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Charley Toorop, Moral Realist
by Donald Kuspit
The "case" of Charley Toorop (1891-1955) has much in common with that of Jacob Epstein: both began as avant-gardists -- Epstein achieved instant fame with his Vorticist Rock Drill (1913-15), and Toorop grew up with the Symbolism of her famous father, Jan Toorop -- but both came into their own as "moral realists." For both avant-garde art was more a matter of art for the sake of art than art for the sake of life, thus upsetting the moral balance between them necessary for humanly as well as esthetically convincing art. Epstein once said that just because a work of art is deemed avant-garde doesn’t mean it’s inherently good, by which he meant that all the artistic cleverness in the world -- let alone formal purity -- could not "express. . . the great primal facts of man and woman." Similarly, Toorop, who appears as a child in a high chair in a fairytale forest of bizarre forms and enigmatic symbols in her father’s masterpiece, The Young Generation (1892), escaped the surreal forest of forms and symbols by turning to the facts of social life, which had their own kind of primal inevitability.

For both the primacy of art could not be separated from the primacy of the all-too-human: the creative task was to integrate them. It was also a moral task, for it made clear that art had a moral responsibility to human life and that the human condition was an esthetic condition, for it involved imaginative wonder at the givenness of life. Without such imaginative wonder life seemed peculiarly unreal, inconsequential, and banal, and we remain humanly incomplete. For both Epstein and Toorop the task of art was to awaken this wonder -- "realize" it through a primal fact of human life -- "realize" the wonder in the inevitable facts of life, and thus the wonder of our own all too human lives.

Nowhere is the wonder more evident than in the human face, which is undoubtedly why Toorop devoted 18 works to her own face. Whether posing in front of her palette, which hangs on the wall like a heart-shaped aura, as in a 1934 self-portrait; or working on a painting in a 1929 self-portrait, where her three children form a kind of protective wall behind her (no husband, for she was divorced); or wearing a veil in a 1938 self-portrait; or dominating the viewer in many larger-than-life later self-portraits, where her stare is stripped naked, as it were, Toorop’s face always boldly confronts us, her eyes meeting our own in a kind of defiant, self-assertive, morally earnest glance. The reality of her face is wonderfully self-evident, reminding us that we all "face" the world -- that our own faces are just as real, however unaware of them we are as we go about our daily lives, and are taken seriously by other people as the "first step" to knowing us.

Darwin famously argued that there were eight basic facial expressions, each conveying a primal feeling -- contemporary evolutionists have raised the number to at least 12 -- but none of them are quite as urgently serious as the face that appears in Toorop’s self-portraits, nor, for that matter, in her famous portrait of a Clown (1940-41), with its touch of tragic morbidity (all the more intense by reason of its contrast with his colorful outfit) -- and her equally famous portrait of five Farmers (1930), as sturdy and stern as the figures in Frans Hals portraits, but of a different social class. Both works have been interpreted as social statements. The clown, with his clenched hands and powerful presence, is posed against a bleak landscape of urban devastation, evocative of the Nazi invasion and occupation of the Netherlands in World War II. The farmers, with their military formation -- hoe and sickle have become weapons -- rebelliously stride towards us. Clown and farmers have been understood as symbols of the Netherlands, courageously holding its own in adversity -- never surrendering to despair whatever the difficulties of life.

But what is most significant about the portraits is the exquisite esthetic care with which Toorop renders their faces -- an ironic esthetics in view of the cosmetics on the clown’s face, a virtuous esthetics in view of the righteousness of the farmers, but nonetheless a paradoxically pure esthetics by reason of the formal decisiveness of the details. The furrows on their foreheads, their emphatic -- deliberately exaggerated in the case of the clown -- eyebrows, the lines of their lips, etc. have an uncanny autonomous beauty. However seemingly slight, it saves the figures from their own spellbinding seriousness by showing them to be profoundly human. Esthetically nuanced, the natural characteristics become signs of unique character; the typical becomes a sign of atypical individuality.

Throughout her career, and especially in her later years, Toorop painted flowers and still lives, often with a haunting delicacy, which might be misread as sentimentality -- but what is wrong with tender loving feeling for the environment in which we live? -- as in Roses in a Glass (1953) and Still Life with White Pitcher (1954), the year before she died. But for all their vividness, it is her face that fixes itself in one’s memory, perhaps because its stony stare means to turn one into stone. Her painting of the Medusa’s face (1939-41), a sort of death mask, suggests as much, for if the eyes are a revelation of the soul, then the Medusa’s blankly staring eyes (they lacks pupils) suggests that, as an artist, Toorop had a heart as hard, cold, and forbidding as stone, however soft, warm, and cuddly her feeling for nature and the dead objects of still lives. It is a display of intimacy at odds with her coldly staring eyes.

Is Toorop a tough-minded artist, fighting her way to independence -- admirably going her own way in a man’s art world (she pictures it in a 1936-38 group portrait of her male colleagues) increasingly indifferent to her? Or is she another self-absorbed narcissist indifferent to everyone but the viewers of her art, whose astonished glances she catches, turning them into stupefied mirrors reflecting her overwhelming presence and intimidating glance? It would be interesting to know what her children thought of her.

The exhibition of Charley Toorop’s work was held at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Sept. 27, 2008-Jan. 18, 2009.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.