Friday, August 29, 2008
Barack Obama, August 28, 2008:
This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that's not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that's not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that's not what keeps the world coming to our shores.
Instead, it is that American spirit - that American promise - that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.
That promise is our greatest inheritance. It's a promise I make to my daughters when I tuck them in at night, and a promise that you make to yours - a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a promise that led workers to picket lines, and women to reach for the ballot.
And it is that promise that forty five years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln's Memorial, and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.
The men and women who gathered there could've heard many things. They could've heard words of anger and discord. They could've been told to succumb to the fear and frustration of so many dreams deferred.
But what the people heard instead - people of every creed and color, from every walk of life - is that in America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one.
"We cannot walk alone," the preacher cried. "And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."
America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done. Not with so many children to educate, and so many veterans to care for. Not with an economy to fix and cities to rebuild and farms to save. Not with so many families to protect and so many lives to mend. America, we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise - that American promise - and in the words of Scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, August 28, 1963:
I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
When Courbet set out to make a name in French art, he knew he had to get a reaction from two artists in particular. When Eugène Delacroix gave Courbet his blessing as the next generation of Romanticism, Courbet was thrilled. When Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres shook his head and called Courbet nothing but trouble, Courbet was even happier. Born August 29, 1780, Ingres stood for the establishment long after the anti-establishment was cool. When he painted Napoleon on his Imperial Throne (above, in 1806), Ingres saw himself as the heir to the state-approved painter role of Jacques-Louis David. Unfortunately for Ingres, Napoleon met his Waterloo and Ingres’ beloved Neoclassicism came face to face with the Romantics. Ingres struggled for years, ignored by critics as derivative of David and little else. Today, we can appreciate Ingres for his cool, grand style, which always seems to sneer at those below its station. One of the great draftsmen of his age and a beautiful colorist, Ingres always seemed to win the hearts of those in power more than the hearts of the average viewer, even today, and perhaps even more today when painting for “the Man” doesn’t necessarily win you points.
Ingres languished in semi-obscurity until the rousing success of The Vow of Louis XIII (above, from 1824). After the trials of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic Wars, France finally seemed ready for nostalgia for the days of the monarchy. Ingres chooses the moment when Louis XIII dedicated the country of France to the Virgin Mary in hopes of giving birth to an heir. After twenty-three years of trying, Louis XIII and his queen finally gave birth to the future Louis XIV. All of the excesses of the French kings that led to the revolution were gently forgotten in the inevitable pendulum shift back to conservative thinking when whole nations found themselves captivated by the drama of royal succession. The Paris Salon embraced Ingres and his style, forging the state-run art taste machine that would entrench establishment mores for decades until Edouard Manet and the Impressionists shook things up. Ingres saw himself as the modern Raphael, standard-bearer of “good” taste and moral painting against the rabble-rousing forces of Romanticism and its descendents.
Thanks to the success of The Vow of Louis XIII, earlier works by Ingres such as La Grande Odalisque (above, from 1814) suddenly were acceptable. In his Orientalist nudes, often set in harems, Ingres never really captures the exotic, licentious feel of the East that fascinated nineteenth century Europeans. All of his little touches, from the peacock feathers to the rich fabrics, seem like dead studio props. However, Ingres does loosen up a bit in La Grande Odalisque, his finest nude. The Ingres sneer appears again on the countenance of the woman, but the beautiful depiction of the human form as a work of art itself sets this apart from everything else Ingres ever painted. The woman’s back stretches impossibly thanks to extra sets of vertebrae inserted by Ingres to accentuate her curves. Ingres allowed himself moments of freedom, especially when playing on his violin the works of Beethoven, Mozart, and Gluck with his friend, the wild-man violinist Paganini. Later generations of artists would appreciate Ingres’ portraits for their skillfulness, but it was in those brief, tantalizing moments of freedom that they found an example, and perhaps a cautionary tale, to learn from.
In the late nineteenth century, British critic John Ruskin loved to disparage painters who followed in the footsteps of Raphael, mainly to help bolster his praise of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Caught up in the wake of this criticism were artists such as Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, known commonly as simply Il Sassoferrato. Born August 29, 1609, Sassoferrato indeed followed the style of Raphael, but also borrowed freely from other artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Guercino, and even his contemporary Guido Reni. Today, Sassoferrato suffers as much from the residue of Ruskin’s attacks on his over “sweetness” as from modern expectations of originality. For most of his career, Sassoferrato churned out image after image of the Virgin Mary for both private patrons and for public churches as part of the larger Counter-Reformation to win back the hearts of the faithful through stirring art. Fifteen versions of The Virgin in Prayer (above, from 1640 to 1650) still exist, testifying to Sassoferrato’s popularity and productivity. Judged on its originality, The Virgin in Prayer seems lacking. Judged on the quality of its painting, however, Sassoferrato emerges as an artist of great substance. When a Christian looked up from a pew or a sickbed and saw the downcast eyes of The Virgin in Prayer set upon him, Sassoferrato succeeded in creating a believable, warmly human world in which the sacred and the profane could intersect.
The sheer repetition of Sassoferrato’s output certainly seems off-putting today. We need to see these works through the eyes of the buyer, the maker, and the intended audience, however. The buyers, usually the church, wanted the maximum impact from every image. A small repertoire of images spoke clearest to the illiterate masses. Keep it simple, stupid, we’d say today. The maker, Sassoferrato, would tailor his art to the wishes of the buyer in that patronage-dominated age. The intended audience wanted simple, concise, yet powerful images that tugged upon their heartstrings, such as Sassoferrato’s Madonna and Child with Cherubs (above, from 1650). A realistic landscape or elaborate architecture behind the figures would distract the viewer from focusing on the human (and divine) relationship of the Virgin and the baby Jesus. The cherubs, which inspire eye-rolling today, would have helped set the mood without diminishing the intended effect. What sets Sassoferrato apart from the run of the mill artist working within this Counter-Revolutionary system is his ability to take such simple elements and do so much, rendering the faces of the figures with convincing humanity while bathing the entire scene with a golden, heavenly glow.
The Madonna and Child shown above (from the 1650s) demonstrates how Sassoferrato could take the same theme as The Madonna and Child with Cherubs and make it slightly different while maintaining the full message. Sassoferrato closes in tighter on the Mother and Child, emphasizing their humanity in cinematic close-up. The cherubs in this picture seem even more superfluous. The same golden light bathes the figures, but seems even warmer in showing the gentle embrace of a mother and her sleeping infant. To criticize Sassoferrato and painters of his generation for saccharine subject matter is to miss the point of their art. Judging such works and such artists on their own terms rather than our own allows us to recognize their skill and imaginativeness regardless of time and place.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
When Colin Powell tried to defend the United States’ continued presence in Iraq, he invoked what he called the “Pottery Barn rule” or “You break it, you bought it.” Of course, Pottery Barn has no such rule, thus protecting Powell’s streak of disseminating misinformation, but could you imagine if museums had such a “You break it, you bought it” rule? Just last month a woman tripped at a Royal Academy exhibition and knocked over a 9-foot-tall sculpture titled Christina by Tatiana Echeverri Fernandez, smashing it to pieces. (The sculpture appears above, with show curator Tracey Emin standing alongside.) Fortunately for the stunned woman, nobody presented her with a bill for £6,000. Laura Barnett of The Guardian published a piece last month titled “Breaking Art” recounting Christina’s fall along with a litany of other art disasters. It turns out that most broken art is broken by professionals—curators, gallery staff, etc.—mainly thanks to the fact that they’re the ones called upon to move such fragile treasures from place to place. Still, I confess to moments of vertigo when face to face with some precious works of art with no protective barriers in between. It’s great to have unfettered access, but my inner klutz knows his potential for destruction and holds me back just enough.
One of the most famous cases of breaking art, which Barnett doesn’t mention, involved Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (aka, The Large Glass; above, from 1912). Workmen moving Duchamp’s work dropped it and shattered the pane of glass Duchamp had created his images upon. Making lemonade out of lemons, Duchamp viewed the patterns of shattered glass as a happy accident and incorporated the adventure into the work itself. Duchamp loved to create works that invited gallery-goers to touch, such as his mounted bicycle wheel. Those yearning to give it a spin soon find themselves under the watchful gaze of a museum guard. Always the iconoclast, Duchamp would be disappointed to know that his works no longer feel that human touch, but such is the price to pay for later generations to see such works intact.
Of course, accidents do happen, with nobody to blame. When Andrea della Robbia’s Saint Michael the Archangel Weighing Souls (above) recently came loose from its wall moorings and fell to the floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fingers pointed at everyone who could possibly be blamed. Fortunately, della Robbia’s work can be saved, thanks to a miraculous mid-air flip by Saint Michael that helped it land on its flat side. As someone who has walked through a museum or two with a baby in a baby carrier (both front and rear), I can honestly say that my absolute worst nightmare is to clip some priceless, irreplaceable work of art from a wall mount and send it crashing into oblivion. The Met provides rear baby carriers that are not only difficult to get on but are pure recipes for disaster for the unaware. Fortunately, Alex made his presence continually known (usually by playing with my balding pate), so I was fully aware of just how far I should stand away from the art. No museum will ever exact a price from anyone who has an honest mishap (vandals are a whole different issue), thankfully, but the psychological toll on someone who has erased the work of a skilled artist for all time would be a debt any true lover of art could never fully repay.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
When critics search for the “father” of modern, twentieth century art, they continually roll the calendar back further and further, beginning with Picasso, then Manet, and then usually Velazquez, finding the earlier “father” by looking at whoever the preceding “father” was looking at and learning from. El Greco often gets a nod, which seems quite false considering how his influence and popularity is largely a modern phenomenon—a case of “fatherhood” after the fact. As argued in Late Titian and the Sensuality of Painting (reviewed here), the succession seems to end in the person of Titian, whom even contemporaries called "the sun amidst small stars" during the star-studded Italian Renaissance. Titian died on August 27, 1576, leaving no direct heirs, but artists such as Velazquez, El Greco, and Manet all looked to him for inspiration and guidance. Born sometime between 1477 and 1490 (maybe), Titian’s origins are lost to us, but his role as the origin of much of the modern art sensibility are increasingly being understood. In works such as his Bacchus and Ariadne (above, from 1520-1523), we see Titian’s famous gift for color along with his amazing eye for composition. Such inventive re-envisioning of mythological themes provided a template for later artists to riff on old material in new ways that modern artists still use.
When it comes to artistic bravado, the first names you may think of are Courbet or Pollock, but Titian knew the true meaning of attitude before all of the moderns. Over the centuries, many candidates have stepped up as the model for the Man with the Blue Sleeve (above, from 1510)—the poet Ariosto, one of Titian’s patrons, even Titian himself. What can’t be questioned is the arrogance in the sitter’s eye. The hyperrealism of the painting once led many to think that Giorgione, one of Titian’s contemporaries, was the artist, but the swagger of the sleeve dangling over the side of the window frame is pure Titian. Like Michelangelo, Titian flourished in the patronage-driven art world of the Renaissance while never pandering to the market, letting his amazing skills do the talking. Again, the famous Titian color bursts out of the dark background with the stunning blue of the man’s sleeve, but it is the psychological acuity of the face of elitism that serves as Titian’s signature here.
Late Titian and the Sensuality of Painting concentrated on the last twenty-five years of Titian’s life, when his brushwork became increasingly loose and expressive. In Danaë (above, from 1544-1545), Titian paints the nude with the softness and freedom that the Impressionists would later make famous. The pose itself, in which a large-scale nude sprawls across the width of the image, may have inspired Manet to paint his Olympia, the work that launched the Impressionist movement or at least the antiestablishment wing of modern art. Like Manet’s Olympia, Titian’s Danaë takes a real-life courtesan (allegedly the mistress of a Cardinal who commissioned the painting) and mixes contemporary sexual reality and ancient mythology into a crossover hit that coexists on both planes. Such self-conscious playfulness with the nature of reality itself, combined with all his other innovations, helps place Titian on the throne of “father” of modern art, at least until the next artist comes along to topple him off.
When Emmanuel Radnitzky entered the world on August 27, 1890 in the humble surroundings of his immigrant parents’ South Philadelphia home, nobody would have guessed the heights to which the artist now known as Man Ray would reach. Lacking true painter’s skills himself, Man Ray learned to paint with photography. Although he mingled in Dada and Surrealist circles, May Ray defies categorization, spilling over into every nook and cranny of modern art in his pervasive influence and amazing reach. As much as Man Ray loved making art, he loved making art focusing on women even more. Man Ray’s Black and White (above, from 1926) draws a beautiful parallel between 1920s conceptions of cosmetic beauty and the simplified forms of African masks. Like Pablo Picasso and so many other artists of the time, Man Ray saw so-called primitive art as holding a primal energy that Western art lacked but could tap into. Just as Ray jumped from art movement to movement, he slipped as easily from muse to muse, tapping into a different primal energy. Works such as Black and White demonstrate how Man Ray mused on the nature of woman itself through the examination, often piece by piece, of women as individuals.
Using the photographic technique known as photograms, in which objects are placed on photographic paper that is then exposed to light, Man Ray created fascinating works of photography and even films rich in varied textures and shapes. Man Ray titled these works “Rayographs,” following the example of shameless self-promotion set by his friend Salvador Dalí. In addition to these sun-bred still lifes, Man Ray used the solarization technique of overexposing already exposed film to create near-negative effects as in the portrait of Jacqueline Goddard (above, from 1930). Goddard’s hair appears to flame out of her head thanks to the solarization effect. Ray makes Goddard seem almost devilish in appearance, perhaps alluding to the endless complications Ray’s endless stream of lovers carried in their wake.
No other lover/colleague carried as much complicated baggage for Man Ray as Lee Miller. Miller’s combination of breathtaking beauty and surprising artistic talent left Man Ray helpless. Miller soon went from student to lover to obsession for Man Ray. He photographed her in countless poses, examining every inch of her naked body. The photograph known as Lee Miller or simply “Neck” (above, from 1930) shows how he tried to reduce the complete woman into smaller, understandable, and perhaps controllable bits. Miller and Man Ray argued over who first conceived the Rayographs and the solarizating effects. Miller claimed that Man Ray originally threw Neck away, and only reclaimed it after seeing how Miller had recropped the image for a greater effect. When Miller and Man Ray parted ways, Man Ray seemed to have lost his greatest muse and artistic soul mate. Few artists tried their hand at so many media in so many different styles as Man Ray, but the core subject of his art always remained the nature of love and the endless puzzle of what women (and men) want.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
In the late 1930s, Vermeer’s Christ at Emmaus (above) stood as the most famous and admired work by the master. Crowds flocked to see it, swooning before it in religious rapture. Today, most people look at Christ at Emmaus and say to themselves, “That’s a Vermeer!?!” And they’re right. It’s not. Edward Dolnick’s The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century follows how a second-rate artist named Han van Meegeren tricked the experts, the dealers, museums, and eventually the Nazis plundering Europe’s finest treasures into believing such a work could be by the Master of Delft. “The central question is not whodunit but, instead, howdunit?” Dolnick writes, setting off on a journey through the history of Vermeer’s renaissance in modern times, the façade of art history expertise, and the art obsession of Hermann Goering, who fell for the fakes out his lust for the real thing.
van Meegeren lingered in relative obscurity in the Dutch art world for years. A few successful sentimental images shortly after World War I (particularly one of a doe that gained fame thanks to a rumor that it was Princess Juliana’s pet) hardly made up years of critical disdain. As the world began to embrace Picasso and Matisse and modern art movements, van Meegeren found himself a man of the discarded past, railing against the “slimy bunch” of “drunken madmen” in vogue and adored by the critics. Through forgery, van Meegeren would show them all. “van Meegeren was a tireless experimenter, a savvy tactician and deal-maker, and a brilliant psychologist,” Dolnick writes. “What he was not especially good at was painting. He found a way to make that not matter.” After selling Christ at Emmaus to a prestigious museum in 1937, van Meegeren found the path to future hoaxes paved with true believers. When the Nazis conquered Holland, both Goering and Adolf Hitler salivated at the prospect of owning Vermeers. Hitler claimed Vermeer’s The Art of Painting and The Astronomer for himself, Goering had to step aside. When Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery entered the market, Goering’s past disappointments inflamed him to purchase it, blinding him to the reality before his eyes as much as the critical praise of these “new” biblical Vermeers did.
Dolnick not only skillfully tells the breathless tale of intrigue and deception but also gives the why behind the deception. Reading Dolnick’s explanation of the psychology of van Meegeren’s hoax reminded me of Orson Welles’ 1973 film F for Fake about another art forger, Elmyr d'Hory, minus all the Wellesian magic and misdirection. Dolnick tells it straight and shows how forgeries such as The Last Supper (above), despite an obvious lack of quality, fulfilled the needs of so many on different levels. Vermeer’s star rose in the 1880s and continued to rise in the early twentieth century. The lack of works attributable to him frustrated connoisseurs. “New” Vermeers fed this hunger. By selecting biblical subjects not previously found in Vermeer’s oeuvre, van Meegeren capitalized on the desire to know “another side” to Vermeer as well as to protect himself from too close comparisons to actual Vermeers. van Meegeren also played Vermeer authorities such as Abraham Bredius by placing little Vermeer-ish touches in his paintings (specs of light on bread, ultramarine blue) that triggered gut reactions in defiance of cool, reasoned analysis. Finally, as the Nazi wolves howled at the door and threatened civilization itself, van Meegeren’s biblical Vermeers offered solace to an anxious public in their calm, austere piety. Dolnick ties together all these threads into the tapestry lowered over the eyes of the world that might never have been raised if not for the Nazis’ defeat.
When the allies liberated Holland and began to search for the plundered art treasures, the money trail of Goering’s Vermeer led them to van Meegeren. Facing a death sentence for treason for collaborating in selling cultural treasures to the enemy, van Meegeren confessed to the forgeries to win the lesser charge of fraud. “He Paints for His Life” one headline roared over a photo of van Meegeren painting a “Vermeer” in front of military guards to prove that he could do it. At van Meegeren’s 1947 trial, the prosecutor accepted the fraud claim and added, “Hopefully this history will teach the experts modesty.” Before taking his own life and cheating the gallows, Goering learned of the deception. van Meegeren’s fakes, such as The Washing of Christ’s Feet (above), included “authentic” tears in the canvas (the white spots above) that the general and so many others saw as just more proof. Even the restorers Goering hired to fix the paintings saw nothing amiss (or did, and never said anything). Dolnick recreates some of the frustration of van Meegeren’s endless experimentation in baking his paintings to recreate the effects of aging, almost making you join in the forger’s tears of joy at finally finding the right recipe.
Dolnick finds the perfect recipe for a popular art history book that also addresses serious issues in art appreciation. Like the prosecutor at van Meegeren’s trial, we can hope for humility in art expertise, but don’t hold your breath. “It is a striking feature of the art world that experts have little choice but to put enormous faith in their own opinions,” Dolnick asserts. “Inevitably, that opens the way to error, sometimes to spectacular error.” van Meegeren died before serving a single day of his one-year prison service, eventually becoming a national hero of sorts as “the man who swindled Goering.” Today, van Meegeren stands as a hero to those who place little faith in the experts. At the heart of Dolnick’s book is the simple advice to look with your eyes first, and then with your head and heart. “The amateur is unlikely to go wrong because he’s unlikely to go anywhere,” Dolnick says of the difference between experts following clues and know-nothings who can say that the emperor has no clothes. It’s easy to look at van Meegeren’s art today and laugh, but Dolnick ably recreates the spell he once cast on the world while providing a talisman to protect us from future illusions.
Monday, August 25, 2008
Around Christmastime 1894, Alfons Mucha dropped into a Parisian print shop and found his life changed forever. Someone from the Theatre de la Renaissance confronted the print shop owner with a sudden demand for an advertising poster for the new play Gismonda starring famed actress Sarah Bernhardt. Mucha, seeing the opportunity of a lifetime, interjected that he could deliver the poster in two weeks. Two weeks later, Mucha poster of Sarah Bernhardt as Gismonda (above, from 1894) announced to the world his jaw-dropping talent. Born August 24, 1860, Mucha had lingered in relative obscurity since moving to Paris in 1887 from his native Morovia (now the Czech Republic), but the Gismonda poster soon became the toast of the city. Rivaling graphic artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mucha soon became one of the most in-demand artists for advertising and caught the eye of the actress herself, who thereafter requested that her image be shaped by Mucha’s eye.
Every year, I buy for Annie calendars of the art of Mucha and John Singer Sargent, two of her favorite artists whom she never tires of seeing grace her office walls. Mucha brings an organic life and explosively blooming color to the style known as Art Nouveau. Aubrey Beardsley helped imagine the Art Nouveau line that makes that style so distinctive, but Mucha brought it to the public’s attention and made it the style of choice like no other artist. Mucha helped sell everything from perfume to chocolates with his images, usually of dreamily beautiful women looking wistfully off into the distance. Mucha’s poster for an event in honor of Sarah Bernhardt (above, from 1896) shows how he could make even hair come alive into a vast swarm of tendrils. I find Mucha’s work so infectiously engaging because of his endless ability to make even the most mundane detail pop with abundance.
Mucha’s work followed Bernhadt as she tore through the classic works of Shakespeare, including Hamlet (above, from 1899), in which she herself played the troubled prince. Although so much of Mucha’s work speaks of beauty and joy, he never lost that Slavic sense of national struggle and pride in that struggle. When his native Czechoslovakia won independence after World War I, Mucha designed the stamps, currency, and government documents for the new nation. Mucha later painted twenty mammoth canvases following the history of the Czech and Slavic people, which he called The Slav Epic and donated to the people of Prague in 1928. Sadly, the same pride that made Mucha literally the painter of his people, made him a target when the Nazis invaded in 1939 and took the aging artist into custody. The shock of the experience quickly led to Mucha’s death. Despite the Nazis’ ban on a state funeral, the Czech people staged a grand farewell to Mucha, a final curtain call for an artist who starred on both the small and the grand stages of history.
In college, I indulged my Irish heritage and took a course on Irish literature, learning about everything the Táin Bó Cúailnge to Buile Shuibhne to Seamus Heaney. Learning about the roots of Irish mythology gave me a greater appreciation of the poetry of William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s greatest poet of the twentieth century. It also gave me a finer appreciation of the art of his brother, Ireland’s finest painter of the twentieth century—Jack Butler Yeats. Born August 23, 1871, J.B. began his career as an illustrator, even delving into the world of comics and creating the first comic strip based on Sherlock Holmes, titled Chubblock Holmes. Like W.B., J.B. evolved as an artist throughout his career. Paintings such as Morning after Rain (above, from 1923) show J.B. still the realist illustrator yet beginning to use the thick impasto that would increasingly become his signature style. The river in the background is the Sligo, near where Yeats grew up and learned painting from his father John Butler Yeats. Everything in this painting speaks of what it was like to be Irish at that time and place, but soon Jack would explore the mythic and universal nature of his Irishness.
In his painting The Small Ring (above, 1930), J.B. lays the impasto on thick, muddying the surface of the painting while still allowing us to discern the young athlete standing over his fallen foe. Like George Bellows, George Luks, and other members of the Ashcan School in America, J.B. enjoyed the sport of boxing while also recognizing the almost mythic aspect of the pugilist warrior. In fact, J.B.’s father spent a great deal of time socializing with the Ashcan School in New York city at this time, helping John Sloan in particular rediscover his Irish roots. The Irish spirit always involves some degree of pugnacity—the eternal underdog of Europe fighting for a place in the sun and out of the shadows of encroaching empires. I like to think of the man in The Small Ring as a modern-day Cúchulainn, the Irish Achilles, taking on all comers.
If I had a better grasp of Irish mythology, I’d try to match up the mythic poetry of W.B. with the mythic paintings of J.B., such as The Death of Diarmuid, the Last Handful of Water (above, from 1945). In The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne, Diarmuid is wounded by a wild boar during a hunt. Her intended husband Fionn mac Cumhaill has the power to heal anyone who drinks water from his hands. Twice Fionn gathers water for Diarmuid in his hands and twice he intentionally lets it fall before reaching her. On the third and final trip he reaches her with a handful of water, but Diarmuid is already dead. By 1945, J.B. had seen too many years of willful self-destructiveness not only among the Irish people but the entire people of the world. Yeats became friends with the exiled German Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka during World War II and took on much of his thickly painted style and dark world outlook. J.B.’s famous father and brother often joked that he was the both the finest painter and poet in the family. In his paintings, Jack Butler Yeats managed to meld painting and poetry in creating images as beautiful and bittersweet as the long history of Ireland itself.
Friday, August 22, 2008
The date July 22nd owns one of the most fascinating confluences of art history in the whole calendar. On that date three great art robberies took place: the stealing of Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa from the Musée du Louvre in 1911, the theft of Francisco Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London in 1961, and the daylight heist of Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Madonna from The Munch Museum in 2004. Each of those thefts left a different type of void in the art world, aside from the physical one left. (A 1911 photo of where the Mona Lisa should have been appears above.) Each of these crimes, however, reflects the nature of the times and, in many ways, the nature of the work itself.
By the early twentieth century, the nationalist hatreds between European countries, festering over centuries, threatened to come to a head and explode. The tensions that led to World War I were already in place in 1911. Everyday people suddenly found themselves caught up in the rivalries of empires, including Vincenzo Peruggia, a workman who sometimes did jobs in the Louvre. Ignoring the fact that da Vinci had legally sold the Mona Lisa to King François I in 1516, Peruggia believed that it belonged to Italy as one of its cultural treasures and elected himself to right that wrong. Peruggia walked past the guards that day, pulled the painting from the wall, placed it under his coat, and calmly walked past the guards again and to freedom. For two years, Peruggia kept the Mona Lisa hidden under his bed. Finally, Peruggia contacted the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, hoping they would accept it back for Italy (with a finder’s fee to Peruggia, of course). The Uffizi contacted the Louvre and the authorities and the painting eventually returned to Paris, but not before triumphantly touring Italy and France and igniting the cult of Mona that continues today to make it the most overhyped painting in the world. In some ways, the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa contributed to her theft. Darling of the Symbolist movement and poetic launch pad to the purple prose of critics such as Walter Pater, the Mona Lisa served as a blank slate upon which any ideology could be written, including fervid nationalism. The Italian people soon hailed Peruggia as a hero and he received only a few months of jail time for his “forgiveable” act in their name.
In 1961, the Cold War burned red hot. The United States and Soviet Union stood nose to nose and the world seemed to be filled with spies around every corner. No feat of deception seemed impossible. When Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington disappeared without a trace in 1961 from the National Gallery in London, speculation ruled the day. People imagined some master criminal circumventing the elaborate security system to walk off with the painting, which the British government had just recently saved from being purchased by a rich American oil tycoon by buying it for the British people with the British people’s tax money. A year later, when James Bond made his film debut in Dr. No, Bond sees the Duke hanging in Dr. No’s lair along with a bevy of stolen treasures (above). Surely, only a mastermind could have pulled off such a daring, well-executed crime. Or not.
Enter Kempton Bunton, a disabled retired bus driver living on a meager pension. When the British government instituted new taxes on television ownership on the heels of the Duke purchase, Bunton put two and two together and decided to take matters into his own wrinkled hands. With amazing nimbleness for a disabled pensioner, Bunton climbed through the window of one of the National Gallery’s bathrooms early one morning, pulled the Duke from the wall, and clambered back out with his prize. A newspaper soon received an offer to return the painting in exchange for a repeal of the TV tax but it was never taken seriously. Surely the real thief wanted more. Four years passed before Bunton finally returned the painting and, soon thereafter, gave himself up. To the end, authorities doubted Bunton’s involvement. It was as if only someone with sufficient power could steal such a symbol of power as the Portrait of the Duke. The glamour of the subject of the stolen work blinded its intended rescuers even when the culprit was right before their eyes.
The 2004 theft of Munch’s paintings reflects our crueler, more violent contemporary age. Gun-wielding thieves boldly strode into the Munch Museum that day, threatened the crowd, and pulled the works roughly from the walls. A bystander even photographed the thieves making their getaway (above). These thieves, unlike Peruggia and Bunton, were truly terrorists, placing the lives of the gallery patrons at risk. The guards rightfully prioritized the safety of the people over that of the paintings. Clearly these weren’t criminal masterminds but thugs willing to use maximum force. No James Bond villains were imagined here. And after the theft came the inevitable “Now what?” for the thieves. They had fallen for the iconic power of Munch’s image, spread across popular cultures around the world, thinking that such a painting would surely bring a great price. But who would possibly pay for such immediately recognizable stolen goods? The thieves had stolen treasures they couldn’t possibly translate into cash. For two years, they sat on their booty and grew more and more desperate. Such desperation led them into a trap in 2006 in which authorities recovered the paintings, which had unfortunately been damaged in the affair. Neither nationalism nor personal grievance motivated the Munch heist. Pure greed ruled the day. The lucrative art market had painted a bull’s eye at the center of every iconic work of art in the world, and The Scream became its first victim. Even today, would-be art thieves target works by big name artists with no potential buyers, placing such works into a limbo from which they may never return. Of course, many art thieves act on the orders of shadowy art collectors looking to possess works that will never reach the market legally—a “commission” system that steals from the many to satisfy the possessive whim of the few. In all three cases occurring on this date, the story ends happily, but countless other art thefts lack their colorful details or happy resolutions and remain unsolved mysteries.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
You don't tug on Superman's cape
You don't spit into the wind
You don't pull the mask off the ol' Lone Ranger
And you don't mess around with Jim
--From “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” by Jim Croce
It wasn’t on the scale of say the unmasking of Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, but the revelation that internationally famous and anonymous art star Banksy is a 34-year-old artist named Robin Gunningham made a big splash in England for a little while. (An alleged photo of the alleged Gunningham from 2004 appears above.) Banksy outings have come and gone before, but this one looks like its going to stick. In the United States, where Banksy’s relatively unknown, the revelation matches the anticlimactic conclusion of the “Deep Throat” mystery when Watergate-era Deputy Director of the FBI William Mark Felt, Sr. finally stepped forward. “Who?” most people said, and still do. Within the last year, Felt’s name was the answer to a Jeopardy! question. All three contestants were stumped. When even Jeopardy! challengers can’t recall your name, you know you’ve been tossed onto the scrapheap of history. Gunningham seems poised for a similar fate.
Banksy played the outlaw in creating art that mixed the conventions of high art with the street art of graffiti. Personally, I always enjoyed the humor of such works as the mural of a child frisking soldier painted on the West Bank wall in 2007 as part of a series showing the cruelty of the restrictive barrier. Banksy’s humor always had a nice edge to it, skirting the fringe of anarchy without crossing the line. I wonder if those who’ve called for Banksy’s arrest for destruction of property over the years will now come after Gunningham. Those “illegal” images, of course, have sold for millions of dollars and have allowed some institutions “blessed” by Banksy’s handiwork to continue operating with that unexpected revenue. Robin Gunningham seems more like Robin Hood in that light, but seen from a different light Banksy seems like a better-promoted Damien Hirst with a better gimmick than embalming sharks and cows. If Hirst could wear a mask and cape, I’m sure he would, especially if it meant another big payday.
The most interesting question of the whole Banksy unmasking to me is what the future holds for the artist. Banksy sold himself as a brand name for acceptable anarchy, a criminal with a heart who never really hurt anyone, like the subject of Bouquet Toss (above). For many, Banksy seemed a Che Guevara with a stencil, fighting the revolution one wall at a time. People pictured Banksy as some poor kid with artistic talent fighting against the establishment that excluded him from the conventional routes to greatness. The reality that Gunningham grew up upper-middle class, went to art school, associated with other young artists in the gallery scene, and calculatedly came up with his famous alter ego kills the romantic illusion that was Banksy. Banksy always did seem more like a comic book hero than a practicing artist, which accounted for a large part of his appeal to the young. If Gunningham continues to thrive as an artist, then the whole Banksy phase will one day seem like a great, inventive prologue. If Gunningham fades into the shadows, however, we’ll always wonder why Banksy was necessary—for Gunningham to find unearned fame or for the public to accept Gunningham’s art under false pretenses.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
While reading James H. Rubin’s Impressionism and the Modern Landscape: Productivity, Technology, and Urbanization from Manet to Van Gogh, I came away with a much higher opinion of the art of Gustave Caillebotte. Born August 19, 1848, Caillebotte often suffers from an critical inferiority complex thanks to his dual role as patron of the Impressionists as well as being one of them. Rubin’s essential argument (which I’ll discuss more in depth when I post my review) centers around how the Impressionists embraced the trappings of modern life and progress rather than rejected them in a turn back to nature, which is the common narrative hung around the necks of the movement. No artist of the time embraced the post-Haussmann look of Paris as enthusiastically and strikingly as Caillebotte in such images as Paris Street, Rainy Day (above, from 1877). With almost photographic realism, Caillebotte sends the viewer’s eyes shooting down the long thoroughfares of the modernized Paris while simultaneously depicting the modern look of cosmopolitans as they walk in the rain. As Rubin points out, French Impressionism means leisure and nature to most people, but to many Impressionists it meant the world around them, especially the fast-paced, highly modern city of Paris.
With a nod towards Japonisme, Caillebotte used striking perspective and cropping to generate the sense of speed and movement in works such as Le Pont de l'Europe (above, from 1876). The powerful line of the bridge disappearing into space naturally pulls our attention into the distance. Against that rapid flow, the pedestrians walk towards us. The man addressing the young woman may actually be soliciting her, reflecting the sad reality of prostitution that plagued Paris and most modern cities at the time as women’s rights and options lagged behind the times. The man standing at the rail, covering his face as he looks below, may be contemplating suicide, reflecting the sad reality of fast financial success and ruin as unstable markets led many unstable souls to a bitter end. Adding to this multilayered snapshot of Parisian life, Caillebotte makes extraordinary use of the steel architecture of the bridge itself, finding a beauty in the intricacies of engineering that made such new bridges (and, thus, improved water travel and commerce) possible.
Kirk Varnedoe often praised Caillebotte for bringing a whole new perspective to the Impressionist oeuvre that other, more well-known artists did not. Works such as Boulevard Seen From Above (above, from 1880) show Caillebotte’s love of photography and its ability to capture familiar scenes from unique perspectives. During his lifetime, Caillebotte seemed more of a dilettante than a serious artist, due probably to the great family wealth that allowed him to purchase many of the great works of his friends and fellow artists, such as Degas, Renoir, and others. Little did I know when touring the Barnes Foundation that I was seeing most of Caillebotte’s personal collection, purchased by Dr. Albert C. Barnes after the artist’s death. Perhaps with a greater appreciation of the variety and diversity of the Impressionist movement through works such as Rubin’s, Caillebotte will finally find room to have a name for himself.
When the New Objectivity movement swept through the German art world during the Weimar years, Otto Dix and George Grosz tried to depict their environment as a distorted nightmare. Christian Schad instead showed that same world with equal nightmarishness but with the chilling clarity of your worst dreams. Born August 21, 1894, Schad painted portraits such as that of Count St. Genois d'Anneaucourt (above, from 1927) that portrayed the fevered café nightlife of German as populated by roughish counts surrounded by the harpy-like young women who either were prostitutes or skirted the very edges of the profession. The see-through dresses of the women on either side of the Count reveal less than desirable flesh, mocking the titillation and sexual freedom of that period, which many Germans saw as a cultural nadir after the shock of the end of World War I. Suave and debonair, the Count plays the role of the playboy, but he doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself very much.
Schad’s Portrait of Dr. Haustein (above, from 1928) similarly shows a member of the social elite in a disturbing light. Behind the good doctor looms the shadow of an unseen figure. The more I look at that shadow on the wall the more I’m reminded of the vampire in F. W. Murnau's 1922 film Nosferatu, who frequently sneaks up upon his victims as the film captures only his shadow on the wall. I’m sure that Schad would have been at least aware of the film, one of the great early works of German cinema, and probably saw it. That vampire’s shadow on the wall in this portrait represents the soul-draining power of the Weimar way of life, which tolerated the excesses of culture as a response to the deprivations of the war years. Unfortunately, those excesses forced a conservative response of equal ferocity, setting the stage for the Nazis’ rise to power.
In addition to his socially conscious works, Schad sought to examine the human consciousness itself in Dada-esque photographic compositions he called "Schadographs." In his Schadographs, such as Amourette (above, from 1918), Schad placed found objects (sometimes scavenged from the trash) such as bits of fabric or paper onto light-sensitive photographic paper and then allowed the sun to “draw” images onto the paper. In abandoning the act of drawing to nature itself, Schad tried to circumvent the human psyche in the making of art. Schad often cut the borders of his Schadographs “to free them from the convention of the square” and increase the unconventionality quotient even more. An unconventional man in unconventional times, Christian Schad found himself possessing the drafting skills of a realist in a world that no longer seemed real. In his portraits and photographic experiments, Schad made it his objective to make all objectives seem impossible.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Painters are often called poets with colors and poets are often called painters with words, but few painters and poets ever shared as close a bond as Pablo Picasso and Guilaume Apollinaire. “United in mutual respect, intellectual agreement, and a shared sense of humor,” Peter Read writes in Picasso and Apollinaire: The Persistence of Memory, Picasso and Apollinaire helped shape each other’s art from their first meeting in 1905 to Apollinaire’s death in 1918. Like a phantom limb, Apollinaire remained a presence in Picasso’s life for the next half century and continued to shape Picasso’s never-ending evolution. Read masterfully examines the depth of their relationship from its warm humor in caricatures such as Picasso’s drawing of Apollinaire as a tea pot (above, from 1905) to the inventive use of typography in Apollinaire’s Calligrammes to the haunting seriousness of Picasso’s forty-year quest to create a fitting memorial to his friend’s memory. Against the backdrop of avant-garde Paris before the Great War up until the 1970s, Read shows how these two men and their undying friendship placed them at the forefront of modern art.
Whereas most painters socialize with other painters, Picasso found himself most often in the company of poets—Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob, Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, and others. But none match the influence of Apollinaire, whom Picasso met through Jacob. The two immediately became fast friends—soul mates from the start. Alfred Jarry served as the patron saint over all the artists of this period. “Jarry’s Rabelaisian vulgarity,” Read writes, “which inverted the hierarchy of human faculties, paved the way for Picasso’s 1907 revolution against established canons of beauty and retinal perspective in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.” When Picasso and Apollinaire meet, they both still cling to classicism in their art—Apollinaire in his Alcools poems and Picasso in his Blue and Rose Periods. Apollinaire’s choice of a Cubist portrait of himself as the frontispiece to Alcools, however, announces a new direction in his art and links that direction to Picasso’s development. Apollinaire’s next collection, Calligrammes, features shaped poems in which the typography builds visuals such as the Eiffel Tower (above). At the same time, Apollinaire writes as an art critic for several publications, using his media outlet to promote Picasso’s art as well as all modern art looking to sweep away the conventions of the past. Like Vasari praising Michelangelo in his Lives, Apollinaire uses “Promethean and Pentecostal imagery” to posit Picasso as the culmination of all that came before. Unlike Vasari, however, Apollinaire refuses to cast other artists as villains and provide the anti-modernists with ammunition, which allows him to promote Matisse—a pseudo-third leg to the Apollinaire-Picasso love triangle—and others. Picasso even appears in Apollinaire’s fiction, playing out the same artistic struggles as in real life. In all these writings on Picasso, Read asserts, “Apollinaire is fully engaged as a creative writer, blurring the frontiers between journalism and literature, poetry and prose,” while simultaneously spurring Picasso to follow suit in blurring all lines of movements and “isms” in finding his own unique vision.
“Each combined coherent development with constant renewal,” Read writes of his title pair. Not even the onset of World War I could sever their ties. Sadly, just as the war ended, the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic claimed the life of Apollinaire, who had been weakened by exposure to gas warfare in the trenches. The entire circle centered upon Apollinaire grieved over his loss and gathered at his grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery each year on the November 9th anniversary. When a committee formed to erect a memorial at the poet’s grave, Picasso seemed the natural choice, but the artist struggled with the commission. Read recreates wonderfully the debate over the memory of Apollinaire—split between those who admired his classical side and those, like Picasso, who admired more the poet’s experimental side. Mimicking Apollinaire’s cut-and-paste poet technique, Picasso developed a cut-and-paste metal sculptural technique with the help of Julio Gonzalez. In 1930, Picasso offers Woman in a Garden (above) as a memorial for Apollinaire’s tomb. “Built to guard a poet’s tomb,” Read writes, “the sculpture fuses human, animal, vegetable, and mechanical forms in a structure whose main lines of force emphasize vertical energy.” Unfortunately, the modernism of Picasso’s memorial overwhelms the committee, including the widow, Jacqueline. “The committee wanted an ornament,” Read concludes, “but Picasso designed an idol.” In 1935, the committee allowed another artist to design the graveside memorial, but Picasso remained the true keeper of the Apollinaire flame.
Each year on the November 9th anniversary of Apollinaire’s death, Picasso would make some great gesture or create some noteworthy work of art. For the thirtieth anniversary, in 1948, Picasso painted The Kitchen (above). Since Apollinaire’s death, Picasso had witnessed much more death, visiting the extermination camps in Warsaw, Auschwitz, and Birkenau to witness first-hand the horror of the Holocaust whispered about in occupied France during World War II. The title of The Kitchen creates a false sense of domesticity, but the skull-like face in the center, with plates for eyes, disrupts the reassuring atmosphere. “The Kitchen,” Read believes, “uses a language of abstract black calligraphy, spread over empty space, to express the inexpressible.” As Apollinaire once patterned his poetry into shapes decades before, Picasso here reaches for poetry through his own use of line when words themselves fail. Read never fails to link the living Picasso to the deceased Apollinaire. Among all the ghosts of the entire haunted twentieth century, Apollinaire speaks loudest to Picasso from the beyond, constantly reminding him of the need to move on and create in even the darkest times.
Read ends this love story with a happy ending. Apollinaire’s widow Jacqueline never stopped asking Picasso to create some memorial to her husband, his friend. Other artists, including Matisse, flirted with the idea of public memorial to the poet. Finally, in 1959, Picasso donated the sculpture titled Head of Dora Maar (above) as a memorial to Apollinaire to be placed on Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Read includes a slew of photos taken on the day of the unveiling in 1959, but Picasso himself seems conspicuous by his absence. The sculpture itself stands for his monumental presence in the honoring of his friend. Both classically scaled yet modernly abstracted, Picasso’s sculpture acknowledges both sides of the poet as well as both sides of his own art, bringing the relationship that began almost half a century before back full circle. Read neatly ties up all the loose strings and brings down the curtain gently on this long friendship, presenting a casebook example of how a common artistic spirit can transcend all media. Anyone who wishes to understand the head and heart of Picasso needs to know the works of Apollinaire. Anyone who wishes to understand exactly how the works of each of those two artists, so individual yet so united, fit together in life and in death, needs to know Peter Read’s Picasso and Apollinaire: The Persistence of Memory.
[Many thanks to the University of California Press for providing me with a review copy of Peter Read’s Picasso and Apollinaire: The Persistence of Memory.]
Monday, August 18, 2008
I’m old enough to remember the last decade or so of Prince Valiant comics by Foster. Each Sunday I’d pour over the color comics section and stare at the intricacies of Foster’s work, so very alien next to the minimalist art of Charles Schulz. Anyone who could draw a circle could draw Charlie Brown, but it took knowledge of anatomy, perspective, and how to render drapery to come even close to Foster’s Prince. I’d try to imitate scenes such as Prince Valiant on a ship (above, from 1942) in vain, hoping to run before I could even crawl as a draftsman. I also remember that the continued hold of Prince Valiant on popular culture allowed people to compare baseball player Pete Rose’s haircut, circa 1979, when he joined my beloved Philadelphia Phillies, to that worn by Prince Valiant. I doubt Rose had Foster’s character in mind when making his tonsorial choice, but for a young boy looking for real-life analogues to Foster’s chivalric code, Rose’s hustling style of play seemed the closest thing available at the time. Of course, Rose failed to live up to that code of honor in later years.
Foster’s link to Prince Valiant is so strong that many forget his earlier work on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan (an example appears above). William Randolph Hearst actually allowed Foster to begin Prince Valiant and own the strip itself (a rare concession back then) based on the popularity of his Tarzan work, which set the standard for all the Tarzan movies and books to follow. From the jungle to the castle battlements, Foster mastered them all. Later comics artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko almost universally cite Hal Foster as a seminal influence on their career, making Foster a godfather of sorts to superheroes ranging from Captain America to Spider-Man. The common bond of all these heroes is the code of chivalry, updated, of course, to suit changing times, but not that much different than the days of Arthur as told by the pen of Foster.
Born in Berlin, Germany on August 18, 1869, Carl Rungius spent much of his youth in the Berlin Zoo, drawing the caged animals pacing back and forth. Like many Germans, he fell in love with the romanticized idea of the American Wild West. It was not until 1894, however, that Rungius finally visted the United States, finding his way to Wyoming to hunt and sketch the animals he hunted. From those face to face encounters, Rungius came away with such stunning wildlife scenes as American Black Bear (above, from 1929), which combines the beauty of the animal itself with the splendor of its natural setting. Rungius found a second home in the Western United States, setting up a winter base in the art world back in New York, but returning each summer to hunt for new subjects. Few artists capture the raw power and majesty of large animals in situ the same way that Rungius does. The same anticipation the hunter feels waiting for the animal to strike pervades Rungius’ art.
In addition to traveling in America, Rungius ranged up to the Canadian Rocky Mountains, hunting and painting such animals as the bighorn sheep in works such as In the Clouds (above, from 1940). Rungius told one interviewer a story of hunting in the mountains, shooting a large goat, and darting out of the way before the thrashing, dying animal knocked him from his perch to certain death below. Even without the animals, Rungius’ landscapes could stand alone for their realistic depiction of rarely scene spots as the heights of the Canadian Rockies. Although many of the titles of Rungius’ paintings simply bear the names of the animals depicted, Rungius’ often waxed poetic, as he does here with “In the Clouds.” Other titles refer to mountain sheep as “old gentlemen,” illustrating Rungius’ hands-on approach to pursuing and painting these animals. Rungius often travelled alone on his hunts, accentuating the sense of communion with nature as he had only himself to rely upon. Rungius’ rugged individualism helped make him a kindred spirit of these animals who also dealt unassisted with the elements to survive.
Rungius justly receives credit for helping in the conservation of these animals. Works such as The Last of the Herd (above, from 1900) alerted Americans to the plight of the fast-disappearing American Bison, better known as the American Buffalo. President Theodore Roosevelt’s nascent conservation movement found a powerful visual ally in Rungius’ work. Unfortunately, Runguis had to kill his subjects to paint them so accurately. Rungius would shoot his prey, carry it back to camp, rig it up into a life-like pose with ropes, and sketch at his leisure, drawing on memories of his encounter with the living animal to fill in any gaps in realism. A century earlier, John James Audubon depicted the birds of North America using a similar technique, murdering to dissect the visual essence of nature’s creations. A true outdoorsman, Rungius’ work did more good than ill in the final tally, reminding people then and now of the beauty of nature’s creatures great and small.