Monday, May 4, 2015

The Unarticulated Cry of Light: The Art of Sonia Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay was born Sara Stern in 1885 in Odessa in Ukraine, into a relatively-poor Jewish family. At the age of 5 she was adopted by a wealthy uncle, Henri Terk, and renamed Sofia Terk (though she was always known as Sonia). She doesn't appear to have had much if any contact with her birth parents after this point. She grew up in St. Petersburg in wealthy, educated circles, becoming fluent in English, German, and French. In 1904 she went to Germany to study at the Karlsruhe Academy, moving two years later to Paris to study at the Académie de la Palette. Sonia's early paintings, mainly highly-coloured portraits of people in her circle, were influenced by the work of Paul Gauguin, but also by the German Expressionists of Die Brücke, and by the Fauves, who were just exploding onto the Paris art scene. She met and married the art dealer William Uhde, in what was essentially a marriage of convenience; Uhde was gay, and Sonia wanted to stay in Paris. Uhde put on her first show in 1908, but by this time Sonia had already met the love of her life, the painter Robert Delaunay. She and Uhde divorced (though they remained lifelong friends), and Sonia married Robert in 1910. Together they became one of the power couples of the Paris art world, working in a joint style of Cubist-influenced almost abstract colour-contrasts that they named Simultanism or Orphism.

Sonia Delaunay, Composition I
Pochoir from Compositions, Couleurs, Idées, c. 1930

The art of Sonia Delaunay is currently being celebrated in a wonderful exhibition at Tate Modern. This covers the full arc of her career, from those early Gauguin-inspired portraits through the Orphism years right up to her late flowering in the 1960s and 70s, after a period in which she devoted herself to curating Robert's legacy rather than to her own art. One aspect of her work that is particularly well-explored is her move into fabric design and fashion in the 1920s. This was prompted by financial need, as Sonia's income from a property in St. Petersburg vanished with the Russian Revolution, but it played to her natural strengths in manipulating pattern and colour in flowing rhythms.

Sonia Delaunay, Composition II
Pochoir from Compositions, Couleurs, Idées, c. 1930

Sonia Delaunay, Composition VII
Pochoir from Compositions, Couleurs, Idées, c. 1930

Sonia Delaunay, Composition XXVI
Pochoir from Compositions, Couleurs, Idées, c. 1930

The exhibition has many fabric designs, fabric samples, and items of clothing, showing how Sonia Delaunay embraced a kind of total art that could be applied in almost any context, from a Cubist cot quilt for her son Charles to painted bookbindings to costume designs for Diaghilev. The cot quilt is hanging in the same room as my favourite item in the show, the "premier livre simultané", the book La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France. This 1913 collaboration with her close friend, the poet Blaise Cendrars, consists of a long strip of equally-balanced text and abstract pochoir illustration. Pochoir is an oddly under-explored artistic medium, despite having been used for three of the greatest artist's books of the twentieth century: by Sonia Delaunay in La Prose du Transsibérien, by Henri Matisse in Jazz, and by André Lanskoy in Cortège. Besides La Prose du Transsibérien, Sonia Delaunay employed the pochoir technique to great effect in a portfolio of forty plates published around 1930 under the title Compositions, Couleurs, Idées. This was published by Éditions d'Art Charles Moreau, and although no limitation is given, the print run was evidently very small, as it has become extremely scarce. Most of the illustrations in this post come from this source.

Sonia Delaunay, Composition XIV
Pochoir from Compositions, Couleurs, Idées, c. 1930

Sonia Delaunay, Composition XV
Pochoir from Compositions, Couleurs, Idées, c. 1930

Sonia Delaunay, Composition XX
Pochoir from Compositions, Couleurs, Idées, c. 1930

Sonia Delaunay, Composition XXXV
Pochoir from Compositions, Couleurs, Idées, c. 1930

Pochoir is a method of hand-stencilling, which became popular in France as a refined method of reproducing watercolour drawings. The products of commercial pochoir ateliers (such as those run by Saudé, Charpentier, and Renson) are often very beautiful, but they aim, as you might expect, for consistency. Sonia Delaunay appears to have applied the pochoir colours herself, and every copy of La Prose du Transsibérien that I have seen has been quite differently coloured. The one in the Tate exhibition, which is a deluxe copy printed on japon, is hanging next to the original watercolour design, and actually the pochoir colours are much brighter and more vivid. This exercise in synaesthesia has been a great favourite of mine since I first saw a copy in the exhibition Libri Cubisti in Siena in, I think, 1990; I can't lay my hands on the catalogue at present. I even translated Cendrars' long poem about a train journey from Moscow to Paris, purely for the pleasure of accompanying him.

Sonia Delaunay, Témoinage VI
Pochoir for Témoinages pour l'art abstrait, 1952

Sonia Delaunay, Composition with green and blue
Lithograph, 1969

Sonia Delaunay, Composition with a yellow background
Lithograph, 1972

Besides the excellent Tate catalogue, I can recommend Stanley Baron's biography, Sonia Delaunay: The Life of an Artist, Matteo de Leeuw-de Monti and Petra Timmer, Colour Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay, and Danielle Molinari, Delaunay; the latter covers the art of both Robert and Sonia.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Two Lithuanian Modernists: Vincas Kisarauskas and Saule Kisarauskiene

When Vincas Kisarauskas and Saulė Aleškevičiūtė met while studying at the Lithuanian Art Institute in Vilnius in the late 1950s they forged a powerful personal and artistic partnership that was to introduce a Picasso-inspired Modernist aesthetic into the conservative Lithuanian art scene, which typically encouraged socialist realism or the exploration of safe ethnographic themes. The 1960s was a decade of turmoil and revolution not just in the West, but also in the Soviet bloc. In his article "Vincas Kisarauskas' Arrow Is Still In Flight", Marcelijus Martinaitis recalls how in those heady days, "Fragments of modern Western art were hunted for, art albums 'from over there' were scanned, books and articles were read."

Saulė Kisarauskienė

One approved route into Western art circles was participation in international congresses of collectors and creators of exlibris bookplates, and both Vincas and Saulė became keen exlibris artists. All of my examples of their work represent this aspect of their art, which was celebrated in three booklets by the Danish exlibris scholar Klaus Rödel: Nogle Exlibris af Vincas Kisarauskas og lidt om Tradition eller Modernisme i Exlibriskunsten (1970), Vincas Kisarauskas: En moderne litauisk grafiker og hans exlibris (1973), and Exlibris-Portrait 12: Saule Kisarauskiene (1973). All of the exlibris I have by Saulė are etchings with aquatint; those by Vincas include etchings with aquatint, linocuts, and one relief engraving on zinc. The artistic practice of both extends way beyond this discrete area of work - Vincas in particular was a dedicated painter, and also became known as a designer for stage and screen.

I find much to admire in work of both these artists. The work of Vincas is perhaps more austere and intellectual than that of Saulė, which has a livelier sense of emotion. But they are both clearly working in the same area of interest, and playing with the interaction of shape and form in similar ways. Saulė is more concerned with the human figure than Vincas, though when he does include figures they have a wonderful wit, as in his 1970 bookplate for Inge Rödel, created on the occasion of the 13th international Exlibris congress in Budapest. I'll show Saulė's work first; her bookplates are mostly for literary and artistic figures in Lithuania, including the artist Ausra Petrauskaite, the poet Edward Puzdrowski, Saulė's sister Aldona Aleškevičiūtė, the scientific writer Jurgis Tornau, and the artist Antanas Gudaitis.

Saulė Kisarauskienė, Ex libris Ausra Petrauskaite
Etching with aquatint, 1970

Saulė Kisarauskienė, Ex libris Edward Puzdrowski
Etching with aquatint, 1969

Saulė Kisarauskienė, Ex libris Aldona Aleskeviciute
Etching with aquatint, 1969

Saulė Kisarauskienė, Ex libris  Jurgis Tornau
Etching with aquatint, 1970

Saulė Kisarauskienė, Ex libris Antanas Gudaitis
Etchng with aquatint, 1970

Saulė Kisarauskienė, Ex libris Inge Rödel
Etching with aquatint, 1970

Vincas Kisarauskas was born in 1934 in the village of Augmėnai, in the Radviliškis district. Saulė Stanislava Aleškevičiūtė was born in 1937 in Kaune. After their marriage, Saulė became Saulė Kisarauskienė, or Saulė Aleškevičiūtė-Kisarauskienė. While both pursued their art with great seriousness, it was perhaps inevitable that the duties of motherhood and the gender bias of the day would mean that it was Vincas who achieved the greater fame and acclaim, but they appear to me to have been a true lifelong artistic union, each enriching their own artistic practice by reference to the other.

Vincas Kisarauskas

The art of Vincas Kisarauskas employs a personal vocabulary of forms, which he combines and reinterprets with wit and skill. This is particularly evident I think in his linocuts, which teeter on the verge of abstraction without ever fully embracing it. What I particularly admire about these is the way Kisarauskas achieves a sense of monumentality within such small-scale works. His block-like figures have real strength and presence.

Vincas Kisarauskas, Ex libris Inge Rödel
Etching with aquatint, 1970

Vincas Kisarauskas, XIII Congres International de l'exlibris 1970
Etching with aquatint, 1970

Vincas Kisarauskas Ex libris Klaus Rödel
Etching with aquatint, 1974

Vincas Kisarauskas, Ex libris Klaus Rödel
Etching with aquatint, 1974

Vincas Kisarauskas, 15. Dail. Julijos Vysniauskienes knygy
Zinc engraving, 1967

Vincas Kisarauskas, Ex libris Mary & Alfonso (Sapnas?)
Linocut, 1971

Vincas Kisarauskas, Ex libris A. Stasiul…
Linocut, 1971

Vincas Kisarauskas, Ex libris Herber Blokland
Linocut, 1971

Vincas Kisarauskas, Ex libris Lars, Inge & Klaus Rödel
Lincocut, 1971

Vincas Kisarauskas, Ex libris Carlo Chiesa (XIV Congres International de l'Ex libris)
Linocut, 1972

Vincas Kisarauskas, Ex libris Inge Rödel (XIV Congres International de l'Ex libris)
Linocut, 1972

Vincas Kisarauskas, Ex libris Vagn Clemmensen
Linocut, 1972

Vincas Kisarauskas, Ex libris Vagn Clemmensen
Linocut, 1973

Vincas Kisarauskas, Ex libris Vagn Clemmensen
Linocut, 1973

In this sense they are rather like a Lithuanian version of Robert and Sonia Delaunay. As in the case of the Delaunays, the husband died prematurely (Robert Delaunay lived to be 56, Vincas Kisarauskas was just 54 when he died of a heart attack in New York in 1988). Saulė Kisarauskienė, like Sonia Delaunay, was left to be the standard bearer of her husband's reputation, and also to continue her own artistic journey. In 2007, after a long silence, she held a major exhibition of new work entitled Rebirth, and in 2008 there was the first monograph on her art. There's a 2013 interview with her here, in Lithuanian; if you copy this into Google Translate you will get the gist of it.

There is now an extensive collection of works by Saulė Aleškevičiūtė-Kisarauskienė and Vincas Kisarauskas in the Šiauliai Aušros Museum, whose website has virtual exhibitions of both linocuts by Vincas and monoprints made from carved and painted clay plates by Saulė.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Social Media: Twitter and Facebook

This is just to alert my readers to the fact that I have taken the plunge into the world of social media, and set up Twitter and Facebook accounts for Idbury Prints. The Twitter feed will just feature a single image with minimal information: artist, title, medium, date. The Facebook page will feature the same image but with a brief, informal text about it. I'll also try to work out how to link the Facebook page to this blog, so that the longer, more considered pieces I post here should also go there.

Ludwig Heinrich von Jungnickel, Pantherkopf
Colour woodcut, 1916

This is the first image I chose for this new project, a really stunning colour woodblock print by one of the masters of the medium. It was published in 1916  in the Vienna art revue Die Graphischen Kunste. Jungnickel made two different versions of this print - this one with the white background, and a second one with an orange background. You can compare the two in the informative post on L. H. Jungnickel at Modern Printmakers.

I'm still intending to keep this blog up, and have quite a few posts in the works, but the simpler nature of Twitter and Facebook should enable me to communicate with more regularity. So if you like, please follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or even both.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Winter: an etching by Louis Graf Sparre

The aristocratic Swedish artist Count Pehr Louis Sparre, commonly referred to in German as Louis Graf Sparre (Graf meaning Count), was born in Gravellona Lomellina, Italy, in 1863. He was married to the Finnish artist Eva Mannerheim, and lived in Finland for nearly twenty years from 1889. Louis Sparre is regarded as one of the founders of Karelianism, alongside his close friend and colleague Akseli Gallen-Kallela. This shiveringly cold etching was created by Louis Sparre in 1904, and published in 1906 by the Gesellschaft für Vervielfältigende Kunst, Vienna, in Die Graphischen Kunste.

Louis Graf Sparre, Winter
Etching, 1904

Besides a long career as a painter and printmaker, Louis Sparre was a leading ceramicist, and directed the first Finnish feature film. If that wasn't enough, he also competed as an individual and team fencer at the 1912 summer Olympics. Louis Graf Sparre died in Stockholm in 1964, at the age of 101.

Friday, January 16, 2015

War and the pity of war: Kathe Kollwitz

I've posted before about the German Expressionist artist Käthe Kollwitz, so I'll not rehearse all my previous thoughts again: you can read them here. But having acquired a new etching by Kollwitz I felt I wanted to share it with you, partly as my own inadequate response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Initially this picture seems to have nothing to do with war or terror: it is simply a mother caressing her baby in the cradle, the kind of image Mary Cassatt made famous.

Käthe Kollwitz, Frau an der Wiege
Etching, 1897
Klipstein 38 IIIc, Knesebeck 40

But look again at that mother. She is not entranced by the happy, healthy presence of her baby; she is traumatised by the anticipation of grief and loss, already holding her head in her hands. When she made this image in 1897, after the birth of her second child, Peter, how could Käthe Kollwitz have known that such sadness lay ahead? But it did. Peter was killed in action in WWI in October 1914, aged just 19. Everyone knows how much it hurts a mother to lose a child. If everyone in the world who is tempted to acts of war or terrorism could just remember, in the moment before they pull the trigger or shed the bomb, that every one of those they kill is a son or a daughter, surely they would think again?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

An obscure English woodcut artist: Felix Henry Eames

I offer the robust woodcut A Breton Déjeuner by F. H. Eames to my readers with all my best wishes for a happy and healthy 2015. May your tables overflow with food, wine, and the laughter of friends.

Felix Henry Eames, A Breton Déjeuner
Woodcut, 1930

I really like this highly-accomplished work, which was contributed to The London Mercury in 1930. Around this time Eames was also contributing woodcuts or wood engravings to another London literary and artistic revue, The Town Crier. So I was surprised when researching him to find almost nothing about F. H. Eames, either in standard reference books or on the internet. I did manage to expand the initials to two given names, Felix Henry. I also discovered that he was born in Matlock, Derbyshire, in 1892, and that he died in 1971. And that is about the sum total of my knowledge.

From the Breton subject-matter of A Breton Déjeuner and the Post-Impressionist aesthetic of the piece I would suspect that Felix Henry Eames was one of those artists still drawn to Pont-Aven in the 1920s and 30s, in the footsteps of Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven of the 1880s and 90s. For instance in the 1930s the painter William Scott, his wife the sculptor and painter Mary Lucas, and their friend Geoffrey Nelson ran the Pont-Aven School of Painting there, to attract just such artistic pilgrims.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A major artist in a minor field: the wood engravings of Gwen Raverat

I suppose I've been aware of Gwen Raverat's wood engravings for most of my life, though without ever knowing how to pronounce her name: the final "t" is silent, so the correct pronunciation is more like Raverar. Her husband, the artist Jacques Raverat, was French, and Gwen and Jacques lived in Vence from 1920 until Jacques' early death from multiple sclerosis in 1925. It was in Provence that Gwen created what for me are her most perfect works, from a lifetime total of nearly 600 engraved woodblocks.

Frances Spalding, Gwen Ravert: Friends, Family & Affections
Cover design incorporating an oil self-portrait, c.1910-11

Gwen Raverat was born in Cambridge in 1885. Her eccentric family were part of the intellectual elite of Cambridge. Charles Darwin was her grandfather, and late in life she wrote a brilliant childhood memoir, Period Piece, which brings the family dramas of the Darwins to life. She would be an interesting person simply for her Darwin heritage, her close involvement in the Cambridge Neo-Pagans led by Rupert Brooke, and her tangential but intimate entwinement with the Bloomsbury Group, if she herself had never produced any original art. But she did, and it is art of such quality that Joanna Selborne in the monograph and catalogue raisonné Gwen Raverat: wood engraver describes her as "a major artist in a minor field".

Nightmare, or Cauchemar, or Flight
Woodcut, 1909

Gwen Raverat's work developed very quickly from her first woodcuts made while she was a student at the Slade in 1909, cut with a knife into softwood, along the grain. Even these are full of vitality, and one of the best is Nightmare, with its striking sense of existential angst and its strongly Expressionist aesthetic.

Sir Thomas Browne, state 1
Wood engraving, 1910

Within a year Gwen had moved from the woodcut to the wood engraving, made on the end grain of a boxwood block - the technique pioneered by her childhood hero, Thomas Bewick. She remained true to Bewick's small-scale perfection throughout her career, and she also shared his sly sense of humour. The  frontispiece she designed for Geoffrey Keynes's Bibliography of Sir Thomas Browne in 1910 is a brilliant piece of fun, with Death guiding the hand and mind of the author of Urn Burial. This impression is the first state of the engraving, before the artist filled in the blank background behind the figure of death with wood panelling, and altered the anachronistic sash window. I prefer the stark authority of this first state to the slightly cluttered feel of the second, finished state.

The Dead Christ
Woodcut, 1913

The Nativity
Wood engraving, 1916

As a Darwin, Gwen was raised a freethinker, but between 1912 and 1914 she went through an intensely religious phase. She and Jacques were friends and fellow-students of Stanley Spencer, and also friends with Eric Gill. Jacques dreamed of creating a temple to be decorated by the four of them, a project that never happened, though it came to a kind of fruition in Spencer's chapel at Burghclere. The Raverats and Gill also planned to publish an illustrated Gospels, a plan which fell apart over Gill's insistence on using the Catholic Bible. However the engraving The Dead Christ, engraved by Gwen after a drawing by Jacques, gives a flavour of what such a book would have been like. The resemblance to Eric Gill's work of the period is quite striking. Gwen's tender Nativity of three years later is less graphic and more intimate; the luminous sense of the play of light in the stable gives an indication of the impressionistic course that Gwen Raverat's art would take in the following years.

The Sleeping Beauty (La Belle au bois dormant)
Wood engraving, 1916

The Sleeping Beauty, from the same year, is one of Gwen Raverat's most attractive images; although the print was editioned in black-and-white, Gwen hand-coloured at least one copy, which can be seen on the website of the Raverat Archive here. All of the pieces illustrated in this post come from the Raverat Archive, by permission of the artist's grandson William Pryor, the author of the fascinating Virginia Woolf & the Raverats.

Olive Pickers
Wood engraving, 1922

Street by Moonlight, Vence, I
Wood engraving, 1922

Jeu de Boules, Vence, II

As I mentioned earlier, it is Gwen's Provençal engravings that speak most strongly to me, and all the rest of the images here come from that vivid period in Vence, where Gwen nursed the dying Jacques while also nourishing her own art.  The wood engravings Gwen made in Vence are among her loveliest; unfortunately the Provence climate played havoc with the woodblocks, so these exquisite works can never again be printed direct from the block.

La Place en Hiver
Wood engraving, 1923

La Place en Été
Wood engraving, 1923

Old Women, state 1
Wood engraving, 1924 

Gwen Raverat's long and influential career as a wood engraver was cut short by WWII. In her British Wood-Engraved Book Illustration 1904-1940, Joanna Selborne writes of Gwen Raverat, "Apart from Lucien Pissarro, she was virtually the only practitioner in the early days of the revival to apply the lessons of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and to retain an interest in light effects throughout her work."

The Balcony, state 2
Wood engraving, 1926

In addition to the books above, I strongly recommend the biography by Frances Spalding, Gwen Raverat, a really compelling read.