Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will at the Morgan Library, New York City

Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will

The Morgan Library and Museum
September 9, 2016 through January 2, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves and Anne Lloyd

Charlotte Brontë's life was like a Victorian "three-decker" novel. Her incredible rise from obscurity to become a literary sensation with the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847 was followed by staggering family tragedies, then marriage, brief happiness and early death in 1855.

What sounds like the plot of one of her novels was actually Charlotte Brontë's path to immortality.

The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City has organized an exhibition in honor of the bicentennial of Brontë's birth. With the cooperation of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire, and the National Portrait Gallery and the British Library in London, the Morgan's exhibit is worthy of Brontë's life and achievement. Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will sets a standard of curatorial excellence that will be hard to top.

Earlier this year, I reviewed part of this exhibition as it appeared at the National Portrait Gallery. The Morgan's exhibit, drawing upon three international famed institutions, is vaster in scale and superlative in the quality of the objects on display. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Detail of the Richmond Portrait (1850) by George Richmond

In the earlier post, I focused upon the 1850 portrait of Charlotte Brontë, created by George Richmond. It was a gift to Bronte's father, Patrick, from her publisher, George Smith. In this review, I will comment upon several of the other Brontë treasures on view in the spectacular exhibit at the Morgan.

Born two hundred years ago in 1816, Charlotte Brontë was a product of what used to be dismissively referred to as England's "Celtic Fringe." Her father, the Rev. Patrick Brontë was born in Ireland in 1777, while her mother's family came from Cornwall. Charlotte Brontë was also a strong-willed Yorkshire woman at a time when the northern regions of England were the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution. She also represented, along with her sisters Emily and Anne, the final flowering of the literature of the Romantic Rebellion. Seldom has one little woman embodied so much British history and so much individual achievement in one, very brief life.

And Charlotte Brontë was a little woman.  In physical stature, that is. According to the joyner who made her coffin, she measured four feet, nine inches.

Anne Lloyd, View of Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will, Morgan Library, 2016

The first object to greet visitors to the Morgan exhibit is one of Charlotte Brontë's dresses, the so-called "Thackeray dress". Brontë is reputed to have worn this dress to an ill-fated dinner party at the home of William Makepeace Thackeray on June 12, 1850. She almost certainly did not wear the dress to dinner. But the story illustrates the "outsider" position of Brontë - and her sisters - in the British literary scene of the 1840's and 1850's.

The Brontë dress on view at the Morgan is of a type known as delaine dress. The word "delaine" originally referred to woolen dresses. By 1850, the term was used for light-weight dresses made of various printed fabrics, including wool-cotton mix as in the case of this dress.

Anne Lloyd, Photo of Charlotte Brontë's "Thackeray Dress", 2016

Historian Eleanor Houghton of the University of Sussex has made a detailed study of this dress. She believes that Charlotte Brontë likely wore the dress for daytime business or social meetings, including one with Thackeray prior to the dinner party. The style was certainly acceptable for daytime use in 1850. But it would have been a laughable blunder to wear it at a dinner party when silk dresses were the norm. Charlotte Brontë was extremely sensitive about her appearance, so much so that she refused to have photos taken of herself when she was married in 1854.

Thackeray's thirteen-year old daughter, Anne, left a vivid account of the dinner party. She described Charlotte Brontë as "a tiny delicate, serious little lady, pale with fair straight hair, and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress, with a pattern of faint green moss."

According to Houghton, barège was a mix of woolen and silk threads, very much in fashion for evening dresses in 1850. When it came to fabrics, Charlotte Brontë clearly knew her "stuff."

Anne Lloyd, Detail of Charlotte Brontë's "Thackeray Dress", 2016

To focus upon the "Thackeray" dress may seem obsessive, when the Morgan exhibit is bursting with "once-in-a-lifetime" treasures, including the manuscript of Jane Eyre. Yet, it is worth considering this dress along with a famous quote by Brontë who was responding to critics of Jane Eyre.

"To you I am neither Man nor Woman - I come before you as an Author only - it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me - the sole ground on which I accept your judgement."

Brontë published Jane Eyre under the nom de plume, Currer Bell. When she and her sisters, Emily and Anne decided to "earn their fortune" as professional writers they chose enigmatic male names, Currer, Ellis and Acton, respectively. The surname "Bell" was, perhaps coincidentally, the middle name of their father's assistant curate and Charlotte's eventual husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) of The Brontë Sisters (c.1834) by Patrick Branwell Brontë

The Brontë sisters tried every form of employment deemed suitable for gentlewomen to earn their bread. Governessing, managing a school of their own, all that was now at an end. Their hearts were not in it and their brother Branwell's erratic behavior forbade housing students even if they could find any.

A legacy left to the sisters by their Aunt Branwell allowed them some financial freedom, but it wasn't a complete answer. In the autumn 1845, during  this time of uncertainty , Charlotte Bronte came across her sister's Emily's poems. They electrified her. Charlotte faced down Emily's fury and insisted that the poems must be put before the public. The rest is history. 

Charlotte Brontë, aka Currer Bell, had the right to insist upon being judged "as an Author only."  Though politically conservative, Charlotte Brontë was in the vanguard of the eminent Victorian women who would stubbornly smash the barriers of the "Old Boy" British establishment.

Anne Lloyd, Photo of Charlotte Brontë's portable writing desk, 2016

The "Thackeray" dress, Charlotte Brontë's portable writing desk, the Richmond's portrait and the manuscript of Jane Eyre testify to the front-row place which Charlotte Brontë earned for herself among the "greats" of English literature. But these objects from Brontë's later life can only be understood in terms of the wondrous "little books" and poems which she and her siblings created as children.

On display at the Morgan exhibit is a miniature manuscript book with water color drawings. It is dated to 1828, when the nine-year old Charlotte created this tiny treasure for her younger sister, Anne, later the author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) of Miniature Booklet (c.1828) by Charlotte Brontë

There once was a little girl and her name was Ane” reads the opening line of Charlotte Brontë’s first tale, complete with misspelling. Looking at this incredible work of love, one is struck by the unshakable thought that here is “genius" or at least the seed of genius.

The Brontë treasures, currently on view in the gallery of the Morgan Library, certainly testify to one of the great sagas of creativity in human history. Why else would we continue to read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? Why else would we throng to an exhibition such as Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will at the Morgan Library?

Anne Lloyd, View of the Brontë's Parsonage Museum, Haworth, U.K., 2014

The truth is that our hearts, our souls, our imaginations are still moved and shall ever be moved by the greatest Brontë epic of all - the lives of the Brontë family of Haworth.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of Anne Lloyd and the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Detail of The Brontë Sisters (c.1834) by Patrick Branwell Brontë, Primary Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Detail of the Richmond Portrait (Charlotte Brontë) (1850) by George Richmond, National Portrait Gallery Collection, London.

Anne Lloyd, Gallery view of Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will (the "Thackeray dress") at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, digital photograph, 2016

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) The "Thackeray dress," two-piece printed delaine dress (of cotton and wool), ca. 1850, worn by Charlotte Brontë, Brontë Parsonage Museum

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Detail of the "Thackeray dress," c. 1850, worn by Charlotte Brontë, Brontë Parsonage Museum

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë)  by Patrick Branwell Brontë. Oil on canvas, c.1834, 35 1/2 in. x 29 3/8 in. (902 mm x 746 mm) Purchased, 1914. Primary Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 1725 (c.1834)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Charlotte Brontë’s portable writing desk, with contents including pen nibs, ink bottle, and other tools, Parsonage Museum

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2016) Miniature manuscript booklet with watercolor drawings, by Charlotte Brontë, c.1828, Brontë Parsonage Museum

Anne Lloyd, View of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, U.K., digital photograph, 2014

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Greek Art by John Boardman

Greek Art

By John Boardman
Thames & Hudson/320 pages/$23.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Greek Art by John Boardman is one of the most trusted and well-used books in my art library. I own three editions of this classic Thames & Hudson book. One of these copies is usually close to hand  - because the creative genius of the Greeks is never far from the scene of great art.

Thames and Hudson has just published the fifth edition of Greek Art. As Sir John Boardman will turn 90 in 2017, there is cause for celebrating the longevity of this outstanding scholar and of his most widely-read book. And of course, one should never miss an opportunity of emphasizing the continuing importance of the art of ancient Greece.

Boardman's book often sits on the shelf next to my battered copy of Kenneth Clark's Civilization. Greek art, declared Clark "was without doubt the most extraordinary creation in the whole of history, so complete, so convincing, so satisfying to the mind and the eye, that it lasted practically unchanged for over six hundred years."

This "ideal" art of Athens, created in the decades following the amazing victories of the Greeks over the mighty Persian Empire in 480 B.C., was carried by Alexander the Great as far as India and by the Romans to Britannia, the northernmost outpost of their empire.

Perseus and Andromeda, fresco from Pompei, c. 55-79 A.D.

But Classical Greek art is only one "highlight" of the incredibly diverse and complex artistic heritage of the Greeks, the Hellenes as they called themselves. This is the story that Boardman tells so well in Greek Art

Boardman begins with early Greek pottery, decorated with intricate geometric designs. Then comes the "Orientalizing" period which began around 750 B.C., the era "in which Greece was not the teacher, but the taught." This was followed by the Archaic age and its fantastic Kouros and Kore statues, the Greek "miracle" of the fifth century and the spread of Hellenistic art in the footsteps of Alexander. The art of each epoch is brilliantly analysed.

Kroisos Kouros, Attica, c. 540–515 B.C.

Greek art in Boardman's account begins in the "Dark Age" following the fall of Troy and the collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms around 1200 B.C. The Mycenaeans, as Boardman notes, were Greek-speakers. Was Greek art a new civilization arising from the ashes of Pylos and Mycenae? Or did a "Renaissance" take place with artistic themes and techniques from the Mycenaens invigorating the culture of the new Greek city-states?

Boardman declares without hesitation: 

But the fact remains that Mycenaen art, which is itself but a provincial version of the arts of the non-Greek Minoans, is utterly different, both at first sight and in many of its principles, to that of Geometric Greece. For this reason our story begins within the not-so Dark Ages, with Greek artists working out afresh, and without the overwhelming incubus of the Minoan tradition to stifle them, art forms which satisfied their particular temperament, and out of which the classical tradition was to be born.

The earliest Greek art is wonderfully strange to behold. I particularly love the clay centaur from Lefkandi, dating to 900 B.C. Decorated with geometric motifs, it was unearthed at Lefkandi, one of the major archaeological "digs" of recent times. 

Cast Bronze Siren, from Olympia, early 7th century

And then there is the bizarre winged-siren which once clung to the rim of a cauldron. With a wig that looks like Darth Vader's helmet, this siren was one of a group of figurines, a common decorative motif on great bronze pots throughout the Middle East.To the Greek mind, they no doubt symbolized the seductive, treacherous beings who nearly lured Odysseus to his doom.

Looking over the various editions of Boardman's book points to another evolutionary process, namely the changing perceptions of Greek art over the last 40 years. Boardman's own astute scholarship has played a major role in this process. But the discovery of "unclassical" statues and other artifacts in the last few decades has shown that Greek art was not quite "so satisfying to the mind and the eye" as Kenneth Clark once affirmed.

When Boardman's book first was published in 1964, a picture of the Marathon Ephebe (or Boy) graced the cover. This bronze statue of a young athlete was raised from the sea in 1925. It was probably en route to a villa of one of those lovers of Greek culture, the Romans, but was lost in a shipwreck.

The Marathon Ephebe, cover illustration to early edition of Greek Art  

The Marathon Ephebe is the absolute embodiment of the "body beautiful" school of Greek art. It's not difficult to see why a rich Roman would desire such a treasure or that a book designer in 1964 decided to place it on the cover of an exciting new art history.

In 1972, an amateur scuba diver discovered two bronze statues from the fifth century under the sea near the "toe" of Italy. The Riace Bronzes depict mature men, possibly warriors from the Persian Wars or mythic heroes from the story of the Seven Against Thebes. Whatever the case, "A" and "B," as the Riace Bronzes are called, have none of the smooth-faced beauty of the Marathon Ephebe. They are tough "hombres" like the Spartans who defended the pass at Thermopylae.

The Riace Bronzes have become the "rock stars" of ancient art. Their erotic qualities have found them a place in the contemporary porn culture of the West. That's hardly worthy of comment here since the Greeks had no sexual inhibitions whatsoever. 

If the Riace Bronzes disturb our conceptions of the "hallowed" nature of ancient art, there are many violent, unsettling themes in ancient art. The new edition of Greek Art has a two-page photo spread showing a marble sarcophagus carved with a bas relief of the sacrifice of Polyxena during the Trojan War. On the other side, there is a complementary bas relief showing dancing women in a religious festival. The sarcophagus was discovered in 1994 near the site of Troy in Turkey.

The Greeks, according to legend, avenged the death of Achilles by murdering the captive Trojan princess, Polyxena. The scene is quite graphically portrayed as one of the vengeful Greeks plunges a dagger into the young girl's throat.

Boardman does not comment in the text about this disgusting incident (to a modern-day American) or why it was paired with a scene of dancing women. The past "is a different country" and the Greeks saw the world in different ways than we do.

Exekias, Achilles Slaying Penthesilea, c. 530 B.C-525 B.C.

The cult of war appears in much of Greek art and scenes of violence against women are shown too. The two themes are combined in the famous black-figure amphora from the collection of the British Museum showing Achilles slaying the Amazon queen, Penthesilia, during the Trojan War. It is notable because we know the artist's name, Exekias. But what sticks in my mind is the cold, cruel killer's eye of Achilles as he spears Penthesilia.

The Polyxena Sarcophagus and the Achilles-Penthesilia Amphora date from the end of the Archaic Period, around 525 B.C. It is difficult to judge this period of Greek history, at least from a social standpoint. 

There simply was so much in flux during the Archaic Period and no living historians to analyze the details, as Herodotus and Thucydides were later to do. Solon's law reforms, establishing democracy in Athens, 594 B.C., and the triumph of Spartan militarism, symbolized by the famous Battle of the Champions against Argos in 546, took place during the Archaic Period. But the place of art during this troubled time is hard to assess.

Base of a Kouros showing Gymnasium Scenes, Attica, c. 510 B.C.

Sensibly, Boardman focuses on the technical changes in art. But he notes the growing interest by vase painters in depicting satyrs. This was a sly way to comment on male misbehavior in the brazenly masculine society of Greece. And when the opportunity arises to trace important trends during later epochs, Boardman does not refrain from doing so.

A good example can be found in the discussion of nudity in art during the fourth century. Social conventions weakened as the power of the individual Greek city-states waned. Where women had always been sculpted clothed, as in the celebrated Peplos Kore, now there appeared the first instance of "deliberate sensuality in the rendering of women." Boardman explains:

At the end of the 5th century, Aphrodite could be shown in a closely clinging dress. Now she is naked, and so successful was Praxiteles in his cult statue of the goddess at Cnidus that (in later times) the marble was exhibited under peep-show conditions and was even the object of indecent assault.

When necessary, the text of Boardman's Greek Art has changed to accommodate the new discoveries. A close reading of the different editions, however, shows no major "about-face" reappraisals. Early in his career, Boardman took part in a number of archaeological excavations and was for three years assistant Director of the British School of Archaeology in Athens. Boardman has been a master of his subject for a very long time - and remains so today.

Yet, in his handling of the concluding paragraphs of Greek Art, it is fascinating to see how Boardman has grapples with the changes in how art history is viewed. Especially in the case of Greek art history, there is no longer the kind of consensus that enabled Kenneth Clark to speak so magisterially - and sensibly - in Civilization.

All three of the most recent editions of Greek Art show the same illustrations on the final pages. There is the drawing of a nude man and woman, perfectly proportioned according to Greek standards, that was sent into Deep Space aboard the Pioneer 10 spacecraft in 1972. 

Albrect Durer also referred to the Greek concept of the nude to depict Adam and Eve in an engraving which is displayed next to the Pioneer 10 picture. Thus, as Boardman notes, Greek art provided the imagery and the spirit to create depictions of the Fall of Man and of humanity's Space Age Apotheosis.

The Second Revised edition, 1985, states the same basic message as the latest edition. It does so, however, in an almost "bible-thumping" manner. Boardman wrote that the Durer engraving and the Pioneer 10 drawing "both derive in pose and detail from that idealized and basically unrealistic view of man and his mate - nakedly modest in either covering or removing the body hair that draw attention to their shame - devised by the artists of Classical Greece." 

Linda Salzman Sagan, Pioneer 10 Plaque, 1972

The 1996 and 2016 editions make no mention of naked modesty, body hair, etc. Instead, we simply read Boardman's moving tribute to the continuing influence of "the artists of Classical Greece." Could this be a recognition that people in the twenty-first century are now more accepting of overt sexuality? Is this in some way, a result of the cult status of the Riace Bronzes?

If we have grown used to the "full frontal" potency of "A" and "B," I think that Western Civilization will somehow endure. 

I just hope and pray that we never come to accept the dehumanizing violence that is depicted on the Polyxena Sarcophagus. That is one aspect of the "glory that was Greece" that deserves no celebration.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images Courtesy of Thames & Hudson, the British Museum and NASA 

Introductory Image: Greek Art, 2016 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Perseus and Andromeda (after a Greek original attributed to late-4th-century BC painter Nicias),  c. 55-79 A.D. Fresco. Height: 1.22 m. From House of Dioscuri at Pompei. Museo Nazionale, Naples, Italy

Kroisos Kouros from Anavyssos in Attica. Grave marker for a fallen warrior named Kroîsos, c. 540–515 BC. Parian Marble. Height: 1.95 m. National Archaeological Museum of Athens (inv. no. 3851)

Cast bronze siren attachment from the rim of a cauldron, facing in. From Olympia, early 7th century BC. Width 15 cm. Olympia (inv. no. B 1690)

Greek Art by John Boardman, 1964 revised edition, (cover)  credit: Thames & Hudson 

Achilles slaying Penthesilea Amphora (attributed to Exekias), c. 530 B.C-525 B.C. Height: 41 cm Width: 29 cm. Diameter: 18 cm. (mouth of the vase.) British Museum (inv. no.1836,0224.127)

Relief on the base of a Kouros statue marking a grave in Athens,  c. 510 BC. Marble. Height: 0.29 m. Width 0.79 m National Archeological Museum, Athens (inv. no. 3476)

Linda Salzman Sagan, Pioneer10 Plaque, 1972. Gold-anodized aluminum. Width: 229 mm (9 inches) Height: 152 mm (6 inches) Thickness: 1.27 mm (0.05 inch)  NASA

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

World War I and American Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

World War I and American Art 

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA 
 November 4, 2016–April 9, 2017 

New-York Historical Society, New York, NY 
May 26, 2017–September 3, 2017 

Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, TN
October 6, 2017–January 21, 2018 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

For the United States, the First World War began in April 1917 with flags and banners waving. The corpse-strewn conflict ended in November 1918 with the Stars and Stripes covering the coffins of countless Americans killed in battle.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia has just opened a major exhibition, World War I and American Art. This revealing display of paintings, sculpture and propaganda posters investigates the role of art - and advertising - in wartime. The exhibit will later travel to the New York Historical Society and to the Frist Center in Nashville, Tennesee. 

Art played a huge and controversial part in the war efforts of all the major belligerents between 1914 and 1918. The American experience of World War I followed in the footsteps of Great Britain, France, Germany and the rest of embattled Europe. What occurred in August 1914 was repeated in April 1917.

Childe Hassam, Avenue of the Allies, Great Britain, 1918, 1918

Images of drums and bugles, marching bands and inflammatory propaganda fill the opening galleries of the PAFA exhibit. And there are flags. Lots of flags, as in the brightly-hued, monotonous paintings of Childe Hassam. 

The "Big Parade" was followed by massive, industrial-age slaughter. A little-known painting, The Devil's Vineyard, presents a view of "No Man's Land." This was the killing ground between the rival lines of trenches where futile, anonymous death befell millions.

Harvey Dunn, The Devil’s Vineyard

The British poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in one of the last battles of the war, described the carnage in his unforgettable Anthem for Doomed Youth:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?                                                                 — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.                                                                           Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle                                                                               Can patter out their hasty orisons.                                                                                     No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;                                                             Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—                                                                     The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;                                                                     And bugles calling for them from sad shires. 

Under conditions like these, it took a lot of prodding to get the American people to join the Allied war effort. The key event in the propaganda campaign took place in May 1915 when a German submarine sank the British passenger liner, Lusitania, without warning. The death toll included 128 Americans, many being women and children.

The United States avoided war in 1915 when the Germans briefly suspended further submarine attacks made without prior warning. The damage to Germany's reputation was already done as can be see in the military recruitment poster which shows a Madonna-like mother and child drowning in the depths of the sea, victims of a U-Boat attack.

 Fred Spears, Enlist,1915

This poster by Fred Spears was commissioned, not by the United Stated government, but by a group called the Boston Committee of Public Safety. Where Americans were to enlist, given the continuing U.S. neutrality, the poster does not say. Many Americans did serve in France before 1917, some in the famed French flying squadron, the Lafayette Escadrille.

There was a strong counter-current of opinion against rushing to war, despite the Lusitania incident. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate who who helped engineer the war against Spain in 1898, opposed the U.S. joining the Allied camp in 1915 and tried to undermine support for Britain. Hearst's most talented cartoonist, Winsor McCay, was forbidden to publish anti-German illustrations in the Hearst publications.

McCay found a way to outmaneuver Hearst. McCay had created the pioneering animated cartoon, Gertie the Dinosaur, in 1914. On his own initiative and expense, McCay drew and produced an animated depiction of the sinking of the Lusitania. One of the most vivid images in McCay's account of the tragic disaster showed Spear's mother and child sinking to the bottom of the sea.

McCay's 12-minute animated film is on view in the PAFA exhibit. It is a sensational work, years of painstaking effort in the making. The Sinking of the Lusitania did not appear until 1918, after the U.S. had entered the war. Yet, it was a landmark in modern art and media culture. 

Warfare, as experienced by American troops in France during 1917 and 1918, bore little resemblance to the jingoistic propaganda that had sounded the drumbeat to war.

Some of the most compelling images of combat were created by a battle-tested officer, Claggett Wilson (1887–1952). Wilson's graphic (and accurate) depictions of battle were later donated to the Smithsonian and forgotten until recently. With paintings like Flower of Death (the introductory image to this essay), Wilson depicted the war "Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells."

As powerful as Wilson's images of the war undoubtedly are, no work on view in the PAFA exhibit can compete with John Singer Sargent's Gassed. Sargent was an eyewitness to the terrible aftermath of an attack with deadly "mustard gas" on a British unit in 1918. Gassed is a tremendous painting, having lost none of its power.

Though some of victims of poison gas were only temporarily blinded, few ever recovered completely. Mustard gas burned the lungs and mucous membranes of its victims, as well as their eyes. Almost all who survived a gas attack suffered permanent - and painful - health problems. The brother of Georgia O'Keeffe never fully recovered from the effects of poison gas, which contributed to his death from Influenza after the war.                                                                                                               

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919

Sargent's Gassed, which was generously loaned by Britain's Imperial War Museum, is one of the great paintings of the Twentieth Century. Because Sargent worked in the time-honored tradition of Realism, Gassed has been somewhat undervalued in comparison with Picasso's Surrealist masterpiece, Guernica. But if you spend some time before this vast evocation of suffering and hope - the sun in Gassed is rising, rather than setting - you will experience a sense of transcendence and empathy that only comes from truly great art.

Sargent initially tried to remain aloof from the war, though he lived in England. In the spring of 1918, he went to France as an official War Artist, but struggled to find a theme worthy of his genius. Then, on Good Friday, March 29, 1918, a German atrocity claimed the life of Sargent's beloved niece. Rose-Marie Michel was killed by long-range German siege artillery which bombarded Paris. Rose-Marie Michel was a nurse tending blind soldiers, so her death found a resonance in the plight of the blinded soldiers in Gassed

The story of how Sargent came to paint Gassed is wonderfully told in a recent book, published in 2014, John Singer Sargent and His Muse, written by Daniel Williman and Karen Corsano.

This brings us to one of the important themes of World War I and American Art.There has long been a theory that World War I made only a passing impact on American society, at least in comparison with the Civil War and the Second World War. The PAFA exhibit and the superb catalog that accompanies it completely dispels this falsehood.

By looking at the letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and the art work she created in reference to World War I, it is clear that she was emotionally consumed by interest in the war. O'Keeffe's well-founded anxiety about her brother, Alexis, and frustration about doing something meaningful in wartime energized her art.

Georgia O'Keeffe, The Flag, 1918

The blood red, midnight blue and cloudy white hues of O'Keeffe's The Flag are symbolical. Yet O'Keeffe's painting reaches a deeper level of reality than many purportedly realist 
works could possibly achieve.

Another American artist of the period who was  molded by his experience of the war was Charles Burchfield. After graduating from art school in 1916, Burchfield faced the prospect of being drafted and sent to the Western Front. Like O'Keeffe, Burchfield was deeply affected with stress and anxiety. 

 Charles Burchfield, The First Hepaticas, 1917

The emotional toll upon Burchfield is reflected in his classic landscape, The First Hepaticas. Painted in 1917, Burchfield makes a forest near his home look as though it had been hit by an artillery barrage. Flowers, the hepaticas of the title, wilt as if stricken by poison gas. World War I had come to America's doorstep.

Burchfield eventually was assigned to a unit designing camouflage for armored tanks. The the fighting ended before he was sent to the front. Yet, the haunted, brooding cloud of war never quite departed from Burchfield's art. We can trace the mystical elements in his later work back to the state of mind that influenced the creation of The First Hepaticas.

World War I and American Art is an outstanding exhibit which commendably includes numerous works dealing with the African-American experience during the conflict. Black soldiers like Horace Pippin fought a two-front war, against the Germans on the other side of No Man's Land and against racial intolerance at home.

Horace Pippin, Dog Fight over the Trenches, 1935

Pippin, Burchfield and Wilson survived the war but American fatalities were heavy. There were 53,402 combat deaths and 63,114 from disease, many from the dreaded Spanish Influenza epidemic. This occurred during the last months of the war and into 1919. An estimate of civilian deaths in the U.S. from the Spanish Influenza is around 500,000. Worldwide, the (misnamed) Spanish Influenza killed nearly 50 million people. This was far in excess of the estimated 17 million war dead. Many of the Spanish Influenza victims died because of wounds or privation caused by the war.

World War I and American Art ends on a somber note, as indeed it should. Despite heroic self-sacrifice, the War to End all Wars failed to bring peace. A sense of futility, a feeling that war would resume as soon as a new generation of cannon fodder came of age, pervaded the world during the 1920's and 1930's.

In 1928, John Steuart Curry began a painting to memorialize a friend, killed in the war ten years before. By the time he finished The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne in 1940, war had broken out again in Europe. Hitler was on the march and U-boats were sinking ships at a faster rate than during the First World War.

John Steuart Curry, The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne, 1928–40

The oil paint barely had time to dry on Curry's elegiac painting before American industry began to retool for arms production. A year later, on December 8, 1941, James Montgomery Flagg's famous "I Want YOU for the U.S. Army" poster was dusted-off to encourage Americans to fight a second War to End all Wars. 

World War I and American Art at PAFA makes no overt effort to editorialize or extend the scope of the exhibition theme. But the maimed and the wounded, the gassed and shell-shocked look down on us from their picture frames. Their silent verdict is deafening.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Introductory Image:
Claggett Wilson (1887–1952) Flower of Death—The Bursting of a Heavy Shell—Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells, c. 1919 Watercolor and pencil on paperboard, 16 ½ × 22 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Alice H. Rossin, 1981.163.18 Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY

Childe Hassam (1859–1935) Avenue of the Allies, Great Britain, 1918, 1918. Oil on canvas, 36 × 28 3/8 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967, 67.187.127  Photo: ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY 

Harvey Dunn (1884–1952) The Devil’s Vineyard, n.d. Oil on canvas, 34 × 44 in. South Dakota Art Museum, Brookings, 1970.01.14 

Fred Spear, Enlist, 1915 Poster, 32 × 23 in. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Princeton University Poster 

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Gassed, 1919 Oil on canvas  231 x 611.1 cm (91 x 240 1/2 in.) Imperial War Museum, London  Art. IWM ART 1460

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) The Flag, 1918 Watercolor on paper, 11 15/16 × 8 3/16 in. 
Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley, M1977.132 © 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Larry Sanders 

Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) The First Hepaticas, 1917–18. Watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper, 21 ½ × 27 ½ in. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1935, 43.1935

Horace Pippin (1888–1946) Dog Fight over the Trenches, 1935 Oil on canvas, 18 × 33 1/8 in. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966, 66.4071 

John Steuart Curry (1897–1946) The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne, 1928–40. 
Oil on canvas, 38 ¼ × 52 ¼ in. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950

Philadelphia Museum of Art, October 25, 2016 – January 8, 2017 

Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, February 3 – April 30, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950, is a tale of two struggles. The new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art presents a definitive retelling of the story of the Mexican Revolution and its brilliant artistic aftermath.

On December 1, 1920, a one-armed general named Álvaro Obregón  was elected President of Mexico. Obregón was a chickpea farmer turned military tactician. In 1915, his astute generalship won the bloody battle of Celaya, turning point of the Mexican Revolution. 

Obregón was also the "last man standing." He had survived the slaughter that had claimed the lives of over one million Mexicans, including more famous rivals like Emiliano Zapata.

Obregón's election brought the military phase of Mexico's revolutionary conflict to a close. A second, cultural revolution began as soon as the gunfire ceased. The time had arrived, as a perceptive U.S. journalist, John Dos Passos, observed, to "paint the Revolution."          

The Mexican Revolution was a vast, sprawling event, of "Russian novel" dimensions and a bewildering cast of protagonists. The second phase was no different. The sheer number of major artists of the Mexican Renaissance, as it is often called, is staggering: José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo,Tina Modotti, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and many more.

Paint the Revolution at the Philadelphia Museum of Art somehow encompasses this vast cast, giving due recognition to all. This is a major, insight-packed reappraisal of a hugely significant event.

Digital version of Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution (detail) by Diego River,1928-29

This brilliant exhibit also manages the seemingly impossible task of recreating the vast public murals that figured so prominently during Mexico's revolutionary era.Three major mural cycles are depicted using digital technology in a way that enables the scale and scope of these mighty works of art to be grasped.

The Mexican Revolution began in November 1910. Simmering rage over the expropriation of communal land erupted into revolt. The long-time dictator, Porfirio Diaz, was swiftly toppled from power. A succession of leaders beginning with Francisco I. Madero, however, failed to create a stable and equitable new government. Madero's assassination in 1913 detonated a brutal civil war.

A number of works of art are displayed that show the efforts to create a heroic myth for the Mexican Revolution. These are "after-the-fact" images, much like nineteenth century representations of the American Revolution. These present history as contending political factions wished it had happened - not necessarily as it did occur. 

David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) was an avowed Marxist, co-founder of El Machete, the newspaper that became the mouthpiece of the Mexican Communist Party. Siqueiros depicts Emiliano Zapata as a Proletarian hero in two works displayed in the exhibit. Zapata was indeed a champion for land reforms for Mexico's peasant class. But close scrutiny of these two works by Siqueiros raises red flags of a different sort.

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Zapata, 1931

This 1931 lithograph of Zapata presents him as a hard-riding guerrilla leader. It is the very image of a commander during the Mexican Revolution. Look closer at Zapata's features - and even more so at the portrait painted the same year, part of the Hirshorn Museum collection - and we see a different character altogether. Here is a Stalinist reworking of Zapata's image by Siqueiros. Apart from the carefully-groomed mustache (Zapata was rather vain about his mostacho), the resemblance is far closer to Stalin than to Zapata.                                                                                  
Siqueiros was such a staunch supporter of Stalin that he helped plan a botched-assassination of Leon Trotsky who had fled to Mexico to escape Stalin's agents. The eventual murder of Trotsky in 1940 was carried out by a professional Communist hit man. Siqueiros was a far better artist than an assassin.

A much more  convincing work of art related to the Mexican Revolution is Diego Rivera's searing depiction of the rescue of a peasant who had been brutally lashed and left to die in the desert. Revolutionary troops, having set fire to a rural estate, are tending to the wounds of their tortured compadre.

Diego Rivera, Liberation of the Peon, 1931

Diego Rivera (1886-1957) painted this "portable" mural in 1931, using the fresco technique popular during the Italian Renaissance. This profoundly moving work is in many ways a worthy successor to Renaissance painting. It conveys the same compassion and empathy expressed in Giotto's Lamentation. The horses in Liberation of the Peon express the almost surreal intensity of the war horses in the Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello.

Anne Lloyd, detail of Liberation of the Peon, 1931, by Diego Rivera

Rivera's Liberation of the Peon is a link between the Italian Renaissance and the Mexican Renaissance. However, the version of Rivera's Liberation of the Peon on view in the Philadelphia exhibit is an extremely significant work in its own right. Rivera painted it in 1931 in New York City, for the exhibition of his work organised by the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit - and Liberation of the Peon  -  later traveled to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Liberation of the Peon and its companion piece, Sugarcane, remained unsold after the MOMA show. When the Philadelphia Museum of Art sponsored a major exhibition, Mexican Art Today, in 1943, Liberation of the Peon and Sugarcane played a starring role and were purchased for the Philadelphia Museum of Art's permanent collection.

Rivera's Liberation of the Peon is based upon a much larger fresco, approx. 14' 4 3/8" x 11' 5", which he painted in the courtyard of the Education ministry in Mexico City. This brings us to one of the central protagonists of the Mexican cultural revolution, José Vasconcelos, appointed by President Obregón to head the Secretaría de Educación Pública.

In a bold move, Vasconcelos encouraged Rivera to return from Europe, where he had spent most of the years of the Mexican Revolution. Vasconcelos pressured Rivera and other artists awarded government contracts to paint in a style reflecting the lives and aspirations of Mexico's long-suffering peasants and growing urban work force.

Rivera responded with murals that obeyed Vasconcelos' guiding principle, "Action surpasses destiny. Conquer!" Like the stained glass depictions of religious scenes in Medieval cathedrals, Rivera's epic works were readily understandable to Mexicans of all social classes. 

Along with the digitized versions of classic murals by Rivera, Siqueiros  and Orozco, an actual mural, painted by Manuel Rodriguez Lozano, is displayed in the exhibit.

Anne Lloyd, gallery view of Pieta in the Desert by Manuel Rodriguez Lozano

Pieta in the Desert was originally painted on a prison wall, while Lozano was incarcerated in 1942. The mural  was later removed by the rather alarming technique called strappo. The mural is covered with resin, glue, fabric and tape and then pounded with a jackhammer which cracks the concrete on which it is painted enabling the mural to be lifted clear of the debris and remounted.

The Tres Grandes - Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros - went on to produce mural cycles in  the United States which influenced public art in New Deal America during the Great Depression. They also created controversy, Rivera's ill-fated mural in Rockefeller Center being the most notorious example, and confusion.

Almost all of the great themes of Mexican art during this revolutionary era were first exhibited in traditional easel paintings. The wonderful Futurist Portrait of Nahui Olin, by Gerardo Murillo, (1875–1964) who styled himself as Dr. Atl, was painted in 1921.

Anne Lloyd, gallery view of Futurist Portrait of Nahui Olin (1921) by Dr. Atl

Incredibly, easel paintings like this were dismissed by a radical 1924 manifesto as lacking in heroic vision. Easel paintings, the most easily transported art form, were declared to be unsuited to instruct the Mexican masses. 

However, government-sponsored mural projects paid poorly. Rich foreign patrons bought smaller scale works that supplied infusions of cash. Rivera and others painted "unheroic" easel paintings for sale to the "bourgeois individualists" they denounced.

It was Rivera's wife, the now celebrated Frida Kahlo, who would "square the circle" and use easel painting to create socially conscious works of art. Undeniable "heroism" was in her shattered, suffering body and soul. This courage she painted on easel-sized canvases.

There are five works by Kahlo in Paint the Revolution. The exhibition curators chose wisely, selecting paintings that exemplify Kahlo's focus on  social issues and Mexico's problematic relationship with the United States. 

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the U.S.,1932

Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, painted in 1932, brilliantly juxtaposes the industrial pipelines and electric wires of the smog-shrouded United States with symbols of "eternal" Mexico, rooted in the natural world.

The career of Maria Izquierdo (1902-1955) reveals the mural-easel, male-female fault lines running through Mexican Modernism. Izquierdo seemed an almost unstoppable artistic force during the late 1920's and 1930's. In 1930, Izquierdo had the first solo exhibit of a Mexican woman artist in the U.S. 

Izquierdo's work, combining religious and folk art themes was praised by the Surrealists and during the early 1940's she exerted a powerful presence throughout Latin America. However, her design submissions for a major mural commission which she received in 1944 were rejected. Rivera and Siqueiros, often at odds, united to sabotage Izquierdo's attempt to achieve the ultimate level of recognition in Mexican art, mural painting. 

When Izquierdo tried to regain the commission, the male-dominated art establishment thwarted her efforts. Her career and health went into a downward spiral. 

María Izquierdo, Our Lady of Sorrows, 1943 

Izquierdo bitterly declared that "it is a crime to be born a woman and have talent."

The same could be said for the brilliant photographic work of Tina Modotti - though she would not have said so herself. 

The Italian-born Modotti came to Mexico with the noted American photographer, Edward Weston, who was for a time her lover and teacher. Modotti revealed superlative gifts in photography, documenting the lives of Mexico's peoples with incredible artistic vision.

Modotti's career took a radical slant when she joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. She became entangled in the violent internal struggles of Leftist groups in Mexico and she was a prime-suspect in the murder of her new lover, the Cuban-born radical, Julio Antonio Mella, in 1929. Though cleared of the charges, Modotti left Mexico under clouds of suspicion. 

Tina Modotti, Woman of Tehuantepec, c. 1929

Modotti's subsequent fate was tragic. All her talents became subsumed in Marxist politics, especially related to the Spanish Civil War. She gave up photography in 1931 and her amazing body of work was only rediscovered in the late 1970's with the dawn of the Feminist movement.

The political radicalization of Modotti and almost all of the leading Mexican artists is symbolized by the wood engraving, Proletarian Hand, by Leopoldo Méndez. The finger bones are hanged prisoners and the wrist bomes are portraits of political martyrs, including Mella. It is a brilliant, unforgettable work, evoking the  great nineteenth century printmaker, José Guadalupe Posada (1852 – 1913), whose prints of demonic skeletons helped bring down Porfirio Diaz.

Leopoldo Méndez, Proletarian Hand, 1932

Proletarian Hand is very much  a work of the 1930's. It ignores the sacrifices and suffering of women. Likewise, it focuses on the international scene at the expense of Mexico. Two of the "martyrs" named in the print were Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian anarchists who were executed for murder in the U.S. in 1927. While the artistic elite of Mexico may have been radicalized by such political imagery, the impact on Mexico's workers was negligible. 

Mexican Modernism grew increasingly remote from the realities of Mexican life. The economy of Mexico strengthened, especially as Mexico's oil industry was needed by the Allied war effort in World War II. Many Mexicans, loyal to conservative traditions and the Catholic religion, deeply resented the Marxist ethos of the "Modernists."

There was also the inconvenient fact that many Mexican artists, including strident Marxists, depended on sales and commissions from "El Norte." Frida Kahlo's first big success was a sale of four paintings to the American actor, Edward G. Robinson, in 1938.

By 1950, the two-fold Mexican Revolution and Mexican Renaissance had run their course. But these events had entered into the heart and soul of the Mexican people. It is no surprise that whenever social ferment arises in Mexico, the vivid images displayed in Paint the Revolution are revived, coaxed back to life and action like the beaten prisoner in Liberation of the Peon

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the  Philadelphia Museum of Art

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Anne Lloyd, Detail of Liberation of the Peon, 1931, by Diego Rivera (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Cameron Morris, 1943-46-1) © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Anne Lloyd (2016), Detail of the digital version of Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution by Diego River, 1928-29, mural painted at the Ministry of Public Education, Mexico City. 

David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) Zapata, 1931, Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund from the Carl and Laura Zigrosser Collection, 1976-97-122) © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City

Diego Rivera (Mexican, 1886-1957) Liberation of the Peon, 1931. Fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized steel framework, 73 x 94 1/4 inches (185.4 x 239.4 cm) (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Cameron Morris, 1943-46-1) © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Anne Lloyd (2016), Gallery view of Pieta in the Desert by Manuel Rodriguez Lozano. Fresco (removed by strappo from Lecumberri Prison) 6 ' 6 3/8" x 7'  9/16" (2.6 x 2.3 m) Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, INBA, Mexico City

Anne Lloyd (2016), Gallery view of Futurist Portrait of Nahui Olin (1921) by Dr. Atl. Oil and Atl color on cardboard, 39 3/8 x 55 7/8 inches (100 x 142 cm) collection of Maria and Manuel Reyero.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, 1932. (Colección Maria y Manuel Reyero, New York) © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

María Izquierdo (Mexican,1902 -1955) Our Lady of Sorrows, 1943. Oil on board, 23 1/4  x 19 5/8 inches  (59.1 x 49.8 cm ) Private collection

Tina Modotti (Italian, 1896–1942) Woman of Tehuantepec, c. 1929, (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Zigrosser

Leopoldo Méndez (Mexican,1902–1969) Proletarian Hand, 1932, Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Anne d’Harnoncourt in memory of Sarah Carr d'Harnoncourt), ©Leopoldo Mendez/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City