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Monday, January 31, 2011

Georges Seurat

Very few individual artist can be said to have influenced the course of modern art to any great degree, and yet one man not only did just that, but did so barely more than a half-dozen paintings. That man was Georges Seurat. Georges was a strange man. But then, so was his father. He was born in Paris in 1859, the son of a local official who was so secretive he put his wife and three children up in a Paris apartment while he lived alone in a house some three miles away. Georges apparently was something of an introvert, preferring to spend his time alone in some of the many public parks that dotted his Parisian neighborhood. There he learned to draw those around him enjoying themselves in ways he could never bring himself to do.   
After high school, young Seurat went to art school, served in the army, then returned to Paris where he set himself up in a large loft-type studio to paint. Recalling his childhood in the park, he set about trying to duplicate in the then avant-garde color of the impressionists, the feeling of those gentle, quiet, carefree days. He chose as the subject of his first major work a scene featuring male bathers on the banks of the Seine outside Paris. Though influenced by the impressionists, he lacked their spontaneous temperament. He worked tirelessly. His style or mannr of painting has been called Pointilism. With it, he pushed Impressionist color theory into the realm of scientific experimentation, breaking new ground with every stroke of his tiny points of color. Exhibiting for the first time in the Impressionist's Salon de Refuse', even the they didn't know what to do with him.  His painting was too large and too strange to put in one of their main exhibition rooms so he was relegated to a dark corner, literally behind a door.   
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,
1884-86, Georges Seurat

Undeterred, Seurat went back to work, spending three lonely years painting literally from first light to candle light a painting even larger and more daring than the first. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte also presented a view of the Paris riverside but this time with a whole melange of strolling, relaxing Parisian society. 
Circus Side Show (detail),
1889, George Seurat
This painting brought him some notice amongst the new breed of Post-Impressionist starting to rock the Paris art scene. Though stiff, formal, and stylized, the work literally shimmered with light as the tiny dots of color did things to the viewer's eyes no painting had ever done before. His third paining, completed in 1888, turned his scientific/artistic color studies to the effects of the rather dismal, artificial gas lighting used to illuminate nighttime sideshows in his beloved parks.  Titled Side Show, it moved closer to the Cubism and abstraction of a generation later than any painting of its time. Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and perhaps dozens of other artist of this century were influenced to one degree or another by these few landmark paintings. Except for one or two other smaller pieces, and a few painted, preparatory color studies, this was the sum total of his life's work. He died of an undiagnosed illness in the summer of 1891 while installing an exhibition of his paintings. He was 31.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Georges Rouault

Few artists of this century have ever scaled such spiritual heights or plumbed such depths of human degradation as Georges Henry Rouault (pronounced Ru-OH). The depths were expressed in his prostitutes whose nakedness he painted obsessively.  A critic referred to them as, "...gutter Venuses in poses of epileptic toads." Yet spiritual achievements in watercolors, gouache, oils, aquatints, and lithographs were so vast they constituted an iconography of religious endeavors unmatched by any artist of his time. When one considers the explosive power of his work, smouldering with sonorous color, searing reds, and cobalt blues, it's surprising that fame came so late in his lifetime. It wasn't until after WW II when he was in his seventies that the world came to appreciate his talents as a "painter's painter".   
Born in 1871, Rouault's earliest art training came as an apprentice stained glass painter. The heavy, leaded qualities derivative of this background were the most significant aspect of his work. His contrasting masses of flesh were always delineated by solid, weighty outlines in black that seemed to make his positive spaces glow from within. He once declared his ambition to paint a God so moving that those who saw him would be converted. In his aquatint series, The Miserere, he came close to succeeding. His attempt to create the irresistible Christ was the beating heart of Rouault's long, faithful, productive life.   
The Old King, 1936,
Georges Rouault
In 1916, he began one of his most famous paintings, The Old King. He was still working on it in 1936 when the art dealer Ambroise Vollard persuaded him to release it. This twenty years of "work in progress" is characteristic of the master. He apparently worked at least that long on most of his major works, and even longer on his Miserere series. Rouault died on February 13, 1958. So beloved was he that a period of national mourning was declared throughout France and his funeral was an occasion of state. His mourners were legion. Among them were the last of the "old guard"--Picasso, Dali, de Chirico, and Braque. He was 87.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

George Stubbs

It's no secret among portrait painters that the generic term "portrait" is, by no means, limited to depictions of people. I've done portraits of houses, cars, boats, and quite a number of different types of animals, the most prevalent being dogs and cats. But I've also found occasions to paint a bull, a chicken, a rabbit, and pet birds. However, by far the most demanding animal portrait is that of the equine variety. Clients for this type of portrait are sometimes more demanding of verisimilitude than those of the human face and figure. And the study of the horse, in that it is basically a "nude" figure, and a much larger and anatomically more complex being than their human masters, has often occupied the full-time study and output of those artists who share a love for these graceful beasts. Perhaps the first of these was the English artist, George Stubbs.

George Stubbs was born in 1724. He was not only a painter of horses, but like Leonardo and the human figure, he was also a scientist studying their anatomy as no man had ever done before. Engravings were made from his skeletal and muscular drawings which were highly prized by veterinarians of his day. This led to the publication in 1766 of his voluminous discourse The Anatomy of the Horse which studied the animal from the inside out. It is still respected today. Though he read endlessly on the subject from his isolated farmhouse, his real knowledge came from firsthand studies. It's said he could lug a dead horse upstairs to his dissecting room single-handedly. With the help of a female assistant, variously reported to be his niece or aunt (but more likely his mistress), he often spent weeks studying and drawing his deceased subjects. Whoever she was, she must have had a strong stomach, given the odoriferous nature of the undertaking.

Brood Mares and Foals, 1762, George Stubbs
The publication of his book established for the artist/scientist an international reputation well above that of any other horse painter of his time. Thus, when he wasn't busy cutting them up, he was never short of commissions allowing him to glorify their stately beauty in paint. He believed man to be at his best around these animals and though his human figures never rose to the level of his equine efforts, they nonetheless benefited from the presence of their beloved animals in his paintings. Without a doubt, his best effort was a never-completed frieze entitled Brood Mares and Foals painted in 1762. In it he composed a meticulous arrangement of mares and their young which seems to flow across the canvas with an effortless grace appropriate to his subject.  The paintings seems all the more attractive to our eyes because of the fact he never had time to add a background. This allows our undistracted eyes to roam freely over his magnificent specimens of horse flesh.

Friday, January 28, 2011

George Inness

One of the most interesting things an older artist can do is to look back over his or her work from perhaps twenty or thirty years earlier.  The experience is always enlightening and sometimes quite dramatic.  Some artists establish a certain look or style to their work at an early age and any changes are often quite subtle--easily apparent to the artist but hard to identify by the average individual.  By the same token, if there has been a great deal of formal study especially, there may often be seen drastic differences over perhaps a very short time--a few years, perhaps even a few months.   
The American painter George Inness is an interesting case in point.  Innes was born in Newburgh, New York in 1825, so if he wasn't exactly born in the Hudson River School, he was at least born in the Hudson River Valley.  He grew up however in Newark, New Jersey, with access to the best schools of art nearby New York City had to offer.  He began painting in the tight, controlled style of the Hudson River School and after having spent a year studying in Italy, found some success by 1855 when he painted Lackawana Valley.   
Delaware Water Gap, 1861, George Inness

When Innes returned to Europe, he chose to study in France and was especially attracted to the Barbizon School (roughly the French equivalent of the Hudson River School but with a greater emphasis on painting in the outdoors). There his painting style loosened up as he studied with Theodore Rousseau.  Rousseau's influence can be seen in Innes' Delaware Water Gap of 1861, painted upon his return to America. But Innes' move to nearby Eagleswood, New Jersey, and his interest in spiritualism, had more to do with evolution as an artist than France or the Barbizon. There his depiction of nature, a tree for instance, was no longer treated as a biological specimen but as "merely" a patch of green or brown pigment augmented by sympathetic harmonies of color stretching across the picture. 

Early Autumn, Montclaire, 1891,
George Inness
 His 1891 painting, Early Autumn, Montclair is so much softer, so radically different from the Delaware Water Gap of some thirty years earlier they would seem to have been painted by different artists.  In reality, they were.  In thirty years, Innes had become a different artist.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

George Catlin

In our world of rapidly changing information in which there is a veritable deluge of new data every hour on the hour, it's reassuring to find a reference source still considered quite valuable today that is over 150 years old. What John James Audubon was to birds, George Catlin was to Native Americans.  This self-taught portrait artist from Philadelphia lived and painted amongst 48 different Native American groups, rendering some 200 different scenes and over 310 portraits of chiefs. As if the numbers weren't impressive enough, his collection of art and artifacts would fill a museum. And the reason his work is considered such a valuable anthropological source today, is that many of the groups he studied and depicted simply don't exist anymore.  In many areas of Native American studies, his work is not just the best source, it is, unfortunately, often the only source available.   
Catlin was born in 1796 and at the age of 36 was one of the first artist to travel west of the Mississippi. In 1839, after spending some seven years in the wilderness he brought back his "Indian Gallery" in an attempt to enlighten the civilized "east" as to the soulful beauty, simple integrity, and determination of Native American peoples, only to be refused museum space by the U.S. government. Smarting from this rejection, he retaliated by taking his work on tour to France and England where the exotic, "noble savage" element struck a responsive cord amongst the Romantic Era artists and intellectual elite, not to mention the merely curious European public.   
Buffalo Bull's Back Fat,
Head Chief, Blood Tribe, 1832,
George Catlin

One of Catlin's most interesting portraits bears the title Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe. Coming from one of the few experts on Native American languages of the time, we have to take his word as to the exact translation of the Blackfoot chief's name. The image is as authentic as the name. From the braided porcupine quills to the hand-carved, red-stone pipe bowl, the portrait is primitive in neither style or content. The chief radiates a quiet dignity as awe-inspiring as a Gilbert Stuart Washington or a Rembrandt guildsman. This work prompted the French artist Rosa Bonheur to make a pencil and watercolor copy and a London publisher to sponsor an ensemble of some twenty-five hand-colored lithographs with additional text. A year later, he also published Catlin's Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. At a time when the Romantic element flourished in both art and literature in Europe, the book instead contained over 300 realistic illustrations so authentic as to be as much anthropology as art.     

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

George Caleb Bingham

During the early part of the nineteenth century, art in this country became more than crude portraits painted by self-taught, traveling salesmen, who were often more comfortable painting signs than faces. Developing also was a need for some kind of organized effort to provide at least rudimentary art training for those so inclined. There was a need also for some kind of support group to promote their work.  In the 1830s, in New York, the National Academy of Design evolved as did an association of artist called the American Art-Union.  The academy was not really a college. It was hardly more than an art club.  It had little money and even less prestige. What it did have was talented men and even a few women with energy, dedication, ingenuity, and vision.   
One of these men was George Caleb Bingham. Born in 1811, he came to New York in 1838 where he exhibited his work with the National Academy. He had been the first major painter to live and work west of the Mississippi. Like his idol, Thomas Cole, he had started as an itinerant portrait painter. He also loved to sketch scenes of the normal life near the flowing highways that were the only safe and convenient thoroughfares in the West at the time. Gradually, he gave up portrait painting, which was just as well, in that he was, at best, only mediocre in favor of landscapes and especially genre scenes encompassing the frontier life he loved. Eventually, he got involved in local politics and drew from this rough and tumble life for the content of his paintings.   

FurTraders Descending the Missouri,
1845, George Caleb Bingham
In 1845 Bingham painted his most famous work, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. The painting glows with warm, misty, golden river colors of dawn as two bored trappers staring out at the viewer while they glide down the tranquil, rain-swollen river in a dugout canoe. Chained in the bow of the craft is what appears to be a large black cat, but in reality is actually a pet bear cub. Bingham sold the painting to the Art-Union for $25. The group used prints made from it to raise operating funds, then raffled off the painting. Their efforts served, not only to raise money for their association, but to bring inexpensive American art to the public in the form of prints.  It also to allow those of modest means and a little luck to own original oil paintings. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

George Bellows

Every state has its "favorite son" painter--the most famous painter to ever make it in the "big time" so to speak. From Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton; from Iowa, Grant Wood, and from my home state of Ohio, came George Wesley Bellows. Bellows was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1882 and attend Ohio State University before moving on to New York City to study art at the age of 22. He was one of those young artists of the time falling under the influence of Robert Henri. Though not one of Henri's legendary Group of Eight, his studies under Henri at the New York School of Art made his work largely indistinguishable from theirs.
Both Members of this Club, 1913,
George Bellows
Bellows was an urban realist, a second-generational heir to the Ashcan School of Arthur Davies, John Sloan and of course, Henri. He painted street brawls, tenement children swimming off the docks, and the proverbial "huddled masses." But Bellows had the versatility to, in a sense "have it both ways." He also painted elegant high society scenes, the beautiful people of the time playing tennis, watching polo, fashionably dressed, and living the "good life." Like many of his forebears he was a very macho "man's painter," his up-close and personal paintings of then-illegal prize fights such as Both Members of This Club and Stag at Sharkey's being perhaps the best known works of his career.   

Cliff Dwellers, 1909, George Bellows
Like his subject manner, Bellows brushwork was termed "zestful." Brutal might be a better word.  It might also be described as brusque and rough.  Though no stranger to the country club set, Bellows also had a social conscious. His urban landscape entitled Cliff Dwellers, painted in 1913, depicts some of the worst of New York City's ghettoes in the midst of a heat wave, the suffering masses almost literally melting into the streets from the open windows and fire escapes of their tenement slums. One can almost hear the noisy children and the harsh sounds of many different of languages all crying out for some form of relief, not just from the heat but from the dreariness of their lives. But just as Bellow's painting subjects ran on both sides of the tracks, so did his career. He was both a participant in the radical 1913 Armory Show and in the same year was elected to full membership in the conservative National Academy of Design. He turned "having it both ways" into something of a fine art. 

Summer Fantasy, 1924, George Bellows

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Steins

Imagine if you will, 1910, a third-floor walk-up apartment in one of the better neighborhoods of Paris. On the walls of the modest, 7-room flat are works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Geroges Braque, Edward Manet, Paul Gauguin.  In a hall closet are more paintings for which there is no room to hang, by names such as Matisse, Rousseau, Daumier, and Derain. A not-particularly-attractive woman of well-to-do means and her brother are entertaining in the living room. Both are Harvard-educated Americans. They are well-traveled.  She is a would-be writer, her brother, an unexceptional painter. Today we would deem them jet-setters.   
Present are some of the artists mentioned before as well as writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sherwood Anderson.
Also intermixed amongst the guests are  a number of musicians, art collectors, art dealers, dancers, intellectuals, and socialites.  here is good wine, croissants, fruit, perhaps a bouillabaisse in the kitchen. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air strong enough to burn the eyes. Most guests set casually on the somewhat worn furnishings while others stand about in small groups and still others lounge about on the floor. At times the noise is deafening, at other times it is merely a jabbering cacophony of French, English, Italian, and German, spiced with accents thick enough to cut with a palette knife.

None of these people are well-known. For some, fame is perhaps ten years or more in the future. They are bright, boisterous, thoughtful, creative, talented, eloquent, and exciting. By in large they are young, mostly in their twenties and thirties. Some of them are there because of the free food. The wine is good, not exceptional, and of course, plentiful.  But it is the conversation the brings these people together, and holds them until the wee hours of the morning when they are either too tired or two inebriated to continue talking, listening, performing, discussing, arguing, sometimes even ranting and raving. They discourse on everything, politics, painting, music, poetry, love, war, economics, exhibitions even birth control. You are at a impromptu "party" presided over by Gertrude and Leo Stein.  Did such a gathering ever take place? Yes, regularly almost, not every night perhaps, not always with such luminous hangers-on, but often enough to be the stuff of which legends are made.

Gertrude Stein, 1906,
Pablo Picasso

Leo Stein, 1937,
photo by Carl Van Vechten

Sunday, January 23, 2011

From Weird to Insane

All artists work under the burden of being thought "just a little bit weird."  Some of us even enjoy it. For some of us it is a license to pursue the "road less traveled" as Robert Frost termed it, without looking in the rear-view mirror to see who's following, nor caring who's staring at us with their head cocked in dismay. Of course those artists who aspire to greatness often pass beyond the "little bit weird" to "downright weird." And some go beyond that to become certifiably eccentric. Now, beyond that, things get a bit "iffy." The term "crazy madman" comes to mind. To make matters worse, there is but a very fine line between each distinction and the tendency on the part of some artists is to traverse across these lines without realizing it. Despite the best efforts on his own part and those around him, that was the distressing, and ultimately self-destructive path Vincent Van Gogh could not avoid following.

Self-portrait Without a Beard,
September, 1889, probably
Van Gog's final self-portrait

All his adult live Vincent had been a troubled soul. He was misunderstood, unloved by all but his brother, Theo. He was pretty much a dismal failure at all he tried. Even when he found painting and the satisfaction of creating beauty, he found little or no appreciation of his efforts and no financial success whatsoever. He sought a professional and personal relationship with Paul Gauguin that ended in his attacking his only friend with a straight razor.  And with Gauguin's hasty departure from Arles after Vincent's much-touted self-maiming, came the realization that professional help was needed. Vincent, with his brother's financial backing, voluntarily committed himself to the St.-Paul-de-Mausole asylum near Saint-Remy.
At Eternity's Gate, 1890, Van Gogh,
painted while at St. Remy,
a portrait of depression and dispair.

As asylums go, the institution at Saint-Remy was a good choice. It was one of the more humane, and pseudo-scientific retreats he could have chosen. There he came under the treatment of Dr. Rey who had the good sense to advise him not to drink.  (Vincent did a portrait of him.) Also, Dr. Theophile Peyron, the director of the hospital, was understanding of Vincent's condition, diagnosing him as epileptic, which was close, (for that era) if not entirely accurate. Vincent remarked of St. Remy, "It must be easy to treat the sick here: absolutely nothing is done for them." What was done for Vincent was more along the line of saving him from himself, allowing him to paint the people and places he knew there in relative peace, while remaining under a doctor's care.  Vincent's "condition", whatever it was, improved for a time until a second attack in which he is said to have ingested some paint. Shortly thereafter, in May of 1890, he left the hospital for Auvers and the care of Dr. Gachet. The road downhill from there was short and steep. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot on July 29, 1890.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Frida Kahlo

The surrealist movement of the 1920s was mostly a male oriented phenomena.  Names like Dali, Magritte, Ernst, and Miro were exploring the male psyche.  The only feminine elements were sexual in nature as related to Freudian oedipal feelings and the liberation of the male imagination. Any women displaying in Surrealist exhibitions were usually those romantically involved with the men in the group. Women like Lenora Carrington, who painted eerie dreamlike self-portraits regarding her May-December relationship with Max Ernst, were at best peripheral to the movement--an interesting side shows to their male counterparts.   
One who was not was Frida Kahlo. Born in 1910 near Mexico City, a nearly fatal trolley accident when she was fifteen destined her to a crippled life of almost constant pain. Although she was married for ten stormy years to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, whom she later called her "second accident", she was in no way a shadow of her husband, who was not, after all, a surrealist. Her work stands beside the best the surrealists had to offer, her style distinctive, her paintings as powerful and personal as any Freudian nightmare of Dali or Andre Masson. In spite of this, Kahlo never embraced the Surrealist label, claiming to be painting not dreams, but her own reality.   
The Two Fridas, 1839, Frida Kahlo
Probably her most vivid exploration of the reality of her painful existence was her double self-portrait, The Two Fridas, painted in 1939 for a Mexican Surrealist Exhibition about the time of her divorce from Rivera. The painting pictures one Frida, dressed in a Victorian white gown representing her German heritage, holding the hand of the other Frida in traditional Mexican dress. (Her mother was Mexican.) In both figures, her heart is exposed and her circulatory systems are intertwined. An artery begins with a cameo of Diego Rivera the Mexican Frida holds, and ends in the lap of the German Frida holding forceps but unable to stem the flow of blood. A stormy photographer's backdrop echoes her father's occupation and her marriage. Later that same year, through Rivera, she met Andre Breton, the French writer who founded the Surrealist Movement, and whom adopted her as one of his own. He was instrumental in arranging shows for her in New York and Paris. She died in 1954.  Today she is regarded as the preeminent female painter in Mexican art history. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fresco Painting

Over the last few months I've mentioned fresco painting once or twice. I've never talked much about exactly what it is. The term is Italian for fresh, probably referring to the fresh, wet or at least damp plaster into which the pigments of a fresco painting must be applied. As painting goes, historically, it was the highest realm to which a painter could rise. This was probably because it is a most unforgiving medium in which to work. Errors of judgement must either be darkened or the plaster ripped down. Basically, it is like watercolor, minus any binders, applied transparently into the wet lime mixture used to plaster the surface to be decorated.   

Jonah, Sistine Chapel fresco,
 1471-84, Michelangelo
As one might guess from such a modus operendi, as much time and energy went into planning the work as actually creating it. The overall scheme of things had to first be decided, rendered on paper in great detail, drawn to scale, then full-size drawings called "cartoons" created on massive sheets of paper, usually in charcoal.  Following this, a number of means were used  for actually transferring the images to the wet plaster. Some artists merely cut up the cartoons into the various shapes they were using and dabbed a little paint around the edge in a stenciling manner. Others created an image in the plaster with the handle of the brush by making an impression through the cartoon.  Still others made tiny holes about an inch apart all around the outline though which was daubed black soot, leaving a dotted outline of the figure.   
The real drawing though was done with the paint brush.  The artist had to literally draw in color inasmuch as only the barest of details could be outlined into the plaster. Here the artist's instincts ruled. Perhaps the most difficult part was that the work had to be created from a distance of perhaps only a foot or so from the surface yet be visually coherent from perhaps a hundred feet away.  Perhaps the closest thing in existence today is the work of those hearty fools who climb up on the flimsiest of scaffolding and paint billboards for a living.   

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The French Ecole des Beaux-arts

One of the more notable attributes among artists, especially younger ones, is a mistrust of "the establishment" and often a cool disdain for the academic hoops and hurdles they must negotiate in order to "pay their dues" in becoming whatever it is they have chosen to become. Of course this attitude gradually changes as these young artists become not-so-young-artists-anymore. They wish they'd studied harder, or they laugh about the academic absurdities that were, in fact absurd, or despair at having forgotten so much they were taught and never thought they'd need. In time, these same artist fully migrate across the fence to the role of upholders of timeless truths regarding the arts and art practices, railing against those who, like themselves a hundred years before, find many of their teachings, rules, rantings, and ravings, just plain "dumb.

The Archetype of the academic establishment for all time, and to a great extent, the model for art schools even today, was the French Academy's boot camp, the Ecole des Beaux-arts. When art historians write about it, they often as not speak of it disparagingly. Words like stilted, conservative, dictatorial, dry, and (worst of all) "academic", come to mind. It was, of course, all these things, but to give credit where it's due, for over three hundred years it has also been the bastion of the best art education money could buy. It was slow to change, but not immobile. It was demanding, but not unreasonable. It was the best the art establishment had to offer at a time when art was so important to a nation and its people that an art establishment was equally important, if not vital. It provided some order to chaos even though the chaos of change in art was just as vital.

Today, art academies offer the best of both worlds. They offer traditional, "academic" art instruction modeled surprisingly like that of the Ecole des Beaux-arts, but with no established style or norms to defend, there is a constant emphasis upon self-discovery and individual problem solving using the academic tools they provide. If there is any criticism to be made of fine arts colleges today it is, perhaps, that they sometimes emphasize these "creative" aptitudes at the expense of solid, academic, learn-to-paint-and-draw training, largely because this type of training is so tedious and time-consuming while brainstorming, group discussions, critiques, and such are more fun and intellectually stimulating for the students, but especially for the instructors.  Individual hands-on instruction in painting and drawing is often available only to those students who demand it of their instructors and everyone knows that just means a lot more hard work than they need for the moment to get by. Thus an art education, now as in the past, is no different from any other educational pursuit, you get out of it in direct relationship to what you put into it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Frederic Bazille

When you were growing up, your mother no doubt warned you about falling in with the "wrong crowd" and all the dastardly things that could happen to a young person who keeps the wrong company. In a manner of speaking, that's what happened to Frederic Bazille (pronounced Ba-ZEE-a). Coming from a wealthy Montpelier family, and highly educated, the 21-year-old was studying to become a doctor in Paris when he decided that he'd like to take some painting classes as a hobby. He went to the studio of the academic painter Gleyre, who liked to put away a little extra income by privately teaching those who, for one reason or another, couldn't make it in the traditional academic setting. It was here (from his parents point of view at least) he fell in with the wrong crowd. He found himself hobnobbing with the shiftless likes of Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Auguste Renoir, and through them, that rapscallion, Monsieur Manet, one of the most dangerous artists in Paris.

Family on the Terrace, 1867-68, Frederic Bazille
During the next few years, he picked up some bad habits too, like working outdoors, painting landscapes at out-of-the-way places like Honfleur and Barbizon. By 1865, he knew his true calling. He gave up medicine to share a studio with Monet (or more likely, the other way around). However, Bazille was not a typical Impressionist landscape painter. Unlike Monet, he preferred painting people, usually populating his paintings with up to a half-dozen figures at a time against an Impressionist background. His painting, Family on the Terrace done in 1867, of his family reunion is typical of this trait. Such a work must have somewhat mollified his family's disappointment in his not sticking with doctoring. And he didn't always paint "in plein air" either.  His Studio in the Rue de la Candamini gives us an interesting peek into the atelier of a successful Parisian painter of the time.

 Studio in the Rue de la Candamini, 1870,
Frederic Bazille 
Bazille's career was all too brief. In 1870, he fought and died in the Franco-Prussian War, the only one of the Impressionists to be killed in this needless brouhaha. He was 29.  But even with such a short painting career, Bazille's exploration of the effects of natural light upon flesh tones broke new ground at a time when portraits were seldom painted out-of-doors. The ironic element in all this is that, had he remained a practicing physician, he might never have seen combat or met such an untimely death.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Franz Marc

It would be no uneasy statement to proclaim that an early, untimely death is the cruelest fact of life. Never is this more true than in the early death of an artist, cut down just as his or her career is about to take off, or at some point when that artist is at his or her peak creatively. Recently I mentioned the death at the age of 39 of Cubist artist, Juan Miro. Often war is the culprit. In November of 1870, the Impressionist artist, Frederic Bazille was killed in the battle of Beaune-la-Rolande during the Franco-Prussian war, the only one of the impressionists to suffer such a fate. World War I also took its toll on artists psychologically, especially in the case of the German Expressionists. Artists such as Max Beckman found his work deeply effected by his war experiences as did Ernst Kirchner. Perhaps most tragic, was the death of Der Blaue Reiter artist, Franz Marc (also a German Expressionist) as a result of this war.

Marc was born in 1880.  He was 36 when he was killed in the trenches in 1916.  He was a gentle soul but one of gloomy disposition. However in looking at his brightly colored paintings, one wouldn't come away with such an impression. With the disintegration of the first German Expressionist movement, Die Brucke (The Bridge) around 1910, Marc, August Macke, and Wassily Kandinsky formed the core of what was to become a second German Expressionist movement, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Whereas Die Brucke had been an order purely of artists, Der Blaue Reiter was a much broader, more intellectual, romantic, and somewhat spiritual association that was, at the same time, much more loosely organized philosophically, with fewer artistic constraints.

Deers in the Forest II, 1914, Franz Marc
 While Macke painted elegantly expressive, figural work and Kandinsky veered off toward abstraction, Marc became enamored with animals which he saw as the keepers of innocence and uncontaminated nature. One of the most beautiful expressionist paintings I've ever seen is his Deer in the Forest II, painted in 1914. It's a dramatically colorful, stained glassy, visual exploration wherein the eye discovers first one, then a second, then a third larger deer emerging into consciousness as you accustom your eyes to Marc's Cubist way of seeing the spiritual beauty of nature as epitomized by these gentle creatures.  It's an old saying but it comes to mind as you consider the tragedy of death that is so intimately a part of the nature Franz Marc worshipped: "Only the good die young."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Frans Hals

When you think of Dutch masters, you unfortunately picture cigars. Only the more artistic call to mind names like Frans Hals or Rembrandt van Rijn. The really erudite might add the names Jan Vermeer, Gerard Ter Borch, Jacob Van Ruysdael, or Meindert Hobbema. The list of great Dutch master painters goes on and on. Art historians have argued for years as to the reason for this flowering of sixteenth and seventeenth century art. Some cite the booming Dutch economy of the time or the special atmospheric conditions attributed to the ever-present light and water of this below-sea-level landscape of windmills and tulips. Others have simplified the equation, reducing it to merely the hard work of an intelligent, industrious people.  Probably all of these are factors.

The earliest of a long line of exceptional Dutch painters was Frans Hals. He was born near Antwerp in 1580 where he began his art instruction before moving on to Haarlem and studying under Karel Van Mander, often described as the Vasari of the Dutch school. Hals began painting at a time when artists were held in not much higher regard than a tinsmith, a cobbler, a jeweler, or a bookbinder. Art was merely a trade. There was a common price for paintings of various sizes and the ever-thrifty Dutch were not in the habit of paying one guilder more than the going rate. If one worked hard, lived modestly, and saved money, then, as now, an artist could expect a comfortable retirement in old age.

The Man with a Schlapphut,
(a type of hat),
1665, Frans Hals
Alas, Hals did none of those. First of all he had ten children which, even then, was enough to tax the resources of even the most industrious tradesman.  Second, he liked to live well and was not in the habit of paying his bills on the first of the month, every month. In Calvinist Holland, this was a crime tantamount to murder or arson. After a lifetime of hard work, at the age of 72, his creditors lost patience with him. He was forced to sell everything he had, which wasn't much--one table, one chest, three mattresses, and a few old blankets. However the Burgomaster and the Alderman were not without some compassion. They provided him with his rent and heat, and on his 84th birthday, gave him an annual civic pension of 200 florins. To show his gratitude, Hals continued to paint right up to his death, in 1666 at the age of 86. Some of his last works (referred to as the Regent pieces) are considered his most touching.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Francois Boucher

Often we make jokes to the effect that behind every successful man is a woman "nagging" him, indicating the husband may not be as ambitious as his "better half" might like. While something of a cliche, not to mention a stereotype, I suppose, giving credit where it's due, it's also more common than we sometimes think. That was certainly the case with one artist, Francois Boucher (pronounced Bo-ker), a French Rococo painter born in 1703. Boucher is, in fact, the one artist most associated with the flowery Rococo (pronounced RO-co-CO) style that was prominent in the mid 1700s. Boucher is unique in another sense, in that not one but two women were primarily responsible for his success in art.

Typically, the first woman was his wife, Marie-Jeanne Buseau, who was not without a great degree of artistic talent on her own. She often served as both model and studio assistant. The second was probably even more crucial to his career, and certainly more powerful where it counted. She was Madame de Pompadour, something of an amateur artist herself, a major supporter, and generous patron. More importantly, of course, she was also the mistress of the king, Louis XV. But Boucher's career was not without a good foundation. He'd studied under Watteau, though strangely, it seems he never actually met the man.  His early art education consisted of making engravings of the master's work. In 1724 he won the prestigious Prix de Rome, a sort of artistic scholarship to study free of charge at the French Academy in Rome.

Le Dejeuner, 1739, Francois Boucher
 When he returned, he plied these feminine and academic advantages into his first royal commission in 1735.  Thereafter, he worked almost continuously as an interior decorator/designer at Versailles and Fontainebleau, as well as chief inspector at the Gobelins Tapestry Manufactory where it seems he also moonlighted as a designer (when did he sleep?). His subject matter encompassed everything from portraits, to landscapes ,to genre, such as his 1739 painting Le Dejeuner (The Luncheon).  It depicts a mother with her two playful young children, their governess and the butler serving them coffee.  The painting is a modest little canvas with charming insights into the domestic life of the average middle-class French household (perhaps his own). After thirty years of this kind of thing, Boucher was named First Painter to the King in 1765.  Five years later, with the Rococo era quickly becoming passe', and his "friend at court" having long since been replaced by a younger mistress, the artist died at his easel.  He was 67.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fra Angelico

When we think of church sponsorship of the arts during the Renaissance, we commonly bring to mind Michelangelo, Raphael, Bellini, and a few others. These were all instances of the arts coming from outside the church. Actually, there are some examples of art coming from within the church as well. We're not use to thinking of clerics as being painters but in the case of Guido di Pietro we need to take a new look at the calling. Dubbed "Brother Angel" by his peers, he was known also as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole.  He got his nickname as a result of his unusually pious demeanor. Born around 1400, he has come to be known to art historians as Fra Angelico. Already a much-sought-after artist in his teen years, he took his vows around the age of 20, and considering the quantity of his work thereafter, he must have had few additional responsibilities other than those his God-given talent dictated.   

The Annunciation, c. 1436, Fra Angelico
He spent a good part of his early life in Florence decorating the Dominican Monastery of San Marco. In 1445, he was called by the church in Rome, leaving the completion of the San Marco frescoes to his assistants. Before leaving for Rome however, he completed one of his most beautiful works in a nondescript upstairs cell that may have been his own in the San Marco Monastery. It's an Annunciation painted high on the wall against the vaulted ceiling of Cell No. 3. Not a lavish rendition of the holy event it strikes us as deeply religious in its simplicity instead. Like the man who painted it, the scene can best be described as simply "holy". The angel Gabriel is positioned near the center of the arched composition, enlightening Mary of God's favor while off to the left, in one of several one-point perspective niches, stands Saint Dominic. The effect is that of a vision within a vision as Saint Dominic's prayers conjures up the vision of the angel and Mary and the whole painted scene is that of a vision seen by the occupant of the cell.   
Legend has it that Fra Angelico very nearly became a saint.  When called to Rome in 1445, Pope Eugene IV was in search of a new archbishop of Florence.  He eventually chose the vicar of San Marco, Antonio Pierozzi.  Two hundred years later, when Pierozzi was proposed for sainthood, it was revealed that the pope's first choice as archbishop of Florence was Fra Angelico, but that the painter's humility caused him to decline and instead suggest Pierozzi for the post.  That's unfortunate.  We painters could use a patron saint.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The First Impressionists

Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Claude Monet
 "...The common concept which united them as a group and gives them a collective strength in the midst of our disaggregate epoch is the determination not to search for a smooth execution, but to be satisfied with a certain general aspect.  Once the impression is captured they declare their role terminated...  If one wants to characterize them with a single word that explains their efforts, one would have to create the new term Impressionists.  They are impressionists in the sense that they render not a landscape but the sensation produced by a landscape."  With these words, the art critic, Jules Castagnary, in 1874, gave a name, shape, and form to something that had heretofore lacked all three.     
The occasion was a review of the disastrous group exhibition staged by a renegade group of disillusioned and disenfranchised artist as a direct affront to the hated Salon with whom they had grown tired of battling for admission.  They were about 35 in number, some now household names, some unheard of then and now.  (Eduoard Manet was conspicuous by his absence.)  They presented 163 works ranging from a few fairly academic pieces to three little outrages by Paul Cezanne that guards feared might be ripped apart by the crowd.  They might have been, except for the fact there was no crowd.  A few sympathetic critics praised the show, a few more clobbered it, and perhaps fortunately, most of them simply chose to ignore it.  In large part, so did the public.   

A Modern Olympia, 1873-74, Paul Cezanne,
one of his "little outrages."
Crowds for the show were abysmal.  There were 175 on the opening day and that dwindled to about 54 on the last day of the month-long exhibition.  The show was unique in that it was open during the evenings, but attendance was seldom more than 10 to 20 during these hours, and sometimes as low as 2.  Altogether, some 3,500 people paid one Franc to see the show.  Meanwhile, across town at the Salon, some 400,000 paid ten Francs to see over 4,000 works.  Manet might as well have exhibited with the newly dubbed Impressionists in that, despite his best efforts, critics linked his name with the group and labeled his two Salon-accepted works as "intruders" appearing doubly ridiculous compared to those hung next to his.  Even though Castagnary's words regarding the First Impressionist Exhibition were written in derision, his review was at least somewhat sympathetic and thoughtful, compared to many others ridiculing it.  His words served to unite this group into a movement with a new name and a single direction, something they had lacked before.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Food Art

Hamburger, Claes Oldenburg
For as long as there has been art, man has used it to depict that which was most important to him at the time. Throughout the history of art three subjects have been consistently present through every era--religion, sex, and food.  Food? Yes, from the very first cave paintings to Claes Oldenburg's giant, vinyl, hamburger sculpture, whether it was still on the hoof or hot off the grill, the subject of food has always been as popular with artists as those who drool over their subject matter. Leonardo combined food and religion in his Last Supper while Michelangelo did so with his sculpture of Bacchus (aka. Adam). The Flemish painters used it in still-lifes that still make our mouths water while Andy Warhol silk-screened our favorite beverage (or at least the bottle) all over some of his paintings. And, in many of his paintings/illustrations, Norman Rockwell seems almost obsessed with food.

Still-life Plucked: Turkey with a Pan of Fish,
1808-12, Francisco deGoya
 Several years ago in San Francisco, there opened an art exhibit at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park that is also obsessed with food. "A Feast for the Eye: Food in Art" is a smorgasbord of some 250 pieces of art. Few of them were the traditional still-lifes we might expect. There were photos, films, paintings, cartoons, sculpture, dishes, silver, crystal stemware, a spread fit for a king, yet not one morsel if it was edible (to avoid the turnout of tiny art connoisseurs with six or more legs). Fittingly, the catalog for the exhibit was in the form of a cookbook and the curator was a self-described amateur chef. Dagwood's sandwich was there, as was a coat that looked like a cabbage, a purse that looked like a loaf of bread, and (bowing to Warhol) Pop Art silk-screen prints of Ritz cracker boxes and Perrier bottles straight from the supermarket.

There was also a serious side to the show, a photograph from 1949 of a British family eating in squalor and an Italian POWs book of recipes compiled of prisoners' recollections of their mothers' cooking. There was a painting from turn-of-the-century France which depicts two starving men boiling shoe leather. The show delved into food as a symbol of wealth and power and commented on those who are powerless without it. The decorative arts were not slighted. Displays in this area included a silver spice box with lock and key from Peru and an intricately crafted silver gravy boat with indications that it has been used over the years as something more than just an art object. The show kind of gave a whole new meaning to the phrase, "food for thought."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The FIRST Abstract Painting

There is a tendency among artists and others to equate Abstract Expressionism totally with the New York School of the late 1940s and 1950s in such a manner as to suggest that Americans "invented" abstraction in the wake of WW II, Surrealism, and the gradual course of events growing out of Picasso, Braque, and Cubism during the first decade of this century. This is categorically wrong! In a scenario not unlike that of the space race, it has to be reported that the Russians invented Abstract Expressionism a good thirty years before any American artists ever slapped paint to canvas in anything approaching such an effort. And, like the space race, even when Abstract Expressionism blasted off in this country, it was largely the efforts of a number of foreign born artists who got it off the ground.

First Abstract Watercolor,
1910. Wassily Kandinsky 
Russian born artist, Wassily Kandinsky, painted what he blithely named First Abstract Watercolor in Munich, Germany, in 1910. The title is apt. Only after a deliberate struggle with your imagination can you visualize any recognizable subject matter, which is just as Kandinsky intended. There is a kind of colorful swirl of activity of reds, pail blues, blacks, and yellows suggesting some kind of maelstrom of activity in which any suggestion of external subject matter seems totally accidental. The painting had largely the same impact upon art in the eastern European art community as Picasso's (non abstract) Cubistic Les Damoiselles de Avignon did during roughly same time in Paris. Only the differences in size and media would account for any differences in the impact these two paintings had upon the art and artists of that time.

In the East, artists such as Kasimir Malevich took toward stark black on white geometric symbols to fuel his Suprematist movement while Piet Mondrian took was much more gradually "wading into" abstraction of his own design with his ongoing study of trees which ultimately ended in total abstraction but with a distinct set of "footprints" leading back to subjective painting. Like the first Sputnik, Kandinsky's efforts were like a wake-up call to the entire world that nothing less than a new threshold had been crossed after which any representational subject matter would somehow seem traditional and retrograde. It was not a moon landing, which allegorically we could say was left to the Americans of the New York school, but it was a ceremonial throwing down of the gauntlet declaring that this is the direction art will go in the twentieth century!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Fire Sculpture

Several years ago, when I was teaching a unit on sculpture, I had as one of the optional activities my freshmen students could do, the design and construction of an edible sculpture. Originally the project was built around freestanding cakes, cake decorating, etc. Eventually it evolved into some rather diverse manifestations including vegetable sculpture, bread sculpture, and even candy sculpture. However early on I had a student that, so far as I know, was the first to invent a whole new sculpture medium--Rice Krispies. Yep, the same stuff you make by melting marshmallow creme, adding margarine, and vanilla then the cereal.  It may sound strange, but it works. It's a demanding medium though. You have to coat your hands with margarine, and there is only a limited window of opportunity with which to work between the time when it is too warm to shape and too cool to shape. Her original creation was a hen setting on a bed of colored coconut with a little icing to decorate here and there, some M&M's for eyes, and a red Fruit Rollup cut to shape for the comb.  It was really quite attractive. We took pictures of it and then, in the end, we all enjoyed evalueating it.

Fire Sculpture without the fire
 In Stockholm, Sweden, artists there have invented a new sculpture medium as well with some of the same transient qualities. The works are fashioned out of wood, twine, and straw and during daylight hours take on a kind of strange, unconsummated quality. It's only after dark, when the works are set on fire, and the competition begins, that they take on a life of their own, rising to their full potentiality as they also go up in flames. Inherent in the medium is a conflict between creation and destruction. They call it fire sculpture and, strange as it sounds, it too is a very demanding medium. For competition, they must all be built on location within eight hours and at least one member of each team must have a college degree in art. There is even the Swedish Fire Sculpture Association, which is the governing body for the annual competition that draws hundreds to a snow-covered open field, sometimes braving winds and sub-zero temperatures, to watch the works go up in smoke. Some of the sculptures are as tall as fifteen feet, but all must burn at least five minutes but no more than twenty minutes. (One would have to assume there's not be much market for them in art galleries.)

Once lit, the work takes on a whole
 different look.
Some of the works look better before they're set afire. Once they are lit, all are, momentarily at least, breathtaking. Some of the sculptures were really quite beautiful while others were so ugly no one felt bad about burning them. One eye-catching creation was by the Polish team, a Viking ship with straw ropes which, while attractive, spectators report didn't burn very well. The winner was created by the French team, a towering, Brancusi-like mass with sensuous curves. Once ignited, the layers burned away in separate stages revealing an amusing play on words. The burning effect created an artichoke. The team called themselves Arti-Chaud, which (loosely translated) means Art and Heat.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Figure Painting

In 1958, the Museum of Modern Art organized an exhibition of first-generation Abstract Expressionists under the title "The New American Painting".  They sent it on tour to some eight European capitals where the paintings were well-received but the title was not.  There were growing suspicions that it wasn't, in fact, "new." Art critic Harold Rosenberg summed it up succinctly: "Today it is felt that a new art mode is long overdue, if for no other reason than the present avant-garde has been with us for fifteen years...  No innovated style can survive that long without losing it's radical nerve and turning into an Academy."  He dismissed second-generation Abstract Expressionists as "method actors", having lost any innovative edge.

Seated Figure with Hat,
1967, Richard Diebenkorn
The question of what was to replace Abstract Expressionism found a whole host of candidates waiting in the wings.  Pop Art emerged, as did Minimalism, but so too did representational art and in particular, a sort of rediscovery of "the figure".  Two artist emerged to lead this renaissance--Richard Diebenkorn, and Philip Pearlstein.  Diebenkorn (1922-1993) had. at one time. been an Abstractionist, teaching at the California School of Fine Arts where he was influenced by his colleagues Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.  However, by the mid-fifties he began to once more use a model, and though his work continued to bear abstractionist painting techniques, he was able to capture new emotional elements associated with his figures that seemed to him more universal than what he'd experienced with Abstract Expressionism.  In doing so, he was accused to "caving in" to West Coast "provincial" tastes.

Typical nude figure by
Philip Pearlstein
Philip Pearlstein (b. 1924), also fled Abstract Expressionism when it seemed to him to have lost its "edge".  Over a period of several years, his paintings became more and more descriptive, eventually evolving into Photo Realism.  However, unlike Diebenkorn, any emotional attachment to his figures was often negated by his habit of hiding models heads or merely cropping them using the top edge of his canvases.  The result was that his nude figures (often with less-than-ideal physical proportions), though extremely realistic, became mere compositional elements, often twisted, overlapped, or cropped in such a way as to not only eliminated any erotic overtones, but any individual identity as well. In these two artist we see one, returning to subjective painting but in an abstract style, while another retained the strong compositional element of Abstraction but in a realistic style.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Female Artists

Recently the topic of female painters down through history has been pretty hot. And frankly, I must confess, some of the names dropped in my lap have sent me digging through my reference works in order to match names and faces (faces in the paintings that is). But in all fairness, names like Adelaide Labille-Guiard, Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Anna Vallayer-Coster, or Marie Therese Reboul are not exactly household words. However there was a time and there was a household in which these talented ladies were household words. I'm referring to the late 1700's and the household of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette,  then king and queen of France.  
Marie Antoinette with her Children,
1787, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun

We are indebted to the women's movement of late for the fact that I could even find works by any of these women in my art history texts and reference works.  Only one of the paintings had I ever seen before, that being the Vigee-Lebrun Portrait of Marie Antoinette with Her Children painted in 1787. The painting depicts an attractively attired but very un-queenly mother of three young children, arrayed around her in a largely successful attempt to propagandize her role as the "mother of all mothers," so to speak. In a poignant touch, the dauphin, her eldest son, points to an empty cradle of a recently deceased infant. The painting is one of about 20 such portraits Vigee-Lebrun painted of the queen.   
All the ladies I mentioned above were portrait artist and most were royal favorites. They were the four token female members of the Royal Academy, a limitation one of them, Adelaide Labille-Guiard, successfully petitioned to change. Their careers and backgrounds were all remarkably similar. Each came from family with backgrounds in the arts, each were from the upper classes, and each represented a rare breed of activist women emerging at the time from a traditional place upon the pedestal of feminine limitations. It was a turbulent era and a turbulent career choice, and at least two of these ladies found themselves outcasts from French society at various times, forced to live and work in other countries for extended periods. But the common thread of their existence, their sex, their competence, and their independence as women, elevates them to more than mere historical curiosity. They were very much under-rated artists.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Fading Impressions

The problem with any style of art, or art "movement" is that after a time it begins to wear thin.  This happens largely for two reasons.  One, those exploring it eventually manage to plumb it's depths and wring from it everything of any substantive value, both individually and as a group.  And second, whatever following the style or movement eventually manages to generate, gradually begins to tire of it and move onto something new and more chic.  It has happened that way over and over again, especially during the Modernist era when one style tended to follow another, with each both building upon it's predecessor and yet rejecting elements of it.

The Large Bathers, 1887, Auguste Renoir

An interesting case in point is Impressionism.  In fact, it's a classic case in point.  The style was born in the 1870s, matured in the 1880s, and by 1890 was on its way out.  Even its most steadfast proponents realized that.  Renoir, for instance, moved into the study of female nudes with only occasional lapses into impressionism for some of his backgrounds.  In general he was disillusioned with it.  His nude figures became rather hard edged, even one would have to say "academic".  His 1887 canvas, The Large Bathers, is an example of this. 

Under the Horse
Chestnut Tree,
1898, Mary Cassatt
 Mary Cassatt is another example.  Her subject matter did not change significantly but her method of handling it did.  Her style, as seen in her 1898 dry point, aquatint etching, Under the Horse Chestnut Tree, demonstrates not only an abandonment of painting for prints, but a growing interest in the linear and compositional qualities of Japanese prints.

Bridge over waterlilly Pond,
1899, Claude Monet

About the only stalwart holdout for impressionism was Claude Monet and even his work was not without a certain evolutionary quality that, even if it did not abandon Impressionism, certainly could be said to have taken it in new directions.  By the 1890s, Monet was starting to make something of a reputation for himself, some money for himself and his family, and perhaps most importantly, he seems to have earned some freedom for himself, to paint whatever he wanted without need to worry about whether it would sell.  As a result, he began to dig deeper into light, color, textures, and shapes with lengthy studies of things like haystacks, riverbank poplars, the Rouen Cathedral, and finally, in the latter years of his life, his marvelous water lilies.  The sheer quantity of paintings in each series underlines the extraordinary effort he felt necessary to legitimatize the Impressionism so many of his friends had abandoned and even scorned, in an attempt to cement a place for it in art history.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Expanding Museums

Many of us have faced the daunting task of expanding our places of abode to accommodate a growing family, or simply the prospect of our "stuff" crowding us out of house and home. "Building on," as it's called, to some simply means a new bathroom tacked on to a hundred-year-old house built when the "bath room" was a tub and some hot water in the kitchen. So long as it's modest, neat, and reasonably private we don't much care what the "south wing" looks like, from the outside at least. Some of us, the more architecturally astute perhaps, might go to some effort to blend the old with the new, up to the point anyway, when it starts becoming greatly more expensive to do so. Perhaps we've never considered it, but this situation also bedevils our great palaces of art and culture as their growing collections of art "stuff" begin to choke off the breathing space within. Sometimes, it literally comes down to a bathroom problem, given the legal demands today for handicap accessibility of public places.

However, unlike the tacked on bathroom, art museums have a certain duty to consider their existing, albeit often quite outdated and grandiose, architecture as they expand...or at least one would think (and hope) this might be the case. Sadly, like the proverbial elephant (that appears to have been put together by a rather discordant committee), the vast majority of these expansion efforts, according to architectural historian Victoria Newhouse (no pun intended), also bear similar traits. And the culprit often is the discordant committee more intent on square footage and dollars than architectural sense.

The Guggenheim, Bilbao, Spain, 1997,
Frank Gehry, architect.
The new wing, lower left, is virtually invisible.

In her book, Toward a New Museum, Miss Newhouse cites only four of the dozens of almost constantly expanding art museum worldwide that have successfully grown with any kind of architectural compatibility with their existing structures. Among the successes, The Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, the The  Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, Germany. On the other hand, she turns thumbs down to what she calls "wings that don't fly" such as recent expansions to many New York museums--The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Louvre in Paris.  She especially takes issue with the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre, terming it an entrance through the basement and a gauntlet of gift shops.

The Guggenheim Museum, New York. Although
designed as a passive backdrop for the Wright
masterpiece, the massive new addition instead
 towers over it and contrasts sharply with the
 curvilinear lines of of the original structure.
Newhouse is no more kind to the rectilinear "box" that compromises the addition to Frank Lloyde Wright's Guggenheim, New York, and its spiraling swirl. She even goes so far as to say there is a point at which museums should stop expanding, citing the Metropolitan's seven new wings, just since 1970.