Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The world as non-objectivity

Olle Baertling (1911-1981)
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1961

From the moment Kazimir Malevich, just before the Russian Revolution, revolutionised art itself with his painting Black Square, the story of art has been bound up with the search for ways in which to communicate human emotions, ideas, and beliefs, in terms of pure line, geometry, and colour planes. Malevich’s new abstract art was called by him Suprematism, though it is more usually known to us by a name Malevich himself introduced as a term of abuse, Constructivism. It is concerned with “The world as non-objectivity”, as the title of Malevich’s treatise of 1926 put it.

Victor Vasarely
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1956

Abstract art so quickly swallowed up critical attention that whole areas of figurative art still remain unexplored. Women artists, for instance, barely had time to get accepted before it was unacceptable for them to explore pictorially the female domestic world. Even an artist as devoted to the everyday beauties of the home as Winifred Nicholson found herself painting constructivist abstracts in the 1930s, under the influence of her friend Piet Mondrian and the artists of the group Abstraction-Création.

Hans Arp (1886-1966)
Placé selon les lois de hazard
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting (or collage?) of 1951

I’ve been tipped into thinking about the geometry of feeling by a new acquisition, the catalogue to an important group exhibition at the Galerie Denise René, Paris, in 1964. The title of both catalogue and exhibition is Hard-edge.

Richard Paul Lohse (1902-1988)
Farbenenergien in vier richtungen
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1950

As Josef Albers writes in his written contribution:

so far a suspected noun
of fashionable art terminology
but changing fast to an adjective
of decidedness
and thus on the way
to signal something more.

Josef Albers (1888-1976)
Homage to the square
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1963

The exhibition gathered work by nine artists: Albers, Hans (Jean) Arp, Olle Baertling, Auguste Herbin, Alexander Liberman, Richard Paul Lohse, Richard Mortensen, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and Victor Vasarely.

Richard Mortensen (1910-1933)
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1964

The catalogue contains statements by each of them (apart from Sophie Tauber-Arp, who died in 1943, who is given a heartfelt memorial by her widower, Hans). Hans Arp dates Sophie’s first pure abstract works to 1915 and 1916, subtly arguing for her as co-creator with Malevich and Kandinsky of the non-objective world. “Already in 1916 Sophie Taeuber was dividing the surface of her watercolours in squares and rectangles which she juxtaposed horizontally and vertically.”

Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943)
Silkscreen (by Hans Arp?) of 1964 after a painting of 1934
The catalogue also contains nine silkscreen prints (or serigraphs), one by each artist. The one by Taeuber-Arp is after a work from 1934; it was presumably supervised, or executed, by Hans Arp, though no details are given for this or the other works.

Looking at the sheer visual richness of these nine silkscreens got me thinking about the way that abstract art managed both to insist that everything that was happening on the picture plane only existed in two dimensions, and simultaneously that the picture plane was a window into a previously unrealised dimension (what Malevich himself called "the fourth dimension"). As Lawrence Alloway writes in his brief introduction to the cataloque, in hard-edge painting, “What you see is precisely what there is. Yet what you see is usually optically ambiguous. Positive and negative forms interact as shapes in hard-edge, united in a single plane.”

Auguste Herbin (1882-1960)
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1960

I love this kind of work. Mondrian, Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, and Sean Scully are among my favourite artists. But I haven’t gone out of my way to collect abstract prints, and within my abstract holdings there are more exuberantly expressionist works by artists such as Walasse Ting or Sam Francis than there are severely geometric ones. Yet the provocative simplicities of the hard-edge silkscreens remind me how potent such work can be. As Alexander Liberman writes in the catalogue, “In order for sensation to act upon us with the greatest intensity we have to cleanse our minds of the accumulated deposits of art memories. A painting should by its apparent simplicity act with such immediacy that the innermost centers of the mind can be reached without hesitation and time for reference to our memory or doubt centers.”

Alexander Liberman (1912-1999)
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1962

Much of my other work in this vein comes from a single source, the book Témoignages pour l’art abstrait (Testimonies for Abstract Art), published in 1952 in an edition of 1500 copies. In this, major artists of the day put forward their theories of abstraction, and each contributed an original pochoir plate, the pochoir colours being stencilled by Renson. Among the artists were Arp, Herbin, Mortensen, and Vasarely, overlapping with Hard-edge, but also Bloc, Dewasne, Deyrolles, Dias, Domela, Pillet, Reth, and many others. A few related images from this work follow, without any attempt at description.

André Bloc (1896-1966)
Témoignage III
Pochoir, 1952

Jean Dewasne (1921-1999)
Témoignage VIII
Pochoir, 1952

Cícero Dias (1908-2003)
Témoignage X
Pochoir, 1952

Auguste Herbin
Témoignage XXX
Pochoir, 1952

Auguste Herbin
Non (Témoignage XV)
Pochoir, 1952

Albert Magnelli (1888-1971)
Témoignage I
Pochoir, 1952

Edgard Pillet (1912-1996)
Témoignage XXIII
Pochoir, 1952

Alfred Reth (1884-1966)
Témoignage XXVI
Pochoir, 1952

Victor Vasarely
Témoignage XXVIII
Pochoir, 1952

Friday, September 5, 2008

Biffins de la zone

Noël Bureau, Les Athlètes
Original wood engraving, 1933

Just to cheer us all up after that last post, I thought I’d write something about the artist who provided the opening image, the modernist poet Noël Bureau.

Marcel Gromaire, Portrait of Noël Bureau
Original etching, 1930

Bureau was a quintessential dilettante – a poet, essayist, art critic, and composer of music. He moved in artistic circles in the Bohemian Montmartre that he loved, and was friends with many artists of the between-the-wars School of Paris, notably Marcel Gromaire, Tadé Makowski, Pierre Dubreuil, Édouard Goerg, Alexandre Ralli, Per Krohg, and Jean-Gabriel Daragnès. Daragnès provided a Cubist-inspired etched frontispiece for Bureau’s 1945 collection Rigeurs, the title sequence of which is dedicated to Janine and Jean-Gabriel Daragnès.

Jean-Gabriel Daragnès, Rigeurs
Original etching, 1945

Which of these artist friends taught Noël Bureau to make wood engravings is uncertain, but it was likely Gromaire, who made his own first wood engravings for Bureau's 1925 collection of prose poems, Ruptures, and also etched a portrait of the poet. One of Gromaire’s cuts for Ruptures shows a juggler, and foreshadows the subject that Bureau would make his own, the circus.

Marcel Gromaire, Juggler
Original wood engraving, 1925

The circus had, of course, been a popular subject for art since the days of Toulouse-Lautrec and Ibels. Montmartre artists such as Gustave Assire had the Cirque Medrano on their doorstep, and circus acts also featured in the shows at nightclubs such as the Folies Bergère, as this copper engraving by Hervé Baille shows.

Hervé Baille, Clowns at the Folies Bergère
Original copper engraving, 1945

Another inspiration for Bureau's naïvely exuberant wood engravings of the circus was the work of the self-taught artist Camille Bombois. Bombois was an ex-circus strongman and wrestler, who worked in a printing factory at night and painted by day, mainly circus motifs. In 1922 Noël Bureau spotted his work hanging on the railings in the Place du Tertre and championed him as a master of naïve art, an opinion which holds good today. Bombois contributed a sketch to Bureau’s Chapeau chinois in 1929. It was no doubt partly his admiration for the self-taught Bombois that gave Bureau the courage to try his own hand at the graphic arts.

Noël Bureau, Cirque
Original wood engraving, 1933

Bureau’s collection of woodcuts and prose poems, Cirque, was printed in 1933 by Marcel Seheur in an edition of 90 copies, published by Éditions de la Girafe. My copy has a warm gift inscription from Noël Bureau dated 1957, so I think one can confidently say it was not an immediate sell-out. But I think it’s great – robust and funny and full of verve.

Noël Bureau, Éléphant musicien
Original wood engraving, 1933

I have not been able to find dates of either birth or death for Bureau. The first publication I can find trace of is Projections impulsives in 1916; the last, Au profit du silence, in 1947. He certainly lived until 1957, as the inscription in my copy of Cirque attests. As a writer, he seems to have been completely forgotten. My own feeling is that he probably had private means, allowing him to behave in all the arts as an elegant amateur – for instance, he privately published his own chamber music, with a preface by Max Jacob, and I think one can assume that he also financed the publication of Cirque.

Noël Bureau, Joueur de jazz
Original wood engraving, 1933

Besides Cirque, Ruptures, and Rigeurs, I have one further book by Noël Bureau, this one published as well as printed by Marcel Seheur. The title is Marché aux puces: poèmes en prose accompagnés de 6 eaux-fortes originales. This book has one of my favourite dedications of all time. It reads: À mes collaborateurs: peintres-graveurs, imprimeurs et biffins de la zone. A biffin is a rag-and-bone man. The etchings in this book are by Gromaire, Goerg, Makowski, Dubreuil, Ralli, and Krohg. I have already reproduced Gromaire’s frontispiece portrait above (I have no idea, by the way, why Gromaire has etched the number 97 next to his initial in the plate; it’s certainly not the date). So here are the others, with no further ado.

Édouard Goerg, Marché aux puces
Original etching, 1930

Tadé Makowski, Marché aux puces
Original etching, 1930

Pierre Dubreuil, Marché aux puces
Original etching, 1930

Alexandre Ralli, Marché aux puces
Original etching, 1930

Per Krohg, Marché aux puces
Original etching, 1930

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Dicing with Death

Noël Bureau, Baron Samedi, 1933
Original wood engraving by Noël Bureau (active 1916-1957)

Writing my recent blog entry on Marcel Roux started me thinking about the artistic depiction of personified Death. The skeletal figure of Death was important in western art in the medieval danse macabre, but it isn’t I think until Symbolism that Death really starts dancing again. He continued to do so through Expressionism and Surrealism, right up to the present day, in pieces such as Damien Hirst’s grotesque skull embedded with gemstones.

André Villeboeuf, Danse macabre, 1944
Original etching with aquatint by André Villeboeuf (1893-1956)

One of the interesting things about the various figures of Death in my collection is their fluidity of gender. I think English speakers are probably apt to think of Death as masculine, but Anglo-Saxon had masculine, feminine, and neuter words for death, and in languages such as French, death is a feminine noun, la Mort. The elegant skeletal figure leading the little girl by the hand in Roux’s L’Enfant et la Mort is definitely female. So too is grand Madame la Mort, riding a high-stepping black palfrey in my engraving by Hervé Baille (1896-1974).

Hervé Baille, Madame la Mort, 1945
Original copper engraving

Death figures obsessively in the art of Marcel Roux, featuring in a full third of his etchings. Jean Deville (1901-1972) is another French artist much possessed by death, and my copper engravings by Deville were executed for Sonnets et stances de la Mort by the sixteenth-century metaphysical poet Jean de Sponde, published by Pierre Seghers for the group La Jeune Gravure Contemporaine. Janine Bailly-Herzberg writes of Deville in her Dictionnaire de l’Estampe et France, “Son style, dramatique et quelquefois visionnaire, où la mort est souvent présente et côtoie des personages tourmentés, ne cherche pas à plaire à un grand public.”

Jean Deville, La Mort, 1946
Original copper engraving

Jean Deville was born in Charleville in the Ardennes. He was a pupil of Maurice Denis and Georges Desvallières, and was taught how to etch in 1931 by Yves Alix and Gérard Cochet. From that point, printmaking, especially etching, was crucial to his art. All his prints, including those for Sonnets et stances de la Mort, were printed by Georges Leblanc.

Jean Deville, Et quel bien de la Mort?, 1946
Original copper engraving

Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) is I think the earliest artist in my collection to take Death as a primary subject; perhaps it’s not surprising, given his close friendship with Baudelaire, whose writings on the subject inspired quite a few of the artists whose work will follow in this blog.

Alphonse Legros, Jeune fille et la Mort, 1900
Original wood engraving by Charles de Sousy Ricketts (1866-1931) after a drawing by Alphonse Legros.

Alphonse Legros was a painter, printmaker, and sculptor. Born in Dijon, Legros was apprenticed at the age of 11 to a house painter, who was also a "colourer of images". Legros studied at the Dijon Beaux-Arts, whose director was Célestine Nanteuil, and then at the atelier of Lecoq de Boisbaudran in Paris, where he became close friends with Fantin-Latour. Alphonse Legros moved to England in 1863 and was naturalized in 1880. Legros was encouraged in this move by Whistler, whom he first met in 1858. Although Legros had been one of the most active members of the French Société des Aquafortistes, a close ally of Fantin-Latour and a friend of Charles Baudelaire (for whose translation of Poe had made a series of remarkable etchings), he found it hard to make ends meet in France, and in emigrating to England he was also fleeing his creditors and escaping the threat of debtor's prison. One in London, Legros found himself the neighbour of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the friend of Swinburne, and the centre of admiration among English etchers. His "notoriété Britannique" caused a revision of opinion back in France, and Alphonse Legros had two paintings in the Salon of 1863 and a third - a portrait of his friend Manet - in the Salon des Refusés. Exhibitions at the galleries of Durand-Ruel and Samuel Bing were to follow, and after his hand-to-mouth early years Legros became a popular and successful artist. In London, he was appointed Slade Professor of Art at University College, and professor of etching and engraving at South Kensington.

Alphonse Legros, La Mort et le Bûcheron, 1876
Original etching

Édouard Chimot (1890-1959) has already featured in this blog through his role as art director for Les Éditions d’Art Devambez in the 1920s. My four Chimot etchings on the subject of death all date from just before he joined Devambez. They were made for an edition of the harrowing vision of existential nothingness that is the novel L’Enfer (Hell), by Henri Barbusse. The etchings were printed by Eugène Monnard on Chimot’s own hand-press.

Édouard Chimot, La Mort, 1921
Original etching with aquatint

Édouard Chimot, Ce sont les autres qui meurent, 1921
Original etching with aquatint

Édouard Chimot, L’Enfer, 1921
Original etching with aquatint

Édouard Chimot, Le visage humain, 1921
Original etching with aquatint

An artist working in a similar vein to Chimot at this time was the Russian émigré Serge Ivanoff (1893-1983). Ivanoff was born in Moscow, where is parents enrolled him in the Academy of Art from the age of 10. Following the Russian Revolution the family moved to St. Petersburg, where Ivanoff studied under Braz, the curator of the Hermitage. In 1922 Serge Ivanoff emigrated to France, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. He became a very successful painter of society portraits, and a member of the staid Salon des Artistes Français. My etchings by Ivanoff show a younger, edgier side to his art. They are illustrations to the classic tale of erotic transgression Les Diaboliques by Barbey d'Aurevilly.

Serge Ivanoff, Death and the maiden, 1925
Original etching

Serge Ivanoff, Death, 1925
Original etching

In the same year as Ivanoff, William Malherbe (1884-1952) was illustrating his brother Henry’s war memoir, La Flamme au Poing. William Malherbe was born in Senlis, Oise. His own experiences in WWI marked him deeply; Time Magazine found him “after four years in the war, almost pathologically shy.”

William Malherbe, Le Divertissement macabre, 1925
Original copper engraving by Achille Ouvré (1872-1951) after a drawing by William Malherbe

William Malherbe’s artistic success came after he was taken up in the 1930 by the gallery Durand-Ruel, whose fortune had been made by its backing of the Impressionists. In 1939, at the age of 55, William Malherbe emigrated to the USA, where he lived on a farm in Vermont until 1948 when he returned to France. His exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery were highly successful, and his colourful post-Impressionist Vermont scenes, full of light and paint-flecked pleasure, are still highly sought-after. Some even consider William Malherbe an American artist, but his work is essentially rooted in the French post-Impressionist tradition of Bonnard and late Renoir.

David Jones (1895-1974) was, like William Malherbe, deeply marked by his experiences in the trenches in WWI, which he vividly re-imagined in his great long poem In Parenthesis. His copper engravings for an edition of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner include a classic Death and the Maiden scene, in which the maiden is literally “dicing with death”. It illustrates the point at which a skeleton ship appears:

Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a gate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that woman’s mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
“The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

David Jones, Life-in-Death, 1929
Original copper engraving

Jones made between 150 and 200 preparatory drawings for this, his last major series of engravings, which he executed in “simple incised lines reinforced here and there and as sparingly as possible by cross-hatched areas… I decided also that these essentially linear designs should have an undertone over the whole area of the plate.” This latter effect was achieved by not wiping the plates totally clean of ink before putting them in the press.

David Jones’ engravings for the Rime contain a lot of submerged Christian imagery, with the Ancient Mariner hanging from the mast like Christ on the cross, and the albatross equated to Christian depictions of the pelican in her piety. In the etching Calvary, executed in the dark days of 1942 by Alméry Lobel-Riche (1877-1950), the artist manages to fuse Christ and Death into one powerful image of desolation and defeat.

Alméry Lobel-Riche, Calvary, 1942
Original etching

In the interests of actually getting this post finished and up on the blog, I think I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves from now on; just ask if you want further information on any of the artists or images.

Hubert Yencesse, Love and Death, 1947
Original wood engraving by Hubert Yencesse (1900-1987)

Jacob Epstein, A Fantastic Engraving, 1940
Original lithograph by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959)

Jacob Epstein, The Two Good Sisters, 1940
Original lithograph

Mariette Lydis, Un cheval de race, 1948
Original etching with aquatint by Mariette Lydis (1887-1970)

Jean Carzou, Death with a flower, 1964
Original lithograph by Jean Carzou (1907-2000)

André Minaux, Skull, 1968
Original lithograph by André Minaux (1923-1986)

Pierre Jacquot, Death, 1980
Original lithograph by Pierre Jacquot (1929- )