1.26.18 — So Many Masks

Who would not have wanted to be there at the Louvre on an afternoon in 1910, with Amedeo Modigliani and Anna Akhmatova? Modigliani, an Italian as fluent in French as in the very latest literature and art, had brought his favorite model, a young Russian poet. And they came to a citadel of western culture to look at Egyptian art.

Max Jacob (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, 1916)Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906, determined to modernize himself and to expand his world. He had to set aside painting for the most part, merely to keep up with everyone he met and everything he saw. Besides, he was too ill and too proud to do the dirty work of seeking commissions. For the Jewish Museum, he was nonetheless at a creative peak, on his way to a renewal as painter and sculptor in limestone. It focuses on his drawings before World War I as “Modigliani Unmasked,” through February 4. It might just as well say that he had too many guises and too many masks—and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload.

Few artists were as cosmopolitan as Amedeo Modigliani. Born in 1884 to an Italian father and French mother, he begged her to take him to see the Italian masters, and she did. The child of Sephardic Jews, he admired Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote that God is dead. He survived pleurisy, typhoid, and the collapse of his father’s business. Ever after, he determined to see the world before he died, and he came to the right place. He found Paris in turmoil.

Modernism was then not quite a movement but very much a community. He found a studio in Montmartre, in a building that Max Jacob, a poet, called Le Batteau-Lavoir (or the boat-laundry)—along, it must have seemed, with everyone who mattered. It held Jacob and Gertrude Stein, but also Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Henri Matisse. Other painters were pouring into the community, including Gino Severini from Italy and Juan Gris from Spain. Jacob Epstein helped turn Modigliani’s attention to Greek antiquities and to sculpture. They planned a shared studio as a temple to beauty.

It was a rough-and-tumble temple and a rough-and-tumble beauty. He struggled, the museum notes, with poverty and tuberculosis, which cost him his life at age thirty-five. It does not note that he made the odds far worse with drinking. He went wild one night, his daughter recalled, and set fire to the work of others. After a brief return to Italy, he found another studio but continued a life on the edge. Besides, he had to know suffering, too, as a Jew in France (as the longer review takes more time to explain).

When Modigliani looks at another culture, he always finds another mask—whether at the Commedia dell’Arte in the present or in Egypt, West Africa, Tibet, and Thailand in the distant past. Ancient Greece supplies the idea of a caryatid, or kneeling figure supporting a column. Yet the caryatids here quote practically anything that Modigliani saw. Even the change from Greece’s kneeling women to a mix of genders attests to ambiguity and eclecticism. Where Picasso looked to African art for “the primitive,” he goes out of his way to deny a single human essence. Even if he found one, it would lie behind the mask.

While he came to think of himself as a sculptor, the postwar portraits come as a delightful payoff. They are flatter than his early paintings, but also more painterly. The same person may look, to quote the museum, youthful or moody—and the same painting can look polished or unfinished. A smear of color enlivens the bridge of a nose. The green of an eye can suggest a jewel or the character behind the mask. The tension of near abstract brushwork, figure painting, and archetype looks ahead to art today.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

11.17.17 — Falling for Modernism

Let me wrap up a busy week of reviews that somehow never found space. It means looking back a bit, but give it a try.

John Singer Sargent delighted in attention, and he got it. Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children earned praise in all the right places, including a review from Henry James. Together with an earlier report on portraiture in the cause of revolution, it is also the subject of a longer review and my latest upload.

It drew scorn for “these over-civilised European Orientals,” meaning Jews, and caricatures by Max Beerbohm of both Carl Meyer and Sargent. Of the two, the artist appears more boastful and more stylish.  John Singer Sargent's Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children (Tate Britain, 1896)It provoked outright parodies, playing on the children with no evident place to stand and their mother, Adèle, perched so precariously as to have already fallen off the sofa. It cemented a bond between the painter and the family, strong enough that he returned to the girl in charcoal eight years later as a beautiful and intelligent woman.

One might expect the display of a single painting as part of the museum’s “Masterpieces and Curiosities” from its collection, like The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz last winter. Actually, that series now focuses instead on a Hanukkah lamp by Peter Shire, of Italy’s Memphis design school. Like Adèle Meyer at home in London, Memphis has its roots everywhere. It includes Shire, an American, with tilted planes in bright colors like the Bauhaus brought to LA. A candle would look in danger of tumbling off, much like Meyer as seen from below. Meanwhile Sargent’s 1896 portrait is on loan from Tate Britain and once again a center of attention.

Its display at the Jewish Museum, through this past February 5, is all about its reception. One might go expecting related paintings and studies, and the room does include portraits of Carl Meyer and his son, by others, in a manner more suited to a nineteenth-century library than to a modern museum. It has a photograph of the couple, but a quarter century after the painting. Mostly, though, it shows Meyer as a man of means, a German Jew who had become a British citizen, an aristocrat, and a representative of the London House of Rothschild—with the badge of a baronet and a silver cigarette case. And it attests to the artist as a man of his time and place as well. That only starts with the quote from James high on the wall.

It makes sense that James admired Sargent. As Americans abroad, both navigated realism and high society. Both, too, made their art a tour de force. Just listen to James. Writing in Harper’s Weekly, he praised the painter’s “knock-down insolence of talent and truth of characterization, a wonderful rendering of life, of manners, of aspects, of types, of textures, of everything.” The line moves from a touch of slang to a hint of the complex syntax in his own late novels.

Sargent can seem at once terribly old-fashioned and precociously modern. He pays tribute to a woman’s fashion while upending fashion. He wanted a portrait that could match Francisco de Goya, who did well by children, or Thomas Gainsborough—who saw his art as a “dialogue with nature.” Yet Sargent also wanted to push painting toward self-reflection. The settee’s upholstery shows a rural boy and girl after Rococo painting. They appear directly below the actual children, and who is to say who is commenting on whom?

The painting’s reception suggests art’s new place in the public eye. An artist still needs a patron, a role that Adèle embraced to the fullest, but his critics range from The Times of London to a woman’s magazine. James also tells more than he intends by his extravagant praise. He attests not just to the artist’s strengths, but also to their shared standards. Sargent is no longer after Renaissance idealization or Baroque movement, and he is not yet after art for art’s sake. He is in the game for characterization, manners, texture, and excess—and so is much of the public today.

No wonder New York never seems to lack for an exhibition of John Singer Sargent. He gets at psychology through the reaching of hands between mother and daughter, connected and apart while encompassing the shyer son. As for manners, the shimmer of the mother’s dress echoes even in the pages of a book, reducing its letters to a clash of pink and green. The perspective that destabilizes them all may have the last word. It brings the mother closer and the children further from the viewer, in paired triangles right up against the painting’s borders. It contributes at once to psychology, to manners, and to art.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

9.22.17 — Friend or Faux

Florine Stettheimer had spectacular views from her living room. She did from her studio, too, overlooking the New York Public Library and Bryant Park—but nothing like the view in a painting from 1933 of her family at home. It opens a retrospective that presents her as always cosmopolitan and always at home—in New York, in Europe, and in modern art.

If you know her at all, you may think of her as halfway primitive and more than halfway mad, and frankly so do I. Not the Jewish Museum, through September 24. It shows a woman in command of her art and her place among artists. It shows her as not just a painter, but also a poet, a designer, and a choreographer, with stage sets to her credit on Broadway—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review as my latest upload. In that family portrait alone, she commands an entire city. Florine Stettheimer's Family Portrait, II (photo by Scala/Art Resource, Museum of Modern Art, 1933)

As so often for Stettheimer, the view goes beyond anything that she could ever see. It has her mother and sisters in the most elegant of furnishings and fashion. Yet it opens onto the Hudson River and Lady Liberty, adding untold square feet to their West 58th Street apartment. Flowers bloom in the foreground, large enough to eat them and their surroundings alive. And, wait, is that a second crystalline chandelier next to the first one? No, it is the Chrysler Building, bringing its Art Deco touches indoors.

It is funny and exultant, but also pure theater. (Does one sister pose next to a stage curtain or a domestic one?) It is also a woman’s world. Her father, a German Jewish banker, had deserted them long since, and they seem none the worse for it, whether emotionally or financially. It is also thoroughly up to date. The Chrysler Building had begun as recently as 1928, and it reigned as the world’s tallest building for eleven months, until the completion of the Empire State Building in 1931.

Stettheimer loved New York for its dry wit and sophisticated pleasures, and she says as much in poetry. “I like slippers gold,” she writes, and “oysters cold,” beneath a “sky full of towers.” She will be sending you out to tour the city as well. Family Portrait, II draws on the Museum of Modern Art, an earlier interior from the Brooklyn Museum, and costume designs from Columbia University, although not another floral river view in the Whitney. The show also includes an elaborate dollhouse with tiny paintings after artists she knew, a collaboration with a sister now based up Fifth Avenue at the Museum of the City of New York. You will have to continue to the American wing of the Met for her The Cathedrals—the cathedrals of art, Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Wall Street.

The show, then, comes as less a comprehensive survey than a correction. Stettheimer exhibited just once in her lifetime, at Knoedler, one of the city’s most elite and progressive galleries, and it bombed. She has gained new prominence from the recovery of women artists, the elevation of craft and design as art, and the dissolution of boundaries between outsider art and, well, everything else. Her most notorious paintings resemble folk art in their busy compositions, flattened perspective, and reduction of people to willowy wisps of paint. Their style made a sensation in a booth devoted to her at the 2017 Armory Show—and they have invited responses from such contemporary artists as Rosson Crow. This exhibition, though, has quite another story to tell, of a worldly woman and a world-class education.

Hers is a world of family, friends, and contributors. Does it seem biting or complacent to present Marcel Duchamp, the founder of Dada, as a dandy? So most often did he, posing in a suit and tie or as his female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. The show ends with Stettheimer’s greatest contribution to theater and most notable collaboration, Four Saints in Three Acts. She was responsible for the designs for the 1934 opera by Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein. She did so, much as in a doll house, not with paintings or drawings but figurines.

Collaboration changes everyone. The rapid-fire comedy of Stein’s “Pigeons on the grass alas” takes on the slower grace of an African American cast in sultry white robes. One might hesitate to call anything to do with Stettheimer mass culture, although her poetic ode to New York includes Disney cartoons and colored balloons, but the performance took place not in an opera house, but on Broadway. Who knew that one would ever see Stein’s name on a marquee? For the artist, too, complicity meant both self-interest and reaching out. She may have welcomed so many into her home as a strategic alternative to public exhibitions, but it was still quite a party.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.