Anders Zorn at the Legion of Honor

I wanted to write a glowing review of the Anders Zorn show at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco now through February 2, 2014. Anders Zorn is considered by many painters to be one of the Big Three of early 20th Century painting (the other two are John Singer Sargent and Joaquin Sorolla). He is not as well known by the public now, but in his day he was quite successful as a portrait painter and painted the portraits of three U. S. presidents.

 

Anders Zorn Self Portrait
Anders Zorn, Self-Portrait in Red, 1915. Oil on canvas. Zornmuseet, Mora. Photograph by Patric Evinger.

In many ways, the paintings are amazing, and this is a rare opportunity for Americans to see them without traveling to Sweden. The watercolors, especially, are tours de force. The paintings, both watercolors and oils, are worth seeing for the brushwork alone. Big brushes that create satin fabric (or homespun) in a stroke. Portraits that capture the personality of the sitter, for good or ill. So I definitely recommend the show to anyone interested in art history during the Gilded Age or in the paintings of a “painter’s painter.”

Zorn is also known for his limited palette, on display in the self-portrait that opens the exhibit: white, yellow ochre, vermilion, and ivory black. The self-portrait also has a dark ochre that might be burnt umber or some other darker earth color. In that palette, the blacks can look blue when placed next to warmer colors. And for the landscapes, Zorn may have also used viridian, but I don’t think so. The green in his landscapes is so odd, I think it, too, must be made with black, though I’m not sure how.

Which brings me to why I cannot whole-heartedly recommend this show to someone who just loves art, and has no interest in the craft or in art history. For ultimately, though most of the paintings are supremely well executed, I cannot love them.

The paintings are just cold*, by which I mean the temperature of the colors, not the emotion he seeks to portray. The paintings are also, for the most part, somehow calculating. Even the nudes, for all their daring (naked women in the landscape!) are a little voyeuristic and prurient.

I think I was reacting to that famous palette. Without blue, the colors somehow seem cold and off. And yellow ochre is a harsh, dull yellow under the best of circumstances. If anything, I was reminded of early Van Gogh, before he went to Paris: all dark and umber and black. A few of the nudes are warmer, as Zorn got the warmth of the day into them. This is just my own opinion, mind, and you are free to disagree with me. But I’m gonna stick with a fuller palette.

Have you seen the Zorn exhibition? What did you think?

*See especially “Man and Boy in Algiers,” a watercolor from 1887. The rendering is perfect. But the skin tones in sunlight are cold. There is almost no warmth at all in that sunny day painting.

 

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