Saturday, January 18, 2014

Vlaminck, Vat 69, and Other Bottles

In past posts I have featured famous artists and how they have incorporated bottles, very often holding ardent spirits, into their paintings.  In the past these have included Andy Warhol (Jan. 2011), George Braque (July 2013), and Tom Wesselmann (Dec. 2013).  To that illustrious number is added the name of Maurice de Vlaminck, shown here.

Vlaminck was born in Paris in April 1876 into a family of musicians.  His father taught him to play the violin.  His ability as a musician and a violin teacher later would give him a living while he struggled as a artist.  He early had an strong interest in painting and began his studies 1893 when he was 17.   But it was a chance meeting with Andre Derain on a train while he was completing Army service that proved decisive.  Upon his discharge in 1900 he and Derain rented a studio together for a time before Derain left for his own military service.  Vlaminck continued to paint and achieved a strong following as a Parisian artist.

With Henri Matisse, Derain and others, Vlaminck was counted among “The Fauves,” in translation “Wild Beasts.”  They earned that title because of their wild strokes of color that exceeded anything in the French Impressionist or Post-Impressionist movements.  Although Vlaminck made his reputation principally with his landscapes,  as with many other artists he also rendered a number of still lives. 

Long before Warhol began to paint whiskey ads,  Vlaminck in 1945 rendered a “Still Life with Whiskey Bottle.”   And not just any whiskey bottle:  A Vat 69 bottle.  Shown here as part of entire painting and isolation,  the Vat 69 container was iconic  in its own right.  In 1882 Scottish Distillery William Sanderson prepared one hundred casks of blended whiskey and hired a panel of experts to taste them.  The batch from the cask (“vat”) 69 was judged to be the best and provided the whiskey brand name.  The bottle was introduced to the market shortly after and left  virtually unchanged for the next hundred years.

Vlaminck not only was familiar with the bottle, and probably its contents, but saw it as a fitting centerpiece for a still life.   Moreover, with the assistance of the Atlier Murlot in Paris a 15-color lithograph was produced in 2,000 copies,  further extending Vlaminck’s audience and, one assumes, the fame of the Vat 69 label, as shown here in a contemporary ad. The differences are negligible.

The artist quite regularly put labeled bottles in his paintings.  In the painting shown above, entitled “Still Life with Pears,”  Vlaminck has provided an array of five containers, one a cone containing pears.  What catches the eye, however, is the bottle on the right side, with a slightly obscured label that appears to say “liquor,”  thus leaving nothing to the imagination.  This still life has a definite “cubist” feel about it.  That itself is somewhat unusual since Vlaminck is known to have rejected that school of painting and blamed Picasso for its surge into popularity.

Vlaminck’s “Still Life with Fruit Basket,” below, features some of the same shapes as the pears piece but here the artistic influence seems much more Cezanne.  Again a bottle graces the scene with the vessels and fruit, which appear to be plums (left) and grapes (right). This time the artist has blurred the lettering on the label leaving us to guess if it hold liquor or wine.  My guess is wine.

The artist’s “Still Life with Bacon,” dominated by browns and reds, is unusual, if not unique among still life paintings, in being centered upon a slab of bacon, a pork belly.   Vlaminck has depicted here a bottle without a label.  An amber container it appears to be empty and a foil for the other objects in the picture, including a pitcher and a bowl with fruit.

The last Vlaminck still life to be featured here is particularly striking.  Two things catch the eye.  First the elegant and delicious looking dessert the left foreground and the deep purple grapes in a wicker basket on the right.   The purple is repeated, though muted, in the pitcher at left and the tall wine bottle further left.   Note that this glass container has a cork in its opening,  signaling that there is still wine to be drunk from it. 

As a dedicated “aficionado” of Vlaminck, I find all of these still lifes to be to my “taste.”  He has done well to present bottles and booze in a elegant fashion.  He also may be the first serious artist to include a recognizable liquor label in a painting.  In so doing he forged a path that subsequent generations of artists have emulated and for which they have achieved acclaim.

Vlaminck continued to paint into his old age.  With time his color use and bold brush strokes became more muted.   His later work displayed a darker palette, leavened by heavy strokes of contrasting white paint.  In October 1958 he died in France at Rueil-la-Gadeliere at the age of 82.   The brand of Scotch whiskey he painted lives on.

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