Bergerie exemplifies Joan Mitchell’s style and iconoclastic vision— a striking reminder of why she remains one of the most influential and acclaimed artists of her generation. The painting’s title, Bergerie, corresponds to the name of the villa in Cap d’Antibes where Mitchell lived and worked during the summer of 1961, with her longtime partner, artist Jean Paul Riopelle. Resonances of Cote d’ Azur’s topography inform the painting as splashes of emerald sea, terra cotta tiles and limestone bluffs are atomized into their chromatic elements and reassembled as elements of design. While the present lot articulates the idyllic beauty characteristic of the French Mediterranean, Mitchell’s fierce handling of the paint—punctuated by slashes and spatters of hemal reds—echo the turbulence
in her life at the time.
The painting translates Mitchell’s personal experience of a particular place and time into evocative and concise expressions, employing the painter’s vocabulary of color and form. She once remarked: “My painting is not an allegory, it is not a story. It is more like a poem” (M. Pleynet and R. Marshall, Joan Mitchell: Ivam Centre Julio Gonzalez 11-IX/14-XII-1997, Valencia, 1997, p. 30). This simile appears manifest in every dynamic stroke, molten formation of impasto, and turpentine rivulet. The abundance of texture and color, articulates an encyclopedic breadth of the human experience life with an eloquence and lyricism commensurate with the great works by Walt Whitman, T.S. Elliot and Lord Byron.
La Bergerie (literally French for “sheep pen”) was formerly a barn before it was converted into the palatial summer home that Mitchell and Riopelle rented in the summer of 1961. Mitchell’s palate of mossy greens—veined with sumptuous red and blue accents—evokes the pastoral genre, suggesting a painting by Poussin painting torn to shreds. Bursts of oxblood (or sheep’s blood) temper these arcadian Mediterranean connotations, however, imbuing the painting with baleful undertones that urge the viewer to be mindful not only of the life but also the death of the villa’s former cloven-hoofed inhabitants. The pervasive white of the primed canvas adds to this sense of contradiction, infusing the composition with levity and breath but also apparently conjuring associations to “hospitals,” “death” and “absolute horror” (J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 39).
Scholar Michael Brenson observed that paintings from the period of Bergerie appear “keyed to a zone of conflict”—clusters of pigment seem to “lean on and support each other, but also to push and bristle” (M. Brenson, “Joan Mitchell: The Sixties,” New York Times, 26 April 1985, p. C23). These undercurrents of discord and malaise find corollaries in Mitchell’s personal and professional life at this time as well. Her longstanding relationship with Jean Paul Riopelle has been characterized as amorous and passionate, at its best, and toxic at its worst.
Furthermore, 1961 was a pivotal turning point in the art world—the year that Andy Warhol painted his first Campbell soup can; that Claes Oldenburg opened his storefront selling ‘soft’ sculptures based on consumer goods; and that Roy Lichtenstein painted his comic-book rendition of a girl holding a beach ball. Pop art was heralded as the hot new phenomenon and paintings of the New York School Painting seemed to have been deemed passé practically overnight. The following year, the renowned Sidney Janis Gallery declared its shift in interest from New York School to Pop by staging an exhibition that conjoined French Nouveau Realistes with the new American Pop icons including Lichtenstein, Warhol and Robert Indiana—a decision which prompted Mark Rothko, Philip Guston and Robert Motherwell to sever their ties with the gallery.
Changing popular taste coupled with her relocation to Paris served to attenuate her mass popularity, leading her to jest (perhaps with some bitterness) that she had been “kicked out of the art world.” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell. Lady Painter: A Life, New York, 2011, p. 285). Refusing to capitulate to popular demands or market pressures, Mitchell remained authentic and “undertook a kind of high-wire act without the crowd- continuing to hold herself to the standard of art of the highest intensity, greatest risk, and loftiest ambition” (Ibid). An iconoclast to the end, Mitchell defiantly pursued “visual” painting, holding firm against the rising tide of Pop, as if to declare: “This is what real painting looks like” (Ibid., p. 286).
If Kandinsky is credited with translating the sonic qualities of classical music into painting and Franz Kline with transcribing “cool” jazz in two dimensions, Mitchell’s painting and La Bergerie, in particular, relates the polyphonic richness of nature itself. Through an “arrangement of abrupt and slow rhythms, shrill sounds and still silences, dissonances and harmonies” (J. Bernstock, op. cit., p. 40), Mitchell offers the viewer an immersive synesthetic experience that captivates the eyes and engages the senses. Admiring this monumental canvas—replete with hues of white truffle, viridian and lapis lazuli—one discovers chromatic equivalents to the cypress trees and succulents that blanket the Cap d’Antibes’ coastline, the cacophony of terns and gulls wheeling and feeding in the roaring surf and the sting of sea spray against one’s face.
Bergerie is also the title of a poem, by the same name, written by Pierre De Ronsard—a canonical figure in French Renaissance poetry— deemed the “prince of poets” (B.W. Wells, Pierre De Ronsard, Prince of Poets, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 1, Maryland, Feb. 1893, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27527740 , accessed: 3/11/2015) by his sixteenth century contemporaries. While this linking may be quixotic—given Mitchell’s formative passion for poetry, which provided the basis for titles including Ode to Joy in honor of Frank O’Hara and Hemlock, from a Wallace Stevens verse—the connection is not without plausibility. Ronsard’s Bergerie has been credited with “stretching the descripting mode of pastoral itself” (L. Mackenzie, The Poetry of Place: Lyric, Landscape, and Ideology in Renaissance France, Toronto, 2011, 98), and one could assert the same for Joan Mitchell in the realm of fine art. Ronsard’s “tale of loss followed by Arcadian redemption” (Ibid., p. 97) could aptly serve as a metaphor for the career trials that Mitchell experienced during this period of her life, and certainly masterpieces, like the present lot, testify to such redemption with ineluctable force.
Personifying Mitchell’s unique mixture of “New York swagger and European pastorialism” (P. Albers, op. cit., p. 289), La Bergerie showcases the ferocity, delicacy and radiance that define her oeuvre. It advances an aesthetic that remains as seductive and dynamic as ever before, encapsulating a creative vision that unequivocally belongs to Mitchell, for perhaps no other artist dared to stray so far afield from the flock.