Saturday, November 23, 2013

Art I'm Looking At: Anders Zorn at The Legion of Honor (November 23, 2013)

Anders Zorn (1860-1920) is a name I've long been dimly aware of. On travels in Europe I've seen a few of his paintings and I've been impressed by them, but until today I'd never had the opportunity to see a full range of his work. It was a treat to see a representative selection of his early efforts--mostly extraordinary watercolors--, of his society portraits, of his nudes (oils, watercolors, and etchings), and also of his later works, which are mostly oils depicting rural scenes in his home country of Sweden, to which he retired after periods of living in London, Paris, and elsewhere, and doing a great deal of other traveling around the world, including seven trips to the United States (which included a visit to San Francisco in 1903).

According to the large, wall-mounted text panels at the show, Zorn studied mostly oil painting as an art student, but a chance meeting with an English watercolorist shortly after graduation inspired him to take up watercolors, and he seems to have applied himself with singular concentration. The early watercolors on show at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (Anders Zorn: Sweden's Master Painter runs through February 2, 2014) are nothing short of breathtaking technically, if somewhat idiosyncratic; Zorn uses watercolors more like oil paints, employing thickeners and adding touches with gouache to create heavy (but by no means clumsy) layers with less transparency, less wetness, than is usual. Zorn must have been an especially meticulous and patient man, at least in his youth. The detail of the water surface in a painting like Summer Vacation (1886) shown here is hard to believe. The figure in the boat is almost photographically rendered. If Zorn had lived in a later period, it's tempting to think he might have become a photorealist.

Zorn took up etching fairly casually, at the suggestion of an artist friend, the panels tell us. He seems to have mastered it in a very short time. His ability to capture light effects--so ably demonstrated in the watercolors--is apparent here, and again Zorn's approach is somewhat unorthodox. On the Sands (1916) pictured above (although not in the Legion of Honor show) is a good example of the style he developed as an etcher, using very long, parallel hatching to conjure startlingly life-like figures out of what look like hastily worked backgrounds (the freedom of line here and in some of the oil paintings is surprising when juxtaposed with the painstaking watercolor work). Remarkably, some of the lines are a third or even half as long as the long side of the plate. The woman on the beach looks as if she's been carefully carved out of a jagged stone matrix. Looking at other work in the show, this contrast between loving attention to a central figure and a less-meticulous rendering of a background began to seem typical as I walked through the galleries. The "floated" effect created by a figure rendered so surely as to look almost alive surrounded by a markedly more sketchily approached background is apparent in some of the oil paintings as well--notably Herdsmaid (1908) in which a young female cowherd (partially obscured by pine saplings and other low vegetation) is seen through a gap in the plants around her; the figure seems uncannily present, but what surrounds her is ever-so-slightly blurred--again suggestive of photography and lens effects (more below).

Zorn was immensely successful as a society portrait painter, both in Europe and on his trips to the United States. Looking at Zorn's work in the genre, the paintings of nearly contemporary painters John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Valentin Serov (1865-1905) immediately come to mind. These painters all had an uncanny ability to capture something about sitters that make their portraits look absolutely authentic while using brushstrokes that call great attention to themselves if viewed from too close to the canvas. An entire room in the Legion of Honor show is devoted to portraits like this one of Elizabeth Sherman Cameron (1900).

The orange-red of the sofa in the Cameron portrait is a color Zorn appears to have liked very much. This (or a similar shade--the raw flesh of a Coho Salmon and the red sandstones of Arches National Park, in Utah, come to mind) is present in every one of the paintings in the portrait room--in the red bow in a sitter's hair, in the glowing, rusty curtains behind the former president in Zorn's portrait of Grover Cleveland (1899), or in a piece of furniture or clothing. In his Self-portrait in Red (1915), at the top of this page, Zorn took his predilection to an extreme.

Being a photographer, I was particularly interested to see the show touch upon how Zorn used photography as a resource in at least some of his later work. The etching called Cabin, of 1917, has its own display case. An example of the print is set alongside the original plate from which it was pulled and a set of five snapshots Zorn made of the two models depicted descending into the cabin of what is described as "Zorn's yacht" (his society portraits appear to have made him very rich). The photos are fascinating in themselves. The women are laughing. They seem to be having a great deal of fun. It's easy to imagine Zorn joking with the models, getting them to take the positions he was trying to visualize, in the right light, without making them unduly self-concious. Seeing the snapshots makes me wonder how often Zorn was drawing on photographs earlier in his career and exactly how he may have used them, if he did.

This work and the other nudes in the show (there are many, mostly oils) makes apparent the artist's love of the female form. He appears to have been especially fond of rear ends, and in the Legion of Honor show are some of the most lovingly rendered backsides you're ever likely to see in paint. Look for the one Zorn slashed to pieces and discarded because he was dissatisfied with it (a fellow artist rescued the pieces and sewed it back together).

Zorn retired to his home town of Mora and spent his last years mainly painting the country life of Sweden's Dalarna region--paintings that appealed to me less than some of the other pieces in the show (although everything was worth looking at). Here I've posted just a few impressions based on a single viewing of a selection of Zorn's work, but Zorn is a painter I'm now interested in learning more about.

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