was included in the Nazis infamous 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition and publicised by being featured on the cover of the catalogue.

03

1923, Head (Self Portrait)

04

1930, Composition, oil on canvas, Musées de Pontoise

05

1931, Composition, oil on canvas, Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal,

06

1933, Mein roter Himmel (My Red Heaven),

07

  1. 1941. Rosette II (La Rosace II), gouache on cardboard.

 

Henri MATISSE: A deceptive genius? An Artist for the Supreme Fiction

Henri MATISSE (31 Dec.1869 – 3 Nov. 1954, 84).

The deceptive tortoise to Picasso’s hare.

The cat who walked alone.

 “No worries!” Matisse fearlessly affirmed Man’s raison d’ être.

A pretty boy? Travails of Modern Life passed by art of the the soothing Neo-Romantic Mediterranean Colorist?

No! His grand aesthetic allegorical affirmation of the communal “Good Life” was timely, trumped the grumpy Realists.


FEATURED IMAGE: 1916 (Late summer), The Piano Lesson, Oil on canvas, 245.1 x 212.7 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

COMMENT:  In this marvellous painting from Matisse’s curious and uncharacteristic WW1 period the artist was provoked by war, and the recent radical art movements of Cubism and Abstraction to conjour tension, anxiety in a large emotionally powerful personal  image.

Thus“crisis” – especially the sudden and unexpected outbreak of war – leaned on Matisse and coaxed from him, 1913-17, a series of abruptly different paintings.

Obviously he was not alone in being affected by the war but Matisse by nature was not usually calm in peacetime let alone when the Germans invaded, quickly capturing his family’s base in far north France.

The Piano lesson “..depicts the living room of Matisse’s home in Issy-les-Moulineaux.. outside Paris [suburban east], with his son Pierre practicing the piano. A candle sits on the instrument, illuminating a triangle of lawn. .. bottom left corner is a representation of one of Matisse’s sculptures, Decorative Figure (1908), while the severe “teacher” in the opposite corner is .. a representation of the painting “Woman on a High Stool” (1914)…”  (Wiki).

Pierre said of the boy in The Piano Lesson, “Yes, it was me, and you have no idea how much I detested those piano lessons.”” (Peter Schjeldahl , New Yorker, 2005)

First it is unusually large, especially for a quiet domestic interior. Then the flat stylized quasi-abstract image of an apparently innocuous subject, a casual family domestic encounter, is imbued with tension. Father and son seem at peace, the son making music, and music was important in Matisse’s recent major visual meditation of the theme of Arcadia. The small sculpture in the corner references these images too.

But somewhere outside, through the window (a favourite visual device), the war still rages, now for near two years, and they father and son know it. And 1916 was a bad year for France in that war.  Pierre was 16 in 1916 when this was painted, and presumably will face call up into the war, but poignantly he is shown much younger than 16 in the image. Anxiety we see in the alien like face of the staring boy, where a bolt of shadow from the window, like an incoming projectile, blinds his right eye.

The candle and the metronome speak of passing time.

The elongated woman rear right is maybe the teacher, or a ghost, an allegorical device.

In late 1917 Matisse moved his base to Nice. Then the war over in 1918 his style relaxed, reverted by and large to “pretty pictures”, but still then in their own way fashioning his message to Man, his Arcadia, which after Dance, c1910, will climax again after WW2 when ailing health – another “crisis” – will restrict his manual skills, and body mobility, and compel him to retreat to decoupage, crude colourful geometric quasi-abstraction conjoured in timeless evocative images.

This painting struck one, which is why it features here. Then one reads that the articulate art critic in the New Yorker (Peter Schjeldahl) chooses it as “my favorite work of twentieth-century art.” The chap who is not so keen on Edgar Degas!

,

End to end……….

01

Age 21: 1890 Still Life with Books and Candle, 45 x 38 cm private; COMMENT: “What he called his first picture”.

02

Age 84: 1953, La Gerbe, 294 x 350 cm. LACMA, Los Angeles, CA.

Matisse writes in a letter to friend painter Charles Camoin (1879-1965), then in the French army, October 1914:

“I know that Seurat is altogether the opposite of a romantic and that I am one, a Romantic, but a good half of me is a scientist, a rationalist, and that’s what causes the struggle from which I sometimes emerge the victor, but exhausted.”

 

Contents

1/ Summary: The deceptive tortoise, an uncanny and timely aesthetic affirmation of Man’s higher calling!

2/ Matisse or Picasso? No contest? The hare and the tortoise? Different tacks but ultimately both on the same team.

3/ Matisse the painter: it did not come easily.

4/ Feeling his way: c1891-1905: early years to the Fauves.

Introduction.

Before Fauvism, c1891-1905

Fauvism and its roots

5 Finding his feet! c1905-14: thematic purpose appears.

Matisse’s “theoretical” approach

Wider context– Cubism and Abstraction

Matisse’s art: first path, intimate: decorative , ornamental interiors

Matisse’s art: second path. The high note: a grand, pared allegorical sequence on the Good Life, Man’s raison d’ être!

Luxe, Calme et Volupté

Le bonheur de vivre

In the wake of Le bonheur de vivre

Dance and Music

6/ WW1 c1914-17: the first “crisis”. WW1 tips Matisse – jolted by Cubism and abstraction – into the experimental, reflective “black period”, 1914-16.

7/ Portraits to 1918: generally drawing on the pared, stylised “Primitive”.

8/ Post WW1: Matisse relaxes, returns to naturalistic “decorative” figuration.

9/ Post WW2: the disruptive second “crisis” compels Matisse to innovate through decoupage (cut-outs).

ATTACHED: LIFE

 

1/ SUMMARY: A deceptive genius?  oise, an uncanny and timely aesthetic affirmation of Man’s higher calling!

 Was Matisse simply a towering Neo-Romantic, a nostalgic escapist, the self-indulgent Grand Aesthete, devoted to seducing the world with soothing, flat colourful other-worldly images, Pretty Pictures”? To relax his customers like does “a good armchair”(Matisse, 1908).

Matisse’s long life overlapped extraordinary events, historically unparalleled political and economic drama for his country, continent and the world, including two calamitous world wars and the Great Depression.

But you’d never know from his art? For strikingly his work addressed none of this drama, at least objectively, directly.

Realism appeared to pass him by? He did not paint Modern Life as such, in striking contrast to some other modernists, like the German Expressionists and war artists.

And, after his rich creative period before and during WW1, his apparently gratuitous escapism is no better developed than in his flurry of “odalisques” (strictly chambermaids but typically portrayed erotically as concubines), painted in “fake, absurd, amazing, delicious” Nice, mainly in the 1920s. “The transition from grand decorations [and the grand allegorical “murals”] to an equally fervent vapidity leaves everyone at a loss for words..” (Julian Bell, LRB, 2006). Like his friend, and collector, Marcel Sembat. Though his final coruscating outburst of découpage works generally relaxed some doubters.

But no! “Art for Matisse was a vision of Paradise”. (C. Turner, in “Matisse”, Queensland Art Gallery, 1995) (1).

Bullseye!

So Matisse was not nonchalantly disregarding wider contemporary turmoil, not ignoring “modern life” at all. As he said in 1908, “All artists bear the imprint of their time..” (2).

No, rather he was responding legitimately, in his own way to life’s challenges, to his understanding of the world about him.

Intentionally, if perhaps feeling his way, and drawing on an extensive supporting cast – especially on his response to the European pastoral tradition of the Golden Age – he issuedun [Baudelairean] invitation au voyageto viewers: developed a constructive, even heroic, antidote for the Travails of Modern Life, not indulgently as a hedonistic self-absorbed Grand Aesthete but by applying, constructively, an optimistic eye on the wider human argument, consciously affirming Man’s informing wider purpose: the goal of the cooperative Good Life, aiming for a personal Paradise, which thrust was his ultimate raison d’ être.

This overarching theme informed, became the life mission of Matisse’s work.

His Pointillist Luxe, Calme et Volupté  (Luxury, calm and sensual pleasure) of 1904-05 was the prologue of an allegorical sequence / cycle (c1904-12) which, in the wake of his declamatory summer 1905 Fauves experience, fell into place c1905-06 with the large (1.8 x 2.4 metres) Le Bonheur du vivre and climaxed with the even larger (near 2.5 x 4 metres) Dance (1909-10, in two versions) and then Music (1910).

As he wrote in 1951 (age 82): “From Bonheur du vivre .. to this cut-out… I have not changed.. all this time I have looked for the same things… perhaps.. by different means..” (quoted C. Turner, op.cit.).

So indeed, from the time he found his metier, c1905 – and notwithstanding his apparent wide compass – arguably all his art more or less fits somewhere within the same grand theme, demonstrates a broad continuity: from his energetic quasi-abstract Fauvist colouration to the grand allegorical statements before WW1, to his lavish decorative interiors, later the pyjama ladies, to his many still lives and finally to his decoupage. Thus “The last great papiers decoupés..  are well viewed as a final, spiritualized journey to Baudelaire’s world of luxe, calme et volupté.” (Golding, LRB, 1985). Though some critics are happier with some chapters of Matisse’s career than others, cf the lively discussion by Jed Perl and respondent Professor Krauss, NY Rev. Books, May 2016.

But perhaps Matisse’s most interesting period was during WW1 when “crisis”knocked he and his art sideways, compounded by him still digesting the stll fresh twin disruptions of Cubism and Abstraction.

So overall “Matisse’s art [consciously] transcended his time” (3).

But importantly while Matisse for his purpose borrowed the traditional reactionary notion of the Golden Age, arguably his take was not literal, not deluded nostalgic escapism, though not everyone agrees on this. (4).

Nor was his allusion to paradise in any way religious or spiritual, let alone Christian (despite later decorating the chapel at Vence). No, he was declaiming after the Death of God, famously broadcast in late 19th C by Wagner and Nietzsche.

And he was looking ahead not behind, arguing that it was precisely at times of trouble that Man needed to keep in mind a wider perspective, and for Matisse that perspective – right or wrong, and addressed to every individual prepared to listen – was not religiously driven but instead secular, campaigning for a constructive, affirmative commitment to the communal Good Life.

 

Complicating Matisse’s seductive allure is that his perspective was not trying to be razor sharp in its clarity (like most religious dogma), but inherently imprecise.

As he wrote (1908): “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter—a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue”.

So where is the truth? As he said (somewhat like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in physics) in balancing the here and now with all the demands of the wider context, balancing the aesthetic and the moral, there is no precise answer.

And it will vary for different participants and for different moods of the one participant.

 

The cat who walked alone!

Above all, highlighting his singular distinctive importance is that beyond his experience leading the brief Fauvist movement, c1905, Matisse stands alone. He painted alone, is associated with no other recognised modern art movement.

Peter Schjeldahl (New Yorker, 2005) wrote “The key fact is his self-invention as a painter, entering art history from essentially nowhere, as if by parachute. Never having had traditional lessons to unlearn”.

But while Matisse’s training path was perhaps not fully conventional, he did study with important painter Moreau and others, including much time copying and viewing at the Louvre, and he also visited Italy, London an Spain. So he certainly did become well acquainted with Western art, and indeed referenced many past painters in his art, eg particularly Le Bonheur de vivre.

 

Matisse was raised in the dark north, in a polluted, industrial pocket in far north France, alleviated for him by its textiles context. Then, via Paris, he eventually painted mainly in the sunny south. But his gloomy grimy cradle may have helped fired, inspire his later sustained embrace of the bold and colourful.

 

Ironically the gelling of Matisse’s ideas on his approach to art, c1905-10, its overall purpose – ie starting about 15 years after he started painting – happened, unbeknownst to him, on the doorstep of three decades of unimaginable calamity, two world wars and the Great Depression.

 

Ironic too, given the sustained, sunny, aesthetic disposition of Matisse’s oeuvre – be it in the grand frescoesque allegorical “murals” or the densely ornamented decorative interiors – is that Matisse’s creative artistic work purpose was apparently hard fought personally. In a way he was the tortoise to Picasso’s hare.

 

Matisse’s affirmation of Man’s wider constructive cooperative endeavor in the face of unrest and adversity bears some comparison with other painters. Aesthetic preoccupations informed Monet ’s very long career, and Pissarro most of the time? And another striking case is the American modernist Stuart Davis (1892-1964), just over 20 years younger. Davis was also keen on flat bold figurative color, but geometrically hued, and, like Matisse, his art remained oblivious to both world wars and the Great Depression. Rather he seemed rather to record, even celebrate, the ongoing dynamic creative energy of the USA, notwithstanding some blatant defects, particularly race.

 

Notes: (1) “Paradise” was the word Matisse used recalling how, recuperating from an appendectomy 1890, a “box of paints” had transported him into “a kind of Paradise” (quoted by Jack Flam in “Matisse: the man and his art, 1869-1918”).

(2)  quoted by Jack Flam in “Matisse: the man and his art, 1869-1918”.

(3) quoted (C. Turner, in “Matisse”, Queensland Art Gallery, 1995.

(4) “.. as seen by so many reviewers after the [1992-93] MOMA retrospective..”. (C. Turner, “Matisse”, Queensland Art Gallery, 1995.

 

2/ Matisse or Picasso? No contest? The hare and the tortoise? Different tacks but ultimately both on the same team.

Matisse is commonly regarded alongside Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)also long-lived, but 12 years younger – as a founding giant of 20th C modern art.

Matisse was slower out of the blocks, was around 35 when his first “masterpiece’’ arrived in 1906 with Le Bonheur d vivre, his first pioneering statement. While Picasso was 27 in 1907 when he painted Les demoiselles.

They crossed swords soon after meeting at Gertrude Stein’s in Paris in April 1905. Picasso was stirred by Matisse’s large dramatic statement (Le Bonheur de vivre) at the April 1906 Salon des Independants, and again – by Blue nude, Souvenir de Biskra – at the same show in 1907.

Maybe here Matisse thus ‘influenced” Picasso, at least generally in terms of stirring his creative juices, though not necessarily in detail. The style and content of Picasso’s Les demoiselles was very much his own creation? Though, like Matisse, he was inspired by diverse earlier art expression (refer below). Perhaps though the sheer size of Demoiselles (2.4 x 2.3 metres) – much bigger than anything Picasso painted before – owed much to the scale of Le Bonheur (2.4 x 1.8 metres)?

Meanwhile the contrast in content between Le Bonheur and Demoiselles shows the two artists were on different tacks in terms of detailed style and content.

 

Who ultimately “won”? Arguably Matisse’s “fellow titan” sewed more and richer crops? His restless energetic imagination, and sustained prolific work ethic, explored more rooms in the vast house of art – both in his working style and his subject matter – and in one famous example he certainly did directly engage Modern Life with Guernica (1937).

However one might argue that the total oeuvre of Matisse (the tortoise to Picasso’s hare?) – over his long (near 40 years) career from c1905 when he found his métier – was steadier, and above all more continuous and coherent?

 

However stepping right back one might argue there was really no contest in that perhaps both were ultimately viewing their world from the same broad philosophical vantage? Both were on the same team? Both argued for a constructive humanist take on Man’s wider purpose?

 

3/ Matisse the painter: it did not come easily.

A clear distinction between Matisse and Picasso is that art did not come easily to Matisse, as explained in Hilary Spurling’s biographies. “Matisse’s harmonies of colour and design were hard won, wrested from a temperament under siege from discord and disorder. ..  the professional appearance, like the serenity he strove for in his painting, lay precariously on him. Matisse once said that what drove him to paint was “the rising urge to strangle someone”, and that he always “worked like a drunken brute trying to kick the door down” (The Economist, Oct.2001).

He started late, at around 20, supported by his mother but not father. Then he labored hard to produce art and at least early on, especially 1905-10, he battled professional criticism. ‘’Young artists and intellectuals in Paris at that time overwhelmingly favored Picasso’s analytical rigor, to the extent of attacking Matisse in print and snubbing him in public.” (Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker, 2005)

And generally he struggled early, was financially stretched for around 15 years to 1905.

Later in 1910, following the big effort to execute the major commission for Schlukin he had a virtual breakdown.

And he worked hard at painting. “Throughout his career, he questioned, repainted, and reevaluated his work. He used his completed canvases as tools, repeating compositions in order to compare effects, gauge his progress, and, as he put it, “push further and deeper into true painting.” (Met introduction to Matisse: In Search of True Painting, 2012). Thus in the 2012-13 Met show we see Still Life with Purro (1904-05,) painted twice, one styled after Cezanne and the other Signac. And Cezannesque Apples/ Oranges he painted thrice in 1916.

Ironically also, France was slow to welcome Matisse. “Virtually all of Matisse’s important early patrons and collectors were foreigners:..  not until 1922, when Matisse was in his 50s..  the French government purchased a work for the Musée du Luxembourg.. [the] somewhat conventional Odalisque with Red Trousers” (Golding, LRB 1985). Golding also notes that in the 1920s Derain was generally more highly rated than Matissee and that “Most of the best writing on Matisse—and for that matter on French nineteenth- and twentieth-century art in general—has been in English”.

Reviewing two books on collectors of Matisse (Jewish Review of Books, Summer 2012), Matisse biographer Catherine C. Bock-Weiss highlights early (American) Jewish “patrons” of Matisse, particularly the Steins and the Cone sisters, both of which parties were pivotal in supporting Matisse after c1905. Then c1910 Gertrude moved on to Picasso and Leo to Renoir, but Sarah (Michael’s wife) was resolute in supporting Matisse, down to constructive exchanges on his art.

And also Jewish dealers mattered, like “Bernheim-Jeune, Léonce and Paul Rosenberg, Georges Petit, and Valentine Dudensing”.

His habits were incredibly regular.” (5)

 

Note: (5) “His habits were incredibly regular. On a typical day in Nice, in 1917, Spurling tells us, he “rose early and worked all morning with a second work session after lunch, followed by violin practice, a simple supper (vegetable soup, two hard-boiled eggs, salad and a glass of wine) and an early bedtime.” Spurling knows her man so well that you readily tolerate her occasional reading of his mind: “By the seventeenth it was so hot he stayed indoors all day, drawing fruit, reading or dozing on the studio couch, feeling his feet swell and thinking about his ‘Still Life with Green Sideboard.’ “(Peter Schjeldahl , New Yorker, 2005).

 

4/ Feeling his way. c1891-1905: early years to the Fauves.

Introduction.

Prima facie Matisse was “pretty pictures”, colorful landscapes earlier, seascapes (and little of busy polluted cities), some portraits (including the odd self portrait), many of women (including the odalisques), some decorative peopled interiors, many still lives. Later, as failing health curbed his manual dexterity, he delivered the same message through his découpage works, his “cut-outs”.

But they were “pretty pictures” with a purpose, belying an underlying subtle if serious polemical mission, which emerged in his mid 30s, from around 1905 when he found his feet, set his sails, and blossomed c1905-18 (ie age approx. 35-48), Matisse’s purple patch.

 

Before Fauvism, c1891-1905

After around age 22 when he embarked on an art career the first important painter he met was Gustave Moreau (1826-98), with whom he trained for near 5 years in Paris from 1892, alongside Georges Rouault (1871-1958) and Henri Manguin (1874-1959). Moreau was much older but unconventional, not enamoured of the Salon system, and who in his Symbolist later years produced a number of radical colourful quasi-abstract works around 1890, which Matisse presumably saw.

In addition it seems Matisse also benefited directly from Moreau’s drawing styles (cf Matisse, Jean Guichar-Meili, Praeger, 1967), evident in Matisse’s heavy well modelled figures, in his simple, lined figures, and in sinuous arabesques. Matisse also may have noticed Moreau using areas of detailed ornament and decoration.

In the early 1890s he studied, copied works at the Louvre, especially Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Nicolas Poussin, Antoine Watteau and Raphael (eg copied his famous Baldassare Castiglione).

The seminal break for Matisse’s art appeared to come in the mid 1890s with three consecutive summer visits to the islet of Belle-Ile on Brittany’s Atlantic coast (1895-97), his first sight  of a wild rocky coast. 1895 he lasted only 10 days, “Everything seemed.. highly original.. but colossally difficult” he wrote. But 1896 he stayed 3 months and met, interacted with the sociable well-connected Australian painter John Peter Russell (1858-1930), independently well-off,  who was resident there 1888 to 1908 and who became an important mentor and go-between for Matisse.

Russell in 1886 had there met and befriended Monet (1840-1926), painted with him. Earlier from Paris Russell also knew Van Gogh (1853-90). So Russell 1896 talked to Matisse of Impressionism, and van Gogh, and also that summer he “gave or sold Matisse a van Gogh drawing, Hayricks” (Flam). Thus Russell encouraged plein air painting, and the Impressionist style / palette. Also his house was hung with some collected Impressionist works.

Winter 1896/97 Matisse then met the much older (then 68) Camille Pissarro (1831-1903), along with Monet a surviving beacon of Impressionism, and who subsequently mentored Matisse regarding Impressionism and Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). In 1897 they visited together Gustave Caillebotte’s impressive (mainly Impressionist?) collection, recently installed at the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. As he noted, this was his first substantial sight of an Impressionist collection.

Brittany 1896 importantly advanced Matisse’s education but 1898 was when the breakthrough evidenced in his art.

First, in January he visited London (on his honeymoon) and there, on Pissarro’s advice, saw the work of famous “proto-Impressionist” English painter JMW Turner. He and his new wife then summered in Corsica where his art suddenly came alive in terms of bold colour and brush strokes, especially in his landscapes, but also an interior (Woman reading), works recalling Turner and also Van Gogh. After Brittany he had seen Van Gogh’s works in 1897 at Vollard’s gallery in Paris.

Then importantly in 1899 he met and studied with the boisterous, flamboyant younger painter Andre Derain (1880-1954), and bought a Cezanne off Vollard.

The Corsican breakthrough now stayed in his art, especially in a number of still lives, like Still life with oranges (II) (1899, which suddenly is flatter), Blue pitcher (1901), and Luxembourg Gardens (1901).

Color and flat spare linear compositions arrived with 1901’s progressive Pont Saint-Michel, and 1902’s Notre-Dame, une fin d’après-midi (“A Glimpse of Notre-Dame in the Late Afternoon”).

From about May 1902 to August 1903 there was a hiatus in his progress, his “dark period”, owing partly to a financial scandal which engulfed his parents in-law.

But 1904 he jumped ahead again. He summered at St Tropez with Neo-Impressionist Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Henri-Edmond Cross (colleagues of the late pioneering short-spanned Georges Seurat (1559-91)) then responded with Luxe, Calme et Volupté, a homage to colorful pointillist Neo-Impressionism, which Signac bought which launched his Fauvist break.

 

Fauvism and its roots

His art found its feet initially through his pioneering colorful Fauvist collaboration with the younger Andre Derain and also Georges Braque (1882-1963), and Maurice Vlaminck (1876-1958), during summer of 1905 at Collioure, in far SW France,on the Mediterranean, near Perpignan.

The group launched at the 1905 Salon d’Autumne in Paris where – like most radical movements – it was greeted with scorn by the public and most critics. Matisse’s Woman with a hat (a portrait of his wife under an elaborate hat) drew the most ire? Leading critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the eponymous phrase, writing of ”Donatello among the wild beasts [ie fauves]”. The term was in common use by 1907, and now Fauvism is popularly hailed as the first radical art movement of the 20th C.

The bold patchy coarse textured colouration in some of Matisse’s 1905 Fauve paintings (and Derain’s) leans far towards abstraction, particularly in La Japonaise, woman beside water, and the MOMA Landscape at Collioure.

 

However Fauvism – the bold coarse-brushed colorful art style applied to landscapes and some portraits – was less radical than it appeared. It basically adapted, energised the coarse-brushed colourful naturalism of Impressionism, and the exploration of bold “unnatural” colour by the Post-Impressionists and then the Nabis / Symbolists.

 

Thus Matisse had obviously “discovered” colour through his training and associations during the 1890s, built around studying under Gustave Moreau for over 5 years from 1892.

He was impressed by the colour indulgence of Post Impressionists like Van Gogh (1853-90) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).

Matisse said in 1945: “From Delacroix and Van Gogh and principally through Gauguin…one can follow the rehabilitation of color, and the restitution of its emotive powers.”

In 1905 he saw some of Gauguin’s South Sea works with Daniel de Montfried. Though John Golding (LRB, 1985) suggests Matisse was “ambivalent” about Gauguin, was put off by Gauguin’s underlying melancholy”, compared with Cezanne who was “more sympathetic as a personality, and because his art seemed to open endless new paths of discovery”.

Gauguin in turn directly inspired the Symbolists (cf literary manifesto 1886  by French poet Jean Moréas) who dominated the avant-garde in the 1890s, now opposed to Realism and Naturalism and who saw ideas as the “supreme reality”, in favour of delving “the ineffable, the irrational and the subjective”, and at a time too when interest in the occult was growing fast.

So Matisse would have seen striking colourful works by Moreau, and by Nabis / Symbolist close contemporaries Paul Serusier (1864-1927), Maurice Denis (1870-1943) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) etc.

This group was joined from round 1890 by the older artist Odilon Redon (1840-1916) who was born the same year as Monet but whose art and mindset completely bypassed the Impressionists, who was closely sympathetic to Symbolism, exploring fantasy, the eerie and spiritual. Then from around 1890 he too suddenly discovered colour, expressed especially through pastels.

Meanwhile most of the Nabis painters also succumbed to allure of Japanese prints and paintings, the colour and the cropped skew compositions. In Matisse’s time there was a show of this art in 1890 at Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and 1893 at prominent dealer Durand-Ruel’s.

Finally Matisse said his Fauvist experience with colour helped him understand Byzantine art, mosaics, when he encountered it in Ravenna (1907) and Moscow (1911)

 

So, broadly speaking the Fauvist “break” simply continued the Post-Impressionist /Symbolist thrust, of setting decorative colour free from simply describing a natural scene, using it “unnaturally”, to tell a story or express emotion, or moralise, whether intimately or grandly, people or landscapes.

 

5 Finding his feet! c1904-14: thematic purpose appears.

 

Matisse’s “theoretical” approach

Matisse quickly moved beyond Fauvism, now thinking more deeply, “theoretically”, about the wider purpose of his art.

Thus he thought ahead when painting, in his late 1908 Notes of a Painter said, “For me all is in the conception. I must therefore have a clear vision of the whole from the beginning”.

Regarding a painting he said, “..A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety ..What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or disturbing subject matter”.

And content, “What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape but the human figure”.

He acknowledged debts to others. Interviewed by Guillaume Apollonaire in late 1907 he said, “I have worked to enrich my mind… striving to ascertain the different thoughts of ancient and modern masters… I have never avoided the influence of others…

And regarding the method he said, “The simplest means are those which best enable an artist to express himself

 

Wider context – Cubism and Abstraction

Matisse was not a Cubist though he was of course famously there at the birth, as a selector on the jury for the pathbreaking 1908 Salon d’Automne which rejected George Braque’s three pioneering Cubist works (6).

The immediate pronounced public impact of the radical new movement apparently unnerved Matisse, not least because it displaced he (and the other Fauves) from centre stage.

The other great radical shift in art emerging about then, from c1910 onwards, again mainly in Paris, was Abstraction.

 

So from 1908 Matisse was shaken by the emergence of two radical new styles – a pivotal moment in Western art – seeing the former Fauvist colleague George Braque switch to, launch Cubism in 1908 with Picasso, and seeing the avant-garde abstraction movement gather pace from around 1910, like at the famous 1910 Salon d’Automne, which showed abstract works by Picabia, Kupka and Delaunay, ironically the same show where Matisse showed his now iconic Dance and Music.

 

In the years from 1908 to the outbreak of war in 1914 Matisse’style reacted in its own way, on and off, to the radical shifts of Cubism and Abstraction.

 

But unsettled by the shift in the avant-garde, by the poor reception for his work at 1910 Salon d’Automne, and also by his father’s death, Matisse retreated a time from the commercial art world, travelled: to Munich (Oct.1910), Spain (late 1910), Collioure (summer 1911), Moscow (Nov.1911), and Morocco (Jan. – April 1912, and October 1912 to April 1913, including Corsica, early 1913).

 

Matisse’s art: first path, intimate: decorative, ornamental interiors  

 

Broadly speaking, from 1905 Matisse’s art progressed on two parallel fronts, simultaneously, one intimate, the other grand.

 

First he continued exploring colour, down an ornamental “decorative”, “tapestry” / “wall-paper” path, as opposed to the “sculptural” path for his important figurative works.

The decorative path was brilliantly established in 1908 with the large (1.8 x 2.2 metres) lush decorative interior genre scene, Harmony in Red commissioned by the same Moscow businessman, Mr Shchukin, who bought Dance and Music.

And, in the wake of Dance and Music, Matisse unleashed his “four great interiors of 1911: first The pink studio (1.8 x 2.2m), then The painter’s family (1.4 x 1.9m), Interior with aubergines (egg plants) (2.1 x 2.5m), and late 1911, the smaller L’Atelier Rouge (The red studio) (1.6 x 1.3m).

 

As explained Matisse’s interest in colour was first profoundly aroused by his 1890s exposure to his French associates, but it was then extended, reinforced by visiting Algeria (Biskra) in 1906, then Italy in 1907, eg there impressed by Giotto’s famous frescoes at Padua.

Then he was much affected by a major Islamic exhibition in Munich late 1910, then by the two visits to Morocco (29 Jan. to 14 April 1912, and 8 October 1912 to mid February 1913), mainly to Tangier, which reinforced his appetite for colour and light, first triggered by visits to the French Mediterranean, to Saint-Tropez in 1904 then Collioure.

He was struck too by the exotic panoply of people, places and life, which he fitted to his grand thematic work purpose of elaborating on a personal Arcadia.

 

Additional important specific influences on his “decorative” style were:

1/ Gustave Moreau’s art and early mentorship.

2/ Islamic art arabesque decoration, via Munich and Morocco..

3/ Textile patterns. Hilary Spurling’s biography of Matisse highlights the influence on Matisse’s intense decorative images of his early exposure to textiles and clothmaking in the region of his upbringing and youth, in Picardie, far north France. This connection was recognised in the 2005 exhibition (Royal Academy, and Metropolitan Museum of Art) on Matisse, His Art and His Textiles — The Fabric of Dreams. “It argues persuasively that textiles were fundamental to Matisse’s formidably decorative art, with its saturated colors, positive-negative ambiguities, pulsating patterns, distillations from nature and the sense of folded structure and ironed-out space that was his answer to Cubism” (Roberta Smith, NY Times, 2005).

Across the years Matisse carefully compiled a library of these items.

Interesting too is that the business of Matisse’s pivotal wealthy Russian patron (who had 37 of his paintings by 1914) was in textiles.

 

Within his important evolving interest in the flat, decorative and colorful, like in The red studio (1911) he sometimes also leaned towards abstraction, like in the large (around 2 x 2.5 metres) Interior with aubergines from summer 1911 (Grenoble).

Also from his first visit to Morocco we see two quasi-abstract paintings based on vegetation. Moroccan garden (early 1912) could be a detail from Le Bonheur etc. And we see two flat colourful “blue” townscapes, one a doorway to the casbah, the other a window view.

The second visit, after a spell back in Paris when he painted two quasi-abstract goldfish interiors, produced more variety, from the striking simple Moroccan coffee (early 1913), to the flat angular “blue” still life of flowers and a plate.

Matisse’s art: second path. The high note: a grand allegorical sequence on the Good Life, large, pared and aesthetic. Man’s raison d’ être!

Second, having gained self-confidence from his Fauve exercise, Matisse started thinking more about the wider purpose of his art, and in so doing drew on diverse sources in art, and literature, poetry.

What emerged was a quiet importunate campaign for Man – preoccupied with the pressing mundane – to not forget his wider collective driving ethos.

Thus Matisse embarked on his tour de force, a grand allegorical sequence or cycle on the communal Good Life, c1905-12, using lashings of colour, and pared, linearised figures influenced by Cezanne, then informed by the sudden discovery in Paris of stylised “primitive” African art, reinforced by the visit to Algeria in 1907, evident in the important Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra) from 1907.

Through a sequence starting with Le Bonheur de vivre (1905-06) Matisse fashioned a kind of personal Arcadia, a personal vision of a “Golden Age”, culminating in Dance: Dance I (1909, MOMA, a draft for Dance II) / Dance II (1910, Hermitage), and also Music (1910 Hermitage, like Dance II, painted for merchant Sergey Shchukin in Moscow), all large images, and emphatically pared and coloured  – a grand overarching exercise addressing no less than Matisse’s take on the Human Condition, exhorting Man to look on the bright side, to be defined by communal collective purpose.

Nasturtiums with the Painting “Dance (1912, two versions, MOMA and Pushkin) was an important coda, bringing the theme into everyone’s domestic lounge room.

Later, c1932, another version of Dance was commissioned by the Barnes Foundation in the US.

 

He rose no higher than in these powerful, evocative images, applying his new awareness of color, and Cezanne’s “structural” / figurative legacy, to this grand allegorical discourse, depicting the timeless motive of Man’s collective existential circumstances: harmonious co-operation for a greater good.

Clearly Matisse was drawing inspiration from the European pastoral tradition of the Golden Age, going back ultimately to ancient Greece, to Hesiod’s Works and Days.

“..if La Joie de vivre is a revolutionary work it also kept alive a tradition of art that goes back to the [pastoral] Renaissance bacchanals of Bellini and Titian and in turn to the classical world” (Golding, LRB 1985).

 

There is also an obvious Christian association because Christianity adapted the “pagan” Golden Age notion of paradise for its purpose, it becoming the Garden of Eden, the dreadful arena for Man’s Fall, with all its allegedly ominous consequences, the crucible wherein incautious, corrupt Do-it-Yourself Man fashioned his inauspicious debacle.

 

But despite allusions to Paradise, Matisse was not resorting to conventional religion. He was not a conventional believer. “Matisse’s most forthright pronouncement on his religious beliefs came in his text to Jazz,  in 1946, when he asked…  “Do I believe in God?” to which came back the answer, “Yes, when I am at work.” (Golding, LRB, 1985). And in 1951, in connection with the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, Matisse said, “All art worthy of the name is religious. Be it a creation of lines and colours if it is not religious it doesn’t exist.” (Golding, 1985).

But he was not being narcissistically arrogant, claiming godliness, but simply affirming that he was his own master, the Maker of his own “religion”, his own motivating world view, and was not aligned with any organized religion, let alone Christianity.

So each artist thus brings his own “religion”, his own view of life, to the canvas.

 

However in resorting to adaptating the Golden Age neither was Matisse offering a reactionary Romantic nostalgic argument, based on recovering some lost utopian past. Though some observers might debate this.

Rather he was simply outlining a core practical inspirational objective for Man to saddle bag going forward, for each person to use as they see fit, not intending it to be taken literally.

 

Matisse’s art did not directly engage modern life, but arguably this allegorical sequence was provoked by it. He offered it as a serious antidote to the then profound and disruptive eruption in industrial activity and in knowledge across science and culture. He was suggesting that whatever life throws up Man should remember this guiding ethos.

 

Luxe, Calme et Volupté

Matisse’s first painting in this sequence, the prologue, was his exploratory Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury, calm and sensual pleasure) from summer of 1904 when he summered south with Paul Signac, the title coming from Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Invitation to a Voyage (1857), in which a man invites his lover to travel with him to “paradise” (“there is nothing but order and beauty, luxury, calm and sensual pleasure”.

Baudelaire (1821-67) was an inspirational cornerstone of Modernism in mid 19th C France, “credited with coining the term “modernity”. His poetry advocated a searing fearless no holds barred realism, ie that Man abandon all the trappings of tradition in facing the future, open eyed, and visionary.

Recourse by Matisse to this Baudelairean refain is an emphatic (and deliberate?) christening for his allegorical journey, first by pointedly “inviting” his viewers to do just that, to join him in his painting journey, and second, to outline succinctly his overarching polemical theme from the beginning, ie to look on the bright side.

 

Le bonheur de vivre

Following Matisse finally capturing the critics’ attention for his Fauve “explosion”, the year after he delivered, at age 35, arguably his most famous painting, the large, striking, pioneering and ambiguous Le bonheur de vivre (Oct.1905 – March 1906). Befitting its import it was the only painting he showed at the (April) 1906 Salon des Independants, where in due recognition of its importance it was generally greeted with reserve or scorn.

 

This is arguably Matisse’s most famous and important painting, more so even than Dance.

It was his only submission to the (April) 1906 Salon des Indépendants, and obviously it was noticed, for its size and its shift in style and, in particular, its enigmatic content. Important critics like Charles Morice and Louis Vauxcelles were reserved, Jean Tavernier “generally favourable”, and painter Paul Signac “one of the most vituperative critics”!

The painting was soon bought by the perceptive Gertrude Stein in Paris, and later acquired by the keen and well-resourced American collector Albert Barnes, who then did not allow its reproduction in colour, thus inhibiting wider appreciation of the image. The Steins had displayed the painting prominently at their Paris base, where Picasso soon saw it, understood its pioneering impact.

The painting is an ambitious blockbuster, which opened Matisse’s core allegorical flourish, first called “My Arcadia”.

First and obviously it is large.  And secondly the style and content leaves the Fauves period far behind, now reflecting a thinking Matisse, showing a wide range of influences.

Strikingly it is one of Matisse’s few imaginative paintings, depicting not some real scene but a purely fictive assemblage.

It uses bold colors but not in a coarse brushed Fauvist fashion, rather in a pattern of delineated colour patches which in the top half of the painting looks forward to the cursive colorful abstraction of Kandinsky.

Below we see naked leisuring in a mysterious landscape, a scattering of figures or groups of figures which for the most part do not interact.

Some of the figures recall Cezanne’s various paintings of Bathers. It was painted before the major Cezanne retrospective at the Sep. 1907 Paris Salon d’Automne so Matisse would not have seen Cezanne’s famous final three versions of Les Grandes Baigneuses/ The Large Bathers (all 1905-06).

But he would have seen earlier smaller versions, eg at the 1904 Salon d’Automne (October 15–November 15, four Baigneuse / Baigneurs works, from 1876-77 to c 1890) and again in 1905 Salon d’Automne (October 18–November 25, one work). Also he had earlier exposure to Cezanne, viz the 1895 show at dealer Vollard’s, after which, in 1899 he bought a Cezanne (Trois Baigneuses) from Vollard.

The content draws widely for inspiration such that no single interptretation can be sustained.

Most scholars (eg Jack Flam, 1986) agree the work closely relates to the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarme’s (1842-98) poem Apres-midi d’un faun,his best-known work and a landmark in the history of Symbolism in French literature.” Matisse was well aware of Mallarme, influenced by Baudelaire but who moved on, especially in developing a new language which avoids the objective, is allusive, offering “suggestion without explanation”. “This complex abandonment appears in Flaubert’s free indirect style and, later, in Surrealism’s automatic writing” (Ewa Zubek). Later Matisse returned to Mallarme with his important French window , Collioure, in late 1914.

Testifying to the popularity of the subject many painters are suggested by the painting.

Perhaps most obvious is Edouard Manet with his famous Dejeuner sur les herbes (1863), which had caused a sensation when displayed in Paris and is a candidate for the first painting of “modern art”.

Alfred Barr also points to the long lived JAD Ingres (1780-1867) who had a major retrospective hanging at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, where Matisse would in particular have seen his Golden Age (1862), and also Odalisque with slave (1839-40).

Another important and influential recent French painter was Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98), ostensibly old fashioned, who overlapped the Impressionists who did not modernize his style like them, yet whose work had a pervasive influence on modernist art. Thus he developed an allegorical Neo-Romantic mindset which commingled the real and the timeless transcendental, which Matisse adopted in Le Bonheur de vivre.

Jonathan Jones (Guardian, 20 Jan.2008) sees Matisse saluting JMW Turner, particularly his Apullia in Search of Appullus (1814) and The Golden Bough , Exhibited (1834), which art Matisse saw in London on honeymoon in 1898.

Also “James B. Cuno and Thomas Puttfarken suggest that the inspiration for the work was Agostino Carracci’s (1557 – 1602) engraving of “Reciproco Amore” or Love in the Golden Age, after the same named painting (1585-89) by the 16th-century Flemish painter Pauwels Franck (c1540-96)” (Wiki).

It can also call on Titian (1490-1576) for his Pastoral Concert (c1509), which also impacted Manet’s 1863 Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, and his Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-26); on Lucas Cranach the Elder (c.1472 – 1553) for The Golden Age (c1530), two versions, both showing a circle of dancers, an cavorting couples; and “Watteau, Poussin, Japanese woodcuts, Persian miniatures and 19th century Orientalist images of harems (cf Ingres’s “La Grand Odalisque”)..” (Art Story).

 

In the wake of Le bonheur de vivre: Blue nude.

Later in 1906, the year of Le bonheur de vivre, Matisse’s submission to the November Salon d’Automne was unremarkable, 5 paintings, including Marguerite reading (1906) and 3 still lives, but not either of the Young sailor.

But at the (April) 1907 Salon des Independants he revisited the shock he caused at the 1905 Salon d’Automne by showing his Blue Nude (of Biskra), triggering another furore. The muscular Rubensesque reclining nude responded to the luxuriant sub-tropical Biskra oasis in Algeria, but also to recently encountered “Primitive” / African art.

 

Picasso soon saw Le Bonheur, understood its pioneering impact. Some suggest it may have jolted him, helped impel his radical statement in his momentous mid 1907 Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso’s style certainly shifted markedly in 1906 after his Blue Period from c1901, as he developed more stylised simplified faces, eg in his self portrait of that year, and his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Then Matisse’s Blue Nude, shown April 1907 was a further stimulus.

However the detailed content of Demoiselles, drew on a range of sources, especially ancient Iberian sculpture (he knew from Spain) as well as African art (seen in Paris). But he also drew on Cezanne (like Matisse), Paul Gauguin (his sculpture and painting, eg following a big Gauguin show at the 1903 Salon d’Automne, and another in 1906), also on El Greco (his Opening on the Fifth Seal).

Demoiselles was a shock. It was very big (2.4 x 2.3 metres) and very confronting. It was slow to emerge publically, was not shown until 1916. But his painting associates quickly saw it.  Braque and Derain were initially puzzled, then supportive. The dealer D-H Kahnweiler was impressed.

But Matisse was unimpressed, was “fighting mad” at Picasso’s “hideous whores”, and also annoyed at losing the limelight to Picasso? Who then charged on by 1908 into (with Braque) full blown Cubism, and beyond.

Demoiselles was radical, and more so than Matisse, in its blunt content, depicting prostitutes, and overtly mixing European and African imagery. The wry title came from (approving) critic Andre Salmon, displacing Picasso’s Le Bordel d’Avignon!

 

Dance and Music

Then came a break for Matisse early 1909 when Moscow merchant Shchukin commissioned paintings for his palatial residence and Matisse unfurled a pair of masterpieces, Dance and Music, paintings breathtaking in their simple but profound message, in their presentation: pared stylized bold images, in “blazing” coloured simplicity, and large. The package

For Dance Matisse homes in on a detail in Le Bonheur, the small circle of dancers in the middle ground, and taps, borrows from a range of other painters. Thus the sculptural bodies of the dancing figures again recall Cezanne. And the figures also reflect the then new awareness in “primitive” African art (ie especially wooden sculpture), also impacting Derain, Vlaminck and Picasso. Around 1906 they saw works in museums (especially the Trocadero in Paris, also in London for Derain), in shops, in cafes.

But in Dance the flat simplified compositions, against a stark blue and green backdrop also recall Giotto’s frescoes?

Jonathan Jones (Guardian, 20 Jan. 2008) makes a case for Matisse citing images from JMW Turner (particularly Apullia in Search of Appullus (1814) and The Golden Bough (exhibited (1834)), whose art Matisse saw in London, 1898, where he may also have seen William Blake’s Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing.

 

Similar allegorical works from 1904-06 by colleague Andre Derain (1880-1954) Like 1906’s The dance) may also have touched Matisse.

 

Befitting their pioneering “shocking” implications, the two paintings, unveiled at the 1910 Salon d’Autumne, were roundly criticised, by the critics and the public.

However despite the shock of his presentational style Matisse’s allegorical journey stayed well within the Western tradition, especially in him developing his ideas through a Classical pastoral template.

The wider context: Dance and Music

The timeless notion of couples, groups engaging through dancing resonates with TS Eliot’s (1888-1965) depictions in East Coker:

                        In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum

And see them dancing around the bonfire

The association of man and woman

In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –

A dignified and commodious sacrament.

Two and two, necessarye coniunctiuon,

Holding eche other by the hand or arm

Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire

Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,

Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter

Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,

Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth

Mirth of those long since under earth.

This is ironic for there are two broad alternative available philosophical responses to Nietzsche’s Death of God, then the horrors of the first half of the 20th C: cling fast to delusional resort to self-serving self-medicating fabricated religious belief, ie to therapeutic religious artifice, or Man standing on his own feet, facing the facts, throwing away the God crutches and taking intellectual responsibility in contemplating his predicament.

Eliot clung to the former, worried about “the decay of sacred authority”, posing “a crisis of community” (Prof. Langdon Hammer, Yale).

 

But speaking of poets, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) on the other hand chose the latter, saw the predicament of (modern) Man as an opportunity (like Hart Crane, and Lucretius and the Epicureans), and thought “.. modernity shows us that the truth of religion was always a fiction, a fundamentally poetic construction…”.  Thus Stevens’ approach through his poetry is one more individual’s approach to life after the Death of God (7).

 

And one might argue that Matisse was a fellow traveller. Stevens, like Matisse, argued for Man taking the wheel, and in particular saw poetry as “a means of redemption”. So poetry can be the “supreme fiction”.

Arguably art can lend a hand, is a vehicle of cultural expression suited to the same task.

Stevens was keen on art, especially the two Pauls, Klee and Cezanne, and in the tradition of Ut pictura poesis (“as is painting, so is poetry”, cf Horace) saw poetry and painting as fraternal cultural endeavours, both bringing “imagination” to the task of, in this case, Man confronting his predicament through curiosity and wonder, without delusional religious artifice, centred on some fabricated deity.

The Hartford wordsmith wrote (1934, at Key West, before going a round with Hemingway, wrote of his chanteuse in The Idea of Order at Key West:

She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   

Whatever self it had, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker.

 

Matisse’ art fits this same category. He is another artificer of “Order”.

 

And Stevens in “Angel Surrounded by Paysans” (1949):

I am the angel of reality,
Seen for a moment standing in the door.
…….

 

I am one of you and being one of you
Is being and knowing what I am and know.
Yet
I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight,
you see the earth again,
Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set

 

Notes

(6) Matisse is reported as saying “Always the cubes, the little cubes” (Jack Flam,1986). The critic Louis Vauxcelles (the same critic who coined Fauves after the same show in 1905!) commented on the 1908 Salon d’Automne: “M. Braque scorns form and reduces everything, sites, figures and houses, to geometric schemas and cubes.”.

(7) Peter Watson runs through candidates in The Age of Atheism: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, Peter Watson, Simon & Schuster, 2014. 626 pp.

6/ WW1: c1914-17: the first “crisis”. WW1 tips Matisse – jolted by Cubism and abstraction – into the experimental, reflective “black period”.

For Matisse the unexpected sudden and calamitous outbreak of war in 1914 abruptly reinforced a distinctive period of idiosyncratic personal quasi-abstraction underway fitfully before the war, particularly in response to the momentous Cubist and Abstractionist revolutions.

The combination of shocks brought forth works in the period c1911-16 (cityscapes, interiors, portraits, some landscapes, and sculptures like his ”Back” reliefs) quite unlike those on either side.

For Matisse personally this period was hard going, psychologically arduous, though obviously less arduous than for his colleagues like Braque, Derain etc who were called up for active war service, for which Matisse at 45 was too old.

In 1914 he summered at Collioure, 1915 and 1916 he was resident mainly in Paris, 1917 he moved to Nice where he caught up with the ageing Renoir (then 76, ie 28 yrs older) at nearby Cagnes.

 

The importance of the period was recognised in a recent (2010) exhibition by MOMA / Art Institute of Chicago, Radical Invention (1913-1917). As MOMA’s introduction wrote: In the time between .. Matisse’s.. return from Morocco in [April] 1913 and his departure for Nice in 1917, the artist produced some of the most demanding, experimental, and enigmatic works of his career—paintings that are abstracted and rigorously purged of descriptive detail, geometric and sharply composed, and dominated by shades of black and gray.”

 

However the sudden and near totally unexpected onset of Continental conflict, renewed war with Germany, did provoke an abrupt shift in Matisse’s art. After a tantalising hint in Notre-Dame, une fin d’après-midi (1902), he was suddenly persuaded by the outbreak of war to dive much deeper into abstraction.

From late 1914 through 1917 emerged a series of suddenly bolder quasi-abstractionist works, especially the near completely abstract French Window at Collioure (Porte-fenêtre à Collioure) (c Oct. 1914), which obviously anticipates later abstraction approaches and which is a striking reaction to the outbreak of war. It may have been influenced by him meeting there then his friend Juan Gris, the Cubist painter.

Other striking works were the evocative View of Notre-Dame (spring 1914), Le rideau jaune (The Yellow Curtain) (1915), and finally the monumental The Piano Lesson (late summer 1916), father painting his son, another response to the war, large (near 2 x 2.5 metres) and emotionally powerful.

All four are successful excursions, and all involve windows.

 

Three other later works are more complicated:

a/ Still Life After Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s ‘La Desserte (summer-fall 1915). A half-hearted dip into Cubist country?

b/ The Moroccans (Les Marocains) (late 1915 to autumn 1916). This is a complex memory play from his visits to North Africa,

and c/ Bathers by a River (1909-1916.This was executed in three bursts, March–May 1909, fall 1909–spring 1910, May–November 1913, early spring–November 1916, January–October 1917). It is another thoughtful ambiguous work, again using Primitivist Cezannesque bathers, now more abstract and against a stylised abstract background. He laboured on this work but maybe tried too hard? The work is large like The Dance, but does not deliver a simple powerful comprehensible message.

 

The meaning of all these “war” works is debated, though many observers generally agree that the colour black is an important thread, a colour he employed in near all the paintings, and for perhaps obvious reasons?

 

One of Matisse’s later wartime paintings, Interior with a Violin (1917-18), seems to pair with the French window at Collioure he painted in 1914, soon after the guns opened. But the later painting now hints at impending relent from the violence? Now the view is out of the window not in, and there is light outside, albeit through the shutters (at Nice), and the violin (music) awaits its recall to civilised peacetime duties.

And then finally in Violinist at the window (1918), also painted in Nice, we see the violin being played at an open window, like Matisse can see peace ahead an like the “faceless” violinist (Matisse was a violinist) is a reference to the unknown soldier,

7/ Portraits to 1918: generally drawing on the pared, stylised “Primitive”.

Matisse painted few portraits before his Fauvist breakthrough c1905, notably two self portraits in 1900, both conventional.

Then three striking 1905 portraits change the game, one of his younger Fauve colleague André Derain, and two of his wife. All three are busts, using bold raucous broad brushed colour.

Thereafter, recalling the influence of African masks and his 1908 comment: “the simplest means are those which best enable an artist to express himself”, Matisse retreated from the busier 1905 style and the pared simple “Primitive” face became the hallmark of near all his portraits through to 1918, generally against neutral or abstract backgrounds. Two stand out for having decorative backdrops.

Of these the 1914 portrait of Yvonne Landsberg is the most abstract or stylised.

The two versions of his portrait of Auguste Pellerin – before and after – illustrate well Matisse’s modernistic approach.

All his portraits have little to do with Cubism, but he does lean towards abstraction.

8/ Post WW1: Matisse relaxes, returns to naturalistic “decorative” figuration.

After the “Good Life” allegorical sequence was completed around 1912, and once the disruptive jolt of WW1 passed, Matisse appeared to relax from his objective polemical endeavours, and return to “pretty pictures”, back to colourful naturalistic figuration.

However all his later work seems to at least loosely align with his grand theme of delineating a personal Golden Age.

There were lots of women, especially the many exotic odalisques, mainly through the 1920s, generally set in lush colourful interiors.

But there were also plenty dressed, conventional, again in colourful decorative settings. The ladies may be seen as “bourgeois metaphors for an Islamic Garden of Delights”. (Golding, LRB, 1985)

Through the 1930s some paintings became more adventurous, more stylised, flattened, but still colourful and elaborately decorative. Like his “Blouse” series, eg Romanian blouse (1937). And like Woman in a Purple Coat (1937), Woman in blue (1937), and La musique (1939).

Also in the mid 1930s we see simpler sparer works like Pink nude (1935) and The Dream (1935) which clearly speak of Picasso.

One distinctive work (The arm (1938)) is nearly completely abstract.

A handful of works try harder, offering a narrative, like the two piano works in the 1920s, both busy decorative images recalling The painter’s family (1912), and particularly the nostalgic, reflective 1947 The Silence that Lives in Houses, one of his last paintings.

There were some unremarkable landscapes and many still lives, especially later during the 1940s.

 

9/ Post WW2: the disruptive second “crisis” compels Matisse to innovate through decoupage (cut-outs).

Matisse’s popular famous Cut-outs, his great papiers decoupés, the endearing final flourish of the old ailing artist can be viewed as a final leg of his aesthetic journey to Baudelaire’s world of luxe, calme et volupté.

It’s ironic that just as WW1 – Matisse’s first “crisis” – had suddenly disrupted the artist’s career and provoked some compellingly different works so did WW2 coincide with his second unexpected “crisis”, now his ailing health, which provoked a second productive swerve in his oeuvre.

His second “crisis” started 1939 when WW2 commenced and also when “a bitter separation dispute with his wife meant that by late summer 1939 everything on his studio walls had been taken down, crated and stored in bank cellars for lawyers to fight over.” (Spurling, 2014). Then in 1941 he near died from an operation, became invalided, in Nice. 1943 his daughter Margurite (subject for many of his paintings) was captured and tortured by the Gestapo at Rennes, later railed east to Ravensbruck Camp, but escaped. Then the Germans invaded southern France and fighting in Nice forced him to Vence, in the hills to the northwest.

In 1943 he commenced his cut-outs. Being invalided he could no longer paint, was reduced to découpage (“cut-outs”), collage works made of painted cut out paper shapes.

This restricted art method was used to express the thoughts of an old (mid 70s) experienced artist whose country was at war again, whose family was threatened, and who as an old sick man was approaching death.

The decoupage / cut-outs (c1943-53, age 74-84) were  marked by broad, flat geometric colouration, quasi to total Color Field abstraction. Ironically the beguiling simplicity of these images, some very large, was driven by his ailing manual dexterity.

There is a clear stylistic break with the Cut-outs but arguably the works fit with the rest of Matisse’s long previous oeuvre.

They are all realistic, all given specific titles, but some like The bees (1948) and The snail (1953) could be fully abstract.

The subjects are diverse: ranging from banal observations like a boat or a snail, to memories, like a recollection of the Pacific, to serious reflection over a long career, especially the large (near 3 x 4 metres) elaborate colourful abstract work titled Sorrows of the King (1952), which is an elaborate, moving, final self portrait.

The decoupage works were prescient, looking ahead to “Minimalism Conceptualism..  an aesthetic based on immateriality and flux.” (Cotter, NY Times, 2014).

Finally he was persuaded to help decorate the chapel at Vence, Chapel of the Rosary, the idea born 1948.

 

ATTACHED:  Outline of life

He was born 1869 in far north France (Le Cateau-Cambrésis). From a family of weavers, his father was a grain merchant who ran a hardware, his capable, supportive mother (Amélie Parayre) from a family of tanners. He was raised (till 10) in the important industrial textile centre of Bohain-en-Vermandois.

He studied law in Paris 1887-88, but 1890 (21) decided on art -against his stern father’s advice – when recovering from an appendectomy.

He began art study 1891, initially at Ecole des Arts decoratifs (where he met Albert Marquet) then to Académie Julian with conservative Academician Adolphe-Guillaume Bouguereau, just after Serisier left with Vuillard / Bonnard / Denis, but briefly there too. That year the Salon des Independants showed 16 Van Gogh works, the year after he died.

In 1892 he was copying at the Louvre (favouring “subtle colorists”like Poussin and Chardin, and Watteau, versus say Rubens and Delacroix).

Then importantly he met painter Gustave Moreau, by chance in the courtyard at Ecole des Beaux Arts. He then studied with Moreau for 6 ½ years, thereby also meeting Georges Rouault and Manguin.

1892 there was another hanging of Van Gogh, by a dealer.

From 1894 (till 1908) he painted from a 5th floor studio at 19 Quai Saint-Michel, by the Seine, on the Left Bank, view east to Notre-Dame.

March 1895 he was accepted at Ecole des Beaux-Arts (after failing entry in 1892) and that year saw a large Cezanne show (150 canvases) at Vollard’s Paris gallery.

He painted in Brittany briefly in 1895, again in 1896 and 1897, his 3rd trip.

Winter 1896/ 97 he met Camille Pissarro who now displaced Moreau as an important mentor.

He visited London 1898, soon after marrying Amélie Parayre, a “raven-haired southerner” from near Toulouse, (on January 8th), where on Pissarro’s advice he saw JMW Turner’s work.

Soon after returning to France they spent several months on Corsica, till about August. He also read Signac’s text.

In 1899 he acquired from Vollard Cezanne’s Trois baigneuses. Following Moreau’s death (April 1898) he worked in the studios of Fernand Cormon, and Eugene Carriere for a short while, there meeting Andre Derain.

1901 Derain introduced him to Vlaminck at Bernheim-Jeune Gallery Van Gogh retrospective exhibition, the year he first showed at Salon des Independents, after which his father cut off his allowance.

1903 He first showed at the Salon d’Automne, and his personal life was upended when his parents in law were “innocently but intimately connected” wih the Humbert financial swindle.

June 1904 his first one man show opened at Vollard’s, was received quietly, Vollard unenthusiastic. He summered Saint-Tropez, with Signac, and 1905, after showing Luxe, calme et volupté at the Salon des Independants he summered at Collioure with Derain.

1906 he showed Le Bonheur de vivre at Salon des Independants. He visited Biskra in Algeria (2 weeks), and Collioure again. Through Gertrude Stein (with brothers Leo and Michael) he met Picasso in April, also the Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta, who would also collect him (and Picasso), like Michael’s wife Sarah.

Gertrude Stein regularly (Saturday evening) hosted art gatherings, also involving Picasso, Braque, Derain, and critic Guillaume Apollonaire.

In 1906 he also met Sergei Shchukin. And he bought his first African sculpture. And Galerie Druet arranged a (successful) one man exhibition.

1907 From mid July he visited Italy, the Steins in Florence (Fiesole), thence Arezzo, Padua (important, seeing Giotto’s pioneering frescoes), Sienna, Venice, returning to Collioure via the French coast (seeing Derain at Cassis, Friesz and Braque at La Ciotat and Manguiin at Saint-Tropez. He began teaching late in 1907.

In Italy Matisse relations with the Steins were now cooling. Gertrude and Matisse struggled from the start then Matisse noticed her growing appetite for Picasso. Leo was genuine but over-hosted Matisse?

Interviewed with G. Apollonaire, December 1907, he reflected on learning from others, “I have worked to enrich my mind… striving to ascertain the different thoughts of ancient and modern masters… I have never avoided the influence of others.” (“Matisse on Art”, Jack Flam).

1908 He opened a teaching atelier in January, which ran 3 years to911. Near all the students were foreigners (eg Max Weber).

Early 1908 Shchukin began collecting Matisse, also his friend Ivan Morosov.

Alfred Steiglitz arranged his first US show, at his gallery “291” in NY.

April he was shown in Moscow.

June Matisse visited Germany with Hans Purrmann, twice, to Speyer, Munich and Nuremberg.

Spring 1908 he left Quai Saint-Michel after 16 years there, moved to Hotel Biron at 33 boulevarde des Invalides.

Matisse entered a large number of works to the 1908 Salon d’Automne, including 11 paintings, to mixed reviews. Vauxcelles thought Blue still life “superb”, and liked his sculptures, but did not like the flat decorative style in Harmony in Red, ie did not appreciate Matisse’s progress.

Berlin did not like his works, shown late 1908 at Paul Cassirer’s gallery, there described by one as “monstrosities”, “ginger-cookie painting”, and “wallpaper”. Ageing German “Impressionist” painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935) “expressed fears for the corruption of German youth.. more interested in his dachshund than in Matisse’s paintings..” (Jack Flam, 1986).

‘Notes d’un Peintre’ (Notes of a Painter), Henri Matisse, ‘La Grande Revue’, Paris, 25 December 1908;

  • The simplest means are those which best enable an artist to express himself
  • A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety:
  • For me all is in the conception. I must therefore have a clear vision of the whole from the beginning.
  • What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or disturbing subject matter,
  • What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape but the human figure… through it.. I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have towards life.
  • A work of art must carry in itself its complete significance and impose it upon the beholder even before he can identify the subject-matter.

1909 He bought a house at Issy-les-Moulineaux, on SW side of Paris, settled in September. Moscow-based Russian businessman Shchukin commissioned La Danse and La Musique, and Nov. 1911 he visited Moscow.

1910 Retrospective at Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in February, most reviews unfavourable.

A second show in NY at 291 Gallery. He visited Munich with Marquet in October, much impressed by a major exhibition of Islamic art, just before the Salon d’Automne where he showed his iconic Music and Dance. His father died. He visited Spain mid November 1910 to mid January 1911, there keen to visit the old Islamic sites south.

1911 he summered at Collioure, visited Moscow November 1911, then wintered in Morocco, twice, 8 January to 14 April 1912, then 8 October 1912 to mid Feb. 1913, back to Paris via Corsica by April 1913.

1912, early, a NY show of his sculpture was not well received. In London Grafton Gallery mounted Roger Fry’s large second post-Impressionism show, including 18 paintings by Matisse (1903-1912).

Nasturtiums with “Dance”, hung at the Salon d‘Automne, offended prominent critic L Vauxcelles.

1913 He showed Moroccan paintings at Bernheim-Jeune. Showed in NY’s famous Armory display, and had another show there in 1915. He showed at the Berlin Secession.

1914, January, he returned to 19 Quai Saint-Michel (one floor below his studio of 1894-1907). Back in Paris he saw Gris, Metziner, the Italian Futurist Gino Severini, and Picasso. After the war started he visited Collioure with his family and Marquet, there also met Juan Gris.

1915 He summered at Arachon (near Bordeaux), showed in NY and visited Marseilles in November with Marquet.

1916 He worked in Paris and at Issy.

Autumn 1917 he headed south to Marseilles, thence Nice from mid-December, wintering at Hotel Beau-Rivage. 1917 he met Monet?

1918 He showed jointly with Picasso at Paul Guillaume’s gallery, visited Renoir and Bonnard south.

1920 He summered at Étretat, on Normandy coast, limestone cliffs popular with Monet et al. Moved between Nice and Paris. Also he designeed ”the sets and costumes for Diaghilev’s ballet, Le Chant du rossignol, with music by Stravinsky”.

1921 He “established a permanent residence at 1 Place Charles-Félix [till 1938] in Nice .. 3rd floor apartment .. views of both the town and the Promenade des Anglais… the site of some of his most ambitious paintings completed in the 1920s [Henriette Darricarrère modelled 1920-27]” (Sothebys). “.. Henriette excelled at role-playing and had a theatrical presence that fueled the evolution of Matisse’s art. Earlier, Lorette and Antoinette had initiated the exotic odalisque fantasy, but it was Henriette whose personality seems to have been most receptive.” (Jack Cowan).

1924 Major retrospective in Copenhagen. Son Pierre set up a gallery in NY.

1925 Again to Italy. Son Pierre arranged another NY show in 1927 and 1930 he spent 3 months in Tahiti calling at New York and San Francisco. In the US he visited Albert Barnes, 1931 he has shows in Paris, Basel and NY (MOMA). 1933 he completes the Barnes mural, visited Venice and Padua (saw Giotto’s frescoes).

1929 Met Lydia Delectorskaya, a young Russian lady who became his principal model and studio assistant until his death in 1954.

1930 Worked on prints to illustrate Poesies by Stephane Mallarme for a Swiss publisher.

1931 Retrospective at MOMA, NY. His son Pierre opened a gallery on Manhattan, focusing on moern European painters.

1937 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes commission a new set from him for Rouge et Noir”.

1938 He moved to Hotel Regina in Nice suburb of Cimiez, which becomes his main final studio.

1941 He near died from a cancer operation at Lyons, invalided thereafter, at Nice. His aughter Marguerite nearly died. Working with the Resistance she was captured, tortured and sent to Ravensbruck, but escaped from the train.

1943 he was hurried out of Cimiez by an air raid, moved to Villa le Rêve, Dream House. at nearby Vence, for 5 years, starting his cut outs (découpage) for Jazz.

  1. 1944. His wife and daughter are arrested for involvement in the Resistance. Matisse, who has stayed in the South of France, illustrates Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal.
  2. 1947. Jazz is published.
  3. 1948. Began work on the decoration of the Chapelle du Rosaire for the Dominican nuns at Vence.
  4. 1952. He established a museum at the town of his birth.

1954 He died 3 November, of a heart attack.

  1. 1966. Important UCLA retrospective. First public view of French window (1914)
  2. 1970. Exhibition at Grand Palais, Paris. “ the Exposition du Centenaire brought together in the Grand Palais a large proportion of the greatest Matisses in France, America, and Russia to make the finest display of Matisse’s art to date”.

1986 NGA Washington, Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice 1916-1930

1990 US and USSR, “Matisse in Morocco: The Paintings and Drawings 1912-1913,”

  1. 1992. Major retrospective, MOMA, NY.

2005 Royal Academy (UK), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams – His Art and His Textiles.

2007 exhibition, Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, 2007-08
2009 Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, exhibition Matisse: 1917-1941,

2010 MOMA Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917

2013 Metropolitan Museum of Art show. Matisse: In Search of True Painting.

2014 Cut outs shown Tate, MOMA

Some works………………

 1/ Matisse’s pioneering grand allegorical sequence on the communal “Good Life”, and its apotheosis, Dance

 03

Spring 1910, Dance II, oil on canvas, 260 cm × 391 cm, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

COMMENT: the second and final version. It is the same size as Dance I but differs clearly through the brighter, bolder colouring (particularly the bright vermillion figures), more clearly delineated or modelled figures, and in the denser applied paint.

Painted by Matisse, together with Music (1910) for Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin.

COMMENT: Early 1909 wealthy businessman Sergei Shchukin commissioned Matisse for three large scale canvases to decorate the spiral staircase of his mansion, the Trubetskoy Palace, in Moscow.

Dance (II) and Music are breathtaking paintings in their their simple but profound message, their presentation: pared stylized bold “blazing” coloured simplicity, and their size. The package.

The idea of the circle of dancers apprears in Le Bonheur de vivre (1905-06). But here it is highlighted: isolated, simplified, emboldened.

The composition or arrangement of dancing figures is reminiscent of William Blake‘s watercolour “Oberon, Titania and Puck with fairies dancing” (1786)… The painting is often associated with the “Dance of the Young Girls” from Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.” (Wiki).

The style and strong colours in the paintings also clearly recall frescoes Matisse had seen in Italy?

The simplicity brings ambiguity. Is the blue colour depicting water or sky? The green a hilltop or grass by a lake?

Some observers also get excited by the break in the circle of hands, by the foreground pair.

Reception? The paintings, Dance and Music were Matisse’s only entries to the 1910 Salon d’Automne, to which Matisse returned 14th October from Munich.

They “shocked the public and critics alike”. Critics were harsh, except the lone Apollonaire. To the extent that Mr Shchukin “began to lose heart”, decided to reject the works, then changed his mind!

Matisse was further stressed when his father died soon after his arrival back in Paris.

04

1910, Music (La Musique), 260 cm × 389 cm, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

COMMENT: Also painted for Moscow. Again a very large painting, near 3 x 4 metres, in the same simple pared flat colourful style as DanceMusic pairs with Dance, the same size and in the same style. And in content: Music supplies the music and audience for Dance.

 

The coda

  05

Summer 1912, Nasturtiums with the Painting “Dance” II, oil on canvas, 190.5 x 114 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

COMMENT: this image elaborates importantly on the theme of Dance, here extending its franchise, democratizing its relevance, by importing it straight into the domestic living room, a familiar venue for Matisse.

To emphasize the intersection Matisse injects a vase of unruly bright flowers (a favourite domestic still life subject) into the heart of the image, where it integrates with the Dance, like it might even become the revellers’ Maypole. And in fact the two hands meeting over th vase in the second version fit this interpretation better than in the first..

Matisse painted these two versions in Paris, in his new (1909) studio at Issy-les-Moulineaux, after his first visit to Morocco, January to April 1912.

The second was bought by Shchukin, after being shown at the 1912 Salon d’Automne, so in Moscow at Shchukin’s house it joined the famous Dance painting

The first version was one of the first paintings by Matisse seen in America, shown with 12 other works at the famous Armory show in New York in 1913. And it stayed in America, later (1923) purchased by one of America’s important promoters of modernism, Scofield Thayer, co-owner and editor of The Dial magazine, 1919 to 1925, in which Thayer presented many modern works of art, and many of them from his own collection

 

Precursors / associates (c1900-16)

 

06

1900, Male model, 73 x 99 cm, MOMA

COMMENT: This striking painting depicting a bold “sculptural” figure shows Matisse feeding off Cezanne’s figures. It is based on Matisse’s The Serf, his “first important original sculpture”, a 95cm high bronze, started in 1900, the year he met and worked with Auguste Rodin, but not finished till c1906.

07

1904-05, Luxe, Calme et Volupté  (Luxury, calm and sensual pleasure),  oil, 98.5 cm × 118.5 cm, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

COMMENT: The title of this important painting is taken from the refrain of Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Invitation to a Voyage (1857), a man invites his lover to travel with him to paradise (“there is nothing but order and beauty, luxury, calm and sensual pleasure”).

Recourse by Matisse to this Baudelairean refain is an emphatic start for his allegorical journey with painting, first by pointedly “inviting” his viewers to do just that, and second, to outline his overarching polemical theme from the beginning.

Obviously the Neo-Impressionist style reflects the Pointillism of his summer host at Saint-Tropez, Paul Signac (1863-1935), and its founder the enigmatic Georges Seurat (1859-1891).

Work started on the painting at Saint Tropez, where Matisse and his wife summered with Paul Signac and Henri –Edmond Cross, and uses the landscape from the coast there.

 

 08

October 1905 and March 1906, Le bonheur de vivre (Joy of life), Oil on canvas, 176.5 cm × 240.7 cm, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

COMMENT: This is arguably Matisse’s most famous painting, more so than Dance.

It was his only submission to the (April) 1906 Salon des Indépendants, and obviously it was noticed, for its size and its shift in style and, in particular, its enigmatic content. Important critics like Charles Morice and Louis Vauxcelles were reserved, Jean Tavernier “generally favourable”, and painter Paul Signac “one of the most vituperative critics”!

The painting was soon bought by the perceptive Gertrude Stein in Paris, and later acquired by the keen and well-resourced American collector Albert Barnes, who then did not allow its reproduction in colour, thus inhibiting wider appreciation of the image. The Steins had displayed the painting prominently at their Paris base, where Picasso soon saw it, understood its pioneering impact.

The painting is an ambitious blockbuster, which opened Matisse’s core allegorical flourish, first called “My Arcadia”.

First and obviously it is large.  And secondly the style and content leaves the Fauves period far behind, now reflecting a thinking Matisse, showing a wide range of influences.

Strikingly it is one of Matisse’s few imaginative paintings, depicting not some real scene but a purely fictive assemblage.

It uses bold colors but not in a coarse brushed Fauvist fashion, rather in a pattern of delineated colour patches which in the top half of the painting looks forward to the cursive colorful abstraction of Kandinsky.

Below we see naked leisuring in a mysterious landscape, a scattering of figures or groups of figures which for the most part do not interact. Some of the figures recall Cezanne’s various paintings of Bathers. Matisse could not have seen Cezanne’s famous final three versions of Les Grandes Baigneuses/ The Large Bathers (all 1905-06), but he would have seen earlier smaller versions, eg at the 1904 Salon d’Automne (October 15–November 15, four Baigneuse / Baigneurs works, from 1876-77 to c 1890) and again in 1905 Salon d’Automne (October 18–November 25, one work).

The content draws widely for inspiration such that no single interptretation can be sustained.

Most scholars (eg Jack Flam, 1986) agree the work closely relates to the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarme’s (1842-98) poem Apres-midi d’un faun,his best-known work and a landmark in the history of Symbolism in French literature.” Matisse was well aware of Mallarme, influenced by Baudelaire but who moved on, especially in developing a new language which avoids the objective, is allusive, offering “suggestion without explanation”. “This complex abandonment appears in Flaubert’s free indirect style and, later, in Surrealism’s automatic writing” (Ewa Zubek). Later Matisse returned to Mallarme with his important French window , Collioure, in late 1914.

Many painters are suggested by the painting, perhaps starting most obviously with Edouard Manet’s famous Dejeuner sur les herbes (1863), which had caused a sensation when displayed in Paris and is a candidate for the first painting of “modern art”.

Alfred Barr also points to the long lived JAD Ingres (1780-1867) who had a major retrospective hanging at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, where Matisse would in particular have seen his Golden Age (1862), and also Odalisque with slave (1839-40).

Jonathan Jones (Guardian, 20 Jan.2008) sees Matisse saluting JMW Turner, particularly his Apullia in Search of Appullus (1814) and The Golden Bough , Exhibited (1834), which art Matisse saw in London on honeymoon in 1898.

Also “James B. Cuno and Thomas Puttfarken suggest that the inspiration for the work was Agostino Carracci’s (1557 – 1602) engraving of “Reciproco Amore” or Love in the Golden Age, after the same named painting (1585-89) by the 16th-century Flemish painter Pauwels Franck (c1540-96)” (Wiki).

And it calls too on Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-26)

But it also draws on “Watteau, Poussin, Japanese woodcuts, Persian miniaturesand 19th century Orientalist images of harems (cf Ingres’s “La Grand Odalisque”)..” (Art Story).

 09

Early 1907, Blue Nude (Nu bleu, Souvenir de Biskra), oil on canvas, 92.1 cm × 140.3 cm, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD, USA. COMMENT: This important painting derived from from a sculpture he worked on at Colloure: Reclining nude I (bronze, 1907, approx. 50 x 28cm,x 35cm high), in turn based on one of the three reclining figures in the centre of Le Bonheur etc (1906).

Near Collioure he visited Aristide Maillol (1861-1944), based at Banyuls (just north of Collioure), who having commenced as a painter was then embarked on his own important career as a sculptor, eg following his successful Seated woman (1902).

It was the only painting Matisse sent to the (April) 1907 Salon des Independants where again he caused a storm, offended the critics, especially the familiar Louis Vauxcelles, now worried by the ugly, the deformed.  Later, in 1913, the painting caused a similar uproar in the US, during the Armory show in NY and Chicago (where was burned in effigy by art students!?).

However it stirred Picasso, allegedly causing him to adjust (“toughen up”, R. Smith, NY Times, 2010) his then underway iconic blockbuster (234 x 244cm) Demoiselles d’Avignon  completed mid 1907.

The Steins bought it, their last Matisse purchase.

The bold confronting muscular Rubens-like nude salutes the recently departed Cezanne but pushes much further.

Matisse remembered the life force in the lush sub-tropical Biskra oasis, recently seen in Algeria, the same oasis remarked on in these terms by Andre Gide (Jack Flam, 1986).

And he addresses directly the female nude in Western art, the twin poles of the erotic and the procreative, the mother-figure.

Thus the Louvre had just (provocatively) hung Manet’s Olympia alongside Ingres’s Grande Odalisque. And Venus-like nudes were popular in conventional Salon painting. But Matisse’s lady is much rougher and tougher, drawing also on the then new interest in the “primitive”, like through African masks.

Matisse’s nude is an important cog in his allegorical journey towards Dance (in two versions) of 1910.

10

1907–08, Le Luxe II, distemper (casein), water-based medium akin to fresco, on canvas, 209.5 x 138 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

COMMENT: This is the first painting by Matisse depicting larger than life size figures. He prepared with sketches and a full size cartoon. It is “inspired no doubt by the frescoes he had seen in Italy” (Jack Flam, 1986), ie earlier that year, with the Steins. It reworks his recent Three bathers (1907, oil on canvas, 61 x 74cm, Minneapolis), in turn again drawing on Cezanne.

Again there are two versions, the distemper one being cleaner lined, sharper. The first version was hung at the 1907 Salon d‘Autumne.

But it may also reflect a Japanese print by 18th C Torii Kiyonaga.

The subject seems to allude to the famous Classical story of the birth of Venus, rising from the waters, her feet being dried, Flora approaching with flowers as greeting?

 

Some sources

11

Pierre Cécile Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98, 74) The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses, 1884/89, Oil on canvas, 93 x 231 cm, Art Institute of Chicago.

COMMENT: Puvis de Chavannes overlapped the Impressionists but his art style remained conventional, did not modernise in terms of colour, brushstroke and composition. Though his style did shift, used a muted colourful palette and explored more stylised compositions.

However  the ostensibly old fashioned look of his work belies its true content and its pervasive influence on modernist art.

Oddly for a painter born 8 years before Manet his influence kicked in only later, in the 1880s, and particularly in the wake of Impressionism as avant-garde artists were now applying the new full Baudelarian dispensation in art – ie a gloves off scrutiny of Man’s total condition, outward and inward – to the world about them, like the radical industrialising of economies.  

In particular Puvis developed an allegorical Neo-Romantic mindset, as his basic template, to commingle the real and the timeless transcendental. This he applied throughout France in various polemical public works, particularly in the context of France trying to resolve its desired future path in the lingering wake of the calamitous 1789 Revolution, pitting Royalist against Republican Thus Hope commented on the costly 1870 war with Prussia.

This template clearly Matisse acknowledged in his allegorical journey.

And he also directly influenced Gauguin, Seurat / Signac and the Neo-Impressionists / Divisionists, Odilon Redon and the Symbolists, and Picasso, Paul Klee.

Born in Lyon, son of a mining engineer and descended from an “old noble family of Burgundy”, he started training in the 1840s, had some formal studies (eg with Delacroix and Thomas Couture) but mostly worked alone, benefited from a long visit to Italy in the late 1840s (eg saw work of Giotto and Piero), grew close to Degas in the 1850s.

He was keen and ambitious but recognition came slowly, not before the early 1860s, ie around age 40, and thereafter his star climbed steadily. Much of his work was in murals, eg culminating in the 1889 Sorbonne series.  In 1890 he co-founded the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (National Society of Fine Arts)

A self-promoter he adopted “the noble designation “de Chavanes””, added to his family name in 1859(age 35), changed to “de Chavannes” in 1877. He met (and later married, happily) Princess Marie Cantacuzene in 1854, though like some others had an affair (1859) with painter Suzanne Valadon. His own struggle to succeed motivated him to help younger artists.

 

 

2a/ Flat, color patch, stylised quasi-abstraction (c1908-17)….. highlights

12

 

1914 (September / October) French Window at Collioure (Porte-fenêtre à Collioure). Oil on canvas, 117 x 105 cm, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.

COMMENT: this important painting – pivotal even – dates from just after the outbreak of WW1 and clearly in some way a decisive response to the sudden turmoil. It appears to be his only work from this visit to Collioure.

Matisse quickly had relatives (mother and brother) trapped behind German lines, in far north France. His working life was upended, friends scattered, Derain, Braque, Manguin etc joined the army. His house at Issy, near Paris, was commandeered by the French army till 1915. Matisse and his wife headed south early September to Toulouse, thence Collioure, joining Albert Marquet and also Juan Gris (1887-1927).

Perhaps meeting Gris there was important for this painting (cf Alfred H Barr Jr on Matisse in 1951). Gris was a friend from Paris (where he arrived 1906 from Spain). Matisse liked Gris, who was then poor and had TB, and he fell out with Gertrude Stein in trying to help Gris. Gris was a keen art theorist and then in Collioure he and Matisse debated “heatedly about painting” (Gris), obviously including the Cubist revolution..

The painting is mysterious, breaks suddenly with Matisse’s work till then, apparently reflecting the abrupt new circumstances. There are figurative elements but obviously the painting leans far towards the abstract, much further than any previous images.

Striking is the central black void. “Talking about a painting from 1916 in which black predominates, Matisse says he began “to use black as a colour of light and not as a colour of darkness” “ (Centre Pompidou). But it seems hard to believe black here does not simply mean foreboding. So it can mean “light”, just that the light shows only darkness.

“It is also his most daring invocation of a Mallarméan absence.” (Jack Flam, 1986). He refers to the French Symbolist poet (cf his role in Matisse’s Le Bonheur etc of 1905) whose work means an artist, or poet, can better describe something by not describing it, or by describing its absence. So here “war” is best “described” by its pictorial absence, no exploding shells like in CRW Nevinson and Paul Nash but a quagmire-like darkness which can also powerfully describe the violence and its casualties

The painting was not shown publically until 1966, on a show in the US, where it was hailed as “a forerunner of American abstract painting”, eg by Ad Reinhardt who “listed it as one of the two most important artistic events of 1914 [Mondrian’s ‘plus and minus’ the other].

13

1915, Le rideau jaune (The Yellow Curtain), oil on canvas, 146 × 97 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

COMMENT:  This painting, showing Matisse again hugging abstraction (as at Collioure the year before), excites the critics. And again it is based on a view out a window.

Who knows what Matisse was trying to say, beyond applying abstraction to a view out a window.

But critics generally agree the flat colourful geometric “abstraction” presages his later cut-outs.

Matisse’s original title for the painting, Composition, draws attention to its abstract quality. Interviewed in 1931, Matisse explained.. the painting represents a view from a curtained window in his home at Issy,  including the blue glass canopy that covered the front door.” (WIKI).

The painting was acquired by MOMA in 1996.

 14

Summer 1917, A Path in the Forest near Trivaux (Shaft of sunlight), private collection,  91 x 74cm.

COMMENT: Trivaux is near Issy. The painting shows an “abstracted” view along a forest path where a shaft of sunlight breaks through.

 

2b/ Flat, color patch, stylised quasi-abstraction (c1908-17)…..antecedents

 

15

Summer 1911, Interior with Aubergines, distemper on canvas, 212 x 246cm, Musee de Peinture et Sculpture, Grenoble.

COMMENT: This important painting, the third of the 1911 “grand interiors” is from Collioure that summer, followed The painter’s family. It is a large painting which pushes his decorative mission further, sumptuous colourful décor, and, in leaning more towards abstraction,fires its visual impact.

The window top right offsets a mirror lower left, suggested by Velazquez’s Las Meninas he recently saw in Madrid? Floral patterns come from Persian miniatures?

Matisse brought no spiritual polemic to bear in his painting but he did read widely, including people like then popular (with some) French philosopher Henri Bergson who “convinced many thinkers that the processes of immediate experience and intuition are more significant than abstract rationalism and science for understanding reality”.

16

1913, Moroccan coffee, oil, 176 x 210 cm, Hermitage.

COMMENT: both painted during Matisse’s second visit to Morocco, autumn 1912 to Feb. 1913. The second is on the terrace of Café Baba at Tangier.

The latter is a striking simple image, unusually large, where the black iron balustrade along the top mimics coffee running down a cup.

And we notice again…. gold fish. Subject of contemplation by customers.

17

1908–1912, The Conversation, 177 cm × 217 cm, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

COMMENT: Bought by Shcuikn immediately. Matisse in pyjamas faces his wife in tense confrontation on a spring morning? The iron railing reads NON! It is based on a stele at the Louvre from c1760BC, in which the king stands before a seated god!

“[Matisse’s] discovery of Russian icons, during a visit to Shchukin in Moscow in 1911, informed a large confrontational painting of him and Amélie” (Peter Schjeldahl , New Yorker, 2005)

 

 18

Spring 1914, View of Notre-Dame , Oil on canvas, 147.3 x 94.3 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

19

Spring 1914, View of Notre-Dame , Oil on canvas. 147 x 98 cms, Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Switzerland

COMMENT: These two paintings were completed within weeks of each other, the realistic “postcard” version being earlier and executed in one sitting? They revisit, precisely, the view in the 1902, Notre-Dame, une fin d’après-midi.

The “blue” stylized image shows Matisse again reflecting beyond the visually objective, and using the then recent Cubism / abstraction as tools for his purpose.

It depicts the famous church, east across the famous river, but ambiguously, so we see the church’s west front towers through a window (a core visual motif for the artist), but a mullioned window which looks like the towers.

Beside the “window” is a globule of green representing green spring foliage.

The bridge and riverbanks are distilled to black lines.

The church might even look like a kite on a string? The “window” might see through to the other side?

The evocative quasi-abstract image was a break through painting? Like the French window at Collioure (later in 1914) it might call on  the French poet Mallarméan, depicting the churchby its absence.

Matisse made several views of Notre Dame cathedral from his quai Saint-Michel studio in 1914. In February his friend Marcel Sembat wrote about two views the artist had completed, one “very beautiful”, the other “lopsided”, which “no one would understand immediately” but he preferred. Matisse reworked features of this canvas before covering almost the entire surface in blue. He left early compositional elements visible beneath the paint, accentuating the temporal quality of building a work of art over time.” (MOMA)

20

Autumn 1914-1915 (after Window at Collioure), Goldfish and palette, Paris, quai Saint-Michel (Artist and goldfish), Oil on canvas. 146.5 x 112.4 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, NY.

COMMENT: Important painting? More abstract than the first. Now the view is straight out the window, so the window (middle) jamb is directly behind the fish bowl.

One of Matisse’s most striking symbolic self-portraits.” (Jack Flam). The painter’s thumb pokes through the palette board. A sketch shows Matisse holding the palette, thus referencing Cezanne’s 1885 self-portrait, but in the final painting he just leaves the palette. Which motif appers in Picasso’s Harlequin the next year, 1915 (cf J Richardson 2012).

Matisse described the abstract zone at the right of this composition as containing “a person who has a palette in his hand and who is observing.” Most likely, it is the artist himself. The surrealist poet André Breton said of the painting, “I believe Matisse’s genius is here . . . nowhere has Matisse put so much of himself as in this picture.” (MOMA)

21

1916, Bowl of Apples on a Table, Oil on canvas; 114.9 x 89.5 cm, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia,

COMMENT: more or less the same subject, more or less after Cezanne than his ornamental arabesque style, all in a flat pared “sign post” style, except two are cropped (so one becomes a cup), are two have the background neutralized.

 

 

23

From autumn 1915, The Gourds  65 x 80 cm, oil/canvas  Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

COMMENT: The war and the art revolts here shifting Matisse to a spare more abstract composition, no decorative frills here. And here his wartime black is bold. The objects now drift by, detached, like they pass by the corner of a building.

Jack Flam (1986) suggests a touch here of Paul Klee? In the abstraction yes,but the items are clearly by Matisse?

24

July 1916, Still Life with Gourds (Nature morte aux coloquintes), Oil on canvas, 100 x 81.3 cm, Barnes Foundation

COMMENT: More typical Matisse here, decorative elements,  but a Cubist inspired composition, with the cropped frame left, more geometric, and featuring the simple bust right, a side on transposition of his recent 58cm high bronze sculpture, Jeanette V (MOMA).

 

                25

1917–18, Interior with a Violin, (Intérieur au violon) oil on canvas. 116 x 89 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

COMMENT: an important painting, which pairs with French window at Collioure from late 1914, soon after WW1 commenced.

It pairs with Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), Oil on canvas; 73.7 x 60.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 26

1918, Le Violoniste à la fenêtre (The Violinist at the window), Oil on canvas, 150 x 98 cm, Centre Pompidou

COMMENT: Also painted in Nice. Mtisse returns to music. Now the violin is being played, as Matisse did himself near daily. So it could therefore be a self-portrait. Black frames the window but the window is open

  

3/ Portraits (1905-17)… Fauve period to WW1.

 

27

Summer 1913, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (Madame Matisse), oil on canvas, 146 x 97.7 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

COMMENT: the only work Matisse sent to the 1913 Salon d’Automne. Where it was generally well received?

Matisse was recovering from his end 1910 relapse.

 “Amélie sat more than a hundred times….. Spurling [2009] says that the portrait, which was the last work to enter Shchukin’s collection, caused Matisse “palpitations, high blood pressure and a constant drumming in his ears.” (Peter Schjeldahl , New Yorker, 2005)

It is possibly a response to Cezanne’s 1893-95 portrait of his wife, and it is billed as responding to Cubism? But not really? Rather it clearly evolves from his recent Fauve period portraits of 1905-07, but now showing a pared minimalist “Primitive” face. We see trademark bold colours, the green blouse and chair, and the bright red scarf, against a pervasive blue. All in stark contrast to Picasso.

This was one of three “blue” paintings by Matisse (two still lives and the portrait). from May to December 1913, after his return from Morocco, and were his only paintings in this period.

The blue may relate to Picasso’s predilection for the color, or it may be drawn from Morocco.

 

 

 28

June 1914, Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg.  Oil on canvas, 147.3 x 97.5 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art.

COMMENT: A striking portrait, like the ladt is emitting a magnetic field, painted June 1914, after his important quasi-abstract View of Notre-Dame, and as political tension grew.

 

 

5/ The rest to WW1 (1896-1914): including Fauvism and the “grand interiors”

 

          29

1899 Still Life with Compot and Fruit, (II), 46.7 x 55.2 1 cm, Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis (WA)

30

c1901, Pont Saint-Michel, oil on canvas, 60.35 x 73.02 cms. Santa Barbara Museum of Art. COMMENT: this is a prescient work. Looks ahead.

 

    31   

1905, La plage Rouge à Collioure, Henri Matisse peint de la fenêtre de l’atelier, oil on canvas ca. 33 x 41 cm.

32

Summer 1917, Portrait de famille (The Music Lesson), oil on canvas, 245.1 x 210.8 (The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia).

COMMENT: This painting pairs with the justly celebrated The piano lesson from the summer before, thus the same view of a window and his son Pierre playing the same piano (beside his sister Marguerite), and about the same size. Jean reads, and wife Amélie sews in the garden.

But the other-worldly mystery, the magic, is gone.

 

33

1908, The Dessert: Harmony in Red (Red Room), Oil on canvas, 180 cm × 220 cm, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

COMMENT: Painted after Le Bonheur etc. for Sergei Shchukin’s dining room in Moscow. The large painting was ordered as “Harmony in Blue,” but Matisse preferred red so red it became.

The blue antler-like “arabesque” tendrils climbing the table cloth started on a Paris bus, and are seen in the Still life with blue tablecloth right.

It showed in the 1908 Salon ‘Autumne, with Blue still life. Louis Vauxcelles loved the latter, but “paid almost no attention to Harmony in Red, except to say.. he did not like it..”. Charles Morice was more measured but said Matisse “continues to alarm his adversaries without reassuring his friends”. Vauxcelles and Morice both preferred Félix Valloton.

34

1909, Still Life with Blue Tablecloth, Oil on canvas, 88 x 118 cm, The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

COMMENT: Matisse quotes “a piece of decorative 19th-century cloth, a blue-and-white pattern consisting of a block-printed basket of flowers, repeated within a sinuous, broken lattice of ornamental foliage”  he spotted from a bus in Paris, and used in other paintings, particularly 1908’s famous Harmony in Red (La Desserte), where white is transposed to red.

 

35

Optimized by JPEGmini 3.11.4.0 0xf1bf5890

Early/mid 1911, The Painter’s family, 143 x 194 cm. Hermitage, Saint Petersburg.

COMMENT: Commenced soon after The pink studio, the second of the 1911 “grand interiors” Amélie Matisse (wife, married 1898) is on the sofa in the rear left; their sons Jean and Pierre, born in 1899 and 1900, play chess. Matisse’s daughter Marguerite, born in 1894 to Camille Joblaud, subsequently accepted as a daughter by Amélie, stands to the right, in black.

Matisse was much impressed by the Islamic art show he saw at Munich in late 1910, which work now clearly reflects in his 1911 decorative interiors.

 

6/ Post WW1 (1919-1940s)

 

36

 

1928, Still Life with Green Sideboard, 81.5x100cm, oil on Canvas, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d’art modern

COMMENT: “Still Life with Green Sideboardthat quiet painting, from 1928, is one of the most uncannily ambiguous ever made; you cannot decide if you are looking at or into the surface of a cabinet door.” ((Peter Schjeldahl , New Yorker, 2005))

 37

1935, Pink Nude, 66 x 92cm oil/canvas The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore.

 

38

 

1940, The Dream, 81 x 65cm oil/canvas Private Collection

 

 

7/ Decoupage.. the Cut-outs.

 

40

 1943-44, The Horse, the Rider and the Clown . Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Centre Pompidou etc. COMMENT: “illustrated book Jazz (1947) is one of the most famous graphic works .. of the 20th centuryMatisse’s first major ‘cut-out’ project.. Jazz comprises a set of 20 vivid colour stencils and over 70 pages of Matisse’s calligraphic writing. .. pivotal in Matisse’s transition from oil painting to the cut-out collages..  Matisse cut forms out of large sheets of paper previously painted with gouache by his assistants. The cut-outs were then assembled on the wall of Matisse’s studio, under his direction….. title evokes the idea of a musical structure of rhythm and repetition..  Matisse’s subjects are taken largely from the circus, mythology and memories of his travels. .” (AG of NSW)

 

 40

 

1952, The Sorrows of the King, gouache on paper on canvas, 292 cm × 386 cm, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

COMMENT: his final self-portrait. “The central black silhouette represents Matisse sitting in his armchair, whilst the other pictorial elements are references to themes that defined his life.

The yellow petals fluttering away have the gaiety of musical notation while the green odalisque symbolises the Orient…  

the work refers to one of Rembrandt’s canvases, “David Playing the Harp before Saul”, in which the young biblical hero plays to distract the king from his melancholy, as well as to Rembrandt’s late self-portraits.” (Lavacow online art)

 

41

 

1953, The Snail (La Composition Chromatique), gouache on paper, 287 cm × 288 cm, Tate Gallery, London

 42

1953, Memory of Oceania  (Nice-Cimiez, Hôtel Régina, summer 1952-early 1953 , gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper mounted on canvas,  284.4 x 286.4 cm, MOMA.

COMMENT: Based on a photograph that Matisse took of a schooner from his window in Tahiti in 1930. At the right, the green rectangle, fuchsia band, black curve, and blue crescent appear to derive from the boat, the boat’s mast and mooring line, and the curtain of the window. More uncertain is the meaning (if any) of the shapes at the upper left. They may describe a blond woman seen from the back—the sharp vertical line being her spine and the surrounding blue–on–white and white–on–blue curves the contours of her body. (MOMA).

 

 

 

PAUL NASH: WW1 gatecrashed and, ironically, made his art

WW1 gatecrashed his early neo-Romantic inclined landscapes, but then ironically (helped by “Vorticist” colleagues like Nevinson) “Modernised”, made his art.

Thus the two world wars coaxed a number of masterpieces, at each end of his career.

His imagination and poetic sensibility meditated on Man and a land imbued with deep history.

Paul Nash

(11 May 1889 – 11 July 1946, 57)

 FEATURED IMAGE: 1923, The bay, woodcut, 120 x 178 mm

 2

1919 The sea wall, watercolour and pencil 28 x 39cm. COMMENT: both from Dymchurch, Kent.

 Polemic: yes he was a great British artist.

Would we remember Paul Nash but for WW1? Yes, but nowhere like we do now, for his striking war images, compelling and evocative.

As a young painter before WW1, with a poetic ear and inclined to neo-Romanticism, Nash was slower than some of his famous contemporaries in responding to then rampaging Modernism.

But WW1 upended his art – as it famously did for other painters, and writers, like Wilfred Owen’s poetry- so one of his best images, pioneering and powerful, was without doubt the confronting large The Menin Road (1918-19), Cubo-Futurist-Vorticist hued. Alongside it the mordantly ironic We are making a new world (1918) immediately became a brutally frank calling card for the reality of the conflict.

WW2, near the other end of his life, provoked two more masterpieces, particularly the arresting Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41), stark and singular, Surrealist-touched but also clearly pre-figured by his quasi-abstract Winter Sea (1925-37). Secondly came the also powerful but quite different quasi-abstract Battle of Germany (1944).

Nash’s powerful artistic response to the unimaginable destruction of two world wars was self-evidently occasioned by his exposure to both wars (WW1 first hand, especially late 1917), but was richly fertilized by, first, a sensitivity to mortality (as Simon Grant (Tate, 2003) highlights), to death, stemming from a life of ill health, beginning early, and also from coping with his mother’s prolonged mental unrest and early death (at 49) in Feb. 1910, and by, second, a poetic sensibility and a imaginative quasi-spiritual mindset, evident early and staying with him. William Blake and other Romantics were an early source, reinforced later around 1930 by meeting sympathetic American writer Conrad Aiken at Rye, and from 1943 by James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.   

Nash is lambasted by some critics (cf Adrian Searle and Waldemar Januszczak in 2003) for his alleged clumsy embrace of Surrealism in the 1930s. Leave it to the pros? But this is misleading, attention seeking? As Andrew Causey writes (2003) we see Surrealist clues right through his art, starting with some of his early drawings, well before Surrealism was codified after WW1, then hints in his WW1 war art. Certainly some images appear pedestrian or forced (eg Landscape from a Dream (1936–8)) but many other responses are clearly legitimate, constructive, like Voyages of the Moon (1934-37) and Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935). Then his later justly acclaimed Totes Meer, and Flight of the magnolia both have Surrealist components.

And here’s an interesting (coincident?) connection. As Mr Januszczak notes (2003), Nash “had a thing about trees”. And Nash’s early drawings based on three elms at his then home at Iver talk directly to some “tree” works by a similarly thoughtful older Swiss-French artist, Felix Valloton (1865-1925), like to his willowy trees in Last sun rays (1911).

His art

Nash was a famous British painter, especially of landscapes, whose life neatly overlapped both world wars (eg aged 25 in 1914), both of which he recorded as an official war artist. He was also a photographer, writer and designer of applied art.

Events – the calamitous wars – fashioned in Nash a curious and unlikely juxtaposition, induced a searing Realism alongside an imaginative, quasi-spiritual and pastoral neo-Romanticism which was his natural inclination.

His exact contemporary, and fellow Slade student, CRW Nevinson (1889‑1946), also joined and depicted WW1, but he was quicker to embrace Modernism before the war and his striking Cubist inspired “Futurist / Vorticist” war paintings from 1915-16 (hung Sep. 1916 in a one-man show in London) influenced Nash. Also “Nash would later [1949 autobiographical writings] call the 1st and 2nd exhibitions of The London Group [ie March 1914 and March 1915] the ‘Vindication of Vorticism’” (David Haycock et al, “A Crisis of Brilliance” (2013)).

From a conservative middle class background Nash was slow to react to Modernism before WW1. He trained at the well known Slade school before WW1, alongside a clutch of would be talented artists, but only briefly (1910-11), and his natural appetite was for neo-Romanticism, fond of William Blake, the Romantic poets (eg Coleridge), and particularly DG Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites.

Eschewing figurative painting, he quickly became above all a landscape painter, stimulated initially by trees and gardens at Iver Heath, Bucks. (just west of London, where he moved as a 12 year old), also by the Thames Valley Wittenham Clumps, a pair of hills, one an old Iron Age fort. His early art was perhaps also an escape from an uneasy childhood, from his mother’s mental unrest.

A major preoccupation for his landscapes became ancient history’s impact on the English countryside, the “sanctity” of Place. He felt “these sites had a talismanic quality”, thus he “saw himself in the tradition of English mystical painters W Blake and [the Romantic “mystical” painter] Samuel Palmer” (Tate). Thus he collected “Places”, of which perhaps Wittenham Clumps (“They were the Pyramids of my small world”) stands out, depicted from 1912 to 1944.

Though people obviously inhabited, imprinted this countryside across the centuries he used people sparingly in his landscapes. But this comparative absence of people (eg the solitary couple in The sea wall (1919) or the tiny figures in his WW1 paintings) became a powerful visual device (cf Waldemar Januszczak, 2003). Rather, trees, starting with the elms at Iver, became a favorite metaphor for people, like blasted trees for the carnage in France.

Some of Nash’s early drawings, before WW1, mark him out as gifted and evocative, particularly The cliff to the north (1912).

Seven oil paintings stemmed from WW1: The Menin Road (c June 1918 – Feb. 1919,), The Mule Track (1918), Spring in the Trenches  (1918), Ridge Wood, 1917  (by July 1918), We Are Making a New World (1918, based on 1918 drawing, Sunrise (Inverness Copse), The Ypres Salient at Night  (1918),  Void  (1918) and A Night Bombardment (1919-20),

From Dymchurch on the Kentish coast (late 1921 to mid 1924) we see spare, tense Cubist leaning works by an artist shaken by the calamity, showing individual Man engaging elemental forces beyond his ken or control, powerful works like the drawing The sea wall (1919), like the woodcut, The bay (1923), and especially his oil painting Winter Sea (1925-37), a striking Cubist inspired work, dark and deathly. We also see his Cezannesque Chestnut Waters (1923,27).

The 1928 show in London of work by the important Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, and a 1930 visit to Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery in Paris, broadened his appreciation of Modernism, later acknowledged in his writings as an art critic. They helped trigger a shift, beyond the Cubist paddock towards more overt abstraction and Surrealism.

A number of more consciously Surrealist images followed, like Landscape at Iden (1929), and some quasi-abstract, like Landscape of the Megaliths (1934), but still addressing familiar themes.

His iconic Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41) recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s Artic shipwreck (1824) but also clearly draws on a number of Nash’s earlier Cubist quasi-abstract coastal reflections at Dymchurch from 1921, especially Winter Sea (1925-37).

Nash ended his not long life on a high. Beyond his war paintings he produced a series of quasi-abstract “visionary” landscapes based (again) on the Wittenham Clumps, which became a final meditation on a life theme of the cycle of life intersecting the history-imbued English landscape. Then the enigmatic Flight of the Magnolia (1944), on a theme the artist called ‘aerial flowers’, and overshadowed by terminally failing health, was one of his best “Surrealist’ works.

 Life and background.

Son of a barrister, born in Kensington, London, Nash later grew up (from 12) at Wood Lane, Iver Heath, Bucks., just west of London. He was afflicted early by asthma, which remained a chronic problem.

He started training in art Dec. 1906 (age 17) at the Chelsea Polytechnic, transferring late 1908 to the London City Counccil school at Bolt Court, off Fleet St. He then trained at the well known Slade School of Art from autumn 1910 to December 1911, alongside Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, David Bomberg, C.R.W. Nevinson, William Roberts, Edward Wadsworth and Dora Carrington, but he did not shine at figure drawing and left to concentrate on landscape painting.

Prominent portrait painter (later Sir) William Rothenstein (1872-1943) was an early (from 1909) and sustained supporter.

In a busy 1914 he joined Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops early in the year, was shown in two important exhibitions, courted and married Margaret Odeh, and joined the London Group 1914.

Then WW1 changed his life and his art. He enlisted Sep. 1914 in the Artists Rifles, married Oxford educated suffragette Margaret  on 14 December 1914, trained in 1916 and Dec. 1916 transferred to the Hampshire Regiment. He arrived at the Ypres Salient on the Western Front early March 1917, where on 25th May he was injured, then invalided home.

Based on work shown September mid 1917 in London fellow artist CRW Nevinson (1889‑1946) encouraged him to apply to become an official war artist, which he did, supported by various artists (including Fry, Rothenstein) returning to the Ypres Salient in Nov.1917, finding it (immediately after Battle of Passchendale) devastated compared to spring that year. There he worked hard on drawings for over 6 weeks, then back in London early 1918 (commissioned April by the Ministry of Information) turned his copious work into a series of oil paintings, starting with The Menin Road. Works were shown May 1918 in a one man display (Void of War) at Leicester Galleries, to immediate acclaim.

After the war in autumn 1921 he had a war-induced breakdown and with his wife settled at the Kentish coastal village of Dymchurch, where the sea wall protecting Romney Marsh from flooding became an important reference, a metaphor for Man’s struggle against the elements, natural and man-made. But he kept working, recovered, earned enough to fund a long trip, mid 1924 to early 1925, to Nice, Florence and Pisa, after which they moved to Iden, near Rye in Sussex.

In 1933 he joined a number of prominent art figures in founding the short lived Unit One.  “In 1933 he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One with fellow artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and the critic Herbert Read [also Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth]. It was a short-lived but important move towards the revitalisation of English art in the inter-war period.” (Tate).

The group fell out after one show (1934) owing to differences between Abstractionists and Surrealists.

Exposure to modern art from across the Channel was important, like a late 1928 show in London (his first) of the work of Giorgio de Chirico, then visiting Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery in Paris 1930.

Mid 1933 Nash saw a show of Max Ernst’s work in London at the Mayor Gallery, noticed Ernst’s interest in “primeval ruined cities” and his series on forests, “seat of irrational an instinctive forces” (Causey). In 1936 he was on the committee for the influential International Surrealist Exhibition held in June in London.

A July 1933 holiday visit to Silbury Hill and Avebury importantly reinforced his interest in landscape and history, seeded a number of paintings.

After a long trip to France (including Nice January/February 1934), Gibraltar and N Africa he and his wife moved June 1934 to coastal Swanage in Dorset, there inspired by local landmarks like Iron Age Maiden Castle, the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Fossil Forest at Lulworth. At Swanage too he began an intense affair with artist Eileen Agar. Mid 1936 he and his wife moved back to London, to Hampstead.

At the start of WW2 he was appointed as a full time war artist by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), “attached to the RAF”. But some were offended by his Modernism and failure to stick to portraits of pilots and his full time role ceased Dec. 1940. But WAAC Chairman Kenneth Clark championed his cause, secured Jan. 1931 a Stg500 commission to execute works on “the theme of aerial conflict”. The first two paintings, from 1941, were Totes Meer (Dead Sea) and Battle of Britain. His asthma related ill health interrupted work. Eventually he added The Defence of Albion and, in particular, The Battle of Germany, completed Sep.1944.

From 1942 Nash visited artist friend Hilda Harrisson at Boar’s Hill, Sandilands near Oxford, coincidentally affording views again of Wittenham Clumps. “He now painted a series of imaginative works of the Clumps under different aspects of the moon..”

Nash was “also a fine book illustrator, and also designed stage scenery, fabrics and posters.” There too grew sunflowers, which became an important motif in his final years.

TOPIC: some art shows London, pre WW1

November 1910              Manet and the Post-impressionists, Grafton Galleries, including Cezanne. By Roger Fry.

November 1911              Stafford Gallery showed work by Gauguin and Cezanne

March 1912                      Exhibition of Works by the Italian Futurists, Sackville Gallery

November 1912              Paul Nash (first) one man show, Carfax Gallery

October 1912                    Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, Grafton Galleries.

May 1913                          Showed at New English Art Club.

October 1913                    Post-Impressionist and Futurist Exhibition, Dore Gakkeries, org by Frank Rutter. Included Cezanne, van Gogh, Matisse, Severini, Picasso, and British artists.

November 1913                Nash brothers show, Dorien Leigh Gallry.

December 1913               Camden Town Group and Others, 6 works, Brighton Public Art Galleries.

March 1914                      First London Group exhibition, Goupil Gallery, Regent St

May / June 1914              Twentieth Century Art: a Review of Modern Movements, Whitechapel Gallery, included Nash.

June 1914                          David Bomberg’s first one-man show, Chenil Gallery, Chelsea

Feb. 1915                           Paul and John Nash show, with the Friday Club.

March 1915                      2nd (second) London Group show

June 1915                          First (and only) Vorticist Exhibition, at Doré Gallery.

Nov. 1915                         3rd London Group Exhibition

March 1916                      Allid Artists’ exhibition, Grafton Galleries.

June 1916                          4th London Group Exhibition

September 1916              Nevinson show, Leicester Galleries.

Nov. 1916                         5th London Group Exhibition

June 1917                          Nash drawings, Goupil Gallery.

Septmber 1917                Nash works shown in Birmingham.

March 1918                      Nevinson show, Leicester Galleries.

May 1918                          One-man Nash show, Void of War, Leicester Galleries.

         WORKS: some peaks …………….

       3

1912 The cliff to the north, pen, indian ink & grey wash on paper, 38 x 31cm, Fitzwilliam Museum. COMMENT: from the Norfolk coast, at Mundesley, near Cromer

4

1913, The three in the night, watercolour, ink and chalk, 20.75 x 13.5in, private. COMMENT: again the moon.

5

Felix Vallotton  (1865-1925), 1911 Last sun rays, oil on canvas, 73 x 100 cm

.  6

The cherry orchard, 1917, watercolour, ink and graphite pencil on paper, support: 575 x 482 mm. COMMENT: a stark tense evocative image, depopulated, as though everyone’s gone to the war. The skeletal trees are parading soldiers? There is debate when this was executed, 1914 or 1917, but surely the image speaks of 1917, the stylized geometry an especially the fence, the barbed wire fence trapping two (Dead?) birds.

Tate entry :““The Cherry Orchard” was made at John Drinkwater’s home, Winston’s Cottage, Far Oakridge, Gloucestershire, where Nash went in July 1917…. Nash had recovered from his injury at the front in May, but did not yet know that his return would be in the role of an official artist. This might help to account for the extraordinary tense imagery of the picture which seems more a later winter than a summer design…”

7

C June 1918 – Feb. 1919, The Menin Road, oil on canvas, 182.8 cm × 317.5 cm (72 in × 125 in), IWM. COMMENT: One of five oil paintings first shown May 1918 at the Void of War exhibition at Leicester Galleries, his first oil paintings. Overall this seems Nash’s most powerful WW1 images. Notice the foreground plants, clinging on. The blasted trees ringing for blasted lives. The surviving diminuitive soldiers tramp their new nether world. The spectral light from left throws shadows.     

(c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1918, The Ypres Salient at Night,  oil on panel, 71.4 x 92.0 cm, Imperial War Museum, London

9

1918 (by July), Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917, IWM, London

COMMENT:  more punches connect. Notice the wry darkly comic title. Two trees intact? And birds call top right rear. The mule track from early 1918 was his first oil painting.

10

   1925-37, Winter Sea, oil, 73.6 × 99.0cm, York City Art Gallery.

Landscape at Iden 1929 by Paul Nash 1889-1946

Landscape at Iden 1929 Paul Nash 1889-1946 Purchased 1939 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05047

1929, Landscape at Iden, Oil paint on canvas, 698 x 908 mm, Tate;     

This mysterious picture shows the view from Nash’s studio in Sussex. The dramatic perspective and strange juxtaposition of rustic objects creates a sense of the uncanny. It has been read as a statement of mourning. While the young fruit trees may suggest the defencelessness of youth, the altar-like pile of logs may be a symbol of fallen humanity; the fallen tree as a symbol for the dead was common in the art and literature of the war, not least in Nash’s own paintings.For many, an idea of the timeless and enduring English landscape seemed to displace the violent destruction of the war.” (Tate). It reflects the influence of the 1928 London exhibition by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico.

  

Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; The Rye Marshes, East Sussex

Nash, Paul; The Rye Marshes, East Sussex; Ferens Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-rye-marshes-east-sussex-78773

1932, Rye Marshes East Sussex, oil, 58.8 x 100.3 cm, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull

13

1935, Equivalents for the Megaliths, oil on canvas, 457 x 660 mm, Tate.
Paul Nash was recuperating from a nasty bout of bronchitis in the summer of 1933 when he first came across the Avebury megaliths, the largest prehistoric stone circle in Europe. He recalled, ‘Some were half covered by the grass, others stood up in cornfields were entangled and overgrown in the copses, some were buried under the turf. But they were wonderful and disquieting, and, as I saw them then, I shall always remember them

  14

1940–1, Totes Meer (Dead Sea), oil paint on canvas, 101.6 x 152.4 cm, Tate

15

1944 (completed Sep.), Battle of Germany, Imperial War Museum, London, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 182.8 cm

16

Artist : Paul Nash (England, b.1889, d.1946) Title : Date : 1942 Medium Description: oil on canvas Dimensions : Credit Line : Gift of the Contemporary Art Society, London 1944 Image Credit Line : Accession Number : 7435

1942, ‘Sunflower and sun’, oil on canvas,  51.1 x 76.5 cm, AG NSW. COMMENT “one of a series of works inspired by the view from Sandlands on Boars Hill near Oxford overlooking the Bagley Woods and taking in the Wittenham Clumps.”

17

1944, Flight of the Magnolia, Oil paint on canvas  511 x 762 x 22 mm, Tate. COMMENT: “part of a group of late works by Paul Nash that feature what the artist called ‘aerial flowers’” (Tate). The meaning of this image is much debated but despite Nash saying something himself its meaning remains ambiguous, probably to its credit.

Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; Landscape of the Moon's Last Phase

Nash, Paul; Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase; Walker Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/landscape-of-the-moons-last-phase-98001

1944, Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase, 63.5 x 76.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery

19

1945, Eclipse of the Sunflower, Oil on canvas, 71.1 X 91.4 cm, British Council. COMMENT: one of Paul Nash’s final two oil paintings.

Saint Cy (Twombly)? Why the in crowd love him: “religion” and money

 

Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly

(April 25th, 1928 – July 5th, 2011, 83 years)

 

Saint Cy? Why the in crowd love him: “religion” and money.

 

Adored by some heavy critics, seduced by the package of prolific idiosyncratic abstraction and Classical allusions.

But for the vested interests the plaudits are fuelled by money.

And the sustained rummaging of the long ago for subjects can be superficial attention-seeking pretence?

 

CY TWOMBLY: apposite and revealing case study for the high end commercial contemporary art market?   Thus his record market price is US$70m for 4 sq metres of monotone scribble on a “blackboard”.

 

SUMMARY

1/ Overbaked?

A sceptic’s view: yes he hooks interest but hard to overlook the assiduous pretence?

  • Arguably in his quest for a novel path Mr Twombly’s relentless resort to Classical and historical subjects for many of his abstract / quasi-abstract images cultivated a faux-gravitas, a superficial profundity, and seems pretentious, in seeking to lever off, capitalise on the caché of this august iconic heritage.
  • Objectively the relationship between the often obscure titles of many images and their visual content seems tenuous at best, problematic, elusive, obscure. Except of course those labelled “Untitled”.
  • Beyond digging up long ago history for subjects / titles the artist developed two distinctive, trademark expressive visual devices – scratchy textual adornment, and repetitive cursive scribbling – which, together with the quirky titles, became his artistic “thing”, and therefore handy for his market promoters.
  • The effusive wordy approbation roused in many art critics by Mr Twombly’s art seems more a matter of faith than evidence, of hagiography over balanced analysis, a triumph of hope over experience, of wishful thinking over reality since their opinions resist meaningful objective verification.
  • And then there’s the money as a propelling motive. “Vested interests”. Laudatory hyperbole by promoters warms up potential customers. And they don’t mind popular controversy over someone stumping up $70 million for “blackboard” scribble if it helps sell their man.
  • Objectively one might argue that many of Mr Twombly’s images seem to lack any particular aesthetic attraction or allure or original distinction? In terms of color, composition, abstraction motifs and style.
  • Oddly enough perhaps his last decade or so – into his 70s – was his purple patch? This valedictory period may harbour his most interesting works? Like the Lepanto, Seosostris, and Paphos series (each dancing obscurely, distinctively with the figurative), like the big bold colourful cursive “lasso” images (eg the Bacchus and Camino Real series), and like his big bold colourful floral motif works (like the Peony and Rose images).
  • Though this is one viewer’s opinion, and largely subjective, given the near completely abstract oeuvre.

 

2/ Why they rave

So WHY do many critics, market professionals rave? “Religion” and money.

Saint Cy? His art a seductive labyrinth? An enticing brew of intellectual even quasi-spiritual nourishment?

And it sells.

Good question.

First, there’s plenty to play with. He was industrious, over a working span of around 60 years.

Second, though the output is near all abstract or quasi-abstract, there is enough variety (including a dash of the figurative) to be interesting. And many works (especially later) are fashionably large, and grouped in series.

But, third, and most importantly, his oeuvre is cleverly distinctive. Mr Twombly cultivated his “thing”, his angle, and stayed with it for decades, through a lethal combination of four factors:

  • First, his oeuvre is near all abstract, but with a tempting and constructive occasional flavour of the figurative.
  • Second, he developed an idiosyncratic informal, scratchy, scribbly style, including the repetitive cursive calligraphical device;
  • Third, and more important, he frequently resorted to informal allusive text additions;
  • Fourth, and also important, he relentlessly indulged recourse to the past for subjects, especially to the Greco-Roman classics, the learned atmosphere reinforced by the artist being based in Italy much of his working life, and also by him remaining inscrutable, keeping his own counsel on whatever his work might mean.

This mutually reinforcing quartet of characteristics – especially anchored by the plenitude of allusions to the past, the Classics – becomes a powerfully attractive cocktail for receptive minds.

This tickles the art patrons’ palates, high and low, and the thirst for intellectual nourishment disables objective scrutiny, leads cultural pilgrims into quasi- spiritual paddocks.

For some it’s the divine blush of an Alpine sunset, or dietary supplements. For others it’s Saint Cy’s enchanting visual brew.

And then there’s the money. When a few square metres of scratch and scribble on canvas can fetch north of 50 million dollar units the quills of the complicit will relax a little.

And here Mr Twombly’s trademark idiosyncrasies work to fan the market, when they make it easy even for the uninitiated to know, yes that’s a Twombly.

 

3/ The menu

The oeuvre: prolific, near all abstract, but above all distinctive.

  • Mr Twombly was prolific, across a long career, but notwithstanding the abundance of images, arguably he restricted himself to a relatively narrow range of painterly styles? His oeuvre is near all abstract, adding some calligraphical, cursive content, with only small recourse to the figurative, the representative. No portraits or landscapes or cityscapes or genre scenes. Even quasi-abstract. His painting journey was relatively steady, with shifts but nothing too abrupt, staying within a relatively narrow band.
  • Largely eschewing the figurative is a valid career choice, but it does restrict artistic / aesthetic achievement possibilities?
  • The oeuvre. After following the New York Abstract Expressionist crowd around 1950 with coarse “glyphic” abstraction Twombly found his mojo circa 1955 with fine diaphanous scratchy abstracts, non-geometric scribbling, through to Poems to the Sea of 1959. From around 1960 he shifted to colourful, splash, scratch, splodge and scribble. Bolder and more colourful, like the Ferragosto series of 1961, and Nine discourses on Commodus of 1963.
  • Then from 1966 through circa 1971 he shifted abruptly to the “blackboard” paintings, to monotone cursive abstract.
  • Distinctively too, starting in the late 1950s, he added scratchy untidy text to many images, especially from later in the 1970s. This was trademark Twombly.
  • Through the 1970s to 1990s the abstraction becomes more varied, exploratory: denser and more colourful, more conventionally expressive (ie dense, coarse, bold and colourful), sometimes using ragged floral-like motifs, still adding informal untidy text and figurative references, eg the important series, Coronation of Sesostris of 2000 (10 panels) and Lepanto of 2001 (12 panels).
  • In 2005 he unleashed large panels of thick red cursive scribbling, thence large reddish circular floral daubs, and finally (around age 80) he returned to crude colourful figurative abstraction, and ropey colourful cursive scribbling.

 

CY AND THE CURSIVE – two recent sales

 

1/ Two 1968 paintings from Cy’s ‘Blackboard Jungle’….

b1

  1. Untitled (New YorkCity), oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 173 x 229 cm (NOTE: sold at Sotheby’s NY for US$70.5m Nov. 2015, a record auction price for the artist).

b2

1968 Untitled (New YorkCity), oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 152.4 x 173 cm. (NOTE: sold Sotheby’s NY 11th May 2016 for US$36.7m. Interesting, suggests a “softening” in the market?)

 

2/ Is it Art? Sure.

Yes, applying a broad definition.

Ostensibly it looks like repetitive monotone scribbling on a canvas, one white, one blue.

But it becomes art when to a viewer it in some ways means more than that, for whatever reason.

Yes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

 

3/ But it’s also a business.

These works are commercially traded. And for a lot of money. The painting on the left sold for a record US$70m November 2015.  And on the right for around US$37m May 2016.

Yes it’s a business, so opinions, judgements on a work come with powerful vested interests. No harm in that provided we keep that condition in mind.

Thus the relevant Catalogue Note for the May 2016 auction for Untitled (New YorkCity (1968) is a feat of sustained, superheated, hyperventilating, take-no-prisoners, hyperbolic prose, a Force 10 panegyric (edited with emphasis added):

 “Cy Twombly’s majestic Untitled (New York City) of 1968 is the enduring material triumph of a simply unrepeatable moment in the history of art…. An unparalleled exemplar of the artist’s most hallowed series of ‘Blackboard’ paintings…  the phenomenal vestige of an exceptional epoch. ..  Twombly forges a new visual language and ultimately achieves a visual poetry that is beyond sublimeUntitled (New York City) stands as tangible testimony to Twombly’s staggering innovation and inimitable abstract aesthetic …. It is, in short, the very pure manifestation of Cy Twombly’s indisputable genius…….. seemingly frenzied dispersion of graphic mark-making is in fact the result of finely-honed technical precision: the progressive march of elliptical repetitions is expertly rendered to achieve an irresistibly hypnotic urgency. .. The variegated tonal architecture of grisaille hues functions like geological strata…. the sheer force of this painting’s dynamic energy marks it apart from all contemporaneous examples of the grand cycle, and results in a panoramic expanse pulsating with the expansions and contractions of a certain organized chaos… Despite a residual yearning to decipher these written marks as an inherently human need, Twombly’s visual language has neither syntax nor logic…… and function as a compulsory sensual and intellectual catharsis that is both universal and particular to the individual… .. The six magnificent horizontal bands of loops increase in volume and expressive abandon, as the artist progresses down the length of the canvas.. …..At moments, the line is tight and dense; at others, Twombly loses control and his cursive energy drives off course, a high-speed choreography in which individual events of personal expression are sublimated into a greater whole of dense accumulations. Within this dichotomy lies the very brilliance of Twombly’s painting: reveling in the contradictions between the systematic and the irregular, the unruly and the cerebral, the premeditated and the intuitive, Twombly achieves a balletic complexity unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries…. In the lattice of tiered lateral ovals scoring the canvas, Twombly’s own gestural abandon erupts from the structural balance of the composition; while more precise and mathematical than the automatism of the Surrealists or the impulse of the Abstract Expressionists, Twombly’s subjectivity seeps through what appears to be mechanical labor. .. Twombly’s loops … bely in subtle disobedience a totally objective geometric precision. With the rigid syntax and rudimentary forms of the grey-ground paintings, Twombly appears to deny the insouciance of personality; however, the tremulous inflections of each parabolic rise and fall inevitably give way to the signature intensity of the artist’s own hand..”  (Sotheby’s catalogue for auction 11th May 2106, New York).

This is all possible. But objectively it can still look like “graffiti”? Still look “childlike”? Whatever the intention. Whatever the critical opinions.

A wry coda to the matter of money here is the fight which erupted over the substantial estate! Now that would be worth a painting? Arthur Boyd would have salivated at the prospect.

But for many people it may remain curious repetitive scribbling on a “blackboard”.

 

4/ The “Blackboard” images and Twombly’s Cursive.

Cy Twombly’s first “Blackboard” painting seems to be Cold Stream executed Rome, 1966, not New York. It’s very similar to the two Sotheby’s paintings of 1968 but a bit bigger. All three feature 6 horizontal lines of repetitive cursive lasso scrawl.

 

b3

1966, Cold Stream, Rome, oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 200 x 252 cm.

b4

1966 Untitled, Rome. Industrial paint and crayon on canvas, 190 x 200 cm.

Then two other paintings from Rome in 1966 are broadly similar, both of similar size, but with different markings, both with square box-like cursive scrawl (Night Watch, distemper and crayon on canvas, 190 x 200 cm, and Untitled, industrial paint and crayon on canvas, 190 x 200 cm, see above).

A number of other similar images followed, Untitled (1968, oil-based house paint and crayon on canvas, 173 x 216cm, MOMA), Untitled (1968, oil, chalk and tempera on cloth, 172.7 x 215.9 cm), Untitled (1970, distemper and chalk on canvas, 70.5 x 100 cm), Untitled (Rome) (1970, 155.5 x 190 cm, sold by Christie’s November 2014 for $69m, similar to the two Sotheby’s paintings, but only 4 lines of cursive scrawl. See below), Untitled (1970, distemper and chalk on canvas, 345.5 x 495.3 cm, ie larger, four lines of less regular cursive scrawl, see below), and Untitled (1971, distemper and chalk on canvas, 198 x 348 cm).

So the two Sotheby’s paintings have some company.

b5

1970, Untitled (Rome), Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 155.5 x 190 cm (NOTE: sold for cUS$60m October 2014);

b6

1970, Untitled, Rome? Distemper and chalk on canvas, 345.5 x 495.3 cm

b7

1970, Untitled, distemper and chalk on canvas, 70.5 x 100 cm.

b8

1971 Untitled, distemper and chalk on canvas, 198 x 348 cm.

But the cursive visual device stayed with Twombly, now and then.

It returned in 1982 with Suma (oil, crayon etc,143 x 128cm) and Untitled (oil stick etc, 100 x 70cm), both red whorls.

And in 2005 with Notes from Salalah, now dripping bold white scrawl on black, and especially with the important Bacchus series, now big (panels over 3m by near 5m) bold red tangled loops.

Finally it returns in two late works, Untitled of 2008, three unusual panels (all c265 x 145cm) of ragged white loops on royal blue, and then his very last series, five colourful epressive panels of Camino Real, all thick dripping loops of red and orange against a middle green, a world away from the flimsy monotone of over 40 years earlier.

 

              b9

1982 Suma, Oil paint, crayon, gouache, graphite, and color pencil on paper, 142,5 x 127,5 cm

b10

1982 Untitled, oil stick, pencil, colour pencil on paper, 100 x 70 cm.

b11

2005 Untitled IV, (Bacchus).  Acrylic on canvas

b12

2005-07, III Notes from Salalah, Note III, Acrylic on wood panel, 243.8 x 365.8 cm

b14

  1. Camino Real (III). Acrylic on plywood, 252.4 x 185.1 cm


HARD TO VERIFY

1/ Pretentious?

Cy Twombly is nothing if not controversial, one of the more controversial of prominent recent (post ww2) artists, especially because his work is near all abstract, subjective, technically easy to execute (“child’s play”!): all scribble, splash, smear and rub, and now sells for plenty. Much of his work also comes bearing florid elaborate Classical references and the total package is lauded by many Serious Critics, the art establishment.

But stepping back it is hard not to read Twombly as determinedly pretentious. Even fustian! ”Pompous, pretentious”. Even if he was likely not consciously focussed in this.

This is especially because of how he sought to invest, load so much of his work with faux-gravitas, profound import, by summoning up references to classical or historical characters and events, through the image titles, then reinforced in many cases by incorporating relevant jottings of text.

This thematic career mission was in turn reinforced not least by him moving to Italy in 1957 (ie at 29), and, barring intermittent travel, for good, the next 56 years, living in Rome and later at Gaeta, on the Italian coast, south, between Naples and Rome.

Also Twombly’s comparative silence, his studious insouciance, reluctance to intervene with his own commentary to assist any understanding by his viewing public, only stoked curiosity.

Rather his comment might just polish his association with history’s achievers. So one time he over egged the pudding by associating himself with Poussin. “I would’ve liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time.” Why stop there? Why not Rembrandt? Though the gap between Mr Twombly and Nicolas Poussin seems like from Earth to Pluto, other than that they both aimed to paint or interpret Classical subjects.

 b15

Three takes on “scribbling”: Rembrandt van Rijn, Self portrait, engraving 1630, and Cy Twombly  1957

 

b17

1957 Blue Room, Oil based house paint, wax crayon and pencil on canvas, 143 x 182cm.

 

2/ Empirical day dreaming. A taste test. Would Twombly  pass a blind tasting?

Take almost any Twombly work blind, anonymously, stripped of its obscure title, its full context, including its authorship, and ask, What does it really tell you?

Then add back the title, and ask, does it tell us any more?

Thus take Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963). One critic writes: “It would take many years for the true impact of the Commodus paintings to become apparent. Today.. [soon after they were received controversially on gallery debut in 1964] …. the strength of Twombly’s painting is no longer obscured by such polemics. The Commodus paintings – previously seen as peripheral …. now clearly occupy a unique and central position in the history of postwar painting.” (Nicholas Cullinan, 2009).

Really? That is hard- impossible? –  to evidentially justify, other than tautologically, by referencing other approbatory opinion?

Would the images mean any more even to historians informed about the Emperor Commodus? If at a blind tasting you asked these historians which Roman Emperor might the images pertain to, would any choose correctly?

Some critics associate the work with the darkening mood of the early 1960s, which witnessed the Cuban Missile crisis [Oct. 1962] and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy [Nov. 1963]” (Carmen Giménez, 2008).

Except the works date from winter 1963 and therefore pre-date JFK’s death.

But this draws a long bow? Even if it’s difficult to relate the images to the life of Commodus, one wonders what contemporary 20th C relevance attaches to the career of this largely unimportant 2nd C AD Emperor, incompetent if colourful, self-absorbed and dissolute.

Or take the Coronation of Sesostris (2000, 10 large panels, each ~ 2 x 1.5 metres)? Sesostris, from writings by Herodotus was even more obscure, to the point of being semi-fictional, musing that this putative pharaoh led his soldiers north as far as Asia Minor and Greece! But here apparently the series is about “an ancient Egyptian myth of the sun’s journey from morning to night”, if extravagantly – pretentiously? – labelled. The critic continues: “the sequence begins with a big image of the sun that looks as if it was drawn by a 4-year-old with a red crayon…. the sun acquires wheels and is then carried by a boat… The sixth panel presents a poem about the departure of the gods by Patricia Waters….  the program closes with words from a classical poem: ”Eros weaver of myth, Eros sweet and bitter, Eros bringer of pain.”. Mr. Twombly’s quasi-scholarly erudition and calculated faux-primitivism can seem off-puttingly mannered; there is a certain Romantic grandiosity.. Still, the panoramic narrative as a whole is persuasive. Vigorously raw in some places, luminously beautiful in others, it offers a fine combination of emotive urgency and decorative elegance(Ken Johnson, NY Times, 2001). That gives Mr Twombly the benefit of the doubt!

Or take the later Bacchus series? One large (most over 3 x 4 metres) cursive red scribble / scrawl / drip drapeau upon another. The Tate (2008) remarks: The exhibition also explores how Twombly is influenced by antiquity, myth and the Mediterranean, for example the violent red swirls in the Bacchus 2005 paintings which bring to mind the drunken god of wine.” Really!? Or the melee of a battle? Or Alexander lost in Makran, by the Persian coast?

 

3/  The problem: verifiability? Twombly’ s worth is unprovable, mostly a matter of faith?

The ultimate challenge for the earnest applause for Twombly’s work, straying into the hagiographical, is that like religion it cannot be verified or falsified. It’s largely a matter of faith. For the converts it’s true because it’s true.

Thus Wikipedia writes: Writing and language also served as major conceptual foundations for Twombly’s mostly abstract art. In addition to the written word – in the form of poems, myths, and histories – he also focused on the process of writing, both by sketching unidentifiable doodles and splotches or words directly onto the canvas and by creating line-based compositions, often inspired by handwriting. Through these methods, he was often able to suggest subtle narratives that lay beneath the surfaces of his paintings.”

What “subtle narratives”?

 

HIS APPEAL

 

1/ The appeal of Cy Twombly? Religion and money.The mind (the thirst for intellectual cum spiritual nourishment), and the pocket (money)?

Why is he so popular with many serious critics? The professional art establishment leaders?

Two reasons?

First, the wondering Man’s instinctive appetite for intellectual cum spiritual nourishment, which propels wide-eyed intelligent observers into quasi-religious submission?

And second, more prosaically, money. Means to feed the cat.

 

2/  ……. The product

First, there’s plenty to play with. He was industrious, over a working span of around 60 years.

Second, though the output is near all abstract or quasi-abstract, there is enough variety (including a dash of the figurative) to be interesting. And many works (especially later) are fashionably large, and grouped in series.

But, third, and most importantly, his oeuvre is cleverly distinctive. Mr Twombly cultivated his “thing”, his angle, and stayed with it for decades, through a lethal combination of four factors:

First, there’s plenty to play with. He was industrious, over a working span of around 60 years.

Second, though the output is near all abstract or quasi-abstract, there is enough variety (including a dash of the figurative) to be interesting. And many works (especially later) are fashionably large, and grouped in series.

But, third, and most importantly, his oeuvre is cleverly distinctive. Mr Twombly cultivated his “thing”, his angle, and stayed with it for decades, through a lethal combination of four factors:

  • First, his oeuvre is near all abstract, but with a tempting and constructive occasional flavour of the figurative.
  • Second, he developed an idiosyncratic informal, scratchy, scribbly style, including the repetitive cursive calligraphical device;
  • Third, and more important, he frequently resorted to informal allusive text additions;
  • Fourth, and also important, he relentlessly indulged recourse to the past for subjects, especially to the Greco-Roman classics, the learned atmosphere reinforced by the artist being based in Italy much of his working life, and by him keeping his own counsel on whatever his work might mean.

 

3/  ……. The market: the mind

Man is predisposed, wired to seek “spiritual enlightenment”, refreshment, nourishment, diversion, distraction.

Some choose the specifically, doctrinally religious, ranging from old fashioned Christianity to more recent man-made help yourself creations like Scientology.

Other stay secular but vulnerable to uncritical quasi-religious loyalty.

Man, the conscious curious Man, yearns for a greater understanding of his Total Predicament, given awareness of his mortality, evident since Adam, and, more recently, the revelations of hard working empirical science, ie that we are one species on one planet in one solar system in one of perhaps 170 billion galaxies, in this universe, which may not be the only one.

Thus he is is vulnerable to gullibility, to manifold cultural offerings which press the right buttons, which pander to, rouse and feed his “spiritual” desire.

And the total Twombly experience – his life and total oeuvre – is one such appealing package.

Twombly‘s long journey (recalling Odysseus! Who he left unremarked?) delivers a relentless, singular, carefree, diverse, detailed, and prolific opacity, an impenetrable obscurity, his “candid flailing”, Une Mystere Enveloppant, which keep him forever appealing and timeless!

His “best works are permanently embroiled in the present tense of their making” (Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker, 2005).

He becomes a seductive labyrinth? Something there for everyone? And once inside the oeuvre it is like the Minoan construct, hard to escape, especially for art critics soaked in art history. They cannot get enough of him. He turbocharges their pens unto a torrent of articulate convoluted engagement.

Surrendering to Twombly’s best art entails an odd transaction: confessing fundamental bewilderment in return for being granted a flare of exaltation…

As a type of artist, Twombly most closely approximates the classic dandy: provoking and impenetrable. (“He wants to produce an effect, but at the same time he couldn’t care less,” Barthes says.). Yet his manipulative aestheticism is prone to all manner of breakdowns, in shifting ratios of self-absorption and empty rhetoric…” (Peter Schjeldahl op.cit.).

 

Mr Twombly’s mutually reinforcing quartet of visual characteristics – his visual fingerprint – becomes a powerfully attractive cocktail for receptive minds, especially as anchored by the plenitude of allusions to the past, the Classics.

This tickles the art patrons palates, high and low, thirsty for intellectual nourishment, but beyond even unto the spiritual paddocks?

 

But if it works for these people who’s to say it’s any less valid for that. So long as we understand the wider context.

 

So it’s like many films, or operas, or just about any cultural work? Check your disbelief (and firearms) at the cloakroom before entering upon the relevant arena, the cinema or museum.

 

4/   ……. The market: the money

Many commentators are professionals conflicted through earning income from their engagement, bringing a vested interest. The art establishment – dealers, galleries and museums – have a big vested interest in promoting Mr Twombly, in fanning his reputation. And his controversy!

So their often enthusiastic judgements are not independent.

When a few square metres of scratch and scribble on canvas can fetch north of 50 million George Washingtons the quills of the complicit will relax a little.

And here Mr Twombly’s trademark idiosyncrasies work to fan the market, when they make it easy even for the uninitiated to know, yes that’s a Twombly.

So they like the controversy stoked by “..  his huge faux-naïve paintings” (Edmund White, 2015). It’s good for business. They like to play to the layman’s caution, the layman’s scorn for the “scribble”, the trite “kids could do this” So Twombly becomes a convenient cue to try to “help” explain why it really is art, that while his art might look simple this belies profound thought, complexity and insight if only you know how to detect and decipher it. Thus supporters stress it’s not childish scribble, rather it’s really really profound interaction with the past, his classical surroundings in Italy.

Twombly tried to differentiate himself too: Graffiti is linear and it’s done with a pencil, and it’s like writing on walls. But in my paintings it’s more lyrical…. My line is childlike but not childish. It is very difficult to fake… to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child’s line. It has to be felt.”

 

THE OEUVRE

 

The total oeuvre: resolutely abstract, but incorporating the calligraphic and a small but important figurative component.

Cy Twombly’s output over a career of near 60 years (c1950-2010) was almost totally abstract, but more than some calligraphical elaboration, including text, and a small but important component of the figurative.

So his painterly range in terms of styles and subjects remained relatively narrow.

 

A chronology

He began in the early 50s with coarse abstract pictographic “glyphic” images, much like some of the (other) Abstract Expressionists, then he switched abruptly in 1955 (with Academy, Panorama etc) to a fine scribbling calligraphical style, largely colorless, monotone, through to Poems to the Sea of 1959. Restrained but distinctive!

Finding his own way. This was – and remains – important for any ambitious artist, the satisfaction of revealing an original contribution, but also striving to be noticed, not least to sell the product.

Color crept in after c1960 and in the first half of the 1960s he broadened to a more colourful busy abstraction, splodgy, scratchy, usually filling the canvas, like the Ferragosto series of 1961. The important 9 panel series in 1963 (Nine Discourses on Commodus) was simpler, retreated mostly to pairs of colorful whorls, some dripping.

From 1966 he shifted abruptly to images of monotone cursive calligraphical abstract, through to about 1971, the “blackboard”paintings.

Distinctively too, starting about the late 1950s, he added scratchy untidy informal text to many images, especially from later in the 1970s.

In the 1970s he returned to scratchy colourful abstraction, less ordered, using more and bolder scratchy text, with some figurative motifs, like in 50 Days at Iliam (1978).

Through the 1980s and 1990s (the artist now 50-70 years) the abstraction approach becomes generally more colourful and expressive: coarse, bold and colourful, sometimes using ragged floral-like motifs (eg varous Untitled), still adding informal untidy text and using some loose figurative references, eg the important series, Coronation of Sesostris of 2000 (10 panels) and Lepanto of 2001 (12 panels).

In 2005 with the Bacchus series he returned to the cursive with gusto, unleashed large panels of thick red cursive scribbling, which recall his monotone repetitive cursive scribbling starting 1966, from c40 years earlier.  Then 2007-08 he abruptly switched to large colourful (mostly red) circular floral daubs.

Finally (now 81) his 2009 Paphos series saw a return to crude figurative abstraction, but more colourful, and his final major series Camino Real, in 2010, returned to ropey colourful scribbling.

 

Aspects

The subject range is narrow.

There are no portraits, no landscapes, no town or urbanscapes, no genre scenes, no still lives?

Color mostly came later? We see signs by about 1960, gathering speed in 1963 with Commodus et al, but not before the 1990s did it show much boldness.

His output was prolific, in part, practically speaking, because his images were not technically difficult to execute?

And it includes a number of “blockbuster” series (eg Sesostris etc, Iliam etc, Lepanto etc, and Bacchus)

Many of his images are LARGE! In common with many of his early Abstract Expressionist brethren. So – especially if stitched into series – he can easily fill a room, make a statement, become an anchoring attraction at an exhibition.

Only in a few images are relevant sketchy figurative elements in evidence (eg Lepanto) so near all his work is abstract and therefore even more subjective, mostly splash and dash, scratch and scribble and daub and splodge, so any specific relationship of the image content to the appended elaborate titles is usually abstruse, obscure, in the eye of the beholder.

But the figurative / representational content is important, and perhaps more potent because its use is rationed.

 

His “thing”: the scratchy text, cursive scrawl, and the august subject allusions.

Like many contemporary artists Mr Twombly developed his “thing”, his differentiating angle.

Visually he did this above all by disordered scratchy textual adornment, and by repetitive cursive scribbling, both of which became distinctive, trademark expressive visual devices for Twombly.

A third important distinguishing angle was frequent recourse to the distant past for subjects and titles, to history and to the Greco-Roman Classics.

In particular, though many images are Untitled, in most images he inhabited, inveigled, exploited, tapped, mined, ransacked, cloaked his career and much of his work with ….. classical and other historical references, some iconic: eg 50 Days at Iliam (1978, 10 panels), Bacchus (2005); some obscure: eg Coronation of Sesostris (10 panels, 2001, from old Egypt, from a story by Herodotus of mysterious Egyptian Pharoah who ventured north into Asia Minor), and Nine discourses on Commodus (1963) (whose failed Roman emperorship started the 3rd C Time of Troubles); and some just history, like the Lepanto series (2001), re the famous 1571 sea battle between the Ottomans and some European countries.

And he also dared to dance with JMW Turner (Temeraire), and to embellish images by tapping literature, eg quoting Mallarme, Rilke, and Keats.

Not accidentally the textual additions reinforce the profound Classical allusions of the subjects. So in many of Twombly’s images the classical reference is emphasized, clarified by added text, more or less, scratchy and untidy, in “his ecstatic response to history, literature and other art, and the raw emotionalism that his mark making conveyed.” (Roberta Smith, 2011).

In seeking to make his mark – be noticed, recognised (especially in the commercial art market) through cultivating a distinctive visual thumbprint – he was not alone, cf Matisse, Picasso, Pollock. His “thing” is readily appreciated by the interested layperson, the voting public, so it remains vitally helpful for art professonals keen to promote the artist.

 

But not alone

But in craving meaning and gravitas for his abstract works by (in his case) adopting intriguing obscure titles tapping the Classics he was not alone.

Around 1950 in New York a number of his fellow Abstract Expressionist painters used the same tack. Thus Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman both campaigned hard to fashion Meaning from and for their ostensibly relatively simple abstract utterances.

 

Critics: many cannot get enough. In Heaven

Katharina Schmidt (2011, catalogue Dulwich exhibition): “Cy Twombly’s work can be understood as one vast engagement with cultural memory……His special medium is writing. Starting out from purely graphic marks, he developed a kind of meta-script in which abbreviated signs, hatchings, loops, numbers and the simplest of pictographs spread throughout the picture plane in a process of incessant movement, repeatedly subverted by erasures. Eventually, this metamorphosed into script itself…

And 1994 article by Kirk Varnedoe, rebuffed criticism that “This is just scribbles – my kid could do it”. “the art lies not so much in the finesse of the individual mark, but in the orchestration of a previously uncodified set of personal “rules” about where to act and where not, how far to go and when to stop, in such a way as the cumulative courtship of seeming chaos defines an original, hybrid kind of order, which in turn illuminates a complex sense of human experience not voiced or left marginal in previous art.

And Roberta Smith (NY Times. 2011), in an article reporting Twomb;y’s death, writes of the work “Panorama” (1955, ~ 2.6 x 3.4m) “in which he clearly had one eye on Jackson Pollock’s skeins of dripped paint, Mr. Twombly’s scattered, skittering thatches of chalk lines seemed like extensions of his own nervous system. Accruing randomly, like isolated thoughts or asides, they refused to imply any grand scheme or overreaching rhythm, which contributed to their psychological intimacy.” She concludes: ”His art revealed an enthralling calligraphic and diagrammatic universe teeming with meaning. His ultimate subject was nothing less than the human longing to communicate — to make meaning that others could apprehend and expand. It is an ancient loop, but in nearly everything he did Mr. Twombly exposed its wiring with a new clarity and exultant intensity. Few 20th-century artists corroborated as insistently Schiller’s assertion that “all art is dedicated to joy.””

And to the list we can add the relevant Sotheby’s catalogue authors (eg above).

 

LIFE NOTES

A life: some moments.

Born Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly Jr in Lexington, Virginia, April 25th 1928, CT was raised by a supportive family, at age 12 taking lessons with the Catalan modern master Pierre Daura. And he was well educated, studying Boston (1948-49), and at university in Lexington, Virginia (1949-50). Then 1950 to 1951 he studied at Art Students League of NY, where he met Rauschenberg, who encouraged him to Black Mountain College, N Carolina, where 1951-52 he studied with Kline and Motherwell. There the Rector of the College Charles Olson had a great influence on him.

Early influences were Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti, and especially Kurt Schwitters’ collages? Later came Kline and Klee?

Through Robert Motherwell his first solo exhibition was held at Sam Kootz Gallery NY 1951.

In 1952 on a grant he travelled to North Africa (Morocco, with Paul Bowles), Spain, Italy, and France. Mostly with Rauschenberg.

1954, he served in the U.S. Army as a cryptographer in Washington, D.C, travelling to New York during periods of leave.

1955 through 1956, he taught in Virginia, vacationing in NY.

1957, Twombly moved to Rome, met the Italian artist Baroness Tatiana Franchetti – sister of his patron Baron Giorgio Franchetti and 1959 they married in NewYork. In 1959 they bought a palazzo on the Via di Monserrato in Rome. They lived too at a 17th-century villa in Bassano in Teverina, north of Rome. A son, Cyrus Alessandro Twombly was born 1959.

In 1964, Twombly met Nicola Del Roscio of Gaeta, who became his longtime companion. They bought a house and rented a studio in Gaeta in the early 1990s.

He died Rome 5th July 2011.

 

A taste…. of the oeuvre……….. Top 13

bb1

1951, Zyig, 41 x 51.5 cm;

 

bb2

1957 Blue Room Oil based house paint, wax crayon and pencil on canvas, 143 x 182cm.

 

                bb3

1961 Ferragosto IV, Rome.  Oil paint, wax crayon, and lead pencil on canvas, 165.5 x 204 cm

 

bb4

  1. Cold Stream, Rome, Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 200 x 252 cm

 

bb5

1978. Fifty days at Iliam, Illians in battle, panel 8; Oil, oil crayon, and graphite on canvas, 299.7 x 379.7 cm

       

bb6

1989, Untitled.

 

 bb7

           1990, Liri, oil stick, pencil, color pencil

 

bb8

1993-95 Quattro Stagioni Primavera, Acrylic, oil, crayon, and pencil on canvas support, 313.22 x 189.5 cm, Tate Modern

 

bb9

2000 Coronation of Sesostris, panel 5, Acrylic, crayon, and pencil on canvas, 206 x 156.5 cm

 

bb10 Untitled VII 2005 (Bacchus). Acrylic on canvas, 317.5 x 468.6 cm

 

TWOMBLY - Untitled [from Blooming. A Scattering of Blossoms and Other Things] (2007)

TWOMBLY – Untitled [from Blooming. A Scattering of Blossoms and Other Things] (2007)

2007 Untitled, (Peony Blossom Paintings), Acrylic, wax crayon, pencil on wood, 252 x 551.9 cm (From blooming, a scattering of blossoms and other things)                                

 

 bb12

  1. The Rose (IV). Acrylic on plywood, 252 x 740 cm

 

bb13

           Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves (V). Acrylic on canvas, 267.4 x 212.3 cm.