Willem de Kooning
Woman as Landscape, 1954-55
Willem de Kooning’s Woman as Landscape is a tour-de-force of 20th century painting. Executed at the height of the artist’s career, this dramatic canvas belongs to a series of works that radically changed the depiction of the female body. When first exhibited in the 1950s, this shocking departure energized and scandalized the art work in equal measure, yet it also took its place in one of the longest running dialogues in art history as, alongside artist’s such as Botticelli, Titian, Rubens and Ingres, de Kooning tried to encapsulate the definitive female form. Beginning in the 20th century, artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp began to treat the female body in a radically different way, deconstructing the classical notion of beauty and imbuing it with the complexity inherent in the modern view of femininity. The bold and frenetic nature of de Kooning’s brushwork took this investigation one step further, and came to symbolize the dramatic shifts that occurred during the postwar years. Included in the highly acclaimed Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, paintings such as this are now firmly established as part of the 20th century art historical cannon. Other examples form the cornerstones of major international museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. As such, Woman as Landscape is one of the few works from this iconic group of paintings to remain in private hands.
Measuring over five-and-a-half-feet tall, Woman as Landscape is a heroic painting that encompasses the painterly bravado and radical use of color that singled out de Kooning as a leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement. The active surface is comprised of the full range of the artist’s painterly gestures, ranging from broad sweeps of color laid down with the frenetic movement of his brush, to the more controlled interventions made to the surface using the broad edge of a palette knife. Out of this gestural melee, the commanding figure of a woman emerges. Her robust frame expands to fill the picture plane, her largess rendered in passages of flesh colored paint. Expansive lower limbs are formed from the forceful movement of the palette knife that flattens and widens the paint field as it scrapes away previous painterly layers. These substantial limbs support the rest of the figure, which is made up of large planes of expansive color, contained by a series of sweeping, animated lines. The slender angularity of her shoulders are in marked contrast to the substantial nature of these other limbs, and are emphasized by light and dark highlights that caress her silhouette. The other anatomical features of her figure are defined by the rapid movement of the artist’s brush, carving out breasts and other erogenous zones from the central body of the figure. Sitting atop the large body, the head is almost overwhelmed by the anarchy of the artist’s painterly strokes; it consists only of a small oval of pink pigment upon which de Kooning incises two eyes, and angular nose, and the toothy grin that became so synonymous with Woman I, Woman V, and Woman with Bicycle. “[De Kooning] believed ‘all painting is an illusion,’” writes Charles Brock, “and he aspired to create seamless works characterized by exquisite surfaces; the artist Pat Passlof recalled that de Kooning ‘wanted the paint to appear as if it had materialized there magically all at once, as if it were “blown on’” (C. Brock, quoted in B. Robertson, “The Ebsworth Collection: Histories of American Modern Art,” in B. Robertson, ed., Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 83).
What sets Woman as Landscape apart from its peers is, as the title suggests, the landscape. While de Kooning’s earlier women are placed in a chromatically rich backdrop of natural blues and greens, it is only with this work that the artist incorporates the landscape in such a focused way. Here, the blues and greens are positioned so that they more implicitly reference the physical landscape; the verdant green rising up to meet the figure as a high horizon line, the blue of the sky that is positioned in a band along the upper portion of the canvas. Positioned against this horizon in the upper left corner is a form which recalls a majestic tree, or maybe even the windmills of de Kooning’s youth. Yet the artist was also clear that these paintings were not traditional renderings of people in landscapes, they were instead conflating images to combine the energy of both genres into one dynamic composition. “The landscape is in the Woman and there is Woman in the landscapes,” the artist said, “when people say they are not really figures, but they are landscapes, that is true to a certain extent, but they were figures to me. Figures may be in a landscape, figures some place, I don’t know where exactly, not here, not there, but somewhere” (W. de Kooning, quoted in J. Elderfield, de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 281).
This painting marks the point where the landscape begins to reappear in de Kooning’s work, and it would continue to feature in his paintings for the rest of his career. This shift was due, in part, to the increasing amount of time that de Kooning was spending out of New York City in the more bucolic surroundings of Long Island. After the struggles that he experienced in the nascent years of his earlier paintings of women, he had moved out of his dark, dingy and cramped studio on Fourth Avenue, to a more spacious studio on new space on 10th Street. In addition, de Kooning began spending summer weekends in the Hamptons at the invitation of Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend. Staying at their property in East Hampton, both he and Elaine set up studios, with Willem’s being located on the porch. Since he sought out peace and quiet he made a wall to separate his studio from the rest of the house, and “…he refused invitations to join the crowd that went to the beach. Instead, when he was restless, he would bicycle around the area… the summer in East Hampton was probably responsible for giving some of the Women a country air” (M. Stevens & A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 332).
The opening up of his canvas would mark the start of an artistic journey that would continue for the rest of his life. It was a subtle shift from his previous body of work, which had led to his increasing reputation as a radical painter of the female figure. In June 1950, de Kooning would begin work on what became known as Woman I (now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York), a painting that was described as “one of the most disturbing and storied paintings in American Art” (M. Stevens & A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 309). The painting took two and half years to complete, a process that involved months of revision and reworking the canvas until the artist was satisfied. The result was a striking departure from the conventional depictions of women, and critics and the public alike struggled to embrace what they saw as the maniacal flailing of de Kooning’s brushwork. Yet, just months after the painting was completed it was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. “The Committee found the picture quite frightening, but felt that it had intense vitality and liked the quality of the color” (quoted by D. Huisinga, in J. Elderfield, ed., de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 244). Following Woman I, the artist began working on three other related paintings, Woman II, 1952 (MoMA), Woman III, 1952-1953 (Private Collection), Woman IV, 1952-1953 (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). Then two more, Woman V, 1952-1953 (National Gallery of Australia) and Woman with Bicycle, 1952-1953 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Finally, in 1953 he painted Woman VI, 1953 (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh), the final painting in what has now become one of the most iconic series in postwar art.
After a short break, he began working on a series of paintings that conflated the figure and the landscape, with Woman as Landscape being the first example. Whereas his previous Woman paintings had shocked and scandalized, these new “abstract urban landscapes” were well received with ARTnews editor Thomas Hess calling de Kooning “the most influential painter working today” (T. Hess, quoted in J. Elderfield, de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 239). This notion of change, of a shift from the grotesque to the graphic, runs through the very heart of this new series of paintings. Regarding the present work, John Elderfield, curator of the last major de Kooning retrospective, organized by the Museum of Modern Art, enthused, “The big shapes are still there, only smudged and blended into each other across the pictorial rectangle, as if the Woman as a Landscape [sic] came from the pages of Ovid and were undergoing metamorphosis from the human to the vegetable state” (J. Elderfield, de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 239).
Although distinctly ‘modern’ at the time they were painted, de Kooning’s Woman are part of a millennia old artistic tradition. The artist himself once summarized the history of female representations as “the idol, the Venus, the nude” (W. de Kooning, quoted in MoMA Highlights, New York, 2004, p. 206), and with these new paintings he both alludes to and subverts such conventions. Writing in 1956, just after de Kooning painted the present work, the esteemed art historian and director of the National Gallery in London, Kenneth Clark wrote “In the greatest age of painting, the nude inspired the greatest works; and in even when it ceased to be a compulsive subject, it held its position as an academic exercise and a demonstration of mastery” (K. Clarke, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, New York, 1956, p. 3). Dating back more than 25,000 years to the paleolithic Venus of Willendorf (Kunsthistorisches, Vienna), the diminutive limestone statuette of the voluptuous female form, the naked female has been one of the mainstays of art history, and with works such as this, de Kooning radically reinvents this noble tradition.
In his major essay “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form,” Clark argues that the pervading popularity of the female figure within the context of art history is due to one of two things. Firstly, there is the aesthetic—the sheer beauty of the female form, particularly for the male gaze, and secondly, there is the academic tradition in which the ability to draw the human figure was regarded as the minimum requirement for all artists. However, art history has devised a distinction between the naked and nude. “To be naked,” Clark surmises, “is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone” (ibid.). In the 17th century, despite the pervading prudish sensitivities, Velásquez was able to exquisitely portray the sensuous curves of the reclining female figure in The Toilet of Venus (‘Rokeby’ Venus), 1647-1651 (National Gallery, London). However, the romanticized nature of Velásquez’s female nude, with its slender silhouette and porcelain-like skin, stood in stark contrast to the voluptuous flesh painted by Peter Paul Rubens with his more ‘naturalistic’ portrayal of the female figure in such acknowledged masterpieces such as The Three Graces, 1639 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). However, just as there have been artists who have sought to render the perfect female form, there have been others who have sought to deconstruct the female form. From Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), (Philadelphia Museum of Art), the 20th century saw a radical break from the traditional depiction of women to ones where figure and ground conflated into one dynamic surface. As the critic Harold Rosenberg wrote in December 1952, “At a certain moment, the canvas became an arena in which to act…. What was to go on to the canvas was not a picture, it was an event” (H. Rosenberg, quoted in J. Elderfield, de Kooning: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2011, p. 243).
In many ways, the women that de Kooning’s depicted were as modern as the way in which he chose to paint them. He was as intrigued by the changing complexities of womanhood and the often-contradictory nature of femininity in the 20th century. The explosion in popular culture meant that society was being deluged with images of the “perfect woman,” yet de Kooning’s often difficult relationship with the women in his own life left him feeling conflicted. “She could be open-ended and mysterious, from ancient Mesopotamia and also modern Hollywood. She could owe something to Picasso’s women but also reflect the symbolist deities that filled the art of de Kooning’s youth, muses who often abandoned and possessed men. She could be mother and wife, monster and lover, a creature at once earthbound and hallucinatory, grotesque, cruel, monumental, cartoonish, and funny—a contemporary goddess who could possess the viewer, but could not, in turn, be possessed” (M. Stevens & A. Swan, de Kooning: An American Master, New York, 2004, p. 310). The resulting paintings were some of the first to reintroduce the figure back into Abstract art. The impetus for this seismic shift may have been a retrospective exhibition of the work of the French painter Chaim Soutine, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in 1950. De Kooning visited the exhibition and was impressed with not only the non-traditional way in which Soutine depicted his figures, but also the way in which they seemed to probe the “condition” of modern life. It has been inferred that after viewing the French artist’s contorted figures, de Kooning felt he was able to “disappoint” the conventional wisdoms of figure painting.
The importance of Woman as Landscape within the artist’s oeuvre is evidenced in its inclusion in some of the most important exhibitions of de Kooning’s work in both the United States and Europe. First exhibited at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1955, it was selected for a major national retrospective of the artist’s work organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1968, and which later traveled to the Art institute of Chicago, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was also included in the significant Philadelphia Collects exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1986. Curators selected it for the survey of Abstract Expressionism organized the following year by the Albright-Knox Museum, Buffalo, and finally it was selected for inclusion in a major international touring exhibition of the artist’s work that was organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and which later traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Tate in London.
As such, de Kooning’s Woman as Landscape stands as a magnum opus of the artist’s career, an exceptional example of one of the most important and influential series of paintings in the 20th century artistic canon. Across its rich painterly surface, the artist adds his own unique contribution to depictions of the female figure that has engaged artists for millennia. Having been included in one of the most important retrospectives of artist’s work, this painting has been recognized by scholars for its significant contribution to the history of figurative painting as its fluid, abstracted lines proved so groundbreaking at the time of its creation and has ensured its art historical significance today. Within this woman’s voluptuous curves, de Kooning offers a unique, fast-paced, 20th century vision of the female as both power and sensation.