Archive for March, 2009

The Hands of Rodin

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , on March 31, 2009 by Liz Hager


There are among the works of Rodin hands, single, small hands which, without belonging to a body, are alive. . .


Auguste Rodin, Various Hands, unknown dates, plaster and bronze (Legion of Honor, SF).

. . . Hands that rise, irritated and in wrath; hands whose five bristling fingers seem to bark like the five jaws of the dog of Hell. . .


Auguste Rodin, Mighty Hand, ca. 1880, cast 1906, bronze (Legion of Honor, SF).

. . . Hands that walk, sleeping hands, and hands that are awakening; criminal hands, tainted with hereditary disease; and hands that are tired and will do no more, and have lain down in some corner like sick animals that know no one can help them. . .


Auguste Rodin, The Three Shades (detail), planned for the Gates of Hell, ca. 1880, enlarged after 1905, (Legion of Honor, SF).

. . . There is a history of hands; they have their own culture, their particular beauty; one concedes to them the right of their own development, their own needs, feelings caprices and tendernesses. . .


Auguste Rodin, John the Baptist Preaching (detail), 1878, bronze (Legion of Honor, SF).

. . . Rodin, knowing through the education which he has given himself, that the entire body consists of scenes of life, of a life that may come in every detail individual and great, has the power to give any part of this vibrating surface the independence of the whole. . .


August Rodin, Fugit Amor (detail), ca. 1890s, bronze (Legion of Honor, SF).

. . . As the human body is to Rodin its parts and forces, so on the other hand portions of different bodies that cling to one another from an inner necessity merge into one organism. . .


Auguste Rodin, Eve,(detail), 1881, plaster model for the bronze sculpture originally planned for Gates of Hell (Legion of Honor, SF).

. . .  A hand laid on another shoulder or thigh does not any more belong to the body from which it came. From this body and from the object which it touches or seizes something new originates, a new thing that has no name and belongs to no one. . .

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin


Auguste Rodin, Fallen Angel (detail), 1890, bronze (Legion of Honor, SF).

Wider Connections

More Rodin at the Legion of Honor


Auguste Rodin by Rainer Maria Rilke (updated)

Musée Rodin, Paris

Rodin Museum, Philadelphia

The Evolving Uses of the Presidio: CAMP Update

Posted in Architecture, Bay Area Art Scene, Liz Hager with tags , , on March 25, 2009 by Liz Hager


Note: Other VR posts on this subject can be found here.


Model: revised design for the Main Post area, including the Contemporary Arts Museum Presidio (WRNS Studio, San Francisco, architects).

Venetian Red first reported on the proposal for the Contemporary Arts Museum Presidio in A Day at Camp.

Since 2007, when plans were first unveiled, public comment to the Presidio’s development plan for its Main Post has focused largely on the proposal for the Contemporary Arts Museum Presidio (CAMP). To be fair, some of the more vocal opposition takes issue with all the new buildings planned for the Post, but it’s pretty clear the museum is the linchpin of their opposition.

The CAMP proposal exists within the context of a much larger discourse—namely, the role of the Main Post within the Presidio and the evolving purpose of the Presidio itself.  Given the uniqueness of the Presidio, many factors must be taken into account.

First, there is the issue of how a National Park in the midst of an urban environment stays relevant to its community.  In its 2001 white paper, “Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century,” the National Park System Advisory Board acknowledged that parks “were not, could not be, static entities,” that they “no longer be thought of as islands with little or no connection, cultural or ecological, to their surroundings.”  The Board stated its clear desire to empower a Parks Service that would benefit a new generation of citizens in a culturally-diverse, increasingly-urban, and ever more-rapidly changing world, although rightifully it offered no specifics on how parks should accomplish that. In the context of the white paper’s mandate for the Park System to “reach out to museums, parks and cultural venues, linking them with shared stories and interpretation”  (Section V), how could American art not be relevant to a 21st-century urban-based park?  Further, with attendance records dropping at historical “theme” parks all over the country, isn’t it only fiscally responsible for Presidio Trust, which must be financially self-sufficient in the next year or two, to look at other “draw” options?

Second, the Presidio is already an unusual mixed-use park with a city-like infrastructure (over 800 buildings) and vast cultivated forestland that requires management resources shared between NPS and Presidio Trust. Although the Presidio is a National Historic Landmark District, not all of its buildings have historic designation. Aggregate square footage gained by demolishing non-historic structures may be used legitimately for new construction in existing areas of development, as long as the overall cap on developed square footage is maintained. (That’s why, elsewhere in the Presidio, the LucasArts complex could replace the demolished Letterman Hospital.) The addition of CAMP to the Main Post does not violate these guidelines.

Third, the Main Post, the heart of the Presidio, had a civic identity long before the CAMP proposal came along.  As an Army base, by the late 20th century, the Presidio had become a virtual city-within-a-city, the Main Post its concentrated hub, and the Parade Grounds, an asphalted parking lot. Since 1994, when the Presidio was designated a National Park, municipal projects—rehabilitation and revitalization—have continued at the Main Post.  In 2002, the Presidio Trust adopted an overall management plan for the park (PTMP) and began to realize a long-term vision, in accordance with processes dictated by the various agencies—National Park Service, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Since then, scores of buildings on the Main Post have been rehabilitated. Many new buildings have been constructed, including, for example, the one currently occupied by La Terrasse restaurant (not historically themed by the way). Cultural entities are already slotted for the Main Post. There doesn’t seem to have been much opposition to the the Disney Family Museum, a cultural museum dedicated to the life of Walt Disney, soon to take up residence at its Montgomery Barracks building. All this is in addition to the improvements that have been made elsewhere in the park that have brought city-dwellers to live in the Presidio. With all of this, though, the Main Post still feels like an isolated collection of buildings; like every grand public space, it needs an anchor or two to tie it all together.


(Model detail) CAMP building as seen from entrance, looking west from Parade Grounds.

In 2007, the Trust notified the various agencies and the public of significant new proposals for the Main Post (including CAMP) that were before it. This February, as part of the prescribed planning process for the Main Post area, The Presidio Trust released the revised draft (“Preferred Alternative”) of the Main Post Update to the PTMP, as well as accompanying environmental and findings of effect documents required by the planning process. This draft had been revised based on extensive agency and public comment.

The updated PTMP states three primary objectives for the Main Post: reveal the Presidio’s history; create a welcoming place; and employ 21st-century green practices. CAMP falls under the second objective, as do rehabilitation of the existing Presidio Theatre (with new addition) and new construction of a Presidio Lodge.  Strategies to meet the other primary objectives are well laid out by the current PTMP document.

Given the discussion points above, it would seem that the only legitimate complaint in regard to the original CAMP proposal is the footprint and design of its building.

The newly-proposed designs from WRNS Studio goes along way to ameliorating prior concerns. This design shows greater sensitivity to the physical attributes of the site and the emotional sentiment about the Main Post. WRNS has re-placed the building to a less conspicuous corner of the Parade Grounds and made considerable design modifications to the structure. Rather than a boastful and lonely white-box eyesore sitting predominantly above ground, the architects have suggested a modest structure, mostly underground, quite suitable for a park-like setting.  What remains above ground is unobtrusive and exceptionally well-integrated with its surroundings; its low-slung peaked roof gently hugs the ground. This design suggested the possibility of a “living” roof, which would fulfill the Presidio’s commitment to sustainability.

Regardless of what the final design may actually look like, PMTP parameters insure a roofline no higher than 30 feet from ground level and more or less 60% of the projected 70,000 sq. feet underground.  As a side note, WRNS seems particularly well-schooled in the art of the underground structure.

Artist’s Rendering, CAMP proposal, WRNS Studio.

For sustaining the city’s lively arts community, as well as enhancing the visitor experience of San Francisco, the importance of keeping this unparalleled collection of modern American art (West Coast artists amply represented) together and publicly on view in San Francisco cannot be understated. (The Fisher collection provides needed depth lacking in MoMA’s American offering.) Imagine the Presidio, a mixed-used park, with its Main Post as the West Coast echo of the National Mall, more modest in scope to be sure, but still a vital and relevant space that instills a sense of pride in our American history and culture.

The new design for CAMP, together with parking and transportation logistical proposals, ought go a long way to removing remaining legitimate opposition. Apparently various state and federal agencies have been convinced. Still, rumors abound that, once the Presidio files its Document of Record (the Board approval of final plan parameters for the Main Post), lawsuits to stop construction will be filed. All this could happen as early as this summer.

Get educated, make comments, stay involved:

Graphics of the plan, as well as the model of the current proposals for the Main Post, on view at Bldg. 105, every Friday and Saturday 10am-12pm through April 18th.Any one may comment on any aspect of the revised PTMP through April 20th, either online or by mail. Submit a Comment.

SPUR presentation “The Future of the Presidio’s Main Post” April 7, 12:30pm.

The final public meeting (Board of Directors) will be held on Tuesday, April 7th 6:00 pm at Palace of Fine Arts Theatre (3301 Lyons Street).

Wider Connections

CAMP homepage

Current Planning Documents

New design renderings

National Mall current planning

SF Citizen, more pictures of the proposed design

WRNS Studio

Singular Gems—SFMOMA’s New Amy Sillman

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , on March 23, 2009 by Liz Hager

© Liz Hager, 2009. All Rights Reserved

Painting is a physical thinking process to continue an interior dialogue, a way to engage in a kind of internal discourse, or sublanguage—mumbling, rambling, stream of thought, murmuring, thinking out loud, naming, uttering, a voice in your head. —Amy Sillman 

Amy Sillman US Alice of the Goon

Amy Sillman,
U.S. of Alice the Goon, 2008,
oil on canvas, 84 x 93″

The other day, my mind wonderfully preoccupied, I wandered absent-mindedly off the elevator on the second floor at SFMOMA. I was immediately greeted by Amy Sillman’s 2008 painting U.S. of Alice the Goon<span style=" Actually, " arrested"="" might="" be="" the better="" description="" of="" the="" painting's="" effect="" on="" me.="" at="" first,="" i="" was jolted="" out="" my="" daydream="" by="" its="" shear="" boisterousness—dynamic shapes="" and="" day-glo="" hues.="" then="" noticed="" echoes="" diebenkorn="" in="" paint="" application="" brush="" work="" reminiscent="" de koonig's.="" stood="" for="" a="" while,="" contemplating="" just="" exactly="" how radiant="" chartreuse,="" orange,="" emerald="" green,="" cadmium="" yellow, and="" loud="" pink="" could="" miraculously="" together="" without="" dissolving into="" kitschy="" overload.="" (does="" underlying="" oblique="" grid="" tame="" those powerful="" colors?)="" lingered="" while="" longer,="" looking="" and

listening for what more the painting would tell me.

US of Alice the Goon shows off Sillman’s signature style, which pits often contradictory elements against one another. Like fragments of another conversation, vestiges of figures pop out here and there (fists of a goon?) amid the assertive abstract shapes; neatly painted shapes are often juxtaposed with the unruly; ignored rules allow neighbors on the color wheel to battle good naturedly. References to a wide range of forebears (including Matisse I venture) may be embedded in the paintings, but only as syntax; clearly Sillman builds her own style of visual communication upon the patterns of the past. After nearly a century of abstract art, it seems to me that Sillman’s paintings still have something new to say about how we can experience abstraction.

I suspect that Gary Garrels, MoMA’s new Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture (and formerly at the Hammer) had something to do with the acquisition—the painting was part of the recent “Oranges and
Sardines” exhibit at the Hammer Museum in LA organized by Garrels.
However she got here, I am happy to see Sillman represented at SFMoMA, ceremoniously displayed (at least temporarily) at the entrance to the Museum’s permanent collection galleries. I like to think that US of Alice the Goon is conversing with its 20th century ancestors, while embracing a 21st century lingo all its own.

Wider Connections

Modern Art Notes—Amy Sillman at the Hirshhorn

Amy Sillman on Saatchi Gallery online

Amy Sillman at Crown Point Press

Oranges& Sardines Exhibition Text

Visual Haiku: Whistler in Venice

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Pastels, People & Places with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2009 by Liz Hager


As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of colour.

—James McNeill Whistler, The Red Rag, 1878


James McNeill Whistler, Venetian Scene, 1879-80, chalk and pastel on brown paper, 11 5/8 x 7 15/16″ (New Britain Museum of American Art).

In the fall of 1879, like many artists before him, James McNeill Whistler arrived in Venice to capture his artistic view of the city.  Ostensibly on a 3-month project, Whistler was immediately seduced by the possibilities the city presented and wound up spending 14 months there, eventually producing some 50 etchings and nearly 100 pastels. There can be no doubt that La Serenissima was Whistler’s ultimate muse: she called forth an original and exciting body of work that pushed the artist farther along the stylistic path staked out by his earlier Nocturnes, redeemed his artistic reputation and, it might be argued, spared him from future obscurity. Although the etchings are perhaps the better known pieces, his pastel from this period are true gems and have been no less influential in securing the artist’s legacy.

Ex-patriot Whistler struggled arduously for decades in London to establish his reputation as an artist outside the tradition of the Royal Academy. By the late 1860s he was accepted, if begrudgingly (his flamboyant personality often got in the way), as a serious and provocative artist, who enjoyed steady patronage. Thoughout the 1870s, however, patronage declined, thereby increasing his financial woes. This situation was certainly accelerated by the artist’s break with Frederick Leyland over the obstinate handling (by the customs of the time) of this patron’s Peacock Room (1877). However, the ultimate nail in Whistler’s financial coffin came a year later with settlement of the libel suit he had brought against John Ruskin following the critic’s denigrating reviewof Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (the famous “I… never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”)

Ironically, Whistler won the suit, but was ordered to pay his barrister with the last of his savings. In May of 1879, the artist declared bankruptcy.


James McNeill Whistler, Nocture—San Giorgio, 1880, chalk and pastel on brown paper, 7 15/16 x 11 3/4″ (Freer Gallery of Art).

Fortunately, in June of that year, The Fine Art Society in London, where Whistler occasionally exhibited, commissioned him with a sizable advance to produce a dozen etchings, scenes of Venice that could be exhibited in time for the Christmas holidays. And so Whistler came to Venice. As requests from Whistler for more money arrived on their doorstep throughout the fall, the Society must have worried that it was being swindled. But the artist stubbornly remained in Venice; he surely sensed the unique opportunity that lay before him.

Well aware of the precedent set by other artists—in the tradition of verdute, painted pictorial souvenirs in the era before photography—Whistler was single-minded in his intent to forge vision of the city that was different.  As a result, he eschewed the grand tourist spots, the motifs of Guardi and Canaletto, for the “everyday” Venice of Venetians. “Little canals and calli, doorways and gardens, beggars and bridges made a stronger appeal to him than churches and palaces.” (Pennells, The Life of James McNeill Whistler.) The everyday was not new subject matter for the artist; in London he chose gritty Battersea over the more established Westminster locales for his series of Nocturnes. Additionally, the artist became famous in Venetian artistic circles for his iconoclastic habit of sketching directly on copper plates in situ, perhaps an echo of the traditions he had observed during his time in France, but certainly a purposeful habit, which made the prints useless as realistic souvenirs.


James McNeill Whistler, San Giovanni Apostato et Evangelistae, 1880, chalk, pastel, and charcoal on brown paper, 11 3/4 x 7 15/16″ (Freer Gallery of Art).

As the Venetian winter set in and his copper plates became too cold to handle, Whistler increasingly turned to the pastel medium. Fellow artist Henry Woods observed:  “He soon found out the beautiful quality of colour there is here before sunset in winter.” (Pennells, The Life of James McNeill Whistler.)  Indeed, in Whistler’s hands pastel turned out to be a brilliant medium for capturing the atmospheric mysteries of the city. By reducing his line work to the scantiest detail, and his color to just dabs of accent, Whistler was nevertheless able to convey the essence of the scene, whether weighty and substantial, in the case of building facades, or ephemeral, in the case of the open water scenes.

Whistler was masterful in the composition of his scenes, starting in the middle of his page and working outward.  Contemporary follower Australian Mortimer Menpes records Whistler’s own exposition:

Whistler began by “first of all by seizing upon the chief point of interest,—the little palaces and the shipping beneath the bridge. If so, I would begin drawing that distance in elaborately, and then would expand from it until I came to the bridge, which I would draw in one broad sweep. If by chance I did not see the whole of the bridge, I would not put it in. In this way the picture must necessarily be a perfect thing from start to finish. Even if one were to be arrested in the middle of it, it would still be a fine and complete picture.”

—Mortimer Menpes, Whistler as I knew Him, 1904, pp 22-23

Additionally, the artist’s innovative use of the vertically-oriented panorama (e.g. Venetian Scene above) was a most effective way to capture the expansive stretches of water that so fundamentally define Venice.  It was oft imitated by the generations of artists who followed him to Venice.

Though colored paper was first used for drawing by artists in the Renaissance, Whistler recognized the importance of color and pattern in his work and was fastidious in his choice of paper texture and tone. The Venetian pastels demonstrate his exceptional use of paper color as a medium-spectrum tone in its own right.  These rendering techniques infused Whistler’s images with a delicacy and transience that feels so fundamentally Venetian. At dimensions no larger than 7 x 11″, the Venetian pastels are Whistler’s visual haikus, gifts to his captivating muse.


James McNeill Whistler, The Guidecca, Note in Flesh Tones, 1879-80, chalk and pastel on gray paper, 6 1/4 x 9 15/16″ (Mead Art Museum).

Wider Connections

Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell—The Life of James McNeill Whistler

Margaret F.MacDonald—Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice

Linda Merrill—After Whistler

Doin’ the Lord’s Work

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , on March 11, 2009 by Liz Hager


I’se just doing the Lord’s work. It ain’t got much style. God don’t want much style, but He gives you wisdom and speeds you along.

—William Edmondson

Ever since the Renaissance, when luminaries placed man at the center of the universe, societies have placed little value in tampering with one of the period’s most cherished tenets, namely that creative genius emanates solely from the individual. Every once in a while, however, a humble commoner comes along to remind us all of what the ancients knew only too well—that artists are merely conduits for the divine (or creative, if you prefer) force.  William Edmondson was such an uncommon commoner.

Some time after loosing his janitorial job in the early 1930s, Edmondson saw a heavenly vision. A disembodied voice called him to pick up his tools and start carving a tombstone:

I knowed it was God telling me what to do. First He told me to make tombstones. Then He told me to cut the figures. He gave me them two things. . . The Lord told me to cut something once and I said to myself I didn’t believe I could. He talked right back to me: “Yes, you can,” He told me. “Will, cut that stone and it better be limestone, too.”

This wasn’t Edmondson’s first vision. He described to a chronicler a time when he was 13 or 14 “doing in the cornfields,” when he saw “the flood.”  There was little doubt in Edmondson’s mind then: “I ain’t never read no books, nor no Bible, and I saw the water come. It come over the rocks, it covered up the rocks and went over the mountains. God, He just showed me how.”

Though he had no formal art training, Edmondson took this divine directive seriously. At the age of 57, Edmondson began using a hammer and a railroad spike on left-over limestone blocks or pieces he found at building demolitions. Soon the yard adjacent to his Nashville house began to fill up, first with funereal, and later garden, sculptures. Over a 17-year period he would carve over 300 pieces. He sold work to local church parishioners, and many of his pieces ended up in Nashville’s local black cemetery, Mount Ararat (today part of Greenwood West). Some are still there.

In 1935, Edmondson’s work came to the attention of Sidney Hirsch, a Vanderbilt (George Peabody College for Teachers) professor, poet and playwright and collector of ethnographic items from around the world. Hirsch struck up a friendship with Edmondson, bought pieces from the artist and introduced him to his friends, who bought sculptures.  One set of Hirsch’s friends introduced their friend, photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe to the Edmondson. She ended up taking hundreds of photographs, eventually showing them to her friend Thomas Mabry, one of the curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1937, labeling Edmondson’s work “modern primitive,” Mabry brought his work to the museum, making him the first African-American artist to have a solo show at MOMA.  The following year, Edmondson’s work included in the “Three Centuries of Art in the United States,” exhibit placed at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.  In 1941,  Edward Weston “discovered” Edmondson. And so a few more pictures were taken.

Edmondson regularly referred to his works as “miracles.” Not unlike most other artists, he drew inspiration from the beings that inhabited his world, whether neighbors or nurses, crows or squirrels. But he also drew heavily from his understanding of the Bible—crucifixions, preachers, arks, angels, and lambs—and occasionally from the imaginary realm (mermaids).  William Edmondson even rendered a portrait or two—Eleanor Roosevelt and boxer Jack Johnson (a bald man, to whom the sculptor gave a curly head of hair).       Above all, Edmondson was interested in the figure, though not in a wholly realistic rendering of it (some of the figures are barely liberated from their blocks).  He was partial to pairs—Adam & Eve, Porch Ladies, “Mary & Martha”—perhaps the result of Biblical examples (the animals of Noah’s ark) planted firmly in his mind. Whether two- or four-legged, Edmondson’s creatures bear an uncanny resemblance to each other, and one imagines them all as members of an extended family, citizens of Edmondsonia if you will. Although they may all look alike, the sculptor has imbued each with his/her own separate and quiet dignity.


Since the art world rediscovered Edmondson’s work in 2000, many have made much about the proto-abstract nature of his work; some have conjoined him with Brancusi and modernist sculpture. Surely,  Edmondson would have been bemused by those kind of distinctions; after all, he was doin’ the Lord’s work. Although his work garnered attention in New York, in Nashville his pieces continued to sell for as little as $5 and $10.

Edmondson died in 1951, after ill health forced him to give up sculpting. He was buried in Mount Ararat Cemetery.

Although his work is today in the collections of  The American Folk Art Museum, the Smithsonian,  the Hirshhorn, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Montclair Art Museum, and the Newark Museum, today William Edmondson today lies in an unmarked grave, his headstone long since gone and any records indicating its location burned. That’s strangely befitting for a man who did not seek fame or fortune, never credited himself for his abilities, but gave his creative life over to a higher force.

Wider Connections

I Heard God Talking to Me

“American Monument” (Artnet)

Cheekwood 2000 Edmondson Exhibition

Louise Dahl-Wolfe at Stanley + Wise

And Beyond. . .

Roberta Smith—Altered Views in the House of Modernism (NY Times)

Claire Lieberman—Stone: Mystery or Malaise (Sculpture Magazine)

Foundation for Self-Taught American Artists

Gary Alan Fine: Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity

At Five in the Afternoon: Robert Motherwell Meets Federico García Lorca

Posted in Artists Speak, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2009 by Liz Hager

Robert Motherwell, At Five in the Afternoon, 1950, oil on canvas, 3 x 4 feet.

I begin a painting with a series of mistakes. The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling. I begin with shapes and colors which are not related internally nor to the external world; I work without images. Ultimate unifications come about through modulation of the surface by innumerable trials and errors. The final picture is the process arrested at the moment when what I was looking for flashes into view. My pictures have layers of mistakes buried in them—an X-ray would disclose crimes—layers of consciousness, of willing. They are a succession of humiliations resulting from the realization that only in a state of quickened subjectivity—a freedom from conscious notions, and with what I always suppose to be secondary or accidental colors and shapes—do I find the unknown, which nevertheless I recognize when I come upon it, for which I am always searching. 

The absolute which lies in the background of all my activities of relating seems to retreat as I get on its track; yet the relative cannot exist without some point of support. However, the closer one gets to the absolute, the more mercilessly all the weaknesses of my work are revealed. 

For me the medium of oil painting resists, more strongly than others, content cut off from external relations. It continually threatens, because of its motility and subtlety, to complicate a work beyond the simplicity inherent in a high order of abstraction. I attribute my increasing devotion to oil, lately as against the constructionalism of collage, to a greater involvement in the human world. A shift in one’s human situation entails a shift in one’s technique and subject-matter.

—Robert Motherwell, “Statement,” Motherwell exhibition catalogue at Samuel Kootz Gallery, New York, 1947. 

After receiving his BA degree from Stanford University (1937), Robert Motherwell continued his studies at Harvard, completing one year of a the Ph.D program there. Motherwell dropped out, but in 1940 decided to continue his studies at Columbia University under the tutelage of celebrated art history professor Meyer Shapiro. Shapiro, recognizing Motherwell’s real desire to be a painter, introduced him to emigré painter and writer Kurt Seligmann, who was deeply versed in the tenets of Surrealism. It turned out to be Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta who most actively engaged Motherwell’s intellect, pushing him off on a journey to uncover his own original creative principle. 

A major turning point for Motherwell came in the summer of 1941, which he spent with Matta in Mexico. Matta introduced him to “automatism” (i.e. free association), and this set the painter to a technique he called “artful scribbling.  It became the starting point for all of his future work. Motherwell was intensely intellectual, and the process of accessing spontaneity was a perfect foil to his to impulse to reason. This device tapped into deep subconscious roots; for Motherwell it provided the means of getting to the innermost, or pre-conscious, self from which true creativity sprung.  Motherwell grabbed tightly a hold of the notion that pictures would, to paraphrase Miró, assert themselves under his brush. Through this overarching principle, he succeeded in brilliantly connecting in an unbroken line action painting (i.e.  The New York School) to Surrrealism. 

Perhaps Matta’s even more profound contribution to Motherwell’s development was his enthusiasm for the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.

The aura of fatality is overwhelming in García Lorca’s 1934 poem “The Goring and the Death.” He repeats the line “at five in the afternoon” 28 times in 52 lines, forecasting the bullfighter’s death with each knell of the repeat. The poem is a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War, and an eerie foreshadowing of García Lorca’s own tragic death two years later at the hands of the Franco’s regime.  

At five in the afternoon 
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A basketful of lime in readiness
at five in the afternoon.
Beyond that, death and death alone
at five in the afternoon. 

Motherwell’s At Five in the Afternoon (1949) was a prelude to his artistic tour de force, the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, which eventually came to include some 200 paintings.  Together they are a visual lament for the poet, his bullfighter, and the original Republic of Spain. 

Wider Connections

PBS  “American Masters” on Motherwell

SF MOMA’s Motherwell collection

Robert Motherwell: The Complete Prints

Selected Poems of Frederico García Lorca

Roberto Matta images

Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part IV)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , on March 3, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on portraits featuring sitters’ backsides. Others in the series may be found here.


Réné Magritte, La reproduction interdite, 1937,
Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 65 cm
©Museum Boymans-van Beuningen).

In his Surrealist Manifesto published in 1924, poet and critic André Breton, making extensive use of theories adapted from Sigmund Freud, proposed that the conscious and unconscious artistic impulses be reunited under the artistic banner he termed “surrealism”:

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.

Breton advocated banishing reason from the realm of artistic creation, arguing that a reliance on “automatism” (unconscious, spontaneous behavior) would call forth more authentic images from the dream and supernatural states.

For his masterful La reproduction interdite (Not to be reproduced) Réné Magritte has created a representation of his subject—Edward James, a rich English aristocrat, Surrealist poet, and patron of both Dali and Magritte—that is both rigorously realistic and emotionally detached. A master at posing familiar objects in absurd contexts, Magritte made extensive use of mirror and glass in his work, playing with their ability to hide or mask through reflection. In this painting Magritte presents us with the view of his subject seen from behind. The reflection in the mirror beyond, however, violates the laws of nature, for it reflects that very same backside view back to us.  We gaze over the man’s shoulder expecting to see his face (i.e. his specific identity) and are met instead with the view from our own eyes. The subject’s identity is hidden from us. In the world Magritte has created here we can only ever return to ourselves (i.e. our own reality).

magritte-arnheimRéné Magritte, The Domain of Arnheim, 1938,
Oil on canvas

To confuse us further, Magritte has placed Edgar Allan Poe’s book The Narrative of Arthur Golden Pym next to James on the mantel, juxtaposing its “correct” reflection with the alternative reality of the figure’s reflection. Magritte has created a painting with dual realities, alternate fictions, if you like.  The book itself provides a small clue as to Magritte’s intentions.

Magritte was an unabashed admirer of Poe. In particular, he was inspired by the writer’s preoccupation with the mingling of the real and artificial. The Narrative of Arthur Golden PymPoe’s only novel, purports to be a non-fictional tale of the fantastic sea journey of Arthur Pym from Nantucket to the land of Symzonia (somewhere in the South Pacific?). Along the way, the narrative proves to be distorted and unreliable, deceitful even. The various twists of the novel’s plot embody numerous thematic elements, but masquerade, illusion, and even trickery figure prominently in the action. Ultimately, the tale reveals itself as a figment of the protagonist’s imagination—a fiction cloaking a fiction.

Claudia Kay Silverman (American Studies, UVA)  further observes—

The journey enacted in Symzonia, the journey to the interior of the earth, can be construed as a journey of anti-discovery. It is a journey to discover an emptiness. As does all Utopian fiction, the journey of Symzonia contains a tension. A Utopia is both a “good place” and “no place;” the journey to the interior of the earth is the ultimate journey and the impossible journey. It finds, in those imaginatively inclined, a correlative in a journey into the mind itself, whose outcome will be the unveiling of the deepest secret of humanity.

The grip that the notion of a hollow earth might have had on Poe has to do with a fear that the human mind, rather than containing ultimate knowledge, is, at its very core, empty.

This series of paintings was based on a Poe story of the same name. This story underscores Poe’s fascination with idea that the ideal creation was one in which man-made and the natural co-mingle. Arnheim translates loosely from the German as eagle’s nest.

Réné Magritte, The Domain of Arnheim, 1962
Oil on canvas

The themes of search and deceit, which weave in and out of Pym’s tale, must have appealed greatly to Magritte’s well-developed epigrammatic sensibility. La reproduction interdite is a witty commentary on our search for identity. Human beings, to paraphrase Magritte, always want to see what lies behind what they can actually see. We seek to uncover an essential or unconcealed “reality” or “truth,” which in turn will define who we are. Alas, the painter is in charge of this world; he makes that clear by doing exactly what the title forbids, i.e. copying.

La reproduction interdite proffers a world in which we can only view the reality that we already see. The painting seems to be saying that an individual’s own vision is the reality that matters.  As Jung once pointed out, “it all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.”

Hidden Identity—Parts I, II, III

Wider Connections

André Breton—Manifestoes of Surrealism
The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe
Robert Hughes—“The Poker-Faced Enchanter“(Time Magazine)
Magritte Museum; Magritte in public collections
Magritte—Edward James in Front of On the Threshhold of Liberty (photograph)
Tate—Portraiture & Identity
Contemporary Backs—Phyllis Palmer
Fabricator of Useless Articles’—Back Portraits 1990s

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