Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Taxing Times

Now my advice for those who die,
Declare the pennies on your eyes.
‘Cause I’m the Taxman,
Yeah, I’m the Taxman.

And you’re working for no one but me.

—From “Taxman” by The Beatles

For the March Art Poll By Bob, I asked you to rock out and answer the following question, “Which of these famous statues of antiquity makes you get all old school?” You picked the Nike of Samothrace (3rd century BCE) over Laocoon and his Sons (2nd or 1st century BCE) 17 to 16. Dying Gaul (3rd century BCE) came in third with 10 votes, just ahead of the Venus de Milo (2nd century BCE) with 9. The Barberini Faun (3rd century BCE) held fifth place by itself with 5 votes, while Antinous Mondragone (130 CE), Apollo Belvedere (4th century BCE), Belvedere Torso (2nd century BCE), and Farnese Hercules (3rd century CE) shared a four-way tie for sixth place with a single vote each. Satyr or Faun of Praxiteles (2nd century BCE) brought up the rear with 0 votes. Thanks to everyone who played along.

For April, in honor of the United States looming tax return deadline on April 15th, I’ve decided to ask the following question, “Which of these following money- or tax-related works brings you the most to account?”:

Hieronymus Bosch. Death and the Miser (1490s).

Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600).

Lucas Cranach the Elder. Christ Drives the Usurers out of the Temple (1517).

Albrecht Dürer (attributed). Of Usury, from Brant's Stultifera Navis (the Ship of Fools) (1494).

John Leech. Ebenezer Scrooge and the Last of the Spirits from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843).

Quentin Matsys. The Moneylender and his Wife (1514).

Rembrandt. Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple (1626).

Niels Larsen Stevns. Zacchaeus (1913).

Thomas Sully. Shylock and Portia from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1835).

Paul Vos, The Tax Collector (1543).

No complicated forms, W2s, or math involved—just sum up the energy to pick your favorite. Unlike the IRS, I’ll even give you until the end of the month to file. Don’t be greedy, just vote for your favorite.

Paint It Black

What happens to an artist when one of their senses begins to fail? Do the other senses truly compensate? Or do they feel the agony of a door forever closed? Beethoven dealt with the seemingly crushing blow of deafness and continued to write inspiring music, including his final, Ninth Symphony, which is literally an “Ode to Joy.” When Beethoven’s near contemporary, the painter Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, lost his hearing around 1792, he painted works better called “Odes to Despair.” Born March 30, 1746, Goya increasingly withdrew from society because of his deafness and mental instability. In 1819, Goya moved to a house known to locals as Quinta del Sordo, in English, "House of the Deaf Man," named for its previous owner, who was also deaf. Between 11819 and 1823, when Goya fled to France in self-imposed exile, Goya covered the walls of Quinta del Sordo with bizarre and macabre paintings now known collectively as the Black Paintings. The most famous of these Black Paintings, and the best preserved, is Saturn Devouring His Sons (above). Goya chose the Greek myth of Saturn, also known as Cronus, who ate his children as they were born rather than have them one day defeat him, to symbolize the self-devouring world of warfare and cruelty that surrounded him. Goya had just finished the group of etchings known as The Disasters of War, so the horror of war and the inhumanity of mankind weighed heavily on his troubled mind.

Some authorities now doubt whether Goya actually painted the Black Paintings, claiming that the walls upon which the works were painted didn’t exist in the house when Goya lived there. Several of Goya’s works are currently being reappraised as works by his hand or by the hand of one of his followers. I tend to believe the theory that Goya did paint the Black Paintings primarily on the shared sensibility of those works and the contemporaneous Disasters of War. Another Black Painting, Duel with Cudgels (above) captures succinctly the senseless struggle to the death of the world around Goya at the time. The technology that surrounds and almost sanitized warfare today hides much of the core brutality of the act of organized murder. Duel with Cudgels presents the truth in all its simple beastliness. Two men literally want to beat each other to death with sticks. Put knifes, guns, or remote controls to drone planes in their hands and the essential facts remain the same.

Saturn Devouring His Sons and Duel with Cudgels present the plain, undeniable facts of the situation. Goya’s The Dog (above), however, presents the pure, unfathomable chaos of war. A dog peaks his head up over a hill as the brownish sky dominates the image. We know nothing about the dog and the painting offers nothing. Is this dog searching for its owner, now dead? Has the canine been snacking on the remains of the fallen? We don’t know. It makes no sense, just like war itself. Goya never intended for others to see the paintings. He left them behind, expecting the next owner to destroy them. Fortunately, later owners preserved them as best as they could. In the 1870s, the Black Paintings, which were deteriorating in the house, were transferred from the walls onto canvas to be moved to the Prado, where they hang today. Trapped in the silence of his own thoughts, Goya walked the razor’s edge of madness and painted the nightmares playing in his head. Goya may never have meant for us to see them because he couldn’t bare the thought that, even after seeing them, the world would still not heed them.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Playing the Part

What must life really have been like with Vincent Van Gogh? Born March 30, 1853, Van Gogh tried the patience of everyone from his father to his devoted brother Theo to his one-time friend Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh’s tragic life can be played for pathos or even for laughs, however unintended. The best biography of Van Gogh’s life and thoughts is found in the letters, but even they have been subject to “creative” misreading, most notably in the novelization of those letters by Irving Stone in Lust for Life. In 1955, Kirk Douglas (above) played Vincent in the movie version of Stone’s novel, which was also titled Lust for Life. The highly physical actor Douglas played Vincent as a highly physical artist, full of passionate intensity and a lively body. Douglas portrays Vincent with an almost preternatural belief in his own abilities, even when doubt seems a sensible course. I find it fascinating how different actors have tackled Van Gogh over the years. In many ways, Van Gogh the film character has become the Hamlet of art history acting, with different actors emphasizing different elements of the real-life artist’s persona. Douglas depicts Vincent brimming with self-confidence. Van Gogh certainly needed to armor himself against doubt to persevere, but I don’t get the sense from the letters that he never harbored any doubts about his choices.

In 1990, Tim Roth (above) played Vincent in Vincent & Theo, with Paul Rhys taking on the role of Theo. As obvious from the title of the film, Roth’s Vincent is seen primarily through his relationship with Theo. In contrast to Douglas’ rugged portrayal, the slightly built Roth plays a more needy and literally hungry Vincent. In Vincent & Theo we get more of a sense of the weaknesses of Vincent that Theo had to address, which ultimately led to Theo’s own death shortly after Vincent’s suicide. Douglas’ Vincent is the typical hero of 1950s American movies—the bold individual paddling mightily against the current of conventional wisdom. Roth’s Vincent is a more complex psychological character, reflecting the art house sensibilities of 1980s and 1990s movies. Of course, by the time Roth plays Vincent, the story of Van Gogh’s tribulations was well worn territory, so plumbing the psychological depths, indeed the doubts that Douglas glossed over, presented almost virgin territory.

Perhaps the most disturbing depiction of Vincent Van Gogh was that of Andy Serkis as part of Simon Schama’s in Power of Art series in 2006. Fresh from playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies, Serkis plays a more obsessed, more disturbed Vincent. If Douglas embodied power and Roth embodied frailty, Serkin beautifully embodies the fever pitch of all-consuming obsession. Just as Gollum loses his humanity in a single-minded quest for the ring, Serkin’s Vincent seemingly loses some of his humanity thanks to a similar kind of tunnel vision, in this case for a new vision in art. The scene in which Serkin eats paint straight from the tube (something the real Vincent actually did during his lowest points of mental illness) is simply harrowing and deeply illustrative of the anguish of the real Vincent. Each of these actors stressed a single facet of a multi-faceted personality. None of them could possibly capture Vincent whole, and even collectively they merely scratch the surface. What must life really have been like with Vincent Van Gogh? We can only guess—perhaps a little better thanks to these actors. But life with Vincent certainly must have been a constant parade of extremes. We can get a taste of those extremes through his art today, and maybe that’s all we’re meant to bear.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Photo Succession

Pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz justly gets credit for first exposing many of the great European artists of the turn of the twentieth century to America by exhibiting them in his Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, later know more simply by its street number—291. Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Rodin, and others can trace their influence on American art to exhibitions at 291. What many people forget, however, is that another pioneering photographer, Edward Steichen, introduced those artists to Stieglitz. If Stieglitz gave birth to modernism in America, then Steichen played the midwife. Born March 27, 1879 in Luxembourg, Steichen came to America at the age of two and became a naturalized citizen. For the young Steichen, photography was just one of the arts that intrigued him. The very art of photography at that time still tried to play by the rules of painting rather than boldly create a visual language uniquely suited to itself as a medium. Steichen’s 1902 Self-Portrait with Brush and Palette (above) shows just how enslaved Steichen remained to painterly convention, identifying himself in this self-portrait as a painter through the medium of photography. Steichen’s painterly eye, however, served him well in creating his own vision while capturing the essence of the visions of others.

The paradox of Steichen’s portrait of Rodin, also known as “The Thinker” (above, from 1902), is that you can see almost nothing of Rodin’s face but you still get a sense of the deep thoughts of the man. Despite the hazy, almost Impressionist atmosphere, Steichen conveys the clarity of Rodin’s art and its basis in deep thinking about the human condition before fashioning it in sculpture. Just as he chose to portray himself with brush and palette in his self-portrait, Steichen shows Rodin with one of his sculptures. The man and his work are inseparably linked. Sadly, the link between Steichen and Stieglitz shattered over philosophical differences pertaining to the mission of 291. Steichen began working in a more commercial vein, creating iconic portraits of Greta Garbo and other celebrities that went beyond glitz and attempted to capture the psychological truth of the sitter. Stieglitz continued to pursue the painterly style they had shared while Steichen evolved and looked for new directions in photography.

Steichen served as a documentary photographer in both World War I and World War II. In 1947, Steichen essentially retired as a working photographer to become the Director of Photography at the MoMA, establishing the preeminent photographic collection in America. The MoMA’s Department of Photography is today named in Steichen’s honor. In 1955, Steichen curated an exhibition of more than five hundred photos from sixty-eight countries titled The Family of Man. After seeing two world wars, Steichen sought to unite the world through photography, the most democratic of art forms technologically. At heart, Steichen always remained a painter, and a lover of painters. Steichen’s Henri Matisse and “The Serpentine” (above, from 1909) oddly shows Matisse with sculpting rather than painting, but Steichen knew Matisse well enough to know that Matisse’s sculpture informed his painting and gave it its soul. In many ways painting gave Steichen’s photography its soul, too, even after he put aside brush and palette.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

In a daring move that tops anything ever attempted by prankster artist Banksy, an Irish artist not only created two crude, nude portraits of Brian Cowen, the current Taoiseach (or Prime Minister) of Ireland, but walked into the National Gallery of Ireland and the Royal Hibernian Gallery and hung them on the walls! (A detail from one of the portraits, showing Cowen sitting on a toilet with toilet paper in hand, appears above. You can see another edited version of the second portrait, showing Cowen holding a pair of underwear, here.) A 35-year-old schoolteacher named Conor Casby has been charged with placing these odd tributes next to more respectful portraits of prominent Irish figures such as Michael Collins, William Butler Yeats, and, of course, Bono. Whether the charges against Casby will actually stick remains a question as he didn’t steal or damage anything, other than the public perception of Cowen, which was already fairly low.

Cowen (shown above, clothed, mercifully) has become a popular whipping boy in Irish politics since becoming the Taoiseach in 2008. The artist mocked Cowen further in the caption he added beneath the painting: “Brian Cowen, Politician 1960-2008. This portrait, acquired uncommissioned by the National Gallery, celebrates one of the finest politicians produced by Ireland since the foundation of the state. Following a spell at the helm of the Department of Finance during a period of unprecedented prosperity, Brian Cowen inherited the office of Taoiseach in 2008. Balancing a public image that ranges from fantastically intelligent analytical thinker to Big Ignorant F***er from Offaly, the Taoiseach proves to be a challenging subject to represent.” The portraits reportedly hung for an hour before guards noticed their unseemly presence. Art dealers are already speculating at the cost that these two “Portraitgate” paintings will bring at auction.

It’s moments like this that make be proud to be Irish. It’s much funnier than throwing a shoe.

[Many thanks to Dave, who tipped me off to Portraitgate and convinced me that I had to do something on it.]

In the Cards

One of the most daunting challenges for anyone wanting to know more about art is deciding where to start. What are the best books to read? Who are the artists you need to know? What paintings should you know first? Masterpiece Cards rides to the rescue of students and art lovers everywhere with their concise collection of 250 cards featuring the greatest paintings from the Renaissance to the 1960s. Masterpiece Cards took forty books on art history and combed their 17,000 pages for the names of paintings from that time span. They collected those names in a database and picked out the 250 works appearing the most often, thus generating a list of greatness as fair as any other. With beautiful quality reproductions and informative text on the rear, each card is a short lesson in art history.

For anyone familiar with art history, these cards will seem like mementos of old friends, such as David’s Oath of the Horatii (above, from 1784). On the reverse, text from one of the references used gives useful insights into the work and its place in the course of art history. A color-coded system at the top indicates where each painting is located, so if you’re headed to France, just grab those marked “France” and let the adventure begin. For students, these make the ultimate “flash cards” of art appreciation class. The information on the back allows you to arrange them in any order you wish—chronologically, nationally, or simply by artist. The text-free fronts will help those using the cards to build up a visual memory of the greats.

Masterpiece Cards has done a great job of avoiding many of the pitfalls of list-making in art. (A full list of the 250 paintings appears here.) Limiting the time frame from the Renaissance to the 1960 means saying no to Giotto, sadly, but also means steering clear of the Damien Hirsts of the contemporary scene, which seems like a fair trade to me. To avoid having a Picasso or Van Gogh take up too much space with their many masterpieces, Masterpiece Cards limited each artist to no more than three masterpieces. Although they’ve culled their choices from long-revered backbreaking tomes such as Janson’s, Arnason’s, and Gombrich’s histories, Masterpiece Cards avoided the trap of sexism, making sure to include obvious (such as Mary Cassatt) as well as not so obvious (the undervalued Helen Frankenthaler) female artists. The choices center almost exclusively on American and European artists, but that reflects the reference books more than any bias on the card-makers’ part, I believe. For better or worse, these cards should work with art history education first and foremost, building the foundation that the student can later tear down as they explore further the art of women, minorities, and non-Western cultures.

Most students today might prefer the easy access of online searches, but, just as e-books can’t replicate the satisfaction of their paper ancestors (at least in my opinion), there’s something satisfying with having these cards in hand. I remember growing up as a kid and having my parents give me the sample Time-Life cards that used to come in the mail to entice you to buy the whole set of cards offering all that is known on the animal kingdom, world history, etc. Ever the inquisitive kid, I used to marvel at those scraps of knowledge, even if the pudu or Council of Trent seemed like lonely facts separated from their laminated brethren. To flip through these cards, handle them, and rearrange them provides the ultimate initial hands-on experience for the young mind soaking in these images and ideas for the first time. As both a educational tool and source of entertainment, Masterpiece Cards are the real deal.

[Many thanks to Masterpiece Cards for providing me with some sample cards for review and for the images above.]

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Kingdom for a Kiss

It’s never over, my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder
It’s never over, all my riches for her smiles when I slept so soft against her
It’s never over, all my blood for the sweetness of her laughter

—From “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” by Jeff Buckley

A big bouquet of flowers (above, Van Gogh’s Irises in a Vase, from 1890) to the amazing Annie, who celebrates her birthday today. I’d still give my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder, even if my whole world wasn’t already linked with hers. You bring more beauty to my life than any other artist, Baby. Love you, Sweetie.

American Original

For Americans with an historical awareness of the visual roots of our culture, the Saturday Evening Post is the mother lode of lore. The look of our celebrations, from Mother’s Day to the Fourth of July to Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s, all seemingly took their cue from the Post. And no artist’s name is linked with the Post’s power to shape the American psyche as is that of Norman Rockwell. Yet, the Post influenced society well before Rockwell’s first published cover in 1916 thanks to a Rockwell’s predecessor—J.C. Leyendecker. Born March 23, 1874 in Germany, Leyendecker came to America with his family at the age of eight in search of a better life. Leyendecker not only lived the immigrant’s American dream, but also gave it visual life. In December 1907, Leyendecker painted New Year's Baby 1908 for the Post (above), beginning a tradition of New Year’s Baby covers that would extend into the 1940s, when even the New Year’s Baby would join the war effort and take a swing at a surreal swastika beside him. Symbols such as the Baby New Year seem so timeless to us today that it’s important to recognize the people such as Leyendecker who created such enduring images.

As a native German, Leyendecker must have absorbed many of the Christmas traditions of Germany that he and so many other immigrants brought over to America. We like to think of Christmas as a Victorian and Dickensian creation, but the real roots of modern Christmas traditions reach back to Germany, the homeland of Queen Victoria’s beloved Albert, whose death gave birth to the Victorian Christmas through Victoria’s great grief. When you look at Leyendecker’s Christmas covers for the Post, such as Santa's Lap (above, from 1923), it’s easy to think that he’s borrowing from Rockwell, unless you realize that the time line works the other way around. Rockwell certainly belongs in the upper echelon of great American illustrators and created his own share of original characters, but when it came to Christmas and many other bits of Americana, he often followed the lead of Leyendecker. Leyendecker created much of the visual language of Americana to which Rockwell later gave his unique flavor.

In addition to the Post, Leyendecker illustrated books and enjoyed a lucrative career in advertising. Leyendecker’s advertisement for Kuppenheimer’s men’s clothing (above, from the 1920s) shows the dapper look of the Roaring Twenties with fascinating unreal touches such as the lithe nymph clad in gossamer and the cherub above the young man’s head. The lady and cherub recall Leyendecker’s fascination with the Art Nouveau works of Alphonse Mucha that Leyendecker encountered as a young student in Paris. Today, many people search such advertising for hidden clues to Leyendecker’s homosexuality, imagining that the women fawning over the devastatingly handsome men in their sartorial splendor are actually “self-portraits” of Leyendecker. Leyendecker lived the raucous life of the Roaring Twenties and suffered the agony of the subsequent Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Leyendecker’s 1943 Baby New Year fighting the Nazis was his last cover for the Post. The Golden Age of American Illustration had passed, leaving only enough work for stars such as Rockwell. Leyendecker died in 1951, at the beginning of a decade that embraced Americana like no other had before, but with the name Rockwell rather than Leyendecker as their chief mythmaker.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Separate but Equal

Aaron Douglas (American, 1899-1979). The Prodigal Son in God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson, 1927. Lithograph, lettering by C.B. Wells, New York: The Viking Press, 8 ¾ x 6 ¼ in. (22.2 x 15.9 cm). Amon Carter Museum Library, Fort Worth, Texas, (IB) NC959.D67 G6 1927

Like so many neat shorthand terms, “Harlem Renaissance” both encapsulates a time and spirit while inadvertently distorting and constraining it. “The more we learn about the Harlem Renaissance the more elastic it needs to become as a conceptual category,” argues Mary Ann Calo in “The Harlem Renaissance in Theory and Practice,” one of the several enlightening essays in the catalogue (edited by Alison B. Amick) to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s current exhibition Harlem Renaissance. Although Harlem certainly became the physical center of African-American literature, music, and art in the 1920s, the ripples of that energy spread across all of America and even reached Paris as African-American artists sought new means of expression, including the new forms of modernism, for their stories. This exhibition shows vividly how the African-American desire to forge an identity through the arts serves as a subset of a larger American cultural identity crisis. The phrase “separate but equal” still resonates with latent racism from America’s history, but in Harlem Renaissance, we see African-American artists carving out an separate artistic place for themselves but still of equal importance to the larger American dream of which they are an integral part. Like Aaron DouglasThe Prodigal Son (above), African-American artists are embraced in this exhibition and catalogue and brought back into the fold.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (American, 1877-1968). Ethiopia, 1921. Plaster full figure, bronze cast, 67 x 16 x 20 in. (170.2 x 40.6 x 50.8 cm). Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art & Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Amick’s catalogue, and her introductory essay, help weave together the many different threads that made up the tapestry of what we know as the Harlem Renaissance. Amick stresses the continuing influence of Southern culture on immigrants to the North. “Throughout this period, the South remained an important source of inspiration for African-American artists, who offered fresh interpretations of Southern life, religion, and folklore,” Amick writes. Also, “[c]ritics such as [Alain] Locke and [W.E.B.] DuBois urged African-American artists to explore African art as a source of inspiration,” Amick continues. Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller’s Ethopia (above) not only taps into Africa as a source, but also borrows from the modernism she encountered during her time in Paris. “This Pan-Africanist work symbolized the strength of womanhood, the emergence of nationhood, and the birth of the New Negro,” writes Theresa Leininger-Miller in “The Transatlantic Connection: New Negro Artists in Paris, 1922-1934.” In contrast, other artists, such as Augusta Savage, avoided African or African-American subject matter in their art out of fear of being reduced to a label. For many others, however, the acknowledged role of African art in the development of Cubism and other modern art movements justified the use of such traditions even more.

Palmer Hayden (American, 1890-1973). Nous Quatre à Paris (We Four in Paris), ca. 1930. Watercolor and pencil on paper, 21 ¾, x 18 1/8 in. (55.2 x 46 cm). Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph H. Hazen Foundation Inc. Gift, 1975 (1975.125) Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Many African-American artists flocked to Paris not only for the greater personal freedom it offered, but also to encounter Cubism and other ideas firsthand. A “Negro colony” soon formed, including figures from all media such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Josephine Baker in addition to artists such as Fuller, Savage, Douglas, Archibald Motley, William H. Johnson, and Palmer Hayden, whose Nous Quatre à Paris (We Four in Paris) (above) captures the camaraderie of the period. In Paris, Leininger-Miller writes, “they were transformed into New Negro artists—black modernists.” At a time when America was playing catch up to Europe in terms of modern art, these African-American artists were leading the charge. This element of Harlem Renaissance electrifies the term for a new audience. “This new emphasis on diasporic perspectives and transnational dimensions of the Harlem Renaissance,” writes Calo, “had in turn deepened understanding of Western modernism itself as transatlantic and transracial.” When American art critics scuffled to find examples of American modernism, they should have been looking to African-American artists, a fact that rewrites much of the black-and-white history of American art into subtler shades of grey.

James VanDerZee (American, 1886-1983). Untitled [Dancing Girls], 1928. Vintage gelatin silver print; Image: 5 ½ x 9 15/16 in. (14 x 25.2 cm); Sheet: 8 11/16 x 10 in. (22.1 x 25.4 cm). Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas. Museum purchase: Peter T. Bohan Art Acquisition Fund, 2007.0036 © Donna Mussenden VanDerZee

The exhibition and catalogue add an Oklahoma City angle to the Harlem Renaissance through the use of photography of the thriving 1920s African-American community known as “Deep Second” or “Deep Deuce” located on 2nd Street between Central and Stiles. “The images here document a vibrant life during this period,” writes Deborah Willis in “Photography in Deep Second and the Influence of the Harlem Renaissance.” “They transcend the subjugated black imagery and force all Americans to re-examine history as they learned it.” Photographs such as James VanDerZee’s Dancing Girls (above) show a world too often excluded from standard American history texts. These photographic portraits are essentially self-portraits of African-Americans as a group in the 1920s, refusing to submit to the negative imagery still circulated by the dominant white culture and taking image-making matters into their own hands. James Latimer Allen specialized in “Portraits of Distinction” of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance such as Hughes and Robeson, but all of these photographs distinctly define the people shown as they wished to be shown—as proud Americans deserving all the rights and responsibilities of the title.

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979). The Creation, 1935. Oil on Masonite, 48 x 36 in (121.9 x 91.4 cm). Howard University Gallery of Art

Harlem Renaissance expresses the diversity and infinite creativity of the movement not only in words and ideas but also in images. Works such as Aaron Douglas’ The Creation (above) back up the ideas of Locke and DuBois with powerful, creative, artistic action. Ever since the PMA’s 2007 exhibition of the works of William H. Johnson, I’ve been fascinated as much by his work as by the sad process of how he’s been neglected and nearly forgotten. The Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s exhibition revives the memory of Johnson and so many others with vibrant color and even more vibrant spirit. These works cry out for acceptance not through militantism but through sheer beauty. Just as Toni Morrison and others have argued long and hard for the undeniable “blackness” embedded into American literature, this exhibition of the Harlem Renaissance argues vigorously for the undeniable presence of African-American art in the course of modern art in America. To deny that fact is to deny a large part of America itself. To accept it may be the first step along making such convenient but limited terms as “Harlem Renaissance” unnecessary.

[Many thanks to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art for providing me with a review copy of Harlem Renaissance (edited by Alison B. Amick) and for the images above from the exhibition.]

Monday, March 23, 2009


The Van Dyck and Britain exhibition currently at the Tate Britain rightfully places Anthony Van Dyck at the origin of the golden age of eighteenth century portraiture in England, the “father” of Reynolds, Gainsborough, Ramsay, and Lawrence. Born March 22, 1599, while his contemporary Diego Velázquez – aggrandized in paint Philip IV of Spain, Van Dyck depicted King Charles I of England and Scotland to his best advantage. Sensing the increasing weakness of the Catholic Church as the Protestant Reformation dragged on, European monarch seized the opportunity to employ the fine arts for propaganda much as popes had for centuries. Van Dyck’s Charles I of England at the Hunt (above, from 1635) shows the king in all his merciless glory, celebrating the murderous hunt with a sneer. Charles I subscribed to the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, that god-given right of royalty to the throne that no earthly power could deny. Charles I fought with anyone and everyone, including his own parliament. Popularity was not a priority. Van Dyck here lavishes on the king the brilliant brushwork he learned from Peter Paul Rubens, giving the mortal king an almost mythical sheen reserved for Olympic gods. Charles I, of course, believed it was his due.

During his reign it was almost as if Charles I courted controversy. He married Henrietta Maria of France, a Catholic, over the objections of parliament and the English people, who were weary of decades of religious strife tearing the nation apart. Van Dyck painting of Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria with Charles, Prince of Wales and Princess Mary (above, from 1632) stood as a big middle finger to the country. Charles I set Van Dyck up as the official court painter and provided him with a studio close enough that the royals could walk back and forth from their regular sittings. Van Dyck became absurdly rich by the standards of artists of the time and even scored a knighthood for his work. Soon the appeal of being painted by Van Dyck spread to the rest of English nobility and Van Dyck became the go-to artist for those looking to immortalize their social standing.

Making Charles I look good was literally a tall order. To create the illusion of grandeur for a king that stood less than five feet tall, as Charles I did, Van Dyck resorted to many tricks, the most notable of which was the equestrian portrait. Van Dyck’s Charles I on Horseback (above, from 1635) raises the king up while lowering the sights of the viewer. The low horizon makes us feel as if we’re standing at stirrup level, craning our neck up at a towering monarch rather than a diminutive despot. Charles I’s antics eventually led to the English Civil War and the Cromwellian Interregnum. After a series of battles, Charles I was captured and tried and literally cut down to size—headfirst. The head that Van Dyck painted over and over fell victim to regicide. After Charles II regained the throne in 1660, Charles I was canonized by the Church of England, but Van Dyck had canonized him long before.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Whale Tale

We know almost nothing about the early life of Albert Pinkham Ryder except that he was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on March 19, 1847, when the whaling industry immortalized by Herman Melville in Moby-Dick still dominated the local economy. The same dark mystery of the sea and its largest inhabitants that enthralled Melville clearly also left an impression on Ryder’s imagination. Ryder’s Jonah (above, from 1885) clearly takes the Bible story as a launching point, but adds a roiling sea and a sense of dreadful hopelessness that is all his own. Just as Melville’s novel examines the existential dread of the discovery of man’s tiny place in a vast universe, Ryder’s painting depicts the prophet as tiny and small in the grand scheme of things, literally swallowed up by forces larger than himself. Ryder stood alone on the very shoreline of modern art in America, born too early to ride the wave of modernism that would arrive with knowledge of the Impressionists just years later.

Impressionism was already in full bloom in France by the time Ryder had become a full-fledged artist. Artist-friends of Ryder, such as J. Alden Weir, were already translating Impressionism for an American audience. Ryder, however, had already formed a style unique unto himself and could not be swayed. There’s a great sense of Romanticism and narrative drama in Ryder’s art, even at its most mysterious. Like Melville and Walt Whitman, Ryder found inspiration in European opera. The Flying Dutchman (above, from 1887) takes its subject matter from Richard Wagner’s opera of the same name. In today’s post-classical music America, it’s hard to conceive the powerful hold that opera, especially Wagner’s all-consuming works, had on the American imagination. Ryder marries his New Bedford roots with the Old Europe mythology in The Flying Dutchman to create another seascape of human frustration. Just as Wagner seemed to heap up musical motifs one upon another to generate a wall of sound full of meaning, Ryder layered paint upon paint to arrive at the effects he pictured in his mind. (Unfortunately, many of Ryder’s paintings now suffer the consequences of this piling on as the subcutaneous paint often failed to dry properly, thus leaving many of Ryder’s works horrible cracked messes that gravity itself literally pulls off of the canvas.)

One of Ryder’s closest friends and the executor of Ryder’s estate after his death was Charles Melville Dewey. Whether Dewey was related to Herman Melville, I do not know and can’t seem to find out. Contemporary accounts of Dewey don’t mention his famous possible relation because the Herman Melville we know today doesn’t become famous until the 1920s, when he’s rediscovered decades after his death. Similarly, a generation of artists right after the turn of the century “rediscovered” Ryder during their search for home-grown modernists to stand up against the invasion of European modernism at the 1913 Armory Show. Although in decline, Ryder lived long enough to enjoy this honor. In works such as Moonlight (above, from 1887), Ryder continues to haunt American art history as a strange branch in the family tree, which eventually bore fruit in influencing artists as diverse as Marsden Hartley and Jackson Pollock. In his paintings of lonely souls borne upon dark and troubled seas, Ryder threw a lifeline to contemporaries seeking their own paths and continues to buoy experimentalists even today.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Flea Flicker

One of the true stars of the Getty Museum’s exhibition Captured Emotions: Baroque Painting in Bologna, 1575-1725 (my review of the catalogue here) was the artist who comes almost at the end of that movement—Giuseppe Maria Crespi. Born March 16, 1665, Crespi earned the nickname "Lo Spagnolo" or “The Spanish One” for his penchant for wearing the tight Spanish-style clothing of the time despite living in Italy. This eclectic edge of Crespi’s extended to his magpie borrowings from other artists such as Caravaggio. Like the rest of the Bolognese School begun by Ludovico Carracci and his cousins Annibale and Agostino Carracci decades before, Crespi envied the powerful chiaroscuro of Caravaggio and emulated it in works such as The Ecstasy of St. Margaret of Cortona (above, from 1701). Out of the inky blackness the faces of Margaret and Jesus leap out as if surfacing from a great depth of water. Following the tenets of the Carraccis and distancing himself from Caravaggio’s relentless realism, Crespi plays up the emotional impact of the scene at the expense of realism, thus escaping the label of Carravaggisti slapped on so many other artists of the time.

Ironically, from that rejection of realism, Crespi soon moved on to a new emphasis on realism. Continuing to work in dark tones, Crespi entered the bedroom of an unsuspecting young woman in The Flea (above, from 1709). We catch the young lady desperately pursuing an aggravating flea feasting upon her flesh. The bedbugs certainly do bite in the squalor of her surroundings, which Crespi paints faithfully. Crespi knew the work of Rembrandt and even made etchings after some of Rembrandt’s paintings, so the connection between Rembrandt’s homely genre scenes of women in the home and Crespi’s is clear. What is especially remarkable about Crespi is his ability to depict such a scene without descending into caricature or mockery. Anyone who’s suffered a bug bite can identify with the woman’s plight, which provides an entrance through which further empathy allows one to explore the poverty of her situation. Crespi paints genre scenes that moralize without being moralistic.

In 1712, Crespi painted a series of paintings realistically depicting how the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church were performed. (All seven sacramental paintings can be seen here.) In Confession (above, from 1712), a priest hears the confession of a penitent kneeling to his right as another penitent waits on his left. Above the priests head is a mounted piece of paper half hidden in shadow that lists the sins that the priest was not allowed to absolve but had to refer the penitent to a cardinal or even the pope, depending on the severity. In the Seven Sacraments, Crespi unites religious painting with genre painting and elevates the life of the simple believer practicing his or her faith to the level of a saint in the throes of spiritual ecstasy. There’s a great warmth and humanity to these paintings of the sacrament that gives us a glimpse at the human side of religious life rarely seen and even contemplated when thinking of the great monuments and art of the Renaissance that have passed down to us. Crespi’s vast humanism, his willingness to embrace other cultures and styles and make them his own, allowed him to create images of great feeling that even Rembrandt would be proud of.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Horse Sense

There are many tales of painter fathers influencing their painter sons, but not as many of painter fathers influencing painter daughters. Oscar-Raymond Bonheur, a journeyman painter but a fierce socialist, truly believed in the equality of the sexes and made sure that his daughter, Rosa Bonheur, had every opportunity than a son would have. Born March 16, 1822, Rosa praised her father’s progressive thinking. “To his doctrines I owe my great and glorious ambition for the sex to which I proudly belong and whose independence I shall defend until my dying day,” she wrote. Rosa Bonheur rose to fame primarily on the acclaim of one painting—The Horse Fair (above, from 1853-1855). Almost overnight she became not only a highly decorated artist but was also recognized (and perhaps pigeonholed) as the preeminent artist of animals in the nineteenth century. When other female artists struggled to find a place in the male-dominated world of art, Bonheur battled her way into the “boy’s club” and blazed a path for succeeding generations of female artists.

There’s a lot of George Sand in Rosa Bonheur. Like the great French novelist, Bonheur wore men’s clothing, cut her hair short, and even smoked cigars and cigarettes in public when such things were considered shameful. “But the suit I wear is my work attire, and nothing else,” Bonheur protested. “I was forced to recognize that the clothing of my sex was a constant bother. That is why I decided to solicit the authorization to wear men's clothing from the prefect of police.” Granted official dispensation, Bonheur cut an unusual figure in Paris social circles. The fierce independence her father instilled in her from the beginning continued to be her most powerful weapon. When the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870, the almost fifty-year-old Bonheur wanted to enlist to defend the country she loved. Bonheur is known for her horses primarily, and they do have their own wild energy, but I’ve always loved more Bonheur’s lions, such as Crouching Lion (above, from 1872). Painted around the same time as the Franco-Prussian War, Crouching Lion may be a Bonheur “self-portrait” of herself sitting on the sidelines, wishing that age and gender would allow her to get a piece of the action.

Bonheur’s dress and attitude unfortunately lead to a very modern question: was she a lesbian? Bonheur never married and lived with female friends for most of her life. Such evidence fuels speculation, but we just don’t know. Same-sex relationships in the nineteenth century just don’t fit neatly into our modern categories. Nevertheless, lesbian artists have embraced Bonheur as one of their own. Bonheur’s final companion was an American artist named Anna Klumpke. Anna and Rosa met while Rosa was in the midst of a blooming fascination with the American Wild West. In 1889, Bonheur saw Buffalo Bill Cody perform. She painted an equestrian portrait of Buffalo Bill that same year (above). Buffalo Bill represented a whole mythos of rugged individualism and brave new frontierism that clearly appealed to Bonheur, who lived an entire life as an individual living on the edge. Nearly half a century after The Horse Fair, Bonheur still used the horse as a symbol of the unbridled energy of the individual looking for a way to be free.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


It has been brought to my attention that Google has flagged the French art blog Femme Femme Femme (aka, Printwomen) as containing “inappropriate” content, namely works of art that celebrate the nude female form. If you can read French, you can learn more about it here. You can still access the site, but you are first asked to click on a waiver, which is the equivalent of the Scarlet Letter in the blogging world. This is a truly chilling development. There is nothing pornographic or prurient in the content of Femme Femme Femme’s blog. If Google decides that any art-related blog that carries art depicting the nude human form is for mature audiences only, that sends a horrible, life-defying, culture-eroding, body-shaming message to youth. I certainly present nude images here, although not as many as Femme Femme Femme. What percentage constitutes my blog receiving a similar disclaimer? I accuse (j'accuse!) Google of caving to the pressure of a few small-minded complainers at the expense of the free exchange of knowledge. There’s plenty of misogynist pornography on the internet for Google to police without bringing down the hammer on depictions that celebrate the beauty of women without and within. Please take a moment to visit Femme Femme Femme and show your support.

[Many thanks to Kim Senior for bringing this to my attention.]

Words Fail

Since 1977, Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, four hundred stainless-steel poles arranged in a one mile by one kilometer grid in a remote section of New Mexico, has served as the mysteriously elusive Moby-Dick of modern American art. De Maria limits access to the site itself, requiring visitors to stay overnight and forgo all means of communication with the outside world during their time there. De Maria also fiercely fights against the proliferation of images of The Lightning Field and has refused to offer interpretations of his work. Into that void steps Kenneth Baker, whose book, titled simply The Lightning Field (above), breaks the silence surrounding De Maria installation but also reinforces De Maria’s idea that words and interpretations always fall short of reproducing the physical experiencing of the work itself. Words fail over and over for Baker, who is still forced to use them despite realizing their ineffectuality. The Lightning Field “silences the incessant prattle of consciousness,” Baker writes, but he rises from that silence to speak of the paradoxical power of De Maria’s work to inspire inner and outer explorations in those who open themselves up completely to the experience. Visiting and revisiting The Lightning Field over a span of three decades, Baker guides us through the grid while emphasizing the need for each of us to serve as our own guide.

Baker was first invited to write on The Lightning Field in 1977, but De Maria rejected that essay as “too descriptive” and it remained unpublished until now. Baker’s initial reactions, indeed too descriptive for De Maria’s taste, help orient us inside the field while disorienting us enough to think we are truly “there.” “The constant message of TV and of publicity generally is that vicarious experience is real experience,” Baker writes. “But reading this essay is not having an experience of The Lightning Field, nor is writing it.” Baker beautifully conveys the inexplicable indifference of The Lightning Field to interpretation. “The Lightning Field’s spectacle is so detailed and so disinterested in its existence as ‘art’ that I know it will outstrip my ability to describe it,” Baker admits candidly, throwing in the towel in a spirit more of triumph than defeat. As Lynne Cooke writes in her preface, “Too often everything the theorist does succeeds only in becoming, for the novice, part of the educational package into which the object is subsumed.” Baker as critic admits the deadening effect of criticism, allowing the work and his sensory appreciation to live again.

The second essay by Baker collects impressions gathered from visits to The Lightning Field from 1994 through 2007. Like T.J. Clark in The Sight of Death, Clark’s compendium of repeated exposure to two paintings by Poussin (which I reviewed here), Baker allows us access to the mind of a deep thinker of art engaging imaginatively a work of art over a period of time, permitting us to witness the evolution of an idea. Unlike Clark, however, Baker refuses to take an authoritarian stance. Clark imaginatively enters Poussin’s paintings, but Baker stands outside The Lightning Field imaginatively, knowing that “entering” is always an self-deluding illusion. This difference comes across most strikingly in both authors’ approach to the events of 9/11 in relation to the art before them. Clark never overtly claims healing powers for Poussin, but it remains a subtext of the entire book. Baker comes right out and denies art and, specifically, The Lightning Field status as restorative sites. After 9/11, “many people conversant with the arts turn[ed] to them for consolation,” Baker writes, “The Lightning Field offers none. This confirms its importance.” As much as we reach out to The Lightning Field (or any art) for meaning, it will never reach back.

Baker excels in describing this alien and alienating nature of The Lightning Field. “The Lightning Field activates one’s submerged sense of the philosophical dislocations the past millennium has effected,” Baker muses. “After Copernicus, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein—and some might wish to add Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida—humanity can no longer locate itself at the center of anything.” Baker shamelessly drops names as shorthand for complex philosophical ideas like a trail of breadcrumbs as he ventures deeper and deeper into the dark forest of the implications of modernity’s solipsism, which he feels “may be the defining sensation of subjectivity in our time.” Baker forges a difficult path to follow, but he’s well worth keeping up with, sprinkling references to comedian Steven Wright and novelist William S. Burroughs, among others, to keep things interesting. “The mind of anyone who spends enough time alone at The Lightning Field may drift to similar extremes,” Baker warns, “all the way to wondering how we ever made a world of what we experience.” Baker’s meandering, like that of a digital age Thoreau, brings us to the very origin of knowledge, a call for all sleepers to awake and question what and how we know.

“[B]y its very openness—indeed, vulnerability—to interpretation, the work raises the ultimate critical quandary: What can be shared?” Baker asks in the end. The solution he offers is to embrace the ambiguity. “Only when we claim ambiguity as our element, and let ourselves be openly delighted, fascinated, or beleaguered by it,” he believes, “can we accept our position: in the middle of nowhere, in the cosmological and philosophical senses.” Thus, Baker puts a positive spin on a modern version of Keats’ "Negative Capability," free of all Romantic baggage. Like The Lightning Field itself, Kenneth Baker’s The Lightning Field is a mind-altering experience, opening up a cosmos of possibility that is both invigorating and terrifying simultaneously. For all his talk of disorientation and decentering, Baker in The Lightning Field places you firmly at the center of the big questions of art and interpretation.

[Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy of Kenneth Baker’s The Lightning Field.]

[NOTE: In the spirit of De Maria and this book, which contains only one photo of The Lightning Field, I’ve resisted the temptation to include images of the work with my review. You can find them on the web, if so inclined. If you want to follow in Baker’s footsteps and see the real thing, however, you can find the details here.]

Monday, March 16, 2009

Half in Love With Death

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

—From Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

Of all the Symbolist painters, Ferdinand Hodler may be the most subtle, and the most fascinating. Born March 14, 1853, Hodler’s Symbolism troubles us in how long it lingers in the world of reality, which makes his elements of unreality that much more memorable. In Night (above, from 1889-1890), Hodler paints himself awakened by a ominous dark figure that is night or death personified. The other men asleep around the central figure are self-portraits as well, two of whom are entangled with the nude bodies of the two women Hodler was romantically entangled with at the time. Hodler lays his whole life literally bare here, especially his complicated love life, while mixing in his personal fascination with death. Love and sex represent life as the counterpoint to death itself. Perhaps Hodler felt that it was this ultimate deadline that made the desire for human contact all the more urgent. Sadly, the realism of Hodler’s nudes in this unreal scene led the city of Geneva to ban the painting as obscene. Hodler later exhibited Night in Paris, where Puvis de Chavannes and Rodin admired and recognized a kindred spirit in Hodler. Night helped launch Hodler as a new and very different kind of artist.

Although born in Switzerland, Hodler’s greatest success most often came overseas, first in Paris and later in Austria and Germany. Jena University commissioned Hodler to paint a large wall painting to commemorate the memory of Jena students volunteering to fight against Napoleon in 1813. Students of Jena Marching to War (above, from 1908-1909) shows young men going off to war with no romanticizing. They accept the need to die in order that their land would be free of oppression. Like many other Symbolist works, Students of Jena Marching to War helped create the Aryan ideal that the Nazis would later co-opt in their rise to power. Oddly, Hodler himself was a pacifist, and even denounced in 1914 the atrocities committed by the German armies in World War I. Unfortunately, the implications of this work, as well as other works by Hodler celebrating the rugged individual, grew out of his control as others read new meanings to suit their purposes, especially after Hodler’s death in 1918. Students of Jena eventually came to symbolize for many the fight against tyranny, including Nazi tyranny, and was removed by the Nazis during World War II. It languished in storage, thought by many to have been lost forever, until it was restored in 1960.

Many of the ideals and ideas of Hodler’s Symbolism remain attractive today. A work such as View into Infinity (above, from 1916) celebrates the vital energy of womanhood and how the female life force could be a means through which humanity could regain a sense of harmony with nature. A woman’s role in the cycle of birth and death literally makes her a living symbol of infinity. Unfortunately, it takes just a few twisted leaps of thought to jump from Hodler’s hopefulness, however linked with death, to the death-centric culture of a “Master Race.” Hodler may have even seen such a distortion coming when he shifted the emphasis of his work from Symbolism to Expressionist-style landscapes. Perhaps giving up on humanity ever reuniting with nature, Hodler in the end paints nature without any trace of humanity, but the taint of human angst still mars the landscape. Plagued by illness and financial troubles, Hodler entertained thoughts of suicide near the end of his life, still “half in love with death” to the end, but “night” finally closed in on him before he consummated the act himself.