Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Horatio Greenough

The year was 1840.  The place was the center of the center of the adolescent American democracy.  Beneath the Capitol dome in the center of the rotunda in Washington, DC, sat an enormous mass of white marble covered with a large piece of canvas while all around were the legislative movers and shakers of the time, their wives, their children, and their children's children. All were waiting breathlessly for the moment when the shroud would be removed and before them would stand a monumental tribute to the father of their country. It was the first piece of sculpture ever commissioned by the US government and the most expensive piece of art in the whole country. There were speeches praising President Washington, speeches praising what he stood for, speeches praising the sculptor. The moment arrived, a hush fell over the crowd, the cord was cut and the drapery fell gracefully to the floor. There was silence, then a sort of collective gasp, then a quiet murmuring that gradually rose to something approaching a din. There, before hundreds of eyes representing the entire country, was a half-naked statue of a Greek god with some basic resemblance to their beloved first President.

Photo by Mark Pellegrini
George Washington, 1840,
Horation Greenough
Reactions ranged from outright anger to ridicule and laughter. The politicians had been taken for a ride. Some saw it as the biggest art fraud in the history of the world. All they wanted was a simple, dignified, statue of Mr. Washington being...well...Mr. Washington. What they got was more like Zeus. It was probably fortunate that the sculptor, Horatio Greenough, was half a world away in Florence, where he'd been studying for fifteen years and had the good sense to remain for another eight years before returning to this country to face the music. By that time his eleven-foot-tall statue had been laboriously and unceremoniously banished to the Capitol lawn where it sat unprotected from the elements for another fifty years. The thing was not ugly. In fact it was quite noble by classical standards, but to say the least it was very undemocratic and far, far from what the people expected. It wasn't that they didn't try to understand it either. The problem was they had no visual basis for that understanding. Nothing in this country had ever been seen like it.

Ironically, Greenhough's Washington may have
seemed far less out of place ornamenting the nation's
front lawn than under the Capitol dome.
Horatio Greenough was born in 1805 to a prominent Boston family. While at Harvard, he became interested in sculpting and was advised that only in Italy could he hope to learn his craft. Until then, the only sculptures done in the United States were weathervanes, wooden Indians, and figureheads for the lively shipbuilding industry. In 1825 Greenhough set sail for Rome where he studied for a few years, before returning to the U.S. because of illness. In 1828, he returned to Italy, this time to Florence. His first commission came in 1830 from the writer, James Fenimore Cooper for a small grouping known as the Chanting Cherubs (since lost). Greenough should not have been surprised by the reception his Washington received some ten years later, for when his fellow countrymen saw Cooper's marble grouping, they immediately jumped on the fact that the figures were nude. It was the first nude sculpture figures to be seen on these shores. Based upon a painting of two angels by Raphael, Americans were so unfamiliar with its source, they were profoundly shocked by the two naked little musical moppets. Worse than that, it seems they were so in love with gadgetry that they actually expected the marble figures to sing. In reading some headlines recently, it would seem Americans haven't changed all that much.
Surprisingly, Greenhough's Washington wasn't his only sculpture to
grace the U.S. Capitol grounds. His 1850s vintage, The Rescue,
once flanked the Capitol steps. It patronizingly depicted a truly monumental
 Daniel Boone "rescuing" a native American "savage" from his own savagery,
while coincidentally making the wilderness safe for white settlers. By that
time, "Savage" (almost) nudity seems to have become socially acceptable.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Henrietta Johnston

Amongst amateur, and even professional, artists today, one of the most common figures to be found is the artistically inclined woman in the role of the "painting mother." In some cases it's a situation where a female artist became a mother and merely continued her work, perhaps on a somewhat reduced scale while in the midst of raising a family. Probably more common however, especially amongst amateurs, is the mother who has turned to art as a respite from the daily grind of motherhood. In today's world at least, once the kids are in school, their mother has some time to herself, to be herself, to become that which motherhood and young children have forced her to put aside temporarily. Quite often, her art interests centers on the lives of her children, and not uncommonly, this blooms into the art of portraiture. If she paints for herself, her children are ready models, which often leads to works of other people's children and finally other people. It can begin as a hobby, but if she's good, especially once the kids are gone, it can become a career.

Henrietta Johnston came to this country in 1708. She came alone with three kids, landing from the boat in Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina. She had originally been traveling with her husband, Gideon, who had been sent by the Anglican Bishop of London to become the rector of St. Phillips Church. However, during a stopover in the Madeira Islands, it would seem the good reverend went ashore and in returning at a late hour, literally "missed the boat." To make matters worse, upon arrival, she found the parishioners had appointed their own rector who, along with his family, weren't in the mood to depart the pulpit or the parsonage. Though I'm sure she and her brood were not left literally standing on the docks, neither was their plight very comfortable--a young French-Irish mother and children with no visible means of support. Fortunately, she had certain invisible means at her disposal to survive. She was an artist.

Portrait of Henriette Chastaigner,
1711, Henrietta Johnson
Portrait of Col. Samuel Prioleau,
1715, Henietta Johnson

Henrietta De Beaulieu Dering Johnston's training and background would suggest she was at best a talented amateur who had a knack for portraiture. Surprisingly, she didn't use oils, or watercolors, but French pastels (a relatively new medium at that time). Her work immediately became popular in the small coastal city. Her 1711 Portrait of Henriette Chastaigner (above, right), or her 1715 Portrait of Col. Samuel Prioleau (above, left) suggest she may have had some previous training, but the likenesses are somewhat stylized, especially in the area of the eyes. Even when her husband finally managed to make it to Charles Town to join her, life was not easy. Deeply in debt, she worked hard to help make ends meet. So hard, in fact, she ran out of supplies. She had to make a lengthy trip to London to get more. On the way back she even had a run-in with pirates. Then, shortly after her return, Gideon was killed in a boating accident. For the rest of her life, she and her family were something of a "charity case." But her work remained popular, at one point taking her to New York to fulfill commissions--an artist-mother who, almost by accident, became the first working female artists on this side of the Atlantic.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Behind the Gare at St. Lazare,
1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson
As working artists of the 21st century, we are all acutely aware of the link between art and the camera. Photographers have long deemed their best work to be art, and many painters have long embraced the product of their own cameras, or those of others, as an integral step in their seeing and producing their own form of pigmented art on canvas. One of the most interesting artists with a camera lived in a small apartment overlooking the Tuileries in Paris. He was 95 years old when he died in 2004 though the last 25 years of his life, he seldom took pictures. Instead, he sat at the window of his apartment and drew the scene below--the Paris street, the Louvre, and the Musee d'Orsay. The scene was not new. Over a century ago, Monet and Pissaro shared the apartment below his and both painted their impression of it. As he grew older, Henri Cartier-Bresson became an artist with a pencil, his eye, his camera, his lively, yet disciplined hand recording the image on his ever-present sketch pad.

A view out the window, typical of a
Cartier-Bresson drawing.
Cartier-Bresson came from a wealthy textile family so financially conservative that once, while on a big-game safari in Africa, when he got sick, his father ordered him to come back to Paris immediately lest they have to pay the exorbitant cost of shipping his body home. He claims to have been cured by the friendly, local witch doctor. The man was an interesting bundle of contrasts. His most famous work, a book of his photos entitled The Decisive Moment, catalogs a hectic life traveling all over Europe and Asia covering news stories, yet his work has such an artistic edge the event itself is quickly forgotten. Describing himself as a turbulent Buddhist, he loves all things Chinese yet has visited the country only once. His photos have a surrealist quality yet he was at best only a peripheral figure in the 1930s movement. An intimate friend of the French painter, Pierre Bonnard, he also was close to Picasso, who detested Bonnard.

Cartier-Bresson working on a self-portrait
at his window on the world.
As a convert from the film image to that of the pencil, Henri Cartier-Bresson was acutely aware of masses and shapes, but in his drawings, he seems to have preferred the line as his favorite mode of expression. He claimed to be an impostor, his drawings only of interest to collectors because he was once a famous photographer. Yet there is much of Bonnard in his work, also the influence of poets, like D'Annunzio, James Joyce, and Rimbaud, from whom he developed a wanderlust, which served him well as a photojournalist. His most noticeable influence, however, seems to have been Matisse, despite the fact he rarely worked in color. But it was the artists from the 19th century he loved most, Chardin, Ingres, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Renoir. It is from them, he says, that he learned his craft.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Heinrich Kley

Even the non-artists among us do it. We sit at the telephone, listening to the elevator music while on hold, our pen hovering mere millimeters above the pristine whiteness of the notepad, waiting the instant when it will be called to duty to write down some vitally important bit of data or scrap of trivia.  Our fingers twitch involuntarily. The pen touches down out of sheer boredom and we began dispensing ink from the tiny ball in the tip, tracing monotonous paths of pigmented lines which eventually begin to form more and more complex figures or designs drawn from deep within our subconscious. It's called doodling. And, varying according to our artistic bent, they may or may not look like much. Moreover, only the broadest definition of the term could deem them to be art.

Northern Italian Peasant with
Bagpipes, Heinrich Kley, typical
of his early work.
Heinrich Kley was born in the heart of Germany in 1863. He was a painter of landscapes, portraits, city scenes, and later industrial monuments such as tunnels, architecture, and shipyards. His oils and watercolors were typical of an academically trained hand and eye working in the late 1800s. But Heinrich Kley is not remembered for his paintings. Although most of them are far too complex and profound to be classed as mere "doodles," there is that spontaneous, unplanned quality to many of them--an expert artists unleashing his psyche to flow freely from the tip of his pen, seemingly just to entertain himself, surprising even himself perhaps by the pencil and ink images that would seem to magically appear before his eyes.

An example of Kley's "biting" humor

Some are startlingly simple, a lone figure on a beach or isolated, unrelated men, women, children, or animals--light, airy, and delicate. Others are much more highly organized and complex, full of sarcasm, criticism, and dark humor. Some have an underlying sexual theme, nude figures, dancing or playing; animals such as centaurs, penguins, crocodiles, or dragons. Some were shocking. Some might have gotten him in trouble except that at the time his name and work were so obscure he's not even mentioned in most art history books. Yet his sketchbook is a treasure of deftly probing illustrations giving us insight into both the man, his lively mind, and the prewar German society in which he lived. He's an inspiration to all of us who absentmindedly put pen to scratch pad and pour out our inner self. Maybe it is this that is the more profound art, rather than our more overt attempts at pretentious, archival, painted, creative exposition.
Walt Disney was an early collector
of Kley's work, which is  said to have
inspired figures in his classic
masterpiece, Fantasia.

If Kley's elephant can dance, why not
a Disney hippo?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hans Haacke

Helmsboro Country Unfolded, 1990, Hans Haacke
It's a little disconcerting at first glance, perhaps somewhat humorous, maybe easily mistaken for the work of Klaus Oldenburg. It appears to be a six-foot-long open pack of Marlboro cigarettes sprawled out across the naked, hardwood floor of a New York SoHo art gallery in 1990. A second impression might lead one to believe it was some kind of anti-smoking statement. However, upon closer inspection, it turns out the name on the familiar package reads, "Helmsboro," while just below that are the words "20 Bills of Rights." On each of the monstrous filter-tip cigarettes spilling out across the floor are the words, "Philip Morris funds Jesse Helms. It would appear that neither the tobacco company, famous for it's support for the fine arts, nor Senator Jesse Helms, famous for his opposition of the National Endowment for the Arts, is a close personal friend of the artist--Hans Haacke.

Haacke was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1936. He grew up knowing firsthand, from a German point of view, the horrors of World War II. After the war, his family moved to Bonn, the capital of West German where he lived until leaving home to study in Kassel, a bombed out, Nazi tank-building city near the border between East and West Germany. There, in 1959, while still a college student, he first became involved in art...and politics. He worked first as a guard, then as a guide for the second Documenta Exhibition, an international showcase for postwar, German art. By 1965, he'd moved to New York amidst the powerful swirl of minimalist art, environmental art, process art, performance art, and dozens of others of lesser influence. One of his early works studied the social culture of black farm workers. It was an ant farm.

Shapolsky et al Manhattan Real Estate Holdings,
1971, Hans Haacke
Haacke has always been more concerned about the social and political implications of art than by its execution. In Standort, Germany, near a nineteenth-century war memorial, he completely enclosed a carousel in a tall, board fence, topped with barbed wire, visible only through the cracks between the boards. The music emanating from within is especially poignant. So is the comparison between the two structures. His work is designed to raise the eyebrows of viewers and the hackles of the establishment. Philip Morris threatened to sue. (They didn't.) Thomas Messer, director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, canceled a 1971 show of Haacke's work, and fired its curator, when he realized the show would feature photos and documentation of New York's worst slums and their owners. One of the show's most prominent figures was a slumlord named Shapolsky, who is believed to have pressured Guggenheim board members to scuttle the affair. The show, entitled Documenta X, eventually surfaced at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Hans Haacke is an artist in the broadest sense of the word, where his mixed-media efforts have as much to say about the art world as they do about art itself.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Gustave Moreau

One of the greatest sources of French national pride is that (supposedly) all Frenchmen are born romantics. After all, France was the birthplace of Romanticism. The Romantic era in French painting 1820-1860) grew out of the static, academic excesses of Davidian Classicism with such painters as Delacroix and Gericault leading the way. It was mirrored in both literature and music, some would even say architecture as well. But it faded. Beset first by the Realist movement, then Impressionism, little remained of it's heroic glory except its legacy of color over drawing. Then, in the last decade or so of the nineteenth century, its dying embers suddenly flamed brightly in what has been called Symbolism.  French artists such as Rodolphe Bresdin, Odilon Redon, and Gustave Moreau echoed Gustave Klimt in Germany in their jewel-like impressions of ancient mythological and biblical subjects. It was not Neo-Romanticism, but it was romantic.

Diomedes Being Devoured by his
Horses,1865, Gustave Moreau
In 1998, an art historian was digging through a cupboard in a museum and made a discovery art historians go to bed dreaming about. He pulled out a large roll of canvas containing an unfinished painting done by the premier Symbolism painter, Gustave Moreau. It depicted the mythical Diomedes Being Devoured by his Horses. Okay, so it was  more of a nightmare than a dream; but it was nonetheless a startling discovery. How could such a major work, even unfinished, go unnoticed for a hundred years? Well, when Moreau died in 1898, he left a large, three-and-a-half-story house in Paris packed to the rafters with some 8,000 to 15,000  of his paintings, drawings, and watercolors (so many no one is quite sure). Add to that mounds of books, papers, and journals and it's little wonder it took curators a hundred years to go through all the stuff.

Oedipus and the Sphinx,1864,
Gustave Moreau
Moreau, during his lifetime, was never wealthy, but then again, he was never hurting for money either. His work sold, but he was never forced to pursue sales, and because of that, his fame was limited to France itself. Not until 1964 was the first retrospective of his work held outside the country. During his lifetime, it would be safe to say he hoarded his work. He painted for himself. His favorite subject was the biblical Salome, best known for her dance numbers before King Herod.  Moreau painted her so many times he became knows as the "Painter of Salome." Yet his most famous painting, purchased by  Napoleon III in 1864 for 6000 francs, was Oedipus and the Sphinx, the mythological tale of a monster who posed riddles and devoured all those who could not solve them. The romantic Oedipus succeeded, of course, and good triumphed over evil.  Today, Salome, Oedipus, Orpheus, Hercules, Prometheus, Europa and the whole gang romantically haunt  Moreau's old three-and-a-half-story studio,  the Musee national Gustave Moreau in Paris.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Grandest Art of All

The Battle of Friedland, 1875, Jean-Louis-Ernst Meissionier
Today we are fond of thinking of our century as the one in which "anything is possible." We might be surprised to realize that much the same attitude prevailed during previous centuries as well. And nowhere was this feeling more prevalent than among artists. During the 19th century, as painters took on ever larger and larger canvases and the Academicians took ever greater pains in researching the authenticity of their painting endeavors, artists such as Jean-Louis-Ernst Meissonier would spend up to fifteen years on a single work (The Battle of Friedland) while Mariano Fortuny y Carbo spent his entire life planning The Battle of Tetuan. In fact, he died before completing it. Despite his early demise, as we might say today, these men clearly had too much time on their hands. After all, they were only paintings.

The Battle of Tetuan, 1862-64, Mariano Fortuny y Carbo
Artists yearned to work on a grader scale. Tired of merely painting landscapes, there developed in Europe, the artists who worked to create landscapes. Today we would call them landscape architects, but at that time, they were still considered artists, in the grandest sense of the word. Imagine taking a nondescript strip of land and moving it, reshaping it, molding it, dressing it in greenery, decorating it with winding paths, formal reflecting pools, seemingly accidental lakes, magnificent architectural gems of no great practical value, graceful, romantic, stone bridges, or ancient Roman ruins for no other purpose than to excite the senses and lull away the hours dreaming of times past, of beautiful maidens and heroic knights, righting wrongs and modeling the latest in medieval armor. It was ten times better than even the most realistic, Romantic painting because it was real. And these horticultural masterpieces were not just for the nobility, but were open to the public!

Kew Gardens, London
Cities actually competed in building the most glorious fantasy lands to which their burgeoning populations could escape the blight of the Industrial Revolution, if only on Sunday afternoons (after church of course). Paris had it's Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Vienna its Museen der Stadt Park, while London clearly out did them all with it's Kew Gardens, Regent's Park Zoological Garden, its Cremorne Gardens, and its Vauxhall Gardens, which was accessible only by boat across the Thames. The American equivalent was New York City's Central Park. They came to be known as "pleasure gardens." Charles Dickens describes the experience: "We loved to wander among these illuminated groves. The temples and saloons and coloramas and fountains glittered and sparkled before our eyes; the beauty of the lady singers and the elegant deportment of the gentlemen captivated our hearts; a few hundred thousand of additional lamps dazzled our senses, a bowl or two of punch bewildered our brains; and we were happy." All things were possible. It was art on the grandest possible scale--something like a day at Disney World.
Vauxhall Gardens, 1751, most of which has today been appropriated
for other purposes.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Getty Center

The Getty Center, Los Angeles, California, 1997, Richard Meir
For the inveterate museum goer, it's a little like dying and going to heaven. Indeed, the passage via tram up from the congested, urban sprawl of Los Angeles to that great Postmodern art museum in the sky is a little like passing on. For the art lover, the Getty Center may well be the closest thing to "Heaven on earth" we can imagine. It's 110 acres set high on a hill overlooking the Sepulveda Pass and much of the San Fernando Valley from ocean to mountains would be worth the trip even if one had to climb the slopes on foot. Moreover, in an era when conventional wisdom dictates that museums themselves be works of art, Architect, Richard Meir, no doubt enjoying the feeling of "playing God" with hundreds of millions of Getty dollars, has sculpted a glistening city in white that is, indeed, as much a work of art as the treasures it contains. Its five, two-story pavilions pay homage to a central open court with reflecting pools, fountains, sculpture, and greenery. The only thing it lacks are pearly gates.

The Holy Family with Infant St. John the Baptist,
1530, Michelangelo
If you can tear yourself away from the magnificent view, and the colorful, ordered perfection of the outside, inside, the Getty collection is world class, bespeaking the nearly unlimited funds the J. Paul Getty Trust has in which to indulge their taste in great art (actually $1.2 billion from the Getty estate in 1982, God only knows how much now). Its rich, travertine walls display everything from a drawing by Michelangelo (The Holy Family with Infant St. John the Baptist) to works as diverse Claude Monet (Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning) and David Hockney (Pearlblossom Hwy., 11-18 April, 1986, No. 2).  The collection encompasses over five hundred years of man's creative endeavors. If you're looking for the really old stuff, the antiquities are still housed at the other Getty Museum, a Roman style villa (below) near Getty's home original home in Malibu.

The Getty Villa, Malibu, California, 1974, Steven Garrett
The performing arts are not ignored either. The 450-seat Harold M. Williams Auditorium hosts musical performances as well as serving as a venue for films and lectures. For the art historian, there are 700,000 volumes to browse through, for the gourmet, restaurants overlooking the carefully crafted landscape (treated here as an art form in itself), and for the merely hungry, informal cafes Ronald McDonald would die for. Having gorged on first the art, then the food, it's the botanical paradise of artist, Robert Irwin's Central Garden, changed with the seasons (in Southern California? yeah, right) that delays your departure as you stroll amongst the bougainvillea, then across a stream, watching as it pours into a reflecting pool of floating azaleas. And lest you forget where you are, there's even a surprising little desert garden of native plant life tucked away near the South promontory. Well, the sun is setting low over the horizon, its orange glow casting a bittersweet warmth over the lovely house that Getty built. It's time to depart back to the purgatory of the real world. Could heaven really be better than this?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Four Saints, 1733, Giovanni Tiepolo
If I were still teaching school, I might begin by asking, "Okay, class, can anyone tell me what a 'modello' is?" Don't everyone raise your hand at one time. Well, as the name might suggest, it is a model.  In sculpture, it would be a preliminary miniature made of clay or wax of the final work to be rendered in marble or bronze. In painting, it's a smaller, finished painting, usually in oil, of a much larger work showing the prospective patron roughly what the final fresco or altarpiece might look like. It also served to help the artist work out his or her ideas in advance to avoid wasting time and effort when doing the final work. For art historians, modelli (the plural of modello) are quite valuable because in some cases they represent the only record of a long ago destroyed work of art, or they offer insight into just how the artist arrived at his final masterpiece. For museums, they allow modest-sized copies of major works of art to be hung on their walls and seen by a public that might not otherwise have access to them.

The Banquet of Cleopatra, 1745, Giovanni Tiepolo
An example of a modello for which the final work no longer exists, is the Four Saints (above, left) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (pronounce tee-EP-olo). The Altarpiece resulting from the modello was painted in 1733 for the church of San Salvatore in Venice. It depicts St. Augustine, doctor of the church, King Louis IX, and Saint John the Evangelist. Tiepolo was a Venetian artist, born in 1696, a student of Veronese, and considered the greatest Italian Rococo painter of all time. The term Rococo tends to ring up images of frivolous, romantic couples frolicking playfully amongst lush vegetation, enjoying the sensual delights of love, lust, and leisure. That's French Rococo. Tiepolo never set foot in France. Italian Rococo was a totally different animal. Therefore, the term Rococo is more one denoting a historic painting era than one of style.

Vision of the Trinity, 1739.
Giovanni Tiepolo
Allegory with Venus and Time,
1758, Giovanni Tiepolo

Italian Rococo has some superficial similarities to it's French cousin but with a much more serious bent. The Italian version was never quite free of it's classical ancestors. Italian subject matter dealt with history, allegory, mythology, and religion. Tiepolo's Banquet of Cleopatra (above, second image) painted in 1745 is a history painting example. His 1739 Vision of the Trinity (above, left) is an interesting example of combining religion and history painting It depicts St. Clement (the third pope), kneeling before an altar above which hovers the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as the title indicates. The vision is light and airy as one might expect from the Rococo, but hardly whimsical. Late in his life, Tiepolo's work did tend to lighten up a little. A modello for his 1758, Allegory with Venus and Time (above, right) done for a ceiling fresco in the Contarini Palace, celebrates the birth of the family heir. It features Venus, with two doves embracing over her, passing a young child to the hands of father time to be tended by Cupid. Here we do see a bit of the sweetness usually associated with the French Rococo, but with a typically Italian reference to history and mythology.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Today's Most Influential Artist

If someone were to ask you to name the most influential artist working today, who might that be?  Hmm...boy, that's a toughie. Asking a dozen artists, you'd probably get a dozen different answers. Ask a hundred people the same question and you'd probably get about 99 blank stares. Think about it. I'm not talking artistically influential, I mean just plain influential, with the power to change the way people look at things. I have a nominee--Garry Trudeau. If you're talking about an artist bearing the traditional hallmarks of greatness, good draftsmanship, outstanding color sense, faultless composition, etc., etc., etc., Trudeau would be the first to admit he's none of these. His drawing skills are "adequate" at best. But let's face it, for thirty years, this man has had editorial political clout most pundits could only dream of and most cartoonist can only gape at in awe. He's first and foremost a first-class writer, humorist, and satirist (and he's got the Pulitzer Prize to prove it) who only incidentally includes pictures and a cast of characters to help illustrate his point of view. He's an unabashed liberal, but one just as likely to poke in the ribs the radicals of one end of the political spectrum as another.  He readily admits that what he does is not "fair." He's even been known to try and influence the outcome of a presidential elections.  In short, he's got gall.

The first Doonesbury strip, Oct 26, 1970
Trudeau stands quite comfortably in the midst of his cartoonist idols, Walt Kelly, Jules Feiffer, and Al Capp. His numbers are impressive as well. Doonesbury is consistently one of the top ten strips amongst English Language newspapers in the entire world. He appears in over 1,400 papers, right up there with Garfield, Cathy, and Hargar the Horrible. But unlike these lightweights, Trudeau makes people uncomfortable. Editors over the years have had a terrible time trying do decide what to do with him.  As many run his satirizing strip on the editorial page as the comic page. Trudeau doesn't much care where they put him so long as they don't cut him, which has happened more often with Doonesbury than with any other strip in history. And his clout within the business is such that he was able to singlehandedly put a stop to the move amongst cost conscious papers to gradually downsize comic strips from the old standard of 7 1/2 inches to a mere six inches. His fellow cartoonist have characterized him as everything from a "demigod" to a "junkyard dog." His political insights sometimes cut like a surgeon's knife, while at other times ripping through meat and bone with all the subtlety of a chain saw.

Garry Trudeau bears more than a passing
 resemblance to Mike Doonesbury, the
main character in his comic strip.
Garry Trudeau comes from solid New England stock. Born in 1950 with the proverbial silver spoon, he counts among his ancestors and relatives, three generations of doctors, a former Canadian Prime Minister, a treasurer of the United States (under Lincoln), and a wealthy financier. He graduated from Yale where many of the Doonesbury characters were born, and where he cut his cartoonist fangs in the campus newspaper. Doonesbury debuted in 1970 amidst such easy targets as the Nixon administration and the Vietnamese War. Like the baby boom generation which loves and hates it, the strip has matured along with Trudeau, the times, and the characters that populate it. Doonesbury is one of the few comic strips (and today virtually the only one) to include living individuals in it's daily panels. Often they are disembodied voices, or drawn symbolically as time bombs, feathers, or waffles, to name just a few. They've included such political figures as Jesse Jackson, Fidel Castro, Pat Buchanan, Dan Quayle, and every president since Nixon. Trudeau also draws his readers in his strip. B.D. is the arch conservative. Zonker, the harebrained liberal, Boopsie the air head blond, Joanie Caucus, the idealistic do-gooder, and good old, lovable, Mike, for whom the strip is named, is something of the befuddled, Charlie Brownish, schlemiel representing the rest of us.

Friday, October 21, 2011


It seems hard to believe now, but we are presently more than a decade into the third millennium. Believe it or not, the world hasn't come to an end (remember Y2K?). Back in the "1900s" when we spoke of "The Future," the 21st century epitomized all the idealized hopes, dreams, and promises of that ephemeral term. The 21st century is no longer the setting for science-fiction novels. It's now the stuff of the morning front page (make that home page). Moreover, even thinking about the 22nd century at this point seems a bit more than our narrow minds can boggle. Maybe we should call such thoughts "Futurism?" Well, too bad, we'd be a little late--like by more than a century? The term was co-opted back in 1909 by a small group of fanatical Italian artists, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo and Gino Severini. The vehicle for their movement was the Futurist Manifesto, written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. The future they were contemplating is now.

Dynamicism of a Dog on a Leash,
 1912, Giacomo Balla
Futurism was first a literary movement; and judging by the number of essays, manifestos, articles, and other assorted "papers" establishing its premise, it remained fairly true to its birthright. It espoused disestablishmentarianism (always wanted to use that word in a sentence). It demanded artists jettison the old, embrace wholeheartedly new science and technology, "kill all the critics," and not only paint like rebels but live them too. In its artistic incarnation, it was bent on portraying every aspect of a given subject and most pointedly that object's existence in time. In effect, the painting movement became enamored with painting movement. Balla's Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (right), painted in 1912, is usually held up as the trademark of the group's efforts along this line.

Unique Forms of Continuity of Space,
1913, Umberto Boccioni
Actually, however, Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity of Space (right), from 1913, is a much better icon for what Futurism was all about. Moreover, it's not a painting at all, but a massive, striding, bronze sculpture. The element of movement is there to be sure, but there is so much more, an analysis of form, of structure, Cubism--a kind of sculptural Nude Descending a Staircase which seems to have been its inspiration. Boccioni's painting, even more so than Balla's, dipped deeply into both the hopes and fears the future might hold. His 1910-11 painting, The City Rises (below) is a hellish, red inferno of man's struggle to cope with and control the rising tide of industrialization he saw in Italian cities during the first decade of the twentieth century. Beyond that, he also looked inwardly, at the modern man's psyche in his State of Mind triptych--The Farewells, Those who Go, and Those who Stay Behind (bottom). Unlike the majority of the Futurists who uncritically embraced the future, Boccioni saw too the turmoil brought on by rapid technological change in man's existence. As it turned out, in the short term at least, it was his vision of the future that proved the most knowing.
The City Rises, 1910-11, Umberto Boccioni

The State of Mind Triptych
(Painting's cutting edge 100 years ago)
The Farewells 1911,
Umberto Boccioni
Those Who Go, 1911,
Umberto Boccioni
Those Who Stay Behind,
1911, Umberto Boccioni

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Frederick William MacMonnies

One might call it a hallmark of greatness.  Even the Bible speaks of a prophet not being respected in his hometown.  And when that respect does come, it's often recognition received belatedly only after an artist has left his roots and "made it" in the big time. Then, perhaps years later, when he or she is invited back amidst the obligatory parade down Main Street on a day named for him or her, to unveil a sign on a street named for him or her running in front of the house where the artist was born, the memories are often bittersweet, recalling both the jeers and the cheers of times less auspicious.  Sometimes the jeers outweigh the cheers, sometimes, as a result, the artist never returns. Sometimes being away has so changed the artist that he or she can't go back. For one such artist, being away even meant living most of his life outside his own country. He joined other Americans of his time such as James McNeill Whistler, and Mary Cassatt. They've since come to be known as the expatriates.

Bacchante and Infant Faun,
1890, Frederick MacMonnies
Frederick William MacMonnies was born in 1863 in Brooklyn. Unlike Whistler and Cassatt, he became a sculptor. Painting ran in his family though. His mother was related to another expatriate artist, Benjamin West. He was thus encouraged in his talent from a very early age; and from the beginning he worked with the best--Augustus Saint-Gaudens, everything from sweeping up the marble dust to studio assistant. At night he studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League. Moving on beyond the meager offerings of domestic art instruction, in 1884, he went to Paris where he enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Except for brief periods to oversee various American sculpture installations and trying times during WW I, he lived and worked the rest of his life in France. Though classified as an American Sculptor, his work was so saturated with French influences, and particularly a love of the nude figure, that it was never popular in his homeland, especially among the Victorian  public.

In 1893, MacMonnies donated a French classical style statue to an old friend and client, Charles Follen McKim, of the architectural firm, McKim, Mead, and White. It was a statue of, Bacchante and Infant Fawn (above, right). Some seven feet tall, cast in bronze, it was intended for the courtyard of the Boston Public Library, which McKim's firm was building at the time. However, when the dancing female nude figure was unveiled it incited such outrage among the straight-laced Bostonians, especially those of the Women's Christian Temperance Society (who cited it's "drunken indecency"), that the work was moved to storage; finally ending up in the less stodgy (but more prestigious) Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Though MacMonnies received numerous awards, medals, and distinctions from the Paris art world; and went on to complete some other American pieces, including the centerpiece, Grand Barge of State (below) for the 1893 Chicago World's Colombian Exposition, to many, he will always be remembered as the expatriate artist who was literally "banned in Boston."
Grand Barge of State, 1893, Frederick MacMonnies

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Francis Bacon

As artists, we have all, from time to time, railed against popular stereotypes of those whose creative bent involves their applying paint to various flat surfaces. We abhor the image of the psychologically unstable, drunken, bohemian oddball, caterwauling through life, unable to hold a job, with morals that give alley cats a bad name, and the artwork that people love to hate. Even though we may secretly admire such miscreants, and may even have shared some aspects of their lifestyle during certain formative years in our lives, the fact that people make few distinctions regarding these extremes and our own blatant, middle-class existence, never ceases to cause us some degree of distress. Sometimes we even wonder if there ever existed such people or if the whole image is the result of unscrupulous gallery owners' need to glamorize the lives of their artists in order to sell paintings. Well, wonder no more. At least one such artist exemplified this stereotype. His name was Francis Bacon.

Three Studies of Figures in Beds, 1972, Francis Bacon
It's not easy to like the work of this English painting phenomena. In fact he has been much more favorably viewed in France, German, even the United States than in the Queen's England. There is hardly a museum in the world that doesn't own at least one of his works, or wish they did. And invariably they are ghastly, beefy, ugly things even his friends refuse to hang in their living rooms. Often there is a discordant homosexual theme running through his triptychs, usually stopping just short of the obscene, but never in traditional good taste. Recurring images of popes, sides of beef, wrestling nude men--distorted, cubistic to a point, truncated, but never without a keen sense of sharp insight into himself, others, and society in general. His 1972 series, Three Studies of Figures in Beds is a typical example.  One might call them Muybridge on a bad day.

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the
Crucifixion, 1944, Francis Bacon
(One of) Eight Studies for a Portrait
(Pope Innocent X), 1953, Francis Bacon
The son of a racehorse trainer, and a distant descendant of his Elizabethan namesake, Bacon was born in 1909. As a result of repeated squabbles with his father (a strict disciplinarian with a gambling addiction) over numerous sexual encounters with the grooms at the stables, Francis ran away from home at sixteen, first to London, then to Germany where he lived up to the worst stereotypical images we have to contend with. He never painted until he was thirty and came upon a Picasso show which deeply effected both his style and his decision to become a painter. After WW II, he came to prominence as a result of his grotesque Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (above). In the fifties, he cemented his place in the London Art world with the even more disturbing Eight Studies for a Portrait (right), one of which was based upon a combination of Velazquez's portrait of  Pope Innocent X (below, right) and a screaming nurse from Eisenstein's silent film about the Russian Revolution, Battleship Potemkin (below, left). 

Screaming nurse from Eisenstein's
Battleship Potemkin
Pope Innocent X, 1650, Velasquez

Bacon's work is cultivated. It is intended not to be easily digestible, just as his lifestyle has been carefully nurtured to fit the artistic stereotype. Maybe the "wild and crazy" artist image isn't as unjust as we like to think.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Elizabeth Murray

Perhaps more in art than in many other fields, women today are accepted as the norm. There is a feeling that only the art matters.  The age and sex of the artist are at best secondary factors. Once an artist has achieved a name, he or she becomes a "persona" and then critics begin to consider the source in addition to the art, but even then the sex of the artist is seldom either a positive or negative factor. And for the aspiring young artist today, there are dozens of outstanding artists of both sexes for them to admire and emulate. But this is a recent development. For those in the past wishing to emulate, almost without exception, the role models were all men. Even as late as the early 1970s, the outstanding female artists women had to look up to could almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. And for those aspiring female artists with feminist leanings, this was especially troubling, because so many of the male artists whose work they genuinely liked were of the "chauvinist pig" variety. No matter how appealing their painting might be, often their subject matter and personalities were quite the antithesis of what these women stood for or were striving for.

One of 36 panels comprizing Madame
Cezanne in Rocking Chair, 1972,
Elizabeth Murray
One such woman was Elizabeth Murray. Born in 1940, and raised in the Midwest, she came of age artistically at a time when artists were deserting Abstract Expressionism in droves, in favor of figurative painting, Minimalism, and various incarnations of conceptual art. Compared to the lengthy run of the New York School, these all seemed to be merely momentary flashes of brilliance (although some were quite explosive). Most were as broad as a New York pizza and about as deep. Murray was astute enough to see this. Her earliest and strongest influence reached back to Cezanne, and especially his handling of women in his work. Madame Cezanne in Rocking Chair, dating from 1972, comprises 36, six-inch panels in which she takes Cezanne's work and pulls it apart, plays with it, some might even say destroys it, before putting it back together, having gained new insights into the work of this godfather of modern art.

Stirring Still, 1997, Elizabeth Murray
Still, Cezanne was a man. So was Gustave Courbet, another of Murray's early idols, and Picasso, and Vermeer. None of these could be considered any sort of feminist ideal. So, at a time when all women artists of her generation were ardent feminists, Elizabeth Murray rejected the label. Moving beyond that, she rejected any relevance as to her sex in her work. In the short term, this put her outside the mainstream, leaving her to go her merry way until the importance of feminism and femaleness in art diminished, until her work could be seen in an asexual light. Her shaped canvas, Stirring Still, dating from 1997, was typical of her later work. It vigorously resists categorization, much as does its creator. Suggestions of babies, hands, lovers, brushes, shoes, palettes, spoons, telephones, all come to mind in her oddly shaped, sometimes ballooning canvases. And, one can search for influences and infer quite a number of them, but in no case are they overt. In the final analysis, one would have to say that her strongest influence was Elizabeth Murray. She died in 2007.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The First Wildlife Artists

It hasn't been that many years ago when astronauts were going to the moon, scraping up all manner of rocks and dirt to bring back, and taking pictures of each other cavorting in the moon's reduced gravity. When they returned, people lined up at museums to view in pressurized glass cases the moon rocks, or to peer through Plexiglas at the photos. Things haven't changed all that much in the last three or four hundred years; only the means of bringing the glimpses of a strange new world back home.  About 225 years ago, George Abbot, the son of an English lawyer, left his homeland at the age of twenty-two, never to return again. He spent the rest of his life exploring the "new world" (which was already almost three hundred years old), drawing and painting wildlife in the Virginia and Georgia colonies. He complained about wars and the politics that brought to life a new nation around him.  And, he noted as early as 1812, that the new symbol of that new nation was already rare. But most of what he drew and painted was not for domestic consumption. He sent it back to England accompanied by actual specimens of the animals involved. He made a good living at it too. For most of his life, his work was in constant demand by European collectors and scientists (often one and the same at the time).

Sir Ashton Lever, 1729-88
From these specimens, another artist, Sarah Stone, made a career of drawing additional illustrations for books and scientific periodicals of the time. Born in 1760, what began as an amateur's hobby, eventually evolved into a full-time career illustrating the collection of Sir Ashton Lever, and eccentric collector of just about anything the swam, flew, or crawled across the face of the earth. In many cases, her illustrations were the first ever for some of these creatures, many of which are now, extinct. In 1806, when Sir Ashton died, his possessions were sold to museums all over the world. The collection was so huge, the auction took 65 days. The effect was to scatter the relics to the four winds. Only Sarah Stone's illustrations remained intact. And, though little else is known about her, her artwork bears testimony to the meticulous nature of her mind and eye.

Niam Niam Parrot, c. 1785, Sarah Stone
Keep in mind this was some fifty years before John James Audubon did his thing. In fact it was George Abbot who first took Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, on his first field exhibitions. (Wilson was later one of Audubon's benefactors.) But bird watching in America goes back even further than this. Sir Walter Raleigh employed an artist by the name of John White to draw the flora and fauna of his ill-fated Roanoke Island colony as early as 1585. The work of Abbot and other similar artists has filled the dusty showcases of eager European collectors for centuries since, though they remained largely unseen by the public. Abbot worked quietly and diligently for over 65 years even though demand for his drawings eventually decrease to the point that when he died at the age of 87, he was penniless and forgotten. The work of these scientist/artists was later overshadowed by Audubon's publications. Only in recent years have these early wildlife artists begun to finally receive their due. In 1999 The Natural History Museum and the University of Washington Press together published a series of nine volumes of their work.
Land Crab,  c. 1600, John White

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The First Art Historian

As artists, most of us have a general knowledge of art history. For some it's little more than a spotty list of names and dates forming a "hit or miss" chronology and a sort of instinctive feeling for the gradual evolution of art and art forms. We've put this together through the visiting of museums and perusing art books in stores, libraries, and the occasional boring class in art history/appreciation. Others who are fascinated by history in general, and art in particular, have a bit more detailed understanding of what went before and what came after. We tend to fall into two groups, those with a linear view of art, and more recently, those with a cyclical view. As one wag put it, the linearists conclude that art is,"just one damned thing after another." The cyclical view is that art is "the same damned thing over and over again."

Orestes and Electra, c. 50 BCE.,
Whatever the case, we all know where the history of art began--cave painting, right? Okay, now, where did art history begin? The same thing? Nope, the difference is between prehistoric and historic. His name was Pasiteles. He was a Greek-Italian sculptor. He was also quite likely the very first art historian. Strangely, for a historian, he neglected to record the year of his birth but we can deduce, given the average life span of the time, and by the fact that he became a Roman citizen in 89 BCE, that he was born probably between 125 and 100 BCE. As a sculptor, his specialty seemed to be Roman generals from the then recent civil wars and copies of Greek antiquarian sculptures the Romans so loved. He seems to have been a very personable, well-traveled, and highly educated young man as well. And, had he been "merely" a sculptor, he'd be, at best, a footnote on the written pages of some other art historian.

Castor and Pollux,
first century BCE., Pasiteles

However, his five-volume opus, The Noble Works of Art Throughout the World, goes down in history as the first ever attempt to catalog, classify, and critique art. Despite its grandiose title, the work dealt primarily with Roman sculpture and more specifically sculpture in Rome. But that in no way minimizes its importance. Given the time and place, Rome was one gigantic museum of Greek and Roman sculpted images. Yet a museum is virtually worthless without some systematic guide to its contents; and that's what Pasiteles provided. Artists then used his writings as a study guide in developing a sense of style and aesthetics. Artists now use his work as a priceless guide through the maze of styles and aesthetics of the time. Pasiteles even went so far as to theorize on a spectral range of styles spanning what he termed "Attic purity" to "Asiatic license" --what we today might term realism to abstraction, or perhaps conservative to liberal. He went on to found a school of sculpture that combined the best of Greek grace and beauty with the daring and technical virtuosity of Roman stonecutting. He left a legacy of broken bits and pieces of carved stone, coupled with a written text making sense of it all that would inspire the likes of Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and El Grecco fifteen hundred years later.