Art of Eternal Twilight

Artist unknown, “The Triumph of Death” (1446), fresco, 20 x 21 feet, Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

PALERMO, Sicily — For millennia, the intensity of Sicily’s southern sun, magnified by the three seas surrounding it (the Tyrrhenian, Ionian, and Mediterranean), has been matched by the ever-present specter of death. Like Persephone, whose abduction by Hades is among the island’s defining myths, it seems to live half in light and half in darkness.

Overrun by every empire in Western Civ, decimated by the Black Plague, terrorized by the Inquisition, occupied by the Nazis, and still struggling to escape the Mafia’s trail of blood, Sicily is a land of singular fatalism, where chockablock mausoleums crowd the cemeteries like miniature, close-knit villages, and, in the summer of 1943, farmers unheedingly tended their fields as Allied tanks churned up their roads, routing the Germans to the Strait of Messina.

And so it seems almost predetermined that the most riveting art I encountered during my first few days in Sicily would be rooted in the transience of life. The prevalent aesthetic, typified by the profusions of marble inlay that embellish countless Baroque church interiors and inject daily existence with heavy doses of the fantastical, represents a form of superfluity that in its very overripeness carries a pungent whiff of death — like tangled, blossoming vines spreading rapidly across a bed of rotting black humus.

At the Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, “The Triumph of Death” (1446) is grandly installed in its own double-height space. The fresco, whose authorship is speculative at best, is 20 feet tall by 21 feet wide, an anachronistic Late Gothic work executed 20 years after Masaccio painted the Brancacci Chapel, a final efflorescence defying rigor mortis.

In order to remove the painting from its original site, Palermo’s Palazzo Sclafani, it had to be cut into four parts and reassembled into a two-by-two grid. This action feels vaguely trenchant vis-à-vis a 21st-century mindset, as if the single image could no longer bear its own philosophical weight, and had to be physically partitioned. The four plaster panels underscore the painting’s status as a tangible object (or objects), subverting its original pretense as a window onto a visionary, symbol-laden world.

This unintended grid, whose incisions are responsible for serious deterioration along the edges of the four parts, segregates its enigmatic imagery into distinct, oddly unrelated pictures — another postmodern touch — a grouping that underscores the artist’s dreamlike structure. The large patches of missing paint, in their dull blankness, augment the solidity of the surface and the weight of the plaster panels.

Artist unknown, “The Triumph of Death” (1446), fresco, detail: Death on a Pale Horse, Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily

The figure of Death on his pale horse (which could have galloped out of a Diego Rivera mural) occupies the dead center of the painting, shooting arrows into a distinctly affluent swath of the population. The majority of the victims have fallen into what is now the lower left panel, while elegantly dressed corpses-to-be, downrange of the fatal arrows, occupy the section on the lower right. A gathering of foppish young men, seemingly untouched by Death’s rampage, mill around a fountain in the upper right panel, while on the upper left, one of their number inexplicably grapples with the leashes of two snarling hunting dogs.

Behind the horse’s tail, a passel of common folk raise their hands in prayer and supplication. A number of contradictory interpretations have been posed for this group, from survivors chanting hosannahs to misérables begging Death to rear his horse around and end their wretched lives. They have also been viewed as peasant rebels celebrating the slaughter of the powerful, and as Jews who, as a class, were proportionately spared the ravages of the epidemic, thanks to their ritual ablutions, and consequently blamed by the Christians for the plague.

The dead, some trampled beneath the horse’s hooves, are of particular interest: dressed primarily as clergy and royalty, they are collapsed into a frighteningly chaotic heap, making it difficult to pick out which body parts belong to whom. (It has been noted that Death’s arrows are piercing the lymph nodes of the victim’s necks, the locus of the plague’s bacterial infection.)

Artist unknown, “The Triumph of Death” (1446), fresco, detail: the dead, Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily

The bodies are simultaneously severely geometric and richly organic, as if decomposing into the ornate patterns of their own elaborate garments and the rankly lush ground cover  — an effect accentuated by the abraded pigmentation of the fresco surface.

The bodies’ flat, intersecting shapes seem to rise upward and tumble downward at the same time, all the while prefiguring the abstract rigor and jumbled facets of Synthetic Cubism. But the chaos of the dead and the mysteries of the living present a set of real-life paradigms that prevent us from aestheticizing the image. We are too absorbed in the harsh if stylized reality laid down by the unknown painter.

A bizarre but equally absorbing inversion of the life-art nexus can be found in the well-known Catacombs of the Capuchins, a vast crypt resting beneath a monastery where 8000 corpses are interred along with more than 1200 mummified remains, which are arrayed in open coffins or hung in standing positions along the walls. 

When the Capuchin monks first moved to their Palermo base in 1534, which at the time was far from the city proper, they buried their dead in a limestone cistern beneath the altar of their church. When that solution became unsustainable, they decided to excavate a new crypt and transfer the remains from the cistern. However, when they opened the vault, they discovered that 45 bodies were virtually intact, naturally preserved by the limestone container.

This was greeted as a miracle, and the friars decided to display 40 of the intact bodies in the new space. Following the transferral, the first monk to be mummified in the catacombs was Brother Silvestro da Gubbio, who was entombed on October 16, 1599, as the sign stuck to his coarse wool robe informs us.

In time, elaborate embalming techniques involving draining, dehydration, and vinegar were developed to augment the effects of the limestone. At first the catacombs were open for burial only to members of the monastic community, but within a couple hundred years the chambers were expanded and the friars accommodated the demand from laypersons to spend eternity incorruptible rather than molder in an ordinary grave.

That isn’t exactly how it worked out. Men in jackets and vests, women in petticoats, soldiers in uniform, bishops in miters, and children in nightcaps have invariably suffered substantial degradation as their leathery flesh withered, split, and flaked away; their eyeballs swelled and popped; and their gums rotted off to expose crooked and missing teeth.

But it is the manner in which these piteous souls are displayed that pushes the environment into the realm of art. Such an interpretation gets tricky, of course, because it would be a diminishment of the deceased’s humanity, as well as the friars’ intentions, to treat their bodies as found objects, or their decomposition as process, or their arrangement in the catacombs as an installation.

The Corridor of the Men at the Catacombs of the Capuchins, Palermo, Sicily (photo by Sibeaster [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Still, it is impossible to dismiss the dark imagination and at times lacerating wit coursing through the poses assumed by the occupants of the Corridor of the Men — the first passage awaiting you as you enter the crypt — as they “stand” high on a ledge and turn slightly in your direction, as if their hollow, hungry eyes were following your every step. (The bodies are segregated by gender, age, and profession, with bishops and priests separate from brothers, and professional laity — doctors, professors, lawyers, soldiers — separate from everyone else.)

Elsewhere, mummies in mourning clothes gather around a coffin, as if attending a wake; a small girl, high overhead, strides forward with her arm raised, seeming to cast a spell; and an even smaller girl sits in a chair with a skeletal infant cradled in her lap. Some of the corpses have been outfitted with glass eyes, which are reliably unnerving, and while most of the skulls have lost the majority of their skin, some have retained enough to hold on to their hair and eyebrows, even eyelashes. Every jaw has dropped open, and every single face, whatever its state, registers a specific human emotion: curiosity, resignation, opprobrium, shame, awe, agony, or rage. The edge between living and not living has never felt so slim.

To my mind, the most outrageous display is the Chapel of the Virgins, an alcove carved into the intersection of the Corridor of the Women and the Corridor of the Professionals, in which a large, empty wooden cross stands beside three petticoated skeletons, evidently meant to represent the Three Marys at the Crucifixion. Perhaps when the bodies were more intact they conveyed a very different message than they do now, but in their present condition it is hard to come up with an interpretation that doesn’t tread upon nihilism or blasphemy.

The last body to be interred in the catacombs was that of Rosalia Lombardo, who was born 100 years ago and died at the age of two. The recipient of a chemical, rather than traditional, embalming process, she lies perfectly preserved in her glass coffin, theatrically displayed — unlike any of the others — in the middle of a corridor floor. Popularly regarded as a saint, she is the perfect counterpoint to the ghastliness around her, and yet she is as dead as the rest of them, a paradox that pours head-spinning ironies into the mix.

The groupings of mummies bear a relationship to such regional Italian artistic traditions as the terra cotta tableaux, found mostly in northern Italy, that illustrate the life of Christ, or the Misteri of Trapani, a city on Sicily’s northwestern coast, comprised of life-size wood-and-fabric sculptures recounting the Passion, which are carried by teams of men, 20-strong each, in the city’s annual Good Friday procession. In this regard, the arrangements of corpses may have context, but that doesn’t make them any less unsettling.

The changes that have taken place in the crypt over the course of centuries have deepened and expanded its meanings, in effect turning it into an autonomous work of art. Engendered by the imaginations of the monks, it has been transformed through the intercession of time and the elements into something other than the devotional display its makers intended it to be.

Whatever you decide to call this extraordinary thing, it is a creation of human hands that, in its horror, pathos, and sweep, has come closest in my experience to excavating mortality’s depths of denial, and grasping the fragile wonder of drawing breath within the charnel house of time.

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The Painter of Everyday Life

Stanley Lewis, “Cabin at Lovell Lake” (2017), oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches (all images courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery)

The unruliness of Stanley’s Lewis’s approach to painting and drawing matches the disorder of the world he depicts. His scarred, textured paintings and layered drawings exist somewhere between the stitched-together body of Frankenstein’s monster and Piet Mondrian’s precisely sectioned, asymmetrically divided squares. Lewis, who works from direct observation, is devoted to details as well as to establishing a believable space for everything he sees. He eschews painterly shorthand of any kind, preferring the particular to the general.

This means that Lewis will cut apart a painting that he is working on and reposition the pieces, inserting a strip of canvas in the space between two sections or adding a new layer. The surface of one of his paintings is likely to be marked by staples and seams. And yet, despite all that these works have endured, they are tightly composed views — Chaim Soutine meets Nicholas Poussin in a backyard of rural Massachusetts.

If you stand close to a Lewis painting, which I strongly recommend you do in his current exhibition, Stanley Lewis, at Betty Cuningham (October 19–November 25, 2018), you might think that you are looking at a much used, raised-relief map of hills and fields that has been cut apart, fitted back together, and stapled to a solid surface. At some point, as you slowly back away from the painting’s rough, uneven surface, the view of an ordinary rural street, overgrown backyard, or cabin in the country — replete with myriad details — snaps into place.

Stanley Lewis, “View from New Studio Window” (2012–2017), oil on canvas, 65 x 63 inches

The transition from abstract brushstrokes to specific details is magical — I can think of no other word that quite describes what happens when an image emerges with such startling clarity from a welter of what seem like haphazard brushstrokes. The largest painting in the exhibition, “View from New Studio Window” (2012–2017), measures 65 by 63 inches; it is nearly square. It is a view of the artist’s backyard framed by the large, empty studio window, complete with a red driving lawnmower in the lower right-hand corner and a white plastic garden chair in the opposite corner. A folding chair sitting on the far edge of the foliage between them forms a triangle.

Beyond the two chairs and across the driveway, we notice a red wagon in the grass; together these three objects form a line leading our eye back into the painting. Meanwhile, the diagonal driveway enters from the lower right and rises slowly upward, past a large tree, until it reaches the horizontal band of the road.

The window frame, with part of the interior visible, locates where you are standing and looking. The driveway divides the painting into two unequal areas, with the lower section full of smaller details, and the upper part full of leaves with a patch of blue sky and white clouds visible in the distance. The diagonal driveway, the slant of the weathered white deck jutting in from the left, and the tilt of the two chairs convey the boisterous wildness of the world in full bloom, while the location of the objects suggests an underlying order; the world is somehow both structured and unfettered, and all the better for it.

Stanley Lewis, “View from the Back Door of My Studio” (2017), ink on paper, 24 x 22 inches

In many of the paintings, Lewis’s viewpoint includes an element dividing the painting vertically into two more or less equal halves, such as the tree that appears in the painting “Cabin at Lovell Lake” (2017) and in the pen and ink drawing, “Looking at Our House” (2016). All around it swarms a helter-skelter world of grass, leaves, branches, wires, houses, shadows, and sky. One gets the sense that Lewis uses the abstract axes of the things he sees as a means of measuring the world with remarkable precision as they find their place in the painting or drawing. The angle of sight changes as our attention wanders over the surface. We are looking down; we are looking to the left and to the right. We are looking up. Our attention is restless; we see disorder and order merge as Lewis lifts a banal scene into a highly concentrated domain of particulars, all while painting wet into wet. The light is so specific that you are convinced you can feel the exact temperature and humidity of the day.

For “Family Group” (2014–2018), which is unlike any other painting in this remarkable exhibition, Lewis cut up a family photograph of what appears to be his children and grandchildren, arranged the pieces, and then transformed what he saw into a painting, cutting and arranging the sections of the canvas to mimic the collage. The shift from the standing girl in the pink floral print dress near the composition’s vertical axis to the two adults seated in the adjacent section is startling. Framed by an uneven white border, the painting takes what could easily be a sentimental subject — a photograph of different generations — and turns it into scene in which the fitted-together parts suggest the kind of separateness and unity, fissures and bonds, found in every family. It is a reading that comes out of Lewis’s formal arrangement of the parts.

Stanley Lewis, “Family Group” (2014-2018), acrylic on canvas, 34 x 41 inches

What comes across in all of his work — the paintings and drawings — is Lewis’s passion for attending to what he calls “the little things.” In a world obsessed with big statements, grand gestures, expensive fabrication, and signature production — the celebration of capitalism — Lewis’s reverence for the humdrum world where things lie scattered in an overgrown yard is truly radical. Rather than imposing his personality on the world, Lewis finds a way to step aside and let the world become paint.

In his essay, “Nature” (1836), in which he first formulated the metaphor of the transparent eyeball, Ralph Waldo Emerson declared: “I am nothing; I see all.” Lewis embraces the world as he finds it. The views he picks are easily overlooked and forgettable until he paints or draws them. He is not interested in making work that is entertaining or distracting. Everything he does is about the attention he summons up in himself. Shunning all signs of fashion and trendiness, Lewis’s fervor for the quotidian is one of the great accomplishments in contemporary painting.

Stanley Lewis continues at Betty Cuningham Gallery (15 Rivington Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 25.

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Why Berthe Morisot Was an Essential Figure in the Impressionist Movement

Berthe Morisot, “Reading (The Green Umbrella)” (1873), oil on fabric (Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Hanna Fund, 1950.89, photo © Cleveland Museum of Art)

PHILADELPHIA — French painter Berthe Morisot made her marks more than a century ago. Celebrated as an Impressionist in her time — she exhibited in seven of the eight impressionist shows between 1874 and 1886 — Morisot is not nearly recognized enough, often lumped together with her American contemporary Mary Cassatt.

A major exhibition on view at the Barnes Foundation through January presents a chance to understand the qualities that made Morisot’s success possible: prodigious talent, an affluent and supportive family, top-notch training and determination, the courage to be different, and being part of an influential circle.

At a time when opportunities for women in art are still a fraction of those for male artists — curator Sylvie Patry notes upfront in the accompanying catalogue that the Guerrilla Girls’ 1989 question “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” still applies — the exhibition hopes to reassert Morisot’s place as an essential, even revolutionary figure in the Impressionist movement. Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, which opened in Quebec and travels to Dallas and Paris after Philadelphia, is the first major Morisot exhibition in the US in 31 years. (If the title sounds somewhat awkward, Patry defends it: “With this title we refer [to] a given and historical framework, where it can’t be denied that being a woman artist has had an impact on her career and on her posthumous recognition.”)

“I don’t think there has ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal, and that’s all I would have asked for — I know I am worth as much as they are.” Morisot’s wrote in her diary in 1890, frustrated at not being as well known as her colleagues Renoir, Monet, Degas, and Manet.

Berthe Morisot, “Woman in Grey Reclining” (1879), oil on canvas (private collection, photo by Christian Baraja)

Morisot grew up in a bourgeois household. Her mother and father, an architect and high-ranking government official, enrolled Berthe and her sister Edma at the Louvre for drawing lessons, and later to study under landscape painter Camille Corot, who encouraged direct observation of nature. The senior Morisots even built a studio for their daughters.

Both sisters aspired to become professionals, making their public debut at the Paris Salon of 1864, but Edma ultimately gave up her art to marry. Meanwhile, Berthe met Édouard Manet, for whom she modeled, and became part of the Parisian avant-garde, the only woman to show with the group of Impressionists — thus named for their “unpolished” and seemingly “unfinished” work. She modeled for 11 paintings, and met Manet’s brother, Eugène, also an artist, marrying him at 33 — an age then considered to be an old maid. Eugène, too, gave up his artistic practice (he worked for the French Ministry of Justice), dedicating himself to Berthe’s career. He is the only man depicted in her paintings, often in a domestic space with their daughter Julie.

Berthe Morisot, “The Cradle” (1872), oil on canvas (Musée d’Orsay, Paris, RF 2849, © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt)

Many of the women featured in Morisot’s paintings are performing actions typical for women of a certain social strata of the era: needlework, mothering, gazing out a window, holding fans or parasols, looking beautiful in their finery — the work during her time and through the 1980s was often labeled as “charming,” “elegant,” “delicate,” and “feminine painting.” Yet what distinguishes Morisot’s subjects is that they are often outdoors. She painted en plein air at a time when it was common to simply sketch in the field and complete the work in the studio.

Two images of Morisot show her independence. In one photo, she is seated on a tufted velvet chair with long fringe, wearing an elegant black dress with ruffles and train, lacy gloves up to her elbows and a ribbon at her neck. She is frilly in black, yet her face looks determined; she is not one to let fancy attire get in the way of her work. In an 1885 self-portrait, she is stylishly dressed right up to the way the scarf at her neck is tied. Holding brush and palette, she is presenting herself as a working woman with a sense of fashion, and demonstrating the two are not mutually exclusive.

Berthe Morisot, “Self-Portrait” (1885), oil on canvas (Musée Marmottan Monet, Denis and Annie Rouart Foundationm, photo courtesy Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France / Bridgeman Images)

While on a honeymoon at the English seaside, Morisot wrote in a letter to her sister: “Nothing is nicer than the children in the streets, bare-armed, in their English clothes.”

One senses that despite her interest in Parisian fashion, Morisot longed to remove the frills and play outside with messy materials. She was torn between the indoors and outdoors, the domestic and the wild. Many of her paintings depict the greenery of the natural world through windows in lush interiors.

Morisot paints her husband, dapperly dressed in straw hat, leaning against an ornate chair to look outside a window — behind the gauzy curtains and potted plants on the windowsill is a garden, a fence, and a well-dressed woman and girl walking along the seaside. Behind them are boats, suggesting these women may be going places while the man stays at home. In it she remains true to the tradition of painting lavish interiors while letting her spirit roam free.

Berthe Morisot, “In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight)” (1875), oil on canvas (Musée Marmottan Monet, Denis and Annie Rouart Foundation, photo by Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY)
Berthe Morisot, “The Garden at Maurecourt” (about 1884), oil on canvas (Toledo Museum of Art, purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1930.9, photo courtesy Toledo Museum of Art)

Yet unlike many Impressionist painters who depicted women as ornamental, a part of the decoration, Morisot set her eye on working women — the cooks, the maids, the nannies and governesses who made it possible for her to work. In a rented country house in Bougival, she painted a washerwoman, hanging large white sheets. These white clothes billowing in the fresh air, with brushstrokes to suggest their drapery, could easily be abstract paintings.

For most of her working life, Morisot did not even have a studio of her own. She painted in parks and gardens, and in her own bedroom she painted scenes of the “toilette” — women getting dressed, surrounded by mirrors, wallpaper patterns, and light filtering through curtains. She rarely painted nudes, but when she did it was often a modest view from behind.

Berthe Morisot, “Woman at Her Toilette” (1875–1880), oil on canvas (the Art Institute of Chicago, Inv. no. 1924.127., photo courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY)

During her married life, Morisot painted in her parlor, moving her work behind the furniture when domestic life intervened. She painted her daughter and nieces playing music or other scenes in the parlor — her life was her studio. When her husband Eugène died, Morisot moved to an apartment and converted the servant quarters to a studio. “I am approaching the end of my life, and yet I am still a mere beginner,” she wrote to Edma in 1890. Although only 54 when she died of influenza, Morisot saw many of those close to her dying.

As an upper-middle-class woman, she didn’t need to aggressively sell her work. In her lifetime, she had only one solo exhibition and sold fewer than 40 paintings. Nevertheless, she was bought by important collectors of the time, including her friend the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and worked with leading dealers Alfred Cadart and Paul Durand-Ruel. Yet at her death, 85% of her catalogued paintings remained in the family’s possession. Her daughter, Julie, also a painter and orphaned at 16, made it her life’s work to continue promoting her mother’s work. Julie Manet made loans and gifts to museums, and played a key role in the organization of solo exhibitions.

Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist comes at a time when there is renewed institutional respect for her work, as museums are just beginning to acquire it.

Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist, co-curated by Sylvie Patry of the Musee d’Orsay, and Nicole Myers of the Dallas Museum of Art, continues at the Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, Philadelphia) through January 14, 2019. 

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