Americon Gothicon

I suspect I first saw American Gothic after seeing the cover of the British paperback of Philip K. Dick’s The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike and then watching (or rewatching) The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which has a copy on the wall in one scene and I think has two characters dress up as the people in the painting. It was only then that I discovered who Grant Wood was (although I forget how) and the myriad parodies his masterpiece has inspired.

I don’t suppose I ever thought that it was on display somewhere, or that I would see it, but I once heard that it would be the centrepiece of an American painting in the 1930s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts I knew it would by my chance to see it in the flesh. Although, it was with some trepidation – would it stand up to the hype?

So we have two people, a young going on middle-aged woman on the left, an older man on the right, a white board house behind them and a red building over his left shoulder. It’s not clear whether they are wife and husband or daughter and father, but he is in front, holding a three-pronged pitchfork. Their clothing echoes each other and the setting: her dress or apron seems to the blinds in the church-like window behind them, her collar and neck broach answers the button on his collar less shirt and his glasses. The curve of her neckline echoes the curve of his dungarees and the pitchfork. Meanwhile, the vertical tines parallel the lines on his shirt, the dungaree seams and the boards and pillars of the house and red building. The vertical leads to a lightning conductor, not quite above the tine and, what is presumably a spire in the distance.

He looks deadly serious, has a high prominent forehead and John Lennon specs, and grasps the tool of his work firmly, even as he may be wearing his Sunday best jacket, possibly his only jacket. If we take the picture to be contemporary with its painting, 1930, there is perhaps an old fashionedness about it, although I assume we still heft hay about. He’s not quite looking at us, he’s perhaps looking at the artist, or over his shoulder.

She isn’t looking at us or the artist – her head is turned, her eyes elsewhere as perhaps she wants to be? Her blonde hair is tied back, severe, and yet a lock has escaped, dangling down.

And behind her, the stoop, with cactus — mother-in-law’s tongue, a three-pronged echo of the pitchfork and a begonia. Cacti are prickly, not exactly welcoming, but are hardy and survive in the heat. There’s a window behind that, with green blinds, looking a bit battered.

The house frames the two heads – her eyes just above the guttering of the roof, his lips in line, the roof meeting the wall of the upper storey in line with his ear lobes.

Of course, what you never see in reproductions of the painting, is the frame. It’s a rather thick, grey wood, unvarnished, pitted with holes like it has wood worm. (I don’t know what that looks like, to be honest, but it’s how I’d imagine that.) It’s practical and not at all showy – the broach, the jacket, the plants, they’re showy.

There’s an echo of Northern Renaissance paintings – something like the Arnofini portrair but reversed and the couple here are closer together. There’s a cold, undead, touch to the skin. The enigma of their exact looks makes me think of this as the American Mona Lisa.

And so anyhow, it turns out that she is Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, and he is their dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, and they are envisaged as daughter and father. The apron was mail order, I think from Sears. The house is the Dibble House, in Eldon, Iowa, apparently built in the Carpenter Gothic style in 1881-82.

And yes, the painting is remarkable in real life too – worth the price of the ticket alone.

Flaming Nora

Flaming June: The Making of a Masterpiece (Leighton House, 4 November 2016-2 April 2017)

Limping through the undertubes a couple of months back, I was struck by a poster of a painting of what I took at first to be a marigold, but turned out to be a young woman in a dress. FINAL WEEKS it proclaimed, but I’m not convinced that it gave a closing date. I think I’d gathered it was at Leighton House, a venue in Kensington that was on my radar to visit.

And then I forgot.

A friend went to see it, it was his favourite painting. I paid attention. I plotted. I planned to visit it on a Tuesday, my research day.

Leighton House. Closed Tuesdays.

Good job I checked.

So I postponed an idea of Eastbourne, and decided to combine this with a trip to the RAA and Russian and American art, and navigated via a Caffe Nerd and attempting to remember what the Design Museum on High Street Ken looked like when it was the Commonwealth Institute. It wasn’t yet June, but was about the first sunny day in a while even if I sat outside in the shadows at Nerd. And eventually getting there, and one of those slightly weird negotiations of what are the rules for this exhibition?

In my limited mental picture, he was part of the Pre-Raphs, of which I’m not exactly a fan despite their supposed radicalism (which now looks like a box of fudge waiting to happen). I vaguely remember his paintings coming back to the Tate after an absence (to where?), but I couldn’t picture any. No good, eh? He clearly got lorded, and I vaguely assumed he was an ascendant of someone who taught me.

Anyway, the woman in orange, although popular fiction would call her The Girl in the Flaming Dress, one of five paintings Leighton prepared for the Royal Academy summer exhibition, as he was in the final months of his life. I think one of them has gone missing, as has the one he substituted for one he didn’t like at the last minute.

And apparently it was amazing we have this.

It didn’t sell at the show and was bought by The Graphic to be turned into a print to give away in Christmas 1895. After being shown in their office window, it was loaned to the Ashmolean and dropped out of sight — I’m not the only one to be unimpressed by Victorian confectionary. It turned up in Battersea, boxed in over a chimney, and was nearly bought by a young Andrew Lloyd Webber (make your own snide comments). A Puerto Rican industrialist, Luis A. Ferré, partly in town to buy art for his gallery, saw it in The Maas Gallery, London in 1963 and paid £2,000 for it. Since then, it has been at the Museo de Arte de Ponce, aside from rare loans to other galleries

So we have a woman in an orange dress, curled up almost in a circle, an oleander plant to her top right, a shining sea behind her, and draping cloth around her. It is undeniably attractive, with a striking horizontal line of her leg parallel to the golden frame, the ledge and sea, with a zig zag of her lower legs and arms, an almost circular composition. If you look carefully — and of course you do, since you’ll most likely not be heading off to Puerto Rico in the foreseeable future — there is a hint of nipple, of the skin tone under the diaphanous orange draperies.

Is that a word?

Of course, my gaydar had been triggered earlier by a small male nude on the staircase and a frankly camp Arab Hall of dark green tiles brought in from some grand tour or other. He never married, but there are rumours of affairs with a female model and a close relationship with a male friend. We just don’t know, it seems. Anything else is gossip.

Shrugs.

Next to it is a much smaller painting, a practice perhaps for Flaming, with tiny island in the sea, lost from the final version, and a slightly different top to the picture.

To its left, are the remaining paintings from 1895. ‘Twixt Hope and Fear is an elegantly dressed woman, sat on a chair so she looks over her shoulder at us. The vertical to diagonal arm dominates the composition — as does the double take I had about whether there was an iPhone in her right hand and she was taking a selfie.

Methinks not.

The Maid with the Golden Hair — see, that’s a proper title, but girl would be moderner — has a young girl reading a book, caught in a private moment. They reckon it’s Lena Dene, younger sister of his main model, Dorothy (he’s a friend of… nevermind), but I’d rather know what she is reading.

Verticals are accented in Lachrymae — a woman stood, supporting her head and arm on a fluted pillar bearing an urn, presumably a funerarararary one. The sun glints through the cypress tree behind her — a tree which is a symbol of (guess what?) mourning. At her foot is a wreath.

The final picture is Candida, a head and shoulders portrait, replaced by a (lost) painting Listener (although there’s a colour reproduction of it). So, five (or six) lone women, three of them possibly the same model and a Miss Lloyd.

Then you realise you’ve done this in the wrong order.

Hidden in his bedroom, with a spartan-looking single bed and letters that tempting to touch, and a fur rug that isn’t, is the print from The Graphic, a little worse for wear.

Back in the Silk Room are various preparatory drawings — black and white chalk on paper as he attempted to get the posture of the woman right and, Lo and behold!, a photogavure of his Summer Moon (c. 1872), two women asleep, one of them not unpostured like Flaming Nora, their arms curved in parallel, a circular opening behind them. Another photogravure, The Garden of the Hesperides (1893?), three women asleep under a tree (and now in the Lever collection, so I guess I’ve seen it in Port Sunlight. And then there’s Summer Slumber (1894), also seen in photogravure and notable for the flaming June relief in the wall this slumberer is slumbering on. This strikes me that Flaming June must be a little earlier than suggested. I’m not clear where the actual painting is.

And there are also preparatory pictures for some of the other paintings; in the studio are other paintings of oleanders and a photo of some carvings, although it requires a bit of detective work to work out what you should be looking at. It also took me a while to realise I need to go anti clockwise round the Silk Room and how the painting of an Algiers Courtyard fitted in.

But then I was back to Flaming, to soak her in again.

I can’t say I am converted to Leighton, and I suspect the works normally here are not his best, but it was intriguing to see this rarity.

More than a Load of Pollocks

Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy of Arts, September 2016—2 January 2017)

There’s a story that in the late 1940s, the CIA funded Abstract Expressionism. It was an exercise of soft power, from the people who funnelled money into the animated Animal Farm and exploding cigars. The Soviets were busy with their Socialist Realism, whilst the Americans were channelling the chap with the lily pads with bigger brushes. The AES paint big, really big, and it takes a lot to transport all those canvases around the world. In one version the Tate wasn’t able to afford a huge exhibition and an benefactor gave the money. The story is the money came from the CIA.

If Abstract Expressionism didn’t bring down the Berlin Wall, then at least it came up with pretty cool murals.

It’s the sort of thing that can leave you cold, but if you surrender to it it’s pretty amazing.

Just like capitalism.

The cavernous spaces of the Royal Academy seem appropriate, although they’ve never quite got the walk through right. These are huge, abstract paintings, determinedly non-representation, yet in theory expressing an inner emotion. Of course, we don’t always know what that emotion is, but you can always supply your own.

The first room was a kind of overture, showing paintings from many of the big names prior to the glory days. Some of these are portraits, few of them are great, but you can see the roots in Barnett Newman’s green stripes on dark red. There’s a curious Mark Rothko, Gethsemane (1944), presumably alluding to the night of Christ’s betrayal, and sort of cruciform, but it might be an eagle with an American football. And a weird cloud flag.

Clyfford’s Still’s PH-726 (1936) has wobbly male and female bodies inscribed within a block — a two dimensional version of what Moore and Epstein were carving at about the same time. A new name to me, I confess, but one I will return to later.

And so the various stars come out — and the rooms which focused on one or two artists were stronger than those which offered dubious thematic arrangements. That being said, I don’t get on with Arshile Gorky, having bounced off his Tate Modern show a few years ago. A numbers of them look like oddly painted figures in a room — say Diary of a Seducer (1947) — and I see I’ve made the note to myself, “bad photoshop”.

Jackson Pollock, on the other hand, is truly sublime. I never quite wrote up all my notes from Liverpool, but the late, black pour, works feel like the figurative abstracted. Like Rorschach tests, you can find the sail boat if you squint right. He gives in to the chaos of the drip, somewhere between randomness, automatic painting and the unconscious at work. There’s a huge mural, designed for Peggy Guggenheim’s New York apartment, with “a prancing, bestial presence” which maybe you wouldn’t want to live with. You don’t get a lot of help from the titles — even Summertime (1948) isn’t that helpful, with its wide, short overlapping of colours and drizzles. The trajectories of flies on a summer’s evening? There’s his Blue Poles (1952), with its striking, vertical totems, daring you to distinguish figure from ground. There are other colours, of course, (black grey white) but it’s striking how often he returns to red, blue and yellow, as if he’s unravelled a Piet Mondrian.

[and there, tucked on one wall, is Lee Krasner, not quite the token woman — though it does have to be said that AE is a very blokey genre with its SIZE DOES MATTER statements in oil — who takes four years to come to terms with Pollock’s stupid death in a car crash, who only then can “wrestle” with his ghost to produce The Eye is the First Circle (1960), which inevitably has to be read as homage and imitation rather than the work of an artist in her own right. Later, we’ll come across Helen Frankenthaler, whose exhibition I missed at the Turner, with Europa (1957) although I saw no bull.]

Mark Rothko is glorious, as always, and the room of his work at Tate Modern can reduce me to tears. As always the paintings seem to ride the walls, rather than be hung on the them, the layers, the laminates of colour lumess and dammit that is a word. You are surrounded by them in an octagonalroom, dwarfed, and I was annoyed to see people taking selfies against them — not because of any objection to such narcissism, but because my instinct is to disappear into these canvas rather than superimpose myself upon them. There are exquisite vertigo.

I don’t think I’ve come across Clyfford Still’s work before, but I’ve put his museum in Denver on my long term to do list (when the US is more sensible about the TSA…). These are vast canvases, representing vast landscapes, abstracted into colours. My favourite was PH247 (1951), also known as Big Blue, a luminous canvas of many blues, interrupted by dark brown and orangish vertical strokes. This, too, is a room to get lost in.

Less successful is Willem de Kooning’s work, here dominated by his paintings of women, of which he wrote “I wanted them to be funny … so I made them satiric and monstrous, like sibyls”. Gee, thanks. These are women as landscapes, rather than in, to my eyes deeply misogynistic. His other landscapes, notably Dark Pond (1948), which I misread as and viewed as Duck Pond, are better, but I don’t feel inclined to follow him up.

The shared rooms were on the whole less successful, with less of a chance to get to know the range of the artists’ work. A few women sneak in here — Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Janet Sobel — and I suspect the only Black artist, Norman Lewis. I wanted to know much more about his work. A room of drawings, books, prints and photographs got a little unruly, as the labels and pictures were not always as clear as they might be in the crowds. The final room gives space to Joan Mitchell’s four huge canvases of Salut Tom, echoing Postimpressionism as much as Abstract Expressionism, and represents late work of some of the big names — although of course Pollock was long since dead.

One final room to draw attention to is the one of Barnett Newman and Ad Rheinhardt, who interrupt swathes of colour with zipped colours or focal zones. Rheinhardt retreated into the Malevich black square for fourteen years — 60″ x 60″ canvases painted all back. The spartan austerity is striking. But Newman was the revelation, and I wonder if he was the inspiration for the Abstract Expressionist Rabo Karabekian’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1973). Eve (1950) is a mostly red canvas with a dark red stripe on the right hand side and its twin Adam (1951-52) is brown with three red stripes of different widths. I have know idea if they connect, but he somehow feeds into Bridget Riley‘s stripes. Newman writes “only those who understand the meta can understand the metaphysical and his paintings are as much their paint as anything else — the rich blues and reds.

Of course, these artists went through a whole range of political experiences from Pearl Harbor to Watergate, and I guess they mark the point when the art world shifts from Paris to New York, with Rauschenberg and Warhol waiting in the wings (and O’Keeffe‘s rather different abstracts predate, postdate and overlap with their heyday). They are, of course, always on the edge of being the emperor’s new clothes, just paint on canvas, randomness. But in the vast spaces of the Royal Academy most of the work transcends that caveat.