Van Gogh: Touched by Fire and Pain

Van Gogh: Touched by Fire and Pain

When people think of Vincent Van Gogh’s visionary art, the first painting that comes to mind is A Starry Night, 1889, the painting memorialized by Don McLean’s song. Everyone knows he lived a tortured life, ending it by suicide at age 37.

My two great passions, art and mental health, come together in Van Gogh. I recently finished reading The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence, by British art historian Martin Gayford. The book chronicles Van Gogh’s life in the Fall of 1888, letters to his brother and others, his relationship with Paul Gauguin and Gauguin’s letters (This period was also the subject of an excellent, ground-breaking exhibition organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, about 20 years ago.)

Questions linger:

The Bedroom at Arles, 1888, The Art Institute of Chicago

Did his art arise because of his illness or in spite of his illness?

Were his most productive works done during periods of intense mania?

Did his unique vision come from certain hallucinations?

Or was it produced in the depths of despair?

Although van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime, other artists like Gauguin and Émile Bernard easily recognized his genius. His brother, Theo, also his art dealer, displayed kindness towards him, always supporting him financially. When Van Gogh began as a painter, about 10 years before his death, he had already failed in other professions. By the time he shared the “Yellow House” with Gauguin in Arles, some of Gauguin’s paintings had already been sold. Van Gogh was more prolific than Gauguin, but he hadn’t sold a thing. It is not unusual for an artist to face rejection and still persevere, so we can’t pin his mental state on the problem of rejection. Fortunately, he described his works in detail to his brother in the letters.

Gayford checks out the evidence in his paintings against the evidence in letters, his life events, Gauguin’s letters and historical records. To my surprise, the book describes Gauguin as particularly patient with his housemate, despite the weird behaviors.

What happened between Van Gogh and Gauguin?

Van Gogh moved to Arles early in the year, but Gauguin didn’t arrive until October. Van Gogh had a head start, and he already knew the neighbors, people like the Ginouxs, innkeepers; the Roulins, the postmaster, his wife and children, and the grocer next door. Both men frequented bars and prostitutes, but Gauguin didn’t drink much. Vincent had the dream of starting an art colony there.

A Starry Night, on the Rhone, 1888, Musée d’Orsay

To see what may have led to the final incident, one should look at the painting Van Gogh was working on at the time of the falling out. “La Berceuse,” meaning the woman who rocks the cradle” is a portrait of Madame Roulin, whom he painted at least five times. According to Gayford, a book Pierre Loti’s book about Icelandic fishermen inspired this painting.

Van Gogh imagines the lady as a Madonna-like figure, rocking the cradle which is held by a string and stands outside of the painting. How very strange, but both Van Gogh and Gauguin were inspired by Symbolist poetry, and symbolism is definitely the intent here. Colors need not reflect visual reality, but can express feeling. Here, complementary colors of red and green, which appear opposite each other on the color wheel, set the tone. Except for the lady’s enormous bosom, the painting appears flat, The hands are jagged and crooked. Madame Roulin gave birth to her third son a few months earlier. The string of the cradle may allude to this fact, but she looks detached from it. Van Gogh was a very literary man, but what was he thinking?

La Berceuse, 1888-1889, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

La Berceuse is not a good bedtime story, but it had a great deal of influence on later art such as that of Matisse. It is one of five versions he made in December 1888 and finished in January 1889.

On December 22, Gauguin wrote a long letter describing to a friend his challenges with Van Gogh, but claimed that he would stay. After supper on December 23, Gauguin left the yellow house and Van Gogh followed after him, blade in hand. Although Gauguin’s own accounts vary, he would never return. Vincent cut off the lower part of his ear that night and bled profusely. He enclosed the ear, delivered it to a brothel, and marked it for a woman named Rachel, saying “Guard this object carefully.” He returned home and went to sleep.

Postmaster Roulin nursed him back to health and his family was informed. At this time, according to Gayford, p. 228, his mother wrote to Theo, “I believe he was always ill and his suffering and ours was a result of it.”

What do we know of his mental illness in light of today’s knowledge?

Van Gogh was known to have a form of epilepsy, but it wasn’t his primary problem. He drank heavily and people found him especially strange and scary when he was drunk.

Because Van Gogh cut off his ear, some people believe he was schizophrenic. Psychosis that is permanent generally refers to schizophrenia. It can take the form of visual or auditory hallucinations. Those who support the schizophrenia diagnosis believe he was trying to stop auditory hallucinations. However, that hypothesis doesn’t explain why he cut off only part of his ear and why he delivered it to Rachel. The message intended for Rachel, as well as the meaning of La Berceuse, would make sense to him, but not the outside world.

In the 1800s mental illnesses were not classified as they are today, but we would see his highs and lows as most characteristic of Bipolar I. Gayford firmly argues this position, saying that Van Gogh had hallucinations and made associations that didn’t fit with reality. Vincent identified emotionally with Hugo van der Goes, a highly gifted 15th-century Netherlandish painter who also had a fit of madness and attempted to kill himself.

The Red Vineyard, 1888, The Pushkin Museum, Moscow, the only painting sold during Van Gogh’s lifetime

It’s true that many creative people who touch us deeply are also touched by a fire within. Writers Edgar Alan Poe and Ernest Hemingway are often named as other great geniuses who suffered from Bipolar Disorder. They also drank heavily and ended their lives tragically. The “unruly genius,” Caravaggio, certainly belongs in this category, too. The Romantic tradition of the early 1800s celebrated an affinity between madness and creativity, as with Goya and Beethoven, who became deaf and more depressed as they aged. (I have not yet read Kay Redfield Jamison’s book about this, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. My sources at the end of this article.)

Contrary to popular belief, those who suffered from mental illnesses in the 1880s — at least where Van Gogh lived — were not treated poorly. Cold bath therapy rather than heavy pharmaceuticals, were the treatments of his day. And Van Gogh’s doctors respected him; they wanted him to paint.

Timeline and Treatment, 1889

Van Gogh recovered quickly and he completed La Berceuse in January.

January 5 – Dr. Félix Rey came to see him. According to the doctor, Vincent spent much time explaining his paintings to the doctor. He continued La Berceuse around this time.

On February 3, he wrote to his brother Theo: “I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophesy…”

February 7 – He was back in the hospital in Arles with a new doctor. Dr. Deloy wrote that Van Gogh was in a state of overexcitement and spoke in incoherent words. He thought people were trying to poison him.

February 17 – He had recovered. But in the meantime, the inhabitants of Arles petitioned the mayor to have him sent away, either to his family or to an asylum. Thirty residents signed the petition, naming him a public nuisance. Women and children were scared of him, and one dressmaker claimed he grabbed her. They complained of his excessive drinking.

March 23 – Painter Paul Signac came to visit him and suggested he move to Cassis, a port on the Mediterranean

Irises, 1889, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, painted while at the asylum in Saint-Rémy

May 3 – He voluntarily entered the Saint-Paul de Mausole Asylum in Saint-Rémy, thirteen miles from Arles. The building, a monastery from the 11th century, is open to the public today. He was treated well here under the care of Dr. Peyron. He was encouraged to paint and produced some of his best-known works here, including A Starry Night, Irises and many views of fields and cypress trees.

June – Van Gogh wrote to his brother: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star which looked very big.” He painted A Starry Night during this period but regretted it: “once again I allowed myself to be led astray into reaching or stars that are too big — another failure — and have had my fill of that.”

He continued working at the asylum for the rest of the year. While not allowed to drink at all, he was very productive.

Timeline and Treatment, 1890

January 16 – He was in an important exhibition in Brussels and received a good review

In the first four months of the year, he had several attacks and spent most of the time in a state of withdrawal.

May 16 – He left Saint-Rémy, and was taken under the care of a homeopathic doctor, Dr. Paul Gachet and went to see his brother in Paris.

May 19 – He moved to a small village outside of Paris, Auvers-sur-Oise, under the care of Dr. Gachet.

June 8 – He had a reunion with his brother, Theo. Dr. Gachet pronounced him cured.

Early July — The darkness returns again.

July 27 – He shot himself in the chest but survived. (Recent accounts suggest that he was killed by others, a view suggested in the movie, At Eternity’s Gate, 2019.)

July 29 – He died at 1:30 a.m.

Vincent’s Artistic Output Seen Against His Illness

Many artists take time to reach greatness, to find their inner self or their best artistic expression. That was the case with Vincent. The paintings we most admire today were done in 1888, 1889, and 1890, while he was in Arles and Saint-Rémy. Works for this period are more unified, more visionary and hold together well. It is easy to see that he finally found his style in the South of France, even if it was where his madness emerged most profoundly.

As for producing art during periods of mania, we must look into his years of output. In his short lifetime, he wrote, 2,140 letters and created more than 3,000 works of art, 860 of them oil paintings. He averaged 96 paintings per year, compared with Monet who averaged 42, Cézanne who averaged 23, and Rembrandt who averaged 15. Each of the other artists was as intense, fanatic about painting and driven as Van Gogh. Artists of their caliber, like Van Gogh, responded to a deep inner necessity, a “calling,” which could not be ignored.

(I thank Russ Ramsey, for the following information, the source listed on bottom, pp 138-141):

Number of paintings per year:

1881- 2, 1882 – 14, 1883 – 18, 1884 – 52

1885 – 143, 1886 – 93, 1887 – 118

1888 – 169, 1889 – 134, 1890 – 108

Self-Portrait, 1887, The Art Institute of Chicago

How did he keep up this frenetic pace? Was he in manic phases when he did the most work? I believe so. He did 42 paintings in June 1990, the month before he died. During the first four months of 1890, he painted only 18 canvasses. Remember he had several episodes during this time, and I would assume they were deep, crippling depressions. Bipolar I is known for periods of intense highs and lows. When he was high, he could channel the energy into painting. When he was very, very low he couldn’t work at all.

Another sign of mania is in the brushstrokes, In his time, only Vincent Van Gogh used single strokes loaded heavily with paint, never mixing or blending. His paint was extraordinarily thick and heavy. There’s no room for error with this method, or the errors are part of the painting. No wonder he worked so quickly. When his genius was at its height, the texture of his paint mimicked the actual texture of the subject, as in his beard from the Self-Portrait, above, or in his Sunflowers, below. 

Two Cut Sunflowers, 1887, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Judging Him by the Standards of Today

I had wondered if drinking absinthe, legal at that time, had something to do with Vincent’s hallucinations and mood swings. Gayford refutes this notion. Today much mental illness is brought out by substance abuse, a problem that can be prevented. That probably not the case of Van Gogh, whose sister Jo was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In fact four of six children in the Van Gogh family appear to have suffered from mental illnesses of varying degrees. His may have used alcohol and absinthe to self-medicate. There exists a notion that drug use can enhance creativity, which may or may not be true. Even Baudelaire, who experimented with hashish in the 19th century, denied the idea that it was helpful for anything.

Would Van Gogh have done such incredible work if he had been medicated, as would be suggested today? Some people with Bipolar I refuse to take medications because they like the manias and don’t appreciate the flattening of moods. I think that in Van Gogh’s case, he could have lived longer with today’s medications, but he would not have lived as long in the hearts of future generations.


Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence

Russ Ramsey, Rembrandt is in the Wind: Learning to Love Art Through the Eyes of Faith

Ingo F Walther and Rainer Metzger, Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings

Martin Bailey, The Sunflowers are Mine

I don’t pretend to have expertise on Bipolar I Disorder, but I’ve read Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind, and Terry Cheney ‘s Mania. Robert Whitaker’s Mad in America confirms the belief that treatments of the mentally ill in 19th century France were not lacking compassion and were often better than the treatments of today.

We must thank Van Gogh for all his letters, for the artists and the sister-in-law, Jo, who saved his work. His letters are widely translated; and’ a new volume was published this year, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Martin Bailey wrote a book explaining about Van Gogh at Saint-Rémy, Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum.

My other blogs about Van Gogh:

This one includes a photo from his asylum window and works he did in Auvers:

Torrents of Rain and Gusts of Wind

JULIE SCHAUER has taught in the art and art history departments of a number of colleges, including COD, Northern Virginia Community College, the Corcoran College of Art and Design and George Mason University. She has BA in Art History from Northwestern and an MA from the University of Virginia.

Looking for Peace?  Go to the Noguchi Museum

Looking for Peace? Go to the Noguchi Museum

In 1985, sculptor and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi opened a museum of his work in an industrial building in Long Island City, New York.   It’s a place to go for a zen experience, especially after all the stressors that continue to rip our world apart. Reservations are limited, but if you can buy the $10 ticket ahead of time, it’s only a short trip from Manhattan, close to LaGuardia Airport.

In art, I look for a way to make sense out of life, to find beauty or joy, and hopefully find a place of rest. Noguchi does the latter for me, which is especially needed during difficult times.  Though Noguchi used art to protest nuclear war and destruction, his work brings us to a place where we put rhetoric to rest, unlike activist artists of today who scream with anger and miss the mark of meaningful communication. 

Useless Architecture, on exhibit until May, 2022. On the right is Roof Frame, 1974-1975, made of steel for an exhibition at Pace Gallery

Noguchi is first and foremost a landscape architect, but also a furniture designer and sculptor. It’s not surprising that he studied with Brancusi.  They were similar souls. A current exhibition at the museum is called Useless Architecture. But what is “useless architecture” is “useful sculpture.”

Many of his sculptures are upright, rough and irregular. They remind me of the monumental stones of ancient Britain and Europe, called menhirs. Like the menhirs, they’re raw assertions of strength with the overlay of a human imprint.

To Bring to Life, 1979, basalt

But other sculptures are like the dolmens, formed when the upright stones hold horizontal stones. According to Britannica, “Dolmens represented the first real attempt by the settlers to organize and shape the landscape around them“ End Piece resembles a dolmen. It also combines many oppositions: wood and stone, rough and/or polished, linear or curved, straight or angled, vertical and horizontal. When you ponder it, these contrasts reflect the oppositions that make up life, oppositions that need to be brought into harmony.

End Piece, 1974, steel and granite

We absorb Noguchi and the meanings of his works through silence. They’re imperfect, but feel “right.” Though Noguchi’s sculpture is architectural, it is not architecture.

Noguchi’s body of work replicates how mankind fits into nature — but readjusts it for a comfortable fit. The best of artists are able to teach us how to see, both the inner and outer worlds, and to bridge our gaps of understanding. One sculpture of a steel-cut trapezoid with a suspended rock in the center says it all. The museum sent me the name of the piece, Costume for a Stone. The combination of natural and manmade materials, common to so much of Noguchi’s work, works beautifully here.

Costume for a Stone, 1982. Granite and hot-dipped galvanized steel. The combination of natural and manmade materials is common in Noguchi’s work.

Circles repeats a theme Noguchi sculpted over and over again.  An upright pink granite circle is called Sun at Noon; nearby is a black circle called Midnight.  Circles have no beginning or end; they’re the Alpha and the Omega, the symbol of God, a representation of perfection.

Sun at Noon, 1969, French red marble and Spanish travertine

There’s another pink sculpture nearby that resembles a snake. Noguchi called it Magic Ring, I’m reminded that life is a journey, The journey is not predictable, but it can take you to places of magic.

Magic Ring, 1970, Persian travertine

Noguchi said, “If sculpture is the rock, it is also the space between the rocks, and between the rock and a man.”  

I was curious about a piece called Sentinel.  Noguchi made the stainless steel sculpture specifically for an exhibition at the Pace Gallery in 1975. The name suggests that it is standing guard somewhere.  All parts of it to fit into the proper place: the horizontals, the verticals and two circles.  

Sentinel, 1973, stainless steel, made for an exhibition at Pace Gallery, 1975

Noguchi know humanity’s place in the natural order of the things, which is one reason why he was so horrified with the prospect of atomic destruction, a subject that is on exhibition on the 2nd floor of the museum now. There’s a model for a monument to the victims of Hiroshima, a project that was never built. It would have been a magnificent arch set off in a symmetric line, with the victims’ names underground. Most of Noguchi’s own life was split between the US and Japan,

His father was Japanese poet, his mother an American writer. He was born in Los Angeles, in 1904, but raised primarily in Japan. His spent his life between the two countries. Then when the US was at war with Japan, he voluntarily interred himself in Arizona. I have written previously of his sculpture in Smithsonian Collections.

Why should we go to this museum? — to make peace with the most impossible of situations. “Due to war, Noguchi also knew the pain of belonging to nations that were bitter enemies, and he produced artworks imbued with an earnest desire for peace,” according to the Noguchi Museum website.  He is an artist who moves me to another frame of mind.

Noguchi bought an old photogravure studio and designed the building to accommodate his museum. It was across the street from his studio.

The beauty of Amanda Gorman’s poetry and inspirational reading match her unique beauty. The slant of her eyes, the angle of her chin complement her strong character. They’re reminiscent of a beautiful Egyptian queen, Queen Tiye, the grandmother of King Tut. Queen Tiye may have been Nubian (corresponding to modern Sudan).

The comparison is daunting. However, the downturned lips of Queen Tiye reflect the fact that she was older when most images of her were made. She was middle-aged at the height of her power and probably died in her 50s. Queen Tiye was also the mother of the iconoclastic pharoah, Akhenaten, who changed the capital of Egypt, the style of art and the religion during his reign. Egypt was conservative, and so course, changing the country’s art and religion wouldn’t last.

As for running for president in 2036, Amanda Gorman should realize that poets are infinitely more inspiring than politicians. Stick to poetry and that is where you’ll have the most influence. Artists are more valuable to the world than politicians. They bring people together while politicians divide. Read a good blog about Queen Tiye (source of the picture) She lived from about 1398 – 1338 BCE. The words to Amanda Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb” are in The Hill.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Drawings by Bosch:  Realism and Fantasy

Drawings by Bosch: Realism and Fantasy
Heironymous Bosch, The Tree Man, pen and ink, The Albertina, Vienna

My last post of 2017 shows why ART is a better form of escapism than Star Wars.  Bosch’s Tree Man has body of a crab held up by tree trunk legs riding in boats.  The world is not as it expected.  The many who made this fantasy portrait more than 500 years ago still gets more viewers than nearly any other other artist of any time period. Why?  Because he is so much fun.

Two exhibitions last year celebrated the 500th anniversary of Heironymus Bosch’s death.  One million people were expected to visit two different exhibits, first in the Netherlands, then in Spain. The Prado exhibition was so popular that the museum extended it an extra two weeks and kept the doors open until 10 p.m. The other exhibition had been held earlier that year in Bosch’s birthplace, s-Hergotenbosch.

Currently, The National Gallery of Art in Washington has a show of “Dutch Drawings from Bosch to Bloemaert.”  They come from the Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen in Rotterdam.  There are superb drawings by Pieter Bruegel, followers of Jan Van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, Lucas van Leyden and lesser known artists such as Roelant Savery. An examination of the two drawings by Bosch shows how well he was attune to the realism in nature. The Owl’s Nest puts Bosch close to the same category as Leonardo and Albrecht Durer, when to his keen understanding and observation of nature.

The Owl’s Nest, pen and ink, 1500-1505, Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen, Rotterdam

Bosch repeated most of the Tree Man, top, in his most famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. The metamorphosing figure is generally considered to be a self-portrait.  The Owl’s Nest is not an idea or a study for any of Bosch’s surviving paintings.  The faces, wings and nest are realistic. There’s a lightness and delicacy that goes with Bosch’s style, without falling into his usual diversion — fantasy.  Strokes are very precise of various sizes and lengths.

Fox and Rooster, pen and ink

The Owl’s Nest was probably always planned to be a finished drawing. Bosch painted owls in nearly all his paintings.  According to dailyartdaily, “There’s a lot of speculation about what his owls mean, and how they should be read.”  Multiple and contradictory meanings are associated with owls. Sometimes they might signify wisdom.  “But it seems around 1500, the owls were generally associated with menace and death and had an emblematic, moralistic significance.”

Two Women, pen and ink,

The other drawing by Bosch from the Boijmans Van Beuningen has two scenes.  The scene that is Fox and Rooster.   Presumably, the Fox is ready to pounce upon the rooster, but you really need a magnifying glass to see it.  Once again, it’s a dark side of nature, with something ominous as in The Owl’s Nest.  However, the Fox and Rooster have a rich folklore tradition, as part of Aesop’s Fables, and in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.   Of the two drawings on the same piece of paper, this one is considered to be of a later date.  It is tentative and sketchy compared to The Owl’s Nest and Tree Man, drawings meant to appear finished.

A picture on the drawing on the other side of the paper, also a pen and ink, is believed to be the very first drawing by Bosch.  Two Women, has an elderly woman on the right and a woman holding a spindle on the left.   These figures variously interpreted as old women, or witches.  They could relate to Netherlandish proverbs or folktales. Was there some significance attached to the spinning, as if spinning some devious fate?

Although one drawing is early from his career, and one from a later period, both have the type of reference to proverbs and/or folk life we come to expect with Bosch.  When I say Bosch’s figures are frail, I mean it in two ways. They convey human weakness (or foolishness), and they lack the monumentality and weight that contemporary Italian artists gave their figures.  One might argue that Italians were humanists, while the Dutch painters were still medieval in outlook.  Even the Italian that is superficially most like Bosch, Piero di Cosimo, portrays monsters who are satyrs who seem to be descended from antiquity.

Grotesque Walking head and small toad monster

Grotesque walking head and small toad monster, a drawing from the Prado exhibition that is permanently in Berlin, presents what we expect from Bosch and why he fascinates. As one website says, “He externalizes the ugliness within, so that his misshapen demons have an effect beyond curiosity.  We feel a kinship with them.”  This is the essence of the Bosch fascination.

Bosch’s dates (c.1450-1516) are roughly the same as Leonardo da Vinci’s, who was born in 1452 and died in 1519.  Da Vinci paintings have science, nature, perfection and a noble humanity while Bosch, painted a fantastical mixture of a frail humanity, along with demons and monsters.  However, closer examinations shows that Bosch an equally gifted draftsman and a keen observer of both the nature world and human nature.

The wood has ears, the field has eyes, pen and ink.

While Leonardo also saw the greatest meaning in the extremes of beauty and ugliness in humans, we always remember him by the portrayal of perfection.  He himself seems to gaze down on us humans as an all-knowing power.  But if we think about it, so did Hieronymus Bosch.  One of his drawings (not in the drawings exhibit) give us much insight into his way of thinking. It’s an ominous finished drawing called The wood has ears, the field eyes.  Many eyes lie in a field and two ears are listening by the trees.There’s the owl, again, right in the center.  It makes me wonder, is the world really as it always seems?  Or is he just reminding us that God is always watching?  We could imagine Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte interpreting a landscape this way, perhaps without the owl.

Bosch reveals hidden truths from a mind much deeper than our own. He’s just as wise as Leonardo, and he’s looking forward to the Surrealist artists of the 20th century.

The best artists of any time period speak to future generations nearly as well as they reflect the collective mindset of their time and place.  So Bosch continues to be so popular today.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
The Rehabilitation Community of San Patrignano

The Rehabilitation Community of San Patrignano

The vineyards surrounding San Patrignano, in the province of Rimini, Romagna

I recently had the pleasure of experiencing a drug rehabilitation community in Italy, a very special place called San Patrignano.  Founded in 1978, it’s a few miles off the eastern coast of Italy, near Rimini, in the Romagna region.  The tiny country of San Marino can be seen in the distance.  And while it may seem strange that I’d write about this on an art blog, there are reasons I feel drug prevention connects to the world of art.

Youth congregating for “WeFree” October 10-11

San Patrignano is also committed to drug prevention.  Specifically I was there to participate on a panel for parents, policymakers during the “WeFree” days, on “Educate by leaving a positive sign.” The program brought about 3,000 teens from Emilia-Romagna and throughout Italy on October 10-11. The teens had two days of activities which concentrated on teaching joyful experiences without the need for drugs.  There’s art, music and dance.

WeFree days events.  Theme color – orange – much like Halloween

Groups from other countries were invited to share their programs too.   Throughout the year approximately 50,000 students, roughly ages 13-18, will actually come visit the community and participate in programs.  San Patrignano is well-known throughout the world and has many foreign residents, including Americans.

Fun and games to celebrate freedom from substance use

There’s much we can learn about drug rehabilitation from San Patrignano.  Those who come here have lost a lot of hope, have been through other programs and failed.  A small percentage, perhaps 10%, is referred by the courts.  They commit to coming for at least three years, which sounds horrible to most people.  The residents’ recovery rate is around 72% which is very high for a rehab center and remarkable considering how large it is.

Making a mural on the the theme, “The world we want depends on us” 

Going to rehab at San Patrignano is not a life sentence, but, rather, a life-affirming experience.  There are 1300 people living in San Patrignano, at least 1000 of them men.  Cocaine is the most common drug of addiction amongst the residents. (I was told drug use was generally not so common among females in Italy, but that is changing.  Also, the average age used to be older, in the 30s, but now the average age for a resident is around 26.) At least 100 Americans have been through the program, and there are Americans and Canadians there now.  For Americans, however, it is not easy to get the Visa that allows them to get into the program.

Dorm housing for the residents of San Patrignano

Although I never saw small children, there is a pre-school.  I was told that mothers who are in drug treatment have their children living with them and the center provides them with a school.  Such a program is so much more enlightened than ones that separate small children from their moms, as American prisons do.  (They punish the children, as well as the mothers.) I asked if romance was possible in the community. It’s not so easy.  People come there to work on their own recovery, not by coupling. If there is a couple interested in romance, they will not be allowed to see each other for a waiting period.  After time passes and they still have the desire, they may develop a relationship.

The Pre-School

Amazingly, no one pays for their treatment and the Italian government does not contribute either.  Private donations provide about 50% of the cost, while the community raises the rest of the money to sustain itself.  Everyone who lives at San Patrignano has the opportunity to learn a trade, so that he or she may enter back into society in a positive way.  Some are involved in agriculture,  the grapes and the olive trees, of course.  There’s also a cheesemaking center, farm animals and a well-regarded bakery.

Designer wallpaper printed in the workshops

The chef’s school is a very popular training for future chefs of Italy.  Others learn woodworking, leather working, wallpaper design, printing. San Patrignano sells its baked goods and furniture, but it also fulfills contracts for name brand leather designers.  If you buy a beautiful, designer bag made it Italy, it’s possible that the craftspeople of San Patrignano made it.  The furniture makers showed me their catalogue.  They carve designs from old oak wine barrels no longer in use.   The results are very interesting and creative.

another handmade wallpaper

I spent a good deal of time with the medical director who was at one time a resident of San Patrignano, in his 20s.  A sensitive and intelligent man, I was surprised to find out he had been a

Fine purse in the leather making rooms

heroin addict in his 20s.  He went to medical school later, which speaks well for how San Patrignano inspires and prepares its residents.  In fact, many of the staff members were former rehab residents, and they believe very strongly in what the community does for people.

Antonio Boschini, the doctor, specialized in infectious diseases, because he got out of school at the time of the AIDs crisis.  A few residents with AIDs remain, but it is not a major need.  Medical emphasis is on therapy and counseling more than on giving drugs to get the patients off of drugs.

I learned about Vincenzo Muccioli, the infamous founder of the community.  A wealthy man who owned a hotel in Rimini, he was concerned about the large number of homeless people addicted to drugs in the late 1970s.  He had a second home in the mountains and invited these homeless to live there as long as they agreed to work. He was determined to help them and give their lives meaning.  Well that was the beginning of San Patrignano, and now it’s an exemplary model of the international community.

A mural at San Patrignano

The dining hall is huge and I can’t tell you how pleased that the day I ate lunch there they served my favorite Italian dish, Saltimbocca alla Romana, and some pasta of course.  There’s a real sense of family, community, peace.   The closest analogy I could think of was the monastic communities of the Middle Ages which the sense of fellowship.

The staff gave me some of their materials with the 3x the letter R, standing for Rehabilitation for Recovery and Reinsertion. The three booklets included are a handbook on justice interventions in place of incarceration, a manual on rehabilitation and recovery and a handbook on social integration of recovered drug users.    It is a program that should be imitated, but can anyone else do it so well?

An actress, Elisabetta, former resident, dramatizes her biographical story of how she became involved
in drugs, for the students.  It’s a story of innocence to despair.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
The Friendship of Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola

The Friendship of Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola

“Cézanne et Moi.”  L- Guillaume Canet as Emile Zola, R-Guillaume Gallienne as Cézanne

The French film, “Cézanne and I” or “Cézanne et Moi,” will be of most interest to those who know the story of Cézanne’s lifelong friendship with Émile Zola. Guillaume Gallienne, an actor with the Comédie Francaise gives an outstanding performance as Cezanne, zeroing in on his character.  The actor who plays Émile Zola, Guillaume Canet, is also quite believable. The film direction tells the story extremely well. In addition, the production team captures the colors and aesthetics well enough to make the viewer feel he or she is there.

A studio that Cezanne kept within the
Bibemus Quarry

The film, “Cézanne and I” explores Cézanne’s character through the friendship with Zola and his relationship with others–wife, mother, father, and how it relates it to his art. Director Daniele Thompson picks up on the many mysteries of these relationships, the personality of the man, and his inner character.  Most of the film portrays Zola as a less complicated character than Cezanne, easier to understand as a person.  Many people will want to see it to experience the landscape of Aix, which is beautiful. Criticism of the film comes from those who don’t understand the dialogue, but again it helps to have some knowledge of the history of the friendship.

The most influential 20th-century artist, Picasso, said he owed everything to Cézanne.  Matisse claimed “he’s kind of a god of painting.”  Recognition and acceptance were elusive for Cezanne during most of his career.  As for Émile Zola, many French of today still claim him as their favorite novelist. So to think that these two giants of late 19th-century French culture were classmates and best of friends growing up is amazing.  It’s also a tribute to the school in Aix-en-Provence which nurtured two extraordinary geniuses.

Fortunately, the movie takes you through some of the beautiful scenery they roamed through in childhood, such as the trails around the Bibémus Quarry and Mont Saint-Victoire.  There’s a glimpse at the richness of color which he portrayed so well in his paintings, with that perfect balance of warm and cool colors.  The movie didn’t show the beautiful house he eventually inherited from his parents.

Mont Saint-Victoire from Bibémus Quarry at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Cézanne was the very first artist who really interested me–probably because of his colors.  In high school, I was given the assignment to choose an artist to study and try to paint in his style. I chose Cézanne and it was difficult.  In grad school, I was required to read Émile Zola’s novels, Nana and The MasterpieceThe Masterpiece is about an obsessive and determined artist who ended up being a complete loser.  When it was published in 1886, Cézanne interpreted it to be entirely about himself. The descriptions of their childhood wanderings together were true to life. I don’t remember the book so well, but I thought more Degas than Cezanne while reading it. Zola was already a rip-roaring success as a novelist by the time he wrote it, and very prolific. The Masterpiece must have seemed like a slap in the face to Cezanne who was just as talented and worked as hard. Cézanne was 47 years old, but, as an artist, he only knew rejection at that time.  His recognition did not come until 10 years later — when in his late 50s.

My understanding was that Cézanne was so offended by the portrayal (parts of it are read in the film) that he would never speak to Zola again. In the movie, they are in contact again.  From the film, I actually sympathize a great deal with both Cézanne and Zola.  Zola claimed that Lantier, the artist in the novel, was a composite of artists he had known. It doesn’t help that he describes their childhood friendship pretty much as it was.  In Zola’s novel, Lantier ends up killing himself, which certainly must have suggested to Cezanne the worthlessness of his artistic endeavors. However, the ending is consistent with Zola’s style of naturalism which exposes the brutalities of life.  As far as I know, none of the painters Zola knew actually took their own lives.  In reality, Cezanne was rarely satisfied with his own painting, even after he received some recognition.

Bibémus Quarry, near Aix-en-Provence, one of the many landmarks the artist painted

The time period was great for artists and writers mutually supporting each other, hanging out the cafes together, a tradition that continued through the 1920s. Both Zola and Cézanne went to cafes and on social excursions with Manet and the Impressionists. However, Cézanne was frequently opinionated and offensive and, at the same time, more withdrawn than the others.  After a few years, Cézanne retreated back to his native Provence while Zola stayed in Paris.

The trails near Bibemus Quarry

The move flashes between childhood, early adulthood and various events in their lives.  There is a third friend named Baptistin who became an engineer, but also was a part of their threesome. Zola’s father died when he was young and his mother struggled to support him. Cézanne was rich; his banker father wasn’t initially supportive of his chosen profession. As an adult, he was consciously rebelling against his father whom he considered a social climber. As might be expected, Zola became bourgeois and played the part of worldly success quite well. Cézanne rejected many of the social graces, and was considered uncouth and boorish by some. Certainly, many great artists also fit the stereotype of being complete slobs, such as “big, grubby Tom” Masaccio and the great Michelangelo.

Cézanne was temperamental, as artists often are.  It comes with the territory of obsessiveness. He frequently tore up his paintings. It’s the frustration that is expressed by Lantier, the artist in Zola’s novel. He stuck to his goals until the very end, but was never satisfied with his painting.  He died at age 67.

Cézanne got along well with Camille Pissarro, the oldest of the Impressionists and somewhat of a mentor for all artists in the group. They had a strong rapport and mutual respect. Cézanne and Édouard Manet (my other favorite artist from the period) did not like each other.  This lack of compatibility is curious to me because some of their artistic goals (the way they see form and structure) appear somewhat similar. Each is important for redefining the structure of painting through innovative means of composition that rejected traditional foreground, middleground and background. Both artists were from well-to-do backgrounds, but the elegant Manet, is known to have thought of Cézanne as ill-mannered and coarse.  Both artists received much public derision and criticism, but the younger artists of the avant-garde loved Manet.

A scene near Aix-en-Provence

The movie even puts Cézanne next to the gorgeous Berthe Morisot, known for her refinement and close relationship to Manet. My personal impression is that Cézanne suffered from jealousy of Manet on many levels, especially since Manet was so admired by his fellow artists.  His good friend Zola had written a well-known and important article in defense of Manet.  Zola also defended Cézanne and the other artists who were Impressionists through his essays. However, Zola’s novel, The Masterpiece expressed less respect for their style than one might expect.

Cézanne, Mme Cézanne in Yellow Armchair
Art Institute of Chicago

Cézanne’s portraits of his wife have always amazed me for their detachment and lack of feeling. Was he at all in love with her? According to the movie, he loved her because she could sit hours without moving.  None of his portraits of her show love or any feeling at all, and Thompson explores why.  The filmmaker also suggests that Cezanne and Zola’s wife had at one time been involved — before she married his friend.  I’m not sure if that’s the truth or just the filmmaker’s conjecture.

Most of Cezanne’s portraits are all about the structure and composition of the painting.  The love in Cézanne is found mostly in his portrayal of nature particularly in portraits of the mountain he idolized, Mont Saint-Victoire.

There is feeling in the self-portraits — the feeling of intensity and determination in his eyes.  I think his self-portraits are excellent because they capture the strong shapes with contrasts of color.  From these we can trace the formal properties that lead to the Cubist style of Picasso and Braque.

Quality films about artists help us to understand how an artist’s mind works.  This film helps us understand the artist more through his relationships rather than through the art itself. (I personally have a hard time teaching Cézanne.) The theme of denying his feelings and not showing that he cared for others comes up again and again. It’s a selfishness that is in pursuit of art, and/or, ego. Yet, if had been only about ego, Cézanne would have given up years earlier.  He is an artist who died painting.

Self-portrait, Winterthur Collection, Switzerland

In 2011, I went to his home in Aix-en-Provence, his studio and Bibemus Quarry where he did so many paintings. I will never forget the excellent tour guide at Bibemus Quarry, a landmark that inspired Cézanne so much.  The colors of those rocks really are the rich yellow ochres and reds that we see in Cézanne’s paintings.  The quarry had been used for buildings since Roman times, but the rocks had become too salty and sandy and it was abandoned in the 1800s.  You can really understand how the quarry’s strong, virile presence inspired Cezanne. I realized that Mont Saint-Victoire and Bibémus Quarry are much further away from each other than in the impression from Cézanne’s painting in Baltimore, shown above.

Photographer Phil Haber’s blog of Cezanne really captures the beauty of his scenery today.  However, Phil had to put together a composite of two photos to get the view seen in the Baltimore painting. Cézanne’s compositions are reality, but reality from a rearranged view.

How does this fit into the history of art and literature?  Zola’s writing is naturalism and he is important for describing things and the social classes with a gritty truth of lower-class life.  Impressionists were more inclined to overlook the brutal side of life. Renoir painted the working class of Montmartre, but he idealized them–turning them into angelic figures. Degas painted ballet dancers and laundresses, stressing the vigor of their work.  Zola has more in common with Courbet, Degas and early Manet.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2022
An Object of Beauty

An Object of Beauty

Maxfield Parrish, Daybreak, 1922

An Object of Beauty, is a surprising novel by a man of many talents, Steve Martin.  Last year, in the Spring, I had seen a musical by him in New York and was then surprised to get this book as a Mother’s Day present. Not only is it an original novel, but it shows that Steve Martin is a gifted interpreter of both art and the art world.  The novel exposes the mystique and glamor of the art world, together with its sleaze.

To be honest, valuing art primarily for its monetary or investment value really offends me.  I briefly worked in the 80s at the art gallery considered one of Chicago’s leading contemporary galleries at the time.  It was surprising to go from a show of DeKooning’s latest works (painted with mayonnaise) to one of photographs of Racquel Welch (by an important photographer).  Although these exhibitions generated a ton of publicity, they actually sold very little — just one DeKooning and none of the Racquel Welch photographs. (sh….that was an art world secret.)

Martin understands that the glitter of the art world which is hiding beyond a multitude of facades. The narrator is an art critic with a curiosity about, or a crush, on a fellow art history major he knew from college. Her name is Lacey.  The story winds through the years, beginning with the author’s idealization of Lacey through various stages of recognizing and figuring out what makes her tick. Lacey lands a minor, low-paying working for Sotheby’s in New York and ends up owning a gallery in edgy Chelsea.   Most of the men (and women for that matter) in her life are expendable and she plays them well.  Others are into the game, but don’t play it as well as she does.  Through clever gamesmanship and some fraudulent moves, she makes financial gains.  At one time she was fired from Sotheby’s, but it was just an easy road to the next, better-paying job.

Lacey’s character and the situations she is in revealed to me, once again, why I’m glad to have not gone down that career path.  Sometimes the situations are humorous, even the names of an artist, such as Pilot Mouse (a pseudonym) or the collectors. But, as Steve Martin explains, “The theory of relativity applies to art: just as gravity distorts space, an important collector distorts aesthetics.  The difference is that gravity distorts space eternally, and a collector distorts aesthetics only a few years.”

Martin also describes the galleries of Chelsea which distinguished themselves with art that was “difficult” — “art that made you feel they possessed the cabalistic code that unlocked the inner secrets of art.”

Martin humorously nails the art critics:  “‘In dialogue’ was a new phrase that art writers could no longer live without.  It meant that hanging two works next to or opposite each other produced a third thing, a dialogue….It also hilariously implied that wen the room was empty of viewers, the two works were still chatting.  I was tolerant when he said ‘in dialogue’ because I can get it, but when he said ‘line-space matrix,’ I wanted to puke.”  He was describing Art Basel in Miami. 

The economy has boomed a lot since I worked at a gallery and the ups and downs of the market have been much more dramatic.  Some paintings, the objects of beauty, go from being greatly undervalued to overvalued. To the same is true of Lacey, whom the author seems to regard as the ultimate “object of beauty.” The centerpiece painting of the novel is by Maxfield Parrish, well-known in the 1920s but not appreciated as much today.  Much suspense goes on in the novel and at one point I thought the dealer she worked for had been involved with the famous art heist of 1990.  The twists and turns of the novel are crafted well. At the conclusion, the economy crashes as it did at the end of the 2000s.  Lacey was brought back down to earth, but so was the author.

Finally, I appreciate his descriptions of Pop Art ……….and Andy Warhol.  “It was easy to give Pop critical status–there were lots of sophisticated things to say about it–but it was tougher to justify the idea that repetitive silk screens were rivals of great masters.”

In the course of the novel, Lacey buys a Warhol print in the early 90s and then sells it when she’s starting the art gallery, after it had really gone up in value.  “If Cubism was speaking from the psyche, then Pop was speaking from the unbrain, and just to drive home the point, its leader Warhol closely resembled a zombie.”

Steve Martin is witty and wise. Other artists he describes include Milton Avery (gifted 20th century American), Rockwell Kent, trompe l’oiel artists Peto and Hartnett, and DeKooning.  He’s really a Renaissance Man.  

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Sensational Line: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Graphic Art

Sensational Line: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Graphic Art

The Artisan Moderne. 1896, Lautrec was asked to advertise a jeweler/home goods designer
He manages to add some of his own thoughts and observations about human nature. 
This is the last weekend of Phillips Collection’s exhibition,Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the ‘Belle Epoque.’  The Phillips organized the show with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, its only other venue North America. This exhibition is different and distinguished from other exhibitions of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (and I’ve seen a few of them), because it’s primarily graphic art and contains some works that we don’t normally see. There are trial proofs alongside the finished prints, and a few very rare prints. The entire show comes from one private collector in France and we’re very lucky to have it for a short time in Washington. 

Mademoiselle Eglantine’s Troupe, 1895- 1896  Brush, spatter and crayon
lithograph in three colors.  The dance troup included Jane Avril, seen below

Toulouse-Lautrec’s color is magical but it’s really his sensational line that was his greatest gift.  He follows a string of other great 19th century line artists: Ingres, Daumier, Degas and Hokusai, but he broke entirely new ground in the world of graphic art.  In this exhibition, some of the familiar posters are shown in different stages, and it’s a great starting point to understand something of the lithographic process.   Lautrec mastered the medium of color lithography, using multiple stones for the different colors of ink.  

He’s best known for creating poster advertisement for entertainers and other highlights of Paris night life. Certainly he did a lot to bolster the careers of certain singers and performers such “La Goulue,” Jane Avril and Aristide Bruant. His posters were all over the kiosks of Paris and his work began a new trend.  Although Lautrec was from an aristocratic background, he reveled in the demimonde and the bohemian lifestyle.  He captured the people, places and events with so much vitality that the viewer almost wishes he or she could be there.  The “Belle Epoque” is the beautiful era and in the USA it reflects the time of “The Gilded Age or “The Gay Nineties.”

Jane Avril, 1899

Depicting the subjects with wit and whimsy, and it’s clear that Lautrec’s art always captured much more than a photograph could.  Sometimes his faces seem to be sneering at us.  His expressive, calligraphic line is pure magic in how it captures a quick impression.   He also masters the integration of letters into design, an essential for good graphic art.  He portrayed Jane Avril several different times — in 1893, in the Divan Japonais, with Mademoiselle Eglantine’s Troupe and again in 1899.   The poster of Jane Avril from 1899 is particularly effective in design.  Her undulating lines take up the entire picture from top to bottom, twisting to the right and then off the page on the left.  It’s utterly simple, but effective design

Furthermore, it’s not only performers and night clubs that he enjoys. One of his friends, Sescau asked him to advertise his photography studio.  He sets the fashionable lady in the foreground, running away from the photographer.  With his sly humor, he makes suggests that photographer friend is looking at her in other ways, too.  In a brilliant display of his design talent, the frills of this woman’s flowing cape match the rhythms of design in her fan, flowing in the opposite direction off the edge of the page.

Photographer Sescau, 189 Brush, crayon and spatter lithograph, printed in five
colors.  Key stone printed in blue; color stones in red, yellow and green

Like other artists of his time — Van Gogh and Munch — he used jumps in space to heighten the meaning.  It works well with the poster; the graphic artist’s challenge is to say a great deal with a minimal amount of detail and definition.   In one of his most famous works, La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge, the master of ceremonies is at the picture plane.  He’s merely a silhouette with pointed fingers, pointing to the artist’s signature put also to the celebrity whose dancing a can-can.  Le Moulin Rouge was a 1890s version of “Dancing with the Stars.”   Guests were able to mix and mingle with their favorite celebrities, and to dance alongside them.

La Goulue (Louise Weber)

Of course the Moulin Rouge was also memorialized with a fictional character played by Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie, Moulin Rouge. The story, but not the aesthetics in the move, fit with the time and place.  John Leguizamo played Toulouse-Lautrec as an affable, good-natured character.   Since childhood accidents and perhaps a genetic disease kept him from growing to normal adult height, he felt comfortable with other outsiders.

In actuality, La Goulue was Louise Weber, who had moved from the country (Alsace) into the city as a teen. She was approximately 24 at the time of her stardom as one of the most popular dancers in Paris.  Her nickname, “the glutton” probably refers to how she took from others — food and drink.By the time she was 30, she was tired, wasted, impoverished and alcoholic. (In his prints, and paintings, she’s always recognized by her topknot. ) Unfortunately, there’s similar sad tales played out by some young stars today.

La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge, Brush and Spatter lithograph, printed
on two sheets of wove paper.  Final print

Many other famous posters are on view in full splendor, including images of Aristide Bruant and Marcelle Lender.  This must-see exhibition is pure visual delight. It also offers a great deal of technical information about Lautrec’s astounding graphic techniques.  This is just a small sampling of the many fantastic posters, paintings and graphics that are part of the exhibition.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Follow the Dots and Reflect on the Beauty of Yayoi Kusama’s Art

Follow the Dots and Reflect on the Beauty of Yayoi Kusama’s Art

Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, with the Guest House and Yayoi Kusami’s Pumpkin

Yayoi Kusama is now the featured artist as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.  Crowds are lining up out the door to see her exhibition, “Infinity Mirrors.”  It’s a blockbuster show made up of mirrors and dots that’s capturing the public imagination with huge crowds. 

When I went to visit Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut for the very first time in September, there was an installation of Kusama’s art in the house and on the property.   Red polka dots of various sizes were attached to all the glass walls.  

To me, the dots fit perfectly into Philip Johnson’s iconic house–as flat red circles on a very flat building.  Some visitors at that time remarked that it interfered with how they had hoped to appreciate “The Glass House.”  But the dots didn’t interfere with the building’s transparency. Shadows and reflections appeared that would not have been there otherwise. Perhaps the dots made me even more aware of the house’s transparency, and color shined through along with the light.
As for the Johnson property, there’s an eclectic mix of buildings, 14 in all.    They’re totally different from each other, representing the great diversity in Johnson’s architectural genius.  Each building was a work of art in itself, with a sense of wholeness to it.  Set into the landscape of 49 acres, it is part of something much larger than itself, an entire park or environment.
The polka dots of Yayoi Kusama are much the same.  They’re small pinpricks in the center of something much larger.    In reflecting on the dots, and in experiencing a multiplicity of dots, we become aware of the universe much larger than ourselves.   We go outside of ourselves, into the larger universe.  Presumably the Hirshhorn exhibition will make that world seem infinite and thus the title, “Infinity Mirrors.”  

 The difference between Kusama’s installations at The Glass House and in “Infinity Mirrors” is the difference between seeing the expansiveness of life in nature and being inside of our own small world and being forced to expand outward. The Hirshhorn is expecting an explosion of “selfies” taken at the exhibition. Visitors will only be allowed in the six installation rooms, with the doors closed, for a limited amount of time.

Pumpkin on the grounds of The Glass House

Kusama displayed one of her large pumpkins on the grounds of the Glass House.  The metal sculpture was pierced with polka dots and has a red interior. Kusama’s pumpkin theme repeats in one of the six installation rooms of the the Hirshhorn Exhibition.  It’s an installation called “All the eternal love I have is for the pumpkins.   (One of these glass pumpkins broke last Saturday, forcing a temporary closing of the exhibit.)

The photo by Domus was taken in November, 2016

Pumpkins, like the polka dots, are a lifelong obsession for the artist.  According to Kusama, “In Japanese, a ‘pumpkin head’ is an ignorant man or a pudgy woman, but for me, I am charmed by its shape, form, and lack of pretension.”    There’s a humor in Kusama work, too.

The Glass House’s Kusama installation also featured mirrors in an entirely different form — different from those at the Hirshhorn.  They were spherical balls in a pool of water called Narcissus Garden, surrounding the Pond Pavilion designed by Johnson. They spheres, 1300 of them, each 30 cm wide, moved and floated with the ponds currents.  They reflected the sky, the water and land.  Like Monet’s Water Lilies, Kusama’s water art unifies the elements of water, earth and air, except that it’s not done in a series of paintings. Its a form of kinetic sculpture.  In it’s effervescence, Narcissus Garden reminds me that some things can never appear the same again.

Philip Johnson’s Pond Pavilion and Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden, September 24, 2016, view from above

Kusama, born in 1929, is now 87.  She moved from Japan to New York in 1957 and played an important role in the avant-garde movement of the ’60s.  She participated in events with Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman and Allan Kaprow, instances of performance art called “happenings.”  But in 1973 she moved back to Japan, exhausted and suffering from hallucinations.  She has lived in a mental institution since that time. There was a rebirth of interest in her art in the late ’90s.  Her work perfectly embodies Pop Art and Conceptual Art, bridging the two movements, as well as Environmental Art and Performance Art.  

The public appreciation for installations and Conceptual Art has finally risen, giving her the broad audience she has today. The Hirshhorn Show is a retrospective celebrating 50 years of her life as an artist.  It will travel to four other museums around the US and Canada.  Sometimes it takes a life time of work and struggle to finally achieve what you’re here for and today is her time. (The Narcissus Garden is a variation she had introduced years ago at the Venice Biennale in 1966.  The “Infinity Mirrors” concept actually goes back in Art History, used in the Hall of Mirrors and integrated into the design of the Palace at Versailles.)   

Yayoi Kusama

According to art critic Philip Kennicott, Kusama says, “My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings.” Is it a combination of the obsessiveness in OCD and the hallucinations of schizophrenia?   If it is mental illness that creates this great art, then we can recognize mental illness as a special gift and not stigmatize these people who suffer from it.  (Read Philip Kennecott’s Review.  He sees her as criticizing the art world’s narcissism. I believe that criticism is justified.) 

She has given us a visualization of the connectedness of all life. The only other contemporary artist who does it so well is Anselm Kiefer, or possibly Bill Viola (now at SAAM). Kiefer and Kusama distinguish themselves with their spiritual insights.  And her audience is enriched, coming away with an understanding of life that is so much fuller. Can’t wait to see the Hirshhorn show. 
(The best article on the Glass House exhibition is from DeZeen.)

Who is That Woman? Manet & Meurent

Who is That Woman? Manet & Meurent

Detail of “Olympia” by Edouard Manet, 1863, in Musée d’Orsay
Victorine Meurent is Manet’s most frequent model of his early career.  She shocked audiences as the indifferent courtesan in Olympia (above), exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1864.  A year earlier, Victorine had scandalized Parisians, playing the part of a shameless woman who disrobed during a midday picnic. That was her role in Manet’s revolutionary painting, Le déjeuner sur lherbe(The Luncheon on the Grass– see on bottom) exhibited at the Salon des Refusées for the officially rejected paintings of that year.  She is just the matter-of-fact figure that Manet wanted, and there is nothing beautiful, sexual or erotic in either image. In both paintings, she is not an individual but the object, the sexual object.
Manet also painted Victorine as Young Lady (also called Woman with a Parrot), in 1866. She looks taller in her long pink gown. There’s a magnificent unpeeled lemon on the ground. The symbols in the painting may allude to the five senses and suggest that she is a mistress.  But she is a sympathetic one, one who even seems satisfied with her status as a mistress.  However, it’s hard to see each of these paintings as representative of the same woman. One supposes that Victorine refused to model naked again, after all the attention of Olympia and Le déjeuner...  had received.
Manet, Young Lady, 1866, Metropolitan
What was Manet’s relationship to Victorine?  They could have met in the studio of Thomas Couture, Manet’s painting teacher.   Born in 1844, Meurent started modelling there at age 16 and even may have taken lessons with Couture.  According to her wikipedia biography, Victorine also played guitar and violin, and sang occasionally.  She came from a family of minor artisans, and was probably not as poor as many painters’ models at that time.  
Manet, The Street Singer, 1862, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Manet’s first painting of her was The Street Singer.  She looks shy, hurried and slightly guarded.   Her brown dress is rumpled as she carried a guitar coming out of a building.  She quickly grabs a bite to eat from the cherries in her napkin.   Of all the paintings he did of her, this is perhaps the most revealing of Victorine, of who she was and what her life was to become.  Artistic and musical, she worked hard.
Shortly after The Street Singer, he painted her portrait, Portrait of Victorine Meurent.  She is pretty, resembling the photograph of her that Manet kept in his studio. She looks older than her 18 years in this painting, and she has an air of sophistication.   Again she doesn’t resemble women modeled in Manet’s two early masterpieces of 1863, Olympia and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.  
Manet, Portrait of Victorine Meurent, 1862, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Manet must have loved her for her versatility, the fact she could appear quite differently from painting to painting.   Her nickname was La Crevette, meaning “shrimp.”  She was quite short and had red or auburn hair.  Her eyes appear brown or hazel, while her hair can appear brown, red or of indeterminate color. In the portrait, he brought out all those qualities he saw in her as “beautiful.”   Here, she also seems to be the real woman, the woman we see in the photograph collected by Manet.  With Victorine as the subject, Manet did not objectify her at all!
Manet, Mlle Victorine in the Costume of an Espada, 1862
However, most of the time, Manet pursued Victorine’s image for special effects.  She is a prop, much like the fabrics, costumes and materials he kept in his studio.  Mademoiselle Victorine in the Costume of the Espada is one of many paintings Manet did in a Spanish theme.  Victorine is recognizable as the same woman as in Le déjeuner. (He painted this image a year earlier than Le dejeuner…) She is dressed like a bullfighter, and for the background Manet borrows from bullfighting prints by Goya.  Manet was experimenting with raised perspective and compositional space, years before Van Gogh and Munch did the same.  The pink cape she holds is study in painting fabric and color.  
Was Manet being ironic by turning her into a bullfighter?  Perhaps, but he also knew Victorine as a patient and willing model.   He’s experimenting dramatically with both color and space here, and perhaps he didn’t have a male model up to task.  Perhaps her small body best served his purpose.
It’s the arms and the hands and the eyes which say the most about Victorine in all the paintings.  On the other hand, when Manet painted Berthe Morisot, he also used the tilt of the head to convey the depth of his sentiment for her.
My thoughts about Manet and Meurent’s relationship is that it was a strong, professional relationship.   Was she his mistress?  No.  Like a good film director, Manet treated Victorine as the woman who could be cast in many roles.  Victorine was to Manet as Diane Keaton was to Woody Allen’s early film career. Victorine was to Manet as Penelope Cruz was to Pedro Almodóvar.   Later on, these film directors found other muses.
Manet, The Railway (also called Gare Saint-Lazare), 1872, National Gallery of Art, Washington
After a pronounced lull in painting Victorine after 1866, Manet painted her again in The Railway of 1872.  At this time Victorine was 29, but she looked remarkably younger than she appeared in Olympia and Le Dejeuner.   She is a woman who is nostalgic, a woman who looks to the past, while the girl beside her is all excited about the future. She is blasé about the train and wishes the future would not intrude so much into the present.  Again, Victorine showed herself to be an actress who could play different roles — in her own standoffish way.
Victorine took up painting in the 1870s and she was accepted into the Salon at least 6 times.  The only surviving painting is a portrait called Palm Sunday.  It is quite good as a painting, but her style was far more traditional than Manet’s. She models the sitter with traditional, nuanced light and shade to make the face three-dimensional.  The sitter turns to the side, which doesn’t really convey the personality. She even projects the plant closer to the picture plane and edge of the painting, giving it significant attention, too  While Meurent frequently posed as prostitute, her only painting known today is of a young participant in a religious procession. Victorine was in her 40s by that time, but her choice of subject is ironic if we know of the types of paintings for which she posed.
Victorine Meurent, Palm Sunday, 1885, Musée de l’art et l’histoire, Colombes
After Manet died in 1884, Victorine went to Suzanne Leenhoff, Manet’s widow, and told her she had been promised more income from Manet as some of the paintings for which she modeled sold. Suzanne coldly refused her request.  
Who was Victorine?  She was essentially an honest woman, who made an honest living as a model.  She worked hard in art and in music. She had minor successes from time to time, but fought back well when she hit hard times. Victorine sought artistic expression, but not fame or notoriety.  Manet definitely wanted public affirmation, not the angry outcry that he was receiving while she was his muse.  She modeled for other artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec, who teased her by calling her out as Olympia.
Manet, Olympia, 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Victorine may have been very interested in projecting Manet’s artistic objectives, but later pursued her own artistic objectives along different lines.   (In Le déjeuner sur l‘herbe and Olympia, Manet sought to modernize the themes of Giorgione and Titian of the Renaissance. He remakes them to be of his time, in the style we call Realism.) The audiences who saw these masterpieces probably didn’t know the model‘s identity. They thought nudity portraying mythological themes of the Renaissance or in the guise of goddesses and muses was absolutely fine.  Even portraying the prostitute could have been ok, if it had been done tastefully as in Goya’s Nude Maya.   However, Victorine played the part too well, conveying the distasteful side of the world’s oldest profession–that she is treated as object, not person.  She, herself, probably did not engage in sex for money, but she acted the part so well.
Manet, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1862-1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Victorine is the symbol of a time and place. Although interwoven with the men, her frank stare seems to say to the audience, “I don’t give a damn what you think.” Is Manet judging like the 19th century audience did?  More likely he recognizes the good and the bad. The advantage is that prostitution is a way to rise above one’s class and make a living. (Like the Valtesse de la Bigne, some women rose from abject poverty to the top of the social world this way.)  The bad is the de-personalization that comes with it.  My opinion is that Manet often found her to be the best model to make a statement of the ambiguities of modern life that he wished to express. Throughout his career, Manet sought ways to reconcile the ambiguities of his time. Tomorrow will be Manet’s 185th birthday, and we’re still discussing the treatment of women. So today we witness the women’s march on Washington against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s Inauguration.  (There’s a 19th century French expression: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”  The more things change, the more they stay the same thing.)  Please don’t get angry at me for saying it again. Certainly other models, the actresses and actors of Manet’s oeuvre, also have the detached gaze. Such impersonal expressions went along with the modern, urban life.   (Suzon, the barmaid in The Bar at the FoliesBergère, says it just as well, or even better.  But she came later.)  Meurent channeled the expression better than almost anyone over time. As Manet’s first important muse, her soul lives on for posterity.
There arenovels about Victorine Meurent, none of which I’ve read: Paris Red, by Maureen Gibbon, Mademoiselle Victorine: A Novel, by Debra Finerman and A Woman with No Clothes, by V.R. Main.  She has stirred the imagination of writers more than Manet and his relationship to Berthe Morisot, with whom he was in love.  Manet even portrayed Berthe Morisot more often, and in more guisesI think it’s because Victorine took part in two of his three most famous paintings.    Here are three more blogs about Victorine Meurent and Manet.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016