The Women Question at GSE

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Egon Schiele. Reclining Woman with Green Stockings (1917)

NEW YORK — It is hard to say who is my favorite visual artist — one might as well ask which is my favorite book, to which I reply that it depends on which day I am asked. Despite that, there are several that always appear on the list in some order – Paul Klee, Willem de Kooning, Caravaggio, Franz Kline, JMW Turner — see the list is endless. But I never miss a chance to see any show with drawings by Egon Schiele. Fortunately, I made it to New York the final week of “The Woman Question: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka,” a small exhibition at the always-wonderful Galerie St. Etienne.

The gallery, not much larger than a reasonably-sized doctor’s waiting room, specializes in German and Austrian art. I make it a point to go every time I am in the city and I am never disappointed.

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“Pregnant Woman and Man” by Gustav Klimt

This show featured drawings and works on paper by the Austrian contemporaries. Of the three, Klimt has the highest profile with his sumptuously-patterned paintings — his painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer was the subject of the movie “The Lady in Gold” (one of his sketches for the painting is included in the show). His drawings are more immediate and show a different Klimt. His “Pregnant Woman and Man,” a 1903-04 drawing in blue crayon, is a beautifully rendered sketch that has intimacy and sweetness. “Standing Nude Girl With Bowed Head,” from 1902, is a demur side-view sketch of a young girl with a slightly protruding belly. There is a softness to the image, but her pose is deferential.

It should noted that the exhibition seeks to address fin-de-siecle Viennese intellectuals obsession with sex, and the Madonna/Whore question. There is an excellent essay on the gallery’s website which I encourage everyone to read. I am concerned here with the different styles of drawing among the three men.

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Nude by Oskar Kokoschka

Kokoschka is the more Expressionistic of the triumvirate, his paintings eschewing the slickness of his elder contemporary’s work. He did not have the classical training of Klimt, nor were his interactions with women as numerous as Klimt and Schiele who, the museum’s text argues, saw no difference between the roles of lover and model. Kokoschka had an affair with the most desirable woman in Vienna, Alma Mahler, wife of the composer Gustav.

Alma and Kokoschka’s first love, Lilith Lang, a fellow student at the Vienna Art School, were both above his station. His drawings of the women he loved were strangely aggressive and lack the smooth interpretation of Klimt.

The nude does not have the prominence in Kokoschka’s work that it does in Klimt or Schiele’s, and the musuem’s literature argues, “Fear of adult female sexuality continued to haunt Kokoschka’s later nudes, which are largely devoid of erotic appeal.”

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Two nudes by Egon Schiele

Schiele, on the other hand, is quite a different animal. His line work is immaculate, bold and sure-handed, and each individual line is thing of beauty that goes on and on, way past the point where a lesser artist has picked up his pencil. One can follow an unbroken line from the neck to the wrist, from the thigh to the ankle — and each new line crackles sensuously.

While these women were objectified under the male gaze, there is also a power that emanates from their gaze. The museum’s essay, “Schiele was only twenty when he executed his first artistically mature works, and emotionally he was still an adolescent. Simultaneously terrified and enthralled by the erotic potency of his lover/models, the artist granted the female nude an unprecedented degree of autonomy.”

Schiele has no equal when it comes to pure drawing. His nudes are contorted, and sometimes they are almost pornographic, yet they never lose their dignity under the artist’s gaze.

I have long been a fan of Schiele, whose output is as prolific as any in his short career (he died of pneumonia at 28). His drawings are magnificent, his paintings are gorgeous, and his line work is something I have, vainly, sought to emulate my entire artistic career.

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Elisabeth Lederer by Egon Schiele

The most striking of the images in the entire exhibition is, ironically, not a nude, but a simple drawing of Elisabeth Lederer, from a well-connected Vienna family, whom Klimt had introduced to Schiele after the latter’s arrest and jailing on pornography charges in an effort to rehabilitate his reputation.

The linework, of course, is immaculate. She stares out slightly to the right with a bold confidence, her expression almost mischievous. This is a woman who is feisty, strong, confident. The minimal coloring perfectly accentuates the features. It is a portrait of a woman whose sexuality derives directly from the strength of the gaze.

The exhibition, which is an abbreviated version of one which Galerie St. Etienne co-director Jane Kallir curated for the Belvedere Museum, Vienna, in 2015-16, offered a wonderful glimpse into the three contemporaries who were pivotal parts of the Vienna Seccessionist movement.

Klimt died in 1918 of a stroke, and Schiele and his pregnant wife died in the 1918 pneumonia epidemic. Kokoschka lived to 1980 and became a well-respected giant of expressionism. Klimt’s reputation was cemented as the century progressed and Schiele’s reputation has grown in leaps and bounds over the past quarter century.

The trio is worth discovering and a great start would be the catalogue for the show, which is $60 but is great value for the 231 full-color illustrations.

And Galerie St. Etienne, located at 24 West 57th Street in  New York, is a gem worth unearthing.

Daumier and the birth of political cartoons

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Honoré Daumier 1808-79

This past semester had the pleasure of teaching a class on the history of political cartoons at Lamar University. The old adage is that one never really knows a subject until one teaches it, and although I have been a professional editorial cartoonist for 27 years, I have been completely nerding out on research.

One of the pleasures is rediscovering Honoré Daumier. Every art history scholar knows the great Frenchman’s influence on the genre, but digging deeper into the body of work brings only more admiration. So, during a recent visit to north Texas I found myself at the Dallas Museum of Art for a small (13 pieces) exhibition of published cartoons — literally the pages from the original publications in the satirical newspaper Le Charivari, for whom Daumier contributed many of his best works.

Ddamoclese“The sword of Damocles,” from 1842, features the lines:

“You aren’t sorry to miss on this day

a knife in order to dine,

said the amiable tyrant. I say

said Damocles, if this is a pun

I find the point is not fine.”

The original Greek myth features the courtier Damocles who, hungry for power, begs to switch places with King Dionysus. However, he realizes that above the throne is a sword hanging by a single hair. Damocles realizes that with power comes responsibility and danger. Daumier’s image is a commentary about censorship at a time when it hanged over artists and writers like the sword of Damocles. This ran in the satirical publication Le Charivari.

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Les Femmes Socialistes

“Insurrection Against Husbands is Proclaimed as Being the Finest and Holiest Duty in Life!” from 1849, features three women, their hands placed over a man’s top hat as they make an oath. Daumier was not a fan of the feminist movement and the caption pokes fun at the women’s “primary duty” to rise up against their husbands. This also appeared in Le Charivari. Daumier tended to make fun of the movement’s leaders by presenting the as unattractive. This was a theme that was continued during the British and American suffrage movements of the early 20th century. As radical and influential as Daumier was in his attacks on oppressive government, he was, after all, also a man of his times.

DhelenOne of my favorites is “The Abduction of Helen of Troy.” Daumier takes the classic myth and turns it in its head, depicting Helen as being neither beautiful nor particularly frail. In fact, she is carrying the fey Paris to the ships. The image was printed in Le Charivari in 1842 as a response to a heated debate between the painters of the classical and neoclassical schools. The conflict between the schools of thought was a theme to which Daumier returned several times. The piece also reflects current affairs, with Helen representing the Greek people and Paris looking similar to Count Antonios Kapodistrias, a Greek diplomat who served as foreign minister of the Russian empire and was the first leader of the modern independent Greek state.

Dwill“The Reading of the Will,” published in Le Charivari in 1853, is one of seven pieces that form “The Human Comedy” series. On the surface it is simply a collection of family members who are gathered at the solicitor’s office. The beauty of the work is the distinctive faces that capture the various levels of expectation. Only the bowed head of the young boy indicates grief.

When Daumier’s was a boy he clerked at a courthouse. The rest of his career he produced many works that expressed his distaste for the legal profession, most notably his “Lens de Justice” series of drawings and sculptures. “Old Scoundrel” continues this theme, showing two lawyers who look at each other knowingly, as if they have colluded for a deal that benefits themselves rather than their clients. This was published in La Caricatura in 1839.

Dexposition“I Have Been Accepted … They Do Have Taste/I Have Been Rejected … What Cretins,” is one of Daumier’s commentaries on the art world. Daumier studied at the Paris Academy but ultimately rejected what he considered the elitism of academia in favor of art for the masses. Daumier fully expresses his rejection of the Salon mentality with a piece that shows a man pointing at a painting and saying, “Just look what a degenerated and corrupt universe we are living in! … all these people just look at more or less monstrous paintings and not one of them stops in front of a painting depicting the beauty and purity of nature!” The establishment that the Salon typified favored “history” paintings over landscapes. They were thought to be more intellectually skillful and educational.

DsalonDaumier was certainly a progressive who pushed social causes and poked fun at the establishment — he was even imprisoned for his cartoon “Gargantua,” which portrayed King Louis Phillippe.

Daumier the caricaturist is a pioneer of political cartooning — much admired and rarely bettered.

‘Mourning For Zapata’

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Marin’s sculpture captures spirit of culture

DALLAS — It is always enjoyable to see a giant exhibition that is a survey of a time, place or culture. But it is an even greater pleasure to find a single piece that excites and inspires.

Such is the case with Francisco Arturo Marin’s “Mourning For Zapata,” part of the exhibition “México 1900–1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde,” at the Dallas Museum of Art through July 16.

It is a simply stunning sculpture, made of veined black Veracruz marble, which draws on Aztec traditions. It is beautifully evocative vision of grief, as the six figures carry the limp body of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, the main leader of the peasant revolution in the state of Morelos, Mexico.

mayanThe figures have the classic indigenous look of Mexican art, and also have disproportionately large hands and feet — reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s figures that suggest sturdy peasant stock.

There is a literal and figurative weight to the piece as the slumped corpse bends the group who carry it, weighed down by their sorrow.

The six figures are each individually addressed, with stunning detail put into the hands, feet and faces. There is an echo of Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais,” with the figures bowed by an equal amount of pain and loss.

The smoothness of the male figures naked torsos is contrasted by the brushed texture of the women’s dresses. The lifeless Zapata is also covered by the same texture, as if wrapped in a burial shroud.

The whole composition is a cube of death and grief, as though the whole world has shrunk to this small group. In reality, Zapata was gunned down by government troops in 1919 after he was betrayed. His body was photographed to prove he was dead, displayed for 24 hours and then buried. There was no funeral parade, so Marin’s sculpture is an elegy to the myth of Zapata that still resonates today.

“Mourning For Zapata,” created in 1957, is a powerful symbol of pride in heritage, culture and the working man.

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DeVos toon shows poor judgment

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Appropriating images is good shorthand — but requires intelligence, care

The old axiom goes, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” As an editorial cartoonist for 25 years I have borrowed — or stolen — many different images from different areas (all with due credit I hasten to add).

080720_coughlan_toonA cartoon, especially a single panel, has to find a shorthand to connect to the viewer to be able to put the point across. When I did a cartoon about a poor hiring choice by BISD superintendent Carroll Thomas, I used a current movie image, in that case Heath Ledger’s Joker from “Batman: The Dark Knight,” to easily imply an obvious lack of trustworthiness.

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During the 2016 Republican primaries I appropriated a John Tenniel illustration from Alice in Wonderland with the candidates filling the roles of the Mad Hatter, the dormouse, etc., with Alice slumped in her chair. Donald Trump, of course, was the Mad Hatter. Whether readers knew about Tenniel’s style or not, the Alice reference created the perfect setting for the satire.

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On Feb. 14, conservative Belleville News-Democrat cartoonist Glen McCoy published a cartoon that appropriated a famous Norman Rockwell image from the Civil Rights era and equated it to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos being blocked from entering a Washington D. C. public schoolboy protesters.

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The Norma Rockwell image, titled “The Problem We All Live With,” shows six-year-old Ruby Bridge being escorted by U.S. deputies to desegregate a school on Nov. 14, 1960. Rockwell is famous for illustrating American life in a loving and positive manner, which makes the image all the more powerful. It is my favorite Rockwell image, and certainly his most powerful piece.

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So what is the problem with appropriating the image? Well, for a start, the message being presented in each is a contradiction. Ruby is a young black girl who has been denied access to school for no reason but the color of her skin — for simply being herself.

The word “nigger” is scrawled on the wall behind Ruby Bridge but the word “conservative” takes its place in McCoy’s cartoon.

DeVos was blocked by protests because she was not an advocate for public education, had not attended a public school, nor were her children educated in public school. She is the epitome of white privilege and choice. One could argue, and make a strong case, that the only reason she even held her office was because of her donations to Republican candidates.

In the aforementioned Alice cartoon, regardless on political viewpoint, the concept of the zaniness of the GOP primary was not in question. However, McCoy draws a false equivalency, and in doing so, dilutes his message. The outrage and push back completely negated any attempt to push a point (which, by the way, despite being liberal myself, I completely support his right to make).

A few years ago, some Danish newspapers published cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammed, which is prohibited by Islam, to “see what would happen.” Big shock — they got death threats and were attacked. So what did they learn? The exact thing they thought would happen, actually did. They offended a group of people for no reason other than to offend.

I quoted the “Spiderman” comics in the column I wrote then and it still applies, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The freedom to draw cartoons — the freedom of the press in general — is a tremendous privilege and comes with power.

We must be responsible in how we use that privilege.

McCoy, in an interview with Talking Points Memo, Feb. 15, said “My cartoon was about how, in this day and age, decades beyond the civil rights protests, it’s sad that people are still being denied the right to speak freely or do their jobs or enter public buildings because others disagree with who they are or how they think.” He said he believed he was, “speaking out against hate.”

He offered the trite apology, “if anyone was offended.”

Maybe if he had had a little better comprehension of the power of the image, maybe had a little more understanding of what the image represents — and maybe a little more wit — he would have not have had to apologize at all.

In an age when “the media” is constantly under attack, we all need to think and be cognizant of the images — and words — we use. That is not to say that we should not offend — I savor all my hate mail. But I stand behind the validity of my viewpoint and the careful way the images I choose are used.