Alan Gouk

#83. Alan Gouk and Robin Greenwood write on Cézanne, Matisse and Soutine

Paul Cézanne,  “The Artist’s Father, Reading ‘L’Événement'”, 1866

https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/cezanne-portraits/exhibition/

https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/matisse-in-the-studio?gclid=CjwKCAjw7frPBRBVEiwAuDf_Lb_-693ATRKTZ5V4_kzjHg3FPEiBYPrb3zNk6qoCB9IAYJtAtasviBoCDy4QAvD_BwE

http://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/what-on/exhibitions-displays/soutine?gclid=Cj0KCQiArYDQBRDoARIsAMR8s_RteHDtE_LvRwq4RJj3NmODlMj5NWB2cYwbxHMh69r22vmcbC-w2y4aArBoEALw_wcB

Alan Gouk: Some Notes on Three Exhibitions in London.  Cezanne, Matisse, Soutine.

The show of Cézanne portraits at the NPG is so overwhelming that I’m obliged to confine my response to just three or four pictures. As with the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery in 2015 one feels that everything that could possibly be said has already been said, and yet nothing has been said that comes near to conveying the qualities of original vision and formal power of these masters, and the formidable (in the French pronunciation) humanity of their affirmation of painting’s capacity to “take the impress of spirit” in the words of Roger Fry. Painting will never be “dead” as long as one can take sustenance from pictures like these.

The resounding “bass vibrato” of the young Cézanne’s temperamental brutalism is struck by the first painting one sees on entry, the large vertical The Artist’s Father 1866. The volumetric relief of this seated man is astonishing, his legs and feet jutting forcefully into the foreground space, swollen like an elephant’s, rendered clumsily in a smoothly succulent and absolute grey, with emphatic shadows that are consistently maintained throughout on the heavy throne-like chair which is modelled with the same fluent clumsiness as the figure of the father, who looks more like a labourer than a banker, his podgy hands clutching L’Événement newspaper, hewn with much scrapings in white/grey/black like a Mosaic tablet. Whether this brutalism was intended as a rebuke to, or an assault on the seamless trompe-l’oeil finesses of Salon favourites, or whether it was the best that Cézanne could manage at this juncture, is no matter, and what it says about his relationship with his father must remain forever prurient speculation. To me if anything it seems to heroicise him. After all it was his father’s largesse that enabled Cézanne to dedicate his life to a sustained concentration on painting that was denied to most of his companions.

The buttery fat palette knifing sculpting the father’s face and hands is echoed in many portraits to follow, of Uncle Dominique and others, which in spite of this limited means, manage an extraordinary salience of volumetric form reduced to the extremes of light and dark (black hat and white gloves placed near the painting to serve as the outer limits of the pendular swing of their tonal language.) The solidity and succulence of paint application in this painting would be subject to transmutation with a thousand nuances over the years, near glazes replacing impasto, in which the watercolours are a crucial accompaniment, re-emerging in the very late portraits with a renewed if symphonic solidity.

But The Artist’s Father has further indices of the inherent tendency of Cézanne’s art, in the dense chocolate brown plane and the sienna wall plane that backs up the chair, with a still-life painting in a style influenced by Monticelli, who was also a palette knifer, hanging behind the head, parallel to the picture plane; in all of which Cezanne seems to want to outdo Manet in “bold impasto” and the emphatic assertion of the planarity of the picture design.

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#74. Alan Gouk writes on Key Paintings of the 20th Century: a Musée Imaginaire (Part 1).

Paul Cézanne, “Ginger Jar and Fruit”, c. 1895

“First the Giants, then the pygmies.”   Elie Faure

I could have begun with a painting by Rubens, one of Cézanne‘s favourite painters, his Susannah and the Elders in Munich, or the Three Graces in the Prado, but that would have set us off on the wrong foot by confirming Cézanne‘s own estimate of himself – “how feeble I am in life “, said in relation to Manet’s “bold impasto”. However, when the National Gallery placed Cézanne‘s Grand Bathers beside Titian’s Diana and Actaeon and Rubens’ Judgement of Paris, he did not look feeble, and it was the Rubens that fell away first. What the confrontation confirmed was that it is not the succulent rendering of flesh, the atmospheric rendering of spatial illusion, nor the sumptuous handling of fabrics and the texture of appearances that counts, but the architectural strengths of the composition, the disposition of the major masses and the demands of their accommodation to the entire presented image, and the shape of the canvas , and that this can be created with a new economy of means, new and old, and an especial emphasis on “form”, form over the sensuous, form over everything. Cézanne goes on to build a monument to his feebleness.

And here is a contradiction, for how can it be that someone who said this of himself could prove to be the most powerful temperament in a century of powerful temperaments?

Emile Zola, a vocal champion of the movement in French painting he designated as “naturalism”, coined the expression — “nature seen through a temperament”. No one had a temperament more powerful and idiosyncratic than Paul Cézanne, of an intensity bordering the pathological, in his adolescent ferment, at least. (Perhaps it was just adolescent rebelliousness.) And he did not quite shed the phantasising of erotic torment that assailed him in youth, fuelled by his readings in classical literature, common to every well-educated schoolboy in France in the 19th century.

Underneath and parallel to the discipline instilled into him during his apprenticeship with Pissarro, there remained an erotic imaginative life which found expression in the many Bathers paintings, La Lutte D’Amour, a baroque turbulence in marked contrast to the strictness of his study after nature.

We are not all gifted with as strong a temperament, not all blessed with “equal temperament”. Some of us are in C major, some of us in B flat minor. Some are predominantly extravert sensation types, others are introverted feeling. Find out who you are. Be who you are, and not who you wish you were.

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#51. Alan Gouk writes on the Shchukin Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

Gallery of Matisses at the Shchukin Collection, photo John Pollard

Gallery of Matisses at the Shchukin Collection; photo John Pollard

The Shchukin Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris has been extended to 5th March 2017.

http://www.fondationlouisvuitton.fr/en.html

This unmissable show is likely to be the highlight of this year and possibly of the decade. The flamboyant kite-like superstructure in Frank Gehry’s signature style apart, the main galleries display beautifully the visionary taste and judgement of this extraordinary Russian collector. What monstrosities may we expect when this show closes? Gerhard Richter? Cy Twombly? Bill Viola? Ai Wei Wei? God help us! So let us rejoice while we can that there once was a man of superlative judgement to take the true temperature of his times, a time before the psychopathology of art globalisation. This is an exhibition that normally would have gone to the Met. or the National Gallery. How many handbag sales have gone into this colossally expensive enterprise on the fringes of the Bois De Boulogne?

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#48. Alan Gouk writes on Katherine Gili sculpture

Katherine Gili, "Quinary", 2014, steel, H.62.5cm

Katherine Gili, “Quinary”, 2014, steel, H.62.5cm

Katherine Gili: Looking for the Physical was at Felix and Spear, Ealing, London, 10th November – 13th December 2016.

http://www.felixandspear.com/katherine-gili

The sculptural power of Leonide, 1981-82, as it thrusts into space, to go no further back in Gili’s oeuvre, is clear affirmation that sculpture whose aim is to engage one immediately in a spatial way rather than having a predominant viewing point, does not need to do so equally from all points on the compass. Considered as an analogue for a structure, (with its figurative connotations in abeyance for the moment) its “stance” is forthright and unambiguous. It has remarkable physical presence from wherever it is viewed. It IS – it exists as an object in space, articulate and articulated, self-assertive and self-justifying (though that’s not all that it is). Each element is clearly defined in character and in its structural role. And it seems to say something about Gili herself, an enduring strength of character and artistic identity, proving that the unconscious reveals itself more through arduous realisation and reflection, than through perceptual self-trickery or doodling. It makes Giacometti for instance look very feeble indeed.

The fact that its structure is also a representation, if at some remove, of a body in movement allows one to accept without demur that it is anchored to a base and cantilevered from there.

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#43. Alan Gouk writes on Abstract Expressionism at the RA

Jackson Pollock, "Mural", 1943

Jackson Pollock, “Mural”, 1943

The prevailing trend in London to mount such exhibitions in gloomy half-light may serve to enhance Rothko, but it casts a pall of premature burial over many of the rooms, the first especially. However sensible this may be from a conservationist perspective, one wants to see these pictures survive in the light in which they were painted, and not in a reverential aura of profundity seeking historicism. The excessive use of the dimmer switch means that one is in the dark in one room, in half-light the next, and only in daylight for the “late works”.

This piece should be read as a pendant to my Letter from New York, 2011, on abstractcritical, which discusses many of these painters, and David Smith from the collection of MOMA, NY. in 2010, which was shown in daylight, and led to quite a different impression.

There is really only a little to add to the earlier piece. The more examples of Still’s work one sees, the more suspect the claims made for him become. These grandiloquent canyons of black endeavour to overawe by sheer size, sheer height. They are artistically somewhat inert, inexpressive, their handling cack-handed at worst, habitually clumsy and over emphatic, devoid of any of the subtleties of touch one would expect of a major sensibility. The sensibility, such as it is, is adamantine in a negative way, (in contrast to Mondrian’s positive). The only picture in his Black and Tan abstract vein which has some subtly artistic qualities is the smallest and earliest in that mode (1946?).

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#27. Alan Gouk writes on Matisse’s “Baroness Gourgaud”

Henri Matisse, "Baroness Gourgaud", 1924, Musee National D'Art Moderne, Paris.

Henri Matisse, “Baroness Gourgaud”, 1924, Musee National D’Art Moderne, Paris.

Matisse’s oeuvre can be divided into numerous periods, (and not just for curatorial convenience), too many to list here, but each stylistically distinct from the previous (though not so obviously as with Picasso), and with a different set of priorities both formal and expressive, much more so than might appear to the casual observer.

I choose to write about this particular picture, The Baroness Gourgaud, almost certainly a commissioned portrait from the wealthy Baron, partly because it is one of Matisse’s finest portraits, utterly different in character from the great Madame Matisse in Rouge Madras 1907, (Barnes Foundation), or Auguste Pellerin, 1916, or Woman in a Turban, (Laurette) 1917, (Cone Collection, Baltimore), but also because it reveals many of the devices he had learned from Persian and Indian miniatures, by which Matisse ordered his spaces in the more relaxed setting afforded by the early Nice years, after the intensity of his engagement with Picasso’s and Braque’s cubism, to which the Pellerin portrait attests, during the first world war, the so-called “Radical Years”. But Matisse was always “radical” in ways which escaped most commentators then and now, who tend to downgrade the Nice years for reasons which amount to no more than Puritanism and philistinism. Renoir’s sensuality accrues similar opprobrium, quite unjustly.

John Golding writes: ”But basically for him [Matisse] the decorative came to mean an allegiance to the totality of the painted surface and to the overall spiritual and emotional aura that radiated from it… Matisse is one of the very few Western artists who have been able to invest pattern, normally associated with flatness, with spatial properties”. (Matisse and Picasso, Tate Modern 2002). [Braque in the 1930’s is another]. And Matisse himself said: “Persian miniatures… through their accessories… suggest larger spaces, a more truly plastic space. That helped me to go beyond the painting of intimacy”. (Dominique Fourcade ed. Matisse – Ecrits et propos sur l’art. Paris 1972 page 203). The intimacy would return with paintings like that of The Baroness, however.

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#22. Alan Gouk writes a critique of T.J. Clark’s “Farewell to an Idea”

Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Marat”, 1793.

Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Marat”, 1793.

“An institutionalised counterculture condemns individuality as archaic and depreciates intellectual values, even in the universities.” Harold Bloom “The Anarchy of Influence”, 2011.

“Literature is always personal, always one man’s vision of the world, one man’s experience, and it can only be popular when men are ready to welcome the visions of others. A community that is opinion-ridden, even when these opinions are in themselves noble, is likely to put its creative minds into some sort of prison….” W.B. Yeats, 1904.

“Only that which does not teach, which does not cry out, which does not persuade, which does not condescend, which does not explain, is irresistible.” W.B. Yeats, 1910.

In one of the last “crits” I took part in before quitting St. Martins in 1990, a hapless student, when asked what he thought he was doing in presenting a large blown-up photograph of the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace underneath which there ran a Silk-Cut purple band with some trite non-sequitur of a written slogan, rather like the tapestries partially glimpsable behind the chair of committee hearings at Portcullis House, said student in his defence offered the banal: “I want to manipulate, seduce, and control”. I was quite unaware at the time (why should I have been?) that in doing so he was quoting verbatim the sayings of one Jeff Koons, who was becoming – had already become – one of the reference points for any aspirant fashionista of the day.

“Manipulate, seduce, and control”… there’s a lot of it about; indeed for a Marxist or lapsed neo-marxist or pseudo-marxist critic, that’s all there is. For Terry Eagleton, whose book “Literary Theory” I stumbled across in my local Oxfam shop, there is no such thing as literature, only what many readers feel inclined in their delusional subjectivity to read; literary criticism has therefore no reason to be, and should be replaced by the study of rhetoric, or the diabolic arts of persuasion, the strategies by which writers dupe the reader into the illusion that their fantasies of coherence and “liberal-humanist” epiphanies offer consolation from the brute realities of power.

Here the paranoidal suspicion so beloved of the perpetual adolescent that all utterances are irremediably riven with endorsements of the prevailing world order, complicit in the structures of mind control which support it, and that all art is a policing of experience, corralling it in ways supportive of the oppressive ”father”, is given the seductive lure of an outré cult of transgression, with sexual-political undertones backed up by an assumption of intellectual pedigree that goes all the way back to G.W.F. Hegel, and K. Marx in his Hegel influenced period.

It is always best to read such books as Eagleton’s and T.J. Clark’s (I’ll come to him soon) backwards from conclusion to introduction, to reveal just how fatuously inadequate are their solutions to the problems they claim to have discerned through their critiques.

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