skip navigation

Rachel Cohen

Reading Now

Passages: Pissarro

Passages Pissarro

Pissarro, Pontoise, Road to Gisors in Winter, 1873, MFA.


Camille Pissarro, theorist and mentor of the Impressionist movement, was known for giving sound advice.  Here are some of his thoughts as later recollected by the painter Louis Le Bail (in Rewald, The History of Impressionism).  They’re in the order that Le Bail wrote them down in, but I’ve broken them into territories, and set them to some iphone details I took of the last Pissarro I looked at, Pontoise, the Road to Gisors in Winter, 1873, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston:



Look for the kind of nature that suits your temperament.  

The motif should be observed more for shape and color than for drawing.  There is no need to tighten the form which can be obtained without that.  Precise drawing is dry and hampers the impression of the whole, it destroys all sensations.  Do not define too closely the outlines of things; it is the brush stroke of the right value and color which should produce the drawing.  

rcohen 78




In a mass, the greatest difficulty is not to give the contour in detail, but to paint what is within. Paint the essential character of things, try to convey it by any means whatsoever, without bothering about technique.  



rcohen 78




When painting, make a choice of subject, see what is lying at the right and at the left, then work on everything simultaneously.  Don’t work bit by bit, but paint everything at once by placing tones everywhere, with brush strokes of the right color and value, while noticing what is alongside. Use small brush strokes and try to put down your perceptions immediately.  

rcohen 78


The eye should not be fixed on one point, but should take in everything, while observing the reflections which the colors produce on their surroundings.  Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it.  Cover the canvas at the first go, then work at it until you can see nothing more to add.



rcohen 78


Observe the aerial perspective well, from the foreground to the horizon, the reflections of sky, of foliage.  

Don’t be afraid of putting on color, refine the work little by little.  

Don’t proceed according to rules and principles, but paint what you observe and feel.




rcohen 78



Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.  

Don’t be timid in front of nature: one must be bold, at the risk of being deceived and making mistakes.  

One must have only one master – nature; she is the one always to be consulted.


rcohen 78






0

Open to the Public

Open to the Public

Sargent, I Gesuati, about 1909, iphone detail

Last Friday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum I had a notion of looking for her Sargents, to keep company with the sense of the artist developing in my mind because of the watercolor show at the MFA.  On entering the Gardner I must have half-noticed a small poster with a Venetian-looking Sargent on it, but this didn’t entirely register. I went first to the new wing to look at the Sophie Calle show Last Seen, about the great theft of pictures from the Gardner in 1990.  

This show I liked very much.  Simple, a photograph of a person standing in front of an empty frame, next to it, in the same size and shape as the frame, a series of short quotations from different people about the missing work. Some from interviews done at the time of the theft, a more recent group done now, about the empty spaces twenty-three years on. The show had a kind of intimacy with the paintings, especially in those quotations about the missing pictures that clearly came from the guards. One, speaking of a little Rembrandt self-portrait etching, a piece that had been stolen before, said that she (or he) always felt a little extra protective of that one, “I would just give it a little look as I went by.”  

I went down the bright Renzo Piano stairs and into the dim museum Gardner designed herself to look for the Sargents.  In the first of the small dark rooms containing the flotsam and jetsam of sketches done by Gardner’s acquaintances lowers one great brooding Manet of his mother. In the second little room, there should have been the Sargent watercolor of Gardner wrapped in white, the last portrait of her before she died.  

I asked the guard about the sketch’s whereabouts.  He was large, friendly, Russian, too friendly, he had already accosted me about a daub with orange flowers, and made me guess who had drawn an awkward sketch of a dancer.  I said had the portrait gone to the MFA show, though I knew that was unlikely since the Gardner cannot lend or borrow. No, he said grandly, “it is in our show.” A little group, in the space beyond Mme Manet.  

Eight, and the four on the left wall of Venice, and each of those four as good as the best on display across the Fens. Brilliant, improvisatory, dedicated, and, as I looked, a sudden lift, each one in turn seemed to give the air and moisture of Venice, I was in the city, felt it.  

I had been careful at the MFA, but it was always so crowded in the first room of the watercolors of Venice that in the end I hadn’t needed the protection. They were just beautiful quick images, I didn’t have to think of our trip to Venice earlier this year and of scattering my father’s ashes there as he had asked. At the MFA I had noticed, admired, walked on.    

But here at the Gardner, suddenly, taken by surprise, there is was, Venice.  And then I longed to be there, and to think of my Dad. I would try to take down what Sargent had done to transport in this way.  No photographs in the Gardner, of course, so I thought I would sketch his sketches.  

rcohen 76


I had just done the first, boats riding at anchor with the great church behind when another guard interrupted me. “I’m sorry, miss, no pen is allowed,” and he proffered a dull pencil, bitten or broken in half.  “I forgot,” I said pleasantly, and, still determined, set to work to do the others in pencil. Of course it was much less fluid, and without ink couldn’t approximate the vivid feeling of looking, but I got some of the shadows. Another guard had come in and begun to talk in a loud voice to the one who had given me the pencil.  I was midway through the third image, of a low bridge over the water, when it became impossible to pretend that my concentration had not been destroyed by his insistent story, about a man who had deliberately put his face too near the crotch of a boy, and the boy’s reaction. I glared to little effect, finished my sketches for form’s sake, and tried to return the pencil on departing, “you may keep it,” the guard said magnanimously….

I went up to the top floor, to see Sargent’s full-length oil portrait of Mrs. Gardner. It was her fault, anyway, all of these ridiculous regulations, no photos, no pen, even sketching made almost impossible, these hovering, intrusive guards. I’ve liked the stories of the early days of her museum, how shocked she was by souvenir hunters (and it’s true one lady did take our her scissors and try to take home a swatch of tapestry) and by teachers lecturing students, and by, worst of all, reporters, and how difficult she made it for the public to attend the museum that she intended to offer to that same public. So difficult that in the end she was charged all the back taxes she had avoided by claiming that her art imports were for the public good. This was all amusing enough, I thought to myself, mounting the staircases, but even a century later the place was still uncertain about just how open to the public it intended to be.  

She presides in Sargent’s portrait, and there is a glad welcome in the figure – “you’ve come, you’ve come all the way up,” she says, and is pleased. What if they’d taken that picture? I thought I would go down again, and try to see the Venice my Dad loved and had left himself to.  

There was no one in the little alcove when I entered.  I had stood for a few seconds, thought I detected the first slight trembling, and through the door barreled the large Russian guard, waving his arms.  As he came up to me, much too close, I said, frigidly, “I really would like to look at these pictures by myself, please.”  He sealed up his mouth but waved energetically behind me.  Yes, I said, I had seen the one of Mrs. Gardner.  He nodded and walked away. Of course that finished it. Had I been rude, probably I had been rude. The openness I had to the pictures was gone. I went and found the man, thanked him again for his help; he hardly nodded.  

I left the Gardner.  

And went across to the MFA, and went down to see the Sargents.  No one advised me, no one interrupted me, no one cared how I looked at the watercolors. One of which was almost an identical view of I Gesuati that had seemed so evanescent at Mrs. Gardner’s.  I can reproduce it here:  

rcohen 76


The pale yellow wash of the façade, the beautiful dark blue and gray details. But the one at Mrs. Gardner’s, without passersby, with a more steep angle of the water and stone wall, was undeniably more dramatic, more empty. I had thought of my father, walking there.  

How do the dead come and go in the places to which they have left themselves?  

Sophie Calle had asked a medium to come and look at the empty frames in the Gardner.  The medium had felt joy, felt that the spirit of the paintings was now diffused through the whole museum, and that the frames were open to possibility as they hadn’t been when they contained the paintings themselves.  

I do not know how long it takes to come to the point where we do not wish our dead back on the actual earth with the air playing over their living faces, but I am not there yet. I want the paintings back.              

rcohen 76


0

Passages: Schuyler and Gorky

Passages Schuyler and Gorky

Gorky, Summation, 1947, iphone detail.



Wandering, I found in James Schuyler (Selected Art Writings, edited Simon Pettet, Black Sparrow Press: 1998) a short review of a retrospective of works by Arshile Gorky at the Janis Gallery in 1957, some ten years after Gorky's death.  The opening sentence gives practical details, the rest of the review is as follows:

"Included are the compelling Self Portrait and another (and, it appears, abandoned) version of the Artist and His Mother. These pictures give weight and pause to the transition from his long apprenticeship to the electric and inward freedom of his last and finest period.  

Looking at a thick grey still-life, uncompromising and stolid, surely no one could have predicted the future Ingres of the unconscious, drawing out lines and washes to an incredible fineness and thinnness, creating new imbalances between linearly described shapes and freely placed color.  But his pictures would be almost unbearably intimate without the grounding in the discipline of his art.  Only assurance could allow him to give so freely without burdening; that and the incorruptible innocence plain to read in the downcast eyes of the child and the in-dwelling, straight-out looking eyes of the self-portrait."  

I think this may help in ongoing efforts to understand Summation.  (First attempt under Gorky: Surrealism and Form)

0

At Nadar's (but he was already gone)

At Nadar039s but he was already gone

Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (painted from Nadar's studio), 1873


Possibly it was somewhere in two decades of reading and rereading Susan Sontag’s On Photography that I absorbed a small but suggestive misimpression.  In the midst of a passage on the relationship between photography and painting, she devotes a long footnote to Impressionism.  This footnote begins, unexceptionably, “the large influence that photography exercised upon the Impressionists is a commonplace of art history.”[i]

Rereading the rest of the footnote I see, as is often the case with Sontag, that I have been thinking about what it contains for a long time without even remembering that she wrote it, and that I will probably now spend many more years arguing with myself about the details she’s included in what is for her a brief excursus.

Here is her summary of what the Impressionists found in photography: “The camera’s translation of reality into highly polarized areas of light and dark, the free or arbitrary cropping of the image in photographs, the indifference of photographers to making space, particularly background space, intelligible…”  This was the “inspiration for the Impressionist painters’ professions of scientific interest in the properties of light, for their experiments in flattened perspective and unfamiliar angles and decentralized forms that are sliced off by the picture’s edge.”  Sontag, magpie, quotationalist, admirer of Benjamin, points out that Stieglitz said of the Impressionists, “they depict life in scraps and fragments.”

And here is what led me astray, though, as I work this through, I’m beginning to think that the clarification of her small error of suggestion might actually affirm the rest of what she’s said.  The footnote comes to the following too-irresistible conclusion: “A historical detail: the very first Impressionist exhibition, in April 1874, was held in Nadar’s photography studio on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris.”  

This information, too, is a commonplace of art history, and if I first saw it in Sontag I’ve since seen it referred to often enough that when I began to think of keeping this notebook I pictured an essay depicting the scene. It was to be an exciting set piece: one after another the soon-to-be-famous painters would enter the studio, so full of potential. There they are, gathering around the far-seeing Nadar, who loves their work, and says 'you must have the show here,' generously taking down his photographs.  They hammer, they arrange curtains, they call out to one another.  I knew that the name of the movement came from this first exhibition.  Perhaps Nadar himself, watching them at work, had said something that suggested the name...

Not so, not quite so, at any rate, and in a way that matters.  A recent, thorough biography of Nadar by the French writer Stéphanie de Saint Marc makes almost no mention of the Impressionists in general.  The only one that Nadar really knew was Manet.  The biographer says Manet inspired Nadar as a model.  She has a heavy description of the famous photograph: Manet’s fine features and “romantically undulating chevelure” made a “counterpoint” with the hand “robust, almost peasantlike” seen in the picture’s foreground, on the back of a chair.[ii]

rcohen 72
Nadar, Édouard Manet, 1863

This friendship, though, doesn’t account for the presence of the Impressionists at Nadar’s studio because, as is well known, Manet resolutely did not show with his friends in the 1874 exhibition; he was still fighting it out with the official salon.  (I’ve often taken a kind of, probably unfair, satisfaction in Manet’s absence from the show. His works seem to be obdurate where those of the other painters are fluid, though I do recognize that this is yet another of my difficulties with seeing Impressionism, as somehow what they saw in him led to what I see in them.)

In any case, I now hurried to John Rewald’s History of Impressionism to read the chapter on the April 1874 show.  The painters formed themselves into a group, not at all impromptu, carefully thought out and argued over, with the financial structure of a joint-stock company (Pissarro’s idea,) and a deliberately un-school-like name: Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. (Renoir’s idea.)  Though the name Impressionism did arise from the show, it did so in a roundabout, emergent way, not because of a stroke of impressarial brilliance on the part of Nadar.

The name came about through an odd mixture of the offhand, the laudatory, and the vituperative.  The catalog of the exhibition was edited by Renoir's brother, Edmond Renoir. Edmond Renoir remembered, in his unpublished recollections, that when he came to the group of pictures Monet had sent he was irritated by, "the monotony of his titles: Entrance of a Village, Leaving the Village, Morning in a Village...."  Edmond Renoir objected and "the painter calmly told him: 'Why don't you just put Impression!'"[iii] A painting of Le Havre was called Impression, Sunrise, and critics, both the rare ones who liked the show, and the much more common ones who vied to outdo one another in piling up ridicule, seized the name “Impressionists,” which the painters themselves accepted as close enough.

They weren’t hanging around Nadar and excitedly studying his photographs; they simply needed a space. According to Rewald: “This presented itself in the form of the studios vacated by Nadar, who, according to Monet, lent them the premises without fee.”[iv] Nadar’s biographer confirms that at this period, though he no longer maintained a studio there, Nadar still sometimes sublet the premises.  He was fairly friendly with the group of painters, whom he saw now and again at the café Guerbois, but, she says, he stayed “hermétique” with regard to their innovations.  He was a fervent admirer of Daumier and Guys – both dear to Baudelaire – but never collected the painters who were to become even more fully the "painters of modern life," as Baudelaire had described Guys in the long essay in which he envisioned a kind of painting.

Baudelaire did write perceptively and admiringly about Manet, a figure with one foot in that earlier generation, and one reluctant foot in the Impressionist camp. But this earlier generation hardly threw themselves into promoting the new way of seeing made explicit in the pictures of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne. Nadar may have known that the artists were penniless – if he lent them the studio for no charge that was a helpful generosity in a time when few were helpful to them. What the gesture meant, though, wasn’t that the buoyant, insightful, commercially adept, scientifically inquisitive Nadar saw the future and passed the mantle on to his comrades. The show was in a place left empty by a great, declining photographer of the previous generation.

What I’ve been thinking about today is that it may be that the complicated relationship between Manet and the younger Impressionists, which has a strong bearing on the relationship between the movement of Impressionism and photography, could be expressed by these two now slightly refined facts: Manet was the friend of Nadar’s; the others got themselves named when they had a show in Nadar’s empty studio without Manet.      


[i] All Susan Sontag quotes from On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, paperback 1989, p92.
[ii] Stéphanie de Saint Marc, Nadar, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2010, p203.
[iii] John Rewald, The History of French Impressionism, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973. Rewald is here paraphrasing and citing the unpublished recollections of Edmond Renoir, p318.
[iv] Rewald, p313.

0

Surrealism and Form

Surrealism and Form

Arshile Gorky, Summation, 1947, iphone detail



There are other feelings for form, of course, but that doesn’t mean the Surrealists didn’t have formal feelings.  Form is often described in spatial terms, as arrangements of objects, as landscapes with prominent and receding features.  Perhaps the Surrealist feeling for form could be evoked by inversion: one could speak of a disarray of objects, or of interior landscapes in which prominence is, like that in dreams, more a matter of excitation and disturbance.

This is not to say that when you look at, say, a Max Ernst collage, your eye is not still balancing the long pointed beak of the rooster against the long line of the legs of the naked woman he has turned over his knee, but that your awareness of the beak and the body, as a beak and a body, are affecting your seeing as loci of attention in a way that is not mostly about parallel lines but about balancing visceral experiences and grappling with perceived and imagined relations between them.

The thought I’ve been trying to get articulated for a few days, since seeing Arshile Gorky’s Summation, is that these turbid experiences of suggested meaning might still in some way be understood as formal.

rcohen 69



I rushed into the MoMA last Saturday at 5:00 (the museums closes at 5:30).  I didn’t plan to go, had been in New York for five days without setting foot in a museum, had given up on the possibility of going, all of us, the baby, too, were sick, we were leaving early the next morning.  After a meeting, I had been unable to get a cab for fifteen blocks and realized I was within blocks, decided to chance it…
rcohen 69
I knew that if I had to check my backpack I would be left with ten minutes at most.  I discussed this with a sympathetic man at the information booth who, blessings on him, comped me; the much less sympathetic man at the entrance did make me go check the bag.  I couldn’t remember where things were; I’ve never spent time at the new MoMA the way I used to at the old MoMA; on the narrow escalators I was trapped behind someone who preferred to stand.

These are all aspects of seeing art in New York, but I’m not sure which should be brought out and which let drop.  I was hoping to hit Abstract Expressionism.  My father loved Rothko and I thought maybe if I got one of those I could use my ten minutes for missing him, but the one I saw through a doorway opening had a kind of bright lime green edge that I recoiled from and before I quite realized what was happening I saw a Gorky and thought I’ve been meaning to think about Gorky and stopped.

rcohen 69


In the wall text next to Summation, Gorky is quoted as saying, “There is my world.”  I could see from the dates that he had died the next year, and remembered dimly that there was something untimely and terrible about his death.  [I looked it up later.  He killed himself the following year, at the age of forty-four, after a gruesome two years, in which his studio burned down, a car accident left him with a broken neck and a temporarily paralyzed painting arm, and his wife left him, and took their two children.]  What had stayed in my mind was the sense that he had been an extremely important link from the Surrealists to the Abstract Expressionists – and that his loss had been bitterly mourned by both André Breton and Willem De Kooning.

rcohen 69  
rcohen 69


The significance of Gorky’s influence was pointed out both in the Whitney drawing retrospective (winter 2003-2004), a show I thought was very profound, and in “Abstract Expressionist New York,” at the MoMA three years ago.  Although people do talk about it, I still think it is easy to overlook how totemic and dream-oriented the Abstract Expressionists were in their early days.  Frank O’Hara’s great essay on Jackson Pollock has a long useful section on Surrealism.

Another approach in the direction of my hoped-for thought might be: if one thinks of the forms discovered by the Surrealists as being in some way taken in and then diffused throughout the canvases of the Abstract Expressionists then one could in a way actually be a witness to this in looking at the works of Gorky.      


rcohen 69


0