Tag Archives: Toulouse-Lautrec

Arabesque: ornament, form, gesture

“Arabesque” at The Clark, Williamstown, MA; through March 22.

This modestly chic, none too didactic show suggests the gradual assimilation of Arabic and Arab-influenced Islamic design elements, especially the nature-derived arabesque, into European art through the course of the 19th century.  Mostly prints, the gathered material also includes drawings, paintings, photographs and a few objets, drawn mainly but not exclusively from the Clark’s holdings.  The trajectory moves from ornamental flourish to the edge of expressive abstraction implicated in the fluidity of the curvilinear per se, climatic in Art Nouveau.  Taken nearly for granted in the concerted formalist approach is the hovering cultural backdrop of increasing French and British (mainly, among other European) interaction with Ottoman and other societies in the Middle East.

Starting with the earliest work: late 18th – century Rococo compositions centralizing figure groups with decorative borders of Roman vegetial stock underlying Islamic styles that bring in indigenous eastern regional forms and spiritual intentions.  By then, Chinoiserie and “Turkish” tropes were in vogue in Europe.  Contoured arcs are given distinctive play in several exquisitely delicate allegorical prints (c. 1800) by Philipp Otto Runge (see German Romanticism) featuring cherubic babies amidst billowy beanstalk-like botany in celestial settings.

The underlying mathematics of much Arab design is conveyed in jewel-hued studies of architectural details of the Alhambra by British designer, Owen Jones.  These are displayed in a constructed room with a horseshoe-arch portal to add a relevant real architectural element; glass, fabric, and furniture selections are also included here.  Several other British artists in the orbit of the Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite movements are represented primarily by densely intertwined rhythmic foliage motifs, among them a charming ink drawing by Walter Crane in which you can follow the hand of the emerging image.  At the other design end of such lacy intricacy, the wavy-gravy geometry of Henri van de Velde, Art Nouveau progenitor, on the title pages of a 1908 edition of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. (Van de Velde’s interest in Nietzsche, who extolled primal, communal arts in many of his writings, was not incidental.)

Other faves: Aubrey Beardsley’s sinuously sinister illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which never get old; ditto the fetching, tentacle-haired women of Alphonse Mucha in two large color litho advertisements and several well-known images of lithe dancers by Toulouse-Lautrec, which, together with an ink-brush-like print image of an animated tiger by Paul Ranson, bring japonisme into the formal focus; an elegantly writing female personification in a large painting by Maurice Denis (borrowed from the Detroit Institute of Arts); and an intimate Matisse interior with apropos curlicue-laden wallpaper, reminding of his forthright Moroccan inspirations.

Sleeper Print Show at ‘The Met’*

*aka The Metropolitan Museum of Art (google “new Met logo”):

“The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor”; through May 22.

Print shows per se are most often geared towards specialists/special interests within the niche.  This one, though, stands out as an engaging, star-studded chronological survey, from early modern image printing to the turn of the 20th century, through choice examples from the Met collection.  (Ivins and Mayor have been the leading curators in establishing the range and caliber of the Met’s cache.)

In one of my favorite exhibition spaces at the museum for its manageable scale and tripartite symmetry (second floor off the corridor to 19th c. European painting and sculpture), the central portion features a large-scale vitrine in which (mainly) early illustrated books, strategically propped open, are displayed.  Both  incunabula (early printed material, largely from Gutenberg-renowned German territory) and full-fledged Renaissance publications are well represented, collectively exemplifying progressive mis-en-page ingenuity and letterform and illustration diversity–mainly wood cuts for the images, some with hand flourishes.  Note, among the various then modern studies on classical arts and the natural science studies an early edition of Vesalius’s “anatomy,” and Durer’s “Four Measurements” treatise, in which his ubiquitous image of a draftsman peering through a gridded frame at a nude female subject first appeared.  Durer also stands out on the walls; it’s a forgotten treat to view his engravings closely–known ubiquitously through all manner of reproduction for centuries.  Big-name Italians, like Mantegna, will also be noted while perusing the abundant Renaissance array.

The flanking galleries give an orderly overview of 17th, 18th century, and  19th century developments.  Etching mastery is illuminated (literally) by the inclusion of several states of a Rembrandt Crucifixion.  Selections from Goya’s “Disasters of War” bring to mind (among many other things) the impact of the increasing distribution of images that facilitated print culture in the first place.  That concept, in an aesthetic vein, is at issue in the reproductive transformation of paintings into prints, sometimes done or directed by the painter but often by other art or publishing entrepreneurs, increasingly prevalent through the period covered.  Chemical experimentation is prominent in a washy, sepia-toned interior by Whistler and color works by Cassatt.  Daumier’s sketchy lithographs usher in the journalistic potential of that medium, while its artistic potential culminates in nouveau color posters by Toulouse-Lautrec and others here.  Overall: a feast of technique, form, and iconography, which also conveys the populus-conscious, metaphoric matrix of printmaking.