Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Gentle Art of Making Enemies

James McNeill Whistler rose like a rocket on the art scene in the Victorian Age and plummeted almost as quickly due to his incendiary personality. Whistler, who was born on July 14, 1834, drew the ire of art critic John Ruskin with his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (above), which Ruskin called a fraud and a “flinging [of] a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Few artists have captured the fleeting effects of fireworks as well as Whistler, the painter of the ephemeral, the fleeting, and the delicate—he even signed many of his paintings with a stylized butterfly of his own design, his personal emblem.

Whistler’s momentary effects captured in paint aspired to the condition of music. Many of his titles borrow musical terms to relate his subtle effects, such as his Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket and Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (above). As the symphonist turns a theme over and over, examining it from ever angle and documenting every nuance, Whistler delves into the color white and turns it inside out in search of the essence of whiteness. (When I saw this painting in person, I was stunned by the beautiful subtlety, as well as by the bravura animal head of the rug, baring its fangs at the woman’s feet.) Only John Singer Sargent, who was influenced by Whistler, “knows” white as intimately. Whistler knew the model in the painting, Joanna Hiffernan, intimately, too. Unfortunately, Gustave Courbet may have used her as the model for his The Origin of the World (no direct link; I have a G rating to protect), perhaps the most “intimate” nude ever, which led to a falling out between Whistler and Courbet.

Whistler titled his 1890 memoir The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. He wasn’t kidding. Whistler created a vibrant persona to match his vibrant art. In Europe, he affected the manners of a Southern gentleman down on his luck. In America, he assumed the guise of a cosmopolitan European—a dandy always ready with a cutting quip. (See Randall C. Griffin’s Homer, Eakins, and Anschutz: The Search for American Identity in the Gilded Age for a great discussion of Whistler’s persona in context.) Despite being born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Whistler claimed during the libel trial with Ruskin over Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket that he was born in Russia. “I shall be born when and where I want,” Whistler declared, “and I do not choose to be born in Lowell.” Whistler’s strident forging of personality often conflicted with many who once were friends. Oscar Wilde, Whistler’s fellow dandy and quipster, saw his friendship with Whistler end when Wilde declared his homosexuality publicly in 1895. Whistler sued Walter Sickert, a former follower. But the greatest conflict came with Ruskin, whom Whistler took to trial in 1878. Whistler won, but only a token settlement of a single farthing. Whistler remains a strange contradictory figure: a painter of beauty and gentle subtlety who could inspire the deepest personal animosity.

[This belated birthday to Whistler is brought to you courtesy of the technical difficulties I experienced a while back.]

Works of Charity

“There is only one master here—Corot,” Claude Monet once said. “We are nothing compared to him, nothing.” Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was born on July 16, 1796 and for the next 78 years of his life made the world more beautiful through his paintings and through the profound generosity of his spirit. A member of the French Barbizon School of landscape painting in the first half of the 19th century, Corot spent the second half of the 19th century helping usher in the Impressionist generation. Works such as his The Bridge at Narni (above) from 1826 attest to his earlier Barbizon style, a softened but still realistic depiction of nature that still looked back to the influences of his youth—Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin.

Souvenir de Mortefontaine (above), painted nearly 40 years after The Bridge at Narni, shows the evolution of Corot’s style. Corot softens nature even more, paying greater attention to the effects of light, thanks in large part to his adoption of the en plein air painting style. Monet and the other Impressionists saw Corot as a father figure during the early days of their artistic revolution. Despite being 68 years old when Souvenir de Mortefontaine was painted, Corot maintained a clear eye and a sharp wit to go along with the generosity he showed to the younger generation of artists. Corot’s generosity was legendary in his time. In 1872, Corot donated what would be thousands of dollars today from the sales of his paintings to help the poor of Paris suffering the effects of the Franco-Prussian War. When Corot’s fellow artist Honore Daumier found himself homeless after blindness left him unable to paint, Corot bought him a home. Corot also favored a home for children in Paris with his loving support.

Whereas Corot’s landscapes influenced Monet and other Impressionist landscapists, Corot’s portraits took hold of the imagination of later artists such as Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso. Corot brings the same softness, color, and light to his figures as his landscapes, which inspired Degas in his depiction of the figure as well as Picasso in his more classical periods. Woman Reading is from 1869, when Corot was 73 years old, yet he depicts her as lovingly as a young suitor. Perhaps it was his many acts of charity that made his heart forever young.

[This belated birthday to Corot is brought to you courtesy of the technical difficulties I experienced a while back.]

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Rest He So Much Longed For

After shooting himself in the chest on July 27, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh lingered for two days and finally died on July 29th, his beloved brother Theo at his side. Theo buried Vincent the next day, July 30th. Vincent’s grave appears above.

On August 1st, Theo wrote to their mother:

One cannot write how sad one is, nor find solace in pouring out one's heart. May I come to you soon? I still have to make all sorts of arrangements here, but if it is possible, I would like to leave here on Sunday morning to be with you in the evening. It is a grief that will weigh on me for a long time and will certainly not leave my thoughts as long as I live, but if one should want to say anything about it, it is that he himself has found the rest he so much longed for. If he could have seen how people behaved toward me when he had left us and the sympathy of so many for himself, he would at this moment not have wanted to die. Today I received your letter and the one from Wil [Vincent and Theo’s sister], and I thank you both. I can better tell you everything than write. Dr. Gachet and the other doctor were exemplary and have looked after him well, but they realized from the first moment that there was nothing one could do. Vincent said "I would like to go like this," and half an hour later he had his wish. Life weighed so heavily upon him, but as happens so often everyone is now full of praise, also for his talent. Maybe it was fortunate that Jo [Theo’s wife] was not here, it would have been such a shock for her. May she also come once I am there? Later we will go to Amsterdam for a couple of days. Oh, Mother, I so much long to be with you. I suppose you will have written to Lies [a cousin of Vincent and Theo]. I can't do it at this time. Tomorrow I will only know for certain whether I can leave, and if I cannot come, I will let you know. Oh, Mother, he was so very much my own brother.

After Vincent’s death, Theo redoubled his efforts to get Vincent’s works exhibited. Finally, in September 1890, with the help of Vincent’s friend and fellow painter, Emile Bernard, the first, albeit small exhibit of Van Gogh’s work was staged. Theo’s health and mental state soon degenerated. He died in January 1891, just 6 months after his brother. Vincent’s works, which had been passed on to Theo, then passed on to Theo’s son, Vincent, named in his uncle’s honor. Theo’s wife, Jo, took on the task of furthering her husband and brother-in-law’s artistic vision. Jo is greatly responsible for the many exhibits of Van Gogh’s work in Germany, which sparked the mania for his work that continues today. Theo’s remains, which were originally buried in The Netherlands, were disinterred in 1914 and moved next to his beloved brother’s. Today they rest side by side, as close in death as they were in life.


“I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists,” Marcel Duchamp once said. Duchamp, born on July 28, 1887, defies categorization, working on the margins of Dada and Surrealism yet always an art movement unto himself, placing himself as artist over any preconceived notion of “art.” With readymade art works such as Fountain (above), a repurposed urinal, Duchamp blurred the lines between the everyday and the artistic, all with a grand style of playfulness that tweaked the nose of the art establishment and drew an irreverent mustache on the Mona Lisa (which he actually did and titled Reproduction of L.H.O.O.Q.).

I never fail to be amazed at just how lucky the PMA is to have such an amazing collection of works by Duchamp. The centerpiece remains The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (above), also known as The Large Glass. Duchamp simultaneously invites and defies interpretation with the suggestive title and seemingly decipherable figures placed on the glass. Perhaps my favorite touch to The Large Glass is the spider web of cracks in the glass itself caused by an accident during shipping. Characteristically, Duchamp embraced this accident as just another aspect of art. Duchamp breathes fresh air into the stuffy galleries of museums. His readymades such as Fountain, Bottle Rack, Bicycle Wheel, and “In Advance of a Broken Arm” (a snow shovel; just add ice) elicit responses of “That’s not art!” but also ask “Why not?”

In the 1940s, Duchamp claimed that he was giving up art entirely to pursue his other consuming passion—chess. “I am still a victim of chess,” Duchamp said. "It has all the beauty of art—and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.” Duchamp always sought this purity in art—a playfulness fraught with intellectual challenges infinitely generating new conceptions, new solution, and new problems. Duchamp’s Cubist Portrait of Chess Players (above) shows his amazing painting technique, most famous in Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, proving he was more than just a guy labeling urinals and defacing Old Master paintings. Of course, Duchamp never truly gave up art. For 20 years he worked on Etant donnes, an installation piece not shown until 1969, after Duchamp’s death, consisting of a door with a peep hole showing a nude woman with a lamp inside. Even giving up art for a game was part of Duchamp’s game.

“The individual, man as a man, man as a brain, if you like, interests me more than what he makes,” Duchamp once said, “because I’ve noticed that most artists only repeat himself.” Whatever else you say about Duchamp, you can’t say that he repeated himself. Art became a beautiful game in his hands, the components of which could be moved around a board like pawns towards a greater goal. Perhaps Duchamp’s greatest work of art was the life he lived of never-ending playfulness, intense intellectuality, and uncompromised artistic integrity.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Sadness Will Last Forever

I usually don’t commemorate anniversaries of deaths here, but I’ll make an exception for an exceptional painter. On this date in 1890, just days after painting Wheatfield With Crows (above), Vincent Van Gogh goes walking in that same field, steps behind a haystack, and shoots himself in the chest. Amazingly, Van Gogh struggles back to his room at a nearby inn, telling no one of what he had done. When the innkeeper finally discovers Van Gogh’s condition, he calls for Dr. Gachet, Vincent’s physician and friend. (Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet is below.) Gachet realizes the severity of Van Gogh’s condition and sends word to Vincent’s brother, Theo. Theo arrives the next afternoon at Vincent’s bedside. “The sadness will last forever,” Vincent tells his brother as death approaches. Vincent dies at 1:30 am on July 29, 1890. The Catholic church at Auvers refuses to bury Vincent because he has committed suicide (the standard practice at the time), so they move him to nearby Mery, where he is buried on July 30th.

In retrospect, we can see the desperation and agitation of Van Gogh’s mind in his Wheatfield With Crows. As Simon Schama remarks during the Van Gogh chapter of The Power of Art, we don’t know if the crows, black as death against the throbbing blue sky and golden wheat swaying in the wind, are coming or going, attacking or leaving. Is this Van Gogh foreshadowing his own death in the approaching crows or overoptimistically trying to drive the self-destructive impulses away? Similarly, in retrospect, we read in the portrait of Dr. Gachet the sadness and, perhaps, frustration he felt over Van Gogh’s demise. Despite his best efforts and those of Theo, Van Gogh couldn’t evade his destiny. I remember reading years ago the poet A. Alvarez’s book on suicide titled The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, where he wrote that “[s]uicide has permeated Western culture like a dye that cannot be washed out… One of the most remarkable features of the arts in this century has been the sudden, sharp rise in the casualty-rate among the artists.” Alvarez knew the tragic arc of suicide quite well, having witnessed the final days of the poet Sylvia Plath, whose poems haunt us in the same way that Van Gogh’s paintings do. Van Gogh’s story should seem well-worn now, after so much retelling, but his life, letters, and works continue to fascinate us. To use Alvarez’s phrase, Van Gogh’s paintings are “a dye that cannot be washed out.” And to use Vincent’s own words, his story, with its resonance for us even today, is a sadness lasting forever.

Barely Possible

“The nude is a paradigm of what the ‘West’ consists of in cultural terms,” Francois Jullien writes in his The Impossible Nude: Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics, “and brings to light the stances that originally underpinned our philosophy.” Conversely, in Chinese culture, “everything about the tradition suggests that the nude is simply an impossibility.“ By contrasting the depiction of the nude (or lack of) in these two cultures, Jullien gets at the root of the philosophical foundations of the nude in art.

Jullien sets the stage in Part 1 of his book, “A History of Being: For an ontology of the photographic nude.” A collection of photographs by Ralph Gibson originally spurred Jullien, a philosopher and a sinologist, to explore this issue. Looking through those photographs, Jullien realized that the nudes stood out and apart from the other images. He realized that, whereas “we can imagine a beyond to everything, … after the nude there is nothing more… It is the end, the very point of contact.” Jullien sees the nude as unchangeable and “invariable”—pure “essence.” There can be “variations,” Jullien agrees (such as Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase [above]) , but no true “innovation” that can alter its “coherence and its autonomy.” Although it takes Jullien a while, he finally evokes the name of Plato as the father of this concept of “essence.”

Plato and the Ancient Greeks, Jullien writes, saw beauty as “stand[ing] out most among the visible: its power is to cause being to appear and bring it most clearly to our sight.” This beauty is the “vocation” of the nude, the aspect that allows it to stand out as something irreducible to anything else. The nude “consecrates” the Greek idea of form, which created the concept of “essence (the eidos).” For Jullien, the nude is the form “par excellence.”

In contrast, Chinese culture lacks any sense of Greek philosophy’s “form” or “essence.” Instead, all is process. Jullien points out that “classical Chinese has no verb ‘to be’”, a clear sign that they consider reality “not from the viewpoint of being but from that of processes (dao).” Western culture takes for granted that their sense of being is universally accepted. Jullien shows that this misconception can be traced in the attitudes surrounding the nude. By doing so, Jullien strongly argues the case that cultural and artistic attributes are not absolutes but rather choices. The West chooses to see reality as forms, with the nude the primary form of our reality (i.e., the bare reality we see each day). Chinese culture chooses to see the human form as just another manifestation of the energy (qi) flowing throughout all reality, giving priority to neither the individual human form or any other form of physical reality.

Because of this process-based viewpoint, Jullien says, “Chinese aesthetics demand that there should always be a ‘beyond’: a ‘beyond’ to words, to shape, to the taste of things… The nude, on the contrary, abruptly severs all possibility of a ‘beyond.’” The “dead end “ of the nude makes it an impossible concept for Chinese aesthetics. Like a shark, Chinese painting must constantly move, unlike the formally posed, immobile nude of the West. In landscape painting, Chinese artists created this sense of movement by showing scenes of transition, such as mountains coming through clouds (above) or other atmospheric effects caught at the midpoint.

In Part 2, “The Impossible Nude,” Jullien fleshes out his argument with examples from Chinese art and Chinese treatises on painting from the literari period. As a contrast, Jullien presents the art and treatises on art of Leonardo da Vinci as typical of the measuring, scientific, morphological, anatomical approach of the West. Whereas Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man shows man with clinical intensity, the Chinese saw man as just another part of an integrated landscape, nothing exceptional at all except in the sense that everything is equally exceptional. In Chinese art, Jullien writes, “the (clothed) human figure should ‘respond’ to the landscape and be in complicity with it, the scenery responding in turn… [L]ike the human body, the entire landscape vibrates with flowing breaths that pervade it.”

Jullien stresses that these anti-nude attitudes originated during the literati period in Chinese thought, but that they still linger today, citing the discomfort of modern Chinese art historians and curators with the idea of the nude that goes beyond issues of morality or the status of women. Even today, there is a language barrier between East and West in the translation of art texts. When Chinese art critics praise the “spirit” coming through an artist’s work, invariably Western translators, blinded by the Western concept of “the beautiful,” mistranslate “spirit” as “beauty,” replacing infinite process with the finite concept of beauty and losing the subtle difference between the two cultures.

Jullien’s work casts the Western concept of the nude in a whole new light against the example of Chinese art. He admirably achieves his goal of making us reevaluate Western concepts against those of the East, proving that the Platonism that pervades our aesthetics today is a choice and not a universal absolute. Oddly enough, to do this, he simplifies both cultures to an unsettling degree at times. “Can one speak of Chinese ‘tradition’ in such global terms, though?” Jullien asks at one point, answering “yes” for the purposes of his argument. Craig Clunas, fellow expert in Chinese art, might beg to differ with the usefulness of that simplification, but Jullien at least acknowledges this problem. I wish that Jullien could have found some room to discuss the case of Pan Yuliang, the woman artist who tried to bring the Western style nude to China in the 20th century and failed. (One of her nudes is above.) Jullien may have just lumped her in with the rest of the other Western-influenced nudes that he sees as “implant[s] … that could not be absorbed.” The intersection of Pan Yuliang’s roles as artist and woman in Chinese culture could have offered a fascinating case study to extend his argument.

Another interesting direction Jullien’s thesis could be taken in is in regards to the landscape. If the philosophical differences between the West and East make the nude “impossible” in the East, is it equally true that the Chinese concept of a landscape in which the human and nature are integrated is impossible in the West? I tried to think of a Western landscape that even came close to this integration and could only come up with Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits (above), but that may be due more to associations raised by the figures in the painting, Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant, than to any actual Chinese “spirit” in the painting. Perhaps, as Jullien says, landscapes in the West are merely “a decorative background against which the nude [or clothed figure] stands out.” Coming to such a realization of our culture’s alienation from nature seems terribly sad.

Maev de la Guardia does a masterful job of making Jullien’s philosophical concepts understandable, even when he rounds up the usual suspects of heavy footed ontology: Aristotle, Plotinus, Descartes, Saint Augustine, and Martin Heidegger, among others. Although the ostensible subject of this work is the how the aesthetics of the West and China differ, the glory of this book is how much these differing systems have to say about one another.

[Many thanks to the University of Chicago Press for providing me with a review copy of this book.]

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Agitator

Patriotism comes in many forms. If pointing out your country’s failures and weaknesses is patriotism, than George Grosz, born on this date in 1893, may have been Germany’s greatest 20th century patriot. Along with Otto Dix, Grosz promoted the Neue Sachlichkeit or “New Objectivity” movement in German art to show the Weimar Republic of the 1920s its true face and to warn of the dangers of listening to political demagogues. The Agitator (above), from 1928, prophesizes the coming influence of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist, aka Nazi, movement. Grosz views Germany with an “objective” eye (objectivity being in the eye of the beholder, of course) jaundiced by his satiric approach to the decadence and cruelty he sees around him. Paradoxically, Grosz sees disfigurement and surrealism as the only means by which an objectively true view of a twisted society can be portrayed.

Grosz volunteered to fight in World War I, believing that it was a noble cause. Discharged in 1915 due to illness, Grosz took his wartime experiences to heart and developed a hatred for the excesses of German society that led to the lust for conflict. His Suicide (above), painted in 1916, symbolizes not only the death of a generation of German youth, embodied by the fallen young man, but also the death of German culture, embodied by the grotesque prostitute and the disfigured old man by her side.

As in Suicide, Grosz floods the backdrop of Metropolis (above), painted in 1917, with crimson, as if the blood of the dead rained from the skies. Grosz paints all of Weimar Germany as a “red light district” of disillusion and ill-repute—Berlin as Sodom and Gomorrah. Some of Grosz’s dystopian vision of his native Germany may stem from his romanticized picture of America, thanks to the pioneering novels of James Fennimore Cooper and the Western fictions of Bret Harte and German author Karl May, who peopled his novels with fantastic characters of a heroic American West and became the most successful and popular German novelist of his time, read devotedly by even Hitler himself.

Grosz packed up his righteous indignation and fled Nazi Germany in 1932 for the shores of America, where he became a United States citizen in 1938. Grosz’ Cain, or Hitler in Hell (above) from 1944 places the dictator in the devil’s den, surrounded by the skeletal dead at his feet and clearly feeling the infernal, eternal heat. Despite the gruesome nature of his works, Grosz always sided with the angels, focusing his aim squarely on hypocrisy and evil and hoping to make the world more beautiful through the ugliness of his art.

Spanish Caravan

Ignacio Zuloaga y Zabaleta, born on this date in 1870, joined the old world of the Old Spanish Masters, such as Velazquez, Goya, and El Greco, and the new world of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism to create his own unique style. Despite pulling this long caravan of influences behind him, Zuloaga never lost his individuality in his painting. His Self-Portrait from 1931 (above) pays homage to the clarity of Velazquez yet filters that influence through the modernist vision of Manet, himself a lover of Velazquez. By straddling these two different worlds, Zuloaga infused Spanish painting with new life.

Gregor the Dwarf (above) shows Zuloaga’s debt to Goya, who depicted the grotesque as well as the beautiful. Zuloaga paints the misshapen figure of Gregor almost sculpturally, giving depth and personality to what could easily have been simply a freak show exhibit. In addition to sharing Goya’s taste for the unusual, Zuloaga also shared his taste for frank female nudes, paying homage to Goya’s “Maya” paintings with his own modern “Mayas.” Like Goya, Zuloaga depicted the true face of Spanish life, from the pageantry of the bullfight to the crushing poverty of the villages, but from a more modern perspective—years before Picasso himself began to include those subjects in his paintings.

Zuloaga may be credited with helping resurrect the reputation of El Greco, first by encouraging others to purchase El Greco’s works and then by copying much of El Greco’s proto-Expressionist style. The Anchorite (above), could easily slip into a collection of El Greco paintings unnoticed. It’s amazing to think of just how versatile Zuloaga was—shuttling from the clarity of Velazquez to the earthiness of Goya to the swirling spirituality of El Greco. Looking at his works is like taking a quick survey course in the history of Spanish painting.

My favorite Zuloaga painting remains The Portrait of Countess Mathieu de Noailles (above), from 1913. Earning most of his income from commissioned portraits, Zuloaga painted many of the members of Spanish and French high society in his day. Countess Mathieu de Noailles wrote novels and earned a reputation as a strong, liberated woman. The many peach-colored gradations of her dress almost hide the fact that her one shoulder is brazenly bare. Her flesh tones meld with the color of her clothes so closely that she seems almost entirely nude, if not for the drapery. The Countess’ powerful gaze at the viewer clearly places her in a modernist light—not the submissive society patroness of the past but an artist in her own right. Zuloaga, a great artist in his own right, revitalized Spanish art and breathed new life into the Old Masters.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Native Son

Thomas Eakins, the greatest painter ever born in my home town of Philadelphia and one of the greatest American painters of any era, was born on this date in 1844. Almost no other American artist of equal stature has had such a rollercoaster ride in terms of reputation. During his lifetime, Eakins rose to art world prominence with the painting of The Gross Clinic, his 1876 masterpiece. Sadly, even then he was denied mainstream success due to his sometimes abrasive personality and unrelenting intensity, which helped relegate The Gross Clinic to an obscure corner of the Centennial exhibition. The Gross Clinic, however, did help him in scoring a teaching position at the PAFA in 1876. By 1882, Eakins rose to the position of director at the school. However, his commitment to the study of the nude in Victorian American soon drew opposition from the school’s board, leading to his dismissal and disgrace in 1886. The portrait above, painted by his wife and former student, Susan MacDowell Eakins, shows Eakins in 1889 at the age of 45, disillusioned by experience and searching for new opportunities to further his art.

Susan painted Eakins’ portrait once again in 1889, as part of Eakins’ second medical masterpiece—The Agnew Clinic (above). Accepting a commission to paint the retiring Dr. Agnew, Eakins designed an epic canvas showing the doctor performing his signature surgical procedure while teaching his gallery of students. The size of the canvas forced Eakins to place it on the floor of his studio while painting. Agnew’s students filed through Eakins’ studio over the few weeks he had to finish. As Eakins painted personalized portraits of all the gallery sitters, his wife painted Eakins himself, along the right edge of the painting, leaning in and listening to one of the students explain the procedure to him. Eakins himself studied anatomy at Thomas Jefferson University, the home of Dr. Samuel Gross and formerly The Gross Clinic, to increase his understanding of the human body and how it moved.

The same commitment to the nude that makes Eakins seem heroic from a modern perspective also makes it sometimes too easy to see him as perverse. Nude photographs taken of Eakins himself and his students (such as that above, perhaps the most notorious of the bunch, since it involves physical contact between Eakins and his student) have been used by critics such as Henry Adams in his Eakins Revealed to portray Eakins as a social deviant. I remember reading Adams’ book and coming away quite dismayed, wondering if Eakins was truly a disturbed person and if that disturbed nature somehow infiltrated his art. These photos had been lost to scholars for decades, having been saved by Susan and then taken by Charles Bregler, a former student of Eakins, after her death. Bregler and his widow then saved the artifacts until her death in the 1980s, when scholars discovered the trove and began to study it, releasing these new findings in the Thomas Eakins Rediscovered exhibit at the PAFA in 1991. Adams sees the long span of time when such photos and other effects of Eakins were hidden as evidence of Eakins’ guilt and the continued efforts of his wife and followers to cover it all up. Eakins’ earliest biographer, Lloyd Goodrich, comes across in Adams’ critique as complicit in the cover-up in exchange for Susan’s cooperation and the source of all the “good Eakins” mythology. Fortunately, Sidney Kirkpatrick’s The Revenge of Thomas Eakins serves as a necessary corrective to Adams’ slander, neither mythologizing nor denigrating Eakins but, instead, fairly presenting him in context.

Eakins’ revenge on those who marginalized him in life has been slow in coming. Philadelphia’s embrace of its greatest artistic native son has been more cool than warm. An inconspicuous plaque (above) marks the site (on Chestnut Street between 13th Street and Broad Street in Philadelphia, across from a Borders Book Store and just down from an Olive Garden Restaurant) where Eakins painted The Agnew Clinic and other masterworks from 1884 through 1900. Even that was placed there by an admirer just in 1966 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Eakins’ passing. The circus surrounding the sale of The Gross Clinic seems to have awoken the city to the presence of Eakins’ greatness in its midst. The PAFA, which rejected Eakins over a century ago, now employs an actor to play the role of Eakins for visitors. Their attempt to resurrect Eakins for future generations seems the least that they can do for an artist who they nearly buried while alive.

I must confess to an overwhelming personal affinity for Eakins that clearly comes through in anything I write about him. I’ve read pretty much every major text on him and have seen almost all of his major works, thanks mainly to the Thomas Eakins exhibit at the PMA in 2002. Eakins will always remain the central figure of American art for me, the axis upon which all his predecessors and ancestors turn in my estimation. I’ll never forget the day back in graduate school when I received an award for an essay I had written and the reception was held in a little-used conference room at the university. In that room was a portrait by Eakins of one of the founding fathers of the university. The moment I saw it, I realized it was an Eakins. The signature confirmed it. I kept asking the organizers of the reception what they knew about it, but no one seemed as impressed as I was. Even worse, the portrait was hung in direct sunlight, damaging the lower half. That experience encapsulated for me the plight of Eakins and his art right there: unquestionable artistic genius wounded by ignorance and outright neglect. Since then, the painting has been moved, repaired, and even proudly featured in the university’s magazine, so maybe the times are truly changing for Eakins.

[Also , BTW, the Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran a three-part series by sportswriter Frank Fitzpatrick on Eakins’ boxing, baseball, and rowing pictures as they relate to the dawn of professional sports in America.]

Rhapsody in Blue

Born on this date in 1870, Maxfield Parrish epitomized the wave of great American illustration around the beginning of the 20th century. When Parrish asked Howard Pyle, teacher of N.C. Wyeth and many other great illustrators of that generation, to take him on as a student, Pyle told Parrish, after looking at his work, that he had nothing to teach him. After suffering tuberculosis and a nervous breakdown in 1900, Parrish’s medium of choice shifted from illustration to oil painting, but he never lost that touch for imaginative narrative in his works. Daybreak (above) stands as Parrish’s most reproduced image. Few houses in the 1920s didn’t have something done by Parrish somewhere, either a reproduction hanging on the wall or an illustration on a magazine cover. Few artists could create such imaginary worlds as Parrish.

While working in the Curtis Building in Philadelphia for many years, I had the daily pleasure of walking past Parrish’s beautiful glass mosaic, The Dream Garden, which he co-created with Louis Comfort Tiffany and his team. My wife Annie and I had our wedding photos taken in front of that mosaic, which added a magical touch to our already magical day. The sense of wonder and unreal beauty in Parrish’s works is breathtaking. Parrish’s paintings are some of the few that actually look good in reproduction, thanks mainly to his own knowledge of the printing process and his cooperation with the pressmen of Curtis Publishing to get the colors right. The transcendent blue of such works as Ecstasy (above) soon became known as “Parrish blue,” since it was so identifiable with the artist himself.

Although Parrish did attend classes at the PAFA, which helped sharpen his eye, nobody could have taught him to create landscapes such as that in Moonlight (above). Parrish’s fashioning of the mountains in all their textured cragginess captures the moonlight so romantically. Many critics consider Parrish’s work too light or overly romantic to be considered “serious” art, an aftereffect, perhaps, of his wide popularity during his heyday. Personally, I think there’s more than room enough in the canon of art to fit in Parrish and his poetic, magical skies of blue.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


The Wall Street Journal today reviewed the Edward Hopper exhibit at the MFA in Boston. At the bottom of that review, you’ll find in very, very small print a list of blogs writing about Hopper recently that includes my humble offering on Hopper, “Only the Lonely,” posted just yesterday. I’m not sure how often they change that feature, so click quickly if you want to see my name in the big time press.

A Direct Line

One of the fun facts of art in Philadelphia is the direct line you can draw between the art of three generations of Calder sculptors, ending with Alexander “Sandy” Calder, born on July 22, 1898. Start with Philadelphia City Hall, covered by sculptures done by Sandy’s grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder, including the statue of William Penn, still the largest statue on top of any building in the world. Move down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to Logan Circle and see the Swann Memorial Fountain by Sandy’s father, Alexander Stirling Calder (who also did the statue of Dr. Samuel Gross , of Thomas EakinsThe Gross Clinic, standing behind Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia). Finally, walk or run up the “Rocky steps” of the PMA and climb the Grand Staircase of the main room. At the top you can look past Sandy’s mobile Ghost (above) and see his father’s and grandfather’s sculptures in the hazy distance. No family of artists has left the same indelible impression on Philadelphia as the Calder family.

Marcel Duchamp, one of the many modernist artists Calder knew and was influenced by, coined the term “mobile” for Calder’s once-revolutionary kinetic sculptures seemingly riding on the air as they hung from the ceiling. Now that mobiles are the commonplace toy of nurseries everywhere, it’s hard to fathom just how unique these sculptures were when they first burst upon the scene. As light and delicate as his mobiles appear, Calder’s monumental-sized “stabiles” dig their roots firmly in the ground. I remember walking around Calder’s Eagle when it stood on the East Terrace of the PMA in late 1999 and early 2000 (pictured above in its home in Seattle, Washington). The orange paint chips scattered around the base testified to its weightiness and how difficult it was to swing into place. Some friends and I, out celebrating the incoming millennium, walked around the base that New Year’s Eve before enjoying the fireworks.

Calder’s mobiles and stabiles make modern art accessible and even friendly for the casual observer or even the diehard modern art hater. The room at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC filled with Calder’s mobiles (one example appears above) remains one of my favorites in their modern art wing. It was like standing in a environment of exotic birds or giant, beautiful butterflies, constantly moving on the almost imperceptible air currents. Rumors have milled about for years of a Calder museum to be erected near the PMA here in Philadelphia, but that plan sadly seems dead. Calder truly created art for the masses, especially children, who can see and experience his living art free of all extraneous interpretation and meaning. Calder’s art follows Archibald MacLeish’s maxim for poetry: it “should not mean/ But be.”

Beneath the Surface

A happy 80th birthday to Alex Katz, born on this date in 1927. Katz brought his unique figurative style to Pop Art and continues to paint fascinating portraits in a style that seems to mix the worlds of illustration and advertising, perhaps to comment on the surface-obsessed nature of late 20th and early 21st century America. In his 1962 self-portrait above, titled Passing, Katz plays with the nature of identity on several levels. On one level, Katz the artist disguises himself as a typical businessman of the early 1960s, the standard issue man in the grey flannel suit. However, Katz perches on his head a pork pie hat, often identified with the jazz artist Lester Young, one of Katz’s many beloved jazz musicians, indicating that beneath this “white” exterior beats the heart of a jazz insider. Finally, Katz’s Jewish heritage raises the issue of the religious and racial intolerance still existing in 1960s, Eisenhower-era America behind the Happy Days façade. Katz smuggles his true nature through all the barriers put in his way. Often criticized for paintings that are all surface, Katz’s work delves deep into American society and, along with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, speaks on the “lower frequencies” for us all.

Much of Katz’s examination of America involves trends, particularly the current fashions in clothing and hairstyles. In the paintings of his wife Ada done over the years, including Upside Down Ada (above) from 1965, we see how trends come and go, including the longer, freer hairstyle shown in this post-Kennedy, post-Beatles invasion, yet pre-Woodstock image. Katz’s surface-dominated paintings show just how shallow these trends are, in comparison to the people behind them.

Despite the Pop Art technique of his portraits, I always sense a great warmth and affection in Katz’s paintings of his family, especially those of his wife, Ada, and his children, such as his son Vincent (above) in Vincent with Open Mouth, from 1970. Katz’s focus on the small detail of his child’s open mouth, indicating youth’s still-intact capacity for wonder, stands in opposition to the jaded views of other modern artists. Throughout his exploration of the trends of American society Katz never descends into sarcasm or ridicule, choosing instead to subtly comment on society and reward those who look beneath the surface.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Only the Lonely

Edward Hopper, American realist painter whose paintings speak of a loneliness and isolation somehow uniquely American, was born on July 22, 1882. Hopper’s isolated, almost eerie landscapes and interiors somehow echo the proto-Surreal scenes of De Chirico, yet in a realistic style. House by the Railroad (above) from 1925 served as a model for the Bates Mansion in Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Psycho. Many of Hopper’s other paintings feel equally cinematic in their narrative possibility, a suggestive openness that can lead to anything from the simple isolation of the everyday to murderous fantasy.

Josephine Nivison, Hopper’s wife, appears in several of Hopper’s paintings, including Morning Sun (above). In several of these depictions, Hopper strips his wife bare, amplifying the sense of loneliness and vulnerability. Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography examines the conflicted relationship between Edward and Josephine, who gave up her own painting career to further Edward’s. Levin dedicates her Becoming Judy Chicago: A Biography of the Artist “In memory of Josephine Nivison Hopper and all the other erased women artists.” Hopper’s landscapes and buildings always seem more alive than his figures, but I’ve always sensed a special deadness to his portrayals of Josephine, somehow erasing her as a person at the same time he paints her.

My favorite Hopper painting remains his Early Sunday Morning from 1930 (above). The play of verticals and horizontals simply amazes. The use of light and shadow across the storefronts seems almost abstract, but the reality of the street never waivers. Hopper stands as one of the most popular modern artists in America. An exhibit of Hopper’s work currently at the MFA in Boston, Massachussets, will later grace the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and the Art Institute of Chicago. For many people who only know Hopper from Nighthawks, either the original, the movie, the too-numerous parodies, or the Tom Waitsalbum, works such as Early Sunday Morning will open their eyes to his true greatness.

Near the end of his life, Hopper once told fellow realist painter Andrew Wyeth that he could paint just the way light falls on a wall for the rest of his days. Sun in an Empty Room (above) shows just how much Hopper could create with so seemingly little. His powers of observation challenge us to see our own world anew. His depictions of loneliness, of empty windows, and of empty, expressionless faces, make us examine our own lives, too.

Armored Artist

Lovis Corinth, German Impressionist and later Expressionist (although he would have denied either label), was born on July 21, 1858. Corinth’s apparent turn in style coincided with the stroke he suffered in 1911 that rendered his left side partially paralyzed. The Impressionist style he displayed with his natural left handedness soon became tortured Expressionism as he relearned how to draw and paint with his right hand. Corinth painted Samson Blinded (above) in 1912, just a year after his paralysis. The portrait of the debilitated Biblical strongman may be a portrait of Corinth’s own emotional state as he came to grips with the reality that the remarkable draftsmanship of his youth was gone.

Like Kathe Kollwitz, his contemporary in Germany, Corinth experimented with printmaking and could render powerful images in black and white as well as color. His Self Portrait With Armor (above) shows the artist wearing a suit of armor he kept in his studio as a prop. Corinth wore his passionate German nationalistic feelings like a suit of armor as well. He joined the Berlin Secession in 1901 and became its president in 1915, serving until his death in 1925. Upon becoming president, many of the members left the Secession, disagreeing with Corinth’s nationalism and the direction he wished to take the organization. Even in the midst of the horrors of World War I, Corinth continued to stand beside his homeland.

After the stroke in 1925, Corinth discovered an entire new way of using color to express emotion. The pathos of his Ecce Homo (above), painted in 1925, shortly before Corinth’s death, strikes even more penetratingly with the blood red garment of Jesus. The figure on the right wearing the same armor in Corinth’s self portrait above bears a world-weary look on his face, in contrast to the defiance in Corinth’s eyes of the self portrait. Perhaps Ecce Homo hints at some remorse in Corinth at the end, a reevaluation of his nationalism in light of the human cost exacted in its name. Corinth didn’t live to see the rise of Nazi Germany, but his works survived. Despite his faith in the German state and military might, Corinth’s post-stroke works were deemed “degenerate art,” while his pre-stroke works continued to be praised as “truly” German—an odd splitting of this deeply fractured artist.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Addicted to Art

Paige West, author of The Art of Buying Art: An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Contemporary Art, works from “the belief that great, affordable art should be part of everyone’s life.” West, herself “a nonrecovering art addict,” founded the online gallery Mixed Greens out of that belief and wants to spread her addiction to everyone who loves art but has been too afraid to take the financial plunge. (Vic Muniz’s picture of Jackson Pollock painting done in chocolate appears above. West features the work of Muniz and her other favorite contemporary and emerging artists throughout the book.)

The name Mixed Greens rose from the heart of West’s egalitarian vision of art collecting. “Collecting art is an experience no longer reserved for a privileged few,” West explains. “Just as we have come to expect more availability and variety in the produce aisle, we are also beginning to expect the same in art.” Thanks in part to the power of the internet, buying affordable art can be as easy as buying what used to seem exotic lettuce. West wants you to know that you don’t need to settle for iceberg anymore.

The first obstacle is the obvious one—fear. “I am amazed at the sheer panic people feel facing their first or second purchase of art,” West writes. “My response, over and over again, is to stop thinking about purchasing and just do it.” West sees a compulsion for perfection behind much apprehension: “Forget about trying to perfect your collection right out of the gate… Collecting is supposed to be fun.” The Art of Buying Art consists of a lot of gentle hand-holding, something West does in person for many of her clients. Much of the book reads as a pep talk for newbies, an “Idiots Guide to…” or “for Dummies,” as West tries to start from the basics and break down fears and misperceptions. When she points out that the same disposable income that goes to luxury items such as CDs, DVDs, or clothing could go to artwork, it’s hard to argue with her.

My main argument with West’s approach lies in the heart-versus-head quandary of buying art. Understandably, West asks the new collector to take a leap a faith early on, to go with their heart. Later, she shows you how to also shop with your head, i.e., informing yourself before buying by reading up on art trends and artists, by evesdropping on artists and fellow art lovers at galleries and other venues, and, most of all, by seeing as much contemporary and emerging art as possible—all with the ultimate goal of developing a keen “eye” for art. She titles one section, “Buy what you love, but…” That huge “but” seems to come a little too late, overwhelmed by the earlier “just do it” Nike-esque inspirational rhetoric.

The two strengths of the book are the beautiful illustrations and the supporting materials West provides. The illustrations provide a valuable primer in what you can expect to see in art galleries. In that respect, West prepares the total newcomer to the world of art collecting and inoculates them from any kind of culture shock. (Sticker shock is a different matter, but she does a good job of softening that blow as well.) The sheer variety and volume of works displayed might even seem overwhelming, but I saw it more as a total immersion technique similar to learning a new language. By the end of the book, you should be able to “speak” enough contemporary and emerging art to get by in that brave new world.

Equally valuable are West’s helpful breakdowns for the new collector. Sections such as “What can I get for $1000?” and “Ten Questions to Ask at a Gallery?” encapsulate years of experience into manageable pieces of information. West even categorizes collectors into different types (Decorators, Investors, Specialists, Vacationers, Thrill Seekers, and Addicts) to help the newcomer self-diagnose the true nature of their blossoming art “addiction” and, perhaps, envision how that addiction will evolve. A section on “Living With Art” wonderfully answers all the questions you might have after actually buying the art, showing West’s practical side to the art collecting experience. (This “Living With Art” section contained the one true sour note for me in the book. “You Are Not Art,” West proclaims, relegating all family photos to less than 8 x 10 inches and discreet corners of the home—something I found a bit too strongly put. Here, children are to be heard but not seen. But maybe I’m too sentimental.)

“You don’t need a formal education in art to become an accomplished collector,” writes West. More important is to see as much art as possible and learn more about the art world and, ultimately, yourself. As a pusher of her own addiction to art, West provides a valuable service and teaches that the only true fear we must overcome in collecting art is fear itself.

[Many thanks to HarperCollins for providing me with a review copy of this book.]

Painting Light in Space

“I became interested in painting with light, not on the surface of canvas, but directly in space,” Laszlo Moholy-Nagy once said of his photogram experiments, in which he exposed light-sensitive photographic paper upon which different objects had been placed (an example from the 1930s appears above). Moholy-Nagy, born on this date in 1895, epitomized the versatility of the Bauhaus, where he taught and practiced painting, photography, sculpture, and typography, indulging his imagination in whatever medium came to hand.

As a painter, Moholy-Nagy followed the tenets of the Constructivists, especially Kazimir Malevich. In works such as A 19 (above), Moholy-Nagy developed a cool, precise brand of abstraction that marked a sea change at the Bauhaus, where he had replaced the more mystical Johannes Itten, the previous teacher of the preliminary course all students had to take. After the excesses of Expressionism and the violence of World War I, which Moholy-Nagy witnessed firsthand, the Constructivist style offered order, stability, and, possibly, peace. Unfortunately, as Fascism took hold on Germany and World War II loomed, the Jewish Moholy-Nagy and other professors at the Bauhaus fled to the sanctuary of America. (In 2006, the Tate Modern presented the exhibit Albers & Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World, tracing the journey of Moholy-Nagy and Joseph Albers to freedom.)

I’ve often confused Moholy-Nagy’s photograms with Man Ray’s rayograms, which used the same procedure. However, looking more closely, you can see that Ray’s images focus mainly on the objects on the paper and how they are arranged, stemming mostly from his Surrealist roots and his desire to make the everyday seem unfamiliar. Moholy-Nagy uses the objects as a secondary device, concerning himself more with how those objects shape and distort the light as it strikes the paper. By literally painting with light itself, Moholy-Nagy reduced image making to its very essentials and broke new ground for photography as an art form in itself.