All posts in “modernism”

Object of the Week: Thicket

In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will—throughout the month of February—highlight works by celebrated Black artists in the SAM Collection.

I never did Minimalist art. I never did, but I got real close. . . . I looked at it, tasted it, and I spat it out.

– Martin Puryear, 1978

Known for his highly crafted, abstract sculptures, Martin Puryear since the 1970s has created three-dimensional works that defy easy interpretation and categorization, at once evoking Modernist sculptures by Noguchi, Arp, and Brancusi, while calling to mind African sculptural traditions and Scandinavian design.

A former painter, Puryear’s hand-crafted sculptures offer a highly original response to the Minimalism of the 1960s. And while he indeed embraces Minimalism’s penchant for reductive sculptural forms, his material and fabrication choices evince a commitment to elevating craft and its complement: the handmade. Using materials such as wood, stone, tar, bronze, and wire, Puryear’s greatest collaborator—the natural world—is made clear.

From a young age Puryear was fascinated by how things are made, and would often construct his own objects from wood—whether it be a guitar or a canoe. Decades later, while volunteering with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, Puryear observed and absorbed local artistic traditions like woodworking, pottery, and weaving. Together, these experiences—coupled with his time at the Swedish Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm, where he studied furniture design—helped shape Puryear’s practice and interest in mobilizing design, sculpture, and craft in the service of examining identity, culture, and history.

The work pictured here, Thicket, is inspired by the shape and volume of a small rock Puryear found while on a trip to the Alaskan wilderness in 1980. Interwoven basswood and cypress give the piece a complex, tangled appearance. Both orderly and chaotic, the crisscrossed beams, struts, and posts are informed by the low Arctic vegetation that houses and protects the snowshoe hare—a rare breed endemic to the region.

In the words of the artist:

I want to make objects that somehow have their own history and their own reason for being and their own sense of themselves. I’m not concerned just with the object’s formal meaning, although it should be an intelligible artifact, a thing of one’s own culture and time. It’s equally crucial that there exist in the work a recognition of the maker, of who I am.[1]

Puryear’s sculptures manage to transcend time and space—blending together artistic traditions from around the world. Further, he is still one of the most important and influential artists working today, a fact confirmed by the recent announcement that he will represent the United States at the 58th Venice Biennale in the spring.

 – Elisabeth Smith, Collection & Provenance Associate

[1] John Ederfield, Martin Puryear (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 173.
Image: Thicket, 1990, Martin Puryear, basswood and cypress, 67 x 62 x 17 in., Gift of Agnes Gund, 90.32 © Martin Puryear (1990)
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Object of the Week: Winter Landscape on the Banks of the Seine

“An artist should express his feeling with the harmony or idea of color which he possesses naturally. He should not copy the walls, or objects on a table, but he should, above all, express a vision of color, the harmony of which corresponds to his feeling.”[1] – Henri Matisse

During the rise of modernism, which occurred between the late 19th century to the early 20th century,[2] artists began to move away from representation towards abstraction, and they changed the types of painting that were traditionally accepted in the Western world. At this time, artists started to return to the basic natures of paintings such as colors, lines, shapes, and textures, rather than words and representations in order to communicate and interact with their audience.

Winter Landscape on the Banks of the Seine, which Matisse began in 1904 and finished in 1905, contains quick vibrant dabs of color pigments against the dreary grey and stark white background of the canvas. Matisse did not literally paint a winter setting along Paris’ River Seine. He painted the emotions that this setting produced within him. By arranging cool and warm tones on a two-dimensional canvas, Matisse was able to successfully convey the feeling of gentleness and serenity within his work. He left behind these emotions for Seattle Art Museum visitors to explore and perceive.

Widely recognized as one of the most important and innovative colorists during the post-impressionism movement, Henri Matisse focused on creating harmonious, unified, and balanced arrangements of colors on two-dimensional canvases to evoke emotions within his audience. Though Henri Matisse’s mother was a painter, he did not have a direct path into the world of art. He began to study law in Paris and even though he considered it to be tedious and uninteresting, he still passed the bar exam in 1888. He reluctantly started to practice law after he graduated because his father arranged a job for him in a law office. His career path was altered, however, when he received art supplies from his mother in 1889. “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life,”[3] Matisse stated.

Happy birthday to Henri Matisse (December 31, 1869–November 3, 1954)! Thank you for your legacy and contribution to the world of art.

– Trang Tran, SAM’s Emerging Arts Leader Intern

[1] Jack D. Flam, Matisse On Art (New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 1973), 51.
[2] “What is Modern Art?” Museum of Modern Art, accessed 20 Dec 2018, https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/what-is-modern-art/
[3] “The Personal Life of Henri Matisse,” Henri Matisse, accessed 23 Oct 2018, http://www.henri-matisse.net/biography.html.
Image: Winter Landscape on the Banks of the Seine, ca. 1904-05, Henri Matisse, oil on canvas, 12 3/4 x 15 3/4 in., Gift of Norman Davis, 91.88
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Object of the Week: Portrait of Madame la Comtesse de Cambacérès

French painter William Adolphe Bouguereau lived during the last three quarters of the 19th century and was productive as an artist from the 1840s up until his death in 1905. In posterity he’s been remembered—positively by some, negatively by others—for his connection to an academic style of painting, recognizable for its precise forms and traditional subject matter. Top among the most “Bouguereau” of elements would be lifelike representations of the human figure and meticulous handling of paint, both of which are on display in SAM’s Portrait of Madame la Comtesse de Cambacérès, painted late in the artist’s career, in 1895.

What are the arguments against Bouguereau? The developments of modernism around the turn of the 20th century put his techniques and subjects at odds with the avant-garde. Consider: Berthe Morisot’s gesturally painted, impressionistic portrait of Lucie Léon at the Piano that hangs on a nearby wall was painted three years before the Bouguereau. So, many saw in his exacting portrayal of reality a lack of creative effort. What has he added to our perception of the world?

Of course Bouguereau (and his many supporters) had an answer to that. An especially telling anecdote about SAM’s painting survives thanks to journalist Eugene Tardieu, who visited Bouguereau at his studio in 1895, and would publish his memory of the interview in L’Echo de Paris. Receiving Tardieu, Bouguereau gestured toward the recently completed Comtesse:

Here is a portrait which I have just finished . . . but I am still not happy with it! I tell you one must seek beauty; which is what our innovators no longer know how to do. Here’s a person with a turned up nose and a receding chin: if I did a profile, do you think she would be flattered? No, right? You have to take another approach. I did a full-face view . . . this is what I call interpreting nature.1

Surely a commissioned portrait would perfectly exemplify Bouguereau’s lack of creativity, if he was a simple mimic of nature, as some have criticized? He’s been told what to paint, and no doubt prodded by the patron regarding how to paint it. Nonetheless, the artist sees this, like all his paintings, as an opportunity to “interpret.” His creativity might be lost on some, but Bouguereau knew exactly what he was about. His interventions in nature, evidenced in this portrait and across his oeuvre, served to highlight his ideal of beauty. Here, he has composed the scene to present his subject in the best light, rendering her in a frontal view, while demonstrating great technical skill in the delicate rendering of dress and background. I love his concluding comment, that his manipulation of her posture was his way of “interpreting nature.”

The story of Bouguereau’s portrait gives me pause to think: What interventions in nature do we want from our artists? What interventions do we consider creative? Important? Innovative? On those topics: Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection offers a truly special chance to study some of the most influential artists in history doing their own interpreting of nature, and a chance for each of us to think on how we’d answer those questions.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Quoted by Louise d’Argencourt in William Bouguereau 1825-1905, exhibition catalogue, Montréal: Le Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal, 1984; cat. no. 130.
Image: Portrait of Madame la Comtesse de Cambacérès, 1895, William Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905), oil on canvas, 47 5/8 x 35 ½ in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, by exchange, 88.16
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Object of the Week: Self-portrait

One day here at SAM I received a phone call from a visitor who had enjoyed her time at the museum and who had felt particularly attached to a couple of the paintings here, and who was sorely wishing she had written down the name of the artist because his work was really touching. There was one, in particular: It was a portrait (a self-portrait, she wondered?), and the man had a moustache (our van Dyck, I wondered?), and she thought she remembered there were other portraits of the same guy in that room. Ah. Morris Graves.

The facial hair was a helpful descriptor, but so was the defining characteristic this woman singled out when describing the painting: vulnerability.

Graves’s Self-portrait of 1933 is a rare subject for the artist, who most figured was too private a man to put himself out there by painting himself much. Against a soft abstract background, his form emerges, defined by a rhythmic, undulating outline. His head is perched upon an impossibly long neck. He gazes sidelong out of the canvas with a look that wants to tell us something, and many have thought they knew exactly what.

Graves, though, was a hard character to pin down. He was interesting. Frederick Wight, who was director of the Art Gallery at UCLA, met Graves and later described him as “an exceedingly tall thin figure, with large transfixed, rather alarmed eyes . . . He is shy and self-aware to a degree, aloof yet (you suspect) ruthless in his self-determination . . . In short he is very birdlike: receding, private, mobile, and migratory . . . he has the willful steely quality of a bird—its fierce capacity to survive.”

Nancy Wilson Ross, a friend and confidant of Graves’s, called him “mysterious,” saying he carried moods redolent of changing seasons. Ross ended on the same comparison as Wight: “Like the birds Graves knows so intimately, he is a migratory creature; not so much willfully nomadic as purposefully so.”

Author Margaret Callahan attached some curious distinctions to Morris Graves when publishing the photo in The Seattle Times in 1948.

No doubt Graves’s seasons of mood meant that he left different impressions on the many who encountered him. Besides, perceptions vary: “steely” and “birdlike” to one might look like unapproachable and withdrawn or even admirably stoic to another. We might get a totally different animal to fill the metaphor.

Theodore Wolff, an art critic who produced a catalogue essay on Graves, was struck by his encounter with the artist—so moved that he typed up the following letter:

Dear Morris:
Just a word to say how very happy I am to finally have met you. I am most particularly pleased at the extraordinary quality of strength and sturdiness you radiate; you resemble your Joyous Young Pines much more than you do any of your birds (!!).¹

Bird? Pine?

One would think that going to the source would provide clarity, but Graves’s own letters produce more questions, revealing more quirks and intricacies of character. He is alternately kind and sensitive, harsh and resentful. There are moments of resolute pride and of defeated self-doubt. At times Graves is fully convinced of his importance and the value of his art. On December 5, 1932, at an early stage of his career around the time he produced his Self-portrait, he boasted in a letter to his intimate friend Merita Mills:

I know I can paint in all the violent color and draw all the magnificent lines I want to someday, and be thrilled with the results; smug as it sounds, I just am unavoidably sure I can do it.²

The verve with which he began his career finds a sad bookend in the self-deprecation that shows up in some of his last letters. In 1997, Graves wrote to SAM curator Vicki Halper, saying

My painted images have, somehow, only been very minor Shinto haikus trying to communicate my mind’s range of humanitarian, rational, and irrational experiences and ideas.

I’m a fifth-rate rural American painter of the 1930s and 40s. I gladly surmise that you have all along been aware of this.
–Morris³

What makes the Self-portrait so fascinating and magnetic is that it seems to reveal something of how Graves saw himself. But what’s in a self-portrait? Are we really learning anything? As a description of oneself, is it any more truthful than another’s description—or any more complete? For me, a self-portrait does reveal; it just doesn’t reveal everything. No one picture, in paint or in words, could convey all the complexity of Morris or of you or of me, and to think we know him from this painting can’t be quite right.

The Self-portrait doesn’t say everything there is to say about Morris Graves. Gladly, we get more doses of the artist’s self-reflection in the third floor PONCHO Gallery. Hanging right next to Self-portrait is Morning, a painting where the figure, a slender shirtless man, squirms uncomfortably on his bed, a voyeuristic display in front of us. Across the room from these hangs the solitary Moor Swan, a painting Graves exhibited in the 1933 annual show of Northwest artists at SAM, in which it won the big $100 purchase prize. A period photo reproduced here captures Morris with his winning piece, and Morris, it must be said, is looking very birdlike, indeed.

Some have read the Moor Swan as a symbolic self-portrait. I’m okay with that, as long as we remember: He is the bird and the pine; He is the moustache and the swan.

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGES: Self-portrait, 1933, Morris Graves (born Fox Valley, Oregon, 1910; died Loleta, California, 2001), oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 19 3/4 in., Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Florence Weinstein in memory of Max Weinstein, 85.268, © Morris Graves Foundation. Photo published by The Seattle Times, 1933, 1945, 1948.
¹Reproduced in Morris Graves: Selected Letters, p. 97.
²Reproduced in Morris Graves: Selected Letters, pp. 254-255.
³Reproduced in Morris Graves: Selected Letters, pp. 316-317.
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