Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ghosts and Goblins

For the September Art Poll by Bob, I did a little time travelling and posed the thought experiment of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood finding themselves in our present day on the search of a model who suited their Pre-Raphaelite tastes. In response to my question, “Which of the following modern actresses do you consider the most Pre-Raphaelite worthy?”, you responded with the biggest vote total yet, an astounding 158 votes. The beautiful Helena Bonham Carter (above) won with 43 supporters, barely edging out early favorite Kate Winslet, who garnered 41 votes. Julianne Moore followed with 19 votes. Nicole Kidman and Keira Knightley tied with 18 votes. Natalie Portman with 11 votes and Angelina Jolie with 7 votes rounded out the field. Thanks to the one person who voted for Charlotte Rampling and rescued her from the indignity of a shutout. Thanks to everyone who joined in my little experiment and voted.

In celebration of Halloween at the end of the month, the October Art Poll By Bob asks, “Which of the following paintings seems the spookiest?”:

Edvard Munch, Vampire (1893-1894)

Albert Pinkham Ryder, The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse) (1895-1910)

David Wojnarowicz, Fire (1987)

Andrew Wyeth, Jack Be Nimble (1976)

Wyeth’s Halloween pumpkins are probably the tamest visuals in the bunch, but the most overtly Halloween-ish. Wyeth loves Halloween so much that I couldn’t leave him off this list. He’ll have a tough time contending for the title against such masters of the nightmarish as Blake, Dali, and Fuseli. I threw Bocklin and Wojnarowicz into the mix because their works are especially memorable to me. I’ve seen The Isle of the Dead in person at the Met and can tell you it’s even spookier when you’re standing right there in front of it.

So, be true to your ghoul and vote for the frightfulest one of all.

The Proper Study

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:…

Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself, abus'd or disabus'd;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

—From An Essay on Man by Alexander Pope

“The size I am speaking about is the size of a man, or rather my own relation to my own decisions as to the best size a man can be,” Mark Rothko once said when trying to explain the bigger-than-life scale of so many of his paintings, including White Center (above, from 1950). “To this extent I am again a Renaissance man, for my pictures [are] a personal tape measure of my moral values.” In Rothko, edited by Oliver Wick, Rothko as Renaissance man, specifically an Italian Renaissance man, is reborn. Accompanying an exhibition at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, Italy, last year, Rothko examines the link between Rothko the modern artist and the artists of the distant past, whom Rothko modeled his own art and career after. Writing of Rothko’s drawings patterned after Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Wick sees Rothko “[u]sing the Leonardo not as a direct model, but as an allusion and intellectual parallel” in order to “play… with an internalized image of man and human proportions.” “Do they negate each other, modern and classical?” Rothko once asked. Borrowing that line for the title of his essay, Wick definitively answers no. Wick sees Rothko longing for the good old days of the Renaissance when the artist could fulfill a vital role in society rather than lurk on the perimeter.

Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son, picks up on Wick’s examination of Rothko the Renaissance man with his essay, “Mark Rothko’s The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies through an Italian Lens.” “Rothko places the artist/philosopher at the center of [his ideal] society,” Christopher says of his father, “as a leader in expression of truth and of synthesizing a gestalt understanding of the world around him or her.” Such social works as the Seagram Murals (one example above, from 1958) show how Rothko longed to connect with the public and publicize his thoughts on life through his art. In Rothko’s unfinished treatise on art, The Artist’s Reality, Rothko looked all the way back through Italian art history to Giotto to find a kindred spirit. “In Giotto’s painting [Rothko] saw an embodiment of his own modernist ideals: figures of real weight and substance, bold use of color that helped create the painting’s space rather than remaining subservient to it, and the creation of art that depicted its own reality rather than functioning as pastiche of the ‘reality’ presented to us by sight alone,” Christopher writes. In contrast, Michelangelo, although “visually stunning,” enslaves himself to perspective and the other visual trickery that “preoccupied” Renaissance artists. For Rothko, Christopher writes, “The artist’s role is that of the philosopher: to examine the world around him and express his understanding of the truth based on what he sees.” Michelangelo simply doesn’t express this “truth” for Rothko. da Vinci, however, fares better in that he recognizes the limitations of perspective and uses sfumato and chiaroscuro to restore the “subjective” over the slavishly scientific. Titian, Tintoretto, and the School of Venice stand as heroes for Rothko in “creating a new naturalism, a type of artwork that speaks to our unified experience of the world, not an appeal to our eyes through a collection of visual effects.” Christopher Rothko’s profound understanding of his father’s appreciation of the Italian masters not only sheds new light on Rothko’s painting but also provides a fascinating perspective on these past painters.

Rothko carried on his love affair with Italy and Italian art most of his adult life. First travelling to Italy in 1950 on a Fullbright Scholarship, Rothko filled his days with sightseeing and museum-going. In “Mark Rothko’s Three Italian Journeys,” Giovanni Carandente traces Rothko’s path through Italian art history during his 1950 visit and subsequent visits in 1959 and 1966. On his second and third visits, Rothko fell in love with the frescoes by Fra Angelico at the Convent at San Marco. “In the cells of the Florentine convent,” Carandente writes, “the evangelical episodes narrated on a wall for a single viewer to meditate upon became the optimum for a painter like Rothko.” Such an experience prompted Rothko to design the Rothko Chapel, a modern sacred space of private meditation. Again, the catalogue beautifully recreates how Rothko linked the work of these artists with his own mature work. As Wick points out, Rothko often claimed that his abstract works “liberated from representation and objective image, were profoundly charged with content, raising the question of a contradiction in terms of associating modern abstraction with classical art and its content.” The essays collected by Wick convincingly answer the question of the contradiction between Fra Angelico’s biblical scenes and Rothko’s blocks of color (as in Red, Orange, Tan, and Purple, above, from 1949) as both addressing a human need for bigger answers. Both artists arrive at salvation from vastly different visual paths but with an identical drive to justify the ways of god to mankind.

Perhaps the most fascinating essay in the collection is Jeffrey Weiss’ “Temps Mort: Rothko and Antonioni.” Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni visited Rothko’s studio in 1962 while touring for the United States opening of L'eclisse. “In the annals of existentialism as something like an international style during the rise of the Cold War,” Weiss writes, “there can be no more striking display of generational inheritance than this meeting.” For hours, Antonioni sat silently as Rothko paraded a succession of his works before him. Antonioni’s next film, Il deserto rosso, his first color film clearly draws on Rothko’s art for inspiration. Throughout, as Weiss points out, Antonioni uses frames and margins “as both an image and a compositional device,” as shown in the example of the film’s star, Monica Vitti, literally framed by Rothko-esque color (above). Even more importantly for Antonioni’s connection to Rothko is the use of “temps mort,” which Weiss defines as “the evacuation of a depicted space contained or cropped by the cinematic frame, a just-inhabited place that achieves formal presence—abstract, quasi-pictorial fullness—through a narrative absence that transpires before the beholder’s gaze.” Vitti may exist in a virtual Rothko in the example above, but when she walks out of that frame and the camera lingers on that space after her absence, that frame retains a special electric charge by her absence. Through such sequences, Antonioni duplicates the paradoxical union of presence within absence that makes Rothko’s art so simultaneously enigmatic and compelling. Weiss wonderfully explains and illustrates this subtle, yet powerful argument that might actually convert many who fail to “get” Rothko.

As much as Rothko loved Italy and its art, Italy loved Rothko back. Claudia Terenzi recounts the critical and popular reception of Rothko in Italy, which is remarkably prescient and informed. “It’s easy to say that he’s the painter of nothing, in order to denigrate his creation,” Italian critic Marco Valsecchi writes in 1962. “But it requires only a little more attention to see that nothing is, instead, filled with that spiritual essence one finds in the quiet, vertical pages of some baroque mystics.” Rothko (shown above in his studio with the Rothko Chapel murals in 1964) is the Seinfeld of abstract art—his works are about nothing, yet they touch on everything, from the minute to the grand. Oliver Wick and his fellow contributors compellingly argue for Rothko’s relevance through his philosophical if not stylistic links to Italian art’s greatest artists. Anyone who sees nothing in Rothko’s work should read Rothko and open their mind. Anyone who already sees something in Rothko’s paintings will read Rothko and discover yet another universe to be explored.

[Many thanks to Rizzoli for providing me with a review copy of Rothko, edited by Oliver Wick.]

Monday, September 29, 2008

Losing Your Head

Many people have lost their head while falling in love with the incredible drama of a painting by the “other” Michelangelo, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Born September 28, 1573, Caravaggio turned heads during his short lifetime and for many years thereafter before falling into inexplicable obscurity until his rediscovery in the twentieth century. For all the beautiful chiaroscuro of saints in ecstasy or Christ’s passion and glory, I always find engrossing the grossness of Caravaggio’s decapitations. In Judith Beheading Holofernes (above, from 1599), Caravaggio tackles the story from Biblical apocrapha with maybe too much realism, getting all the details of anatomy and physiology right even down to the spray of arterial blood as Judith saws away at Holofernes’ carotid. Around the time that Caravaggio painted this work, decapitations were in the news thanks to the very public executions of Giordano Bruno and Beatrice Cenci in Rome, which the artist may have witnessed. Caravaggio’s grisly “research” aside, the drama and power of the painting is undeniable. Such works helped make Caravaggio one of the church’s greatest visual weapons in the Counter-Reformation response to Protestantism. Churchgoers exposed to such imagery wouldn’t soon forget Holofernes’ frantic expression. Such paintings advertised that the Catholic Church meant business in the war for the control of minds and souls.

When Caravaggio hoped to get back in the good graces of the Knights of Malta, who kicked him out in 1608, he painted Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (above, an earlier version from 1607). To save his neck with the influential group, Caravaggio literally puts his head on a platter, lending the severed head of John the Baptist his own bearded face. They would have instantly recognized the gesture and gotten the joke. The headstrong artist often found himself in tight situations spawned by his impetuous, erratic behavior, but he remained confident in his ability to paint himself out of any corner. It’s interesting to contrast this work with several other works by Caravaggio featuring John the Baptist. In those other works, John the Baptist appears as a sexually virile, young man. Caravaggio clearly values the wild man of the desert angle of the Baptist over any portrayal of him as a porcelain figurine drained of life’s blood. Many of those works seem almost Michelangelo-esque in their lingering on male human flesh as a subject for contemplation. Ending the series with the Baptist’s storied end and putting his aging, weary face on the saint for the first time, Caravaggio may signal here his own recognition of his waning powers and his approaching end.

Shortly before his death, Caravaggio painted himself as another severed head in David with the Head of Goliath (above, from 1610). For the last few years of his short life, Caravaggio was on the run, wondering if an enemy lurked behind each corner. Hoping to mend a burned bridge with church officials in Rome, Caravaggio again put his head on the line in this self-portrait as the vanquished Goliath. On the sword David holds Caravaggio writes “H-AS OS,” shorthand for the Latin “Humilitas occidit superbiam” or, in English, "Humility kills pride." A lifetime of hard living had killed Caravaggio’s pride and reduced him to abject humility. David looks at the head of Goliath with clear disgust, holding it at full arm’s length as if ready to drop it into the trash. Fortunately, other artists saved Caravaggio from the dustbin of history in their infatuation with his style. Imitators, called Caravaggisti, spread out throughout Europe and soon influenced a generation of artists. That influence rippled on throughout art history, even after Caravaggio’s name had slipped into the shadows. Vermeer was asked to serve as an authority over a disputed Caravaggio painting, showing just how well he knew the artist’s work. Experts still deal with the chaos of separating true Caravaggios from imitators. Even today, paintings dating from Caravaggio’s time hang in churches, monasteries, and private collections waiting for someone to ask if it’s the real deal or just the work of a follower. Among a sea of admirers and imitators, Caravaggio still stands heads above the rest.

Pomp and Circumstance

Growing up Catholic in Philadelphia, I saw more than my share of the great spectacle of the Roman Catholic Church, particular events centering around John Cardinal Krol, the Archbishop of Philadelphia from 1961 through 1988 and one of the most powerful Catholic figures in America for most of that time. While in high school, I had the opportunity to play in the group providing the musical accompaniment to several events in which Krol was star of the show. Emerging from a sleek black limo, crimson red robes flashing, and followed by a colorfully dressed entourage, Krol basked in the attention. Even then, I wondered at the pomp and circumstance surrounding what I suspected was a very mean old man. In nineteenth century France, Jehan Georges Vibert put similar feelings into paint with panache and humor. Born September 30, 1840, Vibert painted works such as The Preening Peacock (above) that employed as little subtlety as possible in poking fun at the Catholic clergy. A century earlier, such images would have landed Vibert in jail, but in the nineteenth century, when worldwide anti-Catholicism reached a fever pitch, people simply ate up his humorous depictions of the vanity of Catholic clergy.

Vibert didn’t begin his career as a joker. After studying with his grandfather, Jazet Vibert, a successful engraver, Jehan aspired to serious art. Within a few years, Vibert moved on from engraving to oil painting, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts. Vibert soon developed a highly finished style and joined in with the contemporary crowd in painting grand history painting. Eventually, Vibert’s playful personality sought out simple genre paintings of poor people in everyday situations painted with a colorful, humorous touch. After a stint as a sharpshooter during the Franco-Prussian War, the wounded Vibert found his true calling in calling out the Catholic clergy in works such as The Church in Danger (above). Playing off of the grave title and its suggestion of a soul in trouble, Vibert instead shows a crimson-clad clergyman staring down the cards in his hand and not liking his chances of victory. In such works, Vibert brings a light-hearted hand to the often deadly serious business of religious turmoil. Fortunately, the days of the Spanish Inquisition, Reformation, and Counter Reformation were long, long past.

It’s easy to look at Vibert’s works, such as The Fortune Teller (above), and paint him as just a clown, simply because of his comical, satirical bent. However, Vibert wrote several accomplished plays, studied the works of the great satirists such as Jonathan Swift to hone his craft, and even founded the Society of French Watercolorists. An inventor always looking to improve the craft of painting, Vibert developed brushes, varnishes, and special paints, including the “Vibert Red” he used on the cardinals’ robes. In The Fortune Teller, the irony of Catholic Cardinals consulting the “higher power” of a fortune teller is obvious. Look closer, however, and you see the work of a fine Orientalist. Vibert maries the observations he made on a trip to the Middle East in the 1860s to the world of the Western Catholic faith. Vibert clearly makes a joke here, but it’s a beautifully crafted, highly finished joke that, even if you don't appreciate the punch line, the telling itself still bears listening to.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Accuracy of Silence

When you hear the name Mark Rothko, you immediately picture his signature works—the big canvases featuring huge blocks of color softly butting against one another, calling us to the same religious experience Rothko himself claimed to have had when painting them. Born September 25, 1903, Rothko traveled a long way stylistically before arriving at those works. Look at any photo of Rothko from any time in his life and you can almost see his mind working furiously behind his eyes, turning over some complex thought on art, life, or both as the smoke from his ever-present cigarette curled upward. With the possible exception of his close friend Barnett Newman, Rothko may be the most widely read, most intellectual of American artists. A Jewish intellectual, Rothko read Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy before the Nazis’ vile distortion of Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch tainted the philosopher’s name forever. With all those words dancing in his head, Rothko fought long and hard to arrive at his works of cosmic silence. In the beginning of his career, Rothko instead tried to incorporate those words and his surroundings in works such as Entrance to Subway (above, from 1938), a stylized vision of his native New York City. Hints of Giorgio de Chirico emerge here as Rothko struggles to express in imagery all the feelings of isolation and loneliness he already knew how to express in words.

Rothko’s Sacrifice of Iphigenia (above, from 1942) shows Rothko moving from the modern world as subject to a timelessness he found in Greek tragedy. Reading the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and later J.G. Frazer’s Golden Bough, Rothko steeped himself in the idea of the usefulness of the old myths for understanding the modern world and the human condition itself. Not only does Rothko remove himself from the real world for the mythic realm, but he also stylistically moves from a recognizably realistic depiction to a more abstract style. Rothko wants to write the story of human nature in a language accessible to everyone and believes that mythology holds the key. Words continue to dominate his painting, yet it is the words that continue to get in the way of his ultimate goal.

“Silence is so accurate,” Rothko once said. After so many years of so many words and so many words but into different styles, Rothko finally realizes that what he wants to express is ultimately inexpressible in words or a visual representation of words. By going fully abstract, Rothko reached the heart of what he wanted to say. Rothko actually refused to be called an abstract artist and pointed out that his paintings expressed very real, very concrete emotions and ideas—the accurate silence he longed for after all the inaccuracies of previous styles and modes of expression. Standing before a Rothko truly can be a religious experience. The Rothko Chapel is apparently one of the most moving art spaces on earth. I hope to one day see it in person. It’s certainly not something you can even remotely experience in person. Sadly, after Rothko found success with his signature style, he soon grew discontent with it. Even after finally achieving his goal, he never stopped thinking. The words, and the thoughts they conveyed, kept pressing him on. In the last years of his life, the colorful canvases gave way to darker compositions, such as Untitled (above, from 1969). In 1970, Rothko tragically took his own life, finally silencing the words in his head and leaving us to ponder the mysteries of the cosmos, fortunately with his works to ease the way.

Charge and Retreat

The Raft of the Medusa remains the most enduring image ever painted by Theodore Gericault, and rightfully so. Born September 26, 1791, Gericault capitalized on a special moment in French civilization when the sense of outrage was at its peak and people were ready to rally to a cause. Fresh from travels in Florence and Rome in 1817 and 1818, Gericault channeled his mania for Michelangelo into The Raft of the Medusa’s unique combination of Neoclassicism and nascent Romanticism. But The Raft wasn’t Gericault’s first public victory. An Officer of the Chasseurs Commanding a Charge (above, from 1812) won the medal for painting at the Paris Salon of 1812. Originally commissioned for the cavalry officer depicted, the winning painting showed Gericault channeling an earlier hero—Jacques-Louis David. Like David, Gericault jumped on the nationalist bandwagon and bought into the belief that Napoleon could change the world by ruling most of it. Like his charging chasseur, Gericault joined the fray in spirit if not in actual physical danger.

When the French invasion of Russia failed horrifically in 1812, the spirits of France and Gericault plummeted from earlier heights. They could see the beginning of the end. Gericault depicted that coming downfall in watercolors such as Wounded Soldiers Retrating from Russia (above, from 1814). In 1814, Napoleon found himself exiled to Elba. Even Napoleon’s return in 1815 concluded in the decisive loss at Waterloo. The turning of the tide for Napoleon’s fortunes mirrors the transition of Gericault from a Neoclassicist to a full-on Romanticist with an acute eye for the depths of human suffering, especially in wartime. Like his older contemporary Goya, Gericault recognized the true cost of war and faithfully reproduced that human drama in his most dramatic works. Gericault’s art literally returns to ground level in these images of retreat—a long way down from the pomp and circumstance of the charging chasseur on his high horse just two years before.

Gericault left France for England after Napoleon’s defeat, returning in 1819. Back in France, Gericault began to paint portraits of the patients of his friend, Étienne-Jean Georget, one of the earliest doctors of psychiatric medicine. Among these ten portraits, of which only five still exist, Gericault painted one poor soul who actually thought he was Napoleon in Man with Delusions of Military Command (above, from 1819-1822). In choosing this man with this particular ailment, Gericault comments on the very nature of imperialist thinking as a type of madness. Just how different is this mental patient from Napoleon himself?, Gericault asks. Unlike his previous paintings of military grandeur, Gericault shows the true shabbiness of lovers of war. Yet, he still paints this figure with sympathy, not only in acknowledgment of his illness but, perhaps, to acknowledge just how easily such delusions can infect not only individuals but whole nations at once.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mercury Rising

One of the downsides of being a completist and an obsessive about any subject is that you’ve got to work your way through a lot of dross to get to the gold. I’ve earned a few hours less in purgatory by subjecting myself to the cinematic hell titled Klimt. In that 2006 film, Raul Ruiz directs John Malkovich as Gustav Klimt in his final days, suffering in a sanatorium from the final mind-ravaging effects of syphilis and flash-backing to his glory days. Ruiz chooses to film from the perspective of Klimt suffering first from the effects of mercury treatment, which causes hallucinations and bizarre behavior. By asking us to buy into that choice, Ruiz plays into the very worst stereotypes of the mad artist tortured by an unreceptive society blinded to genius. I hoped that such treatments went out with the 1950s and Lust for Life, Kirk Douglas’ dated depiction of Vincent Van Gogh. Ruiz brings all that back, and painfully. In the very first scene, when Nikolai Kinski, son of the great German actor Klaus Kinski, appears as Egon Schiele, I knew things would go badly. (Kinski as Schiele and Malkovich as Klimt appear above.) Playing Schiele as almost dementedly jittery and frantic, Kinski continually poses like a Schiele self-portrait, distracting from all else. Kinski shows some of his father’s intensity, but he makes Schiele seem like Renfield from the old Bela Lugosi Dracula film. Such dehumanizing of these massively human artists into caricatures fails to serve any larger purpose of bringing their art to a larger audience.

The only larger purpose Ruiz seems to serve in directing this film is to squeeze as much naked flesh onto the screen as possible. Saffron Burrows stars as the most, if not only memorable female paraded across the screen and plastered upon Klimt’s canvases. Unfortunately, any eroticism soon dissipates in the bizarre, confusing storyline in which Burrows is or isn’t a woman named Lea de Castro. Lea drifts through Klimt’s cluttered, diseased mind as an object of obsession, but it’s hard for any viewer or fan of Klimt’s work to find any interest in the proceedings thanks to the listlessness of both Burrows and Malkovich’s deliveries. Malkovich succeeds in making Klimt not only passionless but strangely dispassionate. Naked models offer themselves up to the master, who takes them in an almost workmanlike way. Watching these scenes of Klimt in his studio surrounded by a bevy of busty blonde, brunette, and redheaded models, I was reminded of the difference between nude and naked. In the paintings of Klimt, we see the nude female body portrayed in an almost spiritual fashion, the epitome of creation and the source of life. In the movie Klimt, all we get is naked flesh, as spiritless and pointless as a pornographic centerfold.

Ruiz spends precious little time showing Klimt actually painting. One of the few extended scenes of Klimt at work, delicately applying gold leaf to a painting, serves as just an excuse for a cheap visual when Klimt’s confidant Emilie Flöge (played by Veronica Ferres) intentionally slams the door to the room, sending the gold leaf flying into the air around Klimt like a glittering snowfall (above). Ruiz tries again and again to set up such near mystical visual moments in hopes of placing Malkovich and the other actors inside some kind of virtual Klimt painting environment. If only Ruiz had instead used more of Klimt’s actual work to set the mood and atmosphere. I watched Klimt right after seeing Goya’s Ghosts (reviewed here) and initially came away not sure which approach was worse: Miloš Forman concentrating on the external world of Francisco Goya or Ruiz concentrating on the internal world of Klimt. Ultimately, I felt that Ruiz made the poorer decision, deciding that interior worlds, however well representing in art, are always, in the end, inaccessible. Ironically, that unforgettable John Malkovich film, Being John Malkovich, should have warned Ruiz of such dangers. Malkovich could have at least reminded him, if he wasn’t so busy being, well, himself.

I’m a huge fan of Klimt’s work and time period, yet I had to work overtime to identify many of the characters. Ruiz assumes a knowledge of Klimt’s world far beyond that of mainstream audiences. Or maybe he didn’t think understanding mattered, especially when telling such an unintelligible tale. I found myself fighting boredom by counting all the missed opportunities. When Klimt visits Dr. Stein (played by Miguel Herz-Kestranek) for another mercury treatment (above), Stein allows Klimt to look through his microscope. In real life, Klimt looked at such tiny squiggles with fascination, borrowing their shapes as the backdrop for many of his iconic portraits. In Ruiz’s reel world, Klimt peers through the eyepiece with a blank expression and remarks upon what he sees with flat effect. Klimt the movie drains all the life from Klimt the man. I’m not a fan of Malkovich’s understated style of acting, but I think it’s especially inadequate for portraying an artist of such towering passion. Malkovich plays intellect, especially sinister intellect, much better, but there’s very little intellect either in Klimt the movie. Neither sexy nor intellectually stimulating, Ruiz’s Klimt disappoints and might actually make people learn to hate Klimt the artist, if such a thing were possible.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fathers and Sons

After the death of his father Pedro Berruguete, Alonso Berruguete questioned whether to follow in his father’s footsteps as a painter or pursue a career as a lawyer. Years later, when Berruguete died on September 25, 1561, many considered him the “Spanish Michelangelo,” the one artist more than any other who translated the Italian Renaissance into the Spanish Renaissance. Born around 1488, Berruguete’s rebirth and moment of epiphany came when he traveled to Florence and Rome in 1504 and saw the works of Michelangelo firsthand. Berruguete soon earned a place in Michelangelo’s workshop and learned at the feet of the master and befriended other young artists such as Andrea del Sarto and Bartolommeo Bandinelli. Berruguete trained as a painter with his father, but under his spiritual “father” Michelangelo, Alonso became a sculptor, creating years later works such as The Sacrifice of Isaac (above, from 1526-1532). Part of the San Benito altarpiece, The Sacrifice of Isaac shows the dramatic expressiveness of Michelangelo’s sculpture and painting that captivated the young Spaniard. Berruguete adds to the drama of the piece by painting the sculpture, adding to the liveliness and expression of the figures more than unadorned carved wood possibly could.

Berruguete brought Michelangelo-esque touches to his painting as well. In Salome (above, from 1512-1516), we see the young seductress looking down upon the severed head of John the Baptist. The bizarre calm with which she looks upon the head shows the influence of Mannerism upon Berruguete, who tried to amplify reality to the point of hyper-reality in pursuit of Michelangelo’s forcefulness of effect. Unable to match Michelangelo in technique, Berruguete resorted to other means to attract the same kind of religious fervor from viewers. Most of Berruguete’s works show episodes of great ecstasy or great agony, but Salome arrives on the scene after the fact—the calm after the storm of John’s martyrdom. Berruguete painted Salome at the end of his time in Italy, just before returning to Spain in 1517. In 1518, Charles V of Spain appointed Berruguete court painter and sculptor, positioning him to set the standards of taste for all of Spanish art.

It’s easy to see parallels between Michelangelo’s Dying Slave and figures such as Berruguete’s Saint Sebastian (above, from 1526-1532) from the same San Benito altarpiece that The Sacrifice of Isaac belongs to. Yet, Berruguete doesn’t just imitate Michelangelo’s art but extends certain elements of it, adjusting the settings on the drama just enough to create a difference but not set the entire work out of balance. With the official seal of approval of the Spanish court, Berruguete influenced an entire generation of Spanish artists who followed the example of Michelangelo and the other Italian Renaissance giants yet added their own subtle flavor. I look at this Saint Sebastian and imagine a young El Greco arriving years later from Greece, standing before this or some other work by Berruguete, and thinking, stretch the torso a bit here, extend the arms, lengthen the face… Alonso Berruguete’s wise career choice helped shape the direction of Spanish art for generations.

After the Fall

When she was fifteen and working as an acrobat in a circus, Suzanne Valadon fell from a high trapeze and ended her career under the big top. Born September 23, 1865, Valadon soon found a new purpose for her beauty and athletic build—modeling for the great artists of France. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, and many other artists soon immortalized Valadon again and again. (Toulouse-Lautrec’s Portrait of Suzanne Valadon appears above.) Valadon soon became more than a model, having affairs with both Renoir and Puvis de Chavannes, among others. She gave birth, perhaps from one of these liaisons, to a son who would one day become the artist known as Maurice Utrillo, fueling rumors that the father had to be one of the great artists. After progressing from model to lover, Valadon soon enticed these artists to show her how to paint. Edgar Degas, for whom Valadon never modeled and never entangled romantically with, encouraged Valadon’s efforts and showed her techniques of drawing and pastels. From humble beginnings, Valadon soon found herself in select artistic circles.

Of all the artists Valadon worked with, Degas seems to have had the greatest influence. Valadon drew and painted countless Degas-esque nudes, as in After the Bath (above, from 1908). Although her drawing technique differs from that of Degas, Valadon’s choice of subject matter clearly links her to Degas. Valadon even uses many of the unconventional poses Degas placed his female nudes into, accentuating the curves and lines produced in those awkward, unguarded moments. Looking at a work such as After the Bath, you see some of the possibilities that Degas never explored in his pursuit of other experiments. Valadon never creates the dizzying, almost pulsating pastels Degas mastered, but her simplicity of line and flat color seem like prophesies of the later work of the Fauves or even the early Pablo Picasso.

Valadon never lost her allure for men. Even the almost asexual classical composer Erik Satie fell for Valadon, and fell hard. Satie proposed to Valadon on their first date. Although she never married Satie, she did run through a series of husbands as she continued to mature as an artist and develop her own style. The nudes of her Degas-influenced period gave way in the twentieth century to still lifes with flowers and landscapes such as View from My Window in Genets (Brittany) (above, from 1922). The first woman painter admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Valadon broke new ground for women in the still male-dominated art French art world and earned the respect of several generations of male artists. Picasso, Andre Derain, Georges Braque, and other artists attended her funeral in 1938, paying their respects to a unique figure in French painting of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—a woman who knew life from both sides of the easel and acrobatically leapt over every obstacle on her way to the top.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Heroes and Heroines

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Fishermen at Sea, 1796. Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 122.2 cm (36 x 48 1/8); framed: 112.8 x 142.5 x 10.5 cm (44 7/16 x 56 1/8 x 4 1/8). Tate, London, Purchased 1972. © Tate, London

Over Labor Day weekend, just before the Met closed their exhibition J.M.W. Turner, Annie and I were able to make it up to New York City. I reviewed the catalogue last year, while it ran at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and have been patiently waiting until it came within visiting distance from our home (and with handy grandparent babysitting service nearby). Turner may have been the first real artist that captured my imagination to the endless possibilities of paint. My youthful reading of John Ruskin’s writings championing Turner shaped my earliest impressions, but decades later, Turner still surprises and astounds. Even an early work such as Fisherman at Sea (above) knocks me out. I’ve seen it in reproduction plenty of times, but seeing it in person struck me more than I anticipated. I like to use Annie as a gauge for just how powerful an artist is. I’m too close to the art to trust my judgment any more, but she loved Fisherman at Sea as much as I did for its beautiful, romantic darkness. Surrounded by all the Turner-esque sunrises and sunsets, this moonlit work felt like a cool oasis before moving on to the next rooms and the more intense works.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), The Field of Waterloo, 1818. Oil on canvas, 149.3 x 238.8 cm (58 3/4 x 94); framed: 185 x 277.5 x 18 cm (72 13/16 x 109 1/4 x 7 1/16). Tate, London, Bequeathed by the Artist, 1856. © Tate, London

It’s easy to lose sight of Turner’s historicity in light of his pre-Impressionism and, especially in the later works, even proto-Abstract Expressionism. After standing before The Field of Waterloo (above) for a few minutes, I walked away thinking it may have been the greatest anti-war painting of the nineteenth century, or at least in the British tradition. Seeing the mass of humanity laid low by warfare as women and children search for lost husbands, fathers, and sons, the idea of Waterloo as a victory completely disappeared for Annie and me. As a kid, I loved reading military history. Those maps with the big thick arrows cutting across, usually with the generals’ names emblazoned on them, seemed like a great, glorious game. It all seemed so heroic, and neat. Turner displays true heroism in showing the dark side of war, the dirty secret that warmongers don’t want to get out. Such a picture couldn’t have been popular among Turner’s contemporaries, who cast Napoleon as a villain to be had at any cost much as Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden fit that role in our day. The cost is always acceptable, of course, when someone else is paying it.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834. Watercolor on paper, 23.3 x 32.5 cm (9 3/16 x 12 13/16). Tate, London, Bequeathed by the Artist, 1856. © Tate, London

The highlight of the exhibition for me was seeing my favorite painting from the PMA, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834, surrounded by the watercolors Turner madly dashed off as the London crowds assembled to witness the conflagration. Painted with just a few colors, each of these (one example above) blooms with fiery red set within a penumbra of dark blue. I found myself looking back and forth from the watercolors to the oil painting, trying to recreate in my mind the link forged in Turner’s mind between them. Of all the rooms of the exhibition, I felt that this room centering on that one painting captured the energy and passion of Turner better than any other. Annie and I agreed that the matching up of the “preliminary” works with the “finished” work increased the enjoyment of all the paintings. For me, it also blurred the line between preliminary and finished. Each of these watercolors deserves a permanent exhibition space as much as the final oil painting. I’ve always believed that the combination of such works to tell the “story” of a painting provides the public with an invaluable glimpse into the working methods of the artist. “I have no secret but damned hard work,” Turner loved to tell his rivals and critics. In those watercolors, the secret is revealed.

Annie and I also were able to catch the Met’s Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibition in its final days. It was a thrill to see superhero costumes from the movies such as Superman, Batman, and even the recent Iron Man on display with fashion designers’ interpretations on those characters. Some of the work seemed a little too cobbled together in a Project Runway kind of way, but I’m no expert on what’s “fierce” or not in fashion. A bittersweet moment came when we turned a corner and saw the original Wonder Woman costume worn by Lynda Carter on the 1970s television show (above). Memories of being a 9-year-old boy sitting agog on his parents’ living room carpet watching a woman from another world (played by a real-life woman who looked like she came from another planet) run across the screen raced through my memory. Sadly, looking at the costume made me feel older than my years. Poor conservation or the decay of poor original materials had left the blue elements of the costume looking a sickly shade of purple. Amazingly, Lynda Carter has aged better than her former costume. I’ve read elsewhere that Lynda Carter wore two different costumes, one for acting in and one for posing in (i.e., she’d fall out of it if she moved). I believe that the Met put the posing costume on display, but the pale mannequin standing in for the lovely Lynda was a poor replacement for the real thing, or at least my memories of a 30-year-old television show.

[Many thanks to Alex's Gung Gung and Pau Pau and to his Uncles Gary and Johnny for watching Alex while we went to the Met.]

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bipolar Artist

"Never speak to me again of that child!" Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres cried out in anguish after the mere mention of the name of Théodore Chassériau after their artistic parting of the ways. Ingres welcomed Chassériau into his studio in 1830 as an 11-year-old prodigy. Born September 20, 1819, Chassériau soon became Ingres greatest and most favored student, spurring the master to predict that Chassériau would one day be “the Napoleon of painting." By 1840, however, Chassériau committed the most horrible betrayal of all that Ingres stood for—he fell under the spell of Ingres’ Romantic rival, Eugène Delacroix. "In a long conversation with M. Ingres, I saw that on many issues we could never have a meeting of minds," Chassériau told a friend. Marrying Ingres’ classical style of draftsmanship with the bold colors and drama of Delacroix, Chassériau created portraits such as The Two Sisters (above, from 1843) before following Delacroix’s example and venturing into the exotic world of Orientalism. While the entire French art world seemingly chose sides in the great Ingres-Delacroix debate, Chassériau tried to bridge the gap and remain true to both his masters.

When archaeologists unearthed the baths of Venus Genitrix at Pompeii, Chassériau travelled to see them and modeled The Tepidarium (above, from 1853) on those ruins. Chassériau hoped to breathe new life into the world of the tragic people of Pompeii, claiming he had “kissed the extraordinary, painful traces” of their lives buried so long ago. By transplanting the harem scene so familiar to Orientalism (and done both by Ingres and Delacroix in their own styles), Chassériau tries to bring the two poles of his imagination together. The nude women bear the pearly smooth skin of classical sculpture and Ingres’ odalisques, but the frenetic composition and lush color are pure Romanticism and Delacroix. The Tepiarium comes from ancient Roman culture, but the dress worn by the women seems more like something from the exotic East—a Turkish rather than a Roman bath. Viewers at the 1853 Paris Salon marveled at Chassériau’s deft handling of the stylistic debate he had fallen into. The 34-year-old artist looked like he might become “the Napoleon of painting” after all.

In 1846, Chassériau traveled to Algeria, following in the footsteps of Delacroix. The year before, Chassériau painted the portrait of Caliph of Constantine, Ali ben Ahmed, in France, and the Caliph invited his new friend to visit his homeland. France had nearly completed its annexation of Algeria as part of its imperial program at that time. Chassériau’s intimate contact with the native people of Algeria led him to question the morality of colonization. In 1854, Chassériau painted Macbeth Sees the Ghost of Banquo (above), one of the many scenes he painted of the works of William Shakespeare, just as Delacroix had done. In depicting Macbeth driven mad by guilt and confronted by the specter of his crime, Chassériau may be commenting on the eventual fate of France in usurping the rights of Algeria—a sad fate that would not be concluded for a century. Two years after painting Macbeth Sees the Ghost of Banquo, Chassériau died after years of poor health and an exhausting schedule of commissions. Only 37 years old, Chassériau should have had decades of masterpieces before him. Within a decade or so, artists such as Puvis de Chavannes and Gustave Moreau rediscovered the work of Chassériau and emulated his struggle to bring two worlds together.

Way Out West

When George de Forest Brush studied with Jean-Leon Gerome in Paris, Gerome taught Brush the same two things he taught all his students: a love of the human figure and a passion for romantic adventure. Born September 20, 1855, Brush took Gerome’s lessons in a whole new direction. While his teacher explored the Middle East and the Orient in his art, Brush ventured out into the romantic frontier of the American West. In works such as The Sculptor and the King (above, from 1888), Brush took the classical approach to painting the human figure and applied it to the life of the Native American people. Unfortunately, Brush arrived long after the Native American way of life had become a thing of the past, so his paintings recreate an idealized version of that world. In The Sculptor and the King, Brush confusedly mixes Mayan wall reliefs with American Indian culture, resulting in an anthropological jumble, but the beautiful technique and sympathetic approach to Native American life, which popular American culture had demonized by that time after years of conflicts over land, more than make up for the factual errors.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, currently has an exhibition of Brush’s “Indian Paintings.” During his lifetime, such works brought Brush his greatest fame and recognition by other artists. As pointed out here, N.C. Wyeth emulated many of Brush’s Native American paintings in his own works, including Brush’s Mourning Her Brave (above, from 1883). The idea of ascribing human emotions to allegedly “subhuman” Native Americans was a novelty at the time, harking back to the days of George Catlin, who had first-hand knowledge of native people. Frederic Remington depicted Indians as pure killers. William Ranney had little knowledge of Indians, visual or otherwise, yet still chose to depict them as a malicious, if unseen, force. Although Brush came too late to see the great native civilizations of the plains, his belief in the romantic concept of the “noble savage,” helped him forge a vision of these people as ideal versus the compromised life of “civilization.”

Once he gained prominence with his Western paintings, Brush’s art came into demand and he was able to concentrate on the lucrative field of portraiture. His Mother and Child (above, from 1902) shows the rich color and subtle molding Gerome taught to all his students. Brush’s mothers with their children often resemble Renaissance madonnas in their lavish glamour. Whereas someone like Thomas Eakins, another Gerome student, took those lessons and went to the extreme of studying physiology and figure to the near exclusion of romanticism, Brush goes to the opposite extreme, infusing romanticism into everything at the expense of exactitude. Brush strove to bring the ideas of Europe to the American arena, superimposing Old World values on the New World, including its original inhabitants. Brush took an American West already turned mythic and gave it a better set of myths to live on.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Crypt Keeper

While studying in Paris under Jacques-Louis David right after the French Revolution had swept religious orders such as the Capuchins from the land, Francois-Marius Granet, like many other artists of the time, occupied one of the vacant monastic cells. Born September 17, 1775, the withdrawn Granet found himself oddly at home in the seclusion of the isolated cell. “How full your heart is with sweet reverie when you have the good fortune to breathe that pure air!” Granet later wrote of his elation upon entering such closed spaces. “How readily you would forget all the commitments you have made to society. But we are not all born for such happiness.” Although the clergy were long gone, Granet recreated their activities in atmospheric paintings such as The Choir in the Capuchin Church on the Piazza Barberini, Rome (above, from 1808). Anticlericism raged across Europe at the time. Granet even found difficulty in getting models to wear religious dress. Sympathetic depictions of Christian rites drew suspicion from authorities, but Granet’s paintings are moody and enigmatic enough for one to read both sinister or mystical thoughts with equal ease. Granet painted sixteen versions of this work, his most successful subject, feeding the public’s taste for imagery of the reclusive monks and their rites performed behind closed doors.

Of course, Granet knew nothing about what those rites actually looked like. But that didn’t stop him from painting what he thought they looked like. The Crypt of San Martino ai Monti, Rome (above, from 1806) shows what Granet thought the mysterious burial rites of Christianity looked like when performed deep in the crypts below a church. A female corpse shrouded in white adds a sexual touch, completing the picture for those suspecting the worst of religious figures. Matthew “Monk” Lewis’ infamous 1796 Gothic novel, The Monk, set the standard for over-the-top speculation of just how decadent and debauched the Catholic church had become. Lewis simply translated into fiction what centuries of Protestantism and the years of the French Revolution had already inscribed upon the mainstream consciousness as accepted knowledge. Yet, Granet actually enjoyed the monastic life. Painfully shy, Granet would have become a monk just for the solitude, if he could have done so and lived. His ability to paint such scenes without official criticism seems miraculous today.

For Granet, enclosed spaces meant freedom and the world at large felt like a prison. In 1810, Granet painted Jacques de Stella in Prison (above), which shows the seventeenth century painter painting a Madonna on a prison wall. de Stella puts his time in prison to good use and attracts the attention of other inmates and even the jailer. Granet found a kindred spirit of sorts in de Stella, believing that any obstacle, even shyness, can be overcome with hard work and talent. Napoleon’s Josephine purchased Stella in Prison, setting off a chain of events in which Granet eventually played an influential role in the development of the Louvre. As the taste for sensational paintings of Catholicism faded, Granet evolved into a keeper of the artistic crypt of the Western tradition, helping make the Louvre the greatest art museum on earth. When the political winds shifted again, Granet withdrew once again to the silence of his studio, “the only place where the artist remains free,” he later wrote. Agoraphobic or simply socially awkward, Granet gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “painter of interiors.”

Child’s Play

One of the great joys of parenthood is reading to your child. All those great illustrated books that you tucked back in the back of your mind as adulthood crowded the front suddenly emerge from your subconscious. So many contemporary illustrators owe a huge debt to their Victorian forebears, who essentially created the idea of illustrated children’s tales and, therefore, childhood itself. Arthur Rackham stands among the first-rank illustrators of that initial wave of creativity. Born September 18, 1867, Rackham first gained the public’s attention with his illustrations to Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (originally part of The Little White Bird) by J.M. Barrie. (Rackham’s frontispiece appears above, from 1906.) Seven-day-old Peter Pan watches fairies flee from him as he stands among the garden’s trees, which twist with almost sinister intent. Director Guillermo Del Toro credits Rackham as one of the visual influences for Pan's Labyrinth, in which nature itself seems to conspire against the young child’s happiness in her fulfillment of her quest. Rackham’s images appear as fresh as they did over a century ago, with none of that Victorian mustiness.

Rackham achieves that perfect balance of realism with magic that makes the magic seem actually believable. In one illustration for Flora Annie Steel’s 1918 edition of English Fairy Tales, Rackham shows “The giant Galligantua and the wicked old magician transform the duke's daughter into a white hind” (above, from 1918). The fidelity of the white hind makes the grotesque giant and wizened wizard almost believable. That balance is the key to all successful children’s illustration, at least for me, and Alex. One of Alex’s favorite illustrators, Sylvia Long, can put rabbits in pajamas or eyeglasses on bears and make even adults momentarily suspend their disbelief thanks to her superior draftsmanship. Rackham worked at a time when the line between book illustration and fine art wasn’t as clearly drawn as today and even exhibited some of his work in the Louvre in 1914. Only in the last twenty years, after a long dismissal of such art as kid’s stuff, have collectors and museums re-recognized the artistry of creators such as Rackham.

Rackham turned his eye to other subjects that were certainly not child’s play, but no less imaginative. In 1910, Rackham painted a series of illustrations for Richard Wagner's "The Ring" (one example above). The sense of flowing movement from upper left to the dark right corner is effortless. We feel as if we’re falling with the figures Rackham draws. The sharp diagonal line reveals Rackham’s interest in Japonisme, especially ukiyo-e, Japanese wood-block prints, which opened the eyes of Western artists to new compositional possibilities. Rackham also illustrated Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream and tales by Edgar Allan Poe, among other “adult” works. If you want to lump Rackham in with any group of artists or movement, Art Nouveau would probably suit him best, but there’s an individuality to Rackham’s art that keeps it fresh and virtually as timeless as the wonder of childhood itself.