Saturday, May 31, 2008

Lords of the Dance

In the May Art Poll By Bob, I asked you to tell me which elements of Art Blog By Bob you liked the most and the least. The results were a mixed bag in some ways, but it was nice to know that the profile pieces commemorating an artist’s birthday, book reviews of art books and exhibition catalogues, reviews of art exhibits, and personal reflections on art and art history help brighten your day and, perhaps, enlighten your life. Thank you, too, to those who pointed out what you disliked about the blog. I can’t guarantee that I’ll ever stop with the frothing liberal rants (based entirely on undisputable fact!) and literary musings related to art (Melville-related and not), but I can guarantee that adorable pictures of Alex will always be a part of this blog as long as he’s a part of my life. It sounds like some people need either to learn the definition of adorable or have a very warm spot in the afterlife awaiting them. I hope it’s humid, too.

For the June Art Poll By Bob, in honor of Kristi Yamaguchi winning this season’s Dancing with the Stars (above), I thought I’d ask, “Which of the following paintings of dance is your favorite?”:

Edgar Degas, Blue Dancers (1898)

Henri Matisse, Dance (II) (1910)

Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers (1925)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883)

John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo (1882)

Obviously, this is a very short, very personal list. I could have created a whole list solely of Degas’ paintings, but I chose my favorite to represent him. Please feel free to nominate your favorite dance-related paintings in the comments, with a link to the painting itself, if possible. And, yes, Annie and I watch DWTS religiously, debating the merits of each Paso Doble and Quickstep while rooting for our favorites. If you don’t think dancing is a demanding sport, just ask Jason Taylor.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Going Negative

The big question asked during any campaign season, including the current one for president of the United States, is who will “go negative” and when. Ukrainian artist Alexander Archipenko went “negative” early and often in his innovative Cubist sculptures such as Blue Dancer (above, from 1913-1918), which defines the human form through negative space as it does through volume. Born May 30, 1887, Archipenko left his native Kiev for Paris in 1908 and never looked back. Surrounded by the founders of Cubism—Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque—and by fellow Russians such as Kazimir Malevich and Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Archipenko found a second home in Paris. Unlike many other figures of the Russian Avant-Garde, Archipenko escaped the mania and, later, the repercussions of the Russian Revolution and Stalinism. Like his Blue Dancer, Archipenko skipped away lightly to the political and creative freedom of Paris at its most thrilling during the early days of modern art.

In addition to sculpture, Archipenko painted and did graphic work, such as the lithograph Cubist Still Life (above, from 1921). Archipenko drafted Cubist Still Life in Berlin, his home after World War I. Since 1913, Archipenko exhibited in Germany and found a receptive audience. Although post-war German artists at that time were exploring the possibilities of Expressionism and New Objectivity , Archipenko’s take on cubism, specifically Synthetic Cubism , caught their eye and spurred them to new ways of seeing the world around them. Archipenko left Germany for America in 1923, again escaping before the economic crises of the late 1920s paved the way for Hitler and the Nazis to assume control. As would be expected, Archipenko’s art found its way onto the list of “Degenerate Art.”. The Nazis forced German museums to expel all their works by Archipenko in the late 1930s, but by then Archipenko was an American citizen, teaching and working there for the rest of his life.

If you’re ever on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania , walk down to 36th and Walnut Streets and see Archipenko’s King Solomon (above, from 1963), erected just a year before the artist’s death. As war raged in Europe, Archipenko found asylum in America, adapting his sculpture over the years to include found objects (ala Duchamp , a friend from his Paris days), terra cotta, and even internal lighting. Whereas Blue Dancer is all lightness and air, King Solomon, done half a century later, is all monumental gravity and weight, a symbol of wisdom meant to inspire some intellectual gravitas in the undergraduates blithely walking by on their way to a game of Ultimate Frisbee . There’s a timelessness in Archipenko’s work that makes you wonder just how influenced he was by world events other than the most current art movements. Always one step ahead of the forces of oppression, Archipenko never allowed the negative energy of the world to touch him or his art.

Ode to a Nightingale

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

From “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

In a 1930 review by Virginia Woolf of her sister Vanessa Bell’s paintings, Woolf writes, “[H]er pictures stand for something, are something and will be something which we will disregard at our peril. As soon not go to see them as shut the window when the nightingale is singing.” Virginia’s ode to her “nightingale” sister’s skill reciprocates the love Vanessa clearly felt for her sister as shown in her portrait of Virginia (above, from 1911-1912). Born May 30, 1879, Vanessa Bell found herself firmly within the artistic dervish known as the Bloomsbury group, which drove most artistic movements at the turn of the twentieth century in England. Wife of art critic Clive Bell, mother of art historian Quentin Bell, and lover of art critic Roger Fry and artist Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell influenced and was influenced by many of the modern art theories of her time. Her portrait of Virginia Woolf pares down the details of her sister’s image to get at the bare honesty of her writings, so paradoxically forthcoming and revelatory within her obscure modernist idiom. As Virginia warns, we close the window on Vanessa’s talent at our peril.

Thanks to her association with Roger Fry, Vanessa gained a familiarity with Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, and all the other “isms” swirling about British avant-garde art circles. Fry encouraged Vanessa to experiment in such modes against her more natural naturalist impulses. Bell’s Abstract Painting (above, from 1914) looks remarkably like one of Hans Hofmann’s “push and pull” paintings of choreographed blocks of color. Clive Bell’s theories on color and form may also have contributed to Vanessa’s conception of this startlingly abstract work, literally years ahead of its time. Vanessa knew the groundbreaking work of Picasso and Braque around this time, but even they never attempted such an abstraction of pure color and form.

In The Tub (above, from 1917), Vanessa returns to a more naturalistic subject—the bather. After seeing the bathers of Degas, Cezanne, and Matisse, Vanessa chose to tackle the female nude in the same setting. Originally, the nude woman wore a white chemise to cover herself partially. “I've taken out the woman's chemise,” Vanessa explained in a 1918 letter to Fry, “and in consequence she is quite nude and much more decent.” The idea of nudity being more “decent” than wearing clothes harks back to the idea of honesty as an ideal. Sadly, this painting was never hung and remained rolled up until being rediscovered in the 1970s. Vanessa resisted the post-World War I turn to Surrealism, choosing instead to concentrate on portraiture and a more naturalistic style. Perhaps if The Tub had been known during that time she would have received the full hearing that Virginia hoped for her.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Heaven Can Wait

In 2003, the first major exhibition of Gwendolyn Knight’s art was called “Never Late for Heaven.” Born May 26, 1913, Gwen Knight Lawrence, wife and artistic companion of African-American painter Jacob Lawrence, fought off the discrimination stacked up against both women and black painters and built a type of heaven on earth through her art. Knight’s The White Dress (above, from 1999) belongs to a series of screenprints she made late in her career, well into her eighties. The simplified forms and gem-like colors, including the stunning white of the dress itself, show the influence of native African folk art, which the Lawrences studied first hand while living in Nigeria in the 1960s. For much of her life, Gwen Knight championed the art of her husband, but her own art reflects her own unique talents.

Born in Barbados, Knight came to the United States with her family as a young girl. They soon moved to New York City, where Gwen found herself caught up in the Harlem Renaissance , that flowering of African-American art in all media. When the Great Depression forced her to leave her studies at Howard University, Knight joined the arts division of the WPA and the workshop of African-American sculptor Augusta Savage , who became a mentor to Knight. Savage helped prepare Knight for the life of a black, female artist by relating her own struggle. She met Jacob Lawrence while studying under Savage. They married in 1941 and remained together until his death in 2000. Over the next 60 years, they painted and taught together all around the world, often teaching at the same institutions, before settling down in Seattle for their last 30 years together. New Orleans (above, from 2002) demonstrates Knight’s great ability to evoke a place with a single bold image. As the scenery continually changed around them, the Lawrences never altered their commitment to art.

Knight continued to experiment even in her later years. Her Standing (above, from 1999) represents a whole series of etchings and drawings she did of horses and other animals, quickly and almost abstractly rendered in an attempt to capture the vitality of the creatures. Knight’s art is hard to understand outside the context of Lawrence’s, understandably considering his very important chronicling of the twentieth-century African-American experience, but the small glimpses we get of her individual art tease us of what more she could have done. "It wasn't necessary for me to have acclaim," Knight once said. "I just knew that I wanted to do it, so I did it whenever I could." The drive to make art helped keep her young and vital up to her death at 91 years of age, five years after her husband’s death. Heaven could wait, at least in her case.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Post-Game Show

Judge. Jury. Executioner.

Well, I'm one step closer to meeting Alex Trebek (above) face to face. Just by passing the online test, I became eligible to be called to appear on Jeopardy! sometime in the next 18 months. The best way to increase your chances, we were told, were to be personable and play the game right (i.e., keep smiling!). I did pretty well on the 50-question test (one art question?!?), nailed a couple toughies in the mock game with the buzzers (both of which drew some "oohs" from the room), and came off as charming and entertaining in the interview (if I do say so myself). Sorry that I can't be too specific about questions and answers, but we're sworn to secrecy as those same questions get used in later auditions. Although my brain actually hurt after concentrating so hard for two and a half hours, it was a lot of fun and Annie and I are still really excited over my perhaps getting on the TV and, perhaps, winning some moolah with my vast mental collection of useless facts. I'm going to try to lay off obscure facts for a least a couple of days, after overloading for the last couple of weeks. Did you know that Woodrow Wilson is on the $100,000 bill? Or that James Garfield was our only ambidexterous president? Well, I do, and no sane person really should.

Thanks to everyone who commented below with good vibrations and suggestions on how to cram even more knowledge into my cranium. If I ever get the call to California, I'll be sure to let you all know.

What Is Jeopardy!?

The fates have smiled upon me and I’ve been invited to trek up to New York City today to audition for my favorite game show—Jeopardy! I found out a few weeks ago that my score from the online test was good enough to get me into the next round, where I’ll be answering another round of fifty questions, playing a mock game, and interviewing with the casting crew. If I do well enough, I plunge into the great pool of contestants from whom they’ll pick for the next 18 months. If I get picked from that pool, I then swim in a smaller pool that goes to Los Angeles to appear on the show, but there’s no guarantee of getting on camera even then. If I can get through all that, you may finally see stand before the all-powerful Alex Trebek and say “Well, Alex, you see, I write this blog…” The toughest part of the audition round, aside from trying to drum up five interesting anecdotes about myself, has been schooling myself on geography, my weakest subject. For the last few weeks, I’ve had my nose in an atlas and almanac, hoping to cram in enough worldliness to give me more of a fighting chance than just blindly guessing “What is Kuala Lumpur?” Wish me luck and pray for lots of arts and literature questions.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Hero Worship

From the early 1930s to the early 1980s, Jack “King” Kirby never stopped drawing heroes despite a lack of formal art education, war, stingy bosses, declines in the comics industry, and his own failing eyesight and health. Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics affectionately and encyclopedically traces the career of one of the true Founding Fathers of American comic books. Like Captain America, one of Kirby’s creations, punching out Hitler on a cover that hit newsstands almost a year before Pearl Harbor, Kirby could both seemingly see into the future and courageously fight against any foe set before him. As Neil Gaiman puts it in his introduction, Kirby “took vaudeville and made it opera. He took a static medium and gave it motion… Jack Kirby made comics move, he made them buzz and crash and explode. And he created…” The comic book industry as we know it today, from the monthlies to the graphic novels to the Hollywood blockbusters, doesn’t exist if Jack Kirby’s not there to create it.

Evanier’s book is as much a tale of Kirby’s life as of the comic book industry itself from its comic strip origins to today—the good, the bad, and the greedy. “It was his spin on the American Dream,” Evanier writes of Kirby, “You make your boss rich and he’ll take care of you. All Jack’s life he believed in that, no matter how many times the bosses got rich and he didn’t.” Kirby survives on sheer talent where lesser artists succumb to the exploitation by the money men. Just as Kirby began to gain some success with his heroes such as Captain America, riding the hero craze begun by Superman and Batman, real war called and he went off to serve, almost losing his feet to frostbite at the Battle of Bastogne in 1944. When he returned, the audience for superheroes seemingly disappeared, forcing Kirby to work on romance, Western, crime, horror, and even gimmick comics such as one that came with 3-D glasses. War comics such as The Guys in the Foxhole (above, from 1954) drew on Kirby’s own wartime experiences, but also failed in the wake of the Seduction of the Innocent scandal that almost ended American comics.

Kirby scrambled to find work in the late 1950s. When work was available, it often came with the price tag of toning down his signature style. “They kept showing me their other books—books that weren’t selling—and saying, ‘This is what a comic book ought to be.’ I couldn’t communicate with those people.” After bouncing around several comic book companies, Kirby finally returned to Marvel Comics in the early 1960s, reteaming with his old colleague Stan Lee. Together, Kirby and Lee redefined the superhero comic book, adding a more human element to go along with Kirby’s dramatic, electric drawings. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, the Silver Surfer, and many others came to life from that collaboration. Evanier takes Kirby’s side in the debate over how much these characters belong to Kirby and how much to Lee. Lee’s decades of self-promotion have created the public opinion of him as the primary force behind these characters, which rankled Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other Marvel artists for many years. One undeniable fact is how much Kirby put himself into his characters, especially The Thing (above), the living rock formation of The Fantastic Four. “If you’ll notice the way the Thing talks and acts,” Kirby once said, “you’ll find that the Thing is really Jack Kirby.” Kirby’s gruff, introspective personality, embodied by the Thing masterfully, may have hindered him more than anything else in the struggle for recognition with the outgoing, media-savvy Lee.

After years of bitterness with Marvel and Lee, Kirby switched to rival DC Comics in 1970, stipulating that he’d draw only from his own scripts or completed scripts by others, vowing never again to get in a dispute over who created what. At DC, Kirby created his last great masterpiece, the “opera” Gaiman alludes to in his introduction—Kirby’s Fourth World, the umbrella title for several monthlies, including New Gods, Mister Miracle, and The Forever People. In The Forever People, Kirby based his young teenage gods on the idealistic “hippies” of the late 1960s and early 1970s. “He saw idealism, passion, and a better future in them,” Evanier write, “and sought to infuse his Forever People with the same hopes, the same sense of responsibility at inheriting a world made dangerous.” Sadly, the books failed commercially when first published. Kirby always believed that they would succeed, which they did in graphic novel reprints after his death. Fortunately for Kirby and his family, Kirby finally began to receive royalties for his Fourth World, just a fraction of what he could have made on royalties on the decades of his creativity. When a lucrative original comic art market sprouted in the late 1970s, Kirby hoped to ensure his family’s security and asked Marvel for his original work still in their files. Marvel responded with a Faustian offer of returning the art if Kirby would sign a release form that would basically erase him from the history of the creation of his characters. Kirby had seen other comics artists—specifically Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, and Joe Simon, his old partner—vanish without a trace and feared a similar fate. Under economic pressures, Kirby signed a version of the release and got much of his original art back (such as his panel from Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers; above, from 1981), but the public outcry over Marvel’s treatment of Kirby ensured that he would not be forgotten. When the U.S. Postal Service issued commemorative stamps of DC Comics heroes in 2006 and of Marvel Comics heroes in 2007, 8 of those stamps featured art by Jack Kirby—a posthumous stamp of mainstream approval.

Evanier brings a personal touch to the life of Kirby. His bias is clear, but his passion makes it forgivable. In a personal afterword, Evanier, who began as Kirby’s assistant before becoming his friend and colleague, describes Kirby’s amazing mind: “He was a deep thinker, often taking it to such depths that he got hopelessly submerged in his own imagination… That was Jack Kirby: not only ahead of everyone else, but often too far ahead of himself.” Kirby defies categorization as “just” a comic book artist. In the 1960s, Kirby began creating collages combining his drawings and images cut from magazines, hoping to create new effects for his heroes, such as the 1966 collage above designed for The Fantastic Four. Despite no formal artistic training, Kirby had an innate sense of how to represent dynamic movement, employing foreshortening with such power as to make you believe that the characters were about to leap from the pages. If Kirby had painted frescoes on the church ceilings, the world would have hailed him as a Renaissance master time-travelling to the twentieth century. Because Jack Kirby drew and painted whole worlds on paper, in books not meant to stand the ravages of time, only those who know his art realize just how great an artist he was. Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics brings a great artist to a whole new audience made up of people who may have only seen the films based on the fruits of Kirby’s labors but who now seek out the source. The King is dead. Long live the King.

[Many thanks to Harry N. Abrams, Inc. for providing me with a review copy of Mark Evanier’s Kirby: King of Comics and for some of the images above.]

Monday, May 26, 2008

In Memoriam

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, the day on which we are asked to remember all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to defend our country. For more than five years now, young men and women have been asked to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight an enemy we don’t understand for reasons that are unclear. The result is more than 4,000 dead service members, plus how many more whose lives have been shattered physically, emotionally, mentally, or all of the above. If we want to remember, we need to see more pictures like the one above, which shows just a small fraction of the fatalities over the last half decade. Unfortunately, the Bush administration feels it’s necessary to hide such images. They want us to remember a glorified version of warfare, not the reality beneath the flag and within the casket.

When I set up this month’s poll, I opened myself up to praise as well as criticism, especially by putting my political opinions as a choice for “least liked.” Some of you have chosen that option. Fair enough. It’s a democracy; thus, everyone’s entitled to a hearing of their view. Duly noted. However, I won’t stop voicing my opinion, which I believe to be the prevalent view in our country today. “Support the Troops: End the War!” lawn signs have been proliferating in my slice of the suburbs for months now, growing exponentially as if the wind blew seeds across the lawns overnight and new signs grew from the soil. While you’re taking in all the visuals of this very, very visual day—parades with marching bands, flags of all sizes waving in hands of all ages, speeches from banner-draped podiums, fireworks illuminating the night sky—remember the visual above, because without that picture none of the others would be possible.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Woman on Her Own

When you search for the art of Mary Cassatt in most museums, it’s hard to know where to look. Born May 22, 1844, Cassatt is often placed alongside the
French Impressionists with whom she worked and studied. Other times, her American nationality takes precedence and she appears in the American wing. What can’t be disputed, however, is her vital presence in the history of late nineteenth century art and the long history of women in art. Cassatt’s Mary At the Theater (above, from 1879) shows the influence of Edgar Degas, her greatest friend and teacher among the Impressionists. The same vibrant, almost pulsating pastel strokes Degas used in his works appear in Cassatt’s portrait set at the theater, a passion she shared with Degas. Thanks to the wealth of her family, Cassatt could pursue a career in art against all the obstacles society and the art world placed in the way of women artists.

After studying at the PAFA in a patronizing atmosphere where, she complained, “There was no teaching” for women, Cassatt traveled to Europe to study the Old Masters first hand. Jean-Léon Gérôme, who also taught Cassatt’s old PAFA classmate Thomas Eakins, began the string of male teachers and mentors that continued with Thomas Couture before ending with Degas and Pissarro. Whereas some other women artists pursued art as a way to obtain a husband, Cassatt remained focused on her career, never marrying. The domestic life she sacrificed for herself became her greatest subject in such works as The Child's Bath (or The Bath) (above, from 1893). The tender intimacy of these parent and child images demonstrates Cassatt’s psychological depth, even though such intimacies could only come for her with nieces and nephews.

I remember seeing in late 2006 Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (above, from 1878) during the Americans in Paris: 1860-1900 show at the at the Met and being blown away. It’s hard to appreciate the sheer size of the painting in reproduction, which is as sprawling as the child herself. The freedom of the brushstrokes gives this work a tremendous energy, which is itself a paradox considering the lazing posture of the little girl. Cassatt not only copied the Impressionists but internalized the spirit of their movement. No other American so beautifully translates the French mystique of the Impressionists to an American setting. Cassatt was fortunate in that her family’s fortune freed her to follow her dream and pursue it all the way to Europe. How many other artists—women, African-Americans—would have flourished given a similar chance? Looking at Cassatt’s paintings, you truly appreciate how much more there could have been.

Hungarian Rhapsody

At the end of the nineteenth century, artists from all over Europe flocked to Paris to learn and, perhaps more importantly, literally breathe in the new spirit of the arts. Traveling all the way from Hungary, Jozsef Rippl-Ronai lived in Paris from 1887 to 1901 before returning to his native land. While in Paris, Rippl-Ronai encountered many of the greats of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Born May 23, 1861, Rippl-Ronai’s Nude on a Balcony (above, from 1909) shows the influence of Edgar Degas’ nudes on Rippl-Ronai’s style. Rippl-Ronai knew Degas’ work quite well, eagerly listening to stories of the artist from his friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the only member of the younger artists’ circle brave enough to approach Degas. The shakiness of the line Rippl-Ronai uses in Nude on a Balcony, however, reflects the influence of Les Nabis, the “prophets” of modern art who based their art on the primal energy exemplified by Paul Gauguin, whom Rippl-Ronai met and championed when few others knew Gauguin’s work.

“He had recently returned for the first time from Tahiti,” Rippl-Ronai writes in his memoirs of his first meeting with Gauguin. “That is, he was already almost the real Gauguin.” Along with an artist friend, Rippl-Ronai learned “to love Gauguin's art, not every single item, naturally, but the artist as he was.” Spreading Gauguin’s around Paris, “where they either reviled him or thought he was mad,” Rippl-Ronai and his friend took credit as “the first to improve [Gauguin’s] reputation.” In Painter with Models (above, from 1910), Rippl-Ronai strikes a Gauguin-esque pose, placing himself among a gaggle of nude models just as Gauguin traveled to mingle with the scantily-clad Tahitian ladies. Rippl-Ronai clearly admired Gauguin “as he was,” and not necessarily Gauguin’s style of painting, hoping to emulate the antiestablishment radicalism that helped Gauguin break away from conventionality and find his true voice.

As much as Rippl-Ronai envied Gauguin’s freedom, he envied Degas for his technique. In Zorka (above, from 1923), Rippl-Ronai draws his favorite model in pastel, the medium Degas had almost single-handedly given respectability in the late nineteenth century. The nude woman’s unwavering stare at the viewer is pure Gauguin—shameless and powerful—but the stylized human figure, composed of pure gesture, reminds me of Degas’ later work featuring bathers in unconventional poses, configured more as abstract sculpture than living, breathing women. Gauguin and Les Nabis win credit for Rippl-Ronai’s bold palette and sensuous line, which won him fame upon his return to Hungary, but the influence of Degas, himself nearly blind when Rippl-Ronai encounters his work, clearly contributes to the eye-opening brilliance of the Hungarian’s art.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Setting the Stage

God needs the Devil, like Superman needs Lex Luthor or Sherlock Holmes needs Professor Moriarty. Without the tension of opposite forces pitted against each other, there is no story, just drab, monotonous perfection. When Giorgio Vasari mapped out his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, he knew his ultimate destination—the perfection of human artistry embodied by Michelangelo. “In our age the Divine Goodness has created for us Michelangelo Buonarroti,” Vasari writes in his preface to that landmark of art history. Knowing that unabashed praise of the master would lack drama, Vasari devised an entire journey through the history of Italian art from the late thirteenth century to his own sixteenth century painted with the chiaroscuro of bright good and dark evil artists. In Victims and Villains in Vasari’s Lives, the late Andrew Ladis demonstrates the importance of Vasari’s “bad guys” who helped define genius through their flaws and made the stars of the Renaissance shine all the brighter. Vasari, Ladis believes, casts the heroic Giotto (depicted above in a woodcut from Vasari’s 1568 edition of the Lives), Masaccio, and others versus a series of contemporary foils in “a great morality play in which sacred virtues, such as humility, charity, and faith, vie against the base motives that perpectually threaten Vasari’s sacred brotherhood.” Vasari, who, Landis writes, “appreciated the rhetorical power of anecdotes, whether true or not,” never lets the facts get in the way of the greater mission of paving the way for the “messiah” Michelangelo.

Ladis’ work presents an often forgotten side of Vasari’s Lives. Most modern abridged translations leave out the minor figures, preferring to give the major names full coverage. Ladis shows how those “minor” figures play a significant role in the Lives as a whole. The Lives lives more fully through the completeness of the opposition Vasari intended. Giotto’s exemplary life becomes humanized through the story of Buffalmacco, who becomes “an extended counterdemonstration of what it takes to be a true artist, a cautionary example of how not to lead one’s life.” Most of Buffalmacco’s works were already gone in Vasari’s day, damaged much like Buffalmacco’s The Triumph of Death (above, from 1355), a visual correlative to the self-destructive impulses of the artist himself. One of the few works of Buffalmacco that Vasari does see intact is a depiction of the suicide of Judas Iscariot, the template for self-destruction. Such “coincidence” always play right into the hands of Vasari as he weaves his narrative.

Ladis not only analyzes the bad painter—good painter dynamic of Vasari’s text, but also shows how Vasari took creative liberties to portray the “heroes” in the specific heroic manner that suits his higher purpose. In the case of Masaccio, Ladis writes, Vasari “ignored chronology and structured the life so that it comes to a climax with the Brancacci Chapel, still regarded as the painter’s greatest work. Making the Brancacci Chapel a kind of shrine and leading the viewer on a symbolic pilgrimage to it, Vasari compresses all of his story into the narrow confines of that sacred space, the holy of holies of the new art.” Images from the Brancacci Chapel, such as St. Peter Baptizing the Neophytes (above, from 1425), thus prefigure the ultimate sacred space of the Sistine Chapel , the site of Michelangelo’s greatest triumph.

While deconstructing the rhetorical life Vasari breathed into his history, Ladis himself shows a flair for vivacious prose. Vasari “turns Perugino into an avatar of avarice,” Ladis writes, “felled by the same thing that had lifted him up: Florence itself.” Ladis uses the case of Perugino to make the distinction between villains and victims. Perugino’s avarice makes him a villain, but the double whammy of being eclipsed by both Raphael, his student, and Michelangelo makes Perugino an unfortunate victim whose reputation has never fully recovered from those blows. Perugino once stood high enough in the art world that he placed frescoes such as The Delivery of the Keys (above, from 1482) in the Sistine Chapel. Later, however, some of his work was destroyed to make room for Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Such erasure of an artist, however, is acceptable to Vasari as long as it serves to make way for the star of the Renaissance show.

Just before Michelangelo, the ultimate hero, steps into the spotlight, Vasari presents the ultimate villain, Baccio Bandinelli, whom Ladis calls “a larger-than-hell villain.” With the exception of Vasari’s life of Michelangelo, Bandinelli’s life takes up more pages than any other, including all the other good guys going back to Giotto. In life, critics measured Bandinelli’s accomplishments against those of Michelangelo, a contest that Bandinelli himself welcomed. Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus (above, from 1543) not only stood as a rival to Michelangelo’s David but physically stood near the David in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Bandinelli’s villainy reaches it’s height when he, according to Vasari, destroyed Michelangelo’s cartoon for The Battle of Cascina, one of the great lost works of the master. Vasari presents Bandinelli as a great artist whose lack of character denies him the same magnitude of genius that the virtuous Michelangelo achieves. Even in death, Bandinelli’s sinister character as embodied in his art shows how greatly he differs from Michelangelo. The tomb Bandinelli sculpted for himself contains a self-portrait of himself as Nicodemus holding the dead Christ. That self-portrait as Nicodemus characteristically upstages the fallen savior—one final demonstration of Bandinelli’s hubris. Ladis remarks that Bandinelli stole the idea of a pieta from Michelangelo’s Pieta, but I’d argue that a closer source might be Michelangelo’s Florentine Pieta, in which Michelangelo cast himself in the role of Nicodemus, but in a much more servile role than Bandinelli’s Nicodemus. These dueling Nicodemi exemplify the larger story Vasari, and Ladis, tell.

You cannot come away from Victims and Villains in Vasari’s Lives and not want to go back to the source and read it again with Ladis’ ideas lurking in the back of your mind. Just as HerodotusHistories and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives can be seen equally as literature and history, Vasari’s Lives deserves to be seen as a masterpiece of Renaissance infotainment, but with a purpose. Michelangelo descends from heaven in Vasari’s eyes to redeem the world through art. Vasari, himself a painter, accepts the role of evangelist and spreads the word of Michelangelo’s majesty. Perhaps Ladis’ work will lead to a reappraisal of those minor figures so blithely excised from the abridged versions of Vasari’s work, whose flaws are more fascinating and human than those artistic god that once walked among us. Although Vasari always sided with the angels, he knew the value of the fallen angels to his story. Andrew Ladis’ Victims and Villains in Vasari’s Lives gives the devils their due, just as Vasari intended.

[Many thanks to the University of North Carolina Press for providing me with a review copy of Andrew Ladis’ Victims and Villains in Vasari’s Lives.]

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

North and South

When Albrecht Durer fled Nuremberg (and the plague) in 1494 for the sunny lands of Italy, his art took on a whole new dimension inspired by the Italian Renaissance. Born May 21, 1471, Durer took the lessons he learned from his time in Italy and brought them back to Germany, helping propel the Northern Renaissance and spreading humanist ideals further across Europe. Durer’s The Adoration of the Magi (above, from 1503) shows the compositional balance and harmony the Renaissance employed as a visual counterpart to their idealism. The amazing draftsmanship and inventive etching technique, however, are wholly Durer’s. Although Durer painted many great works, they remained largely in private collections. Durer’s prints, however, helped spread word of his talent across Europe and the world, winning him a name as the greatest printmaker of his time and egging other artists on to try to follow his example.

Durer’s Adam and Eve (above, from 1504) remains perhaps my favorite work by the artist. Durer liked it, too, proudly signing the image in Latin, ALBERTUS DURER NORICUS FACIEBAT 1504 (in English, “Albrecht Durer of Nuremberg made this engraving in 1504”). The white bodies of the first man and woman (with strategically placed flora deftly preserving their modesty) stand out against the darkness of the garden of Eden behind them, where the animals all peacefully coexist, beginning with the cat and mouse at the foot of the picture. Eve’s figure has that classic Renaissance look, that is, the unreality of a man’s body appended with wider hips and two small breasts lumped onto the chest like scoops of ice cream. Durer, like Leonardo da Vinci with his Vitruvian Man, saw the male physique as the apex of all creation and more fitting for study than that of the female form, a bias continued today in the dearth of medical studies concentrating on women in relation to the number of those focused on men. Despite that classic “flaw,” Durer’s Adam and Eve pulsates with life and drama as the serpent goads Eve into eating the forbidden fruit and upsetting the entire applecart of paradise.

Durer’s meticulous attention to detail pays off in that he’s never stodgy or studied. His mathematical approach became part of a strain of art continuing all the way through the pseudoscientific approach of Thomas Eakins, who based his methodology of drafting on mathematical principles ala Durer. Durer’s drybrush technique and detail-rich drawing style inspired the young Andrew Wyeth to try his hand at matching the master. As fascinating as that exactitude is in action, I find Durer’s imaginative rendering of The Rhinoceros (above, from 1515) just as fun. Durer never actually saw a rhinoceros in person. Working from another artist’s sketch and verbal description, Durer created his own idea of an armor plated beast. The original animal belonged to a now-extinct species from India, but it’s doubtful that Durer’s version comes even close to the real thing. Such flights of fantasy hint at the magic realism of Durer’s religious works and allegorical prints, which bring a sense of the otherworldly to the human element of the Renaissance and bridge the gap between fact and fiction and north and south in Renaissance Europe.

Custom Made

Henri Rousseau, known in the art world during and after his death as Le Douanier, or “The Customs Officer” in French, must have seemed a truly odd character. Born May 21, 1844, Rousseau was anything but bohemian, working at his conventional government job and raising his family. Rousseau was the classic dabbler, a man who showed a love of drawing and music since childhood but who could never make a living at it. In the 1880s, Rousseau took up painting seriously, getting some advice from professional artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme but for the most part teaching himself. In 1893, Rousseau retired from his job and indulged himself in his hobby. During his lifetime, critics laughed at his efforts, such as The Sleeping Gypsy (above, from 1897), but today that painting hangs in the MoMA. The Naive or Primitive style Rousseau stumbled upon while trying to paint in the classical tradition made him one of the true originals of Post-Impressionist painting.

Even today, Rousseau’s work looks childlike. In terms of simplicity, Rousseau and Edward Hicks run neck and neck. Part of the charm of Rousseau’s painting is that he wanted desperately to engage art history and the great painters of the past and present but lacked the formal training to copy them closely. Instead, Rousseau’s unique spin on subjects such as War (above, from 1894), with the female figure boldly riding the ragged-looking horse across the image, deconstructs the patriotic fervor of nationalistic works by Delacroix or David. We want to laugh at Rousseau’s poor draftsmanship, but part of that laughter soon gets directed towards the subject of war itself. Picasso and others who followed Rousseau would learn the lessons of Le Douanier the way that the Customs Officer learned the real lessons of his predecessors.

Gerome, Delacroix, and others all fostered a taste for the exotic in French painting, which many artists, including Renoir, tried to capitalize on at one point or another. Rousseau’s Orientalism comes second hand, based on those other artists’ imagery rather than first-hand experience. Because of that distance, Rousseau’s exotic works become dreamlike and mysterious. The Sleeping Gypsy (top of post) and The Snake Charmer (above, from 1907), among many other scenes of lions, tigers, monkeys, and other creatures in strange jungles and deserts, look amazingly modern today. What seemed amateurish and childlike at the turn of the century just a couple decades later seems a precursor of Surrealism. Le Douanier remains an inspiration to all amateur artists who take their love of art and create a unique style despite all the naysayers.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Stop the Clocks

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Funeral Blues” by W.H. Auden

We know Frida Kahlo primarily through her self-portraits, which are strung together across the painful abyss of her life like beads on a rosary of resolve in the face of physical and emotional anguish. In Frida Kahlo: The Still Lifes, Salomon Grimberg proves that the approximately 40 still lifes Kahlo painted reveal Frida’s internal life just as intensely as the approximately 80 self-portraits she completed. As in his other recent book, Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself (which I reviewed here), Grimberg brings his psychological training as well as his exhaustive research into Kahlo and her world to provide a fascinating new look at this underappreciated aspect of her art. “I paint flowers so they will not die,” Kahlo told her last lover, Josep Bartoli. Grimberg sees this death-defying, time-freezing impulse in all of Kahlo’s still lifes. None of Kahlo’s still lifes express this time fetish as much as The Broken Hours (above, photographed by Lola Alvarez Bravo in 1954), a three-dimensional still life Kahlo created in her home featuring one clock frozen at the time Diego Rivera asked for a divorce in 1939 and another clock frozen at the time they remarried in 1940. “Separation anxiety shaped every moment if her life,” Grimberg writes of Kahlo, “and, obsessed with avoiding inevitable partings, Kahlo painted still lifes with the intention of bringing time to a stop, of holding on to the attachments that nurtured her and the objects that linked her to them. These works became visual representations of her struggle to master the fear of loneliness and of confronting death.” With Grimberg as a guide, Frida Kahlo: The Still Lifes decodes the language of things that the artist used to reveal her innermost self.

Using what Hayden Herrera calls in her foreword “the author’s wonderfully inventive analytical process,” Grimberg delves deeply into the structure of many of Kahlo’s still lifes to reveal the meanings left hidden right there in the open. For example, in Kahlo’s Self-Portrait With Bonito (above, from 1941), which is technically a self-portrait, the still life Kahlo surrounds herself with speaks in a secret language of insects and mythology. “The butterfly, caterpillar, and cocoon are symbols of Christ’s Resurrection,” Grimberg asserts, “the cocoon represents the tomb, the caterpillar life on earth, and the butterfly the beautiful form emerging from the tomb and rising toward glory.” The death-obsessed meaning of this painting, done shortly after Kahlo’s father’s death, becomes even clearer when Grimberg connects Bonito, Kahlo’s beloved parrot, with “Horus, a falcon-headed diety from Egyptian mythology best known for avenging the death of his father, Osiris, and redeeming him with eternal life.” Perhaps Kahlo envisioned a similar redemption for her father, himself an amateur painter, through her art. By teasing out the intricacies of Kahlo’s still lifes, Grimberg proves not only his own prowess as an art history detective but also the depth and width of Kahlo’s personal mythology, which goes beyond the self-fashioned persona of the self-portraits.

Understandably, many of Grimberg’s readings of Kahlo’s still lifes centers around Kahlo’s personal issues with sexuality and childbirth. Her Still Life (tondo) (above, from 1942) shows a scene teeming with flowers in which “a uterus-shaped, seed-filled halved squash” sits as a Polyphemus moth flits above it. “Painted with the quiet, even colors of twilight, representing the time of life when we become reflective about the passage of time and the imminence of death,” Grimberg writes, this tondo frankly states Kahlo’s thoughts on her childlessness. The squash serves as an obvious double for Kahlo’s own damaged reproductive organ, but the subtle key to the piece is the moth. Grimberg deftly explains how the Aztecs believed that such moths, whose coloring resembles flames, were the reincarnations of men who died by fire. He then links that death association to sex through the moth’s physiological loss of needing to eat during the caterpillar stage. “Instead, sex is her only requirement,” Grimberg says of the moth, asserting that Kahlo knew such facts also, “and that is how she will spend her limited time and energy until she dies.” Like the moth, Kahlo flitted from relationship to relationship throughout her life, choosing to spend her limited time and energy on empty sexual recreation since fruitful procreation was impossible. Such subtle, profound use of flower and insect imagery recalls usage in Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age art, demonstrating Kahlo’s grasp of art history while still adding her own native land’s baroque mythology to the mix.

In her Flower of Life (above, from 1944), Kahlo literally turns that history of still life flower language on its head. Kahlo’s “flower of life” is a mandrake, the magical plant of lore that could reportedly cure infertility through its phallic power. Flipping the flower phallus end down, Kahlo shapes “its ‘body’ to resemble her internal sexual organs,” Grimberg shows, “adding arteries to feed the vaginal walls, and turn[s] the ‘arms’ into fallopian tubes from which the ovaries are missing.” Minus those egg-bearing ovaries, this “flower of life” is ironically barren. “This flower is Kahlo’s self-portrait as an incomplete woman,” Grimberg concludes, “available to gratify a man’s desire but unable either to conceive or to experience sexual pleasure.” Whereas the “official” self-portraits show us the Frida she wanted us to see, almost always in control despite all obstacles, such still lifes as Flower of Life are where Frida truly reveals herself and her insecurities to those who look deeply enough. In another still life, from 1951, Kahlo places a weeping face on a coconut—the agonized visage behind the masquerades of the self-portraits. Rarely did Kahlo allow herself such moments of complete, uncalculated frankness in her art, but such rare moments most often appear in the still lifes.

Frida loved things in her life, as demonstrated by the pride in which she poses above in a 1940 photo before a part of her collection of native crafts. In addition to setting elaborate dinner tables and sending a flower-strewn lunch basket to Diego each day he was working, Frida created still lifes all around her home of fresh fruit and flowers. Along with painting, such things became the tools through which she expressed her inner life, making the painting of still lifes a natural intersection of those impulses. The Frida of popular culture and Fridamania is primarily the persona of the self-portraits, and understandably so thanks to the expressive power of those works. However, as Salomon Grimberg proves in Frida Kahlo: The Still Lifes, the “real” Frida’s self-portrait may actually lie within the flowers and fruit of the still lifes, calling us to find her again and to stop the clocks that counted out her tragic life once more, so that Frida, like her painted flowers, will not die.

[Many thanks to Merrell Publishers for providing me with a review copy of Salomon Grimberg’s Frida Kahlo: The Still Lifes and for the images from the book.]

Monday, May 19, 2008

Serving a Higher Power

Most people know Sandro Botticelli, who died May 17, 1510, for his masterpieces of Renaissance classicism—The Birth of Venus and Primavera. Born in 1445, Botticelli has become, through those two works, associated with a delicate, almost porcelain type of beauty that inspired Robert Downey, Jr.’s character in The Pick-up Artist to complement women with the question, “Did anyone ever tell you that you have the face of a Botticelli and the body of a Degas?” Few people know that those two works were created for the rich and powerful House of Medici, Botticelli’s patrons. Even Botticelli’s earliest religious pictures, such as his Madonna and Child with Six Saints (aka the Sant'Ambrogio Altarpiece ; above, from 1470) , serve the Medici family, in this case by presenting Lorenzo il Magnifico and Giuliano Medici kneeling in front of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. After studying with Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli no doubt developed a highly secularized, non-aesthetic view of religion, which allowed him to stomach placing such ruthless types as the Medici comfortably within a sacred setting.

Soon, however, Botticelli fell under the influence of the charismatic religious reformer Savonarola. Like Michelangelo, Fra Bartolomeo, and other artists, Botticelli found Savonarola’s brand of reformed Christianity, stripped of the worldly excesses and corruption of the papacy’s connections to secular power, attractive. Botticelli and Michelangelo allegedly threw some of their pagan-themed paintings into Savonarola’s infamous "Bonfire of the Vanities." Regardless of whether Botticelli actually committed any of his works to the flames, it is clear that his subject matter takes on a more serious, deeply religious tone in works such as Lamentation over the Dead Christ with the Saints Jerome, Paul and Peter (above, from 1490). The casual insertion of powerful patrons disappears as the complete focus centers on the dead Savior and the reactions of such world-rejecting aesthetics as Saint Jerome.

Although Savonarola lost control (and his life) in 1498 and the Medici regained their position of influence over society, Botticelli continued to follow the same devotional path. Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity (above, from 1500), one of the few works Botticelli signed, may have been a private work Botticelli painted for his own meditation. As in the years 1000 and 2000, 1500 was a year in which many believed the Day of Judgment was at hand. In the Mystic Nativity, Botticelli abandons all the classical realism and proportion of his early works and indulges in an almost surreal world in which a giant Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus dominate the center of the picture. Episodes from the Gospel of Saint John come to life throughout the painting. After Savonarola’s death, Botticelli simply dropped from view and little is known of his life. That departure from the world helped Botticelli’s memory fade, virtually erasing him from the mainstream of art history (with the notable exception of the work of Giorgio Vasari) until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Between 1900 and 1920, a Botticelli renaissance made him one of the most written about artists of the time. Although the Medici-supported works continue to make Botticelli’s name in our culture, choosing Savonarola over the Medici may have led to a short-term loss but a long-term gain in art history appreciation.

All in the Family

The youngest daughter of James Peale and the niece of Charles Willson Peale, Sarah Miriam Peale was literally born to be a painter. Born May 20, 1800 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Sarah learned the family trade from her father and later from her cousin, Rembrandt, but, as with all the Peales, Charles Willson’s influence is unmistakable. Sarah’s Self-Portrait (above, from 1818) shows the classic Peale touch, warm and colorful, that always captured the twinkle of spirit in the sitter’s eye. Up until 1818, Sarah had concentrated on still lifes and miniatures, the permitted purview of women artists, but three months of intense study with Rembrandt gave her the confidence to tackle portraiture. That confidence, however, comes up short in this self-portrait in that it doesn’t identify her as a painter at all. At just eighteen years of age, Sarah had decades to prove to herself and the world that she was truly an artist worthy of her family’s legacy.

Although still life was considered a “safe” genre for women, i.e., lacking the dangers of the nude model that men could withstand, the still life in the Peale family achieved a higher quality than that of any other artists then working in America. Sarah’s Still Life with Watermelon (above, from 1822) abounds with the vibrant juiciness of the subject. Both Sarah’s cousins Raphaelle and Rubens excelled in the Dutch tradition of still life and undoubtedly guided Sarah’s progress. The same love of nature that led Sarah’s Uncle Charles to become the first great American naturalist can be seen in this faithful reproduction of red, ripe fruit. Sarah and her sister Anna Claypoole became the first women to join the PAFA in 1818, a landmark in the ascent of women in the arts in America.

Sarah’s growing prowess as a portraitist soon gained her a national reputation, pulling her away from her native Philadelphia to work in the social circles of Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, DC, and St Louis, Missouri, before returning to Philadelphia for the last eight years of her life. While in Washington from 1840 through 1843, Sarah painted the portraits of many politicians and dignitaries, including then Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Sarah’s portrait of then Viriginia congressman Henry Alexander Wise (above, from 1842), later the governor of Virginia who signed John Brown’s death warrant and a brigadier general for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, shows the facility with which she could paint the politically powerful. Sarah carried on the family tradition through her work but not through later generations of Peales, never marrying and having no children. Sadly, the same dedicated pursuit of her art that led her to a nomadic existence conflicted with the possibility of family, a price that many women artists still pay today. Although Sarah never received a colorful artistic name like her cousins Rembrandt, Raphaelle, and Rubens, her name belongs within the great tradition of the Peale family and their place in American art history.