Thursday, April 30, 2009

Signs of the Times

If you remember my review from last April of Clifford Meth’s short story collection One Small Voice and, hopefully, picked up the book for yourself, you’ll be happy to know that Cliff’s newest collection, Billboards (cover above by Dave Gutierrez), will be coming out soon. Watch this space for my review of the latest Meth-making coming soon. You can preorder your copy of Billboards here.

(P.S.— While we’re talking all things Meth, check out his blog for all the latest news and for a chance to help out with the Dave and Paty Cockrum Annual Scholarship presented annually at the Joe Kubert School for Comic Art & Graphic Design.)

Good Connections

There are those who are called to greatness and those who are called to stand next to greatness. Although a fine painter in his own right, Emile Bernard is best known for befriending bigger stars such as Van Gogh and Gauguin in their heyday and Cézanne in his twilight years. Born April 28, 1868, Bernard painted Self-Portrait with Portrait of Paul Gauguin (above, from 1888) in the midst of their close friendship and professional association, both of which would later fall apart under unhappy circumstances. In 1888, Van Gogh and Gauguin lived briefly together in a tempestuous artists’ colony that concluded with Van Gogh’s infamous ear-cutting incident. Bernard often added another side to that relationship, forming a triangle in which Bernard would incorporate different elements of Van Gogh and Gauguin’s work into his own. His admiration for Gauguin mirrored that of Van Gogh’s, perhaps setting Gauguin up on a pedestal that he never asked for and longed to come down from. That Bernard painted this self-portrait and portrait combination in Gauguin’s own style makes the work both a fitting tribute and almost a scary stalker’s love letter.

Bernard painted a different kind of “love letter” for Van Gogh—his Brothel Scene (above, 1888), which he dedicated to Van Gogh in the corner. Clearly, Bernard and Van Gogh shared an intimate relationship in which they both freely walked on the wild side. Van Gogh loved to talk shop with Bernard, filling his letters to Bernard with references to Goya, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and other greats. “It is possible that these great geniuses are only madmen, and that one must be mad oneself to have boundless faith in them and a boundless admiration for them,” Van Gogh confesses to Bernard with eerie foreshadowing. “If this is true, I should prefer my insanity to the sanity of the others.” The insights shared between Van Gogh and Bernard in their letters rank second only to those shared between Vincent and his brother Theo in letters by Van Gogh that survive. Bernard deserves a lot of credit for recognizing the value of Van Gogh’s work when others shied away from both his style and his personality.

Unfortunately, the Arles circle eventually broke up, first between Van Gogh and Gauguin and later between Gauguin and Bernard. Bernard continued to paint in a “Gauguin-like” style with “Gauguin-like” content in works such as Breton Women at Prayer (above, from 1892), but Bernard began to challenge Gauguin as to how much Gauguin had taken from him. Bernard claimed that the cloisonnism technique of clearly outlining the contours within a painting was his and not Gauguin’s idea initially. By this time, Bernard had also been talking closely with Cezanne. Unfortunately for Bernard, the threat of being drafted into the French military forced him to flee to Egypt, where he remained for the next ten years. Separated from the maelstrom of French art at the beginning of the twentieth century, Bernard has also been erased from many histories of that period. In many ways, Bernard is the Vasari of Post-Impressionism—an artist brilliant enough to recognize genius in others but not brilliant enough to create art on the same level. Bernard’s good connections, however, will always keep his name linked with that of Van Gogh and Gauguin and that brief shining moment in 1888.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Drawing Inspiration

Like any good Romantic artist, Eugene Delacroix drew his inspiration from many sources of his time, including classic Romantic (or Romantically interpreted) literature. Born April 26, 1789, Delacroix did seventeen illustrations for Albert Stapfer’s 1828 French translation of Goethe’s Faust. Delacroix’s Mephistopheles in Flight (above, from 1828) shows the devil flying through the night sky above the sleeping city. “I like to see the Old Man now and then,” Mephistopheles says, referring to God, with whom he has just met, “and take good care to keep on speaking terms.” Delacroix was on more than just “speaking terms” with the familiar tropes of the Romantic movement, including the seductively attractive Mephistopheles of Goethe’s masterpiece as well as the doomed doctor of the title. The sense of great movement in Mephistopheles’ flight and the loving attention paid to his wings make you almost overlook the wonderful sense of depth Delacroix achieves in his depiction of the city upon which the sun is about to rise. This is the first of the seventeen images Delacroix created for the story and grabs you immediately with it’s otherworldly charm.

For the Romantics, regardless of nationality, William Shakespeare became an honorary member of their circle. Keats never traveled anywhere without a picture of Shakespeare to hang above his desk. The early nineteenth century saw a renaissance of Shakespearean acting and performance. On a trip to London in 1825, Delacroix saw the great Edmund Kean play the lead in Richard III. In 1827 in Paris, Delacroix watched Charles Kemble play the lead in Hamlet, with Harriet Smithson in the role of Ophelia. Hector Berlioz attended that same performance and was so taken with Smithson as Ophelia that he began obsessively wooing her over the course of several years, even writing his Symphonie Fantastique for her, which helped him win her hand in 1833. Smithson and Ophelia lingered in Delacroix’s mind as far as 1843, when he published a series of thirteen lithographs based on Hamlet, including The Death of Ophelia (above). The same naked eroticism of Smithson’s performance that attracted Berlioz finds its way into Delacroix’s print. Delacroix twice painted the theme of Ophelia’s death, showing that he never felt he could satisfyingly depict the pathos and eros of the scene.

Delacroix’s The Abduction of Rebecca (above, from 1846), which shows a scene from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe falls right into Delacroix’s sweet spot. Scott has two Saracen slaves of the Christian knight who has lusted for Rebecca carry the beauty off on horseback. "Delacroix was passionately in love with passion,” Charles Baudelaire once wrote, “but coldly determined to express passion as clearly as possible." Despite the amazing contrasts of light and dark, motionlessness and action, color and colorlessness in this painting, Delacroix keeps it all together in a neat package full of meaning without overflowing into chaos. Ingres set himself up as the neat freak Neoclassical foil to his contemporary Delacroix’s “messy” Romanticism, but there’s nothing messy about Delacroix ability to convey meaning. If anything, Delacroix takes the raw material of Scott’s story and amplifies the drama without crashing into cacophony. Delacroix the reader and Delacroix the playgoer helped make Delacroix the painter the great artist we know today.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Erich Heckel (1883-1970). Landscape in Dresden (Landschaft bei Dresden), 1910. Oil in canvas, 66.5 x 78.5 cm (26 1/8 x 30 7/8 in.). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie

“What is great in man is this: that he is a bridge and not an end,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1885. Two decades later, on June 7th, 1905, four young architecture students in Dresden, Germany, may have had those words in mind when they founded the artists group known as Die Brucke, or “The Bridge.” Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel, and Fritz Bleyl thus began an artistic movement that would stage more than seventy exhibitions before their disbanding in 1913, with twenty-seven happening in 1907 alone. “By joining together into a small, cohesive community with common goals, the Brucke artists hoped to stand up to [the] putatively fragmenting, debilitating effects of modern urban life,” writes Reinhold Heller in his essay “Brucke in Dresden and Berlin, 1905-1913” in Brucke: The Birth of Expressionism in Dresden and Berlin, 1905-1913, the catalogue to the current exhibition at the Neue Galerie in New York City. This exhibition, the first major exhibition of the Brucke in the United States, resituates these artists at the very beginning of the modern, international art world as they reached beyond Germany’s borders and invited the likes of Norwegian Edvard Munch (unsuccessfully) to join their band. “By reaching out, whether successfully or not, to such revolutionary painters,” Heller continues, “the Brucke established a network of communication with Europe’s most progressive artists and art institutions.” Dresden, known as “Florence on the Elbe” and famous for its many bridges (one of which is captured in Erich Heckel’s Landscape in Dresden, above, from 1910), thus became the starting point for the bridge-building across borders and between individual artists that the modern art world has become today.

Erich Heckel (1883-1970). Studio Scene (Atelierszene), 1910-11. Oil on canvas, 70 x 48 cm (27 1/2 x 18 7/8 in.). Nachlass Erich Heckel, Gaienhofen.

In addition to their unsuccessful wooing of Munch, the Brucke successfully brought other artists, such as Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein into their fold. Staging group exhibitions and developing a signature style for their promotional material, the Brucke artists created a template for later artistic groups to follow. In all things, however, the Brucke set out to stand apart from the flow of contemporary, mainstream German life. They embraced “primitive” Indian, Oceanic, and African art, following in the footsteps of heroes such as Van Gogh and Gauguin and their search for primal forces untainted by modernity’s touch. This primitive approach, especially to the human figure, appears throughout their work, including Heckel’s Studio Scene (above), which also accurately depicts the everyday existence of the Brucke. For the Brucke artists, work and life were inseparable and models became friends and, sometimes, lovers. The artists even provided a “ruheraum” or “room of rest” for the models away from the labor of modeling. The German government’s crackdown on erotic images made the nude images of the Brucke artists all the more daring and avant-garde. In a musty old world suddenly thrown into an industrial age, the Brucke artists painted themselves as outlaws belonging to neither, but rather inhabitants of their own bohemian sphere of equality, fraternity, and, above all, beauty.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). Marzella (Fränzi), 1909-10. Oil on canvas, 76 x 60 cm (29 7/8 x 23 5/8 in.). Moderna Museet, Stockholm.
In the midst of this cultural separation, however, the Brucke longed to reconnect with what they saw as the essence of German art. Surrounded by the medieval art treasures of Dresden, the Brucke artists embraced forefathers such as Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald, and Lucas Cranach the Elder. Kirchner fashions himself as a modern Durer, who becomes “the German cultural hero” for the entire group, according to Christian Weikop in his essay, “Brucke and Canonical Association.” Nolde champions Grunewald as embodying “Nolde’s anti-academic, anti-Renaissance position,” Weikop writes. When Kirchner paints nude figures such as his Marzella (above, from 1909-1910), he channels Cranach’s approach to the nude. Kirchner elsewhere goes so far as to quote directly some of Cranach’s nudes, building a bridge across the centuries using the female form as building material. “Dresden offered much inspiration,” Weikop writes. “Here… Brucke found its first art historical corroboration in Cranach, [Sebald] Beham, and other German masters of the Middle Ages.” The Brucke even resurrected the quintessentially German medium of the woodcut as a way of recalling the past to get back to the future of art. When the Nazis debated on how to judge the Brucke in the days of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition, Joseph Goebbels and others argued for the Germanness of the Brucke, but Hitler ultimately overruled them.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). Berlin Street Scene (Berliner Strassenszene), 1913-14. Oil on canvas, 121 cm x 95 cm (47 5/8 x 37 3/8 in.). Neue Galerie New York and Private Collection, New York.

Despite this German self-identification, the Brucke continually looked beyond national borders. Jill Lloyd’s “Brucke: National Identity and International Style” examines the tension between these nationalist and internationalist impulses. Dresden exhibitions of Van Gogh’s work in 1905 and Munch’s work in 1906 bring the cutting edge of art right to the Brucke’s doorstep. (The Neue Galerie’s Van Gogh and Expressionism exhibition in 2007 [my review here] covered that link extensively.) Lloyd sees the Brucke’s taking in of these influences not as “slavish dependence” but rather as “transformation[s].” Comparing the Brucke with their contemporaries, the Fauves, Lloyd writes, “Whereas the French artists worked within an established national tradition, the Germans pursued a self-conscious internationalism that went beyond the formulation of a new expressive style.” Criticism of the Brucke for not being “German” enough drove them in 1911 from Dresden to the more international city of Berlin. Berlin was the hub of the international art market at the time and provided easier access to the rest of the art world. In Berlin, Lloyd writes, the Brucke could “build more consciously on the elements of ‘Germanic’ or ‘Gothic’ style that had always co-existed with their modernism.” Kirchner’s Berlin Street Scene (above, from 1913-1914) shows how he adapted to his new, more cosmopolitan surroundings.

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976). Corner of a Park (Parkecke), 1910. Oil on canvas, 83.5 x 75.5 cm (32 7/8 x 29 3/4 in.). Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich.

By 1911, however, the Brucke artists were beginning to grow apart. When Kirchner writes his chronicle of the movement and casts himself as the leader, Schmidt-Rottluff (whose Corner of a Park appears above, from 1910) and others take offense and finally disband in 1913. As Rose-Carol Washton Long explains in her essay, “Brucke and German Expressionism: Reception Reconsidered,” the Brucke soon drifted to the margins of art history for being not “modern” enough or not “political” enough. Only in the last twenty years, when “modernism” has been redefined as “one of the conflicting products of change in an industrial society,” Long writes, have the Brucke been rediscovered as an essential step in the progress of modern art. Brucke: The Birth of Expressionism in Dresden and Berlin, 1905-1913, the catalogue and exhibition, not only brings this neglected school to American shores for the first time, but also allows them to resurface from the depths of art history obscurity. Rather than being just a poor relation to Der Blaue Reiter, Die Brucke helped shape the international art world as we know it today in all its jet-setting internationalism. Able to embrace both their own national heritage and those of other civilizations, the Brucke artists set an example that artists continue to follow today, even if they don’t know where, how, or why it began. The Neue Galerie’s exhibition will answer all those questions, and more.

[Many thanks to the Neue Galerie for providing me with a review copy of Brucke: The Birth of Expressionism in Dresden and Berlin, 1905-1913 and for the images above from the exhibition.]

Monday, April 27, 2009

Third Time’s a Charm

Today is Alex’s third birthday. Annie and I can’t believe how big our little boy (above and below) has grown. He learns more each day and teaches us more about ourselves every day, too. Annie and I want to share every experience possible with Alex, including art. He’s been to several museums and exhibitions so far, but his favorite museum remains the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, most art museums have a please DON’T touch policy that three-year-old children cannot understand. The next time we get to the PMA, however, I’d like to take him through the collection of armor. He enjoys playing with his knights and their castle so much, I think he’d get a kick out of seeing real knights’ armor. Maybe he’ll be too spellbound to want to touch, but I doubt it.

Like all kids his age, Alex is endlessly hands on. When he painted a pumpkin for Halloween, he got as much paint on the pumpkin as he did in his hair. When he paints with his (fortunately) washable paints inside, the piece of paper ends up a dark, sopping wet collection of paint. Alex will call me or Annie to sit and paint with him sometimes and I always find myself enjoying the pure pleasure of aimlessly applying paint to paper. Picasso said that he spent his entire life trying to make art like a child would, and I understand exactly what he meant when I make art next to Alex. To us, it looks like nothing, but to him, he sees things that we only wish we could dream of.

I often wonder what Alex will think of this blog when he’s old enough to read it. By the time he’s old enough to appreciate this blog, the idea of blogging might seem Paleolithic compared to whatever new waves of media wash up in the meantime. I like to think of this blog as my mind cracked open and spilled out on a daily basis, with just enough structure to make it coherent. When Alex finally decides to slough through the spillage, I hope he recognizes some of the parts of myself that I try to share with him every day in person. Maybe he’ll even recognize some of those parts mirrored in himself—but only the good parts, I hope.

I started this blog as an educational tool for myself—to learn as much about art as about myself. Alex was just a baby when I started. Having that little wonder in my life made me want to push myself beyond the limits of what I was and find out just how far I could go. Every great artist needs to find some inspiration to continue on. Annie and Alex inspire me to live not only for today but for tomorrow as well.

Happy Birthday, Alex!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Ladies Man

Of all the Abstract Expressionists, Willem de Kooning was always considered the most handsome, the most stylish, and the most debonair. (Val Kilmer played him in the movie Pollock.) Born April 24, 1904, came to America from his native Netherlands as a stowaway. Using his personal charm and growing artistic talent, he developed contacts throughout the New York City art world, the most important of which, at least early on, was Arshile Gorky. de Kooning painted in a very Gorky-esque style, full of the biomorphic figures Gorky is now famous for, into the early 1940s. By the 1950s, however, de Kooning had developed his own gesture-heavy style—a wild calligraphy of color. Some of the greatest examples of this style belong to the Woman series de Kooning painted in the early 1950s, beginning with Woman I (above, from 1950). de Kooning clearly has no desire to depict a woman realistically. In fact, he does everything possible to paint the figure unrealistically. Many people read misogyny into these paintings, extrapolating from de Kooning’s difficult relationship with his wife, Elaine de Kooning, and that’s certainly a possibility. But de Kooning also may be challenging the idea of portraiture and the figure itself, saying that we cannot get at the essence of humanity by painting the surface alone. Woman I, and her sisters, get at the heart of darkness within all men and women beating beneath our civilized exteriors.

In Woman II (above, from 1951), de Kooning almost seems to take a step back from the edge he approaches in Woman I. Although the heavy gestural style remains in effect, there’s a greater softness in Woman II in comparison to Woman I. Woman I’s big eyes and bared teeth seem almost animalistic. In contrast, Woman II almost seems to be smiling. It’s as if there’s a copy of the Mona Lisa buried beneath the broad brushwork. Dating the individual paintings in the Woman series is difficult because de Kooning moved back and forth from one to another over the course of several years. It’s possible that each of these versions represents a different mood (violent, tender, etc.) and that de Kooning would work on whichever version suited his present mood. Looking at them together, you get a sense of an almost fugue state in how de Kooning saw women, or perhaps just the specific women in his life.

Of the first three in the series, Woman III (above, from 1953) appears to be the most ready for action. She stands, whereas the first two in the series appear to be sitting. A smile seems to play upon her face. The big eyes of the first painting return, but with a less accusing look in them. de Kooning accentuates the breasts of this version even more, perhaps suggesting a sexual availability or aggressiveness not found in the first two. By a strange twist of fate, this version was belonged to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art for many years. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, however, the new regime refused to allow such a sexually charged painting to be displayed. Fortunately, it was sold out of Iran in 1994 and eventually resold in 2006 for $137.5 million USD, making it at the time the second most expensive painting ever sold. Despite the abstract expressionist style, it was clear to any observer that Woman III is all about sex, something even more permissive societies, let alone a fundamentalist religious state such as that in Iran, would want to keep under wraps. de Kooning’s women continue to amuse, frighten, entice, and offend to varying degrees, displaying the same versatility that their creator demonstrated throughout his long, distinguished career.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Winds of Change

“Timeless” always seems like a dirty word that removes the flesh from great artists and renders them almost inhuman. Abstract artists have long pointed back to J.M.W. Turner’s late work as a precursor of their own. Born April 23, 1775, Turner’s vivid skies may seem abstract, but they were based in factual observance of atmospheric effects. The weirdly yellow sky of Turner’s Chichester Canal (above, from 1828) may seem like a case of artistic license until you know about the 1816 "Year Without a Summer," when the eruption of Mount Tambora and several other volcanoes spewed enough volcanic ash into the atmosphere to block sunlight and lower temperatures worldwide. Even 12 years later, the effects of “The Year Without a Summer” could be seen. Sunsets must have been spectacular, so the next time you accuse Turner or any other artist of playing loose with the facts, make sure you know the facts. (A similar phenomenon is found in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which features a blood red sky that seems impossible but actually does appear that way at times in Munch’s native Norway.)

Turner paid attention not only to events in nature but also events in human nature. The British abolitionist movement, led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, won a major battle in 1807 with the Slave Trade Act that abolished trading slaves in the British Empire itself but not owning slaves. Not until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was slavery itself outlawed, so when Turner paints The Slave Ship (above) in 1840, slavery is still an issue weighing heavily on the minds of British and world citizens. Turner paints the moment at which the slave traders throw the dead or dying slaves overboard to be eaten by the sharks so that they can collect the insurance. A sea monster peeks out from the depths in the foreground of the picture to add a touch of unreality to this too tragically real event. The sky about the ship is red, perhaps still from the aftereffects of the worldwide volcanic winter of 1816, but more likely as a visual representation of the bloody acts presented. Turner most likely does take artistic license in that instance, but only to amplify the facts central to the painting.

By 1844, the effects of The Industrial Revolution were being felt throughout England fully. The bucolic world of Turner’s youth now found itself scarred by railway lines connecting cities and towns in a way unimaginable decades before. The speed of these trains, slow by today’s standards but breathtaking for Turner and his contemporaries, made their world seem a great deal smaller and stranger. Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway (above, from 1844) captures the feeling of one of these trains intruding on the natural order Turner had observed and painted his whole life. John Ruskin, Turner’s greatest critical champion, rejected late works such as Rain, Steam, and Speed mostly for their abstract qualities but also for how they marked the changing of the guard from the golden age of Romanticism to the modern age of technology. Victorians such as Ruskin would later feel the full brunt of that change. Perhaps there is some “timeless” aspect to Turner in his use of color and brushwork, but the subject of those uses remains a tightly focuses vision of the world around him that was alive and ever-changing.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In Living Color

There’s a great moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door to the black-and-white Kansas farmhouse after the twister sets it down and finds a whole Technicolor Land of Oz outside. I can only imagine how breathtaking the color was to audiences in 1939, but I know that I paid great attention when I first saw it as a kid. A similar phenomenon happened in the career of Odilon Redon. Born April 22, 1840, Redon excelled as a draftsman. His father pressured him to become an architect, but Redon longed to draw the fantasies dancing in his head. A fan of Edgar Allen Poe and other authors of the bizarre, Redon drew mind-boggling works such as Eye-Balloon (above, from 1878) almost exclusively in black and white. It was as if the images themselves were so powerful that he couldn’t comprehend them in living color at the same time. Like many hard-to-fathom visionaries, Redon languished in relative obscurity until 1884, when Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel À rebours (Against Nature) featured an aristocrat who collected Redon's drawings. Huysmans descriptions of Redon’s art created an instant demand among connoisseurs of the avant garde. But just as Redon hit the big time in black and white, he decided to branch out into living color.

From the 1890s on, Redon painted some of the most eye-popping pastels and oils of any artist working at the time. Henri Matisse and the Fauves would look to Redon’s use of color as a model for their own art. Redon’s Saint John (above, from 1892) shows just how Redon could achieve breathtakingly saturated blues. Matisse claimed that he found in skies and waters of the south of France the blue he’d been looking for all his life, but Redon’s blues must have come a close second. As amazing as the blue of Saint John appears in reproduction, I’m sure it’s even more powerful in person. I recall seeing some pastels by Redon at the Musee d’Orsay and mentally comparing them to those by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec nearby. Although they were all near contemporaries, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec are much more into gesture than Redon, who builds up his images with a great deal of density. Next to Degas, Redon seems almost ponderous. Degas colors actually seem to move and vibrate, whereas Redon’s colors seem impossibly still, almost as contemplative as Saint John appears to be here.

Whether in black and white or color, Redon’s strange imagery never seems sinister the way that Alfred Kubin’s or Leon Spillaert’s does. Maybe that is because Redon worked mostly before Freud gave form to much of the mental angst at the beginning the twentieth century. After Freud, Kubin and Spillaert could give free reign to their deepest demons. Redon never really gets that dark, even in his early black and white work. When you look at Redon’s Flower Clouds (above, from 1903) you get a warm and fuzzy feeling, something certainly Kubin never gives you. Redon finds himself lumped in with the Symbolists for lack of a better label, but he’s really beyond category. To me, Redon always is about possibility. You see people standing and actually believe you can see them thinking, as with Saint John. With Flower Clouds and other ship-related paintings, you always wish you could know the mariners’ final destination. When European modern art reached American shores in the 1913 Armory Show, Redon, not Matisse or Picasso, had the largest number of works on display. In an exhibition aiming at showing the newest possibilities in art, Redon was the perfect choice.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Mad Munch

When most people hear the name Edvard Munch, the immediately see The Scream in the mind’s eye, as if it were Munch’s own face crying out in front of a blood-red sky. All biography of Munch seems to be psychobiography. Comparing Munch’s reception with that of Claude Monet, Jay A. Clarke in his Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth writes, “Munch’s typecasting as an unbalanced genius has encouraged historians to consider his work as emotional biography, whereas that of the more ‘stable’ Monet has been viewed formally, as so many layers of paint.” In his book accompanying the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition of the same name, Clarke not only recovers the lost history of how Munch became Munch, but also shows the role that Munch himself played in creating that persona. Munch “was perpetually considering his legacy and, wanting to be perceived as a true original, did his best to expunge suggestions that he might have had artistic models of his own,” Clarke argues. “Munch anxiety of influence reaches at once back in time and into the future, on him as the center and from him to the margins, manifesting itself in ways political, psychological, social, and most of all visual.” Munch’s highly Impressionistic Rue Lafaette (above, from 1891), a direct quotation of a work by Gustave Caillebotte’s A Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann, is just one of the many traces Munch and complicit critics covered over in his personal mythmaking that Clarke uncovers to recover a fuller picture of the complete artist who was Edvard Munch.

Munch seems to transcend category because he belonged, however fleetingly, to so many of them: Impressionism, Naturalism, Romanticism, Symbolism, Expressionism, etc. Throwing all of these influences into his melting pot, Munch cooked up his special blend of personal vision. Munch “recast epics and existing mythic vocabularies in his own idiom,” Clarke explains, “and while these sources are not always obvious, they are a subtle visual presence.” For example, Munch’s Evening on Karl Johan Street (above, from 1892) marries the Impressionist street scene with a Norwegian subject while also adding the new Symbolist touches Munch may have seen in James Ensor’s work. In a separate section, titled “Individual Works: Tracing Influence from [Anna] Ancher to [Anders] Zorn,” Clarke encyclopedically and alphabetically lays out not only the names of artists who may have inspired Munch in some way but also the specific works that Munch might have seen and those works by Munch that may have developed from them. Familiar and obvious names such as Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cezanne stand next to less familiar Scandinavian influences such as Eilif Peterssen and Frits Thaulow. Seeing how Munch’s Madonna took shape in Munch’s mind following encounters with Franz von Stuck’s Sin and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix doesn’t diminish Munch’s accomplishment in the least. In fact, it makes it seem even more amazing as he navigated such visually cluttered waters while charting a course of his own. Unfortunately, the demands of the time were for true originality, and Munch would do anything to meet those demands.

After bumping up against influence after influence, including a nationalist Norwegian movement that longed to claim Munch among its own, Munch’s “art was neither French nor Norwegian, neither Impressionist nor Symbolist—the autonomous stance he took was calculated, defiant but very much of the moment,” Clark writes. “The ‘insane’ Munch… was a product—one introduced both by hostile and friendly critics and later packaged and presented by the artist and his early biographers in a very deliberate way.” In his Self-Portrait with Burning Cigarette (above, from 1895), Munch paints himself as he wishes his to be seen—a bohemian artist smoking like all the “cool kids” whose very image is a murky, instable thing that threatens to fall apart. As his unstable reputation grew, Munch played to that audience, giving them exactly what they wanted. Yet, Clarke argues, “while [Munch] wore his strangeness and insanity like a mantle in the wider world, he inhabited quite a different person in private.” Munch knew which works would spark controversy and which wouldn’t and carefully orchestrated exhibitions of his work to fulfill the expectations of the viewing public. Even when Munch finally sought professional help during the famous mental breakdown of 1908, he personally took care of the business side of his art. Art historians love to sever artists from all ties to the real world, but Clarke’s study restores those ties and recovers Munch the shrewd businessman and curator of his own oeuvre. Some may turn away from the idea of a great artist concerned with filthy lucre, but I personally enjoyed the way Clarke deconstructs the myth of Munch to resurrect Munch the man in control of his world despite the very real personal anguish that played a part, but not an exclusive part, in his art.

Clarke really focuses on Munch the marketer in his exploration of Munch’s printmaking. In the same year as Self-Portrait with Burning Cigarette, Munch created a print titled Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm (above, from 1895). The murkiness is gone, replaced by a deathly black void behind Munch’s disembodied head. A skeletal arm rests below the face, while Munch’s name appears above in tombstone-style script, completing the Halloween-like calling card. Munch knew that macabre sold well and ventured into printmaking to expand his product to markets different from those who could buy expensive oil paintings. “Munch carefully and strategically anticipated market trends and absorbed other artists’ technical tricks while simultaneously elaborating and expanding his own repertoire of images,” Clarke concludes. Munch used different printmaking processes, colored papers, colored inks, the different grains of wood, and even developed jigsaw-like assembled blocks to print multicolored prints all in the name of creating new, must-have images for the collector. As Clarke shows, even when Munch seems his weirdest in terms of subject matter, he always remains within some contemporary trope, such as Munch’s recasting of Rodin’s The Kiss as his print The Kiss.

As much as possible, Clarke’s Becoming Edvard Munch allows us to see the “sunny side” of Munch, in works such as Munch’s The Sun (above, from 1911-1916), part of his Oslo University Aula decorations. Munch intended for his work to show the whole gamut of human experience, from birth to death with all the love and angst between. Munch’s mythmaking has effectively erased much of the more hopeful side of his work, leaving us with only half of the total picture, and the dark half at that. The Sun represents just one of many late scenes of regeneration, specifically the idea of heliotherapy en vogue at the time. After “taking the cure” at a spa, Munch grew fascinated by the idea of regeneration and recreation of the self by different means. In Becoming Edvard Munch, Clarke cures the diseased popular caricature of the “mad” Munch and recreates the living artist as a thinking visionary always in control of his art regardless of the madness marketed in the art itself.

[Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy of Jay A. Clarke’s Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth.]

Monday, April 20, 2009


What Amedeo Modigliani is to necks, Fernando Botero is to bodies. Born April 19, 1932, Botero inflates his figures with the same freedom with which Modigliani elongated esophagi. Modigliani drew his inspiration from African tribal art, but Botero took his inspiration from the Baroque style of the Catholic churches of his native Columbia. The religious fervor of almost Medieval Catholicism still active in twentieth century South America not only preserved a macabre, bizarre style but also fostered in Botero a love of manipulating the human body for ends both serious and humorous. Botero’s The Musicians (above, from 1991) shows how he puffs up his people almost into cartoon characters. By inflating them this way, Botero deflates any sense of self-importance in the figure. He pokes fun at authority with every balloon-like visage. Critics try to burst Botero’s balloon with accusations that he’s not a “serious” artist, in every sense of the word. Such critics, however, willfully ignore Botero’s great range of comedy to tragedy that mirrors the double-sided coin of Columbia itself with its long, colorful history and sad, violent, drug-dealing present.

Perhaps art critics and historians take aim at Botero because he takes aim at them first, specifically by poking fun at great artists of the past. Botero’s blown up Mona Lisa is a laugh riot, a visual embodiment of the overblown hype surrounding the original. Botero’s Mademoiselle Riviere, after Ingres (above, from 2002) is a send up of the super-serious Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, one of the most humorless artists of all time, at least to me. Ingres’ original belongs with his many other portraits of super-self-important people posing without an ounce of humility or restraint. Ingres painted Napoleon on his throne, but Botero wants to knock the emperor and his image-maker off it. Of course, Botero studied all of these great artists obsessively during his youthful studies and travels in Europe. His attacks are more affectionate than iconoclastic. By showing these works of art puffed up, Botero tries to restore the humanity hidden by the hype of art history. Botero wants comrades rather than deities, and pulls them down to his level—in a good way.

Like any great comedian, Botero is also a great social commentator. When other artists shied away from the idea of painting the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, Botero made use of the notorious photographs almost immediately. His painting above (from 2003) belongs to a suite of works that document the atrocities in almost too graphic detail. Botero’s use of his signature inflated figure style helps soften the cruelty somewhat but also harks back to the bloody side of his Baroque Catholic upbringing. The victims of these abuses become bubble-faced Christs tortured on a modern cross equivalents. Botero took a great deal of heat for painting these works and actually had much difficulty finding venues in America to display them. The political climate couldn’t (and still can’t) fully come to grips with the implications of those images, especially interpreted through the penetrating eye of an artist with Botero’s sense of both dark humor and social justice. Perhaps as time passes these images will find a place in the museums and, eventually, the art history canon as the twenty-first century’s version of Goya’s Disasters of War. Whether Botero would allow himself to become part of history unremarked remains a different story.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Female Persuasion

Because of her thirty portraits of Marie Antoinette and her family painted over a span of just six years (including the 1783 portrait above), Elizabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun’s legacy is heavily linked to the fortunes of that doomed queen. Born April 16, 1755, Vigee-Lebrun ranks among the greatest women artists of the nineteenth century, and is undoubtedly the queen of the Rococo style, with Jean-Honore Fragonard as its king. She first learned painting from her father, who was a fan painter, and later met Gabriel François Doyen, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Joseph Vernet, and other prominent male French artists. However, Vigee-Lebrun made her name by painting the most fascinating women of her time, including Marie Antoinette. Even in pre-Revolutionary France, women artists enjoyed an increased degree of freedom and opportunity, yet still not equal to that offered to men. Recognizing a shift in the sexual balance, Vigee-Lebrun hitched her wagon to some of the greatest female stars of her time. She paired her soft yet abundant style to the effusive personalities of these other great women to create portraits that fully capture their personalities and place in the period.

Emma, Lady Hamilton was the “It girl” of the Neoclassical strain of Romanticism. Born Emy Lyon, “Emma” used her beauty and charm to rise through the ranks of British society. Her marriage to the elderly William, Lord Hamilton was made to save the reputation of a younger relation. Lord Hamilton looked the other way as Emma conducted a lengthy affair with Lord Nelson that led to the birth of two illegitimate children. Emma Hamilton also served as a model for artists such as George Romney, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Vigee-Lebrun. Vigée-Lebrun’s portrait of Lady Hamilton as Ariadne (above, from 1790) shows Emma caught in one of her “Attitudes,” in which she donned classical-looking dress and struck a pose. These “Attitudes” helped stoke the flames of Neoclassicism in Europe, turning even the head of Goethe and even leading to a kind of fashion craze. Even in heavy drapery, Emma Hamilton exuded sex. There’s always a hint of the erotic beneath all the finery in Rococo art, but Vigee-Lebrun’s portrait of Lady Hamilton as Ariadne gets straight to the point.

While Emma Hamilton stimulated the libido of the times, Madame de Staël stimulated the imagination. Vigee-Lebrun painted Madame de Staël as Corinne (above, from 1808) to allude to de Staël’s 1807 novel of the same name starring a young woman named Corinne. Named after the ancient Greek poet Corina, Corrine takes the Grand Tour with gusto, leaving behind her a trail of lovers, none of whom admired her for her mind as much as her beauty. Napoleon objected to the feminist perspective of de Staël’s novel so strongly that he had the author exiled from France in 1810. Like Marie Antoinette and Emma Hamiton, de Staël represents the strong woman of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. If the term feminism had been coined, they would all have been considered feminists on one level or another. Marie Antoinette may seem a strange feminist figure, but her outsider status in the court of Louis XVI and her hands-on approach to the education of her children make her more nuanced and approachable than the “Let them eat cake!” cartoon figure of legend. Vigee-Lebrun not only furthered the possibilities for herself and other women artists, but also provided examples of women persuading the world to follow a new course of gender equity.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Man of His Time

Any statement by any artist is always to some degree a document of that time and place. It’s an unavoidable truth. Either by consciously fighting against or unconsciously following along with the status quo, artists always act in response to the here and now. Many critics today look at Thomas EakinsThe Dancing Lesson (above, from 1878) and see a sympathetic rendering of three generations of African-Americans sharing the music and dance of their culture. In Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity, however, Alan C. Braddock sees something different going on. He argues that the definition of “culture” that modern critics read into The Dancing Lesson, which was originally called simply The Negroes, is one Eakins would never have known. “The art of Eakins embodies a premodern understanding of cultural difference,” Braddock argues. Eakins and the late nineteenth century would have seen African-American culture as a “lesser” kind or a preliminary step in the evolutionary ladder leading up to Western European culture, the pinnacle of civilization, at least to Western Europeans and their descendents. Eakins places in the upper left corner of The Dancing Lesson a photo of Abraham Lincoln reading with his son Tad, thus illustrating the gap between African-American tradition and white Anglo-American tradition. Only in the 1920s and 1930s did anthropologists see culture as a social construct rather than a racial one. In Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity, Braddock steps back in time and puts himself in Eakins nineteenth century shoes to better understand the American mind on the cusp of a new concept of culture.

Braddock excels in making familiar images from Eakins’ oeuvre come to fresh life with new implications. He begins by tracing Eakins’ conflict with culture back to his time training in Paris with Jean-Leon Gerome from 1866 through 1870 and his time in Spain on the suggestion of his other teacher Leon Bonnat. Yet another teacher, Hippolyte Taine, put into words the cultural theories that Eakins worked under. Taine “asserted the importance of viewing works of human creativity as the natural, objective residue of national character,” Braddock writes. In Paris during the 1867 Exposition Universelle, Eakins experienced a world of difference as representatives (and misrepresentatives) of different nations and races gathered together in what Braddock calls “a monumental spectacle of nomadic strangeness.” That world fair placed people on display for the first time, providing “living evidence of evolutionary difference,” Braddock explains, for Eakins and his contemporaries. Gerome, Eakins’ primary teacher, excelled in exotic Orientalism that never progressed beyond picturesque slumming. Eakins echoes Gerome’s view of Western civilization’s primacy throughout his career, even as late as 1885 with Swimming (above). Setting Swimming in an idyllic, but still identifiable location outside Philadelphia, Eakins both evokes the ancient Greeks and escapes from the contemporary ethnic masses then filling the city. Braddock sees this “aesthetic vision of suburban retreat to a contemporary, local Arcadia” as a precursor to the modern phenomenon of “white flight” now decimating major American cities.

As a life-long Philadelphian, I find it hard to believe that the waters of the Schuylkill River once were even more polluted in the nineteenth century, leading to a public health hazard that claimed many lives, including that of Eakins’ own sister Margaret. Yet, when Eakins painted The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) (above, from 1871), we see not the green ooze of contemporary descriptions Braddock provides but a blue oasis. Braddock bashes the familiar trope of Eakins as the ruthlessly exacting realist, showing how “none of the gritty frankness about modern environmental realities” enters the pictures. Eakins specifically plays with the facts to “sell” the “commodity” of “local color,” which for Philadelphia meant outdoor activities such as rowing. This local color makes up much of the culture of Eakins time and place, but that local color owes much to the internationalism of Eakins’ art education. “Viewing Eakins and his art simply in terms of Philadelphia ‘roots’ or American national character also misses the cosmopolitanism of ‘local color’ itself as a widely circulating commodity in which he and many contemporaries traded,” Braddock writes. Eakins painted a very ordered world in which heroic whites such as Max Schmitt rowed the “beautiful” waters of the Schuylkill while black guides led middle-class hunters through the marshes in paintings such as Pushing for Rail. “Eakins’s realism differentiated the various people and aquatic zones around Philadelphia according to a picturesque logic that embodied middle-class expectations and assumptions,” Braddock argues. Even when the harsh reality of life in Philadelphia claimed one of his family, Eakins refused to disrupt his view of the neatly ordered pyramid of cultural progression.

Eakins’ scandalous dismissal from teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886 put that ordered world into jeopardy. Following the popular trend begun by Theodore Roosevelt, Eakins looked west, and traveled to the Badlands. For Eakins and others, the American West becomes “a powerful metaphor of national renewal, progress, and civilization at a pivotal moment of modernization,” Braddock explains. Taking in the ideas behind TR’s glorification of the victory of white settlers over Native Americans as well as the racial subtext of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Eakins idolized the American cowboy as the epitome of American cultural superiority overcoming their lesser, i.e., the Native Americans. As Braddock points out, Eakins’s Cowboys in the Badlands (above, from 1888) clearly echoes Gerome’s Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, which shows the conquering Napoleon looking down upon ancient Egyptian culture. The template of cultural evolution inherent in Gerome’s work finds its way again and again into that of his greatest student.

For all the study of Eakins’ relationship with physicians, most famously in his masterpiece The Gross Clinic, less attention has been paid to the artists’ relationship with several of the anthropologists that helped found The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Science and Art (now known as The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology) in 1889. Eakins painted portraits of seven people heavily involved in the growing field of anthropology at the turn of the century. “Standing chronologically on the threshold of the modern culture concept but never really encountering or comprehending it,” Braddock writes, “Eakins and his art marked the twilight of nineteenth-century anthropological thought. The portraits [of these anthropologists] serve s the visual epitaphs to an obsolescent paradigm.” The most fitting painted epitaph of this paradigmatic twilight may be Eakins portrait of Frank Hamilton Cushing (above, from 1895). Cushing studied the culture of Zuni Native Americans in New Mexico, adopted their dress, and even learned some of their rituals. Eakins shows Cushing engaged in incantations in full ceremonial dress. Braddock recounts meetings with present-day Zuni Indians who recoil from the portrait and how it disrespects their sacred customs. That sense of of the portrait’s insensitivity serves as a handy barometer for just how different the concept of culture between Eakins’ time and ours.

Braddock provides excellent insights into Eakins’ place in nineteenth century art as the world began to grow smaller and cultural interactions became increasingly unavoidable. He shows the biases and, to modern audiences, racism of Eakins without demonizing him ala Henry Adams in Eakins Revealed. Most criticism of Eakins still lingers in the shadow of Lloyd Goodrich’s adoption of Eakins as the quintessential American artist in the 1920s, much as literary critics rediscovered Herman Melville as the quintessential American novelist in that period’s manic race to generate a legacy of American culture long after the fact. Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity strips away the easy generalities of Eakins the ruthless realist and Eakins the cultural outsider to recover the flesh and blood Eakins of his time and place, for good and ill, in all his wonderfully flawed humanity.

[Many thanks to the University of California Press for providing me with a review copy of Alan C. Braddock’s Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity.]

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Immortal Beloved

As a young apprentice to Andrea del Verrochio, Leonardo da Vinci was as famous for his artistic talent as for his personal beauty. Born April 15, 1452, da Vinci seemed like an angelic figure straight out of the Bible, which led Verrochio to use him as the model for his statue of David (above, from 1473-1475). As David, the young da Vinci stands triumphant over the decapitated head of Goliath, just as within a decade or two he would stand triumphant over the artistic and scientific worlds of Florence. More than five hundred years later, we still find ourselves fascinated by the persona of da Vinci, who seems more divine than human. One of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek series, titled "Requiem for Methuselah," featured a character named Flint, who was immortal and had been several famous figures throughout Earth history, including da Vinci. It was as good an explanation as any for da Vinci’s magical capacity to appear as a being from another world and time. Just as Leonardo took the measure of man in his iconic drawing known as the Vitruvian Man, other artists have tried to take the measure of da Vinci throughout the centuries.

Even during his lifetime, da Vinci stood at the head of the class. When Raphael painted his School of Athens in 1511, he chose to use da Vinci’s face for that of Plato (detail above). Raphael used the likeness of many contemporary artists for The School of Athens, including his own and that of Michelangelo, but Raphael set Leonardo as Plato center stage. Plato points up to illustrate his philosophy based on the abstract world, whereas Aristotle beside him points down to the Earth, the source of his thinking. Leonardo might also be seen as pointing home considering how heavenly his contemporaries saw him. In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari wrote of Leonardo thirty years after his death in glowing terms that robbed him of all humanity, thus helping establish the magical aura surrounding da Vinci ever since. Vasari ranks Michelangelo as the apex of artistry, but Leonardo comes a close second. In fact, it might be this divine quality of da Vinci’s that earns him the silver medal, whereas Michelangelo’s sweat and toil helped bring him the gold. As with all depictions of genius, it’s easy to think that Leonardo’s gifts were heaven sent and came easily to him. We fail to see all the hours of thought and observation that went into the ability to paint the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

Unhappy with the treatment he was receiving in Italy, Leonardo left for France near the end of his life. Francis I adopted Leonardo as a kind of pet—the resident genius who would amuse the court. (Leonardo brought the Mona Lisa with him to France, which is how it became the property of France rather than Italy.) When Leonardo died, it only added to the myth. Although it probably didn’t play out that way, artists depicted Leonardo’s final moments as the final bow of blood royalty to the true royalty of genius. In Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ 1818 version of The Death of Leonardo (above), Francis I tenderly embraces the withered da Vinci taking his last breath. We still pay homage to Leonardo today, from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to The Da Vinci Code. In addition to being among the greatest minds of all time, da Vinci belonged to the greatest procrastinator club, leaving countless projects incomplete and ideas unfulfilled. Even at a ripe old age, Leonardo’s presence spoke of possibility, albeit often unrealized. That possibility still attracts all eyes to him.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Grand Entrance

Meet James Ensor
Belgium's famous painter
Dig him up and shake his hand
Appreciate the man
Before there were junk stores
Before there was junk
He lived with his mother and the torments of Christ
The world was transformed
A crowd gathered round
Pressed against his window so they could be the first
To meet James Ensor
Belgium's famous painter
Raise a glass and sit and stare
Understand the man
He lost all his friends
He didn't need his friends
He lived with his mother and repeated himself
The world has forgotten
The world moved along
The crowd at his window went back to their homes
Meet James Ensor
Meet James Ensor
Belgium's famous painter
Dig him up and shake his hand
Appreciate the man

—“Meet James Ensor” by They Might Be Giants

Introducing a trend towards unconventional depictions of Jesus Christ in late nineteenth century European art, James Ensor’s Christ's Entry into Brussels (above, from 1888) might be the strangest of all. Born April 13, 1860, Ensor struggled with his religious faith for much of his life. Resolving the message of Christ with the modern way of life seemed impossible to him. In Christ’s Entry into Brussels, Ensor depicts just how incongruous Christ would be walking the streets of Brussels, circa 1888. Most of the people flooding the street wear masks, an obsession of Ensor’s and his shorthand way of painting the issues of identity he saw as at the heart of modern alienation. You have to search long and hard to find Christ in the picture. Look for the disc of Christ’s nimbus about his head at the center of the painting, just below the banner stretched across the top. That banner reads “Vive la Sociale” or “Long Live Welfare,” just one of the many texts appearing in the painting, including an advertisement for “Colman's Mustard,” that add a subtext of the political manipulations and commercialism plaguing society. The mayor of the town presides over the parade from a reviewing stand like a modern Pharisee. Such a bizarre image of Christianity hit home later with the German Expressionists and Surrealists who would consider Ensor a father figure.

Ensor suffered from horrible ulcers. Life certainly seemed bleak to him, but he managed to keep a sense of humor about things. Christ’s Entry into Brussels is a bizarre and bleak view of society, but it’s also hysterically funny when seen from a certain perspective. The same perspective allows us to see Ensor’s Skeletons Fighting Over a Smoked Herring (above, from 1891) as a macabre joke. If Christ’s Entry into Brussels serves as a prototype for the Christ-haunted works of German Expressionists such as Emil Nolde (who visited Ensor in 1911), then Skeletons Fighting Over a Smoked Herring looks forward to the skewed humor of Surrealists such as Salvador Dali. The title alone seems like something thought up by the Monty Python troupe. Ensor whistles through the graveyard and plays with the bones with little concern for conventional propriety. That disregard for mainstream mores more than anything else set up Ensor as a hero for later artists of different nations looking for an example to follow.

Ensor had his share of demons. Just look at his Self-Portrait With Demons (above, from 1898). That colored lithograph, almost cartoonish in style, helped open the eyes of other artists to the possibilities of printmaking to capture the devilish pictures dancing in their heads. Alfred Kubin owned several prints by Ensor. Leon Spilliaert, a fellow Belgian, felt the lasting influence of Ensor. Along with Odilon Redon, Ensor set the stage for imaginative art that took advantage of the new field of psychology. Demons no longer were seen as the products of a diseased mind but rather as the consequences of natural psychological reactions to the world. Ensor lived on to a ripe, old age, but he never recaptured the strange elegance of his most fruitful period between 1880 and 1900. I’m not sure it’s possible to sustain such close contact with the darkest corners of one’s mind without losing contact with reality entirely. Ensor stayed tethered to reality and the art world through his admirers, who watched his grand entrance and followed in his footsteps.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Power Player

I got a lot of funny looks when I gushed over a portrait by Thomas Lawrence while attending a wedding last November. In an upstairs gallery of the mansion where the wedding took place, a portrait by Lawrence that I had never seen stood beside examples by Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and Allan Ramsay, reuniting the four greatest British portraitists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Born April 13, 1769, Lawrence may have been the most talented of the bunch, a child prodigy who started drawing pastels of the patrons of his father’s inn and rose to become painter to first King George III and later King George IV . Lawrence’s portrait of Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick (above, from 1804) shows the future queen consort of George IV in younger days. Lawrence alludes to her troubled marriage to the wild Prince Regent by placing her left hand, upon which she wore her wedding ring, in dark shadow. The full extent of Caroline’s marital woes most likely reached Lawrence’s ear during sittings for many portraits over the years. Rumors persist that Lawrence and Caroline even carried on an affair. If so, it was just another self-destructive behavior for Lawrence, who allowed alcoholism and financial irresponsibility to limit how far he could take his gift.

After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the Prince Regent IV commissioned Lawrence to paint all the great European heads of state involved in that victory, who had gathered together at the Congress of Vienna. Lawrence painted Pope Pius VII (above) in 1819. Pius VII received credit for fighting Napoleon in the end, although he attended Napoleon’s self-coronation and played ball with the emperor when it suited papal purposes. The real importance of Lawrence’s portrait of Pope Pius VII comes in the amazing fluidity of the drapery and textures. Lawrence recognized the great potential of popish pomp and squeezed every last ounce of juice out of it. Always aware of the history of art, Lawrence measured his achievement against that of Raphael’s Julius II, Titian’s Paul III, and VelázquezInnocent X. Lawrence owned one of the finest collections of Old Master drawings in the world, so the greats of the past were always near at hand. A classicist at heart, Lawrence even helped acquire (for good or ill) the Elgin Marbles for England. Lawrence produced many non-portrait works of great beauty and power, but it was with his portraits that he made his fame and fortune, thus overshadowing the depth of this great, forgotten master.

I like to compare Lawrence with John Singer Sargent. Both owned immense, precocious talent that made their art seem lightweight and all surface with no depth. Both, however, were more than just portraitists of the rich and famous, as scholars now struggle to establish. Lawrence’s portrait of Margaret, Countess of Blessington (above, from 1822) certainly captures the surface flash of her good looks and beautiful finery, but it also reproduces the vivacity of her personally. Host of one of the foremost literary salons of her day, Lady Blessington was much more than a pretty face. The first time I saw a portrait by Lawrence it was this sense of life in the eyes that intrigued me to learn more about him and his art. Sadly, I’ve also seen some lesser Lawrence, including the portrait at that wedding, which seemed a later work, when Lawrence’s light was beginning to dim. It’s amazing to tally up just how much a simple innkeeper son achieved through artistic talent and personal charisma (he almost became an actor!), but even that seems a paltry sum considering just how far he could have gone.