Nightmare Scenarios I

Just walk right up to the dude and shoot. No formalities, no announcements, nothing. Just get the fucking job done. This violent imagery is devastating. The same goes for the painting as a thing in itself. Apparently, it was discovered in a bad state after Manet died. Pieces of it had been cut away because of some storage issues – maybe canvas rot or paint damage. Léon Leenhoff (the paternity of this unfortunate young man was never disclosed and rumors run rampant) cut up the remaining bits and sold those separately. Degas, Manet’s good friend, later managed to track down and buy up those pieces in order to keep them together.

Edgar Degas Monsieur et Madame Edouard Manet 1868-69

“DEGAS was partial, in his paintings, to the “cutoff.” His dancers on stage or in the wings and his jockeys on horseback at the races often find themselves – as in a snapshot – intercepted by the frame. In fact, this canny artist used the cutoff as a device to suggest spontaneity and movement. All the same, the painting of a husband and wife shown here, lent from Japan to the recent major exhibition of Degas’ work in Paris, Ottawa, and New York, was somewhat surprising. It has a startling cutoff that was not part of Degas’ intention at all. Even he would never have gone so far as to slice off the front half of one of the figures in a double portrait. That severe act was performed by the elegant, languid man sprawling on the sofa.
According to Degas, as reported in a conversation with Ambroise Vollard at the turn of the century, this man – the painter Edouard Manet – “thought that something about Mme. Manet wasn’t right” in the picture and painted over it.
When, visiting Manet’s house, Degas saw what his friend had done, he was so shocked that (as he told Vollard LINK HERE FOR THE STORY): “I left without saying goodbye, taking my picture with me. When I got home, I took down a little still life he had given me.” “Monsieur,” I wrote, “I am returning your Plums.” [Christopher Andreae on Degas and Manet]

It seems that Manet had a history of cut up paintings. (See the Incident at a Bullfight and Les Gitanos) But why Edouard would severely edit a gift from his friend Edgar is not easy to ascertain. There are many artists who would find this kind of revisionist behavior reprehensible (see a more contemporary exchange here.) Granted Degas and Manet made up in time, but it’s interesting that Edgar would choose to be the one to chase after this particular cut up painting. It couldn’t have been an easy or inexpensive task for Degas, and this quest speaks of his love and respect for his friend. How many of us would save a friend’s work in just this way if we had the time and the means? This kind of behavior doesn’t seem to fit what we know of Degas. Over the last 30 years or so we’ve come to see him as a selfish right-wing douche bag (and rightly so,) but just maybe, life – against our expectations – is wonderfully complicated…

After Edgar passed away the National Gallery in London acquired these fragments in a posthumous auction of his collections. The fragments were displayed separately until 1992 (the story is here) when the National decided to puzzle piece this thing back together on linen making the painting into an almost perfect Postmodern Provisional Painting. Never mind – the composition of the image is so strong that it almost makes it past the annoying contemporary backdrop, but the collage never does get past the clash of centuries – conservation headaches, presentation ideologies, masterpiece restorations and institutional conceits all play a role in the confusion of Manet’s imagery, Degas’ reconstitution, and ultimately, our mis-reading of this work.

Rail: In addition to the fact that it’s been cut into pieces, therefore creating this false aura of fragmentation that has been so much a part of our built-in heritage since cubism.
Elderfield: I agree. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Well this is a wonderful picture because it is so modern.’ But the truth is, it’s modern by accident. A related example: in the Mondrian show in ’94, remember how beautiful those Pier and Ocean works on paper were? I walked around the show with a well-known artist, who pointed out how the white marks so prominently stood out against the muted background of the paper, and I said, “Well, actually, that’s because the paper has darkened over the years; the white wouldn’t have been visible originally.” And he said, “Oh, nonsense. This is part of the beauty.” And I said, “Yes, it is part of the beauty, but it’s accidental. [Phong Bui and John Elderfield on Manet’s Maximilian]

Paul Corio @ McKenzie Fine Art

Paul Corio is opening a show of new paintings on the 9th at McKenzie Fine Arts. Here in the pandemic city painting goes on! Unfortunately, there will not be an opening, but there will be smaller events over the course of the show – check with the gallery for event updates.

“What Kind of Fool Am I?” will be on view from 9/9/20 until 10/25/20. McKenzie Fine Art is located at 55 Orchard St. between Hester and Grand St. in Manhattan, and the gallery hours are Wednesday to Saturday 11:00 – 6:00 and Sunday 12:00 – 6:00.  Masks are required and the maximum number of visitors at a given time is six.  Appointments are recommended but not required; call 212-989-5467 or e-mail info@mckenziefineart.com.

Notebook X

“There is only one image my eyes remember…her mouth against mine, long, bare legs, hair against my cheek. And that scent! How I wish I could preserve every precious second of a love affair…the atmosphere, the colors, the dimensions and the perfume.” – Jacques Henri Lartigue

Imagery is memory, and in many ways abstraction – especially the socially driven kind of abstraction – tries to do away with this problematic idea. Abstraction wants to create a more direct experience of art by removing the annoyance of an author and the author’s memory. What’s most important are the processes of composition and construction, the relationships of color, the predominance of the surface, and the banishment of illusion. These are puzzle pieces for the eye – a clear unimpeded experience of the qualities of this specific medium. It is your vision, your understanding, that’s important. Maybe you’ll have a religious experience or maybe you’ll weep in front of it, or perhaps you’ll play the game and solve the puzzle, or you’ll just meditate and admire the zen of the process. Perhaps there will be nothing at all and you’ll just like how the thing looks – another thing in the world – like a rock, a tree, an ocean or a lamp. Modernism does away with the need to depict reality, to remember – rather it is reality. And with that imagery and memory and the intimacy engendered by those experiences are no longer necessary in order to paint.

“This was not to say, however, that she did not long, at times, for some even greater variation, that she did not pass through those abnormal hours in which one thirsts for something different from what one has, when those people who, through lack of energy or imagination, are unable to generate any motive power in themselves, cry out, as the clock strikes or the postman knocks, in their eagerness for news (even if it be bad news), for some emotion (even that of grief); when the heartstrings, which prosperity has silenced, like a harp laid by, yearn to be plucked and sounded again by some hand, even a brutal hand, even if it shall break them; when the will, which has with such difficulty brought itself to subdue its impulse, to renounce its right to abandon itself to its own uncontrolled desires, and consequent sufferings, would fain cast its guiding reins into the hands of circumstances, coercive and, it may be, cruel.” [Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past Volume One, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, p. 174, (1922)]

In the Classical South – after the war – there was a resurgence of imagery pushing back against Modernist iconoclasm. Every well worn tenet of art, politics, society, and religion was being questioned. DaDa, Surrealism and the “return to order” all made it clear that many artists who began the Modern enterprise were thinking that something had been left out. The imperfect memory of a place, a person, a moment in time began to re-emerge in Modern art – Picabia’s cinema-inspired overlays – Miro’s surreal abstract figuration – Matisse’s Orientalism – Picasso’s classicism. And along with these newly image besotted painters came the love-drunk photographers, like Lartigue, capturing their own personal and undeniable moments, indulging in the life and love of leisure and desire, and finding the moments that slip away without us noticing. Images and memories came rushing back to the surface of things-in-the-world, because what Modern artists were looking for in the South was intimacy.

Jacques Henri Lartigue Picasso, Cannes, août 1955

“What’s so incredibly amusing with photography is that while seemingly an art of the surface, it catches things I haven’t even noticed. And it pains me not to have seen things in all their depth.” Jacques Henri Lartigue

Notebook IX

Pablo Picasso 1972 Picasso Museum Antibes

“In 1946, Picasso, who was living nearby in Golfe-Juan with Françoise Gilot, accepted curator Dor de la Souchère’s offer to set up his studio in the Castle. Picasso worked from mid September through mid November of 1946, creating many works, sketches and paintings, including Les Clés d’Antibes (The Keys of Antibes), covering an entire wall surface. When the artist decided to move back to Paris, he left 23 paintings and 44 sketches in the Castle’s custody.” [Picasso Museum Antibes]

It ain’t easy to like Picasso – the man, that is. Horror Douche would be the best description. But Picasso the artist, well, that’s another story. There are wonderful works all through his career – so many innovations – so many wonderful works – but for me – it’s the late works – those that came after the war when Picasso moved South – especially those in his last decade. These paintings still resonate. No one was ready to see them, especially the abstract painters working feverishly to finalize the Modern era as an abstract one. These jolie-laide figurative works were filled with classical references, old master dialogues and an eccentric and personal kind of deconstructive expressionism. Picasso leaned heavily on his early Demoiselles for substance and style and tore through that period of experimentation with both art historical and personal references. In the South in that last decade or so – Picasso came to terms with his own biography – innovating Modern painting one last time.

Everyone goes on about the beauty, color and light of the South. Painters from the north who went there to work had to find new color combinations to express this difference, and for the most part it was yellow and violet that painters added to their palettes. These colors – for Impressionists like Monet and Renoir – helped to define the exotic and beautiful Cote d’Azur. But in Picasso’s last paintings these colors feel more like a form of infection. The yellow and violet invade one’s life – even the banality of smoking a pipe. In “Buste d’homme” Pablo’s swashbuckling doppelganger is having a quiet moment of reverie and self-recrimination. One eye is looking out to this world. The other shocked eye is looking within. Picasso is at the end of the Modern era and the focus and intention of painting has changed. As Matisse said about his own work in the South – “beneath the sun-drenched torpor that bathes things and people, a great tension smolders, a specifically pictorial tension.

“There’s a story I sometimes tell, something that was very important for me, determining for my attitude. My father and I were at a bullfight in Nîmes or Arles, and it was El Cordobés, the bullfighter, who had a very unacademic way of bullfighting. So after the bullfight my father and I always had these big discussions dissecting what had happened in the ring, and I was complaining that El Cordobés was always doing strange things and that he didn’t kill the bull properly and wasn’t fighting in the proper way. So my father said, “What are you saying? You should like him. He’s a Beatle.” Like the Beatles! [laughter] And then he said, “What would ever have happened if I’d painted like Delacroix?” So you know, “Pfft.” And I thought, yeah, right, okay. Okay, it’s important to take another risk.” [Claude Picasso in conversation with John Richardson on Pablo]

Notebook VIII

In 1925 Picabia moved South to Mougins on the Cote d’Azur. For the next couple of decades he would experiment with different kinds of painting, abstraction, pop culture, movies and found imagery. This work is acerbic, seductive and surprising, because none of it is what it seems to be, none of the imagery fits into our expectations. What constitutes “art”? What is a viable subject or process for “great” painting? How far can one push until someone gets offended? And that’s pretty much how Picabia approached his life – pushing against anything, any idea, any convention until it made someone squirm.

“Picabia spent most of the thirties on the Riviera, living with a mistress and designing the décor for fancy-dress galas. During the war, still in the South of France, he perpetrated his statuesque nudes, simpering lovers, and coarse enigmas, including “Hanged Pierrot,” circa 1941, in which a woman appears to lament a dead clown. Picabia told Gertrude Stein that he could turn out one such picture a day. Stein was a close friend, who, though Jewish, had powerful protectors and, like Picabia, fell under the shadow of collaboration with the Vichy regime. Unlike Stein, he was formally accused, but cleared for lack of evidence. Finally, until he died, in 1953, Picabia painted abstractions—such as colored dots embedded in black grounds—that presaged the generic feel of paintings about painting, rife in Chelsea galleries in the past few years, of what the painter and critic Walter Robinson has termed “zombie formalism.”” [Peter Schjeldahl on Francis Picabia]

Picabia came to the South for the freedom and the beauty that it promised, but by the time he arrived on the Riviera it had become “the destination” for the upper crust vacationer. This reality must have emboldened Francis – all those socialites and well-to-do douche bags discussing the wonderful art in their collections. How many dinner parties? How many afternoon events in luxe gardens? How many half-soused “experts” of art did Francis have to run into while he lived his outre life? How far could he push their attitudes and expectations about what Art was, or for that matter, what life could be while they relaxed and indulged in their insulated vacation lifestyles? Challenge accepted!

“The exhibition… follows the artist through all his phases, including the chocolate-box Spanish dancers with kiss curls and combs in their hair, the willfully monstrous parodies of sentimental postcards (couples with four mouths and eight eyes kissing by moonlight). The latter, painted with crude industrial colors, would subsequently be parodied in the “Smoky Stover” comic strip as an embodiment of “modern art.” Next came a series of paintings superimposing faces and nude bodies, and finally, in the ’40s, when Picabia lived in the south of France, female nudes laboriously copied from girlie magazines.
Picabia obviously had a lifelong agenda, commanded by a rejection of the frivolous socialite concept of painting as a massage for the eye and responding to the general mood of self-destructive nihilism that infected Europe at the time.
Picabia was hell-bent to break out of that closure and, with his bull-like temperament, never stopped charging till the end. This desperate consistency alone invites a measure of respect and friendly acceptance. [Michael Gibson on Picabia]

Notebook VII

“Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, and my very self, on this coast where Renoir lived. We have tried to overcome the spirit of destruction that dominates the time; we decorated the surfaces that men dreamed to demolish. Perhaps, the love of our work will protect them against bombs.” [Jean Cocteau]

The South was the place Modern artists went to experience and create new ideas about painting. This innovative wanderlust began with Cezanne and the Post-Impressionists and continued right up until Picasso’s passing in the early seventies. After WWI more Modern artists made their way south to find solace, to recover and to reinvent themselves and their art. They came for the light, the space, the color and the beauty of the sea and the countryside. In this place and in this climate Modernism became less abstract and more… “exotic.”
It was called the “Return to Order,” but that’s a misnomer. In actuality artists were looking for humanity and individuality after the violent onslaughts of the mechanized 20th Century. Of course for the priests, penitents and purists of Modernism this neo-classical counterculture was anathema. The “clergy of the convinced” thought this art looked decadent and weak, backward looking and filled with nostalgia – hardly the art of a grand culture or of “great” painting in the 20th Century. It indulged in all the wrong things.

And yet…

“Above the fireplace, he painted a full-face black, gold and yellow image of the sun god Apollo, flanked by two giant Priests of the Sun, modelled by fishermen from nearby Villefranche-sur-Mer, the little fishing town he had first discovered in 1924, at the time of Le Train Bleu. Inspired, he went on to decorate the entire house, including the furniture. “He said that he found the silence of the walls terrible,” recalled Weisweiller’s daughter Carole. “He learned from Matisse that once you paint one wall, the other three look bare.” The work took six months. Later he remarked, “At Santo-Sospir, I’m most myself, and the walls speak for me.” [The French Riviera and Its Artists John Baxter]

This kind of “decadent” Modernism continued to seduce artists throughout the early Postmodern years. The most notable example would be the artist, Cy Twombly, an American expat living in Rome. The combination of the Old World and the New, the rediscovery of the under-recognized strange forms of Modernism from the 20s and 30s, and the institutionalization of American Post War abstraction created a golden moment for ambitious artists to explore new ideas and unknown pathways through the Modern era. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long – the experimentation began in the 1970s and was over by 1989. Decadent Modernism was put aside in favor of sexy new tech, cool media culture and ever-expanding economic gain, and it’s been this way for the last 30 years.
Over this COVID summer these ignored forms, ideas, images, and processes have been persistent. Matisse in Vence, Picasso in Antibes, Cezanne in Aix, Vincent in Arles, Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer, and Picabia in Mougin – all of these artists created some of the most daring, challenging and beautiful works of their careers – and they are still misunderstood. And for most of these artists their time in the South was the last go round with the demons of Modernism. We could learn a few things from this Southern experience. And maybe when we are through with the worst of this moment the walls will begin to speak for us as well.

Notebook VI

The NYT ran a story this week on Van Gogh’s painting (the last one done according to the researchers.) As we’re traveling through the South these days – thought this note from George Hofmann would be a wonderful addition to the Notebook.

Mark,
The picture in today’s NY Times of Van Gogh’s “Tree Roots” is so clearly a forerunner to Pollock that I couldn’t resist writing. I know one can make a case for almost anything, but this is an example, to me, of the underground river of painting. For Pollock tributaries came in from Monet’s Waterlilies and from Miro – now neglected as a source of Abstract Expressionism – but, probably unconsciously, these were the waters feeding his painting. It seems like a miracle that that could happen, but if one works from the feeling sense of things – and, isolated as he was, he was thrown on himself – it is not so difficult to understand how a painter could come to working as he did, feel pretty much good about it, and only get rattled when it later gets blown out of proportion, and he likely felt – how could he live up to all this?

Notebook V

Georges Barque went South in 1905 under Matisse’s influence. And he painted many wonderful works full of light and color in the prescribed Fauvist manner. All good things come to an end though, and ambitious Georges changed his allegiances to hook up with Picasso leaving behind a sore and unhappy Matisse. At some point in 1907 (probably late in that year) Pablo showed Braque and a few other close friends his Demoiselles. No one new what to make of it, but that painting really rattled Braque’s cage.
In the south color is taken for granted – it’s everywhere – the endless blue sky, the reflective sea and beautiful green landscapes – all of it electrified by the magnificent light. But what isn’t really understood about that light is that it also changes the way one sees things- changes one’s relationship to space, form and structure. Picasso was Southern – through and through – and instinctively understood this kind of visual abstraction. Braque, a Northerner, had to come to an understanding of this kind of vision through Cezanne’s example and Picasso’s techniques. Over the summer of 1908 in Estaque Georges made a series of radical new paintings, and in November of that same year he showed this work with Kahnweiler – Cubism had officially begun.

“EXPOSITION BRAQUE 
Chez Kahn Weiler, 28, rue Vignon. — M- Braque est un jeune homme fort audacieux. 
L’exemple déroutant de Picasso et de Derain l’a enhardi. Peut-être aussi le style de Cézanne et les ressouvenirs de l’art statique des Egyptiens l’obsèdent-ils outre mesure. Il construit des bonshommes métalliques et déformés et qui sont d’une simplification terrible. Il méprise la forme, réduit tout, sites et figures et maisons, à des schémas géométrique à des cubes. Ne le raillons point, puisqu’il est de bonne foi. Et attendons. 
Louis Vauxcelles” [Review of Georges Braque’s Exhibit 11-14-1908]

Notebook IV

Matisse’s years between the wars was spent in Nice. He was a Northerner, but found the South to be liberating – the glorious light and color suited his intentions for an exotic form of Modernism. Many thought he was simply lost in the Orientalism of the 19th Century Salon – creating and painting his own version of an Ottoman era seraglio – but he was actually painting his way through the French Masters. Using artists like Ingres, Delacroix, Gérôme and Chassériau, among many others – Henri found his way into a different kind of Modernism with bright color, expressionistic techniques and a surreal Mediterranean classicism. This lesson about how to see the past was not lost on Picasso who used Matisse’s examination of the past in his own late works.
It is difficult in our times to see what’s worthy in these paintings – instead we move straight to the late work – the cutouts – and back again to his High Modern moments. But there is something in these paintings that persists, that demands that we reconsider this work.
Look at these odalisques carefully: the sun’s brightness reigns in a triumphal blaze, appropriating colors and forms. Now, the Oriental decors of the interiors, all the hangings and rugs, the lavish costumes, the sensuality of heavy, slumbering flesh, the blissful torpor of the faces awaiting pleasure, this whole ceremony of siesta brought to maximum intensity in the arabesque and the color must not deceive us: I have always rejected anecdote for its own sake. In this ambience of languid relaxation, beneath the sun-drenched torpor that bathes things and people, a great tension smolders, a specifically pictorial tension.

Notebook III

It’s the fin de siecle in the 19th Century and this painterly mess appears on the walls – “oh, Putain!” Paul, I’m sure, had quite the rep around town in Aix. Can you imagine the loneliness of his life? How many locals would understand or care about what he was doing, the struggle in which he was involved? So in order to connect, to talk, to meet other artists he wrote them letters and imported them from Paris. Paul must have been extremely convincing about the magic of the place, because they came south to see and experience the color and the light, the landscape and sea. Renoir and Pissarro are the best known of his painting guests – and for each of them – the South and Cezanne’s understanding of it – changed their understanding of Modernist painting. This started a flood of painters headed toward the Mediterranean, and once there, these artists found not only the exotic light and color, but the structures and forms of the Classical past. This was the beginning of 20th Century Modernism.