Bice Lazzari: Music and Poetry

Bice Lazzari in her studio in Rome_Photo by Sergio Pucci

Bice Lazzari in her studio in Rome. Photo: Sergio Pucci

“Bice Lazzari had a unique mind. Her early work was a precursor to abstraction in many ways, as she was always striving to go beyond the usual vision to the next level, seeking the essence, the core of the painting.”-Renato Miracco, curator of Bice Lazzari: The Poetry of Mark-Making (on view at The Phillips Collection through February 24) and former cultural attaché to the Embassy of Italy

Born in Venice, Bice (Beatrice) Lazzari (1900-1981) was a pioneer in postwar Italian art. For most women in the early 20th century, there were limited opportunities to pursue a career in the fine arts. Although trained as a figure painter, Lazzari began her career in the late 1920s in the applied arts, which emphasized a geometric style. In the postwar years, she made Rome her permanent home and it was there that she found her own artistic path. Her paintings of the 1950s are expressive and abstract, while her works of the 1960s and 70s, though increasingly reductive, are highly experimental in materials and have a singular focus on rhythmic mark-making.

Lazzari’s work resonates with utmost control and minimal gesture. Using pencil, ink, and pastel, Lazzari creates poetic compositions that resemble graphs, maps, musical staffs, and notes. Later in her career, she used acrylics and further simplified her imagery, creating grids, lines, rows of dots and dashes, and irregular shapes using a limited palette. Reflecting her lifelong passion for music and poetry, Lazzari’s lines and forms create rhythms that interact with each other, making her works come alive in a manner akin to musical notation.

Through February 24, The Phillips Collection is proud to showcase four paintings by the artist recently gifted to the museum by Lazzari’s family and the Lazzari Archive in Rome, the first of her works to enter the collection, along with several loaned works on paper.

“Everything that moves in space is measurement and poetry. Painting searches in signs and color for the rhythm of these two forces, aiding and noting their fusion.”-Bice Lazzari, 1957

Bice Lazzari, Sensa titolo, 1974, Acrylic on canvas, 9 13/16 x 9 13/16 in., Gift of Mariagrazia Oliva Lapadula and the Archivio Bice Lazzari, Roma 2018, courtesy of the Embassy of Italy, Washington, DC

Bice Lazzari, Sensa titolo, 1974, Acrylic on canvas, 9 13/16 x 9 13/16 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Mariagrazia Oliva Lapadula and the Archivio Bice Lazzari, Roma 2018, courtesy of the Embassy of Italy, Washington, DC

Echoes of the Ancient Baby

Tori Wrånes, Ancient Baby, 2017, Video projection, sound variable, Courtesy of the artists and Carl Freedman Gallery

Tori Wrånes, Ancient Baby, 2017, Video projection, sound variable, Courtesy of the artists and Carl Freedman Gallery

Anyone moving through the Nordic Impressions exhibition will have encountered Norwegian artist Tori Wrånes’s surreal multimedia work Ældgammel Baby (Ancient Baby). Whether you are entranced by its perpetual orbit or repulsed by its gargoyle-like ugliness, there is something unmistakably rapt in Wrånes’s dreamlike vision. The figure is not quite human, yet seems to be spinning in the amniotic fluid of modern human life: sneakers, oversized raincoat, and a shock of hair like a kitsch troll. Corporeal sounds emanate from the character, too, which appears aching to be heard and understood, if only we had the means to interpret its otherworldliness. The character’s groans sound pre-linguistic, echoing Jacques Lacan’s notion of the “object voice” or Julia Kristeva’s Chora—vocal utterances that articulate pure sound loosened from denotative meaning, like the sounds that babies make before they acquire language and culture. Voiceless and “othered” from such systems, the character’s seeming distance from the human lends a primordial character to its sounds. Cloaked in the heavy sonic affect of reverberation, they feel more elemental in their resonance, like the mysterious drone sounds of planetary vibration or the groaning tensile shift of tectonic plates. The sensation is that of being immersed in a sonic and visual deep-time, an eternal recurrence which is amplified by Wrånes’s conscious multi-layering of temporalities; you are both there in the vivid materiality of the present, yet absorbed within the longue durée of mythic or archaic time.

Tori Wrånes, Ancient Baby, 2017, Video projection, sound variable, Courtesy of the artists and Carl Freedman Gallery

Tori Wrånes, Ancient Baby, 2017, Video projection, sound variable, Courtesy of the artists and Carl Freedman Gallery

There is another ancient means by which Ældgammel Baby seeks to communicate with us. It makes music. At points in the work, the character is seen blowing through a flute-like instrument, producing a deeply uncanny sound which echoes through the galleries in Nordic Impressions. Flutes are the most ancient musical artifacts, with archaeological examples of hollowed bone flutes dating from 40,000 years ago found in the caves of Germany and Slovenia. Is this bewildering yet tender moment of music-making simply another means of displacing our perceptions of time? Perhaps there are deeper art historical implications at stake, too; gestures toward the complex history of musical iconography in visual art, from the representations of instruments in Greek and Roman vase painting, to the domestic interior scenes of music-making in Vermeer and beyond. Often the depictions of musical instruments in sculpture and painting of the ancient past served as metaphorical symbols of Neoplatonic harmony; music as a representation of the aesthetic ideals of order and proportion. Yet in Greek mythology, it was flute that signaled the purely sensuous and moral danger of the god Dionysus. In Titian’s famous evocation, we see the Satyr Marsyas flayed alive for his hubris in challenging Apollo’s rational, celestial music of the Lyre with his passionate, discordant sounds on the Aulos (a flute). Perhaps, then, Ældgammel Baby is a floating Dionysus? A strange, unknowable god creature bound by irrationality and chaos, forever spinning in ritual abyss. However, Wrånes does not foreclose the notion that the Dionysian may also represent a utopia, a dreamlike vision of freedom from the strictures of convention, shedding light on the human condition and what we choose to represent about ourselves in our daily lives. “We are all trolls,” Wrånes has said in interview, “when visible, we try to show and present our best sides, to be happy and pretty. I am more interested in what happens when you turn off the light.” When the light turns off, it is the materiality of sound that we are left immersed in, enveloping the spectator in traces of an aural past (real or imagined) resonating in the acoustic present. What might we see in the echoes left behind?

—Jeremy Ney, Director of Music at The Phillips Collection

Matisse and His Textiles: Interior With Egyptian Curtain

Interior With Egyptian Curtain, Henri Matisse,  1948, Oil on canvas, 45 3/4 x 35 1/8 in.

Interior With Egyptian Curtain, Henri Matisse, 1948, Oil on canvas, 45 3/4 x 35 1/8 in.

When I went to the exhibition Matisse and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2004, I was astonished to see the real Egyptian curtain used in Matisse’s painting of the same name owned by The Phillips Collection. According to the catalogue essay, written by Matisse expert Hilary Spurling, Matisse had a lifelong love affair with textiles. He grew up in a dark, dreary part of northeast France, in a small town that was known throughout France for its shimmering textiles. Weavers constantly experimented with different ways of combining color and pattern.

Matisse escaped to Paris when he was a young man. He knew nothing of the art work of his contemporaries or the Impressionists. Instead, he used textile vocabulary to describe works of art. He spoke of a given artist’s work as being like silk, taffeta or velvet. From the top of a double decker bus, Matisse saw a beautiful blue and white printed textile in the window of a secondhand shop, which he purchased with funds that he could ill afford. He placed it on a table which he covered with still life elements such as bowls of fruit. He used that and other textiles to create powerful compositions over a period of many years, calling his collection of fabrics “my working library.”

Photo by Kabrea Hayman

Photo by Kabrea Hayman

Matisse was a prodigious collector of textiles. He had hundreds of them, including rugs from northern Africa, the Congo, and couture fabrics purchased at the end of the season. He used the textiles as inspiration when he created new compositions. On his trips from Paris to Nice, he brought many of the textiles with him. According to Hilary Spurling, visitors to Matisse’s studio left dazed and disbelieving after seeing his collection of textiles, thinking that his studio looked more like something out of a fairy tale rather than the center of serious productive effort.

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse

Detail of Matisse's Egyptian Curtain

Detail of Matisse’s Egyptian Curtain

Deeply inspired by textiles from Congo, which he called “my African velvets,” Matisse began his series of cut outs, in which he cut figurative and abstract patterns out of colored paper. The Egyptian Curtain is one of the last paintings he did before embarking on the cut outs.

A photograph of Matisse with the Egyptian curtain in his studio reveals the ways in which the artist altered his composition from the original by turning up the volume on the colors he used. The painting transformed quiet ochres into a dynamic composition of dizzying reds and greens.

By The Phillips Collection’s Head Librarian, Karen Schneider.