Soutine’s People

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Soutine’s portraits are a different kettle of fish from all his other work—his ‘portraits’ of dead animals, often hung up as if in a butcher’s window, his still-lives which can also have the air of crucifixions, and his tortured landscapes.

The portraits are different because we are less forgiving of liberties taken in representing the ‘human form divine’ (Blake’s piercing phrase). It appears that we have studied the human face more intently than any other aspect of the visible world, as perhaps comes home to us most sharply in front of art.

That is where the limits of an artist’s powers of observation are exposed most cruelly.  That is where Soutine’s ‘distortions’ are likeliest to seem arbitrary. He was reputed not to like portraits as a type. Perhaps it is truer to say he didn’t like commissions. He had his own peculiar way of choosing sitters. His preferred subjects are the weak and powerless — children, mad women, the village idiot, a gypsy boy, and the most consistent and fascinating series of all — lowly, serving occupations like pastry cooks, bell-hops and maids — all subjects easily exploited, who weren’t likely to complain that they didn’t like the results, because he was paying them, not the other way around. So these pictures are very different sorts of document from what we usually mean by portraits, and lack the stiffness and falsity common in the form.

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In Soutine’s hands even a child with a toy is an uncomfortable idea. Sitting can be a precarious activity in something which doesn’t look like a complete chair. Its top is glued to the child’s head, while its back seems to be trying to unseat him. His toy is another, smaller person falling backward or an angel pointing its wings downward. This is the part where Soutine’s famous abandonment of control in pursuit of the pure freedom of the brush breaks through.

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The next sitter is called Mad Woman but has been reduced to childhood by her madness, and wears another elf’s hat, another elf or gremlin not a citizen of the adult world. Soutine’s women are often marked by twisted shoulders, a form of wrenching, involuntary movement. This girl is more completely shrunken into herself through spider-like compression.

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The older woman protected by her hat carries a feature almost unheard of in Soutine, an emotive title–Desolation. Would we know she was heartbroken without the prompt? It takes us no time at all to figure that her lopsided shoulders and twisted arms do not mean a disease of the spine but an expressive lunge into an unstable mental state, the real question being whether the unexpected torque is a momentary or an essential condition. It would be a hard pose to hold—Soutine’s people twist from one uncomfortable position to another, but there’s unexpected freedom in the variety.

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While Desolation seems normative among Soutine portraits, the picture of his supporter and fellow painter Emile Lejeune stands apart for its light background and sprightly tonalities.   The sitter’s relaxed mood seems to have inspired confidence and made Soutine himself temporarily optimistic.   We read the dent in Lejeune’s face and his uneven ears as accident rather than meaning, a sign that the artist’s attention was focussed elsewhere, carelessness of a positive kind.

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By starkest contrast, darkness gathers round the gypsy boy like a portent. Maybe other observers wouldn’t have read extreme apprehension, vulnerability and the wish to disappear in the deep, dark eyes, but Soutine is alert to them, perhaps because susceptible himself.   This picture is usually dated to 1922-3, early for us already to be reading in it signs of what lies in wait for Europe in the following decade.

It isn’t just light and dark tonalities that make the mood in Soutine.   This picture of a very young pastry cook is the most tragic member of the most sustained series of Soutine portraits, devoted to a group with whom he has the most perfunctory relations, until he chooses to explore them, the service staff of the cheap hotels and restaurants he frequented in his summers in Cagnes on the south coast.

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Another triangular face which shrinks away to nothing, a stillness signifying exhaustion or a complete absence of hope, ears painfully exposed and defenceless features, and the wonderful blankness of all the white, concealing a being erased, with a body made of air, beautiful in its way, with especially delicate lines marking its divisions. The chair suggests the cage of a timid animal.

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A jauntier version of the same plight, striking a more assertive pose but paper-thin, and again the strange motif of the red handkerchief like a blood-stain semi-hidden.

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This outlying example in the pastry cook series from three or four years earlier cries to be included because it is the Soutine picture that the eccentric collector from Philadelphia, Dr Albert Barnes, saw in a dealer’s window, from which he found his way to Soutine’s studio and bought most of its contents (fifty-plus paintings) on the spot, bringing the painter to much wider attention.

It is the first of the group dressed all in one colour, or no-colour, which breaks out into a whole range of blue, purple, yellow, pink, registering light or recording creases, a crucial moment in Soutine’s attack on the coherence of objects, also seen in the ear that begins talking to its surroundings and finds itself resembling the chair back.

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At some time around 1924 or 5, Soutine began to frequent more expensive hotels but continued to enlist the most down-trodden elements of their populations, who sometimes pick up the pretensions of the posher premises, so that this ‘garcon d’honneur’ – a maitre d’ or a room-service waiter? it doesn’t seem clear – is able to sit with no visible means of support through a feat of belief, an acrobat-functionary.

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Another bellhop even turns his uniform into an identity, twisting it improbably into an imposing pattern.

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The third in this series of arms-akimbo poses – sitting in mid-air, sitting awkwardly, standing uncertainly – defensive and assertive, salvaging a self in unpromising circumstances – looks battered but cocky, and Soutine has again found human depth in unexpected places.

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The twists of these three poses say a great deal about the strains of these lives.   Even more complex and tortured flexions turn up in female subjects who twist this way and that, misshapen by the stresses of no job, but by the general facts of feminine existence, another, more unwitting mad-woman.

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The females among the hotel-staff portraits are the most abject of all, like this lady’s maid who melts, sliding downward, whose indecisive mouth is one of the saddest human features ever painted.

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This so-called English girl is one of the lucky ones, who makes a crooked pose into nonchalance.

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But best of all is the one most defaced by the painter’s wilful abandon, who drags strength from what should have been ugliness.   Like many of his unschooled subjects, she comes out of the battle an unlikely victor, where every error in the symmetry is a bit of hard-won depth.  Flesh of horrid orange-pink, clothes of stains and smears, like a surface given life by dirt, yet it’s the serpentine pose that tells us most persuasively that we are rushing somewhere significant, unheard-of till now.

Bartolomé Bermejo

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Bermejo remains a mysterious figure though widely regarded as the most important Spanish painter of the late Middle Ages. At a certain stage in planning a recent exhibition of his work in Madrid and Barcelona the organisers decided to make the accompanying publication a catalogue raisonné. It turns out that there are only sixteen surviving paintings, if you count multiple panels belonging to a single altarpiece as one. None of these composites survives complete or intact — dispersed, partly lost and in every case reliant on historians to reconstruct them.

The artist himself endured a similar fate. He was a person without a permanent address, probably a Jewish converso, sometimes keeping one step ahead of the Inquisition, which once convicted his wife of forgetting the words of the Creed. He worked in towns where he wasn’t a citizen and therefore needed a sponsor from the local painters’ guild in order to practice his trade at all. So his larger commissions are generally adulterated by the contributions of these less talented sponsors, and I have included here only the central panels of larger works where Bermejo’s own hand is probably responsible for all of it.

Bermejo may also have been restless and unreliable on his own account, so that an excommunication clause was added to the contract in case he tried to get out of doing all the scenes himself. He was excommunicated for leaving before he’d started the smaller scenes of the St Dominic of Silos altarpiece.  Bermejo means red in Spanish (vermilion: orange-red), and no one knows if that was the colour of his hair or his complexion, the sign of a choleric temperament.

Oddly enough the painter’s earliest dated work, a depiction of St Michael tangling with the devil, is dominated by an atmospheric disturbance in red, the archangel’s cloak like a violent thunderstorm in the heavens. But the angel doesn’t lose his cool as he dispatches a Satan who’s the manageable size of a pet, and seems to be laughing and waving as much as signaling distress or begging for mercy. He is a weird anatomical enigma whose nipples are a second set of red eyes over a breathing hole and a second mouth full of sharp teeth. The saint is covered in metal and the monster is mainly made of it. The armour of both of them is extraordinarily ingenious but doesn’t look quite serious — a shield made of a lump of crystal, a polished breast plate that reflects the skyline of the Heavenly Jerusalem (not Seville, as I used to think).

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But the really electrifying component is that red cloak more like a mountain range than a cloudscape, of folds magically lit with random bursts of light. And it is only the lining. Whenever the cape is at rest it shows as heavy gold brocade, a side of the garment now reduced to a twisted remnant like a broken pot. And finally there’s a drastic contradiction between the excitement of the cape and the angel’s trance-like languor.

The human-sized onlooker, like other similar Bermejo people, has barely looked up from his reading, or more likely he is somewhere else, not in the middle of the moment as we wrongly suppose. His composure is his distance.

He is a hangover from an earlier stage when donors could appear to witness the great highlights of Christian history because they weren’t taking place in ordinary time or recognisable landscapes. Bermejo’s most compelling pictures often occur in ritual space, a kind of no-place. One of the most powerful shows a local saint in ecclesiastical finery in a setting that is essentially a glorified niche, as if he were a statue decorating a Gothic building. The painting is finished off with a wooden canopy, a miniature taste of actual architecture which is permitted to cast real shadows onto the fantastic painted constructions below.

4 Saint Dominic of Silos enthroned as a Bishop.jpgHe is so shrouded in gilded paraphernalia that he ceases to seem much like a being of flesh and blood, if it weren’t for a few contrary traces. He is clean-shaven but there are signs that his beard is growing, silver stubble just beginning to show on his cheeks. And the six tiny statues (Virtues rather than the saints whom we expect) in little niches on ether side of his throne are fully coloured and demonstratively in motion. In the most extreme case, Temperance is pouring from a pitcher, and Bermejo has run together the dark colour of her cloak and a dark blot like a dragon’s tail on the saint’s cope, part of a pattern on the garment that is mostly hidden from us. So we are invited to imagine a spreading stain originating in an inadvertent spillage of Temperance’s remixed wine.

There is another sign of things getting out of hand at the highest point of the throne. The red jewel that crowns the saint’s mitre has started a fire at Charity’s feet which so far burns only her and hasn’t spread to the poor men sheltering under her.

The bishop’s throne becomes a niche, in this case a complicated diagonal and hierarchical form leading us in and at the same time creating a sense of the sacred as unapproachable, even as it shows the route to it, setting up a goal that’s straight in front of you, yet just beyond a boundary at which you most stop.

The image is neatly balanced between highly focal and impossibly complicated. The harder we look the less sure we are where the throne ends. Is the shrinking series of little figures, who are more lifelike (in the strange terms of the painting) than statues, just further extensions of this diagonal construction, impossibly rich emanations of the main body fighting hard against the idea that a painting is above all a flat surface?

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One of the most ingenious touches is the ornate shepherd’s crook that the saint has leant crookedly against the side wall of his throne, partly blotting out Hope holding another staff that is breaking into leaf. In some sense his staff dotted with gold leaf-forms has got the better of hers and introduced a taste of the randomness of life and of unpredictable movement into the fixity of art, all of it taking place in a hall of mirrors devised by one of the most complete anti-naturalists in the history of art. Yet Bermejo is called Hispano-Flemish in recognition of all the evidence that he had studied realists like van Eyck, a thread not just distracting but pulling us off in quite the wrong direction. He borrowed postures and whole compositions and put them to uses the Northerners would have thought perverse and retrograde, creating hypnotic images in which we might just as reasonably find the sprit of Tibetan mandalas.

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When Bermejo comes to depict the old subject of the Virgin of Mercy he inscribes it within a kind of pattern you might find embossed on a moth’s outspread wings: first the angels’ wings crisscrossing over the Virgin’s head and then the smaller Xs on their chests which wander off into the pile-up of cloth that seems to fill the spaces created by the swoops of the Virgin’s cape, swoops which form larger Xs with the down-tending diagonals of her arms. This mesmerising Rorschach-design with the Virgin’s mask-like face at its centre hovers over two diagonal wings of devotees, fused together by more of Bermejo’s trademark gold filigree, made of copes on the left and crowns on the right, the latter consisting of openwork which lets through the faces of the next row of devotees behind.

The most mysterious element of all is the Virgin’s undergarment, revealed by the angels’ lifting movement, an inner feature like the kernel of a shrine, another lining that steals the show from its covering. This undergarment is an amazing construction like antique patchwork, an assemblage of pieces of rich brocades in a variety of dusky tonalities, a ruin-collage of historical fabrics, like relics once owned and worn by various royal martyrs and spiritual heroes of past eras, a compost heap of much old virtue, and also wealth. It is one of the richest and most interesting passages in all of Bermejo, the Book of Kells and Arthur Rackham bundled up together. The patches often run diagonally against the orientation of the garment, creating the kind of multiple rhythm Bermejo favours, moving as so often against the grain of the natural world and the force of gravity.

Bermejo’s most powerful pictures are often not compositions at all, but patterns with a strong focus and ancillary detail radiating hieratically outward from that core or, if they are or initially appear as figure groups, they are shown at moments of utter immobility, emanating from a corpse whose attendants copy its stillness.

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Christ with two angels at the tomb seems an utterly simple, rock bottom sort of image, yet unaccountably mesmerising. There is a famous rendering of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Holbein which Dostoevsky couldn’t dislodge from his mind. It shows the prone corpse in a narrow horizontal frame, constricted like a coffin. Holbein has spared us no detail of the grimness of physical death. The mouth sags open showing clenched teeth. The body is covered with suppurating sores, the eyes stare upward, hands and feet are stiffened in the moment when movement ceased and blackened by blood drawn there by the mode of death. Dostoevsky uses the painting in The Idiot to shake the faith of a naturally devout character.

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In Bermejo’s painting Christ seems to have survived the crucifixion. No rigor mortis and just enough energy to point to the spear wound in his side. Critics even think he is squeezing the flesh to make the blood gush forth, but surely he is showing old blood, not producing more. Apparently there were active discussions going on when this was painted over whether bleeding in the three days between the Crucifixion and Resurrection was deserving of veneration or adoration (two distinct grades of devotion). Bermejo is thought to have come down on the side of veneration only, as shown by the inclusion of the gorgeous chalice (here his love of jeweled ecclesiastical metalwork breaks out unexpectedly) which is empty – that is to say, this blood isn’t suitable for the Sacrament.

The power of the painting comes in part from the diagonal composition which increases the surprising asymmetry of the two angels’ locations, their spacing and their roles – Christ leans on one and not the other. He has come part-way out of the tomb to tell us something, silently. He emerges fitfully from the gloom, a way of insisting on the incomplete state of our knowledge, an effect perhaps less powerful since the recent cleaning of this work, which has brought the flesh of the dead and the living into closer alignment. The angels’ flesh (ordinarily angels are not fleshly creatures) now looks so entirely that of bodies that will die, making the melancholy at-oneness of the three more complete.*

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Bermejo’s last surviving painting is known as the Desplà Pietà, after the learned humanist who commissioned it and appears on the right, just below another representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem. It includes another innovative treatment of Christ’s corpse, a severe challenge to any painter’s naturalism and his spirituality. Those who want to find progressive tendencies in this painter spend time on the rich but gloomy landscape, full of a great variety of species that would have exercised the humanist patron’s scientific curiosity.

Here Christ’s body has the uncanny air of a ruin, powerfully mottled, as if stained by age, not like a statue, but not like any flesh I ever saw, not like old cheese either, but that comparison catches something of the living-unliving quality of this body. The dark smudge of hair on Christ’s chest is crucial to the effect, like a discolouration rather than a natural event.

There’s a naïve oddity shared with Christ and Two Angels at the Tomb. On his right arm Christ’s blood runs markedly uphill. Formerly it dripped down; now it is fixed in an unnatural position. This seems to contradict the figure’s more than relaxed posture with all tension gone, just as rigor mortis begins to replace it.

We notice a few signs of the old Bermejo – in the green lining of the Virgin’s cloak whose crinkled furls are put in competition with exemplary plants in the landscape. The cape can stand up in leaf-like forms which Bermejo continues to find more absorbing than actual leaves. And one telling sign of the new Bermejo: how do you tell a living from a dead body? Desplà’s beard is still growing and producing stubble – here Bermejo verges near that fearless realist Holbein.

*The illustration above shows Christ with two angels at the tomb before cleaning

 

This post was suggested by a small but fascinating exhibition which brought six Bermejos (including the Desplà Pietà) from Spain to London after the big Spanish exhibition of 2018-19 was disbanded.  

 

 

 

Vuillard and uncertainty

 

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I didn’t intend to write about Vuillard again, but hadn’t anticipated how different the small (but much bigger) exhibition in Bath (appearing later in Edinburgh and Dublin) would be from the one last year in Birmingham. Birmingham was entirely caught up in the limited cast of characters of the household. Bath ranged outside and beyond the house, still keeping the view rigorously confined, Vuillard’s guiding feature being a voluntary confinement in which dislocations of vision can act with explosive force, freaks of perception which don’t necessarily lead to untethered or unfathomable emotions but into an emotional no-one’s land to which the right comparison might be Kafka.

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The exhibition began in the home, with an awkward family scene in the weird green light of evening. Three generations are gathered round the table, along with two looming bottles like extra guests.

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We recognise the mother, grandmother, and daughter from our last outing with Vuillard. We could mistake the lone orange-bearded male for the artist himself, but the label steers us toward his brother, an unknown quantity.   The sister dominates, in a grotesquely twisted pose which reveals depths already familiar to the others, less so to us. She is wearing a dress like one in a portrait nearby, in a pattern like a lot of lively worms. Maybe she will explode.

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Next to this dinner table is The Ear, one of the oddest little pictures Vuillard ever produced. It shows the head and shoulders of a young female bent over and concentrating on something on the floor. Is she tying her shoe or looking for something lost? We are already far ahead of ourselves, because she doesn’t really look like a person at all. Her ear we only recognise through the helping hand of the picture’s title: it looks more like a half-closed eye. Beneath it are two detached bits of brightly lit flesh which could be the tip of a nose and part of an upper lip. Otherwise, shadow, with traces of an eyebrow (doubtful) and cheek (obscured by strands of hair). Above the features, elements of a punk hairdo in black and orange stripes, plaited into a denser chequered pattern beyond. Over the invisible forehead dangles a big black spider of loose hair-strands.

Maybe this picture just goes to show how far Vuillard’s need to strangen the familiar features of the world could go. Here the supposed subject pretty well escapes, and solutions to the uncertainty leave plenty of uneasiness behind.

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Very soon after comes another conundrum-picture that has an easier resolution. Two men in top hats seen close-up from behind. The sheen on one of the hats completely bisects the black mass, making it into two separate hats. But the deeper weirdness of this picture occurs further to the left. Instead of a hat, a giant black hand with four black fingers extended upward. This turns out to be another hat (or hair-do) after all, though one like a finger puppet mounted on a woman’s head, whose fainter body appears beneath. Like the others, this picture comes close to a visual joke. How can such a tiny sliver of reality constitute a subject? Well, it seems to. You go on enjoying the odd leftover spaces between the hats, and the contrast between the ‘brims’, if you can count the most nearly horizontal ‘finger’ a brim. The overlapping of the three bodies makes a nice consistency against the wild variations overhead.

Except in a formal sense, to call these male-female divisions an antagonism would be going too far. More interesting confrontations tend to take place indoors. Of all the fresh Vuillards in Bath, one called The Manicure perplexed me most.

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The picture starts from another extreme lighting effect, with the source hidden between the two figures. It took me several tries to decipher the manicurist, whose face doesn’t really appear, though turned toward us.  Part of the explanation is that we are not on-axis with the couple, as we perhaps think, but skewed to their right. That is how the light can miss her face completely, leaving a dark mask more like a spinning top than a human head.

So the pleasure in this configuration comes from its inhuman weirdness. And then there’s the dark lump to the left of the central pair. In the end I see this lump as a balding father and his little girl, with a bright red ribbon in her hair. In the meantime I have thought her a pet monkey, or the two of them an African carving, or a piece of furniture with a cloth over it.

What is this love of occlusion, of hiding the subject in shadow, turning people into hulks or lumps, and blocking off the space between them? Wherever it springs from, it works. It invests humdrum activity with portent, in a space loaded throughout with inscrutable depths.

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Other Vuillards thrive on blankness, not density, for a sense of a lot going on beneath a sparse surface. At first I took one of the most uncanny to be an expanse of sand leading to the forest-edge, with a track skirting it. At some point it dawned on me that this sand was not a beach but a wall blocking us off from the forest. And the traces of erased figures in the sand must have been marks on the wall, not occupants of the flatland. The two contrasting realms remain, one featureless, the other impenetrable. We think of other artists who value walls for their lack of content, like the Welshman Thomas Jones and the Catalan Antoni Tàpies.

In the exhibition the still life below gave an exaggerated impression of horizontality and of emptiness toward both ends, which doesn’t survive when it is isolated. I still think it is an exercise in dispersion and weightlessness, in spite of its magical vacancy having partly evaporated when it is removed from the peculiar space of the exhibition.

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Publicity for the exhibition made a separate picture of the flowers in their  vase, a little composition which soon fell to pieces, set against the ‘flowers’ of the tablecloth — bigger, vaguer, more unstable. All the elements are spread wide, and won’t sit down or cohere. The satchel is the worst, levitating rashly in mid-air, deserting its rightful place.

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As in Birmingham, prints in Bath showed Vuillard dissolving reality’s there-ness even more radically than in paint. The cover of a set of lithographs has another strange confrontation between a hulking man (in pyjamas this time) and a younger woman. The girl by herself is a miracle of vagueness. In a couple of the prints in this series figures at tables merge magically into the setting and each other.

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One of the best discoveries of the exhibition was the reappearance of glue-based distemper, a medium first met in Vuillard’s work for the theatre and now, in its reappearance, freeing him back into the boldness of the 1890s with two paintings of 1910 and after, one of a Breton farmhouse above a garden like an embroidery, whose rich pattern dissolves into squiggles, separate segments, and finally into chaos.

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For Vuillard perception is always verging on disorientation. This flirtation with unreason is one of his deepest promptings, an escape down the rabbit hole of perception into a phantasmagoria of forms that have freed themselves from the restraints of sense.

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Looking closely at the work in distemper, you find such dissolutions as a children’s smock like icing on pastry, and its mother’s dress a snow flurry, in a familiar world become entirely strange.

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Refugee Artists: Jankel Adler

 

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Jankel Adler was a Polish Jew who had made a reputation as an artist in Germany and got included in an early exhibition of modernist art staged by the Nazis in 1933 with the aim of importing hatred into the cultural sphere. Adler moved to Paris pretty well at once, while his wife stayed behind with their child. At the beginning of the war Adler joined the Polish army, was evacuated to Britain and suffered a heart attack that got him invalided out.

This troubled history lies behind the recent exhibition of his British work from the 1940s at the Ben Uri Gallery in Boundary Road. At the start of his career, Jewish themes had loomed large. Later, references to his roots became more complicated.

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The most powerful painting included in this small but choice exhibition is called Beginning of the Revolt, a title that initially makes no sense. The first thing you notice is the strange abraded surface. The paint looks as if it has been cooked, causing it to pucker into small ridges which are then brought out by a wash of darker pigment that settles into the hollows. To begin with, you don’t know whether these are effects of nature or of art, a deliberate or accidental ruin, defacement that makes imagery already mysterious even harder to interpret.

The palette is almost monochrome but with all the variety that exists in the tones between black and white, enhanced by yellowing that may be simply patchy applications of varnish. Near the top, a single smear of rust, and a background of ochre, vagaries of tone which are intensely visceral and gripping.

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After plenty of explanation that I will come to in a minute, I still find the image unfathomable. Is it a huge kneeling figure with Minotaur head and large eyes or nipples in its chest, holding standards that end in a wolf’s head on the right, and—the only clear element in the whole heap of matter—a bird falling backward on the left? Is the group sailing from right to left in a small boat? The overall effect is also like a stumpy branching tree anchored in a patch of earth that doesn’t look stable.

The result is muscular, energetic, strong, yet we learn from the label that this painting is Adler’s response to the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto of 1943, which was brutally put down. It is linked with three Adlers of the same period now in the Tate, all powerful in different ways—The Mutilated (opening image), No Man’s Land and Two Orphans, the last of which Adler painted for his friend Josef Herman, who lost the entire family he’d left behind in the Warsaw Rising, suffered a breakdown on getting the news, and was nursed back to health and productivity by Adler. The orphans are Herman and Adler, and the painting hung over the Hermans’ mantelpiece.

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This terrible and inspiring story seems more inspiring than terrible because, among other things, both of them produced much of their best work during and just after the war.

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There are explicit references to suffering in Adler’s illustrations to Kafka for example, including one of the torture machine from In the Penal Colony, and more interesting and ambiguous, a group of enigmatic figures in the thick and scumbled paint that seems to signal tragedy for this painter.

 He also found symbols which let him treat oppression and threat in less melodramatic ways. Birds appear in many guises and mean many different things. Finding them concealed where you don’t expect is one of the pleasures of Adler. Another of the largest paintings in the exhibition at the Ben Uri is perhaps an optimistic obverse to Beginning of the Revolt and shows a woman releasing a dove from a cage, to go out and report on conditions outside as in Genesis? or to embark bravely on a life in exile?

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The other optimistic emblem that I see everywhere is a candle alight or a lamp raised up, again just as moving when you can’t be entirely sure it is there at all

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Some of his still-lives are among his most puzzling pictures. A particularly delightful one shows a table-top dotted with semi-recognisable, angular forms, while above them floats an object or two objects of more neutral hue. Is it the tablecloth which has managed to slip free of its oppressors? or birds or fish dancing above the prosaic equipment of the meal, or ghosts of events that happened here, or clouds in the sky? I favour grave-clothes of a corpse that has flown, which now do a Baroque pantomime à la Wallace Stevens.

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Adler’s friend, the avant garde writer Stefan Themerson, has the answer. In 1948 he published an eccentric pamphlet with 13 illustrations by Adler masquerading as a story for children and called Jankel Adler/ an artist seen from one of many possible angles. It tells the story of the boy Jankel Adler who in 1899 believed for a minute that one of his friends had been turned into a green lizard. Themerson takes off from this mythic event to mount a hilarious defence of human imagination, in which Shakespeare Lizard writes Hamlet in 1923 and Adler Lizard paints his pictures with objects no one’s ever seen before, that are nonetheless real and definitely exist, a wonderful argument for Adler’s way of dealing with painful realties in ambiguous symbols made from everyday materials.

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Leonardo notebooks and drawings

 

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I have avoided falling under Leonardo’s spell until now. There was something I didn’t like in his relentlessness, his heartless dissections, his fascination with weaponry and destruction. And all that backwards writing, even though I’m left handed myself and once came across whole pages of backward printing I’d done before finding out it wasn’t allowed. How determined Leonardo must have been. Being self-taught helped, but only at the beginning.

Oddly it was the notebooks that lured me in, in a marvellous exhibition at the British Library which gave only a taste of this sprawling mass of material–7000 dense pages surviving, it is said–which he had hopes of organising into treatises and never did, as I’ve come wishfully to think, because they’re all pieces of an ever-expanding universe that one does a kind of violence to call even a temporary halt to.

The British Library exhibition interleaved two of the more than twenty surviving codices, 80 pages in total, which bristled with loose ends and overlapping, in spite of a clear overall conception.

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The major part came from the Library’s Codex Arundel, published in facsimile in 1998, which put all the loose sheets, released from their misleading 16th century binding in the early 1990s, put them semi-miraculously in chronological order, using up-to-date knowledge of the evolution of Leonardo’s handwriting and detailed attention to what projects belonged to what periods of his life.    There is of course no such thing as a single chronology. Sheets are added to, annotated, rearranged as Leonardo returns to old subjects or looks over old notes. But there is some sense in trying to order his thoughts even when he didn’t, though what appealed to me most was the strong sense that he was always thinking of more than one thing at once and seeing unheard-of connections between, say, the facial expressions of horses, lions and men in extreme states of rage or fear.

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All the notebooks still loom there as an unsolved puzzle or treasure house in which words and images endlessly collide and feed off one another. But they led me almost at once to someplace else, to Leonardo’s drawings, visually richer than the notebooks but just as full of the strange leaps of thought and the dazzling range of subjects, which so often melt into each other before your eyes.

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There is a famous sheet of nothing but fragments that is sometimes used to show the magpie-range of Leonardo’s interests. The centre or gathering point of the sheet, if there is one, is a set of geometrical diagrams, lightly traced-in across the centre of the page. This element escapes me almost completely, except as a delicate skeleton that joins up the bits that interest me more, joins them simply as unifying pattern, not as content or meaning. Perhaps the more you understood the geometry, the more it would interfere with appreciating the other unrelated bits.

These bits consist of the profile of an older man whose nose and chin are exaggerated, and verge toward each other uncomfortably. You will come to recognise this as a favourite motif of the artist, often given grotesque emphasis, and meaning what? At his waist there springs up a delicate tree whose bare upper branches merge with the folds of the man’s toga. This little tree is the minutest sample of an atmospheric subtlety of which only this artist is capable, here thrown away on a Dali-esque joke. Measured by the scale of the tree, the man must be 200 feet high.

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To his right and one register lower is another botanical study, or part of one: two stalks almost intertwined, with leaves climbing and circling the stalks. The subtle crinkling of each leaf is similar to but different from the others. You feel like lingering, undeterred by a big ink-stain that cuts across the stems near their base.

The most beautiful elements of all are tiny clouds separate from anything else, one of which may actually be a copse, another of which looks like a series of mountain ridges that Ruskin might have drawn.   There are also decorative curls unfurling like petals, and serial frills like printers’ ornaments, also infused with vegetal life.

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One of the faintest elements is a tiny horse and rider, rearing and pushing his shield forward like a flat saucer.   Next to them a nude colossus making a tiny adjustment on an invisible surface. Both these groups are perched carefully on one of the circles ruled by a compass.

This sheet evidently works its magic on many observers. It was chosen for the title page of the catalogue of the recent exhibition of 200 Leonardo drawings from the Royal Collection. It’s only a rough impression that finely finished drawings are rarer in Leonardo’s production than in other Renaissance artists’ work. For whatever reason a number of these are plant studies full of quirky observation, yet completely untroubled and at ease.   The most beautiful in red chalk on red paper use seemingly methodical hatching to produce deep shadow and a kind of atmosphere under leaves and in a magical interior space at the heart of a cluster of berries.

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The simplest of all the botanical studies, a reed with burrs on one side of the page and a single bulrush on the other, are among the most astonishing for producing layers and depths within the reed-clump and for variety in the minute twists of the bulrush spikes, each a distinct existence. But the most hypnotic of all is a clump of star-of-Bethlehem with spiralling leaves looking like one of Leonardo’s drawings of whirlpools and eddies in a stream. Here different species are confused and overlapped, and a further instance is strewn in the empty space at their feet, which includes a sequence of this euphorbia’s seedpods, open, half-open, viewed from behind and after the enclosing shell has fallen off. Here red chalk deepens and clarifies the upper thicket where extra grasses thicken an already dense plot. Below, wider spacing allows the inspection of a sequence to take place.

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These seed-pods splitting call up the human embryo exposed in the womb, the most compelling seed-pod of all to us, an idea on which he plays a set of variations with the uterus as an exfoliating flower, and with other stages of the process taking the same form at smaller scales, and finally an empty sphere as the most perfect vision of unfolding.

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Leonardo also finds a weird beauty in the emptied sphere of the skull sliced in half or with only the enclosure of the left hemisphere of the brain removed, allowing an inside/outside comparison of the lower parts of the skull.

The bony membranes which act as braces from centre to edge are astonishingly beautiful, in part through subtle lighting—imagine this theatrical glare and shadow inside the head!   Leonardo really seems a magician to have found this drama in these places, a triumph of materialism to bring out such depths in cartilage and bone. Much of the meaning hangs on what he shows and doesn’t show, on selective unveiling of mysteries which leaves other areas dark.

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The famous section of a copulating couple is another selective dissection, which favours the male, leaving him his face and hair and a leading leg, only faintly present, but not stripped back to bare machinery. The curve which unites the couple consists in large part of nerves and tubes which depict an exploded theory of how the soul makes its contribution to the sperm, so it’s only partly an exaggeration to call the image a spiritual hoax.

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Investigating the nature and especially the movement of water had occupied much of Leonardo’s attention throughout his career. The British Library exhibition made this a major focus, and the drawings at the Queen’s Gallery included a rich selection of water flowing, swirling, breaking its banks and finally overwhelming the world of man in an apocalyptic deluge which Leonardo depicted over and over again, both grandly and minutely. His map of the course of the River Arno with his proposal for a canal cancelling much of its existing length between Florence and the sea is one expression of this consuming interest, and the final sign of the obsession is a series of cataclysmic explosions which he also rendered in words.

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There’s a sheet which shows an old bearded man contemplating a river’s flow interrupted by obstacles placed in the stream. The two images—sage and stream—are not related, yet the old man contemplating time’s passage in water’s movement is a powerful idea. The other images of worlds overwhelmed by natural catastrophe are clear but troubling. It is as if the old man imagines his own approaching end as an avalanche that buries all.

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A Newly Discovered Bruegel

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A few years ago I stumbled across a reference to a new Bruegel which had been found in an obscure Spanish collection and, soon after its discovery, ended up in the Prado.

The first question was: could it be real? Could a very large painting by this painter go unnoticed for all those years?  Its subject was unheard-of and the composition inconceivably grotesque—it showed a tangled mountain of people glued together in an acrobatic mass. There were lots of them, of all different ages, trying to get their hands on wine squirting from a huge red barrel in a tiny stream, all the figures pushing forward a wide variety of containers, pitchers, bowls, hats, broken and intact, some just potsherds, the vessels a digest of the extreme human variety that jostled for space.

I was convinced almost at once of its authenticity and its large contribution to our knowledge of the artist. The painting is full of memorable poses, which fix themselves in the mind as weird but true snapshots of human types caught in extremis, stretched to the limit in pursuit of a clear goal near at hand. Typically, some of the best are seen from behind, a condition often treasured by Bruegel because it guarantees unselfconsciousness and thus a kind of authenticity. Maybe that is the main secret of the strange subject, that it combines people revealing themselves exuberantly while packed into unheard-of nearness, more like a nest of writhing snakes than any previously-known depiction of a human gathering.

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Bruegel has set himself an impossible, and, we might have thought before seeing how he would set about it, absurd, challenge—to build a multi-storey building consisting of human forms with no superstructure for them to cling to except the cradle on which the barrel is raised.

Bruegel uses a shifting perspective as he did in the Vienna Tower of Babel in order to show densely crowded figures viewed from above extending laterally and viewed head-on extending vertically. As in the Suicide of Saul it seems the most natural thing in the world for whole ranks of figures to be making the same gesture in series, reaching frantically upward to hold out their bowls toward the source of oblivion.

This is furthest from a still or quiet crowd–most of them are frantic–but there is also a complete spectrum of those turning away from the scramble because they are busy drinking, have already passed out or have noticed another goal, the knightly figure in the lower right corner, who is distributing something more valuable than cups of wine. St Martin on horseback has attracted a small crowd of cripples and the destitute anxious to get a piece of the voluminous cape he is slicing up with his sword.

In the distance are magical glimpses, caught as if through keyholes, of a rider at a gate and a scattering of tiny figures in the open space at the foot of the castle on the horizon. The most convincing and precious features of these sketched-in elements are the delicacy of the drawing and the transparent thinness of the paint.

One of the best discoveries of the magical enlargements on the Inside Bruegel website is seeing how often Bruegel puts the paint on so thinly it is like drawing itself and lets his underdrawing show through, invariably carried out with great confidence, without slips or mistakes.

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The Wine of St Martin’s Day is painted on linen with something like tempera instead of oil, a technique known from both the beginning and the end of his career in the Brussels Adoration and the Naples Blind Leading the Blind. It looks (and is) fragile and evanescent, the colour more transparent and fleeting than usual. Why he used this frail medium in his largest painting by far – 2½ times the size of the otherwise largest Procession to Calvary — seems impossible to know.

The subject is the least substantial:  an experience of passing intoxication, another instance of religion subverted by folk indulgence, human beings behaving with the carelessness of may-flies, aptly captured in the dodgiest, most ravishing form, a work that is at once the painter’s most daring and most throwaway.

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Roman Vishniac travelling east in 1935-38

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Vishniac was a refugee, who had moved (or fled?) from Russia to Berlin in 1920. He got married at the border, and his daughter Mara, who appears in his photos of Berlin in the 30s, must have been born there. She functions in them as a kind of decoy. Photography wasn’t an entirely safe activity for a Jew there and then, certainly not when snapping the Nazi posters and symbols that Vishniac wanted to record, so Mara posed in front or to the side of the real subject and tried to look like the reason for getting out the camera.

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I am fighting off various superstitions about this subject. I first saw Vishniac’s pictures of the Jews of Eastern Europe in a small exhibition in Camden Town which I caught on the last day. I soon found out that he set off on three years of exploring the lives of poor Jews in Poland, Ruthenia and Ukraine in the very same year that American photographers were sent into the Deep South to record the lives of sharecroppers driven into destitution by the Wall Street crash and years of drought. I am thinking especially of James Agee and Walker Evans who spent three months in the fall of 1936 living with three families in rural Alabama.

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In that case there’s a wonderful convergence between Agee’s words and Evans’ images. With Vishniac there are images and few words, at least for me, so far. I need to wait and find out more, about Vishniac’s routes and the length of his stays—did he keep returning to Berlin? And how deeply connected with his subjects did he become?

But I feel a superstitious urgency to write about Vishniac and his pictures now, in the heightened moment of first meeting, and I have found an Agee of that moment in Europe whom I can work into my account of Vishniac, or whom I can at least feel hovering overhead. My European Agee is Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who kept a remarkable diary and was deported with her family from the camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands to Poland, where she died on 30 November 1943. So the dates and places don’t quite match, but she stands as a strong arguer for catastrophe transfigured by imagination, the imagination of a 27-year-old.

I can’t stop even now to read Etty’s diaries, but have learned from first glimpses that she had the most powerful sense that the acts of the oppressor were not ultimately real, lacking the force and presence of an inner truth she felt most fervently. Maybe something like this conviction, though unconscious, contributes to the inordinate power I feel in Vishniac’s images from the East, though I want to resist the urge to read the Holocaust into every one of these pictures that so often seem directly comparable with Evans’ from the American South.

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In one of his most famous lectures Heidegger says something about nearness and farness that hit me, when I came across it, with revelatory force, and went like this: that we have lost track of what is truly near and essential to us, forsaking it for that which is far away, with which we have nothing important to do.

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Vishniac’s pictures of the furthest fringes of Europe seem at first to have the appeal of the exotic and primitive, of lives unimaginably far from ours. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town tried to represent all parts of his career equally, or at least not to neglect long stretches, such as the fifty-year aftermath he spent in the USA. I found I had almost no time for the American pictures, except the ones which showed the deprivations of wartime, like the image above of women waiting to buy rationed meat.

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The pictures from the East seem to get closer to the essence of things, as do the interiors of sharecroppers’ houses in the Alabama book, or the careworn faces of farmers and their underfed children who have imbibed anxiety with their mothers’ milk. We find such emotions in children from both these places so far apart.

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How does the child in the Warsaw basement flat learn his alert caution? I don’t know anywhere else except the Alabama images where you see the rudest elements of the barest lives brought so near, with such devoted attention, as here in this basement, in the infinite variety of the ragged kindling or the coarse richness of the curtain or the bleakness of the cupboard. Evans’ pictures generally look more posed, or is it composed? Vishniac’s daring in pushing the boy to the edge of the frame seems extreme, but it was probably also the way of getting him to feel that the camera wasn’t pointed at him, and thus of catching him starting to relax.

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So you have in some way lived these objects, if not these lives. If you feel you have lived the lives, they have often come to you through the faces, and it can almost be the number of lines in a not so old face that keeps you focused, deciphering it. The Ruthenian farmer above was also a tanner, the caption tells us, an economic complexity which makes a doubling in the character.

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One of my own uncanny overlaps with Etty Hillesum is that someone gives her a copy of Crime and Punishment in two volumes, thinking it the right reading for such desperate times. This has just happened to me too, and I am looking everywhere for the lopsided proportions I love in Dostoevsky and finding them in Vishniac’s portraits. In the image above, as with Marmeladov, one of the writer’s most memorable creations, who disappears when you’ve barely met him, a strongly characterised figure appears round the corner of a larger, less characterised one, and their enigmatic exchange is never explained.

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Some images have eluded me almost entirely. Rabbis in ill-fitting, food- or mud-stained robes with three books under one arm, a bookcase with three shelves of battered books, the library of one of many rabbis in the remote, semi-mythical town of Mukachevo. The only image I can find of this collection of books adds its own faintness to this precarious sight, on which much ink has been spilt by later writers.

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My nearness to these places and these people, both like and unlike the ones Agee and Evans discovered, mostly urban not rural, and thus not conforming to the usual American idea of the most rooted kind of life, my nearness comes over me in those dirty crowded rooms devoted to reading, the yeshivas and perhaps even more the cheders, where one boy looking up in a visionary way is, we learn, one of the survivors, now living in Woodstock, New York, and a Buddhist.

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I have learned since writing this that Vishniac’s explorations were much riskier than I realised, so the parallel with Agee and Evans could seem frivolous to those who know the situation better.  The Jews of Warsaw were already subject to crippling regulation, like a government-sponsored boycott of Jewish shops that forced many out of business.  Jews were eventually prohibited from practising most trades except those considered low, like portering, a group Vishniac joined and lived among, loading and pulling wagons himself, which led to some of the best, most intimate pictures (and brought him nearer to Agee and Evans’ kind of immersion than I knew).  There were streets in which Jewish bagel-sellers were not allowed.  Such restrictions and indignities are all too familiar from Victor Klemperer’s diaries recording life in Dresden in the 1930s, and Polish techniques of oppression may sometimes be copied from German precedents.

Lee Krasner at the Barbican

 

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Lee Krasner spent a lot of time and energy interpreting and promoting the work of her husband. In a real sense Jackson Pollock was worth it, but it was thrilling to see in the recent exhibition at the Barbican that Krasner was producing at the same time a rich variety of work not in the least cowed by or under the spell of the Dionysian Pollock.

It is work of great intellectual depth and force, of ceaseless searching and renewal, so demanding and various that one visit wasn’t enough to take it all in.

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The exhibition began with the so-called tiny paintings, small in themselves and full of further levels of tinyness, little knots of activity scattered over the canvas. Labels spelled out the theory of this organisation, that small things can become monumental depending on context and your own focus. So you grasped from the start that Krasner was a visionary who saw metamorphically, which set you up to expect transformations in which all is not what it seems.

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Soon after, we came to her student work, charcoal nudes called life studies, that started looking like Michelangelo and moved on to Picasso-like fractures, a radically disruptive idea of taking dictation from nature. At this point did any of us dream that the end of it all would be the beginning?

After the impinging nearness of the nudes came unlikely wartime collages meant for window displays and populated by bombs, bombers, scientific instruments and scientists’ laboratories, full of fractious life. This was the period in which she met Pollock, as she oversaw a group of mainly male artists in a bold, practical project.

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Soon after the war she is doing something even more imaginative with collage, slicing up compositions she is dissatisfied with and forming them into powerful explosions which still carry narrative force, bursts of light, tangles of undergrowth, tumult in the heavens. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she went on giving descriptive or allusive titles to her pictures, which told viewers to look for rich imagery in seeming abstraction. Not just ‘seeming’ perhaps, for Krasner shows that these canvases can be both pure construction and individualised narrative at once.

One of the best surprises was to move from one side to the other of the square donut of the upper storey at the Barbican, from the small, dense collages of 1954 to large, free Pollock-sized ones of the very next year.

Both sets, the small and the large, are among her best works, and those viewers who thought they saw suspiciously Pollock-like scribbles in one of the larger set called Bald Eagle were absolutely right. Here Krasner cannibalised her own rejected canvases and one of Pollock’s too, which plays the part of the bird.

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In these pictures it’s more evident that new work is made from the ruins of the old, that new energy springs from the destruction of what went before, through ripping, shredding or cutting without much respect for earlier effort.

So certain colours have special meanings, and red is a kind of bloodshed in Bird Talk for instance (opening image). In this room Milkweed provided a measure of this—its cool colours seemed out of place.

Krasner’s best years in paint were difficult years with Pollock. One of the most exciting and disturbing rooms contained four violent paintings on bodily themes from just before and just after Pollock’s death, which occurred when Krasner had escaped briefly to Paris. You could fill a much larger room with the anguished work of that year and the next, among the most wonderful things Krasner ever did.

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This is where my attention finally wore out, after these pictures in flesh tones and grey, which might be evenly divided between anger and grief, but there’s nothing balanced about them. They are barely controlled, which makes them so uncomfortably exciting. They keep calling themselves back to order, and the canvas gets more and more crowded with colliding forms. They are sometimes said to derive from Picasso’s Demoiselles, to which they seem worthy rivals.

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Perhaps Krasner had already been shifting to soberer palettes in works like Cauldron (not in exhibition), but when we moved to the lower floor at the Barbican we were in a surprising new monochrome-world which might at first seem a diminishment, but resulted in a pair of masterpieces on a grand scale, a calm cloudscape or vast Northern expanse called Polar Stampede, and the wildest depiction of movement, The Eye is the First Circle, which incorporates whirlwind vortexes and heroic striding figures, a range of diffuse and focused motion which accompanies you as you walk past it. Did Krasner have in mind Pollock’s largest canvas, the regular/irregular Mural, meant for Peggy Guggenheim’s New York flat, Krasner’s seething crowd played against Pollock’s orderly procession?

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The almost-grisaille effect of Krasner’s umber paintings lets the formal power of the composition come out more clearly, but there’s also a more prosaic explanation of the source of this unexpected swerve in her work. The larger canvases are possible because she has moved into Pollock’s much bigger studio at their Long Island house. And the absence of colour has its source in her insomnia—she takes to painting at night by artificial light, doesn’t like what happens to colour in these conditions and hits on brown as a tone unspoiled by them.

There are more new departures in the 1960s and 70s, ‘flower’ paintings like Through Blue of 1963, made with a broken right arm which left her manipulating paint with her fingers, leading to great density of surface, and a spate of cartoon-like canvases including Courtship and Mister Blue of 1966.

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The exhibition ended with a startling return. Rooting around in the studio, a British friend found a large cache of charcoal nudes from student days. Krasner meant to destroy them, but looking more closely, felt she was being directed to turn them into something new. Instead of tearing, this time she cut them up with scissors. Out of this destruction came remarkable and unnerving works, in part her revenge on a teacher she had both revered and resented. He had once torn up one of her drawings.

The results of the butchering are tantalysing and confusing, like a Baroque ceiling with figures tumbling out of the corners, like Michelangelo’s lounging or sprawling figures anchoring an indistinct turmoil of other figures, like a series of movements only beginning to clarify themselves, and suggesting as so often in Krasner’s canvases that much bodily business remains to unfold.

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Writing: an exhibition at the British Library

 

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Writing is so familiar that it takes a real effort of imagination to remember that it needed to be discovered or invented. The Writing exhibition at the British Library put us back in the time when writing lay in wait for us, before we had stumbled upon it. The early stages remain obscure, images on cave-walls that we find expressive, a handprint surrounded by dots, at Pech Merle in France, for which the book of the exhibition supplies a literal translation, ‘I was here, with my animals.’

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That might be regarded as proto-writing. What does the earliest true writing look like, then? Little pictures scratched on the shoulder-blade of an ox and standing for what the cracks and fissures in the burnt bone are trying to say?—this is a widely shared idea of the beginnings of writing in China, written characters springing out of the same natural forces that reveal themselves in animal remains. So writing keeps a flavour of the divine and never loses, however abstract it becomes, its strong link with the visible world.

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In Mesopotamia writing appears more mundanely in fixing boundaries and accounting for possessions. There’s a persistent effort (a wish?) to trace these beginnings to Egypt. In 1905 this little sphinx was found, on which a British archaeologist thought he saw the first inklings of an alphabetic order, an ox-head facing left who was an early striving toward the letter A. His theory was refuted, only to rise again, with new evidence, in the 1990s.

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The contest between syllabic and alphabetic systems reappears periodically in the exhibition, one of the most striking outcomes being the Chinese typewriter of the mid 20c, which instead of 40 keys has 4000+ characters lying on a flat bed, which must be picked up individually, pushed against the paper and then put back. Twenty characters a minute is the maximum speed achievable in this language, which can’t easily be atomised.

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Apparently, switching alphabets is easy.  Stick-on Hebrew, Thai and Tamil keyboards appeared in the exhibition. Above is an Arabic keyboard, which I cannot evaluate for completeness or attractiveness. It seems to double-up along different axes from the cap/ lower case mode of Roman keyboards.

The evolution of the letter A was traced through five stages, and we cheered them on as they got closer to the truth. We also delighted to learn that the last known inscription in cuneiform occurred in 75 AD and the last hieroglyphic text in 394.

The Vai language of Liberia and other parts of West Africa waited until the 1830s to find a written form, which was revealed to its discoverer Momolu Dwalu Bukele in a dream. This is syllabic not alphabetic; the text below tells part of a family history.

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It is easier to believe that writing is intrinsically magical when everything about it is as foreign as it is here, but even Latin in cursive form, explained by the need to produce texts quickly, becomes mysterious again, all the more because it is clearly not fine writing striving for an artistic effect.   This comes from the record of a sale of property in Rimini in 572.  

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Latin turns up again in coded form recording conventional material in 9th century shorthand, which again achieves prosaic savings of time and space. A slave of Cicero’s is credited with the invention of this system of abbreviations originally devised for preserving his master’s speeches. One wonders if the strange variety in the length of the strokes isn’t a form of play or mystification, throwing decoders off the track.

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One of the most tantalysing exhibits was a Burmese album of tattoo designs in an intricate folding form.   The images, all in white on black, were often obscured or interfered with by inscriptions in gridded lozenges, one letter or character per compartment, which made the text eat up large areas of the image.   A horse-like animal’s head and chest were completely consumed by twenty-four characters in an 8 x 3 grid. Presumably the words that seem defacements to us were charms for which the whole project existed, and which only took effect when they were written on the body of the tattooee by a miracle-worker, equivalent to or more special than a priest.

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It is apparently a respectable theory and not just a Wordsworthian fantasy that the idea of the alphabet first appeared in the mind of a child. It is now a commonplace that the very young are most adept with the new forms of communication, which carry their oft-mooted threat to old forms of writing (by hand, for instance) or of dissemination (by printed books, above all).   These changes inspired the present exhibition, which reminds us of a long and precious history but isn’t blind to such thrilling new forms of expression as eL Seed’s (a version of a medieval hero’s name, el Cid) calligraphy on an urban scale, an inscription urging us to cleanse our sight that stretches over fifty buildings in a despised district of Cairo populated by garbage collectors.   The casual scribbles of teenage graffitists lie somewhere behind this enormous work, finally brought to pass in 2016, writing which transfigures the ruinous fabric of the city.

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Another teenage ‘writer’ (the technical term in New York for a graffiti artist) was among the group of Syrian boy-graffitists whose arrest and torture for covering walls with slogans sparked off the Syrian revolution. Against this new outdoor form of writing we can put the old indoor, solitary form represented by an old white novelist, another breaker of moulds in his time.

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Writing: making your mark at the British Library until 27 August 2019

 

Antoni Tàpies: writings on the wall

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How to explain never noticing Antoni Tàpies until now? Is it because of insoluble problems with the reproducibility of the work, whose material presence is essential and doesn’t come through in photographs? Tàpies goes on calling his works paintings long after this word ceases to fit. Instead of pictures of suffering, Tàpies presents the martyred body itself, a canvas defaced by gouging, tearing and brutal insertions, obscured by coverings that largely obliterate it or disguise its existence. He calls the surface he works on a battleground, and all the marks or adjustments he makes, wounds, but his paradoxical goal is tranquility. He quotes Heraclitus, ‘all arises from discord,’ and ‘harmony comes from its contrary.’

Besides the Pre-Socratics one of his main inspirations appears to be Zen Buddhism with its appetite for sweeping away complexity of content in order to contemplate the void, in the shape of a blank wall or an expanse of raked sand.

It isn’t immediately evident from the work that Tàpies is a learned artist, whose grandfather owned a well-known bookshop in Barcelona, destroyed by bombing in the Civil War, and whose father had a large library. Wandering in the war-ravaged city Tàpies had the sense of a heritage taken away, a feeling exacerbated by two years recovering from tuberculosis (from age 17 to 19), confined first in his bedroom at home and then in a sanatorium.

Later he attributes key features of his work to all that time passed within the same narrow walls, in a space furnished only with a bed and a wardrobe with large mirrors on its doors; features—wall, door, mirror—which dominate much of his work. He calls this period his forty days in the wilderness, a painful experience of deprivation ‘that may not have ended even now’. When you first meet the phrase, it is a shock to find him pointing to a Scriptural model in trying to describe his own progress as an artist. Is there really a religious painter hidden in the work of Antoni Tàpies and trying to get out?

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I first encountered this work in a little display called Writings on the Wall at Waddington Custot in Cork Street, which included six artists, half of them completely or nearly unknown to me (Tàpies one of these), only Brassai. Dubuffet and Twombly previously familiar. Brassai was represented by photographs of defaced walls in Parisian streets, defaced by punctures that someone chanced upon later and turned into the eyes of faces made with a few gouged lines, which were under- and over-written by other rough attempts at writing or drawing.

Brassai called these eyes ‘the eyes of the street’ and felt a demonic force in the rudimentary scratchings.  Dubuffet had photographed graffiti in similar places and drew graffiti-like pictures of his own, which became austere and illegible lithographs and etchings in black and white.

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Tàpies was present here in the largest work by far, called DUAT, consisting of a long horizontal expanse of sand like a beach, a surface of sufficient depth to write and draw in it with no finer instrument than a stick.  The main word duat (if it is a complete word) which I still don’t know the meaning or even the language of, is written in two different mediums—as dug out of sand, and as scrawled with an oversized pencil (the right half of A, and the whole of T). I can’t tell you how pleasing it was that someone had given up gouging and reverted to writing this word halfway through. It’s not the only sign of randomness in the work, just the most unapologetic.

I didn’t notice one of the main consistencies in Duat in the course of lots of looking (on more than one occasion). I’ve noticed only now that there are three ‘doors’ drawn in sand, evenly spaced across the top two-thirds of the canvas. All three are drawn in sand; only one is ‘open,’ having had the sand excavated from the rectangle and the missing door drawn in perspective (‘hanging open’) to the left of the empty opening.

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A frame is drawn in the sand around the middle door. There’s a mysterious build-up of sand like braided hair down one edge of the third door, evidence of raking or clearing the sand with some kind of scraper. These are not the most interesting details in the whole work, but sand is the most arresting of the various materials, and the one with the most life in it. The effect of the sand standing up on the wall, and not falling off, is like a magic trick that goes on delighting the spectator for a long time, like the drips and spirals of paint in a Pollock that you know came down onto the canvas from a height, but are now standing up and cancelling gravity.

Maybe the doors are windows, and the indoor shutters lying or falling at the bottom of the picture belong to them and have been exploded off, like a rock blocking a tomb, and the white (beach) towel is what’s left of the grave-clothes.

One of the first things someone coming to Tàpies notices is all the crosses. There are two of them here, in insignificant locations, one camouflaged as an X, and further obscured by forming only a part of the Roman numeral for eleven. Surely they aren’t that important in what this picture (without thinking I use this unsuitable word) means.

At this point maybe we should read what Tàpies has to say about the meaning of the cross in general and in his thinking—an emblem of suffering, a graph of the meeting and crossing of contrary forces, the world tree anchored in the centre of the earth, the linking of routes from the four quarters of the compass, the universal person formed of symmetrical binaries, and more. Turned a quarter-turn, the cross becomes an X, a sign used to delete something or multiply it.

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Even the letter T which appears often as an attenuated, parochial form of cross and one of the initials with which Tàpies signs his work can be etherialised in varnish like a spectre rising from a chest of drawers.

Tàpies feels a powerful urge to reduce symbols to the simplest graphs, but then to reload them with all the cultural baggage he seemed keen to escape or at least to strip of its parochial character.

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He was a passionate Catalan and reworked the Catalan flag (in Catalan Spirit, 1971), four red stripes on a gold ground, which at first seemed to me trivial and local, until I focused on how the red had become separate from the yellow and each stripe separate—different, individualised—from the others and written over and under with legible and illegible inscriptions that changed colour as the letters crossed the stripes. Tiny and indistinct replicas of the stripes skitter across the surface like the footprints of small animals or the sharp scratches of their fingers.

And the flag has been turned sideways from horizontal to vertical, or is it an earlier, archaic form taken from a coat of arms, itself a reminiscence of a moment after a battle when Louis the Pious dips four fingers in a Catalan count’s wound and writes them onto the dying man’s gold shield? So Tàpies’ rudimentary form materialises as a Wagnerian myth, and we’re back at art as magic, and now one of Tàpies’ favourite lines of Whitman flits through our heads ‘the priest leaves and the poet appears’.

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There are gruesomely literal Tàpies like Form of a Crucified Figure of 1959 or Material in the shape of an Armpit of 1968, and there are others just as poignant and in their own way as grisly, like Holes and Nails in White, also 1968, a dissected crucifixion which keeps the wounds and the nails apart, not the only time that Tàpies forces parts of the construction through from the back, a painful piercing of the flesh the whole way through. Here there’s another deformation of the surface, boiling up to become liquid after being solid, then congealing again and seeming bodily or visceral because of the imagery of pain.

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This is one of the most recessive instances of a recurrent Tàpies motif, elements of the composition fleeing the centre and ending up at the edge, even over the edge and out of our sight.

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Again the childishness of a magic trick which can make things disappear and persuade you they are gone for good, but these works are also fables of the transitory, in which the image is swept aside like marks in the sand by the tide, which doesn’t always bother to erase them completely.

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The most profound link in Writing on the Walls occurs between the walls of Brassai, pictures of hallucinatory vividness, of found objects located in particular Parisian streets at specific times of day, and Tàpies’ walls, which are not pictures of walls but objects which will hang on walls like paintings, yet are not paintings though he calls them that, but walls themselves, something more primary and immediate than canvas, a different order of reality, which incorporate earth in their substance and embody the Heraclitan magic of getting a spark of fire to erupt from a pile of rubbish composed of the humblest materials—sand, straw, string, rags, burnt and ruined things.  

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‘Writings on the Wall’ at Waddington Custot, 11 Cork Street, London W1 until 8 August