Zorn's Painting ". . . is so damned good"
Reviewed in the United States on 30 November 2013
This catalogue accompanies the exhibition at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco from November 2013 to February 2014 and then at the National Academy Museum in New York from February to May 2014. Although represented in most of our major museums, Zorn has not been particularly well known in this country, even though he was as sought-after and successful here as any of his competitors in the Gilded Age, including John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini. But now, within the space of a year, we have had two major presentations of his work accompanied by two very good catalogues, and we are fortunate that the exhibitions/books complement each other so well. The first, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in early 2013 (see the reviews on this site) focussed on the deep-pocketed patronage of Mrs. Gardner and her extensive social circle, which gave an immediate impetus to Zorn's career from the moment he first set foot on American soil in 1893 and proved invaluable to the advancement of his career for the rest of his life. The relatively narrow concentration of that catalogue allowed it to present a good deal of interesting material of a biographical and social nature, such as contemporary photographs of his models, of other figures involved and of the interiors in which Zorn's paintings were hung and a good (in fact, the first published) selection of Zorn's correspondence with Mrs. Gardner.
There is much less of that in this San Francisco (SF) volume, which, on the other hand, is not circumscribed by its attention to the artist's Boston connections and so is more comprehensive in its reach. It includes, for example, more of the society portraits for which he was so highly sought (and highly compensated) and more of the etchings for which he was less well known but at which he was apparently equally prodigious. These are discussed in a special essay by James A. Ganz, who is Curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts in the San Francisco museums, and who recently curated their wonderful "Rembrandt's Century" exhibition and wrote the accompanying catalogue (see the review). Dr. Ganz's essay is the only one in the SF volume which concerns itself much with aesthetic and technical matters. The other three essays are more biographical or broadly comparative: Johan Cederlund, Director of the Zorn Collections in Sweden, who curated the exhibition, writes a general life-and-works introduction; and there is an essay on Zorn in America and one on the artist in his Nordic context, both by prominent Swedish scholars--these are all completely authoritative (and very smoothly translated from the Swedish) but not very searching in their artistic analysis. In that respect, the Gardner volume does a better job: the essays are by and large more analytical, and each catalogue item receives signed work-specific commentary from one of the exhibition's curators.
The SF volume contains more catalogue entries, and it is also larger in size, so that the reproductions--of which there are eighty-five in full color and in full-page or double-page format--are also larger. (The Gardner has more, and possibly more pertinently chosen, supportive illustrations.) As far as clarity and color of the reproductions go, I think it's a toss-up: the SF portraits seem to pick up more highlights and the silky sheen of fabrics, but the color in the Gardner's landscapes and bathing scenes is truer, and the images seem generally a bit sharper. The Gardner has a better selected bibliography; the SF a more detailed chronology. A previous reviewer advised those who can have only one of these catalogues to go for the SF, but for me the Gardner has a slight edge--not by much--and fortunately it's not a contest. Best of all, of course, would be to have both; it's not as if there were already too much about Anders Zorn in English. If there is more to come, it will be a very fortuitous upshot of these two back-to-back exhibitions and catalogues, which have allowed him to (re-)emerge from an undeserved obscurity and to be recognized as the major artist he is, effortlessly the peer of his better known and more acclaimed colleagues. In any case, we should have more Zorn if only because--to repeat the blunt words of one of his fellow pupils at the Stockholm Art Academy--"It is so damned good" (11).
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