Thursday, January 31, 2008

Etched into History

Edward Hopper, 1882-1967. Night Shadows. 1921/1924. Etching. Collection of Hannah S. Kully. © The Huntington

Even after Edward Hopper achieved some status as a painter, he continued to keep a press for etchings in his studio. Each day he’d enter his studio and toss his fedora hat onto the rarely used machine. In countless photographs and interview footage of Hopper, that machine usually lurks in the background. Hopper never could bring himself to part with that press, like an old trusted friend. When he wanted to give a special gift to someone, he’d crank up the old press and run off a copy of Night Shadows (above), demonstrating the pride he felt in the etchings he once turned to as a way to make money when his paintings weren’t selling. The exhibition Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905-1950 at The Huntington and the accompanying catalogue by Jessica Todd Smith and Kevin M. Murphy help explain Hopper’s fondness for the print genre and how the prints of that era reflected the people and history of America for nearly half a century. “We have selected prints that seem to capture the spirit of a certain cultural frisson that took place in art and culture of the United States during the first half of the twentieth century,” Smith writes in the catalogue. The prints selected from the Huntington’s massive collection of American prints demonstrate the same incisive eye and mastery of economy that the artists themselves displayed.

Samuel Margolies, 1898-1974. Man’s Canyons. 1936. Etching and aquatint. Collection of Hannah S. Kully. © The Huntington

At the dawn of the new century, the city rose like a natural wonder, flooding the imagination of artists and inspiring them to create works such as Samuel MargoliesMan’s Canyons (above). Towering skyscrapers carried to the heavens the hopes and dreams of all society, offering the promise of endless possibility where the sky was, literally, the limit. Advances in publishing technology created a shift in the illustration world, leaving behind the need for literal journalism and moving forward to a world asking for images “deeply imbued with political and social engagement,” as Smith writes. The 1913 Armory Show brought the innovations of European modern art to America, further challenging artists to develop a new vision of their changing American environment. Margolies’ skyscrapers, rising vertically as the rays of light slash diagonally across the picture, owe as much to modern architecture as they do to Cubism.

Martin Lewis, 1881-1962. Glow in the City. 1929. Drypoint. Purchased with funds from Hannah and Russel Kully. © The Huntington

But not all hopes rose with the skyscrapers. Martin Lewis, who taught his friend Hopper etching techniques, captures the dichotomy of the modern city in Glow in the City (above), a romantic rendering of a woman wistfully gazing across the rooftops and washing lines at the tall building far in the distance. Hopper and Lewis both delved into the mood of the city lingering beneath the bustling excitement and the inexplicable sense of loneliness in the midst of teeming crowds. The artists of the Ashcan school, especially the former newspaper illustrators drawn to New York City for money and inspiration—such as John Sloan and George Bellows–also cast their eye upon the darker side of the city.

Charles Turzak 1899-1986. Man with Drill. ca. 1935. Woodcut. Collection of Hannah S. Kully. Printed with the permission of Joan Turzak Van Hees, daughter of Charles Turzak, Charles Turzak Studio/Gallery, Orlando Florida. © The Huntington

Charles Turzak’s Man with Drill (above) explicitly illustrates the dehumanization through labor of the time, when man and machine seemed troublingly one. Such images recall the German Expressionists and their fear of the machine and, by extension, the woodcut graphic novels of Franz Masereel. Where Masereel strung together long series of woodcuts into silent graphic novels of social commentary, single images such as Turzak’s ring just as powerfully as statements of social unrest. The visible vibrations rippling from the figure with the drill send shockwaves that threaten to topple the buildings in the background. In the face of the Great Depression and two world wars, such images strove to topple the powerful and help regain a sense of balance for the masses.

Childe Hassam, 1859-1935. The White Kimono. 1915. Etching. Gift of the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation. © The Huntington

In response to the ills of the dehumanizing city, many artists turned to small town America and more intimate scenes for an antidote. Regionalists such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton depicted farms and farming in a return to simpler, more natural living. Illustrators followed the Dust Bowl migration to California as those displaced victims searched for an American Eden. The American Impressionist Childe Hassam, in contrast, sought solace in personalized parlor scenes such as The White Kimono (above), a quietly beautiful testimony to the excellence of the American print at the same time it documented and probed the American psyche.

Smith and Murphy provide an excellent, if brief overview of the American print from the turn of the twentieth century up until the dawn of the day of television. They list all the major donations, including forthcoming gifts of works by John Sloan from Gary, Brenda, and Harrison Ruttenberg and the American print collection of Hannah S. Kully, that have made the Huntington’s collection so comprehensive today. The actor and comedian Steve Martin provided funds to make the exhibition possible. Martin collects American art and provided the narration to the video that accompanied the Hopper exhibition at the National Gallery of Art last year. (My review of that video here.) Martin’s involvement in this project exemplifies the mainstream appeal such an exhibit should have for the public at large. These prints hold up a mirror to America over the course of five decades in a way that even great photography can only approximate. Here is the American dream seen through the prism of the American artist’s imagination and rendered in clear black and white. When you look at images such as Pele deLappe’s Rumors of War, Washington, D.C., showing the anxious faces of people listening to a radio and anticipating war in 1939, you see the same anxiety on the faces of Americans today coming to terms with new rumors of war. Pressed in Time provides not just a lesson in history or art but a lesson in the history of the American soul.

[Many thanks to The Huntington for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Pressed in Time: American Prints 1905-1950 and for the images from the exhibition.]

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Heroic and Sublime

After studying philosophy and experimenting with painting in expressionist and surrealist styles, Barnett Newman finally discovered a style to express his innermost desires in the 1950s. Born January 29, 1905, Newman sought to charge images with pure symbolic meaning, completely devoid of recognizable imagery, and succeeded in such works as Vir Heroicus Sublimis (above, from 1950-1951). The Latin title, which means “Man, heroic and sublime,” epitomizes the heroic and sublime aspirations of Newman’s “zip” paintings, which feature broad expanses of color separated by thin bands of color. Newman suffers more than most abstract artists from the “I can do that” syndrome of the uninformed viewer, who believes that Newman’s technique consisted of masking tape and nothing else. Behind that simplicity, however, Newman created rhythms and subtle differences that make his works quite stirring when beheld in person. Reproduction just can’t do justice to the experience of viewing Vir Heroicus Sublimis, which is so large that you feel enveloped by the painting, as if you had stepped into the mind of the artist itself.

Although Newman belongs to the Abstract Expressionist school, he couldn’t possibly be more different in style than Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. Newman’s closest compatriot always was Mark Rothko, who took a similarly philosophical approach to art and longed to create an entire cosmos out of a simple arrangement of colors. Despite this intellectual bent, Newman never lost his sense of perspective or humor, famously saying that "Aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for birds." Newman’s Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue II (above, from 1967) shows his humorous, more colorful side from his later work. (Frank Bowling later paid homage to this aspect of Newman’s art with his 1968 painting, Who’s Afraid of Barney Newman?) Just judging from photographs, I imagine that Barney Newman had the demeanor of a kindly teacher, full of wisdom and insight wrapped up in jokes and easy laughter.

In 2002, the PMA staged an exhibition of Newman’s work. Up to that point, Newman’s full power eluded me, due mainly to seeing his works almost exclusively in reproduction. I could appreciate him intellectually, but the emotional, visceral component was missing from my understanding of his work. After walking through the galleries featuring much of his major work, I found myself in the room containing his 15-work suite titled The Stations of the Cross, painted from 1958 to 1968. These works, such as Station No. 1 (above, from 1958), abstractly portray the passion of Christ, a sequence I was familiar with since childhood as a Catholic. Every church I had ever been in had some depiction of that sequence on the walls. But here was something completely different and alien. I sat down and tried to wrap my mind around them, only to find myself moved emotionally by the simple arrangements of black and white paint and raw canvas. By removing the figure of Christ himself from the equation, Newman created something somehow “truer” to the message of Christ’s passion that can’t be explained in words and can only be understood by those who have experienced it themselves. With works such as The Stations of the Cross and his “world turned upside down” sculpture Broken Obelisk, Barnett Newman halts the fast-paced world of modernity and modern art for a moment and allows us to breathe, think, and, finally, feel.

A Mixed Nature

“This little book has a mixed nature,” Rodolphe Topffer wrote of one his early books that many consider the first comic books. “It is composed of a series of autographed pictures. Each picture is accompanied by one or two lines of text. The pictures, without this text, would have only an obscure meaning; the text, without the pictures, would mean nothing. Together they form a sort of novel, all the more original in that it does not resemble a novel more than any other thing. The author of this little oblong volume is not known. If he is an artist, he draws badly, but he has some skill in writing; if he is a writer, he writes only moderately well, but in recompense he has a good amateur's drawing skills.” Born January 31, 1799, Toppfer was being much too modest in writing of such works as Les Amours de M. Vieuxbois (drawn in 1827, published in 1839; a panel from which appears above),which married the worlds of words and art in a way few had done before. Topffer taught and painted and drew such pictures on the side, for the amusement of his students, family, and friends. In the panels above, Monsieur Vieuxbois hangs himself in despair over lost love, only to return to the living when his true love calls, pursuing her with the rope still around his neck and the end of the rope still attached to the ceiling beam. Such lighthearted slapstick remains a staple of comics and cartoons today.

Goethe saw Topffer’s comic books in 1830 and loved them, belying his reputation for high seriousness. Topffer later used Goethe’s kind words to acquire a publisher for his unique works. Topffer, however, in addition to his jabs at love and social status through Monsieur Vieuxbois, which Goethe loved, in Monsieur Pencil took aim on politics and warfare—two topics on which Topffer and Goethe saw less eye to eye on. Goethe never saw such panels as the one above in which a foolish scientist places Monsieur Pencil in a crate, thinking him to be some kind of alien. Despondent, Monsieur Pencil tries to hang himself by holding on to a tree branch while still trapped in the coffin-like crate, changing hands when one gets tired. Pencil’s misadventures multiply throughout the story, creating a domino effect that sets the whole country into turmoil. Through such absurdity, Topffer comments directly on the senselessness of the death and destruction surrounding the Revolution of 1830, aka The July Revolution, which replaced one king with another. By all accounts, Topffer himself was no liberal, but his conservatism allowed him to see the errors of France’s ways at that time and to gently point them out in his unique way.

Topffer’s stories gained an audience in his lifetime. Unfortunately, the absence of copyright laws in the nineteenth century allowed rampant pirating of his works, robbing him of much income. In 1842, an English-language version of Les Amours de M. Vieuxbois, titled Obadiah Oldbuck (one panel is shown above), is published as the first comic book in America. Topffer dies in 1846, having published only seven of his books during his lifetime, with many others to follow, including numerous translations. Illustrators such as Gustave Dore point to Topffer as an influence in their approach to putting images to text. It’s hard to believe that in such simple doodles, the playthings of a playful professor, the entire genre of comics, from Superman to Peanuts to Doonesbury, was born.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Woven Together

William Kentridge and Marguerite Stephens annotate a copy of a source drawing. Photo by John Hodgkiss, courtesy of the William Kentridge Studio.

While in high school, I had the privilege of playing with a small ensemble supplying the music for an event held at the PMA for John Cardinal Krol, then Cardinal of Philadelphia. We set up well before anyone else arrived on the balcony level surrounding the Great Stair Hall of the museum and waited for our cue. For the better part of an hour, my friends and I were confined to the area on which the museum’s History of Constantine Tapestries designed by Peter Paul Rubens and Pietro da Cortona. That memory flooded back to me as I read the catalogue to the PMA’s current exhibition William Kentridge: Tapestries. South African artist William Kentridge (shown above) follows in the footsteps of those Old Masters in creating his own tapestries that unite not only old methods with modern ideas but also Western art with South African indigenous culture.

In this fourth exhibition of the PMA’s Notations series and the first to feature a catalogue, the PMA’s Curator of Contemporary Art, Carlos Basualdo, assembles not only a wide array of Kentridge’s work but also edits an excellent catalogue that examines this multi-faceted artist from multiple directions. Gabriele Guercio connects Kentridge with the legacy of the tapestry in his essay, “Becoming Aware in a World of People on the Move.” Guercio sees the Renaissance concept of the disegno at work in Kentridge’s tapestries. “Vasari, blending Plato and Aristotle, equated disegno with idea,” Guercio writes, “meaning that drawing produces not so much representation of a preexisting reality but events of consciousness that are lived and reified as in the signs jotted down on a sheet.” This seamless transitioning from one medium to another, from drawing to tapestry to painting, all stemming from the idea or disegno, ends around the eighteenth century, when the division between art and craft develops, splitting the artist and the artisan even today. Kentridge’s works bridge this divide, taking similar ideas and creating drawings, paintings, sculptures, films, and even tapestries. “Kentridge’s tapestries demonstrate a capacity not only for blurring the gap between craft and art,” Guercio writes, “but also for subverting the pretense of placing artistic phenomenon within fixed categories.” The wall erected between life and art collapses in the wake of Kentridge’s tapestries.

Porter Series: Géographie des Hebreux ou Tableau de la dispersion des Enfants de Noë, 2005, William Kentridge. Tapestry weave with embroidery: mohair, acrylic, and polyester. 100 1/2 x 137 7/8 inches (255.3 x 350.2 cm). Collection of Anne and William Palmer, New York.

At the heart of Kentridge’s tapestries is the theme of labor, the work of human hands. In the Porter Series (one example above), Kentridge memorializes the South African porters who carry the luggage and other possessions of others. These figures are shown as silhouettes, merging physically in many cases with the objects they carry, as they process against a backdrop of old atlas pages. The porters indicate not only labor but also exploited labor, specifically the exploited workers of South Africa laboring for their colonizers. The maps bring to mind the issue of nations and colonies as well as the idea of travel between nations in the connection with the porters. Kentridge throws into doubt the idea of progress, of brining “civilization” to “uncivilized” nations, inherent in the colonization of Africa by Western nations. By making the figures blackened shadows, Kentridge denies the certainty of representation and, by extension, all forms of certainty. “All calls to certainty, whether of political jingoism or of objective knowledge, have an authoritarian origin relying on blindness and coercion—which are fundamentally inimical to what it is to be alive in the world with one’s eyes open,” Kentridge says. It is interesting to contrast Kentridge’s use of shadow figures with that of Kara Walker. Where the white South African uses shadows to illustrate the wrongs of colonialism against maps that outline the long human history of jingoism and coercion, the black African-American uses shadows to illustrate the wrongs of slavery and its ever-echoing effects through American culture against a plain white background, throwing the racial dichotomy into even starker contrast. Both, however, deny any answers in the end. Certainty, any certainty is wrong in of itself in its ability to morph into authoritarianism and repeat the same old sins but with new names.

The mohair for Kentridge's tapestries is dyed in wood-fire vats in Swaziland. Photo by John Hodgkiss, courtesy of the William Kentridge Studio.

What makes Kentridge’s tapestries even more striking is their physicality, which literally merges the idea of South Africa with South Africa itself. The mohair used in the tapestries comes from farm goats in Swaziland that is dyed (above) by hand by local artisan women. More local artisans in the Stephens Tapestry Studio in Swaziland and Johannesburg hand-weave the tapestries from enlarged photographs of Kentridge’s original drawings. These workers do not slavishly copy Kentridge’s designs but rather add their own unique touches, creating a wholly new work that is both Kentridge’s and theirs. “The process is less a translation from one medium to another than a precisely calculated blurring of the possibility of conceiving of photography, drawing, and projection as separate and independent mediums,” Basualdo writes. Looking at the proud faces of these South African women weavers in the catalogue, in both action shots taken during the process and in a group photo at the end of the book, you finally recognize the continuum of artistry between the acknowledged artist Kentridge and these unheralded artists. Through the physicality of the tapestry, Kentridge impresses on the viewer the immense, yet too often unrecognized talents of the black population of South Africa and, by extension, reaffirms their essential humanity so long denied by apartheid.

Porter Series: Espagne ancienne (Porter with Dividers), 2005, William Kentridge. Tapestry weave with embroidery: mohair, acrylic, and polyester. 98 3/4 x 130 1/2 inches (250.8 x 331.5 cm). Courtesy of Lia Rumma Gallery, Milan.

Okwui Enwezor and Ivan Vladislavic examine Kentridge’s imaginative journey through the landscape of South African apartheid in their essays. Enwezor demonstrates how Kentridge proves that no landscape is truly “innocent.” All landscapes bear the mark of their history, the “(un)civil engineering” of the powerful trying to remake the “savage” powerless as part of the larger colonialist ideology. Vladislavic remarks on the literal remapping of South Africa post-apartheid as old colonial town and street names disappear as new names pop up, thus erasing all the history behind those colonial labels and generating a collective cultural amnesia. Vladislavic then surveys South African literature’s lamenting of the lost pastoral tradition and how that lost land plays into Kentridge’s larger cultural reclamation project. “While landscape can hide its memories,” Enwezor asks, “is it not the work of the artist to undermine such easy amnesia?” Kentridge’s tapestries, with their backdrops of old atlas maps (above), force us to examine the ideology and implications of maps and boundaries and face the victims of such concepts, perhaps for the first time.

Bridge, 2001, William Kentridge. Bronze with books. 23 5/8 x 36 3/4 x 7 1/2 inches (60 x 93.2 x 19 cm). Collection of the artist.

In uniting both aesthetic and political concerns in his art, William Kentridge provides a stellar example for the modern artist. Kentridge fully engages the viewer on different levels, raising the genre of craft back to its rightful place alongside that of fine art but also taking his personal history of South Africa and apartheid and making it a universal issue of authoritarianism versus freedom, a bridge (like the one above), hopefully, to a better future. When Kentridge spoke at the PMA in early 2007 as part of the Thomas Chimes exhibition in regards to his use of Alfred Jarry’s Ubi Roi in his art (my review of that podcast here), it was clear that here was an artist unafraid of getting his hands dirty with the issues of the day. Whereas the Constantine Tapestries that dazzled me so many years ago documented ancient imperialism, Kentridge’s tapestries document imperialism from the other side—the side of the oppressed. In these tapestries, Kentridge gives voice to the voiceless and gives the poor a treatment once reserved for kings.

[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue and the images from the exhibition William Kentridge: Tapestries.]

Monday, January 28, 2008

Composing Chaos

With the possible exception of Frida, Salma Hayek’s film of Frida Kahlo’s life and art, Ed HarrisPollock, his interpretation of the life and art of Jackson Pollock, may be the finest biopic of a painter ever done. Born January 28, 1912, Pollock lived the myth of the tortured artist, always playing up to the expectations the public had of the crazy artist dubbed by the press as “Jack the Dripper” for his unique abstract expressionist paintings created by dripping and splashing paint. Behind the wild life story and the caricature of the madman blindly flinging paint onto canvas, there is a core of composure beneath the chaos. In works such as Blue Poles Number 11, 1952 (above, from 1952), Pollock grounded the patterns of dripped color with the rhythmic series of horizontal blue lines (the “poles” of the title) using, as Kirk Varnedoe showed in his book on Pollock, a compositional pattern Pollock learned from the regionalist Thomas Hart Benton. In many ways, Pollock’s life careened out of control, thanks mainly to substance abuse and his unstable emotional life, but his art never was a creation of pure chance.

Like the poles that stabilize Blue Poles, Pollock’s marriage to fellow abstract expressionist Lee Krasner helped stabilize his life and allow him to enjoy some success. Works such as Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) (above, from 1950) show the beautiful effects that Pollock’s technique could achieve. Advances in liquid paint made that technique possible, and Pollock’s time assisting David Alfaro Siqueiros helped open his eyes to that potential. Pollock’s drip paintings made such a paradigmatic leap in modern art that nobody really could follow in the same style. Anything else would be condemned as pure imitation. For a style so deceptively easy to the untrained eye, no school of Pollock formed around him. Such isolation only makes his art and his life more fascinating.

The performance aspect of Pollock’s painting continues to intrigue students of his art. Fortunately, Hans Namuth filmed Pollock at work, including innovative shots such as the one above in which Pollock painted on a sheet of glass as Namuth filmed from below, giving a sense of being within the painting as Pollock worked upon it. Unfortunately, such close scrutiny made the already self-conscious artist even more jittery and upset the delicate balance of his life. During his life, Pollock continually felt torn asunder by demands upon his work. The critic Clement Greenberg championed Pollock as the greatest painter of the age, the heir to the long legacy of Western art. Greenberg’s rival critic Harold Rosenberg, meanwhile, proposed Willem de Kooning as the top artist, attempting to generate a rivalry in the press between the artists that didn’t exist in real life between the two friends. Pollock even became the plaything of the United States government during the Cold War as they held his work up as an example of the freedom of American democracy in contrast to the repression of Russian Communism. All of these strains proved too much for Pollock, who lived too fast and died too young while drunk driving. Like James Dean, another icon of the period, it would be difficult to imagine Jackson Pollock living into old age, but it would have been nice to have had the chance.

Visionary Company

When his friend John Linnell introduced Samuel Palmer to William Blake in 1824, Palmer’s life and art were never the same. Born January 27, 1805, Palmer joined the visionary company surrounding the eccentric poet-painter Blake that later became known as The Ancients. Works such as The Magic Apple Tree (above, from 1830) stem from Blake’s influence, abounding with wild color and florid detail. A child prodigy, Palmer began exhibiting at the Royal Academy at fourteen years of age works patterned on the art of J.M.W. Turner. Turner turned Palmer on to the possibilities of the visionary landscape, but Blake opened up a cosmos of possibility for the young artist. Even Palmer himself grew wary of the powerful influence of Blake, showing his mind-blowing works to a select few initiates who shared his love of the master. While living in the Shoreham region of England in a dilapidated old cottage, Palmer painted the surrounding countryside in various stages of light and dark, often beneath romantic moonlight, as in A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star (above, from 1830). This watercolor shows Blake’s influence quite clearly, resembling some of the illustrations Blake created to accompany his poetry. Although Linnell introduced Palmer to Blake, he had doubts about Palmer’s prospects in his following of Blake’s example, especially after Palmer wed Linnell’s daughter. Palmer always struggled to make ends meet through his art and withered beneath the disapproval of his friend turned father-in-law. Teaching jobs helped with Palmer’s finances, but took valuable time away from his own painting.

In later years, Palmer developed as an engraver, gaining some commercial success while illustrating the poems of John Milton, one of Blake’s favorite poetic predecessors. The Lonely Tower (above, from 1869) conveys the dark romantic mood of much late romantic poetry and early Victorian verse. I’ve always thought that it might have made for a good illustration to Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Just as Blake himself languished in obscurity until rescued by the Pre-Raphaelites, Palmer’s reputation laid dormant until the twentieth century, when his wild colors made him seem less like a madman and more like a Fauvist. Like Blake and so many other artists ill-suited to their time, Palmer found his home in the twentieth century. Sadly, Palmer’s son destroyed many of the artist’s early work after his death in 1881, too embarrassed to have anyone see his father’s “failures.” Fortunately, enough of Palmer’s work survived to give us a glimpse of his greatness.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Living Long, and Prospering

An Art Info interview with actor-director Leonard Nimoy and his wife Susan discusses how they’ve become avid collectors of modern art since 1987. Susan is a trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Nimoys have contributed to the MOCA’s exhibitions of emerging artists. Along with a discussion of their love of collecting, the interview features a selection of Leonard Nimoy’s own photography, which I found interesting in its almost classical approach. One photo from The Borghese Series (above) shows a hooded figure that seems almost from another planet. Didn’t Spock mind meld with this guy on Rigel VII?

Nimoy’s photography reminded me greatly of that of Edward Weston, especially photographs such as Nimoy’s Dance Nudes Series (above) and his Egg Series. Clearly, Nimoy knows the history of photography and appreciates figures such as Weston. Another photo, featuring a pair of disembodied hands, pays homage to Alfred Stieglitz, who did a similar study of the hands of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

Nimoy’s photography seems most interesting in his unique Self-Portraits, such as the double-exposure study shown above. In another self-portrait, Nimoy places his face, full of the marks of age and experience, in the foreground, while a nude woman lays in the background, slightly out of focus. It’s a fascinating study of the contrast of age and youth. I’ll confess to being a Trekkie and a devout follower of the original series. Along with Brent Spiner as Data in The Next Generation, Nimoy’s Mr. Spock always struck me as the most fascinating, complex character, thanks mostly to the ability of the actor behind the makeup. Nimoy’s autobiographies—I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock (yes, I've read both)–demonstrated that he was more than just a typecast actor. His photography proves that Leonard Nimoy truly has an artist’s soul.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Interpretive Failure

George Bush’s favorite painting, W.H.D. Koerner's A Charge to Keep (above), which Bush used to title his autobiography, seems to have a different meaning than what Bush thinks it does. Bush says he appreciates the painting because the single horseman charges up the hill with determination, never looking back. He also admires the work because he feels that the horseman looks like him. Funny enough, the resemblance doesn’t end there. In reality, as the link above relates, the painting illustrates a Western story at the moment when a thief escapes his captors. The Bush look-a-like is the thief, not the hero. Like they say, it always helps to read the small print.

What a quintessential Bush moment—narcissism and stupidity with a creamy ironic center!

It reminded me of another leader’s favorite painting of himself on horseback, The Flag Bearer by Hubert Lanzinger (below).

Look familiar?

Abstract Thinking

Few people could explain abstract expressionist art to the masses like Robert Motherwell, the youngest of the group of titans that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. Born January 24, 1915, Motherwell believed that “the public history of modern art is the story of conventional people not knowing what they are dealing with.” Motherwell saw the excesses of abstract expressionism as a positive rather than a negative. "Nothing as drastic an innovation as abstract art could have come into existence, save as the consequence to a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need," he wrote. Works such as The Little Spanish Prison (above, from 1941-44) tried to quench that burning need Motherwell identified in modern society. "Abstract expressionism was the first American art that was filled with anger as well as beauty," he later said, encapsulating neatly his desire to transform the anger welling up inside his artistic soul into something beautiful and communicative.

"Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head. It is the real subject, of which everything he paints is both an homage and a critique, and everything he says is a gloss," Motherwell stated, and later emphasized in such works as Fishes with Red Stripe (above, from 1954), which recalls the calligraphy of Japanese art as well as the abstracted figurative work of Matisse and Picasso. Although Motherwell talked about the anger of abstract expressionism, he saw a playfulness in it as well. “Art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it,” he once said, contrasting with such “art to the death” figures as Pollock. Motherwell married fellow artist He was married to artist Helen Frankenthaler, making them the “Brangelina” of the Color Field school of painting for a time. Such an engagement with life, rather than death, makes Motherwell one of the most appealing of the abstract expressionists.

Motherwell’s art takes a darker turn in his series of works titled Elegy to the Spanish Republic (No. 110, from 1971, appears above). Motherwell examined that political situation through the stark contrast of black and white, a shift that Pollock also made in his later works and Barnett Newman did to moving effect in his Stations of the Cross. Although his personal life wasn’t tempestuous enough to warrant a biopic, like Pollock, Motherwell helped further abstract art in America much more by living than by dying.

Paint It Black

In the 1970s, despairing over the fate of his art and his country, Leon Golub destroyed all of his paintings, wiping the slate clean. Born January 23, 1922, Golub underwent a second birth in that act, freeing himself to protest and document what he saw as the crimes against humanity committed by the United States of America. His Napalm Flag (above, from 1974) drenches the American flag metaphorically in the napalm used so mercilessly by the U.S. military in the Vietnam War. As Philip Guston targeted Richard Nixon through his art, Golub aimed more widely, targeting the whole dehumanizing process of war sanitized by the ideology of flags and nationality. From his great moment of doubt, Golub discovered a sense of purpose that would populate his art, sadly, for the next thirty years.

During the Reagan years of the 1980s, the era of Iran-Contra and Sandinistas, Golub turned his attention to the dynamics of terrorism and tourture. His Interrogation (above, from 1981) belongs to a whole suite of images of figures intimidating and torturing hooded victims. Although his figures are set in Central American conflicts, there’s a universality to Golub’s depictions that recall the brutality of the Nazis and presciently look ahead to the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In The Abu Ghraib Effect, Steven F. Eisenman cites Golub’s work as one of the few examples working against the prevalent ostensibly pro-torture history of Western art. (My review of The Abu Ghraib Effect is here.) Sadly, where Picasso could impact hearts and minds with his Guernica, Golub’s works never gained the recognition required to make a difference, robbed of the necessary oxygen by a media complicit in the injustices.

Before his death in 2004, Golub summed up the meaning of his work: "I'm not going to change our country. . . I'm not trying to influence people as much as trying to make a record. I like the notion of reportage. I hope that in 50 or 100 years from now my work will still be telling a record of what Americans were doing in terms of force, domination, world interest. It's not a large part of history, but it's a crucial part." I’m not sure if Golub never intended to make a difference or finally resigned himself to mere documentation, but he never stopped painting injustice. In The Black Does Not Interrupt the Killing (above, from 2002), Golub smears black paint over a scene of a gun-wielding man grasping the arm of an unseen figure, mimicking the American media’s ability to black out or cover over injustice done in the name of “homeland security” or “the war on terror.” Although Golub’s work has been nearly covered over in our time, I wouldn’t be surprised if many years from now, when the real histories of our era are written, he emerges as the Goya of late twentieth century America.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Man Bites Dog

“I hate people who own dogs,” the playwright and painter August Strindberg once said. “They should have the courage to bite people themselves.” Born January 22, 1849, Strindberg created groundbreaking plays such as Miss Julie that called into question all authority, both of God and man. Politically, Strindberg verged on the edge of anarchy with a foothold in the world of socialism. A powerful, charismatic personality, Strindberg attracted friends in all the arts, including the unconventional painters Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin. Munch painted Strindberg in oils and later created a woodblock portrait (above, from 1896). Strindberg’s relationship with Munch was often strained, as the younger artist always seemed too needy of Strindberg’s approval. As Munch began painting his personal, expressive works that would haunt generations, Strindberg already had been painting works born of his own personal anguish.

Strindberg approached painting as a release, a drug to ease his pain. Painting made Strindberg 'indescribably happy—as if he'd just taken hashish,' he wrote. Works such as Storm in the Skerries (aka, The Flying Dutchman) (above, from 1892) exhibit all the turmoil of Strindberg’s soul. Using palette knives, Strindberg slathered on the paint to create a thick, swirling mass of color and texture that recreates the turbulent seas of Richard Wagner’s operatic vision. Strindberg also painted more calmer scenes, as was seen in a 2005 Tate Britain exhibition, but it in is these wild, symbolic snapshots of his psyche that Strindberg holds the most interest for viewers today. Such technique and wild abandon remind me of the works of Albert Pinkham Ryder, Strindberg’s equally eccentric fellow visionary across the Atlantic in America. Ryder and Strindberg most certainly never met, but would have had a fascinating conversation if they had.

Strindberg once claimed that he painted the first truly symbolic landscapes, such as his The City (above, from 1903). Such a claim depends on how you define the symbolic landscape, but Strindberg certainly worked on the cutting edge of art. If he had devoted more time to painting, he might be known primarily as an artist than as a writer. Of course, Strindberg required such a heightened state of emotion to create his works that he most likely would have burned out if he’d worked exclusively as a painter. Strindberg later experimented with photography, exposing photographic plates to the clear night sky and believing that he’d captured impressions of the stars themselves. (Most experts today suspect that earthbound dust really created the pinpoint marks.) Like Alfred Jarry, Strindberg’s mind and spirit spilled forth into every medium available, including the visual arts, offering an enticing morsel of what could have been so much more.

The World Turned Upside Down

Born Hans-Georg Kern on January 23, 1938, the artist later known as Georg Baselitz, caused a scene from the very beginning of his career. At his first solo exhibition in 1963, German police responded to public outrage and confiscated two paintings deemed indecent—Naked Man and The Big Night Down the Drain—the latter of which depicted a boy masturbating. Baselitz, who adopted the name of his home town as his own, strove for shock in everything he did, always looking to shake up the comfortable art world and wake up the viewing public to a new way of seeing. Baselitz’s Rebel (above, from 1965) could be considered a type of self-portrait of the artist as a young anarchist, the anti-hero with ideals and unconventional methods.

In 1969, Baselitz literally turned his art upside down, deciding to depict all his figures inverted to thwart attempts to see the person in the image and instead present the image alone. (One of the tricks drawing teachers often use is to have students turn a picture upside down when copying, so that they see only the shapes and not when they represent.) Nude Elke 2 (above, from 1976) shows the artist’s wife in Baselitz’s typical Neo-Expressionist style, which harks back to the style and the goals of the German Expressionists of the early twentieth century. As a young man, Baselitz read writings of the mystic Jakob Böhme and later immersed himself in the spiritually-oriented art theories of Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich. Beneath Baselitz’s sexually-charged and brutally depicted images lurked an inquiring soul longing to see beyond the physical and into mystical realms, much like the first generation of German Expressionists such as Emil Nolde and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

Over time, Baselitz the outlaw rebel became Baselitz the representative German artist in several international exhibitions in the 1980s. By the 1980s, Baselitz spread out his vision into other media, such as the untilted wood sculpture above (from 1982-1983). Never one for subtlety, Baselitz literally carved this figure with a chainsaw. The primal aspect of using power tools for art renders a figure that itself seems to be from a primitive. Thanks to Baselitz and the other neo-Expressionists, the first generation of German Expressionists received a critical reappraisal in the 1980s that continues today. Still going strong at 80 years of age, Baselitz, like his predecessors, saw the ills of his time and pointed them out in a raw and loud voice that cut through all the comfortable illusions.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

You Say You Want a Revolution

What could the 31-year-old Edouard Manet have been thinking during that tumultuous year of 1863? Born January 23, 1832, Manet had just completed The Luncheon on the Grass ("Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe") (above, from 1862-1863) and Olympia (below, from 1863). After failing to get The Luncheon exhibited at the 1863 Paris Salon, Manet turned to the Salon des Refuses and fired the first shot against academic painting in the war that would lead to Impressionism and all modern art. The Luncheon (which I always find odd for the juxtaposition of the fully clothed men eating with the stark naked ladies) caused the first scandal of Manet’s career and marked him as an outsider, something he never wanted to be. Forced to lead a revolution he never wanted to begin, Manet became the inspiration for an entire generation of artists yearning to be free to paint any way they wished.

Oddly enough, the Paris Salon accepted Manet’s Olympia (above) the next year, perhaps hoping to cool down the flames of dissent by allowing Manet to exhibit and face critical appraisal. The woman in Olympia looks out at the viewer with an unflinching gaze, proud and unashamed of her nude body (and of her suggested profession of prostitution). Manet took the idea of the classical nude and placed it in a contemporary context, stripping away the façade of mythology and making a further joke of that façade with his title. Showing his love of Velazquez and the Old Masters, Manet paints Olympia realistically, yet strikes the first note in the symphony of modernism that would follow. Like his friend, the realist novelist Emile Zola, Manet strove to bring the real life around him into his art, regardless of the standards of the time. Seeing both The Luncheon and Olympia at the Musee D’Orsay was a memorable experience for me, but I can’t imagine the shock they delivered back in 1863.

Technically, Manet was a master. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (above, 1882), with its amazing panoramic mirrored view of the bar “behind” the viewer standing in front of the painting, matches any illusionary effect done before or since. Amazingly, Manet literally places you within the world of the café, amidst the loud conversation, music, and human traffic that Manet himself knew so well in his travels. Toulouse-Lautrec and others depicted the bustling café scene of that era from the vantage point of an observer, but only Manet gives the impression of being wholly within the flow of life of such places. The barmaid in the painting actually seems poised to take your order. Manet is the ultimate transitional figure in art—a realist painter who thought like an Impressionist in wanting to place the vibrancy of modern existence on canvas. To the Impressionists, Manet served as a founding father, providing the courageous example that they followed in their own revolution.

Stop Making Sense

Few artists made less sense yet said more in their careers than Francis Picabia. Born January 22, 1879, Picabia helped bring Dada to America and the world with works such as Portrait de femme aux allumettes, No. 1 (above, from 1923), in which Picabia creates a woman’s face with match sticks for hair and safety pins for eyes, repurposing those household items to create a wholly new way of looking at the human face. Marcel Duchamp hailed Picabia as the individual who bridged Europe and America for many artists as they fled the madness of World War I. Like Duchamp and his other Surrealist friend Man Ray, Picabia lived his life of Dada nonsense, rejecting the world that itself seemed to no longer act rationally.

Like the Italian Futurists, Picabia embraced the machine as the answer to all of the excesses of romantic humanism, creating works such as Machine Turn Quickly (above, from 1916-1918) as the wheels of destruction decimated Europe and wiped out a generation (including most of the Futurist artists themselves). Unlike the Futurists, Picabia knew when to stop, rejecting the dogma of the cult of the machine the same way he rejected all ideology and authority. Picabia actually began studying art with Alfred Sisley in the Impressionist style and later fell under the influence of the Cubists, but shed each of those influences in his personal journey to something uniquely his own.

In addition to painting and sculpture, Picabia wrote poetry, little of which has been translated into English and, from what I understand, wouldn’t make much sense if it was. In the 1930s, Picabia traveled in the French social circles surrounding Gertrude Stein and her literary salon, adopting the difficult, multilayered style of writing that he translated into paintings such as Hera (above, from 1929). Picabia creates a sense of three-dimensionality and depth through the multiple portraits superimposed upon one another, a form of Cubism that “surrounds” the figure yet, unlike classic Cubism, leaves the figure itself intact. Despite seeing Hera’s face several times, you never see her fully at any given time. Picabia always denies you the satisfaction of a connection. Picabia’s life itself denies you the same satisfaction, bordering often on nihilism in his Dadaist rejection of rationality but simultaneously and frustratingly suggesting the possibility of some great answer hidden beneath.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Following in Line

Aubrey Beardsley, The Peacock Skirt, 1894, Line block proof on Japanese vellum, Collection of Dr. Michael Richard Barclay

When Aubrey Beardsley, decadent bad boy of British illustration, died after a scant quarter century on this earth in 1898, he left a body of work that sent shock waves throughout the world of illustration. You either embraced or rejected Beardsley, but you could never ignore the boundless talent that created works such as The Peacock Skirt (above). The Peacock Skirt came to symbolize the abundantly overflowing skill of Beardsley and was quoted in the works of those who followed many times over. Rodney Engen’s The Age of Enchantment: Beardsley, Dulac and their Contemporaries 1890-1930, the catalogue to the exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, recreates this golden age of illustration that began with Beardsley in many ways but never ended in any real sense. Engen ties together many of the prevailing forces on artists of that era and highlights the art and personal lives of these great, often forgotten masters of illustration.

Edmund Dulac, Sinbad the Sailor entertains Sinbad the Landsman [from Stories from the Arabian Nights], 1914, Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection

The same Orientalism that flavored many of Beardsley’s works appears clearly in the illustrations of Edmund Dulac, the French-born Art Deco artist who took his love of the East and Far East further than any Western illustrator had done before. In his illustrations of the Stories from the Arabian Nights (an example above), Dulac created “a more refined world of orientalising, which greatly appealed to a younger audience tired of gloomy historicism,” Engen writes. Dulac’s close study of Persian miniatures, one of his many passions in collecting, provided a living sense of detail that comes across in his work. A friend of the W.B. Yeats, Dulac shared the poet’s love of the Japanese Noh drama, another aspect of the Orient that Dulac lived rather than copied in his drawings. A dramatic figure to the end, Dulac died in 1953, at 70 years of age, from a heart attack after dancing the flamenco.

Jessie M. King, The Sea Voices [from Seven Happy Days], 1914, pen and ink, watercolour, and sivler on vellum, Victoria and Albert Museum

Beardsley’s love of Arthurian legends continued on in the works of many artists, including Jessie Marion King. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their love of medievalism created a lasting impression on all British art of the period, but perhaps left their most lasting imprint on children’s illustration. One of the Pre-Raphaelites, Edward Burne-Jones, actually served as a mentor to Beardsley during his work illustrating Le Morte Darthur. After Beardsley’s death, however, the dark aspects of medievalism gave way to “a healthier, less dark and more wholesome love of fantasy,” as can be seen in such works as King’s The Sea Voices (above). King loved the folk ballads of her native Scotland and even designed her own mock medieval dresses to wear as an outward sign of her love of the Arthurian and the fantastic. The gentle washes of color add a softer feel to King’s art that the stark black and white of Beardsley lacked. After World War I, a rage for color eclipsed the days of pure black and white line illustration and further challenged artists.

Edward Detmold, Tiger, Butterflies and Fan Palms, colour etching, Private Collection

“With the rise of the wealthy Edwardian middle classes,” Engen writes, “came a yearning for escape from the horrors of industrialization and the urban sprawl that accompanied it.” Epitomizing this “new rural religion” is the work of Edward and Maurice Detmold, twin brothers who collaborated on works stunning in their naturalistic detail that drew comparisons to Durer while they were still teenagers. “The Detmolds were, for a generation of enthusiasts, the supreme masters of nature in art,” Engen claims, backing it such claims with works such as Edward’s Tiger, Butterflies and Fan Palms (above), painted after his brother’s tragic suicide in 1908.

The story of the Detmolds is just one of the many fascinating tales of these forgotten artists. Sidney Sime, who scratched imps and devils onto the walls of the coal mines he worked in as a child, rose from poverty to become a revolutionary figure in terms of technique and imagination, creating images as disturbing as any by Odilon Redon. When asked to explain his hesitancy over illustrating the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Sime responded, “You see, I am looking forward to meeting Poe in Hell and I am loathe to do anything that would embarrass the encounter.” Arthur Rackham created 3,000 illustrations and 150 books over a 40-year career dominated by Germanic influences such as Durer, Bosch, and Grunewald. His nephew called him “the only truly happy man I have come across” thanks to his ability to escape into his work regardless of wars and even air raids. Perhaps the most quizzical figure of this group, Alastair, drew fantastic, unreal images that echoed Beardsley at his most decadent and perhaps even surpassed the master. Engen calls Alastair “an enigmatic puzzle, a curious mixture of petulance, childishness and anger, who refused to be pinned down and was always on the move.” Engen gives each of these shadowed figures another day in the sun, spotlighting the immense talent behind these striking personalities.

Kay Nielsen, The Faun, watercolour and bodycolour, Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection

For me, the most fascinating of these forgotten artists remains Kay Nielsen, the Danish artist who took his love for folklore and married it to his encyclopedic grasp of multiple artistic cultures. “Nielsen’s winning formula was derived largely from his beloved folkloric background,” Engen argues, “he also borrowed from a love of early Italian painting, from the delicate Persian miniatures and Indian and Chinese landscapes which he mixed and borrowed in a process he called ‘artistic wandering.’” Such “wandering” led Nielsen to a successful career in illustration through works such as The Faun (above) and later brought him to America and Hollywood to work on Walt Disney’s Fantasia, specifically the “Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” sections. Many of the works by Nielsen come from the Kendra and Allen Daniel Collection, which was on display in 2007 at the Brandywine River Museum in the Flights Into Fantasy exhibition (reviewed here). The inclusion of Nielsen in this international exhibition will hopefully raise his profile within the art world as well as establish this era of illustration as more than just kids’ stuff.

Aubrey Beardsley, Sir Launcelot and the Witch Hellawes [full-page illustration for Le Morte Darthur]. 1893-4. Private Collection

Engen chooses 1930 as the cutoff date for this exhibition with a degree of sadness. Although the taste for Beardsley-inspired art (including Le Morte Darthur, above) faded, the artists themselves remained to “live out their careers in disappointment, anger and soul-destroying neglect,” Engen laments. “As they watched the century progress and its poor standards of artistic taste surround them, it was for many too much to bear.” Edward Detmold continued working after his brother’s death, eventually becoming a hermit, until despairing over fading sales and taking his own life in 1956. Kay Nielsen died a broken and forgotten man in 1957. Many others simply faded into the shadows of art history, waiting to be rediscovered. Fortunately, the boldness and brightness of the work itself lives on in this catalogue and exhibition, perhaps finally reaching that hour when their lives, which Nielsen once said were “devoted to the lyrical and the poetic,” no longer seem lived in vain.

[Many thanks to the Dulwich Picture Gallery for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to The Age of Enchantment: Beardsley, Dulac and their Contemporaries 1890-1930 and for the images above from the exhibition.]