7.10.17 — The Farthest North

In 1848, in his mid-forties, Peder Balke traveled to what was thought to be the northernmost point in Europe. He did not have far to go.

The son of landless peasants, he had fallen in love with the land. The North Cape was only the latest in his meanderings through Norway in search of his art. Even when he made it as far as Dresden in 1835, he studied with a countryman who had settled there, Johan Christian Dahl. When the Met calls him a “painter of northern light,” through (oops, my apologies) July 9, he could only approve. Peder Balke's North Cape by Moonlight (Private collection, Oslo, 1848)

He did not have far to go as an artist either. He had also met a far greater exponent of Northern Romanticism, in Caspar David Friedrich, and drenched himself in its tenets. He keeps returning to moonlight and cold grays—as well as to sky, rocks, and coastlines. On an earlier trip to Stockholm, his rare cityscape pushes the skyline into the distance, with steeples as bare as masts against a stormy sea. Moonlight only hardens the crests of the waves. “Human beings,” he wrote, “the children of nature, take a secondary role.”

With the North Cape, Balke settled at last on his formula. A broad arc of clouds tops an otherwise empty sky, with the moon at its center, like the savior in a painting from Baroque Italy. The broken rhythms of a rocky shore define the scale—much as, a few years later, nearly abstract waves will define the horizon. The painting’s most prominent feature, a sheer cliff, could pass for arctic ice. A small boat makes its way into the distance, with a man standing above its crew like Washington crossing the Delaware. Wherever the painter now goes, mountains or even a waterfall will appear to be rising, and the boat will be making its way.

People, then, have a role after all, even an active role, but nowhere near so much as in his predecessors. He does not treat ports as the site of boundless activity, like J. M. W. Turner. He does not transform the sky, again like Turner, into an apocalypse—or, like John Constable, into a singular record of changing weather. When the Met turns from him to Dahl, the scene seems to plunge all at once into depth, color, and vegetation. For Balke, only a near absence of human transformation approaches the sublime. As he also wrote, he is interested not in what the mind brings to nature, but the “impression made on the eye and mind.”

That concern for the impression may explain his increasing turn inward. Unlike Dahl, he did not paint on the spot but rather in his studio in Oslo, where he settled in the 1850s. Maybe he preferred the filters artifice and memory, or maybe he just could not bear company. He gave up painting for others altogether in 1879, leaving him all but forgotten at his death eight years later. By the 1850s he already works small, in oil on paper mounted on panel, and by the end he works smaller still. With just seventeen paintings of his, this is also a small exhibition.

Maybe the Met never can decide whether to mount a retrospective. It uses its room for “focus exhibitions” of just one or paintings in context, like Turner’s whaling pictures or an altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, but here it aspires to more. Still, the show does not run chronologically, and it intersperses work by Dahl even before a concluding section for contemporaries. It does, though, conform well to that inward turn—and, in the process, a final break from passivity. In its last and smallest panels, paint thins out and color vanishes entirely, almost like ink or a photographic negative. The spare points of black serve for clouds, trees, the northern lights, or a foretaste of abstraction. Balke has reached his extreme point and discovered ghosts.

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

7.7.17 — Enough Guilt

Just weeks before his death, with his fate very much on his mind, Caravaggio painted the death of a saint. Do not, though, expect special pleading on his behalf. With “Caravaggio’s Last Two Paintings,” at the Met through July 9, there is more than enough guilt to go around. Caravaggio's Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Naples, 1610)

With Michelangelo Merisi, or Caravaggio, there is always enough guilt to go around—and it is the subject of a longer and fuller review in my latest upload. Maybe you know him from his early work, when he did more than anyone to invent the Baroque, along with just a handful of other artists. The wildness and excess of the late Renaissance become a greater dynamism—focused on fewer bodies, cleaner narratives, a greater command of light and space, a deeper insight into the mind, and a direct address to the viewer. They changed how anyone looked at painting, as much as the early Renaissance or modern art. They changed, too, how people saw themselves, as secular beings now personally involved in the action. This art can make anyone feel guilty as well.

Already in the 1590s, his actors stop just short of pleading guilty. The Card Sharps initiates a whole genre, with a scene of taking in the innocent. And a boy with a basket of fruit or Bacchus holding out a glass of wine shifts the subject of temptation to the viewer. That temptation also happens to include sexual beings as well as what they hold. Even at his most sunlit and lyrical, with Rest on the Flight to Egypt, Caravaggio foregrounds an angel’s exposed leg, caressed by light. One can turn to a far darker late work, of John the Baptist with his smile long gone and his majestic robe still more revealing, and wonder how far the guilt has struck home.

One can never know for sure the cause of his death, although he did come down with a malignant fever—and maybe his pursuers finally caught up with him. One can never know, too, the order of his late work. Documents attest to commissions, but with ample room for guesswork. When a show claims his last two paintings, then, watch out for hype and careerism. And the Met has a history of both, although they come with the territory for a museum these days, in search of another blockbuster. The paintings hang in a room otherwise unchanged, to assert their influence.

Caravaggio's Denial of Saint Peter (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1610)For all that they demand close attention, all the more so since both came to light in just the last decades. Caravaggio’s last work, many agree, does indeed show the death of a saint—The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, on loan from a private collection in Naples. The Met places it next to The Denial of Saint Peter from its own holdings. Other candidates for near to last work include a version of Saint John and David with the head of Goliath, both in the Borghese in Rome. The head, bearing Goliath’s horror and pain at the moment of death, is the image of Caravaggio himself. There is still enough guilt to go around.

Maybe you vaguely remember the legend of Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins. (Talk about Mannerism and excess.) When she refused the advances of a pagan king, he slew them all. Even Ludovico Carracci, another reformer on the way to the Baroque, paints quite a scene. Instead, Caravaggio pares the killers back to a single soldier and the king, who shoots her himself at point blank. They are so close that the arrow has gone right through her except for its tail feathers. The martyrdom of a saint has become little more than a grisly murder.

I may still relish most the early drama, piercing the darkness. The late style matches a greater moral and emotional puzzle all the same. Peter comes off sympathetic at his very worst moment, his costume the fullest in the painting and his expression the frankest. Caravaggio comes off not half badly either as a spectator of Saint Ursula. He is struggling to look, like accessories to a lynching, but then so was I. And then, in the hands of David, he is dead.

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

5.29.17 — Sunday in the Circus

The painter known for a Sunday in the park spent much of his all too brief career out of the sun. “Seurat’s Circus Sideshow” centers on a painting by Georges Seurat, at the Met through (last chance!) May 29. It finds him haunting the fairgrounds and music halls of working-class Paris at night—and haunted by the actors and their audience.

If you come humming Sunday in the Park with George, be prepared to change your tune. If you come expecting a romantic interest named Dot, you will find neither puns nor a romance to explain the painting away. If you seek people assembling together and airing their lives, you will find only people in shadow, talking among themselves. Georges Seurat's Parade de Cirque (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1887–1888)If you seek the newly triumphant middle class letting its hair down at the beach, you will find instead an unsettling mix of classes unable to separate spectacle from the theater of modern life. If you seek Impressionist colors, you will find the eerie purples and greens of a fairground at night. If you come looking for Seurat, you may find a history only incidentally his at all.

It belongs after all to a changing Paris, and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. What starts as the story of a painting becomes a story of the circus and its changing place in society at the turn of the century. What stood at first for a tawdry spectacle became a serious business, with a routine all its own. And what served Seurat as a place to hone his art became the site of an emerging avant-garde. In no time, the spectacle looks tawdrier than ever. Now, though, art’s sympathy is with the artifice—and with life on the edge.

A sideshow sounds like a distraction from the main event, but the French, la parade, sounds more like a public display. For Georges Seurat, it could be both. Parade de Cirque depicts the Corvi circus, which ran each year at the Gingerbread Fair, before Easter. It had its clowns, tightrope walkers, strong men, fat ladies, and a wheel of fortune. Stereotypical black faces added to the entertainment and embarrassment. Just setting things up and knocking them down were quite a spectacle.

Seurat, though, centers his painting on a solitary trombone player, at one end of a line of musicians and rising above them. He relegates the ringmaster, Ferdinand Corvi, to the right—locked in rigid profile between the verticals of box-office windows, a poster, and his own old-fashioned coattails. Rows of artificial lights command the scene from above, the topmost spreading like flames. They have a counterpoint in the points of light and color in Seurat’s Pointillism or Divisionism. Spectators, seen from the rear, appear in near silhouette across the bottom. They become a kind of orchestra pit themselves, and the artist must have stood among them, even as the painting engages the actual musicians head on.

The painting appeared in the very first show at MoMA, and the Met acquired it as a bequest in 1960. Smaller exhibitions have focused similarly on a work from the collection, like recent shows of Jan van Eyck and a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. And this, too, starts as a look at a single work in context—of Seurat’s few major paintings, the only one in a New York museum. Preliminary drawings stand across from circus posters and contemporary illustrations. The museum declines to borrow La Grande Jatte from Chicago. This is no walk in the park.

Still, the Met has no end of resources, including a circus orchestra’s worth of period instruments. (Adolphe Sax himself designed the saxophone.) It also quickly broadens its focus. Seurat paints free entertainment set outside the circus tent, and his painting serves in its own way as a teaser. The exhibition fills the Robert Lehman wing (which projects into Central Park). It extends to more of his work on paper, contemporaries, followers, and more.

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

5.26.17 — Neither Poetry nor Place

Late in life, Walker Evans returned to Hale County, Alabama, but the sharecroppers had gone. So, after all, had the Great Depression, decades ago at that, and so had the professional camera that captured its most stubborn survivors.

This time Evans brought an emblem of a different kind of transience, that of consumer culture—a Polaroid camera. The results even look disposable, and they show temporary housing with no trace of the lives within. In the past, he had also collected penny photos and but now he saw no need to defer to studio professionals of any sort. postcards, Darren Almond's Fullmoon@Virgin River (Matthew Marks, 2012)To pile on the ironies, the medium to which he turned is obsolete in today’s stubbornly digital age as well.

The Poetics of Place,” through May 28, has precious little poetry and almost as little sense of place. The Met samples recent photos from its collection—and, together with an earlier report on a history of photography drawn from MoMA’s collection, it is the subject of a longer review and my latest upload.

Even when Carrie Mae Weems travels to Mali and An-My Lê to Vietnam, like Evans in search of origins, their destination seems out of reach. For Weems it reduces to a mud dwelling in soft focus and for Lê to the far side of a dense riverbank, and both could just as well be left over from prehistory or the day before. And even when Wolfgang Staehle sticks to the specificity of a single day along the Hudson, his slideshow of eight thousand images seems oddly detached. In place of the Hudson River School and the American sublime, he has the banality of real time. He also has an artery along which nothing and no one seems to move.

The show it takes its theme from the 1970s. Minimalism and earthworks had discovered repetition, waste, and entropy, as with coal mines for Bernd and Hilla Becher or Robert Smithson. Photographers still traveled America, like Robert Adams or Dan Graham, but to find trailer parks and the cheap housing of Staten Island and New Jersey. They linger on railroad crossings, like Laura Burns and Lother Baumgarten. They track the damage due to industrialization and natural disasters, like California after a flash flood for Joel Sternfeld. Strong colors for William Eggleston only bring out the awkwardness.

The Met describes its subjects as landscapes and built environments, leaving open where one ends and the other begins. It notes the role of the New Topographics, in Adams and Lewis Baltz. It invokes, too, the slippery border between amateur and art photography, as with “slow snapshots” for Jean-Marc Bustamante. You may not have known Donald Judd as a photographer. Yet he traveled south of the border to document ancient ruins. They would do his Minimalism proud. They also have eerie affinities with Mexico City sidewalks that, for Damián Ortega, look like tombs.

The show can feel like a throwaway. Most of its fewer than thirty artists have only a work apiece. Some, too, have the unexpected, like Judd. Sally Mann appears not for family portraits but for Virginia in the mists. Jan Groover, known for still lifes in gleaming color, also photographed the “semantics of the highway.” Suffice it to say that cars go in irreconcilable directions.

They are not above beauty, like Darren Almond, with his fifteen-minute moon.” They are also not above remembering, like James Welling, who sees the present through film noir, or Matthew Brandt, who prints the ruins of Madison Square Garden with his darkroom medium its own dust. They may even try to locate a sense of place, like a coffee plantation for Jan Henle—although it looks more like the surface of Mars. Sarah Anne Johnson follows the Arctic Circle, where she photographs herself at her tripod. You may wonder if someone else is behind the camera. You may wonder, too, if she will ever break closer to the pole.

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

5.17.17 — Realism in Excess

Was Jean Honoré Fragonard a realist? He may seem the worst conceivable candidate for that honor. Last time I looked at Baroque landscape drawings at the Met, so allow me to turn back to the previous show in that very same space for a catch-up post. I drafted it back then but then let it slide way too long, with apologies.

A student of François Boucher, Fragonard pushed his teacher’s Rococo fantasies to their limits and beyond. He takes to the moral fables of Jean-Baptiste Greuze and the Enlightenment, only to leave them without a moral. Jean Honore Fragonard's Interior of a Park (Morgan Library/Thaw Collection, c. 1765)On his Island of Love, one can strain to tell the human beings from cherubs, and neither feels the pull of the earth. His nearly two hundred drawings after Orlando Furioso, the epic poem, live in a dream world between an uncertain ground and a restive sky—and scholars still strain to identify the scenes at hand.

Yet even the sternest realist can admire his drawings at the Met, through January 8. He studies the fall of light on the density of acanthus leaves and later a chestnut tree, and he executes copies after Jacob van Ruysdael, the Dutch landscape artist. In his twenties, on a trip to Rome, he captures the stairs and waterfalls of parks recognizable as tourist attractions to this day. Over time, he compiles a compendium of country life, from a fisherman at his nets to a communal bread oven. In the city, he is equally attentive to a young Neapolitan woman, children at play, a deacon in profile lost in his book, and a sultan. Recording a trip down the Rhine with friends, he depicts them all as seasick and exhausted.

Still, he covers them at a fever’s pace, and little is as it seems. He cares more for contrasts of light and dark than for plant species, and his trees belong to an enchanted forest, from the Italian poetry of Torquato Tasso. He prefers the artifice of parks to city streets, and anyway he had come to Rome to study at the Académie de France. Scenes of country life mix casually with stock figures from the stage and memories of Italy. A model sat for that sultan, and Fragonard may well have fashioned the sultan’s costume out of thin air. In drawing himself in the ship’s hold, he stands at a distance impossible in a self-portrait, like the audience for a play.

So what was realism, and who is to say what is real or imagined? For Fragonard, born in 1732, life blends effortlessly into theater. At the very birth of the Rococo, Jean Antoine Watteau moved between the art of music and a war zone, in search of moments of relief from human weakness. Fragonard prefers the human comedy. A child takes to his pet dog for a riding lesson, lovers fail dismally to hide in a closet, and an “indiscreet bull” butts into a shepherd’s amorous pursuits. If anything, the French Revolution had him looking for a recourse further still from the hard facts of life, right up to his death in 1806. No wonder he turned to the chivalry and romance of Orlando Furioso in the 1780s.

The Met is throwing the word naturalism around all too easily these days, as in its show of a Baroque painter, Valentin de Boulogne. It also returns to Fragonard barely a decade after his drawings at the Morgan Library and restoration of his period room at the Frick. Still, “Drawing Triumphant” supplies a thorough survey of the artist from New York collections alone. It follows him through two trips to Italy and back, the second at age forty-one. The curator, Perrin Stein, also includes prints, many as learning aids. Charmingly, his student responds with a portrait of the “genius” of Benjamin Franklin, just when the Met also exhibits Franklin’s years in France on behalf of an emerging nation and the American Revolution.

Fragonard was hardly a revolutionary, although he sent his son to study with Jacques-Louis David. He was, though, a quick study and an even quicker draftsman. Red chalk and washes give his dream visions the immediacy of daily life. A magistrate takes shape from the folds in his robe and lovers from a wood’s edge under a stormy sky. Diogenes, the ancient philosopher, and a peasant seem to draw on the very same model. An artist at work in a trellised garden could be his ultimate fantasy—or a stand-in for Fragonard himself.

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

5.15.17 — Falling into Landscape

Hercules Segers may have died by falling down stairs. No one can say for sure, but Samuel van Hoogstraten reported it, and it makes sense. Segers had a habit of narrowing his vision to what lay right before his eyes—and then ignoring it in his fixation on the inscrutable, the imagined, and the detail.

He bought some serious property along a canal in Amsterdam to observe the housetops just outside his window. And then he added what he pleased to his prints, for no amount of detail or atmosphere would suffice. At times you could mistake the etched, scratched, and acid-ridden plate for the print itself. Hercules Segers's Woodland Path (private collection, c, 1618–1620)

To be sure, Hoogstraten is no authority. Born around 1589, Segers died, with or without stairs, while the writer was still a child, and most today place his death at the far extreme of Hoogstraten’s guesses, in the late 1630s. Then again, the younger man had every reason to know what he was talking about. As a theorist and historian, he helped record the golden age of Dutch painting—and, as also a painter, he worked in the circle of Rembrandt, who valued Segers enough to own several of his prints and one of his even rarer paintings. Now the Met displays “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers,” with generous assistance from the Rijksmuseum, through May 21. It may not make him a household name, but it hints at a missing link between Dutch artists and the preceding century or even this one.

Whenever he died, he had a career of less than thirty years, starting in Harlem around 1610 and ending in the Hague. He had already all but fallen out of sight. Hoogstraten reports that people used his work to wrap food, since they had no clue what to make of it either. (Segers may have purchased that house in Amsterdam with his wife’s money.) He was among the first to turn to still life, including a pile of white books and an even plainer skull—much like an intimation of mortality by Pieter Claesz from around the same time, but without the shivers. Segers showed little interest in light or morals.

He also had a less than full eye on nature. He did study moss and branches hanging from trees. Almost anything, though, can look like lost in a weave akin to coral or the nightmares of Max Ernst in the twentieth century, even the side of a rearing horse or the trunk of a tree. Line alone matters, the denser and more capricious the better—line alone, that is, except for texture and color. Segers often printed on colored cotton, before adding colored washes. He then altered the plate, the fabric, the dye, or the washes again before printing once, twice, or half a dozen times more.

Maybe you caught “Unfinished” at the opening of the Met Breuer or “The Unfinished Print” at the Frick some years before, but you do not know the half of it. No one knows how many Segers finished of at most two hundred surviving prints. Even his adding color is no sure sign of satisfaction. Nor can one know what he saw. He helped usher in views of mountains and waterfalls after the Alps and ruins after the castles of Rome. Yet he set his most exotic features against a backdrop of home.

Dating is difficult, too. The driest and most detailed surfaces come early, and travel may indeed have opened his eyes. Increasingly, he begins with outlines before adding more. Increasingly, too, versions grow more independent. Instead of merely a change from pink or yellow to blue and gray washes, they can become as distinct as night and day. Reversals, cropping, staining a plate with sugar and acid, and counterproofs, meaning prints taken from cloth or paper and not the plate, all come into play.

They also help explain his appeal to Rembrandt. The curator, Nadine M. Orenstein, looks for his influence in prints of Biblical subjects, but Segers also etched a solid oak and a row of trees, before the more famous artist’s Three Trees. His scratchy technique approaches drypoint, a medium that Rembrandt liked, too. He anticipates Rembrandt’s habit of altering a plate before cutting into it again as well. Just as interesting, Segers borrows from Pieter Bruegel and an earlier German printmaker, Hans Baldung Grien. Could that explain how art got from Mannerism to the age of Rembrandt?

It helps in revisiting the show’s premise as well. The Met sees a fantasist while others were “toiling away at realism,” but were they—and was that all Segers had going, too? Dutch landscape painters like Jacob van Ruisdael and Aelbert Cuyp seek a grandeur beyond the moment, while Jan Vermeer makes every interior a vision. Earlier Mannerists were even more unmoored from reality, and museums have since applied “The Visionary Landscape” to the sublimity of the Hudson River School in nineteenth-century America as well. Segers takes not vision but line and color as his subject, in some of the first art beyond realism and myth alike. At his most adventurous, Surrealism might not be too strong a word.

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

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