Friday, October 31, 2008
Of all the things that we don’t know about Johannes Vermeer, the date of his birth seems inconsequential. Baptized October 31, 1632, Vermeer lived a quiet life devoted to his art, earned the respect of his fellow artists, and probably had no clue of the influence his work would have centuries later. A popular novel and a popular film based on that novel have made Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (above, from 1665) almost as unrecoverable as an actual painting as the Mona Lisa itself, the grand dame of overexposure. If it were possible to look at Girl with a Pearl Earring with fresh eyes, you might see again the incredibly warm expression in the young woman’s eyes or the heartbreaking brilliance of the highlight on the pearl earring, perhaps the single most famous highlight in Western art today. Modern audiences consume Vermeer like any other commodity, barely chewing and tasting the full flavor of his art before greedily swallowing. More than any other artist, Vermeer seems a creation of a time other than his own, an artist who had to wait more than two centuries to rise to the top echelon of the art history ranks. If you asked someone on the street in the 1700s if they’d ever heard of Vermeer, you’d get a blank stare back. Today, speak Vermeer’s name and you’re most likely to hear something like, “That movie with Scarlett Johansson!”
It’s truly amazing how varied the influence of Vermeer’s painting has been. Vermeer seems almost written into our cultural DNA today. When I first saw the film Black Narcissus and that beautiful opening scene of the nun standing in the light by a window, I had a flashback to Vermeer’s Woman with a Water Jug (above, from 1660-1662). My suspicion was confirmed later when I read that the filmmakers consciously copied Vermeer in that scene and alluded to him and other artists throughout the film. In Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel (my review here), Ruth Bernard Yeazell explains how Marcel Proust obsessed about the tiny details and intricacy of Vermeer’s painting and saw such tiny works as a template for his mammoth exploration of minutiae, À la recherche du temps perdu. Yeazell doesn’t get into the finer points of Proust’s commandeering of the philosophy of Henri Bergson in the context of Vermeer, but you can see how that philosopher’s idea of the plasticity of time finds concrete form in Vermeer’s paintings, which seem suspended in time across the centuries, and how Proust easily connected the artist and the philosopher in his writing.
Of course, not every lover of Vermeer has been so refined and philosophical. One of the largest paintings Vermeer ever painted, The Allegory of Painting (above, from 1666-1667), remained in Vermeer’s possession until his death, leading many to believe it was one of his favorites. The view of the artist’s back tantalizes us with an almost self-portrait. When Vermeer shot to the top of the charts in the art world, the Nazis began their plot to rule the globe. As European countries fell before the Nazi war machine, Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering competed to acquire the greatest art treasures, with Goering stepping aside for the boss in most cases. Hitler “bought” The Allegory of Painting after The Netherlands surrendered and crowed over the latest prize for his growing collection. Fortunately, the painting survived the war and allied forces recovered it from the salt mine it which it had been hidden for safety. Amazingly, Austria still owns the painting thanks to a court ruling that the Dutch seller agreed to sell to Hitler “voluntarily.” From Proust to Hitler to Scarlett Johansson, love of Vermeer’s art has made strange bedfellows over the course of the last century and will undoubtedly lead to even stranger tales as we continue to fill in the blanks of Vermeer’s life story with strange stories of our own.
One of the most beautiful works of theology I’ve ever read is Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Buber believes that properly conducted human relationships inevitably lead to a fulfilling relationship with God. R.B. Kitaj commemorated Buber’s work in his painting I and Thou (above, from 1990-1992). Born October 29, 1932 in Ohio, Kitaj lived almost his entire adult life in England, becoming one of the most well-respected and beloved “artist’s artists” of the twentieth century. Kitaj lived the message of Buber’s signature work through his art, which always dealt with the workings of human interpersonal exchange not only on a personal level but on a larger, national, and even historical level, too. There’s never any sense of abstraction in Kitaj’s art, never “art for art’s sake.” Kitaj painted art for his and our sake. Delving into literature, philosophy, current events, and, of course, art history itself, Kitaj bridged the fractured elements of modern society in an attempt to make human life whole once more.
I’ve always been amazed that one of Kitaj’s closest friends was Francis Bacon. Although Bacon was much older, Kitaj found common ground with him in painting the modern psyche after the trauma of World War II. But whereas Bacon saw that world and concentrated on the horror, Kitaj saw the same horror and looked to temper it with humor and love. In Amerika (Baseball) (above, from 1983-1984), Kitaj alludes to the Franz Kafka novel of the same name yet simultaneously represents “America’s game” of baseball. By the middle of the twentieth century, baseball finally reflected all that America represented, finally allowing African-Americans to play professionally. A native American himself, Kitaj from his home in England could see the paradoxes of the American way more clearly at a distance, yet still inserted a playfulness into his social comment.
Kitaj always walked the fine line of the specific and the universal—the same fine line of Buber’s I and Thou. His Jewish heritage ensured that the Holocaust always remained in his consciousness, yet he didn’t want to take that tragedy and turn into something exclusive or tribal. Kitaj’s Passion (1940–45): Cross and Chimney (above, from 1985) brings together the Christian cross, the symbol of Jesus’ passion and death, and a simple chimney, the garish symbol of the fires of the Holocaust in which six million Jewish lives turned to ashes. Kitaj seems to say that nobody has cornered the market on victimhood. We’re all victims in some sense. Rather than take tragedy and divide into separate circles, we should use tragedy to unite as a common whole. I confess to a love of Kitaj’s work more for its literary allusiveness and symbolic power than for his technique as a painter, but the positive power of what Kitaj says rings louder to me through his paintings than any words alone, especially in a work such as his Passion above. Late in life, Kitaj often painted himself and his late wife as angels. In his life, Kitaj always tried to show us “the better angels of our nature,” whether we wanted to look or not.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Thanks to Abbeville Press, you can own a “hall pass” just a little smaller but a whole lot cooler. One lucky reader of Art Blog By Bob will win a copy of Nicole Dacos’ The Loggia of Raphael: A Vatican Art Treasure, a huge, lavishly illustrated, beautifully written, $125 USD book exploring one of the great, semi-forgotten treasures of the Vatican. (My full review is here.) Virtually walk with popes and kings down the hall that Raphael and his workshop decorated for Pope Leo X, setting the standard for ostentatious displays of power ever since by harking back to the Ancient Rome of Nero. What could be cooler than that?
Here’s all you have to do:
(1) Visit the Abbeville Press page for The Loggia of Raphael HERE.
(2) Using the text on that page, answer the following question:
What are the fanciful arabesques enlivened with a wide variety of human and animal figures modeled after ancient Roman wall paintings that fill the Loggia of Raphael called?
[Hint: It’s the only word in the first paragraph that appears in quotations. Can I make this any easier?]
(3) E-mail your answer to me at ArtBlogByBob@hotmail.com by midnight, Friday, November 7th.
The winner will be announced on Monday, November 10th.
Don’t miss this opportunity to join the cool kids in the hall with a copy of Nicole Dacos’ The Loggia of Raphael: A Vatican Art Treasure! And while you’re strolling around the Abbeville Press site, check out The Abbeville Manual of Style blog by Abbeville’s Arbiters of Style, the best art publisher bloggers in the business and conductors of fascinating interviews.
[Many thanks to Abbeville Press for sponsoring this amazing giveaway.]
(1) Please, only one entry per e-mail address.
(2) All employees of Art Blog By Bob and their families are ineligible for this prize. Sorry, Mom. Alex, you’ll have to wait until you’re strong enough to lift Daddy’s copy.
(3) All previous winners of Art Blog By Bob contests are ineligible for this prize. Sorry, Andy.
(4) Any disputes regarding the outcome of this contest must be submitted to the official contest judge, Alex. He’s two. Ever try arguing with a two year old? Good luck with that.
I recall my tour of the Vatican Palace and its museums as a human version of a cattle drive. Swept up in the relentless current rushing to the Sistine Chapel, I craned my neck around trying to take in the wonders flying past. Fortunately, a logjam ahead allowed us to pause in the Stanze di Raffaello, the papal apartments in which Raphael painted his masterpieces as Michelangelo worked on the chapel ceiling. Drinking in The School of Athens, one of my all-time favorite paintings, for five minutes was pure, easeful joy followed by another race to the finish. One of the many wonders of the palace I didn't get to race through was Raphael’s Loggia, which is not open to the public. Fortunately, Nicole Dacos’ The Loggia of Raphael: A Vatican Art Treasure, published by Abbeville Press, allows me to return to visit that hall (shown above) and linger like the popes and kings of old. “Raphael’s Loggia is among the Roman monuments that have been the most appreciated, copied, and visited by artists, connoisseurs, and travelers,” Dacos writes. “It is the ornamental ensemble that has left the deepest impression on Western art.” And, yet, the Loggia of Raphael remains overshadowed by Michelangelo’s more famous achievements in the popular consciousness. The Loggia, however, influenced the style of power for generations and continues to do so even today, lingering in our subconscious without our even knowing it. Thanks to Dacos’ text and a systematic photographic analysis done with Vatican approval, modern viewers can rediscover this lost treasure “hidden” before our very eyes all along.
When Donato Bramante, designer of the triple portico of the Vatican Palace, lay on his deathbed in 1514, he advised Pope Leo X to hire Raphael to finish the job. Raphael jumped at the chance, seizing the opportunity to express the contemporary power of the papacy along the lines of the homes of the ancient rulers of Rome, specifically the Domus Aurea of Nero. “To create this program,” Dacos writes, “Raphael drew on the immense antique repertoire that he had collected, a repertoire of unparalleled extent, which he enriched with modern compositions and scenes taken from life, the whole being combined in an effort to recreate the sumptuousness of the Roman empire.” Raphael descended into the grotto-like ruins of the Domus Aurea and marveled at the amusing and fanciful little paintings all over the walls, which soon gained the name “grotesques” for their “grotto-esque” location. Raphael entrusted the painting and sculpting of these grotesques to his assistant Giovanni da Udine, who created an entire world of trompe-l’oeil animals, flowers, and vegetables (such as the festoons and blackbird above). Strolling the hall, Leo X and his visitors would conduct business and comment on these little visual treats that lightened the heavy duties of diplomacy in a way that a heavily thought out program could not.
Nothing in Raphael Loggia is painted or sculpted by the master himself. Everything that appears came from the hand of an assistant following Raphael’s master plan. The unifying spirit of the Loggia belongs to Raphael himself, who was channeling the desires of Leo X, who hoped “to emphasize his role not as a warrior, which would have evoked Julius II, but as the champion of the faith.” Reaching back into the pagan past of Rome, Raphael yoked it to the modern world of Christianity to create a hybrid that achieved a whole new dimension in humanism. Dacos sees Raphael’s Loggia as perhaps one of the first steps in the Counter-Reformation. While Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation raged across Europe, Raphael almost simultaneously struck an artistic blow for humanism in the Catholic mode. Trompe-l’oeil architecture (above) called the mind to believe in higher things while the stories of the life of David (above) and other Biblical figures, refashioned in Raphael’s design, appealed to the tradition of the church on earth.
Through his assistants, Raphael envisioned a kindler, gentler Bible “carefully expurgated” of the wrathful God that depicts instead a “beneficent and reassuring” God lovingly caring for his people. Skipping over the tragedies, Raphael went straight to the happy endings (or, failing that, the solemn ones). Stand at one end of the Loggia and you can look back and see just these reassuring images lined up one after the other, a final, parting shot of reassurance for the doubting. Taking visual cues from ancient Christian mosaics, illustrated early Bibles, classical sources mined by the best of the Renaissance, and classical sources never used before, Raphael brewed together a wholly new type of Bible and then left it to his two most trusted assistants, Giulio Romano and Perin del Vaga to execute it. (One of Romano’s Loggia frescoes, The Finding of Moses, appears above.) Although the sea of unfamiliar Italian names sometimes becomes hard to navigate, Dacos wonderfully guides the reader through the often uncharted territory of the Renaissance workshop in action, tying specific works to specific assistants and showing how their unique talents were combined in the overall plan as the master stood on the sidelines and allowed his students to put his lessons into action. Additional artists came from great distances to work and learn. “A host of artists were thus eager to participate in Raphael’s Bible,” Dacos writes, “if only to execute a single fresco, sometimes returning farther on in the gallery, sometimes sharing the same story, at a work site whose organization, under the direction first of Giulio [Romano] and then of Perino [del Vaga], seems to have been very flexible.” The consummate teacher, Raphael trusted himself enough to trust that his students would deliver, as they did.
Artists such as Spain’s Alonso Berruguete worked on the Loggia while studying in Rome. (Berruguete’s Loggia fresco Jacob’s Dream appears above.) Receiving word that Charles V had set up court in Spain, Berruguete returned home and brought the lessons of the Loggia to the Spanish court. Luca Penni, another Loggia part-timer, spread the Loggia style to France and the court of Francis I at Fontainebleau. Even Henry VIII of England found time between wives to mimic the Loggia in his Nonsuch Palace. Russia’s Catherine II fell so in love with Raphael’s Loggia that she had a duplicate made that now rests in the Hermitage Museum. “Even during Raphael’s lifetime,” Dacos writes, “artists who traveled to Rome would admire the Loggia in the same way that they studied the antiquities or visited the Sistine Chapel,” usually with an eye towards bringing Raphael’s ideas home to powerful patrons. J.M.W. Turner visited the Loggia in 1819 and painted how he imagined Raphael at work in his masterpiece. But, within a few decades of Turner’s visit, the Romantics and John Ruskin orchestrated the shift in taste from pomp to the common people that led to the decline in the Loggia’s prominence in popular culture.
Once you’ve opened yourself up to the world of Raphael’s Logia via Dacos’ examination, you’ll find traces of Raphael in all the halls of influence and power. Constantino Brumidi’s decorations of a corridor in the U.S. Capitol Building (above), done from 1857 through 1859, show how later artists translated Raphael’s ideas into different contexts of government. What sets Raphael’s Loggia apart from other displays is the infusion of classical humanism, the reaching across eras and cultures to mix together the best of all possible worlds. Full of humor as much as grandeur, Raphael’s plan speaks to every aspect of the human individual. Nicole Dacos’ The Loggia of Raphael, which speaks to the ears, eyes, and soul of the art history lover, is as much a treasure as the Vatican masterpiece it celebrates.
[Many thanks to Abbeville Press for providing a review copy of Nicole Dacos’ The Loggia of Raphael: A Vatican Art Treasure and the images from the book above.]
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
There’s a magic in the number one hundred. The centennial of an artist’s birth suddenly sets off an explosion of analysis. Frida Kahlo fans found that out in 2008. 2009 will be the year of Francis Bacon, born October 28, 1909. The Tate Britain has already started things off with a massive exhibition that will make its way to America and the Met starting next May. I’ll have to talk Annie into making a trip up from Philadelphia to see the show. Annie’s trepidation at seeing Frida full force gave way to wonder and appreciation, but I’m pretty sure that Francis will be a harder sell. There’s just so much bizarreness in works such as Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (above, from 1944) that it’s hard to explain the power and grotesque beauty of these works. I’ve always been fascinated by Bacon’s work as an emblem of the caravan of cruelty we called the twentieth century. The Tate’s already promised me a review copy of the exhibition catalogue, just one of the many Bacon-related books set to hit the shelves. Yet, whereas Frida had Fridamania, I’m not sure a Baconpalooza is in the cards, but it should be.
Bacon’s always seemed a sort of magpie painter to me, stealing bits here and there from the masters, most notably Diego Velázquez in works such as Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953). But Bacon went outside of the art world to find inspiration as well. Scanning medical textbooks full of diseased mouths and oral anomalies, Bacon took those images and inserted them into works such as Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion and Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X as a sort of primal scream therapy to deal with the horrors of modern living. This primal approach even included actual primates, such as in Study of a Baboon (above, from 1953). Bacon’s rough way of handling the human figure sometimes devolved it into apelike status, as if shedding all the cultural garb to reveal the naked ape beneath. Bacon once remarked that reading Nietzsche as a young man in search of himself was a pivotal experience. Like Nietzsche, Bacon tears down all the old gods and the truths holding them up, preferring new truths or no truths at all rather than truths that were no longer operative.
What will make the Bacon centennial especially interesting will be the presence of Bacon himself in film footage. Bacon cooperated with many interviewers and documentary filmmakers over the years and never shied away from self-promotion. Openly gay, Bacon revealed perhaps too much of himself, but anything less would be untrue to his art. Bacon’s Self-Portrait (above, from 1973) shows Bacon twisting and contorting even his own image, reflecting the twisted nature of his own, often self-destructive soul. Leaning against a sink, Bacon may either be simply weary or, perhaps, dipping his hidden hand into the water to allow a slashed wrist to bleed out into oblivion. Bacon painted this Self-Portrait soon after he painted Triptych, May-June 1973, his recording of the suicide of his lover, George Dyer. Perhaps Bacon wanted to record his own suicide before the fact and never completed the act itself. (Dyer died in a bathroom, the room Bacon paints himself in.) Such naked self-analysis makes Bacon one of the most fascinating and enigmatic artists of the past century and will continue to make him a name to remember in the next century.
"I bet you can't paint as good as that, eh, Dad?" Roy Lichtenstein’s young son challenged him lightheartedly in 1961 while pointing at a Mickey Mouse comic book. Born October 27, 1923, Lichtenstein probably paused for a moment and summed up his life. Thirty-seven years old, working in a dead-end teaching job, surrounded by paintings he couldn’t sell, Lichtenstein’s life as an artist seemed doomed. Why not?, Lichtenstein thought, and began to copy the Benday dot pattern of the comic book and produced Look Mickey, the first of his Pop art works that would soon become his signature style. Within three years, Lichtenstein tasted success beyond his wildest dreams, selling works such as Kiss V (above, from 1964) for ridiculous sums. Although he always denied he copied directly from actual comic books, especially the romance and war comics popular in the early 1960s, Lichtenstein’s mimicking of the work of comic book artists always seemed like stealing on some level, perhaps even to him. Copying the comics was the point of his work—the ironic spice that gave them the flavor hip collectors couldn’t resist. Yet, the painter Lichtenstein wanted to become before his son’s challenge never materialized, always overshadowed by the successful painter he actually became.
Lichtenstein enjoyed a relatively short period of profitable productivity, giving up the copying of comic panels after just 5 years in 1965. By then, the damage had already been done. The expectations of gallery owners and collectors was set in stone. A “Lichtenstein” equaled a comic book-style work, and nothing else. In the 1970s, Lichtenstein painted a series of works titled the Artist’s Studio. In Artist's Studio No. 1 (Look Mickey) (above, from 1973), Lichtenstein paints the work that started it all in the background of a Lichtenstein-styled studio composed entirely of those maddening Benday dots. No matter how much he wanted to escape, those dots pursued him. Even after doors of the swinging Sixties swung closed, Lichtenstein couldn’t break through into a new style. An artists such as Picasso changed styles like some people change their underwear, but Lichtenstein clung to the style that made him famous, even long after it had served its purpose.
Lichtenstein died in 1997, still painting Benday dots and still trying to escape. Lichtenstein’s Nude with Abstract Painting (above, from 1994) shows a Matisse-like nude sprawled across the canvas with an abstract painting hanging on the wall behind her. Alas, all hope of drawing closer to Matisse’s free style drowns under the ever-present sea of dots. Where Lichtenstein once sought to parody the excesses of comic book style, he now self-parodied the excesses of his own wearied style even as he nodded in the direction of another master who, like Picasso, enjoyed a chameleon-like career in painting. Lichtenstein certainly isn’t the only artist who found his niche and rode it into the ground. However, unlike those other artists, Lichtenstein’s niche was never truly his own. In the end, Lichtenstein struck a Faustian bargain in exchanging his personal creative vision and soul for the riches and fame he thought were what he really wanted from art.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Traveling through western railroad towns in the early 1880s, the painter George de Forest Brush saw poor Native Americans struggling to survive. The sight of these “wretched creatures,” Brush later wrote, made him feel “deceived” by the Wild West tales of his youth. George de Forest Brush: The Indian Paintings, an exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Art, examines the complex motivations behind Brush’s adoption of Native Americans as his primary subject. In the catalogue to the exhibition, Nancy K. Anderson gathers together a series of essays that place Brush not only in the context of late nineteenth century America but also in the context of the academic tradition. Brush sought to find a place for Native Americans in both art history and human history. “In choosing Indians as subjects for art, I do not paint from the historian’s or the antiquary’s point of view,” Brush said. “I am interested in those habits and deeds in which we have feelings in common… If I were required to resort to [historical facts] to bring out the poetry, I would drop the subject at once.” For Brush, Anderson writes, “Young Indian men, living independently on their ancestral land, were the equal of the ancient Greeks in physical beauty and thus entirely suitable as subjects for art.” A figure such as the Native American mother in Mourning Her Brave (above) says nothing about native dress or traditions but speaks volumes of the shared, universal emotions Brush saw as the truest, most human link between cultures.
The Brush renaissance reflected in this exhibition arrives thanks to the reemergence of several paintings lost to public view for almost a century. An Aztec Sculptor (above) disappeared after 1899 until a 2004 sale and subsequent donation to the NGA. Other Indian paintings by Brush have enjoyed similar resurrections, providing scholars with additional insight into this little known artist. Perhaps the most fascinating revelation of Brush’s brush with Indian culture is that he shared little of the political fervor for easing the Native Americans’ condition that peaked with the 1881 publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor, a brutal reckoning of the United States’ Government’s history of cruelty against Native Americans. However, “[d]espite heated public debate and constant media attention,” Anderson writes, “no hint of racial conflict—an undeniable fact of the day—appeared in any of Brush’s Indian paintings.” Brush denies this “undeniable fact” by lifting himself above the political fray, using the Indian and Indian culture as a metaphor for the personal and cultural issues Brush could not address directly in his work. Brush’s flirtation with painting the story of Ossian, the mythical Irish primitive, proves that it was their primitivism rather than anything specific about Native Americans that drew him to them as a subject. Brush later became active in reform politics, specifically child labor laws, but even that action originated in his general fear of industrialization’s effect on humanity rather than in a particular political viewpoint.
From 1873 through 1879, Brush studied art in Europe, most notably with Jean-Leon Gerome, renowned artist and teacher of other American artists such as Thomas Eakins. Returning to America, Brush wanted to use his European training yet give his work a distinctly American flavor that would make it palatable for American collectors. Nothing seemed more American at the time than the Wild West and Native Americans. Traveling through Wyoming and Montana, Brush lived with and studied the Arapahoe, Shoshone, and Crow tribes, actually painting them within the teepee studio he build himself. Collecting just enough facts to make his works recognizably “Indian,” Brush soon returned East and painted from props in the studio. Anderson calls Brush’s Indian paintings “layered fiction” in that beneath “an entirely convincing illusion of reality,” Brush painted “layer upon layer of personal and aesthetic disquiet.” When Brush painted the simple existence of Indians, he really painted his distrust of the growing complexity of American society as it modernized and mechanized on the eve of the twentieth century. When Brush painted figures such as The Indian and the Lily, he painted a Native American version of the classical Narcissus, both drawing a parallel between the old world and the new and arguing for American roots equal to the Greek and Roman roots of European society. “The Indian world [Brush] created in his paintings (for it did not exist anywhere else),” Anderson concludes, “may thus be seen as a very personal form of protest.”
Brush alluded to many classic works of Western art in his Indian paintings. In The Picture Writer’s Story (above), the storyteller mimics the pose of Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Laying Away a Brave follows the composition of Rubens’ Descent from the Cross, recasting Christ as a fallen warrior. Brush’s even alludes to his contemporary Winslow Homer in Before the Battle, which honors Homer’s Prisoners from the Front. All of these allusions add up to Brush’s obsession with story telling and the tradition of passing down culture from generation to generation, as the picture writer does above to the young braves nearby. The artist thus becomes just another transmitter of culture like any artisan. Mary Lublin, in “Living for Art: Brush and His Indians,” sees Brush’s Indian paintings as “a sustained artistic meditation on human creativity” in which “a dynamic interaction with nature is presented as both the foundation of art and a source of cultural growth.” The Native American’s ties to the earth serve as the template for all art and all cultural advancement. “Brush’s impassioned, enduring, and all-encompassing antimodernism” accompanied “a commitment to academic principles and pre-industrial ideals that informed his life as well as his art,” Emily D. Shapiro writes in her essay, “’A Purpose in Every Stroke’: Brush’s Images of Indian Artistry.” Following in Gerome’s footsteps, Brush became a teacher himself and gained the love and respect of generations of students. While the Arts and Crafts Movement flourished in England, Brush tended his own American garden in which nature and creativity provided an oasis from invading industrialization.
George de Forest Brush: The Indian Paintings walks a fine line between presenting the artist as a respectfully creative user of Native American traditions and a exploiter of those traditions. “You must not confuse me with a would-be historian of the people,” Brush wrote in a letter. “I live for art and not for Indians.” Diane Dillon’s essay on “Indianicity” in the context of the 1893 World’s Fair demonstrates how the idea of the Indian became a commodity that “[l]ike money,… served as a medium of exchange, lubricating concrete and conceptual transactions.” Brush’s painted transactions with his audience buy into as well as sell the commodity of “Indianicity” in universalizing that culture and, thus, losing the particularity and individual humanity of Native Americans as people. After 1891, Brush moved away from painting Indians and turned his attention to portraits modeled on the works of the Italian Renaissance, even moving to Italy with his family. Brush continued to practice the Native American crafts he had learned—cutting moccasins, making a bow and arrow, carving a canoe, making a headdress (as in the painting above)—and even posed in Native American dress for photographs until his death in 1941. Whether Brush’s Indian paintings did anything to help those “wretched creatures” he saw from a passing train years before seems to be a question he never concerned himself about. George de Forest Brush: The Indian Paintings opens a door on the work of an unjustly forgotten artist as well as on a conflicted era in American history when the continent’s first peoples were slowly becoming more an idea than a reality.
[Many thanks to the National Gallery of Art for providing me with a review copy of George de Forest Brush: The Indian Paintings and for the images above from the exhibition.]
Monday, October 27, 2008
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
—From Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Music and art have always coexisted as close “sister” arts. The non-rational aspects of each medium naturally go hand in hand. Although he had little technical knowledge of music or musical instruments, Pablo Picasso painted musicians and their instruments throughout his career. Born October 25, 1881, Picasso made gaffes such as incorrectly assembled instruments or instruments placed in the wrong hand, but he always seemed to get at the spirit of music with little problem. The Old Guitarist (above, from 1903), painted during Picasso’s deep depression known as the Blue Period, shows a blind beggar playing a guitar on a street corner for money. The blind man’s limbs seem to flow about the canvas like the lines of music he plays. You can almost here the somber tune the man plays on his guitar. Growing up in Barcelona, Picasso undoubtedly saw similar figures in their ragged clothing hoping to exchange their artistry for another moment of survival. Nothing in this picture approaches realism, but the mood and emotions conveyed are amazingly realistic, making you feel as if you were passing this man on a corner, fingering the coin in your pocket before you tossed it into his cup.
After Picasso moved past the depression of his Blue Period and the romantic elation of his Rose Period, he plunged himself into the intellectualism of Cubism. Picasso’s Violin and Guitar (above, from 1913) stands as just one of the many works in which Picasso takes musical instruments and explodes them in the Cubist style. Cubism’s disassembling masked Picasso’s inability or unwillingness to accurately depict such instruments. In contrast to The Old Guitarist, Picasso’s Violin and Guitar lacks any human element, both visually and emotionally. Picasso reportedly knew next to nothing about classical music and had no desire to learn, choosing instead to stick to the Spanish folk and street music of his youth. These Cubist musical instruments might be Picasso’s violent reaction to classical music, which he may have saw as just another component of the stale, establishment art world that his new art movement challenged. Aside from that cultural clash, I never get the sense that Picasso chooses violins or guitars for any other reason than that they offer interesting shapes with interiors asking to be exteriorized by Cubism.
After World War I, however, Picasso returns to the human side of music in Synthetic Cubist works such as Three Musicians (above, from 1921, the PMA version). I’ve always loved Three Musicians for its color and humor, especially in contrast to the dour browns of earlier Analytical Cubism. Here, both the instruments and the anatomy of the musicians are all wrong, yet the sense of performance is completely right. Picasso’s art is so rich and so varied across so many styles that his accomplishment is simply too large to take in all at once. Slicing into that oeuvre and looking at one sliver allows you to see in microcosm the macrocosm of Picasso’s imagination continually evolving, sometimes forward and sometimes back. The sadness of the Blue Period and The Old Guitarist disappears in Three Musicians, yet the experimentation of Cubism remains. Such never ending reinvention and pilfering literally from himself sets Picasso apart from the rest of modern art—a movement unto himself only momentarily aligning with others, if at all. In the final analysis, “if music be the food of love,” and life, Picasso calls “play on.”
Every family has at least one elderly aunt who collects tchotches of some kind. I have one who collects clowns in all forms—painted plates, porcelain figurines, snow globes, you name it. If only she had something by Walt Kuhn, I could forgive her. Born October 27, 1877, Kuhn painted clowns and other circus performers repeatedly over the last eight years of his life in the 1940s, when mental instability and chronic ulcers plagued him. Kuhn reportedly obsessively attended circuses such as Ringling Brothers Circus, perhaps seeing something of himself in the faces of the performers. Fright Wig (above, from 1940) shows one of the clowns in an almost menacing way, totally devoid of laughter. Today, Kuhn is remembered more for his efforts to introduce modern European art to America than his own paintings, but works such as Fright Wig seem frightfully close to the best that German Expressionism offered decades before.
Along with Walter Pach and Arthur B. Davies, Kuhn helped organize the (in)famous 1913 Armory Show that gathered together somewhere in the vicinity of 1,250 works of art by more than 300 of the best European and American artists painting in Impressionist, Fauvist, Cubist, and other modern styles. Thanks to the Armory Show, figures such as Marcel Duchamp, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse finally found a toehold on American shores and invaded the American art scene for good. Much of Kuhn’s art appears to be an attempt to respond to those artists—a reply in hopes of sneaking out of their huge shadows. In 1918, Kuhn traveled to the western part of the United States to paint a series of works he called An Imaginary History of the West. In The Longhorn Saloon (above, from 1918), Kuhn evokes the smoky atmosphere of the stereotypical Wild West barroom. You can almost hear the piano player in the background. The rough handling of the figures shows Kuhn’s debt to European modernism, but the subject matter illustrates how Kuhn sought to take those European models and make them unquestionably American.
All of Kuhn’s paintings of circus performers carry a sense of sadness you sense even if you don’t know anything about Kuhn’s mental state at the time. A work such as Roberto (above, from 1946) shows a typical clown in an atypical pose of weariness with the world. Looking at the starkness of Kuhn’s portraits of circus people, usually set against a plain backdrop, I think of German art again, not the Expressionists but instead the New Objectivity of artists such as Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Christian Schad. Like those German artists, Kuhn wanted to paint reality as he saw it—not just the surfaces of society but also the soul suffering underneath. Kuhn’s ability to render the fixed stare of his subjects into something both pleading and accusatory lends his portraits a deep psychological intensity. First mired in World War II and then caught up in the sad recognition of a world in which the Holocaust and Hiroshima are possible, Kuhn dealt with life through his art as best as he could. Like his clowns, however, Kuhn thinly disguised his inner turmoil through his art.
Friday, October 24, 2008
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—From “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats
Like so many French artists of the middle of the nineteenth century, Eugene Fromentin wanted to be Eugène Delacroix, especially the Delacroix who brought the exotic world of the Middle East and Northern Africa to France. Born October 24, 1820, Fromentin created images such as Falconry in Algeria—The Spoils (above, from 1863) that celebrated the color and adventure of Algiers, the French colony in North Africa that fired his imagination and drew him back multiple times for more material and inspiration. In Falconry in Algieria, Fromentin shows servants pulling a rabbit from the talons of the trained falcon as two riders, members of the noble class, look on. Fromentin painted the falcons and falconers of Algeria many times, fascinated with the drama of the hunt. By the time that Fromentin painted this scene, however, falconry had become a thing of the past, reserved for only the highest members of the aristocracy. Fromentin’s depiction of Algiers tries to resurrect a romantic past that France’s colonizing has destroyed, much like the falcon rending apart the rabbit in his claws.
Five years later after Falconry in Algiers, Fromentin painted Muleteers Stopped, Algiers (above, from 1868). Showing a pack of drably dressed locals against a drab, sandy landscape besotted with ruins, Fromentin paints an Algiers totally devoid of color and excitement. Delacroix’s sumptuous color and detail disappear from this painting. While other French artists exploited the public’s taste for the spectacular in Orientalist painting, Fromentin seems as weary of that inaccuracy as the muleteers shown here resting with their animals. France took Algiers as a colony by force in 1827. Just thirty years later, Fromentin seems to be saying that the long occupation was one huge mistake—an imperialist crime against both the people of Algiers and the people of France. The War of Algeria waged between 1954 and 1962, depicted so stirringly in the film The Battle of Algiers, finally ended France’s reign over Algeria a little over a century later.
In many ways, Fromentin saw himself as the new standard bearer of French painting, much like his Algerian Standard Bearer (above, from 1860-1865). The banner once held so high by earlier artists such as Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres seems held just a little lower by Fromentin in these Algerian paintings. In addition to being a great painter, Fromentin wrote exceptionally well. Fromentin counted the novelist George Sand among his friends and admirers of both his painting and his writing. In his art history and criticism, Fromentin expressed his admiration for the Dutch painting, especially that of Rembrandt. In his Algerian paintings, Fromentin perhaps longed to capture the same innate humanity of his subjects as Rembrandt and other Dutch artists had captured in their countrymen. Making the imaginative leap across cultures, Fromentin stepped into the shoes of his subjects and restored the dignity that colonization had stripped from them.
“I was twenty-one before I saw a good picture,” Sir Matthew Smith once said of his insular upbringing in the shadow of his pious, businessman father. Born October 22, 1879, Smith eventually resisted his father’s attempts to place him in the world of business and, despite ill health, willed himself into the world of art. In 1908, Smith traveled to France to study at the Slade, the art school run by Henri Matisse. Although he most likely didn’t study directly with Matisse, Matisse influenced the entire curriculum of the school. Smith’s Dulcie (above, from 1915) shows how he took the style of Matisse in his Fauvist days and adapted it to his own uses. The connection with Matisse opened up doors to Smith that allowed him to exhibit with the likes of Matisse, Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, and Georges Rouault all before World War I erupted and forced Smith to return to England. Because of this influence of Matisse, Smith seemed “more French than English” upon his return, according to one contemporary, in terms of his handling of color to elicit emotion. Smith neatly smuggled Matisse across the Channel and overnight opened the eyes of his countrymen to the next big thing in painting.
Within a few years of returning to England, Smith found himself drafted into the war. He suffered shrapnel wounds in combat that taxed his already frail health, but the experience of war exacted a greater toll on his mind, beginning a cycle of creativity alternating with depression that would plague the rest of his life. Smith eventually established a London studio near that of Walter Sickert, whose (in)famous “Camden Town” nudes set the standard for the nude form in English painting in the early twentieth century. In Model Turning (above, from 1924), Smith slowly turns away from Matisse’s influence and turns toward a style closer to that of Sickert’s. The red skirt and blue and purple cushions hark back to Fauvism, but the instability of the figure itself generated by the roughness of the brushwork is pure Sickert. Actually, Smith exceeds even Sickert’s penchant for molding the figure in color like a sculpture rather than through line.
Smith continued to progress in a more Sickert-esque direction. In one of his many portraits of his friend and fellow painter Augustus John (above, from 1944), Smith handles the subject roughly. John referred to his portrait as “another hemorrhage for Matthew” in acknowledgment of the bloody, gory way Smith painted flesh even in the portraits of friends. As the pace of his cyclical depression increased, Smith’s view of life and humanity seemed to darken considerably. The young Francis Bacon admired Smith’s troubled style and patterned his own work after it. In many ways, Smith is the link between Sickert and Bacon, the two most important painters of the nude in English painting in the twentieth century. Smith’s evolution from Fauvism, one kind of beastliness, to the later brand of beastliness in his final works demonstrates how the late bloomer more than made up for lost time.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Fleeing the turmoil of the 1917 Russian Revolution, David Burliuk, the “Father of Russian Futurism,” gathered together his family (above) and set his sights on the safety of the United States. Unable to emigrate directly to America, however, Burliuk first moved to Siberia and then to Japan. While in Japan, Burliuk exhibited his work to a Japanese audience that had never seen firsthand modern European painting or a modern painter such as Burliuk. Michael Craig and Copernicus Films examine this strange interlude in the artist’s exodus in the film David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde. Craig examines both Burliuk’s influence on the Japanese avant-garde as well as the influence of Japanese art and culture on Burliuk himself. Burliuk arrived in Japan just as that closed culture began to open itself up to the ideas of the West. For Japanese artists coming to grips with a world shifting beneath their feet, Burliuk provided an example of how to steady yourself and find a new place in an uncertain, new world.
Unlike Craig’s other films in his series on the Russian avant-garde, such as Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Avant-garde (reviewed here) and Architecture and the Russian Avant-garde (reviewed here), David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde leaves Russia and the Russian Revolution’s aftershocks behind for the relative calm of Japan. Burliuk found great success in Japan, beginning with his exhibition titled “The First Exhibition of Russian Painting in Japan.” A member of Japan’s imperial family came to the show and even bought one of Burliuk’s paintings. As Japan got to know Burliuk and Futurism, Burliuk engaged himself fully with the subtleties of Japanese culture and art. Burliuk’s cultural immersion results in almost Impressionistic works such as his Kyoto Temple (above) that departed radically from the more radical style his new Japanese audience knew him best for. Like so many European artists fascinated with Japonisme who incorporated that style into their art, Burliuk internalized the Japanese art surrounding him but even more so by seeing it fully in context and not through prints and paintings alone. The footage of modern day Japan in all its colorful vibrancy makes it clear just how powerful an effect it could have on the artistic imagination of someone as open to new experiences as Burliuk.
Of all the nineteenth century artists who adapted Japonisme to their art, Paul Gauguin inspired Burliuk the most. When Burliuk took his family to a vacation on the island of Ogasawara, the Japanese equivalent of Hawaii, Burliuk recreated the pilgrimage of Gauguin to Tahiti that freed Gauguin’s artistic soul. Burliuk traveled all over Ogasawara in search of beautiful vistas to paint (above). In addition, Burliuk learned Japanese by speaking with the local fishermen and came to appreciate their simple way of life. For me, the section showing the beauty of Ogasawara was the highlight of the film. Craig and company capture all the magic of that tropical paradise visually while the narration fully connects the love triangle formed between Burliuk, Gauguin, and Ogasawara. After painting on the island for several months, Burliuk returned to mainland Japan and exhibited his landscapes, which surprised and, sometimes, disappointed audiences expecting more Futurism from the touted “Father of Russian Futurism.” However, Craig calls this period in Burliuk’s career “a summing up of where he’d been” and “a step back to step forward.” Reenergized and refocused by his island idyll, Burliuk rediscoved the social purpose of his art in Japan just before leaving for America. As the Japanese translator of Burliuk’s writings notes in the film, Burliuk’s early books written in Russia seem heavily weighted with the gloom of political events, whereas the books written during his stay in Japan shine with a sunny view of the future. Titling one of those Japanese books “What Is Futurism? An Answer,” Burliuk seemed confident that answers did indeed exist in a rational world.
Japanese artists such as Tomoyoshi Murayama (shown above with his wife) and Kinoshita Shuichiro took Burliuk’s answers and tried to translate them into a language that could address their cultural concerns. Craig succinctly yet compellingly outlines the social situation of Japan between the wars as a nation with an identity crisis, caught between an ancient insular tradition and the pressing need to join the rest of the globe. Young Japanese artists following Burliuk’s example soon came into conflict with the established Japanese art world. Like the Russian avant-garde, the Japanese avant-garde viewed art as a means of social revolution and used technology as the means of combining commerce and art. The Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 that devastated Tokyo provided these young artists with an opportunity to remake the rebuilt city in a modern way to reflect the next stage of Japanese culture and society. Using archival footage, Craig and company recreate that moment in Japanese history when old and new clashed and avant-garde art stood at the center of it all.
To Western eyes, Asian art often seems a monolithic parade of ancient styles endlessly recycled. David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde reveals how the same concerns that rocked European societies also unsettled the Asian world. Burliuk’s travels allowed him to cross-pollinate the Japanese avant-garde with the earlier example of Russia’s progressive art movement. After Burliuk sparked Japanese artists into action, they set a raging bonfire of activity, including the Sanaka Exhibition (above) as well as forays into theater and dance that modernized the ancient traditions of Kabuki and Noh. A visually amazing film as well as a whirlwind tour through early Japanese modern art and the life of David Burliuk, David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde will set you off on your own voyage of discovery to learn more about this amazing crossing of paths.
[Many thanks to Michael Craig and Copernicus Films for providing me with a review copy of David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde and for the images from the film.]
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
When 2008 began, the short list for greatest living American artist usually included Andrew Wyeth, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Robert Rauschenberg. Sadly, Rauschenberg left that list on May 12th at the age of 82. Born October 22, 1925, Rauschenberg, who preferred to be called “Bob,” once said, “"I feel as though the world is a friendly boy walking along in the sun." Such sunny optimism stood out amongst the angst-ridden Abstract Expressionists such as the self-destructive Jackson Pollock who were Rauschenberg’s 1950s contemporaries. "You have to have the time to feel sorry for yourself in order to be a good abstract expressionist," Bob later said. There’s a degree of playfulness and fun in works such as Rauschenberg’s Monogram (above, from 1955-1959), the “combine” consisting of a painted goat and a tire, that approximates the sense of joy in art that Marcel Duchamp tried to convey in his works better than the work of any other modern American artist. In many ways Monogram actually is Rauschenberg’s signature, with every inch stamped with his creativity and casual approach.
"I think a painting is more like the real world if it's made out of the real world," Rauschenberg said around the time he presented his Bed (above, from 1955), literally his bed cover painted and mounted on a wall. For a major American artist, Rauschenberg had stunningly little skill as a painter or sculptor. Rauschenberg’s talent rested in his ability to take the very stuff of life and elevate it to the status of art like an alchemist transforming base metal into pure gold. You can’t even call Rauschenberg an “idea man,” because he didn’t work in abstract ideas as much as in practical production. From what I’ve read of him and the documentaries I’ve seen, Rauschenberg never stopped working, as if the impulse to create art were as essential to him as breathing. Such relentless creativity, of course, means you’re not going to be 100% successful, but that never deterred him. "Screwing things up is a virtue,” Rauschenberg responded to our perfectionist world. “Being correct is never the point. Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a better rationale for fearlessness not only in art but in all aspects of life.
It’s hard to think of an artist who was as diverse as Rauschenberg. From influencing avant-garde composer John Cage’s "silent" classical work 4'33" to creating a Grammy Award-winning album art for the Talking Heads' 1983 album Speaking in Tongues (above), Rauschenberg dabbled in music, theater, and anything else he could finagle his way into. The bizarre tennis game played in an increasingly darkened hall at the center of Rauschenberg’s collaboration with Billy Klüver titled Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) may be the finest Dada moment in American art, but even that moment seems tinged with a sense of failure or incompleteness. Rauschenberg’s reach often exceeded his grasp. Although he fully accepted his limitations, he still chose to ignore them. Andy Warhol gets a lot of credit for effecting a new mindset in art in his time, perhaps too much, but I believe that Bob Rauschenberg deserves some credit for trying to instigate a revolution in American art that never truly took hold. How different would American art look today (and perhaps all of American culture, from politics on down), if Rauschenberg’s “friendly boy” walking in the sunny light of optimism served as the model for a fearless pursuit of greater things.
When N.C. Wyeth took an assignment to illustrate a book, he read the book intently from cover to cover. Born October 22, 1882, Wyeth searched in his reading for those scenes that the author had only barely described, taking those moments as his opportunity to stamp his own vision on the work. Wyeth illustrated 112 books, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (cover image above, from 1911). Unlike most illustrators, Wyeth painted large oil paintings that publishing companies reproduced on a smaller scale for the books. It was if Wyeth couldn’t bring himself to miniaturize the works of his imagination, even knowing they’d eventually be mass distributed that way. Born and raised in New England, Wyeth reveled in the region’s literary tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and others. Wyeth’s literature-formed visual imagination made him the foremost illustrator of great, imaginative (too often what we call “children’s”) books of his time.
Wyeth left the comforts of New England in 1902 to study under Howard Pyle, often deemed the father of American illustration for teaching a whole generation of great illustrators. Pyle loved the legends of King Arthur and inflamed Wyeth’s interest in that subject. In 1922, Wyeth illustrated The Boy’s King Arthur (an illustration from which, above). "I am Sir Launcelot du Lake, King Ban's son of Benwick, and knight of the Round Table," Launcelot says to the swordsman before him in the scene Wyeth chooses to show the warrior bloodied but not beaten. Wyeth filled his Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania studio with costumes and props to place on models while painting such scenes. Wyeth’s children often borrowed those costumes and props and played knights, cowboys, Indians, and other characters in the woods surrounding their home. Nobody played pretend in the Wyeth family like the sickly son, Andrew.
N.C. Wyeth’s greatest legacy in the history of art may be his children and grandchildren. Andrew has earned a place in the upper tier of American painters of the twentieth century. Jamie Wyeth, N.C.’s grandson, stands among the great painters of his time. Even Wyeth’s daughters find a place among the superior female painters of their era. Perhaps my favorite N.C. painting is his work In a Dream I Met General Washington (above, from 1930). N.C. paints himself painting a mural of George Washington leading his troops when the mural suddenly comes to life and addresses the artist. It’s a beautiful depiction of just how immediate and alive such scenes could be for N.C. Even more touching is how N.C. places his young, 13-year-old son Andrew in the corner of the painting, sketching the dream sequence playing out before him. In this painting we see the past playing out before N.C., the artist of the present, as Andrew, the artist of the future, picks up the torch passed on to him by his father. Sadly, N.C. always denied the greatness of his illustrations. "Painting and illustration cannot be mixed—one cannot merge from one into the other,” Wyeth lamented. In the few years before his accidental death in 1945, N.C. tried to find a new, non-illustration style of easel painting, but never could recapture the verve of his illustration work. Although N.C. Wyeth denied the fine art value of his illustrations, there’s no denying the beauty and imaginativeness of them today.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
When you become a parent, your entire world changes. As your child grows, you try to bring that entire world to them in all its color and beauty. For anyone who loves art and wants their child to love it, too, Maria K. Shoemaker and Katy Friedland’s A Is for Art Museum (above) is a good place to start. Using the entire width and breadth of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Shoemaker, the PMA’s Senior Curator of Education, and Friedland, Manager of Family and Children’s Programs at the PMA, use every children’s educational trick in the book in this book to make the journey through the alphabet a treat for the ear and the eye as well as for the imagination, planting the seeds so that parents can nurture the budding art lover deep inside every kid. “Here is a building filled with art. What will you find inside?” the first page reads, with the majestic classical columns of the PMA sitting atop the Rocky Steps drawing the young reader in for closer inspection. With such a great start, the fun (and learning) is just beginning.
The Kiss (Constantin Brancusi, French, born Romania, 1876-1957). Limestone, 23 x 13 ¼ x 10 inches, 1916. Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Louise and Walter Arsenberg Collection, 1950.
Like any good children’s book, A Is for Art Museum will keep adults interested, too, wondering what will happen next. “D is for Dancer” brings us to the Edgar Degas’ statue of the Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen. I can just imagine the feeling of a child, perhaps a little girl taking her first dance class, connecting with this image and later even going to see the sculpture itself at the museum—a friend waiting for her all this time. “E is for Eyes” presents the museum’s collection of miniature paintings of eyes, one of the wonderfully strange slices of the past hidden in plain sight in one of the museum’s lesser travelled rooms. “K is for Kiss,” featuring Constantin Brancusi’s The Kiss (above) calls on youngsters to stretch their minds to see the two figures smooching. When “N is for Neck” rolls around, the authors ask the young reader to try physically stretching his or her neck just like the woman in a painting by Amedeo Modigliani does. Labels such as classical, Impressionist, modern, or even foreign have no place in this alphabetical tour of cultures and styles, opening up the child’s imagination to a literally boundless world.
Three Musicians (Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, Spanish, 1881-1973). Oil on canvas, 80 ½ x 74 1/8 inches, 1921. Philadelphia Museum of Art: A.E. Gallatin Collection, 1952.
The first time I flipped through A Is for Art Museum, I did so with my 2-year-old Alex in my lap. He knows all his letters, not necessarily all in order, so he was able to concentrate on the visuals of the book. (The inclusion of uppercase and lowercase letters—not always a given in alphabet books—shows that the educators knew what they were doing.) When I came to “M is for Musicians,” for which the authors made the remarkable choice of Pablo Picasso’s Three Musicians (above), I asked Alex if he could see the instruments. Finding anything in Picasso’s Cubist jumble challenges most adults, but Alex didn’t “know enough” not to try. After a few valiant guesses, Alex looked up at me and I showed him where they were. The look of discovery in his eye alone was worth the price of the book. It said, “Of course, there they were all along.” Not every work in the book is as challenging as Picasso’s, but the diversity of the works will keep the inquisitive child coming back again and again to find new things they didn’t see before. I can easily imagine A Is for Art Museum serving as the beginning of an art scavenger hunt through the PMA with kids giggling in the galleries as they come face to face with their new “old” friends.
The Orchard Window (Daniel Garber, American, 1880-1958). Oil on canvas, 56 7/16 x 52 ¼ inches, 1918. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Centennial gift of the family of Daniel Garber, 1976.
I can’t imagine any better advertisement or marketing tool to the four-and-under set than A Is for Art Museum. The heavy hitters in the Philadelphia lineup, such as Picasso’s Three Musicians and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers are here, but quieter gems such as an ornate German helmet from the armor collection and a Qing Dynasty dog cage. The choice of works such as Daniel Garber’s The Orchard Window (above) lends a distinctly Philadelphian flavor to the book, too. Proceeds from the launch party for A Is for Art Museum will go towards providing free copies to local libraries, Head Start programs, and community centers, adding to the aura of good feelings surrounding this book. Even if you’re not from Philadelphia, A Is for Art Museum will pull you and your child into the circle of readers and art lovers and never let you go.
[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with a review copy of Maria K. Shoemaker and Katy Friedland’s A Is for Art Museum and for the images above.]