Agnès Boulloche and her surrealist world.

Agnès Boulloche

My last blog was about the painter Alfred Robert Quinton and his artwork which was perceived to be “chocolate-boxy” and kitsch and yet, I believe was a charming window on beautifully tranquil bye-gone days of rural life.

The artwork today could not be more different. It is Surrealism. Surrealism, which means “beyond reality”, was a movement, principally in literature and the visual arts. It thrived in Europe between the First and Second World Wars. The Surrealists rejected rationalism and held the belief that the rational mind repressed the power of the imagination. Surrealists instead tried to channel the unconscious mind and by so doing, reveal the power of the imagination.

The founder of the Surrealist movement was the French poet and critic André Breton who launched the movement by publishing the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924 and led the group till his death in 1966. Surrealist artists find magical enchantment and enigmatic beauty in the unexpected and the strange, the overlooked and the eccentric. In a way, it is a belligerent dismissal of conservative, if somewhat conformist, artistic values. The depictions in the Surrealist paintings are startling often colourful. In some ways they are mesmerising and one wonders what was going through the mind of the painter when they put their ideas on canvas or wood. My featured artist today is French and she was considered to be one of the leading twentieth century French Surrealist painters. Let me introduce you to Agnès Boulloche.

Le Jeu de la Chausse-Trappe (The Trap-Door Game) by Agnès Boulloche

Agnès Boulloche was born in Paris in 1951. She was the daughter of André Boulloche, who in 1940 joined the Resistance movement He was captured and deported by the Nazis. In 1959 he was made Minister of National Education under the mandate of General de Gaulle. He was known as a politician of integrity and conviction. Sadly he died in a plane crash, barely 62 years old. Agnès spent much of early childhood in Rabat, Morocco where André was head of the Road Bureau. As a child she loved to paint and draw. Her mother, Anne, once said that she was born with brushes in her mouth, where others have a pacifier! From a young age Agnès was also fascinated by myths and mythical lands and loved to hear about the adventurous tales of the Arabian Nights. Her other interest, and maybe it came from living in an Arab country, was the world of jinn. Jinn being defined in Islamic mythology as a class of spirits, lower than the angels, capable of appearing in human and animal forms and influencing humankind for either good or evil.

Les Marmitons by Agnès Boulloche

From an early age Agnès had always been immersed in a world populated by fabulous beasts, countless chimeras, gorgons and genies. She experiences life in a fantasy world inhabited by humanimal creatures who she depicts in her artwork dancing, riding on each other and even spinning their horned feet around chessboards in stone-paved gardens. This was her fantasy world which she once described:

“…I’ve always had that taste for escape and freedom. Already a child I escaped, taking the side roads to find my close friends, a whole people of fabulous beasts, chimeras and other geniuses. And my left hand lent itself to my dreams and allowed me to evolve in this magnificent dimension that is painting…”

She always had an affinity towards animals, once saying:

“…I do not see so many differences between humans and animals. On the contrary, I see a lot of interference. However, I hate bestiality on one side or the other. What I disliked was the fact that animals are considered objects, which fortunately is no longer the case since the recent vote of the deputies on April 15, 2014…”

The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, by Hieronymus Bosch (1495 – 1505)

Agnes Boulloche paints in oil on wood panels and uses the ancient technique of “glaze”, a superposition of thin transparent layers of colours. She also uses many chemical recipes to create her pigments and varnishes.
When she was a teenager, she and the family left Morocco and returned to Paris where she enrolled at the École des arts décoratifs, a school which had a major role in the development of the Art Deco design movement in the 1920s and in the creation of new design concepts. Agnès focused on oil-on-wood painting. Except for a short period at art school Agnès was self-taught. One of her main artistic influences is the artist Hieronymus Bosch, whose works are often populated with strange and exotic animals.

Le renard dans le bestiaire médiéval

Agnès also liked to look at the illustrated bestiaries, which must have inspired her works. A bestiary was a compendium of beasts. A bestiary means a manuscript of the Middle Ages gathering fables and morals on the “beasts”, real or imaginary animals, mystical animals. They originate in the ancient world and were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals. She would study works by Philippe de Thaon, Guillaume le Clerc, Gervaise de Fontenay and Richard de Fournival in a modern version. The themes of her inspiration were creatures, half-men, half-beasts, but according to her, they were “more than human”.

Agnès Boulloche – Self Portrait  entitled We Two (2013)

Her painting technique followed traditional methods. Agnes used her own different alchemical formulas for her colours and mixed her own colours, pigments and varnishes. She would then use these oils and paint on wood panels in “glazing technique” used by the Old Masters, in a way in which many transparent layers of colours are laid on top of each other in several passes. This made it possible to work out very fine details and attain delicate, bright colours. Agnès Boulloche paintings are often set in landscapes, which appear similar to those we see in Renaissance compositions.

Danse avec la Lune by Agnès Boulloche

Besides her paintings, she would spend time in the production of sculptures, which were mainly cast in bronze in wax castings and hand chased and then patinated.

Agnès Boulloche in 2014 creating one of her favourite animals -an owl

In the photograph above, taken by her daughter, Julie Lipinski we see her working on one of her favourite animals, the owl.

Oiseau Au by Agnès Boulloche

Soon after completing her studies, she opened her first exhibition in Paris. She was invited by friends to visit them on the Ile de Ré but for Agnès it was not love at first sight. She recalled that at first she deemed it to be ugly and flat. However, she returned the following year and, had a change of heart:

“…When I came back the following summer, I noticed the lack of bars on the ground floor windows and the houses that were not necessarily closed twice when we were away, etc….. I said to myself, this is a place where the notion of freedom must still have a meaning…”

Le Rat de Bibliothèque by Agnèes Boulloche

She used to live and work alternately in Paris and in the town of Foix on the Île de Ré, which lies on the southern French Atlantic coast. In 1994 she finally made Loix her permanent home. She knew it was her destiny to live in Loix saying:

“…Convinced that it was there that I had to be, I first rented a house in Loix, then quickly bought a first home, still in Loix, my village for 18 years. Even though I have always been painting and if I’ve been living for about forty years, in Loix, when I leave home, I am not permanently stamped “painter”. No, I am a Loidaise [term for people of Loix] full, I participate in a real village life and I feel adopted. So to honour this shared friendship, I contribute artistically, and of course voluntarily, to the daily life of the village by making street signs and various other things such as the cemetery or the children’s kitchen garden of the school…”

Le chien tiroir (The Drawer Dog)  by Agnès Boulloche

She bought her first house, but it had no garden and she missed that aspect of living. Then she met Michel Héraudeau, a local builder and in 1996 they joined forces and bought some land in the heart of Loix. He then built Agnès’ house first, then his own, but by this time they had fallen in love and he moved in with Agnès. Soon their common garden was full of flowers and their life became a great love story, which lasted until her death.

Le Bal des Masques by Agnès Boulloche

In 2011, her daughter, Julie Lipinski, also moved to Loix with her partner, Thibault Chenaille, and their 13-year-old son Swan. Then, in 2013, Agnès Boulloche became a grandmother for a second time with the arrival of Julie’s second child, a son, Marlow. Now, Agnès’ life could not be bettered. She was a very successful artist who was now surrounded by her daughter and her grandchildren. Julie described her mother as being a passionate lover of life, a very sensitive person but for all that, one who has a natural authority.

L’Atelier de la Lune by Agnès Boulloche

Sadly in June 2018 she was diagnosed with having cancer. Her daughter said that she accepted the news and never complained as she was a woman of great strength of character. Agnès Boulloche died on April 7th 2019. On that Sunday afternoon, her daughter announced her passing in Facebook, simply writing:

“…My mom joined her fantasy world this morning…”

A tribute was held together with the dispersion of her ashes at the port of Loix Saturday, on April 20th. The local newspaper, Ré à la Hune, recorded the news of her death writing:

“…Since her death, there has been a shower of tributes that sweeps over the social network, on the island of Ré, and more precisely to Loix. For twenty-five years, Agnès Boulloche had put her baggage in this village she loved so much, because in the middle of the salt marshes, the land, the sea and the sky were her horizons and especially her anchors. In her suitcases, she had first brought back her brushes and paintings, and of course, all this universe of her own, populated by animals like the rhinoceros, the cat, the owl, the unicorns, but also angels and little girls or young women with bare breasts, but with ruffles and pointed hats…”

La Licorne de Troie (The Trojan Unicorn) by Agnès Boulloche

Agnes Boulloche had her paintings exhibited in Paris, as well as several other European countries. Her Surrealist works of art have also been seen in the United States, and in Africa. Her work brings out the energy of the colour she uses and seemed well suited in her imaginary world, a world where dreams prevail over reality. An art critic once wrote:

“…Agnes is a ghost who dreams with her eyes wide open …”.

L’Ecuyère (The Rider) by Agnés Boulloche

At the start of this blog I talked about the meaning of Surrealism paintings and pondered on what went through the artist’s mind when they formulated their depictions. Are there hidden meanings or were the depictions just amusing fantasies? In the case of Agnès Boulloche we may get closer to her reasoning for she decided to put her ideas on paper with her Dictionary of Symbols. I am not sure they help but here are some of the examples from her dictionary:

Cochon; animal très pieux et avenant toujours prêt à se faire atteler ou chevaucher par n’importe qui
Pig; a very pious animal, always ready to be hitched or ridden by anyone.

Chien: ne laissez jamais un chien nu sinon il fugue. Vêtissez le plutôt d’un chapeau de lune et d’une fraise empresée de dentelles
Dog: never leave a dog naked otherwise he runs away. Wear a moon hat and a strawberry with lace

Hibou: à tiroirs, il garde nos secrets
Owl: with drawers, he keeps our secrets

Licorne: sa corne telle celle du narval, son sosie marin, peut empaler les mérous, trépaner les dés ou décrocher la lune                                                                      Unicorn: its horn, like that of the narwhal, its marine look-alike, can impale the groupers, skewer the dice or catch the moon

Nef: folle, elle navigue bondée de créatures insensées qui se jouent de sa ligne de flottaison
Ship or boat: crazy, it sails full of crazy creatures who play with her waterline

I am not sure they help you decode the paintings but they do give you a further insight into the mind of the artist

Le Retable du Poisson Rouge (The Red Fish Altarpiece)  by Agnès Boulloche

Agnès seemed to have lived a happy life surrounded by her family on the Ile de Ré and yet she also loved to escape that land and journey to her imaginary world which brought her equal happiness.  She will be sadly missed.

Sally Moore

Catnapping by Sally Moore

When I decide on a subject for my blog I look for three criteria to be met.  Firstly, and on a personal note, I need to be interested in the person or their art.  Secondly, I need to be able to find enough information with regards the life of the artist and their family upbringing and lastly, I need to have enough copies of their works to be able to populate the blog.  Without all three criteria, I tend to reluctantly disregard the artist as the subject of my blogs.  Having said all that, the next two blogs feature artists who did not meet with all the criteria – the missing criterium in both cases was the limited information I had about their lives, but because I liked their work so much I decided to feature them albeit in much shorter blogs.

All at Sea by Sally Moore

In this blog, I am looking at the work of a living surrealist artist and as I told you in an earlier blog about another living artist, Neil Simone (My Daily Art Display – May 24th 2017), who coincidently could also be classed as a surrealist, I try and avoid blogging about painters who are still alive, for fear of upsetting them!!!  My featured artist today is the Welsh-born surrealist painter Sally Moore.

Still Waters by Sally Moore

Although my favourite art tends to be landscapes, seascapes, and genre paintings I am fascinated by surrealist art and I am mesmerised by the thought process which goes into the depictions.  The Tate’s short description of the term surrealism encapsulates the very essence of the art form:

“…A twentieth-century literary, philosophical and artistic movement that explored the workings of the mind, championing the irrational, the poetic and the revolutionary…”

One of the most famous surrealist artists was the twentieth century Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico and his take on surrealism was:

“…Although the dream is a very strange phenomenon and an inexplicable mystery, far more inexplicable is the mystery and aspect our minds confer on certain objects and aspects of life…”

Bittersweet Offerings by Sally Moore

Sometimes it is a mistake to compartmentalise art or the works of an artist and maybe Sally Moore would not want her art to be categorised as Surrealism and perhaps she would be unhappy that I am typecasting her as a Surrealist painter.  If so, I apologise in advance and just say that her exquisite depictions are quirky, amusing and cleverly thought out.

 Sally Moore was born in Barry, South Wales in 1962. She studied art at the Ruskin School of Art, in Oxford.  The Ruskin School of Art dates to 1871, when John Ruskin, the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, as well as an art patron, draughtsman, and watercolourist, first opened his School of Drawing. Sally subsequently won a scholarship to study at the British School in Rome.

Head with Bees by Sally Moore (1996)

Her paintings from the very start of her career were popular with both the critics and public alike and, early on, she won awards at the National Eisteddfod.  More awards soon followed including one for her painting Head with Bees at the 1996 Discerning Eye Exhibition in London.  The Discerning Eye Exhibition differs from many other exhibitions as six selectors (judges) make their choice of small works as their interpretation of the best of contemporary British art and each selected section is hung separately so that there may be a distinct identity with its combination of established and less established or even unknown artists.  The Discerning Eye has one limitation and that is the paintings must be small in size giving more artists a chance to exhibit and also allowing the works to be small enough to be bought, carried back under arm and hung in any home or office space. Each judge was asked to pick over half of his selection from less established names.  Her painting was selected as winner by artist and art critic, William Packer, one of the six judges/selectors.

This Charming Man by Sally Moore

In 2005, she won the Welsh Artist of the Year Award.

Her artworks are painstaking in style and much time is spent on the detail and this of course limits her output and thus the number of solo exhibitions she has held.  She says she often has a umber of works on the go at the same time.   I was fortunate to go to her exhibition the other week at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff, which contained sixteen of herpaintings.  Although small in quantity, the quality of the work was excellent and the subjects fascinating.

Fishy Business by Sally Moore

The one aspect of her work you will soon notice is that she includes herself in most of her paintings!

Home Histrionics by Sally Moore

Not all her paintings feature humour and in two of her works she looks at the state of people’s minds and behaviour when they are experiencing a personal trauma.  In two of her works, Beneath Suspicion and Home Histrionics, she looks at the behaviour of people, who we have all come across at some time, people who seem to revel in their catastrophes, to such an extent they almost seem to flourish on it. In a way Home Histrionics ridicules such characters.

Beneath Suspicion by Sally Moore

When asked whether she based the depictions on somebody she knew, she answered:

“…They are loosely based on a friend of mine who enjoys complex relationships with men and follows a specific pattern of destructive behaviour.  She gets herself in these ludicrous situations and seems to relish the drama it creates, when it’s all driven by fake emotion…”

Captive by Sally Moore

My favourite work by Sally Moore is the quirky painting entitled Captive.

Her work is probably best summed up by her fellow Welshman and Visual Artist, Keith Bayliss, who commented:

“…Sally’s paintings are intriguing, there is a drama being enacted, a story unfolding. Sometimes the stage set is a domestic one, or an everyday scene, a seemingly familiar and therefore reassuring picture. We are drawn in as eager observers, only to realise that we have become participants in the story.

Her work displays an interest in, and a deep knowledge of, three visual art traditions, the Narrative, the Surreal and the Symbolic, marrying all together through her use of highly personal imagery. Her paintings are painstakingly crafted, taking months to produce one glowingly detailed art work. The paintings are icons of magical realism, the known with the mysterious. In making art she is making sense of the world and we, in viewing the work become part of that process, part of the drama…”

But maybe I should leave the last word to the artist herself when she describes what she wants to achieve through her work:

“…Each painting is a mini psychological drama, often absurd, sometimes surreal and invariably humorous. I hope that my paintings may both unsettle and amuse the viewer…”

To find out more about Sally Moore and her art have a look at her website:

https://sallymoorepainter.co.uk

and in the “About” page there is a video which she made in 2013 in collaboration with film-maker Mark Latimer entitled The Domestic Surrealist which documents Sally’s thought processes which goes into each of her works of art.

 

 

 

Neil Simone. The Visual Surrealist

Neil Simone

My blog today is quite different to most of my others for two reasons.  My love of art is quite traditional, some would say boringly middle-ground. If you imagine visual art as a spectrum, at one end of which we have Abstract Expressionism and at the other end there is Hyperrealism, then my predilection would be much closer to the hyperrealism end of the spectrum.  I like to look at the beauty of a painting.  I like to be amazed by the skill of the artist and marvel at the time they must have spent in completing a work.  Mere splashes of colour do not impress me, whether it be stripes or dots.  However, as I have said before I was told that to appreciate visual art one needs to embrace all types !  So, the first reason for this blog being different is that it focuses on the art genre of Surrealism and the works of a Surrealist painter.

Surrealism is a 20th-century form of art in which an artist brings together unrelated images or events in a very strange and often dreamlike way.  It stresses the subconscious significance of imagery.  Through their works of art, the Surrealist artists wanted to revolutionise our experience.  They want us to cast-off our coherent and balanced visualisation of life and, in its place, value the power of the unconscious and dreams. The artists want us to look at their works and share their feeling of mysterious enchantment and discover the perplexing beauty in the bewildering depictions which totally disregarded convention.

Alternative Path by Neil Simone

The second difference with my blog today, and this is more of a concern to me, is that my subject today is a living artist !  Why should that matter?  I suppose the answer is that I am delving into the life of somebody who has not given me permission to do so and secondly when one looks back and writes about somebody it is extremely important to have the correct facts.  You would be surprised at the number of times when I am researching a painter that I am finding differing facts, differing dates, differing names of family members and I never want to just guess at the correct information and so these inaccuracies drive me mad !!!  However, the deceased painter cannot complain at a mistaken fact quoted about them (albeit on some occasions I do get quizzed/censured regarding the authenticity/accuracy of what I have written by knowledgeable relatives or art historians).  With a living artist, they may take umbrage with my factual accuracy.

Having said all that let me introduce you to the English Surrealist painter Neil Simone.  The reason for this entry was that last week I was in the picturesque Yorkshire town of Harrogate and I visited Suttcliffes Contemporary Gallery, in the Montpellier Quarter of Harrogate and came across his works  and actually bought one of his prints, The Retreat,  as I was so fascinated by it. The one thing I like about some works of Surrealism, and I am a great fan of René Magritte, is that they are thought-provoking and quirky and I wonder how the artist ever came up with the ideas they put on canvas.

Nightfall by Neil Simone

Neil Simone was born in London in 1947. His parents rented rooms in a property in Burrows Road close to Kensall Green Underground station.  He was an only child and lived here for the first eleven years of his life.  In 1958, his parents bought their first property in Harrow, Middlesex.  This move to their own house finally gave their son his own room which as a teenager, was a godsend.

His progress in school was limited to success in graphic art and design in which he gained his “A” level and buoyed by that success he applied to enrol at the Harrow School of Art but was turned down due to not having achieved any academic qualifications in other subjects, in particular, the lack of “O” level English.  Like many setbacks in life one often find they were for the best and Neil Simone considered it was a narrow escape for him not to have gained admission to the art school as he believed that his erstwhile colleagues and friends who did attend the school were stymied as far as to their choice of a future artistic road map as their artistic path was dictated to them by the tutors, whereas Neil made all his own artistic life choices.

The Ocean Floor by Neil Simone

With no art college to attend, Simone had to both occupy his time, as well as finding a way of earning money.  Over the next few years he became a trainee lady’s hairdresser, helped a van driver deliver laundry, a petrol pump attendant and the nearest he got to the art world was a short spell as a layout artist for Moss Enterprises and a messenger for a commercial art studio, during which time he was attacked and robbed whilst carrying staff wages.  However the job which was to change his life the most was as a display artist at Sopers department store in Harrow for his immediate boss and team leader was Linda  who would in April 1968, become his wife.  The couple moved into a flat into a house owned by Peter Hale, the head of department at the Road Transport industry Training Board which made training films and artwork for use in lectures and promotions.  Peter had seen some of Simone’s work and offered him a job as creator of an exhibition to commemorate the opening of M.O.T.E.C. (multi-occupational training centre) which was held in Shrewsbury.  M.O.T.E.C. was the training centre for apprentices in the Road Transport Industry. The training unit was designed to provide realistic working conditions in which apprentices could have experience of all aspects of the trade.  The commission Peter gave Simone was so big that he needed help and so he took on his wife on a freelance basis to help him with the task.

Island in the Sky by Neil Simone

The August Bank Holiday of 1969 proved a turning point in Neil and Linda Simone’s lives.  Their landlord and Neil’s employer invited the couple to visit his other home, The Priory, in the picturesque town of Harrogate in the heart of the Yorkshire countryside.  For Neil this was the first time out of London but he was immediately taken by the beauty of the area.  Peter and his wife Elizabeth persuaded Neil that Harrogate and the surrounding countryside would be a perfect base for him to carry on with his painting and they offered to rent Neil and Linda the basement of their house.  It must have been a big decision for Neil and Linda to have to make, whether they should give up their jobs and move two hundred miles away from their home and families in London and for Neil to take up painting professionally.  It was probably Linda’s belief in her husband that he could succeed and the fact that it was just the two of them that Neil decided to take the plunge and start a new life in Yorkshire with his wife.

As Autumn Leaves by Neil Simone

Once the decision was made and the couple had moved to Harrogate Neil reckoned that to survive financially he needed to sell a minimum of two paintings per week.  He started to build up a collection of his work so that he could show his work at the 1970 Valley Gardens exhibition in Harrogate.  The exhibition went well and he sold twenty of his paintings.  However with every success comes failure and after the exhibition the sale of his paintings dried up and during the winter months of 1970 he was forced to go door to door with them to try to get a sale.

In the Spring of 1971 he exhibited at the Lounge Hall, Royal Baths, Harrogate and it was during this show that he met a fellow artist Judy Pyrah.  The two of them talked about the dream she had of opening her own gallery and suggested a joint venture when they had sufficient money.  Neil’s financial situation was improved by another person, Mr Rivlin, whom he also met at the exhibition.  Mr Rivlin liked Simone’s artwork and offered him employment at his company as the resident artist in charge of packaging designs and corporate identity material for his company, Endura Lamps of Horsforth.  In October 1971 Neil Simone started working for Mr Rivlin and in November Neil and Judy Pyrah opened their gallery, the Eye-Glass Gallery, in John Street, Harrogate.  The gallery remained open for just twelve months and this coincided with his work for Mr Rivlin being terminating in January 1973.

Exploring the Alternatives by Neil Simone

Neil and Linda’s stay in the basement of The Priory came to a sudden end in the autumn of 1974 when Harrogate was subjected to a series of storms and their basement flat was flooded and so the couple moved to another flat in Harrogate which also had room for a studio and a workshop for framing and was both light and airy.  During the next two years the sale of Simone’s paintings did well and he exhibited at galleries as far north as Edinburgh.  When Neil and Linda had taken the decision to permanently leave London and take a chance with life in Harrogate there was just the two of them and so if the venture failed then it would just hurt them as they had no children to support.  However seven years on, with their finances at a reasonable position, they believed they should start a family and in July 1976 their son, Lee, was born.

Within six months things turned for the worse for the family with galleries not wanting his paintings and with sales tumbling, they were in trouble. For Neil, it was a time of introspection, a time to figure out why things had gone wrong and more importantly work out what people wanted from art.  He needed time to reassess his art and, to give himself a chance to do this, Linda took their son and went back to live with her mother.  He realised the most important question he had to answer was what did he want from his art for he realised his mistake of suffocating his own imagination which once set ablaze his passion for art.  Neil thought long and hard and eventually hit on the idea that people may like to view works which would transport them into an alternative vision of reality.  He wanted observers of his work to question what were they actually looking at.  This was of course a form of surrealism, which he had dabbled with eight years earlier but had abandoned believing that he must paint what the public wanted and not what he wanted.

The Dropleaf Table by Neil Simone (2006)

His new style of artwork soon became an art with a sense of humour, as Neil put it “they would be paintings with an element of realism that invite conjecture”  It was quirky but would it sell?  He decided that he had nothing to lose and so in 1977, Neil Simone’s art became different.  It was a new direction.  In August 1979, the Harrogate Advertiser described it as

“…a fusion of fact and fantasy…”

It was the start of an exciting journey.  With the mental turmoil dissipated on having finally decided on the future of his art, he asked Linda to return to Harrogate.

The public and art critics both liked and were excited by this new style and his works of art were in great demand at exhibitions and sales rocketed.  His gamble on changing his artistic style had paid off and his paintings were in great demand.  Neil struggled to keep up a collection of his work due to all the sales.  His brain was awash with new ideas and his artwork was in great demand.  With all this came a healthy bank balance and in July 1978 Neil bought and moved into a house with Linda and two-year-old Lee in Grasmere Crescent, Harrogate.  This was the first home they had purchased and was an ideal place for an artist with a bright studio in the loft conversion.

Realms of the Imagination by Neil Simone (1992)

Neil decided to launch his first set of limited editions prints but to do this he needed some financial backing which he got from family and friends and this proved a financial success and soon he could pay back his friends and from then on, he was able to fund any subsequent print editions, the second of which was launched in February 1980.  With all these print runs space at home became critical and it was soon obvious to Neil that the family needed a larger house.  In June 1980, they moved into a large house on Harlow Hill, one of the highest points around Harrogate, which he had bought when it was only partially constructed which allowed him to agree to some design alterations with the builder.

Another break came in March 1981 when a Dutch art dealer called at Simone’s studio. The dealer, Kees De Jong, had been told about the success Simone was having with his new style work and came to offer him a chance to exhibit some of it at the prestigious London Department store, Harrods.  Simone accepted the invite and in May his works were being showed in the windows of the prestigious department store.  More invites rolled in for Simone to exhibit works at various exhibitions and he now had to continually produce works.  Although this was time consuming and tiring Simone was very aware that the popularity of one’s artwork is ephemeral and that he had to make the most of his popularity.  The downside to this success was Neil had less time to spend with his wife and son.

The Sea Bed by Neil Simone (2000)

In 1983 Neil Simone met Barbara Dutton who had come to look at his paintings.  She was just about to open her own gallery at Pately Bridge, a village some four miles from Harrogate, and wanted some of Neil’s prints and originals but had a limited budget.  Neil and Barbara came to an agreement that she could take all his works on a sale or return basis.  The gallery opened in May and later that year there was an exhibition of Neil’s latest works.

In June 1984, Neil and Linda had an addition to the family with the birth of a daughter, Gemma.  Over the next ten years Neil was inundated with work to satisfy exhibitions he had committed to.  Life was hectic but profitable.  He had taken his son to Paris for his eighteenth birthday in 1994 and in 1996 his son had gone to university and his daughter was about to start secondary school.  Everything was going so well and yet around this time, Neil sensed all was not well.  He had a foreboding that things were going to change.  This sense he had of imminent change in his life was converted into two paintings he completed entitled The Ephemeral Nature of Beauty and the Persistence of Art and Our Thoughts Stray Constantly Without Boundary, both hinted at Neil’s concern that things in his life and marriage were about to change and not necessarily for the better.

The House of Glass by Neil Simone (1991)

In 1997 Neil struggled with the effort to have to paint more pictures and became physically and mentally run down. He had to continually paint to satisfy clients and fulfil exhibition commitments but found it difficult to achieve sufficient work during a day at the studio so would leave home in the evening, returning to the studio to continue working through part of the night.  He began to worry about all the pressure to keep people happy but would not talk about it to his wife. He admitted that he became morose and withdrawn but he just hoped the problem would be short term. The strain on his marriage got so bad that in January 1998, in a hope that things may improve, he and Linda decided to separate and he left the family home and went to live in his rented studio.

The Retreat by Neil Simone (1999)

Some years earlier, Neil became very friendly with a lady called Heather who worked at an art materials shop where he bought most of his supplies.  Although she worked in Centagraph, an art supply shop, she had never painted and she was pleased to accept Neil’s offer of artistic tuition.  They became great friends and Heather proved to be the support Neil Simone needed to get him through life.  Living in his studio where he stored his artwork was proving to be untenable and so he decided he needed to buy somewhere larger.  The time also coincided with Heather and her young son Ben wanting to move out of rented premises and contemplate owning somewhere and so Neil and Heather, for financial reasons, decided to jointly buy somewhere and to fund his part of the purchase, Neil reluctantly sold some of his original paintings he had been keeping for himself.  In May 1999, the couple moved into a first-floor apartment in Langcliffe Avenue, Harrogate.  It was ideal for these two artists as it had a hexagonal sun room and a private roof terrace.

Rock Formation by Neil Simone (1999)

In late 2000, fifty-three-year-old, Neil Simone suffered a heart attack and was forced to rest and in January 2001 he underwent a triple bypass operation.  After a long period of rehabilitation under the watchful eye of Heather, Neil resumed painting.  Although they loved their apartment there was just not enough wall space to hang their work and so decided to search the property market for something larger and room for a gallery and workshop. Their search proved fruitful in September 2003 when they found the ideal home in the village of Whixley.  A month later Neil and Heather moved in to their new home and were able to hold exhibitions in their own gallery.  Heather and Neil are now married and still live in their Whixley home.

 Of his painting style which he termed visual surrealism, Neil wrote:

“…I paint the way that I do because I see the world as a dimension of shadows, shapes, contradictions and ever changing fragile boundaries…”

———————————————————————-

The majority of the information for this blog came from Neil’s own autobiography, Neil Simone.  The Memoirs of an Artist.  How long does it take? which is an excellent book with many reproductions of his work.

Neal and Heather’s gallery is at 2a High Street Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire which I look forward to visiting in the summer.  The website is   http://www.simonegalleries.com/.

Balthus – Part 2 – Young girls and controversy

Self Portrait by Balthus (1940)
Self Portrait by Balthus (1940)

In my second part of my look at the life and works of Balthus I am going concentrate on his depiction of pubescent girls which were to shock both the public and critics alike when they first exhibited in 1934 at the Galerie Pierre in Paris.  I have in some earlier blogs discussed what is, to some, termed as beautiful erotic art whilst others look upon the depictions as unacceptable and pornographic.  Those paintings by the likes of Egon Schiele and Lucien Freud were depictions of adult female models but in the case of Balthus’ paintings the models he was using were pre-pubescent girls.  I leave it to each person to decide whether the depiction of these young girls was simply the work of an artist and therefore as art, was acceptable or whether there was something very offensive and disturbing about the paintings.  Everybody is entitled to their own opinion.

I need to remind you that the depiction of young girls naked or semi-naked in paintings is not just something that interested Balthus.  Many other well known artists used young girls as models and portrayed them in their works of art.

Little Girl by Otto Dix
Little Girl by Otto Dix

There was Otto Dix, the German painter, and often talked about as the most important painter of the Neue Sachlichkeit, which was an artistic style in Germany in the 1920 which set out to confront Expressionism.  It was looked on as being a return to unsentimental reality and one which concentrated on the objective world, unlike Expressionism which was more abstract, romantic, and idealistic.  His 1922 painting Little Girl in front of Curtain, which can now be seen at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, was judged to have flown in the face of morality.  This painting of a young naked girl is portrayed in a realistic style, maybe too realistic as it details the blue veins of her body.  She looks emaciated and she stares past us with a haunted expression. Her childhood is probably a thing of the past as, sadly, is her innocence.  A pink flower clings to the curtain behind her, and in her hair we see a bright red bow.   The artist himself once said:

“…I will either become notorious or famous…”

This painting probably allowed Otto Dix to achieve his first goal.

Puberty by Edvard Munch (1894)
Puberty by Edvard Munch (1894)

The great Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, who is best known for his paintings entitled Scream, also produced a painting in 1894 featuring a pre-teen naked girl.  The painting which was entitled Puberty depicts a young pubescent girl, nude, sitting with her legs together.  There is an air of shyness about her and this could be that at her age she is starting to become aware of the changes to her body.

Standing nude young girl 2 by Egon Schiele (c.1911)
Standing nude young girl 2 by Egon Schiele (c.1911)

The celebrated Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Schiele who, at the time,  was living with his lover, Valerie Neuzil, in the small country town of Neulengbach, close to Vienna.  This was a quiet suburban setting full of retired officers and snooping neighbours.  Schiele was arrested in April 1912 on suspicion of showing erotic drawings to young children who posed for him, of touching the children while he drew them and of kidnapping one of the young girls who frequented his studio.  Some of the charges were dropped and he spent three days in jail.  A year earlier he produced the work entitled Standing Nude Young Girl 2.

The reason that I featured these three paintings was not that I considered them any sort of justification for Bathus’ portrayal of young girls but simply to point out that many artists have painted scantily-clad or naked young girls.

Balthus had been earning money with his portraiture, mainly of older society women, and he was very discontented with this.  He actually hated this type of work calling his finished portraits, “his monsters”.  In October 1935 Balthus moves to a new and larger studio at 3 cour de Rohan.  Just three blocks away was the rue de Seine and it was at No. 34 that the Blanchard family lived, mother, father who worked as a waiter in a nearby bistro, daughter Thérèse and son Hubert who was two years older than his sister.  When Balthus first caught sight of Thérèse she was just eleven years of age and having approached the family Thérèse agreed to model for him.  She was not a beautiful girl but she appealed to Balthus.

Thérèse by Balthus (1936)
Thérèse by Balthus (1936)

The first painting Balthus completed of Thérèse Blanchard was in 1936 and was simply entitled Thérèse.  Balthus would go on to use her as a model more than any other person.  In this work, Balthus has captured her moody and serious look and it was that aspect of her that attracted Balthus to his young model.  Her dark dress seems to go hand in hand with her mood and it is just the bright red piping on the collar of the dress which manages to liven up the portrait

Brother and Sister by Balthus (1936)
Brother and Sister by Balthus (1936)

In that same year Balthus completed a painting of Thérèse and Hubert entitled Brother and Sister.  Once again Balthus has portrayed Thérèse’s expression as moody and sullen in contrast to the smiling happy face of her brother.  Thérèse’s arms are wrapped round the waist of her brother, not as a sign of sibling affection, but as she was trying to make him stand still for Balthus.  Their clothes are very plain.  Hubert seems to be wearing the attire of a schoolboy whilst his sister is wearing a simple plaid skirt and a red sweater with a green collar.

The Blanchard children by Balthus (1937)
The Blanchard children by Balthus (1937)

In 1937 the two Blanchard siblings appear in a painting by Balthus entitled The Blanchard Children.  Thérèse is now twelve years old and her brother is fourteen years of age.  The setting is Balthus’ studio and one notices there are no childlike accoutrements such as toys, pens or books.  It is a very stark depiction.  This was not an oversight by Balthus but his belief that the starkness would intensify the dramatic effect of the picture.  If we look under the table, we can see a bag of coal sat in the corner. Why would Balthus add this?  The answer maybe that Balthus, whilst living in Germany, remembered what happened on the eve of the Feast of St Nicholas on December 5th when children put their shoes out in the hopes of some sweets in the morning.  The story goes that, St. Nicholas does not travel on his own but with his companion, Black Peter, who places coal in the shoes of the children who had been naughty !

Wuthering Heights illustration by Balthus
Wuthering Heights illustration by Balthus

The strange posture of the two children is probably based on an illustration Balthus produced for Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights.  The illustration relates to Heathcliffe, partly kneeling on the chair, turning towards Cathy who is on her hands and knees partly under the table, writing her diary.  The painting was given to Balthus’ friend Picasso.

Thérèse with Cat by Balthus (1937)
Thérèse with Cat by Balthus (1937)

The first controversial painting Balthus did with Thérèse as his model was completed in 1937 and entitled Thérèse with Cat.  It was a small work measuring 88 x 77cms (34 x 31 in).  Here once again we see the un-smiling Thérèse seeming to look at something behind us.  She looks slightly dishevelled with one sock down to her ankle and one sleeve pushed up her arm.  The red and the turquoise colour of her clothes stand out against the dark background.   Her left leg is raised and her foot rests on a stool and this pose means that her white underpants are visible to the viewer.  She has been asked to pose in a certain way and by the look of her expression she is well aware of how the artist looks at her.  A large cat lies on the floor next to Thérèse.  It appears to be the same cat that appeared with Balthus in the painting King of the Cats (see previous blog).  The painting is now housed in The Art Institute of Chicago.

The Victim by Balthus (1939 - 1946)
The Victim by Balthus (1939 – 1946)

One of his best known works is one he started just before the onset of World War II but was not completed until March 1946.  It was entitled The Victim. It was one of his largest paintings measuring 132 x 218 cms (52 x 86in) and it was because of that size of it that he had to leave it in his Paris studio when he and his wife, Antoinette, at the onset of war, moved to Champrovent in Savoie which had not been occupied by the Germans.  They later moved to Switzerland to live with Antoinette’s parents and did not return to his Paris studio until March 1946.  We see a life-sized ashen body of a naked woman lying on a white sheet which covers a low bedstead.  Is she merely asleep or is she dead?  Does the title answer the question?  The title comes from a novella written by Balthus’ friend, the writer Pierre Jean Jouve.  His 1935 book La Scène capitale contained two novellas, La Victime and Dans les années profondes.

Below the bedstead and in the right foreground of the painting we can just make out a knife lying on the dark floor, the blade of which points directly to her heart.  Although, through the painting’s title we gather that the girl is dead, there is no sign of a wound on her body and neither blood on her body nor on the knife.  Was she strangled?  So it is up to us to decide whether the girl is dead or simply in a trance but we must remember that Balthus started to paint this before war broke out and only concluded it a year after the end of the war and the atrocities of war would be fresh in the artist’s mind.  Another question is, who sat for this painting and the answer is in some doubt.  The shape of the girls face and the cut of her hair leads many to believe it is Thérèse Blanchard, the only doubt being that she had never before posed nude for Balthus

Thérèse Dreaming by Balthus (1938)
Thérèse Dreaming by Balthus (1938)

A year later (1938) Balthus completed Thérèse Dreaming, another but similar painting to to Thérèse and the Cat, again featuring the now thirteen year old Thérèse.  The setting is once again his studio and we see her sitting before us in a similar pose.  This is a much bigger painting, measuring 150 x 130cms (59 x 51 in).  This time he added a striped wallpaper (which did not exist in his studio) as a background and this time we can see the additional still life of a vase and a canister on a table.  The cat is once again part of the picture and we see it at the side of Thérèse lapping up some of its milk.  In the previous painting Thérèse was looking almost towards us but in this painting but in this work she has looked away, with her eyes closed, as if enjoying a daydream.  Thérèse’s clothes are unadorned and unfussy.  As Sabine Rewald wrote in her book Balthus Cats and Girls :

“…she appears the epitome of dormant sexuality.  Her white lace-trimmed slip surrounds her legs like a paper cornucopia wrapped around a bunch of flowers.  The cat lapping milk from a saucer serves as another tongue in cheek erotic metaphor…”

Since 1998 the painting has been housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection.

The Guitar Lesson by Balthus (1934)
The Guitar Lesson by Balthus (1934)

By far the most controversial and notorious painting by Balthus was one he completed in 1934 entitled The Guitar Lesson.  It is a merging of sex and violence which shocked those who saw it.  It is an encounter between a dominating and tyrannical women, who is the music teacher, in her early twenties, and a young girl, her student, thought to be about twelve years old. The music lesson has been halted.  A guitar lies on the floor and the woman has thrown the girl across her lap and pulled her black dress up over her waist.  The fingers of the teacher’s left hand dig into the upper part of the girl’s inner thigh.  It is as if the teacher is strumming a human guitar.  The girl lies there, naked from her navel to her knees.  The lower parts of her legs are covered by white socks.  The music teacher has grabbed a chunk of the young girl’s long hair and is yanking her head downwards.   To save herself from falling and in an attempt to alleviate the pain caused by her hair being pulled, the girl has grabbed the collar of the music teacher’s grey dress which uncovers the woman’s full right breast.  Her nipple juts out which indicates to us that the teacher is sexually aroused by what she is doing.

Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon by Enguerrand Quarton (c.1860)
Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon by Enguerrand Quarton (c.1860)

The positioning of the girl lying across the thighs of the teacher has often been likened to the 1455 painting Balthus must have seen in the Louvre, Pietà of Villeneuve-les-Avignon by  Enguerrand Quarton.

Portrait der Schwester des Künstlers (Baladine Klossowski) by Eugen Spiro (1902)
Portrait der Schwester des Künstlers (Baladine Klossowski) by Eugen Spiro (1902)

The girl who posed for The Guitar Lesson was Laurence Bataille, the daughter of a concierge.  She would come to Balthus’ studio with her mother who acted as her chaperone.  The striped wallpaper background and the grey dress of the music teacher were the same as we see in Baladine Klossowski 1902 portrait by her older brother Eugen Spiro.  It was first shown at  Balthus’ one man exhibition in April 1934 at the Galerie Pierre in Paris.   The gallery owner, Pierre Loeb, and Balthus decided that the painting should be placed in the back room of the gallery, but covered up, so that it, in fact, became a “peep show” for a select “priveleged” number of visitors.  The provenance of the painting is quite interesting. It was bought by James Thrall Soby, an American author, critic and patron of the arts, in 1938.  He had intended to exhibit along with his other paintings at the Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut but because of the controversial nature of the painting it remained unseen in the museum vaults.  Soby realised that there was no point in owning a painting that could never be exhibited and so, in 1945, he exchanged it with the Chilean surrealist artist, Roberto Matta Echaurren, for one of his paintings.  Roberto Matta Echaurren’ wife Patricia left him and married Pierre Matisse but one of the things she took with her was this painting.  Pierre Matisse, the youngest child of  Henri Matisse owned a gallery in New York and the painting remained hidden away in the vaults.  In 1977, it appeared for a month at Pierre Matisse’s 57th Street gallery in New York. It was a sensation and the press reviews referred to the painting and the art critics of the various newspapers and magazines wrote about it but said that they could not show the painting as it would shock the readers.   After the one month long show it was never exhibited again.

When the 1977 exhibition closed the gallery offered it to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  It was accepted by the museum but it was not put on show instead it was kept hidden away for five years in the basement.  In 1982 the Chairman of the Board of the MOMA, Blanchette Rockefeller, the wife of John D Rockefeller III, saw it at a small presentation of the works of art given to the MOMA by Pierre Matisse.  She was horrified by Balthus’ depiction terming it sacrilegious and obscene and demanded that it was returned to the Pierre Matisse Gallery immediately.  The Pierre Matisse gallery took it back and then sold it in 1984 to the film director, Mike Nichols. In the late 1980’s he sold it to the Thomas Ammann Gallery in Zurich.  They sold it on to an unknown wealthy private collector who I saw in one newspaper report, was the late Stavros Niarchos.  On his death in 1996 the painting became the property of his heirs.

In my next blog I will take a last look at the life of Balthus and share with you some more of his artworkwork.

—————————————————————————

Besides information about the life of Balthus and his art gleaned from the internet I have relied heavily on two books which I can highly recommend.

Firstly,  there is an excellent book  entitled Balthus Cats and Girls by the foremost expert on Balthus, Sabine Rewald.

Secondly, a very thick tome by Nicholas Fox Weber entitled Balthus, A Biography.

 

Balthus. Part 1. Mitsou and the King of the Cats

Balthus aged 88
Balthus aged 88

In my next few blogs, I am looking at the life and art of the French born painter Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, more simply known as Balthus.   Some of his artwork shocked the world and I have to warn you that some of his paintings you may find disturbing, and have often been termed offensive and disgusting.  These will appear in Part 2.

So what do we know about Balthus’ life?  The answer is “very little” and that is exactly how the artist wanted it to be.  As far as his life story was concerned, he wanted to preserve his anonymity, so much so, when negotiating with the Tate Modern, which was about to launch a retrospective of his work in 1968, he sent the curator of the exhibition a telegram which read:

“..NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS.  BEGIN:  BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN.  NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES.  REGARDS.  B…”

Balthus was born in Paris at the end of February 1908.  His father Erich Klossowski was a noted German historian and painter, who had come from a family which belonged to Polish nobility, and whose coat of arms was known as the Rola, which was used by a number of szlachta families.  The szlachta was a legally institutional privileged noble class and Balthus added the title “de Rola” to his name.  Balthus’ mother was Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro, but as a painter, used the name Baladine Klossowska.  She gave birth to two sons, Pierre in 1905 and Balthus in 1908.  Pierre went on to become a much heralded writer and philosopher.  Balthus and his family lived in rue Boissonade in Paris’ 14th arrondissement.  He and his brother had a privileged upbringing as his parents were part of the cultural elite in Paris and would entertain many of the cultural icons of the time such as the French writer and playwright, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, the Nobel prizewinning writer, and the French painter, Pierre Bonnard.  The family, who held German citizenship, along with Balthus’ uncle, the painter, Eugen Spiro, had to move out of Paris at the onset of World War I and they travelled to Berlin where Balthus’ father worked at the Lessing theatre as a stage and costume designer.

In 1917, Balthus’ mother and father separated and she took her sons, Pierre and Balthus, away from Berlin and set up home in Berne.  Later she and her two sons move to Conches, a small town just south of Geneva, and stayed with friends before renting a two-room apartment in rue Pré-Jerôme in 1920.  Balthus, as a child loved to draw and it was in 1919, whilst living in Conches, that, at the age of eleven, he produced a book of forty graphite and ink drawings.  The drawings were based on the experiences he had, when he fell in love with a stray cat which he called Mitsou and through his drawings he tells of his happiness derived from his feline friend and the sadness of losing his new friend.  It was in 1919 when Balthus’ mother Elisabeth first met Rainer Maria Rilke in Geneva.  He was a writer and poet.  They quickly became lovers, a relationship which lasted until he died of leukaemia in December 1926.  It was an unusual relationship as Rilke said he needed his own space when he worked and so the couple did not live together on a permanent basis.

Mitsou
Mitsou

On one of Rilke’s visits to the Klossowski home to see Elizabeth he saw the Mitsou drawings  done by her son, Balthus,  and was he was so impressed by them that  he offered to write the preface for the book and arranged for it to be printed in 1921 under the title Mitsou, Quarante images (Mitsou, Forty Images).  The set of forty drawings were an animated tale of how he found a cat on a park bench.

Finding the cat
Finding the cat

In the opening drawing of the set we see the boy tentatively leaning towards the cat making sure he doesn’t scare it off.  Look how Balthus has given the boy an air of astonishment as he looks at the cat, by shaping the mouth, raising the thick eyebrows and the angling the chin.  In complete contrast, the cat looks out at us in a statuesque sphinx-like way, totally unfazed by the boy’s approach.  Although the story is about him and the cat, Balthus has added other elements to the drawing.  The setting is a courtyard which is separated from a house by a wall and a gate.  He has also included vines climbing up the wall as a backdrop.

Losing the cat
Losing the cat

From this time on, Balthus love of cats was shown by the number of times he depicted felines in his artwork.  Drawing number 40 of Mitsou, the last one of the set, depicts Balthus crying when he realises the cat has run off and his feline friend has gone forever.

 In the summer of 1919 the family spend time in the picturesque Swiss village of Beatenberg which lies between the Bernese Alps and the still blue waters of Lake Thun.  It is whilst here that Balthus works as an assistant to the painter, Margrit Bey.  For next four summers Balthus and his family would return to Beatenberg and work alongside Margrit.  Between 1919 and 1921, during their stay in Conches both Balthus and his brother study at the College Calvin in Geneva.  For Balthus, the years between 1919 and 1921 were some of the best times he ever had and he was always pleased to recall those days

Rilke and Elisabeth Klossowska at Chateau Muzot (1923)
Rilke and Elisabeth Klossowska at Chateau Muzot (1923)

His mother was in love with Rilke and he was devoted to her.   Balthus also bonded with Rilke and he received nothing but compliments for his artwork from the writer.  To Balthus, Rilke was almost a surrogate father.

In April 1921 Baladine and her two sons move back to Berlin and go to live with her brother Eugen and later stay with her sister, Gina Trebicky.  Elisabeth had some of her paintings accepted for an exhibition of female artists at Galerie Fleckhtheim in Berlin and it is at this time that she is persuaded to change her name as an artist to Baladine.

In 1934, Balthus produced his first large scale painting entitled The Street.  It measured 195 x 240cm (77 x 94 ins).  He had already painted another version of this five years earlier, just before he journeyed to Morocco but some of the characters had changed.  The setting in both works is the rue Bourbon-le Château.

The Street by Balthus (1929)
The Street by Balthus (1929)

In this earlier version, seen above in black and white, we see a grandfather figure in top hat and topcoat holding firmly onto two young children as they cross the road.  The boy, in shorts, wears a hat with a pom-pom whilst the young girl dressed in a skirt and flowered hat.  In the later version this trio has been replaced by two other characters, which caused the outrage!

The Street by Balthus (1933)
The Street by Balthus (1933)

The 1934 version was one of a number of his works of the time which shocked the audience at Balthus’ first solo exhibition which was held in the Galerie Pierre in Paris.  The people in the street seemed to have stopped and are frozen in mid-flow, almost trance-like.   For this work Balthus retained the baker, the workman crossing the road with a plank of wood on his shoulder along with the woman carrying a young child, albeit now looking like a little man.   In this version we also have a young girl, racquet in hand, chasing a ball across the street. Again although possessing the height of a child she seems to be more like a small woman.   Balthus was questioned about that but he simply refused to elaborate more than saying “she is simply a little girl”.  The same boy, as seen in the first version, is still strolling haughtily towards us but is set back slightly in comparison to the first version.  However the major change is the inclusion of the two figures in the left foreground.  These two replace the elderly gentleman and the two young children.  The man tries to grope the girl as she passes him by and she raises her arm maybe in shock or maybe to strike her assailant.

Pierre Loeb the owner of Galerie Pierre said that having looked at the painting described it as a scene of anguished phantoms sleepwalking in a strange dreamlike state.  Balthus believed Loeb’s comments were nonsensical and although Loeb exhibited Balthus’ art in his gallery bringing him to the notice of the public, Balthus loathed him and termed him a “typical outsider who lacked true vision of what really mattered to painters”.

The painting was bought from Galerie Pierre in 1937 by James Thrall Soby, an American author, critic and patron of the arts.  However the painting was so controversial and so many of his friends disliked the sexual connotation that Soby wrote to Balthus in 1955 and asked him to retouch the gesture of the figures on the left.  Soby was surprised when Balthus agreed and wrote:

“…I used to like shocking people, but now it bores me…”

When Soby died in 1979 this painting was bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The King of the Cats by Balthus (1935)
The King of the Cats by Balthus (1935)

I am concluding this first part of my look at the life and art of Balthazar Klossowski by showing you the painting, the title of which the artist gave himself.  This is just one of three self portraits completed by Balthus.  The title of the 1935 painting was King of the Cats. Balthus was twenty-seven years of age when he painted this work.  It was painted in his Paris studio in rue Furstenberg.  The studio, which he bought in May 1933 was a fifth floor attic room  It was also the first property he ever purchased and  he remained here until October 1935.

Balthus had always had a love of cats and in this work we see him standing in a somewhat arrogant and aloof pose, with his beloved cat lovingly rubbing itself against his leg.  Because the view of the artist is seen from below it elongates him and adds to his imperious stance.  He is dressed in saffron pants, white shirt and red tie and a black jacket.  On his feet is a pair of pointed black shoes.  On the floor, to his left, is a stone slab leaning against a high stool with the inscription:

A PORTRAIT OF

H.M.

THE KING OF THE CATS

Painted by

HIMSELF

MCMXXXV

Balthus has added a little humour to the painting by placing a lion tamer’s whip on top of the stool !

It was in that year that Balthus started to sign his letters “King of the Cats”, the first being a letter, written in January 1935, to his soon to be wife, Antoinette de Watteville.

There is an air of self confidence about the figure and this has been put down to 1935 being a good year for him after the turbulent times of 1934 when his first one-man exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, featuring many depictions of pre-teen girls in erotic poses,  scandalised the critics and public alike.  The fall out over these paintings made Balthus give up painting for almost a year.

In the second part of my look at Balthus I will focus on the paintings which caused such a furore when exhibited in Galerie Pierre in Paris.

Besides information about Balthus and his art gleaned from the internet I have relied heavily on two excellent books which I can highly recommend.

Sabine Rewald, Curator for Modern Art, Dept. Of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sabine Rewald, Curator for Modern Art, Dept. Of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art standing next to Balthus painting entitled Thérèse

First there is the book Balthus Cats and Girls by the foremost expert on Balthus, Sabine Rewald.

Secondly, a very thick tome by Nicholas Fox Weber entitled Balthus, A Biography.

Paul Delvaux’s Sleeping Venus

Sleeping Venus by Paul Delvaux (1944)
Sleeping Venus by Paul Delvaux (1944)

In my last blog I looked at the life of André Masson, the French-born Belgian Surrealist and one of his paintings, which in some ways mirrored the physical and mental suffering he had to endure for most of his life.  Today my featured artist is the Belgian Surrealist painter, Paul Delvaux would never accept that he was a Surrealist or that his art followed the dictates of Surrealism.  In fact Delvaux was totally averse to being labelled with and sort of “–ism”.  Delvaux’s life could not be more different to that of Masson.  Delvaux’s dreamlike, somewhat gentle paintings I believe reflected his inner peace and contentment.

He was born in September 1897 in the home of his grandparents in Antheit-les-Huy, a small town in eastern Belgium.  He was the elder son of an affluent bourgeois family.  He was his mother’s favourite son and some say she molly-coddled and over-protected him.  His father was an Appeal Court lawyer and his younger brother André followed in his father’s footsteps and became part of the Belgian judicial system.

As a young child, in the summer he would go and stay with his four maiden aunts who lived in the nearby town of Wanze.  One of these ladies, his Aunt Adele, encouraged his early love of music, literature and art and when he was ten years old, for his first communion gift, she gave him a beautifully illustrated copy of Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Centre of the Earth.  This edition contained detailed engravings and illustrations by the French painter Édouard Riou, who collaborated with Jules Verne on many of his novels.  In Guy Carels 2004 biography of Delvaux entitled, Paul Delvaux – His Life, he quotes Delavaux’s comments about his youth and his passion for reading adventure novels:

 “…My overriding passion was the books of Jules Verne…. I was completely fascinated by the engraving of Riou showing Otto Lidenbrock the wise geologist from Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I reproduced this for the first time in 1939 in the Phases de la Lune I (Phases of the Moon I)….”

Delvaux attended the Athénée de Saint-Gilles School in Brussels, where he studied both Latin and Greek and it was at this time that he became acquainted with Homer’s great epic, the Odyssey with its adventures of Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca.  It is often said that childhood memories play a part in one’s future life but one recollection by Delvaux of his early schooling was to have an influence on many of his later works.   It was one of his earliest memories of the music room of his primary school in which there were two full-sized skeletons, that of a man and a monkey.  The sight of the two skeletons frightened him and he never forgot them and skeletons would often appear in his art work.

 Such tales of adventure featured prominently in his early childhood sketches.   He completed his regular school education at the age of eighteen and much to his father’s disappointment it was obvious that Paul was not going to enter the legal system.   His parents decided that if their son wasn’t to study law then he should study architecture and so they had him enroll on the architecture course run by the Brussels Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts.   Paul Delvaux did not enjoy the course, which consisted of copying the plans and elevations of classical buildings but little did he realise at the time that this training would play a major part in his future works of art.  Much to his parents’ disappointment, but to his own relief, Delvaux had to abandon the course as he failed to pass the exam in mathematics, which was a prerequisite for the continuation of the course.  His time on the course was not completely wasted as his understanding of linear perspective like the classical architecture was to feature in many of his future paintings.

 Paul Delvaux had always wanted to study art so that he could take it up professionally although that was not the future his parents had in mind.   His stroke of good fortune came in the summer of 1919 when he was almost twenty-two years of age.  He was on a family holiday at the Belgium seaside resort town of Knokke-le-Zoute.  One day whilst painting a seascape watercolour he was noticed by a professional artist who was so enamoured by his work he spoke to Paul’s parents and persuaded them to let their son attend the Brussels Académie des Beaux-Arts and pursue his desire to become a professional artist.  They reluctantly agreed and Paul Delvaux enrolled in the decorative painting class, which was run by Constant Montald, who also taught the featured artist of my last blog, Andre Masson and it was whilst on this course that Delvaux would once again immerse himself into the world of ancient Greece and Rome.  Another of his artistic instructors at the Académie was Jean Delville, the Belgian Symbolist painter.

For Auderghem by Paul Delvaux (1923)
For Auderghem by Paul Delvaux (1923)

Delvaux remained at the Academy for four years and during this time he completed almost a hundred works of art, mainly of the naturalistic landscape genre, often depicting scenes of his home town on the river Meuse, with its castle, Le Fort de Huy, perched on a high cliff above the river.  One of Delvaux’s early works was entitled For Auderghem,  which he completed in 1923 and depicts the railway bridge in the town of Auderghem, which is located to the southeast of Brussels, and lies along the Woluwe valley at the entrance to Forêt de Soignes.   In 1925 Delvaux held his first solo exhibition and two years later set up his first studio in his parent’s house.  At this time in his life he had no interest in Modern art, which he considered to be merely a “hoax” and instead, preferred the works of the Flemish Expressionists such as Frits van den Berghe, Gustave de Smet and Constant Permeke, whose paintings featured themes such as the countryside and village life.

 All this was to change in the 1930’s when he veered towards the art of the Surrealists.  He was never a member of André Breton’s group but was greatly influenced by the dreamlike works of Giorgio de Chirico which he saw in a Paris exhibition in 1926.  He was particularly interested in de Chirico’s painting style known as Pittura Metafisica, (Metaphysical art) which had been extremely popular between 1911 and 1920.  Another artist, a fellow countryman, whose art was to have a great influence on Delvaux, was René Magritte.  Delvaux found his work both amusing if somewhat disconcerting.

Delvaux’s work took on strangeness about it from the mid 1930’s with the introduction of nude figures in a world which the intimacy of nakedness is portrayed in very public settings.  There was none of the automatism we saw in Masson’s paintings in my last blog.   Delvaux’s works seem to be, although bizarre, very calculated and lack the spontaneity of Masson’s “subconscious” works.

Delvaux’s mother died in 1933 and four years later, his father died and it was in that same year, 1937, that he married Suzanne Purnal.  The marriage was a disaster.  However, some believe the emotional turmoil of their marriage resulted in Delvaux’s best works.  Delvaux had been very much in love with Anne-Marie de Martelaere but the relationship foundered because of his parents’ disapproval of her. Whether his marriage to Suzanne was a “rebound” thing, one may never know.  However, ten years later in 1947, completely by chance whilst visiting St Idesbald, he met his first-love Anne-Marie who had never married.  Delvaux left his wife Suzanne and went to live with Anne-Marie and the pair married in October 1952.

The Crucifixion by Paul Delvaux (1952)
The Crucifixion by Paul Delvaux (1952)

In 1950, Paul Delvaux became professor of painting at the Ecole Nationale de la Cambre in Brussels and he would teach there until 1962.  In 1952 he received the commission to create the wall frescos at the Ostend casino.  In 1952 Delvaux created one of his most controversial works, The Crucifixion.  The painting which is in the Royal Beaux-Arts Museum in Brussels shows a skeleton Christ on a cross between two skeletal crucified robbers.  Standing beneath the crucified trio is the centurion also depicted as a skeleton.    When this work was shown at the 1954 Venice Biennale it caused a furore.   Cardinal Roncalli, who would later become Pope John XXIII, was horrified and Delvaux was accused of blasphemy.  However Delvaux was unrepentant stating:

“…Through the skeleton, I represent a different kind of being in a kind of medieval mystery play which is perhaps profane, but never profanatory – the idea of sacrilege never entered my mind – it was put there by others…”

This skeleton painting is considered to be one of the most powerful and the most unforgettable in contemporary art.

Paul Delvaux Museum at St Idesbald
Paul Delvaux Museum at St Idesbald

Paul Delvaux received many honours during his life.  In 1955, he received the Italian Reggio Emilia-award.  In 1956, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Sciences, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium.  In 1966 he received the Belgian State Prize for his work of art together and he was appointed Chairman of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.  In 1982 the Paul Delvaux Museum opened in Saint Idesbald.   Delvaux died in Veurne, Belgium in 1994, at the age of 97.

Delvaux painted three versions of his Sleeping Venus.  The first he completed in 1932.    It is thought that the influence on the artist for this depiction was a visit in 1932 when he visited the Brussels Fair at which he came across the Pierre Spitzner’s Grand Musée Anatomique et Ethnologique, a travelling museum run by Pierre Spitzner,  which was a sort of travelling wax museum.    The centrepiece of the exhibition was a wax anatomical model of a sleeping woman, which opened to reveal her internal organs.  This bizarre Spitzner Sleeping Venus had a mechanical movement which was to emulate breath.   As if by magic, her chest rose and fell as she lay there, dressed in her white nightgown.    Delvaux didn’t exhibit the work until after his mother died, in 1933.  The painting received poor reviews and later Delvaux would destroy it.

The Sleeping Venus by Paul Delvaux Second version (1943)
The Sleeping Venus by Paul Delvaux
Second version (1943)

A second Sleeping Venus was completed by Delvaux in 1943.

 My featured painting today was his final version of Sleeping Venus, which he completed in 1944.  The setting is a Greco-Roman one.  The darkly coloured work is a dream-like depiction.  In the centre foreground, in a strange half-light, we have a female nude sleeping on a chaise longue.  However it is the characters which surround her which are the most puzzling.  Are we to believe they are part of the naked woman’s dream?  Who are the other naked women in the scene who seem to be visibly moved in prayer?   At the foot of the chaise longue we have one of Delvaux’s favourite inclusions – a skeleton (remember his fixation on skeletons since his primary school days).  Could it be that the sleeping woman’s dream is about death?  But if that was the subject of her subconscious why does she seem to be in a very relaxed state of sleep and not somebody who is experiencing a nightmare as she contemplates her mortality.  Another favourite feature often depicted in Delvaux’s paintings is present in this work – that of classical temple-like structures, which harks back to his early classical architectural training. Another common feature in this work which we see in a lot of his other works is his inclusion of a barren lifeless and petrified landscape.  To the left of the sleeping Venus is a fully-clothed lady whose pose is similar to that of a catwalk model!   Her expression, like many of the women in Delvaux’s works, is impassive.  She, like other females in his paintings, does not connect with us.   They have a haunting quality about them but as in a number of paintings by Delvaux there is a definite disconnect between the figures depicted.  All have a dream-like appearance.   It is almost as if he has added figures to the works without any reasoning behind the addition.

 Delvaux himself talked about his depictions of the Sleeping Venus in an interview he gave in which he described his first visit to the Spitzner Museum:

“…In the middle of the entrance to the Museum was a woman who was the cashier, then on one side there was a man’s skeleton and the skeleton of a monkey, and on the other side there was a representation of Siamese twins. And in the interior one saw a rather dramatic and terrifying series of anatomical casts in wax which represented the dramas and horrors of syphilis, the dramas, deformations.  And all this in the midst of the artificial gaiety of the fair. The contrast was so striking that it made a powerful impression on me … All the ‘Sleeping Venuses’ that I have made, come from there. Even the one in London, at the Tate Gallery. It is an exact copy of the sleeping Venus in the Spitzner Museum, but with Greek temples or dressmaker’s dummies, and the like. It is different, certainly, but the underlying feeling is the same…”

There is no doubt that there is a strange quality to many of Delvaux’s works and art historians have tried to figure out what is going on within the paintings.  They give their own interpretations and look for hidden symbolism but maybe we should be guided by the words of the artist himself as to his Sleeping Venus which he completed in 1944 during the Nazi flying-bomb attacks on his home town of Brussels.  Delvaux wrote about the painting in a letter:

 “…I remember that I placed my picture each evening when the painting session was over perpendicularly to the window thinking naively that, if a bomb should fall, it would be better protected in this position…….It is my belief that, perhaps unconsciously, I have put into the subject of this picture a certain mysterious and intangible disquiet – the classical town, with its temples lit by the moon, with, on the right, a strange building with horses’ heads which I took from the old Royal Circus at Brussels, some figures in agitation with, as contrast, this calm sleeping Venus, watched over by a black dressmaker’s dummy and a skeleton….I tried in this picture for contrast and mystery….It must be added that the psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish… I wanted to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus…”

Unlike the works of his contemporary André Masson, which I looked at in the previous blog, although Delvaux’s works with his naked women, skeletons, classical architecture are strange, even bizarre, there is something soothing about them unlike the disturbing works of Masson.  Could it be the fact that Masson and Delvaux’s lives were so different and their life experiences translated into the types of works they produced?

Gradiva by André Masson

After my last two blogs looking at the exquisite artistry of the American landscape painter, Frederic Church, I am going to give you something completely different today.   I was going to facetiously say that I was moving from the sublime to the ridiculous but I know that labelling Surrealism as “ridiculous” is a rather facile and childish statement.   Not being an artist, I would be curious to know if the upbringing of an artist and how life has treated them has any bearing on their painting style.  For example, Frederic Church came from a happy and financially sound family background and lived close to a very picturesque countryside and in some ways the works he produced mirrored not just the environment around him but the peace and tranquillity of his mind.   My featured artist today probably felt little of that peace and tranquillity in his life and that may account for some of the disturbing images he produced.  My artist today is André Masson and the painting of his I want to look at is entitled Gradiva which he completed in 1939.  It is not just about a painting but about a German novel and a renowned Austrian neurologist who was hailed as the founding father of psychoanalysis and along the way I will delve into the world of automatism in art!

André Masson
André Masson

Andre Masson was born in January 1896, in Balagny-sur-Thérain, in the northern French province of Oise, about sixty miles north of Paris.  Although born in France, because of his father’s business, he spent most of his childhood in neighbouring Belgium.  The family relocated to Lille in 1903 and then later moved to the capital Brussels.  In 1907, aged 11, he enrolled at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts et l’École des Arts Décoratifs in Brussels where he received tuition from the Belgian painter and muralist, Constant Montald, who would later teach the likes of Rene Magritte and Paul Develaux.   It was on Montald’s advice that Masson decided to leave Belgium and travel to France.  In 1912, Masson moved to Paris and attended the illustrious Parisian art college, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts where he attended Paul Albert Baudoin’s studio to study fresco painting.   In 1914 he was awarded a scholarship from the École des Beaux-Arts and this allowed him to travel to Italy, along with his fellow art student, Maurice Albert Loutreuil.    Whilst in Italy, Masson studied the art of fresco and discovered the works of Paolo Uccello.

These were exciting times for the youth of the day.  Art Nouveau, Impressionism and Symbolism were dominating the art scene and the music of Wagner and the thoughts of Nietzsche were often foremost in their minds.  Like many of his fellow art students of the time, André was a person who railed against convention and authority and had many run-ins with the police.  He embraced vegetarianism and would often be seen walking bare-footed along the streets.  He avidly read the great works of literature and philosophy and became a follower of the German poet and philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.

In 1914, France entered the First World War and there was a call to arms.  Many of the young eagerly put themselves forward to support their country.   Some, like Masson, looked on the fight that lay ahead in terms of a grand Wagnerian battle with little concern about their own mortality.  In an interview he gave the American magazine Newsweek in 1965 André Masson said that when war was declared he volunteered because he wanted to experience “the Wagnerian aspects of battle”.  Like many who marched off patriotically to the front line, they were mere “cannon fodder” and would never return home.   Although Masson, an infantryman, was not killed in the war, in April 1917, he was badly injured during the Second Battle of the Aisne when several French army battalions stormed the German lines on the Chemin des Dames ridge.  (It is interesting to note that one of the German soldiers at this battle was Adolph Hitler!)

The battle was short-lived and, for the French, it ended catastrophically in a matter of a few weeks.  Thousands of French troops were slaughtered.  Many others mutinied and the career of the French army’s Commander-in Chief, Richard Nivelle was destroyed. The attack, which Masson had taken part in proved disastrous and he was gravely wounded and lay helpless on the battlefield all night and it was not until the following day that stretcher bearers were able to reach him and take him to a field hospital.   The wound to his chest and abdomen was of such severity that Masson remained in hospital for the next two years.   Not only did he suffer horrendous physical injuries but the battle and his witnessing the death and maiming of many of his colleagues left him mentally scarred and he had to undergo a long period of psychiatric rehabilitation to treat the devastating effect it all had on his mind.   His patriotic rush to serve his country resulted in constant physical pain, nightmares and insomnia for the rest of his life and he was advised by psychiatrists to stay away from the noise and chaos of cities.

In April 1919 Masson went to Céret, a town which lies in the Pyrénées foothills in south-west France.   Céret was, around this time, a popular meeting place for artists, such as Picasso, Modigliani, Andre Derrain and Matisse.  Whilst living there Masson met Odette Cabale, who became his wife. Odette became pregnant and Masson decides to return to Paris where his parents could assist her.  In 1920 their daughter Lily was born. Masson sets up a studio at 45 Rue Blomet in Paris which soon became a local meeting place for aspiring artists as well as some influential people such as the author Ernest Hemmingway and the writer and art collector Gertrude Stein.

Battle of the Fishes by André Masson (1926)
Battle of the Fishes by André Masson (1926)

In 1924 the German-born art historian, art collector and art dealer, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, organised Masson’s first solo exhibition at his Galerie Simon. One of the viewers at the exhibition was André Breton and he bought a work by Masson entitled The Four Elements.   Breton was the founder of the Surrealist Movement and later that year published Manifeste du surrealism, his Surrealist Manifesto, in which he had defined surrealism as “pure psychic automatism”.   Masson, who had been invited to join Breton’s group of Surrealists, was influenced by the ideas Breton had put forward and began to experiment with “automatic drawing” or automatism.  Automatism was a way of creating drawings in which artists smother conscious management of the movements of their hand, and by doing so, allow their unconscious mind to take over.  Breton and his Surrealists believed automatism in art was a higher form of behaviour.   For them, automatism could express the creative force of what they believed was the unconscious in art.   Masson’s work could be categorised as a semi-abstract variety of Surrealism, which is experimental use with unusual, such as sand.  His so-called sand pictures were works which his automatic drawing would be first put on the canvas using glue.  Then before the glue had dried he would sprinkle coloured sand over it.  The canvas would then be shaken and the sand would only remain on the glue.  One of his most famous and most successful  “sand paintings” is Battle of the Fishes, which he completed in 1926 and is now housed in the MOMA in New York.  I read a piece about this work which described it as:

” a work which a primordial eroticism is revealed through an imagery of conflict and metamorphosis, poetically equating the submarine imagery with its physical substance…”

Is that how you see it ????????

In 1925, Masson participated in the first Surrealist exhibition, at the Galerie Pierre, alongside Picasso, Ernst, Klee, Man Ray. However, André Masson fell out with Breton and his Surrealists mainly due to Breton’s authoritarian leadership of the group and his dogmatic attitude.  Masson also came round to the fact that automatism was becoming too much of a constraint on his art and so in 1929 he severed ties with the group.  It was that same year that Masson and his wife Odette parted company after almost ten years of marriage.

Masson spent some time in the Provencal hills around the town of Grasse, where he met Matisse.  In 1934 Masson returns to Paris but that February he is alarmed by the right-wing Fascist riots which take place in the city that February.  He decided to flee the turmoil that has beset the French capital and headed south to Spain and the city of Barcelona.  He was accompanied by Rose Maklès, sister of the wife of his best friend and the well-known author Georges Bataille. In December 1934 André and Rose married in Tossa de Mar on the Costa Brava, and in June 1935 their son Diego was born, later, in September 1936. a second son Luis was born.   Masson’s decision to relocate to Spain, to avoid the chaos of riots in Paris, was an unfortunate one as in October 1934 the Spanish city was hit by a violent insurrection of its people and Masson and his family became trapped in a friend’s house which was at the heart of the city and which was being subjected to constant shelling and sniper fire.  This was just the scenario his psychiatrists had told him to avoid when he was discharged from hospital at the end of the First World War.  The situation deteriorated further in 1936 with the start of the Spanish Civil War and Masson and his family quickly headed back to France.  His return to France also coincided with his return to the Surrealist fold as he and André Breton settled their differences and the following January, Masson exhibited works at the Surrealist Exposition of Paris which was held at Georges Wildenstein’s Galérie Beaux-Arts.

The year 1939 was marked by the start of the Second World War and in January 1940 the German army marched into Paris.   Masson found himself in a precarious situation.   His artwork had already been deemed as degenerate by the Nazis.  The Nazis looked upon the Surrealist Movement and its artists as having close ties to the Communists and to top all that,  Masson’s wife Rose was Jewish.  He realised that for he and his family, in order to survive, had to flee France.  From Paris they headed south to Auvergne and then on to Marseille.  Here a group of Americans led by Varian Fry, a journalist, had set up a European Rescue Committee which helped Jews and Germans blacklisted by the Nazi authorities to escape to the USA.   Varian Fry hid the refugees at the Villa Air-Bel, a chateau on the outskirts of Marseille and then took them via Spain to neutral Portugal, or shipped them from Marseille to Martinique and from there on to the USA, which was Masson escape route.

André Masson and his family, along with some of his artwork, landed in America in 1941 and one would think that his troubles were over but alas the US Customs thought differently as when they examined his drawings they declared five of them to be pornographic and tore them to pieces right in front of the artist’s eyes !!!   For a short while he lived in New York before moving to Connecticut.   In 1945, with the war over, the Masson family returned to France, where they lived for a while with his wife’s sister, Simone.  In 1947 they moved to the small town of Le Tholonet, which lies close to Aix-en-Provence in southern France.   He continued to paint and received many lucrative commissions including one from the French Culture Ministry to paint the ceiling at the Parisian Théatre Odéon.  A series of solo and retrospective exhibitions of his work are held all over Europe and America.  He visited Rome and Venice in the 1950’s and from these trips, he produced a beautiful series of coloured lithographs of Italian landscapes.

Masson’s wife Rose died in August 1986 and Masson himself died in Paris in October 1987 aged 91.

Gradiva by André Msson (1939)
Gradiva by André Msson (1939)

The painting of André Masson I have chosen today is entitled Gradiva which he completed in 1939.  So who is Gradiva?   Gradiva, is Latin for “the woman who walks and in the Vatican Museum, there is a Roman bas-relief (a projecting image with a shallow overall depth), of Gradiva.    This sculpture depicts a young robed woman who we see raising the hems of her skirts so as to be able to stride forward at pace.  This sculpture was the basis for the novel written by the German author Wilhelm Jensen, entitled Gradiva.    He originally published his fictional tale, it in a serialised form, in the Viennese newspaper, Neue Freie Presse in 1902.

Bas-relief of Gradiva
Bas-relief of Gradiva

It is the story of Norbert Hanold, a young archaeologist who became totally obsessed with a woman who did not even exist. He had visited the Vatican museum when he was struck by the beauty of a bas-relief of young Roman woman, very light on her feet, whom he baptized “Gradiva” (she who walks). He purchased a reproduction of the sculpture, which he hung on the wall of his workroom. He becomes fixated by the image and mystery of this enigmatic young woman. One night he dreams that he is in Pompeii in AD 79, just before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. There he meets Gradiva.  He desperately tries to warn her about the horrific events that are about to occur, but he finds himself powerless to rescue her.  After waking, he is overcome by the longing to meet Gradiva. He immediately sets off for Pompeii, where he meets a young woman, very much alive, whom he believes is Gradiva. In the course of the meetings that follow, he tries to rationalise his fixation for the girl by interpreting signs such as the fact that Gradiva appears at noon, the ghost hour, and other such signs. Gradiva, in turn, seeks to cure him by gradually revealing her identity to him. Through this adventure, Norbert finally sees Gradiva for who she really is: his neighbour and childhood friend Zoe Bertgang (“Bertgang” is the German equivalent of “Gradiva”), who also travelled to Pompeii.  For years he had not seen her and had no desire to see her, but without realising it Norbert was still in love with her and he had substituted his love for Zoe with his love for Gradiva, the young woman of the bas-relief. Happily, his fixation for Gradiva finally yields to reality, and Norbert is cured.

In 1906, Sigmund Freud had been made aware of this story by Carl Jung , who believed Freud would be interested in the dream sequences of the story.  Freud, who frequently cited his Interpretation of Dreams which he published in 1900, suggested in his review of Jensen’s novel that even dreams invented by an author could be analyzed by the same method as real ones. He fastidiously analyzed the two dreams which were the basis of Jensen’s story, and linked them to happenings in Norbert’s life. By doing this Freud attempted to demonstrate that dreams were substitute wish fulfilments and established that they constituted a return of the repressed.   According to the pschoanalysist, the source of Norbert Hanold’s fixation was his repression of his own sexuality, which caused him to forget, his past love, Zoe Bertgang, in order to keep him from recognizing her.  This he termed as “negative hallucinations”.  Freud concluded that the way Zoe treated Norbert when they met in Pompeii was in the manner of a good psychoanalyst, cautiously bringing to consciousness what Norbert forgot through repression.

As an interesting footnote to the Freud story, four months after he published his essay on Gradiva and Jensen’s story, he visited Rome and during the trip he went to see the bas-relief representing “Gradiva” at the museum of the Vatican, the very same one that had inspired Jensen to write his story. Just as Norbert Hainold, the character in Jensen’s story had done, Freud bought a copy of the bas-relief of Gradiva and hung it in his office in Vienna, at the foot of his divan. There it remained until he left Vienna, and took it with him to London in 1938, where it can be found on the wall of his London study which forms part of the Freud Museum.

In today’s featured painting, Masson  iconography for Gradiva (The Metamorphosis of Gradiva) is a Freudian illustration drawn directly from the Jensen story.  In the painting we see a large woman, half flesh, half marble sprawled on a marble plinth, the base of which is starting to crumble.  Her legs are splayed apart and between them we see a beef steak and a gaping shell-like vagina.  To the right of her, on the wall in the background, we see the erupting volcano.  To the left of her we see a large crack in the side wall signifying that the building she is in, is about to collapse.  Another strange addition to the painting is a swarm of bee-like creatures which seem to swarm in arc-like fashion behind the figure of the woman, similar to the arc formed by the way her marble arm arches over her head.  Why depict bees?   The whole of the painting is bathed in a flickering reddish light which highlights a clump of poppies which can be seen in the left foreground of the work.  I have tried to explain some of the iconography of this painting but I will leave you to try and figure out if there are more hidden meanings to what you see before you.

The novel, Gradiva by Wilhelm Jensen
The novel, Gradiva by Wilhelm Jensen

Finally for those of you who would like to read the complete version of Wilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva then you can get a copy from Amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/Gradiva-Pompeiian-Fancy-Classic-Reprint/dp/B0094OOP36

or  Amazon.co.uk:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gradiva-Pompeiian-Fancy-Classic-Reprint/dp/B0094UEIIW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1364119670&sr=8-1

I must apologise for the length of this blog but once I got started researching the life of the painter, the painting itself and the story of Gradiva I was loathed to cut anything out.   Not being a master of the art of précising, I don’t think I would make a good journalist !!!!!

Figure at a Window by Dali (1925) and Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity by Dali (1954)

Figure at a Window by Dali (1925)
Figure at a Window by Dali (1925)

My blog today looks at two paintings by the same artist, completed twenty-nine years apart.  There is an obvious a similarity about the works and yet they could not be more different.   As a non-painter, it is this difference in style which intrigues me.   The artist in question is Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, better known simply as Dali.

Dali was born in 1904 in Figueres, a Spanish Catalonian town close to the border with France.  He was born into a middle-class background.  His father, Salvador Dalí i Cusí, was a lawyer and notary and a fierce Catalan federalist.  His mother was Felipa Domenech Ferrés, a demure and pretty Barcelona girl, two years younger than her husband.   Felipa’s mother had been a talented craftsman, who had run a long-standing family establishment that specialized in making objets d’art.  Felipa Domenech before her marriage to Dali’s father in 1900 used to help her mother in the workshop and developed a considerable skill as a designer of `artistic objects’.    She was deft with her fingers, and was accomplished in drawing.  She would spend time fashioning delicate wax figurines out of coloured candles which was a source of amusement to her son.

It has been recorded that young Dali was both an intelligent and a precocious child.  His father was a strict disciplinarian and, thankfully for Dali, this was countered by the love he received from his mother, who often indulged her young son in his artwork and his many eccentricities.  This coddling of her son was probably partly due to her fear that she would lose him to illness as she did her first son.  It was not just his mother who spoilt him as he was the centre of attention of his maternal grandmother, Maria Ana Ferrés and his aunt Catalin.  His mother doted on him and at the first sign of illness he was allowed to take to his bed.  In her controversial book about her brother entitled Salvador Dali, Seen through the eyes of his sister,  Dali’s sister wrote how her mother only rarely let young Salvador out of her sight and would often sit by his bedside for hours at night as he slept for if he awoke and found himself alone, he would cause quite a commotion.   However his father’s relationship with his son was quite different.  He would never tolerate his son’s so-called eccentricities and often punished him.   Dali would often turn to his mother for affection after being chastised by his father and this would further annoy his father who looked upon Dali’s closeness to his mother as a kind of threat to the affection she gave to him, her husband and in consequence the father-son relationship deteriorated.  I am sure psychologists would consider this triangle of affection to have caused some of Dali’s future mental turmoil.

Dalí had had an older brother who was born nine months before him.  He had also been named Salvador but had died of gastroenteritis in infancy, just nine months before the artist was born.  The naming of their second son the same as their deceased son (as was the case with Vincent van Gogh and his deceased elder brother) may have played on Dali’s mind and he once recounted the story of the time, when he was just five years old, that his parents took him to the grave of his older brother and told him he was his brother’s reincarnation. Dali later wrote of this event and of his dead brother, saying:

“…[we] resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections.  ” He ” was probably a first version of myself, but conceived too much in the absolute…”

In 1908 his sister Ana Maria was born and it is her who features in the first of today’s paintings.  Dali started school at the age of four, attending the Escuela Pública (public school) in Figueres.   This was not the local Catholic school which he could have attended but his father who held an anti-Catholic sentiment decided to send him to the local state school.   Dalí had an aversion to school life, found concentrating during lessons very difficult and he spent most of his time daydreaming.  This lack of attention to his school work and his seemingly lack of progress with his academic work after the first year annoyed his father and caused him to have a re-think about his son’s schooling.  He eventually decided to have his son transferred to a private Catholic school, one run by the brothers of the French La Salle order,  where all of his classes were taught in French. This had a profound effect on Dali’s future life as although at home he spoke Catalan, he had been taught Spanish at that early school.  With his transfer to this new French speaking school, French was to become the language that he would use during his artistic career.  Dali was still not happy with life at school, maybe because he was bullied but also to him, being confined in a small classroom, which he looked upon as a kind of gaol, was very claustrophobic.

What Dali liked was the school holidays when the family would spend time together in the seaside town of Cadaqués, where his father had been born and where the family had a small holiday house.  It was during these long summer holiday periods that he felt free from the constraints of school life, free to paint and draw pictures of his family and his beloved Catalan coastline and it was whilst holidaying at Cadaqués that he met the artist, Ramón Pichot, who was a family friend .  Pichot was an artist who painted mostly in the style of the Impressionists, but more importantly to Dali, Pichot also liked to experiment with some styles of the Catalan avant-garde.

On February 6th 1921 Dali’s mother Felipa died of breast cancer.  The death of his mother hit the sixteen year old Dali very hard.  It was a very traumatic time in his life.  He described the time as:

“…the worst blow of my life.  I worshipped her;   she was unique….. Weeping and with clenched teeth I swore that with all the power of the holy light which would one day circle my glorious name I would rescue my mother from death and from fate…”

Dali’s father quickly married his deceased wife’s sister Catalin who had already been living with the family for the past eleven years.

Ramón Pichot continued to mentor Dali during his youth and it was he who managed to persuade Dali’s father to let his son leave school and enrol at the San Fernando Academy of Art in Madrid.  In the autumn of 1922, Dali along with his father and sister travelled to Madrid and Dali sat a gruelling six day entrance examination which comprised of the candidates having to prepare drawings of a classical sculpture.  Dali passed the exam and aged 18,  he became a student at the Academy.   Life at the Academy was so different to life at school and Dali revelled in the freedom of self-expression.   Whilst there he made a number of friends including Federico García Lorca, who would become one of Spain’s leading poets and dramatists  and Luis Buñuel, who became an international film maker and film director half a century later.   Whilst at the Academy Dalí experimented with a number of painting styles, mainly avant- garde, such as Cubism, Futurism and Purism, which he studied through reading articles and studying reproductions in art journals. Dali started exhibiting his work in galleries in Barcelona and Madrid and was allowed two solo exhibitions.  He would also exhibit work at exhibitions with other Catalan modernists. His work was greeted with acclaim which boosted his confidence.  He believed that he was progressing steadily in the art world but he believed such progression was, in a way, being nullified by the type of artistic tuition he was receiving at the Academy.  He felt that neither the tutors nor the art syllabus was sufficiently challenging enough.   His dissatisfaction led to him often criticising and openly challenging the authorities at the Academy which eventually lead to him being asked to leave in 1926.

I will leave Dali’s life story at this point to concentrate on the first of my two featured paintings, entitled Figure at a Window, which Dali completed in 1925.   The painting is not one which we would immediately attribute to Dali.  Like many of his early works it features two of Dali’s favourite depictions – the Catalan coastline and a member of his family.    This early work by Dali, completed when he was twenty-one years of age, is one of Dali’s best known and most important early oil on canvas works.  Dali used his sister Ana Maria as his model.  She would remain the artist’s only female model until his beloved Gala came along in 1929.   Salvador’s relationship with his sister was very close, even more so when their mother died in 1921 and in some ways she took over the role of the mother who had to constantly cope with the ever discontented son.    The work we see is the height of tranquility.  This serene and peaceful feeling one gets when one studies the work is a result of Dali use of the predominant colours of light blues and lavenders.   There is a stress-free intimacy about the painting, which would soon disappear from his works.  We cannot see the face of the girl.  She has her back to us as she leans against the sill of the open window.  She gazes out at the bay at Cadaques, the seaside resort much loved by Dali.   This viewpoint, while lending the picture an air of intrigue, ensures that the viewer’s eye is drawn, like the girl’s, to the landscape ahead.

Girl from Ampurdam by Dali (1926)
Girl from Ampurdam by Dali (1926)

Although this is simply a painting of his sister looking out of a window with a view across a stretch of water, there is something about the way he has depicted the girl and the way she is dressed which adds a modicum of sensuality to the painting.  The clothes Ana Maria wears cling tightly against her and one cannot help but notice the way the tight fitting dress accentuates the swell of her buttocks.  It is interesting to note that a year later Dali painted The Girl of Ampurdam in which we once again see the rear view of a girl, standing in a provocative pose which again accentuates the curvature of the cheeks of her bottom.  It is not certain whether Ana Maria was the model for this painting but once again we can be in no doubt as to the part of the female anatomy that appealed to Dali the most !   Ana Maria commented about the way in which Dali portrayed her and also incorporated the Catalan landscape:

“…During the hours I served him as model, I never tired of looking at the landscape which already, and forever, formed part of me. He always painted me near a window. And my eyes had time to take in all the smallest details….”

Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity by Dali (1954)
Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity by Dali (1954)

And now to the second painting, which although in complete contrast to the first, I am sure you can recognise a certain similarity.  In this second work, which has the bizarre and somewhat tasteless title, Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity, the tranquillity and the innocent peacefulness of the first painting is nowhere to be seen.   Why would an artist suddenly change the atmosphere of the painting?  Why would he want to depict the violation of the female, who held a similar pose to the one in the earlier painting, which had been modelled by his sister?

For the answer to that maybe we need to consider a couple of books, one an autobiography and one a biography.  In 1942 Dali published his autobiography entitled, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí  and seven years later in 1949 his sister, Ana Maria published her own biography of her brother, Salvador Dali as Seen by his sister.   Unfortunately Dali’s autobiography was a somewhat sanitised version of his life story and was quite different to the way in which his sister viewed him in her book.   Dali was horrified by Ana Maria’s version of his life and the way in which he lived it.  He felt it cast him in an unflattering light and viewed her words as a blatant betrayal and sadly his perceived view of her disloyalty led to the total collapse of their relationship.   So incensed was he by this betrayal by his sister that in 1954 he decided to paint another version of his 1925 Figure at the Window which had featured her.  He called his new painting Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity.  The figure of the young woman was, according to Robert Descharnes 2002 Dali biography, Dalí, L’héritage infernal, based upon a photograph published in a 1930’s pornographic magazine.

In the painting we once again have a rear view of a woman who is looking out over a stretch of water  at a distant landscape.  She is depicted leaning over a rail with horned shaped objects being pointed at her. One of these horns has positioned itself as the one which will sodomize her. These horned shaped objects are phallic-like in shape.  So what do the horns symbolise?  According to one of his biographers, the rhinoceros horns in the painting were symbolic and that  a rhinoceros is a very forceful animal as well as a very dangerous one.  The one thing about a rhinoceros, though, is that they do not attack unless provoked. This adds another element to the painting. Is it that Dali was provoked by his sister’s autobiography to paint this work?   If the woman is being sodomized, is it because she brought it upon herself?    The railing, which she is bent over and which is shattered by one of the larger phallic horns, symbolizes a chastity belt and its destruction symbolizes the destruction of her chastity.

One would wonder who would want to own such a disturbing painting.   However we do know who owned it up until February 2003 at which time he sold it at Sotheby’s London auction.   It was none other than Hugh Heffner who had, on behalf of Playboy Enterprises, sold it for two million pounds.  It had been hanging in the entryway to the dining room of the Great Hall in his Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.

 I am not sure it is the kind of painting I would like to have hanging in the dining room of our Bed & Breakfast establishment.

I and the Village and The Birthday by Marc Chagall

I and the Village by Marc Chagall (1911)
I and the Village by Marc Chagall (1911)

Having just completed my four part look at the quartet of Scottish Colourists I am turning to a painter from the same era but one who could not be more different in style.  For my blog today I want to look at the early life of and two fascinating paintings by the Russian-Jewish artist, Marc Chagall.  He was a painter of poetic, surreal images that to him, represented a topsy-turvy world, combining fantasy and spirituality with a modernist style

house
Chagall’s family home in Vitebsk

 Marc Chagall, a name he did not use until 1915 when he arrived in Paris,  was born Moishe Segal on the 7th of July 1887 in the small Jewish shetl of Liozna part of the town of Vitebsk, which was in the Russian Empire but now is situated in Belarus.   He was the eldest of nine children born into a Hasidic Jewish family.  His parents led a simple yet spartan life.  His mother Feige-Ite ran a small grocery shop from their home.  His grandfather worked as a teacher and a cantor in a local synagogue and had secured a position for Marc Chagall’s father as a clerk at a wholesale herring merchants but in Marc Chagall’s autobiography, My Life, he criticised his grandfather for his father’s placement and derided the job description of “clerk”.  He wrote:

“…My grandfather, a teacher of religion, could think of nothing better than to place my father – his eldest son, still a child – as a clerk with a firm of herring wholesalers, and his youngest son with a barber. No, my father was not a clerk, but, for thirty-two years, a plain workman. He lifted heavy barrels, and my heart used to twist like a Turkish pretzel as I watched him carrying those loads and stirring the little herrings with his frozen hands……Sometimes my father’s clothes would glisten with herring brine. The light played above him, besides him. But his face, now yellow, now clear, would sometimes break into a wan smile…”

 Chagall would always remember those early days of hardship and how hard his father worked to provide for his family.  In his 1922 autobiography, My Life, Chagall recalled those difficult times:

 “…Day after day, winter and summer, at six o’clock in the morning, my father got up and went off to the synagogue. There he said his usual prayer for some dead man or other. On his return he made ready the samovar, drank some tea and went to work. Hellish work, the work of a galley-slave. Why try to hide it? How tell about it? No word will ever ease my father’s lot… There was always plenty of butter and cheese on our table. Buttered bread, like an eternal symbol, was never out of my childish hands…”

 As a young child, Chagall went to the local heder, an elementary Jewish school in which children were taught to read the Torah and other books in Hebrew. Later he transferred to the local secular secondary school and it was here that young Chagall started to show an interest in art.  The fact that he, as a Jew, was allowed to go to the local secular school was in itself rather unusual as according to government dictates at the time, Jewish children were not allowed to study at secular schools.  In 1906 when Marc was nineteen years of age and with help from his mother, and despite his father’s protests, he enrolled at a private school of drawing, Artist Pen’s School of Drawing and Painting run by Yethuda Pen.  Yethuda Pen was a talented Jewish artist and art teacher and one of the outstanding figures of the Jewish Renaissance in Russian and Belarusian art.   Chagall remembers the day he first cast his eyes on the school and how it impressed him.  He recounted the time in his autobiography:

“…I learned about Pen when I was riding on a streetcar.  It was crossing the Cathedral Square and I saw a banner – white letters on blue: Artist Pen’s School. ‘What a cultured city is our Vitebsk,’ I thought...”

Later, in 1921, Chagall told his former tutor, Penn, about the day he first entered the college, accompanied by his mother, for an interview for a place on Penn’s art course and how nervous he was.  He wrote:

 “…I recall how, as a boy, I climbed the steps of your studio. And the tremor with which I awaited you: you were to decide my fate in my mother’s presence. I know how many other young boys in Vitebsk and the entire gubernia [administrative district] had their fates decided by you. For dozens of years your studio was the first to lure people in town… You have trained a vast generation of Jewish artists…”

He remained only a few months at Penn’s art school and in 1907 with little money, he left Vitebsk and headed for Saint Petersburg.  Chagall had already seen and felt the full force of the anti-Semitic Russian laws in his home town but they paled into insignificance compared to the discriminatory policies against Jews in Saint Petersburg.  However for Chagall these legal hardships and the fact that he had little money to live on, was of little consequence as he was now able to immerse himself in the whirlpool of artistic life.  These were also revolutionary times and the revolutionary mood of the Russian people against their Tsarist ruler could be seen in every-day life, through avant-garde magazines and art exhibitions which pioneered new and modern western art.  The art world was waking up to the new art of the French Fauves, the German Expressionists and the Italian Futurists.  This was an exciting time for the young Russian artist, Chagall, and this new art would greatly influence him.  Although he absorbed this new art and knew about the various artistic groupings, he was his own man and he wanted to stand alone and create his own unique artistic style.  The one thing Chagall was determined about was that he would never ever forget his childhood background and the people of Vitebsk.  He would never forget his family’s or his poor but happy upbringing and the family’s lowly status.  He would never forget the hand to mouth existence and the importance of the land and the farms that provided food for its people.  He would never forget the onion-shaped cupolas of the churches, the wooden houses with the grass roofs which helped insulate them.  His home town of Vitebsk was tattooed on his very heart and he would always remember it in his art with great affection.

Whilst living in St Petersburg Marc Chagall earned a living by working at the editorial office of the Russian-Jewish periodical, Voskhod.   He also carried on with his artistic studies first at the school of the Society for the Encouragement of Art Society of Art Supporters where he studied under the Russian painter and stage designer Nikolai Roerich and the following year he enrolled as a student at the Yelizaveta Zvantseva’s School of Drawing and Painting where one of his teachers was the great Russian artist and costume designer Leon Bakst.  Bakst had lived in Paris from 1893 to 1897, where he studied at the Académie Julian, and he would eventually persuade Chagall to head for the French capital, the then art capital of the world,  so as to best continue his artistic studies.

Bella Rosenfeldcourtesy of http://www.marcchagallart.net/
Bella Rosenfeld

In 1909, Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld who lived in his home town and had been visiting friends in St. Petersburg.   It was love at first sight and within a short time they had become engaged.   Although both Marc and Bella were from Vitebsk, their social worlds could not have been more different and for that reason Bella’s parents were very unhappy with the liaison.  Bella’s parents, Shmule and Alta Rosenfeld were extremely wealthy and ran a very successful jewellery business back in Vitebsk and had managed to put Bella through the best education culminating at the University of Moscow.  She was particularly interested in the workings of the theatre and in art, and whilst studying at university, she contributed articles to a Moscow newspaper.  Chagall’s love for Bella, who became his wife in 1915, was deep and enduring and in his autobiography he wrote with passion about his true love:

“… Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me; as if she has always watched over me, somewhere next to me, though I saw her for the very first time. I knew this is she, my wife. Her pale colouring, her eyes. How big and round and black they are! They are my eyes, my soul…”

In 1910, Chagall held his first solo exhibition, which was in the editorial office of the St Petersburg avant-garde magazine Apollon.  One of the visitors to the exhibition was Maxim Vinaver, a lawyer and deputy of the State Duma.  Vinaver, who was one of the outstanding figures in Russian Jewry of his time. He played a distinguished role as a Jewish communal leader, as well as one of the leaders of the Liberal Cadet Party. He was always a champion of the Jewish cause and as a deputy in the Russian Duma, Vinaver organized the Society to Secure Equality for the Jews in Russia.  Impressed by the talent of Chagall, he became his patron and gave him a monetary scholarship and with this financial assistance Chagall was able to go to Paris to carry on his artistic studies.  It was on arriving in the French capital that Moishe Segal adopted the French-sounding pseudonym, Marc Chagall.

I will leave the life story of Marc Chagall at this stage of his life and return to it in a later blog but for now I want to look at two of his paintings.  The first painting, and one of his most famous, is entitled I and the Village, which he completed in 1911, whilst living in Paris.  It is currently housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The painting on first sight is, like many of his works, unfathomable and one has to look carefully at all the elements depicted to try and understand what was going on in Chagall’s mind as he put brush to canvas.  It is a dream-like image with many overlapping elements.  This lively composition and the geometrical structures, such as lines, angles, triangles, circles, and squares clearly displays aspects of Cubism.  Some would have us believe that Chagall’s assortment of large and small circular forms are meant to depict the sun’s revolution within our solar system as well as the earth’s revolution around the sun, and the moon’s revolution around the earth. The moon being in the lower left of the painting is causing an eclipse of the sun.  However, maybe like me, this cosmic interpretation of the painting is possibly a step too far!

It is a collage of various objects.  It portrays the artist’s memories of the Hasidic Community of Vitebsk in which he was brought up, a peasant community, which relied heavily on the land and their animals for food. There are human and animal elements in the work which are both fragmented and randomly assembled to produce an abstract composition. The colours Chagall uses are vibrant and he has produced a severe contrast between the red, the green and the blue which he has liberally used.

Let us look more closely at the work and see if we can unravel the meaning of some of its elements.  If you look at the top right hand corner of the work you can make out a small town.  There is a church with its onion-shaped cupola and some brightly coloured houses some of which are upside down.   This inclusion, as he did in many of his works, is probably Chagall’s home town of Vitebsk and the fact that some of the houses are upturned could well be his way of illustrating that it is his town as visualised by him in his dream.  In front of the row of houses is man dressed in black with a scythe over his shoulder, presumably returning home after a hard day’s work in the fields.  In front of him is an upturned woman.   The woman, according to some descriptions is playing a violin.  However although people playing violins feature in many of Chagall’s works I beg to differ as far as this woman is concerned.  I have studied pictures of the painting, inverted it to see her better, and have concluded she is simply a peasant woman swinging her arms as if dancing.  I will let you decide.  This dream-like depiction of the peasant woman whether a violinist or a dancer could be a reference to the importance that music and dance played for entertainment for the people of Chagall’s erstwhile small Jewish community.

eye contact
Eye contact

The two main elements of the painting are, on the right, a green-faced man wearing a cap and on the left an animal.   The green colour of his face is an example of Fauvism where the colour used is not the one we would normally associate with in reality.  On the left is the head of an animal, possibly a horse or goat or cow.  On its cheek Chagall has painted an image of smaller goat or cow being milked.  If you look carefully you will see Chagall has drawn a line between the eye of the man and the eye of the animal and this probably refers to the close relationship, the inter-dependence between a peasant and his animal – a kind of “seeing eye to eye”, understanding the important relationship between man and beast.  The man, who wears a cross around his neck,  clutches hold of a small flowering branch, the seeds from which seem to be scattering, which could allude to the sowing of seed in the ground.

The Birthday by Marc Chagall (1915)
The Birthday by Marc Chagall (1915)

The reason why I chose Chagall for my blog today was because it was Valentine’s Day and I wanted to feature a painting which in some ways was the essence of true love between two people.  I could have gone for The Kiss by Gustave Klimt or Francesco Hayer or some other erotic and sensuous painting but I came across the painting by Chagall entitled Birthday and in a way it said everything to me about the love between two people.   Chagall painted the picture in 1915,  the year he married his beloved Bella Rosenfeld.  For Chagall his relationship with her was everything he could have wanted and I believe the couple in the painting are Marc and Bella.

Bella with White Collar by Marc Chagall (1917)
Bella with White Collar by Marc Chagall (1917)

Chagall painted Bella in many of his works and I believe this is one of them.  The painting depicts the man and the woman.  Although the woman’s face is clearly defined the man’s face is somewhat of a blur.   In the work we see them both seemingly elevated by their love for each other.  For them it was possible to float above the reality of the world and just enjoy each other’s company.  Look at the feet of the man and the woman.   They seem to be pointing in opposite directions.   Maybe he has given her the bunch of flowers and has walked past her but realises that the flowers without a kiss is not enough and so he literally bends over backwards to please his loved one by offering up a kiss.  She holds the flowers that he has given her and purses her lips in readiness for his kiss but he has walked past her.  However before disappointment can set in he returns, lips ready to kiss his beloved girl!  What could be more romantic?  However there is much more to this work of art than the two lovers.  Look at the amount of detail Chagall has put into the painting.  See how he has depicted the seeds of the watermelon which lies on the counter, the exotically detailed Indian blanket which lies on the bed and the blue lace fabric which hangs below the window.

I end by wishing you all a Happy Valentine’s Day and hope that your loved one manages to bend over backwards for you !!!

The photo of Chagall’s home and Bella Rosenfeld were courtesy of http://www.marcchagallart.net/

Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico

Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico (1914)
Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico (1914)

“…One must embrace all forms of art…”

With those words from the lecturer who gives us weekly Art History talks still ringing in my ears when I dared query the relevance of Surrealism, Abstract and Performance Art, I will, for his sake, attempt to seduce you with a modicum of Pittura Metafisica and talk about the life of its founder and main proponent and leave you to decide whether you can embrace my tutor’s concept.

Pittura Metafisica or Metaphysical Art was a movement formed by the Italian painter, writer and theatre designer, Giorgio de Chirico and is a term applied to his work in the early twentieth century and to the work of his friend Carlo Carrà.  So in a few words, what is Metaphysical Art?   It is a depiction of dream-like things with sharp contrasts of light and shadow which sometimes gives the impression of being slightly threatening and has a mysterious quality. There is often a feeling of neoclassicism about the works and in many instances there is a mood of depressing purposelessness and a scary-type remoteness of a world alienated from man and, by the way the artist has arranged completely unrelated objects in the work, has somehow created a secret, often magical meaning to the work with their recognizable iconography and their illusory depictions with their subverted one-point perspective.  Often within the paintings, regularly of types of architecture found in Mediterranean cities, one would see classical statues or what look like tailor’s mannequins or expressionless human beings.  To this was often added inanimate objects such as coloured toys, geometrical instruments, fruit and small realistic paintings.

Giorgio de Chirico was the elder son, born in Vólos, Greece in 1888, of Italian parents.  His mother was Gemma Cervetto,  a noblewoman of Genoese origin and his father, Evaristo, was from Sicily.  He had a brother Andrea, who was two years his junior, and the two would remain close friends and confidants until the death of their mother in 1936 at which time, they started to drift apart.  The parents had moved from Tuscany and were living in Greece as his father was an engineer who was involved in the overseeing of the construction of the Greek railway system in Thessaly.  Giorgio and his brother  had early parental encouragement to take an interest in art and in the stories from Greek mythology and this latter was probably made somewhat easier by the fact that de Chirico’s home town of Vólos was built on the area which was once the site of the ancient port of Ioclos, which was were Jason boarded his ship Argo accompanied by the Argonauts as they set sail in their quest to find the Golden Fleece.  De Chirico’s childhood health was not good and it is recorded that he suffered from numerous bouts of stomach disorders which could well be the reason for his ever increasing bouts of melancholy which would, in later life, turn towards a more serious form of depression and lead him to having a fairly jaundiced view of life.  His initial artistic training came at the age of seven when his father arranged for him to have drawing lessons from a Swiss painter, Emile Gilleron, who taught his young charge the fundamentals of drawing.  De Chirico completed and signed his first work, a depiction of a galloping horse, at the age of seven, which was acquired by the Austrian-Hungarian Consulate General in Vólos.  In 1899, his father moved the family from Vólos to Athens.

In 1903, at the age of fifteen, Giorgio attended the Athens Polytechnic, which at the time was both an engineering school and the Academy of Fine Art. Here he studied drawing and painting and received tuition from, amongst others, Georgios Roilos and Konstantinos Bolonakis, who were the most important and influential Greek painters of the late 19th-early 20th century.  De Chirico’s father died in 1905 and this event is thought to have been a contributing factor to Giorgio’s failure in his final Academy exams that same year.   In the autumn of the following year, the family left Greece and went to live in Munich where Giorgio enrolled at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.    It was during de Chirico’s eighteen month tenure at the Academy that he came across and was influenced by the artistic works of the Swiss Symbolist painter, Arnold Böcklin and the bizarre works of the German Symbolist painter and sculptor, Max Klinger.   It is thought that their art was one of the reasons why de Chirico began to reject naturalism and instead concentrate on more illusionary and imaginary subjects for his paintings.   He was also influenced by the literary works of the German philosophers, Schopenhauer, Weininger and Frederick Nietzsche.  It was Nietzsche who tried to persuade artists of the time to “refute reality”.

In March 1910, de Chirico left Germany and travelled to Milan to rejoin his mother.  He stayed there for six months before moving on to Florence the following year.  Whilst staying in the Tuscan city he studied the works of the great thirteenth century Florentine painter and architect Giotto de Bordone.   It was whilst in Florence that de Chirico began a series of works known as his Metaphysical Town Square paintings, which depicted deserted public squares with sombre monolithic arches which cast giant dark shadows.  The first painting in the series which he completed in 1910 was entitled The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon and the idea came to him after he spent an afternoon wandering around the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence.  He recalled that time and what he experienced on that day and explained his painting by saying:

“…One clear autumn afternoon I was sitting on a bench in the middle of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. It was of course not the first time I had seen this square…The whole world, down to the marble of the buildings and fountains, seemed to me to be convalescent…Then I had the strange impression I was looking at these things for the first time, and the composition of my picture came to my mind’s eye. Now each time I look at that painting I see that moment. Nevertheless the moment is an enigma to me, for it is inexplicable…”

In July 1911 he and his mother left Florence and headed for Paris where his brother Andrea was living but on his way they stopped off for a few days at Turin.  De Chirico liked Turin and was intensely stimulated by what he saw in that city and often referred to the city’s architecture, with all its archways and piazzas, as the ‘metaphysical aspect’ of Turin, something which would shape his art in the future.  De Chirico arrived in the French capital that same month, joining his brother Andrea and it was through him that Giorgio de Chirico was introduced to Pierre Laprade who held the powerful position as one of the jurists at the Salon d’Automne.  De Chirico managed to get three of his works exhibited at that 1912 Salon and in 1913 exhibited paintings at the Salon des Indépendants, one of which he sold.  Soon his works became popular and he was introduced to the Parisian art dealer, Paul Guillaume with whom he signed a contract to produce more works for sale.  At the time, Guillaume Apollinaire, who was looked upon as the apostle of modern art, noticed de Chirico’s canvases and the two met at one of Apollinaire’s soirées.  Apollinaire was the first person to coin the term metaphysical to de Chirico’s art in an article he wrote for the left-wing French newspaper,  L’Intransigeant.  It was also through Apollinaire that Giorgio de Chirico and his brother, Andrea met Pablo Picasso and the Fauvist painter, André Derain.  Apollinaire showed great interest in the Giorgio’s work and soon became a great supporter of the artist introducing his work to the late Surrealist painters such as Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Giorgio Morandi, and René Magritte.  The Surrealists were influenced by his paintings but de Chirico had a love-hate relationship with them and when his style changed he was criticised by the Surrealists and he turned on them referring to them as “the leaders of modernistic imbecility.”

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, de Chirico decided to leave Paris and return to Florence.  In June 1915, de Chirico and his brother were conscripted into the Italian army and sent to join their regiment in Ferrara.  In 1917, he suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to the town’s military hospital.  It was whilst at the hospital that he met the artist Carlo Carrà and together they decided to launch the art movement la scuola metafisica (Metaphysical Painting movement).  When the war ended in 1918, the two artists set out the basic theories of the Pittura Metafisica and de Chirico published their ideas in the form of articles for the magazine Valori Plastici, a newly founded Rome-based magazine which focused on the aesthetic ideals and metaphysical artwork. The articles focused on his belief that there should be a return to traditional methods and iconography.  Although their Metaphysical Painting movement and ideas influenced the Surrealist painters of the time, the movement was short-lived and ended shortly after the two founders, de Chirico and Carrà fell out in 1919.

 From 1918 de Chirico’s work was exhibited extensively in Europe.  He returned to Paris in November 1924 but he no longer had the support from his friend Apollinaire who had died six years earlier.  This time during his stay in the French capital he became friends with the surrealist painters Max Ernst, René Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dalí. In 1929, Giorgio de Chirico married the Russian ballet dancer Raissa Gurievich Kroll and he worked with the Russian Ballet company of Sergei Diaghlev and during the next six months designed scenery and costumes for them. His first marriage ended in 1930 and he remarried that same year to another Russian émigré Isabella Pakswer.  This second marriage lasted for the rest of his life. In that year he also published an autobiographic novel Hebdomeros, Le peintre et son génie chez l’ecrivain.  In August 1935 he moved to New York, buoyed by the success of his earlier exhibitions in the city.  He remained there until January 1938 and then headed back to Italy eventually settling down in Rome.  Giorgio de Chirico died in Rome in 1978, aged 90.

The featured painting by de Chirico I am featuring today is entitled Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure), which he completed in 1914 just before he left France for Italy.  It is a classical example of his early work.  The setting for the work is the Paris station Gare Montparnasse and we see the long shadows and deep colors of early evening.  It is a dream-like, somewhat nightmarish depiction and some art historians believe that the subject of the painting coincided with a period of acute homesickness experienced by de Chirico whose overwhelming and all-consuming thought was to leave Paris, board a train and return to Italy.  One can only conjecture on some items he has included in the work and one can only ask questions which remain unanswered about other objects.  In many of de Chirico’s works, including this one, a steam train is featured and this could well be due to his early memories of his father, the railway engineer, and his fascination with rail transportation.  The painting is strange in many ways.  Look at how the smoke from the steam train rises vertically and yet the flags on the clock tower and the building to the left flutter furiously in a wind coming from right to left.  Was there a reason for this inconsistency?   There is absolutely no perspective in the way the artist has depicted the yellow road on which we see two figures and yet to the left of the road there is a structure which visibly recedes into the distance.  So why apply the laws of perspective to one element of the painting and not the other?  The strangest part of this painting is the inclusion of a large bunch of bananas in the right foreground of the painting.  This is not the first time such an object has been incorporated into his paintings, but what is the significance of this fruit with a French railway station?  I am sure art historians have had a field day postulating on the meaning!

I will leave you to decide whether you can take on board my art lecturer’s advice to “embrace all forms of art”.  For me his advice is a little hard to swallow!