You can track the history of modern painting by following reactions to and departures from what were perceived to be academic conventions of the time. “Academic” means not just techniques propagated in schools but “prevailing manners” and styles that the general public finds august or pretty or cool, at the least formally unchallenging. Some great early modern French painters wanted to be included in salon exhibitions sponsored by the French Academy but were rejected, so they set up what we’d now call “alternate spaces” and staged exhibitions of their own work. In our own moment, most younger American contemporary artists with major reputations graduated university MFA programs: whatever taste-brokers say, the work that brings fame and wealth may not, in the end, be as daring or inventive or forwarding as we’re told. They, too, may be products of stiff academic assumptions of a different kind.
One early 20th-century American instance of dissent was the Eight, a group included in a famous exhibition at the Macbeth Galleries in New York in 1908 meant to criticize the stringent, conservative, academic exhibition guidelines of the National Academy of Design. Five of those eight — Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Bellows, William Glackens, Everett Shinn — had already been tagged by critics as the Ashcan School, so called because instead of the idealizing American Impressionism and faux-Classicism of the time, they practiced a boisterous realism and favored street-level subjects. Henri, an eager, helpful pontificator, summed up their principles: “Art for life’s sake.”
Henri (pronounced HEN-rye) became one of the famous, influential teachers of his time. I’ve met good young artists who cite his compilation of writings and lectures, The Art Spirit, as a life-changing book. Henri’s aphoristic, summative statements have the same enthusiasm as his painting. About brush strokes: “All the certainties, all the uncertainties, all the bigness of the artist’s spirit and all the littleness are in it.” And about background: “If you look past the model at the background, it responds to your appeal and comes forward. It is no longer a background.”
Henri was born in 1865 in Cincinnati, grew up there and farther west until his family relocated in 1883 to the northeast, where he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studied with Tomas Anshutz, himself a student of Thomas Eakins, so Henri derived (in part, anyway) from a particular strain of robust, aggressive Philadelphian realism. While making his way as a painter, he established himself as a passionate and dedicated teacher, working first at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women then later, from 1915 to 1927, at the Art Students League of New York. (He died in 1927.) He traveled and made important work in Paris and Santa Fe and on Ireland’s western coast. Another critical place was Spain, which he visited several times, and his affinity for things Spanish is the subject of Spanish Sojourns: Robert Henri and the Spirit of Spain, currently at the San Diego Museum of Art.
When Henri’s fevered, emotionally reportorial realism (“Painting is the giving of evidence”) met the incitements of Spanish culture, the results were confrontational and reverently impassioned. He took direction from Velázquez. Some of Henri’s portraits of women are darksome but dignified (“A beautiful dignity always in Velázquez!”), and he brought to his gypsies, country folk, and street characters a vitalistic sympathy — there’s always a mercurial painterly dialogue between him and his subjects. (“Where others saw a pompous king, a funny clown, a misshapen body to laugh at, Velázquez saw deep into life and love, and there was response in kind for his look.”) One day in 1912, a gypsy girl came to pose in the studio and struck a theatrically defiant pose, as if daring Henri to inquire and discover a secret. Her face is a mess of ashy shadows and small ruddy archipelagos. Henri’s brush seems on a mission (“A picture should be the expression of the will of the painter.”) to give evidence of her restlessness, and recklessness.
Henri loved singers and flamenco dancers. One picture very much after Velázquez, Spanish Dancer, Sevillana, is languidly alluring. Against a darkened, “Spanish” background, she stands, long and svelte, as if to invite our eye to move down from her narrow head, along the length of her drippy, off-the-shoulder red dress to where it trails on the floor, and down the length of her dangling arm to the castanets and streamers she holds loosely in her hand. Her sensuality spills down the canvas. (“Beauty is no material thing. Beauty is the sensation of pleasure on the mind of the seer.”) A very different reality is evoked in a picture of a female tango dancer — tango was just coming into vogue around 1908, when Henri made the picture. A dimmed spotlight washes down her florid white dress. She stands there as if waiting for the music to start: in her pert straw boater and lacey bodice, she looks ready for any fun that might come along, which is a fair description, I think, of Henri’s attitude as a painter.
Henri favored a quickened, loose, open brushwork. (“The stroke is just like the artist at the time he makes it.”) He sometimes applied raw, unblended pigments to create blunter, starker, pulled-apart emotional effects, though he could also, if the moment moved him, make a tight, methodically structured picture, like that of a dancer he found in Madrid. Done up in a picador costume — skinny pants, emerald green tunic, red tie, and cummerbund — the subject, Eduardo Cansino, stands in fourth position, striking the mannered sexualized posture of male flamenco. There’s more to his story. He later moved to L.A. to work in show business. He fathered Margarita Carmen Cansino, who became Rita Hayworth: the old man made the young girl his dance partner, dolled her up, passed her off as his wife and sexually abused her for years. I must have seen the rat on TV in the ’50s because he appeared in one of my favorite shows, Ramar of the Jungle.
Henri made several portraits of another dancer, 15-year-old Josefa Cruz, all titled La Madrileñita. (She’s the cover girl on the exhibition catalog.) The pictures are a directory of moods — surprised, astonished, candid, secretive. You feel that every portrait is a compounding of ambiguous affections, Josefa’s and Henri’s. I don’t sense any explicit erotic pull between Henri and his models, but there’s no doubt his pictures of women are variations of erotic purpose. In that cover image the rushed, long lines of her fiery red chiffon costume and brunette bob are a realization of something else Henri wrote: “The exterior of the model is not the model.” Josefa is at her most animated; you see her putting on an expression for the artist, a vulnerable, skittish, coquettish reserve. The pictorial conversation between them is loaded. (“Your work will be the statement of what have been your emotions.”) Henri’s enthusiasm for the emotional reality he found at different moments in different models is in a larger sense a realist’s feeling for all of physical reality’s changefulness, and his handling — usually broad and dashing but sometimes astringent, tight, restrained — is itself an acting out of that changefulness, and an instrumenting of it.
Cansino’s picador get-up was one of Henri’s many pictures associated with the corrida. With Velázquez (and de Ribera, after whom Henri modeled his pictures of a grinning street urchin and a charwoman), Goya and Manet were the other pressurizing forces in his practice, and both of them made bullfight pictures. Henri wasn’t interested in the corrida itself but in the manners and forms of its participants. His portraits of them, especially of the matador Felix Asiego, whom the artist befriended, calibrate the degrees of hauteur, self-containment, flamboyance, and physical courage cultivated by bullfighters. In the Asiego picture, he stands full-length, in a smoky, brownish space, dressed cap to slippers in heavily brocaded gold pants and tunic, the visual voltage amped by hundreds of sequins. In that death contest, the matador’s costume was called la traje de luces, the suit of lights.
1450 El Prado, Balboa Park
Spanish Sojourns: Robert Henri and the Spirit of Spain, on view at the San Diego Museum of Art until September 9. 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park. 619-232-7931; sdmart.org