Friday, November 30, 2007

Prime Painter

He would paint on the beaches, he would paint on the landing grounds, he would paint in the fields and in the streets, he would paint in the hills; he would never surrender his brush regardless of the historical events conspiring against him. Please pardon the paraphrase, but Winston Churchill may be the greatest painter and lover of art of all modern world leaders. Born on this date in 1874, the Prime Minister of England who helped keep England together through the darkest days of The Blitz and brought it back into the light of victory after World War II painted as a means of therapy, an escape from the ugliness all around him (a 1946 photo of him painting appears above). I’ve always found it ironic that both Churchill and Adolf Hitler painted. Hitler, of course, becomes the most famous frustrated painter ever, redirecting his creativity into the destruction of the world. Churchill, by contrast, finds solace and meaning in art, using it to recharge himself in the battle against the forces of evil.

Prices for Churchill’s paintings, 500 of which are known to exist, rise every year. In December 2006, his View of Tinherir (above, from 1951) sold for 600,000 British pounds. "They are not worth it,” Churchill said with a laugh when asked if his paintings would ever sell. “They are only of interest in having been painted by a notorious character!” Obviously, Churchill’s fame plays a role in the pricing, but the prices for the far more notorious Fuhrer’s work have never equaled those of Churchill’s. Churchill loved to travel to North Africa and paint in the Moroccan light, which can be seen in his View of Tinherir. Although of less than museum quality, there is a painterly quality to Churchill’s work that makes it more than the work of a rank amateur.

Amateur, of course, comes from the Latin root “amare” (“to love”). Churchill’s painting comes from love rather than any artistic ambition. Chartwell, Landscape With Sheep (above, from the 1940s) continues the long love affair with the pastoral landscape of British art going back to Constable and Turner. Chartwell, Landscape with Sheep actually sold for 1 million British pounds in July 2007, setting a new record for a price paid for one of Churchill’s works, which would probably have amused the artist to no end. "When I get to heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject," Churchill once said. If there’s an afterlife, I’m sure he’s spending it with a brush in his hand.

Still in Control

Plenty of artists content for the title of most self-promoting in art history. The undisputed champion of most non-self-promoting artist may never be wrestled away from Clyfford Still, born on this date in 1904. After his death in 1980, all of his works not already owned by museums or private collectors were stored away with no access to the public or even art scholars. Like an ancient pharaoh, Still’s life and work were entombed until a museum could be built to house them according to the exact specifications in his will. Fortunately, those specifications are now being met and finally the public will get to see the full power of one of the earliest Abstract Expressionists. Sometime between 1938 and 1942, years before other artists such as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko turned to abstraction, Still was painting works such as 1944-N No. 2 (above, from 1944). In many ways, Still is the forgotten father of Abstract Expressionism in America.

While alive, Still painted and taught and generally disdained the entire art world, especially that centered in New York City. While Pollock and Willem de Kooning basked in the limelight, Still quietly painted works such as 1947-R-No. 1 (above), developing his unique style of layered colors that appear to be torn from one another, the transitions between the tones as jagged as lightning. Still fled to Maryland in the 1950s, looking for the solitude necessary to create his abstractions that he saw as the story of his life. "Each painting is an episode in a personal history, an entry in a journal," Still once said. Even his titles are purely abstract, consisting of the year, a letter code, and a number. All personal associations between the work itself and Still's life remained secret. By doing so, Still ensured that anyone coming to his art would have to find their own meaning rather than delve into his life to find one.

The Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado should be complete sometime in 2010. The Denver Art Museum will exhibit next summer selections from the estate, the first and only preview before the Still Museum opens. When completed, the Still Museum will contain over 2,400 works by him, representing 94% of his total output. Perhaps even more importantly, Still’s letters will be available to scholars, allowing the art critics Still denied for so many years finally to study and understand his art. Still believed that his works could only be understood as a whole, explaining his mania for a special museum to keep them together. Looking at 1957-D, No. 1 (above), you see subtle differences from Still’s work from 1947, yet the decade between has done little to change the fundamental nature of his painting. Edvard Munch similarly saw his entire oeuvre as a unified work, painting copies of works he had sold just so that he could reunite them with their brethren. Thanks to Still’s explicit instructions that none of these works ever "sold, given, or exchanged," he can rest easily in the afterlife that his vision will live on after him.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Person She Knew Best

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone. I am the person I know best,” Hayden Herrera said yesterday during The Rose Susan Hirschhorn Behrend Lecture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, quoting the subject of her lecture, Frida Kahlo. Herrera, author of the indispensible biography of Frida, spoke for over an hour on the great artist, displaying the courage and artistry of Kahlo as well as her own scholarship and panache. As the sold-out crowd shuffled into the auditorium, the slide of Kahlo’s The Broken Column (above, from 1944) greeted us, as resolute and unflinching as Kahlo herself in the face of emotional and physical pain.

Herrera, who is currently working on a biography of Isamu Noguchi, centered her survey of Kahlo on the self-portraits, which Herrera sees as “substitute Fridas” the artist would send off into the world. Through her portraits, Herrera contended, Kahlo could “extend her being into the world and make herself known.” Although these portraits all show Frida “always fearfully alone,… her mask of reserve” almost never slips. When that mask slips slightly in her 1947 self-portrait, Diego and I, painted after Diego Rivera asked for a second divorce, the control of the other portrayals seems that much more remarkable.

Tracing the trajectory of Kahlo’s life from the first Self-Portrait (above, from 1926), Herrera captured both the obsession with death and the humor of her subject. Herrera knows Frida like few others, and knew all the right laugh lines to keep the often difficult subject matter palatable. Speaking of Madonna’s desire to play Kahlo in a movie, Herrera quipped, “Luckily, she didn’t.” The often absurd egotism of the “elephantine” Diego Rivera provided plenty of comic fodder as well. Such moments were welcome in the midst of Herrera’s retelling of Kahlo’s struggles with childlessness, illness, and finally drug abuse and suicide. Ending with the same image she began with—The Broken Column—Herrera beautifully described Kahlo as “a female Saint Sebastian” posing as the “heroic sufferer” never surrendering to the pain. Looking back to the Self-Portrait of 1926, you can actually see the toll the years had taken on Kahlo. The almost Renaissance princess of 1926 (demonstrating Kahlo’s affection for Botticelli and Bronzino) gives way to the mature artist looking out upon the world and demanding to be seen.

It was wonderful to see a sellout crowd, but I wish the demographic had been a little younger. Aside from myself and a handful of other non-museum personnel, the crowd was exclusively people over sixty. Certainly students and artists would have benefitted from hearing Dr. Herrera speak, if not just to learn more about Kahlo but to learn how a true art historian approaches a subject with respect, devotion, and affectionate humor. (Perhaps the PMA will make a podcast available.) Dr. Herrera’s lecture served as a great appetizer for the main course of the Frida Kahlo exhibition coming to the PMA next February.

[Many thanks to Dr. Herrera for signing my copy of her biography of Frida. I’ll save it for Alex (and the sister he may have someday) to read years from now.]


While talking with Karl J. Kuerner about his art recently, he stressed the influence of Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit on his life as an artist and a teacher of art. (A photo of Henri appears above.) Anytime anyone speaks of a book as that powerful an influence on their life, I’m immediately compelled to read it. Published in 1923, The Art Spirit collects Henri’s philosophy on art and life in his unmistakably inspirational style. Artists can still come away from it learning a lot about art and themselves. Anyone who loves art can come away equally inspired. One section especially hit home with me in regards to being “qualified” to talk about art:

“All manifestations of art are but landmarks in the progress of the human spirit towards a thing but as yet sensed and far from being possessed.

The man who has honesty, integrity, the love of inquiry, the desire to see beyond, is ready to appreciate good art. He needs no one to give him an art education; he is already qualified. He needs but to see pictures with his active mind, look into them for the things that belong to him, and he will find soon enough in himself an art connoisseur and an art lover of the first order.”

My “official” qualifications for talking about art consist of one art appreciation class in high school, a survey of modern art in college, and one cheap drawing class taken at the local high school at night. My unofficial qualifications consist of an interest in drawing since childhood (thanks to comic books) and reading almost every book on art I could get my hands on since I was ten, something that has actually accelerated since I started getting review copies to write up on this blog. I literally read through the entire art book collection of the library near my childhood home. Even today, I gravitate to the art section of libraries and book stores as if pulled by a magnetic force.

There are still some segments of the museum and publishing world that perceive me as “just” a blogger, an amateur with nothing to offer in regards to insight. I recently read a piece on Jacques Barzun, the prolific author on art, culture, and history and all-around polymath, that reminded me that the Latin root of “amateur” is “amare” (“to love”). Too many think that the root of “amateur” is “to bungle miserably.” If amateur could just lose that bad connotation, people might actually take a risk and pursue something they love, even if they’re not a “professional,” whether it be golf or writing about art history.

As in sports, professionalism in academics, especially those dealing with the arts, can lead to a distancing from the human element. I saw that firsthand in literary criticism, one of the reasons why I didn’t pursue that field beyond graduate school. Thanks to the blogosphere, the tide is turning. In all fields of thought, amateurs are letting their voices be heard. The quality, of course, varies, but the spirit is strong.

“Honesty, integrity, the love of inquiry, the desire to see beyond”—if you have those qualities, you’re overqualified in my humble opinion.

Product Placement

James Rosenquist began his career in art as a billboard painter and in some ways never stopped. Born November 29, 1933, Rosenquist brought the billboard to Pop Art, creating images such as F-111 (above, from 1965) , which measures a whopping 10 by 86 feet, that literally fill entire rooms. In his paintings, Rosenquist generates a collage effect, bringing together such diverse elements of society as a United States military jet, a beauty parlor hair dryer, and spaghetti in an attempt to comment on the commercialization of American life. While Andy Warhol celebrated commercialism by blowing up Campbell’s Soup Cans and Brillo boxes, Rosenquist called it into question by juxtaposing the sleek design of jets dropping bombs with that of the salon hair dryer.

In I Love You With My Ford (above, from 1961) Rosenquist takes on the American love affair with the automobile, redefining auto-eroticism. In this sideways triptych, a Ford automobile’s grill ranks at the top of the hierarchy, just above the woman in the middle with her lips sensually parted. The grey tones of these two top panels give way to the reddish orange spaghetti beneath—the mass-produced foodstuff for American bodies swallowed as readily as the claims of the advertising that links cars, along with almost every other product, with sex. Rosenquist enlarges the spaghetti to such a degree that it ceases to be recognizable as food, become instead almost a network of worms writhing unappetizingly. By showing the pyrrhic quality of the spaghetti, Rosenquist hopes we’ll also see the falseness of the American Dream as advertised on TV.

Rosenquist remains active today, still thinking and working big. His Time Dust (above, from 1992) may be the largest print in the world, measuring in at 7 by 35 feet. The difficulty of just finding images of his work that I could post without losing all sense of scale reminded me of the uniqueness of Rosenquist’s work. Some artists work on a grand scale with little ideas, trying to generate the illusion of importance purely by size. Jeff Koons easily falls into that category. The giant works of Rosenquist, however, require a grand scale, just as Michelangelo’s frescos did in the Renaissance. Both artists aimed at nothing less than presenting a world view. Where Michelangelo took from the Bible, Rosenquist took from the modern Bible of advertising, placing products in his personal Last Judgment on American consumerism, dwarfing us in their presence to show just how diminished our individual lives have become in the vast void of materialism.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Still Burning Bright

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

From “The Tyger” by William Blake

Two hundred and fifty years ago on this date, William Blake, one of the greatest figures in British art and literature, was born. Perhaps no other artist combined such great talent in both art and poetry and such a capacity to combine both those fields so seamlessly. His illuminations of his own poetry, such as The Tyger (above, from 1794), add a whole other dimension to his art. Whole libraries of criticism have been written on Blake, so I can add only my humble piece to the pile. (If you’re looking for a place to begin, Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry and Harold Bloom’s Blake’s Apocalypse remain my favorites.) To take The Tyger as an example of Blake’s symbiotic art of words and imagery, just look at the tiger at the bottom of the page. Blake’s tiger looks more friendly than fearful, smiling as if he had just escaped from a painting by Edward Hicks. Blake’s benign beast belies the idea of nature as “evil.” Nature just is, with good and bad defined by human reason and superimposed on the natural processes both tigers and lambs follow. The power of Blake rests in his ability to see the world with fresh eyes. As Blake once said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” (Jim Morrison took those words, and many others by Blake, to heart many years later.)

Blake’s spirituality earned him a reputation as a madman during his life. When a friend found Blake talking to a tree, he asked him if he was actually talking to the tree. “Of course not,” Blake replied. “I’m speaking with the angel in the tree.” However, Blake never blinded himself to the possibilities of science. Isaac Newton became one of his favorite subjects. In The Ancient of Days (God as an Architect) (above, from 1794), God himself assumes the role of a man of science, taking the measure of the universe he created. Just as there is always a balance between poetry and painting in Blake’s vision, there is always a balance between reason and imagination—a continual back and forth where neither side dominates for risk of losing the benefits of the other. Blake’s art intoxicates you when you first encounter his poetry or his imagery. Then it overwhelms you with his complexity. Because of this difficulty, a select handful of followers kept Blake’s memory alive and rescued it from the very real threat of obscurity.

Among those followers was the painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who helped see the first biography of Blake into publication in 1863 after the death of the author, Alexander Gilchrist. Since those early efforts, from the Pre-Raphaelites on, each generation has come to Blake and found something that speaks to it. Images such as Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder (above, from 1800) bring the stories of the Bible to life like few others. Blake’s own Christianity was highly unorthodox, which actually adds to the freshness and appeal of his religious works. The PMA owns a wonderful little Nativity scene by Blake in which the Baby Jesus literally flies out of the Virgin Mary’s womb. It used to hang across from J.M.W. Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834, my favorite work in the PMA’s entire collection. I always would make a point of looking at that tiny Blake after getting my full Turner fix. I’m pretty sure that Blake and Turner never met, but I’d love to have sat in on that conversation.

Chain of Fools

William Blake, London, Plate 36 from Songs of Innocence and Experience, Copy B, 1974; Relief etching in orange and black, colored by Blake; 110 x 69 mm; Department of Prints & Drawings, The British Museum. Photo: © Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

“London” (1794) by William Blake

To celebrate William Blake’s 250th birthday and the 200th anniversary of the British Transatlantic slave trade, the British Museum and the Hayward Gallery join forces to present Mind-forg’d Manacles: William Blake and Slavery, currently at the Burrell Collection at Glasgow. In the exhibit book of the same name, Blake scholar David Bindman analyzes Blake’s response to slavery in his painting and poetry not only specifically in the form of the enslavement of Africans, but also universally in the enslaved condition Blake saw in his native England and all humanity. Darryl Pinckney, novelist and scholar of African-American literature, adds valuable context in his essay, “’In My Original Free African State’,” which tells the story of the struggles of Olaudah Equiano, the first black person to write an autobiography in English completely without assistance. Through this exhibition and catalogue, Blake’s response to the horrors of the slave trade takes its rightful place in that social dialogue as well as stands out in the uniqueness and transcendence of where Blake eventually took that response.

Debate on the slave trade filled the air of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. Abolitionists Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and William Wilberforce gathered support and pushed legislation to end the practice of buying and selling human beings. Blake’s fellow Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge preached sermons on the evils of the trade as a minister in Bristol. Blake’s own first-hand introduction to the horrors of slavery came in the form of a 1796 commission to do engravings based on the drawings (now lost) by John Gabriel Stedman for his autobiography recounting his years as a mercenary soldier in the Dutch colony of Surinam, where slavery flourished in all its cruelty. Blake’s engravings show many of the punishments inflicted upon slaves, including torturous “stress positions” designed to break the body and spirit. One poor victim hangs from the gallows by his ribs as a slave ship floats upon the distant horizon and bleached bones and skulls appear scattered in the foreground.

Before Blake’s encounter with Stedman, however, he had long incorporated the rhetoric of slavery into his art and poetry. The poem “London” (the illustration for which is above) from his Songs of Experience speaks of the “mind-forg’d manacles” of the world around him. “Blake was not unusual in his time in using slavery as a metaphor and figure of speech,” Bindman writes, “but his use of the word is exceptional in being tied to the physical reality of slavery.” Whereas another poet such as Percy Bysshe Shelley could write of Prometheus Unbound and use the rhetoric of slavery as a metaphor for a whole state of mind, Blake’s personal knowledge of the peculiar institution brings a concrete power that adds a whole new dimension.

William Blake, Urizen in Chains, Plate 20 from The First Book of Urizen, Copy D, 1794. Color-printed relief etching with hand coloring; 157 x 100 mm; Department of Prints & Drawings, The British Museum. Photo: © Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

Bindman dives headfirst into the murky waters of Blake’s system of the “prophetic books” and clears the way for the casual reader to see the beauty and artistry of Blake’s use of the concept of slavery extended to all forms of oppression. Blake’s Urizen in Chains (above) shows the enslaved Urizen, whom Bindman succinctly calls “the presiding deity of the material world, who represents the domination of rationality unmitigated by the spirit, and all the powers that enslave man’s soul and body.” Copying the body language and actual physical bonds of slavery, Blake imposes that reality on his fictional creation to serve a higher purpose—the revelation of the world itself as a prison. Blake imprisons the imprisoner Urizen here, however, to symbolize how those who enslave the minds of others also enslave their own. Kara Walker, the African-American artist currently exhibiting at The Whitney Museum, centers much of her work on this “endless conundrum” of the effects of slavery on both the master and the slave. (My review of Walker's exhibition is here.) Walker benefits from much post-modern philosophy on the subject, whereas Blake’s intuitive grasp of that conundrum shows just how psychologically perceptive he could be and how “modern” he remains.

William Blake, Illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, 1796-97, Night VIII, titlepage Virtue’s Apology: or the Man of the World Answer’d; Pen and watercolor; 420 x 325 mm (approx.); Department of Prints & Drawings, The British Museum. Photo: © Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

In the illustrated title page to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (above), Blake places the heads of the great oppressors of the mind—a cardinal, pope, judge, and soldier—upon the body of the great beast of Revelation as it’s ridden by the Whore of Babylon. Never one to avoid fights, Blake targets the church and state as the greatest barriers to freedom, both physical and mental. “Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,/ And binding with briars my joys and desires,” Blake writes in “The Garden of Love.” As Bindman concludes, Blake “did not see the enslavement of Africans as an aberration from or an affront to British values, but inherent in Britain’s materialist and warlike character, and its confinement to a narrow view of the world.” From marriage as enslavement in Visions of the Daughters of Albion to the wage slavery of the workshops and factories, Blake saw chains and bonds all around him, with only a few means of escape.

William Blake, The Resurrection of the Dead, Alternative design for a title page to Robert Blair’s The Grave, 1806; Pen and watercolor; 425 x 310 mm; Department of Prints & Drawings, The British Museum. Photo: © Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

One means of escape Blake offers is through physical death, freedom from the material body. In an unpublished design to Robert Blair’s The Grave (above), Blake places us at the resurrection, showing several figures freshly freed from their chains and rising to heaven. Another means Blake offers is through the imagination, freedom from mental enslavement, specifically from classical culture and its materialism and martial spirit. John Milton, Blake’s poetic hero, emerges in Milton, a Poem as a savior from this cultural oppression. “For Blake, Britain in the early nineteenth century was still a country mentally enslaved by the material powers of nature, war and false art, with only a few artists keeping alive a vision of a better world,” Bindman writes. To combat this cultural blindness, Blake offers his unique vision of a society based on the imagination and spirit rather than the worldly concerns of the Greeks and Romans. Pinckney’s supporting essay on Equiano concentrates on some of this blindness, even in the case of the abolitionists. “Clarkson wrote his history of abolition as a contest between white men” arguing over laws, Pinckney writes. “Equiano wrote his history of himself as his battle for a free life among white men.” This transcendent vision, capable of seeing beyond the cultural ties that bind (which, again, Kara Walker employs in her own work), offers a possible solution to today’s international situation, especially in the context of terrorism, religious fanaticism, and open-ended warfare. When we all give up our bonds of fearfulness, nothing remains to be feared.

William Blake, Los with skeleton in chains, Plate 10 from The First Book of Urizen, copy D, 1794; Relief etching color printed with hand coloring; 151 x 109 mm; Department of Prints & Drawings, The British Museum. Photo: © Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

Blake’s poetry and art dramatize the power of desire like that of few others. His character Los stands as the eternal artist, yearning to be free to create. Placing Los in chains next to a skeleton representing death (above), Blake neatly encapsulates the true cost of all forms of enslavement—a death of the spirit as well of the body. In commemorating the bicentennial of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade, this exhibition of Blake’s work shows just how important that step was at the same time it shows how marginally incremental it also was. Another thirty years would pass before slavery would be banned in the British colonies, proving that the roots of slavery ran deep in the English soul. With these beautifully reproduced designs by Blake for his own poetry and that of others, this catalogue reminds us of the relevance of Blake’s vision not only for his own time but for our own. Blake, the poet and painter of Urizen and Los, is also the poet and painter of the dark London streets. We walk in his footsteps centuries later without realizing it, as enslaved by our culture as his contemporaries. Whether we recognize and break our chains remains up to us.

[Many thanks to The Hayward Gallery for providing me with a review copy of Mind-forg’d Mancles: William Blake and Slavery and for the images from the exhibition.]

UPDATE: Welcome Guardian Books Blog readers! In Ben Myers' post on Blake today, he links to this post above, posted just hours before. Just click on "poetry and art" in Ben's post and you'll find me. Nothing like the speed and reach of the internet, huh?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Pedestrian Crossings

John Sloan (1871–1951), The City from Greenwich Village, 1922; Oil on canvas, 26 x 33 ¾ inches; National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Helen Farr Sloan 1970.1.1; Image © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington

“For John Sloan, an illustrator and artist with sympathy for the common man (and woman), New York was the ideal place to be in the early twentieth century,” writes Joyce K. Schiller and Heather Campbell Coyle in John Sloan’s New York, the catalogue to the Delaware Art Museum’s exhibition Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York. After moving from his native Philadelphia to New York in April 1904, Sloan soon oriented himself to his new surroundings, walking through the streets and observing the people and buildings that made up the bustling metropolis. In works such as The City from Greenwich Village (above), Sloan shows the gritty realism indicative of the Ashcan School and the influence of his friend and mentor Robert Henri. In this new study of Sloan’s art in the context of his urban explorations, we discover an artist fully engaged with his environment, taking the dynamics of the new social structures of the giant city and capturing them upon the confines of his canvases.

John Sloan (1871–1951), Picture Shop Window, 1907-08; Oil on canvas, 32 x 25 1/8 inches; Collection of the Newark Museum, Gift of Mrs. Felix Fuld, 1925; #25.1163

Sloan’s pictures often place the viewer in the heart of the scene, as if you were right there on the sidewalk, window shopping like the young women in Picture Shop Window (above). “Placing viewers of his New York pictures on street level, Sloan established a unique view of the city that focused on individuals and their own places within the modernizing city,” Molly S. Hutton writes in her essay, “Walking the City at the Turn of the Century: John Sloan’s Pedestrian Aesthetics.” Such focus on the individual perhaps represents on some level Sloan’s Socialist leanings, having joined the Socialist party in 1910 and even allowing his name to be placed on the ballot for the New York State Assembly. In their essay, “John Sloan’s Urban Encounters,” Schiller and Coyle show how Sloan’s Socialism is subtler in the paintings than in his illustration work, especially the illustrations done for the Socialist magazine The Masses. The only Socialist “commentary” Sloan allows himself in his oils is the occasional unsympathetic portrayals of the wealthier classes, especially in comparison to his empathetic views of the lower classes going about their daily lives, such as the ladies of Picture Shop Window.

John Sloan (1871–1951), The Carmine Street Theater, 1912; Oil on canvas, 26 x 31 ¾ inches; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966. Photography by Lee Stalsworth.

Hutton develops the idea of a “pedestrian aesthetic” behind Sloan’s work, showing how he and the other Ashcan artists new to New York felt an epistemological need to “map” the city and somehow own it imaginatively. Sloan’s pedestrian perspective allows him to impose order on not only the people around him but the streets themselves, “without the overt political and hierarchical implications associated with a bird’s-eye view,” Hutton believes, calling Sloan a flaneur, ala Charles Baudelaire’s description of an artist taking to the streets to become “one flesh with the crowd.” The flaneur, however, remains part voyeur—part of the crowd, yet still a distanced observer. Whereas the voyeur sees while remaining unseen, the flaneur “hides” in plain sight within the anonymity of the masses. This insight allows us not only to see the complex psychology involved in works such as The Carmine Street Theater (above), but also sheds light on Edward Hopper, another painter of the New York scene and student of Henri. Hopper plays more of the role of the voyeur, removing the human figure from many of his street scenes in his own desire to remain unseen, whereas Sloan remains confident in his flaneur “disguise” to protect him from discovery, allowing his subjects to “see” him as he observes them.

John Sloan (1871–1951), Red Kimono on the Roof, 1912; Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches; Indianapolis Museum of Art, James E. Roberts Fund, 54.55

Sloan lived in several locations in New York City, but spent most of his time after 1912 living in Greenwich Village, just then developing into a haven for bohemian artists. “Even more than the rest of the city,” Schiller and Coyle write, “the Village represented a place outside the bounds of ordinary social controls.” Sloan’s Red Kimono on the Roof (above) captures one of these bohemians going about their daily chores yet injecting an exotic, colorful note into that existence. Again, like Hopper, Sloan reproduces a real-life aspect of urban existence. Unlike Hopper, however, Sloan individualizes that figure through the detail of the kimono, an aspect usually missing from Hopper’s almost interchangeable figures. The striking similarities between figures in Hopper’s and Sloan’s paintings makes Sloan's efforts at uniqueness even more noticeable.

John Sloan (1871–1951), Three A. M., 1909; Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 ¼ inches; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Gift of Mrs. Cyrus McCormick, 1946, #46-10.1

In “John Sloan, Moving Pictures, and Celtic Spirits,” Katherine E. Manthorne delves into Sloan’s use of the early cinema in his works. Upon arriving in New York, Sloan found himself “fascinated by the down-to-earth, open sexuality of the young working-class women,” symbolized best by the nude 20-foot-high statue of Diana placed upon the top of the original Madison Square Garden, which drew stares from passersby. (Diana now stands atop the great staircase of the PMA, still drawing plenty of attention.) Mass media, especially the movies, helps “propel” this idea of the “New Woman” along with the general idea of “the city that never sleeps.” The films of D.W. Griffith “conduct[ing] substantive examinations of the urban immigrant and working-class poor,” combined with Sloan’s own Socialism, lead to works such as Three A. M. (above), which looks upon working-class conditions empathetically and without judgment. In such paintings, Sloan gets in touch with his Irish ancestry, a reunion encouraged by his friendship with John Butler Yeats, the painter-philosopher patriarch of the clan of both the poet William Butler Yeats and the painter Jack Butler Yeats. Manthorne later parallels Sloan’s realistic vision of the New York streets with James Joyce’s realistic portrayal of Dublin in Ulysses, raising Sloan’s work from the label of “just” realism and adding modernist overtones through the evocation of Joyce. Again, the parallels with Hopper seem significant. Hopper also loved the cinema, leading to the magnificent New York Movie. Hopper’s cinematic turn, however, examines introspection in the person of the usherette, whereas Sloan’s cinematic side involves the audience itself, the community of viewers. Sloan’s Irishness and, hence, European modernism parallel Hopper’s forgotten Francophilia, which the catalogue to the current Edward Hopper exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC brought back into the spotlight. (My review of the Edward Hopper catalogue is here.)

Letter, John Sloan to Robert Henri, November 13, 1912; Ink on paper, 10 x 8 inches; John Sloan Manuscript Collection, Delaware Art Museum

Perhaps the most eye-opening essay of the collection, “Best Friends Forever? John Sloan, Robert Henri, and the Problem of Memory,” by Alexis L. Boylan, calls into question the long-worn narrative of the Ashcan School and specifically the relationship of Sloan and Henri. Armed with the question “What part of this art historical retelling of Sloan’s career is reality, and what part is memory or invention?” Boylan dives headfirst into the Delaware Art Museum’s John Sloan Manuscript Collection (donated in 1978 by Helen Farr Sloan, his second wife) and resurfaces with some surprising answers. Looking at the correspondence, many of which included humorous drawings (such as the letter above), Boylan finds an “interdependence” between the men that suggests a partnership of equals. “Sloan in certain moments appears needy,” Boylan concludes, “but Henri is equally keen to remain a physical and emotional presence in Sloan’s life.” When Henri’s wife dies in 1905, he relies heavily on Sloan and his wife for support. A series of self-portraits by Henri in letters and postcards (one of which calls out “Why hello John!”) testify to Henri’s affection and need to be “present” (even if only through a drawing) with the Sloans. After Henri’s death in 1929, however, Sloan begins the process of separating from Henri, emphasizing Henri’s inspirational power over his artistic skills. Sloan’s 1939 book Gist of Art downplays Henri’s influence in an attempt to “contain” his onetime friend and prove himself his own man. By the late 1940s, Sloan campaign for independence leads him to say, “I have never felt really close to him, he was the master and I the pupil.” Sloan’s campaign proves too effective over time, resulting in an eclipsing of his reputation by that of Henri, who becomes the "leader" of the Ashcan school in conventional art historical storylines. Boylan’s essay serves as a valuable cautionary tale about the perils of convenient labels such as “schools” and their requisite “leaders.”

John Sloan (1871–1951), Rainbow, New York City, 1913; Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches; Cheekwood Museum of Art

In presenting Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York, the Delaware Art Museum reminds the world at large that they own the largest collection of the art of John Sloan in the world and are the mecca for any researchers seeking to know the artist. As with the exhibit celebrating the return of their Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art earlier this year (my review here), the Delaware Art Museum announces to the world that, despite coming from a small state, they’re a very large institution in terms of importance. This exhibition, especially coming in the wake of the Hopper retrospective at the National Gallery of Art, reminds the art world that John Sloan deserves consideration with the acknowledged giants of American art. The questions raised by the catalogue (especially those raised by Boylan) and by the exhibit should spur a renewed interest in answers regarding the artistry of John Sloan.

[Many thanks to the Delaware Art Museum for providing me with a review copy of John Sloan’s New York and for the images from the exhibition Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York.]

Wrestling with Gauguin

When Les Nabis first gathered as a group and took the Hebrew word for “prophets” as their name, Paul Gauguin shone as their guiding star for what an artist should be. Along with Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis created the greatest works of the Nabis school. Born November 25, 1870, Denis first saw Gauguin’s paintings in an exhibition of Impressionist and Synthetist works in 1889, including his Vision after the Sermon: Jacob's Struggle with the Angel (painted in 1888). Denis staged his own version of that Biblical battle in Jacob's Battle with the Angel (above, from 1893), which copies Gauguin’s own use of flat expanses of color but does away with the framework of Breton ladies to claim the vision as entirely Denis’ own.

Denis’ spirituality took a much more orthodox path than Gauguin’s. His The Road to Calvary (above, from 1889) shows the strong influence of Italian Renaissance art, which Denis later saw first hand in trips to Tuscany and Umbria in the 1890s. In The Road to Calvary, Denis composes the scene with striking originality, showing the influence of Japonisme in the strong lines of the cross cutting across the image, directing the eye of the viewer up and into the picture. The procession of darkly clad women leading up to Christ dominates the lower half of the picture. By making Christ himself faceless, Denis removes all focus on representation and concentrates it on the emotional aspects of the scene. Small details such as the golden flowers springing up from the ground serve to echo the silhouetted spears and weapons of the soldiers leading Christ to the place of his execution, adding to the pathos through juxtaposition.

In addition to his overtly religious works, Denis helped foster the Symbolist movement in France, developing illustrations for the writings of André Gide, Paul Verlaine, and Maurice Maeterlinck as well as the musical scores of Claude Debussy. Denis soon branched out into designing patterns for carpets, creating designs for stained glass and mosaic panels for churches, and even painted ceramics. Despite this versatility, Denis remained an innovative painter, creating works such as Spots of Sunlight on the Terrace (above, from 1890) that bleed with acidic color in a way that would not be duplicated until Henri Matisse and the Fauves or Emil Nolde and the German Expressionists many years later. Denis and Les Nabis greatly deserve a reevaluation in art history circles as much more than a stepping stone between Gauguin and the Post-Impressionists and the Fauvists.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Painting by Numbers

The cover (above) of the November 26, 2007 issue of TIME features a reworking of Norman Rockwell’s Triple Self Portrait (below, from 1960) for their Special Report: America by the Numbers. It’s interesting how, as much as Rockwell is maligned, he remains an integral part of American visual culture. TIME Magazine, of course, will never be charged with being cutting edge, so Rockwell remains a “safe” choice, at least in how I see their thinking. I find it interesting, too, how the manipulator decided to forego the division of states into “blue” Democratic and “red” Republican for a multicolored map, either to avoid anachronism or just the agita that usually accompanies American politics. I wonder if the TIME illustrator even noticed the portraits of Durer, Rembrandt, Picasso, and Van Gogh tacked to Rockwell’s easel as inspiration, showing the Europhilia of that most “American” of American artists.

The Doctor Is In

“If somebody reads my strip every day, they’ll know me for sure—they’ll know exactly what I am,” Charles Schulz once said. Born on this date in 1922, Charles Schulz has been in the news again recently thanks to David Michaelis’ book Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography and a recent PBS American Masters’ television special following the same tact as Michaelis’ book. Both the book and the special take the 17,897 comic strips of Peanuts, all drawn and written entirely by Schulz himself, as Schulz’s soul itself, bared for all the world to see and interpret. Just as Lucy (above) herself would dole out a nickel’s worth of psychoanalysis to good old Charlie Brown now and then, Michaelis takes Schulz’s words that “A normal person couldn’t do it” literally.

Charles Schulz was literally born into comics. The newborn future cartoonist was barely days old before a relative suggested calling him “Spark Plug” after a horse featured in the popular comic strip Barney Google. The name, later shortened to “Sparky,” stuck for the rest of his life. Michaelis excels in capturing the pervasive cultural power of the comics pages at this time. “The power of syndication derived from the simultaneity and range with which the individual cartoonist could broadcast an idea,” he writes. “Such glamour as resided in the business lay in the major cartoonists’ image as regular guys, Cinderella spokesmen for the common man, who happened to be earning salaries greater than that of the president of the United States.” After sports and the movies, cartooning stood as the “dream job” of boys of Sparky’s generation of all walks of life, including figures such as the novelist John Updike and the poet Richard Wilbur. Mutt and Jeff, Krazy Kat, Gasoline Alley, and other strips created a world of imagination otherwise impossible for a segment of American society. Through Peanuts, Schulz would come to dominate and actually redefine that world.

Peppering his text with strips illustrating different moments in Schulz’s life, Michaelis shows just how autobiographically Schulz wrote. To weed through nearly eighteen thousand strips and connect the biographical dots between art and life so well testifies to Michaelis’ knowledge of the subject. When Michaelis first relates how Schulz’s dying mother said goodbye to him with the words “We’ll probably never see each other again” and then shows how Schulz placed those same words in the mouth of Marcie speaking to Peppermint Patty, my jaw literally dropped. Later, Michaelis reveals Schroeder (above) as Schulz’s workaholic doppelganger, replacing cartooning with piano playing. Schroeder’s coldness towards Lucy stands in for Schulz’s distance from his first wife as their marriage disintegrated. The danger of Michaelis’ book is that you learn too much. Each character represents a segment of Schulz’s psyche, yet his was such a sad, dysfunctional existence that each of these characters loses some of their charm by association.

In a case of murdering to dissect, knowing such personal knowledge detracts rather than adds to the Peanuts experience. I’m not sure I can ever read a Peanuts cartoon the same way again. The appeal of Schulz’s work was its visual simplicity and emotional universality. Peanuts portrayed children visually but adults emotionally. If we knew more about Shakespeare, for example, would his works seem as universal, or would they, too, fall prey to the intentional fallacy of characters standing in for too real equivalents in the author’s life? The sheer weight of detail that Michaelis compiles here buries the spirit of Peanuts as a commonly lived experience and replaces Charlie Brown as everyman with Charlie Brown as simply Sparky.

Michaelis does, however, manage to portray the cultural power of Peanuts. “Peanuts spoke directly to a student generation absorbed in irony and tension, paradox and ambiguity,” he writes. “When Charlie Brown first confessed, ‘I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel,’ he spoke to Eisenhower’s America, especially for that generation of solemn, cynical college students—the last to grow up, as Schulz and his contemporaries had, without television, who read Charlie Brown’s utterances as existential statements about the human condition.” Watershed moments such as the first Peanuts television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas recover some of the impact lost over the years. (Above, a scene from the special in which Charlie Brown expresses to Linus his conflicted feelings on the commercialized holiday.) In 1965, half of America watched Linus first speak the words of Saint Luke, an overtly (and wholly sincere) religious statement that seems impossible today.

Schulz himself always downplayed his ability and influence. “I’ll never be Andrew Wyeth!” he often lamented, even after becoming the first cartoonist honored with a retrospective at the Louvre. Comparisons between Peanuts and modern art seem ridiculous until you place the gestures of Schulz next to those of the late Picasso, whose dove of peace suddenly bears a passing resemblance to Woodstock. Thanks to the work of Schulz, several generations of cartooning show his influence, from Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury, and For Better or for Worse to The Simpsons, South Park, and The Family Guy. In his final years, Schulz’ work suffered as his health declined. Many fans (myself included) stopped reading his work, growing bored with the repetition inevitable after 50 years of writing. Schulz died on February 12, 2000, the day before his final Peanuts strip was scheduled to appear, as if his existence itself hinged on publication. If nothing else, Michaelis’ biography will remind us of what Schulz’s Peanuts once meant, before the merchandizing and illness transformed it into something soft and comfortable. The discomfort of Schulz’s life as told in his art belongs to all of us, odd as that may seem, and we should all find comfort in that thought.

An Inconvenient Truth

Short People got nobody
Short People got nobody
Short People got nobody
To love

They got little baby legs
And they stand so low
You got to pick 'em up
Just to say hello
They got little cars
That got beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin' peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They're gonna get you every time

From “Short People” by Randy Newman

If you know one thing about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec you know that he was very, very short—less than five feet tall, in fact. Born November 24, 1864, Toulouse-Lautrec may have suffered from pycnodysostosis, a genetic disease of the bones caused by swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool (his parents were first cousins). Although his torso was of normal length, his legs were abnormally short. A bushy beard hid his underdeveloped chin, as his ubiquitous bowler hat hid the fact that the fontanelles at the rear of his skull remained open. Understandably, Toulouse-Lautrec found himself attracted to healthy bodies in motion, living vicariously through the dancers he painted in scenes such as At the Moulin Rouge, the Dance (above, from 1890). Two different films titled Moulin Rouge try to recreate the atmosphere of those colorful days in Montmartre. Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting does the job just as well, placing you within the crowd of onlookers, as if you were physically touching elbows with your friends at a table near the dance floor.

Toulouse-Lautrec revolutionized the field of poster advertisements in France at that time. His Le Divan Japonais (above, from the 1890s) shows his friend, the dancer Jane Avril in the stylish hat. At the same time, this image reveals Toulouse-Lautrec’s fascination with Japonisme, especially in the broad areas of flat color such as that of Avril’s dark silhouette and the interesting perspective used. Henri followed the lead of Degas in finding an almost inexhaustible subject in the theatre. But, while Degas relegated himself to voyeurism, studying his subject from a distance, Toulouse-Lautrec jumped in feet first, injecting himself into the theater world itself in becoming it’s prime visual spokesman.

I remember seeing many of Toulouse-Lautrec’s pastels at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. Many of these were intimate scenes in the bedroom or the bath, again similar in subject matter to Degas yet different in a greater engagement with the individuals portrayed. Degas never found it in himself to paint a work such as Henri’s The Kiss (above, from 1892). There’s a warmth and joie de vivre in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work that belies the pain and struggle of his life. Despite his infirmities and illnesses (including alcoholism) that took his life before age 37, you never find any bitterness in Henri’s work. His party animal persona may have been just a mask to hide his pain, but it’s difficult to imagine that Toulouse-Lautrec didn’t find some joy in his eventful, yet short life.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Giving Thanks

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States, the start of a long four-day weekend of family, friends, food, and frenetic holiday shopping. Art Blog By Bob will return to its normal programming on Monday, November 26th, unless the turducken gets burned or something like that.

Many thanks to my beautiful wife Annie and amazing son Alex for the love and support they give to me in everything I do, including writing this blog. Kudos, too, to my friends who provide suggestions and comments among the many laughs. To the readers of Art Blog By Bob, thank you very much for allowing me to take up part of your day with something I love so much doing. (As always, I’d love to hear from you in comments or by e-mail to To the wonderful people at the museums and publishers, many thanks, again, for providing the books, videos, and other materials that help keep this blog going. Special thanks go out to the folks at the PMA, my “home” museum, for inviting me to press previews and treating me with the same generosity and courtesy as they do all the “real” media.

Norman Rockwell’s painting above will always be my favorite image of Thanksgiving Americana. Most people forget that Rockwell painted that in 1943 as part of a series of Saturday Evening Post covers dealing with the Four Freedoms outlined by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941. Freedom From Want, represented by the lavish Thanksgiving dinner, belongs with freedom of speech, of worship, and from fear. All Americans should give thanks that these freedoms still exist in our country, and remember that they can never be taken for granted.

I recently passed by the lawn area next to the Visitors’ Center and in front of the National Constitution Center in the Historic Section of Olde City Philadelphia. A group of veterans were placing grave markers in neat rows for every serviceman and woman lost in the war in Iraq. (A photo of the work in progress appears above and a close-up of an individual marker appears below.) One of the veterans explained to a group of schoolchildren and anyone else who would listen how the rows of markers would lead all the way up to the National Constitution Center, a full city block away, before they were finished. He railed on about how these men and woman died bravely but unjustly in a conflict that should never have happened.

When you enjoy your freedom from want before your turkey (or turducken, etc.) tomorrow, think of those who suffer from want and those who will never want again in this life. When you enjoy your freedom of worship (or not to worship), think of those who suffer for their faith or because of the “faith” of others. Finally, enjoy your freedom of speech and speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves. By doing all that, you will have already enjoyed your freedom from fear, especially those fears exploited for the gain of the few and the losses of the many for much, much too long.

Identity Crisis

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible,” Rene Magritte once lamented. “Humans hide their secrets too well.” Born on this date in 1898, Magritte created mind-bending, Surrealist images that held up a mirror to humanity and showed it just how many secrets it kept from itself. In The Son of Man (above, from 1964) Magritte’s omnipresent bowler-wearing man in an anonymous dark suit hides behind a green apple. Whether that man’s identity lurks behind the sins symbolized by that Adam’s apple of Original Sin or if identity itself is the “sin” in unclear. Magritte sees identity itself as a state of crisis, something we can never fully grasp or understand yet something continually in peril.

World War II marks a great turning point in the art and life of Magritte. Before the war and his displacement to the United States, Magritte painted in the dark, often violent style of Surrealism. The Menaced Assassin (above, from 1927) evokes a nightmare scenario with the suggestion of a narrative but nothing coherent. Although we see all the faces, we do not know who anyone is or how they relate to one another. In this world, even the assassins fear attack, every hunter is also the hunted. No traces of the gentle Magritte of the postwar images appear in this world, where a woman lays on a bed before three voyeurs looking through the window. Although the bowler-hatted men have faces, they also carry a club and net. We can’t even sympathize with the man at the phonograph, as he may be the assassin of the title.

If the pre-World War II Magritte is violent, razor blade to the eyeball Bunuel, then the post-World War II Magritte is tripping, free for all Fellini. Although Magritte painted The Human Condition (above) in 1935, you can see the lighter side of Magritte that is best known today. Magritte’s mind games play more gently than Dali’s, more of an exploration of the imagination itself than a welcoming into another person’s nightmare. You can almost hear Paul Simon’s lilting "Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War" as you look at these paintings. The Son of Man (top of post) and other similar works from this period show how Magritte redirected his attention from the space outside to the space within—the realm of identity. After witnessing the atrocities of war firsthand, works such as The Menaced Assassin were no longer possible for Magritte. Shaken by that experience, Magritte dove deeper into his art, plumbing the depths of identity in an escape from the world at large. In a way, the faceless bowler-wearing men reproduced ad infinitum in many of these later works comment on the depersonalization of the modern condition. By looking inside, Magritte found the most surreal subject of them all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Coming to America

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907; Oil, silver, and gold on canvas; Neue Galerie New York; This acquisition made available in part through the generosity of the heirs of the Estates of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer.

As Gustav Klimt watched the train carrying Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma pull away and begin their trip to America in 1907, he said a single word—“Vorbei!” (“It’s over!”). With their leaving, Vienna’s golden decade of the two Gustav’s ends. Thanks to the Neue Galerie in New York, however, Gustav Klimt’s coming to America marks a new beginning, specifically the grand celebration of the Neue Galerie’s acquisition of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (above), the finest example of Klimt’s personal golden age. After a long journey marked by the sadness of Nazism and the long struggle for restitution, Adele Bloch-Bauer I finally arrives in America in grand style as part of Gustav Klimt: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections, the biggest exhibition of the works of Klimt ever to be seen in the United States.

This show marks the culmination of Ronald S. Lauder’s long infatuation with “Adele.” In his introduction to the catalogue to the show, Lauder goes back to the day he first saw the painting thirty-seven years ago in Vienna, arriving eagerly at the museum just as the doors opened that morning. Thanks to the efforts of the estates of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer, the painting of Adele finally returned to its rightful owners after the Nazis stole it and other artwork during their conquest of Europe and oppression of the Jews. The heirs then sold it to Lauder in 2006 for approximately $135 million. Adele rightfully takes her place as the jewel of the Neue Galerie collection and helps erase the sadness of the past with this joyous celebration of the art of Klimt.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Hope II, 1907-08; Oil, gold, and platinum on canvas; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, and Helen Acheson Funds, and Serge Sabarsky

Renee Price, Director of the Neue Galerie, curator of the exhibition, and editor of the catalogue, traces the slow process of Klimt’s coming to America in her essay, “Gustav Klimt and America.” It’s hard to believe today, but Klimt was relatively unknown in America until the 1950s, not having a solo show until 1959. Once America “discovered” Klimt, however, it couldn’t get enough of him. Prices for his paintings rose quickly in the 1960s. Despite art critics in 1960s calling works such as The Kiss “the essence of the vulgar fraud that [Klimt’s] ‘art’ truly was,” Klimt became the poster of choice of college dorms across the nation. Celebrities such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Barbara Streisand collected his work, helping make Klimt a household name in America by the 1970s. “By the 1970s the American psyche was newly receptive to Klimt’s overt and covert messages,” such as that found in Hope II (above), writes Price. “The painter’s influence was seen in every level of creative and commercial endeavor, from the work of artists and designers to the mass-productions of trinket-makers.”

Price goes on the prove this pervasive influence of Klimt in several special sections later in the catalogue. “This is an intellectual sensuality—and sexuality—from which I learned a lot,” says the artist Vanessa Beecroft of Klimt’s influence on her art, just one of the examples of Klimt-inspired contemporary fine art shown. Klimt-inspired jewelry and high fashion by designers such as Alexander McQueen and Christian Dior demonstrate Klimt’s continued influence on women’s fashion. The examples gathered under “Klimt in the Popular Sphere”—including John Malcovich’s film Klimt, Klimt finger puppets, Klimt-quoting advertisements, and even Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Klimt-esque cover to A Kiss in the Dreamhouse–reinforce the power of Klimt on the modern imagination, especially in America.

View of Gustav Klimt’s studio on Josefstädter Strasse 21, Vienna, ca. 1912. Photograph by Moritz Nähr. Furnishings were designed by Josef Hoffmann and executed by the Wiener Werkstätte. The painting is Klimt’s Hope II (1907-08), now in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Neue Galerie exhibition not only brings Klimt to the present day, but also brings the present day viewer back to turn of the century Vienna and the spirit of that age. A reconstruction of Klimt’s receiving parlor of his second studio, complete with original furnishings, allows you to step back into Klimt’s world. Klimt’s inner sanctum, which he only opened up to models, clients, and friends, reached mythic proportions in his day amidst rumors that the society ladies he painted became his lovers behind those doors and the legends of models would walking around the studio nude, waiting to be painted or serve a different “purpose.” Although Klimt was justly famous for his sexual appetite, the exhibition catalogue goes a long way in dismissing the myths surrounding Klimt and his women, especially the society women he immortalized.

Sonja Knips, the first society woman painted by Klimt in 1898 (with whom he did have a brief affair years before), emerges as just one of a series of strong women in Klimt’s life. Klimt opens up a world of art to Knips, who in exchange opens up the world of society to Klimt. The Lederer, Zuckerkandl, and Bloch-Bauer families, especially the wives, become Klimt’s greatest supporters “progress[ing] from being mere onlookers to becoming veritable protagonists in the cultural process,” writes Sophie Lillie in her essay. The stories of these collectors and their collections make for riveting reading—case histories of the course of art in war-torn twentieth-century Europe. The immolation of much of the Lederer collection by the retreating Nazis in 1945, which Lillie calls “the greatest single loss of Klimt works in history,” still stuns with its utter senselessness. After the war, “Masterpieces such as the golden portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer became icons of collective identity” for Austria, Lillie writes, “but the processes leading to the expropriations of such works were glossed over—just as Austria glossed over its own role in and responsibility for the Nazis’ atrocities.” Lillie’s essay not only uncovers those dirty little secrets, but more importantly introduces us to Adele Bloch-Bauer herself, the person behind the painting. Price’s interview with Marie Altman, Adele’s niece and one of those instrumental in the restitution process, further recovers the lost humanity of these great patrons and lovers of art.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), The Black Feather Hat, 1910; Oil on canvas; Private Collection, New York, courtesy Neue Galerie New York

Despite the popular caricature of Klimt surrounded with easy women, the real-life Klimt sought the company of exceptionally strong women, as embodied by the woman painted in the pensive The Black Feather Hat (above). The art critic Berta Zuckerkandl becomes Klimt’s chief spokesperson. Fashion designer Emilie Floge served as a kindred spirit to Klimt, designing long, flowing gowns for women that Klimt would copy in his own painter’s smock. Klimt called for his “Midi,” his pet name for Floge, on his deathbed. The central figure in Klimt’s pantheon of powerful women, however, remains Alma Schindler. When Klimt met the teenage Alma, she was, as Alessandra Comini describes her, “shockingly outspoken, demandingly curious, widely if randomly read, trained in piano and composition, and possessed of a vibrant, willful personality that projected through intoxicating blue eyes.” Alma and Klimt’s shared fascination soon fell apart, setting the stage for the composer Gustav Mahler to meet and marry the dazzling Alma. Thanks to this “Alma factor,” the two Gustavs never become close friends, but do collaborate on the multimedia Beethoven tribute of 1902 that spawned Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze as set to the accompaniment of Mahler’s rescoring for wind and brass of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” movement from his 9th Symphony. Just as Alma served as a bridge between Klimt and Mahler (and later Oskar Kokoschka and Walter Gropius as she cut a romantic swath through all of the Germanic artistic geniuses), Alma and these strong women serve as a bridge to today’s viewer of Klimt, who can see Klimt as more than just a lover of women’s forms but also as an admirer of their minds and spirits.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Two Reclining Women Facing Right, ca. 1904; Pencil; Private Collection, New York, courtesy Neue Galerie New York

Klimt loved women’s bodies, of course. The many drawings with strong sexual content, such as Two Reclining Women Facing Right (above), prove just how long and intensely Klimt studied the female form. Marian Bisanz-Prakken writes at length on Klimt’s fascination with the nude female body as part of a larger phenomenon in European culture involving treatises on anatomy in the name of “science.” “Authors never tired of pointing out how educational the ‘pure’ observation of beautiful undressed people—above all women—could be,” she writes. This “education,” Bisanz-Prakken asserts, at least for Klimt, consists of a focus “on stages of erotic awareness and the associated emotional states of the woman,” manifested best in works such as The Virgin and The Bride. Taken in this context, Klimt’s works and their powerfully erotic content (a problem during his life as much as today) appear not as “dirty pictures” but as explorations into the human, specifically female, psyche. In a separate essay, Price links Rodin’s The Kiss and Klimt’s The Kiss (which he may have begun in response to indecency charges against drawings by Rodin in 1907), showing how Rodin’s portrayal of the psychological through the physiological influenced Klimt’s thinking. To focus on hands in Klimt’s works the same way one focuses on them in Rodin’s art is to see Klimt in a whole new, intriguing light.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Head of a Woman with Closed Eyes, Facing Right, 1913; Pencil; Serge Sabarsky Collection, New York

This exhibition and catalogue should open many eyes to a new vision of Klimt. Drawings such as Head of a Woman with Closed Eyes, Facing Right reveal Klimt as a master draftsman, reminding us of his power to inspire Egon Schiele and others in their own styles. Small details such as Klimt’s encounter with evolution and Darwinism, suggesting the possibility that the ornamental dots and squiggles of his paintings actually mimic life as seen under a microscope, bring Klimt himself into greater focus. Scholarly addendums listing the history of Klimt in exhibitions in the United States and cataloguing works by him in American collections combined with the lavish photography and insightful essays make this catalogue a must-have for any enthusiast of Klimt or German art in general. The man who said “It’s over!” one hundred years ago could never have known how wrong he was.

[Many thanks to the Neue Galerie for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Gustav Klimt: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections and the images from the exhibition.]