Dangerous Beauty… Leighton’s Masterpiece “Flaming June” Ignites the Frick

Leighton’s Flaming June, Frick Collection, June 9 – September 6, 2015

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

Frederic Leighton (1830–1896), Flaming June, ca. 1895. Oil on canvas. Museo de Arte de Ponce. The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc.
Frederic Leighton (1830–1896), Flaming June, ca. 1895. Oil on canvas. Museo de Arte de Ponce. The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc.

To sleep perchance to dream… A beautiful woman in a flame colored gown slumbers on a marble bench overlooking a radiant sea.   She sleeps with the total abandon of the young. Her rosy face rests against her arm with her unbound hair swept aside to reveal her white neck. An innocent maid asleep on a warm afternoon? Perhaps she is a Roman bride in a saffron tunic awaiting her groom, or an ancient poetess in the thrall of a divine stupor? Or, freed of myth and legend, simply a timeless evocation of summertime beauty?

What draws anyone on a warm afternoon to visit Lord Leighton’s Flaming June (ca. 1895) in the cool penumbra of the Frick? Like a torch in a shadowy hall, the electric orange of her radiant gown delivers a jolt of adrenalin. In this age of provocatively ugly art (such as up Pierre Huyghe’s Human Mask sculpture around the corner on the roof garden of the Metropolitan), she provides a fresh opportunity to celebrate the unadulterated beauty of the female form. Arriving in New York for the first time in 30 years, Flaming June is a masterpiece of academic draftsmanship, heightened by a frisson of forbidden fruit.

Just below Flaming June’s surface lies something darker, more erotic, a different form of dreaming, perhaps even a harbinger of death. She is caldron of contradictions. While she appears to belong to a distant dreamland, her above life-size figure, shown close-up, gives the impression of cascading into our space and beckoning our touch. Her gentle repose is negated by the serpentine arrangement of her body, folded in on its self so that it appears to spill out over her seat in a fan of silken limbs. All the while, her robust form is dematerialized by the shimmering creases of her filmy robe. And what of her innocence? The childlike aspect of her slumber conflicts with the sensual transparency of her dress which allows a glimpse of the aureole of her nipple, her inner thigh and the fine curve of her bare ankle.

The sunset theme and the toxic crimson oleander flowers tumbling over the railing remind us of the potentially deadly nature of her sleep. The Victorians were obsessed with youth, love and poison (think Henry Wallis’ Death of Chatterton, 1866), leaving us to wonder if she will she ever awaken?

But, oh, the bitter taste her beauty had!
He sickened at a breath of poison-flowers,
A languid humor stole away the hours..,

writes George Meredith, a poet widely read in Leighton’s circle, about a lover’s sleep-like death induced by deadly blooms. In keeping with many tombstones of the period, Christina Rosetti also alludes to death as a form of dreaming.

When I am dead, my dearest,
…And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
– Christina Rossetti, 1862,

At the same time, the touch of scarlet petals harmonizes with the spiral of golds, olives and persimmon, completing the circular disposition of colors that energize the painting, suggesting less death than erotic fantasy.

In her time, Flaming June was revered as the ultimate expression of art for art sake, a form of muse for the Aesthetic movement, inspired by antiquity and Medieval lore, suggestive of refined pleasure and an escape from the industrial world. Yet in the 60s (a time of bra-burning and Andy Warhol soup cans), this type of maiden was often seen as a saccharine vestige of Victorian fantasy and was vastly undervalued by the art market. Hence her miraculous discovery in 1963 by Luis Ferré, the founder of Puerto Rico’s Museo de arte de Ponce, at a London dealership selling for a mere 2000 pounds. The painting had recently emerged from behind a false panel over a mantle in a home outside of London.

Before her mysterious thirty year disappearance in the 30s, Flaming June had hung in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (1915-1928). An early photograph of Leighton’s luxurious London studio taken in April 1, 1895 shows her in a gold tabernacle frame alongside a painted preparatory study. This neoclassic frame served as a model for today’s current replica which is based on rarely preserved original molds. Sadly, the one jarring note is the current frame’s garish gold color finish, reminiscent of a Las Vegas house of ill repute.

Lord Fredrick Leighton (1830-1896) painted Flaming June just one year before he died, capping a long, successful career that won him a knighthood. He came from a wealthy family of merchants and studied painting in Germany and at the Florentine Accademia di Belle Arti. Early on he was recognized as a remarkable draftsman specializing in history painting. His handsome house in Holland Park (now the Leighton Museum) is a virtual time machine for the Aesthetic Age. He furnished his home in jewel tones with arts and crafts furniture of extraordinary quality often inspired by Japan and the Near East.

Leighton travelled widely, often visiting Florence where he drew Michelangelo’s Night, which inspired Flaming June’s unusual pose. Indeed, every nuance of the sleeping face and fall of drapery reveals Leighton’s constant attachment to shadow, line and texture, The artist made a series of sketches both nude and dressed before settling on his scheme. Leighton also studied Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus to investigate nuances of skin, texture, and the integration of light and form. Yet Sleeping June bears the stamp of a specific type of beauty favored by the Pre-Raphaelites. She closely resembles one of the loveliest actresses of his day, Leighton’s friend and occasional model, Dorothy Dean.

For some Flaming June is kitschy archaism. She was reviled in the New York Times June 11 review as “Painted with academic virtuosity in viscous glazes, she seems as if immersed in Jell-O.” Yet positioned at the Frick between two vertical MacNeil Whistler portraits, (viewed as avant garde in 1880s), Flaming June presents her own blend of modernity. The abstraction of her pose and audacity of her color scheme make her a forerunner of Fauvism and Expressionism. The theme of enchanted,drugged or deathlike sleep is also a trope in contemporary literature from Haruki Murakami’s Eri in After Dark to Isabel Allende’s Rosa in House of Spirits. And the 2015 sci-fi film Ex Machina looks at sleeping robots kept in special cupboards ready to come alive as beautiful and dangerous servers.

 Flaming June possesses the timeless magnetic beauty of some women whom we cannot stop staring at. Her sleep allows the gaze to linger without feeling self-conscious. So, we look on pondering at the mysterious nature of beauty and desire — a tightrope between the near, the forbidden and inaccessible. Leighton never married, was rumored to have had affairs with beautiful women and close-friendships with men. Perhaps, Flaming June’s androgynous beauty (for she has the sturdiness of young male athlete) aligns with Leighton’s own ambiguous sexuality, his own inner unrest.

Cherchez la femme

Parmigianino’s Schiava Turca Portrait, Frick Collection, May 14 – July 20, 2014

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

She beckons from across the room, a dimpled lady with a warm smile and a peeking décolletage. Her ivory ostrich plumed fan serves more as a beacon to her charms than a shield. Her lively, slightly protruding hazel eyes convey intelligence and a hint mischief. In sizing up Parmigianino’s famous portrait, known as La Schiava Turca, there there is only one point on which all scholars agree: the lady was neither Turkish nor a slave, as her title would imply. If not an odalisque, who then? A courtesan, perhaps, or the artist’s mistress?, Aa great lady, or an allegory? Now this luminous portrait rarely shown outside of Parma is the subject of small focused exhibition at the Frick that seeks to resolve her mysterious identity, but has it actually succeeded?

Francesco Mazzola, called Il Parmigianino (1503–1540) Schiava Turca, c. 1531–34 Oil on panel 26 3/4 x 20 7/8 inches Galleria Nazionale di Parma Photo: Scala/Art Resource, NY
Francesco Mazzola, called Il Parmigianino (1503–1540) Schiava Turca, c. 1531–34 Oil on panel 26 3/4 x 20 7/8 inches Galleria Nazionale di Parma Photo: Scala/Art Resource, NY

La Schiava Turca owes her erroneous appellation to a 1704 Medici inventory – made roughly180 years after she was painted. The cataloguer probably mistook her headdress for a Turkish turban and her coquettish expression as that of a willing Seraglio concubine. Actually, she wears a balzo, a form of silk and gold corona made fashionable by none other than the Marchesa of Mantua, Isabella d’Este, a leading patron of the arts. From her voluminous azure mantel with its slashed sleeves down to her embroidered cuffs, whether harlot or lady of rank, our sitter was beyond a doubt a woman of significant means.

Francesco Mazzola (1503-1540), known as Parmigianino, probably painted La Schiava Turcasometime during his stay in Bologna, after fleeing the sack of Rome in 1527. A child prodigy, Parmigianino had already absorbed while in Parma the lessons of his former mentor and associate, Correggio, by his midtwenties. By the time he left Rome, Parmigianino had mastered much of Raphael’s luminous coloring and skilled drawing techniques. In fact, when Raphael died suddenly in 1520, Parmigianino was regarded in some circles as his heir apparent. Indeed,La Schiava Turca borrows freely from Raphael’s mysterious female portrait types, such as La Donna Velata, whose closely cropped pyramid shaped figure virtually spills out of the picture frame.

What is fresh about Parmigianino’s lady is her sheer radiance. Lit from behind as well as in front, her cheeks glow and even her chest bears a faint flush. Light spills over her shoulders, down her fluffy fan to her long creamy fingers. Like all great portraits, she is vividly present. Parmigianino no longer used pictorial space, anatomy, light and shade to convey a natural appearance but rather to create new and daring painterly effects in keeping with the Mannerist style of mid-sixteenth century. Here, he astutely mixes realistic details with artistic convention: the lady’s slight double chin and tilted head are counterbalanced by her manipulated pose (is she standing or sitting?) and exaggerated boneless fingers that suggest her refinement and beauty.

So how might this wealthy woman have passed her time? For prominent noble women of the period such as Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547), and Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1449), sister to the King of France, poetry was the ultimate status card that showed knowledge of the ancients and a gift of imagination. In this light, Frick guest curator Aimee Ng’s new identification of the Schiava Turca as a prominent poetess makes perfect sense. She notes that smack in the center of the lady’s balzo, Parmigianino has depicted a jewel featuring a stamping Pegasus, long associated in the Renaissance with poetic inspiration. According to ancient myth, when the winged horse stomped on a rock, an enchanted stream gushed forth. As to the fan featured so prominently, it might allude to the Italian word for feather, piuma, also connoting a pen or poet. Ms. Ng singles out the rich and powerful widow, Veronica Gambara (1485-1545), as her prime candidate. Acknowledged as a gifted poet, Veronica was a notable patron and particular friend of the older Antonio Corregio and his artistic circle. Her letters and poems reveal a woman of profound learning and literary ambition but also of a melancholic disposition. Smart and courageous, Veronica used her own wealth to protect her people during a brutal siege of her native city and knew to form strategic alliances with the Medici.

The only fly in the ointment, so to speak, is Veronica’s age. If painted around 1533, Gambara would have been in her mid-50s, while the lady in the portrait appears around 25 to 30. Of course artists often flattered their patrons. Veronica’s stout friend Isabella d’Este demanded that Titian paint her at sixty-two to look twenty years younger (insisting that he base her portrait on an earlier one by Francia). Titian’s Isabella, now in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna, has a frozen, detached quality, lacking the individuality of Parmigianino’s portrait. Also, judging by Veronica’s letters and poetry, it is difficult to envision her as the saucy woman in the portrait. Veronica referred to herself as Dido, the Carthaginian queen who immolated herself for her lost love, Aeneas. Typically she wrote bleak verse, such as this sonnet,

For he who first had joined me to himself Has carried off my love, and may he keep it And its guardian within the grave. “lachrimosi singulti et cum il magior cordoglio,’’ (1518 ) trans. by Jane Moody

Consequently, La Schiava Turca has also been identified as the much younger Giulia Gonzaga (born in 1512) celebrated as a great beauty by the leading poets of her day. Giulia led an extraordinary life. Widowed at the age of 16 in 1527, Giulia was the toast of an influential literary and artistic circle. She may have become acquainted with Parmigianino in Umbria when she took part in daughter-in-law Isabella’s wedding to Luigi Colonna in1532. Two years later, she was abducted by the pirate Barba Rossa, but managed a daring moonlight escape. Most historians suspect her greedy Colonna relatives, possibly eager to recover her dowry and lands. Shortly afterwards, Giulia joined a convent in Naples where she authored highly controversial religious tracts. While Giulia was not known as a poet per se, she inspired poems by the greatest poets of the age, including the likes of Ariosto and Juan De Valdès. No less than Bernardo Tasso addressed her in a sonnet as a beacon of beauty and virtue,

When beauty leads paths of Fame Virtue of mind, powers with gentleness Go with the forth as with the day the sun


Perhaps it was even Giulia’s lover, the Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici, who commissioned her portrait, as he was known to have purchased other paintings by Parmigianino and was in Bologna for the Coronation of Charles V in 1532. Still La Schiava Turca bears only a slight resemblance to Giulia’s portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo painted in the 1530s.

More than anything what sets La Schiava apart is her direct gaze and playfulness. She also appears to be wearing rouge. While women of the period certainly wore make-up and collected recipes for skin lighteners and clarifiers, portraits of noble women do not usually show them with such distinctively stained cheeks. Catherine de’Medici (1519- 1589) was said to have introduced cosmetics into the French court but none of her portraits highlight her painted cheeks. Our sitter has also plucked her forehead and eyebrows and crimped her hair into a curly fringe, which was typical of women of high station and well as those who aspired to look like them. Veronica Franco, Venice’s most prominent courtesan, who lived shortly after Parmigianino, bemoaned a fellow lady of the night who had allowed her daughter to do just these things, thus labeling her as a hussy.

Francesco Mazzola, called Il Parmigianino (1503–1540) Schiava Turca (detail), c. 1531–34 Oil on panel 26 3/4 x 20 7/8 inches Galleria Nazionale di Parma Photo: Scala/Art Resource, NY
Francesco Mazzola, called Il Parmigianino (1503–1540) Schiava Turca (detail), c. 1531–34 Oil on panel 26 3/4 x 20 7/8 inches Galleria Nazionale di Parma Photo: Scala/Art Resource, NY

Even within Parmigianino’s portrait cannon, La Schiava Turca more actively engages the viewer more than his other female sitters. The most common images of beautiful women with a frank gaze and bright pink cheeks in the 16th century belong to three distinctive categories: courtesans, goddesses or mythological figures. In keeping with this tradition, Titian’s portrait of the Venetian courtesan Violante ( Kunsthistorische) and his Venus with a Mirror (Washington National Gallery) typically feature rouged cheeks and forward gazes. Courtesans, unlike common prostitutes, were often highly refined and educated. The most noted ladies of their profession, Tullia d’Aragona (1510-1556) originally of Rome and the Venetian Veronica Franco (1546-1591) drew accolades for both their minds and for their beauty. Veronica, a celebrated poet in her own right decried, “When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet and a heart like yours…,” would have been too young. While Tullia, who resided first in Rome and then in Bologna around 1530, had many humanist lovers.

So who then is La Schiava Turca? She is too intensely real to be an allegory or a poetic allusion to beauty. No common trollup like some of Titian’s bovine blond beauties, she has ready wit and a knowing air. My guess is a scintillating courtesan who dabbles in poetry, drawn to Bologna for Charles V’s coronation in Bologna, the greatest gathering of nobles in the 16th century. The delicate gold links entwined in her left sleeve refer not necessarily to a woman enchained by love, as once argued, but to the chain attached to her ostrich fan, suggesting that she stirs the flames of passion whether poetic or otherwise.

Erasing Portraiture: Cézanne’s wife as “Dust, color on canvas, and an image”

Madame Cézanne, Metropolitan Museum, November 19, 2014–March 15, 2015

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

Paul Cézanne (French, Aix-en-Provence 1839­1906 Aix-en-Provence) Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress Oil on canvas, 35 x 27 ½ in. (89 x 70 cm) Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand
Paul Cézanne (French, Aix-en-Provence 1839­1906 Aix-en-Provence) Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress Oil on canvas, 35 x 27 ½ in. (89 x 70 cm) Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand

Cézanne made 29 portraits of his mistress and eventual wife, Hortense Fiquet, yet in most she is profoundly absent. He reduced his bride to nothing more than “…dust, color on canvas, and an image,” writes Zola in his novel Le Chef d’œuve, loosely based on Cézanne’s Life1. “Her portrait is none other than an insurmountable wall between them,” the author laments. Yet, in the Metropolitan Museum’s brilliant exhibition, Madame Cézanne, curated by Dita Amory, this “wall” reveals itself to be nothing less than a pictorial revolution.

Since ancient Rome, portraiture has been chiefly about the individual. It has focused on facial character, enhanced by attributes of status, rank, and profession (or lack there of) with reference to notable achievements and interests. In the great French academic circles from which Cézanne had begun to detach himself, portraiture ranked second only to history painting, the calling card of all great artists. Portraits were about physiognomy, whether real or idealized, and preserving a likeness for future generations. Cézanne’s portraits of his wife mark a radical departure, culminating in the gradual erasure of the face—effectively closing the window of the soul and personality—in favor of mass, color and form. Here, formalism trumps individualism.

By grouping all four of Cézanne’s magnificent portraits of his wife garbed in a red dress on a single wall in the Lehman Wing, the curator allows the the viewer to gain a more nuanced understanding of the artist’s approach. Painted between 1889-1890 in an unknown order, this series shows Madame Cézanne in a cherry colored dress against a light blue background. In each, she wears her dark hair severely pulled back and parted down the middle, holding her hands loosely in her lap. The portraits range from relatively representational, with views of the artist’s studio in the Metropolitan version, to the highly abstract Museu de Arte of São Paulo portrait, featuring no props, not even the chair on which she sits. In all of them, Hortense’s expression remains impassive with a touch of resentment. Oh, those long, long hours of sitting!

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, Montauban 1780–1867 Paris) Joséphine-Éléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn (1825–1860), Princesse de Broglie 1851–53 Oil on canvas, 47 3/4 x 35 3/4 in. (121.3 x 90.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, Montauban 1780–1867 Paris) Joséphine-Éléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn (1825–1860), Princesse de Broglie 1851–53 Oil on canvas, 47 3/4 x 35 3/4 in. (121.3 x 90.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975

In these works, Cézanne has omitted or dashed off the customary details of hairstyle, jewelry and dress that denote status or taste. Is that ruffled thing in Hortense’s hand a rose? Nothing makes these omissions more apparent than casting an eye down the neighboring hall to Ingres’s famous Portrait of the Princesse de Broglie(1853), where the artist has painstakingly captured the sheen of her azure satin gown, her gleaming hair and rings that draw attention to each perfectly manicured finger. What remains in Cézanne’s portraits are the solid folds of her gown, the myriad tonalities of red in relation to the soft harmonies of the blue wall and the sense of her physical form coming forward in space. By stripping away the external trappings and focusing on mass, Hortense has become almost a generic presence, a vessel for the red dress, an abstraction of womanhood, and an armature for the artist’s experiment in form.

While Cézanne does not pay much attention to mundane details, his attentiveness to brushstroke and color are on par with Chardin, the great 18th century still-life master. His painting is largely about process. It took him forever. He painted on canvases primed with off-white, often with a yellowish cast. He then drew in bold strokes with a carbon-based pencil to set up the composition, but most of the painting was carried out a la prima, (painting directly on the canvas). After blocking out the contours, he returned to make multiple adjustments, often allowing for the pale under layers of paint to emerge, constantly varying his brushstrokes for texture and accent.

Perhaps the most compelling work in the show is Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, an exploration of color harmonies played out though the contrasting blocks of blues and greens with the crimson and pinks of the chair. Note how these two color chords come together in the face and hands to create smooth transitions between surfaces. This painting reads more like a Diebenkorn landscape with planes of color than a sensate form. In a major departure from such painters as Courbet and Renoir, all of the portrait’s sensuality lies in the vibrant play of color rather than in the rendition of flesh.

Paul Cézanne (French, Aix-en-Provence 1839–1906 Aix-en-Provence) Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair About 1877 Oil on canvas, 72.4 x 55.9 cm (28 1/2 x 22 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of Robert Tree Paine, 2nd
Paul Cézanne (French, Aix-en-Provence 1839–1906 Aix-en-Provence) Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair About 1877 Oil on canvas, 72.4 x 55.9 cm (28 1/2 x 22 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of Robert Tree Paine, 2nd

When the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke saw this portrait in a 1907 Paris exhibition, he dashed off a letter to his wife Clara declaring that he could even feel its effects in his sleep and in his blood. “For if one says, this is a red armchair (and it is the first and ultimate red armchair in the history of painting)…,” Rilke insists, “it is that only because it contains latently, within itself, an experienced sum of color, which whatever it may be, reinforces and confirms it in this red.”

The show displays many views of Madame Cézanne, peacefully reading, sitting in the conservatory, in a garden, often occupied with her work, weary, or staring dully into space. Much has been made of the hardships she experienced as the artist’s wife and mother of his only son, never fully accepted by his family, moving constantly, ignored, and strapped for money. Cézanne was difficult, intensely private and moody. He could not tolerate that anyone watch him at work. Yet through it all, Hortense sat for him. Nothing indicates that she shared a rich intellectual life with her husband, and few of her own letters survive to prove the contrary. According to Matisse, she appears to have been, “a solid, patient fixture that offered all the comforts of a well-constructed table.”2

All this may be true, but ultimately for me this is not the subject of the work. Cézanne chose to paint Hortense because she was simply there, tranquil, free of charge and, above all, deeply familiar. In this way, Cézanne’s paintings of his wife are perhaps better understood as human still lifes rather than portraits proper. He could explore through her stolid face the incidence of light and the profound working of tonalities at his leisure. Perhaps Cézanne most clearly revealed his purpose in one of the rare Hortense portraits omitted from the show. In Madame Cézanne from the Barnes Collection (a work that is not allowed to travel), also painted around 1889, Cézanne left out most of the details of his wife’s face, neglecting in fact to include the entire left side. Hortense emerges as a massive black form relieved only by with the blurry white oval of her face and barely finished hands.

Paul Cézanne (French, Aix-en-Provence 1839­1906 Aix-en-Provence) Madame Cézanne (Hortense Fiquet, 1850­1922) in a Red Dress 1888­90 Oil on canvas, 45 7/8 x 35 1/4 in. (116.5 x 89.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr. Purchase Fund, 1962
Paul Cézanne (French, Aix-en-Provence 1839­1906 Aix-en-Provence) Madame Cézanne (Hortense Fiquet, 1850­1922) in a Red Dress 1888­90 Oil on canvas, 45 7/8 x 35 1/4 in. (116.5 x 89.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr. Purchase Fund, 1962

To understand Cézanne‘s modernity, you have only to go down the street to the Frick Collection to view Sargent’s arresting Portrait of Lady Agnew, on loan from the National Gallery of Scotland. It is hard to believe that she was painted within four years of the Cézanne’s Barnes portrait. Lady Agnew’s gaze and pose are singularly new and direct, yet for all that, Sargent’s approach dutifully follows in the great English academic tradition of Joshua Reynolds, kowtowing to the rich aristocrats of the time and displaying them in all their finery. While, humble and boring Madame Cézanne announces Matisse, Kokoshka and DeKoonig. She is the building block for the great cubist portraits of Picasso and Braques. She comes to stand for a new form of beauty, not that of society’s darlings or the fleshy sirens of Renoir, but the implacable truths of everyday life and the eternal allure of forms defined by color and shadow.


1. Zola, Emile. The Masterpiece. Trans. Thomas Walton, Oxford, Uk. ; Oxford University Press: (1889) 2008, 239.2.

2. Matisse, Henri, Letter to Andre’ Rouveyre, Venice, June 3, 1947 in Matisse, Rouveyre, Correspondance, ed. Hanne Finsen, Paris, Flammarion, 2001, 445. Note that Matisse owned a portrait of Madame Cezanne.

In Celebration of Bad Taste

Jeff Koons: A Retrospective, Whitney Museum, , June 27 – October 19, 2014

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

You despise him. He’s crass, obvious, stupid and yet totally irresistible. You want to stare forever at the smooth polished surface of his giant balloon dogs and Venus à la Willendorf. You are mesmerized by its perfection, its unreal miraculous color, its sheer technical genius, its enormity, its impossibility. You want to gawp unabashedly at that perfect ass-hole (belonging to his ex-wife, the porn Goddess, la Cicciolina), devoid of hair, pimples and sweat in his Made in Heaven series. Oh, that naughty Mr. Koons, just as sexy as a man on a bodice-ripper cover. His image inserted everywhere. He allows you to look closely in public, smack in the middle of the Whitney, at two beautiful people grappling, no holes barred.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994 – 2000. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating; 121 x 143 x 45 in. (307.3 x 363.2 x 114.3 cm).  Private collection. © Jeff Koons.
Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994 – 2000. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating; 121 x 143 x 45 in. (307.3 x 363.2 x 114.3 cm).
Private collection. © Jeff Koons.

I have trashed him and then been seduced, but now I step back and think that his work remains so obvious, so immediate, so simply about what it’s about – sex, commercialism, kitsch, the wacko art world, our vapid society—that, yes, he is a genius of the obvious. Hats off! He is a world-class philosopher. What is high art? What is illusion? What is real and, of course, what is fake? What is pornography versus erotic art? What is man-made artifice versus natural beauty? Is there any equilibrium, any real perfection? His art poses such lofty questions but never answers them.

Born in 1955, Koons is a child of the 60s. Educated at MICA and the Chicago Art Institute, his art reflects his fascination with Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalì, Pop Art, Minimalism and Photorealism and yes, performance. It is produced in 33,000 square foot (hyper-clean) Westside Studio with the aid of state-of-the-art technology and a mere 125 assistants. Still he insists, “I’m responsible for everything.” And I believe it. Koons produces relatively few pieces a year. He often begins with two-dimensional designs that are then developed into 3D, involving numerous models. When it comes to detail and technical perfection, he has the gifts of an astro-physicist at NASA.

Ultimately, his work is about art as fraud and not in the good sense. No matter how slick his style, no matter how much Koons makes you stop and think that little toys have an innate beauty, his art ultimately offers none of the deeper pleasures and emotions associated with the objects. You never want to eat his hot dogs, kiss his floating lips, make love to his (ex) wife. You may be intrigued. You want to look closely, touch those shiny surfaces (to make sure they are real), look at forbidden things but you don’t want to taste them or really think very much about them. They are free of any memories and personal history and live in a commercial void. In this way, his grandiose aesthetic transfigurations often make less, not more, of these objects of the popular imagination.

When I look at Koons’s Made in Heaven paintings, I think of Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World. Yes, it’s a vagina super close up, but it is mysterious, intriguing, sensual, forbidden, delicious, erotic, strange, uninhibited and ultimately beautiful. When it comes to Koons, I have no relationship with those giant plaster figures, those porcelain Shepherdesses, those mirror cut-outs. I acknowledge their brilliance, their pseudo-originality and I’m done. It’s a conceit. It’s like eating cotton candy, bubbly mouthfuls of air and artificial sugar that leave you hungry.

If art is irony, then Koons is the master. He made ordinary objects out of stainless steel (the common man’s metal of choice), only now they fetch millions. He claims that his brand new vacuum cleaners in Lucite box frames made in the 80s relate to the eternal feminine (mom pushing the machine and oral/vaginal suction) and the masculine power (that electric engine and the vrrrrmmm). Yep, that is just what comes to mind when I run my Miele. A frame makes an object a work of art, or does it?

The Whitney show, intelligently curated by Scott Rothkopf, is spare and elegant with plenty of room to showcase the larger pieces (aka 27,000 square feet). It smoothly reflects basic themes in the artist’s work from 1978 to the present with an array of 150 pieces.

In the end, I think everyone should see Jeff Koons, acknowledge his mastery as anihilistic artist. None of his flowers will ever evoke a smell. None of his dogs will bark. Is he a genius? Yes. Does he reflect our crass commercial age? Yes. Is he iconic? Yes. Is he good-looking? Sure. Do I want to know him, have a walk in the park with him and laugh about Karl Ove Knausgard and tell him how this or that relates to my life. Not particularly. Do I want him in my home, in my bed, on my plate, in my mind? No thank you. This said, I will always secretly love his giant blue Balloon Dog. Why? Because it is something other. It has morphed into a sculpture with a life of its own. Unlike everything else that is endlessly perfect and static, it reflects us as we walk by and makes us laugh and perhaps, weep.

She Stoops to Conquer… Sargent’s Lady Agnew finally arrives at the Frick Collection

Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery, Frick Collection, November 14- February 1, 2015

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

The Frick blew it. In 1922, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw was in straightened circumstances. Years as a leading society hostess had taken their toll. She quietly offered Sargent’s famed portrait of herself to Helen Clay Frick, but the institution was not acquiring at the time. Instead, the Scottish National Gallery walked off with the prize.

John Singer Sargent Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892 Oil on canvas 49 ½ x 39 ½ inches Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland
John Singer Sargent Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892 Oil on canvas 49 ½ x 39 ½ inches Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

Today, the tables have finally turned. Now John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of Lady Agnew occupies center stage at the Frick Collection alongside nine other masterpieces on tour from the Scottish National Gallery. Unsurprisingly, Lady Agnew seems right at home. Lounging informally against the back of an armchair, she appears more like a typical American than a proper straightlaced English beauty. Crossing her legs (quite unladylike at the time), she gazes out at us with her formidably direct bedroom eyes. Painted in 1892, after the young bride met Sargent at a dinner party hosted by American socialite Harriet Dunham, the portrait retains a remarkable freshness.

Lady Agnew’s easy-going pose masks a certain tension that Sargent has captured in the zigzag thrust of her torso and her steely rotated grip on the arm of the chair. Her dark head with its quirked brow and full red lips contrast with the pale blue silk background and her filmy white tea gown. She is a virtual symphony of whites, yet there is an undertone of darkness in the corpse-like pallor of her brow, the shadow beneath her eyes and around the perfect oval of her face.

She would appear to be Sargent’s atonement for his recent scandalous portrait of Madame X that had him virtually on the run from Paris just a few years earlier. Surely this demure young woman clothed all in white, the young wife of Andrew Noel Agnew, 9th Baron of Lochnaw, would take London by storm, reversing the course of Sargent’s botched Paris debut. Accomplished in six brief sittings, working alla prima (with no intermediary sketches) the portrait deftly captures Sargent’s keen sense of psychology and drama. All London agreed. The author Vernon Lee, a friend of both Sargent and Henry James neatly summed their mutual success: “A very pretty woman whom John Sargent has just made into a society celebrity by a very ravishing portrait.”1 After her showing at the London Academy, Sargent went on to paint scores of portraits, charging upwards of 500 lbs. for his efforts.

Diego Velázquez An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1618 Oil on canvas 39 ½ x 47 inches Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland
Diego Velázquez An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1618 Oil on canvas 39 ½ x 47 inches Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh © Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

Yet this rapturously beautiful woman née Gertrude Vernon (1865-1932) was full of contradictions. Emerging from months of mental exhaustion termed neurasthenia at the time of the sitting, she was married to an older man and would eventually lead a separate life. The portrait’s many subtle shifts— the angling of the chair, the dip of the shoulders, the transparent chiffon top and, most eloquently of all, the great lavender sash swinging to one side— captures the sitter’s seductive restlessness, the dark energy simmering beneath the indolence. The brilliant loose brushwork of the dress with its lilac reflections liberates this seated portrait from any static. Sargent’s painting seems to foretell a new wave of keenly observed psychological portraits by artists such Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia or Klimt in Vienna. Lady Agnew is the living testimony to a certain fin du siècle malaise.

The show curated by Susan Grace Galassi does full justice to the loan of paintings from the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, each a masterpiece in its own right. The exhibition allows you not only to see such rare paintings as Botticelli’s Madonna and Child (ca. 1480) and early works by Velázquez, but to view them within the context of the Frick’s own stellar collection. In the adjacent room, a somber portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland (1871-74)by James McNeill Whistler, Sargent’s friend and rival, is an illuminating parallel to Lady Agnew . Or, venturing into a nearby gallery, you can note the transformation of Velázquez from a young painter of Bodegones (earthy genre scenes) to court artist with his Portrait of King Philip IV. The Frick has taken the opportunity to move around a number of its paintings, injecting a breath of fresh air and a new vitality into its majestic collection.

1 Letter of July 16, 1893, Vernon Lee’s Letters, 1937, p. 352.

The Emperor’s New Clothes – Kehinde Wiley

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

In 2005 the Brooklyn Museum boldly acquired Willey’s Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, a dramatic reinvention (or was that theft?) of Jacques Louis David’s 1801 masterpiece. In place of the young, all-conquering Bonaparte, a figure closely resembling Wiley himself is fearlessly mounted on a fiery steed. He sports green and gold camouflage complete with a knotted kerchief, a branded tennis wristband and spotless work boots. A faux Versailles crimson and gold brocade replaces the Alpine mists, while David’s hard-edged naturalism is translated into immaculate photorealism. Wiley’s larger than life painting is at once impossible to forget and cartoonish, lacking the gravitas generally associated with the masters. Yet his work has reaped the highest critical accolades.

To be sure, Wiley knows his David, a painter who successfully survived three fiercely antagonistic régimes. The French master made his subjects look not just rich and powerful but heroic, an erstwhile red-carpet stylist for the French Monarchy, the Revolution and the Empire. In David’s hands, the scruffy upstart Bonaparte became Alexander the Great. He perfected the swagger portrait, a genre well known since Nero’s marble colossal in antiquity. Wiley too recasts his subjects – often handsome black men in hip hop attire – as the powerbrokers of the future. Impossible to the miss Wiley’s point: why are people of color never (or almost never) featured as protagonists in Western art and what would it look like if they were?

Now, roughly a decade later, Wiley’s jaw-dropping Imax style show, The New Republic, commands the Brooklyn Museum’s fifth floor wing with some paintings reaching almost 25 feet wide on par in scale with earlier exhibitions of Murakami, El Anatsui and Ai Weiwei. In this show, while not changing his essential premise or his electrically-charged palette, Wiley (or more precisely his global workshop) has broken the barriers of new media including bronze, stained glass, carved wooden frames and gold leaf. And, importantly, he has introduced women of color into his previously male-dominated repertoire.

At first, wandering through the immense rooms of elegantly placed works, given plenty of breathing space and radiant lighting, you are gripped by a feeling of awe tinged with elation. This man understands spectacle. There is a cinematographic appreciation of space and color as if you ascended the grand stairwell at Chatsworth House in England and were confronted with the baroque extravaganza of Louis LaGuerre (film setting of dozens of classy BBC style movies).

What Wiley has in common with Rubens, Tiepolo and David is a profound understanding of art management and marketing. “Let’s face it. I make really high-priced luxury goods for wealthy consumers, ” admits Wiley. In our global world, (and in bed) size matters. When does size become window-dressing, devoid of emotion and the type of multi-layered metaphors that great masters worked so painstakingly to achieve? Like Jeff Koons and Murakami, Wiley has developed worldwide studios with an army of assistants while maintaining a near death-grip on quality control. Like these master-of- the-universe artists, his work has a flawless impersonal character devoid of life’s everyday dirt, the grit of the soul. By portraying his subjects dry-cleaned, in artificial poses from the past, what does Wiley really bring to them? Are they today’s heroes or poseurs? What does it really say of their work, their position in society, their dignity? What, if anything, do we really know about Wiley’s subjects? When is appropriation a form of artistic tribute or a statement and when is it plagiarism?

In 2002, Wiley rescued a thrown-out mugshot notice on a police-station floor and transformed it into Mugshot-Study, 2006. The larger-than-life portrait presents a flawlessly beautiful young man with doe-like eyes that convey a form of vulnerability almost never associated with deadpan police photography. Only the faint numbers beneath the figure suggest the mug-shot connection. In view of the recent horrors committed against black men in the justice system—over one in three will be incarcerated according to Huffington Post—Mugshot-Study can be seen as a haunting political statement about the injustice of our prison system. To his credit, Wiley salvaged the image from the garbage, bringing awareness to both the young man and his ordeal, but what of the authorship?

Upon close examination, Wiley’s figure is identical in virtually every aspect to the color NYPD, mug shot—from the teenager’s expression, tilted head, skin tone, clothing and even the lighting. What is Wiley’s contribution? Conceptually, Andy Warhol had already enlarged mug shots with effaced booking numbers in 1964. Arguably from an intellectual property perspective, the image belongs lock stock and barrel to the NYPD. Luckily for Wiley, there is the New York Supreme Court case, Apfel v. s. Bache, that argues that if a party is willing to pay for an idea as original—thus demonstrating a belief in its value—the idea is in fact novel. So there, NYPD!

Wiley is unabashed about his sources. He even names his paintings after the originals that inspired them. As we know, all great art imitates earlier art and often brags about it. However, great masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, an early creator of the rearing equestrian portrait for the Duke of Milan (based on antique models and life drawings), studied a multiplicity of poses before coming up with the ultimate solution for his great bronze statue (ca. 1482-99 – never completed). He probably would not have seen it as a tribute to have a photo image of his horse manipulated on a computer screen mounted by a different rider. (Or, perhaps as a technology freak, the great inventor would have cheered.)

While you can compare the Netherlandish Portrait of Jacob Obrecht to Wiley’s 2013 counterpart, what is missing is intent. Fifteenth century portraits in the style of Memling were not just designed to commemorate the wealth and power of the sitter but in many cases to express their faith. It is this absent element—often conveyed in the Flemish masters by the interiority of the gaze, the humility of the hand placed in prayer, or accompanying images of holy figures and spouses—that testifies to deeply held beliefs. This meaning gives an added depth to the sheer brilliance of the oil painting with its layers of transparency. Sadly, this group of Wiley portraits with their artificial gestures and vacuous expressions barely pays lip service to the originals.

The same goes for Wiley’s exploration of new media. While his courage should be applauded, the results often appear as cheap imitations of sophisticated and beautiful crafts. For example, the tradition of stained glass is deeply embedded in architecture and the external light source, such as the sun, as a means to illuminate space and deliver a message of sanctity. Typically, the rose windows at Notre Dame were described in the literature as a metaphor for the Virgin Mary—holy light pierces her but she remains intact. The beauty of medieval stained glass is often derived from its uneven surface and the variation of colors enriched by stains and glass paint. In Wiley’s pieces, the flatness and uniformity of the modern glass reduces its power as does the unmodulated light in the phony chapel. The result is that the protagonists are not saints but saint wannabes.

One of the great challenges in Western painting has been to create a sense of depth. The reason argued by the great theorist Leon Battista Alberti is to make the absent present, in other words, to give a sense of life to the image. Virtually every great artist since Da Vinci has recognized the role of shadow not only to give volume to form but to allow the eye entry into the fictive painted space. Wiley’s undifferentiated lighting (background and foreground being equally in focus and of similar value) not only flattens the images but makes them impenetrable. Where does the image start and background end? Wiley’s invasion of the background motifs such as spiraling vines further complicates the reading of the image and what does it add? In the Portrait of John and George Soane, 2013, the medallion background takes on a decorative quality that subverts the impact of the two proudly defiant female figures giving them a billboard quality. Arguably, Wiley is intentionally conflating historical portraits with advertising and fashion with no interest in the power of illusionistic space but in so doing there is an emotional loss. And, since Aristotle, emotion has been seen as a major component of the artistic process.

Wiley’s paintings also address the queer gaze and male beauty. His large scale portraits of reclining figures recall Harold Stevenson’s Giant Adam, 1962, but with a focus on men of color. While the defined torso and powerful thighs in Wiley’s Sleep, 2008, convey the perfection of the male form nothing suggests the slackening of deep slumber. His recumbent men have a high-definition tauntness suggestive of pin-ups that undercuts their potency.

Some of Wiley’s strongest work brings together technical bravura, content and an emotional charge. His bronze Cameroon Study, 2010, depicting a contemporary African man with a Nike sneaker on his head alludes to a new form of commercial slavery imposed on emerging nations. The incongruity of the flawlessly cast classical bust with its expression of weary resignation and the sneaker delivers an effective jolt of awareness.

In this show that spans fourteen years, Wiley’s most vivid portraits combine a sense of spunky humor with innate elegance. The Portrait of Andries Stilte 2, 2006, does full justice to the pomp and drama of Cornelisz Verspronck’s Dutch grandee of 1639/40. The show’s curator, Eugenie Tsai, intelligently has not juxtaposed the actual masters with their historic counterparts. She has let them breathe in their own atmosphere, to be judged on their own merit.

In keeping with the exhibition’s thought-provoking nature, the visually stunning and creative catalogue Kehinde Wiley A New Republic offers multiple viewpoints. It presents the insights of a variety of fascinating contributors from many spheres of the arts, notably curators, critics, gallerists, poets, musicians, writers, and performance artists. Yet, it is also a masterpiece of political correctness, offering many received opinions, and few deep criticisms of Wiley’s art.

Regardless of whether you like them, Wiley’s creations are profoundly of our time: message-driven, in your face, captivating lush images, addictive quick bolts of information that make you want to click onto the next, and the next. Wiley is part of an important new group of highly visible artists of African descent such as Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Yinka Shonibare and Barkley Hendricks who have introduced people of color into major classical compositions. They are keenly mining old masters for their iconic authority inviting new audiences to investigate the brilliance of the originals and their malleability while also positing a revisionist art history. The verdict will lie with new viewers from diverse communities. Do these works make them feel empowered?

Time Travel in a Book

From Here to Here, Richard McGuire, Morgan Library: September 25 – November 9, 2014

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

Curiously enough, the Morgan’s pocket-sized exhibition of the graphic artist Richard McGuire’s new book, Here, is separated from the Medieval Stavelot Triptych only by a set of glass doors—giving us inadvertently an insight into what this new work is all about. In essence, travelling back and forth in time.

Like the exquisite portable golden triptych, McGuire’s work since the 70s has focused on opening windows into the past and future within the framework of a single plausible space. In the triptych, this is accomplished by moveable doors that open onto an ancient relic (a fragment of the True Cross), along with gold and enamel champ-levé scenes of the discovery of the Cross and relevant Saints. The unlocking of the precious doors not only suggests a revelation, but a means to make the past present and to remind the faithful of future rewards.

McGuire, perhaps one of the world’s leading comic book artists, has always inventively explored the ways that visions of the past, present and future can be superimposed within a single frame or image. This one-room exhibition ingeniously places at its center a showcase displaying many of McGuire’s sources of inspiration: Medieval manuscripts, guides to ancient Rome with celluloid overlays, children’s books, Japanese prints and animé, Valeton watercolors – in short an eclectic range of visual material that jumps back and forth over centuries.

Along the walls, the curator, Joel Smith, has arranged elements of McGuire’s new book, Here, revealing the artist’s craftsmanship and ability to layer images. Interestingly, McGuire often begins with a watercolor wash of an environment into which he introduces cut-outs of photos, commercial images, and his own drawings, creating a multi-dimensional space that is both fluid and elegant. The style is quintessentially American, suggestive of contemporary urban and suburban life with portals into the past and future. McGuire then composes his final images digitally.

The cover of McGuire’s book features an open window, seen from outside, with a curtain over which a shadow is cast from a facing structure. The window is a permeable membrane between inside and out, public and private, inviting us to enter into the artist’s world on the other side of the curtain. This exterior window represents a reversal of Alberti’s famous assertion that painting is none other than an image seen through an open window. By showing the window from the outside looking in, McGuire seems to adopt Baudelaire’s view that what is seen from the street looking in is the more intriguing story:

Richard McGuire (b. 1957) Window (cover of Here) 2014 Acrylic on panel Courtesy of Richard McGuire
Richard McGuire (b. 1957) Window (cover of Here) 2014 Acrylic on panel Courtesy of Richard McGuire

There is no object more profound, more mysterious, more fertile, more dark, more radiant than a window illuminated from within by a candle. That which you can see in broad day light is never as interesting as that which happens behind the window pane. There in this darkness or spot of light lies life, dreams and suffering.

(Les Fenêtres, author’s translation)

McGuire— a polymath who has been a graphic artist, cineaste, and the star of the pop band Liquid, Liquid— brings a singular focus to his drawings. Here is both lyrical and strange in the way of American primitives with a sparse text and tonal palette. Yet, his book, beautiful and charming as it is, remains reassuringly old-fashioned. Diminutive in size, it features no cut-outs, pull-downs, or reflective surfaces. McGuire, a huge fan of children’s books, surely knows all about them. He has chosen a modest canvas like cover, recalling text books of the 50s. At once nostalgic and modern, Here invites us to roam back and forth from childhood to maturity with escape hatches into the past and future in the way of a friendly low-tech time-machine.

This exhibition, like many at the Morgan, is a reminder of how this great library has the rare potential for intimacy whether in displaying Rembrandt drawings or the work of inventive artists of our age. It is a pleasure when you go through the great glass doors to suddenly fall, like Alice, through the rabbit hole,

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next.

(Carrol, Lewis, Alice in Wonderland, London, New York (1865), 2010)



“Ultra Sauvage”: The Demonic Force Beneath Gauguin’s Color

Gauguin Metamorphoses, Museum of Modern Art (New York), March 8 – June 8, 2014

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Square Vase with Tahitian Gods (Hina Talking to Tefatou). 1893-95. Terra-cotta, 13 1/2 x 5 11/16 x 5 1/2″ (34.3 x 14.4 x 14 cm). Designmuseum Danmark, Copenhagen. Photo by Pernille Klemp
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Square Vase with Tahitian Gods (Hina Talking to Tefatou). 1893-95. Terra-cotta, 13 1/2 x 5 11/16 x 5 1/2″ (34.3 x 14.4 x 14 cm). Designmuseum Danmark, Copenhagen. Photo by Pernille Klemp

On viewing Gauguin’s visceral works in stoneware of 1891, the symbolist poet and critic, Albert Aurier marveled:

How to describe these strange barbaric, savage ceramics in which, sublime potter, he has kneaded more soul than clay?1

We, too, will be astonished at this less-known aspect of Paul Gauguin’s art. Part of the extraordinary power of his paintings is born out of his work as a sculptor in wood and ceramics. Gauguin possessed a tactile understanding of mass, outline and stance, and this is why his famed women and landscapes are not merely colorful or decorative. They have a bulk and believable structure that makes them breathe. As a sculptor, Gauguin turned away from classical models. He looked instead at “primitive” non-Western masks, Asian reliefs, and Polynesian totems and carvings. Fortunately, some of his rarely shown sculpture is now on view at MOMA’s Gauguin Metamorphoses exhibition. The brainchild of curator Starr Figura, this show explores the links between Gauguin’s prints, drawings and sculpture and his better-known paintings.

Raised briefly in Peru and then France, Gauguin (1848-1903) came to painting only in his thirties. Following a career as a well-heeled stockbroker with a penchant for collecting avant-garde art, he chucked his job (and his family) in favor of a more Bohemian lifestyle as a painter and writer. Flamboyant, irreverent and often broke, Gauguin was known to rub shoulders with Pissarro and Cézanne. By 1889 he was showing his new luminous paintings with their boldly outlined subjects as part of Les XX, a group of daring, mostly Belgian artists. Very little sold. To promote his work one year later, Gauguin launched his Volpini Suite zincographs. In this new printed medium, he paired down his painted subjects into highly flattened, stylized figures, avoiding detail and focusing on atmosphere and texture.

Longing for a more liberated life in the sun-filled Pacific, unsullied by European convention and industry, Gauguin set out on his first voyage to Tahiti in 1892. Still broke and barely subsidized by the auction of his artwork, the vagabond Gauguin hoped to set himself apart and win fame as a new breed of unorthodox artist. Along with his own drawings, he crammed his valise with images of the Parthenon freize, Cranach, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, Odilon Redon as well as South American, Asian, Indian and even Javanese artifacts. On arriving he soon began to record his experiences in an illustrated journal-cum-fantasy memoire titled Noa Noa, literarily ‘fragrant scent.’ Here, he described his subjects graphically, in terms of volume and line. When praising a local Tahitian beauty, for instance, he wrote:

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (recto). c. 1900. Recto: oil transfer drawing; verso: graphite and colored pencil, sheet 25 9/16 x 18 1/8″ (65 x 46 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (recto). c. 1900. Recto: oil transfer drawing; verso: graphite and colored pencil, sheet 25 9/16 x 18 1/8″ (65 x 46 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

All her traits combined in a Raphäelesque harmony by the meeting of curves. Her mouth had been modeled by a sculptor who knew how to put into a single mobile line a mingling of all joy and all suffering.2

His words evoke his own oil transfer Tahitian Woman with an Evil Spirit, which portrays a young languorous bare-breasted woman lounging on a bed. She gazes out with a trance-like expression while a leering fox-like figure looms over her shoulder. A deeply engraved shadow in the form of an arch unifies the figures, casting a strange and ominous mood over this oneiric scene.

Gauguin achieved this startling and haunting effect through his own inventive transfer technique. First laying out a sheet of paper covered with printers ink, he placed a clean sheet over it. He then drew his figures on the top sheet with a hard, thin pencil, causing the ink from the adjoining paper to adhere to its reverse side. Finally, he would flip over his pencil drawing and rework the inked mirror image on the reverse – a technique probably inspired by Edison’s mimeograph machine. In the show, front and verso are shown so that you can appreciate the delicacy of the line drawing versus the more sinister aspect of the transfer.

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Head with Horns. 1895–97. Wood with traces of paint, head 8 11/16 x 9 x 4 3/4″ (22 x 22.8 x 12 cm); base 7 7/8 x 9 13/16 x 6 7/8″ (20 x 25 x 17.5 cm). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903). Head with Horns. 1895–97. Wood with traces of paint, head 8 11/16 x 9 x 4 3/4″ (22 x 22.8 x 12 cm); base 7 7/8 x 9 13/16 x 6 7/8″ (20 x 25 x 17.5 cm). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

In turn, this strange drawing corresponds to a lustrous carved Tamanu wood sculpture Head with Horns (1895-1897), a larger than life kind of zoomorphic self-portrait, artist as fox, artist as demon. Gauguin drew upon the wood’s natural variegation to create an ominous stain below the right eye. From the very beginning of his career, he worked in wood, developing the tactile and formal aspect of his art alongside his painting. In Tahiti, he often went into the mountains early in the morning to seek out rosewood and teak with Jofeta, a young Tahitian woodworker. As they struck the trees, Gauguin became elated,

My hands became stained with blood in my wild rage, my intense joy of satiating within me, I know not what divine brutality… This cruel assault was the supreme farewell to civilization, to evil…I was, indeed, a new man; from now on I was a true savage, a real Maori.3

Gauguin illustrated Noa Noa with a suite of ten woodcuts (1893-1894), his raw scenes were inspired by local beliefs in powerful and often cruel deities. Using an unusual technique, the artist approached his block with a wood chisel and then finer tools such as a knife, needle and sand paper, as if it were sculpture. The exhibition highlights the many stages of each print, revealing how he manipulated the medium to achieve a more primal quality.

Like his many Symbolist friends, Odilon Redon and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, Gauguin believed that art should represent absolute truths that could only be understood indirectly. He shunned realism and Western technological culture and saw in “primitive” cultures a more innate and fundamental connection with the universe. Gauguin was inspired by a very French, deeply romantic idea of native innocence embraced by Rousseau and Chateaubriand and then by poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Unlike the pro-Christian colonialists of his era, he rejected the restrictions introduced by missionary culture and favored a return to older native beliefs. Yet, sadly, by the time he had reached Tahiti, he found the island already tarnished. Despite his intense productivity, just two years later Gauguin would return to Paris depressed and in ill health. There, he often inserted aspects of his prints back into paintings, giving these works a new and often harsh hieratic aspect.

These transpositions are made strikingly clear in the MOMA exhibition, revealing the artist’s extreme sensitivity to each medium. From his fragile, poignant monotypes to his gouged woodblocks, again and again Gauguin pushed the boundaries. Given the show’s emphasis on the artist’s process, too brief mention is made of the artist’s fascination with Japanese prints and their relevance for composition, perspective and his intimate everyday approach to the figure.

Paul Gauguin. Oviri (Savage). 1894. Partly enameled stoneware, 29 1⁄2 x 7 1⁄2 x 10 5⁄8″ (75 x 19 x 27 cm). Musée d’Orsay, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, N.Y. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski
Paul Gauguin. Oviri (Savage). 1894. Partly enameled stoneware, 29 1⁄2 x 7 1⁄2 x 10 5⁄8″ (75 x 19 x 27 cm). Musée d’Orsay, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, N.Y. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski

Perhaps the strangest and most unsettling piece in the show is Gauguin’s volcanic ceramic figure called Oviri. His familiarity with clay began in the late 1880s, when he studied at Ernst Chapelet’s studio and was introduced to the rougher and more durable stoneware. Conceived on his return from Tahiti in a mood of extreme darkness, Oviri takes the guise of a naked woman. She tears apart a wolf cub while a she-wolf lies savaged at her bloodstained feet. Her bulging eyes and twisted form appear to erupt from the carved base. Gaugin empathized so deeply with this work that he asked for it to be placed on his tomb. Seventy years after his death, a bronze replica was placed on his grave at Atuona Hiva Oa in the Marquesa islands. “It is a matter of life in death,” the artist explained to his friend Redon. Perhaps it also expressed the Tahitian idea of appeasing the great forces of nature by a blood sacrifice, putting at last to rest Gauguin’s own tormented soul.


1 Aurier, Albert. “Neotraditionnistes: Paul Gauguin.” La Plume, September 1, 1891, 211.

2 Gauguin, Paul. Noa Noa. Translated by O.T. Theis, 1919, 34. Accessed 4/12/2014, http://sacred-texts.com/pac/noa/noa01.htm

3 Ibid., 52. Accessed 4/12/2014.

Why we can’t have enough of those beautiful Victorians?

Pre-Raphaelites Legacy: British Art and Design, Metropolitan Museum (New York), May 20-October 26, 2014

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

Those wistful gazes and fiery locks, those petulant maidens in their rose gardens … no wonder we often see Pre-Raphaelite art as a guilty pleasure. In this day of post-modernism’s anti-aesthetic, it is hard to admit our attraction to its voluptuous beauty. The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design” plays on our yearning for the chivalry of a distant age, unabashedly appealing to a generation hooked on Game of Thrones. It makes us long for beautifully crafted objects of lasting value in familiar settings. At the same time, this intimate show reveals just how much the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was prepared to flaunt convention and refine the role of the artist. It invites parallels with the contemporary conception of the artist as transcending genres and erasing the boundaries between painting, sculpture, furniture, music and the printed word.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) and Henry Treffry Dunn (1838-1899): Lady Lilith, 1867. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 20 3/16 x 17 5/16 in. (51.3 x 44 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) and Henry Treffry Dunn (1838-1899): Lady Lilith, 1867. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 20 3/16 x 17 5/16 in. (51.3 x 44 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Housed within the Lehman wing, the exhibition makes you feel as if you have just walked into a London mansion such as the Leighton House in Holland Park. The domestic setting creates an immersive experience, allowing you to almost touch the fine paintings and furnishings that were such an integral part of this movement. Setting the tone, Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Lady Lilith, (ca. 1868) draws all eyes with the magnetism of a celebrity sitting incognito in a boutique hotel. She has the familiar flawless skin and tumbling russet hair idealized in todays countless photoshopped magazine covers. Yet this Lilith prefigures Eve as Adam’s first wife, an ancient Talmudic woman associated with the primal danger of female beauty. Lilith’s closely cropped body seems to pour out of the canvas while her gaze remains self-absorbed and aloof. Her cruel red lips suggest a Victorian dominatrix.

Philip Webb (1831–1915): Cabinet (The Backgammon Players), Painted by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1861. Painted pine, oil paint on leather, brass, copper. H. 73 in. (185.4 cm), W. 45 in. (114.3 cm), D. 21 in. (53.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Philip Webb (1831–1915): Cabinet (The Backgammon Players), Painted by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1861. Painted pine, oil paint on leather, brass, copper. H. 73 in. (185.4 cm), W. 45 in. (114.3 cm), D. 21 in. (53.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The poet and critic Algernon Charles Swindburne called her, a “serene and sublime sorceress,” with “no life but the body.”[1] Like many of his fellow Victorians, he obsessed over women as either lily white virgins or bold temptresses. Here, Rosetti contrasts her alabaster skin with the blood red of her rose and ribbon. In testament to the Pre-Raphaelite belief in the synthesis of the arts, he also warns of Lilith’s fatal allure in his sonnet Body’s Beauty. Further alarm bells sound when you consider that Lilith was based on Rossetti’s mistress, Fanny Cornforth, who was also his ‘housekeeper’ after his wife’s death. Later, he repainted her face in the image of the model Alice Wilding, possibly at the suggestion of his young patron, the shipping magnate Fredrick Richard Leyland. Today, it is difficult to see Rossetti and his cohorts as rebels. Yet, early critics declared their work “abhorrent” and the “ product of a diseased imagination.”[2] When the Pre-Raphaelites were formed in 1848, they strongly rejected the classical British academic tradition as rigid and vacuous. Focusing instead on Medieval and Renaissance traditions prior to the 16th century, they emphasized brilliant color as well as detail and line over chiaroscuro and classical models/modeling. Founded by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Rossetti, the brotherhood soon attracted the Oxford theology students Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. The group worked with a number of distinctive models such as Elizabeth Sidall, Fanny Cornforth and Maria Zambaco. Whether as muses or wives, fellow artists and poets, these striking women with their wide-set light eyes and chiseled full lips fueled the groups’ notoriety.

In the Lehman’s handsome salon, it is hard to apprehend the ugliness of the new Victorian industrial age, full of soot, clanking noise and mass-produced goods. Smog – known as the London Particular- was often so great that you could barely see a few feet ahead. Rejecting the unchecked expansion of manufacturing, the Pre-Raphaelites favored hand-crafted artifacts that reflected centuries of tradition. Their new found pleasure in artistry recalls our own age’s fascination with street art, vintage clothes, hand-made crafts and even micro-breweries, manned not by poor immigrants but by Ivy-League graduates.

The Met’s show features the ultimate in hand-made collaborative design in the form of a Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones cabinet made of painted leather and wood with brass and copper fittings. On the doors, a man and woman leisurely play backgammon in a style akin to Renaissance painted marriage chests, known as cassone. In addition to furniture, Morris’s company sold in its elegant Oxford street store, “work of genuine and beautiful character,” including exquisite textiles, carpets, wall-papers, stained glass and ceramics.[3] Morris, its savvy owner and director, sympathized with socialist reforms favoring the poor. Ironically such an expensive piece of hand-made furniture would have only been accessible to the most wealthy. Like Rosetti, Morris wrote poetry and collected books and rare manuscripts. At the end of his life he founded Kelmscott Press Books, notable for its extraordinary engraved bindings which can be seen in the show.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898): The Love Song, 1868–77. Oil on canvas, 45 x 61 3/8 in. (114.3 x 155.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898): The Love Song, 1868–77. Oil on canvas, 45 x 61 3/8 in. (114.3 x 155.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition’s great masterpiece, known as Le Chant d’Amour by Edward Burne-Jones, with its languid figures in medieval costume, may appear staged and overly saccharine to the modern eye. Even back in 1877, the London Times poured scorn upon the painting, calling it “the strange and unwholesome fruits of hopeless wanderings in the mazes of mysticism and medievalism.” Fortunately for the Metropolitan, art critic Roger Fry, who also acted as curator from 1904-1910, championed this work. Taking almost ten years to complete (1868-1877), it depicts a lovelorn knight resting on a parapet while he contemplates an innocent maiden playing an organ as Cupid pumps the bellows. Set in a Venetian-style landscape inspired by Giorgione, Burne-Jones captured a mood of wistful reverie. The parapet lends a story-book quality that sets the tale at a remove. Known for his vivid palette and the precision of his brushstrokes, Burne-Jones had once declared, “I love to treat my pictures as a goldsmith does his jewels.”[4]

The painting was inspired by a Breton love song, (Helas, je sais un chant d’amour) composed by the artist while listening to his gifted wife Giorgiana play the piano. The critic Walter Pater, who admired the Pre-Raphaelites, wrote that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music”. [5] With his emphasis on mood and atmosphere, Burne-Jones may well have aspired to elevate his art to the level of music, which was seen as the most abstract, formal and pure of the creative expressions.

While the show is tiny, it draws from over 11 departments, marking an important interdisciplinary trend in recent exhibitions. This form of curating exploits the museum’s own stellar collection while bringing new meaning and context to its pieces. It comes in the wake of the great joint exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites and the Victorian Avant-Guard at the Tate and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Yet through its intelligent curating by Constance McPhee and Alison Hokanson, it manages, in one quick stroke, to lift the lid on a beautiful lost world and whet our appetite for binge viewing.

[1] Rosetti, William Michael and Algernon Swinburne. Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition 1898, quoted by Prettejohn, Elizabeth, Rossetti and his Circle, London and Princeton, 1997, p. 30.

[2] Harry Quilter, a critic for the Times, wrote scathing reviews, see, Quilter, Harry, Preferences in Art, Life and Literature. London, 1892, 6; ibid., Art Journal, 1864, p. 170.

[3] Rossetti, William Michael, Ruskin: /Rossetti:Preraphaelism : Papers 1854 to 1862, London, 1899, pp. 268-70.

[4] De Lisle, 1904, pp. 170-171

[5] Pater, Walter. The School of Giorgione, in Lawrence Evans, Ed. The Renaissance, Chicago, 1978, p. 139.