30 September 2009

How To Take A Bath

Recently, I was looking at a photograph of the Emperor's salle de bains (bathroom, like so many words, sounds more impressive in French) in Napoleon's grand apartment at the Chateau Fontainebleau. The striated white marble walls and black-and-white diamond patterned tile floors looked familiar. Even the bidet, although not a standard fixture in American homes, was self-explanatory. The galvanized tub on its raised platform, edged with an organdy ruffle, did look a bit like a baby's bassinet but the four chairs arranged along the walls brought me up short: the Emperor didn't bathe alone.

As a child, I learned from my mother that, if there is one thing a busy modern woman craves in her bath time, it is near monastic solitude. June liked nothing better than to close the door and sink into a fragrant bubble bath with a good book. (There was a southern window in our bathroom that provided plenty of light.) If a child knocked on the door, she called out her usual advice: "Go read your book."
There are other ideas on how to take a bath. The caricature (at right) was included in a letter from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Jane Morris, wife of architect William Morris. It shows Jane in the bath tub, apparently drinking a glass of wine, as her husband reads to her. Rossetti captioned it: "To drink bath water is better than to listen Morris read the 7 volumes of his new book The Earthly Paradise." (1868) The glasses lined up by the tub look inviting, though.
The two well-muscled 'mer-men' holding up Aphrodite look charming in Georges Barbier's illustration for the book, Aphrodite: Antiques Moers (1928 edition) by Pierre Louys, but it takes a goddess to relax so imperviously, above it all. I'll take the solitary bubble bath.

Image: Leonardo Cremonini - Les Parenthese de l'Eaux, 1968, Pompidou Center, Paris.

23 September 2009

Gabritschevsky Reinvents The Butterfly

Looking at these gouache images of winged insects is a magical experience. A series of precisely detailed abstract and geometric forms resolved into a harmonious whole, living creatures that can fly. The backgrounds, with their subliminal reminder of familiar-seeming earth and sky, ground these extravagant fliers in a world we can recognize. 

The Russian-born Eugene Gabritschevsky (1893-1979) knew them well. A respected insect biologist who specialized in studies of mutation and heredity, Gabritschevsky worked at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
After being diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1929, Gabritschevsky was confined to a mental hospital in Munich. That is also where he died.
Turning to art, with what training I cannot say, Gabritschevsky created a plethora of works, mostly watercolor and gouache, that envision a world that may be his meditations on how the creatures he had studied might see it.  It looks to me as though he  found a use - serious and/or tongue in cheek, who can say? - for the Rorschach (ink blot) tests that came into vogue during the 1920s.  Although their validity has since been questioned, their ambiguity has kept them alive in the netherworld of pseudo-science, never quite debunked but never quite acceptable.

I am not persuaded by the notion of outsider art, which is where you usually find Gabritschevsky's art catalogued. A term that was coined in the 1970s to describe certain aesthetic attributes for purposes of grouping artists (think: marketing, exclusion) it continued the ever-popular and overworked mission to "Epater les Bourgeoises."
Eugene Gabritschevsky was a tormented man but, as is often true when confronted with human vulnerability, this is about us, as much as about him. Why not call Odilon Redon an outsider artist? Gabritschevsky's portrait of his beloved dog, Luce, is a work of radiant affection.  A brilliant man, confronted with a bleak diagnosis, who chooses a new metier for his energies, is someone I want to share my corner with, just as he shared his with his dog, Luce.

Images from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Toulouse, France.

21 September 2009

The Continuing Question Of Carl Moll

Looking at these unfamiliar  paintings from a realm between impressionism and realism, suggests a question: why don't we recognize them and know  who made them?  There must be a back story here.
Vienna in 1886 had more young artists in one place than any other European city than Paris. Its energy, edginess, and enervation made for a heady mix, but one of every six residents of Vienna came from the poor outposts of the Hapsburg Empire and lacked a permit to live there.  You can't see them in The View from Schindler's Window.

Carl Moll (1861-1945) painted the scene at left scene from a window in the home of his teacher, Emil Schindler, that same year. Soon after Schindler died in 1892, Moll married Schindler's widow Anna. In marrying Anna Schindler, Moll became the stepfather of seven year-old Alma, who would grow into the beautiful, temperamental, and much-married Alma Schindler Mahler Werfel Gropius.

Among his contemporaries, Moll was noted for his foresightedness. Hel was an early member of the Vienna Secession in 1897, and he seceded from the group in 1905, along with Gustav Klimt.  He promoted Klimt's art and introduced the Viennese to Vincent Van Gogh's paintings. He later became an early supporter  of Hitler's National Socialism in the 1920s. Fast forward to 1945, when  Carl Moll committed suicide, together with his daughter and son-in-law, as the Soviet Army entered Vienna.  We begin to see things that are not obvious in Moll's paintings.

Of course, we see none of this in The View From Schindler's Window. When looking at Moll's self-portrait (1906) or the view of his snow-covered studio from the outside (c. 1905) we see a world of calm introspection, of a new aesthetic in painting masterfully applied. His use of diagonals and bird's eye views allows a subtle lightness in his landscapes, an aesthetic of  verisimilitude, resembling something, but not the thing itself, rather like the Schindler-Moll family perhaps.

There is some flattening of the picture plane, as in the work of other Secessionists, although not in the interiors; they pull us into the Finance Ministry chambers and a domestic interior through a series of diagonals created by open doors.

Many of Moll's paintings hang in Viennese museums, but his work is often absent from retrospectives of his generation because his personal history is unpalatable in so many ways.  He assumed the mantle of all that had been Schindler's as his by right. His supplanting of  Emil Schindler in his family and his art world never sat well.   He was not enthusiastic about having Gustav Mahler join the family, unwelcome on at least two counts as a Jew and as a rival artist.

Far from being a great man, Moll (whose name translates from the German as 'minor') was far from a minor artist. But the work remains, waiting for a time when it will win out over history, as beautiful work always does.

1.  The View From Schindler's Window, 1886, Essl Collection, Austria.
2. Verschneites Studio on Theriesiengasse, c. 1905, Dichaud Collection, Austria.
3. The Artist In His Studio, 1906, Akademie der Bilder Kunst, Gemaldgalerie, Vienna.
4. Winter In Preibach, 1904, private collection, Vienna

6. Winter Scene -Heiligenstadt, c.1904.
7.  View Of Heilligenstadt, 1906, Dichaud Collection, Austria.
8. The Interior Of The Ambassador's Residence.
9.  Twilight, c. 1900, Osterresiches Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.

14 September 2009

Cubists Go Shopping

If one measure of acceptance for avant-garde art is the time it takes for it to become the lingua franca of advertising and illustration, then Cubism was a great success. From 1907 when Picasso caused a furor with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and 1908 when Georges Braque's Houses at L'Estaques provoked a critic to respond with "bizarre cubiques!" (translation unnecessary) to the images you see here was a short time indeed. Cezanne had been experimenting with fractured perspectives even sooner, to be sure.

For those of us who were born with binocular vision, Ernst Gombrich's complaint that Cubism is a radical human construct elicits a smile. The childhood game of staring at an object, first with one eye and then the other to watch it move and change color, can fill hours. Who knew that Rene Magritte made advertisements for Alfa Romeo or that they look at home with paintigs by Auguste Macke and Lyonel Feininger? And why not?

1. Rene Magritte - Alpha Romeo Ad, Englebert Magazine (Liege, Belgium), January-February, 1925, Bibliotheque de la Ville, La-Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.
2. Auguste Macke - Big Bright Shop Window, 1912, Sprengel Museum, Hanover, Germany.
3. Lyonel Feininger - Lady In Mauve, 1922, Thyssen-Boromisza Museum, Switzerland.
4. Jean-Emile Laboureur - The Magazine Kiosk, 1920s, Laboureur Prints.com.

5. Auguste Macke - Woman With An Umbrella, 1920, Folkwang Museum, Essen, Germany.