Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Keeping Impressionism at bay

The French art critic Léon Roger-Milès is best-known today for his 1897 book Art et Nature, which included original etchings by Pissarro, Renoir, Besnard, and Renouard among other Impressionist delights. So I was interested to acquire a copy of the only book of poems by Roger-Milès, Les Veillées Noires (Gloomy Evenings), published in 1889 by Paul Ollendorf, in an edition of 400 copies. I knew it was illustrated with original etchings. Surely it also would be full of Impressionist masterpieces. Well, not quite. Instead, Les Veillées Noires is an object lesson in looking down the wrong end of the telescope. That's not to say the etchings - brilliantly interpreted and printed by Auguste and Eugène Delâtre - aren't good. Some of them are fantastic. But the artists chosen by Roger-Milès to illustrate this milestone book are a roll-call of talented men who missed out on their place in art history by sticking with the academic aesthetic of the Salon de Paris and turning their backs on the artquake of Impressionism.

Auguste Delâtre (1822-1907), Tristesse
Etching with aquatint, 1889

What sparked this line of thought is the ink inscription in my copy from Roger-Milès "à Monsieur Albert Wolff, hommage respectieux". Now German-born Albert Abraham Wolff (1835-1891) was, from 1868, the principal art critic of Le Figaro, and therefore perhaps the most influential arbiter of artistic taste in France. And Albert Wolff was the most ferocious and vituperative critic of Impressionism. He wrote of the Second Impressionist Exhibition of 1876, "These so-called artists take  canvases, paint, and brushes, fling a few colours here and there, and add a signature." He described the Impressionists as "lunatics" whose work was the result of "human vanity stretched to the verge of dementia". So what would he have made of Les Veillées Noires? He might have been a tad alarmed by the very first etching he saw, Tristesse by Auguste Delâtre, with its murky aquatint sky, but he would have been reassured by Delâtre's peerless reputation as a printer of etchings. Auguste Delâtre was one of the central figures in the nineteenth-century etching revival in France. He started out as a technician in the printing atelier of Charles Jacque and Louis Marvy. He then bought Jacque's two etching presses and established his own atelier in rue Saint-Jacques. There Auguste Delâtre established himself as the foremost printer of etchings. He was entrusted with the printing of the work of Barbizon artists such as Charles Jacque, Daubigny, and Millet, and also with printing the etchings of Old Masters from surviving plates. He also printed the etchings for the journal Paris à l'eau-forte, and co-founded the Société des Aquafortistes with Cadart. Auguste Delâtre had nearly as strong an influence in England. In 1862 he was invited by Henry Cole of the V&A to set up an etching school and a printworks. When his print studio with all its precious contents was obliterated by a Prussian shell in 1870, Delâtre returned to England, where Edwin Edwards provided him with presses and he once again took pupils and also made his own paintings and etchings. After five years, Auguste Delâtre returned to France where he re-founded his studio, now working in tandem with his son Eugène Delâtre (1864-1938). And it was Auguste and Eugène who were responsible not just for printing the etchings, but for translating the artists' drawings onto the etching plates, either in pure etching or aquatint.

Louis Deschamps (1846-1902), Jumeaux
Etching by Eugène Delâtre, 1889

Wolff may also have been reassured by the dedication to "mon cher Maître François Coppée", a conservative poet who would be completely forgotten now but for the brilliant parodies of him by Rimbaud and Verlaine, which were tauntingly published under the name François Coppée and are now acknowledged as that poet's finest work. And not only that, almost all the artists chosen were stalwarts of the Salon, and quite a few of them (for instance Louis Deschamps, Eugène Thirion and Léon Comerre) had studied in the ultra-conservative atelier of Alexandre Cabanel at the École des Beaux-Arts. To give a sense of historical perspective, in 1876 Cabanel's painting Le poète florentin sold at auction for 56,000 francs, while a Monet struggled to fetch a few hundred.

Henri Jules Jean Geoffroy (1853-1924), Sans pain
Etching by Auguste Delâtre, 1889

As Albert Wolff turned the pages, he would have been reassured by the solid draughtsmanship, the classical perspectives, and the familiar subject matter of the images.

Alexandre Homo (1840 -1889 ), Cimetière
Etching by Auguste Delâtre, 1889

Intimations of Symbolism in the work of Henner, Bourdelle, and Thirion would probably not have worried Wolff overmuch. Nor the Art Nouveau stylings of the great ceramicist Taxile Doat.

Jean-Jacques Henner (1829-1905), La nymphe qui pleure
Etching with aquatint by Auguste Delâtre, 1889

Émile Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929). L'amour agonisé
Etching by Auguste Delâtre, 1889

Jean Benner (1836-1909), Alsacienne
Etching by Eugène Delâtre, 1889

Taxile Doat (1851-1939), L'accord
Etching by Eugène Delâtre, 1889

Eugène Thirion (1839-1910), L'épave du vengeur
Etching by Eugène Delâtre, 1889

The second etching by Geoffroy shows how elegantly both Delâtres, father and son, mimicked the style of the artist whose work they were interpreting. You can tell straight away it is the same artist; you can't tell it is a different etcher. And who is that well-dressed man with the hat and the cane, walking past the unfortunate beggars? My guess is that it is a portrait of Léon Roger-Milès.

Henri Jules Jean Geoffroy (1853-1924), Les infortunés
Etching by Eugène Delâtre, 1889

Léon Comerre (1850-1916), Les triolets de Colombine
Etching by Eugène Delâtre, 1889

Wolff might have been worried, though, by Auguste Pointelin's Prière du soir. This twilight scene, brilliantly interpreted by Auguste Delâtre in subtly-gradated greys, is about as Impressionist as you can get without changing your name to Monet or Pissarro. So far as I know Pointelin had no direct connections with the Impressionists, but he certainly saw and was influenced by their work.

Auguste Emmanuel Pointelin (1839-1933), Prière du soir
Etching with aquatint by Auguste Delâtre, 1889

I suppose what I am getting at in this post, in a roundabout sort of way, is that the artists who didn't go down the Impressionist path are not negligible, or risible. They simply guessed the course of art history wrong. They felt safe with the aesthetics they were taught by Cabanel and others like him, and just like poor old Albert Wolff, couldn't appreciate the renewed vision offered by the Impressionists. Wolff now seems like a figure of fun, with his bluff and bluster and his complete inability to understand what now seems to us unmistakable beauty. But there were many like him in the day, and they included quite a few talented artists. What stopped Jean-Jacques Henner from being Renoir? Maybe it was as simple as being 12 years older. But he was still a fine artist, and his weeping nymph, Pointelin's twilight prayer, and Auguste Delâtre's own vision of sadness are my three favourites of this mixed bunch of etchings. All three demonstrate Auguste Delâtre's wonderful mastery of aquatint.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Carl-Heinz Kliemann: the Genesis of a Neo-Expressionist

The great pre-Nazi flowering of German Expressionism is so striking a cultural phenomenon that it is tempting to feel that the whole movement was crushed under the jackboot, never to revive. But of course art has its underground streams that re-emerge when the conditions are right, and so the aesthetics of Expressionism found a new flowering in Germany post WWII. If I use the term Neo-Expressionist to define the art of Carl-Heinz Kliemann, it is only to mark this generational divide - otherwise, his work seems to me completely in line with that of the pre-war Expressionists. Two of these, Max Kaus and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, were his teachers at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Berlin from 1945-1950. My colour woodcuts by Carl-Heinz Kliemann were made in 1962 for an edition of the Book of Genesis published by Käthe Vogt Verlag. They show the influence of Picasso, for sure, and also Matisse I think, but they are wonderfully confident and expressive works. 2000 copies were printed, with text on the verso which I think is a shame, but the paper is high quality, and thick enough to mean there is no show-through.

Carl-Heinz Kliemann, Eve and the serpent
Woodcut, 1962

Carl-Heinz Kliemann, The daughters of Lot
Woodcut, 1962

Carl-Heinz Kliemann, Sarai and Hagar
Woodcut, 1962

Carl-Heinz Kliemann, Potiphar's wife
Woodcut, 1962

Carl-Heinz Kliemann, Rebekah at the well
Woodcut, 1962

Carl-Heinz Kliemann, Jacob wrestling with God
Woodcut, 1962

The painter and printmaker Carl-Heinz Kliemann was born in Berlin in 1924. In 1950 Kliemann won the Kunstpreis der Stadt Berlin für Grafik; in 1955 he won the Preis des Modernen Museums in the international Grafik-Biennale in Ljubljana; in 1958 he won the Villa-Romana-Preis. In 1966 Carl-Heinz Kliemann was appointed professor in the Department of Painting and Graphics at the University of Karlsruhe, where he taught for 12 years. Carl-Heinz Kliemann has had many exhibitions both in Germany and internationally. The latest was "Der Maler in der Landschaft", a celebration of his 80th birthday at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin in 2004. Die Graphik von Carl-Heinz Kliemann by Eberhard Roters was published in 1991.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The unspoiled Balearics: Francisque de Saint-Etienne

Francisque de Saint-Étienne was born in Montpellier in 1824. A landscape painter and etcher, Saint-Étienne was a pupil of Jules Laurens. He exhibited at the Salon de Paris from 1857-1863, also exhibiting four landscape etchings at the International Exhibition in London in 1862. He also published etchings with Cadart's Société des Aquafortistes. My etching dates from 1860, and is I think fairly representative of his work. It shows the untamed wildness of the Balearic island of Formentera, before any thought of today's tourism.

Francisque de Saint-Étienne, Formentera
Etching, 1860

In 1863 Francisque de Saint-Étienne returned to Montpellier from Paris, and ceased to send work for exhibition in the capital, exhibiting only in the regional exhibitions of the Société artistique de l'Hérault. His name is sometimes spelled Francisc de Saint-Étienne; his true name was Louis Francisc Hippolyte Bessodes de Roquefeuille. He died in Montpellier in 1885.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A female etcher of the Second Empire: Frederique Emilie O'Connell

A good artistic quiz question would be: What nationality was Frédérique Émilie O'Connell? The answer is neither French nor Irish, but German. The painter and etcher Frédérique Émilie Auguste O'Connell, née Miethe, was born in Potsdam in 1823 and died in Paris in 1885. An early devotion to drawing marked her out for an artistic career, and at the age of 18 she went to Berlin to study under Charles Joseph Bégas. She then continued her studies in Brussels, where she married in 1844. In 1853 she settled in Paris, establishing an atelier in Montmartre. Frédérique Émilie O'Connell threw herself with fervour into the artistic and social life of Paris, and her salon was frequented by writers as well as artists, notably Alexandre Dumas fils and Théophile Gautier. She also took many female students, and the prospectus of her course of studies is given in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 15 Novembre 1859.

Frédérique Émilie O'Connell: Prospectus of studies

She exhibited at the Paris Salon from 1846 to 1868. The collapse of the Second Empire in 1870 was also the end of Frédérique Émilie O'Connell's artistic career, as the demand for society portraits dwindled. Abandoned by both her husband and her society friends, Frédérique Émilie O'Connell lost her grip on reality, and spent her final years in a mental hospital, forgotten and alone. This sad end eclipsed what had been a glittering career for this pioneering woman artist. Frédérique Émilie O'Connell is now remembered less for her portraits and history paintings than for her skill as an etcher. Although she made only 10 etchings in all, they are a remarkable body of work. She made her first etchings in Brussels in 1849; the last, a self-portrait, was published by L'Artiste in 1879, though probably executed well before that (the other 9 were already catalogued by Philippe Burty in 1860). Burty's favourite among O'Connell's etchings was the Tête de sainte Madeleine published by the Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1860. He writes of this work (which is also known simply as Tête de femme), that it is "the most beautiful work ever etched by Mme O'Connell. The swagger of the effect, and the sureness of the line make this sketch a masterful etching worthy of the greatest Flemish masters."

Frédérique Émilie O'Connell, Tête de sainte Madeleine
Etching, c.1849

One thing that is hard to convey in this format is how tiny this etching is - just 80 mm high and 50 mm wide (roughly 3" by 2"). The rest of her etchings are more generous in size, but the small proportions of the Tête de Sainte Madeleine emphasise both the delicacy and panache of her etched line. As with many etchers of the time, Frédérique Émilie O'Connell looked to Rembrandt as the greatest exponent of the art of etching, and her work mimics both his freedom and his precision. Although she was a member of the Société des Aquafortistes in 1862 and 1865, Frédérique Émilie O'Connell only published one etching with Cadart, a portrait of her husband dressed as a knight of the time of Louis XIII.