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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spanish Baroque

The Forge of Vulcan, 1630, Diego Velasquez
One of the unfortunate aspects of a single artist in any given country taking on the mantle of "greatness" is that he tends to block from view all the fine work of his colleagues, some of which may have produced several "great" works themselves. Nowhere is this more true than in Spain, during the 1600s and starring role taken on by Diego Velasquez. All too often, what people know about Spanish art begins and ends with this man. And he justly deserves his place as the premier Spanish artist of the Baroque period. His court paintings such as Las Meninas" (The Maids of Honor) hangs today in Madrid, behind bulletproof glass, the proudest possession of the Prado Museum. Nearby are his Christ on the Cross, undoubtedly his best religious work, and his Forge of Vulcan, his best mythological endeavor. Salted among these are also some excellent portraits like that of the dwarf, Francisco Lezcano.

The Lying in State of St. Bonaventura,
1629, Francisco Zurbaran
However, two other Spanish artists of the same period deserve feature billing. The first, Francisco Zurbaran, born the year before Velasquez in 1598, lived and work next to him in Seville. He painted some exquisite still-lifes such as Still-Life with Oranges from 1633, and also a number of religious works, the greatest of which is The Lying-in-State of St. Bonaventura done in 1629. The latter is a masterpiece of Baroque drama, composition, and painting technique, easily matching Velasquez at his best. And perhaps an even greater slight is handed out to Bartolome Esteban Murillo, a generation younger than either of the other two. Born in 1617, Murillo is often judged inferior on the basis of some of his weaker, but quite popular works. But at his best, Murillo often conveys a warmth and believability beyond that which we associate even with Velasquez.

The Holy Family with a Little Bird,
1650, Bartolome Esteban Murillo
The Holy Family with a Little Bird, painted in 1650 is one such work. Unlike most paintings of this type, the toddling Jesus and Joseph are the central figures as the Christ-child plays with a small, white, mongrel dog, seen begging at his feet, while Mary resides in the background, watching benignly over the playful, domestic scene. Balancing the presence of Mary on the left are the tools of her husband's trade on the right. Aside from the title and the first-century Hebrew garments, we might never recognize this delightful grouping as anything other than a depiction of a moment in the life of a typical young family. And in his secular work, such as Two Women at a Window painted in 1670, Murillo is able to capture the gentle amusement of a young teenage girl, perhaps in observing from afar a handsome would-be suitor, while her governess, above and behind her, hides her laughter behind her scarf. In quiet works such these, Murillo easily outshines the often pompous efforts of both Velasquez and Zurbaran.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Solomon R. Guggenheim

Solomon R. Guggenheim
In discussing modern art in America, quite a number of names come to mind--de Kooning, Pollock, Kandinsky, Rothko, Kline, Motherwell--the list of just the most prominent names might reach fifteen or twenty. However one of the most prominent, perhaps singularly the most important name in modern American art never wielded a paint brush in his entire life. That's because he was a collector, not a painter, though most certainly in his insight, daring, and Avant-garde tastes he could very well be considered something of an artist in the figurative sense of the word. He was collecting Cubism when no one here and few abroad had ever heard of Picasso. His mission was nothing less than to change the course of modern art history, which he did in October of 1959 with the opening of the most radical art edifice in the world, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Of course the name Guggenheim had been practically synonymous with the modern art scene in New York for most of the twentieth century, not just in the personage of Solomon Guggenheim but also his niece, Peggy. Shortly after WW I, Solomon Guggenheim was one of seven heirs to a diverse family fortune which included mines, banking, shipping, and foundries. With the help and advice of painter Hilla Rebay, his curator, he began putting together a collection of non-objective art at a time when a Picasso might be purchased from between $10. and $100. By the time the museum took shape under the guidance of the octogenarian Frank Lloyd Wright, a similar work was selling for half a million.  Under Rebay's direction, the collection was first displayed at a converted auto dealership on East 54th Street in New York. Later the Museum of Non-Objective Art moved to a townhouse bordering Central Park, which was torn down to allow construction of the present museum.

Peggy Guggenheim
In April of 1912, Solomon Guggenheim's brother, Benjamin, boarded the Titanic (along with his mistress) to return home from his yearly trip abroad. She made it, he didn't. With his death, his daughter, Peggy, came into a sizable fortune which she determined to spend. In addition to lavish shopping forays here and in Europe, Peggy shared her uncle's taste for the Avant-garde. Not only did she collect art but she also became an astute dealer too, at various times, operating art galleries in New York, London, and Venice. She championed a later generation of artist such as Pollock, Kline, de Kooning, and Warhol. Most of her collection ended up in her villa on Venice's Grand Canal where she threw lavish parties celebrating the arts and artists making waves on the international art scene. Today, her collection has been added to the Guggenheim Foundation collection though it remains in Venice where her palazzo has become yet another addition to the world-class Guggenheim Art Museums.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

John Singer Sargent

Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight , 1879,
John Singer Sargent
We often think of the "jet set" as a late 20th-century phenomena, but except for the ease of transportation, the "set" goes back at least another hundred years to the transatlantic liners and expatriates who couldn't decide which side of the Atlantic they liked best. One of these was John Singer Sargent. He came by his nomadic ways honestly. His parents seldom resided anywhere more than a few years and he was educated all over Europe. With that kind of background, and an early artistic bent, it is little wonder he settled in Paris as an impressionable young art student and was quite impressed with Impressionism. A painting dating from 1879 titled Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight could easily be mistaken for a Monet.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882,
John Singer Sargent
But Sargent was just as impressed by Spanish art, particularly that of Velasquez, and in Holland he found Franz Hals' work quite impressive. He seems to have been a fan of Edouard Manet as well.  Thus, in describing Sargent's style, the term "eclectic" comes to mind. Actually, his style is so distinctive one might be tempted to coin the term, Sargentism. His compositions were daring. Critics were often disturbed by his massive, seemingly "empty" sections of canvas and often deeply recessive shadows. His painting, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit dating from 1882 is nothing if not revolutionary in the realm of portrait composition.

Madame X, 1884,
John Singer Sargent
In 1884 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of one of Paris' greatest beauties, Madame Gautreau.  The painting, is the ultimate in late-nineteenth-century elegance, the profile so striking it ranks with that of Nefertiti.  But the bare shoulders and incredible, plunging neckline of the solid black evening gown were too much for even the French.  When it was exhibited at the Salon, not only was Paris society shocked, but so were Judith Gautreau and her husband. Thus the portrait became known simply as Madame X.  It was so unfavorably received that Sargent thought it best to moved to London.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Salvadore Dali

Sacrament of the Last Supper, 1955, Salvadore Dali
If I had to name my favorite artist of all time, it would, without a doubt, be Salvadore Dali. I was first exposed to Dali about thirty years ago when I was stationed in the Air Force near Washington D.C. and had almost unlimited time and very limited money. The National Gallery of Art naturally attracted me to it's incredible storehouse of painted treasures. On the ground floor, in a room totally devoted to it, hung Dali's Sacrament of the Last Supper. It was incredible. It's a big painting, perhaps in the neighborhood of 9 by 15 feet as I recall. Unlike today's generation, I seldom use the word "awesome", but no other word I can think of adequately describes this exquisite masterpiece. I think I sat and gazed at it for at least a half-hour, not because my legs were tired, though they were, but because of it's sheer, overwhelming, religious and visual power.   
Persistence of Memory, 1931, Salvadore Dali
Salvador Dali was born in Spain in 1904. In Paris, he adopted first Impressionism, then Pointillism, and eventually Futurism. Following these forays into contemporary "isms" of the day, he returned to Madrid where he attended the Academy of Fine Arts. There he found his own personal style of illusionistic realism that he never abandoned. In 1931, he painted what was probably his most famous and familiar work, The Persistence of Memory.  Characterized by his trademark limp watches, I now have a necktie with a portion of that painting emblazoned upon it. When I taught school, I was a walking art history lesson.   
Salvadore Dali, 1960
Face of Mae West, 1935,
Salvadore Dali

No item on Dali would be complete without mention of his other trademark, his amusing little handlebar moustache. Equally amusing and much more outrageous was his personal behavior, often as little more than a means of garnering attention for himself and his work. Live, on TV's Ed Sullivan Show back in the 1950's, perhaps trying to outdo Jackson Pollock, he once threw open buckets of paint at a large canvas. He loved rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, of whom he sometimes painted surrealist portraits. His The Face of Mae West, for instance, comprises a stage set with a couch for a mouth, curtains drawn back for hair, and numerous architectural elements for the facial features.  Despite it's unconventional makeup, the likeness is unmistakable. Dali died in 1986 following a fire in which he was badly burned.  He was 82.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Attack of the Surrealists

Imagine walking into an art exhibition past a taxi in which two mannequins inside are being constantly hit by jets of water. Or finding the main exhibition hall looking something like a cave with 1200 bags of coal hanging from the ceiling. Okay, perhaps this sounds pretty tame beside what some artists are doing today, but imagine how it must have struck the Paris art crowd in 1938? The occasion was the
Aurora, Paul Delavaux, 1937
Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme. The Water Taxi (not preserved) was the product of the fertile mind of Salvadore Dali, and the tons of coal hanging from the ceiling, that of Marcel Duchamp. The exhibition was organized, not by an artist, but by the poet, Andre Breton, something of the intellectual guiding force of the Surrealist movement. Held in January, the show was a big hit, talked about for years later, but sadly, perhaps because of the war, never held again.

A Mid Summer's Night Dream,
1930-38, Marc Chagall
Paul Delavaux displayed his metamorphic painting Aurora, in which the rising sun turns tree trunks into nude women. (Nude women are a constant element in his work.) Chagall contributed his A Midsummer Night's Dream wherein a lovely bride seems about to marry a half-man, half-goat while egged on by a red, devilish cupid. 
The Treachery of Images,
1928-29, Rene Magritte

Belgian artist, Rene Magritte, contributed The Treachery of Images, an exquisitely detailed depiction of a brier pipe under which he'd written, "This is not a pipe."  The inscription made the silent point that it was a picture of a pipe. It was here that Salvadore Dali's Premonition of Civil War, or Soft Construction with Boiled Beans was first displayed. It was as apocalyptic as it was prophetic.Also displaying at the exhibition were Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Man Ray, and a dozen other artists that had taken up Surrealism at the time.

Premonition of Civil War, or
Soft Construction with Boiled Beans,
1938, Salvadore Dali
The whole point of the show was to force the viewers to look at things differently--even radically. It attempted to impose new demands on bourgeois manners and fears about, "What would people think?" The Surrealists wanted to free themselves and others from traditional ways of thinking, not just about art but about life. It was a political as well as artistic movement with the members espousing every left-leaning political doctrine that was fashionable at the time. However, disciplined political action was not the strong point of free-spirited men such as these and the art has long since outlasted any political meaning that may once have been attached to it. One lasting item that did come of the show however was A Dictionary of Surrealism, containing sarcastic biographies of the artists and the lexicon needed to understand them.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Super Realism

Stylized Minimalism, 2009, C.D. Willis
If you thought the most impersonal type of art ever created would probably be what has come to be called Minimalism, you might be wrong. Minimalism was an outgrowth of some of the color field paintings which themselves were an outgrowth of the Abstract Expressionist era. Now if you ask, what could be more impersonal than a canvas painted with muted shades and tints of lavenders and blues, the answer might surprise you. Think of a painting of a street in a moderate-size city, a sunny day, squeaky clean storefront windows reflecting a mirror image of the city street, painted so realistically one would have to study it for a minute or so to ascertain that it was in fact a painting, not a 3 by 6 foot blown-up photograph. On this street, a few cars, perhaps a truck, but no other evidence of human habitation, not even a scrap of paper--urban minimalism.

Prescriptions Filled, 1983, Richard Estes
The work I'm describing is that of Richard Estes, Prescriptions Filled, painted in 1983. At first glance its stark, Super-Realism would seem far-removed from the Minimalism that preceded it in the 1970s. But taking a closer look, one notices a near-perfect symmetry. A single, slender light post juts up from the deserted, cold gray sidewalk into the warm, blue sky, dividing the canvas nearly in half.  On the left the city, a warm, yet stark, uninhabited, urban landscape. On the right, the same landscape, reflected in the cold, sleek, pristine, blue-gray windows of an urban drugstore. The title of the painting is derived from a small sign in the window. The effect is eerie. One point perspective runs rampant. If fact, the painting appears to be more about linear design than its all-too-familiar subject matter. It's only this familiarity with the subjective content of the painting that makes it difficult for us to see this.

That's exactly what Minimalism was all about, stark, flat, linear design, without representational subject matter, certainly, but no less impersonal. The subtleties of scale, shape, mass, line and color are what makes a Minimalist painting fascinating--for about two minutes (three tops). Yet, using these same elements, Estes' paintings fascinate us for perhaps hours. We are so enraptured by his Super- Realism (sometimes called Photo-Realism) that it may be several minutes before we even notice the absence of human habitation. (Most, but not all of Estes' work is devoid of human presence.) We get so involved with "how-could-he-possible-do-that?" painting skills of the artist that the painting begins to seem more real than the scene itself. Yet strangely, when you take the time to think about it, a Minimalist painting is more real. It exists. It is not an illusion of something non-existent.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Saint Matthew

Unlike some of the arts, such as sculpture or architecture, which survive, even in a state of ruin, to some degree reflecting the artist's original intent, painting is not so fortunate. A few Roman fresco and mosaic murals date back a couple thousand years, and there is surviving evidence of a little Egyptian painting perhaps somewhat older than that, but for the most part, a painting dating back to the Renaissance is an "old" painting, and anything painted more than a thousand years ago we class as "ancient."    
St. Matthew c.800 AD,
Coronation Gospel
In this realm, there survive two quite interesting "paintings" in the form of illustrated manuscripts, one dating from around 795-810 A.D. the other from somewhere around 816-841 A.D. They don't call them "ancient manuscripts" for nothing! What makes them most interesting is that they are of the same subject--St. Matthew at work writing his best-selling gospel. The older of these paintings is from Charlemagne's Coronation Gospels. The latter is from The Gospel Book of Archbishop Ebbo of Reims. Both are from what art historians call the Carolingian era (pronounced Caro-LIN-ian). Though both from the same era, this is largely where their similarities end. The figure from the Coronation Gospel is shown seated in profile before a tilted writing desk in a classical painting style wearing flowing Roman dress. A large golden halo disk surrounds his head in what could also pass for the sun about to set in the distant landscape. The figure seems relaxed and to be drawing from within himself in recording holy writ.   

St. Matthew, 816-841 AD
The figure of St. Matthew from the Ebbo book seems somewhat influenced by the slightly earlier work in terms of the pose, but the style is totally different--heavily based upon Romanesque art. The figure seems to be taking dictation from a tiny angel in the upper right corner of the painting. His face is distorted, his body and hands cramped unnaturally. The effect is almost humorous, as if he could barely keep up with the dictated words of God being passed down to him. Unlike the earlier work, his white garment is not flowing but gossamer thin and extremely wrinkled. Also, unlike the earlier figure, the color is unnatural, dominated by various shades of sienas and umbers. The result is an emotionally charged, dramatic air of frantic energy. And, although it seems fussy and contrived to our eyes, it is this style of painting that will dominate art for the next six or seven hundred years until the dawn of the early Renaissance.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Starving Artist Syndrome

It is fashionable to believe that all truly great painters down through history were of the "starving artist" variety. The Impressionists are most often held up as proof of the failure of society to appreciate the struggling artist until at least after his death. Well, I hate to burst bubbles, but by in large, the facts simply don't support this premise. While it's true that the "painted sketches" of the Impressionists were a great joke to Ingres and his friends on the Salon jury in the 1860's, the fact is, the ridicule didn't last. Well before they died, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro, Cezanne, and Morisot sold paintings for good prices and similar acclaim. Monet, died a wealthy man in the 1920's in fact, his death heralded around the world, his work never more popular.

Manet, Degas, Turner and others were also successful in earning a decent living from their art.  The American expatriate, Whistler was the toast of London. Though he, like Rembrandt, had difficulty managing money, neither had difficulty making it. The two most common icons held up to support the starving artist mystique are inevitably Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Even if we allow some legitimacy in both cases, it must be noted that one was mad, and the other rejected a comfortable living as a banker and chose the exile of society in what might be considered the ultimate mid-life crisis. van Gogh chose to short-circuit his rise to fame by ending his life early. Gauguin chose the bare-chested beauties of Tahiti and a severe case of syphilis which ended his life just three years short of fame and social acceptance of his work.

The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse),
1910, Albert Pinkham Ryder
One painter, the American, Albert Pinkham Ryder, is a notable example on the starving artist on this continent, who did, indeed, live out his life in meager isolation and apparent poverty, painting with house paints and using inferior (non-archival) methods. But even here the myth is false.  It's not commonly known, but his exile was also self-imposed and his works actually became well-known, much imitated, and badly faked during his own lifetime. The fact is, if you're good, acceptance and recognition is to be had. If you're not, then neither are deserved.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Seeds of Impressionism

It is tempting to think of the beginning of Impressionism to be the 1874 Salon de' Refuse' in which seven renegade artists, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas, Cezanne, and Berthe Morisot, organized their own artistic statement in defiance of the official Salon. Of course1874 is merely the flashpoint. Every one of the artists mentioned were over 30 at the time and had been pursuing their brand of Impressionism for five to ten years. Each were schooled to some degree by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and every one of them had been influenced to varying degrees by those historical tributaries that had flowed into the Impressionist river then starting to meander through the French art landscape.

Entrée du village de Voisins, 1872,
Camile Pissaro
To get a feel for what and why Impressionism was, we must rewind back to 1855 to the Paris World's Fair. As seen through the eyes of Camille Pissarro, who arrived in Paris from his native St. Thomas in that year, the Palais des Beaux-Arts must have seemed as bewildering as a carnival fun house. Showing over 2,000 works by artists from 28 different nations. The show was really a thinly disguised conflict between three men, Jean-Aguste Ingres (prounouced Ang), Eugene Delacroix, and Gustave Courbet. Ingres and Delacroix were featured artist at the exhibit with 35-40 canvases each.  Courbet was the upstart outsider, disgruntled that two of his best works had been rejected, he built, at his own expense, a separate pavilion in which he displayed about 35 of his works. Lesser artists such as Corot had only 6 works displayed, Daubigny even fewer, and Millet only one.   
Mortefontain, 1864,
Jean-Baptiste-Camile Corot
Yet as a painter of tropical landscapes, it was these lesser-knowns that impressed the artistically naive young Pissarro. And, it was Corot to whom he turned for guidance. A certain courage was required to do so in that Corot's work was still seen as mere color sketches, his students following the path of least resistance under his banner. That path led outdoors, through the Fountainbleu forest, and straight to the Barbizon painters who had, for the previous 25 years, trekked south of Paris to its pristine, verdant beauty. Here, a devotion to nature deprived the public of what it liked most in painting, a story told by an artist of historical or anecdotal subjects. Here was a "democratic" art of rural roots intolerable to those of refinement and tastes. It was here, almost 20 years before they bore fruit, that the seeds of Impressionism were planted.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Salon des Refuse

It's a little difficult for us today to really grasp the volatile nature of the Parisian art world in the turbulent times of the 1860s. As painters today, we have no dominant art institution to compare to the French Academie des Beaux-arts, nor single, overriding "art contest" to compare with the Academy's annual Salons. France during this period had something on the order of 5,000 writers and critics covering the art scene while there were 12,000 working artists in Paris alone. If that sounds a bit top-heavy from a journalistic point of view, it was. As they say, everyone was a critic. France was drunk with art, which would explain why so much of it was simply bad art. I guess about the only thing we have today to compare with this phenomena is the hullabaloo that goes on in Hollywood every year between January and March when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates, then choose Oscar winners.  In a very real sense, the Salon shows were the Academy Awards of French painting, with often just as much riding on a work being selected "Best Picture" so to speak, as is the case today with the similarly designated gold statuette.

The White Girl,
Symphony in White, No. 1,
1863, James McNeill Whistler
This is not a perfect analogy, however. Although some in the film industry might argue the point, for the most part the A.M.P.A.S. is a relatively progressive organization generally aimed at the promotion of innovative efforts in both the arts and sciences of motion pictures. In contrast, that was definitely not the case with the French Academy. It would be hard to imagine a more conservative gaggle of immobile, stodgy, establishment, stick-in-the-mud hacks bent upon cementing their high and mighty academic traditions in the minds of the public and artists alike, or a group of so-called "art experts" in the press corps more dedicated to aiding and abetting this effort. Even before the Impressionists butted heads with this bulwark of art dictators, there was nothing less than a war going on between these art conservatives and art liberals not unlike we see happening politically in Washington now days.

Le Dejeuner sur 'Herbe (Luncheon in the Grass, 1863,
Edouard Manet
The Academicians were winning. The ranks of those combating them were just too thin. Leading them was landscape artist Gustave Courbet, followed at a discreet distance by Edouard Manet, Jean Francois Millet, Camille Corot, the writer Emile Zola, later Camille Pissarro, and a few others. The "war" reached such a fever pitch in 1863 that the Emperor Napoleon III had to step in and make peace by suggesting that those having their work rejected by the Salon should have their own alternative show called the "Salon des Refuses" (pronounced ref-u-SAY). 

Impression: Sunrise, 1863, Claude Monet
The show became a laughing stock. The problem was that many of the works "refused" by the Academy Salon were quite bad and had been justifiably excluded. But here too, among these inferior pieces, were Monet's Impression: Sunrise, Manet's Le Dejeuner sur 'Herbe (Luncheon in the Grass), and a strange looking portrait of a young lady in white (The White Girl, Symphony in White, No. 1) by some American upstart by the name of James McNeill Whistler. A guard even had to be posted by Manet's work to keep the outraged public from attacking the scandalous painting. But for the most part, they just laughed--long, hard, and boisterously. The show did change things though. Paintings were sold. Art dealers took notice. They might look funny, but there was money to be made from some of these works. In short, the battle might have been lost, but the rebels would survive to fight another day. Eventually, their "war" would be won.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Russian Art

If you mention Russia what comes to mind?  Vladimir Putin? McDonald's in Red Square?  Poverty? Cold, cold winters? Nobody mentioned art? Aside from an abiding love for the ballet and Chekov, there's little about Russia right now to suggest art. Almost one hundred years ago, as the twentieth century dawned, Russia was brimming with art and artists of all kinds. Some giants of later years were still students, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, and Kaszimir Malevich, but the country was alive with a creative energy that would sadly soon be doused when the hardships of Communism, the World Wars, and world Depressions pock marking Russian history during much of the century.  Socially, artistically, economically, politically, at the beginning of this century, it was a country poised to leap forward. It was a leap of faith and it's unfortunate that it landed flat on its face. But some of the artists it launched, fleeing elsewhere, were fortunate enough, to soar!

Six-Winged Seraph, 1904, Mikhail Vrubel
There have always been two, largely conflicting, influences in Russian art. One came from the West--Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso (you can list them as well as I can). The other has been traditional, growing out of Eastern Orthodoxy, as Russian, as Greek, as mystical, and as mysterious as the Cyrillic alphabet. One involves the rapid, emotional, instinctive layering on of paint to canvas as much at one with the Russian spirit as a shot of Vodka. The other is laborious, tedious, controlled, delicate, and a jewel-like as a Czarist Faberge egg. So radically different were these influences that seldom was any artist able to assimilate both into a single work of art. Mikhail Vrubel, in 1904, in his painting Six-Winged Seraph came close, but the mixture is a dark, uneasy cohabitation atypical of anything anyone else was doing at the time. Perhaps Marc Chagall, later, in Paris, came closest to melding Western influences with traditional Russian culture, but not with Orthodox iconography in any way.

Ivan Morozov, 1911, Valentin Serov

Sergei Shchukin, 1915, Cornelius Krohn

Largely responsible for launching Russian art into the realm of modern art were two wealthy Moscow collectors, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. Shchukin had over 200 French paintings from the late nineteenth century in his home, and over fifty more by Matisse and Picasso alone. Shchukin even allowed them privately furnished rooms in his home where they stayed when they visited the city.  Morozov's collection tended toward Post-Impressionism. In the absence of great art museums in the city, both men opened their homes to the public every Saturday. They became meccas for art students to study and meet one another. Moreover, had not the reality of war, defeat, and political upheaval intruded, Moscow or St. Petersburg might have come to rival Paris as the eye of the European art hurricane.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Roy Lichtenstein

If all the people who secretly love soap operas, but wouldn't admit it even at gunpoint, were herded to the same place at the same time they'd overflow a major league ball stadium. They'd also probably elect Roy Lichtenstein their favorite painter. We often think of Lichtenstein in conjunction with comic books, and certainly there is this stylistic element in his work, but actually much of his work is more closely related in terms of theme and content to the pretty faces and unhappy plot lines of Days of our Lives.  One of Lichtenstein's earliest, and most famous Pop Art paintings is a 4 by 4 foot canvas depicting a close-up of an attractive, but troubled young lady talking on the phone.  It's titled Oh, Jeff...I Love You, Too...But...  Painted in 1964, this one work encapsulates the plot lines of dozens of soaps, sitcoms, mini-series, and movies, from Birth of a Nation to Titanic.  (Oh, Jack, I love you too, but...the ship is sinking.)   

Oh Jeff...I Love You Too, But...,
1964, Roy Lichtenstein
Lichtenstein was born in 1923, and while he was not necessarily the first artist to explore pop culture in relationship to "high" culture, he certainly was one of the first Americans to do so. (British artists such as Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi created some of the first examples of this type of art back in the early 1950s.)  Today, we smile and look fondly upon Liechtenstein's work, but at the time it was created, his giant cartoon depictions ruffled the feathers of quite a number of art critics. The public loved it, even if they didn't quite understand it (perhaps as a reaction to unfathomable Abstract Expressionism). The critics, on the other hand, understood it only to well, and saw this mixing of pop culture and "high" art as a threat to their preconceived notions of modernism, mainstream art, and where art was "going". Where it was going was not, to their way of thinking, in the direction of comic strips, Brillo boxes, soup cans, Coke bottles, or Marilyn Monroe portraits ad nauseum.   
Today, we tend to dismiss Pop Art as something of a momentary "blip" on the snowy radar screen of art history. And certainly its brief heyday in the early 1960s would tend to support this notion. However, coming as it did following the end of the Modernist era, we have to wonder if the fears of critics such as Clement Greenberg, who sought to shape art history into a neat progression from point "A" in the past to point "B" in the future, weren't entirely unfounded. Pop shook up the art world, stretching definitions of art well past what even many of the abstract expressionists were willing to accept at the time. In retrospect, we now see Lichtenstein, Warhol, and the others as the opening "Pop" of Post-Modern art. But fifty years ago, there was an ambivalence about it. The viewers, the critics, sometimes even the artist themselves, were uncertain whether Pop was embracing popular culture or satirizing it. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Feeling Romantic?

Charging Chasseur, 1812, Theodore Gericault
The word "romantic" is bound up in all kinds of images involving hearts and flowers, cupids, valentines, candy, crooning tunes, and spooning under the looming moon in June. Strictly speaking, it means "Roman-like." I'm not sure how the two ever came to be equated. So far as I know, the Romans were no more "romantic" than anyone else. However, I think probably our present day associations with the word date back to the Romantic period in the arts, and the first half of the nineteenth century, an era sometimes known as Romanticism. Like so many art eras, the Romantic period was not limited merely to painting. It had a presence in music, and actually was perhaps strongest in literature. In fact, literary Romanticism still endures, albeit in a somewhat raunchier form, on the book shelves of supermarkets today.

Death of Sardanapalus, 1828, Eugene Delacroix
In painting, as in literature, it was all about lovely, helpless ladies, powerful, colorful heroes, heroic deeds, violence, death and dying, mourning, tears, love, hate and all that. Sounds like a typical afternoon soap opera, doesn't it? Artistically it was about Theodore Gericault, Eugene Delacroix, J.M.W. Turner, and John Constable. The first two were French, the latter two,  English. The first two painted wild scenes from mythology, the Bible, and even current events, while the latter two were landscape painters. Romantic 
The Hay Wain, 1821, John Constable
landscapes? Yes, Turner was partial to sunsets...or sunrises...usually it's hard to tell and romantically speaking it makes little difference. Constable was more prone to nostalgia, glorious skies, lovely rivers and streams, hot summer days, clouds, livestock, small towns with church spires off in the distance, and everyday people leading everyday lives. It may not sound all that romantic but in Constable's talented hands, it was quite soul stirring.

The Fighting Timeraire Towed to her Final Berth to be
Broken Up, 1839, J.M.W. Turner
In France, Romanticism was a reaction to the high-flown, stilted, moral rectitude of the Classical era during the early part of the 1800s. That, of course, had been a reaction to the Rococo flights of fancy of the century before. So the French, in fact, were wildly swinging from one extreme to the other. Gericault and Delacroix not only painted Romanticism, they lived wildly romantic lives themselves. The English, on the other hand, had always been somewhat romantic in their artistic tastes dating back to the landscape backgrounds of Reynolds and especially Gainsborough. Turner and Constable merely dispensed with the distracting portraiture in the foregrounds and concentrated upon beautiful settings, tranquil and serene scenes as seen by Constable; the wild, woolly, wind, rain, and fire as seen by Turner. So, the next time your start feeling "romantic," remember the debt you owe to the Romantic painters. There's more to it than hearts and flowers.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Northern Renaissance

When we think of the Renaissance, we inevitably think first of Michelangelo, then perhaps Leonardo, Raphael and a host of lesser forerunners such as Donatello, Verrocchio, Ghiberti, or Ghirlandaio. This is unfortunate, not that these weren't great artists, but that our whole outlook on the Renaissance is so southerly oriented. The Italian Renaissance wasn't the only game in town. Just to the north were Durer, Bosch, Cranach, Grunewald, Van Eyck, Campin, Brueghel, and van der Weyden to name but a few. As in the south, two or three stand out as leaders, Van Eyck and Durer to be sure, with Brueghel and Grunewald not far behind. But in fact, the diverse cast of characters in the North were much more nearly equal in importance than in Italy where the "big three" dominated. However personally, I have a favorite--Roger van der Weyden.

Van der Weyden was a Flemish artist born around 1400, which puts him very early in the Northern Renaissance era. He was a pupil of Jan Van Eyck and also of Robert Campin, which certainly gives him the pedigree of greatness. Though he didn't start painting until his late 20's, his efforts brought him immediate success. Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, also the brother of the Jean Duc de Berry and Charles V, king of France, made van der Weyden his court painter where his incredibly realistic style quickly spread to countries as far away as Spain and Italy. Van der Weyden was able to incorporate the Flemish realism of Van Eyck, marrying it to the stark, emotionalism of Robert Campin, and in so doing, evolved a style imbued with such touching human emotion that his work often moved viewers to tears.

The Deposition (The Descent from the Cross), 1435, Roger van de Weyden
On such painting, perhaps his greatest, was van der Weyden's 1435 Deposition (The Descent from the Cross). The first thing one notices about the painting is its inverted "T" shape. Populated by a tight composition of no less than ten life-size figures, Christ is lovingly removed from the cross as his mother, echoing a pose nearly identical to that of her dead son, collapses into the arms of other mourners. Each figure from that of Christ himself, to Mary Magdalen is so individually portrayed the feeling is one of watching a passion play. The colors are bold and striking, as natural as if we were looking at a modern photograph, while no detail is neglected, and no pose has an artificial or contrived quality. Van der Weyden probes every different kind of grief in the faces and figures of his mourners yet never lets the pathos get out of hand. Given the fact that this was a pieces from the early Northern Renaissance, one might almost get the notion that the Renaissance movement spread southward, though actually it seems to have developed in both areas almost simultaneously.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Reevaluation

Probably the most controversial thing I've written in the past year dealt with an American artist who, during his own lifetime at least, was quite likely the least controversial artist alive. And to once more see him batted and battered around is not why I mention him again.  In the past, he seems to have been blackballed as the liberal equivalent of a Communist judging by the way America's "upper-crust" art community has always seemed to laugh, or at least smirk at the mere mention of his name. Yet, judging from various news accounts, it seems the twenty-first century is sparking a reevaluation of his life's work by some of the very people who have, at one time or another, snubbed or even jeered the paintings of this man who is easily most popular American artist of the 20th century. Graduate students are starting to write doctoral dissertations on him, while a major touring exhibits of 70 of his original oils has visited 6 major museums across the country. One former critic has even dubbed this the "Norman Rockwell Century."

Harry Philbrick, curator of the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut, thinks much of the problem is those critics and museum directors who have never seen a Rockwell original, only poor to mediocre reproductions. He confesses, "...I didn't realize they were so big or that he was such an excellent painter...he is not just an illustrator.  He is a first-rate artist." Cathy Osman, professor of fine arts at Marlboro College, Vermont, points out that the art community tends to favor "...the grittier, dark side of American life," of Hopper and John Sloan. Internationally,  Paul Johnson, a British historian goes even further, "People do not like Picasso, they just feel they ought to, but they genuinely love Rockwell." In Japan, where some of his paintings have toured, they compare his work to the best of the scroll painters.

Beyond the Easel, 1969, Norman Rockwell
Strangely though, Rockwell greatly admired Picasso and went to Paris in the 1920s to study Cubism.  He left disillusioned when his teachers, who made less in a year than he made on a single Post cover, kept asking him how to become a successful magazine illustrator. In 1969 he had his first major, one man show at an important New York gallery. No one of any importance in the art world came, but over one million dollars worth of his art was sold on the opening day. A ten-pound book on his work outsold Eric Segal's "Love Story" the next year. Collectors of his work have included Andy Warhol, Ross Perot, and Steven Spielberg, who not only owns 14 of them, but admits to being influenced by Rockwell in the making of his own popular classic, E.T. A Rockwell painting, Breaking Home Ties, in 2006 netted $15.4 million at auction, which is more than many Picasso's have brought. Yet the rejection continues. He's in good company, though. El Greco considered Michelangelo a "good man who simply could not paint," while Manet put down Cezanne as a bricklayer who painted with a trowel. Cezanne, on the other hand, looked at van Gogh and saw nothing but insanity. Norman, your time has come.
Breaking Home Ties, 1954, Norman Rockwell

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Giving Birth to Pop

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008
We tend to think that Abstract Expressionism suddenly gave way to Pop art sometime about 1960, give or take a couple years, as if the Pop artist like Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, or Roy Lichtenstein suddenly slammed the door on gestural painting in favor of their tightly controlled efforts at merging "pop" culture with so-called "high" culture. Well, it may not have been quite that neat and simple but such perceptions do have some element of truth in that the year 1960 is something of a convenient milestone for both styles. However there is one artist that stands nearly alone as a transitional figure between the two styles. That man is Robert Rauschenberg.

Black Mountain College in North Carolina might seem a rather unlikely womb for the birth of a new era in American art, but it was here in the late 1940s that Rauschenberg attended classes taught by Josef Albers and Willem de Kooning, and here he fell under the influence of composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Just as Cage used "found sounds" in his music, Rauschenberg, in the 1950s, applied "found images"--scraps of paper, actual objects, signs, newspaper clippings, attached to the canvas of his paintings, and then integrated into a single composition with the liberal application of paint ala de Kooning and Albers. He once did a painting called "Bed" made up of an actual pillow and quilt, attached to his canvas and splashed with huge quantities of runny paint--a hotel maid's worst nightmare.

Estate, 1963, Robert Rauschenberg
While at Black Mountain, Rauschenberg not only learned action painting, but studied photography as well. Rauschenberg came late to Abstract Expressionism but not to the use of photographic silk-screened images in paintings.  His sources for these images were common, everyday magazines and newspapers, which made him among the first (along with Warhol) to experiment with painted pop culture.  His 1963 painting, Estate, combined the use of oil paints and printers ink to create a montage made up of interior and exterior architectural photos silk-screened amongst freely applied abstract,  gestural strokes of paint. Rauschenberg, it could be said,  was a sort of artistic "midwife" giving birth to an evolutionary "missing link" between de Kooning and Warhol.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rikers' Dali

There is little doubt that New York City is the art capital of the world. If you were prowling the streets of New York in search of works of art you might head for the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, The Museum of Modern Art, or perhaps one of the dozens or so trendy little galleries in the Soho district. Or, you could get arrested. Huh? No, you wouldn't be likely to find much art in the 23rd precinct station house, but if the crime were serious enough, you would stand a chance of being sent to Rikers Island prison in the middle of the East River where you might be startled to walk down a hall and note unexpectedly the work of the surrealist showman extraordinaire', Salvadore Dali.   
What's a Dali doing in a prison? Well, in 1965, Dali was visiting New York and had planned to make what was undoubtedly a publicity sojourn to Rikers Island in support of the Art in Prison program. The morning of the visit, he unexpectedly took sick. His visit was canceled. But unwilling to disappoint the artist-inmates who were undoubtedly looking forward to meeting an artist who had, himself, spent some time in jail during his college years, Dali went upstairs to his studio in his St. Regis Hotel penthouse suite and took out a 4-foot by 5-foot sheet of paper. He began slashing away at it with his paint-laden brushes. A little more than an hour later it was finished and Dali sent his assistant trekking to Rikers with his gift in hand.   
The Rikers Island Dali, 1965,
Salvadore Dali
The watercolor and charcoal work is startlingly different from Dali's usually highly refined color surrealism. This painting depicts a crucifixion, somewhat indistinctly visible through a web of dark lines. The cross is apparent after a moment's study. It is strong, powerful, and rectilinear. Then you see a bloodshot eye, peering through matted strands of hair, or perhaps thorns, blood dripping down over a spent body. For years, the painting hung in the dining hall. It yellowed with age and became suspect as an inmate copy of a Dali original. Eventually it was moved to a hallway between a vending machine and some pay phones.  In 1980, an appraiser was called in to authenticate the image. It was valued at between $15,000 and $175,000. In March, 2003, the drawing was stolen and replaced by a fake. Three corrections officers and a deputy warden were charged with the crime.  Three plead guilty, one was acquitted. The original drawing, now valued at around $500,000, was never recovered. Dali died in 1989, but the message he sent to the artists of Rikers Island continues to inspire. "You are artists. Don't think of your life as finished for you. With art, you have always to feel free."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Painting the Resurrection

The life here on earth of Jesus Christ has been the greatest source of inspiration for artist since that life began. Great works of art abound depicting his annunciation, his birth, his childhood, his presence as a Good Shepherd, parables of his teachings, his last supper, his crucifixion, his descent from the cross, his entombment, and his ascension into heaven. As we ponder the life of Christ in art, it's interesting to consider that episode from Christ's life which is notably missing from the list above. The one event upon which all Christianity is suspended is Christ's resurrection, yet strangely I can think of at best only one or two masterpiece quality paintings in which an artist made any attempt to depict this centerpiece event of Christianity.

The Resurrection, 1463, Piero Della Francesca
The most notable artist was Piero Della Francesco, the year was around 1450, and interestingly enough, the fresco masterpiece from the Early Renaissance is not in any church, but in the Town Hall of a small Italian village called Borgo San Sepolcro. The work depicts a triumphant, standing, semi-nude Christ resting his left arm on an uplifted knee as his foot rests upon a low sarcophagus while in his right hand he holds a staff with a cross-emblazoned banner streaming stiffly over his shoulder.  Arrayed before the tomb are what passes (in the Renaissance vernacular) for Roman guards sleeping, or just awakening to the glorious miracle. And, though the work is impressive (largely because it stands so alone in depicting the event), it is probably most regarded by art historians not for its subject matter but for the artist's obsession with order and geometry.  The composition boasts an all-to-obvious triangulation anchored at its base by the figures of the soldiers and rising to an apex squarely between Christ's eyes.   
The Resurrection, 1463,
Piero Della Francesca
(detail of self-portrait)
Having discussed the one notable exception, the point that arises from all of this is: Why?  Why is it artists such as Grunewald, Leonardo, Rubens, Raphael, Tintoretto, and others, who have contributed nativities, annunciations, crucifixions and all other manner of religious works of similar stature, have not been so inspired by Christ's resurrection? Crucifixions are a little more dramatic perhaps.  Ascensions are probably a bit more spectacular. But certainly a resurrection is more dramatic than a last supper, a prayer in Gethsemane, or Christ knocking at an unopened door. Moreover, inasmuch as the church has been the biggest source of such art works, one also has to wonder that Della Francesca found himself painting in a town hall, rather than St. Peter's.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

An Ordinary Man

We are use to stories about the colorful, or tragic, or explosive lives various artist have led and the colorful, tragic, or explosive paintings those artist have created as a result. It's refreshing then to relate the story of one artist who was so ordinary in every way he almost defies belief. He was born in 1898, a hundred years ago, in a small Belgian town. He was the son of a merchant and the oldest of three boys. When he was sixteen, he met the girl whom he later married. A few years later he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, then worked as a wallpaper designer until he was nearly forty when he quit to paint full-time. He lived most of his life with his wife in a  modest Belgian suburb. When he went out, he dressed in a gray topcoat and bowler hat. He lived an average lifespan.  He died in 1967 at the age of 69.       

The Treachery of Images, 1928-29, Rene Magritte
(The words read, "This is not a pipe.")
 Magritte presents an image representing a pipe.
About the only thing tragic in his entire life happened when he was a mere fourteen years old. His mother killed herself by drowning. Her body was recovered in the boy's presence, her nightgown covering her face. As a result, often in his paintings, faces are turned away or shrouded. He was a surrealist, but his work and life were about as opposite of that "other" surrealist, Salvadore Dali, as one could imagine. His name was Rene' Magritte. His style is not as "real" as Dali's, his paintings nowhere near as large, his palette, downright dull in comparison. There is absolutely nothing "glorious" about his work, yet one comes away with the feeling that there may be more "depth" in his ordinary, yet sinister visions than anything Dali ever "nightmared" of.   

The Human Condition, 1935,
Rene Magritte
Magritte's work is cold--calculated. Dali's is hot--emotional. Magritte's nightmares are like ours, set in ordinary rooms, inside normal houses, on conventional streets. Yet they slip up on you and stab you in the back. The instant when you think you understand what you see, you're clobbered by the unexpected as in his 1933 painting, The Human Condition. In it, Magritte displays an ordinary window, through which is seen an ordinary landscape except that suddenly we're aware that most of what we're seeing is a painting of that landscape propped upon an easel, the landscape so accurately painted that the entire canvas seems transparent, all but disappearing right before our eyes. We're left pondering which is more real, the landscape or the painting of the landscape. It's an ageless question for artists. Which is more real, their art or their life?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Renaissance Rat Race

Artists have times, seemingly, when they can't give their work away, and others when they have so many patrons clamoring for their time and efforts that it comes close to driving them mad. Of course, those artists with time on their hands envy those without it, and probably the reverse is true as well. Imagine, if you will, the situation in which Michelangelo must have found himself around 1508, with the death of Julius II, just four months after the completion of the greatest painting ever executed on a ceiling (or anywhere else, for that matter). There was need for the dead pope's oft-postponed tomb, yet there was the pontiff's money-grubbing heirs harping at its exorbitant cost and grandiose dimensions, demanding it be downsized and correspondingly reduced in price while the newly elected, (di Medici) pope in Florence appealed to him to return to his home town to design and build a facade for the family church (San Lorenzo).
The Basilica di San Lorenzo today, still lacking a facade.
In returning to Florence, Michelangelo had to turn down highly attractive offers from the King of France to work in Paris and from the magistrates of Bologna for a statue. When he went to Carrara to select stones for the Medici chapel facade he was dismayed to find that bribes had been paid to the Florentine city fathers to award the contract for the stone to the quarries of Pietrasanta instead. And, as that scheme came to nothing, Michelangelo was ordered back to Rome to complete the unfinished frescoes resulting from the death of Raphael. Before he could become involved in that project Italy became involved in a civil war.  While Rome was being plundered, Michelangelo found himself back in Florence supervising the defenses of the city. It was little wonder he suffered a panic attack and fled the whole mess.

The Medici Tombs, Michelangelo,
San Lorenzo, Florence
Eventually, Michelangelo managed to pull himself together and return to Florence to complete some of his greatest sculptural efforts, namely the de Medici mortuary chapel in the still "facadeless" church of San Lorenzo. Then, when he returned to Rome to fulfill his contract with the heirs of Julius II for an appropriate tomb, he no more than got there than the Pope ordered him to destroy the Perugino frescoes over the altar of the Sistine Chapel, remove two windows, and paint yet another hated fresco, this time of The Last Judgment.  And for his efforts, he was much maligned by the more pious inhabitants of the papal court (especially the Master of Ceremonies), for his proclivities toward nude figures in decorating his holiness' private chapel.  Michelangelo fought back by painting the man's life-size portrait  as Minos in Hades (lower right corner, the first image a pope sees upon entering the chapel). Yet, shortly after the work was done, the controversy reached such a pitched battle that Pope Paul III ordered the offending fresco pulled down.  It was saved only at the last moment when the pope was persuaded that a few strategically placed robes might make the whole thing less offensive. A quite mediocre artist, Daniele da Volterra, was chosen to perform this sacrilege, which he did so ineptly that two hundred years later, a second coat of paint had to be applied to keep the offending genitals in Michelangelo's masterpiece concealed.
The Last Judgment, 1537-41, Michelangelo

Friday, June 10, 2011

Rembrandt's Ups and Downs

The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp,
1632, Rembrandt van Rijn
Seldom in the history of art has an artist had such a roller coaster existence of highs and lows in his life as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Born in Leyden, Holland, in 1606, the son of a middle-class miller of grain; as a teenager, Rembrandt studied Latin at Leyden University for a time before becoming the student of a successful local painter. He moved to Amsterdam in 1631 and was something of an overnight success as a portrait artist and etcher. There, a year later, he painted the first of his famous group portraits, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp. The painting is a masterpiece of dramatic, chiaroscuro lighting, illuminating the tense, clinical subject in graphic detail.

Above left, the Rembrandt House In Amsterdam, today, the Rembrandt Museum.
At right, Rembrandt's wife Saskia as Flora, 1635 

In 1634, Rembrandt met and married his beloved Saskia, who bore him four children and was the model for many of his best portraits and religious works of the time. The next eight years were the happiest and most prosperous of his life. He bought a large house in a fashionable part of Amsterdam which he furnished with the best money could buy. His lovely wife and children were always dressed in only the most stylish manner.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1669,
Rembrandt van Rijn, one of his last paintings
Unfortunately, as his popularity soared, he became reckless in his creative zeal. In 1642 he painted his greatest group portrait, commonly known as The Night Watch (see previous article below), but in spite of it's massive size and extraordinary composition, the painting proved his undoing. The members of Captain Banning's Militia Company had each contributed a like amount for inclusion in the enormous painting, expecting to be portrayed in a dignified manner in all their glorious and colorfully arrayed uniforms. What they got more closely resembled a mob scene, with some members prominently depicted while others were barely discernible, lost in the background. Rembrandt's popularity plummeted, while in the same year, his wife and three of his four children all died. His huge house was dragging him into dept. The nursemaid he hired to care for his one remaining son became his mistress and bore him a daughter. As if his emotional and financial well-being were not bad enough, the resulting scandal very nearly destroyed him. In 1656 he was declared bankrupt and all his possessions were sold. Only a complicated financial trust masquerading as an art dealership saved him from total financial ruin and allowed him to live out the remainder of his 63 years in modest obscurity, during which time he painted some of his most deeply moving portraits.