Rachel Cohen

Boudin

Folding Screen

Folding Screen

Ogata Korin, Cranes and Pines, mid-17th century.


I had a thought last week at the Metropolitan Museum's Poetry of Nature exhibit of Edo Paintings.  A most basic, untutored thought, but of interest to me.  Standing before a folding screen, on which was mounted Cranes and Pines, a work in ink and light color by Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716).  That a screen is a stylized geometry of the effects of landscape.  The sense one has, looking, that a curve of trees comes forward, that water both widens and recedes to the distance.  These effects are considered and commented upon by the angled folds of a screen.  It seems interesting that the experience, which, when I noticed it, felt like an austere version of the repose felt in pausing in a particularly beautiful moment outdoors, is uncapturable by photograph.


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We are here, at the place we come to once a year, in the summer.  I am sitting outside on the worn porch by the little harbor where the moored boats turn to align with the wind.  On the surface of the water the oddly abstract patterns of curved lines.  The other night, we sat out to watch the Perseids fall in the sky.  A heron was fishing off the end of a small jetty.  We would not have seen it, but there was a dusky orange light set to come on periodically and then the bird appeared in sharp dark outline with the fish below the surface scattering away from its pointed beak.      


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Giacometti and James Lord

Giacometti and James Lord

Alberto Giacometti, drawing, Portrait de James Lord, 1954

Preparing for class this week, I reread James Lord’s book Giacometti: A Portrait. The book is broken into the eighteen sittings Lord did with Giacometti one fall, in September and October of 1964, for a painted portrait. Lord’s book was published the following year.

The class has just begun, but the students and I intend to reflect on drawing, and especially on returning to the same work repeatedly, and I assigned the book in part because of its repetitiveness. It’s as if Giacometti is practicing painting Lord’s portrait – as he goes on, perhaps most of the times he does it, he does it a little better, but then in despair he paints out large parts of it, in gray, white. He begins again, with some layers remaining of previous efforts, to define the head with strong thin blacks. When it is succeeding, there is a sense of space, of the head and what is around the head; at other times it seems lopsided, opaque. He could go on this way a long time. Neither Giacometti nor Lord has any thought that the painting would eventually be finished, the question is at what point to abandon it.
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[The portrait as it was abandoned in October of 1964 and subsequently sold.]



I don’t know if it would be right to say that I have spent a fair amount of time looking at Giacometti, or if it would be more accurate to say that the time I have spent has felt very acute, indelible. I can return to the experiences with clarity, re-enter them. The works let me strain alongside them, strain to an utmost, and that is memorable. Intermittently, they also give me a sense of rest. The sense that they are unfinished because their maker fought as hard as possible creates around them a special atmosphere – quiet, rigor, charity – that resists even something of the stealth of museumization. The work lets me feel not just that I am forgetting the price it fetched at some auction in a world I have no access to, or the women with expensive educations and scarves writing smooth copy to be posted nearby (I might be such a woman, I sometimes am,) or the gift shop hovering in the background that sells the scarves – lets me not forget these things, but somehow go on thinking without being debased, lets me think instead, here is something, I am thinking about it.

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[A detail of Lord’s painted face as posted by someone on the internet.]



Lord talks about a similar kind of alternation between strain and rest – rest is the sense of having contributed – in the experiences of posing for Giacometti. Because Lord is a little bit sneaky, a little bit facile, he also brings this to the tale. Lord is always plotting how to steal a little bit of the experience – he is taking photographs of every stage of the work, he is slipping out to make notes about it and then lying to Giacometti about what he is doing, when Giacometti throws out and destroys some drawings, Lord fishes a few out of the trash, on the final day, he is secretly trying to get Giacometti to stop the cycle of painting on an upswing, toward clarity, which will make the portrait, which Giacometti has told him he will give him, more beautiful to Lord, and more valuable. Giacometti must have known all this. He apparently used to say that he wasn’t interested in portraying the inner life, it was hard enough just to get the outward aspect, but people, including Lord, thought he was a good judge of character. I think it was a relief to Lord, and perhaps this allows me to recognize part of the relief I feel myself in the vicinity of the works, that Giacometti was not concerned about thieves.

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[A version of the portrait in progress as James Lord photographed it.]

Sophie's Painting

Sophie039s Painting

Sophie Degan, Untitled




My cousin Sophie is dying.  She is ninety.  It seems likely that she will die today, and I hurry to write those words to use the present tense one last time.  We were with her, all of us, at different moments in the last couple of weeks.  My mother is there now.

Sophie loved painting.  She took painting classes in New York in the 1960s when she lived there, and there are still many of her paintings, some on squares of canvas with a cardboard backing, some directly on cardboard.  They seem insubstantial, but they have held up for fifty years.  She used a paint called caesin, which, a painter once told me, is actually quite a good paint, now mostly discontinued, and this has preserved the vividness of her choices of colors.  She admired Marsden Hartley, always had a Marsden Hartley still life up in her small apartments, and, from the look of this picture, which I had not seen until last week, Cézanne.

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Maybe it is a very good painting and maybe it is only wonderful to us.  I did not have time to tell.  But perhaps I would not even be able to tell if I spent a lot of time with it.  I like the hot colors, the purples and oranges of a Bonnard, and I like the odd declivities between the shapes, all jumbled together, but not really impinging on one another.  This was like Sophie, she had delight in color, saw no need for fussy restraint, and she was always unto herself, even when generous with other people.  She was self-contained, but not elusive, she had an independent presence that I recognize in the objects she has painted.

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I am sitting in the garden, a midsummer garden in which every plant bears a different combination of different shades of green, each unto itself, the whole so harmonious.  Our daughter, whose middle name is Sophie, is behind me, sitting on the wooden steps, secluded under the arch of vines, reading a book.  There will be a phone call, perhaps in a few minutes.  A painting may say, now, we are here.


Sophie Degan died early in the morning of August 1st.  May she rest in peace.  


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Unsteady Hands

Unsteady Hands

Hervé Guibert, detail of photograph.


The prose fragment is a form capable of kindness.  After I thought of that sentence, I thought of reading Hervé Guibert again, with students, this quarter.  In his use, the fragment has so much discretion all along its edges.  We all exist beyond those edges.  It’s like sending a note when a call might be intrusive, or stepping aside the right degree, to make way but not to shun.

It’s not that his writing is especially interested in kindness, but, in writing and photography, he is interested in recognition, both the kind you can accomplish steadily, and the kind where you flinch away.  This is a Guibert self-portrait, from 1981.


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Yesterday I was thinking about Degas.  And wondering about his hands when, late in life, he could barely see.  I remember reading in a wall text at the Metropolitan Museum that one of his friends helped him to feel a painting he was curious about.  What I wondered yesterday was how the paint felt to his fingers, if his hands felt steady to him.  I think of steadiness of hand and steadiness of gaze going together.  The fact that my hands feel unsteady to me lately seems related to how much I flinch away, from what I am reading, even from watching peoples’ faces.  In every news article, in the faces of people crossing the street, I seem to see great vulnerability, that we are menaced.

Here is an essay by Guibert I didn’t know about.  It is a photograph, the joint effort of the subject and the photographer to understand, among other things, Degas.  Some day, I hope I will write about the way the picture reflects on Degas’ ideas about the brave efforts of our bodies, about drawing and sculpture and form.  But my hands are a little unsteady today.


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Joan Mitchell: Cities in Winter

Joan Mitchell Cities in Winter

Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 1955, Chicago Institute of Art


Two weeks ago, I went to the Art Institute to spend some time in the new modern wing and my attention was caught by a Joan Mitchell from 1955 called City Landscape.


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Since the election I have been thinking about cities, and living in them, the ways that a city’s life may be dealt a blow.


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It is December in Chicago, and cold, and I saw the heart of the city, what the wall text calls “nerves and arteries” in the colors, so many, too many to look at all at once, that drip together into brown, that, at least in my pictures, resembles the collecting trunk and lower limbs of trees, and I saw the grays and whites above and below as the bleak surrounding sky.


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What a painting this is. Difficult to know, as a real city is, but also, I’m pretty sure, although I haven’t yet had time to find out, it is a painting possible to know, as a real city is.


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Cities, one of the largest things people make together that are still, more or less, on a human scale, can be walked across in a day, can be, with effort and diligence, comprehended by a studying person.


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A moment later, I came to one of the museum’s edges, where it looks out over Millennium Park. Everything was gray, but clustered at the center was the vitality of roads, traffic, the living though not visibly inhabited city, and above there were the rectilinear outlines, the gray buildings fogged at the gray sky.


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In this room, there are Giacomettis, studying and participating in the city.


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They were made in 1947, 1948, 1949, 1960. After the war, before and after the Joan Mitchell. All of their cities have struggled.


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The gray around, the extreme density of the interior. In the new year, we will learn more.


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In Chicago

In Chicago
We have moved to Chicago. I went to the Art Institute soon after we arrived and was happy to see that the museum has a wonderful Berthe Morisot. I have wanted to keep thinking about her. I find that I remember vividly each experience I’ve had of her work in the last few years: two watercolors from the Clark, an exhibition at the Met that had several of her paintings, a visit to the Musée Marmottan while M played with S in the public gardens. The peculiar density of atmosphere that Morisot achieves seems like something to learn from. Perhaps I am affected by knowledge of her biography, and her early death, but it feels to me as if she knew there might not be much time, and that she put everything she knew, about a person, a child, a garden, a hat, into each painting.    

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One thing, I think, is that she is able to keep everything in motion.  This morning, a first day of school, the perpetual motion of everything and everybody – all our objects, all the four of us, all our places and people – feels overwhelming, but look at how she brings the garden to the dress, the fan away from and toward the dress, the dress itself toward blue, toward purple, toward the body and the air.  

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I don’t think it is a photographic accident that the face of the woman becomes clearer and more meaningful when looked at with the hat and figure of the child behind her. Morisot has done something with the beige and white shades of their two heads and hats that allows my eye to make a relation between the two figures. The woman’s face becomes less ghostly, I see what she thinks about and how she feels happiness and even love across those green strokes to the child.

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When I look back at our pictures of the summer, I see that we were often sitting where sand or green plants or water made a continuousness between us and the children. I feel I will miss this in the greater distinctness of fall.

In summer there is the challenge of making meaningful and definite that which is blurred by heat and continuity and abundance. Morisot has not forgotten the work of it.  This morning, I am especially fond of that rake, like a paintbrush, like a pen, to one side.  

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Sargent Notes

Sargent Notes

John Singer Sargent, Simplon Pass: Chalets, about 1909-1911, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, iphoto of notebook cover

I am writing this in a notebook that has on the cover of it a part of a Sargent water color.  It's of a house, gray and brown mingled in the wash, with a roof speckled and dashed with white.  An ordinary small mountain house, to which a stone wall in the shape of an S rises.

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Watercolor is a medium in which it is easy to lose the structures of things, but here everything has the shape that is proper to it because it does not wish to be otherwise. They are what they are, the house, the green slopes, the rising S of the wall, the gray sky.  They do not blame or advise.

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I think Sargent thought that, for an artist, it is good to be sketching.  That is how to be a house, considering and calm, between the hill and the sky, how to follow and care for a wall of long stone dashes, rising in the shape of an S.  




Lenses

Lenses

Cézanne, Study of Trees, c.1904, Fogg Museum, iphone detail


Today I got new lenses for my glasses.  After more than a month of squinting and blearing and pretending, my eyes knew themselves at last understood and the world came through with that almost bulging astonishing hyper-detail.  Learn the task again.  A half an hour, every few years, of seeing everything in the world at once.

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I was running errands and had not planned to go to the Fogg, but, feeling my sudden seeing, I turned left.  With which painting should I use this beautiful straining and adjusting sight?  I thought of a Beckmann triptych that has eluded me for months, and then of a Cézanne I have struggled with for four years, an unfinished painting from 1904.

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It was a wintry day in Cambridge, cold.  A little snow had materialized as I walked to the optometrist, and then was held in abeyance as I walked away again, and back again, and to the museum.  I saw the day first with the impeding old glasses, then with the odd freedom and powerful myopia of no glasses, and then, every branch and twig in dark lines before the gray sky, with the new glasses.

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It’s on the ground floor.  Past the main room of the Impressionists, through a doorway and on the right.  Often when I get to see a painting well, I have the experience that it seems bigger than I remembered.  Before I was even looking, there was the sense of spaciousness.

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With each of the different degrees of seeing I had today, I was aware of the strange effect of the snow clouds.  Sometimes the gray sky is leaden, and at other times is in wondrous motion.  When it actually particularizes as snow, the eyes draw a hundred relations at once.

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My eyes leaped for it.  And went directly to its depths.  It had always seemed very flat to me, an array of touches on the surface of a gray canvas, but now unmistakeable were the curved road and arching branches.  

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All those touches of paint with their several directions clustered together were like little flags indicating the motion of air and light.  

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In the painting, it was summertime, some summer moment in which, by virtue of everything being a little strange, a little distorted, all the relations between things were suddenly clear.

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When I walked on the street again I saw that I and the other people walking seemed made solitary by the gray snow sky.  But we also seemed held up and surrounded by the palpable space.        

Les Débâcles, first

Les Deacutebacirccles first

Claude Monet, Le Débâcle, 1880, Palais des Beaux Arts, Lille


débâcle: the violent flood that follows when the river ice melts in spring


In the winter of 1879-1880 the weather was unusually stormy and cold.  All along the Seine there were record quantities of snow and ice.  That winter, Claude Monet was at Vétheuil, a village near Argenteuil and to the northwest of Paris.  Monet was living in straitened circumstances with his children; his beloved wife Camille had died earlier that year, in September.  The remaining Monets were sharing a household with Alice Hoschedé and her children.  The winter was so fierce that even at Christmas it was impossible for them to be joined by Alice Hoschedé’s husband, Ernest, who had been one of Monet’s important supporters and collectors.  Ernest Hoschedé was suffering through his own difficult period; he had gone bankrupt two years before, and his entire Impressionist collection had been sold at disastrously low prices.  It is not entirely clear how the merging and transformation of the Hoschedé and Monet households took place, but this grim winter was to prove a turning point both in Monet’s life and in his work as a painter.

I have been reading about that winter, and the paintings Monet made then, for nearly a year.  Reading very slowly, chiefly in one catalogue called Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point.  The catalogue caught my attention in a used bookstore here in Cambridge, in part because the show that occasioned it was held at the University of Michigan Art Museum in Ann Arbor, where I am from, and in part because the subject of the paintings is winter.  My father died in Ann Arbor in early February of 2013, during a bitterly snowy fortnight.  This February, two years later, I am again confronted by mourning and by snow. Although I have been thinking about these confluences for many months, I am not making any progress on drawing them together as an essay. So I have decided to try writing a series of broken pieces instead.

During the winter of 1879-1880, Monet painted a series of canvases of the snowbound river and of the eventual catastrophic breakup of the ice.  The series of paintings, called Les Débâcles, take their name from the river floods that followed the thaw in early January of that year.  Until this point, much of Monet’s work had been of urban landscapes. There had also been portraits and still lifes; the work depicted or implied the presence of people.  But this winter, he painted landscape alone, deliberately removing the boats and industry which photographs from the time show to have been part of the landscape at Vétheuil.  Instead, the viewer of the painting is alone in nature; the subject of the pictures is the terrible majesty of winter and its devastations.    


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Monet, Le Débacle, 1880, University of Michigan Art Museum

Second in a Series

Second in a Series

The Bath, Mary Cassatt, Fogg Museum



The Bath is a print, or a series of prints, made by Mary Cassatt in 1891 – at the height of her powers and at a moment when her interest in Japanese prints opened a wonderful set of visual ideas in her mind.

Her powers were considerable.  When Pissarro visited her studio in April of that year he wrote of her work to his son Lucien (the two Pissarros had been experimenting with prints themselves.)

You remember the effects you strove for at Eragny?  Well, Miss Cassatt has realized just such effects, and admirably: the tone even, subtle, delicate, without stains on seams: adorable blues, fresh rose, etc…. the result is admirable, as beautiful as Japanese work, and it’s done with printer’s ink! [Letters to Lucien, p158]  

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Many of Cassatt’s prints are now regarded as technical masterpieces.  She pulled sheets herself in her studio, and also had the help of an extremely talented printer, Modeste Leroy, whom she took the unusual step of crediting, as is the Japanese tradition.  The prints are marked Imprimée par l’artiste et M. Leroy / Mary Cassatt.  

At the Fogg Museum right now, one may see a sequence of nine versions of The Bath, the first print in a set of twenty-five.  Cassatt worked on The Bath in a great many stages because, as she said, “I was entirely ignorant of the method when I began.” [Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints, p45]  The whole series originally had the subtitle “an attempt at imitating Japanese printing,” although she later dropped this description.

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Cassatt had studied Japanese prints for twenty years, and owned many of them by the time she undertook the series; her interest in Japanese style had been given new point by an important exhibition of Japanese works that took place at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1890.  In a well-known letter to Berthe Morisot, Cassatt exhorted her to see the exhibition:

… you could come and dine here with us and afterwards we could go to see the Japanese prints at the Beaux-Arts.  Seriously, you must not miss that.  You who want to make color prints you couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful.  I dream of it and don’t think of anything else but color on copper.  [letter from Cassatt to Morisot, quoted p36 of Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints.]

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The Japanese influence on The Bath is evident right away.  You can see it in the particular shade of blue that makes the basin of water a significant equal weight in the picture, in balance with the mother and the child; it is in the pattern on the yellow dress that has gone from being penciled in to being part of the plate; and it is in the outlined figures that seem almost cut out and then laid over the background.

Cassatt’s color prints are stylized and also about style.  Here style is not ornament.  The hallmark of these prints may be their tenderness, but here style is paring down and juxtaposing in order to achieve a kind of force.

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Giacometti at the New Fogg

Giacometti at the New Fogg

Giacometti, Portrait of David Sylvester, 1960, detail, Fogg Museum


Giacometti made this portrait of the British art critic David Sylvester in 1960:

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I think a restful thing about Giacometti is the way different permutations of the same lines and shadings -- the same darkly scratched lines and the same shadings of gray, white, and black -- constitute both the figure and the ground.  

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A person is a coalescence.  

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And derives substantiality from the abstract.  

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The longer you look, the more humane this seems.  

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Carbon and Water, Goya's Ivories

Carbon and Water Goya039s Ivories

Francisco Goya, A Seated Majo and Maja, Black Carbon on Ivory, Nationalmuseum Stockholm

Something to look for at the MFA’s Goya show (through January 19th, 2015) are the odd small miniatures on ivory that Goya did almost as a set of exercises at the end of his life. There are several of them scattered through the exhibition. Although they were apparently also a feature of the Frick’s late Goya show eight years ago, to me they came as a revelation.

The strangeness of their matter is the first thing to say about them. They are made with black carbon spread over ivory. Goya then dropped water onto the carbon, washing it away into inky wet splotches that the artist then pulled at with his brush and filled in with watercolor. This one became:

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Woman with Clothes Blowing in the Wind



And this one:


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Man Looking for Fleas in his Shirt


Goya himself was quite pleased with them. He did some forty in the winter of 1824-1825, when he was living, deaf and ill, in voluntary exile from the repressive Spanish monarch among the Spanish expatriate community in Bordeaux. He wrote to a friend about the project:

“last winter I painted on ivory, and I have a collection of nearly forty exercises, but they are original miniatures which I never seen the like of before, because the whole is made up of points and things which look more like Velázquez’ brushwork than that of Mengs.”

His ivories were not of the usual, hyper-detailed kind, painstakingly stippled onto the bony ground, but something altogether more expressive and strange.

In Goya’s hands, the medium is an eerie one, ghostly figures materialize from the greenish depths. Near the opening of the MFA exhibition is an arresting self-portrait drawing of the artist, slumped at a table and beset by a nightmare, a preparatory drawing for the famous etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

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Throughout the show, as throughout Goya’s life, these monstrous visions – human and inhuman – rushed at him. The green ivories, although with the tranquility of all watery evocations, are still full of the restless terror of keeping alive in a mad world. Even one’s clothes belong to vermin and the wind, and one’s face is forever being distorted, washed away, and restored, by the elements, carbon and water, and by the merciless brush of the aged painter.


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