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?


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.


  • 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.



  • 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.



  • 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.



  • “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.”


 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


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


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


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


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



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



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?


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.


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.


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.


  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.



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.


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?


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


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.


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.



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



1921 The stairway. COMMENT: Surrealist hint.


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


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.


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


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


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.”


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)


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

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

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

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

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

Paul Nash

(11 May 1889 – 11 July 1946, 57)

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


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

 Polemic: yes he was a great British artist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Life and background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOPIC: some art shows London, pre WW1

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

November 1911              Stafford Gallery showed work by Gauguin and Cezanne

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

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

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

May 1913                          Showed at New English Art Club.

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

November 1913                Nash brothers show, Dorien Leigh Gallry.

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

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

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

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

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

March 1915                      2nd (second) London Group show

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

Nov. 1915                         3rd London Group Exhibition

March 1916                      Allid Artists’ exhibition, Grafton Galleries.

June 1916                          4th London Group Exhibition

September 1916              Nevinson show, Leicester Galleries.

Nov. 1916                         5th London Group Exhibition

June 1917                          Nash drawings, Goupil Gallery.

Septmber 1917                Nash works shown in Birmingham.

March 1918                      Nevinson show, Leicester Galleries.

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

         WORKS: some peaks …………….


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


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


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

.  6

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

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


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

(c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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


1918 (by July), Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917, IWM, London

COMMENT:  more punches connect. Notice the wry darkly comic title. Two trees intact? And birds call top right rear. The mule track from early 1918 was his first oil painting.


   1925-37, Winter Sea, oil, 73.6 × 99.0cm, York City Art Gallery.

Landscape at Iden 1929 by Paul Nash 1889-1946

Landscape at Iden 1929 Paul Nash 1889-1946 Purchased 1939 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05047

1929, Landscape at Iden, Oil paint on canvas, 698 x 908 mm, Tate;     

This mysterious picture shows the view from Nash’s studio in Sussex. The dramatic perspective and strange juxtaposition of rustic objects creates a sense of the uncanny. It has been read as a statement of mourning. While the young fruit trees may suggest the defencelessness of youth, the altar-like pile of logs may be a symbol of fallen humanity; the fallen tree as a symbol for the dead was common in the art and literature of the war, not least in Nash’s own paintings.For many, an idea of the timeless and enduring English landscape seemed to displace the violent destruction of the war.” (Tate). It reflects the influence of the 1928 London exhibition by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico.


Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; The Rye Marshes, East Sussex

Nash, Paul; The Rye Marshes, East Sussex; Ferens Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-rye-marshes-east-sussex-78773

1932, Rye Marshes East Sussex, oil, 58.8 x 100.3 cm, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull


1935, Equivalents for the Megaliths, oil on canvas, 457 x 660 mm, Tate.
Paul Nash was recuperating from a nasty bout of bronchitis in the summer of 1933 when he first came across the Avebury megaliths, the largest prehistoric stone circle in Europe. He recalled, ‘Some were half covered by the grass, others stood up in cornfields were entangled and overgrown in the copses, some were buried under the turf. But they were wonderful and disquieting, and, as I saw them then, I shall always remember them


1940–1, Totes Meer (Dead Sea), oil paint on canvas, 101.6 x 152.4 cm, Tate


1944 (completed Sep.), Battle of Germany, Imperial War Museum, London, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 182.8 cm


Artist : Paul Nash (England, b.1889, d.1946) Title : Date : 1942 Medium Description: oil on canvas Dimensions : Credit Line : Gift of the Contemporary Art Society, London 1944 Image Credit Line : Accession Number : 7435

1942, ‘Sunflower and sun’, oil on canvas,  51.1 x 76.5 cm, AG NSW. COMMENT “one of a series of works inspired by the view from Sandlands on Boars Hill near Oxford overlooking the Bagley Woods and taking in the Wittenham Clumps.”


1944, Flight of the Magnolia, Oil paint on canvas  511 x 762 x 22 mm, Tate. COMMENT: “part of a group of late works by Paul Nash that feature what the artist called ‘aerial flowers’” (Tate). The meaning of this image is much debated but despite Nash saying something himself its meaning remains ambiguous, probably to its credit.

Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; Landscape of the Moon's Last Phase

Nash, Paul; Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase; Walker Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/landscape-of-the-moons-last-phase-98001

1944, Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase, 63.5 x 76.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery


1945, Eclipse of the Sunflower, Oil on canvas, 71.1 X 91.4 cm, British Council. COMMENT: one of Paul Nash’s final two oil paintings.

Hieronymus BOSCH Nothing „modern“ here: „Be good or else!“

Hieronymus BOSCH

(c1450 born Jerome (Joen / Jheronimus) van Aken (from Aachen), died 9 August 1516, age c66. Born and died in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Duchy of Brabant, southern Netherlands)

 A skilled idiosyncratic artist on a relentless one man reactionary didactic Christian mission

  •  Bosch was devoutly orthodox, conservative, applying his consumate painterly skills and a unique vivid visionary figurative imagination relentlessly to his reactionary polemical moralising, scolding the fallen sinful Man
  • And also his tarnished Church?
  • Striking is that he painted not one „secular“ non-moralising painting. He was 100% business.
  • He was categorically NOT modern. Critics who argue this, like Rachel Campbell-Johnston and Waldemar Januszczak confuse his purpose and the content of his work.
  • Yes his extensive lurid fantastical imagery resonates with the modern world, with interest in psychology, Man’s inner world.
  • But so do Bronze Age Cycladic figurines of the 3rd millenium BC, and „primitive“ African art.
  • Ironically Bosch painted in the early 16th C on the brink of the seachanging Reformation, as the Renaissance gathered pace in Italy and northern Europe.
  • But his response to the winds of change –his mindset and his art purpose – was hard core Medieval and patently anti-modern, looking back not ahead.
  • However while his reactionary moralising was conventional his art style and content was not. It was different, unusual for his time, in his adaptation of the triptych for his visual sermons, in his elaborate distinctive iconography.
  • According to one source some of his iconographic epiction drew on the then popular pseudo-science of alchemy, but applying a Christian interpretation.


Bosch, c1489 St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (and detail,a beetle-rat)…………


Saint John the Baptist, by Jheronimus Bosch

Saint John the Baptist *oil on panel *48,5 x 40 cm *1489 or later

sir stanley spencer, 1939, christ in the wilderness, consider the lilies…….

ah-art spencer 1939 christ in the wilderness, consider the lilies

Master of the Karlsruhe Passion (active near Strasbourg), c1440-50, Arrest of Christ…….. an astonishing image.

Master of the Karlsruhe Passion, c1440-50, Arrest of Christ




Bosch was one off, a skilled singular artist, marrying: 1/ a powerful pessimistic didactic / polemical mission or purpose; and 2/ great technical art skills, in drawing and painting; and 3/ a powerful well-read imaginative mind.

Man of mystery?

No. Bosch was above all a product of his times: applying his powerful if unusual visual methods to sustained polemical promotion of his reactionary Christian message.

 Bosch the mainstream hardcore Christian moralist

  • It is common to style Bosch as a man of mystery, about whose life little is known, and whose art is strange and obscure.
  • But confusion over the broad meaning of his art is misleading, if not disingeuous. There is valid debate over the details of the welter of intricate imagery, but there is little doubt about his overall work purpose.
  • Bosch was a devout staunch orthodox Christian, conservative and reactionary, and all his work was informed by a powerful didactic moralising mission, earnest moral lecturing deploying two major themes:
    • Warning feeble, gullible, sinful Fallen Man to behave, to be good or else! The stick.
    • But also, on the positive side, offering the carrot! So his art also depicted Man’s scope for redemptive progress, for salvation through emulation, through „living like Christ“ (eg popularied by Thomas a Kempis‘ popular „The Imitation of Christ“) and like the Saints.
  • Painted on the brink of the seachange that would be the Reformation, Bosch’s work strongly reflects his historic context, the political and religious disquiet. He lived and worked in a region well aware of the relevant keen intellectual debates. Thus Erasmus was partly educated in Bosch’s town.
  • But his response was sternly pessimistic and reactionary. He was loyal to his Church and the Papacy, though critical of its lapses, perhaps, like some others, favoring a Revolution in the sense of the Church going back to the apostolic roots.
  • Evidencing the relentless focus of Bosch’s mindset is that his oeuvre is totally religious and polemical. There is not a single secular portrait, unlike for the great preceding Flemish painters Jan Van Eyck (c1390-1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (c1400-1464) in whose footsteps Bosch painted. Both these forebears were active 50-60 years earlier and both painted a number of non-religious portraits.
  • He painted some secular genre scenesCutting the stone (1475-80, Prado, now attributed to a follower), The Wayfarer (c1488, Rotterdam), and The Conjourer (1502, known only by a copy) – but all these carry a Christian moral message.
  • In the film “The Curious World of Hieronymous Bosch” Director of the Het Noordbrabants Museum (which hosted the major 2016 exhibition) Dr Charles de Mooji suggests Bosch’s work shows a streak of humour? But this seems far fetched given that all Bosch’s output was “business”?
  • Bosch repeatedly stressed the fallen Man: human folly, Man as fallible, gullible (eg falling for magic), tempted by sin, evil, as depicted in the famous triptych, The Haywain, c1500-02, a later work, based on a Flemsh proverb: „The world is a haystack from which each takes what he can, set in rolling landscape showing Fallen Man, seduced by wealth (symbolised by hay), hapless in his material indulgence and promiscuity (the vase), unwitting, oblivious to his sinful condition, watched by an owl (the Devil’s associate), being towed by demons towards the halls of punishment. Hell! The warning!


But a one off artist: with singular technical skills and artistic imagination

  • But while his polemical purpose was mainstream Bosch was a singular, one off artist in his execution.
  • He was a uniquely idiosyncratic artist, marrying powerfully imaginative contentsupernatural, visionary – with consumate technical artistic skills, through outstanding draughtsmanship and painting.
  • For his day – for any day! – Bosch‘s visual imagery was uniquely imaginative, especially in the visionary, supernatural dream-like scenes: dramatic, fantastical, grotesque, and bizarre.
  • He also cleverly employed searing confronting realism in the detailed imagery, like the bloody footprint of the scourged Jesus in Ecce homo (c1475, Frankfurt), and the spiked blocks at his feet in Christ carrying the cross (> 1500, Vienna, which neatly pairs with an image of the child Jesus with a walking frame on the reverse side).
  • The triptych format – traditionally used to advertise specific religious (Biblical) narratives, especially in churches – Bosch adapted for his purposes, for his grand moral sermons.
  • While Bosch seems not to have travelled much, lived and worked in the same town, the extensive detail evident in his iconography presumably reflects wide reading, tapping many sources, thus taking advantage of the radical consequences of the printing press emerging in early 15th C, which helped fan intellectual debate.


Bosch was noticed in his time, and still is

  • Bosch became well known in his time an soon after. His works were copied and disseminated in prints, and he was collected keenly by the nobility, and the Hapsburg court, including Philip II of Spain.
  • However despite his popularity his life details are sketchy, not well known, other than he was well off and a well-placed committed member of the conservative Church establishment in his important home town of s-Hertogenbosch, in southern Netherlands.
  • But Bosch’s unusual work confused some observers closer to his time. Some in the 16th C saw the fantastical dream-like content of his work as superficial, “created merely to titillate and amuse, much like the “grotteschi” of the Renaissance, in contrast to traditional emphasis on “the physical world of everyday experience” Thus in 1560 the Spaniard Felipe de Guevera wrote Bosch was regarded merely as “the inventor of monsters and chimeras“. In the early 17th C the artist-biographer Karel von Mander “described Bosch’s work as comprising “wondrous and strange fantasies””.
  • And still does.
  • Thus, in particular, the meaning of Bosch’s most famous work, the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c1490-1510, Prado) remains controversial. Many read it as Bosch again warning fallible Man to behave or else, but some (cf Laurinda Dixon) instead see the work fit within an alchemical framework, not least because the „sinners“ in the strange centre panel don’t appear like real sinners, seem like they are „pre-Fall“, still in paradise. The Medieval pseudo- or proto-science of alchemy reflects in other works, presumably its tenets can be interpreted as meshing with Christian thought.


Bosch and the Modern? Bosch a Renaissance painter? No, of course not. He was Medieval not proto-Modern.  

  • Bosch’s striking unique 15th C visual fantasies have intrigued modern observers.
  • Most scholars correctly see Bosch as a man of his turbulent times, see work reflecting “the orthodox religious belief systems of his age”, though debate remains over detailed interpretations of some images.
  • But Waldemar Januszczak (March 2016) provocatively labels Bosch “Modern, not medieval” in promoting his new BBC tv series, “The Renaissance Unchained”, in which he takes on the “jingoistic Florentine multi-tasker Giorgio Vasari” for his misleading emphasis on the Italians and frecoes and instead champions Northern Europe (and oil painting) as being far more influential on the Modern.
  • So he backsthe inventive artistic firebrandBosch as a Renaissance painterWithout him there would be no Goya, no Dali, no Magritte, no Beckmann, no Chapman brothers… no dark and violent envisionings of hell on earth””
  • But surely he misrepresents to sell his show. Yes Northern Europe certainly contributed to emergence of the Modern but not through Bosch. As we see here, while Bosch was (as Mr Januszczak notes) a close contemporary of Leonardo, he was clearly Medieval not “Modern”, as Mr Januszczak explains! His “art was intended as a pictorial sermon, warning us of the outcome of lust and sin… This is hardcore Christianity, so fierce and obvious..”.
  • Rachel Campbell-Johnston in the film “The Curious World of Hieronymous Bosch” joins Mr Januszczak, claims Bosch’s art “transcends his time” and looks ahead to Goya etc.
  • Both critics have the wrong end of the stick?
  • Rather, what has inspired the Modern is some of the visual content of Bosch’s method, not his mindset, his means of sermonising: his vivid, theatrical, unnatural fantasizing in his depiction of Christian concepts, especially Hell. So ironically the method of this distinctly un-Modern painter resonates well with the Modern, especially modern interest in psychology, Man’s inner world, the subconscious.
  • And this is far from unusual. The objective content of much traditional art, from many times and jurisdictions, has inspired Modern artists, though the artists responsible were in no way “modern”.
  • Look at the important influence of:
  • 1/ Japanese prints in the late 19th C; and
  • 2/ “primitive” African (and other) art, c 1905. And
  • 3/ the “unnatural” imagery of a number of other Medieval artists, especially the like-minded reactionary, conservative, orthodox painters from the so-called ‘International Gothic’ appeal to modern artists, eg the Sienese Giovani de Paolo (,c1403-82, St Nicholas of Tolentino saving wrecked ship (1455)), and even Bosch contemporaries like German painter Mathias Grunewald (1475-1528).
  • An interesting analogous case study concerns the important late 19th C American painter James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903). Despite painting alongside the unfolding Modern art revolution, Whistler basically remained a Neo-Romantic, reacting against the then erupting European economies and its profound impact on cities and country and working people, focussed almost entirely on his own aesthetic quest (in his case non-religious), “art for art’s sake”.
  • While the subject matter of his famous waterscape Nocturne images from around the 1870s was clearly traditional, their quasi-abstract style (influenced by the then fashion for Japanese prints) was prescient, unintentionally appealing to the Modern painters


Bosch’s oeuvre: controversy

  • Determining Bosch’s precise oeuvre has been a painstaking long winded exercise, and is ongoing.
  • The application of relevant new technologies (eg estimating the the age of wood panels via dendrochronology) in modern times has trimmed the number of paintings attributed to his hand to only around 25. The number of attributed drawings is now 20.
  • The major research project out of s-Hertogenbosch (Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) in connection with the major exhibition there February / May 2016, “Jheronimus Bosch – Visions of a Genius”, ie 500 years since he died, http://www.bosch500.nl/en/the-event/2016-exhibition ) has trimmed the list further, though added at least one too.



Context – regional history

  • Profound and disturbing change arrived in his home region soon after Bosch was born. The Duchy of Brabant became part of the Valois Duchy of Burgundy in 1430, ie part of the Burgundian Netherlands. The Burgundy Duchy then extended from east central France up into the Low Countries, and had been a great patron of culture for a century or more.
  • Firstly, fatefully, in 1477 Burgundy’s independence suddenly ended when the last Duke, Charles I (the Bold?!), was killed fighting in France but left no heir. The Hapsburgs Maximilian I quickly married Duke Charles‘ only child, Mary, then their son Philip the Fair then married Joanna of Castile in 1495, so Burgundy was swallowed by Hapsburg Spain.
  • Secondly across Europe there was trouble brewing in the Church, culminating in the momentous Reformation, which sundering process was inaugurated by Luther at Wittenberg in 1516.
  • Thirdly, the growing political and religious disquiet, and the looming of year 1500, stoked support for extremist apocalyptic ideas.


Context  – Hertogenbosch religious life

  • s-Hertogenbosch had a strong religious life, focussed on its major church, St John’s cathedral, including many religious orders, at least 50 monasteries and churches at or nearby, “a devotional abundance”.
  • The cathedral was “begun in the late fourteenth century on the site of an older structure and …completed in the sixteenth, it is a fine example of Brabantine Gothic, noteworthy for its wealth of carved decoration. Of particular interest are the rows of curious figures, monsters and workmen, sitting astride the buttresses supporting the roof, some of which bring to mind the fantastic creatures of Bosch.”
  • The town also hosted two houses of the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, known as the Modern Devotion (Devotio moderna), a lay order founded by 14th C mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck (d. 1381), and influenced especially by Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, written in the early 15th century, proposing Man for his religious edification should be more hands on, trying to live a life more like Christ, all part of a growing Northern reformist movement inside the Church favouring a return to its Apostolic roots.


Context  – popularity of apocalyptic thought

  • A number of Bosh’s paintings refer directly to apocalyptic thought coming from Revelations, especially the two Last Judgement triptychs (Vienna, c1476, commissioned 1504 by Philip the Handsome, son of Maximilian I; and another at Bruges, c1480), plus two panels in Rotterdam (Flood and Devastation by Fire) and the four Afterlife Panels in Venice.
  • There was an outbreak of apocalyptic anxiety c1000D, and a number of times thereafter, partly enouraged by Joachim of Fiore’s 12th C prophesies. The world did not end 1260, as he expected, but then gullible believers rationalised this by saying his calculations were out! Thus the year 1500, about a millenium after the Church was established, brought on another irrational wave of fear.
  • Durer’s famous woodcut of the Four Horsemen (1498) was inspired by these circumstances.


Context  – Flemish, Netherlands and German art

  • Bosch’s main Flemish predecessors were Robert Campin (c1378-1444, worked out of Tournai), Jan van Eyck (c1390-1441, based Bruges), Rogier van der Weyden (c1400-1464, trained with Campin, worked Brussels), famous for smooth detailed oil paintings.
  • Important earlier near contemporaries were Dieric (Dirk) Bouts (1415-75) in Louvain, Hans Memling (1430-1494) in Bruges, and Hugo van der Goes (1440-82) in Ghent. Following him were Gerard David (1460-1523, mainly in Bruges), landscapist Joachim Patinir (1480-1524, in Antwerp)an especially Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c1525/30-69).
  • Flanders was wealthier than the Netherlands in the early /mid 15th C.
  • Later much Dutch art of this period (eg from Haarlem) was destroyed in Protestant iconoclastic riots of Reformation.
  • Bosch was an almost exact contemporary of Leonardo (1450- 1519) and some think Bosch may have visited north Italy c1505, including Venice (cf Craig Barbison), the influence of which seems apparent in some of Bosch’s later works, eg the well known striking Christ Carrying the Cross (c1510 or later, Ghent, now attributed to a follower), showing the calm beatific Christ’s head in the centre, eye of the storm, an island in the close-up press of heads of his tormentors, a grotesque tapestry of expressive lunatics, the physiognomic features for whom Bosch may have been inspired by drawings of Leonardo.
  • An important similar painting is Christ Crowned with Thorns (oil on wood, 73 x 59cm, National Gallery London). But its date of 1495-1500 seems inconsistent if Bosch did visit to Italy after this time, which visit appears to reflect in this painting as it does in the Ghent work. The work seems to relate closely to Durer’s Christ among the Doctors (oil on poplar panel, 65 x 80cm) of 1506, painted while Durer was visiting Venice.
  • Bosch’s work (like Durer) presents a bold close-up of heads and carefully composed interacting hands. It also uses a typical clear four part iconography, again with polemical purpose, whereby Christ’s tormentors are here represented by all 4 classes – ie no one is blameless – Pope (Julius II), Emperor (Maximillian I), merchant (whose crescent decoration suggests he trades with Turkish infidels?) and scholar/peasant (Jewish? Alluding to Julius borrowing from Jews?).
  • Some of Bosch’s scenes of Christ seem to also reflect late 15th C German painting, eg work by Martin Schongauer (c1430-91), Cspar Isenmann (c1430-80) and especially the Master of the Karlsruhe Passion (c1430-80), ie intense, dramatic, energetic crowded scenes which might presage 20th C German Expressionism.


Context  – alchemy interfacing with religion

  • Despite it being subsequently revealed as nonsense by the late 17th C, alchemy in Bosch’s time was still an important intellectual endeavour, especially because believers saw it interfacing, resonating with the Christian story. It became more popular in the 14th C, and later printing helped it spread. It was patronised, encouraged at the highest levels, by the Church and nobility, by the Dukes of Burgundy and the Hapsburg court.
  • Alchemy was based on transmutation, conversion of base to precious, by bringing the 4 elements into balance, thus creating a 5th, the so-called quintessence.
  • But this conception consciously mirrored the Christian story of Man’s sins being „cleansed“ by Christ’s resurrection, Man being redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and thus regaining the paradise lost by Adam and Eve. Thus alchemcal experiment was usually accompanied by Christian liturgical activity.
  • Some scholars think Bosch seemed to apply alchemical imagery through much of his art (cf extensive explanation by Laurinda Dixon in Bosch, Phaidon, 2003).
  • Case study: This is evident for example in the triptych of The Adoration of the Magi (1485-1500, Prado) without which alchemical references the work seems inexplicable (cf Laurinda Dixon). Typically the work alludes to the Christian Mass (ie when bread and wine are „mystically transformed through transubstantiation into the true body and blood of Christ“) and to Christ’s foretold Passion. The exterior of the closed three-panel work shows Gregory’s Mass. But the central panel is unusual, „the extraordinary presence of six menacing figures..“, which are explained alchemically as the „six contaminated metals“, within the Aristotelean „scientific“ hierarchy of planets and metals. They are the „six unclean metals awaiting transmutation through the grace of incarnate God“.
  • This „parallels“ the „cleansing of souls on the Day of Judgement“ and „a debased world redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice‘.
  • More importantly the panel also incorporates chemical laboratory apparatus, a distillation flask atop a furnace. This becomes a chemical metaphor whereby the equipment „houses“ the ingredients during their transmutation, much as Bethlehem „houses“ the ingredients for the Christian miraculous outcome, comparing the birth of Christ to the alchemical transmutating agent, the „philosopher’s stone“, the „lapis“. This connection was made by Petrus Bonus‘ New Pearl of Great Price, printed 1503. Thus the Magi in finding the baby Christ are also finding the „lapis“.
  • Case study: Likwise the elusive complex triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c1470 or later) seems only to make sense via an alchemical interpretation. The painting was seen in 1517 in the Nassau court, then was later confiscated, looted, by the Duke of Alva in 1568 and taken to Spain.
  • Some today think the painting was viewed then as heretical, or a warning against immorality (eg because of the nudity), but this seems misguided?
  • And a traditional interpretation, trying to see it as Man being punished for his sins, does not quite fit. Thus the „sinners“ in the central panel don’t really look the part?
  • Again it seems that alchemical knowledge is woven into a complex pattern of imagery drawing on „Biblical, astrological, erotic, millenial and proverb“ sources, all harnessed to the alchemical goal of finding the „elixir of life“, ie enabling a return to Eden.
  • So the main themes of the work are creation, and salvation.
  • The ultimate alchemical allegory was to see the earth itself as the philosopher’s stone, which will be destroyed and reborn perfect and in paradise. Thus the work contains the four basic steps in the alchemical process: 1/ conjunction, ingredients are assembled for mixing (left interior scene, joining Adam and Eve in „alchemical marriage‘); 2/ „child’s play“step: slow cooking of the ingredients (in „riotous“ central panel); 3/ burning and „killing“of substances (in hell, right panel inside); 4/ cleansing / resurrection / transmutation (on triptych exterior).
  • This view explains the rampant but curiously „lust-less“ sexuality for the alchemical theory saw all components of the world in incessant copulation, and „all substances reproduce in a mystical marriage or conjunction of opposites..“
  • The dragon palm near Adam fits this iconographical scheme, a tree from Spain which exudes red sap, like Christ’s healing blood. Vines (cf Eucharistic wine) wrap the tree but growing wafers not grapes!? This alludes to the healing power of the Mass. The delicate pink fountain resembles a pelican vase, another lab item. The dark mound on which it rests contains gems, pearls, refers to alchemy’s prima materia (cf Roger Bacon, Hermes Trismegistus), the source material for all substances. Bottom right of the left panel is a primeval pond, oozing weird new life (one reading a book!). some of these creatures appear in the then popular Garden of Health. Top left is a rounded-furnace like building from which issue blackbirds, like unclean vapors which will be cleaned by the chemistry.
  • The central panel, billed „child’s play“, step 2, as the prima materia „joyfully couples“, an erotic visual extravaganza. As God said to Adam, Be fruitful and multiply. The marriage of opposites, like black and white. Cf mid 12th C translated (from Arabic) Turba philosophorum: „.. things contrary are commingled..“. And we see gymnastics! A chemical metaphor for the alchemical „turning upside down“, which reacting vapors do as they swirl. Why the shiny red cherries? But without stems? Because they are not cherries but the alchemists‘ „lapis“, eg described by George Ripley (court alchemist to Edward IV) in his Roll. And in the TP. See them here in lake above where four rivers of paradise arrive. Another alchemical reference: „The arrangement of the central panel.. resembles the frontispiece of.. Brunswyck’s Book of Distillation (1500).“ Explaining te dark blue fountain in the lake of paradise, which refers (again) to the alchemist’s pelican retort, the „marriage chamber“ where opposites „mate“. The TP mentions this device, drawn from the c1330 New Pearl of Great Price? We also see glass test tubes, centre and left.
  • So the central panel is a vision of paradise awaiting the Good Boys? The elect after the Day of Judgement explained in Revelations, thus fitting too the apocalyptic flavor of those times. Attainable through God’s salvation. And chiming with the alchemical goal of achieving paradise through the „transmuting eliir of life“.
  • The egg is another popular alhemical motif, as a „creation chamber“, thus alchemists liked egg shaped retorts. It is prominent also right in the „Hell“ panel. This panel shows sinners getting their comeuppance, especially for sins of „avarice, gluttony and lust“. But again the panel fits the overall alchemial scheme, the „putrefaction“ stage, thus refers to „Saturn, melancholia, chaos, hell and end of the world..“ And leprosy. Ingredients are „punished“ before being transmuted. The knives? Used to destroy, preparing for revival. One bearing the Greek letter Omega, last letter of the alphabet, and referring to Saturn.
  • The exterior panels also fit the alchemical scheme, showing a flask. God at the top and inscriptions: „He spoke and it was.“ And, „By his command they were created“.
  • This work was hung in the new Escorial in 1593, built by Philip II, a keen fan of alchemy, as was the Hapsburg empire generally, eg Rudolf II in Prague in the late 16th C. Under the Hapsburgs alchemy „flourished until closeof the 17th C“?!.



Work – oeuvre, attribution.

  • Unusually for his day, Bosch appears to have signed at least some (7?) of his attributed works?
  • For his age Bosch did not leave a big oeuvre? Only 25 definitely attributed? And this number is much lower than the „30 to 50“ attributed in the early/mid 20th C.
  • Attribution remains controversial. Thus in connection with the important Feb./May 2016 Bosch exhibition at his home town the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) since c2010 has been exhaustively reviewiing Bosch’s total oeuvre, demoting some images, promoting others, also restoring some.
  • Dendochronological analysis demoted the popular The Marriage at Cana to a follower of Bosch, dating it to c1560 earliest.
  • Bosch “produced at least sixteen triptychs, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments.”
  • Many were acquired by Spain’s Philip II, appealing to his religiously warped mind!? So about half his surviving ouvre is in Spain.


Work – patronage

  • The Brotherhood of Our Lady in ‚s-Hertogenbosch was important in securing commissions for Bosch, both directly and through patronage from important fellow members, like the Counts of Nassau, a Spanish nobleman Diego de Guevara who owned 6 of his paintings, and at least two wealthy business families.
  • The nobility were also keen sponsors, including from the Spanish royal familty.
  • An Italian Cardinal from Venice owned several works.


Work – reception, influence and interpretation 

  • After his death Bosch’s work soon became very popular, was widely copied. Thus over 20 copies were made of the St Anthony triptych. But in time interest faded until he was rediscovered in the 20th C, especially through excited Surrealist interest in Bosch’s extravaganza of detailed intricate dream-like visionary fantasy.
  • Bosch influenced Joachim Patinir and Pieter Bruegel, eg his Mad Meg (1562).
  • But modern interest in Bosch’s unusual offering has elicited much controversy.
  • Some modern observers suggest Bosch’s unusual imagery reflected heretical sympathies but this seems very unlikely considering Bosch‘s high social rank and apparent keen patronage of his work by the then aristocratic establishment.
  • Rather his work reflects a polemical moralising take on life – aimed at the daily life of clergy as well as common people – of a profoundly orthodox, mainstream religious late Mediaeval mindset, which approach also resonates with some contemporary literature. Like Adagia (1500), Common Proverbs (12 editions 1480 to 1500), and the sarcastic In Praise of Folly (1509) by Erasmus. Ship of Fools by Brant, 1494, best seller.
  • The persistent theme through near every painting was moral lecturing, in the triptychs, and in other less formal paintings, especially The seven deadly sins (c1500, now attributed his school), The conjourer and the stone operation, both condemning trickery / dishonesty and gullibility.
  • However his expression of orthodox ideas was certainly idiosyncratic and singular, vividly colorful and imaginative, and employing a complex and extensive pictorial iconography, but suited to times when literacy levels much lower.
  • Laurinda Dixon (Phaion, 2003) argues persuasively that alchemical references feature prominently in many of Bosch’s paintings, notably the Garden of Earthly Delights, and there interface with, support the Christian story. Though this is not accepted by all?
  • Ms Dixon also writes that Bosch, again in sympathy with his times, in some of his work also referred to apocalyptic themes, again popular, not least as the year 1500 approached.
  • Some modern observers also see irony and detachment in his work? And also even anti-Spanish nationalistic comment (Oliveira, Paulo Martins, Jheronimus Bosch, 2012)?


Work – meaning: The seven deadly sins and the Four Last Things

  • The circular format of The seven deadly sins and the Four Last Things, c1490 (Follower, Prado. Recently demoted by BRCP) refers to the eye of God, as cited in a number of contemporary moralising religious texts, including Nicholas of Cusa’s Vision of God (De visione dei). It is also ntended as a mirror tohuman nature. Also Psalm 11:9 adds, „The wicked walk around in a circle“. To emphasize his point Bosch adds „Beware, beware, God sees“ beneath Christ in the pupil!
  • But in keeping with the new worldly Renaissance spirit Bosch illustrates his points with real scenes from contemporary Dutch life..
  • „the Four Last Things were also „a fixture in popular moralising treatises“. In the scene of Hell, the eternal torments allocated to perpetrators of each type of sin are carefully devised by Bosch to reflect the sin. Thus „Bosch devised a painful and unique punishment for sloth“, spanked forever by a devil with a hammer.
  • The common man would undertsand the images but the text is in Latin, aimed at the educated, literate.


Work – categories

  • Features of Northern Renaissance Ars nova (New style) painting (cf Ervin Panofsky), which Bosch absorbed, were
    • applying complex carefully devised iconography using symbols and allusions.
    • Using understated naturalistic worldly realism to depict traditional religious themes or subjects, both in the figures and in the locational settings, landscapes and towns and houses, eg Geertgen (Gerald) tot Sint Jans (c1465-c1495), who worked in Haarlem.
  • Bosch painted detailed landscapes but not in the league of Bruegel. Or Joachim Patinir.
  • Categories of Bosch’s work:
    • Moralising triptychs:
      • The Garden of Earthly Delights, c1470 or later, 1490-1510? Prado. This is the most famous of all Bosch’s paintings,
      • The Last Judgment, c. 1476 (Vienna),
      • The Last Judgment, c. 1480 (Bruges),
      • The Haywain, 1501-02 (Prado, read from left to right, each panel was essential to the meaning of the whole.eruption of fantasy, expressed in monstrous, apocalyptic scenes of chaos and nightmare that are contrasted and juxtaposed with idyllic portrayals of mankind in the age of innocence…. disconcerting mixture of fantasy and reality..”.The closed outer panel shows The path of life, or Wayfarer), parts of a sundered triptych, Ship of Fools etc.
      • Dispersed triptych. Another triptych was broken up, some of which survives, though not the central panel: left interior panel, Death of a miser (c1488 or later), right interior panel, Ship of fools (c1488 or later, alluding to  Sebastian Brant’s 1494 Ship of Fools, collection of poems, which satirised behaviour of clergy well as others), above Allegory of Intemperance (gluttony) (c1488 or later); exterior panel The Wayfarer (c1488 or later, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. The pilgrim on the road of life has a choice of roads, the good or the bad. Moralising detail includes the datskin on the back pack, the owl in the tree, the upturned jug on the roof apex, the pig’s trotter as an amulet).
      • Polyptych Visions of the Hereafter (c1490, Palazzo Ducale, Venice), comprising Ascent of the Blessed, Terrestrial Paradise, Fall of the Damned into Hell, and Hell)


  • Moralising secular set images.
    • The seven deadly sins and the Four Last Things, c1490 (Follower, Prado).
    • The conjourer , 1502 (Saint-Germain-en-Laye),
    • Stone operation (Follower, Prado, Madrid).
  • Setting a good example: the life of Christ.
    • Adoration of the Magi, > c 1468 (panel, NY),
    • Ecce Homo, > c1475 (Frankfurt),
    • Crucifiion with Donor, > c 1477 (panel, Brussels),
    • Christ crowned with thorns, > c 1479 (panel, London), Ecce Homo, 1490s? (Or follower? Indianapolis),
    • Christ carrying the Cross, > c 1492 (panel, Madrid),
    • Adoration of the Magi, > c 1493 (panel, Philadelphia),
    • Ecce Homo, 1496/1500? (Workshop of Bosch, Boston),
    • Adoration of the Magi, c 1500 (triptych, Madrid),
    • Christ carrying the Cross, > c 1500 (panel, Vienna) / reverse: Christ child and walking frame (sustentacula),
    • Christ carrying the Cross, c 1515 (panel, Ghent),
    • Christ crowned with thorns, > c 1527 (follower, panel, Escorial),
    • Marriage at Cana, > c 1555 (follower),  mid 15th C (follower, Philadelphia),
  • Setting a good example: „Sufferings of the Saints“ The „most peaceful and untroubled of Bosch’s mature works depict various saints in contemplation or repose..
    • The Temptation of St Anthony, > c 1462 (Follower? Panel, Prado);
    • Martyrdom of St Julia (?), triptych, c1491 Palazzo Ducale, Venice);
    • Hermit Saints, triptych, c1487 or later (Palazzo Ducale, Venice);
    • St John the Baptist, c1474, Madrid (Pairs with St John of Patmos, once part of altarpiece for St. John’s Cathedral, ‘s-Hertogenbosch? In which case date is c1489. The pose of St John is very unusual);
    • St Christopher (1490-1500, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands);
    • St John of Patmos (c1500, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Pairs with St John the Baptist, once part of altarpiece for St. John’s Cathedral, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in which case date is c1489.”Monster” lower right has face which may be self portrait of the artist?);
    • St Jerome (c1482, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, Belgium. St Jerome was popular with Bosch, as his namesake and as a dedicated Christian warrior);
    • The Temptation of St Anthony, c1501, triptych. Lisbon, . St Anthony, lived Egypt c251-356AD, a founder of monasticism, a popular subject for Bosch, and others (eg Schongauer and M Grunewald). And this work was popular, many copies being made. A popular saint, the cult of St Anthony, especially in 15th and 16th C, associated with unpleasant disease Holy Fire („ignis sacer“), ergotism, which hurt poor peasants, caused by mouldy rye grain. This grain heated produces a form of LSD! Antonite monasteries ran hospices for afflicted, esp by Holy Fire. They proliferated. And employed chemists (apothecaries) to make „cooling elixirs“, esp the „holy vintage‘, adminstered at Feast of the Ascension, ie 40 days before Easter, when the concoction wouldbe strained through bones of St Anthony to boost its power! But therefore problems with fake bones1 Thus „regulation of cures for holy fire was the subject of at least 3 papal bulls during Bosch’s life“!? St Anthony in visual depictions was intended as an example to emulate, identify with, and the saint’s sufferings in turn referred to Christs‘. The chemists brewed many „medicines“, many using the mandrake root, though perversely it only aggravated the hallucinatory symptoms of ergotism. Bosch includes much lab apparatus in his images, embedding some in the architectural fabric. Eg referring to Brunswyck’s Book of Distillation


  • Some observers see three phases in Bosch’s work, though this seems problematic given the loose dates for most of his work, apart from the debate over which works he did do:
    • 1/ Early 1474 to 1485, generally conventional?
    • 2/ Middle, C1485-1510.
    • 3/ C1510-1516. Later works were „..fundamentally different .. the scale changes radically, and, instead of meadows or hellish landscapes inhabited by hundreds of tiny beings, he painted dramatic close-ups, densely compacted groups of half-length figures pressed tight against the picture plane.”


  • Case study: St John the Baptist, (c1489, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid. It seems to have been a wing for an alterpiece for St. John’s Cathedral, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, paired with St John of Patmos), This shows the saint as a hermit holy chap in the wilderness (but in Holland not the parched petrine Egyptian deserts) reminding us of his role in preparing the way for Christ, here symbolised by the lamb. Bosch the ruminating saint as melancholic, here tapping the Renaissance humanist revival of Aristotle’s theory of personality whereby great thinkers, geniuses (thus for Christians, the prophets) were melancholic because „great intellectual effort produced a combustion of humours wthin the body, „a fire of inspiration“… „ which gave off vapors irritating the brain. The Renaissance revival of the Classics was harnessed by the Church to tell their story and thus in Bosch’s time Florentine physician/priest Marsilio Ficino wrote of Aristotle’s theory in his 1489 Three Books on Life. Melancholy was associated with Saturn and Bosch also alluded to melancholy and Saturn in his Wayfarer (c1488, Rotterdam). And Durer famously engraved Melencolia I in 1514. But apparently the idea of the melancholic saintly hermit was old, suffering „enthousiasme“, a fiery cerebral denouement born of „divine ravishment“ when gripped by intense prophetic inspiration. „Miscreants and earth-workers“ were also seen as „progeny of Saturn“.


Work – technique

  • Bosch’s oil painting style shifted significantly away from important predecessors like van Eyck. Bosch did not “apply.. colors laboriously in micro-layers.“ He did not „present the glossy gem-like appearance typical of mid 15th C Northern paintings
  • His style was sketchier, rougher, using some impasto, not so concealing of brushstrokes. He sketched on then painted irectly on white ground on panel.
  • Bosch used sketches to prepare for his paintings and he also often reworked images.



  • Details of Bosch’s life are scarce, but which is in accord with his times, when artists were generally regarded as craftsmen, carrying a lower status, though this attitude was soon to change, as part of the Renaissance, starting in Italy. He left no personal documents (unlike Durer who – about 20 years younger and who definitely travelled to Italy – was copious), so is known only from his art, and from local aministrative records, in three categories: city tax rolls, notarised legal records, and “factures”, the account books at Brotherhood of Our Lady.
  • Bosch was born Jerome Anthony van Aken, in ‚s-Hertogenbosch, in the north of the Duchy of Brabant, one of the seventeen Dutch or Netherlands provinces, in the south. So today ‚s-Hertogenbosch is in the Netherlands, close to the Belgium border. The Dutch Provinces were then part of the Duchy of Burgundy and ‚s-Hertogenbosch was one of the 4 largest cities in Brabant, along with Brussels, Antwerp and Louvain.
  • ‚s-Hertogenbosch was a thriving commercial and cultural city, which enjoyed good times during Bosch’s life, eg reported population growth from 17,280 to 25,000 from 1496 to 1500. It was quick to gain a printing press.
  • He was the grandson of Jan van Aachen (d.1454) who moved to Hertgenbosch from Aachen (also known as Aix-la-Chappelle), and was part of a family of painters, the son of artist Anthonius van Aken (d c1478), brother of Goessen, also a painter.
  • He first appears in the municipal record on 5 April 1474. He Latinised his first name and also replaced his family name in order to publicise his association with his important home town.
  • Bosch was a devout Christian, in a town where about one third of the population was affiliated with religious bodies.
  • Around 1488 he joined the Brotherhood of Our Lady (Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady), a conservative lay confranternity comprising about 50”sworn members”, senior members, of whom Bosch was one from c1488, and some 7,000 ‘outer-members’ from around Europe. It was established early in the 14th C and like an exclusive club it became “one of the most important confranternities in northern Europe”, membership drawn from senior people in the Church, nobility and the bourgeoisie. They held appropriate ceremonies and banquets (eg one of which Bosch hosted March 1510), and during Bosch’s life funded a late Gothic chapel inside the cathedral.
  • s-Hertogenbosch suffered a major fire 18 Nov 1421, in which c100k died? And Bosch himself probably witnessed a big fire in his home town in 1463? God’s wrath?!
  • Bosch was raised in a reasonably well off family (in 1462 his father bought a large house on the main square). He married into a well off family c1481, but one of similar social standing. In wealth terms Bosch was probably in the top 10% of the town’s inhabitants.
  • He may have visited northern Italy (refer above).
  • Exhibition Rotterdam, “Hieronymus Bosch and his World.”
  • Major exhibition, Visions of Genius, Noordbrabants Museum, ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, February 13–May 8, 20



Comment on the commentators: moths to a flame.                                                                                            16 august 2016 

Why is he such a popular subject?

1/ Because he was different, because his fantastical imagery was so intense and extreme, and there was lots of it;

2/ Because little is known about the artist let alone what the artist thought he was trying to say.

But we must be wary of some comment because, like all professional authors, they are conflicted, bring an agenda.

Their main mission is to sell books so there is always the temptation to lure customers by embellishing the story accordingly.


Peggy Guggenheim: One package: her achievement with art and the “colourful” private life

Peggy Guggenheim

Marguerite (Peggy) Guggenheim (b. Philadelphia, 1898, d. Padua, 1979, 81)

Peggy Guggenheim, c.1930, Paris, photograph Rogi André

Henri Matisse, View of Notre Dame, Paris, quai Saint Michel, spring 1914. A front rank artist missing from her collection.


One package: her achievement with art and the “colourful” private life


Unlikely confluence of odd circumstances. The insecure lady from a rich NY family (but she is not wealthy) meets in Europe the Surrealist phase of the ongoing modern art revolution… meets WW2… meets NY in a victorious post war America… meets postwar Venice.

But after half a life in indulgent passivity she takes her breaks, makes it work.

Her achievement in presciently promoting across the tracks modern art (and as a woman) outweighs the gossip.

       Before 1937..  


                   and after…                                                             


Summary: a doer who capitalised on her odd assignation with history.

  • Peggy Guggenheim comes as one package. We cannot have one without the other.
  • Her insecurity propelled impulsion to “shock” contributed to, drove her signature achievements in promoting then unfashionable contemporary art?
  • But it gave us too her “colourful” private life – a well-publicised sex-life, her poor judgement in men, and her dogs – which perhaps clouds full appreciation of her important achievement in art?
  • Her insecurity was reinforced by a demanding family context, which she never escaped: the early loss of her father, a distant mother, then losing both sisters as adults. This probably then contributed to her dysfunctional selection of men, which then undermined efforts to build her own family, but to which she was temperamentally unsuited anyway?
  • But her pathbreaking career appetite for “shocking” art (and the dogs!) helped compensate for the family trouble.
  • 1937 was her Rubicon year, when her mother died and left her money, a second inheritance. Not a fortune but enough to allow her to take the initiative and after half a life of cruising, to do something, and art it was. Her subsequent achievement in promoting then unpopular contemporary art was substantial:
    • She opened and ran two important galleries,
    • She capitalised on unexpected opportunities, especially the implications of WW2: the outbreak of war, then the displacement of European ”intellectual art capital” to New York.
    • Presciently, she collected and promoted then unfashionable contemporary art which has since rocketed in reputation.
    • She was hands on and effective, yes she took advice (mostly male but they were the main protagonists), but took good advice and cleverly, like her selection jury at Art of This Century (AOTC) Gallery.
    • And, despite her Guggenheim pedigree, she built her businesses without vast funds.
    • Also, to her credit, and art’s, her passion for art was not just about money? Thus she was generous to artists and the art world. And this magnanimity (which may be less likely in a man?) helped art, like in her enlightened timely support of Pollock, like gifting his famous Mural (1943-44) to the University of Iowa.
    • And she did it all as a woman, and Jewish to boot.
  • An intriguing counter-factual is that but for Peggy Guggenheim, and WW2, we would have heard much less of Jackson Pollock? Peggy Guggenheim’s support was meaningful and at a crucial time, allowing him money and space to paint the big boys.
  • And WW2 fortuitously dumped Peggy Guggenheim and a flock of front rank European modern artists in New York at precisely the right time! And many of these artists were in-vogue Surrealists to boot, the major modern art school which above all was influencing Pollock and the other emerging Abstract Expressionists, per contra the Cubists.
  • Thus did Pollock’s art then take off in the main cultural city of the main victor nation of the war, a large wealthy country then riding a wave of patriotic / nationalistic sentiment, in turn fanned by Life magazine’s promotion, and by highbrow art criticism.
  • How much did she know of art? And wasn’t she just relying on (male) advice? Thus John Richardson sounds the patronising old fogey in the film, downplaying her contribution. “She was just like a little girl”. But at least, as Lee Krasner said: “SHE DID IT… no matter what her motivations were, she did it.” And perhaps more for example than Mr Richardson, living off biographies of Picasso?


Why bother Peggy Guggenheim?

She is again topical, thanks to a new (documentary) film, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, and book, Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern, by Francine Prose.

She leaves a rare story, a woman making a special impact in the art world.

And she leaves questions without clear answers, with different answers depending on the interrogator and their context.


Family: a troubled context

Peggy Guggenheim’s personality is an important part of the story. She was an insecure, unsure person, reinforced by a difficult childhood, losing her rich father Benjamin in 1912 (famously on the Titanic, but only after missing an earlier boat! Then on the night refusing assistance to leave the ship!?) when she was only 13, and without an empathetic mother (Florette Seligman, from a banking family, who died 1937). Both her parents were Jewish of Ashkenazi descent. A number of her mother’s relatives were eccentric.

Then later sadly she failed to build her own family, partly because of her poor judgement in men. In 1922, aged only 23, she married in haste soon after arriving in Paris in 1921 to the alluring writer and artist Laurance Vail (1891-1968), her “King of Bohemia” (and“The first man I knew who never wore a hat..”), whom she had met in New York. They had two children but a troubled relationship. He was obviously good company but liked a drink, and patronised and physically abused her. So they divorced 1928, after 7 years, but to their credit apparently remained cordial thereafter. Thus in 1942 she showed his art in New York.

In 1928 she met and fell for another (putative) writer, Englishman John Ferrar Holms, apparently the “love of her life” but who was no better, another drinker, belittler and abuser. Also, as was the custom, he refused to divorce his wife, and (cf the new film) she apparently had 7 (seven?!) abortions, mostly by him. For a while they lived together in England in Hayford Hall (“Hangover Hall”!) till he died unexpectedly in 1934 from complications after an accident, aged only 37. Thereafter she lived with English publisher and infatuated Leftist, “Communist” Douglas Garman, till that failed in 1937 when he departed for another lady.

She had two sisters, and was close to both as children (partly because their parents failed them?) but she then lost both. Benita died in childbirth, and Hazel lost control, lost her kids off a hotel roof in Paris, maybe to spite her husband? Then she “lost” her own children, if partly through own neglect? Her son Sindbad went off with his father, and they never related well? And her daughter Pegeen had “problems”, never settled, married poorly and committed suicide in Paris at 42 (c1967), after a tentative art career.

A sad and sorry tale.

Being Jewish she also attracted her share of anti-Semitism.

But offsetting, compensating for, this family-reinforced insecurity, her sustained unhappy family circumstances, were her active passion for art in particular, her sex life (launched in decadent 1920s Paris), a few friends (mainly other women? And the gay writer Edmund White?), and her dogs.

Yes she was from a famous and wealthy American family, the Guggenheims, but she was not rich, comfortable, but not rich. Aged 21 (1919) she inherited ($450k) from her father’s estate, and about the same again 1937, from her mother.


Her private life: “colourful”

Her “colourful” private life, especially her busy sex life, has in some way clouded a full and proper appreciation of her achievements in promoting unpopular contemporary art?

And in line with her core life theme of The Shock she was not backward in cloaking the details, so her publication in 1946 of her memoir “Out of the Century” deliberately contributed to popular comprehension of her private life, though some critics do accord this book some literary merit.

Does it matter? How relevant is it to her art?

Not a lot? Although perhaps the attention her private life attracted may then have strayed to the art she saluted? Maybe even this was a rational business-minded part of her motives for not discouraging controversy?


Peggy and art? Well she did it!

Did she really know what she was about with modern art? Or was mainly an expression of her insecurity? Especially in pursuing art “shocking” contemporary art. So was she again just seeking to “shock” the establishment? And, in doing so, relying mainly on a bevy of male advisors.

Or was she bright and perceptive enough to develop her own meaningful views?

In the new film the somewhat pompous John Richardson (Englishman, Picasso’s major biographer) makes a couple of patronising remarks, like (paraphrasing), oh she did well for someone who knew little about it. And, oh she was just being a little girl again.

Well wherever the truth lies the facts are (as Lee Krasner declared) she did it, she collected well and ran a successful business. While the uncharitable might say Mr Richardson just fed off Picasso’s life and work. Thus whatever the motives her keen and sustained activity in the field had an unexpectedly constructive outcome, for most concerned!

In her life – amid an historically pivotal art revolution and an unexpected world war – she was presented with extraordinary circumstances, and took active advantage of them. She is another example of right place, right time.

Important too is that end of the day, art and the artists were basically more important to her than just the money. Thus she made a point of helping artists (famously Mr Pollock) and she also later gave away a lot of art, especially like Pollock’s famous six metre long Mural (1943/44), the painting which electrified the important supportive critic Clement Greenberg. Consequently too “she deplored the commodification of art” (F. Raphael, WSJ 30th October 2015).

Maybe this constructive wider agenda for her art activities was a female thing? There were few other women in the art game? But some, like Gertrude Stein in Paris, who she met, and also (outside the scope of the film) especially Betty Parsons in New York, who became main Abstract Expressionist gallery promoter after Peggy Guggenheim headed to Venice in 1947.


Paris: the libertine but enlightening life

Her introduction to the contemporary cultural world in New York came via her cousin Harold Loeb through whom she worked in a bookshop on 44th focussing on modern writers. Also she was first exposed to new art through meeting Alfred Steiglitz at his 291 Gallery on 5th Avenue, where she saw works by no less than Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse. She also met Georgia O’Keefe. And writer Laurance Vail.

She arrived Paris 1921 where she relished the freewheeling “decadent” postwar life in the art capital. And inevitably in Paris she soon met artists. And plenty, like Man Ray (another American expat), and especially the important Marcel Duchamp who in time became a key advisor, “teacher”, and who would later join her in New York. And Gertrude Stein. And she met writers, like Pound, Joyce, and later Beckett (on Boxing Day 1938).


London (& Paris), to the war: starts her own business

1937 changed her life, when her de facto relationship with Douglas Garman broke up, and her mother died and left her around US$450k, her second tranche of inheritance. Encouraged by the important Surrealist exhibition in London 1936, and specifically by friend Peggy Waldheim , she decided to capitalise on her cumulative experience in Paris and use her new funds to open an art gallery in London.

Visits to the 1937 Paris Exposition, where Picasso’s Guernica was showing, had furthered her education. Also, in particular, Samuel Beckett (8 years younger), during their brief intense affair in Paris at end 1938 apparently urged her to actively support modern art. Finally it probably helped that the new gallery irritated her uncle in New York.

So, with some expert counsel from Duchamp, the Guggenheim Jeune Gallery opened at 33 Cork St, in London’s West End from January 1938 and without a lot of money. Artists she showed included Cocteau (her first show, curated by Duchamp), Yves Tanguy (who was “adorable”) and the ambitious Kandinsky (her second show), who asked quietly if her (rich) uncle (Solomon) might like to buy one of his paintings. His advisor “Baroness” Hilla Rebay scoffed at the idea and panned her, but Peggy replied courteously, along the lines “I know what I’m doing”. And she did.

After a brace of important exhibitions she decided to close the gallery in 1939 because it was losing money, and instead conceived the idea of a contemporary art museum in London, probably influenced by her uncle Solomon launching his New York foundation in 1937, and his Museum of Non-objective Painting in 1939. She used Englishman Herbert Read, then editing Burlington Magazine, as her chief advisor (though his eye for modern art was opaque. He spotted David Bomberg early but did not follow up), and also Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg (artist Theo’s wife). They carefully crafted a shopping list of artists and she headed to Paris in mid1939 (?!) as war loomed, where famously she vacuumed up a trove of modern art treasures, taking advantage of the hostilities, and also of the growing antagonism towards the Jews (ie including many artists and also dealers), and apparently spending only about $40,000.

At bargain prices in Paris, starting with Jean Arp’s “Head and Shell”, she bought works off and / or by Leger, Ernst, Miró, Picabia, Braque, Brancusi (sex didn’t lower the price!), Giacommeti, Magritte, Klee, Dali, and Picasso? Who was aware and wary of her brash mission. “Madame, lingerie is on second floor,” he said when she called.

But a sadness and distaste overshadows in these transactions too, her taking financial advantage of the predicament of the authors of these works?

As the war approached the Louvre refused to store the new collection – not worth it! – so she hurriedly arranged to ship the works to New York as “household goods”, apparently again using sex to grease the wheels. She also helped some artists escape, like Max Ernst, Andre Breton etc, via Varian Fry and his network out of Marseilles, herself departing July 1941 by plane from Lisbon.


New York: resumes her art business in the new global art capital, fortuitously then enriched by refugee European artists

Guggenheim’s timing, arriving back in New York Oct 1941, was again serendipitously apt, for she was joined by a swag of front rank European artists, especially Surrealists, who were also refugees from WW2 in Europe, and many of whom she knew well from Paris in the 1920s.

She “[bullied].. the broke and miserable”, and attractive, Max Ernst into marriage December 1941, but her money helped him, and he took off before long for a young beauty, though they did not divorce till 1946.

More important she resumed her art promotion career and opened the pioneering Art of This Century (AOTC) Gallery, Oct 1942 on West 57th, again taking (male) advice, and despite active opposition from uncle Solomon’s boisterous spiteful aide, the “Baroness”, who later during the war came unstuck when she picked another fight and was caught stockpiling rationed food! Important was the American art expert Howard Putzel (1898-1945) who had lived in Paris 1938-40 where he met and helped Peggy, especially with her art purchase campaign there. He returned New York summer 1940 then reacquainted with Peggy when she returned too. Artists helped too, especially again the legendary Marcel Duchamp (eg arguably too the founding inspiration of Pop Art), and others, eg on her selection jury at AOTC Gallery.

To help market the new art architect Fred Kiesler designed her eye-catching gallery, emphatically, purposely, seeking a “radical presentation of art”.

The gallery became an important and influential backer of new art. She showed works by many leading contemporary European artists, across most major movements (except the Fauves and Expressionists?), and also by women (“Exhibition by 31 Women” in Jan. 1943), but then – apparently encouraged by Howard Putzel, and an argument with (the argumentative) André Breton – she turned to showing unknown young American painters, like Robert Motherwell (“intellectual.. lots of lectures”), William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, Janet Sobel (who influenced Pollock?), David Hare, Hans Hoffman, Clyfford Styl, Robert de Niro Sr, and of course Jackson Pollock, ie emphasizing the merging Abstract Expressionist (AE) school. These American painters loosely associated as the Uptown Group, referring to her gallery’s location.

Surrealism was an important influence on the young American AE painters and the AOTC Gallery – and the arrival in New York of major European Surrealists like Dali, Ernst and Andre Masson – much facilitated this transmission.

And thus it was another famous refugee painter Piet Mondrian, also on her staff, who in early 1943 famously backed Jackson Pollock (then only 31) for her spring 1943 show, after Peggy was unsure!

Pretty awful, isn’t it? That’s not painting, is it?” she said.

“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“, replied Mondrian after some deliberation.

But Duchamp then agreed, and the rest is history. So in Nov. 1943 she then mounted Pollock’s first solo show, which was also her first solo show for an American painter.

Backing Pollock, his “wild and frightening” painting, was important, for both of them, and even if she took advice she did it, and stuck to it!

It was very important for Pollock, the stipend, her commissioning the big mural for her apartment, a signature Pollock work, and then especially assisting him buying and moving (late 1945) to the farm house on Long Island with wife, painter Lee Krasner. Thus she gave Pollock the space and opportunity to create many of his famous large later works, like Full Fathom Five (1947. 129.2 x 76.5 cm), Number 5 (1948, 2.44 m x 1.22 m), Number 19 (1948, 78.4 x 58.1 cm), No 1 (Lavender Mist) (1950, 221 x 300 cm), No 31 (1950, 270 x 531cm), and Blue Poles (1952, 4.87 x 2.1 m)

For which help it seems the troubled Pollock was not all that grateful?


We are allowed two paintings from the Collection:


Vasily Kandinsky, Empor (Upward), Oct. 1929 (?!), oil on cardboard,70 x 49 cm. This is an unusual Kandinsky less cluttered, less peppered by geometric confetti, and offering a figurative clue.            


Jean Metszinger, Au Vélodrome, 1912, oil, sand and collage on canvas, 130.4 × 97.1 cm. Samuel Beckett cycled and perhaps she filed this during their Paris sojourn.

And two more, because some rules can stand breaking:


Giorgio de Chirico, The Gentle Afternoon (Le Doux Après-midi), 1916, Oil on canvas, 65.3 x 58.3 cm. A good example from de Chirico’s purple patch during WW1.


Paul Klee, Portrait of Mrs P. in the South (Bildnis der Frau P. im Süden), 1924, watercolor and oil transfer drawing on paper, bordered with grey gouache on the pulpboard mount, 37.6 x 27.4 cm. A rare figurative excursion by Mr Klee.

Venice: another great career decision.

After things had died down in Europe, to where Peggy remained attracted, choosing Venice in 1947 as her base back there was another timing masterstroke. Thus in an Italy impoverished by the second war in a generation she bought (1948) her Palazzo Venier ei Leoni, on the Grand Canal, at the right time, much like her art “raid” in 1940 wartime Paris.

But then she helped Venice, loaning her collection to the 1948 Venice Biennale, which gesture was apparently negotiated with help of John Richardson and Douglas Cooper, the well off Australian art afficionado (one of the Cooper Park Coopers in Sydney) who knew Picasso well, who backed the Cubists, but who also wrote a condescending and ill-informed article about her. This 1948 show gave Europe its first public show of the important new New York AE School, like exposure to Pollock, Rothko and Arshile Gorky.

And 1949 saw Pollock’s balloon finally take off when Life magazine ran their now famous spread, “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?”, in August that year, drawing especially on Clement Greenberg, whose new intellectual praise of abstraction in turn drew much on his response as a Jew to the horror of WW2.

Her Palazzo collection opened to the public in 1951.

In 1969 her collection showed in New York at the Guggenheim Museum, at their invitation, and it was then she agreed to donate the collection to the Guggenheim Foundation on her passing. Thus finally it “went home” at least in proprietorship.

The Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris showed The Art of the 20th Century, Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice, Nov. 1974 / March 1975 closing another loop too.

 Wse, 29 dec 2015 to 1 jan 2016

And two more, because there’s room:

Dinamismo di un ciclista GM5

Umberto Boccioni, Dynamism of a Cyclist (Dinamismo di un ciclista), 1913, oil on canvas, 70 x 95 cm. Not from the original collection. But a major quasi-abstract work from an Italian Futurist painter, and it’s another cyclist so must make sense.


Salvador Dali, Birth of Liquid Desires (La naissance des désirs liquides), 1931-32, oil and collage on canvas, 96.1 x 112.3 cm. This is a cracker, an archetypal Dali painting, the painstaking detailed execution of a complex personal iconographical treatment of part of his life, here again problems with his father, for which he liked the William Tell tale.