Monday, April 30, 2007

Blathering on Barnes

I’ve been participating on the PMA’s member community message board for a while now. (You need a PMA member account to log on.) On the whole, it’s a rather dead expanse, but “Wm.” recently livened things up by beginning a thread on the move of the Barnes Foundation artworks to the Parkway in Philadelphia and then not liking what he heard. (Above is Matisse’s Joy of Life from the Barnes collection.) Below is Wm.’s response to my enthusiasm over the move and, below that, my response to him. (I’ve put some explanatory notes in bold and brackets.)

Here’s Wm.:
In my view, the proposal to move the art collection of Dr. Albert and Laura Barnes to a downtown location represents the greatest art theft in world history. Even the British didn’t manage to pull off so glibly such a crime even when robbing the middle east of its treasures.

It astounds me that this robbery is occurring in broad daylight with almost no public comment except the rather indifferent exchange we see between Bob {That’s ME!--Bob} and Brian {A third party on the thread who has remained silent so far. --Bob}. The press ignores what is being done by the city’s fathers as if in complicity.
Ed Rendell is financing the majority of the proposed move as a political favor to Philadelphia’s financial backers of his political campaigns; Philadelphia’s museum industry succeeded in infiltrating and discrediting the Barnes trustees rendering them hypnotized and helpless in protecting Dr. Barnes’ treasures; there has been a long running and lively conspiracy between the city and it’s elite on museum row to steal the Barnes’ collection going back to Dr. Barnes’ time.
Dr. Barnes knew about this conspiracy and attempted to protect his collection and museum from these lustfully acquisitive people. Dr. Barnes’ effort appears to be failing because of the weight of money and political manipulation against him, and the malfeasance of the people he trusted to govern his affairs after his death -- So much for trusting your trustees!!
What this proves is that nothing that anyone has within range of Philadelphia’s moneyed elite is safe. If the moneyed elite want what you have to self-aggrandize their museums, then the moneyed elite will subvert justice, overturn estates, ignore personal wishes and pick even the locks on your doors to grab what they want.
I can imagine that Museum Row will soon require inventories of our personal holdings in art and artifacts, mandating these things to themselves regardless of our wishes, even prying our rigor mortised fingers off the objects of their rapaciousness.
Please, enough of the blather of Brian and Bob {ME! Again! --Bob}. It is enough to strangle me. Please, someone speak of consequence. {Now that hurt… --Bob}
Does anyone out there really believe that Philadelphia has the right to commandeer the art collection of Dr. and Laura Barnes, gut the garden environment that houses it, and move the whole thing to downtown Philadelphia to be exhibited in a faux-museum, devoid of its contextual environment where it was arranged as an organic whole, and set the whole thing up on museum row, as if the paintings, ripped from their context, were cheap reproductions on black velvet being marketed to bus loads of acquisitive tourists?
I’m not holding my breath.


My response:

At the risk of blathering further and giving Wm. the vapors, I would like to respond to his points below.

First, I thank him for injecting some life into this discussion board, however uncivil and uninformed.

Now, the move of the Barnes collection to the Parkway in Philadelphia is neither a theft nor a conspiracy. This is not the Elgin Marbles leaving Greece for England. This is a collection of art moving 10 minutes drive time away to a location with more public transportation and parking. Not only will the collection be more accessible, but it will also be better conserved, thanks to the greater income from the increased patronage. Anyone who truly loves these paintings will appreciate their increased visibility and preservation at the minor cost of 10 minutes driving, even at today’s gas prices.

The Mellon Foundation just gave $5 million to the Barnes for “scholarly activity,” which is perhaps the first of many fringe benefits of the move. I blogged about this just yesterday, by the way. The dearth of scholarly works on the Barnes collection is a wrong that will soon be righted by this gift.

Wm. seems to suffer from the myth of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, which I boil down to words versus actions. Following the philosophy of John Dewey, Barnes nobly dedicated much of his riches to creating a museum of great art to educate the public, placing faith in Dewey’s idea that culture would create better citizens and, therefore, a better society. Barnes also enlisted the help of William Glackens, an artist, to point out cutting edge artists such as Renoir and Matisse and help create a collection.

Unfortunately, Barnes actions got in the way of his words. Barnes soon promoted himself and not Glackens as the “discoverer” of the artists in his museum. When poor workers came in to the foundation to interact with the art and ungratefully had thoughts and desires not involving the aggrandizement of Barnes’ ego, he decided that Dewey’s ideals were better in the abstract than in practice, and thus closed off access to his artwork through a baroque labyrinth of rules and regulations that stand to this day.

Please forgive me if I don’t see Dr. and Laura Barnes as heroes.

Also, the whole idea of a new location as a “faux” museum is ludicrous. By Wm.’s definition, all museums are fakes. Did the Greeks conveniently leave a temple at the outskirts of Philadelphia for William Penn to find and turn into the PMA? Did Barnes plant a seed and grow his “organic whole” out of the earth?

I don’t want to get personal, but I will. I sense a Barnesian distaste for the public at large in Wm.’s envenomed phrase “bus loads of acquisitive tourists.” Combining your archaic use of “Wm.” for “William,” your distaste for Ed Rendell, and your misplaced sense of victimization as shown in your fear of “Philadelphia’s moneyed elite” coming for “personal holdings” of artworks, I’m going to profile you as an elderly, wealthy, Republican, white male wondering how all this messy democracy can be stopped, like pushing toothpaste back into the tube.

I’m picturing you, Wm., as a Main Line Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), finally realizing that the internet isn’t a truck but still stuck on the idea that it’s a series of tubes. That picture may explain your lack of civility on this board, but doesn’t excuse your overall disdain for those who disagree with you or those who would enjoy the Barnes collection at the “expense” of your private enjoyment. The internet and the new Barnes on the Parkway are realities that you’ll either have to come to terms with or not. So sorry if democracy is too messy for you, but for the rest of us, like the Barnes collection, it’s a beautiful thing.

--Bob (

Sweet Justice

My wife requests that, as a public service announcement, I blog about one of the great threats to the American way of life happening right now: the bastardization of chocolate! Go to the Don’t Mess With Our Chocolate website to learn more and file a complaint. Time is running out!

The basic facts are that the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA) is lobbying the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow them to change the composition of their chocolate. Vegetable fat would replace cocoa butter. Milk substitutes would replace actual milk. Chocolate would then be less aesthetically pleasing as well as less nutritionally sound. The reasons at the heart of this are solely profit-driven, of course.

As unserious as this may sound to some, it’s just another case of industry maximizing profits at the expense of consumer welfare with the complicity of government. Making a stand here is as good a place as any. The power of chocolate may finally make people rise up and say they’re not going to take it any more.

(Above is a photo of an amazing chocolate Mona Lisa, the most incredible image I could find when searching for “chocolate art.”)

All I Got Is a Photograph

Every time I see your face,
It reminds me of the places we used to go.
But all I got is a photograph
And I realize you're not coming back anymore.

Photograph, by Richard Starkey (aka, Ringo Starr) and George Harrison

Victor Keegan, one of the Guardian’s art bloggers , asks UK galleries to “Snap to It” and allow patrons to photograph the works of art, just as some other countries’ galleries allow. I’m of a divided mind on this one.

On one hand, it’s nice to have a memento of your experience. I admit that my wife and I have photos of ourselves in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. In the background are scores of other people doing the same thing. The Mona Lisa endures more flash photography per day than a dozen supermodels thanks to the special protection surrounding it. The Mona Lisa is a monument of art, so standing in front of it like you would a historic building or the Grand Canyon is understandable and acceptable.

It’s acceptable, of course, if you take the time to look at the artwork, the building, or the Grand Canyon. As some of those commenting on Keegan’s post point out, allowing photography (sans flash, of course) encourages people to race through galleries with digital still cameras or video cameras welded to their faces. People try to replace the art experience with a reproduction of that experience. I knew that I may have that one opportunity in front of the Mona Lisa, so I took my time (or what time the surging crowd would allow) actually to look at the painting in the flesh and try to mentally appreciate it for the first time free of the shortcomings of reproduction. The Mona Lisa, as I’ve mentioned before, presents one of the most anticlimactic art experiences a hardcore art nerd can have, but that’s an appraisal one needs to make without looking through a viewfinder.

Unfortunately, the typical Mona Lisa “experience” resembles the photograph above: a crowded, blurry mess composed more of impressions than actual sensory data. It takes mental discipline and a true love of art to slow yourself down and avoid making the experience just another check mark on a list. All you’ll have is a photograph and you won’t be coming back any more. Listen to Ringo.

(Coincidentally, after I wrote this post, I saw the cover of the April 30, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, which pokes fun at this same phenomenon of photographing art. Harry Bliss’ “Paint by Pixels” shows a couple standing before a huge abstract expressionist painting yet mesmerized by the same painting displayed on the tiny screen of their digital camera.)

[BTW, the question of whether allowing photography will cut into postcard sales in museum shops is, to me, moot. As long as the postcards offer higher reproduction quality than your average digital print, people will buy. In my opinion, the real issue regarding shop profits and museums rests in the question of whether to charge admission. I fall wholeheartedly on the side of free admission, believing that the minimal loss in admission fees (in terms of the overall gross income of most museums) is more than offset by increased patron numbers and the subsequent visits to restaurants and shops. Swedish museums that moved to free admission and then back to paid admission have painfully found this out. Getting people in the door should be the highest priority. Increased access for families and people with limited income, thus opening up whole new vistas of culture to those who would otherwise may never think to enter a museum, is simply sweet icing on the cake.]

Museums Sans Frontiers

Islamic Art goes online big time with the Museum With No Frontiers (MWNF) Islamic Art website (via The 24 Hour Museum).

The basic equation for art history is access plus education equals appreciation and understanding. This new initiative brings full access through the internet and provides enough education to ensure appreciation and, more valuable for today’s cultural and political climate, understanding of Islamic culture. Sections on the different Islamic traditions, from the Umayyads to the Ottomans, cover the diversity of Islamic art and dispel misconceptions of Islam as a monolithic entitity. Other common misconceptions of Islam, such as its perceived misogyny and iconoclasm, are countered, respectively, by sections on women and figurative art.

The vast reach of Islamic culture and art becomes clear in sections on the Muslim West and the Normans in Sicily. Of course, sections on familiar aspects of Islamic art, such as calligraphy and geometric design, are covered as well.

I confess that I know little of Islamic art save from reading a few general histories, but the beauty of this style has always attracted me. An example of a mihrab, the niche in mosques that indicates the direction of Mecca, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York appears above. This combination of spirituality and artistic beauty, something my own heritage of Catholicism also shares, resounds with me regardless of doctrine. The beautiful calligraphy of illuminated Qur’ans also resounds deeply with my inner book/art nerd.

I encourage everyone to just wander around this great new website and open yourself up to the beauty, history, and spirituality throughout.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Our Masterpiece

May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

Forever Young, Bob Dylan

On this date one year ago today, the most beautiful, magical work of art came into the life of my wife and I—our son, Alex (above at 6 months and below at around 11 months).

We’ve begun his art education already. Alex visited the PMA to see the Tesoros/Treasures/Tesouros: The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820 exhibit. Strapped to my chest in a baby carrier, his little feet pumped with excitement when we later visited Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Cezanne’s Large Bathers in the Impressionism section. Alex visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York seated high above the crowds on one of the museum’s baby carriers strapped to my back. He patiently waited until his parents finished wondering at Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit in the Americans in Paris: 1860-1900 exhibit .
I can’t wait until he picks up his first crayon, then his first pencil, and then his first brush. I look forward to many masterpieces to put on the fridge and my office wall. Regardless of what vocation he later pursues, I want him to experience art, to feed on this food for the soul and grow into a person with the depth and breadth to understand and appreciate the world around him. To see his imagination and curiosity growing each day at this age just makes me more excited to be there when he grows older and more curious about his world and learns how he can grasp it through his imagination. As a parent, the greatest fun for me is watching each of his new experiences and reliving them anew through his eyes. Picasso once said that he spent his entire life trying to draw like a child, and anyone who has loved a child knows exactly what he means. They are how the world stays forever young.

Happy Birthday, Alex!

Inventive Genius

Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph machine (maybe) and namesake of Morse code after he was a painter of some achievement, was born on this date in 1791. Above is his most famous painting, The Gallery of the Louvre, which is really more of a painting about painting and paintings in museums.

The Gallery of the Louvre remains one of the great art history paintings in how it shows the crowded presentation of the Louvre circa early 1830s. Morse’s painting also amuses because it shows the Mona Lisa hanging inconspicuously near the bottom of the wall, to the right of the doorway. It would be many years before Da Vinci’s work would achieve the renown it has today and find a home behind bulletproof glass. (Donald Sassoon’s Becoming Mona Lisa documents the evolution of the Mona Lisa into a cultural icon. The chapter on the Mona Lisa in Monica Bohm-Duchen’s The Private Life of a Masterpiece: Uncovering the Forgotten Secrets and Hidden Life Histories of Iconic Works of Art does a nice job, too.)

Morse typifies the Renaissance man of the 19th century, essentially dropping his artistic career to pursue the science of telegraphy. Unfortunately, Morse also typifies another strain of 19th century America—religious justification of slavery, saying that “Slavery per se is not sin.” (“Per se”?!?) Despite this shortsightedness characteristic of his time, Morse remains an interesting figure in early American art.

{UPDATE: Welcome readers of David Packwood's Art History Today blog! David is teaching a course on the history of the Louvre and has other paintings showing how it looked back in the day.}

Freeing the Barnes Collection

Another great step towards freeing the collection at the Barnes Foundation, which has been held virtual hostage in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, since the days of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, was made with the announcement of a $5 million USD grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support scholarly activity at the Barnes Foundation as it makes its move to a new location in Philadelphia. (Georges Seurat’s Models, which shows the more famous A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte in the background and is in the Barnes collection, appears above.)

Art historians Martha Lucy, Kate Butler, and Claudine Grammont have already received access to the Barnes archives. Yve-Alain Bois and John House will be guiding their research.

One of my many frustrations with the Barnes Foundation (and there are many, such as the underappreciated role of William Glackens) has always been the lack of scholarly publications. I have their Great French Paintings from The Barnes Foundation: Impressionist, Post-impressionist, and Early Modern, but that barely covers the depth and breadth of the collection. Opening the doors to scholars who can, for example, examine the connections Barnes saw between the work of El Greco, whom Barnes collected, and modern painters, can only draw more attention, scholarly and amateur, to the collection.

Freeing the paintings of the Barnes Foundation from the tomb Dr. Barnes confoundingly devised for them in so many ways will benefit everyone—Philadelphia culturally and economically, as well as the art history field in general.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cheapskate Unbound

My inner cheapskate, compulsive book nerd, and fanatical art lover have joined hands and are now dancing in a ring inside of me after my lunchtime acquisition of a pristine new copy of William E. Wallace's Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Archetecture at the low, low price of $20 USD! Unlike Michelangelo's Unfinished Bound Slave (above), my inner cheapskate, ringleader of my internal celebration, has come unbound (and perhaps unhinged) after plucking this gem retailing for $95 USD from the remainder rack. My long search for an affordable, comprehensive book on Michelangelo with quality reproductions is over. After flipping through the book in my office and marveling at the crisp reproductions and stunningly detailed closeups, I'm still amazed at my luck. Now all I have to do is lug this monstrosity home. Ah, but that's a labor of love...
(BTW, the Unfinished Bound Slave above is one of the unfinished sculptures at the Galleria dell'Accademia, in Florence, Italy, lining the hallway leading up to the statue of David. If you're ever in Florence and get to visit the Accademia, don't rush up to the buff, naked guy and miss these fascinating glimpses of Michelangelo caught in the act.)

Picturing War

The Art Newspaper interviews the official Iraq war artist of the United Kingdom, Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor) in their latest issue. McQueen, winner of the Turner Prize in 1999, wants to honor the war dead of the UK by placing portraits of individual fallen soldiers on postage stamps. “I didn’t want to make an object that was gathering dust in a museum, somewhere that hardly anyone knew about,” McQueen says. The initial application for the stamps has been rejected by the Royal Mail, but McQueen hopes that the 5-year waiting period will be waived (as had been done for a victorious English cricket team in 2005) and his work will made available to the public.

The documentation of war by art is always a difficult proposition. England chose John Singer Sargent to document their involvement in World War I. Sargent’s Gassed (above) remains the finest painted image of modern warfare for me. Troops blinded by mustard gas lean on one another as they march forward in this almost frieze-like image. Unfortunately, Sargent’s depiction met with some displeasure for displaying the cost and, perhaps, the visionless madness of armed conflict.

I do not know if the United States has chosen an artist to depict American involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it’s hard to imagine something like that happening in the current cultural climate. American artists’ depictions of war usually tend towards portraits of generals. The only true American war artist that I can conjure up is Mathew Brady, whose photography of the American Civil War remains the definitive portrayal most Americans have of that conflict. Brady’s photo of fallen soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg (above) poignantly captures the tragic drama of war. Some have accused Brady of posing some of the dead to create more dramatic images, as if that were some kind of cheating, somehow making death in battle more dramatic or even beautiful than it is in reality, propagating what Wilfred Owen called “the great lie” that “it is sweet and right to die for one’s country” in the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

I don’t see Brady’s artistic license (assuming he exercised it) or Sargent’s classical allusion as glossing over the senseless reality of war as much as infusing it with meaning. Their images serve those who remain more than the fallen, reminding us of a great cost and why that cost should never be paid again. Any artistic license that engages the viewer should be welcomed. These are not propaganda glorifying war but testimonies to its inglorious consequences. We can only hope that McQueen gets the opportunity to present those consequences to the British public each time they receive or mail a letter.

Homage to Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix, one of the most beloved and influential painters France has ever produced, was born on this date in 1798. The sweeping Romanticism of Delacroix’s work resounds throughout art history, taking the lessons of masters such as Peter Paul Rubens from the past and reaching forward with his wild freedom into modern art through his influence on figures as diverse as Edouard Manet and Pablo Picasso. Delacroix’s fevered interpretation of The Lion Hunt from 1861 is above.

I remember seeing the 1998 PMA exhibit Delacroix: The Late Work and coming away amazed at the range of his work. Even the floral still lives he did vibrated with the same energy and imagination found in more exotic subjects such as Death of Sardanapalous (above).

I believe that Delacroix’s Christ on the Sea of Galilee (above) is the finest approach to that subject since Rembrandt’s. Both artists convincingly recreate the danger of the tempest while beautifully expressing the psychology of the apostles purely by physical gesture.

Delacroix may be the subject of the finest tribute painting ever done, Henri Fantin-Latour’s Homage to Delacroix (above). Seeing this at the Musee D’Orsay in person was a great thrill for me, as I’ve seen it so many times in reproduction that I can point out who’s who. Fantin-Latour places himself to the left of the portrait of Delacroix in a white shirt. Standing just to the left of the portrait is curly haired James McNeill Whistler. On the other side of Delacroix’s portrait is the red-bearded Manet, to whom Delacroix’s view is directed, perhaps pointing to Manet as his choice for the new direction of French painting. To have included all of those influenced by Delacroix (Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, and Henri Matisse are just a few) would have been impossible.

(As I’ve said before, a visit to the Delacroix Museum in Paris is on my “before I die” list.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Memento Mori

I just got a chance to go through the companion book to the Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005 exhibit that appeared earlier this year at the Brooklyn Museum. For those who know her only for the shallow celebrity work she’s done for Rolling Stone, this collection will surprise.

Leibovitz’s shallow celebrities are there, of course. Scarlet Johansson, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Nicole Kidman seem even more plastic in well-lit, well-composed, still photography than they do in motion pictures. But there are some intriguing celebrity photos as well. Sylvester Stallone’s torso (circa 1993) in all its grotesque muscularity and popping veins almost doubles for antique statuary. A young, topless Cindy Crawford entices as a believable Eve, complete with snake. Chris Rock turns the racial tables by appearing in whiteface. Even the notorious pregnant Demi Moore nude for the cover of Vanity Fair seems now more like a modern madonna (no, not that Madonna).

However, all these images pale before the photographs of Susan Sontag, Leibovitz’s companion during the span covered by the book until Sontag’s death in December 2004 (a photo of Sontag by Leibovitz is above). Photo series of Sontag sitting in a car, laying on a bed, nude in a tub, and dwarfed by the rocky entranceway to Petra give way over time to her battle with cancer, culminating in series of images of her laying in a hospital bed and finally in her open casket. Sontag’s trademark white streak in her raven hair grows to envelop all of her hair as her cancer takes hold. Leibovitz beautifully documents Sontag’s struggle with an undying love and unerring eye. Perhaps the most poignant images of Sontag are those showing only the notes on her desk for The Volcano Lover, a precursor to the absence that would be felt after her wonderful, opinionated voice went silent.

Leibovitz also captures the spirit of some of her fellow artists: Cindy Sherman, Chuck Close, Brice Marden, Matthew Barney, Julian Schnabel, and even photographs the shadow of Jasper Johns. Her photos of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain follow each maddening, shimmering curve of Frank Gehry's design. Leibovitz even photographs herself in a mirror nude and pregnant.

The imagination can’t help but be pulled in by Leibovitz’s often stirring photographs. A Nighthawk stealth fighter seems to pass by a church steeple, both solid black silhouettes against a slate grey sky, swift movement echoing stationary stone. A golden panorama of the Nile River celebrates Sontag’s 60th birthday. A bicycle fallen to the ground in Sarajevo in 1994 acts like punctuation at the end of long bloody swirls, asking where the rider has gone (image here, scroll down). A disturbing unsmiling portrait of the Bush cabinet from December 2001, with only Cheney and Powell even coming close to a sneer and Bush himself suppressing a smirk, recalls the days shortly after September 11th and emblemizes the days since.

Leibovitz’s body of work deserves a new appraisal if for nothing else than her devotion to Susan Sontag and the honesty of how she presents Sontag’s final battle, a love story to the end.

Mutual Envy

Via Art Knowledge News comes word of a Poets on Painters exhibit at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas. This exhibit pairs up 20 contemporary artists with 20 contemporary poets, placing the words of the poet next to each work.

I’ve been struck recently by the strength of the intersection between poetry and the visual arts. A friend passed on to me Poets on Painters: Essays on the Art of Painting by 20th Century Poets, edited by J.D. McClatchy. McClatchy’s collection contains art criticism by such poets as Wallace Stevens, William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden, and Randall Jarrell, but the prose of each selection approaches poetry in level of sensibility as well as turn of phrase. (For the Road, by Jack Yeats, brother of W.B. Yeats, is above.)

William Carlos Williams’ appreciation of American folk art painted “in the American grain” placed folk art in a new light for me. D.H. Lawrence’s lust for the lusty in modern art reminded me of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare’s Hamlet: you come away knowing more about Lawrence and Coleridge than about modern art and Hamlet. Stevens’ essay contains the same precise, complex thinking found in his poetry. “The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us,” Stevens says. “There is the same interchange between these two worlds that there is between one art and another, migratory passings to and fro, quickenings, Promethean liberations and discoveries.” Stevens and the other poet-critics in this collection help capture these Promethian sparks of insight into art so that lesser minds such as mine can only marvel and learn.

At the heart of this interchange between poetry and paint is envy. “The writer will always envy the painter,” James Merrill begins his essay. “And not the writer alone; it is the rare person who can look at anything for more than a few seconds without turning to language for support, so little does he believe his eyes.” Merrill sees the envy flowing one way, but so many painters have looked to literature for inspiration (even Michelangelo wrote poetry), that it’s clear that the feeling seems very, very mutual.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

An Improbable Balance

I just wanted to echo Richard Lacayo’s thoughts on the ability of modern abstract art to help us imaginatively cope with tragedies such as the Virginia Tech murders last week. I hesitated writing anything last week about the incident, because I felt that only time could provide perspective to such monumental senselessness.

Lacayo chose one of Mark Rothko’s somber red and black paintings in his post, but I’ve chosen Rothko’s Orange and Yellow from 1956 to show Rothko’s more hopeful side, often forgotten due to his tragic suicide.

To me, Rothko’s paintings, regardless of their colors, represent the transitory nature of art and life better than any other modern art. Because Rothko used army surplus canvas and cheap house paints for many of his works, they are degrading faster than normal works of the same age. Visit any Rothko painting in a museum and sneak a peek along the side. You’ll most likely see the canvas coming apart at the edges, starting from the rear and sides. The paints themselves have lost their color fidelity, changing into something Rothko did not intend, usually growing darker and more somber, as if the paintings themselves grieve over the passage of time and their own mortality. Rothko’s paintings mirror our mortality more faithfully than he could ever have imagined.

I’d like to finish with the image of Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk (also cited by Lacayo). Newman’s Broken Obelisk illustrates better than any flag at half staff our world cruelly broken off and turned inconceivably upside down. But, despite this brokenness, in the face of all logic and reason, a precarious equilibrium is regained and an improbable new balance allows us to go on. The inverted pinnacle of this broken obelisk of life reaches to the bottom of the 21st century’s Pandora’s box and finds imagination’s greatest gift—hope.

(David Packwood at Art History Today ponders the power of Nicolas Poussin to address the Virginia Tech tragedy.)

Writ in Water

William de Kooning, chief rival Abstract Expressionist to Jackson Pollock, was born on this date in 1904. The handsome Hollander (played by Val Kilmer in the movie Pollock) struggled with alcoholism most of his life before succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease in 1997. He titled one of his paintings Whose Name Was Writ in Water after the words John Keats requested as his epitaph. Although de Kooning’s life was nearly four times as long as Keats’ short existence, the sad nature of his lost memory and spirit to disease shrouds his life with a similar fragile fleetingness.

de Kooning can be a hard artist to love. His misogyny, as seen in his Woman paintings (Woman I is above), takes away from the rest of the great experiments in color and line his abstract expressionist works represent. But, whereas Pollock’s paintings were all rhythm and pace as he performed his heavy booted ballet around the periphery of his canvases, de Kooning’s paintings are beautiful in gesture even when violent, a clash of colors culminating in a unified whole that defies conscious construction. de Kooning’s drunken, lusting Id saturates each stroke, for good and for ill.

As his Alzheimer’s disease took its toll, his style changed into something simpler, more abstract, free of this misogyny but also free of the bold gestures of who he was in toto. Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning, a drawing by de Kooning given to Rauschenberg to be erased and then exhibited as conceptual art, symbolizes for me the “erasure” of one of the great artistic visions of the 20th century.

(de Kooning: An American Master, by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan is essential reading for anyone wanting to know more about de Kooning.)

Monday, April 23, 2007

Simply the Best

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born on this date in 1775. To me, Turner simply represents the best painting done since the Renaissance, combining the expert draftsmanship of his early work looking back towards the classical tradition and the experimental approach to light effects and free brushwork looking ahead to the Impressionists and all of modern art. John Ruskin, the critic who first championed Turner, called him “the greatest of his age,” and I think even that was an understatement.

When the PMA member discussion board asked for my favorite work in their collection, without any hesitation I said Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834 (shown above). Turner’s Burning remains one of those touchstone paintings in the PMA collection that I try to visit whenever I go there, if time allows. One of my favorite PMA memories is of sitting on a bench in front of Turner’s work in the British section, mesmerized by the colors and handling of the paint, taking in the dancing flames and the rhythm of the water, reveling in the solitude and silence of the empty, unguarded room. Alas, a tour group noisily working its way to another work finally broke the spell, but I still treasure that memory.

Seeing the Turners at the Tate Britain served as a kind of pilgrimage for me. To see his actual painting box and brushes on display felt like looking at holy relics. It’s easy to see why England chose Turner to represent them at the 50th anniversary of the European Union. If only each country and each age could claim such a talent.

(Those interested in learning more about Turner should read my favorite biography of him, Standing in the Sun: A Life of J.M.W. Turner by Anthony Bailey.)

Strange Dreams

Odilon Redon, one of the strangest and most disturbing early modernists, celebrated his birthday yesterday, being born on April 22nd, 1765. (Redon’s Cyclops is above and his Red Boat With Blue Sail is below.)

The fact that Redon studied under Jean-Leon Gerome in Paris in 1864, right around the same time that American realist painter Thomas Eakins studied under Gerome, is just one example of how before his time Redon was. Whereas Eakins took from Gerome his scientifically exact approach to art, Redon embraced Gerome’s exotic side and followed it to a phantasmagoric extreme.

Redon’s illustrations of Poe’s works are representative of his fantastic images taken from literature. Smiling and crying spiders, hot air balloons resembling huge eyeballs, and a cactus man are only some of the children of his fevered imagination.

Seeing Redon’s work at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris was one of the highlights of that collection for me. Redon’s pastels rival those of Edgar Degas and Maurice Quentin de La Tour for technique and often surpass them for sheer imaginativeness.

It wasn’t until the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York that Americans first saw Redon, but he remains a forgotten master.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Healing the Sick

I took another field trip this week to see someone in the hospital, specifically Benjamin West’s Christ Healing the Sick at the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. Sadly, it looks like the painting needs some healing itself—stat! (Above is another version of the painting. The Pennsylvania Hospital version is similar but has an obviously mentally ill patient added to acknowledge the hospital’s pioneering work with the mentally ill.)

Layers of dust cover the painting. Dust bunnies cling to the surface and hop across the floor in front of it. The surface of the huge painting buckles visibly in large sections, probably coming off of the stretcher and tearing away from the frame after years of gravity taking its toll. Someone had even wiped their fingers in the dust near the bottom left corner of the painting. My amazement at the achievement of this great example of the grand style of epic painting was matched only by my astonishment at its neglect.

I believe that one of the figures is a self portrait of West himself (over to the right, to the left of the woman in the white head scarf). Painters commonly would insert their likeness into such epic works, hiding among the “extras.” That head shows a much greater level of exactness than that of any of the others, including that of Christ. Looking at an acknowledged self portrait of West (above), I’m pretty sure I have a match. The idea of West being a bystander to his work’s destruction just makes things seem worse.

Perhaps when West’s work is added to the Philadelphia Hospitals’ Wing of the Walmart Museum of American Art, they’ll take better care of it.

Barking at the Moon

Joan Miro, one of the most playful and entertaining modernist painters, was born on this date in 1893. His Dog Barking at the Moon, owned by the PMA, appears above. (In the one art elective that I took as an undergraduate, I remember this as one of the instructor’s favorite slides.)

Miro gave Surrealism a Spanish flair different from that of his fellow Surrealist Spaniard, Salvador Dali. Whereas Dali’s Surrealism was more photographically exact, recognizable images in improbable contexts, Miro’s Surrealism is cartoonish, recognizable shapes playfully robbed of all obvious menace. If Dali is the nightmare, Miro is the daydream. But even that daydream can hide darker possibilities once you start to let your mind enter the work and ask why the dog is barking, where the ladder is headed, and other questions. The accessibility of Miro’s art spans all ages, appealing to inquisitive children and adults, speaking to each age's innocence and anxiety.

Whenever I listen to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, his final album before his tragic suicide in 1974, I think of the Miro-esque cover art (above) and this dark underside to Miro’s work. Although Drake’s gentle guitar and singing voice sound pleasant and often even hopeful, you can still hear the same ominous undertones also present in Miro’s imagery.

My favorite part of the Miro entry on Wikipedia is the reference to his gas sculpture. Could there be any more ephemeral and yet potentially beautiful physical medium for sculpture than fog or mist? Could there be any wackier idea than trying to sculpt thin air?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Who’s Next?

The Art Newspaper currently has an article about the latest trends in museum acquisitions. New media, such as film, video, and mixed media, are all on the rise, reflecting new technologies available to the modern artist. Old media, and I mean really old media, such as Greek and Roman antiquities, is on the downslide, mostly from the recent controversies over the home countries trying to reclaim their stolen heritage. But what really interested me about the article was their listing of the two hottest artists museums are pursuing, one name familiar and one name not: Jasper Johns and Kehinde Wiley.

Perhaps more than any other modern artist, Johns’ art suffers in reproduction. You really need to see the American flags, maps, and other encaustic works personally to appreciate the textures. Personally, I find the battle between Johns and Robert Rauschenberg for “best living American artist” in the minds of museum acquisition directors fascinating. Rauschenberg’s appeal has always eluded me, probably from my own lack of understanding, but Calvin Tomkins’ Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg provided a lot of insight into Rauschenberg’s work as well as his changing relationship with Johns.

I honestly had never heard of Kehinde Wiley, and really wonder why not. Fortunately, through the miracle of Google, no artist is more than a few clicks away today. Like any good modern artist, Wiley has his own homepage. Unlike most modern artists, however, Wiley freely steals from the past, specifically the Renaissance style, to present his own urban, hip hop imagery. The incongruity between the two styles, one classically artistic and one modernly commonplace, reinvents the people in Wiley’s work and allows a new audience to see hip hop in a new light. (I confess to little to no knowledge of hip hop culture. I don’t “roll like that,” he said in an old and Caucasian voice.)

Wiley’s Passing/Posing (St. Clement of Padua) (at the top of this post) transforms a circa 1970s Houston Astros’ jersey-wearing African-American man into a religious icon not only by his pose but also by the colors of the painting, blending the familiar festish for “old school” sports uniforms with the warm light of Renaissance saints. The halo-like sunburst around the figure’s head echoes the sunburst on the Astros jersey, an imaginative repurposing of modern design to mimic Renaissance iconography. (More paintings are available here from a 2005 Brooklyn Museum exhibit of Wiley’s work.)

Wiley’s Passing/Posing (Assumption) (above) draws parallels between the baggy clothing popular in hip hop style with the robes and monkish cowls of Renaissance saints. This figure could easily be a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi, but with the flowing vines and pink flowers of bucolic nature acting as a contrast to the youth’s darker urban reality. Perhaps this is an assumption into the afterlife, with the natural imagery providing a peace that most African-American youth never know today.

Wiley’s work disrupts many of the common assumptions mainstream culture has of hip hop culture and African-American youth. I believe that, unlike the art of many other African-Americans who have quickly risen to fame (Jean-Michel Basquiat comes quickest to mind), Wiley’s works have the staying power to become valued permanent acquisitions.

Watercolor Memories

The Guardian’s curmudgeonly art blogger Jonathan Jones asks “Why do you all dislike watercolors?” in anticipation of a J.M.W. Turner watercolors show this Summer at Tate Britain. I agree with David Packwood at Art History Today that, “[n]othing against Turner, but doesn’t his art, whatever the medium, get enough exposure?” But Jones’ gripe does raise the larger question of how watercolors are perceived.

From the eight-color sets for kids to the lyrics of “The Way We Were,” watercolors do often get the knock of being a lighter form of art, perhaps because it is the first color format many artists use, because many watercolors are simply studies for “more important” oils, because of the fragile nature of works on paper and issues of colorfastness, and maybe because amateurs such as myself can even give it a go now and then. (One of my favorite bits of JFK trivia is that he actually tried his hand at watercolors after some prompting by Jackie, who herself painted in watercolors.)

But I’d like to point out the incredible range of watercolor by using two examples from the same artist—Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth’s work in total suffers from a lack of appreciation, but his watercolors may be the least appreciated medium of all. Wyeth’s very, very early watercolors show such a freedom and love of expressive color that most people can’t believe that Wyeth did them. Wyeth has actually distanced himself from that time, favoring the more somber earth tones of his later tempera work. To flip through the catalogue of the exhibition of his early watercolors (catalogue cover above, the only image I could find online) is to wonder at the color and boldness of the best watercolors done by an American since Winslow Homer.

Wyeth did not give up watercolors entirely, but only the bold colors of his youth. Many of his later watercolors serve as preliminary works for his temperas, but others, such as Wolf Moon (shown above), stand alone. The contrasts of dark and white snow in the moonlight (actually the bare white paper reserved from the watercolor paint) are absolutely amazing. Seeing this work in person at the PMA retrospective exhibit of Wyeth’s work last year certainly put the magic into the “Memory and Magic” title of the show for me.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Waxing ‘Pataphysical

Taking to heart Alfred Jarry’s admonition to experience art in person more than in thought, I ventured out this week to the Bridgette Mayer Gallery to experience the current exhibit of works by young artist Ivan Stojakovic, “Global Nature.” (Stojakovic’s Neural Blossom diptych appears above [left half] and below [right half].)

Perhaps I have too much Jarry and Thomas Chimes in my head right now, but I couldn’t help but connect them with Stojakovic as I walked through the gallery and took in all the color and textures of Stojakovic’s work (reproductions really don’t do justice to the impasto technique or the colors). Jarry would have appreciated the catholic approach to imagery and technique Stojakovic employs. Pieces of technology, such as computer boards and fractal images, as well as biological forms, such as magnifications of cell structures, appear throughout. Thick ropes of acrylic paint comprising Net I and Net II (featured on the exhibit catalogue cover) mimic electrical wires.

At the same time, Stojakovic quotes elements of art history, such as Japanese woodcuts, as seen in the sprawling orange tree limbs covered in pink flowers networking across the two halves of Neural Blossom (shown above). Japonisme has intrigued Western artists since Edouard Manet, but Stojakovic modernizes it with acidic color, translating it into his personal, technicolor idiom (an image of furiously firing, "blossoming" neurons) while retaining the art history allusion. Jarry must be smiling down on this joyful celebration of imagery and color.

Chimes came into my mind because of this shared use of technological markings to create a private language. The contrast between Chimes almost purely white works at The Locks Gallery and Stojakovic’s color leaping from the walls of the Bridgette Mayer Gallery, only a few blocks away from one another in the historic area of Philadelphia, disguises their similar aims. Chimes consciously uses Jarry’s idea of ‘Pataphysics, i.e., an imaginary “science” playfully using the trappings of technology, but Stojakovic may be a subconscious ‘pataphysician. Of course, the true message of Stojakovic’s work may be that we are all ‘pataphysicians, willingly or unwillingly imbibing the technological flow surrounding us while hoping to retain the color and texture of imagination that gives life meaning.

Selling Banality

In the April 23, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, Calvin Tomkins profiles (not available online) one of my least favorite artists—Jeff Koons. (Koons’ life-sized ceramic statue of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles is above. Groan with me, please.)

With the possible exception of crayon-wielding Cy Twombly, Jeff Koons qualifies as the most bafflingly “important” modern artist I know. The 1988 exhibit that made him a name was appropriately titled “Banality.” He’s been selling banality ever since. Tomkins quotes Kirk Varnedoe describing one of Koons’ other works as “one of those very rare hits at the exact center of the target” in its ability to fuse “a ton of contradictions (about the artist, about the time)… with shocking, deadpan economy into an unforgettable ingot.” I don’t presume to read the mind of the late, great Varnedoe, but I’m not sure if this “ingot” of the 1980s was necessarily a good thing in Varnedoe’s mind. Encapsulating the zeitgeist isn’t much of a feat when the zeitgeist sucks. Those of you who lived through the 1980s know what I mean. Think Flock of Seagulls.

Tomkins states that he “decided long ago that Koons believes what he says.” Even to need to make such a decision shows the fundamental problem of Koons’ art. Tomkins sees Koons’ mission as “reconciling ordinary people to their tastes and preferences,” quoting Koons own desire to “remove my own anxiety” as well as that of others to make “everything… so close” and “available.” The specific cultural problem of America is not too much anxiety but this relentless Koonsian desire to remove it rather than address it. Koons wants to be the king of denial, with media figures such as Anna Nicole Smith as his queen.

Is there any better barometer of American culture today than the ratio of the coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s death versus that of Kurt Vonnegut? As tragic as Smith’s death was, her place in our society was miniscule next to Vonnegut’s, who helped shape the spirit of the 1960s and continued to address the anxieties of today in his A Man Without a Country. How long before the apotheosis of Anna Nicole appears out of Koons’ studio? Andy Warhol took Marilyn Monroe’s image and made it into a mirror of our society’s subsurface flaws. Jeff Koons takes figures such as Michael Jackson (and one day, mark my words, Anna Nicole Smith) and lightly spackles over the cracks of our time, neither analyzing our problems and anxieties nor offering any solutions.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Seeing and Believing

A piece in today’s New York Times spotlights an article in the Archives of Ophthalmology by Dr. Michael F. Marmour in which the good doctor has created computer simulations of the failing eyesight of Edgar Degas and Claude Monet to judge whether their later styles were a consequence of their afflictions.

Experts believe that Degas suffered from macular degeneration. Photos exist of Degas wearing sunglasses late in life. Monet had his cataracts removed in 1923 and actually destroyed some paintings he’d made shortly before the surgery.

Degas’ Blue Dancers (shown above), one of my favorite of his pastels, may illustrate some of the effects of his macular degeneration. However, if you look at Marmour’s computer simulation in the New York Times article, it shows a blurred image that could possibly account for the blurred details of the dancers faces, but it does not account for the vibrant strokes that make the image almost vibrate with color. I’d argue that Degas compensated for his loss of vision by simplifying his imagery, making the form of the dancers simply a skeleton upon which he could experiment with gesture and color. This simplification could have been a natural progression from his earlier, more realistic style. I just feel that it is unfair to attribute his later style simply to his affliction.

As I said before with Da Vinci’s possible syndactyly, such medical speculation is fun and possibly edifying, but I’m not sure if it’s constructive here. This theory may just further propagate the myth that Impressionism is a byproduct of myopia. (I'm blind without my glasses and still can't paint for beans.) If I had a nickel for every time I overheard someone looking at a Monet and commenting on his lack of eyesight, I’d retire. (Of course, Monet did destroy some of his works postsurgery, but his use of Impressionist technique predates his medical problem. It wasn’t that he disliked all his Impressionist works, but just the ones he did later in life. Impressionism was a means by which the effects of light could be examined, not the photographic representation of what the artist was able to see clearly at the moment.)

I view this theory the same way that I view Beethoven’s ability to compose after his deafness. The essential genius and the stored musical memory remained even after his hearing abandoned him. Likewise, Degas and Monet’s genius and stored visual library of gestures and techniques allowed them to continue to paint and overcome (perhaps with varied success) their poor eyesight.

Living Over Thinking

Anyone who came away from the Thomas Chimes exhibit at the PMA wanting to learn more about Alfred Jarry should read Jill Fell’s book, Alfred Jarry: An Imagination in Revolt. Fell gives a complete picture of Jarry’s influence as an author and artist, but also as an unconventional art critic.

The poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire judged Jarry’s woodcuts (his Veritable Portrait of M. Ubu is above and his Saint Gertrude is below) to be the finest examples of the full range of Jarry's artistic talent. Jarry credited Goya’s Disasters of War, Gustave Dore’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno, Odilon Redon’s monstrous imagery, and William Hogarth’s satires as influences on his work. In turn, the “psychological primitivism” (Fell, p. 84) of Jarry’s woodcuts would influence the German Expressionists, Der Blaue Rieter group, and Die Brucke group.

Such influences gave Jarry little anxiety in his use of them. “A really original brain works exactly like an ostrich’s stomach,” Jarry wrote. “Everything suits it, it pulverizes pebbles and mangles pieces of iron… A great personality does not assimilate anything at all, he de-forms it; better still, he transmutes it, in the upward direction of the hierarchy of metals. Finding himself in the presence of the unsurpassable—of the masterpiece—he does not produce an imitation, but a transposition.” (Quoted in Fell, p. 76) Jarry performed an act of alchemy in his work, taking all the elements of art, especially images of cruelty, such as those found in Goya and Dore, and creating something new and his own.

In both his artwork and his art criticism, Jarry placed a priority on living over thinking. In his art, Jarry strips away social, academic, and historical conditioning, bringing in high and low, beautiful and ugly, rudely (to most eyes) juxtaposing elements the same way that the Surrealists, who count Jarry as a predecessor, later would. I’ll never forget the scene with the razor and the eyeball in Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s short Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou. Jarry assaulted the eye and the imagination in the same unforgettable way. “Beauty, for Jarry, lay in the shock of the unexpected,” Fell writes. “Beauty had to be allowed to escape moral categorization and to encompass the cruel, the evil, and the monstrous.” (Fell, p. 137)

In his art criticism, Jarry always stressed actually seeing art for yourself over just reading or thinking about it. Jarry championed obscure, solitary, outsider artists over mainstream, established artists in his criticism, forever striving for new innovations. Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau, Ferdinand Hodler, Emile Bernard, and the members of Les Nabis group are only some of the artists Jarry knew and promoted in his work. An anti-theoretical critic, Jarry used a “paranoic-critical method” (according to Andre Breton) to guide the viewer past the superficial lines of an image and through to the underlying shapes within. Jarry’s criticism also took the form of poems (specifically about Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings) and a novel (in which Gauguin, Bernard, and Aubrey Beardsley each preside over a country reflecting the principles behind their art) in an attempt to escape conventional criticism and achieve something closer to art itself.

Jarry’s ideas serve today as a reminder that, although both are important, living should always take priority over thinking. Experiencing life, in all its beauty and ugliness, should always be more important than thinking about it (or reading blogs about it).

Monday, April 16, 2007

Founding Father

Charles Willson Peale, one of the founding fathers (in more ways than one) of American art, was born on this day in 1741. Equal parts renaissance man and showman, Peale contributed not only to the creation of an American nation but also to the creation of an American culture. The Artist in His Museum, my favorite of Peale’s self-portraits, appears above.

Peale fought in the American Revolution, rising to the rank of captain. Many of the iconic portraits of generals from the revolution and the “Founding Fathers,” such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were done by Peale, capturing their likenesses for posterity. The Second Bank of the United States gallery run by the National Parks Service (free admission) in Olde City Philadelphia now houses many of these portraits. It’s truly amazing to see such historic faces all gathered together in one place. Peale’s portrait of Washington at Princeton sold for $21.3 million USD in 2005, a record for an American portrait.

Peale also founded the first artists association in America, “The Columbianum,” in 1794. In 1805, Peale and other artists joined together to found the PAFA, the first museum dedicated to the advancement of American art. Peale’s Museum, founded in 1786 (and pictured in the portrait above), established naturalist studies in America. (Unfortunately, the mastodon in the portrait, one of the first unearthed, was assembled incorrectly due to the early stage of dinosaur studies at that time.)

However, Peale’s greatest achievement may have been in founding the first art dynasty in America. After naming many of his 10 children after his favorite artists (Rembrandt, Raphaelle, Rubens, and Titian), Peale taught all of this sons and daughters how to paint. Rembrandt Peale eventually emerged as the best of the second generation, but the room at the PAFA filled with the Peale family’s work reveals the strengths of all their work and testifies to the Peale's teaching gifts.

My second favorite painting by Peale is The Staircase Group (shown above) at the PMA, which shows Raphaelle and Titian climbing a staircase and even has a real step attached to the bottom of the frame. Legend has it that the lifelike painting fooled George Washington when he came to visit Peale so well that Washington bowed to it. I’ve always believed that The Staircase Group and its legend best encapsulate the core values of Peale’s life: country, family, art.

Lawrence of Obscurity

Last Friday, April 13th, was the 238th birthday of Sir Thomas Lawrence, principle portrait painter to King George III of England, third president of the Royal Academy of Arts, one of the greatest portraitists Britain has ever produced, and my choice for the most unfairly obscure, formerly acclaimed artist ever. His portrait of Master Lambton is shown above.

Lawrence followed Sir Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West as the third president of the Royal Academy in 1820 and held the position until his death in 1830. Despite his renown as one of the greatest portrait painters of his age, Lawrence suffered from debts and alcoholism and his world-wide reputation has suffered over time. He remains a significant minor figure in British art but is known only by specialists in America. The National Portrait Gallery in London, England, has many of his works in their collection and even has 13 portraits of the portrait maker, including his death mask.

I remember seeing Lawrence's work for the first time at the PMA. I knew nothing about Lawrence, but the way he painted textures of clothing was incredible, the closest I’d ever seen to John Singer Sargent in terms of making paint actually look like silk or fabric. The portrait of Master Lambton above shows some of the amazing facility Lawrence had with shimmering textures. But it was the lifelike eyes, almost moist with excitement, that really held my imagination and drove me to learn more about this painter. You can almost see his subjects think and breathe beneath their 19th century accoutrements, as if they could still speak to you now.

When my wife and I visited the Louvre, we were lucky enough to find more of Lawrence’s work there, tucked away in the 19th century British collection, far from the maddening crowds racing to see the Mona Lisa. On one hand, I wish more people could see the greatness of this long-forgotten painter. But, on the other hand, it was nice that afternoon in Paris to have such a great secret to ourselves.
UPDATE: Ed Pettit of The Bibliothecary Blog pointed out to me a New York Review of Books review (unfortunately, pay per view) of a new book on Lawrence. In comments, Ed also recommends a Lawrence painting at the LaSalle University Art Museum right here in Philadelphia. Thanks, Ed!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Play at the Plate

A post over at Art and Perception asking if artists cook the same way they make art made me think about the entire art of food plating. The Art and Perception post is about the act of cooking, whether you're following a recipe or your own bliss when cooking, rather than about plating, but I've seen enough Iron Chef to know that there are some wonderful ways of making great food look better. (My cooking tends more to surrealism, so I'll keep my own style to myself here.)
I found the photo above in an article about an art-inspired chef who tries to incorporate a painterly style into his plating presentations. I haven't seen it myself, but the go-to book for those looking to improve their own plating seems to be Working the Plate: The Art of Food Presentation by Christopher Styler with photos by David Lazarus.
As I write this blog, I always try to be more conscious of the way art is part of our daily lives. Aside from whatever public sculpture or architecture we pass on our way to work or whatever photos, prints, or calendars we hang on our walls, art, the act of artifice, is always all around us every day of our lives. Eating can also be another form of art in our lives, if we choose to see it that way, from the wrapper on a fast food burger to the elegant plating of the finest restaurant.
My wife and I, when we used to dine in nice places (i.e., pre-baby), loved to play "backseat chef" at restaurants when looking at the plating, a habit you can't help but pick up from watching Iron Chef. I always thought that there was a great mystery novel to be written in which the little dots and dashes of sauce on the periphery of a plate ended up being a message in Morse code sent by a desperate chef to the hero.
(And since we're on the subject of Iron Chef here, are there any six more terrible words spoken on the Japanese Iron Chef than "going for the ice cream maker"? They put some pretty horrible stuff in there, like they're trying to prove that you can make ice cream out of anything. I always thought that it would be a great interrogation technique: "Hans, get the ice cream maker... and some squid..." "NO, NO, NO, I'll talk, I'll talk!!!")