Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Time to Give Thanks

A Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! (Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want [above, from 1943], part of the Four Freedoms series, provides the appropriate visual.)

I personally want to give thanks first and foremost for the person who keeps me sane on a daily basis within the cocoon of her love—the beautiful, the intelligent, the laugh-out-loud funny, the ever-patient Annie. Second, I want to thank Alex for being the most magical child in the world and allowing me to relive all the wonders of childhood again. Without my family, I am nothing and could accomplish nothing.

I give thanks, too, for my extended family and friends, too numerous and humble to be named here.

I give thanks for the Obama victory and the Phillies’ World Series Championship. I underestimated how much God loves me until he dropped those two great moments in quick succession. (God, if you’re still listening, a guilt-wracked Dick Cheney’s confession implicating the rest of the Bush mis-Administration would make a nice Christmas gift. No wrapping involved.)

Lastly, but not leastly, I give thanks to all the people who drop in here and peruse my ramblings. I’d still do it if I was the only one listening (it is cheaper than therapy), but knowing that I’m not just typing into the internet void makes it even more gratifying.

Feel free to include your thanks in comments. Share the love until new posts and a new poll arrive on Monday, December 1st.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Visionary Company

As I delved further and further into English poetry as a high school and college student, certain poets just grabbed me immediately with the power of their vision—W.B. Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and, perhaps above all others, William Blake. Born November 28, 1757, Blake could easily have served as the CEO of any visionary company. Songs of Innocence and Experience, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Jerusalem—all of those high-flying works of intense imagination by Blake left me enthralled not only by the words and ideas but how the same man could put those words and ideas into images and even sometimes undermine the written text with those paintings and etchings. Blake, of course, didn’t limit himself to illustrating just his own works. Many of the great visionary works of history received Blake’s special treatment. Studying the text of the twelfth book of Revelation, Blake painted a series now known as The Great Red Dragon Paintings, including The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (above, from 1805). “And behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads,” read verses 3 and 4 of Book 12. “And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth.” Blake turns that almost incomprehensible text into a viable image of menace and apocalypse. Thomas Harris took inspiration from Blake’s painting in writing the novel Red Dragon, which introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter, one of the great nightmare figures of modern fiction.

In 1808, Blake tackled the job of illustrating the great Ur text of RomanticsmJohn Milton’s Paradise Lost. When Blake paints The Temptation and Fall of Eve (above, from 1808), the Tree of Knowledge seems to explode like fireworks into an umbrella over the Adam and his mate. Whereas Milton mostly follows the conventional Bible story of Adam and Eve emphasizing the sinfulness of their actions (although Milton casts Lucifer as a darkly attractive anti-hero at first), Blake portrays the taking of the apple as a felix culpa or “fortunate fall,” in which the knowledge gained by that act compensates for the loss of what he sees as a false paradise void of true freedom. Blake models his hypermuscular Adam and Eve after the buff bodies of Michelangelo, one of Blake’s biggest influences. Blake takes the humanist bent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and other works and sends it into overdrive, arguing that, at least in this case, “bad” is actually “good.” Blake always took things to extremes. My favorite Blake story involves a friend finding Blake speaking to a tree. Asking Blake if he was actually talking to the tree, Blake replied that talking to the tree would be crazy. Instead, he was talking to the angel he saw perched in the tree but invisible to everyone else. Blake believed in his ability to see things others couldn’t as much as in his ability to make them see his world secondhand in words and images.

In the last years of his life, Blake took on the task of illustrating Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Although many of the illustrations were left unfinished when Blake died in 1827, Blake did manage to finish Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car (above, from 1824-1827). Blake chooses the moment here when Dante finally speaks with his beloved ideal, Beatrice, the soul overlooking his journey through Hell on the way to Heaven. Blake interrupts this golden moment by injecting troubling hints as to the “real” nature of Beatrice as Blake saw her, in contrast to Dante’s vision. Beatrice speaks from a car featuring a wheel turned into a swirling maelstrom, as if it could swallow Dante whole. The gold crown Blake places on Beatrice’s head speaks of material wealth rather than the spiritual wealth of the laurel wreath Dante places on her head in the text. Blake sees Beatrice as embodying a false, materialist hope that actually will block Dante’s path to salvation rather than pave the way. Again, Blake plays the contrarian, turning another’s vision on its head through the power of his own. Perhaps this tendency to cause trouble, more than anything else, endears Blake to each generation that encounters him as the original maverick who never stopped believing in himself and his ideals.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Burning Man

Of the big three of the Golden Age of Mexican Mural PaintingDiego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco—Orozco burns with an intensity and singularity of purpose beyond even his intense contemporaries. Born November 23, 1883, Orozco passionately believed in the freedom of the Mexican people but never compromised those ideals in the following of false liberators. As a young man, Orozco lost his right hand and some sight in his right eye in an accident. Taking the surgically removed hand home, Orozco placed it in a container filled with alcohol and set it aflame. Even in his 1940 Self-Portrait (above), Orozco seems to be burning with passion. Perhaps Orozco’s most famous work, the 1939 ceiling mural titled Man of Fire, shows a man literally burning but still walking forward towards his destiny. For Orozco, fire purified by its destructive power, heated the blood to action, and lit the way to a clear path to freedom.

One of the sadder aspects of Rivera and Siqueiros’ lives and art is their continuous falling for false leaders and false hopes that set Mexico back as it strove to move forward. Orozco, however, always viewed potential saviors with a cynical eye. In the painting Zapata (above, from 1930), Orozco shows Emiliano Zapata, leader of the Mexican Revolution. Rather than place Zapata front and center as the central hero, Orozco pushes Zapata to the back of the picture. Peasants and soldiers dominate the front of the image, just as the conflict between the ruthless enemy army and the defenseless Mexican poor caught up in the conflict dominated Orozco’s mind more than the capering of a self-proclaimed hero. The dagger aimed at Zapata’s eye foreshadows his bloody end in which he who lived by the sword, died by it. There’s a great similarity between Orozco’s style and that of the German Expressionists, especially Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Both artists searched for ways to express the harsh realities around them in a simple, arresting style that all levels of society could rally around.

When Orozco painted murals for the National Preparatory School in Mexico City in the early 1920s, one of the most controversial was his Christ Destroying his Cross (above, a different version from 1943). Orozco returned to this theme over and over, including a version in his largest work, the 24-panel, 3,200-square-foot-long series of murals known as The Epic of American Civilization at Dartmouth University. Instead of painting the meek, suffering servant version of Christ, Orozco paints an axe-wielding Jesus chopping down the cross as a symbol of all forms of authoritarian oppression throughout history. Meek acceptance of anything just wasn’t something Orozco could do, and he could never envision a savior who was less of a warrior than he was. It’s amazing to think that Orozco accomplished such tremendous physical feats of art with a single hand and diminished eyesight, but the fires that burned inside his soul fueled a mighty engine that refused to quit as long as someone, somewhere did not enjoy the light of freedom.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Higher Education

If you’re looking for new places to learn more about art, you can go back to school virtually through’s 100+ Awesome Open Courseware Links for Artists. MIT, Rice University, and Open University are just some of the institutions of higher learning offering free courses online in photography, sculpture, art, and art history for everyone from the interested beginner to the studio artist. The rub, of course, of stumbling across such a mother lode of education opportunity is finding the time to mine it. Many thanks to the people at for assembling this great list of links to free, high-quality instruction.

Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

When J.M.W. Turner donated his 1815 painting Dido Building Carthage to the National Gallery in London, he did so under one condition—that it be hung between Claude Lorrain's Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (above, from 1648) and Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca forever. Claude, born around 1602, remained the paragon of painting for Turner, the model upon which Turner shaped his own art. Claude died on November 23, 1682, but the artistry of his landscapes and seascapes lived on for generations. Looking at Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba as a young man, Turner may have imagined that he was the boy lounging in green in the foreground near the column on the left. The boy protects his eyes from the powerful sun that dominates the painting, but Turner and many other English landscapists of the nineteenth century couldn’t help but look at the way Lorrain painted sunlight as the keynote of such works. Turner rightfully earns the nickname “The Sun King,” but Claude held the title before him for centuries.

When you look back and forth at the work of Turner and that of Claude, it’s hard not to see the influence of the older artist. John Ruskin praised Turner for his originality, but much of Turner’s “originality” in the early landscapes that Ruskin loved comes directly from Claude. Claude’s Harbour Scene at Sunset (above, from 1643) shows just another single example of how he could unite both land, sea, and sunlight into a harmonious whole. Recognizing the unity of his own work, Claude began drawing copies of every painting he ever did and placed them in a book he called the Liber Veritatis or “Book of Truth.” In truth, the “copies” in the Liber Veritatis weren’t exact copies (see how the copy of Harbour Scene at Sunset differs here), but they maintain the same truthfulness or fidelity to nature’s effects. Turner patterned his own book of copies, the Liber Studiorum or “Book of Studies,” after Claude’s book, but took the additional step of using those copies to create etchings for mass production that spread the word of Turner’s skill around the world. Claude’s book of truth, unfortunately, remained the well-known secret of artists and collectors until the public began to appreciate him more than a century after his death.

British admiration of Claude wasn’t confined to Turner alone. John Constable called Claude "the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw." In works such as Claude’s Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (above, from 1666), Constable saw a world in which "all is lovely—all amiable—all is amenity and repose; the calm sunshine of the heart." As with the larger landscapes of Claude’s contemporary, Nicolas Poussin, the figures take second place to the real star of the show—the panorama of nature itself. Born into poverty and orphaned by the age of twelve, Claude struggled through years of apprenticeships searching for his place in the world. Clearly, nature itself provided some solace to ease the loneliness. In his art, Claude returns the favor, lavishing great care on his depictions of the natural order—the single rational constant in his ever-changing world. That connection with nature transcended time and place and touched the hearts of Turner, Constable, and others and continues to reach out and touch us today.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Your Dying King

There’s a scene in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK when Kevin Costner, playing the hero attorney Jim Garrison, breaks character and addresses the viewer directly to echo the words he just said to the jury passing judgment on the men who may have conspired to assassinate President John F. Kennedy: “Don’t forget your dying king.” Growing up Irish-Catholic, I learned to idolize JFK as a figure of great courage and to remember him as a figure of great sadness. The one item of non-religious art in my parents’ home was a bust of Kennedy’s head, bought years before I was born in the mad rush to commemorate his death. When I look at the official presidential portrait of Kennedy (above), completed by Aaron Shikler seven years after that day in Dallas, I can’t help but mourn the lost promise of that time, even though it came years before I was born. I also imagine sometimes that Kennedy can’t look us straight in the eye until we somehow come to grips with his death and the aftermath that seemingly stretches all the way to today. When I see Barack Obama, I see the same kind of JFK-style charisma and hope. Unfortunately, I see the potential for all that hope to be destroyed in a flash.

Whenever we look back at Kennedy there’s always some kind of barrier to what feels like the truth. Retrospection always blurs reality, but the layers between us and what happened on that day seem to have formed exponentially. From the very beginning, a mythos grew around the events, aided by the theater of the funeral itself. (I have a cousin who was born on the day JFK was buried. His name? Jack, of course.) Robert Rauschenberg’s Retroactive I (above, from 1963) beautifully depicts how JFK became part of a larger collage of images. Perhaps only an artist as tuned into the power of images and how they interact as Rauschenberg could weave such a powerful single image of multiple images so quickly, while the nation’s psychological wounds were still brutally fresh. Kennedy was the first president of the modern media age: television, full-color magazines, and lavishly illustrated newspapers. People knew his face and the faces of his family as well as their own. If politics is an art, Kennedy was America’s first political model and first political performance artist.

If there’s a book on Kennedy out there, whether a biography or a conspiracy theory, I’ve most likely read it. (Richard Reeves’ 1993 President Kennedy: Profile of Power is a no-nonsense, superbly written, personal favorite.) I’ve read everything about the assassination from The Warren Commission Report to Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, pouring over the illustrations in search of something I haven’t seen yet. Even the nightmare of the assassination itself spawned countless images—the most grotesque being the infamous Zapruder film. Perhaps the most bizarre is the “Backyard Photo” of Lee Harvey Oswald (above). Holding Communist literature in one hand and a rifle in the other, the “Backyard Photo” neatly seals the deal as to Oswald’s guilt as the lone assassin. Look closely, however, and you recognize it for the crude cut-and-paste job that it is. The shadows conflict with one another and Oswald’s head sits oddly on his shoulders, among other flaws. Who made this photo and why are questions that may never be answered. The dying king looks down at such surreal collage and wonders what happened to the social tapestry of his land. If we cannot save our dying king, at least we can honor his memory and replace the tragic pictures of the past with grand visions of our future.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Reproductive Rights

Surrealism often takes a sinister turn. Just think of Salvador Dalí’s more nightmarish works, full of sexual innuendo and physical violence. Of course, not all of Dali’s works walk on the dark side, but no Surrealist stayed on the sunny side of the street as much as Rene Magritte. Born November 21, 1898, Magritte loved to explore the depths of the unconscious mind with humor and gentleness, yet always with some deeper philosophy lurking beneath. Golconda (above, from 1953) shows Magritte playing with multiplicity, one of his favorite themes. It’s literally raining men in Golconda—all identical men in bowlers and overcoats. Magritte often used the bowler hat as a symbol of the faceless modern male. In the 1950s, the drive to conform after the trauma of World War II spawned a world-wide state of repression that eventually exploded in the release of the 1960s. Magritte may be arguing that this shower of dopplegangers shows how the individual has become as insignificant as a single raindrop in the great flood of humanity. Or, he may be suggesting that this faceless lack of individuality is falling upon the world like the bombs that rained down upon Europe during the war, with the detonation itself delayed by a decade.

Magritte’s Not to Be Reproduced (above, from 1937) allegedly shows the back of the head of the poet Edward James, friend and benefactor of Magritte. Identifying the sitter is pure guesswork, however, when all you can see is the back of his head, even in the reflection in the mirror. In Not to Be Reproduced, Magritte questions the ability of art to reproduce reality in any accurate way. Every production is an interpretation in some way, not a true duplication free of bias. The fact that we can see the back of the money sitting on the mantle piece but not the man’s face suggests that it is human nature itself that Magritte finds especially impossible to reproduce convincingly. On one hand, Magritte’s suggestion seems sad—an endless source of frustration for those who would plumb the depths of humanity. On the other hand, putting yourself in Magritte’s place in 1937, as Nazism, fascism, and totalitarianism all threatened to extinguish all human individuality, Magritte may actually be saving humanity by putting it beyond the reach of such powers. In such a situation, arguing that the human individual could never be reproduced, never duplicated as part of some “master race,” would be an act of courage.

In 1966, near the end of his life, Magritte painted The Two Mysteries (above), in which he placed a pipe next to a inset duplicate of his famous 1928 painting, The Treachery of Images, in which he placed a pipe above the inscription “Ceci n'est pas une pipe,” French for “This is not a pipe.” In The Two Mysteries, Magritte connects the beginning and the end of his career like a Mobius strip. Magritte’s puts his playing around with the ideas of representation and duplication into a infinite loop that invites us to join him for the ride. In 1928, Magritte saw such issues as “treachery,” a betrayal of sorts against rationality. By 1966, the kindler, gentler Surrealist no longer felt such betrayal and allowed himself a sense of hopefulness and peace with the “mysteries” of art and existence. Magritte remains one of those trippy artists that college students love to hang on dorm room walls, but behind all the humor rests a restless mind that navigated the events of the twentieth century and their impact on the individual and emerged with his faith intact.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Unfinished Business

Even when people call World War II a “total war,” they rarely consider how it touched even the world of art. When Adolf Hitler, the failed artist, looked to redraw the map of the world and resculpt Western Civilization using his twisted ideas as a model, art itself became another casualty in the all-consuming conflict. The story of how Hitler plundered or destroyed almost all of Europe’s art and the story of how others tried and still try to reverse that course is told in fascinating detail in the documentary film The Rape of Europa, which will appear on PBS on Monday, November 24th (check local listings for details). Based on the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book of the same name by Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa presents a story of horror balanced by a stories of courage, perseverance, and justice without losing the nuance of a story that continues in shades of grey more than stark black and white. Linking the atrocities of the past with continuing efforts to right those wrongs, The Rape of Europa brings back to life events six decades old and strikes you hard with the continued relevance of the issue of art as a symbol not only of cultures but also of nations and peoples.

Using chilling archival photos and footage, The Rape of Europa follows Hitler as he begins his reimagining of the art world in Germany. Declaring modern art not to his liking “Degenerate Art,” Hitler defines “German” art as purely realist, “Aryan,” and purely non-Jewish. In a 1937 speech, Hitler announces a “war of purification” against “degenerate art” that will eventually parallel the “purification” plan to eradicate the Jewish and Slavic races. Hitler and his team of experts soon create wish lists of artworks to plunder before the actual invasions even being. Once the Nazis begin to stretch beyond German borders, Hitler amasses a huge personal collection of art seized and then catalogued by the Special Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) unit. By the end of the war, the ERR created almost 100 volumes of photographs of plundered treasures for Hitler’s perusal. Hitler dreamed of one day filling his proposed Fuhrer Museum in Linz with his personal collection. Soon, Nazi leaders surrounding Hitler also began to collect art. Hermann Goering (shown above receiving the gift of Hans Makart’s 1880 painting The Falconer from Hitler) ranked second only to Hitler in amassing a gigantic collection by theft. Goering let it be known that, as a “man of culture,” he could be swayed by gifts of art, sometimes even accepting art in exchange for sparing the lives of the true owners. Vermeers, Rembrandts, Raphaels, da Vincis—all of these and more fell into the Nazis’ clutches. The art and culture of civilizations they saw as “subhuman,” namely Jews and Slavs, was all but extinguished in the Nazis’ wake. Interviews with modern day curators of the reconstructions and ruins of cultural touchstones targeted by Hitler’s art theories show just how fresh the wounds remain and how vital culture can be to a people when they have little else to cling to.

One of the traps of any discussion of the Nazi era is dwelling on the darkness. The Rape of Europa shines a light into that darkness by giving equal time to the heroic efforts of those who resisted the Nazis smash and grab techniques. As Hitler’s forces advanced upon Paris, museum workers and ordinary citizens worked furiously to evacuate and hide the treasures of the Louvre, leaving only empty frames behind (above). When a curator recounts the story of the moving of the The Winged Victory of Samothrace down a flight of stairs, when the slightest false move could smash the priceless work into oblivion, you find yourself holding your breath with those Parisians sixty years ago. When Paris finally fell, brave art curators such as Rose Valland worked against the Nazi effort. Valland watched the comings and goings of stolen art, never letting on that she spoke German, and recorded everything she could. Today, Valland is considered a hero, and the records she kept continue to be used by those still trying to restore stolen art to its rightful owners. From heroes of the past such as Valland, The Rape of Europa smoothly segues to contemporary sleuths building databases of stolen art and occasionally placing art thought forever lost back into the hands of descendents. Watching the Utah Museum of Fine Arts do the right thing and return a Boucher to the granddaughter of a victim of Hitler brings home the living, human element of this seemingly long-ago crime.

When the Allied forces finally began to turn the tide against the Nazis and their allies, the issue of saving the Axis-approved cultural artifacts in a theater of war became an issue. As American soldiers worked their way up the boot of Italy, they encountered the ancient monastery of Monte Cassino. At first hesitant to destroy such a monument, the Americans eventually felt attacking it was essential to victory. The Germans used such attacks for propaganda purposes, hypocritically calling such acts as part of a larger Allied “War Against Art.” After Monte Cassino, American forces took pains to avoid further cultural desecration. When a bombing raid against the rail yards of Florence was the only option for advancement, American pilots succeeded in the most precise bombing run of the war, saving the city from destruction. Sadly, as the Germans retreated, they applied their “scorched earth” strategy to Florence and other cities, exploding the famous bridges of Florence behind them. Fortunately, Allied soldiers did manage to recover some of the plundered art on its way back to Germany, such as the train carrying da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine (above). A special unit, known as the Monuments Men, led by Deane Keller, accompanied the army and used their art expertise to save as much art as they could. (Robert M. Edsel, founder of the Monuments Men Foundation and author of Rescuing da Vinci, provides even more detail on these unsung heroes elsewhere.)

In the final days of the war, the Monuments Men’s mission shifted from buildings to moveable art, specifically the countless works that had been shipped to Germany and the illicit collections of Nazi leaders. Trapped in his bunker and still mired in self-delusion, Hitler, just before killing himself as the enemy closed in, asked that his Fuhrer Museum still be built in Linz after his death and filled with his stolen collection of art. The model of Hitler’s dream city of Linz that the madman mused over obsessively was found in the bunker when it was captured. Soldiers soon found Hitler’s personal collection in an ancient salt mine buried more than a mile underground. Hitler’s mini-museum, including conservation facilities, surrounded the vast collection. The Monuments Men set up collection areas where the art could be catalogued, restored, and prepared for return (such as Kenneth Lindsay examining the portrait above). As one member of the unit recalls, the magnitude of the theft of art served as the first indication of the reality of the Holocaust. The concentration camps had yet to be discovered, but these art historians couldn’t help but look at the paintings, sculptures, and furniture and consider the fate of their previous owners.

The story of The Rape of Europa is largely the story of the near annihilation of Jewish culture. One interviewee remembers seeing U.S. Chaplain Samuel Blinder enter a room full of stolen torah scrolls (above). The directors chose to juxtapose that image with the story of a present-day investigator returning Jewish religious art to the descendents of the original donors. After a ceremony in a Long Island, New York synagogue, the investigator dances with the jubilant family. For every moment of victory, The Rape of Europa reminds us of the countless number of works still missing, perhaps forever. Cascading thumbnail images of these works trail off into the distance, filling the dark screen like stars in the nighttime sky. A modern 3-D computer reconstruction offers hope that the frescoes of Campo Santo of Pisa may one day be fully restored. Yet, when the directors present both sides of the argument as to whether the Russian government should return the art they took from Germany in the final days of the war, you are reminded once again that The Rape of Europa extends into the present day. The Rape of Europa presents living history in the sense that we live our culture whether we know it or not. Hitler’s mad dream of reimagining the world, including its art, along the twisted guidelines of his soul provides a cautionary tale for anyone who underestimates the value of art when it is placed in peril. The Rape of Europa presents a warning from history as well as a wake up call for today.

[Many thanks to PBS and to Passion River Films for providing me with review copies of The Rape of Europa and to PBS for providing the images from the film above. Please check local listings to watch The Rape of Europa on PBS on Monday, November 24th. The Rape of Europa is currently available for purchase at your local Barnes and Noble and can be rented at your local Blockbuster Video.]

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tripping Down Under

When James Gleeson, Australia’s leading Surrealist painter died just last month at 92 years of age, on October 20th, he left behind a long legacy of artistic achievement as well as art scholarship. Born November 21, 1915, Gleeson traveled through Europe from 1947 through 1949 drinking in the lessons of not only the Old Masters but also newer artists such as Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst. Gleeson’s We Inhabit the Corrosive Littoral of Habit (above, from 1940) shows the influence of Dali by copying the Spanish Surrealist’s technique of ripping away parts of the figure to reveal a hollowness inside, like chocolate Easter bunnies. Gleeson believes that habit, namely the rational autopilot we all use on a daily basis, corrodes our imagination the way that the ocean erodes the littoral or shoreline. Coming from Australia, an island nation surrounded by corroding seas, Gleeson sought to break out from those confining boundaries both physically and imaginatively through the use of Surrealism. Coming in the second wave of Surrealism, however, Gleeson benefitted from the psychedelic sixties in a way that his older models could not.

Many of Gleeson’s titles sound like they would make great titles for a Pink Floyd song or album. I can hear David Gilmour’s guitar work on Sky Technotronics (above) right now. The colors that Gleeson used and the way he modeled them are truly “tripping.” Beneath that trippy exterior, however, Gleeson studied hard the ideas of Carl Jung, specifically the collective unconscious. Whereas earlier Surrealists tended to lean heavier towards Sigmund Freud’s more sex-driven psychology, Gleeson taps Jung’s collective unconscious in a freer, more interesting way. However, Gleeson does bring up sexuality in his art. You can see here a collection of more of Gleeson’s work, including startlingly frank male nudes through which Gleeson asserted his homosexuality in a fine arts setting. Gleeson truly allowed his fantasy life free rein in all his works. By using the surrealist technique of decalcomania, in which paint is pressed on to the surface of the canvas using a piece of paper and allowed to go where it wishes, Gleeson allowed his materials to let go and, therefore, freed himself to let go and follow the “accidents” wherever they led.

Of course, Gleeson’s art can’t be considered a complete “accident.” Too much thought and imagination goes into a work such as Keeper of Used Shadows (above, from 1986). Again, the title alone draws you into the work. At first glance, Gleeson’s Keeper of Used Shadows resembles the fantasy art of someone like Frank Frazetta, but Gleeson’s deep knowledge of art history elevates it beyond pure science fiction and fantasy. Gleeson actually painted a series of works he called “psychoscapes” in which he attempted to paint liquid, solid, and air coming together to symbolize the unconscious and conscious parts of the human mind uniting. You can say that Gleeson asked for the impossible, but he made it possible, at least in his art. Gleeson’s appreciation for art history instilled in him the desire to create new ways of seeing appropriate to modern human existence, just as the old ways served the olden days. As they used to say in the Sixties, “Feed your head.” James Gleeson’s art gives us more than enough to chew on.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Lonely Crowd

When he painted Subway (above) in 1950, George Tooker said, “I was thinking of a large modern city as a kind of limbo. The subway seemed a good place to represent a denial of the senses and a negation of life itself.” In Robert Cozzolino, Marshall N. Price, and M. Melissa Wolfe’s George Tooker, Tooker’s sense of alienation in modern life is seen from all angles—social, sexual, and religious. A shy, half-Hispanic, homosexual, devout Catholic with a Dorothy Day-esque thirst for social justice, Tooker remains an outsider in American society as much as an outsider in American art thanks to his tempera painting technique. As Cozzolino puts it in his essay, “Between Paradise and Purgatory: George Tooker’s Modern Icons,” “Tooker’s work posits that the absence of community, communication, empathy, or kindness is the source of, and path to, human suffering.” Through his works, Tooker tries to make us recognize that suffering and find a path out of it. Sociologist David Riesman’s 1950 work, The Lonely Crowd, argued that the loneliest individuals often exist surrounded by the masses in modern life. Tooker took that idea and created images that condensed the theory and the emotions surrounding it into a single, powerful vision. Like few other artists, Tooker holds a mirror to modern American life and shows us our true face.

Kafkaesque is the first word that often comes to mind when seeing Tooker’s Government Bureau (above, from 1956). Forced to endure bureaucratically generated waits for permits to renovate his Brooklyn home, Tooker transformed that experience into the menacing image of eyes peeping through tiny openings at the helpless seekers of information. The relentless duplication of pillars and crossbeams generates an ideal geometry of anxiety. “Tooker… employ[s] certain abstracting devices, including a stylized geometry and an elaborate use of pattern, to underscore the Kafkaesque menace of the spaces of officialdom conjured by his protest paintings,” Anna C. Chave writes in “Framing Imagery: At the Intersection of Geometry and the Social.” By presenting the mercilessness of such geometric prisons, Tooker protests against the antiorganicism of modern life stifling the free flow of individuality. Tooker appreciated the power of community thanks to his own experience of benefitting personally and socially from interaction with other artists such as Paul Cadmus and Jared French. Cadmus and French helped Tooker cope with his just-realized sexual orientation and opened up creative outlets through introductions to other artists, such as W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Cadmus’ brother-in-law, Lincoln Kirstein. “At a time when the young Tooker was struggling to accept his own sexual attraction to men,” writes Jonathan Weinberg in “Tooker and Company: Identity and Community in the Early Work,” “the relative openness with which Cadmus and his glamorous artist friends acknowledged and even celebrated their homosexuality must have been affirming.” Affirmed as a person and an artist, Tooker found the footing to stride forward in his unique style.

Like that other great modern American tempera painter, Andrew Wyeth, Tooker often takes memories and weaves them into his work, such as childhood memories of summer nights in the work In the Summerhouse (above, from 1958). The slowness of the tempera technique allows for the physical experience of reliving memory. “Watching George Tooker paint is excruciating,” writes Thomas H. Garver in “On the Art of George Tooker.” “Stroke, stroke, stroke, it goes on and on, yet to an observer almost nothing seems to be happening. Only the artist knows the glorious silent mantra that creates a work of art.” This communion with the personal past parallels a communion with the whole past of art history. “For Tooker,” Garver continues, “’Art comes from other art’—a phrase he credits to Thomas Aquinas—for no matter what the subject, the new paintings will be refracted by that ‘other art.’” The isolation chamber of the act of painting is simultaneously an echo chamber in which the influence of Quattrocento artists such as Masaccio, Fra Angelico, and, perhaps above all others, Piero della Francesca seems immediate despite centuries of distance. Filtering his personal life through the public art of history, Tooker moves away from overtly homosexual content in his early work towards a more universal language of isolation free of any specific alienating cause. As M. Melissa Wolfe writes in “George Tooker: A Biography,” “Other Social Realist painters of the time created works in order to compel change, but, whereas they generated protest at specific economic, class, or political conditions, Tooker’s works protest at the spiritual state that results from existing under such conditions.” It was after seeing the racial segregation and oppression of Selma in the 1960s that he “learned the meaning of the Greek word agape,” Tooker once said, taking that specific protest and making it universal and timeless.

In perhaps the most beautiful essay of the collection, Robert Cozzolino examines the role of religion in Tooker’s work, specifically the Catholicism Tooker converted to in 1976 after the death of his long-time partner William Christopher. In the 1996 self-portrait, Dark Angel (above), Tooker “celebrates belief and vocation through allusions to earlier devotional art and by imagining physical contact between a messenger of good and the mortal artist,” Cozzolino writes. “As a guardian figure, the angel is an anthropomorphic manifestation of resilient faith itself, a spiritual version of the artistic muse, which grants vision and rekindles creative force.” Tooker converts to Catholicism, but he also converts Catholicism itself into a form consistent with his sense of art’s place in society as an agent for creative change. Tooker’s religious works stand out among many other works throughout his career emphasizing the positive rather than diagnosing the negative. “In some of my paintings I am saying that ‘this is what we are forced to suffer in life,’” Tooker says, “while in other paintings I say, ‘this is what we should be.’ I oscillate between the earthly state and a concept of paradise.” A Stations of the Cross Tooker painted consisting solely of hand gestures rather than the full figure of Christ shows the depth of his religious reverence fitted perfectly to his aesthetic sensibility. “What distinguishes Tooker from his contemporaries,” Cozzolino concludes, “is the way he assimilates meaningful religious references into his work without revealing a particular source or committing to programmed iconography.” Tooker refreshes religious iconography while retaining the core meaning of what it is to be a person of faith.

George Tooker’s paintings continue to resonate with contemporary audiences because of the essentialism of his approach. Tooker claimed that he “conceived” Landscape with Figures (above, from 1965-1966) “with the victimization of our youth by the military-industrial complex and its servant advertising” during the Vietnam War era. Yet, Landscape with Figures, with its endless sea of heads trapped within too-familiar office cubicle walls, escapes the specificity of that original conception and achieves the status of icon in the “religion” of modern American existence. Cozzolino, Price, and Wolfe have assembled a marvelous catalogue and exhibition to display the continued relevance of one of America’s truly great modern artists. In his own quiet way, Tooker speaks volumes as to what the American way of life has become and offers a gentle, persuasive statement on a way of American life that can still one day be.

[Many thanks to Merrell Publishers for providing me with a review copy of Robert Cozzolino, Marshall N. Price, and M. Melissa Wolfe’s George Tooker.]

Monday, November 17, 2008

Student of Nature

Working for his father Charles Willson Peale in the Peale Museum, Titian Ramsay Peale seemed destined to be both an artist and a naturalist. Born November 17, 1799, Titian, like his brothers Raphaelle, Rembrandt, and Rubens and his sister Angelica Kauffman, found himself named after a great artist of the past by their father. Merging his love of art with his love for nature, Titian concentrated on painting the specimens in his father’s museum, some of which came from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. When Lewis and Clark boldly went where few white men had ever gone before, they did the best they could with what little knowledge they had. Confronted with a creature they had never seen before, Lewis and Clark took a guess and the name “prarie dog” was born. Of course, the prarie dog is actually a kind of rodent, but that didn’t matter to Titian when he painted a watercolor of the taxidermied prarie dog (above, from 1819-1821). Titian’s scientific bent and highly trained aesthetic eye result in a wonderful approximation of what the furry critter may have looked like in situ.

Because of his unique training, Titian found himself highly sought after for scientific expeditions. In 1818, Titian joined an expedition to the South Platte River to record specimens of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and insects. Spending time in what is now Colorado and Nebraska, Peale also observed the local Native American tribes, which included the Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Shoshone. In 1873, Titian revisited the subject of Indians in Buffalo Hunt on the Platte (above). Even as late as 1873, when the Indian Wars still raged in the American West, Titian still paints the Native Americans with scientific objectivity, neither lionizing nor demonizing them. Although Titian remains a realist, there’s a great painterly sense of rhythm in Buffalo Hunt on the Platte. The intervals of the mountains strung across the backdrop beat a counterpoint to the composition of the slanted planes on which the Indians hunt their prey. Titian himself was a skilled hunter, so he fully appreciated the difficulty of hunting buffalo and acknowledges the talents and, thus, the humanity of these tribesmen.

Titian joined the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 led by Lt. Charles Wilkes. Sailing the South Pacific as the expedition’s chief naturalist, Titian saw and painted a whole new world of natural wonders, including the active Hawaiian volcano Kilauea (above, from 1842). The fiery depths of Kilauea and the billowing dark clouds above the crater make it seem like a vision from hell in Titian’s hands. Titian Peale went on to become a pioneering photographer in America and belonged to the first photography club in the country. Later, Titan assisted his nephew Coleman Sellers in developing the Kinematoscope, an early version of the motion picture projector. Although Titian Peale was the youngest of Charles Willson Peale’s children, he may have been the closest to his father intellectually in terms of ranging far and wide in his need to see the world and capture it in images, whether using a brush or the latest technology, such as photography. As with his father, only death itself could stop Titian Peale’s exploration of the world.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Knowing the Pain

Guillermo Núñez. Saber del dolor, 1967. Oil on canvas. 48 x 65 in. 123 x 158 cm.

For a country so full of flavor and life, Chile has known more than its share of sorrow and pain. Even before the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973, followed by decades of Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror, Chile’s political landscape in the 1960s served as a battlefield. The artists of 1960s Chile sought to capture the feelings of their nation in a new style of modern art. As part of the Chile in Philly! celebration running through the end of November, selected works from the modern art collection of the Chilean Embassy demonstrate not only the talents of these modern Chilean artists, but also the vision of the Chilean government to collect such important works. Ambassador Radomiro Tomic began collecting modern Chilean art such as Guillermo Núñez’s Saber del dolor (above, from 1967) as Chile found itself “at the threshold of a polarized political confrontation that, like in almost every other Latin American country, ended in a long, dark period of dictatorship,” writes Mariano Fernández Amunátegui, current Ambassador of Chile to the United States, in the Foreword to the exhibition catalogue. Núñez, whose work translates to English as “Knowing the Pain,” studied in Europe before returning to his native Chile in 1968. In 1975, the Pinochet government forced Núñez into exile. Returning to Chile in 1987, Núñez knew firsthand the pain of Chile’s birth as a modern democracy and, like all the other artists featured in this exhibition, painted that pain in his own unique fashion. Núñez’s chopped limbs and garish red background illustrate the human cost of the birthing of Chile’s modern democracy.

Federico Assler. De la mano, 1963. Oil on canvas. 73 x 39 in. 185 x 99 cm.

As opposed to the macabre imagery of Núñez, Federico Assler paints in a more organic, unifying spirit, such as in De la mano (above, from 1963), which translates to English as “Hand in Hand.” The figure on the left glowing with a hopeful energy links hands with a darker, crimson figure on the right, perhaps transferring that power of hope to those in need. I’m tempted to see the influence of the Italian Futurists in Assler’s abstraction of spiritual electricity conducted through a simple gesture of touch. Assler taught sculpture as well as painting in Chile and influenced the course of cultural education in Chile during the 1960s. Assler’s many public murals spread across Chile bring art and culture to Chileans of all walks of life, democratizing the culture despite the best efforts of those who would keep such art and the hope it represents hidden.

Jose Balmes. Realidad Numero 14, 1963. Oil on plaster and tablex. 30 x 41 in. 78 x 106 cm.

José Balmes, perhaps the most important figure in modern Chilean art, is represented by several works in the exhibition, including Realidad Numero 14 (above, from 1963). In this work, which translates in English as “Reality Number 14,” Balmes clearly tries to translate the reality of Chilean life into art, layering plaster and tablex and covering it with oil paint into a three-dimensional work that confronts the viewer as it leaps from the wall. Balmes came to Chile in 1939 as a young refuge of the Spanish Civil War. After gaining Chilean citizenship, he married fellow artist Gracia Barrios, with whom he founded the Symbolism Group in the 1960s. A militant communist, Balmes fond himself exiled to Paris in 1973 until the late 1980s. Looking at Balmes work, you feel the weight of his life experiences piled up until they almost begin to weigh down your own heart.

Gracia Barrios. Figuracion, 1963. Oil on plaster and tablex. 49 x 31 in. 125 x 78 cm.

Gracia Barrios’s works mirror those of her husband in some ways thanks to their shared use of oil on plaster and tablex. Figuracion (above, from 1963) presents a faceless torso with the contours of the body etched into a thick black slab. Whereas Balmes’ work reaches out, Barrios Figuracion cuts in. Images of the work don’t do justice to the incisions in the dark surface. The facelessness of these torsos mirrors the facelessness of the Chilean masses subjected to the relentless shifts in the political winds as opposing forces vied for control. Although it predates the era of Pinochet’s program of “disappearing” people who opposed his will, Barrios’ Figuracion can easily stand in for those who vanished for their beliefs. In many respects, Barrios’ work reminds me of the dark, sculptural paintings of Anselm Kiefer, who tried to define the horror of Hitler’s Germany for the post-war generation. Barrios, however, defined that horror for her generation, as they actually experienced it.

Fortunately, as Ambassador Mariano Fernández Amunátegui writes in his Foreword, the “long night” that “lasted until the end of the 1980s.. finally gave way to the interesting democratic chapter in which Chile and its neighboring countries find themselves today.” The Chile in Philly! celebration, which includes a celebration of Chile’s food, wine, and cinema, presents the resiliency and vibrancy of Chilean culture. This selection of Chilean art from the tumultuous 1960s reminds us of the distance that Chile has come over the decades as a country and people and makes the joys of today seem all the sweeter. Take a moment to look back on this interesting chapter in Chilean art history as a lens through which to see the Chile of today comes into sharp, brilliant focus.

[Many thanks to Chile in Philly! for inviting me to the opening reception of this exhibition and for the images above. The exhibition continues through November 25, 2008 at the American Institute of Architects in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.]

The Bridge to Nowhere

Go to any major museum in the world with a decent Impressionist collection and you’ll see at least one of Claude Monet’s signature series subjects, whether it be Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, Poplars, the Houses of Parliament, Mornings on the Seine, or the Water Lilies. Born November 14, 1840, Monet loved to muse over the same subject endlessly, painting it in all types of weather and light. When he built his home in Giverny, Monet set up a beautiful garden in that he could paint to his heart’s content. One of the more exotic features of Monet’s garden remains the Japanese Bridge that appears in such works as Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies (above, from 1899). Unlike the “Bridge to Nowhere” made infamous by the recent American election, Monet’s “bridge to nowhere” actually led to a world of improvisation and experimentation. The Giverny garden served as a laboratory for Monet in which he could mix and match natural elements completely under his control to get at the effects locked away in his imagination and longing to be freed.

Over time, Monet’s improvisations got wilder and wilder. The Japanese Bridge (above, from 1918-1924), painted nearly a quarter century after the Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies of 1899 and completed just two years before Monet’s death, barely acknowledges the physical fact of a bridge arching over a lily-strewn pond. At this point, the actual bridge was superfluous for Monet. Monet’s cataracts may have contributed to the increasing unreality of his work, but the general direction of Monet’s painting was away from realism and more towards the borders of abstraction. Some argue that the choice of bright, almost acidic color also indicates the effect of Monet’s vision problems as he strained to see what he was painting and, like an elderly person turning up the volume on a television to hear better, pumped up the “volume” of his color to compensate for his declining eyesight. Medical issues aside, Monet demonstrates a greater degree of freedom in his later years. To look at one of these later works closely, you could easily imagine Chaim Soutine or any other impasto master of modern art painting in the same way.

For the last decades of his life, Monet became a victim of his own celebrity. Étienne Clémentel’s photo of Claude Monet in his garden (above, from 1917) shows the master at a rare moment of peace from well wishers and other artists looking to learn the secrets of the man whose painting, Impression, Sunrise, gave the name to an entire movement. American artists such as Theodore Robinson sought out Monet aggressively. Robinson and Monet actually became close friends, but many other, less-talented artists simply drained Monet’s energy. Today, artists and art lovers make pilgrimages to Monet’s garden at Giverny, still maintained the way Monet left it after his death over eighty years ago. For a movement based on freedom and openness, it is ironic that Monet’s controlled environment remains as the central cathedral of Impressionism, the one place unquestionably linked with Monet. The Japanese Bridge still leads physically to nowhere, but Monet’s paintings of it lead back to the workings of an obsessively creative, infinitely innovative imagination.

Attention to Detail

If you think that’s a photograph above, you’re wrong. It’s hard to believe, but William Trost RichardsForest Interior (above, from 1865) is just one example of the incredibly photographic draftsmanship of one of America’s truly great landscapists of the nineteenth century. Born November 14, 1833, Richards falls within an art historical crack—born too late to be considered truly part of the Hudson River School and born on the wrong side of the Atlantic to join the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Richards’ painting is too clinically precise to join the ranks of Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and other more spiritually oriented Hudson River School artists. On the other hand, Richards’ precision matches that of Pre-Raphaelite greats such as John Everett Millais except for one major detail—an almost complete lacking of the human figure. Occasionally Richards would set a person into his landscape as an almost grudging concession to convey a sense of scale. The literary flights of fancy the Pre-Raphaelites painted over and over, however, never enter into Richards’ signature style. Just the facts, he seems to say. Just the facts are magical enough for me.

Richards grew up in Philadelphia but studied for years in Europe before returning to live in Pennsylvania. Upon his return, Richards brought back much of the grand style of Romanticism ala Caspar David Friedrich, but, again, devoid of human presence. Moonlight on Mount Lafayette, New Hampshire (above, from 1873) demonstrates how Richards could depict effects of light on the landscape and on clouds beautifully. Looking through Richards’ oeuvre, you never get the sense that he repeated himself. From fire-red autumnal scenes to cool-blue moonlit landscapes, nothing seemed beyond Richards’ reach. Yet, for all his technical proficiency, he’s little known today, just a footnote in the histories of American art. Perhaps he’s too good, almost too photographic. Realism this real seems somehow unreal without some sense of the artist’s personality mixed in. Unfortunately, Richards never provides a clue to who he is other than a great recorder of nature.

As great as Richards was with oils, he paints in watercolor even better, as can be seen in works such as Beach with Rising Sun, New Jersey (above, from 1870-1875). In the last stage of his career, Richards concentrated mainly on marine scenes, as if he had mastered the inland and now set out to conquer the seas. A trip to England in the 1870s during which he saw the watercolors of J.M.W. Turner most likely inspired Richards to put the water in his watercolors. Turner ranks among the greatest watercolorists ever thanks to his combination of technique and Romantic feel for nature. In these final works, Richards seems to approach a Turner-esque level of Romanticism yet still somehow falls short. It’s difficult to look at these great works and say they fail on some level, but it’s more difficult to say they satisfy completely. These works lack the personality we in the West look for in art. But, in the East, the absence of the artist doesn’t disqualify a piece as great art. Maybe Richards achieved a type of Zen in his art that the uninitiated just can’t relate to.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Archaeology of Knowledge

Francis Bacon, Triptych Inspired by T.S. Eliot's 'Sweeney Agonistes' (1967). Oil on canvas, 198 x 147.5 cm each. Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1972. © Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2008.

As much as one wonders at the paintings reproduced in Francis Bacon (edited by Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens), the catalogue to the Tate Britain exhibition celebrating the centennial of the birth of the painter Francis Bacon, perhaps even more fascinating are the photographs of Bacon’s studio, which has become as much a shrine as an archaeological dig site for fans and scholars since the artist’s death in 1992. “The veil of myth has become attached to the discarded photographs, loose leaves and books, boxes and scraps of clothing,” Gale and Stephens write in their essay, “On the Margin of the Impossible,” of what they call a “composting of detritus.” In many ways, Bacon’s studio served as a physical analogue for the workings of his mind, which could pull together disparate elements across different fields and arrive at works such as Triptych Inspired by T.S. Eliot's “Sweeney Agonistes” (above, from 1967). In this catalogue, Gale and Stephens gather together essays that pick up “these fragments” Bacon “shored against” his “ruins,” to borrow a phrase from Eliot’s The Waste Land, and try to piece together into understandable form an artist always greater than the sum of his parts. “I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them,” Bacon once famously said, “like a snail, leaving a trail of human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime.” This catalogue and exhibition follow hot on the trail of Bacon’s humanity—the sublime, the tragic, and, yes, the sometimes slimy.

Francis Bacon, Study from the Human Body (1949). Oil on canvas, 147.0 x 134.2 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Purchased 1953. © Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2008.

Martin Harrison tackles the issue of Bacon’s take on art history in his essay, “Bacon’s Paintings.” “Francis Bacon’s relationship with art of the past was dynamic, if complicated,” Harrison writes with great understatement. Bacon openly admired works by Honore Daumier, El Greco, and a host of others. Not only did Bacon lean heavily upon Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X in creating Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953), but he also saw Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus as instrumental in his development. “If you don’t understand the Rokeby Venus you won’t understand my paintings,” Bacon claimed, thinking perhaps of works such as Study from the Human Body (above, from 1949). As Harrison points out, Bacon embraced the old masters more as he gained fame and actually distanced himself from more modern influences he once praised, such as Henri Matisse and Chaim Soutine. Bacon consciously scripted how art history would see him. “Bacon professed to be indifferent to the interpretations attached to his paintings,” Harrison asserts, “yet he suppressed texts of which he disapproved.” As Victoria Walsh writes in her essay, “Real Imagination Is Technical Imagination,” “Bacon created his own translator in David Sylvester,” the British art critic who eventually became Bacon’s confidant and semi-official critical outlet. The 16 years that now stretch between today and Bacon’s death provide the necessary space for these critics to step away from Bacon’s looming presence in the art world in life to more clearly see his work in death.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). Oil on board, 95 x 73.5 each. © Tate.

Although critics early on recognized Bacon’s debt to the movies in his works, that connection remains a fascinating source of new insights on the artist. David Alan Mellor’s “Film, Fantasy, History in Francis Bacon” traces Bacon’s love of film back to the very beginning of the modern cinema, when the 13-year-old Bacon saw D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) in 1922. Bacon studied the work of all the great early directors, including Abel Gance, Fritz Lang, and Sergei Eisenstein. The artistry of these directors challenged the other visual arts to keep up. “Film had stolen something of the vitality and the powers of disclosure of painting,” Mellor writes, “it could transcribe history.” Bacon looked to steal back the magic of painting from film. Mellor connects many of Bacon’s works to specific film moments. Critics have long analyzed Bacon’s repeated use of the “screaming nurse” from the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, but Mellor points out the connection between the triptych technique of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (above, from 1944) and the cinematic triptych technique used by Abel Gance in the climax of his 1927 masterpiece, Napoléon. Bacon clearly internalized many of the images he saw flicker before him over the years, and Mellor digs into that past to resurrect lost influences such as Gance, one of the many great silent film directors who have nearly disappeared thanks to the physical disappearance of their films.

Francis Bacon, Triptych—In Memory of George Dyer (1971). Oil on canvas support, each: 1980 x 1475 mm painting. Fondation Beyeler, Basel. © Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2008

In his essay “Comparative Strangers,” Simon Ofield touches upon the issue of Bacon’s homosexuality and his art. Researching the men’s magazines and bodybuilding magazines that Bacon mined for visual inspiration, Ofield sees these magazines as “making connections between photographic images and certain (and uncertain) knowledges of social, sexual and aesthetic practices and pleasures.” Such publications served as “places where desire took shape—sites of production and seduction,” Ofield writes. Bacon allegedly indulged in the bad-boy fantasy, most famously in his tragic relationship with petty criminal George Dyer, subject of Triptych—In Memory of George Dyer (above, 1971), painted after Dyer’s suicide. Dyer’s tribute goes beyond pure homosexual love and incorporates Bacon’s interest in painting from photography, as he had used snapshots of his former lover in painting the piece. Bacon saw the world through photos, Gale and Stephens suggest, “as if, by viewing photographs, one inevitably reviewed reality more intensely.” The blurring of candid snapshots caused by motion also involved Bacon’s beloved idea of chance. In the Dyer triptych above and many other works, Bacon “harness[es] chance gestures,” believing that “chance is not simply an artistic strategy but a fundamental part of an attitude to life,” Gale and Stephens write. Placing faith in chance rather than some idea of god, Bacon “sought to express what it was to live in a world without God, a state of existence that was merely transitory without reason or afterlife.” Stealing a page from Nietzsche, Bacon found a way to be an optimist in a world constantly aware of its own death.

Francis Bacon, Study of a Nude (1952-1953). Oil on canvas, 61 x 51 cm. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, University of East Anglia. © Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2008.

Bacon once called the sum of his work, “The History of Europe in My Lifetime.” The twentieth century’s long parade of inhumanity that marched past Bacon’s view fed his visual imagination as it shaped his soul (if he acknowledged the existence of one). “I think of myself as a kind of pulverizing machine into which everything I look at and feel is fed,” Bacon once revealed. This wide-ranging catalogue and exhibition de-pulverize much of what Bacon digested and recreate the artist as a young man, before fame formed the brand name of “Francis Bacon” and he began to shape his own legacy by force of sheer will. Bacon’s style, sexuality, and subject matter will certainly dissuade and attract viewers, but the reality of his work demands some response from each of us who know that the history of his lifetime found in his works is the history of our own, or at least the history of what shapes our world today. Like a fine team of archaeologists, Gale and Stephens dug deep into the subject of Francis Bacon and exhumed not only the artist but the man and mind behind the art.

[Many thanks to Tate Britain for providing me with a review copy of Francis Bacon (edited by Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens) and for the images above from the exhibition.]