Review of T.J. Clark’s ‘If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present’

By Christian Kile

http://www.sehepunkte.de/2022/11/37144.html

Establishing himself with two volumes on nineteenth-century French art during the Second Republic, Image of the People and The Absolute Bourgeois (1973), Timothy J. Clark took the ‘social history of art’ and refined it. His work rejected the idea of art as little more than the product of a broad context and offered closer, subtler readings, albeit with radical sympathies. The project aimed to explain the “links between artistic form, the available systems of visual representation, the current theories of art, other ideologies, social classes, and more general historical structures and processes.” [1] More work in this vein followed, most notably The Painting of Modern Life, concentrating on Impressionism and the Paris of Baron Haussmann’s reconstructions, then further into modernism and its demise with Farewell to an Idea.

Clark’s book on Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present has been years in the making, combining decades of looking and thinking about the artist. From Clark’s first memory of being struck by a reproduction of The Basket of Apples (c. 1893) the book includes chapters on Cézanne’s apprenticeship with Camille Pissarro, still lives, landscapes, his relationship with the peasant world, and ends with the impact he had on Matisse’s work, The Garden at Issy (c. 1917). Painted during a time of world war and revolution, The Garden is said to have coincided with the period where Cézanne’s world, that of the nineteenth century, “was going down in flames” and Matisse knew it, the younger artist seeking out material from the French tradition which would prove usable, whilst Cézanne remained the “presiding deity” (17).

Despite Cézanne’s volatility in his early thirties, when he began working with Pissarro, he had already developed what Clark deems his “first style”, integrating “Courbet’s thick handling, Manet’s aggression and Delacroix’s cold lasciviousness” (23). Cézanne’s draw towards and imitation of Pissarro is seen as an attempt to transform what he had already achieved in a search for new forms, and to develop in his work the “petite sensation” – the precise meaning of which remains a mystery (42). Cézanne went as far as to closely copy one of his master’s larger landscape paintings, Louveciennes (1871), emerging as the greater artist, “more tragic and outlandish, more relentless and single-minded – and therefore modernity’s patron saint” (53).

The Getty Museum’s Still Life with Apples (c. 1893-95) provides a focal point in the second chapter. This work is accompanied by a series of detailed and wandering notes by Clark, ruminating on the painting and various other still lives, sometimes running into trouble: “I followed the curves of the straw holder on the rum bottle for minutes – hours – on end. Even now I don’t know why” (69).

Interspersing formal readings of paintings with reflections on art historians including Kurt Badt and Meyer Schapiro, ideas from figures such as the anarchist critic Georges Lecomte and Rainer Maria Rilke, from Dante to Marx, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Samuel Beckett, various ways into Cézanne’s works are sought. Presented as a series of notes, and with a wide range of references this section has a fragmentary quality, which seems fitting for one of the epoch’s major painters.

The chapters focused on landscapes and the card playing peasants offer more rigorous and at times insightful observations: one of the many paintings of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, from a private collection, is offered as a touchstone, “its vision of nature is both among the most openly, naively physiognomic Cézanne ever did […] The most like a body, the least like an organism. Dreamlike and machinelike” (114-115). However, there are a few long winded and abstract descriptions which do little to complement the paintings.

These protracted meanderings throughout the book remind one of the criticism made by Nicholas Penny, formerly director of the National Gallery in London, who viewed Clark as a “dangerous Marxist professor” whose prose can be “dense” and “elliptic.” [2] However, Clark’s choice of style could be explained when considering his attitude towards Clement Greenberg’s early writing, describing it as “forceful and easy, always straightforward, blessedly free from Marxist conundrums. Yet the price paid for such lucidity […] is a degree of inexplicitness – a certain amount of elegant skirting round the difficult issues, where one might otherwise be obliged to call out the ponderous armory of Marx’s concepts and somewhat spoil the flow of the prose from one firm statement to another.” [3] Stylistically, it sometimes feels that Clark has gone the other way with this book, employing dense language to avoid the shortcomings he perceives in Greenberg’s arguments. Belonging to a later generation and differing from Greenberg’s models, Clark’s arrangement of intellectual sources varies, and includes the work of theorist Paul de Man, whom he acknowledges as informing part of this book (229).

Describing Cézanne as the work’s “presiding deity” Clark discusses his place in the broader context of “modernist” art by looking at Henri Matisse’s painting The Garden at Issy (169). He argues that The Garden is almost “a deliberate art-historical marker” employed by Matisse as “palliative to the rest of the picture’s vertigo – that the little house in the garden is Cézanne. That is to say, a typical Cézanne moment” (187/189). Clark then compares The Garden with Cézanne’s Houses on the Hill (c. 1902-05).

It is at this point the book goes off at a tangent. Clark’s attention moves away from Cézanne’s influence on the Garden to other artists. A selection of explicitly political pictures is mentioned, revolutionary works from Varvara Stepanova and Jörg Immendorff. So too, is Monet’s own hedonism and Giotto with his “deep feeling for ‘nature in its barrenness'” (194). It is the Italian artist and his Dream of Joachim in the Arena Chapel that Clark views as Matisse’s “true inspiration – down even to the Cézanne-type house, since for me Joachim’s dark mountain hut finally trumps the more obvious source” (195). Although this detour doesn’t add much to our knowledge of Cézanne, it does provide an interesting insight into the author’s thinking.

The tone of Clark’s book is set with an epigraph from Ernst Bloch’s Geist der Utopie, and may be deemed provocative by some readers. Clark asserts Cézanne’s art “unthinkable […] apart from the grave dogged optimism of a long-vanished moment” (63). His work, The Basket of Apples “hates the object called modernity […] But not for a moment does the painting ask us to believe that its set-up will stave off the reality of the 1890s. Everything in the painting is falling – and where it falls to is where we are” (10).

Despite the book’s digressions and, by Clark’s own admission, “stodgy” sentences, If These Apples Should Fall provides an absorbing study of Cézanne for the early twenty-first century (117). But the fact remains that whilst the ideas are always interesting, the book is disjointed and lacks cohesion. Reading the accounts of various paintings one can appreciate the effort made to offer something fresh. Clark once observed that “left intellectuals, like most intellectuals, are not good at politics […] Intellectuals get the fingering wrong. Up on stage they play too many wrong notes.” [4] He isn’t wrong there. But they can write some intriguing books, and this is one.


Notes:

[1] Timothy J. Clark: Image of the People. Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, London 1973, 12.

[2] Nicholas Penny: “Geraniums and the River”, in: London Review of Books, Vol. 8 No. 5, 20 March 1986, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v08/n05/nicholas-penny/geraniums-and-the-river [accessed 8 August 2022]

[3] Timothy J. Clark: “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art”, in: Critical Inquiry, September 1982, Vol. 9, No. 1, 141.

[4] Timothy J. Clark: “For a Left With No Future”, in: New Left Review 74 March/April 2012, https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii74/articles/t-j-clark-for-a-left-with-no-future [accessed 8 August 2022]

Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit at Pallant House Gallery 14 May – 23 October 2022

By Christian Kile

Aged 22, having long felt a draw to the Christian faith, Glyn Philpot joined the Catholic Church. He attained a thorough grounding in Catholic doctrine, become a founding member of the Guild of Catholic Artists and regularly attended Sunday Mass. Lacking the inclination to align himself with an artistic movement, he nonetheless did well to form ties with patrons, keeping his homosexuality discreet and steering clear of the rakish life in ‘high society’. Philpot seems to have led a sensible and generous life – not the best way to go about being remembered as an artist in the modern age, which partially explains why he has been little known. There’s not much room for God in modernism.

F.J. Gutmann, Glyn Philpot in the Marlborough Gate House Studio, 1937, vintage bromide print, private collection

In 1910 Philpot had his break, establishing himself with Manuelito, the Circus Boy, a picture of a young bullfighter, likened to Velazquez, that ended up in the Stedelijk Museum collection. Although Manuelito is not on show in this exhibition, it resulted in portraiture becoming Philpot’s bread and butter. After its success commissions began to mount up, some of which came from the beau monde, and all of this by the age of twenty-five, keeping him comfortable through his triumphant years (1919-1930).

His sitters could be challenging; a long drawn out and much postponed portrait commission for the King of Egypt, Fuad I followed. There are not many society portraits in the exhibition, which is a shame, but the ones on display are among some of the best works on show. The large-scale portrait of Loelia, Duchess of Westminster– said by Tatler to be ‘squadron leader of Society’s Young Brigade’ – resembles an understated John Singer Sargent, and other similar works, such as The Countess of Dalkeith and Siegfried Sassoon made me think of these paintings as the pictorial equivalent of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, with its artists and manners, and in its sexuality.

Like Powell, Philpot made it into the world of riches without being unduly seduced by it. The friendship between Philpot and Sassoon was not close, and the greatest blow for Philpot perhaps came following a dinner when Sassoon claimed that the artist just fell short of the first rank, a sure way to injure their relationship.

Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, 1929-30, oil on canvas, The Trustees of the Stanstead Park Foundation
The Countess of Dalkeith (later Mary, Duchess of Buccleuch and Queensbury), 1921, oil on canvas, by kind permission of The Duke of Buccleuch & Queensbury, KT and the Trustees of the Buccleuch Chattels Trust

Even a quick walk through this show reveals the variety of Philpot’s work. ‘Literary’ subjects of religious, historical and mythological subjects were his preference from the start, providing a break from the social contortions required for society portraits. At times he produced thoroughly anti avant-garde works such as The Transfiguration of Dionysus before the Tyrrhenean Pirates, which has something of G.F. Watts about it, with its palette and handling of the water. Maybe the curator was feeling optimistic when describing Philpot’s The Journey of the Spirit as a ‘timeless expression of heroic masculinity.’ The figures here seem closer to the estrangement of The Colossus, now tentatively attributed to Goya.

The Transfiguration of Dionysus before the Tyrrhenean Pirates, 1924, oil on canvas, Ömer Koç Collection
Attributed to Francisco Goya, The Colossus, after 1808, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado

The Journey of the Spirit, 1921, oil on canvas, Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust, Brighton & Hove

The early 1930s brought a change of style in Philpot’s work: although the typical figurative subject matter remained, there was a move away from society portraits. This decision has been seen as a move towards a more modernist approach. However, judging by the paintings on show it looks as if Philpot found himself somewhere other than the main camps that then dominated: not necessarily high avant-garde and no longer a sure fit for the Royal Academy. His painting The Great Pan caused a stir when it was rejected on the grounds of indecency. The offence was a lick of flame which both conceals and emphasises a man’s aroused penis. The prosperity and demand for his paintings he enjoyed in the 1920s were over.

Philpot’s homosexuality and inclination to use black sitters, often for portraits, make him an obvious choice for an exhibition in 2022. There aren’t many British artists in the early 20th century who made black subjects a dignified and significant part of their work. The exhibition opens with a portrait of Paul Robeson as Othello, in 1930, the first black actor to play the role since Ira Aldrich in the early 19th century. When asked about her kiss with Robeson, co-star Peggy Ashcroft said, ‘racial prejudices are foolish at the best of times, but I think it is positively foolish that they should even come into consideration where acting is concerned.’

This is the first large scale showing of Philpot’s work since 1984 and the exposure is well deserved. It is the kind of exhibition at which Pallant House excels; exhibiting a representative number of works from an underappreciated artist; in this case, one who chose to eschew self-publicity, fashion and egoistic drama, and opted instead to work diligently and embrace experimentation.

Portrait of Paul Robeson as Othello, 1930, oil on panel, Fahd Hariri
Tom Whiskey (M. Julien Zaire), 1931, oil on canvas, private collection

Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection

The Royal Academy

19 March – 19 June 2022

Interview with Israel Goldman below this review

Female genitals in exhibitions are not the most common sight; so, it was a surprise to see Kyōsai’s Vagina Daruma, painted a few years after Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, in the final room of this striking show. The works displayed alongside it succeed in showing just what range this artist had: the ethereal Ghost, a fine ink work of a gaunt and partly translucent figure hovering in lamplight, to the orgiastic indulgences of Monks and Acolytes, figures writhing, taking it in every orifice, through to the supremely vulgar Man Sending a Woman Flying with a Fart. He was just as comfortable in the natural world of animals, particularly well represented in the first room of this exhibition.

Detail of Vagina Daruma
1871/89
Ink and light colour on paper
Gustave Courbet
L’Origine du monde
1866
Oil on canvas
Musée d’Orsay

Renowned in his own time as a comic artist, often satirical, Kyōsai also harboured a colossal appetite for sake. Intoxication was a consistent state for him and this combined with the whoring during his late teens and early achieved artistic ability no doubt contributed to his lasting nickname: ‘Demon of Painting’. His drinking would bring troubles, not least imprisonment for a few months in 1870. It was during a shogakai, a party where artists would swiftly produce hundreds of small to medium sized paintings and calligraphy for clients, that he became inebriated and produced satirical paintings deemed unacceptable by the authorities. Nevertheless, he continued to revel in intoxication, embracing Bacchus until cancer forced him to curtail his sake intake in the final two years of his life. He went as far as to seal some of his most serious works as by the ‘Intoxicated Demon of Painting’.

Man Sending a Woman Flying with a Fart
1886
Ink and light colour on paper

Shogakai aside, Kyōsai tended to keep clients waiting years for specific commissions while he subjected these works to his own rigorous desire for originality. He need not have worried; today, the works made at speed (sekiga) and the more highly finished examples each has their individual appeal.

Detention did little to diminish Kyōsai’s satirical perspective on life that pervades his work. In 1871, He returned to Tokyo during a period of great modernisation: railways and telegraphs were established, old feudal domains abolished, whilst conscription and universal education were introduced. His working life partly coincided with the mid to late Meiji era when the tension between Japanese and Western styles became especially divisive. The works here are not so much brutal as they are playful, perhaps making the major transformation more bearable through comedy. 

Foreigners and Samurai, presents the two groups conceited and ridiculous in their vanity; men, separated by a void, sit at odds with each other. In the ink sketch Western Man and Japanese Woman before Mt Fuji, the contact between east and west is given a more ambiguous, even peaceful air; below the mountain, hinted at with a single faint brushstroke, two figures regard each other, the man’s top hat contraposed with the woman’s fan, whilst a dog, wagging its tail observes from below.

Detail of Western Man and Japanese Woman before Mt Fuji
1871/89
Ink and light colour on paper

The crow boded well for Kyōsai; during his life an ink on silk image of the bird became his best-known work. In 1881 he exhibited one of his crow paintings at the Second National Industrial Exhibition, allocating what would have been a huge price of 100 yen to the work. He claimed that this expression of the simple style had taken him decades to attain. The painting was bought by a prosperous confectioner, and the sale drew more attention both to the exhibition and Kyōsai’s work. The lone crow makes a few appearances in this show, perched on a branch and seemingly painted at speed, the artist making no pretensions to the more ‘literal’ appearance of oil painting.

Crow on a branch
1871/89
Ink on paper

Exhibitions of Japanese art of this scale and quality are a rarity in London, and for anyone with a desire to go, as well as finding it stimulating and humorous, will be in for a surprisingly pleasant experience, well-lit and, during this writer’s visits, away from the crowds. Running concurrently at the RA is the exhibition Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan in which some of  the Japanese art Whistler owned is depicted, such as a fan produced by Kyōsai’s earlier counterpart Utagawa Hiroshige. This admiration extended to one of Whistler’s students, Mortimer Menpes. Menpes had met Kyōsai and seen him work whilst in Tokyo. The experience made such an impression that he told Whistler he was convinced he had met a Japanese master. It has been decades since Kyōsai had an exhibition in the UK and with a showing like this at the RA, the next time it may not be so quiet.

Interview with Israel Goldman

Art collector and dealer, Israel Goldman is in a jovial mood. He is delighted by the way his current exhibition at London’s Royal Academy: Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection has been received by critics and audience alike. On display are some 80 works by the maverick artist Kawanabe Kyōsai, providing a rare opportunity to see works from Goldman’s collection, on long-term loan to The British Museum, displayed together:

 “It’s rather special for me”, he says. Interest in the exhibition has been increasing, with visitor numbers starting to outstrip those of the Whistler’s Woman in White: Joanna Hiffernan, running concurrently.

“I’m sure you noticed in the exhibition that there are so many different styles, Kyōsai was really able to master them, and with his firm grounding in the classics it made him a little harder to classify.” Moreover, he adds, the artist having been imprisoned, has the added appeal of “slight notoriety.”

There have been several invitations for this exhibition to travel, but the fragility of the works, combined with the demands of organising and moving delicate art on an international scale has culminated in a one venue show. Goldman considers it a “a very pleasant and wonderful distraction” from his fulltime career as an art dealer.

While there are no immediate plans for the exhibition to travel, he does envisage future exhibitions in other parts of Europe, and in the U.S. where Kyōsai would be on view for the first time.

In Japan two exhibitions  were instrumental in reviving Kyōsai’s reputation in 2009 and 2017. At both, Goldman was the leading lender from outside Japan. It is surprising then that with the increasing international appeal for Japanese art generally and the cult of Hokusai in particular, Kyōsai is still relatively unknown in the West.

“That’s why we’ve put on the exhibition, so the people can see him – I’m promoting Kyōsai as much as I can.”

It is also the reason why Goldman has lent other of Kyōsai’s works in his collection to the British Museum, so that they are available to view privately.

“The museum has a million works of art on paper, if not more, including tens of thousands of Japanese prints, and probably a few thousand scroll paintings. They can, maybe, show a hundred at a time.”

Goldman explains why the artist deserves to be made more publicly accessible:

 “Kyōsai is the equivalent in Japan of Cézanne, Degas and Van Gogh. How many undiscovered works of art by Cézanne do you come across? Even if you had unlimited funds, you’d have only a handful. And of course I don’t have unlimited funds. There’s a Michelangelo drawing coming up in Paris this month, which is a new discovery, but with Kyōsai, we’re seeing such works being uncovered all the time.”

Indeed, Goldman has just acquired a large format demon print, signed in the artist’s hand from a rare publication. “I was excited because I’d never seen it before.”

Kyōsai was immensely popular in his day, his admirers travelling from around the world to meet him, and his death was marked by “forty or fifty obituaries in Western papers.”

In the immediate aftermath he was considered a successor to Hokusai. But according to Goldman this gave way to a dryer, more academic aesthetic hierarchy:

“The same thing happened in France, the official salon artists versus the impressionist and post-impressionists. The artists who were doing the most exciting things were controversial. It would be like Puvis de Chavannes v Cézanne. You could draw a parallel there.”

Goldman has been doubly fortunate in finding an artist who made such an impression on him from an early age and being able to develop a collection to match his enthusiasm. At the age of 11, Goldman started collecting, when he acquired his first Japanese print for no more than a couple of pounds, bought with his pocket money.

Since acquiring a Kyōsai Daruma scroll at an auction in the early eighties and “an endearing  little elephant painting” that he loves, Goldman’s taste for the artist has continued to develop. He is a major exhibition lender and has established himself as a leading authority on the artist.

About eight per cent of his collection is on display at the Royal Academy. When assessing the size of his collection, Goldman says, “it’s hard to count”, and when one album contains tens of paintings it becomes increasingly difficult to gauge – is it one object or thirty separate paintings? However, he estimates his collection comprises about one thousand objects which include paintings, prints, drawings and illustrated books.

While he is pleased with the collection as it stands, his will to collect remains. He recalls how he had long sought a shogakai, a picture of painting party, and eventually he found one. It is currently hanging  in the final room of the RA exhibition:

“There are only four or five of them by Kyōsai of that type, and that’s the best one, so that was a really key thing’.

Have  Goldman’s feelings towards the artist changed over time, and have the discoveries he makes retained their excitement?  He replied that the experience of learning in general was complemented by his appreciation of the artist that grew as new material was discovered. Through the process of acquisition he attained greater knowledge:

 “I have a shunga collection by him, and most of those works were completely unrecorded and unknown until I started to buy. That has been published in a separate book which is written by my colleague Koto. I had to buy it to find out about it! So buying is incredibly educational, as is buying intelligently.

“What amazes me is that Kyōsai is a fantastic draughtsman. In a way it’s like Picasso who could take a leap into new territory because he had this incredible classical foundation, and was one of the greatest draughtsman in the history of Western art. And Kyōsai, I think, is the equivalent in Japanese art. What’s more he is really very funny. Humour is generally seen as less important but I think that’s a judgement very much open to question.

“I think right from the beginning, I completely got it. My feelings and my passion for it haven’t changed, but I guess my awareness has. I’ve been able to put it in context.”

Goldman is continually finding new works by the artist who was very prolific, producing 30 or 40 paintings at a single painting party in contrast to his highly finished commissions, which could take at least several weeks to complete.

“Kyōsai has two styles: there are the very finished paintings that take a lot of intellectual thought and have plenty of detail; these would be worked up in the studio. Then there were those he produced at these shogakai, where the price of admission would ensure you came away with something. He’d get increasingly drunk, and paint and paint – virtually everyone would come away with something. So the works were uneven because of their very nature. He just painted all day long.”

However, Goldman maintains that Kyōsai’s prodigious sake consumption was not detrimental to his work. Clearly, he did not suffer the painter’s equivalent of writer’s block during the painting parties:

“He didn’t have problems with drunken painting, he just let rip. It freed him up and you see his instinctive, innate qualities as a draughtsman come through and inherent memory.”

Neither does Goldman believe that Kyōsai drank to fuel his inspiration. Even though the artist may have been slow in delivering his commissions, Goldman says this was more to do with the sheer amount of work he took on:

 “Like most great artists, he was in demand. There were always more commissions than he had time to do.”

Counterfeit Kyōsai works are widespread, with many in circulation. Following the artist’s death, demand for his work remained and the market was flooded with fakes of both the ‘drunken’ and highly finished variety. Goldman, who works closely with colleague Koto Sadamura, says:

“Authenticating works is part of the fun for me, I have a lot of experience. It’s difficult though when people ask me what I think because I have to be discreet and that puts one in a difficult position. But at least with my own work we’re as confident as possible that it’s by the hand of the artist.”

In the fever of an auction, often invitation only and reserved for dealers, there can be only seconds to decide whether a work is genuine or not.

“It really trains the eye and everyone makes mistakes on occasion”, he says. “It’s the nature of the process. Unfortunately there isn’t a group of recognised Kyōsai scholars to whom one can show things. But, on the other hand, the more people involved, the more dissenting opinions you have.”

An unforeseen audience for Kyōsai’s work is a growing and devoted following among tattooists. It is doubtful that there will ever be so many inked people at a Royal Academy exhibition again. Goldman, who checks out the exhibition two or three times a week, enthused:

 “It’s wonderful, I loved it. I have so much fun at the exhibition just watching people. They’re really getting into it, they’re taking photographs, interacting and laughing. Kyōsai’s time has come.”

Discussing the glowing view of Kyōsai by Whistler’s pupil, Mortimer Menpes, Goldman says:

“When he compared Kyōsai to Botticelli and Michelangelo, I was initially a little sceptical. Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo – that’s a another conversation. But I’ve spent pretty much  a lifetime buying and selling and dealing and looking at art, and I think Kyōsai’s right up there.

“All the great classic stuff from Western artists have been well covered. Every five or ten years there’s a little cache of drawings that turn up in an auction in Paris from a private collection. But with Kyōsai, we’re seeing his works come up all the time.”

And Goldman assures me that there will be more to see in the next exhibition.

As he prepares for a clients’ lunch, I am struck by his ability to shift between serious collector, with a lifelong persistence and desire to form a comprehensive collection, and dealer, with its professional obligations and economic demands.

While oil paintings and Renaissance drawings remain among the most desirable art works in the twenty first century, Kyōsai has penetrated our Western aesthetic consciousness – and there are many more oriental artists waiting to be discovered.

Goldman hints that more exhibitions are planned despite the vulnerability of the works:

“One has to be careful. But this is not the last Kyōsai exhibition I’ll be involved with by any means. My collection will become more accessible because I’m not trying to hoard this material. I’m trying to safeguard it but I want to share it with the world if I can.”

Goldman admits that Kyōsai’s increasing international popularity is a double edged sword. More exhibitions and media coverage result in rising prices, good for the dealer, and greater competition for the artist’s works, bad for the collector.

Now in the position of having amassed the collection he wants, he reconciles the two roles, saying:   

“I’m primarily a print and book dealer, Kyōsai is mainly a painter, little known when I began collecting, so I felt it was reasonably safe to do so without competing with my clients whom it is my duty to serve. But it’s a double edged sword: as a collector, watching rising prices and increased interest I’m delighted and thrilled that Kyōsai is now better known; and then I’m sorry about the increased prices because, while I don’t have to collect anymore, what you really want to do is get more stuff – Anyway, it’s a happy pain.”

Review of Bridget Alsdorf’s ‘Gawkers: Art and Audience in Late Nineteenth-Century France’

By Christian Kile

http://www.sehepunkte.de/2022/04/36548.html

Unlike the detached sophistication and individuality of the flâneur, badauds or gawkers, the impulsive and often fickle members of a crowd are prone to distraction and often impressionable, taking part in the urban theatrical spectacle for reasons of curiosity through to cruelty. The term “badaud” is said to originate from the work of François Rabelais in a disparaging account describing Parisians as “so stupid, so gawking, and so inherently inept”, but by the nineteenth century this term had expanded to encompass those in the streets searching out forms of amusement, entertainment or reasons to gossip (3).

Gawkers are present throughout the social spectrum and, according to Bridget Alsdorf, nowhere else are they better expressed in the visual arts than in the early work of Félix Vallotton: it is here that gawking urban spectators are most sharply captured and it is his fascination with the crowd that is the context in which the other artists in this book are considered. The four chapters of Gawkers are arranged by theme: “Accident” examines the mishaps of street life, “Audience” takes the theatre and theatricality as a distinctive element of the urban world, “Street Theater” observes the mostly outdoor theatrical aspect of the city, whilst “Attraction” centres on the bond between public, advertising and goods, together with their effect on artists.

Despite a lack of written records on Vallotton’s political stance, it is known that his intellectual milieu was, on the whole, “far left” and in 1902 he directed his criticism towards “the police, the judiciary, banks, commerce, education, religion, and even parents” in a series of lithographs for the anarchist/socialist journal L’Assiette au beurre (2/47). In these prints troubles can simply arise from a chance encounter; by being a mere bystander the gawker becomes implicated and to a degree responsible for the scene unfolding before him. For public executions, France remained “the only nation in Western Europe still performing them at the fin-de-siècle” (53).

Gawkers, Parisians in particular, did not escape the scorn of the intelligentsia; Gustave Flaubert, Léon Daudet and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc were exceptionally acerbic. Crowds drove Stéphane Mallarmé to experiment in his work, prompting him to attend a symphony for no other reason than “badauderie”, causing him to shift his focus from stage performances to “sniff out the occasion” in the bustling crowd (14). With the expansion of urban life and development of mass culture artists had to compete with and overcome the increased distractions of their public; this, at a time when experimentation with emerging forms of photography and film were impacting on more traditional methods.

Honoré Daumier makes an appearance too, markedly documenting theatre life from many spheres in the 1850s and 1860s. Hundreds of his caricatures made it to the press, exposing the “mundane interpersonal conflicts, petty squabbles, and financial pressures” of the Parisian scene, both backstage and in the auditorium (81). With the blending of fine and popular arts, his work moved into the hinterland between mere entertainment and art considered suitable for connoisseurship.

In Edgar Degas’ works the split between stage and an often indifferent and inattentive audience is emphasised. Most of his performance images “do not include even a glimpse of people watching the show” and when they do they tend to be men with stage side benefits (93). In Vallotton’s theatre scenes of the 1890s the draw of the audience resulted in his abandoning the stage as a focal point altogether, documenting the dispiriting behaviour, ranging from “jingoistic fervor” to “apathetic withdrawal” (107).

The spontaneity and surprises of the street as theatre are explored in Pierre Bonnard’s early and more neglected paintings, prints and sketches. Although Bonnard enthusiastically took to photography about this time, he shied away from street scenes – his shots were mainly of his circle in more pastoral settings and interiors. In order to show how Bonnard’s wandering eye allowed him “to show how he represents badauderie as both fleeting and sustained”, Alsdorf contrasts his work with “the fixed gaze of early French cinematography”, enabling exponents such as the Lumière brothers to play on the curiosity of urban gawkers, recording either staged activity or the genuine surprise of undirected crowds, struck by the experience of being filmed (121).

The relationship between gawkers, art and the explicitly commercial world of advertising (from posters to the department store) is explored through the works of Bonnard, Vallotton and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The quandary remained: how to gain and maintain the attention of the public without debasing one’s work. The distinction between art and shopping was becoming increasingly blurred. Rival outlets, Le Bon Marché and Les Grands Magasins du Louvre installed in-house galleries of fine art: “breasts were as ubiquitous in advertisements as in ancient sculpture, and the storefront vitrines […] were akin to display cases in museums” (180).

Aside from uniting two main genres of his early work, crowd and interior, Vallotton’s secular triptych, Le Bon Marché is given a close reading by Alsdorf and presents us with a paradigm of nineteenth century consumption: the department store, complete with its many devices for driving acquisitive desires, the world where “everything and everyone is for sale” (210). These values were not confined to Vallotton’s work. Whilst painting the triptych he was contemplating a split with his seamstress partner, whom he eventually left for an affluent widow of an art dealing family.

The artists and intellectuals featured in Gawkers often have in common a persistent, amorphous and fraught relationship with the wider public. The issue becomes still more complex when many of them periodically become part of the crowd themselves. On one hand, their feelings veer from outrage at state corruption and its consequences for the masses, and on the other, a snobbery and contempt at their ignorance. At the same time, if they are to establish themselves and secure a place in history, they have to acknowledge that the crowd is an important factor, as both subject and client.

As one might expect in a book concerned with the late nineteenth century, the “bourgeois” pervades: there is “bourgeois morality”, a “bourgeois interior”, a “bourgeois accessory”, a “bourgeois trophy”, “bourgeois amateurs” and a “bourgeois elite” (215/216/218/221/226). It goes on. However, it is not clearly defined. Does it straightforwardly refer to the perceived materialistic values or conventional attitudes of the middle class, or is it a general derisory term for the enemy? Perhaps all of these.

A great deal of ground is covered in Gawkers; in-depth descriptions of artworks, politics, anarchism, the many conflicts between the artist and society, from Oscar Wilde’s trial to the rupture of the Dreyfus affair. This, combined with the prominence given to Vallotton, an artist who until relatively recently was marginally underrated helps make for a lively addition to the vast literature on nineteenth century French art history.

Surrealism: Beyond Borders at Tate Modern 24 Feb-29 Aug 2022

By Christian Kile

The romantic hatred of a calculated and ‘rational’ life doesn’t disappear, it just changes masks. For surrealism this animosity was often channelled through the twin peaks or troughs, depending on your view, of Marx and Freud. Throughout this exhibition, Surrealism: Beyond Borders, we’re presented with works whose subject matter is that of dream states, bodies under siege, often distorted, biomorphic, sometimes bloodied. There is also a great deal of mystery. An oil by Richard Oelze, Tägliche Drangsale (Everyday Tribulations) sets its figures and furry alien-like creatures in a state of metamorphosis. Across the room we move forward decades with a canvas by Miró: Mai 68, a product of the movement’s legacy, with its paint explosions and hand prints. Further on is a collaborative drawing by Frida Kahlo and Lucienne Bloch, Exquisite Corpse (Frida), a tightly corseted figure pictured with its breasts forced up and out, lower down, a dripping phallus emerging from a superimposed fig leaf. This was in 1932.

Joan Miró
Mai 68
1968-73
acrylic and oil on canvas
Fundació Joan Miró

For a show attempting to sell itself as a more encompassing look at surrealism there is a generous, though uneven showing of canonical figures: Picasso and de Chirico (with paintings relegated to a peripheral room), Ernst, Giacometti, Gorky, Tanning and Carrington are all here. Dalí’s TéléphoneHomard (Lobster Telephone) is one of the first works on show, while Cornell, tentatively linked to the movement, puts in an appearance with one of his box constructions with glass and crystal, a homage to the nineteenth century opera singer Giuditta Pasta. Magritte’s La durée poignardée (Time Transfixed) presents a suspended steam train emerging from a simple dining room fireplace and, unlike so many of the works here, expresses a little absurdity with less conspicuous elements.

A Ted Joans pencil drawing shows a girl (although who can say for sure?) writing out her lines at the blackboard, ‘what is mau mau, what is surrealism’ ad infinitum, mau mau being the name of a militant Kenyan anti-colonial group.  Behind her back she holds a blade. Onwards to a small oil by Leonor Fini, Petit Sphinx hermite (Little Hermit Sphinx) which is striking, highly-finished and in composition verges on a Dutch interior by Maes, only here the building is dilapidated ⎼ and instead of seventeenth century Netherlands’ trappings adorning the walls, a human lung, tied to a string, hangs over a somber sphinx, replacing the smiling maid.

Ted Joans
What is mau mau what is surrealism
1956
pencil on paper
private collection
Nicolaes Maes
The Listening Housewife (The Eavesdropper)
1656
oil on canvas
The Wallace Collection
Leonor Fini
Petit Sphinx hermite
1948
oil on canvas
Tate

The curators claim that on occasions where European surrealists worked with objects from indigenous cultures, they stripped these of their ‘place, maker and original meaning.’ Apparently, we are meant to infer from this that as a result part of the surrealist project became trapped ‘within a colonial attitude of cultural appropriation.’ Are we to take from this that when a people with a colonised history read Artaud, make oil paintings or adopt surrealist methods they are submitting to the culture of their colonisers? It is not made clear. The irony seems to be lost when comments of this kind are pasted onto the walls of an exhibition on a movement committed to transgression, often sexual, and which advocated the abolition of limits.

Surrealism: Beyond Borders is one more show demonstrating that no matter the degree of rage or revolutionary intentions, art fails when it attempts to transform the world. But when it turns inward and revolutionises itself, in the right hands, there can be triumph. For a movement so much concerned with poetry, it’s a shame that an exhibition on this scale should pay so little attention to its literary works ⎼ understandable, perhaps, given the gallery setting, but its organisers have missed a trick, considering the influence of poets from de Lautréamont to Mallarmé and Rimbaud. The thematic rather than chronological arrangement does little to complement or illuminate the works in these rooms and many pieces look like they’ve been included for no other reason than their neglect historically rather than any aesthetic quality.

Surrealism must be one of the last, if not final movement in the arts which spanned multiple forms and has had a vast cultural influence. Its versatility is perhaps its most striking feature, from poetry to performance, fine art and film. Over a century on from inception it’s now thoroughly embedded in the repertoire of art history with many of its works fitting ever more comfortably into gilt picture frames, though not today’s institutionalised museum agenda.

Review of Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist

By Christian Kile

http://www.sehepunkte.net/2021/11/36192.html

Remembered especially for his graphic print work, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) remains one of the archetypal Renaissance figures and through his surviving records one of the best documented. Dürer’s Journeys accompanies two exhibitions, one planned for London’s National Gallery and one in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen under the German title “Dürer war hier. Eine Reise wird Legende.” [1] It comprises essays that follow Dürer’s path with a distinct focus on his 1520-1521 visit to the Low Countries. Two copies of his complete journal from this time are known to exist today; while the original was lost, these versions are said to be copied directly or at least taken from an earlier copy of this journal and present an exceptionally precise picture of Dürer’s dealings, artistic growth and beyond – even encompassing his physical condition, diet and banquet invitations.

Since the catalogue has such a conceptually cohesive and coherent form, and the contributions dovetail happily with each other, it – and probably the exhibition as well – can be seen as a unit. The authors emphasise the consummate entrepreneurship of Dürer, whose approach comes across as one of astute self-promotion and merciless aspiration: on his journey he brought a sizable number of his own prints which, judging from his records, he would sell or give away. It was through gifting his works that Dürer attempted to build links with powerful patrons, noting in his journal offerings of his prints made to Margaret of Austria – Regent of the Netherlands, her treasurer Jean de Marnix, as well as the exiled King Christian II of Denmark, a guest of Margaret’s court. He went as far as to design a house for Margaret’s physician, throwing in a Saint Jerome engraving for added measure. He must have been doing something right, for Dürer’s developing relationship with Margaret allowed him access to her personal living quarters that housed her art collection, which included Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.

Before arriving in Antwerp his engravings and woodcuts were already in high demand by artists and would greatly contribute to the development of Netherlandish print making. 1497 saw contracts arranged for international distribution of Dürer’s work and when it came to marketing and selling his prints it was a family affair with the artist employing his wife and mother. With the wide dissemination of his prints through trade, awareness of his work increased hugely, enhanced by his famous commercial decision to brand the work with his initials. Motifs from these works influenced other leading artists of the time from Giovanni Bellini in Venice to Jan Gossaert in the Low Countries.

Certain essays provide a comprehensive insight into the social history of artists at that time: while still in the Low Countries Dürer was lauded in the cities he visited, celebrated by artists, invited to banquets and the recipient of much wine. That such a vast quantity of wine is noted in his journal is thought to indicate not only the lack of clean drinking water but also the artist’s standing, for wine, even amongst royalty was considered a significant gift. The painter Cornelis van Dalem installed a bust of Dürer on the façade of his home inscribed ‘GERMANORVM DECVS’ (the jewel of the Germans) and painted his own versions of the German’s engravings.

Between August 1520 and July 1521 in Antwerp Dürer produced an oil painting of Saint Jerome for his friend the trader and Roman Catholic Rodrigo Fernandes de Almada; this image spawned a demand for copies that found a large market within the city’s commercial hub. Gone are the saint’s traditional penitential symbols and red cardinal’s hat. Perhaps this reflects the influence of Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus whose concept of self-knowledge as consolation for a disturbed conscience may have been a reason for this change. Indeed, the painting of Saint Jerome may “be considered as a painted argument in their [Dürer and de Almada’s] intellectual exchange of ideas.” (261) Rightly then, it is one of the most important works presented and highlighted in the catalogue.

In the Low Countries an opportunity was spotted by Dürer to open up a market for large portrait drawings. At times these works were used as gifts and over eighty were made by the artist for clients and friends. Drawing rather than painting portraits did away with the many demands, such as studio space, oak panel supports, panel and pigment preparation with assistance and other materials – all of which would have been more challenging for a travelling artist. It was possible for Dürer to complete three such drawings in one night as against four or five days for a painted portrait. Aside from Lucas van Leyden, it seems no other artist seriously adopted this approach, perhaps because of the inevitable comparisons that would come with it: “The portrait drawings functioned within his [Dürer’s] check-and-balance system not simply as works of art that he was able to sell for money – although that most certainly happened – but also as tools to obtain services from those portrayed or in return for gifts or invitations.” (205)

Thoughts about Luther and the Reformation – as emphasised in one of the contributions – collide curiously with Dürer’s journal notes. There is an outpouring known as the Lutherklage (‘Lament on Luther’), passionately asserting its writer as a committed Lutheran. Following this outburst, the subject is not again mentioned. The sudden transition back to Dürer’s prosaic daily comings and goings is so abrupt that the Lament has been seen as an intervention by another hand. Jeroen Stumpel argues in his essay that although not composed by Dürer, it was absorbed into the journal by accident, or with the intention of presenting the artist as a Lutheran sympathiser. The writer is thought to be Jacob Probst, previously cloistered at Erfurt, where Luther had stayed, who became the prior of a convent of Augustinians near Dürer’s Antwerp home. In the Lament “(t)he rhetoric, the indignation, the despair, the theological references, the use of the Latin vocative […] are completely in line with Jacob Probst’s position, training and whereabouts at the given date.” (235)

The many descriptions of Dürer’s works throughout the volume often drag on and in view of the good quality images are unnecessary. What commands most interest is the life of the artist and his efforts to forge a career in the midst of the political intrigue and upheavals of the early Reformation. With Dürer’s independence, phenomenal commercial success and political acumen we can understand how he became what John Berger described as “the first, one-man, avant-garde.” [2] No less remarkable was his masterful sense of timing: he managed his departure from the Low Countries evading the imminent adverse reaction towards Lutheran supporters, some of whom had formed part of his circle.

One reason why the long-planned exhibition in Aachen and London is particularly timely and resonates so strongly with us is that Dürer laboured under a similar sense of impending calamity that we have been experiencing with the worldwide pandemic. In September 1494 there was an outbreak of the plague in his home city of Nuremberg and he may have gone to Venice during 1505-1507 to escape another. Further trials and tribulations he faced ranged from the petty, permits for various regions, and dealing with different currencies to the more serious, robbery attempts and the demands of journeying in changeable weather over harsh terrain on foot or by horse and boat. Yet, ultimately, this volume and exhibitions are a testament to Dürer’s enduring triumph for we continue to admire his work today.


Notes:

[1] Peter van den Brink (ed.): Dürer war hier. Eine Reise wird Legende, Petersberg 2021.

[2] Tom Overton (ed.): John Berger, Portraits. John Berger on Artists, London 2015, 60.

Review of Marci Kwon’s ‘Enchantments: Joseph Cornell and American Modernism’

By Christian Kile

http://www.sehepunkte.de/2021/06/35527.html

Linking Enchantments with Modernism in the title of this book may not at first glance seem appropriate. After all, it was in the influential lecture, “Science as a Vocation”, that Max Weber put forward his thesis on modernity as a force that would bring about the “disenchantment of the world” [1]: a world increasingly defined by drastically diminished religious faith, specialisation and life divided into disconnected and irreconcilable facets, resulting in a loss of unity and meaning. In this atmosphere the work of Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) is considered by Marci Kwon. Here we find a practice concerned with an appreciation of art movements that resisted Weber’s disenchantment, humble everyday objects and an adherence to Christian Science, religious beliefs that the author states formed the basis of Cornell’s enchantment. Through his constructions, films, collages and other designs, we are presented with the view of an artist striving to “find resources and richness in a fallen world” (xii).

This volume is not to be taken as a full account of Cornell’s artistic development; rather it seeks to trace the course which led Cornell through various cultural spheres, whilst expressing the complexities of enchantment and disenchantment in his work within the context of mid-century American art. It was in the 1920s that Cornell began to collect the assortment of objects and other materials that would act as a foundation for his future work, together with concentrated research on Romanticism, Symbolism and Transcendentalism, movements that were seeking religious power through art, ideas and nature, rather than the divine.

We find that the Romanticism of Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval was valued by Cornell for the primacy placed on the aesthetic, providing a link to the past and experiences of others. Cornell was inclined to choose objects which appealed to his own sense of enchantment rather than those of financial value. The aforementioned movements, the cinema and New York’s “Book Row”, an assortment of shops to be found between Astor Place and Madison Square Park, provided a rich source for Cornell’s art. For Kwon, Cornell’s “life and art were driven by a belief that there was more to the world than just its material substance, for how could mere materialism account for the beauty, poetry, magic, and spirit he experienced?” (188).

On December 12, 1931, the gallerist Julien Levy first staged the show Surréalisme in New York, for which Cornell designed the catalogue and where his work was first shown publicly. The formal similarities between Cornell’s montages and the collages of Max Ernst were initially what gained Levy’s interest. However, for Levy, Cornell also embodied the idea of a self-taught artist working in isolation, who manifested concepts of Surrealism in his own work. From here, we see how Cornell was chosen by Levy as an exemplar of the movement, and the way this led to a reductive take on Cornell which persists to the present. Cornell never considered himself an official Surrealist, and attempted to distance himself by describing his methods as “white magic” in comparison to those of the Surrealists: “I have never liked the kind of black magic that Dali, Breton etc. go in for – It’s always seemed cheap to me [sic]”. [2] Nonetheless, Cornell aligned himself with the movement during its mid-century vogue to support his family, also contributing to fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, and having his graphic design work commissioned throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Cornell’s presumed proximity to the Surrealist movement was further compounded by André Breton and Paul Éluard’s decision to include his work in the celebrated 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris.

Along with more commercial projects, Cornell produced designs for specialist publications such as Lincoln Kirstein’s Dance Index (1942-1948), which aimed to achieve a sense of both scholarship and accessibility. Here Cornell went on to design fourteen covers and guest-edit four special issues, a task he was well suited to with his amassed store of ballet ephemera and awareness of the discipline formed and developed throughout the 1920s and ’30s. Tellingly, he was the sole graphic designer credited by name. Through ballet, we again return to enchantment: from its sixteenth century origins we are presented with an art which sought to mediate between the metaphysical and the concrete.

From 1936 Cornell began to work in the form for which he is best known, the box construction. Here his earlier montage work morphs into three dimensions. Self-contained, these meticulously constructed works are seen by Kwon as a response to a world characterised by chaos and ceaseless social change. During the 1940s “enchantment” brought on by myth came under sustained critical attack from those who saw it as an aid to totalitarianism: Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment is claimed as “the consummate critique of myth’s capacity to enchant” (126).

A chapter is devoted to Cornell’s muses or “Enchantresses” as Kwon describes them; artistic women were recurring subjects for him. Grace Hartigan, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Carolee Schneemann and Yayoi Kusama were amongst his friends. He was particularly struck by the nineteenth century ballet dancer Fanny Cerrito. Indeed, discovering a print of Cerrito by Josef Kriehuber enticed Cornell to collect more Romantic material for his work as well as leading to Portrait of Ondine, an incomplete portfolio attempting to induce an experience akin to that he felt on discovery of Kriehuber’s print. Lauren Bacall was the focus for one of Cornell’s largest box constructions, Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall): with reference to Eugène Delacroix’s Une sibylle qui montre le rameau d’or, for the artist, an ideal type is pictured within the structure of a game. The work imitates the sound of a film projector when a ball is deposited in its top hatch.

The Ninth Street Exhibition, now considered one of the major moments of Abstract Expressionism’s establishment, included work by Cornell. His construction Observatory: Corona Borealis Casement from around this time featured “speckled” Pollock-like elements which are perceived as a kind of dialogue with this movement. Photos of the exhibition showing one of Cornell’s constructions in between large paintings by Jack Tworkov and Pollock, go some way to explaining how Cornell’s work can sit, if uneasily, with other now canonical work of his time.

Rather than trace the remaining trajectory of Cornell’s work to his death in 1972, the author considers three artists; Robert Rauschenberg, Betye Saar and Carolee Schneemann, said to have “engaged Cornell’s enchantment” (191). This shift in the book does feel a little arbitrary, but interesting parallels are drawn. A new pursuit of enchantment in the post-war period took hold, seemingly at odds with Cornell’s earlier conception, with artists such as John Cage looking to Eastern mysticism and the occult for types of alternative spirituality. For Schneemann, time with Cornell meant departure from a corrupt civilization, and despite his non-feminist view of women, she admired his work and shared in the pursuit of enchantment through the everyday.

Enchantments finds a place alongside other scholarly publications on Cornell, such as (i) Kirsten Hoving’s Joseph Cornell and Astronomy: A Case for the Stars [3] in which the astronomical aspects of Cornell’s art are considered in light of the Cold War and scientific developments of the period, and (ii) Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination [4] by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, who offered feedback on the writing of Enchantments.

The impression one receives from this book is of Cornell as a one-man movement, present in the milieu of prominent figures and artists, admired, but at times misunderstood. The modernist project seeking to show us that things can be otherwise is a constant throughout, it just seems that the way Cornell went about it was difficult for some to place. He is charged by the author with allowing colonialist features into his cover design “Americana Fantastica” for View magazine, with the consequence that myth can “flatten difference and further ideology” (126); an interpretation which perhaps tells us more about our own time than his. Living in such a politically charged period, Cornell does not appear to have positioned himself with his more partisan contemporaries, as observed by Perry Anderson:

“Connexions with surrealism were vital in abstract expressionism, and the politics of its leading painters could hardly have been further from their use as a moral affiche for the Free World: Rothko was an anarchist, Motherwell a socialist, and Pollock – in the private opinion of Greenberg, his greatest public champion – nothing less than a ‘goddam stalinist from start to finish'”. [5]

Drawing on art historians, literary critics, philosophers and other thinkers, Enchantments presents an illuminating image of Cornell, his time, and to a degree, his influence, paying special attention to the significance of enchantment and its absence in twentieth century North America.


Notes:

[1] Max Weber: Science as a Vocation, in: From Max Weber. Essays in Sociology, trans. and ed. by Hans H. Gerth / C. Wright Mills, New York 1946, 129-156.

[2] Joseph Cornell: letter to Charles Henri Ford, September 25, 1940, series 1: Correspondence, box 1, folder 4, Charles Henri Ford Papers, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

[3] Kirsten Hoving: Joseph Cornell and Astronomy. A Case for the Stars, Oxford 2009.

[4] Lynda Roscoe Hartigan: Joseph Cornell. Navigating the Imagination, London 2007.

[5] Perry Anderson: The Origins of Postmodernity, London 1998, 83.

Review of Hal Foster’s ‘Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg’

By Christian Kile

http://www.sehepunkte.de/2021/01/34826.html

“For if Hitler and Auschwitz, Nazism and Guernica, Stalin and Hiroshima do not mean the end of art” wrote Arnold Hauser, “it is nevertheless unthinkable that they could have had no influence on the structure art took”. [1] This book by Hal Foster, Brutal Aesthetics, is concerned with the repercussions of these events, and it is a bleak read. The volume charts how Jean Dubuffet, Georges Bataille, Asger Jorn, Eduardo Paolozzi and Claes Oldenburg pursued their work in the aftermath of World War Two, and forms the second part of a project that aims to reconsider the responses of the twentieth-century avant-garde in times of acute political trauma.

The artists are broadly defined by their violation of classical humanist ideals as a result of their failure to avert catastrophe. We commence with Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘positive barbarism’ which is taken to contend a type of survivalist modernism, stating that in the midst of ruin it is necessary for humankind to begin again, resisting the ‘civilised’ values which had produced such destruction. It would be the results of this barbarism that amount to what Hal Foster calls ‘brutal aesthetics’, an art of survival. Perhaps the main problem for this group was defining precisely how to ‘start over’ when even defining an adequate foundation for this intention was unattainable; seemingly there was no tabula rasa. As a result, the manipulation of “fractures” within official culture became the practice, employing subversion, debasement and disfigurement rather than achieving negation.

In the case of Dubuffet, his brutal aesthetic would manifest itself in art brut: high regard for art of the non-artist; that of the child, the mentally diseased and graffiti of the ‘common man’. However, for Dubuffet, the attempts of these groups to abandon civilised values would prove ultimately futile. Art brut proved nigh on impossible to fully realise, as it tended to acculturate and merely prove temporarily disruptive. Art brut or the quest to inhabit a space beyond and untouched by culture was defined by Dubuffet as an art “that doesn’t know its name” [2], hence his rejection of André Breton’s view that art brut was a development out of Surrealism.

With Bataille, we see an enthusiastic return to prehistoric art and the embrace of darkness in the caves of Lascaux in the Dordogne region of France [3], today dated to between 15,000 and 20,000 BCE, which symbolised for him the origin of art. For Hal Foster, it was here that Bataille not only found a world far removed from the utilitarian and instrumental reason that gave rise to World War Two and its associated horrors, but also a vital outlet for human energies and a source of sacred encounters. Prompted by his experiences of the caves, Bataille made notes for a film; it was to remain unrealised but included the themes of ritual and violence, tracing the development and eventual annihilation of humankind. Life would again return, only to destroy itself yet again. The project would illustrate how the path of man between the bestial and the civilised could run both ways, these spheres not always clearly distinct.

The caves for Bataille became the location of sacrifice, ritual and an alternative to the social control of architecture that equally served as womb, tomb, or most ominously, a bomb refuge: “In a sense his cave is the opposite of Plato’s: if we are enlightened at all, it is only in darkness and through darkness”. Bataille construes the animals on the cave walls as fulfilling roles of both beasts and gods, one below, the other transcending human law. It would be through the reclamation of sacred experience that Bataille hoped somehow to attain a new beginning, one that resulted in no more than one more reinscription of the law; in Bataille’s terms, it was an “impossible” project.

In the work of Jorn and affiliated Cobra artists, it was through the animal and the ‘creaturely’ or that between man and beast that their work often manifested itself. In an attempt to salvage Nordic culture from Nazi degradation, Jorn posited it as a pagan alternative, derived from the peasantry and exemplified by the Viking, in opposition to the classicism and Christianity of Southern Europe with its aristocratic connotations. Jorn’s work was at times collaborative, ranging from various projects including murals, texts and ceramic experiments, to the founding of the Situationist International with Constant Nieuwenhuys and Guy Debord in 1957.

The theme of going beyond distortion, and butchering the classical continues with Paolozzi’s work. Combining urban detritus and ‘creaturely’ effects, both the organic and machine appear irreversibly enmeshed and damaged. Even versions of archetypal figures such as Icarus and Saint Sebastian are reduced to rough assemblages with barely a human aspect: “Whereas technology sexed up the machine for the Futurists, it desexed the human for Paolozzi; whether the rough surface of his bronze figures suggests flesh petrified or machine fleshed, it is the opposite of a desired outcome”. This was an art born of The Second Machine Age, that of the 1950s, on the cusp of radical alteration as a result of electronic imaging and information. This state of mind was echoed in the thought of Hannah Arendt. In 1958 she voiced her fears in The Human Condition about increased mechanisation of work resulting in a reversion of humans to animal like states. [4]

Of our group of artists, the pursuit of an art free from the restraints of commodity culture is perhaps most pervasive in the work of Oldenburg. Arriving in New York in 1956, it was not long before he focused on the city’s disordered urban landscape, including its filth and streets strewn with commercial refuse. For Oldenburg, Abstract Expressionism had begun to grow tiresome and his interest led towards found objects, assemblages and happenings.

In 1959 when asked about his preferences, Oldenburg stated that what interested him most were primitives: children, madmen, the American cultureless, the modern man in an urban environment. Unsurprisingly, we find that Dubuffet and art brut were a strong influence on him, as was Céline. Through his installation The Store, Oldenburg sought to salvage, at least partially, everyday objects from the world of rationalised commodities and put them to what he perceived as more human ends, making them “bodily and erotic again”. 

Having exhibited a number of works from The Store in 1962 and garnering success, both critical and financial, an uneasy Oldenburg abandoned New York, moving to Los Angeles, to find that in the city of angels the detritus of production was nowhere to be seen and a more highly finished consumerist environment had taken its place. Reflecting this, his main LA project Bedroom Ensemble is free of the organic features present in his earlier work and a clinical rationale takes its place. Spaces designed for humans are presented as utterly inhuman, “If, not long before Bedroom Ensemble, Abstract Expressionism could claim to express a ‘new man,’ here there is no subject at all; literally no one is at home (the title suggests an arrangement without inhabitants, who would only sully it)”. Various attempts by Oldenburg to outpace the market force failed, and we end on a dark note. For Hal Foster, Oldenburg’s time, as our own, offers no “redemptive last word”.

I expect those coming to this work will be well aware of Hal Foster’s place in academia. A stalwart of October journal, he is strongly influenced by theory in the broad sense. Similarly, those readers are likely to be well acquainted with typical points of reference in this book: Benjamin on civilisation and barbarism, his best known essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Adorno on poetry after Auschwitz and ubiquitous Freudian ideas. Although relevant, this writer found it somewhat disappointing that there was not more on the lesser known areas of work from such renowned figures. As the artists had their own contradictions, so too Hal Foster. When his politics come through in trite lines like “the dark forces of capitalism”, his stance is difficult to reconcile in the context of his funding “entanglements” with the Mellon family which he recognises.

As acknowledged by the author, the earlier post war years have been neglected by his generation, who reacting against formalist modernism, have tended to concentrate on the later fifties onwards, emphasising the neo-avant-garde and postmodernism. For this reason it is heartening to see an academic art historian of Hal Foster’s calibre turn his characteristic erudition more towards the kind of painting and sculpture in this book. Hal Foster’s research sets the figures in context, compares them in an original way and skilfully manages to identify common aspects of their work. For those interested in modern art, intellectual history and politics of the cold war era, this book comes strongly recommended. There is also a detailed notes section that includes some unfamiliar and thought provoking further reading.


Notes:

[1] Arnold Hauser: The Sociology of Art, London 1982, trans. by Kenneth J. Northcott, 669.

[2] Jean Dubuffet: “Notes for the Well-Read”, 1945, in: Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternative Reality, ed. by Mildred Glimcher / Marc Glimcher, New York 1987, 86.

[3] Martin Jay: Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought, Berkeley / London 1993, 230.

[4] Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition, Chicago 1958, 322.

Hollis Frampton: Photographs

18 September – 13 December 2020

Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art

By Christian Kile

Wherever there are saints, there must also be heresiarchs like Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, and heretics.[1]

It was in 1958 that Hollis Frampton moved to New York and began to take photography seriously as a discipline. Previously Frampton had harboured poetic aspirations, and having struck up a relationship with Ezra Pound, came to the understanding that ‘I was not a poet.’[2] So for a time he turned, perhaps unexpectedly, to photography. Although primarily known as an avant-garde filmmaker, Frampton’s work also comprises a significant showing of still photos and this is the first retrospective of this work to be held in the UK.

Many of the works come across as exercises intended to complement filmmaking; indeed, Frampton’s early forays into film after 1962 often combined fragments of his earlier photographic projects.[3] The photos frequently form part of a series and are in some cases are accompanied by texts. Amongst Frampton’s concerns was the problem of modernist reduction and its application to photography: what would the photographic equivalent of Beckett or Barnett Newman look like? Other mediums such as easel painting and literature seemingly had more to offer before they were hollowed out, whereas with photography, ‘if we strip a photographic print, we run aground upon an emptied specification that is no longer a photograph. It is only, and exclusively, a piece of paper.’[4]

The shot chosen for the exhibition poster and first work in the show is Spaghetti -it is just that, a close up of pasta in tomato sauce: a photo made for James Rosenquist, echoing his painting F-111, only here the hydrogen bomb and consumerism are reduced down to no more than a sample of that monument to the American condition of the 1960s. On another wall, a series of fourteen colour photos of preserved specimens ranging from a cuttlefish and a toad to a single white clover comprise the series ADSVMVS ABSVMVS (We are here, we are not here), each image is accompanied by a text describing how Frampton came to obtain each specimen.

Elsewhere, there are two collaborations which Frampton made with Marion Fuller, his second wife: in the first room is a homage to Edweard Muybridge, whose motion based works are playfully referenced for Sixteen Studies from Vegetable Locomotion. Here the characteristic equine and athletic subjects are absent and in their place are tongue in cheek variations of vegetables in motion. Make of the splitting zucchini what you will. The work Rites of Passage comprises twenty black and white photos of a wedding cake, eighteen of which have toppings charting the progress of a typical middling life: amongst these confirmation, car, marriage, children, allegiance to the flag, the wreathed white picket fence and perhaps most comically, a rocking chair appearing before the 50thwedding anniversary. The first and last images bear no topping; I suppose to denote the absence before our conception and the one which awaits.

On the opposite wall is a short series The Secret Life of Frank Stella, a humorous nod to David Douglas Duncan’s The Private World of Picasso and other established photographers of the time. In a vitrine close by is a collection of photos Frampton took of his fellow artists and their studios; James Rosenquist, Robert Morris, Lee Bontecou and perhaps best known, images of Lee Lozano posing in her studio.

Frampton’s notes arranged in a nearby vitrine, include references to Borges and the film theorist André Bazin, next to whose name is written ‘unique ontological link with referent’. On another sheet, ‘Meditate on title “painting is dead”. Frampton’s art is for an audience who care about theory; it has been said of him that:

While his writings and interviews do much to illuminate obscured lines of development, his highly playful approach, which embraces wit and irony, as well as indirect allusion and intertextual intricacy, seems designed to address an impossibly learned reader.[5]

For a retrospective, the showing of works comes across as rather sparse, and what is on show did not entice me to contemplation for hours on end. However, the exhibition did well to express a tipping point: the time when the high avant-garde, that of Pound’s generation was on its way out. Pollock had died before Frampton made it to New York and the turn towards the textual and the ‘idea’ had begun to predominate. Duchamp’s provocations, Pop, Minimalism and French theory all began to define artistic practice seen as advanced, but in this it is all rather understated.

That the photographic aspect of Frampton’s work is still relatively little known may be taken as a compliment, for to an extent, he has maintained even after death what so many avant-garde artists have longed for: difficulty and resistance to mass culture. Rather than full acceptance and assimilation into the museum, into the stratified roll call of ‘important’ names, he continues to remain known predominantly to a specialist audience. Today, his still photos have been allotted no more than the basement floor of Goldsmith’s CCA galleries in New Cross.

[1] Hollis Frampton, ‘Impromptus on Edward Weston: Everything in Its Place’, On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, ed. by Bruce Jenkins (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 2009), p. 68.

[2] Scott MacDonald, ‘Interview with Hollis Frampton: ZORNS LEMMA,’ Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 4, 1 (1979), p. 34.

[3] Christopher Phillips, Word Pictures: Frampton and Photography, October, 32 (1985) 62-76, p. 65.

[4] Frampton, p. 70.

[5] Federico Windhausen, ‘Words into Film: Toward a Genealogical Understanding of Hollis Frampton’s Theory and Practice, October, 109 (2004) 76-95, p. 95.

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