23 July 2016

Alma Thomas. A Painter And Her Brush

Manuals of Japanese brush painting include rules for how to make strokes; if that seems restrictive or inhibiting, just look at the paintings of Alma Thomas (1891-1978).  Like an instrumentalist whose diligence sets her free, Alma Thomas was able make Abstract Expressionism speak the joy of creation and of life itself.  Even when seen in person where the brush strokes are the more vivid than in reproductions, the sense of movement seems redolent of joy, in contrast perhaps to the anguish viewers often find in the paintings of her contemporary Mark Rothko.

When the Thomas family, mother and father and four daughters, moved to Washington, D.C., the segregation of the nation's capitol was a giant step up from the constant threat of racist violence in their home state of Georgia.  The first student to graduate with a fine arts degree from Howard University, Thomas supported herself by teaching art while she painted.  Thomas experimented various with techniques and styles but when she arrived at Abstract Expression she used its means to shape feelings in paint, the definition of aesthetics.

Resurrection, (above)  is the first painting by Alma Thomas to be included in the official collection of the White House, in 2014.

Alma Thomas, the retrospective now on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem originated at the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs this spring..  This path retraces an earlier one taken by Thomas's work,from the periphery to the center;  when the Whitney Museum opened Alma Thomas: A Retrospective in 1972 it was the first such exhibition at the Whitney devoted to the work of an African-American woman artist but it was the seventh solo exhibition for Thomas.

To read:
1. Phantasmagoria: Major Paintings from the 1970s by Alma Thomas, New York, Michael Rosenfeld gallery, New York: 2001.
2, Stroke!: Beauford Delaney, Norman Lewis & Alma Thomas, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York: 2005.

1. Alma Thomas (1891-1978)  - Resurrection, 1966, Collection of the White House Historical Association, Washington, D.C.

2. Alma Thomas - Irises, Tulips Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1968, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.

15 July 2016

From Baudelaire To Eric Rohmer

"What one can see out in the sunlight is always less interesting than what goes on behind a windowpane. In that black or luminous square life lives life dreams. life suffers.  

Across the ocean of roofs I can see a middle-aged woman, her face already lined, who is forever bending over something and who never goes out.  Out of her face, her dress, her gestures, out of practically nothing at all, I have made up this woman;s story, or rather legend, and sometimes I tell it to myself and sleep.
If it had been an old man I could have made it up just as well.

And I go to bed proud to have lived and to have suffered in someone besides myself.

Perhaps you will say " are you sure that your story is the real one?"    But what does it matter what is really outside myself, so long as it has helped me to live, to feel that I am, and what I am?"

 - excerpt from "Windows" by Charles Baudelaire

I am immersed in the new  book  Eric Rohmer: a biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe.  Although it is over six hundred pages long it will not last the month; it has me under its spell. When I looked at this still  frame from Rohmer's 1967 film La Collectioneuse I thought of the poem Windows" by the 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire, the dyspeptic 19th century flaneur.  It strikes me that Baudelaire's words prefigure the cinematic imagination. The gorgeous cinematography of the late Nestor Almendros.(1930-1992)  captures the beauty of natural light; not simple to do but straightforward in its aim.

To read: Eric Rohmer: a biography by Antoine de Baecque and Noel Herpe, translated from the French by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal, New York, Columbia University Press: 2016.

06 July 2016

A Big Wave Knocked Her Over

I. What we now think of as swimming was an invention of the new urban middle class  during the second half of the 19th century.  It was not that no one swam before that time of course; it was that swimming had  not been  a structured activity with lessons and styles and rules – and bathing suits.  Country people had enjoyed ‘natural swimming’ as it was dubbed in retrospect, an activity that could include any  and all members of a family and friends - in the nude.  

As the newly prosperous vacationers flocked to the shore to relax and escape the summer heat they brought with them a sense of bourgeois decorum that required a new, more structured regimen to what had been an informal pleasure.
A consensus was reached in polite circles that the sexes be segregated  on the shore as much as possible when not formally dressed and that swimming was reserved for males,  with females relegated  to such oddities as walking into the water while hanging onto anchored towlines or confined to little huts in the water (talk about confinement) known as “bathing machines.”  Boys were encouraged to learn to swim to avoid drowning but it would take the advent of urban WMCAs and WYCAs for girls to receive the same  life preserving instruction.

In article that appeared in Scribner’s Monthly in July of 1890 the aptly named Duffield Osborne enumerated the reasons that women should not swim: their hair might get wet or a wave might knock them over.  And this nonsense was not limited to men; writing that same year in Ladies’ Home Journal,  Felicia Holt titled her article on the problem  “Promiscuous Bathing.”

Warning of  the effect that bare toes on the beach would have on public morality, Holt wrote, “I fear the girl will soon begin to calculate the effect of what someone late called 'artistic bareness' on the mind of masculinity.  It would take an imagination of an entirely different order of magnitude to understand that the revolutionary potential of swimming for women lay not in self-display but in the experience of strength and self-assertion.


II.  She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” 

With that sentence Kate Chopin signaled her readers that for Edna Pontellier, protagonist of The Awakening (1899), learning to swim would become the means to her personal declaration of independence, an act that resulted in social ostracism, and finally, disaster.  Radical as her depiction of a woman's search for an authentic self was,   Chopin found it difficult to imagine a heroine escaping Divine wrath much less  the wrath of men.    Herself the daughter of a successful Irish businessman and a French mother, Katherine O'Flaherty  had grown up in a family of self-reliant women; her father died when she was just five years old.   At age twenty she married Oscar Chopin and the couple moved to New Orleans.  With the move from St. Louis to the deep south and the birth of six children in eight years, Chopin absorbed the shocks of a myriad of social expectations that diminished a woman's sense of autonomy.  In the novel Chopin drew adroit tableaux of Victorian social life that, to contemporary critics, only made Edna's increasingly desperate attempts  at self-assertion seem the more irrational as well as selfish.  Swedish writer Per Seyerstad, to write the first modern biography of Kate Chopin (Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, 1969) to resurrect The Awakening for generations of grateful readers who have grown  up with it.  John R. Stilgoe, a Harvard historian who really ought to know better, cannot resist categorizing Chopin's revelation  of a woman's inner emancipation as a story that  “borders on the pornographic.”  It must be the combination of female self-assertion and feminine pulchritude that has male minds bollixed.

Image: Louis Valtat - Bicyclette, c.1895, Musee de la voiture, Compiegne.

25 June 2016

Winslow Homer At The Arkell: Intertidal Life

"Spare me any more small museums,"  said the critic.

"No one ever tells you how many bad pictures there are in the Uffizi,"  said the painter.

What Winslow Homer would make of the recent renovation and resulting rehang of his seascapes at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts is just speculation but the cramped quarters and low ceilings, the placement of the paintings just inside the new museum entrance where visitors almost fall over them and each other could hardly come close to what Homer would have wished.
Winslow Homer had a lot to say about the how his paintings should be presented. To look at his landscapes from too close up or in too small a space would be "brutal."  To his dealer Knoedler & Company, Homer wrote in 1904 that the proper vantage point for viewing his seascapes was "to look at and not to smell of."  What these comments point to is the artist's vantage point when he  painted these pictures - a perch at least fifty feet away from the shore line.  At the level of a brushstroke all art dissolves into abstraction; that is one of the wondrous characteristics of verisimilitude.  Homer's comments signaled that he understood this principle and his paintings are the demonstration of an artist who has been decribed as having one foot in 19th century romanticism. and the other in 20th century modernism.   Kenyon Cox, Homer's contemporary and an art critic for the New York Evening Post, recognized that what others saw as a "lack of refinement in the treatment of details" was Homer's way of getting the viewer to back away from the canvas.

Any attempt to understand what, exactly,  Homer was up to when he painted his landscapes - I'm thinking particularly of his seascapes  - might be  called After the Fox.  Homer's 1893 painting Fox Hunt struck both his contemporaries and later critics as the artist's personal avatar, a small, shrewd creature searching for nourishment while predators circle, a great deal of symbolism to heap on a small animal searching for food beneath the snow as hungry crows hover overhead.
Winslow Homer (1836-1912) spent his early working years during the Civil War as a lithographer for the commercial press in Boston and New York; his etching A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty, published in Harper's Weekly in 1862, was a compelling image that sparked a debate about a new gun technology in terms that will be familiar to anyone who has followed the current debate about the uses of drones in warfare.
When Homer turned to paining turned to painting his early successes like The Life Line (1884) and Undertow (1886) subordinated landscape to human drama as their titles imply.  But the idea that only his  late paintings show humans as spectators to the drama of the ever moving seas is not the last word and is nicely complemented by the Winslow Homer paintings at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, a village on the Erie Canal west of Albany, New York.
On the Beach, the earliest of these works was probably painted somewhere on the north shore of Massachusetts, where Homer had migrated after his first trip abroad (to Paris) in 1866.  Children, wading along the edge of the ocean, always brought out the artist's fellow-feeling; we sense their individual personalities ever at a distance.  In Moonlight, one of Homer's most tranquil seascapes, the waves break gently, registering as background to the dramatic scudding of clouds backlit in the nigth sky.  It seems to me that Watching the Breakers. A High Seas distills Homer's evolving vision of the human relationship to the sea:  we stand still, captured in the moment, regarding the ceaseless movement of forces that awe us with their intimations of the ultimate unknowable.nature of existemce.
The museum, although not large by some standards, is home to an extraordinary collection of American paintings by the likes of  William Merritt Chase, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam,  Robert Henri, Maurice Prendergast, and a painter rather similar to Homer, George Inness, whose pictures are also seen at their best from a certain distance.  In turn, the collection owes its existence to an extraordinary person, Bartlett Arkell (1862-1946) who made a fortune through his food packing company, and particularly his patent for  a vacuum  jar that made possible Beech-Nut Baby Food.

Revised: 06/27/2016

For further reading:
Winslow Homer   by Lloyd Goodrich,  Macmillan Publishers for Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC: 1036.
Weatherbeaten: Winslow Homer and Maine, Paul Denenberg, editor, Yale University Press, New Haven: 2012.
1. Winslow Homer - On the Beach, c.1869, Arkell Museum, Canajoharie.
2. Winslow Homer - Moonlight, 1874, Arkell Museum, Canajoharie.
3. Winslow Homer - Watching the Breakers. A High Sea, 1896, Arkell Museum, Canajoharie.

21 June 2016

Intertidal Life: Guzzle In Sight

I don't know what was uppermost in the mind of Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts  when she painted A Beach Afternoon, whether it was the tide going out on a summer day or the people breathing in the briny air.  But I know what I thought when I first discovered it: "Aha!   There's a guzzle."

The linguistic origins of the word guzzle are still in dispute but Massachusetts owns the word now.    In Cape Cod (1865), Henry David Thoreau described seeing a whale on the beach  "dragging in over the bars and guzzles."  Historian John R. Stilgoe includes guzzle in a category that he calls "topographical localisms," meaning a word that comes into being because it fills a need to name something that local people recognize.  Low spots on the beach, caused by the movement of wind and water,  sometimes capture enough  water that it too courses as large ocean waves do.  Sometimes a guzzle breaks through a sandbar at low tide to become a  tidal channel.

 "I can paint as well as any man." -  Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts

That confidence was hard won.   Although born into a prosperous family who could easily pay for her tuition at Academie Julian, Roberts's desire to become a p[painter was opposed by her mother.  Roberts persevered and one of her paintings  was accepted by the Paris Salon in 1892.  She became estranged from her father following his interference in her career.   Following a serious illness and an operation in1926,  Roberts was hospitalized for depression at Massachusetts General Hospital.  It was there that she hung herself on March 12, 1927.

I know I keep repeating this but -  little has been written about the work and life of Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts (1871-1927).   Some information is contained in the Archives of the Concord Art Association and in files of the Boston Public Library.  I only know this after reading "Elizabeth Roberts and the Concord Art Association" from the Massachusetts Painters Projects (Boston, Vose Archives: 1993.)

Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts  - A Beach Afternoon, c.1910, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

15 June 2016

Summertime, And The Living Is Easy

"I loaf and invite my soul," Walt Whitman proclaimed in Leaves of Grass.  
As a picture of relaxed ratiocination Young Girl Stretched Out On A Bench is difficult to beat but I would not have given it a second look had I not read  "The Guardian Angel" written by Neil Philip at Adventures In The Print Trade. Carl Larsson was a purveyor of sentimentality I would have said.   Until recently,  the equal contribution in every way to the Larsson enterprise of the artist - and Carl's wife - Karin Bergoo Larsson barely registered on most of us either.
The deliciousness of the scene is the first thing that suggests summer to me. The utter relaxation of the little dachshund lying along her side as the young woman reads the paper and cradles the cat, seems so unguarded and comfortable that it appears unposed.   The suggestion of a tree frames  the image, leading the viewer's eye toward the red pillow that has been upended into its most comfortable position.
The feast of diagonals on display here is organized in a harmonious hierarchy and that, I think, was deliberate.  The green slatted  bench is multi-colored within its narrow range while, on the other side of the white swath of the blanket,  the irregularly striped cushion underneath her, complete with candy-striped fringe. The color red of the stripes near the top of the blanket join with the red printed cushion to outline the young woman in the green and white striped dress. To put all this into words makes it sound busy and stiff, which it is not. This may be Carl Larsson's masterpiece, I think.
Carl Olaf Larsson - Young Woman Stretched Out On A Bench, 1913, Louvre Museum, Paris.

08 June 2016

Joy In Our Cause

"Women's rights are human rights; human rights are women's rights." - Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Like the fabulous globes created for King Louis XIV of France, moments in the history of the world cascade around us all the time; sometimes we mark them and sometimes they are lost on us as our attention is turned elsewhere.  From my mother I learned something about the date August 26, 1920 that her mother passed on to her: how, after women won the right to vote in the U.S., while some women formed the League of Women Voters, other women took oaths promising never to exercise the franchise.
I think of those women every time I cast a ballot, and I always do.   I think of them when I  remember the day my mother took me to a demonstration at the local newspaper plant where women were protesting employment ads that were segregated by sex and the press-men stood at the second floor windows and spat on us.  And I also remember a day when I was one of hundreds of women who returned to Seneca Falls in search of our history, only to find that the site of the convention of 1848 was  unmarked, a laundromat in fact!
This is a moment of paradox: as measurable levels of violence  are declining worldwide, violence against women is on the rise and, for the first time in my lifetime, there are more men in the world than women.
Frederick Douglas was right: "Power never concedes anything without a struggle.  It never has.  It never will."  
Today is also a moment of joy in our cause.  Savor it.
As Revised.
To read: Claiming An Identity They Taught Me To Despise by Michelle Cliff, Watertown, MA, Persephone Press: 1980.

Image Jean-Louis Aubert - photograph of Vincenzo Coronelli's Globes for the Sun King, Louis XIV, (c. 1681-83) 2005, Grand Palais, Paris.

06 June 2016

Intertidal Life. Part One

You can call it the English Channel but the French don't.  And contrary to common impression, the Channel Islands are not part of Great Britain nor are they part of the European Union.  Neither here nor there, this is a telltale sign of intertidal life.  The islands were created during the last period of rising sea levels, circa 6000 BCE.  Land passage between Celtic Britain and what is now Normandy washed away, leaving an archipelago along the Norman coast where the population sorted out their their changed circumstances in the usual ways, through mayhem and marauding.  Continually shifting, intertidal life is a geographical limbo, indeterminate yet confining, a place where landscape peters out but a recognizable seascape is constantly encroaching or receding.

Separated by water as they were, the language spoken on these islands has never been a stable version of English or French but rather dialects containing remnants of Old Norse and Old Frisian tongues. Linguists trace the -ey suffix in the names Guernsey and Jersey back to the Norse word for island and, in particular, Mari C. Jones speculates that the the name Guernsey may be in part the Frisian word gers, an adjective meaning grassy, for this the largest and the grassiest of the Channel Islands. Norman roots for some words are easy to figure: caoste for coast, couture for fields reclaimed (designed)  from the sea.  Others come from a little farther afield: bequet for  a finger of land, friquet for wasteland.

Victor Hugo set his novel Les Travailleurs de la mer (Toilers of the Sea, 1866) on Guernsey, a place he got to know well during fifteen years of exile.  He had been forced to flee France after denouncing the emperor Louis Napoleon as a traitor.  Before settling on Guernsey, Hugo had tried Jersey but he was expelled from that island after criticizing Queen Victoria.  The great novelist apparently believed that everyone was entitled to his opinion, a view the authorities did not share.

The French, known for their hegemonic and abstract tendencies, went so far as to name uninhabitable islands and  even rocky outcroppings.  Known collectively as Les Diroiulles, they were christened with descriptive monikers as Les Ecrehous (The Eskers), Les Minquiers (The Minkies) and Les Pierres de Lecq (The Paternosters), their names hint at delicious, hidden wonders.  And even from away, on the beach, the mystery and wonder beckon.

1. Henry de Waroquier - Ile aux Moines, 1906, private collection, France.
2. Henry Edmond Cross - Le Naufrage (Sinking), c.1906, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

28 May 2016

Virago Made Me: The Hard Parts

“The great enemy to advancement for working-class girls was to become pregnant.  This was the terror that kept so many chaste, not moral qualms or a lack of adolescent lust.  Pregnancy was the great trap and once in the only way out was abortion.  It's important to remember how this problem obsessed women in the pre-contraception era.  For that for them was effectively what it was.   Men might buy 'something' if they could overcome their embarrassment, carelessness, or distaste.  They might or more likely might not be persuaded to use it.“ -  Maureen Duffy, 1982, excerpt from the preface to the Virago Press edition of That's How It Was.

I. That is how it was, in every particular.  According to the myth-makers, abortion is an evil that was foisted on women thanks to the invention of reliable birth control and the "sexual revolution."   Women know better as British author Maureen Duffy's novel That's How It Was demonstrates; it was one of the first  Virago Press books I ever read.   And because it was written two decades before I found it, it sent me back to my mother's library to search for more like it, and I am found some, but I get ahead of myself.

“Lucky for me I was born at all really, I mean she could have decided not to bother.  Like she told me, she was tempted, head in the gas oven, in front of a bus, oh a thousand ways.”  That's how That How It Was begins. 
That's How It Was could have been titled Two Against the World; it tells the story of the abiding love between Louey and her daughter Paddy, as they struggle to stay afloat in East London.   Just as Paddy's adolescent world is expanding, the worst happens at home: her mother is stricken by tuberculosis and hospitalized where Louey is sterilized after the doctors discover that she is pregnant and perform an abortion.    “They took my womb away.  Sterilization they call it.  You see I was going to have a baby and they said it was either it or me,”  Louey tells her. Paddy only learns of this when she sees a large incision on her mother's abdomen. Undefeated by trouble, Paddy troubles is able to move beyond her seemingly inescapable working class life although her mother dies. 
“I was just a girl and life offered only things I despised: houses, children, security, housework. I had to pass. I had to. I had to be different.”

Maureen Duffy (b1933) has written novels, plays, a biography of Aphra Behn  and The Erotic World of Faery,  but  That’s How It Was, her first novel, is her best known work.  In a plot twist worthy of a Hollywood movie, Duffy wrote the novel, more or less on a whim, at the suggestion of a publisher.   Duffy grew up in a working class neighborhood in East London, the setting for That's How It Was.   Her father who was Irish deserted  the family  when Maureen was two months old; her mother died when Maureen was fourteen.   Early on she immersed herself in books, her favorites were tales of  faraway places, “stories of Ancient Greece and Rome, folk tales of Ireland and Wales, tales of knightly chivalry and poetry."

II.  ”…the madness that was born of being a certain kind of wife, with a certain kind of husband; of the suffocating feeling that life was going on elsewhere.”  - Penelope Mortimer, excerpt from Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, 1958

“I thought I was supposed to lie on a couch and you wouldn't say a word.  It's like the inquisition or something.  Are you trying to make me feel that I'm wrong?  Because I do that for myself.”
His diagnosis: she has a fear of sex for pleasure. 
Her response: “You really should have been an Inquisitor....Do I burn now or later?” - a dialogue between a woman and her psychiatrist, excerpted from The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, 1962

In retrospect,  1962 was an impressive year for novels by women.  Although it doesn't fit into my narrative here, Ship Of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter, a novel that took its author more than two decades to complete, became the best selling novel of that year.  Partly from of years of anticipation and partly because Porter became famous for her novella-length short stories, it received mixed reviews.   We may find it easy to connect the dots between That's How It Was and The Pumpkin Eater but the old truism held then, and still holds: "The slaves always know more about the masters than the masters do about the slaves."

Penelope Mortimer said that she put everything she knew about relationships between men and women into The Pumpkin Eater and, as we now know, she put  a lot of her personal history into it as well.  Mrs. Armitage, like her creator, has been married several times and her numberless, nameless brood is a “bodyguard of children.” Some of the children have been sent away to boarding schools or  to live with other relatives, the better to make space for the father’s career.
Abortion was illegal in Britain at the time but an exception was allowed for a woman being treated for depression by a psychiatrist.  Mrs. Armitage has an abortion and the gynecologist ties her tubes at the same time; in effect there were three people, only two of them conscious, in the operating room – the woman, her husband, and her doctor.  At the urging of her own doctor, Mortimer had agreed to an abortion and sterilization after becoming pregnant for the eighth time; her seventh pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage.
Critics applauded the book;  Edna O’Brien was an early and vocal admirer. Today, Mortimer's books are mostly out of print, effectively making her unreadable. Her male contemporaries like Kingsley Amis and Graham Greene are still read, and their tone is still narrow minded and overbearing.   Mortimer’s drollery and her deadpan voice cut through blather like a knife..
Penelope Mortimer (1918-1999) was a native of Wales; her education was limited to a school for “daughters of the clergy" followed by a course at a secretarial college. This modest preparation hardly mattered; she moved to London where she dazzled a series of men into sex, setting up house, and babies, meanwhile she began writing novels, her short stories appeared regularly in The New Yorker, and she became film critic for The Observer. Although she had not been born to upper class life, through her marriages, first  to  a journalist and then to a barrister, she ascended the social ladder.  As both novels make clear, the constraints placed on female freedom cross all class lines.

III.  Mavis Gallant wrote only two novels but A Fairly Good Time (1970) only reprinted in April by New York Review Books.
Although twenty-five year old Shirley Perrigny is a young Canadian widow recently remarried to a Frenchman, she is still essentially a girl,  trying to find her voice,  worried that the words that come out of her mouth are offensive “toads.”   During a romantic tryst she takes time to lecture a lover on the ""centuries of female rubbish"" involved in the masculine dream of female rapture.  Although Gallant underlines it delicately, abortio  is the deus ex machina that sets the plot on its way.  Shirley spends a night away from home, watching over her friend Renata who has just had an abortion.   Because the abortion is illegal (abortion only became legal in France in 1975), Shirley cannot tell her husband where she has been as it would implicate him in a criminal action.  Better to have him suspect an assignation with another man than to know the truth.   The event precipitates Philippe's gradual Cheshire Cat-like disappearance from their marriage. 
As A Fairly Good Time makes clear, things do change, although slowly.  The dissolution of Shirley's marriage is not a tragedy, her friend Renata does not follow through on the impulse to kill herself, and no psychiatristsget to play God with women's lives.
Mavis Gallant (1922-2014) was born in Montreal, Quebec but settled  in France in 1950 where she began to write fiction.   In Canada she worked as a a journalist.  Beginning in 1951 more than one hundred of her stories appeared in The New Yorker.

There is more to the Virago story here, here, and here.

1. Milton Avery - Seated Girl with Dog, 1944, Neuberger Museum, Purchase.
(This painting was used as the cover image for the 1982 Virago reprint of That's How It Was)
2. Milton Avery - Girl Reading, Philips Collection, Washington, DC.