Rachel Cohen

15. A little more late Manet

Frederick Project: Fortitude

Yesterday, I began from Manet’s morning glories and nasturtiums to arrive at a letter he sent to Marthe Hoschedé, with a water color of a horse chestnut on it.

Letter to Marthe Hoschedé, Decorated with a Chestnut, October 10, 1880, private collection.
Detail photo Rachel Cohen.

In the exhibition, at the museum, next to the letter with the horse chestnut, there hung a watercolor of plums. Today I’m going to begin there.

Three Plums, 1880. Collection of Cecille Pulitzer. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

Believed to have been made for an autograph album or a collector, but still with the casual, personal quality, watercolor on paper, a line of inscription.

Mostly, I just want to show the layers, the colors.

Notice the definition of the space just below and between the two fruits on the left, that unexpected red over blue.

In the show, two rooms later, there was one of the great assemblages, perhaps a dozen still lifes from the very last years, when Manet was exhausted and ill and alone. In 1880, the same year he sent the watercolored letters, he painted these plums:

Plums, ca.1880, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

The still life has a long association with mortality, from the vanitas paintings of the Dutch tradition that Manet had studied intently, to the nature morte (literally translated dead nature) paintings of the French tradition, especially those by Chardin (1699-1779), who was one early father of Impressionism, and whose wonderful still lifes still impart tenderness, domestic fortitude, and courage. Manet, perhaps thinking of Chardin:

Topaz of the background:

Notice the space between, the definition in blue this time:

Manet had painted huge revolutionary canvases, the Déjeuener sur l’Herbe, and the Bar at the Folies Bergère, paintings that had provoked battles and schisms and had their place on the barricades. When he was dying and saw very few friends, and loved them, he painted these.

Frederick Project: Before and After

Frederick Project Before and After

iris Kensmil, Beyond the Burden of Representation, in Dutch Pavilion at Venice Biennale, 2019, co-artist Remy Jungerman, curated Benno Tempel. Installation photo Rachel Cohen.

Yesterday I turned up a subject – a pavilion at the Venice Biennale with works by iris Kensmil and Remy Jungerman, curated by Benno Tempel. I decided to follow it through in the order of my experience: seeing the pavilion in June of 2019, having the sense of interest quickened, documenting something of what I saw, being offered materials which I glanced at, but kept, and then, some nine months later, paying another kind of attention, internet attention, which let me put together other layers of meaning.

The installation was set up like this:

The pavilion, designed by influential architect Gerrit Rietveld, was built in 1954. The catalogue text notes that its features are open space, light, modular dimensions. When you entered the door at the bottom of the diagram, you were immediately facing works by Remy Jungerman in the large installation of the three suspended structures (Horizontal Obeah GEENGESITONU) over a long table set on a slightly raised bed (Kabra Tafra).

You were also aware of the large vertical structure immediately to your right, also by Remy Jungerman, Promise IV.

As you walked into the space, you could see, on the wall marked 6, to your left, that there were many images of what look like other installations, as well as a glass case of books, and a single book in a case. This is Beyond the Burden of Representation, assemblage of works by iris Kensmil.

If you went to the left, and turned, then you would see the largest part of iris Kensmil’s work, the seven portraits of The New Utopia Begins Here #1.

Here is a photo of this from Kensmil's website:

If you now either turned around, or, had, in the first place, gone forward into the space of Kabra Tafra defined by the horizontals of the raised bed, table, suspended structure, and then turned to the right, you would see the wall-size The New Utopia Begins Here #2:

The works were deliberately intermingled. It was not really possible to see the works of one of the artists without being aware of works by the other artist, either through seeing them at the same time, or having just walked through or past one to see the other.

They were further brought together by certain artistic commonalities of sensibility and technique. The grid-like patterns, and delicate blue and black traceries that seem both like architectural blueprints and like textiles.

The installation is called The Measurement of Presence. A way of stating a theme might be: relationships of grids and people.

Some relationships that, facing the work from this distance, and able to peruse the exhibition essay at length, now come to mind:

1. A grid may make an abstract space that more than one person can inhabit. A design for a house. A pattern of four walls for a room. The plan for this installation, which you can mentally enter.

2. A grid may have an electric energy, the power grid, urban life and modernity. Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie.

3. The artists and curator of The Measurement of Presence write of Remy Jungerman: During 2018 Remy Jungerman lived in New York, a city with a dual meaning for him. It is the city where Piet Mondrian, an artist of great importance to Jungerman, found refuge in 1940. At the same time New York is the place where in 1674 the Dutch traded Suriname with the British. In a bilateral negotiation they made a deal to swap conquered land: New Amsterdam became New York, and Suriname passed from British into Dutch hands and became a Dutch colony. A grid, then, can be traded, swapped, sold.

4. On Horizontal Obeah GEENGESITONU, the authors comment, In colonial times, the grid was an important element by which to divide the land, as well as a prison structure for enslaved people who tried to escape.

5. A grid is also a textile pattern. Warp and woof. On Jungerman’s website: Jungerman is a descendant of the Surinamese Maroons who escaped enslavement on Dutch plantations to establish self-governed communities in the Surinamese rain forest. Within their rich culture, many West-African influences are preserved including the prominent use of abstract geometrical patterns. Jungerman uses fragments of Maroon textiles, in his work. This grid wraps a body, or covers the table to which the ancestors are invited.

6. Does a grid dehumanize? Obstruct personhood?

7. Kensmil’s portrait of Audre Lorde. Perhaps the presentation of self is gridded in a way that does not only obstruct? I think that’s part of Kensmil’s consideration. The text says that Audre Lorde fought for a way out of the identity-politics, in which society is trapped now.

8. I go back and forth about the black painting of geometric patterns that Kensmil has used. Is it too evident, the way it imposes? Does it close the people down? The abstract mural, says the text, is inspired by the works of Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, whom Kensmil regards as the iconographers of modernist utopianism. But instead of citing them, she composes the spatiality and dynamics with elements derived from their work. I try to picture the installation without these black geometric elements and it flies apart and dissolves. So, we cannot do without the grid. Or we cannot work without reference to the grid.

9. Something that seems ungriddable is water. And yet the long table of Jungerman’s Kabra Tafra is covered in kaolin clay, used in many African religious traditions, the clay is dry, without water, and patterns of textiles have been carved into it. And the whole rests in a dried-up riverbed. This riverbed, with the absence of water, but still remembering its presence, evokes the transatlantic slave trade that redefined the world and expanded networks of exchange of ideas, art and influences. Like a grid based in a more complex mathematical understanding.

10. Ideas of Measurement and People. Jungerman’s Promise IV borrows from conceptual artist stanley brouwn’s renowned works of measurement. brouwn, like Jungerman, was born in Suriname, trained first in Paramaribo, then moved to Amsterdam, where he became a very significant, reclusive, conceptual artist. Wikipedia on brouwn’s artistic inventions: “He developed the ‘stanley brouwn foot’, which was the length of his foot. It measured approximately 26 cm. One of his works, “Afghanistan-Zambia”, is a typewritten register of the number of steps brouwn completed in various cities across the world, and a physical example of his concerns surrounding measurement and distance.”

11. Promise IV is a grid-work cube. Its slats are composed of coloured fields that are arranged in terms of five units of measurement. Three units are partly based on the work of artist stanley brouwn (1935-2017): the foot (F), the ell (E), the step (S). Two other units are fictional measurements, the R and the J, based on Remy Jungerman’s own initials. These five units can generate a total of 120 compositional combinations.

12. One juncture point of a three-dimensional grid would be a nail. Jungerman’s work refers to the nails featured in West African Nkisi Nkondi power sculpture.

13. A grid may feel spacious, as mathematics does, drawing out what may otherwise ripple overwhelmingly, while still being interruptible.

14. The sixth work in the installation, Beyond the Burden of Representation, is actually, I realize, paintings of photographs of artists’ exhibition installations. Installations by Posenenske, brouwn, Kawara, Hammons, and Piper. I had forgotten that these were painted photographs, but it explains why my photos of the paintings of the photos look the way they do. An installation of installations, framing the frameworks of these other artists choices. In this way, a grid, an abstract container, may connect, and perhaps free.

Frederick Project: Colors and History

Ringgold Smart

Faith Ringgold, On the Beach at St. Tropez, From the series, The French Collection, 1991. Collection of Patricia Blanchet and Ed Bradley. Photo Rachel Cohen.

Thinking of intense experiences of color in the last few months. Immediately Faith Ringgold. Her painted canvas and quilt On the Beach at St. Tropez, from the series of twelve story-quilts The French Collection, which came as a revelation in the Smart Museum of Art’s show called Down Time: On the Art of Retreat this past fall.

You walked into the gallery and were literally flooded with color.

Ringgold paints on canvas then stitches the canvas to quilt, finishes the backs with cotton batting. A bravura painter, years of careful experiments with pigment to get the skin tones she wanted, the flatnesses and depths of water, cloth, patterns.

You are also immediately aware of the story – border of carefully written incidents running along the edges. The stories are about Willia Marie Simone, a fictional character with some qualities of the painter and some of the painter’s mother and some that are the character’s own. (I will try to decipher one of the stories for a later entry, my pictures are smaller than I had thought.) Willia Marie Simone ran away to Paris at the age of 16, in the 1920s, and had a storied life. The work is so very witty.

There are many articles that follow a well-worn, useful, but somehow insufficient path, explicating how, in this series, Faith Ringgold insists on the place of African-American women and artists who have been left out of history and museums. Looking at this quilt, the size of a wall, its flooding colors, my impression was more of something that shrugs its shoulders and rises.

It’s all there, really: the quilters of Gee’s Bend, making their glorious abstractions from the worn clothes of their families who labored; the bathers of Cézanne and Degas stretching back to the bodies of the Italian Renaissance; the rogue persona storytellers in Zora Neale Hurston and Fernando Pessoa; all these kinds of work that Ringgold had done her training with, and had loved enough to do justice to them (meaning that she saw them whole, with their beauties and the things they failed to see). She knew them, and had thrown them over her shoulder, so that art could rise anew.

Color tells stories that cannot be abstracted from history – joyful as a child in sand, forceful as a woman at the height of her powers, unforgetting as age.

Down Time: On the Art of Retreat at the Smart Museum of Art was curated by Leslie Wilson in collaboration with the students University of Chicago's department of art history's course Exhibition in Practice.

Frederick Project: To Resolve

Frederick Project To Resolve

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants, 1893-94, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photos Rachel Cohen

Today I’m going to work on how Cézanne’s blue resolves.

One sense of resolve is to determine to go forward. Cézanne’s perennial project. Famous for destroying his canvases, for painting them out and scraping them off and beginning again, for going out on the road every day to set up his easel and work again at the view of the bay, the view of the mountain. Speaking to few, often frustrated, lonely.

The resolve took great force of character because it was full of uncertainty. He never was sure. Which points back toward an earlier sense of the word resolve, to melt, dissolve, reduce to liquid. See his acknowledged unsteadiness.

We say that photographs have high resolution when we cannot see the separation of their elemental particles. This could mean that the particles are thoroughly dissolved into the medium, the liquid inks, the electronic fields of color. Highly resolved is when things that have been separate are made continuous.

For Cézanne, blue is a key to resolution. Blue knew how hard he worked and was gracious with him.

The resolution to go forward in uncertain circumstances – a resolution that seems especially necessary to get hold of today – would take its force from a thousand small divergences coordinated into one medium.

This is the incredible property of paint: a liquid medium in which the elements of the world may be dissolved and reconstituted anew.

Frederick Project: To Resolve

Ceacutezanne detail of The Bathers Art Institute of Chicago

Paul Cézanne, The Bathers 1899/1904, Art Institute of Chicago, detail Rachel Cohen

Yesterday, I wrote about Beauford Delaney’s blue, green, and yellow – the way the blue filters down through the trees; the radiant effect of combined green and yellow. Today, I want to pursue blue.

I’ve taught Rebecca Solnit’s essay on blue from her Field Guide to Getting Lost, and I’ve taught Maggie Nelson on blue in her book Bluets. Blue runs through many fields of study – those two writers and many others have traced its threads in landscape, in vision, in philosophy, memory, sorrow, tranquility.

Today I’d like to think about blue as a color of resolve.

My mind skittered for a bit. But it settled on Cézanne. That is a way to talk about blue and resolve. Which Cézanne? The Bay at L’Estaque here at the Art Institute? That unfinished oil I’ve written about that’s at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge? Or the mountain, St. Victoire, that he painted so often. The St. Victoire my mind is most familiar with is the one at the Metropolitan, with that long slow curve of rising brown. Mont Sainte-Victoire, ca. 1902-1906.

Surely I have photos? A kind of desperation to get to them all, photograph them again with their accumulating areas of blue, the blue over blue. Panic of separation. Forty-five minutes of searching through photos, no, it seems I never took pictures of that. How many hours have I stood in front of it. The reproduction is impressive, the Met allows you to focus in on brushstrokes, but it doesn’t seem like my own impression, I feel it effacing my memory. So not that painting. And not the Bay of Marseille, Seen from L’Estaque c. 1885 at the Art Institute either.

We were to go to France this spring. I was going to see paintings and talk with curators, go to Aix, and see, for the first time, the bay at Estaque, Mont St. Victoire. Small losses; nevertheless, impediments to understanding; better to acknowledge.

Here’s what I can find today. I did photograph the painting that hangs next to the Bay on the wall at the Art Institute. Here is the museum's photo of the The Bathers 1899 / 1904.

Four photographs.

And perhaps this is not so bad. Because you could look at them all day.

The lines around the figures are of a deep blue, I think it has cobalt in it. Without those lines the figures would dissolve. And blue is also the atmosphere, the air, sky, and water of the painting.

What I want to think about is this. There are two meanings of the word resolve, both from the French resolver. One began in the 14th century. As etymonline has it:

Late 14c., "melt, dissolve, reduce to liquid;" intransitive sense from c. 1400; from Old French resolver or directly from Latin resolvere "to loosen, loose, unyoke, undo; explain; relax; set free; make void, dispel.”

Why is explain with loosen, set free, undo and dispel?

The second meaning came a century later:

From early 15c. as "separate into components," hence the use in optics (1785). Meaning "determine, decide upon" is from 1520s, hence "pass a resolution" (1580s).

Here the sense of determination, the courage and clarity to proceed. This is what I will think about today, and write about again tomorrow – how is Cézanne’s blue holding both of these senses of resolve?

A Shawl for Morisot

A Shawl for Morisot

Detail, Portrait of Madame Manet in the Conservatory, ca. 1876-79, Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design, Oslo.

Last summer, the summer of 2018, I was immersed in the work of Berthe Morisot.

I spent three days in Québec City, at the Musée national des beaux-arts de Québec, at the revelatory Morisot retrospective, which I reviewed for Apollo Magazine.

https://www.apollo-magazine.com/berthe-morisot-comes-into-her-own/

I was one of the critics who called for a reconstitution of our understanding of Impressionism with Morisot centrally placed. I said that scholarship and consideration should be given to Morisot in relation to Manet, Degas, Renoir, and Monet, on all of whom she had considerable influence, both as a painter, and as a close friend. I speculated about shows I would like to see – shows of Morisot and Monet, a show on landscape painting, another on gestural painting; another, A Woman Alone: Paintings by Morisot, Toulouse-Lautrec, Valladon, Manet.

In the year that followed, I saw the Morisot show again, in Philadelphia at the Barnes Collection. The months passed, and, in the back of my mind, I went on with a kind of subconscious labor. It really is hard work to change received notions about significance. I have loved Morisot’s work for years, and sought it out in every museum I can; I have been writing about it in this notebook since 2013.

http://rachelecohen.com/blog/Impressionism/Morisot/23

And yet, it is so engrained in my apprehensions – what is important in a painting, what constitutes a discovery, what I am looking for as I first cast my eyes over a canvas – that I am still just at the very beginning of seeing Impressionism again with Morisot worked through my vision.

This summer, of 2019, there was a show at the Art Institute of Chicago called Manet and Modern Beauty. I reviewed this show for Apollo, too, and saw it five or six times over the course of the summer. The Manet show was many years in the planning, and so it would have been hard for the curators to take account of the 2018 Morisot show. It did not seem fair to criticize this lack in my review.

Nevertheless, I feel a missed opportunity, to let the Manet show build upon what was brought out by last year’s Morisot show. The curators’ choice to focus on lesser known works – Manet’s green garden paintings, his late portraits of women alone, his interest in fashion, the delicate still lifes of his last year of illness – meant that they did turn their attention to the paintings most directly in conversation with Morisot. But this conversation was only acknowledged briefly in one wall text, next to a nude that Morisot had bought for herself at Manet’s estate sale after his death. The show focused on the influence several other women had on his work, women with whom he enjoyed conversation, whom he painted, and to whom he sent lovely illustrated letters. But what of one of the geniuses of the period, who was his sister-in-law, and whom he saw sometimes daily, whose paintings he owned and valued, who had painted next to him for nearly fifteen years, and whom he had painted fourteen times? Surely his ambitions in these greener domains had to do with his relationship with Morisot?

* * *

I think it might be interesting to get all the way down to the fine grain of looking at one painting, to see if I can bring out what it would be to see Manet with Morisot in mind. I am trying to give myself the consciousness of someone who, as a child, had always seen Morisots displayed prominently in important museums, had always been told that the freedom of her brushwork was one of the great achievements in the history of paint, one that had opened the gates for gestural abstraction in the 20th century.

At the Manet show, I round a corner and see this:

And the first thing I think, is ‘look at that shawl on the right, that is pure Morisot.' That is just the way that she gets volume by feathered strokes of white – the rush and power of a swan.

I look at the date, signed and dated by the artist in 1876, but, because of a complex set of different historical accounts, considered by curators to have been worked on in the range of 1876 to 1879. Suzanne Manet was a pianist, from the Netherlands. She kept this portrait for herself, and it was not displayed publicly. Eventually, in 1895, she could no longer afford to keep it, and she had to sell it.

Édouard Manet would already have thought of Morisot as a virtuoso of white. Some years before, she had given him her painting of 1869, The Harbor at Lorient, with a woman seated on a stone wall, dressed in white with touches of dark blue. In 1876, beginning this painting of his wife, stopping by Morisot’s studio, which was the center room of the family home, a studio that he saw both because he paid attention to her work, and whenever he went to see his brother, he could have seen The Mirror (1876) taking shape:

He would have seen her white cloths over a long fence, in Hanging the Laundry Out to Dry, from the previous year, of 1875,

Perhaps his eye would have been caught by these two girls, from a painting done in England, also in 1875. She often intermingled white with blue around children, and the waists and necks of women:

He would certainly have known this 1875 portrait, In England, of his brother looking out the window.

How related their two private paintings are: on the left, loved spouse; dark green connecting rail – of a window, of a bench – ; white effusion on viewer’s right.

Manet had a wonderful eye, and he knew what to borrow. In that white scarf or shawl thrown over the back of the green bench, he interlaces a deep many-shaded blue. It was as if he saw it and tossed it off, a magnification of what Morisot was already doing and would do more of. This combination was, and would go on becoming, one of Morisot’s most characteristic – she would use them again and again – her own complex white, with touches of that deep bright blue.

Near the arm of a woman dressed for a ball, in 1879:

Her daughter, Julie Manet, daughter of the painter Eugène Manet, niece of Édouard Manet, uniting three painters, painted here with her nurse, in 1880.

The shawl Manet painted is a record and a prediction, and it is a guide for looking at Morisot's work, and for how he looked at it. It is as if it were Morisot’s shawl, perhaps she left it visiting one day, that he has included as a part of the portrait of his own talented wife. Four adults, three painters and a musician, their private thoughts and the world they shared.

When she painted Serving Girl in 1886, her brother-in-law had been dead for three years. She had thought so much about it -- there it is, pooled again, above and beneath the woman's feet.

Close Observation

Close Observation

Paul Cézanne, Woman in a Red Armchair, about 1877, MFA, Boston


A woman, long blue shirt carefully tied over striped skirt, sits in a red chair.  She leans a little to her right, our left, elbow on the arm of chair.  Her hands are folded.

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Cézanne’s way of painting faces means that you can look at them or not.  Everything has surfaces and depths.  Much of the meaning of the figure is not in the face.  The folded hands are important and beautiful.

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Between the forefingers and thumbs are a green that relates them to the skirt below, a blue consonant with the blue shirt above.  Shapes of laced fingers echo shape of dark what seems to be locket or pendant about neck.

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Somewhere Roger Fry writes about the courage of Cézanne’s face-on verticality.  The painting ought to be static, there is so little motion in the way the figure and face are arranged.  All the motion has to come from the paint itself.

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The red armchair.  Faces, designs, flowers in it.  Begins to have an unusual kind of softness around her.

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The model is Hortense Fiquet, for many years his mistress and eventually his wife.  He painted her almost thirty times.

The skirt.

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Another place of conjunction.  Red tassel over yellow wall with blue wainscoting, edge of blue shirt over skirt.  All this is beautiful, orderly, loved, observed, and yet paint.

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The Large Bathers

The Large Bathers

Cézanne, Large Bathers, 1898-1905

Since my father’s death I’ve been twice to look at the Cézanne Large Bathers that our museum has borrowed from the one in Philadelphia.  I might have gone more often but with the baby there hasn’t been so much time.  It’s a vast painting – eight feet high and nine long.  The wall text says its vault of tree trunks makes a cathedral and this is right, not merely architecturally.  These tree trunks, along with a general impression of blue, and the gathered naked bathers, are the things you’re aware of before you know you’re looking, and the trees – four major lines on the left, two which join on the right – organize the space and direct your view.  The groups of people are at ease because they are gathered under and near the trees; the relationship of the figures – to the ochre ground, blue of water with swimmer, huge blue leafy cloudy sky – makes sense because of the curved, triangular view through the trees.  

One of the things your eye is drawn to, small in the distance, is a church with an oblong blue roof over the main building, and a little higher, a triangular blue over its steeple tower.  When I first saw this pair of roofs I thought they were one very beautiful shade of perhaps a cobalt blue.  After I had been looking at the painting for some time I realized that the roofs incorporated many shades of blue.  This was so obvious that I was quite surprised by how definite my early impression of a singular shade had been.  I already knew that the relationships among colors take time to see in paintings, but I hadn’t realized before how dramatically an impression of an individual color can change.  In studying the painting, I had been acquiring subtleties of comparison and distinction, a general blue was becoming various enough to give me back figures, water, distance, sky.  It was all there from the first, but I didn’t have enough experience to see it.  
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