Friday, June 6, 2014

Much Ado About Everything

If, like me, you attended “The Armory Show at 100,” the exhibit held at the New-York Historical Society last year, this headline in the New York Times summarizing the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art will not surprise you: “Reliving the Show that ‘Dropped like a Bomb.’” (October 10, 2013)

Ira Glackens put it this way:

               America was never the same again!
No accounts of the Armory Show can exaggerate the sensation.  Men of God thundered in their pulpits, warning their flocks away—which may in part explain the huge attendance…The rich and mighty gave their servants time off to take it all in.  The man in the street, who had never looked at art before, appeared in great numbers….
Some of the critics were delighted because it gave them so much to write about and explain to those of lesser perspicacity.  Others were equally infuriated, which was also good.  Several nearly burst.
The Show was taken to Chicago, and the hullabaloo did not diminish there.  In fact, it accelerated.  Students at the Art Institute, which housed the exhibition, went so far as to burn Matisse in effigy, and the counterfeit presentment of kind, gentle Walter Pater, who was lecturing on the exhibition in the city, was also fed to the flames….
Everyone who wished above all to be on the bandwagon turned into a Cubist or a Fauvist over night, and the galleries soon blossomed with works that would have been  inconceivable a short time before.” (William Glackens and the Eight, pp. 182-184)

I tell you this because it illustrates the climate surrounding Glackens’ work.  The innovations of Glackens’ color I explored in the previous two posts (Something Borrowed—Something New? and Something Borrowed—Something New? Cont’d), according to Dr. Richard Wattenmaker, “were produced in a critical climate that was competitive if not downright hostile. The reception of Modern art between 1910 and 1920 in the American art world was characterized by controversy and vigorous polemics.”  (American Paintings and Works on Paper in the Barnes Foundation, p. 67)

Consequently, I will continue the picture by picture examination of Renoir’s and Glackens’ work to explain what Glackens borrowed from Renoir and what he paid back with his own “interest,” so we can objectively evaluate Glackens’ achievement.  

First, look at these two pictures:

Renoir, Coco, 1904, Flint Institute of Arts

Glackens, Lenna at One Year, 1914, MOA/FL

I selected these two paintings because they help me answer this question: how do Renoir and Glackens’ color volumes differ?

Examine the head and shoulder in each painting by exploring these details:


Look at the spatial recession as the head of each figure meets the background.  In Coco, the space into which the side of the rounded volume recedes is deeper than in Lenna.  The fully three-dimensional cheek in the Renoir appears to bulge forward as the triangle of hair sets back a   deeper space.  The cheek in the Glackens, with arc shaped color units flowing laterally and adjacent to each other as they continue over the boundary of the head into the background, meets a relatively shallow space.   

Because Glackens’ flatter, airy color volume does not carry the weight, depth and structural solidity of Renoir’s unit into the background, it accentuates the decorative pattern of arc shaped bands, exactly what Glackens’ interest led him to do.

These two sketchy oils lend themselves to this investigation.

Now look at the following two, fully developed, flower pieces:

Renoir, Bouquet of Roses, c. 1882, Barnes

Glackens, Zinnias in a Striped Blue Vase, c. 1915, Barnes

These two paintings hang in the Barnes Foundation, in Room 6 to the far left of the West Wall, one above the other, making comparison easy.

At first glance, you may be thinking, “Look at the vases; that Glackens’ vase sure looks fully three-dimensional.” 

So it does.

But examine its edge.  As the color unit of vase becomes the color unit of tabletop and background, what happens to the space? 

Then look at the Renoir vase, and do the same thing.

Do you notice the deeper space in the Renoir?

Now do the same experiment with these two cropped and enlarged images of the flowers:



Glackens adapted Renoir’s structural solidity, its lush richness of color and atmosphere, and its heavy fluidity to his interest and intent: uniform color areas rather than color chords; a stress upon the pattern of areas; shallow and clear atmospheric space; and vivid, sharp color contrasts derived from Matisse and oriental art.   

Examine the following drawing.

Glackens, Eight Figures, c. 1910, Black crayon with gouache on brown wove paper, Barnes

These sketchily drawn figures give the gist of movement and liveliness, along with a terse depiction of brisk or slow, through the character of Glackens’ line and compositional movement (look at the figure on the lower right moving back into space).

The difference, therefore, between Glackens and Renoir’s work, is concisely stated by Violette de Mazia: “… a matter of their respective adaptation of means to different ends: for Glackens, the principal concern was illustration, although it never fails to be decoratively presented and expressively stated; for Renoir, it was the merging of all three aspects—decoration, illustration, and expression of broad human qualities—which in his form stand on a par with each other.” (“The Case of Glackens vs. Renoir,” p. 23)

Dr. Richard Wattenmaker sums it up this way:

William Glackens’ work, his paintings and his drawings, provides us with a deep sense of aesthetic satisfaction not to be derived from that of any other artist preceding or following him, on condition, however, that we do not demand of Glackens what he does not intend to give—for instance, the warmth and full-bodied color volumes of a Renoir, or the bold and exotic color decorativeness of a Matisse—but, rather, look for what was Glackens’ very own—the picturesque aliveness of everyday things and episodes caught with an eye and a mind quick to observe and absorb and, with as quick, sure and knowing a hand, transferred onto the canvas or paper by way of those tersely descriptive, gently crisp touches and lines of his, and the color itself that bespeaks, by its own sparkle and vivacity, the unmistakable and inimitable joy of life that was Glackens’. (The Art of William Glackens, University Art Gallery, Bulletin, Vol. I: No.1, Rutgers, The State University, 1967, p. 11)


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