Hidden Hands: A Different History of Modernism

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I thought I’d finished with the arts documentaries until I remembered this four-part series from 1995. Hidden Hands was based on researches by Frances Stonor Saunders who also co-produced. As the subtitle suggests, the programmes examined aspects of Modernist art and architecture that weren’t exactly unknown but were often downplayed (sometimes deliberately ignored) by the art establishment. The episodes were as follows:

1: Is Anybody There? The occult roots of abstract painting, especially the influence of Theosophy on Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. Kazimir Malevich and Frantisek Kupka are also mentioned at the beginning of the programme but we don’t hear anything more about them.

2: Art and the CIA. A history of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA front for channelling money to avant-garde exhibitions and literary magazines during the Cold War.

3: A Clean White World. Modernist architecture as a reaction to, and proposed solution for, the squalor of 19th-century city life. Also the similarity between the impulses that drove the Modernist architectural ideal, and the later health and purity obsessions of European fascist states.

4: Painting with the Enemy. The inadvertent way in which the animus towards “degenerate art” shared by the Nazis and the Vichy regime in occupied France helped sustain Modernism during the war years.

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This is a very good series on the whole, informative and with a roster of authoritative interviewees. The narration overstates the contrarian angle in places but that’s television for you. Much of the history under investigation wasn’t necessarily hidden, more sidestepped by general discussions of 20th-century art. Even so, fifteen years earlier in the architecture episode of The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes covered similar territory and with similar criticisms, following the development of what would become known as the International Style while noting Mussolini’s adoption of a Modernist idiom for the architecture of Fascist Italy.

Elsewhere, when Hughes reviewed a major Kandinsky retrospective he paid sufficient attention to Kandinsky’s Theosophical beliefs; this was in 1982 for TIME magazine, not exactly an obscure publication. Theosophy’s ectoplasmic tentacles are all over the art of the late 19th century so you’d expect some crossover into the art of the new century, as there was in the careers of the artists themselves. (Matisse was a pupil of Gustave Moreau, for example, an inconvenient detail that often irritated critics.) Given the amount of artists swayed by Madame Blavatsky’s writings, a more interesting argument might have been to propose Theosophy as the prime cause of early abstraction rather than another inconvenient factor in its development. Hilma af Klint’s pioneering abstract paintings were as much products of her Theosophical studies as were those of Kandinsky but in the 1990s nobody was paying her very much attention.

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Mondrian’s mysticism: Evolution (1910–1911).

As for the CIA, the agency’s clandestine cultural adventures were exposed by a leak in the late 1960s—Stephen Spender famously resigned in shame from his editorship of Encounter magazine—so this could almost be classed as old news. What you wouldn’t have had in the past, however, is the agents involved in the scheme openly discussing their activities.

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The art of Pinckney Marcius-Simons, 1867–1909

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Vision of the Demon.

The Symbolist movement in painting never really took hold in America the way it did in Europe so it’s a surprise to find a new name to add to the very small list of American Symbolists. Pinckney Marcius-Simons painted his share of 19th-century genre pictures but these give way in his later career to canvases that show a distinct Gustave Moreau influence, or perhaps Turner in those nebulous volumes of illuminated vapour. Marcius-Simons was born in New York but lived in Europe for most of his life; he studied in Paris so he would have been able to see Moreau’s work first-hand. A few of his later pictures are rather vague fantasies but his real obsession was with Wagner’s operas, and he spent the last few years of his life working as a set designer at Bayreuth while also creating a series of paintings intended to illustrate the entire run of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. His most remarkable creation isn’t a canvas, however, but a French edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which he painted over entirely, even decorating the binding. I’m surprised again that such a unique work isn’t more widely known. Happily the entire book is available online at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

All the usual caveats apply here with regard to the accuracy of titles and dates. There’s even some dispute about the artist’s birth year which is occasionally given as 1865. Most of these pictures have been found on auction sites where larger reproductions may be seen.

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Port City.

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Sunrise.

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The City of Dreams.

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Illustrating Zothique

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Cover art by George Barr, 1970.

A few years ago I wrote a short piece about Virgil Finlay’s illustrations for a Zothique story by Clark Ashton Smith, The Garden of Adompha, so this post may be regarded as a more substantial sequel. If Smith remains something of a cult author then Zothique is the pre-eminent cult creation from his career as a writer of weird fiction. Most of Smith’s stories can be grouped together according to their location: Atlantis, Hyperborea, Averoigne in medieval France, the planet Mars, and so on. Zothique was a more original conception than his other worlds, being the last continent on Earth in the final years of the planet, an idea which had precedents in earlier novels such as William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land but which hadn’t been used before as a setting for a cycle of stories. The distant future suggests science fiction but, as with the Zothique-influenced Dying Earth of Jack Vance, science and technology is long-forgotten and sorcery rules the day. The poetry that Smith wrote before he took to writing short stories had a distinctly Decadent quality—”like a verbal Gustave Moreau painting“—and Zothique is a richly Decadent world, with the entire planet in a state of decay along with its barbarous, demon-worshipping peoples.

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Weird Tales, September 1932. Art by T. Wyatt Nelson.

All the Zothique stories had their first printings in Weird Tales, a magazine that ran illustrations with most contributions, but unless you’re a pulp collector many of the illustrations have been difficult to see until very recently. One of the pleasures of looking through fiction magazines is seeing how their stories might have been illustrated when they were first published. Popular tales eventually find their way into book collections but their illustrations tend to be marooned in the titles where they first appeared unless the artist is of sufficient merit to warrant a collection of their own.

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Weird Tales, March 1933. Art by Jayem Wilcox.

The examples here are all from recent uploads at the Internet Archive which now has a complete run of Weird Tales from 1923 to 1954. The illustrations also run in order of publication with links to the relevant issues, although I agree with Lin Carter’s ordering of the stories. Smith never organised them himself, and the later reprints from Arkham House and others tend to scatter them through separate volumes. When Lin Carter edited the Zothique collection in 1970 he put the stories into an order that follows the very loose chronology running through the cycle.

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Weird Tales, January 1934. Art by Clark Ashton Smith.

One surprise of this search was discovering that Smith himself had provided illustrations for several of the stories. Some Smith enthusiasts like his drawings and paintings but I’m afraid I’m not among them, his sculpture work is better. It’s doubtful that these would have been printed at all if they weren’t the work of the author.

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The art of Aleksandr Kosteckij

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This is the kind of fantastic art I like a great deal: nebulous landscapes whose vast forms may be some kind of hybrid architecture; implications of the alien and mystical that retain some ambiguity; dreamlike without slipping into post-Surrealist cliché. Monsieur Thombeau at Full Fathom Five (whose excellent eye I have to thank once again) describes the paintings of Aleksandr Kosteckij/Kostetsky (1954–2010) as being “like Gustave Moreau, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst put in a blender and left out in the rain.” I’d place them somewhere between Ernst Fuchs and Bruce Pennington but Moreau’s chimeras are certainly present. You’d think an artist of this calibre with a large body of work would be better known, most of the attention at the moment seems to be on Russian websites. Let’s hope that changes soon.

Update: Thanks to Joe for pointing the way to this dedicated website, something I missed in my haste.

Examples chosen from these sites:
http://vk.com/album-32941665_175452413 (139 images)
http://www.2photo.ru/en/post/18614

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New Life for the Decadents by Philippe Jullian

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This essay by cult writer Philippe Jullian appeared in an edition of the Observer colour supplement in 1971, shortly after Jullian’s chef d’oeuvre, Dreamers of Decadence, had been published in Britain. Esthètes et Magiciens (1969), as Jullian’s study was titled in France, was instrumental in raising the profile of the many Symbolist artists whose work had been either disparaged or ignored since the First World War. A year after the Observer piece, the Hayward Gallery in London staged a major exhibition of Symbolist art with an emphasis on the paintings of Gustave Moreau; Jullian alludes to the exhibition in his article, and also wrote the foreword to the catalogue. His Observer article is necessarily shorter and less detailed than his introductory essay, emphasising the reader-friendly “Decadence” over the more evasive “Symbolist”. But as a primer to a mysterious and neglected area of art the piece would have served its purpose for a general reader.

Many thanks to Nick for the recommendation, and to Alistair who went to the trouble of providing high-res scans that I could run through the OCR. The translators of the article, Francis King and John Haylock, had previously translated Jullian’s biography of Robert de Montesquiou.

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New Life for the Decadents

The end of the nineteenth century was the Age of Decadence in the arts. The painters of that time (who have since influenced Pop art) and poets (echoed in pop songs) are back in favour: Philippe Jullian, chronicler of the Decadent period, explains why.

AS THE nineteenth century drew to a close, a number of the finer spirits of the time wondered if progress, increasing mechanisation and democratic aspirations were fulfilling their promises. Horrified by the direction in which Western civilisation was moving, they called themselves “The Decadents” in protest against a society that was too organised, an art that was too academic and a literature that was too realistic.

The Decadents produced some delightful symbolist poets, particularly Belgian and Austrian; at least one musician of genius, Debussy; and a number of painters who, having been despised for many years, are now at last beginning to be admired by a generation surfeited with Impressionists in museums and abstract paintings in galleries.

The genius of these Decadent painters, like that of the Decadent poets, only came to full bloom in the 1890s, when they themselves were in their twenties. Never were painting, music and poetry so close to one another. The gods of the Decadents were primarily Wagner and Baudelaire, then Swinburne and Poe. The Decadent movement, so active all over Europe, turned towards two great sources of inspiration: the Pre-Raphaelites, and a French painter whose glory was for a while eclipsed by the Impressionists but who is now once again accorded his place among the great—Gustave Moreau.

The women whom the Decadents loved and of whom they dreamt resembled the women created 30 years previously by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Moreau.

Nothing could be more naturalistic than the artistic style elaborated by the Pre-Raphaelites in the middle of the nineteenth century. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s model, inspiration, mistress and finally wife was the sweet and sad Elizabeth Siddal, on whom so many fin-de-siècle ladies had to model themselves on the Continent as did all the aesthetic ladies of England in the 1880s. She posed for Rossetti as Beatrix and as the Belle Dame sans Merci.

She was a rare spirit, about whom everything was nebulous and evanescent: the thick, wild hair; the tunic of a simplicity to challenge the elaboration of the crinolines then in vogue; the frail hands burdened with lilies; the gaze turned towards eternity. She also posed, fully dressed and lying in a bath, her hair outspread around her bloodless face, as Ophelia for another Pre-Raphaelite, Millais. Elizabeth died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1862.

A macabre episode, which might have been imagined by Poe, was the exhumation of a sheaf of Rossetti’s poems that had been buried in Elizabeth Siddal’s coffin. When this symbol of the New Woman died, the grief-stricken poet had insisted on placing the poems inspired by her under her long hair before the coffin was sealed.

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Beata Beatrix (1864–1870) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

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