Rachel Cohen

7. Morisot Following Black

Frederick Project: Closed and Open

Frederick Project Closed and Open

Berthe Morisot, English Seascape, 1875, European Private Collection, Detail photos Rachel Cohen

The first Morisot I ever really paid attention to was a small watercolor from the Clark Institute of Art (currently closed) that I happened upon in an exhibition of works on paper at the Frick (closed) in New York.

Berthe Morisot, Before a Yacht, 1875, Clark Art Institute, 8 1/8 x 10 9/16 inches.

I was taken by it.

And then, that afternoon, saw five of her paintings in a show on Impressionism and fashion at the Met (closed). By this fortunate set of circumstances, I was, in a single day, persuaded that I had missed one of the great painters in history, in a period I had studied extensively. It turned out that I was seeing an edge of transformation, after a century of consistent neglect, institutions and scholarship were beginning to attend to Morisot.

I set about repairing the absence in my own understanding – searching out her paintings in Paris (Musée Marmottan Monet, closed), in Chicago (Art Institute, closed), and then getting to spend many days in the 2018-2019 Morisot retrospective, which I covered for Apollo.

Now I could talk to you about Morisot for a day and a night. And I want to tell you everything, because there has never been anyone who handled paint with more freedom, and once you really begin to look at them, they blow space open.

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This morning, I went back to my photos from the Morisot retrospective, which I first saw in the luminous installation at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts de Québec (MNBAQ closed). I wanted to follow the blacks of yesterday’s Hokusai, those night-time blacks, which had an extraordinary boldness and freedom.

Katsushika Hokusai, Courtesan and Paper Lanterns, 1798/1800, the Weston Collection.
Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

Morisot would not have seen the Hokusai, but she was familiar with Japanese work of the Edo period, which was avidly collected in Paris. Some of the collectors were Morisot's friends Degas and Monet, and her brother-in-law Édouard Manet, another marvelous painter of black.

My eye lit on this harbor scene, English Seascape. It's probably from the same trip to England, in 1875, when she made the watercolor that first caught my attention. Morisot would go down to the harbor and sometimes go out on the boats, enjoying the challenge of working while she went up and down with the waves.

I don’t have a picture of the whole, but this is all but the left edge:

Berthe Morisot, English Seascape, 1875, European private collection, 17 inches x 25.
Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

Black holds this together. Stretches the space apart.

You stand at the lower left, with these two figures:

And before you is a great ship, dissolving into air:

And just look at this space:

Frederick Project: Colors and History

Frederick Project Colors and History

Katsushika Hokusai, Courtesan and Paper Lanterns, 1798/1800, the Weston Collection, Detail. Photos by Rachel Cohen

Because it was behind glass, I could only photograph it sidelong.

It came as a great relief. In the Art Institute of Chicago’s show of 2018, Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection. Room after room of courtesans – the highly-paid ones in their graceful rooms which they still could not leave unless a patron could be persuaded to purchase their contracts; and the ones who worked the docks at night, with stalls for quick transactions – all posed for a viewer’s eye, and, also, for my eye. The figures were very beautiful, and had a complicated agency, they had dressed themselves, were color artists of the first order, a few had written poems which were included, in their handwriting, what western nude had ever written on her canvas, still, there was a fundamental transaction, and it was wearying.

Then, Hokusai. She is turned sideways.

She is looking at something else, the air, her world.

If you look at her without her feet, the picture comes to pieces, so that her walking, her stepping forward on her own sandal is crucial to the understanding.

She is a whole being, and I can join in being her – feel a freedom in my thoughts when I try to think as her, all intelligence is possible – how is this conveyed?

The scroll is carefully mounted and framed by fabric, like the quilted edges of the Faith Ringgold story-quilts, and, like them, it is given an interpretation in language that is included. Above her hair, calligraphy:

Hokusai’s friend, Santo Kyoden (1761-1816), who frequently collaborated with him, has written the poem, which the Art Institute translated:

         Gold for the release of the oiran
         wagered against chrysanthemum waters
         from an enchanted valley!
         Fine Sumida wines alone
         fill the cup of the novice courtesan.
             Santo kutsu Kyoden

The wall text explained. Two kinds of wine. One, magical, the chrysanthemum waters, associated with the highly-paid and knowing courtesan, the oiran, who might be able to get a patron to purchase her release – gold for the release. But the novice courtesan, she had merely Sumida wines, from the Sumida river that runs by the Yoshiwara district, the red-light district of Edo. Constraint acknowledged.

Another liberty is the boldness of the brushwork.

And another in the way the scroll shows the night, it must be night. In the clothes and the lantern. Their black ink absorbs the night and radiates it.

The lanterns are made of the same paper that the scroll itself is painted on. They are upstanding, and let you think about paper, and how it can show the night.

The lanterns become one of the frames – like the fabric, like the poem – a way the picture can refer to itself. They are part of what gives the picture, and the woman in the picture, and me, looking at the picture, a first-person stance, freedom of mind.

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.]

Tara Geer: Carrying Silence

Tara Geer walk along the border 2013

Tara Geer, walk along the border, 2013

At Glenn Horowitz, 87 Newtown Lane, East Hampton, NY, 11937, through September 3, 2013. Here is the first section of my catalog essay, "Looking at Tara Geer's Drawings":

  1. One way to begin is just by quietly trying to notice things.  In “walk along the border,” your eye might be drawn by the smudges off to the left, or by the white surround and the sense of movement in the white surround.  

In my notes: white area with a little falling black squiggle; then other little black details, these somewhere between figures and lines, running on a diagonal from lower left to upper right.  Almost like little embedded panels – as if there is a progress toward the final window.  In the gray an effect of a waterfall down the right-hand side.  A gray patch and a gray triangle make a space between them.  On the right, the softness almost of hair.  An immense variety of texture.  The central column like vertebrae.  This central black part is strangely flat like a mosaic and also has a lot of depth.   A problem I returned to in looking: the skein in the lower right corner seemed dirty in a way that was familiar.  After a while I felt that it looked like an old cobweb in which flakes of dirt have gathered.  Hesitatingly, I mentioned this to Tara and she said that for a long time she had been stopping the freight elevator at her studio between floors so that she could study the cobwebs.  This – the suspended elevator, webs between floors, painstaking attention to the derelict – could be a sort of parable for Tara Geer’s way of looking.  The drawing is a meditation on space.  It is full of respect for spiders.