Friday, September 28, 2007

Out in the Open

Springtime (in Chatou), 1872-73, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French 1841-1919). Oil on canvas, 23 ¼ x 29 1/8 inches. Private collection

“You can almost feel yourself getting hayfeaver,” said John Zarobell, associate curator of European painting before 1900 at the PMA, while standing before Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Springtime (in Chatou) (above) , one of the many eye-opening landscapes of the new PMA exhibit Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883. Along with Colin Bailey (formerly of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) and Christopher Riopelle (from the National Gallery of London), Zarobell co-curated this amazing exploration of Renoir’s landscapes that reveals Renoir as a more thoughtful, experimenting, and diverse artist than is commonly believed, bringing a new Renoir known only by scholars out in the open. (During today's press preview, Zarobell pointed out that his two co-curators were his predecessors in his current position at the PMA, making the show a testament to the scholarship of the PMA in the past and today.)

Many of the paintings in the show have never been part of a Renoir exhibition before. In fact, one painting, a portrait with landscape that greets patrons in the first room of the exhibit, was believed to be lost until recently and was unearthed as part of the research for the show. (The portrait, In the Rose Garden, is owned by Steve Wynn and his wife. Apparently it was at the Bellagio. Thank God they got to it before Wynn got too close.) These little-seen or almost unseen Renoirs provide surprises not only for the museumgoer but also for the Renoir scholar, making it truly an exciting exhibit.

Zarobell talked through the thought process behind the installation. Using period photographs and journal illustrations from the PMA’s permanent collection, Zarobell sets up the context of landscape in nineteenth century France first, orienting the viewer to the conventions Renoir worked within, most especially the idea that a landscape can include figures and still be a landscape. Zarobell neatly blows up the strike against Renoir that his interest in the figure somehow precludes his landscapes, allowing the viewer to see the landscapes in the spirit in which they were made.

Throughout, the installation clearly illustrates how Renoir interacted with the known conventions of landscape as well as with fellow artists such as Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne. Zarobell explained how the concept of “pure landscape” devoid of the human figure didn’t exist before 1874, and how Renoir embraced that concept as well before moving on again, particularly to his landscapes painting during his time in Algeria and then Venice.

Venice, the Doge's Palace, 1881, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French 1841-1919). Oil on canvas, 21 3/8 x 25 3/4 inches. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Seeing the Algerian, aka, Arab, pictures up close really impressed me. I’ve always ranked Renoir below Monet and Degas among the Impressionists, but I couldn’t help but be bowled over by the freedom and experimental quality of these works, as if the exotic location brought out a different side of Renoir. Italian works such as Venice, the Doge’s Palace (above), painted in 1881, the same year as the Arab pictures, show a more commercial side to Renoir, without compromising quality.

Zarobell placed Renoir in a totally different context for me when he explained how Renoir’s dealer tried to follow the successful sales of the Arab pictures with a sale of the Italian pictures, which failed miserably. Renoir had asked his dealer to hold the Italian scenes back, to “let them age like wine.” A more calculating, sophisticated, self-promoting Renoir emerges in this image of an artist astutely taking the measure of his audience while continuing to innovate and create new ways of seeing. After reading Petra ten-Doesschate Chu’s The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture explain how Courbet similarly but more extravagantly approached self-promotion and the marketing of his works, Renoir came alive for me as an artist truly of his time, interacting with the transforming society around him and actively carving out his own place in it. The Renoir of the “pretty pictures” and little else falls away, restoring him to a fully dimensional creative artist and someone who can speak to our own visual and media-obsessed culture as much as his own.

[Many thanks to the PMA for inviting me to the Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883 press preview and for the images from the exhibition shown above. The exhibit opens to the public on October 4th and runs through January 6, 2008. The PMA is the only United States venue for this show.]

Random Thoughts on Renoir

A few quick thoughts on the Renoir Landscapes 1865-1883 press preview (see above):

(1) I’ll be writing up a review of the catalogue to the exhibit soon. Hearing John Zarobell speak, I realized that he’s even more erudite and charismatic in person than he is in print. It was truly a pleasure to hear him hold forth on Renoir for over an hour, which seemed like 15 minutes.

(2) The free booklet available at the exhibit has many of the great paintings reproduced, but the colors in the printing are really off. Many seem to be shifted too red, especially Renoir’s The Wave from 1882. Standing in front of the painting itself and looking at the booklet, it was tragic how far off the colors were.

(3) The exhibit gift shop carries the normal array of prints and kitsch, but I was especially impressed by the number of Renoir-related books for kids. Renoir’s sensual, deeply felt art translates very well to children, which makes this exhibit and these books a great opportunity to expose children to art.

(4) The PMA may have the nicest guard staff in the museum world. One guard stopped me and asked me my age. When I told her 40, she said that I looked 16. Some of my more seasoned and illustrious colleagues in the press may have made me look younger by comparison, but 16’s definitely a stretch. It was nice to hear, though. If the PMA is listening, please give her a raise.


Do you know anyone who does not love the work of Caravaggio, born on this date in 1573? Today, we stand before his works dumbfounded by their intensity and psychological insight, probing with our eyes to unlock their secrets like St. Thomas probing the wound in Christ’s side above in Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St. Thomas (above, from 1601-1602). How is it possible that Caravaggio’s work, so influential during his lifetime, fell into obscurity after his death until the early twentieth century? Hard to believe, but true. Even David Hockney’s accusations of Caravaggio “cheating” with a camera obscura can’t break the spell, at least for me, of his paintings’ power.

Caravaggio calls to us from the shadows of history, much like Christ calling St. Matthew to follow him in Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew (above, 1599-1600). The details of Caravaggio’s life remain murky, thanks to his unorthodox lifestyle, frequent travels, and lack of letters or journals. Because of this documentary void, scholars have to rely on the masterpieces he left in his wake and, unfortunately, his frequent run-ins with the law. Simon Schama’s The Power of Art portrayed Caravaggio as a swashbuckling madman, letting his sword do the talking for the most part. In his silence, Caravaggio seems even more timeless, able to slip noiselessly from his generation to ours as easily as the characters in The Calling of St. Matthew slip anachronistically into late 17th century Italian clothing.

Even if Caravaggio “cheated” with painting aids (and I think that’s a huge “if”), there’s no way he could have “cheated” in creating such psychologically astute characters. Figures such as those in The Sacrifice of Isaac (above, from 1601-1602) live and breathe and give life to the old Bible stories—greater sermons than most clerics could possibly present. What an eye Caravaggio must have had to walk to the streets and find the grizzled old men and beautiful yet hardened prostitutes that would become saints and madonnas. When Caravaggio painted the Virgin Mary in his The Death of the Virgin using sketches he had made of a notorious prostitute moldering in the town morgue, he created the understandable stir, but the people couldn’t argue with the results.

One of the highlights of the Vatican Museum’s galleries for me was seeing Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ (above, from 1602-1603). Surrounded by contemporary works by the Caravaggisti, those painters from all over Europe who saw and almost instantly imitated Caravaggio’s style, The Entombment stands above all the rest. Not until critics such as Roberto Longhi and Bernard Berenson rediscovered Caravaggio in the early twentieth century did he reclaim his rightful place in the art pantheon. Caravaggio’s work is so intertwined with Catholicism in my mind that I find it hard to believe that he was ever out of fashion. Michelangelo captures the soaring beauty of Catholicism for me, the muscular nudes pointing to the zenith of humanity as a reflection of God’s own image. Caravaggio, on the other hand, remains on the ground, toiling with the sinners and the soiled saints in the shadows, rising up into the light bit by bit, reminding us that for every soaring moment of Michelangeloesque grandeur in Christianity, there are countless moments of earthly pain and struggle as hard and real and, ultimately, as conquerable as the tomb's lid in The Entombment.

Against the Tide

In The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism, Ross King shows how the Parisian art world of the second half of the 19th century lined up in two opposing camps, the conservative, establishment painters of the Salon versus the rising tide of Impressionism, led by Edouard Manet and others. Alexandre Cabanel, born September 28, 1823, stood with the establishment and against Manet et al. In works such as The Birth of Venus (above), from 1863, Cabanel toed the line when it came to the tradition of the nude and closed ranks with his fellow Salon painters William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Ernest Meissonier. Cabanel's sanitized, bloodless, mytholigized nude couldn't stand up to the flesh and blood women Manet would present to the world. Posterity, of course, has not been on their side. If anything, their opposition fired up the Manet and his friends even more.

Cabanel was Napoleon III’s painter of choice. Napoleon III actually purchased The Birth of Venus, which serves as a concise example of what Manet’s Olympia flew in the face of. Cabanel certainly could paint, as could all of the conservative, Salon-accepted painters, who perpetuated their style by serving on juries for the Salon exhibitions that could make and break careers. Today, both The Birth of Venus and Olympia hang in the Musee D’Orsay, as different as two contemporary paintings could possibly be. As beautiful as such paintings as Cabanel’s Albayde (above, from 1884) are, they lack a life that Manet’s depictions of contemporary living do. The times in Paris were changing, and Cabanel and others were desperately trying to stop the clockhands.

Cabanel’s painting Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners (above) seems almost laughable against Manet’s contemporary scenes today. From our perspective, such costume drama seems weak next to the vibrancy of those who were painting the world around them. From their perspective, however, Cabanel’s grand history painting drew in the crowds, appealing to the very taste that the Salon tastemakers had created. By supplying their own demand, Cabanel and his cohorts, like Cleopatra, picked their own poison, painting their own way to the end and into relative obscurity. It’s interesting to contrast Cabanel’s reaction to that of Jean-Leon Gerome, a fellow Salon painter and instructor who also painted grand historical scenes. Gerome continued to paint in his fashion, but taught artists such as Thomas Eakins to go their own way and paint the world around them, if they chose. After returning to America, Eakins sent watercolors of his rowing scenes to his old teacher, showing him the direction he had taken and would take in American art. Gerome approved. If Cabanel and others could have “gone with the flow,” too, they may have survived the Impressionist flood and, perhaps, avoided the controversy that gave them their first entrance into the public consciousness.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Under the Volcano

Born at the foot of a volcano, Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco played in the yard as a young boy as the volcanic ash would waft down. In recently aired episode of the PBS American Masters series on Orozco, we learn that he was in many ways a “man on fire” full of spiritual, political, and artistic convictions. Unjustly overshadowed by his contemporaries Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Orozco’s reputation gets a great boost in this beautifully produced documentary, full of the life, humor, and horror Orozco experienced and transformed into art. Like his Prometheus mural (above, from 1930) at Pomona College in California, Orozco brought down a fiery spark from the heavens for the benefit of his fellow man and woman.

I confess that I knew little about Orozco before seeing this documentary, which is still being run on PBS channels across America. After seeing Orozco’s stunning work, which combines Expressionist technique with the baroque spirituality and humor of Mexico, you’ll agree that his name belongs right there beside those of Rivera, Siqueiros , and Frida Kahlo in the pantheon of Mexican artists of the twentieth century. The sensibility that portrays Jesus as Liberator (above), from the Modern Migration of the Spirit mural at Dartmouth College in Hannover, New Hampshire, deserves greater fame. Orozco shows Jesus sprung from the cross, wielding the axe he has just used to chop down his cross as a sign that he is no longer the meek Lamb of God, hero of the suffering masses, but the Lion of God, leading those masses to freedom. Amazingly, Orozco did all of this with one hand, having lost the other in a tragic fireworks accident. Orozco actually burned the amputated hand to ashes himself, making a ritual of the loss and seeing it as a sign that fate had destined him to be a painter by making him unsuited for anything else. This PBS American Masters documentary shows how Orozco seized that destiny and turned his disability into a liberating vision for all.

A Man of Few Words

Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Drug Store, 1927, oil on canvas; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of John T. Spaulding, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Continuing the season of Edward Hopper surrounding the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the NGA presents Edward Hopper: A National Gallery of Art Film Presentation narrated by comic actor Steve Martin. In this short, 30-minute film now available on DVD and to be shown on PBS in America, the NGA condenses the impressive exhibit catalogue into a beginner’s course on Hopper, yet adds the captivating element of film of the man himself. Juxtaposing photos of the buildings and locations Hopper painted with the paintings themselves, the viewer sees through Hopper’s eyes, recognizing the stark beauty and emotional weight of familiar settings such as Drug Store (above).

Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Nighthawks, 1942, oil on canvas; The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection, 1942.51; Photograph by Robert Hashimoto

Carol Troyen, co-curator of the exhibit from the MFA in Boston; Judith Barter, co-curator from the Art Institute of Chicago; and Avis Berman, author of Edward Hopper’s New York provide expert commentary on the man and his work. Artists Red Grooms and Eric Fischl discuss their debt to Hopper and present their own works as evidence. Seeing these experts discuss Hopper while sitting in his Greenwich Village studio and then seeing Hopper himself interviewed in archival footage in that same studio, you feel a palpable connection between those speaking today and the past. To see and hear Hopper speak in that trademark laconic fashion with downturned eyes, you instantly connect the man who had no time or desire for small talk with paintings such as Nighthawks (above).

Carroll Moore, writer, director, and producer of the video, makes wonderful use of the medium to explore the relationship between Hopper and cinema. After watching a clip from The Public Enemy as an example of film noir in Hopper’s work, you almost expect Jimmy Cagney to walk out of one of Hopper’s pictures. Hopper’s influence on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Terrence Mallick’s Days of Heaven, Wim WendersThe End of Violence, and even Steve Martin’s Pennies from Heaven (directed by Herbert Ross) proves just how powerful a hold Hopper could take (and still takes) on the creative mind.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967), The Lighthouse at Two Lights, 1929, oil on canvas; Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hugo Kastor Fund, 1962, Photograph © 1990 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Location shots in Maine and Massachusetts to show where Hopper painted such works as The Lighthouse at Two Lights (above) allow you to experience yourself the feelings Hopper may have had in those surroundings. One of the DVD extras presents productions stills from the crew’s time in Cape Cod and Gloucester following in Hopper’s footsteps that will make you wish you were there with them. Carroll Moore and the NGA have created a great introduction to Hopper that also works as a wonderful refresher course for people who already know (or think they know) Hopper.

[Many thanks to Microcinema International for providing me with a review copy of this DVD. Many thanks also to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, for providing me with the images above from the exhibit.]

Down on the Farm

James Wyeth, Portrait of Pig, 1970

In his previous book, Wyeth People, Gene Logsdon tried to get at the heart of the art of Andrew Wyeth through his models, delving into their connection with the artist as well as their connection with the places so important to them and Wyeth. In his new book, The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse, Logsdon returns to Wyeth country with an emphasis on the country—emphasizing the connection with the land and farming as the source not only of Wyeth’s art but of a larger agrarian culture. Works ranging from Jamie Wyeth’s Portrait of Pig (above) to the novels of Bobbie Ann Mason to composer Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring all rise out of this shared source of artistic inspiration. Logsdon sees “a new agrarian culture emerging” today whose “artistic impulse… is driven by their shared agrarian impulse.” In The Mother of All Arts, Logsdon hopes “to speak with the voice of those millions of silent agrarians and farmers who have been forever the subject matter of a large body of visual art, literature, and music but who are seldom allowed a forum to say what they think about art.” Logsdon sets up the soapbox and breaks that silence.

Karl J. Kuerner, Counting Sheep, 2004

Breaking his analysis into the fields of visual art, literature, and music, Logsdon begins with visual art, where his argument is strongest, mainly thanks to the Brandywine School of painting surrounding the Wyeth clan. N.C. Wyeth, whom Logsdon calls “the father of agrarian art,” stands at the head of a long line of like-minded artists firmly rooted in the land that reaches down to his son Andrew, his son-in-law Peter Hurd, his grandson Jamie, and the grandson of his neighbor, Karl J. Kuerner, student of Andrew and Carolyn Wyeth and painter of works such as Counting Sheep (above). “The only way you can understand any of us is through understanding N.C. Wyeth,” Hurd tells Logsdon. “That’s the key. He gave us our realistic approach, so-called, and he gave us our respect for the so-called regional, finding greatness or beauty in the near at hand.” Logsdon posits a theory of art as a mode-locking or synchronization in which “sympathetic vibrations flow” between artist and model, artist and subject, and even painting and viewer. “If that were true, then the subject of a painting, be it a tree, a person, a cow, or whatever, is as much a part of the creative process as the artist himself—might sometimes be the greater part of it.”

Logsdon sees this neo-Platonic, Romantic vision of nature as connecting with the human imagination as the source of agrarian art in all media as well as how we appreciate that art. We see a painting by Andrew Wyeth and connect with the landscape and rural structures because of an unconscious “farm gene” present even in those who may never have stepped foot on a farm. Of course, not everyone may have that “farm gene.” Logsdon would argue that the “farm gene” is often suppressed by urban prejudice. “There is abundant evidence of prejudice against rural people in art criticism, and that prejudice must be taken into account in any discussion of agrarian art,” Logsdon complains.

Gary Ernest Smith, Snow, 1993

Logsdon’s argument falters when he expands it beyond the boundaries of the Brandywine School. As much as he tries to fold in other artists such as Gary Ernest Smith (painter of Snow, above), it always seems an awkward stretch. His concept of “sympathetic vibrations” works well with the Wyeths because they profess similar feelings while making their art, always conscious of the “vibe” or spirit of a place or person when making their images. The personal connection of the Wyeths with their subjects resembles a conjurer’s spell in many ways—maintain the spell and the trick works, but break the spell and all tumbles down. Logsdon knows this fact firsthand after Andrew Wyeth himself begged Logsdon to stop talking to his models for Wyeth People because it was disturbing the special atmosphere he had so long cultivated and needed to maintain to continue painting. From the beginning, Logsdon qualifies his claims by stating that not all art stems from the agrarian impulse, but his strident claims for the primacy of agrarian art drown out those earlier sotto voce qualifiers.

The Mother of All Arts suffers from an agrarian persecution complex. Obviously, the story of American art is written mainly in the academies and the major art cities such as New York. Logsdon casts much of this art criticism as out of touch with the common person (reaching way back to a turgid prose passage by Dr. Albert C. Barnes as exhibit A). While commiserating with author Wendell Berry, Logsdon’s prime example of an agrarian author, Logsdon’s quotes Berry’s reason for his shunning by The New Yorker and its ilk: “I am in disagreement with their view of the world.” I agree with Logsdon when he bemoans the power of “experts.” “A society of such ‘experts’ wittingly or unwittingly cuts itself off from the kind of deep knowledge and insight that is necessary for physical and intellectual survival and for art,” he writes. “It cuts itself off from firsthand knowledge.” However, to claim counter-intuitively that the experts are always wrong and the hands-on folk always right takes the ad hominem attack beyond all acceptability. Andrew Wyeth, for example, is not a farmer. He grew up around farms, knew farmers, and observed them, but I’ll bet anything that he’s never hauled a bale of hay in his life. Logsdon discounts the power of observation and intellectual, secondhand knowledge that Wyeth clearly uses to promote an image (not a reality) of active engagement with the land as the only way to know it honestly and artistically. Logsdon’s “farm gene” tempers this line of reasoning, but, again, his bias overcomes the qualifiers.

Logsdon admits that The Mother of All Arts began as another book on Andrew Wyeth. As the strongest parts of the book concern Wyeth and his circle, perhaps Logsdon should have kept that focus instead of widening his scope. The section on agrarian literature allows Berry and other figures such as Harlan Hubbard, writer and “self-reliant homesteader,” a moment in the spotlight, but their writing always seems to be overshadowed by their mode of living. Logsdon’s exploration of music, founded in his belief “that country music lyrics taken together form a haphazard history of America (and very definitely a history of farming in America) as expressed, often with artful cleverness, by underprivileged and working class people” unravels from its openendedness. Aaron Copland, Gene Autry, Jimmie Rogers, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Ted Nugent, Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, and even Led Zeppelin file past in a strange procession of musicians Logsdon strives to link to the agrarian impulse to various degrees of success.

The Mother of All Arts offers Logsdon’s interesting perspective on the art of Andrew Wyeth and recovers the forgotten role that N.C. Wyeth played in fostering that rural aspect in his son’s life and art. In that respect, Logsdon contributes sensitively and insightfully to the literature on the Wyeths. However, once Logsdon tries to apply that special Wyeth magic formula to other artists across different media, he breaks the spell, not by revealing the secret of the trick but by dissipating the magic by stretching it to places it just can’t reach.

[Many thanks to the University Press of Kentucky for providing me with a review copy of this book and the images above.]

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Thinking Big

Theodore Gericault, born September 26, 1791, thought and painted big. The Raft of the Medusa (above) from 1819 stretches 23 feet wide and 16 feet high. Standing in front of it in the Louvre, you feel like you’re a castaway yourself, broiling under the sun and dying of hunger and thirst, just as someone cries out that a ship has been sighted. Outraged by the tale of the ship Medusa and how it’s incompetent captain led those people to misery, Gericault painted pure political rage on a grand scale. He sketched bodies in morgues to get the proper appearance of decay. The swirling classical nudes recall the figures of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment that Gericault had seen just a few years before during his travels in Italy. Upon The Raft of Medusa rode the tidal wave of Romanticism. Even Eugene Delacroix, Gericault’s fellow Romantic pioneer, hopped aboard, posing for the figure face down front and center.

Gericault could work on an intimate scale as well. When his friend, the pioneering psychologist Dr. E.J. Georget, asked him to paint portraits of some of his patients showing unique psychological conditions, Gericault showed that he could capture even the most tortured of souls. His Man with Delusions of Military Command (above), from 1819-1822, sympathetically and sensitively reproduces the troubled countenance of the unfortunate. Gericault painted kleptomaniacs and other conditions with equal insight, perhaps thanks to his own family’s history of psychological disorders and his own inner demons.

Gericault died in 1824 after years of chronic tuberculosis. In works such as The Wreck (above), Gericault presents his hopelessness. The Wreck may have been left unfinished at Gericault’s death, or he may have simply chosen to let the freer brushstrokes stand as testament to his emotional state. Even at the end, Gericault thought big, working on designs for large canvases titled Opening of the Doors of the Spanish Inquisition and African Slave Trade that he didn’t live long enough to realize. Gericault “lives” big even in death, residing in the most famous cemetery in the world—Pere Lachaise—with Delacroix, David, Proust, Wilde, and even Jim Morrison, among so many others.

(BTW, the recently published The Wreck of the Medusa: The Most Famous Sea Disaster of the Nineteenth Century by Jonathan Miles promises to tell not only the story of the doomed Medusa but also the wide-ranging cultural impact of the incident, including Gericault's painting.)

Mirror of Illusions

Considered by some the greatest living American artist of the first two decades of the 20th century, Arthur B. Davies fell into relative obscurity shortly after his death in 1928. Born September 26, 1862, Davies helped introduce European modern art into America through his involvement with the 1913 Armory Show, perhaps setting off the chain of events that led to his fallen reputation. In works such as Maya, Mirror of Illusions (above), from 1910, Davies created Symbolist netherworlds in his paintings, peopling them with nymph-like nudes in indistinct, yet evocative landscapes. Davies own personal life was spent in an illusory netherworld of his own making, too.

After moving to New York City in 1896, Davies began work as a magazine illustrator, developing the style that would lead to paintings such as The Hesitation of Orestes (above), from 1915-1918. Like his contemporary painter/illustrator Maxfield Parrish, Davies combined great draftsmanship with a flair for fantasy imagery that took fragments of past mythologies, such as the story of Orestes, and wove whole narratives around them. This narrative power and murky mysticism lead some to compare Davies’ work with that of Albert Pinkham Ryder, another contemporary working in the Symbolist vein. After some early successes, a benefactor paid for Davies to travel to Europe to study, where he encountered the latest trends in modern art.

Davies soaked up many of the influences he found in Europe. Dancers (above) shows the influence of Cubism as well as the bright palette of the Fauves { } . Davies soon aligned with like-minded Americans such as Alfred Stieglitz and Robert Henri and The Eight to bring modern art to America. The 1913 Armory Show that introduced Duchamp, Picasso, and other visionaries to America would not have happened without the efforts of Arthur B. Davies. After Davies’s death, the first president of the MoMA credited Davies with the idea of a modern art museum in America. While championing modern art in America, Davies led a kind of surreal personal life, first marrying a woman who had murdered her first husband and then living a double life between his wife and two children and his mistress and their child. The life and work of Arthur B. Davies, however, continue to defy the odds by remaining in obscurity.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Tragedy, Ecstasy, Doom, and So On

“[I’m] only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” Mark Rothko once wrote. “And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.” Born Marcus Rothkowitz on September 25, 1903 in Latvia, Rothko created works such as Untitled (Orange and Yellow) (above, from 1956) that reach directly into your heart, emotionally and aesthetically. Rothko’s multiform pictures, large unframed canvases full of giant bodies of color bleeding into one another, command and envelop a room. Many people see only an emptiness in these blocks of color, or just interesting composition. For those who allow their minds and hearts to ponder the range of feeling within them, Rothko becomes a religious experience.

The struggles that play out on Rothko’s multiforms mirror the struggles of his life. After suffering through the Russian pograms of his youth, his family moved to America in 1913. Mastering his new language of English (his fourth), Rothko excelled at school and earned a scholarship to Yale, leaving after one year. Rothko felt drawn to spiritual artists such as Paul Klee, Georges Rouault, and the German Expressionists before meeting fellow philosophical artist Barnett Newman in the 1930s. Through his conversations with Newman and his readings of Freud, Jung, Nietsche, and J.G. Frazer, Rothko developed an idiosyncratic view of myth and symbolism that he expressed in works such as The Omen of the Eagle (above), from 1942. But even those ancient symbols seemed unsatisfying in his mission to express those elusive “basic human emotions.”

Simon Schama’s episode on Rothko in The Power of Art series focuses on his 1958 Seagram Murals at the Tate Museum (one of which appears above). In these murals and other late works, such as those which eventually became the Rothko Chapel, Rothko achieved a nearly transcendent use of color and form approximating pure emotion and, perhaps, religious epiphany. Applying the paint to these images became such a demanding experience for Rothko that many of his later works were actually painted by assistants under his direction as his health began to fail. This intensity of his art may have contributed to his suicide in 1970. Schama’s treatment of Rothko presented his works in this cosmic intensity, pulling away from the murals and melding them into a vision of the starry heavens, as if they were doorways to another dimension. The Seagram Murals, with their square frame motifs, open the door to Rothko’s mind and philosophy and call us to join him in a voyage of self-discovery like few other artists can.

Running With the Devil

Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon examines the tormented love affair of Francis Bacon and his paramour George Dyer. Derek Jacobi plays Bacon and a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig plays the doomed George in this macabre 1998 film that tries to duplicate the madhouse atmosphere of Bacon’s art.

Rather than cover all of Bacon’s life, writer and director John Maybury focuses in on the seven years that Bacon spent with Dyer. Dyer literally falls into Bacon’s lap during a failed burglary attempt. Given the choice of jail or Bacon’s bed, George chooses the latter. If not for his studio, numerous mentions of Bacon’s talent in the dialogue, and a few scarce scenes of Jacobi flinging paint onto canvas, it would be hard to picture the Bacon of this film as a painter. Instead, Jacobi plays Bacon as a satyr, greedily consuming raw pleasure in all its forms. We see Bacon the denizen of the crowded pub, surrounded by similarly aging and declining gays, much clearer than Bacon the artist. Maybury, however, argues a compelling case that the party animal gave birth to the painter—the lust for life and pleasure in all forms as the obverse side of the coinage of Bacon’s art, especially its sense of emptiness and horror at modern existence.

Much of the cinematography plays with the distortion of faces, much like the blurred faces of Dyer in Bacon’s paintings of him (Bacon’s Study for Head of George Dyer is above). Extreme close-ups of people stuffing food into their faces become Hieronymus Bosch-like in their horrific intensity and bloated vacuousness. Maybury uses sound to wonderful effect in such scenes, making you hear the blood rushing in your ears just as George himself does, overwhelmed by the decadence and hopelessness around him.

Craig (above) portrays George as a twisted romantic, injured by Bacon’s indifference and his devil-may-care approach to their relationship. As George speeds toward his sad ended, propelled by alcohol, drug, and carnal abuses, we feel his pain both physically and psychically. The physicality of Craig’s performance, from the first fall into Bacon’s life to the final fall in a Paris hotel room on the eve of Bacon’s first museum retrospective, speaks much more eloquently for Dyer’s memory than the real-life pugilist and petty thief ever could in words.

Jacobi almost too easily slips into the darkness in Bacon’s soul. The imp of the perverse deep within Bacon refuses to embrace a true bond with George, regardless of how much part of Bacon wants it to happen, and Jacobi believably conveys this tension within the artist. Even after George’s death, Bacon cannot resist fortifying the public façade of indifference and nihilistic pleasure-seeking. But we gain access to the deep stare of deep longing Jacobi places on Bacon’s face as he sits alone in his studio (still image above), pondering his losses and mourning the pleasures won in exchange.

Love Is the Devil brings an intensity rarely seen in biographical films yet wholly apt to the subject of Bacon. Nothing else but everything could give justice to Bacon. I watched wishing that more of the art itself appeared, but in the end I realized that Bacon lived his pictures more than he painted them, so showing the end results was superfluous. The faint of heart should steer clear of Love Is the Devil. Rough sex, full frontal male and female nudity, and coarse sexual language assault the senses—again, much like a Bacon painting. In such a portrayal so in the spirit of its subjects, Jacobi, Craig, and Maybury bring home the Bacon.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Burning Down the House

In the September 24, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, Simon Schama, in his inimitable style, previews the J.M.W. Turner exhibition coming to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, next month. Schama examines Turner from the perspective of Turner’s nationalism, his dyed-in-the-wool Britishism, and how the exhibition brings that out. The story features my very favorite painting from the PMA’s permanent collection, The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 (above), one of two paintings Turner painted of the even (both appear in the show). In The Burning, Schama sees the British people, lined up along the bridge to watch the conflagration, united in watching the corruption of the old establishment burn away. Turner clearly sides with the people, the true source of “the nation.”

Schama also examines the rollercoaster ride Turner’s reputation has taken since his own lifetime. “The reasons for both the sanctification and the denunciation were more or less the same: Turner’s preference for poetic atmospherics over narrative clarity, his infatuation with the operation of light rather than with the objects it illuminated,” Schama writes. “His love affair with gauzy obscurity, his resistance to customary definitions of contour and line, his shameless rejoicing in the mucky density of oils or in the wayward leaks and bleeds of watercolors—these were condemned as reprehensible self-indulgence.” Turner’s style irked his contemporaries, but modern eyes see Impressionism and Expressionism being born in Turner’s “reprehensible self-indulgence.” Schama, however, warns that “we do Turner no favors by pinning the tinny little medal of First Modernist on him.” The subject matter of his paintings, especially when that subject was England, always matters to Turner more than mere atmospheric effects. In his always entertaining and educating way, Schama shows how Turner cannot be reduced to merely a proto-Modernist or a relic of the past. Instead, Schama shows how Turner remains relevant in his hopeful, creatively energetic vision of a national people free of the jingoism of some other brands of nationalism that plague our world today.

(BTW, Schama’s take on Turner’s nationalism and innate Britishness dovetails nicely with the NGA’s podcast on Turner’s affinity for Shakespeare, which I reviewed here.)

Bohemian Mystic

As a young man, Frantisek Kupka worked as a medium at séances, bridging the gap between this world and the next. Kupka, born September 23, 1871, used this true belief in the mystical and transcendent and created a form of abstract art that bridged the worlds of Fauvism and Cubism in works such as Planes by Colors, Large Nude (above) from 1909. This portrait of his wife Eugenie throbs with bright Fauvist color, taking the experiments of Henri Matisse even further, yet also incorporating Pablo Picasso’s Cubist explosion of the figure by seemingly looking into the insides of the body in an eerie prophesy of an MRI machine.

In works such as 1919’s The Colored One (above), Kupka uses explosively expressive color and evocative shapes to create an image totally divorced from this plane of reality to suggest higher planes. Born in Dobvuska, Bohemia, Kupka was truly a wild Bohemian, intensely spiritual in all aspects of his life. Although Kupka studied under Sequens and Eisenmenger, two minor members of the devoutly Christian German art school known as the Nazarenes, his spirituality never takes any orthodox form. He actually painted quite naturalistically until 1906, when he felt the constrictions of realism too greatly. After the transitional stage in which works such as The Large Nude were painted, Kupka allowed himself total freedom from recognizable subjects. “The work of art, being itself abstract reality,” Kupka once said, “needs to be made up of invented elements.”

Kupka composed with colors and geometric shapes the way musicians compose with notes and rhythms. He recognized this parallel and titled many of his works with musical terms, such as Amphora: Fugure in Two Colors (above) from 1912. Robert and Sonia Delaunay were greatly influenced by Kupka’s paintings and modeled their own Orphism style after his abstractions. This “fugue” seems fresh and striking even today in the evocative gestures and movement within the image. Kupka tries to pull the viewer into his realm of possibility, the spiritual plane of pure art freed from the bonds of the physical. With his contributions to the new ways of seeing in modern art, Kupka opened the doors for later abstract artists to explore and represent their own personal spiritual lives.

School Master

When Matthew Pratt’s cousin Betsy Shewell needed an escort for her trip to London in 1764 to marry the painter Benjamin West, Pratt jumped at the chance and changed the course of his life. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 23, 1734, Pratt became West’s assistant and then his first student, learning the profession of painting from one of the first accomplished painters associated with America. The American School (above) shows West’s studio in London circa 1765. West stands at the left, offering instruction to a student with a slate. Pratt places himself seated before the easel on the right, already seeing himself as a true professional. After four years with West, Pratt returned to Philadelphia in 1768 and embarked on his career as one of the premier portraitists of pre-Revolutionary America.

Philadelphia bustled with commercial, cultural, and political activity when Pratt returned to ply his trade. “The Athens of America” found itself at the crossroads of the waning days of colonialism and the emerging era of a new, free, democratic republic. Pratt painted royalists and revolutionaries alike. Figures such as William Henry Cavendish Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland (above), painted in 1774, with their frilly lace cuffs, represent the royalists still clinging to hope that a separation with England could be avoided. Pratt painted all the famous figures of Philadelphia, including the wife of then-mayor Samuel Powel, Elizabeth Willing Powel. That portrait still hangs in the restored Powel House in Philadelphia, as vibrant as the day it was painted. Pratt learned well from West, using the same smooth surface technique and simple colors of his teacher.

After the revolution began in 1776, Pratt’s fortunes wavered. In portraits such as that of Commodore John Barry (above), painted in the fateful year of 1776, Pratt tries to switch gears and keep up with the times. Unfortunately, the quick switch from high society to heroes of the revolution didn’t suit Pratt’s style. Other portrait artists, such as Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley, whom Pratt met in New York City in 1771, seamlessly adjusted to the new spirit in the air and churned out portraits of the new major society players. Pratt remains an interesting figure in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia for how he captured and in some ways epitomized a way of life on the way out.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Drawing in Space

All Julio Gonzalez wanted to do was “to draw in space.” Born September 21, 1876, Gonzalez grew up working in his father’s metalsmith shop, learning how to work and handle with metal shaping tools, curving, folding, cutting, and welding metal together to suit different purposes. Gonzalez found his purpose of life in art, especially after meeting Pablo Picasso and discovering the world of Cubism. Taking the intellectual concept of Cubism, Gonzalez added heart and humor, creating such works as Head (above) in 1935, with it’s tiny mouth full of sharp teeth and comic tuft of hair at the other end of the wide arc of metal suggesting the head itself.

Gonzalez first met Picasso in their native Spain in the late 1890s and met him again after moving to Paris in 1900. The two artists collaborated on several sculptures, with Gonzalez offering technical assistance and Picasso offering more philosophical advice. Gonzalez furthered the use of welding as an artistic technique and helped not only Picasso but also Constantin Brancusi in realizing their imaginative visions in cold hard steel. Woman Combing Her Hair (above) amazingly allows you to “see” the complete female figure in the metal, her hair suggested by the curved bars of metal trailing into space and the arch of her back shown in the smooth curve of the main metal torso. I’ve always loved Gonzalez’s sculpture because it follows the spirit of Cubism without disintegrating the image altogether, taking the cognitive leap in seeing that Cubism demands without excluding all but the initiated.

There’s also a Romanticism to Gonzalez’s work that the other Cubists seem to leave out in their sculptures and especially in the monochromatic paintings of Picasso and Georges Braque. The Kiss (above), from 1931, seems like an update of Auguste Rodin’s version. "It is high time," Gonzalez once wrote, "that this metal cease to be a murderer and the simple instrument of an overly mechanical science. Today, the door is opened wide to this material to be forged and hammered by the peaceful hands of artists." Gonzalez died in 1942, during the middle of World War II, sharing a studio and home with fellow artist Hans Hartung (with whom he also shared a birthday, see below). With his gift for making cold, hard metal bloom with the warmth of life, love, and peace, Gonzalez today seems more alchemist than sculptor.

Working from Scratch

While sharing a home and studio between 1937 and 1942 in France, Hans Hartung and Julio Gonzalez must have celebrated several birthdays together, amused that they shared a common birthday as much as a love of art. Hartung, born on this date in 1904, created some of the most beautiful gestural abstract works of the mid-20th century, such as T1963-R6 (above), from 1963, which displays no bitterness from the harsh treatment he suffered at the hands of the Nazis during the occupation of Paris and the pain of losing a leg while fighting for France in North Africa during World War II.

Hartung studied philosophy and art history at the University of Leipzig before turning his full attention to art and moving to Paris in the 1930s. After years of studying German artists such as Lovis Corinth and Emil Nolde, Hartung now studied Cezanne and Van Gogh and learned the secrets of Cubism. During this time, Hartung met Wassily Kandinsky, whose new style of abstraction inspired Hartung to create a style later known as Art Informel (also known as Tachisme), a kindler and gentler form of Abstract Expressionism in which gesture and rhythm become the elements of a piece. T1937-33 (above) shows the influence of Kandinsky on Hartung’s work. Although it looks like a random arrangement of shapes and gestures, Hartung carefully arranged the pieces on the canvas from smaller works of automatic drawings, hoping to capture the energy of those smaller pieces in a larger format.

When the Nazis occupied France during World War II, they labeled Hartung’s work as “degenerate art” and even imprisoned him for seven months. Sadistically, his captors placed him in a red-lined cell when they learned he was an artist, thinking the color would damage his eyes. Fortunately, Hartung was released and later fled to fight with the French Foreign Legion in North Africa. As thanks for his heroic service, France granted Hartung citizenship in 1945. In the 1960s, at the height of his reputation, Hartung developed a technique in which he scratched gestures into acrylic paint, such as in T1963-R6 (top of this post) and T1964-H31 (above). In T1964-H31, Hartung scratches into a two-toned surface of pure colors, as if he had taken a work by Mark Rothko and added his signature touches. I like to imagine that such an image represents the rising of a new dawn, a bright sun on the horizon for Hartung and Europe, after the sadness of two long wars.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Street Walkers

To celebrate the Neue Galerie’s recent acquisition and exhibition of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin Street Scene (above), painted in 1913-1914, the Neue Galerie published a companion book by Pamela Kort tracing the significance and following the long journey of the painting from Kirchner’s studio to their gallery in New York. With this publication, the Neue Galerie puts Berlin Street Scene prominently on the art world map and simultaneously reevaluates the reputation of Kirchner, helping elevate him to the highest echelon of German art.

Kirchner saw Berlin Street Scene as “authentic German drawing,” later commenting that, through “the rhombus of the heads that is twice repeated… life and movement arise from a basic geometric form.” Kort breaks down Kirchner’s painting using Kirchner’s own words to show how this attention to geometry and form, arising perhaps from his early architectural training, allowed Kirchner to create a whole new language of drawing. “Kirchner was eager to find a way of drawing that would register the essentials of reality without duplicating it,” Kort argues. This sense of essentials without complete verisimilitude appears in other works such as the colored woodcut of a café above. The bold lines and bolder red coloration recreate the bustle and sexual energy of the cafe more truly than any realistic representation.

Kirchner’s relationship with the Schilling sisters, Erna and Gerda, becomes central to Kort’s analysis of the painting. Writing of the Schillings, who became both his models and lovers, Kirchner says, “In thousands of drawings, prints, and paintings these bodies shaped my sense of beauty in creating the physically beautiful woman of our time.” (A nude study of one of the sisters appears above.) Kort shows how Kirchner used these two women as the launching point for a bold exploration of reality, a process of “synkrisis” involving “Kirchner’s mixing of different levels of reality.” Because of the pre-World War I crackdown on prostitution in Germany, prostitutes had to dress respectably and use subtle cues to hawk their wares—so subtle that well-to-do women were often confused for prostitutes (and vice versa). Kort shows how Kirchner takes advantage of this confusion to create multiple layers of identity for his female figures. “Social reality is not rendered here,” Kort writes, “It is aestheticized—even eroticized—as part of Kirchner’s pursuit to put down in paint the relational tensions of figures in the streets.”

Kort places Berlin Street Scene within the context of other street scenes painted by Kirchner between 1913 and 1915 and demonstrates how Kirchner increasingly became aware “the selling of the feminine mystique as a painted consumer item.” Like prostitution, modern art fell victim to increased official censorship in the run-up to World War I, linking the two in Kirchner’s mind. As female sexuality became more of a commercial enterprise, Kirchner increasingly saw the link between art and commerce. Other works such as Russian Dancer (above) show how the female figure had been reduced to a commodity, marketed and displayed like any other good for sale. In other works such as his Judgment of Paris, mimicking that of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Kirchner examines the dynamic of how women “asked to be looked at” and how men make the choices, just as the man in Berlin Street Scene chooses between the two women and Kirchner finally chose stable Erna (dressed in Berlin Street Scene in blue as “a kind of de-eroticized Madonna”) over the lusty Gerda (shown in Berlin Street Scene “swathed in red,… a dangerous siren”).

Kort follows with the sad dénouement of Kirchner’s life, starting with his embrace of National Socialism in the early 1930s stemming from his sense of German nationalism. “Interestingly,” Kort writes, “the more it became clear to him the extent to which his work was being driven to the perimeters of the German art scene, the more he underscored himself as a German artist.” By 1937, the Nazis had removed Kirchner’s works from German museums and included him in the "Degenerate Art" exhibit. Kirchner took his own life in 1938, leaving behind a final self portrait hidden behind another work that remained hidden until 1970. This final portrait leaves a haunting final image of this great artist.

Kort concludes the book with a brief history of the painting’s provenance from Kirchner’s hands to the Neue Galerie’s doorstep. It reads like a brief history of the tragic tale of art during Europe’s cataclysmal 20th century. The story of Berlin Street Scene’s improbably survival through two wars and restitution to the heirs of the rightful owners in 2004 reads like adventure fiction, except that you know it was too terribly real.

Although a slender volume, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Berlin Street Scene boasts many beautiful color reproductions and a plethora of photos of Kirchner and his circle as well as of the Berlin streets of the time. The electric blue endpapers featuring street maps and street scenes of Berlin circa 1914 first caught my eye and raised my expectations for greater things inside. I wasn’t disappointed. Pamela Kort takes Berlin Street Scene apart brick by brick and rebuilds it in our imagination just as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner rebuilt and reshaped it in his own.

[Many thanks to the Neue Galerie for providing me with a review copy of this book as well as the images above from the exhibition.]

Household Gods

Thanks to the prompting of a friend, I recently visited the Powel House (above) here in Olde City Philadelphia, one of the best examples of 18th century Georgian architecture in the city. Samuel Powel, the last pre-Revolutionary War and first post-Revolutionary War mayor of Philadelphia, purchased the home in 1769, four years after it was built. Along with his wife Elizabeth, Powel conducted business with and partied with the biggest names of colonial America. What really knocked me out was their collection of artworks.

A portrait of Powel painted by Angelica Kauffmann hangs in the entrance hall. In the dining room hangs a self-portrait by Kauffmann, allegedly a gift from her to one of Powel’s relations who had grown smitten with the artist while traveling in England. (A different self-portrait by Kauffman appears above.) Portraits of various family members cover the walls of both floors open to the public. Many show the common technique used by for hire portraitists of the time in which they painted standard bodies in their studio and then had the subject sit only for the head, which often didn’t match up properly with the body. A portrait of Elizabeth Powel by Matthew Pratt, one of the finest portraitists of colonial Philadelphia, shows just how far American art had come by that time. Upstairs, in the music room, where George Washington himself celebrated his birthday and his 20th wedding anniversary (reportedly without Martha), a portrait of a young woman related to the Powels painted by Gilbert Stuart shows his mature style at its best.

I found it fascinating to see this wonderfully restored home and how it reflected the art tastes of the time. An etching of a Rembrandt self-portrait displayed in one of the front rooms used for business testifies to the master’s renown at that time. Samuel Powel himself dabbled in the common form of amateur portraiture of the age known as the silhouette, creating two of George Washington now on display. Washington approved of the likeness shown above, but disapproved of the jowlier version with the double chin sagging beneath. Although you can fit everything I know about furniture on an IKEA gift card, even I could tell that the period furniture displayed was absolutely beautiful and built to last. If you’re ever in Philadelphia and have exhausted the big name tourist attractions, do yourself a favor and step back in time and see how the rich and powerful art lovers of that time lived.