This great translator of raw emotion into pictorial brilliance was born on March 30, 1853. He died at age 37, but left a legacy of profoundly moving art that is indelibly seared into the hearts and minds of much of the world.
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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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I wanted to share some of my favorite sculptures. They are of differing styles, some ancient, some classical, some modern.
Left is Michelangelo’s “Awakening Slave,” and above, his representation of “Night,” from the Medici Chapel.
Below, are two from Henry Moore.
Aristide Maillol, below left, Auguste Rodin, below right.
The famous ancient Greek, “Venus de Milo, below left, paired with another Maillol.
Above left is an Egyptian piece, right a Cycladic one. Below are Giacometti and Brancusi.
Below are two pieces by Marino Marini.
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From the turn of the 19th century until the Great Depression of 1929, a number of artists produced a large body of gorgeous paintings apotheosizing the California coastline, foothills and mountains. These works were done “en plein air” after the French fashion, (that is outdoors, in nature ) and for the most part, not in the studio. They also referred stylistically to French Impressionism in their ” bright chromatic palette with loose, painterly brushstrokes.” While these artists did focus considerable attention on the the effects of light, these landscapes have a somewhat less transient, snap-shot feel, than their continental cousins. Only a very few of these painters were actually California natives, but once they settled there, they all became pre-occupied by the special, magic light of the ” Golden State.” They also tended to cluster around three geographic areas, Carmel, which is just south of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and its immediate surrounding areas, and finally, Laguna. Here are my favorite artists from among the many who successfully practiced this style of painting.
One of the few native Californians to lead the movement, was Guy Rose. He was born to a prominent family in Rosemead, outside of L.A in 1867. His father was a state senator and the family had extensive ranch land in the San Gabriel valley. After high school, he moved to San Francisco to attend the California School of Design. Four years later, he moved to Paris to study, then on to New York, where he worked briefly as an illustrator. However, he soon returned to France and lived for eight years In Giverny, under the spell and tutelage, of Claude Monet.
One can clearly see the influence of the Monet in these works, above, but upon moving back to California permanently, in 1914, there is a dramatic change in his style, as he found his own voice.
And like so many other’s, as we will see, Rose was mesmerized by the high meadows and mountains, that were close by, as well as by the ubiquitous sea. Rose was not the only of the great practitoners of this group to spend considerable time, and part of their training, abroad. William Wendt, born in Germany in 1865, moved, in 1906 to Laguna, California, where he soon became known as the “dean of Southern Calfifornia landscape painters.”
Wendt arrived from abroad, in Chicago, at the age of 15, and started work as a commercial artist. In 1894 he travelled for several years to California, the East Coast, Germany and France, absorbing local art and polishing his easel painting technique. By the time he and his wife, a sculptor, settled in California, he was a highly accomplished painter with his own unique style. He was also a founding member of The California Art Club, an influential group that counted many of the best painters of the day among its active membership.
Like most of the others Wendt was equally enthralled with magical light of the high meadows, valleys, and mountains that were so easily accessible.
This purple light which is so typical of the magical quality of the California landscape is to appear over and over in the work of these artists. The rugged coastline of of the Monterey Peninsula, south of San Francisco, and particularly, the quaint coastal town of Carmel, was to be the home and source of inspiration of several masterful painters. One of the best was German born, William Ritschel.
As a young boy, Ritschel worked as a sailor and started doing seascapes from an early age. He then studied at The Royal Academy in Munich, before making his way to New York, then California. His love of the sea infused his magnificent oeuvre of coastal landcapes.
Granville Redmond was a Norhtern California artist with an interesting story. Born in 1871 in Philadelphia, he became deaf at the age of 2 1/2, after a bout of scarlet fever. His family moved to San Jose, partially so that he could attend the Berkeley School for the Deaf. His artistic ability emerged there, and he then attended the California School of Design. In 1893, he won a scholarship that allowed him to study in France. In fact, his painting, Matin d’Hiver, below left, was exhibited in the 1895 Paris Salon.
Having returned to California, Redmond moved to Los Angeles. He became friends with Charlie Chaplin, who admired the animated expessiveness of his use of ASL, American Sign Language. Chaplin got him a studio on the movie lot, collected his work, and talked him up all over town, In fact, he gave him a part, in “City Lights,” as the sculptor.
Below are some of his beautiful paintings.
Born in 1883, in the Ozark mountains of Missouri, near the Arkansa border, Edgar Payne also took a circumlocuitous path to reach his final home in California. Edgar had a serious desire to see the world, and before he was done, had travelled all over the U. S., Canada, Mexico, and Europe. He enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago but only lasted two weeks because he chafed under a structured curriculum. He and his wife, Elsie, also an artist eventually had some artistic success in Chicago. However, it was a trip to visit his wife’s grandparents in San Francisco that changed his life. From there, he visited the Sierra Nevada mountains and found his favorite motif. He worked throughout the southwest, and did much famous work on the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners area. He finally settled in Laguna, but would often, throughout his life, take trips to paint elsewhere, particularly throughout the West. Here are a few of his Laguna seacapes and signature mountain pieces.
Northern California also became the eventual home of the very talented Mary Agnes Yerkes.
Born outside Chicago in 1886, Yerkes was to become an avid naturalist, who travelled frequently through the National Park System in the West, to pursue her “plein- air” motifs. She showed great talent in a number of mediums and soon drew considerable attention in the Chicago art world. After marrying a Naval officer, she moved up and down the California coast, from post to post, before settling permanently in San Francisco. While she did paint some ocean views (see below), her real love were the mountains and high desert. She and her husband would take camping trips throughout the West and Northwest in pursuit of the natural vistas that so inspired Mary.
Below, are her more typical scenes.
Another of my favorites, was the Austrian born, Franz Bischoff. Born in 1864, he was originally trained in ceramic decoration and watercolor. He first settled in Dearborn Michigan, where he painted porcelain, made ceramic glazes and taught watercolor technique. In 1900, he came to California and quickly settled in Los Angeles. He became an early member of the California Art Club, along with William Wendt. He then put his considerable talent and particularly his gift for the expressive use of color, in service of the local landscape that so captivated him.
Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel was born in 1875, and like so many of these other artists, coame to California by way of somehwhere else. Marion was trained at both the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Art Student’s League, in New York. In 1903, she came to Los Angeles, where among others, she studied with her soon to be husband, the artist, Elmer Wachtel. Initially she did her landscapes in watercolor, switching to oil after her husband’s death. (Competition issues?) Marion was a founding member of the California Watercolor Society, and both she and Elmer were active in the California Art Club. Below is some of her work.
Elmer, born in 1864 came to California via Maryland. His brother had married Guy Rose’s sister and was the foreman at the Rose Ranch. Elmer, a self taught musicain, became first violinist in the L. A. Philharmonic Orcherstra. He discovered his visual artistic talent later, and in 1900 enrolled at the Art Student’s League in New York. Returning to Los Angeles, he earned money from both his music and painting until his art took off. His work is below.
Paul Dougherty, born in Brooklyn N.Y. in 1877, was already a nationally renowned artist by the time he moved to Carmel, on the Monterey Penninsula in 1925. His father was a prominent attorney who prevailed on his son to go to law school, which he reluctantly did. Paul sketched and painted constantly as a child, and his talent was obvious. In fact, at the age of 18 he had a painting accepted to the prestigious, annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York. He went as a far as to pass the bar, but immediately took off with his brother on a long European journey. He toured and sketched while visiting all the great museums of London, Paris, Venice , Florence, Munich, etc. Dougherty was well educated, worldly and urbane. His passion quickly became the sea, and the rougher and more dramatic, the better. He painted on the Cornish Penninsula in England (as did JMW Turner) and the rugged coast of Maine. He was incredibly hard working and prolific. His work sold well and he was called the heir apparent of Winslow Homer. Persistent arthritis brought him to California, where he continued his exploration of the sea. He eventually became more interested in a very impressionistic rendition of light. This fascination can be clearly seen in the final painting I included of his.
California’s take on French Impressionism was tailored to the unique landscape here, and the intense, highly saturated, colorful light that is so prevalent. These artists were less concerned with the scientific breakdown of the optics of light at a particular, and fleeting moment, than capturing a permanet expression of light, as both the glue that brings objects and forms together, and as the very molecular constituent of matter itself. I see, visually, something also of Fauvism here, and spiritually, of the Hudson River School of Painting and Luminsim, where nature, through the glory of her landscape and light, offers an opportunity for transcendence. There is a monumentality of intent in California Plein-Air painting and Impressionism that comes from, I think, an almost religious awe at the beauty and majesty of nature, and at the the magic light that infuses her. What comes through so intensely in these paintings, is how deeply these painters felt that, and how nobly they expressed it.
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There have certainly been painters, and I think first, of Cezanne and Monet, whose work so intensely and specifically explores and expresses a particular place in all its physical attributes. But I have rarely seen an artist whose work so consistently and dramatically takes on and inhabits the terroir where he works as Richard Diebenkorn. That he does this while most often working abstractly, is even more amazing. He embued every canvas he ever did with the light, space, the wind, and the very air of the local atmosphere. I think he was hard wired to be unable to reflect anything but the physical world in front of him. He was a slave to the physical gestalt of his objective perceptions. Nor can I think of any ouevre where abstraction was so rooted in objective reality. Diebenkorn was also extremely rare among artists, in that he went from abstraction to representation, then back to abstraction. This path often put him in oppositon to the popular tide of serious contemporary painting and the critical establishment that ruled the art scene from Abstract Expressionism onward. I have always had a strong visceral response to Diebenkorn’s work, and I hope when you see it, you will understand why.
Diebenkorn’s career was quite unusual in several other respects. He was married to the same woman his whole life. He was not prone to wild alcoholism and multiple affairs. In fact, he was, basically, pretty boring in terms of the wild man, great artist mythos, and certainly the polar opposite to Pollock, deKooning and the frenetic bohemian scene that dominated New York and L.A. at the time. Born in 1922, Diebenkorn’s family moved when he was 2 to the San Francisco Bay area. Though he was to live and work in other places, that was always where he considered home. From the age of 5, young Richard started constantly drawing. He never stopped. In his early years he would use the white backside of cardboard that came home from the cleaners with his father’s shirts. It gave him a life long preferrence for drawing on coated surfaces. In 1940, Diebenkorn entered Stanford and was exposed to the work of one of his most profound influences, Edward Hopper. Left, is an early work of Diebenkorn. He said, ” I embraced Hopper completely…It was his use of light and shade and the atmosphere…kind of drenched, saturated with mood, and its kind of austerity…It was the kind of work that just seemed made for me. I looked at it and it was mine.” Stanford also gave him a deep love of classical music, particularly Mozart, Beethoven, Hayden, Bach, and of poetry, especially Pound, Eliot, Auden, Yeats, and Stevens. He was also, in his Los Angeles days, to develop a great love of jazz.
From childhood, Diebenkorn was always considered extremely intelligent, serious, and hard working. At Stanford he met his future wife, and they married in 1943, when he enlisted in the Marines. Diebenkorn was stationed in Virginia, and this allowed him easy access to the great museums in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York. He feasted on art that had not been available to him in California. After the war, in 1946 , he enrolled in the California School of Art, and won a prize that allowed him to study in New York. The high price of life there curtailed his stay, but not before he became immersed in Absract Expressionism, and above all, the work of de Kooning. I find his admiration of the Dutchman completely understandable. They share a profound mastery of color, great draughtsmanship abilities, and an attraction to abstract form based on a synthesis of emotion and observation.
Diebenkorn entered graduate school in New Mexico, and the four paintings, above, show the influence of desert light and especially the ubiquitous adobe dwellings and clay. I think one can also see Gorky in the work above, left, and deKooning in the piece on the right. In the early, mid- fifties, for a number of years, Diebenkorn continued with this kind of abstract work. Teaching took him first to Urbana, Illinois, then back to his beloved California, to Sausalito and then Berkeley.
These pieces, above, show the influence of the flat Illinois lansdcape and the sectioning of farm land. Back in Berkeley, Diebenkorn’s unique version of a landscape based, Abstract Expressionism continued, as we see, below.
Strong architectural elemments, both horizontal and vertical appeared.
He worked on paintings of indoor scenes, still life, and nudes, simultaneously
In these pieces, above, it’s almost as if Diebenkorn was channeling Matisse, who, along with Hopper, was his most significant influence. He was to soon embark on a special trip to Europe, and gain rare access to the Hermitage and their horde of great Matisse paintings. In the mean time, Diebekorn had a become a leading voice in the resurgent, Bay Area Figurative Movement.
This gorgeous painting on the left certainly has an almost ‘Fauvist” intensity and dramatic color palette. Yet, one can also see broad plains of color like his earlier, abstract work. There is a flowing, twisting aspect to his organization of forms and space, a sinuousness, that seems like a continuation of his earlier abstract landscape style to me. I feel fields and rivers and roads, etc.
Diebenkorn’s still life work during this period shows the facility of his continual dedication to drawing.
The still life, above left, and one of his later abstractions, above, right, to me, show an incredibly seamless continuity of sensibility and style. Below, are two self portraits and several photographs.
In 1966, Diebenkorn moved down to Los Angeles, to take a teaching post at UCLA. He also moved into Sam Francis’ old studio in the Ocean Park area of Santa Monica. What began then, is Diebenkorn’s full fledged return to abstraction, and the beginning of perhaps the longest continuous series of paintings in the history of art, the world famous and eponymous, Ocean Park series. It continued for over 25 years and encomposed over 140 paintings and many large works on paper. These paintings often consisted of what seemed, a collage like construction of flat form, that is worked and reworked, over and over, creating layer upon layer of color. These works were a combination of improvisation and discipline, and possess, every one of them, the intractable and irresistable aura of landscape. The critic, Robert Hughes, called them, “…surely one of the most distinguished mediations on landscape in painting since Monet’s waterlillies.” Tony Berlant, a neighbor and fellow artist said,” Everbody talks about the character of the light, which is very specific and beautiful there…he told me that when he was flying back and forth across the U. S. looking at landscapes from the air, the fields and the grids, and the circles, that was the thing that pushed him back into abstraction.” Andy Moses, the painter Ed Moses’s son, said, ” The Ocean Park paintings are resolutely abstract, but there is always a sense of horizon, nature, and very much architecture. A lot of the paintings feel to me like they have a topographical and street-level view at the same time, with water, sky, and architecture all jumbled up. His work was an interesting battleground between abstraction and figuration.”
Having seen many of these paintings in person, it is hard to convey the lyric majesty and open joyfulness they emanate . They exude such a pervasive feeling of light, horizon, water, beach, trees, space, the very feel of the air on your skin. It is hard to express or understate the evocativeness of these paintings. Also, they are just totally gorgeous. Diebenkorn often talked about ” realizing his sensations.” It is the same expression Cezanne used about his landscapes. Diebenkorn talked about trying compress the complete totality of his reactions to nature, and to do so in simpler and simpler form. These flat, abstract works seem exquisitely attuned to their physical environment. He captures the vibrancy of the southern California light and ambience more fully than any representational landscapes I can think of. Dienbenkorn’s achievment is that he did this in work after work of the highest quality, over a long career. I have never seen a painting of his, from any period, that is less than beautiful. He saw the magic and put it on canvas for all of us to share and luxuriate in.
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Man has been making representations of horses since before he acquired written language. The horse images from the caves at Chauvet are ca, 30,000 years old, and those at Lascaux are ca. 16,000 years old. Think about that, and what a powerful effect this majestic creature has had on the mind and soul of man. We have been making representations of the horse for longer than any other image!
Above, are two images from the caves at Lascaux, below, the caves at Chauvet.
The horse has been our partner in transportation, agriculture, war, hunting, and leisure. A human being astride a horse has always been a symbol of power, whether for the hunter, warrior, or monarch. Ocassionally the horse has even been used as a source of food, and what a drastic underuse of his qualities and abilities, that is. Over time, throughout the march of history, the style in which the horse has been portrayed has changed. However, I actually find, that it is quite remarkable, how similar representations have remained, over time. Here is a brief history of this magnificent animal.
Above, two pieces from at least 800 B.C.. Below, the piece on the left is undated, found in the Kyber pass by Romans, right, is an early Chinese representation.
Above are two horses from the Han Dynasty period, several hundred years later than the previous two. It is amazing how quickly the repesentation of the horse became anatomically correct and classically, three dimensional.
A Greek vase, top, left, and a beloved sculpture from the Parthenon, right. This horse, on the east freize, has spent the night pulling the moon’s chariot across the sky. His weariness and almost tortured fatigue, seems epochal. Below is Paulo Uccello’s early Renaissance masterpiece which shows both the use of the horse in war and as a symbol of dynamic power.
Above, is one Leonardo da Vinci’s famous sketches of horses, on the right, a model of a planned 24 foot bronze sculpture. He had actually built it in clay, but it was destroyed when the French attacked Milan. It was a portrait of an Andalusian, the breed favored by his sponsors, the Sforza. It was to have been the largest bronze casting in the world.
Above, left, is a Roman statue of Marcus Aurelius, the two to the right are by the Northern Renaissance master, Durer. The horse has quickly become a proud symbol of the warrior-prince, and bestows his majesty and power upon his rider. We see this trend continue into the Baroque period with Rubens version of the Battle of Anghiari. This drawing is considered to be a copy of Leonardo’s study, for his famous painting which is lost.
Painting in the mid 17th century were two great masters of the horse, and pretty much, everything else. Below, three paintings by the incomparable Diego Velasquez. Below these,an earlier work, by Titian, and one by van Dyke.
Below are two examples each from the early to mid-19th century by Theodore Gericault, followed by a drawing and a painting by Eugene Delacroix.
George Stubbs, an iconic English painter of the mid 18th and early 19th centuries, was known primarily for his paintings of horses.
Benjamin Marshall, below, was another, slightly later, English master of the horse painting.
Meanwhile, the 19th century produced two especially renowned painters of the horse. The American, Frederic Remington, and the Frenchman, Edgar Degas. Below, are examples of each. Remington was one of the first artists to capture the true gait of the animal, while Degas was probably the first to use photography to aid his work.
In the 20th century, with the decline of the horse’s traditional role in society, the motif, in art, came to be used much more symbolically. The horse came to represent, particularly in the hands of two modern geniuses, Pablo Picasso and Marino Marini, the darker side of man, his alienation and oppression, his fear. Majesty remains, but it is twisted by the scars of the times, by the violence of modern politics, by a world often at war, and the existential dread that seemed to permeate our collective experience.
Below, the heart breaking representations of Marini. Forlorn, desperate, the soul of both man and beast is at risk.
Here are four of my favorite contemporary horse paintings, and two sculptures. They evoke mystery and alienation, but also searching, and hope. The sculptures, below, are by Deborah Butterfield.
Above, are Alex Colville, and Enrique Martinez Celaya. Below are Eugenia Mitsanas and JL Savaut.
The horse has been a symbol throughout time of man’s relationship to nature, and the higher aspects of himself. Although the animal was domesticated, early on in the advance of our species, his nobility always captured the soul and imagination of man. He was power, he was freedom, he was loyal, he was everything we aspired to be. There is a popular saying, that the dog is man’s best friend. That maybe true, and I have had many and loved then dearly. But the horse, though I have only ridden them sporadically, quickens my heart and makes me soar, like nothing else.
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She is the most famous and most reproduced portrait ever painted, by the man, Leonardo da Vinci, who is widely considered the ” most diversely talented person” who ever lived. Leonardo’s genius extended across painting, to sculpture, drawing, architecture, engineering, music, cartography, botany, to a prescient ability to forsee and design many machines and mechanical concepts, centuries in advance of his time. There has never been a more robust and curious intellect that has conquered so many fields at such a high level. He is not just the epitome of the term, ” Renaissance Man,” but a giant of human evolution. If you wanted to put one human being in a time capsule to represent us to unknown and future civilizations, it would probably be he. Yet for all his accomplishments in the practical arts, and logic, this painting, so mysterious, is probably his most renowned legacy. It is a masterpiece of context, technique, and emotional impact that has astonished viewers for over five hundred years. Painted on a poplar panel, Leonardo started the piece in 1503, but did not finish it straight off. He carried it with him until his death in 1519, tinkering with it off and on throughout the years. This was typical of Leonardo, who was was a fierce perfectionist. His contemporary, the great art historian, Vasari, said “that he lingered over it for four years, left it unfinished…It is known that such behaviour is common in most paintings of Leonardo, who, later in life, regretted, never having completed a single work.” He took the painting to France while in the employ of the French King, Francis I, who became an extremely close firend, as well as his patron. Francis, in fact, bought the painting from Leonardo, which is why it resides today, in the Louvre.
It is widely accepted that the The Mona Lisa is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant. The portrait is nicknamed, La Gioconda, in Italian, and La Joconde, in French. It is a play in both languages on her actual name and the expression, “the happy or smiling or laughing one.” Remember, Leonardo not only created this most famous of all paintings, but also the Last Supper, which is certainly the most famous religious painting in history. His Vetruvian Man is probably the most famous symbol of humanity ever created.
The Last Supper, above right, was not painted in the dependable fresco technique, but was tempura over gesso. It started to mold and flake very quickly, and although it still retains a stunning visual impact, one can only imagine the glory of the original. Vetruvian man, left, is considered a study of the ideal proportions of the human body, residing within that most perfect of all mathematical shapes, the circle. They were both done in the mid 1490′s.
Leonardo is so extraordinary that I can’t resist a brief detour into his life and work before returning to the Mona Lisa. He was born in 1452 in the small village of Vinci, to an unmarried 16 year old woman. Young Leonardo lived with his father and grandparents, receiving only an informal education. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to the painter, Verrochio, a highly esteemed artist, in Florence. It was here that he received a wide ranging and thorough training in painting, drawing, sculpture, metalurgy casting, etc. His prowess developed so quickly that the work he did with Verrochio, between 1472 and 1475, on a piece called, The Baptism of Christ, caused his master to stop painting, he was so in awe of Leonardo’s talent.
Leonardo painted the young angel holding the robe of Jesus. Verrochio never picked up a paint brush again.
Below is The Annunciation, painted between 1475-1480. It is considered to be Leonardo’s first complete painting, soley by his own hand.
His earliest solo commission was The Adoration of the Magi, below, left. It was unfinished. Another incredible piece from this period is The Battle of Anghieri, below, right.
Leonardo’s studies of horses that were preparatory to the painting are among the most amazing drawings you will ever see.
His mastery of all the skills of draughtsmanship is breathtaking.
Before we get back to our main subject, I have to show just a few more of his extraordinary paintings, that are filled with, what I can only describe as, aching beauty. Below, left, The Virgin and Christ with St Anne, and center, a drawing done around 1500, that preceedes the painting by almost ten years, but anticipates it. Below these pieces are three other hauntingly beautiful works of his.
There are so many technical and contextual elemnts that make the Mona Lisa, this iconic image, so unique. The painting itself is 77 x 53 cm., or 30 x 20 7/8 inches.
The facial expression that dominates the portrait is achieved by several techniques working together. The sitter is forward in the picture plane, sitting up very straight. While the chair arm does create some distance between observer and observed, it also serves to propel her upward, in a way, in our face. Leonardo has dressed her very simply and she wears no personal adornment. The light that models her face, chest, and hands becomes a dramatic pyramid shape surrounded by dark areas. They stand out and attract our eyes immediately. There is nothing to distract us. The sense of life in her face coupled with her serenity, draw us inexorably in. Leonardo’s now famous technique of , “sfumato” is one of the agents of the portraits animation. Sfumato literally means, smoke, and what Leonardo did was to avoid painting or drawing outlines, especially at the corners of the mouth and the eyes. He used these smoky shadows, rather than harsh, defined lines, to finish off the forms.
Laser analysis has shown that da Vinci used as many as 30 layers of paint to a thicknes of less than 40 micrometers.Yet, this astonishingly thin build up of paint happens without the appearance of a single brushstroke. It is truly remarkable. Leonardo painted this piece with oils, in the modern manner, but layed on like tempera. It gives the painting a feeling of delicacy and lightness that feel like it embues the volumes with both substance, and at the same time, weightlessness.
Leonardo was also the first to place a sitter in front of an imaginary landscape. And what an evocative, gorgeous landscape it is. It creates an unworldly atmosphere, with its aerial perspective and forms that echo shapes in the sitter, herself. Leonardo’s interest in, and vast knowldge of, botany also made him the premier landscape painter of his time.
It is the Mona (which is a shortened form of the Italian word for Madame used in this time period) Lisa’s direct gaze and engagement with the viewer that has captivated all art lovers, around the world. Even though she does not have eyelashes, scans have shown that she originally did, as well as more pronounced eyebrows. The painting has been cleaned, but never, “restored,” or painted over. There have been a few minor fill ins with watercolor to cover a very few cracked or bruised areas. There is no question, however, that the lack of stong brows or lashes, makes the face both more abstract and more direct, in it’s immediate perception. There is less to distract us from her gaze. She is all eyes.
Above, is a closer look at her hands and one of Leonardo’s many superb preperatory drawings. What I particularly relish is the the delicacy, and feeling of lightness, they exhibit, combined with a sense of active repose.
The real question though, is this a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, or a self portrait of Leonardo as a woman, or is it someone else, entirely, as a few have suggested. And, is it simply a portrait, or does it contain secret symbology a la Dan Brown and “The Da Vinci Code.”
As to the idea that this is really a portrait of Leonardo as a woman, I just don’t see it. There are so many peoples’ faces you could attach side by side and have some hint of resemblance. I think this becomes even more clear when you look at some of Leonardo’s other portraits of women.
I think one could look at the figure on the left, of this sketch for a painting we have seen earlier, that was done approximately ten years before, as having a similar quality to the face of Mona Lisa. If you look at all the female figures I have shown examples of, earlier, you see a uniform quality of sweetness, gentleness and , idealization, as in the Mona Lisa. It is simply Leonardo’s way of portraying women, throughout his entire oeuvre.
There is no question that del Giocondo comissioned a portrait. However, there is also no first hand discussion of the Mona Lisa’s fidelity to Lisa’s actual face. To me, the etherial, mysterious ambience created by the sitter’s direct gaze, her relationship to the background landscape, and the overall subdued harmony attained in this painting, make it a portrait that may have started to be about one woman, but came to be vastly more symbolic. I think it is an idealized apotheosis of womanhood, and the relationship between woman, or man, and nature. The fact that Leonardo carried it with him for so long, attests to a larger meaning for him, than simply the portrait of one merchant’s wife, that he had trouble finishing.
Some people have claimed to find the letter “S’” in her left eye, the letter “L” in her right eye, and the number “72″ under the bridge in the background. These symbols are not visible to the naked eye. Some have suggested references to the Kabbalah, the Sforza dynasty, Leonardo himself. My only response to these intriguing formulations is, go enjoy the “Da Vinci Code” in the theatre, but trust your own eyes in the museum.
This most famous of all paintings was actually stolen from the Louvre in 1911 by an employee who ended up keeping it in his appartment for two years. It was unharmed. Subsequently people have thrown acid at it, thrown a rock at it, and tried to spray paint it red. Happily she has only suffered the most minor damage.
It is sometimes hard to see a work that has become so famous, been so popularized and so parodied, with clear eyes. If one does, a transporting experience awaits.To my mind, the Mona Lisa is every bit , one of the greatest paintings, by one of the greatest artists, who ever lived. Her smile alone, caught me, hook, line, and sinker, at first sight.
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Lucian Freud changed both the stylistic face of contemporary portraiture, and the relationship between artist and subject. He put his subjects under a lens so intense they almost seemed to deconstruct. The power of his gaze, the depth of his psychological penetration in itself, was almost as much the subject of the painting, as the person portrayed. That power was turned on his friends, family, and himself, with equal, unwaveringness. Below are three self portraits, followed by a photograph.
Born in Berlin, in 1922, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, Lucian moved to London with his family in 1933, to escape Hitler. His father was an architect and his mother a timber heiress. Freud proved to be an indifferent student in his early years, being more interested in horses than anything else. He attended progressive schools, but was expelled from one, after dropping his pants in public on a dare. A sandstone sculpture of a horse gained him entry to the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. After an unproductive year there, he switched to the East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting. Freud was wild and bohemian from the start and was to become a profound womanizer and the father of at least 14 children, and by some estimates, many more.
In these portraits of his first wife, we see his earlier style. It is more linear and executed with thin layers of paint. His stance toward the subject is certainly direct, but there is a narrative implication which he abandons in his mature work. Here, he captures a deep haunting quality which feels like he has made manifest, in exterior, physical form, the interior state of the sitter. His signature style which is about to evolve, feels quite the opposite, like he works from the outside in. It is characterized, as well, by a thick impasto brush work, and paint application. At one point, he was said to have cleaned his brush after every stroke.
Below are several pictures that pre-date his mature style. There is a quality, I find, of sweetness, and affection.
The portrait on the left, one of Freud’s mistresses, almost feels transitional, as the form is becoming more blocky. On the right is Lady Caroline Blackwood, who was to become his second wife.
The most influential person in Freud’s evolution to his signature, mature style, was Francis Bacon. Bacon’s thick, loose method, where form is created from the brushstroke, not traditional drawing, and his raw intensity, opened the floodgates in Freud. Below is a portrait Bacon did of Freud and a reciprocal, Freud did of Bacon.
From the early 1950′s on, Freud’s universe consisted soley of portraiture and nudes, all done in his studio, and most, requiring tortuously long posing by his subjects. His paint application was a thick impasto, his brushes very stiff, and his palette mostly muted browns and yellows ” Full, saturated colors, have an emotional signifiicnce I want to avoid,” he said.
Nakedness in Freud’s work takes on an almost voyeuristic quality. Reality seems heightened. It’s as if his deep boring into the physical, lays bare all the hidden layers of emotion and identity. All fears and doubts are manifested.” His omnivorous gaze seemed to reveal secrets- aging, ugliness, faults, that people imagine they are hiding from the world.”
Freud was a ruthless taskmaster, in that he insisted on endless, long posing sessions for all his subjects. One painting done in 2007 required 16 months of work. In the 1970′s, he spend 4000 hours on a series of paintings of his mother. Freud formed intense relationships with his subjects and was supposedly a great raconteur and wit. His typical method was to “start drawing in charcoal, then apply paint to a small area of canvas, and gradually work outward from that point.” He would usually start with the head as a way of getting to know the person, then do the rest of the figure and return to the head when he had a deeper sense of the subject.
” I paint people not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be.” This is how Freud described the parade of friends and intimates that came to his studio and submitted themselves to the grind of his exploration. As he pushed the limits of his sitter’s physical capacity in his multi-hour, long sessions, their defenses seemed to melt away. It feels to me like the intensity of his will to penetrate to their core sapped them of the will to resist. He dug out what peolpe didn’t know they had inside. ” He always pressed to extremes, carrying on further than one would think necessary and rarely letting anything go before it became disconcerting.” Here are more of these typical pieces.
Freud did still retain a certain sweetness and affection that showed through in some portraits.
The portrait on the right, above, is of his daughter, Bella.
Above, left is Freud’s first wife, Kitty Garman, and left, his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood (the Guinness heiress) for whom he left Kitty. The two were introduced by James Bond author, Ian Fleming’s wife, Ann. Freud’s “rakish” behaviour also included gambling, as well as womanizing. He craved stimulation. He was really something of an old style hedonist. Yet, he always had a deep rapport with his models, who were, most often, friends, family , acquaintances, and other artists.
Above, right is Stephen Spender, the poet, below, two of his more famous subjects, the Queen and David Hockney.
His 2001 portrait of Queen Elizabeth caused a firestorm. Some thought it was bold and truthful, others that her ” five o’clock shadow,” and unidealized treatment was treasonous, or at the very least, scandalous. Freud offered to paint the Queen’s portrait as a gift. There is a long tradition of monarchs being immortalized by the leading artists of the day – think Titian, Velasquez, Holbein, etc. In fact, the Queen has been officially painted by over 100 artists. None, however, like Lucian Freud. The Queen sat for him between May 2000 and December 2001, wearing the diamond crown she wears for important, ceremonial ocassions, at Freud’s specific request. He liked its impression of power. The normal function of the royal portrait is as the ultimate social document, the apotheosis of culture, tradition, elegance and power. It is not usually an opportunity for a brutally realistic treatment of monarch as decaying flesh. Freud called his portraits, ” a kind of truth-telling exercize.” Although some wanted to sent him to the Tower of London, it’s hard not to believe the monarchy knew with whom they were dealing. Although the Palace never released word of the Queen’s reaction, Freud himself, was said to be pleased with the portrait. It is now resides in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.
Although he was considered the greatest realist painter alive, by many people and critics, throughout the world, Freud only found wide acclaim in America in 1987, after a landmark exhibition at the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C.
Lucian Freud’s fleshy, raw, uncompromising portraits stripped away the traditonal, social context that had been an integral foundation of portraiture thoughout the history of art . His focus on a deep psychological and physical examination, devoid of historical and social context, was a sea change in both the art of portraiture, itself, and the relationship between artist and subject. He was deconstructing context long before it had ever been conceived of in literature, and I would argue, in a much more artistically meaningful and profound way. The light of honesty and truth in art has rarely shown so brightly as in the work of Lucian Freud.
For those who might be in London, there is a Freud retrospective opening at the National Portrait Gallery, February, 9th.
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Born in 1923 in Detroit, of Armenian heritage, Charles Garabedian has spent most of his life in Southern California. As a painter, Garabedian created an incredibly personal iconography that deals with subjects like the mythos of creation, the fall from the Garden of Eden, and the nature of men and women, good and evil. He has freely borrowed from, especially, Greek and Chinese mythology in forming his unique vocabulary of pictorial content.
Garabedian was the subject of a phenomenal, large retrospective at the Santa Barbara Museum in 2011. For those who don’t know it, this museum is quite large for a small city, and boasts a collection of about 27,000 pieces, spanning most of the history of art. It has a top notch curatorial staff that puts up significant exhibitions. The scope and quality of its collection put the Santa Barbara Museum just under the top tier of major city institutions. It opened in 1941, in what was formerly a post office.
Unfortunately there were not enough good images available online to show as much of Garabedian’s work, and its variety, as I would have liked. Nonetheless, here is a small selection, to give you a feel for him. I hope you find his original style and attitude as compelling and interesting as I do.
Garabedian continued his education after fighting in the Air Force during WWII. First at the University of California, Santa Barbara, then at USC, and finally at UCLA, over an eighteen year period, he worked his way through his undergraduate and MFA studies. He continues to paint, in his 90th year, in the studio he has occupied in Los Angeles for over thirty years. His “bold, bright, energetic palette”, and love of the nude form, continues unabated.
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Georgia O’Keefe was the first female American artist to achieve super-stardom, and one of the most widely known, and popular artists of this century. She is, however, looked down upon by some, as a new-age, creator of ”Southwestern poster art.” I think this assessment is dead wrong. She was a pioneering visual stylist, who created a highly unique and original form of expression, and synthesis of the abstract and representational. Her work, in person, is exceptionally powerful and visceral. She creates a highly charged universe of color and form that is simple, direct, and commanding. She establishes, in every picture, a universe that is her own, filled with the recognizable, but embued with a kind of transcendental magic. Her style did not evolve, like that of so many, by increments, out of the study of historical progression. It evolved from her own direct experience of the physical world and unique visual sensibility.
Georgia O’Keeffe was born on a dairy farm in Wisconsin in 1887, and knew at the age of ten that she wanted to be an artist. She first studied with a local watercolorist, before making her way to the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, followed by the Art Student’s League, in New York. Her training at The League, under William Merritt Chase, was very traditional. Although she won a prize for a still life, she began to feel that she would never excel trying to imitate realistic tableaux. In fact, she was so despondent that she gave up painting for four years and took a job as a commercial artist, in Chicago. Her parents had moved to Virginia, and in 1912 she took a summer school course at UVA which reignited her love of painting. What did it was the artistic approach of Arthur Wesley Dow, who encouraged students to ” use line, color, and shading harmoniously” and to attack all elements of constructing a painting simultaneously. Something momentous inside her stirred and set loose a flurry of ground breaking abstraction from the mid teens to early 1920′s.
The drawing, top left, was sent by a mutual friend of O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz to Steiglitz’s influential gallery in New York, which was named, 291. He loved the work, and without even asking her, hung several at the gallery. He told his friend, Anita Pollitzer, that these drawings were,” the purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered 291 in a long while.” O’Keeffe confronted the famed photographer, 23 years her elder, who was to be her husband for many years, but allowed him to keep the drawings up. He gave her, her first solo show in 1917, and by 1918, convinced her to move to New York, give up teaching, and live with him. The abstract work she produced during this period was totally unique. Below are several examples.
Stieglitz started photographing O’Keeffe almost immediately upon meeting her. By 1937, he had done over 350 portraits of her, many of them erotic. She was a willing participant, proclaiming her liberation and independant thought and stance from the start.
He took many pictures of her making expressive arm and hand movements that mimicked natural forms.
O’Keeffe’s abstractions became more and more organic, starting to evoke both floral forms and those of the female anatomy.
The critics of the time focused on the sexual analogue to female anatomy in her flower paintings. She constantly pushed back against this “Freudian” reading of her work. Indeed, in her later life, when a new generation of feminists artists in the 1970′s, like Judy Chicago, harked back to this element of her work as a rallying cry, she rebuffed them.
In the 1920′s O’Keeffe”s large paintings of flowers, as if seen very close up, predominated her work and heralded a turn away from abstraction to the overtly represntational.
Up until 1929, O’Keeffe had spent her summers at Sieglitz’s family vacation home at Lake George, in upstate New York. Seeking new inspiration, she travelled with her friend, Rebecca Strand to New Mexico. Another friend who lived there, Mabel Dodge Luhan welcomed them to her home in Taos and provided them both with studios. This was to prove a watershed experience in O’Keeffe’s life and art. She was totally seduced by the sometimes rugged, sometimes bleak, New Mexico landscape, and the magical color that infuses the light and space there. She loved the desert, the mountains, the Spanish and Native American culture, architecture, and artifacts.
These are two of her earlier New Mexico pieces. For the next twenty years, O’Keeffe spent at least part of the year working here. She collected rocks and bones she found in her constant wanderings into the landscape. In 1934, she went to Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiu. She immediately knew this was where she wanted to live the rest of her life, and in 1940 bought a house on the property. She and Stieglitz had been close collaborators in art and live, but each also followed their own paths independently.
The landscape around Abiquiu was to inform much of her later, iconic work.
Below left, is the exterior of O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiu, center, the interior, and right, The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Below them are some of her classic desesrt images that have come to define a certain place and a special sensibility in American culture.
Though it seems like we’ve seen these Southwestern images a thousand times, in person they are powerful works. While they are not my favorite aspect of her oeuvre, they still strike a deep chord. O’Keeffe started, once again, to interweave more abstract work into her vocabulary.
Below are two landscapes done almost twenty years apart.
Georgia O’Keeffe, in her role – not self appointed, but not shied away from- as shaman priestess of the Southwest.
There is some question of how much O’Keefe’s transformation was a clever PR attempt to market herself and create a personal and professional mytholgy. There is no question, however, of her deep attachment to nature and attempt to communicate this almost mystical relationship she felt, into her art. As she said to Anita Pollitzer in a letter, ” Tonight, I walked into the sunset.” Not only did she do that, but she totally merged her personal life with her aesthetic world. She embodied an American concept of freedom rooted in these vast, lonely spaces of the Southwest, devoid of people, but full of wonder, stillness and self-sufficiency. There was an urgency and boldness to her art. Her large centralized objects, sensuous forms, vibrant color, line, and shading, made strong images that were easy to grasp. You feel like you can reach in and touch the flowers, hills, skulls, and bones. In this directness of experience and expression, one almost feels a seemless channel between object, artist and viewer. It is this quality, I think, that is one of the keys to her popularity. This and the extraordinary sensuousness of her forms. Although she always denied the sexual element and references in her work, it was clearly there. But it was never coarse or purient, only an exultant affirmation of life, the unity of man and nature and of spiritual and physical creation. It is awe and wonder and joy, like Adam and Eve in a different kind of garden. One without sin, one with only absolution and glory.
In 1946 O’Keeffe was the first female to be given a solo retrospective at MoMA. She was, by then, one of the most famous artists and figures in popular culture. O’Keefe suffered macular degeneration in her later years, and by 1972, had only peripheral vision. She stopped oil painting but continued to work in pencil and charcoal. Working with an assistant, who was a potter, she did some pottery and a series of watercolors. However, becoming more frail, she finally had to leave her beloved Abiquiu to live in Santa Fe. She died there in 1986 at the age of 98. As well as every artistic honor imaginable, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Ford, in 1977. It is the highest honor given to an American citizen. Causing great controversy, she initially left most of her estate to her assistant. Eventually, after much legal wrangling, the bulk of it, found its way to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. It is a wonderful adobe structure with a large and glorious collection of her work.
Georgia O’Keefe, was truly an American original. She conceived and lived and painted a unique life and body of work. It was always on her own terms, and always following the call of her heart and of nature.
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In 2012, I’m going to start interspersing shorter posts, about contemporary artists I like, with my longer historical pieces. I’ll call these snapshots, Contemporary Beat. For the inauguration of this new element on A Husk Of Meaning, I’m pleased to feature one of my favorite contemporary artists, Enrique Martinez Celaya.
Born in Cuba, in 1964, Celaya’s family moved to Spain when he was eight. His family then moved to Puerto Rico, and around the age of 12, Enrique apprenticed to a local painter. However, his principle formal education was in science, and in 1982 came to the U.S. as a physics student. He received a B.S. from Cornell and was on the verge of completing his doctoral work in quantum electronics at U. C. Berkley, when he dropped out to pursue painting full time. He had already received academic acclaim for his graduate work on lasers and had been granted a number of technical patents as well. He then earned MFA at U.C. Santa Barbara in painting.
His work consists mainly of the human figure set in isolated landscapes in heavily symbolic compositions. To me, his figures always seem lost in a transient, magical world somewhere between dream time and real time, in search of meaning, identity, and context. Even his pure landscapes have this quality.
Celaya is a wonderfully skilled technical painter, but he always keeps technique subservient to the idea he tries to manifest. He is influenced by many writers and philosophers, and writes regularly about his artisitic intentions and of trying to place his work in a wider framework of larger philosophical and intellectual concerns. Among his influences are Borges, Melville, Celan, Heidegger, Hegel, and Wittgenstein. Visually he takes, especially, from Velasquez and Caspar David Friedrich. I also find a deep strain of existentialism throughout his work. It feels to me like, although he fully acknoweldges this universal state of separateness and isolation, he fights against it. I almost feel as if he has to restrain his hand from invisibly reaching into the paintings and helping to guide his wayward subjects. He paints them unvarnished, as he sees their condition, but I aways feel he’s rooting for them, and by extension, us.
His portraits and sculpture express the same haunted loneliness.
Being a lover of things nautical, I find myself hypnotised by his painting, ” Battleship.
Here, I see a beautiful ghost ship heading unknowingly, irrevocably, and hypnotically, toward the rocks. She could be as easily in the middle of the ocean as approaching a rocky shore. The time and place feels like everywhere and always. The ship seems caught in a repetitive loop that happens over and over. This haunting quality both inside and outside of time, along with a deep sympathy and pathos, is, I believe, the essential core of Celaya’s visually arresting, and ambitious artistic effort.
Enrique, seated left, in his studio, The Whale and Star, with a workshop group. Standing, third from left, is my wife, the painter Kathy Peck, who was chosen to spend a week there.
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Clement Greenberg, the renowned art critic, said this about Willem deKooning. ” deKooning strives for synthesis. He wants to re-charge advanced painting, which has largely abandonned the illusion of depth and volume, with something of the old power of the sculptural contour…He wants also to make it accomodate bulging, twisting planes like those seen in Tintoretto and Rubens…he wants in the end to recover a distinct image of the human figure, yet without sacrificing anything of abstract paintings’ decorative and physical force. Obviously, this is highly ambitious art…and indeed deKooning’s ambition is perhaps the largest, or at least the most profoundly sophisticated, ever to be seen in a painter domiciled in this country.”
The monumental retrospective of Willem deKooning at MoMA, includes nearly 200 works of art and takes up the entire 6th floor of the museum. It is the kind of tribute and study that is only given to the most significant of major artists. For me, deKooning is not just one of the pioneers of “Abstract Expressionism” (a label, like all pigeonholing labels, he did not appreciate,) but one of the five greatest artists of the 20th century. This grand enterprise is called, “deKooning: A Retrospective” and was brillianaly curated by John Elderfield, the Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture. The show is organized chronologically, and boasts an incredible companion book, with a superb essay by Mr. Elderfiefld as an introduction. It is hands down the best art book of this year, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Throughout his career, in whatever stylistic phase, deKooning painted canvases so lush, they always make my mouth water. The way he applied and mixed paint, his color palette, his expressive, gestural brushwork takes my breath away. Here are some samples from different periods. The range in time is from 1945 to 1984.
Willem deKooning was born in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1904. He lived until 1997, and started his formal art education at the age of twelve, attending the Rottterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques for eight years. He also worked as an assistant to the art director of a department store. Throughout his career, he was considered a master of paint mixing, handling and application. His extensive knowledge of materials and mastery of a wide variety of techniques and draughtsmanship, was widely recognized by his peers. He came from a long line of great Dutch painters, like Rembrandt and Hals who favored a lush use of paint and energetic brushwork. In fact, Robert Rauschenberg, in the video of ” Raushenberg Erases deKooning,” says that he and many others turned to another direction in their art because of their awe of deKooning’s technique and the folly of trying to compete with him. Below are two of his early works that mimic the style of others. The one on the left, done when he was twelve, the other a few years later.
deKooning arrived in America in 1926 as a stowaway aboard an ocean liner. He had tried to leave Holland several times before, but had been caught each time before the ship sailed. He left poor, and was poor for most of his early artistic careeer in New York. In fact, at one point in the 1940′s he could not even afford oil paints in color, and therefore worked briefly, just in black and white. His first solo show in 1948 contained these black and white works exclusively.
The flattened space with shifting planes, twisting contours, and biomorphic shapes that are deKooning’s signature, are all here. Below are paintings by Miro and Gorky, the two Surrealists who, along with Picasso and Cubism were the biggest influences on him. It’s interesting to see how he absorbs and extends their use of space and content into his own unique style.
Below, are examples of how deKooning deals with these issues.
Dekooning flattened out and abstracted Gorky’s pictorial space, which still had remnants of traditional perspective. They shared a love of biomrphic forms, though deKooning’s abstracted shapes almost always had reference to figurative components or real world objects. This ghost of the human form never left even his most abstract work, and combined with his distinctive and luscious color palette, he consistently produced work after work of great beauty. His prolificness and the consistency of his output was truly remarkable.
Through the 1940′s, he and Pollock, among the other ” Abstract Expressionists” were defining a new pictorial space in the history of painting, building on the breakthroughs, primarily of Cezanne and Picasso. Unlike Pollock and the others, however, deKooning, throughout his long career , almost always worked simultaneouly on representational figure pieces along with his abstract work. Below are some of his figurative pieces from the 40′s, the same period as the paintings above.
Also, unlike the rest of the so called “New York School,” deKooning’s development was not a straight evolution to a signature style which he typically repeated. Talking about this, he said that, “to try to make a style is an apology for one’s anxiety.” During the 1940′s, the battleground in painting was all about the march to squeeze out the subjective interior world, flatten the pictorial space, and develop a non-referential vocabulary in a place without the traditional illusion of space and volume. This battle over space and content is nicely illustrated by Elderfield in his essay. He shows the following three paintings, and I will add a fourth. These are repectively by Nicolas Poussin, Picasso, deKooning and Pollock. Both the deKooning and Pollock were done in 1950.
Picasso fractured and recombined the space and forms of classical painting, deKooning, “liquified Cubism,” and Pollock strained out the illusion of recognizable forms or exterior references. Both deKooning and Pollock abandon the hierarchal structure, in favor of an all over surface of equal focus and finish. The painting, above left, called, “Excavation,” is 81 x 104.4 inches. It is the largest easel painting deKooning ever did, and is considered the masterpiece of his early period.
As I mentioned, DeKooning had consistently done representational pieces, usually of women. However his third series, entitled simply, “Woman,” done between 1950 and 1952 caused a semi-scandal in the art world.
The figure to the left, entitled “Woman 1″ is probably the most famous painting deKooning ever did, and certainly, the most infamous. People were scandalized by its ferocious demeanor, large breasts, and huge teeth. ( In another painting, deKooning actually pasted on the canvas, teeth taken from a magazine ad.) There is a stark contrast one feels from the impression of the piece at a distance and that from close up. From afar, these woman look like fierce, amazon guardians of some precious treasure. Approach at your own risk. They are forces of nature, and hardly seductive. Up close, however, one is struck by the elegance of the space, color and brushwork, that surround the form. The figure emerges from, and goes back into, the space around it.. This tension and seamless movement back and forth, is for me, what these paintings are all about. Some critics have talked about the artist’s evident misogyny. I don’t think that is what is going on here. Fear and awe are what come through the strongest to me. deKoonong famously said, ” Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented.”
Here are some other paintings in the various “Woman” series.
Below Dekooning and his wife, Elaine, who was also a painter.
From the mid 50′s through the mid 60′s, deKooning’s focus turned to landscapes, nearly pure abstractions based on both urban and country scenes. This is the “classic deKooning” period, that influenced so many painters that followed. He talked about catching a “glimpse” of something, whether on highway, in the city, or on Long Island, and then started trying to find an abstracted correlative of that. Here are some paintings in that style.
Planes of paint slide, come into focus and go out again.Large, gestural paint strokes create deep spatial effects. deKooning was known for continuously reworking his canvases, always adding layer after layer of information. There is almost a sense of, “dynamic incompletion,” which deKooning courts. This period reflects the essence of ” Action Painting,” as Abstract Expressionism was also called. Here, deKooning seems to fight to establish, to virtually, create space-time anew, every session with the cnavas. ” I paint the way I do because I can keep on putting more and more things in – like drama, pain, anger, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas of space.”
DeKooning, like Pollock, had always been a legendary, heavy drinker. By the early 80′s, Dekooning’s health was failing and the beginnings of dementia had become apparent. His wife came back to him after a period apart, and he now required more assistants in the studio. His work took on a lighter, more simplified quality.
Finally, as in those paintings below, the canvases consisted of just ribbons of paint. Sometimes, he required the help of his assistants while painting. He would also sometimes project images of his old paintings onto canvas and simplify the contour lines himself. Some people find these works to be examples of his diminished capacity. His work was, perhaps, not as consistent in quality as it had always been. I think, however, many of these late works represent a significant display of an unquashable, unconscious reservoir of ingrained habit and technique.
These simple lines and contours floating over the canvas have a feeling of Japanese calligraphy and, profoundly, as John Elderfield called it, “an articulation of vacancy.” These works make me think of Quantum Super Strings, vibrating through multi-dimensional space, creating the universe in all its aspects.
For me, deKooning is a giant. I have never seen anyone create such evocative, sensuous, and just plain, gorgeous, space and form, directly out of paint. With deKooning I always feel that forms arises out of space and is inseparable from it, in a way that’s different than any other painter. Everytime I see a work of his, even in reproduction, I want to jump for joy, and also to run to the studio and paint.
I want to wish everyone a great holiday season, and the happiest of New Years. See you in 2012.
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AS A PRELUDE TO MY NEXT POST ON THE DEKOONING RETROSPECTIVE AT MoMA, I’M REPOSTING THIS ONE.
Abstract Expressionism coalesced as a distinctive style in the 1940′s in New York City. This is a style that I personally relate to deeply, and has been a major influence on my own work. The primary, first wave of these practitioners, are some of my favorite painters. The term, Abstract Expressionism, was first used to describe the work of Wassily Kandinsky in the ’20′s. ” The movement’s name is derived from the combination of emotional intensity of the German Expressionists with the anti-figurative aesthetic of European abstract schools such as Futurism, the Bauhaus and Synthetic Cubism.” The more immediate initial visual progenitors, however, were Hans Hoffman and Arshile Gorky. (Over time, I will profile many of the artists you are about to see, individually. Their legacy is what I consider to be, a long string of one gorgeous painting after another.)
Hoffman (left) was one one of the most influential art teachers of the 20th century. He had his own school in Germany, and in America, where he emigrated in 1932. He briefly taught at The Art Students League. His students form a veritable “who’s who” of painters of the 50′s and 60′s. His abstractions are masterpieces of “pictorial structure, spatial illusion, and color relationships.” Everyone was influenced by his work. The same is true of Gorky, whose biomorphic, surrealistic abstractions, flowing paint and use of unconscious symbolism, affected all who came after. Andre Breton called “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb,” done in 1944, (above, right) ” one of the most important paintings ever made in America.”
When most people think of “Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting,” they think of Jackson Pollock. There has rarely been a painter who is both so loved and reviled, at the same time. For me, it was love at first sight.
Pollock revolutionized painting and modern aesthetics. He broke down the tradition of easel painting and hierarchical pictorial structure by painting on the floor so he could work all around a piece, and cover the canvas, uniformly, in total abstraction. He poured paint, threw it, dripped it, splattered it, squirted it, and drew into it with hardened brushes and sticks. Pollock used not just his hand and wrist, but his whole body, in what was really, a dance in his application of paint. He said that he felt like he was, literally, “in” the paintings as he worked, in some form of a trance. His style became known as ‘Action Painting.” Pollock studied at The Art Students League under Thomas Hart Benton. But his real influences were Picasso, the Mexican muralists, (especially David Sequieros, who taught at the League and took him to a seminar on different ways of applying paint) as well as the Surrealists, particularly in terms of “Automatism” as a more direct link to the unconscious. Automatic writing, pioneered by Gertrude Stein and automatic painting, which was employed by the Surrealists, was an attempt to get at non-conscious material, to find new images, combinations and even words that sprang direct from the subconscience. The Hungarian-American Janet Sobol’s drip like paintings were another influence. The critic Harold Rosenberg said that Pollock transformed painting into an existential event. But it was the critic Clement Greenberg, who championed Pollock as the ultimate painter of his time, and Abstract Expressionism as the inevitable evolution and purist expression in the history of painting.
Standing in front of one of Pollock’s huge paintings, one is transported to what feels like an inside view of the universe . There is a feeling of huge space, but also flatness. Most gripping, however, is the sense of deep structure amidst the chaos. In fact, mathematicians have said that the patterns in Pollock’s paintings approach the level of fractal organization. These paintings feel monumental, not just in their scale, but also in their intent.
If Pollock sits on the throne, only slightly lower, by his side, was the great Willem de Kooning.
De Kooning was both a superb draughtsman and colorist. All of his contemporaries were in awe of his sheer talent. His abstractions are full of beautiful forms. Through out his long career, even as he suffered from Alzheimers, he continued to create incredible work. He’s one of those rare artists who seems incapable of a false move or brushstroke. Even his doodles have an elegance and beauty that is irresistable.
Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Clyfford Still were also key members of the first wave.
Motherwell, top right, was focused on the Surrealist use of “automatism” to break through to unconscious sources of imagery. He was an articulate critic in his own right, and was a valuable spokesman for ” the New York School,” as they were also called.
Clyfford Still, above, created jagged, colorful images, that always evoked, for me, natural, almost tectonic forces at work. All three were prolific leaders of the movement. Part of the group gravitated to what became known as ” Color Field” painting. First among those as a bridge between the two hands, was Mark Rothko.
I’ve already done a post about Rothko, who is one of my favorite painters. His quest was always to find the spiritual through his art. He was a huge influence on those who came after as well as on his contemporaries.
Another key Abstract Expressionist whose work I love is Helen Frankenthaler. I have always thought of her as a synthesis of Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko. She has an incredible sense of color, form, and structure. She was really the leader of the “Color Field” group. Her “soak stain” technique was to have huge ramifications. I’m planning to do a whole post on her, so I won’t give too much away now.
This painting, called Mountains and Sea, from 1952, really launched her career. It was over 7 feet by well over 9 feet. Frankenthaler was influenced by Hans Hoffman and Pollock, but I see a lot of the tradition of Gorky in her work as well. She pioneered what became known as the ‘ soak stain” techinque, letting heavily diluted, liquid paint soak into unprimed canvas.Her work often has the fluidity of watercolor. What unites her painting over a very long and prolific career, is that it’s all gorgeous.
Among other “color field” painters of particular note were Adolph Gottlieb, Morris Louis and Barnett Newman.
Gottlieb spent several years living in the desert in Arizona. That Western feeling of light, intense sun, and space are hallmarks of his paintings.
Morris Louis and Barnett Newman, below, were both influenced by Frankenthaler’s stain paintings.
Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife, was an influential artist in her own right. Although she struggled, being in the shadow of her lionized husband, they shared an artistic give and take that was fruitful for both of them.
Below a painting by Krasner and the two of them together at their Long Island residence, in Springs, in the town of East Hampton.
Abstract Expressionism and it’s adjunct of Color Field painting both sprang out of this incredibly fertile period that developed in New York in the mid 40′s and throughout the 50′s. These large, dramatic canvases, were painted with an ” all over” approach, where the hierarchical structure of the center was no longer more important than the edges. Paint was deployed as if for battle, and the act of painting itself took on a heroic, life and death intensity. Whether one is a fan of the style or not, it’s influence on all subsequent art and aesthetics, is undeniable. For me, this period created an avalanche of artistic excitement which I still feel today. It also produced countless paintings that I really love and have given me some of my deepest experiences of art.
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Caution: this post is a bit of a plot spoiler for people who haven’t seen the film. However, knowing the plot was no hindrance to my second viewing of the film, at all. I was even more impressed and awed, the next time around.
How does the world end? To quote Robert Frost via Bella Swan:
Some say the world will end in fire,
some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if you had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
to know that for destruction ice
is also great
And would suffice.
If you’re Lars Von Trier, the world ends in total destruction, as it both implodes and explodes, in the opening sequence of his new film, Melancholia. The earth’s atmosphere is ripped away by the gravitational pull of a wandering, giant blue planet, named Melancholia, which literally consumes the earth, as it draws our planet in to the point of implosion/explosion, and burns it up. POINT, FIRE.
The film begins with this gorgeous, slow motion, cinematic ballet of cosmic death, choreographed to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. As viewed from outer space, this cosmic dance of death is almost sensual, and certainly as lyrical as anything in Kubrick’s “2001.” It’s both a prelude to the main body of the film, and a documentation of the end. Before the first character comes on screen, we have already seen their eventual fate.
That first introduction of characters is similarly done in an expressionistic, slow motion scene that visually weaves the fate of the main character to the planet’s own inevtiable attraction to a gravitational field bigger than its own.
This is the first time we see Justine ( Kirsten Dunst.) She seems to both strain against and also be pulled toward an invisble force, just like the earth is, in the heavens above. The first part of the movie is the story of Justine’s wedding. Her mental illness, more than just normal depression is on display early, and in fact the wedding night ends with the marriage and Justine’s career in tatters.
This beautiful image, left, is part of an early montage that reflects a sense of the morbid fairy tale that is about to unfold. The film’s visual style is ” a clash between what is romantic and grand and stylized, and then some form of reality,” according to Von Trier. Yet the melding of styles of Kubrick’s sensual, fluid, visual imagery and Bergman’s intense, elegiac, naturalistic acting (enhanced by a lot of hand held camera shots) blend quite effectively throughout the film.
The mood and composition of the shot above is certainly a reference to the well known Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece by John Millais, called, Ophelia, below. It was painted in 1852, and is an illustration of the death of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
It captures the tragic-romantic-depressive mood that permeates the movie. In fact, the idea for the film was generated by a therapist’s suggestion to Von Trier, (who famously suffers from depression and anxiety disorders,) that depressed people often remain calm in highly stressful situations. It doesn’t get more stressful than the literal end of the world.
The first section of the film is entitled “Justine,” after the Kirsten Dunst character, and chronicles her wedding at the opulent, castle home of her sister, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and her wealthy husband, John, played by Keiffer Sutherland.
Above, the couple arriving two hours late for their wedding party, and, above, right, pausing to stare at a strange celestial object, with Claire and John, the evening’s hosts. While everyone else seems transfixed, Claire stares away, tensely and with, as it turns out, appropriately ominous, premonition. John, an amateur astronomer, explains that the object is the star Antares, hidden by the sun, and harmless.
The wedding party’s moments of joy are laced through with increasing tensions. Justine’s divorced parents, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling are bickering, while her boss, Stellan Skarsgard, who is also the best man, and Justine, are at odds. Below, left, the groom (Alexander Skarsgard) and his best man, clearly indicate something is amiss. Below, right, Claire and John are tense and agitated, as Justine’s behavior starts to become seriously erratic.
Left, we see a last moment of happiness between the bride and groom. She demures from undressing and says she needs some time, and starts to wander around outside. Over the remainder of the evening she becomes more depressed,
unnerved, and acts out, at the end, disastrously.
Outside, Justine, Claire, and Clare’s son, Leo, become enthralled by the mysterious intruder in the sky.
Justine , however, starts to become completely unhinged, causing scene after scene. She ends up telling off her boss, quitting her job, and sleeping with a virtual stranger, all outdoors, under the watch of the mysterious celestial visitor, that seems to infect her soul. Below, she surrenders to the night.
By the end of the evening, everything has come undone. Justine’s husband walks out on her, devastated, humiliated, and disgusted. Her parents are at each other’s throats. Her brother-in-law, is furious at wasting so much money on such a lavish event, which he has done to placate his wife, who is now angry at both him and her sister. Everyone feels betrayed by Justine, whose breakdown has helped reveal the cracks in everyone else’s personalities and relationships.
Part two of the film is called “Claire.” Justine has now become so depressed that she can not even walk to the bath under her own power, or perform the simplest activities.
She comes to the castle to live with Claire, John, and Leo. Gradually with Claire’s nursing she becomes better. The focus now shifts to what was thought previously to be the star, Antares, and is now revealed as a huge planet on a rogue orbit through the galaxy, called Melancholia, because of it’s blue color. As it becomes clearly visible on its own, everyone flock’s to John’s telescope.
The mainstream scientific analysis is that the orbit will take the gigantic planet to a close and spectacular, fly by of the earth.
As Justine has improved, Claire has become increasingly agitated and fearful that the world is coming to an end. She has started obsessively doing internet research and finds data that shows Melancholia is on a collision course with the earth, and that John’s analysis is wrong. At first, the collision theory is portrayed as a kook conspiracy notion, but eventually, is proven to be true. The characters reactions to this reality and their varying levels of acceptance of it, takes up the last third of the film. John pretends it’s not true. Claire’s agitation and fear keep mounting for herself and her child, while Justine becomes almost calmly philosophical and accepting, even as the climate changes and strange precipitation falls from the sky
John can not handle the truth, and absents himself from the situation. Both Claire and Leo are now totally dependent on Justine for emotional support. The wheel has turned completely. Justine gets the two of them to help her build a “magic” tepee where they will be safe.
The acting in Melancholia, with it’s great cast, is superb. As is his usual style, Von Trier does not rehearse the actors and uses a lot of improvisation. He initially operates the camera himself, hand held, on the first take. On subsequent takes, the cinematographer operates the camera, mirroring Von Trier’s movements.
The film is a rich feast visually. Kirstin Dunst won the award at Cannes for best actress, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is every bit as good. Although the subject matter of Melancholia is certainly unusual, the film itself is probably the most traditional Lars Von Trier has ever done. He has said that, ” a film should be like a stone in your shoe.” I, however, did not feel the slightest rub in my shoes. The film’s stylistic accessibility gives it a universality, and promotes a sympathetic identification with the characters, that is not always the case in Von Trier’s oeuvre. Melancholia has a deeper continuing resonance, for me, than any of his other films. It totally absorbs you and compels rumination about the deepest questions in life. Parts of the film that Von Trier considered a parody of superficial, upper middle-class life, actually, (as in the way Ingmar Bergman often used the same milieu,) open up many touchstones with everyone’s emotional experiences. Families are families in the end, and how they deal with the messy stuff of life, offers much that compels and preoccupies us all.
Melancholia is a film that washes over you and through you and leaves you deeply moved and thrilled. The experience of it is more like viewing and inhabiting a piece of art, than merely watching a movie.
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Painted in 1893, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” is one of the most recognized and iconic paintings in history. Munch created several versions of this “Expressionist” masterpiece, in various media. What is less commonly known about the painting, is that, for Munch, it was an exact portrayal of his inner world. “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turns red as blood…tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish-black fjord. My friends went on walking, I lagged behind, shivering in fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature…I was stretched to the limit-nature was screaming in my blood…for several years, I was almost mad…” In fact, mental illness ran in Munch’s family and he exhibited signs of depression and anxiety at a young age. He was born in Norway in 1863. His father was a military doctor with a poor salary. The family was forced to move often, and lived in a state of virtual poverty. Edvard’s mother died when he was five, followed by his favorite sister, some years later. The five siblings were then raised by their father and aunt. Edward was a sickly child who often missed school, and was already pummeled, at a young age, by night terrors. His father helped tutor him in history and literature, and was fond of Edgar Allan Poe. He loved telling the children chilling ghost stories, which had a deep effect on young Edvard, who already found his father extremely pious and morbid. While out of school so much, Edvard turned to art to distract himself. Edvard said, “The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.” One of his sisters was diagnosed with mental illness as a child, and Edvard was convinced he inherited mental disease from his father, whom he called,” tempermentally nervous and obsessively religious – to the point of psychoneurosis.” Edvard left behind his training in engineering to become an artist,” to explain life and its meaning to myself.” Nonetheless, for years, he was dependant financially on a father who found his work sacreligious, and particularly, his nudes, offensive.
Edvard enrolled at the local art academy, which had been founded by a distant relative. As he worked through early explorations of Naturalism and Impressionism, he “adopted a bohemian lifestyle and started drinking excessively and brawling.” His fights with his father and the initial negative reception of his art, took it’s toll. He had trouble having, and maintaining, normal relationships with women, something that was to plague him always. His attitute towards women, as displayed in his art, over his early and middle years, particularly, was full of ambivalence, shame and fear, mixed with desire.
Edvard soon found Impressionsim, with it’s focus on surface reality, too superificial. He was put off by it’s scientific exploration of the technical aspects of light and color, at the expense of inner truth and emotion. From the beginning, art, for him, revolved around an exploration and expression of his inner state. He began recording his interior emotional life in what he called a ” Soul Diary.” This led to the beginning of his “Soul Paintings.” The very first was,” The Sick Child,” recalling his sister’s death.
At this point, he was stylistically influenced by Post-Impressionism, but he was worlds away in terms of subject matter. He finally made it to Paris, in 1889, and was immediately enthralled with Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Toulouse – Lautrec. These three used color to portray emotion, not to mimic the physical world. He resonanted with Gauguin’s idea that art was a reaction against realism, and that, “art was human work and not an imitation of nature.” From Van Gogh he saw how color could surround objects in emanations of their inner state. From Toulouse – Lautrec he saw the garish female denizens of the more tawdry side of Parisian nightlife.
Munch was soon forced to return to Norway by the death of his father.
He inherited financial responsibility for his family. With the help of a loan from a collector, he was able to stabilize the situation, before leaving for Berlin. It was here that he formulated his mature style, with it’s condensed pictorial space, simplified forms and compositions, and the use of vibrant, expressive color to make all elements of a painting subservient to, and part of, the emotional state he was attempting to communicate, whether in landscape, portraits, or nudes.
Munch’s work started to be recognized. His notices were often negative, and the public scandalized, but he was not ignored. Munch’s awkwardness portraying women, and his unresolved boyhood feelings of lust, shame, and anxiety continued, unabated. These were usually the pieces that provoked the loudest reactions. Women were ”femmes fatales,” sinners, or temptresses, torturing his very soul.
The fall of man, hopelessness, despair, and the impossibility of love were central themes of the series. Back in Norway, Munch started a serious relationship with a “liberated, upper class” Norwegian woman. However when she wanted to marry, his demons and sense from childhood, that he didn’t deserve happiness, reared up. In 1900, he abandoned her, and moved back to Berlin from Norway. And it was in Berlin, this time, that he really hit his stride, and started finding consistent success selling his work. Although Munch had gotten press and notoriety for years, much of it had been negative. This finally started to change. His paintings had always evoked strong reactions, among both his peers and the public. Now, he was becoming well respected, not simply notorious.
His sense of the hollow, bleakness of life, however, is always there in his cityscapes and landscapes.
Above, are two of his moody depictions urban scenes from “The Frieze of Life.” I have always thought the painting on the right, above, was a perfect visual compliment to T.S. Eliot’s, “The Waste Land.” Below, are more of his bleak landscapes.
In 1906, Munch was invited to display his work with the Fauves at their exhibit in Paris. It was a successful show, and he started to achieve real financial security. That, however, did nothing to pacify his state of mind. Amid more excessive drinking and brawling, Munch had a “nervous breakdown” that required hospitalization. However, he did recover from this breakdown quite well, and over the next several years was in better mental health than he had been for some time. Munch retreated to Oslo, and for the most part, lived quietly in the country, outside of town. In the 1930′s and 40′s, the Nazi’s labeled his work ”degenerate.” They invaded Norway in 1940, and Munch, who had a huge collection of his own work, feared they would be confiscated. His cache wasn’t, but many of his paintings elsewhere, were. Luckily, over seventy of these works were eventually repatriated to Norway by sympathetic collectors.
Throughout his life, Munch painted many self portraits. Some show him as a normal man of his time, others, reflect the dpeth of despair and torment that he often suffered.
Munch died in 1944 and bequeathed his work to the city of Oslo, which built the Munch Museum to house 1100 paintings, 4500 drawings, and 18,000 prints; an incredible repository of art.
Munch’s greatest pictoral influence was on the German Expressionist movement. But what he really represents, I believe, is the first systematic attempt to access and manifest the deepest workings of the human psyche over the entire course of an artistic career. Munch’s only interst in art was in understanding and expressing his deepest feelings and states of mind. Everything in his pictures served that end alone. Munch reveals to us a profoundly troubled soul whose torment may sometimes make us want to look away, but whose courage and single-mindedness, astound us. He fought his battle to the limits of his endurance so that, perhaps, we might be spared a little of the darkest wages of our own souls.
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I wanted to thank all of you for the incredible response to the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera posts. They were the two most popular pieces yet, on A Husk of Meaning. To cap it off, I wanted to share this video of the two of them together. I’m sure most of you have seen the wonderful film, “Frida” with Selma Hayek. If you haven’t, do so immediately. It’s huge fun for all of us fans of these two. But here is a little treasure of the real Frida and Diego. Enjoy it over the weekend.
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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.
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.)
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.
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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Born in 1886 in Guanajuato, Mexico, Diego Rivera is known worldwide for his incredible paintings, larger than life, boisterous personality, his tempestuous relationship with Frida Kahlo, and his radical, often incendiary, Communist politics. His art was as highy praised as his politics were often scorned. As he said, “An artist is above all a human being, profoundly human to the core. If the artist can’t feel everything that humanity feels…until he forgets himself and sacrifices himself…if he won’t put down his magic brush and head the fight against the oppressor, then he isn’t a great artist.”
It is impossible to separate the man from the myth. ( Above, left with Frida Kahlo, center, a self portrait, right, with Trotsky.) Diego had a huge zest for life, was an incorrigible womanizer, an idealist, and a man who was always ready to put his ideas to the test of action. He was no arm-chair anything, ever. I’m only going to touch lightly on the Diego and Frida story. It is well chronicled in both film and print. I do intend to do a later post on Frida, individually, and then, subsequently, one on their relationship and the incredible artistic cross-fertilization between the two.
Born into a well- to-do family, Diego manifested an urge to create when he was three years old. He drew on the walls of his home, but instead of being punished, his family put chalkboards and canvases on the wall for him. He started formal training at ten, and was sponsored by the governor of his home state to study abroad. He spent almost fourteen years abroad, studying first in Spain, them for a long stretch in Paris, then finally in Italy, where he was introduced to great frecso painting. In Spain and Paris, he drank deeply of the contemporary avant garde art scene. Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse were his biggest pictorial influences, as they were for all young, aspiring modernists.
Left is a cubist portrai Rivera did of his friend Jacques Lipschitz. On the right, is a portrait his friend Modigliani did of him.
It was in Italy, however, studying the great European frescoes, that Diego was to find his destiny. He realized right away, that the fresco’s size and public nature was the perfect forum to expound on the grand themes of history, human development and politics. Every painting for Rivera was a political statement, and the fact that it was not in an private gallery or museum squared with his increasing view of himself as champion of the everyday man. He saw it as his duty to chronicle their relentless exploitation. In 1921, Diego was called back to Mexico to become involved in the government sponsored mural program, that was to also include three other great Mexican artists, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and to a lesser degree, Rodolpho Tamayo.
In 1922 Rivera started work on his first public mural. Such was the political climate and his outspoken political rhetoric, that he felt the need to carry a gun while he worked, to protect himself from the right wing students. At this time, he also helped found the Revolutionary Union of Technical Workers, and joined the Communist Party’s Central Committee. His passion was to represent visually the social ideas of the Mexican Revolution. The mural format was perfect in that it was not bought and sold privately, but existed only publicly, for the celebration, education, and edification of the ” people.” It also told their story in a monumental format that had profound emotional resonance by virtue of size alone. He was determined, as well, to establish a new visual vocabulary to elevate his subject matter. He wanted to incorporate both the modern and the traditonal. He ” developed his own native style based on large, simplified figures and bold colors with a clear Aztec influence.” In his style, we see his unique synthesis of modernist French painting with the native, folk images of his own culture.
Diego put his sympathetic treatment of the poor, oppressed worker into these large, historical narratives. He always depicted them with great dignity and beauty in their daily travails.
Diego continued his mural work and political activism through the 1920′s. He was also an outspoken atheist, often attacking the church and clergy. “…I consider religions to be a form of collective neurosis.” This was a delicate position in such a devoutly Catholic country, even among Communists. Most people know about Frida and Diego’s famous houseguest, Leon Trotsky, and the violence his presense engendered. Controversy in both politics and art, was a juggernaut that they rode and that rode them, throughout their lives.
In 1927 Diego was invited to Moscow, for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. Even though he painted a mural in the Red Army Club in Moscow, he was asked to leave the country because of certain ” anti – Soviet” politics. He did not always agree with the Russian interpretation of Communist doctrine. He saw unjust treatment and oppression of the workers, even in mother Russia. Diego was never one to hold his tongue if he thought his ideals were being compromised.
In 1930, Diego was to embark on a series of trips to the United States that was to have a profound and lasting effect on American art. It seems both politics and art do, indeed, make strange bedfellows. The Mexican Communist was invited by three bastions of capitalism to create huge murals on their behalf. The mind boggles. It started in California when the modernist architect, Timothy Pflueger, announced that he had hired Diego to paint a fresco in the new Pacific Stock Exchange. The appointment was highly controversial from the get go, among artists, the business community and the public. The subject was the building of a city. Diego loved the possibilities of new technology building a more inclusive and just society.
The history of everything for Diego started and ended with the working man. Here he has painted himself into the history of America’s effort to build a great industrial society. He sits in the middle of the scaffold, 2/3′s of the way towards the top.
There was no quit in the man, nor in his ideals and passions. Next stop, the belly of the beast, Detroit and The Ford Motor Company. What better ode to the workers could there be than the industrial life of America at an automobile plant in the midst of the Great Depression.
Top left is the north wall, right, the south wall. As you might expect, this work also generated a large amount of controversy. Edsel Ford, however, the founder’s son, who hired Diego, always defended the work and championed him as an artist. Such was not to be the case with Diego’s next experience, in New York, with the Rockefellers, in 1933. Diego was number three in line for the commission in Rockefeller Center. Picasso and Matisse, choices one and two, were not available.
The subject of the mural was to be “Man at the Crossroads ,” depicting the social, political, industrial and scientific possibilities of the 20th century. Somehow, I don’t think Rivera’s patrons were expecting a May Day parade led by none other than Lenin, himself.
Here on the left is the depiction of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin that so offended the Rockefellers. They demanded he remove the image,
and Rivera refused. They then fired him, though they did pay him in full, and destroyed the mural.
Diego returned to Mexico, and in 1934 repainted basically the same design at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, in Mexico City. This version was called, “Man, Controller of the Universe.”
Back in Mexico, Diego continued to work on many public murals, as well as private easel paintings.
Diego continued to be a major force in the development of Mexican art for the rest of his life. He died in 1957 in Mexico City, at the age of 70. His spirit, his artistic and political passion, never dimmed. He was a great lover of life and mankind. He sought to channel his country’s history and energy, it’s very identity, through the power of his art. In this campaign, I think he succeeded profoundly. His works, no matter what the subject, are also, incredibly beautiful, and full of grace. It is an overall achievement for which he is justly celebrated through out the world.
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Founded in 1995, The Foundation Dina Vierny – Musee Maillol is located in a townhouse at 61 Rue de Grenelle, in the 7th arrondisement, just off the Blvd. Saint-Germain. Dina Vierny, who later became a succsesful art dealer in her own right, was Maillol’s model for the last ten years of his life. When they met, Maillol (1861-1944) was 73 and Vierny, (1919-2009) was 15. Their relationship, though close, was entirely platonic.
The museum houses close to 400 sculptures, drawing, and paintings of Maillol, in addition to Vierny’s collection of 20th century art, including works by Gauguin, Bonnard, Redon, and Kandinsky. There are also regular, ongoing new exhibitions.
Throughout his artistic career, Maillol was focused on the young female form. At the end of the 19th century, Maillol got his start as a painter and decorative artist. Gauguin was an enthusiastic friend and early supporter of his work. Maillol is credited with single handedly reviving the art of tapestry in France.
Maillol’s influential position in the development of modern sculpture came from his reworking of classical Greek forms with a unique element of simplicity, and a heroic sense of equipoise, of innocence, and a profound, timeless feeling of peace. In many ways he was the mirror image of his good friend Rodin. His work had none of Rodin’s often tortured element, and his sensuality was never carnal. His females were full of joy and a healthy, youthful pride.
Maillol was a wonderful draughtsman. You can see the directness, simplicity and even, the sympathy of his touch.
Vierny said that Maillol, while worshipping the naked body, was a “pure ”
man who treated his models with great respect. In fact, he was rather shy and never explicitly asked the models to undress. Vierney initially posed fully clothed, and was the one, herself, to instigate posing nude. In discussing an early work with her looking downward, she explains,” Do you know why I’m looking down there? I’m looking down because I was in school – I had homework to do. So he built a little stand for me, on which I could put my books, and I would study while he worked.”
The harmony, mass, and balance of his forms have a grace that is very rare in the history of art. It has been said that, ” his works are heroic yet subdued; masterful, yet crude, classical yet primitive, elevated yet humble, obvious yet profound… he produces a void where the simple classical abstraction of the human form can communicate epic poems from a place of immortal stillness.” This simplified formal vocabulary and attitude was a huge influence on Giacometti, Moore, and all the modernist sculptors that followed.
The serenity and calm joy of his work could not have a better setting than this intimate townhouse.The contrast of his massive figures in this charming environment is particularly evocative. In using new materials and old, the rooms feel ancient yet contemporary. Many of the smallish rooms have rounded brick or stucco walls, conveying almost the feeling of a monestary or small fort. Spiral staircases in glass and steel are beautifully positioned, and blend old and new seemlessly.
Maillol was known for his sweet and sunny disposition. At the beginning of WWII, Dina had helped several artists and intellectuals escape the Nazis. She was actually arrested at one point. Fearing for his dear friend, he send her off with a letter of introduction to Matisse, in the south of France. There, she escaped the worst of the war and developed a close friendship with Matisse as well as modeling frequently for him. Maillol said in the letter, ” I am sending you the object of my work, and you will reduce her to a simple line.”
Dina’s later success as an art dealer and love and respect for Maiilol, was mixed with the urging and encouragement from Matisse to see through her great dream of a permanent museum to celebrate Maillol’s legacy, as well as her own. She has created one of the most profound and warm smaller museums in the world. It is a great treat, which I look forward to, and avail myself of, everytime I go to Paris. I also recommend it to everyone I know. It’s worth a trip just to walk the quartier and spent some time inside this incredible gem, amidst the warm glow of the great achievement of Aristide Maillol.
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Anthony Powell’s twelve volume cycle of related novels was published over a 24 year time span, from 1951-1974. In its entirety, “Dance to the Music of Time” is a major arrow in the quiver of any serious Anglophile. The series chronicles a fifty year period of British culture and manners through the reminiscences of one character, Nick Jenkins
(think Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby.) It’s wonderful fun to see how his chums and acquaintances at University come in and out of his life, in evolving circumstances of their own. From school days, Deb Balls, and country weekends, we start to see the outline of romances and incipient careers that are to define them all. We see The Spanish Civil War, WWII, (with flashbacks to WWI,) through post war changes and evolutions in everyone’s life. It is especially delicious to watch the introduction and rise, of Nick’s great nemesis, the despised Widmerpool. He is originally mocked as awkward and incompetent, and barely tolerated by the group, but of course, rises to great position and power.
In the words of the critic, Robert Selig, ” This twelve volume sequence [ A Dance to the Music of Time] traces a colorful group of English acquaintances across a span of many years from 1914 to 1971. The slowly developing narrative centers around life’s poignant encounters between friends and lovers who later drift apart and yet keep reencountering each other over numerous unfolding decades as they move through the vicissitudes of marriage, work, aging, and ultimately death. The standard excitements of old fashioned plots…seem far less important than time’s slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers, in intricate human arabesques.”
The series is named after the famous painting of the same name by Nicholas Poussin, done in 1638. The painting is considered to represent the passing of time and the different stages of the “wheel of fortune.” These are poverty, labor, wealth, and pleasure. The cycle starts with the male in the back representing poverty. He longingly glances at labor, the muscular woman to his right. She eagerly grasps wealth, who is dressed in gold skirt and sandals. She, in turn, locks hands with pleasure, who glances knowingly back at us. Too much pleasure can lead back to poverty, with whom she, in turn, is also bound.
Anthony Powell was an insider in London’s heady, literary Bohemia. He was close to Evelyn Waugh, A. N. Wilson, and Kingsley Amis. Many of the characters in “Dance” are based on real people whose identities were obvious to those contemporaries in the know. The books received critical praise as they were released and were also, commercially successful. Although twelve volumes in length, “Dance To the Music of Time” reads easily. I found myself reading the whole thing in about a year, reading other books at various points in between. Sometimes I would read two or three in a row, other times, interrupting the flow with several other books between volumes. Individually, and as whole, they are uniformly fun reads, with enough substance to maintain a long term commitment. The whole cycle was adapted both as a radio, and later, a TV series. While not as deep, or quite as well written, as “Brideshead Revisited,” ” Dance to the Music of Time” is an absolute must, and a serious pleasure, for anyone interested in 20th century English culture, history, politics and manners.
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I love all forms of water and boats. I was a competitive swimmer as a kid, and grew up sailing. I’ve had several boats, mostly sail, but one power. I can’t get enough of being on the water or just looking at boats anywhere I see them. To me, the shapes of their hulls and sails are gorgeous forms. Luckily, for someone who loves both art and boats, there are a large number of great maritime paintings in all kinds of styles, from many time periods.When I started to gather a few of my favorites, I realized that there was a big concentration of Dutch, English, American, and French artists. It then became obvious, that these were the great maritime powers of the modern world, so, of course, they would have the highest concentration of maritime art. The only exception to this was Spain. I couldn’t remember, or find, any significant Spanish examples. If anyone knows of some, please share them.
Here are two gorgeous early maritime paintings. On the left is the mid 15th century painting by the French artist, Jean Fouquet. Above, a work by Pieter Bruegel, the Dutch master, from the mid 16th century. They both employ a broadly similar compositional structure, although Fouquet uses parallel horizontal planes, and Bruegel, parallel diagonals. Their use of color and draughts-manship and sheer painterly bravura, is extraordinary. They each also create an unusual combination of representational and magical space that has a similar feeling to me.
Hendrick C Vroom, 1566-1647, was the first Dutch painter to specialize in maritme painting. Here are three of his great works.There are some paintings I love with only one ship in them, as you will see. But with Vroom, the more the merrier. Left, is a battle, below, a convoy, below that, a harbor scene.
You can smell the breeze and the gun powder, feel the roll under your feet and the catch in your throat, as the wind lifts you over the waves onto a plane.
Below, Jacob Van Ruisdael, and Willem Van de Velde.
Rembrandt did only one pure maritime painting, but as you’d expect, it’s stupendous.
It’s called, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. He painted it in 1633.
The mid 18th century brought an end to Dutch hegemony in the world of maritime painting.
Frenchman Claude Vernet, above left, and the great English master of ocean atmospherics and light, J M W Turner, above right, and below.
Also from the 18th century, below, the German Romantic landscape painter, Caspar David Friedrich. His typical landscapes have a very Hudson Valley School, feel. However, his few maritimes are different, almost ghostly in mood.
In the 1840′s, an English maritime painter named James E. Buttersworth moved to America. Both his father and uncle were distinquished maritime specialists, but he was to outshine them both.
Sheer gorgeousness. He famously chronicled the America’s Cup in 1893, just before his death.
One of my favorite painters of water and boats is Paul Signac. Here are two of his wonderful late 19th century pieces.Below, left, is a scene from the harbor at St Tropez, right, from Concarneau, in Brittany.
Finally, a 20th century, California plein-air painter, who specialized in maritime work, Duncan Gleason. This is a piece I particularly love, because, I’m lucky enough to own it.
If I can’t be on the ocean, there’s nothing I like more than looking at it.
The incredible wealth of great maritime painting is the best subsitiute
I know for being there in person.
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Fall has always been my favorite season. I love the cooler air, turning crisp like the perfect apple. Summer’s soft light becomes crystaline, objects look sharper, distances closer. Everything comes into clear focus. You can almost see the space between things. The reds yellows and oranges of turning and falling leaves bathes the world in a warm glow. “Then summer fades and passes and October comes. We’ll smell smoke then, feel an unexpected sharpness, a thrill of nervousness, swift elation, a sense of sadness and departure.” ( Thomas Wolfe. ) I think also, at this time of year, of Mark Rothko,and the shimmering glow, the majestic silence, and the profound emotional resonance of his canvases. And, in the case of these particular ones, of Fall.
Early on, Rothko, like so many of his time, was influenced by the German Expressionists and Surrealists. But Rothko gradually moved away from using symbols and representational elements, into his unique colorfields, which crtitics called, “multiforms.” His interest from the beginning, was in creating mythological images that created a wordless, correlative that capsulized the most profound realms of the human experience. Rothko wanted to ” free the unconscious energies previously liberated by mythological images, symbols, and rituals.” He said, “The exhilarated tragic experience, is for me the only source of art.” He wanted to fill the spiritual void in modern life, that could no longer effectively use specific myhtological narrative or images to convey real feeling. In his own words, ” I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form, or anyhting else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on…The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures, shows that I can communicate these basic human emotions…The people who weep before my pictires are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are only moved by their color relationships, then you miss the point.”
Color in Rothko’s work, radiates in a way that creates vast reaches of space, time, and mood. I always find them like windows to another, more spiritual plane. They transmute, somehow, this world into a place of prayer.
As fall fades into winter, where the interior glow of the world starts to sleep, and a darker stillness, the flatter light of hibernation reigns. But the life force is not extinquished. Silence reigns, and Rothko is always there to illuminate every season.
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Getting to here…
As I was working on this piece, the size of the head got bigger than I originally intended, and because the armature, which holds the clay up, is fixed, I knew I would run out of room to make the neck the proportion I wanted. But in the lost wax casting process, that is not a problem. I knew I could adjust it easily in the “wax” phase. After I completed the clay part of the piece, I brought it to the foundry. They then coat the clay in latex, and put a supportive coating of plaster around the latex. That creates a mold which is an exact negative of the clay.
The mold on the left is mine, closed up. Bottom left, is a view of the underside. On the top left, is an example of an open mold that shows the latex covered by the hard, plaster shell.The original clay apple you see here, is no longer needed. It is this latex, or rubber mold, which allows you to make as many castings as you wish, because it is a perfect, exact negative of the original clay. The next step is to pour hot wax into the now hollow mold and let it cool. The mold is then opened up, and you have a wax version of the original clay.
Here is me with the “wax.” Special workers at the foundry then, clean, or “chase” the wax. A heated metal tool is used to scrape the wax. One can also patch imperfections with a tin of hot wax that can be applied to small places. You can also carve into the form with several kinds of heated tools. I always end up doing a bit of that at this point. We also built an extension piece out of wax to make the neck a bit longer, and smoothed it out. If there are pieces sticking out of the main body of the sculpture, this is the point at which they’re re-attached. Normally legs, arms, etc, are cut off when you build the first latex shell, and molded seperately. Then one heats up the wax and using wax struts, attaches the extruding elements.
A tree like series of attachments, “spruing,” is then attached to the wax. These will provide paths for the bronze to flow and air to escape in the final stage of casting. The wax is then dipped in series of fine to coarse flats of a silica slurry.
Above are the silica beds. You can see the top cap, which is always added in the wax spruing stage, to pour the bronze through, later. The silica slurry and grid must coat the wax to varying degrees. The bigger the piece, the thicker the coating. The thinnest coating is about 1/2 inch, all around. The picture on the bottom left, is a piece with the strut – like supports, drying. On the right, the apple we saw the mold for earlier, can be seen with its spruing visible.
Now, the silica hardened shell, with wax inside, is placed in a kiln, bottom left. This causes the coating to harden even more, and the wax melts and runs out. You can see the melted wax in the bucket, on the left.
What we have now, is a negative space that corresponds exactly with the positive wax form. Once the shell has cooled, water is poured through the vent tubes to make sure there is no obstruction. The thickness of the casing is also checked, by drilling holes, then patching them. The piece is then placed in the oven on the right, to harden any patches, to make sure all traces of moisture are gone, and to super heat the mold.
The metal, in this case, bronze (an alloy of ca. 80% copper with ca. 20% tin ) is heated to over 1200 degrees in a furnace, and then poured through the opening of the super-hardened shell. If the shell itself was also not heated in the prior step, the hot metal would shatter the mold. The bronze filled shell is now allowed to cool. Finally, when cool, the shell is hammered open and the raw metal piece emerges. ( The “sprues” are also cast, and are cut away for future use.) This is the raw metal casting, before patina, of my piece.
As with the wax, the metal must be checked for imperfections and air bubbles, and filed smooth, or “chased,” just like the wax was.
Now comes my favorite part, the patina, There are many ways to patina a bronze sculpture. I use liquid chemicals, mostly with metallic bases, such as ferrous oxide. They are applied to the sculpture and heated with a blow torch. The duration of exposure to the heat, as well as the make up of the chemical compound, determine the color it turns on the metal.
Above, George, the patina specialist at the foundry, pours chemicals on the bronze, and then heats it with a blow torch. We go back and forth with different chemical combinations, depending on the look I’m going for. In order to see the real color, you have to throw water over the piece. I enjoy trying to get the right mix, and look, to enhance the particular piece. Some artists use the same couple of patinas, all the time. I play around, and experiment with patinas. Sometimes, however, I go in the wrong direction, and have to sand – blast the experiment off, and start again. This is time consuming, and adds an extra expense.
Compare the image, above, with the photo of the piece that was taken, in the studio, at the top of the post. It appears darker in inside light. This sculpture was one where I did a fair amount of work in the wax; extending the neck, carving into the back, and fine tuning the frontal outline. In the end, I felt that the patina I achieved, really enhanced the piece.
I find the whole foundry process incredibly satisfying. It makes the final result a grand synthesis between individual and group effort. Even more, it gives me a feeling of connection to both America’s great manufacturing past, and an ancient artisic process that has been used for centuries.
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One of the highlights of my recent trip to Italy was the so called, Raphael Room, in the Vatican. I will post about that in a longer piece, at another time. Ever since being there, however, I can’t stop thinking about Raphael’s portrait of his friend, Baldassare Castiglione, which hangs in the Louvre, in Paris.
It is one of my favorite paintings ever. It was probably painted in Rome between 1514-1515, to celebrate Castiglione’s appointment as Ambassador to the Pope by the Duke of Urbino. He had earlier been ambassador to England. Castiglione became widely famous for his book “The Courtier” which was published in 1528. The book summed up the taste and culture of the Renaissance, extolling the virtues of harmony, beauty, and elegance among others. It was a profound political as well as cultural document. Castiglione was also widely known for his poetry and essays. The two were close friends and shared a deep affection, as well as sensibility, which I think comes through clearly in the painting.
The whole tone of the painting is muted and harmonious, direct, but subtle. The painting has a very limited palette of mostly black, grey and white, and umber in the background. Castigione’s outfit looks incredibly luxurious, yet is treated overall in broad shapes that seem quite simplified. There is a wonderful movement of outline around the hat and down through the grey sleeves and white shirt. The subject is bathed in a soft, warm, indirect light, that helps make Baldassre’s gaze seem direct and unaffected, without the least bit of deception or hauteur. His openness of expression is utterly disarming. (The pose itself refers to the Mona Lisa, which Raphael had seen.)
Raphael’s brushwork is simply bravura. His mastery of draughtsmanship, color, and composition is superlative. What I so often find in Raphael’s work that knocks me out, is a profound and subtle harmony whose quality is totally unique. His draughtsmanship can be detailed, but is also made to fit into a broad, simplified abstraction of form that can feel very modern. There is always a sense of solid three dimensionality to his figures, landscapes and architecture. This solidity of volume beneath the form, reminds me of Cezanne and Picasso, but with an extraordinary lightness of touch. Only two other painters I can think of, Velasquez and Manet, used black as effectively.
Raphael’s greatness is sometimes overshadowed by Leonardo and Michelangelo in the popular mind. The very top of the peak of Mt. Olympus may have two towering figures, shoulder to shoulder, but I believe there is another figure there, one with his foot on the ledge, and his head above the clouds.
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Lining the corridor that leads into Michelangelo’s David are the four, incredible, Unfinished Slaves. They were commissioned by Pope Julius as part of a highly elaborate plan for his tomb, in 1505. However, Julius soon died, and the huge project was diminished in funding and scope several times over many years. The plans stopped and started, dragging on and on over the years. Michelangelo worked on the project intermitently, and produced only six figures of what was originally supposed to be thirty. Two more highly finished slaves, from his early work on the tomb, are at the Louvre. The four figures, at the Accademia, dramatically less finished, have been highly influential to legions of sculptors and other artists, because of the unique aesthetic they represent.
On the left as you walk in is the “Awakening Slave.”
This piece is one of the most powerful and expressive works of art I’ve ever seen. The figure feels like it is writhing and straining, and going to imminently explode out of the marble block that holds it. The latent power one feels is extraordinary. Is this a Herculean effort to be born physically from the imprisoning stone, or a titanic struggle to escape the bounds of physical reality and move onto some other plane? I certainly don’t know for sure, but it feels like the business at hand here is cosmic.
Michelangelo is famous for saying that he worked to liberate the forms imprisoned in the marble. He saw his job as simply removing what was extraneous. The endless struggle of man to free himself from his physical constraints and liberate the more enlightened spirit within, was part of the Neo-Platonic philosophy that was in vogue in Florence at this time. The burden of the flesh constrains the soul. This is by far the most dynamic and expressive battleground of these forces I’ver ever encountered. The metaphor is inescapable.
Across from the Awakening Slave is the so called, “Young Slave.” As opposed to the “Awakening Slave,” this one shows no sign of struggle to free himself from the stone, but seems almost bound within himself in a dream like passivity. The contrapposto pose, exaggerated by the narrowness of the block of stone, gives him the air of a fetus curled around itself, writhing gently, waiting to be born. His face, which is just beginning to emerge, seems so youthful by comparison with his musculature. Is he held in check, by the stone, his servitude, shame, innocence or resignation? The metaphoric issues are unclear. There is a beguiing quality to this youth which is highly mysterious.
Down the hallway on the left is the “Atlas Slave.”
He is named after Atlas, who carried the entire world on his shoulders. His head has not emerged from the stone, and the weight of even his own creation presses down upon his shoulders. Indeed, this slave seems to be pushing a weight so heavy, it threatens to compress him back into a solid mass of pre-creation marble. The force of weight pushing down, and that pushing back up,
creates an almost seismic tension. There is no feeling of equilibrium here, only a battle of giant tectonic forces threatening to explode in both directions. I can’t think of any representation of brute physical force or pressure that generates nearly as much implied power.
Across the corridor, is the “Bearded Slave,” the most finished of the four. He is almost free. Only his hands and part of his arm are unfinished. He is bound by the straps around him, not the stone. He is also the least dynamic of the four. He is without mystery, merely a fact. There is no cosmic play of forces here, no arresting drama, or metaphoric jailor. This sculpture, which I think on it’s own, in another context, would feel powerful and majestic, seems almost lifeless compared to the others. This reality gives us a clear sense of how astoundingly powerful the other three are. I find myself thinking how would further completion of these works effect their ability to communicate Michelangelo’s intentions. Would more information really tell you more, or would it dilute their expressive power? I can’t personally imagine how more, would not be less.
Michelangelo’s expressed intention of freeing the forms that exist within the stone is also reflected in his technique. Virtually all other sculptors tend to block out the larger forms of the whole piece first. Michelangelo certainly worked with the whole in mind, but he got there from form to form. As he chiseled away stone he would bring shapes to a relatively high state of finish. Whole sections of form started to appear piece by piece out of the block. The contrast of rough and smooth heightens the effect. It’s as if, once he established the DNA of the composition, it organically grew itself from part to whole, predetermined by it’s original code.
Had the commission for Julius’ Tomb proceeded in an orderly manner, who knows what would have happened to these figures. However, it is hard for me to imagine that Michelangelo, a true genius, did not, or could not, recognize the profound signifcance and effect of what he had created here in these ” Unfinished Slaves.”
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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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Herb & Dorothy is an incredible film that I would strongly urge all art lovers to see.
It’s available on most movie and download services. It is the amazing story of the Vogels and their unique passion, for art, artists, and collecting. Herb was a postal clerk, and Dorothy, a librarian.They lived entirely on Dorothy’s salary, and used Herb’s to accumulate one of the great contemporary art collections of over two thousand pieces.
In the early 60′s, before minimalist and conceptual art had much of a following, they began buying work by then, unknown artists. They followed two rules. The pieces had to be “affordable” and also fit in their small one bedroom appartment. Their sense of quality, and ability to suss out young artists who were to become world famous, was amazing. Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle, Christo, Chuck Close, were only a few.
In 1992, they decide to donate their collection to the National Gallery in Washington. They had no money to live out their old age, so the government, deeply thankful for their gift to the national patrimony, arranged to give them a smallish stipend. What did they do, but start collecting again. They couldn’t stop themselves. What comes through in the film is their utter lack of pretension, and great passion for both art and artists. They were recognized by all these major artists as very serious and discerning collectors, as well as friends, even though they were not buying the big expensive pieces, only the small, lowest price ones.
Their story and quest is heartwarming, and also very instructive and inspiring. If you truly let the world in, and let it take you along the path of your hearts innermost desires, you can sometimes travel to magnificent and unexpected places.
Herb and Dorothy had the collecting impulse to an extent I’ve never seen before. I’m curious how many of you are collectors, and what of. My wife has collected a particular kind of Santa Catalina Island pottery for many years. She is very methodical. I have bought a fair number of paintings, and find that, unconsciously, most of them have an element of water, particularly, ocean, in them.
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Self portraiture has long been a vigorous genre in the history of art. It drew me in early on, in fact, I wrote my senior thesis in college on “Cezanne’s Self Portraits.” For me, the self portrait often offers the purest crystalization of a painter’s style. When one does frequent self portraits, as I have done, you learn the structure of your face so well that you become very unselfconscious and free in the execution. You know how to capture the image, so you can really focus on interpretation and execution or style. I think it is much easier to “objectify” an image you know so well. It may seem counter- intuitive, and that one would be more uptight at the idea of portraying yourself, but I think the opposite is true. In any case, here are some of my very favorites. There are so many great ones, that this is a very limited sampling. Also, I didn’t include works that were not explicitly self portraits. In the early Renaissance and before, artists would often include a rendition of themselves in a larger group in historical or mythological pieces.
Durer, left, was the first prolific self portraitist. Hopper, center, and Fillipo Lippi, right,
are far apart in time, but not in feeling.
Manet, Velasquez, and Raphael. Three of the greatest painters who ever lived, and three ultimate masters of the use of black. All three of these knock me out. I think the Velasquez is one of the great paintings ever painted. Period.
Titian, Degas, and Van Dyke. Penultimate stylists in their times, they each vibrate with an incredible inner force.
Chardin, Rembrandt (one of the most prolific self portraitists of all time) and Renoir.
What can you say? Astounding pieces!
Cezanne (another prolific self portrait painter), Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh (also
a prolific self portraitist.) It doesn’t get any better.
Dali ( at age 17), Eugene Delacroix, and Max Beckman. Three “men of the world” in their
own times. Passion and intellect, interwoven.
I hope you’ll agree that these self portraits are extraordinary works of art. For me, they are so visually stunning and psychologically penetrating, that they literally take my breath away. I had started to do a post on my favorite portraits, but realized that so many were actually self portraits, I decided to explore these first. I will soon follow up with regular portraits, and then portraits of artists painting other artists.
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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.
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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I think a very good case could be made that Henry Moore was the most influential sculptor of the 20th century. He is certainly my favorite, along with Marino Marini, and for me, one of the greatest creators of pure form ever.
Moore was born in 1898 to a large family in West Yorkshire, England. He had a happy, though frugal home life and a long, stable marriage and family of his own. He showed great talent early and quickly received scholarships to first, the Leeds College of Art and then the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. Though schooled in the classical traditions, through exposure to ethnographic work in London museums, and then trips to Paris, he was seduced by the”primitive”. Picasso, Arp, Giacometti, and Brancusi were all influences on how to create a new formal vocabulary that owed much to African and Meso-American art.
The piece on the left is a cast of Toltec-Mayan piece from Chichen Itza. The one on the right, an earlyish work of Moore’s. The effect of the stone carving from Mexico was to reverberate throughout his career. Moore said that the “power of expression ” of the primitive, was much deeper and more vital than the “beauty of expression” of classical forms. His embrace of the “primitive” was part of an attempt by many artists and philosophers at the time, to find new meaning and connection to the essential human spirit. Many felt that industialization and materialism had stagnated culture and alienated people. Moore, like Picasso, was set free by the power of the “primitive.”
Picasso was influenced to simplify and flatten, as he “fractured” the tradional notion of three dimensional space in a two dimensional universe ( i.e. the canvas). Moore went on to liberate and extend the broad, simplified forms into a more full 3D reality, then to punch holes through the forms, and simultaneously explore negative and positive space as well as concave and convex.
Moore was drawn right away to a very anthropomorphic abstraction of the human form and particularly female figures. His early practice was in the technique of direct carving where he would whittle away at stone to discover his forms. This earlier work concentrated on mass.
On the left is his first public commission, done in 1928-29. It shows the influence of both Michaelangelo, whom he admired most among classical sculptors, and the Toltec-Mayan piece (shown above), that he had seen at the Louvre.
His transition to more modern forms is documented in his sketchbooks. He was a passionate draughtsman his entire life, and, in fact his drawing, during WWll inspired his fellow countrymen and greatly added to his public renown and esteem.
Moore was also drawn to mother and child poses in both earlier and later work.te
Even his pure abstractions are biomorphic in feeling. He also started piercing forms with open space, and in later works, opening space directly in figurative forms, and exploring convex and concave spaces.
However, throughout his career, the crown jewels of his work, and most beloved motif, was the reclining female. Here are some of his extraordinary pieces.
By the late 40′s and early 50′s Moore was working such large public commissions that
he had to work in small maquettes, gradually having bigger models made, and then casting in bronze with the lost wax technique. He had come full circle from the classical method he turned against, to direct carving, then back again. The reality of his need to turn out huge pieces for public commissions, dominated. “The difference between modelling and carving is that modelling is a quicker thing, and so it becomes a chance to get rid of one’s ideas.”
Henry Moore was hugely successful in his time. He was plied with honors by the Crown, but turned down a knighthood, feeling it would alienate him from like minded artists. He established The Henry Moore Foundation, to promote public appreciation of art, and prerserve his work. He died in 1986 at his home in Hertfordshire, where he was laid to rest.
Moore always had a large collection of skulls, driftwood, rocks, shells, etc., so that he would always have natural forms in front of him. For him the human form was indistinguishable from a shell or a rock as a sublime manifestation of nature. In whatever method or material he worked in , his legacy of elegant, spacious, sensual forms is extraordinary. A true gift to the world.
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In honor of my eighth wedding anniversary, a few days ago, I wanted to share this poem with you. It has a special place for me, because it was the first poem I wrote that was published. In case you don’t know, quarks are considered the most elementary constituent particle of matter, in the current “standard model” of the universe. They come in six “flavors,” which are a form of spin; up, down, charmed, strange, top, and bottom. I thought this painting of mine captured something of the feel of the poem.
The Physics of Love
I wonder how I see you at all
The smallest part of you is quarks,
Inside you, magnetic fields shift and spin,
There is so little of us,
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Landscape is one of my favorite genres of painting and, for me, it comes in many forms. I do not distinguish between “abstraction” and “realism” as far as their power to render a scene or evoke memories or response. I have painted both ways, and feel that all my abstract paintings were the evocation of particular landscapes at specific moments. I see abstraction as a way to find a corollary (objective correlative) to the multi-sensual experience of light, space, form, tone, color that makes up the physical world. The brain creates a reference for all symbols, and it does so in the only framework it is programmed to to use associatively, i.e. the physical world. For me, it’s all about how to transmit and evoke the maximum amount of information that provokes an interactive experience.. There are many ways to skin that cat. I will talk later in another post about the way we actually see and the phenomenology of perception. (Basically what we we think of as hyper realism is not the way we actually see, but a very “abstract” manipulation of “reality.” ) Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy these landscapes and that by looking at these kinds of pairings together you get a sense of why I feel them both to be equally evocative.
I’d like to hear your reactions to these different approaches to “landscape,”
and which you prefer.
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The history of art is full of interesting family portraits and loving, mother son images.
However the pictorial record of fathers and sons is quite a different story.
Here are a few famous mother and son paintings.
The few examples of father and son paintings go in an entirely different direction.
In the Rubens and the Goya, the son is seen as rival and dealt with rather
primatively. Rembrandt’s scene is the return of the prodigal son. Here the son is
welcomed back with a combination of love, sadness, and resigned acceptance
of his inevitable wandering and the pain it causes.
The existence of so few loving images of fathers and children (other than the Norman Rockwell variety) in painting, tells something very powerful and distressing about our culture and its’ archetypes.
Something to ponder on Father’s Day…..but thanks to a comment by my friend, Margaret Pirrouette, I’ve decided to end on a more positive note.
Though they are photographs, as the man said, “…all you need is love…”
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David: Doctor, I have trouble sleeping.
Doctor: How long has this been going on?
David: Since I was three.
Doctor: That’s a long time. Was there a traumatic event involved?
David: I guess you could say so.
David: Well, in 1953, Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning.
Doctor: So something you couldn’t possibly have been aware of, at that time,
has traumatized you for 48 years?
David: Everyone said that was when my problem began. When I studied
Art History in college and found out about this work, eureka, the light bulb went on.
David: You see I loved de Kooning’s work. Every piece I ever saw of his made my heart sing.
David: Well Rauschenberg, I mean I appreciated his work when I studied it, it’s significance, etc., but, I mean, he destroyed a beautiful thing just for the idea of it.
Doctor: So do you think ideas are better or worse than objects? Can’t an idea be beautiful?
David: You know, “cogito, ergo sum,” I think, therefore I am. I certainly believe an idea can change the world, make you soar. But ideas are different than objects, as in traditonal “art.” They both can evoke emotion and knock over your associative dominoes. But they represent different kinds of ‘beauty.”
Doctor: I feel that what you’re saying is not exactly what you mean.
David: Well, on the one hand , you have a beautiful object, say the de Kooning drawing, which is so pleasing and evocative to look at, and on the other hand, you’ve got what was formerly this drawing, put in a frame, after it’s been erased. I get the idea, but do I want to stand there and look at it after my initial astonishment? No. And, in fact, it sort of pisses me off. That of course, is a deep reaction, which “Art” can evoke. But if I want to get pissed off, I can just read the newspaper. I have ideas all the time. Some I’d like to foist on our politicians, some on the whole world, but I don’t put them in a frame and exhibit them.
Doctor: Your ideas about what is art are infantile and bourgeois. Did you have a particular trauma when you were toilet trained?
David: Well, yes, in fact, I did.
Doctor: Go on.
David: Ever since I was a little kid, I liked to pee. I was a bit of a bed wetter. So whenever I saw an image of Ducamp’s urinal, I had to run to the bathroom.
I missed most of the lectures about him because of this Pavlovian response.
David: That’s all. Nothing more. Do you think I’m afraid of it?
Doctor: What do you think?
David: I get the idea that it’s all about context. And that’s interesting for a second. But as far as weighty thought goes, it doesn’t really draw blood. Ideas like freedom, enslavement, joy, transcendence, those really rattle around in your gut and brain. They can hit you were you live. Let me give you an example. Chairs, it’s really all about chairs.
David: Yeah, one in 1965, the other in 1888.
Doctor: Go on.
David; Well you can see in the illustration, One and Three Chairs, by Kosuth. It’s a chair, a photograph of the chair, and a definition of the word, “chair”, and instructions . You see, the piece is different every time it’s displayed. The installer chooses a chair, has a photograph the same size as the chair placed to it’s left. The blown up definiton is placed to the right of the chair and aligned with the top of the photograph. It’s really very clever.
Doctor: You have a problem with clever?
David: Doctor, believe me, I do really enjoy clever. It’s implications engage me for a minute, I chuckle appreciatively to myself, and then I’m ready to move on. But if I really want to know from chairs, I look at Van Gogh’s. It hits me in the gut and stays there.
Doctor: I fear this is really all about the subconscious.
Do you see that?
David: Yes, exactly. It’s a deep itch that needs to bypass the conscious mind to be scratched.
Doctor: So what you’re saying is that for you there’s a difference between engaging your mind on a certain, maybe lower, shorter acting level, and a deeper, multi- level and multi-sensual cascade of mental and emotional reactions and associations.
David: Yea, sort of like Mozart, Beethoven, Cream, The Stones, Michelangelo, etc. It’s about the uplifting, the sublime, the everyday, the awful and tragic, but at a whole other level of response. And listen, I’m not afraid to tell you that I sing along everytime I hear the Monkees’s I’m a Believer.
Doctor: So for you , it’s this quality of aspiration that defines the value, nature, experience, and maybe even, the definition of art?
David: Doctor, you took the words right out of my mouth.
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Obviously, a certain class of artist is drawn to daschunds.
David Hockney & Stanley and Boodgie Andy Warhol & Archie
Picasso portrayed Lump in many media.
He was a faithful studio companion, as well.
You know who!
David Hockney (below) holding court.
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The “Odalisque” which literally means female slave or member of a harem, has a long history in art, and here are some of my favorites. A celebration of the female form, there has always been a certain tension between the sacred and the profane imbued in this motif that reflects the particular moment in time of the culture it is created in. For a long time, naked woman were only allowed to be depicted in biblical or mythologic scenes. Centuries of this practice was shattered in the mid 19th century, most notably, and explicitly, by Manet.
For me this Ingres is the gold standard. The elongation and exageration of shapes creates a very radical abstraction and incredible elegance, within a “realistic “ mileau. The draughtmanship and painterly texture are superb. It is more a study in form than a provocative statement. It devastates me every time.
Titian’s version, below, is a powerful combination of the dramatic and the sensual. Color, form, composition, brushwork, it’s electric! The setting is mythological but the intent, unabashedly sensual.
Tintoretto’s version, above right, though biblical in it’s supposed theme, seems more like a secular drama, though portrayed naked.
Rubens painting, below, another biblical morality play, is full of pulchritude and joyful sensuality. An unabashed celebration of the female , yet without being titilating or licentious.
In Velasquez, above, so richly rendered, the image seems explicitly sensual in the casual, satisfied, self regard of the figure.
WIth this Goya, however, we have a whole different story. Here the subject makes no pretense of being involved in a game of cat and mouse. She explicitly presents herself to us, and without the least bit of shame. This heralds a major change in approach.
This Manet, above, is a direct response to the Goya, but painted in a much more matter of fact approach that almost says, “been there, done that.” It is an incredibly gorgeous painting, “in the flesh.” A total tour de force. It sets the stage for his seminal piece below, “Dejeuner sur L’Herbe.”
Here, the cat is out of the bag. Manet used the same model, his mistress, Victorine Meurend, but here, her casual nudity juxtoposed with the fully clothed men, enjoying a friendly picnic, bespeakes a sea change in the the moral/sexual climate. In 1863, this painting scandalized France. Sex, nudity, and, in a way, women’s right to be liberated from traditonal societal roles is thrown into question. From here on out, the female form needs not be couched in context of myth or stringent societal parameters, but is free to be celebrated, or misused, as the artist chooses.
By the time Matisse did this piece, the nude woman was simply a piece of formal drapery. There is no scandal, no forced historical, biblical, or mythological reference. This picture seems more like a simple “slice of life.”
In this Picasso, his “Odalisque after Ingres,” we have now come to a purely formal abstraction.
There is no question that the female form has been one of the most persistent and captivating subjects for artists – who have been mostly male – throughout time. Woman has been celebrated, in the history of art, as God’s greatest creation, but also, used to serve the purient interests of a controlling male patrimony. The female form has almost always been the ultimate measure of beauty, in terms of form, in art. Perhaps had we evolved as a matriarchal society, that would not be true. But, in society, as in art, there has always been this tension between the sacred and the profane in the male view of women.
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I wanted to share my recent visit to the fabulous exhibit of David Smith sculptures at LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Smith is considered the pre-eminent American sculptor of the 20th century. In the early 1930′s, he made the first welded steel sculptures done in the United States. Trained as a painter, he always said that he was trying to paint in steel. Many of his earlier constructions, before he started using steel, show the iconography and forms of Picasso, Gorky, Kandinsky,etc, his influences from painting.
Me, with some of his classic welded steel pieces. There is such a painterly feeling, even in these geometric pieces. You can almost feel the artist layering forms on a two dimensional canvas.
My New friend Hylan Booker and I discussing the exhibition. Hylan will be blogging about it soon for LACMA. Among other things, we were talking about how Smith worked as a welder, assembling locomtives and tanks, during WWll. Hylan sees Smith as the quintissential American artist emerging from that moment in time when we our at our zenith as a manufacturing and world power. His work in steel reflected the grandeur of our industrial power.Hylan sees Smith as the perfect embodiment of the “can do,” American spirit of the times. I completely agree.
David Smith was a in many ways a builder of bridges. He grew up as a painter drawn to organic, geometric forms that was part of the zeitgeist of the art world in the first third of the 20th century. He then translated those forms to sculpture, first in constructions, then to his ground breaking pieces of welded steel. His technique and aesthetic rode the tiger of America’s war time industrial surge, thrusting a new art form that mirrored, so closely, the culture of his time, on to the world stage. He was truly a man of his time and for his time.
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At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement
from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
This still life by Cezanne was the first painting I saw that made me realize that art is not merely a reproductive, or illustrative process, but an encounter that can touch on the sublime and the infinite. It elevated me to a place of profound stillness, that felt like timelessness. I felt lifted up and given a glimpse of a higher plane of reality, of being.
This painting hung in The Fogg Museum at Harvard and was an image taught in the introductory art history class I took first semester of my freshman year. I found myself visiting it often over the four years I studied there. I would stand, both mesmerized and transported. The apples were not just apples. There was a weight, a solidity to all the objects, indeed, a plasticity to the very space they inhabited, that felt at times overwhelming. The table, the jars, the fruit, the space itself, seemed as if they had always been there, and always would be there. They seemed to stand for every piece of fruit, every table, every jar, that ever existed. They seemed to contain the entire universe in them. No beginning. No end.
Was it the compressed compositional geometry, the forced perspective and abstracted spatial relationships, the tonal modeling and harmony…? It was certainly all these things, But also, it was something quite ineffable. There is a liminal feeling of being completely present. Somehow this quality transforms the specific into the universal, as it collapses past and future into an eternal present.
Cezanne transported me to a state outside myself, into a state of stillness
Not unlike meditation or prayer. Once again T.S. Eliot describes it better than I can
In Burnt Norton.
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern.
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still,
Moves perpetually in its stillness….
Cezanne’s approach to “representation” brings up important questions
about what is ”realistic” and what is “abstract” in terms of painting.
I will talk in other posts about these concepts, and especially in relation to the way we actually see. Hyper-realism is a dramatic abstraction of “reality”
And the way we actually perceive the world. More later.
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The “Odalisque” has a long history in art, and here are some of my favorites. A celebration of the female form ,there has always been a certain tension between the sacred and the profane imbued in this motif that reflects the particular moment in time of the culture it is crated in.
For me this Ingres is the gold standard. The elongation and exageration of shapes creates a very radical abstraction and incredible elegance, within a “realistic “ mileau. The draughtmanship and total synthesis devastates me every time.
MORE TO COME SOON!