Friday, August 31, 2007

Clash of the Titans: The Results

I just wanted to update everyone on who won the now legendary “Clash of the Titans” when Alex met the Atlantic Ocean head on. The undisputed winner was, of course, Alex! Above, Alex braves the surf and sun in his electric blue crocs. (The gentleman with the vampiric tan behind him, offering moral support, is me.)

I hope everyone’s had an enjoyable Summer and wish everyone here in America a restful Labor Day weekend. Growing up, Labor Day always meant Jerry Lewis and his MDA Telethon and the knowledge that the next day we'd be going back to school. (Now, pretty much everyone goes back to school before the holiday.) But those school days are still a long way off for us and Alex. After defeating the puny Atlantic, Alex issued his latest challenge (above) while splashing in the shade in his inflatable pool—“Pacific, you’re NEXT!”

With Fearless and Eager Eyes

On August 30, 1891, in tiny Druskininkai in Lithuania, still under the rule of the Russian Tsars, Jacques Lipchitz was born. Lipchitz created some of the most beautiful Cubist sculptures ever made. Many of Lipchitz’s works grace the Philadelphia region, including The Spirit of Enterprise (above), which stands on the banks of the Schuylkill River along Kelly Drive, near Boathouse Row. At the base of the sculpture, the following quote from Theodore Roosevelt appears: “Our nation glorious in youth and strength looks into the future with fearless and eager eyes as vigorous as a young man to run a race.” From his humble beginnings to his prime in Paris to his American years after World War II, Lipchitz always looked “into the future with fearless and eager eyes” and never gave up his sense of wonder and hope for the world.

Lipchitz flourished among the artists of Montmartre and Montparnasse in the 1910s and 20s, befriending fellow Cubists Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris, among others. In 1922, Dr. Albert C. Barnes visited Lipchitz’s studio and not only bought several works but also commissioned a series of bas-reliefs for The Barnes Foundation. In exchange, Lipchitz introduced Barnes to his friends Chaim Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani. (Modigliani’s portrait of Lipchitz and his wife is above.) Thanks to this introduction, Barnes purchased several works by Soutine and Modigliani, helping bring not only Lipchitz’s stirring Cubist sculpture to America but also the works of these two unique masters.

Lipchitz fled Paris in 1940 with the help of American journalist Varian Fry just before the Nazis invaded. America became Lipchitz’s home for the rest of his life, and Philadelphia captured a special place in his heart. I’ve always loved his The Spirit of Enterprise and Government of the People (which stands in the Municipal Services Building Plaza in Philadelphia, near JFK Boulevard and Broad Street), but my favorite Lipchitz will always be his Prometheus Strangling the Vulture (above), which stands proudly at the top of the PMA’s famous “Rocky Steps.” Lipchitz takes the ancient myth of the vulture endlessly torturing Prometheus and rewrites the ending, allowing Prometheus to gain the upper hand and end his torment. Lipchitz’s sculptures always maintain this wonderful spirit of hope, even in the face of war and oppression, which has made him one of the most popular and accessible of modernist sculptors.

Fathers and Sons

It couldn’t have been easy to be the son of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, perhaps the last of the “Grand Manner” Baroque painters of Italy, but Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo managed to find a place for himself in art history. After studying under his father and working as his chief assistant, Giandomenico developed his own style, distinct from his father’s dreamy mannerism and closer to a true realist style. Works such as A Dance in the Country (above) from 1755 show Giandomenico’s ability to use beautiful color in depicting scenes of local color realistically and sympathetically.

Experts can determine exactly when Giandomenico’s work strayed from the style of his father in works attributed to Gianbattista’s studio. Giandomenico took over as his father’s chief assistant at the age of 13, transferring his father’s small oil sketches into huge works on ceilings and walls of churches and palaces. Giandomenico’s sketch Creation of the Universe (above) shows his incredible draftsmanship, honed by that experience with his father, which took him all over Europe. Some of the works the father-son Tiepolo team painted in Madrid in the 1760s influenced the young Goya with their strong realism, the touch of the younger rather than the older Tiepolo.

Giandomenico excelled in prints and etchings, creating several series of popular religious works. The prints I find most interesting are his Punchinello images, such as the Burial of Punchinello (above). Punchinello was the star of the early commedia dell’arte. Giandomenico took this comical figure and built up an entire world around him, interweaving comedy and tragedy. The narrative power of these works comes close to that of the works of William Hogarth for depicting the real world of an age. The Burial of Punchinello shows the clown being lowered into the tomb, much like the fallen Christ of many a church painting being deposed, which Giandomenico would have known well. By substituting the sad clown for the fallen Savior, Giandomenico makes a powerful statement regarding the humanity of Jesus as well as the glory of the ordinary human being. His father would have been proud.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Post-It Post reports today on the bizarre Post-It art of 19-year-old student David Alvarez, who created a giant portrait of music legend Ray Charles using over 2,000 3 x 3 inch Post-It notes. (I only have half that many on my computer monitor at work.)

Alvarez, an aspiring art teacher, started out working on a picture of Charles on a computer and translated his mosaic idea to office supplies. After spending way too much time replacing the notes that fell as their stickiness wore off, Alvarez finally used glue to keep his pieces in place.

Alvarez may have a bright future in art education if he can inspire his students to take such commonplace items and see the potential for creativity in them. Maybe he can get Staples to sponsor his next exhibit.

[Many thanks to the lovely and talented Annie, my wife, for passing on this story.]

Monster’s Ball

Of all the segments of Simon Schama’s The Power of Art, the episode covering Jacques-Louis David may have shaken me the most. Standing before The Death of Marat (above), David's propaganda piece martyrizing Jean-Paul Marat, Schama looks into the camera and says, “Do I like David? I don’t. He’s a monster.” David, born on this date in 1748, dazzles with the power of his images, and that is the key to his monstrosity and his seductiveness. With David begins the modern concept of propaganda in all its most destructive uses by the powerful over the powerless.

When I was too young to know better, David always struck me as one of those ideal painters, taking ideals and ideas and making them live through art. Even after I was old enough to know better, I found myself standing before such works as The Oath of the Horatii (above, from 1784) and feeling myself getting suckered in by the classical ideals of Dulce et decorum est, without Wilfred Owen’s caustic codicil. Part of me wishes that the power of art could be harnessed for the furthering of ideals, but a more savvy part of me realizes that such power is too easily misappropriated. The path from David’s Oath of the Horatii to his contemporary depiction of The Tennis Court Oath to The Triumph of the Will to costume parades on aircraft carrier decks is a short one ideologically, regardless of the passage of time.

And, yet, I always held out hope that the monster inside David would always lose out to the angel that could paint works such as Madame Recamie (above), which floored me with its balance and classical poise when I saw it in the flesh at the Louvre, which exists today in no small part due to the early efforts of David to create a national museum for France. Questions of morality aside, you can’t ever accuse David of coming up short in person, unlike so many other painters known just through reproductions. The warmth of his Portrait of Monsieur Lavoisier and his wife (1788) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York almost makes me forget how David contributed to the excesses of the French Revolution that exploded into “The Reign of Terror” that cost the Lavoisiers and so many others their lives. Do I like David? I have to say, no, too. Do I wish I could? That’s a different question.

First Impressions

J. Alden Weir, one of the first true American Impressionists and an important figure in the development and acceptance of Impressionism in America, was born on August 30, 1862. While studying in Paris under Jean-Leon Gerome, Weir first encountered the Impressionist style and brought it back with him to America and his native New England. Works such as Factory Village (above) from 1899 resemble French Impressionism in their soft focus on nature, but add the American element of industrial progress in the inclusion of a factory peeking through the flora. This realist touch may have come from Gerome, who also taught America’s preeminent realist of the late 19th century—Thomas Eakins.

In many ways, Weir acted as a bridge over which Impressionism could flourish in America. (His Red Bridge, from 1895, appears above.) When Duncan Phillips first began forming the collection known today as The Phillips Collection, Weir steered him towards collecting not only the prominent French Impressionists, such as Monet, but also towards appreciating American Impressionists such as his friend John Henry Twachtman. Phillips, of course, recognized Weir’s own talent and collected his works, too. Present-day appreciations of American Impressionism in the late 19th century owe much to Weir’s ground-breaking efforts at the time. Without his championing, who knows what works and artists could have been lost to the mists of time.

As Weir grew older, his works took on more and more of an atmospheric, almost Whistler-esque look, such as in his Moonlight (above) from 1905. Weir’s greatest talent, however, may have been in creating communities, such as the Impressionist community that grew up around him and Twachtman in New England. Weir’s connections throughout the art world were incredible (a funny picture of Weir with his friend John Singer Sargent and a portrait of Weir by Sargent are here). In 1912, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors elected Weir as their first president. Sadly, he resigned in 1913 after the Association helped sponsor the 1913 Armory Show in New York that ushered in the age of Modernism in America. After trying so hard to get Americans to embrace Impressionism, which seems hard to believe today, Weir couldn’t stand being upstaged by the new ways of seeing.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Fantasy Island

Peter Blake, Self-Portrait with Badges, 1961; © Peter Blake 2007. All rights reserved, DACS

“Our aims are to paint about love, beauty, joy, sentiment and magic,” Peter Blake wrote in his Brotherhood of Ruralists manifesto of the 1970s, defending his paintings of fairies and fantasy against the opposition of “serious” art and art critics. In the companion catalogue to the exhibit Peter Blake: A Retrospective at the Tate Liverpool through September 23rd, we witness Blake creating his own island of fantasy within the waters of often-cynical postmodernism and contemporary art. Blake still wears his love of popular culture proudly and confortably, as he did in his 1961 Self-Portrait with Badges (above), offering an oasis of positive thought and free playfulness that counters the negativity of many of his contemporaries.

Breaking down Blake decade by decade, Simon Faulkner begins by asking if the 1950s Blake truly is “Painting Like a Fan?” Faulkner proposes that the apparent straightforwardness and directness of Blake’s paintings belie his “sophisticated pictorial practices” of creating “the re-presentation of a subject to create something new and separate from the original.” “Blake makes pictures of innocence and fandom,” Faulkner writes, “rather than directly embodying these things in his work.” Blake doesn’t just reproduce cultural images, he examines the human element—the nostalgia, the longing, the basic pleasure of looking—that makes cultural images so powerful. Harking back to the wrestling matches of his childhood, for example, Blake invents new villains and heroes, with names such as the nefarious Baron Adolf Kaiser, to examine the nationalistic and historical aspects of the personas and performances of that brand of theater, as well as how the audience itself contributes. Blake transforms tattooed ladies and other circus performers, cheesecake pin-ups, and glossy magazine subjects by using his unique frame of reference to present the innocent nostalgia of his vision rather than the erotic or seedier aspects of the subjects themselves. Faulker sees Blake’s framing technique as partially a response to the post-war upheaval of England and its new, modern saturation with visual imagery.

Although many label Blake as “the godfather of Pop Art,” Marco Livingston raises the question of whether Blake is truly “The First Real Pop Artist?” in his essay on Blake in the Swinging London of the 1960s. In the 1960s, Livingston argues, “Blake set out a case for an art that transcends its period and that privileges private intimate experience, even when celebrating the creativity and energy within mass culture.” As public as Blake’s images of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and other pop music stars are, the real subject of these images is the individual creative energy those figures have tapped into. Whereas Faulkner sees Blake’s work in the 1950s being less than a straightforward appreciation of the tense, post-war 1950s, Livingston sees Blake’s 1960s work as “a straightforward and affectionate way of alluding to the beauty he found in his surroundings.” When Blake continues to paint wrestlers and moves from pin-ups to strippers, Livingston senses that he paints them in the “fullness of their humanity” and “with the greatest delicacy of touch that the artist could muster, and on a small, intimate scale that emphasizes that behind their costumes they are just human beings.” This full humanity extends to the pop stars as well, whose “spirit, personality and achievements” Blake celebrates. By 1969, as Livingston shows, Blake “had transformed himself into one of the chief chroniclers and architects of that optimistic and celebratory period, without once sacrificing the essential humanity and intense intimacy of his vision.”

Peter Blake, 'Well, this is grand!' said Alice from Illustrations to Through the Looking-Glass, 1970; © Peter Blake 2007. All rights reserved, DACS. Screen-print on paper.

Of course, the 1960s ended with a thud for all its true believers. The funeral depicted on Blake’s famous cover for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band could double for the burial of the 1960s themselves. In 1969, disillusioned with the excesses of the 1960s and their downfall, Blake moved from London to rural England near Avon. With a group of like-minded artists, Blake founded the Brotherhood of the Ruralists in an attempt to recapture a simpler time. As Christoph Grunenberg writes in his essay, the Ruralists “grew as much out of a shared interest in figurative painting and certain forgotten or discredited traditions as out of an opposition to the ruling minimalist and conceptual practices of the avant-garde.” From this self-imposed exile, Blake and his fellow Ruralists take “a positive stand against the emptiness and conformity of so much contemporary thought and art.” Amidst this back-to-nature, dreamy aspect of Blake’s Ruralist period, fairies became real and works of literary imagination such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream provided the framework upon which he could build a new world to believe in. 'Well, this is grand!' said Alice from Illustrations to Through the Looking-Glass (above) shows how Blake was able to take these old Victorian children’s tales and repurpose them for his 1970s adult world. Grunenberg sees the fairy paintings as permitting Blake to paint an “unashamed display of exaggerated human emotions, almost completely absent in the art of the time.” Out of the ruins of the collapse of 1960s idealism, Blake found a fairyland release for all his pent-up emotions.

Peter Blake, The Meeting or Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney, 1981-3; © Peter Blake 2007. All rights reserved, DACS

In 1979, Blake moved back to London, leaving his life in rural England behind. Late that same year, he traded in his English fantasyland for a new American one—California. Along with fellow British artists Howard Hodgkin and David Hockney (subject of Blake’s The Meeting or Have a Nice Day, Mr Hockney [above]), Blake reveled in the light and colors of Venice, California. His works turned unusually atmospheric in this new environment so different from England. Blake, however, still painted famous pop stars, transplanting his interests to American soil to paint figures such as Madonna in this new light. Rollerskaters and sunbathers become the new fairies and nymphs for Blake in his sunny paradise.

Peter Blake, Marcel Duchamp's World Tour: Playing Chess with Tracey 2003-05, Courtesy Waddington Galleries, London; © Peter Blake 2007. All rights reserved, DACS

Laurence Sillars titles his essay on Blake in the 1980s and beyond, “Déjà Vu,” alluding to the title of a Blake retrospective in Tokyo in 1988 as well as the general return of Blake to his Pop Art roots, but with a difference. Although Blake worked with the pop music stars of the 1980s (most notably on the cover of the Band Aid single and posters for Live Aid, the “pop” stars populating Blake’s imagination most often in this period belong to art history. After a 1983 retrospective at the Tate, in which Blake himself worked with curators to design the show’s presentation, Blake becomes much more self-conscious of his place in art history, indulging in “conceptual play” as he borrows freely from art history in his compositions, all part of “an homage to those he admires and from whom he has learnt.” In a series of paintings titled Marcel Duchamp’s World Tour, Blake “thank[s] Duchamp for his ground-breaking gesture with a urinal [i.e., Fountain] that henceforth gave artists the freedom to define what could become art—a philosophy that has informed all branches of Blake’s practice.” (Playing Chess with Tracey, from the World Tour, appears above.) In one image from the World Tour, Blake introduces the Spice Girls and Elvis (above) to Duchamp, humorously and affectionately bringing together the two worlds of his art—pop culture and serious art history.

By the early 1990s, Sillars remarks, “Blake was to become something of a grandfather to the ‘Young British Artists,’ going out of his way to support them.” Blake also continued to design album covers for the latest generation of musicians. In one painting, titled I may not be a Ruralist anymore but I saw a fairy in my garden in Chiswick, Blake encapsulates his new post-Ruralist attitude in which he re-engages with popular culture but continues to seek out the fantastical and magical in his world. As Sillars wonderfully summates, “Cerebrating imagery rather than celebrating it, however manufactured, is what distinguishes Blake’s particular British rather than American Pop art sensibility.” Blake’s paintings come from both his head and his heart, examining each visual rather than simply reproducing it while always seeking the humanity and sense of wonder that can be missing from some Warholian-style work. Blake may not be a Ruralist anymore, but he will always “paint about love, beauty, joy, sentiment and magic.”

[Many thanks to Tate Publishing for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to and the images from the Tate Liverpool exhibit Peter Blake: A Retrospective.]

Classical Chill

Seeing himself as a “conservator of good doctrine, and not an innovator,” Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, born on this date in 1780, painted in a Neoclassical style amidst the heat and fury of the French Revolution raging about him. While contemporaries such as Jacques-Louis David painted propaganda to enflame the masses, Ingres painted royalist portraits such as his 1806 Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (above) to cool things off. David, of course, hated this portrait of Napoleon, which undid all of the revolutionary rhetoric his paintings built up around the leader. Ingres’ portrait showed Napoleon in perhaps truer colors, as a man comfortable with the trappings of power—exactly the type of leader the revolution just deposed. Perhaps Ingres’ portrait was the more honest of the two.

I’ll never forget seeing Ingres’ portrait of Louis-Francois Bertin (above) at the Louvre in person. The almost photographic smoothness of the canvas and the way Ingres built up the planes of each person’s face are unforgettable. You can’t walk away from an Ingres without acknowledging his technical ability. At the same time, you also feel a slight chill when you look into the eyes of his subjects or follow the contours of their faces closely. Ingres’ people lack the warmth of other portraits that I admire. It’s more than a rejection of Romanticism. It’s a lack of empathy. I believe that his portrait of Mme. Moitessier from 1856 may be one of the most dazzling performances of 19th century portraiture in terms of reproducing textures and surfaces (and the work with the mirror image in the back is just showing off). But even good Mme. Moitessier doesn’t seem like she’d be good company at dinner.

Ingres’ chilliness extends even to his masterful nudes, adding a la belle dame sans merci quality to their eyes and gestures. In La Grande Odalisque (above), from 1814, Ingres makes himself a liar and indulges in some innovation, extending the magnificent back of his subject by a few vertebrae to create the beautiful lines of his composition. He does it so masterfully that at first glimpse you don’t even notice. Ingres allowed himself such liberties too infrequently. As Sir Kenneth Clark pointed out in his The Nude, Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque and its free approach to the nude remains one of the touchstone nude images of Western art, inspiring later artists from Edgar Degas to Pablo Picasso to take similar liberties in their own artistic explorations of the female form.

I find much of Ingres to be infuriating for this combination of genius with conservatism. As much as La Grande Odalisque is a step forward, works such as 1862’s The Turkish Bath (above) take two steps back. Again, the technique is beautiful, but the bath seems to have gone cold. Ingres drains away the exoticism and eroticism that Eugene Delacroix brought to similar scenes of Orientalism, such as his Death of Sardanapalus. Ingres paints like Pygmallion sculpting in reverse, turning warm flesh into cold marble. Sometimes I wonder if Ingres’ coldness increased as a reaction to the fires of revolution and Romanticism around him, his fear forcing him to paint even more beautiful yet more lifeless figures as the world around him seemed to spiral out of control.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Polls Remain Open

If you watched and loved Simon Schama’s The Power of Art, please take a moment to vote for your favorite episode in the poll to the right. Polls close at the end of August. It’s still anyone’s race, so rock the vote and participate. No lines, plenty of attractive candidates, and no hanging chads–how could it be simpler? And no purple fingers, either.

Beguiling Beauty

Edward Burne-Jones, one of the most beautiful and beloved artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was born on this date in 1833. After reading Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory while studying at Oxford, Burne-Jones’ imagination churned out image after image of Arthurian lore, such as The Beguiling of Merlin (above). The beautiful ladies and romantic heroes of Burne-Jones paintings continue to beguile viewers today after a long, unjust neglect during the heyday of modernism.

Burne-Jones studied under Dante Gabriel Rossetti and counted critic John Ruskin as one of his major influences. While at Oxford, he met William Morris, a kindred spirit with whom he joined forces later on to advance the Aesthetic Movement or Arts and Crafts Movement of late 19th century England. Although linked to the Pre-Raphaelites, Burne-Jones’ vision couldn’t be limited to any label, incorporating elements of Romanticism while looking forward to future art movements such as Symbolism and even Surrealism. Love Among the Ruins (above) revels in a dreamy romanticism with hints of the Arthurian mystique Burne-Jones loved, yet also has a quasi-religious overtone to it that points forward to Surrealism.

Burne-Jones’ talents expanded to media beyond painting—book illustrations, the theater, tapestries, jewelry, and even stained glass—often with the help of his friend William Morris. Created by William Morris’ company based on a design by Burne-Jones, The Last Judgment window (above) at St. Michael and St. Mary Magdalene’s Church, Easthampstead, England provides a beautiful example of how these two talents meshed together to create greatness. In contrast to the often wild lifestyles of the other Pre-Raphaelites (such as Rossetti), Burne-Jones lived a rather conventional life and enjoyed the favor of high society. After Burne-Jones’ death in 1898, the Prince of Wales requested a memorial service for him to be held at Westminster Abbey, the first time any artist had been so honored. Looking at Burne-Jones creations today they still seem fresh and vibrant, free of any associations with Victorian fussiness and repression. When I see how the excesses of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood led so many artists astray, I always try to remember how those same excesses led Burne-Jones to such heights.

Lost in the Woods

One of the finest landscape painters of 19th century France, Constant Troyon, was born on this date in 1810. Although he only flourished as a painter for the last 15 years of his life, he painted some of the finest French landscapes of the mid-1800s. Troyon stands as a transitional figure between the classical landscapes of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorraine and the Impressionist landscapes of the late 19th century. Like John Constable, Troyon’s British influence, Troyon portrays a rugged, almost Romantic type of nature, as seen in his The Approaching Storm (above) from 1849. A factual type of nature, in all its twisting organicism as well as a living, breathing sky populate this picture as much as the people dwarfed at the bottom.

Troyon paints animals with incredible mastery. The hound in Hound Pointing (above), from 1860, moves with a believable excitement and energy, as if the prey were just over the next bank. Troyon paints cows, oxen, sheep, and other animals common to the rural, farm life of France as empathetically as he paints the peasants working with those animals. I’ve never seen any exotic animals done by Troyon. As much as exotic animals and bestiaries were in vogue in his day (as painted by Eugene Delacroix, for example), Troyon never gave in to the temptation to stray away from the simple life he knew and understood.

I find Troyon’s draftsmanship to be the most interesting aspect of his art. In drawings such as Forest Pond (above), done some time in the 1850s, Troyon shows an almost Renaissance flair for creating whole forests out of simple drawing gestures. The touches of white crayon highlighting add a wonderful three-dimensionality. An appreciation of drawing fell victim to the wave of Impressionism and modernism in the 20th century, which may account for the decline in reputation of artists such as Troyon. Placed in his proper context, Troyon emerges as an important figure preserving the Old Master ways while embracing the same post-Enlightenment and humanist philosophy that paves the way for Impressionist ways of seeing and, consequently, all modern art.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Unconcerned, But Not Indifferent

On August 27, 1890, Mr. and Mrs. Radnitzky, Russian-Jewish immigrants in their new American home in South Philadelphia, welcomed their son Emmanuel or “Manny” into the world. That son would condense his name over the years into the more famous moniker of Man Ray, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Even people with the most casual interest in art can recognize his famous Tears (above), which Man Ray created by placing tiny glass “tears” on the face of his model. Although photography was perhaps Ray’s finest medium, he excelled in sculpture and short movies as well, bringing his golden touch to whatever his brilliant mind could imagine.

After years of searching for his artistic voice, Ray attended the 1913 Armory Show in New York City and knew the direction his life would then take. He befriended Marcel Duchamp, one of the stars of that exhibit that first exposed America to the miracles of modernism, and embraced both Dada and Surrealism. In 1921, Ray moved to Paris to steep himself in modernism even more. With his colleague and lover, the photographer Lee Miller, Ray developed his version of the photogram, which he called the “Rayogram” (one example above). Placing everyday objects on unexposed film and then introducing light, Ray transformed to quotidian into the fantastical. Ray extended this technique to short films in which he’d scatter objects over long strips of film, expose the film, and then run the strips together in a projector, creating mystifying movies that defy description.

Ray’s brand of Surrealism lacks the violent edge that Salvador Dali’s sometimes could have. Unfortunately, Ray succumbed to the same brand of objectification of women that Dali and others could also indulge in. In Le Violon d’Ingres (above), Ray alludes to Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ practice of fiddling while he worked. By placing the “f” holes of a violin on a model’s back, Ray suggests that he also “fiddles around” while working, with a woman as his “instrument.” I love the imaginativeness that can appreciate the lines of the female form as a work of art the same way that a fine instrument is a work of art, but the objectification inherent in Ray’s title sours this image for me. Ray’s mistreatment of the beautiful, talented, and tragic Lee Miller may also color my judgment here.

Aside from Ray’s Surrealist works, my favorite images of his remain his portraits, especially his 1922 portrait of author James Joyce (above). Joyce suffered from severe vision problems and protects his eyes from the light in this pose, but Ray’s portrait captures the introspection and vulnerability of Joyce here wonderfully. Ray writes an entire biography of Joyce in a single image. Man Ray may have poked fun at his empathetic powers shown through his portraits in the epitaph he wrote for himself, "Unconcerned, but not indifferent." The list of famous artists Ray photographed (including a haunting picture of author Marcel Proust on his deathbed) documents the richness and diversity of the arts in Paris in the 1920s, a sea change in human consciousness in which Ray stood at the center. Not bad for an immigrant kid from South Philly.

Fire in the Sky

One of the most moving art experiences I’ve ever had didn’t take place in a museum or even an art gallery. It was when Annie, my wife, and I visited Pompeii, the ancient Roman city of 20,000 people tragically destroyed in the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD. Today, Vesuvius looms with a deceptive calm over the ruins of Pompeii (above), but experts believe that it will erupt again one day, perhaps undoing all of the excavations that have brought back this ancient world to us today.

Walking the streets of Pompeii, many things strike you. There’s a flatness to the town that inaccurately portrays what it once looked like. The upper stories of all the buildings were crushed under the tons of volcanic ash, leaving only the bottom stories standing. Stray dogs amble among the ruins, begging for scraps from the tourists. But what strikes you the most are the figures of the dead. When the early archaeologists working on the site discovered empty pockets in the ash, they soon realized that those pockets once contained the remains of the dead. The remains decomposed over time, but the shape of their bodies was preserved in the ash. Filling the pockets with plaster and then digging the ash away, researchers created macabre sculptures (such as the one above) of people and animals in their final moments. Although the figure above appears to be praying, he most likely was trying to cover his mouth as the deadly fumes and falling ash suffocated him. A “statue” of a pregnant woman may be the most disturbing of these figures. Seeing these figures in books always made them seem “clean” or antiseptic, not “real” people. (I’ve always wondered if George Segal modeled his depersonalized figures after Pompeii’s dead.) However, many of these plaster casts themselves are now decaying, revealing the skeletons inside, bringing back very vividly the reality that these are indeed human remains deserving of our tender care.

Many of the great frescos and statuary no longer remain in Pompeii out of fear of robbery. Some of the lesser frescos remain, however, in situ. Others, now in museums, such as the Dionysiac Mystery Frieze (above) from the Villa of the Mysteries, show the vivid color that survived millennia. If you get the right tour guide (and we were lucky enough to have a great one), he’ll show you some of the more risqué frescos that still grace the insides and even some of the outsides of the homes of Pompeii. The more pious may see Vesuvius’ eruption as a judgment on this sexual licentiousness, but I found it not only amusing but also enlightening to see these people as living, sexual, vivacious human beings just like we are today.

Perhaps my favorite Pompeii memory was seeing the Cave Canem mosaic (above) (Latin for “Beware of Dog”) on the doorstep of one of the homes. This homely touch powerfully brought home the reality of these people living back then when tragedy struck. The end came so fast that archaeologists found half-baked bread still in ovens when they dug out one bakery. The Romans of Pompeii lived a life of pleasure and art that sadly ended in a whirlwind of flame and destruction. The least we can do today is look back, marvel for a moment, and carpe diem in their memory.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Representing Truth, Not Power

One of my annual Christmas gifts to Annie, my wife, is a calendar of one of her favorite artists—Alphonse Mucha, born on this date in 1860 in what was then known as Moravia, later Czechoslavakia. Mucha epitomizes the beauty of the Art Nouveau style. The women in Mucha’s paintings and illustrations become goddesses in his hands, such as the embodiment of Summer (above) from 1896, part of a series of the four seasons. The organic swirls of the tendrils of hair echo the greenery around these figures, harmonizing humanity and nature. Decadence almost oozes out of these images. Mucha, however, was more than just a painter of pretty pictures.

After moving to Paris in 1887, Mucha became involved in the theater, especially posters promoting the greatest talents of the Paris stage. Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps the most famous actress of that era, found her creative soul mate in Mucha, who created indelible images of her work in such roles as Medea (above). Although of Slavic descent, Mucha flourished on French soil, becoming an integral part of the art scene. He befriended Paul Gauguin and even shared a studio with him after Gauguin’s return from Tahiti in 1893 (an arrangement that turned out much better than Gauguin’s previous experience with Van Gogh). Mucha’s work appeared everywhere, on posters and even commercial advertising. (A collection of some of these beautiful images appears here).

Mucha, however, always remained a Slav at heart. In 1911, he began a series of paintings collectively known as his Slavic Epic. After the Battle of Vitkov: God Represents Truth, not Power, Mucha’s condemnation of the wars that have marred centuries of Slavic history, appears above. When an independent Czechoslovakian state emerged in 1918, Mucha designed the first stamps and currency for the fledgling nation. Mucha presented his complete Slavic Epic to the people of Czechoslovakia as a gift in 1928. Sadly, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Mucha was among the first citizens arrested. Although he was soon released, the experience took too much of a toll on his health and he soon died. The Nazis banned the public from attending Mucha’s funeral, but 100,000 Czechs defied that ban to pay tribute to their great national artist. To the end, Mucha represented truth in his love of country and dedication to art, despite the powers aligned against him.

The Importance of Being Caricatured

Max Beerbohm, born on this date in 1872, poked fun at and took part in the most exclusive circles of Victorian art and culture. Almost a professional partygoer, Beerbohm was the fly on the wall who could affectionately parody the great artists, all while denying his own talents. In his series of images titled Rossetti and his Friends, Beerbohm took aim at the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood surrounding Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Above, in the drawing long-windedly titled The Name of Dante Gabriel Rossetti Is Heard in for the First Time in the United States of America, Oscar Wilde promotes the merits of Rossetti before an American audience during his tour there as a dour portrait of Abraham Lincoln looks on.

“Be it remembered that long before this time there had been in the heart of Chelsea a kind of cult for Beauty,” Beerbohm once wrote of Rossetti’s circle. “Certain artists had settled there, deliberately refusing to work in the ordinary official way, and `wrought,' as they were wont to asseverate, `for the pleasure and sake of all that is fair.' Little commerce had they with the brazen world. Nothing but the light of the sun would they share with men. Quietly and unbeknown, callous of all but their craft, they wrought their poems or their pictures, gave them one to another, and wrought on. Meredith, Rossetti, Swinburne, Morris, Holman Hunt were in this band of shy artificers. In fact, Beauty had existed long before 1880. It was Mr. Oscar Wilde who managed her de'but.” The trials and tribulations of the Pre-Raphaelites, perhaps the preeminent soap opera of art history, provided more than enough material for Beerbohm to attack. Beerbohm deflates much of the puffed-up super-seriousness of the Victorians, who were keen on grand proclamations and spat manifestos on aesthetics as easily as breathing. Rossetti’s Courtship (above) recreates the moment when the artist began his passionate pursuit of his model Elizabeth Siddal, but mercifully avoids the details of her untimely end.

Beerbohm’s omnipresence in the Victorian age always reminds me of Woody Allen’s character in Zelig. Somewhere in the picture you will always find Max, recording the quips and quirks around him for posterity. His Mr. Sargent at Work shows John Singer Sargent painting a wealthy patron to the accompaniment of string instruments, something Beerbohm himself witnessed. Beerbohm’s work gives us a glimpse at the other side of the Victorian façade, revealing the humanity and humor of these memorable artists.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Why Duchamp Matters

“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using as my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning."

—Stephen Daedalus speaking in
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Marcel Duchamp and James Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Daedalus would have gotten along famously. Both saw the modern condition not only for the artist but also all people to be one of “silence, exile, and cunning.” T.J. Demos’ The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp examines how Duchamp made use of the condition of exile to forge a new type of existence to resist the forces around him. Struggling against the erasure of individuality by both fascism and nostalgic visions of “the home,” Duchamp clings to a self-described “spirit of expatriation” in which his “refusal to be at home even while at home… became at once an antifascist ethics and an aesthetics of exile.” Duchamp becomes a man without a country, a self-declared outlaw (going so far as to create his own wanted poster, above) in a world in which any identity other than those deemed “legal” by the establishment becomes criminal.

Demos centers his argument around several landmark works by Duchamp, beginning with Duchamp’s La boîte-en-valise (“box in a suitcase”), aka, the Portable Museum (above). Escaping from the Nazi occupation of Paris in May 1940 while posing as a cheese merchant, Duchamp carried his oeuvre with him in the form of small photographic reproductions of his works inside a suitcase. Viewing the early 1940s through the ideas of Theodore Adorno and other theorists, Demos sees “a horrific convergence between capitalist homogenization and the fascist extermination of difference.” Caught in this convergence, Duchamp’s Portable Museum “betrays the impossible desires for the home in a period of homelessness, and for objects when possessions have been lost.” Within the European diaspora of World War II, Duchamp and his Portable Museum resist first the fascism and nationalism roaring towards war and yet also avoid the trap of capitalism’s depersonalizing power. Demos leans heavily on a Marxist reading of capitalism here, showing his roots in the Rosalind Krauss school of art history (Demos thanks Krauss for supervising the dissertation that became this book) and that school’s theory-heavy approach. However, Demos rarely strays too far from the art itself and, more importantly, Duchamp himself. The same tense tightrope walk that Demos sees Duchamp walking between fascism and capitalism, Demos himself walks between disconnected anecdote and purely theoretical abstraction. Both funambulists stay upright, keeping their eyes straight ahead.

This tense middle ground between two undesirable extremes continues in Demos’ exploration of another Duchamp work—his Sculpture for Traveling, a series of cut up bathing caps that could be strung up, taken down, and restrung again and again. This “multicolored spider’s web,” as Duchamp called it, accompanied him on his self-imposed exile from America in 1918 as the United States involvement in World War I created “the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere of the patriotic environment” that generated “a corrosive energy… ruin[ing] equivalence and unity, subverting self-same identity.” Fleeing the fervor for war, Duchamp sailed for Buenos Aires mulling over issues of identity in the face of engulfing nationalism. Whereas the Portable Museum created a space for art free of all restrictions of place, ideology, and nationality, the Sculpture for Traveling not only exists “in the field of dislocation, but [also] produce[s] its very experience.” The Sculpture for Traveling is the experience of traveling itself, “propos[ing] a perpetual state of flux that can only momentarily be pinned down.” Seeking that same state of fluxing freedom for himself, Duchamp refused to be pinned down by any place or concept of identity not originating from within.

When the Surrealists staged their Exposition International du Surrealisme in 1938 in Paris, as Hitler lurked offstage, Duchamp designed an exhibit space that would exile art itself from its own privileged place. Above the heads of gallery goers, Duchamp hung 1200 used coal bags (above) as German martial music played in the background (eerily presaging the Holocaust perhaps, with the repetitive bags standing in for the numerous, faceless dead Jews). By 1938, reality had caught up with Surrealism, robbing it of its shock value in the face of the coming horrors of war. The establishment had embraced the Surrealists and stolen their shock value. Through his coal bags, Duchamp “enlarg[es] the scale of the surrealist intervention, in effect bringing its disruption to an architectural level.” By taking it to this next level, Duchamp critiques the ideology through architecture of fascism and nationalism, as had been witnessed just one year before in Paris at the 1937 International Exposition, where Germany and Russia created dueling grandiose pavilions facing one another. Demos sees Duchamp’s coal bags as not only mocking these fascist regimes but also as engaging capitalism’s “new industrial order… that both engulfed its objects and produced an alienation from them.” Again, neither side provides an acceptable alternative.

The lure of capitalism and the safe haven of America, however, tempted Duchamp and his fellow exiled Surrealists. In October 1942, the exiled Surrealists staged an exhibit titled “First Papers of Surrealism,” alluding to the “first papers” or United States citizenship applications they and all other European refugees were filing as war raged in their former homeland. Duchamp, recognizing the dangers of this new “home,” visually scribbled all over this mass application for acceptance. Taking 16 miles of twine, Duchamp created a webby labyrinth (above) entangling all of the Surrealists hopes. Instead of an oasis of peace and understanding, Duchamp transforms the gallery “into a space of conflict, one that travestied the display of artworks by visually crossing them out, prohibited the intimacy of physical access to them, and drew into an explosive proximity the irreverence of such an apparently juvenile gesture with the seriousness of the artistic aspirations of surrealism at this time.” Duchamp essentially sticks his thumb into the eye of the nostalgic viewer looking for connection and safety, refusing to allow anyone to find any sense of belonging because he himself knows that any such beliefs are untrue. By “turn[ing] exile into an object of analysis,” Duchamp “introduced a political framework to a display of art intent on escaping it, one that announced the problematization if not the impossibility of artistic practice within the context of world war.” Every time that someone was there to offer a hope, Duchamp was there to dash it, brashly refusing anyone the luxury of false hopes and gently saving us the pain of their eventual discovery.

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” once wrote Samuel Beckett, another modernist exile who most likely understood Duchamp’s goals well. Just as Duchamp seems most frustrating in his refusal of all alternatives, the scales fall from your eyes and you see exile itself as the only alternative. In Demos' argument, Duchamp preaches an “open ontology of being” transcending the particulars of his time, in which “the very status of human existence, forever locked into a form of exile from others and from itself,” finds relief and, perhaps, joy in a status of “escape from ultimate arrest.” For Duchamp, freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose—home, country, career. In his vision of freedom, Duchamp offers hope to all refuges of place and of spirit. This hope proves that Duchamp truly matters, still. For all those Americans feeling exiled from within their own country, strapped into a runaway rollercoaster of unconstitutionality, torture, and militarism, Duchamp offers a way out. “Herein lies the promise of a glorious intoxication,” Demos writes of Duchamp’s final solution to exiled humanity’s ills, “which is only ever available once one acknowledges and passes through the labyrinth.”

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

Fallen Nature

Steeped in the images of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, Graham Sutherland developed a spiritual vision of nature around him, taking those natural forms and twisting and torqueing them with the pulsating life he saw within. Sutherland, born on August 24, 1903, soon distorted those natural scenes so much that he was tagged as the English Surrealist, and even exhibited with Surrealist groups. When the world itself turned surreal in the dark days of World War II, Sutherland’s friend, the art critic Sir Kenneth Clark, found work for him as a war artist for Britain. The City: A Fallen Lift Shaft (above) shows London during “the Blitz,” a nightmare wasteland of shattered walls and twisted metal. Sutherland’s imaginative world had merged with his real one, but with a sad, sad difference.

In 1946, Sutherland received a commission to paint a crucifixion scene for for St. Matthew's Church in Northampton, England. The result (above) created a new paradigm for religious art in England. Sutherland captured the pathos and disjointed psyche of the postwar world in his Crucifixion as aptly as Matthias Grunewald had expressed the agony of his age in his Isenheim Altarpiece. Sutherland’s Crucifixion was later moved to the Tate Museum, where it stood next to the work of Francis Bacon, whose own triptychs expressed the same angst as Sutherland’s work. Bacon clearly felt the influence of Sutherland, and Sutherland befriended and championed Bacon very early on in the younger artist’s career.

Sadly, not everyone was ready for Sutherland’s type of painting. To celebrate the 80th birthday of Winston Churchill, the British government commissioned Sutherland to paint his portrait (above). Churchill hated it. Churchill’s wife hated it even more and actually destroyed it. This portrait of Churchill clearly shows the cross-influence of Bacon’s portraits, injecting a sense of menace and anxiety into what the British government and the Churchills were hoping would be a laudatory portrayal. Instead, Sutherland seems to merge Churchill’s image with his Crucifixion, affixing the stain of the war onto the visage of the wartime leader, irreversibly bonding the two, just as the two had become irreversibly bonded in the popular imagination. Whereas the authorities wanted a glorified vision of the war years, Sutherland’s honesty and clear-eyed view of war’s destruction could only show those years for the horror that they were.