Rachel Cohen

Delaney and Morisot Ochre: This Week in Self-Portraits

Delaney and Morisot Ochre This Week in SelfPortraits

Beauford Delaney, Self-Portrait, 1962, detail. Collection of halley k Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Yesterday, looking at pictures of Beauford Delaney’s Untitled, 1965, I noticed a kind of ochre in the corner that I hadn’t remembered being part of the palette. It's down in the lower right corner, near the rosy orange, under the diagonal of green.

Beauford Delaney, Untitled, 1965. Art Institute of Chicago. Photo Rachel Cohen.

I have also been going through Morisot paintings this week, and her self-portrait, with its ochre, came into view.

Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait, 1885, Musée Marmottan Monet. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Ochre was so important that she used it to show her own palette, the physical artist's palette that she the painted painter held:

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Following ochre, I started to think about the two of them together. Which I anyway do fairly often because two shows – Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, and Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door – have been two of the deep experiences of learning about a painter that I’ve had in the last three years. Here is a self-portrait Delaney did that is, among other things, a consideration of ochre.

Beauford Delaney, Self-Portrait, 1962. Collection of halley k Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Both are painters who have been difficult to see – with works widely dispersed and a very large number in private hands. Both long under-recognized, so not part of every large group show on Impressionism or Modernism. Both were courageous, independent, and, about painting, self-assured.

At what layer of presence does a person’s perception of themself reside? Is it the innermost layer, private and nearly inaccessible to anyone else? Or is it the outermost layer, where they present themself to the world? Or is it just beyond the edge of the self?

Part of what I love in both Morisot and Delaney is the way layers over- and under- layer.

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Learning as I go, I look up ochre. It is a family of pigments — red-yellow-brown. It comes out of the earth, and all the members of the family have in common the presence of iron oxide. It is the ferric element that gives the yellow. Earliest artistic use uncovered so far: pieces of ochre with abstract designs carved into them at the Blombos Cave in South Africa, 75,000 years ago. Used on every continent inhabited by people, important in cave and mural work among Aboriginal people, Greco-Romans, Egyptians.

Both Morisot and Delaney would have used ochres that came from the Vaucluse part of Provence in France, where the famous red and yellow cliffs were the central source for the finest pigments for artists for two hundred years, after Jean-Étienne Vastier discovered the method of refining that clay in the 1780s. So there is also a mineral proximity.

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The Self-Portrait, 1885 is the main Morisot self-portrait. Delaney painted himself many, many times. Each also painted another person at all the stages of that other person’s life. Delaney painted a man he was friends with, and mentored, and loved, James Baldwin, whom Delaney first met when Baldwin was still a teenager. Morisot painted her daughter Julie (nearly a third of her paintings are of Julie).

Morisot painted the 1885 self-portrait in between the paintings of her daughter that I showed earlier this week. Her daughter was growing beautifully, was observant, was interested in painting and loved her mother's painting; they were close.

Delaney painted this self-portrait in 1962, in a year when he moved back into Paris after several very important years living in Clamart, outside of Paris, where he had really understood his own abstract style, and where he had often sat in the evenings with Baldwin looking out a window together.

Seeing yourself in other people, seeing other people and being free of yourself for a while, taking pride in someone else, all of these may let a self-portrait swing out.

Abstraction and Eyes

One of the unusual aspects of Beauford Delaney’s work as an abstract painter was that even late in his career, when he lived in Paris and had moved very fully into abstraction, he also painted very specific and characterful portraits.  These two kinds of paintings were shown together during his lifetime – at, for example, the Galerie Lambert on the Île St. Louis in 1964 – and have been shown so since his death – in particular at the Levis Gallery in Chelsea last year, an exhibition, that, regrettably, I was not in New York to see. [Here are Dr. Ahmed Bioud, 1968, and an untitled work from ca. 1958-9.]

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From accounts I’ve read, this alternating display of persons and abstractions asks something very particular of the viewer.  I caught a suggestion of the experience from watching a video of the opening at the Levis Gallery – it might interest the reader to look at it here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0ZJcvenRpw

One thing that clearly holds the two approaches together is something essential about the paint itself, its handling.  Responding to the 1964 show, the French art critic Jean Guichard-Meili felt that, in the end, the two kinds of works “do not differ… Background, clothing, hands, faces, are the pretext for autonomous harmonies.”  Guichard-Meili describes the paint itself as having “movements of internal convection,” and says that the one experiences “the vibrations of underlying design.”  [This account appeared in the journal Arts and is quoted in David Leeming’s wonderfully gentle biography of Delaney, Amazing Grace, p165.]

A similar idea – that the patterning and movement of the paint is common to both the portraits and the abstractions – is to be found in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts catalog of its Delaney retrospective of 2004-2005.  Here is Delaney’s The Sage Black (James Baldwin) of 1967.  [Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

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The catalog says that, “Delaney superimposed a calligraphic outline on the abstract composition of reds, greens, yellows and blues.  Filled with all the colors of a flame, this incendiary, combustible background peers through Baldwin’s form…” This language seems to me to greatly simplify what I can tell even from reproductions of the work, which is that the colors shift dramatically between the ground and the figure, that the background does not merely “peer through,” but is transformed, condensed, reconstituted in and by the person.  I find it hard to understand the eyes in this painting.

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In Paris, Monique Y. Wells maintains a wonderful website called Les Amis du Beauford Delaney, an important resource, and she has two entries on Delaney’s portraits of his friend James Baldwin.  This was one of the most significant friendships of either man’s life.  On the site, the art historian Catherine St. John offered comments on another portrait of Baldwin, this one backed in Delaney’s signature yellow.

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St. John writes two things that seem to me exactly to the point.  The first is her description of how to consider Delaney’s yellow: “His tactile surfaces of brilliant colors are prime carriers of light and space and it is in his use of yellow - ochre, cadmium, lemon - that we discover the substance of light in relation to spirit.”  She goes on to suggest a way of thinking about this relationship, of light to spirit, in terms of the figure.  “The isolated, self-contained image of Baldwin is the special intersection of the world of light and the subjective consciousness that Beauford Delaney brought to his portraits. It is a supremely expressive portrait in which the eyes, the most intimate and powerful feature of the face, act like magnets.”

This is a deeper understanding of the relation between abstraction and the figure in Delaney’s work and near to something Delaney himself said in trying to explain the single project that lay behind what seemed two divergent methods.  David Leeming says that “Beauford explained to friends that both approaches were studies in light revealed—the light that gave meaning to the individuals depicted in the large volumes of color in the portraits and the light considered directly as contained in the juxtaposition of minute and closely packed bits of blue, red, and especially yellow in the abstract paintings.” [Leeming, p164.]

There is much to be said, and much has been said, on the metaphysics of inward light in Delaney (and in Baldwin) but here I want to confine myself to one observation, which is that the eyes, in some important way, do not have it.  They seem in their dark opacity, or even in their dark brilliance, to reflect on light rather than to be lit.  Like magnets, they also have darkness, and draw us by an absorbing force that pulls inward.  And this seems very precisely understood.  For the eyes would have to be the very site of inversion, the very place where the abstract meets the formed person, the lens across which the inner and outer worlds interpret one another.