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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Lasar Segall

Ship of  Emigrants, 1939, Lasar Segall--art emigrants?
All too often, as we think about the world of art both now and in the past, we tend to think of New York and maybe a couple other American cities on this side of the Atlantic, then Paris and London plus maybe another couple cities on the other side. These art hubs are important, but they're not all important. Even though the whole art universe seems top revolve around them, they make up more than one-forth to one-third of that world. Virtually every developed nation in the world has its own art market, its own art culture, its own roster of famous artists both "now and then." So, why is our focus so narrow? I've, no doubt, been as guilty as any of the art myopia. Speaking as a self-confessed guilty party, I think the answer is that it's simply easier to think and write about a limited international art world than one that's all-encompassing. How can you write about today's art world when (among others) you would have to include Portuguese art, Egyptian art, Turkish art, Uruguayan art, Australian art, Chinese art and Brazilian art...such as that of Lasar Segall?
Lasar Segall self-portraits, (left) 1920s?, (top) 1909, (right) 1927.
Man with the Violin, 1909, Lasar Segall
Each country's art is important even if the quantity and quality seems minimal in the larger scheme of things. Simply put, you can't lump all these different nationalities into generalities without making a list of exceptions and conditions so long as to make the whole endeavor senseless. The answer is to delve into each one separately then associate it with its international aspects. Lasar Segall may be considered to have been a top Brazilian artist, but he did not receive his art training in Brazil...he wasn't even born in Brazil. He was born in Vilnius Lithuania on July 21, 1891. He studied art in Germany--Berlin and Dresden. Man with the Violin (left) from 1909 is typical of his student work. He would have been about eighteen at the time. It wasn't until around 1912-13 that Segall first visited Brazil and not until 1923 did he move there permanently to become a naturalize Brazilian citizen. He died there in 1957, so it was only the final thirty-four years of his sixty-six years (only about half his life) that Segal could be called a Brazilian artist. Once you get out into the realm of the "orbiting satellites" of the bi-polar Anglo-European art universe, you find that sort of thing happening all the time. It's little wonder writers and historians, all too often, don't want to deal with it. It's also a reflection of the fact that their readers don't want to either.

The Eternal Wanderers, 1919, Lasar Segall
Segall first went to Brazil because three of his siblings lived there. He didn't stay long. By 1914 he was back in Dresden creating etchings and lithographs for book illustrations. He was still painting in an Expressionist style. In 1919 Segall founded the Dresdner Sezession Gruppe along with Otto Dix, Conrad Felixmüller, Otto Lange and other. Segall's exhibition at the Galery Gurlitt received multiple awards. Yet successful as he was in Europe, Segall had been greatly influenced by his short time in Brazil. The visit began to transform both the style and content of his work. The visit to Brazil left Segall with a strong impression of South American art, causing him to return to Brazil yet again.

The Sickness Room, 1921, Lasar Segall
Dor, Lasar Segall
If Brazil had a lasting influence upon Segall's work, equally important was that of Picasso's Cubism. Segal moved effortlessly from Impressionism to Expressionism (right) to Cubism (above), and finally to a sort of amalgamation of all of these (top). As so often happens when a artists have difficulty making a name, making a living, and carving a niche for themselves in a major art center, rather than compete, he or she moves out to the art hinterlands hoping to go from a "small fish in a big pond" to a "big fish in a small pond." I this case, though Brazil was a big country, it's art world was quite limited. Segall settled right in the middle of it--Sao Paulo. There his work was far more controversial than it had been in Paris, as he concentrated on images attacking prostitution and exploding the rancid night life of Rio de Janeiro's Mangue district (right). Later as Europe erupted in war, Segall turned his attention to similar horrific images depicting a new kind of lethal combat occurring when men and machines unite both to hasten the pace of war and broaden its scope. His War (below), from 1937 is one such image.

War, 1842, Lasar Segall
Pogrom, 1937,  Lasar Segall
Even for artists far removed from actual combat and long past the years vulnerable to active duty, (as was Segall's situation) war has a profound effect on the psyche. The grotesque desecration of human flesh is but one of them. There's also the psychological impact Segall explores in his 1937 Pogrom (left) of the dead and dying civilian victims of world wars. Segall was Jewish. In the years following the war, as Brazil catapulted into the 20th-century, Segal floated to the top of that country's vibrant, but limited art world, concentrating on sculpture as much as painting. His Three Youths (below) dates from 1939, but was not cast in bronze until 2000. After the artist's death in 1957, Segall's home was turned into a museum (bottom) where his work, both painting and sculpture, comes together to form a major chunk of what has become the Brazilian Modern Art.

Three Youths, 1939, Lasar Segall

The Lasar Segall Museum, Sao Paulo, Brazil,
(The brickwork is titled Education by Stone, by Marila Dardot)
Sculpture--Family, Lasar Segall


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