Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Liotard - Quack and Impostor

In Vienna, in 1745, Jean-Etienne Liotard made a pastel portrait that later would become known as Das Schokoladenmädchen or the Chocolate Girl. The image took on a life of its own as its decorative potential was co-opted by generations of chocolate manufacturers to publicise their products and add decorous distinction to their packaging. This example comes from the Walter Baker Co. of Dorchester MA who obtained the right to use it in 1883. The artist’s descendants could have greatly enriched themselves if they had been able to legally enforce their title to the image. Baker products remain on sale in the US – now a tiny pimple on the Giant Octopus Mondelēz.

Like a medieval mason moving from Bruges to Poitiers via Winchester and Ravenna, Jean-Etienne Liotard moved his portrait studio across Europe and beyond in search of business. Swiss by birth, trained in Geneva and Paris, Liotard plied his trade from Amsterdam to Rome, from London to Vienna plus a four year spell in Smyrna and Constantinople. He demonstrated great flair for self-promotion, charged a premium rate for his services and developed a profitable side-line in later years as a collector and dealer in Old Masters. Even his appearance, assiduously recorded in a lifelong series of self-portraits, was cultivated to attract public attention. When he arrived in London from Constantinople he wore exotic Oriental costume and sported a magnificent jihadi-style beard, in step with the upper-class fashionable obsession with all things Turkish.

The Royal Academy (RA) survey begins with a room of family and self-portraits, many of which accompanied him on his travels as evidence of his skills. Two works stand out in this room, for their psychological curiosity as much as their undeniable technical brilliance. “Self-portrait, Laughing” is an oil painting in which he presents himself as a grinning, gap-toothed eccentric, gesturing and pointing out of the picture frame with a stretched index finger – it’s defiance of reasoned analysis makes it a thing of wonder. Equally strange is the pastel portrait of his 7 year old daughter with a much loved and expensive doll held by her right hand while her left hand and index finger are raised to her face – a juvenile face of a rich expressiveness of which the doll bears no trace. The combination of the animate and inanimate is truly arresting – a painted and hand-carved human replica in wood and fabric pressed close to a beating human heart. Without Liotard’s amazing ability to breathe life into his subjects this contrast would be negligible.

Pastels have come to be associated with the practice of sketching rapid observation with a light touch. In the hands of Liotard they fix a human presence with immense authority, lacking nothing in physical detail while capturing the expressive nuances of living forms. Noted, and apparently tolerated for his open depictions of his subjects’ infelicitous facial features, he would, nevertheless, condition their complexions to a peak of unblemished perfection. Much amazing nasal topography was redeemed by the careful elimination of broken veins, blotchy skin and misplaced facial hair. Vellum and parchment were the favoured surfaces on which to work – vellum being especially effective in conveying physicality and depth of substance.

Another room at the RA is full of Brits resident in Constantinople in their Ottoman finery – some blowing in on the Grand Tour, others making a good living as traders in Oriental treasures. Men of fine breeding – a Ponsonby here and a Pococke there – discarding the constraints of Western formal dress and packaging themselves in garments of rich and colourful fabrics, fur-trimmed and turbanned, inside which they could fancy themselves as intimidating, yet seductive Asian warrior-princes enjoying a well-earned break from their military duties. The 4th. Earl of Sandwich encouraged Liotard to move from Rome to Constantinople and later would provide him an entrée into London society when he moved there. The exotic contents of Liotard’s dressing-up box would be much in demand among his London clients.

Many years ago I saw a Liotard in the Rijksmuseum – a pastel portrait of a young woman in Levantine dress perched on the end of a divan, her head supported by hand and elbow. Her air of boredom, the asymmetric composition, the masterly sharp focus representation of textile and fabric surfaces, the deep shadow on the left and the vast neutral space occupying almost half the picture plane were all intriguing. The postcard I took away with me identified the subject as the Countess of Coventry – it now seems fairly certain that she was Marie Fargues, wife of the artist. Over the years I’ve seen a few more but an entire exhibition is a wonderful event. Artists that seem mysteriously to be fractionally out of alignment with their times, whose work often resists categorisation and have a habit of delivering more than we might reasonably expect are often the most interesting and rewarding.

Unsurprisingly sobersides Joshua Reynolds was unimpressed by Liotard when he turned up on his patch in London in 1753, calling him a Quack and Impostor. Sadly for him, while Liotard’s work fills the Sackler Wing at the RA, Reynolds must stand outside in the rain, all but engulfed by Ai Wei Wei’s self-assembly trees.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

James R Bingham, Illustrator for Advertising

This is a follow-up to a post dated 19 September 2015. Alongside the work he supplied to Saturday Evening Post, Bingham had a successful career illustrating for a wide range of advertisers. The noir-style imagery that so effectively accompanied crime fiction in the Post was never going to meet the needs of advertisers but Bingham had no problems working across genres and could offer an accessible style for almost any occasion. In World War 2 he supplied his clients with imagery that reflected the visual drama of armed conflict – the rampaging Cadillac tank crushing all before it and the fire-fight in the jungle achieve a sense of enhanced realism that photographers struggled to equal. Transport-related subjects engaged his interest – in the ad for US Airlines he conveys the visual poetry of a snowbound nocturnal landscape with the reassuring aerial presence of the latest turbo-prop airliner in the starry sky. For Southern Comfort he created a romanticised image of a vintage riverboat cruising upriver on the moonlit Mississippi, the rays of the setting sun appearing to ignite the smoke rising from the chimney stacks. All of which evoke the timelessness and the easy-on-the-palate quality of the product. There’s more romance in the advert for Nash cars, an ad that rests on a much-used theme found at the end of the war – an effort to re-engage the post-war public with the business of consumption. The happy couple behind the wheel have an affinity with Bingham’s editorial illustration. As does the period illustration for Western Electric with theatrical caricatures of a type frequently seen in the Post. The image of Western Electric girls toiling on an assembly line is one of Bingham’s finest – a beautifully controlled repetition of forms tells all we need to know about the anonymising tedium of the workplace. Two dramatic skies complete this far from definitive selection. The first, again for Western Electric adds much-needed interest to a mundane desert landscape while the second, for Barrett Chemicals is even more dominant, graced by a fortuitous rainbow that illuminates a passing vehicle.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Postcard of the Day No. 79 – New York Blizzard

We can trace the photographic origin of today’s card to an 8 by 10 inch glass negative in the collection of the Library of Congress. Taken in the Great Blizzard of 1899 on behalf of the Detroit Publishing Co. and cropped for a postcard that was copyrighted in 1906. Colour was applied and the result has an almost cinematic sense of immediacy. Bright light reflected from the wet paving stones haloes the foreground female figure that strides purposefully into the composition. An elevated train rumbles overhead, a streetcar passes by and snow shovellers are making desultory efforts to clear the street. According to Robert C Reed (in The New York Elevated, 1978, p. 114) the location is midtown on the Sixth Avenue elevated, probably near Herald Square.

Below is another example of a street scene recorded from the sidewalk, this time underneath the elevated tracks in the Bowery. Most street photography on postcards takes a distant, more detached viewpoint and images taken from the sidewalk are relatively unusual. Which is a shame as we get a much more intense documentary feel – a powerful evocation of the sights and sounds of a busy city street. Trains thrash overhead, horse-drawn vehicles and streetcars occupy the roadway and all the long lost detail – shop windows, theatrical poster, cast-iron balustrading and the ties that span the street and brace the twin viaducts supporting the elevated railroad can be examined at leisure. The final card shows a scene that even Edward Hopper may have rejected as excessively dystopian. A street corner where two trains, vertically stacked clatter past with an ear-piercing grinding of metal on metal that can hardly be imagined. Magnificent as it was as an emblem of the metropolitan sublime, it’s easy to see why the presence of the elevated was so greatly resented by those compelled to live and work in its perpetual shadow.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Rembrandtlaan – an Arts and Craft suburb in De Haan

De Haan is a small select resort on the Belgian coast developed in the late 19th. and early 20th. century and laid out in conscious imitation of English town planning. Unlike the grid patterns that prevail in neighbouring resorts De Haan has a network of informal winding streets with a large circular open space in the centre. Outsize villas and hotels, mostly in the Style Normand, occupy the town centre with residential suburbs to the north-east and south-west where the street names honour great artists and writers. Rembrandtlaan is a short street that follows the route of the Kusttram (coastal tramway connecting De Panne and Knokke) in which all the homes were designed by the Ghent based architect, Valentin Vaerwyck (1882–1959) and built in 1924-27. In style these modest, unassuming houses seem to be Flemish rural vernacular meets post-war suburbanised Arts and Crafts. Hips, gables, dormers, ridge tiles, arrowslits and painted shutters set the tone. Privacy and cosiness are the priorities. The Sundial House (Zonnewijzer) was Vaerwyck’s own personal holiday home. An extensive list of buildings designed by Vaerwyck can be seen by following this link – he had a hand in designing the imposing railway station at Oostende, a full-blown exercise in French Classicism.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Postcard of the Day No. 78 – Napoli

Il lustra scarpe ed il ladroncello 

 “Shining shoes and the little thief”, according to Google translate, which sounds just about right. A social tableau from the mean streets of Naples in which a pompous and negligent toff gets his comeuppance when a barefoot, slightly diffident scoundrel abstracts his silk underwear, or something very like it. It’s not uncommon for tourist destinations of dubious reputation to attempt to derive some advantage from drawing full attention to its social problems. In this case the postcard publisher re-stages an episode of petty crime in the hope of making a profit. The card shown below is a documentary record of shoe shining in the Levantine city of Alexandria.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Paul Delvaux – Surrealist in Suburbia

One of the attractions of the Kusttram (Belgian coastal tramway) is the Paul Delvaux Museum at Sint-Idesbald. Appropriately located in the depths of respectable suburbia the museum occupies a former hotel in which almost all the gallery space is to be found below ground level. A generous selection of paintings and drawings is on display together with a full size re-creation of the artist’s studio. Bric-a-brac from the Delvaux personal collection – skulls and skeletons, scale model trams and trains, plaster casts and props – supply context for the artworks in which they frequently appear. Although Delvaux is routinely described as a Surrealist painter, his association with the Belgian Surrealist group centred on Magritte, Mesens and Scutenaire was brief. The frequent boisterous jeux d’esprit that occupied the Belgian Surrealists held little appeal for the introverted and unsociable Delvaux for whom painting was very definitely a solitary pursuit. Constant repetition of a limited range of subject matter (nudes, classical ruins, skeletons, trains and trams) made him an easy target for their scorn.

The Delvaux imagination seems largely formed in adolescence - ancient steam locomotives and vintage electric trams journey without end through the artist’s imagination while in another cranial region wide-eyed young women disrobe to reveal slender limbs and pallid flesh. Elsewhere characters from childhood immersion in the science-fiction of Jules Verne haunt the adult imagination. Delvaux orchestrates these disparate elements into a single compositional fantasy often under cover of darkness. What Delvaux took from Surrealism was the freedom to develop a repertoire of dream-like imagery that integrated a lifetime obsession with trams and trains (a legacy of an introverted childhood) with a taste for unclothed or semi-naked female forms (an expression of erotic anxieties) set against the Palm Court architecture of the Belle Époque or the ruins of Classical civilisation (imprinted on the artist’s consciousness as an architectural student). In finished paintings Delvaux’s universe of dreams was a frozen and lifeless place where the spatial organisation of forms was slightly off-key while the forms themselves were rigid and highly stylised. His drawings and water-colour sketches show a fluency and confident mastery of proportion and spatial relationships that is excluded from the paintings.

Having made his breakthrough he seemed content to continue recycling familiar themes. Genuine menace is rare in his work – gently disturbing or puzzling is more often the case. But there are instances where he achieves something more profoundly unsettling as with “La Gare Forestière” where the bustle of a busy railway station is silently and incomprehensibly transposed into the depths of a woodland glade. The enigmatic figures of two girls observe the scene. Their faces are turned away from us but we can imagine their perplexity and sense of wonder. At his best he finds some genuine poetry and disquiet in the twilight scenes where all seems suspended indefinitely between life and death.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Visual Delights of Belgian Beach Huts

A heavy blanket of cloud, a sharp cold wind off the North Sea and a deserted sandy beach at De Panne with a late September autumnal feeling in the air. Perfect conditions against which to observe the painted geometry of a small army of beach huts silently confronting the ocean. Rich colour statements, some bold, some subtle, sing out under leaden skies. The beach becomes a temporary art installation for lovers of abstract geometric form. The vintage postcards confirm that Belgium has a long tradition of this sort of seashore display.