Monday, 19 August 2019

A Visit to the Art Institute, Part 2

In the space of a fortnight in June, I had the opportunity to see both of Georges Seurat’s monumental masterpieces. In London, after visiting the Sorolla exhibition I battled through the National Gallery to the Post-Impressionist room and Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières. It was the wrong decision – the painting was besieged by a noisy, unruly mob, jostling for the most advantageous selfie-position. No space for contemplative response, no space for careful scrutiny. This wonderfully ambitious and experimental painting has taken on a new existence as a piece of scenery, something important enough to merit a casual glance but not important enough to be worthy of close study.

In Chicago, Seurat is a star – A Sunday on La Grande Jatte is one of the centrepieces of the collection and occupies a wall of its own in a place where it really can’t be missed. Once again, it was confronted by a crowd, but a more respectful audience than in London. Much easier to navigate through and reach the target. This left space to get a sense of its magnetic presence and appreciate what an extraordinary and baffling painting this is. There is no simple reading - curators and historians cannot agree on what the painting is about. Some see social significance in the depiction of petty bourgeoisie leisure activities as an extension of the artist’s earlier observation of the off-duty working class at Asnières. There are those who see a meditation on the contradictory world of high fashion in the meticulously observed outfits on display and the mannequin-like figures. In their isolation from one another, some see the figures as inhabiting a critique of capitalism and consumerist conformity. Others detect irony in Seurat’s apparent mockery and caricature of social pretension. A formalist evaluation is focused on Seurat’s further refinement of the pointillist technique and his methodical surface construction according to the scientific principles of Charles Blanc, Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood. Which induced some to view the painting as an endorsement of progressive republican ideals.

The existence of multiple interpretations is one of the things that makes Seurat such an intriguing artist. His interests include the science of optics, radical politics, contemporary fashion and popular print media, especially caricature. These are not easily reconciled into a comfortable description of an integrated personality. Given his reticence, there is no easy way to assess his character and motivations. Personal privacy was a major concern and he may have taken silent pleasure in confounding attempts to assign his work to a single point of view. Paradoxically, Seurat’s cool and unemotional paintings were a gateway for Van Gogh, enabling him to achieve greater intensity of feeling by adapting the pointillist technique to invigorate his paint surfaces and colour combinations. Pissarro assimilated pointillism into his painting vocabulary and re-energised his output in the latter part of his career. There was a large tribe of Seurat followers active in France, notably Signac, Luce, van Rysselberghe, Cross and Angrand. Derain, Braque and Matisse had a brief flirtation with pointillism in the early days of Fauvism. In Italy the pointillist technique was enthusiastically adopted by fin de siècle symbolists and bequeathed to the Futurists in whose dynamic paintings it would enjoy a final incandescence. Such lesser aftershocks may bear little comparison with the powerful influence of Cézanne but were not without significance.

We have only fragmentary glimpses of the inner Seurat. Some letters survive, plus some notes he wrote about his painting technique. An academic training in the manner of Ingres fed his preference for order and objectivity. Anecdotes are thin on the ground - he was seen at the Café d’Athènes and he spent time in the company of Paul Signac and Félix Fénéon. Friends and colleagues report a self contained individual for whom a Bohemian lifestyle held little appeal. Sober and deliberately unostentatious in appearance, he seemed comfortable with his bourgeois origins despite his anarchist sympathies. The existence of his mistress and mother of his child, Madeleine Knobloch, only became known after his death in 1891. Seurat is an artist who approached all his work with the utmost gravity in terms of planning and forethought without endorsing any particular estimation of its meaning and value. He had the gift of maintaining just enough distance between himself and the great weight of critical interpretation built upon his achievements. It’s an easy matter to summon up a mental picture of a grumpy Cezanne, an embittered Lautrec, a lascivious Gauguin or an anguished Van Gogh but Seurat is elusive. The only film portrayal came in Minelli’s Lust for Life (1956 Van Gogh biopic) in which Seurat, played by David Bond stands on a step-ladder dabbing away at the Grande Jatte while Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) declaims his admiration. Death came suddenly at the end of March 1891 when he took to his bed with a serious cough and died within three days leaving his admirers to speculate on what might have been.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

A Visit to the Art Institute, Part 1

One of the pleasures of being a curator must be making mutually reinforcing pairings of art works. The pairing of these two portrait heads in the Art Institute of Chicago is an almost perfect example – one is very much deceased and the other is close to death. Théodore Géricault painted this study (above) of the Head of a Guillotined Man in 1818/19 – just 5 years later in January 1824, the artist is himself on his deathbed, where he is painted (below) by Charles-Émile Callande de Champmartin, a young aspiring artist in the Romantic tradition and follower of Géricault and Delacroix. Géricault was a young man obsessed with death and decay – he made many studies of body parts and corpses, observed in Parisian mortuaries as part of the preparation he undertook for his controversial painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1818/19), which is such a monumental presence in the galleries of the Louvre. Géricault’s death brought a premature end to a brief but tumultuous career, leaving posterity to speculate on what might have been. It is recorded that among his future plans were paintings on the subject of the Spanish Inquisition and the Slave Trade. His mortal remains were interred in Père Lachaise cemetery and his tomb was featured in a 2014 post which can be seen here.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Unity Temple, Oak Park

Oak Park is a western residential suburb, bordering on the city limit of Chicago. Streets were planned on a spacious grid that was subdivided into generous plots for large family homes occupied by professionals attracted by excellent rail and streetcar connections with the city. Since the 1960s Oak Park authorities have made a deliberate and largely successful effort to avoid racial segregation by adopting fair housing policies and discouraging white flight. Frank Lloyd Wright built a home, and later, a studio, in Oak Park in 1889 and he found many clients among the prosperous fellow professionals who moved out into the suburb. When Wright offered his services to the Unitarians, whose local church had been struck by lightning in 1903, Oak Park had only existed for 3 years as an independent settlement, having been part of Cicero until 1902.

Of all the buildings visited in the Chicago area, this is the one that surprised me most. Photographs of the twin box concrete exterior had misleadingly suggested something monolithic and unfeeling. But once inside, the spaces that Wright created rapidly overcame any resistance and it became impossible not to be uplifted by the combination of colour, form and surface that Wright so masterfully orchestrated. Wright’s passion for geometric form was the equal of any Bauhaus graduate but while the Bauhaus influence inspired a quest for formal purity, Wright went off in a very different direction. In Unity Temple he employed formal complexity and a controlled colour palette to develop an interior that seems to embrace its occupants rather than merely accommodate them. This is achieved without the use of curving forms that more traditionally fulfil this role. Through a variety of surface treatments and colour harmonies, Wright’s geometry is made humane and unthreatening.

From outside we see two large concrete boxes, one is a cube, the second is more of a shoe-box – they are linked by a low rise lobby building. The surface finish is an austere pebbledash with decorative flourishes confined to vertical threads of geometric repetition that animate the concrete columns that stand in front of the window. Alongside the entrance is a Wright trademark planter formed out of a vertical stack of rectilinear solid forms, pivoting through 90 degrees as they rise. The forms are harmonised by alternately scooping out a shallow rectangle or adding a shallow rectangle in a kind of visual push-pull exercise.

Unitarians do not accept Christianity’s Holy Trinity, but believe in a single God for all mankind. They favour liberal social action and value principles derived from individual conscience over the authority of scripture and dogma. Most Unitarians see themselves as inheritors of Judeo-Christian traditions but do not exclude people of other faiths or none who share their core values. They place a high value on holding an open mind and favour rationality over superstition. Frank Lloyd Wright was the son of a Unitarian minister and Unitarianism was ever present in his upbringing and these connections made him an obvious choice of architect for a progressive congregation whose church had been destroyed by fire.

The space for worship, known as the Sanctuary is to the left of the lobby. Its dimensions are those of a cube but it’s difficult to read the space because the corners are concealed by some cunning folding of forms. There’s no altar, only a simple geometric lectern that stands in front of the organ loft – there are two tiers of seating on the other three sides. Unitarian congregations are largely free to decide for themselves what shape their collective worship takes and a seating plan that enables all present to see the faces of their worshippers encourages a more open interaction. A 5 by 5 installation of amber glass ceiling lights ensure an even distribution of warm illumination and enhances the contemplative atmosphere. All gloom is banished by the dominant colours, muted, marbled melon yellow and grey that combine with the tints of natural timbers to form a celebration of natural light. Wright was accomplished in the art of creating transcendence without seeming especially interested in it for himself. He did have an appetite for dangerous liaisons which would lead to his exile from Oak Park and its respectability as he became enveloped by scandal.

The Community building, to the right of the lobby is more utilitarian, providing spaces for classes and meetings. The spaces are generous and decorated in the same colour scheme as the Sanctuary and Wright continued to maintain a near perfect balance of vertical and horizontal elements. Wright’s obsession with designing fixtures and fittings is at its height here with a proliferation of features every one of which contributes to an overall formal harmony. Wright is valued for his ambition and innovation, both of which are on display here in a building where poetry triumphs over religiosity.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Bad Timing

It was impressed on me as a child that complaining about personal misfortune was undignified and unacceptable. Despite that I shall tell this tale of good intentions frustrated without losing sight of the fact that as misfortunes go, this is a very small one. One of the great treasures in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago is Gustave Caillebotte’s magnum opus, Paris Street; Rainy Day, first exhibited at the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. It represents the high point in Caillebotte’s output and nothing quite like it was produced by any of his contemporaries. At the age of only 28 the artist had examined the new Parisian urbanism of large scale speculative building and vast ambitious street planning to uncover the sense of psychological displacement experienced by the wider population as they navigate through the new cityscape. Perspectival distortions and a judicious elimination of distracting detail reveal the wide open spaces of the rapidly expanding metropolis and emphasise the insignificance of the occasional human presence. Meticulously planned and executed on a monumental scale, the painting was little more than a footnote in the great Impressionist narrative until it was acquired by the Art Institute from Wildenstein in 1964. In the 1970s, Kirk Varnedoe’s exhaustive, inspirational researches began a process of re-evaluation that has continued into the present and its current status as a major masterpiece of the late 19th. century seems secure.

I had every confidence that I would see the painting when I visited Chicago last month, secure in the knowledge that it was museum policy to turn down all requests for loans from overseas on the not unreasonable grounds that the safety of such a large and bulky item could not be guaranteed if it was shipped around the world. But I was to be disappointed and if I had enquired more deeply I would have learned that it had been loaned to Essen and Paris in the last decade. Paris Street; Rainy Day had buggered off to Berlin as part of a trade that brought Manet’s In the Conservatory in the opposite direction. Insult was added to injury in the museum shop where the display of Caillebotte-related merchandise ran from floor to ceiling, smirking at me. There’s a pattern here – last year in the Kusthalle, Hamburg, I discovered the object of my interest, the Wanderer above a Sea of Fog (Caspar David Friedrich) had wandered off to Berlin (again) in search of a better offer. I have learned from experience the necessity of checking whether a place I plan to visit is closed for a 75 year programme of refurbishment, but clearly I must take my due diligence to a higher level if I’m to avoid future disappointment. In the meantime, a trip to Berlin before September 26 seems called for. 

Previous posts relating to this painting are here, here and here.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Art Deco Chicago – the Field Building

The Field Building was designed by the Chicago firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White (GAP&W), architects of the Wrigley Building and Merchandise Mart and constructed between 1931 and 1934. It would be the last major building completed in the city for 20 years, thanks to the Depression and Second World War. The Field was the climax of GAP&W’s journey from a florid Beaux Arts style to Art Deco, via the unadorned functionalism of the Merchandise Mart. The lavish, extravagant decor featured in the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs had made its way to the prairielands of the Mid West. A recent publication tells the story.

From the outside the Field Building is a bit of a brute – a massive 45 storey central slab with four 22 storey towers - one at each corner. Its reputation as an exemplar of Art Deco in architecture rests on the treatment of the circulation areas inside the building. A polished black granite surround to a soaring entrance that rises up to the 4th. floor is a foretaste of what lies within. Reflective marble and Terrazzo surfaces line the corridors, vertical light splashes from purpose built uplighters mark the route while fluted cladding draws the eye upwards. The progress of the high speed elevators can be monitored from the display panel in the lobby, formed in the shape of the building. Embedded in the panel is a brass finish US mailbox complete with Art Deco fonts and American Eagle. A public walkway connects Clark and LaSalle Streets – an overhead footbridge with an exquisitely detailed Art Deco clock face has a mirrored underside that adds to the sense of theatre. The materials, surfaces, finishes and trims were chosen to flatter the corporate client with their luxury value. The general effect is more restrained than, say, the Moscow Metro but it’s a step in that direction. Its completion ironically coincided with the lowest point in the Great Depression which, unlike the one we’re living through now, brought speculative and prestige development to an abrupt standstill.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

General Tire – the Blow-out Proof Tire

The General Tire company began operations in 1915 as a challenger to the well established duopoly of Goodyear and Firestone. Company policy was to employ a publicity blitz to fight for market share. During the Depression, radio stations were acquired, beginning in the home state of Ohio, to access broadcast advertising on preferential terms. Media interests expanded across the US, culminating in the purchase of RKO Pictures from Howard Hughes in 1955. The business was a regular advertiser in the pages of America’s mass circulation magazines, from where these examples are drawn. A recurring theme was an invocation of American family values in the affluent middle class. Familial stereotypes addressed the readership on the importance of the protection that a General Tire offered, calming anxieties about traffic safety. Think about the children was a frequent message. An early draft captain of industry looks up from his economics textbook to gaze dreamily into the future – the caption brutally reminds us, “It would take 17 years to replace him”.

Characters from the polo playing, Long Island resident plutocracy were introduced for the aspirational customer to identify with. The social ambience became even more rarefied in the ads placed in Fortune magazine – impossibly elegant and expensively groomed couples posed in a world of art deco furnishings and cocktail shakers. A morbid strapline, “For those who would be missed in the community”, made an appearance. The senior executive readership would certainly understand. When the war ended in 1945 the tone changed again as advertisers sought to connect with the mass market of well paid car owners in the rapidly expanding middle class. A world in which smiling well-adjusted schoolchildren are escorted safely across the road, and cheery, happy families enjoy the fruits of prosperity in the form of gadgets, pedigree pets and exotic vacations was created. Throughout these decades, illustrators were preferred to photographers – a regular performer was Dal Holcomb (1901-78) but most images were unsigned. The only other signed examples are an uncharacteristic work by Hananiah Harari and a typically folksy Thanksgiving turkey by Dave Mink.