Meet Hercules Segers

Parallel to Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, The Met was showing works by the Dutch printmaker and painter Hercules Seg(h)ers (ca. 1589 – ca. 1638). Very little is known about his life but his dreamy landscapes, innovative techniques such as lift-ground etching which would only be employed by others 150 years later, impressions in multiple colours contrary to the existing traditions that wanted them to look alike – in black and white, all speak for themselves.

And if that was not impressive enough, the curators’ notes disclosed that Segers very seldom depicted actual places; his incredibly detailed landscapes are all places he had never been to and only knew from prints made after Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s designs. So, for all their detail and realism, Segers’ landscapes were mostly products of his beautiful mind. No wonder he was the favourite artist of the much younger but no less experimental printmaker of the time, Rembrandt van Rijn, who owned eight paintings and one printing plate by Segers.

Mountain Valley with Dead Pine Trees and a City in the Background, ca. 1622-25
Line etching printed on light brown ground, varnished; unique impression

Influenced by the work of earlier Netherlandish landscapists, most notably prints after drawings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Segers often rendered broad Alpine valleys, as in this example. Bruegel was known for creating vast, comprehensible spaces that invited the viewer to fancifully wander. While here Segers included elements typical of Bruegel’s scenes – a path leading from the foreground into a distant valley, dotted with villages and castles – he flattened the landscape and used a variety of patterns to distinguish the rocks, the grassy hills, and the path. One of the artist’s larger etchings, this print exists in only one known impression.


After Hans Baldung
The Lamentation of Christ, ca. 1630-33
Line etching printed with tone and blue highlights on a cream-tinted ground, coloured with brush

This poignant depiction, one of the artist’s few biblical subjects, copies a woodcut created more than a century earlier by Hans Baldung. Segers closely replicated the figure group but removed the suggestions of the cross behind them, adding instead a small cluster of buildings on the bottom right. The artist overpainted this impression with opaque watercolour and oil paint, making it his most colourful etching.


Tobias and the Angel, ca. 1630-33
Line etching printed in olive-green with tone and highlights; first state of six

Tobias and the Angel, one of Segers’ final prints, was inspired by an engraving by Hendrick Goudt after Adam Elsheimer. Segers copied the two figures, including the large fish dragged along by Tobias, but enlarged them so that their silhouettes stand out against the sky.


Hercules Segers with Rembrandt van Rijn
The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1652
Line etching, drypoint, burin; sixth state of six

Rembrandt came into possession of Segers’ etching plate by about 1652 and altered the subject to the Flight into Egypt. He scraped away the large figures and added Joseph and Mary, as well as sketchy trees. In the second state, Rembrandt’s addition of rich drypoint lines almost obscures the subject.


The Mossy Tree, ca. 1625-30
Lift-ground etching printed in green on a light pink ground, coloured with brush; unique impression

The Mossy Tree is one of Segers’ most striking and iconic prints, due to its loose, almost calligraphic lines, which convey the unruly nature of moss. Linked together solely with thin lines, the branches seem to float before the delicately coloured background. The artist original printed the tree in green ink, though it has turned brown over time.


The Two Trees (An Alder and an Ash), ca. 1625-30
Lift-ground etching printed in green on a light pink ground, coloured with brush; unique impression.


Mountain Landscape with a Distant View, ca. 1620-25
Oil on canvas laid down on panel

Once attributed to Rembrandt, this painting was assigned to Segers in 1871, though it was still considered to have been retouched by the younger master. The palette and the dramatic mood relate to Rembrandt’s work, but recent study of the painting has determined that the reworking was carried out instead by an unknown 17th-century painter. This ambitious landscape, Segers’ largest, suffered in the 17th century due to a large hole in the upper right, which was patched with a new canvas. Subsequently, both the mountains in the background and a large section of the sky were overpainted, and Segers’ brush marks abruptly stop at the edge of the patch. The nervous white highlights on the rocks in the foreground are typical of Segers’ paintings.


Mountain Valley with Fence Fields, ca. 1625-30
Line etching and drypoint printed in blue with plate tone, coloured with brush; second state of two


The Enclosed Valley, ca. 1625-30
Line etching printed on linen with a tinted ground, coloured with brush. Twenty-two impressions of this print have survived.


The Enclosed Valley, ca. 1625-30
Line etching printed on linen with a tinted ground, coloured with brush. Twenty-two impressions of this print have survived.


The Large Tree, ca. 1628-29
Line etching printed with tone and highlights, black chalk

A majestic oak dominates a landscape abundant with foliage. A town and a body of water populated by sailboats can be seen in the distance.

Here, Segers’ three-tone process yields subtle gradiations of black and grey and enhances the play of light in the foliage. To create this etching, the artist covered the printing plate with dense pattern of intersecting lines, which are clearly visible in the sky. To preserve parts of the sky and the white highlights, he used stopping-out varnish, which prevents the acid that incises the lines into the metal from ”biting” farther into the plate. But the solvent in the varnish reacted with the etching ground, resulting in the fine line that curves around the top of the foliage. Segers may have meant to paint impressions of the print in order to hide this line, though neither of the two existing examples is painted.


Distant View with a Road and Mossy Branches, ca. 1622-25
Segers printed this etching with various coloured inks and grounds. Using fabric and paper, he also created counterproofs and a maculature. 


Impressions of Valley with a River and a Town with Four Towers, ca. 1626-27 etching.


Skull on a Ledge
Undated
Oil on canvas
Possibly Segers

The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 13 – May 21, 2017

March 19th, 2017

Sunday in The Met with George

But first, a peacock mosaic column, one of the two that served as a room divider in Tiffany’s Manhattan showrooms, Madison Avenue & 47th St., as shown here in a picture taken ca. 1913. 

Fresh from an inspiring performance of ”Sunday in park with George” at the Hudson Theatre the previous weekend, a ”Sunday in The Met with George” to see Seurat’s Circus Sideshow, one of only six major figure paintings he created, was the next best thing. With it, an array of works by other artists – Seurat’s contemporaries – the exhibition aimed to explore their fascination with the Sideshow as a subject.

Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque) represents an ensemble of circus players lined up on a narrow stage outside a tent performing sample entertainment to entice customers to their show.

Georges de Feure. The Corvi Circus (Le Cirque Corvi), ca. 1893
Gouache, watercolour, pencil on paper

This highly finished gouache, by an artist who went on to champion Art Nouveau design, relies on simplified drawing and bold colour to give an edge to his description of performers preparing backstage at the Corvi Circus. His palette – the ambient blue of the evening set off by strident pinks, violets and yellows – uses ostensibly festive hues to spotlight the vagrant life of the saltimbanques and the existential paradoxes of the performer. 


Jules Chéret. Folies-Bergère: Corvi Circus, 1881. Colour lithograph


Georges Seurat. Two Clowns (Une Parade), ca. 1886-88. Conté crayon on paper


Georges Seurat. Study for ”Models”, 1886 – 87. Conté crayon on paper


Georges Seurat. Models (Poseuses), small version, 1887 – 88. Oil on canvas

This gemlike canvas is a small-scale version of the imposing, life-size Models (The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia) that Seurat exhibited alongside Circus Sideshow at the Salon des Indépendants in 1888. Two years after he asserted his authority as an innovative painter of modern life, with a plein-air subject in full sunlight, Seurat returned to the public stage with figure compositions that succeeded to demonstrate the versatility of his approach. He set forth a daytime, interior studio scene – graced by three nudes who channel classicizing prototypes, while skirting his earlier triumph – and a contrasting nighttime, outdoor scene that reflects a more abstract sensibility, broaching a symbolist aesthetic. Linked by formal characteristics, such as frontality and symmetry, the opposites did not attract equal attention. Models stole the limelight. 


Louis Anquetin. Avenue de Clichy (Street – Five O’ Clock in the Evening), 1887
Oil on paper, laid down on canvas

Anquetin’s view of a Paris boulevard at dusk – the blue and violet gloaming of the twilit street offset by the orange and yellow light of a butcher’s shop at left – is painted in his signature cloisonnist style, characterised by flat areas of colour outlined by emphatic contours. It was shown in the Salon des Indépendants of 1888, in direct competition with Seurat’s Circus Sideshow. Quick to recognise the rival solution to painting a nocturne of urban bustle under artificial lighting, one critic saw Anquetin’s canvas as ”designed to trouble those practicing pointillism.”


Georges Seurat. Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), 1887 – 88. Oil on canvas

From the time it debuted at the Salon des Indépendants in 1888, Circus Sideshow has intrigued and confounded its viewers. Indeed, Seurat’s closest associates were seemingly dumbstruck, largely confining their spare remarks to its novelty as a ”nocturnal effect”. (Of course, his detractors could not see past the ”multicoloured and mathematically contrasted lentils.”) The laconic artist never mentioned the picture, nor did he exhibit it again. Recent technical findings reveal that in adding the painted border, Seurat effaced his signature at lower right.

Circus Sideshow was sold from the artist’s estate in 1900. It left Paris for New York in 1929, claiming a ”place of honour” at the Museum of Modern Art’s inaugural show. Future Met donor, Stephen C. Clark acquired it three years later.


Seurat’s Circus Sideshow at The Met (February-May 2017)

March 19th, 2017

Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years @ MAD

“Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years is the first exhibition to focus on the early career of Peter Voulkos, whose radical methods and ideas during this period opened up the possibilities for clay in ways that are still being felt today.”

A chance encounter with the work of an artist I had never heard of before – highly popular in this part of the world, less so in Europe it seems. Following a quick research, I now know that he was an American of Greek descent (as his name suggests), whose parents had migrated to Bozeman, Montana where he was born. He served in the U.S. Army during WWII and studied painting and printmaking in Montana State University where he was also introduced to ceramics. He died in 2002 doing what he loved best: demonstrating his skill to a live audience.

“Commissions for large-scale works in bronze occupied a good deal of Voulkos’ time in the early 1960s, but he continued to work in clay energetically and innovatively. Many of his ceramic works of this period were made in public demonstrations. Voulkos was a natural performer who loved working in front of a crowd. One observer who saw him make Josephine at Greenwich House Pottery in New York, remembers how ”he worked with total abandon and total focus all at the same time”, first pounding the piece as it rose on the wheel then slicing it in half, then welding it together with wet clay as he worked it with his fists from the inside, and finally splashing its surface with slip and glaze.

Voulkos’ demonstrations were great theater, and even the ceramic works that he was making in the studio at this time, such as a series of cracked and fissured plates, capture this sense of immediacy. They can be compared with contemporary Abstract Expressionist paintings, many of which project a similar, stereotypically masculine combination of authority and aggression. Yet Voulkos’ improvisations also relate to his interest in jazz and Spanish flamenco, which he played proficiently on the guitar. ”I think that working in the form of pottery is a very demanding thing” he said. ”The minute you touch a piece of clay it responds, it’s like music – you have to know all the structure and know how to make sound before you can come up with anything”.”

Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years was on show until March 15th, 2017 at 

The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD)
2, Columbus Circle
New York City

March 12th, 2017

Counter-Couture @ MAD

Mid-March was icy-cold here in New York; the City was covered in snow. But spring was around the corner and summer a hop, skip and a jump away. And not just any summer – this year marked the 50th anniversary of the legendary San Francisco Summer of Love, in 1967.  There would be a ton of events to celebrate it on West Coast later on but, here we were, in New York City, in full winter attire, off to see ”Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture”, an exhibition of handmade dresses and accessories made by those free-spirited crafts-men and women who, in their rejection of the establishment of conformism, materialism and consumerism, went on to create some of the most original, superbly crafted designs, examples of which you are about to see below. They were the Hippies, the Flower Children, those young, idealists who struggled for equality and peace but got lost in their quest to reach those higher – LSD infused – levels of consciousness. They were men and women of my generation and they helped shaped me – and others like me – into the characters we have become today. Imagine how the world would have been, had they not got lost on their way.

Images from the exhibition

Michael Fajans
Hand-embroidered and appliqué Army Coat, 1967

Janet Lipkin
”Paisley”: Coat for Sylvia Bennett, c. 1970

Barbara Ramsey’s coat and jeans exemplify the Counterculture’s resourcefulness and need for self-expression. Each small patch bears a story or memory of its own and forms a scrapbook of life experiences – worn by the person who lived them.

In 1971 Ramsey was given a ragged, wool-lined coat that she patched with fabric. As time passed, she sewed layers of patches made from other worn-out clothes onto the coat. Ramsey applied a similar process to a pair of jeans and eventually completed the outfit.

Barbara Ramsey
Medical School Outfit, 1971-75  

   

100% Birgitta (Birgitta Bjerke)’s crocheted coats for Roger Daltrey of The Who and his then wife Heather recall the psychedelic visual culture of the 1960s rock-and-roll scene. Displayed flat on the wall, the garments – constructed in fan shapes – vibrate with kaleidoscopic colours that suggest blossoming flowers, Tibetan mandalas, and patterns inspired by Indian textile traditions.

Dancepiece by Leslie Correll, 1971
Hammered brass, Turkish beads, African (Venetian) trade beads mounted on old Indonesia batik fabric

 

Kaisik Wong’s evening ensembles (above) and Yellow and Green Ray dress and headdress (below) from the ”Seven Ray” series, 1974. 

Mama Cass Elliot Dress (below left) c. 1967.
Cass Elliot was a member of The Mamas & the Papas. The panne velvet dress she wore, with its gentle ombré gradient colour, brings to light the dreamy character of her stage presence. Celebrated as a sex symbol and role model for young women of her generation, Elliot donned theatrical styles that showcased her dynamic personality and held the attention of her audiences and fans. The appliqué sunburst on the front of the bodice depicts Virgo, Elliot’s astrological sign, while reflecting the Counterculture’s interest in self-exploration through the study of cosmology. 

SAS Colby – Ruffle My Feathers, 1972

Fayette Hauser, Cosmic Gypsy Ensemble, 1970

Gretchen Fetchen (Paula Douglas). Acid Test Dress and Boots, 1965.

Gretchen Fetchen was one of the early participants in the San Francisco Acid Test happenings organized by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters in the mid-1960s. The events were designed as gatherings to promote consciousness expansion and creativity through the use of LSD which was then legal. 

Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture was on show at

The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD)
2, Columbus Circle
New York City

March 12th, 2017

9. Rei Kawakubo || Object / Subject – Hybrid Bodies / Radical Forms

A radical rethinking of the human form. Accompanied by excerpts from Merce Cunningham’s Scenario dance performance of 1997, with costumes from the Body Meets Dress / Dress Meets Body line, in all their ”lumpy and bumpy” glory.

Hybrid Bodies conclude our tour into the avant-garde universe of Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between @ The Met Fifth Avenue.

But we’ll stay in UES a little longer.

August 6th, 2017