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The Single-Minded Focus of Giorgio Morandi

I can think of no painter in the history of art who has so limited his subject matter and dove so deeply into one pond, as Giorgio Morandi did. Although he did paint some landscapes, and a few self portraits, virtually the entire focus of his life’s work was “Still Life.” And not a variety of types of “still life”, but a template that contained a very few simple, common, household objects in a highly compressed space.

Born in 1890, to a prosperous family, Morandi lived outside of Bologna for his first 19 years. Then, upon the death of his father, (his mother had already died) he moved with his three sisters and a housekeeper to an apartment in the city. Here he lived for the rest of his life, working and sleeping in the same room. The family was quite sophisticated, and Morandi went often to the Uffizi in Florence,  and other museums throughout Italy, but in fact, he did not leave Italy until 1956, to attend two art exhibits in Switzerland. He was a deeply methodical man, who cultivated his reputation as a solitary, serious-minded  intellectual. His nickname was, “Il Monaco,” the monk. Morandi famously said, ” It takes me weeks to make up my mind which group of bottles will go well with a particular colored tablecloth. Then it takes me weeks of thinking about the bottles themselves, and yet, often, I still go wrong with the spaces. Perhaps I work too fast.” Nonetheless, he produced over 1300 paintings, and was succesful both commercially and critically, in his own lifetime, though his style was outside of contemporary norms for most, avant-garde, 20th century art.


Morandi studied at the local Accademia, where he taught himself to etch
by copying Rembrandt. He was a superb technician, right from the start,
and completed over 130 etchings during his prolific career. He also taught etching there, himself, for many years.

Below, left, is one of  these wonderful etchings, and right a still life from 1929, before he adapted the spatial compression, atmospheric haze, and muted and subtle gradations of hue and tone, that was to become his signature style.

  

The painting above right, done in 1929, shows an assemblage of the kind of houshold items that are to become Morandi’s stock in trade. Though there is the beginning of an atmospheric haze and pushing of the abstacted background, forward, there is still a traditional aspect to the treatment of space, objects and palette, which was soon to condense into his mature style of visual attack.

After finishing his studies, Morandi was briefly under the influence of the Futurists, as well as de Chirico, and the old Renaissance masters. He was still consolidating his sources and influences into his own unique vision.

      

In the late teens and early 1920′s,  he worked in these different, converging styles, left and above. It wasn’t really until the mid 1930′s, through the study and influence of Cezanne, that he was able to set himself free. Below are some landscapes and still lifes from the mid 30′s to early 40′s.

    

    

At this point, his landscapes seem ahead of the still lifes in tems of formal simplification. Below, we see his mature, classic style emerging.

   

    

Still lifes are invariably about architecture, relationships and intimacy. Morandi has squeezed out the background to focus intensely on the formal relationships of the objects, and the light that models them. He has abstracted these common house-hold objects by taking away their labels, and washing away their reflections. These are quite the opposite of ‘Impressionistic” renderings of one exact moment. The forms emerge from an unspecific source of light. Like Cezanne, they are highly ‘Post Impressionist”, in that they attempt to find and portray the underlining, basic, and universal structure of the world. Morandi, like Cezanne, ” gave up the sweetness of the flesh for the cold force that binds the universe.” Morandi’s visual process is a slowing down of perception, and he forces the same patient, intense focus upon us, as observers. Morandi also said, ” I am essentially a painter of the kind of still life that communicates a sense of tranqullity and privacy, moods which I have always valued above all else.”

   

    

Morandi’s palette “echoes the ochres, browns, pinks, and brick reds” of Bologna’s old architecture. The repitition of colors and objects “become like mantras throughout his work, each adjustment finely calibrated to break the silence,” that exits on a deep metaphysical level. ” These are iconic still lifes, noiseless and austere in their muted color scale and spatial ambiquiites.” These paintings, simple as they appear to be, are monumental by virtue of the intensity of their focus. There is also an intimacy beteen the objects themselves, as well as between the objects and the very ether they inhabit and emerge from, that feels intensely private. One  almost feels, the voyeur, in front of these, cloistered, hermetic worlds, like one has accidentally overheard the most intimate family conversation.

  

    

 

” What interests me most,” Morandi said, is expressing what’s in nature, in the visible world…Nothing is more abstract than reality.”

Morandi’s life work, in the intensity of it’s focus and ability to exclude the extraneous, was certainly a form of meditation. In seeing his painting and letting it’s quiet intensity into our minds, we join him in what is not just an act of perception, but also a journey of the soul.

 

 

 

 

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The Pain, The Glory, and The Indomitable Spirit That Was Frida Kahlo

There has never been anyone like her. As an artist, a person, and part of the most famous husband-wife artistic combination ever, she captured the imagination of her country and the world, like no one before or since. Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. Throughout her adult life, she claimed to be born on July 7, 1910, the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. She saw herself, from the beginning, in larger, symbolic terms, both politically and as a living embodiment of the bridge between indigenous culture and the modern world. She was a feminist before the term existed.

Here are two views of the young Frida. Left  she is dressed in a traditional, folk outfit, and in the family photo, in a man’s suit, standing on the left. Frida had polio at age six, leaving her right leg much thinner than her left. It was then that she started wearing traditonal, long, peasant skirts to hide her leg. As she got older, she was to adopt this style as a political statement as well, aligning herself with Mexico’s indigenous culture. However, this childhood health issue paled in comparison to the infamous bus accident, at age eighteen, that was to so profoundly influence the rest of her life. It was then, that she suffered a broken spine, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, pelvis, mulitple fractures in her leg, a crushed and dislocated foot and shoulder, and an iron handrail that pierced her stomach and uterus. It was a devastating series of injuries that was to color the rest of her life and provide the source for most of her art. Before the accident, Frida was in a prestigious pre-med program. She was forced to spent a year in bed, recuperating. This is when she took up drawing and painting and reset the course of her life. Her mother had a special easel made so she could work in bed, and her father gave her his oil paints. Her first works were self portraits. She was to develop a style of such unflinching honesty as has rarely been seen in any art form.


In fact, of her 143 paintings, 55 were self portraits. Many others included images of herself in symbolic, Surrealistic tableaux. So many of her works dealt with pain and suffering. She was to have 30 operations over the course of her life, and was hospitalized numerous times just to manage her pain.


The themes of personal pain and suffering that dominate her work, made it completely different than what any other artist was doing at the time. Andre Breton, the famed Surrealist, described her work as, ” a ribbon around a bomb.” Frida herself, said, ” I paint myself because I am so often alone and I am the subject I know best. I was born a bitch. I was born a painter.” And as she also said, ” I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

Frida often said that the two defining events of her life were the accident and Diego Rivera.   ( She also, on occasion, said she wasn’t sure which one caused her more pain.)  As a young artist, however, Frida sought out Diego Rivera for advice. He recognized her talent right away and encouraged her. She quickly fell under his spell. Diego was twenty years older, a famous artist, an outspoken political activist, and notorious womanizer. For Diego, Frida was unlike anyone he had ever met. She was as stubborn  and passionate as he was about art and social justice, and as it turns out, as much of a personal rebel as he. The two married, despite the objections of her famly, when Frida was 22.


Their relationship was intense and tempestuous. Diego was not the only one to violate the marriage vows. Frida was bi-sexual, and had her own affairs with both women and men, (including Isamu Noguchi, Leon Trotsky, and Josephine Baker.) But when Diego had an affair with Frida’s younger sister, he crossed a boundary beyond any indiscretion Frida could tolerate. They divorced in November of 1939, but remarried in December of 1940. They shared too much common sensibility and passion to stay apart. They were like a giant, incandescent, double star system , each locked in the others gravitational orbit. They fed off each other personally, politically and artistically.

Frida was heavily influenced by traditional Mexican culture. She appropriated it’s bright colors, dramatic symbolism and folk quality into her visual style, blending it with her own unique brand of Surrealism, creating a new kind of Magical Realism. There was always something so startling about this woman who was so modern, in so many ways, who dressed in indigenous folk clothing. There was a dignity and an identity with the simple, oppressed poor, that she seemed to personify. Despite her own upbringing, she came to embody a link with traditional culture in the modern world. She became, in a way, the living, iconic memory of  Mexican national identitiy.

The monkey in Mexican mythology represents lust. Frida seems to have made them her friend, as her personal life attests.

Diego was one monkey she could not get out of her head. Nor was the trauma and pain of her physical problems, or her inability to ever bear a child.

Frida’s mythological nature paintings, often with her in them, were as unique as her more straight forward self portraits.

This painting, left, entitled  ”Roots”  (done in 1943) set a record of $5.6 million for a Latin American painting, in 2006. In 1939, the Louvre purchased one of her works. It was the first 20th century piece by a Mexican artist they acquired.

Frida also painted some 40 still lifes as well.

 

She also painted a number of portraits.

Above, portraits of Frida’s father, herself, and Diego. Below are portraits Frida and Diego did of their friend, the famous Mexican art collector Natasha Gelman. (Her husband became immensely rich being the discoverer and partner of Cantinflas, who was Mexico’s most famous comedian and film actor.)


Frida sees a cold, detached, perhaps, hard – hearted woman in the business of collecting art, and who knows what else. Diego, of course, renders a sensual seductress.

The house Frida  and Diego lived and worked in  is a wonderful mirror of their relationship, and a major, historical, cultural landmark in Mexico City.

The house-studio was designed and executed by a friend of Diego’s, the Mexican painter and architect, Juan O’Gorman. He was a follower of Le Corbusier. Built between 1929-1931, it was one of, if not the first, truly Modernist construction in the Americas. It employed cheap materials and emphasized functionality.They could work and live either separately or together, although there is only one small kitchen. It also included a rather famous walkway between the two structures so that they could visit each other, or not, during the night. Frida’s section is the same blue as her beloved Casa Azul, (the blue house,) below right, where she grew up and also lived at the end of her life. Caza Azul is now the Frida Kahlo Museum. Her ashes rest in a pre-Columbian urn, on display, along with many of her paintings and posssessions. I can tell you from having seen both places in person, they are worth a trip to Mexico City for any fan of Frida and Diego.



Above left, is the interior of the live-work space designed by O’Gorman. Some of their large folkloric collection hangs on the walls.

Frida died on July 13, 1954. Diego was to say in his autobiography, that he realized, too late, that the best part of his life, was his love for her. Frida’s wide, international recognition as an artist, was to be largely posthumous. She was most often, during her life, in Diego’s shadow. However, she has come to be considered, in a way, even more of a Mexican icon than Diego. She came to symbolize, in her very person, the incarnate image of her country , it’s history and its culture.

The Aztec symbol on the Mexican flag of the eagle devouring the serpent always reminds me of Frida’s constant struggle with pain, suffering and anguish. In the myth, when the Aztecs saw this struggle in the flesh, that’s where they were to build their capital. It is a place of power. A place to build upon where the will and destiny will not be denied. This incarnation of passionate struggle is what Frida was all about. She was fierce in her loyalties, in her art, in her incredible, unflinching self reflection, and honesty. She did not turn away, where most others would be afraid to even look. She was a great empowerer of women and their rights, and about as courageous as a person can be. Frida had been very ill for a year before her death. Her right leg had been amputated because of gangrene. Some suspected her death may not have been the official, “pulmonary embolism” it was declared. In her diary, a few days before the end, she wrote,” I hope the exit is joyful –  and I hope never to return – Frida.”

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MARINO MARINI MUSEUM IN FLORENCE

I’m just back from a great vacation in Italy, and one of the highlights of the trip
was the Marino Marini Museum in Florence. Marini is the only artist to have an entire museum dedicated to his work in the city. It is located in what was one of the oldest churches in Florence, San Pancrazio, and opened in 1988. Hardly anyone seems to go there. A guide I know said no one has ever asked her to go there, and two Italian friends of mine, both in art related fields, didn’t even know it was there. Even more unusual, in a city that venerates the old and eschews anything modern, the interior of the museum was redone in the modern idiom-steel, glass, and concrete. Not only is it a gorgeous space, but the collection is fabulous. And Marini, along with Henry Moore, are my two favorite modern sculptors.

Marini was born in 1901, and was trained first as a painter, in Florence, at the famous Academia di Belle Arti. However, rather than draw his inspiration from the Renaissance and classical sculpture and painting, he was drawn to the Etruscan, pre-Roman style. He considered it more direct and honest. His own style his a highly unique and original blend of the ancient and the modern. Although he continued painting and drawing throughout his career, sculpture by the late 1920′s became his preferred medium. What is so unique about his oeuvre, is that he primarily focused on only three icongraphic images. His most famous was was the horse and rider (or knight). The other two were “Pomonas” or single figures, primarily female, earth mother type forms, and circus-acrobat figures, that also included pugilists. He also did quite a few portaits, most notably of famous artists like Oskar Kokoschka, Mies Van Der Rohe,  Igor Stravinsky and Jean Arp, all of whom sat for him.

The image, however, that preocupied him the most was the horse and rider. These evolved from a fairly classical pose that implied a dignity, calm and balance between horse and rider, to an increasingly strained, thrashing, even tortured relationship where the two have lost all semblance of harmony together as the beast strains in the torment of what seems an existential agony. Here are some examples of this evolution as taken by my wife and I on our visit there.

“Little by little, my horses become more restless, their riders less and less able to control them. Man and beast are both overcome by a catastrophe much like those that struck Sodom and Pompeii.” Marini was profoundly effected by the insanity and cruelty exhibited in both World Wars. He spent several years in Switzerland during WWII, rather than be engulfed by the storm into which his beloved homeland had fallen.

“If you look back on all my equestrian figures of the past twelve years, you will notice that the rider is each time less in control of his mount, and that the latter is increasingly more wild in its terror, but frozen stiff, rather than rearing or running away. This is because I feel that we are on the eve of the end of a whole world…”

” In Antiquity, one always thought that the man on horseback was a public figure destined to lead and command. Today, we have a more tragic sense of things, an idea of destructineness so acute that my last sculptural elements of man on horseback were reduced to disconnected, free forms.”

” Everything must be left at the level of infinite meaning.The idea behind The Miracles is that of their own destruction. It is a fiery idea, the poem of a rider who, at a certain point, destroys himself. Like Icarus, he wants to fly to the heavens, but he is as uneasy there as he has been on the earth. He wants to pierce the earth’s crust or even get out into space. He cannot be fulfilled among other men, who are falsely fulfilled. He tries to escape, and goes away or ends up destroying himself.”

Marini, despite his despair at the state of the world and it’s political direction, as well as his tapping into the existential feeling of the times, apparently had a keen sense of humor, and though serious, was personally quite warm. We see something of the other side of him in his “Pomonas.”

One can clearly see the different sides of Marini’s impulse, on the one hand, to engage in an ideal generalization of form, and on the other hand, a brutal, expressive exageration, in these two portraits. One is based, I believe, on his wife, the other a portrait of the famed German Expressionist painter, Oskar Kokoschka.

Marino Marini was a complex man and artist. He yearned for a an idealized, symbolic world that celebrated the best of the human spirit, but was also deeply aware of, and effected by, the bleakest horrors and deepest loneliness this world of flesh has to offer. His work for me, is among the most moving I have ever seen.

 

 

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THE GLORY OF FRANK GEHRY’S DISNEY HALL

Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall is, for me, not just the architctectural center of 21st century Los Angeles, but also it’s spiritual heart and soul. It is one of those rare architectural achievements, like the great cathedrals of Europe, that fills one with awe, and elevates the spirit to a place that inspires what I can only call, a state of prayer.


The curved wooden forms through out the hall strongly evoke a nautical space. One sees everywhere and  from every angle the flowing thwarts and gunnels of a great hull. It is as if we have entered an arc that will take on a great voyage to a new place, a place suffused with a profoundly quiet calm; with reverence.

Like Henry Moore, Gehry was influenced early on
by the abstract, biomorphic forms of surrealism. We can see some of this through some earlier painting and architecture that influenced him.

Below are the paintings of Dali, Gorky, and Miro. Below them is Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp, which was a great influence on both Gehry, and all modernist architects to follow.

Gehry was also very influenced by Japanese architecture, both traditonal and modern.
He loved the Japanese tradition of interior woodwork. This is clearly echoed in his materials use and aesthetic at the Disney. Below is the Todaiji Temple at Nara.


Above is Kenzo Tange’s St Mary’s Cathedral in Tokyo. Below is Michelucci’s Church of the Autostrada, a major influence.


Gaudi’s curving, flowing forms, below, as well as Saarinen’s soaring, expressionistic abstractions were also influences.

In Disney Hall, Gehry has truly achieved a kind of transcendence that is as rare in architecture, as it is in any other art form. Sitting inside, the music seems to billow out and fill the sails of your ship, taking you on an unforgettable journey, both within and without, to the furthest reaches of the soul’s stirring.

I’d be curious to hear what architecture has particular meaning for people in their own lives.

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