Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Nevinson and Marinetti: English Futurist Manifesto


A Futurist Manifesto: Vital English Art by Marinetti and Nevinson was published on the 7th June 1914 in the Times, the Observer and the Daily Mail. The first point I want to make is the level of attention in the press that modern artists in London were getting at the time, both in art journals and in the popular press.

John Rodker in Dial Monthly in 1914 said that, “The leaders of the new movement, be it painting or music or literature, are paragraphed daily, their eccentricities detailed, and their photographs scattered broadcast…” and Wyndham Lewis, with characteristic humility, “The painter could really become a ‘star’…Pictures, I mean oil paintings, were ‘news’. Exhibitions were reviewed in column after column. And no illustrated paper worth its salt but carried a photograph of some picture of mine or of my ‘school’…or one of myself, smiling insinuatingly from its pages.” (Blasting and Bombadiering 1937).

The press is able to report on developments immediately and thus stress the ephemerality of the latest thing possibly, thereby accelerating change in the pursuit of what is literally “news”. The pre-Vorticist group moved in a very fashion-conscious society, in which the papers seemed to have assisted their notoriety, but like the latest fad they presumably face the same fate as being as obsolete as yesterday’s newspaper.

Journalists, particularly in the popular press, were not always complimentary and so we also have the shock value and controversy of modern art being part of the attraction for coverage. In fact they seem to have boosted the avant-garde stereotype and propagated various “ism” labels with the idea of leaders, followers, dogmas and schisms. The Vorticists could make their presence publicly known simply by making a noise about disowning Futurism and the Futurists.  It could be said that newspapers inadvertently caused the schism that led to Vorticism but it would be closer to the truth to say that artists learned to exploit publicity and its tropes and techniques in their event management and manifesto publications, hence the use of headlines in the formatting of the publication Blast.

The English Futurist Manifesto follows the familiar Italian setting out of those things that are “passatisti” and those that are “futuristi”; in other words there were two sections of things that they are “Against” and things “We Want”. The early Futurist manifestos were known in England and The Futurists themselves exhibited at the Sackville Gallery in March 1912 and included an extensive catalogue. It was printed in English and contained the founding manifesto, the painters’ first manifesto, a bespoke section called ‘The Exhibitors to the Public’ and some explanation of individual paintings. Earlier, in August 1910, Tramp (Douglas Goldring’s magazine) had published extracts from the initial manifesto and a letter from Marinetti to Poesia about his ‘sink Venice’ campaign. Harold Monro’s Poetry and Drama of September 1913 published Marinetti’s Imagination Without Strings and Words At Liberty manifesto and some of his poetry. Most of Marinetti’s self-publicity was done by personal appearances, or what he liked to call conferenza, at places like The Cave of the Golden Calf, the Poet’s Club, The Poetry Bookshop, Clifford Inn Hall and the Doré Gallery with resultant press reviews.

It's surprising that Marinetti didn’t gain more disciples – especially amongst the literary cognoscenti. Nevinson seems to have learned about Marinetti largely through Severini, whom he followed back to Paris after Severini’s exhibition at the Marlborough Galleries in 1913. Although it should be mentioned that Henry Nevinson, Christopher’s father, had met and written about Marinetti in the Evening News. Christopher Nevinson regarded himself as aligned with the Futurists after meeting them in Paris and distanced himself from the Cubists and Post-Impressionists. Nevinson signs the manifesto as a member of the Art Rebel Centre but he is mentioned in it as an English Futurist. Amongst the artists who funded Marinetti’s performance at the Art Rebel Centre Wyndham Lewis was particularly enthusiastic calling him ‘the intellectual Cromwell of our time’ and ‘England has need of these foreign auxiliaries to put her energies to right and restore order.’ In contrast it might be useful to compare Nevinson’s note to Lewis that ‘I had quite a great deal of difficulty in preventing Marinetti from again expounding and proposing his philanthropic desire to present us to Europe and be our continental guide etc.’ And yet it was this resentment of patronage that Lewis was to harness to his own ambition and subsequently use against Nevinson and Marinetti.

The subtitle ‘Vital English Art’ seems to demonstrate a lack of effect of Hulme’s theories upon the group. Hulme had substituted the terms ‘geometric’ and ‘vital’ for Wilhelm Worringer’s ‘abstraction’ and ‘empathy’. Vital art meant a soft, naturalistic relation to life and environment and a reverence of the Renaissance and classical periods in art. Geometric styles, associated at this time with Byzantium, India and Egypt, and showing a separation from nature, was seen as the foundation of the new art. To Hulme and Epstein ‘vital art’ would be gross blunder in aesthetic terminology but to Nevinson and Marinetti in merely meant art that is alive and growing.

As in the first Futurist manifestos, acadamies are attacked, in this case the Royal Academy. As early as 1893 George Moore had called the Academy an ‘incubus’ that must be destroyed before new art can arise (quoted in Cooper – The Courtauld Collection; a Catalogue and Introduction p.36). In 1900 Roger Fry complained ‘The Academy becomes every year a more and more colossal joke.’ (quoted in Woolf – Roger Fry p.108). The Royal Academy was the public’s concept of what art should be like.

The New English Art Club had been founded in 1886 to advance the concept of art beyond that of the Academy – but it was reformist, not revolutionary, and its sole aim was to catch up with French Impressionism, not overtake it. Thus Nevinson and Marinetti criticise it for its effeteness and unwillingness to go beyond Gauguin. The Slade, too, demonstrated an increasing gap between the attitude of its lecturers and its students.

The accusation of effeminacy and the purely decorative art seem directed against Fry and the Omega Workshop plus their general reliance on inspiration from French Impressionism. The manifesto makes the point that foreign daring is occasionally praised but English innovations are despised. If this particular comment is also directed against the Fry group it would seem a little unfair if abstraction is taken as key to this period. Vanessa Bell and others’ occasional abstracts from this period are in a very different, but no less daring, style. Perhaps, though, they regard this as part of the effeminate decorative style of the Omega. Also Marinetti, in asking the English to be their own innovators, is doing himself out of a job. He expresses the wish to create an ‘advance guard’ movement. He did so, but by default since it was a new British based movement.

In the original version of the manifesto it closed by saying, “so we call upon the English public to support, defend and glorify the genius of the great Futurist painters or pioneers and advance forces of vital English Art – Atkinson, Bomberg, Epstein, Etchells, Hamilton, Nevinson, Roberts, Wadsworth, Wyndham Lewis.” Those artists, particularly Lewis, resented being subsumed, without their permission, under Futurism and coined their own term Vorticism. Lewis was working on the publication Blast in 1914, to which Nevinson had given the name. Marinetti and Nevinson were both blasted in the publication, in performance and by Lewis in letters to the press distancing himself from any notion of English Futurism. But as Lewis well knew, a spat, no matter how fatuous, was likely to good for business in attracting attention to the major Vorticist exhibition at the Dore Gallery in 1915. Unfortunately war eclipsed their publicity and in some cases cut short their lives; for example Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in France 5 days before the show opened and Wadsworth, Lewis and Roberts were soon sent on active service.

Copyright 1982 Ade Annabel 

Monday, 15 August 2022

How important was Impressionism to the development of Futurism?


Solidity of Fog - Luigi Russolo 1912

In the initial manifestos (for example The Manifesto of the Futurist Painters 1910) the Futurists championed their predecessors the Italian Divisionists and Impressionists.

‘Ask these priests of a veritable religious cult, these guardians of old aesthetic laws, where we can go and see the works of Giovanni Segentini today. Ask them why the officials of the Commission have never heard of the existence of Gaetano Previati. Ask them where they can see Medardo Rosso’s sculpture, or who takes the slightest interest in artists who have not yet had twenty years of struggle and suffering behind them, but are producing works destined to honour their fatherland?’

Nationalism is, of course, a feature of Futurism and it is natural that they should cite their own heritage. Italian Impressionism and, for that matter, Italian Art Nouveau, did influence them. This influence is also French in style but filtered locally. This can be seen in the swirling brushstrokes and bright colours of Giovanni Segentini’s paintings of alpine herds in the 1880s and 90s which had an effect on Umberto Boccioni’s The Morning and Luigi Russolo’s Lightning, both of which date from 1909.

Medardo Rosso, the Impressionist sculptor who created Conversation in a Garden, attempted “to render plastically the influence of an environment and the atmospheric ties that bound it to the subject.” Boccioni was also interested in the effect of the environment on the figure but in a more explicit and didactic way as in his Fusion of Head and Window 1913.

The aims of Italian Neo-Impressionism seem to be slightly different from the French model. More of the Italian artists use divisionism, introduced to Italy by the Grubicy brothers, for expressive rather than analytical ends. That’s not to say that Signac or Seurat were not expressive, merely that the application of divisionism in Italian Neo-Impressionism seems to be more limited and vague. In other words it appears to be more of a stylistic trope than a scientific breakdown of colour, light and shape.

Giacomo Balla, who taught Divisionist technique to Boccioni and Severini, first went to Paris in 1900. He spent several months there and then returned to Paris in 1901. On the second occasion he brought back reproductions of Impressionist and Divisionist paintings to show his friends and to advance his own studies and practice. Balla’s work at this time included Girl walking on a balcony, Window in Dusseldorf and Self Portrait of 1902. For comparison look at Seurat’s Evening at Honfleur 1886 and Signac’s Le ville et les Pins 1902. Carlo Carrà also visited Paris as early as 1900, as well as London where he expressed admiration for Turner, Constable and the French Impressionists on view.

See Carrà’s Piazza del Duomo of 1909 for possible influence but I don’t want to over-emphasise the link as I think it is part of a general absorption of painting. According to Carrà the three major Post-Impressionist painters are Matisse, Derain and Picasso, none of whose influence is strong in Piazza del Duomo.

Boccioni’s first trip to Paris was in 1906 and influence can be seen in his painting Riot in the Galleria of 1910. In the Technical Manifesto he writes, “Painting cannot exist today without Divisionism. This is no process that can be learned and applied at will. Divisionism, for the modern painter, must be completely innate, deemed by us to be essential and necessary.” However Boccioni is said to have been mostly influenced by Cezanne on this trip and it is reasonable that his use and knowledge of Divisionism is primarily from Balla while studying under him with Severini. The latter was certainly not content to learn Divisionism secondhand. He moved to Paris in October 1906 to study Seurat and became friends with Signac and had extended his painting through Divisionism before the Futurists formed as a group. He wrote, in A Painter’s Life, “My preference for Neo-Impressionism dates from my earliest works: occasionally, I have wanted to supress it, but it always reasserts itself…I wrote to Boccioni that he could put my signature under the famous manifesto; as for Divisionism, to which it seemed he was so attached, I told him that it was certainly still, and more than ever, my own path. In fact, at that time, after having penetrated both the letter and the spirit of Seurat’s work (which was the principal reason for my coming to Paris) I had begun to divide forms in the same way that I had divided colours…”

You can see the progression of Severini’s work through French Divisionism, and beyond, through three key paintings: the straightforward divisionism of Spring in Montmatre 1909, to the more occluded Obsessional Dancer of 1911 where Divisionism affects the form, to Dynamism in Light and Space 1912 where the process is complete and much more closely aligned to Futurism and Cubism.

In the title of Dynamism in Light and Space you have some indication of the ways in which Futurism is derivative, and the ways in which it is distinctive. The sensation of colour and light can be seen as stemming from Impressionism, and in particular form the Divisionists or Neo-Impressionists Seurat, Signac and Cross. But the division and conflict of lines and planes is probably not a logical extension of Divisionism created in a cultural vacuum as Severini seems to be suggesting. We know that Ardengo Suffici published an article on Picasso and Braque in La Voce (August 1911). The Futurists were proposing to exhibit in Paris at this time when Severini visited them in Milan. He was disappointed with their work and wanted to bring them up to date with the latest French art. In mid-October, financed by Marinetti, Boccioni, Carrà and possibly Russolo, visited Severini in Paris. They saw a Cubist exhibition and were introduced by Severini to many contemporary artists.

Certainly there was a flurry of new activity before the Futurist art was exhibited at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris in February 1912. The Futurists main objection to Cubism philosophically is that it was produced by a static, albeit rotating, analysis of form and was low on colour, motion and emotion. The Futurists naturally considered themselves to be at the head of their own European art movement even stating “Why We Are Not Impressionists” where they show a synthesis of other influences (but possibly miss out Symbolism and, later perhaps, Expressionism).

The Futurists main achievement on top of Impressionist theory and painting is to provide a solidification of atmospheric and fleeting moments. For example in Russolo’s Solidity of Fog 1912 and Balla’s The Streetlight 1909. Increasingly the atmospheric vibrations of light and colour became more violent, more dynamic and thus more in harmony with the forms which thereby become simultaneous and interpenetrated with lines of force and motion.

Ade Annabel copyright 1981


Friday, 29 July 2022

The Ballets Russes: a union of the arts?


On hearing the title L’Apres-Midi D’Un Faune most people that have heard of it would think of the music of Claude Debussy. Yet we would be as justified to think of Leon Bakst’s costume and set designs of 1912. We might also think of Nijinsky and Nijinksa dancing or of the famous impresario Serge Diaghilev. Although the music is probably now it’s most enduring component the Ballet Russes initiated the work and the choice of music was by no means the first of the arts to contribute.

Alexandre Benois, one of Diaghilev’s designers, was particularly captivated by the idea of art as a single entity. ‘It was no accident that what was afterwards known as the Ballets Russes was originally conceived not by the professionals of the dance but by a circle of artists, linked together by the idea of Art as an entity. Everything followed from the common desire of several painters and musicians to see the fulfilment of the theatrical dreams which haunted them.’ Presumably what Benois thinks of as art does not include literature and poetry; unless one substitutes for literature the folk tales and mythology which forms the original inspiration for themes in classical ballet. Some of the other arts, though, are more prominently represented. Dance and music are evident, plus the artistic value of the décor, costumes and so on.

Although Diaghilev is such a key figure in Ballet Russes his artistic work is not easy to trace. The choreography, for example, is not his. Although a trained musician and singer Diaghilev’s role as impresario was in selecting, organising and inspiring people. Of the early ballets Michel Fokine was chief choreographer; he produced such works as The Firebird, Petrushka, Les Sylphides and so on. Despite the success of these ballets Diaghilev turned to Nijinsky because he thought a younger mind would be more receptive to his own ideas. At this time Diaghilev aspired to music visualisation theories and fashions in dance movement such as eurhythmy which is a system of performance, education and therapy based on the harmony of bodily movement and music. Diaghilev might have harboured the wish to be a choreographer and is credited with having arranged Les Orientales. He also produced Fireworks, which featured a complex light show with plastic Cubist scenery set to the music of Stravinsky.

Diaghilev regarded his next major choreographer, Leonide Massine, as stubborn and provincial, though Massine was actually very receptive to the ideas of Cocteau and Picasso for the Cubist work Parade. For example, Picasso’s French Manager of 1917 was a very difficult costume in which to dance.

Nijinsky had performed in and choreographed L’Apres-Midi D’Un Faune and Jeux, both with music by Debussy, and the controversial Rite Of Spring with music by Stravinsky. His gestures were deliberately angular and disrupted the normal flow of body movement. They were anti-classical. Cyril Beaumont praised Nijinsky in Petrushka and Jeux as portraying impersonality and ritual. Fokine was the choreographer for Petrushka but Nijinsky played the lead role in their combined style. Angular anti-classical gestures were used first by Fokine in Tannhӓuser in which Nijinsky danced the faun. Such anti-classicism might also be seen in the occasional lack of correspondence between the music and the pace of movement. This idea was an attempt to express the agitation of the soul in a relatively still body. Fokine had been influenced by Isadora Duncan in the same way that Massine was later to be influenced by expressionist dance. Massine also made great use of folk and national dances to extend the ballet repertoire.

Diaghilev’s conception of artistic unity was transmitted to his choreographers not only by the closeness with which they worked with composers, but also by advising them to study painting. Diaghilev told Fokine to look at the composition of Renaissance art to find aesthetic grouping of figures. He also introduced Fokine to eighteenth century painting at this time. Another example of taking visual inspiration from art history can be found in L’Apres-Midi D’Un Faune where, at the suggestion of Leon Bakst, poses from Greek vases were copied.

Part of the reason why Diaghilev was such a good organiser may well be his passionate interest, but lack of direct ability, in different art forms. This is most evident in music where you would think he would be strongest. Diaghilev had originally wanted to be a composer but was advised by Rimsky-Korsakov to give it up. At first Diaghilev was content to adapt established music for his ballet. Les Sylphides was constructed in this way by taking assorted pieces by Chopin. For example, the Waltz in C-Sharp Minor, Opus 64, Number 2, which formed the pas de deux between the fourth solo dance and the final ensemble. Adrian Stokes, describing his reaction to the ballet, wrote, ‘An art form, the classical dance, comes to meet another entity, the art of Chopin…For myself there is nothing as beautiful as a perfect performance of Sylphides by the Russian ballet with the Benois décor and the Diaghilev lighting.’

There was one exception in Diaghilev’s first season to his policy of using established music. This was a commission for a young Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky, to write music for a ballet to be called The Firebird. Diaghilev met with some opposition to this idea, not least from the dancers who found Stravinsky’s music too rhythmically complex for dancing. However, Diaghilev pushed forward with the idea in order that the choreography of Fokine and the music of Stravinsky should be closely worked out together. This was not a unique concept; Ivanov, Fokine’s teacher, had been in favour of it and Fokine had worked closely with Tchaikovsky to create ‘Swan Lake’. But in ‘The Firebird’ there was the possibility of the closest mutual inspiration of choreographer and composer. Adrian Stokes, writing in Russian Ballets on the success of The Firebird, contends ‘that the universal appeal of modern Russian ballet lies in the fact that it has occasionally achieved the only complete form known to history of musical drama. Dramatic action or movement and music have consistently inspired the one the other in modern Russian ballet alone.’

Diaghilev went on to commission Stravinsky to write Pulcinella, Petrushka, Les Noces, Le Chant De Rossignol and others including The Right of Spring. But Stravinsky was by no means the only composer to find work with Diaghilev; others include Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss, Erik Satie, Serge Prokofiev and Claude Debussy. Debussy, in particular, was interested in art forms other than his own. He was fond of painters such as Whistler, the French Symbolists and Turner (who he called the greatest creator of mystery in art). He was interested in theatre, novels like Edgar Alan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and especially poetry. L’Apres Midi D’Un Faune was inspired by a ‘musical poem’ by Mallarmé to which Debussy worked very closely. Mallarmé and Debussy conceived of music and poetry as being totally synchronous art forms.

On the visual side most people’s expectation of the design work would be that it was competent,  efficacious, perhaps even imaginative, but not ‘proper art’ like you’d see in a gallery. Such terminology artificially separating art and design is often fairly meaningless and unhelpful but in the context of the design work for the Russian Ballet it appears especially trite and unnecessary. Diaghilev organised many Russian art exhibitions outside of Russia which brought him into contact with many leading artists in Europe. Such was the ballet’s impact that Rodin championed Nijinsky’s choreography of L’Apres Midi D’Un Faune against it’s critics and celebrated it in his own sculpture with a statuette of Nijinsky dancing.

The painters Konstantin Korovin and Alexander Golovin had already merged the worlds of art and decoration in their sets for Sava Mamontov’s private opera company in Moscow which were regarded as being of the highest artistic value in Russia. In 1914 Diaghilev used two other Russian painters who achieved notoriety for developing cubist rayonism. There were Natalia Gontcharova and Mikhail Larionov. Goncharova made designs for The Firebird, Le Coq D’Or and for Liturgie. In the latter she drew on historical influences from Cimabue. Larionov was initially employed to supervise the choreography – something for which he was not experienced and that shows Diaghilev’s attitude to smashing rigid departmentalism in artistic trades.

Diaghilev’s next important acquisition of designer was Pablo Picasso. Picasso had been a founder member of the St. Petersburg dilettantes who wanted to unite music, design and choreography. Picasso produced designs for Le Train Bleu and others including Parade. This was originally the idea of the poet Jean Cocteau and used music by Erik Satie. Cocteau had wanted to incorporate voice and gramophone but it was decided against. Picasso’s designs were mostly cubist as he was developing this style with Georges Braque at the time. But he also uses clown images (which he mostly used in his paintings from 1905-6) and some Futurist influence is also evident plus the enigmatic style of Giorgio de Chirico who had designed sets for Le Bal.

In the same way that Picasso’s style was often eclectic in its fusion of influences, so Diaghilev’s use of artists spanned the whole spectrum of contemporary art styles from the time: cubism, French symbolism, surrealism, socialist realism and constructivism. Constructivism was associated with the Russian revolution but by the time Diaghilev used it in 1927, with Naum Gabo and Anton Pevsner, it was no longer politically or culturally aligned with the Russian state as it evolved under Stalin. Alexandre Benois, one of the chief designers, had been heavily influenced by Wagner’s ideas of artistic unity or ‘total work of art’ where different artistic disciplines combined. Picasso occasionally worked alongside Benois.

Although not a symbolist himself, Leon Bakst’s designs were used for Scherazade which had a storyline of the type that would appeal to French symbolists. Another friend of Picasso, the naïve painter Christopher Wood, designed the sets for Romeo and Juliet. The costumes were to be by Augustus John. However Max Ernst and Joan Miró eventually worked on Romeo and Juliet. Ernst worked on the designs and Miró on the costumes. Ernst and Miró’s involvement with the Ballets Russes made them unpopular with the other surrealists because they regarded ballet as a pastime of the bourgeoisie. One ballet was even planned to be based on William Blake’s Book of Job with music by Vaughn Williams but Diaghilev turned it down. Most of the ballet design work was by modern artists. Other modern painters who worked for Diaghilev include André Derain, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Marie Laurençin, Georges Braque, Henri Laurens, Maurice Utrillo, Pavel Tchelitchew and Georges Rouault.

Diaghilev’s involvement with the ‘world of art’, and his attempt to export Russian art in particular, never received the same acclaim as his facilitating the infusion of art into ballet. This is born out by Alexandre Benois, writing in his Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet, ‘Strange to say, of all these “export” items, the most decisive, stable and universal success fell to the Russian ballet, while our endeavours to ‘export’ Russian pictorial art did not get the success it deserved. Nevertheless, after the music, it was the painting that had the predominant part in our productions.’

The essence of Diaghilev’s ballets is choreography, but less so than in any previous ballet. The Firebird, and possibly Swan Lake, make important advances in bringing the normally subservient music on to an equal basis. In Les Sylphides, in fact, the choreography is subservient to the music. Superficially the costumes and backcloths might be expected to play the most low-key role, but by using artists of the highest calibre they take on a new dynamism. That is not to say that art invariably acts on an equal basis. That is not the question. The overall effect of the ballet relies on the contribution of all the parts, whether equal or not. In so far as a union is a whole resulting from a combination of parts, then, the Ballets Russes can accurately and to totally justifiably be seen as a union of the arts.

Copyright 1982 Adrian Annabel

Monday, 20 June 2022

Hendrik Petrus Berlage's Exchange Building

In 1881 he joined Th. Sanders in an Amsterdam architectural office. And from 1884 to 1889 they were partners.

This is their competition design of 1884 for the ‘Amsterdam Exchange’. It reached the semi-finals out of 119 entries which was when this version was submitted. The earlier version was much richer in ornament, particularly the interior. However, when asked to produce more detailed plans, they stripped down the extravagance to keep within the projected budget. The jury were not pleased with this meanness. The style could loosely be called Dutch Renaissance, which doesn’t tell you much; of more interest is the overtly Italianate style of the interior which Berlage seems to have picked up, not only from his training but, at first hand in Italy.

In 1886 Berlage said, ‘If we want to be honest, then we must admit that artists of the last half of the Nineteenth century do nothing but “copy”’ and that what we should be looking for is a new, non-derivative, style. Yet his designs of this period, such as ‘Vestibule of a Royal Palace’, ‘Design for a Painter’s Studio’ and especially his ‘Monument Historique’ mercilessly plunder past buildings.

In practice the buildings of the Sanders period are more sedate, less eclectic, than Berlage’s competition entries. ‘De Hoop’ 1883-4 was a working men’s coffee house. The façade was asymmetrical. The main innovation was in trying to limit the stone strips and plaster, which often covered buildings, to expose the brick it was made of, but they don’t seem to have tried too hard.

The Focke & Meltzer building, ‘Kalverstraat 152’ of 1884-6 is a small block of offices with a shop on the ground floor. The building is stone-faced and is covered in things like granite columns, bronze capitals, lunettes, a turret and so on. It even has wooden pediments in the bay window frames. That’s not to say it is a bad building, not that Berlage would eventually dispose of historical elements, but we may see them more effectively integrated into the structure of the building.

Berlage left Sanders in 1889 but it wasn’t until 1891 that he got his first commission. It was to build a house for Dr. E.D. Pijzel at 72 Van Baerlestraat. There’s not much stone used to disguise the building material, merely three short bands at basement level. Berlage had been working on stripping back superficial ornamentation as the design for the office building of Kerkhoven & Co. at Herengracht 115 shows. Although not as explicit as the Pijzel house it does show a movement towards less decoration and covering of the brick. The Pijzel house has no palatial pretensions; it’s comfortable being just a rather well-to-do town house.

Berlage then built two office buildings for ‘De Nederlanden Van 1845’ – one in 1894-5 and the other in 1895-6. The first one was in the Amsterdam Muntplein. The main feature is the rounded projection to house the staircase and terminating in a turret. As well as the wide, low arches for the shop windows, the general impression is vaguely historic and haphazard. Symmetry is lacking but some order is present. He was aiming for what he calls, ‘Unity in Plurality’. In other words, he felt that an irregular design that still holds together is better than a simple symmetrical and repetitive pattern. The second ‘De Nederlanden Van 1845’ in the Hague Kerkplein also had an irregular façade. For example the fenestration on one street differs from the other, especially at the top where on one side there is a photographer’s studio with dormer windows and on the other side there is a porter’s dwelling with a recessed balcony below an arcade. The staircase for this second building is similarly placed but does not project as obviously as it’s original design or the Muntplein office. This building is topped by a tower with a stepped gable. There is a fair degree of ornament on both buildings, largely by the sculptor Lambertus Zijl, for example the carved stone above the entrance to the Kerkplein branch. Both buildings were somewhat regularised when extensions were built: the Kerkplein in 1901 and 1909 and the Muntplein in 1911.

 In 1896 Berlage was appointed to give technical advice to the Amsterdam Exchange Committee. In October he managed to convince the committee that he should build it. The plan was in some ways similar to his original plan, in that it would be divided into three halls for stock, corn and produce. The Stock Exchange wanted to be separated from the others so he placed the postal, telegraph and telephone facilities, which they all had to have easy access, between the Stock Exchange and the Corn and Produce Exchanges which he placed side by side. The Stock Exchange, in any case, was bigger than the other two and, partly because it was allocated an irregular width of site. Berlage expressed satisfaction with the plot of land because its limited shape made for a more interesting design challenge requiring a concise individual solution. The plan was completed with adding surrounding offices and, at the main entrance, vestibules and cloakrooms above which was housed the Chamber of Commerce with its conference meeting room. The internal spaces are all rectangular except on the Eastern side where the plot widens. This is expressed in the exterior at the centre of the Eastern façade where three arched windows become gradually deeper in order to remain parallel with the other side of the building. Berlage allows the difference in shape between the two sides of the site to show in the room design but remain harmonious.

Generally the features that have been mentioned before can be seen to bear fruit in the exterior: asymmetry, towers, unadorned brick, a knowledge and awareness of historical forms but greater concision in the expression of internal spaces and with disposal of superfluous decoration. Berlage said, ‘I have made of it a question of principle. The main distribution is now expressed as much as possible in the silhouette’ and ‘Order is regularity, even where it appears not to be present, even where there are no so-called academic plans, also where we have nothing to do with symmetry, in the usual sense of the word.’

The ground floor of the interior of the Produce Exchange has wide arches, one for every two bays of the two arcades above with openwork balustrades. There are steel roof trusses below the double glass roof. The floor is in Java teak but the columns are connected by a strip of granite so that the columns don’t appear to stand on wood.

In the Stock Exchange the bases of the roof trusses are asymmetrical.

The Corn Exchange has different lighting requirements due to the need to judge samples of corn. This is expressed internally by straight girders and externally by raising roof to gain greater light on the Northern elevation.

In the Chamber of Commerce conference room the original Romanesque arch over the public gallery had to be split into three as cracks appeared when the building settled on its foundations. Despite carpeting the room also turned out to have a loud acoustic echo so curtains were placed half way up the wall and over the doors and the remaining wall spaces wainscoted.

Copyright Ade Annabel 1980

Thursday, 9 June 2022


The Buildings of William Le Baron Jenney

  Home Insurance Building

Portland Block 1872

This was supported by masonry walls with cast iron columns to support the floors. The exterior was brick which was unusual since the surrounding buildings were of planed or cut stone. Neighbouring landlords described it as austere and mean. Certainly it is simplified from the original, taller, more ornate design. The roof is flatter but generally the design is practical without being revolutionary. Every office is well lit. The basement storey is clearly separated from the upper storeys. Apart from the entrances, the decoration is limited to colour of material, like the step-like effect on the piers, and some shallow moulding. Apparently Sullivan considers Adolph Cudell, one of Jenney’s draughtsmen, to be largely responsible for the design.


Leitner 1 1879

In this building cast-iron columns behind the piers, along with timber girders, support the floors. It wasn’t the first building to use an interior iron frame. Otto H Metz had built the Nixon Building in Chicago in 1871. It may also have been influenced by James McLaughlin’s Shillito Store in Cincinnati in 1877. It is, however, a major step towards skeleton construction. The widely spaced non-supporting brick piers allow Jenney to provide large areas of glass, separated by slim cast-iron mullions which do, however, have a load bearing function. The result is practically floor to ceiling glazing with the minimum interruption. The brick serves to support the windows and mullions and provide fireproofing. The minimum of ornamentation is used eg. the piers at floor level. Incidentally the original was only five floors; two were added in 1888. The base has since been modernised. It later became the Morris Building and, at the time of writing, is known as 208 West Monroe Building.


Home Insurance Building 1883-5

There were precedents for cast-iron construction: James Bogards’ McCullough Shot Tower in New York City in 1855. He also built the Electric Mill Works in 1848 and a couple of French buildings but I haven’t included them because it is unlikely Jenney was aware of them. Certainly he knew Burnham & Root’s Montauk but the Home Insurance Building, now demolished, is considered to be the first skyscraper. The exterior wall is reduced to a curtain, or envelope, which is supported throughout by the interior framing ie. the wall not only has no bearing function but does not even support itself. Essentially it is just a, part iron, part steel, framework covered in glass, with vertical and horizontal bands of masonry to cover the columns and beams. The lintels and mullions were continuous. The envelope was granite at the first storey and brick with sandstone trim above. In fact the granite at the base of the columns carried 18% of the total column load, a deviation from full framing which made safer the addition of two, to the original ten, storeys in 1890. So, in reality, the metal skeletal construction begins above the first floor. The exterior bays and adjacent floor are supported by metal shelving projecting from the columns. The criteria established this design, and Jenney’s work in general, were maximum admission of natural light, economy of construction, durability, fire-resistance and freedom in the arrangement of the internal elements. The aesthetics of appearance  seemed to take second place hence the slightly disappointing façade which was even described as ‘Romanesque’ as opposed to commercial. Without getting into the argument about the term ‘functionalism’, the aesthetic that was developing in Chicago was, as Sullivan said, ‘form follows function’. Yet this building isn’t as visually striking as the previous Leiter building. The Home Insurance Building is broken into horizontal bands, presumably to avoid monotony, with each pier carrying capitals at the breaks. There is rough-hewn masonry round the base, a grand entrance and decoration between floors.


Leiter II 1889-90

I haven’t much to say about this except the Home Insurance Building solved the technical problems and I think this solves the visual problem of high rise building of the time. The metal I-beams used previously as columns, girders and associated beams are repeated, with the riveted joints, fireproof tile cladding and concrete sub-flooring. But the commercial style is more fully developed here. The piers are narrow enough to suggest the metal frame within them. Ornament is sparse, economy is suggested, and the general affect is simple and direct.

Manhattan Building 1891

The frame of the structure is carried on spread footings of concrete reinforced with rails. The party walls facing the original buildings on either side were not strong enough to support the Manhattan. So the adjoining floors of the Manhattan were carried on cantilever beams fixed to columns located on a line well inside the line of the party walls. The exterior elevation is grey granite up to the fifth storey, pressed brick and terra cotta above. Originally it was twelve storeys high, nine at the side. But a few years later it became sixteen and ten. The main external feature is the variety of window types. There are large areas of glass at the base with paired windows in the second and third storey. In the central three bays are triple windows and, above the third storey, bay windows. In the bays to either side these are triangular. There are also some triple and double arched windows. The street is narrow and densely built and so the bay windows admitted as much light as possible. Where the building rises above its neighbours the windows become flat to the façade and conventional. The overall affect produces an uneven and perhaps indecisive design but at least it shows that Jenney was solving practical issues for the occupants as well as technically innovating for the client.

Copyright Ade Annabel 1981.


Friday, 25 February 2022


The Symbolist Woman

Nick Green mentioned in his lecture ‘The French Nude: Venus or Whore?’ that the Symbolists used female figures as symbols of evil and carnality which represented the root cause of man’s sin. In Alex Potts’ lecture on ‘The Moral Purpose of Art’ he discussed the popular demand for moral seriousness and instruction from painting. Although this lecture was largely about Hogarth, the themes of such series as ‘The Adventures of Mary Hackabout’ and ‘The Harlot’s Progress’ can be seen to have similar intentions. The purpose of this essay is to examine the thoughts and concepts surrounding the portrayal of women in Symbolism.

Gustave Moreau’s portrayals of women, if not active destroyers like Salome, have a powerful and sinister beauty, and are said to be ‘a powerfully imaginative celebration of male fears of castration and impotence.” Salome, instructed by her mother, gained the death and head of John the Baptist by her lascivious dancing. Moreau’s ‘Salome dancing before Herod’ of 1876 described her as “a woman in search of a vague, sensual, and unhealthy ideal, who destroys men, be they geniuses or saints.’ Some writers have suggested that Moreau’s attitude to women is due to a repressed homosexuality but have not offered further evidence for the assumption. Without it there seems little reason why a lover of men should also be a hater of women. Perhaps the justification is less about sexual orientation than about the repression of heterosexuality or just sexuality. Moreau preaches against all sensual and physical temptation which he sees as being in conflict with the higher ideal of spiritual thought. The painting ‘Salome dancing before Herod’ carries several symbols of lascivious pursuit. Salome carries a lotus, an Indian symbol of female sexuality. Above Herod is a statue of Diana of Ephesus flanked by images of the Persian god Mithras, both fertility symbols.

Moreau produced other paintings of Salome, for example ‘The Apparition’ of 1876 and ‘Salome in the Garden’, both of which show her with the severed head of John the Baptist. Nor was Moreau unique in using the symbol of Salome, it became something of a cliché with Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s play ‘Salome’ as well as Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Emile Fabry, Jakob Smits, Max Klinger, Alfred Stevens, Vittorio Zecchin and Pablo Picasso having produced versions. Salome is probably the archetype of what is now commonly known as the ‘femme fatale’; but there are other examples.

Moreau’s description of the femme fatale gives a much more sinister and supernatural evil to the concept than, say, a simple condemnation of sexual behaviour. ‘She was no longer just a dancing girl who extorts a cry of lust and lechery from an old man by lascivious movements of her loins; who saps the morale and breaks the will of a king with the heaving of her breasts, the twitching of her belly, the quivering of her thighs.’ She had become, as it were, in Huysmens’ words, the symbolic incarnation of undying Lust, ‘the accursed Beauty exalted above all other beauties by the catalepsy that hardens her flesh and steels her muscles, the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like the Helen of the ancient myth, everything that approaches her, everything that sees her, everything that she touches.’ Moreau’s Helen at the gates of Troy’ c. 1880-90 confirms this view of women and of Helen in particular, as stands aloof in a scene of desolation and destruction. According to Paul de Saint-Victor’s ‘Hommes et Dieux’, of which we know Moreau possessed a copy, the city whose homes Helen had devastated, and of whose youth she had caused the death, was still under her power. The concepts of beauty and destruction are seen as cause and effect in Helen, he pays tribute to her beauty in his painting of 1897 ‘Helen in Glory’. Gaston Bussière, in his ‘Helen’ of 1895, also emphasises her beauty, treating her as a symbol of love, heedless of disasters it can cause. Tausserat-Radel, writing about Henri Fantin-Latour’s charcoal sketch of ‘Helen’, c. 1890, said of Helen that she ‘is the vision of sublime beauty.’ Beauty, therefore, would seem to be a necessary characteristic for the femme fatale, as well as a capacity for evil far beyond that of ‘a dancing girl’.

Shuré notes that Delila was on of ‘these enchantresses devoid of love who break down the strength of men through scheming and voluptuousness.’ In his ‘Delila’, c. 1880, Moreau paints her at the moment when her maid has just finished preparing her for the arrival of Samson, the man she will enchant with her beauty in order to draw from him the secret of his strength. Symbolism was as much a literary movement as an art movement. As well as providing subject matter for their paintings, it is significant that De Vigny’s ‘La Colère de Samson’ from which comes the line ‘Woman is always DELILAH’ also has:

‘An eternal struggle in all times, all places

Takes place on earth in the presence of God

Between the goodness of Man and wiles of Woman

For woman is an impure being in body and soul.’

The fact that the condemnation of lust is invariably centred on the female in Symbolist thought is more a question of religious misogyny than literary morality.

In Christian mythology it was a woman who first brought evil into the world through the figure of Eve. Talking of Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer’s ‘Eve’, of 1896, Thévenin commented that ‘the woman exiled from Eden is a symbol of the pagan world, of the rule of nature and of the senses’. The triumph of the physical over the spiritual can also be detected in Gustav de Smet, Max Klinger and Henri Evenepoel’s respective paintings of the same subject.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer’s ‘Circe’ of 1895 is a more classical femme fatale. Circe was the sorceress of the Odyssey who lured sailors from their boats and turned them into pigs. ‘The Siren’, painted by Armand Point in 1897 shows a type of femme fatale which is very close to the Circe myth. The Sirens enchanted passing sailors with their song, causing their boats to crash on the rocks. Again the source is Homer, although Point only illustrates one of the three mentioned Sirens. Point paints the moment that Odysseus’ boat appears, before, on the advice of Circe, he escapes the clutches of the Sirens. There is nothing overtly erotic in the story but the Siren here is painted as a nude, playfully riding a seahorse. The desire to cloak erotic subject matter in moral rectitude in a society where women legally held secondary importance seems to have facilitated their portrayal in the role of scapegoat (both in the common sense of the word and with the original Biblical sense of transferring and symbolising man’s sins and errors of judgement.) In this mindset the devil is thought to use the attraction of the female form to place heterosexual men at her and his mercy and to do his bidding. This idea receives its personifications in such femme fatale as Salome, Helen, Delila, Eve, Circe and the Sirens.

Moreover when conflict is depicted between the sexes, it is the male that is represented on the side of good and women as monstrous, evil and corrupting. Gustave Moreau’s ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’, circa 1864, shows the female sphinx clawing and clutching at Oedipus’ chest. For Moreau this represents a life struggle between male and female nature, good and evil, life and death. Fernand Khnopff’s ‘The Caresses of the Sphinx’ of 1896 seems to have similar intent as the press commented: ‘a most interesting symbol of the struggle between the desire for earthly dominion and that of abandonment to sensual pleasure.’ The female cat-like figure represents sensual pleasure and the contact between the sexes is seen as one of conflict and mortal danger. There is even this idea in the more superficially straightforward ‘The Kiss of the Sphinx’, circa 1895, by Franz Von Stuck where the male is subjugated by the dominant Sphinx. Again Symbolist art is paralleled by Symbolist literature, in this case the poem ‘The Sphinx’ by Oscar Wilde. The ‘Temptation of Saint Anthony’ treated by Fernand Khnopff and Henri Fantin-Latour both show the Saint tempted by erotic women as if overwhelmed by demons.

The idea of the femme fatale in art is not unique to this era but the extent to which it has been painted by this group of artists is unusual, despite attempts to cross-reference to such Pre-Raphaelite paintings as Rosetti’s ‘Astarte Syriaca’. There is very little precedent for such titles as Otto Greiner’s ‘The Devil showing Woman to the People’, Giovanni Segantini’s ‘The Punishment of Lust’ or Jean Delville’s ‘Idol of Perversity’ amongst Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Yet it is odd that Jean Delville should attack Jef Lambeaux for what he called his ‘vaginal brain, phallic soul, copulative imagination…this demoniacal kneeder of the buttocks’ since this is the very subject matter he chose himself for such works as the ‘Idol of Perversity’ and ‘Satan’s Treasures’. As JK Huysmans said ‘It was through a glimpse of the supernatural of evil that I first obtained insight into the supernatural of good. The one derived from the other.’

Egon Schiele’s ‘Cardinal and Nun’ and Gustave Adolphe Mossa’s ‘Profanation’ both use clergy engaged in animalistic sex in an attempt to highlight the contrast of images of good through images of evil. Jan Toorop’s ‘The Three Brides’ of 1893 places The Innocent Bride halfway between the sensual, blood thirsty Hellish Bride and the spiritual Nun Bride. Although the innocent bride is sexually alluring there is still an unspoken fear in the male viewer that he may make the wrong choice or that his bride turns out to be different from his expectations. The femme fatale, as well as being Satanic, expresses male fear of women being dominant over the man. Jules Marcel Lenoir, explaining his ‘Monster’ of 1897, said ‘The Monster’s principal idea is the subjugation of man to woman.’ The male sex is represented by two cockerels, every time one may seemingly wins the battle, assuming the prize to be the woman, he is condemned to death by the panther-like chimeras on either side of the idolised woman. In the left margin more men agonise and fight over the privilege of taking the woman by force, on the right are men who dote upon her bringing gifts of a crown, rose and a case of jewels. The ‘Monster’ is unobtainable and definitely in charge. In another image, Arnold Bӧeklin’s ‘Calm Sea’ of 1887 a mermaid is shown as dominant on her rock, while the normally mighty male Triton sinks impotently away into the depths.

That other Symbolist preoccupation, Death, intertwines, in its own way, with their concept of woman. This can be traced back to an earlier image by Anton Wiertz’ ‘The Beautiful Rosine’ of 1847 which in turn was inspired by ‘Death and the Woman’ by the medieval engraver Hans Baldung Grien of 1489. But in Wiertz the intention was not an exercise or genre piece but to intertwine the concept of Woman with the concept of Death, to show that the pleasures of the senses pass quickly. Albert Besnid’s ‘Death unites them’ of 1900 shows death uniting two lovers. ‘The Rhine Maidens’, taken from Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’, by Gaston Bussière, shows the arrival of Siegfried on the banks of the Rhine where he is approached by the three Rhine maidens, Woglinde, Welgunde and Flosshilde. They announce that the ring which he wears on his finger is forged out of Rhinegold and that its curse will send him to his death. Armand Point’s ‘Death and the Maidens’, circa 1872, Odilon Redon’s ‘Death: My Irony Surpasses All Others’ and Carlos Schwabe’s ‘The Death of the Gravedigger’ translate death into a female figure; what Huysmans calls ‘a terrifying image of lechery which merges as the poet wants into the effigy of death itself.’ It would seem that a fear of erotic pleasure and a fear of death make good bedmates.

Huysmans praised Félicien Rops for having ‘celebrated the spirituality of Lust, which is to say Satanism; and painted, in pages which could not be more perfect, the supernatural aspect of perversity, the other world of Evil.’ Although the moralistic overtone is still clear, Huysmans’ language has the implication that Rops is revelling in, rather than purely disgusted by, lust. So, although Rops’ ‘Les Amours de la Femme Sauvage’ is morally straightforward at a superficial level, it comes as no surprise to learn that Rops himself gathered something of a reputation as a ‘womaniser’. The Goncourt brothers comment, ‘Rops is truly eloquent in depicting the cruel aspect of contemporary woman, her steel-like glance, and her malevolence towards man’ may therefore be slightly misguided.

To quote Rops himself: ‘The love of women, like Pandora’s Box, contains all the griefs of life, but they are enveloped in such luminous golden spangles, they are so brilliantly coloured, have such a perfume, that it is never necessary to repent for having opened it.’ Rops’ work for the pornography publisher Poulet-Malassis is his most erotic (although Poulet-Malassis also published Baudelaire). ‘The Right to Work’ and ‘The Right to Rest’ are a comment on masculine sexual pride and have a sense of humour which distinguish his attitude to sex from that of the other Symbolists.

In the first illustration the penis has become the man, a proud, strutting figure, in the second the figure is flaccid and defeated. It is a satire on the sexual pride of the male and how quick it is to be deflated (or satiated). At the turn of the century sexual behaviour and any associated feelings would remain private and rarely discussed. Hand in hand with repression of any emotional response to these natural impulses could often be a sense of conflict and guilt (or in religious terminology it might be called a feeling of committing sin). Charles Brison states that ‘Rops did much to dispel the prevalent attitude, for his art was an art of release. He reinstated, via his work, the joy and vigour of sexual activity.’ But this is probably only partly true; in ‘Voluptuousness’ and ‘Agony’ women are shown in the grips of devils, and the horrifying ‘Syphilitic Death’ calls to mind the Biblical assertion that “the wages of sin is death”. It would not be right, then, to separate Rops entirely from the culture of his time, but it could be said that he showed greater enjoyment in the painting of erotic subjects than some of his contemporaries.

Many of Fernand Khnopff’s female types are based on his sister whose beauty obsessed him. Dumont-Wilden, writing of Khnopff’s work said, ‘these feminine physiognomies, at the same time energetic and languid, where the desire for what is impossible, and the anguished thirst of unslakeable passions, assert themselves.’ This is the impression one gains from ‘I Lock the Door Upon Myself’ of 1891. Khnopff lived as a bachelor except for a short, abortive marriage with Marthe Worms. Nonetheless the impression of such works as ‘By the Sea’ and ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Sister’ is not carnal frustration but an honest appreciation of feminine beauty. This is in spite of ‘The Temptation of Saint Anthony’ and ‘The Caresses’.

Khnopff’s moral views and repression were no less vehement than Moreau’s, but he was possibly less of a misogynist. In his ‘Angel’, otherwise known as ‘Animality’, Khnopff contrasts two types of women, following Péladau’s idea of the eternal duel between Love and Thought. A woman in armour places her hand upon a crowned female sphinx. The sphinx is the incarnation of perverse love, where absence of forehead betrays a being dominated by instinct. The admittedly fairly androgynous and sexless woman, dressed like a knight of the Holy Grail, is the personification of angelic thought and virtue. The allegory had first been put forward in the novel ‘L’Ange et la Sphinge’ by Edouard Shuré.

Sympathy for the plight of woman in the dilemma between spiritual thoughts and physical desires is expressed in Georges de Feure’s series entitled ‘The Voices of Evil’ in which ‘methods of seduction are used to turn a woman away from the path of virtue.’ De Feure’s ‘Seekers of Infinity’, which portrays two women, is a reference to Baudelaire’s poem ‘Femmes Damnées’ in which he is sympathetic to lesbianism. The novels of Jean Lorrain and Catulle Mendés also extend this moral liberation to women. Paintings with such sympathetic insight include Joseph Graniés ‘The Kiss’, of 1900, Corbineau’s ‘The Friends’, circa 1895, and his painting of Mademoiselle Vinteuil and her lover, ‘Du Côte de chez Swann’.

The ideal of the beautiful woman at the turn of the century was distinctly cadaverous, “The disquieting pallor of the Host, the emaciated oval of a face bearing an expression of both spirituality and suffering, the wide-staring eyes…she personified the psychic beauty of the twentieth century” (Jean Lorrain). Although it is not the art we remember them for now, some of the symbolists, like the painters before them, earned their money in portrait commissions. Edmond Aman-Jeans most charismatic pictures are of women, and, whether society ladies or symbolist allegories, they appear pensive and withdrawn. Roger Marx said of them, “the unfathomable mystery of their gaze and their distant smiles betray troubled thoughts taking wing.” The ‘Portrait of Madame Albert Besnard’ or his ‘Woman in a White Hat’ show the fin de siècle taste for frail and delicate containers of introspective, pensive souls. Antonio de La Gandara’s ‘Portrait of a woman’ of 1891 displays the same characteristics, as Albert Samain writes, “How I adore your women…you have spiritualised and mysteriously extended their elegance through your art, transforming them into a dream.”

The theme of motherhood formed an important part of George Minne’s sculpture and drawing. The ‘Mother crying for her child’ and ‘Weeping mother’ confront the concept of maternity and life giving with the concept of death. Jakob Smits’ ‘Mater amabilis’ and ‘The symbol of the Campine’ present a less tragic maternal theme. His work portrays the traditional images of gentleness and fertility; E. Van Den Bosch calls it the “image of life attaining its full power, of life which regenerates itself, of fecundity, of tenderness…He (Jakob Smits) creates a combined and indivisible image of the Mother and Child.”

Odilon Redon in his portraits of women with flowers, ‘Woman in Profile with Flowers’, ‘Woman with Flowers’ and ‘Violette Heyaman’, uses women as symbolising the beauty of nature. Eugène Carrière, another artist with similar tendencies writes of Redon, “Trees and plants revealed to him their analogy with those beautiful young women with smooth legs rising like slender columns to the moving torso, upon which the breast swells, on which the head rests heavily, connected by a strong and supple neck, as a fine fruit bursting with juice weighs down the branch.” Maurice Denis in his ‘Eva Meurier in a green dress’ and ‘Portrait of Madame Paul Ranson’ gives a less obvious parallel with nature; but nonetheless he sees in his figures a fusion, rather than friction, between the physical and the spiritual, “the beauty of Nature is a proof of God. The beauty of the human body gives the artist the idea of perfection.” Fidus (pseudonym of Hugo Hӧppener) was concerned with the mystical expression of beauty by means of dance and the naked body. No. 4 of the accepted subject matter of the Salon de la Rose + Croix was, after all, “The nude made sublime”.

Charles Maurin’s group of naked women in the ‘Dawn’ triptych, circa 1891, are both earthy and idealised, as noted by Jules Gire, “Raised in the city streets – bizarre flowers – we can see in them an ideal born of the flesh.” Emile-René Menard’s nudes like ‘Autumn’ forge a harmony between nature and spiritual aspirations. ‘To the Abyss’ of 1894 by Georges de Feure, despite the fatalistic title, show two female nudes in a landscape representing the eternal vitality of nature. In this sort of work, love is not impaired by flesh but is seen, according to Aurier, as the aesthetic feeling between the work of art’s ideals and the viewer. There is none of the terror of female sexuality of Edvard Munch’s ‘Vampire’ here, but a love of the ideal and of elevated desire.

Max Klinger’s ‘Early Spring’, c.1877-9, uses nature in a slightly different manner. Here he equates Spring with virginity. Eugene Carrière uses the Christian Virgin in his ‘Virgin at the Foot of the Cross’ to embody sorrow and a revolt against the absolute and irredeemable. Whereas Maurice Denis uses the concept of virginity in it’s more literal sexual context. His ‘Orchard of the Wise Virgins’ of 1893 shows the wise virgins shunning the apples of temptation in white robes in the foreground. Three nude bathers in the background probably represent three of the foolish virgins despite the Biblical parable simply being about unmarried wedding guests having enough oil in their lamps to be able to “see the light” in a spiritual sense rather than sensual temptation.

In contrast ‘The Invocation to the Madonna of the Green Onyx’, by Marcel Lenoir, is an attempt to express the internalised faith which gives force to the prayer of the woman through a mystical, slightly Egyptian inspired, face. Gustave Moreau’s ‘Mystic Flower’ c.1875 is similar in intent. It shows a richly robed young woman supported by an enormous lily as symbolic of virgin purity. In his ‘Unicorn’ c.1885 the unicorn is taken to symbolise a sublimation of sexual desire and a defence of female virginity. Wisdom, Purity and Love are thought to be symbolised in Odilon Redon’s lithograph of 1886 known as ‘The Priestesses were waiting’. Eugène Carrière’s ‘Joan of Arc’ and Armand Point’s ‘Hope’ show innocent femininity in the face of war and, although not so obvious as Carlos Schwabe’s ‘Virgin with Lilacs’, they probably also embody some concept of holy virginity.

The ideal of the non-sexual woman also found expression in the asexual or androgynous idol. According to Péladan, who wrote the novel ‘L’Androgyne’ in 1891, ‘Art created a supernatural being the Androgyne beside which Venus disappears.’ The androgyne appears as the being freed from the strife and anxiety of sexual seeking: it is the human form made whole, the union of male and female. At the same time virginal but also virile, the concept of the androgyne can be traced from neo-Platonism through to Zohar and Swedenborg. Artistically the nineteenth century concept of sexually ambiguous independence peaks with the Symbolists and can also be seen to a lesser extent in other groupings such as the Pre-Raphaelites. In Fernand Khnopff’s ‘Weeping for other days’ an idealised woman kisses her own image, representing the other half of her soul, in a mirror. The Symbolist vision of the androgyne has already been noted in the ‘Angel’ or ‘Animality’ but it is clearer in Moreau’s depiction of poets, for example, ‘The dead poet borne by a centaur’ or ‘The Siren and the Poet’ tapestry.

A vision of the ideal, of course, need not be sexless. Armand Point’s ‘The Eternal Chimera’ c.1895, who is totally absorbed in her book, suggests a reflective and cultural elevation above everyday life, and time but is clearly a woman. Yet Nerval persists in describing the Chimera not so much as a mythical combination of animals but as a symbol of woman’s sexuality: ‘Woman is the Chimera of man, or if you like, his demon’. In addition Moreau’s ‘Chimeras (Satanic Decameron)’ of 1884 describes the Chimera as woman’s primary evil essence and practising perverse and diabolic seduction. This flip in a heartbeat between the representation of women as a sexless spiritual ideal and women as a bestial, sexual, evil is central to the ambiguity and contradictory nature of the male Symbolist artist’s portrayal of women.

At one extreme we find the femme fatale, portrayed by Moreau, using mythical and historical figures such as Salome, Helen, Delila, Eve, the Siren and so on as a kind of propaganda. On the other side we find the embodiments of purity, nature and selfless maternity. These are sometimes imagined without reference to figures from classical literature and so come across as a more measured view of women but in reality these are also strangely remote and idealised. In between these two extremes we have relatively few accurate portraits of individual women as this was never going to be central to the imaginary dream worlds and tortured psychological themes of the Symbolist world even for those tantalisingly few female Symbolist artists that have been recognised such as Jeanne Jacquemin’s androgynous ‘St George’, Sarah Bernhardt’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Sphinx’ or the sculptures of Camille Claudel.

Albert Mockel in ‘Propos de littérature’. Their work is symbolic because they not only portray the individual but deduce from his physical appearance some broad moral attitude which, whether they are conscious of it or not, provides a link between the sitter and the moral universe.’ A Symbolist work deals in mystical, mythological and moral ideals. There is no room for middle ground. At its most stylised and typical examples this entails expressing the negative feelings of animal lust and even the then currently fashionable imagery of Satanism.

Arthur Symons, writing of Aubrey Beardsley, draws parallels between the moral import of Satanism and the campaigning work of social moralists like Hogarth and Rowlandson. The theory was that the deeper the evil portrayed the greater the moral effect. ‘And so a profound spiritual corruption, instead of being a more “immoral” thing than the gross and pestiferous humanity of Hogarth or of Rowlandson, is more nearly, in the final and abstract sense, moral.’ Thus the moral seriousness of the Symbolists is probably more profound than the moral seriousness dealt with in Nick Green and Alex Potts’ lectures, even if it is slightly more melodramatic and contains elements of misogyny. Huysmans writes ‘Is not man led into fleshly delights and crimes by woman.’

But the femme fatale is not the only Symbolist woman. The Symbolist artists’ attitude was ambiguous, containing all embodiments from Good to Evil. Some artists, like Rops, can be seen to be ambiguous or inconsistent about all aspects of contemporary society and morality. Indeed many Symbolist writers were later to try and avoid obsessive interpretation of moral purpose on the grounds that it had been one of the characteristic pitfalls of nineteenth century society. ‘Let the masses read works on morality, but for heaven’s sake do no give them our poetry to spoil’, wrote Mallarmé.

 Copyright 1981 Ade Annabel

Tuesday, 29 June 2021


Apollo, Dionysus and The Birth of Tragedy

‘The difficult relations between the two elements in tragedy may be symbolised by a fraternal union between the two deities: Dionysius speaks the language of Apollo, but Apollo, finally, the language of Dionysius; thereby the highest goal of tragedy and of art in general is reached.’

In Greek mythology Apollo is the god of light, a pastoral god and a god of prophecy. He is also, curiously, a musician god, the god of song and the lyre. Dionysus, on the other hand, is the god of wine, vegetation, of pleasures, and of civilisation in general. The deities may not receive their exact due in ‘The Birth of Tragedy’; what matters is not how scholarly Nietzsche’s representations of the gods’ respective characters are, but how he uses their names to account for the confrontation and reconciliation of different elements in the art of tragedy.

Nietzsche conceives art as expressing the spirit of a nation; it is not unfair, therefore, that he relates the origin of tragedy, which he considers a Greek affair, to Greek mythology, and to the balance in their thought between orgiastic and political instincts.

‘Placed between India and Rome, and tempted to choose one solution of the other, the Greeks managed a classically pure third mode of existence.’

Whether this makes any sense culturally or chronologically, India, and the Buddhist desire for Nirvana, are seen as representing the ecstatic resignation to the negation of space, time and individuality. Rome, at the other end of Nietzsche’s comparison, is used to designate rational, patriotic, military strength and ambition. The combination of these two elements in Greece is seen as a prophylactic, avoiding the dangers of the two extremes, whilst offering their benefits. A similar combination of disparate properties is used to describe the paradoxical nature of tragedy.

‘Myth shields us from music while at the same time giving music its maximum freedom.’

Universal, orgiastic, destructive music, as Nietzsche describes it, engages in a mutually advantageous relationship with the visual modelling of myth and the hero figure, who shields the spectator from what would otherwise have been an intolerable metaphysical burden. Nietzsche’s view of tragedy stems from the role of spectator, being inspired by his experience of the third act of Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’, and he uses this experience of duality to relate ‘the birth of tragedy.’

Apollo, Nietzsche identifies with the concept of dream reality as the inspiration for the verbal and plastic arts: poetry and writing, sculpture and the visual arts. The sculptor Phidias is said to have beheld ideal bodies in a dream, and he quotes Hans Sachs’ Die Meistersinger;

‘All poetry we ever read

Is but true dreams interpreted.’

The artist states the reality of illusion in the same way that a philosopher might treat the illusion of reality. Schopenhauer defined the mark of philosophic talent as the ability to view mankind and the world as being in essence nothing but a dream. Apollo is the Greek figure for this pre-Freudian, pre-Surrealist, ambiguity of the intertwining of dream and myth in life and art.

‘the god of light reigns also over the fair illusion of our inner world of fantasy.’

Sleep and dream serve a necessary function for the body in the same way that art and the imagination serve a need of the mind and of life in general, without necessarily claiming to be “life”, “truth” or “reality” itself. It may be “a reality”, but it does not claim to be the only reality, that would destroy the charm of “illusion”.

‘Apollo himself may be regarded as the marvellous divine image of the principium individuationis, whose looks and gestures radiate the full delight, wisdom, and beauty of “illusion”.’

Apollo presents the tranquil illusion that somehow the individual is not ephemeral, insignificant, pathetically doomed. Nietzsche quotes Schopenhauer’s The World As Will And Idea to provide himself with the phrase ‘principium individuationis’, the principle which sustains the individual in the face of reality. This in tragedy the most horrific events are transformed by beauty, ‘redemption through illusion’.

Schopenhauer has also described the shattering of the principium individuationis by the aw which seizes man when he is intoxicated by a sense of the unknown and unknowable. The individual forgets himself and his past through, for example, the use of narcotics or by the symbolic approach of spring with all its possibilities of growth and new experience. Dionysus represents the orgiastic and ecstatic reconciliation of man with man, and man with nature. All is united, or reunited, in universal harmony and ‘mystical Oneness’.

‘as though the veil of Maya had been torn apart and there remained only shreds floating before the  vision of mystical Oneness.’

According to Hindu philosophy Maya is illusion, not in the Apollonian sense, but in the philosophers’ sense that the material world can be regarded as unreal. However Nietzsche’s view of primordial spirituality also incorporates physicality. It is closer to the lecherous satyr than the Hindu ascetic. The satyr is man’s Dionysiac prototype: an enthusiastic reveller, a symbol of nature and sexual potency, also a prophet of wisdom and one who has knowledge of Dionysiac suffering. Dionysus as a child was dismembered by the Titans. There is some confusion or merging with the Cretan god, Zagreus, which one story ingeniously solves when it appears that the Titans were jealous of Dionysus/Zagreus, tore him to pieces and placed the remains in a cauldron. Zeus managed to rescue his still beating heart and recreate Dionysus, while Zagreus, as the remains, became an underworld divinity.

Dionysiac suffering, then, is the pains of individuation. Dionysus is destroyed and yet he is eternal and triumphs by being reborn in a new form.

‘We have here an indication that dismemberment – the truly Dionysiac suffering – was like a separation into air, water, earth, and fire, and that individuation should be regarded as the source of all suffering and rejected.’

The rebirth of Dionysus is a reuniting of the elements, and end to individuation; Dionysian art, beyond the particular visual sense, expresses itself fully in the most abstract of the arts, music. Whereas Apollonian art relies on existing forms and verbalisations of individual experiences, music is primordial, non-rational and metaphysical.

‘The cosmic symbolism of music resists any adequate treatment by language, for the simple reason that music, in referring to primordial contradiction and pain, symbolises a sphere which is both earlier than appearance and beyond it.’

Music is the art of Dionysus, but this is not to say, as Nietzsche seems to be saying above, that Dionysian tendencies do not find expression in, or relate to, the Apollonian arts.

Nietzsche regards folk song as one of the earliest of the arts, and that the music inspired the poetry to form folk song.

‘we must regard folk song as a musical mirror of the cosmos, as primordial melody casting about for an analogue and finding that analogue eventually in poetry.’

Melody is conceived as giving birth to poetry, that music generates images and words constructed on the emotions and rhythms it contains. However folk poetry was an inadequate vehicle for the power of music, and so a grander form, lyric poetry, superseded it. Lyric poetry is a manifestation of the will of music in images and ideas. It is dependent on the spirit of music in the same way that music is dependent on the universal world-will. Likewise tragedy arose out of the choric tradition, which was not a projection of the audience, or a dramatic body of people, but a dramatic illusion of the chthonic realm.

‘The satyr, as the Dionysiac chorist, dwells in a reality sanctioned by myth and ritual.’

The Dionysiac state suspends the everyday experience of the individual, in effect, annihilates the individual; but on the brink of destruction art reclaims him. This fundamental experience of good tragedy is absent from the work of Euripedes. The spirit of Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ work has been replaced with the Socratic maxim, ‘Whatever is beautiful must also be sensible.’ The balance between Dionysiac and Apollonian elements is upset, and the result is inartistic naturalism containing none of the universality of the non-phenomenal world.

Schopenhauer, in The World As Will And Idea, defines the relation between music and image and concept in terms of universalia ante rem and universalia in re. In other words that music expresses the primordial things-in-themselves, as will without embodiment, while image and concept derive from perceptible phenomena of the real world. In accordance with Schopenhauer, Nietzsche interprets music as the immediate language of the will, but adds that it is music, therefore, that stimulates and gives heightened significance to the Apollonian spheres of image and concept.

‘Dionysiac art, then, affects the Apollonian talent in a twofold manner: first, music incites us to a symbolic intuition of the Dionysiac universality: second, it endows that symbolic image with supreme significance.’

Dionysiac art, in music, adds the non-rational experience of the universalia ante rem and elevates the plastic Apollonian art to the same level. Music gave birth to the tragic myth as the only sufficient expression of the original Oneness and the pains of individuation. Tragedy captures the Dionysiac spirit of destruction in a way that the accepted origins of art, Apollonian illusion and beauty, are not capable of accommodating. It is only through the infusion of the Dionysiac spirit that the images are able to transcend the particular and the phenomenal. The hero, being an ephemeral manifestation of the will, dies, while the will of life, as a whole, lives on.

‘Each single instance of such annihilation will clarify for us the abiding phenomenon of Dionysiac art, which expresses the omnipotent will behind individuation, eternal life continuing beyond all appearance and in spite of destruction.’

The plastic Apollonian arts are, unlike Dionysiac art, sympathetic to individual suffering; they deal in appearances, though they can, through idealisation, express what is eternal in natural beauty. But, essentially, nature is like Dionysiac art – there is an unchanging will behind constant superficial change. Nietzsche appears primarily as a disciple of Dionysus – In the Expeditions of an Untimely Man in the Twilight Of The Idols he describes the psychology of the artist as intoxicated with cruelty and destruction, as if influenced by the feeling of Spring or narcotics, with an overloaded and distended will. However it transpires that he thinks of both Dionysus and Apollo as intoxication, not as intoxication and dream, as in The Birth of Tragedy. In Section 10 he promises to deal with the two aspects of art but spends only two short sentences on Apollonian art and he devotes the rest of the section to Dionysian art. In the Twilight Of The Idols he seems only to pay lip service to the idea of Apollo, it is really Dionysus that interests him. But in The Birth of Tragedy this is less so; we are not left in any doubt as to which is the superior partner but they are partners and one relies upon the other. A purely Dionysian tragedy could not exist; its destructive consummation would cast the spectator into oblivion, never to return.

The art of tragedy relies on the continuous evolution of the Apollonian-Dionysiac duality, in the same way that they propagation of the human species depends on the duality of the sexes. Nietzsche may have his own distorted views on the inferiority of women, but he cannot deny their, nor Apollo’s, critical importance. He emphasises the split, both in origins and objectives, between the plastic Apollonian arts and the music of Dionysus. They can be in fierce opposition, but the highest goal of tragedy and art in general is achieved by their marriage. The primordial, universal Oneness and the suffering of individuation is expressed in beauty, and artistic illusion and concern for individual forms saves us from being subsumed.

‘let us sacrifice in the temple of both gods.’

Both gods are indispensable, yet they are conflicting, contradictory characters, tending to induce the follower to neglect the other god. Nietzsche betrays his own preference but however difficult it is to fuse the two, great art, in his view, can only be reached by their reconciliation and balanced union, be it symbolised by husband and wife, as at the beginning of The Birth Of Tragedy, or by brothers and partners. The tensions and frictions of difficult relations are ultimately harnessed to spark off tragedy, to overwhelm and rescue the spectator simultaneously.

 Copyright 1981 Ade Annabel