Friday, June 29, 2007

Father Figure

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), The Italian Woman with Carnations, 1887; Oil on canvas, 81 x 60 cm; Musée d’Orsay, Paris

“Van Gogh was father to us all!” Max Pechstein once enthused, speaking for himself and his fellow German Expressionists. Few pieces of accepted wisdom about modern art have reached the level of acceptance as the influence of Vincent Van Gogh on the Expressionists. The Neue Galerie’s exhibit and companion catalogue, Van Gogh and Expressionism, analyze this commonplace assumption and dig down to the roots of the Dutchman’s hold over the imagination of so many early German and Austrian artists and, consequently, their shared hold over own imaginations today.

Van Gogh’s influence on German art in the early twentieth century was twofold—through his paintings and through his legend. As Jill Lloyd, guest curator of the exhibit at the Neue Galerie, explains in the opening essay of the catalogue, dozens of shows were held in Germany shortly before World War I, including ten at the Berlin gallery of Paul Cassirer alone between 1910 and 1914. The widow of Van Gogh’s brother Theo, Jo Van Gogh-Bonger, helped make Van Gogh’s work available to this new, growing audience. (As Stephan Koldehoff remarks later in his essay on “Van Gogh in Public and Private Collections: His Introduction to Germany,” it is Jo’s “clever sales and exhibition policies” that “ensured that enough paintings were available for sale without creating an oversupply,” setting a standard for Van Gogh sales prices continuing to today.) To help promote these shows, art critic and gallery owner Julius Meier-Graefe published a series of monographs and books on Van Gogh emphasizing the more sensational aspects of his life and death. The German translation of Van Gogh’s letters in 1906 cemented Van Gogh’s reputation as a tortured genius in the minds of collectors and artists. “This is a brain suffering under the burning of a star,” Paul Klee wrote after reading Van Gogh’s letters. Collectors and artists both “hitched their wagons” to Van Gogh’s “star,” which glowed white hot with influence.

Max Pechstein (1881-1955), Young Woman with a Red Fan, c. 1910; Oil on canvas, 100 x 71 cm; Private collection, Courtesy Neue Galerie, New York

Initially, Van Gogh’s use of color and expressive brushstrokes influenced his German “children.” Young Woman with a Red Fan (above) clearly shows the influence works such as Van Gogh's The Italian Woman With Carnations (top of post) had on Max Pechstein’s use of vibrant color, including the use of complementary and contrasting colors to create even more vibrant visual palettes. “Van Gogh’s conviction that color was not descriptive but rather expressive and symbolic was vitally important” to artists such as Emil Nolde, Lloyd stresses. Almost all of the members of Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brucke groups go through some type of “Van Gogh phase,” often merging with the accompanying influences of related artists such as Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin. Alexj von Jawlensky, whose use of Van Gogh-esque color “introduces a coyness and self-awareness quite different from the disturbingly direct intensity of Van Gogh,” in Lloyd’s view, goes so far as to purchase one of his hero’s paintings. Wassily Kandinsky’s initial coolness to Van Gogh’s intensity gives way to an appreciation Van Gogh’s use of color as an expressive force, which Kandinsky uses as “a vital stepping stone in the development toward abstraction.” Franz Marc adopts a personalized version of Van Gogh’s color symbolism through a combination of seeing Van Gogh’s paintings and reading his letters. The life-force yellow of Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers becomes the joyous yellow of Marc’s Yellow Cow. Marc’s symbolism follows the spirit if not the letter of Van Gogh’s system.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), The Bedroom, 1889; Oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm; Art Institute of Chicago

Later artists such as Egon Schiele emulated Van Gogh’s use of expressive line and contour over his groundbreaking color and brushwork. Schiele saw many parallels between his own life and Van Gogh’s, especially when Schiele was persecuted by the law for his controversial nudes. This personal link between Van Gogh and Schiele finds its greatest expression in Schiele’s remaking of Van Gogh’s The Bedroom (above) as his own The Artist’s Bedroom in Neulengbach (below). Schiele takes Van Gogh’s environment and refashions it as his own, changing the perspective of the viewer and, although continuing to emphasize expressive line, uses his own distinct drafting style, personalizing the memory of Van Gogh for his own purposes. Later, during the dark days of World War I, Schiele painted his own versions of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, but now withered and dying to symbolize the dwindling European life force, sucked dry by conflict.

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), The Artist’s Bedroom in Neulengbach, 1911; Oil on wood, 40 x 31.7 cm; Wien Museum, Vienna

Additional essays in the catalogue pick out specific threads of Van Gogh’s influence. Chris Stolwijk analyzes Van Gogh’s own ideas about painting’s expressive power and asks “how far the advocates of Expressionism actually used Van Gogh’s life and work to suit their own purposes.” He centers this reading (or misreading) around Van Gogh’s view of art as “an opportunity to import universal values to the viewer, through themes and motifs taken from real life” versus the Expressionist’s priority of art “as the most effective expression of an artist’s individual emotions.” Olaf Peters tackles the thorny issue of German nationalism and National Socialism in regards to Van Gogh. Thanks in part to Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Van Gogh’s art as conveying the same homely “truths” as National Socialism did, German nationalists initially embrace Van Gogh as a “Germanic” (via the Dutch-Deutsch connection) artist. With the rise of Nazism, however, Van Gogh soon seems “too French” and a social outsider antagonistic to the collective ideal of the volk, culminating in the label of “degenerate art.” Patrick Bridgewater examines Van Gogh’s extra-artistic influence on literary expressionism. Poets such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Heym, and Gottfried Benn find inspiration in Van Gogh’s art and letters, embracing the Dutchman as a “patron saint” for those looking for liberation from the chains of the past. Paradoxically, Van Gogh helps readers “to find themselves through self-forgetfulness” through the inspirational power of his paintings and words.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Self-Portrait, 1889; Oil on canvas, 57 x 43.5 cm; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In perhaps the most intriguing essay, Michael Peppiatt addresses “The Legacy of Genius: Van Gogh and Francis Bacon.” Francis Bacon formed a complete identification with Van Gogh, keeping Vincent’s letters nearby as bedside reading throughout his artistic life. After seeing the 1956 film version of Van Gogh’s life, Lust for Life, Bacon paints a series of paintings based on Van Gogh’s The Painter on the Road to Tarascon. “For both artists nothing counted more, or was more difficult to achieve through art, than the recreation of life intensely lived,” Peppiatt asserts. Bacon often quoted Van Gogh’s remark that he wanted painted lies, “but lies that are more truthful than literal truth.” These “more truthful” lies appear most powerfully in Van Gogh’s self portraits, such as the one above from 1889. These portraits, along with the growing cult of Van Gogh’s personality (or the fictionalized personality marketed by art dealers), resulted in self portraits such as that by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (below). Schmidt-Rottluff uses both the expressive color and brushstrokes of Van Gogh while simultaneously identifying with the image of Van Gogh as tormented genius. Such emulating self portraits by Schmidt-Rottluff and others serve not only to acknowledge Van Gogh but also to create creative space from him. As Peppiatt says of Bacon’s relationship with Van Gogh, “Van Gogh was doomed, by his own brilliance, his own contradictions, his own overwhelming fate to be an artist—all things that Bacon shared and which… he had tried to get some distance from by painting them.”

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), Self-Portrait, 1906; Oil on canvas, 44 x 32 cm; Nolde Stiftung, Seebüll

Van Gogh and Expressionism pulls back the layers of accepted wisdom regarding influence and artistic lineage and sheds new light on old truths, not by dismissing them but by bringing them into sharper focus. This exhibit would tie in nicely with the recent exhibit The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso, which also featured key portraits by Van Gogh. Between those two exhibits and catalogues one could gain an entire education on the portrait in the twentieth century as fathered by those two modernist giants, Picasso and Van Gogh.

[Many thanks to the Neue Galerie in New York City for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to this exhibit as well as the images from the exhibit.]

In Hot Pursuit

Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946), Tiller Catting (2003), combined mediums on board, collection of Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth.

“I much prefer dogs to people,” says Jamie Wyeth in Dog Days, the companion catalogue to the exhibit Dog Days of Summer: Works by Jamie Wyeth at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in the heart of “Wyeth country.” “When working with dogs your mind can wander. I love to daydream and I can’t daydream with people next to me.” Jamie Wyeth’s daydreams made real show not only his love of animals but also the amazing technique of the youngest member of American art’s greatest dynasty.

In text taken from an interview with Lee Wierenga, Assistant Curator at the Brandywine and assembler of the Dog Days exhibit, Jamie Wyeth discusses his lifelong affair with animals, especially dogs, and how that affair has inspired some of his art. As Jamie points out, his father Andrew made many wonderful paintings of dogs (Distant Thunder may be my favorite) and his grandfather N.C. painted dogs but no “great” paintings with a dog, but it is more the styles rather than the subject matter of Andrew and N.C. Wyeth that emerges in the work here, such as Tiller Catting (above). Not only is the famous Wyeth attention to natural detail on display as well as the bravura brushwork, but the same impish humor of Andrew’s painting shines through in Jamie’s depiction of the absurd little dog struggling up a tree in hot pursuit. “What people refer to as humor in these works is completely unrehearsed,” Jamie offers, in line with the classic authenticity—a singular living completely in the moment—that distinguishes his and his father’s art.

Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946), Kleberg Study, White Wash (1984), combined mediums on toned board, collection of Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth.

Another impish moment of Wyeth humor appears in the paintings of Jamie’s dog Kleberg (one example above). Jamie painted on the dark circle around Kleberg’s eye to mimic the markings on Petey, the pet dog from the Our Gang movies. Jamie’s portraits of his many dogs over the years all glow with this same personal touch. “Like with people—when I do a portrait I need to know them personally,” he explains. “So when I choose to paint a dog, usually it’s a dog that I’ve known and lived with, and all of a sudden it strikes me that I have to record it. It’s not necessarily something they do, it’s just what I feel.” The viewer feels the presence of each of these dogs as well.

Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946), Newfoundland (1971), oil on canvas, private collection.

Perhaps the finest of Jamie’s dog portraits is titled simply Newfoundland (above), which depicts his pet Boom Boom as a looming, almost Sphinx-like presence silhouetted against a coastline. Sadness surrounds this work, which was once owned by the actor Gregory Peck and appreciated by Peck’s son, who died by his own hand. Boom Boom’s own death haunts the painting as well. “The tragedy of big dogs is they die so young,” regrets Jamie. “That is what I hate—and the death of a dog wrecks me infinitely more than the death of a person.” Perhaps for that reason, Jamie’s taste in dogs has shifted to Jack Russell Terriers, which he loves for not having a “small dog mentality.”

Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946), Cabbages and Kings (“Albert squeezed his eyes shut as the dog ran past”) (1996), combined mediums on paper, collection of the artist.

One of Jamie’s great Jack Russell portraits appears among his illustrations for the book Cabbages and Kings (above). Here we see a Jack Russell literally flying in pursuit of a rabbit. The dynamic sense of movement and narrative power recall the best illustration work of Jamie’s grandfather. The synthesis of his grandfather’s illustrative concern with the puckish humor of his father allows Jamie to unite all three generations of Wyeth artists in this single image.

“There was a wonderful article recently saying that [dogs] are a species in constant pursuit of the absurd,” Jamie recalls at one point, “which is a perfect description of them.” Jamie Wyeth’s paintings of dogs pursue this same absurdity we call life with a warmth, humanity, and humor that will appeal to the dog lover and art lover alike.

[Many thanks to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania for providing me with a review copy of Dog Days as well as images from the exhibit Dog Days of Summer: Works by Jamie Wyeth.]

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Something to Believe in

Hunting Wild Horses, 1846. William Ranney (1813-1857). Oil on canvas. 36 x 54.25 inches. Museum of the American West Collection. Autry National Center. Museum of the American West Collection. Autry National Center.

How is it possible that a painter renowned during his own time as one of the quintessential image-makers of the still-young American psyche can have been lost to the mists of time? In the exhibit Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney currently at the PMA, we can rediscover an artist who helped Americans visualize what their country could be and discover an artist who can still tell us much about ourselves today.

Not much is known about the life of William Ranney. Linda Bantel sleuthed out over the last ten years much of what we know about Ranney and has collected her findings in the wonderful catalogue to the exhibit, a marvelous piece of scholarship. The simple facts of his life presented in Ms. Bantel’s essay are these: Ranney was born in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1813; moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, as a teen after the death of his father; studied art somewhere in New York City in the 1830s; and finally settled down with his family in West Hoboken, New Jersey, around 1850, where he died of tuberculosis in 1857 at the age of 44. He left no diaries or letters. Other than from his paintings, all we know of his interior life comes from family stories passed down the generations. But this simple man was defined by one bold move in his life—volunteering to help fight in the Texas War for Independence in 1836. This defining moment of his life left an imprint on his artwork as much as it did the still-forming concept of the American West.

Although Ranney spent a scant nine months in Texas, it was enough to give birth to the central impetus of his art, albeit ten years later. After working as a portrait painter, the typical genre for working painters at the time, Ranney truly emerged as an artist after the Mexican-American War drove him to revive those memories of his time in the West and put them onto canvas in service of the same ideals that spurred him to volunteer for the cause. As Peter H. Hassrick points out in the catalogue to the exhibit, if Ranney “harbored sympathies for Polk’s expansionist cause” of the Mexican-American War, “he was among the large segment of the American populace who thought that winning Texas was not just the United States’ rightful claim of a deserved bounty in the Southwest, but an expression and preservation of democracy itself.” In paintings such as Hunting Wild Horses (above), Hassrick sees Ranney portraying not only the Westerner taming the wild frontier but also “the common man (the Texan)… battling against old world despotism (Mexico).” Ranney is a true believer in the sanctity of Manifest Destiny as part of the new faith of the American Ideal.

Marion Crossing the Pedee, 1850. William Ranney (1813-1857). Oil on canvas. 50.125 x 74.375 inches. Amon Carter Museum. Fort Worth, Texas. 1983.126. Amon Carter Museum. Fort Worth, Texas.

In works such as Marion Crossing the Pedee (above), Ranney intentionally connects the spirit of the American Revolution with the 1840s fervor for expansion in the Mexican-American War. Francis Marion, “The Swamp Fox,” led rag-tag American troops against the British in guerrilla-style warfare all through the South. Ranney undoubtedly heard legends of Marion during his time in North Carolina and selects Marion as an example of rugged American individualism squaring off against tyranny. Painted at the same time as Emanuel Leutze’s epic Washington Crossing the Delaware, in which George Washington stands and trumpets his presence, Ranney’s Marion Crossing the Pedee strikes a democratic, leveling note as Marion stands amongst his huddled troops, a muted presence, first among equals, but still blending in with the crowd. (For you Where’s Waldo? fans, Marion is the middle horseman of the three on the left.) Ranney actually tried his hand at idol-making in his Washington Rallying the Americans at the Battle of Princeton, restaging David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps for the Father of his Country, but such grand history painting struck the wrong chord in what Ranney saw as the grand concert of strong individuals making the new country side by side.

The Trapper's Last Shot, 1850, Dwight Booth after William Ranney (1813-1857). Engraving, 18 x 23 inches. Anonymous Lender.

Much of Ranney contemporary success came thanks to the American Art-Union, which promoted the work of Americans painting American scenes, including the distribution of prints of selected works to their membership, once 20,000 strong. Ranney’s Marion Crossing the Pedee spread across the country in print form. Another work distributed widely in print form was his The Trapper's Last Shot (above; original painting here). Ranney shows here the trapped Trapper, surrounded by unseen Indians waiting for him to fire his last bullet before moving in for the kill. In such works, Ranney shows his clear-eyed view of the West and all its very real dangers, including the displaced Native Americans. Despite these dangers, however, Ranney never fails to see the West as a place of promise. The beatific expression of Daniel Boone in Ranney’s Boone’s First View of Kentucky presents a “composed epiphany for an aspiring people,” Hassrick believes, to act as “a salve for wounds of disquiet as a celebration of future hopes for the country.” Between of the birth pangs of Western expansion and the rending of the national fabric from slavery and the impending Civil War, Ranney offers the healing power of nature in an Edenic image of paradise regained in the “undiscovered country” of the American west.

Duck Shooters, 1849, William Ranney (1813-1857). Oil on canvas, 26 x 40.125 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865. 48.470.

In addition to the scenes of history and Western adventure, Ranney painted quieter genre scenes of hunting and fishing, often painting the marshlands of West Hoboken in his own backyard. In Duck Shooters (above), Ranney shows off his bravura technique in the depiction of the hunters, their gear, and even their dogs. (Kathleen Foster, the curator of the PMA’s American collection, marveled at the mastery of Ranney’s dogs during the press preview for the exhibit.) All of the elements are exactly correct for the type of hunting involved, in tune with Ranney’s own following of the code of the sportsman. Just as with the code of the West, Ranney fervently believes in the code of the hunter and fisherman, revering nature in the proper ways of interacting with it through sport.

Advice on the Prairie, 1853, William Ranney (1813-1857). Oil on canvas, 38 3/4 x 55 1/4 inches. Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming; Gift of Mrs. J. Maxwell Moran, 10.91.

Ranney’s faith in the American dream remained strong even as his body weakened, tormented by tuberculosis. The Victim, a sinuous, almost Delacroix-esque depiction of a bull attacked by ravenous wolves, may symbolize Ranney's agony. In the late painting, Advice on the Prairie (above), Ranney transitions his view of the West from the old phase of the individual trapper to the new phase of the family unit colonizing the new world. As Hassrick points out, “The family in Ranney’s painting provides a pictorial embodiment of the supposed sanctity of expansion.” Not only does Ranney impart his own advice in this painting, but he also gives his final blessing.

Virginia Wedding, 1854, William Ranney (1813-1857). Oil on canvas. 54.125 x 82.125 inches. Courtesy of The R.W. Norton Art Gallery, Shreveport, LA. Courtesy of The R.W. Norton Art Gallery, Shreveport, LA.

In works such as Virginia Wedding (above), we see the gentleness and humor of Ranney’s vision. Ranney served as a mirror for his time, showing Americans of the first half of the nineteenth century the face they wanted to see in the mirror and, perhaps, needed to see in the mirror. During the press preview for the exhibit, Kathleen Foster pitched the exhibit as a family affair, where children could come and see dusty history books come alive while adults could look at the ideas and issues involved in the paintings and engage in “subtler thoughts.” It is in the realm of these “subtler thoughts” that Ranney rankles me.

When I first saw the title of the exhibit and catalogue, “Forging an American Identity,” I wondered whether the choice of the word “forging” was made consciously acknowledging the word’s two meanings: making and faking. Ms. Foster stressed that the museum’s approach to Ranney’s brand of American “mythology” was not as a fiction but rather as the expression of shared values that brought people together, providing a valuable service for the ever-fragile union. By all indications, Ranney was sincere in his belief in America, and I’m sure that Ms. Foster is sincere in her belief in Ranney’s belief. Furthermore, museums should not be in the business of making value judgments about the ideas in art. (You can argue that accepting Ranney’s ideas at face value is itself a value judgment, but I won’t.) However, setting questions of intentionality aside, I can’t help but see the greatest value of this exhibit resting in this issue of “forging” and “identity,” stressing the “faking” over the “making.”

When I asked Linda Bantel about the funding behind the American Art-Union and its promotion of American art and, consequently, American ideals, she confirmed that it was privately and not publicly (i.e., governmentally) funded. When I followed up with a question about her opinion of whether the Art-Union actively promoted a specific agenda, she answered that the Art-Union “reinforced” prevailing attitudes about America and the Mexican-American War rather than helped shape them. Personally, I see it as more of the “chicken and egg” dilemma at the heart of all political art. Did David “create” the French Revolution or did the Revolution “create” him? The truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle. The cautionary tale Ranney’s paintings tell is the story of America’s ever-increasing cycle of imperialism by public consent. Seen in this way, American history becomes a lineage of tragedies capitalized upon—The Boston Massacre begets the Alamo begets Fort Sumter begets Custer’s Last Stand begets the Maine begets Pearl Harbor begets September 11th—each with the requisite trio of “V”s: hallowed victims, unalloyed villains, and justified and sanctified vengeance.

I want to stress that the PMA’s presentation of the paintings does not at all indulge in jingoism. In fact, they supplement the Ranney exhibit with a “Who’s Missing From This Picture?” collection of works featuring Native Americans by contemporary artists such as George Caitlin. Ranney most likely never saw Native Americans and, therefore, never portrayed them. They do “appear,” however, as ominous off-screen villains, waiting for the trapper to take his last shot, for example. Again, intentionality aside, which we must do with the cipher that is Ranney, the effect of these missing figures is to marginalize the darker reality of American Western expansion. As Ms. Foster pointed out, the exhibit’s appeal for adults rests in subtle consideration of these issues. What I fear is that the average American has become incapable of such considerations. The media phenomenon Noam Chomsky calls “manufacturing consent” conditions so much of our reactions today that we barely realize it. In the paintings of William Ranney, we see the early days of how the idea of America was “forged” or “manufactured.” From those origins, we can trace the forging of twenty-first century America and our own complicity in that creation. The power of Ranney, like that of all genius, is to speak as loudly to his time as our own, albeit with a vastly different message.

[Many thanks to the PMA for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to this exhibition and the images above from the exhibition. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, where this exhibit originated, has archived a wide selection of Ranney’s work.]

Meet the Press

I was lucky enough last Friday to receive an invitation to the press preview of the PMA’s new exhibit Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney. (Oddly, nobody was wearing that “press” fedora you see in the old movies. Glad I left mine at home.) Many thanks to Elisabeth Flynn, Press Officer at the PMA, for extending the invitation. Elisabeth mentioned that, with the traditional media cutting back on coverage of the arts, the PMA is reaching out to nontraditional coverage such as my humble blog. I hope that that translates into future opportunities for me to gain access to exhibitions and hear the experts speak at length. (The miniature muffins in the reception area don’t hurt, either.) As my wife will confirm, I was one jazzed hardcore art geek all weekend.

Meeting Kathleen Foster, whose work on Thomas Eakins I’ve admired for years, and then hearing her speak on William Ranney was a distinct pleasure. After devouring her exhibit catalogue the day before, it was wonderful to meet and listen to Linda Bantel, the foremost authority on Ranney. The catalogue, as I said before, represents years of scholarship and admirably fills in many gaps in an understudied period of American art. If I could make just one suggestion for Ms. Bantel, it would be for her to create a Wikipedia entry for Ranney. None exists now, and nobody could do it better.

[BTW, Anne d'Harnoncourt, director and CEO of the PMA, welcomed us before the tour. In her hands was a book on Frida Kahlo—perhaps the catalogue to the Kahlo centennial exhibit appearing at the PMA in February 2008. You just don’t find insider stuff like that in the Philadelphia Inquirer.]

Peace Piece

When sent to England to help negotiate a peace treaty between Spain and Britain in 1629, Peter Paul Rubens painted Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (Allegory of Peace and War) (above) and presented it as a gift to King Charles I of England, hoping that the allegory wouldn’t be lost on him. Both diplomat and artistic genius, Rubens continues to bring peace to countless relationships today through every full-figured woman’s favorite adjective, “Rubenesque.”

Rubens holds the distinction of receiving knighthoods from both King Charles I of England and King Philip IV of Spain for his diplomacy. The charm and elegance found in Rubens paintings must mirror some of his own personal attributes. Friend of Jan Brueghel the Elder and Diego Velazquez and teacher of Anthony van Dyck, Rubens’ personality endeared him to many and amplified his influence within the art world then and since. Rubens’ Raising of the Cross (above) demonstrates the many Michelangelo-esque touches he brought to the Baroque style of religious art. The Renaissance certainly influenced Rubens’ painting, but his heightened drama and swirling action upped the ante of his 16th century predecessors.

One of the most iconic works at the PMA is Rubens’ Prometheus Bound (above). The Jacques Lipchitz Cubist sculpture of Prometheus Strangling the Vulture outside the PMA provides an amusing counterpoint to this classic work inside, with the bravura male torso straight out of classical sculpture coming to life in the futile struggle with the vulture. Rubens’ Prometheus Bound was one of the first paintings I remember seeing as a youngster and thinking of as truly great art, owing perhaps to the monumental size of the canvas and the easily understood narrative. Since those days, I’ve only grown to love it more and more.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bashing Poor Richard

Once a member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, Philip Guston later developed a more post-modern style that used cartoonish figures to comment on American society. The Three (above) from 1970 shows a trio of hooded Klansmen, taking the very real issues of racism and hate crimes and putting the clown nose of absurdity on them.

Guston met Jackson Pollock in high school and their career paths paralleled for a while. Like Pollock, Guston painted in a more representational style before the 1950s, although his work showed more Renaissance influences than that of Pollock, who had discovered Jung by that point. Guston painted in the same Abstract Expressionist style as Pollock and De Kooning up until the 1960s, until he found abstraction to be unsatisfying. What Guston ultimately found satisfying was taking the drama of Richard M. Nixon’s presidency and revealing it for the absurdity is was in his Poor Richard series. Nixon, Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew, and the then Attorney General John N. Mitchell receive the Guston treatment in one of the Poor Richard drawings above.

You can see the influence of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu character in Guston’s depictions of Nixon and his henchment. Clearly, Guston uses the figure of Ubu to point out the beastly and power-drunk aspects of the Nixon administration as well as its absurd descent into paranoia. Another technique Guston used to render the powerful powerless before art was the diminishing of a figure to a single characteristic, as seen in the drawing above where Nixon’s Secretary of State (and advisor to the current Bush Administration), Henry Kissinger, perhaps the most perfidious of Nixon’s sidemen, becomes a hapless pair of eyeglasses. Gary Trudeau in his Doonesbury strip uses this same technique to represent all politicians, such as his current usage of a battered Roman war helmet over an asterisk to represent George W. Bush. In retrospect, Philip Guston’s post-abstract, post-modern work seems the perfect style for the bizarre age of Nixon and perhaps for our own age as well.

Making Enemies

A quick barometer of the political climate for most Americans is the newspaper political cartoon. For almost 60 years, Paul Conrad, born on this date in 1923, has taken the temperature of his country and diagnosed its ills. No More War, Conrad’s re-imagining of the iconic Iwo Jima photograph as pacifist statement, appears above.

Conrad worked at the Denver Post from 1950 through 1964, but it was his work at the Los Angeles Times from 1964 through 1993, during which he won three Pulitizer Prizes, that has made him the most significant political editorial cartoonist since Herblock. Richard Nixon felt the sting of Conrad’s cartoons strongly enough to include Conrad on his infamous “enemies list,” a distinction Conrad wore as a badge of honor, even when he served in 1977-1978 as the “Richard M. Nixon Chair” at Whittier College, Nixon’s alma mater. Nixon compiles his list of unfriendlies in Conrad’s cartoon above, subtitled "His Own Worst Enemy.”

Although he no longer works for the Los Angeles Times, Conrad continues to comment on the politics of America as part of the Tribune Media Syndicate. Now 84, Conrad still sees with the eyes of a brash, young radical and ferrets out hypocrisy wherever he finds it, as in his drawing of a bound and caged Guantanamo Bay prisoner subtitled “Compassionate Conservatism.” In a tradition reaching back to the days of William Hogarth, Paul Conrad uses art and humor to reveal the injustices and inconsistencies of his age, all with a fierce sense of patriotism and love for his country.

Memories of Milhouse

And so we conclude today’s bashing of Richard Milhouse Nixon at Art Blog By Bob thanks to the works of Philip Guston and Paul Conrad. Today’s message seems to be that, if you were an artist working in the late 1960s or early 1970s and had any political consciousness, the perpetually shadowy jowls of one tragically easily caricatured public figure were always just a few pen marks or brush strokes away.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Pure as the Driven Snow

Online Dating

Mingle2 - Online Dating

To verify my self-proclaimed status of Art Blog By Bob as a family-friendly blog, I checked out a site that rates your blog from Disney-esque G to cover-your-eyes NC-17. (Site found via the always entertaining Ed Pettit’s Bibliothecary Blog, who received an undoubtedly justified R rating. ) Art Blog By Bob garnered the coveted (or kiss of death, depending on how you see it) rating of G.

Of course, this just proves that the rating system was based solely on text searches for certain naughty words. If the searches could “see” the content of some of my images, I think I would have hit R or maybe NC-17 for “nudity, strong sexual content, and Egon Schiele.”

[BTW, if you’re interested in a fascinating glimpse into the sexually puritanical yet firearms-friendly system of film ratings we have here in the United States, check out the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated.]

Reflections, Deflections, Introspections

Pablo Picasso, Bust of a Woman with a Hat (Dora), 1939; Oil on canvas. Fondation Beyeler, Basel; © 2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“I would like to produce portraits that a hundred years from now will seem to people like apparitions,” Van Gogh once said. In The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso, an exhibit at the Kimmell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, we see the many “ghosts” of modern portraiture: the spectral face in the mirror, the wisp of spirit glimmering in a subject’s eye, or the magically transformed identity behind a mask–always with Pablo Picasso at the heart of those dreams, and nightmares. Picasso’s Bust of a Woman with a Hat (Dora) (above) shows just one of the many alternatives to the classic portrait found in the exhibit.

The introduction to the catalogue marvels at “the survival and transformation of portraiture” in modern art through a breaking “of the traditional contract between artist and sitter,” resulting in an exploration of identities of not only the sitter and the artist himself, but also of the society around them. Paloma Alarco, Curator of Modern Painting at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, Spain, and Malcolm Warner, Senior Curator at the Kimbell Art Museum, have gathered together a collection of the greatest portraits of modern art and present a panoramic view of the development of portraiture from Cezanne to today.

Francisco Calvo Serraller surveys the development of the portrait from the time of the Greeks in the catalogue’s opening essay, “The Spirit Behind the Mask.” Serraller sees the “secularization of the portrait” as a democratizing force that focused “its expressiveness as a vehicle for the fleeting and instantaneous” rather than celebrating the rich and the powerful. “[H]ow can we deny that our own age has been the golden age of the portrait?” he asks, arguing that “the genre of portraiture [is] the principle democratizing agent of art.” Alas, this democratizing power also becomes portraiture’s main weakness—a “triumph-failure” in Serraller’s view. “The portrait has died of its own success,” he laments, pointing to the abundance of imagery assaulting the modern consciousness—the blessing of expressive freedom, but also its curse.

Henri Matisse, Mlle Yvonne Landsberg, 1914; Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art; © 2007 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“Portraits About Portraiture,” Malcolm Warner’s essay, examines the self-referential nature of the modern portrait. Modern painting is always painting about painting in some sense, so portraits, especially self-portraits, are often portraits about portraits. Portraiture, “the most subvertible of the genres,” in Warner’s eyes, allows the greatest freedom to explore the larger questions or representation and self. Warner points towards Picasso as “the modern artist who played most provocatively with identity.” Looking back towards the precedents of Rembrandt and Velazquez, Picasso assumes many personas, painting himself and others in various guises, questioning the nature of identity and self as actual or merely constructed. In addition to these transformative “masks,” Picasso and others, such as Lucian Freud, paint self-portraits clearly made with mirrors (Freud even places his mirrors on the floor), to raise the consciousness of the viewer as to the artificiality of the image, which is simply a reproduction of a reproduction rather than the thing itself, is such a thing truly exists. In works such as Henri Matisse’s Mlle Yvonne Landsberg (above), the mask and other unconventional techniques combine to subvert the presence of the sitter and elevate the style and vision of the artist. Matisse clearly sets out to say more about himself and his approach to the portrait than about the young lady portrayed. The days of the importance of the sitter give way to the primacy of painting and thinking about painting.

Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in Blue, 1889-90; Oil on canvas; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Robert Lee Blaffer Memorial Collection, gift of Sarah Campbell Blaffer

Picasso’s mask-like portrayal of Gertrude Stein in her famous portrait is only one of the alternative identities identified in John Klein’s essay, “The Mask as Image and Strategy.” In Stein’s portrait, the mask serves as “an intercessor,” “protecting [Picasso] from obligation to Stein’s features and forceful personality” and freeing him to complete his painting. Similarly, the mask-like face of Paul Cezanne’s wife in Madame Cezanne in Blue (above) renders her nonexistent as a person and allows Cezanne to approach the portrait the same way he would a still life or a mountain. (In fact, paintings by Cezanne hanging in Stein’s apartment may have inspired Picasso to use a mask for Stein. “Cezanne!” Picasso later said. “He was like a father to all of us.”) Other strategies that “find alternative languages of visual representation” include the use of the “otherness” of masks from exotic cultures, which can conceal but also reveal the elusive “inner” or “true” self. The use of masks by artists such as Amadeo Modigliani, who saw the mask as “more a starting point than a conclusion,” and Andy Warhol, who became an “astute observer of the surface” to turn real faces into masks in his “emphasis on the superficial,” are also explored.

Francis Bacon, Portrait of George Dyer, 1968; Oil on canvas. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; © The Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

Warhol also takes pride of place in William Feaver’s essay “’A Name, a Wretched Picture, & Worse Bust’: From Picasso’s Stalin to Warhol’s Mao.” Between the two artists’ portrayals of the two tyrannical leaders, Feaver inserts the history of the celebrity or glamour portrait in modern art. He sees Picasso’s portrait of Stalin as part of the artist’s strategy of “liberati[ng]… fact from appearance and… tweaking… recognizability.” Later tweaking includes Francis Bacon’s “invest[ing] portraiture with urgency… the moment someone flinches or whinnies and the mirror reveals the vulnerability of the bared neck,” such as in Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer (above). Bacon takes the failed snapshot and succeeds in create a non-portrait portrait head of all blurred surface, freed of detail. “[T]hroughout the twentieth century,” Feaver writes, “every generation had its own particularly brand of new realism. In portraiture especially, realism denotes more than fact.” For example, David Hockney’s portraits “range from the confessional to near-hero-worship,” including several featuring imaginary encounters with Picasso himself. But it is Warhol who culminates the movement begun by Picasso in his portraits of figures such as Mao Zedong. “Star treatment in Warhol usage was deadpan,” Feaver concludes. “The image had to be so processed that nothing much remained, beyond the Warhol look, but head and shoulders and stare.” In the final analysis, there is only the artist and the image he creates, regardless of who that image may claim to depict.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of the Artist's Wife (Olga), 1923; Oil on canvas. Private Collection (c/o Nicholas Maclean, New York); © 2007 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Paloma Alarco breaks down each of the thematic groupings of the exhibit in her chaptered exhibition notes. Starting with the revival of Romantic individualism and the artist as visionary hero, Alarco presents Picasso’s forerunners—Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin—as the first modern innovators of the portrait. Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka then emerge as the major practitioners of the portrait as gesture, especially in their enigmatic use of hands and facial expressions to convey emotion and character. “Modern Color” in the portrait begins with Van Gogh and spreads to the Fauvists Matisse and Maurice Vlaminck and later the German Expressionists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Alexej von Jawlensky. In “The Mirror Broken,” Alarco traces how “painting became a complex puzzle to be solved in the viewer’s gaze” in the Analytic Cubist works of Picasso and Juan Gris as well as the Italian Futurist works of Gino Severini. The calm of the years between the wars appears in “A Portrait of Society,” where even Picasso returns to a more realistic, apparently calmer style as in works such as Portrait of the Artist's Wife (Olga) (above), “albeit without renouncing the practices of modernism.” The German Neue Sachlichkeit movement epitomizes this realist turn, often tinged with brutal sarcasm, as in the works of Otto Dix and George Grosz.

The violence of World War II and the resultant appeal of Existentialism usher in an era of first Surrealism, as an escape from Fascism, and then an increased artistic dwelling on human suffering and alienation. Picasso’s Bust of a Woman with a Hat (Dora) (top of this review) embodies this disjointed time in war-torn Europe, while Jean Dubuffet’s monstrous anti-portraits depict the post-war world of “a society aware of its own decline.” In the concluding section, Alarco extends her analysis of the portrait to the nude, perhaps the most fascinating section of the exhibit. Describing the modernist strategy of “exotic exaggeration of the naked body to convey feeling,” Alarco presents Lucian Freud as “the artist of modern times who has best managed to convey the vulnerability of the human body.” With this final section, Alarco beautifully connects the innovations of Picasso at the start of the 20th century with those of Freud closer to the end.

The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso presents a stunning variety of portraits from modern art, culling together all the big names as well as the minor masters indicative of their time or certain concerns. The curators masterfully weave this huge amount of raw material into illuminating threads comprising the larger fabric of what the modern portrait has struggled to become. Picasso remains the focal point around which the exhibit turns, but the power of art to portray the human condition (and the strategies we use to deal with that condition) in his and others’ hands rises unmistakably.

[Many thanks to the Kimbell Art Museum for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso as well as the images above from the exhibit.]

Monday, June 25, 2007

It Was 40 Years Ago Today…

…That Peter Blake designed the iconic cover art for The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (above). Actually, it wasn’t exactly 40 years ago today that he did this, but he was born 75 years ago today. Sir Peter continues to bask in the memories of the 1960s and the glory days of Swinging London. As Austin Powers would say, “Yeah, Baby!”

Blake began working in a Pop Art style in the 1950s, years before the American Pop Artists Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. He first received public attention through his award-winning painting Self-Portrait With Badges from 1961 (above). Blake covers himself with blue denim, the official uniform of rebellious American youth at that time, and holds a magazine emblazoned with the name “Elvis” and featuring a photo of Elvis Presley with Ann-Margret, perhaps from their movie Viva Las Vegas. The badges covering his denim jacket bring in all different pieces of early 1960s popular culture and, oddly, resemble the “flair” that some chain restaurants require their waitpersons to wear in place of actual individuality and personality.

Blake also painted a fascinating series of illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, including “Well, this is grand!” said Alice (above). The 1960s were one long Alice in Wonderland-esque adventure for many people and Blake’s work aptly captures that unique cultural moment. The sense of fun and inclusiveness seen in works such as the Sgt. Pepper cover remain as fresh and innovative today as they did 40 years ago. Who among us has not spent an afternoon listening to some format of Sgt. Pepper and trying to pick out the faces on that cover?

Anarchist in Art

Emma Goldman, early feminist and anarchist , once called painter Robert Henri “an anarchist in his conception of art and its relation to life.” Henri, teacher and humanist committed to the depiction of realism in all its gritty detail, such as his Snow in New York (1902) above, was born on June 24, 1865.

Henri served as a focal point for the Ashcan School (aka, “The Eight”), which shared and expanded Henri’s faith in art’s ability to depict the daily existence of the urban poor in America and awaken society’s conscience to their plight. Works such as Cumulus Clouds, East River (1901-1902) (above) make this impoverishment beautiful in its own stark way. Henri took his earlier love for the Impressionist style and Impressionist landscape and abandoned it to better depict the economic realities around him. Henri’s students, such as Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent, would take his artistic and political beliefs and mold them to their own artistic visions.

After 1909, Henri’s color palette took a brighter turn as he moved away from the social concerns of the Ashcan School towards a more modernist technique. During this period, Henri painted many wonderful portraits of children, such as Bernadita (1926) (above). I’ve always loved Henri’s depictions of children, which seem to me the logical extension of his humanism. As South African Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” The same warmth and compassion Henri brought to the dark, cold cityscape shines in the reflected eyes of the children of his later portraits. Robert Henri, a great teacher in his day, still has something to teach us today about what our society should be.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

An American Vision

Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), Spring Night, Harlem River, 1913; Oil on canvas mounted on panel, 25 1/8 x 30 1/8 in.; The Phillips Collection, acquired 1920

Holding up the works of American Impressionists to the best France had to offer, Duncan Phillips, founder of The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC once said, “Monet was only an eye, whereas Twachtman, Weir, and Lawson are also temperaments.” The singular vision of Duncan Phillips once focused tightly on American Impressionists, which made up 87 of the 237 paintings displayed when The Phillips’ doors opened in 1921. The exhibit American Impressionism: Paintings from The Phillips Collection tries to recapture that moment in art history when American Impressionism stood high in American art circles and Duncan Phillips was at the center of that ascendancy.

In the companion catalogue to the exhibit, American Impressionists: Painters of Light and the Modern Landscape, Susan Behrends Frank, Assistant Curator at The Phillips Collection, pays tribute to and chronicles the journey of Duncan Phillips as he struggled to become an art critic and then amassed his renowned collection. William H. Gedts, perhaps the foremost authority on American Impressionism, provides additional context to Frank’s essay with his own essay exploring the larger reception of Impressionism in America. At the heart of both essays lies the story of the struggles Phillips and the American Impressionists had first to overcome resistance to Impressionism and then to decide what “American” Impressionism truly meant. From the very beginning, Phillips boldly hung works such as Ernest Lawson’s Spring Night, Harlem River (above) next to works by Claude Monet, the quintessential Impressionist for most Americans at the time, intentionally inviting comparisons with a faith that the Americans could hold their own and that America deserved a place next to Europe in the world of art.

Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919), Afternoon by the Pond, Ca. 1908-1909; Oil on canvas, 25 1/8 x 30 in.; The Phillips Collection, acquired 1921

After seeing the collections of the Corcoran Gallery and the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, Phillips forged “an intensely self-conscious focus on the evolution of his collection in comparison… in the late teens,” Frank explains. Augustus Vincent Tack, a student of John Henry Twachtman, J. Alden Weir, and William Merritt Chase, became an early mentor to Phillips as he developed his critical eye and fostered contacts within American Impressionist circles. Late, Weir himself befriended Phillips and challenged him to hang the works of Americans beside those of the great European Impressionists. Through Weir’s influence, Frank explains, Phillips sought “American artists who, he believed, expressed spiritual truth as well as visual truth” in the vein of early visionaries such as George Inness, in contrast to “the theatrical vision” of the Hudson River School. Weir himself fit this bill nicely, as can be seen in his Afternoon by the Pond (above), an intimate scene of nature full of the silent, contemplative spirituality Phillips came to favor.

John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902), Summer, Late 1890s; Oil on canvas, 30 x 53 in.; The Phillips Collection, acquired 1919

Another spiritual American Impressionist Phillips learned to love through Weir was Twachtman, whom Phillips always regretted never meeting himself. Works such as
Summer (above) inspired Phillips to say that in Twachtman “impressionism [had been] carried to the heights of spiritual expression.” “Few, if any, landscape painters were more sensitive or subtle,” Phillips wrote of Twachtman. Phillips passionately collected all the Twachtman paintings he could in the years before the opening of The Phillips Collection.

Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Washington Arch, Spring, Ca. 1893; Oil on canvas, 27 1/8 x 22 ½ in.; The Phillips Collection, acquired 1921

Sadly, Phillips relationship with Childe Hassam, the American Impressionist he ranked only behind Twachtman and Weir in greatness, was more stormy. Phillips continued to collect Hassam’s work, but never with the same enthusiasm as he brought to Twachtman and Weir’s art. In the late 1920s, Hassam and Phillips argued over the direction Phillips’ collection was taking, with Hassam denigrating Phillips' taste in art as “opinionated ignorance.” However, Phillips continued to value works such as Hassam’s Washington Arch, Spring (above), one of the highlights of The Phillips Collection and of all American Impressionism.

Allen Tucker (1866-1939), The Rise, Undated; Oil on canvas, 30 ½ x 36 in.; The Phillips Collection, acquired 1927

With the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression in the United States, The Phillips Collection fell on hard times and the market for American Impressionism slumped. At the 1913 Armory Show in New York City, where the works of Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse first exploded on the American art scene, the conservative aspects of Impressionism made the movement seem a thing of the past. Phillips himself began to collect more modernist works. In retrospect, he realized that his collection of American Impressionists helped pave the way for these modern movements. Works such as The Rise (above) by Allen Tucker, once called “The American Van Gogh,” signaled a new period for Impressionism in America.

Today, American Impressionism has achieved a rebirth among art critics. After little interest during the 1940s and 1950s, several collections of solely American Impressionism rose in the 1960s. The long-overdue recognition of the achievement of Twachtman, Weir, and Hassam, as well as that of other American Impressionists such as Maurice Prendergast, Theodore Robinson, Edmund Tarbell, and many others, owes much to Duncan Phillips and his museum. The exhibit American Impressionism: Paintings from The Phillips Collection recaptures a landmark moment in American art and allows us to live it once again.

[Many thanks to The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue and the images from the exhibit.]

Faking It

When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden's green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, "It's pretty, but is it Art?"

Wherefore he called to his wife, and fled to fashion his work anew –
The first of his race who cared a fig for the first, most dread review;
And he left his lore to the use of his sons -- and that was a glorious gain
When the Devil chuckled "Is it Art?" in the ear of the branded Cain.

From Rudyard Kipling, The Conundrum of the Workshops

In his last completed movie, F for Fake, Orson Welles quotes from Kipling’s poem above with a twinkle in his eye. Ostensibly a documentary on the story of the great art forger Elmyr de Hory , who could forge a Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, and many other modernist masters right before the cameras, Welles movie actually is a tone poem about the nature of art and artifice—how storytelling, whether it be in a book, painting, or movie, always involves a lie.

Peter Bogdanovich, in his introduction to the movie on the DVD, warns the viewer to not expect a linear storyline. Instead, Welles circles around the story, misdirecting you like any good conjurer while giving you enough substance to hold your attention until the final revelation. Serious issues of what truly constitutes art are embodied in the person of Elmyr, who becomes a sad anti-hero by movie’s end. When Elmyr’s works pass muster as true Picassos, etc., under the eye of the highest-ranked art critics, faith in the concept of expertise and “objective” judgments of quality are shattered. Although no names are named, Welles alludes the possibility that many paintings by Elmyr currently hang in prestigious collections around the world as “genuine” works by acknowledged masters. Does the fact that a painting is done by Elmyr rather than Modigliani make it any less beautiful? Welles leaves that question levitating in space for each of us to answer for ourselves.

When the biographer of Elmyr, Clifford Irving, himself becomes involved in a fake biography of Howard Hughes, Welles exalts in the intricate web of deception as the chronicler of a fraud becomes a fraud himself. Charlatanism spreads virally throughout the film, alluding back to Welles own fraud of the famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1938. All the way to the end, we hear Kipling’s Devil chuckle “Is it Art?”, knowing that each of us bear “the mark of Cain” that comes with any act of imagination.

Near the end of the film, Welles stands before Chartes Cathedral and in a magnificent monologue wonders at how such an achievement could have no signature, no famous name attached to it, and yet remain an inspiration. Chartes stands as a pure work of art, free of the taint of individual personality and the prejudices that signatures entail.

F for Fake deserves a place on the shelf and in the mind of anyone who loves thinking about art, about what constitutes art, and about what an artist truly achieves.

Eternal Vigilance

Rockwell Kent, American illustrator, author, and political activist, was born on this date in 1882. Kent’s illustrations for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in the 1920s helped in recovering that lost masterpiece for a new generation. Kent’s glorious image of the White Whale rising from the depths in Chapter CXXXIV, The Chase—Second Day, appears above.

Kent designed illustrations for such publications as Vanity Fair, Harper’s Weekly, and Life in the 1920s, earning a reputation as the Jazz-Age Hogarth. A believer in transcendentalist philosophy and a mystic, Kent traveled around the world and interacted with many different cultures. In 1937, the United States Postal Office hired Kent to paint a mural for their headquarters in Washington, DC. In that mural, Mail Service in the Tropics (above), Kent hid a political message encouraging Puerto Rican independence from the United States. (The message was written very small and in a dialect of Eskimo Inuit [which Kent had picked up during his travels in Alaska], so good luck finding it in the picture. I’d love to know how they found it. I’m picturing smirking Eskimos standing in front of the mural being asked “What’s so funny?”)

That political action and Kent’s membership in the Socialist, pro-Communist International Workers Order earned him the wrath of McCarthyism in the 1950s, which took a toll on his career and subsequent artistic reputation. I remember seeing a display of Kent’s work at the PMA years ago and wondering at the crisp lines and bold expressiveness of the figures, such as in his Eternal Vigilance Is the Price of Liberty above. I’ve always seen Kent’s figurative work as the most impressive expression of transcendentalist principles in visual art. I only wish he had illustrated more of the works of the 19th century American Renaissance.

Kent’s reputation has recovered some in the past few decades, as the madness of McCarthyism has been recognized for what it was. Ironically, in light of the Post Office mural fiasco, Kent received the honor of having his work appear a 34-cent postage stamp in 2001 (above) as part of a series honoring American Illustrators. As someone who has read every novel and most of the poetry Melville ever wrote, I’ll always appreciate the role Kent played in bringing that lost genius back to American culture.

An African-American in Paris

Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first African-American painter to gain an international reputation, was born on this date in 1859. Tanner spent most of his life in Paris to escape the racism he found in America and died there in 1937. The Banjo Lesson, one of Tanner’s many paintings depicting the life of African-Americans in the late 19th century, appears above.

Tanner studied under Thomas Eakins at the PAFA from 1879 through 1885. Eakins’ influence shows through clearly in how Tanner approached his subjects in a realistic manner. Tanner’s studies in Paris also helped shape his painting technique. In 1891, Tanner briefly returned to Philadelphia, where he painted The Banjo Lesson and similar scenes, such as The Thankful Poor (above), which was purchased by the comedian Bill Cosby in 1981 for $250,000 USD. Sadly, despite his obvious talent, Tanner felt unappreciated by the American arts community and returned to Paris to stay.

Tanner enjoyed the more liberal racial attitudes of Paris and eventually married Jessie Macauley Olssen, a white musician. In Europe, Tanner abandoned his scenes of African-American life and devoted himself to biblical paintings, such as The Annunciation (above), in which Tanner’s wife served as the model for the Virgin Mary. I’ve seen The Annunciation many times at the PMA and always wonder at the combination of homely realism and the fantastic depiction of the Angel Gabriel at left as a being of pure light. I’ve always seen Tanner’s religious works as a great “what if”: What if Eakins had the same depth of religious feeling that his student Tanner had? Fortunately, Tanner’s works more than suffice.
Artists such as William H. Johnson sought out Tanner in Paris as a forerunner and example of what an African-American artist could be, especially one who has chosen the life of an expatriate. Tanner continues to serve as an example to African-American artists and as a reminder of the price America has paid for its own intolerances.