Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Passing of Lionel Lambourne

A few days ago, I received an email from PSW in London telling me she had gone to the funeral of Lionel Lambourne. His name may not be familiar unless you are a scholar or collector of Victorian art and visual culture. A search on the Internet brought up a short obituary in the Times which read: "Lionel OBE formerly Head of Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum, died peacefully on 12th February 2010. Very much loved and sadly missed by his wife Maureen, children Patrick and Helen and grandchildren Sky and Tom. Funeral at Mortlake Crematorium on 23rd February, 2.30 pm. Donations to the Albany Taxi Charity Fund." I knew Lambourne had been sick for some time, but of course news like this is always a surprise. PSW went on to say that although the funeral was sad there were also good moments as former colleagues shared stories about him. Those of us who work on the queer Anglo-Jewish artist Simeon Solomon (about whom I have blogged before) will forever remember Lambourne as the man who started the movement to bring Solomon back to the forefront of Pre-Raphaelite studies. Solomon’s 1863 watercolor Two Acolytes Censing seems appropriate to show in this sense, as it highlights the artist’s love of spirituality and religious ritual, and this picture exemplified for Lambourne Aesthetic-style painting (image courtesy of the Victorian Web).

Going through my files, I found a typewritten letter from Lambourne dated August 18, 1998. At that time, I had been working on an annotated bibliography on Solomon that was published in The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies and subsequently became the basis for the Simeon Solomon Research Archive. Knowing he was one of the leading experts on the artist, I had written a letter asking a few questions, including whether he was still working on his biography. He kindly answered my questions and added suggestions for further research. He ended by noting, "As to my biography of S.S. well...I've just finished a big book on Victorian Painting for Phaidon and only have two projects left to complete[:] a book on Carnival and the Solomon biography. So the answer if [sic] affirmative, if unsatisfactory, and my hat's still in the ring." In 2001 I returned to London with my friend CF to see the small exhibition on Solomon held at the Jewish Museum, and we attended a talk given by Lambourne that discussed Solomon’s life and early drawings. I introduced myself and he was kind enough to introduce me to his wife, the curators, and PSW, who I was startled to discover was a descendant of the Solomon family. It was during that same talk that the idea of working on Solomon’s unpublished letters first came to light, and it was at his suggestion that I began to work on this project (I have since published 3 essays on his correspondence). I last saw Lambourne in 2005 at the opening of the Solomon exhibition in Birmingham, England, where he gave opening remarks, and I was flattered afterwards to discover that he still remembered this junior scholar.

Lambourne can be credited with jumpstarting the academic study of Solomon with his 1967 article on Solomon’s sketchbooks in the Apollo and his 1968 essay “Abraham Solomon, Painter of Fashion, and Simeon Solomon, Decadent Artist" published in the Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England. This latter essay in particular was a biographical overview of these brother artists, drawing on archival research and emphasizing their very different contributions to Victorian painting. Although Lambourne wasn’t the first to write about Solomon, he was most notably the first to suggest that one needed to look past Solomon’s arrest for homosexual crimes and evaluate his contribution to Victorian art without prejudice. It was at this time that he mentioned writing a biography about Solomon, and although over the next 40 years he curated an exhibition on the Solomon family and did other works, sadly that biography never was published (nor apparently was the Carnival book).

The art collector Simon Reynolds did publish a biographical study, The Vision of Simeon Solomon (1984), and one cannot help but suspect that Lambourne may have been angered by the usurpation of his work. In his review of the book, Lambourne noted that it “falls badly between two stools, that of the illustrated appreciation and biographical study” and that “the author has failed to convey the complex personality of Solomon, or correctly to evaluate his achievements as an artist” (541). Despite never having found a publisher for his own biography (he told me that was the reason why it never happened), nevertheless Lambourne’s contribution was valuable in moving things forward, eventually leading to the scholarship written by Gayle Seymour, Colin Cruise, Elizabeth Prettejohn, Carolyn Conroy, and me, making us (if I may be so bold as to include myself) the leading Solomon scholars in the field.

From early on in his art historical career, Lambourne wrote about Victorian art and culture, covering topics such as the Arts & Crafts Movement, fairy painting, and genre painting. Once he retired from the Victoria and Albert Museum, he set about writing books that were drawn from his lifetime work. The Aesthetic Movement (1996) was a survey of the painting, literature, and drama associated with this Victorian cultural movement which emphasized beauty as the goal of art production. His survey book Victorian Painting (1999) was a tome of 541 pages, arranged thematically so as to discuss everything from genre scenes to the fallen woman motif. The book was cited by Joseph Kestner as a “necessary reference work” and praised for its unequivocal mix of canonical and non-canonical pictures (157). But other reviewers had concerns. Julian Treuherz identified errors and was disappointed by his lack of in-depth critical analysis: “The writing lacks rigour—there are irrelevant digressions, anecdotes and inappropriate jokes that do nothing to help communicate the subject under discussion” (646). Alan Crawford’s review of The Aesthetic Movement is perhaps even more telling. He notes that Lambourne “does not pretend to have written a book of great intellectual reach. Like Whistler’s butterfly, he likes to flit from one subject to another, pausing long enough for an anecdote but not long enough for analysis”(738).

One’s reaction to reading these remarks might be to balk and grimace. Indeed, I myself have come across errors in these texts and have found some of the analysis rather cursory as well. But I think it’s a fair assessment to point out that, having retired from the museum world, Lambourne was much more interested with these books in reflecting on Victorian art and culture from his own personal taste and sensibility; they are more about Lambourne than the subjects themselves. His anecdotal approach to art history always was what made him engaging as a speaker, and I would argue that these books should be seen as printed versions of Lambourne. As you read through The Aesthetic Movement, you cannot help but find yourself caught up in all the high-spirited frivolity of Gilbert and Sullivan, sunflowers, and Oscar Wilde’s American tour where he tells the customs agent that he has nothing to declare but his own genius. As beautiful coffee table books that survey Victorian art and culture, Lambourne’s books are not meant to be in-depth critical analyses of individual pictures and their socio-political origins. Instead, they serve to introduce non-academic readers to a world which has been marginalized in art history since Victoria died in 1901 as fruitful topics of discussion and instruction. Besides, one must keep in mind that historiography has a generational component: it is the duty of art historians to both augment—and oppose—the work of their predecessors, but hopefully also acknowledge it for its contributions and for being of its author’s time.

Ultimately, however, I think some of us will best remember Lambourne in the context of Solomon. In a brief introductory essay to the exhibition catalog From Prodigy to Outcast, which focused on the artist’s sketchbooks from his youth, Lambourne wrote: “We cannot know what the future holds but perhaps, as a result of enjoying this exhibition, we as fond Mothers and Fathers have a real excuse for cherishing our children’s early artistic productions” (6). This remark says much about Solomon’s juvenilia and its potential influence on his later artistic career, but it also seems to convey a message to the next generation of Solomon scholars who can look back fondly and remember Lambourne as the one who started it all.

UPDATE 3/20/10: I received email from PSW word that a more detailed obituary for Lambourne was posted on the Times website. My favorite part of it has to be the discussion of his lectures as theatrical performances: "The fact that many of his memorable talks were punctuated by snatches of comic song or, on occasions when old-fashioned slide projectors jammed, with impromptu displays of shadow puppetry, merely added to the general sense of unpredictable gaiety; his method was always as much music hall as lecture hall."

Works Cited

Crawford, Alan. Review of The Aesthetic Movement by L. Lambourne. Victorian Studies 40 (Summer 1997): 737-39.
Jewish Museum, London. From Prodigy to Outcast: Simeon Solomon—Pre-Raphaelite Artist. London: Jewish Museum, 2001.
Kestner, Joseph A. “Victorian Art History: Rap 2 Unwrapped.” Victorian Literature and Culture 29, n.1 (2001): 149-58.
Lambourne, Lionel. "Abraham Solomon, Painter of Fashion, and Simeon Solomon, Decadent Artist." Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 21 (1968): 274-86 + illus.
___. The Aesthetic Movement. London: Phaidon, 1996.
___. Review of The Vision of Simeon Solomon by S. Reynolds. The Burlington Magazine 127 (August 1985): 541.
___. "A Simeon Solomon Sketch-book." Apollo 85 (1967): 59-61.
___. Victorian Painting. London: Phaidon, 1999.
Reynolds, Simon. The Vision of Simeon Solomon. Stroud, England: Catalpa Press, 1984.
Treuherz, Julian. Review of Victorian Painting by L. Lambourne. The Burlington Magazine 142 (October 2000): 646.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: Little Ashes

My first experience working in a museum was when I volunteered at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. This was around 1990 (whoa...20 years ago?!). I had just moved to Florida with my family, and I was trying to make friends and get involved. When I visited the museum for the first time, I remember being enthralled by the beauty of Dalí's paintings. I realize this may seem odd, because beautiful isn't exactly the word one thinks of with regard to Dalí, an artist who in his Surrealist phase noted an inate fascination with blood, feces, and semen. Indeed, the thought-provoking Persistence of Memory (1931), or the evocative but disturbing Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War (1936), are typical of his work. But the majority of the pictures on display at this museum reflect a post-Surrealist Dalí, who in a more classical phase responded to religion and science with large-scale paintings that leave you mesmerized by their complex hidden meanings. One of the more popular “attractions,” for instance, is when people are instructed to stare at his enormous painting The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1969-70), and while the figure of the Venus de Milo rotates, the face of a toreador comes into focus on the canvas.

Most of my time, I worked in the museum gift shop, and had I continued as a volunteer I would have pursued giving tours. The docents would give good overviews of the artist's life and career, from early subjects while at the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid, to his later pictures with their complex unconscious fears played out in symbolic form. But of all the pictures that were on display at this museum, one that was never discussed by the docents or curators was his 1954 painting Two Adolescents (image from the Dali Planet blog).

This picture was dwarfed by his more symbolic studies and large-scale paintings. It still does not appear on the museum's website. It doesn't take much to figure out why no one spoke about this painting at that time. After all, what do you say about two full-frontal nude youths on a beach, one lying in the sand with the other above him, both staring at each other from faces that are meant to be distinct but have been blurred out? It's obviously homoerotic, but since it didn't fit in with the rest of Dalí's oeuvre, it could be ignored. Back then, I was not "out," so naturally this painting both titillated and disturbed me. And, like everyone else who had entered the museum, I was hesitant to ask about it. The Dali Planet blog cites this picture as an example of his subconscious battle over the memory of his older brother, who had died before the artist was born and thus always lived within his shadow of perfection. But then why the nudity? Why the distinct hair colors and facial features? Why the beach-like environment? And why the sexual tension between these two youths?

It seems that one possible answer to these questions can be found in the film Little Ashes (2009), which I finally watched last night on DVD. Directed by Paul Morrisson and written by Philippa Goslett, the movie is inspired by the early lives of three of Spain's greatest modernists: the painter Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), and the filmmaker Luis Buñuel (1900-1983). All hailing from different areas of Spain, the trio were students together at the Academy in Madrid in the early 1920s. This was a period in Spain's history when fascism and democracy were battling for dominance and would eventually explode in the Spanish Civil War of 1936, which led to the dictatorship of General Franco. García Lorca was among the first to be executed by the revolutionary forces that year. At thirty-eight years of age, he was shot by a firing squad for his anti-fascist propaganda and, very possibly, for the crime of being a homosexual.

For Americans, the one reason why this film has any notoriety is because the twink actor Robert Pattinson plays Dalí, and because the film explores the homosexual relationship between García Lorca and Dalí (i.e. Pattinson kisses another guy). I'm not a fan of Pattinson's acting, and while certainly he gave it his all the madness that one associates with Dalí is played out histrionically by Pattinson to the point that you want to laugh. His needle-like mustache and frequent bulging eyes are like borderline farce. That said, Dalí was all about artifice. Die-hard Dalí fans want to play up the artist's madness as part of his misunderstood genius, but his ability to market himself and his work throughout his career shows that he wasn't as insane as people want to believe he was. This in no way changes the fact that Dalí was certainly talented and innovative. And, in all fairness, I am convinced that Dalí did have psychological problems. He was probably bisexual (despite his insistence on being exclusively heterosexual), but more likely I believe he was asexual, for it is said that even after he married his muse Gala Eluard, she continued to have love affairs with many other men, and that he was known to watch them.

Despite the emphasis in American cinema on Pattinson/Dalí, the heart of this story belongs to García Lorca, played magnificently by Javier Beltrán. When the story opens, he is already recognized for his own talents as a poet, but he is encouraged by friends like Buñuel (Matthew McNulty) to be less romantic and more aggressively political. García Lorca, however, finds himself smitten by the newly arrived Dalí, much to the chagrin of his female friend Magdalena (Marina Gatell), who struggles to find her own place in society as both a lover and a feminist. The story of García Lorca and Dalí unfolds as a romance. As they open up to one another creatively and emotionally, becoming first acquaintances than very close friends, their passion for one another eventually overcomes them. The scene where they kiss for the first time in the moonlit ocean is truly a beautiful scene and stands out as one of the best romantic scenes in gay cinema.

But despite his desire to live artistically and emotionally without limits (the Spanish title for the movie is in fact Sin límites), Dalí has inner demons that prevent him from completely opening himself up to García Lorca. Worse, their emotional connection is threatened by Buñuel's discovery of their relationship, which he finds repulsive on moral grounds and, in a brilliant but predictable twist, because of his own secret desires. Rather than threaten the couple directly, however, Buñuel destroys them by enticing Dalí with dreams of stardom in Paris among the Surrealists. The two go there, leaving García Lorca behind, and become successes in their respective careers. In 1928 Buñuel and Dalí collaborated on a 16-minute film called Un Chien Andalou (Andalusian Dog), which is still considered a landmark in cinematic history, with its shocking eye-slicing scene and inexplicable dreamlike sequences that epitomize the chaos and psychology of Surrealism itself. García Lorca saw the film as a stab at him by his former friends, as he came from Andalusia (a region historically looked down upon for its provincialism and gypsy population) and because of scenes that, in this new movie’s context, reflect Dalí’s rejection of García Lorca.

This film is about the memory of García Lorca. Of all the attempts to create a biopic that shows a man as a sentient being who cares about his people and his country, and who also happens to be a homosexual, this is surely one of the best. If there was one regret on my part about this film, it was that I wished it was in Spanish and not English. Some of the most moving parts are when Beltrán recites García Lorca’s poetry in Spanish, and although one wants to be able to understand them, the voiceover in English was frustrating. I would have preferred subtitles so that I could at least hear the cadence of how García Lorca’s poetry should be spoken.

Years ago when I was working toward my M.A. degree in Humanities, I took a course on Surrealism in which among other things we looked at Dalí’s paintings, read García Lorca’s plays, and watched Un Chien Andalou. Although we studied them for their associations with the unconscious mind and the dream state, we never considered them in relation to one another. Because of Little Ashes, whose title refers to a painting by Dalí in which García Lorca identified himself, I now see these works so much more intertwined in a way I never realized before. It has inspired me to want to read more of García Lorca’s work, albeit in translation. And perhaps it’s time also to revisit the Two Adolescents and recognize that picture for its unspoken meaning: a paean to innocence, inspiration, and love, an acknowledgment that regardless of what came afterwards, there was a brief moment when one man accepted Dalí as a true genius, a man who showed him his potential self, without limits.

Friday, February 12, 2010

HMI Research Fellowship

Last week I received some fantastic news. I have been awarded a research fellowship from the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, England. You can see a picture of the institute above. The contemporary glass facade on a Victorian row house gives you a good sense of how they see them as a bridge between the past and the present. According to their website, the HMI "is an award-winning exhibitions venue, research centre and sculpture archive." They specialize in British sculpture, mostly from the late 19th century to the present, but also hold material dating back to 1800. They are affiliated with The Henry Moore Foundation, which was established in 1977 by the British sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986), a leading figures in 20th-century sculpture. His large-scale, biomorphic figures can be found in museums and sculpture gardens around the world. Click here for just one example from the sculpture garden at Perry Green, Moore's home in England. By sheer coincidence the Tate Britain in London is opening an exhibition of his work in a few weeks as well.

This is a one-month residency research fellowship, for which they provide housing. I will have time to use their extensive library and archive, and to view the sculpture collections at the HMI and the Leeds Art Gallery, all in the goal of doing more research on the work of the sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866). You'll recall that I also received from my school a grant for a research project on Gibson in Liverpool, so this extended period of time will be an incredible start to the next phase of my academic career. We're still coordinating the dates, but the plan is for me to be doing all of this in the fall.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Spring Semester

The spring semester at school started this past week, rather late in the year actually. Fortunately, I am done with all my coursework. Most of my energy this semester will be focused on intense studying for my Oral Examination, which has been scheduled for the morning of April 22nd. This exam is the last major requirement of our program. Upon passing you receive an M.Phil. degree, which establishes your official candidacy as a doctoral candidate and acknowledges you are at the dissertation stage. While it is also my goal to turn my dissertation proposal in this semester, I need to focus first on passing this test. The exam is set up like this: 3 faculty members sit in a room with me for 2 hours and show me numerous pairings of works of art which I'm supposed to identify, compare and contrast, and discuss in the context of the major art historical literature on them. I could be shown anything within my areas. If one of the pairs is something like David's Oath of the Horatii (1785) and Couture's Romans of the Decadence (1847), I would be okay with that. If they show me a German Biedermeier painting, however, I'm screwed. My study partner KZ and I have been working dilligently on the 4-page bibliography for our major area: European Art, 1750-1900. There is also a focus area, which is a specialized component in which one is supposed to demonstrate advanced knowledge. Mine is Classicism in British Painting & Sculpture, 1785-1900. If that wasn't enough, I also will be tested in my minor area: American Art, 1750-1945.

All that said, I couldn't resist auditing a seminar this semester, which means I sit in on the lectures, but since I'm not getting a grade I don't have to do the assignments. My advisor, Patricia Mainardi, is co-teaching with Martina Droth from the Yale Center for British Art a great seminar called "The Artist's Studio in the 19th Century," which will focus on both practical issues like artists' education and training, and theoretical issues like images of artists in their studios as performative representations of the self (hence the 1905 image above taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin in his studio with assistants, from the Library of Congress).

So wish me luck: between working at my job and studying, it's going to be an important and busy semester!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Giacometti: The New World Record

A few hours ago, my friend PR forwarded me a link to The New York Times post by Carol Vogel that a bronze sculpture by Alberto Giacometti had broken the world record for the highest amount ever paid at auction for a work of art. Aficionados will recognize Giacometti's name, but he certainly doesn't roll off the tongue of most people who are justifiably more familiar with the likes of modern greats like Picasso and Matisse. Giacometti (1901-1966) was a Swiss-born Italian artist who made an early career for himself as one of the leading sculptors of the Surrealist movement. In 1935 he was thrown out by the Surrealists, or left on his own accord, because he felt like the abstract tone of his work was disconnecting him from the figurative form with which he felt a more natural affinity. After World War II, he was back in Paris producing work like Walking Man I, pictured here on the NYT site.

The 6-foot sculpture sold tonight at Sotheby's London for $104.3 million (approximately $12 million of that goes to Sotheby's in fees). The buzz, of course, is who the anonymous bidder was. Gallery owners are speculating it is a Russian tycoon with apparently lots of money to spend. Noteworthy on the blog post are comments from people who are horrified by the fact that one person has that much to spend while people are dying from starvation in the world. There is something to that, but for all we know this same tycoon may have given $500 million to charities in the past year.

To me, the most amazing part of this story (from an art historical perspective) is that the sculpture was only estimated to sell for between $19 to $28 million, which suggests Sotheby's underestimated its value. But is it really worth $104.3 million? These things are very difficult to say. After all, let's face it, a work of art is only worth what someone wants to pay for it. Furthermore, the instinct for some is to compare this skinny bronze guy to, say, the perpetually sublime magnificence of the Mona Lisa, but that is an unfair comparison, not only because it is a completely different type of art and appeals to a different audience, but also because the Louvre painting never has been up for sale so it's impossible to estimate how much it might be worth. Personally, I'm not convinced the Giacometti is worth that much money. The battle that went on between the two top bidders tells us that this became more about acquiring and really has nothing to do with the actual quality of the work itself. Still, this kind of price war will inevitably increase the value of Giacometti's work across the entire art market.

I actually like Giacometti's work a lot. When you look closely at his figures, you can see his fingerprints and handprints in the bronze. Originally these were marks he made in the clay or wax figure, which was then used to make the cast and then the bronze, so his imprint is actually two steps away from the original work. Yet, somehow, their existence on the sculpture's surface gives you a sense that his presence is still before you. Giacometti's attenuated figures like this one, or related works at The Museum of Modern Art like Man Pointing, demonstrate his expressionistic take on the human form. Like in the work of Mannerist artists from the late Renaissance (e.g. Bronzino and Parmagianino), the exaggeration of the human form emphasizes motion and emotion. The viewer's reaction to contorted forms is meant to be provocative, to make the viewer feel a sense of discomfort, a feeling one experiences through the reality of living but often cannot express or explain away. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described Giacometti's figures as revealing the existential angst felt by Europeans after the devastation of World War II. Giacometti disregarded this interpretation, claiming instead that this new body type was simply a fluke based on experiments in drawing the human form. What strikes me about them is their sense of isolation and loneliness. This is especially true in his works where these attenuated figures are grouped together. The closer they are to one another, the more separate they seem. It's like a crowded NYC street, where thousands of people march together, but somehow never recognize another soul around them. They exist in their own bubbles, rushing from one zone to another, and missing the world that exists around them, as they move about in their neverending search for their place in the universe, wondering if they will ever find it.