Tag Archives: Surrealism

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)

 

Rotating the Collection at the Whitney Museum

The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965; opened June 28; ongoing.

Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s; March 29 – August 28, 2019.

(at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

Five years in, The Whitney has become thoroughly at home in its spacious new digs and primo downtown locale (the right move out from the old guard Upper East Side).  This is the second substantial collection overview-type installation since the new building’s inaugural extravaganza (2015). The rotation and attention to expanded contexts for a few renowned works that have remained on view in shifted juxtapositions is notable.  (I must say, a welcome trend seen in major museums broadly; remember when a small portion of a museum’s holdings remained on view in the same spots seemingly for decades?) The salon-style painting display in a dark blue gallery at the start (facing the 7th floor elevators; above) is effective in setting the mood, scale, and subject range–a mix of urban and rural, portrait, landscape, and genre–in mainstream Depression Era art in America. At the same time, an elite few were busy opening galleries and museums in Manhattan, like the Guggenheims, the Rockefellers, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose “Whitney Museum of American Art” opened at a downtown location in 1931.  GVW was a committed supporter and promoter of living American artists, not to mention an artist herself aware that her larger mission presented conflicts of interest. Unlike her art-philanthropic peers (for the most part), her interest in the production of her time left a strong collective record of the years between the wars on the American scene through a heavy lens of New York.  A lack of wall labels draws visitors close, partly to look for signatures. Works by renowned American Regionalists like George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton are immediately recognizable, partly due to their early and close identification with the Whitney.  There were several women artists on this wall that I did not know, as well as elsewhere throughout; like Madeline Shiff (aka Wiltz), whose lively portrait of her artist-husband painting a landscape in a windowless studio here (Wiltz at Work, 1932) both reinforces and goes towards filling the lacunae of her own career.    

Several mini-show arrangements, according to the museum’s holdings, star with Edward Hopper.  One of the great “poignant clown” depictions of many in modernist paintings features in his early Soir Bleu (1914), a post-Impressionist-like Parisian pub scene and last European nod in his oeuvre.  Across the room and several decades the sublimely distilled ordinary New York air of Early Sunday Morning (1930) beckons.  Nearby are several works by Georgia O’Keeffe, whose aesthetic approach and temperament, via the results, are diametrically opposed.  Likewise, a display of selections from Jacob Lawrence’s War Series (c. 1946-47), which is truly experimental in its washy sepia palette and rhythmic forms without loosing humanistic, topical focus.  A number of sculptural elements from Alexander Calder’s Circus (1926-1931), a Whitney coup, have been re-installed in an isolated darkened niche featuring a documentational film of the artist performing his kinetic ensemble (1961; transferred later to bright video).  That is, cranking, blowing, twisting his miniaturist mixed media props, caricatures, and animals to tumble, race, jump, and dance in ingeniously low-tech machinations.  If art is play for adults (as some psychoanalytical theories suggest) Calder was deep in and highly convincing. 

Other pre-WWII works are grouped stylistically; such as Cubist-informed “Machine Age” cityscapes by the Charles-es, Demuth and Sheeler and art-deco architectural sculpture by John Storrs, and Surrealist-tinged work, which, in the United States, elided in many cases into Social Realism and even Regionalism, whether or not through conscious intent. A remarkable contribution here is a visionary animated film, as far as later video and other digital art goes, by Mary Ellen Bute (Spook Sport, 1939).  Of many additional highlights in the pre-WWII section, you won’t miss a relatively large-scale, quirky painted ode to the end of WWI and her beloved NYC by Florine Stettheimer, with fabric folds added to Lady Liberty; and don’t miss Elizabeth Catlett’s quietly uplifting terracotta-as-bronze Head (1947).

The  Abstract Expressionist section is energized by a boldly splotched Ed Clark canvas and a crusty, monumental relief-painting by Jay DeFeo. Pop Art is dominated by Tom Wesselmann’s ginormous Still Life Number 36 (1964), from his loose kitchen-counter collage-paintings series, which presciently anticipates the Photoshop-based paintings of Jeff Koons and other digital “commodities” artists.  Warhol’s silver-screened Elvis Two Times (1963) remains compelling despite, or perhaps because of, the artist’s continued omnipresence in on the contemporary art scene.  (Younger viewers probably now recognize “a Warhol” more so than his celebrity sitters.)  

The 8th floor show on color as form in painting of the 1960s is a kind of addendum, first and foremost conveying how dominant abstraction had become by then; and also a sort of primer on “post-painterly abstraction” (a la Clement Greenberg) in several inclusions collectively. Kenneth Noland’s dizzying, measured-stripe abstraction at the entrance (New Day,1967) looks thoroughly triumphant.  A now classic stained canvas “bunting” piece by Sam Gilliam stands out against the majority work in geometrically-defined color-blocked experiments, sometimes differentiated only slightly in handling between different artists. A few representational artists, it is proposed, still focused primarily on color in at least some work of this period, as in good examples by Alex Katz, Bob Thompson, Kay Walkingstick, and Emma Amos.  A thoughtful but not too didactic display. 

With this history under your belt, you’re ready to tackle the Biennial on two floors below (through 9/22/19) — if anything is left in the show by the time you get there (see Biennial) !

Andy Warhol, Elvis Two Times, 1963 (installed in the exhibition, The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965 (photo: 7/12/19).
Kenneth Noland, New Day, 1967 , installed in the exhibition, Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s at the Whitney Museum (photo: 7/12/19).