New BOOKSLUT posted today

My December Bookslut column was published today, concluding a year’s worth of monthly columns on art writing and books. Some were good, some were eh–if nothing else, I am looking forward to another year writing columns that investigate the nature of art writing, challenge the relationship between exhibition and catalogue and celebrate the looked-over critics of modern and contemporary art history.

Next year starts off with Peter Plagens and his new novel, The Art Critic, published earlier this May by Hol Art Books. I hope it’s just the first of twelve columns that probe the relationship of art and literature across genres.

At any rate, here’s the text to my December column, discussing Berthe Morisot: 1841-1895 (Yale Univerity Press, $50).

BERTHE MORISOT AND MASCULINE IDENTITY

I lazed over the New York Times Book Review on a late Sunday morning last  month. Wondering if Philip Roth actually required a copy of iPhone  for Dummies in order to work his new device, I was reading a  rather harsh treatment of Roberto Calasso’s newest book, La  Folie Baudelaire, when I saw it. It was a short sentence in  which John Simon called Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), an Impressionist  painter significant for not only her artistic achievement but for her  financing some of the earliest critical exhibitions of  Impressionistic work, “a worthy but minor painter.” Arguing  that Calasso’s arrangement of Modernity’s Parisian beginnings is more  random than not, Simon gently but brazenly invokes a phallocentric  understanding of modernity and modern painting in that single  sentence. Simon writes that in La Folie Baudelaire, Morisot “figures rather prominently, both as painters’ model (as shown in several of the book’s illustrations) and as Manet’s lover and subsequent sister-in-law.” Implying that Morisot, though “worthy,” presumably for her talent as a painter, was haphazardly included (both in the text and in illustration) by Calasso for her merits as a model, mistress, and wife, Simon seemingly obscures her work’s worth, dismissing it in order to present her as how her visage was made commercial and consumed in the “cradle of modernity.”

Morisot has long  been overlooked in popular Impressionism (that is, the Impressionism  purported in mega-blockbuster institutional exhibitions and in their  gift shops on coffee mugs, tote bags, pencils, and posters). The  Museum of Modern Art’s third exhibition ever, “Painting in  Paris,” curated by Alfred J. Barr and on view in early 1930, was  one of the first of such critical and crowd-drawing exhibitions, but  didn’t include Morisot (or her contemporary Mary Cassatt, for that  matter). Such oversights warranted mention from Paul Valéry (who  married Morisot’s niece, Jeannie Gobillard in a 1900 joint ceremony  with her daughter, Julie Manet, and the painter Ernest Rouart) in “On  Morisot,” his essay included in the exhibition catalogue  accompanying “Berthe Morisot” at the Musée de l’Orangerie  in 1941. “Now qualities are being noticed that of all the  Impressionists she alone possessed, qualities that are indeed  increasingly rare in painting,” Valéry wrote that year.

Valéry’s text is  excerpted in the catalogue from this spring’s “Berthe Morisot:  1841-1895” at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, the first  retrospective of her work in fifty years. The exhibition barely made  waves this side of the Atlantic, but the catalogue offers a  wonderfully nuanced look at Morisot’s life, as well as a keen  examination of her masterful watercolors and drawings. Alongside  Valéry’s excerpt (which begs to be read within his 1948 Vues)  is a short piece, “Berthe Morisot: from wound to light,” by  Jean-Marie Rouart, a descendant of Morisot, and a weighty essay,  “Watercolours, pastels and drawings in the work of Berthe  Morisot,” by curator Marianne Mathieu. With Valéry’s essay  probing Morisot’s French mid-nineteenth century social context,  Rouart’s delving into the mysteries of her family and psyche, and  Mathieu offering a scholarly assessment of her work within the medium  with which she was most prolific, Berthe  Morisot: 1841-1895 situates her identity as an artist, as  well as her art work, within the early Modern milieu.

Morisot was born  bourgeois, upper middle class, in 1841. Her father was in government,  and eventually moved his three daughters and son to Passy, in Paris.  Berthe and her older sister, Yves, took music lessons, as girls of  their station might; by 1857 their mother signed all three sisters up  for drawing lessons. Yves hated them and eventually quit, but Berthe  and her other older sister, Edma, were hooked. Their teacher, a  student of Ingres, says that both will be professional artists and  has them both registered as copyists at the Louvre. Eventually Berthe  and Edma study with Camille Corot (1796-1875) in his studio. A  proto-Impressionistic painter of the Barbizon School, Corot  introduces his students to plein-air painting, and by 1865,  Monsieur Morisot built a garden studio for his daughters at their  Paris home. But Morisot was never pleased with her work. Berthe  “destroyed nearly everything she had produced before 1869,  making it difficult for us now to follow the stages of her  apprenticeship and determine with certainty the possible influence of  any of her teachers,” writes Mathieu in her essay. I suspect  that this dearth of early work has dissuaded curators from mounting  retrospectives of her work in the last fifty years.

But I also  suspect that the mediums of watercolor and drawing, parlor room  activities for ladies throughout the nineteenth century, repealed  serious curatorial investigation. Garden paintings by Morisot next to  floral paintings by Monet are ascribed a much different weight,  completely engendered by masculine-driven understandings of  Modernity. Two years ago, in 2010’s epic Claude  Monet: Late Work, Paul Tucker Hayes beautifully connected  Monet’s twilight interest in nature and private life to his  repugnance with French public life in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair.  (“That Monet essentially abandoned French subject matter from  1898 onward is therefore surely no coincidence,” writes Hayes.  “How could he continue to propagate an ideal that was so  painfully compromised?”) The Morisot garden-studio was destroyed  in the Siege of Paris in 1871, the same year that Berthe exhibits in  the Salon for the second time. In 1869, Edma Morisot gave up painting  entirely after her marriage to a French naval officer. The two events  combined, one public, one private, must have scarred Berthe  emotionally (and physically; her health was never the same after  1871). But situating the very public Modernity with the very private  “femininity” is difficult.

This complexity is  something that Rouart vaguely alludes to in his short essay, as he  writes that though Morisot’s work might remind some of fluffy French  eighteenth century painting, melancholy was its source. “The  paradox of this work that comes across as spontaneous, cheerful,  gentle and harmonious is that it was born of suffering, of a  doggedness and despair that would be difficult to imagine were they  not attested by so many pages in the notebooks and letters written by  this artist who was always dissatisfied with herself,” writes  Rouart. Those notebooks are still in the Rouart family, but have been  lent to the Musée Marmottan Monet. Some of Morisot’s writings were  published in 1987 as Berthe  Morisot: The Correspondence, the same year that Julie Manet’s  diary was published as Growing  Up with the Impressionists. Julie was born in 1878, four  years after Morisot married Eugene Manet (brother to Edouard).  Julie’s father supported her mother’s artistic pursuits, as well  those of other Impressionists. For instance, after a rather acerbic  review of a show of Impressionism at Durand-Ruel in Le Figaro,  Morisot’s husband wanted to challenge the offending critic to a duel.  Morisot died in 1895 of pneumonia, after caring for Julie. She  exhibited her work, entertained artists, and financially contributed  to Impressionist shows until the end of her life. To my knowledge,  neither Julie nor Berthe’s writings have been reissued; however, Jean  Renoir’s memoir, Renoir,  My Father, first published in 1962, was rereleased in 2001.

The catalogue for Berthe Morisot: 1841-1895 provides excellent notes for each of  the works included in the exhibition, pulling from both Morisot and  Manet’s writings. The cataloguers seem intensely sensitive to  contextualizing Morisot’s work and life within greater  Impressionistic scholarship in their writing. That’s a job largely  started by Griselda Pollock in the late 1970s. In 1988 she published Vision  and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art,  which sought to rupture art history’s “masculinist discourse,  party to the social construction of sexual difference.” Written  with a lucid urgency, Pollock historicizes Feminist thinking and  writing, dismantling Modernity’s masculinity as delineated by early  curators, such as Alfred Barr at MoMA. To measure Morisot’s work as  “worthy but minor” against that Barr’s metric of Modernity,  as Simon seems to in his New York Times article, is to reject  her work’s meaning as Modern paintings. Morisot treated the space in  her paintings like an Impressionist, with quick, loose brushwork and  expert attention to illumination. But the space that her paintings  depict and occupy must be understood against the biases of Modernism.  As Pollock writes, we must therefore reject the notion that women  painters were second-rate painters, even ten years into the  twenty-first century.

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