Semen Fridliand, Die kaüfliche Presse (The Venal Press) 1929 halftone reproduction,
6 1/4 x 8 1/4 in. (16 x 21 cm) National Gallery of Art Library, David K.E. Bruce Fund
At least four exhibitions on the Mall, at the National Gallery of Art and Hirshhorn Museum, take a look at printed word in painting and other art forms of the past century. Chronologically, these exhibits begin with the avant-garde artists of circa 1910 at the National Gallery of Art’s “Shock of the News” exhibition. They end with today’s leading provocateur-artist, Ai Weiwei of China, at the Smithsonian’s contemporary art museum, the Hirshhorn. So we search for the meaning of the word in art.
|Jean-Léon Gérôme, O Pti Cien, 1902, is an academic style
In 1902, Jean-Léon Gérôme, a leading academic artist of the day, painted O PTI CIEN, a puppy wearing a monacle. The letters suggest a reading of “au petit chien” (“at the little dog”), which would sound approximately like Oh P T shee-en to the French. But the letters also form the French word for an optician. This work actually was a competition for an advertisement, but Gérôme’s humorous pun set the stage for the Cubists, Surrealists and other artists who brought the painted word into prominence: Picasso and Georges Braque, Dada artists and even Surrealists like Magritte.
The intersection of the news media and visual art is the subject of the National Gallery’s Shock of the News. This cultural force burst onto the scene around the 2nd decade of the 20th century, when an Italian group, the Futurists, published their manifesto in 1909. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were soon incorporating collage into Cubism and using words from the newsprint to articulate their artwork. Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass, 1912 has the masthead from “Le Journal,” a Paris daily. The letters Jou appear as reminders of le jour, meaning day, journal, the daily newspaper and jouer, which means to play.
Pablo Picasso, Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass, 1912 sheet music, newspaper, colored and white paper, charcoal, and hand-painted faux-bois paper on wallpaper 47.9 x 36.5 cm (18 7/8 x 14 3/8 in.)Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay ©2012
Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork
That last word is the key, because modern art, if anything, is playful and ironic. If you can’t make the world better, why not laugh about it? The Dadaists, who followed Picasso, were despondent over the established civilization and the horrors of World War I. Particularly in urban centers of Germany and in Paris and New York, they couldn’t fight the world, so ridiculed it. Their art is full of newsprint, ready-made objects and things not expected to part of aesthetics. Hannah Hoch’s collages are particularly playful and interesting
Hannah Höch Von Oben (From Above), 1926-1927 photomontage and collage on paper 30.5 x 22.2 cm
(12 x 8 3/4 in.)Des Moines Art Center’s Louise Noun Collection of Art by Women through Bequest, 2003
Semen Fridliand’s photo halftone image, The Venal Press, above center, is a commentary on the public’s capability to let the press influence their to beliefs in everything. How much greater that power is with the blogs, the facebook and Twitter of today!
Of course, Picasso continued to respect the power of print media in Guernica, of 1937 (not in the exhibition), which is his commentary the first time a bomb was dropped from air, hitting the Basque city of Guernica in Spain. He wanted the monumental, 25-foot painting to have journalistic quality and therefore imitated the lettering of newspapers, while painting only blacks, whites and grays.
|On Kawara,Oct. 26, 1971 (Today series no. 97), 1971
cardboard box, newspaper, and liquitex on canvas
painting: 10 1/8 x 13 in., box bottom: 10 1/2 x 13 3/8 x 1 3/4 in. box lid: 10 5/8 x 13 1/4 x 1 3/16 in. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2007. The Panza Collection
On Kawara painted the date, October 27, 1971, in white on a black canvas. It is one of over 5,000 such images his has done over many years. Each painting goes along with a cardboard box and cover and the packing functions as a time capsule, because the news of that day is place in the box with the painting. After leaving the Shock of the News exhibition, National Gallery visitors move onto the next exhibition, Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective.
Roy Lichtenstein, Look Mickey, 1961, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 175.3 cm (48 x 69 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Roy and Dorothy Lichtenstein in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington
First and foremost, we think of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) as the artist who transformed the art of the comic book into a higher form of art. As a Pop artist, he is often eclipsed in reputation by Warhol. This large exhibition brings together works from his entire career, encompassing several themes. Throughout his long career, he used bold colors and ben-day dots. The dots imitative of a printer’s dots for the comics and newsprint remain a consistent signature of his style, but Lichtenstein’s late work parodies earlier art history using few words. His images of the 1960s borrow from cartoons, but he added captions and details to complete the compositions. His captions capture the spirit and humor of certain cultural icons like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Other large cartoon-like images fill rooms on the specific themes of war and romance. He uses boldness, humor and a surprising amount of emotion in a simplified style.
|Barbara Kruger, an installation at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, through 2014
The bold, sans serif letters of Barbara Kruger overwhelm the ground floor of the Hirshhorn right now. The exhibition, called Belief + Doubt = Sanity, uses words in every way to make us think. Kruger was a graphic artist before she became a fine artist and the heritage of graphic art remains part of her style and her appeal, much like it did for the Pop Artists before her. The stairs and adjoining rooms are dressed in bold letters using only black, yellow, red and white, an overwhelming effect. Her messages are arresting, questioning thought about politics, consumerism and all sorts of aspects of contemporary life. We realize the dichotomy of much in the world in which political banter stems from belief in one truth. The only sane way to evaluate it is with a blend of belief and doubt. Her art functions to ask questions, to question the cultural norms and to make us stop to think. As we ponder one of her bold messages, we recognize ourselves in the lines: “YOU WANT IT, YOU BUY IT, YOU FORGET IT.”
Ai Weiwei, Coca-Cola Vase, 2007, paint on Qing Dynasty
ceramic at Hirshhorn Museum until February 24, 2013
The Ai Weiwei exhibition, According to What (named after a painting by Jasper Johns currently in a Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition, Dancing around the Bride), is on the 3rd and 4th floors of the Hirshhorn. Like many contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei doesn’t limit himself to one medium; he does photographs, sculptures installations. He critiques American and Chinese governments, most notably the shoddy building construction which led to the death of 4,000 plus children in an earthquake. Ancient culture and modern life clash, but come together in Coco-Cola vase. He disrespects tradition but forces us to think how consumerism, corporate marketing and globalism meet ancient culture.
The works of Ai Weiwei and Barbara Kruger entertain, but those artists also challenge us and make us think more than Pop Art does. This summer I saw another contemporary, conceptual artist’s work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in of University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Show, is also the work of a graphic artist, like Kruger. The words printed are in black on a yellow ground, the typeface combination that can be read most easily in the mode of the yellow pages. Yellow is the happiest of colors. Sagmeister made me think of a modern “pursuit of happiness” written into the Declaration of Independence. The exhibition questioned, provoked, entertained, tried to make us laugh and added one more valuable asset, encouraging happiness. If we recognize the paradoxes that Barbara Kruger and Ai Weiwei demonstrate, it’s possible to use the art of the word to promote not just “JOU” (play), but also joy in the world, or joy in the word.
|Stefan Sagmeister, The Happy Show, at Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, April 4 – August 12, 2012
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
One of the first ‘pastoral‘ paintings(not in the exhibition) was
The Pastoral Concert, 1509, by Titian and/or
Giorgione, originator of the pastoral, where landscape is on par with figures. Shepherds and musicians are frequent in this theme.
Good things always end, including summer and a chance to see how the greatest modern artists painted themes of leisure as Arcadian Visions: Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse, ends Labor Day.
The exhibition highlights 3 large paintings: Gauguin’s frieze-like Where do We Come From?…, 1898, Cézanne’s Large Bathers, 1898-1905 and Matisse’s Bathers by a River, 1907-17.
Each painting was crucial to the goals of the artists, and crucial to the transitioning from the art and life of the past into the 20th century. These modernist visions actually are part of a much older theme descended from Greece and written about in Virgil’s Eclogues. Nineteenth-century masters were very familiar with this tradition from the 16th-century painting in the Louvre, The Pastoral Concert, by Giorgione and/or Titian. Édouard Manet’s infamous Luncheon on the Grass of 1863 was probably painted to fulfill that artist’s stated desire to modernize The Pastoral Concert. Those who think artists throw away tradition, think again; the greatest artists of the modern age did not.
Arcadia was originally thought to be in the mountains of central Greece. Virgil described a place where shepherds, nymphs and minor gods who lived on milk and honey, made music and were shielded from the vicissitudes of life. With its promise of calm simplicity, Arcadia was a place of refuge. Renaissance scholars writers and painters re-descovered it; Baroque painters developed the theme further, and 19th century artists glorified it because the Industrial created yearnings for a simpler life. (Musée d’Orsay in Paris has a small focused exhibit on Arcadia at the moment.) Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem of 1876, An Afternoon of the Faun, had this theme, too, and was followed by Claude Debussy’s musical interpretation after that poem.
But, even Virgil had warned, that things are not always as they seem. The exhibition’s signature pieces by Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse reflect harmonious relationships between humans and nature, but tinged with loss. The best of Arcadian visions give equal importance to figures and landscape, as these artists do. Other 19th century painters, whose work is shown for comparison, include Corot, Millet, Signac, Seurat, and Puvis da Chavannes. It is interesting that the museum did not include Auguste Renoir’s Large Bathers, 1887, in the PMA’s own collection, probably because that idealized scene does not have anything foreboding.
Paul Gauguin, Where do we come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going?(detail of left side), 1898
From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is so large that it must be seen in real life.
Artist Paul Gauguin escaped France and settled in the the south seas, Tahiti, where he searched for his version of Arcadia. It was the first time I had seen Gauguin’s Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? No reproduction does justice to its color, details and beauty. Twelve five feet wide and four feet high, it must be seen in person to adequately “read the painting.” Composed of figures familiar from other Gauguin paintings, this allegory makes us think deeply about the meaning of life via Gauguin’s favorite figural types, the women of Tahiti. He depicts youth, adulthood and old age and treats each phase as a moment of discovery and passing to the next, but we may end up with more questions than answers.
Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers, 1898-1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art, is the
culminations of many studies he had been doing of bathers since the 1870s.
The acoustical guide to the exhibition quotes Paul Gauguin who said that Paul Cézanne spent days on mountaintop reading Virgil. Cézanne’s soul was always in his hometown of Aix-en-Provence and the connection to that past was in his blood, coming from a very classical childhood education of Latin and Greek and hiking through old Roman paths with friend and future novelist, Émile Zola. Even though the bathers have no sensuality, Cézanne’s Large Bathers is a painting which gives exquisite beauty to its concept. To me, it stands out as the most important painting in the show. An article links Cézanne to thoughts of death, Poussin and several poets who wrote of the territory surrounding Aix as Arcadia. This painting is perhaps the most Arcadian modern painting of the exhibition, although there are no shepherds, no musicians and no men. While it picks up the dream of humankind living simply in nature, under its beauty and its bounty, one woman points to the river, suggesting a place where these complacent bathers will ultimately go.
The design of The Large Bathers perfectly balances traditional space and compositional structure with the goals of modern art. I always knew how much I loved this painting, but now I know why. The exhibition gave me much new insight and appreciation to fill an entire blog about this painting. Matisse’s painting is in the same large room of the exhibition, but the message is less subtle.
Matisse spent ten years revising this painting, 8’7″ by 12’10” Art Institute of Chicago
He completed Bathers by a River around 1917
Bathers by a River is also very large and, as expected, even more abstract. Matisse worked on the painting for 10 years and changed it, as his ideas and conceptions changed. Noticeable is the lack of color and empty features of the faces. He paints verticals, a suitable balance to the curves, but a snake appears in front and in the center, which can be seen as a dire warning. World War I was happening at the time he finished it. His earlier paintings of bathers were far more joyful and colorful.
Henri Rousseau, The Dream, 1910, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
is approximately 6’8″ x 9’9″
It was a complete surprise to see Henri Rousseau’s The Dream, also a very large painting. The tropical landscape with an elephant and lions is included in the same room of monumental paintings. Rousseau drew exotic plants in the botanical gardens of Paris and he painted them in a simplistic style with unexpected, evocative juxtapositions. He was a visionary before the Surrealists. His woman reclines in a traditional pose on a seat-less sofa, as a dark-skinned horn player and jungle animals appears. Music, repose, luxury of nature are typical Arcadian themes, and it is a joy to see it in the same room with the three signature paintings of the exhibition.
Nicolas Poussin, The Grande Bacchanal, c. 1627, from the Louvre, Paris
To understand all these connections, the curator included a painting by the most representative painter of the Arcadian tradition, Nicolas Poussin. (New York’s Metropolitan Museum hosted an exhibition, Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions, 4 years ago.) Poussin was a Baroque artist who was thoroughly engrossed in a classical style with themes taken from ancient writers. His painting The Grande Bacchanal, 1627, on loan from the Louvre, has beautiful women, musicians, a Silenus and even baby revelers, with darkess approaching the landscape. Each of the early modern artists featured in the exhibition were familiar with Poussin’s style and sources, as well as Watteau and Boucher who painted pastoral themes in the 18th century.
Matisse’s early Fauvist paintings, Music and The Dance, are abstract and modern but thoroughly a part of the pastoral tradition. Athough the exhibition does not show any of the colorful compositions Matisse did in the first decade of the 20th century, those paintings have tons of color and are steeped in the pastoral tradition. (I’ll need to take trip to Philadelphia to see the Barnes Collection with another large version of Cézanne’s Bathers and Matisse’s famous The Joy of Life.)
A sketch of “Music” from MoMA links back to Poussin’s The Andrians, with dancers, a lounging woman and a violinist. This painting is not in the exhibition..
Quotes from the poet Virgil’s pastoral literature line the walls. We witness how various artists of the 19th and 20th centuries interpreted his poetry in drawings, paintings, etchings and illustrated books. The exhibition ends with Picasso, Cubists, Expressionists and little-known Russian painters of the 20th century. Although not always inspired by Virgil or Ovid, these paintings can be linked to the desire for a bucolic life of simplicity and harmony in nature.
I was awed to see the Robert Delaunay’s City of Paris, 1910-12. Delaunay famously painted the Eiffel Tower in a Cubist jumble of colors and shifting perspectives. That symbol of modernism was only a little more than 20 years old at this time. This giant canvas of Paris also has three large nudes. They are the Three Graces, just as Botticelli and Raphael had painted them. Delaunay’s vision of Paris includes the past and the present, but the nudes of the past are actually seem more central to this composition of shifting triangles, circles and planes of colors. If anything, Cubism reminds us of life’s impermanence.
Robert Delaunay, City of Paris, 1910-12, is 8’9″ x 13’4″
Finally, at the end we see Franz Marc’s Deer in Forest, II,
from the Phillips Collection. Here the humans are gone and only animals are in the forest. The exhibition is very thoughtful and reflective, and I thank Curator Joseph Rishel for giving us so much to ponder. It is one designed not only to make us only look art more closely, but we must also think more deeply.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Sam Gilliam, The Petition, 1990, mixed media
Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition, African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Era and Beyond gives a broad overview of 43 artists whose work spanned 8 decades of the 20th century. Over 40 photographs, as well as paintings, give a provocative picture of urban and rural life during the Depression, the age of segregation and the Civil Rights and later. Although there is some overlap with other 20th century art movements, the exhibition is mainly art focused on African-Americans and their lives. Both abstract and figural paintings are included, but also sculpture by Richard Hunt, Sam Gilliam, an important recent figure in the art scene of Washington, DC. The artists come from the South and North, with a large number from urban areas of Detroit, New York, St. Louis, Baltimore and Washington, DC.
Detroit artist Tony Gleaton recorded his travels to Nicaraguain in Family of the Sea, 1988, from the series Tengo Casi 500 Anos: Africa’s Legacy in Central America, above. Roy De Carava was a New Yorker whose photos capture aspects of city life as in Two Women Manikan’s Hand, 1950, printed 1982, on right. (gelatin silver prints)
The portraits give impressive concentrated views of individual personalities, particularly by Tony Gleaton and Earlie Hudnall, Jr. I especially liked the photographs of Ray DeCarava, for the artistic compositions with interesting value contrasts. Although the portrait photography is very interesting, I’m partial to DeCarava’s staged compositions which look like film stills.
Ray DeCarava, Lingerie, New York, 1950, printed 1982, gelatin silver print, left.
Gleaton’s works are part of series photos, such as Africa’s legacy in Central America. But there is also a series from the WPA (Works Project Administration of the 1930s, part of the New Deal. Robert McNeill ‘s several photographs include those from his project entitled, The Negro in Virginia which has both interesting portraits and slices of life. The art of photojournalism really began at this time, during the 1930s.
The contrast of black and white photography works well exhibited next to bold, colorful works of art by the Harlem Renaissance artists, such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, who worked with collages. Bearden, Lawrence, as well as Lois Mailou Jones and Norman Lewis, are among the most important painters who contributed to the artistic life of Harlem in the 20s and 30s. The Harlem Renaissance also produced writers, musicians and poets such as Langston Hughes.
Community, by Jacob Lawrence is a gouache of 1986.
It is a study for the mural of the same name in Jamaica, New York
Lawrence lived until 2000 and spent his last 30 years as a professor at the University of Washingon in Seattle. The exhibition has both an early and a late work. Lawrence maintained a similar style in the later work, always influenced by colors in Harlem which he said inspired him. Lawrence’s most famous works are the series paintings, The Migration Series, half of which is in Washington’s Phillips collection, and the Harriet Tubman series and the Frederick Douglas series at the Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, where another large collection of African-American art is kept.
Charles Searles’ Celebration is an acrylic study for a mural painting
in the William H Green Building, Philadelphia, made in 1975
Charles Searles was from Philadelphia and the Smithsonian’s Celebration is actually a study for a mural done in the William H Green Federal Building in Philadelphia. Likewise, Community is a study for a mural Lawrence did in Jamaica, New York, 1986. It evokes a spirit of togetherness and cooperation.
Norman Lewis, Evening Rendezvous, 1962
Abstract works may actually be visualizations with other meanings. Norman Lewis’s Evening Rendezvous of 1962, is an abstract medley of red white and blue, but the white refers to hoods of the KluKluxKlan and red to fires and burnings. Not all is innocent fun, but Enchanted Rider, done by Bob Thompson in 1961 is more optimistic. The rider may actually be a vision of St. George who triumphed over evil and is a traditional symbol of Christian art.
Enchanted Rider by Bob Thompson, 1961
Though the exhibition is somewhat historical, it wants the viewer to judge each piece on its own merit, and to see it as a unique expression of the individual artists. There is not a heavy emphasis on chronology or history. Lois Mailou Jones is one such personal, but symbolic artist who picked up ideas from living in Haiti and traveling to 11 African countries. In Moon Masque, 1971, pattern, fabric design and African rituals are evoked. I like the color in most of these paintings and the celebration of life so vividly expressed in these works.
Lois Mailou Jones, Moon Masque, 1971
The Smithsonian American Art Museum has the largest collection of African-American Art in any one location, but this exhibition is only a portion of their collection. Some modern masters, such as Elizabeth Catlett, Faith Ringgold and Perry James Marshall, are not included in this showing. After the exhibition closes in Washington September 3, it will travel to museums in Williamsburg, Orlando, Salem, MA, Albuquerque, Chattanooga, Sacramento and Syracuse for the next 2-1/2 years.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Since going to the Miró exhibition recently, I’ve been reminded of Remedios Varo. In 2000, I discovered this marvelous Surrealist in an exhibition devoted to her at Chicago’s Mexican Fine Arts Museum. Called The Magic or Remedios Varo, the exhibition had been organized by Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts and shown there. At the moment of this writing there is an exhibition at Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderne de Mexico, entitled Remedios Varo: 50 Keys. It includes 50 works of art and a single sculpture.
Certainly Frida Kahlo is much better known, but I find Varo, who knew both Kahlo and Diego Rivera, more evocative and interesting as an artist. Varo also uses a female subject as her chief descriptive vehicle, but she is less self-absorbed than Kahlo and more concerned with the larger world.
Varo was a Surrealist born in Spain in 1908, but exiled to Mexico after 1941. Like Gaudi, Miró and Dalí, she was Catalan, originally from Angles, near Girona and close to the French border. Some of the literature I read of her suggested she was a scientist with a dedication to nature close to that of Leonardo da Vinci. She learned much through her father, an engineer, and lived part of her childhood in Morocco. Varo is certainly a detail artist and paints more in the style of a tempera painter than an oil painter. Yet I hardly see a deep devotion to science; her art taps into more of a spiritual quest for understanding the world. Perhaps, to other observers, she bridges the gap between science and the mystical.
Varo’s people are tall and thin, elongated like Sienese or Catalan figures from around 1400. Her perspective is also similar, somewhat long and exaggerated, also. She has a delicate touch and is able to find connections unexpectedly. As a woman spins in The Alchemist, above, the checkerboard of her cloak turns into tile patten of the floor beneath her. Or is it opposite? She could be weaving the tile floor into her clothing. Some kind of contraption behind her is the machinery that connecting what’s inside with the outdoors. The perspective is like Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo.
Throughout her work I’m reminded of creativity, where it comes from and where it goes. Her artwork evokes these connections again and again. There something mystical in how it comes about. While The Flutist, above, plays next to a mountain, the stones magically rise and form a tower, while a schematic mathematical drawing holds the tower in place. Stairs of the tower are rising, going up to heaven like a Tower of Babel. However, some sources cite the the periodic table of chemistry, though I don’t quite see that connection. There are fossils on these stones, so a connection to the ancient past, present and future come together in one place.
Creation of the Birds, left, dates to 1957. As a wise woman in owl’s clothing paints birds, the birds fly out the window, She also holds a magnifying glass lit by a star out the window which, in turn, illuminates her creation. The brush comes out in her center, the heart source of creativity, which is really a guitar strung around her neck. There are egg-shaped contraptions on the floor and out another window. In fact, this machine mixes her paint, while a bird eats on the floor. Art, music, inspiration, heart, mind, and inspiration flow together, while birds fly in and out. The artist’s work is to connect inner and outer worlds.
Varo’s connection to Surrealists in Paris and Barcelona was strong. She attended the Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, the same art school as Salvador Dalí had attended. We know little of her work in Europe before she went to Mexico, but we know she admired the paintings of Heironymous Bosch at the Prado and philosophical writings of the hermetic tradition. Most of the work that can be seen is comes from the 1950s up to her death in 1963. Her association with the Surrealism made her unacceptable to either the Spanish government after the Civil War or a France during Nazi occupation. She and her French husband fled to Mexico where they met other artists such as English-born Leonora Carrington, perhaps the artist closest to her in style.
We can’t always know what was on her mind, as in the case of much Surrealism, but there seems to be a desire to tap into the origin of creativity and to connect the self (herself) to the larger universe. Her last painting, before she unexpectedly died of a heart attack at age 53, was Revolving Still Life. Pieces of fruit spin off plates as the planets orbit the sun. How interesting the many ways she can connect the small and ordinary with the big, cosmic implications! She has many online followers and fans of her work. There was an exhibition in Los Angeles last Spring which featured 10 of her paintings.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
|Joan Miró, Nocturne, 1935, is a small oil on copper
from the Cleveland Museum of Art. A jumping man,
crescent moon and spiral suggest the artist ability to
leap above problems of life.
“We Catalans believe you must always plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump into the air”
In 1948, Joan Miró used these words to describe the Catalan mentality. Like Salvador Dali and Antoni Gaudí, giants of modern art and architecture, Miro came from Catalonia, the area of Spain on the Mediterranean Sea near the French border. Catalans had a language and cultural identify different from the rest of Spain. Washington’s National Gallery, which hosts a Miro exhibition until August 12, completes the quote on a wall label:
“The that I came down to earth from time to time makes it possible for me to jump higher.”
Joan Miró: Ladders of Escape is the appropriate name for this exhibition which captures the flying spirit of this Surrealist artist. From beginning to end, the exhibit relates him the times and places he lived. His lifespan was long, from 1893 until 1983. As the world changed so much during the the 20th century, politically, artistically and technologically, his art also changed but kept some continuities.
|Vegetable Garden and Donkey, Moderna Museet, Stockholm,
1918, reveals Miro’s roots
Miró’s family had a farm in the country town called Montruig, “red mount” in Catalan. The earliest paintings show his roots in an agricultural land which launched him. Some of the animals, particularly the rooster, will recur in his art, after he moved to Paris in 1920.
The National Gallery of Art’s large painting called The Farm, 1921-23, in a style at times called detailism, shows a compulsive need to fill up the painting. Miro considered it autobiographical and Ernest Hemingway, who owned it, thought it represented both the artist and Spain in the midst of change. Meticulous and precise, The Farm has two ladders, 4 rabbits, 2 roosters, other birds and crops, buildings and a tree in the center. There is “earthiness” on the ground, but the animals are perched on top of various launching pads; In this painting, we witness a Miró who is ready take off as an artist.
|By the time Miró painted the National Gallery’s The Farm, 1921-23, his art began to change. Shown above is a detail of the painting has farm animals and other symbols such as the ladder which will remain most of his life.
in 1923, he joined the Surrealist group of artists led by André Breton. He adopted a biomorphic Surrealism which is more abstract than realistic. He began to use repetitious motifs, such as a “Catalan Peasant,” ladders, roosters. Surrealism put the subconscious mind on equal par with the conscious mind and Miró’s images appear as symbols. A painting of 1926, Dog Barking at the Moon, gives insight into Miró’s thinking. If the barking dog is chasing the moon, his dreams, the ladder suggests a way to get there.
|Joan Miro, Dog Barking at the Moon, 1926, is from the Philadelphia
Museum of Art is an early example of his Surrealism.
During this time in Paris, Miró was working with free association. He even said, “Rather than setting out to paint something, I begin painting………and the paint begins to assert itself.” In style and in working methods, we can also associate him with Antoni Gaudí, who was constantly revising and changing his drawings for the Sagrada Familia as he worked. The ladders of Miró are like the towers of Gaudí, leaping points into an imagined world. The ability to escape proved to be a good tool to use in hard times.
The state of affairs surrounding Miró got worse. The economy in Europe became very difficult and Miro returned home to Catalonia, to the city of Barcelona. Peace in Spain was shorl-lived; the Depression hit in 1932 and in 1934, the Catalan Republic was suppressed. In 1936, The Spanish Civil War began and lasted until 1939. Still Life with an Old Shoe, a painting from this time, has a fork going through and apple. Miró described the painting as having a “realism that is far from photographic.”
|Still Life with Old Shoe, 1936 is in MoMA’s Collection. Miró managed to find
color in the depressing conditions of the Spanish Civil War.
|Morningstar, 1941, is the in the Fundació Miró of Barcelona,
one of two European museums which has hosted the exhibition.
By 1933, Miró grew apart from the Surrealists, as he did not support Communism, and they did not respect him working with popular art and designing tapestries. During the Spanish Civil War, he did a series of dark paintings and, like Picasso, did a piece for the Spanish Republican Pavilion in the 1937 Paris exhibition (The Reaper
was political, but is not in this show.) When Franco triumphed in Spain’s Civil War (with the help of Hitler and Mussolini), Miró did not support his regime. He went back to Paris briefly, but the Nazis would soon invade Paris and he left again. During his self-imposed exile to Normandy and the Spanish island of Majorca, he did a “Constellation” series of gouaches, combining black lines with solid colored shapes. Stars, towers, and human forms dance in patterns of optimism expressing his hope in dreary times. Miró’s vivid color and organic forms solidify his artistic identity. Each painting has a star as he visualizes a dream for something better, but the work is still grounded, and never “flighty.”
|Message to My Friend, 1964, is in the Tate Modern Museum.
The late paintings of Miró get even simpler and more symbolic, for example, Message to My Friend, 1964. Since the 1920s, he had been a friend of American artist Alexander Calder who had developed the mobile as an art form. Washington’s Phillips Collection in held an exhibition to highlight the artistic connection between these artists about 7 years ago. As the curator explained, they shared an incredible ability to compose line in space. (Calder’s playful circus figures remind me of the Constellation series.)
I am thankful the curators of this exhibition presented a consistent view of an artist who is able to fly and dream in the face of a pessimistic world. The exhibition does not include some of his most famous paintings, such as Harlequin’s Carnival, which would not fit into the theme. Of all the “automatic” and playful artists of the Dada and Surrealist eras, Paul Klee is my favorite because he remains truest to an automatic, childlike, form of communicating in his art. However, Miró also draws upon an honest, open and ingenuous vision. Perhaps some of his ability to look for greater heights was shown to him by an older and endlessly imaginative countryman, Antoni Gaudi. Joan Miro: Ladders of Escape will be at the Gallery until August 12th. It has already traveled through Europe, starting at the Tate in London and the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona.
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016
Much of our appreciation of Van Gogh can be traced to Helene Müller, whose acquisitions are the foundation of the Kröller-Müller Museum. This German-born heiress was wise in recognizing Van Gogh’s genius and became the first major collector of his work. She and her Dutch husband, Anton Kröller, built a sensational collection and began showing parts of it to the public as early as 1913. They lost their fortune in the economic downturn after World War I, but formed the Kröller-Müller Foundation to protect the art. In 1935, they donated a house, land and a collection of 12,000 pieces to the Netherlands on the condition the country will build a place to display it. There were 90 paintings, 185 drawings by Van Gogh.
Still Life with Four Sunflowers, 1887, has contrasts of blue and orange, yellow and red, a reason I find this painting in the Kröller-Müller Museum more interesting than Van Gogh’s more famous yellow paintings of sunflowers in a vase.
In a recent trip to the Netherlands, I was lucky to visit the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo with its awesome collection of Van Goghs. A month earlier I had seen a wonderful exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Van Gogh: Close Up, mostly paintings of nature. The 4 withered sunflowers, above, in the Otterlo museum, reminded me of the painting of two sunflowers I had seen in Philadelphia (from New York’s Metropolitan Museum).
However, we didn’t get to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where the lines were out of the door. Is there ever a time that to see a group of his paintings without big crowds? The public loves Van Gogh so much because everything pulsates and everything we feel and experience is felt so much stronger in his artworks.
My favorite Van Gogh in the Kröller- Müller Museum was The Café Terrace at Night, 1888, an outdoor view of the nightclub Van Gogh frequented in Arles. Intense contrast of yellow light meets the deep blue starry sky.
Color is sensual and color draws us into Van Gogh because his blues, greens and yellows are unique, out of this world in their beauty. Applied with heavy brush strokes, Van Gogh lines and shapes form a variety of 3-dimensional textures coming out into space, up into space or around the canvas. We witness the fury of his emotions. Students are fascinated with the details of his life, why he cut off part of an ear and later committed suicide in 1890. Van Gogh wrote of his depression and suicidal thoughts, while others described his manias. Some of his best production seems to have been painted in periods of mania. He suffered from epilepsy and drank too much absinthe. Extremes of mood made him hard to tolerate, but fostered his great genius.
As a student, Cezanne and Gauguin were my early favorites of Post-Impressionism. I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by the intensity of Van Gogh ….or Edvard Munch. Munch’s painting of The Scream, 1893, anticipated what was to come in the 20th century– Depression, world wars, genocides. Van Gogh certainly was a huge influence on the art of Munch and other Expressionists.
Rugged textures of the floor, body and chair and elsewhere
make the pain of Old Man in Sorrow, 1890, seem very real.
Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch had the power to visualize and portray intensity of feelings that most of us humans feel at times, though we might not admit it, or we may not be able to express it. Van Gogh in the 1880s and Munch in the 1890s experienced a world that was rapidly changing and adjustment would not be easy. We can understand the difference between old and new life in the very first painting Helene Müller bought. Paul Gabriël’s Train in Landscape, a traditional painting of c.1887, describes the Dutch world at the time of Van Gogh, one leg in the past and one in the future.
Paul Gabriël’s Train in Landscape, c. 1887, is a traditional, realistic painting of Van Gogh’s time.
A canal divides the painting in center, separating modern world from old ways of life. The left has a train and electric wires, while the right side has dikes and windmills representing the past.
I thank Helene Müller for bringing Van Gogh’s art to the public. She also patronized modern artists of her time, such as Picasso, Fernand Leger, Diego Rivera, Dutchmen Piet Mondrian and Bart van der Leck. She collected many other 19th century modernists: Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Pissarro, Gauguin and Munch. In 1922, Helene Muller bought her last painting, Le Chahut by Georges Seurat, a delightful circus image which gives us light-hearteded break from the serious emotions of Van Gogh.
Le Chahut, 1889-1890, by Georges Seurat, is another masterpiece in the Kröller-Müller Museum.
The humorous facial expressions are a relief from the intensity of Van Gogh’s expressiveness,
and from the stiffness of his famous Sunday Afternoon on the Island of .La Grande Jatte.
Since 1977, the museum has added contemporary art and will continue to expand. Not all the famous Van Goghs can be seen at the Kröler-Müller at any one time. A beautiful example of The Sower owned by the museum was not on view. Today the Kröller-Müller Museum presents Van Gogh in context with other artists, including contemporary artists. It is in a huge park, once the Kröller property, and there is a wonderful sculpture garden outside.
A sculpture garden in the large park surrounding the Kröller-Müller Museum has a
playful landscape sculpture by Jean Dubuffet
Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016