21 February 2017

Fly-Over Season

In the world of aerial photography the flyover season is about to begin.  Thanks to the unusually warm winter temperatures in the Northeastern United States, snow on the ground is already patchy or the ground is bare, and the leaves will not come out on the trees for some time.  Under these conditions, the lines etched on the land by human effort are at their most visible.
More than a century ago much of upstate New York was farmland, cultivated and sectioned off; but the combination of easy farming on the flatlands,  of the Midwest, improved transportation (think: connecting waterways and railroads) and industrialization in the Northeast left fallow fields, ripe for reforestation.   Now some of the old farms  that lie south of the Erie Canal are being taken up again, often by Amish and Mennonite families  who have moved up to New York from neighboring Pennsylvania.  Drive along the Cherry Valley Turnpike (U.S. Route 20) or N.Y.S. Route 80, both roads running more or less from east to west and you can identify these houses  by the lack of electrical wires  running from the roadside poles.

By the time President Thomas Jefferson was took office in 1800, the American farm had already assumed the outlines still in evidence today.  The best farms were situated on hillsides facing south, with barns and other sheds forming a screen around the house, the kitchen garden located nearby for protection from the elements, and a wood lot to the north that acted as a windbreak.  There were trade-offs, of course, between the richer soil in the valleys versus the longer growing season on the sun-soaked hills.  Farms on the north slope of hills often failed to prosper because of the shorter growing season and even today these lots are more likely to be timberland than farmland. A sheltered site for the house also lessened the need for firewood. A farmhouse was located near the top of hill so that a well with pure water would be protected from farm water runoff.

Avoiding the  cold  was uppermost in the minds of European settlers  accustomed to milder winters, followed closely by the belief that the fog and mist that hung over the valleys carried disease. Charles Estienne, author of the popular manual Maison rustique or The Country Farme (London, 1616), certainly thought so.  "If ever there be a hill, build upon the edge thereof,making choose to have your lights toward the east but if you be in a cold country, open your lights on the south side, and little or nothing toward the north ....recoup the liberty of the air and a goodly prospect..."

The land is a palimpsest, written on again and again, written over until details of previous times are obscured.  By comparison with cities and suburbs, rural areas still offer a rich visual story for those who take the time to look.  Now is a good time to take a ride in the country.

John Pfahl (b.1939) is an American photography, a graduate twice from Syracuse University, who now lives  and teaches in Buffalo, New York.
For further reading: Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845 by John R. Stilgoe, New Haven, Yale University Press: 1983.

1. John Pfahl - Nursery Topsoil - Winter + Lancaster New York, 1994, Janet Borden Gallery, NYC.
2. John Pfahl - Blue X, Pembroke, New York, 1975, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
3. John Pfahl - Pingry Hill Road, Andover, New York, 1979, Joseph Bellows gallery, NYC.
4. John Pfahl - The Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile, 1994, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

14 February 2017

Le monde de la douceur

It's not exactly what you may be thinking about today.  However, there is a phenomenon French call le monde de la douceur, meaning a world of gentleness and sweetness,  a phenomenon they associate with the new year. Superficially it seems similar to Valentine's Day but its meaning extends  to the  romance of everyday life, something as real as our darker thoughts, even in the middle of winter.  A boy regarding a dandelion puff with singular concentration, for instance or blowing soap bubbles through a wand.

 A little harder to see,  perhaps, is the harmony in a landscape that humans share with waterbirds and grazing animals (just visible on the hillside).   
Two different photographers with two different ways of showing us this douceur (the French word is more expansive than the English translation.)  French photographer Daniel Boudinet composes an expansive landscape, an exercise in the symmetry that we can see in the natural world; in contrast the American Sharon Core's  recent series of photographs of found compositions in nature, the things we pass by without noticing, draws our attention to the charms of asymmetry.  

1.Vincenzo Balocchi - Young Boy Looking at a Dandelion Puff, c.1960, Museo de Storia della Fotografia (Museum of the History of Photography), Florence.
2. Daniel Boudinet  - untitled, a wide view of water and animals before a mountain horizon, 1988, photograph from the series Voyage en Asie (Travels in Asia), Mediatheque, Paris.
3. Sharon Core - Untitled #3, 2015, archival pigment print from sharon core

08 February 2017

Taking Another Look At Modernism

At the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan a Picasso, a Picabia, a Matisse, an Ensor, and a Boccioni have been put in storage while seven works by other artists have been interpolated into a gallery of the permanent collection.  This sort of thing happens often,  a rehang that refreshes the relationships between works of art on museum walls.  But  six  of the works brought out of storage are by Iranian artists and one is from Sudan.   While the the museum's curators made a point about the inclusiveness of art at a highly charged political moment, they have had the art works  to illustrate the connections between European modernism and art from other continents for decades.   Matisse and the Cubists hanging side by side with works that Europeans studied, imitated, and mined for  their own art,  coming from a museum that has, from its beginnings in the 1930s, appointed itself the narrator of  modernism, is a retelling long overdue. 

Is the history of art a European invention and, if it is, what does it matter? This question may seem rarefied or trivial but when large pots of money and  intellectual prestige are involved the question becomes loaded.  Whose painting hangs next to whose is provokes similar angst to who gets into an exclusive club.  James Elkins,  who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been worrying this bone for quite some time in books like Stories of Art (2002) and Is Art Global? (2007) and he is still immersed in the subject, having completed some 300,00 words on  his newest (unnamed)  project.

These two works are not new nor are they new to the Museum of Modern Art.  Mon pere et moi by the Iranian Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (b. 1937) is a large work that uses bright colors to depict an intimate relationship.  Alfred H. Barr, Jr., bought the work for the museum the year Zenderoudi created it, in 1962.  Zenderoudi studied both fine arts and decorative arts in Tehran. Ibrahim  ElEl-Salahi's  The Mosque, painted in 1964 and purchased  for the permanent collection the following year, is small, its colors muted while the artist's use of Islamic  calligraphy  suggests the mosaics used to decorate architecture in Arabic countries.   Even without knowing the calligraphy's lexicon, it is easy to see a sense of uplift in the juxtaposition of forms and gestures that run across the midsection of the canvas.  Born in Sudan in 1930, Ibrahim El-Salahi came to New York on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1954.  He became friends with the African-American painter Jacob Lawrence, whose monumental Migration Series is divided, half at the Museum of Modern Art and half at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

1. Charles Hossein Zenderoudi - Mon pere et moi (My Father and Me), felt tip pen and ink on paper, 89" X 58.6", 1962, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
2. Ibrahim El-Salahi, The Mosque, oil on canvas, 12.12" x 18.12", 1964, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
(One thing that the internet is not  good at is suggesting the relative sizes  of the images reproduced.)

04 February 2017

Evening Radio: Felice Casorati

I've been looking at pictures by the Italian artist Felice Casorati (1883-1963) and gathering my thoughts about him - and also woolgathering, a task made necessary by an injury to my right leg this winter.  As I work on both projects, (article and leg), you may like to read an early post here about Daphne Maugham Casorati, an English-born painter who married Felice Casorati.
RAI is the Italian National Public Broadcasting Company.  Like the BBC and about half the radio/television networks in Europe, RAI is partially funded by broadcast receiving license fees.  It has often been argued against as a funding for use in the United States on the ground that people here expect television to be "free."  These people conveniently disregard cable television fees.

Image: Felice Casorati - Radio Sera (Evening Radio), c.1953, RAI Collection, Rome.

28 January 2017

Andre Beaudin: A Wall, A Fence, A Garden


" (T)he lack of understanding of the work of Beaudin constitutes one of the greatest injustices of our time." - Pablo Picasso, translation by J.L.

Whether his paintings were figurative or abstract, Andre Beaudin's pictures shows the influence of  his background as a tapestry designer and his training in decorative arts.   Although he was living and working in Paris  during the 1920s when Cubism was in style, Beaudin found it too formulaic and too rigid for his purposes.   He excelled at  using form and color,  making lyrical canvases that seem to move before our eyes.  As an example of his boundary-pushing work, La cloture (The Fence) could hardly be more exemplary.  If this is a fence, it is a peculiar one, wayward, inconsistent, and even anarchic.

Andre Beaudin (1895-1979) studied at l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  In 1919 he married the painter Suzanne Roger.   Writing for an exhibition at the Pompidou Center in 1970, Re4ynold Arnould had this to say about Beaudin's magical colors: " His color has a kind of transparent quality, that of reflection..." - translation by J.L.

The Greek philosopher Plato wrote that an orderly landscape was the cornerstone of political stability.  The Romans agreed, elevating Terminus as the  god  of boundaries, the keeper of property and agriculture.  Boundary stones, called termini in his honor, often contained his carved image in the walls that protected farm fields against trespassers and thieves.  Even the feast of the New Year was dedicated to Terminus, celebrated with gift-giving of wine and stones.
To show how seriously the Romans took their boundary lines, the punishment for violators who moved the stones was to be burned alive, along with their livestock.   ( This ghoulish bit of information comes from one of the great histories of the 19th century, The Ancient City (1864) by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges.)   Today, the jack o'lantern is a secular descendant of the termini.  Roman law fixed the sacred boundary space at two and one half feet, wide enough for walking, worshiping, and patrolling. Mayhem aside, evidence left to us in the paintings of numerous  19th century artists  shows  the Italian landscape still bisected by these antique walls, but in this more settled agrarian state, serving as resting places for humans and their dogs. 

Anrde Beaudin - La cloture (The Fence), 1941, Musee des beaux-Arts, Troyes.

21 January 2017

Fantin-Latour's Modern Flowers

"I have no more more ideas on art in my head, and I am obliged to make flowers. In doing so, I think of  Michelangelo,  in front of peonies and roses. This cannot last. " (translation by J.L.)

« Je n’ai jamais eu plus d’idée sur l’art dans la tête, et je suis obligé de faire des fleurs. En le faisant, je pense à Michel-Ange, devant des pivoines et des roses. Cela ne peut durer. »  - Henri Fantin-Latour, Lettre à Edwin Edwards, 15 mai 1862

Fortunately for us, the artist was wrong in this case.  Henri Fantin-Latour is one of the great painters of flowers, able to combine such disparate elements as calm amidst the stages of vegetal life.  If there was any strain involved in creating these works, the artist has prevented us from seeing it.  
Something else we might not be aware of is the lowly status that still life painting had in the hierarchy of genres in Fantin-Latour's day, although he was keenly aware of it both as reflected in the quote given here and in the many portraits he painted, works that he hoped would secure his reputation.    For a still life to command attention it needed some religious or literary reference to lift it above the ordinary, so you could say that these flowers, stripped of all justification but their own aesthetic loveliness, are the early flowers of modern art.
The Fage series on the words of the artists is a good resource for anyone who wants to know how artists see their own works.  However, once the work is released to the world, like a bird, it may take a surprising path and who knows where it will light?

To read more Words of the Artists (in French).
Henri Fantin-Latour  - untitled, possibly 1872 (see writing in upper left corner), Louvre museum, Paris.

16 January 2017

Homage To Martin Luther King, Jr. - Alfred Manessier

A tribute from an expected quarter.  Blue and red, water and blood, bursting with life., a force that moves the spirit and the world.
The late Alfred Manessier (1911-1993) is not a familiar name to most Americans.  When Sonia and Robert Delaunay were commissioned to decorate air and rail stations with murals for the Paris International Exposition in 1937, Manessier and three of his friends who were also students at the  executed the designs.
After going on retreat in a Trappist monastery in 1943, Manessier experienced a spiritual awakening.  Pondering the connections between the monks' spiritual practices and the nature of the cosmos, he changed his practice of painting,  jettisoning  the decorative elements he had absorbed from the Nabis via his studies at Academie Ranson and the Delaunays in favor of stronger colors (as seen here) and more dramatic forms.  He also left  teaching to paint full time.   Manessier held the unusual belief that the abstract and the figurative were merely two sides of the same coin in art.  He went on to receive many commissions for public art, from theater costumes to tapestries and stained glass windows  Where we may see vaguely familiar shapes, Manessier often intended crosses and crowns for churches.
Manessier painted this homage to the American Civil Rights leader in 1964 when King became the youngest person (at that time) ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Alfred Manessier - Homage a Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964, Pompidou Center, Paris.

13 January 2017

Not So Cozy After All: Ethel Sands

Ethel Sands (1873-1962) is one of those artists whose paintings have always impressed me  as being very well executed (they should be; she studied in Paris with Eugene Carrere and was deeply imprinted by the early works of Edouard Vuillard) but rather too amiable, content to portray the interiors of comfortable homes  with few overt signs of  the world outside.  The sort of paintings you might expect from one who took her position as a London society hostess as seriously as any of her other many interests.  Sands was born into money in Newport, Rhode Island and moved easily between France and England, sharing multiple homes with another woman for most of her adult life.

In recent decades, critics have begun to detect the filaments of tension in Vuillard's domestic scenes, based on biographical material that had been revealed since the artist's death in 1940.   No matter how guarded Vuillard and those around him were, his life was not "marked by not a single external  incident."    The romantic/erotic aspects of Vuillard's life may be encoded in his paintings, and who better to have recognized this than a woman who, by the standard of today, would be described as a lesbian?  And who might prefer to present scenes from her own domestic life indirectly?

But then there is this anomalous Ethel Sands painting Still Life With a View of a Cemetery.  It is painted in "early" Vuillard, that is the style he was painting in the 1890s when Vuillard was admired as the leader of the Nabis (or Prophets of a new art) and Pierre Bonnard was his sidekick.   It is all pattern and flat surface, but Sands uses the primary colors (blue, red, and yellow), unlike the muted tones Vuillard favored or her own preferred pastels.  The room that is the still life appears to be a bathroom and the cemetery outside, what we can see of it, seems that of a poor church yard, not the sort of place where the offspring of  haute Newport would have been buried.    Sands had nursed wounded soldiers in France during the war and this painting may allude to the intrusion of the outside world on her domestic life. And yet this interior,  with its tactile curves in the blue and white bowl and pitcher counterpointed by the glass bottles filled with yellow and red liquids, sparkling in the sunlight, is a complete story in itself if we choose to spend time with it.  Disparate shapes are organized around a shelf, with curves below and verticals (the bottles, the curtains, the crosses, above).  Let your eyes move around the canvas, following the directional lines and colors embedded by the artist.  A good still life, Sands shows us, can be more than an arrangement oif objects, it can offer a story to the viewer who gives it enough time.  by On its own terms, this is quite brilliant I think.

Image: Ethel Sands - Still Life With a View Over a Cemetery, 1923, Fitzwilliam Museum, London.

04 January 2017

The Long View: Victor Segalen

This quiet field is more than it appears, as so many photographs turn out to be when you dig into the particulars.  . Sixty years after a Frenchman, Victor Segalen, took this photograph of a farm field in northern China, some local farmers digging a well made an astonishing discovery.  What they unearthed among the meandering watercourses were larger than life-size figures, thousands of soldiers carved from terracotta, that had gone undetected for two thousand years, the funeral army of China's first Emperor, accompanying him to the afterlife.   The Terracotta Warriors, as they are now known, have become one of the wonders of the world, a comparable feat of the imagination to the  Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

Segalen would surely have been delighted by the excavation of the terracotta warriors, and the afterlife they brought to his photograph.  Even so, the significance of the site did not escape Segalen.  He led a band of archeologists that visited the site in 1914 to make drawings and measurements of tumulus, mounds of earth and stones, that are often placed over graves.  These burial mounds have  counterparts around the world,   known as cairns, menhirs, etc.

An obsession was born when Segalen arrived in Peking in 1909;  he  immediately adopted it as "my capital,' only returning to France at the outbreak of war in 1914.  For Segalen,  as for the ancient Chinese, the Middle Kingdom became the center of the world,  "the country that epitomizes harmonious difference, the diversity of the world in a nutshell."

Rene Leys,  Segalen's novel published in 1911, is a kind of spiritual adventure story, in which a young foreigner becomes obsessed with the mysterious Forbidden City and and the Imperial Palace at the heart of Peking.  Day after day the novel's protagonist circles the perimeter, looking and listening for signs of intrigue, clues to the destabilizing politics that followed in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion of 1905. Another foreigner, Rene Leys, becomes his guide, weaving threads of historical events and magical tales together, leaving the reader to wonder what kind of book they have in their hands, a detective story or an allegory.  The book, like the Forbidden City and the field in Lintong guard their secrets well.

The afterlife of Victor Segalen (1870-1919) has been longer than his time on earth.   Segalen, born in  Finistiere (end of the land), at the western-most point of the Atlantic coast, grew up to become a naval doctor, but no single profession could contain him.   He wrote novels, poetry, and literary criticism, and on his travels around the globe he made topographical maps, took photographs, and made  archeological excavations.  For all these accomplishments, Segalen's name is inscribed on the wall of the Pantheon in Paris.  
Revised: 01/07/2017.
An extensive biography of Victor Segalen (in French)
About the novel Rene Leys (in English)

Image: Victor Segalen - Lintong, Shaanxi Province, China, 16 February 1914, Musee Guimet, Paris.

31 December 2016

Happy New Year

Stir up some fun, and economically, too, for the New Year.  In the frugal spirit of old Cape Cod living, the local red berry overwhelms any pretensions the vodka may have, so go for the cheap stuff.  The red  color is reliably deep and gorgeous.  Cocktail mixing doesn't get any easier than the Cape Codder.  I was introduced to the non-alcoholic version as a little girl living in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  Trying to pick out which stirrer would make the drink taste better is the kind of decision that can occupy a child for quite some time.  These stirrers, appropriately for a New Year's celebration, came with a glass holder in the shape of a stork.

The basic Cape Codder recipe is as follows:
2 ounces vodka
3 ounces cranberry juice
1/4 lime perched on the rim of the glass, to be squeezed
club soda to taste

The children's version substitutes ginger ale for the vodka and club soda.
Czechoslovakia - Glass cocktail stirrers, c.1920-1930, blown glass, Geffrye Museum, London.

29 December 2016

Remembering William Christenberry

A star for the new millennium, a landscape cut out by a star, this photograph was taken on New Year's Day in the year 2000. 
While the world was preoccupied with the deaths of other, more famous artists, William Christenberry slipped quietly away on November 28, 2016.   Christenberry was, by turns, a painter, a sculptor of miniature 'dream buildings, and a photographer,  and it is for his photography that he will be remembered.  What attracted him to photography, he said,  was a spiritual dimension that enabled him "to come to grips with my feelings about the landscape and what was in it."  Through his lens,  worn clapboards and dilapidated buildings  appeared more perfectly themselves in rich color than they had in  black and white.  Christenberry, raised under the southern sun, had no prejudice against the use of color film. That landscape also included the Ku Klux Klan and a hooded man at the Tuscaloosa County Court House in 1960, an encounter that shook Christenberry deeply.
Christenberry was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1936, the year that Walker Evans and James Agee spent a month with tenant farmers in nearby Hale County.  The two men hoped to publish an article but it failed to materialize;  instead, their book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published five years later, became a masterpiece of social documentary.  
Alabama was home to some of the poorest areas in the south  and it signifies that Christenberry acquired his first camera as a joint Christmas present with his sister in 1944.  After attending college, Christenberry thought he would become a painter but in New York he met Walker Evans who encouraged him to take his photography seriously.   Christenberry taught painting at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C.,  where he lived until his death from Alzheimer's disease last month. 

See photographs by William Christenberry in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
William Christenberry - Christmas Star Near Akron Alabama, January 1, 2000, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.