Outpost Art News

MONDAY 02 NOVEMBER, 2015 | RSS Feed

The Futurist infringement

by Doug King | post a comment

In the eyes of the Russian Realists and Symbolists, the Futurist infringement upon the traditional meaning of art and reason was caused by demonic forces and would result in a cultural Apocalypse. The Realist Repin, in fact, insisted that art "is the highest gift of God to man, His holy of holies ... [The devil] cynically spits at the meaning of the beauty of life and nature ... [and the] Highest Reason in art is gradually replaced by the stupidity of a shameless squirming person [a Futurist]." For Dmitry Merezhkovsky, an influential Symbolist thinker, Futurism was "a new step of the Coming Boor" since Futurists killed Psyche, "the soul of the world," and created a mechanical person, an "image of the Beast" [the devil]. Malevich attacked the enemies of Futurism in his 1913 caricature Dragon of Criticism (Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum), which represents a demonic dragon pierced by the arrows of the Futurists and explains that the criticism of the Realists and Symbolists, including Repin and Balmont, is annihilated by the Futurists' trans-rationalism. An additional aspect of the presence of the ace of clubs in the Aviator has to do with Malevich's dispute with the Jack of Diamonds society whose symbol was the card with the same denomination. The Aviator was meant to defy the defenders of traditional cultural values and reason who, in Merezhkovsky's words, were afraid of the Futurist diabolic age of mechanical beings. The aviator is a brave card gambler, a trans-rational

Futurist, able to defeat both the "archaic devil," as Kruchenykh called it, and the diabolic critics of Futurism. The fork that conceals the aviator's right eye, like the Englishman's spoon, is associated with satirical Futurist writings that compare art and literature with dishes cooked by artists and poets for their readers and spectators. Yet, the fork is a more aggressive and violent artifact than the spoon. In the Victory over the Sun, a fork appears in a comic battle scene that unfolds before the sun is annihilated. One of the protagonists announces to his enemies: "Thou considers me a fork and ridicules my thought, but I waited, and did not go with a sword against you. I am the continuation of my ways. I waited ... I carefully buried my sword in the earth, and took a new ball." He throws the ball and hits the enemies whose swords bury themselves in the earth in fear, and thusly he defeats his contenders. This individual is a Futurist, as his statement, "I am the continuation of my ways," hints at Kruchenykh's essay New Ways of the Word, illustrated by Malevich and published in September 1913, which declares that the seekers of the future choose crafty ways in art, and their "cleverly sharpened weapon [the trans-rational language]" confuses their enemies. The combat between this individual and his enemies signifies the battle of the Futurists against their literary and artistic critics. Each of the individuals in the battle is identified through his personified weapon-language. The enemy, who has the sword of the traditional rational language considers the weapon of the Futurist a fork, while the Futurist has replaced his sword with a new weapon, the ball of the trans-rational language. The fork conceals the true power of the ball that defeats the swords of the enemies. Similarly, the fork covers the right eye of Malevich's aviator, concealing his true inner power, which is, however, revealed in the ray of a light emitting from his left eye. In Khlebnikov's terms, the aviator is the new Futurist "man-ray" who has come to illuminate the universe. In the Aviator, a small red arrow leads from the fork to the numeral "0" on the black top hat, replacing the Englishman's red spoon and becoming a new emblem of Malevich's Futurist hero. The "0" emits strong rays of light, breaking up the word "pharmacy" (A-PTE-KA) related to signboards whose letters stand out against the nocturnal city of Mayakovsky's poems. (132) The Cubo-Futurists divided humankind into two groups: the true artists and the pharmacists. For Malevich, an artist searching for a canon or painterly prescription was like a pharmacist who formulates his scientific prescriptions. The Aviator's light of trans-rational knowledge strikes the art pharmacy of rationalism. The rays of this light form a yellow triangle with the "0" at its left angle on the aviator's top hat, the Russian letter "C" at its apex, and the numeral "2" at its right angle--an example of pictorial displacements of abstract units. The duality of the "0," embodying the concepts of the beginning and the end, especially intrigued Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov who, from 1912 on, were preoccupied with the trans-rational notion of mirskontsa ("the world backwards"), a neologism combining the words mir ("world"), s ("from") and konetz ("end"). The world backwards ties the end of the previous life to the beginning of a new, trans-rational world with broken causality, a reversed passage of time, and the intertwining of the past, present, and future. (135) In his 1913 essay, The Devil and the Speech-Creators, Kruchenykh stated that, when the Futurist poets defeated the devil and hell, they put an end to the end [the devil], and moved towards new goals and ideas. After the victory over diabolic darkness (madness), Kruchenykh's new goal became the victory over the divine sun of reason, the source of the world. In Christianity, the darkness of evil will be destroyed by divine light and create a "new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation 21:1). From the early 1900s on, many Russian intellectuals, including the leading Symbolist poets Bely and Alexandr Blok and the prominent religious thinkers Merezhkovsky and Nikolay Berdiaev, developed eschatological ideas that were influenced by Vladimir Solovev's apocalyptic philosophy as well as the catastrophic 1904 Russo-Japanese War, the 1905 Russian Revolution, and the 1914 First World War. Their notions were deeply rooted in the nature of Russian religious consciousness based on Christian eschatology and expressed in folk quests for a land of beauty, happiness, and salvation, and reflected a collective mood resulting from an inner apocalyptic history, the fear of future upheavals, an awareness of the tragedy of personal destiny, and the search for the fulfillment of the world's and of the individual's salvation through spiritual transfiguration.





by Doug King | post a comment

In her biography, Adela Breton: A Victorian Artist Amid Mexico's Ruins, Mary F. McVicker traces Breton's life from her birth in 1849 to affluent, upper-class parents in Bath, England, to her death from dysentery, at the age of seventy-four, in Rio de Janeiro. However, it is primarily the last thirty years of her subject's life that concerns McVicker. During these years, Breton left her comfortable home in England for extended periods while she pursued a difficult, and often dangerous, career as a Mesoamerican archeologist. It is an engaging story, and McVicker tells it lucidly in a readable style. As McVicker states at the outset of her book, Breton was not educated to pursue a career. Rather, she mastered the accomplishments deemed suitable for a Victorian lady--singing, dancing and piano, modern languages, riding, drawing, and painting--all intended to increase her desirability as a wife. She did not marry, however, but lived a quiet life caring for her aging parents until first her mother, then her father died, leaving her wealthy and at loose ends at the age of thirty-eight. Almost immediately, she began to travel. She journeyed extensively through Canada, the United States, and Mexico before embarking on a two-year Mexican "grand tour" in 1893, accompanied only by her Mexican guide, Pablo Solorio. Breton probably began traveling for pleasure, and to escape what she considered to be the stultifying atmosphere of English society. However, as the letters and diary entries McVicker cites in her studiously researched book reveal, Breton had a sharp and restless intellect and a deep-seated desire to be productive. She described the long years of her father's retirement in Bath as useless. She had no intention of being similarly unoccupied herself. Struck by the Pre-Columbian ruins she encountered and painted during her tour, she approached the English archeologist Alfred P. Maudsley and offered her services as a copyist. Maudsley sent her to the ruined Mayan city of Chichen Itza, in the Yucatan jungle, to make copies in color of the murals in the Temple of Jaguars. This was the first of many copying projects Breton carried out in Mexico over the course of the next ten years. While Chichen Itza absorbed most of her attention, she also worked in Acanceh and Teotihuacan. In the days before reliable color film, Breton's carefully measured and painted copies provided invaluable records of rapidly deteriorating ancient artworks. However, her engagement with Mesoamerican archeology was not confined to copying. As McVicker notes, Breton found a niche and she exploited it. Realizing that she possessed a useful skill, she used it as a point of entry into a male-dominated discipline that she had long found fascinating. While working in the field, Breton threw herself into the study of Pre-Columbian languages and cultures. Fascinatingly, McVicker reveals that she also served as an informal mentor to the American archeologist Alfred Tozzer, who came to Chichen Itza in 1902 at the outset of his career. In that same year, Breton made her "professional debut" at the Thirteenth International Congress of Americanists in New York City. She was active in this organization for the rest of her life, delivering papers regularly and serving periodically as an officer. She organized the 1912 Congress of Americanists in London and edited its proceedings. Breton also published articles on Mayan art in several scientific journals, including Nature and MAN. Despite her successes, Breton's career as an archeologist was limited in many ways. Her commitment to making herself useful as a copyist--the very skill that won her acceptance among her Americanist peers--ultimately curtailed her own scholarly interests. For instance, although she was keenly interested in the unexcavated mounds at Ake, she had neither the personal nor the institutional resources at her disposal to dig there herself, and her attempts to stir up interest among her colleagues fell largely on deaf ears. Without projects of her own, she was left to assist others in their research. Even after the Revolution in Mexico and the First World War put an end to her fieldwork, her time was taken up with copying Mayan codices in European libraries--copies she made as favors for other scholars. Finally, as McVicker notes sadly in her conclusion, Breton's contributions to the field of Mesoamerican archeology were quickly forgotten after her death in 1923. Her career had unfolded during a period when the line between amateur and professional was still fluid--particularly in the relatively neglected field of Mesoamerican archeology. By the 1920s, this was changing. In their struggle to promote their own professionalism, a new generation of Mesoamerican archeologists shied away from anything that smacked of amateurism. As a woman without a university education or an institutional affiliation, Breton seemed too much like a dilettante for her work to be publicly acknowledged, even though her copies were, in many cases, the only accurate records of artworks whose colors had faded away completely. Breton's career has many parallels to those of American and English women artists who were similarly struggling for professional status around the turn of the last century. Like these women, she had to find a balance between the freedom and mobility she needed to do her work, and the restraints of decorum. She also had to fight to establish herself as a respected peer among (sometimes resentful) male colleagues, and she used her friendships with other women in her field to strengthen both her own position and theirs. Playing up this point, McVicker makes much of the fact that Breton knew and liked the so-called Red Rose Girls of Philadelphia. This group included Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, and Violet Oakley, who met at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and went on to study together with the American illustrator Howard Pyle. In 1900, they established an unconventional household in which a fourth female friend kept house while the three artists pursued highly successful careers. Breton knew the Red Rose Girls through her cousin, who lived in Philadelphia. It is very likely that she admired their courage and creativity, and that she respected them as fellow professionals. It is unlikely, however, that she considered herself their colleague. An obvious criticism of McVicker's worthy project is that, by working so hard to frame Breton as a fine artist, the author is simply mis-categorizing her. Breton was a technical artist. Her paintings, though beautifully made, were not intended as fine art, nor were they exhibited as such during her lifetime. Rather, they are precisely measured and colored renderings of Mayan art, which Breton considered part of her scientific research. Breton's paintings, a number of which are illustrated in color by McVicker, can be instructively compared to the prints of Frederick Catherwood, the British illustrator who accompanied the American explorer John Lloyd Stephens on his travels through Mexico in the late 1830s and early 1840s. His pictures of Mayan art and architecture, while accurate, are imbued with a thoroughly romantic sensibility. In them, ruins and figures often emerge from jungle foliage, half-shrouded in .dramatic shadows that add to their aura of mystery and sublimity. Breton's goals were quite different. She sought to document her subjects scientifically rather than to interpret them artistically. Even when landscape features appear in her paintings, these elements are kept to a minimum, and the light falls evenly, elucidating rather than obscuring her subjects. Breton's paintings, like her scholarly articles, are essentially descriptive. Clearly, she had a sense of herself as a pioneer in a burgeoning field, and she was aware that her work--both written and painted--could serve as the groundwork for later studies. McVicker might have fruitfully compared Breton's career to those of other late-nineteenth-century women who worked as scientific illustrators, most notably the English botanical painter Marianne North. Although McVicker does mention North, it is only in passing. In fact, the parallels between North's career and Breton's are striking. Like Breton, North was a wealthy, unmarried woman who found her vocation after the death of her parents, when she was forty years old. Also like Breton, she offered her services as a copyist to prominent scientists, including Sir Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin. Over the course of thirteen years, North traveled to every continent as well as several Caribbean and Pacific islands, making precise and beautiful paintings of local flora. In the process, she discovered several new species. In the early 1880s, North installed more than eight hundred of her paintings in a special gallery at Kew Gardens in London. Breton may have seen them there. It is even more likely that she read North's autobiography, which was published posthumously in 1892. Significantly, this was just two years before Breton embarked on her own career as a copyist. Despite minor flaws, McVicker has written a thorough and very interesting study. The importance of her book lies in what it has to say, not only about Adela Breton, but about women's place in the historiography of both Mesoamerican archeology and scientific illustration. Like Breton herself, McVicker offers her readers a beautifully crafted, descriptive work. It will no doubt serve as a basis for more extensive studies that explore the foundational roles women played in these fields.




Abstract expression of American nationalism: the work of Jackson

by Doug King | post a comment

IF COMMENTS SUCH AS: 'too pre-rationalised', and, 'not fashionable', are today seen as sufficient grounds in which to dismiss art-work then it would be reasonable to dismiss such institutions whose ideologies not only unquestioningly accept the conservative value of traditional art history, but perpetuate the whole system. Recent art history has been structured upon the 'irrational', the 'subconscious' and 'instuition', claiming to contain reference to the work alone, an 'inner state', a 'spontaneous manipulation of materials', claiming also to exist without any kind of representation of the outside world other than an 'organic', abstracted reference to 'nature'. I shall examine this kind of art language in connection with the historical artist Jackson Pollock, as his work was and still is described in the above manner, by himself and by critics. This essay could also be seen as a review of the recent Jackson Pollock documentary on the South Bank Show. Some artists like Susan Hiller  utilise the concepts I've referred to positively, incorporating other notions, challenging the orthodox, and bringing light to wider possibilities. In contrast, there are those who remain within the confines of tradition, as if working within stagnant pools; any move forward is stifled by the limitations of the tradition within which these artists work. As women it is our responsibility to question art language and the inadequate historical structure in which it operates. The terms 'irrational', 'subconscious' 'intuition', 'inner state', 'spontaneous manipulation of materials' 'organic' and 'nature' are all words which also refer to conventional perceptions of 'passive' and 'feminine'. It is difficult for us, as women, to use these words without misconception, yet when connected with such historical movements as Abstract Expressionism (portrayed as the instigators of this type of language/art practice association), the meaning of these words is suddenly seen as a 'positive', 'macho' convention. The individuals interviewed on the Pollock programme consisted of friends, a relative, a critic, a dealer and the artist Lee Krasner. Pollock's image was discussed, references were made to his family history, his origins in Mid-West America, his male ancesters being cowboys, and how whilst living in New York Pollock created a mythology from his cowboy origins. In relation to the actual making of his paintings Pollock created an allegory between the motion of the paint, applied from a stick, and the movement of a lasso in action. He saw himself as a contemporary cowboy and this attitude entered his life-style in general. He built up an image which was, so to speak, 'bought' by the art world and was somehow considered relevant. Consider the connotations of the cowboy in relation to European/American history and Indian culture where the encroachment upon Indian heritage, land and liberty reflects an unjust story of cruelty, oppression, violation and murder. It was explained how Pollock had been influenced by Indian sand paintings. On the subject of cultural definition and origins the dictionary defines culture as: 'Cultivating a state of manners tsste, and intellectual development at a place, artificial rearing.' Pollock could be described as continuing within the vein of artificial rearing, in his cultivating of the cowboy image and being influenced by Indian sand paintings. But the dictionary definition of culture is nothing more than a false justification, condoning western bourgeois societies' capitalist consumerist attitude which absorbs meaningful ideologies existing outside its framework, only to misrepresent these cultures within itself so creating a superficial representation, while the people who actually live these cultures are silenced. In this instance it is the American Indians, but this process equally extends to other 'minorities' who also have a history of being misrepresented by western society: I am including here the misplaced cultures of class, race and gender. Under these conditions it is therefore only reasonable to state that culture can only exist outside tradition; tradition simply being a process of artificial rearing. As the South Bank Show continued, it was explained how the Abstract Expressionists felt that they had to compensate for being painters and writers, as to their minds their approach reflected a female sensitivity. (This notion, is not only offensive to women by its definition of female as 'feminine', but in the way that female association is considered a negative aspect.) So the Abstract Expressionists attempted to counteract their misconception by indulging in stereotyped, male-orientated life-styles, deriving from so-called 'free-thinking', beat generation activities, indulging in such pursuits as heavy drinking, coupled with attitudes which amounted to nothing other than the violation of women. In short, they described themselves, and were described by those interviewed as 'macho'. This kind of attitude gives rise to many questions about the very foundations of art practice and the mythologies which evolve around them. In this case we can see how the Abstract Expressionist movement encouraged the invisibility of the women artists of that time. But the programme neither examined or raised these issues. We are all well aware that 'macho' is a carefully constructed illusion, a fascistic concept to aid patriarchal gain at the exclusion of the visibility of women. Visibility not as in the 'feminine' which perpetuates the 'macho' condition, and is in itself a 'macho' illusion, but visibility in the sense of equality. It is not enough to present a section of history in the way that this Pollock documentary did, as if part of an unproblematic accumulation of events. A clearer conception can only be obtained as a representation, that is in itself a struggle in progress, part of an on-going discourse, rather than a presentation which regards itself as a completed and profound statement in isolation. In contrast, for example, with Judy Chicago's struggle,  Pollock's 'struggle' highlights his dependence and solidarity with traditional right-wing American society of which he was so strongly a part until eventually he even begins to embody the failure of that system. Unable to live up to his 'genius' reputation, unable to develop his work, full of self-doubt, in the sense that he is 'struggling' to keep up with the pressure to produce more and more work, to meet the demands of the art market, whilst competing with a younger generation with 'new' ideas, Pollock simply slopes into drunken states of self-pity and depression making statements such as: 'there was Matisse, Picasso, and then there was me'. This illustrates how he upholds the system that destroyed him. His lack of intelligence and state of confusion is also glorified into an establishment 'rebel-without-a-cause' syndrome, whilst in reality he was a victim, the kind of victim it is impossible to sympathise with. His suicide car-crash (risking the lives of two female passengers) during a bout of self-indulgence, was an action which was praised by his friends, for 'Jackson created the perfect death: the suicide while driving in a fast car created the perfect romantic image of the artist'. Shortly after his suicide, the commodity value of Pollock's work increased. Jackson Pollock received a great deal of financial and moral support throughout his artistic life-time. Any artist would have been as capable to produce a selection of strong works under these conditions. Many artists produce strong works with very little funds. I don't think that it is right that anyone should be financially limited but, in the light of this, Pollock had everything and nothing. He was simply a painter of the State. His understanding of his own work was limited, he did not acknowledge the content of his subject matter (the way he manipulated the paint, the cowboy history, 'macho' etc.), examine its origins and meanings, or question why he received so much state funding. (We are touching on questions about responsibilites of the artist). Maybe Pollock was a success in terms of the establishment, but it does not necessarily follow that he was a successful artist in his own right. autumn-rhythm




Pursuing the elusive van Gogh

by Doug King | post a comment

WHO CAN RESIST trying to solve the mystery of Vincent van Gogh's life and work? We continue to be haunted by this Dutch Reform clergyman's son, who failed to qualify as a pastor, was rejected as a missionary, and turned to art as a second choice when he was 27. He died at 37, and so had barely ten years to move from his first lesson in painting to his final masterpieces. Why did his work not sell during his lifetime, though his paintings now command prices of $80 million or more? Why do crowds of thousands and hundreds of thousands come to see his work? We now have two new opportunities to better understand van Gogh: the current traveling exhibition of 70 van Gogh paintings, and a recent book on van Gogh's "spiritual vision." While their home museum undergoes expansion, 70 of van Gogh's paintings from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam were exhibited at the National Gallery from October 4 to January 3. They have now traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum where they will hang until April. Then they return to Amsterdam, likely to travel no more. During the exhibit's tenure in Washington, D.C., crowds gathered before dawn at the Constitution and Sixth Street entrance to the National Gallery. Some brought lawn chairs, some sat on the sidewalk, some huddled together in conversation. Most hoped to get a few of the free tickets available each day for visitors to the ten rooms of van Gogh paintings. A few simply collected tickets to sell to the highest bidder. On one of my visits I listened in on the conversation between a mother and her daughter, an art history major who stood ahead of me: Mother: "So, honey, why did he cut off his ear?" Daughter: "He had problems, mom." Mother, sympathetically: "Don't we all, honey." That may be a clue to part of the mystery. The drama of van Gogh's life continues to fascinate us. He is what Henri Nouwen called a "wounded healer." Nouwen once confessed to me, "It seems like all my life Vincent van Gogh has been my own spiritual guide. It's as though he went through it all, the failures, suffering and joys. You know he understands, and puts all that into a painting just for you." My own stroll through the Washington exhibit allowed me to join other devotees of van Gogh's work. After a five-hour wait, the first 300 in line get inside to pick up tickets and see the exhibit with those who reserved their tickets months ago. It is as though those 70 paintings from Amsterdam were traveling evangelists come to feed the hungry and comfort the anxious. People move through the ten rooms set aside for the exhibit. First come the earth-colored paintings from van Gogh's Dutch period. People stare at his earliest efforts, studies of peasants, a basket of potatoes, a still life with bottles and jars, a thatched hut, the parsonage where Van Gogh lived with his family in the Dutch town of Nuenen. But it is the Potato Eaters that gathers a crowd unwilling to move on. The painting gives one the sense of being in the intimate, lamp-lit space at table with a weary peasant family. There is the strange sense that this meal of steamed potatoes, eaten in quietness and gratitude and shared with the viewer, is sacred. The steam creates a halo and sheds light on the people's faces and hands, themselves the color of potatoes. The painting suggests that one ought to seek significance among simple people, in the simplest moments of their days. Soon one is in the rooms of Paris paintings. Van Gogh spent February 1886 to February 1888 in Paris, sharing a Montemartre apartment with his brother, Theo, manager of an art gallery. Here he learned to use brilliant colors, copying the impressionists around him and studying the hues of flowers. A crowd gathers, nevertheless, around one more earth-colored canvas, A Pair of Shoes. This is the painting that inspired Martin Heidegger to write The Origin of the Work of Art. Van Gogh seems to have turned two worn shoes into an icon. Perhaps he is inviting viewers to dare walking in another's shoes for a day. Many people at the exhibition seem to be discovering a new favorite, a golden canvas of quinces, lemons and grapes. The light spills over to the frame. Van Gogh seems to invite us to see these pieces of fruit as centers of meaning, illuminated from within. Other viewers linger before a small painting of a flowerpot filled with chives. It has the power to stop people in their tracks. Van Gogh's copy of a Japanese woodcut reminds us that Japanese art and Buddhist aesthetics caught the artist's attention. One goes on to van Gogh's paintings from the town of Aries in Provence, the sunny south of France. A single sprig of blossoming almond in a glass of water, portraits of children, the yellow house where van Gogh lived, his bedroom--all become centers of attention for the crowds of viewers. Van Gogh presents his own daily life as a spiritual journey he wishes us to share. Then a room of paintings done during the artist's stay at the asylum in St. Remy, just miles north of Aries. He had begun to have attacks that many doctors now believe were epilepsy, and he voluntarily entered the asylum for possible treatment. Paintings of a wheatfield under the sun, an emperor moth, butterflies with poppies celebrate the simplest corners of nature as revelatory spaces. No wonder some have seen van Gogh as a 19th-century St. Francis. Van Gogh left the asylum to return north and be closer to his brother, his brother's wife and the child they named "Vincent." He spent 70 days in a village outside Paris, Auvers-sur-Oise, and during those 70 days he painted 70 masterpieces: gardens, wheat, a golden evening sky. On a wall by itself, as one leaves, is the painting that has most fascinated people for many years: Wheatfield with Crows under a Stormy Sky. Paths move to the right, left and directly into the wind-tossed wheat. This may be the field where van Gogh, sensing new attacks coming on, shot himself rather than take more of the money Theo ought now to be spending on his new family. The ripe wheat in the painting reminds one of a letter van Gogh wrote to Theo: "I feel so strongly that it is the same with people as it is with wheat, if you are not sown in the earth to geminate there, what does it matter?--in the end you are ground between the millstones to become bread. The difference between happiness and unhappiness. Both are necessary and useful, as well as death or disappearance" (Letter 607). Outside the exhibit, some compare notes on favorite paintings, some are perplexed that the exhibit contains no sunflower painting, no portrait of Dr. Gachet, no postman, no Starry Night. I overhear two artists who have studied every brushstroke of the canvases. One says, "I don't understand him any better, but I did get a lesson to take home. Even if some of our paintings are as bad as a few of those, keep painting. We may get some masterpieces yet." Kathleen Powers Erickson's book is a second key to understanding van Gogh. The author, currently a freelance writer and photographer, did her van Gogh study as a dissertation at the University of Chicago. It is a "dueling dissertation," which responds to the dissertation done in Amsterdam by Japanese scholar Tsukasa Kodera, who later published Vincent van Gogh: Christianity Versus Nature. Erickson seeks to refute Kodera's thesis that van Gogh finally deserted Christianity for the worship of nature. Her correction of Kodera's work is convincing. Facets of van Gogh's Christianity certainly did remain with him in one transformation or another all his brief life. Erickson emphasizes the influence of a Dutch school of liberal theology (Groningen), the Bible, and the devotional reading of Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress on van Gogh's religious perspective. Unfortunately, despite its contributions, Erickson's book uses too narrow and flawed a net in seeking to capture the elusive van Gogh. She claims to write the "first systematic account of the history of diagnoses of van Gogh's illness," and to give "a definitive diagnosis." To use the word "definitive" is reckless a century after van Gogh's death, and it is possible to claim that this is the "first systematic account" only if one omits the 300-page book by Wilfred Niels Arnold published in 1992, Vincent van Gogh: Chemicals, Crises, and Creativity. Erickson also ignores Judy, Sund's powerful volume, True to Temperament: Van Gogh and French Naturalist Literature (1992) in her discussion of van Gogh's debt to naturalist literature. These omissions lead me to conclude that Erickson's almost ten-year-old dissertation has not been updated to take account of the key works that have added to our knowledge of van Gogh in the intervening years. Further, Erickson's failure to take seriously van Gogh's debt to Japanese art or his exploration of the possibility of being both a Christian and a "simple monk worshiping the eternal Buddha" (Letter 544a) further hampers her view. Van Gogh had more knowledge of Eastern art and religion than Erickson admits. I also lost confidence in Erickson when she spoke of van Gogh's painting of "Gauguin's chair with his pipe resting on it," a strange confusion of van Gogh's painting of his own simple chair with pipe and his painting of Gauguin's more ornate chair with candle and books. A further problem is her description of a key painting, Starry Night. She states, "The church is the only building in the landscape that does not reflect the brilliance of the stars above.... It is completely dark." But anyone who has seen even the poorest print of the painting knows that the church's tower, roof and walls all reflect the beautiful blue and white lights of the heavens. It is also amazing that Erickson's editors have her translate even a four-word Latin expression into English, but leave a score of sentences that bolster her major points in Dutch without translation. In spite of these problems, I would enjoy debating with Erickson her view that van Gogh, while in the asylum just the year before his death, returned to his religious roots, and that this is reflected in his subsequent three (and only) paintings of traditional religious subjects: the Pieta, The Raising of Lazarus and The Good Samaritan. She has convinced me that we should look at those three paintings more carefully, but I would like to attempt to convince her that van Gogh was more of a Calvinist that she thinks, whether Calvin spoke through van Gogh's sometimes anti-Calvinist "Groningen School of liberal theology" or not. In my view, van Gogh is in fascinating agreement with Calvin's theology of art, a theology that freed religious art of its reliance on traditional biblical subjects. Calvin's request that artists "paint only those things which the eyes are capable of seeing" and avoid attempts at painting "God's majesty" (Institutes, Book I, Chapter 11) resonates with artists like van Gogh, who sought to locate the sacred in the ordinary things of the world. The Bible and religious art were not simply to be supplemented by this new art. The new artist was to be a prophet painting a new Bible for a new age. Only when copying earlier artists whom he admired did van Gogh paint traditional religious scenes, and even then in only three of his dozens of copies of the works of others. "There is not one little blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make men rejoice," said Calvin in a sermon. These words present a view of art that explains one more bit of the van Gogh mystery. It is not in his three isolated copies of religious works by Rembrandt and Delacroix that van Gogh's genius is to be found. It resides in his rejoicing in a blade of grass, in his painting of Augustine Roulin, a postman's wife, as a "saint" worthy of being placed on an altar. Rejecting his friend Emile Bernard's paintings of the Annunciation, Christ in the Garden of Olives and the Adoration of the Magi, van Gogh gives his description of a truly religious art: "I bow down before that study, powerful enough to make a Millet tremble--of peasants carrying home to the farm a calf which has been born in the fields" (Letter to Bernard, B 21). The depth of his religious vision is to be found in nativities that happen among ordinary folk today, and the closer to earth, the better.




Dia (Center for the Arts) and the dinosaur

by Doug King | post a comment

The spectatorship of sculpture is akin to a branch of Ichnology, the science of footprints. Text, in imitation of animal sign (derived from cuneiform trackways in mud and snow), is the memory of travel. The American Museum has a dinosaur trackway, a trail of footprints in stone excavated from the bed of a river in Texas. Inlaid on the floor near this prehistoric text is a path for the museum visitor, a metal cladogram, a family tree of sorts that branches with the evolution of shared derived physical characteristics. To follow this road is to be lead into small box canyons of glass and steel, cul-de-sacs of fossils. I walk against the grain. The backrooms at both Dia and the American Museum are the same, same scale, same equipment. A crated Robert Gober exhibition blocks the hallway at Dia. (During the installation of the Gober exhibition a wall is excavated revealing a Lawrence Weiner text Displacement, from a 1991 exhibition. The artifact is preserved.) Uptown at the American Museum, a hallway is blocked with crates labeled Styracosaurus, Lambeosaurus and Paleoparadoxia. Dion stamps his feet loudly before leading me into a storage room and switching on the light. He says he doesn't want to see the cockroaches. Here are shelves of dinosaur bone specimens, enclosed in their plaster field jackets. One is labeled "Red Deer River, Alberta 1917." I smell sagebrush locked in the porous plaster surface. Sculpture smells. Dion thinks the paleontological digs of the future will be done in these close rooms rather than in the fragrant badlands. From a wooden cabinet we take out some dinosaur eggs. These are the first and the most famous dinosaur eggs found, collected by expeditions led by Roy Chapman Andrews to Mongolia in the 1920s. The eggs are small, terracotta red and fit tool-like into the palm of the hand. These are the eggs of either Protoceratops Andrewsi or Oviraptor Philoceratops. I too feel like the egg thief; I should pocket one but do not. One specimen is larger, a dozen or so eggs arranged in a circle, a nest or a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. A large film camera is set up high in one corner of the Tyrannosaurus shop, surveillance, but it steals only a frame or two a minute. The film is shown later as an animated short, part of the Tyrannosaurus Rex display. It compresses Dion's work of a year into only a few minutes, transforming his patient labour into a frantic and ghostly blur, the movement of his body against the slowly growing skeleton. This film is the only document of the process of the dismantling and reconstruction. (There were some casts made from the skeletons before they were dismantled, with fossil bone and the old discarded iron armature reproduced in the same piece of fiberglass.) Dion's new armatures vegetatively twine around each bone of the Tyrannosaurus skeleton. The curving steel is bolted to a heavy thick walled pipe that acts as a backbone parallel to and beneath the actual fossil spine. There is only a tiny hole in the center of the pipe, big enough to carry an electrical cord up to the skull if need be. In a recent American Museum publication a photograph of the rebuilt Tyrannosaurus has Dion's armature airbrushed away. The skeleton seems to support itself, as if held together by theory alone, without the rude signs of the sculptural. It seems that there is no figure in the stone awaiting release as the homilies of the sculptural have proposed. There is instead a stoniness within our own bodies, fluorine enriched hydroxapatite crystals that form the basis of the process of petrification. We each live out the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea in reverse, gradually stiffening into old age, then rigor mortis, the stiff other of the corpse, followed by the skeleton. As a sign of death, which in itself is not death, but that which survives death, the skeleton is akin to the structure of the authority that orders death. But a skeleton is not much of a structure. Like some theories, skeletons collapse easily. Most in museums are composites of several specimens supplemented by plaster or fiberglass casts. (The Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus in the American Museum consists of four different partial skeletons along with additional cast plaster pieces. The Tyrannosaurus Rex in the same museum owed its former upright stance to several entirely fictional plaster tail vertebrae.) There is structure in the refleshing of the skeleton. Beginning with the armature (the additional skeleton of steel), it is made by the speculations of model makers, illustrators and popular film producers, writers of paleontological theory and science fiction. Only after all of this does the dinosaurian simulacra arise. The dinosaur has been widely used as a sign for obsolescence, but this notion itself is now obsolete. Dinosaurs have evolved from the slow, dull-witted and cold-blooded reptiles invented by the Victorian science of paleontology (dinosaur, "terrible lizard") to become relatively active and relatively intelligent, possibly warm-blooded creatures. A recent American Museum publication lists the smallest Dinosaur as being Mellisuga Helenae, a Cuban hummingbird, alive today, endangered perhaps but certainly not extinct. In the American Museum at least, Aves has become Dinosauria. The dinosaur now functions as a dual sign of extinction and survival. A 1994 television advertisement claimed that 100 species become extinct every day, the greatest level of extinction since the death of the dinosaur. In 1991 a meteorite crater on the Yucatan peninsula was discovered to be the right age, dimensions and location to account for the extinction of the last dinosaurs. Its impact would have caused global darkness for at least six months coupled with an extreme "greenhouse effect," a heat lid over the entire surface of the earth. Extreme global cooling would have followed this and the radiant energy of the explosion on impact would have caused atmospheric nitrogen to fall as acid rain. This scenario recalls fantasies of nuclear war and other modern environmental catastrophes. (It is curious that dinosaur bones and uranium are often found together. The bones soak up and concentrate uranium during the process of petrifaction. One such radioactive bone is stored in the collection of the American Museum.) As earlier conceptions of the dinosaur have been used in support of art critiques (Robert Smithson's "Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space," Arts magazine, November 1966), so the new dinosaur as constructed by the American Museum is a sign for cultural production in this our new age of extinction. Back when bigger was always better, Andrew Carnegie wanted something "as big as a barn" for a new wing of his museum. He sent Earl Douglass west. In Colorado, at what is now Dinosaur National Monument, Douglass found a dinosaur, a Diplodocus literally "as big as a barn" (H.J. McGinnis, Carnegie's Dinosaurs, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh 1982). In this case, capitalism literally displaced the sublime from the landscape to the economy and the dinosaurs went east. Once landscape was too big to think about, now the economy is. Capitalist institutions are embodied in the brobdingnagian architecture of the city. Buildings are statuary and statues by definition do not move except during construction or destruction. Giant dinosaurs pose with architecture as the destructive climax to constructive narratives: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in New York, Godzilla in Tokyo, The Brontosaurus of The Lost World in London. Exhibitions at Dia normally last for one year. During 1993, On Kawara exhibited One Thousand days One Million Years and every month Jim hung a different group of Kawara's date paintings. Ten heavy volumes of printed dates, One Million Years (Past), and the sound piece, One Million Years (Future) were exhibited continually throughout the year. Kawara's obsessive chanting time evokes the sculptural - the memorial and the monument. Under the time-is-money rubric of capitalism, On Kawara's work attempts and appropriately fails to keep pace with the vast scale of geological time (or the scale of today's economy) in which one million years (and one million dollars) is no time (and scarcely any money) at all and in which those passing leave only small fossil traces. Sculpture becomes architecture and architectures become institutions; institutions become histories and histories become mythological giants. Dia and the American Museum are giants - just as Reygok (the Croatian stone counting giant of Icebor), Gigantopithecus and Og (who survived the flood), Paul Bunyan and Andrew Carnegie, Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus, IBM and the CIA are all giants. Fossil bones have often been claimed as the bones of human giants: the mammoth skull with the huge nasal cavity as that of the cyclops, Polyphemus. Officially, nothing more recent than 10,000 years old is considered to be a fossil (for instance, the moulds of humans and animals at Pompeii are not fossils). When Georgius Agricola coined the term fossil from Latin it simply meant something dug up from the ground. No very great distinction was made between petrified bones, minerals and buried statuary. Even today, the fossiliferious and the sculptural easily conflate, the petrified bone and the statue. Sculpture has appropriated the aura of the natural history museum. Up to and including the earthworks of the 1960s and 1970s, sculpture has had difficulty in achieving anything more than a pastiche of prehistory, a kind of neo-Neolithic. (Misquoting Oscar Wilde on Turner, "Why is prehistory so true to modern sculpture.") Critics and curators of sculpture often claim an appreciation of mineralogy and paleontology. But most dinosaur art these days is genre painting disguised as scientific illustration. Doug Hendersen paints dreamy pastel landscapes populated by herds of mothering Hadrosaurs. In Gregory Paul's paintings the dinosaur is a stylishly feathered fin de siecle creature, a hot-house inhabitant dreamt by some member of the Vienna Secession. John Gurche paints pictures of dinosaurs to look like photographs of dinosaurs as if he has been schooled by Gerhard Richter. Dinosaur sculpture is more interesting than dinosaur painting to the degree that it is confused with fossil displays and museum stagecraft. The process of refleshing fossil bone is an extension of the conventional studio practice of modeling clay over an armature. Dinosaur sculptor Stephen Czerkas has modeled a seven-meter Allosaurus directly over the cast of the skeleton and was also responsible for the special effects in the worst dinosaur movie ever made, Dinosaur Planet. The worst dinosaur sculpture ever made may be one by Ron Sequin in collaboration with Dale Russell of the Canadian National Museum of Science. It is a brightly painted fiberglass statue of a hypothetical humanoid dinosaur that, it is claimed, could have evolved (that is, did not evolve) from the relatively intelligent little flesh eating dinosaur Stenonychosaurus. The resulting sculpture looks like one of the alien lizard people from the short-lived American television series V. The paintings of Charles R. Knight are well known as book illustrations. He painted his Brontosaurus as a Victorian "terrible lizard" mired up to its hips in prehistoric slime but depicted the carnosaurs (correctly it seems now) as active and bird-like. (His paintings that most prefigure current paleontological theory are unacknowledged copies of sketches by the obscure 19th c. geologist Arthur Lakes who sketched his dinosaur fantasies in 1914, at age 70.) The American Museum recently restored Knight's large wall murals. His smaller paintings are displayed as artifacts in showcases with the fossils, behind polished glass that makes them difficult to see. Knight's sculpture is less well known. In a backroom a large table is covered with small sculptures of dinosaurs. There is a plastic Godzilla but most are plasters by Knight. Two years ago the American Museum needed storage space so they handed Dion a sledge hammer and instructed him to destroy Knight's original moulds. In another storage room, a hoard of mammoth tusks seemed at odds with the need to destroy Knight's work. Sculptor Robert Smithson (1939-1973) wrote his essay "A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art" (Art International, 1966) after seeing Charles R. Knight's murals and book illustrations as a child. He associated Knight's dinosaur with petrification and immobility. Appearing on television in the early 70s, Smithson gave something of an artistic weather report. Facing the camera across a reflective table he monotoned that "a certain amount of aesthetic fatigue seems to have set in." Knight's Brontosaurus became a sign for an entropic art scene. Smithson understood the dinosaur as a sign of extinction but not of survival. After all, the new dinosaur was barely born when Smithson died. Smithson was unsentimentally recalled by friend Dan Graham as "creepy, always hanging around art galleries" (unpublished seminar at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1983). If every age has (the dinosaur and) the stonehenge that it wants, then Dan Graham's Rooftop Urban Park Project Two Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube (1981/1991) and Video Salon atop the Dia roof is our stonehenge of sorts. Artists and art critics are attracted to the issues and authority of architecture like insects to the lamp. (Architecture is sculpture socialized or domesticated, made hollow and enclosing.) Jeff Wall in a lecture at Walter Phillips Gallery ("Dan Graham's Kammerspeil," Banff, 1983) spoke of Graham's work as a critique of conceptualism that conflates the discourse of the glass skyscraper with that of the suburban house. Wall accepts the convention that the model for glass architecture is Bruno Taut's Glashaus built for the 1914 Werkbund exhibition in Cologne and that the model for Taut was the work of fantasy writer Paul Scheerbart, author of Glasarchitektur (1914). He also accepts that the model for them both was Sir Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace (1851). But Wall arrives at a dramatic "Vampire" conclusion on the basis of the ability of a transparent glass well to transform itself into a mirror when backed by the blackness of night. Wall is a photographer, understanding night as an abstraction, as black, afraid of the dark. His vampire critique of Graham is dreamt theory, fiction - for night is not only darkness, perhaps not even darkness, and the night of utopian glass architecture is positively floodlit. In any history of glass architecture derived through Scheerbart, no matter how conflated or convoluted, the light bulb is the prototypical work of glass architecture. The Crystal Palace, the glass and steel architecture that enclosed the London World's Fair in 1851 had another iron cage at its center enclosing the 186-carat Koh-i-noor (Mountain of Light) diamond - adamantine, transparent but monolithic, foreign. When the fair closed, the palace was removed to the park at Sydenham in the suburbs of London. Here the grounds were appropriately landscaped and populated with sculptures of prehistoric animals moulded by sculptor Waterhouse Hawkins. He planned a similar display for New York's Central Park but the sculptures were vandalized, smashed to pieces and buried in the park. Some of them still remain buried under a small hill near the pond at the corner of 59th and 5th. Dan Graham's rooftop project recalls the lens of a pharos. Jim claims that on a certain day of the year the glass cylinder focuses sunlight - like a magnifying glass being used to light a fire. Jim claims this knowledge on the basis of having built the piece designed by Graham (with architects Modjeh Baratloo and Clifton Bach). Jim is afraid that the roof will catch on fire. While having lunch with Graham in 1980 I asked him if he would mind if I smoked. He said I could blow it right in his face, that he wouldn't mind because he was from New York. You can't smoke in many restaurants in New York anymore; you can get a coffee here on the roof, but you can't smoke. (A blonde woman walks into a dinosaur display at the American Museum. It is closed to the public. She is smoking. She stops to adjust something in the display, then adjusts herself in the reflective glass of a display case. Dion tells me she is the head preparator. Smoke and mirrors.) I always shiver a bit when I enter a museum and catch wind of the tomb-like mustiness. It is as if the crystaline preservation of the objects in the collection glazes over me during my visit. As I follow the prescribed routes to knowledge, my movements become increasingly stiff and formal. For the most part, I obey strictures against touch and photography. (At Dia I do not photograph the exhibitions but take my pictures in the back rooms where I have permission to do so. At the American Museum I do not photograph the public galleries, where one is allowed to, but instead take my shots in the back rooms where I do not have permission.) Leaving a museum, we often pause at the giftshop and bookstore, seeking release from the denial of the tactile. At the American Museum this denial is not exactly sublimated but is reduced to the scale of jewelry and books. As if children without experience, we purchase souvenirs rather than produce our own. In the face of the gigantic, we are children again, taught in the classroom of the giftshop. We learn it is necessary to purchase in order to touch. At the American Museum, there are fossil replicas for sale, realistic Tyrannosaurus teeth in plaster and plastic. In the mid 1970s you could buy cold-cast bronze (resin-bonded bronze dust) sculptures of the same dinosaur eggs that Dion and I juggled in the backroom. However the replicas were sold with a sculpted baby dinosaur emerging from the cast egg, a tiny Protoceratops. They don't sell them anymore. It seems they were wrong about which dinosaur species actually belonged to the eggs. The new egg replicas on sale are brightly painted casts of these same Mongolian eggs but with a little dinosaur embryo curled up inside, an Oviraptor Philoceratops (a dinosaur once thought to prey on Protoceratops eggs). The same egg has now produced two different species of dinosaur sculpture. I still prefer the older bronze model. It was almost the colour of the original, the colour of things dug up. At Dia, the catalogue and magazine rack is along one wall of the foyer. The shelves are an architectural facade that grows incrementally with the procession of exhibitions. Contrast the sedate, archival pace of this growth with the rapid turnover of the popular magazine stand, the monthly, weekly, even daily replacement of text, the quick flickering of that architectural facade. The polyester resin rats, Rattenkoning, that Katharina Fritsch exhibited at Dia in 1994 seemed huge in the gallery and they seem even larger when Jim and I peer into their packing crates from above. I wonder aloud how long it took her to make the piece. Jim replies that it didn't take very long at all, that no one makes their own art anymore, everyone has a crew. He put together a crew to remake the plaster ball of intertwined tails so like the convoluted surface of a brain, at the center of Rattenkonig. (According to Fritsch, the original plaster lacked integrity.) Hands made this work but they are very nearly anonymous hands, names in small type in the Dia brochure, the labour of their bodies blurred into anonymity like that of Dion in the Tyrannosaurus film. Again, Dion stamps his feet in ritual as he leads me into a dark storage room at the American Museum. This time he says he wants the rats to disappear before we turn on the light. There are a lot of fossils in this room as well. Every time the American Museum restores its public halls more material is put into storage and more fiberglass replicas are put on display. Dion compares this tendency to an art gallery in which all the works on display are competent forgeries at best and speculative additions to an artist's oeuvre at worst. He questions whether paleontologists would accept such a display as constituting an art gallery, though they expect us to accept a display of fiberglass sculpture as a museum of paleontology. Consider an art museum of the future devoted exclusively to appropriation art. (I know of one fossil collector who haunts museums rather than badlands, collecting a bit of painted plaster here, a piece of plastic resin there.) The practice of concealing real fossils in backrooms ostensibly for research purposes also serves another function. It conceals the very small amount of fossil evidence that many reconstructions are based on (recall the Brontosaurus made from four different skeletons). Entire animal species, even entire ecologies, have been fabricated from a single fragment of fossil bone, a legacy of the comparative anatomy techniques established by the Baron Cuvier. Recalling Honore de Balzac on Cuvier, "reconstructing whole worlds out of bleached bones ... filling the void; he examines a piece of gypsum, observing an imprint and lo, marble becomes flesh and the dead are quickened to life." The early 20th c. paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborne was responsible for initiating the display methods still used at the American Museum. It was he who hired New York artist Charles R. Night to work for the museum. Osborne also once identified the first human ancestor in the Americas on the basis of a single tooth, a fossil pig's molar. Dia was founded on a fossil fuel fortune. The collection of the Dia Center for the Arts (approximately 1000 pieces by Joseph Beuys, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Walter de Maria and others of the period 1960-1980) was mostly assembled by its founders - Shlumberger oil-drilling heiress, Philippa de Mentil Friedrich and her husband Heiner Friedrich. Dia is from Greek, meaning through, though less in the sense of passage than of an all-pervasiveness, as in throughout. It is in this sense that Dia as a pseudo-acronym takes on a humourously sinister cast. In a Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd comedy from the 1980s (Spies Like Us) two KGB agents masquerading as American spies introduce themselves as agents of the D.I.A. Dion didn't like the movie Jurassic Park. He didn't think that the dinosaurs looked real, that because of our familiarity with the animation techniques used in movies like Alien the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are compromised, more unreal than ever. The Blackfoot creation god Napi tired of his labour and lay down to rest. When he arose the impression of his body had created the badlands along the Red Deer river. This area of erosion was once the western shoreline of the Niobrara, that vast inland sea that still seems to separate eastern from western North America. These are the geologic formations of the late Cretaceous period, the age of chalk, the age of the great extinctions. Tired after his climb out of the badlands, an oil company vortex-engineer is sitting on the edge of a cliff as he explains to me why he hated the movie Jurassic Park. Borrowing from Phil Sheridan, he mutters that "the only good dinosaur is a dead dinosaur." He complains that dinosaurs are everywhere these days. He comes to the badlands because it is the only place he can get away from dinosaurs. He searches for and collects dinosaur bones but only as if to confirm their extinction. No Dia or Dinosaurian simulacra arise here. It is only later as we drive through an oilfield on the way back to the highway that a big blue and white rig truck pulls on to the road ahead of us. Through the dust unclearly the two guys in the cab of the Schlumberger truck look like Jim and Dion.




American artist Ellen Day Hale self portrait

by Doug King | post a comment

Almost all of the writings on the self-portrait  of Ellen Day Hale describe it as a painting that Hale executed in Paris in 1885 and exhibited at that year's Salon. While Hale did intend her bold canvas for the Salon, as indicated in her letters, it was not painted in Paris nor was it ever exhibited at the Salon, errors which appear throughout the literature on the artist.  More important, though, her letters reveal how the actual circumstances surrounding her execution and exhibition of the canvas evidence Hale's critical perception of artists' gendered roles and professionalization alongside an atelier system unable to support her radical approach to self-representation. Female networks and role models threaded through Hale's life and were critical to the way in which she thought about her practice and her self-representation. As an exhibiting painter, printmaker, book illustrator, and muralist, she followed the path of other women studying art. She began her formal training with William Rimmer and William Morris Hunt in Boston, not far from her family's home in Roxbury, Massachusetts. By 1877, at the age of twenty two and with just three full years of formal training behind her, Hale's correspondence reveals that she was supporting herself through her art: running her own portrait studio and routinely taking commissions.  Although her family was well-known and members of Boston's elite class, they were not wealthy, and Hale was constantly concerned about finances. To gain more commissions she sought additional training, traveling to Philadelphia in 1878 for life drawing classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), and later studying in Paris. She described her experience at PAFA of painting from the female nude for the first time in a letter to her mother, Emily Baldwin Perkins: "I went with Meggy [her cousin, Margaret Lesley] to the early life-class this morning, and painted a dear little girl of fifteen or sixteen years old. I had never painted a woman in that way before, and found it hard but nice." Arriving in Europe in April 1881 with Meggy and her friend and mentor Helen Mary Knowlton, an instructor at Hunt's school, she traveled through Belgium, Holland, and Italy, painting and sketching. In November Hale arrived in Paris, filled with great dreams and ambitions. She enrolled in classes and spent her free time with American friends and family. Hale and her friends found the grand museums far more interesting than the repetitious exercises and drills their instructors proposed. She sketched in the Jardin du Luxembourg and copied at the Louvre where she discovered the works of Titian, Raphael, Correggio, Rembrandt, Velasquez, and Courbet. Hunt's rather loosely structured school had not prepared her for the rigorous teaching style of the Academie Colarossi, where she found the "general work of the class ... neither interesting nor inspiring."  By January 1882, when Hale entered the atelier of Carolus-Duran and Jean-Jacques Henner, the novelty of Paris was wearing thin as she felt the pressure of being a foreign student, considered lightweight and insincere by some instructors. Likewise, she was not satisfied with their instruction. She later faulted Carolus-Duran's atelier for its "neglect of the necessary points of drawing" and never having "the nude model," only the "head week in and week out, not even the hands ..." At the same time, however, she appreciated "the inculcation of a broad and expeditious method of painting, with regard for light and simplicity,"  referring to experimentation with Impressionism. In September of 1882 she went to London to study briefly at the Royal Academy of Art, where she exhibited A New England Girl (unlocated) the following April.  Returning to Paris in November 1882, she entered the Academie Julian for the first of several courses, during which her instructors included Rudolphe Julian, Tony Robert-Fleury, Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, Gustave-Rodolphe Boulanger, and Adolphe William Bouguereau. It was critically important to be associated with respected teachers, whose names could be cited in the Salon catalogue. Although, by the mid-1880s independent exhibitions were on the rise and the Salon's importance had decreased,  Hale was well aware that exhibiting at the Salon would help her gain commissions back home. As art historian Kathleen Adler has observed, "Failure to meet the standards of the jury, and then to occupy a place where the work could be seen, was held to mean oblivion not only in Paris but on returning to compete in the art market in America." In 1882 she made her first submission to the Salon jury, two charcoal drawings, both rejected. The following year, she approached the Salon more confidently, gaining acceptance of a painting of a young boy titled Beppo [Joe], described in an Art Amateur Salon review as "carefully and conscientiously painted, albeit a trifle muddled and indefinite in the modeling of the face ..." Hale fell ill in the summer of 1883 and was retrieved from Paris by her father. (11) She did not return until late January or early February of 1885, taking up classes again at the Academie Julian. Of all the places she studied, she preferred Julian's, where she had collected a circle of friends that provided her a supportive environment. Among these classmates that Hale mentions in various letters are Anna Bilinska (1857-93), Elisabeth Boott (1846-88), Ida F. Clark (b. 1858), Rosina Emmet (1854-1948), Anna Klumpke (1856-1942), Mary K. Trotter (n.d.), and Dora Wheeler (1856-1940). Gabrielle De Veaux Clements (1858-1948), whom Hale met in 1883, would become her lifelong partner. Writing to her father, the well-known minister, author, and orator Edward Everett Hale, in June 1885, she confided, "The principal happiness, outside of my work, which I have at present is my new friendship with Gabrielle; Which is a great deal to me now and which is likely to be more." Hale's family had provided her with a network of strong women. Her great aunts included Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-96), the abolitionist and author known worldwide for her best-selling 1853 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin; and Catharine Beecher (1800-78), an educator and social reformer whose 1841 Treatise on Domestic Economy advocated women's increased control over their domestic environments.  Another great aunt, the suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker (1822-1907), founded the Connecticut chapter of the National Woman Suffrage Association and lobbied Congress on behalf of the national woman suffrage amendment introduced by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, a distant relative of Hale's mother. Influenced by generations of activists, Hale herself, later, would lobby on behalf of woman suffrage, participating in 1913 in the founding of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CUWS). Finally, one of Hale's first cousins was Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), best known for her pivotal feminist novel, The Yellow Wallpaper (1891). This remarkable network of strong and activist women likely informed Hale's sense of self and courage around the way in which she portrayed herself. Hale began painting her self-portrait sometime in 1884, working on it both at her family's home in Roxbury, and at their summer house in Matunuck, Rhode Island. Writing to her mother from Matunuck in September 1884 about her progress on the canvas, she observed: "Phil [her brother, the artist Philip Leslie Hale] likes my picture very much; it is certainly original, but queer enough and frightfully difficult business."  She concluded with her plans for a brief visit home and an apology for staying away so long: "If nothing happens to prevent, or if I am not very much needed at home, I shall come back to finish my picture.... I feel very mean to stay away so long but I can't bear to leave such a piece of work undone.  Hale felt compelled to the complete the painting, but staying away for so long to work on it seemed to her a selfish thing to do. Hale's description of the canvas as "original," "queer," and "frightfully difficult business" suggests that she was weighing tough decisions around her self-representation and that she was aware of its eccentric and radical nature. A photograph of Hale dated circa 1884 (Fig. 2), likely taken for the purpose of creating the self-portrait, provides insight into some of the choices Hale made in translating her features onto the canvas. The photograph shows Hale seated demurely with hands folded in a studio space. The blanket-draped back wall provided a clean backdrop against which to take the photograph, the same way a portrait might be painted against a blank background to be filled in later. Such a background reinforces the idea that this was a photograph from which to make a study, not a photograph taken for commemoration or display. When compared with the photograph, it is clear that Hale altered some of her features for the self-portrait. In the photograph her bangs are "frizzled," while in the painting her bangs are straightened and carefully arranged with only a slight gap just above the inner corner of her left brow. In the early 1880s, bangs had multiple connotations. On the one hand they were praised as a youthful way for a woman to wear her hair; at the same time, they could connote promiscuity. Bangs were referred to frequently as the "Langtry style" after the British actress Lillie Langtry, who famously wore her hair banged and who was the subject of numerous scandals. As explained in a March 1883 newspaper article entitled "The Girl Who Wears Bangs," the banged girl may "try to be good and true, but it's awfully hard work. When she looks at herself in the glass and sees the quarter of an inch of forehead, she says to herself: 'I am dangerous; they want to look out for me.'" Given that by 1884, the year Hale executed the self-portrait, banging seems to have emerged as an accepted style both in New York and Paris, Hale seems to be making a fashion statement, although she was certainly walking a fine line between fashion and transgression.  Fashion also dictated Hale's choice of costume for the painting. In the photo, she wears a loose Aesthetic style dress, while in the painting she depicts herself theatrically in black. She is holding an ostrich-feather fan, a statement of fashion--particularly Parisienne fashion--reminiscent, for example, of portraits of women by Manet,  with whose work Hale was generally familiar. Hale translated other features from the photograph more directly, for example, her looking directly at the viewer. Her expression in the painting is particularly piercing, as she appears to follow the viewer's movements with her stare. Also, while her hand appears remarkably attenuated in the painting, the apparent distortion is, in fact, a straightforward reiteration from the photograph. Moreover, located almost directly at the center of the canvas and highlighted with bright pigment, the right hand dominates the image, carrying significant compositional weight. The way in which Hale combined these two elements--her gaze and hand--is perhaps the most novel and critical construction in this self-representation, as it was quite uncommon for artists to portray themselves looking directly at the viewer without palette or paintbrushes in hand. In their self-portraits, two of her contemporaries, Marie Bashkirtseff (c. 1883; Fig. 3) and Anna Bilinska (1887; Fig. 4), as examples, show themselves staring directly at the viewer, but their gazes are filtered through their tools. They present themselves as artists observing their subject, not like Hale, as a spectator. When Mary Cassatt, portrayed herself three-quarter length and with empty hands (1878; Fig. 5), she averted her gaze, positioning herself looking away from the viewer, into the distance. It was uncommon as well for male artists to depict themselves looking directly out without the tools of their trade, an exception being Edgar Degas's 1862 self-portrait in which he engages the viewer, with one hand in his pocket and the other holding his hat and gloves. On occasion, men painted each other in this way, such as John Singer Sargent's 1879 portrait of his mentor Carolus-Duran. There is no evidence that Hale saw either of these works before starting her painting, but the comparisons provide insight into the ways in which Hale borrowed strategies typically reserved for the bohemian male artist, the flaneur. As he appeared in Charles Baudelaire's 1859 essay, "Le peintre de la vie moderne,"  the flaneur is never idle, but rather an active observer and participant in city life. A connoisseur of the fineries of Paris, he strolls its streets with a detached gaze, observing while being observed. He is distinctly male, defined by his mobilized gaze, looking as he walks, being observed as he looks. Only women of the demimonde could move freely through the streets like a flaneur, observing while being observed. Hale did not represent herself as a flaneur, but rather adopted aspects of the construction of his persona in order to market a public personality that was novel and nonconformist, or as Hale put it, "original" and "queer." Nor did she paint herself as a flaneuse--the female counterpart of the flaneur--which is a twentieth century theoretical construct that did not exist within Baudelaire's concept. Hale's willingness to create and display such a frank, even daring, assertion of identity marks her approach to the self-portrait as significant. By 1884, Hale was well aware that professionalizing to gain commissions was not only about demonstrating skill and exhibiting broadly, but also about promoting oneself. As art historian Sarah Burns observed about the art market in the gilded age, an "expanding and increasingly specialized artist population ... creat[ed] severely competitive conditions in which great advantage could be won by achieving a high profile as an original, an innovator, a nonconformist." (24) Writes Burns: While the exotic studio was often the site of persuasion    and seduction, the most dynamic form of advertisement    lay in the construction of an intriguing public personality,    a distinctive style, with the power to attract and hold    attention on exhibition walls, in the social world, and on    the pages of newspapers and magazines. The public self,    of which the art product with its recognizable accent of    personal style was an extension, became a commodity. Having exhibited at the Salon in 1883, Hale understood that systems of spectacle and commodification worked in tandem. People came to the Salon not only to examine art sanctioned by the jury, but also to see and be seen by others, thus creating a form of sanctioned seeing. Portraits played a critical role in this exchange. As art historian Lois Fink observed, Portraits at the Salon always attracted crowds of people who    were ever fascinated by canvases representing the powerful    and renowned of the day--officials of state, actors and    actresses, military officers, women with interesting reputations.    Famous subjects, who often turned up to see their images on    view, became Salon attractions in themselves as excited visitors    nudged their companions to gape at Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie    Langtry, or the president of the Republic strolling by. Sanctioned seeing sparked by celebrity at the Salon fostered fame for artists as well. According to Fink, "Salon exhibitions had made celebrities of living artists, and consequently their portraits now attained an unprecedented status."  The celebrated exhibition of Sargent's portrait of Carolus-Duran at the 1879 Salon is an example of the phenomenon. Given the nepotistic system of the Salon, where artists listed their teacher's names alongside their own in the catalogue, painting one's teacher or an artist peer was an effective means of promotion for both artist and sitter. The exhibition of self-portraits at the Salon, however, was relatively untapped ground. While a few artists had exhibited these works there, no American woman had done so.  Such a painting would have functioned as both spectacle and spectator. For Hale, had she shown her self-portrait at the Salon, it would have been an extraordinary attempt to demonstrate to viewers that she could skillfully fashion representations, even her own: the canvas designed as a construction of a powerful and distinctive public self as commodity. After finishing the self-portrait in the fall of 1884, Hale returned from Matunuck to Roxbury, where she remained for the rest of the year, making preparations for her departure for Europe. She arranged to ship the painting to Paris, intending to gain the approval required to exhibit it at the Salon. Hale's letters are full of anxiety about presenting her portrait to her teachers. Soon after arriving in Paris, she wrote to her mother, "It will be horrid of course to shew [sic] my own portrait and consult Julian about sending it to the Salon. More especially as I have bound him by great oaths to tell me if he doesn't think it thoroughly worth sending; but I think I can stand that if he can."  Hale sent other works as well, including a painting of longtime family servant Abel Fullam (1884; Fig. 6), a more traditional canvas of a man seated by a window. The painting ha d received good notices when it was shown at the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association and the Boston Art Club,  and could serve as a backup, should her teachers say no to the self-portrait. Hale had arrived in Paris by early February 1885 and received the shipment soon after:    I must tell you ... how delighted I was ... to see the    commissonaire appearing with my big box on his back    yesterday afternoon; and then how very exciting it was to    unpack it. Everything came in good condition; Gabrielle    was dying to see them last night, but I wouldn't let her see    any but Fullam; and then this morning when my portrait    was nicely arranged in a good light, she came up to see it,    and was delighted with it. She was interested in my other    things, but she liked the portrait best of all and was    anxious to have me send it to the Exhibition. Hale waited anxiously for the opportunity to show the self-portrait to Julian and to Bouguereau, whose approval she needed to exhibit the canvas at the Salon. At this time, Bouguereau was the most famous artist in Paris and was known in Boston as well, having exhibited at the Boston Art Club in 1873. According to Alfred Nettement, the last massier to serve under Bouguereau before his death, he "was given a godlike status and was the object of a veritable cult" in the women's atelier at the Academie Julian.  Hale and the other students were especially delighted with his tutelage, and she wrote home saying: "For now we all of us have a right to inscribe his name after ours in catalogues; and it will really be rather an advantage in America, where he has much more reputation--such as it is--than any of our other professors." Finally, the day arrived, and Hale described Bouguereau's critique of her work: Gabrielle and I waited by the door for ours [our turn] in    a very trembling state I assure you; and at last there was    a cry made of Hale and Clements, and in we went more    dead than alive. On the way we met Julian, who on this    day was in all his glory, showing people in and out, and    facilitating things with all the tact he's master of. What    have you got Miss Hale? said he: a drawing? No    monsieur said I awfully frightened: it's but just come;    ought I to shew [sic] it? Let's see, said he, and made    Marie stick it up in the little paved entry; There are    things that will shock him in it, said he, but I should    shew it; then I gave him my Fullam which he said he    should certainly shew and in we all went. Describing the critique of the painting of Fullam, she wrote:   There was M. Bouguereau as cheerful as possible, sitting    in the chair with another before him, in which the wily    Julian immediately put my little Fullam. Oh, said    Bouguereau: this is a foreign painting; Yes, said I. I did it    in my country. Where is your country? Said he: Norway?    No, America said I. He then criticized parts of it, like the    head and the more evident hand, didn't like the coat-sleeve,    but on the whole seemed to like it pretty well. Bouguereau's criticism of the Fullam painting was mild. It was likely the strong light in the canvas that suggested to Bouguereau that she was Norwegian, as many Scandinavians were producing such works filled with very strong light at this time. Then he looked at the self-portrait. By this time Julian had got my own portrait where he    could see it, and said And then she's got this sketch;    Bouguereau then turned his attention to that and asked    me, among other things, why I had got my fan so big;    said it detracted from my head and that the background    came forward too much; then he attacked my hand, told    me I ought to have made it prettier; But they aren't    pretty, really, said I; They're prettier than that, said he,    suppressed laughter being heard from Gabrielle and    Monsieur Julian; I'll tell you, said he, your hand might    look tired if you held it a long time in that position, but    you must do as fashionable ladies do, hold it up and let    the blood run out of it; and he illustrated the process    with a plump white hand which was very different from    my uncomfortable bony one. He then proceeded to give    me a detailed and very just criticism on my head. And    finally ended with the Voila with which a professor    generally winds up. Ultimately, Bouguereau would not give his imprimatur to the painting, making it impossible for Hale to exhibit the self-portrait at the Salon. When Philip Hale heard of Bouguereau's criticism of his sister, he wrote to their mother, "Nelly's experiences with Monsieur Bouguereau were highly interesting. I can easily imagine that her portrait with the fan should displease him; it's so entirely out of his line." There is no evidence that Hale changed the scale of the fan in relation to the head, although it appears that she heeded Bouguereau's advice with respect to the background, which originally was brown. It is unknown when Hale changed the background, but at some point, she painted over the brown with blue, leaving areas of the brown exposed, looking like medallions in a field of blue with tiny red and blue flowers on top. The date 1885 is written directly on the canvas, thus it is possible that she changed it after hearing from Bouguereau, believing that the blue would recede better than the brown. Bouguereau's most significant criticism pertained to the hand. As an academic who studied with Jacques Louis David's pupil Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Bouguereau's criticism of Hale's hand would have been informed by academic traditions of geste, or gesture. Prior to the late eighteenth century, the French Academy held physiognomy as the primary means by which an artist could represent expression. Toward the end of the century, beginning mainly with David and his followers, gestures, or positioning of the head and hands, began to replace physiognomy as critical signifiers of expression. This tradition grew stronger in the early nineteenth century as treatises on geste became widely available and followed. Handbooks like Paillot de Montabert's 1813 Theories du geste dans l'art de la peinture renfermant plusieurs precepts applicables a l'art du theatre, which was incorporated into his 1829 Traite complet de la peinture, offered parameters for correct gestural attitudes. By the late nineteenth century, although such rigid prescriptions became less widely followed, traditional academics still observed pantomimic gesture as a basic of artistic training. Seemingly haphazard positioning of a sitter's head or hands evidenced more than a lack of training, however. It also demonstrated a lack of understanding of the ways in which such gestures indicated social positioning. According to Bouguereau, Hale's depiction of her hand as masculinized and dangling was a distortion that could (and should) be corrected. Rather, she should make the hand "prettier" by doing "as fashionable ladies do, hold it up and let the blood run out of it." Then, "Voila," with a pretty, fashionable, and lifeless hand, she would be positioned correctly, having effectively drained not only the blood from her hand, but also the agency from her artistry. A month after Bouguereau's criticism, Hale reported to her mother that she had been asked by Julian to practice drawing the female hand and wrist "from the plaster," a method of study through which students learned how to render parts of the body as sanctioned by the Academy. She elaborated, however, that Julian had made this request "with apparent diffidence" and that it "has been the occasion of endless jeering from Gabrielle and Miss Trotter ever since." And while it seems that Hale changed the background of the canvas in response to Bouguereau's criticisms, it does not appear that she changed the positioning of the hand in any significant way. Analytical study of the painting through X-radiology shows no significant pentimenti as evidence that Hale shifted the original position of the hand. Thus, while she was kept from exhibiting the work at the Salon by Bouguereau, she was not persuaded by his criticism to deviate from her original intention. Again, negotiating the line between fashion and transgression, Hale portrayed herself garbed elaborately and fashionably, but painted the hand her way--without regard for idealized, academic notions of beauty. When Hale exhibited the self-portrait in Boston, perhaps for the first time, in 1887, a Boston reviewer described the painting as "refreshingly unconventional and lifelike," writing that Hale "displays a man's strength in the treatment and handling of her subjects--a massiveness and breadth of effect attained through sound training and native wit and courage."  The critical reception of the work acknowledged the uniqueness of the canvas, framing Hale's artistry as strong and as distinctly American, a far cry from the reproach she had received about the canvas only two years earlier. In her own country, where the Academy held less sway over taste, the canvas was seen for what it really was: a bold and courageous twist on self-representation. Presenting a new chapter in the history of self-portraiture, Hale's early adoption of aspects of the construct of the flaneur demonstrates an ambitious and informed approach to self-representation. She was aware that what she was doing was radical. Thus she safeguarded herself by shipping not only the self-portrait, but also "my Fullam" to Paris, a strategy that provided her an alternative Salon entry. While Hale may have altered the background of her self-portrait, she did not change its key features in any significant way, despite the advice of her teachers. Nevertheless, their criticisms likely affected the course of her career. Hale's experience demonstrates the difficulty for artists--male and female alike--obliged to participate in, and adhere to, institutions unwilling to accommodate aesthetic and conceptual shifts. Hale did not realize her ambition for her self-portrait, as articulated in her letters. Its execution, exhibition, and critical reception--both by her teachers and her American critics--however, contribute in significant ways to a better understanding of women's self-representation in the gilded age, the history of the professionalization of women, and the broader history of gendered frameworks of self-representation.




Exoticism and androgyny in Paul Gauguin

by Doug King | post a comment

General feelings of disillusionment and discontent with a "normal life" during the nineteenth century were reflected in Romantic literature, where the androgyne emerged as a theme. Scholars often point out that Gauguin knew Honore de Balzac's novel Seraphita, whose central character was an androgyne.  Eisenman has shown that Gauguin's semi-autobiographical publication Noa Noa (1893-1897) even paraphrases lines from Seraphita, calling attention to the novel's importance in the artist's formulation of the androgyne subject. Theophile Gautier's novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835-1836) also popularized the literary theme of the androgyne. Mademoiselle de Maupin revolves around the theme of beauty and the interplay between art and sexuality that is reflected in the image of the hermaphrodite. The main character, Chevalier d'AIbert, simultaneously plays the dual role of narrator and subject, desiring only a "harmonious completion" to fulfill his yearning for the experience of "other"--that is, to visualize himself as a woman. Gauguin, who would have been interested in the hermaphrodite and the fusion of self and other, was familiar with Gautier's writings, and probably knew this novel. When Gauguin arrived in Tahiti in 1891, his preconceived dreams of an unspoiled paradise were dissolved after he encountered Christianized natives who spoke French and dressed in Western clothing. Therefore, the artist imaginatively reconstructed the colorful Polynesian paradise that idealized Tahitian postcards had led him to believe really existed. The cultural context of island life summarized by Eisenman sheds new light upon Gauguin's Tahitian work, since he explains how hybrid, "third-sex" figures called inverti existed within society. This unique environment doubtlessly inspired Gauguin, who displayed a new preference for androgynous-looking subjects in Gauguin's paintings. However, the artist also painted several male images (although not nude) that appear less than masculine, and have been labeled androgynous by scholars. David Sweetman cites Man with an Axe (1891, Private Collection) and Matamoe (1892, Pushkin State Museum) as examples that possibly relate to the artist's homoerotic encounter described in Noa Noa. Patricia Mathews believes that Man with an Axe contains a seductive allure not found in Gauguin's painted images of women. Instead of creating pessimistic imagery to reflect his dissatisfaction with French society, Gauguin arguably recycled the once-decadent androgyne to signify a new ideal, a personal utopia. This symbol would represent for the artist a harmonious world, since it depicted both sexes perfectly fused together. For Gauguin, this revival of an optimistic image of the androgyne exemplified the peaceful existence that he had hoped to find in Tahiti. Busst generalizes that the androgyne imagery which predominated at the fin-de-siecle was pessimistic and negative. Yet Gauguin's androgynes seemingly represented the opposite. However, Busst's view that one's dissatisfaction with reality could encourage the creation of non-conventional androgynous subjects might be applied to this analysis of Gauguin. In November 1892, shortly after his arrival in Tahiti, Gauguin wrote to his estranged wife Mette, "You do not seem to have any confidence in the future; but I do have confidence because I will myself to have it. Were it not for that, I would long ago have blown my brains out. To have hope is almost as important as to live ... I can only do that by fostering my illusions, making myself live in a dream of hope." These words reveal Gauguin's positive state of mind during the timeframe when he painted Where Are You Going? (Figure 1) and Woman with Mango (Figure 2). Arguably, the androgynous subjects in these works visually reflect the constructed illusions of which the artist spoke, and personify the dream of hope using the Symbolist manner of suggestion. Although Gauguin might have been dissatisfied with his situation, through his creations of androgynous images he could successfully fulfill his utopian dreams. These two paintings are infrequently discussed with respect to Gauguin's vision of an ideal Tahitian world. Where Are You Going? and Woman with Mango were completed within one year of each other, and are almost identical in size. When read together as pendant images, they symbolize a precisely constructed statement using androgynous figures to personify an idyllic state of truth. When viewed alone, this insight is lost and the sexual identity of each figure remains ambiguous. The composition of each work is strikingly similar, and the central figure is drawn in the same scale. In each painting, the androgyne stands in three-quarter view slightly off-center, cropped off at the thighs. Visible in the middle distance in the left half of each work are two seated female figures in front of a thatch-roofed house. In Woman with Mango, another female figure holds a child in the distance to the right. Both paintings contain repoussoir images of exotic foliage that enhance the upper portion of the composition and carefully frame each respective androgynous figure. Only the subject in Where Are You Going? carries a small animal. Both figures wear a red skirt or pareu that conceals the lower body. Gauguin probably chose the native pareu for his subjects' costumes because he believed it authenticated his depiction of island life, this in spite of the fact that, by the time of the artist's arrival in Tahiti, this mode of dress was discouraged and had been practically abolished by missionaries who had convinced the Tahitians of the virtue of modesty. Even prostitutes resisted being photographed wearing only the revealing pareu. Therefore, this colorful attire seems only to have been a nostalgic construct included by Gauguin for aesthetic and symbolic reasons. In Where Are You Going? the central figure clearly possesses the body of a woman. However, the carefully modeled breasts contradict the distinctly male face, which boasts severe features that include a pronounced forehead, squared jaw, wide nose, and large ear. The broad shoulders, thick arms, and large hands may exemplify Gauguin's new style of Primitivism, but when combined with a torso that biologically appears female, this causes the viewer to question the Tahitian subject's sexuality. Conversely, the figure in Woman with Mango plainly has a woman's face. The head is proportionately smaller and not as wide as that of the figure in Where Are You Going? and the nose and ear are not as large. This character's gaze is directed towards the viewer, unlike the aforementioned subject who stares aloofly to the left. Since Gauguin was frequently known to use parody in his work, the shape and position of the fruit held by this subject may be a visual pun on a woman's curvaceous breast. But, the sexual identity of the figure remains uncertain. The slim hips, flat chest, and protruding belly--visible above a drooping pareu--all suggest a male rather than a female body. The archetypal mother and child barely visible in the distance were perhaps relegated to the background to underscore the diminishing importance of traditional Western imagery. To further highlight this ambiguity, Gauguin titled this painting simply "Go!"--written onto the work in Tahitian. The generic title Woman with Mango, which today identifies the painting, was added later. The fact that the original titles of these works relate--respectively containing the action word "Go" or "Going"--links these two paintings together, as do their similar compositions and androgynous figures. Both, Where are you Going? and Woman with Mango, appear far-removed from the erotic nudes favored by the French Academy. For Gauguin, the simplified figures symbolized serenity and the carefree attitude of island life, offering little erotic charge. Following Eisenman's methodology, these works represent Gauguin's response to the loosening of boundaries between the sexes that was imbedded in Tahitian life. The flatly painted images on the canvas do not imitate their actual appearance, but instead suggest the relaxed atmosphere that appealed to Gauguin. Consequently, eroticism has been subverted, and replaced with new fantasies and changing views towards sexuality and gender. Simultaneously, the central figures in both works are male and female, primitive and cultivated, strong and vulnerable, innocent yet knowing. Considered in this light, these androgynous figures personify a visual reconciliation of opposites. Thus, Symbolism has become the ideal mode for Gauguin to transform the androgyne into a positive symbol of a consonant existence that, for the artist, resonates with hope. As previously quoted, Gauguin revealed that "... to have hope is almost as important as to live ..." This concept was apparently of the utmost importance for the artist, who combined sex and gender into a single image to symbolize the hope that he experienced himself. Viewed together, these two paintings represent Gauguin's early experimentation with the image of the androgyne. Since each work displays a nearly identical composition and subject with slightly altered physiological features, this may signify that Gauguin was working out a problem of representation in his search for a purified ideal. Jehanne Teilhet-Fisk believes that Gauguin used the androgyne to transcend the physical image and lift his work into a spiritual realm. This idea is reflected in a letter of 1888 to Madeleine Bernard, written shortly after the artist had abandoned his family in search of a simpler life in Brittany. He wrote, "First of all you must regard yourself as Androgyne, without sex. By that I mean that heart and soul, in short all that is divine, must not be the slave of matter, that is of the body." Gauguin's words betray an interest in the androgyne before his first Tahitian journey, and suggest his concern for a higher spirituality, divorcing him from the circle of decadent writers who were infatuated mainly by the androgyne's erotic implications. This supports the theory that Gauguin utilized the androgyne to achieve an accordant, harmonious ideal in his art--a highly subjective, but timeless notion realized through a visual solution of opposites and a purity of form. Several scholars have noted a relationship between Gauguin's Oviri ceramic of 1894 (Paris, Musee d'Orsay) and a drawing (now in the Louvre) that refers to Balzac's androgyne-themed novel Seraphita. The drawing contains an image that resembles the Oviri figure, and also a curious inscription that mentions Balzac's androgyne Seraphitus Seraphita. For Landy, the androgynous inference may not correspond to the image itself, but to the offspring created by the creature. This idea of fertility and rebirth is paramount for Landy, who, in discussing the iconographically similar Oviri ceramic, concludes that the image symbolizes death and birth. An excerpt from Noa Noa and the Seraphitus Seraphita notation confirm Gauguin's intentions to abandon civilization in favor of the creation of the savage. Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski also believes the Louvre drawing to be related to the Oviri ceramic, and likewise, connects its meaning to the image of creation. Most significant to this analysis, however, is Freches-Thory's observation that Oviri is the same image as the figure in Where Are You Going? If so, the inscription referencing Balzac's androgyne Seraphita would also relate to the two paintings under discussion. Even though the figures visually resemble each other, Freches-Thory strangely does not connect the androgynous status of Seraphita to the sexuality of either the central figure in Where Are You Going? or Oviri, and does not question that they are anything other than female figures. It would seem reasonable to recognize that the Louvre drawing, Oviri, Where Are You Going? and Woman with Mango are all bound up under the same umbrella of androgyne imagery. In 1896, the writer and critic Charles Morice described Ovid as the huntress Diana who personified a state of nature. Interestingly, the mythological personality of Diana was recognized as a female goddess who displayed masculine characteristics, like the female amazon warriors. In his journal Gauguin recorded the importance of the human face and how it relates to his conception of harmony. He wrote that the artist "... will succeed in keeping the whole harmonious ... The basis is the human body or the face, especially the face."  A letter from Vincent van Gogh also reveals this concept by referring to art as "... harmony parallel with nature." This idea borrows from the harmony of music, and shares its abstract quality. Thus, Gauguin's concern with harmony manifested itself through his decision to co-mingle both genders into a single figure. His personal conception of the androgyne emerges in this manner in Where Are You Going? and Woman with Mango. Gauguin's preoccupation with harmony most likely began in France with the Symbolists who admired Wagner's synthesis of music, literature, and the arts. The Baudelairean notion that form, line, and color interacted by complementing one another was well known to artists within Gauguin's circle. The poem Correspondences from 1852 influenced avant-garde artists who transformed Baudelaire's Symbolist rhetoric of sensory experience into visual form. Gauguin's words reveal the influence of Baudelaire's ideas. For example, in 1901, he wrote: "My Brittany pictures are now rose water because of Tahiti; Tahiti will become eau de Cologne because of the Marquesas." Drawing from his imagination as well as from observation, Gauguin synthesized these ideals into harmonious Symbolist illustrations. Throughout his journal he repeatedly mentioned the concept of harmony. When discussing a fictitious artist, Gauguin wrote that one should "Seek for harmony and not contrast, for what accords, not for what clashes."  Thus, Gauguin viewed the androgyne as a composite image that expressed this personal ideal. It is important to note that Gauguin created Where Are You Going? and Woman with Mango before his suicide attempt in December 1897. This fact may be relevant, since Gauguin's view of the world apparently deteriorated by the time of this desperate act. However, earlier depictions of the androgyne that were painted shortly after Gauguin's initial arrival in Tahiti display a brighter theme. The artist's total immersion into the relaxed culture of the islands, as investigated by Eisenman, was consequently translated into his art: Gauguin embraced the lifestyle and, significantly, the mode of dress of the natives. The identity of the savage appealed to Gauguin, who often referred to himself in this way. One could reasonably argue that Gauguin also thought of himself as an androgyne, since, as we have observed through his own words, he declared himself a woman--if we are to believe him. The androgyne, as we have seen, was not a decadent symbol for Gauguin, but rather an optimistic personification of the theme of harmony. This symbol--as evidenced within Where Are You Going? and Woman with Mango--appropriately conveyed the idea of harmony since it literally represented the perfect fusion of the sexes. The imagery also offered an alternative to the European ideal of beauty. In this respect, the appearance of the androgyne within Gauguin's oeuvre reflects his idyllic vision of the paradise in the South Seas and represents a universal truth for the artist.





News archive


Live Chat by comm100