Three recent exhibitions of note
by Jerry Weiss | January 26, 2022
By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500–1800, recently at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford and soon to open at the Detroit Institute of Arts, is a solid chaser to the reappraisal of Gentileschi in London a year earlier. Though this show takes a broader historical view, it is anchored by Gentileschi, particularly a trio of related self-portraits in which the artist adopted different guises. All three are variations on a theme; versions from London and Florence depict the painter as St. Catherine of Alexandria, while the Hartford canvas shows the artist rearranged so as to strum a lute. When painting herself as a saint, Gentileschi presented an idealized, modest vision. In the Wadsworth painting, she is more worldly, her rouge and décolletage a long way from the iconography of sainthood.
These differences speak to the malleability of iconography. They also demonstrate Gentileschi’s genius for using her own image as a means of self-promotion. She learned early to rely on herself, to prosper in a male-dominated culture. Raped as a teenager by a tutor in her own home, she testified against her assailant at trial while being tortured; thumbscrews were believed to elicit the truth. Gentileschi moved from Rome to Florence and established herself as an extraordinary talent by the age of twenty. She painted two versions of Judith beheading Holofernes, raising the possibility that she used her art to engage in revenge fantasy (the current show features a later take on the subject, a less violent and more mature composition). Though male artists—most notably Caravaggio—had exploited the dramatic narrative of the story, only Gentileschi could personally identify with the gender conflict.
If Gentileschi casts a Caraveggesque shadow, it does not eclipse the other masters nearby. There are beautiful, small self-portraits by Sofonisba Anguissola, wide-eyed and genial, and a standing portrait by her of the Marchese Massimiliano Stampa, a nine-year old boy who looks like he stepped out of a Diane Arbus photo. The catalogue entry by Joaneath Spicer compares it to a Moroni portrait, and correctly notes Anguissola’s capacity to see her subjects sympathetically. One also recalls Bronzino’s similar use of black and green in several portraits, but he, too, was hardly a match for Anguissola’s perception of character. Rosalba Carriera is represented by a group of small portraits, several of which display her mastery in pastel, others painted in gouache and watercolor; they are evanescent landmarks in rococo history. Other highlights include paintings and drawings by the Bolognese artists Elisabetta Sirani and Lavinia Fontana, the latter of whom left an album of tender portrait drawings. The curators of By Her Hand conceived of the exhibition as a partial response to Linda Nochlin’s provocative essay from over fifty years ago, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The answers offered here underscore the faulty premise of what was once considered a genuine question.
A few years ago, I saw Women Artists in Paris: 1850–1900 at the Clark Art Institute. It was an excellent overview of female artists who migrated to France, despite being barred from its most prestigious ateliers. The work largely followed academic conventions, and at some point either while walking through the show or soon afterwards, it occurred to me what, or more accurately who, was missing: Suzanne Valadon. She receives her due in Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel, of late at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and scheduled to open at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen next month. Valadon was, in her way, a modern spirit kindred to Gentileschi: an unlikely artist by virtue of gender, working in a hostile environment. Each was as tough as they had to be. Valadon grew up impoverished and became a circus acrobat. When she was injured in a fall at age fifteen, she pursued the most diametrically opposed career imaginable, a calling that requires absolute stillness, that of the artist’s model. But both contain an element of performance, and Valadon was soon in demand. She is recognizable in paintings by Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec, and she found a mentor and supporter in Degas.
Probably Valadon was omitted from the Clark show because she was so thoroughly an anomaly; aside from what she learned while posing for others, she seems to have been self-taught. Moreover, she didn’t start painting with true purpose until her mid-forties, well into the twentieth century. At any rate, once she got going she was very, very good—emphatic if heavy-handed as a draftswoman, with a no-bullshit feel to her portraits and nudes, their impact leavened by rich paint and lively color. There are no “dead” passages in a Valadon painting, and nary a restful one. The poster example is Blue Room, a cacophony of clashing drapes, at the center of which lies a perfectly self-assured woman, raised up on her left elbow. The pose borrows from centuries of odalisques, a well-traveled theme for masters right up to Matisse, but in Valadon’s telling the woman is clothed and a cigarette protrudes from her mouth. She is a surrogate for the artist’s disdain of convention, an alternative Olympia. Blue Room is a masterpiece of figurative painting that has lost none of its pleasant shock in the last century.
Valadon’s nudes are equally impertinent. In 1909 she painted an Adam and Eve, using as models herself and her partner, Andre Utter. The large-scale male nude and naked self-portrait were then unprecedented territory for a female artist, though Valadon later observed propriety by festooning Utter’s pelvis with fig leaves. With its raw surfaces and psychological unease, Reclining Nude, now in the Metropolitan Museum, seems to anticipate Alice Neel and Lucian Freud. The clothed portraits are hardly less unsettling. Marie Coca and Her Daughter Gilberte shows a mother seated in a patterned wing-backed chair, her daughter an independent presence at her feet. Beneath them the floor enacts a crashing perspective, and the whole interior, hell-bent on sliding off to the left, is held in check by a Degas print on the wall, a clever tribute to her mentor. In a later self-portrait, the artist observes herself in a mirror and looks straight at us, her head constructed of hard angles, symbols of unsentimental resolve. I used to see Valadon’s harsh drawing and Fauvist color as the awkwardness of a gifted primitive; this show confirms she was a worthy successor to the artists for whom she posed.
Recently, Ephraim Rubenstein wrote a perceptive and affectionate interpretation here on the art of Lennart Anderson. Ephraim rightly observed the difference between the paintings Anderson made from life and his allegorical pieces; the current retrospective at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts is weighted toward the former, though the centerpiece, at least by virtue of size, is Street Scene, a massive canvas that refers as much to classical prototypes as it does to contemporary life. “It’s the composition I’m interested in,” Anderson said late in life. “It’s all about composition.” Composition is equally important in the portraits and still lifes that were done from life, though that distinction is often ambiguous—Anderson also used drawings and photographs as reference. I don’t know how much of Portrait of Mrs. Suzy Peterson was painted from the model and how much was invented, but its muted geometry is beguiling. Some of his paintings are determinedly flat, constructed of values so closely knit that color changes do the work. Maybe my favorite, not in the show, is Nude from the Brooklyn Museum, further proof that a painting can be simultaneously cool and hot.
In other paintings, like Portrait of Matthew Devlin and Portrait of Barbara S. (the first one), Anderson chose a narrow value range in the skin tones while modeling the forms for all they were worth. A self-portrait (c. 1965) is comprised of neutral middle tones, the values compressed by the dense atmosphere that so often suffuses Anderson’s paintings. This is how Corot would have painted in a smoke-filled room.
The dichotomy that occurs to me in these works isn’t so much between observation and imagination, nor the push and pull of two and three-dimensional forms, though these tensions certainly exist and are of great interest. Rather, it’s an emotional paradox: Anderson was able to reconcile the contradictory strains of intimacy and remoteness, sharing apprehensible facts that remain secret nonetheless. His subjects, accessible as they seem, are impenetrable. It is the essential mystery of his realism, the foundation for a series of nuanced touches that add up to poetry.
Lennart Anderson: A Retrospective is on view at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts through March 18, 2022, then it will travel to the Southern Utah Museum of Art.