Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

White House Portraits

George Washington (LansdownPortrait)
1796, Gilbert Stuart
I suppose there isn't an artist amongst us that doesn't aspire to greatness. I'm no exception. Although I paint lots of other things, I consider myself first and foremost a portrait artist. Often a portrait artist is remembered not so much for how he or she paints, but who. And one of the surest marks of a great portrait artist is to be asked to do a portrait of a great a President. As a registered Democrat, I keep hoping to get the call, but so far... I'd be in good company. The first official Presidential portrait of George Washington, was by Gilbert Stuart (right). History has it the stoic, full-length figure was saved by the heroic action of Dolly Madison, who ordered it cut from it's frame as she fled the Executive Mansion only hours before the British burned the place to the ground in 1814. It's not one of his best but then Washington was not exactly the most attractive model to ever stand beyond the easel.

Woodrow Wilson, 1919,
Sir William Orpen

Abraham Lincoln, 1869, G.P.A. Healy

Rembrandt Peale painted Thomas Jefferson (very well I might add). Samuel F.B.  Morse (before turning to telegraphy) did the face of President James Monroe. G.P.A. Healy did the most Presidents, seven in all, his first, John Quincy Adams done in the 1830s, his last, Abraham Lincoln, probably executed in 1869 from photographs (above, left). Except for Lincoln's, they are an unexceptional lot. But then, so were the earlier Presidents who sat for him. Several other names stand out. The genre painter, Eastman Johnson painted Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. None other than John Singer Sargent painted Teddy Roosevelt, and William Merritt Chase painted a very lackluster depiction of the very lackluster James Buchanan. One of the most striking is of President Woodrow Wilson (above, right) by the English artist, Sir William Orpen (the only non-American). Painted apparently very rapidly during one of Wilson's many trips abroad after the war, it has the fresh, spontaneous appeal of an unfinished oil sketch, and stands apart from the generally heavy, overburdened attempts of President painters before and since.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1949,
Douglas Chandor
Quite apart from its dozens of Presidential portraits of varying merit, the White House is also home to perhaps the greatest collection of American painting to be displayed under one roof in the U.S. From portraits of native Americans painted by Charles Bird King to American impressionist works by Maurice Prendergast and Childe Hassam, the collection would be the pride of any museum in America. There are works by Whistler, Cassatt, a seascape by Fitz Hugh Lane (I like to think he's a distant ancestor), also Asher B. Durand, Robert Henri, and Thomas Eakins. Although it seems ages ago now, I've toured the White House two or three times over the years, and in recalling the art, none made a greater impression on me than a portrait by Douglas Chandor. It wasn't a Presidential portrait at all, but that of one of our greatest First Ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt (left). It struck me as unique in that the upper two-thirds of the portrait is an engaging vignette of Mrs. Roosevelt, pencil in hand, seemingly about to make a notation in one of the many voluminous journals she was known to keep. The work is rendered on a toned canvas, the bottom third of which is filled with a number of painted, monochromatic sketches depicting the marvelously expressive hands and face of perhaps the greatest woman to ever rule the White House. Whenever I begin a painted portrait, this ideal never ceases to flash momentarily before my eyes.
John F. Kennedy, 1970,
Aaron Shikler
Jacqueline Kennedy,
1969, Aaron Shikler,
is most famous among
 living White House artists.
He's 89 years of age.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Popular Versus the Uncommon

The Haarlem Painters Guild, 1675, Jan de Bray, second from left, seem perplexed,
perhaps about many of the the same market elements which distress artists today.

Gypsy Girl, 1628-30 Frans Hals
When artists complain about the present art market in which we all either sink, swim, or at least tread water, the complaints cover a whole range of so-called "problems." From cheap reproductions masquerading as investment quality art to copycat, assembly line "original" oil paintings imported from second world countries at so much per square yard in which the retailer makes more from the sale of a grandiose, gold leaf (really bronze leaf) frame than from the painting; the list of gripes is nearly endless. Of course, one man's problem is another man's opportunity. We lament the fact that the "good" art we laboriously turn out in our eight by ten studios cannot be differentiated by buyers from "bad" art with million-dollar marketing machines behind it. If it will make you feel any better, artists have fought these problems, or similar ones, ever since the model for our current art market developed in seventeenth century Holland. Hals (above, left), Vermeer (below, right), and Rembrandt all had largely the same complaints we do, and suffered many of the same economic indignities.

The Milk Maid, 1658-60, Jan Vermeer:
genre was in.
To understand their plight, one has to understand the Dutch art market of the time. Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is to note the traditional market elements that were absent. First of all, in Calvinist Holland, the churches were all largely unadorned and the clergy intended that they should stay that way. There was virtually no religious patronage. Some religious painting was done, but not for the church. Second, there was no monarchy. Holland was one of the earliest European democracies. And likewise, there was no hereditary aristocracy to commission massive painted works of art. Yet, in spite of this, there was great bourgeois wealth; and wherever there is that, there is also an abounding art market. Perhaps just as interesting as the forces absent from this market were the subjects also absent. There was little or no demand for mythology. History paintings was out, pretty flowers were in. Huge fresco murals were out, modest living room art was in. Stuffy, individual portraits were out, stuffy group portraits (as seen at top) were in. Genre was in (below), landscapes were in, still-lifes were in, while paintings of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers plying their trade were out.

The Young Bull, 1647, Paulus Potter: animals
competed with their owners for canvas space.
If an artist could work within those constraints he (and sometimes she) could paint and sell for a reasonable price about everything they could produce; and hundreds did just that. Never before in the history of painting was there so much good art and so little great art. Moreover, those who did produce great art did so at their own risk, and often at considerable loss. This was especially true of Hals and Vermeer. And while Rembrandt was immensely popular for a decade or two near the start of his career, in his declining years, he too suffered for his efforts to move beyond that which was so popular to that which was uncommon. Therefore, as we grouse about the inequities, the outrageous, the fraud, deceit, and execrable poor taste that seems to be the driving force in today's art market, keep in mind that those elements literally "come with the territory" and though we can try to change things, and cry because we can't, few of us would want to go back to medieval or even the Renaissance times and the crushing creative restraints dictated by the religious and political forces which drove that market.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Plein Air Impressionism

When people talk about "en plein air" painting (French for outdoor painting), there often arises some confusion regarding Impressionism and painting on location. Many people consider them one and the same. Part of the confusion stems from the narrow perception that Impressionism has only to do with landscape painting. Though Impressionism is most associated with landscapes, it took the early impressionists only a short time to begin seeing other painting content from an impressionistic mindset; and to begin applying the style to other subject matter; to the point that very quickly, nearly all subjects were "fair game." In fact much of the impressionist revolution was merely a continuation of Realism's earlier efforts toward the broadening of subject matter from the narrow precepts of the French academy to common, everyday people, scenes, and subjects.

Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Claude Monet:
not the first Impressionist painting, but the one
which gave the movement its name.
It's little wonder people are confused relative to the terms Impressionism and "plein air." While it's true that Impressionism evolved out of plein air painting, the act of painting out-of-doors goes back well before Monet's Impression, Sunrise, at least as far back as the Barbizon school in the mid 1850s.  (Barbizon is a small French town in the Fountainbleu Forrest). Now, having said that, plein air painting could, I suppose, be almost any style, though Impressionism, with its quick renderings (sketches in oils) especially lends itself to this method of painting on location. There are purists would insist that all Impressionist paintings be started and, most of all,  finished out-of-doors. But that was often not the case then and is seldom the case now. One reason for this was that in its "heyday," the Impressionists were still feeling their way--learning. Such learning could only be done out-of-doors. But now, the precepts of divided brush strokes, eye-blending of colors, prismatic, perceptual color, atmospheric renderings, aerial perspective, and so on, are all pretty academic and well-understood by those interested in this style of painting.

Gare Saint Lazare, 1877, Claude Monet:
impressions of light, steam, smoke, and iron.
So, must all Impressionism be painted "en plein air?"  The answer to that is a somewhat qualified, no.  The qualification of that negative response is that, in trying to capture momentary light, Impressionism is probably easier and better when done on location, though I suppose one could paint an Impressionist scene through a window (which Monet, among others, did). And, I suppose, a really experienced Impressionist could work from photos (a stretch) or memory, perhaps even imagination, though by the time you reach that far you are risking a transition into Expressionism. As usual, when it comes to lines dividing one "ism" from another, they often get rather blurry when you go bending the customary "rules." But again, keep in mind, Impressionism is not and was not limited to landscapes. Subjects such as figures, still-lifes, portraits, and flowers, to name just a few, were also painted using an Impressionist style; and while some these undoubtedly were painted "en plein air," it's likely the majority were not.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Pierre Matisse

The Painter's Family, ca. 1915, Henri Matisse.
Pierre Matisse is the boy on the right.
We could almost say unequivocally that one of the prerequisites of being an artist is also being what we call a "pack rat." Of course, usually no one but the immediate family and a few friends are aware of this until the artist dies. Then it all gets sold at auction, goes to an heir's attic, or is bundled off to a museum. I shudder to think of what others will think of some of the stuff I've collected over the years, and I'm not even the real pack rat in the family, my son is. Yet I have a huge bag full of patch cords. I have (and use) no less than four glass paperweights. Our attic is full of old computer equipment that may or may not still work, which I can't bear to throw away. And to me there seems something slightly sacrilegious about discarding old Christmas decorations. But that's minor league compared to some artists. In 1989, Pierre Matisse, yes, Henri's son, a New York art dealer, died and left 219 cartons of pack rat material to the J. Pierpont Morgan Library. It took ten years to inventory the stuff. Wouldn't you like to get your hands on some of that?!

The Matisse family on horseback. Pierre is
second from left. His father, Henri, is to his right.
There was found, for instance, a hand-drawn Christmas card from Joan Miro mixed in with pencil sketches by Alexander Calder of some of his mobiles. For sixty years Pierre Matisse used his family connections to collect, market, and promote the work of artists such as Calder, Alberto Giacometti, Miro, Jean Dubuffet and Marc Chagall. He knew them all, in most cases before they were known by the rest of the world. He brought modern art to an American public that wasn't all too sure, at the time, the whole thing wasn't just a gigantic, international scam of some sort. And in doing so, it wouldn't be too risky to say that he may have been responsible for shaping what we now know as modern art as much or more than his famous father. For most of his career, on both sides of the Atlantic, he was simply the most important art dealer in the world.

Pierre Matisse, 1980
Pierre was born in Paris in 1900 at a time when his father's star  was just starting to soar. He came to New York in the 1920s and opened his own gallery on East 57th Street in 1931. He chose his artists carefully and stuck by them even when the public hated their work.  He had a reserved, formal quality, and his gallery reflected this aspect of his personality. His son, Paul, 77, now a sculptor, recalls the gallery as being quietly elegant, and initially at least, not particularly profitable--"It was like walking into a small museum." His father referred to it as like publishing poetry. His name gave him clout in the art world, but he was always careful never to overplay this advantage. Eventually, as his artists became fixtures on the contemporary art scene, he, along with them, became quite wealthy. Paul remembers his grandfather too, and recalls that during his lifetime, he always held his son in the highest regard, even if he was as art dealer.
Musical Fence, Paul Matisse. The hollow tubes play a melody
as one passes by with stick in hand.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Photographic Influences

Today we take them for granted, but it could easily be said that their invention changed art forever--three things--the invention of paper, oil paints, and the camera. Paper made art portable. Oil paints made it easier. And the camera taught artists how to see. The advantages of paper and oil paints are too obvious to dwell upon, but the effects upon art of the camera, and later photography, are not so often considered. Even before artists and scientists began taking pictures, the camera obscura spurred the development of the rules of perspective. About four centuries later, as photographic chemistry developed, the pace of change affected by the camera picked up. Art historians argue about it, buy many think that the first impact of photographic prints was as a theoretical force behind the development of impressionism. If a camera could capture an instant, fuzzy impression of a scene, why couldn't an artist?

Tropical Blossom by Paul Klee demonstrates
the influence of photomicrography
As film speeds improved, first came chronophotography, what we might call time-lapse photography today, the study of movement in man and animals. They influenced Futurist and Cubist painting in the first decades of the twentieth century. Then came photomicrography which opened up a whole new world smaller than had ever been seen before. Such photos were to influence Paul Klee in his studies of naturalistic abstraction. Not to be confused with photomicrography was microphotography, making small photos of BIG stuff. Presumably, no artist had good enough eyesight to adapt this development to painting, or perhaps they'd thrown away all their old brushes with only one hair left. Whatever the case, artists and photographers instead concentrated on regular size pictures of BIG the moon, shot through a telescope, or the city of Paris, shot by the photographer Nadar from a hot air balloon.

Aerial photography appears not unlike the work
of Piet Mondrian from the early 1900s
Tableau No. 2 Composition V, 1908-10
Aerial photos are believed to have influenced Piet Mondrian as he charted wide lines and colored rectangles not unlike the roads and fields of tulips in his native Holland as seen from the air. Photography found a place in medicine, probably putting out of work hundreds of medical illustrators, though it was to make work considerably easier for the few dozen or so who were left. And as exposure times became shorter and shorter (as little as 1/720 of a second) artists and scientists were able to study the structure of movement in a single image, in real time, much slower, or much faster. The studies of Etienne-Jules Marey around 1900 of movement physiology are said to have been the source of inspiration for Marcel Duchamp as he produced his Nude Descending a Staircase. And did you know, he did two versions. Maybe, like another camera artist, George Lucas, he had in mind a trilogy and never got around to the third one. Or, perhaps he visualized a prequel, "Nude Ascending a Staircase."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Philip Pearlstein

Philip Pearlstein nearing 88 years of age
Very few of us have ever met one. We encounter, from time to time, what passes today as an art critic, but usually they're little more than just news gatherers who happen to be assigned to cover an artist or some art happening, rather than true critics in the time-honored sense of the word. Often times, the job passes to some society columnist of a newspaper who may know far less about art than the person laying out his or her column in the composing room. Which is fine with the artists being covered because it puts them in a position of strength, and relegates the writer to that of PR person so intimidated by the whole area of art criticism they wouldn't, indeed couldn't, write anything truly critical if their wine and cheese depended on it. On the theory that all publicity is good publicity, this is good for the arts in general, but bad for artists in that it deprives them of valuable, enlightened, responsible input as to the validity and efficacy of what they're trying to do. Except for an occasional Chris Ofili blowup, in simple terms, art is now so complex or so bland that no one cares enough about it anymore to read the esoteric prose these experts would churn out.  So instead the task often falls to the hapless court reporter or obituary editor having a slow day.

Two Female Models in Studio, 1967,
Philip Pearlstein 
It wasn't always so. Back one hundred years ago, indeed, a little as fifty years ago, art criticism mattered. It could make or break the career of a young aspiring artist. Art critics were highly opinionated people, sometimes with an ax to grind, but who, nonetheless could and would speak their minds. However, on rare occasions, an artist would come along and, so to speak, stump the experts. Philip Pearlstein was one such artist. So accustomed were critics of the late 1950s and early 60s to Abstract Expressionism that when confronted by the strikingly unglamorous naked figures in Pearlstein's work, they hadn't the thoughts, much less the words to express their dismay. Here was a valid traditional style of painting, Realism (or naturalism), and an equally valid traditional subject matter that was so far out of the mainstream at the time as to be totally alien to what had become traditional ways of thinking about art. There was no action, no emotion, no outrage, no formal art theory for them to sink their venomous teeth into. There was just...nakedness, photographically composed, photographically based, often photographically lit and colored. How does one criticize something so traditional, yet untraditional at the same time?

Two Female Nudes with Red Drape, 1970,
Philip Pearlstein
Philip Pearlstein was born in 1924. He studied at Carnegie and NYU. Disillusioned with the overcrowded New York School, he fell under the influence of fellow Pittsburgh artist Andy Warhol and began doing to naked bodies what Warhol was doing to soup cans--exposing them in the most mundane manner imaginable. Pearlstein's nudes didn't appear posed, but rather waiting to pose. Two Female Nudes with Red Drape (right), from 1970 is an unsexy perfect example. The color modulations of the flesh are creamy and rich in the Italian tradition born of Pearlstein's studies in Italy during the late 1950s. But Michelangelo and Titian would have cringed at what their art had wrought in the hands of this American realist. Grace and elegance had been replaced by raw, cold-blooded, honest depiction so blatantly real one might sniff for body odor. Heads were often cropped out. Faced with a movement peopled with artists such as Pearlstein, Chuck Close, Richard Estes, and even an old school artists such as Andrew Wyeth, critics had to learn a whole "new" lexicon, a whole "new" way of viewing and thinking about this old art on new canvases. They rose to the occasion, but not without wondering if such straightforward art might mean their days of significant influence were numbered. It would seem now they had good cause to worry.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Santa Claus

Scenes from the Legend of St. Nicholas,
1332, Ambrogio Lorenzetti
Though we seldom think about it, it's altogether gratifying to realize that every single Christmas icon, with the possible exception of the star of Bethlehem, originated first in the mind of an artist. Even our visualization of the nativity, though from the Bible, is largely based upon the work of early painters. Our Christmas card scenes today are merely derivative of their work. Near the bottom of this iconographic hierarchy we find the lumpy little snowmen, elves, cute little polar bear cubs, candy canes, silver bells, poinsettia, pine wreaths, ornaments, even the angels atop our Christmas trees. All of these were either first created by artists, or illustrated by them as a result of having been adopted and adapted to the season by man in his eternal search for symbolic references to the unfathomable grace of God's gift of his son to the human race.

Santa Claus ala Thomas Nast, 1881
Somewhere in the middle of this iconographic melange is the image perhaps most universally associated with Christmas. Though this image keeps getting updated almost yearly as the season rolls around, its roots in painting go back to around 1300 when Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted his Scenes from the Legend of St. Nicholas. Even then the figure was bearded and wore red. The Dutch embellished the image and persona of the man, as did nearly every other country in Europe at one time or another. But it was left to the American cartoonist, Thomas Nast (right), to bring the character to life in something approaching the image we have of him today. If you say Saint Nicholas fast enough it very easily becomes Santa Claus. In the modern era, from the late forties through the nineteen-sixties this image was polished and modernized even more by an unlikely group of artist and illustrators working for the Coca Cola Company (below, right).

Santa Claus ala Coca Cola and the 1930s.
He gave up smoking for Coke.
He is idolized by children, propitiated by adults, commercialized by retailers, and in the last few decades, even come under a certain amount of scorn by organized religion, which, while acknowledging his religious roots, has become somewhat apprehensive about the power this symbol of giving has assumed (his persona in the song, Here Comes Santa Claus comes very close to that of God). Some years ago I received an e-mail from my minister, no less, a clever, humorous dissertation on the scientific impossibility of Santa Claus which concluded that the man, if indeed he ever existed, was in fact, dead.  As an artist, I like to think that this pronouncement is to be taken with the same grain of salt as a similar allegation many years ago on the part of Friedrich Nietche regarding God.
Not only Coca Cola, but hundreds of other advertisers, and the movies,
not to mention New York's Macy's Department Stores, have all had a hand in
shaping our modern image of St. Nicholas.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Peter Max

Expo74 Commorative Stamp, 1974, Peter Max,
typical of his early style

Every generation has at least one artist that so squarely identifies the hopes, thrills, fears, and images of their chronological group that his work becomes practically synonymous with their lives and times.  For our grandparents, it was probably Maxfield Parrish. For our parents generation, maybe Norman Rockwell. For the baby-boom generation, there is no doubt, it would be Peter Max.  Though technically not a baby boomer himself (he was born in 1937), he and his work came of age at a time when beads, bell-bottoms, black lights, Yellow Submarines, and  flowery Volkswagen mini-buses were the props for a culture escaping the mundane 50's for the sweet, smokey 60's only to find their countercultural Shangri-La go up in the smoke of war and war protests. For a time, Peter Max seemed to be everywhere, album covers, posters, magazine covers, movies, television--though not technically a Pop artists, he was still the hottest art happening in the Pop world of the 60s and 70s.

Barrak Obama, 2009, a  Peter Max Warhol-like portrait today
If you're thinking Peter Max was a small-town American boy growing up to Saturday morning cartoons, Flash Gordon, Marvel comic books, Elvis Presley, and Rock 'n Roll, you'd be so wrong you'd be clear off the charts. He had the misfortune to be born in Berlin just as Hitler was starting to bare his teeth. When he was a year old, his parents fled Germany for the relative peace of Shanghai, China where they lived in a pagoda-style house sandwiched between a Buddhist monastery and a Sikh temple next door to a Vietnamese Restaurant. His family's idea of a fun vacation was a motor trip clear across China to a Tibetan mountain camp 9,000 feet up in the Himalayas, except that it was cut short when word came that Mao Tse-Tung was about to pay a visit to their hometown. Hurrying home, they packed up what they could, loaded everything on a ship bound for the fledgling state of Israel, only to find their way blocked by yet another war in the Suez region, forcing them to detour around Africa.

Peter Max in Las Vegas
In 1953, Peter's family landed in the USA. By the age of sixteen he knew he wanted to be an artist, and after high school, he began his studies at New York's Art Student's League. After college, he moved into the graphic design world, blending European and oriental influences from his youth with the dynamic realism, glamour photography, and commercial art swirling all about him. Photographers such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn influenced him as he and they helped invent the psychedelic art era of the 1960's. But as much as the cosmic, transcendental, pop culture catapulted him to fame, he has also proven himself able to move beyond that, his celebrity, money, and iconographic artistic stature allowing him the luxury to retreat into painting and to experiment with a dozen other art mediums at which he has become equally successful. From celebrating the fall of Communism by carving a dove from a 7,000 pound chunk of the Berlin Wall, to painting for six presidents (above, right), today Max seems to be everywhere at once. He has been the official artist for the Super Bowl, the World Cup USA, the US Tennis Open, the NHL All-star Game, the Grammys, the 25th Anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz Festival, the Woodstock Music Festival, and an entire generation of Americans as hyperactive as he is.
From painting pictures to painting the real thing, a Peter Max Continental Air Line 777
gives the appearance of having flown headlong into a wet painting.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Painting with Light

Self-Portrait Aerograph, Man Ray
Everyone likes to grow as an individual. And as artists, it's practically demanded of us. But I wonder how often any of us have stumbled into a new medium which turned us totally around and pointed us in a new direction with our art. That's what happened in 1915 when painter, Emmanual Radnitsky, purchased a camera to photograph his work. He was twenty-five years old, about the same age as modern photography at the time. And, though he never quite gave up traditional painting, more and more he became known by the title the poet, Jean Cocteau, called him, "The artist who paints with light." At a time when anyone serious about photography had to develop his or her own work, Radnitsky discovered he could create exciting "paintings" by simply manipulating with various objects the light striking a sheet of photographic paper (which required very long exposures at the time). He called them "rayographs" which was not only technically accurate but also a clever pun utilizing his newly adopted name--Man Ray.

Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her
Shadows, 1917, Man Ray
Today, the "rayograph" is more often called an aerograph. It's a neat little trick commonly done in high school photography classes (before darkrooms became obsolete), but in 1917, it was both cutting edge painting and photography, erasing forever the line between the two. Man Ray's most famous painting is a nearly abstract, The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows which he also recreated using aerography. As a painter/photographer, he had the best of both worlds, creating equally exciting work with or without a camera. He was already successful as a painter with his first one-man show in 1915 where he sold six paintings for some $2,000 to a single collector. He was also a fixture at the weekly soirees of the Arensbergs in New York where he met all the important American painters of his time including Charles Demuth, Georges Bellows, Joseph Stella and the French expatriate, Marcel Duchamp (then living in New York to escape the war). Duchamp introduced him to the current art rage, Dada, and after the war, persuaded him to move back to Paris with him where he became an important leader in the Surrealist movement.

Aerograph Nudes, 1919, Man Ray
Ray spent the next twenty years of his life there, not so much painting as creating. He loved shocking the artistic sensibilities of Parisian cafe society with his outrageous forays into surrealist sculpture. Today, his flat iron with nails welded to its bottom is a classic illustration of surrealist sculpture--a familiar object whose purpose is deliberately negated by the artist. Forced to return to New York by the Second World War, Man Ray found himself more in vogue as a photographer than a painter. In fact he found his work IN Vogue (the magazine), as a fashion photographer while in his spare time, he was also experimenting with yet another photographic medium--motion pictures. His first movie, The Return to Reason which he made in Paris in 1922, while not a commercial success, certainly broadened the medium, allowing him to explore movement, coupled with painted light and sculpture. Being interested in movie making caused him to gravitate toward the West-coast for a time in the late 40s before returning to his beloved Paris where lived until his death in 1976. He was 86.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Painting by the Square Foot

As painters, we often go our merry way churning out dozens of modest size easel paintings--portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, abstracts--congratulating ourselves, patting ourselves on the back for a job well-done, reasonably satisfied by our artistic efforts, sales, and critical acclaim. If we challenge ourselves, we usually do so in terms of technique, or color, or subject matter. And except for a few abstractionist among us who sometimes let the dimensions of their paintings get a little out of hand, most of us never challenge ourselves in terms of size. How many of you ever completed a painting over a hundred square feet?  I figured as much. Neither have I. I'd like to sometime though, before I get too old to climb the scaffolding.

Cubist Self-Portrait, 1913-17, Diego Rivera
Mural painting brings to mind the geniuses of the Renaissance. On this side of the ocean it brings to mind (first at least) the inimitable Mr. Diego Rivera. Born in 1886, Rivera was a contemporary of Picasso and Matisse, except that he was born on the wrong continent, Guanajuato, Mexico. He began by studying sculpture at the academy of Jose Guadalupe Posada in Mexico City before winning a four-year scholarship which took him to Spain. There he studied with Eduardo Chicharro, a realist painter. However it also served to introduce him to Picasso and Cubism. Both influences stuck. He also picked up a little Ingres, some Cezanne, and a generous helping of Renaissance murals to season the mix.

Alegory of California,
Diego Rivera
In returning to Mexico, Rivera began to emulate the Renaissance masters decorating churches. Eventually, he managed to acquire a government position in the arts allowing him to do his large-scale best all over the country, mostly for the Department of Education. Briefly he served as director of the Academy of San Carlos but was soon booted from that position when his ideas of what an art curriculum should look like turned out too be a little to radical for that institution. It was just as well.  The freedom allowed him to marry fellow-artist Frida Kahlo (who often appeared in his creations as seen in the bottom mural) and pursue more lucrative commissions north of the border during the 1930s, first in San Francisco, where he left behind An Allegory of California (left) for the stock exchange there, then to even more prestigious commissions in Detroit for Henry Ford, and New York for the Rockefellers. He died in 1957 at the age of 71, celebrated as Mexico's greatest artist, and the distinction of probably having covered more square feet with painted images than any artist since Michelangelo.

Pan American Unity Mural, 1940, Diego Rivera, San Francisco Community College,
features his wife (they married twice), Frida Kahlo, holding the palette.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Painter's Legacy

None of us is going to live forever. Sooner or later we become too old to paint. Eventually we die. Depressing isn't it? What we leave behind as artists is our legacy. And if we are strong enough as artists, we may even leave behind a living legacy--followers so impressed and enamored with our work they pursue the path their mentors might have taken had we lived. Artists such as Leonardo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, and others have been so honored in that their styles have lived on after them. Some, such as Rembrandt and Rubens, practically guaranteed this by nurturing during their lifetimes, a large school or workshop of apprentices who were deftly trained to emulate the master in all things artistic. Others, such as Leonardo and Caravaggio had followers based solely upon their own stature as artists and the power of the images they painted while alive. Yet another artist of similar stature, totally without intending to, left behind a similar living legacy as a painter even though he considered himself primarily a sculptor, designer, and architect. His name is practically synonymous with art--Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Virgin and Child with Saint John and
Angels (Manchester Madonna), 1497,
Michelangelo Buonarroti
The man lived to be 89 years old. If not immortal, he at least seemed that way to those around him, having outlived practically all his friends and most of his enemies at the time. During his lifetime, he worked for no less than seven different popes. And being Michelangelo, he was notorious for having several projects going at one time. He seems to have considered his own death to be highly unlikely. Although he left perhaps a half-dozen unfinished sculptures it was his unfinished painting projects that seem to have inspired later artists. Perhaps sixteenth century sculptors were too overwhelmed by his work, (or too inept) to attempt to copy or pursue his sculpting style. But even during his lifetime, artists as well-known as Raphael, and unknown as Marchello Venusti were already copying his painting style. Its possible, inasmuch as Michelangelo preferred sculpture to painting, they simply filled the void Michelangelo left in his wake.

The Entombment, 1500-01,
Michelangelo Buonarroti
Two unfinished paintings are interesting to inspect. One, known as the Manchester Madonna (above, right), is quite early, begun when Michelangelo was about 22 years old. In it, Christ (as a young child) indicates a passage in a book held by his mother involving his future sacrifice. The right side of the painting (the angels) is largely finished as are the central figures of Christ and his mother (except for her hair). The figures on the left are barely roughed in. A second unfinished painting is titled The Entombment (left) and was begun around 1500. It is unique in that it is probably the only totally nude depiction of Christ in existence. Christ appears among four female figures supported by a man presumed to be Joseph of Aramithea. All six of the main figures are largely complete though a foreground space is bare indicating a seventh figure was planned. After 1530 a number of unknown or little-known artists did paintings based upon Michelangelo's drawings. Subjects were as varied as Leda and the Swan, a Holy Family, and The Purification of the Temple, which is said to have influenced El Greco's Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple painted in 1600, just 36 years after Michelangelo's death. It's ironic indeed that Michelangelo's meager legacy of  painting had many more followers than did that of his sculpture.
Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple, ca. 1600, El Greco

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Painted Terracotta

There seems to be no end to the list of things upon which artists have chosen to paint. Wooden panels gave way to stretched canvases, which have become the norm, but before that and in modern times the choices artists have made as the holding surface for their paints have been rather mind-boggling. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Miniatures have been painted on surfaces as small as a pea and murals on surfaces as large as entire buildings. Starving artists have been known to paint on burlap, cardboard, window blinds and flat rocks. The wealthy have used gold and silver. I once painted on two layers of bed sheets gessoed together. One layer seemed too thin so while it was still wet I stretched a second over the first and re-gessoed it. Actually it was a pretty nice surface. I once nailed burlap over the back of a picture frame and carefully gessoed the front. Look Mom, no stretchers!

Christ and Mary Magdalene, 1510-1515,
Giovanni della Robbia, Giovanni Francesco Rustici
Around 1510, the Florentine painter Giovanni della Robbia teamed up with the sculptor Giovanni Francesco Rustici to paint on clay. Rustici crafted large, terracotta panels in sections much like a jigsaw puzzle. Once they were leathery, the back of each panel was carved out to lighten the weight, then they were allowed to air dry. When bone dry, they were carefully fired in a wood kiln. Once removed and cooled, they were turned over to the painter who applied special mineral pigments carefully chosen to withstand the intense heat of a second, glaze firing. The palette was limited--blue, yellow, purple, and green. Once the painting was done, a transparent glaze was applied over the work and it was refired. The results were often quite spectacular--low-relief paintings marrying the best efforts of the sculptor and the painter that, though fragile, could often withstand the ravages of time, fire, and water better than any other surface.

Lamentation, 1480-1520, Guido Mazzoni
These two artist's collaborated to create Christ and Mary Magdalene (above), a large work consisting of over 30 terracotta pieces mounted as an altarpiece. Conceived in two parts, the lower section is a highly detailed and sculpturally realistic confrontation between the two figures in the garden. It is unique because the figures and background were white and only the sky is actually painted because of the fact that it was done in a golden yellow. (Later works by the two artists were much more colorful presentations.) The upper part, a semicircular arch depicts God, holding a book, flanked by a couple putti. Earlier, around 1480-1520, another artist, Guido Mazzoni, sculpted and painted a freestanding group of terracotta figures for San Giovanni Battista, in Modena, Italy. His grouping of seven mourners around the dead Christ who lies out on the ground before them, at first glance, looks like something from a modern-day wax museum. His Lamentation (above, right) is like a frozen moment from a medieval religious drama--striking in its realism, startling in it's emotional impact.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Original Sculpture Garden

Crown Hill Cemetary Gate, Indianapolis, Indiana
When one wants to see great art from the past, the natural inclination is to visit some big metropolitan art museum. Each major city in the U.S. seems to have one. Some, of course are bigger and better than others, and all have their different strengths and weaknesses. One of the weaknesses of most major art museums is their sculpture collections, especially work from previous centuries. Often steel and concrete abstractions may dot the grounds while inside, there's a solitary nude perhaps, but for the most part, that is the most part. But there is a place in many large cities where you can go and see often some of the best carved works of art created in the past hundred and fifty years--your friendly, neighborhood cemetery. While many small-town "graveyards" as they're often called, offer nothing more in the way of art than a mind-numbing array of nearly identical, twentieth-century, granite lumps, those in bigger cities are more diverse. Indianapolis' Crown Hill Cemetery is a typical example.

Photo by Mark Sean Orr
Orphan Annie from the grave of poet, James
Whitcomb Riley who created her.
As cemeteries go, Crown Hill is not that old--a mere 147 years. Originally, it was a small, tree-shaded knoll on the outskirts of town, thought to be the highest point in Marion County.Today, its 555 acres has a population of almost 190,000. And it's also the home of some of the best sculptural efforts to be seen in the Midwest. One of the most intriguing is a bronze statue of a woman in mourning created by the noted sculptor Ruolf Schwarz from Austria. Most monuments are more symbolic. Among the graves of President Benjamin Harrison, poet James Whitcomb Riley (above, left), and bank robber John Dillinger, can be found doves (symbolizing love and purity), broken columns (symbolizing a life unexpectedly cut short), open Bibles (often found on the gravestones of the clergy) and life-size angels whose outstretched wings point the way to heaven. One monument bears a carved painters palette marking the grave, not of a famous artist, but the final resting place of one who merely found pleasure in painting.

The recently restored life-size sculpture figure
of young Corliss Randall Ruckle, who died
in 1889 at the age of twelve.
A hundred years ago, a "picnic in the park" might mean a quiet summer's afternoon dining informally from a blanket spread near a departed relatives grave. Today, even in the most beautiful weather, the tree-lined avenues that give access to the burial plots and the acres of outstanding sculptural art are largely deserted. Today, the descendants of those buried here often live in distant cities, but even those living nearby prefer the "Golden Arches" to the three stone arches that mark the main entrance to this beautiful, megalithic park. Apart from its sculpture, Crown Hill is also something of an architectural sampler as well. Here can be found faithful examples of Classical, Gothic, Egyptian, Romanesque, and yes, even Modern styles in the 57 family owned mausoleums with their ornate bronze doors, marble columns, and stained glass windows. It may be a bit eerie toward the waning hours of the day, but the next time you want to see outstanding sculpture and architecture, don't fight the traffic to go downtown. Instead, pack a picnic lunch and head for the biggest cemetery you can find. It's far more "restful." Who knows, you might even find your future place of rest.
Photo by Mark Sean Orr
The Lady of the Hill

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Nouvelle Cuisine

Food artist, Paul Bocuse
One of the staple subjects of still-lifes from about as far back as still-lifes go (at least to the Renaissance), has been food. We've all seen and grown tired of the traditional bowl of fruit, that amateur artists today still find a respectable challenge without the intimidation found in many more complex subjects. The thinking seems to be, if it was good enough for Cezanne, it's good enough for me. Growing tired of fruit, artists long ago moved on to vegetables, followed by meats and game (some cooked, some raw, some just merely dead). This favorite still-life subject probably sparked the old phrase, "Looks good enough to eat." However, in the 1970s, Paul Bocuse gave a whole new meaning to that phrase with his still-lifes which were meant to be eaten.

A Bocuse still-life work of art
Bocuse coined the term, "Nouvelle Cuisine" (basically just "new cooking,") to stand for a whole new way of looking and thinking of food. Bocuse wasn't a painter, he was a chef, but there were elements of both painting and sculpture in his art. In the kitchen, portions became smaller, sauces became lighter, herbs and spices were carefully tested to tweak old recipes, bringing out new flavors and aromas. But there was a difference in the dining room as well. Starting with just the right plate to serve as a sort of "canvas," food was presented with careful consideration to it's size, shape, color, and texture, basically all the elements of design in painting, but now applied to the creation of a still-life meant to be eaten, and according to some, to pretty to be consumed. The dishes were presented with all the aesthetic attention to arrangement and composition a painter might envy.

A window display featuring noodles of various nationalities--all plastic
In fact, Nouvelle Cuisine, apart from being sort of an art in itself, actually inspired yet another art, that of photographing foods for the glossy gourmet food magazines sold beside the tabloids on the check-out lines of supermarkets. Photographers even began to specialize in the highly technical art. They quickly discovered that some foods simply don't photograph well, or can't stand up to the heat of studio lights. (Imagine, for instance, trying to photograph an ice cream confection.) In due time, substitutions were found (lard came to be used for ice cream) and eventually, there evolved yet another art form, the development of fake, plastic food that not only photographed well, but could set in a restaurant showcase and look pretty (and delectable) for months on end with only an occasional dusting. The movement had come in full circle, from painted food still-lifes, to the real thing, and then back to still-lifes imitating the real thing in plastic. And the one thing they all have in common is they still look "good enough to eat."

Saturday, December 17, 2011

New Masterpieces

I suppose it's almost a given fact that all of us have seen dirty pictures at one time or another.  How would you like to get paid to look at dirty pictures? BIG BUCKS! Actually what you get paid for is cleaning them up. Okay, I'm not talking about pornography here now. I'm talking about the lonely life of an art restoration technician. It's tedious; it's time-consuming; and it's a solitary existence--hours spent totally immersed in the artwork of some great master--nose just inches from the canvas, perhaps viewing your work through binocular magnifying glasses, daubing away with Q-tips and solvent, delicately trying to remove centuries of dirt and varnish to reveal the beauty that gradually faded from view generations ago. Often the restoration work takes longer than it did the artist to create the painting in the first place. And sometimes, more than just revitalized beauty awaits the eyes of those paying the thousands, sometimes millions of dollars to have their artwork restored.

Landscape with Bacchus and Ceres, 1624-27,
Nicolas Poussin
Recently the owners of a painting titled Landscape With Arcadian Shepherds had it pulled from the vault of the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool England to be restored. A year later, they found themselves the proud owners of a Poussin! Nicholas Poussin (pronounced Pu-SAN) was a French artist born in 1594, famous for his classical subject matter and landscapes, but most importantly his careful attention to draftsmanship in his work. This painting, re-titled Landscape with Bacchus and Ceres, (once it was clean enough to actually discern the subject matter) was painted between 1624 and 1627 during a period of time when the artist was trying to establish his reputation in Rome. It's an important work because it came at a time when the artist was struggling to find himself and find commissions through the production of a wide variety of styles and subject matter.

Having previously been deemed by the Queen's art expert, Sir Anthony Blunt, to be too crude to be the work of Poussin, the owners quickly found themselves not only bearing the high cost of the restoration work, but that of a hefty, multi-million-dollar insurance policy as well. The painting is a typical Poussin, bucolic landscape with nude or barely clothed male and female figures frolicking together in an erotic idyll thinly cloaked in mythological respectability. In short, it was a highly salable piece of artwork catering to the secular (male) tastes of the time. Even then, Poussin was astutely aware that "sex sells." He went on to produce and sell dozens of such paintings. What makes this work so important is that it could be considered a prototype for the kind of work that was to influence the primacy-of-drawing faction (Poussinistes) of French painting for generations to come. The painting is no longer literally a dirty picture, though the newly revealed subject matter might not have been far removed from that almost four hundred years ago when it was painted.