Click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Macchiaoli

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the gaping gaps in my own knowledge of art history. I presume others may have the same or similiar yawning lapses in their own understanding of art that went before and that which came after. If this is the case, then one of the largest is in the area of Italian art. The text books do a superb job of elevating the Italian Renaissance, sitting it up on a pedestal not unlike a classical column to be admired, often at the expense of a similar resurgence of art, music, drama, and literature in the North. Then they let all things Italian fade into the background in favor of all things French. The result is that everyone, myself included, has the impression that Italian art began and ended with the Renaissance with perhaps a brief flicker of light at the beginning of the twentieth century and the emergence of the Italian Futurist movement--De Chirico, Carra, and Morandi.

Silvestro Lega Painting, 1866-67, Giovanni Fattori
Actually, there is some justification for the emphasis on French as opposed to Italian art during the period following the Renaissance inasmuch as the moving forces in the art world did tend to emanate from Paris. But Rome didn't exactly become an artistic backwater. Instead, it took on more the role of a museum or school rather than studio. Rome was where the French went to study the past before going back home to do their serious work. As a result, Italy developed a tremendous Academic tradition that was dificult to shake. Yet by the second half of the nineteenth century, there was occurring, simultaneous to that in Paris, all the same "movements" in art--Romanticism, Realism, even Impressionism, except with Italian sounding names.

Giuseppe Mazzini, Dying, 1872, Silvestro Lega
The Italian sounding name given to all this was the Macchiaoli. But before we can understand this movement we must come to realize that since the Academic style went back much further in Italy. It had a much firmer grip on the prevailing tastes than it did in France (no small statement given the Academic stranglehold in France). Thus the Macchiaoli had to struggle first against traditional Academic subject matter before it could make painting on location and the resultant Impressionistic influences flowing from France a fact of life. Artists such as Nino Costa, Giovanni Fattori, and Silvestro Lega worked to demystify art by introducing contemporary subject matter, gradually working more and more in the field, and as a result, gradually to begin working with the "Macchie" or spots of color from which the movement derived its name. They even had their own meeting place not unlike the Cafe Guerbois in Paris. Ironically, it was named for the godfather of the Italian Renaissance Academic style against which they were rebelling--The Cafe Michelangelo.
Nettuno Vista da Anzio, 1855-60, Nino Costa

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lyonel Feininger

Today it's not so common, but in the 1800s, there was tremendous pressure on young boys, especially a first-born boy, and particularly if that first-born boy happened to be an only child, to follow in his father's footsteps. It was a time, of course, when the father often trained his son (or occasionally a daughter) in his particular trade, either because it was an inexpensive way to further the boy's education or because he was needed in the family business. And, sometimes it was just a matter of a father's pride, hoping perhaps that the son might outshine him in his inherited endeavor. It made little difference if the father was a practitioner of some practical craft such as carpentry or in some way involved in the fine arts. On July 17, 1871, Karl Feininger, a violinist and first generation emigrant from Germany, and his American wife, Elizabeth, who was a singer, gave birth to a young son they called Lyonel.

Gabendorf II,1924, Lyonel Feininger
The boy was barely nine years of age when his father started giving him violin lessons. There's no indication whether is mother was also trying to teach him to sing. The boy tried, really he did, but his aptitude in the fine arts lay not in music but in drawing. He was especially fascinated by steamboats and trains. Being touring musicians, his parents took him with them to Germany where he studied drawing at Hamburg and later the Royal Academy in Berlin under the painter Ernst Hancke. It was there he developed a talent for caricature. Studying at the Jesuit College of St. Servais in Liege, he also developed an interest in painting and drawing architecture. But it was in Paris at the Cafe du Dome, hanging out with other German students, that he met Henri Matisse, and the ghosts of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and William Turner. He painted, but his livelihood came from drawing cartoons and caricatures for both American and German magazines such as Harper's Round Table, Harper's Young People, Humoristische Blatter, and Berliner Tagelblatt.  Eventually these led to comic strips for the Chicago Sunday Tribune--The Kin-der-Kids and Wee-Willie Winkie.

The Kin-Der-Kids, 1906, Lyonel Feininger
Married, divorced, and remarried, with four kids to support, his painting career lagged well behind his drawing, cartooning, and woodcuts. Even exhibits with the Secessionist Group and Die Brucke, followed by Cubist works had only a minor impact on his reputation as a painter. However, with the opening of the Bauhaus School in Weimar in 1919, he became the official "artist in residence," teaching, painting, and exhibiting with Walter Gropius' group of modern German artists. He moved with them first to Dessau and then to Berlin before Hitler closed the school in 1937. Seeing his work included by Hitler in the widely traveled "Degenerate Show," as well as the Nazi handwriting on the wall, and after fifty years of being an American artist in German, Feininger came back to the USA to become a German artist in America. Teaching at Mills College in San Diego, and exhibiting in New York, Lyonel Feininger found not only success as a painter himself, but also saw his son, T. Lux Feininger (born, 1910), become a noted artist as well. It must have been a poignant, following-in-my-footsteps sense of satisfaction his own father had never known.
Brig in a Gale, 1936, T. Lux Feininger

Monday, November 28, 2011

Louis Sullivan

Adler & Sullivan's Transportation Building,
Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, 1893
In 1992, this country celebrated the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America.  The place, appropriately enough, was Columbus, Ohio, with something called the Ameriflora Exhibition. I recall it well. I was there. It was beautiful. An entire park with its own conservatory (glorified greenhouse) was transformed into a botanical wonderland. It was very tasteful and low-keyed--so low-keyed in fact, probably few of you even knew of it, much less remember it now. In contrast, a hundred years before, the city of Chicago decided to put on a show for Christopher Columbus' four-hundredth anniversary. It was so big and extravagant, it was a whole year late getting off the ground. However to this day, the history books still talk about it. The 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition was a mind-boggling extravaganza of wedding cake-style, Neoclassical Beaux-arts architecture trying desperately to house the newest in modern technology. Its vast "Lagoon of Honor" was totally encircled with one glistening, white, over-decorated Roman temple after another (mostly made of wood and plaster), crowned in the center with a Venetian barge made of stone.  Frank Lloyd Wright claimed the fair set back modern architecture by twenty years.

Adler & Sullivan's Wainwright Building,
Chicago, 1891
Actually Wright had a hand in making the fair what it was. He worked for the architectural firm of Adler & Sullivan at the time and no doubt helped in designing one of the few buildings on the grounds that was not a Neoclassical confection. Tucked away off to the side so as not to clash with the rampant Romanism of the main concourse, was Louis Sullivan's highly individualistic Transportation Building (top, left) which was demolished after the fair. To see it, one couldn't exactly call it "modern" looking--eclectic maybe, but certainly it was not Classical. The arch...whole rainbows of them...was the primary design element in the building resting uneasily amidst a highly decorated, rectilinear structure breathing a hint of Egyptian, Japanese, and Romanesque qualities. It may have been off to the side, but it certainly stood out from the crowd, richly ornamented in Sullivan's trademark Art Nouveau motifs and polychromed in red, orange, blue, yellow, and green. (What, no purple?)

Chicago Auditorium (interior) 1889,
Adler & Sullivan
Sullivan was born in 1856 in Boston. He studied briefly at MIT but was lured away by a Philadelphia architectural firm. However, by 1873 he realized all the groundbreaking work in urban architecture was happening in Chicago following the fire, so that's where he settled. He spent another short period of time studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (one summer) and came away knowing exactly what he disliked. Restless, he returned to work for Dankmar Adler and ten years later became a partner in the firm, responsible for the design work of the much-praised Auditorium Building (right) completed in 1889. The Transportation Building (top, left) bore a strong resemblance on the outside to the interior of the Auditorium building (above, right). By 1891, skyscrapers in Chicago, such as Adler & Sullivan's Wainwright Building (top right), were reaching an astounding ten stories in height. Built just eight years after H. H.  Richardson's rather clunky, chunky, medieval fortress-like Marshall Field warehouse (below), the contrast could not be greater. Sullivan was the first to realized that old European architectural styles did not translate to the high rise buildings being demanded by the costly limitations of expensive urban real estate. A whole new style was demanded, emphasizing the verticality of such structures rather than trying to cloak it in any number of antique coats of armor. Despite his taste for highly decorated surfaces, Sullivan's theories and designs had an enormous influence upon Frank Lloyd Wright and other twentieth century architects. As a result, he has often been called the first modern architect in America.
Marshall Field Warehouse, 1883,
H.H. Richardson.  Compare to the
Adler & Sullivan Wainwright Building.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Lost Genre

It's not often we find an ancient genre of painting that has absolutely no, equivalent in art today.  However in 1628, a painting of this genre was the spark that ignited the career of Rembrandt van Rijn. Personally, I would consider us fortunate now that we no longer see paintings of this genre, but then, I'm no great fan of Gray's Anatomy, Nip/Tuck, or any of the other "slice and dice" television shows, which are about the closest things we have today to what I'll call, for lack of a better term, the "anatomy lesson" genre in Dutch seventeenth century painting. Let me warn you, if you're the least big squeamish, skip the next two paragraphs.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1628,
Rembrandt van Rijn
The Rembrandt painting is his 1628 group portrait The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (left). In it, seven well-dressed men (not doctors or even medical students, by the way, but merely spectators), peer over the shoulder of the illustrious doctor/politician, Nicolaes Pietersz Tulp, as he demonstrates the workings of the exposed tendons of the equally illustrious murderer, Adriaen (Het Kind [the boy]) Adriaensz. The corpse is appropriately dead looking and modestly draped across the loins. And, considering some of the similar "group portraits" of this genre done by artists such as Pieter Van Miereveld's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer (below, left) and Rembrandt's own Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deyman (below, right, 1656), it's in relatively good taste.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deyman, 1656,
Rembrandt van Rijn
In contrast, Dr. Deyman seems to be demonstrating brain surgery having all too obviously exhausted the contents of the deceased's gaping torso. Though not as "gross" as Rembrandt's Dr. Deyman, the much earlier Miereveld painting seems to be in dire need of "crowd control" as the "anatomizer" puts on quite a show for the artist. The doctor and every other figure (16 altogether) look straight on at the viewer; except for the corpse, of course, which seems to be just a surprisingly healthy-looking prop.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer,
1617, Pieter Van Miereveld
Rembrandt's painting (above), with the cadaver's feet extending straight into the viewer's face is a compositional rip-off of the Italian artist, Andrea Mantegna's (pronounced Mon-TANE-ya) 1506 painting, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, from which the entire genre may have evolved. At least Mantegna, in exposing the nail holes in Christ's hands and feet, had good reason to explore the extreme foreshortening that makes this evocative masterpiece so striking, poignant, and emotionally powerful. The Dutch descendants (as seen at left) were often not even good group portraits. More accurately, they were souvenirs of grisly sideshows. The spectators paid exorbitant sums to the doctor for admission to the "surgical theater;" which included a group picture with the "noted" physician. Makes today's Gray's Anatomy seem like high art.
The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, 1506, Andrea Mantegna

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Little Masters

River Landscape, 1652, Jan van Goyan
Americans seem to have an affinity for Dutch art, especially that from the seventeenth century. Undoubtedly one of the reasons is that Dutch society, the art market, their taste in painting, and their economy was very much like our own today. Some paintings were sold in expensive galleries, others in shops along the street, others by dealers (who might be painters themselves) from their homes, and even in street markets like so many apples or melons. Artists such as Rembrandt (when he was in vogue) would get hundreds, even thousands of gilders for their work while etched prints sold for little more than mere pennies. And, like Americans today, everyone had framed art on their walls corresponding in price and quality to their economic station in life. However, one of the more surprising difference not so common in American art today but very prevalent in the Dutch art scene was a surprising degree of specialization insofar as subject matter was concerned. If you wanted to buy a painting, you chose your artist based upon your choice of subject.

Amsterdam Seen from the South, 1680,
Jacob van Ruisdael
A major form of subject matter, then, as now, was landscapes, but then there were those who painted only riverscapes, while others did only seascapes, or cityscapes, or even travelscapes, which presumably covered everything in between. Beyond this, other artists painted only winter scenes with canals and lots of skaters (this is Holland remember), while others painted only moonlight scenes (obviously the night shift). Being a great seafaring nation, ships were quite popular, but here again, some artists painted only single ships (as in ship portraits) while others painted shipping in general or perhaps battle scenes. Genre scenes of common everyday life were very popular, and you chose your artist depending on whether he painted exterior or interior scenes, and beyond that, whether you wanted a neatly scrubbed interior or one displaying less than immaculate housekeeping. Other painters specialized exclusively in garden scenes, broken down into those depicting polite conversation, genteel games, or romantic intrigue. The buyer could also choose painters who painted only scenes of light housekeeping or those doing the macho tavern brawl scene. If your tastes were more spiritual, a few artists specialized only in church interiors (with or without ongoing services).

Avenue at Middelharmis, 1689, Meyndert Hobema
If you liked animals, there were artists who specialized in cows and bulls. Others painted only horses or hunting scenes. Still-life painting was another major category elevated for the first time to a place of equal importance with everything else. And of course, there were portraits--single portraits, double portraits, sedate group portraits, or rowdy street gangs (as in Rembrandt's famous Night Watch). The number of specializing artists ran in the hundreds with perhaps thirty or forty of them being quite exceptional. Together, this group has come to be known as the "Little Masters." Often mentioned among them are those such as Jan van Goyen (river scenes), Jacob van Ruisdael (cityscapes), Meyndert Hobbema (travelscapes), Albert Cuyp (cows and sundry livestock), Pietre de Hooch (immaculate interiors), Jan Steen (drunken parties), Adrian Brouwer (just plain drunks), Willem Claesz Heda (breakfast still-lifes), Pieter Saenredam (austere churches) and the irrepressible Franz Hals (really exciting portraits with any number of subjects). Of course neither Hals or Rembrandt were "Little Masters," and Rembrandt limited himself only insofar as he painted mostly people, but in the helter-skelter Dutch art market of the seventeenth century they competed right along with the others, and sometimes not too well, I might add, for the generous art dollar (or gilder, as the case might be) that floated about really quite freely.

The Bitter Draught, c. 1635,
Adriaen Brouwer

River Landscape with Cows, c. 1635,
 Aelbert Cuyp

Friday, November 25, 2011

Like Mother, Like Son

Suzanne Valadon, 1885, Auguste Renoir
It is not unusual for a son to follow in his father's footsteps. Art history is full of "the elder" and "the younger" with references to various fathers who no doubt taught their namesakes how to paint.  Even today, as with Andrew Wyeth and his son, Jamie, art talent and careers are sometimes passed down from one generation to the next. It's far more unusual, however, for a boy to have art training and a career passed down to him by his mother. Unusual or not, that was just the case for a young Parisian boy by the name of Maurice Utrillo. He was born in 1883, the son of a young Parisian girl named Marie-Clementine Valadon who was not yet eighteen at the time. Aside from his last name, little is known about Maurice's father. His mother, who went by the name, Suzanne, had left home and school at the age of fourteen, working briefly with a circus before becoming an artist's model. She is known to have posed for both Renoir and Toulouse Lautrec, through whom she met Edgar Degas, who encouraged her to become an artist herself.

Suzanne Valadon and her son, 1890
It's never easy being a working mother, raising a son alone; and more than a hundred years ago, on the rough streets of the Paris district of Montmartre, it was especially treacherous. There was no welfare, no social safety net, and the opportunities for a largely uneducated woman to earn a living were limited pretty much to waitressing, domestic work, and prostitution. Indications are young Suzanne may, at various times, have engaged in all of the above. However she had going for her the fact that she was young, attractive, and smart. She quickly parlayed her work as an artist's model into an art education she could never have gotten or afforded any other way. Her early work included paintings of women and children not unlike those of her near contemporaries, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, but with a decidedly lower-class flavor imbuing them with a sense of loneliness and despair typical of her surroundings. In 1894, at the age of twenty-nine, she had some of her drawings accepted by the Salon and after that, became a regular fixture at various galleries and juried exhibitions including the group calling themselves Femmes Artistes Modernes (Modern Women Artists).

Suzanne Valadon, 1926
All this time, she was also raising her son, Maurice. Just as there had been no money for her own training as an artist, the same was true for her son. She took it upon herself to become his one and only art teacher, and for years, his only artistic influence. Initially, his Paris street scenes were purely Impressionist, which was not surprising, given his mother's informal association with some of that movement's best. And, though he gradually assimilated various Cubist tenets into his style, his paintings never lost the sorrowful empty feeling passed on from his mother. Many of his early works were done in palette knife employing the heavy use of white (which came to be known, not surprisingly, as his White Period). He survived two world wars both of which found their way into his art. A French farm burned by the Germans as they advanced toward Paris during the First World War is among his most searing images. During his life, he succeeded in enveloping himself with the mystique of the Bohemian Paris street artist, his work after WW II gradually attaining respectable prices. Suzanne Valadon died in 1938, her son in 1955. His life, as well as hers, and their art, is one of the most unusual and inspiring stories of success at beating the odds to be found in all of art history.
The Blue Room, 1923, Suzanne Valadon, unlike most of her
paintings, which featured female nudes.
Place des Abbesses Montmartre, 1931, Maurice Utrillo,
reflecting the artist's love of white

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Lewis Comfort Tiffany

Victorian era birth photo (twins no less)
Perhaps it doesn't happen as often today, but historically, when the "art gene" raised its stubborn head in the progeny of the American family, it was more likely there would be an attempt to beat it down as to cultivate its growth. This was especially the case in the nineteenth century, when, to become an artist, practically guaranteed the appellation of "black sheep" of the family. And nowhere was this more likely than in the ranks of the "upper crust" in which a Victorian era baby's biography could almost be written before the umbilical cord was cut. A daughter was expected to choose a bright, ambitious, yet stable husband, live in a respectable New York brownstone, vacation in the Hamptons, and bear a brood of attractive children. A son was expected to either embrace college, or go to work in the family business and achieve beyond his father's best efforts. Fortunately for antique dealers all over the world today, one such Victorian era son rebelled against just such "noblise oblige." His name was Lewis Comfort Tiffany.

Market Day Outside the Walls of Tangiers, Morocco, 1873, Lewis Comfort Tiffany
Born in 1848 to the family of Charles C. Tiffany, Lewis' proverbial silver spoon, came from his father's New York jewelry store empire, and indeed, as a boy, he seemed to take to the art of jewelry making. But young Lewis balked at both going to college and entering the family business. Instead he took up a different art, studying landscape painting with Philadelphia artist, George Innes. Something of a playboy in his early years he traveled easily among the east coast gentility, developing a deep appreciation of the decorative arts and the good taste to match. In 1879 he opened Tiffany Studios, an interior design firm that quickly became the arbiter of good taste in New York high society as the Victorian era reached its zenith. His influence was so powerful that he was able to launch an entirely new style of interior design, that which came to be known as Art Nouveau.

1910 vintage Tiffany Studio lamp
In business less than a decade, Tiffany landed the plum commission to redecorate two rooms of the White House, the Red and Blue Rooms. About the same time, his company developed Favrile iridescent glass, which launched the firm into the stained glass window business. But it was the happy circumstances of working with Thomas Edison, who was installing the first electric lights in the first movie theater, (the Lyceum), while Tiffany's design firm was installing a massive stained glass window, that launched Lewis C. Tiffany into a whole new art form--portable stained glass windows--better known as stained glass lamps. Though Tiffany seldom actually made the lamps himself, his designs, often based upon his studies as a landscape painter, were rendered by company craftsmen to his exacting specifications. From lamps, the designer ventured into the production of vases, shades, and glassware. His designs often included zodiac figures, medieval motifs, Renaissance figures, peacocks, and dragonflies. Often, the designs were so complex they were impossible to fabricate in glass. Estimates are that only about one in a hundred designs actually found its way into a handmade work of stained glass art.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Legendary Artists

When we think of legendary artists, we most usually think of the Renaissance "big-three," Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo; or perhaps the roguish exploits of Caravaggio; or the entrepreneurial enterprises of Rubens, Rembrandt, and Reynolds; or the cosmopolitan affairs of Whistler, Sargent, and Manet; or perhaps the hardships of Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh.  More recently, the showmanship of Picasso and Dali comes to mind. However, the incubation period for a whole new echelon of legendary artists has passed and now we can recall with a mixture of awe and humor some of the legends of Modern Art--Pollock, Rothko, Warhol, Kline, Motherwell, and others from the New York School and the Abstract Expressionist period of more than fifty years ago. Moreover, like their paintings, this group was so colorful as to make legendary figures such as Rembrandt, or Whistler, or even Caravaggio seem dull by comparison.

Mark Rothko, 1953
Jackson Pollock 1949, photo by
Arnold Newman

It's said, for instance, that a 20-year-old Mark Rothko decided on a career in art when, in 1923, he walked into an art class at New York's Art Students League to meet a friend. He caught a glimpse of the nude model and decided to enroll. Or, at a time when Jackson Pollock was still cleaning up any dribbles of paint, he was living in a small apartment on East Eighth Street in New York. He had to scramble each month to afford the $35 rent until he received a commission from the bohemian art dealer Peggy Guggenheim that, before he was done, grew so large (almost 9 by 20 foot) he had to knock out a wall in the apartment to accommodate it. Within little more than a year, he could afford a place in East Hampton. And speaking of Pollock, ever wonder who taught him to drip and dribble? It was the Mexican mural painter, David Siquieros, until he marched off to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Peggy Guggenheim in full bloom
Mark Rothko once rented a basement hovel that had formerly been a dog kennel. It was so small, cold, and rat-infested he had to sleep in the bath tub with the water running to keep warm. That a was a move up though, from his previous sleeping arrangements in the New York subways. It's said that he'd admired the work of Willem de Kooning. When he saw him one day in Washington Square Park, he sat down next to him on a park bench. Though they'd never met, de Kooning recognized Rothko as well. He recalled afterwards that they were both afraid to speak lest the other would think he was gay. De Kooning's West 22nd Street loft was painted all white inside. Quite the cleanliness freak, he insisted upon washing it down every Saturday. It was so huge, he built a smaller pink loft in its center for his wife to use. Peggy Guggenheim, though not a painter, is something of a New York art scene legend too. Her gallery on West 57th Street was egg shaped, had floors painted turquoise, and always displayed her artists' work unframed. Franz Kline was so attached to his East Ninth Street loft he had to be forcibly evicted when the building was torn down in 1953. And Jim Lane...has never done anything legendary in his entire life...sigh...
Willem de Kooning's all white studio...with a touch of pink (not shown)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Le Corbusier

He was born in 1887, Swiss by nationality; and early on, he was an abstract painter. His name was Charles Edouard Jeanneret. Eventually he turned to sculpture. His imagination was such that it demanded bigger things, broader scope, and more monumental endeavors. He turned to architecture, then beyond that to city planning. His designs were supremely rational, yet revolutionary in their radical departure from accepted and expected norms. He is said to have embraced reinforced concrete like some men embrace their wives, like architects of the past had embraced wood, brick, and stone. He carved it, shaped it, and sculpted it like clay. His famous Five Points of New Architecture, published in 1925, served as the basis for all that has come since to be known as modern architecture.  He provided free and open spaces and left it to others to adapt these spaces for their immediate needs, while designing them to be just as functional as those needs changed and changed again. In the process he also changed his named. Today, we know him by his chosen French name, Le Corbusier.

Villa Savoy, Poissy, 1929-31, Le Corbusier
Before the Second World War, Le Corbusier (pronounced LAY Cor-BOOS-ee-yay) was more writer than builder. His work between the wars was limited mostly to domestic homes. Oh, but what homes they were. His Villa Savoy (right) at Poissy, built between 1929 and 1931 appears to be futuristic even by today's standards. The lower level is a rectangular open area ringed with concrete pylons. It contains parking space, an entry foyer, and service utilities. The second level of the concrete structure is a square layout with living and bedroom areas free-flowing in a "U" shape around a terrace. A band of windows like a ribbon stretch horizontally along each identical facade. A continuous ramp leads from the ground level clear up to a curvilinear solarium and garden on the roof. During the 1950s, In part because of the considerable reconstruction in France as a result of WW II, as well as the functional simplicity of his designs, and the economies afforded by his devotion to reinforced concrete, Le Corbusier was able to move up to bigger and better things.

Unite d'Habituation , 1952, Le Corbusier
In 1952, the architect applied the same five principles as seen in the Villa Savoy to an entire apartment complex known as Unite d'Habituation (left) near Marseilles. Some fifteen stories tall, supported on massive, inverted conical pylons, the structure has somewhat the appearance of a modern style chest of drawers. To some degree, that's exactly what it is. Le Corbusier was the first architect to pioneer the use of prefabricated, concrete living units, fashioned like giant, bi-level drawers. Each elongated unit has a balcony on either end and extends clear through the width of the structure.  Every other floor had a "street" running the length of the structure with communal areas, shopping, and laundry facilities occupying the seventh and eight floors while the rooftop garden contains a swimming pool, running track, and other recreational facilities. Various apartment units were designed to house families of from two to ten people. And as revolutionary as this structure might seem, his pilgrimage chapel, Notre Dame du Haut (below) at Ronchamp, with it's soaring roof line, sloping walls, and irregularly sized and spaced windows, is downright extra terrestrial. It makes one wonder if more painters ought to give up their brushes in favor of architecture.
Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, 1955, Le Corbusier

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Last Bohemians

Self-Portrait, Amedeo Modigliani,
Sometimes, seemingly trivial events serve to divide that which was from that which is to be. On July 14, 1789, a small mob stormed a nearly empty prison in Paris. So began the French Revolution. A 500-year-old monarchy died, a republic was born. In December, 1955, an African-American seamstress was asked to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus. And so began the civil rights movement in the United States. In 1969, the Department of Defense organized an electronic communication network between various private and public research facilities called ARPANET, and so began the Internet. On January 25, 1919, a virtually unknown artist died in the charity ward of a Paris hospital. And with him died the French domination of world art. He was symbolically the last of a dying breed, sometimes called the Last Bohemians. His name was Amedeo Modigliani (right). He'd been done in by poverty, tuberculosis, alcoholism, drug abuse, and obscurity. Days later, as his cortege passed through he streets of old Montmartre, thousands, many of whom had never seen his work or even knew his name, lined up to pay their respects, sensing, without really knowing why, that an era was coming to an end.

Portrait of Maurice Utrillo, 1921,
Suzanne Valadon
There were four of them--Maurice Utrillo, Jules Pascin, Chaim Soutine, and Modigliani. Utrillo was French; Pascin, Bulgarian; Soutine, Lithuanian; and Modigliani, Italian. All had ended up in the streets and gutters of Montmartre, the early twentieth-century cradle of Modern Art. Utrillo was literally born there, and like the others, could well have died there. Born in 1883 to a teenage street urchin eking out a living as an artist's model, he was an alcoholic by the time he was 15, institutionalized by the time he was 18. Saved from self-destruction by his mother and later by his wife, he continued to paint until his death in 1955, the only one of the four to survive the streets and obscurity.

Self-Portrait in a Derby Hat,
Jules Pascin
Jules Pascin (right) was a little younger than Utrillo, quite a bit more talented, and much more academically trained, studying art in Vienna, Munich, and Paris, traveling broadly all over the world, including Mexico and the U.S. His street scenes and portraits were among the best of the four. However, to put it politely, he was also a restless playboy sort. He restlessly committed suicide in 1930.

Soutine (below), was Lithuanian, the tenth of eleven children. He ran away from home to escape a life of tailorhood. His father, a tailor, expected him to follow in his footsteps. He ended up in Paris, studying art, living in a tenement next door to a slaughterhouse where he would go to paint the raw sides of beef and explore his expressionistic color tendencies. He was even known to take home beef carcasses, not to eat but to paint. Abject poverty led him to suicide as well, though at the last moment, a friend happened by and saved him from hanging. Later, through his friend, Modigliani, he met an art dealer who advised him to leave Paris. He did, and met a rich American collector of Modern Art, Dr. Albert Barnes, who bought nearly 100 of his paintings (half his unsold stock of dark, colorful, landscapes and portraits). Though financially comfortable, he grew increasingly reclusive, refusing to exhibit his work. He died in obscurity in 1943. In 2006, his 1924 painting, Le Boeuf Écorché, sold for the equivalent of more than $21.9 million, almost three times its appraised value.

Chaim Soutine, 1916,
Amedeo Modigliani
So why was Modigliani's passing so great a turning point? The torch had passed. One by one, artists thereafter deserted Montmartre for Munich, or New York, of anywhere but Paris--even Picasso (though he spent the war years there, practically under house arrest). From 1919 on, no new art movements came from the city. Dada and Surrealism for a time found a home there, but they were just passing through on their way somewhere else. The exciting spirit of innovation and the combustible mix of talent and creative turbulence were gone, long before Hitler's horde goose stepped their way down the Champs Elysse`. The Last Bohemians were the final, pathetic chapter in a 300-year-long tradition of French dominance of the arts beginning as far back as Charles II. There have been glowing embers flaring up from time to time since, but they too died. Art, and Paris have not been the same since.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Pope Julius II

Portrait of Pope Julius II, 1512.
Raphael da Sanzio
Some of the greatest works of art ever created were not entirely the inspiration of the artists usually credited with making them but that of others--great leaders, great thinkers, men and women of great wealth. Sometimes these individuals have a footnote in the story surrounding the great work of art.  Sometimes, they're all but unknown. Did you ever wonder whose idea it was to have Leonardo paint his Last Supper? Who was the heroic model for Michelangelo's David?  Who commissioned Picasso to paint Guernica? Sometimes however, the force behind the artist is almost as much a part of the work as the artists. An interesting case in point would be Giulano Della Rovere. He was born in 1443 at Albrissola in Italy. His family was poor. As a teenager, he became a Franciscan. A bright, feisty young man, he embraced the church with both his intellect and his own dynamic personality, making the most of one of the few pathways to a better life available during the fifteenth century. In 1471, his fortunes made a dramatic improvement. His uncle, Francesco della Rovere, was elected Pope!

As popes go, Uncle Francesco wasn't much of a pope. Taking on the name, Sixtus IV, he built a bridge across the Tiber connecting the Vatican to greater Rome (not that Rome was very "great" at the time). He also built the Sistine chapel--a crude, ungainly structure, as much a fortress as a church. On the negative side, he might be said to have given nepotism a bad name. He made quite a number of Rovere relatives Cardinals; and invited them to Rome where, for the most part, they did little more than feast on church wealth and dabble in church politics. Giulano, at the age of 28, was one of these new young Cardinals. However, when it came to church politics, he was much more than just a dabbler. He became a powerful force to be reckoned with. During the next 22 years, he was almost elected pope himself, twice, before finally succeeding to the office in 1503. He chose the name, Julius II. And neither art, nor the Catholic Church, has ever been the same since.

Donato Bramante's first draft of his
plan for St. Peter's Basilica,  1505-06,
superimposed over the plan for
the original St. Peter's Basilica.
Julius II is often known as the "warrior pope" and it's a distinction well taken. During his nearly ten-year papacy his various military endeavors on behalf of the Papal States nearly bankrupted the church. However it was just this militant side of his character that was responsible for marshaling the talents of three of the greatest artistic geniuses in the history of art--Bramante the architect, Michelangelo the sculptor, and Raphael the painter. Working with Bramante, he took the dramatic step of order up a whole new church, literally built around and over top of the old St. Peter's Basilic (right).

We all know of how the pope nearly forced Michelangelo to paint his greatest masterpiece on the ceiling of Julius II's uncle's namesake chapel. Beyond that however, in one of the most grandiose gestures of egoism in the history of art, (aided and abetted by Michelangelo) Julius II planned his own tomb, to be the centerpiece of his new church, centered under its magnificent dome. It was to be a massive rectilinear pyramid having some forty sculptural works crawling all over its tiered surface like a giant wedding cake.  Had it been realized, it would have taken Michelangelo the rest of his life to carve.

Working with Raphael, the pope conspired to implant a new humanism in the painted decoration on the walls of his magnificent palace (a portrait of Julius II by Rapahel is shown at top). Not everything turned out as he planned, of course. The church wasn't finished until 130 years after the pope's death. His magnificent tomb ended up reduced to not much more than wall decoration in an obscure church on the far side of Rome; and both Julius II and Raphael died before they could truly unleash the full force of their combined inspiration on the walls of his great church. But whatever might be said regarding the pope's tyrannical tactics, political chicanery, military debacles, or his magnified ego, Julius II must be accorded his place as one of the greatest creative forces in the history of art.
The much reduced Wall Monument
to Pope Julius II, San Pedro in Vincoli,
usually said to be the tomb of the pope,
 but actually Julius II is buried beneath the
 floor of St.Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
The figure of Moses in the center is the only
element of Michelangelo's original design  
to be executed.
Michelangelo's original design
for the tomb of Julius II

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Jose Orozco

Steubenville, Ohio, Religious Beginnings,
 c. 1985, Robert Dafford,
During the last few years we have seen what I would call a "resurgence of muralism."  The small city of Steubenville, right here in Ohio, for instance, has some two dozen large-scale, outdoor murals painted by almost that many different artists (many nationally known), depicting the city's history and ideals. Quite a number of other cities around the country have picked up on this trend if for no other reason than, in sufficient quantity, they attract tourist dollars.  The popularity of murals has been up and down throughout the history of art. Specifically, they have been popular in this country, during the late 1800s, the 1920s, again in the 1930s under the WPA, and most recently, starting as early as the 1970s right up through the end of the century. It's only been with the last period however, that the majority of these murals were done outdoors.  Many would credit inner city graffiti with having given birth to the latest resurgence, and to a large extent, there may be some validity to such an assertion.  Though such art may be considered ugly by some, it is usually considerably less ugly than the bleak, blank, blocks of blatant urban decay they replace.

However outdoor murals go back further than that, at least to the previous period of popularity during the 1920s when the "Big Three" Mexican muralists departed their homeland for greater freedom of expression and the economic support to express their often boldly socialists messages.  It was, after all about the time of the 1929 stock market crash and its aftermath, when people all over the world were wondering if capitalism might be dead and socialism was the wave of the future.  The "Big Three" of course, refers to Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Orozco.  As with any triumvirate, one figure always dominates, in this case Rivera.  Siqueiros was somewhat more radical in style and content, and Orozco, the most radical of all.

The Departure of Quetzalcoatl, 1932-34, Jose Orozco
Orozco was born in 1883, and came to mural painting much as did Rivera and Siqueiros, through the famed San Carlos Academy, though in his case, without the moderating effects of European study as with the other two.  Perhaps as a result, Orozco's work is often seen as unnecessarily brutal and bombastic.  His Dartmouth Fresco from 1932-34, Departure of Quetzalcoatl is a good example of this.  Unlike Rivera's monumental realism, or Siqueiros' complex surrealism, Orozco's work is more symbolic, more simplified, and often seems to "pound" the viewer, screaming out his point and his socialist point of view.  Although most of the mural work of the Mexican "Big Three" was done inside, they eventually grew so large in scale that only the sides of buildings could accommodate them.  Of the three Orozco, in his later years, painted far more outdoor murals than did the other two.  His style allowed him to paint more freely and prolifically.  And it is undoubtedly the work of Orozco which has had the greatest influence on the current generation of outdoor muralist.  Incidentally, speaking of influence, it was at a workshop taught by Orozco in New York in 1934 that Jackson Pollock first learned to drip paint.

Friday, November 18, 2011

John Steuart Curry

There's an old, World War I vintage song with the line, "How ya gonna keep'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?" Couched in humor, it bespoke a serious concern as prairie farm boys fled the family farms in droves to the cities (albeit poor imitations of Paris) and industrial jobs, jazz, bathtub gin, flappers, and families of too many kids crammed into too few rooms of a Chicago tenement. An artist typifying this stereotype was John Steuart Curry. Born in 1897 on a farm just outside Dunavant, Kansas, he grew up as much a part of the land as the corn, wheat, cows and chickens he grew up with. His art training began in Kansas City at the Art Institute there, then moved on to the Chicago Art Institute, Geneva College in New York, and though he didn't see France during the war, he did end up studying in Paris during the mid-1920s. He liked Rubens, Gustave Courbet, and Honore Daumier. Back in the U.S., having seen "Paree," there was no keeping him "down on the farm."

Tragic Prelude, 1938-40, John Steuart Curry
During the good times of the late 1920s, Steuart taught at the New York Art Students League and the Cooper Union. With the onset of the Depression, he traveled with Ringling Brothers Circus for a time before finally returning to the Midwest and an artist-in-residence position at the College of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin. There he came to know fellow Midwesterner, Grant Wood, and painted murals while turning out some of his best regionalist work. Later, his work included a mural in the Capitol building of his home state of Kansas. Tragic Prelude (above) depicted the fiery abolitionist, John Brown in a guise reminiscent of Moses leading his followers to rise up in rebellion against the scourge of slavery.  (Kansas was a hotbed of antislavery violence just before the Civil War.)

Tornado Over Kansas, 1929.
John Steuart Curry
Yet, as they say, you can take the boy from the country, but you can't take the country from the boy, which was largely the flavor of Curry's art career. His most famous painting, Tornado Over Kansas, done in 1929, combines the heroic painting style he found in Rubens with the realism of Courbet and the common decency of Daumier. It depicts a Kansas family fleeing to a storm shelter, mother with an infant in her arms, the children struggling to contain their pets, as a swirling funnel cloud bears down upon their prairie farm. The same year, Curry saw firsthand the devastation of another of nature's horrifying rampages, the Kaw River flood near Lawrence, Kansas, which inspired a series of paintings upon the theme "sanctuary."  The central image in each one was an island, either natural or manmade (usually in the form of a building roof top) completely surrounded by water upon which were stranded various farm animals seeking refuge from the flood.  His 1932 lithograph titled, Mississippi Noah, depicting an African-American family clinging bravely to the roof of a wooden shack, is perhaps the best work in this theme, which preoccupied him intermittently right up until his death in 1946.
Mississippi Noah, 1935, John Steuart Curry

Thursday, November 17, 2011

John Ringling

The Ringling Estate, Sarasota, Florida
Except for the artists, no one in the art world is more important than the knowledgeable, cultured, art collector. It makes no difference whether that individual buys the work of living artists or those long dead, the likes and dislikes of this person, and the money represented by his or her tastes is what largely decides whether the work of a given artist is merely "good" or to be considered "great." What the collector is willing to pay at auction determines the "value" of an artist's work and indeed, whether that artist is, in fact, collectible. Sometimes that collector is not, in fact, an individual, but an institution--a museum, or academic organization. But even then, an individual, or group of them, makes the decision to buy and for how much, thus determining the standing of an artist. Quite often individual collectors are fabulously wealthy with more money than they know what to do with. That was certainly the case with one of the most interesting American art collectors of all time. For a while, during the early 1920s, he was reputed to be one of the ten wealthiest men in America. His name was John Ringling.

Abraham Receiving Bread and Wine from Melchizedek, c. 1625, Peter Paul Rubens
When you hear the Ringling name, art probably isn't the first thing that comes to your mind.  Still today, just as it did a hundred years ago, it means first and foremost, the circus. But John Ringling was no crass, exploitative P. T. Barnum. He was a consummate business entrepreneur, and cultured gentleman. He and his wife, Mable, traveled yearly to Europe, not just to recruit new circus acts, but to visit all the great museums on the continent, immersing themselves totally in the great pool of world art. What he didn't know about art collecting, John Ringling learned the hard way, or through the art books he devoured nightly in place of sleep. As one might expect, given his background as a showman, he gravitated toward the Baroque era and especially the work of Peter Paul Rubens. He bought four of the largest paintings Rubens ever created including the massive Abraham Receiving Bread and Wine from Melchizedek (above). Painted in the 1620s at the height of Rubens' career, they were, in fact, cartoons for a series of enormous tapestries commissioned by the sister of the King of Spain. His favorites also included work by Van Dyck, Velazquez, Frans Hals, Poussin, Veronese, and Tiepolo.
The courtyard of the Ringling Museum

John Ringling was born to immigrant parents in 1866, in McGregor Iowa, the sixth of nine children, five of whom became the famous Ringling brothers. Through shrewd management and mergers with other, smaller circuses, including Barnum & Bailey's, the "Greatest Show on Earth" became no idle boast. His personal holdings in real estate, mining, and petroleum gave him the money, during the boom years of the 1920s, to indulge his collecting genius. In just over four years, he purchased over 500 paintings intended from the very beginning to form the bulk of a great museum. Today, that museum exists next to his fabulous $1.5 million mansion (top photo) near the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus in Sarasota, Florida overlooking Tampa Bay. The complex also includes an Italian opera theater, imported and reconstructed from Asolo, Italy, and a circus museum, both added by the state of Florida after World War II. The museum itself is a work of art, an Italian style villa with a large sculpture courtyard (above) dominated by a life-size replica of Michelangelo's David.  Ironically however, it was Ringling's passion for art collecting which led directly to his economic downfall. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the circus suffered as did his personal finances, which he'd stretched to the limit in pursuing his dream of creating a great museum. He died virtually penniless in 1936. But despite dire, economic straits during his declining years, contributions from a devoted household staff and circus employees allowed this beloved showman to continue to live in his usual Baroque splendor.
Interior of the Ringling Art Museum, displaying two of the four Rubens paintings.