Saturday, 24 January 2015

HMD 2015

PORTRAITS for POSTERITY : Holocaust Survivors photographed by Matt Writtle

Twenty portraits of individuals who survived the Nazi Holocaust  and settled in London - including a brother and sister and two married couples who met after the war - are on display at London’s City Hall to mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2015.  more here   They come from the series of one hundred and one Survivor sitters portrayed by Matt Writtle in  Portraits for Posterity, and complement the HMD event at City Hall on 26 January [actual HMD is 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz].   Freda Wineman, one of the Survivors photographed for Portraits for Posterity, is speaking at City Hall.

Born in Metz, France in 1923, Freda was deported with her family to Auschwitz, where her parents were murdered.  She was moved to Bergen-Belsen, then to Raguhn and Terezin camps.  After the war she married David Wineman and settled in London.  
As she has said: ‘I realised how important it was to pass on what happened.  We must learn the lessons of the Holocaust, to live in peace and tolerance. And we have to act when threats to tolerance arise, and not allow apathy to overtake the will for good.’

Seventy years from the end of WW2 and the destruction of the Nazi death camps, the Holocaust still casts a long shadow over Europe.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Marie Spartali 2

Mrs and Mrs Michael Spartali had a house outside Shanklin named Rylestone Manor, built in a sort of Black Forest style, where the family spent their summers.  Some miles along the south coast of the Isle of Wight, Mr and Mrs Charles Hay Cameron also had a summer home, at Freshwater, very close to that of Mr and Mrs Tennyson.  The Spartalis’ elder daughter Marie was a young artist, who studied with Ford Madox Brown in London and was already acquainted with J M W Whistler, D G Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and other artists, partly through the social network of cultured Greek families like the Ionides living in the Holland Park area, home also to Mrs Cameron’s sister and brother-in-law, Mr and Mrs Prinsep of Little Holland House.
Marie was now on the lower rungs of the professional ladder.  Her exhibition debut in 1867 contained three works depicting an Ottoman widow, the ancient Greek poetess Corinna (‘with red disorderly hair’ as befitted poetic inspiration) and the allegorical damsel Praise-desire from Spenser’s Faerie Queene - who has lines expressive of chivalric ambition:  
Pensive, I yield I am, and sad in Mind,
Through great desire of Glory and of Fame
Ambition in young Victorian women, whether of British or Greek ancestry, was frowned on. Modesty, obedience, self-sacrifice were the approved virtues.  Marie’s demeanour was modest and retiring, but her aspirations, as expressed in her picture-titles, were heroic.  Her next works quoted Theocritos, Sophocles, Ovid and Renaissance figures, and in 1870 she sent works both to the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.  
Her father patronised artists and encouraged his daughter.  In spring 1868 he paid Mrs Cameron twenty guineas for 24 prints of portrait photographs of Marie and her sister Christina. The photographer had her own ambition; as she wrote happily to Henry Cole: ‘I am likely now to acquire fortune as well as fame for as I told you …a woman with sons to educate cannot live on fame alone!’  
Moreover, Julia Cameron’s aspirations chimed with those of her sitter.  Portraiture as mere likeness was subservient to portrayals of beauty and intellect, and to depictions of allegory, literary scenes and sacred imagery.   Later in the year and again in 1870 she invited Marie to Freshwater, to pose in costume for figures rather like Marie’s Lady Praise-desire; in the invocation of classical sources, roles in which Cameron cast her have evident links to Marie’s heritage.  These included Hypatia, an early Greek mathematician; Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses; The Duenna; and The Spirit of the Vine, decked in vine-leaves and clutching grapes – perhaps brought from Michael Spartali’s own vineyard.
By 1870 Marie had her own heroic story.  The American journalist William J Stillman, who had also studied art and become a follower of Ruskin, covered the recent Cretan rebellion against the Ottomans with partisan fervour, which got him expelled from the island and made him popular among the Greek community in Britain.  His wife committed suicide, leaving him with three small children and no assured income. He and Marie met in London and both sat to Rossetti for portrait drawings. In January 1870 they became engaged, against the wishes of Marie’s parents – who doubtless saw a penniless widower wanting both a step-mother and a wealthy wife.   Others saw it as romantic, including Julia Cameron’s niece Julia Duckworth, who encouraged the courtship (and would herself marry a needy widower).  Marie was a loving and dutiful daughter, but withstood all pressure, and the Stillman wedding was due to take place in spring 1871.   While her husband-to-be took his children to the US, Marie was at Shanklin with her family, and again visited Freshwater to pose for Mrs Cameron.
‘My days pass in sitting for pictures and reading aloud’ she wrote to a friend.  I at once offered my services to the venerable host [Mr Cameron]  and during the intervals of my sittings we read a learned article from the Revue on Pal√©ontologie together.’  Another guest was  Anne Thackeray, the author’s daughter, whom Marie found ‘delightful’.  Veteran poet Henry Taylor – one of Julia Cameron’s pantheon – had just left, and one evening Marie was taken to meet Tennyson.   ‘I have always heard him described as disagreeable and grumpy and he quite answered the description,’ she reported.  ‘Just as I was going away he seized a lighted candle and passed it up and down within an inch of my face saying he was shortsighted. After this inspection he thawed a little and was gracious enough to walk to the end of the grove occasionally interrupting the s[ilence] of the night by some oracular remark.’   She added that after sitting again she was going home. ‘I was so fatigued yesterday that only two pictures succeeded. I worked in half a dozen and ruined them.’

It isn’t clear what the last remark signifies.  A model does not normally ‘work’ during a photographic sitting, nor would any such work be likely to ruin the result.  Whatever the meaning however, the implication is that as model or sitter she was partly responsible for the art produced, which is an interesting sidelight on the process.   A few years earlier Marie and her sister had spent time in Whistler’s studio, while Christina posed for the Princesse du pays de la porcelaine, and had observed the painting process in action, as Marie had also done while sitting to Madox Brown.  At Freshwater it was presumably the first time she watched a woman artist at work, observing both the elaborate technicalities of wet collodion photography and Cameron’s committed, concentrated effort to realise her conception in despite of changing light, tricky chemicals and tired models.  While middle-class women of all ages were encouraged to draw, embroider and make music, these skills were subordinate to domestic responsibilities; Julia Cameron’s dedication to her chosen art form was unusual and even comical to many, but it could serve as an example to a younger woman now faced with competing artistic and emotional demands.

Marie Spartali was herself unusual in her dedication to art over nearly five more decades.   That she has been written out, ignored and dismissed as an ‘amateur’, as if her painting were also an easily laid aside pastime, is as calumnious as the dismissal of Julia Cameron as a ‘wealthy woman able to indulge her hobby’.  Both were professionally ambitious and committed.

Friday, 9 January 2015

The Black Subject: Tate Britain

A seminar on representations of people of African and Asian descent in British art from all periods  will be held at Tate Britain on the evening of Saturday 21 February 2015.  This is organised in connection with the display Spaces of Black Modernism, [see above, post of  15 November 2014]    and the new arrangement of Tate's historical galleries A Walk through British Art .  The seminar is titled The Black Subject; Ancient to Modern.

As yet  I don't know much more about the programme, except that I am participating.  But it's worth noting that the re-hang includes a seldom [never?] previously seen painting by William Blake Richmond of a distraught woman and naked infant in some kind of prison, entitled The Slave.  When curating Black Victorians, I viewed this painting for possible inclusion  but in the reserve store it was just too dark, literally black all over for anything to be visible.    It is better on display but still aesthetically unattractive,  chiefly owing to the murky paint for the flesh tones, and the obtrusive glimpse of something that I took to be a breast but a friend observes may be some part of the babe largely concealed by the voluminous black cloak. Then it's hard to understand what the artist intended in terms of meaning.  What era is this supposed to be?  what location? it looks like an 18th-century prison cell with straw on the floor, except that it's timber-built and so more like a stable.  Possibly it is meant to represent  a 'slave pen' where enslaved people were kept awaiting sale in the American South.  In which case Richmond was about twenty-five years out of date; such subjects were familiar - indeed popular in a macabre way - in British painting when the Emancipation struggle and US Civil War were in progress.   I wonder if perhaps the painting was actually executed then? If so, Fanny Eaton could have been the model  - the anguished features are not dissimilar to hers, and Richmond was friendly with several other artists who employed her.
He is also an under-researched artist, so further investigation might be useful.

Current details of The Black Subject seminar  info here

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Marie Spartali 1

Margaretta Frederick and I are currently preparing an exhibition for Delaware Art Museum on the work of Marie Spartali Stillman, which will open towards the end of the year.  This will be the first solo show of pictures by an artist  hitherto known chiefly as a ‘Pre-Raphaelite follower’ and will allow a fuller appraisal of her career than has been previously possible.  Over the next few months I’ll periodically post on the project, partly because of its intrinsic scholarly interest and partly because Spartali is still relatively unknown and misrepresented (as a ‘Pre-Raphaelite follower’).
She was born in 1844 in the suburbs of London, to parents from different areas of the Ottoman empire who belonged to the Greek merchant diaspora in Britain alongside the Ionides, Cassavettis, Lascarides.  Marie had a sister Christina and two brother Demetrios and Eustratius, whose role was to continue the family business.  Her father Michael Spartali served some years as Greek consul in London and prospered as an import-export merchant; around 1865 the family moved to a fine mansion called the Shrubbery on Clapham Common northside.  They also had a very pleasant summer home outside Shanklin on the Isle of Wight which is now a bijou hotel.
By this date Marie had determined to study art, which was an unusual decision for a young woman of her background, educated at home to become a wife, mother and accomplished hostess.   The family socialised chiefly within the Greek community,  through which they met a number of artists, including those patronised by Constantine Ionides.  As is well-known, Whistler asked Christine Spartali to model for his Princesse

du Pays de la Porcelaine, and Marie accompanied her to the seemingly endless sittings.  She recalled that Whistler often scraped out the figure just as they thought it was all but finished and day after day they returned to find everything had to be done over again.  Eventually Christina escaped by falling sick.

Marie’s original wish was to study with Rossetti,  who was just emerging from the customary two years’ mourning for his wife Lizzie and had moved to a large old house on the river at Chelsea. But Rossetti did not take pupils, and his life-style was wholly unsuitable, so the request was passed to Ford Madox Brown, who was already teaching his own daughters and son.   Marie joined this artistic nursery in 1864.  Less than three years later, she made her exhibition debut at the Dudley Gallery – a watercolour venue – with three pictures depicting The Pasha’s Widow, the Theban Poetess Corinna and a figure from Spenser’s Faerie Queene, who muses pensively ‘through great desire of Glory and of Fame’.

By all accounts Marie Spartali was personally modest and retiring, reluctant to pursue the publicity and promotion necessary for a successful career.  Yet her pictures speak of ambition and the  desire for renown.