Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stasys Eidrigevičius

There are some disadvantages to living in the shadow of a cultural capital, and one of them is not being sufficiently exposed to work by artists who may have long been well-known in their own countries and elsewhere but who through whatever whim of the art circuits never seem to earn comparable notice here.

Stasys Eidrigevičius is a Lithuanian-born artist who now resides in Poland. His work first came to my attention sometime in the 1990s, when at least three of the children's books he illustrated were published in the US by NorthSouth Books. Those titles, all of which now seem to be out of print, were Johnny Longnose, The Hungry One, and the best of them, Puss in Boots. (At least one other children's book, Little Pig, has been published by Viking Press; it too appears to be out of print.) Children's books, however, represent only a tiny fraction of Eidrigevičius's output, which includes painting, drawing, posters, political art, sculpture, photography, theatre design, and performances. As far as I can gather from the list of exhibitions on his website he has never had a significant show in New York City.

The images below are, respectively, from Puss in Boots, Johnny Longnose, and Little Pig. The images in the last-named work aren't paintings but photographs centering on painted masks.

There is a distinctive Eidrigevičius look in his picture books, and much of it has to do with the eyes, which are nearly almost wide-open but alarmingly expressionless. As in the films of the Quay Brothers, the worlds of animate and inanimate objects blur disturbingly into one another. Many of his subjects are being held against their will -- perhaps a reflection of his childhood under Communism -- although, as in the images below, it's not always clear exactly who is the captive and who the captor.

It's a fair question whether or not Eidrigevičius's work was ever really marketable for children. I suspect that it may well be in Europe, but perhaps not in the US (though my daughter enjoyed Puss in Boots). It would be nice if the full range of his work could get fuller exposure here.

A Journey Round My Skull has some additional images, and there are many more at the artist's own website. For those with the wherewithal there is a new retrospective collection of his work, Stasys 60, which can be obtained from ABE Marketing in Poland.

I'm not sure what the original purpose was of the image shown at the top of the page, which I found through image searching on the web. The cat's eyes are so mesmerizing that at first I didn't even notice the beaks of the birds, but I think it's the mouth, at once so realistic and so alien, that is the most unnerving.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thomas Bewick

In our image-saturated culture it may be hard to imagine a time when the average European's exposure to visual representations of the world might be limited to tavern signs, decorations in churches (where these were not proscribed), and the crude illustrations of chapbooks and broadsides, an era before photography, lithography, and their digital successors made possible the routine mass-production of pictures. Thomas Bewick's oft-reproduced wood engravings may appear quaint and bucolic to us now, at least at first glance, but in their day they represented a revolutionary advance in the production and marketing of images. For much of his audience, Bewick's depiction of the wonders of nature was a revelation.

Bewick was born in 1753 in a village a few miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne. By his own account he was a fairly incorrigible youth, given to pranks and outdoor escapades and subject to canings for his misbehavior. His saving grace was an early acquired fondness for drawing, his stroke of good fortune an apprenticeship to the Newcastle engraver Ralph Beilby, later his partner. Under Beilby's stewardship he took on a variety of metal engraving tasks, but it was his knack for the relatively novel technique of wood engraving that brought him renown and a good living for the rest of his long and largely fulfilling life.

Unlike traditional woodcuts, wood engravings use sections of wood -- boxwood from Turkey was the preferred source -- that are sliced across rather than with the grain. The resulting blocks are small but tough, and a skilled hand like Bewick's could achieve fine detail that could otherwise only be obtained through the more expensive metal engraving techniques.

The three images below are from Bewick's illustrations for The Fables of Aesop and Others (1818). Though confined within strict borders, they display vivid naturalism -- the result of the marriage of technique and first-hand familiarity with the countryside -- and a flair for drawing out the personalities of his subjects.

For Bewick's most famous productions, his illustrated natural histories of quadrupeds and birds, the borders were shed, allowing his subjects to come right up to the viewer's eye.

In printing the great natural history works, Bewick engraved a series of tail-pieces (or "tale-pieces," as he called them, with deliberate wordplay), intended to occupy empty spaces at the end of a chapter. These rustic slice-of-life scenes afforded Bewick an opportunity to make subtle satirical or moral statements that can be easy to miss with a cursory glance. Bewick was in his day what might be called a moderate radical, sympathetic to political reform movements, to the Scots, and to those displaced by enclosures, skeptical of sectarian creeds and war makers. In one "tale-piece," entitled "The Proper Use At Last of All Warlike Monuments," a jackass rubs its posterior against an inscribed pillar leaning over in a field.

Many of Bewick's pictures have been endlessly reproduced and are widely available on the web, but the number of high-quality scans is surprisingly low, especially for the "tale-pieces." (Bear in mind that the original blocks were often only a few inches tall.) I was unable to find good versions of the illustrations Bewick created for Oliver Goldsmith's poem "The Deserted Village" ("Ill fares the land, to hast'ning ill a prey, / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;"), and only one of the copper engravings Bewick executed for Matthew Consett's A Tour through Sweden, Swedish-Lapland, Finland and Denmark.

With the exception of the reindeer, the images shown here are from the galleries of the Bewick Society, which also publishes a blog entitled Tale-Pieces. The Edmonton Art Gallery has a fuller selection with, unfortunately, fairly poor scans.

In the end, though, Bewick's engravings are best appreciated as they were intended to be seen, on paper, and fortunately, there are various collections of his work, ranging from inexpensive paperbacks to budget-breaking limited editions. Two years ago the Ikon Gallery published a hardcover catalogue of the first comprehensive exhibition of the "tale-pieces," and for those with deep pockets Nigel Tattersfield's three-volume Thomas Bewick: The Complete Illustrative Work will be published by the British Library and Oak Knoll Press this month.

Jenny Uglow's Nature's Engraver, the most recent biography of Bewick, has a number of illustrations, as does printing historian Iain Bain's definitive edition of the artist's posthumously published Memoir (Oxford University Press, 1975 & 1979), which is recommended both for its unaffected charm and as a valuable record of rural life and workshop practices.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Most cities grow by tearing down the old to make way for the new, erasing the past, eradicating their own histories. With us, this was never possible. Within a few centuries of the city's founding our numbers had increased to the point that we had filled every square meter of available space between the sea and the wasteland at our backs. To tear down would have required the displacement, if only temporarily, of some of the existing occupants, but so quickly do we set out roots that our homes, once established, become as inseparable from us as the shell of a tortoise. Instead, we ascended skyward. The city rose like a coral reef, each layer serving as the foundation for the ones above it, each building carefully buttressed against its neighbors. The weight, it is said, eventually pushed the oldest strata into the earth, and in those precincts a new race evolved, or so we are told, born without sight or incapable of tolerating even the faint sunlight that reached them. Did they then tunnel down even further into the earth to fill their own need for space, hollowing out the bedrock as far beneath as we have soared above? No one knows.

After a time our metropolis rose so high that descending to street level whenever we needed to leave our homes became burdensome and impractical. At that point we had no other recourse but to seal off the layers below. If nothing else the danger of falling made it imperative. To precipitate from a tall building to one's death is terrible enough; to fall forever, to tumble endlessly through dark and dusty columns of air, to be glimpsed, fleetingly, by creatures whose nature we can only guess at, is a horror beyond words. Did those who surrendered their last view of the sun's rays object, when our platforms and causeways sealed them in for eternity? They did not, for had they not done the same to those below them in their turn? Innocence is a luxury no one here can afford. By the time the darkness was complete they were resigned to their fate.

None of this would be possible, of course, were it not for our gardens, which are without peer on earth. There is no terrace, no stretch of wall, that is not surmounted with growing things, not just crops but flowers as well -- for there is nothing we love as much as the sight of flowers. Even in the winter we garden under glass, the windblown loess from the distant valleys is all the soil we need, we dump our scrapings and our night soil into the depths, and colonies of fungi nourish those below. Does the percolated energy of the sun dwindle to nothing in the lowest tiers, or do secret sources seep up from the center of the earth, bringing nutrients to sunless gardens perhaps even lusher than our own? No one can say.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The ghost

The man steps from the doorway, hands deep in the pockets of his worn gray coat, and passes into the crowd unnoticed, flowing through the throng as if he, or they, were immaterial. He hears voices, sounds of traffic, but muffled; they swirl and echo randomly around him, separated from their source. He recognizes the language -- it's not the one he was born with -- but he can't pick out the words. Above the rooftops the sky is opaque and sunless, yet each passing taxi reflects a blinding flash that makes him lower his eyes.

He stares into a shop window. There is a name displayed across it, a semi-circle of bronze decals that are peeling a bit at the edges, but the inscription makes no sense to him. The letters morph and transpose and won't stay still. Behind the glass gaudy objects in velvet-lined boxes have been laid out with great care on a background of dark gray fabric, but he doesn't recognize them, can't guess their purpose. In the shop's interior a man in a white smock is talking to a patron, or maybe it's the patron who wears the smock, he can't tell, they've already moved away or another person has taken their place, a woman he thinks. He walks away.

He passes a church, its heavy stone walls rising abruptly behind a hedge of red-berried yew. A man is slouched against the railing on the porch of the rectory next door. He recognizes him, somebody he knew years ago, and he stops and stares but the man doesn't return his gaze and suddenly he vanishes and when he looks again it's not the same man at all but someone he's never seen before. He hears a sudden shout behind him and turns but there's no one there, just the same incessant river of strangers.

The traffic has stopped at the corner, waiting for the light, and crowd drifts across, light as birds, their clothes rippling and slacking in the intersecting breezes. A signpost rattles on rusty bolts. He looks up at the street number on a building, remembering the address of a bar he used to frequent. It's still a bar but the name is different, everything is different inside, he thinks maybe I'm wrong, it was another place, so long ago... He lingers at the door. He's feeling thirsty but he won't go in, nothing will slake his thirst, not now.

In the center of the street the pavement divides around a narrow park. He crosses, walks past a shuttered newsstand, climbs a flight of stone steps, and takes a seat on a bench in the variegated shadow of a vast beech tree. It's quieter here, above the cars, just now and then the sound of a woman's heels on the cobbles, approaching or receding he can't be sure until all of a sudden he doesn't hear them anymore.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

George Tooker, 1920 - 2011

(The artist George Tooker died in Hartland, Vermont on March 27. The following is an abridged and updated version of a piece I originally posted in 2009. I've added a few images. The New York Times has an obituary as well as a slide show.)

In January 2009 I was able to visit the Tooker retrospective then on display at the National Academy Museum. It was my first visit to the relatively small Fifth Avenue institution, which at the time was struggling and in the news as a result of some controversial deaccessionings. Whatever the financial state of the museum, the fourth floor rooms devoted to the show were suitably homey and intimate. Tooker was an unassuming, private person; his canvases are on the small side and due to the demands of the egg tempera technique he employed his body of work is not as large as one might expect from a man who was active well into his eighties.

Although he has been sometimes categorized as a “magical realist,” that well-worn term seems particularly inappropriate in his case, for his work was “magical” or “fantastic” only in the most superficial way, and although he was a figurative painter he was no realist in the conventional sense. The show included early and somewhat strident paintings like Children and Spastics, Dance, and A Game of Chess, well-known works from the 1950s onward, like Government Bureau (below) and Waiting Room II, that give evidence of his political and social concerns, as well as more optimistic, religiously tinged works like Supper and Orant. There were several self-portraits and enough other works to represent the range of his artistic interests. An excellent catalog, edited by Robert Cozzolino, Marshall N. Price, and M. Melissa Wolfe, documented the show and provided biographical and critical illumination.

Much has been made of Tooker's formal conversion to Catholicism in the 1970s following the death of his longtime partner William Christopher, and of the ways in which that affected the course of his later work. (Tooker's mother was Cuban and the family had switched from Catholicism to Episcopalianism in the painter's youth.) It's true that after that time he executed several specifically religious commissions, in particular for the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Windsor, Vermont, but there is no clear division between his work before and after his conversion. In fact it is not always easy to say which of Tooker's paintings are to be regarded as evidence of alienation and which are to be regarded as expressing hope and communion with others.

A case in point is Landscape with Figures, which depicts, almost entirely in shades of reddish orange, what appear to be office workers sunk in a honeycomb of cubicles.

We look down over the horizontal array of boxes, but interestingly the perspective also evokes the vertical span of a skyscraper, with the tops of the cubicles functioning as windows. Most of the figures appear asleep or entranced, yet in the rows nearest to us there are several figures with eyes open who may be about to emerge from the corporate catacombs of the Organization Man.

In discussing Subway (above), which dates from 1950, Tooker used a combination of religious and mythological imagery:
I was thinking of a large modern city, as a kind of limbo. The subway seemed a good place to represent a denial of the senses and a negation of life itself. Its being underground with great weight overhead was important. I thought of the labyrinth of the Minotaur and the unreal perspectives of a Hall of Mirrors.
The painting has three vertical levels, linked by staircases, and the downward staircase could be regarded as leading into the underworld, with the staircase up to the street providing a possible route of ascent and escape (which, however, no one is making use of). The central plane would then be a kind of intermediate world, a Purgatory characterized by suffering but also offering the possibility of redemption to those who are able to break free from the conformity and isolation of modern urban life.

In Waiting Room (from 1957, not to be confused with the more explicitly political Waiting Room II from 1982) we look in on another bleak scene, this time of sullen, lifeless figures standing in what appears to be a combination locker room and waiting area.

The only face displaying any animation is the one depicted on the back cover of a magazine that one woman is holding aloft, obscuring her own face. The strong suggestion of the painting is that what is being awaited is death, a perhaps not entirely unwelcome end to hollow, unhappy, isolated lives. But there is one touch of tenderness: in one of the stalls a woman grasps the arm of a downcast man, perhaps as she says goodbye. The colors of the clothes the figures are wearing may indicate how close to death they are, as the more apparently vigorous figures are brightly dressed, the evidently moribund drably clothed; the woman in stall No. 114 seems to be slowly draining from one state to another.

There are many other aspects to Tooker's work, many of them admirably clarified by the exhibition catalog. His strong sympathy with the civil rights movement can be seen in a number of paintings that depict African-American or mixed-race figures, notably Supper from 1963 and Dark Angel from 1996, and there are several paintings that are simply splendid and beautiful, like his self-portraits from 1969 and 1994 and the lovely Girl with a Basket from 1987-88.

His work may convey a sense of mystery and otherworldliness, but in the end Tooker, dark or light, was an artist fully engaged with the human condition.