Sunday, February 18, 2007

Ambroise Vollard -- Doctor Evil ?

I'm just back from "C├ęzanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde " at the Art Institute -- where Pierre Bonnard's portraits of him are the ones that stick in my mind.

This portrays the dealer at one of his famous dinner parties thrown in the basement beneath his gallery -- apparently a very damp place -- with no pictures on the wall -- and Vollard's own chicken curry the only item ever on the menu.

But Bonnard also portrays the dealer with his best friend -- which has possibly been the inspiration for a notorious villian in late 20th Century cinema.

Doctor Evil ? Maybe not -- but I also don't think he should be called a "patron" of the avant garde.

He wasn't a patron -- he was a salesman/promoter/publisher -- just like the role Clive Davis famously played in the American popular music industry.

No matter how much you like something -- when your living depends on selling it -- you become a businessman, not a patron (I know ! -- that's my life as record dealer) -- and the first question you HAVE to ask is : "where's my money in this ?"

Ambroise Vollard discovered, promoted, commissioned many wonderful artists in that great European golden age at the turn of the last century -- but when you look at the things he chose for himself -- he was not especially a man of taste. He appears to have mostly collected things of personal interest -- portraits of friends etc -- while the very best things he bought were sold (at a profit) to others.

And here's the man who made him rich -- Paul Cezanne (who also did the portrait shown above)

Vollard is credited with "discovering" Cezanne -- like Colonel Parker discovered Elvis -- and since Cezanne, the trust fund child, never needed money, he let Vollard keep most of it -- which was quite a bit -- considering that over 650 Cezannes passed through his ledgers.

And this is a question I have to ask: has the market for avant garde painting ever been especially more sophisticated than the market for rock-n-roll records ?

Regarding Cezanne -- he spent, apparently, hundreds of hours working on that portrait (while Vollard was patiently posing) -- though I don't really see how that time was well spent. And the exhibit had a room full of his multi-figure mock-classical compositions (I 'm not showing them because I can't stand a single one)

But I enjoy his still life -- and especially his landscape --like the one shown above.

(the great Chinese landscape painters were not known for ever making any figure compositions -- and maybe Cezanne should has followed their example)

But the highlight of the show -- for me -- was Vincent!

His paintings are so alive -- they crackle with energy -- like this pair of old boots shown above.

..or this sunflower from the Met. (I'm not sure that Gawain would like them -- but Vincnet reminds me of those eccentric Sung calligraphers -- like the beloved "Recluse of Verdant Obtuseness")

...or this street scene -- with the judicious use of heavy-texture paint -- that can only be sensed in person (so the jpg's don't work)

But Vincent was already dead when Vollard became a dealer -- so although he did some shows with the estate --- very little sold --- and he sold the remainders off cheap. Why keep it ? It didn't look like a good investment -- at the time.

Oh, and really love this Vuillard -- it's hard to tell from the jpg -- but the pattern on the lady's blouse feels like a cluster of precious stones.

I so much like to be lolling about while a woman is preparing me dinner !

And, of course, I also like young women with their shirts off.

This Renoir is really glowing -- and the drawing is perfect -- even as it sometimes appears to be careless. (BTW -- Rodin saw this painting and bought it -- so now it can be seen at the Hotel Biron

Speaking of Rodin -- here's a design he made to accompany one of Vuillard's art books.. The story involves some kind of torture garden (ouch!). A bit misogynistic, perhaps, but so beautiful -- and the feeling that Rodin's figures settle into a delicious design the way I might settle into a big comfy chair.

And speaking of publications -- I never realized that Vollard was responsible for all my favorite Picassos -- i.e. the etchings he made for the Vollard edition of "The Sculptor's Studio"

Usually I condemn Picasso for his arrogant -- sloppy -- self indulgence -- but here's he's indulging my favorite fantasies -- and drawing like Raphael -- so I forgive him everything !

Vollard is also known for his investment in the late work of Degas --- the things that Degas never gave to his dealers -- for what, I think, was good reason -- i.e. the sharpness -- and maybe his eyesight -- was gone.

There was an exhibit of late Degas here in Chicago about 15 years ago -- and I hated it -- and especially its promotion as "Degas the Modernist" - "modern" because the work was so loose approaching ugly.

But I really like the large painting (above) that accompanied this exhibit.


I also liked Degas' memoirs of the whorehouse -- monoprints that were not marketed in his lifetime. Very poignant -- very tasty --and kind of sad.

Vollard is credited with getting the aging Renoir to sculpt -- or, not actually to sculpt -- since his arthritic hands were too crippled -- but to collaborate with a young Spanish sculptor, Richard Guino -- and I think the word "collaborate" is giving Renoir a bit too much credit -- since Guino actually modeled the things -- Renoir was more like the producer (with Vollard as the "executive producer") Just like Billy Strayhorn with Duke Ellington -- Renoir, at first, got all the credit -- but since the 50's, the Guino family has been given the copyrights.

But Vollard's greatest achievement, so far as I'm concerned, was making Maillol a sculptor !

Yes! --- he is somewhat credited with directing Maillol's career toward sculpture. For example, he bought the above wood carving -- made a mold -- and began to cast copies in bronze -- circulating them throughout the artworld (Rodin bought one) and then giving Maillol his first solo sculpture show (before then he made decorative paintings and tapestries)

I have no illusions about Vollard's taste --- he did the same thing for Picasso's clumsy/ugly sculptural events -- and he sold quite a few --- but still ---- what if Maillol had never become an art star ? What if Elvis had spent his life driving trucks ? Businessmen are needed !

But my biggest disappointment in the show -- was that it didn't include any of the Vollard artists who DID NOT become art super-stars (the unfamiliar will always interest me the most)

This show -- like every museum show about art after 1850 --- is a kind of sacred narrative -- about the days when art-gods descended to earth -- and the great faith of MODERNISM was revealed to ignorant humanity.

And I'm just not sure that public institutions should be used to promote religious faith.


Blogger Robert said...

That is it in a nutshell Chris. Well done indeed.

February 18, 2007  
Anonymous Gawain said...

And this is a question I have to ask: has the market for avant garde painting ever been especially more sophisticated than the market for rock-n-roll records ? "

i think "avant-garde" means "sloppy finish"? :) (from french: avant = finish, garde = sloppy)


February 19, 2007  
Blogger chris miller said...

But then we have the Russian avant garde -- which could hardly be called 'sloppy' -- or the pointillists -- or more recently, the minimalists

But on the other hand, the "avant garde" has hardly been avant of anything except more of the same, only worse -- while the rest of the army is moving in various other directions.

February 19, 2007  
Anonymous marly said...

The first Bonnard reminds me of certain Toulouse Lautrec scenes with whores--that is, whores displayed without one iota of love.

I also like the Cezanne landscape, and the van Gogh pictures. Wish we could see that mass of "jewels" better on the Vuillard.

Back later--am snowed under, so to speak.

February 19, 2007  
Blogger jrmedia - on painters & painting said...

"But my biggest disappointment in the show -- was that it didn't include any of the Vollard artists who DID NOT become art super-stars"...
The reason for that is 'business'. People pay to see superstars, and if they're a superstar known by a single name - Elvis, Picasso, Degas - they'll even pay more. I think even Vollard was savvy enough to know that.
I do agree though, it would be interesting to see the work of his 'unknowns', but I suspect we'd be disappointed to find there was a reason why they never made it...

February 19, 2007  
Blogger chris miller said...

Welcome to my worthless blog, James.

It looks like you owe as much to Vollard (Cezanne) as I do (Maillol).

Are there some good reasons why the unknowns never made it ? Yes -- but contrarian that I am -- I tend to disagree with them -- just like I don't agree that everything Cezanne -- or anything Gaughan -- ever made should be found in art museums.

We had an exhibit here a few years ago of painters from fin-de-siecle Montparnasse -- with several painters who were completely new to me -- so I guess I was hoping the same thing would happen at this show.

Of course - I also wish our Chicago museum could have big super-shows that fall outside the French artworld of 1860-1910 --- but that may never happen in my lifetime.

February 20, 2007  
Blogger Gawain said...

the Q is -- who was bying when Dr Evil was selling?

February 21, 2007  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

Came back to look at this interesting collection some more. What about Georges Rouault and his prostitutes? Do you admire those?

The first Bonnard still makes my skin creep. Didn't say a thing about the drawings before, but I like the Renoir pastel--yes, "glowing" seems right--and the charming Picasso minotaur. Perhaps you should take that sketch as your avatar (or whatever those little images are called.) The Rodin evokes too much menstruation for me. Torture gardens of various sorts.

February 21, 2007  
Blogger chris miller said...

I really like Roualt -- but the ones in this exhibit didn't do it for me.

But I'll be visiting the show every week for the next few months -- so maybe I'll change my mind.

And yes -- that Bonnard scene is soooo unpleasant -- the viewer seems to be sick to his stomach -- and everyone at the table is right out of a nightmare. (maybe Bonnard got food poisoning ??)

I like the painting -- but I hate the scene -- if that makes any sense.

February 21, 2007  
Blogger Lori Witzel said...

Those damn brilliant boots. How is it that broken man's work transmits so much joy and life...

Anyway, gotta run.

February 24, 2007  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

Halloo, Chris--

Rolled in from nine days in the Carolinas, and the dratted snow is still here! And I thought you would have snowed me under with new posts. Perhaps it's best that you're still thinking about this one.

February 25, 2007  

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