Cracking Jasper: Pop Corn art

 

FEATURED IMAGE: Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009). 1951. Trodden Weed, Philadelpia Museum of Art

 

Reflections upon reading, Jasper Johns: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”. The long read, By Barbara Rose. Published 7 September 2017. Royal Academy Magazine.

 

  • Means whatever you want? Pop Corn Art.

  • All this name-dropping. Starts to grate?

  • Critics can’t help themselves.

  • But art is also a business.

 

The art means what?

It came to me jogging.

What is the man actually saying? What does this heterodox flurry of images mean?

Answer, whatever you want. Like a candy store, there’s something for everyone.

It’s Feet Up art for the leisured generation.

So it mirrors the age.

 

Rummaging the treasure chest. Starts to grate?

One can have a problem with young Jasper.

Some way into Ms Rose’s panegyric, as a Mr Johns work “quotes” yet another art history icon, I was reminded of Democrat Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s now famous rejoinder to Republican Senator Dan Quayle in the US 1988 VP debate. `Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.’

As we see how the hatching in Munch’s Self portrait by chance matches Mr Johns use of it, after, the story goes, he spotted it on a passing bus.

In the same vein we are reminded of the work of another postwar American “giant”, Mr Cy Twombly, who also indulged a lazy sustained penchant for shamelessly tapping, “quoting” history, in an apparently banal, glib or obscure way,

So one thinks, in both cases, how about a blind tasting?

Assemble a panel of well informed “experts” unfamiliar with the work of CT or JJJ, show them a bunch of relevant images, then ask them to jot down what references each image might suggest: literary, historic, artistic etc.

So I wonder how many might find in JJJ… the Isenheim Altarpiece? Munch’s Self portrait? Not to mention Proust! And Hart Crane, William Faulkner, etc etc.

The Isenheim Altarpiece?? Isn’t it kind of sacrilegious to blithely cite this iconic work?

 

Lazy, feet up, follow your nose art, for the TV generation.

You live long enough, stay busy, keep pouring out visual encounters of a diverse and wondrous kind, permutations of which allow vastly more possibilities, and soon there’s enough material to keep legions of agile energetic minds occupied searching connections and meaning.

One likes the quip about André Gide! Like a wise quarry, play hard to get.

And you laugh near the end too, coming across the artist one Barnett Newman, a remarkable but dare I say successful diligent self-promoter (with help from a dutiful wife), labouring tirelessly to coax profound meaning from his trademark trouser aid motif. And labouring “heroically” too one gathers.

Well this heavy adverb might fit far better, for example, the work of an elderly lady Australian indigenous artist called Sally Gabori who died a year or so back, whose best work, also abstract, could easily hold its own against the AbEx leaders and also be effortlessly authentic.

So, unfashionably, Mr Andrew Wyeth’s 1951 Trodden Weed might beat any image here by JJJ?

There’s nothing in principle against contemporary art, so long as it says something, shows constructive purpose.

 

The critics let rip: into overdrive, no brakes!

Rather, he is great because, somehow, he accesses and articulates, in a gorgeous, sensual manner, mysteries that, for the rest of us, are unfathomable. …..

Indeed, many of his paintings have an arcane, rabbinical quality.

Like a priest, he seems to be in possession of great wisdom and spiritual insight into fundamental aspects of our existence.

We may employ a different phrase, and say that he taps, rapturously, into something divine…” Per A. Mr Sooke in the Daily Telegraph.

Lucky I was sitting down when I read this.

Yes well.

As I say, try a blind tasting and see how many tick, Divine hues, or Rabbinical overtones, or Hints of unfathomable mysteries.

Something here of that story about the Emperor who forgot his clothes?

 

Yes we need to remember art is also a business. The artists, the museums, the critics, the private commercial galleries, the auction houses. And for a small coterie of artists their output is big business. Lots of noughts.

So we have what the governance manual calls, conflict of interest.

 

Cheer up. Modernity is a wonderful thing

Finally as a Whig optimist, now unfashionable in many quarters, one smiles at the gloomy reactionary pessimism near the end of the RA essay, “the technology-dominated…. world threatened with extinction because of human greed, brutality and ignorance”. This is misleading, elitist and probably dead wrong.

Ask the billions of people today who can now access sewage facilities thanks to “technology”.

 

A tasting….

a2

Between the Clock and the Bed, 1981.  Oil on canvas. 182.9 x 320.7 cm. Collection of the artist

a3

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) Self-portrait. Between the clock and the bed, 1940-43, 120.5 x 149.5 cm, Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway

a4

Sally Gabori (c1924- March 2015). 2008, Dibirdibi Country, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 200 x 600 cm, Queensland Art Gallery.

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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.

Camille Pissarro (and friends) – if you could only invite one to tea?

 

The Impressionists‘ engaging aesthetic „special effects“ man.

(Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro, July 1830- November 1903, 73)

 

FEATURED IMAGE:   1874 Bad Weather, Pontoise, Snow Effect, oil on canvas, 50.5 x 61.6 cm, Private Collection.   COMMENT: textbook Pissarro, from the year Impressionism was formally launched at the first (of 8) official Salon challenging group exhibition in Paris. Thus through bare trees we see some “structure”, and the coarse brushwork captures snow flurried by wind.

If we can choose only two paintings …. .

2  3

1877, The Côte des Bœufs at L’Hermitage (Pontoise) Oil on canvas, 114.9 x 87.6 cm, National Gallery London. COMMENT: this is a relatively large painting, and the reproduction does not do justice to the dense fine impasto texture visible up close. Many paintings he composed around trees. And concealed, camouflaged in the shrubs are two women, near his then home.

1889 Shepherd in a Downpour, tempera on canvas, 60 x 73.3 cm, private Collection. COMMENT: more trademark Pisssaro, after the effect of rain beating a lone shepherd and flock, but through a pared simple zig-zag composition he sometimes used later, after meeting Georges Seurat, .

 

SUMMARY

The gregarious multi-cultural outsider Camille Pissarro (Danish-French, of Portuguese-Sephardic Jewish descent) was important early, played a leading role in formally launching the Impressionists group in 1874, and then showed at all 8 of the group exhibitions to 1886.

Unlike some peers he relaxed creatively so apart from one interesting detour his painting style more or less trod water across 30 prolific years, as variations on Impressionism.

But he left us many „beautiful“ paintings, evident especially in the flesh. And many there were, mostly engaging aesthetic distractions from modern life.

For despite his „anarchist“ proto-socialist political sympathies Pissarro was in practice – like Monet (1840-1926) – a true Impressionist, basically a neo-romantic aesthete, preoccupied with aesthetic purpose.

Even his many cityscapes (especially the various series, painted later when ill health compelled him to paint only from indoors) are more aesthetic than realistic.

He preferred the country, lived near all his life there, and landscapes predominated, often chasing natural outdoors atmospheric “effects”, like snow or fog or frost, but usually built on some manner of compositional structure, especially trees.

But as a sociable person, known for empathetic relations with other artists, he also painted many people, in small or larger groups, particularly later:  family, friends (cf Cezanne), rural workers, and also himself.

Ironically his late 1880s„detour“ to Neo-impresionism produced some of his most „modern“ images.

 

ART

Pissarro’s art

Pissarro, as the oldest in the official group (43 in 1874), and the only one then to show at all 8 exhibitions, is noted for his important role in helping launch Impressionism, especially with Monet, his friend since 1859, and both not long back from London. They, with Degas and Renoir, played a leading role in organising the seminal April 1874 Impressionist show.

The painter credited with first floating the idea of them forming a group, the engaging, generous Frederic Bazille, a close friend of Monet, sadly was killed 1870 in the pointless Franco-Prussian War so never reached the starting line. Pissarro (with Paul Cezanne (1939-1906)) knew Bazille from 1863.

But having become a committed Impressionist painter, Pissarro more or less remained there stylistically for rest of his life, about another 30 years. He toyed with Neo-Impressionist Pointillism in the late 1880s, but only for a year or so, and ignored the Post-impressionists like Van Gogh and Gauguin, then the 1890s Symbolists.

However in later years there was generally more variety in his style and subject. He painted more people (like La Ronde (1884) and the many market scenes), he painted coarse colorful works (View of the Village of Bazincourt (1889), Sunset, Bazincourt Steeple (1890), Flood, White Effect, Eragny (1893), and The Dunes at Knokke (1894)), and he painted subtle subdued works (Valhermeil near Oise – Rain Effect (1881), Shepherd in a Downpour (1889), Rouen, Fog Effect (1898)).

Pissarro liked to build his paintings around some manner of “structure”, using trees in particular, also roads and buildings, and shadows, and sometimes rivers and bridges.

Ironically, his brief detour into Neo-impressionism (Pointillism) after meeting Georges Seurat 1885 produced paintings which are arguably his most „modern“ in terms of painting style and stylised composition, if not modern in subject, like Flock of sheep, Eragny sur Epte (1888). Ile Lacruix, Rouen: Effect of Fog (1888), and Old Chelsea Bridge, London (1890). Some of these works also reflect his interest in Japanese prints.

 

Pissarro was prolific, and landscapes predominated, as for his more famous friend and associate Monet, but his subject span was wider than Monet‘s, more interesting for it. Thus he painted far more people, especially later, after c1880, including himself (leaving four notable self portraits), his family, and many outdoors genre scenes showing working people, mainly women, in villages, markets, the countryside.

Monet’s Rouen cathedral series inspired him to also paint a number of “series”, ie repeated images from the same vantage point, starting 1896 with 16 paintings of Rouen. About then his failing health forced him to work inside, so the “series”made a virtue of necessity. Other series followed, like Dieppe, and in urban Paris, especially of Boulevarde Montmartre, also from his window over Pont Neuf.

 

Pissarro responded to modern life, painted far more views of modern life than Monet, like factories and changing urban Paris. About the 1896 Rouen series he famously wrote (to his son): “what particularly interests me is the motif off the iron bridge in wet weather with all the vehicles, pedestrians, workers on the embankment, boats, smoke, haze in the distance; it’s so spirited, so alive.”

And in Paris, working on his famous Boulevarde Montmartre series, he wrote 15th Dec.1897 to Lucien: “It may not be very aesthetic, but I’m delighted to be able to have a go at Paris streets, which are said to be ugly, but are [in fact] so silvery, so bright, so vibrant with life […] they’re so totally modern!

But nonetheless (and notwithstanding his “it may not be very aesthetic”!) this interest in the “modern” is primarily aesthetic rather than „realistic“ or clinical.

Pissarro’s reaction to „modern“ life contrasts with Fernand Leger’s (1881-1955) for example. The neo-romantic Pissarro was more interested in the aesthetic effects of the „modern“, and the countryside, while Leger on the other hand embraced the modern industrial age, seemed to think modern life was a good idea, despite even after serving at the front in World War 1.

 

Pissarro ultimately may have been less radical than say Monet, more conservative, but in relentlessly pursuing his aesthetic mission he did paint many “beautiful” pictures, particularly among his many landscapes and cityscapes. As often the case this is more evident when seeing some of these paintings in the flesh, when the detail can be better appreciated, as for many other artists (like Jackson Pollock).

 

Monet

Monet, also prolific, was more narrow than Pissarro in his subject matter – painted relatively few people pictures, especially later, and painted very few „modern“ subjects –  but he is now understandably more famous for pushing his aesthetic obsession with landscapes, through the famous „series“ of the 1890s (haystacks, the Rouen cathedral facade, river bank trees, on the Epte) to the legion of later radical large quasi-abstract images from his base at Giverny, many watery, like his early days by the Channel.

 

How hard was it! Monet letter 10 March 1879 to Georges De Bellio:

„..I am absolutely sickened with and demoralised by this life I’ve been leading for so long. When you reach my age [39!] there is nothing more to look forward to. Unhappy we are, unhappy we will continue to be.

Each day brings its tribulations and each day difficulties arise from which we can never free ourselves. So I am giving up the struggle once and for all, abandoning all hope of success……

(Richard  Kendall, Monet by Himself, (Macdonald & Co 1989, updated  Time Warner Books, 2004)

 

Influences

Pissarro’s relentless pursuit of the aesthetic is odd in some ways first because he was apparently a “socialist” (see below) and, second, because he was influenced early by the various pioneering French social realists in Paris, particularly the older Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796 – 1875), who tutored him, encouraged him to paint plein-air. He cited Corot as his teacher in the catalogues to the 1864 and 1865 Paris Salons.

The bolder realist Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877) was important too, also Charles-François Daubigny (1817-78) and Jean-François Millet (1814 – 1875) from the Barbizon school.

So early on he also developed a keen appetite for landscape, which never left. Here he was influenced too by recent older British painters RP Bonington (1802-28) and John Constable (1776-1837). Constable’s work influenced the French Realists, especially after it was shown at the 1824 Salon.  Pissarro was aware too of the then ageing Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), like his use of color.

 

Like many colleagues from the late 1860s he also became fashionably keen on Japonism, eg through Japanese prints, though this is less obvious in his art than for others?

 

1869-71: Louveciennes and London, forming the Impressionist painting style

Pissarro’s Impressionist painting style clearly emerged when he was based at Louveciennes (about 18km west of Paris, on the road to Versailles) for about a year, from May 1869 through July 1870 when the war with Prussia broke out. Pissarro moved to Louveciennes from Pontoise, was joined in the area by Monet (based at Bougival) and Renoir, then Sisley, also Guillaumin.

During the early 1870s Pissarro, Monet and Sisley [and Renoir?] developed a communal style and collective artistic identity..” (“Camille Pissarro”, catalogue, Art Gallery NSW, 2006).

This area, the Seine below Louveciennes, became an important nursery for developing Impressionism, epitomised by Monet and Renoir famously painting side by side at popular riverside café la Grenouillère (The Frogpond) in summer of 1869, on the island of Croissy, just up the river by Bougival. Their paintings were milestones in the birth of Impressionism.

Oddly for an “Impressionist” Renoir painted a heap of portraits, and not many landscapes.

Pissarro also painted a view of la Grenouillère in 1869 but the style of his image is behind Monet and arguably it was soon after this, painting with Monet at Louveciennes winter 1869-70 (especially scenes of the road to Versailles), that Pissarro’s Impressionist style developed.

The same local scenes were painted repeatedly, in varying conditions, the same scene by the same artist (like the road at Louveciennes by Pissarro), and the same scene by different artists (like Louveciennes by Pissarro and Monet).

One popular feature was the aqueduct for Louis XIV’s Versailles water displays, fed by la Machine de Marly.

Then Franco-Prussian War, erupting July 1870, upended the productive Louveciennes association.

 

Impressionism – making sense of a definition: aesthetic realism

From its problematic formal beginnings in the mid-1870s Impressionism is now one of the most popularly appreciated art movements, though this popularity was hard won.

But it is also a term bringing some confusion?

 

The style is best described as  aesthetic realism“.

It was radical then first because of its unidealistic, frank, informal, everyday realism, striving to paint everyday, mundane landscapes in particular – and sometimes people – „realistically“, as they really appeared.

Some logically extended this approach and painted the same scenes at different times, in different weathers, and they savoured rich visual effects like snowy fields or fog or sunny treescapes or sunsets. Though Renoir did tell dealer Ambroise Vollard “But then, even if you can stand the cold, why paint snow? It is a blight on the face of Nature.”!

The radical nature of their subject matter is quickly evident when compared with typical paintings favoured by the official Salon, mostly still preoccupied with improbable obscure otherworldly history topics, like Gérôme’s The sword Dance (1868), or idealised landscapes.

Second, it was radical in its pioneering coarse, colorful, broad brush, „unfinished‘ painting method.

 

Impressionism’s aesthetic realism“, sometimes then called „naturalism“, stood in contrast to the by then well established and pioneering French school of „social realism“, which dated back to Théodore Géricault’s (1791-1824) Raft of the Medusa (1819), thence through Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796 – 1875), the Barbizon School (Jean-François Millet (1814 – 1875)), then especially Gustave Courbet (1819 – 1877).

The long unappreciated and less well known Barbizon “cattle painter” Constant Troyon (1810-65), who met Barbizon leader Theodore Rousseau in 1843, impressed Monet at the 1859 Salon (with 6 works), and it’s easy to see why, the light and atmosphere, the color and the brushwork (cf The Return). We also see Pissarro in Troyon (cf Road in the woods, mid 1840s, Met NY)

Encouraged by freer thinking after the 1848 political unrest, the Barbizon school painted nature and rural life, including peasants, for its own sake, rather than as a back drop to dramatic events, historic, mythological or otherwise. And they painted the scenes directly, realistically. Thus the Barbizon artists were early advocates of en plein air (EPA) painting, from about the 1840s, ie working outdoors, a method facilitated by 1/ the arrival paint pigments in tubes (versus traditional method of mixing pigment with linsed oil in a studio), and 2/ the portable French box easel, with built in paint box and palette.

Impressionism’s „realism“ by contrast – its artistic mission – was overwhelmingly aesthetic rather having any polemical or moralistic motive.

So it was, above all, essentially a neo-romantic movement, mostly preoccupied with „pretty pictures“, if anything seeking aesthetic distraction from the disruptive turmoil of modern life rather than to comment or reflect on it.

Striking it is that even the „political“ Pissarro, socialist /anarchist, was nothing of the sort in his art (with one isolated exception, below).

Eventually, after a long and arduous battle for popular acceptance, Impressionism succeeded, and then emphatically, because of the demand for “don’t worry, be happy” paintings.

By contrast, for example, the long lived English painter George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), whose work span covered the whole back half of the 19th C, including the birth and slow spread of Impressionism, was hugely popular then for his purposeful painting – visionary, moralising, exhortatory – but is now quite forgotten.

 

Impressionismemergence

From 1862 Monet, Renoir and Sisley, then Bazille from 1863, painted together at Gleyre’s atelier in Paris. Monet had learned much from marine painter Eugène Boudin (1824-98) c1859 at his then seaside home town of Le Havre, then from summer 1862 from Dutchman JB Jongkind (1819-91), another seaside painter.

1863 is famous for the birth of Salon des Refusés, ordered by Louis-Napoleon after wide protest against the intolerant conservative Salon that year. Pissarro and Cezanne showed at Refusés but Manet’s (1832-1883) famous Déjeuner sur l’Herbe caused the real sensation, a candidate for the first important “modern” painting, for its subject depiction not its painting style.

After Gleyre’s studio closed 1864 the quartet painted a time in the Fontainebleau woods, outside Paris, near the Barbizon painters.

As we saw above 1869-70 found a number of the key painters working in the Bougival area west of Paris, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley.

In Paris during the 1860s the Café Guerbois on Rue des Batignolles (north of centre, west of Montmartre) became an important socialising venue for some of the group, fostering a semblance of commonality. It was dominated by the quarrelsome Manet, where Degas, Monet and Bazille contributed, also the critics Louis Edmond Duranty and Emile Zola, and Renoir and Sisley perhaps less so. Pissarro and Cezanne appeared only occasionally.

Two group portraits from 1870 celebrated the group’s presence: A studio in the Batignolles quarter by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) includes Manet, Renoir, Zola (an important supporting art critic, and writer), Bazille, and Monet; and, poignantly, Bazille’s Artists’s studio (Rue de la Condamine) which includes Bazille (“Manet painted me in“), Manet, Edmond Maître, and possibly Monet and Renoir. Bazille added a number of Impressionist paintings on the walls to stress the point.

Then the Franco-Prussian War intervened, claiming Bazille’s life, but persuading both Monet and Pissarro (with Danish citizenship) to decamp, independently, to London by late 1870.

London proved providential for Monet and Pissarro. Fellow refugee French painter, and friend, Charles-François Daubigny, introduced Monet January 1871 to art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), also sitting out the war, and then setting up a gallery in New Bond St. Durand-Ruel revealed Pissarro’s presence in London to Monet, and he started to buy their paintings, becoming in due course a major supporter of Monet (who before the war was financially struggling) and many other Impressionists.

Pissarro was by then staying in suburban southeast London at Norwood where “I [Pissarro] .. studied the effects of fog, snow and springtime..”. He painted 12 oil paintings in London and, importantly, with Monet viewed the proto-Impressionist art of JMW Turner and John Constable in the museums.

Back in France 1871 Pissarro returned to Pontoise by August 1872 after finding Louveciennes (and many of his works left there) had been trashed in the war. Cezanne joined him a time at Pontoise, then stayed nearby at Auvers.

Monet next settled at Argenteuil (on NW outskirts of Paris, on the north bank of the Seine), till 1878, but he struggled some time for money.

 

Impressionismlaunch.

Monet was the main man in the emergence, launch and progression of Impressionism? And arguably he stayed with the style the whole of his long career, through to the final vast colourful quasi-abstract floral visial meditations at Giverny, beyond WW1.

But oddly it was his close friend Frederic Bazille (1841-1870) who deserves recognition for apparently first thinking out loud about the Impressionists forming a formal group, the articulate, confident and generous young (25) painter who in 1867, after more rejections by the Salon, wrote his mother “So we have resolved to rent a large studio each year where we will exhibit as many of our works as we please. We’ll invite the painters we like to send their paintings….. With these people and Monet, who is stronger than all of them put together, we’re sure to succeed. You’ll see that people will talk about us.” Well known to others in the group, and emerging as a painter of clear distinction (if not by then a full Impressionist) he was – a week off age 29 – sadly killed (28 November 1870) in the futile Franco-Prussian War, triggered by France.

Conditions after the Franco-Prussian War seemed propitious for a time but then 1873 brought a tough financial downturn, which dragged on for 5 years or so, hurting painting sales. And the official Salon remained hostile. Neither Monet nor Pissarro showed at the 1872 and 1873 Salons, and Courbet was excluded from the 1872 official Salon. Then 1873 brought yet another hostile Salon, triggering another Salon des Refuses.

So now Monet revived Bazille’s 1867 thoughts for the loose like-minded group to mount their own exhibition (refer Phoebe Pool’s Impressionism, 1967, Thames and Hudson).

Critic Duret was hostile but Degas keenly supported the idea, despite some clear differences with others in the group. However Corot as an older „social realist“ also resisted, which discouraged the group approaching other „social realists“ like Courbet. Pissarro quickly joined the cause, as a quasi-ringmaster for the disparate group, mashalling the „nucleus of painters“.

Disillusioned with the Salon system the core group (Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir and Degas) began planning a formal launch, then on 27 December 1873 formed the Joint Stock Company of Artists etc (Societe Anonyme Cooperative a Capital Variable des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs etc.) using a charter Pissarro derived from that of the Pontoise bakers. Though Renoir then „successfully opposed this in favour of“ a simpler agreement.

The Society’s  inaugural show (165 works by 39 artists), known as the Realist Salon, opened 15 April 1874, about two weeks before the official Salon. The show’s title was the clumsy Societe Anonyme Cooperative a Capital Variable, not La Capucine (The Nasturtium) as Degas suggested. Pissarro hung 5 paintings and would show at all 8 Impressionist exhibitions, the only one to do so.

Beyond Pissarro the group included Monet, Renoir, the keen Degas, Sisley, Cezanne and the able congenial lady Berthe Morisot (1841-92).

But, notably, it did not include Manet, partly because, despite his travails, his heart still lay with the Salon, and perhaps too because of his distaste for Cezanne, his work and his rough rural dress and manner.

Pissarro, now actively encouraging Cezanne’s work, had to argue hard for Cezanne’s inclusion. Cezanne’s early oeuvre had a dark side, diverse and disquieting. Beyond landscapes, still lives and portraits he added some disturbing dark Expressionist works on religious and life subjects, like The abduction (1867) and The murder (1868), then (1873-74) a riotous sensual take (A Modern Olympia) on Manet’s Olympia: The New Olympia, which as one of 3 paintings he showed at the 1st Impressionist exhibition, surely one of the oddest „Impressionist“ paintings, in a similar vein to the later (1875) Afternoon in Naples. The two others shown 1874 were landscapes from Auvers, one The House of the Hanged Man.

The well connected Morisot more than held her own, studied with Corot from 1960 and by 1864 had two paintings accepted by the Salon. She knew Manet well (married his brother) who urged her not to join the group. She would show all 8 exhibitions except the 4th.

Seven other shows followed, 1876-1877, 1879-1882, and 1886, all in spring.

It was only at the third show (1877) that adopted the title Impressionist, lifted from critic Louis Leroy’s scornful review of the first show, suggesting wallpaper was „more finished“ than Monet’s Impression, Sunrise.

 

Impressionism – reception?

Critic Theodore Duret warned Pissarro (eg in a letter Dec.1873) not to run with Societe Anonyme, “not to think of Monet and Sisley”, advised staying with the Salon.

And so it was that critical reception was harsh, and Pissarro was cited by some critics as one of the “ringleaders”, along with Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Sisley etc. “The scandal.. proved a catastrophic setback for sales.. Pissarro was now seen as part of a nihilist, hooligan fringe…” (op. cit AG NSW), which hurt him financially.

But history since has voted differently.

Back in Paris in 1871, after the war with Prussia, Durand-Ruel continued to support the wave of new art, despire battling criticism of the Impressionist style for years. But he persisted. He bought 23 paintings by Manet for 35,000F. Then 1885 his major breakthrough came in discovering what would become the enthusiastc and lucrative US market. Later, in 1895 back in London he mounted one of the largest ever Impressionist shows (c315 paintings).

As the National Gallery London (cf Inventing Impressionism, 2015 exhibition), “Despite rejection from the art establishment, the visionary Durand-Ruel was the single most powerful driving force making Impressionism the household name worldwide it is today and one of painting’s best-loved movements.” In the 89 year old dealer said in 1920, “At last the Impressionist masters triumphed … My madness had been wisdom. To think that, had I passed away at sixty [1891], I would have died debt-ridden and bankrupt, surrounded by a wealth of underrated treasures…”

 

Pissarro the person

By comparison with other founding „French“ Impressionists Pissarro was somewhat of an outsider, Jewish, hailing from the Caribbean Danish Antilles, and then keeping his Danish citizenship despite (for the most part) residing in France.

Also while he served time in the cultural cauldron of Paris he was not a city person, preferred the countryside, and that’s where he lived most of his last 36 years. He was also a keen family man.

However the sociable Pissarro was well known for engaging with other artists, “Pere Pissarro”, working with them (like organising the Impressionist shows), and helping them. And they were a diverse group.

He was closer to the irascible Cezanne than most, met him early (1861) at art school, knew him in Paris in the 1860s, then painted with him, eg after the Franco-Prussian War, 1872-74, at Pontoise, then 1881 when Cezanne stays near Pontoise. Both were „outsiders“.

Monet he obviously knew well, painted with. Degas he met and worked with later too. American Mary Cassatt (ie another non-French citizen) (1844-1926) he was close to over a long period commencing 1870s. She was also close to Degas but later preferred the easier going Dane. Later he mentored Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and he worked with Seurat a time in mid 1880s.

Both Cezanne and Gauguin later recalled Pissarro with feeling. In a June 1902 catalogue Cezanne called himself „a student of Pissarro.”

 

The ‘political’ Pissarro?

A member of a diasporic Sephardic Jewish family“, Pissarro is billed as a lifelong, engaged „socialist“ /„anarchist“, keen on „the writings of the French proto-anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and of the Russian émigré prince and anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin“, so his political views seemed important to him. “A committed supporter of anarchism, he was friendly with the leading representatives of the movement in France, such as Jean Grave and Élisée Reclus, and was well-versed in anarchist literature. His concern…  illustrated in…lithographs.. for Grave’s anarchist journal Les temps nouveaux, and, more privately, in Turpitudes sociales, a series of drawings he made for his nieces to educate them in the horrors of modern capitalist society.…” (Richard R. Brettell, 2011, catalogue, Pissarro’s People, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute).

But Turpitudes sociales is the rare exception. In broad terms these views do not reflect in his art, which seems overwhelmingly aesthetic in its purpose, not polemical or even realist? And again this is despite the clear early influence of the „social realist“ Barbizon painters.

Yes there are many rural figurative scenes, eg showing working ladies, but mostly conveying the “charm” of rural life not the harsher “reality”, the long hours labouring monotonously in all weathers.

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Impressionist paintings sites

 

LIFE

Early

Pissarro was born 1830 on the island of St Thomas in the Danish West Indies (Danish Antilles), of French and Portuguese Jewish extraction.

He was schooled near Paris 1842-47 (age 12-17), there encouraged in art by the headmaster.

Back home c1850, to work in his parents’ shop, he met a young Danish painter, Fritz Melbye (1826-1869), 4 years older, then travelled with him to Venezuela (Caracas and La Guaira) where they lived and worked two years, painted watercolours.

 

Paris

Pissarro’s father agreed he could return to Paris to train, which he did October 1855, fortuitously during the World Expo (Exposition Universelle). He took classes at École des Beaux-Arts 1856 then 1859 he was finally accepted by Charles Suisse (at Acadamie Suisse) where he met Monet and later Cezanne (1861) and Guillaumin (1862).

Meanwhile his parents arrived Paris 1860. He partnered with their servant, Julie Vellay, and was evicted from home. The couple later married in London, 1871, and would have 8 children, 1863-1884, Lucien being the first, born 1863.

1863 to April 1866, he lived with Julie Vellay and children mostly at La Varenne-St-Hilaire, southeast of Paris, where he painted, and nearby villages like Varenne-Saint-Maure and Chennevières-sur-Marne. He also painted at La Roche-Guyon, on the north bank of the Seine, NW of Paris.

He long struggled financially, not helped then by rearing a large family, but remained determined throughout.

Nov. 1862, after military service 1861-62, Monet returned to Paris, to join Gleyre’s atelier, there met Renoir and Sisley, and (March 1863) Frederic Bazille (“..my friend Monet.. is quite good at landscapes..”).

Pissarro (with friend Cezanne) first met Bazille and Renoir in 1863 when Bazille worked from a studio in Batignolles rented by Renoir.

After having a painting accepted at the 1859 and 1861 Salons Pissarro then showed in the famous inaugural 1863 Salon des Refusés (three landscapes, with Cezanne), then the Salons of 1864, 1865, 1866.

His 1863 work was well received by critics like JA Castagnary, Leroy and Desnoyers.

In the mid 1860s he met Zola, became part of the Café Guerbois set in Paris, when Zola was writing as critic for l’Evenement where in 1866 he praised Pissarro’s Banks of the Marne (1866) for its unfashionable “naturalism”.

 

Outside Paris

In April 1866 he settled at the Hermitage at Pontoise, north-west of Paris, north of the Seine, on the Oise flowing south into the Seine.

1869 he moves before May to Louveciennes, due west of Paris towards Versailles, now south of the Seine.

1870 with outbreak of Franco-Prussian War (July 1870-May 1871) he moved to London by start of December. He would return to London 1890, 1892 and 1897 after his son Lucien moved there in 1883.  They then corresponded frequently.

1871 he married Julie Vellay July in Croydon, London, returned to Louveciennes end of that month, but found many paintings left there had been damaged or destroyed during the war, so moved back to Pontoise in August 1872.

1872-74 he again worked closely with Cezanne, now based near Pontoise at Auvers-sur-Oise.

1874-77 he painted in Brittany.

He met Paul Gauguin (c20 years younger) in 1877, mentored him, painted with him at Pontoise 1879, invited him to hang at the 4th Impressionist show (1879).

Around 1880 he “collaborated” with Degas making prints.

1882 he moved to Osny, near Pontoise.

1883 Durand-Ruel organised a one-man show for Pissarro, also an Impressionist show in London.

1884 he moved to Eragny-sur-Epte, NE of Paris in Normandy, south of Pontoise, near Gisors, and near Monet’s Giverny and where he now stayed. Monet painted trees along the Epte.

In 1885 he met Seurat and Signac (and also Theo van Gogh) and became interested in the Neo-Impressionists’ Pointillist style and ideas, tried them, but reverted back by 1890.

1886 was the final Impressionist show, and he met Vincent van Gogh.

1887 he showed in Brussels with the Group of 20 (Cercle de XX), with Seurat, but Durand-Ruel caused trouble, rejected his Pointillist images.

Late 1889 he developed an eye infection which thereafter stopped him painting outdoors, but encouraged him to paint many urban scenes, from windows, particularly Paris, also Rouen, Le Havre and Dieppe.

  1. 1890. he visited London again, c10 paintings there. And again in 1892 and 1897.

1892 Durand-Ruel gave him a 100 painting retrospective exhibition (and 1893 bought many paintings) which finally brought some financial relief, and critical acclaim, “[1892].. when the tide of critical opinion turned decisively in Pissarro’s favour..” (op. cit AG NSW).

Then 1894reprisals against Anarchists” forced him briefly back to Belgium. But 7 paintings entered the Musee du Luxembourg.

But 1896 “new financial problems”. Series of paintings in Rouen.

But 1898 another Durand-Ruel gallery show was again very well received, “critics and collectors were thrilled…” (op. cit AG NSW)

November 1900 he settled back in central Paris, in an apartment on the west end of Ile de la Cite, looking out on Pont Neuf, and continued painting, now from windows, including many from home.

He died in Paris 13 November 1903.

some works……….

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1870, Châtaignier à Louveciennes, vers 1870, 41 x 54 cm, Musée d’Orsay. COMMENT. Here Pissarro is drawn by the structure of the skeletal bare trees in this one of his earliest Impressionist style paintings.

6c1884, La Ronde, thinned oil on paper mounted on canvas, private Collection

71888, Flock of sheep, Eragny sur Epte, 1888

81889 View of the Village of Bazincourt oil on panel, 15.4 x 23.8 cm, private Collection

91890, Old Chelsea Bridge, London, oil on canvas, Smith College Museum of Arts, 59.69 x 71.12 cm (old Battersea Bridge under construction at high tide).

101889–90.Suicide of an Abandoned Woman,” from Turpitudes sociales, Pen and brown ink over graphite drawings on paper pasted in an album, sheet: 31 x 24 cm, Collection of Jean Bonna, Geneva

111898 Boulevard Montmartre, night oil on canvas 53.3 x 64.8 cm  The National Gallery, London

12901 The fair, Dieppe: sunny afternoon, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Arts, PA

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1873. Self portrait, oil on canvas, 56 x 47 cm. Musee d’Orsay.

c1898 Self-portrait, oil on canvas 53 x 30.5 cm, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas

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1900, Self portrait. oil on canvas 35x32cm. Private Collection

1903, Self portrait, oil on canvas, 41×33,3 cm, Tate, London

George Ault – Art Therapy with no safety belt

George Copeland Ault

(Oct. 1891 – Dec. 30, 1948, 57 years)

Another magnetic peripheral American Modernist painter: a hard life that late throws up a clutch of pearls.

 ART

George Ault was a gifted but life-troubled American Modernist painter, “a retiring and misanthropic painter”, who nursed an implacable creative imagination, and who left striking realist landscape / cityscape images from the 1930s and 1940s which may reflect on those hard times but were certainly refracted through his personal difficulties.

He is now rightly hailed for his later night scenes, his four night paintings of Russells’s Corners (1943, 1946, 1946, 1948), four different views of the same intersection, each lit by the one light – all pregnant with heuristic visual possibilities – and one in daytime (1944), to highlight why the night mattered.

Our eye is drawn to the spectral light-fingered (telegraph) wires, the sharp planes (walls of buildings) exposed by the light and floating in the blackness, and the lone light, which might mimic a star, or a life principle, or the moment’s focus.

He was a neo-romantic, disabused of the modern world, his images redolent of unease, disquiet, “psychic distress”, using a quiet Surrealism that might recall (yes) de Chirico, also Dali (like Memories of the Coast of France  (1943)).

Superficially he fits with the Precisionists like Charles Sheeler but only in method, sharing a similar of-centre sharp-edged geometric realist painting style.

Ironically his best work came in his final and personally toughest decade, as he wrestled drink and poverty.

And his death was fittingly poetic, slipping into an icy watercourse one night late December, straggling home after another bender. So was it suicide or mishap, who knows, but it fits, embellishes an already inscrutable dark personal story.

 

LIFE

He was born into a well off family, lived London as a boy, trained in art at the Slade no less (so overlapped with some famous English name?).

But back in the US in 1911 alcohol took hold in the 1920s after his mother died in a mental home, and all three brothers suicided?! Some after the 1929 Crash cruelled the family fortune. His father, who died 1929, was a conventional painter who frowned on his son’s shift to Modernism.

1937 he moved to Woodstock, NY with Louise Jonas, who would become his second wife, and there tried to retrieve something, put his difficulties in the past. They lived a penurious reclusive existence in a small simple rented cottage, and there oddly Ault created some of his finest paintings, but yes had difficulty selling them, though partly because of his “hostile attitude to potential buyers”.

Note: refer Feb./April 2011 exhibition, To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America, Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

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1921 The stairway. COMMENT: Surrealist hint.

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1944, Daylight at Russell’s Corners, Collection of Sam Simon. COMMENT: daytime another world.

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1944, Memories of the Coast of France, Oil on canvas.

COMMENT: wife Louise on the shore. He holidayed there as a boy, was distressed later by its exposure to WW2.

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1946, Festus Yayple and his Oxen, oil on canvas, 61.6 x 91.4 cm Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection

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CROSSROADS 1943, Black Night at Russell’s Corners, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

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CROSSROADS 1946, Bright Light at Russell’s Corners, oil on canvas, 19 5/8 x 25 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum

Smithsonian: The painter, featured in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new exhibition [2011], is presented through his work as a channeler of the anxieties and uncertainties collectively forgotten about the country’s war years.

Louise chose a quotation from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to describe her husband: “Unless there be chaos within, no dancing star is born.”

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CROSSROADS 1946, Night at Russell’s Corners, Oil on canvas, Collection of C. K. Williams II

“Returning to paint the same set of buildings from different angles, Ault treated Russell’s Corners as though it were the special center of a personal universe.  In this place of lucid calm amid the darkness, the telephone wires extend into the night like the scratches of a cat..” (Smithsonian)

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CROSSROADS 1948, August Night At Russell’s Corners, oil on canvas, 45.7 x 61.0 cm, Joslyn Art Museum.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.