Danc­ing Waves and Mid­night Light

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Erik Martiny

An­ders Zorn: Swe­den’s Master Painter, Pe­tit Palais, Paris, 15 Septem­ber 2017 to 17 De­cem­ber 2017

It’s been ex­actly 111 years since An­ders Zorn’s last ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion in Paris. Al­though nowa­days An­ders Zorn (1860–1920) is gen­er­ally for­got­ten out­side Scan­di­navia be­cause of mu­seum over-fo­cus on French Im­pres­sion­ism, the Swedish artist was once one of the hottest items on the art mar­ket in Lon­don, Paris, New York and Chicago.

At the height of the Amer­i­can Gilded Age, the Belle époque in Paris and late Vic­to­rian Eng­land, Zorn painted the stars of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, af­flu­ent bankers, cap­tains of in­dus­try, and no less than three suc­ces­sive Amer­i­can pres­i­dents: Grover Cleve­land, Wil­liam H. Taft and Theodore Roo­sevelt. Amer­i­can high so­ci­ety be­came much en­am­oured of Zorn, and Zorn loved it back with dili­gent ded­i­ca­tion, work­ing day and night to meet his com­mis­sion re­quire­ments. Hav­ing gone from rags to riches him­self af­ter a peas­ant up­bring­ing in Dale­car­lia, cen­tral Swe­den, Zorn ap­pre­ci­ated the self-made man at­mos­phere of the New World where new money and a quick run up the so­cial lad­der was noth­ing to be ashamed of. In Amer­ica he rose to such promi­nence that be­fore long he was neck-and-neck with John Singer Sar­gent for por­trait com­mis­sions—no mean feat if you con­sider that Sar­gent was the pre-em­i­nent and most sought-af­ter por­traitist of his time.

How­ever Zorn’s in­ter­na­tional ca­reer was launched in Lon­don’s fash­ion­able May­fair where he set­tled for sev­eral years with his fu­ture wife Emma Lamm. It was thanks to this quickly ac­quired wealth that he was able to marry her in 1885 with­out in­cur­ring his af­flu­ent Swedish in-laws’ gen­teel dis­ap­proval.

His ca­reer thus passed swiftly from paint­ing beg­gars to bankers, but his tal­ent as a painter in both wa­ter­colour and oil pushed him in di­rec­tions that

ex­ceeded the scope of Sar­gent’s mono­generic works. His most mem­o­rable paint­ings are those that de­pict life in Swe­den, but his paint­ings of fish­er­men in St Ives also at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the French state.

Zorn had a great affin­ity for the ren­der­ing of move­ment, draw­ing him nat­u­rally to the de­pic­tion of wa­ter and danc­ing. The im­pres­sion­ist touch he ac­quired dur­ing his stays in Paris in the 1880s and 90s en­abled him to de­pict the free-flow­ing en­ergy of folk danc­ing in a man­ner that bested pho­tog­ra­phy. One of his con­tem­po­raries, the Nor­we­gian Ed­vard Munch once said that pho­tog­ra­phy was un­able to ri­val paint­ing in the de­pic­tion of Par­adise and Hell. Us­ing a mo­tif that was also cen­tral to Munch’s work, Zorn proved the point in his Mid­sum­mer Dance (1897). Zorn blurs the ground in this paint­ing, set­ting the grass alight with move­ment un­der the peas­ants’ danc­ing feet to con­vey the zest and joy in­volved in May­pole fer­til­ity rites. The rest of the paint­ing is bathed in sooth­ing Swedish even­ing light. Scan­di­na­vian sum­mers with their never-end­ing evenings were ideally suited to the as­pir­ing Swedish Im­pres­sion­ist much pre­oc­cu­pied with the sub­tle vari­a­tions of light.

While he turned to Im­pres­sion­ist pleinairism in the late 1880s, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Zorn’s works, es­pe­cially his later nudes, were how­ever painted in his stu­dio from pho­to­graphs. Like many artists of the late nine­teenth cen­tury (most es­pe­cially Sym­bol­ists and Art Nou­veau painters), Zorn was not averse to us­ing pho­tog­ra­phy to tran­scend it. While the philoso­pher Wal­ter Ben­jamin and the painter Paul De­laroche tended to per­ceive pho­tog­ra­phy as a threat to the pres­tige of paint­ing, Zorn em­ployed it as an aide rather than a hin­drance.

Like other Euro­pean Im­pres­sion­ists, Zorn’s sub­ject-mat­ter was res­o­lutely con­tem­po­rary. He es­chewed both his­tor­i­cal and mytho­log­i­cal pre­texts to fore­ground his nudes unashamedly. Whereas painters in Eng­land of­ten em­pha­sized mytho-his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tiv­ity, Zorn’s can­vases of­ten re­duce nar­ra­tion to vir­tu­ally noth­ing, strip­ping his fig­ures of al­lu­sion and pre­cise story-spin­ning con­text.

And yet, de­spite the pared down story-telling, many of Zorn’s paint­ings gen­er­ate a po­tent sense of mys­tery. His dark, al­most bullishly brood­ing self-por­traits ar­rest the eye and leave you won­der­ing. The same goes for works such as Mid­night (1891). Re­lated to James Tis­sot’s paint­ing Young Woman in a Boat (1870) and Edouard Vuil­lard’s The Fer­ry­man (1897), Mid­night‘ s de­pic­tion of the Scan­di­na­vian night light and the fig­ure’s un­read­able ex­pres­sion, cre­ate a fore­bod­ing sense of mys­tery, of­fer­ing an in­trigu­ingly enig­matic ren­der­ing of the is­land mo­tif. It greets you like a life-af­firm­ing Im­pres­sion­ist pen­dant to Arnold Böck­lin’s Is­land of the Dead (1886).

Zorn’s re­la­tion­ship to Im­pres­sion­ism was how­ever not en­tirely whole­hearted. While he soon adopted its loose brush­strokes – in­cur­ring the scorn of Scan­di­na­vian crit­ics who read it as a sign of non­cha­lance – his fig­ures re­tained a sculp­tural so­lid­ity and al­though blur­ring of faces and cloth­ing does oc­cur in some of his paint­ings, he never al­lows rad­i­cal Im­pres­sion­ist blur­ring to gain the up­per hand. His paint­ings are in many ways a de­light to be­hold be­cause they of­fer the plea­sures of in­tri­cately de­fined de­tail and at­mo­spheric soft fo­cus com­bined.

To some ex­tent, Zorn also re­fused the ex­tremes of the Im­pres­sion­ist pal­ette, re­ject­ing the use of pure colour. Zorn is of­ten re­mem­bered today in art schools and aca­demic cir­cles around the world for his re­stricted pal­ette. Spe­cial­ists be­lieve that for the most part he had re­course to only four colours: ochre, cad­mium red, ivory black and white. He stands out in art his­tor­i­cal schol­ar­ship as a master of nu­ance: he was able to de­rive most of his tone gra­da­tions from a com­bi­na­tion of th­ese four colours, of­ten us­ing chro­matic jux­ta­po­si­tion to off­set and heighten his ef­fects. Al­though even his blues are ac­tu­ally of­ten ivory blacks thinned with white, he man­aged to make them look blue when they were spread along­side skin tones. On oc­ca­sion, he would add a dash of pure colour to­wards the end of the paint­ing process to en­dow the work with an ex­tra spark of life. On his death, how­ever, sev­eral tubes of cobalt blue were dis­cov­ered in his stu­dio, in­di­cat­ing that he had re­course to that tube colour too on oc­ca­sion.

Al­though he ini­tially wanted to be­come a sculp­tor, Zorn quickly turned to wa­ter­colours fol­low­ing in the Swedish painter Egron Lund­gren’s foot­steps. His early work was some­what in the man­ner of Se­bastien Lepage and Jean-François Mil­let, French painters who also in­spired other for­mi­da­ble Scan­di­na­vian artists, in­clud­ing the mar­vel­lous Fin­nish artist Ax­eli Gal­lenKal­lela. A kind of en­chanted re­al­ism which por­trayed poverty with­out mak­ing it seem ab­ject. The light, feath­ery ethe­re­al­ity of wheat and sun­touched golden hair re­deems such paint­ings as Our Daily Bread (1886) from mis­er­abil­ism.

Other in­flu­ences came from North­ern Europe. There are traces of Rem­brandt in both Zorn’s en­grav­ings and his self-por­traits. Zorn learnt the art of eau­forte en­grav­ing from Axel Her­man, a fel­low Swede he met dur­ing his years in Lon­don, and he went on to be one of the most sought af­ter Euro­pean en­gravers, to the ex­tent that the Paris Na­tional Li­brary ac­quired most of his very con­sid­er­able out­put in the genre. His en­grav­ings topped the bid­ding prices in both Paris and New York and he is now con­sid­ered as a lead­ing nine­teenth-cen­tury in­no­va­tor in the genre. Zorn’s abil­ity to score his en­grav­ings with a myr­iad of di­ag­o­nal scratch marks caused him to en­ter the some­what rare cat­e­gory of Im­pres­sion­ist en­grav­ing. His mas­tery of the eau-forte tech­nique was such that he was able to ex­e­cute a por­trait of Mar­cellin Berth­elot in un­der twenty min­utes.

Zorn’s last years were spent in the Dar­larna re­gion where he re­tired to draw, paint and en­grave volup­tuous nudes in a man­ner that is some­what rem­i­nis­cent of Renoir. His nudes are less steatopy­gous than Renoir’s grace­fully clot­ted Venuses but they ex­ude at least as much frothy vi­brancy, of­fer­ing nacre­ous glints and creamy in­vi­ta­tion. In an oil paint­ing like Re­flec­tions (1889), it isn’t just the nude that’s re­flected in the wa­ter. The golden sand and the wave­lets them­selves find them­selves mir­rored in the fe­male fig­ure’s skin tones. One of Zorn’s pro­fessed aims was to make his sub­jects blend into their sur­round­ings, a strat­egy which im­bues his paint­ings with an in­or­di­nate sense of unity and grace.

The Pe­tit Palais has not stinted on the means of en­hanc­ing this long over­due homage to Zorn’s artis­tic achieve­ment. As al­ways, the ex­hi­bi­tion pro­vides

sump­tu­ous decors erected spe­cially for the pur­pose. A num­ber of open­ings and oculi pierce the party walls of the rounded ex­hi­bi­tion spa­ces to of­fer a beau­ti­fully breath­ing open­work de­sign. The ex­hi­bi­tion cul­mi­nates in a spa­cious room that re­pro­duces part of Zorn’s house in Mora with its pointed Goth­i­ciz­ing win­dows and warm wooden pan­elling. It’s an ex­hi­bi­tion well worth at­tend­ing if you’re think­ing of head­ing for Paris this au­tumn, and the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion at the Pe­tit Palais of­fers eye-open­ing trea­sures from the same fin-de-siè­cle pe­riod and be­yond.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.