Tag Archives: Post-Impressionism

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.


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)


Mad Munch at Met

Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed; at the Met Breuer, through February 4, 2018

“Between a rock and a hard place” would have been an equally apropos title for this copious display of swirling anxiety by the brooding, eternal modern screamer, Edvard Munch.  Trapped between old and new values and modes of existence, his oeuvre conveys tensions between the restrictive mores of an immediate Christian past and an intuitively and philosophically Bohemian worldview–inflected by pervasive illness as well (himself and those close to him).

The title painting, a late self-portrait, shows “the master” isolated in a monk-like studio (just his art and a bed are identifiable), presided by a sentinel-like, towering and seemingly ticking clock.

Indeed Munch’s art-book persona as depressive, gone-mad anti-hero and soul-bearing post-Impressionist is powerfully reinforced here.  His ability to ensnare viewers into his chaotic emotional orbit is considerable–even for those who will not identify with its central,  fraught protagonist.  His forthright  engagement with Freudian conflicts surrounding women and virility is at full force in a gallery of femmes fatales that burn with raw vulnerability.  Most compellingly haunting, however, are his writhing, perspectivally perilous views of Oslo from Ekeberg Hills and related, washy, windswept night scenes punctuated with ghostly figures.  Overall, his fluid, lightly muddied painting technique, along with the existential and psychological introversion of it all, strongly prefigures Abstract Expressionism.

Modernism and Reaction: Guggenheim Summer

At the Guggenheim Museum, New York:

Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim; through September 6, 2017.

Guggenheim Collection: Brancusi; through January 3, 2018.

Mystic Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris 1892-1897; through October 4, 2017.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum building (opened 1959) generally so dominates any art on view that an emphatically self-reflexive, self-contained show featuring its core collection of modernism seems virtually the only “natural.”  Presiding over the museum’s character and legacy is Wassily Kandinsky, whose spiritually-aimed abstraction grounded the aesthetics of Wright’s design–as charged by SRG’s German émigré art advisor Hilla Rebay.   Rebay had egged on SRG in acquiring early Kandinsky,  which, supplemented by additions from the collections of other “visionaries,” adds up to a retrospective-ready holding by the museum.  The full spectrum is summarily  featured here,  from The Blue Rider years, through Stravinksy, the Bauhaus, and the late cosmic geometry.   The shifting subtleties and enigmas of his “non-objectivity” are climactically concentrated in the double-height High Gallery but interspersed throughout, due to the organization of the show, which separates the holdings of each sub-collection: SRG’s, Rebay’s own small one, those of Rebay’s compatriot émigrés, Karl Nierendorf and Justin Thannhauser, and Americans, Katherine Dreier and SRG’s famous niece, Peggy (see the film, “P.G.: Art Addict,” dir. Lisa Immordino Vreeland [Netflix]).  This conceit offers insight into certain “progressive,” elite art tastes, cliques, cabals, and their interactions, and diversions, through (mainly) the first half of the 20th century.

Cubism and Kandinsky dominate.   Despite long-standing charges of narrative sentimentality by some, I love the charmingly enigmatic paintings of Marc Chagall, which blend both, and add folkloric/primitivist and topical political content, such as the three gems here, among SRG’s purchases.   Dreier and Peggy brought in Alexander Calder, who had a strong presence in Paris between the wars.  Thannhauser added most of the antecedents (Impressionism, Post-Impressionism [the biggest names in both cases]; and early Picasso; although always on view by stipulated agreement, they are especially relevant absorbed into this show).  Nierendorf contributed Joseph Albers; Peggy brought in Surrealism and Jackson Pollock (and like that).  The most prevalent sensibility overall is a kind of cool Cubist-derived Bauhaus that asks quite a bit of the mind as well as the eyes.  Where artists’ early and later works are not in proximity due to the collectionaire theme,  some works lose context that might be helpful for those beyond cognoscenti (this observation amounts to a very small thing–but, e.g., see the Mondrians).

While Wright envisioned primarily (not at all exclusively) a downward trajectory from the top of the continuous, angled ramp (reached by elevator), and it doesn’t matter much how to attack this show to get wrapped up in its brave new formal euphoria, I suggest the upward climb if you can, the sens de la visite of the curators.  Thus the High Gallery full of Kandinskys is a grand opening, just past the start of the upward spiral.  Up another tier,  veer off into the Thannhauser space (as indicated, grounding for much material to follow), and then ascend to the culminating splatter Pollock (1947) that implicates, retrospectively, the reach of Kandinsky.

The most important sculptor in this milieu is probably Brancusi.  Only a few are scattered throughout; however, there is a small addendum show (off Thannhauser) that fleshes out his contributions, along with Edward Steichen’s acclaimed photos of his influential Paris studio.

A great juxtaposition with the forward-looking tenor of “Visionaries” (retrospectively) is the Rose + Croix salon display, off the ramp at the 4th floor, which retracts from canonical modernist tendencies into fin-de-siecle ennui and an idealized early Christian past—portrayed through detailed, engrossingly fussy figuration.  Starting with the physical transition from Wright’s giant egg-white snail/spaceship into a dark-red-colored room with plush sofa-seating.  The Rosicrucians were one of many 19th-century syncretistic Christian groups incorporating ancient, esoteric mysticism, new occultism, and socio-philosophical prescriptions that looked backwards from the “fall” of the industrial revolution.  One of its high priests, Josephin Peladan, took up the arts component as a sect of umbrella fin-de-siecle Symbolism, organizing a series of salons such as that simulated here.  The collective results—a mini-Counter Reformation kind of thing, in which hell-and-damnation (among other) Biblical, Christian, and Classical allegorical narratives, heavy on male-moralistic notions of female purity, boast highly crafted, sometimes experimental techniques amplified in a close personal viewing;  William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites are precedents.  Across the works the lighting is appropriately ethereal, and a pan-European Art Nouveau can be loosely applied to the languorous anatomies and foliage.

One bridge between several turn-of-the-century artistic milieus across the two shows is the Swiss Ferdinand Hodler.  He hovered between various fringe movements and goals, melding figuration and formalism with his rhythmic “parallelism,” represented in the Rose + Croix show by a soulful, freize-like composition of anguished, black-draped bodies.  Most of his peers here are far lesser known.  in terms of art history, they lost out to the (then) futuristic art sojourners highlighted in “Visionaries.”  Yet, the intentions of both Kandinsky’s and Peladan’s flocks, as far as developing a spiritually-infused art that could effect broad societal direction, overlap.

Step Right Up: Looking into Seurat’s “Sideshow”

Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, The Met (Fifth Ave.), through May 29.

A subtle masterpiece of modernism, Seurat’s Circus Side Show (Parade de cirque, 1887-88) serves remarkably well as both a specific object of aesthetic investigation and a matrix for an examination of related social themes and worldviews as reflected in broader visual cultural of the era and an array of antecedents.  Compelling all the way on both terrains.

The painting depicts a foreshortened, repousée crowd before a barker and a band of musicians on platforms at the entrance to a cirque; ostensibly a “realistic” scene; i.e., a popular public entertainment of the time in Paris.  However, its shadowy figures are simplified in a harmoniously geometricized composition and  flattened through Seurat’s all-over brush-tip paint application, aka pointillism or divisionism.  Foremost,his technique appears, in retrospect, a scientific, methodical (rational; progressive) way out of Impressionism and its creed of naturalistic aims as a comprehensive artistic end.  Attentive to new optical theories, this non-analogic approach Seurat developed might equally be called pixelation–in one definition (pixel), “the smallest element of an image that can be processed.”  Other associations and off-shoots of the term also apply, not least, their shared link to both anonymity and animation.  Circus breaches certain paradoxes and dualities of 19th-century modernity: on the one hand, socialistic, idealistic, and stoic; on the other alienating and tending towards prescribed uniformity.  Thus, Marxist precepts are mashed up with formal ingenuity in the dotty DNA of this proto-digital presentation, also hypnotic in its squintingly-obsessive craft.  The palette is oddly somber in comparison to Seurat’s other paintings, with dabs of darkened complimentary hues melding to olive and mauve passages at a distance that not only set off depicted bursts of gaslight, but bring attention to the subject matter.

The visual history of circuses and diverse heritors is vast, from ancient times to the commedia del’arte to Barnum & Bailey’s (and every freak “spectacle” and foire in between); and long associated with marginalized lifestyles and social outcasts that many artists have been very sensitive to for obvious reasons.  Despite its extreme stylization, Seurat’s painting bears more than a trace of this iconographic continuum, while also projecting ambivalence in its several veins.  The exhibition includes immediate precedents, including two small, jaunty oils by Daumier and a number of his better-known graphics that place stock clown types into political satires (several especially relevant right now that you won’t fail to recognize); along with bright litho posters hawking real events, troupes, and venues.  And then a small but brilliant selection of contemporaneous paintings by others that reflect the complex take on the public human intersection captured in the Seurat, in front-of-the-house and behind-the-scenes circus settings.

Back to Seurat’s individual take: the minimalist chiaroscuro (to mix a few more metaphors) for which Seurat is known through copious charcoal drawings are ample here, and in this context, perhaps a bit ghostly.  Also, the Met’s oil study for Seurat’s masterpiece, La Grande Jatte (1884; Chicago Art Institute), of course; and a jewel-like polished study for the secondarily applauded (in his own short life-time) Poseuses (1888; Barnes Collection), from a very lucky private collector.