American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880

For the second show running Tate Britain is offering us 19th-century images of stirring, much fantasised-over subjects, executed in a fashion so meticulous and glossy as to look in some cases positively slimy. But American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880 is a much more worthwhile exhibition than its slightly sleazy predecessor, The Victorian Nude.

For one thing, it is virtually the first opportunity for the British public to contemplate a key phase in the development of the transatlantic aesthetic. For another, in amongst a great deal of knock-’em-dead painterly razzmatazz, it contains some quietly impressive pictures.

American Sublime documents what happened to Romantic landscape painting when it reached the New World

In some respects, it was simply a continuation of the idiom that had evolved in Britain and Northern Europe in the work of Turner and his contemporaries — which is why the show fits in Tate Britain — and also that of Caspar David Friedrich and the Romantics of Germany and Denmark.

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But nothing crosses the Atlantic without being somehow altered as a result. And Romantic landscape painting, on American soil, took on American qualities. There was a tendency among English painters such as John Martin and James Ward towards an epic scale.

In America, a vast new continent, empty except for its native inhabitants, you could scarcely escape landscape of sublime grandeur — whether at Niagara Falls, the Catskill Mountains or the Grand Canyon. And gigantic pictures became almost the norm, certainly in the work of Church and Bierstadt, the greatest crowd-pleasers of the American School. A monster such as the latter’s `Storm in the Rockies’ at 12 and a half feet by almost seven covers the area of a fair-sized room, or — more to the point — a cinema screen.

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A picture of Catskill Mountains

These paintings were shown like theatrical attractions. In the exhibition Church’s picture, `The Icebergs’ (1861), is shown in a room of its own, framed in its own velvet curtain as if on stage. Church’s earlier `Heart of the Andes’ — not in the exhibition — was seen in New York by 12,000 people each paying 25 cents a ticket. They examined the work bit by bit through opera glasses and specially designed tubes so as to transform the experience of a static painting into something more like a documentary film.

Looking at the paintings of Church and Bierstadt, one is tempted to go further, and speculate that if they had been able to employ Technicolor and Kinescope, instead of oil paint and brushes, they would have rushed to do so. Their works, like many paintings popular in the 19th century, go to elaborate lengths to disguise all evidence of how they were made. Not a brushstroke disturbs the glassy surface of, for example, Church’s `Twilight in the Wilderness’. This is just the kind of meticulously `photographic’ effect that a diminishing section of the public admires for its remarkable skill; while a different body of opinion points to it as evidence that painting has been rendered obsolete by photography. (Tellingly, these pictures look better in reproduction than in the original.)

There’s not much question that Church and Bierstadt were extremely vulgar artists

  • The near fluorescent sunsets of Church’s `Twilight in the Wilderness’ and `Mount Ktaadn’ were exactly the kind of thing that Whistler and Wilde had in mind when they contended that nature was often in dubious taste. And the American’s remorseless choice of what called the `distinguished view’ — distant mountain peaks, splendid lakes, mighty virgin forests — was exactly what the impeccably tasteful Constable strove to avoid.
  • The master of Flatford Mill referred to a certain prospect in Sussex as `perhaps the most grand and affecting natural landscape in the world — and consequently a scene the most unfit for a picture’. He believed that `it is the business of a painter not to contend with nature, and to put this scene [a valley 50 miles long] on a canvas of a few inches, but to make something out of nothing, in attempting which he must of necessity become poetical’. By those standards, Church and Bierstadt were brash indeed (although it could be said in their defence that their canvases were much more than a few inches across).
  • But there are worse things than brashness. And Church and Bierstadt are impressive in their way. What’s more, they teach us something about the American sensibility, both through their pursuit of sheer massiveness, and in their perennial love of light. These pictures are flooded with it — sunsets, luminous skies, rainbows, those sudden eruptions of sun through cloud that suggest divine manifestation to even the most agnostic of us.
  • Those qualities recur in American art — in the huge abstractions of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, and also in the work of artists such as Dan Flavin and James Turrell who use light itself as a medium. In fact, if you set aside the nasty, flashy way it is painted, Bierstadt’s mighty `Storm in the Rockies’ has something of the physical impact of a Pollock or a Newman.

There were, in any case, American painters who came much closer to proceeding as Constable suggested. Bundled together retrospectively as the `Luminists’ they painted quiet almost nondescript corners, often of the New England Coast — most typically in John Frederick Kensett’s `Eaton’s Neck, Long Island’, and Martin Johnson Heade’s `Approaching Thunderstorm’. These are charged with a poetic light-filled loneliness that reminds us of a very different current in the American psyche (which notably resurfaced in Edward Hopper’s work).

Just in terms of art, not hoopla, acreage and thrill-factor, the paintings of these two, and to a lesser extent, Fitz Lane Hugh, are the best things in the show. But it’s all worth looking at, and likely to be unfamiliar to anyone who hasn’t made a thorough tour of American galleries — and a sign that Tate Britain is not going to, be Tate Little England.

As an exercise in compare and contrast, this is absolutely suitable for the Tate — though strictly speaking, it probably ought to be in the National Gallery, whose official remit covers foreign painting before 1900. So this show is an indication that Tate Britain has imperial ambitions beyond the notional borders of its collection — but what could be more British than that?

Read more article : Robert Rauschenberg: between painting and sculpture or Baroque Painting in Genoa (National Gallery, till 16 June)

Robert Rauschenberg: between painting and sculpture

He once said, “I consider the world as one gigantic painting.” What did the iconic 20th Century artist Robert Rauschenberg mean by his statement? To me, it signifies that anything goes: the beautiful as well as the ordinary, the great paintings of the Renaissance as well as the detritus of the everyday world.

Rauschenberg (1923-2008) created his canvases and the ingenious exploration at the cusp of painting and sculpture which he called “combines.” Combines consisted of screen-prints and elements as diverse as photographs, glass chards, car tires and alarm clocks. Rauschenberg even did a combine using a taxidermist’s stuffed angora goat and in another, the covers and sheets of his very own bed. No wonder his contemporary painter and close friend Jasper Johns described him as “the man who in this century invented the most since Picasso.”

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 Robert Rauschenberg

Rauschenberg was born into a hard-scrapple family in the oil town of Port Arthur, Texas

“The sour smell of gas was always in the air,” he recollected. His father was proud of his mixed Cherokee and German ancestry. His mother was Anglo-Saxon. The family slated their son, Milton Ernst (he later changed his name to Robert) for a career as a pharmacist. In fact, he attended pharmacy school at the University of Texas but was expelled for refusing to dissect a frog.

  • The young Rauschenberg recognized his own strong artistic bent and realized that what he really wanted in life was to be an artist. Among the first schools he attended was the Kansas City Art Institute. But like so many American artists his eyes were firmly fixed on that 20th century Mecca of art, Paris.
  • In 1947 he left for the famed French Academie Julian, a bastion of art studies. Founded in 1860, this academy had been very influential in helping to develop talents like French artists Pierre Bonnard and Edward Vuillard as well as Americans artists, including the landscape painter John Henry Twachtman, the photographer and print maker Edward Steichen and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz.
  • But he was thoroughly disappointed in the academy’s offerings. The time to be there, he felt, had passed. Students spent too much time discussing Freud and Jung. “That’s not for me,” he said. Soon he and a young American student, Susan Weil who would later become his wife, skipped classes and moved around Paris on sketching expeditions trying to find their own voice.
  • His journey next took Rauschenberg to the experimental art and literature school, Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Here he tried to fit into a setting dominated by the German exile Josef Albers. A strict disciplinarian, Albers did not tolerate deviation of any kind. Rauschenberg, always a libertarian could not “cotton to this.” He acquired a reputation for not being serious. For instance he dyed his underwear purple and avoided work duty. By far the most important result of the stay at Black Mountain College was his meeting with the avant-garde composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. They became good friends. Later on Rauschenberg would be designing scenery for their ballets which in turn greatly expanded his horizon and created the visibility he wanted.

Next Rauschenberg’s odyssey took him to New York’s famed Art Students League where he met another nonconforming student, Cy Twombly. A modest fellowship brought the two friends to Rome. Italy fascinated him and the two traveled all over “on a shoe string.”

When their money ran out Rauschenberg went to Casablanca where he heard there were jobs in construction. In his spare hours there, he began experimenting with miniature sculptures whose components included nails, chards of various kinds, fabrics and other bric-a-brac.

Upon his return to New York he readied recent paintings for a possible show

They consisted mostly of a series of black paintings, and others simply in white. The show baffled New York critics: “I think there is less here than meets the eye,” and “A white canvas conceived as art is beyond the artistic pale,” were some comments.

Rauschenberg was unconcerned by the critique and persisted in his never ending search for the realization of his inner drives. “Painting relates to art and life. Neither can be made. I try acting in the gap between the two,” he said.

Many times Rauschenberg filled this gap. One of these instances was the 1955 combine painting “Bed”. It is displayed on the fourth floor of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. There is no attempt to hide the fact that what is displayed is indeed the artist’s bed, a comforter stripped as is and painted oil and graphite on fabric. In the history of hangings as displayed in museums “Bed” furnishes another dimension. We can feel the presence of the artist in a happy communicating mood.

The best known of Rauschenberg’s combines is undoubtedly “Monogram” an oil and collage featuring the famous stuffed angora goat encased within a car tire resting on a painted platform-ed canvas. Other components include part of a shoe and a tennis ball.

Critics and viewers have tried to decipher the meaning of this combination, advancing a variety of interpretations. Does it in some way relate to Rauschenberg’s childhood? According to some, Rauschenberg had a pet goat as a child that his father caused to be killed. Others indicate that a horned goat is representative of the life force and aggression. His fellow artist, Roy Lichtenstein saw “Monogram” as marking the end of the Abstract Expressionist era and the start of Pop Art.

Rauschenberg began making prints in the early 1960’s. He worked extensively with Universal Limited Art Editions in the New York area. The transference of his skills, his imagination and his creative vitality was almost instantly conferred onto the printing press. His excitement can be perceived instantly when you look at his prints. Years later he worked with Gemini in Los Angeles where he developed into a unique creator of silk screen prints many of them of enormous size, all emblematic of his astounding creativity and insight.

I met him in 1990. He was signing his biography written by Mary Lynn Kotz, a brilliant analysis of both his life and work. He was warm and friendly, completely people oriented and dressed in his proverbial white shoes and white slacks. He talked to me about his father with nostalgia and love as well as his early days in Texas.

But he felt most at home in his Florida retreat at Captiva Island where he and a group of assistants set up printing presses and established a formidable creative outlet.

In keeping with his pronouncement of “considering the world as one gigantic painting” Rauschenberg established “The Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange” or R.O.C.I. (Rocky) in the early 1980’s. This endeavor took him to dozens of countries in each of which he produced his trademark art at local paper mills, and at these sites in Japan, Mexico, China, Tibet, Chile, Sri Lanka, and others, thousands of eager visitors came to see his creations. The goodwill he created for the United States will long be remembered.

When he passed away in 2008 the once penniless artist left his fortune to the woman he had married but divorced so long ago, and to his son and his loyal assistants. His canvases, screen prints, collages and combines are in all the major museums of the world where they will no doubt live on beyond our time.

Fred Stern is a poet and writer on the arts. His poetry collection ‘Corridors of Light’ is available from Booklink.com and on the web. He has written more than 40 articles on various aspects of the arts for The World & I Online since 2004.

Read other aritcle : Baroque Painting in Genoa (National Gallery, till 16 June) and Hallelujah painting: Willem de Kooning

Hallelujah painting: Willem de Kooning (Part 2)

“Woman I” from the Museum of Modem Art in New York, on which de Kooning worked from 1950 to 1952, is recognized as the breakthrough in the new series. He went on to press his insights and present the female figure “as a landscape” (in 1954-55) or as what? – an explosion, perhaps, in “Woman VI” (1953). These figures at once ferocious and erotic, lavishly hued, are as seductive as they are forbidding.

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Figure 4. Inside of Museum of Modern Art

Picasso had long since deconstructed the female face and figure

De Kooning reassembles the parts into a menacing, promising whole of confrontation, with each figure crowding the canvas and demanding our intimidated attention. From the beginning they were attacked for their supposed misogyny, as they surely will be now. (“That ferocious woman he painted didn’t come from living with me,” said his wife Elaine. “It began when he was three years old.”) But there is humor and great ambiguity in the works as well. De Kooning cut mouths out of magazine advertisements and pasted them playfully onto his canvases. He confessed that in fact “many of my paintings of women have been self-portraits.” Somehow the results continue to command, testifying to the female form and presence as the primal fact of de Kooning’s life, the theme, along with landscape, worthiest of his creative energy.

Other, brilliantly hued, almost entirely abstract compositions from the mid-50’s, such as “Composition,” “Gotham News” or “Belize Gazette,” seem almost a welcome relief when presented in the same gallery with de Kooning’s women. With their broad, free brush strokes and great swaths of contrasting color, their remarkable energy and balance, these paintings in many ways represent the apogee of Abstract Expressionism. They carry forward the achievement of the Art Institute of Chicago’s great “Excavation,” also in the show, which in 1950 had been de Kooning’s largest canvas to date.

On a creamy ivory base, incised with black enamel swirls and intimated human forms, flashed with violet, ruby and jade, cerulean blue and gold, and centered on what keeps insisting it may be an evocation of the American flag, “Excavation” takes one deep – going deeper – into things, whether in the earth or the mind or the story. An all-over painting a la Jackson Pollock, it is nevertheless clearly centered. Stripped of all literal reference and fully dependent on emotive expression, it is nevertheless a highly deliberate, intellectual achievement. In it we see most clearly the creative tension that persists throughout de Kooning’s career – thematically between figure and abstraction, stylistically between intellection and emotion, coloristically between the joy of the rainbow and the drama of black. (Marla Prather tells us, remarkably, that the artist got the idea for the painting after seeing the Italian neorealist film “Bitter Rice.”)

After the strident circus colors of the “abstract urban landscapes” of the mid-1950’s, as de Kooning once called them, he turned in the late 1950’s to outdoor scenes and seasons. He reduced his pictorial vocabulary but, with broad swaths of brown or blue laid on by house painter’s brushes, could suggest the architecture of a suburb in Havana or evoke a souvenir of Toulouse. Driving from the city to Long Island, he records the blinding golden light. The icy blue and dirty gray of “February” (1957) is lightened by a distant rose, while “September Morn” (1959) has all the feel of someone standing on the beach at dawn. “Ruth’s Zowie” (1957) summarizes this period with its heightened scale, jubilant tone and an elemental articulation that recalls the black and white abstractions of Franz Kline, whom de Kooning considered his closest friend. Indeed, one of the most thrilling moments in this exhibition is the opportunity to stand at the doorway between the paintings of the mid- and late 50’s, looking back to the city behind and forward to the countryside ahead.

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Willem de Kooning in his studio

At the midpoint of his career, and with pivotal consequences for his art, de Kooning moved in 1963 from New York City to Springs, near Easthampton, Long Island. There, with special support from Joseph Hirshhorn, he designed his own studio and began to recreate himself in the surrounding atmosphere of light and water. The gestural style for which he had become famous took on a new fluidity and ease. Often mixing safflower oil into his oils to thin them, he seemed almost to be painting under water. With pearly, translucent colors, he began another series of women in the mid- and late 60’s. These range from “Clam Diggers” of 1963, one of the smallest oils on view, through “Woman, Sag Harbor” (1964) to “Woman with a Hat” (1966) and “Woman in a Landscape III” (1968). “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented,” he had once said, and now Rubenesque flesh tones are everywhere. For de Kooning, who had been dismayed by the public reaction to his 1950’s series, these were meant to be pastoral paintings, but it is hard not to find them cloying, despite their evident humor. (Before the celebrated “Clam Diggers” one even thinks of Gibson girls.)

In general, it has to be said that this period was a low point for,the artist

He loved his new home and studio and told Harold Rosenberg, “It would be very hard for me now to paint any other place but here.” But his reputation had for some years been in decline. Robert Rauschenberg had rubbed out one of his drawings, and Roy Lichtenstein had openly parodied his gestural style. As Pop and Op and minimal art won the day, the old master was widely disparaged. And indeed the paintings from the early 70’s such as “Pastorale” or “Flowers, Mary’s Table” today seem merely decorative or even self-indulgent. It was as though the Long Island light and landscape, reminiscent of his homeland, had in fact spoiled de Kooning.

  • In 1968 he returned to Holland for the first time to attend a major retrospective of his work in Amsterdam. Received there as a long-lost native son, he was less well treated by critics in London and New York. But he continued to chart his own course and, encouraged by Henry Moore to develop his new interest in clay sculpture, by 1971 he was making life-size sculpture, an interest he pursued for several years thereafter.
  • Returning to painting in 1975, de Kooning developed an entirely new style that is perhaps the greatest revelation of this exhibition. His paint, while still fluid, regains some of its opacity. Forms, though turbulently juxtaposed, regain solidity. Color ranges more widely and is often thrillingly contrasted – pink and orange and flamingo juxtaposed, blue and violet washed with green, aquamarine and indigo side by side with black. Discernible forms are rare, though there is clearly a small blue sailboat near the center of “North Atlantic Light” (1977).

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 North Atlantic Light

  • In the exhibition’s lavishly illustrated catalogue, Ms. Prather calls these paintings “monumental abstract landscapes,” and with good reason. One senses sea and sky, or a high blue horizon or luxuriant fauna by the water’s edge. But the larger feeling is that of fecund and verdant nature, at times a menace and at other times a joy. It is at all times a world refined rather than invented, with a striking contrast between the urban abstractions of the late 50’s and these natural abstractions (as I would prefer to call them).
  • Then, in the exhibition’s final gallery, comes the lyrical, elegiac coda. As if aware of his impending decline (de Kooning has since succumbed entirely to Alzheimer’s disease), the artist strips his canvas, covers it with a white ground, and then lays on spare, beautiful ribbons of color in undulating forms which dance and sing to the eye’s delight. The heavy impasto of the previous decade’s paintings is gone, the whipping line and rounded forms of the 1940’s return, and a masterful career of almost 50 years concludes delectably. “He’s really come full circle,” a young friend commented to me about these last paintings from 1983 to 1986.

It is sad that so distinguished an artist cannot appreciate the tribute now paid him. This exhibition puts to rest the notion that his career collapsed in the 60’s or the 70’s or the 80’s. There is rather a remarkable pattern of ebb and flow in his work, as several critics have pointed out, a gathering of ideas and concentration followed by release and expansion toward a new beginning. As Neo-expressionism has given way to Neogeo and other contemporary trends, de Kooning’s distaste for Pop and Op art has also become less objectionable to critics and the public alike. We have new reason to value his thoughtful breadth and stylistic invention. Like the great European masters of the first half of the century, Picasso and Braque and Matisse, he never felt he could sever his art entirely from representative form. (When the critic Clement Greenberg dogmatically assured him that it was impossible to paint the human face any more in 1949, de Kooning shrewdly answered, “That’s right, and it’s impossible not to.”) Like the major painters who appeared in Europe after the war, Bacon and Giacometti and Dubuffet, he drew in a new way on anxiety and humor as resources.

Unlike all these other figures, however, and consistent with his abstract expressionist contemporaries, he loved above all the feeling of paint and the feelings paint could convey. He was an existentialist without the degree, experimental and self-doubting, “a slipping glimpser,” as he once said. But he was also a humanist, who valued the great painting of the past far more than that of the present. And if his work is now contributing to a revival of interest in abstract painting, it is in good measure because his work so generously demonstrates that all painting, indeed all art, involves abstraction. “Other painters call themselves abstract expressionists,” he said in 1952. “Me, I want hallelujah painting.”

A full retrospective of the achievement would have to include his prints, drawings and sculpture as well. But anyone who loves painting will be lastingly grateful to Ms. Prather, David Sylvester, the critic, and Nicholas Serota of the Tate Gallery in London for their dedication and skill in mounting the exhibition. And anyone who has been fascinated by de Kooning for years may now embark on the whole journey with him. “Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean you’re doing it better,” he said in 1983. “But you can’t stop either, or you’ll be lost. So you’ll go ahead, even though you don’t know where you’re going, because you never know. You just know how to leave from where you’ve been.”

Enjoy reading more articles : American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880 and Robert Rauschenberg: between painting and sculpture

Hallelujah painting: Willem de Kooning

Though scarcely accorded the highest rank in the pantheon of art, America has nevertheless had its share of artistic accomplishment and recognition

The expatriate Pennsylvanian Benjamin West succeeded Joshua Reynolds as the second president of the prestigious Royal Academy in London, and John Singleton Copley was admired as much in England as in its colonies. John Wilmerding’s “American Light” exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in 1981 showed that the so-called American luminists, following the earlier example of Thomas Cole and inspired by their nation’s land and its light, created some of the most memorable canvases of the mid-19th century anywhere. In the 1880’s and 90’s, Albert Pinkham Ryder’s mystic pantheism and George Inness’ evocative landscapes rightly claimed an international renown. Both the public at large and critics alike have accorded Winslow Homer a high place in the history of art, while Thomas Eakins probably deserves more than any other painter the title of our finest artist.

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John Singleton Copley

American impressionists achieved the level of their European counterparts, but William Merritt Chase, Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam continue to be shown in their company. John Singer Sargent is a special case, his entire oeuvre winning the highest admiration from some, while others regret what they consider the commercialization of his great early talent as he became a hugely successful portrait painter in England. Early in the 20th century, American realists of the Ash Can school such as John Sloan, Robert Henri, George Bellows and William Glackens developed a style that commands more attention now that 20th-century painting is less narrowly identified with the French school.

  • American precisionism and the abstractions of Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley were both distinctively American and distinctively modern, while Stuart Davis’s amazingly creative Americanization of cubism continues to persuade some of us of his major status.
  • But it was not until the years immediately after World War II that a group of young painters in New York emerged as such a vital and dominant force that they became the new center of the art world. The New York school, led by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, suddenly attracted international attention with a vibrant, dramatically expressive abstractionism, derived from European abstract surrealism, that retained only the slimmest connection to traditional representation. In Pollock it had its purest example of an emotional, all-over painting in which the final works sought to incorporate as much as possible the sense of the actual creative process of painting (“action painting” was the title given it by Harold Rosenberg in 1952).
  • In their work, Arshile Gorky and Franz Kline developed personal interpretations of abstraction in mystical and dramatic displays of elegant calligraphy or in larger, slashing forms. Barnett Newman reduced his formal vocabulary to stark, boldly simplified geometric forms, representing spiritual essences, and rendered them on often lusciously huge panels. Mark Rothko pressed his floating fields of color, seeking communion with each other, to their ultimate extremity in the increasingly dark canvases that preceded his suicide.

Now, through a marelously comprehensive and spaciously hung exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, we have an opportunity consider whether, as many have thought, de Kooning is the most enduring and fertile member of the school. More selective than the sprawling Whitney show 10 years ago and more representative than the Hirshhorn’s idiosyncratic presentation last fall, “Willem de Kooning Paintings” gathers 76 paintings from a career of almost 50 years. Before them, it is almost impossible not to use the term “Dutch Master.”

Born in Rotterdam on April 24, 1904, de Kooning began studies at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques at the age of 12, acquiring a proficiency in draftsmanship, perspective and anatomy that was unique among his subsequent colleagues. He was smuggled into Hoboken by Dutch sailors in 1926 and moved to New York the next year, working in various jobs as a house painter, carpenter and commercial artist. Fired from the Federal Art Project of the W.P.A. in 1936, he moved towards becoming a full-time artist. In New York he became close to Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky and John Graham, who included him among the best young American painters in his influential “System and Dialectics of Art” (1937).

The first paintings in the present exhibition, from the years 1938 to 1944, are of male and female figures, and they suggest immediately some of the artist’s greatest strengths: command of line, inventive color, technical and formal creativity, an uncanny ability to communicate emotional dislocation and turbulence. “Standing Man” (c. 1942) evokes Matisse’s abstract figures of the pre-World War I years, while “Seated Figure (Classic Male)” (1940) recalls Picasso’s Saltimbanques as well as his neoclassical paintings of the 20’s. But only de Kooning would leave such lovely early lines of drawing in place, painted over with later forms rendered in soft pink or beige and articulated not primarily by anatomy but by feeling.

The female figures here are more vividly, even garishly, painted, mixing chartreuse yellows, lime greens, pinks and burnt orange

The most beautiful, “Seated Woman” (c. 1940) from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, shows its model on a chair by a window, imagined over and over again by the artist through a long series of sittings. From the beginning, de Kooning worked and reworked his canvases endlessly, satisfied only when accident brought him a temporarily satisfactory result. Here the various arrangements of the woman’s arms and legs and torso combine into one dynamic image whose face with its shadowed green eyes looks into the distance beyond artist and viewer to ask not only “Who am I?” but also What shall I say?”

It is startling to move to the next gallery of the exhibition, in which the palette is almost exclusively black and white. The human form, when suggested, is disassembled and rendered as generalized, biomorphic shapes that pitch unpredictably in black and white webs. Before “Attic” (1940) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, with its several gaping heads, one may feel a host of hoarded memories from a part of one’s house seldom visited – or else the early struggle for form in ancient Greece. “Black Friday” (1948), on the other hand, conveys a mood of gravity, lightened by elegant drawing and dramatic touches of carmine red and pale green. And “Painting” (1948), entirely in black and white, with the painter’s own profile seemingly suggested and a fedora hat included perhaps as a tribute to his friendship with Stuart Davis, has all the jauntiness of an evening’s bonhomie among male friends. (1948 was the year of de Kooning’s first solo exhibition in New York, in which he showed mostly black and white works.)

But in the late 1940’s de Kooning also used brilliant color, with a red ground conveying the high life of the various forms dancing on it in “Gansevoort Street” (c. 1949), or pale yellows and oranges suggesting the exhilaration of a day at sea, highlighted by a Hoffmanesque rectangle of indigo blue, in “Sail Cloth” (c. 1949). More mysterious, but as enchanting as a spring lyric, is the Phillips Collection’s “Asheville” (1948), which draws one into and out from and around the canvas with its compact, swirling, brilliantly hued forms. Each of the paintings reveals how deeply indebted de Kooning was to cubism, with its fragmented forms reassembled in shallow space. “Of all movements,” he said, “I like cubism most. It had that wonderful unsure atmosphere of reflection – a poetic frame where something could be possible, where an artist could practice his intuition.”

Several large female figures from these years suggest the paintings for which de Kooning later became most famous. Each has a similar format: a woman with her head turned up, away from the viewer, with gaping eyes and teeth, a feral nose, pronounced breasts and coarse references to her female organs. Luscious coloring – gold and violet, orange and yellow – heightens the manic mood and the plea for meaning. (Read part 2 here)

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Baroque Painting in Genoa (National Gallery, till 16 June)

In the 14th century, Genoa and Venice were at loggerheads when the Black Death struck Europe

Each lost more than 50 per cent of its population, but went on to fight with undiminished ferocity — which tells one something about human nature. It also tells one something about Genoa — that it was the rival and in many ways the equivalent of Venice: a maritime, mercantile republic on the west coast rather than the east coast of Italy.

It too has a crumbly mediaeval centre — now the night-time haunt of prostitutes and drug dealers — plus 16th- and 17th-century palazzi and a Doge’s Palace (where Mr Blair impressed the attendants with his habit of running up the ceremonial staircase at the recent ill-fated G8 summit). And Genoa also has a share of magnificent paintings, a choice selection of which have just gone on show in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery.

  • There the comparison ends. For what reason it is hard to say, Genoa never developed a local school of painters of remotely the splendour or importance of the Venetians. There never was a Genoese Bellini, Tintoretto or Titian. But that does not mean that the Genoese did not have a taste for the visual arts — just that in the early 17th century, like Charles I of England, they were obliged to be importers of talent. In fact, perhaps because they were on the international art-hiring market at roughly the same time, Genoese collectors ended up with a pretty similar team to that which painted for the Caroline court.
  • Rubens, Orazio Gentileschi, and Van Dyck — all of them painted in Genoa before going on to work in London, and all of them are represented by a painting in the National Gallery exhibition. The Rubens, depicting a Genoese nobleman named Giovan Carlo Dora on horseback, is an absolute stunner — the first great baroque equestrian portrait packed with bounding energy and dramatic, thundery light. It is worth visiting the exhibition just to see this picture, in which you catch the young Rubens — he was around 30 when it was painted in 1606-7 — just coming into top form. (Genoa by the way is, with Antwerp, the best place to see Rubens’s paintings in their original setting, since there are also two splendid altarpieces in the Jesuit church.)
  • It’s not surprising that Rubens — though he was only briefly in Genoa — had a tremendous impact on native Genoese painters. Bernardo Strozzi’s `The Cook’ — another highlight of this little show — is a paradoxical performance. This is a genre painting — something normally thought of as a speciality of Northern European artists, executed on a heroic, Italian scale, and with Rubenesque vigour.

It is also a virtuoso exercise in the comparison and contrast of various grey, whitish and silvery tones — the feathers of the swan that the cook is plucking, the spectacular silver ewer in the foreground, the translucent grey-brown shadows behind. All in all this is rather a Flemish performance for an Italian artist — but then the Genoese had a pronounced taste for Flemish art (as indeed did the Venetians).

Some of Jan Van Eyck’s customers came from Genoa, and by the 17th century there was a little colony of Flemish artists living in the city. Van Dyck made it his principal base for his six-year stay in Italy, during which time he stayed with the De Wael brothers, Flemish painters who were already Genoese residents. The National Gallery show contains one of Van Dyck’s numerous Genoese portraits `Geromina Sale Brignole with her Daughter’. But — although it is good enough to make the point that Van Dyck initially developed his supremely elegant portrait manner in Liguria rather than England — it isn’t one of the finest specimens of his Genoese period. Most of the very best of those sumptuous, shadowy and slightly sinister images of the Genoese aristocracy are in American museums — and this selection comes from Genoa itself.

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Figure 1 Arthur Capel by Van Dyck

The Orazio Gentileschi, on the other hand — `The Annunciation’ — is one of that painter’s greatest works

It has the combination that often marks his work of intensity of colour, light and gesture with slight weirdness. The angel would be hugely taller than the Virgin, if he or she — it is hard to specify the gender of angels — stood up. By the way, the angel’s wings might well be the same studio property borrowed by Caravaggio 20 years previously, and mentioned in a celebrated libel case brought by another painter against both of them in Rome in 1603. You wouldn’t expect even a baroque Italian painter to get through more than one pair of wings in a career. He was probably still using them when, some years later, he finished up in London.

Orazio Gentileschi’s daughter Artemisia has got far more attention in recent years, thanks to feminist art history, and to the fact that she figures in an even more celebrated courtroom drama, her accusation of rape against yet another painter. But good artist though she was, her father — as this picture shows — was finer still.

In this selection, the native Genoese painters don’t often measure up to the imported product — the main exception being Castiglione, whose huge `Adoration of the Shepherds’ is another magnificent but somewhat eccentric painting. Here Castiglione has the genres of religious and mythological painting, since one of the shepherds prominent in the foreground is obviously really a vine-wreathed satyr from a bacchanal. He is tootling, of all things, on a bassoon. This strange pagan, pastoral touch makes the painting — though it is also the kind of thing that may have made Castiglione unpopular with conventionally minded patrons. Subsequently, he cleared out of Genoa.

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Figure 2. Picture Painted by Van Dick

This picture is overwhelming in its usual home in the small baroque church of S. Luca in the centre of old Genoa. Its impact is a little diminished in the more neutral setting of the National Gallery, as is generally the case with paintings created for a specific ecclesiastical setting. That’s the drawback of the concept of a museum of Old Masters — it shows so many things out of their original context.

The other 17th-century Genoese masters such as Gregorio de Ferrari and Valerio Castello suffer more badly from this — since their work functions properly only as part of a complete baroque ensemble together with furniture, lighting and architecture. The only hint of that at the National Gallery is an extraordinary frame, much more interesting than the portrait it surrounds, telling the story of the Judgment of Paris in miniature gilt sculpture by Filippo Parodi.

But to begin to display the full theatrical sumptuousness of 17th-century Genoa would require a collaboration between the V&A and National Gallery, including sculpture and decorative arts as well as painting. Even so, it would be no substitute for going there.

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