Curated by Bill Berkson
October 16 – November 22, 2003
In this landscape to the southeast of Siena, one does not find the typical lush Tuscan views of vineyard and olive grove. There is no terracing and few fruit trees. The soil here is heavy with clay, suitable for raising sheep, planting wheat and hay or corn and sunflowers along the lower land. It is an intricate, hilly landscape with small scattered woods up and down the slopes. The soil is bone-grey in spots, yellow or yellow-grey in others. In June it gold with wheat; in winter all is green but for the reddish woods. In spring virtually everything is green.
The landscape has changed little since the time of the Lorensetti. Until the 1960's there were no poles or telephone lines. Now farming is mechanized. The "contadini" are townspeople; their houses are bought by foreigners who can afford them. Strict zoning prohibits the building of new housing.
The landscape is remarkable, and perhaps most unique, for its graceful mix of the "natural" and the cultivated. The fields and woods have a complex and compelling relationship. Cypress appear in odd and unexpected places. Italian oak pop up in the middle of a field or atop a hill. Things are allowed to happen by accident. Until now there has been no flattening or bulldozing of slope or field to make the farming easier. Woods are harvested carefully, and they stay where they are.
On any clear day in this southern portion of the province of Siena, one can see the profile of Monte Amiata, a long-extinct volcanic mountain. It is pictured by Sassetta in a panel where St. Francis salutes three airborne female figures (the theological virtues). In Sassetta, as in the other Sienese painters, we see the same gentility and asceticism that one finds in this austere and beautiful place.
by Bill Berkson
George Schneeman's Italian Hours
Over the past forty years or more, George Schneeman's art has comprised portraits of his family and friends on canvas and in portable frescoes on cinder blocks, collages and paintings based on collages, painted ceramics, and countless cover designs and drawings for books of poetry and little magazines. (He has also devoted considerable studio time to hands-on collaborations with poets in various media.) Bracketing these segments of work, and sometimes intercutting among them, have been the Italian landscapes begun during the time Schneeman first lived in Tuscany from 1958 to 1966 and resumed in the 1990s after he started revisiting the Tuscan countryside, having spent the intervening decades solidly in New York. He and his wife Katie now divide their year between apartments on St. Marks Place and in the commune of San Giovanni d'Asso, southeast of Siena.
The recent landscapes are tempera on carefully gessoed plywood panels. Practicalities -- storage and portability, especially -- argue for settling upon a reduced size, without stinting on a picture's energy requirements. Averaging twelve by nine inches, done on location in half-hour sittings, the panels exemplify, Schneeman says, "the struggle between miniature and landscape" -- which links the question of the size at which a landscape painting can register across a room to the thornier one of how in a compact two-dimensional space depth and surface will compare notes so that all that is visible can be both actual and clear.
"Distinct in atmosphere, thin clouds blown by the wind, forms bathed in and defined by light."¹ An allegorist by disposition, Schneeman brings out the characteristic drama of each scene, keeping it from being merely a view or bella vista, and projecting more of what he calls "spatial sentiment." By Tuscan standards, these views are as ordinary as their place names -- Il Moro, Castelletto, Poggio di Val di Rigo, and so on -- are plainly functional. Formed in a fissured slope or where a couple of rumpled, vivid gray and brown rises meet, a crotch of ground fills up lustily with thatched greens. There are subtler moments, as well, mostly little details daubed along the ridges: a dark vertical sliver says "distant cypress;" a cuticle of brick red makes an isolated farmhouse roof. Further off, exquisite incidentals of buildings cluster together amid trees, making some sought-after shade. Still higher, the necessity arises "to invent something in the sky that relates it to the land."
Is spatial sentiment a more far-reaching, iconic version of Cézanne's "little sensation," more keyed to the bigger sweep of what the persistent observer takes in? The answer may be found in the painter's process as Schneeman tells of it:
I don't forget the brushes or the water or the palette or the board to paint. And I have to take advantage of the clear days, because sometimes a haziness will set in for a week or more. We've already had one spell of that: and it's hard to paint clearly when the landscape is clogged. But even now I haven't had those beautiful clouds to work on. Clouds always make it clearer that there's a heaven and earth. And space between them.²
1. John-Pope Hennessey on Sassetta's predella for Madonna of the Snows.
2. George Schneeman, letter to the author, May 24, 2003.
oet and art critic Bill Berkson was born in New York in 1939 and became active in the literary and art worlds in his early twenties. He is the author of 14 books and pamphlets of poetry, including Saturday Night: Poems 1960-61, Shining Leaves, Recent Visitors, Enigma Variations (with drawings by Philip Guston), Blue Is the Hero, Lush Life and most recently, Serenade and Fugue State. His work has been included in many literary journals and anthologies. He is also a Corresponding Editor for Art in Americaand a regular contributor to Artforum, Modern Painters, Art on Paper, American Craft and other magazines. From 1971-78, he was editor-publisher of Big Sky magazine and books. He has received awards and grants for poetry from the Poets Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, the Briarcombe Foundation, and Marin Arts Council, and in 1990 was given an Artspace Award for Art Criticism. In recent years he has also curated exhibitions of individual artists such as George Herriman and Ronald Bladen and of contemporary painting, and served as an adjunct curator for Facing Eden: 100 Years of California Landscape Art at the Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco. He has taught and directed the public lectures program at the San Francisco Art Institute since 1984. He lives in San Francisco.