Thursday, May 31, 2007

Luckiest Man

As the Philadelphia Phillies’ season begins its annual, slow, torturous death spiral out of playoff ncontention, I find it harder and harder to satisfy my baseball cravings. Thanks to a New York Times profile of young artist Graig Kreindler, I found an oasis of baseball lore in his beautiful paintings of old time baseball, such as Gehrig’s Farewell (above), which depicts the day Lou Gehrig bade farewell to the New York Yankees’ fans and declared himself, despite the ALS that would soon claim his life and garner his name, “The luckiest man on the face of the earth.” To have the ability to take your passion for the game and marry it to your wonderful artistic talent makes Graig Kreindler a very lucky man as well.

Kreindler takes an almost obsessive approach to detail in his paintings, making sure that the colors of the uniforms, stadiums, and advertising is correct—no easy task considering how little color photography and film there is of some of his older subjects. His obsessiveness reminds me of Thomas Eakins’ approach to his rowing pictures and his own depictions of Philadelphia Athletics players before the turn of the century. Kreindler himself shows 1920s Philadelphia A’s star Jimmie Foxx in a homerun trot nearing home plate and Mickey Cochrane in Cochrane Greets Foxx at the Plate.

Perhaps my favorite of Kreindler’s paintings is his World Series Time in Brooklyn (above), which shows historic Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, circa 1952. Kreindler takes a less photorealist approach to this scene, perhaps trying to recreate the mythic glow that Ebbets Field and the Jackie Robinson Dodgers still have for so many baseball addicts, even those too young to remember the real thing, like me.

Murderously Good Painting

One of the suspects in the unsolved case of Jack the Ripper and a pretty good painter to boot, Walter Sickert entered the world on this date in 1860. Sickert took the techniques of Impressionism and added a more somber, psychological, Victorian veneer, as can be seen in his famous Ennui (above).

Sickert worked briefly as an actor before working as an assistant to James McNeill Whistler, who encouraged Sickert to paint. Sickert soon traveled to France and met Edgar Degas, whose strong draftsmanship and choice of urban subjects influenced Sickert’s development.

Ennui shows two people in a drawing room full of somber color, each looking off in their own little worlds, so close to one another yet completely disconnected. Sickert captures these expressions of ennui perfectly, choosing colors that harmonize with the overall mood as well as using strong drawing to create a sense of tension. Sickert’s choice of a claustrophobic interior to present the interior life of everyday people bears a strong resemblance to similar scenes Edward Hopper would paint from an American perspective decades later.

But the truly juicy angle to the life of Walter Sickert comes from his possibly being Jack the Ripper’s assistant or even the Ripper himself! (Not to be confused with Jackson “Jack the Dripper” Pollock.) Mystery writer Patricia Cornwell believes that the painting above, titled Camden Town Murder (named after another, non-Ripper, sensational murder of the time), shows Sickert with his victim. In Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed, Cornwell presents her case for Sickert being the Ripper. Cornwell apparently bought 31 of Sickert’s paintings and envelopes and stamps he may have licked in hopes of finding enough DNA to close the case. In her personal episode of C.S.I.: Art History Edition, Cornwell may even have destroyed one of Sickert’s paintings in her quest.

Regardless of all the sensational fanfare of crime fact and fiction, Sickert remains one of the finest British painters since J.M.W. Turner.

Haunted by Painting

I just recently watched A Soul Haunted by Painting (Chinese title: Hua hun), starring Gong Li as Pan Yuliang, the first “Western,” female, Chinese painter. Pan Yuliang's Self Portrait from 1945 is above.

After the death of her parents, an uncle sold Pan Yuliang into a brothel at the age of 14. While working at the brothel as a prostitute, Pan Yuliang met a customs official in 1916 who helped her escape and later married her. Her husband encouraged her painting and she soon traveled to study art in Shanghai. In the 1920s, Pan Yuliang studied art in Paris and Rome, earning awards and scholarships for further study. In 1929, she returned to China to teach art and was honored as the first Chinese woman artist to paint in a Western style, taking the Post-Impressionist techniques she discovered in Europe and modeling them to her native Chinese approach.

Unfortunately, Pan Yuliang soon ran into trouble with the government authorities over her use of nude models. Her Mum and Woman’s Body appears above. (More portraits of women bathers and other nudes by Pan Yuliang appear here.) Pan Yuliang soon returned to France, where she remained until her death in 1977. If she had remained in China during the Cultural Revolution, her works would have undoubtedly been destroyed as decadent and “Western.” Despite this political turmoil and artistic exile, Pan Yuliang always wished that her works would return to China after her death, which they did in 1985. A large collection of her work now hangs at the China National Art Gallery in Beijing and at the Anhui Provincial Museum in Hefei.

A Soul Haunted by Painting remains mostly true to Pan Yuliang’s life story, emphasizing certain aspects for dramatic effect, of course. Gong Li, China’s finest actress of the last 20 years, portrays the beauty and passion of Pan Yuliang’s life perfectly. The English subtitles can be rough at times (think bad fortune cookies), but Gong Li’s ability to play the same character from a teen to old age transcends language.

I can’t help but draw parallels between Pan Yuliang’s struggles against a moralistic society and those of Thomas Eakins, mainly because of their shared belief in portraying the nude body. But even Eakins’ struggles pale in comparison to the mountain of difficulties before Pan Yuliang: the death of her parents, her early life as a prostitute, the constant burden of being a woman in an ancient, patriarchic society, all culminating in the stigma of championing the depiction of the human body. Pan Yuliang’s life and art earn her a place in the pantheon of great female artists right there next to Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Losing My Religion

Francesca Gavin over at the Guardian’s Art Blogs examines “How Art Replaced Religion.” “Has art become a modern cult?” she asks, adding “In this highly secular society, spiritual expression and religious ritual are waning.” Gavin goes on to draw amusing and enlightening parallels between the old gods and the new one of art. But what popped out at me, viewing things from the opposite side of the Atlantic, was her phrase “highly secular society,” which may be true over there, but definitely not here in what many unaffectionately call “Jesusland” (map above). Nonetheless, Gavin’s main question still rankles: have the arts, in the absence of a religion that speaks to the modern condition, replaced God?

I’d like to think that Americans are lining up at libraries and museums seeking spiritual fulfillment, but that would be naïve. And what too often passes for “God” in America is simply window dressing for ignorance and hate. If God is dead in America, to paraphrase Nietzsche, it is television that has killed him. We’ve become a soulless culture in no small way because of a soulless little box’s ability to feed the worst prejudices and fears within our society, which become larger and larger to the exclusion of all reason. From game shows to televangelists, the visual art most often experienced by Americans is nothing more than a commercialized lobotomy. There are some good shows on TV, of course, but they are lost in the deluge of the trite, the misinformative, and the downright inflammatory.

I believe that people have an innate need to believe in something. We fashion the gods we need from the resources on hand. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, sometimes you need to believe in the God you have, not the God you want. Too many Americans accept the God they have, but the God we “want” should be the God of Art, of Gentleness, of Love, and all that other good stuff—all resources on hand within us but much too long ignored.

The short time I spent in London with my wife a few years ago made me wish I could stay there forever. A historically mindful, mostly liberal, English-speaking culture? Sign me up! I know most Brits can easily poke holes in my idealistic, touristy view, but I still feel that a grain of truth would remain somewhere beneath. I just can’t imagine Americans getting as excited over an art contest as the British do over The Turner Prize. If art has replaced religion in England, I hope someone’s looking at making it the next British Invasion of the States.

Drawing a Blank

When people who don’t know much about modern art point towards something and say “I can do that,” what they’re most likely pointing at is something either painted or influenced by Robert Ryman, infamous father of minimalist painting’s all-white works, such as the one seemingly befuddling a patron in the image above.

Ryman’s career in the visual arts began as a museum guard at the MOMA. His first major work was a single-color abstraction called Orange Painting, not much different than the single-color International Klein Blue works of Yves Klein, of course. But whereas Klein tried to engage the viewer with saturated fields of color, Ryman moved away from color and tried to find expression in nuance and minimal gesture.

Ryman’s Series #9 (White) appears above. Ryman’s mimimalism is so minimal that reproductions usually appear to be completely white. I chose the photo of the patron looking at a Ryman painting at the top specifically to avoid leading off with an apparently empty box. Series #9 (White), however, does have enough variance, especially in the receding corners and in the visible texture of the center, to give us something to hold on to intellectually. It’s this frustrating nature of his works that, unfortunately, has brought him scorn in mainstream culture.

Ryman’s influence is still felt today, however, in artists such as Quentin Morris, who bases his minimalism in black rather than white to explore African-American culture within the context of society as a whole. I don’t see any corresponding racial aspect in Ryman’s work, but that’s the strength of his minimalism—it allows each viewer to engage the work and discover something already within him or herself. Unfortunately, as much as critics such as Kirk Varnedoe try to defend these “pictures of nothing,” they will always remain exactly that for many people.

American Hogarth

John Lewis Krimmel, born Johann Ludwig Krimmel on this date in 1786, recorded life in his adopted country of colonial America and earned the nickname of “The American Hogarth.” His dramatic Conflagration of the Masonic Hall, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1819 appears above. (Other paintings by Krimmel appear here. )

Much of what we know about how life appeared in colonial times comes from Krimmel’s images. Above, Krimmel captures the celebrations of the Fourth of July in Center Square in 1812 in Philadelphia. Each time I see this painting at the PAFA, my eyes go directly to William Rush ’s Water Nymph and Bittern, the white statue in the rear of a classically attired woman holding a bird on her shoulder. Thomas Eakins immortalized this statue in a series of paintings imagining the scene where Rush carved the statue before his nude model. My eyes then go to the left-hand side of the picture, where the revelers are lining up for drinks.

Krimmel shows the 1819 version of Fourth of July celebrations in this image above. This celebration takes place in Center Square as well. The circular building at the center of both paintings is the same, except from different angles over the space of seven years. The prevalence of military costume among the partygoers reflects the increased military consciousness of the young country, fresh off of the War of 1812 and just gearing up for the Indian Wars spearheading the drive of Manifest Destiny across the continent.

I find Krimmel’s nickname “The American Hogarth” to be a little deceiving. Hogarth’s work featured a narrative power and satirical bent, where Krimmel painted in a gentler, more documentary style. The Christmas image above from the 1810s shows a typical German-style Christmas, which he would have been very familiar with, complete with tiny tree on a table and gifts piled on plates. Such a Christmas celebration was atypical for non-German Americans at that time, giving us a glimpse at a world and a time very different from our own.

Sadly, Krimmel died in a swimming accident in 1821 at the age of 34. How many more images of early America, such as the Election Scene, State House in Philadelphia 1815 (above), which shows what we know today as Independence Hall in the background, could he have passed down to us?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Art Star

Hans Makart, once the toast of late 19th century Vienna, was born on this date in 1840. Called the “magician of colors” and the “artist prince” in his day, Makart may have been the first true “art star” in the modern media sense of the phrase. His allegorical painting, The Victory of Light Over Dark, appears above.

All levels of society flocked to Makart’s studio salon, cementing his role at the shining light of 1870s Viennese culture. His large-scale, theatrical paintings full of brilliant color appealed to the man in the street as well as the king in the castle. Makart even staged the parade to celebrate Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elizabeth’s silver wedding anniversary in 1879. Working in interior design, costume design, and furniture design in addition to painting, Makart’s cult-like status cast an influence on Viennese art and culture for generations, including the work of Gustav Klimt.

Makart’s oeuvre splits roughly into allegorical paintings, such as The Victory of Light Over Dark (at the top of this post), and historical paintings, often with exotic themes, such as The Death of Cleopatra (above). Nudes abound in his paintings, regardless of theme, presaging the even more risqué use of the human form in Vienna after the turn of the century in the works of Klimt and Egon Schiele.

Personally, I find Makart’s portraits the most interesting, particularly in regards to seeing the line of influence from Makart to Klimt. The Portrait of Anna von Waldberg (above), with its vampiric skin coloration, voluptuous coloring, and insatiably hungry eyes, easily stands as a precursor to the great female portraits of Klimt later on.

The vagaries of art fame always fascinate me, especially since reading Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism, which traced the rise of Eduoard Manet’s reputation against the fall of Ernest Meissonier’s. I remember seeing Meissonier’s paintings at the Louvre and thinking how easily his greatness was recognized, yet, how easily it was forgetten in the wake of new movements in art. How much those new movements and new artists owed to those who came before should never be forgotten.

Hidden Master

One of the great joys of writing this blog is discovering new artists. Today, I offer to you a lost master, Jules Alexander Grun, born on May 26, 1868. Once considered on a par with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in terms of graphic art in late 19th/early 20th century France, Grun is almost forgotten today. His painting Fin de Souper appears above.

Little is know about Grun’s life. In fact, Grun’s unassuming nature lives on today in the hidden self portraits he placed in several of his paintings. (Go here for help in finding Grun in Fin de Souper above.)

Fortunately, Grun’s ability to create stunning posters could never be hidden. His Monaco Canots Automobiles poster above still shines with the stunning flat area of yellow of the woman’s dress. These flat planes and the positioning of the woman along the side of the image show the influence of Japanese art on Grun, part of the general Japonisme influence on French art at the time.

A Japanese influence also emerges in the strong diagonals of the Monte-Carlo Concours d’Aviation poster above. The line of the plane’s wing stretching off into space echoes similar lines in Japanese prints, while the opposing diagonals of the plane’s rigging and landing gear create a counterpoint effect solely of Grun’s own invention. The stunning color palette, from the bold blue sky to the woman’s fiery red dress, speaks of the new freedom of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists that surrounded (and overshadowed) Grun.

Amazingly, even the year of Grun’s death is in question, sometime in the 1930s or 1940s, after a battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Almost as silent in life as in the grave, Grun may one day find someone to give his great paintings a voice.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Every Parent’s Nightmare

CNN’s home page has footage of a little boy stomping all over a mandala sand painting Buddhist monks had been working on for two days. (The UPI story is here.) A security camera captured all the carnage, which ends when the mother guiltily swoops in and trundles her little urchin away. (The image above is from another group of monks working on a mandala.)

I’m sure that the good Buddhist monks undoubtedly said when they saw what transpired was that it was all part of the transience of this plane of existence. At the end of the painting, they always ceremoniously sweep away the sand. I always wondered if the Buddhists looked forward to that moment of sweeping away, which this incident would have taken from them. It’s kind of like lining up thousands of dominoes and not getting to tip that first one over. What would you pay for the security camera footage of the monks’ expressions when they came in to work that next morning?

Never Forget

I just want to wish a happy and safe Memorial Day Weekend to everyone.

While you’re enjoying barbeques and parties with your family and friends, please take a moment to remember all those who have died in wars serving their countries around the world. Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field (painted in 1865) came to mind when I was trying to choose an image for this occasion. Homer’s painting shows a veteran of the American Civil War, freshly returned home and still partly in uniform, putting down his weapon and picking up a scythe to mow a field, echoing Isaiah 2:4:

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Let everyone remember those who have died in the past and vow that no more shall die in war in the future. May no nation “lift up sword against nation” or “learn war any more.”

Through a Glass Darkly

Taking what he learned from his apprenticeship as a glass painter and restorer, Georges Rouault, born on May 27, 1871, painted beautiful works of great emotion and spirituality that deserve far greater acclaim than they currently receive. Old King, shown above, demonstrates this unique approach to line and color that later influenced the German Expressionists, especially in the field of the woodcut.

Rouault studied under Gustave Moreau and shared a common interest with his teacher in the mystical and spiritual and how to portray such ephemeral concepts in art. Whereas Moreau created proto-Surreal, symbolist works that portray realistic scenes with fantastic overtones, Rouault used the framework of the stained glass window to capture the inner light he saw in life. The power of his lines to express emotion has few rivals. The color in his paintings represents some of the best of the Fauvist movement. Rouault knew Henri Matisse personally and shared his passion for color. Van Gogh’s ability to use color to express passionate emotion also influenced Rouault.

I have always been drawn to Rouault’s religious works, such as his Crucifixion above. Coming from an Irish Catholic background, the stark, primitive emotion as well as the effusive color pull at my heart like the finest stained glass windows I’ve seen in the old cathedrals of Europe. Even more impressive may be Rouault’s Miserere et Guerre series of black and gray aquatints. (The full series can be seen here.) Jesus Reviled, one of the series’ most touching images, appears below. In the Miserere et Guerre series Rouault displays a depth of tone in the simple and black as well as a richness of line and gesture that belies the often “primitive” appearance of his works.

Unfortunately, Rouault never received his fair share of accolades during his lifetime. Near the end of his life, he burned three hundred of his paintings in despair. Fortunately, the wealth of his emotional and spiritual life still shines brightly through all his work, from the hopeful, colorful celebrations of life to the somber, grey meditations on suffering and death.

UPDATE: For those in the New York area, you can go see Georges Rouault: Judges, Clowns and Whores through June 9 at Mitchell-Innes & Nash. A New York Times review is here.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Can an artist be reduced to the sum total of his brushstrokes and gestures? Is there something beyond just the mechanics and personal quirks that adds up to a style? A new technology called Stylometry tries to apply mathematics to study and verify art. (Via Artcyclopedia.)

A team at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, has developed software that captures the style of an artist in mathematical form to help in determining the authorship of other works by that same artist, arguing that a painter’s style is as unique as a fingerprint, at least when broken down into computerized data. This “visual signature” would assist art historians in the often difficult task of attributing unattributed works.

There are two problems I see with this. As with much of the digitization of our world, reducing Van Gogh, the first artist to be placed under the microscope, to megabytes discounts any human element in his work. (Van Gogh’s Cypresses appears above.) Art historians study their whole lives to be able to distinguish a particular artist’s style. Unfortunately, sometimes they get it wrong. Those who support the use of this software most likely want extra insurance that the masterpiece they're paying for is exactly what they think it is. I doubt that this software, even in concert with art historians, can ever approach 100% certainty on a work without iron-clad provenance to back it up. Sometimes you just have to have faith. Or maybe you can just appreciate the work without worrying about the hand behind it.

Another problem such a “visual signature” creates is in propagating the misconception of an artist as someone stylistically and technically static. I’m sure the software makers feel that a big enough cross-section of works from an artist’s career comprises a sample sufficiently large to smooth over these variables, but such a smoothing over of the sharp turns in an artist’s artistic development may only create an “approximate Van Gogh” or “averaged Van Gogh” rather than the diverse, living artist. Could you imagine Picasso’s career sampled and averaged into a single representative “Picasso”? Such an approach smells of the corporate world’s love of “branding.” Fortunately, an artist is not a McDonald’s.

An Unholy Marriage

Like any other overgrown adolescent male, I’ve never lost my love for the irreverent and imaginative in cartoons and comic books. Watching the latest generation of cartoons with Alex allows me to catch up with the latest trends in animation without feeling too conspicuous.

Craig Yoe’s Modern Arf: The Unholy Marriage of Art and Comics indulged my jones for comics even further, with the added bonus of an art history angle. Yoe, a professor at Syracuse University, brings a fine arts background to the “kiddie” world of comics and cartoons and keeps one foot firmly in the adult world while resting the other gently in the world of childlike wackiness, most likely on a banana peel.

Yoe documents the influences of artists such as Dali and Picasso on comic artists such as Jack Kirby and Hy Mayer. (One of Kirby’s many amazing comic book panels is above.) Modern Arf even reproduces some comics drawn by Dali and Picasso. Picasso’s cartoon of a buxom model being painted by a monkey at an easel he most likely would have called a doodle (the line between doodle and cartoon being so fine), but Dali’s early comic strips drawn for his sister as well as a beautifully drawn storyboard for a never-filmed Surrealist movie in New York show that Dali could have been one of the greatest comic artists ever. Yoe provides a sample of comic book covers riffing on familiar Dali imagery, including the famous melting clocks of The Persistence of Memory.

The highlight of the book for me is Jack Kirby’s short comic “The Fourth Dimension is a Many-Splattered Thing.” Kirby’s fourth dimension bears a strong resemblance to Surrealist paintings and other modern art movements. In turn, Kirby’s work influenced Pop Art in the 1960s, especially the work of Roy Lichtenstein. By showing the true relationship behind this “unholy marriage,” Craig Yoe makes it respectable to look at comics as art.

Please check out the Arflovers blog for continuing irreverence and edification at the intersection of fine arts and comic artistry.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sight of Frustration

T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death accomplishes a rare feat in art history writing: it both delivers and fails to deliver for both the art history expert and the art history amateur. It frustrates on so many levels by raising hopes on so many. Subtitled “An Experiment in Art Writing,” The Sight of Death, like all good experiments, raises valuable questions, leaves some unanswered, and opens a door for each of us to reproduce his experiment, given the time and opportunity, but, hopefully, with better results.

David Packwood at Art History Today documents the sound and the fury in England surrounding Clark’s book, mainly from the side of an art history professional, including the thoughts of Arthur C. Danto. David’s personal perspective adds even more, coming from the angle of an expert on Nicholas Poussin. I can only add the thoughts of an art history amateur here.

Clark begins with the simple premise of prolonged, repeated exposure to two paintings by Poussin: Landscape With a Calm (above) and Landscape With a Man Killed by a Snake (below). From January 2000 through 2003, Clark returns again and again to these paintings, attempting to capture the effect this exposure has on him in dated journal form, documenting his impressions and art history riffs as well as attempting to engage the works through his poetry. Along the way, Clark allows himself to wax metaphysical on the nature of his experiment, specifically the ethics and politics behind asking works of art to “speak” to his particular situation and time.

From an amateur’s perspective, Clark’s work allowed me to peek over the shoulder of a true art history professional and “see” through his eyes how artificial versus natural light plays a role in how we see a painting, how special planes within a work’s composition can assist the narrative, how the chemistry of varnishes and pigments affects contrasts and coloration over time, and how cleaners and restorers can sometimes do more ill than good. The detailed close-ups throughout the book help point out these tiny aspects, making you appreciate simultaneously Poussin’s talent and Clark’s insight. Clark’s meditation on Poussin’s painterly “economy” in such details held that aspect into a new light for me. “Economy is the guarantor not simply of aesthetic force… but of truth,” Clark writes. “Striking through to the minimum form of a likeness is getting the likeness once and for all.” (page 109)

Unfortunately, Clark himself rarely strikes out for truth of any kind. “Paintings in a sense ought to disappoint us—disappoint our wish to have them be more than they are, to be fully and endlessly discursive (propositional), to be serious in ways we know about,” Clark says (emphasis in the original; page 27). Clark disappoints by shying away from such seriousness of intent. After bemoaning art history’s earlier problem of formalism, i.e., its disengagement from the “real” world of death, taxes, and wars, he finds equal fault with a more engaged approach, which he sees as putting art at “any tawdry ideology’s service” (page 122).

Clark tries to pawn this discomfort off on Poussin, crediting the artist’s own “ambivalence toward semiotics.. the problem of painting, like human activities in general, having to mean something” (page 163), going so far as to accuse Poussin’s paintings of luring us in with their seeming readability “to alert us precisely to their unreadability” (emphasis in the original; page 175). Even as the dates of the journal approach the “payoff” date of September 11, 2001, modern memory’s most infamous sight of death, Clark flees from connecting the paintings and real life events.

“Writing about pictures,” Clark says, “should not flinch from making sense of the mute things it is looking at…, but it should invent ways for this explicitness to be overtaken again by the thing-ness, the muteness, of what it started from” (page 216). I agree that the work should ultimately return to its mute state, to be heard again, but I never get the sense that Clark every truly allows these works to speak. In the end, Clark peers into the face of the man fleeing the murder at the heart of Landscape With a Man Killed by a Snake and sees only “ultimate horror” at the “[a]ffliction and monstrosity” making up “the true face of utopia,” which leaps “out of the insufferable everyday” (page 240).

In such utopian abstractions devoid of the particulars of this day of this life, Clark frustrates his readers and circles back to the same meaninglessness he begins with. As a failed experiment in art writing, Clark’s work serves as a cautionary tale of allowing your aesthetics and personal politics to seize up your emotions. Even at the end, when Clark contemplates his own personal “sight of death” in the memory of his dead mother’s face, Clark’s seeming inability to experience pure, clear, unimpeded emotion saddened me. Clark early on complains that most art writing consists of “writing pictures to death” (page 8). The Sight of Death never allows pictures to live.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Woman of the World

More than just a painter of mothers and children, Mary Cassatt made inroads into the male-dominated world of art as few women had done before her. Cassatt celebrates her 163rd birthday today.

Born in what is today Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1844, Cassatt studied at the PAFA before growing tired of the old boys network there and traveling to Europe. After studying the works of the old masters in her travels to the capitals of Europe, Cassatt studied with Camille Pissarro, who first introduced her to Impressionism. She soon discovered the works of Edgar Degas, who supported Cassatt’s art and greatly influenced her approach to pastels. (Degas’ painting Mary Cassatt at the Louvre is above.) Cassatt may also owe some of her obsessive approach to the subject of mothers and children to Degas’ similar obsession with dancers and the theater.

I’d like, however, to show aspects of Cassatt beyond the great mother-child images. Like many of the Impressionists, Cassatt was influenced by Japanese art in the Japonisme craze of the late 19th century. Cassatt’s Boating Party (seen above) shows this Japanese influence in the cropped figure of the rower at the right. In addition, this work takes the familiar motif of mother and child and adds psychological depth with the almost sinister figure of the rower, whose dark presence in the foreground seems to threaten the other two figures. Such psychological depth helps dismiss characterizations of Cassatt as a “pretty” painter. Cassatt’s wide-ranging interests, including women’s suffrage in the United States and late-in-life travels to exotic Egypt, testify to her seriousness as an artist as well.

After seeing last year Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit Americans in Paris: 1860-1900, I had even greater respect for her as an artist. Viewing the brushstrokes up close and then stepping back to put it all back into focus, the designs on the blue chairs are nothing short of amazing. Even the composition that goes into the dog at left cannot be done justice in reproduction. The pose of the little girl, with its almost eroticized undertones, raises this work beyond the deceivingly comfortable sphere of her mother and child works.

Like John Singer Sargent, Cassatt is an American who always seems more European than anything else. Fortunately, they both belong to the whole world today.

Painting Music

A new release by An Die Musik quartet titled The Painter’s Music/The Musician’s Art features artwork by modern artists Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney, Robert Motherwell, and Kenneth Noland. Each artist also responds to questions about what kind of music they like and dislike. Standard classical chamber works by Beethoven, Mozart, Shubert, and Schumann appear on the CD. (Helen Frankenthaler’s Nature Abhors a Vacuum is above.)

The relationship between music and visual art interests me almost as much, but in a different way than the relationship between literature (especially poetry) and visual art. I almost find the music-painting link more interesting simply because of the nonverbal nature of the interplay. As Frank Zappa has been credited with saying, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” You just can’t put either into words in a completely satisfying way. If you could, they would cease to be an image or music. It’s this shared ineffable aspect of music and art that brings the two so close in my mind.

One of the more interesting musicians who painted is jazz great Miles Davis. (One of his original works is above.) Davis’ mind explored so many aspects of music and African-American culture that it was inevitable that he would delve into the visual arts with an Afrocentric flair, yet he brings a modernist, abstract touch to it absorbed through his contact with the abstract art movements that dominated American culture in the 1950s and 60s. I’m not arguing that Davis’ work is museum quality, but I find it interesting as an example of this interplay of music and art.

I couldn’t imagine living without both!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Wandering Genius

Albrecht Durer, the founding father of German art, entered the world on May 21, 1471. The image above of Durer, the Self Portrait in Fur Coat of 1500, shows the artist at 28 years of age. This image became an icon for those who wished to become an artist, German and otherwise. When artists such as Gustav Klimt would don robes to play the role of an artist, they were really trying to be Durer.

For me, Durer has always remained one of those love at first sight artists, along with Michelangelo, Eakins, and Dali. The immediacy of his work is inescapable. What makes that immediacy even more amazing is the ability to continue to go back to these works and find even greater and greater depth, something true of most great art. As a melancholy teen, I remember seeing Durer’s 1514 engraving Melencolia I (above) and identifying with the fantastic representation of such real emotion. Going back to it years later, I learned more about the magic square, rhombohedron, and other mathematical tricks plucked from Durer’s vast knowledge of math and geometry. I don’t claim to fully understand them (I was an English major), but I can still stand in awe of the range of Durer’s knowledge coupled with his talent to express it. Such unions of math and art became rarer and rarer after the Renaissance, with the exception of artists such as Eakins, whose main mathematical concerns regarded perspective.

Another iconic image of Durer’s that always spoke to me is his Saint Jerome in His Study (above) . St. Jerome is the Catholic patron saint of scholars, students, and librarians. As a Irish Catholic with pretensions to scholarship, many a time I’ve asked for his intercession over a troubling text. St. Jerome’s furrowed brow always encouraged my studies with the thought that even saints sometimes got stuck.

Durer’s work teems with life and imagination. There is always a sense of something coming over the brim, flowing beyond all control, like his rock star hair in his self portrait. In the days of Durer’s youth, it was a custom in Germany to take a year off and wander (the wanderjahre) after finishing your apprenticeship to travel, see the world, and find yourself. Durer went walking and kept walking for an extra three years! Durer left some autobiographical writings about his travels, but the real testament to those travels and their ultimate outcome—the potential he found in himself and how to express it fully—can be found in his art.

Facing the Stars

We will bring you brushes paints and canvas
That you may spend your sacred leisure in the
light of truth Painting
as you once did my portrait
Facing the stars

From the epitaph on Henri Rousseau’s grave by his friend, poet Guillaume Apollinaire

Henri Rousseau, French Post-Impressionist famous for his primitive style, was born on May 21, 1844. Although he only began painting in his 40s, he dedicated his life to art after his retirement at 49 from his job as a tax collector. Almost entirely self-taught, Rousseau painted in a style entirely his own, “facing the stars” and following them according to his own blissful whim.

Aside from some advice from Jean-Leon Gerome, Rousseau’s art education was entirely self-inflicted. One of the downsides of this lacking is the sad condition of much of his work today due to his poor technique and choice of student-grade paints. However, the benefit of his fresh outlook and child-like wonder, such as in the Carnival Evening above, more than make up for any technical difficulties. I’ve seen Carnival Evening at the PMA many times and like to think of Rousseau himself as one of the figures dwarfed by the scenery, looking up and facing the stars.

The Sleeping Gypsy (above) , perhaps Rousseau’s most famous painting, comes to life in an episode of the children’s show Between the Lions (one of Alex’s favorites) in a story about how stories are constructed. Rousseau used jungles and exotic animals and figures to construct stories far beyond the everyday life of a Parisian tax collector.

A select few artists, such as Picasso and Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk Delaunay, recognized Rousseau’s greatness early on, but it took many years for him to receive wider acceptance. Apollinaire’s epitaph for Rousseau begins “We salute you, Gentle Rousseau.” In the often violent world of modern art, Rousseau offers a gentler, more playful alternative.

Study in Contradictions

When asked why he does what he does by Lauren Collins in her profile in the May 14, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, British radical graffiti superstar Banksy replies, “I originally set out to try and save the world, but now I’m not sure I like it enough.” It’s such contractions like this one—a famous artist making public art expressing his distaste for that same world—that add up to the (in)famous persona that is Banksy.

Banksy is an anonymous artist with a press agent, a maker of high-priced art who paints a work titled “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this sh*t” after a big sale, and a politically active artist who ridicules politics. Some critics view Banksy as a second coming of Salvador Dali in his worst “Avida Dollars” period, stressing the “bank” in “Banksy.” Other critics swoon over his radical injection of new life into a moribund art world. As Banksy says, “The art world is the biggest joke going. It’s a rest home for the overprivileged, the pretentious, and the weak.” However, Banksy desperately wants to be part of that “biggest joke going,” all the time, as Collins puts it, “flipping off the art world and begging it to notice him at the same time.”

Banksy’s home page (one of the best artist’s sites I’ve seen) catalogues all his famous adventures. Political art, especially anti-war imagery, such as the two soldiers painting a peace sign above, has the most wide appeal. When he visited the West Bank to see the massive security fence between Israelis and Palestinians, he painted tromp-l’oeil “holes” in the fence showing a tropical paradise on the other side. He even snuck into Disneyland and placed a figure (image above; film at Banksy’s site) resembling a hooded, shackled, jumpsuit-clad prisoner from the United States’ Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. As Banksy points out on his site, Mao Zedong’s first political action was an act of graffiti, so don’t underestimate the power of “street” art to make a difference. Whereas Dali’s works presented the grotesque madness of war in stunning detail, Banksy’s work shows war’s absurdist side as part of the greater absurdities of modern civilization.

Also like Dali, Banksy takes shots at figures in art history, such as the reimagined Monet above with overturned supermarket carts floating amidst the water lilies. Banksy’s site offers a film of him inserting one of his reworked paintings onto a gallery wall, something he’s done at both the Louvre and the Tate Britain.

Love him or hate him, you cannot deny Banksy’s popular appeal. “Like most people, I have a fantasy that all the little powerless losers will gang up together,” Banksy has said, giving voice to the voiceless, whether they are anonymous struggling artists or the victims struggling under imperial might.

Burden of Cruelty

Peter Schjeldahl profiles performance artist Chris Burden and his “theater of passive-aggressive cruelty” in the May 14, 2007 issue of The New Yorker. Schjeldahl writes about some of Burden’s more current, non-performance work, but it was Burden’s earlier outrageous and outright dangerous performance art that grabbed my attention.

In 1971, in a piece titled simply Shoot, Burden had one assistant shoot him in the arm with a rifle while the other assistant photographed the act. I believe that the image above is from the exact moment of the shooting, just judging from the blurry jolt resulting from the sound of the gunshot. Schjeldahl sees such violent acts as all part of the “subculture” in which Burden was the “the most extreme and enigmatic of provocateurs” reflecting “the political disarray of the nation during the seemingly eternal Vietnam War.”

Another of Burden’s violent performance pieces, titled Trans-Fixed, featured Burden nailed by his hands to the roof of a Volkswagon (above), his arms spread in an imitation of the crucifixion. David Bowie, an aficionado of modern art, alluded to this performance piece in his song Joe the Lion in the line: "Tell you who you are if you nail me to my car."

Much of Burden’s work tells us who we are through our response to cruelty. The most interesting of Burden’s pieces decribed by Schjeldahl, titled Doomed, had Burden set up a clock on a wall and then lay on a floor beneath a leaning sheet of glass. After Burden had remained unmoving in that position for over 45 hours, a gallery worker placed a glass of water within Burden’s reach. With that act of kindness, Burden stood up and smashed the clock with a hammer. Doomed speaks volumes about modern humanity’s ease with viewing suffering and simultaneous difficulty with acting in some way to stop it. In a great piece of art writing, Schjeldahl says, “I have in mind Robert Rauschenberg’s famous intention ‘to act in the gap between’ art and life. There isn’t any gap. Art is notional. There is always only life and death.”

In a way, I’m sad that Burden’s moved on from his theater of cruelty for the loss of such artistic intensity and power. But, in another way, I understand how he’s moved on from that personally and artistically. Enduring such pain can’t be easy. It’s easier to believe in suffering for art or any other ideal when someone else does the suffering. Burden’s best work bridged the gap between art and life and life and death. Unfortunately, those gaps seem much too wide today.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Real Mona?

Facts about the young woman sitting in Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece the Mona Lisa (above) have been few and far between in the five centuries separating when the painting was made and today. Giuseppe Pallanti, in his book Mona Lisa’s Story, believes that he has found documentary proof of her life. Not only that, but he believes that he has also pinpointed her birthplace and final resting place. (Via Artcyclopedia.)

Lisa Gherardini was born into poverty in Florence, Italy on June 15, 1479. She married Francesco Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant, in 1494 and the couple had five children. The Mona Lisa’s “other” name, La Gioconda, comes from Franceso’s last name. da Vinci began painting Lisa in 1503, perhaps to commemorate her second pregnancy, and didn’t finish until 1506. Francesco died in 1538, after which Lisa went to live with her daughter Marietta, a nun, in the convent of Sant’Orsola. Lisa died in 1542 and was buried in Sant’Orsola.
Pallanti used tax records and other peripheral documents to trace Lisa’s path through 15th and 16th century Florence. A simple wife and mother, Lisa left no personal writings. The simplicity of her life compounded the elusiveness of her story. Amazingly, her birthplace on the Via Sguazza near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence still stands, abandoned for years. I only wonder how long before it becomes a tourist attraction for da Vinci lovers and da Vinci Code fanatics.

Alas, the art lovers, movie fanatics, and conspiracy theorists may find themselves closer physically to Lisa, but they remain as distant as Walter Pater when he famously described “Lady Lisa”:

She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.
Pallanti may have learned some of the secrets of Lisa’s grave, but the personality behind the smile captured by da Vinci’s hand remains “a diver in deep seas” unfathomable by us all. Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo’s smile speaks for all the silent voices unheard throughout the ages.

Playing in the Dark

I made a field trip to Larry Becker Contemporary Art Gallery in Olde City Philadelphia last week to see the all-black paintings of Quentin Morris. These paintings need to be seen in person to be experienced, like any true single-color abstractions. (A view from the exhibit is above.)

Morris uses black gesso and acrylic on round pieces of canvas to create interesting textures and feels. The roughly cut edges of the circular pieces of canvas just add to the experience. You wish that you could just reach out and touch each of these pieces. The physicality of the works warms up any potentially chill from the intellectual concept of single-color abstraction. I recently saw a news piece about how Starbucks uses round tables because they seem psychologically “less lonely” than square tables when people sit alone at them. I felt something similar about Morris’ circular canvases. There’s an inclusiveness that makes them seem welcoming. Even the soft ragged edges avoid a sharp demarcation between the viewer and the viewed.

Looking at these paintings, I recalled Toni Morrison’s book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, essentially an extended meditation on what it is to be an African-American in a culture that denies its African-American borrowings. Just as Elvis Presley played the music of black bluesmen, Huckleberry Finn spoke a Southern black dialect, and Bill Clinton was our “first Black President” (a phrase Morrison coined), much of mainstream “white” culture has deep “black” roots. It is this same underlying texture that I felt Morris’ paintings brought to the surface, without rancor or separatism but with joy and inclusiveness.

Quentin Morris’ black paintings also made me think of Herman Melville’s use of whiteness in Moby-Dick. Just as Melville took the whiteness of the whale to mean almost everything in the universe, from the pall of death to the essence of purity, Morris makes a universe of blackness by evoking every negative, evil meaning, and turning them around to discover a beauty and a power in the African-American experience and how that experience shapes us all.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Curator for a Day

The PMA’s membership discussion board posed the following irresistible question a little while back:

If you could curate one exhibition in your life what would it be? Any artist(s), any subject, any location (hopefully it would be the PMA), any amount of money!

Inside every art lover yearns a curator longing to be free, and I’m no exception. All those lovely “anys” went straight to my heart, leaving my head slightly behind. I finally got my brain to catch up and posted the following response:

If I were Art King of the World, here’s my show of shows:

Transatlanticism: Romanticism Across the Waters

Transatlanticism investigates the interplay of Romantic art between America and Europe from the early 19th century to the present day. Featuring the greatest Romantic artists of all time, all facets of Romanticism are explored, including:

*The Terrible and the Sublime: Taking Edmund Burke’s dual characterization of Romanticism as part terrible, i.e., exploring our deepest psychological fears and secrets, and part sublime, especially in views of the Romantic landscape, as a point of departure, this section splits up into two rooms. The first room showcases the grand European landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich in all their lonely grandeur as well as the beautiful British nature scenes of J.M.W. Turner and John Constable. The sublime American landscapes of Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and other members of The Hudson River School accompany and respond to their European cousins. Works by William Blake and Henry Fuseli demonstrate the terrible side of the Romantic equation from a European perspective, while Albert Pinkham Ryder’s dark, mysterious works match them from an American view. Jackson Pollock’s modern drip paintings and early Freudian-inspired works present a modern psychological perspective to this Romantic exploration of the psyche. {Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog appears above.}

*Neo-Classicism: Cole’s The Course of Empire series illustrates the American fascination with, in Lord Byron’s words, “the grandeur that was Greece, and the glory that was Rome.” Turner’s watercolors of the ruins of Italy present the European fascination with ancient days of Rome as The Elgin Marbles lining the hallway to this room testify to the continued awe of Grecian art and society.

*Cult of Personality: Works of Jacques-Louis David from the French Revolution, including his famous Oath of the Horatii, Death of Socrates, and portrait of Napoleon, represent Romantic attempts at the cult of personality through propaganda that mirror the heroic representations of American figures such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, including Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. Even earlier works, such as the Ditchley portrait of Queen Elizabeth I standing triumphant on a map of the world, harken to such modern images of consolidation of power as Leni Riefenstahl’s films for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime and George W. Bush’s stage-managed aircraft landing and “Mission Accomplished” speech. Robert Rauschenberg’s Retroactive, featuring an image of President John F. Kennedy, and photographs of Lady Diana Spencer provide other modern examples.

*Freedom: Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People leads the way into this section showing the people-powered movements of the 19th century that have inspired all progressive movements since. American individualism rising from this tide of freedom finds expression in Thomas EakinsThe Gross Clinic and other portraits celebrating achievement in science. Vincent Van Gogh’s uncommon depictions of common people such as farmers and sowers add an Impressionist and Post-Impressionist perspective.

The exhibit catalog features essays tracing the philosophical roots of Romanticism from German philosophers such as Immanuel Kant to the English Romantic Poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge to the American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as well as other topics of interchange and influence.

Just write me a blank check and get out of my way and I’ll have it ready for you in no time. I already have an idea for the gift shop: Death Cab for Cutie’s 2003 album titled, of course, Transatlanticism . I’m also working on an Elgin Marbles paperweight, so you can take it home with you—just like Lord Elgin!

--Bob (

Designed to Please

The Clark Gibson exhibit running now at the Bridgette Mayer Gallery in Olde City Philadelphia until May 26th rang a lot of art history bells for me when I stopped by. The apparent simplicity of Gibson’s approach belies a greater complexity within. Gibson’s City of Gold, my favorite from the exhibit, appears above.

“What would our surroundings look like, however, if we allowed the multitude of components in any given object to take visual predominance over the whole image?” Gibson asks in his artist’s statement on the Bridgette Mayer Gallery site. Once I saw the phrase “multitude of components,” I thought Cubism immediately. But instead of presenting different facets of three dimensions across two dimensions, subtracting a dimension, Gibson presents cross-section slices of design on top of each other, adding a fourth dimension of time to the image; hence, the show’s title “Time Frame.” The neutral colors of Picasso/Braque-style Cubism also give way to vibrant color schemes. This bold color palette generates a different vibratory rhythm, almost a Mondrian-like interplay of lines. (Some of the boxes formed by the intersecting lines echoed Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie for me.) Gibson adds yet another rhythm to the composition with his rounded brushstrokes on the solid planes of color. These brushstrokes catch and reshape light in a way that reproductions can’t duplicate. (In fact, the postcard from the show featuring Gibson’s Honeydew tries to duplicate this light effect, but it looks more like a printing error than the real thing.)

Gibson’s design background emerges clearly in the lattice-like design of the paintings, which each have four to six layers of paint piled on top of each other. I was drawn to City of Gold because it has not only this firm design grid, but also because Gibson added little flourishes of red within the design. These flourishes and the lattice effect made me think of Jackson Pollock’s work, specifically his Blue Poles (below).

Pollock’s Blue Poles inverts Gibson’s scheme in that the flourishes dominate over the design. However, the design is still unmistakably there in the eight near-vertical lines running from left to right. Gibson’s concentration on composition and design recovers this aspect of abstract art lost in the popular misconception of “Jack the Dripper” and other abstract artists. As I said before, Gibson’s paintings rang several art history bells for me, which is a good thing. The rhythm he creates shares riffs with some old masters, but in the end, the song is all his own.