What do a French rebel, a Danish hero and an American bad boy have in common? That’s the question the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale hopes to answer with “Cafe Dolly,” a show that connect the dots between three painters who lived in different countries during different time periods but whose works manage to intersect at every corner.
The artists in question are J.F. Willumsen, Francis Picabia and Julian Schnabel. Willumsen, who lived from 1863 to 1958 in Denmark, had largely worked in Expressionism and Symbolism. Picabia, who was born in Paris in 1879 and died there in 1953, was most associated with Cubism and Dadaism. The American-born Schnabel, the only living artist in the show, is often known for his figurative works, particularly large-scale portraits.
Despite such disparate origins, these artists have much more in common than one would think. Perhaps most significantly, these artists were all painting figurative works at times when tastes favored abstraction.
“None of these artists are particularly pursuing what it means to paint realistically in times when abstraction dominated,” said Bonnie Clearwater, the museum’s director and chief curator. “Rather, it’s different ways to address painting itself.”
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The three artists are often reproducing images encountered in their day-to-day lives, particularly pictures found in mass publications such as magazines or books. Often how they reproduced these images speaks significantly to their processes and intents.
Many works by these artists aren’t explicitly beautiful; they’re intentionally tawdry and tacky, though that has resulted in many dismissing them as simply bad art. In Picabia’s case, the works at display in this show were left out of his 1970 retrospective at the Guggenheim, leaving a hole in his ouerve of art curators deemed to be lesser works.
While any artist’s style can change over the years, Willumsen’s work is among the most varied of painters of his period and the show highlights how his approach evolved over his long tenure. One work in particular epitomizes his lengthy career: The Wedding of the King’s Son, first painted in 1888 and later revised in 1949, contrasts a realistic depiction of struggling commoners against the lavish backdrop of a wedding ceremony, the royal figures shown as extravagant and colorful. These vibrant subjects were added many decades after public outcry caused him to partially censor his original work when it was first displayed.
Willumsen’s style can be hallucinatory and brooding, which is how he depicts the city of Venice in several paintings on display; these paintings show the canal city radiating in an almost supernatural glow. He wasn’t afraid to be kitschy, as works like The Naked Figures on the Promenade show; this depiction of a nude muscle beach scene is cartoonish and fun, almost something you’d find in an old comic strip.
More than anything, Willumsen’s style has a technicolor, exaggerated boldness that seems unusual in a time when artists were veering towards abstraction. In, Michelle Bouret Dancing the Boston, a pale woman in black dances in a candy-colored room with hues of pink, the woman practically bursting from the painting. In Woman Playing with a Black Cat, the image is frenzied and wild, perfectly encapsulating the restless situation.
But perhaps the most mythic of the works is the Trilogy of Titian Dying, three paintings the artist considered among his finest works. In the first, the artist shows himself falling into a cave with his instruments strewn across the grass. The second work shows a grey, naked figure as it lays dying while blindfolded. The final in the series shows the artist as half man, half lion, ascending into the clouds.
Picabia — who will be the subject of a Museum of Modern Art retrospective next year in New York — was best known for his Cubist paintings and for being one of the first artists associated with the Dada movement that his colleague Marcel Duchamp helped put on the map. But the works on display for this show are far removed from what most know about the artist. Instead of the artist’s trademark abstractions, you’ll find a body of almost entirely representational works of of mostly women.
Through these works you can see the artist exploring reproduction in interesting ways. Many of the paintings were inspired by magazines of the period, particularly tabloids and pornography.
His take on innocuous portraits sees Picabia manipulating sentimentality, distorting the images into something so saccharine they become nearly repulsive. His reproductions of photos of women in various states of undress can be particularly distressing. While some of them retain their seductive charms, most are shown with wax-like skin and dead eyes, rendering them with a bloodless quality that can be disquieting.
Picabia’s ability to capture the grotesque in the beautiful is uncanny. In Andalusia, his portrait of a woman would be conventionally beautiful, but he manages to quash expectations by highlighting her deformed eye; this relatively small distortion has a huge effect on the work and drops his impressionist work into the surreal.
Schnabel had the benefit of being able to work after the world wars when artists were heavily questioning the nature of art itself.
Rather than hide his source material, Schnabel often puts it on full display or even uses the sources themselves as part of his works. The most emblematic of these are his bodies of work that see the artist painting directly on top of his finds; one set consists of historical photographs, while the other consists of thrift store artworks. Schnabel added abstraction to their surfaces with paint and resin.
But the best of these is his series of large-scale paintings that replicate a few of the thrift store paintings defaced. The resulting works, portraits of girls blinded by streams of paint, are metaphysical in nature and tower over visitors; one in particular, Large Girl with No Eyes, is hung from the atrium like an “icon in a basilica,” as Clearwater says. These works are among several that were not in the original show at the Willumsen Museum in Denmark but are on exhibit in Fort Lauderdale.
In addition to his focus on sources, Schanbel concerns himself with the physicality of his works moreso than did the other two artists. In perhaps his most famous works, the artist paints portraits onto surfaces layered in broken plates, making a rocky surface for his images to emerge from. These works were created in reaction to a critic who said art had to move away from the flat picture plane.
Indeed, many of Schnabel’s large portraits are lacquered for a super-shiny finish that highlights the hills and valleys of the paint.
With abstraction on the rise among young artists today, so much so that the Museum of Modern Art’s current “Forever Now” exhibition covers this terrain extensively, Clearwater’s decision to showcase primarily figurative painters who went against trends is rather timely and part of the reason why she brought the show to the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.
“This [show] resonated now, it needed to be dealt with now for us to think about it and it is meaningful now,” she says.
If you go
What: ‘Cafe Dolly.’
When: Through Feb. 1. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, till 8 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays.
Where: Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., 954-525-5500; www.moafl.org.
Info: Adults $10; seniors and military $7. Non-NSU students 13-17 $5 with valid ID; 12 and under free; NSU students, faculty and staff free; museum members free.