Tag Archives: modernist painting

Botanicals and Beasts in two Shows at The Clark: Nikolai Astrup and les Lalanne

at The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA:

Nikolai Astrup: Visions of Norway, through Sept. 19, 2021

Claude & Francois-Xavier Lalanne: Nature Transformed, through Oct. 31, 2021

Take heart, struggling artists. Just keep going and be sure to leave a few works with at least one person who will take care of them and perhaps facilitate your coming out a century later. Actually, Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) is fairly well known in his native Norway as a tentative modernist on the heals of elder compatriot Edvard Munch, but hardly known elsewhere until a 2016 show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (London). Yet his work sits squarely within the European Post-Impressionist milieu of his time in engaging emotional as well as formal ways. He clearly moved away from naturalism towards highly subjective transformations of the visible world into pictures, on occasion broaching Symbolism, yet retained plein air effects held over from Impressionism. The collection of work here imparts an idiosyncratic painterly charm, tempered by gestural, impasto brushwork and content suggesting the metaphysical dimensions of humans interacting with nature. 

Beyond the promotion of personal stylistic autonomy and disavowal of mimesis as an art goal, Post Impressionism’s orbit reined in a catch-all European-defined “primitivism”–in Astrup’s case, fomented in depictions of regional folkloric–aka pagan, according to Astrup’s preacher father–festivals gathered in an opening gallery. They suggest blended earthbound and mystic experience, a la Gauguin in Brittany and Van Gogh in Arles and recall Munch in their swirling, smoky bonfires. 

Paintings by Nikolai Astrup at The Clark (6/22/21)

Following some traditional art training, Astrup, like Munch, apropos of interest in a questioning new art, sojourned in Paris and Berlin. His animated renderings of rugged mountains and spectacular fjords are kin to Alpine views by his German contemporary, Ernst Kirchner and others of the expressionist Die Brucke group.  Unlike Kirchner or Munch, Astrup enjoyed a close-knit married family life intertwined with the environment on a near self-sufficient farm-residence.  Think holistic healing idyll a la Heidi (the late 19th c. novel. best known from a 1937 Shirley Temple film). Several ersatz replications of his last homestead in the form of hi-rez photo wall paper appear in gallery corridors (as in the header image above).  A bit overblown (literally)? I liked this curatorial touch, considering the simultaneously intimate and monumental, transporting sense of place that his art itself registers. Somewhat ironically, Astrup died of pneumonia at 48, reminding of the probable many harsh realities not alluded to in these portrayals.

Among the engaging technical variations in Astrup’s paint application, breezy but deliberate dabs approximating botanical details stood out.  At times, swaying foxgloves, blankets of marsh marigold, and giant rhubarb (for example) suggest transformation from wood’s edge to wonderland. 

Foreground detail of a Nikolai Astrup painting at The Clark (6/22/21)
Nikolai Astrup, “Foxgloves” (1920); at The Clark (6/22/21)

Domestic scenes are conspicuously filled with cut flowers, towering plants, and table-top produce, and often include open doors and windows to meld inside and outside space.

Nikolai Astrup, “Early Snow” (1926); at The Clark (6/22/21)

A substantial cache of Astrup’s woodcut prints, most hand-colored in experimental ways, are also on display, along with some of the corresponding carved blocks.   It is obvious he shared a trendy interest in Japanese woodblock prints of the ukiyo-e “school” then flooding the European market, notable especially in his images of the local Mount Klauva as a repetitive, stabilizing stand-in for Mount Fuji in the protoypes.

Some compositions and ostensible subjects veer distinctly away from naturalism through awkward scale, and enigmatic, sometimes anthropomorphized shadows and objects (like giant coffee-pot silhouettes and scarecrow-morphing grain stacks); even a few anamorphic forms, like a rocky crevice or ridge that can appear alternatively as a skull or a woman’s body, can be discerned sparingly.  But it’s Astrup’s ability to convey the ethereal through his rooted allegiance to the earth that is awesome and uplifting.

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Astrup’s pictorial nature segues nicely to non-human creatures featured in the sculptural work of Claude (1925-2019) and François-Xavier (1927–2008) Lalanne, couple-creators somewhat akin to the ubiquitous art collaborators, Christo and Jean-Claude.  Each Lalanne, however, generally created independent works, albeit with related content, namely, fauna, which they exhibited and marketed jointly as Les Lalanne. 

Among their signature designs are woolly-coated “sheep” seats, examples of which are included, some replete with cast bronze faces, some distorted and partial, first created by Francois-Xavier in the ’60s and popular with the European jet set.  

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Moutons de Laines (first created 1965) at The Clark (6/22/21)

Having seen some of these previously in outdoor settings, I wondered, at first, whether a glimpse, beyond the glass gallery wall, of still cattle in the distance at the edge of the Clark grounds was a site sculpture extension of the exhibition—not.  But a perfect backdrop, past a large cast metal fish sculpture in an architectural pool just outside the gallery that is.

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Carpe (Tres Grande; 2000); at The Clark (6/22/21)

I found the large-scale bronze “flying rabbit” richly evocative, conjuring a prosaic Pegasus, an updated ritual Near Eastern lamassu, and a Brancusi fish, for starters.

Francois-Xavier Lalanne, Lapin a Vent (1994/2004; bronze)

Jointly, the collection here may insinuate inter-species development and mutation–discordant and slightly sinister–but also suggest blow-up toys in a futuristic 3D bestiary.     

The Astrup and Lalanne exhibitions are unexpectedly complimentary, each striving for a child-like visual and psychological examination of non-human living things as extensions of being.

Claude Lalanne, Choupatte Moyons (bronze; 2012) at The Clark (6/22/21)

 

The Cosmology of Agnes Pelton

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, at the Whitney Museum (WMAA), through June 21, 2020.

(As of this posting, the museum is temporarily closed due to Covid-19 emergency; check museum website.)

Luckily, I got to see this transporting show before the bad news hit —including the closure of the Whitney and virtually all other NYC museums, the Met Opera, Broadway, live t.v., and more until further notice.  Hopefully things will normalize soon, and then the sophisticated spiritual surrealism of Ms. Pelton will be the perfect antidote to the current gloom.

Starting from a European-based realism, Pelton gradually moved very deeply into nature and finally the outing of inner visions through the course of a somewhat peripatetic life, literally and metaphorically—ending up as a yogi-transcendentalist painter in Palm Springs, CA.  In the Whitney presentation back-story material (wall text) is nicely brief so that visitors stay focused on the surfaces of these contemplative works, which effectively approximate the states of mind and imagination that apparently motivated them.  They emit a collective quietism–via smoothed brushwork, softened contours, and dusty, twilight-like palette, with intermittent flashes of glowing atomic detail.

Many include recognizable botanical forms highly abstracted, for example, linear Deco-like lotuses or floating arabesque ferns.   As in the florals of Georgia O’Keeffe, these can yield archetypal central female forms, furthered in Pelton’s oeuvre by ova-orbs and some female figures.  The inevitable comparison between these two peers is interesting as much for their divergent sensibilities, styles and artistic aims as for shared ones.  (Their artist circles overlapped although there is no known direct contact between them; Pelton was more consciously involved with female-centered experience.)  Elsewhere Pelton goes full-on cosmological—the kind of thing associated canonically with Kandinsky and now—and here more so—Hilma af Klint’s idiosyncratic celestial mysticism [see Klint]; Pelton’s work evokes more intimacy. Her surrealist affinities lie in her morphing of watery, heavenly, and biological elements, e.g., flower heads and petals into rippling waves and stars.  A major inspiration for many early modernists (broadly) was music—as Pelton herself, an accomplished pianist, emphasized in her case, and which should be recalled in forthcoming exegesis in this arena. 

Agnes Pelton, Lotus for Lida (Egyptian Dawn), 1930; in the current WMAA exhibition
Agnes Pelton, Fires in Space, 1938; in the current WMAA exhibition

SPIRITIST SENSATION HILMA AF KLINT AT GUGGENHEIM

“Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future”; at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, through April 23, 2019.

Everyone with any interest in the history and mystery of art (or maybe just everyone), must know about the Swedish turn-of-the-century artist, Hilma (1862-1944), who, very much on her own with conscious intention created abstract art before, it seems, its widely dubbed pioneer, Wassily Kandinsky.  Does it matter who got there first (even if that could be securely delineated)?  Probably, to Kandinsky and the other guys who shaped Modernism partly as a competitive bro-manship.  Probably not to Hilma.  Along the lines of Kandinsky, but much more so, she was immersed in a syncretistic spiritual calling.  The specifics are murky and were apparently malleable throughout her life, a blend of Christian,  Eastern and occultist beliefs and practices that included communing with the dead and “spirit masters” who initially inspired her (according to her) to paint autonomously without studies.  She did have early academic training and proficiency in botanical illustration and Impressionist (more or less) landscape by then, seen in examples on view.   The abstraction appears somewhat suddenly, full force, in colossal paintings jointly titled,The Ten Largest (c. 1906-1915).  In these, plant and amoebic life are suggested in the biomorphic shapes and squiggles floating against flat, sectioned planes, occasionally punctuated with idiosyncratic, alpha-numeric  markings.  Her palette features mauves, ochres, and ceruleans with a dusty cast partly due to the tempera-like paint medium on paper that she preferred even for large work, but is carried over also in matte oils. 

These “largest” are exhibited in the museum’s High Gallery off the main ramp (as shown above; view from above)—virtually the only space in this museum that could well accommodate them (a criticism of Wright’s ramp design when the museum opened in 1959,  by which time most abstract painting had become substantially larger than the Kandinskys at the nucleus of the collection).  Yet,  Wright’s winding “snail” could not be more apropos for the bulk of this show, given that Hilma imagined several dozen of her works in a grand spiral “temple.”  

So the show is brilliant for its melding of transporting, otherworldly art and environ, as well as the rich cache of a little known oeuvre.  While it is not surprising that any prolific pre-war woman artist has not had more exposure, in this case, Hilma hid, or at least did not show publicly, most of her abstract work, prognostic about its probable tentative reception, and perhaps discouraged by a  negative response from Rudolf Steiner, a towering male figure in her Spiritist/Theosophic circle.  She did find kindred souls in a small sisterhood of like-minded women artists, also not surprising among woman artists in history who pursued art careers against social odds.

Later, her explorations became a bit more Bauhaus-formal, though prismatic “ray”paintings with pyramidal and planetary forms and sporadic cryptic scribbling can evoke, variously, Freemasonry-type symbolism, early 20th-century Orphism, and Malevich’s Suprematism.  Figuration is also reintegrated after a point, perhaps in an effort to be more accessible, though all remains mostly enigmatic.  It gets somewhat esoteric and precious, not to mention opaque as far as content, in scrutinizing the featured large spreads of small color and shape studies based on gender coding and other symbolic correlation.  But not less fascinating.


 


Topographic Painting, Worlds Apart: Thomas Cole; Tarsila do Amaral

Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings; through May 13 at The Met (Fifth Avenue building).

Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil; through June 3 at the Museum of Modern Art.

The organization of and examples in The Met’s Thomas Cole exhibition effectively create a transporting experience for viewers that follows the artist’s journeys between England, the United States, and Italy in the early 19th century.  Cole (1801-1848) was the product of an era in which continental aesthetics and art history were becoming consciously intertwined with artistic goals specific to the painting medium, especially; close imitation of both nature and the idealized form of “the ancients” was di rigueur.  Cole breathed air into the former—that is, within meticulously detailed and composed, glazed and polished landscape scenes and scenarios.  Whether portraying a precise locale or synthesizing and staffing various settings into monumental narratives and allegories, his pictures convey credibly atmospheric, weather-y conditions.  This propulsion he shared with peers like Turner and Constable, who are included, among others, for comparative contexts, not least to convey a splurge of individualistic technical flourish apparent beyond overlaps in nascent Romantic sensibilities associated with outliers from The Academy.

Themes broached in Cole’s oeuvre turn on colonial savage versus civilized significations and sublimes, and prescient ecological concerns in tandem with the accelerating Industrial Revolution; but, above all, the cyclical drama of nature, in full light of the encroaching Anthropocene, climactic in his renowned, metaphoric, Course of the Empire series, which is highlighted in a make-shift niche that allows easy cross-referencing between the stages of civilization depicted.

Brazilian artist Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973) also created parallel worlds in paint that are nonetheless locally grounded in desert and jungle topographies of her homeland.  At the Modern, viewers are plopped into marshmallow-mound landscapes punctuated by stylized flora and fauna, bright suns, and sometimes bulbous humanoid bodies.  Stand-outs depict un-nameable creatures scuttling along flat bubbles and bands color, encroached upon by out-sized indeterminate foliage and melting cacti.  Part European-modern—Post-Impressionist, Surrealist, abstractionist—and part indigenous, in form, symbolism, and inspirations.  Put another way, Gauguin, Matisse, Tanguy, and Magical Realism milled to morphic and coloristic essences while conveying a real connection to earthy surrounds.

Modernist Mash-up Master: Joaquin Torres-Garcia at MoMA

“Joaquin Torres-Garcia: The Arcadian Modern”

Museum of Modern Art, through February 15, 2016

One art historical context for the Frank Stella retrospective at the Whitney: the mash-up modernist paintings and constructed reliefs (along with a few sculptures), of Uruguay-born Torres-Garcia (1987-1949), fortuitously on view concurrently at MoMA. Torres-Garia spent much of his career in Europe and the U.S. absorbing the latest stylistic, sometimes utopian, trends in painting. He ended up with a kind of catholic abstraction that carried Cubism through De Stijl (closely) and Russian Constructivist tendencies (among others) into a personal idiom that added recurring pictographic symbols.

Torres-Garcia started out in Barcelona (his Catalan father had decided to repatriate when the artist was 17), and the earliest works here show the post-impressionist modernisme of Picasso and the El Quatre Gats gang–street scenes and figures with fluid contours and deft, minimal description.  An anomaly, before he moved definitely into quasi-geometric intuitive abstraction, is a classicizing fresco study on view (also recalling Picasso); the project to which it was related did not come to fruition and apparently set him off naturalism for good.

I like the muddied Mondrians, in which black skeletal contours are smudged into variegated  white, yellow, red and blue “windows” with subdued painterly gusto; and also some incredibly simple and raw constructed reliefs that convey the utmost respect for the nuanced visual mystery of juxtaposed shapes and textural surfaces. A number of tawny, analytic cubist-type compositions include proto-Jasper Johns number schemes; playful numeric and alphabetic elements are strewn across the later work more boldly. It seems the pictorial cryptography of Paul Klee also made an impression, especially in a few linear townscapes with fish flying overhead among the stars.

The fish symbol became a mainstay of Torres-Garcia’s finally signature style.  Later glyph-studded, loosely grid compositions recall those of Adolph Gottleib from around the same time (c. 1940s-early 1950s).  An anchor is another symbol woven throughout that perhaps alludes to his perpetual literal and artistic travels.  A few black and whites feature linear figuration that isn’t so far from Keith Haring’s paint-drawing sensibility on an intimate scale. There is also a display of charismatic rough-hewn toys made for his kids that fit right in as art the way those by Picasso do.

The show provides both an engaging crash course on directions in abstraction in early 20th-century art and comprehensive exposure for an artist who, it seems, collegially and respectfully followed and led, experimented thoughtfully in small increments, and came up with an accomplished, compact oeuvre that now also signifies a link between an international network of artistic peers.