Travels in Vermeer by Michael White

I’d never even heard of this slim little book, Travels in Vermeer by Michael White, until the National Book Award Longlist for 2015 was released a few weeks ago. I suspected I would enjoy an art-themed travel memoir in the words of a poet, so I ordered it right away. And oh my goodness. What a revelation. I feel like I found an soulmate in art and travel.

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This book is indeed “an enchanting book about the transformative power of art” (Kirkus Reviews). We join Creative Writing Professor Michael White on his year-long quest for peace, sobriety and healing following the death of his first wife and his divorce from his second. He’s a wreck, barely hanging on, but he’s soothed and inspired by the sight of Vermeer’s The Milkmaid at the Rijksmuseum.

 

 

Johannes Vermeer, The MIlkmaid

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid (c. 1658-1661), oil on canvas, The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Just study this painting, as Michael White did at the beginning of his book. The milk — the nail on the wall — the Delft tiles — the seeds on the bread — the dirty chipped walls — the ultramarine blue apron — the beautiful foreshortened arm grasping the handle of the pitcher. And what is that object in the lower right corner? A space heater/foot warmer, commonly understood to represent lust in Dutch genre paintings. (What? Whoa, this painting just got way more complicated.) I have seen this painting in person myself, and it’s true, it’s mesmerizing.

Michael White’s quest begins here, in front of The Milkmaid, when his scalp begins to tingle. “Why do I feel this sweet sensation of joy?” he asks, quoting from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Moose, which after describing the sight of a moose in the middle of a country road, also wonders:

Why, why do we feel

(we all feel) this sweet

sensation of joy?

White knows he must pursue this question, that his redemption and recovery might depend on it. Pouring over a Vermeer catalog on a park bench near the Rijksmuseum (that’s another thing deserving of wonder: the joys to be discovered in museum bookshops) White learns there are only 35 Vermeers in the world in only a handful of museums. He comes up with an itinerary that will take him from the Mauritshuis at the Hague, to the National Gallery in D.C., the Frick and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Kenwood House, Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery in London.

The only thing missing from this book is illustration. I get it, this isn’t a $75 art book for the coffee table, but I’m already picturing an expanded illustrated edition à la The Hare with Amber Eyes. A girl can dream. Maybe if it wins the National Book Award?

As it is, I had to be happy with Google and my iPhone. Each time White came to a new painting, I had to call it up and look along in order to fully appreciate the text. So I armchair-traveled along with White and studied these public domain/fair use images:

Johannes Vermeer, The Girl With a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), The Mauritius, The Hague

Johannes Vermeer, The Girl With a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johanes Vermeer, The Art of Painting (16xx), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johanes Vermeer, The Art of Painting (c. 1662-1668), oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Luckily for White, this painting was on loan to the Mauritshuis in the Hague at the time of his visit, saving him a separate trip to Vienna.

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delt (16xx), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft (c. 1660-1661), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johannes Vermeer , Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), oil on canvas, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Johannes Vermeer , Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), oil on canvas, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Johannes Vermeer , Girl with the Red Hat (c. 1665/1666), oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat (c. 1665/1666), oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. As White points out in the book, this is a very small painting, only about 7 x 9 inches. And yet. Look at the chair — the scarf — the hat — and to me, the best of all, the highlight on her lip and her nose.

Johannes Vermeer, Officer with Laughing Girl (c. 1657), oil on canvas, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, The Frick Collection, New York

Johannes Vermeer, Officer with Laughing Girl (c. 1657), oil on canvas, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, The Frick Collection, New York. In the book, White tells us that his breath caught in his throat when he saw this painting: “The feeling isn’t Here is art, but Here is life.”

 

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Interrupted in Her Music (c. 1658-61), oil on canvas, Frick Collection, New York

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Interrupted in Her Music (c. 1658-61), oil on canvas, Frick Collection, New York. White points out how poorly this painting has been preserved, something we would never know by looking at a digital image. (Right there, it makes me want to run to the Frick to see for myself.)

After the Frick, Michael White visits the five Vermeers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and finally, he flies off to the last stop on his itinerary, London. Before that, though, White retreats into a contemplation of his two marriages, his battle for sobriety, his almost crushing love for his young daughter and his search for new love after divorce. He is in the perfectly vulnerable place to figure out just what Vermeer and his women are meant to teach him.

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson (1662-1664), oil on canvas, The Royal Collection, England

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson (c. 1662-1664), oil on canvas, The Royal Collection, England

 

Johannes Vermeer, Lady Standing at a Virginal (c. 1670-1673), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Standing at a Virginal (c. 1670-1673), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c. 1670-1672), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c. 1670-1672), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

So.

Back to the essential question: Why? Why do we love to study these paintings? And what can this do for us, aside from offering momentary pleasure or joy? What is the point? White comes to his realizations (his “aha” if you will) toward the end of the book, weaving his memories and his losses into his obsession for Vermeer. There are paragraphs toward the end that were so lovely they took my breath away.

Here’s a small taste:

When Sophia was still an infant, I remember the inexhaustible wonder in her gaze. She’d stare so seekingly into my eyes for hours – first one eye, then the other eye, and then doze off before beginning again. . . . In those first months, the child is on a mission, it seems, to memorize the face of love. How astonishing to see and be seen, to be truly seen for the first time.

. . .

What if a painter painted virtually nothing but such moments? . . .

 

He goes on, but it’s too beautiful for me to repeat it here. I swear, it gave me goosebumps. All of a sudden, my love of art and travel and literature, my dedication to this silly little blog, it all makes sense. I want (we all want) that “sweet sensation of joy”  that such moments bring. I am seeking (we all are seeking) to know the world, to know and be known by our loved ones. And that is what art does.

As White said, “the feeling isn’t Here is art, but Here is life.”

I think you should read this memoir for yourself, you might just have “a moment” of your own. Because writing this good is as artful as a painting.

 

For Further Reading:

Jonathan Jansen’s Essential Vermeer, http://www.essentialvermeer.com

Katherine Weber’s novel The Music Lesson

Even if you’ve read Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, you should check out her website, which will remind you how creatively she wove a number of Vermeer’s paintings into the narrative. It might make you want to read it all over again.

 

 

The Accidental Empress Itinerary in Austria

 

the-accidental-empress-9781476790220_lgI first heard about Allison Pataki’s book The Accidental Empress from Barbara Rinella, a Chicago area friend and “book dramatist.” If you’ve never seen Barbara perform, check out her website, she’s a real tour de force. Hilarious and salty, Barbara dresses up like the character from a book — Marie Antoinette, Camille Monet, John Adams, to name a few — and gives a highly entertaining book review, as only a former high school English teacher could. She’ll be reviewing Accidental Empress and performing as Empress Sisi starting in the fall of 2015. You can catch her throughout Chicagoland, maybe on a cruise ship, and if you’re lucky, in a town near you.

 

I have a special interest in Empress Sisi after reading Accidental Empress and touring through Austria this summer. Sisi seemed to pop up everywhere on our travels. My husband finally asked, “Who is this Cissy anyway?” I answered: “It’s ‘Sisi.‘ She was  Empress Elisabeth of Austria, but so tragic, the Princess Diana of her time.” He gave me that look — you know, the ones husbands give when they realize they’re getting dragged into another museum.

Such is life with a history major.

The first stop on our Accidental Empress itinerary was the town of Bad Ischl, just an hour or so east of Salzburg in the Salzkammergut region of Austria. Bad Ischl was the summer playground of the Austrian aristocracy. As readers of the book know, this is where Elisabeth of Bavaria first met Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. Elisabeth was just 15 years old at the time, invited to Bad Ischl as a member of her older sister’s bridal party. Allison Pitaki’s book is perhaps the most fun when we see the (prettier, spunkier, more athletic) little sister steal the (older, quieter, bookish) sister’s betrothed. Wedding plans are quickly swapped out and “Sisi” becomes the accidental Empress of Austria.

Sisi’s mother-in-law bought a beautiful villa in Bad Ischl to give to Sisi and Franz Josef as a wedding gift. Over the next few years Franz Josef had it made into the beautiful Kaiservilla that still stands today. The palace, its beautiful grounds and Sisi’s little Tudor tea cottage are open to the public. It would make a great day trip from Salzburg or a good stop for lunch and a tour on the scenic route from Salzburg to Vienna.

 

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After buying a ticket to the Kaiservilla you walk across the Kaiserbrücke, a  lovely steel arch bridge over the Ischl River. The stream is fast moving and fresh, just like it must have been in Sissi’s day.

 

A view of the front of the Kaiservilla in Bad Ischl. It is painted an imperial yellow similar to the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna.

 

The front of the Kaiservilla with the fountain in front.

The gravel driveway brings you into a lovely symmetrical plaza in front of the Kaiservilla. If you’re lucky you won’t have too long to wait before your timed guided tour of the villa begins.

A charming  huntsman statue, “The Listener” stands in the lawn in front of the grounds and gardens across from the villa. Emperor Frank Josef was a big hunter. The inside of the villa (no photos allowed) contains many hunting trophies, including antlers and deer heads.

This hunting statue called “The Listener” stands in the lawn in front of the grounds and gardens across from the villa. Emperor Frank Josef was a big hunter. The inside of the villa (no photos allowed) contains many hunting trophies, including antlers and deer heads.

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Your first glimpse of Elisabeth’s Tea Cottage as you walk up the pebbled path from the palace. It reminds me a little bit of Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet at Versailles (although on a much smaller, less crazy scale). It must have offered a welcome feminine retreat away from the uber-masculine trophy hunter vibe of the main palace.

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The beautiful front door of the Tea Cottage

Tea Cottage Interior

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Tea Cottage’s wrap-around porch with iron railings and vines

 

All around the exterior of the Tea Cottage you can read signs and see photographs from Elisabeth’s time at Kaiservilla. She was considered quite the beauty.

This sign (in English and German) tells about the “imperial betrothal” at Bad Ischl.

After a couple-few hours in Bad Ischl there would be time to grab a quick bite and head back to Salzburg or to continue to drive on to Vienna, as we did.

In Vienna, you won’t want to miss the Imperial Apartments and the Sisi Museum at the Hofburg Palace, where Elisabeth and her husband Franz Josef lived (but not necessarily very happily) from 1854 until her death in 1898.

Hapsburg Palace in Vienna

Hofburg Palace in Vienna. You can buy tickets to visit the Imperial Apartments and the Sisi Museum. Highly recommended!

 

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An original portrait of Elisabeth and her extraordinarily long hair hangs in the Imperial Apartments above a desk.

 

 

And of course, no itinerary is complete without a stop at the gift shop. The Sisi Museum Gift Shop offers every souvenir you can imagine, and then some. No, I didn’t buy a Sisi Fan, but I did pick up a few postcards to toss into my scrapbook.

I recently heard that Allison Pataki is currently writing a sequel to Accidental Empress, which I can’t wait to read. Maybe you’ll have time to plan your own Empress Elisabeth Itinerary in time for the next book!

 

 

 

Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki: Recommended

 

 

 

 

The Lady in Gold’s Footsteps in Vienna

Have you ever take a trip because of a book? I just did.

I’d always wanted to go to Vienna, but every time I got as far as Munich or Salzburg, it seemed I always had a reason to head elsewhere or hurry home. This time it would be different. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of The Lady in Gold by Anne Marie O’Connor.

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I enjoyed the movie The Woman in Gold (I enjoyed Helen Mirren’s witty little quips), but it didn’t come close to covering the breadth and depth of the book.

From O’Connor’s book you get the whole story. You learn all about Gustav Klimt, his background, his rise to fame, and his women. About Adele Bloch-Bauer, her affluent Jewish family and her sophisticated intellectual circle. We learn how Klimt came to paint Adele’s famous portrait and how it became the Mona Lisa of fin de siècle Austria.

We don’t just learn what  became of The Lady in Gold after the Germans took over in 1938, we see how the entire Bloch-Bauer family suffered under Nazi rule. The Gestapo terrorized and extorted wealthy Viennese families to gain access to their factories, valuables and bank accounts which would be used to fuel their war machine. The story is much, much bigger than the story of one painting.

The losses of this extended family are staggering. Adele’s widowed husband Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer gave up his home and valuables in Vienna (with The Lady in Gold still inside) and escaped to his castle in Prague until that too was overtaken by the Nazis. Ferdinand lived until 1945, when he would die impoverished and alone in Switzerland. Adele’s nephew Leopold was arrested by the Gestapo and held until he promised to turn over the stock to the family sugar company. (Interesting sidebar: in 2005, Leopold’s heirs would receive $21 million in restitution for the theft of the sugar company, made possible by the collaboration of Swiss banks. Read more here.)

Adele’s niece Maria (played in the movie by Helen Mirren) and her new husband Fritz Altmann were able to sneak out of Vienna to England, thanks to the cash and connections of her father-in-law who owned a factory in Liverpool. Adele’s other niece, the Baroness Luise Gutmann, became trapped in Yugoslavia with her husband Viktor and her children. Viktor was arrested and killed by the Nazis, but Luise and the children survived. The remaining members of the Bloch-Bauer, Altmann and Gutmann families emigrated to Los Angeles and Vancouver after the war, living in close connection with other Austrians.

O’Connor even came upon a fascinating true story about how a different kind of “gay marriage” saved Jewish lives in Vienna. Gay culture had in fact flourished in artistic circles before the Nazis arrived. An underground network of eligible “Aryan bachelors” offered to marry Jewish women and get them out of Austria. A Bloch-Bauer in-law, Ada Stern, found a gay Dutch man who did exactly that.

Not surprisingly, the movie just scrapes the surface of all this tragic and important history of wartime Vienna. The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor is a must-read whether or not you have seen the movie. And once you’ve read it, you too will probably want to visit Vienna and walk in the footsteps of Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer.

First on my Lady in Gold literary tour was a walk to Adele Bloch-Bauer’s home near the Vienna Opera on Elisabethstrasse.

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Standing in front of 18 Elisabethstrasse, the home of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer. They moved into this four-story palatial townhouse across from the Academy of Fine Art in 1919. In 1925, Adele died here, leaving the will instructing her husband to leave her two Klimt portraits to the Austrian Gallery after his death.

18 Elisabethstrasse, where Adele Bloch-Bauer would hold Saturday salons with her artistic and progressive circle of friends, including Alma Mahler, Richard Strauss and Karl Renner, the former chancellor of Austria. (Renner was also Adele’s lover – Adele’s maid had to quietly remove his love letters from her nightstand upon Adele’s death.)

Adele Bloch-Bauer’s lovely and sophisticated neighborhood. She lived across the street from Schillerpark and the Vienna Academy of Art. (The same academy that would reject Adolf Hitler’s application in 1907 after he flunked the drawing exam.) As Anne-Marie O’Connor says in The Lady in Gold: “If Adele had passed Hitler on the street in Vienna in those days, carrying his pants and pastels, she would have seen only an unfortunate young man, lacking in confidence. She probably would have felt sorry for him.”

 

The Secession Building in Vienna: Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze

The Secession Building in Vienna, 12 Friedrichstrasse: A must-see for Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze. Klimt created the frieze in 1902 for the XIVth Secessionist Exhibit. The frieze stayed in place until 1903, the year that Klimt would begin his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. If you’re following in my own footsteps, this building is just a couple of blocks from 18 Elisabethstrasse on the other side of the Academy of Fine Arts.

The Secession Building: Unfortunately photos aren’t allowed inside, so you’ll either have to visit for yourself or check out the photos on their website, http://www.secession.at/beethovenfries/index.html. Klimt made a stunning use of gold leaf and displayed a highly modern sensibility with a great deal of nudity. Adele would have had no illusions about what kind of portrait she would be sitting for.                                                                          By the way, there is litigation over the Beethoven Frieze as well. Heirs of Erich Lederer, the owner of the frieze at the time of its “Aryanization,” have sued the Austrian government for its return. Although Lederer was paid $750,000 for the frieze in in 1973, it was far below its fair market value. The Austrian government and the Secession Building are fighting for the right to keep it. Read Anne-Marie O’Connor’s Huffington Post article here.

 

A visit to Vienna wouldn't be complete without a trip to the Belvedere Palace, which was once home to the Lady in Gold.

A visit to Vienna wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Belvedere Palace, 27 Prinz Eugen-Strasse, which is just a short scenic walk from the Secession Building. This art museum might not be the home to the Lady in Gold anymore, but it still holds The Kiss, and plenty of other fabulous works of art.

The view from the inside of the Belvedere.

The view from the inside of the Belvedere.

A terrace of the Belvedere

A terrace of the Upper Belvedere looking through the gardens toward the Lower Belvedere.

Picture Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds right here.

Picture Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds walking in the gardens of the Belvedere.

 I just had to go find the Jewish Memorial that Ryan Reynolds visited at the end of the movie. It's located in the Judenplatz, over in the older area of Vienna. Definitely worth the longer walk from the other sites.

I just had to go find the Jewish Holocaust Memorial that Ryan Reynolds visited at the end of the movie. It’s located in the Judenplatz, over in the older area of Vienna. It is named Silent Library and was designed to resemble book with their spines turned inward, which represents all the life stories that will never be known. Definitely worth the longer walk from the other sites.

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The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor: Very highly recommended

 

For further reading:

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. I read this haunting autobiography-memoir while I was visiting Salzburg and Vienna this summer. One of the best book and travel pairings I’ve ever made. Set in Vienna, Salzburg, Paris and much of Europe, it was published after Zweig’s exile to Brazil and his subsequent suicide. It is a beautifully told story about the lost world of old world Vienna and the horror of a world in the midst of war. Fun fact (as revealed in The Lady in Gold): Stefan Zweig was a friend of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Very highly recommended.

world of yesterday

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey. The story of Gustave Klimt and his long-time companion, partner and muse Emilie Flöge, the subject of The Kiss.

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The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund DeWaal. Read my prior posts here: Vienna Sites, and Paris Sites.

 

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Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman (historical fiction set in turn-of-the-century Vienna).

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Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation

You really shouldn’t miss this multiple biography of six flappers from the 1920s (Josephine Baker, Talulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald and Tamara de Lempicka).

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Each woman’s story is equally fascinating. Author Judith Mackrell gives us all the scoop, including tales of booze, drugs, adultery, abortions, bisexuality and more. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to pour a martini and put on some jazz. I’m already picturing a Flapper theme party for my book club.

But this book is more than a dishy exposé. Mackrell understands that the flappers represented much more than a new sense of 1920s style and glamour. The flappers were at the vanguard of an attempt to redefine 20th century womanhood. Their personal failures and challenges, viewed together and in full historical context, teach us that the history of the woman’s movement is truly a story of fits-and-starts, a seesaw of hard-fought change and regression. No generation of women illustrate this better than the flappers.

And of course, like most interesting stories about women in the late 19th and early 20th century, the story of the flappers takes you to Paris, where they became dancers, actresses, writers or painters. They frequented the nightclubs and cafés of Paris, including Bricktops, the Dome and the Rotunde, as well as the salons of famous women, such as Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney.

Most interesting to me was the story of Tamara de Lempicka, the iconic art deco painter whose self-portrait appears on the cover of the book. (Have you read The Last Nude by Ellis Avery? It’s a terrific novel about Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models.) You can enjoy my two-part Last Nude Literary Tour here and here.

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1925 (Private Collection)

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1925 (Private Collection)

Tamara de Lempicka arrived in Paris in 1918 as a Russian refugee. She came to Paris after losing everything in the Russian revolution and reinvented herself as a professional painter.

Lempicka took only a year of formal instruction from Maurice Denis at the Académie Ransom at 7 rue Joseph Bara in the 6th arrondissement, just off of rue Notre Dame des Champs. Like most art students, she took her sketchbook to the Louvre in the afternoons. At first she rejected the modernist style of Cézanne, Picasso and the Dadaists, preferring the Renaissance masters. But soon she was drawn into the style of cubist André L’hote, an instructor at the Académie Notre Dame des Champs and later at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière. Lempicka studied with L’hote privately for a few months, long enough to absorb his powerful and charismatic portrait style. By 1922, after less than two years of study, Lempicka had three works accepted in the Salon d’Automne in Paris. By 1925, Lempicka had a solo show in Milan organized by Count Emanuele di Castelbarco.

Interestingly, from 1922-1924, Lempicka presented herself as a man in the catalogs for  the Paris exhibitions. She was listed as “LEMPITZKY (Tamara de) Born in Warsaw, Polish (French masculine form)” [delempicka.org].

Lempicka promoted herself with a ferocious sense of ambition, understanding that commercially lucrative portrait commissions would come as much from her talent as her own personal style and connections. She lived a chic and erotic bisexual life, which is exactly what she conveyed in her portraits.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of Valmy (1924), Oil on canvas, private collection

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of Valmy (1924), Oil on canvas, private collection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of  La Salle (1925), oil on canvas, private collection.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of La Salle (1925), oil on canvas, private collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tamara de Lempicka, La Belle Rafaela (1927), oil on canvas, private collection

Tamara de Lempicka, La Belle Rafaela (1927), oil on canvas, private collection

 

Judith Mackrell follows Lempicka’s rise through the 1920s and and her subsequent fall in the 1930s. As Mackrell explains:

[T]he forces of fashion and history that had swept her to eminence were changing course in the early 1930s, and while she was still much talked about in public, in private she felt that she had failed to catch the pulse of the new decade.

 

The rising political tensions in Europe, a new wave of modern art, Lempicka’s dated sense of glamour and lack of youth all combined to Lempicka’s decline after 1935. She remarried and moved to America, where she had a difficult time marketing herself as well as she had in the Paris of the 1920s. She tried living in Beverly Hills, then the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and finally Houston, where her daughter Kizette had settled with her husband and two daughters. Lempicka found Houston “uncivilized” and mundane.

After Lempicka’s bold life in Paris in the 1920s, can you blame her?

 

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell: Highly recommended

 

For Further Reading:

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery (A novel about Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models)

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Camille Claudel: Rodin’s Lover

rodins loverI’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Heather Webb’s new book  Rodin’s Lover, the story of Camille Claudel, one of Auguste Rodin’s most promising students.

I first learned about her art and her tumultuous love affair with Auguste Rodin when a friend recommended that I read Naked Came I by David Weiss (1970).

But then, during my year in Paris, I got to frequent the Musée Rodin, where I could see her work with my own eyes. Haven’t been? You gotta go, although I’m not sure which, if any, of Claudel’s works are on display since the extensive museum renovations. Check the website before you go.

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Musée Rodin, 79 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, France

Musée Rodin, view from the south garden

Musée Rodin, view from the south garden

The view from an upstairs window of Musée Rodin onto the south garden

The view from an upstairs window of Musée Rodin onto the south garden

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The grounds of the Musée Rodin are like an urban sanctuary in the middle of Paris. There's even an outdoor café where you can grab lunch.

The grounds of the Musée Rodin are like an urban sanctuary in the middle of Paris. There’s even an outdoor café where you can grab lunch.

The old Hotel Biron was a dilapidated mess when Rodin first rented out four south-facing, ground-floor rooms opening onto the terrace, to use as his studios.

The old Hotel Biron was a dilapidated mess when in 1908, Rodin first rented out four south-facing, ground-floor rooms to be used as studios. He shared the space with other artists, including Matisse, Isadora Duncan and By 1911, Rodin had taken over the entire building. (Source: Musée Rodin exhibit)

At the time of my visit, Camille Claudel’s work was on display in one of the upstairs rooms of the museum. I would hope and fully expect that her work will return as soon as renovations are complete. The fact that her work is displayed alongside his is itself remarkable. After her love affair with Rodin came to an end (it ended badly – just read Webb’s book) Camille Claudel suffered from financial, professional and mental health issues. Her father supported her, but after his death in 1913, her mother and her brother Paul had her institutionalized, first in Ville-Évrard in Neuilly-sur-Marne, and then, from 1914 until her death in 1943, in the Montdevergues Asylum, at Montfavet near Avignon. Her family rarely visited and refused to bring her home despite the recommendations of the treating physicians.

Before his death in 1917, Rodin continued to provide some financial and artistic support to Claudel, agreeing to reserve exhibition space for Claudel’s works when Hotel Biron was being turned into the Musée Rodin. In 1952, Claudel’s brother Paul finally donated four major works by his sister to the museum. The museum continues to acquire her available works, recently acquiring Young Girl with a Sheaf. Its website features an educational background file on the relationship between Rodin and Claudel, with photos of her best-known sculptures.

Camille Claudel’s sculpture reveals astonishing talent and emotion. Rodin’s influence is unmistakeable in her early work, less so in her later, smaller work.

Camille Claudel, Bust of Auguste Rodin

Camille Claudel, Bust of Auguste Rodin (Bronze, 1892), Musée Rodin

Camille Claudel, Clotho (1893), Plaster. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952.

Camille Claudel, Clotho (1893), Plaster. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952. Musée Rodin

Camille Claudel, The Age of Maturity (1899), Bronze. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952.

Camille Claudel, The Age of Maturity (1899), Bronze. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952. This is a partial view of the sculpture, featuring a pleading woman, often said to be Camille begging for Rodin, who is being torn away by his long-time companion Rose. Claudel herself would reject such an autobiographical interpretation, and instead claim that it is intended to symbolize the grass of youth versus age.

Camille Claudel, The Wave

Camille Claudel, The Wave (1897), Onyx and bronze. Musée Rodin, purchased in 1995.

Camille Claudel, The Gossips (1895), Musée Rodin. Donated by Rodin in 1916.

Camille Claudel, The Gossips (1895), plaster. Musée Rodin. Donated by Rodin in 1916. Note Claude’s signature in the lower left corner.

And if this small sampling of Claudel’s work isn’t enough for you, there’s more on the way.  In March, 2017, a new Musée Camille Claudel will be opening in Nogent-Sur-Seine, the a small town southeast of Paris where the Claudel family lived when Camille was young.  Over 77 pieces of Claudel’s art will be on display, thanks to a large 2008 acquisition by Reine-Marie Paris, the granddaughter of Paul Claudel. Here is a link to a video from French television about the plans for the museum. Finally, here is a link to the website of Reine-Marie Paris which includes photographs of even more of Camille Claudel’s sculptures.

Maison de Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, France.

Maison de Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, France.

Rendering of the future Musée Camille Claudel in Nogent-sur-Seine

Rendering of the future Musée Camille Claudel in Nogent-sur-Seine

I can’t wait to hear more about the completion of the new museum. It will definitely be worth a drive out to the countryside southeast of Paris.

In the meantime, we will have to content ourselves with Heather Webb’s new book, which breathes life into the passionate, turbulent life of Camille Claudel. Book clubs will find much to discuss, above and beyond the historical interest in a female artist of the late 19th century.

For instance, what do you think drove Camille Claudel to mental illness, if that’s what it was? Was she paranoid about Rodin, or did he really manipulate and compete with her? Which injured her more, the lack of support from her mother and her brother Paul, or a sexist society that made success in the arts so extraordinarily difficult for women? Would Camille Claudel have been better off if she’d never entangled herself with Rodin? Finally, do you see any parallels between Camille Claudel’s struggles and those of 20th and 21st century women?

I’m definitely recommending it to my own book club. Bring some wine!

Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb: Highly Recommended.  

For further enjoyment: Don’t miss the 1988 Oscar-nominated film, Camille Claudel, starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu, available on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

camille claudel 1988 movie

From One Book to Another

This post is about how just one book can lead to many others. I love it when that happens.

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I recently finished Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar (previous post here) and so enjoyed the story of Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf that I was inspired to keep reading. It seems I just can’t get enough of Vanessa, Virginia and the whole Bloomsbury Group. It has become my own little reading rabbit hole. If that isn’t that a sign of an inspiring book, I don’t know what is.

howard's end

The first thing I set out to do was to read Howard’s End by E. M. Forster. There was a scene in Vanessa and Her Sister where Vanessa mentions a beautiful new novel she’d just read (February 1911):

 

 

“And – I finished Morgan’s [E. M. Forster’s] beautiful new novel on the train. It is about sisters: one wild and uncompromising but breathtaking in her courage, And one practical, reasonable, and unhappily bound by her good sense. Elmira Dashwood and Marianne. Margaret and Helen Schlegel. Even the name is haunting: Howards End.”

 

Although I loved Room With A View, I hadn’t read Howard’s End before, so I was excited to discover something old yet new. And of course I loved it. His sentences can leave me breathless, like this one, which describes Margaret’s thoughts upon the death of her friend Mrs. Wilcox:

It is thus, if there is any rule, that we ought to die – neither as victim nor as fanatic, but as the seafarer who can greet with an equal eye the deep that he is entering, and the shore that he must leave.

Now I’m searching all over Netflix for the 1992 film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Anyone know where I can find it?

voyage out

My next inspiration that came from Vanessa and Her Sister was some more of Virginia Woolf’s early fiction. I never knew that most of Woolf’s work I was familiar with was written later in her life. For example, To The Lighthouse (one of my absolute top-ten books) was written when Woolf was 45 years old with only 6 years left before she would take her own life. The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel, was written when she was just 25 years old. I was curious to detect the difference in her writing.

The introduction to my edition claims that at this young age, “Woolf was still writing under the shadow of E. M. Forster and the traditional novel. . . . One can see her experimenting, slowly honing the style that was to become her hallmark, but where later she was fearless, here she is tentative, still depending on plot, not style, to drive the narrative.” I love the idea that women grow more fearless with age. So true, don’t you think?

I’m still in the middle of The Voyage Out, but already I can tell you that I am enjoying the insight that I have from reading Vanessa and Her Sister. In fact, the novel was written in the middle of all of the events related in Vanessa and Her Sister, including their brother Thoby’s death, Vanessa’s marriage, and the love triangle with Clive Bell. No wonder Virginia was inspired to write about marriage, about love and death, about women’s choices. I feel like I know Woolf and her milieu; I can see the real-life Bloomsbury people reflected in her characters. It’s fun.

Now that I’m on this kick, I’m not sure what I’ll read next. I’ve got Hermione Lee’s biography Virginia Woolf on my TBR pile, but maybe I’d rather read some more Bloomsbury fiction. Any recommendations?

Hermione lee virginia woolf bio

 

 

 

 

Vanessa and Her Sister

I just finished Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar (Ballantine, 2015). And I loved it.

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It’s the story of the Stephen siblings of London (Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby and Adrian) who formed the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group when they moved into a bohemian Gordon Square neighborhood together in 1904.

Vanessa Stephen is 25 years old at the beginning of the novel, and has already studied art at the Royal Academy School of Art, taking painting instruction from John Singer Sargent. Her younger sister Virginia, also single, is recovering from a bad spell of mental illness after the death of their father and has yet to write her first novel.

 

This novel has as its heart the story of two intensely intelligent, unconventional and competitive sisters. Virginia is jealous and toxically dependent on Vanessa, and feels threatened by Vanessa’s first successes in art and romance. The two sisters are happiest when Virginia poses for a portrait by Vanessa, which she does often. As Vanessa says in the novel:

I always paint Virginia. I tell myself that it is the lean planes of her beautiful face that draw me, but really, it is her company I seek. . . .

She posed for an hour this evening, until the June light failed, her eyes closed in comfort, and her face settled into her hand in a way it never does when she is in conversation. Her fine hair, a paler brown than mine, was swept back from her elliptical face into a loose knot and lay in the shallow curve of her long neck. She did not speak nor try to break the moment but kept impossibly still. When Virginia knows I am watching her, she does not try to be anywhere else.

 

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Virginia Woolf (1912) Virginia Woolf (c. 1912), © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo © National Trust / Charles Thomas

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf (1912),  Estate of Vanessa Bell

 

Vanessa Bell, Viginia Woolf [In An Armchair] (1911-12), Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

Vanessa Bell, Viginia Woolf [In An Armchair] (1911-12), Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair (1912), Oil on board, Mimi and Peter Haas. (Leonard Woolf once said that this portrait was "more like Virginia in its way than anything else of her.")

Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf in a Deckchair (1912), Oil on board, Mimi and Peter Haas. (Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, once said that this portrait was “more like Virginia in its way than anything else of her.”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanessa and Her Sister more than a tale of sibling rivalry and codependence: it’s also about the differences between two forms of art: writing and painting. Priya renews our appreciation for the talent of Vanessa Bell, the lesser known sister, and does a fabulous job exploring and expressing the mind of an artist, which is less accessible than that of a writer. Priya understands that Vanessa feels slighted because their highly literate Bloomsbury crowd seems to prefer words to images. Vanessa broods (p. 66):

Painting does not qualify as work in this family of literati. Work is not work where words are not involved. The unfixed mark of paint alters when it alteration finds. The distribution of colors is a curious sort of hobby to them. A lightweight experiment with insubstantial shade instead of the integrity-bound dimensional shape of letters on a page.

I love how Vanessa (p. 33) explains the mind of a painter:

I think in mass, In color and shape and light and volume and texture. Not in words. Words delicately sewn around an abstract idea leave me feeling large and awkward and with nothing to say. What is the meaning of good? My mind asks “What is the color of good? What size? What light? Where to put the bowl of poppies?”

 

In 1905, Vanessa experiences the thrill of her first exhibition. A commissioned portrait of her friend Lady Robert Cecil (“Nelly”) is exhibited at the New Gallery in London.

Photograph of VAnessa (Stephen) Bell painting a portrait of Lady Robert Cecil (1905). Source: Tate Archive Showcase.

Photograph of Vanessa (Stephen) Bell painting a portrait of Lady Robert Cecil (1905). Source: Tate Archive Showcase.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the novel, Parmar has Vanessa describe the feeling of seeing her own painting on the walls of a gallery for the first time, knowing it has changed her experience of being an artist (p. 29):

We stood in the gallery. Watching people watch the painting. It was exhilarating but mixed with an elusive bittersweet I could not place. Nelly looked lovelier hanging on that wall than she ever did resting on my easel, but she had grown unfamiliar in the weeks since I handed her over to the gallery. It is true that we do not understand the boundaries and dimensions of what we have created until it is consumed by another. I loved being an artist today.

 

Vanessa expands her circle of artist friends and her view of the art world. Clive Bell, a Cambridge pal of her brother Thoby becomes a frequent visitor to their Gordon Square Thursday Night “At Homes.” Bell is an art critic, and he and Vanessa share their interest in the leading-edge art scene in Paris, including Manet, Cézanne and Picasso. They discuss the recent Durand-Ruel exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London, debating whether “it take[s] vision to understand beauty.”

Vanessa Bell, Interior Scene with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant Drinking Wine, Birkbeck Collection, University of London

Vanessa Bell, Interior Scene with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant Drinking Wine, Birkbeck Collection, University of London (painted at Gordon Square – check out the red slippers!)

Vanessa and Clive will marry in 1907 and head off to Paris, where they spend time with their bohemian British ex-pat friends, including Duncan Grant and Henry Lamb. Their artistic newlywed idyll will be interrupted by the birth of their first child Julian within a year of the wedding. Vanessa is blown away by childbirth and her love for the baby. Clive, not so much.

Vanessa Bell, Portrait Julian Bell (1908)

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell (1908)

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell (1908)

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Julian Bell [Sleeping] (1908)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The year Julian is born Vanessa learns that Clive and Virginia have become involved in what is (at the very least) an emotional affair. Their betrayal shakes her to her core and leaves her marriage forever altered, but Vanessa is able to turn to her painting for relief.

In 1909, Vanessa finishes what is now known as one of her most famous early paintings: Iceland Poppies

Vanessa Bell, Iceland Poppies (1909-10)

Vanessa Bell, Iceland Poppies (1908-9), The Vanessa Bell Estate, The Charleston Trust, Sussex, England.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The painting is chilly and deeply psychological. As Vanessa says in the book:

I am painting well, given all that has happened. I am pleased with my quiet still life and have decided to call it Iceland Poppies. Each time I come back to it, I am surprised at how well I like it: the wintry palette, the antique medicine jar and pale matching bowl, the green glass poison bottle, and the contrasting poppy. Yes, they are right together. Of course, I could fall out of love with it in an afternoon. Rightness can be a transitive thing.

Clive wanted to know if the painting is about Virginia’s suicide attempts. How very obvious of him. He did not see the triplicate nature of the canvas. The three stripes on the wall. The three vessels: two white, one tree. The three flowers flying in the foreground: the two white, turned to the wall, and the one short-stemmed, poppy facing outward and painted in a fresh bolt of red. I alternate. Sometimes I am the white flower and sometimes I am the red.

 

Vanessa is thrilled when Iceland Poppies is exhibited at The New English Art Club, right alongside John Singer Sargent, Augustus John and Duncan Grant: “So something good has tumbled out of this appalling year.”

In 1910, Clive and Vanessa renew their acquaintance of Roger Fry, famous art critic and former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Fry asks Clive to help plan his exhibit at the Grafton Galleries, “Manet and the Post-Impressionists.” The show stuns London with the avant-garde art of France, including works Manet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Derain, Matisse, Van Gogh, Seurat and Picasso. After this exhibit, Vanessa’s view of art expands, her style matures and she becomes more and more liberated from convention.

Roger Fry, Self-Portrait (1928)

Roger Fry, Self-Portrait (1928)

In 1911, the Bells travel to Constantinople with Roger Fry, and Vanessa and Roger spend much of their time painting side by side. Free from the constraints of a conventional marriage any longer, Vanessa allows a romance to commence with Roger.

Roger invites Vanessa to exhibit in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibit at Grafton Galleries in 1912, where Vanessa Bell’s painting Nursery Tea will appear in the same room as works by Matisse, Picasso, Braces and Cézanne. Vanessa Bell has become one of Britain’s most noted Post-Impressionists.

Vanessa Bell, Nursery Tea (1912)

Vanessa Bell, Nursery Tea (1912)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanessa Bell, Monte Olivet (1912)

Vanessa Bell, Monte Oliveto (1912), Art Gallery of South Australia

Although Vanessa and Her Sister ends here, in 1912, Vanessa will go on to have a long, satisfying career in art. And as we also know, her sister Virginia will have a brilliant writing career, but a tragic life marred by the ups and downs of mental illness. Virginia Woolf will take her own life in 1941. Vanessa survived until 1961, leaving two surviving children, Quentin and Angelica. Her first child Julian would be killed in the Spanish Civil War in 1937.

 

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya  Parmar: Highly Recommended

For Further Reading:

The Art of Bloomsbury by Richard Shone

The Art of Bloomsbury by Richard Shone