Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave is a cave in the Ardèche department of southern France that contains the earliest known cave paintings, as well as other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life.

It is located near the commune of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc on a limestone cliff above the former bed of the Ardèche River. Discovered in 1994, it is considered one of the most significant prehistoric art sites.

The cave was first explored on December 18, 1994 by a group of three speleologists: Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet, for whom it was named. Chauvet (1996) has a detailed account of the discovery. On top of the paintings and other human evidence they also discovered fossilized remains, prints, and markings from a variety of animals, some of which are now extinct. Further study by French archaeologist Jean Clottes has revealed much about the site, though the dating has been the matter of some dispute. (Wikipedia)

The French government soon took custody of the cave, and visitors were barred to protect it from the kind of damage done to other prehistoric caverns. Researchers are allowed to visit once a year to study the cave and they are boxed in with all sorts of protective restrictions - from the "do not touch" to wearing sanitized boots to prevent mold spoors from being tracked into the cave. Herzog brought his powers of persuasion on the French government to permit him and a tiny film crew to film inside the cave. He went to French Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterand and volunteered to become a government employee for the salary of one euro (on which, Herzog promised, he would pay taxes).

Eventually, he and his three-man crew received permission to shoot for five four-hour days, with lightweight 3-D equipment, inside the Chauvet cave, under the sponsorship of The History Channel. The result, Land of Forgotten Dreams, is an enthralled and mostly enthralling guided tour of what Herzog describes as "one of the greatest art discoveries in the history of human culture."

He has a talent for into the darker recesses of the human soul and the beauty of this film is a startling contrast to his other forays into the human psyche. But then, his animus, Klaus Kinski is now dead. Maybe that released the more perverse demons in Herzog's soul.

The cast of characters includes a circus performer turned anthropologist here who night after night dreamed of lions after visiting the cave, a perfumer who tries to sniff out caves and anthropologists who dream of and in one case, recreates what he feel are the spirits of the people who created the art by wearing skin and furs and playing the Star-Spangled Banner on a bone flute

 The technique of 3D has never been used to greater effect; instead of cheesy Hollywood mobsters or monsters, we have a camera that lovingly reveals the skill of the long-ago artists, their creative use of the bulges and ripples of the stone wall. The close ups of the stalactite covered skulls of the cave bear, white and glistening, is powerful enough to almost erase the incomprehensible millennium that separate us from them, the them that were our ancestors.

In archaeology circles there has been debate on whether the earliest Chauvet paintings date from 32,000 to 30,000 BP (or “before present,” in the charming parlance of archaeology) or are actually somewhat younger. Whatever the case, even one of the critics of the earlier dating, a German archaeologist, Christian Züchner, has agreed on their beauty, enthusing in one 2001 paper that, “Even if Chauvet Cave is not as old as assumed it remains one of the outstanding highlights of cave art!” 

Mr. Herzog doesn’t address the conflict, which partly turns on whether the radiocarbon dating was sufficient, but then again, he isn’t a scholar. As the wistful title of the documentary indicates, he moves in a world of dreams and stories.

The film isn't perfect; would that there had been more images of the cave and less of the archaeologists walking up and down the mountain, crawling through the cave, less nausea inducing 3D film swooping over hill and dale. Herzog can't resist pompous pontificating on German Romanticism as the film pans the nearby Ardèche River  and the film score is loud and irritating. Why is it so difficult to understand that these caves were probably used for magic and ritual? The ending, set in a freaky research center where albino crocodiles swim in the runoff from nuclear reactor plants, is apparently a fraud. 

But it's Hertzog's spirit that presides over the documentary - amazing, sometimes irritating and endearing. In his late 60's,  he is as curious as ever, never ceasing in his lifelong journey to excavate the strangeness at the heart of the human soul. 

Of course, it's wrong to assume that these cave painters were strange. They were men - and women - of their time. It's we who are strange, estranged as one archaeologist explains, from a world that was once fluid and permeable.  

Maybe some aspects of the cave weren't so spiritual. This article claims that humans and bears battled over use of the cave:

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

California Impressionists at the Irvine Museum

California Landscape with Flowers. Granville Redmond (1871-1935)

I wish they had more images on their website but it's a colorful antidote to our rainy weather. When I look at paintings like this, I am nostalgic for the California that they lived in - with less urban blight, no freeways and a landscape that spoke of freedom and possibilities.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

New work posted to Flickr

Two new folders - one titled "Buddha" and the other, "Deconstructed Flowers."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Fava on Friday

Debbie over at "I'm Mad and I Eat" blog started me thinking about favas with a post on roasted fava beans. I've been resisting the call of fava because they are a bit of work to peel but the final results are delicious. 

Her series of posts, plus the comments,  were very interesting since fava beans are part of my Lebanese heritage. I'm a "real American" of the Heinz' 57 Varieties type but part of the mixture is Lebanese. My grandfather came from Lebanon in 1893 and thank heavens for that. I don't fancy being married off to some cousin at the age of 12 or 13, wearing a veil all my life and being subjected to male domination. I've had enough difficulty with that in the good old U.S. of A.

But I do like the food.
I can't say that I "boil" my fava beans when I cook the dish (called ful medmes in the the Middle East).  I usually bake them in a low oven (great for a cold day). There are countless ways of cooking them, depending on what is available, but the basic recipe remains the same. 

Put the dried fava beans in a big pot and soak in water for 8 to 24 hours. Then add the onion, tomatoes, a bit of salt and a few tablespoons of dried red lentils. It is simmered over very low heat all night, covered so the beans don't discolor. The stew is usually eaten in the morning for breakfast, although Egyptians will eat it any time of the day. Salt to taste since it's not salted when cooking.

I've had it garlic sauce; fūl husniyya, with hard-boiled eggs and a baked béchamel sauce; and the flavorful fūl bi'l-basturma wa'l-bayd, with basturma (dried and spiced beef) and fried egg. Fūl with a drizzle of water buffalo samna (clarified butter), a pinch of salt, flatbread, and scallions on the side was also very good. I've also added (as a side dish), spiced yogurt, tahina and humus hummus with a big pile of chopped herbs.

Now, that's probably more than you want to know about another way of cooking fava beans. But one more thing- the soup is delicious cold as well. I drain off some of the liquid, mix the beans with red onion, parsley, mint, cilantro and add a lemon vinaigrette dressing. Since I am a long time Californian (born here, really), I have been known to add chilies or Chinese hot chili paste and serve it with pita bread, tortillas or some other kind of flat bread. I've also substituted edamame beans which have a different taste, are probably healthier but are equally delicious. 

Some parts of the recipes and info (Arab names) are from Clifford Wright (Mediterranean Cooking) and Claudia Rodden. I'm a dump here, dump there, pinch etc. kind of cook and felt that there should slightly more specific instructions. But only slightly. 

It turns out that they also serve a variation in Ethiopia:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Vanilla Pod Bean Story

One more link... James Mitchell is not only a SF writer and poet but was a fellow classmate of mine when we both attended Professor Hoffman's classes at SFSU in the last year or so.

His blog is a delight; check out the posts about the various gateways to hell in SF as well as his knowledgeable posts on music and poetry. But today's post is on a subject near and dear to my heart - home made ice cream. I dare not buy an ice cream maker, just like I don't dare buy a waffle iron. My weight and my blood sugar levels would never recover. But I can enjoy James' adventures vicariously and not put on an extra ounce:

Links for a hot Tuesday in June, Pia Stern, NMWA, Dorothea Rockburne and A Cuban in London

It's the Solstice and in honor of the Goddess, today's post will be full of links about women and art. It's too darn hot to do much else. I am definitely a long time San Franciscan. I came here for the fog and when it's not cool, I wilt, lose all brain functions and become extremely cranky!

 First of all, a link to Pia Stern's web page. I first saw her work in a local gallery and wrote a decent review which was far less than she deserved (KB, -or better yet, Christopher Knight of the LA Times -  where are you when it's a talented and deserving woman artist?) She wrote back, I replied (Nancy the talkative) and she has become a much-cherished e-mail friend.  SFMOMA's Artists Gallery at Ft. Mason carries some of her work and she occasionally has a show here which I will be sure to post about when it happens.

 Previous posts on Pia's work: 

The National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington DC has three great exhibits. I can't visit in person so it will have to be via cyber-space.
Pressing Ideas: Fifty Years of Women’s Lithographs from Tamarind features over seventy fine art lithographs by forty-two women artists,

Now, this is a group that's near and dear to my heart:
"The Guerrilla Girls Talk Back features more than 70 works by the Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous artist-activists, who have raised awareness about the sexism and racism pervading contemporary culture since the early 1980s......"
Susan Swartz: Seasons of the Soul features thirteen of the artist’s abstract landscape paintings in an intimate, single-gallery presentation

I don't remember when I first saw the work of Dorothea Rockburne; it seems like ages ago. I was so impressed that I bought the gallery catalog. I follow her work (via the Internet) and was pleased when my last Google search brought up her show at the Parrish Museum. This is her first career retrospective (ABOUT TIME!!) and I feel another catalog purchase coming on.

Dorothea Rockburne: In My Mind’s Eye
June 19–August 14, 2011

Dorothea Rockburne (American, born Canada, 1932) Geometry of Stardust: 2.5 Ratio / Jupiter and Saturn, 2009–2010 Aquacryl, Perlacryl, Titanium acrylic, and gold leaf on watercolor paper 14 ½ x 11 inches Collection of the artist © 2011 Dorothea Rockburne/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Schecter Lee

A Cuban In London who writes one of the most insightful, delightful and perceptive blogs that I read. He often posts music videos of music from his Latin and Cuban heritage. My music collection has been enriched by his vast knowledge. But his latest post on the sexual oppression of women is an eloquent and powerful essay.

"Maybe it's time to go beyond judicial paths, law enforcement and government-backed strategies. Perhaps the last resort we have left is to invoke the words uttered by Louise Sawyer (played by Susan Sarandon in the film "Thelma and Louise") when confronting her friend's attacker in the car park: "Sounds like you got a real fucked up idea of fun. Turn around. In the future, when a woman's crying like that, she isn't having any fun!" .....


More at..

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Françoise Gilot, update on the electrician who claimed his Picasso's were gifts.

Françoise Gilot was one of Picasso's many significant others and a painter in her own right. Unfortunately, she is not heavily featured at the current Picasso Exhibit at the de Young. Maybe because she left him, instead of being discarded by him, the show largely edits her out of Picasso's history. I don't remember seen any of the beautiful paintings that he made of her and I don't think she's featured in the drawings or etchings either.

Spiteful male ego, much?

Yet, she was one of his more signifiant "significant" others. She was only in her early 20's when she met Picasso but had already exhibited great talent. In 1946, Gilot and Picasso began a decade-long relationship as she became both a witness and a participant in one of the last great periods of the modern art movement in Europe.

Their circle included poets, philosophers, writers, and many legends of the art world, such as Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau, and Henri Matisse. This artistic union was also shared with their two children, Claude and Paloma, whose antics and acrobatic postures were often captured in drawings and paintings.

By late 1953, the relationship with Picasso had run its course and Gilot left the home they shared in Vallauris and returned to Paris with their children. During the 1950s and 1960s, Gilot continued the trajectory of her artistic explorations with studios in London, Paris and  the south of France.

The current show at the Oceanside focuses on her work "after Picasso." Again, unlike many of his women, she thrived away from him. I don't know what it was about life with Picasso but he had a lethal influence on many women in his life. His first wife, Olga, suffered numerous breakdowns and two other wome (Marie Therese and his last wife Jacqueline) committed suicide.

In 1969, during an exhibition of her work in Los Angeles, Gilot traveled to La Jolla and was introduced to Dr. Jonas Salk. The kinship was immediate and they were married in Paris in June of 1970.  Their  25-year marriage was truly the merging of science and art.

"The theme of this exhibition explores the transitions in Gilot’s life and work that formed her artistic voice. Relying on structures, rhythms and color, Gilot often challenges the boundaries between figuration and abstraction by evoking rather than describing, to heighten the surface tension of the canvas and to entice and engage the imagination of the viewer. Featuring over 40 works of art,  including oil paintings, watercolors, gouaches, monotypes and original prints, this exhibition will explore the evolution of Gilot’s unique abstract, symbolist style from the early 1960s to her more current work." (all images @ Françoise Gilot)

This just in (I'm not surprised at the reaction of the Picasso family. For all that I've heard they are possessive and predatory. At least one of the commentators on this new item admits that it's the electrician word against the Picasso family - which has a vested interest in grabbing back any and all items that they can :

Pierre Le Guennec, who installed alarm systems for Picasso in the last years of the Spanish painter's life, said the 271 pieces, which included collages, gouaches and lithographs, were gifts. French authorities, however, were not convinced, and have indicted Le Guennec and his wife Danielle for "concealing," France's classification for possession of stolen property.

Picasso's son Claude, who doubts Le Guennec's claims, has said that the couple's story does not match up with his father's usual gift-giving practices. Despite being extremely prolific, Picasso was not known to give away unsigned or undated works like the ones in Le Guennec's collection. Moreover, investigators say the works may have come from one of Picasso's other residences, in which Le Guennec had not worked.

More links
Picasso: Masterpieces From the Musée National Picasso

OMG! It's Picasso. SF Citizen

When Gertrude Met Picasso

Thursday, June 16, 2011

When Gertrude met Pablo

Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, 1905–06; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946; © Estate of Pablo Picasso

By the time Gertrude met Picasso, the Steins were well known as collectors of modern art. The apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus was hung with works by Braques, Manet, Renoir, Cézanne and Matisse. Leo Stein was the first to see and be struck by the work of the then unknown Spaniard. The painting was the Jeune Fille Aux Fleures. Gertrude didn't like the painting at first and Leo's decision to buy it lead to a ferocious family argument. But her response to Picasso, the man, was far different. He impressed his with his big black eyes and air of vitality. But dislike turned to liking and for the next forty-one years, interrupted by the inevitable quarrels between two such oversized egos, they were friends. *

In 1905, at the end of his Harlequin period, Picasso asked her to sit for a portrait, and the results (not Cubism yet but on the way to) were dark, brooding, and strange. Stein is shown seated in a large armchair, wearing her favorite brown velvet coat and skirt. Her impressive demeanor and massive body are aptly suggested by the monumental depiction.

Picasso actually completed the head after a trip to Spain in fall 1906. His reduction of the figure to simple masses and the face to a mask with heavy lidded eyes reflects his recent encounter with African, Roman, and Iberian sculpture and foreshadows his adoption of Cubism. He painted the head, which differs in style from the body and hands, without the sitter, testimony to the fact that it was his personal vision, rather than empirical reality, that guided him in his work

He famously said, "Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will," which was quoted by Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein said later, "I was and still am satisfied with my portrait, for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me."

The completion of the portrait marked the beginning of Stein’s interest in portraiture and "resemblance," concepts that would come to influence her writing nearly as much as Picasso’s Cubist philosophies.

Stein’s literary portrait of Picasso "If I Told Him," completed nearly twenty years later and first published in Vanity Fair, is a similarly strange but tender attempt to capture a resemblance of his genius. It begins: "If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him." As a painter might wonder if he is flattering his subject sufficiently, Stein wonders if Picasso will like the "portrait" she writes for him as he hears it told back to him—his own Cubist philosophies translated into language. A later passage addresses how one might create "resemblance" in a verbal passage, which becomes something like repetition:

"Exact resemblance. To exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact as a resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly a resemblance, exactly and resemblance. For this is so. Because."

In fact, Stein continued to defend the representational nature of Cubism throughout her life, as if one could only get to an exact "resemblence," or image of life, through the distortion, repetition, and altering of the present moment to mimic perception. In her 1938 book Picasso she mentions an incident in 1909 when Picasso, after having completed the Cubist paintings Horta de Ebro and Maison sur la Colline, showed Stein the photographs that inspired the paintings. Stein swore that they were no different than the photographs.

If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him.
Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it.
If Napoleon if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if I told him if I told him if Napoleon. Would he like it if Napoleon if
Napoleon if I told him. If I told him if Napoleon if Napoleon if I told him. If I told him would he like it would he like it if I told him.
Not now.
And now.
Exactly as as kings.
Feeling full for it.
Exactitude as kings.
So to beseech you as full as for it.
Exactly or as kings.

*From Gertrude Stein and the Charmed Circle by James R. Mellow

Gertrude reading various selections of her prose

 SFMOMA: The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde to Premiere in San Francisco and Travel to Paris and New York in 2011–2012 . Please see for full information.

Gertrude Stein: Five Stories. Contemporary Jewish Museum:

Picasso from the Musee National Picasso, Paris, France

Really nice three part essay by SF Mike on the Steins and their collection:

Monday, June 13, 2011

Picasso at the de Young (more images)

"This once-in-a-lifetime exhibition comprises works from every phase of Picasso’s extraordinary career, including masterpieces from his Blue, Rose, Expressionist, Cubist, Neoclassical and Surrealist periods,” describes John E. Buchanan, Jr., director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “These works present eloquent testimony to his role as a protean figure who not only created and contributed to new art forms and movements, but also forever transformed the very definition of art itself. Following on the heels of our recent exhibitions of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, this exhibition represents a natural progression forward to the masterworks of the 20th century.”

The Death of Casagemas, 1901

 Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937 (L) . Weeping Woman. 1937.(R)

African inspired proto-Cubist work. Study for the Demoiselles d'Avignon (L). 1907 and Three Figures Under a Tree. (R).1907

All images AP wire services/main review below

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Picasso: Masterpieces From the Musée National Picasso at the de Young

"Art should not be a trompe-l'oeil, but a trompe-l'espirit." Picasso in Robert Desnois, écrit sur les peintres, Paris, 1984

While the Musée National Picasso in Paris is closed for renovation, parts of the collection have been on a trip with many stops away from the usual triangle of London, New York and Washington DC.

Selected by Anne Baldassari, chairwoman of the Paris museum, the exhibition’s 150 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures show us a man with enormous natural gifts and a temperament that egged him on to try anything, sometimes the more outrageous, the better. What most of us keep in our closets is better off sent to the local thrift store. What Picasso kept in his closet was a lifetime of paintings, sculptures, drawings, etchings and prints. Of course, for a man who, in 1930, bought the Chateau de Boisgeloup, and who also owned several apartments in Paris, finding storage space was never a problem.

 La Celestine (Women with a cataract), Barcelona, 1904

The exhibit begins with the 1901 “Death of Casagemas” by the 20-year-old artist, and ends with “The Matador,” the 1970 self-portrait Picasso painted a few years before his death in 1973. The exhibit is roughly organized in chronological order although, given Picasso's multifaceted and paradoxical experiments, maintaining strict chronology is impossible.

Study of a Head for Nude with a Towel, Paris, Fall 1907, Gouache on paper.

The exhibit is particularly insightful in displaying the journey that Picasso took from realism to Cubism. The drawings in the Stein collection currently at SFMOMA combined with the drawings and paintings on view here illuminate his struggles. But what they don't mention (alas) is the influence of African art, Matisse, Braque, or the fruitful collaboration between the two of them that created Cubism. One glaring omission is the lack of any information on Cezanne. His 1907 show revolutionized the art world and galvanized Picasso on the trail that led to Cubism.

The collages such as "Glass, Ace of Clubs, Packet of Cigarettes (1919)" are still powerful in their invention and creative use of found materials. "Violin" (Paris, 1915) is as compelling as when it was created.
Violin, Paris, 1915, Construction, sheet-metal, cut, folded and painted wire

The erotic plays an important part in Picasso's Picassos'. The role that specific women played in his life and in his art is a cliche, but still holds a great deal of truth. A succession of women were central to his life and to his work: his early mistresses Fernande Olivier and Marcelle Humbert; his first wife, Olga Koklova; his mistresses Marie-Therèse Walter and Dora Maar; his companion Françoise Gilot; and his second wife, Jacqueline Roque.

'Art is not chaste,'' he once said. ''It should be kept away from ignorant innocents. Those ill prepared should be allowed no contact with art. Yes, art is dangerous. And if it is chaste, it is not art.''

He should know. He was a jealous lover and a devouring presence for most of the women in his life. In a review in the NY Times of an earlier show, the curator said, "Picasso saw everything carnally. It was at the core of his being.''

Nu Couché (reclining nude). April 4, 1932

The paintings of Marie-Thérèse from the artist’s own collection displayed here have an eroticism and sexuality that is often missing from his other works. His women show every emotion in the dictionary but subtle they are not. They weep, cry (lots of crying women), menace, plead, and, in the case of Marie Therese, lounge in a state of voluptuous sexual passivity.

Jacqueline with Crossed Hands,  June 1954

The show has his neo-Classical drawings of Minotaurs ravishing women, bulls attacking horses, Dora Maar as a woman matador and couples making love. The wall of small paintings of Dora Maar in various guises, styles and colors is a tour de force.  There's a room of sculpture and paintings representing his response to surrealism. The "Bull's Head"  (1942) is his answer to Duchamp's "ready mades." There are exquisite line drawings placed throughout the show and enough paintings of dismembered limbs to satisfy any fan of the horror film Friday the 13th and it's numerous successors.

Was there any art style or period or artist that he missed in his long life? It doesn't appear so. Like the matador who he celebrated in his work, he was always taunting the bull of art with the cape. Except that sometimes he was the bull, the Minotaur, leading the public through the labyrinth of his whims. As Françoise Gilot wrote so honestly in her memoir of life with Picasso, there was an element of sadism and cruelty in his nature. It shows in his art as well.

 “Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris” ignores the artist’s “biography and mythology,” says Fine Arts Museums director John E. Buchanan Jr. The works are hung white walls, with only small, inconspicuous signs identifying the works by name and date. The fond belief is that Picasso’s creations speak for themselves. Or course, there will be the ubiquitous audio tours which rather defeats the purpose of the lack of wall texts.

Unfortunately, by not placing the artist within his times, they perpetuate the myth of Picasso as the sole Promethean genius of 20th century art. The artist has been dead for 38 years. Maybe it's time to stop saying that the cheese stands alone.

Not everything in the show is a masterpiece. There are many famous works in the show, including “Celestina,” the Blue Period portrait of a hooded woman with one white eye from 1904 and the 1942 “Bull’s Head” made from a bicycle’s handlebars and leather seat. There are at least three Cubist paintings from the early teens that are stunning. But there is nothing as consequential as “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” at MoMA, the Tate Collection’s “Weeping Woman” or “Guernica” (at the Museo Reina Sofia).

Some years ago, Meyer Schapiro argued that Picasso discovered the unity of his experience through the very process of transformation; it was only through the tireless exercise of the artist’s hand and mind, through the ceaseless effort to be “sensitive, reactive, responsive,” that the artist would express his essential wholeness. What the show presents is the multifaceted and paradoxical presence of Picasso - an experience at once interesting, exhausting and sometimes infuriating. 

Be sure to take your vitamins before you go and wear comfortable shoes. The show is going be a blockbuster but it would be a shame to miss one moment of it. Love Picasso or hate him but it's impossible to ignore him.

WHAT: "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris"
WHEN: Opens 9:30 a.m.
Saturday; 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; 9:30 a.m.-8:45 p.m. Wednesdays (through Aug. 31) and Fridays; through Oct. 9; closed Mondays except for July 4 and Sept. 6
WHERE: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.
TICKETS: $15-$25; free for members and children ages 5 and younger; advance tickets are available online
CONTACT: 415-750-3600;

Friday, June 10, 2011

Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre

Sketch from the Stein collection, currently on view at SFMOMA.

 Le bonheur de vivre (The joy of Life, Barnes Collection), In the central background of the piece is a group of figures that is similar to the group depicted in his painting The Dance (second version).

According to Hilton Kramer "Le bonheur de vivre owing to its long sequestration in the collection of the Barnes Foundation, which never permitted its reproduction in color, is the least familiar of modern masterpieces. Yet this painting was Matisse's own response to the hostility his work had met with in the Salon d'Automne of 1905, a response that entrenched his art even more deeply in the aesthetic principles that had governed his Fauvist paintings which had caused a furor and which did so on a far grander scale, too."

Louis Vauxcelles was one of those who warned Matisse: “There must be no confusion between simplification and insufficiency, design and emptiness,”  he wrote, underlining here that even if the public seems ready to accept the structure of the image revealed by the schematic reduction, he cannot prevent the feeling of anxiety, a disagreeable feeling of “emptiness” produced by such a simplification.

Despite these proposed criticisms, Louis Vauxcelles did make an eloquent description of the painting:

In lounging attitudes, creatures with lovely hips, dream: one, standing, stirs, crosses her hands behind her head; others play Pan’s flute; at the right, a slender girl throws her arms behind her, encircling her lover’s head like a necklace, in a fresh embrace…at the center of the composition, a wild round. There are great qualities here: the masses rhythmically balance themselves, the green of the trees, the blue of the ocean, the pink of the bodies, immediately enveloped in the halo of complementary violet, in a harmony and marriage, produces a painting that emanates a sensation of refreshing joy.

Rhythmically balanced, harmony, marriage, refreshing joy: these are still the terms that resonate today. In time, Matisse would succeed finding the forms and the colors capable of gently immersing the spectator into the Eden-like world of the canvas, as Baudelaire, whom he so admired, had found through his words in his poem Invitation au voyage—words capable of bringing us to “there where there is but order and beauty, / Luxury, calm and voluptuousness.”

In Le Bonheur de vivre, the viewer is invited to walk along a path towards a vision of paradise. The design is simple, a schematic reduction of colors and shapes which frame the "opening" of the picture plane.  The opening, roughly triangular in shape, frames a horizontal plane upon which the nudes rest, their sensual biomophoric forms reflecting the curvilinear shapes of the trees. The soft blue, pink and green colors reinforce the calm flow of the piece with one color and shape blending into another. Unlike real life, there are no sharp edges in this Eden.

The Dance, 1910, The Hermitage, Russia

"The Dance" is a large decorative panel, painted with a companion piece, Music, specifically for the Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin, who was one of Matisse's major collectors. Until the October Revolution of 1917, this painting hung together with Music on the staircase of Shchukin's Moscow mansion. After the October Revolution, it (along with the rest of Shchukin's collection) was confiscated by the Bolshevik government and not shown again for decades.

The painting shows five dancing figures, painted in a strong red, set against a very simplified green landscape and deep blue sky. It reflects Matisse's fascination with primitive art. He uses a classic Fauvist color palette where the intense warm colors against the cool blue-green background and the rhythmical succession of dancing nudes convey the feelings of emotional liberation and hedonism. The painting is often associated with the "Dance of the Young Girls" from Igor Stravinsky's famous musical work The Rite of Spring.

Matisse would pursue this dream of order and beauty through art for the rest of his life. In 1929, he confided to Florent Fels that “a picture [tableau] must be tranquil on the wall. It must not introduce an element of trouble and anxiety into the spectator’s home, but direct him peacefully into a physical state such that he doesn’t feel the need to divide or leave himself. A picture [tableau] must produce a deep satisfaction, the most pure repose and pleasure of the spirit fulfilled.”

Dance 11, at the Barnes Foundation. 1932

Twenty years later, in 1949, he declared to an American journalist: “Anxiety? It is no worse today than it was for the Romantics. One must dominate all that. One must be calm; and art should not be worrying or disturbing—it should be balanced, pure, tranquil, restful.”

And then to Gaston Diehl again, shortly before his death: “I chose to stay in the presence of my torments and worries in order to record only the world’s beauty and the joy of life.”
The Barnes Mural:
Hilary Spurling: The Unknown Matisse and Matisse The Master.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Matisse on uTube

 Interior with aubergines, 1922 

I decided to post videos for my next post in the week of celebrating Matisse. I was disappointed to find so little on him at uTube but I guess I should not be surprised. Even now, he's much less known than Picasso. Or, people recognize the art, as in the cut-outs for "Jazz" but they don't know the artist's name.

Journalist Alastair Sooke sets out to discover just how much the artist Henri Matisse has influenced our modern lives. (6 parts)

There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses ...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Matisse Drawings at Berggruen

Drawing allowed Matisse to consider simultaneously the character of the model. the human expression, the quality of the surrounding light, atmosphere and all that can only be expressed by drawing. (John Enderfield. The Drawings of Henry Matisse, exh. Cat., Arts Council of Breat Britain, 1984, ; 84) from the Berggruen Website.  
The drawings are marked by a line that is, in turns, bold, delicate or playful. The artist once said of his engravings, "It's about leaning and re-leaning the writing of lines. "

Berggruen Gallery - through July 30, 2011

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Matisse, The Master

"What has been taken for boldness [in my work] was no more than the fact that anything else proved too difficult. Freedom is really the impossibility of following the same road as everybody else: freedom means taking the path your talents make you take."

For most of the public who know his name, Matisse appears as a model of middle-class dullness who painted pretty paintings of women on decorative backgrounds.  He hardly exists as a person - perhaps an elderly guy wearing classes, laying in bed and playing with paper cutouts. Some know that Matisse had something to do with the invention of Fauvism, and that he once declared, weirdly, that art should be like a good armchair.
Appearances can be deceptive. Five years before he died, Matisse wrote, “If my story were ever to be written down truthfully, it would amaze everyone.” But Hilary Spurling's two volume biography of the artist strips away the facile assumptions about Matisse and reveals him as a radical artist and an tortured human being. He was Picasso's rival, in fact, Picasso's only serious rival

 The Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra). 1907. Oil on canvas
36 1/4 x 55 1/8 in. (92.1 x 140.1 cm). Baltimore Museum of Art

Ms Spurling's biography is the product of years of unlimited access to Matisse's correspondence, and interviews with his surviving family and friends. Her portrayal of the artist's daily struggle to realize his ideas is the book's greatest achievement. Matisse wasn't just fighting inner demons but also a public and art establishment who branded the artist with the term “fauve”, or wild beast, when his first encounter with the light of the south of France in 1905 resulted in canvases that erupted in expressive color and abstract form. Criticism followed Matisse throughout his career, so much so that his wife had to hide reviews from him. He also had to deal with a scandal that engulfed his wife's family and decades of grinding poverty before he became financially secure.

Gertrude Stein, showing one of the less admirable sides of her character enjoyed ridiculing him, “reporting with satisfaction,” Spurling says, “that her French cook served fried eggs for dinner instead of an omelet because, as a Frenchman, he would understand that it showed less respect.” 

His temperament made him prey to numerous depressions. He later recalled a breakdown that he underwent in Spain, in 1910: “My bed shook, and from my throat came a little high-pitched cry that I could not stop.”

MATISSE, Henri Dance (II) [late 1909-summer] 1910
Oil on canvas. The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Formerly collection Sergei Shchukin (one of the many works that were confiscated by the Bolshevik government after the Russian Revolution and were not seen in public for almost 50 years).

In 1910, Matisse came close to having (another) nervous breakdown over the reaction to “The Dance”, a monumental work that took two years to finish and had been commissioned by his most loyal patron, a Russian textile magnate named Sergei Shchukin. Even Shchukin had second thoughts about purchasing “The Dance” after it was attacked as barbaric and ugly. He picked out a lesser work by a mediocre artist, but cabled Matisse several days later to say that he had come to his senses. Matisse referred to this period as his martyrdom.

 Shchukin's rejection stung because the Russian merchant prince had been the first to understand Matisse's new visual language of abstract patterns and had bought all of his most revolutionary paintings in the years before the first world war. Both men had grown up in a world of textiles. Matisse's intense response to textiles, Ms Spurling argues, jolted him into new ways of seeing and helped him evolve his vision of abstraction. 

Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground. Late 1925 - Spring 1926
Oil on canvas. 51 1/8 x 38 5/8 in. (130 x 98 cm). Musee National d'Art Moderne,
 Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Ms Spurling's magisterial biography presents the man in full. She confronts the role that painting erotic nudes played for the ascetic artist. When describing his first painting of a nymph and a satyr to a friend, Matisse called it a rape, but he was unsure who was being raped: the nymph on canvas, or himself having to lay his inner vision bare. Ms Spurling details how models aroused and inspired him, and how this passion, which she claims was never physically consummated, led many of the breakthroughs in his art. But Madame Matisse was jealous and suspicious of the modern young women who clustered around Matisse, especially Olga Meerson, an attractive and talented student. 

The body language in two group photographs from 1911 testifies that Amélie suspected the worst. In one photograph, nearly everyone faces the camera except Meerson, who stares at Amélie, and Amélie, who carefully gazes at nothing. A combination of Amélie’s jealousy and Meerson’s neediness caused a severely rattled Matisse to end the connection, with a maximum of bad feeling all around. Meerson moved to Munich, where she married the musician Heinz Pringsheim, a brother-in-law of Thomas Mann. Never having fulfilled her promise as a painter, she committed suicide in Berlin, in 1929.

Femme au Chapeau, 1905
 In Femme Au Chapeau,  Matisse took the familiar form of the salon portrait and turned it on its head. He discards perspective, shadows, and three-dimensional space, in fact, any attempt at realistic portraiture. Ameile Matisse is seated in a chair with her back turned somewhat toward the viewer. Her head is placed exactly in the center of the canvas, topped by a huge Edwardian hat. She carries a fan in one hand while resting the other gloved hand on the chair. She looks over her shoulder at us, her small head tilted, with a look that is vulnerable, determined, wary and melancholy. 
 Portrait of Madame Matisse, 1913 
The climax in the Matisse's increasing estrangement came in 1913, when Amélie sat more than a hundred times for her portrait. The game tilt of Amélie’s small head, sporting a dainty ostrich-feather toque, could break your heart. He referred to the painting years later in a letter to her as “the one that made you cry, but in which you look so pretty.” 

 (“Saturday with Matisse,” a friend’s diary reported at the time. “Crazy! weeping! By night he recites the Lord’s Prayer! By day he quarrels with his wife!”)

In this work, Matisse painted from his own emotional response, rather than from an attempt to reproduce what he saw in front of him. He was composing a painting, not describing nature, a person, or a thing. Femme Au Chapeau verges on the edge of abstraction but does not go beyond, reflecting Matisse's own definition of Fauvism as "The search for intensity in color, the substance being unimportant. Reaction against the diffusion of local tone in the light; the light is not suppressed, but expressed in a harmony of intensely colored surfaces.”

Spurling says that the portrait, which was the last work to enter Shchukin’s collection, caused Matisse “palpitations, high blood pressure and a constant drumming in his ears.” Such frenzy was not rare when Matisse had difficulty with a painting, but in this case it was compounded by something like exorcism.

 Matisse's single-minded pursuit of his artistic vision affected all those around him. Ms Spurling's description of his family breakdown is particularly moving in its accretion of wounding details that culminate in his sitting in a café next to his wife but unable to speak to her. Matisse watches in disbelief as Amélie bitterly separates from him and divides both his paintings and their family on the eve of war in 1939. The once close-knit Matisse clan was scattered across France; Amélie, their son and daughter joined the Resistance and were later imprisoned. The other son Pierre, fled to America. Weak from cancer and multiple surgeries, the now elderly Matisse saw out the war in his Nice studio, the family reuniting only at his funeral in 1954.

Matisse's need to sacrifice all for his art made him, predictably, a bad husband. He once described a fellow artist, saying: “He relieves himself of his passion in his pictures, but also, in spite of himself, on those around him. That is what normal people never understand. They want to enjoy the artist's products—as one might enjoy cows' milk—but they can't put up with the inconvenience, the mud and the flies.” He could have been speaking of himself.

The key fact about Matisse is his self-invention as a painter, entering art history from essentially nowhere. He overcame a poverty stricken background, a complete lack of family support and decades of obscurity, punctuated by blasts of venomous and ignorant public criticism.  

He never had traditional art lessons nor was he (unlike Picasso), coddled and worshiped as a genius almost from birth. His innovations come from a place impossible to access through right-brained reason. Matisse’s intimate acquaintance with violence and destruction, a sense of human misery sharpened by years of humiliation, rejection and exposure was trumped by the serene power of his art.

In 1889, Matisse was rejected for military service on account of his health, and that same year, suffering from a hernia and exhausted from constant battling with his father over his future, he ended up in the hospital. During a listless recuperation, he was advised by the patient next to him--who was copying a picture of a landscape--to try oil painting as a distraction. His mother brought him a paint box with two pictures, one of a water mill, the other of an entrance to a hamlet. Henri painted the water mill first. It was a revelation:

"Before, I had no interest in anything. I felt a great indifference to everything they tried to make me do. From the moment I held the box of colors in my hand, I knew this was my life. Like an animal that plunges headlong toward what it loves, I dived in.... It was a tremendous attraction, a sort of Paradise Found, in which I was completely free, alone, at peace."

MATISSE, Henri. Sketch for Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life)
Now at SFMOMA: The Steins Collect. Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde.
Hilary Spurling. The Unknown Matisse and Matisse the Master.

Friday, June 3, 2011

They say it's gonna rain..

The forecast is for rain, rain and more rain - The last time it rained this much in June, the Summer of Love was just beginning.

The amount of rain expected over the just next two days in San Francisco is almost certain to exceed the 1.4 inches that fell during the whole month in 1967 - and it may even break the all-time record of 2.57 inches going back to June 1884. Who knows what else was going on in San Francisco in 1884?

But after so many years of drought in the last decades I'm not going to complain.

Staples Singers: It's gonna rain:

Weather Girls: It's raining men

Gene Kelly: Singing in the rain (what else?)

Creedence Clearwater Revival : Have you ever seen the rain?

Weekend A&E picks over at the We aren't going to let a few rain drops stop us, are we?
Weekend A&E Picks

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


A local blogger wrote a post about Memorial Day and the comments set me to remembering my own past. It's taken me a while to put this together so it's (as often with me), the proverbial day late and a couple of dollars short.

I was a Navy kid and will probably be, in some ways, always a Navy kid. I went down to see the parade and got all choked up to see the young and the old, marching down Market St. Some are at the end of their life's span and others are fresh faced and eager. 

It was even sadder to see the young soldiers whose lives could be wasted in today's futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can't stand to listen to the nightly roll call of names. I honor the dead but not those who sit, fat, smug, wealthy and safe at home, sending them to die in a war that they know can't be won.

But I'd never be a strict pacifist because I know how hard won peace is. When we lived in Europe, we would visit the battlefields.  I remember walking down those rows and rows of white crosses, reading the names and thinking of all those who died in the bloody battles to free Europe from the Nazis and Fascism.

My dad served in the Pacific, my uncle served in the Aleutian Islands and my godfather was a survivor of the Bataan Death March. My brother served in the first Gulf war and I lost several friends in Vietnam. They all saw combat and were a lot less war-happy than today's faux warriors, who never marched into a battle, not knowing if they would come out alive.

Going to the memorials to the Holocaust and those who died because of Nazi barbarism was even more heart wrenching. I often think of how different our world would be today if all those millions hadn't perished in the carnage of WW II. Yet those battles had to be fought, that war had to be won. It is their sacrifice that I honor.