Archive for January, 2010

On With the Party: Photomontage After Hannah Höch

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: While preparing two long Venetian Red posts on the life and work of photomontagist Hannah Höch, I couldn’t help but wonder about the nature of her artistic legacy.

Perhaps not surprisingly, since Höch is still relatively unknown outside curatorial circles, I didn’t find a lot of published material on this topic.  Admittedly, I’m skating on the thin ice of visual comparisons, so consider this more free form musing than formal documentation.

And I’ve saved a discussion of the distinctions between collage and photomontage for a different post. As a result, both artists who work with fragments of photographic images and whole images intact are included.

Finally, this is not an exhaustive survey, so, if you have additional “finds,” I’d enjoy hearing from you.

Click here for all Venetian Red entries on Hannah Höch.

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Hannah Höch, On With the Party, 1965
Photomontage, 10 7/16 x 13 3/4 inches
(Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)

Although trained as a painter and equally skillful at graphic and textile design, Hannah Höch (1889-1978) is best-recognized for her thought-provoking photomontages, hundreds of images she patiently created through unparalleled dexterity in snipping and reassembling the photographs she sourced from mass-market magazines.

Höch, the only female member of the Berlin Dadaists (1916-22), played a vital role in legitimizing photomontage as a fine art form. Use of the technique piqued in the early 1930s. By the 1940s it all all but vanished from sight as a fine art medium, although it remained broadly popular as a format for advertising.

Hannah Höch, Industrial Landscape, 1967
Photomontage, 11 7/16 x 10 1/4 inches
(Landesbank Berlin)

With the emergence of commercial (silk) screen processes in the 1950s, fine artists once again adopted the photomontage technique. The new technology allowed artists to print images directly onto the paper or canvas substrate, thus liberating them from the manual look of the old “cut and paste” method. They in turn would fully exploited the slickness of the process.

Despite the popularity of the new medium, “cut and paste” photomontage was never completely supplanted.  Höch herself worked passionately in this method well into the 1960s, despite the fact that for long stretches of her career she remained out of the public eye. And others took up the standard and it remains a popular technique today.

Hannah Höch, Grotesque, 1963
Photomontage, 9 15/16 x 6 11/16
(Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)

Thus, there seem to be two general lines of descent from Hannah Höch: those artists who work more or less in the original tradition she pioneered and those who, through the use of screen and later digital techniques, have pushed the montage effect into new visual territory and greater dimensionality.

Tried and True

Romare Bearden best demonstrates that the traditional form of photomontage is not outmoded as an effective form of communication.

Perhaps taking a cue from the early Dadaists, there is a political strain in their work. Séan Hillen, for example, plays the juxtaposition of elements to delightful (but serious) effect in creating postcard-sized “what-if” commentaries on the conflict in Northern Ireland and other of the world’s problems.

The team of (Peter)Kennard/Phillips pushes the political more overtly, in addition to engaging in interesting experiments with their materials. The work here is a portrait of George Bush printed across 58 copies of the Houston Chronicle, which were then torn through to reveal images of the destruction of the Iraqi people and their landscape.

There is an entire category of photographers who construct construct photomontage through the aggregation of negatives. (Thus the surface of the positive remains smooth like a traditional photograph.) Jerry N. Uelsmann began to assemble photographs this way beginning in the 1950s, influence ultimately by Lazlo Maholy-Nagy’s work. He has said: “When I studied photography at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) each darkroom had one enlarger. Then when I started teaching we had a group darkroom. I was still using one enlarger, which was labor intensive for multiple printing. One day while I was waiting for some prints to wash, I looked across at the enlargers and thought to myself that if I had the negatives in different enlargers and simply moved the paper, the speed with which I could explore things or line them up would increase a hundred times. That was the moment that changed the way I worked with multiple images.”

On a different note, Daniel Gordon, following the popular contemporary tradition of ever super-sized photographs, creates huge montaged faces.  Though they take direct visual queues from Höch in their constructions, their large physical presence assaults you. They almost repell you, whereas Höch’s intimate page-sized “portraits” draw you in for closer inspection.

And finally it seems that Bernie Stephanus has learned his Höch lesson well, though in general I don’t find his work as visually compelling as Höch’s.

Romare Bearden, Spring Way, 1964
Collage on paperboard sheet, 6 5/8 x 9 3/8 inches
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Jerry N. UelsmannUndiscovered Self, 1999
Photomontage (assembled from multiple negatives)

Seán Hillen, The Launchpad at O’Connell Street, Dublin (Irelantis series), 2005
Photomontage, 7.9 x 5.9 inches

KennardPhillips collaboration, Iraq Destroyed, 2007
Pigment ink on newspaper, 350 x 300 cm.

Hannah Höch, Russian Dancer/My Double, 1928
Photomontage, 12 x 8 7/8 inches
Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick, Germany)

Daniel Gordon—Red Headed Woman, 2008 c-printDaniel Gordon, Red Headed Woman, 2008
C-print, 40 x 30 inches.

Bernie Stephanus, Ingresque, 1999

New New Things

The other species of artist expanded the boundaries of photomontage through the use of new media, the inclusion of found objects (even real world detritus), and a push into the third dimension. Many of their works achieve the frenetic appearance characteristic Höch’s Dada-era work.

Andy Warhol pushed silkscreen to his slickest height, where the hand of the artist wasn’t visible or even desired. (He was reputed to have said: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”) One might well question whether these are montages at all; but I think a legitimate argument could be made for a “serial image” subset of montage.

In his series of Combines (mid 1950s to early 1960s), Robert Rauschenberg reinvented collage. By combining repetitive silk screened images with paint and articles from his every day life (including trash), he blew apart the idea that art was an illusion of reality. For Rauschenberg the work of art was its own reality.

Joan Schulze is one of the best representatives of the group of fiber artists whose canvases are based on quilt structures. They come to photomontage already sensitized to the fragmentary and repetitive aspects of the picture plane. With origins in traditional “craft” environment these pieces, meant to be hung as paintings, present their own form of repudiation about the boundaries between fine and decorative art.

Andy Warhol, Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), 1963
synthetic polymer, silkscreen ink and acrylic on linen,  90 x 80 in.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1963
Oil, silkscreened ink, metal, and plastic on canvas, 82 x 48 x 6 1/4 inches
(Guggenheim Museum)

Joan Schulze, Aloha, 1980
Mixed media (on fabric),  26 x 22 inches.

It Looks Like a Duck. . .

David Hockney, Place Furstenberg, Paris, August 7, 8, 9, 1985, 1985
Photocollage, 35 x 31 1/2 inches

While it’s hard to imagine that Hockney’s photographic collages from the early 1980s could have come into being without the deconstructive example provided by Höch and the Dadaists, I can’t quite see them as a direct descendant (though perhaps a close cousin).  In their fracturing of the spatial plane, they owe more to Cubism than to Dada.

Hockney asserts that these works were born as a result of his loss of hearing at the time. He was forced to locate people in space using visual, rather than auditory, cues. This “reprocessing” led to a reconsideration of the notions of visual space. In these photo collages, Hockney creates a different concept of spacial dimension, but does not reconstitute the fragments into a new pictorial reality.

Wider Connections

From Papier Collé to Digital Collage (University of Washington online)
Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series— Photomontage
Don Hong-Oai‘s arresting composite photographs

Gods, Serpents, Leaves and Flowers: Indian Silver for the Raj

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Chinar Leaf Bowl, Kashmir, c. 1885
Paul Walter Collection

Note: All objects shown in this post are from the Paul Walter collection unless otherwise indicated.

The Raj, the period of British occupation in India, lasted from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. During this time, the silversmiths of India produced an incredible array of beautiful luxury tableware—including tea services, bowls, goblets, ewers, cutlery, gravy boats and card cases. Initially these pieces were made as gifts and for use in the homes of the British in India. They were also exhibited widely in Europe at expositions and shows. One of these was the Paris exposition of 1878, where the tea service for 12 given by a maharaja to the visiting Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in 1876 was on display, along with many other examples of Kashmiri silver. Indian silver soon became very sought-after in British and European markets. The London establishments Liberty & Co., Regent Street and Proctor & Co., Oxford Street, set up workshops in India to meet the demand.

Calling Card Case featuring Krishna, Madras, c. 1880

A tradition of European silversmithing had been established in Madras and Calcutta in the 1760s, but by the 1860s the Indian silversmiths had made it their own—wedding their traditional designs and love of embellishment with objects to suit the needs of the British.

Chinar Leaf Tea Service, Kashmir, c. 1885

The British love affair with tea began when they came across it in China, and silver tea services had long been a staple in the elegant English home. So when the British came to India and discovered that two of Indian’s greatest natural resources were tea (from northern India) and silver, the result was inevitable.

Workshop drawings of Oomersee Mawjee & Sons of Kutch
various dates, c. 1899-1904

What makes this work so fascinating is the ingenious blending of Indian motifs with western forms. These pieces have tremendous visual interest, intricate detail and texture. The Indian silversmiths created a wonderful hybrid, objects no longer strictly Indian or western, but an interesting amalgam of the two.

Kutch Silversmith at Work
Sketch by Percy Brown after John Lockwood Kipling, 1902-03

Another fascinating aspect of silver work produced during the Raj is that the various Indian regional design traditions, adapted for these new uses, were reflected in the objects. The silver from Kutch in Gujarat, in far western India, is heavily embossed, filled with all-over curves and arabesques. The patterns appear quite abstract and are often embellished with wonderful details such as a tea pot handle fashioned in the shape of a serpent, or a spout in the form of an elephant’s head.

Kutch teapot with snake handle and elephant-head spout, c. 1880
Private collection

Calling Card Case with Floral Pattern, Kutch, c. 1880

Four Pepper Pots, Kutch, c. 1885-1910

The silver produced in Calcutta contains very different imagery, depicting idyllic scenes from rural Bengali life—workers picking fruit, fetching water, planting or harvesting grain—as well palm trees, and an occasional cow or itinerant holy man.

Beaker with Village Scenes, Calcutta, c. 1885

The so-called Swami silver produced in Madras was filled with Hindu imagery—gods and temples, processions and scenes of music and dance. Much of this work was produced by P. Orr & Sons, a British firm established in India in 1876.

Five-piece Tea Service (detail)
P. Orr & Sons, Madras, c. 1876

P. Orr & Sons showroom, Madras, c. 1899
Courtesy: City Palace Museum, Udaipur

Gravy Boat, Madras, c. 1890

The silversmiths of Kashmir produced some of the most beautiful pieces of the period, highly embellished with botanical imagery. The British had a presence in Kashmir by the early 19th century and greatly admired the crafts of Kashmir, including the weaving. Of particular interest was the “shawl pattern” or paisley. The paisley, which looks like an elongated and stylized mango, got its name from the town of Paisley in Scotland, where many shawls of this pattern were woven. By 1887, silversmiths were incising paisley designs on plain silver against a background of intricately incised leaves, flowers and trees of the region, three of which dominated the designs. Coriander was depicted on the stem, often in continuous scroll work. The poppy, a very popular motif in Mughal art, was depicted both as closed buds and in full flower. The chinar leaf (from the Oriental plane tree (platanus orientalis) was often used in repoussé, with a background design of poppies or coriander (see a superb example at top of post.)

Lobed Stemmed Bowl, Kashmir, c. 1880

Chinar Leaf Plates, Kashmir, c. 1890

Until the late 20th century, the silver for the Raj, like other art of mixed heritage, was not widely valued by scholars who considered it “impure” and outside classical traditions. Fortunately, aesthetic horizons have expanded in recent years and this wonderful work is now getting the attention it deserves.

Wider Connections

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj by Vidya Dehejia
The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott

Hannah Höch: The “Quiet Girl” With a Big Voice (Part II)

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , on January 23, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on Hannah Höch, in which Venetian Red examines her extraordinary work in photomontage. Part I covers Höch’s early career as the only female member of the Berlin Dada group and work subsequent to her 1922 break with the group. Click here for all entries on Hannah Höch.

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Hannah Höch, Sea Serpent, 1937
Photomontage, 8 3/4 x 10 inches
(Institute für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)

Although trained as a painter and equally skillful at graphic and textile design, Höch is best-recognized for her thought-provoking photomontages, hundreds of images she patiently created through unparalleled dexterity in snipping and reassembling the photographs she sourced from mass-market magazines. Although largely uncredited in the past, Höch, the only female member of the Berlin Dadaists (1916-22), played a vital role in legitimizing photomontage as a fine art form.

Like her male colleagues, Höch initially used the medium to comment on the fragmented world of post-WWI Germany. Hers was a less bombastic voice (generally she avoided the addition of type-set slogans) laced with a subtler humor. The whimsical appearance of such characteristic work as Dada Panorama and Cut with the Kitchen Knife. . .  belies a biting sarcasm that decries ridiculous political personages and controversial policies of the Weimar Republic.

Kurt Schwitters, Censored, 1940
Drawing, stamp, string, envelope, and paint on paper, 6 1/2 in. x 4 1/2 in.
(SF MOMA)

Before long, Höch pushed beyond the thematic realm staked out by her male colleagues and began to wrestle with gender politics, specifically the contradictory nature of modern femininity and the stereotypic views of women. Gender identity would preoccupy her in one form or another for the rest of her career.

Max Ernst, Jean Hatchet and Charles the Bold, 1929
Collage, 9 1/2 x 8 inches
(Cleveland Museum of Art)

In 1922 Höch broke from Hausmann and the Berlin Dadaists. The 1920s became a period of intense experimentation for her, both tonally and stylistically. Her association with Hans and Sophie Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Theo and Nelly van Doesburg, and the Constructivists was a mutually-rewarding one, and it channeled her toward a more structured, less-chaotic visual style.

The 1925/26 Ethnographic series, for example, demonstrates a sparer style, divested of the visual frenzy of her Dada-era work.  This series also exemplifies the beginning of a tonal metamorphosis in her work from commentary aimed at specific political personages and events to the invocation of universal concepts and emotions. At the same time Höch’s relationship (1926-36) with Dutchwoman Til Brugman influenced her to think more expansively about gender relations, and many of her montages from this period contain elements of androgyny, female-to-female connections (see On the Way to Seventh Heaven below), and social alienation.

Hannah Höch, Russian Dancer/My Double, 1928
Photomontage, 12 x 8 7/8 inches
Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick, Germany)

To be sure, Höch had her apparently frivolous moments. Russian Dancer is characteristic of a small number of single female figure studies Höch executed between 1926-36.  All breezily posed, these women would seem to have no cares in the world. Their colossal heads, which mock their puny bodies, beg us not to take them seriously.  Are they simply the flirtatious cousins of the earlier, more serious “New Woman” figures or do they signify a deeper meaning? Perhaps they are a 2D continuation of Höch’s 1916 enchanting Dada dolls. The legs of ballet dancers occur frequently in her montages. They represent the athleticism of the “New Woman,” but are they also emblematic of the artist herself?

By the end of the 1920s, photomontage was generally accepted as fine art medium; it had been adopted even as a style of expression by the advertising and design worlds. Curiously, however, during most of this decade, Höch did not exhibit publicly.

Hannah Höch—On the Way to Seventh Heaven, 1934
Photomontage, 14 1/2 x 10 inches
(Barry Friedman, Ltd., New York)

That would change in 1929, when the artist participated in two important exhibits.  The prestigious “Film and Photo” exhibition, the first big photography show in Europe, included 18 of her photomontages.  Some 10,000 people saw the exhibition on its first tour stop alone, Stuttgart. In that year, the De Bron Gallery in The Hague mounted her first one-woman show, which included her oil paintings, numerous drawings, and watercolors, though not her photomontages.

Hannah Höch’s public career as an artist was launched. Other exhibitions followed—in 1931 at Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum; and in 1932 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. The Bauhaus mounted a show of 15 of her photomontages later that year.

Regrettably, this new-found public recognition came to an end in 1933, when Adolf Hitler seized political power.

Arthur Kampf, January 30, 1933, 1939
Oil on canvas
(Source: Kunst im Dritten Reich)

Like many avant-garde artists, Höch and her circle were deemed “Cultural Bolshiviks” and “degenerates” by the National Socialist régime.   Almost immediately, they were prohibited from showing their work. As a result, many of Höch’s friends fled Germany, among them Schwitters, Ernst, and Moholy-Nagy. Those, like her, who stayed behind generally worked quietly and out of sight.

Höch refused to overtly support the Nazis. But she also steered clear of political provocation. Despite the oppressive environment, she never lost her sense of humor, as montages like and Sea Serpent (top) and Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground make clear.  During years from 1936-1946, she turned to nature with some arresting results. Sea Serpent is a unrestrained, yet wholly accessible, surrealistic fantasy, evoking all of the unseeable and astonishing life under the sea. In retrospect, one is tempted to read more into this work, though it is not clear that Höch meant to suggest a connection with Nazi authority.

Compositionally, it is a deceptively-sophisticated montage. The echo at the top register of the aquatic life on the lowest register (though use of the piece from which they were cut) not only ties the composition neatly together, but adds visual complexity by playing with the pictorial plane.

Hannah Höch, Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground, 1940
Photomontage, 12 11/16 x 8 3/16 inches
(Institute für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)

As the 1930s wore on, Höch’s world became increasingly dangerous. In September, 1939, a few days after Britain and France declared war on Germany (for invading Poland), she moved to relative obscurity of Heiligensee, a suburb of Berlin. She felt lucky to have found a place where “nobody would know me by sight or be aware of my lurid past as a Dadaist” (Eine Lebenscollage, Volume I). She kept a low profile during the war years. As a result, her work was marginalized once again.

Nevertheless, Höch did not stop working. As Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground testifies, Höch was capable of suggesting the vaguely sinister in the apparently banal.  As in the Ethnographic series, she mixes tribal artifacts (in this case a mask) with human forms to suggest alienation. Most definitely in the realm of the fastastic, the picture defies specific explication. And yet, one cannot help but wonder whether the dangling legs (again the ballet dancers) signify Höch’s view of her existence in the world, that is, a woman intent on being above the ground in a cloud, avoiding detection (by flying monster).

Hannah Höch, With Seaweed, 1950
Cut-and-pasted papers, torn papers, and gouache on paper, 13 5/8 x 9 7/8 inches
(MOMA)

Hannah Höch, Glued Drawing II, 1955
Photomontage, 14 x 9 13/16 inches
(Galerie Alvensleben, Munich)

With the end of WWII, Höch began showing again; in fact, she exhibited constantly through the late 1950s. She produced a prodigious amount of work and flowered as a public persona in the process. In a testament to Germany’s cultural embrace of Dada, she organized and participated in a large show, “Photomontage from Dada to Today.” Interestingly,  she staked out an expanded view of photomontage in the catalog’s introduction, in the process coining the phrase “free-form” photomontage.  This view would guide her toward the abstract images of the 50s, which for the first time were devoid of any recognizable real-world reference.

Hannah Höch (left) with Hans Richter, Juliet Man-Ray, Frida Richter, and Man Ray, 1958.

With the widespread introduction of color in magazines throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, a huge amount of source material became available to Höch in virtually every color of the palette. Though not the most visually-arresting (that honor might belong Little Sun), certainly one of the most bewitching of images from this period is Homage to Riza Abazzi, which conjoins an elegant Audrey Hepburn look-alike head to a rubbery belly dancing body.

The piece references a Persian miniaturist, Riza-i Abbasi (known alternatively as Reza or Riza Abassi), the most important painter of the Safavid period for his revolutionary impact on painting at the time. It is not clear what specific significance Abbasi had to Höch. Perhaps the piece was inspired by a particular painting of his.

It is well-known, however, that the particular images that inspired her appeared in a German magazine alongside a blurb that referenced Audrey Hepburn’s dismay at having her head joined artificially to a voluptuous bikini-clad body for Roman Holiday advertising stills. Although the compositional emphasis is different, Homage. . . belongs to the lineage of single female figures.  This figure also prances, not at all dismayed by her mismatched head and body conjoined. In fact, she strikes a defiant and proud pose, despite her relatively zaftig mid-section and wobbly legs. Is Höch intimating that it’s what’s in your head that counts?

Hannah Höch, Homage to Riza Abazzi, 1963
Photomontage, 13 7/8 x 7 3/16 inches
(Institute für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)

Riza-i Abbasi,Two Lovers, 1630
Tempera and gilt paint on paper, 7 1/8 x 4 11/16 inches
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The 1970s for Höch were characterized by thematic and stylistic freedom. Drawing upon five decades of experimentation Höch produced images in an amalgamation of styles during the years of her life—surrealist fantasies, colorful abstractions, and one final uncharacteristically large-scale work, Life Portrait, that harked back to her Dada-era style.

Hannah Höch, Color Composition (Head), 1975
Lithograph
(Sammlung Deutsche Bank)

Montage is often considered a minor art form, derided as “mere recycling” and lacking the “heroism” of painting and sculpture and even photography.  On the other hand, painter and art historian Franz Roh once characterized photomontage as: “the precarious synthesis of the two most important tendencies in modern visual culture. . . the pictorial techniques of modernist abstraction and the realism of the photographic fragment” (paraphrased by Christopher Phillips in Montage and Modern Life: 1919-1942). If one has confidence in that idea, it’s hard to see how photomontage couldn’t challenge the monolithic supremacy of painting.

Höch’s photomontages, like all photomontages, disparage the notion of the painter as God, creating a world from nothing (the blank canvas). Rather than create the world anew, Höch chose to reflect our notions about it through the subtle but wicked snipping of her scissors. Cut with the kitchen knife, indeed!

Though she may have been a “quiet girl,” Hannah Höch’s voice was a big one. Over five decades of devotion to the medium, she demonstrated that in skillful hands photomontage could rival painting in illuminating our world.

Hannah Hoch, Life Portrait (detail), 1972-73
Photomontage
(Lisalotte and Armin Orgel-Kühne, Berlin)

Wider Connections
Fantastic Photomontage and its Possible Influences
Max Ernst: A Retrospective (Metropolitan Museum of Art Publications)
Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran
The Independent“Hanging Hitler’s Painters”

Mathias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting, XC with tags , , , , , on January 19, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Mathias Grünewald, Crucifixion, Isenheim Altarpiece, c.1512/15
Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar

I’ve been thinking lately about the transformative power of art and its relevance in our troubled world. In medieval times, through its connection to the church, art held a more central place in people’s lives, as it sought to enlighten, instruct and relieve suffering.

This brought to mind the Isenheim Altarpiece by German painter Mathias Grünewald (c. 1475-1528). The Isenheim Altarpiece embodies the human condition laid bare—from the extremes of catastrophic darkness to the rapture of resurrection and eternal life. The graceful, linear quality of the drawing and the vibrant, expressionist use of color would be enough to set this work apart—but Grünewald’s individualistic iconography and the intense emotional impact of the Isenheim Altarpiece make it completely unique.

There is also another aspect of the Isenheim Altarpiece which intensifies its powerful spiritual presence—it was commissioned by the monks of a medieval hospital in the tiny hamlet of Isenheim to help lessen the suffering of their patients afflicted with a terrible skin disease called St. Anthony’s fire, or ergotism, which was caused by rye fungus. In a time before painkillers, the patients meditated on Christ’s intense suffering and resurrection to help them cope with their own agonies.

Crucifixion: Mary, John and Mary Magdalene (detail)

The Isenheim Altarpiece, painted on nine hinged panels, contains twelve images, including two sets of folding wings. It can be viewed in three ways. In its closed position—the way it would have been viewed originally on weekdays at the hospital—the central panel shows the Crucifixion, with side panels of St. Anthony and St. Sebastian. The second view shows the Annunciation, the Angelic Concert, the Madonna and Child and the Resurrection. In the third view, a pre-existing carved and gilded wooden altarpiece is flanked by Grünewald’s paintings of the Temptation of St. Anthony and the Meeting with Anthony and Paul.

The Annunciation

Madonna and Child

Resurrection

As the panels of the altarpiece were unfolded, the enormous scope of the intense, riveting drama was revealed. Grünewald’s image of the crucified Christ is imbued with a visceral and emotional intensity. Christ, his skin a grayish green, covered with wounds—has clearly writhed in agony, his limbs twisted, his hands distorted, his head with its crown of thorns hanging painfully on his chest. This is a portrait of a brutal, solitary death—the sense of immediacy, agony and isolation is palpable. By contrast, the resurrected Christ, surrounded by light, is a triumphant image of the rapture of eternal life.

Crucifixion: Head of Christ (detail)

Resurrection: Head of Christ (detail)

Mathias Grünewald’s real name was Mathis Gothardt Neihardt—the name Grünewald was mistakenly attributed to him 150 years after his death. For a painter who was so well-thought of in his own time, remarkably little information about him has been passed down and few of his works survive—only about ten paintings (including multi-paneled altar pieces) and 35 drawings. All the work that remains is religious in nature. Unlike Albrecht Dürer and the other great German artists of the time, who excelled at woodcarving and other forms of print making, Grünewald only made paintings and drawings, which in itself is very unusual. So little was known about Grünewald, that until the 19th century, it was believed that the Isenheim Altarpiece was painted by Albrecht Dürer.

Study for Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1512

What we do know is that by 1509, Grünewald was court painter to the Archbishop of Mainz, and that he was commissioned to paint the Isenheim Altarpiece around 1512-15.  Art historians disagree as to interpretations and influences—for example, one categorically states that Grünewald, because of his clear knowledge of Italian painting, must have traveled widely—another asserts he never left Germany. Personally, I don’t think the facts of Grünewald’s life can really do much to explain the expressive, luminous intensity of the work or how he pushed his artistic skill to the point where he could capture so powerfully the tension and emotion of this transformative  work.

Crucifixion: St. Sebastian (detail)

The complex and unusual iconography of the Isenheim Altarpiece is puzzling. The imagery in religious art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance may seem mysterious to many of us today, but can be easily deciphered by art historians—the reason and background behind every element depicted can be traced, parsed and explained. Not so with Grünewald. Some of his iconography appears to be related to the work of the 14th century mystic, St Bridget of Sweden, whose Revelations was widely read in Germany at that time, but that does not explain all of the unusual visual references. It seems that Grünewald took an eclectic approach not only stylistically, but as regards subject matter as well.

Crucifixion: John the Baptist and the Lamb

Altarpieces were created for one purpose: to embody a specific aspect of generally recognized religious truth. In the process of spiritual meditation the barrier between the viewer and the artistic creation is broken. The Isenheim Altarpiece, in its intensity, tenderness and majesty is the power of this transformation made visible. Like Hieronymous Bosch, Grünewald infuses his work with a highly personal imagination that elicits a strong reaction from the viewer.

Monsters from the Temptation of St. Anthony panel

Grünewald clearly had a knowledge of Central European art from the late Gothic to the beginning of the 16th century, and incorporates elements from these various time periods in a highly original and independent way. There are links to Bosch and Netherlandish painting, as well as intimations of the naturalism of the Renaissance in Italy. Grünewald, on the cusp of the German Reformation, embodies aspects of both medieval and Renaissance art. Unlike the masters of the Italian Renaissance—whose work Grünewald may or may not have seen personally—Grünewald’s heavenly creatures are conjured from light, they are clearly not of this world. Painters of the Italian Renaissance incorporated spiritual beings into the known world. As an example, see the work of Michaelangelo who was painting the Sistine Chapel at the same time Grünewald was painting his altarpiece. In Grünewald, the supernatural world exists outside the human realm.

The Angelic Concert

Angels of the Annunciation

Grünewald’s masterpiece, forgotten for centuries, was rediscovered by a wider public following the horrors of World War I. At the outbreak of war, the Isenheim Altarpiece was moved from the Musée d’Unterlinden and sent for safe-keeping to Munich. After the war it was restored and exhibited for a time in the Alte Pinakothek before returning to Colmar. The Expressionists, then dominating the art scene in Germany, looked to Grünewald as their forerunner and to the Isenheim Altarpiece as the confirmation of their philosophy. The world, traumatized and overwhelmed by the death and destruction of the war, turned to the Isenheim Altarpiece for solace and inspiration.

Wider Connections

The Isenheim Altar: Suffering and Salvation in the Art of Grunewald by Gottfried Richter
Mathias Grünewald
by Horst Ziermann
Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar

Hannah Höch: The “Quiet Girl” with a Big Voice (Part I)

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , , , on January 16, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Hannah Höch, in which Venetian Red examines her extraordinary career, as well as her impact on the photomontage medium and impact on subsequent generations of artists. Click here for other Venetian Red entries on Hannah Höch.

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010.  All Rights Reserved.

Hannah Höch, Dompteuse (Tamer), 1930
Photomontage with collage elements, 14 x 10 1/4 inches
(Kunsthaus Zürich)

Of all the practitioners of the photomontage medium, Hannah Höch (1889-1978) ranks as one of the most consistently innovative and clever. Yet, despite a prodigious career that spanned over half a century, for many years, if she was recognized at all, Höch was categorized simply as a minor Dadaist, an unfortunate legacy of her early association with the über-macho Berlin Dadaist group (e.g., Raoul Hausmann, Georg Grosz, Hans Richter, John Heartfield, born Helmut Herzfeld).

Hanna Höch, ca.1920s

The narrow label belied the profusion of themes explored by Höch over her career.  It failed to consider the range of styles she employed beyond Dada-inspired political commentary— surrealist fantasy, intimate portraiture, outright abstraction.  And it ignored her masterly manipulation of the photomontage medium, which to this eye reached far beyond the skills of the other Dadaists.

Thankfully, since her death, a wider appreciation for her work (photomontage, painting, and textile designs) has emerged through exhibitions and new scholarship. The full impact of her influence on subsequent generations of artists has yet to be charted.

Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912
Oil and oilcloth on canvas, with rope frame, 10 5/8 x 13 3/4 in. (27 x 35 cm.)
(Musee Picasso, Paris)

Collage has a long history—the earliest surviving examples may be 12th century Japanese calligraphic scrolls. With the invention of photography in the mid-19th century, collaging photographic fantasies became a hugely-popular pastime in Victorian and Edwardian parlors. In 1912 Picasso and Braque introduced the fine-art world to “collage” (reputedly they coined the phrase), specifically the addition of actual materials (like chair caning) to their painted canvases.

But it was the Berlin Dadaists who established fotomontage (literally “photo engineering”) as a fully-respected modern art form.

Hannah Höch, The Coquette, 1923-25
Photomontage, approximately 7 1/3 x 8 1/16 inches

Hannah Höch met Raoul Hausmann in 1915, and they became lovers for seven years (although he remained married). It was a difficult relationship, which brought Höch much emotional pain. The Berlin Dadaists begrudgingly admitted her as the only woman into their ranks, but they never accepted her as an equal. Hausmann dismissed her work. Hans Richter referred to her pejoratively in his memoirs as the “quiet girl” with a “tiny voice.” Grosz and Heartfield were set against her participation in the Dada Fair of 1920.

Ironically, it was Höch who experimented early on with photomontage, the medium which the group would later adopt as its own. Her first mature work of photomontage can be reliably dated to a 1918 summer vacation with Hausmann on the Baltic coast. (Although Hausmann also takes credit for having invented the medium on the same trip.)

Imported from Zürich, the Dada movement gelled in Berlin around 1918 as a statement against the unstable political and social situation brought on by the destruction wrought by WW1,  Germany’s stuggle to pay reparations and the formation of the Weimar Republic with its extremist elements. On the other hand, German artists benefited from the “golden” years of the Weimar era (1923-29) which witnessed a rich blossoming of German culture with Berlin as its hothouse center.

Hannah Höch, Design for Darned Filet, 1920
Graphite on paper
(Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst)

Dada may have launched Höch into her life’s work, but it never completely defined her. When she met Hausmann, she was studying graphic arts and book design at the School of the Royal Museum of Applied Arts, having already attended the Charlottenberg School of Applied Arts.

Hannah Höch, Tailor’s Flower, 1920
Collage, 20 1/4 x 17 1/4 inches
(Collection Louise Rosenfield Noun, Des Moines)

Further, between 1916 and 1926, Höch held down a part-time job in the editorial department of the handiwork division at Ullstein, one of the largest publishing houses in Germany. There she designed fashions, sewing and embroidery patterns, and occasionally penned an article on “domestic arts” topics. She considered this work to be on a par with her fine arts pursuits.

The job allowed her to maintain an artistic foot in the very different worlds of avant-garde and commercial art. The creative synergy that flowed from this dual life benefited her montage work. Tailor’s Flower (above), formed from bits of sewing pattern paper, demonstrates Höch’s regard for woman’s “crafts,” as well as early foray into abstraction.

Hans Richter, Dada Kopf, 1918
Oil on canvas, 14.3 x 11.2 inches

Additionally, the job provided her with an income, which she used to support Hausmann, and at times, various gatherings with the other Dadaists. Höch once pointed out to Hans Richter that the  “the sandwiches, beer and coffee she managed somehow to conjure up despite the shortage of money” (his view of her contribution to Dada) had actually been provided by her income.

Thus, while Höch embraced the political and socially agenda of Dada, ultimately she distanced herself substantively and stylistically from her male colleagues.

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, 1919
Photomontage, 44 7/8 x 35 9/16 inches
(Preubischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Berlin)

The tour de force Cut with the Kitchen Knife. . . demonstrates how different her compositions were from those of her male colleagues.  A  consummate statement about the Weimar era, it is a visual rollcall of virtually every military, political and cultural figure in early Weimar Germany. Höch herself once observed that it was a cross-section of the turbulent times. In true Dada fashion, the piece presents the world according to a”them” vs. “us” diacotomy. Communists consort with Dadaists, while Weimar officials are consigned to the “anti-Dada” corner in the upper right.

Raoul Hausmann, ABCD, 1923-24
Photomontage, 16 x 11.1 inches
(Centre Pompidou, Paris)

But there is an underlying social message in the work as well.  Though male figures appear as the majority, it is the women who occupy the limelight. They are the only figures in motion. In their running, dancing, and jumping the artist celebrates the concept of the “New Woman”—the energetic, professional, somewhat androgynous woman, who emerged in the wake of WW1, ready to take her place as an equal to men. In the right-hand corner a map of Europe identifies the countries in which women already could or soon would be able to vote. (A small portrait near the map links Höch herself to the political empowerment of women.) Even the title, “kitchen knife,”  alludes to the role woman’s work would have in the new world order.  Thus, does this seminal work stake out what would become Höch’s lifelong preoccupation with gender identity and relationship between the sexes.

Hannah Höch, Da Dandy, 1919
Photomontage, 11 13/16 x 9 1/16 inches

This was a topic which male members of the group, for all their rhetoric about emancipation, never tackled. As Höch observed:

None of these men were satisfied with just an ordinary woman. But neither were they included to abandon the (conventional) male/masculine morality toward the woman. Enlightened by Freud, in protest against the older generation. . . they all desired this ‘New Woman’ and her groundbreaking will to freedom. But—they more or less brutally rejected the notion that they, too, had to adopt new attitudes. . . This led to these truly Strinbergian dramas that typified the private lives of these men.

—from scraps of undated notes found among Höch’s posessions.

In Da Dandy (above) women meld into men, as fragments of contemporary female heads in modern fashions of the day recombine to form the profile of a man (facing right and identified by a thin red line). Höch’s work never seems to offer a conclusive answer as to the true identity of the “New Woman”; on the contrary, it often raises the question of whether the economic and social status quo has changed.

Hannah Höch, The Bride, 1933
photomontage with collage elements, 7  7/8 x 7 3/4 inches
(Collection Thomas Walther, New York)

Perhaps it was the training at Ullstein that facilitated Höch’s finely-tuned eye for both snipping and re-assembling, which is so amply on display in Cut with the Kitchen Knife. . . .  Even the simplest of her images are built from a complex array of pictorial fragments, which in the work of the teens and 1920s often reached reckless heights. Höch loved wild disjunctions of scale, and the juxtaposition of unlikely elements, particularly animals and machines with humans.

And yet, for all their mapcap surface energy, her compositions are for the most part highly unified, their elements anchored by good compositional structure. For the most part, this quality is missing in the male Dadaist montages.

Raoul Hausmann, The Art Critic, 1919/20
Photomontage, 12 1/2 x 10 inches
(Tate Collection)

Höch’s focus on the nature of female identity (and its depiction in the media) would reach a crescendo in the 1930s in works like Tamer (above), while also expanding to include racial identity in works similar to The Bride. Most probably Tamer relates to her new life with Dutchwoman Til Brugman (they were together for 10 years); it represents the general move toward increasing gender ambiguity in Höch’s imagery.

By juxtaposing the features of a non-white with the ceremonial accoutrements of a European bride, The Bride asks viewers to consider the tension between “Self” and  “Other,”  as well as the nature of subjugation (by marriage, by one people against another).

Both works point toward the simplification of imagery that be the hallmark of Höch’s style in the 1930s.

Hannah Höch, Abduction (from the Ethnographic Museum series), 1925
Photomontage with collage elements, 8 3/8 x 8 11/16 inches
(Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

Höch finally broke with Hausmann in 1922 and started to come into her own as an artist. She turned to friends Kurt Schwitters, the Arps, Lazslo Moholy-Nagy and the van Doesburgs, who embraced her readily, supported her work, and furthered her contact with artists beyond the Dadaists.

Her most exciting work during the 1920s must surely be the ambitious “From the Ethnographic Museum” series (Abduction above), 17 montages that constitute an epic foray into the notion of Lebensraum (colonial expansion), “primitive” cultures and “underdeveloped” (i.e. inferior) peoples, and female alienation. The series is remarkable for its thematic coherence, elegant visual impact, and technical virtuosity.

“From the Ethnographic Museum” was visually influenced by the newly-redone tribal art displays in the Ethnological Museum. A predominant number of snippets Höch used came from a single issue of Querschnitt magazine entirely devoted to the displays.  Each delicately reconstituted object in the series is showcased on its own pedestal, thus reflecting the idealization (and trivialization) of “primitive” artifacts by “developed” nations.

Abduction represents the type of complexity at work in the seemingly-simple images of the series. The female face may be a stand in for Höch. In any case, one might read this image any number of ways—the nobility of “primitive” culture, civilization being carried away by tribal culture, the subjugation of the female identity.

The 1920s were a particularly fruitful decade for Höch, as she explored new emotional and thematic territory. Curiously, however, she exhibited virtually not at all publicly during this period. Nontheless, by the end of the 1920s, photomontage had become an accepted medium, and Höch was gaining public recognition for her work.

Hannah Höch, Sea Serpent, 1937
Photomontage, 8 3/4 x 10 inches
(Institute für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)

Next: following Hannah Höch through the Nazi era and later life.

Wider Connections

“Dating the Dompteuse: Hannah Höch’s Reconfiguration of the Tamer” by Joe Mills & Peter Boswell (Courtesy of  Stephen Perloff/Photo Review Magazine)
Virtual Tour, “Hannah Höch—All Beginnings Are Dada” exhibition, 2008
Hannah Höch: Album (English and German Edition)
Eva Lake—Tough Cuts
Luc Sante—Dada’s Girl (1997 Museum of Modern Art)
Landesmuseum für Moderne Kunst/Berlinische Galerie
The Photomontages of Hannah Höch—Walker Art Center exhibition catalog
Marsha Meskimmon—We Weren’t Modern Enough: Women Artists and the Limits of German ModernismCut & Paste—A Hisory of Photomontage
Artsvis 54 on collage

Venetian Red Bookshelf: January Picks

Posted in Book Review, Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , on January 14, 2010 by Christine Cariati

Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum (2009) by Michael Gross

Rogue’s Gallery is a very detailed, often disconcerting and sometimes humorous saga of the epic battle between Art and Commerce. Gross’ book is a gossipy and often lurid account of greed, shenanigans and skullduggery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 138-year history. Beginning with the post-Civil War moguls who founded the museum, Gross details the conflicts and wrangling over the museum’s mission and methods of acquisition that have taken place among the museum’s relative handful of directors, curators, donors and trustees. The collisions of these giant egos—people who often mistake their wealth and power for wisdom and expertise—does make for entertaining, if sometimes disturbing, reading. There are stories here of individuals committed to the public good, but more common are tales of stolen and looted art and the nefarious dealings of status-seeking philanthropists and ego-driven curators and directors.

Gross chronicles the succession of Met directors. The first director, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, (who was himself involved with some dubious tomb excavating in Cyprus) did not want the museum open on Sundays because he didn’t want the hoi polloi, the working people of New York, to sully his Museum.  Thomas Hoving, director from 1966-77, was a charismatic man who presided over a period of huge expansion and impressive acquisition (and has the dubious distinction of bequeathing the world the blockbuster exhibit.)  Philippe de Montebello, who recently stepped down after a thirty-year reign, largely realized his vision of making the Met a more culturally inclusive institution, witness the 84,000 items from an impressive array of world cultures acquired during his tenure.

Unfortunately, from my point of view, the fascinating artistic stories behind some of the two million paintings and objects that grace the Metropolitan’s stupendous and inspiring collection, are not the focus of this book. Gross, a journalist and best-selling author, often indulges in a gleefully vitriolic tone. There’s a lot in this book to make it worth reading, but I would have preferred to read more about the art itself, and the incredibly complex inner workings of the museum, and less Vanity Fair-style gossip.  As the author states:

[The Metropolitan] is a huge alchemical experiment, turning the worst of man’s attributes—extravagance, lust, envy, avarice, greed, egotism and pride—into the very best, translating deadly sins into priceless treasure.

Christine Cariati

Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything (2004)
by Bill Bryson

Hours in the studio for days on end sorely tests even the most voluminous of iPod playlists. That’s one reason I turned to audiobooks last year. The other reason was more expedient—there’s just too damn much out there to read only at night.

Were it not for the audio version (which SF Public Library allowed me to download right to my computer), I’m not sure I would have gotten through Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Not that the material isn’t fascinating or his narrative, engrossing; on the contrary, in A Short History… Bryson spins an absolutely riveting yarn. But at 500+ pages the book could well have sat on my bedside table for months.

While listening to the first disk, another advantage of the audio version became apparent. The ground that Bryson covers in this book is massive. Try to imagine compressing four million or so years of Earth’s history and human knowledge about that history into one volume and you’ll begin to understand the enormity of his task. (You’ll wonder how he held it to just one volume.) I was happy to be sitting in my own private lecture hall listening to an animated professor engage me in the material than to be slogging through the syllabus on my own.

In a whirlwind narrative Bryson covers the nature of space, the big bang, the formation of the planets (Earth in particular), geology, biology, physics, paleontology, plate tectonics, DNA, and the atomic bomb. And he makes some esoteric science all perfectly cogent. I enjoyed the background on the various disciplines, but it was his tales of the lives of various scientists, their discoveries,  and professional bickering that really captivated me.

Bryson summarizes the lives and achievements of celebrated scientists the likes of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, but entices with tidbits about their peculiarities. Newton, for example, inserted a long needle into his eye socket and twirled it around, just to see what would happen. Einstein had a child out of wedlock.He covers lesser-known scientists like Englishman Fred Hoyle, controversial inventor of the “big Bang” phrase, whose cosmic theories ended up being completely debunked by later scientists. He also tackles the outright obscure, not to mention eccentric, scientists like Henry Cavendish, an English chemist, who perfected the means of capturing gases over water (which ultimately led to the discovery of hydrogen). Cavendish was so shy that his own housekeeper communicated with him by letter.

Bryson is a popular writer of the best kind—he wrangles an enormous amount of historical material into a lively and accessible narrative. At its core A Short History… is  the story of human progress, and what an amazing tale it is when you hear it encapsulated like this.

If I had any complaint about the book it would only be that its material requires close listening and even relistening, and this interrupted the process of working on my art. By the end of the book I was convinced the education I received was more than worth the inconvenience to my art.

Liz Hager

Christian Bérard: Painter, Designer, Illustrator

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Drawing, Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Illustration, Music & Dance, Painting, Rugs, Textiles, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Christian Bérard, Self-portrait, 1948
Oil on canvas, 18″ x 24″
Private collection, Paris

Christian Bérard (1902-1949) was a prodigiously-talented artist, whose tremendous facility across different fields, and his status as the darling of fashionable society in the Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, undermined his reputation as a serious painter. Bérard’s work confounded the critics because his work was unclassifiable—it existed outside the current theories of art, and he interchanged techniques and disciplines. Bérard’s ground-breaking set and costume designs, fashion and book illustrations, murals, decorative screens and interior designs all demonstrated a sensitive, fluid, graceful, elegant line.

Christian Bérard, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1932
Mural for Jean Cocteau’s flat, Paris

Christian Bérard, set for Margot, 1935
Margot’s Room at the Louvre, Act II, Scene 1
Gouache on paper

Bérard’s paintings, mostly portraits and self-portraits, added another dimension to his talent as a draughtsman. Painted with insight and great skill, in a neo-romantic, poetic style, they exhibit a deeply-felt humanism. His friend and partner of 20 years, Boris Kochno, remarked that when he was painting, Bérard’s usual childlike exuberance would vanish, and he would work with great concentration and intensity, seeming to take instruction from an unseen third party. Bérard often reused canvases, painting over work he was dissatisfied with—so one can occasionally glimpse ghost-like images, faint faces, emerging from some of his paintings.

Christian Bérard, Madame L., 1947
Oil on canvas, 32″ x 26″
Private Collection

Christian Bérard, Boris Kochno, 1930
Oil on cardboard, 43″ x 31″
Collection Boris Kochno

Christian Bérard, Emilio Terry, 1931
Oil on canvas, 36″ x 28″
Private collection, Paris

Born in Paris in 1902, Bérard was the son of the official architect of the city of Paris, André Bérard. His mother’s early death from tuberculosis was traumatic for the young Bérard. After his wife’s death, the elder Bérard married his secretary, who joined him in the constant disparaging and belittling of his son’s talents, friendships and spending habits. Perhaps Bérard’s life-long desire to please and give pleasure, and his susceptibility to flattery, was a reaction to this early and intense hostility from his family.

Christian Bérard, 1932
Photograph, Hoyningen-Huene

Bérard showed artistic talent at a young age. As a child he filled sketchbooks with drawings of ballets and circus performances that he attended with his parents. He also copied the couture gowns from his mother’s fashion magazines, which at that time were heavily influenced by the Orientalism of Léon Bakst’s sets for Diaghilev’s ballets. As a young man, he studied at the Académie Ranson with Edouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis and had his first gallery show in 1925. His early work was collected by Gertrude Stein, and he did portraits of his friends Coco Chanel, Jean Cocteau, Cecil Beaton and Horst P. Horst.

Christian Bérard, Jean Cocteau, 1928
Oil on canvas, 26″ x 21″
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Christian Bérard, Horst P. Horst, 1933/34
Oil on canvas, 31″ x 41″
Private collection, New York

Throughout his career, when he needed the income, Bérard continued to do illustrations for fashion and interior design magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Art et Style, Formes et Coleurs and Style en France. He had a great eye for fashion and style, and his work elevated the art of fashion illustration, updating a Watteau or Fragonard sensibility for women’s fashion to the styles of the 1930s and 40s. His work often inspired the couture collections of designers like Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli and Nina Ricci. Bérard also did some interior decoration and textile design—painting murals and decorative screens, designing rugs—as well as a line of scarves for Ascher Silks, London.

Christian Bérard, illustration, beachwear for Schiaparelli, n.d.

Christian Bérard, Scarf designed for Ascher Silks, London

Christian Bérard, carpet design, c. 1940
Made by Maurice Lauer/Aubusson and Cogolin, reissued 1951

Bérard also continued to do illustrations for theater and ballet posters, music scores, and advertising throughout his life.

Christian Bérard, Sketch for an illustration of Gigi by Colette, n.d.
Pastel and gouache, 13″ x 8″

Christian Bérard, Poster for the Ballets des Champs-Elysées

Christian Bérard, Empress Josephine
Illustration for Queens of France by Jean Cocteau and Guillaume, 1949
Drypoint

Christian Berard, Illustration for score by Georges Auric, 1935
Gouache on paper

Christian Bérard was a large man, with fair hair, luminous blue eyes, and a rosy plump face that earned him the nickname Bébé, given to him by his friends because he resembled the baby in an advertisement for soap that was currently up all over Paris. Bérard’s appearance was often disheveled, he would stride into Maxim’s or other society nightspots in tattered paint-spattered smock and torn coveralls, with a large patterned scarf flung dramatically over his baggy workman’s jacket. Boris Kochno also recounts long walks through Paris at night—Bérard constantly noticing and pointing out glimpses of magical scenes, almost like a conjurer. Bérard never lost his childhood enjoyment of carnivals and street fairs and threw himself with great enthusiasm into the constant round of costume parties given by his friends. He excelled at spontaneously creating costumes from fabrics and items at hand.

Christian Bérard, sketch for Cyrano de Bergerac, 1938
Indian ink and gouache
Private collection

When agitated or absorbed in his work, Bérard could be very clumsy, and he could turn a well-ordered room into chaos in short order—leaving a wake of crumbled papers, overflowing ash trays, and stepped-on tubes of paint.  He was also extremely witty and charming—his spontaneity, kindness and charisma made him very popular in fashionable circles. He was always creating—while dining with friends, like New York society hostess Elsa Maxwell, Bérard would constantly be drawing on table cloths, napkins, menus—caricatures, stage sets, costumes. The waiters would hover and often quickly whisk them away, usually to sell to collectors.

Christian Bèrard, Program for Le Théàtre de la Mode, 1945

In 1930, Bérard designed his first theater set, for Jean Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine at the Comédie-Française. Cocteau was a life-long friend, and the work that Bérard is perhaps most famous for, is his set and costume design for Cocteau’s film masterpiece, La Belle et la Bête. Unfortunately, Bérard also shared Cocteau’s vice, the smoking of opium, which lead to a life of drug addiction, repeated sanatorium cures, and contributed to his early death.

Christian Bérard, sketchess for sets for Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, 1946
Chalk and gouache on black paper
Private Collection

In 1931, Bérard joined the company of the Ballet Russes in Monte Carlo, working with choreographer George Balanchine on the ballet Cotillon. Balanchine had taken over for ballet impresario and founder of the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. Balanchine continued in Diaghilev’s tradition of scouring the garrets of Montparnasse and Montmartre to find unknown choreographers, set designers or musicians to collaborate with. At first Balanchine declined to work with Bérard because he thought his work was already too well-known as an artist and illustrator, but the quality of Bérard’s work caused him to change his mind.

Christian Bérard, sketch for L’Ecole des Femmes, 1936
Horace’s Costume, Gouache

In the 1930s, Bérard did the sets and costumes for four ballets as well as many plays, such as Moliere’s L’Ecole des Femmes at the Théàtre de l’Athenée in 1936. He also worked with Jean Genet and Jean Giraudoux, among others. Bérard’s work was revolutionary and changed theater design forever—his set for L’Ecole consisted of a small garden, two flowerbeds and 5 chandeliers. He believed that  sets should serve and enhance the work, he was always subtracting elements, leaving just the essentials. His set for Léonid Massine’s ballet set to the music of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, was a masterpiece of delicate, weightless friezes. Except for the judicious use of deep red, Bérard eschewed bright colors, believing that pale, soft color better served the performances. To see Bérard working on a set was to see an outpouring of inventiveness. After Bérard’s death, Jean Cocteau said of working with his friend:

Christian Bérard was my right hand. Since he was left-handed, I had a special, clever, gracious, light right hand: a magical hand.
You may imagine the emptiness left by an artist who guessed all, and with the dilligence of an archeologist, conjured up naked beauty from the thin air where she resides. Bérard is dead, but that is no reason to stop following his instructions. I know what he would say about anything, in any circumstances. I listen to him and carry out his orders.

Christian Bérard in the studio at Fourques, 1940

Christian Berard died in 1949, while at work on the costumes and sets for Les Fourberies de Scapin at the Théàtre Marigny, working with friends director Louis Jouvet and actors Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud. After giving some final instructions, Bérard stood up and said: “Well, that’s that,” and collapsed from a cerebral embolism. Jean-Louis Barrault wrote:

If I had to chose only one among the many impressions of Christian Bérard that spring to mind, it would be one that soon became for him a profession of faith: the joy of living, to the extent of perishing from that joy…It is as if, while I think intensely of him, all of the Bérards leaping about me reply:

‘Love of life is based on suffering, anguish, nostalgia, sorrow and sadness…that’s true, but all that is the source of joy.’

Wider Connections

Christian Bérard’s work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Menil Collection, Houston and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas.

Christian Bérard, by Boris Kochno, with an introduction by John Russell. Thames and Hudson, 1988.

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