Editor's note: The following texte were rekeyed and reprinted on July 10, 2007 in Resource Library with permission of Eaton Fine Art, Inc. The texte were excerpted from the illustrated catalogue for the exhibition Joseph Stella: Flora held January 8 - March 6, 1998 at Eaton Fine Art, West Palm Beach, FL. If you have questions or comments regarding the texte, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact Eaton Fine Art at either this web address or phone number:
by Timothy A. Eaton
The Flower Paintings of Joseph Stella
by Barbara Rose
by Timothy A. Eaton
In his relentless quest to capture the essential beauty and fathom the exquisite mysteries of the botanical world, Joseph Stella investigated an extraordinary range of styles and media, throughout his entire career, in artworks of astonishing diversity and originality. Joseph Stella was perhaps the most versatile artist among the American Modernists and arguably the most talented draftsman, yet throughout his career he remained singularly engrossed with botanical subjects. The plant kingdom for Stella was commensurate with the kingdom of god: beautiful, mysterious, omnipotent, and never-ending. It was a boundless source, which nurtured his delicate spirit while informing the expression of his raging passions.
This exhibition will present a broad range of the stylistic approaches Stella took in creating floral imagery. From his earliest Cubo-Futurist abstractions to his highly realistic, fine lined and unforgiving, silverpoint drawings, Stella developed his personal vision. With his sweepingly gestural expressionistic paintings, full of phantasmagorical renderings of real and imagined flowers, the cryptic botanical collages and symbolically riddled portraits, he further refined his vision and established a personal iconography in the representation of this most diverse of subjects. Stella examines an enormous breath of flora that includes in this exhibition among others, sunflowers, daffodils, irises, quince, roses, tulips, crotons, palms, ferns, cactus, eucalyptus, citrus, cherries, berries, peppers, sea grapes, aquatic plants and, as if the existent world was too limited, his artistic imagination rendered fictive hybrids. He employed nearly every graphic medium available in his inquiry including pastel, crayon, colored pencil, silver and goldpoints, oil paint, watercolor, ink, graphite, charcoal, collage and mixed media.
With remarkable fluidity and often simultaneously and contradictorily, Stella produced a vast and inventive corpus of floral subjects that expose his ever-shifting aesthetic. In his supple hand, some of the most advanced abstractions metamorphosed into floral motifs, realistic botanical studies functioned as elements in surrealist architectonic paintings, and portraits, laden with floral imagery and rich in metaphorical meaning, reveal the influence of age old artistic traditions. Stella's nocturnes serve as poetic correlatives to the hidden and unknowable secret life of plants and hint at the dark side of his own nature, while his vivid floral studies, ethereal and sublime, endure as icons of the modern world. Though these highly diverse expressions are the product of one hand and one mind, they demonstrate his fevered pursuit to reconcile the profound duality of his character.
All of Joseph Stella's work, and especially his floral subjects, show an artist of supreme talent. However, Stella sought to transcend mere talent through an arduous search for personal and universal meaning. He found it for himself and for us, in works as unique and lovely as flowers.
The Flower Paintings of Joseph Stella
by Barbara Rose
My devout wish: that my every working day might begin and end, as a good omen, with the light, gay painting of a flower.
Joseph Stella, My Painting, 1946
Joseph Stella is a unique and enigmatic figure in the history of American art for many reasons. He left a large quantity of writing about his philosophy of art, but it is hard to decipher and full of arcane or occult allusions. His volatile personality, shaped by two distinct cultures -- his native Italy and his adopted America -- was as contradictory, dualistic and intense as his art. Seized by tumultuous passions, alternatively elated by ecstatic visions and depressed by the baseness of the everyday, Stella searched all his life for peace. serenity, and transcendence of the mundane, the superficial and the ephemeral. He ultimately found both aesthetic and spiritual fulfillment in painting and drawing flowers, both real and imaginary, which became a stabilizing meditative discipline.
Stella's stylistic shifts are as violent and disruptive as his mood swings. The result is what appears to be a disconnected and chaotic evolution from academic realist to Orphic colorist to avant-garde Futurist to Precisionist, Cubist~Realist to experimental Dada collagist to visionary landscape painter. On further examination, however, we find a single thread unites the various episodes of Stella's career: the suggestive and symbolically loaded floral image. Stella preached total independence from any doctrine or school, but he too was shaped by the same forces that formed the other American early modernists. Of the generation born in the late nineteenth century who came of age before World War I, however, Joseph Stella was the single immigrant painter to achieve the originality of the native born Stieglitz circle.
Giuseppe Michele Stella, the artist who would become famous in his adopted country of America as Joseph Stella, was born in 1877, in Muro Lucano, a remote medieval mountain town southeast of Naples. He was the fourth of five sons of the local lawyer, Michele Stella, who saw promising futures for all his bright boys in the professions of the new world. By the time Beppino, as he was known, sailed from Naples for Ellis island in the winter of 1896, Antonio, the eldest brother, who left Muro Lucano two years earlier to set up his medical practice in lower Manhattan's Little Italy, was prepared to welcome the other members of the family.
Don Michele was sure that clever young Beppino could follow in his brother's footsteps. And so the following Fall, the nineteen-year old Joseph Stella dutifully entered medical school in New York City. He seems to have been enrolled for a year, but there is no evidence he actually went to class. Antonio convinced him to try pharmacy next, but Joseph was already committed to realizing his ambition of becoming an artist. Certainly he was gifted with a great natural talent and facility for drawing. Indeed, many of his works on paper could easily be taken for old masters. He started drawing the nude from a model at the Art Students League-having rejected the class in drawing from casts of ancient art, the traditional academic method.[l] He had always hated rules. He sought in art the freedom from convention imposed by the puritanical Catholicism of a bourgeois Southern Italian family.
Even as a youth in Italy, he had proven to be the oddball of the family, the rebel, the renegade. It was said he bit his teacher in grammar school. Later he was a non-conformist who mayor may not have married one or both of the two women who called themselves Mrs. Stella, but he always preferred freedom to responsibility in the typical Bohemian manner. Stella's ambivalence toward women is expressed in his treatment of the floral motif. The depicted floral altar permitted him to worship the female shrine, that if undisguised, as his friend Gaston Lachaise treated it in his late works, could be terrifying. Indeed we may see flowers as the synecdoche for women, the veiled image through which Stella worked out and expressed the deep hostility of European fin~de~siecle thought, brilliantly documented by Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony, toward the emergence of the liberated "new woman".
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