“Max Beckmann in New York” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket (1950), oil on canvas, 55-1/8 x 36″; The St. Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Morton D. May/All images are courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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My students, art majors all, have been complaining about the readings I’ve been assigning as of late. These handouts—essays and excerpted vignettes by writers as diverse as Ernst Gombrich, Fairfield Porter, Camille Paglia, and Robertson Davies—are intended to give students an idea of the sweeping nature of art and art-making, both within academia and out in the much vilified “real world.”The point of these readings—or one of them, anyway—is to encourage students to think beyond mere self-expression and underline that, in the end, art achieves its own wily independence. The complaint is that the handouts are dispiriting. This response is prompted, in part, by the dawning realization—a realization that gains in intensity the closer graduation approaches—that the artist’s life is a tough row to hoe. There’s the cost of studio space in New York City, the vagaries of commerce, the niceties of keeping a roof over one’s head and, not least, the state of the world. What is the worth of art in an age of economic freefall, rampant terrorism, unceasing wars, and distracting technologies? Positivity of some sort would seem to be in order.

And then I found just the reading during an attempt at clearing out my bookshelves. Pulling out a dusty copy of Theories of Modern Art, Herschel B. Chipp’s indispensable compendium of statements, manifestos, and observations by artists, critics, and sundry outliers, I opened it to a random page. There I read that “art is creative for the sake of realization, not for amusement; for transfiguration, not for the sake of play.” The writer continues:

There are two worlds: the world of spiritual life and the world of political reality. Both are manifestations of life which may sometimes coincide but are very different in principle. I must leave it to you to decide what is the more important.

What follows is an avowal, albeit a quixotic one, of art’s primacy in the face of devastation—written, no less, by a refugee fleeing a culture upended by a group of demagogues bent on world domination, ethnic purity, and with few qualms about the cost these goals might take in human life. “Human sympathy and understanding must be reinstated . . . in the midst of a boundless world turmoil.” “On My Painting,” a 1938 lecture by the German artist Max Beckmann, carries with it echoes of life, here, in the twenty-first century.

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Max Beckmann, Family Picture (1920), oil on canvas, 22-5/8 x 39-13″;The Museum of Modern Art

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Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Beckmann’s art knows that it doesn’t trade in easy optimism. There are sunnier exemplars for artists seeking a reason to keep on keepin’ on. Beckmann’s densely packed compositions are, after all, visited by nightmarish visions marked by displacement, violence, and anomie. Torture is a commonplace and claustrophobia the rule. Chronology is over-turned; historical touchstones shuffled. Myth permeates the proceedings, as does the theater. Mummers, harlots, royalty, and socialites engage in ritualistic narratives whose meaning remains occluded even as they take on grave momentum. If Beckmann’s hybrids of man and beast aren’t quite as elastic as those of Hieronymus Bosch or Francesco Goya, it’s indicative less of a lack of imagination than of an age in which faith was supplanted by doubt. Then there are the numerous self-portraits. Beckmann is pictured as ever confrontational, his terse slip of a mouth evincing a temperament hostile to, if not unamused by, nonsense. They are among the most daunting portraits in the history of art.

It came as a shock, then, to encounter a photo of an early version of Self-Portrait with Horn (1938) reproduced in the catalogue accompanying “Max Beckmann in New York.” Originally owned by Beckmann’s friend Stephan Lackner, the author and collector, the painting has since been acquired by, and become a staple of, the Neue Galerie, the museum of Germanic art located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. On the occasion of its 2008 exhibition, “Max Beckmann: Self- Portrait with Horn,” I commented on the picture’s “silence”:

Beckmann brings to the horn a weird kind of vulnerability and pathos. Seeming to strain under its own ineffectuality, the horn arcs toward us with something approaching desperation.

It’s hard to believe that an image haunted by an indelible mix of skepticism and sobriety was once light-hearted. But there it is, in not-so-vivid black-and-white: Beckmann smiling. Why was the image transformed, and in no small way? Sabine Rewald, the Met’s Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator for Modern Art and organizer of “Max Beckmann in New York,” conjectures that “confronting his so relentlessly cheerful self every day in the studio must have irritated [the artist].” As it stands, Self-Portrait with Horn is a powerhouse, even by Beckmann’s rigorous standards.

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Max  Beckmann, Paris Society (1925/1931/1947), oil on canvas, 43 x 69-1/8″; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY

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The Neue Galerie painting is one of seven self-portraits viewers encounter upon entering “Max Beckmann in New York.” As opening gambits go, it’s pretty bracing and divulges a surprising admixture of whimsy and artifice. The earliest self-portraits on display are dated 1923; the last is from 1950, the year of Beckmann’s death at sixty-six. Stylistically, Beckmann moved from softly modeled forms to flattened areas of color held in check by brushy black lines. (With the exception of Matisse, and including Picasso, no other twentieth-century painter employed black with as much dexterity or nuance.) Beckmann is revealed to have been more of a showman than some of us previously thought. Cognizant of the status conferred upon The Artist, Beckmann toyed with its presumptions. Whether donning a sailor suit or what looks to be a pair of pajamas, or even (and this is the giveaway) surrounding himself with circus trappings, Beckmann engages in a hugely underplayed form of self-deprecation. His “disdain for people was considerable,” wrote a journalist taking note of the artist in the early twenties, but “under his prickly shell he concealed a highly vulnerable sensitivity, one that he sometimes mockingly exposed.”

The impetus for “Max Beckmann in New York” is Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket, the afore-mentioned canvas from 1950. Painted during the winter and spring of that year, Beckmann depicted himself as being more vigorous and virile than the rumpled figure seen in photographs of the time. The stony visage and ever-present cigarette we know about, but Beckmann’s torso swells upward like those of the warriors seen on the red Attic vases of ancient Greece, heroic images from which he took inspiration. The painting isn’t without its well-played ironies: an insomniac suffering from heart ailments and given to anxiety should be allowed some license when translating physical frailty into pictorial muscle. Beckmann’s health gave out on the corner of Sixty-ninth Street and Central Park West–he died of a heart attack on the way to see “American Painting 1950,” an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among that show’s featured attractions? Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket. The story is poignant (as Ms. Rewald notes), but am I alone in feeling that the artist might have derived a grim pleasure in its you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up circumstances?

Beckmann’s time as a New Yorker was brief: sixteen months. The road to the city was circuitous. Born in Leipzig in 1884, he studied at the Weimar Academy as a teenager and subsequently made his way to Berlin. Beckmann was ambitious from the get-go, setting himself up against the Old Masters he revered. (Early on, a critic described him as the “German Delacroix,” an appellation that must have been the source of no small pride for the young painter.) Beckmann was attuned to contemporary trends in art as well, taking note of the paintings by his countryman Louis Corinth, as well as those by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Renown came early for Beckmann and continued after his stint as a medic during the First World War. He was discharged from the army due to exhaustion—PTSD in contemporary parlance—and who can wonder that the work became caustic, blunt, and forbidding? His success as a painter and teacher came to a halt with the advent of National Socialism. The Nazis tarred Beckmann as a “cultural Bolshevik” and “degenerate.” He fled to Holland with his second wife, Mathilde, known by the nickname Quappi. After ten years squirreled away in Amsterdam, Beckmann and Quappi were granted visas to the United States in 1947. They settled first in St. Louis and then New York.

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Max Beckmann, center panel of Beginning (1949), oil on canvas, 69 x 59″; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide de Groot

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“Max Beckmann in New York” includes fourteen paintings Beckmann created while living in the city, along with twenty-five works borrowed from New York collections. The show is by no means a retrospective, but it’s a reasonably full accounting all the same. The pictures span thirty years and include Beckmann’s best-known work: the magisterial Departure (1932–33), a triptych that has long been a mainstay of The Museum of Modern Art. This format was a favorite of Beckmann’s, recalling, as it did, Renaissance altarpieces. Among the highlights of the Met’s own collection is Beginning (1946–49), a triptych begun while Beckmann was exiled in Holland. A meditation on childhood (the original title was, in fact, L’Enfance), the work is beyond the bounds of rational analysis, particularly the crammed-to-the-rafters center panel in which, among much else, a sultry Amazon blows bubbles, a clown skulks in an alcove, and a cat wearing army boots is suspended, upside-down, from the ceiling. Beckmann was adamant that his art leave the studio with its mysteries intact. Responding to an American dealer who asked if a picture could be, you know, explained—presumably to aid in marketing—Beckmann ordered him to “take the picture away or send it back.”

New York City offered the kind of spectacle this most cosmopolitan of artists thrived on: “All in all, New York represents the most extreme case of grotesque gigantism until now achieved by mankind. It suits me just fine.” It’s odd that Beckmann never painted the city, at least directly. The Met show includes pictures of Frankfurt, Oakland, and San Francisco—but Manhattan? It’s seen only tangentially in Cafe Interior with Mirror-Play (1949), a vertiginous depiction of the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, and Plaza (Hotel Lobby) (1950), a favorite watering hole of Beckmann’s. Ms. Rewald posits The Town (City Night) (1950) as an “‘homage’ to nocturnal New York,” taking as her cue the image of an envelope addressed to “Mr M Beckmann New York USA” located at the lower left of the canvas. It’s a reasonable supposition given the painting’s kaleidoscopic jumble and clash of cultural references. Beckmann was a devotee of New York nightlife—the clubs, dives, and stage shows in which “vulgarity reigned.” It’s an appropriately noisy picture, but not one of Beckmann’s finest efforts. The composition doesn’t quite hold true; it heaves and stutters, and the juxtapositions in scale are clunky and cramped. Over the top by even the standards of a sturdy fabulist, The Town (City Night) is a mish-mosh of demons, troubadours, commissars, phallic symbols, and, in dead center, a bound female nude. Sometimes splendid excess is less than splendid.

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Max Beckmann, Quappi in Grey (1948), oil on canvas, 42-1/2 x 31-1/8″; Private Collection, NY

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Among the most striking aspects of Beckmann’s vision is that, notwithstanding his meditations on human folly and vice, it never descends into nihilism or despair. The paintings bristle and bump with appetite—for life’s absurdities, absolutely, but primarily for life itself. It’s worth mentioning that a number of Beckmann pictures concern themselves with everyday epiphanies—the ocean as seen from a hotel terrace; the forest surrounding a university town; an untended corner of the studio; and his beloved Quappi, whose handsome countenance appears repeatedly in the oeuvre. The center panel of Departure has famously—and rightfully—been cited as a marker of Beckmann’s holistic worldview. Blue skies and family, the painting would seem to suggest, sustain us in the midst of history’s cruelest turns. It’s no surprise that Beckmann disliked being lumped in with the Expressionists: self-pity and narcissism were antithetical to the “fullness, roundness, and the vitally pulsing” to which he aspired. The stern and heady embrace of “essential things” is palpable throughout “Max Beckmann in New York,” and is but one reason we should look to this demanding artist as a guidepost in our troubled times.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the December 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

Unclassifiable, Florid and Frustrating: The Art of William Scharf

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William Scharf, The Giver Threatened (1993), acrylic on canvas, 68 x 77″; courtesy Hollis-Taggart Galleries

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The following review was originally published in the February 16, 2004 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “William Scharf: Imagining the Actual“, an exhibition that recently closed at Hollis-Taggart Galleries.

The last time New Yorkers had the opportunity to see the paintings of William Scharf was a couple of years back when they were included in “Painting Report; Plane: The Essential of Painting”, an exhibition of four artists seen at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center–MoMA. Mr. Scharf didn’t make much of an impression. His large, floating conglomerations of biomorphic blips were pleasantly out of place amid the surrounding clatter typical of the Long Island City institution. The paintings came off as tepid rehashes of the sort of Jungian pictograph produced in Manhattan in the middle of the last century. It seemed obvious that Mr. Scharf had been included in the exhibition as a favor to a friend, as an exercise in curatorial privilege–artistic talent had nothing to do with it.

Or so I supposed. Upon encountering Mr. Scharf’s recent pictures, on display at the Richard York Gallery, I did a whiplash-inducing double take. Was this the same William Scharf? The Surrealist-inspired mood was vaguely familiar, but that was about it. Nothing prepared me for the lurid pull of the paintings, the velvety palette and glowing, spongy light. Each image is a languid collision of contradictory events. Blissful biomorphs and invasive geometry; arid surfaces and livid color; open atmosphere and confined spaces; Symbolist reverie and visceral excess–there’s no getting a hold of these paintings. They keep shifting and transforming right under your gaze. They don’t sit still.

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William Scharf, The Sigh Weapons (2002-06), acrylic on canvas, 56 x 32″; courtesy Hollis-Taggart Galleries

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They don’t always sit well, either. Mr. Scharf refuses to square the belligerent elements that populate the paintings. Each canvas clunks along like the hodgepodge it is. Like other artists with a mystical bent–William Blake, say, or Arthur Dove and William Baziotes–Mr. Scharf is intent on tapping into otherworldly forces; tightening composition is a lesser priority. Mr. Scharf cuts a fascinating figure: He’s unclassifiable, florid, frustrating–and not in need of favors. I recommend the art and, more so, the artist. We should all be so singular and true.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Stubbornly Independent: Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait With Horn (1938), oil on canvas, 43-1/2″ x 39-3/4″; courtesy The Neue Galerie

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The following review was originally published in the August 5, 2008 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of “Max Beckmann in New York“, an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. My review of that exhibition will be appearing in the December 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

Felix Nussbaum’s Self in Concentration Camp (1940), a painting included in the exhibition Max Beckmann: Self-Portrait With Horn at the Neue Galerie, is as bleak as the title implies. Wearing a wool cap, a tattered jacket and a lean beard, the artist looks askance with steely distrust. In the background, a figure defecates into a large metal can. There’s barbed wire, a sky the color of steel wool and an air of Boschian portent.

Bosch’s hell couldn’t compare with Hitler’s. While studying in Rome, Nussbaum, a German Jew, heard Hitler’s minister of propaganda advocate for the Nazi ideal of art; Nussbaum realized soon enough that neither he nor his paintings fit the standard. Nussbaum spent the majority of the war in hiding, continuing to paint, and ultimately died in Auschwitz at the age of 39. Self in Concentration Camp has the awful clarity of a foregone conclusion.

Nussbaum’s painting is diverting enough to make one curious as to what else he did. It’s included in the Neue Galerie exhibition to provide a sense of social and artistic context. There are paintings, drawings and prints—all portraits—by other Beckmann contemporaries as well, but none can equal the brooding power of Self-Portrait with Horn, not even the magisterially detached Self-Portrait in Front of Red Curtain (1923) by the man himself. As for the rest: Heinrich Hoerle, Georg Scholz, Ludwig Meidner, Otto Dix and George Grosz are little more than historical wallpaper. Beckmann thunders through the gallery.

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Felix Nussbaum, Self-Portrait in Concentration Camp (1940), oil on wood, 52.5 x 41.5 cm.; courtesy The Neue Galerie, NY

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Beckmann (1884-1950) achieved early success; a self-portrait of the time depicts an unctuous talent with a glib hand for self-aggrandizement.

The First World War put an end to Beckmann the Dandy. He suffered a nervous collapse while serving as a medical orderly on the Belgian front. The paintings that followed his recovery were cramped and muscular dioramas rife with bizarre symbols and occluded narratives. Amalgams of the city, the torture chamber, the Garden of Eden, the circus and the King’s tribunal, Beckmann’s world held an unsparing mirror to the horrors and absurdities of the 20th century.

Beckmann kept a skeptical distance from Modernism—the past weighed too heavily for him to fully embrace radical innovation—but that’s not to say he wasn’t interested. Certainly, Beckmann took inspiration from Matisse’s subtle elisions of color and line. But mostly he was stubbornly independent.

Beckmann lumbered through history, fascinated with the eternal ubiquity of humankind’s foibles, illusions and cruelties. Myth haunted his art, as did a florid sense of purpose: Each person must go through life with the knowledge of, as Beckmann put it, “the murder everyone commits … [Y]ou can never rid yourself of your past, you must carry the corpse along, and Life beats the drum.”

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Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait With A Saxophone (1930), oil on canvas, 140.5 x 69.5 cm.; courtesy Kunsthalle, Bremen, Germany

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Beckmann was modern enough for the Nazis to peg him as degenerate. Over 20 of his paintings were included in “Entarte Kunst (Degenerate Art),” the infamous 1937 exhibition mounted expressly to ridicule modern “Jewish” and “Bolshevik” art. A self-described “good German,” Beckmann was bewildered by the rise of National Socialism and conflicted about leaving his home country. But on the opening night of “Entarte Kunst,” he and his wife, Quappi, took a train to Amsterdam, where they would live in exile for the next 10 years. It was there that Beckmann painted Self Portrait with Horn.

We see Beckmann from the waist up, standing slightly off center. He wears an orange and black patterned robe. His right hand reaches up tentatively. His left grasps a white horn. To the right is a red and black bar—a curtain, maybe, or a canvas—that puts us at a distinct remove. A mirror frames his grand pate. Beckmann’s mouth is set with grim determination. His expression is a mix of suspicion, fear and curiosity. Rarely has isolation been rendered as airless and monumental.

The horn is a recurring motif in Beckmann’s art, and its symbolic import is clear even as its meaning is elusive. Writing in the catalog, art historian Jill Lloyd chases down associations and comes up with a provocatively inclusive jumble. There’s sex, of course—Jung is dragged in for a passing reflection on the horn as both a penetrating object and a receptacle—but also memento mori, a Courbet hunting scene, an instrument to summon “conscience and attention,” a gramophone, a clown’s prop and, oh yes, music.

The most disconcerting thing about Self-Portrait with Horn is its silence.Beckmann brings to the horn a weird kind of vulnerability and pathos. Seeming to strain under its own ineffectuality, the horn arcs toward us with something approaching desperation. There’s something fast and mean in how the red and black drape obscures it. Beckmann admired the Courbet painting for its “beautiful clear triumph.” Whatever triumph exists in the stunted space in which the artist and the horn are imprisoned has been rendered moot. It’s a harsh and lonely picture.

Ms. Lloyd likens the Beckmann self-portrait to those of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. The German’s vision was too wide-ranging to settle for Vincent’s narrow self-involvement. Though less charitable than Rembrandt, Beckmann was equally honest, introspective and incisive. The 300 year or so gap between Rembrandt and Beckmann is virtually extinguished by shared conviction, authority and moral truth. What would an exhibition exploring their commonalities reveal? The Neue Galerie could do worse than attempt an answer.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the August 5, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

“Material Polyphony” at Pratt Institute’s Schafler Gallery

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I’m pleased that two of my recent paintings will be on display at Schafler Gallery, located on the Brooklyn campus of Pratt Institute.

“diane arbus: in the beginning” at The Met Breuer, New York.

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Installation of “diane arbus: in the beginning” at The Met Breuer; courtesy photoinduced

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Let’s get the 800-pound gorilla out of the way. “diane arbus: in the beginning”—the lack of capitalization isn’t a typo, but a stylistic choice made by the grammarians at the Met Breuer—is a notable exhibition for a variety of reasons, not least its installation. Viewers expecting a polite array of photographs—arranged chronologically, perhaps, or by theme—can look elsewhere. Nor should they count on continuous wall space. Jeff Rosenheim, the Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs, has opted to display the work on several rows of floor-to-ceiling panels set apart four feet or so; each panel has a single image displayed on both sides. The placement of photos is catch-as-catch-can, presumably to emphasize the open-ended nature of an artist working at the beginning of her career. This hall- of-mirrors approach is a distraction—what with the back-and-forth of museumgoers and our own shuttling around to get a lone peek at an Arbus picture. If Rosenheim’s intent was to establish a museological parallel with the borderline figures to whom Arbus was drawn, well—point taken. Still, isn’t a curator’s job to highlight an oeuvre rather than compete with it?

Arbus will survive the slight. How could she not? The oeuvre is cloistered and complete; it’s sharp, stark, and discordant enough to withstand extra-aesthetic intrusions. That’s certainly the case with the Arbus most of us are familiar with: the unsentimental-bordering-on-cruel chronicler of pock-marked patriots, Jewish giants, drag queens, and, in the case of Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (1962), a boy being a boy in the most strenuous of manners. At the Met Breuer, maturity takes a backseat to the artist in formation. The hundred or so prints on display date from 1956–1962 and mark Arbus’s shift from commercial artist—she and her husband, Allan, had established themselves, and not unsuccessfully, as fashion photographers—to full-time fine artist. The majority of works are being exhibited for the first time. (Many weren’t inventoried until a good decade after Arbus’s suicide in 1971 at the age of forty-eight.) The pictures—a promised gift to the Met by the artist’s daughters, Doon and Amy—are a significant find and, in the end, not that revelatory. Arbus, we learn, was ever thus. “in the beginning” only goes to confirm a consistent and unseemly vision.

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Diane Arbus, Jack Dracula at a bar (1961), gelatin silver print on paper; courtesy The Met Breuer

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And unseemly the work most assuredly is. If it weren’t, Arbus would be a less compelling figure; less popular, too. Rosenheim demurs, excerpting one of Arbus’s high-school essays that extols “the divineness in ordinary things.” He goes on to mention a list of P.C. nostrums that testify to the artist’s continuing relevance. And, sure, matters of “identity, gender, race, appearance and the distinctions between artifice and reality” are decisive components of Arbus’s fascinations. But the divine? When Arbus took her camera into Hubert’s Museum, a Times Square venue that trucked in human oddities, God’s light was the last thing on her mind. The oddball and eccentric, outcasts both voluntary and not—Arbus was drawn to marginal types and catalogued them with unrelenting dispassion. She was equally at home, and just as pitiless, in more respectable climes. Arbus brought the same fierce intensity to a fur-bedecked matron riding a city bus as to Hezekiah Trambles, a Hubert’s Museum regular known by his stage name “The Jungle Creep.” The lens through which Arbus’s eye alighted on the world brought along its own encompassing seediness. Arbus didn’t need a freak show to prove how freakish the mundane could be.

The unsavoriness of Arbus’s work is offset, at rare moments, by a grudging humanity. The title figure of Miss Storme de Larverie, the Lady Who Appears to be a Gentleman, N.Y.C. radiates dignity just as the elaborately tattooed Jack Dracula at a bar (both 1961) admits to vulnerability. These particular subjects thwarted the artist’s ministrations; the photos aren’t failures of aesthetic integrity, but they are exceptions to the Arbus rule. (Some personalities, it would seem, are stronger than art.) In one of her many notebooks, Arbus wrote that “the mistake is to think that people are sealed and absolute.” This is what separates her from August Sander, the German documentarian whose goal it was to inventory all strata of society, and whose photos were a pivotal influence. Arbus’s art admits to a certain elasticity, particularly when it came to social conventions and unspoken rules of deportment. But like Sander—whose photos, alongside those of Arbus’s contemporaries, can be seen in an adjacent gallery—Arbus is, if not a formalist per se, then uncompromisingly formal in her pictorial means. If anything redeems the mercilessness of her vision, it’s that kind of know-how. Let’s hear it for art for art’s sake.

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Tod Papageorge, Diane Arbus in Central Park (1967); courtesy the artist

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The Met Breuer underlines Arbus’s know-how by including, albeit at a distinct remove, A Box of Ten Photographs, a suite of photos Arbus compiled and marketed in the early 1970s. A veritable greatest hits of imagery and motifs, the Box stands in stark contrast to the main body of the exhibition, primarily by format and focus. What separated Arbus’s forays into street photography—that is to say, the corpus of the exhibition—from similar efforts by Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander was a lack of subterfuge: her subjects knew they were being photographed. When Arbus moved from a 35 millimeter Nikon to a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex, the shift in technology allowed for more meticulous resolution, as well as the signature square format and less spontaneity. The latter attribute, especially, accounts for the queasy stateliness of Arbus’s strongest work. No off-the-cuff shooting with the Rolleiflex; deliberation, on the part of both the photographer and her subjects, was called for. Posing—along with the artifice it implies—was key. Self-consciousness powers A Box of Ten Photographs, and its persistence is missing, if not absent, from the better part of “in the beginning.” As such, the exhibition goes down easier than one might expect, and perturbs all the same.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the September 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

“Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling” at The Walters Art Museum

 

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Manuscript formerly used as a book cover: German, Two Leaves from the Mirror of Human Salvation (late 14th century), ink and pigments on medium weight, cream-colored parchment, 12-3/16 x 9″; courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

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“Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling” isn’t much of an exhibition in terms of scale. Rounding out at twenty-four items, most of which are bantam in size and many being fragments, “Waste Not” doesn’t even merit anti-blockbuster status, squirreled away, as it is, in a side gallery. Then again, who would want spectacle-for-spectacle’s-sake at an institution as quixotic as this one? The Walters is a world-class museum and claims a healthy share of masterworks—credit goes to its founding collectors, the iron magnate William Thompson Walters (1820–1894) and his son Henry (1848–1931). Yet the appeal of the museum has less to do with star attractions than with an overriding and idiosyncratic catholicism. Does any single of work at the Walters register as forcefully as its wunderkammern: kaleidoscopic installations of paintings, sculpture, furniture, arms, armor, taxidermied animals, fossils, you-name-it–we-got-it? The Walters’ impressive array of works by Delacroix can barely muster the will to compete with such splendid excess.

“Waste Not” is of a piece with the Walters ethos; that is to say, it’s both encompassing and highly specialized. To get an idea of just how specialized, consider the source of the show’s opening quote: the third-century theologian Clement of Alexandria, not exactly a household name. In the fourteenth chapter of Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, a tract that takes heedless wealth to task, Clement advises that “riches, then, which benefit also our neighbors are not to be thrown away . . . they are useful and provided by God for the use of men.” Lynley Anne Herbert, the Robert and Nancy Hall Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, picks up Clement’s ball and runs with it, linking his notion of usefulness to concerns about “our planet’s limited resources.” (One can almost hear the public relations folks at the Walters breathing a collective sigh of thanks for a marketable angle.) “Waste Not” addresses not only material scarcity, but how that scarcity is transformed, as well as elaborated upon, because of significant changes in culture. There’s big stuff afoot in this small exhibition.

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Venetian, Colossal Head in the Guise of Hercules (2nd Century/re-worked 14th century), marble, 18-3/16 X 15-5/16″; courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

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Chief among them being the advent and rise of Christianity. Among the most notable pieces in “Waste Not” is a second-century marble bust of Hercules that was re-carved some twelve hundred years later to represent a Biblical figure—who it might be isn’t certain—for the baptistery in Florence, whence it was excavated. The shift in symbolism wasn’t merely contextual. Christian artisans augmented the mythical strongman, presumably investing (or disguising) him with up-to-date spiritual significance; just how this was achieved through the relatively ham-handed re-drilling of Hercules’ hair is a good question. Elsewhere, the god Pan, he of the goat horns and hindquarters, is seen on a gold cameo over which a quote from Psalm Twenty-Six—“Lord, my Light and my Savior, whom shall I fear?”—was superimposed a millennium later. Other transformations we know about not through image or text, but through connoisseurship and chemistry. Turns out that a shard of blue enamel from a thirteenth-century Cross of the Mourning Virgin employed Roman glassware. As might have already been surmised, the exhibition labels, so often an annoyance, are a necessity here.

How else would we know that portraits of the original donors featured in a Dutch Book of Hours had been all but obliterated when the manuscript was acquired, down the line, by another family? Altering works of art is likely to strike twenty-first-century sensibilities as somewhat brutish, but it was standard practice during medieval times. Certainly, the role and reputation of the artist was less hallowed and, as such, art didn’t carry the hands-off imprimatur we experience today. Fair is fair, particularly for craftsmen with limited resources. In a recent interview, Herbert likened the melding of cultures and eras to the cut-and-paste verities of collage—a comparison that sounds relevant enough, but goes nowhere fast, particularly considering the comparative seamlessness of the objects seen at The Walters. We relish collage for its disjuncture. The medieval artisans re-imagining a painting or reliquary worked hard—or cleverly—to smooth out prohibitive discrepancies in style and import.

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Byzantine, Ring with an Intaglio of Pan (12th century), gold cameo, 1-1/6 x 1 x 1/2″; courtesy The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

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A certain degree of hyperbole is forgivable—it’s part of a curator’s job, after all—and, on the whole, Herbert has brought a nuanced sense of observation to “Waste Not”. Besides, who can resist such keen and, at times, surprising detective work? The most arresting object in the exhibition owes its existence to the want-not proclivities of medieval society, but also, in part, to dumb luck. You’d think that a 1455 edition of Aesop’s Fables, published not long after the invention of the printing press and purchased at the time at no small cost, would have its own intrinsic merits. But it’s the cover that’s the real prize—a twelfth-century page of parchment taken from an early Talmud subsequently used to protect the unbound pages of the Fables. Theory has it that the binder, having no knowledge of Aramaic, took a liking to the decorative lilt of the calligraphy and considered it choice material to work with. Whether that’s the case or not is, if not moot, then too appealing to dismiss altogether. It is within these kind of fine distinctions that “Waste Not” establishes itself as a scholarly exemplar of its kind.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published for the August 10, 2016 edition of “Dispatch”, the blog of The New Criterion.

 

 

“Excruciating to Behold”: The Art of Diane Arbus

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Diane Arbus, A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. (1962), gelatin silver print, 20″ x 16″, courtesy the Estate of Diane Arbus

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My review of “diane arbus: in the beginning”, an exhibition currently on display at The Met Breuer, will be appearing in an upcoming issue of The New Criterion. In the meantime, here’s my take on “Diane Arbus: Revelations”, a show mounted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005. The review was originally published in the March 21, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

The photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971), on the evidence of “Revelations”, a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was incapable of taking a bad picture. Each and every photograph on display is, in its own way, riveting and, for that matter, definitive.

Arbus’ photos of drag queens, Jewish giants, James Brown and acne-scarred patriots are the stuff of legend–a fact fostered, in part, by her suicide in 1971. The work has become startlingly ubiquitous. (As someone who doesn’t consider himself an Arbus aficionado, I was surprised by how many of the photographs I was familiar with.) The mere mention of her name instantly brings to mind images that are clinical, unseemly and grotesque. Arbus’ fascination with the marginal and the dispossessed, with artifice, ethnicity and sex, is part of our culture’s common currency.

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Allan Arbus, Diane Arbus (a film test), c. 1949

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Unlike August Sander or Walker Evans, two photographers without whom Arbus’ work is inconceivable, she is an identifiable type, a personality. The work, though distant, is aggressively individual. Arbus employed her subjects–however various, bizarre or banal–as a mirror to the self; she was, essentially, an expressionist. All the same, there are fine gradations to the art. A pair of photographs at the Met stand out as examples of everything that makes her a significant figure and everything that makes her a troubling artist. You can trace the sad and subtle arc of Arbus’ career from A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. (1962) to an untitled picture from 1970-71 of a woman from a “retarded school” with an attendant

Disneyland is a richly atmospheric picture. Arbus’ Disneyland is toy-like and rickety, a doll’s home, not a place for human beings. The quality of displacement is emphasized by diffuse, theatrical lighting–it’s as artificial as the title subject. Rather than commenting upon Disneyland’s cheesy allure, Arbus divines within it wisps of not unwelcome emotions. The photo has the temerity to suggest that illusions can embody longings that all of us–each of us–require to get by. Disneyland, though equivocal, is an unexpectedly merciful image.

Diane Arbus, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, New York (1970), gelatin silver print, 19-7/8″ x 16″; courtesy The Estate of Diane Arbus

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And so it is with Arbus’ early photographs devoted to burlesque comediennes, persons of indeterminate gender, human pincushions and four Santas from Albion, N.Y. In each of them, Arbus acts as an enlightened voyeur and is dispassionate in her curiosity. In the process, she engenders within the viewer acceptance, if not outright sympathy, for what are often literally freakish personages.

Almost imperceptibly, however, a sharper tone enters the work. Arbus’ photographs become willful in their focus on the extremities of type and behavior. We become conscious that her subjects are less persons to be engaged than objects for exploitation. Who is looking through the camera lens is more important than the “who” being photographed. In the process of making herself the center of attention, Arbus purges her models of individuality. They are pegs upon which to hang the prerequisites of obsession. It’s no wonder the catalog superimposes an Arbus self-portrait over a scene of New York City–the artist, not the art, is predominant.

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Diane Arbus, Untitled (7) (1970-71), gelatin silver print; courtesy The Estate of Diane Arbus

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The aforementioned photograph from 1970-71 is an example of this disconcerting phenomenon. The alarm we read in the face of the older woman as she walks with her disabled companion is heartbreaking. Open-mouthed, she jerks her head upward, rendering it a blur. Her ward looks toward Arbus (and, by fiat, us), distracted. The photographer, we realize, has violated their privacy–and, worse, their humanity. The photograph is excruciating to behold.

At some point in Arbus’ development–it’s hard to tell when, given the Met’s non-chronological installation–this dull strain of cruelty takes over and, in the end, overwhelms the work. The curators know this: That’s why the walls and lighting in the final gallery are brighter–some measure of uplift is necessary. It doesn’t work. Arbus, having come to the conclusion that life is cheap, cheapens us in the process. Walking into “Revelations”, you’re likely to think her status as a major artist is deserved. Walking out, you’ll despair that Arbus, whether through artistic choice or psychological need, had so thoroughly misapplied her gift.

© 2005 Mario Naves

“Turner’s Whaling Pictures” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

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James Mallord William Turner, Whalers (circa 1845), oil on canvas, 36-1/8″ X 48-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

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Forget what you know about Action Painting. Compared to the British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Jackson Pollock trifled in decoration, Willem de Kooning was deliberate to a fault, and Franz Kline played it safe. Has there been an artist who called into question the material properties of his art with as much ferocity and concentration? The four canvases included in “Turner’s Whaling Pictures”, as well as the suite of Turner works featured in “Unfinished,” a concurrent exhibition at Met Breuer, are marked by an astonishing painterly abandon. Scrabbled, roughhewn, and impossibly rich, the surfaces of the pictures feature any number of approaches to mark-making, all the while—and seemingly against the odds—conjuring up bracing fields of light, atmosphere, and place. As compendia of painterly incident, Turner’s work can’t help but make the surfaces of most art look like thin gruel.

Turner’s bravura is unmistakable and, for fans of painting, irresistible, but it’s not the curatorial focus here. As is hinted by the exhibition title, the virtuoso paint-handler plays second fiddle to the—well, documentarian isn’t quite the mot juste. Whaling may be the impetus for the pictures—sales, too; Turner was courting a collector whose business involved refining whale spermaceti into oil and wax—but it wasn’t the upshot, at least not explicitly. Turner embodied the spectacle inherent in a particularly hazardous sideline; still, few will look to the paintings for historical or scientific veracity. Leave that to Robert Brandard, whose Whalers in a series entitled From The Turner Gallery (1879–80), an engraving made after Turner’s oil-on-canvasHurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish! (ca. 1846), neatly underscores the distinction between factual diligence and visionary splendor. Brandard’s is a dull piece of work, cataloguing objects at the expense of drama.

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James Mallord William Turner, “Hurrah! For the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish!” (ca. 1846), oil on canvas, 35-1/2″ X 47-12″; courtesy Tate, London

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Drama was Turner’s forte; narrative, less so. That doesn’t stop Alison Hokanson, the Met’s Assistant Curator in the Department of European Paintings and the organizer of “Turner’s Whaling Pictures,” from attempting to uncover a causal link between the paintings and Moby Dick. Melville knew about Turner’s whaling pictures, though there’s no proof he actually encountered them; Turner died shortly after Melville’s masterwork was published, making it unlikely that he read it. Hokanson’s self-admitted “world of speculation” is overplayed—especially in the essay published in the Met’s spring “Bulletin”—but understandable and, in the end, no great liability. Alongside the Turners, Hokanson has included: tools of the trade (a harpoon and oil lamps); brisk and all-but-abstract watercolor studies; an 1839 edition of The Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale (a book Turner was conversant with); and, yes, a copy of Moby Dick, from which is displayed an illustration of the great white whale by Rockwell Kent.

Kent put the whale front and center, but good luck gleaning the animal in question from the Turner paintings. Only Whalers (ca. 1845), from the Met’s own collection, presents a whale with any clarity, and then just barely. The dense gray blur rearing its mountainous bulk at bottom left, seen only fleetingly, confirms that the paintings function more as verbs than as nouns. Were it not for an accompanying wall label, would viewers be able to discern the whale in another canvas titled Whalers, this one from London’s Tate? Probably not, but there it is, a blur of misty gray and dull pink—the latter being evidence that the whalers’ harpoon has hit its mark. In an earlier watercolor, Turner gives us a more concrete view of the whale, but, still, the emphasis is on the manner in which it dives into the waters. The whale, in Turner’s hands, is an unknowable force of nature. Lack of definition adds to its terrifying majesty.Turner 3.jpg

James Mallord William Turner, Wreck on the Goodwin Sands: Sunset (circa 1845), watercolor and graphite, with black chalk on paper, 9-1/8″ X 13-1/8″; courtesy The Morgan Library and Museum, Bequest of Miss Alice Tully

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It seems fitting, then, that Turner was something of a furtive presence in the art world of nineteenth-century Britain. The most charming item included in “Turner’s Whaling Pictures” is The Fallacy of Hope (1851), a lithographic portrait-cum-caricature of Turner by Alfred Guillaume Gabriel. (The title is taken from Turner’s self-stated postulate on the perils of art-making.) The original sketch was done at a social event and without the subject’s knowledge; Turner was notoriously reluctant to sit himself down for a proper portrait. Seen stirring a cup of tea, Turner stands to the side, taking in his surroundings with an air of sharp bemusement. The art critic John Ruskin, having heard about this “coarse, boorish, unintellectual, [and] vulgar” figure, ultimately found Turner to be a “somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English gentleman”. One might quibble with “gentleman”; if anything, Gabriel’s fond portrayal is something altogether more prole-ish. Otherwise, Ruskin pretty much hits the mark. Contrary to what the man himself believed, the Met’s exhibition proves that hope, when coupled by a huge talent, can pay off when it comes to the making of art.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published for the July 6, 2016 edition of “Dispatch”, the blog of The New Criterion.

“Munch and Expressionism” at The Neue Galerie, New York

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Edvard Munch, The Scream (1895), pastel and board on the original frame; courtesy The Neue Galerie, New York

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Is there any pocket of culture that isn’t conversant with, if not the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944) himself, then his signature canvas The Scream? Few images have filtered through the popular imagination with as much persistence. Like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and Alberto Gorda’s photograph of Che Guevara, Munch’s paean to psychological distress has been honored, quoted, and parodied; it’s proven infinitely parrot-able. Here in the twenty-first century, The Scream has been co-opted by the digital zeitgeist: those who send bad news electronically can do so with an emoji dubbed “Face Screaming in Fear.” Given the contemporary prevalence of Munch’s image, it comes as a surprise to learn that The Scream didn’t have the same currency during the artist’s lifetime. In a radio interview, Jill Lloyd, the co-curator with Reinhold Heller of “Munch and Expressionism,” stated that our reigning emblem of hellish anxiety didn’t gain traction until after Munch’s death. That The Scream continues to resonate with audiences says much about the primal emotions it embodies.

Munch did four variations of The Scream, as well as a suite of prints; the best known of these, an oil on canvas from 1893, is the star attraction of The National Gallery in Oslo. That painting, it should be noted, is not on view at The Neue Galerie. The version of The Scream squirreled away in a side gallery of “Munch and Expressionism” was done in pastel two years later and is more stylized and less discordant. It is, in so many words, fairly underwhelming, but it does serve, albeit inadvertently, a curatorial purpose: to place Munch in a historical context that extends beyond a single iconographic picture. In the catalogue, Lloyd states that while Vincent Van Gogh “is justly deemed a precursor or ‘father’ of Expressionism, Munch, by contrast, inspired and participated in the movement.” Munch’s notoriety in Germany helped kick-start Expressionism. An exhibition of his work held at the Verein Berliner Künstler in 1892 garnered the kind of press best measured in column inches, not praise. Roundly drubbed as a “mockery of art,” the show was shuttered before the closing date due to the controversy it generated. Munch was pleased by this turn of events; the scandal was “the best advertisement I could have hoped for.” He subsequently made Germany his home for sixteen years.

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Erich Heckel, Girl with Doll (Fränzi) (1910), oil on canvas; courtesy The Neue Galerie, New York

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Playing upon his newfound fame, Munch organized a series of German exhibitions that helped solidify his outré reputation among a local cadre of forward-thinking patrons, critics, and collectors. Munch’s status was codified by the critic Julius Meier-Graefe, who featured him alongside Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in Modern Art, a 1904 text that served as a touchstone for the burgeoning Expressionist movement and, especially, the painters of Die Brücke. This group of Dresden-based artists—its members included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, and Emil Nolde—shared “similar yearning[s]” with Munch, and repeatedly invited the older artist to participate in its annual exhibitions. Munch demurred every time. These rebuffs did little to staunch Die Brücke’s admiration, though you can’t help but wonder why Munch held himself apart. Arne Eggum, an art historian and the former director of The Munch Museum, conjectures that Munch had his eye on establishing a reputation in Paris—Dresden being a veritable Podunk in comparison to the City of Light. Munch and the Expressionists wouldn’t be exhibited together in Germany until 1912, at which point the Norwegian had returned to his native land.

“Munch and Expressionism” makes no bones about mixing-and-matching the recalcitrant master with his progeny. Divided into sections according to specific motifs—among them, “Portraits,” “Adolescence,” “Experiments in Printmaking,” and that reliable chestnut “Battle Between the Sexes”—Munch’s art is placed alongside that of Die Brücke, as well as pictures by Egon Schiele, Gabriel Munter, Oskar Kokoschka, and the uncategorizable Max Beckmann. The inevitable comparisons aren’t revelatory—at least, for those conversant with the by-ways of twentieth century art—but they are satisfyingly predictable. Nor do they always favor Munch. In the “Urban Scenes” portion of the show, Munch is overshadowed by Kirchner, whose Street Dresden (1908) retains its punch some hundred years after the fact. Its acidic palette and lava-like rhythms make Munch canvases like Midsummer Night’s Eve (1901–03) and The Book Family (1901) look woefully polite. Admittedly, the exhibition doesn’t include Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892), a moody canvas that is a precursor to The Scream and a Munch masterpiece. A lithographic take on Karl Johan Street at The Neue Galerie has much to recommend to it, but even on the attenuated evidence found in “Munch and Expressionism,” it’s clear that Munch was far more innovative as a printmaker than as a painter.

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Richard Gerstl, Self-Portrait in Front of a Stove (1907), oil on canvas on board; courtesy of The Neue Galerie, New York

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Truth be told, Munch remained very much a nineteenth-century painter until the end of his life. An inherent parochialism both powered his vision and prevented a full reckoning with Modernism. Post-Impressionism clearly threw him for a loop, and his experiments with its pictorial liberties are ham-handed when they aren’t over-heated. (Lord only knows what he made of Cubism and its offshoots.) The artist we see in pictures like Christian Gierloff (1909), Puberty (1914–16), and Bathing Man (1918) is wildly out of his depth: pictorial space warps-and-woofs with no discernible purpose, the palette turns muddy when it doesn’t chalk out altogether, and the brushwork flails where previously it had snuck up on the images with a brooding, understated sensuality. The post-1900 canvases, even the much-lauded self-portrait The Night Wanderer (1923–24), are enough of a mish-mosh to make a minor figure like Erich Heckel seem a contender. And then there’s the Austrian painter Richard Gerstl, dead by his own hand at the age of twenty-five: his canvases all but steal the spotlight of “Munch and Expressionism.” His was a powerhouse talent and is too little known. The name “Gerstl” may not generate the same buzz or box office as “Munch,” but this is a museum with the means and institutional interest to organize an overview of the work. Who knows? That exhibition may be a revelation.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the June 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

“Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, February 15–May 15, 2016

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Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-portrait (1790), oil on canvas, 39-3/8 x 31-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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“Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” is a fascinating exhibition for reasons made plain by its title. Gender and context shouldn’t be the ultimate arbiters for why we value an artist, but they are inescapable factors when considering Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842). Much like Artemisia Gentileschi, another figure beloved by those who view the history of art through the lens of political correctness, Vigée Le Brun is an anomaly: a painter—and a successful one, at that—working at a time when women weren’t encouraged to pursue a career in the arts. It helped that Vigée Le Brun was to the studio born: her father, Louis Vigée, was a society portraitist and provided lessons at home. “You will be a painter, my child, or never will there be one” may be a statement indicative of paternal bias, but Vigée Le Brun’s talent was evident early on. Jeanne Maissin, the artist’s mother, pushed Vigée Le Brun to undertake more formal studies as a means of combating the depression she underwent upon the death of her father in 1767. Trips to the Louvre were supplemented by guidance from Gabriel François Doyen and Joseph Vernet, painters of considerable repute.

Maissin provided working space at home as well as financial support. But Vigée Le Brun achieved significant notice even as a teenager and helped supplement the family’s income through portrait commissions. After the studio was shut down by authorities in 1774—Vigée Le Brun had been operating without a license—the artist gained admittance to the Académie de Saint-Luc, an association guaranteeing a level of prestige, as well as that the studio remained open. Two years later she married Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, a distant cousin who had studied with François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and earned his keep as an art dealer. It was a difficult union. Vigée Le Brun realized fairly quickly that her husband’s appetite for collecting superseded the niceties of the bottom line. Le Brun couldn’t hold on to money. In recompense, he attempted to boost his wife’s reputation, hiking the prices of the work above those of her contemporaries. But Le Brun’s sway paled next to that of Marie Antoinette. How could it not? The young queen had a decisive if, ultimately, tumultuous effect on Vigée Le Brun’s art and life.

Marie Antoinette in Court Dress (1778) isn’t the first painting viewers encounter upon entering the exhibition, but its impact makes swift work of the surrounding pictures. Commissioned as a gift for the queen’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, this monumental showpiece codifies the requisite hauteur but, more so, evinces an ambitious artist eager to please. And please Vigée Le Brun most certainly did. The Empress was delighted with the canvas, and Marie Antoinette, having run through a disappointing series of portraitists, finally found a painter who did not “drive me to despair.” Marie Antoinette in Court Dress isn’t very good—its elision of pictorial space is vague when it isn’t flat-footed, and the attention to texture inconsistent—but as a piece of theater, it’s a tour-de-force, particularly for an artist who was all of twenty-two years of age. Indeed, one of the pleasures of “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France” is watching Vigée Le Brun develop while on the job, gaining surety in her rendering of the human form and pulling off portraits that are, in their attention to detail and character, more than documents of a doomed aristocracy.

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Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787), oil on canvas, 108-1/4 x 85-1/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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By the time we reach Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) at the show’s midpoint, Vigée Le Brun has become a deeper artist in terms of skill and mood. A greater intimacy with her subjects, particularly the queen, accounts for the air of tender sobriety suffusing its portrayal of a mother and her three children. Here, Marie Antoinette is less a coquettish figurine seemingly molded from porcelain than a flesh-and-blood woman humbled by motherhood. (An empty bassinet at the right of the composition signifies the death of a fourth child.) Though the children are too moppet-like by half, Vigée Le Brun brought an unnerving degree of self-awareness and introspection to the gaze of Marie Antoinette. Vigée Le Brun would never altogether shed a brittleness of affect—the conventionality of her settings is a nagging constant—but the painterly approach became more fluid and precise. Rubens was a pivotal influence, and one can intuit his sensuality and esprit in the silky brushwork of Comtesse de la Châtre (1789) and the comic eroticism of Madame Dugazon in the Role of “Nina” (1787). Vigée Le Brun doesn’t achieve the heights set by the Flemish Master, but neither does she suffer from the comparison—at least, that is, in her finest efforts.

The finest of them all is the justifiably iconic Self-Portrait (1790). Political turmoil at home caused Vigée Le Brun to flee France in 1789; close association with the recently imprisoned queen did not, to put it mildly, put her in good stead with the revolution. Setting up shop in Rome, Vigée Le Brun was asked by the Uffizi to contribute a canvas to its gallery of self- portraits. The result earned plaudits from the top down: “All of Rome,” wrote the museum’s director, “is in awe of her talent.” It’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with the painting. Turning to the viewer as she daubs at a portrait of her deposed patron, Vigée Le Brun is fresh-faced, confident and without guile; beautiful, too. Though she went on to achieve fame and fortune throughout Europe and Russia, Vigée Le Brun never topped it and the work turned spotty and slick. Her subsequent portraiture traded too easily in mannerisms; particularly cloying are the kewpie-doll eyes and standard-issue pursed lips bequeathed to sundry courtesans, princesses, and queens. Flattery might elicit commissions, but it’s hell on art. Vigée Le Brun cruised on her mastery rather than expanding its parameters. Still, any show that includes a painting as winning as Self-Portrait, not to mention twenty or so additional pictures that are almost as good, deserves must-see status. And so it is with “Woman Artist in Revolutionary France.”

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the May 2016 edition of The New Criterion.