Wednesday, October 31, 2007
On this date in 1541, Michelangelo unveiled his epic painting of The Last Judgment to the world, completing the work he began six years before. When I stepped into the Sistine Chapel years ago, I almost got whiplash trying to take in both The Last Judgment and the ceiling frescos all at once. Some people complain about the boldness of the colors after the 1993 restoration (as seen above), but I think that the boldness of the colors is perfectly in tune with the audacious composition and humanism that Michelangelo painted onto every inch of his mural.
Any discussion of The Last Judgment must start with the star of the show, Jesus Christ in majesty, separating the saved from the damned. However, instead of the bearded, early Ted Nugent-variety Christ common to Christian iconography today, here is a clean-shaven, nearly nude savior, the fresh-faced youth of Greek and Roman classical humanist ideals. Michelangelo’s Christ fully embodies the incarnation here, as real and as physical as those upon whom he passes judgment. Unfortunately, this rampant, exuberant humanism was too much for the generations after the Renaissance, who placed fig leaves upon the nude figures, ashamed of the human sexuality that Christ himself assumed unashamedly. Today, those fig leaves are gone, thankfully, even if the Church itself suffers from that old time sexual repression.
Michelangelo’s humor comes through in the image of St. Bartholomew holding his own flayed skin (above), one of the bizarre iconographic representations of saints in Christian art in which they brandish the means of their own martyrdom. The flayed skin is a Michelangelo's self-portrait. St. Bartholomew is reportedly modeled after one of Michelangelo’s harshest critics. “You flayed me while I was alive,” Michelangelo allegedly told the angered critic when he recognized himself as St. Bartholomew. “Now you’ll flay me for all eternity.” Even in the midst of the apocalypse, Michelangelo takes the time to show his lighter side.
What always strikes me about detail shots of The Last Judgment is the personalized psychology of each figure. Each saint and sinner acts out their own personal drama in the larger tableau and could stand alone as an entire independent work of art. The damned figure above ranks among my favorites, even though it’s easily lost in the cast of seemingly thousands flitting about. He covers one eye in fear of judgment while hopefully keeping the other eye open. Or maybe that other eye remains open in sheer fascination at the horror around him as Hell gapes open to accept the souls destined to go there. Either way, it’s impossible to take your eyes off The Last Judgment, especially in person, something that I’m sure was as true 466 years ago as it is today.
Almost nothing is known first hand of Jan Vermeer. Baptized into the Dutch Reformed Church on this date in 1632, the man known today through such images as The Girl with Pearl Earring (above, from 1665) and the spinoff novel and movie is both amazingly difficult and amazingly easy to write about. Writing about Vermeer than man is nearly impossible, a piecing together of documentary evidence without any first-hand accounts, letters, or journals to get at the psyche of the artist. On the other hand, writing about Vermeer is incredibly easy if you restrict yourself to the paintings themselves—whole miniature worlds full of symbolism, fine detail, and masterful composition. It’s hard to see The Girl With Pearl Earring now without thinking of Tracy Chevalier or Scarlett Johannson, but to see it with fresh eyes is to see an amazing image of light itself. The highlight on the pearl earring itself stuns the viewer with its intensity, a mini-sun in the middle of a cosmos of darks and lesser highlights. Perhaps all we really need to know about Vermeer really does exist in the paintings themselves.
Whenever I go to a new museum that I know has one of the 35 verified (for now) Vermeers, I always make a point of seeing it. Vermeer may be the single greatest artist whose entire body of work can be seen in a lifetime comfortably (not counting The Concert, of course, which was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990). When I went to the Louvre, I almost cried out when I found that their Vermeer, The Astronomer (above, from 1668), was on loan to another museum. I couldn’t believe that such works traveled anymore. The curators had placed a black and white reproduction on the wall in its place, mocking me and the other pilgrims who had come to see it worse than if they’d left the wall blank. I love The Astronomer not only for our failed encounter but also for how it shows the scientific side of Vermeer, the precise craftsman of art that David Hockney believes used the camera obscura to achieve some of his effects. How both Caravaggio, the painter of the deepest darks and chiaroscuro, and Vermeer, the painter of the most brilliant highlights and subtle gradations of light, could both have “cheated” in the same way is beyond me.
Seeing a Vermeer in person, as I’ve done at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, makes you believe in the ability of artists to truly be the hand of God at times. The Allegory of Painting (above, from 1666-1667) crams in so many different symbols and tricks of the trade that an entire book could be written about it and still not cover everything there. The idea that a picture is worth a thousand words loses meaning when you talk about Vermeer. I’ll take just the simple, lowly floor as an example of Vermeer’s genius—the beautiful perspective of the tiles going off into space. Only Piero della Francesca approaches Vermeer’s ability to make perspective seem like conjuring. Vermeer’s reputation suffers slightly from the many works misattributed to him over the years and from the fakes done in his name (most notoriously by notable forger Han van Meegeren), but from the ground up, Vermeer stands confidently among the truly great.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
One of the greatest women painters of the eighteenth century, Angelica Kauffmann was born on this date in 1741. A child prodigy in painting, Kauffmann took the lessons of her artist father and was already working as a portraitist by the age of twelve. Kauffmann took the European world by storm with her combination of artistic talents, intellectual abilities (she was widely read and spoke German, French, Italian, and English), musical gifts (especially in singing), and stunning good looks. Her Self-Portrait from the 1760s (above) shows the twentysomething total package in all her glory. Even the musty art historian Johann Winckelmann, the father of art history, praised Kauffmann’s personal charms and artistic gifts.
Today, Kauffmann’s pictures don’t enjoy the same reputation they did during her lifetime. Certainly, her personal charisma helped further her career. Works such as Miranda and Ferdinand, from The Tempest (above, from 1782), reflect the contemporary interest in the works of Shakespeare. Kauffmann knew her audience and the world of art sales, so, like many others, she targeted the Bard-philes. It’s easy to degrade her choice of subjects today if you don’t take into account the contemporary constrictions on her choices. Female artists couldn’t paint from the male model in any state of undress, hindering her development in painting figures outside of the normal conventions of portraiture. Many attack Kauffmann for painting herself over and over, but like many artists (including Rembrandt), necessity forced her to paint herself when nobody else was available or socially acceptable. Also, there was a growing market for portraits of Kauffmann by her own hand, keepsakes for those smitten by her charms. A souvenir of a close encounter between Kauffmann and a member of the Powel family in London now graces the walls of The Powel House in Olde City Philadelphia.
Sadly, Kauffmann never found true love, finding herself trapped in a marriage under false pretenses that her friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds, helped extricate her from. Reynolds and Kauffmann painted each others portraits and were great friends, leading to speculation that they were more than just friends. In 1769, Reynolds helped Kauffmann become one of the two first women in the Royal Academy (along with Mary Moser). Due to the standards of the time, however, the women couldn’t attend any of the meetings. An engraving of the time showing one of those first meetings includes on the wall portraits of Kauffmann (similar to the Self-Portrait from the 1780s above) and Moser looking down on the men gathered together. Reynolds’ prominent position in British art at the time drew the ire of many on the margins of the art world, including William Blake. Nathaniel Hone, however, protested in paint in his The Conjurer, which shows Reynolds as the power-mad magus of British art. Kauffmann saw the painting and identified herself as one of the nudes frolicking in the upper left corner of the painting. Hone toned his attack down, painting over the nude of Kauffmann, but his misogynist resentment (and that of many others) lingered on. Fortunately, Kauffmann found many friends and admirers in the art world—forward thinkers longing to see the exclusion of women artists end. Charles Willson Peale, who named sons after Titian, Raphael, and Rembrandt, paid Kauffmann perhaps the highest compliment by naming his daughter Angelica Kauffmann Peale.
One of the second-tier figures of Impressionism, Alfred Sisley was born on this date in 1839. Sisley befriended both Monet and Renoir (who painted Sisley and his wife in 1868), painting many of the same subjects as they did, yet lacking the same spark of endless experimentation that those two used to rise to the next level. In works such as Fog, Voisins (above, from 1874), Sisley shows the influence not only of his fellow Impressionists but also that of J.M.W. Turner, whose paintings Sisley would have seen during his time living there from 1857 through 1861. The famous atmospheric fog of the late Turner seascapes appears here in the rural landscape of Sisley’s France, contrasting starkly with the usual Impressionist affinity for sunlight and clarity, a rare deviation from the Impressionist norm for Sisley, who depended on the financial support of his affluent parents through much of his life, a safety net that may have prevented him from flying too far or too high.
Another British influence on Sisley was that of John Constable. In Sisley’s Environs de Louveciennes (above, from 1873), Constable meets the Barbizon School, the generation of French painters painting out of doors around the Fontainebleau region just before the Impressionists came upon the scene. Renoir also painted around the region, attempting to recreate the landscapes of Corot, which must have influenced Sisley as well. Sisley moved to Fontainebleau in 1880, after the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s ruined his father’s business and forced him to rely on his painting to support his family. In Environs de Louveciennes, we see Sisley’s sure, confident touch with landscape, a comfortable type of Impressionism that shows great skill but little of the boldness of Monet or Renoir.
Moret-Sur-Loing (above, from 1891) shows Sisley’s famous affinity for blue skies, which mimic those of Turner in their intensity and echo Turner’s own influence, Canaletto. The light in these skies seems more Mediterranean than French, an imaginative fancy amplifying an already beautiful scene. Sadly, Sisley’s work blends in with that of many of the second-tier Impressionists, mainly due to his choice of subject, which draws too direct a comparison with the first-tier artists of the same school. If nothing else, Sisley’s work demonstrates the link between Impressionism and the giants of nineteenth century England, especially Turner and Constable, proving that Impressionism wasn’t exclusively grown on French soil.
Monday, October 29, 2007
“I should have been, I don’t know, a con-man, a robber or a prostitute. But it was vanity that made me choose painting, vanity and chance,” Francis Bacon once said. Born October 28, 1909, Bacon suffered through a troubled youth, struggling with his homosexuality. His father asked a close friend to “make a man” out of young Francis not knowing that his friend was himself gay, beginning a string of older, rich men to whom Francis would attach himself. Those liaisons helped Bacon get to Weimar Berlin and Paris in the 1920s, where he would discover the great modernist art taking flight. Bacon returned to London in 1928 and found work as an interior designer. While working in the old studio of Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, Bacon painted his first great work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion
(above, from 1943), a triptych featuring three nightmarish figures with horrific, gaping mouths, presaging the later works of macabre beauty Bacon would paint for the next 40 years.
Bacon found great inspiration in the Old Masters. “Picasso was one of that genius caste which includes Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Van Gogh and above all Velázquez,” Bacon once said. Later, Bacon, talking about his own Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (above), said that “Velázquez found the perfect balance between the ideal illustration which he was required to produce, and the overwhelming emotion he aroused in the spectator.” Whereas Velazquez painted an image of the Pope that the Pope would be pleased with, while “hiding” the true emotion beneath, Bacon had no need to cover over the emotion, portraying the intensity and violence of the figure on the surface. Bacon plays with Velazquez’s imagery to create something totally different and completely modern, yet still connected to the original. “You see, painting has now become, or all art has now become completely a game, by which man distracts himself,” Bacon once said. “What is fascinating actually is, that it's going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to become any good at all.” Bacon continually rewrote the rules of the painting game, taking the old rules and reinterpreting them in ways true to the “game” itself while also true to Bacon’s conception of the twentieth century as an age of public and private horror.
“We are born with a scream; we come into life with a scream, and maybe love is a mosquito net between the fear of living and the fear of death,” Bacon once mused on the nature of love, life, and death. Bacon’s personal “mosquito net” during the 1970s was a former boxer and thief named George Dyer, the subject of Triptych May-June 1973 (above). The movie Love Is the Devil (which I reviewed here) fleshes out the story of that failed, twisted romance, one of Bacon’s many affairs with younger men in the second half of his life. Dyer died of an overdose on a toilet in a Paris hotel room on the eve of a major retrospective of Bacon’s work, an image Bacon reproduces in this triptych, coldly looking upon the death of his beloved in the same clinical way he approached all his subjects. In the past year, I’ve read more and more about Bacon and have come to appreciate his work even more than before, but more for his technique and interplay with his predecessors in art history. There’s a coldness in much of Bacon’s work that makes true affection impossible, but he’s much too fascinating and important to be ignored.
“I pressed the fire control… and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky…” intones the unseen fighter pilot of Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam! (above, from 1963), one of the iconic images of American Pop Art. Born October 27, 1923, Lichtenstein took the genre of American comic books and created a signature look and style that helped rocket him to success in the 1960s after decades of frustration as an artist. After years of shuttling from teaching job to teaching job, briefly working as a window decorator, and even flirting with Cubism and Abstract Expressionism to little or no success, Lichtenstein hit the gold mine when he chose to make the benday dots of comic books and newspaper comic strips his path to fortune and fame. Although Lichtenstein enjoyed a relatively brief heyday in the mid-1960s, his works continue to enjoy a public following today.
Lichtenstein took the two dominant strains of American culture, namely sex and violence, as reflected in comic books of the time and turned that mirror back upon the world. Kiss V (above, from 1964) presents the romantic ideal of the romance comics at the time, which they took whole from the sappy movies that still persist today. The glossiness of the romantic kiss in Kiss V matches the antiseptic nature of Whaam!, which takes the reality of war and reduces it to a video game full of special effects. Pop Art suffers under the misperception of being a meaningless duplication of the culture at large, albeit in a fine arts forum, but the work of Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, upon closer inspection, contains a social critique that many do not see or, perhaps, refuse to see.
“What? Why do you ask that? What do you know about my image duplicator?” asks the Magneto–looking character in Lichtenstein’s Image Duplicator (above, from 1963). Much of the dismissal of Lichtenstein as a serious artist comes from the fact that he did indeed copy almost directly from comic books. The site Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein does a great job in tracking down many of the original images, placing the original and Lichtenstein’s interpretation side by side for comparison. The original comic artists, such as Jack Kirby, Irv Novick, and Russ Heath, looked at Lichtenstein’s interpretations as nothing more than pale imitations, attempts to ride on the back of their artistry in a context free of the lowbrow associations surrounding the comic book. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed Lichtenstein, seeing him as more an elevator of the comic book image than a robber of the genre. The depth that I see in Lichtenstein’s work is already there in much of the comic art he borrows from, something that the rise of the graphic novel is only beginning to tap into today.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Ol' Man River,
Dat Ol' Man River,
He mus' know sumpin',
But don' say nothin';
He jes' keeps rollin',
He keeps on rollin' along.
Ol’ Man River, music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Last week, my photographer Dave and I had an amazing day in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, getting a personal glimpse into the Brandywine School of yesterday and today. We met with Karl J. Kuerner and his wife, Louise, to talk about his new book and about his art in general. Mr. and Mrs. Kuerner graciously and generously allowed us into their home, Karl’s studio, and even the Kuerner farm made famous in the paintings of Andrew Wyeth. We even got to meet Karl’s father, 80-year-old Karl Jr., as he was hammering together a structure for the farm’s new goat—a living testament to the power of hard work and loving what you do. I hope to generate from that meeting a larger profile piece on Karl to market to a magazine or newspaper in the Philadelphia area to promote Karl’s art as well as remind the general public that the Brandywine School lives on today.
A view of the path following along the Brandywine River behind the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bob.)
Speaking of living on today… After meeting with Karl and Louise, we drove over to the Brandywine River Museum to see the current exhibits, including Flights into Fantasy (which I reviewed previously) and the new, just completed Andrew Wyeth tempera self-portrait, Me. Unfortunately, images of the painting are not available, so I’ll have to describe it as best as I can. This large tempera shows the back of one of Mr. Wyeth’s properties on a snowy day, with the top of the building (cropped out of the painting) reflected in the water flowing behind it. Trees line the sides of the river as Wyeth, seen from behind in the lower left-hand corner, sits on the bank in a long, blue coat and black leggings and boots, painting the scene onto a pad on his lap.
We were told that Mr. Wyeth originally didn’t plan on including himself in the painting. When he put his long blue coat down for a moment and walked away, he liked the effect and dashed off a quick watercolor of himself painting in the coat. Placing the watercolor of himself against the landscape, he decided to include himself in. That story reminded me of the earlier story about Christina’s World in which Wyeth painted the entire field before adding the figure of Christina Olsen, as if the field itself could serve as a fitting portrait. In many ways, Me could stand as Andy’s World even without the charming figure in the corner. Here you have the typical scene of Wyeth’s Chadds Ford, but he explicitly denies you a direct look at most of the building, choosing instead to let you see it in the water’s reflection, which stands in for his own reflective powers. By placing the view of the building it in the moving water, Wyeth captures the dual nature of the image: a static building within his ever-changing, continually evolving view of it. For Wyeth, time flows like a river, eddying and pooling at his whim, yet always moving—the same river yet always different. By placing himself on the periphery of the scene, facing away from the viewer, Wyeth directs all eyes on the reflected scene itself, the surface behind which the depths of his imagination and all his art exist.
Later, we went to the N.C. Wyeth gallery and viewed his In a Dream I Meet General Washington, a 1930 painting in which N.C. recounts how George Washington came to him in a dream to instruct him on how to paint the Battle of Brandywine in a mural. Men in Revolutionary War uniforms flood the background as Washington and N.C. converse center stage. In the lower-left corner, N.C. paints his 12-year-old son Andrew, intently drawing the scene beneath a mop of blond hair as he sits beside his dog. I realized then that N.C.’s In a Dream… would make a wonderful pendant to hang beside the new Me. In the 1930 painting, we see young Andy looking forward to the world of imagination and wonder opened up to him by his father, a path he took, but in his own fashion. Nearly eighty years later, in Me, we see Andy in the corner again, but now looking back on a lifetime of memories and masterpieces, the snows of yesteryear thawing and feeding the river of time flowing by endlessly, yet pausing here and there for us to wonder and reflect. For any other artist, Me could punctuate the closure of a grand career, but for Andrew Wyeth, Me represents another exclamation point in his endless dialogue with memory, historical and personal. Like the song says, Old Man Wyeth must know something, but don’t say nothing (except in paint), and just keeps rolling along.
[Many thanks, again, to Karl J. and Louise Kuerner and to Karl Kuerner, Jr. for a wonderful day of art, history, and conversation. Also, many thanks to the Brandywine River Museum for providing press passes for us to see the new Andrew Wyeth self-portrait Me and the rest of the collection.]
Perhaps the greatest Dutch landscapist of the seventeenth century, Aelbert Cuyp was born October 20, 1620. Son of a painter and member of a family full of artists, Cuyp grew up knowing art and developed amazing draftsmanship at a young age. Works such as The Maas at Dordrecht (above, from the early 1650s) show just what detail Cuyp could achieve in his drawing in addition to the beautiful atmospheric effects he created. J.M.W. Turner’s early skies resemble those of Cuyp thanks to Cuyps in British collections by the nineteenth century and to some cross pollination through Canaletto, who saw Cuyp’s works as a slightly later contemporary. Turner saw Canaletto during his travels in Italy. Another cross-influence comes through Claude Lorraine, the Old Master that Turner set as his early standard to equal and surpass. Cuyp is often known as the Dutch Claude thanks to his all-encompassing skies and warm sunlight.
The Valkhof at Nijmegen from the Northwest (above, from the middle 1650s) shows a taste of Nicolas Poussin with its smooth colors and sense of peace, harmony, and balance. The same sense of quiet that permeates Poussin often resounds in Cuyp’s work. Cuyp painted primarily scenes of his native land up until the 1640s and more imaginative scenes after that. In works such as this from the 1650s, Cuyp takes some liberties to make the world glossier and more beautiful than it was. This switch from his earlier style provides the only basis for dating many of Cuyp’s paintings, few of which were ever signed or dated. This lack of provenance combined with the scarce amount of documentation about Cuyp’s life make him a bit of a cipher, as impersonal as his paintings often are.
Nineteenth century English collectors clamored for Cuyp, buying up many of the works that still remain in many prestigious British collections. Of the little known about Cuyp, one well-known fact is his marriage to a wealthy widow in 1658. After 1660, Cuyp barely painted at all, apparently living the 30 years of his life in leisure. Before even that, Cuyp’s work had begun to fall into mannerism (much like that of Canaletto), trite repeats of the same scenes, each less and less inspired to recreate the beauty of nature or add the spark of imagination. Works such as the unfortunately titled The Negro Page (above, from around 1652) show some of Cuyp’s early promise, his ability to depict the earthy elements of Dutch life gracefully and with his trademark cloud-filled skies. The living daylight that Cuyp could once shine through his works dimmed throughout his career, meekly fizzling out as he sat content in the lap of luxury.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
No figure in twentieth century art approaches the stature of Pablo Picasso, born on this date in 1881. Love him or hate him, he refuses to be ignored. His paintings, sculptures, and even thoughts on art continue to influence artists today, if not directly then indirectly through the vast web of influence surrounding him. No artist assumed and then discarded so many styles as Picasso over a lifetime, continually reinventing his artwork and his artistic persona. In the mythological world of art history, Picasso is Proteus–always seemingly seeing into the future while answerable to no one except himself. Like Proteus, Picasso escapes pinning down into neat categories. Who could have looked at the rather conventional Self Portrait from 1896 (above) done at the age of 15 in Madrid and guessed at the next 77 years of invention and self-invention?
Just five years later, Picasso finds himself in Paris, the heart of the art world, and immerses himself in his Blue Period. The Blue Period Self Portrait of 1901 (above), painted at the age of 20, makes Picasso look almost monstrous. The blue background heightens the emotional charge of the portrait where the brown backdrop of the 1896 subdued and even calmed any hints of emotion. Picasso charges his works at this time with color, melding a classical type of draftsmanship with the new vision of color coming on the horizon. Not only does Picasso’s painting style change dramatically, but his personal appearance alters considerably. The teenage boy of Madrid would cower before the bearded beast of Paris.
Cubism takes center stage in the 1907 Self Portrait (above). The previous style of draftsmanship disappears in an almost childlike boldness and simplicity of line. You can almost imagine this Picasso stepping into his own Les Demoiselles de Avignon and mingling with his own kind. The bearded wildman of 1901 just six years later assumes the almost professional appearance of a serious artist painting serious ideas. Here we see the beginning of the marketing of “Picasso” the artist in the mainstream mind versus the reality of the man. All the personal attributes of the man himself are amplified and made larger than life in his attempt to live up to the legend. Picasso plays the lover and user of women over and over again as a consequence of this oversized hunger for fame. The Self Portrait of 1907 begins the long line of masks that Picasso would assume before the public for the next 66 years.
Near the end of his life, Picasso paints the Self Portrait of 1972 (above). With only one year left on this earth, Picasso paints in a style that can only be labeled as “Picasso.” During all the strife and war of the twentieth century, Picasso never took the side of one nation over another, choosing to side with the pacifists against war itself in any shape or form. Guernica protests one atrocity by name, but all atrocities by implication. Despite this neutrality, you can see the toll taken on the artist by those events in the wild, staring eyes he gives himself. The entire head of the 1972 Self Portrait strikes an alien note, as if he was no longer a recognizable member of this planet or the human race for that matter. The most masterful artist of the twentieth century could convey volumes with the simplest series of lines—meaningful gestures stunning in their compactness in the same way that Louis Armstrong’s late style of understated singing and trumpet playing could overwhelm even the most complex flurry of virtuosity. When I was searching for a fitting epigram for Art Blog By Bob, I ended my search entirely when I hit upon the one now appearing under the title. In everything he did artistically, Picasso was pitch perfect, hitting the mark every time with a perfection that seems obvious after the fact and inevitable forever after.
The night is like a lovely tune, beware my foolish heart!
Your lips are much too close to mine, beware my foolish heart!
“My Foolish Heart,” music by Victor Young and lyrics by Ned Washington
Inside the back cover of Tony Bennett in the Studio: A Life of Art & Music, written by Tony Bennett with Robert Sullivan, you find a limited edition CD with what the publisher calls “Pop ART Songs” specially selected to accompany the collection of Tony’s paintings inside the book. The connection is dubious for some of the songs listed, but I thought that “My Foolish Heart” was an inspired choice. For most dabblers in art, that “line between love and fascination” poses problems in even the clearest light. Tony Bennett’s love affair with art transcended any mere fascination many years ago, and paintings such as New York Snowstorm (above) prove that it’s not “a dream that will fade and fall apart.” Tony Bennett’s heart may be foolish to pursue excellence in music and painting, but we’re the fools if we dismiss his talents out of hand.
Born Anthony Dominick Benedetto on August 3, 1926, the man who became known as Tony Bennett lived a childhood of poverty, playing and drawing on the streets and singing at home with his musical family. In 1938, young Tony was drawing a mural outside his housing project building when a junior high art teacher named James McWhinney stopped to admire his work and offered to teach the 12-year-old to paint. McWhinney introduced Tony to the world of art and culture, taking him to New York’s museums and the opera, setting the stage for a lifetime of artistry. Bennett has studied painting ever since with a series of instructors, including John Barnicoat and Everett Raymond Kinstler, whom Tony calls “the Sargent of today.” Always wanting to give something back, yet never wanting the credit, Bennett founded the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts to offer kids like himself the same opportunities he was given.
Through interviews with Tony, Robert Sullivan reconstructs his twin passions of art and music, showing how each art form helped shape the other. “I’m on a journey,” Bennett tells Sullivan. “It’s a search for truth and beauty that I’m trying to share. What I try to do is sometimes very abstract and sometimes hits you on the chin. Either way, I want to get through. I’m on a journey to try and communicate how beautiful life is.” In works such as his portrait of fellow Jazz giant Louis Armstrong (above), Bennett shows us his wonderful world of blessings, all with a wonderful artistic feel for texture and line that matches his ever-evolving and unique musical feel for phrasing and rhythm. “I paint what I see and feel,” Tony later says. “Even when I did the paintings in Monet’s gardens, I wasn’t thinking about what Monet saw but what I was seeing.” As you read through Sullivan’s text, you come to fully appreciate just how thirstily Bennett drank in all the influences around him, even from such unlikely experiences as an encounter with poet Allen Ginsberg at an exhibition of Franz Kline’s art where they talked about William Blake. Sullivan calls this the “unexpected Tony.” By the end, we come to expect the unexpected.
Duke Ellington, one of the many great musicians Bennett has worked with (and painted, above), disliked the term “jazz,” believing that his music was “beyond category.” In his approach to painting, Bennett himself goes beyond category, showing a catholic approach to the world of art history. His painting signature “Benedetto” calls to mind a minor Italian Renaissance master. “I like impressionism still,” he says, “but I’m interested in all kinds of painting. I’m very interested in aborigine painting… It’s the only type of painting that looks like music.” Speaking of Jackson Pollock, Bennett tells Sullivan, “I understand him. I think. I see the universe in his paintings.” Bennett appreciates the approach of David Hockney, as well, admiring how “He tries everything and he’s accomplished at everything.” Bennett patterns his own approach after Hockney’s versatility.
Tony Bennett. Photo reprinted with permission of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., © 2007 by Benedetto Arts, LLC
Calling him the wisest man he ever met, Bennett remembers the time that classical cellist Pablo Casals told him “At any given moment you can learn.” Over the 80 years of his life, Tony Bennett has seized every moment as a learning experience, using that enthusiasm to learn in his never-ending evolution as a person and artist. In his forward to the book, Mitch Albom calls the accomplished, yet humble Bennett “a man who is less of everything he is entitled to be, and more than anyone could expect.” Anyone who has fallen in love with the music of Tony Bennett owes it to themself to see this visual side of the artist, who brings all the soul and passion of his songs to the world of painting.
[Many thanks to Sterling Publishing for providing me with a review copy of this book and the images above.]
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Art crime is “the only serious crime for which the public tended to root for the criminals,” complains one of the characters in Noah Charney’s The Art Thief: A Novel, a fictional examination of the world of art theft, forgery, and various and sundry art-related indiscretions. In real life, Charney founded the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), a think tank dedicated to dealing with the growing worldwide epidemic of art crime. Brandishing his art history degrees from The Courtauld Institute and Cambridge University, Charney uses his powers for good rather than evil, essentially inventing the academic subspecialty of art theft. The Art Thief entertainingly wraps up this tangled web into an easily understood package, laying out all the issues for buyers, sellers, museums, and the police with charm and erudition.
Charney selects two very different works as the objects of criminal desire of his fictional felons: Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition White on White (above) and Caravaggio’s Annunciation (below). Once those works go missing, Charney populates the stage with an array of characters representing every strata of the art world: Genevieve Delacloche, the director of the Malevich Society and sworn protector of the artist’s reputation against fakes; Gabriel Coffin, bespoke British gentleman scholar, police consultant on art theft, and seeker of the lost Caravaggio; Inspector Jean-Jaques Bizot, the fussy French inspector hot on the Malevich’s tail; Harry Wickenden, the Scotland Yard inspector who just can’t learn how to pronounce “Malevich”; Professor Simon Barrow, lecturer in art history continually dismayed by the underwhelming students before him. A series of false leads, double-crosses, and even triple-crosses pulls the reader along a dizzying trail. Charney’s characters seem more two-dimensional than the paintings at times, mouthpieces for the art history and art crime editorials at the heart of his message, but Charney manages to inject enough humor and color to maintain interest. The fellows of a college “look like the cast of a Daumier cartoon.” Two characters “exude the color red, as if they were Titian-underpainted.” Charney peppers his prose with art history tidbits like that, as well as knowing pronouncements such as the sad fact that “for many tweed-and-bow-tied scholars, a vicarious life in 1598 in Rome, or in any other period for that matter, was safer and softer than the now.” Fortunately, Charney eludes that safe, soft trap and writes for the here and now.
In The Art Thief, Noah Charney does for the art history and art theft field what David Lodge’s novels Changing Places and Small World did for the literary criticism field, namely entertainingly and memorably educate the general public of the issues at hand and how those issues effect them. Works of art stolen from collectors and museums easily become the currency of organized crime and terrorism, making the world unsafe for more than just art lovers. Charney channels through Professor Barrow a bravura lecture on how Jan Van Eyck’s The Marriage Contract (aka, The Arnolfini Portrait) may be “the most influential painting in the history of the universe.” However, Charney never gets ponderously serious over art, joking at one point about sneezes caught on paper commanding huge prices at auction and how someone “should preempt Damien Hirst and corner the market on sneeze-related art.” By choosing a classic, religious Caravaggio and a blank, modern Malevich, Charney brings the two poles of art in the mainstream mind together—the unforgettably iconic and the minimalist iconoclastic—and, hopefully, converts a few casual art fans into devoted protectors themselves. The Art Thief won’t deter criminals, but it may steal your heart and enlist you in its cause.
[Many thanks to Atria Books for providing me with a review copy of this book.]
“I work in the gap between art and life,” Robert Rauschenberg once said when asked to describe his multivarious universe of art. Born October 22, 1925, Bob, as his friends call him, still creates new works of art today, still stretching himself beyond the boundaries of what is considered art, many of which he helped shape over the years. In Canyon (above, from 1959), Rauschenberg redefined painting and sculpture simultaneously by incorporating elements of both in his “combines”. A stuffed American bald eagle “flies” out of the picture frame, recreating the sense of life within the canyon itself. (This work actually presents problems when traveling due to American laws governing the transport of endangered species, such as the bald eagle, even when stuffed and transformed into art.) Bob Rauschenberg never met a rule he couldn’t break, all to wonderful, mind-expanding effect.
In Monogram (above, from 1955), Rauschenberg used a stuffed Angora goat he found in a second-hand shop and, after cleaning and combing its fur, placed a rubber tire around its middle, dashed paint here and there, and then mounted the beast upon a painted board. Monogram serves as Rauschenberg’s signature piece in many ways, the embodiment of how his mind works in combining the strangest of parts into a whole so much greater. Along with Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg reigned over the art world in the late 1950s. Calvin Tomkins’ Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time recounts the close and then estranged relationship between the two artists, who helped usher in the age of Pop Art among other movements of the 1960s.
Rauschenberg’s art exists oddly within and outside its time. His 1966 performance piece Open Score, now available on DVD (and which I reviewed here), seemed the perfect marriage of technology and art at the height of the race to the moon, yet failed to find a contemporary audience. Today, the haunting images of figures in the dark seen through infrared cameras seem like the ghosts of modern day tragedy. In 1964, Rauschenberg cut a cross-section of American culture by painting the recently martyred President John F. Kennedy, initiator of the space race and Camelot-laden symbol for all that was once golden and then ashen in American. The repeated image of Kennedy’s finger extended in emphasis and pounding the lectern simultaneously recalls the outraged humanist and the cold warrior, the two sides of the American cultural coin of the early 1960s as the respective evils of racism and Communism called for some response. Rauschenberg’s art retains the ability to speak to us regardless of time, icons steeped in a cultural moment that cut to the heart of all human interaction. Everything old in Raushenberg is new again for each generation that looks closely and recombines the elements of his combines for themselves.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Flipping through the catalogue to the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson, I couldn’t help but hear Paul Simon’s song "Kodachrome" playing in my head. Like Simon’s song, The Art of the American Snapshot sees both the joy and the illusion of the snapshot, which “makes you think all the world's a sunny day,” regardless of the clouds above. By sampling from Robert E. Jackson’s collection of vintage, almost exclusively anonymous photographs, this catalogue and exhibition hold up a mirror to an America documenting itself as it simultaneously strikes the pose it wants to capture, a give and take in which the improving photographic technology fills ever-changing demands at the same time that it shapes those desires. Works by long-dead enthusiasts, such as the self-proclaimed “The Artist” (above), bring the faces of yesterday back to life, allowing us to see them and ourselves more sharply. As the forward to the catalogue puts it, these anonymous pictures “whether by intention or accident, soar above their purely personal associations to reveal more fundamental aspects of American photography and American life.”
Diane Waggoner, co-curator of the exhibition, examines the early age of photography from 1888, the year in which the first Kodak camera was released, to 1919, right after the horrors of World War I. Photography for the masses freed the idea of the portrait from the dour and unsmiling age of formal portraits. “Unlike the earlier conventions of seriousness,” Waggoner writes, “both the experimentation and theatricality of the new snapshots were almost uniformly injected with humor: photography served as an amusement.” Whereas teeth or an open mouth in pictures were considered vulgar before, now smiles and laughter were obligatory. The post mortem photograph previously taken as a family heirloom disappears in this new fascination with life. America’s growing middle class of the early twentieth century finds itself with leisure time on its hands and a Kodak to capture it with. Waggoner and her fellow essayists continually present the views of the “experts” throughout history trying to impose rules on what makes a good photo and the willful breaking of those rules by the amateur snapping away for his or her own pleasure. Waggoner’s essay and those that follow examine in great detail the role of Kodak’s marketing and advertising in shaping the photomania of America, starting with the Brownie, introduced in 1900 and “promoted… primarily, but not exclusively, to children, cultivating a previously untapped market for photography.” The marketing geniuses of Kodak later link photography and leisure, especially travel. As concepts of the family, childhood, and motherhood develop at this time—the aftershocks of the Victorian Age crossing the Atlantic—Kodak seizes these opportunities as well, culminating in the rise of the photo album as the repository of moments and memories forever.
Unknown, c. 1930; gelatin silver print, image: 5.7 x 10 cm (2 1/4 x 3 15/16); sheet: 6.4 x 10.8 cm (2 1/2 x 4 1/4); mount: 6.5 x 10.9 cm (2 9/16 x 4 5/16); National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Robert E. Jackson
In “Quick, Casual, Modern: 1920-1939,” Sarah Kennel picks up the trail and examines the powerful shift at that time to a visual culture in America, “where language was ceding power to image” and “snapshot photography served as an important vehicle through which Americans defined and interrogated their relationship to their rapidly changing environment.” Talking films and Technicolor in 1927, Kodachrome color film in 1936, the display of television at the 1939 World’s Fair—all of these add to the visual mania of the Jazz Age. Kennel sees “the emphasis on self-expression and play” seen in photos of this period, “harmon[izing] with the new technological, social, and consumerist order that rose from the ravages of World War I.” Speed, as captured blurrily in the photograph of the speeding motorcycle above, ruled. Even the Great Depression couldn’t slow down the race to express yourself in photographs as part of the “fast and fragmented pace of modern life.” In fact, the deprivations of the Great Depression and the anxieties of another war on the horizon caused an even greater fetish of the nuclear family, a harmonious illusion that the photograph helped not only to define but also to sustain.
Unknown, July 1951; gelatin silver print, image: 6.9 x 10.1 cm (2 11/16 x 4); sheet: 8.3 x 11.7 cm (3 1/4 x 4 5/8); National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Robert E. Jackson
As television assumed a central role in American culture, Sarah Greenough, co-curator of the exhibit, writes, “seeing became believing in the 1950s, and, more than at any earlier time in American history, people saw through the filter of photography.” The woman photographed in the television set above symbolizes how people of this period came to see themselves as living in one huge reality show, as we know it today. Photography pervades every aspect of American life, growing more and more casual and intrusive. Greenough sees photography at this time transcending its previous role as a definer of customs and traditions (in birthday and wedding photographs, for example) and becoming a self-conscious molder and even transformer of the individual. To illustrate her point, Greenough beautifully strings together a narrative from a suite of photographs taken by a woman identified only as “Flo,” who seemingly struggles to find some community within her apartment building and workplace through candid shots of those around her, who resist her attempts to connect through a lens. The litany of turned heads and covered faces “Flo” endured testifies to the power of photography to make many believe that it was the key to that better life promised in advertising and shown every night on TV. Even the instant gratification of the newly invented Polaroid, “convenient and fast… like the Jolly Green Giant’s frozen vegetables” hawked on TV, couldn’t quench the thirst for the elusive American dream for many.
Unknown, 1960s; chromogenic print, image: 7.9 x 7.9 cm (3 1/8 x 3 1/8); sheet: 8.8 x 8.6 cm (3 7/16 x 3 3/8); Collection of Robert E. Jackson
Matthew S. Witkovsky wraps up the survey with his take on “When the Earth Was Square: 1960-1978.” Witkovsky sees the distinctive square print of the Kodak Instamatic (introduced in 1963) as the defining “look” of the time. The increasing prevalence of color film in the 1960s adds to the illusion of photography as a reflection of “real” life. Behind this curtain, however, Witkovsky finds “a self-conscious delight taken by ordinary people in staging scenes of play.” If life is what you photograph, then the photographs are going to be full of life—staged fun if the real thing isn’t available. Vulgar gestures crop up in the pictures of this time, perhaps not as much a sign of loosening morals as much as a sign of the forced “humor” injected into photography of the 1960s and 1970s as the post-Kennedy, post-Vietnam generations coped with the fissures in the edifice of the American dream, a façade founded in part on an image captured and catapulted by photography and its surrounding visual culture. The photograph of the peace sign above succeeds as an image today in some small part due to the failures of the ideals that sign represented then.
Unknown, 1930s; gelatin silver print, image: 11.1 x 7.2 cm (4 3/8 x 2 13/16); sheet: 12 x 8.4 cm (4 3/4 x 3 5/16); National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Robert E. Jackson
Robert E. Jackson ends his collection at 1978 believing that he’s “too close to the 1980s and beyond to be able to ‘see’ a good snapshot objectively.” Perspective stands at the heart of the analysis of The Art of the Snapshot. These anonymous photographs, free of personal associations and backstories, exist as works of art now, even transparently staged photos as that above of the woman in bed next to an automobile. More importantly, they exist as artifacts of the American visual culture and that culture’s crystallization as the American dream. All Americans unconsciously buy into that dream every waking moment thanks to the constant bombardment of visuals selling us some bill of goods. The photographs of our lives fall into this great river of imagery, the tiny drops that build up and threaten the banks to overflowing. The Art of the American snapshot helps release some of the built up pressure of that imagery by breaking it down and restoring the democratizing power of the photograph, namely its capacity to allow the individual to both record and reformulate their identity with total freedom. At the same time, this catalogue and exhibit threaten to expose the cracks in the concept of American freedom, releasing the dammed up frustrations of those unable to find any true identity within that “dream” turned nightmare. Photography weaves a magical spell that life is as fun and happy as we can picture it. Once that spell is broken, and we see the images as staged rather than “true” (whatever that means), the questions become overwhelming.
Unknown, "This Modernistic point of view shows me in the center. Good?", 1930s; gelatin silver print, image: 10.1 x 5.7 cm (4 x 2 1/4); sheet: 11.4 x 7.1 cm (4 1/2 x 2 13/16); Collection of Robert E. Jackson
The photographs in The Art of the Snapshot show almost exclusively white faces and almost exclusively the middle and upper class enjoying their leisure time and family experience in a way often denied to other races and classes in our history. The faces in photos such as that marked “This Modernist point of view shows me in the center. Good?” (above) self-consciously show that wonderful life and simultaneously beg for affirmation of its existence. Are these photos “good”? Is the life shown in them “good”? More importantly, is it “real” (whatever that means)? When tracing the origin of the term “snapshot” to a hunting term, The Art of the Snapshot recalls the words of photographer Walker Evans after a shooting expedition: “I am stalking, as in the hunt. What a bagful to be taken home.” The Art of the American Snapshot is itself “a bagful to be taken home,” a thoughtful gallery of visions and ideas linked together that we should each sort and reassemble in our mental albums.
[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book and to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC for providing me with the images above from the exhibition.]
After delving into the fields of astronomy, optics, cosmology, mechanics, microscopy, surveying, medicine, and meteorology and even the problem of finding longitude at sea, Sir Christopher Wren turned his hand to architecture to help London rebuild after the Great Fire of 1666. Born October 20, 1632, Wren designed St. Paul’s Cathedral (above) , one of the touchstones of British culture for centuries. During the Blitz, as German planes bombed London during World War II, workers frantically protected the famous dome from the falling incendiary devices that would surrender St. Paul’s to the fire again. Miraculously, a bomb actually fell into the cathedral but failed to explode. Thanks to St. Paul, Sir Christopher’s name lives on in England and among all English-speaking peoples.
Although known for his architectural achievements today, Wren’s scientific skills made him a prominent figure of Restoration England. Wren helped found the scientific society that eventually became the Royal Society and served as its president from 1680 through 1682. Architecture became just another of the many sciences he explored. The Great Fire and King Charles II conspired to make it the primary role of his life, especially after he was named the King’s Surveyor of Works in 1669. When he built the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (above), the “home” of Greenwich Mean Time, Wren was able to marry two of his scientific passions together.
Next to Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral stands as the “official” church of London and England, the place where the famous and the common gather to celebrate, to grieve, and to remember. Seen from the outside at a distance, the famous dome hovers over the street, reflected in the nearby Thames amidst the more modern buildings built after the bombings of the war. Wren lived to the ripe old age of 90. His remains were placed in his greatest building, of course. Wren’s epithet, written by his son, encapsulates his life beautifully: “Lector, Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice,” or, in English, “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around.” Standing outside or inside St. Paul’s Cathedral (above), one look tells you all you need to know about Sir Christopher Wren. When the wounds of the Interregnum and the Great Fire still gaped open, Christopher Wren symbolically covered them over with his great dome of St. Paul’s, restoring a sense of home and unity to the shaken nation.
Monday, October 22, 2007
“It’s up to you to carry this on,” Andrew Wyeth says to Karl J. Kuerner in Gene Logsdon’s recent study, The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse. “And it won’t be easy.” The burden and blessing of the tradition of the Brandywine School, founded by Howard Pyle and carried forward by N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth, now rests upon the shoulders of Karl J. Kuerner, grandson of the Karl Kuerner made famous in Andrew’s portraits. Kuerner’s own paintings now take the stage in the first survey of his art, All in a Day’s Work… from Heritage to Artist. With works such as Percheron in Chadds Ford (above), Kuerner embraces his artistic and family heritages simultaneously, remaining true to the twin sets of ideals intertwined throughout his life. “At the age of 50, Karl J. Kuerner is a true artist ready to show his talent to the world at large,” writes Andrew Wyeth in his introduction to All in a Day’s Work, starting the coming out party with a bang.
Karl Kuerner, In the Blink of an Eye, 1999. Watercolor 22 3/4 x 36 ¼. Collection of Samuel DiMatteo.
Kuerner claims that his earliest memories of the family farm are of watching Andrew Wyeth painting their bull. The influence of his grandparents on Kuerner remains as strong as that of Wyeth. “It was their acceptance of, almost reverence for, hard work that is often in his mind as he paints,” writes Gene Logsdon in the text accompanying the paintings in All in a Day’s Work. Anna Kuerner, Karl’s grandmother and also featured in many masterpieces by Andrew Wyeth, swept the porch regularly until her death at 98, an image Kuerner captures in his Anna’s Morning. Kuerner depicts her lingering (some would say spectral) presence on the farm and in his life in a later work, In the Blink of an Eye (above). “Sometimes I swear that I can still see her for a fleeting moment out of the corner of my eye,” Karl confesses. This tenderness shows the other side of the often brusque, brutal life of the farm that his grandfather embodied in Andrew’s art.
Karl Kuerner, Out of Nowhere, 2004. Oil on canvas, 60 x 48. Collection of Louise and Karl Kuerner.
Karl owes his success today not only to Andrew but also to Andrew’s sister, Carolyn, who taught Karl the foundations of painting. “I was just thirteen,” Karl recalls. “My father took some of my drawings to her and she offered to tutor me, which she did for seven years. I am forever grateful to her.” Karl’s painting Miss Wyeth (above) honors Carolyn’s memory and now stands shoulder to shoulder with other works of the Brandywine School at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Rather than painting a conventional portrait, Kuerner chooses to show Carolyn from a distance, standing outside in the falling snow, capturing at a remove and through a natural setting the solitary, sometimes gruff, yet essentially gentle, almost romantic nature of his teacher, a sadly forgotten figure in the Brandywine tradition.
Whether Kuerner’s love of Halloween and the macabre comes from his contact with the Wyeths, from his family heritage, or both is unclear, but it comes through in many of his paintings, including Charades (above). “To chase away the temptation to gloom that comes with the dying down of the year, and also to take advantage of the leisure time that follows the end of the harvest, rural people turn to sport, to antic fun,” Logsdon explains in the Kuerner book. “Halloween. Witches and goblins. Pranksters.” Halloween pumpkins and pranks fill many of Andrew and Jamie Wyeth's works, evidence of their famously madcap sense of humor. Kuerner’s love of puns in his titles exceeds even that of the Wyeths in its playfulness. He also sometimes extends his Halloween-loving side past that of the Wyeths to the borders of the Surreal in works such as Charades and Storyteller, two theatrical visions featuring fog-covered foregrounds that prominently feature masks and address issues of identity in the context of art and telling tales.
Kuerner saves his native environment from becoming a theater backdrop in his work through his intimate, empathetic renderings, yet his consciousness of the “theater” that Chadds Ford has become for many art lovers thanks to the Wyeths and the Brandywine School adds a level of sophistication not apparent at first glance. By bringing into play these modernist, almost Magritte-esque themes of life as theater, Kuerner manages to inject the present into the past without losing the past as a separate and very tangible reality. Beneath Kuerner’s name on the cover of All in a Day’s Work appears the words, “nurtured in the greatness and simplicity of the Brandywine Valley tradition.” In his art, Karl Kuerner gives back to the Brandywine some of the vital substance and spirit that make that place and its people such a magical combination in the history of American art.
[Many thanks to Cedar Tree Books for providing me with a review copy of this book; to the Brandywine River Museum for the image of Miss Wyeth; to Qoro, LLC for the images of Percheron in Chadds Ford, In the Blink of an Eye, Out of Nowhere, and Charades; and to Karl and Louise Kuerner for their cooperation and kindness in the writing of this review.]