Are you hungry for some meaty text on art?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dazzle Coloration

I have never been interested in wearing camouflage. I can’t get beyond the idea of its martial implications. That said, I remember reading somewhere that Harris tweeds from Scotland were often woven with the idea of camouflaging the wearer out stalking game. I have a particularly vivid Harris tweed coat I picked up years ago in a second hand store—bright yellow and orange with dashes of red and gray. I realized during a spring visit to Ireland where the hills were ablaze with blooming gorse how well the coat would blend in to such a setting.

The subject of a small but fascinating show at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia naturalist painter, Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921), devoted a great deal of energy to camouflage, a subject he came to by studying animal's use of protective coloration to hide from predators. Along with his son, Gerald, Thayer produced a major book entitled Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom: An Exposition of the Laws of Disguise Through Color and Pattern; Being a Summary of Abbott H. Thayer’s Disclosures in 1909.

The show begins with some paintings of ducks on the water that are really beautiful. You can see how Thayer was playing around with the ducks, semi-disguising them. They have an almost fractured quality as if they’ve been broken up in to color sections to echo the leaves, reflections and lily pads around them. These are rich, immensely satisfying works in terms of color, light and application of paint. There’s also a stunning painting of a path through a stand of trees: a study of light and shadow described with dramatic brushstrokes. Thayer began his love affair with nature painting, and particularly birds, from a young age. There were several watercolors on view done when he was a child—a particularly lovely one of different colored eggs.

Early on, Thayer established a link between an animal’s ability to blend into its surroundings and military camouflage. Beginning in 1910 he actively promoted his ideas, producing precise, beautifully rendered dioramas and numerous watercolors pertaining to concealment techniques appropriate to naval situations. In the latter case, it was not so much concealment as sleight of hand, since on the high seas it’s impossible to hide a ship. The alternative was to visually confuse the enemy, using what Thayer referred to as “dazzle coloration,” thus obscuring the actual size and shape of the vessel. Because torpedos were slow to hit their target and were aimed to where the ship was headed rather than where it was, this “shape shifting” was an effective strategy.

It’s hard to believe it worked, looking at the ships covered in ostentatious blotches of blue, white and black, but I’ll take his word for it and, in fact, the patterns used on World War II warships have much in common with Thayer’s designs.

But at the onset of World War I, Thayer’s attempts (he even had John Singer Sargent present his camouflage ideas to the British War Office) to get through to the powers that be were largely thwarted. Thayer’s book was reissued in 1918 and still quite possibly had an influence on the development of World War I camouflage. Even so, in addition to his work as a wildlife painter of particular insight and sensitivity, Thayer is nowadays considered the father of camouflage.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sir Alfred J. Munnings

I had always thought of Sir Alfred J. Munnings (1878-1959) exclusively as the portraitist of the upper class on horseback. His Mrs. Ronald Tree on Blue Ridge (1925) was what stuck in my mind. It’s a real period piece. A chic, but rather staid portrait of Mrs. Tree (Nancy Lancaster, née Langhorne) accompanied by her son on a pony and a lurcher riding through the elegant grounds of Ditchley Park. So I was quite blown away by the exhibition of Munnings’s work at The National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.

Certainly there are the equine pictures, but there are also early pastoral scenes of the English countryside whose light and liveliness recalls the work of Winslow Homer. I was struck by Munnings’s deft use of pigment and the extraordinary animation of his brushwork—such confidence and skill.

Among the paintings of riders and horses are two of Florence Munnings, the artist’s first wife. The earlier one, a gorgeous, lushly painted work, shows her riding in the woods, she’s wearing a scarlet redingote and stylish panama. The light is dappled the sun is bright, but there is also shade. The horse lifts its head to the side, alert as if it has heard something in the underbrush. Munnings achieves a real sense of the experience: the movement of rider and horse, the coolness of the wooded setting, the sparkling spring day. The brushwork used to compose the background and the hind leg of the horse is dazzling.

Across from this painting is another portrait of Florence completed the following year (1914). A much more restrained portrait in terms of style, this time Florence is dressed in a formal black riding habit and appears more serious. She’s riding in open country next to a stone wall. Munnings uses touches of color to describe features in the landscape, daubs of yellow signifying the blooming gorse by the wall or glint of sun in the distance. The subdued quality of the painting becomes more pronounced after one reads that Florence killed herself just months after it was completed. Two years before, on her wedding night she had taken cyanide in a first suicide attempt but was revived. Significantly, according to the wall panel, Munnings who was a prolific diarist never once mentioned her in his journals.

Upstairs is a glamorous portrait of Munnings’s second wife, Violet, standing by her horse. It’s a striking composition with the figure in black against the gray horse with dramatic light raking across them. For all it’s stylish allure, it’s also a tender portrait. The horse bends his head in attentive acquiescence to its mistress who might be nickering at him. The close relationship is reflected in the title, My Horse is My Friend: the Artist’s Wife and Isaac (1922). In addition to being an accomplished horsewoman and easy on the eyes, Violet was also astute, observing of her husband: “He was never such a good artist after he married me. He had establishments to keep up, more expenses to meet. It meant painting for money.”

Paul Mellon is also here astride Dublin, a horse that according to Mellon was as strong as a locomotive and: “could have jumped the Eiffel Tower. I think it is Dublin more than anything else who assured my lifelong addiction to hunting.” From 1933, the painting, though no doubt a valued keepsake for Mr. Mellon, is somewhat lackluster bearing up Violet Munnings’s observation.

Other paintings of note in the show are the striking Above the Wood (1915), which recalls not only Homer but also Hopper in its dramatic light (a quality also present in Violet's portrait), and Tagg’s Island (1919). I was surprised to see the latter was completed hard-on-the-heels of World War I. The carefree gaiety depicted suggested it was pre-war. This painting has a strong George Bellows feel. Munnings captures the individual expressions of the bright young things depicted with great flair. The shimmering Near Langham Pool (1930) records an Arcadian spot revered by Munnings. “From 1919 to 1935 I used to paint there, bathe there, row there, walk there, ride there. To know it was three miles away gave me distinct happiness.” The area was destroyed when it was turned into a pumping station. “No pen could describe what happened to that Arcadia…On still summer nights the sound of it pumping millions of gallons from the river to London can be heard miles away."

Seeing these lively paintings was a revelation. I thought of Violet Munnings words. Too bad her husband was weighed down with financial responsibilities and devoted his time to commissions that blunted his talent. In his early works we see real genius. By contrast, his later works are anemic and bland.   

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Surely the best contemporary show I saw all year was SlowArt at Sweden’s Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. A compilation of stunning objects from both the craft and fine art fields, the exhibition was fresh, captivating, inspiring. 

I am very picky about crafts; I can’t abide what I call “gift shop” crafts—all those striped wood cutting boards, Memphis-inspired knickknacks, machine-part lawn ornaments and the like, but I love crafts that are rooted in ancient traditions. I also love contemporary art that has a craft element to it.

The artists featured in SlowArt share a deliberate, handcrafted approach—an intrinsic part of their creative process. Producing the kind of work they do is a meditative exercise, often involving monotonous, repetitive action and sometimes, even pain. Each of the artists in the show use materials generally associated with crafts: pottery, weaving, jewelry making, the difference being that craft artists produce work that is functional, whereas fine art artists produce work, some of which suggest functionality, but is really meant to be looked at.  
An example of the latter happens to be my favorite piece: Necklace by Helena Sandström. Made with pearls and eggshells strung onto gold wire it’s a fantasy of a necklace. The impossibility of the piece is what I love about it. Such audacity. I can only imagine the hours and hours that went into making it. The many failed attempts at breaking the eggshells just so, and then the challenge of affixing them onto the wire with the pearls. It’s both funny and edgy. Looking at it, one can sense the frustration and commitment that went into it. A metaphor for life. 

I also loved Renata Francescon’s Sub Rosa. A yummy confection of solids and voids, it’s both ethereal and weighty. Francescon uses her hands to form her creamy porcelain rose petals leaving her fingerprints in the clay. It’s tactile and elegant.

Pasi Välimaa refers to his finely executed embroidery piece on view as “luxury manufacturing” on account of the fact he worked on it for so long (a year) making sure it was allowed to develop at its own pace without the pressure of needing to finish it. The black thread on white linen is simple and austere and has that wonderful, almost childlike, handmade quality one sees in classic Marimekko textiles.

Taking a much more opulent approach, Suzy Strindberg’s landscape, Embroidery, is a lushly rendered piece composed of minute stitches. It verges into the three-dimensional in parts, so heavily is it embroidered.

Using fiberglass mixed into porcelain clay (a material she developed) Jane Reumert’s Snöuggla (Snow Owl) appears to be made with the feathers of the bird its title references. It’s a beautiful, almost elegiac piece.  

Sinuous and sensual, Eva Hild’s Keramiska former Nr2 (Ceramic Shapes No 2) co-opts its interior space making it a major player in the piece. The smooth white of the outside shape contrasts wonderfully to the blackness within. 

Gunilla Lagerhem Ullberg uses actual petals and leaves to create kaleidoscope arrangements. The colors are muted—the petals in most cases, are nearly translucent—and the arrangements are so inventive that even though they may sound trite, in her hands they aren’t.

While in Sweden and Denmark I was blown away by the traditional Scandinavian woven rugs that I saw. Tribal looking, they reminded me somewhat of Navajo rugs with interesting designs, sophisticated color pairings and vegetable dyes. I was amazed I hadn’t ever heard of them before. Malou Andersson’s Spär (Tracks), a wintry hued piece featuring animal and human footprints (and ski tracks) puts a contemporary spin on a traditional craft.

Another example of weaving is Annika Ekdahl’s tapestry Road Movie (verdure): Visiting Mom. Featuring a weird combination of animals, plants and objects that defy gravity and one-point perspective, Ekdahl’s work is enigmatic and ancient. Ekdahl produces one square meter per month, dyeing only a few ounces of wool at a time, knowing the exact shade can never be replicated. This ensures that something random will affect the piece, a welcome note of unexpectedness in a process (tapestry weaving) that is mapped out way in advance.

A completely different effect was achieved by Irene Agbaje in her tapestry Binary. An abstract work of shimmering squares that seemed to both bleed into one another and hover above, it reminded me of fabric I’ve seen from Southeast Asia and also evoked the work of Ross Bleckner.  

I loved the simplicity of Tore Svensson’s Bowl. Iron with a prefect rectangular broken line of gold, it looked both delicate and strong: a valuable treasure belonging to a Viking king.

I also admired Cecilia Levy’s bowl, Red made of torn paper. It’s a beautiful piece that required skill and patience to be transformed into a perfectly formed three-dimensional object from a one-dimensional sheet of paper.

I have seen text on paper used before and it’s a look I like. Janna Syvänoja also uses it, stringing slips of paper from an encyclopedia onto wire to create her handsome snake-like necklace. The text, visible at certain points, forms a speckled pattern. Where it’s not visible, the necklace is the ivory shade of the blank parts of the paper. Made from manmade materials it looks natural, organic.

Helena Hörstedt’s raw silk and leather dress, Broken Shadow made quite a statement. A remarkable creation, it recalls the work of Alexander McQueen. But though fierce, it does not possess the feminine sexiness of McQueen’s haute couture numbers. But then again Hörstedt sewed the whole thing herself, he did not.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Description Fail

Like a plate of iced cakes, the Metropolitan Museum’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity is pretty and sweet. Paintings and clothing are wonderfully paired throughout. Entering the exhibition one is greeted by a close-up of the green and black striped silk skirt Monet’s mistress, Camille, wears in his portrait of her hanging in the next room. It fills the wall forming a dramatic backdrop at the beginning of the exhibition. 

Near Camille's portrait, a gray silk faille dress and paisley shawl on a model echoes the ones worn by Madame Louis Joachim Gaudibert in Monet’s portrait of her. There’s even one rather hideous number with polka dots, stripes, bows and rows of pleats in purple and white on a mannequin next to a painting featuring the very dress. Clearly its owner thought it was the bee’s knees, though to me it looked like something whipped up à la Scarlett O’Hara using material from The Greenbrier.

There was a black jet adorned dress with fitted bodice that I would wear today; it reminded me of some of Alexander McQueen’s pieces. I had one of those New Yorker-cartoon-as-life moments observing the mostly portly crowd oohing and ahing over the row of corsets neatly displayed in a vitrine.

A number of great paintings by Manet, Monet and Courbet are featured in the exhibition along with lesser-known works, which though somewhat overwrought, offer authentic windows into the 19th century French life.

But what I really noticed about the show was the various inaccuracies presented in the wall panels. Beginning with James Tissot’s Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, which describes her as wearing a “peignoir or dressing gown,” an indicator of “how very much at home” the Marquise is in her drawing room. While I agree the garment she is wearing looks fussy and is a vivid (think Pepto-Bismol) pink, it struck me as odd that there would be a portrait of a marquise in such dishabille. (There is a painting by Manet of a woman in a peignoir, but she is a model, not a noblewoman.) On closer inspection, I saw that the marquise’s right hand is gloved. The second glove is tossed carelessly on the mantel. Who wears kid gloves with dressing gowns? The obvious answer is this is not a peignoir, but an evening coat. In fact, there is a photograph near the end of the show of a similar “opera cloak.” But the Met is so sold on this idea they even have a swatch of the pink fabric exhibited next to the portrait with yet another wall panel describing it as a peignoir.

The accompanying description of a second Tissot portrait of the marquise takes the cake, though. This time she is depicted with her family arranged outside by a stone wall. The panel describes what everyone is wearing in great detail and states that her son is standing by his father’s side. Did the person who wrote this even look at the picture? The boy is sitting in a chair!

I didn’t look at every panel, I did notice that the one for Gustave Courbet’s famous pastoral, Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine describes a “top hat” in the boat that to my eye resembles a much more likely straw boater.

This is not the first time I have had issues with the Met’s descriptions. A few years back their Renaissance portrait show contained ones which, though not patently wrong, were still irritatingly opinionated with suppositions made by the curator/author about the sitters that weren’t borne out by the evidence presented in the paintings.

It’s one thing for a small, underfunded museum to make these missteps, but for an institution of the Met’s stature, to do so is unacceptable. I used to take what they wrote as Gospel. Now? Not so much.