issue 36 > nonfiction > kuspit
Landscapes of Loveby Donald Kuspit
Sideo Fromboluti’s And Nora Speyer’s Artfilled Nature
A landscape must be looked at as a dryad or an oread. A landscape must be felt like a body. Every landscape is an ideal body for a particular kind of spirit.
Novalis, “Studies in the Visual Arts,” 1799
And the world that is looked at so deeply
wants to flourish in love.
Rainer Maria Rilke, “Turning Point”
Enjoyment is a lost art. Now the thing is intensity, enormity, speed, direct action on the nerve centers, by the shortest route.
Paul Valéry, “Questions of Period”
Reviewing the Paris “Salon of 1859,” Edmond and Jules de Goncourt declared: “Landscape is the victor of modern art,” adding that “it is the pride of nineteenth-century painting.” It was a defensive response to new social realities, to modernity itself, epitomized by the industrialization of society, threatening the death of nature, and more insidiously, the death of man by depriving him of nature. The new tradition of landscape painting was a life-saving response to the human misery the Industrial Revolution left in its wake. It was an artistic remedy for the human suffering caused by the inhuman treatment of nature, evident in its ongoing exploitation, as though its bounty was limitless, as though it was self-renewing, like the Mother Nature of tradition, sometimes harsh, but always consoling, a secure emotional base in which human beings were embedded.
Thus, exclaiming “It is very strange!,” the Goncourt Brothers wrote: “It is when nature is condemned to death, when industry dismembers it, when iron roads plow it, when it is violated from one pole to another, when the city invades the field, when industry pens man in, when, at last, man remakes the earth like a bed, that the human spirit hastens towards nature, looks at it as it never has before, sees this eternal mother for the first time, conquers her through study, surprises her, ravishes her, transports her and fixes her living and flagrante delicto on pages and canvases with an unequaled veracity. Will landscapes become a resurrection, the Easter of the eyes? And will we not…run to warm ourselves in the rays of the sun outside the city, fleeing the stone prisons…?” Similarly, a few decades later, John Ruskin, noting the “desert of Ugliness” that industrialism had created—“it banished beauty…from the face of the earth” and “reduced the streets [of the city] to brick walls”--remarked that “reaction…was inevitable.” Thus “men steal out, half ashamed of themselves for doing so, to the fields and the mountains; and finding among these the color, and liberty, and variety, and power, which are forever grateful to them, delight in these to an extent never before known; rejoice in all the wildest shattering of the mountain side, as an opposition to Gower Street.” More recently, writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof argues that “a good treatment” for “Internet use disorder,” indicative of the fact that “technology is taking over people’s lives,” is “nature. When we get into the great outdoors, the illusion of control that technology provides disappears, and we are deflated, humbled, and awed all at once. In the vast natural cathedral, we are reminded of a world much larger than ourselves—one that predates us, will outlive us, and at whose mercy we exist.”
The Goncourt Brothers are describing the birth of what has come to be called the therapeutic landscape, a reaction formation to the unhealthy urban environment of modernity, using human beings as well as nature for its own indifferent ends. The humanizing consolation afforded by untouched nature, its inherent beauty made manifest by exquisite art, becomes the reparative antidote to poisonous entrapment in ugly, dehumanizing modern cities, with their dependence on technology. It is a new kind of return to nature—a return to nature through the proxy of art, when there seems no place for nature in society.
The landscape paintings of Sideo Fromboluti and Nora Speyer belong to this great tradition of landscape painting, adding to it a passion born of their love. Living together and married for many years, their closeness to nature reflects their closeness to each other. Their intimacy with nature bespeaks their intimacy with each other. Their lasting love of nature is informed by their enduring love for each other. They are as inseparable as the flowers pictured in Speyer’s Gloriousa Daisies and Roses in the Forest (no date), and the pink and blue flowers floating serenely together in unperturbed water—a picture of sublime harmony, earthly nature become heavenly space--in Fromboluti’s grand triptych (untitled and undated). Recall that pink is proverbially a female color, blue a male color, the union of the opposites suggesting a sexual paradise. Certainly Fromboluti’s masterpiece is highly charged erotically.
Like the Parisians who fled the stone prison that Paris had become—it had just been modernized by the Baron Haussmann, who replaced the intimate streets and small houses of the old city with the broad avenues and apartment buildings of the new city—for the nature beyond the city, so the New Yorkers Fromboluti and Speyer fled the inhospitable prison that the city was becoming as more and more and larger and larger skyscrapers and apartment complexes were being built, their sheer size making people feel unconsciously small and less than human, for the nature beyond the inhospitable city. Far beyond it—initially in Woodstock, then on Martha’s Vineyard, and finally to a house they built in the Wellfleet woods, near Higgins Pond, on Cape Cod. It was there that their art flourished, nourished by nature as well as their love. It had at last found its true home: nature was their love nest, as it were, or at least a hortus conclusus in which they could be true to themselves and each other.
It was on Cape Cod, far from what Wordsworth called the maddening crowd of the anonymous city, that Fromboluti and Speyer recovered what Valéry called the lost art of enjoyment—the enjoyment of life, bringing with it a sense of being truly oneself, that became increasingly impossible in the city, as the Brothers Goncourt’s Parisians realized. Enjoying nature—finding in nature the joy they could not find in the city—they could enjoy life, indeed, feel truly alive. On Cape Cod Fromboluti and Speyer had the same lived experience of nature that the Parisians had when they holidayed in the country. And it was there that they made living works of art—art that was itself a lived experience of nature. Their art does not simply pay homage to nature, but epitomizes its life. We murder nature to dissect it Wordsworth wrote, criticizing the clinical, detached attitude to nature that became dominant with the Scientific Revolution, correlate with the Industrial Revolution; Fromboluti and Speyer regard nature with empathetic gratitude, informed by reasoned, even supportive observation of it. They tend to the life that spontaneously pulses in it as though it was an eternal flame. The tender respect, the unflagging concern, is emblematic of their tender care for each other, as much a gift of nature as any flower or tree. It is worth noting that when they moved to Martha’s Vineyard Fromboluti was upset when he realized that their house was only a short distance from an ugly highway, a sign of the city. They soon left it to build their home in Wellfleet forest, far off the road.
Robert Motherwell, a member of Long Point: An Artist’s Place, a cooperative gallery in Provincetown (in existence from 1977 to 1998), to which Fromboluti and Speyer as well as Motherwell belonged, once said “One of the reasons I’m a modern artist, I’m sure, is that in a way, I’m a very deeply alienated person.” What Motherwell, along with Fromboluti and Speyer and the seventeen other Long Point artists, were alienated from was the Big Business City, epitomized by New York, the commercial center of the art world. They were not only alienated, but in the paradoxical position of being economically dependent on the city from which they were alienated. “The Long Point artists were like artists everywhere, concerned about money and status,” the Long Point member Carmen Cicero said, but, for their own mental as well as artistic health, they felt the need to create “a communion of interest,” as Leo Manso, another Long Point artist put it. The Long Point artists had a strong sense of community, felt personally connected to each other, developed a camaraderie impossible in the larger impersonal contractual society, felt authentically themselves in each other’s presence. “We have a wonderful group, a marvelous group of people here,” Fromboluti wrote. “We’re very fond of each other. We’re close in age and we’ve all gone through the same history and struggle. We understand each other perfectly.” No doubt this is in part because, as Mary Ellen Abell writes, “they shared comparable aesthetic viewpoints, most of them having come of age during the second generation of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, with the exception of Motherwell and [Fritz] Bultman who were among the irascible groundbreakers of the first generation.” More to the emotional point, they all needed each other, as Motherwell noted when Budd Hopkins invited him to join Long Point, adding that “we need you,” Motherwell responding “Why not? I think everyone likes feeling needed.” “The group has given me intense friendships,” Speyer said, suggesting her need for a good human environment, and its support, for they gave her “an overwhelming feeling of identity,” suggesting the truth that one needs what psychoanalysts call a good relational matrix to develop a strong sense of self, which Speyer had, as I remember her.
“What I look for in art,” Manso said, “is mystery and order—a psychological truth. I think the transience of [social] events has caused me to search for the opposite, some sense of permanence.” Framboluti and Speyer found mystery and order and permanence in nature, order mysteriously permanent—a vital and vitalizing permanence--like their relationship. For them to show the truth of nature was to tell the psychological truth about themselves. For them to organically connect with nature was to organically connect to each other. I am no doubt belaboring the point, but I think it is what gives their landscape painting a special aura of confidence, a heartfelt clarity of purpose. They had a clear-eyed cognitive respect for the otherness of nature, however deeply they identified with it, suggesting they never separated from it, as they never did from each other.
Two grand traditions of landscape painting began in the nineteenth century: the French, stretching from Corot and the Barbizon School through Impressionism to Cézanne; and the Germanic, beginning with Caspar David Friedrich, continuing in Ferdinand Hodler, and climaxing in German Expressionist landscape painting, particularly in Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s richly colored panoramic landscapes and Emil Nolde’s intimate close-ups of colorful flowers. The two traditions are grounded on radically different views of nature, leading to different ways of representing it. The French are more perceptual, concerned with accurately rendering the observed facts of nature, the Germans more conceptual, concerned with fathoming and conveying the meaning of nature. The French were interested in vision, the Germans were visionaries, indeed, mystics.
French landscape painting involves focused perception of the particular details of nature, material however seemingly elusive and subtle, unfaltering attention to what Cézanne called its “vibrating sensations.” For him nature was all surface with no depth, its appearance its true and only reality, its surface a matrix of sensations, methodically implicated in each other to form an ingeniously harmonious composition, the tension generated by their friction making it “vibrant,” that is, subtly dynamic for all its balance. The so-called vibrating sensations made their first appearance in the so-called “patches” or “gestures” (“taches”) that Manet’s Tuileries Garden, 1862 was said to be composed of. The early French landscape painters were what Baudelaire called “realists” and “positivists”: they saw nature as though they didn’t exist in it—nature from the outside, as it were, rather than from the inside. They were unimaginative, like all positivists—like Comte, the famous theorist of positivism, who argued that positivism---a strict, scientific attention to the facts—was the most mature, modern, advanced, realistic mode of thought, compared to the infantile religious and adolescent metaphysical (philosophical) modes of unrealistic, unscientific pre-modern thinking. It was a sort of austere, ascetic approach to nature, indifferent to its aesthetics and emotional resonance. Baudelaire abhorred it.
In sharp contrast to the French landscape painters, the German landscape painters were what he called imaginatives. Baudelaire preferred the imaginatives to the realists or positivists—they were soullessly objective--but it is not clear that he knew or would have appreciated the imaginative German landscape painters of his time. But it seems clear that he knew, probably secondhand, German romantic theory, as his remark, in the “Salon of 1846,” that “romanticism is…a mode of feeling,” involving “intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration towards the infinite,” strongly suggests. This could have been taken from Friedrich Willem von Schelling’s Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 1797, where Schelling, the founding father of romanticism, declared: “Nature is visible Spirit, Spirit is invisible Nature.” This idea brought with it a “deep feeling for nature,” involving what has been called an “oceanic feeling,” a mystical sense of total immersion in it, one’s own spirit losing itself in nature’s spirit. This is the romantic idea of nature: it is a manifestation of spirit—imbued with spirit--or it is meaningless. The romantic landscape painter tries to make the spirit implicit in nature explicit with the help of imagination—the deep spirit that is its inner reality compared to the superficial reality of its material appearances. The German romantic looks at nature with the imaginative inner eye; for the French realist or positivist the everyday unfeeling outer eye is enough to see what there is to be seen. There is nothing else to be seen; there is a built-in limit to seeing for the French landscapist, but there is none for the German landscapist: one can never look deeply enough into nature, feel strongly enough about it,
I will argue that, in their different ways, Framboluti and Speyer idiosyncratically mix and merge the “classical” French attitude and the romantic German attitude to nature. Thus, the three trees in a pastel (untitled and undated) of Framboluti’s seem to allude directly to Monet’s [three] Poplars, 1891. Fromboluti’s Rain on Patience Brook, 1984, with its five trees, has its precedent in Monet’s [five] Poplars on the River Epte, 1891. The trees are different, but the theme—a group of trees by running water—is the same. Again and again Monet and Fromboluti paint trees in forests or as lonely personages. Thus Monet’s Wood Lane, 1893 and Willows at Sunset, 1894 and Fromboluti’s three shadowy trees in the flickering sun, the two gesture-like trees flanking a Sailboat on Higgins Pond, 1993, and the three trees in the central panel of his “floating” triptych---a work indebted to Monet’s water lilies murals. Monet’s pictures tend to be sunny, but the misty gray in Framboluti’s Rain on Patience Brook brings to mind the atmospheric gray in Monet’s rendering of Rouen Cathedral at dusk. Like Monet, Fromboluti is an acute observer of nature; the less clear it seems, the more clear-eyed he becomes. He responds to its subtlety with his own subtle perception. It is as though he is sharpening his eyes on the whetstone of its wondrous nuances. Nature may be protean, but Fromboluti is able to grab it and hold it fast. Like Monet, he apotheosizes “eureka” moments of perception. The incisive contours of his shadowy trees, the fragile delicacy of his atmosphere, with its ever-changing light, are all rendered with patient respect for their particularity, sensitive painstaking devotion to their sheer givenness, their being unmistakably here and now.
I have tried to show Framboluti’s French side—his “classical” concern with unadulterated (untheorized) perception, straightforward vision however unstraightforward nature may seem—so where is his German romantic side? It is evident in the raw colors in Rooster on Paint Table, 2005—the rooster is a symbol of Framboluti, crowing like a proud rooster to wake us up to art and nature—and, more subtly, in the eccentrically twisted branch hovering in isolation above a pond of lily pads. That tensely eloquent branch is in effect an abstract expressionistic gesture. The abrupt contrast between the luminous yellow of the sky and the pitch black shore is romantically abstract. Spirit and nature are at odds yet one—Schelling’s romantic dialectic in visionary action. Indeed, the more abstract Framboluti’s works become the more visionary they become, however much they remain images of a scene he has perceived. A drawing of thin reeds, seemingly evaporating—dematerializing—in a greenish pond crossed by bands of cloud-like light of different lengths (the birds that hover around them seem like angels)—is an abstract impression of nature rather than a straightforward description of it. In another wonderful pastel Fromboluti pares the scene to its elemental details. The tension between the vast expanse of the water, taking up more than half the picture, and the marshes and hills on its shores, is excruciating. There is a brooding energy to this work, suggesting that this natural place is the haunt of a spirit—perhaps the dryad or oread Novalis spoke of. I suggest that Fromboluti’s Sleeping Entertainer 6, 1977 and Irish Girl, 1990, are her contemporary incarnations. The more Fromboluti strips the image down to it abstract essentials—with stunning decisiveness in a drawing of boats parked on the shore of a pond---the more spiritual it becomes, and with that romantically divided against itself. The “edgy” moving line where sea and shore meet, unite and separate simultaneously, suggestively symbolizes the conflict at the core of the romantic self.
Speyer’s wild flowers—Gloriousa Daisies and Roses in the Forest, already mentioned, Daisies, 1968, Patio VI, 1989, Patio # 9, 1992, Two Flower Vases, also 1992--are deliciously romantic. Their flamboyant detail is rendered with luxurious precision, suggesting they are odalisques in disguises. Their colors are loud and vibrant, their shapes meticulously correct however odd. They are blasts of paint worthy of Van Gogh, yet less harshly painted. One might say they are romantically impressionistic, their impressionistic vividness acknowledging their plein aire character, the atmospheric moment of spontaneous, concentrated perception. Framboluti seems more interested in the trees in the forest than in the flowers; Speyer is completely absorbed—ecstatically taken---with the flowers. No phallic trees for her; she is all woman, luxuriating in her femininity, surrounded by an abundance of fiery flowers, their radiance conveying its indomitable power, the eternal feminine’s regal presence.
But there is another side to Speyer’s femininity—a nightmarish side, as Nightmare 1 (no date), makes clear. It is work worthy of Fuseli’s Nightmare, 1781, also showing a woman unable to awaken from a frightening dream, a woman possessed by a devil, traditionally taking bizarre animal form, as Speyer’s absurd creature does. Speyer’s morbidly mysterious monster has an uncanny resemblance to Fuseli’s, suggesting she knew her art history. Speyer’s extraordinary Death and the Maiden series has its precedent in Hans Baldung-Grien’s Death and the Maiden series, suggesting the truth of the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s idea that genuine originality is only possible on the basis of knowledge of tradition. Paradoxically, it is in her romantic paintings, with their traditional, mythic themes—Adam and Eve with Snake, 1976 is another one (they’re asleep, as though after coitus, bathed in golden light, as the lurid snake hovers above them, like an intrusive, sinister, disruptive grand gesture)—that Speyer shows her French precision, her attention to detail, conveyed through nuanced line, completely at odds with the romantic colors of her flower paintings. Her drawings of Adolescents, two (female?) figures, and Girl with Slip (none dated), are all line and no color. The first two drawings are imaginatively and eccentrically abstract, the Girl with Slip is realistic, the characters and emotions of the figures are different, but what stands out is the deft linearity of the drawings, the sense of a hand sure of its movements, conveyed by the swiftness, boldness, and calculated difference between the lines that form the image. Speyer’s dream women suffer emotionally, but their bodies are composed of what Blake called the lineaments of satisfied desire.
I suggest that Speyer treats the female body as though it was a mysterious landscape, the mystery of nature and of woman magically fusing in its form. Sometimes the female dryad has a body blurred into atmospheric abstraction, like the maiden in Death and the Maiden IX, 2004. Speyer’s works tend to be multi-layered with unconscious meanings. Thus the relationship of pursuing Death and resistant Maiden reflects that of pursuing Apollo and resistant Daphne. The psychosexual implications of Speyer’s works seem transparent: there is something daemonic about her women, however beautiful they may be. They are passionate yet disturbed. After all, the maiden dreams of the devil and death: they are aspects of her psyche, hallucinatory projections of her unconscious feelings about herself, her conflict with herself. Speyer’s art is split between the positive and the negative, the conscious and the unconscious—the beautiful sunny flowers she sees with the loving eyes of consciousness and the haunted woman threatened by ugly feelings she sees with the uncanny eyes of her unconscious—while Fromboluti’s art is more single-mindedly positive, that is, more completely an art of consciousness. One might say he is more conscious of nature than of himself while Speyer is as conscious of herself as she is of nature. Indeed, she seems more interested in—intrigued by--her own nature than she is in external nature, however much she delights in it. But then Fromboluti is isolated in nature, and in his drawings light and dark are in unresolved conflict, suggesting that like Speyer he is psychologically minded—his works also convey what Manso called “a psychological truth”—but his psychology is different from Speyer’s.
All the information about the Long Point artist’s cooperative gallery comes from Mary Ellen Abell, “The Life and Times of Long Point: An Artist’s Place (1977-1998)” (Provincetown, MA: Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 2012).
Nora Speyer, Death and the Maiden VI, 2004, Oil on Linen Canvas, 60x60in
Nora Speyer, Dream Sequence, 1996, Charcoal and cut paper, 22x31in
Nora Speyer, Fear II, 2002-04, Oil on Linen Canvas, 40x30in
Nora Speyer, Grand Tree on Patience, 2005, Oil on Canvas, 50x50in
Nora Speyer, Hanging Branches Over Patience Brook, 2006, Oil on Canvas, 40x50in
Nora Speyer, Old Oak Tree, 2006, Oil on Canvas, 40x40in.
Nora Speyer, Trees on Patience Brook, 2004, Oil on Canvas, 50x40in
Sideo Fromboluti, Chair with Towel, 41x41in
Sideo Fromboluti, Deux Femmes, 1968, Oil on Canvas, 61x70in
Sideo Fromboluti, Glass Vase with Flowers on Paint, 1920, Oil on Canvas, 40x50in
Sideo Fromboluti, Lightning on Higgins Pond, 1982, Diptychm 60x120in, Left
Sideo Fromboluti, Lightning on Higgins Pond, 1982, Diptychm 60x120in, Right
Sideo Fromboluti, Night Out 6, 1992, Oil on Canvas, 50x20in
Sideo Fromboluti, Untitled, 1990, Pastel and Charcoal on paper, 16x21in