Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Showing her Teeth

Louise-Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun  "Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat" 1782
 National Gallery, London, England 

I cannot really say anything that will add much to the the towering presence that is Louise-Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. She was one of the foremost artists of her day, and is considered one of the foremost women artists of all time. In her lifetime which spanned from 1755-1842 she completed over 600 works of art. She painted masterfully in all genres but was most noted for her portraits.

Louise-Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun  "Self-Portrait" 1790
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy
In 1787, she caused a minor public scandal by exhibiting a self-portrait in which she is shown smiling with her mouth slightly parted, in shocking disregard of painting conventions stretching back to antiquity. This painting may have been her "Madame Vigée-Lebrun et sa Fille" (1786). The court gossip-sheet Mémoires secrets commented: ‘An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning, and which finds no precedent among the Ancients, is that in smiling [Madame Vigée-Lebrun] shows her teeth.’ Vigée-Lebrun ignored the scandal and what is more, continued to flagrantly show her teeth, as we can see in the above painting from 1790. 

Marie-Victoire Lemoine "The Interior of an Atelier of a Woman Painter"
1796  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Like most artists, Vigée-Lebrun also taught the craft of painting, and was a popular instructor. This painting is a tribute to Vigée-Lebrun by one of her former pupils, Marie-Victoire Lemoine (1754–1820.) It is thought to depict Vigée-Lebrun as instructress and Lemoine as pupil. if so, the difference in size of the two artists possibly is intended to convey Lemoine's humble perception of their relative artistic statures rather than any actual height difference. In 1796 Vigée-Lebrun had fled France and was living in St. Petersburg, this change necessitated by the French Revolution and her known royalist sympathies.  Lemoine loyally attempted to keep alive in France the memory of her former teacher with this touching, if slightly veiled, homage

Monday, November 26, 2012

Self Portrait

Enjeong Noh  "Self-Portrait"  2001

Enjeong Noh is a contemporary painter based in California. Originally from Korea, where she received a B.A. in Literature from Seoul National University in 1992, Noh came to the U.S. to study at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California. She is represented by the Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Santa Monica, California.

Noh paints still life and figure, and her work in both genres blends similar elements of representation and symbolism. She has said of her aesthetic impulse, "I am a female voyeur. With the intertwined psychological milieu of Asia and America, and art and literature, that shapes my thinking, I endeavor to portray the mystery and complexity of being."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Painting with Baby

Karen Winslow  "Self-Portrait with Daughter Annie"  1988
Karen Winslow is one hardcore mother-artist. While many of us will admit to the occasional quick session at the easel with a dozing toddler on our laps, very few people I know have done any painting standing at the easel with fully awake baby on the hip. Winslow, a contemporary oil painter based in Vermont, gets the Mother's Medal of Heroic Painting for this feat.  Winslow herself says of this piece, "This was painted in 1988, and my Annie is now married with kids of her own."

Katy Schneider  "Self Portrait with Olive and Easel"   1998
Katy Schneider also must be awarded the same prize for painting with baby in arms. Schneider is a contemporary painter based in Massachusetts whose work is concerned mainly with scenes of her own domestic life.  The mother of three children Schneider's small oil paintings are like amazing little snapshots in oil paint of her growing children and evolving family relationships. While Schneider's paintings show the particulars of her own life they somehow go beyond the individual and tap into a more universal consciousness of what contemporary life feels like to those experiencing it. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thamar with Apprentice

artist unknown "Thamar Painting, with Apprentice"  ca. 1403
Bibliothèque nationale de France
Thamar, also known as Tamar and Thamyris and Timarete, is not a myth or a legend, but was a real person, a Greek painter who lived in the 5th century B.C. In those days, people commonly followed in the trade or practice of their parents and Thamar was the daughter of Micon the Younger of Athens, a well-known and respected painter.  She was one of six women artists mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History compendium. Of Thamar Pliny says, "she scorned the duties of women and practised her father's art."  She was best known in Pliny's time for a panel painting of the Goddess Diana (Artemis) which was displayed in the Goddess's temple at Epheseus. Unfortunately, the temple, along with Thamar's work, was destroyed in either a Goth invasion in the Third Century or  by an anti-pagan mob led by Saint John Chrysostom in the 400s A.D. (Historians disagree on who gets the credit for the destruction.)

This painting of Thamar at work is from Bocaccio's De Cleres et Nobles Femmes, an edition made specially for Philip the Bold in around 1403. It is fascinating and delightful on several counts, particularly: 

1) Thamar's clothing and setting have been modernized into that of an early 15th Century French woman. This "updating" is typical practice for medieval artists. Also contemporary to the times is her painting equipment, including the presence of an apprentice busily grinding pigment (looks like lapis lazuli) for his Mistress. If Thamar did indeed scorn the duties of women, this is probably not her son, in typical Greek family workshop tradition, but instead may depict an apprentice contracted in the more typical medieval fashion through a guild. Women artists did belong to some medieval guilds and did indeed take on apprentices and journeymen, just as their male contemporaries did, although very often a female "master" was attached in some way (even just nominally) to a male, either a Husband, Father or Uncle. Still, such an arrangement was not at all uncommon, and the unknown artist making this painting would have "placed" Thamar in the terms of his/her own times.

2) Thamar has been Christianized as well as modernized. Instead of the pagan goddess Diana, or other Greco/Roman deity, we see Thamar painting a Virgin and Child. Ironic, considering Thamar's renunciation of traditional female roles! But very charming.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Lively Lovely Laura

Laura Knight  "Self-Portrait" 1913  Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand
Every painting and photograph I've seen of artist Laura Knight makes me think she must have been a fun and companionable person. She definitely had a warm and playful sense of humor that sneaks into many of her pieces

Knight (1877-1970) was quite an "envelope pusher" right from her earliest days.  Born in England, she survived abandonment by her father as an infant and the death of her mother as a pre-adolescent. By lying to the authorities about how old she was she assumed the care of her remaining sibling, providing for her decimated family of two by teaching art and doing odd jobs.  It is not clear how, but she eventually managed to attend the Nottingham School of Art, where despite her rocky start in life she was still one of the youngest students ever to enroll. Other "firsts": Knight was the first woman artist to be made a Dame of the British Empire (1929), and the first woman elected to to the Royal Academy (1936.) She was also the first woman artist to be honored with a retrospective at the (notoriously hidebound) Royal Academy (in 1965.) Another "out of the box" achievement for this good-natured go-getter was her being appointed an official War Artist for the British War Office, during WW2. In this role she she was one of only three British women war artists who travelled abroad. After the war she served as Britain's official artist at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals. An example of her trial work is The Dock, Nuremberg (1946.)

Alfred Munnings "Dame Laura Knight, Painting" Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, England 

This action portrait was painted by Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) and I suspect the title of the piece was later amended to include the honor Knight received in 1929.  Because although the piece is undated, from Knight's hairstyle and manner of dress alone, I propose that it can be dated around 1910-18, especially as this was also during the period the Knight and her husband were part of an art colony in Cornwall, that included Munnings. (This was a fertile period artistically and important to all the many participating artists, who later came to be called The Newlyn School.

Laura Knight was known to look up to and admire Munnings. She later described her friend with these words, " His extraordinary vitality, his joy in his work, none of us could forget him. He was a fighter. He fought the wind that shivered his easel and canvas. He fought the heat and cold. He fought the shifting sun and the changing shadows."  The two artists shared a strong aesthetic and a similar joie de vivre. They would often go out painting together while in Cornwall. While the friendship was entirely platonic, it was a source of jealousy and ire for Knight's husband, Harold Knight (1874-1961.)  In fact, in a fascinating bit of Art History Sleuthing, in 2009 a portrait of Munnings made by Henry Knight around 1911 was found carefully concealed beneath another canvas, of Laura Knight's! It is conjectured that Harold Knight disposed of the painting he did of Munnings, whom he came to despise and dislike, and that Laura Knight rescued it and concealed it beneath a blank canvas that she later painted on. It sounds like a dramatic  device in a made for TV movie but it is true and you can read a more detailed account here.

Harold Knight  "Sir Alfred Munnings Reading Aloud" 1911
 current location unknown

Knight died at age 92, apparently still full of beans and painting very close to the end. She painted over 250 major oil paintings in her lifetime, and was one of the rare and lucky artists who received well-deserved recognition and appreciation both during her lifetime and afterwards!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Paintbrush

Katherine Stone "The Paintbrush (Self-Portrait)" 2008
Katherine Stone was born in Maine to Canadian parents and has dual US-Canadian citizenship. She currently lives on Vancouver Island with her husband, the painter David Gluck. Stone recently posted this essay on the couple's shared blog Painting Stuff to Look Like Stuff
Why I love being married to an artist  1.  They share your artist flakiness.  "You forgot to make dinner reservations?  Perfect!  I forgot it was our anniversary." .... 3.  They think it's a BRILLIANT idea to buy that viking helmet off of ebay, and by the way, they saw a whale harpoon at the flea market and they bought it for you ...

The artist has a keen sense of humor, but a very serious commitment to her vocation.  This evocative self-portrait contains some text in the background in what appears to be Elizabethan secretary hand, the first stanza of a poem by Emily Dickinson:

I asked no other thing,
No other was denied.
I offered Being for it;
The mighty merchant smiled.
Stone says, "I interpret the poem as being about making a bargain with fate. Offering your all in exchange for the one thing you want. In my case, painting." 
Stone has received numerous awards for her work from such organizations as the Art Renewal Center and the Portrait Society of America.She is represented by the M Gallery of Fine Art in Charleston, SC.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Art Class

William H. Johnson  "Art Class" ca. 1939-40
Luce Foundation Center for American Art
This was painted when William Henry Johnson (1901-1970) was teaching art classes in a Harlem community center funded by New Deal initiatives such as the WPA. To me, it's a beautiful  example of the very cusp of the artist's most mature style, when his work was segueing from expressionism into what he is now most known for, his "folk" style. I think this piece with its deliberately primitive or "faux naive" look is just emerging from the German Expressionist influence of artists like Kirchner and Muellerevolving into Johnson's own very unique visual language.

Having taught night classes myself I can attest to how perfectly Johnson has caught the bodily weariness yet spiritual eagerness of the night student.

Johnson was born in South Carolina but left his home to study at the National Academy of Design in New York City. Despite his acknowledged talent, Johnson was passed over for a traveling scholarship and his teacher Charles Hawthorne personally funded the young artist for a study tour of Europe. This act of faith had a profound effect on Johnson, who remained working in Europe for over half his career, where he had great success and exhibited widely. He returned to the US in the 1930s with his Danish wife, the textile designer Holcha Krake, where he continued his vibrant career of teaching and painting and exhibiting.  His wife died in 1944 and this sent Johnson heading back to Europe for a time to be with her family, but he returned to the US after falling seriously ill in 1947. He entered the State Hospital at Islip, New York where he remained for the rest of his life. Sadly, his illness precluded his painting after 1956.

 I'll end by quoting directly from the website of the William H. Johnson Foundation for the Arts, "This is merely the brief summary of a life marked by great happiness and great tragedy..."

Monday, November 19, 2012


Alia El-Bermani "Nocturne (self portrait)" 2006
Contemporary painter Alia El-Bermani is the mother of two young children and this painting shows a dedicated artist squeezing some studio time into a full domestic life after the children have gone to bed. As many mother-artists have found, that quiet alone time in the studio, even just a short space of time, can be enough to "grease the engine" for another busy day to come.

El-Bermani attended the Laguna College of Art and Design, where she won many of that institution's student awards. She is represented by Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara California and The Loft Gallery in Puerta Vallerta, Mexico. El-Bermani is included in the current Converge exhibition in NYC.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Portrait Exchange

Bertha Wegmann "Portrait of Jeanna Bauck"  1881  Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
Swiss-Danish painter Bertha Wegmann (1847-1926) first met her close friend painter Jeanna Bauck when they were art students together in Munich. The couple moved together to Paris in 1881, where this painting was created, and Wegmann's career went from strength to strength: in 1881 and 1882 she exhibited at the Paris Salon, winning both an honorable mention for one painting and a medal for another. Not long after this she returned to Denmark where in 1883 she became the first woman ever to be elected to the Plenary Assembly of the Academy of Art.  She exhibited widely and was one of the first women to be awarded the gold medal of Ingenio et Arte,  the highest honor given to a Danish citizen by that nation's monarch.

Jeanna Bauck "The Danish Artist Bertha Wegmann Painting a Portrait"  late 1870s
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

There is not a lot of biographical information about Swedish-German painter Jeanna Bauck (1840-1926.) Listed as primarily a landscape painter, Bauck traveled extensively to the Alps, the Black Forest, and seaside in search of subject matter, but she was also known for her portraits, particularly of children.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

At the River's Edge

Emily Brown "At the River's Edge" 1998 The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts   

Contemporary landscape painter Emily Brown's work is centered in observation and emotional response to the natural world. Brown shies away from no aspect of the natural environment, and depictions of steaming compost heaps are as of much interest to the artist as leafy glades in the sunlight. However, Brown does not usually depict the figure, and this painting is rare in containing both the suggestion of human presence and in its also being obviously a self-portrait (we see the artist's hand and brush.) What is more typically Brown-like is the focus on the detailed flotsam and jetsam of the river's edge, on which the artist's shadow is fleetingly imprinted.

Brown has received numerous official accolades for her work; among other honors she has been awarded grants from the Pew Foundation, The Independence Foundation and the Leeway Foundation. Her work is in many major collections, including the permanent collections of the  Farnsworth Art Museum, the Michener Art Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This piece "At the River's Edge" is part of the Linda Lee Alter Art By Women Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In fact, you can go see the piece in person, as it is hanging on the wall right now at PAFA in the exhibition The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making their World which opened yesterday (November 16, 2012) and which runs through April 7, 2013.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Self Reflections

Karen Kaapcke "Self Portrait as Insomniac" 2011/12

New York City-based artist Karen Kaapcke uses self-portraiture as a way to examine the extraordinary yet commonplace phenomenon of the life cycle, both its growth and decay. An external representation of a process that is both internal and external, indeed, systemic, self-portraiture lends itself to the unflinching gaze of the artist/scientist/philosopher. More prosaically, if you are a figurative painter who paints from life it is not always possible to have a model at your command, especially at 3 o'clock in the morning!

Karen Kaapcke "Self Portrait with Armoire" 2011
Kaapcke in fact has an advanced  degree in Philosophy but went on to study art at The Art Student's league and also at the the National Academy of Design. The teacher who has most influenced her is Ted Jacobs with whom she has studied in NYC and in France.

Karen Kaapcke "Self Portrait with Unilluminated Lamp" 2012

Kaapcke has exhibited widely in the US, participating in exhibitions at the Butler Institute of American Art and the Salmagundi club, among other places. She is currently part of Converge, an exhibition (opening tonight in NYC!) that celebrates over 30 classically trained artists who are part of the contemporary art scene. Says the curator Allison Malafronte of this group, of whom Kaapcke is an excellent example, "All [the artists in the show]bring intelligent thought and reflective examination to the works they create. They each have a desire to reach beyond surface appearance and paint something of meaning and significance."

Karen Kaapcke "Self Portrait While the Houseguests are Occupied" 2010

Kaapcke takes a piercing look at what it is like to be a woman with a young family living in New York City. While non-journalistic in approach, nonetheless, these scattered moments of stillness in her busy days appeal through their honesty and sensitivity. This last piece, "Self Portrait while the Houseguests are Occupied" was the first piece of Kaapcke's I ever saw, and although it caught my eye visually, the title made me laugh in appreciation, and take a closer look at the artist's entire oeuvre. Who doesn't know that feeling of momentary relief when even the most delightful and anticipated guests have plans that take them temporarily out of your orbit? Kaapcke's special genius is most apparent when she captures such heartfelt but hard to express moments in a life, elusive emotions brought on by day to day circumstances we all share.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Better is the Ready

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri "Better is the Ready" 2010
Like most artists, Irene Hardwicke Olivieri has a passionate interest in art supplies. Well, who doesn't enjoy going into an art supply store and submerging the current cares of the day into a happy dream of possibilities and newness? The figure in Olivieri's oil painting on wooden door "Better is the Ready" looks completely prepared for any kind of art emergency in which she might find herself. 

Olivieri says of this piece,"Art supplies have been a recurring theme in my paintings, a symbol of hope, anticipation, eagerness.  I heard a policeman talking about how he felt when he put on his uniform, how it made him feel transformed and ready for the job. It made me wish I had a uniform. I was looking around my studio and thinking of what I would carry with me, what an artist’s uniform would look like. I painted everything I use in my work, as well as a necklace and bracelets with little charms depicting other paintings I was working on at the same time. The artist is like a soldier or scout with badges of past experiences, triumphs. Our country was at war when I painted this; I was thinking about the heavy burden that soldiers carry into war and what a different battle it would be if they carried art supplies instead."

Olivieri is originally from Texas, but got her Master's degree from NYU. She now lives in the high desert plains of central Oregon where in addition to her studio work she pursues her interest in naturalist studies, which include raising caterpillars,succulents and water lilies and dissecting the occasional owl pellet. Olivieri's art teems with precise details drawn from her close observation of the natural world, combined with the visions and dreams burgeoning from her fertile imagination. She is represented by the Robert Berman Gallery, the Carl Hammer Gallery and  ACA Galleries

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Anna Times Two

Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz "Self-Portrait with Apron and Brushes" 1887
National Museum, Krakow
You can sometimes find figurative painter Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz (1857–1893) claimed as Ukranian, sometimes as Polish, and even occasionally as Russian. The reason for this vagueness is probably that Bilińska-Bohdanowicz was born in the Ukraine to a Polish father (I could not discover the nationality of her mother) spent some of her youth in Russia, and then studied art and lived as a young adult in Poland. She also spent a few years in France, where she studied at the Académie Julian. While in Paris she met her future husband, a Polish medical doctor. The couple married in 1892 and then moved to Warsaw. Unfortunately, the artist died a year later, reportedly of a heart attack. 

In comparison with Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884) whose almost exact contemporary she was, Bilińska-Bohdanowicz appeared to be a somewhat slower-maturing artist. Although she died in her thirties rather than her twenties as Bashkirtseff did, she left us with much less information about herself and a smaller body of mature work. These two evocative self-portraits, the last one left unfinished by her death, are the pieces she left behind that most clearly hint at her individual genius, and the skill and power she was accruing. 

Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz "Self-Portrait" 1892
National Museum, Warsaw

Monday, November 12, 2012

untitled (painters)

Kerry James Marshall  "untitled (painter)"  2010

Kerry James Marshall is a contemporary figurative painter currently based in Chicago. He attended the Otis Art Institute. Marshall was born in Alabama in 1955 but grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, CA, where he observed the development of both the Black Power and the Civil Rights movements first-hand. This consciousness deeply influenced the young artist. Much of Marshall's work confronts racial stereotypes within American culture. His figures are all extremely dark, actually the color black, in order to make manifest the distinction of inner and outer appearances. Marshall received a Macarthur Foundation grant in 1997. He exhibts with Jack Shainman Gallery in NYC and with Koplin Del Rio in Culver City, CA.

In the past few years Marshall has returned repeatedly to the theme of painters at work. I have been unable to discover if the women depicted are actual portraits of artists Marshall knows, or are representational of Art or the art-making process itself and/or have some other symbolic meaning. Several of these pieces were included in Marshall's "Black Romantic" exhibit at Jack Shainman Gallery in 2008. You can see a video of the artist discussing some aspects of his work here.

Kerry James Marshall  "untitled (painter)"  2009

Kerry James Marshall  "untitled (painter)"  2008
Kerry James Marshall  "untitled (painter)"  2008

Sunday, November 11, 2012

In the Act of Drawing

Käthe Kollwitz "Self Portrait Drawing"  1933  National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Although Käthe Kollwitz (1867 – 1945) created at least fifty self-portraits during her fruitful career, I could only find two of these pieces that show her in the act of creating. She usually depicted herself as a deeply sensitive, stoic observer of life rather than as a participant in its action. (In fact, she has been called "the woman who feels everything.") Of course, the very act of art-making itself is an action as well as an emotional response. Kollwitz's sense of onlooking may have been engendered by her life circumstances as well as her inborn personality. She was the daughter of a middle-class family, and her father was a Häuslebauer, similar to what we would call a developer/general contractor. As a child she began drawing the laborers she saw in her father's offices. When a young woman she married a pysician whose practice was mainly among the poor of Berlin and she was visually inspired by his patients and the milieu in which they lived.

"... But what I would like to emphasize once more is that compassion and commiseration were at first of very little importance in attracting me to the representation of proletarian life; what mattered was simply that I found it beautiful." -Käthe Kollwitz

Käthe Kollwitz "Self-Portrait, Drawn in Half-Profile to the Right, 1891-1892"
Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

Kollwitz lived through enormous societal upheavals during her lifetime including two world wars and the concomitant societal changes. For instance, although her artistic gifts were recognized early in life, she was nonetheless denied entry to the Berlin Academy of Art because of her gender. Forty years later she became that institution's first female instructor. In 1920 she was the first woman elected a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts, and this honor included a regular salary, a large studio and a full professorship.

Kollwitz outlived her husband, one of her two sons, and her only grandson. During her final years, she focused on producing bronze and stone sculpture embodying  similar aesthetic values as her two-dimensional work. Much of this later art was destroyed in a Berlin air raid in 1943.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Painter's Shadow

Lois Dodd "September Light"  2008

Lois Dodd has been painting steadily and happily since she first attended the Cooper Union in the 1940's. Although her strangely minimal Wikipedia biography calls Dodd an Abstract Expressionist, the work of hers I am familiar with is all representational.  Dodd paints pared-down but sun-drenched scenes of her surroundings, mostly landscapes, sometimes with figures, with occasional forays into still life and even, more rarely, pure whimsy.

Lois Dodd "Liberty Painting in NY Harbor" 2002

Now in her mid 80s, Dodd seems artistically undeterred by age and is still turning out elegantly composed, poetically abbreviated scenes of everyday life. There is something about her paintings, and about the artist personally, that everyone seems to like. Mention Lois Dodd in any gathering of artists and half the folks there will sigh appreciatively and say, "Oh, I just love her work!" and the other (lucky) half will simultaneously be smiling and saying, "Oh I just love HER!" Dodd has taught at Brooklyn College, the Vermont Studio School and Skowhegan, amongst other places. She exhibits with the Alexandre Gallery in NYC and the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, Maine.

Lois Dodd  "Shadow with Easel"  2009

Despite Dodd's integral and energetic presence in the American art scene over many decades and through two centuries, the artist only recently received her first retrospective museum show this year, in 2012. Lois Dodd: Catching the Light was on view at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri from May 18 to August 26, 2012. The exhibit will travel to the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine where it will be on view from January 17 to April 7, 2013.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Edma and Berthe

Edma Morisot "Berthe Morisot Painting" 1865 private collection

Edma Morisot (1839-1921) painted this portrait of her younger sister when Berthe was 24. Berthe had just had her first public success as an artist the year previously, when two of her pieces were accepted into the annual Salon de Paris. The sisters were raised in a cultured and prosperous French family and at that time painting was one of the accomplishments deemed necessary to the complete education of a young lady. However, this principle ran a bit amok in the Morisot household, where rather than simply a polite accomplishment painting became a career choice. In this, unusually, they were supported and encouraged by their parents. The Morisot family were said to be related to the Ancien Régime painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard and perhaps the Morisot parents simply assumed that "blood will out."

I can find very little biographical information solely on Edma, whose abbreviated career was so entwined with that of her more famous sister Berthe. What can be found of Edma's work online appears to be mainly Barbizon-style landscapes, which is not unexpected considering that both girls were taught for a time by Camille Corot. His stylistic influence on Edma's work was very strong. Several of Edma's landscapes can be seen here

The two artists enjoyed a close and mutually supportive relationship, but their artistic collaboration came to an end in 1869 when Edma married Adolphe Pontillon, a naval officer. At that juncture Edma decided to forgo her artistic career and concentrate solely on family life. After her marriage she still occasionally posed for her sister, and although she apparently did indeed find great fulfillment in her domestic life, she may have had occasional  regrets about the end of the sister's artistic partnership. The two kept in contact by letter throughout their lives, and in one letter Edma wrote:
“…I am often with you in thought, dear Berthe.  I’m in your studio and I like to slip away, if only for a quarter of an hour, to breathe that atmosphere that we shared for many years…”

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Life or Theater?

Charlotte Salomon  "Life or Theater" ca,.1940-43
Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943) was a young artist who was caught in a terrible time in the wrong place. She was Jewish and coming of age in Germany just as the Nazis were coming to power. She lived in Berlin with her father and stepmother, studying art despite discouragement from her teachers, until Kristallnacht (a state-sanctioned anti-jewish pogrom) after which living conditions became so dangerous for Jews in Germany that she was sent to live with her grandparents, who had already left the country and were hiding in the south of France.

A family tragedy soon after her arrival, piled on top of the disintegrating political situation, seemed to spur Salomon on to produce her magnus opus, a set of 1,325 paintings and sheets of tracing paper, all of a uniform size: 32.5 x 25 cm (12.8 in x 9.8 inches.) In these paintings, drawings and musical notations, Salomon feverishly chronicled her life. 

The work is a somewhat fictionalized autobiography detailing the main events of her life in the shadow of the Third Reich – her mother’s and grandmother's deaths, studying art despite discouragement, her relationship with friends and with her family – changing the names of the characters and infusing the account with a strong element of fantasy. Salomon called the work Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singespiel  (Life or Theatre? A Lyrical Drama) adding notes about appropriate music to increase the work's dramatic impact. In only two years, she painted over a thousand gouaches. She edited the paintings, re-arranged them, and added texts, captions, and overlays. It was recalled by friends and neighbors that she had a habit of humming songs to herself while painting.

Charlotte Salomon  "Above Average" ca. 1940-43
Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

In 1943, as the Nazis intensified their search for Jews living in the South of France, she handed the work, two large bundles wrapped in brown paper, to the family doctor, who was active in the French Resistance, saying, “Please keep this safe, it is my whole life.” Charlotte Salomon, by now a young woman,  had married another German Jewish refugee, Alexander Nagler. The two of them were dragged from their home in September 1943 and transported to a Nazi ‘processing center’ near Paris. Salomon was five months pregnant. She was transported to Auschwitz and was probably gassed on the same day that she arrived there (October 10, 1943.) She was 26 years old.

Following the war Salomon's artworks, which had miraculously survived, were returned to her father and stepmother, who donated the entire unique collection to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam in 1972. The work has had many major exhibitions and performances, and has been published in book format in a number of different editions.

Charlotte Salomon  "Epilogue" ca. 1940-43
Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

From the Wikipedia entry on Salomon:  "Life? or Theater? is intended as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a Wagnerian 'total work of art' within the tradition of the ambitious nineteenth century German idea to fuse poetry, music and the visual arts. Yet Salomon's work is a reversal of that tradition which was intended to be the ultimate manifestation of Germanic culture - instead it is a deeply moving and personal masterpiece, created by a 'young woman who belonged to a supposedly alien race and who was therefore held not to even have a right to exist, let alone a place in society.' [Norman Rosenthal, Royal Academy of Arts, 1988]