Wednesday, July 23, 2008

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Words are ghosts that will come back to haunt you, or so I quickly learned after I had been interviewed by a reporter with the BBC. She had been referred to me from a friend, who had declined the interview, and prior to sitting down with the tape recorder, we chatted seemingly aimlessly, developing a good rapport with each other. To my surprise, when the actual interview was conducted on tape, the reporter introduced a topic we had spoken about earlier; this took me off-guard especially as I didn’t want to share my answer with the world at large. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, as both “rapport” and “report” share a Latin etymological root meaning “to bring or carry back.”

I recalled this exceptionally educational and embarrassing experience when I read an essay in the New York Time’s Sunday Book Review. The paragraph that triggered my memory follows:

“ Mark Haddon, who wrote numerous novels for children before The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, said in an e-mail message that he recalled 'a number of people looking down their noses at me when I explained what I did for a living, as if I painted watercolors of cats or performed as a clown at parties.' "

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I have never read a single book by Mark Haddon, yet I question his ability to choose words wisely when writing. Perhaps he felt an email gave him the luxury to sling words fast and furious, without any thought of the import or meaning behind them. I suspect his comments referencing artists who paint watercolors of animals, cats in particular, are words that may come back to haunt him. Why? The art history chronicles are filled with the names and works of esteemed artists who have painted cats, both in watercolor and in other mediums, so perhaps Mr. Haddon might want to re-think his analogy.

One of the treasures in the British Museum is by a no lesser-talented artist than Leonardo Da Vinci included a drawing of a cat sitting with the Christ Child on the lap of the Madonna in his Virgin and Child with Cat . (AD 1478-81) Unfortunately, no painting of this study has survived or been subsequently discovered, although Rembrandt later was inspired to create an etching also entitled Virgin and Child with a Cat. (1654).

Other artists, such as Matisse, Goya, and Manet painted cats using their own particular style to capture the essence of the animal. Henri Matisse’s Girl with A Black Cat, was completed in 1910, and is presently in private collection.

Even Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso shared an affection for cats, as evidenced by the number of paintings and drawings both artists created that included felines. Similarly, Theophile Alexandre Steinlen, the esteemed Swiss illustrator and collaborator of Emile Zola and Toulouse-Lautrec, is noted for his highly collectible paintings, posters and sculptures of cats.

One of my favorite paintings by Pierre Bonnard , a member of Les Nabis, can be found in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Characteristic of his colorful narrative paintings of interiors, the cat’s presence acts as an animated distinction to the immobility and calmness of his wife, Marthe.

Recently I discovered the work of the Key West Artist, Bill Borough whose website is . His realistic watercolor paintings focus on the buildings found in Key West, including Audubon House, the home of John James Audubon, the world-renown ornithologist, and at the house located at 1431 Duncan Street, generally known as Tennessee Williams' House. More relevant, however, to this discussion, Bill Borough has skillfully captured one of the felines lurking at the lovely Spanish Colonial house previously owned by Ernest Hemingway.

True diplomacy, like great art, involves having the sense to know how to express ideas succinctly and to restrain from the tendency to speak without knowledge of one’s subject, always opting to remain silent, when appropriate. Therefore, like a cat, I’ll now opt to remain silent and hope that the next time a writer addresses a wider audience, words are chosen wisely instead of in dismissive haste.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Ariadne's Thread

"Back into the labyrinth, where we are found or lost forever."
W.B. Yeats

A single crumpled landscape painted strokes of a checkerboard pattern and a checked quilt on another’s canvases are the only known works of art that Sunday Reed, the late Australian arts patron and Muse of several artists has left for posterity. However, she continues to arouse, as the tabloid and quality press recently reported that Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban’s creative choice of their baby’s unusual name was inspired by the still-controversial Sunday Reed.

Sunday was a woman who provided inspiration and acted as Muse for many of the famous painters of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s in Australia, including Sir Sydney Nolan, one of the giants of 20th century Australian art and Albert Tucker. She shocked many by entering into an open menage a trios with John Reed and Sydney Nolan, during which Nolan produced most of his greatest work, including the famous Ned Kelly series.

Melbourne art historian Janine Burke, devoted much time researching Sunday Reed, culminating in a book, The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide, wherein she stated Sunday was not only Nolan's lover and financial supporter in the 1940’s but collaborated in his art. She further believes Sunday helped paint key sections of two paintings, The Trial and The Defence, both part of Nolan’s Ned Kelly series.

As stated in an Australian newspaper from 2004,
Burke suggests that Reed, once an art student, painted the red-and-white tiled floor in The Trial with a stencil and the checked quilt in The Defence of Aaron Sherritt, both now in the National Gallery of Australia.

Peter Haynes, director of the Nolan Gallery at Lanyon, said: "It wouldn't surprise me if she did. He worked so quickly right up to his death (in 1992). We've got works in the collection with times on them as well as dates, so he might well have had a bit of assistance here and there on something like a pattern."

No one is suggesting Nolan's paintings are devalued if he allowed Reed to assist him. But those close to the artists - wives in particular - are protective of their creative and emotional lives.

According to the psychologist Carl Jung, the Muse represents the male’s anima: “immortal,” she is “disguised under the many names we give to creative impulses and ideas.” In the life of Sunday Reed, we see the role of a woman artist being over-shadowed by the men around her. However, we also see how the role of the Muse elevates the artist, and supporting Jung’s understanding of the immortality of the Muse.

Some muses are erotic wives and lovers, while others are chaste and unattainable, some are solely devoted to the artistic expression of a single artist, whereas, others are serial Muses, facilitating the artistic labor of many. Regardless, the qualities and sacrifices of the living Muse has yet to be fully explored and documented. Here is a small sampling of some Muses throughout history and the artists they inspired:

Muse : Artist

Beatrice Portinari : Dante Alighieri
Lucrezia (del Fede) : Andrea del Sarto
Sandra Fisher : RB Kitaj
Maud Gonne : William Butler Yeats
Laura: Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca)
Emilie Flöge :Gustave Klimt
Monique Bourgeois :Henri Matisse
Victorine Louise Meurent: Edouard Manet
Camille Claudel : Auguste Rodin
Françoise Gilot : Pablo Picasso
Alma Mahler : Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka, Walter Gropius, & Franz Werfel
Elizabeth Siddal : Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Lou Andreas-Salomé :Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke and Sigmund Freud
Lee Miller : Man Ray
Elena Ivanovna Diakonova (Aka Galarina aka Gala): Paul Éluard, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, & others

Francine Prose is one of the few writers who has sought to start to record the lives of women as Muse. She recently published a book entitled The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists they Inspired, in which she wrote, ''Artists rarely create for the muse, to win or keep the Muse's love and admiration, but rather for themselves, for the world, and for the more inchoate and unquantifiable imperatives of art itself. Their muses are merely the instruments that raise the emotional and erotic temperature high enough, churn up the weather in a way that may speed and facilitate the artist's labors.''

I believe this is entirely true. Hesiod and Virgil believed that the Muses were symbols of ontological truth and certainty, allowing the artist to enter into greater awareness of consciousness and reception. It is also important to remember the presence of the muse is always numinous and dramatic, and the artist’s response to her determines our response to his artistic expression.

One will recall from classic Hellenic mythology, it is Ariadne, Muse and guide to truth, who gives Theseus the golden thread that leads into the labyrinth, where he slays the Minotaur and then follows the golden thread back into the light; in every time and season, Ariadne is born anew to yet another awakening Theseus divinely driven to create his art.

If one has the opportunity to view Henri Matisse’s final and greatest masterpiece, the Chapelle du Rosaire, one can see the direct impact of the Muse, and how the sapphire blue, emerald green and lemon yellow window with the prickly pear fig motif transmits the ever-revealing symbolism of contained yet ever-expectant vibrant sensuality .

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"strangers in the country of man"

blackRecently, the British art critic, Brian Sewell had the audacity to proclaim “There’s never been a great woman artist.” In an article in the Independent Newspaper, he was quoted thusly:

"The art market is not sexist," Mr. Sewell said. "The likes of Bridget Riley and Louise Bourgeois are of the second and third rank. There has never been a first-rank woman artist.

"Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50 per cent or more of classes at art school. Yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it's something to do with bearing children."

I’m not so sure that the biological and sociological potential for ‘reduced volume of oeuvre’ can be equated to “lack of greatness.” Within Germaine Greer’s coruscating book, The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, the issues of domesticity on the woman artist are addressed. More importantly, she poses questions of note and contends, “The real questions are ‘What is the contributions of women to the visual arts?’ If there were any women artists, why were there not more?’, “If we can find one good painting by a woman, where is the rest of her work?”, “How good were the women who earned a living by painting?” The real questions are based not in the notions of great art entertained by the ‘layman’, which are essentially prejudices, but in the sociology of art, an infant study still in the preliminary stages of inventing terminology for itself.” (pp. 3, pg 6, The Obstacle Race)

These questions floated through my mind while I considered Mr. Sewell’s myopic commentary on women artists. I later reflected on my own question,

“Outside of relative historical obscurity, what does Judith Leyster, the esteemed Haarlem painter of the Baroque Era and Laura Riding Jackson, the talented American poet and essayist who died in 1991 have in common?”

Thanks to the astute observation of the art historian, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, who studied Leyster’s work, we know that Judith Leyster creatively signed her paintings with a monogram, - a five-pointed lodestar shooting from entwined initials, making a play on her last name, which in Dutch, means “Leading Star”.

Despite this cleverness and the mastery of the artist, the name “Judith Leyster” may not quickly rise to the forefront of the average individual’s art-history recollection.

Why? In January 25, 1994, Jo Ann Lewis, an art reviewer for the Washington Post, published an article entitled, “Judith Leyster, the Dutch Master Who Was a Mrs.” The review was published in association with a mini-retrospective at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Herewith is a key extract of the article:

“ Not a single work is known to have been hung in a museum or sold under Leyster's name until 1892, when a lawsuit between two London art dealers forced a closer inspection of a painting attributed to her probable teacher, Frans Hals, and revealed Leyster's monogram under the grime. The lawsuit was settled by reducing the price of the work (now in the Louvre) by 25 percent; but it also prompted the Dutch art historian who had made the discovery to track down six more paintings with Leyster's monogram and publish the first article on her work.”

There is much information about women’s artistic endeavors and how they are received by the critics is contained within those words by Jo Ann Lewis:

Firstly, we become aware that having discovered the authentic creator of the painting, the work has lost commercial value despite having previous received critical accolades by the art community for the fine brushstrokes and nuances of character portrayed in the portraits; this blatantly demonstrates the sexism that is rampant in the valuation of women’s art versus men’s creations.

And, secondly, the good news is that having become aware of the mis-attribution of Leyster’s work as that of Frans Hals’, greater attention was given to identification of similar works that had also be mis-identified.

Here is a short list of some of Judith Leyster’s art that had been previously attributed to other artists:

• Laughing Man with Wine Glass --formerly attributed to Gerard Honthorst

• The Jolly Companions, sold in 1890, (Leyster’s unique monogram had been altered to an interlocking FH)

• The Jolly Toper (acquired by the Rijksmuseum in 1897) has her monogram and is dated 1629. It was sold as a Frans Hals at the Hotel Drouot in 1890.

• Yet another Jolly Toper was bought in 1874 by the Kaise-Friedrich Museum as a Frans Hals.

• Self Portrait, 1633, formerly attributed to Frans Hals, (Owned by National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) [please see image at top of this blog]

One can only wonder if the most recent Frans Hals sale of “Portrait of Willem van Heythuysen, Seated on a Chair and holding a Hunting Crop,”, which exceeded its estimated price and sold for £7m at a Sotheby's auction in London will one day be revealed to also truly be the work of Judith Leyester, rather than Frans Hals.

Review of the recent auction notes provides these reassuring comments that could indicate that the work should actually be ascribed to Judith Leyster:

“This is one of Hals' most arresting portraits, and is a familiar image. The tipping chair that bears Van Heythuysen's larger than life presence in a diagonal that fills the picture plane from lower right to upper left, and the whip that he grasps with both hands and bends into an arc are provocative and charge the picture with tension and drama. We think he is about to fall over, but it is obvious from his relaxed form with one leg crossed over the other that he knows he will not, and that the chair will safely bear the bulk of his reposing body. His pose suggests more than nonchalance; it is self-confident. This may suggest to us that Hals has here depicted an archetypal bravo, but the Van Heythuysen that Hals portrays is very far from being a caricature. The pose of his bulky relaxed body with one leg crossed over the other is not that of studied arrogance. Rather it leads us naturally to his sympathetic serious careworn face which belies any bravo stereotype, and which fixes the viewer with an intent but calm intelligent gaze.

As Bijl and Biesboer observed, this spontaneous and informal portrait is unusual within Hals' oeuvre and among Dutch portraiture of the time, and this may be because it was intended for a private chamber – such as the one in which Van Heythuysen is depicted.”

Hank Burchard, seasoned art correspondent for the Washington Post, critically noted in an article dated December 24, 1993, “The assignments to Hals are the most puzzling because, while Leyster apparently was at least briefly one of his students and her brushwork is similar, the tone and atmosphere of her work is very different. Where Hals radiates golden warmth, Leyster's characters are much more coolly and clearly observed. She seizes in particular on those moments during changes of facial expressions when the shutters of the soul are briefly opened to betray the fool within.”

If we use our eyes to look at art, without attention to gender, will we see greater commercial value in the work if we are not blinded by gender?

One may accuse me of wishful thinking -- of being delusional enough to suggest the possibility that the recent painting that sold at Sotheby’s may be not be a genuine Frans Hals work. However, only four years ago, the same painting was sold at an auction in Vienna to an anonymous buyer for a mere $700,000, as the catalog description read, “Studio of Frans Hals”. It was only later authenticated to have been painted by the renowned painter. Surely, as the art community and the business community becomes receptive to the idea that women have created masterpieces, the attributions may be ascribed to women as well as to male artists of the respective period.

It is not uncommon for the work of women’s hands and creative spirit to be credited to men. Historically, Art Guilds, ateliers, and Salons often refused women entry. Despite this, women worked alongside their fathers, brothers, husbands, or lovers to produce works of art in their private studios; the creations were generally attributed to the men in their lives.

Times have not changed greatly. I personally have witnessed women who were barred entry into art and photographic competitions because of their gender, so they submitted their work under the name of a husband or a father, just to have the opportunity to have their work exposed to others and get a “fair” juried appraisal and critical acuity of the work. Ribbons may bear the name of a man, but the truth is known by the principals involved.

It has been said that Laura Riding Jackson, the highly original essayist and poet, is “distinguished by her insistence on defining the value of poetry as truth-value.” As an ardent thinker on language, much of her writing is preoccupied with the precept of truth.

If what you write is true, it will not be so because of what you are as a writer but because of what you are as a being. There can be no literary equivalent to truth. If, in writing, truth is the quality of what is said, told, this is not a literary achievement: it is a simple human achievement.
"Extracts from Communications", from The Telling (London: Athlone Press, 1972).

Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth. Poetic art cheats truth to further and finer degrees than art of any other kind because the spoken word is its exclusive medium.
Preface to Selected Poems (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973).

To a poet the mere making of a poem can seem to solve the problem of truth…but only a problem of art is solved in poetry.
Preface to Selected Poems (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973).

Laura Riding Jackson also steadfastly refused to let her own experiences be misrepresented. I believe she would have delighted in the recent headline in the British press which read, “War Poet Robert Graves ‘stole Work from his mistress’.”

The well-written article by the Independent’s art correspondent, Arifa Akbar, includes these passages:

“Few would doubt the brilliance of Robert Graves, a man considered to be one of Britain's foremost war poets whose verses on Greek mythology and frontline conflict cemented his name in literary history.

But one academic has accused the poet of stealing ideas, literary criticism and poetry from his one-time American mistress and passing them off as his own.…..

"Between 1926 and 1939, he was learning from her what she was doing and thinking," Dr. Jacobs said. "He was taking her ideas, her research, he was simply shovelling it in to his own books.... She left her manuscript in Majorca. She later wrote to him [Graves] and told him to burn the manuscript. We now know that he didn't. It all appeared in dribble form in The White Goddess. He used it for his own ends without mentioning it to her. She only found out in the 1950s."

Thanks to historians such as Dr. Mark Jacobs, a fair reassessment of Grave’s and Laura Riding Jackson’s writings will be made in the light of the revelations. Most importantly, greater attention may be brought to the work of a brilliant woman, who was more than a muse, more than a living incarnation of “The White Goddess”, she was an artist concerned with the truth. Like Judith Leyster, thanks to the curious and affirming authoritative researchers who look beyond gender, Laura Riding Jackson’s critical voice will no longer be silent and the truth will shout loudly.

so I began to live.
It was outrageous,

I made mortal mistakes,
I did not mean to live so mortally.

But something must be written about me,
And not by them.
So I began those mistold confidences
Which now read like profanity of self
To my internal eye
And which my critic hand erases
As the story grows too different to speak of
In the way the world speaks.

---Laura Riding Jackson, Memories of Mortalities

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Fearless Variation

Les fleurs
by Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova's Les fleurs, painted circa 1912, recently was sold at auction at Christie's in London. With a final bid of £4.6 million ($9.6 million), Natalia Goncharova became the "most expensive" female painter on the art market.

Artists are generally given advice to adhere to a given style, yet one can look to Goncharova's ceaseless reevaluation of painterly possibilities and recognize that she did not develop one signature style, but many.

Goncharova articulated her artistic ambitions as follows, 'Do drawings of things, the landscape, people just as they appear at a given moment in your imagination; fear nothing, no deformity of any kind, no fabrication, no fantasy. Try out various styles and methods, emphasizing first one part, then another, now movement, now the very position of the object itself in space and its relationship to others. Change them according to your imagination and instinct, urge yourself to do it precisely that way or in accordance with the idea that you have worked out consciously in your own mind' (N. Goncharova, quoted in exh. cat., Amazons of the Avant-Garde, New York, 2000, p. 310).

If an artist is being true to their inner self and not to "the market", drawing artistic inspiration from their environment and their imagination, it follows that there will be an authenticity in their oeuvre that will be lacking otherwise. Without a focus that is heavily reliant on ideas of personal authenticity, the artistic expression becomes marginal and indistinctive. Is that perhaps that the true differentiation between genius and average art?

Marshlands, Paludes
by Sharon A. Hart