Friday, December 21, 2007

Ho Ho Ho

I would like to wish everyone a very, very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from me, the lovely and talented Annie, and the excited and wide-eyed Alex (above). Art Blog By Bob will be very quiet after this post until most likely the New Year as we enjoy the holiday with family and friends.

I’ve always been a big fan of Santa Claus as a cultural phenomenon. A history of images of St. Nicholas, Santa Claus in his previous life, appears here. Thomas Nast’s Victorian Santa Claus (above, from 1881) ranks up there with the iconic images of the Jolly One. Christmas really is a Victorian invention in terms of traditions, thanks mainly to Nast and Charles Dickens. Our conception of Santa today still relies heavily on how the Victorians imagined him. My Mom has a collection of Santa figurines showing Santa through the years hailing all the way back to the 1880s and up to the 1940s, when that image, at least in America, became set in stone. Perhaps that was for the best. Imagining a 1980s Santa in a Members’ Only jacket and spandex with a mullet makes me shudder.

Perhaps no American artist loved the idea of Christmas and Santa as much as N.C. Wyeth. (His rendering of Santa from 1925 is above.) A behemoth of a man himself, N.C. would dress up as Santa for his children every year. Andrew Wyeth describes the literally bed-wetting terror he felt as “Santa” stood at the foot of his bed. Jamie Wyeth once described sweating profusely in anticipation of Christmas morning, which is at least better than wetting the bed.

No slice of Americana can be complete without including Norman Rockwell, who painted Santa many times over the years, including the image above from 1939. I find Rockwell’s image of Santa mapping his route around the world fascinating in light of just how divided the world was in 1939 as war raged in Europe and threatened to engulf the globe. Santa’s string tying together all the good boys and girls around the world provides the link of hope that the world needed at that moment. We could use that link today, too.

My new favorite image of Santa is, of course, this year’s photograph of Alex with Old Saint Nick (above). Christmas is about children above all else. Here’s hoping that everyone finds the love and peace that comes with embracing the children around us as well as the child remaining within us.

Decline and Fall

When history painting was en vogue in nineteenth-century France, Thomas Couture ranked among the top tier of the genre. Born December 21, 1815, Couture painted his epic Romans in the Decadence of the Empire (above) in 1847, announcing himself as a force in the Paris Salon. A student of Antoine Jean Gros and Hippolyte Delaroche, Couture absorbed the neo-classicism of Jacques-Louis David (Gros’ teacher) as well as the Romanticism of Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Gericault (friends of Delaroche). Amidst such esteemed company, Couture held his own as the art world around him began to evolve from the days of David to the new age of Manet.

Artists of the next generation, most notably Edouard Manet, Henri Fantin-Latour, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes sought out Couture as a teacher. Couture’s Female Head (above, from 1857) demonstrates how he began to adopt some of the conventions of the time after history painting began to lose its prized place in the art world. Couture paints a young, modern woman with a confident look in her eye, mirroring the new assertive female of the nineteenth-century yearning for equal rights. Perhaps learning something from his students, Couture tired of the stuffiness of the Salon and went on his own way, teaching and painting free of all constraints.

Sadly, Couture could never fully bridge the generational gap and embrace the new wave led by Manet. His Damocles (above, from 1866) shows a return to the classical themes of his younger days. Couture’s ability to infuse a psychological life to his figures always remained, regardless of his choice of genre. We truly believe that Damocles dreads the infamous sworld perilously hanging above him. In his later days, Couture couldn’t bring himself to appreciate the work of his independent students, especially Manet. Looking at Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker, Couture snapped, “There is only one absinthe drinker, and that’s the man who painted this idiotic picture.” The painter of grand history paintings couldn’t abide the emphasis on the present and the individual artist. When asked to write his autobiography, Couture lamented that "biography is the exaltation of personality—and personality is the scourge of our time." Couture never gave in to the temptation of personality, preferring to slip gently into the shadows of the past.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Masqued Avenger

KAREN KILIMNIK, The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers, 1989/2007; Mixed media installation, variable dimensions; Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art; Photo by Aaron Igler

“I meant it so you would feel like you just had walked into one of the episodes,” Karen Kilimnik says of her mixed-media installation The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers (above), “so I do mean it to be like you’re in a movie or something.” Face to face with Patrick Macnee as the steely John Steed and Diana Rigg as the lively Emma Peel from the old espionage television series, The Avengers, you enter not only the make believe world of spying and disguising, but also the pop culture-strewn, identity-questioning world of the art of Karen Kilimnik, who brings together her passion for classic art and her passion for modern celebrity ala Andy Warhol, whose autograph Kilimnik owns as a telling sign of her own insatiable fandom. In the exhibition catalogue to the show previously at the Institute of Contemporary Art, The University of Pennsylvania and now at The Aspen Art Museum, Ingrid Schaffner and others examine the many masks and masquerades of this unique, post-Warholian artist.

KAREN KILIMNIK, Me—I Forgot the Wire Cutters Getting the Wire Cutters from the Car to Break into Stonehenge,1982, 1998; water soluble oil color on canvas, 16 x 20 inches; Courtesy Nina and Frank Moore

“Sidestepping all of the anticipated postmodern positions,” Schaffner writes in her introductory essay, “Lives Naturally in World of Theatre + Illusion,” “Kilimnik’s art is disarmingly subjective—immersive, imaginative, opinionated, possessive. It simultaneously mediates and expresses those desires and emotions, which appear like the imagery itself, to be left critically unresolved, full of mystery and aspiration.” Kilimnik open-heartedly allows herself the pleasure of being a fan, the standard affliction of modern consumers of pop culture, and refuses to place judgment on the subject matter’s value or on herself for loving it so. “Kilimnik is taking the stand that Warhol so famously offered: the possibility of taking no stand at all,” Schaffner concludes. Like Cindy Sherman in her photographic series mimicking the conventions of old movie stills, Kilimnik tries on different personas in her self-portraits, posing as Elizabeth Taylor at one moment and as a vandal breaking into Stonehenge in another (above). Using what Scott Rothkopf calls Kilimnik’s “pitch-perfect ear for the telling cultural signifier,” the artist continually plucks from the stream of commercial consciousness the prize of the one concise image or combination of images that resonates with the viewer.

KAREN KILIMNIK, Should I, Like the Heroine of the Ballet, Defy the Command and Make a Dangerous--and Possibly Fatal--Bid for Freedom?, 1998; crayon and pastel on paper, 34” x 26”; Collection of Gregory R. Miller, New York ; Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York

Like Joseph Cornell, Kilimnik’s acquisitive, inquisitive imagination lands upon the world of ballet in images such as Should I, Like the Heroine of the Ballet, Defy the Command and Make a Dangerous—and Possibly Fatal—Bid for Freedom? (above), which drops the visage of actor Leonardo DiCaprio into a tableu of an unnamed ballet. Kilimnik surrounds the images with a narrative of the ballet, showing the verbal facility that leads Rothkopf to call her “wordly wise.” The unwieldliness of many of Kilimnik’s titles weights down her often bare-bones drawings and paintings with added narrative heft, such as the Stonehenge self-portrait above and this ballet scene. The ballet in Kilimnik’s hands becomes a masque in the sixteenth-century sense, with individual dancers’ identities superfluous to the work at hand. “Borrowing” DiCaprio for the role of a prince or even interchanging the actual dancer’s identity for the role they play, Kilimnik stirs up a fluid sense of individual identity that gives full reign to the play of the theatrical in her works. In addition to watching balletic performances, Kilimnik herself has been taking ballet classes since 1999 to learn the steps and positions firsthand, something that you could never imagine Cornell or that ultimate devotee of the dance, Edgar Degas, ever doing. Kilimnik continually places herself within the action her art examines.

In the midst of Kilimnik’s love affair with such pop culture effluvia as the tragic events behind The Boomtown Rats’ song “I Don’t Like Mondays,” her 6-hour film obsessively rerunning the crueler exchanges of the movie Heathers, and the humorous appearance of The Pink Panther in so many works, it’s easy to forget the serious student of art behind the fangirl/woman. Kilimnik’s Master Hare, 6:45 p.m. belongs to a series of retellings of Sir Joshua Reynolds' famous portrait. By revisiting that image and placing the specificity of “6:45 p.m.”, Kilimnik, in Schaffner’s view, “turn[s] a romantic sense of the past into an operative present.” Or, as Dominic Molon in his essay, “Karen Kilimnik’s History Lesson,” puts it, Kilimnik’s homages to the art of the past, as well as her pop culture studies, “demonstrate how our obsession with history as mediated by movies, television, and, of course, works of art, gives the past its unshakable presentness.” Just as when she makes over Paris Hilton as Marie Antoinette in one painting, Kilimnik continually makes over the art of the past, even the recent past, into something startlingly, continually present and relevant.

Schaffner sees this constant presentness as the “intrigue of Karen Kilimnik’s romantic imagination,” in which “the world we live in is also shown to be the one we desire.” Rather than flee from the visual stimulation all around her, Kilimnik embraces it, bringing her imaginative power to bear in transforming it into something transcendent. Kilimnik’s art is “not so much an escape from reality but a way of knowing it,” Schaffner believes. Whereas artists of the far distant past turned to mythology, the Bible, and literature to speak the shared language of the time, Kilimnik turns to pop culture to speak the modern idiom of the most visual generation ever to walk the Earth. Neil Postman once warned in the title of his study of popular entertainment that we were Amusing Ourselves to Death. Karen Kilimnik, instead, shows us how to amuse ourselves to life.

[Many thanks to the Institute of Contemporary Art, The University of Pennsylvania for the review copy of the exhibition catalogue Karen Kilimnik and for the images from the exhibition.]

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Ice Queen

In Harbin of Heilongjiang Province, China, snow sculptors from around the globe have gathered for the 20th International Snow Sculpture Art Expo. My vote for star of the show goes to Romantic Feelings (shown above and below), the 115-foot-high and 656-foot-long snow sculpture believed to be the largest in the world. Personally, I hate the snow, but I can’t help but find these sculptures to be very, uh, cool. Click through the photos in the link to see a huge, icy version of Rodin’s The Thinker. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Circular Logic

Born Jewish Friedrich Stowasser in Vienna on December 15, 1928, the artist later known as Friedensreich Hundertwasser saw most of his family killed in the Holocaust. From that horror, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, whose chosen name means “Peace-Kingdom Hundred-Water,” took the path of nature in his art. “There are no evils in nature,” Hundertwasser once said. “There are only evils of man.” With that philosophy, Hundertwasser looked to the example of his Austrian predecessor, Gustav Klimt. Hundertwasser takes Klimt’s organic circles and swirls even further in works such as Black Girl (above). Believing that straight lines are “the devil’s tools,” Hundertwasser created his own brand of circular logic that emphasized the organic as the solution to humanity’s ills.

Many of Hundertwasser’s paintings seem Surrealistic, such as his Antipode King (above), with its strange ruler looking out at the viewer. Hundertwasser wanted all of his works to “look out” at the viewer, creating a Surrealist dreamscape not out of the artist’s own mental workings alone but with the viewer’s needs in mind. This transautomatism democratizes Surrealism, reconciling the artist and the viewer with natural forms rather than emphasizing the discontinuities of modern existence the way Dali’s art, for example, does. I’ve always seen a debt to Paul Klee’s approach in Hundertwasser’s work as well. The deceptive simplicity of Hundertwasser’s images matches that of much of Klee’s drawings. Klee’s organic approach to art, incorporating natural forms in his unique calligraphy, parallels that of Hundertwasser, too.

Hundertwasser ventured past painting into the fields of performance art, clothing, architecture, and even plumbing. He may be the only major artist to be famous for designing a toilet, namely his Kawakawa Toilets (above, installed in 1998). In his later years, Hundertwasser became increasingly concerned over the destruction of the environment. The Kawakawa Toilets, which he installed in his adopted country of New Zealand, offer an environmentally friendly option to the modern toilet and have actually become a tourist attraction. Hundertwasser incorporated his organic philosophy into everything he did artistically, regardless of whether it was a painting or a building. When so many other modern artists looked at the events of the twentieth century and damned the darkness, Hundertwasser lit a candle of hope and healing, and even provided a place to go to the bathroom.

Anchors Away

Oddly enough, the fine tradition of great maritime painting in England, epitomized by the many great seascapes of J.M.W. Turner, starts in Holland, in no small part thanks to Willem van de Velde the younger. van de Velde, who was baptized on December 18, 1633, painted many great scenes of Dutch shipping in his native Holland in the style of his father Willem van de Velde the elder, who brought his youthful experiences as a sailor to his art and then passed on the family business to his son. Calm: Dutch Ships Coming to Anchor (above), painted by van de Velde the younger sometime between 1665 and 1670, epitomizes the sleek finish and fine detail of his seascapes. Just as Dutch shipping ruled the waves at that time, so did Dutch painting of that industry.

van de Velde the younger, however, painted both war and peace—the two prevailing realities of seventeenth century shipping as the European sea powers vied for control of the markets and shipping lanes. The Cannon Shot (above, from 1670) shows van de Velde the younger’s ability to precisely render the appearance of the intricately masted and rigged ships of that era as they tried to obliterate one another. He chooses an interesting vantage point, perhaps from the perspective of another ship low in the water like that being rowed from the main vessel. van de Velde provides a great perspective on how these ships dwarfed the men serving upon them and how life seemed cheap in the pursuit of power and riches. van de Velde the younger followed the money and changed allegiances in 1673, moving to England to help his aging father paint British shipping in the service of King Charles II.

van de Velde the younger’s influence on later British painters such as Turner can be seen in works such as Shipping in Heavy Seas (above, from 1675). van de Velde’s troubled skies as emotional counterpoints to the plight of the British ship beneath, struggling amidst the turbulent sea, provided a case study for later British artists to follow. A proto-Romanticism rises from the depths of these storm scenes, which also hark back to the earlier Dutch painter Rembrandt and his Storm on the Sea of Galilee. I remember when the PMA tried to fill out the tragic 2004 Manet and the Sea exhibition with examples of Manet’s maritime inspirations such as van de Velde. I came away more interested in the inspirations than in what they inspired. Looking at van de Velde the younger’s work today allows us a glimpse into an age when ruling over the sea meant ruling over the land, which was as true in politics as it was in painting.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Birth of the Cool

Number 18, 1951, by Mark Rothko. Oil on canvas; 81-1/2 x 69-7/8 in. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, NY (53.216) ©2006 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

“The history of art is messier and more haphazard than most theories allow,” writes Karen Wilkin in the catalogue to the exhibition Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 currently at the Denver Art Museum. Beginning with Heinrich Wolfflin’s concept of the history of art as a pendulum swing between linear (i.e., precise and clean) and painterly (i.e., full of individual gesture) and then moving on to Clement Greenberg’s modern appropriation of that dichotomy in his appreciation of the Abstract Expressionists, Wilkin sets the stage for the generation after Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko–the Color Field painters. “Their art can be read as departing from the possibilities suggested by Rothko’s poised rectangles,” Wilkin writes, such as Rothko’s Number 18 (above). Yet, as Wilkin quickly shows, the relationship between the Color Field painters and their Abstract Expressionist “ancestors” as well as between themselves made for a “messier” story than their calm, cool paintings reveal.

Yellow Hymn, 1954, by Hans Hofmann. Oil on canvas; 50 x 40 in. The Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust; courtesy Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, New York. © 2006 Estate of Hans Hofmann / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Wilkin sees two factors defining what Color Field painting is. One is the idea of “cool,” “in Marshall McLuhan’s sense of the word,” Wilkin adds. McLuhan defined “hot” media as those works that “reach out” and grab you, whereas “cool” media require the individual to take the first step. The frenzy of the Abstract Expressionists heated up the art world in a way that the Color Field painters wanted to cool down. When the Color Field painters looked for inspiration among the Abstract Expressionists, Rothko obviously provided a model, but the lesser-known Hans Hofmann offered a different take on how an economy of means could be full of possibilities. Hofmann’s Yellow Hymn (above), with its organization and “push and pull” of warm and cool colors projecting from and receding into the surface, opened up possibilities that some of the better-known Abstract Expressionists couldn’t. “You could become a de Kooning disciple or satellite or mirror, but you could depart from Pollock,” Helen Frankenthaler said in a similar vein, rejecting the claustrophobically overpowering gestures of de Kooning for the freer, all-over effect of Pollock’s drip paintings. Matisse stands as another teacher for the Color Field artists, demonstrating how to build pictures with powerful, unmodulated blocks of color, adding to Hofmann’s lessons.

The second factor linking the Color Field school is the person of Clement Greenberg, who co-curated the Post Painterly Abstraction exhibition that first gathered these diverse artists together, allowing him almost single-handedly to define the terms of the movement and who and who wasn’t included. The power of Greenberg, the earliest critical champion of Pollock, seems almost impossible today, but was all too true in the 1950s and 1960s art world.

Flood, 1967, by Helen Frankenthaler. Synthetic polymer on canvas; 124 x 140 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art (68.12). Photograph Geoffrey Clements. © 2007 Helen Frankenthaler. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Helen Frankenthaler emerges as one of the central figures of the Color Field movement. “Frankenthaler’s multivalent images seem to distill the large phenomena of the natural world—sea and sky, night and day, and changing weather—into subtle, richly modulated relationships of hue,” Wilkin writes. Works such as Frankenthaler’s Flood (above) mimic nature’s power yet remain true to the tenets of abstraction. Sadly, as Carl Belz recalls in his short essay in the catalogue, Frankenthaler’s approach to Color Field painting soon received the criticism of being “too soft” by critics such as Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg fierce rival. “Too soft,” of course, served as code for “woman painter,” a standard putdown for female artists. Flipping through the biographies of the Color Field painters by Hrag Vartanian at the end of the catalogue and looking at the artists’ photographs, you quickly realize that Frankenthaler was the lone intruder in the all-men’s club. To think that she found her point of departure in the art of the macho Pollock, you realize just how innovative and individual Frankenthaler’s art truly is.

Floral V, 1959-60, by Morris Louis. Acrylic and magna on canvas; 98-3/8 x 137-13/16 in. Private collection, Denver. 1993 Marcella Louis Brenner. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Wilkin compares the effect of innovations in acrylic paint on the Color Field school to the effect of the advent of prepared oil paint on the Impressionists. Tubes of paint freed the Impressionists to venture forth into nature and paint in the open. Quick drying, brilliantly colored acrylic paint similarly freed the Color Field painters to try new effects, such as Morris Louis did in his Floral V (above) and other multilayered works. “It is impossible to determine which came first: the painters’ desire to cover large surfaces with thin, saturated, even handed color or the existence of paint that made this possible,” Wilkin writes. This chicken-egg conundrum lies at the heart of the Color Field movement, providing an early example of modern artists exploiting new materials and technology in pursuit of new effects.

Moultonville II, 1966, by Frank Stella. Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paint on canvas; 124 x 86 in. Collection Mr. and Mrs. David Mirvish, Toronto. Photograph Sean Weaver. © 2006 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Color Field painting today suffers from a inferiority complex, something that this exhibition should rectify. As Wilkin points out, although Color Field art shares much with their contemporary movements of Minimalism and Pop Art in terms of striving towards economy and anonymity of touch, Color Field art gets labeled as “decorative” or, even worse, “corporate” for lacking any overt political content even during such turbulent times as the 1960s in America. Belz captures some of the flavor of this pecking order and its injustice in comparing Frank Stella’s shift from Minimalism to Color Field in works such as Moultonville II (above) to Bob Dylan’s infamous choice to go electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966. “As each radicalized his art and deepened it by taking inspiration from his art’s past and extending it into the present,” Belz writes, “each revealed the past in a fresh light. In doing so, each took me along to places that were at once familiar and new.” Using the example of Stella’s transition, Belz finds the essence of Color Field’s attraction, namely its ability to be both conservative by taking the best of the past and radical in extending that forward, thus providing a “model for lived experience” itself.

Chi Ama, Crede, 1962, by Robert Motherwell. Oil on canvas; 82 x 141 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; purchased by The Phillips Collection through funds donated by The Judith Rothschild Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Gifford Phillips, The Chisholm Foundation, The Whitehead Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Marc E. Leland, and the Honorable Ann Winkelman Brown and Donald Brown, 1998. Photograph Steven Sloman. Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Perhaps more than any other modern art movement, Color Field art is a creation of art critics, for good and ill. Michael Fried’s “combination of intellectual rigor and passion for every aspect of works of art,” Wilkin writes, “quickly set a standard for illuminating formalist criticism” as he promoted works such as Robert Motherwell’s Chi Ama, Crede (above). Unfortunately, the bald pate of Clement Greenberg continues to rule over the Color Field world, for better or worse. “Even today,” Wilkin laments, “a decade after his death, the personal animosities aroused by this difficult, thorny man can seem to get in the way of objective judgment of his achievement, and by extension, to obscure the excellences of the art with which he was most closely associated.” Fortunately, Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 exorcises the ghost of Greenberg, lifting the label of pure decoration to reveal the creative thinking and even radicalism of the artists and their works. In curating and writing Color as Field, Karen Wilkin allows the Color Field school to step out of the long shadow of Clement Greenberg and show their true colors.

[Many thanks to the Denver Art Museum for providing me with a copy of the exhibition catalogue to Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 and for the images from the exhibition.]

Monday, December 17, 2007

10 K

I've run in a couple of 5Ks, but this is my first 10K. Over the weekend, Art Blog By Bob passed 10,000 hits since I started keeping a tally. Many thanks to everyone who has been reading and commenting and making this very fun venture seem all that much more rewarding. In the grand scheme of the blogosphere, 10,000 hits seems paltry compared to the big boys, but I'm more than happy with the traffic in my little arty haven.
Thanks, also, to all the students around the world who stumbled across my site recently in their heated frenzy to get term papers written. That surge of interest let to over 1,000 hits in just the past week or so. Rest assured that Saint Jerome, patron saint of students and subject of one of Albrecht Durer's greatest etchings (above, from 1514), is looking over your shoulder, probably trying to point out a misspelling. I hope that you come back to visit sometime when the call of duty isn't so pressing to share some of your thoughts in response to my ramblings.
And speaking of my ramblings, I hope that everyone resists the urge to plagarize from my pearls of wisdom. Remember, cheaters only cheat themselves in the end. Also, keep in mind that, regardless of how authoritative I may sound, I'm still just some opinionated guy on the internet with a blog. As much as I'd hate someone taking my work as their own, I'd feel even worse if they did that and flunked. Like Mr. Brady said, Caveat emptor.

Abstract Spirituality

"The more frightening the world becomes” Wassily Kandinsky once said, “the more art becomes abstract." Born December 16, 1866, Kandinsky saw his world grow ever more frightening as fascism and war engulfed Europe in the twentieth century. Kandinsky responded to such madness with the first truly abstract paintings, such as Black Strokes I (above, from 1913). After studying and excelling at law and economics, Kandinsky didn’t begin studying art until after he turned 30 years of age. Perhaps coming to art later in life, after seeing and experiencing so much, allowed Kandinsky’s probing, analytical, yet highly spiritual intellect to see a whole new way of painting that a more classically trained artist could ever conceive.

Kandinsky actually began as a relatively conventional figurative painter. The Blue Rider (above) , which Kandinsky painted in 1903, shows his romantic side, with the lone, enigmatic horseback rider crossing the landscape. When Kandinsky and fellow artists August Macke and Franz Marc formed their group, Der Blaue Reiter, Kandinsky’s painting provided the name. Prior to World War I, Kandinsky’s style evolved into something more and more abstract, first resembling the strong, expressive color schemes of Marc and later losing the subject almost entirely in a complete loss of the recognizable subject. Kandinsky fled Germany just before the outbreak of war, returning to his native Russia, where their revoltion would soon turn everything upside down. Unable to fit in with the Constructivist and Suprematist movements en vogue in the new Russia, Kandinsky returned to Germany in 1921, living there and teaching at the famed Bauhaus until 1933, when the Nazis closed it.

Upon his return to Germany, Kandinsky’s abstraction took a more scientific, analytical turn, as can be seen in works such as Yellow-Red-Blue (above, from 1925). The common attack on abstract works such as those by Kandinsky is that “anyone can do it,” but anyone looking closely at Kandinsky’s works can see the intricacy of composition and design. "Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult,” Kandinsky once responded to his detractors. “It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential." Kandinsky’s artistic “poetry” often took the form of art theory, most famously in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which likens life to a pyramid we each must climb with the assistance of the artist, if we permit them to help. We can’t register today the same shock that Kandinsky’s work delivered almost a century ago. Decades of abstract art have jaded us to the full impact of the artistic, political, and spiritual punch they once held. When the forces of darkness in the early twentieth century threatened to obliterate or, perhaps worse, appropriate art to their imperialist ends, Kandinsky’s turn to abstraction changed the rules of the game and denied them their prize. In looking to abstraction, Kandinsky held on to what was truly real in the human spirit.

The Angel of History

Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite painter, Paul Klee, created a body of evocative images that linger in the mind much like the great director’s most troubling film sequences. Born December 18, 1879, Klee painted Angelus Novus (above) in 1920, which the philosopher Walter Benjamin eventually owned. Benjamin saw Klee’s angel as "the angel of history.” “His face is turned towards the past,” Benjamin went on. “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage." Although he was half Swiss, Klee considered Germany his homeland, fighting for that country in World War I and later teaching at the famed Bauhaus until its closure by the Nazis and the condemnation of his works as “Degenerate Art.” The Nazis made special mention of Klee’s art as “the work of a sick mind.” Today, we honor Klee for the soundness of his mind, which continued to explore the outer reaches of art and spirituality as all reason collapsed around him.

Klee continually innovated in his approach to art. In The Future Man (above, from 1933), Klee applied watercolor using a spatula. Klee saw no method of drawing too outlandish if it could convey the message he wished. Klee paints The Future Man in the fateful year of 1933, when Hitler assumed power, the Bauhaus closed its doors, and the “Degenerate Art” exhibition opened its doors. Looking at this figure today, you have to wonder what future Klee envisioned for man in the midst of that nadir of hope. Klee suffers from the common misperception of his art due to the primitivism he employs, which belies the sophistication of his composition and draftsmanship. It’s not easy to make such a figure look so simple. A great sadness emerges from the simple face of The Future Man as it looks either ahead to an uncertain future or back to 1933 as the beginning of the end.

Despite living in such troubled times, Klee never lost his sense of humor and childish wonder. Fish Magic (above, from 1925) seems like a magical aquarium. The fish take on the nature of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Many of Klee’s later abstract works have this quality of writing, as he strove for a universal “language” of drawing free of cultural and political associations. Like his close friend Wassily Kandinsky, Klee saw abstraction as the solution to the ills of twentieth-century European reality. "I belong not only to this life, “ Klee had placed on his tombstone. “ I live as well with the dead, as with those not born. Nearer to the heart of creation than others, but still too far." Paul Klee remains an angel of history, looking down at the sad chain of events as one long catastrophe, yet also recognizing the ties that bind all humanity across all eras.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What Are They Now?

After reading in John Sloan’s New York, the catalogue to the Delaware Art Museum’s exhibition Seeing the City: Sloan’s New York, that John Sloan’s studio in Philadelphia was at 705 Walnut Street in Olde City Philadelphia, I took a field trip to see if the old place was still there. From the picture above, it looks like the building could date from the early 1890s, when Sloan worked there. The rest of the block has changed since then, so looking back at the images Sloan painted from the window of his 705 Walnut Street studio are exercises in nostalgia.

I then went down another block to see what became of the 806 Walnut Street studio once occupied by Robert Henri and later by him and Sloan after the two formed a friendship in the early 1890s. Sadly, a modern parking garage with a few businesses on the ground level stands where Henri and Sloan once worked.

At neither place appears any marker to indicate that these artists once worked there. Philadelphia’s track record for keeping track of their artistic heritage remains poor. The spot near Chestnut and Broad Streets where Thomas Eakins painted for many years is marked by an inconspicuous plaque (above) placed there in 1966 by an admirer on the 50th anniversary of Eakins’ death. Eakins’ house on Mount Vernon Street has fallen into disrepair and even appears on lists of endangered historical sites. Perhaps someone will someday write a book on the art historical landmarks of Philadelphia, both the lost and the found.

Caught in the Middle

In late nineteenth century France, as the battle between the establishment Salon and outsider Impressionists heated up, finding the middle ground where both sides could agree was no easy task. In his many public murals and paintings, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes walked that fine line and appealed to both sides of the argument. Born December 14, 1824, Puvis’ work takes the classicism of the Salon and adds a neo-Symbolist flavor that caught the eye of younger artists such as Gauguin, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Rodin. In works such as The Poor Fisherman (above, from 1881), Puvis could use the Salon-approved technique to depict the everyday life of the common man. Beneath that, however, Puvis added the unique psychological touches that make this more than just an image of a fisherman and his family.

After studying first under Eugène Delacroix and later under Thomas Couture, Puvis struck out on his own, often adding a religious side to the Romanticism he learned from his teachers. His Magdalena (above, from 1869) shows Mary Magdalene (of Da Vinci Code fame) standing in a desolate landscape contemplating mortality in the form of a skull. Again, Puvis takes a common religious subject and adds a twist, in this case a Hamlet-esque interior life that fleshes out the standard Biblical account of the first female disciple of Christ. Puvis depicted many scenes from the Bible, including the tale of the Prodigal Son, always going beyond the letter of the text and placing himself inside the head of the subject. This psychological insight makes Puvis seem quite modern today, which makes me wonder why his reputation has suffered so long.

Works such as Young Women by the Sea (above, from 1879) illustrate easily how Rodin could find Puvis so inspiring. Puvis' classical nudes in lively, dramatic poses easily appealed to Rodin’s interest in reviving the sculpted figure and resurrecting the vivacity that Michelangelo had injected into his sculpted and painted figures, both nude and clothed. In contrast to the scenery around Magdalena, the landscape and seascape behind these three figures conveys peace and harmony. The Eden-like vibrations coming off of this work could make it seem trite if not for the individualization of the three figures through their unique poses, which lend a graceful sense of movement to each of them. Puvis ranks among the many Salon painters of late eighteenth century France who have fallen thanks to the rise of Impressionism, which swept clean the memory banks of art history for that time. Hopefully, Puvis' time will come again and he will be seen as a hidden modernist in the guise of conservatism.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Warning from History

Potsdamer Platz, the heart of Berlin, seen from the renowned Café Josty. The famed traffic light is in the middle, and all around is the hustle and bustle of modern urban life—cars, streetcars, trucks, and pushcarts, and everywhere people walking, talking, and watching. SV-Bilderdienst/Scherl.

“Life was a complicated thing, threatened by the pulls of desire and death. Order and stability were ephemeral achievements,” Eric D. Weitz writes of Thomas Mann’s 1925 novel The Magic Mountain in his new study of the period, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. That description neatly encapsulates Weitz’s take on all the Weimar Republic, so full of hopeful promise after the deprivations of World War I and yet so divided by internal fissures that any permanent foundation could never be built. Weitz provides a panoramic view of Weimar, from the political intrigue in circles of power to the everyday life of men and women in the street (such as the Potsdamer Platz, above) to the lives and works of the artists hoping to bridge the gaps between those worlds and hold that common dream together.

A Berlin street scene 1926: the new woman out and about.

Using the writings of contemporary authors such as Mann, Joseph Roth, Christopher Isherwood, and Franz Hessel, Weitz leads us on a tour of Weimar Berlin, bringing all the sounds and sights of the streets back to life. “Just follow the unplanned adventure that happens to capture the eye,” Weitz quotes from Hessel. Electrical light brings a modern vibrancy to the city, even as the wounded veterans of The Great War haunt the shadows. Strikingly modern advertising, much of it either targeting the “new woman” or playing off her newfound allure, appears everywhere. “The streets did not thunder, they played music, a love song to the women of Berlin,” one contemporary author wrote. This “new woman” (examples of which appear above) emerges everywhere in German society, “an image of elegance and refinement, of activity and athleticism, and one that flowed from its bourgeois origins to working women, from the capital city to the provinces,” Weitz writes. The “new woman” also provides a very clear target for conservatives who see modern Berlin as “artificial” and even “parasitical,” literally draining the resources of the country in its pursuit of pleasure.

After setting the stage in terms of the social network and politics of the period (which shifted from a period of Left-Center control from 1918 through 1923 to Center-Right from 1924 to 1929 and, finally, authoritarian Right from 1930 to 1933, when the Nazis assumed full control), Weitz weaves into his narrative the impact of the arts on society. He sees George Grosz’s satiric art as indicative of how “the savagery of total war undermined deference toward authority,” leading to the disobedience and disrespect of the German people that undermined much of the Weimar reforms. In contrast, Weitz resurrects the Crystal Chain artists, a group whose letters to one another reflect German Expressionism’s forgotten “utopian tenor, a bold imagining of a harmonious and beautiful future.” “Where are you, prophets?—the heralds of the new life, telling of the new suns—moons—and stars! The millions await you!” one Crystal Chain artist breathlessly expounded. Although most exhibits today examine the angst-ridden side of German Expressionism, this strain of the movement that hoped to transform all of society through art equally captured contemporary artists’ imaginations. Later, the New Objectivity movement, led by Grosz, Otto Dix, Christian Schad, and others, picks up some of this hopeful thread during the stable middle period of Weimar, but replacing, at least in the works of Schad, the breathless fervor with “modulated tones and clean lines.”

Erich Mendelsohn, Einstein Tower, built 1920–24. Mendelsohn was one of Weimar Germany's most prominent and successful architects. The Tower was built as a laboratory and observatory in which Einstein's theories would be tested. Mendelsohn sought to capture in form the essence of relativity theory. He might not have succeeded in that venture, but the smooth exterior, recessed windows, absence of ornamentation, and overall beauty mark the building as a strikingly original example of modern architecture. On his first visit, Einstein reputedly said in admiration, “Organic!” Here the building is shown following an extensive, very successful renovation in the 1990s. Author’s photograph.

Architecture offers the most concrete means of transforming society. Architects such as Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut, and Erich Mendelsohn design new buildings for the new German to live, shop, work, and study in that contrast starkly with their older surroundings. Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower (above), his first building, housed an observatory and laboratory to test Albert Einstein’s theories by researching the sun’s light. “Organic!” Einstein himself gushed upon seeing it for the first time, struck by how seamlessly the building harmonized with its natural surroundings. As with the bright side of Expressionism, Weitz goes boldly beyond the familiar Bauhaus to present the intersection and interaction of art and society. Few periods in modern history offer such a rich opportunity to connect contemporary art and society.

Hans Surén, German Gymnastics. A wide variety of individuals and groups advocated nudity as the path to wholeness and, for those on the Right, the revival of the German spirit. Exercises in the nude, bathed in sunlight, would restore the individual and collective body and soul weakened by the corrupting influences of modern society. Surén’s book, Man and Sun, was wildly successful. G. Riebicke, Galerie Bodo Niemann, Berlin.

Even the human body became a work of art, as figures such as Hans Suren cultivated a cult of the body (above), hoping to transform society through the perfection of the individual physically. Sex takes center stage more openly than ever before in German culture. “Germans would leave behind the stuffy, rigid, and authoritarian society of imperial Germany… and a constrained and hypocritical sexual morality,” Weitz shows. “To be modern meant to be democratic, and it also meant a freer, more open attitude toward bodies and sex.” In this new openness, Hannah Hoch, through her striking photomontages, examines the place of the “new woman” in this freer sexual environment. Weitz wonderfully positions Hoch’s work within the conflicting themes of the era, which both celebrated and exploited women and their sexuality. “The panopoly of images” in Hoch’s work, Weitz concludes, “is a controlled chaos, that of modernity itself.”

From an art history perspective, Weitz offers many fascinating takes on the social-cultural interchange of the period. Just by highlighting the hopeful side of Expressionism and raising the profiles of Mendelsohn and Hoch, he adds depth and fullness to the familiar caricature of Weimar. However, I found myself often longing for more. I imagined a discussion of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin Street Scene (recently exhibited at the Neue Galerie; my review here) adding nuance to Weitz’s virtual “stroll” through Berlin’s streets, especially in the context of the “new woman.” A brief extrapolation into the Nazis’ contrasting vision of architecture as capable of transforming society versus the plans of Mendelsohn et al would have been exciting. The picture of the nearly nude men exercising looks so much like a still from one of Leni Riefenstahl’s films that I can’t believe that Weitz resisted the urge to telescope his vision a little further (or even look back to the art of Hans Thoma for the roots of this body cult in German art and society).

The Tiller Girls, one of a number of very popular female dance revues, renowned for their precision movements and high kicks.

Ultimately, of course, Weitz is a historian, and he excels at tying together so much of the multiverse of Weimar that it seems unfair to complain of what he doesn’t do when he accomplishes so much. With the precision of the dancing Tiller Girls (above), Weitz never missteps in showing the roots and consequences of the Weimar years. Most importantly, like any good historian, Weitz writes with an eye not just on the past but on how the past speaks to the future. “Weimar Germany still speaks to us,” Weitz says at both the beginning and end of the book, “perhaps most often as a warning sign.” Weitz overturns the conventional narrative that Nazism inevitably followed Weimar. “Weimar did not just collapse,” he writes. “It was pushed over the precipice by a combination of the established Right, hostile to the republic from its very founding, and the newer extreme Right.” Arguing that the Nazis never won more than a third of the votes in any free election, Weitz confronts the idea that the German people wanted Nazi rule. Instead, Weitz reveals the nexus of common interests between groups in power that conspired through a chain of events to launch Adolf Hitler and his followers into leadership roles, always believing that their extremism could somehow be "contained."

But how does that speak to today? “Weimar… demonstrates the limits of elections as a criterion for democracy,” Weitz writes. “Democracy needs democratic convictions and a democratic culture that ripple through all the institutions of society, not just the formal political ones.” When the churches, army, and courts all hold views opposite to those held by the majority, they add up to a recipe for disaster, regardless of how votes are tallied. The Nazis stepped into the breach of German disequilibrium when no other group could muster the energy to fill that vacuum. Naomi Klein’s recent book The Shock Doctrine calls this phenomenon “disaster capitalism,” borrowing from the ideas of economist Milton Friedman of how broad changes in governmental policy can only be done in times of social chaos, such as the challenges to civil liberty after September 11th, the free market experimentation in Iraq after the American victory, and the remaking of New Orleans minus the displaced poor after Hurricane Katrina. Weitz never explicitly connects the events of Weimar with those of recent American history, but the implication is crystal clear. One of my favorite documentaries on the Nazi period is the 1998 BBC documentary The Nazis—A Warning from History. Eric D. Weitz’s Weimar Republic: Promise and Tragedy offers a similar warning from history as well as the hopeful argument that even the most seemingly powerful and inevitable political movements are not destined to happen but only require that good people do nothing to stop them.

[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book as well as the images from the book.]

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Sickness Unto Death

No other artist ever painted sickness and death quite like Edvard Munch, born on this date in 1863. Munch, most famous for his iconic (and frequently stolen) 1893 painting The Scream, knew death intimately from a young age, watching siblings, family members, and friends all suffer through long illnesses against the backdrop of the cold, bleak winters of his native Norway. The Sick Child (above, 1885-1886) represents just one of his many depictions of illness. In The Sick Child, the dying figure seems to be comforting her nurse. Munch obsessively depicted this scene, redoing it as a lithograph, a frequent technique he employed to pursue a theme or an image even further. All of Munch’s painting can be seen as a scream for help, a release of frustration and emotions bottled up inside.

Women supplied another endless source of frustration and obsession for Munch. The 1973 biographical film of Munch’s life delves excruciatingly in great detail into many of his failed romances. (I don’t recommend watching the film, unless you have greater patience than I do.) Munch studied women from all angles and ages. His Puberty shows a young woman at her most vulnerable. Munch’s Madonna (above, from 1894-1895) presents his ideal woman, yet echoes his depiction of the female Vampire so closely that the two can’t be easily separated. In subtitling his 1894 painting The Three Stages of Woman “Sphinx,” Munch revealed just how great a riddle he found women to be.

After 1893, Munch began to collect his works under the title The Frieze of Life—A Poem about Life, Love, and Death. Over the years he added to the works in the sequence, piecing together the themes of his art to be read as one continuous work. Munch even painted newer versions of works he had sold just to include them in the frieze. Munch’s final obsession, however, was himself. In his Self-Portrait With Burning Cigarette (above, from 1895), Munch almost assumes the non-solidity of the smoky cloud that envelops him. Munch painted this work shortly after he was shot in the left hand in a lover’s quarrel. That left hand dissolves completely into the smoke. In 1903, Munch depicted himself nude, tormented for eternity in Self-Portrait in Hell. Munch’s anxiety drove him to seek professional help in the form of electric shock therapy in 1908, which changed him in many ways, taking the expressionist edge off of his later works. Illness marks many of the later self-portraits, including 1919’s Self-Portrait After Spanish Influenza, 1919’s Self-Portrait in Distress, and 1930’s Self-Portrait During the Eye Disease. In his 1923-1924 Self-Portrait, also known as The Night Wanderer, Munch seems almost spectral, a mere ghost of his former self. Sadly, Munch lived until 1944, seeing his works condemned as “Degenerate Art” by the Nazis in Germany, the country that first embraced his art thanks to the German Expressionists. When the Nazis invaded Munch’s native Norway, they pressured him for an endorsement, hoping it would win over the minds of his countrymen. Munch refused to the end, never giving in to a horror even greater than that he imagined in The Scream.

Against the Wall

Few artists aroused such passions during his life as Diego Rivera. Born December 8, 1886, Rivera stirred political passions with his art during his life as well as the amorous passions of many women, including fellow artist Frida Kahlo. Perhaps the highlight (or lowlight, depending on how you look at it) of Rivera’s career was the infamous 1933 episode in which Rivera painted Vladimir Lenin into the mural Nelson Rockefeller commissioned for Rockefeller Center, titled Man at the Crossroads. Rockefeller ordered the fresco destroyed after Rivera, an avid Communist at the time, refused to remove the portrait. A year later, Rivera recreated the mural (above) at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Arte in Mexico City, renaming it Man, Controller of the Universe. As chaotic as his personal life became, Rivera was always the master of his artistic universe.

Rivera's role in the Mexican Mural Renaissance beside fellow muralists Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros justly takes pride of place in memories of Diego. However, Rivera shouldn’t be labeled as just a muralist or just a Mexican artist. In his travels to Europe before 1920, Rivera saw and embraced Cubism, painting works such as Two Women (above, from 1914), showing that even then he had ladies on his mind. Cezanne’s bright colors and reduction of images to simple shapes inspired Rivera in his later murals. Travels through Italy and first-hand exposure to the great frescoes of the masters certainly provided material for Rivera to digest and transform into his native idiom.

Rivera’s pride in his native Mexico shines through much of his work. Kahlo absorbed much of that pride into her own work and even her personal dress, selecting native Mexican dress to please her Diego. Sadly, Rivera’s philandering brought much pain to Kahlo’s already painful life. Around the same time that Rivera painted Detroit Industry (above, detail of south wall, from 1932 to 1933), Kahlo suffered another miscarriage, which inspired her painting Henry Ford Hospital. After Kahlo’s death, Rivera told others that only then he realized that she had been the love of his life. Judging on appearances alone, Rivera makes for one of the unlikeliest of lotharios, but the passion and charisma of his life and art drew others to him magnetically and continues to inspire Latin American artists today.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Cracking the Code

The Judge and Mary, Joseph’s hand with the crossed beams, Anne (bottom left), Bartholomew’s knife, and Joachim (behind Bartholomew). From The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, Abbeville Press. Photo credit: ©Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Vaticani, A. Bracchetti/P. Zigrossi.

Standing in the Sistine Chapel may be the single most overwhelming experience you can have indoors. Like the great vistas of nature’s most beautiful works, you find yourself straining to see it all at once, hoping somehow to take it all in. Unlike those landscapes, however, the Sistine Chapel encloses you in majesty on all sides, surrounding you with visual stimulation. First you crane your neck up to take in Michelangelo’s ceiling frescos. As you neck begins to cramp, you lower your eyes to his towering Last Judgment and feel yourself being judged by Christ in glory (above). I made a point of looking at the other wall frescos by Botticelli and others, the forgotten masterpieces overshadowed by Michelangelo’s mastery. As you shuffle outside with the rest of the crowd, you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve missed more than you’ve appreciated.

Father Heinrich Pfeiffer, S.J., now comes to your rescue. In The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, Father Pfeiffer takes you on a personal tour of the Sistine Chapel, lingering over every inch of every one of the frescoes, including those “hidden” by Michelangelo’s achievement. After studying the Sistine Chapel since the 1950s, Father Pfeiffer offers in this text a new vision of that most holy space of art and religion by recovering the original vision of the artists and those who advised them. “We can no longer naively believe that painters like Raphael and Michelangelo, however great their genius, could have invented themselves the content of the subjects they depicted in their paintings, much less that of painters who worked in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo could have done so,” Father Pfeiffer writes. Taking his text from five articles published since 1990, now translated from the original German, Father Pfeiffer reveals the intricate theological “code” of the art of the Sistine Chapel, an intricate network of meaning linked to the deep theological ideas that theologian advisors conveyed to the artists, who then realized the ideas in paint. Thanks to these “technical advisors” to Michelangelo et al, the Sistine Chapel became a vast religious book to be read by the initiated. “To us today, by contrast, this biblical visual idiom is largely lost,” Father Pfeiffer laments. Thanks to his efforts, we can now read again the language of that idiomatic code. Fans of the mythical Da Vinci Code should revel in this real-life religious code-breaking performed right before our eyes.

Southern wall: Sandro Botticelli, The Punishment of Korah, with scenes of the ships of Solomon and Jehoshaphat at Ezion-geber waiting to depart for the green land of Ophir, and the attempt to stone Moses. From The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, Abbeville Press. Photo credit: ©Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Vaticani, A. Bracchetti/P. Zigrossi.

In 1482, Pope Sixtus IV, a Franciscan who “cultivated allegorical Biblical exegesis,” called upon artists Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Perugino to begin work on decorating the Sistine Chapel. Sixtus IV dedicated the Chapel to the Virgin Mary. “Mary’s immaculate conceptiion,” Father Pfeiffer writes, “and hence the true role of the Mother of God in God’s will, influenced the artistic conception of the fresco decorations of the chapel from the outset.” Even works such as Botticelli’s The Punishment of Korah contain hidden references to Mary from the Old Testament book of Exodus. Throughout the rest of his analysis of the Sistine Chapel, Father Pfeiffer returns over and over to the centrality of Mary in the scheme of the art. Not only does Mary reach back to the Old Testament, but she reaches forward to the Church as the theological “type” of the Church and the “bride” of Jesus, her son. Parodoxically both wife and mother, Mary’s relationship with Jesus represents just one of the complex interweavings of multiple layers of meaning found in the works of the Chapel, which speak to one another as they speak to us with one powerful voice. Father Pfeiffer amazes with his ability to wed the visual evidence of the art and trace it back to specific theological concepts and even the specific original texts and authors of those concepts. If they ever film Indiana Jones and the Vatican Archives, Father Pfeiffer should get the part.

The prophet Daniel, symbolizing reason, draws his vision on a piece of paper with charcoal. The nude figure representing will carries the large open book, while memory is portrayed behind the prophet’s shoulder. The two pairs of children in the illusionistic marble reliefs perform their nuptial dance. From The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, Abbeville Press. Photo credit: ©Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Vaticani, A. Bracchetti/P. Zigrossi.

After demonstrating the interplay of typology between the Jesus frescoes and the Moses frescoes along with walls, Father Pfeiffer tackles the grand ceiling frescoes of Michelangelo, which he began in 1508 at the request of Pope Julius II, Sixtus IV’s nephew. Julius II clearly wanted to carry on his uncle’s program. The ceiling frescoes detail the world before Mosaic law, completing the trinity begun by the walls that examined the world both during and after Mosaic law. I use the word “trinity” specifically to give a sense of how even the religious concept of the Trinity takes physical and artistic form in the Chapel in so many ways over and over. These ideas ricochet everywhere in the text, and Father Pfeiffer beautifully handles every carom and angle in explaining these interconnections without losing the reader. When he explained how the five male prophets (including Daniel, above) correspond to the female sibyls in another bride/groom allusion, I saw those familiar figures in a whole new light. When Father Pfeiffer went on to explain how the two smaller figures accompanying each of the prophets and sibyls play out the mental state of the larger figure in a “psychological trinity” (there’s that word again), I finally accepted that no detail, however small, can be considered arbitrary in the Sistine Chapel. Everything, even the colors of the clothing worn by each figure, contributes to the nexus of meaning.

The Fall, detail: Adam does not take the fruit from Eve, but picks it with his own hands. The stump with the leafless branches symbolizes the Tree of Life, or the cross. From The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, Abbeville Press. Photo credit: ©Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Vaticani, A. Bracchetti/P. Zigrossi.

Father Pfeiffer’s main concern is the embodied theological meaning of the art, but he still demonstrates the artistry of the masters, especially Michelangelo. As Michelangelo grew more confident in his fresco technique, he evolves from the painter of huge crowded scenes of the story of Noah to the creator of simpler, more focused images starring larger figures such as Adam and Eve in The Fall (above). Michelangelo’s artistic confidence parallels a theological confidence as he began to internalize all those years of theological advisors whispering in his ear. In The Fall, Eve takes the fatal fruit from the hand of the serpent, who has the upper body of a woman but the lower half of a snake, but Adam picks the fruit with his own hand, deviating from the Biblical text. Any fears that Father Pfeiffer’s thesis would diminish the acheivement of the Sistine Chapel artists, transforming them into painterly stenographers, disappear as Michelangelo emerges as the first artist to serve as his own technical theological advisor.

Mary’s head shows the technique of spolvero, or pouncing, in which the composition is transferred from the cartoon by rubbing charcoal dust through holes pricked along the lines of the cartoon. The dots left by the charcoal dust are visible, for example, along the lips. From The Sistine Chapel: A New Vision, Abbeville Press. Photo credit: ©Archivio Fotografico dei Musei Vaticani, A. Bracchetti/P. Zigrossi.

When Michelangelo begins work on The Last Judgment in 1534, he refuses any theological advisors at all. (Pietro Aretino, who would have been that advisor, took offense and retaliated by accusing Michelangelo of homosexuality. In response, Michelangelo used Aretino’s face for that of St. Bartholomew, who holds the flayed skin upon which Michelangelo painted his own self-portrait.) The Last Judgment serves as a curtain call for all the other figures in the Sistine Chapel—the neat bow with which the total package is wrapped. The mad press of nude bodies seen in The Last Judgment represents the “architecture” of the Church itself, composed of the bodies of the living members on Earth. The Virgin and Christ as judge co-star in this final act. Mary (above, in close up) actually appears pregnant, representing “the Church in birth pangs with the whole of humanity.” Christ, modeled on the Apollo Belvedere in a show of Michelangelo’s classical, pagan aesthetic, commands the scene with his raised hand of damnation, the “gesture [that] causes the entire painting to tremble, down to the last, lowest corners.” By going character by character and teasing out the meaning of every glance and gesture, Father Pfeiffer makes sense of the riotous chorus of the saved and the damned and gives us a long, deep look into the mind of Michelangelo as he conceived the mind of God. (Da Vinci Code fans should note that Mary Magdalene appears to the right of Christ, dressed in yellow-green. Make of that what you will…)

Father Pfeiffer remarks in his epilogue that he hopes that his study of the theological underpinnings of the Sistine Chapel’s art brings back the study of the ideas embodied by art and not just the surface beauties of the work. His exegesis of the Sistine Chapel will instill a new reverence and awe for even those who have studied these works for years. Just as Father Pfeiffer’s text focuses more and more closely on every detail of the art, the illustrations accompanying the text offer a vision of the art that I’ve never encountered before. To come close enough to see the charcoal dust remaining on the Virgin’s lips as a remnant of Michelangelo’s technique is to see these works as the artist himself saw them centuries ago on the scaffolding. While the miraculous restoration effort restored the colors beneath the grime, Father Pfeiffer’s A Sistine Chapel: A New Vision restores the imaginative power and spiritual intensity of that truly magical space.

[Many thanks to Abbeville Press for providing me with a review copy of this book as well as the images above.]