30 November 2011

Bacchus In Autumn
























What a melancholy sight Bacchus and and his four little satyrs make on a cold November day.  You can see ice crystals on the grapes so it must be early morning.  Imagine the temperature of the lead underneath the gilded plomb dore.  Until March, when the women will gather in secret to celebrate the rituals of wine and  liberation, the party's over.
The Marsy brothers, Balthazar (c. 1624-1681) and Gaspard (1628-1674) were sculptors employed by King Louis XIV.  They created the Fountain of Bacchus for the King's gardens at Versailles, along with the Fountain of Latone, mother of Apollo and Artemis, and the Fountain of Enceladus, the grand trumpeter.  If Bacchus was a god of excess, Louis XIV was his fervent acolyte.  Fully a third of the cost of the renovations to Versailles was spent on the waterworks to supply its 50 fountains.  Thanks to Louis XIV,  water is a problem at Versailles to this day.

For furthers reading: Thomas Hedin, The Sculpture of Gaspard and Balthazard Marsy, Columbia (University of Missouri Press) 1983.
Image: Jean-Baptiste Leroux - Le bassin de Bacchus en automne -Chateau de Versailles, Collection Jean-Baptiste Leroux, Paris.

17 November 2011

Wanda Wulz And Trieste

Surrealism is a male domain, or so men have told us, and the outright misogyny  of many of its well known images obscures the surrealist woman.  Hidden in plain sight you could say, with a nod to the rapidly unfolding science of the mind.  Even so, one image and one untethered name keeps popping up: a catwoman and Wanda Wulz.  This is the tale of  my search for the woman behind  Cat Woman and where it has taken me.


For more than a century the Wulz family ran the preeminent photography studio in Trieste.  Founded in 1860 by Giuseppe Wulz who specialized in documentary  images, Fotografia Wulz became known for its portraiture under his son Carlo (1874-1928).  Carlo had two daughters, Marion and Wanda (1903-1984), both  free spirits with a camera.

If  strange convergences and surprises from the subconscious are elements of surrealism then the Wulz family, Wanda especially, were early and exuberant practitioners.  Even father Carlo must have found some playful sense lacking in  his portraits of the bourgeoisie; just look at the infant Wanda in a green-grocer's basket.
Close in age, Marion and Wanda remained  close into adulthood, part of the family business that supported their creative autonomy.  They would have been hard pressed to find another setting so congenial.   Although individuals took these pictures it must surely be more accurate to call them collaborations.  From Marion we have images of Wanda as aviator and as a one-woman jazz band.

The Wulz studio became a meeting place for the artists and writers of Trieste in the 1920s, drawn no doubt by the two fiercely talented and attractive Wulz sisters.  The writer Italo Svevo was one, along with young painters including Giuseppe Garzolini, Alfredo Tominz, Umberto Verduta, and their wealthy neighbor Piero Fragiacomo.
There was another member of the Wulz family:  Pippo-the-cat.  He was often  Marion's subject  but he  was Wanda's cat.     Looking at Wanda's self-portrait and The Cat Without Me and then Cat-woman we find no familiar sentimental mimicking of personalities between pet and person, but a simpatico of claws. 

"The last breath of civilization expires on this coast where barbarism starts," wrote the French diplomat Chateaubriand, not very diplomatically, in 1806.  He was not pleased to be posted so far from  Paris.  
Exactly one hundred years later when the Irish writer James Joyce came to teach at the Berlitz School of Languages there, he eked out time to write A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  NeverthelessJoyce considered his fourteen years in Trieste a time of misery, averring that its isolation ate his liver. While there he also tutored a talented local writer, Italo Svevo.  There are those who believe this was the best thing Joyce ever did for literature. 















But there were others who came to stay.   Dante wrote parts of The Divine Comedy there and six centuries later the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke composed his Duino Elegies (1922) during visits to Castle Duino. located  Originally a Roman watchtower, then expanded in medieval times, the castle belonged to Rilke’s friend Princess Marie von Thurm-und-Taxis Hohenlohe.  Local lore claims that Rilke was inspired by disembodied voices he heard calling to him as he walked the windy cliffs overlooking the city..  And no less tortured a soul than the painter Egon Schiele made frequent stays in Trieste to escape the claustrophobia he felt in Vienna..

Trieste first appears in the pages when of history when the Romans annexed it.  During the heyday of their empire, the nearby Venetians raided Trieste regularly, too, causing the beleaguered city to seek protection from the Hapsburgs.  Yet when Garibaldi's newly united Italy stopped a few miles short of  the city, its citizens were seized with a melancholy strain of nationalism, known as irredentism.  United by a secret deal among the Allies following World War I, the people of Trieste provided a safe haven to Jewish refugees from throughout Europe during the 1930s.  And Trieste has long been a favorite place of exile for deposed royalty.  

Connected to the rest of Italy by a narrow strip land along the Adriatic coast, Trieste is closer in spirit to its Balkan neighbors than to the Mediterranean world.  Further isolated by the Alps hemming it in on the north and subjected ti dry winds sweeping down off the escarpment, Trieste is often covered with a layer of dust, like furniture left in an untended room.  With its mixture of Italian, Slavic, and Germanic influences, Trieste could be both cosmopolitan and backward. 

Multiple personalities are grist for psychiatry and Trieste adopted psychoanalysis with the zeal of a convert, notwithstanding Sigmund Freud's professional failure there as a young man.  In Silvia Bonucci's novel  A Voice In Time (2005)  the emotional claustrophobia  of the period 1900-1940 is dramatized through the decline of the Levi family.  Closer in spirit  and in time to Fotografia Wulz is Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno (1923), the diary of the repetitive compulsions of an old man, written down at the urging of his psychiatrist.  Like Zeno Cosini, with his mistresses and his inabaility to quit smoking, Trieste may appear outwardly unappealing but it is also lovable.


For further reading: La Trieste dei Wulz: 1860-1980 by P. Costantini, et al, Fratelli Alinari, Firenze.
Images: unless otherwise noted, all images are from the collection of the Alinari Archives, Museum of Photography, Florence.
1. Wanda Wulz - Cat Woman, 1932.
2. Wanda Wulz - Self-Portrait, c.1932.
3. Wanda Wulz - The Cat Without Me, 1932.
4. Carlo Wulz - title attributed: Baby Wanda In A Basket, c. 1904.
5. Marion Wulz - Jass-band, 1920.
6. Carlo Wulz - Portrait of Marion, 1927. 
7. Daniel Boudinet - Villa Fragiacomo In Trieste, Mediatehque, Paris.
8. Piero Fragiacomo -  Marina con barcho, Galleria Tommaso Marcato, Milan.
9. Egon Schiele - The Harbor at Trieste, 1907, Neue Galerie Am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz.
10. Ugi Fiumani - The Golden Hour, c. 1900-1930, Museo Revoltella, Trieste.
11.. Wanda Wulz - Three Hats, 1935.

13 November 2011

The Voices























"It's OK for the rich and the lucky to keep still,
 no one want to know about them anyway,
But those in need have to step forward,
have to say: I am blind,
or: I'm about to go blind,
or: nothing is going well with me,
or: I have a child who is sick,
or: right there I'm sort of glued together...

And probably that doesn't do anything either.

"They have to sing; if they didn't sing, everyone
would walk past, as if they were fences or trees.

That's where you can hear good singing.

People really are strange: thye prefer
to hear castratos in boychoirs.

But God himself comes and stays a long time
when the world of half-people start to bore him."
 - title poem from The Voices by Rainer Maia Rilke, translated from the German by Robert Bly, Denver, The Alley Press: 1977.

Image: Paula Modersohn Becker - Blind Woman in the Woods, courtesy Temple University Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia.


08 November 2011

California: Paradise Without People





















If nothing else united them,  Spanish explorers from the 16th century, 19th century gold prospectors,  and modern real estate speculators all shared the dream of California as  a paradise without people. No matter that the state took its name from the myth of a land peopled by black Amazons ruled by Queen Califa. 

Recently, in Landscapeland we looked at California through an art historical lens.  Another way to view  the California landscape is through the eyes of its inhabitants, absent from these sublime images,  and their conflicting aims.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, for example,  was founded by real estate developers in 1903 and  promoted as a colony for artists and writers.  After the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 Carmel and the entire Monterey Peninsula became the relocation destination for photographers, musicians, and theater people, too.

Industrialization in general scarcely  interested California artists  and the Southern Pacific Railroad in particular  was anathema to them, dramatically expressed in Frank Norris's best-selling novel The Octopus (1901) in a scene where a steam locomotive plows mercilessly through a flock of grazing sheep.   Businessmen promoted the state as agricultural cornucopia, which it was, through commercial art.   And "serious" artists like Granville Redmond chafed at demands  to produce fields of flowers.  You can see what Redmond was getting at if you compare his majestic California Poppy Fields with the recently auctioned Marsh Under Golden Skies

In  Our Italy (1891) essayist  Charles Dudley Warner was early to name some obvious similarities between the Golden State and the Mediterranean.  One can see his point in the work of local artists, including Arthur and Lucia Kleinhans Mathews.   Gottardo Piazzoni  's The Land  (at top)  evokes beginnings both Biblical and of the classical Greek and Roman varieties.
 When Leopold Hugo photographed the rock formation called the 'Gates of Night', cinematic was not yet an adjective and Hollywood was a sleepy village with a single trolley line.  Something about the swooping, jagged Pacific coastline was just waiting for the motion picture industry to arrive from the east coast.  California was ready for its close-up.
           
Landscapeland was posted here 0ctober 18, 2011.
 Images:
1. Gottardo  Piazzoni - The Land, 1915,  Berkeley Art Collection, CA.
2.Armin Hansen - Carmel Countryside at Night, undated, private collection, California.
3. Guy Rose - Carmel Dunes, 1918, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
4, Granville Redmond - California Poppy Field, 1926, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 
5. Granville Redmond - Marsh Under Golden Skies, no date, Bonham's & Butterfield's, Los Angeles/
6. Lucia Kleinhans Mathews -  Landscape with Tree, 1908, Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco.
7. Leopold Hugo - Gates of Night, before 1906, San Diego Historical Society, La Jolla.
8. Anne M. Bremer (1868-1923)  - The Highlands - early 20th century, Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco.

05 November 2011

Face To Face

"...viewing a human face sets off a unique reaction in the human brain. This chemical reaction, not unlike addiction, occurs when we see a face or expression that pleases us, giving us a feeling of well-being. From infancy through old age, we are responsive to human features, sometimes with ambivalence, but always with meaning. " - anonymous collector


A.C., as I think of him (and his wife) are the anonymous benefactors who made possible a jewel-like  exhibition of portraits of all sorts at the Herbert Johnson Museum at Cornell University.  A small gallery suited the fifteen works, lending an intimacy to the experience even when, as is probably the case with a first century bust of Ptolemy of Mauretania, the intention was ceremonial.   Works of human revelation and contemplation, rather than formality and each one intended for the attentive viewer.

Four paintings by the German artist Max  Beckmann (1884-1950) are the centerpiece of the exhibition and suggest the qualities the collectors look for . A contemplative image of the artist's second wife Quappi, one of his friend the Alsatian engraver Sabine Hackenscmidt, and the two reproduced here.  A fiercely thoughtful gaze aimed straight at the viewer belies the height of his successful career, and hints  at the middle-aged Beckmann's attempt to understand the mystical aspects of life.  The Oyster-Eaters provides a challenge of another sort.  Quappi Beckmann lifts the oyster to her lips as Sabine Hackenschmidt looks on, eyebrow arched enigmatically.  A white-jacketed waiter stands behind.  What is last-noticed is an ominous gray face looming in the background that seems to represent all that came after the pinnacle of 1926 for these people.  The Nazis removed Beckmann from teaching and his works from museums, only to abuse them in displays of "Degenerate Art."   Years of living in poverty in Amsterdam efr the Beckmanns ended only when World War II ended.

This version of Incense by Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921)  was made ss a present for  his niece Gilberte Freson on the occasion of  her marriage in 1917.  The better known version  from 1898, which is at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris .  A more intimate and personal vision, a close-up rendered against a neutral background, the priestess seems younger and more approachable - fitting for a wedding gift.


Balthus (1908-2001) often created images of young girls that are erotically charged.  Not so his Portrait of Rosabianca Skira, daughter of the renowned art published Albert Skira.  Balthus, the son of a Russian Jew,  fled the Nazi occupation of France during World War II for neutral Switzerland.  There Skira gave him employment on his new magazine Labyrinth.  The border painted around  the picture suggests a window sill, the  girl's arm  resting there.  She looks toward her future, which neither of us can see, with apparent calm, or perhaps the privacy of adolescence.

As with Balthus, so with Egon Schiele (1890-1918), it is the expressive faces that have joined this collection: Schiele's patron Karl Otten, Chief Inspector Benesh, and his frequent model Poldi, absorbed in thought.  Only in his clenched Self-Portrait does Schiele express the torment that we think of when we think of his work.  The arms, held tightly to his sides, are as expressive of emotion as the sound we imagine we hear coming from his mouth.




Face to Face, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Ithaca, NY. , August 6 - October 30, 2011.
Images:
1. Max Beckmann - Self-portrait, 1926
2. Max Beckmann - The Oyster Eaters, 1943.
3. Fernand Khnopff - Incense, 1917. 
4. Balthus - Portrait of Rosabianca Skira, 1949.
5. Egon Schiele - Poldi, 1914
6. Egon Schiele - Self-portrait, 1910.