Thursday, August 27, 2015

Met Museum: Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, not only gave me an opportunity to view some of the artist's most significant works, but it also provided a fascinating glimpse of the milieu in which he lived and worked.  Almost all the paintings on display date from that period now commonly referred to as the Belle Époque.  This idyllic - at least in retrospect - era extended roughly from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the commencement of World War I in 1914.  Although there were dark fin de siècle currents swirling everywhere beneath its surface of optimism, it was nevertheless a time of political and economic stability that enabled the arts to flourish throughout Europe and a society portraitist such as Sargent to realize a greater level of success than might otherwise have been possible.  Looking at these portraits, the viewer cannot help but be somewhat envious and wish that he too had been alive during those halcyon years and fortunate enough to have consorted with the period's social and cultural elite.  This is especially true when seeing such works as In a Garden, Corfu; The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy; and Sketching on the Giudecca, Venice.

The exhibit is broken down geographically - there are separate sections for Paris, Broadway, London and the US - but this is somewhat misleading since both the artist and his subjects were thoroughly cosmopolitan and at home in whatever part of the world they found themselves.  There are two smaller galleries that contain, respectively, the painter's landscapes and watercolors.

The highlight of the show is to be found early on in the Paris section.  This is, of course, The Portrait of Madame X whose succès de scandale - when shown at the 1884 Salon, the model's bare shoulder, later repainted, was considered almost salacious - effectively ended Sargent's career in Paris.  (Sargent was unrepentant.  When he eventually sold the painting to the Met Museum many years later, he wrote, "I suppose it is the best thing I have ever done."  Even so, he asked the museum not to disclose the sitter's name.)  But there are other works just as interesting.  The portrait of the Sargent's teacher, Carolus-Duran, is notable for what it reveals of the artist's style.  While the subject's face is perfectly sharp, the rest of the canvas, especially the subject's fawn green suit, is much more softly done.  It is almost as if the painting were a photograph that had been subject to selective soft focus.  The portrait of Auguste Rodin is extremely sympathetic; the sculptor, whose eyes stare speculatively at the viewer, is revealed as a much more sensitive individual than can be seen in most other likenesses, even those done by Steichen.  One work in this section that is especially striking is Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Cirque d'Hiver, an almost monochromatic exercise in impressionist style that seems strangely modern for its time.

The next section is dominated by two full length portraits.  These are Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, as dramatic a composition as could be imagined, and the portrait of Edwin Booth.  In the latter, though the famous actor is not shown playing a part, he can be seen as a totally tragic character in his own right, one forever haunted by the specter of his brother's horrendous crime.

In terms of composition, the most intriguing work at the show is Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife in which the standing writer is seen in profile at the left of the frame while his almost completely veiled wife slouches on a settee at the extreme right; an open doorway has been placed between them.  Another such startlingly idiosyncratic composition is A Dinner Table at Night.  In this, the viewer's attention is first directed to the brightly shining red lamp in the left-hand background and only then to the table where the placid wife, Edith Vickers, is seated holding a glass of wine, her face lit by two more red lamps; her husband Albert has meanwhile been placed so far to the right that he is partly out of the frame.  Both these works seem more candid photographs than they do painted portraits.

Although Sargent's name is instantly familiar to anyone with the least knowledge of American art, his works are actually not that often displayed.  The instant exhibit is the first I can remember having seen in many years.  It was refreshing then to have been shown another side of the artist than that of the mannered society portraitist with whom his reputation is most often associated.

The exhibit continues through October 4, 2015.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Met Museum: Discovering Japanese Art

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Discovering Japanese Art, is a tribute to those individuals whose collections of Japanese art form the basis of the museum's holdings.  Accordingly, the exhibit is divided into several sections which are classified, not by genre or period, but by the collections from which their contents were acquired.  Among the more interesting of these American collectors were Henry O. Havemeyer, the sugar baron whose refineries once lined the waterfront in Brooklyn's Williamsburg, and Harry G. C. Packard who served with the Marines in World War II and then relocated to Japan in 1946.

For Western viewers, the most accessible form of Japanese art has always been the polychrome ukiyo-e woodblock print that came into fashion during the Edo period.  Ironically, these inexpensive prints were never intended as high art but only as colorful illustrations to be sold to the poorer classes. Nevertheless, once the country was first opened to outsiders in the nineteenth century, these works were avidly collected by foreigners almost to the exclusion of all other genres.  They directly inspired the movement known as Japonisme that exerted a tremendous influence on European artists as diverse as Whistler, Monet and Van Gogh.  Although most visitors to this exhibit will head directly to Hokusai's famous Under the Wave off Kanagawa (1829-1832), there are a great many other pieces that are well worth viewing,  Some of the most striking are depictions of Kabuki actors created by the mysterious artist Tōshūsai Sharaku whose career lasted only ten months in the years 1794-1795.  There is also a section devoted to scenes of what could be called, for lack of a better term, Americana.  These are more interesting for the insight they provide into the manner in which the Japanese viewed the barbarians now circulating among them than for any intrinsic artistic merit.  The best examples of this somewhat bizarre subgenre are "America": A Steamship in Transit (1861) by Utagawa Yoshikazu and "America": Enjoying Hot Air Balloons (1867) by Utagawa Yoshitora.

Even if only for their sheer size, some of the most impressive works on display are the huge folding screens, many of them measuring more than ten feet across, that transported their viewers from the castles and temples in which they were installed into the historical and bucolic settings they depicted.  Some of the most diverting scenes of nature here are Autumn Trees and Grasses by a Stream, Spring Trees and Grasses by a Stream and Kano Sansetsu's Old Plum (all from the Edo period).  Viewing the last is almost an exercise Zen meditation.  Much more playful is a set of six panel screens by Hanabusa Itchō, only recently returned from exile, that shows Chinese lions frolicking against a gold background.

Although an entire gallery was given over to contemporary 20th and 21st century works under the title Continuing the Legacy, I was surprised to find mixed in among the older works a pressure-slip-cast porcelain sculpture by Fukami Sueharu entitled Upright (Kitsu) completed in 2012.  I actually had the opportunity to meet Mr. Sueharu last fall at a reception at the Erik Thomsen gallery.  After having earlier seen examples of his thoroughly modernist abstract sculpture, I had not expected to find the artist so unassuming and approachable an individual.  He was a true craftsman whose only concern was with the quality of his work.

My personal favorite at the show was a 16th century (Muromachi period) hanging scroll by Maejima Sōyū that was simply entitled Landscape.   In the background of the painting were the highly stylized depictions of Chinese mountains favored by Japanese artists known as "literati" who attempted to emulate Chinese treatment of these subjects without ever having seen them first hand.  The museum's website notes that "Sōyū may have studied directly under Kano Motonobu," the founder of the Kano school.  The influence of this school in its evocation of Chinese painting can still be seen a century later in a triptych of ink-on-silk hanging scrolls from the early Edo period by the artist Kano Tan'yū. All three share the same title, Landscape in Moonlight. As in Sōyū's work, the landscape here seems to emerge only briefly in unearthly beauty from the mists surrounding it.  By showing only small amounts of detail and leaving the greatest portion of the image unpainted as though obscured by mist, all these paintings hearken back to the "one corner" style of Chinese painting practiced by Ma Yuan in the 12th century.

The exhibit continues through September 27, 2015.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Edgar Degas, Photographer

The Metropolitan Museum's monograph Edgar Degas, Photographer was published to accompany an exhibit held in 1998 that put on display for the first time the famous artist's surviving photos.  It offered a surprising glimpse into the world of a painter whose accomplishments had for many years been considered fully known and documented.  I attended the exhibit myself and was fascinated by the manner in which Degas brought his aesthetic sensibilities to bear on a medium that was new to him and that he had only begun to explore when already in his sixties.

The full extent of Degas's activity as a photographer is not fully known and most likely never will be.  It was only after his death that the photographs were found in the studio.  At the time, they were given no value.  If any attention at all were paid to them, it was only to view them as studies for works in other media.  In contrast, Degas's forays into sculpture had also been largely unknown during his lifetime (only one had been publicly exhibited) and these pieces too were only discovered in the posthumous inventory of his studio.  But the worth of the sculptures was immediately recognized.  It was at once acknowledged that these crumbling clay figures represented an important new dimension in analyzing the artist's entire oeuvre.  Bronze castings were quickly made of those that could be salvaged and a major exhibit was held in 1918.  The photographs, on the other hand, were put aside.  Their worth unrecognized, they were widely scattered and many may have been discarded outright.  The Met exhibit represented a milestone in correcting this oversight.

The eccentric Degas was a difficult character to like.  A lifelong bachelor, he was a reactionary in his political views and in his opposition to social reform.  Most disturbing was his deep seated anti-Semitism which became particularly pronounced during the Dreyfus affair.  By the time he took up photography, his eyesight had begun to fail and he had grown increasingly isolated from those former friends and fellow artists who held much more liberal views and were appalled by his bigotry.  But whatever his personal faults, Degas was a consummate artist and was continually in search of new media with which to express his vision.  Though he had begun as a fairly traditional historical painter, he continually experimented over the course of his career not only with photography and sculpture but also with etching, lithography and the monotype.

The volume contains three informative essays.  The first, by Malcolm Daniel, is the most comprehensive and gives as full an account as possible of the history of Degas's photographic endeavors over the course of several years near the end of the nineteenth century.  The story is necessarily incomplete as so little is known of this period.  The information that is available comes primarily from the correspondence of his friend Daniel Halévy who, along with members of his family, provided the artist with his most often portrayed subjects.  Here is detailed Degas's strong predilection for low light photography as well as the tyrannical methods he used to pose his subjects for the great lengths of time needed for his long exposures.  The second essay, by Eugenia Parry, is more limited in scope and details the relationship of the photographic tableaux in which Degas posed his subjects to the larger world of theater and Parisian society itself.  (Many of Degas's acquaintances, such as Charles Haas, were later to provide Proust with models for the characters he was to describe in his great novel.)  The third essay, by Theodore Reff, is a brief account of the artist's friendship with his supplier of photographic materials, Guillaume Tasset, whose shop also processed and enlarged Degas's work.  The essay is anecdotal in style and provides a charming portrait of the forgotten art dealer who was himself an accomplished painter.

The book contains 39 plates, all of which are of excellent quality.  These include reproductions of three large format negatives which, because they were improperly processed, have grown so "colorized" over time that they have become works of art in themselves.  There is also a catalogue raisonné that details all Degas's known photographs, not just those included in the exhibit, as well as those of more uncertain provenance that have been provisionally attributed to him.  The catalogue provides what little technical data is available regarding both negatives and prints.

If the book has a major fault, it's the omission of more detailed information describing the equipment used by Degas and the materials he purchased from Tasset and used in his photographic work.  At a time when Kodak was making the snapshot a popular form among amateurs, Degas approached the medium as a professional and carefully composed all his photos.  To do this, he would necessarily have had to use a tripod-mounted view camera (the book does mention that Degas requested Tasset to cut down standard size 9x12cm Lumière panchromatic plates to 8x10cm for use in his own camera).  There is no mention, though, of the lenses or other paraphernalia  Degas had available for use.  This information would have been of great assistance to photographers seeking to better appreciate Degas's accomplishments.