Archive for Paul Gauguin

Fortune Smiles: Thoughts on Musée d’Orsay and Picasso Collections at the deYoung

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Last week’s breaking news that both the Musées d’Orsay and Picasso will be sending a part of their collections to the de Young next year, while they renovate their facilities. The news made me want to shout for joy. How lucky can a provincial metropolis be?  Praise be to John Buchanan and Dede Wilsey for closing the deal.

The prospect of this once in a lifetime exhibition set me to dreaming. No doubt only a small number of the choice holdings will come our way. Still, if by some stroke of unimaginable luck, I were to have a say in the matter, which of the works in these glorious collections would I include?

I’m aching to see my best loves again, Manet’s Olympia for starters. Further, all things being equal, I’d prefer to view works from artists not generally well represented in the Bay Area. That is why there are no Rodins on my list, even though he counts as one of my favorite sculptors. Also, I’d want lesser known works from well-known artists included, which is why there aren’t any Picasso Cubist pieces on the list. (OK, I’ll admit: while I always found Cubism intellectually exciting, actually enjoying the work has always been challenging.)  Though it’s hard to limit the list, for the purposes of this space, limit I must.

My “Fortune Smiles” Top 10 list (in priority order):

#1.
Manet—Olympia

Edouard Manet,Olympia, 1863,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

Of the French painters at d’Orsay, Manet will always top the list for me. Olympia is the most fetching of his works—the first truly-naked nude in the history of art. That brazen stare says it all.

#2.

Bonnard—Croquet Game

Pierre Bonnard, Twilight (or The Croquet Game), 1892,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

Ever since reading Michael Kimmelman’s essay on Bonnard (“Introduction” to The Accidental Masterpiece), I’ve been hooked on Bonnard’s unique ability to make great art out of the seemingly monotonous details of his life.

#3.

Gustave Caillebotte, The Floor Scrapers, 1875,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

The technical aspects of this painting—the perspective, the sheen of light captured as reflection off the floor and backs of the worker, the interacting poses of the workers, the stripes of the floor broken up by the circular curls of shaved wood. . . Stop me,  I could go on forever about this painting! And, on top of it all, a groundbreaking example of urban “realism,” to counter all those rural Courbet scenes.

#4.

Pablo Picasso, Two Women Running on the Beach (La course), 1922,
Gouache on board, Musée National Picasso.
I’ve always loved Picasso’s big chunky, neo-classical figures the most. Though thoroughly weighty, these two nymphs move with the spriest of strides.  They are joy personified.

#5.

Degas—The Tub

Edgar Degas, The Tub, between 1886-1889,
Bronze, Musée d’Orsay.

There are lots of Degas paintings around the Bay Area, but one of his sculptural works would certainly make my d’Orsay list. Not the young dancer—she’s everywhere—but a bather, another of his other emblematic themes. Like da Vinci, this form is squeezed elegantly into the circumference of a circle. See how her toes gently violate the frame. . .

#6.

Whistler—Variations in Violet & Green, 1871

James Abbott McNeill Whistler,Variations in Violet and Green1871,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

Whistler’s place in the pantheon of great artists is finally assured. Bets are that the de Young will want his more famous Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, known colloquially as Whistler’s Mother, but I’m hoping the d’Orsay sends this one instead. Since viewing Whistler’s Six Projects at the Freer, I’ve been inexorably drawn to his more ethereal works.

#7.

Gauguin—Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ

Paul Gauguin, Portrait of the Artist with the Yellow Christ, 1890-91,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

The d’Orsay doesn’t own the original Yellow Christ (luckily, however, this painting is at the Albright-Knox and Buffalo is not nearly as far as Paris), but I hope we will get the next best thing, Gauguin’s self-portrait with the Yellow Christ.  I never tire of Gauguin’s palette, which gave a later generation of artists—Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter in particular—the permission to go wild with color.

#8.

Gabriel Loppé—TheEiffel tower struck by lightening, 1902

Gabriel Loppé, The Eiffel Tower Struck by Lightening, 1902,
Paper print photograph, Musée d’Orsay.

The French were instrumental in the birth of the photography, so it seems only fitting to include a representative of this medium on the Top 10. Loppé’s photograph achieves several aims—it uniquely speaks to to the role that photography played in the 19th century in documenting the natural sciences; it portrays this most most French of icons in all its majesty (the Tower built in 1889 was the tallest man-made structure until 1930); and ultimately it depicts unending the battle between the hand of man and the forces of nature.

#9.

Pablo Picasso, Groupe de Saltimbanques, 1905,
Pen, ink, gouache and traces of charcoal on vellum, Musée National Picasso.

I like the Picasso renderings of the Saltimbanques (acrobats), but frankly any of Picasso’s drawings would do nicely as demonstrations that the artist was in fact a master draftsman. Picasso famously noted that he spent a lifetime learning how to paint like a child.

#10.

Henri Rousseau—Portrait of Madame M 1895-97

Henri Rousseau, Portrait of Madame M., 1895-97,
Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

In this case, Le Douanier’s naive style of painting reminds me of the rigid and unpretentious folk portraits created by itinerant painters of 18th century Colonial America. Rousseau’s stylized treatment of the flora gives this painting a naively decorative quality not found in most other paintings of his day.

Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part III)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2009 by Liz Hager

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

By LIZ HAGER

matisse-back-ivHenri Matisse, The Back (III), spring-summer 1916,
Bronze, 6′ 2 1/2″ x 44″ x 6.”
(Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund. © 2009 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

Like Aguado’s photograph and Friedrich’s Wanderer in a Sea of Fog, the human backside was a prop through which Henri Matisse explored what interested him most, the essential character of things beneath their superficial and fleeting exteriors. Deconstruction and simplification of form were to be Matisse’s great helpmates in this search for essential character, particularly during the years between 1913-1917, a period of great artistic experimentation.

The Back III belongs to a series of bronze bas reliefs that the artist made roughly between 1909 and 1930. Although not conceived by Matisse as a series, the artist returned to this subject repeatedly with a continuity of purpose. Moreover, the panels share artistic DNA, for the artist created each new Back from a plaster cast of the previous relief and altered it through the application of clay.

The earliest panel is lost, but, as a group, the remaining bas reliefsThe Back I, 1908-09; The Back II, 1913; The Back III, 1916; The Back IV, c. 1931— superbly demonstrate the artist’s quest to for the essence of human-ness. The choice of pose in the Back series had its genesis predominantly in Cézanne’s painting, Three Bathers ca. 1880, which Matisse went into massive debt to own, but the artist also professed to have been influenced by Gauguin’s Tahitian Women painting.

With each subsequent state in the Back series Matisse created a bolder reduction of that back form into essential shapes, until he arrived (albeit much later in his career) at the radical and monolithic simplicity of Back IV.  By choosing the back  for this sculptural exploration, Matisse forced himself to search for the essence of female form beyond the most obvious differentiators.

With Back III Matisse reached a certain milestone in his quest for the essential identity of human form. He has reduced the figure to just a long tail of hair connected to the vertical spine, the tell-tale curve of the hip, and an arm gesture that speaks to particularly human ability to rotate the arms.

Interestingly, while human-ness is still very much in evidence in Back III, the human presence has receded. The superficial explanations, such as choice of materials metal—its coldness alienates us—and scale—despite the figure’s life-sized dimensions, Matisse has rendered her to feel more massive than we (we see her as the monument of all women)—apply equally, I think, to earlier versions. And yet they retain elements of the human presence.

I can’t help thinking that this absence is really due to the loss of individuality. In other words, has reducing the human form to its visual essence—by its definition the unvarying or universal “truth”—necessarily eliminated the variation and thus the individual identity inherent in the human form? In the artistic rendering of humans, is it possible to capture both individual and collective identity?

Matisse—Madame Matisse rouge

Henri Matisse, Mme. Matisse (madras rouge), 1907, oil on canvas, 39 1/8 x 31 3/4 ” (courtesy Barnes Foundation)

The process of simplification in Matisse’s work was influenced to some extent by Cubism, but also by the artist’s growing interest in sub-Saharan carvings. He once observed of reductive nature of African art: “they were conceived from the point of view of sculptural language. . . made in terms of their material according to invented planes and proportions.” Due to their essential “planes and proportions,” the aesthetic of these ethnographic items were embraced whole-heartedly by the artist in both his paintings and sculptures.

During the period from 1913-1917 in particular, Matisse made great strides pushing his naturalistic style toward abstraction of form. (He never leapt into pure abstraction, as his images were still derived from external realities.) This exploration was not limited to his sculptural works, as these paintings demonstrate.

matisse-portrait-of-sarah-stein-1916

Henri Matisse, Portrait of Sarah Stein, 1916, oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 22 1/4″ (SF MOMA)

By 1916, the Matissean decorative exuberance had begun to creep back into his work. Matisse did not abandon abstraction altogether, but it took him until the 1940s and the experimentation with cut-out form to return full-force to this inquiry.

Hidden Identity—Parts I, II, IV

Wider Connections

Matisse’s drawings for the Back Series—I, II

Matisse’s cutouts

Antiques & the Arts: Cézanne’s influence on Modern Art


Hidden Identity: Musings on the Backside (Part II)

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2009 by Liz Hager

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

By LIZ HAGER

It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, ca. 1818,
Oil on canvas, 94.8 x 74.8 cm
(Courtesy Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

The figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s landscape does not greet us or proudly point the way to the majestic landscape behind him.  Nor is he the variety of puny figure found in some landscapes, who are present mostly to demonstrate the monumental scale of the natural world. The “wanderer” deliberately turns his backside to us, assuming the stance of contemplation. His specific identity is not important.  He’s largely there as a symbolic reminder that this untamed landscape is the vehicle by which we humans experience heightened emotion.

The French sculptor David d’Angers reputedly observed of Friedrich: “Here is a man who has discovered the tragedy of landscape.” Thus he perfectly summed up the Romantic’s notion of the natural world. Working at the height of German Romanticism, Friedrich’s paintings referenced nature, not only as the antithesis to human civilization, but as the conduit to experience our deeper selves.

Partially as a reaction to the growing industrialization in Europe, the Romantic movement wound itself around the idea that strong emotion—including shock, horror, fear, awe—and sensitivity was a necessary and desired part of the aesthetic experience. The Romantics believed in the transformative power of the untrammeled landscape. The solitude of remote locales became the optimal environment in which to experience the true physical and spiritual isolation, necessary in itself to emotional depth and a deep understanding of the self. At the time, a mountain pinnacle such as the one depicted in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog would have been ideal, for it was as far away from human civilization as any European could reasonably get.

While not concerned the figure’s identity, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog nonetheless delves into the notion of identity, at least in the way the Romantics might have pondered it. The figure is not a random person plucked from obscurity;  it happens to be Friedrich himself. The painter himself stands on the rocky outcropping lost, we presume by the stance, in melancholic thought induced by the wild and shrouded landscape.  He is emblematic of the journey toward self-discovery, which is, after all, is at the root of identity.

Wider Connections

Isaiah Berlin—The Roots of Romanticism
Romanticism & the visual arts (a short primer)
Caspar David Friedrich—other landscapes
ColourLovers—Color and the Romantic painters
Goethe’s  Faust

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