Archive for February, 2010

The Paradox of Henri Fantin-Latour

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting, Printmaking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

The canvases of M. Fantin-Latour do not assault your eyes, do not leap at you from the walls. They must be looked at for a length of time in order to penetrate them, and their conscientiousness, their simple truth—you take these in entirely, and then you return. — Emile Zola, 1880

Henri Fantin-Latour, Roses in a Glass Vase, 1873
Oil on canvas
(Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, England)

Recently, I’ve been revisiting the art of the still-life, and that pursuit quickly led me the work Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). Fantin-Latour is a bit of an enigma—he produced work in three contradictory styles for his entire artistic career. He was an expert and innovative lithographer, a painter of portraits, self-portraits, flowers and still-lifes, but his least-known and appreciated works are what he called his imaginative compositions. These paintings and lithographs, largely inspired by the music of Wagner, Schumann and Berlioz, were considered by Fantin-Latour to be his most important work.

The flower paintings were painted merely for the steady income they provided, but, ironically, it is these paintings, which capture the essence of flowers in all their ephemeral beauty, that made Fantin-Latour famous. In his book, Atelier de Fantin-Latour, published in 1919, Jacques-Émile Blanche wrote:

Fantin studied each flower, each petal, its grain, its tissue as if it were a human face. In Fantin’s flowers, the drawing is large and beautiful; it is always sure and incisive…It is an individual flower and not simply one of a type…

Henri-Fantin-Latour, Roses de Nice on a Table, 1882
Oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon
(National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Ignace-Henri-Jean-Théodore Fantin-Latour was born in Grenoble in 1836—his father, a painter, moved the family to Paris in 1841. Fantin-Latour lived in Paris most of his life, and the Louvre became the center of his artistic universe. He often said: “Le Louvre, il n’y a que le Louvre.” (The Louvre, there is only the Louvre.) Beginning when he was fourteen, Fantin-Latour entered a professional drawing school, where he studied under Horace Lecoq-de-Boisbaudran, who believed that memory was a spur to the imagination. He would set up a complicated still-life and discuss it with his pupils in elaborate detail. Then he would dismantle the still-life—and the students would begin to paint it from memory. This discipline informed Fantin-Latour’s work for his entire career.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Self-Portrait, 1861
Oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon
(National Gallery of Art,Washington, D.C.)

In 1854, Fantin-Latour attended the École des Beaux Arts on probation for three months, but was not awarded a permanent place. As a result, when he was 17, Fantin-Latour began to spend his days at the Louvre, copying the work of the masters, a practice he continued for many years. This deep study of Delacroix, Boucher, Fragonard, Rembrandt, Watteau, Giorgione, Rubens, Chardin, Hals, Titian and others shows itself throughout all aspects of his work. The Louvre was Fantin-Latour’s refuge, and in many ways his painting feeds more on other paintings than life or nature.

Louise Moillon, Basket of Strawberries and Basket of Plums, 1632
Oil on wooden panel
(Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France)

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Basket of Strawberries, c. 1760
Oil on canvas
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Fantin-Latour also made a thorough study of the entire French school of still-life, especially the great 17th century still-life painter, Louise Moillon and the 18th-century master, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin—whose work Fantin-Latour is often compared to. (There are some very obvious and distinct differences between their work. Among other things, Chardin’s still-lifes have a strict frontality, with the elements of the subject at eye level, and the backgrounds are painted in his signature warm brown tones. Fantin-Latour’s work has a cooler tonality, with the table creating a more diagonal line, and tilted forward, towards the viewer.)

Henri Fanin-Latour, Roses in a Vase, 1872
Oil on canvas
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

It was at the Louvre that Fantin-Latour first met Édouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler, Berthe Morisot—and his future wife, artist Victoria Dubourg.

In 1859, Whistler invited Fantin-Latour to London, where he introduced him to John Everett Millais and other Pre-Raphaelite painters, as well as to Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Edwards. The Edwards bought many of Fantin-Latour’s flower paintings, and found other buyers among their circle, securing him a regular and steady income. Between 1864 and 1896 Fantin-Latour painted over 800 floral portraits, and almost all were purchased in England.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Edwards, 1875
Oil on canvas
(Tate, London)

Fantin-Latour painted roses more than any other flower, but he also painted an enormous variety of old-fashioned cottage garden flowers, such as petunias, hollyhocks, tulips, dahlias, larkspur, forget-me-nots, peonies, sweet peas, hyacinths and cherry blossoms. He favored whites, yellows and pinks because he loved the luminosity of the pastel flowers. He had a deft hand with arranging flowers in a balanced yet naturalistic way, and the paintings, with the flowers silhouetted against a subdued background, have an enveloping atmosphere. They have a musical quality—a harmony of value, color and tone—that creates contrast and depth. Fantin-Latour also beautifully captures the contrasting surfaces of the vases, whether Chinese porcelain, enamel or clear glass.

Henri Fantin Latour, Peonies in a Vase, 1864
Oil on canvas
(The Hermitage, St. Petersburg)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Petunias, 1881
Oil on canvas
(Detroit Institute of Arts)

Fantin-Latour’s painting career was about perfecting and expanding upon his original ideas. Unlike his friends Degas, Manet, Renoir, and Monet, he had no desire to move forward into new styles: he was content to be a Realist. Fantin-Latour had an essentially different approach to painting from his friends who were experimenting with the melding of technique and subject matter that became Impressionism. Fantin-Latour saw technique as something apart—not an end in itself, or something to be integrated into the subject. Fantin-Latour believed that technique was to be mastered before you approached your subject and that it gave an artist the freedom to delve deeply. In this he was influenced by Courbet, who wrote:

Imagination in art consists in knowing how to find the most complete expression of an existing thing, but never in inventing or creating the thing itself.

Fantin-Latour’s paintings were an eclectic mix—Realism tempered with Naturalism and a deep Romanticism—and a small dose of Impressionism. He also took some ideas from Japanese art and photography, both of which were so influential at that time. From the work of his friend Whistler, he learned about cool harmonies, the use of gray backgrounds, and to occasionally incorporate some Japanese elements.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Still Life with Roses and Torso, 1874
Oil on canvas
(Private Collection)

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White #2, 1864
Oil on canvas
(Tate, London)

In addition to still-lifes and flower paintings, Fantin-Latour painted many portraits and five well-known group portraits. He also painted 21 self portraits, about which he wrote:

He is a model who is always ready, who offers all the advantages, he is punctual, co-operative and one knows him before beginning to paint.

Fantin-Latour was a bit of a loner—in fact, after his marriage he was content to stay in his family circle, joined only by a few close friends. He no longer frequented the artist cafés on the Boulevard St. Germain where he had spent so much time previously. His aloofness often affected his subjects, in some of his portraits you sense a cool distance. However, the portraits of his friends and those within his family circle are especially lovely, particularly his early portraits of his mother or sisters Natalie and Marie, and later his wife’s family. These familial works are dignified, serene and beautifully evocative.

Henri Fantin-Latour, The Two Sisters, 1859
Oil on canvas
(Saint Louis Art Museum)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Charlotte Dubourg, 1882
Oil on canvas
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Portrait of Manet, 1867
Oil on canvas
(The Art Institute of Chicago)

Fantin-Latour painted five large group portraits, four of which still exist.  The painting below, Homage to Delacroix, was painted a year after the great Romantic painter’s death. Like all of Fantin-Latour’s group portraits, its composition and color palette is a nod to the great 17th century Dutch portraitists, particularly Franz Hals. Among those grouped around a painted portrait of Delacroix (done from a photograph taken ten years before his death) we see Fantin-Latour, in white, and his friends, the poet Charles Baudelaire—who called Delacroix “the most suggestive painter of all”—James Whistler and Édouard Manet.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Homage to Delacroix, 1864
Oil on canvas
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

The group portrait below includes many of the important poets and writers of the later 19th century, many from the Parnassus poetry group, including (seated, left) Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Missing is Charles Baudelaire, who died in 1867, and Albert Mérat, who, the story goes, refused to be depicted with the transgressive Rimbaud and Verlaine, and was replaced by a large bouquet of flowers.

Henri Fantin-Latour, The Corner of the Table, 1872
Oil on canvas
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

An Atelier in the Batignolles, below, depicts Fantin-Latour, Claude Monet, Emile Zola, August Renoir and others, gathered around Edgar Manet, seated at his easel—the central figure in what was to become the Impressionist movement. Zola, who was a staunch defender of Manet and his circle against the rampant criticism of the day, wrote:

Around the painter so disparaged by the public has grown up a common front of painters and writers who claim him as a master.

Although Fantin-Latour had not joined Manet and the others in their move towards Impressionism, by painting his Portrait of Manet and this group portrait, which showed these radical young artists to be sincere and respectable, Fantin-Latour was making a strong statement of support.

Henri Fantin-Latour, An Atelier in the Batignolles, 1870
Oil on canvas
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Fantin-Latour’s intense interest in music began when he first heard Richard Wagner‘s Tännhauser, and it inspired his first image of a musical scene, the first of many done on Wagnerian themes. In 1864 Fantin-Latour said “Schumann is, with Wagner, the music of the future.” When Fantin-Latour traveled to Bayreuth in 1876 to hear one of the first performances of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, he considered it one of the most important events of his life.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Scene from Tannhäuser, 1864
Oil on canvas
(Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Finale from Das Rheingold, c. 1877
Lithograph

Fantin-Latour’s imaginative compositions—the fantasies, allegories and myths, as well as the work inspired by the vocal music of Wagner, Brahms, Berlioz, and Schumann—are the least appreciated of his work. These intensely romantic works carried the most significance and meaning for Fantin-Latour, and it was a sorrow to him that the work got such a mixed reception. The visions that music inspired were also related to color, which he said was “procreative in its nature, giving birth to a thousand things which the eye cannot see and distinct from their cause,” and that spoke “to that region of the imagination which is supposed to be under the exclusive dominion of music.”

On the subject of the musical works, I cannot be objective—the first time I saw Tannhäuser, as a young girl, was for me, as for Fantin-Latour, a life-changing event. As an ardent Wagnerian, I find the images deeply evocative and full of meaning—I can hear the music when I look at them.

Henri Fantin-Latour,Wagner and His Muse, c.1892
Charcoal on paper
(The Louvre, Paris)

Critics complained that the allegorical and mythological works were re-workings of compositions by the old masters and added nothing new. There is no doubt that Fantin-Latour drew on his visual memory from those years spent in close observation at the Louvre when creating these works. I do agree that the accomplished, innovative techniques of the lithographs make them somewhat more interesting than the paintings done in this style. However, it is ironic that while Fantin-Latour’s oeuvre is often criticized for being too much of his time, for not breaking any new ground, these neglected musical and allegorical works were in a sense a pre-cursor of the French Symbolist school of the late 19th century. I hope that even those immune to the charms of these pieces will acknowledge that they are beautifully and skillfully rendered.

Henri Fantin-Latour, The Commemoration, 1876
Oil on canvas
(Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture, Grenoble)

I find the eclectic, paradoxical career of Fantin-Latour to be extremely interesting and refreshing. I admire his idea that painting should not be about schools and movements but individual expression. He is considered a secondary painter because he didn’t found a movement or have a major impact on art history—our contemporary standard of accomplishment or “genius”—but I believe his ability to give shape to what he observed and felt with such clarity and elegance definitely deserves our profound respect and gratitude. His paintings may never have been extolled by the art critics, but he was certainly highly lauded by the writers of his time—including Claudel, Baudelaire, Huysmans and Proust—who praises the paintings of Fantin-Latour in The Guermantes Way. Paul Claudel wrote:

A ravishing still-life by Fantin-Latour; a pitcher of blue glass and fresh-cut flowers; each painting bears a hushed silence that bids us still the inner voice.

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“Poetic License”: A Joan Schulze Retrospective

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Embroidery, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , , on February 20, 2010 by Liz Hager

Poetic License: A Joan Schulze Retrospective: February 16—May 9 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. Click here for PDF of author’s longer piece “Joan Schulze-A Life in Collage” which appeared in Surface Design (Fall 2010).

By LIZ HAGER

Joan Schulze, The Visitors, 2009
Silk, paper, collage, glue, transfer process, machine quilted; 44 x 84 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Since 1970, Joan Schulze has produced a huge body of work, through which she has consistently pushed the boundaries of contemporary textile art. Schulze is an inveterate experimenter, whose longstanding penchant for unconventional materials is abundantly on view in the retrospective show, “Poetic License,” at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.

Joan Schulze, Many Moons, 1976
Cotton, silk, lace; embroidered, appliquéd, pieced, dyed, hand quilted, 90 x 90 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Containing a generous selection of Schulze’s work from the past four decades, “Poetic License” is a tribute to her artistic range. The show presents the visual twists and turns of her career, but it does not editorialize. This strategy has advantages and drawbacks.

Joan Schulze, The Flying Chifforobe, 1984
Cotton, silk, misc.; dyed, pieced, hand quilted, 80 x 60 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Some viewers will find pure delight in discovering various historical treasures on their own. The moments of innovation are here—the lace doilies in Many Moons (1976); the abstraction of quilted landscapes represented by The Flying Chifforobe (1984); the addition of photo transfers to works like Perennial Border in 1989; glue-based transfers (Three Weeks in a Museum, 1991);  the ironic use of real (shredded) dollars in Reserves; the digital printing on fabric first displayed in Object of Desire (1997) ; thread as drawing equivalent (Dancing Lessons); the scattered bits of Velcro, plastic, paint.

Joan Schulze, Objects of Desire, 1997
Silk, paper, photo-transfer processes, machine quilted;  43 1/2 x 47 1/2 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

 

Nonetheless, the true historical import of her innovations might elude a portion of the audience. Over the years, subsequent textile artists have oft copied her techniques, so that by now Schulze’s once-radical vocabulary might appear as common vernacular to the uninitiated.

The show seems to be organized more or less chronologically. The artist’s passion for the visual possibilities inherent in fabric, needle and thread is overwhelmingly clear. Recurring themes in the artist’s work are sprinkled throughout, not grouped.  The passing of time (with the resulting decay) and the nature of female identity are readily identifiable themes in the show. Without explanation, however, many of the important personal references in the pieces may be lost.

Joan Schulze, Frameworks B, 2004
Cotton, digital print; pieced, machine quilted, 14 1/2 x 18 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

On balance much more could have been made by the curator of the arc of Schulze’s career, her place in the world of art.  In this respect, maybe a few dreaded plaques might have been a good thing.

Schulze’s limited formal education in the fine arts clearly has not inhibited her aesthetic sensibility.  A high school class in sewing set her in motion, for it gave her fundamental training in pattern shapes and scrap usage. (Perhaps, more important, it provided her with an introduction the equation Clothes = Power.) Schulze learned embroidery in her 30s and quickly took to it, by 1970 making and selling enough work to leave teaching and work full-time as an artist.

Joan Schulze, Reserves, 2004
12 x 12 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

It’s understandable that Schulze would not feel bound by any particular tradition (either textile- or fine art-based); being untethered has had a positive effect on her, freeing her to “bring everything into the mix.”  Interestingly, many of her techniques are echo those in the fine arts—photomontage clearly but also abstraction, the gestural use of thread, and the layering of diaphanous fabrics, which mimics painted glazes.

Joan Schulze, Dancing Lessons, 2006
Silk, toner drawing, pieced, machine quilted; 40 x 40 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

For some this retrospective will stimulate serious thought about the boundaries of fine art and craft. When Schulze first began quilting, the two were resolutely separate in the mind of the market.  In the 1970s, she struggled to have her work seen as “art.”

I went to this one gallery. . . many times and (the owner) said “I don’t even know how to talk about your work.” And I said “Just use what you use when you look at a painting: composition, ideas, color.”  Oh, it was like the penny dropped. . . he became one of my best supporters.

Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955
Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports, 75 1/4 x 31 1/2 x 8 inches
(MOMA)

Today the distinctions are considerably blurrier, thanks in part to artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, arguably even Julian Schnabel, who have legitimized a “whole world of materials” for use in “fine art.” “Textile art” is a tricky category—the materials often derive from craft traditions, but the end products are usually conceived as art, not as utilitarian objects. In the end, qualifying Joan Schulze as a “textile” artist may limit the way people should think about her art. Does it really matter whether a substrate is quilted fabric or canvas?

In the final analysis, any work of art must be judged on the merit of the ideas it conveys, the dialog it creates with the viewer.  “Poetic License” offers textile and fine arts enthusiasts alike an unparalleled opportunity to decide for themselves where Joan Schulze’s work lives in the House of Art.

Joan Schulze, Figure D, 2009
Paper, collage process, glue; 10 x 8 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Wider Connections

Joan Schulze website
More on the artist—Fiber Scene; Mercury News
The Art of Joan Schulze
The Blogosphere on Art vs. Craft—Raggity Cloth Cafe, Definition of Art (skip down to Art vs. Craft section), Objectivism Online

Venetian Red Bookshelf: The Age of Wonder

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Science, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2010 by Christine Cariati

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

William Blake, Urizen as the Creator of the Material World, 1794
title page, Europe, A Prophecy

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder is truly an exhilarating book. Richard Holmes deftly captures the sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world that inspired the explorers and scientists of the 18th century in their quest for discovery in the face of daunting hardships. The book discusses discoveries in the fields of botany, natural history, astronomy, meteorology and chemistry.

Undated portrait of explorer Mungo Park (1771-1806)

The Age of Wonder isn’t just about science, it’s about culture. Holmes illuminates the work of the scientists, artists and poets of the Romantic Age (1770-1830) and beautifully illustrates how these disciplines were intertwined. The book has a large and engaging cast of characters, including botanist Joseph Banks, astronomers William Herschel, his sister Caroline and son John, explorer Mungo Park, chemist Humphry Davy and doctor Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802).

Amelia Curran, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819
Oil on canvas
National Portrait Gallery, London

These scientists shared a romantic imagination about nature with poets like William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron—and Holmes quotes these poets to great effect in his text. During this intoxicating period of discovery, the writers and poets of the day were as intensely interested in science, as scientists were in the work of the poets. Many of these scientists and poets were also intimate friends, and a few of the scientists also wrote poetry, as did Humphry Davy and Erasmus Darwin. Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, addresses his speculations about evolution in his book-length poem, The Botanic Garden (1791).

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Joseph Banks, 1771-73
Oil on canvas, Private collection

The Age of Wonder pivots on the life of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who used his influence and passion for science to develop a culture in which the scientists and explorers of  the late eighteenth century could flourish. In 1768, Banks, as a young botanist, sailed with Captain James Cook on the Endeavor, making a three-year journey to the South Seas. One of the goals of this voyage was to observe the Transit of Venus on June 3, 1769. Banks also brought back many botanical specimens from the South Seas and the eastern coast of Australia, many of which plants bear his name today. Upon his return, Banks became a life-long friend of King George III, who shared his interest in botany, and in whose many improvements to Kew Gardens, Banks played a large part. In 1781, Banks was knighted for his tremendous accomplishments as Director of Kew Gardens. Banks introduced many exotic species and planted over 50,000 shrubs and trees, transforming it from a rambling estate into a beautiful scientific and botanical paradise.

Camille Pissarro, Kew Gardens, the Path to the Main Greenhouse, 1892
Oil on canvas, Private collection

Banks was elected president of the Royal Society in 1778, a post he held for forty-two years. During his tenure at the Royal Society, he exerted tremendous influence on the work and careers of many giants of the age, including the astronomer William Herschel. One of the interesting points that Holmes makes, is that Banks, like Herschel and others, believed that science was best done by amateurs. For those without private means, Banks helped to obtain backing from King George III and other aristocrats who had an interest in science.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries
The first crossing of the English Channel in a hot-air balloon, 1785

While The Age of Wonder explores the link between science and poetry, it also has some interesting things to say about the art of the day. In his chapter on the invention of the hot air balloon, Balloonists in Heaven, Holmes talks about how this invention spawned the new field of meteorology. As well as inspiring the poetry of Coleridge and Shelley, the Romantic Age fascination with the substance and beauty of clouds was influential on the paintings of J. M. W. Turner and John Constable.

J. M. W. Turner, Sunset, 1830-35
Oil on canvas
Tate Gallery, London

John Constable, Weymouth Bay from the Downs Above Osmington Mills, 1816
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There was also an overheated, excessive side to this romantic view of science—the idea of the solitary, obsessed scientist, willing to make a Faustian bargain with the devil in order to unearth the secrets of existence. Aspects of this idea were brought to vivid life in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, written in 1817, when Shelley, the wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was only nineteen years old. Shelley might have been partially inspired by the argument then raging about Vitalism, a doctrine which posited the existence of a Life Force that animates all living creatures. She was perhaps also influenced by accounts of  hideous experiments conducted by Giovanni Aldini to revive dead animals—and human corpses—by applying electrical current. However, in Shelley’s moving book, Frankenstein’s creature was a poetic, lonely philosopher, who laments his fate—not the amoral, wrathful monster of later plays and films.

Theodore Von Holst, frontispiece to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 1831
Steel engraving, Private collection

Perhaps we are approaching another golden age where the great minds of science and art come together, and science is once again viewed as a romantic adventure. In the meantime, I urge you to read Holmes’ engrossing and engaging book about the cultural impact of scientific discovery.  — Christine Cariati

Wider Connections

Interview with computer scientist and author David Gelertner on the interconnection of art science:


Rauschenberg’s Collection (1954): A Whole World of Materials

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on February 13, 2010 by Liz Hager

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

Robert Rauschenberg, Collection (Formerly Untitled), 1954
Painting: oil, paper, fabric, wood, metal and mirror on canvas; 80 in. x 96 in. x 3 1/2 inches
(SF MOMA)

These days Hannah Höch is lodged in my brain like a visual “earworm“—images of her photomontages pop into my consciousness repeatedly and unexpectedly. They are not unwelcome; I’m dealing with a new set of challenges in my own montage work, and Höch is always an inspiring companion on the artistic journey.

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)

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising to me that, while revisiting SF MOMA’s 75th Anniversary show recently, I lingered in the Rauschenberg corner, reflecting on his unique contribution to the collage aesthetic. As has oft been recorded, Rauschenberg credits his mother, a seemstress who arranged her patterns so tightly on the fabric that no scrap was wasted, with inspiring his approach to collage.  Surely, Höch, who for many years designed fashion patterns for Ullstein Verlag in Berlin, must have been directing my subconscious that day.

Kurt Schwitters, Mz 26, 41 ocala, 1926
Paper collage on paper laid on board, 6.9 x 5.2 inches
(Christie’s)

Collection is one of Raushenberg’s earliest Combines. On the second floor at SF MOMA it’s paired on the wall with the 1955 Combine Untitled and the infamous Erased de Kooning Drawing. The former demonstrates delightfully well the artist’s particular genius at compositional arrangement. More importantly, in Untitled, the artist has masterfully transformed a plethora of otherwise mundane materials into a strikingly beautiful and refined object. By comparison Collection, though monumental, is to my eyes somewhat less aesthetically elegant.

Like any serial work, the Combines, which technically refer to five distinct stages of work completely roughly between the years of 1954 and 1964, are uneven.  Some are incredibly polished, irrefutable proof that the artist paved a truly revolutionary path for new forms of artistic expression. Others are undeniable messes of visual cacophony. On the occasion of the artist’s 2006 retrospective at The Met, Peter Schjeldahl astutely observed: “Junkiness and elegance, equally intense, don’t always cooperate.”

Despite their imperfections, the essence of  Rauschenberg’s legacy is evident in the Combines.  To fully appreciate that legacy, consider what the artist was rebelling against.

Willem de Kooning, Two Women in the Country, 1954
Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas; 46 1/8 X 40 3/4 inches
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

In the mid-1950s, Abstract Expressionism held sovereign authority over the art world. Inspired by the AbEx’s rebellious spirit, but not their venacular, Rauschenberg daringly challenged the prevailing AbEx philosophies that art was best created subconsciously (borrowed from Surrealism) and that color had symbolic meaning (borrowed from the Expressionists).  Consider De Kooning’s “Woman” series, which was also painted in the mid 50s—despite the relative abstraction of these paintings, they were still rooted in traditional painting materials and visually still grappling with the commanding influence of Picasso.

Kurt Schwitters, Revolving, 1919
Wood, metal, cord, cardboard, wool, wire, leather, and oil on canvas, 48 3/8 x 35 inches.
(MOMA)

Rauschenberg anchored himself in a different tradition, riffing off the collage/montage example provided by the Dada circle (of which Höch was a Berlin member), Duchamp’s Readymades, and the Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters, who was already affixing objects to his canvases in early part of the 20th century. (As it turns out, Rauschenberg wasn’t far from the Picasso legacy either; in the late 1940s, the influential Clement Greenberg credited Picasso with turning collage into bas-relief and then into sculpture.)

The fractured nature of Dada collage mimicked the chaos of modern life; fragments of mass-produced images were used to reconstruct reality. Rauschenberg pushed that notion farther. By incorporating everyday banal objects into the picture space, Rauschenberg Combines didn’t refer to reality, they were their own reality. While the use of discarded materials as appropriate art material is commonplace today, fifty years ago it was a revolutionary proposition for an artist. But it paid off. Robert Hughes notes in The Shock of the New:

During the fifties artists realized “there might be a subject in this landscape of waste, this secret language of junk, because societies reveal themselves in what they throw away.” Street junk. Rauschenberg was one of them. He never worked for long in one style. To him is owed much of the basic cultural assumption that a work of art can exist for any length of time, in any material, anywhere, for any purpose and any destination it chooses from the museum to the trash can.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1954
Oil, metallic paint, fabric, newspaper, pencil, printed reproductions, paper, hair, gelatin-silver photographs, glue, nails and glass on canvas, 16 1/8 x 18 inches
(Jasper Johns collection)

Collection stakes out what would become familiar visual territory for the Combines—paint and three dimensional objects co-habitate with fragments of newspaper, fabric, photographs, hair.  Early on, these elements revealed specific autobiographical facets of the artist’s life. Later, they tended to suggest a life.  A number of the objects reside outside the traditional picture plane; is this a playful thumbing of the nose to traditional art that respected pictorial boundaries? Among the myriad of elements in Collection, I was particularly drawn to patch of sheer fabric (organza?) hanging off the canvas’s middle panel for its intriguing suggestion of the tension created by concealing and revealing.

Robert Rauschenberg—Untitled, 1954
Oil, paper, fabric and dried grass on wood box, 15 x 15 x 2 1/8 inches
(Private Collection)

Abandoning the representation of reality, and with it formal perspective, forced Rauschenberg to devise another unifying principal for his compositions. Like his other Combines, that structure in  Collection is a grid—in this case, three separate but joined panels, each subdivided visually into rough thirds. It’s amazing how it well that system links and calms an otherwise confusing mass of visual data.

The Combines would liberate art by introducing a “whole world of materials” into the picture plane. In Rauschenberg’s brazen hands, art was anything its creator said it was. For that achievement, Rauschenberg might just qualify as the most influential artist of the 20th century (aside from Picasso that is).

Wider Connections

Calvin Tomkins—Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg. In true Tomkins fashion, there is never a dull moment in this informative and insightful look at Rauschenberg and the New York art scene 1950s-1970s.

The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research—“Louise Nevelson”

First Impressions: The Art of Design

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Rugs, Textiles, Wallpaper, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Tile or panel design, W.T. Copeland & Sons, Ltd. (formerly Spode), c. 1880

As much as I love textiles and decorative objects, I am often just as attracted to the designer’s drawings, sketches and samples as to the finished pieces. The objects, no matter how beautiful, are immutable, fixed in the here and now. On paper, it is all possibility—often the line work is graceful and sinuous, the colors are rich and vibrant, and the patterns, free of prosaic form, veer toward the abstract. The flatness of the design is part of what I find so appealing. In two dimensions, the objects are not subject to gravity, they represent that most fleeting thing—the creative impulse. They embody the alchemy of transformation, idea into image, captured in pencil, ink or watercolor.

Dagobert Peche Design for a coffeepot, c. 1920

Design for a Sèvres porcelain cup, Empire period, c. 1800

In some cases, as in the designs of James Leman, the delicious yellows and oranges that are so pleasing to the eye represent various shades of metallic thread— which however sumptuous and elegant in the finished textile, is a completely different visual experience. In Leman’s designs on paper, his lyrical line and masterful layering of abstracted botanical images are enhanced by the warm, saturated colors. As patterns, woven in metallic thread on a heavy silk fabric, they are breathtaking and grand, but no longer have the down to earth, fresh from the garden appeal that they have on paper.

James Leman, design for silk fabric, 1711

I love the annotations on many of these sketches—dates, yardages, cost calculations, style names and numbers—many are in the artist’s hand alongside the images. They are a decorative counterpoint to the design, often extremely graceful and engaging in themselves. You can also see marks and notations made by the printers, engravers, weavers and dyers—the artisans who actually executed the designs. The combination of the drawing and the notations provide a compelling history, tracing the evolution from design to finished product.

Design for candelabra, c. 1840-1873
Elkington & Co. Ltd.

Tin-plate molds, Shoolbred, Loveridge & Shoolbred of Wolverhampton

Tea pots, creamers and sugar bowls, Liberty archive, c. 1900-1912

These working sketches were executed on paper, and, at the time they were created, not considered precious pieces to be treated with great care. As a result, the paper is often yellowed and brittle, and you can see smudges, folds, creases and spills. On many of them you can still see the grids and guidelines—another interesting counterpoint to the pattern and design. I don’t see these designs as mere preliminaries, inferior to a perfect, finished object. To my eye, they are works of art in themselves.

William Morris, Watercolor design for Evenlode, 1883
(design for  cotton fabric, printed by indigo discharge)

William Morris, watercolor design for Redcar carpet, c. 1881-1885

William Morris & Co. wallpaper designs, c. 1860s

I’ve restricted myself to designs for decorative objects, tableware, textiles and wallpaper and resisted the temptation to include designs for furniture, architecture and fashion. I have also deliberately not juxtaposed the drawings with the finished objects made from the sketch, because for me these stand as complete works on their own.

Design for seven-piece coffee set, Sèvres, 1899

The designs below, drawn in pencil or pen and ink, are quite elegant and visually stunning. This page of designs for tea strainers is beautifully drawn, patterned and balanced—and could easily be taken for a contemporary abstract drawing.

Designs for tea strainers, c. 1900-1912
Pen and ink on ruled paper, Liberty, London

In a narrative vein, this delightful Rococo-style sketch of insect figures, for use as a decorative motif, is playful and lively.

Charles-Germain de Saint Aubin (1721-86), sketch for decorative motif

This Wiener Werkstätte floor lamp design has a figurative totem-like quality, and is drawn in a loose and graceful style. Dagobert Peche’s sketches always have a flowing, effortless hand-drawn quality—a wonderful contrast to the elegant formalism of the objects made from his designs.

Dagobert Peche, design for floor lamp, 1920

This sketch for a graceful carafe has a very different presence than the finished piece of heavily embossed silver. As an object, the carafe has weight, volume, shine and a beautifully textured surface. The drawing, flat and decorative, has a very different, wonderful combination of elements. There is a narrative feel to it—the intricate patterning, sensuous curves, twisted serpent handle and amusing squirrel seem to be telling a story.

Arabian shape Claret jug, c. 1880
Workshop drawings of Oomersee Mawjee & Sons, Kutch

This gorgeous ink and wash drawing of a cloche has so much presence and volume. The sculptural decorative element at the top is exquisitely rendered.

Cloche, French, eighteenth century

Much of the inspiration for decorative objects comes from nature, as these floral designs for textiles by Anna Maria Garthwaite illustrate so beautifully. These botanical patterns, which take on a seriousness and formality when woven in silk and brocade, are exuberant on the page.

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design, c. 1730

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design, detail, c. 1730

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design (possibly a copy of a French original) detail, 1733

Some of my favorite designs are for tea pots, tea cups and china patterns. They are drawn in flattened-out, foreshortened shapes to best show the designs—you can really appreciate the quality of line, pattern and detail. The decorative motifs are fanciful, lighthearted and graceful—exactly the qualities treasured in a piece of delicate porcelain.

Tea cup designs, Spode, c. 1846

Majolica design, Apple Blossom flower pot, Wedgewood, c. 1850-1860

Coffee and Tea Cups, Spode, c. 1840

Dagobert Peche, Design for a teapot, c. 1922

Textile designs are executed in both minimalist and very painterly styles. Often you will see only one piece of the design completed painted, with the repeats only sketched in. When the designs are for woven fabric or rugs, you sometimes see the graph paper grids they are sketched on.

Fabric designs from Lyons, France, 19th century

Textile design, factory of Jean-Michel Haussmann, Colmar, 1797

Dagobert Peche, design for tapestry fabric for Johann Backhausen & Söhne, 1912

Textile and wallpaper designs were often collected in sample books—some were for companies and/or designers to keep track of their patterns, others were used to market the fabrics. Sample books for textiles, very popular in the 18th century through the 20th century, provide a wealth of information about the history of pattern design, dyeing techniques and the technical means of production. Often they contain swatches of the actual fabrics, shown in the various available colorways.

Wallpaper and border designs, Manufacture Dufour, Paris, early 19th century

Designs for block print fabric, French,  early 19th century

In 2008, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum mounted an interesting exhibition, Multiple Choice: from Sample to Product, that featured sample books for tableware, textiles for interiors and fashion, wallpaper, even buttons. Seeing these lovely books, which contain such a rich visual history, was quite poignant—in the contemporary design world, with electronic formats taking precedence, the paper sample book is truly a thing of the past.

Among the sketches I’ve referenced in this post, many are by well-known designers, others are from an anonymous hand. Some designs were never turned into objects, others are still being manufactured today. But they all continue to live vibrantly on the page, their yellowed and tattered pages still emitting sparks of inspiration.

Wider Connections

The French Archive of Design and Decoration by Stafford Cliff

The English Archive of Design and Decoration by Stafford Cliff

Dagobert Peche and the Wiener Werkstätte, edited by Peter Noever

Artists in Conversation: Joanne Mattera’s “Journey of Visual Pleasure”

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Author’s Note: Unless otherwise attributed, all remarks by the artist were made in a recorded conversation between the author and the artist on 1/27/10.

Joannne Mattera, Silk Road 115, 2009
Encaustic on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Joanne Mattera’s most recent workthe ongoing Silk Road series—is a manifold tribute to the eponymous trade route. In these mostly 12 x 12 ” paintings the artist has deftly exploited the encaustic medium to opulent results.  By applying thin layers of individual and highly-saturated color repeatedly on top of one another, Mattera has captured the exquisite iridescence of raw silk. Additionally, the luscious texture created by remnant brushstrokes of molten wax subtly suggests the warp and weft of the woven material. And even the detritus Mattera has left in the wax (“schmutz” she would “normally strain out”) subtly mimics the imperfections of raw silk.

Joanne Mattera—Silk Road 5, 2005
Encaustic on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches
(Adler Gallery)

Yet, appreciating this series of 129 paintings solely on the basis of its tour-de-force technical achievement would be to miss the richer sphere that the work inhabits. Each painting contains the inherent mystique invoked by the series; which is to say, each piece promises a journey full of visual delights without a specific roadmap.  The most exhilarating revelation for this viewer is that color on the scale of intimacy that Mattera achieves is a powerful experience.

Silk Road installation view

Mattera clarifies her intention:

I wanted to work with color in a really reductive way and make something beautiful without making it pretty . .  .

It’s strictly a journey of visual pleasure. . . I love beauty, I paint beauty, I’m not afraid of beauty. . . Beauty is color. Sensuality. The material that I am using is a sensuous material.  And the combination of sensuous material and color is what makes beauty for me.

Joanne Mattera—Uttar 286, 2002-2005
Encaustic on panel, 32 x 32 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Beauty in color is a journey that Mattera has been on explicitly through most of her adult artistic career. But the search was clearly influenced early on by a childhood filled with the family textile legacy. Her great-grandmother was a weaver in Italy; her grandfather a tailor. Growing up as the eldest of five children, Mattera spent a good deal of time with her two maiden aunts, themselves emigrées from Italy. From them she learned the traditions of the needle arts. More importantly, they stimulated her creative soul:

So I was surrounded by all these fabulous colors and textures and processes. . . And it was only later, that (sculptor) Nancy Azara pointed out to me that I had made in my childhood a connection between creative expression and unconditional love.

Joanne Mattera, Uttar 296, 2006
Encaustic on panel, 24 x 24 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

The artist was introduced to the paint media at Massachusetts College of Art, but it was encaustic that made an indelible impression on her.

Once I got past the process of preparation [applying multiple layers of hide glue gesso] and I started actually painting with encaustic, I loved it. I loved the process, the smell, the physicality and materiality of it, the almost alchemical thing that happens when you put your brush into the molten wax. You dab it on the surface—you have to be quick, otherwise the wax hardens on the brush or even worse the brush gets stuck into the painting. It’s the rhythm of brush strokes fused with heat, brush strokes fused with heat. . .

Mattera didn’t choose encaustic as her primary medium right away.  “I knew I wasn’t ready to pursue it then—I didn’t have the painting chops and I didn’t have the patience certainly. I always knew one day I would go back to that.” Once beyond college, she committed herself to continuing her artwork,  supporting herself through a variety of jobs, eventually full-time writing and editing (which included stints at Women’s Wear Daily, Glamour, and Fiber Arts).

Joanne Mattera, Open Book 23, 1992
Thread and wax on Twinrocker paper , 6.5 x 6.5 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mattera developed an increasingly reductive abstract style, using geometry as her underlying organizing principal. Even before Mattera returned to the encaustic medium, she was testing the grid—its grounding foundation, as well as its limits.  Early experimentation with thread and paper (an early expression of the textile “gene”?) found full articulation in the 1992 Open Book series.

Jasper Johns, Winter, 1986
Encaustic and collage on canvas
(Private Collection)

In 1986, the world shifted for Mattera,  as a result of interviewing Jasper Johns for Women’s Wear Daily on the occasion of his print retrospective at MOMA:

So I found myself in this bank-turned-studio on the Lower East Side, maybe around the Bowery, talking with Jasper Johns about his work. Here along one long wall were these four paintings in mostly grays. And it was his Four Seasons quadtych. We looked at the work, we talked about it, and he allowed that, yes,  that was his silhouette.

I could see his set up, which fascinated me. He had a little old-fashioned hotplate with the four legs, you remember those? He’d not changed his set up for a very long time. .  .

But after having been in Jasper Johns studio, and being so up close to the work, I found myself setting up the hot plate.

Joanne Mattera, Vicolo 54 (Paul), 2009
Encaustic on wood panel, 18 x 18 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Certainly, Mattera is part of the painting tradition that includes “Color Field” painters like Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. One cannot help but think also of Rothko’s explorations of color (albeit on a grand scale Rothko’s work achieves different ends), as well as Agnes Martin‘s minimalist grids as potential influences on her work.

Morris Louis, Where, 1960
Magna on canvas, 99 3/8 x 142 1/2 inches.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

In the properties of encaustic, however, Mattera has found unique ways to explore the chromatic and geometric realms. Though she does not always work in encaustic, she’s especially attracted to the refractive quality of pigments suspended in wax. Further, her choice of a highly-saturated color palette—which references but does not copy Indian miniatures—automatically means that she’s playing in the bold realm of maximum vibration to the eye.

The Heroine Chanda fanning her beloved, Laurak, under a tree, from a manuscript of the Chandayana (The Story of Chanda), 1540
Pigments on paper
(SF Asian Museum)

Her work has been influenced by artists outside the painting medium.  Eva Hesse (“Here was someone working reductively and materially and working experimentally with materials. It was textile, sculptural.”); Martin Puryear, particularly his adeptness at “weaving together art and craft;” and Louise Bourgeois.

Mattera prefers to work in series, because they allow for the unfolding of the initial idea in both structured and unpredictable ways. In 2000 she embarked upon the longest running series to date, Uttar (2000-2007), in which she explored the effects of geometric repetition—a stripe or block repeated within a grid. In Vicolo, the series prior to Silk Road, she scraped back the surface to see how revealing different traunches of color would effect the grid.

Although Mattera does not always make the connection to textiles explicit in her work (the Silk Road title aside), in one way or another aspects of the textile tradition are faintly present in all these series.

Helen Frankenthaler, Nature Abhors a Vaccuum, 1973
Acrylic on canvas, 103 x 112 inches.
(National Gallery of Art, DC)

Along her aesthetic journey, Mattera necessarily dove deeply into the technical aspects of painting with pigmented wax. Encaustic is a venerable medium, older by a millennium than tempera and oil. Although a few modern artists (most notably Diego Rivera) worked in the medium, it was all but sidelined in the 20th century, until the 1960s, when Jasper Johns restored it to prominence.

As she started again with encaustic, Mattera felt a need to re-educate herself about the technique. Finding no available texts on the subject, the artist put together her own notes from conversations and her own experimentation. These later became the basis for her authoritative monograph on the subject, The Art of Encaustic Painting.

Mark Rothko, Orange and Yellow, 1956
oil on canvas, 91 x 71 inches
(Albright-Knox Gallery)

With regard to what’s next, Mattera asserts:  “My intention is to continue with Silk Road, but as I’m working on them, looking on them, I’m thinking ‘This may be a byway, a road off the Silk Road.’ ”  One thing is certain—there are still chromatic places left for her to explore.

Joanne Mattera, Silk Road 127, 2009
Encaustic on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Wider Connections

John Russell (NY Times)—“The Seasons: Forceful Paintings From Jasper Johns”
Taschen Art Series — Jasper Johns: The Business of the Eye
Mark Rothko (Taschen 25th Anniversary Special Edition)
Alison Rowley—Helen Frankenthaler: Painting History, Writing Painting
Joanne Mattera Art Blog

The (Mostly) Peaceable Kingdom: Animals in Art

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Illustration, Painting, Printmaking, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Franz Marc, Gelbe Kuh (Yellow Cow), 1911
Oil on canvas
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

The other day, while cleaning out a drawer, I came across a post card of this exuberant painting by the German painter Franz Marc (1880-1916.) In 1911, Franz Marc, along with August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky, founded Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). They were a diverse group stylistically, but they held common beliefs in the spiritual nature of art, the link between visual art and music and the symbolic use of color to depict emotion. Marc’s paintings of animals, mostly horses, had fluidity, grace and deep emotion. Sadly, while waiting for the paperwork on his artists’ military exemption to come through, Marc was killed by a shell splinter to the head in the Battle of Verdun.

Franz Marc, Blaues Pferd I (Blue Horse I), 1911
Oil on canvas
Stadtische Galerie em Lenbochhaus, Munich

Revisiting Franz Marc’s animals brought to mind other images of animals in art that have caught my attention over the years. They are quite varied in style and tone, but I believe they all say something interesting or profound about the way we see and relate to animals.

Karl Joseph Brodtmann, Lion, c. 1842
Lithograph from Nâturhistorische Bilder Galerie aus dem Theirreiche

The Swiss artist Karl Joseph Brodtmann (1787-1862) was an expert 19th-century lithographer whose natural history studies capture a wealth of detail. His animal portraits are dignified and convey a sense of respect and wonder for his subjects.

René Magritte, Le Mal du Pays (Homesickness), 1940
Oil on canvas, Private Collection

Belgian painter René Magritte (1898-1967) painted Le Mal du Pays at an unsettled time in his life—the Germans had invaded his home town, and he was having marital problems. Magritte was thirteen years old when his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in the river, so we can probably safely assume that the angel in black on the bridge, contemplating the void, is Magritte. The meaning of the lion is perhaps more ambiguous, but in his elegant, calm yet alert pose, he seems to be serving as guardian for his human counterpart.

detail from The Unicorn at the Fountain,
second tapestry of the series, The Hunt of the Unicorn,  Flemish, c.
1500
The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lions are very popular subjects in a variety of media. Above, a lion and lioness lounge among the flowers, in a detail from the medieval Flemish tapestry, The Hunt of the Unicorn.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Lion and Tulip, c. 1662

A personal favorite, from Bohemian artist/engraver Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). Hollar was most famous for his etchings of London before and after the Great Fire of 1666, but produced an astonishing quantity and variety of work—portraiture, studies of costumes and contemporary dress, architecture, allegory, landscape, maps and natural history studies of animals and shells.

Nilgai (Blue Bull) Mughal, c. 1620
Ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

detail, Shah Jahan Hunting Deer with Trained Cheetahs, Rajasthan, c. 1710
Ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tiger Approaching a Waterhole, Kotah, c. 1790
Watercolor and opaque watercolor

detail, Two Princes Shooting Deer; Dogs Hunting Down Boar, Kotah, c. 1660
Opaque watercolor, gold

Indian miniatures are full of wonderful depictions of animals, both peaceful and fierce. Many Indian miniatures have scenes of the hunt, giving the artist an opportunity to paint graceful herds of leaping deer and ferocious tigers, leopards or cheetahs.

Marc Chagall, To My Betrothed, 1911
Gouache
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Marc Chagall, Fantastic Horse Cart, 1949
Gouache and paste;
Blanden Memorial Art Gallery, Fort Dodge, Iowa

Marc Chagall, Monkey Acting as Judge Over the Dispute Between
Wolf and Fox
, 1925-27
Gouache, Perls Gallery, New York

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) incorporated animals into his work in fantastical ways—a man with a head of a bull or a gravity-defying horse and cart are easily integrated into more realistic elements. In his dreamy work, there’s a fluid coexistence between animals and humans—often their characteristics are interchangeable.
Monkey Acting as Judge Over the Dispute Between Wolf and Fox
is one of 100 gouaches that Chagall did to illustrate the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95). The image doesn’t literally illustrate the story, but Chagall does give us a sense of the essence and spirit of their characters.

Chauvet Cave, Lion panel

Chauvet Cave, Black bison superimposed on clawmarks and engravings

The lyric quality of Chagall’s animals brought to mind the cave paintings from Chauvet. These caves, undisturbed for thousands of years, were discovered  in December, 1994. These paintings of lions, bison, aurochs, mammoths, hyenas, cave bears and rhinoceroses are over 30,000 years old, twice as old as the art in the caves at Lascaux. They are beautifully rendered with a tremendous sense of motion and accurate perspective.

William de Morgan, Design for a tile
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Closer to home we have some more domesticated animals. In the example above, William de Morgan (1839-1917) was creating a decorative motif, but he also captured something very endearing and lyrical in these rabbits.

Richard Whitford, A Prize Shropshire Ewe, 1878

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) owned several of Richard Whitford’s (1821-1890) paintings, thus earning him the epithet, “Animal Painter to the Queen.” Whitford mostly painted farm animals, particularly sheep. At the time, breeders of pedigree farm animals would often commission paintings of their prize-winning stock to display alongside their medals and citations. I always thought this sheep had tremendous dignity and presence and I love the way he is integrated into the surrounding landscape.

Mark Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test, 1981
Oil on canvas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mark Tansey’s (b. 1949-) The Innocent Eye Test seems like the perfect painting to close out this brief review of animals in painting. Tansey, who is known for his monochromatic palette, is interested in exploring  opposites and contradictions, “how different realities interact with each other.” His paintings are imagined narratives that deal with the fact that in the 19th century, photography replaced the traditional function of painting, which was to represent reality. His work, Tansey says, “is based on the idea that the painted picture knows itself to be metaphorical, rhetorical, transformative, fictional.” The Innocent Eye Test is a humorous take on history painting that works on many levels. The assembled “experts,” Tansey’s send-up of art critics, stand by, observing the cow’s reaction to a large-sized painting of two cows in a field. Note the man with the mop on the left. The painting that the cow is gazing at is based on an actual painting, The Young Bull, 1647, by Dutch painter Paulus Potter (1625-54).

Wider Connections:

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky

Franz Marc, 1880-1916 by Susanna Partsch

Rene Magritte, 1898-1967: Thoughts Rendered Visible by Marcel Paquet

The Unicorn Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Adolfo Salvatore Cavallo

The Man Who Drew London: Wenceslaus Hollar in Reality and Imagination by Gillian Tindall.

Gods, Kings, and Tigers: The Art of Kotah, Edited by Stuart Cary Welch

Indian Court Painting, 16th-19th Century by Steven Kossak

Marc Chagall: Painting as Poetry by Ingo F. Walther

Return to Chauvet Cave: Excavating the Birthplace of Art by Jean Clottes

The Designs of William de Morgan by Martin Greenwood

William de Morgan Tiles by Jon Catleugh

The Picture in Question: Mark Tansey and the Ends of Representation by Mark C. Taylor

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