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Entries in Modern Art (186)


Joan Miró: A Language of His Own

Joan Miró - The Farm. 1921-22 - Oil on canvas - 132 x 147 cm. (52 x 58 in.) The National Gallery of Art - Washington, D.C. (click photo for larger image)Spanish Artist Joan Miró (1893-1983)—discussed elsewhere on What About Art?—was drawn towards the arts community that was gathering in Montparnasse, and in 1920 he moved to Paris. Under the influence of Surrealist artists, he developed his unique style: organic forms and flattened picture planes drawn with a sharp line. He was generally thought of as a Surrealist because of his interest in automatism and the use of sexual symbols. But, Miró rejected membership to any artistic movement in the interwar European years. This strong individualistic streak benefited Miró and accommodated his uniqueness well. He also remained deeply connected to his Catalan roots and would eventually split his year between living in France and his homeland.

Miró’s work featured here presents a view of the artist's masia or "family farm," filled with animals, farm implements, plants, and evidence of human activity. Miró explained, "The Farm was a résumé of my entire life in the country. I wanted to put everything I loved about the country into that canvas - from a huge tree to a tiny snail." The intensity of vision and almost maniacal attention to detail gives the work the quality of a memory reconfigured in a dream, and prefigures his later Surrealist work. Art critic Laura Cummings wrote, "every entity is given its own autonomous space in the picture, separately praised but connected by rhyming shapes," due to the "quasi-cubist space, tilted upright; and presumably because Miró is celebrating the thriving upward growth of home." 

The artist considered this work among his most important, marking a turning point. While reflecting a number of influences, including Catalan folk art, a Romanesque sense of hierarchy where scale reflects importance, and a Cubist vocabulary. 

After completing The Farm, Miró struggled to find a buyer in a Parisian modern art market that preferred Cubism. One dealer suggested cutting it into several smaller paintings for ease of sale. Fortunately, the artist had become friends with the writer Ernest Hemingway, then a struggling unknown, and, after hours of working the two would meet for boxing sessions to unwind. Hemingway was determined to buy The Farm and, after borrowing money and working as a grocery clerk, was able to purchase it. He kept it throughout his life and wrote, "I would not trade it for any picture in the world. It has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there.”


Gertrude Stein: A Self-Styled Genius

Pablo Picasso - Gertrude Stein - 1905-06 - Oil on canvas - 39-3/8 x 32 in. (100 x 81.3cm) - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkNovelist, poet, and playwright Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was born in Pittsburgh. She moved to Paris in 1903 and would spend the rest of her life in the French capital. Stein hosted a salon in Paris where Matisse, Picasso, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many more artists would meet. Together with her brother Leo, Stein created an impressive art collection. Between 1903 and 1914, the siblings accumulated art by Gauguin, Cézanne, Renoir, Delacroix, and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others. (You can read more about each of these artists on What About Art?)

Gertrude and Leo would split their collection after they ceased living together, but Gertrude’s reputation in the art world only grew. At the time, art critic Henry McBride wrote that Gertrude “collected geniuses rather than masterpieces. She recognized them a long way off.” Stein was especially appreciative of Pablo Picasso’s work—although she didn’t take to it right from the start. He painted her portrait in 1906—now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—and she continued to support his work when it transitioned to Cubism.

Stein was known as a genius in her own right for her own literary work, although her only book to reach a wide public was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), which was actually Stein’s own autobiography. 

Stein’s importance in the art world cannot be underestimated. Her support of early modern artists helped the careers of many artists who are now considered modern masters. Not at all humble in her estimation of herself, Stein observed, “Einstein was the creative philosophic mind of the century, and I have been the creative literary mind of the century.” 

For Picasso, Stein’s early patronage and friendship was critical to his success. He painted this portrait of her between 1905 and 1906 at the end of his so-called "Rose Period." Her body is reduced to simple masses—a foreshadowing of his adoption of Cubism—and portrays her face almost like a mask with heavy lidded eyes, reflecting his recent encounter with Iberian sculpture.


Henry Moore: “Truth to Materials”

Henry Moore - Reclining Figure - 1935-36 - Elmwood - h. 19; l. 35; d. 15 in. - Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (click photo for larger image)Henry Moore (1898-1986) is widely regarded as the most important British sculptor of the 20th century, and the most popular and internationally celebrated sculptor of the post-war period. He is best known for his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures, which are located around the world as public works of art. Moore also produced many drawings, including a series depicting Londoners sheltering from the Blitz during the Second World War, along with other graphic works on paper.

Non-Western art was crucial in shaping his early work. He often used abstract form to draw analogies between the human body and the landscape. 

The foundation of Moore's approach was direct carving, something he derived not only from European modernism, but also from non-Western art. At one point in his career, he abandoned the process of modeling (often in clay or plaster) and casting (often in bronze) that had been the basis of his art education, and instead worked on materials directly. He believed in the ethic of “truth to materials”—the idea that the sculptor should respect the intrinsic properties of media, letting them show through in the finished piece.

His forms are usually abstractions of the human figure, typically depicting mother-and-child or reclining figures. Moore's works are usually suggestive of the female body, apart from a phase in the 1950s when he sculpted family groups. His forms are generally pierced or contain hollow spaces. Many interpreters liken the undulating form of his reclining figures to the landscape and hills of his birthplace, Yorkshire.


The Cone Sisters: Matisse’s “Two Baltimore Ladies”

Photograph of Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein, Etta Cone - 1903 - Cone family pictures, The Baltimore Museum of Art (click photo for larger image)Claribel Cone (1864-1929) and Etta Cone (1870-1949), bolstered by their wealthy brothers (founders of Cone Mills), became ardent supporters of Henri Matisse in the 1910s. (You can read more about Matisse here on What About Art?) While the nature of the artist’s relationship with the sisters is unclear, the truth of their inspiration is undeniable.

Five-hundred works by Matisse in the Cone Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art form the largest and most representative group of his works of art in the world. The Cone sisters also purchased and acquired many of Picasso's works (whom they’d met through Gertrude Stein). In addition, they purchased fine arts by American artists, more than 1,000 prints, illustrated books, and drawings. Prior to the museum’s receipt of the collection, it became so large that it overtook their homes. Claribel (who was also a physician and researcher) rented a second apartment to hold what she called her “museum”.

The sisters developed relationships with some of the most famous artists of their day. Etta Cone even played an active role in Matisse’s Large Reclining Nude of 1935. ­­While he was painting the work, Matisse had it photographed and sent 22 photographs to Etta in Baltimore. 

After Claribel’s death, Etta commissioned Matisse to paint her sister’s portrait. Instead, she received four drawings of Claribel and six of Etta, which Matisse gave Etta as a gift, to express his gratitude to the sisters who had been such strong supporters of his work.

While the collection remained private until Etta's death, she occasionally loaned pieces to museums to exhibit. Claribel had willed her paintings to Etta, stipulating that these pieces should eventually be given to the Baltimore Museum of Art "if the spirit of appreciation of modern art in Baltimore should improve.” It is to that museum that the bulk of the collection eventually was given.


Marcel Janco: An Eclectic Style

Marcel Janco - Untitled (Mask, Portrait of Tzara) - 1919 - Private CollectionRomanian-Israeli artist Marcel Janco (1895-1984) had joined a group of artists at the Cafe Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland in 1916 and was among the  principal founders of  the Dada Movement. Dada was a unique artistic movement which had a major impact on 20th century art. It was established in Cabaret Voltaire by a group of exiled poets, painters and philosophers who were opposed to war, aggression and the changing world culture.  

Dada soirées featured spontaneous poetry, avant-garde music, and mask wearing dancers in elaborate shows. The Dadaists teased and enraged the audience through their bold  defiance of Western culture and art, which they considered obsolete in view of the destruction and carnage of World War I. The Dadaists objected to the aesthetics of Western contemporary painting, sculpture, language, literature and music. The group published articles and periodicals, and mounted exhibitions. The seeds sown in Zurich spread throughout the world, resulting in  new Dada organizations in Paris, New York, Berlin, Hannover, and more. 

Janco designed masks and costumes for the famous Dada balls, and created abstract reliefs in cardboard and plaster. He had an eclectic style in which he brilliantly combined abstract and figurative elements, expressionistic in nature. His masks were to play a large role in the anarchic dances at the Cabaret Voltaire. They were created from scraps of cardboard, paint, glue, and sack-cloth, all crumpled and torn, with ragged edges and patchy paint.