Friday, 26 September 2008



NOTE: With the Mark Rothko retrospective just opening at the Tate Modern, it seemed a good moment to revisit this 2000 show at the Bruce Museum. I wrote the following piece, in essentially the same form, for the FT, who, I think, were originally more interested in the possible appeal to their readership in the Greenwich area than in the subject matter, thus let it sit just a little too long to run in the end. But the issue of Rothko's development can't really be separated from that of the Abstract Expressionists as a group, nor can the ways in which their growth as artists was shaped by the events of the Depression years. In that sense, perhaps they echo the nation's struggles and rebirth after the war as something more direct and more powerful. The only changes of note are those of tenses; I eliminated some material about the Bruce which isn't relevant to today's story. The reference to the Tate Modern may reflect my early reaction to the museum's opening that same year. I'll have to post that essay here sometime.

The sheer power of the post-war explosion of American art which came to be known as Abstract Expressionism overwhelms the preceding decade, which gets dismissed as a period of chaotic, if not adolescent, development. To European eyes, that attitude confirms the New World’s essential paucity of talent, reinforcing the idea that New York, in Serge Guibault’s famous phrase, “stole the idea of Modern Art” from Paris, and that far from being an original and deeply meaningful epoch in art, Rothko, Pollock, DeKooning, Kline and the rest were merely the beneficiaries of economic imperialism; a CIA-funded US version of Saatchi and Tate Modern-promoted emperor's new clothes.

“The American Avant-Garde: A Decade of Change” at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, sought to redress this imbalance, and present that 'lost decade' from 1936-46 as one of vibrancy, not only a creative cauldron from which emerged the finely hammered steel of the New York School, but one which produced art memorable in its own terms. Organised by the Bruce’s Nancy Hall-Duncan and art historian Irving Sandler, it took a new look at well-known artists from the 1930s, giving a fresh perspective to their influence on the developing talents of Abstract Expressionism's icons, but also showcased a number of artists perhaps unjustly forgotten today.

It’s not enough to look at Rothko’s “Untitled: Two Nudes” (1936), imagine it without the figures, enlarged and turned to the horizontal, and see the doors, doorways, and walls creating the blocks of colour we associate with the painter today. I remember doing that the first time I saw the better-known “Entrance To Subway” (1938), and you could go back to Hopper's “Room In Brooklyn” (1932) for much the same effect. But this story goes deeper than that.

It’s a given that America’s young modernists in America in the 1930s rejected the prevailing Realist styles. Regional Realism is typified somewhat cruelly here by Grant Wood’s “Sentimental Ballad” (1940), painted to promote John Ford’s film “The Long Voyage Home”, and showing John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Jack Pennick, and the Ford Repertory company singing over pints in an Oirish pub. But at the peak of the Depression, Social Realism was also in its heyday. In Philip Evergood’s “The Pink Dismissal Slip” an artist brandishes a notice from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) firing him from the Federal Arts Project. Evergood himself had been beaten and jailed in a protest against the dismissal of nearly 2,000 artists. His painting’s power comes precisely from the primitive technique young American painters were feeling it was necessary to use, to escape the feeling of being captured by an unfair society.

This was at least partly a reaction to European modernism. The American Abstract Artists (AAA) were heavily influenced by the Cubists, but Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb belonged to The Ten, who took in a wider range of influences. They attempted to synthesise a position somewhere between propaganda and formalism by combining social consciousness with an mix of abstraction, expressionism, and even surrealism. Meanwhile, Jackson Pollock was the prize pupil of the leading regional realist, Thomas Hart Benton, who himself had studied in Paris before rejecting ‘elitist’ European styles as both introspective and neurotic. Benton’s family were populist politicians in Missouri, and that influence is apparent in Pollock’s “Cotton Pickers” (1935), originally painted for the WPA. It echoes Benton, while suggesting El Greco, Corot or Daubigny. It absolutely typifies the work which Pollock later called “something against which to react”.

A native American abstraction also flourished in the 1930s, and the works of less-remembered people like Balcombe Greene (“Two Forms” 1937) or Burgoyne Diller (“Construction no.16” 1938) suggest they were already seeking space in which their materials could be allowed to act. Particularly rewarding is Irene Rice Pereira’s “Untitled, 1944”, an assemblage of glass, fabric and metallic strips which would still be cutting edge today. With the start of the war in Europe, the surrealists had fled en masse to America. This may have been the final catalyst, or perhaps it was the Jungian analysis the alcoholic Pollock underwent at the same time. Whatever the spark, with Pollock’s “Man Bull Bird,” one of his last works for the WPA (1941), some sort of boundary has been crossed.It is no surprise to see artists like Arshile Gorky and John Graham heavily influenced by Picasso, as it was everywhere. Yet by the time Gorky painted “Horns of the Landscape” (1944) he was already adapting Cubism into a more specifically American vernacular. A bigger influence may have been Hans Hofmann, whose classes were a focus point in New York. Hofmann’s “Mirage (1946)” already contains all the elements we associate with the best of the Abstract Expressionists, while still showing its Picasso roots. The biggest step toward synthesis may have come from Milton Avery, whose Matisse-influenced landscapes, such as 'Autumn' (1944) were already reducing scenes to just a few well-judged shapes, and would clearly influence Rothko. The war is still on, but it's clear from works on display by Rothko, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning that they were already refining and inventing what would become the most dynamic painting of the second half of the century, and perhaps the end of the war was merely what set them free.

That they should have absorbed European influence is not surprising: Rothko, Graham, Gorky, Hofmann, de Kooning and Josef Albers were all immigrants. That their work should seek to adapt such influences to an “American Dream” is even less surprising. In many ways, Abstract Expressionism is about 'effete' art adapting to Americanism, in the same way immigrants or their children felt they needed to prove their Americaness. The two-fisted macho approach of most of the AbEx artists, the fights at the Cedar Bar, Pollack working in his T-shirt and jeans, were all part of a studied anti-highbrow approach. Ironically, their art succeeded in part because of the high-brow push given it by critics, who brought on board the very people these artists condemned in the 1930s, by convincing the moneyed buyers of the value of this new art. The same was true of the Impressionists, and the AbEx artists have followed their path to first popularity and then decorative ubiquity. Which would have surprised any of the artists represented in this exhibition.

What is also surprising is the way a relatively small museum like the Bruce, situated on hill overlooking the commuter rail station which links Greenwich with New York, has assembled such a spectacular collection. Significantly, they’ve borrowed not only from major institutions like the Whitney and Guggenheim, but also from smaller museums like the Neuberger at nearby SUNY-Purchase, where Sandler teaches, and the New Britain Museum of American art, upstate in Connecticut. The exhibition has been designed brilliantly by Anne von Stuelpnagel. Hung with strong black and red backgrounds, it allows you to see each work on its own merits, while inviting comparisons within rooms and from one space to the next. It’s like walking back into a more intense time, when depression and war made it seem everything was under threat, when everything seemed possible in art.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008


The 2002 Exhibition at the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, Palais Du Luppe, Arles

Note: The Francis Bacon retrospective has just opened at the Tate (and isn't it odd that Bacon is 'Britain' rather than 'modern' when he gets Tated?) and by coincidence that was one of the topics for Newsnight Review when I watched to check out my former colleague and fellow Swede Dotun Adebayo. The Telegraph's Rachel Campbell-Johnston was bothered by the huge slabs of black in some of Bacon's 'bad' paintings; all three panelists agreed the show for the most part had avoided what it thought of as his lesser work. RCJ's reference to black slabs reminded me of writing this piece about a 2002 show of Bacon's Van Gogh paintings in the heart of Van Gogh country, Arles. It appeared, in a slightly different form, in the TLS then, and seems relevant to the discussion now...

Francis Bacon worked in such a frenzy of lateness to finish his Van Gogh studies in time for their show at the Hanover Gallery in 1957 that guests at the opening are said to have taken some of the still-wet paint home with them on the backs of their dresses and jackets. The paintings themselves have never been the critics’ favourites; John Russell, for example, thought them “perhaps the weakest of his groups”. Now, however, this reuniting of eight of the nine paintings in the series, along with Bacon’s two later revisitings of the theme, provides an opportunity to judge them with new eyes, and may provoke a reassessment of their place in Bacon’s work.

Critical suspicion of Bacon’s Van Goghs may stem from a sense that it’s simply too facile to draw an emotional link between the tormented artists, self-mutilation compared to mutilation of the painted figure. Bacon’s own starting point was Van Gogh’s 1888 self-portrait, “The Painter On The Road To Tarascon”, showing the artist, in straw hat, lugging his easel and equipment, facing the viewer head-on, and casting an almost ominous shadow which appears to be following him. This is the Van Gogh of popular imagination, searching obsessively the countryside around Arles for perfect light, then, just as he found it, rejected by French Babbitry, forced to quit the town along the very same road.

Bacon never saw Van Gogh’s original, destroyed when Dresden was firebombed in 1945. He made do with photographs, but often preferred the qualities brought out by reproduction; he never bothered to see Velasquez’s original of Pope Innocent X in Rome. As reproduced, Van Gogh’s background jumps out at the viewer, broad swathes of colour stretching almost two-dimensionally across the canvas. Watching the way paint is turned into sunlight, parched fields, into shadow and shade on the road, suggests a different sense of Van Gogh’s importance to Bacon. Viewing the Van Gogh portraits together, what is striking is the accumulation of other influences which Van Gogh seems to mediate for him, as if the fever pitch of deadline-beating energy absorbed and revealed ideas which, in a sense, Bacon may have needed to paint out of his system.

Entering the exhibition in Arles, the impact of this revelation is amplified by juxtaposition. The deep purples and scarlets of “Study For A Portrait of Van Gogh IV” suggest German expressionists; the dark Van Gogh, is, apart from the shapes of the painting equipment he carries, indistinguishable from his shadow. There’s a further expressionist suggestion of Munch in the face of “Study I”, completed in 1956. It recalls another 1888 Van Gogh, “The Sower”, but its incredible darkness is relieved only by the yellows of his straw hat, and the outlines of his easel, canvas bag, and shoulder straps. The pose also suggests influences beyond painting, as curator David Allen Mellor makes plain in his excellent monograph in the exhibition catalogue.

Bacon had rushed to see Vincente Minelli’s film, LUST FOR LIFE, starring Kirk Douglas. Based on Irving Stone’s pulpy novel, the film follows a Hollywood tradition of macho painter-pics that includes Charles Laughton’s two-fisted Rembrandt, but Minelli’s Van Gogh is one who is overcome as much by the overpowering sunlight of Provence as by his inner demons. The pose of the painter in his self-portrait is very self-consciously cinematic, direct to camera, as it were, and Bacon will echo cinematic effects throughout the series.

The shadowy darkness of those two paintings contrasts sharply with “Study III”, one of the works where the imprint of the Hanover Gallery opening night press may be visible. More apparent is a use of figure and colour suggestive of Willem DeKooning. Here yellows stretch across the fields behind the artist, while the road has become a broadly-applied expressionist mix of scarlet, blue, and white. The three paintings come together in “Study V”. The starkest of the series, here road and background have been reduced to bands of colour which suggest Abstract Expressionism, particularly Richard Diebenkorn. It’s a reduction to essence of what can be seen in Van Gogh’s original, and here the artist is reduced too: almost a shadow himself, projecting his own fatigue onto a shrinking shadow. The shadows can look awkward, almost childish, as painting, but in essence,you can imagine the awkward shadow is what was always chasing Bacon, and Van Gogh.

The next three paintings serve as what Mellor calls “a hinge” in Bacon’s career. The Van Gogh figure and its shadow merge in “Study VI”, apparently swallowed up in a landscape which itself takes on more life. In “Van Gogh In A Landscape” that setting has become omnious and threatening, reducing the struggling figure of the artist to a trudge, almost a retreat from his art, the burden of his easel a cross literally to bear. Finally, in “Untitled (Landscape After Van Gogh)” the figure itself has disappeared, only hinted at in the suggestion of shadow. The trees which frame Van Gogh in the original and in most of Bacon’s studies, now loom like figures themselves, again suggestive of crucifixion.

The other side of Mellor’s hinge is “Homage To Van Gogh”, painted in 1960, which assumes many of the characteristics associated with Bacon’s portraiture. Working from photographs, Bacon’s Van Gogh takes on pitiable, nightmarish characteristics, not the least of which is a pig-like snout. It recalls the famous story of Bacon’s encounter, six years later, while being driven round Provence by Stephen Spender, with a crashed lorry carrying pigs to market. Bacon thought the dead pigs ‘the most beautiful thing’ he ever saw. Certainly the links between pig and bacon need no elaboration.

The final painting is Bacon’s 1985 “Homage To Van Gogh, Arles”, done for the opening of the Fondation Van Gogh, and its director Yolande Clergue, co-curator of this exhibition. Here the painter is seen from waist down, literally blending into his shadow, the bright white of his drawing paper our only clue. He is hidden by a screen, on which are the words Vincent Van Gogh, Arles, 1888-1988, on a blackness which reminds us of the strange sense of historical guilt which pervades the show.

No painting by Van Gogh has ever been shown at the Fondation. There is a notable reticence from those who own the works to contribute them to the city which tossed him out. In fact, though tourists can visit the garden of the hospital where Van Gogh recovered after slicing off his ear, or the rooms in the sanitarium outside San Remy where he checked himself in for a ‘cure’, there is only one painting by Van Gogh on display anywhere in Provence, in Avignon’s admirable Musee Angladon, and that collection has been transplanted, as it were, from Paris. So the Bacon series is an important step forward in the rehabilitation, as it were, of Arles, and what the Fondation has demonstrated in its thoughtful presentation of Bacon should lead many to rethink the position of Arles itself.

A collection of portraits of Bacon by leading photographers might appear a mundane contrast to his paintings, but in fact, it works remarkably well in raising, if not answering, questions about an artist’s identity. For what is most apparent is the way Bacon becomes a different character for each photographer. For Cecil Beaton he starts out fey in 1951, but by 1960 that feyness remains in only half his face, the other half is lost to shadow. Cartier-Bresson turns him into a French painter looking cynically around his atelier, to Don McCullin he’s a worker exhausted after a long day in the mill. Harry Benson’s Bacon, in New York, could be a tough-talking Irish reporter with the Bowery as his beat. Peter Beard, with his own ties to Arles, sees Bacon as one of his own works, while Hans Namuth manages to transform him into an action painter, a la Pollock, whom Bacon apparently couldn’t stand.

The portraits set the stage for an even more impressive group of photos, Perry Ogden’s shots of Bacon’s London studio, taken as reference before it was moved intact to Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery. The sheer mess behind Bacon’s work space echoes the artist’s presence in their random mix of shapelessness and colour. The photos themselves could go on show at the ICA, or the Saatchi; Bacon’s artistic detritus seems far more revealing and infinitely more intriguing than, say, Tracey Emin’s bedclothes. Even more, the contrast between the deep layers of creative chaos and the almost austere living space opposite recalls once more Van Gogh, the stark disparity between his bare rooms in Arles and St. Remy he lived in and the exploding light and colour of the landscapes he captured on canvas.

Van Gogh by Bacon performs an amazing feat: by bringing all this together, by finally returning Bacon’s works to their context, it allows us to sharpen our focus on both artists. Which certainly was the point when Bacon was painting so feverishly 45 years ago.

Friday, 12 September 2008


If you're interested in the tale of Vermeer's 'Lady Writing A Letter With Her Maid', stolen twice from Bessborough House in Ireland, you can read my review of Matthew Hart's 'The Irish Game' at Irresisitible Targets, linked here.

Saturday, 6 September 2008


an exhibition at the Musee Angladon
Avignon, Summer 2006

Paul Signac loved sailing—and his boat L'Olympia gave him the freedom to prowl the coastline of France. He was one of the first of the Paris artists to travel to the south of France, most memorably visiting the hospitalised Van Gogh in Arles in 1889. But it was only after the death of Georges Seurat that he put his sailboat into port at St Tropez, and made his first attempts at painting in watercolours. He wrote his friend Camille Pissarro that watercolours weren't 'working' for him, but he felt they were a 'valuable means of collecting information'. Yet within two years, in 1894, Signac had not only resolved to spend his summers in the South, but had rejected the Impressionist idea of painting with oils in the open air. Thus, for most of the year he would live in the Midi, travel in his boat, working in watercolours and pen and ink sketches. Then he would return to his Paris studio for the winter, and turn that 'information' into the oils we associate with the pointillism of Neo-Impressionism.

The somewhat sad beauty of this exhibition ‘Signac in Provence’ lies in the way it illustrates how radical the dichotomy of Signac's working life actually was. His sketches and watercolours teem with life and motion, the use of colour is bold and improvisational, the ink lines often play sharply with the watercolour itself. They are polar opposites to the restraint of his oils, where the subject matter becomes merely a framework for an exercise in the play of light and colour. The relaxed confines of the Musee Angladon, home of the collection of the industrialist Jacques Doucet, add to the impact of the show. The Avignon setting makes much of the work inside seem already familiar. The Angladon also reminds one of the comfortable bourgeois setting of the French art world of the time, which reinforce the many paradoxes which arise from the contradictions in Signac's life and work.

He was born in 1863 in Paris; his family were saddlers to French society. After his father's death in 1880, the 16 year old Signac quit his architectural studies to join the bohemian art world of Monmartre. But with family support; how many struggling teenage artists could buy their first Cezanne before selling a painting of their own? Teaching himself by studying artists he admired, particularly Delacroix and Monet, at 19 Signac had his own studio and was already summering on the coast in Normandy.

His family had moved to Asnieres, outside Paris. In 1884, he joined the Societe des Artistes Independents, and at their first salon met Georges Seurat, who was exhibiting ‘Bathers at Asnieres‘ there. They became close friends and collaborators in pointillism. In 1885 he met Pissarro, who with his customary enthusiasm grabbed pointillism and integrated it into his own Impressionism. Through Pissarro, Signac exhibited at the last Impressionist exhibition, in 1886; it was then that Felix Feneon coined the term 'Neo-Impressionism'. In a work like 'Boulevard de Clichy (1886—not in this exhibition) you can see Pissarro's influence combining with Seurat's, but it was Seurat's whose ideas would become more profound for Signac, perhaps to his detriment.

Ebullient and gregarious, like Pissarro, Signac was an odd match for the taciturn, withdrawn Seurat, but he took on the task of creating an aesthetic to turn Seurat's work into a movement. Signac preferred the term 'divisionism' for what he and Seurat were doing; his view was that of a modernist concerned with reducing art to its elements. He also seemed torn between painting itself and theorising about it. Indeed, Seurat's essay, ‘From Delacroix to Neo Impressionism’ (1899) not only lays bare his own influences but was one of the major critical works of the period. He became obsessed with new scientific theories on the physics of light and our senses' physical reactions to colour. Seurat’s concern with working out these effects on canvas meant his subject matter increasingly became a formality.

This played to another paradox: the bourgeois Signac was, again like Pissarro, a committed anarchist. He saw divisionism as a political engagement, confirming the importance of the art itself over the subject matter. In another sense, his choice of the Midi was a way of suggesting that a more natural order existed outside urban society. That these concepts might contradict seems to have bothered him no more than the transformation of the bubbling improvisation of his summer’s work into the colder, more distant and formal finished product of his studios. Others could feel the conflict. At one point Pissarro even urged his friend to reconsider his artistic temperament, and 'evolve toward a freer art more based on feeling', in effect, the opposite of Seurat's scientific approach.

The conclusion this exhibition suggests is that Signac did exactly what Pissaros suggested, but for most part in private, in the Mediterranean, in his summer's gathering of ideas, to be transformed into the templates of his more formal Parisian oils. But one can see the influence of his sketching on the very first oils one encounters in the exhibition: the blue and yellow shimmering effect of sunlight in St. Tropez: Sunset Over The Town (1892) is stunning, while in St. Tropez: After the Storm, both the scale and the mix of orange and yellow seem audaciously unusual for Signac. He would move to a more mosaic patterned pointillism, which is reflected magnificently in the melding of leaves and mountains in Juan les Pins (1914), and his oils would become more abstracted, as in the white on white effect of Vieux Port, Marseilles (1906). But his later watercolours, while incorporating the mosaic colour techniques, become, if anything, more dynamic, sometimes, as with Funeral at Bourg St Andeol (1926) suggesting the humour of a Daumier.

Thus Signac's studies are often more interesting than the finished works. He appears to have realised this himself; he exhibited three watercolour 'annotations' at the first Neo-Impressionist exhibition, and argued at the Vienna Sezession of 1900 that there were no grounds for the avant-garde to 'differentiate between oil-based and water-based art.' As he grew older, Signac produced fewer and fewer oils, but grew more prolific in watercolour. He painted along coastlines from Rotterdam to Constantinople, but always returned to the South of France. The vibrancy of the work he produced there argues that Signac may have been more compelling, if less theoretically important, had he not held the reins so tightly while working in oil. The Angladon should be congratulated for reminding us of this.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008


When, as the story goes, F. Scott Fitzgerald sighed that the 'rich were not like us', Ernest Hemingway replied 'that's right, they have more money'. Since Hemingway was telling the story, it's not surprising he gets the better line, but 'the rich' about whom both writers were talking were Gerald and Sara Murphy, and indeed the glamorous trendsetters for the Lost Generation were not like Scott or Ernest.

Sadly, the Murphys are remembered primarily in the sense of what we now call 'celebrities', with all the diminishing that term implies. Their image remains glossy, as you'd expect for a couple immortalised as Dick and Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald's TENDER IS THE NIGHT. Their image as celebrities was enhanced when it was filtered through Calvin Trillin's famous memoir, LIVING WELL IS THE BEST REVENGE.

Yet even if considered only as proto-celebrities, Gerald and Sara are sadly under-appreciated. After all, they invented summer on the Riviera, with a life-style imported from the beaches of the Hamptons in New York. They attracted a circle which included, apart from Scott, Zelda, and Hemingway, Picasso (who idolised Sara), Leger, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Cole Porter as well as American writers as diverse as John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Archibald MacLeish, Gertrude Stein and many more of the key figures of the 'Lost Generation'. Man Ray took their family portraits. The Europeans were captivated by their seemingly effortless style, the Americans by their patrician grace. Gerald's striped sailor shirts, knitted caps, and espadrilles remain as fashionable now as they were when he first threw them together as a Mediterranean beach outfit. Picasso painted Sara's unique way of wearing her long string of pearls down her back at the beach, 'to give them air'. He made Gerald the figure standing primly next to the piper in his painting 'The Pipes Of Pan', a painting that now seems to reveal more than it might have been seen to at the time. Photos of Picasso, and his mother, cavorting at fancy dress parties in the sand at Antibes capture the Murphys' infectious flair for revelling in the moment. At every turn, you sense their liberating energy. It was Sara who liked to say that champagne should always be drunk looking upwards, at the sky.

The sheer weight of accomplishment of those drawn to befriend the Murphys has led history to pigeon-hole them as 'society bohemians', possessing a slumming sort of dilettante-ish noblesse oblige. This view lends itself to belittlement, as Hemingway did infamously in his brilliant, if sour, recollection, A MOVEABLE FEAST, the book with which he settled scores with all those who had helped him along the way.

But the Murphys are far more pivotal, and their story more fascinating, than that. It is told brilliantly in Making It New, an exhibition curated by Deborah Rothschild, which opened last summer at the Williams College Museum of Art, and now is about to close in Dallas after its third showing. This is one of those rare gallery shows whose story can be followed room to room, like a play in three acts. In Act One the viewer gets charmed by the Murphys, seduced by the atmosphere they created around themselves, in both Paris and the Riviera, which attracted and in many cases nurtured, creative talent. In Act Two, the exhibition convinces you of Gerald's undoubted talent as an artist. Finally, in Act Three, tragedy strikes, and not only does Gerald's urge to paint get set aside, but the very essence of 'living well' changes too.

Both Murphys grew up wealthy. Sara Wiborg's father, son of Norwegian immigrants, made a fortune in printing, and married into a prominent family. One of her uncles was Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman, another was Senator John Sherman, author of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. She and her two sisters were sensations, quintessential Gibson girls, when they debuted in London; they traveled regularly around Europe, where their mother longed to find a 'suitable' marriage to some sort of nobleman. By contrast, Gerald's father Patrick, son of Irish immigrants, worked his way up to ownership of the Mark Cross company, then prominent Boston saddlers. Strangely enough, the French painter Signac, whom they would meet on the Riviera, came from a family with a similar background in saddlery. Anticipating the era of the automobile, Patrick moved the company to New York and into luxury consumer items, what his son would later brand 'a monument to the non-essential'.

Gerald and Sara met on the beaches of the Hamptons, where they summered, but it was not until Gerald, five years younger, was at Yale that the relationship blossomed. They married against the wishes of both families: Sara's mother thought she was marrying beneath herself, while Gerald's father thought him too irresponsible to marry. From the start, they showed an exuberant capacity to see life as a form of art: Gerald's tiny letter-within-a-letter, written for his infant daughter when he was serving in the Army during World War I, is a touching hint at what was to come.

Subsuming their life in what might now be called performance art came naturally to Gerald, whose hidden sexuality is one of this exhibition's main themes. From his schooldays, he believed he suffered from a 'defect', which he needed both to keep secret and to overcome. He did that by making himself immensely popular. At both posh Hotchkiss school and at Yale he was voted 'best dressed, and wittiest'; at Yale he was considered such a 'thorough gent' he was 'tapped' for the secret society Skull & Bones, which has included three generations of Bushes among its influential members. From the start of his relationship with Sara, he was able to indulge her desire to be a free spirit, in return she nurtured him and indulged the roles he played. There is an interesting parallel with Hemingway, to whom Sara would remain extremely close, but whose later antipathy for Gerald had it roots in the Paris studio Gerald lent him, and in which he created his early, brilliant prose. Hemingway had a way of estranging himself from those who’d helped his career, as if not wanting to be reminded he wasn’t a totally self-made man. He had also sought Gerald's advice about leaving his first wife, Hadley, for Pauline Pfeiffer. Like Sara, Hadley was older than her husband, a nurturing figure, yet Gerald encouraged Hemingway to leave the marriage in order to 'protect' his art. As Hemingway bounded between wives he came to blame Gerald for deliberately misleading him, and perhaps attributed this 'betrayal' to Gerald's sexuality.

But if Sara were the emotional anchor, Gerald’s talent and his demons were the eye-catchers. His work forms the centre of this show. Soon after the Murphys moved to Paris in 1921, where Sara's trust fund and Gerald's stock market investments could stretch incredibly far, he walked past Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's gallery in the Rue la Boetie, and was stopped in his tracks by the Cubist works offered in a liquidation sale: Picasso, Braque, Gris, Derain. 'If that's painting,' he told Sara, 'that's the kind of painting I would like to do.' He began studying with Natalia Goncharova, and through her met Diaghilev. Soon he and Sara were decorating sets for the Ballets Russes, while Gerard pursued his painting. He began working on large scale canvases. Sadly, of the 14 paintings he is known to have completed between then and 1929, only seven survive.

None of the works he displayed at the 1923 Salon des Independents are among those seven survivors, though photographs of 'Turbines' and 'Engine Room' convey their power; cubist constructs of the modern mechanical age. In the 1924 Salon, Gerald's 'Boatdeck' was a sensation. Eighteen feet by twelve, its depiction of a an ocean liner's smokestacks and funnels captures the essence of the new place of people within the modern world, and anticipates work by artists like Charles Sheeler. Even now, the black and white copy of the painting, taken from a contemporary photograph, dominates its exhibition room completely, just as it did at the Salon.

Exciting as his painting is, the details of a ballet Gerald was commissioned to write and design are even more astounding. The commission came from Diaghilev's arch-rival, Rolf de Mare of the Ballet Suedois. Working with his Yale glee club colleague, Cole Porter, on the score, Murphy came up with 'Within The Quota', the story of a young Swedish immigrant who arrives in America and meets the American stereotypes Europeans believe they will find there: the Heiress (a subject close to home for Murphy), the Jazz Baby, the Cowboy, and the Sweetheart of the World, each modelled on images from the movies. A newsreel cameraman stands on stage, taking the story down. And behind the stage is a backdrop, a giant newspaper front-page, with headlines like 'Unknown Banker Buys Atlantic'. Readers of John Dos Passos' USA trilogy will hardly miss the influence, in the newsreel format and headlines which mark that classic tale of the contradictory drives and repressions of Jazz Age America.

Murphy's most famous painting is 'Razor' (1924), which features a pen, a razor, and box of matches. Its simplicity remains powerful today; it exudes modernity even though safety razors, fountain pens, and matches have all been bypassed by technology.
Other items that might be sold at Mark Cross crop up in his paintings, the shaker in 'Cocktail' (1927), and the watch whose intricacies are painted in striking detail in 'Watch (1925)', as if he were deconstructing the mechanisms of the life he had abandoned in America. Some of his paintings hint at surrealism: certainly one gets the impression of the subconscious welling its way up, particularly in the aggressive sexuality of 'Wasp and Pear' (1929) the last of his surviving works.

Then he simply stopped painting. One might think he had gone as far in self-examination as he dared, but the practical reasons are more compelling. The stock market crash of 1929 forced the Murphys, for the first time, to consider economies. At the same time, and more importantly, their younger son, Patrick, was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the family moved to Switzerland to be near him in the sanitarium. Gerald never took up a brush again. His energies were devoted totally to helping Patrick recover and making his life bearable until he did. Both Murphys' creativity focused on their son, who despite his youth was already an accomplished artist. The high point of this part of their life was Patrick's recovery, for a final voyage on their yacht Weatherbird, in the summer of 1934.

They returned to America later that year. The luxury goods offered by Mark Cross had less appeal in the Depression, and the business was failing. Gerald now devoted himself to saving the family firm, which he did effectively until he retired. Patrick's tuberculosis got worse, and he took another cure, at Saranac Lake. But in early 1935, the Murphys robust elder son, Baoth, was striken by measles at his boarding school. Within a week, he was dead of meningitis. That fall, Leger visited Patrick, and they did portraits of each other which make a touching pair. Patrick's version of Leger catches both the strength and sensitivity of the artist; Leger's drawing shows Patrick almost literally fading away beneath his sweaters and blankets. Patrick died in 1937, and rarely can an event related through displays in glass cases and pictures hung on walls seem as moving as this one does to the viewer of this exhibition. Whose life would not unravel in the face of such loss?

Earlier in the 1930s, Gerald had written to Archibald MacLeish, explaining his 'resentment' of his 'defects', and saying that his life had been 'a process of concealment of the personal realities, at which I have been all too adept'. He would make only one more effort to return to the artistic world: working on the ballet 'Ghost Town' with the choreographer Marc Platt. Perhaps influenced by his losses, he appears to have at least made efforts to come to terms with his sexuality, though the marriage to Sara remained strong and their life together pursued with a scaled down version of their French glamour. But tellingly, he recounted that he had never been as happy as when he was painting, and that he had never been totally happy since he stopped.

Gerald Murphy was 'rediscovered' in a 1960 exhibition of neglected American artists at the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art, which makes its return to Dallas, nearly half a century later, particularly apt. Trillin's New Yorker profile, the basis of his book, appeared in 1962. Three years later, Gerald Murphy died. Sara lived until 1975, dying aged 95. The Murphys lived well, but you might well argue life took a good measure of revenge on them, rather than the other way around. But they continued within their private world of style, albeit in different circumstances it served more as shelter than avant garde. They might be as good an illustration of Hemingway's ideal of 'grace under pressure' as we've ever been presented. The effect of their lives, as this wonderful exhibition (and its accompanying catalogue) make clear, remain with us, still vibrant, today.

Making It New: The Art & Style of Gerald and Sara Murphy
At the Dallas Museum of Art through September 14 ,2008, previously at the Williams College Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery
Catalogue, edited by Deborah Rothschild, 238pp University of California Press /Wiliams College Museum of Art, ISBN 9780520253400

Monday, 1 September 2008


In the introduction to this impressive book, Betsy Fahlman reproduces a photograph of Robert Henri’s 1903-04 Afternoon Life Class at the New York School of Art. What a fascinating group that must have been! Although the absence of a key makes identification difficult, Henri’s students included the painters Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and George Bellows: a major slice of American art history in the first half of the twentieth century. Also present is the poet Vachel Lindsay, and, unmistakably louche, lounging against a cabinet in the very back of the room, the future actor Clifton Webb. Henri, resembling somewhat photographs of the frontier marshal Wyatt Earp, sits front row centre, and next to him, turned toward his teacher, is Guy Pene Du Bois.

Today DuBois is remembered primarily for his life-long friendship with Hopper; although his works are held in collections all over America, he is largely forgotten. Yet for much of his career, DuBois would have been envied by his classmates; he achieved relative success at an early age, and, in the dual position of artist and critic, had a strong influence on New York’s artistic world between the wars. His antipathy to the rise of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists may explain partly why he fell from fashion, but asking ourselves why others like Hopper have endured and Du Bois has not is an excellent approach toward understanding his work.

Guy, named after du Maupassant, was the son of Henri Pene du Bois, a successful if dilettantish New York journalist of Creole extraction. He began his studies at the New York School under William Merritt Chase, but soon found himself drawn to Henri’s more modernist approach, whereby artistic technique was seen as a tool toward a realistic portrayal of life in the new century. In 1905 he went to Paris with his father, who had been assigned to report on art for the New York American. He enrolled in art classes, and prowled the city, absorbing influences and experiences.

Du Bois’ early work mixes Henri’s very American outlook with the influence of the French painters who surrounded him. ‘A Night At The Opera‘ (1905), is reminiscent of the Degas of ‘Café Concert des Ambassadors’ (1876-77). It also might be compared to, among others, Walter Sickert, who in Britain was mixing modern French influences with a dedication to realism. Du Bois’s impressive Paris sketches of 1905 also show the influence of Daumier. They may be rooted in cliche, but they have real feeling: in ‘Artist’s Studio’ the artist slumps in his chair while his model tries to console him; ‘Rue des Ecoles’ illustrates a revolutionary rising. The sketches which led to his painting ‘Lady In Bed’ (1905) are delicate and sensual. The finished oil has dark and dingy colouring, like Sickert‘s, but Du Bois’stronger brush strokes make a simpler, almost abstract background that contrasts with the touching, affectionate quiet evident in the artist’s portrayal of the sleeping woman, whose face is almost haloed in white.

The faces in these early paintings have none of the detail we see in his drawings, as if to avoid taking the focus away from their settings, yet DuBois conveys much with just a few touches, from the contentment of that sleeping lady to the bonhomie of the man and woman seated in ‘Café d‘Harcourt‘ (1906). In 1906, Du Bois’ father became seriously ill; he died before Guy’s ship reached New York. Needing to support himself, he followed his father into journalism, reporting the police beat for The American. New York’s demi-monde was harsher than the one he’d left behind in Paris. New York's society was far more reproving of artists who patronised its pleasures. By now, DuBois was hob-nobbing with the belle-monde, writing music criticism, and the contrast between his two worlds served to forge his mature style as painter. Here Daumier’s influence becomes paramount.

Where DuBois’ paintings of women in the Tenderloin are full of affection, his drawings and paintings portraying New York society are laced with vicious criticism. The drawings often were accompanied by satirical dialogue or ironic titles. In the paintings politicians and lawyers are grotesquely fat or venially greedy; their women invariably bored or distracted. Paintings with titles like ‘The Doll and the Monster’ (1914) or ‘Behind The Scenes’ (1915) show gentlemen in evening dress pursuing younger women. The women’s faces hide emotions; the men’s, still blank, have none; they are literally empty suits, animated only by their avarice. ‘The Confidence Man’ (1919) tells a subtle story with remarkable succinctness: the downturned face of the matron being taken by the goateed sharp is full of conflicting emotions, conveyed by just a few strong strokes of the brush. 'The Lawyers' (1919) compares well with George Grosz. These works are still powerful today.

So why is DuBois forgotten? The answer may lie in the conflicting impulses of his art. He was, at his peak, a favourite of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and began exhibiting at the Whitney Studio in 1917. A firmer entree into high scoiety could not be imagined. But Fahlman notes the paradox that his living depended on selling to the very people his pictures excoriated. He could get away with this because of his position at the very centre of New York’s art world, but it had its price. Where a painter like Reginald Marsh seems to celebrate the demi-monde he paints, DuBois, while portraying his slumming socialites harshly, also appears to have adopted their viewpoint: you sense palpably his feeling that he too is slumming, that he takes no enjoyment from the world that so entranced him in Paris.

Then, in 1924, aged 40, he gave up his artistic status in New York society, his teaching and writing, sold his house in suburban Westport, Connecticut and returned to Paris. But he was no longer the same painter who had immersed himself in the bohemian world. He now had an expensive household to maintain. His work becomes more stylised, his social comment ever more pointed and bitter, and his commissions dried up. No wonder.

‘Americans in Paris’ (1927) depicts four women, instantly recognisable and as identical as Ryder Cup wives, striding purposefully into tourism around an anonymous Rive Gauche. ’Bal des Quatre Arts’ (1929) has a disturbing, ’They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’ feel, from the naked man costumed as an ape to the intoxicated woman trying to jump from the stage to meet him. Unable to support his family with such work, he returned to the US in 1930. With the Depression in full swing it was a bad time to try to resuscitate his career.

From this point, Du Bois’ story is one of struggle. He returned to writing and teaching, chased commissions for murals from the Works Progress Administration. Fahlman details his constant search for money, and it is reflected in a decline in the intensity of his work. Ever more stylised, most of these later paintings lack the bite which made his earlier pictures so captivating. Times were changing, and the wealthy were less interested in seeing themselves examined critically. Again, there is a paradox: when DuBois paints portraits, he can evoke the sitter’s personality in just a few strokes of the brush, and, particularly with women, can be extremely sympathetic. But too often his other paintings, despite or maybe because of the additional detail, lack bite.

Remembering ‘A Night At The Opera’ leads us to Edward Hopper, whose 1919 portrait of DuBois catches, early on, something of the sadness in his friend. Hopper returned to similar theatre scenes throughout his career. He also specialised in awkward bodies and incomplete faces placed in modern settings. But Hopper’s settings and characters remain ambiguous enough to make them intriguing to a modern audience. DuBois’ dramatic flair worked best in its context of sharp social comment; taken out of that context, which became redundant during the depression, he is as stuck in time as modern artists whose work will disappear when the background to their ironic titling is forgotten. The two men attending an opening in ‘The Art Lovers’ (1922) are obviously anything but. They might be figures out of Hopper, but in this context we already sense that, perhaps like Grosz, DuBois was trapped in his time, providing irony about an era that had passed.

Strangely, although a number of DuBois’ later works have an impressive, more abstract quality, as a critic he championed realism against the onslaught of Abstract expressionism. His last painting, ‘Café de Flore’ (1954) is rich in strong black brush strokes, but its figures seem oblivious to their setting, filled with regret and longing for memory.

The picture of DuBois which Fahlman builds is incomplete; a full biography would be welcomed. One can read between the lines, but many questions remain unanswered. For example, the success of his children: William as an illustrator and Raoul as a successful designer and art director on Broadway and in Hollywood. The urge to know more suggests Fahlman has done us great service by bringing DuBois back into the public eye.

GUY PENE DU BOIS: Painter of Modern Life
Betsy Fahlman
Norton/Quantuck Lane Press
176pp, £29.95 ISBN 159372005X