Category: Artists

Exhibitions: Brenda Atwood Pinardi at UFORGE Gallery

atwoodpinardi-zonesandbarriers2Brenda Atwood Pinardi: Man with Fishlight, 1983. All photos by the author.

When I first stepped into the house in Hyde Park where Brenda Atwood Pinardi had lived the majority of her life, I was overwhelmed. Every glance revealed new impressions, of her as an artist, of her life with her husband (fellow artist and teacher Enrico Pinardi), of her interests and passions, of her tendencies as a collector, of the relationships she formed with students and colleagues. The house holds evidence of a rich and creative life, with knick-knacks and gifts and artworks and books accumulated over the course of several decades. There are shelves of vintage dolls, floor-to-ceiling framed drawings and prints, small sculptural works dotting every flat surface, and marvelously pink bathroom decor. It is exactly the type of house- complete with a separate backyard studio space- that I could imagine the artist residing in, having seen her work.

Through the month of May, UFORGE Gallery in Jamaica Plain is hosting a retrospective for Pinardi, a show dedicated to sharing her work with familiar and uninitiated audiences alike. Its primary focus is on her tremendous versatility. Schooled at Mass Art and later RISD in the 1960s, she worked in a range of media and covered many subjects, incorporating different influences and experimenting with new materials over time. Her early work, Zones and Barriers, is a dark, surreal series depicting round, lumpy figures with obscured eyes and pale, sallow skin. They stand alone or in small groups on gloomy shores, surrounded by eerie lights and radiant fish-creatures. They seem isolated, both from their surroundings and from the viewer, but their standoffishness intrigues all the more, and the high contrast of white-yellow and blackened sea-green exposes as much as it hides. At UFORGE, one large canvas from this series greets visitors at the entrance, while four more form an encompassing U-shape at the back of the gallery, acting both as experiential bookends as well as a dynamic introduction to Pinardi’s represented oeuvre.

atwoodpinardi-CardGameontheBeachBrenda Atwood Pinardi: Card Game on the Beach, 1983.

atwoodpinardi-zonesandbarriers1Brenda Atwood Pinardi: One Eyed Woman on the Beach, 1983.

atwoodpinardi-NightRiderBrenda Atwood Pinardi: Night Rider, unknown date.

atwoodpinardi-fallingBrenda Atwood Pinardi: The Voyage Home #3, unknown date.

The rest of the exhibit is laid out in small groupings, creating a number of individual aesthetic moments that balance across the whole space. A pair of canvases near the entrance shows figures suspended in the air, falling or flying, or possibly both, surrounded by mermaids, cats, and houses in a strange fairy tale pastiche. Nearby, a large square canvas titled Night Rider shows a long-haired woman clutching a horse, surrounded by swirling dots and abstract forms, all tinted a bold red hue. Evoking Seurat’s The Circus in its dynamism and Chagall’s horse paintings in its use of outline and simplified shapes, the work is still wholly Pinardi’s own in its audacity and sense of freedom. The piece is flanked by two monoprints from 1992, both featuring bold lines and rounded forms, referencing mythological beasts like the Minotaur. On the opposite wall, a trio of prints depicts strange figures of flesh and skull, rendered in grayscale stippling. This morose threesome is as surreal as the Zones and Barriers series but reads as more personal and introspective. These figures are grotesque and sad, seemingly facing an identity crisis in their composite bodies, existing awkwardly in outside forest spaces. The works were made in response to the Three Mile Island accident, their strange forms suggesting radiation poisoning and mutation.

Pinardi’s free-thinking use of color may be her most defining trait, with frequent use of sea imagery a close second. Taking in the works on view as a whole, visitors see a host of hues- midnight blues, sunny yellows, audacious reds, soft grays, sickly greens, aquamarines, bright magentas. She seems unfettered by traditional notions of color balance and realism, spreading around cutesy pinks and morbid blacks in ways that shouldn’t work in theory but somehow come together perfectly. Her assemblages- dating from the 2000s- offer playful bursts of color and form, teeming with seashells, baby dolls and mermaid figurines, vintage photographs, fake flowers, skulls, tree bark, and glitter. Encased primarily in shells and small wooden boxes, they provide numerous delights to anyone giving a close look, combining the meticulous introspection of Joseph Cornell with a little bit of Lisa Frank’s fluffy aesthetic. She constructed these assemblages regularly towards the end of her life, treating them as a kind of sketchbook practice.

atwoodpinardi-assemblage2Brenda Atwood Pinardi: Untitled Assemblage, 2000s

atwoodpinardi-assemblageBrenda Atwood Pinardi: Untitled Assemblage, 2000s

Ultimately, it is Pinardi’s eclecticism and boundless imagination that makes the biggest statement here. She was an artist who found inspiration everywhere: in her travels to New Mexico, Egypt, Bermuda, and elsewhere, in her large collection of ephemera (built up with the help of her husband), in her childhood memories of Cape Cod and the ocean, and in her personal experiences both joyous and tragic. The variety of styles and media on view at UFORGE represents Pinardi’s long and prolific life, her creative shifts and personal interests, and the lasting impact she had on her friends, students, and colleagues.

Poster Design: The Film Posters of Marian Stachurski

Moving away from Cuban posters, let’s take a look at another country that fostered some amazing, creative poster schools under a Communist government. As an art form, posters have been popular in Poland since their development in France in the 1880s and 90s, whether advertising gallery exhibitions and theater performances or promoting travel to foreigners. After the region gained political independence in 1918, industrialization and the new trade market led to a barrage of advertising and product-specific posters, incorporating new styles (mainly Cubism) and techniques. After World War II, Poland came under Soviet rule, and an official “Polish Poster School” was founded to spread propaganda through poster art. (In the USSR, graphic designers were actually considered better than fine artists, because they produced useful objects, as opposed to bourgeois painting and sculpture that served no function.)

Film production distribution was controlled by the state, and artists were hired to create posters for domestic use. By the mid-50s, some extreme Stalinist policies were lifted, and poster artists were given more freedom than other creatives. As in Cuba, there was no commercial intent, no push for posters to bring in audiences, so the content of the works didn’t really matter. These posters are rich with experimental techniques, surreal imagery, art historical references, and incredible imagination. I want to talk about them all the time, but I think the most reasonable approach is to do posts on individual artists. First I’ll take a look at Marian Stachurski, whom I’ll admit I thought was a woman for a while and was a little disappointed to find out was actually a man. It’s ok, his work is still pretty neat, and there are some women poster designers I will definitely be talking about in the future.

stachurski-anniegetyourgunMarian Stachurski: Annie Get Your Gun, 1958. via 50 Watts

Born in 1931, Stachurski studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts under Henryk Tomaszewski, an influential illustrator who taught many of the most successful poster designers in Poland. Stachurski created film posters from the late-1950s through the mid-70s, for both domestic and international films. As with many designers, he employed a range of styles and approaches, but his work is generally characterized by its simplified forms, playful color schemes, and mix of film stills with painted elements. He was influenced by Polish folk art, as seen in the almost naive approach to figure drawing; their bold outlines and blocky shapes recall the aesthetic of paper cut-out crafts popular in the surrounding region. His subjects tended to reference the films directly, but with the addition of fanciful or abstract elements. I love the folksy-cute characters in his Annie Get Your Gun and Seven Samurai posters, as well as the darker undertones of The Time Machine and Spirits of the Dead. My favorite is probably his poster for Truffaut’s Bed and Board; with its soft watercolor effect and butterfly imagery I’m reminded of Henry Darger’s illustrations.

Below is a sampling of Stachurski’s sizable oeuvre. Many more to be enjoyed at the sources! And for more general information about poster history in Poland check out this Smashing Magazine article.

tumblr_maarwi5uCJ1qhgo71o1_1280Marian Stachurski: Bullitt, 1971. via Polish Film Poster Picture Archive

w+cieniu+dobrego+drzewaMarian Stachurski: A Patch of Blue, 1968. via Polish Film Poster Picture Archive

 Vraziji otokMarian Stachurski: Podniebny Lot, 1960. via DESA Unicum

trzy+kroki+w+szalenstwoMarian Stachurski: Spirits of the Dead, 1971. via Polish Film Poster Picture Archive

siedmiu+samurajowMarian Stachurski: Seven Samurai, 1960. via Polish Film Poster Picture Archive

promMarian Stachurski: The Ferry, 1970. via Polish Film Poster Picture Archive

ewa+chce+spacMarian Stachurski: Ewa chce spac, 1958. via Art of Poster Gallery

Bed and Board - StachurskiMarian Stachurski: Bed and Board, 1972. via Polish Film Poster Picture Archive

In the Heat of the Night - StachurskiMarian Stachurski: In the Heat of the Night, 1976. via PolishPoster.com

Adventures of Arsene Lupin - Marian StachurskiMarian Stachurski: The Adventures of Arsene Lupin, 1958. via PolishPoster.com

Tomorrow is Forever - StachurskiMarian Stachurski: Tomorrow is Forever, 1958. via PolishPoster.com

Time Machine - StachurskiMarian Stachurski: The Time Machine, 1965. via PolishPoster.com

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Exhibitions: “Paweł Althamer: The Neighbors” at The New Museum

althamer-studyfromnature-1991Paweł Althamer: Study From Nature, 1991 (detail). All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

I visited the New Museum in New York for the first time a few weeks ago, and had a really good experience overall. (Though that spaceship thing was kind of a let down.) It’s kind of a strange building, an assortment of rooms piled on top of each other in a jumbled tower, with each floor serving as a single exhibition space. The main exhibit on view was devoted to Polish sculptor Paweł Althamer, spanning four floors and revealing the artist’s aesthetic innovation as well as his tendency to collaborate with people outside the art world establishment. I started at the top and worked my way down, and at first found his different practices unconnected and a little confusing, but gradually these seemingly disparate elements came together in exciting ways.

The first piece, Draftsmen’s Congress, is a full-gallery installation, a notable exercise in interactivity and art-as-play. Originally presented at the Berlin Biennial in 2012, the work began as a blank white room, which over the course of the exhibition became inundated with additions in paint and crayon, splattered along every surface, including the floor. Althamer also ran sculptural workshops to make new works for the space, which over time were also painted by visitors. I was immediately taken with the concept of this piece- at first sight I was just excited to be in such a colorful, playful room, and when I realized I could add my own mark, I was overjoyed. While my companion drew adorable birdies, I wrote a few key phrases. As a whole the work is fun and liberating, allowing visitors to freely express themselves, to collaborate, and to bask in the beauty of a space completely transformed by art. The room itself is a memorial to the people who visited during the exhibition’s run, marked by people of all ages and backgrounds, recording their names or dates or thoughts or drawings. It was also a very positive space, with lots of inspirational messages written throughout. My words weren’t quite so uplifting, but still pretty important to share, I think.

althamer-draftsmanscongressPaweł Althamer: Draftsmen’s Congress, 2014.

althamer-draftsmanscongress2Paweł Althamer: Draftsmen’s Congress, 2014. My addition.

althamer-draftsmanscongress3Paweł Althamer: Draftsmen’s Congress, 2014. My addition.

The next floor collected together a number of Althamer’s sculpture, proving a rather jarring shift from the previous installation. They are primarily figurative, life-size, made of biological material such as hemp, hair, hay, animal intestines, and wood. Some are clothed, some are nude, some are metal, some are abstracted. They are all to some extent unnerving, rendering the viewer uncomfortable through their use of animal and human matter, their confrontational gazes, and, often, the disenfranchised people they represent. Some of them are the result of collaborative projects, though (Maika Pollack notes) that is not always made clear in their presentation at the museum. The dominant piece is Matea, a cast-aluminum scene that came from a 2006 action performed in tandem with Althamer’s wife, Matejka. The couple set up a traditional sculptor’s studio in Greece, with each modeling for the other. Althamer cast this piece as a way to immortalize their collaboration, and the work is as much hers as it is his. A striking work in the corner called Black Market involved African immigrants whom Althamer had met in Warsaw and invited to carve small sculptures out of ebony wood. They themselves were not skilled as artisans, and through their participation Althamer hoped to break down barriers between artist and non-artist, while also referencing racial barriers in the art world and the historical notion of Primitivism. But, their names are not included in the museum wall text- they are simply presented as generalized African immigrants. Not really making any strides for black artists here. Further stressing the collaborative (but uncredited) aspects of his practice, music played by street musicians positioned in the lobby was pumped into the gallery, though I never knew the name of the person playing. By the time I reached the lobby, I forgot to check.

althamer-matea2006-08Paweł Althamer: Matea, 2006/2008.

althamer-spinasuitcase-1996Paweł Althamer: Self Portrait in a Suitcase, 1996.

althamer-blackmarket-2007Paweł Althamer: Black Market, 2007.

althamer-selfportrait-1993Paweł Althamer: Self Portrait, 1993.

Easily my favorite work was Mezalia, a stop-motion short film and its accompanying set, produced in collaboration with artist Paulina Antoniewicz and filmmaker Jacek Taszakowski. Stop-motion animation is one of my favorite art forms and it’s always fascinating to see the behind-the-scenes elements. The set is a miniature beach, with scattered trees and buildings, and a dock stretching over a mirrored surface. Two boys sit listlessly near the water with their new toy sailboat. Across from this set, a smaller structure is made up as a derelict, unfurnished apartment with a little Althamer stand-in peering sadly out the window at the boys. The film itself was sort of hidden on the other side of the gallery in the middle of a stairway, but I was happy to find it. Its style reminded of The Adventures of Mark Twain, both visually and thematically, and the use of Althamer’s lonely figure staring into the past as a framing device laces the entire film with underlying melancholy.

althamer-mezaliaset-2010Paweł Althamer: Mezalia, 2010 (detail).

althamer-mezaliaset2-2010Paweł Althamer: Mezalia, 2010 (detail).

The final floor featured my other favorite work, The Venetians. Made for the 2013 Venice Bienniale, it is a full-gallery installation of grey sculpture with faces cast from people Althamer met on the streets of Venice. This random sampling is meant to portray the diversity of Venice while highlighting those on the fringes, a common trope in his work since his earlier projects neighbors in his hometown of Brodno, an impoverished suburb of Warsaw. The works combine realistic facial features with abstracted bodies, as slick plastic is draped and stretched over steel armatures to form limbs and torsos. Life-size, they are placed throughout the gallery in different poses, so that viewers can walk among them- as on a city street, presumably. The effect is beautiful and uncanny and kind of funny all at once. In four corners of the space an earlier project is worked into The Venetians, a video series from 2003 called So-Called Waves and other Phenomena of the Mind which includes footage of the artist taking different drugs and undergoing hypnosis. I’ll admit I didn’t really pay much attention to these pieces, mostly because I was so captivated by the sculpture. And one of them shows Althamer watching his daughter’s birth and that kind of thing grosses me out so I walked away.

althamer-venetians-2013Paweł Althamer: The Venetians, 2013 (detail).

PAWEL-slide-OP2A-superJumboPaweł Althamer: The Venetians, 2013. Installation view. via The New York Times

PAWEL-slide-4746-superJumboPaweł Althamer: The Venetians, 2013 (detail). via The New York Times

althamer-socalledwaves-2003Paweł Althamer: So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind, 2003-04. Installation view.

This was my first exposure to Althamer, and it was a lot to process. I enjoyed the exhibit overall, taken with his bizarre sculptural style and interactive components of works like The Draftsmen’s Congress. Since my visit I’ve thought and read more about his projects, his collaborations, and how he is received and exhibited. Generally it seems he uses his art world cachet to promote his collaborative projects, and works diligently to bring his own art knowledge to communities who might not have access to art classes. The curators do not always mention or focus on the collaborators in Althamer’s work, sparking questions of authorship, but I would see that as more of a problem with the New Museum’s presentation than Althamer’s actual artistic practice.

Art: Re-Framing Western Masters with Beatriz González

Beatriz Gonzalez in studioBeatriz González in her studio. via El Blog de Diego García-Moreno

Known for her colorful renderings of classical masterpieces encased in furniture, as well as derisive Pop paintings culled from media images of Colombia’s current events, Beatriz González began her artistic career in the early 1960s with a series called Las Encajeras (“The Lacemakers”), which re-imagined Vermeer’s The Lacemaker (a painting that was also referenced heavily by Dalí) into abstracted paintings. She studied at the Studio Art School of the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, where Western art history was a focus despite the dearth of European masterpieces in Colombian museums. Her time there was affected by newly arrived professors with more progressive outlooks, like local abstract painter Carlos Rojas and influential Argentinian art critic Marta Traba. As a student González became interested in the Old Masters and sought to respond to their classicism in her work.

González grew up during a calamitous era of unofficial civil war known as “The Violence,” ultimately becoming an avid news junkie committed to both critiquing and celebrating her national culture. Colombia’s government gave little support to the arts, and the limited opportunities for international exhibitions led to a “certain auto-referential and regionalist quality of cultural production” (Carolina Ponce de León, Beatriz González) within the country, of which González was keenly aware. Often described as kitschy and iconoclastic, her work is aimed at the lower classes, especially those living in rural Colombia, and she proudly calls herself a “provincial artist” specializing in “an underdeveloped painting for underdeveloped countries” (Holland Cotter, “Art Review: A Wry Defiance Behind Garish Colors and Tabloid Dramas”).

encajera-almanaque-pielroja1964Beatriz González: Encajera Almanaque Pielroja, 1964. via Beatriz Gonzalez

encajera-in-situ1973Beatriz González: Encajera in Situ, 1973. via Beatriz Gonzalez

Her oeuvre can be seen as “a continuous process of reconciling opposites: the particular with the universal, high with popular art, and European classics with a provincial style” (Rubén D. Durán, Notable Twentieth-century Latin American Women). She seeks to re-interpret European academic painting to make it palatable and familiar to a Colombian audience. In Holland Cotter’s words, her works are “a witty blend of public service work and historical illustration,” offering an unorthodox route for famous paintings held in European and American collections to be seen and exhibited in Colombia. The results are generally enlightening, self-referential, and often funny. She places one of Degas’s bathers in a wash bin, paints a classical Madonna and Child in a wooden vanity, sticks Picasso on wall tiles, puts Vermeer in a basket, applies Renoir to a candy bowl, and sets The Last Supper on an actual table.

5.+Peinador+Gratia+Plena+BRBeatriz González: Peinador Gratia Plena, 1971. via Mujer: Anatomía Comparada

The Last Table 1970 by Beatriz Gonzalez born 1938Beatriz González: The Last Table, 1970. via Tate

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 11.33.54 PMBeatriz González: Salomé, 1974. via Beatriz Gonzalez

In merging her artistic practice with furniture, Gonzalez effectively brings “high” art down to a more accessible level, and she can share Western masterpieces with her peers in rural Colombia. Her painting style is bold, simplified, and often garish, with off-kilter color choices and flat forms, mimicking an untrained hand for a purposefully kitsch effect. She essentializes known masterpieces, paring them down to their basic shapes while adding her own cheeky adjustments in color and expression. Furniture and home decor become a canvas, and craft is equated with fine art. She also manipulates how her viewers look at art, forcing them to stoop down, peer into, or glance up, depending on the object she’s painted. The materials are often cheap, so she employs illusionistic faux-finishing techniques to create wood grain and metallic embellishments. Her work isn’t conventionally beautiful, but she’s creating her own conventions- her own set of standards within her so-called “provincial” art style.

Of her furniture works, Gonzalez says, ““The [pieces of] furniture that I make are paintings that comply with the rules of traditional art; what I mean is that I do them with color pigments and brushes, and I represent something that, though already there in a photograph or a reproduction, is, after all, a meta-representation- a representation of a representation. I surround these paintings with large frames that contain suggestions about the paintings themselves. They are big frames, like colonial altarpieces… If I make traditional paintings it is because at that moment I am thinking that everything is possible in this state of exciting irregularity.” (quoted in Inverted Utopias). The works she chooses are viewed as universally significant to the West, but she translates them into something specific to her Colombian audience, condemning the over-hyped fetishization of artists in the process. It’s a pretty neat trick.

gonzalez-naci-en-florencia1974Beatriz González: Naci en Florencia cuando fue pintado mi retrato (esta frase pronunciada en voz dulce y baja), 1974. via Beatriz Gonzalez

Beatriz Gonzalez - GuernicaBeatriz González: Mural para fabrica socialista, 1981. Installed at Museo de Arte Moderno in Medellín, Colombia, 2012. via Panoramio

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 11.32.06 PMBeatriz González: Mesa-Braque, 1975. via Beatriz Gonzalez

Sources:

Holland Cotter. “Art Review: A Wry Defiance Behind Garish Colors and Tabloid Dramas.New York Times, September 4, 1998.

Rubén D. Durán. Notable Twentieth-century Latin American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Eds. Cynthia Tompkins and David William Forster. Greenwood Press, 2001.

Carolina Ponce de León. Beatriz González: What An Honor to Be With You at This Historic Moment. El Museo del Barrio, 1998.

Victor Manuel Rodriguez-Sarmiento. “Cold War Legacies Otherwise: Latin American Art and Art History in Colonial Times.” PhD diss., University of Rochester, 2009.

Marta Traba. “Furniture as Frame” in Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America, eds. Mari Carmen Ramirez and Hector Olea. Yale University Press, 2004.

Art: Matisse During Wartime

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, World War II officially began. France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, but by 1940 the Nazis controlled half of the French state with its puppet government in Vichy, run by Marshall Philippe Pétain. At the time of the invasion, renowned artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) had recently separated from his wife of forty years and was planning to vacation to Brazil with his assistant Lydia Delectoroskaya. Upon meeting Pablo Picasso in Paris before his departure, he discovered the full scope of the invasion, and was shocked to hear of the failings of the French military against the Nazis. He cancelled his travel plans and after a lengthy sojourn through several towns in the south of France, he retreated to the resort town of Nice in the unoccupied zone, where he remained for most of the occupation. His experiences during the war, which included his divorce, forced relocation, and a debilitating illness, led to significant shifts in his artistic output, both in subject and technique.

During the Nazi occupation artists were under constant scrutiny and threat, forcing many to either flee the country or get in line with the new regime. When first “purifying” their own country, Nazi leaders examined all of Germany’s art holdings and declared most Modern artists “degenerate.” Their work was belittled in exhibition and sold off to foreign buyers at offensively low prices. In their methodical invasion of neighboring countries, art continued to play an important role in molding new territories into appropriate Germanic nations. Hitler’s loathing for avant-garde artwork and the significance he attributed to forging a new, respected Germanic culture were strong forces in the Nazi Party’s handling of art in France. Anything considered Jewish, Marxist, and/or decadent was often destroyed, or seized and sold to help fund the Party’s mission.

Artists like Marc Chagall fled to New York City to escape persecution, while others like Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain (two of Matisse’s fellow-Fauves) accepted invitations to tour Germany as part of a propaganda program. Still others fled to the unoccupied zone like Matisse, avoiding the heavy censorship and potential arrests experienced by those who remained in Vichy France. Matisse received several offers to emigrate to the United States and save himself from possible persecution- Mills College offered him a teaching position and Varian Fry came forward extending his Emergency Rescue Committee resources- but refused every opportunity. In a letter to his son Pierre, he famously posited, “If everyone who has any value leaves France, what remains of France?” (quoted in Cone, Artists Under Vichy). This sentiment reflects his belief in the French state, and in his own significance within French culture. While remaining in the country left him in danger of Nazi scrutiny, as well as severe supply shortages and bomb threats, he felt that departure would be an act of betrayal to his country in its time of need.

music-1939.jpg!HDHenri Matisse: Music, 1939. via WikiPaintings

Under the Vichy government salons and exhibitions continued to be held in Paris, including a revival of Fauve art, and due to the business end of art production there was less censorship than with literature- though now any artist who wished to show work had to prove themselves free of any Jewish background. Though sequestered in Nice, Matisse was “a vivid if distant presence in Paris” (Cone, Artists Under Vichy), showing works in several salons and group shows throughout the war years. Most major museums had emptied their galleries and stored their treasures in secret locations throughout the French countryside to protect them from Nazi looting. The leading trends in artistic output and discussion had shifted to more traditional, anti-decadent stances due to the influence of the Nazi presence. Soon after the armistice, a branch of Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry was erected, “which had the duty, among other tasks, of keeping the French press and art worlds under surveillance… [while] social events designed to attract a ‘certain’ French and pro-German literary and artistic intelligentsia were planned.” (Cone, Artists Under Vichy). Several pro-Nazi French writers and artists worked to make scapegoats out of prominent Modern artists like Picasso and Matisse, in defense of conventional values and rusticism in art. As Jack Flam notes, “Under the Nazi occupation, the French reactionaries were coming out of the woodwork and blaming the ills of the world on modern art” (Flam, Matisse and Picasso).

Matisse first took refuge in Nice during World War I, advised to seek warmer climates by his doctor. The quaint town, situated along the Mediterranean Sea, offered the painter bright colors and charming views to incorporate into his work, and he stayed for much of the 1920s and 30s. In 1938 he moved to a room in the Hotel Regina in the Cimiez neighborhood of Nice, a palace formerly used by Queen Victoria, and this change signified the start of the final stage of his life. He was known for being fairly apolitical, and during this time he “avoid[ed] making ripples” (Yve-Alain Bois, Matisse and Picasso). As the war raged on throughout Europe and his peers in the occupied zone suffered increasing subjugation, Matisse continued to paint feverishly, but found his travel options and visitors dwindling as it dragged on. Thematically his work shifted to reflect his more concerned and threatened world perspective, but generally he retained his optimistic use of color and impassioned view of nature.

still-life-with-a-magnolia-1941.jpg!HalfHDHenri Matisse: Still Life with a Magnolia, 1941. via WikiPaintings

As the war progressed, the artist’s subjects and technique moved further into abstract experimentation. His 1941 painting Still Life With a Magnolia is just one of many still lifes he painted between 1940 and 1941, most of which involved an arrangement of flowers and shells. All of the objects seem to hover in an undefined space painted a bold orange-red. There is no attention to light, shadow, or three-dimensionality, and the close cropping of the composition disguises any space-describing element. Still Life With Magnolias became the standard by which Matisse would judge his later paintings, as he propelled himself forward into more abstract, flatter forms. The thick outlines and vibrant background color are not new for his by-now substantial oeuvre, but its complete lack of a clear setting is. Without any sort of line delineating a surface or background, Matisse’s objects are devoid of context and can exist outside of the confines of reality. This juxtaposition of recognizable object and unknown space is a theme he pushes further and further in his later works until eventually the object and space are both abstracted and simplified.

In January of 1941, Matisse underwent an operation in Lyon for intestinal cancer. His doctors were unsure if he would even survive, given his age (72) and the danger of the procedure. He pleaded with the surgeon “Give me the three or four years I need to finish my work.” Though the operation left him “a virtual invalid for the rest of his life” (Watkins, Matisse), with hindered mobility and the need for constant care from nurses and assistants, he felt he had been given a second chance at life and aspired to push his art into unexplored realms so that his problems with image-making could be rationalized. With his country’s struggles under the Nazi occupation compounded with his own crippling health issues, Matisse chose to take a more optimistic view than some of his more politically and socially critical peers (specifically Picasso). Much of his work of this period continues to display his passion for nature, beauty, and color, with dazzling hues and swooping shapes often arranged playfully, reflecting his desire to seize what time he had left and give all that he can to the world.

Matisse-Woman-GrenobleHenri Matisse: Thèmes et variations, 1941. via Arts Everyday Living

Due to damage in his abdomen, he was only strong enough to hold himself erect for short periods of time. He developed special processes for working in his bed, with help from assistants like Monique Bourgeois (later Sister Jacques-Marie), and continued to work from the model as well as from his imagination and memory. To paint, he set up a desk-like contraption that hung over his lap and held a small canvas propped up in the back by his workbox. This state of incapacitation also encouraged him to pursue new means of creation. Though he continued to paint throughout the 1940s, Matisse felt inhibited by the medium. In 1941 he embarked upon a series of 158 line drawings, seeking to “recapture that inventive spontaneity present in the long process leading up to a painting” (Watkins, Matisse). The rapidity and sparseness of strokes necessary for line drawings spoke to his interest in simplification. With this approach he could more effectively capture the essence of an object or figure, with none of the apparent hindrances of light, color, dimensionality, or setting.

He remarked in 1939, “My line drawing is the purest and most direct translation of my emotion. The simplification of the medium allows that. And at the same time, these drawings are more complete than they may appear to some people who confuse them with a sketch. They generate light; seen on a dull day or in indirect light they contain, in addition to the quality and sensitivity of line, light and value differences which quite clearly correspond to color” (quoted in Watkins, Matisse). In these works, the absence of color and well-roundedness sap the image of its grounding in realism, with each feature boiled down to a white area loosely encircled in thin black lines.

November of 1942 saw the invasion of the free zone by German troops in reaction to the Allies landing in North Africa. All of France was now under Nazi control, and the war was closer than ever to Matisse’s seaside home. In 1943 he left Nice following rumor of Allied attack in the region, and moved to the nearby commune of Vence. That same year he exhibited with a salon for the first and only time during the war after “he was openly begged to do so, in support of young artists feeling deserted by their elders” (Bois, Matisse and Picasso): the Salon d’Automne with other former Fauves. In these later years of World War II, the artist hit upon the final synthesis of his own aesthetic and technical experiments with his gouache cut-outs.

911007Henri Matisse: Verve, 1937. via Galerie Michael

He had been testing the application of cut-paper collages for years, often using them as a means to organize the composition for a painting. He had created preparatory cut-out sketches for The Dance II in 1932, a mural commissioned for the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The first stand-alone cut-out work was the cover of the first issue of Verve magazine in 1937. Verve‘s publisher, the Greek art patron Tériade, encouraged Matisse to continue working with this technique, and eventually they began working together to publish his book of cut-outs, Jazz. In 1941 the publisher wrote to the artist concerning his concept for a book focusing solely on color, saying “It would be wonderful, because just now, when everything is becoming harder, it seems to me to be the right time to do the most difficult things. Paper is scarcely to be had and is of poor quality… A year ago, when we thought that we could only save what we could carry, I took the booklet with me with the samples of the La Fleche inks from which you had personally cut pages. And I now think less reverently you can find lovely colours. The Colour of Henri Matisse, The Book of Colour by Henri Matisse, what a wonderful special edition for Verve!” (quoted in Henri Matisse: Drawing With Scissors).

This book, begun in 1943 but not released until 1947, represents all Matisse had been increasingly attempting to realize in painting. His efforts to capture the bare essence of his subjects and completely merge form and color are finally combined in this new technique, as he can literally cut the color itself into the desired shapes, effectively drawing with his scissors. Thematically the books focuses on a range of topics, with images set against hand-painted lines of text- mostly personal notes the artist wrote to himself while working. Several pictures reference theater and the circus, while others call up memories of his trip to Tahiti a decade prior, as seen in various stylized natural shapes. As he progressed, the work became more abstract and varied, with “contemporary history- the experiences of World War II and the political persecution of his family- also reflected in coded form in many a motif” (Henri Matisse: Drawing With Scissors). This technique gave him a new freedom of expression and was easier to work with in bed (while his assistants painted different sheets of paper according to his color specifications).

cut-outs-3.jpg!HalfHDHenri Matisse: Codomas, 1943. via WikiPaintings

cut-outsHenri Matisse: The Destiny, 1943. via WikiPaintings

The cut-outs were a major breakthrough in his work, forging the link between his recent tendencies toward abstraction and his earlier Fauve paintings. They allowed him to express his positive memories of the circus, Tahiti, and other experiences in a daring and challenging medium, while simultaneously incorporating his contemporary trauma and fears through somewhat subtler motifs. His work on Jazz, and the subsequent works which the cut-out technique affected, was a form of introspective retreat as well as mental therapy that encouraged and strengthened him through the war years.

Matisse’s position and political leanings during the war have often been debated among scholars. He seemed keen to just continue his work during the occupation, and showed little apparent interest in becoming involved with the greater context of the war and Nazi infiltration. His participation in a 1937 exhibition of French art in Berlin organized in tandem by the Nazi and French governments, which featured Branch of Lilac (1914), a piece from his studio, again brings his political views into question. It is unlikely that this was any kind of pro-Nazi act, but rather perhaps a less vested interest in where his works were being shown, and a lack of understanding of the full extent of the exhibit’s anti-foreigner and anti-Jew aspects. Like many artists and intellectuals, he kept a low profile during this time, severely limited by his illness and fairly isolated by his location. He took part in several interviews during this period, but generally relegated the discussion to his work and artistic perspective.

However, he did speak out against the persecution of some of his peers and family members. He was “particularly repelled by the vile trip taken to Berlin by his ex-Fauve acolytes (Vlaminck, Derain, Friesz) under Nazi patronage” (Bois, Matisse and Picasso).When French artists (including Vlaminck) eager to give in to Nazi influence assaulted Picasso’s standing and spread rumors concerning his entry into a mental asylum, Matisse responded with outrage: “This is revolting!…. He lives with dignity in Paris, works, does not want to sell and solicits nothing. He took upon himself all the dignity that his colleagues have abandoned in such an unbelievable way” (quoted in Bois, Matisse and Picasso). In 1944, his ex-wife Amélie and daughter Marguerite were arrested for their involvement in the French Resistance, which was a great shock to him. Amélie was imprisoned for six months, while Marguerite was tortured by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp- luckily she was able to escape from the train en route to the camp and take shelter in nearby forests. Matisse appealed to friends and connections in Paris to help his family members avoid a tragic fate, and it is acknowledged that his intervention likely helped Amélie.

matisse_icarusHenri Matisse: Icarus, 1944. via

Throughout the war years, Matisse continued to engage himself in explorations of color and form, seeking to epitomize his notions of beauty. Surrounded by external suffering and incapacitated by his own internal disease, he chose to turn to art as therapy. It is both an escape and a show of hope, with the belief that he was meant to share his gifts in order to make the world a more beautiful place. His imagination and creative drive seem limitless, as he worked feverishly even during the course of his crippling illness and the onset of old age. The experiences of several decades’ worth of painting culminated in works of this period, as he stripped away many of the decorative embellishments from the Fauvist years and pared down the complexity of his compositions, often becoming more introspective in his subjects and approach. While working on his cut-outs he wrote to a friend, “What I did before this illness, before this operation, always has the feeling of too much effort; before this, I always lived with my belt tightened. What I created afterwards represents me myself: free and detached.”

 

Sources:

Olivier Berggruen and Max Hollein, eds. Henri Matisse: Drawing With Scissors, Masterpieces from the Late Years. Prestel, 2006.

Yve-Alain Bois. Matisse and Picasso. Flammarion, 1998.

Christie’s Lot 18 / Sale  7599: Jeune fille en robe blanche, assise près de la fenêtre. http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=5100005

Michele C. Cone. Artists Under Vichy: A Case of Prejudice and Persecution. Princeton University Press, 1992.

Michele C. Cone. “Matisse and the Nationalism of Vichy, 1940-1944.” Artnet Magazine.

Jack Flam. Matisse and Picasso: The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship. Westview Press, 2004.

Xavier Girard. Matisse in Nice: 1917-1954, trans. Saron Hughes. Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Lynn Nicholas. The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. Vintage, 1995.

Nicholas Watkins, Matisse. Phaidon Press, 1992.