Friday, January 30, 2009

Artist of the Floating World

One of the hardest tasks for any art historian is to take something very familiar and make it seem remarkably new. It seems like Claude Monet’s Water Lilies appear in every museum, on every Impressionist calendar, and as every art-related kitsch item imaginable. Jean Dominique Rey and Denis Rouart’s Monet: Water Lilies, The Complete Series not only brings together all 251 Water Lilies paintings and related works in one book, but also provides a fresh approach to these oh-too-familiar images. Rey and Rouart succeed in recovering the revolutionary aspect of Monet’s strikingly new way of seeing and painting. Works such as Monet’s Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond (above, from 1920) regain their individuality in Rey and Rouart’s treatment. Just as Monet obsessively recorded every nuance of water lilies floating in a pond and the surroundings of that pond, Rey and Rouart meticulously pull apart Monet’s methods and link his unique form of madness with contemporary ideas, adding up to a book that not only delights the eye with reproductions but challenges the mind to reassess the comfortable old furniture that the name “Monet” has become.

In his essay, titled “Appearances and Reflections,” Rouart follows the evolution of Monet as a painter of series. Touching upon Monet’s series examining Poplars, Haystacks, London Parliament , and Rouen Cathedral, Rouart shows how Monet resisted a rigorously scientific approach. “[T]hough deeply committed,” Rouart writes, “Monet’s visual explorations never took on a scientific bent, since he was determined to refer solely to his own sensation, unhampered by any preexistent theory or idea.” In contrast to artists such as Cezanne and Seurat, Monet never shackles himself to a theory, thus freeing himself to follow his visual imagination wherever it led. “Utterly intent on painting whatever afforde him visual pleasure,” Rouart writes, Monet’s “oeuvre is a lengthy exposition of his adoration of the world around him and of life.” Thanks to the comprehensiveness of the book’s collection of images, we can follow Monet’s eye as it roams over the years, fixating on different aspects in different periods, such as Monet’s Water-Lilies (above, from 1917) which shows a period in which Monet concentrated heavily on just lilies floating in water, with almost no frame of reference of grass, trees, or sky. “Fully grown, the various levels of this ensemble of aquatic and land plants constituted a veritable microcosm,” Rouart writes of Monet’s roving eye, “around which all his more or less mythical dreams of an earthly paradise might coalesce.” If Blake could see eternity in a grain of sand, Monet could see it in an ordinary pond.

Rey’s essay, “Mirrors of Time,” Monet becomes the Einstein of painting and his Water Lilies become physical exercises in space-time theory. “In the ten years between 1890 and 1900, Monet modified the dominant emphasis of painting, shifting it from space to time,” Rey writes. “To produce this ‘space-time,’ Monet collapsed the distances between volumes, atomizing them so as to restore the continuity of nature, that fluid movement of the universe from which volume, a mental projection onto the space of the canvas, had estranged his art.” Rey brings this high-flying theory back to earth by connecting Monet’s painting to the impact of the early cinema. Monet’s Morning (left panel shown above), part of the 1920-1926 panoramic series painted specifically for the Musée de l'Orangerie, in Rey’s exposition becomes a cinematic tour de force. In Morning, “elements indexing perspective, instead of receding towards a central point, veer off slightly towards the right… The whole piece—a genuine and indeed masterly ‘dissolve’—is thus conceived as the living unity, subtle and varied, of the successive movements of a symphony.” Andre Masson called the room holding Monet’s Orangerie works “the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.” Rey’s bold ideas and creative connections recover the relevance of Monet’s art and shatter the misperception of Monet as a painter of pretty, thoughtless paintings and nothing else.

For Rouart, Monet’s greatest triumph comes at his greatest moment of struggle when dealing with double cataracts and the surgical aftermath that led Monet to produce such nearly abstract works as The Japanese Bridge (above, from 1918-1924). “Monet’s fidelity to whatever he perceived through his visual organ, even when this was defective” never falters, Rouart writes, which leads Roualt to refuse to call Monet an abstract artist but rather a “tachist.” Monet always works from his own perception of nature and never strays into pure, selfish imagination. Rey, however, uses these late works to link Monet to the abstract artists of the 1950s. “I’m doing pure late Monets,” she quotes Sam Francis. Pollock’s Cathedral, an early drip painting, becomes an homage to the Cathedrals of Monet. “Borrowing and coexistence here concern the processes, the freedom, the lyricism,” Rey writes of the affinity of the 1950s set for Monet, who had become a second-stringer in art history books to Cezanne up until that time. Even Marc Chagall confessed a hatred for Monet until the 1950s, when he suddenly rediscovered Monet as “the Michelangelo of our time.” Half a century later, that revolutionary freshness and relevance is recovered in Rey and Rouart’s essays.

Monet: Water Lilies, The Complete Series brings together not only great essays (beautifully translated by David Radzinowicz) and great reproductions, but also includes startling photos of the man himself (above) with his paintings and enjoying the pond and garden he designed as his personal painting grounds. Special praise should go to the book designer who decided to reproduce the Orangerie panoramic paintings as triple gatefolds. Those mammoths have never received such proper treatment before. The interplay between the text and the images never gets bogged down in references and figure numbers, allowing both to wash over your mind and heart as Monet would have wished. After reading Monet: Water Lilies, The Complete Series you will never look at Monet’s paintings, Monet the artist, or your world the same way again.

[Many thanks to Rizzoli for providing me with a review copy of Jean Dominique Rey and Denis Rouart’s Monet: Water Lilies, The Complete Series.]

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Higher Frequencies

For whatever reason, the first time that I saw one of Barnett Newman’s zip paintings, I thought of the paper chromatography I did in chemistry class in college. Aside from the visual similarity, perhaps it was the similarity in how the paper chromatography broke down a compound and identified its individual components by light frequencies that made me think of it in front of Newman’s paintings, which break down all of human existence and isolate individual components such as love, fear, death, heroism, etc. Born January 29, 1905, Newman may have been the best pure philosopher in the history of American art. “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" Ralph Ellison writes at the end of his amazing novel Invisible Man. Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (above, from 1950-1951), which translates as “man, heroic and sublime,” speaks for all of us on the higher frequencies of what noble things we can aspire to. In the 1950s, when the Cold War threatened mutual mass destruction and other forms of repression-driven madness haunted the human soul, Barnett Newman looked to inject a sense of nobility, gentleness, and humor.

Sometimes, Newman’s message is misinterpreted by a damaged receiver. Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue IV (above, from 1969-1970) was attacked in 1982 by a deranged young man who felt that the work compelled him to destroy it. Several of Newman’s works have been assaulted over the years by people to whom they have misspoken. Sadly, Newman’s reputation suffers because his works lose so much in reproductions. Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue IV looks more like a simple, computer-generated graphic. Yet, in person, it can inspire emotional responses, sometimes violent, similar to those inspired by the works of Newman’s contemporary Mark Rothko. I admit that I didn’t fully appreciate Newman’s work until I had an opportunity to view a retrospective of his work at the PMA in 2002. I’ve always found the combination of the power of Newman’s words and the power of Newman’s wordless paintings fascinating. To be so articulate and dynamic in such a wide range of means of expression leaves me personally speechless.

Newman was wise enough to know that some situations are beyond reason, beyond words. For many, Newman’s Broken Obelisk (above, from 1967) has become the go-to visual image of irrational injustice in all its forms, from 9/11 to the latest school shooting. It seems almost inevitable that every great senseless tragedy will be accompanied by Newman’s Broken Obelisk, usually set to a soundtrack of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, another seemingly inevitable source of wordless solace. It says a lot about the American psyche that Newman’s presence in the popular culture falls far short of that of Jackson Pollock, his hard-living, fast-dying, cinematic-ready contemporary. Nobody will ever make a movie of Newman’s life and art—pure box office poison. Newman is far too subtle and nuanced for our quick-cut, impatient lifestyle. Yet, when our world is turned upside down, we reach not for the visual violence of the drip paintings but for the measured cadences of Newman’s art, who continues to speak to us on the higher frequencies, whether we chose to listen or not.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


It’s a great romantic myth that great artists come out of nowhere and develop a truly “new” style that breaks all the rules and announces a brave, new world. When Clement Greenberg hailed Jackson Pollock as the next big thing that would cast off the oppressive chains of the past and lead the way to a whole new way of seeing, he bought into that myth entirely and invited the entire art world to join him. Born January 28, 1912, Pollock owed much of his art to a series of mentors and influences, like pretty much every other major artist in history. As America pulled itself out from under The Great Depression, Pollock worked for the WPA Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1943. Without that financial assistance, Pollock would never have continued as an artist and never painted works such as Moby-Dick (above, from 1943). Moby-Dick not only shows Pollock’s interest in Herman Melville but also the influence of David Alfaro Siqueiros, whom Pollock worked with in the 1930s. Siqueiros’ unique use of the liquid properties of paint as well as his independent spirit helped shape Pollock into the individualist he later became.

Another great influence on the young Pollock was Thomas Hart Benton. It’s hard to see how Benton, the pseudo-realist regionalist, could have influenced works such as Pollock’s Blue Poles (Number 11, 1952) (above, from 1952), but if you dig deeply, you can see the connections. Like Siqueiros, Benton displayed a fierce streak of independence and passed that trait on to his students, including Pollock. But even more importantly, Benton taught Pollock how to compose a painting. Many people who look at Pollock’s paintings deny that there is any structure, but there is, if you look closely. Blue Poles may have the most obvious structure of all. In his study of Pollock’s art, Kirk Varnedoe showed how Blue Poles mimics the compositions of many of Benton’s works, with the blue poles standing in for the figures that would strike poses in Benton’s historical murals. The drip technique certainly doesn’t come from Benton, but the underlying structure does.

Perhaps the most fascinating suggested influence on Pollock for me is that of Claude Monet. Monet’s late Water Lilies paintings, thanks to his severe cataracts, approach abstraction in their color and lines. Before even that late period, Monet’s Cathedral series took the face of a cathedral and almost dissolved it in different light effects. One of Pollock’s earliest drip paintings, titled Cathedral (above, from 1947), may pay homage to Monet in some sense. In Cathedral, Pollock layers paint in a very controlled and deliberate fashion, constructing the “cathedral” of paint with absolute control in a way that denies the myth of “Jack the Dripper” aimlessly flinging paint about and eventually calling it art. Monet’s art is all about the eye taking in light and color. Pollock took that lesson and extended it further, almost obliterating the ostensible subject in the pursuit of pure color and gesture. The wild ride of Abstract Expressionism seems light years away from the serenity of Impressionism, but inquiring minds can find connections in the great web of art history. Freed from the myth of magical individuality, Pollock can finally be seen as a great student of art history who set off on his own only after following the tracks of others.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Parlor Games

In the wake of the Age of Englightenment, especially in France, women artists found more opportunity for success, including Marguerite Gerard. Born January 28, 1761, Gerard once found herself hailed with other great female French artists such as Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Adelaide Labille-Guiard. Gerard learned painting from her brother-in-law, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, king of the late Rococo style. In 1775, after the death of her mother, Gerard moved to Paris to be with her sister and Fragonard, whose connections to royalty allowed him to live in the Louvre and have access to the great collection of the kings of France. Fragonard took Gerard as his prize student, chief assistant, and mistress, sharing his love of Dutch genre painting as well as other kinds of love. Gerard specialized in Dutch-type scenes translated into the French idiom such as Lady Reading in an Interior (above, from 1795-1800). Surrounded by bourgeois and upper class life, Gerard depicted mainly the women she was familiar with in those circles and made a name and small fortune in targeting that select market of consumers.

In many ways, Gerard is the female equivalent of Fragonard—light and airy and free of all the “sturm und drang” of Romanticism even as the French Revolution tore down the crown and transformed France right under her very nose. Fragonard soon found his style out of favor as his royal connections literally ceased to exist. Gerard, however, continued to appeal to the domesticity of an aspiring bourgeois, who wanted to hold on to some of the old ways if not the old leaders. Gerard’s Bad News (above, from 1804) quaintly depicts the familiar trope of a “frail” woman taking a fainting spell upon hearing bad news that overwhelms her senses. Perhaps Gerard painted such scenes tongue in cheek, confident in her own inner strength and cognizant of just how false and limiting such ideas were. Painting small domestic scenes of uncontroversial subjects, Gerard always found a ready market for her work in even the most tumultuous times. A secondary market for etchings and prints based on her paintings brought Gerard even more riches and renown, allowing her to eclipse other, equally talented women artists by simply playing to the audience more astutely.

Some of Gerard’s finest paintings involve the idea of music in the parlor performed by young women seeking to make themselves more accomplished and, thus, more of a desired match for young men from successful families. Some of Gerard’s works directly address this sexual component to the musical parlor games, but The Piano Lesson (above, from 1810) does it more subtly. Here, the mother teaches the young girl how to play the piano, which stands in for all the lessons of nineteenth century, upper class womanhood passed on from generation to generation. The adult woman has perhaps gained her position as wife and mother thanks in some way to her musical skills. The female child, without realizing it, reprises the course of her mother’s life, building an arsenal of charms with which to assault suitors some day. Gerard clearly recognized the power of such gender roles and exploited them to create saleable works to support her as an unmarried woman in a world that looked askance at such creatures. Just as she once seduced Fragonard with her beauty and vivaciousness, Gerard continues to seduce modern viewers with the beauty of her technique and the shrewdness of her mind.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Visionary Company

What could it have been like for a young artist to meet William Blake in person? Intimidating, inspiring, invigorating, all of the above, and more. Through the engraver John Linnell, who would one day become his father in law, Samuel Palmer met Blake in 1824 and was never the same. Born January 27, 1805, Palmer became the one true disciple of Blake’s style. Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job stuck in Palmer’s visual memory for the rest of his life, coloring his perception of nature through their depiction of the pastoral landscape. Palmer eventually superimposed those Blakean landscapes onto the vistas surrounding his home in Shoreham, England, such as Garden in Shoreham (above, from 1820-1830). The garden here literally explodes with fertility, with the top of the tree resembling a mushroom cloud after a nuclear detonation. Palmer releases the energy of the atom in such scenes, taking mundane scenery and making it represent the vastness of the cosmos. Palmer tuned in to Blake’s message before tuning in on Blake was cool.

Before meeting Blake, Palmer lived with his father in London and frequently visited the British Museum to study the prints of Albrecht Durer and other masters. This study not only helped further Palmer’s draftsmanship, but also showed him the potential of working in monochrome. Palmer’s A Rustic Scene (above, from 1825) is a watercolor done entirely in shades of brown, which adds to the rustic quality of the image. The brown lends the scene and earthiness that vibrant color might not. Late in his career, Palmer worked heavily in engravings, becoming so demanding in his perfectionism that one printer claimed he rather see the devil walk through his door than Palmer with a handful of corrections to be made. It’s amazing to think of the diversity of Palmer’s eye when you place works such as Garden in Shoreham next to A Rustic Scene.

After Blake’s death, Palmer assumed the mantle of the “visionary” artist in England, the cult figure around which younger artists would gather. A group of young artists calling themselves the Ancients that once surrounded Blake now surrounded Palmer. They longed to be initiated into the spiritual clique that produced such works as Palmer’s Harvest Moon, Shoreham (above, from 1830-1831). Because of earlier criticism of his Shoreham paintings, Palmer refused to exhibit them and only allowed this select society to see them. Many of these works went unseen by the public until the twentieth century. Some were actually destroyed by Palmer’s son, who thought them too feminine and feared they would harm his father’s reputation. Today, modern artists see Palmer’s penchant for color and highly charged landscape as amazingly prescient, just as Blake himself seemed born much too early. Thanks to several museum exhibitions in the last few years, Palmer’s reputation as a great artist in his own right has helped bring him and his artwork out of the considerable shadow of Blake.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Great Chain of Being

I’ll confess that I will always find the idea of the Great Chain of Being attractive, despite what post-modernists say. Just call me old fashioned. My mind simply works better when trying to find a connect everything to everything else in a coherent universe, especially when it comes to art. Even someone as game-changing and ground-breaking as Edouard Manet cannot escape the net. Born January 23, 1832, Manet finds himself hailed as the father of modern art, the first artist to break with the old sensibilities and depict modern life as it is, shorn of all falsifying mythology. Manet offered The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe) (above, from 1863) as a first glimpse of that brave new world. Yet, how much of this is really new? Art historians point out that Manet “borrowed” the composition from a drawing by Raphael of The Judgement of Paris. The strange, “modern” juxtaposition of dressed and nude figures may have come from Manet’s study of the Renaissance paintings in the Louvre. Sixteenth century works The Pastoral Concert and The Tempest, both likely begun by Giorgione and completed by his student Titian, set the stage for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As much as we may want to isolate Manet as a lone genius blazing a trail into the unknown, Manet steps backwards and points to the past to point to the future.

Where The Luncheon on the Grass befuddled, Manet’s Olympia (above), also from 1863, enraged. Manet completely gives up the pretense of mythology as a way of making the female nude acceptable. But how valid was the entire pretense of mythologizing nudes, especially female nudes, to begin with? Again, Manet looked to the Renaissance and Titian, particularly The Venus of Urbino. The gamesmanship of calling a recognizably realistic nude a Venus or Aphrodite and thus giving the painting respectability always seemed a strange gentleman’s agreement. Manet breaks that agreement in Olympia, recognizing that Titian himself most likely never fully signed on either. As “modern” as Olympia appears, her knowing and direct look reflects similar glances in previous artists as well. Goya's Nude Maja, which Manet most likely knew in some form from his study of Spanish paining since Velazquez, challenges the viewer with her eyes more than half a century before Manet’s Olympia does. Manet rejects the idea that confident women comfortable in their skin can only be fictional and simultaneously points back to all the “real” women since the Renaissance.

Manet, however, didn’t turn a blind eye to the art world going on around him. Although he never accepted the label “Impressionist” or agreed to exhibit with the Impressionists, Manet appreciated what the Impressionists were trying to accomplish and became friends with Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, and Camille Pissarro. Manet’s Self-Portrait With Palette (above, from 1879) shows Manet trying to keep up with the times and paint in an Impressionist manner himself, momentarily abandoning his clear draftsmanship yet still clinging to his dark, Spanish background. Even more forward-thinking, Manet encouraged women artists Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzalès when even some Impressionists continued to cling to the all-boys’ club mentality. Manet falls into the cracks between many categories because he doesn’t paint like a true realist and his works are Impressionist in their independent spirit yet not Impressionist in visual style. The inability to lump Manet in with others isolates him. In truth, Manet belongs everywhere, stretching across styles and even across space and time. More than his art, it is Manet’s mind, always searching for new ways of seeing with total disregard for the rules, that helps create the atmosphere in which modern art is born.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Coming to Your Emotional Rescue

Annibale Carracci (Italian, 1560–1609). Madonna Enthroned with Saint Matthew, 1588. Oil on canvas. Unframed: 384 x 255 cm (151 3/16 x 100 3/8 in.). Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photographers: Estel/Klut.
As the High Renaissance waned and Mannerism reigned over the European art world, Ludovico Carracci and his cousins Annibale and Agostino Carracci quietly began to stage a revolution that would redirect the course of Western art. While Giorgio Vasari praised the old ways in his Lives, the Carraccis penned their protests in the margins and later in such paintings as Annibale Carracci’s Madonna Enthroned with Saint Matthew (above, from 1588). The Getty Museum’s current exhibition Captured Emotions: Baroque Painting in Bologna, 1575-1725 and the companion catalogue, edited by Andreas Henning and Scott Schaefer, try to recreate that pivotal moment in painting history when the Carraccis turned a corner and brought a heightened sense of emotion and humanity to painting that had been lost in the Olympian heights of Michelangelo and the rote gestures of Mannerism. Taking paintings from the Getty’s collection, several other southern California collections, and that of Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (all of which can be seen here), Captured Emotions recaptures a time at which the Carraccis were as famous as Raphael and Bolognese Baroque painting set a standard that not only contemporary but also future artists had to come to terms with.

Carlo Cignani (Italian, 1628–1719). Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, about 1670–80. Oil on canvas. Unframed: 99.1 x 99.1 cm (39 x 39 in.). Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photographer: H.-P. Klut.
In the opening essay of the catalogue, “Painting in Bologna from the Carracci to Crespi,” Charles Dempsey points to the Farnese Palace frescoes of Annibale and Agostino Carracci as the turning point in which the new style conquered Rome, “where painting had declined precipitously after the great years of the High Renaissance.” Dempsey bravely claims that the Carracci style then dominated “the history of painting in all Europe, not to be superseded until the Impressionist revolution of the mid-nineteenth century.” This new style found a powerful ally in the new, post-Reformation Catholic Church. The Counter-Reformation, launched at the 1563 Council of Trent, implored religious art to all, from the most sophisticated to the most illiterate. The common bond was human emotion. “Never before had direct psychological appeal been conceived as central to the enterprise of painting,” Dempsey writes. “In asserting this, Counter-Reformation clerics had unwittingly unleashed a tiger, for the depiction of a nude and repentant Magdalene in all her flesh-and-blood splendor, for example,… could arouse sensations simultaneously devout and carnal.” Old Testament tales such as that of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife became fodder for this multi-faceted, emotional approach, leading to diverse interpretations such as the three versions in this exhibition (all shown here; Carlo Cignani’s appears above, from 1670-1680). Cignani’s Rubenesque wife of Potiphar almost leaps out of the image as Joseph recoils from her advances, his hands speaking volumes of his dismay. After decades of dull Mannerism, the Carracci style reached out and grabbed the audience and awakened both the pious and those purely interested in art.

Guido Reni (Italian, 1575–1642). Christ with the Crown of Thorns, about 1636–37. Oil on copper. Unframed: 76 x 60 cm (29 15/16 x 23 5/8 in.). Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photographers: Estel/Klut.

Of all the artists in the show, Guido Reni stands out for his masterful technique and emotional rendering. In Christ with the Crown of Thorns (above, form 1636-1637), “the miracle of Reni’s art appears in the unerring poise he strikes between the actuality of flesh and blood and the poetic metaphor Christ simultaneously embodies,” writes Dempsey. Reni strikes the perfect note that the church desired. Caravaggio accused Reni of stealing his style, writes Stefano Pierguidi in his essay, “The Naturalistic Strand in Bolognese Baroque Painting,” but Reni rejected Caravaggio’s work as too naturalistic, thus losing touch with the poetic side. Christ with the Crown of Thorns also illustrates the new technique of painting on copper. “On copper plates it was possible to execute especially intricate and radiant paintings, inasmuch as the support was hard and smooth and did not absorb oil pigments,” Andreas Henning explains in his essay on the subject. From around 1575 until around 1650, artists painted on copper to achieve that inner radiance that the divine Savior deserved. Such special effects only added to the emotional impact of these paintings as the battle for souls and paying commissions raged.

Giuseppe Maria Crespi (Italian, 1665–1747). Confession, about 1712. Oil on canvas. Unframed: 127 x 94.5 cm (50 x 37 3/16 in.). Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photographers: Estel/Klut.

If the Carraccis stand at the beginning of this movement, Giuseppe Maria Crespi stands at its end. Crespi’s Seven Sacraments (one of which, Confession, appears above, from 1712) represent the height of the naturalistic strain of the Bolognese Baroque. “Crespi presented the sacraments as he observed and experienced them himself as scenes from everyday life, in contemporary dress, without idealization,” writes Bjorn Kerber in “Documenting Invisible Grace: Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s Seven Sacraments.” Although Poussin had painted the same sacraments in his own classical style, he had a great appreciation for the Bolognese Baroque school. The royalty of Europe and Russia collected their works fervently. Yet, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the Carraccis and their followers fell out of favor. John Ruskin, traveling through Italy while working on Modern Painters, attacked them viciously. “There is no entirely sincere or great art in the seventeenth century,” Ruskin wrote. “Insincerity and pretentious artificiality of emotion were to be cited against them soon as the Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century changed the map of Europe and turned a generation of young intellectuals into romantic prophets and pragmatic nihilists,” laments Tatiana Senkevitch in “The Critical Reception of the Bolognese School.” Winckelmann, Goethe, Stendhal, Hazlitt, and the poet Robert Browning, among others, continue to admire the Bolognese Baroque school, but the times had changed to the point that such emotional appeals no longer rang true.

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (Italian, 1591–1666). Saint Mark, about 1615. Oil on canvas. Unframed: 87.5 x 70.5 cm (34 7/16 x 27 3/4 in.). Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photographer: H.-P. Klut.

For me, the appeal of the Carraccis and their school comes not only in their art but in their appreciation of art. If Vasari is the first art historian writing, they were the first art historians in practice. The Carraccis obsessively studied the art of the past and emphasized the works of predecessors when teaching in their academy. Taking a buffet-style approach to the Renaissance, the Carraccis picked and chose the very best and developed a style that synthesized all of those strengths. “They found the natural purity of Correggio’s color unequaled by any master,” Dempsey writes, “while the dramatic force of Titian’s chiaroscuro was unrivaled.. No artist could equal Michelangelo in his mastery of the nude in action… Raphael was unsurpassed in composition and the perfection of his proportions.” Such assessments seem natural today, but back then, Dempsey stresses, “[t]hese critical distinctions were in themselves new and unprecedented.” Works such as Guercino’s Saint Mark (above, from 1615) arise with great consciousness of the past masters, both in their strengths and weaknesses. The Carraccis put into artistic practice the critical appreciation of art history in a way that both honored the past as well as looked to the future of art. Such consciousness both spurs on and plagues art making even today, thus linking the artists of today to the spirit of these artists centuries ago. Captured Emotions restores the Bolognese Baroque school to its proper place in the great scheme of art history as the beginning not only of self-reflecting art but also the first freeing of the tidal wave of emotions that have made so much art since so compelling. With essays and online features as welcoming and engaging as the paintings themselves, the Getty has created an opportunity for the art-loving public to regain a lost piece of the long art history journey to today.

[Many thanks to the Getty Museum for providing me with a review copy of Captured Emotions: Baroque Painting in Bologna, 1575-1725, edited by Andreas Henning and Scott Schaefer, and for the images above from the exhibition.]

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Charity Case

There’s something truly disturbing in the cold, dead eyes of the blind beggar in Bartolomeo Schedoni’s painting The Charity (above, from 1611). Born January 23, 1578, Schedoni knew the work of his slightly older contemporary Caravaggio and copied the more famous artist’s strong use of lights and darks for dramatic effect. Schedoni, however, resists the reductive label of “Caravaggisti” through the greater softness of much of his works, which make him a kindler, gentler Caravaggio in many ways. Schedoni studied with Annibale Carracci and admired the works of Correggio, whose gentleness, especially in religious genre paintings, set the standard for a generation of Italian artists. The little boy staring out at the viewer in the bottom right could have stepped right out of a Correggio painting. That little boy’s soft, yet still almost accusing glance balances the unseeing, yet clearly confrontational “glance” of the blind boy with the walking stick. In those two figures you can almost see Schedoni standing with one foot in each of the two schools—the little cherub representing Correggio and the striking charity case representing Caravaggio. In The Charity, the realism of the beggars symbolically asks the beauty of Correggioesque lyricism for the means of survival.

Of course, Caravaggio was the new, hot thing, so Schedoni found himself veering more towards that new style than the old ones. In The Deposition (above, from 1613), Schedoni captures wonderfully the pure compositional chaos as well as the dramatic lights and darks of Caravaggio. In fact, Schedoni’s Deposition bears a striking similarity compositionally to Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), right down to the detail of a standing figure pointing to the jumbled left side of the image. If Caravaggio mastered the power of blackness, Schedoni perfected whites “whiter than white,” as the old detergent ads used to promise. The white of the woman’s rolled sleeve almost explodes with light against a sea of darkness. Maybe Schedoni could have taken the Baroque style in a completely different direction—towards light rather than dark. Sadly, he met his end almost as quickly as Caravaggio did.

Schedoni must have been a man of great passions. He reportedly almost lost the use of his right, painting hand from playing tennis too obsessively. The same fervor that drove him to perfect his art through risky innovation, unfortunately, also enflamed him to risk money at the gambling table. Heavy losses at gambling allegedly led Schedoni to take his own life in 1615. In that same last year, Schedoni painted The Holy Family with the Virgin Teaching the Child to Read (above, from 1615), a tender, decidedly non-Caravaggioesque painting of great intimacy—a return to Correggio in many ways. Schedoni painted many small works as this as devotionals for patrons to complement his income from larger, public works for churches. Schedoni gave this particular version to his wife, perhaps in a moment of affection and thanks for her putting up with his difficult ways. For centuries after his death, Schedoni became known more for his wild ways, ala Caravaggio, than his art. The early English Romantic novelist Ann Radcliffe named a sinister monk in her novel The Italian, Or, The Confessional of the Black Penitents “Schedoni” after the painter. Although Schedoni’s whites still gleam brightly today, his star in the art history firmament faded long ago into just another shooting star that once held great promise but burned out much too soon.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Beginnings and Ends

Today, Barack Obama will take the oath of office to become the 44th President of the United States of America. With that beginning we see the end of the Bush (mis)Administration, and not a day too soon. Although America was founded on the rejection of royalty, Presidential Inaugurations have featured regal pomp and circumstance since April 30, 1789 and the first inauguration of the first President— George Washington (above, Currier and Ives’ 19th century conception of that first inauguration). Washington famously rejected all the trappings of kingship under a different name, but the inauguration still became an august moment of the peaceful transfer of power in America. The power of Washington’s personal gravitas bonded all opposing forces together at that moment, providing a rallying point around which the newly born nation could unite. Ever since that first moment of presidential power, inaugurations have provided images that stand as touchstones of American history.

With the sad exception of William Henry Harrison’s 1841 inauguration, at which he contracted a fatal case of pneumonia while delivering his address (the longest still in presidential history) in a driving sleet storm, inaugurations continued to be mostly peaceful transfers of authority. The American Civil War, unfortunately, ended all ideas of peace. Photographer Alexander Gardner took the photo above of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. Lincoln stands in the middle of the crowd, a tiny, hatless figure reading from a piece of paper. Somewhere in the sea of heads above Lincoln John Wilkes Booth looks down upon his future victim. Booth and his co-conspirators came to the inauguration looking for an opportunity to strike but failed. Gardner took what many people believe to be the last photograph of Lincoln on April 10, 1865. Four days later, Booth and his henchmen succeeded in assassinating Lincoln. When the captured co-conspirators (Booth was killed before he could be captured) were hanged in July 1865, Gardner was the only photographer allowed to take pictures of the execution, which were then used to draw etchings to be used in newspapers.

The aura of hope and good feelings that surrounds Obama brings to mind for many the days of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy added a touch of class to his 1961 inauguration by asking the great poet Robert Frost to recite a poem (shown above). The 86-year-old poet struggled with the wind, brutal cold, and relentless sun in his eyes so much that he could not read the new poem had written for the occasion, titled “Dedication.” After trying his best to read the new poem, Frost recited from memory an older poem, “The Gift Outright,” saving the day and bestowing a different kind of gift upon the new president and the country:

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia.
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Other presidents have asked other poets to bless their beginning, but none has ever matched JFK and Frost’s moment of grace.

Of all the sad photos of that tragic day in Dallas when JFK was assassinated, one of the saddest to me remains that in which Lyndon B. Johnson takes the Oath of Office on Air Force One as it sat in Love Field. Jackie Kennedy stands beside LBJ still wearing blood-splattered clothes. Her eyes seem almost empty, perhaps imagining the dead body of her husband lying in a coffin elsewhere in that same plane as it prepared to return to Washington, DC. LBJ’s “inauguration” saddens me because the assassin’s bullet violently took away that moment of celebration of the democratic process. Whomever killed Kennedy also killed the American spirit as embodied in the image of an individual standing before the people and promising to guide us as a nation through good and bad.

Although it seems a lifetime ago, it was eight years ago exactly that George W. Bush’s first inauguration took place. After the bitter, partisan election battle, this inauguration, too, seemed like a murdering of the American spirit rather than a celebration of our unity as a people. Bush’s car was egged by protestors so badly on the way to the Capitol Building that the slow procession became a quick drive-by to the final destination. Protestors in Washington, DC’s Freedom Plaza (above) exercised their freedom of speech to protest what they saw as a miscarriage of justice despite the best efforts of the authorities to push them further away from the proceedings. Today, as Obama takes that oath (followed by inaugural balls that aim at including not only the powerful but also the common people in DC and, thanks to technology, all across the country and the world), I want to wipe away these images of protest from my memory, look at inaugurations with fresh eyes, and celebrate America once more.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Above and Beyond

I’ve been looking forward to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Cezanne and Beyond exhibition, which opens next month, for a long time now. I still have a shirt from the 1996 exhibition titled simply, Cezanne. Paul Cezanne looms over the history of modern art like a brooding giant. Born January 19, 1839, Cezanne over the years became many things to many artists. Matisse called Cezanne “a god of painting.” Picasso called Cezanne " the father of us all." Thanks to the PMA’s great collection of Cezannes, including the Large Bathers (above, from 1898-1905), and to the also formidable Cezanne collection at the nearby Barnes Foundation (including another version of Large Bathers), there will be wall-to-wall Paul. In addition to Matisse and Picasso, the new exhibit promises to connect the dots between Cezanne and such varied artists as Max Beckmann, Georges Braque, Pierre Bonnard, Charles Demuth, Alberto Giacometti, Arshile Gorky, Marsden Hartley, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Fernand Léger, Brice Marden, Piet Mondrian, Giorgio Morandi, Liubov Popova, and Jeff Wall. Amidst this name-dropper’s paradise, I hope that Cezanne’s own achievement doesn’t get lost in the crowd.

I’ve always thought that Cezanne painted the saddest portraits ever. Madame Cezanne seems to epitomize the long-suffering spouse of the long-unrecognized genius in works such as Portrait of Mme. Cézanne (above, from 1885-1887). Cezanne’s slow painting methods, better suited to mountains and still lives, clearly tested the patience of his sitters. I’ve always loved Cezanne’s portrait of his father for the simple fact that the Cezanne père could no longer sit still and began reading the newspaper. In retaliation, Cezanne fils painted a notoriously liberal daily in his father’s conservative hands. Legend has it that fruit would often rot before Cezanne finished painting it. Perhaps as a consequence, the flesh of many of his portraits, including his self-portraits, resembles that of overripe fruit on the verge of turning bad. I look at the piled up shapes of Cezanne’s self-portraits and see a man making a mountain of himself, as immovable as a mountain range against those who failed to see the genius behind his new way of painting.

Unlike many of his fellow Post-Impressionists, Cezanne remained a devout Roman Catholic all his life. Van Gogh, among others, retained a sense of the spiritual dimension, but he sloughed off the skin of conventional religion. Cezanne, however, never saw a conflict between his art and his faith, incorporating the legends of Christianity, such as The Temptation of St. Anthony (above, from 1875), as easily as those of ancient mythology. "When I judge art,” Cezanne said, “I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art." Many would be surprised to hear that Cezanne didn’t set out to “clash” with nature in his distinctive painting style. In actuality, Cezanne sought to recreate the creative act of God in his art—breaking down the “God-made object” into its essential components and then reassembling that same object in his painting. Some would argue that Cezanne’s works lose something in the translation, but Cezanne would rebut that his new vision of God’s vision is the residue of his individual soul touching upon the universal and leaving a mark. Cezanne took the everyday and brought it beyond the commonplace, sifting it through the fine mesh of his particular sensibility. Those who came after him recognized the genius of Cezanne’s method if not the beauty of his style. By harmonizing in his own way with God and nature, Cezanne himself became “a god of painting” and, by example, a “father” of all modern painters.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Long Goodbye

Wyeth died.” I was at work talking to Annie on the phone when I saw that two-word e-mail come from a friend. Andrew Wyeth (above) passed away early this morning peacefully in his sleep at the age of 91. I told Annie instantly, still stunned. Andy Wyeth seemed like someone who could go on forever. A world without Wyeth seemed inconceivable. Yet, he is gone. I imagine him somewhere in the afterworld, sitting with N.C. and talking shop. And laughing that great, deep down in his bones laugh. Even at 91, there was something eternally young and almost elfin about Andy and that came through in his art. Elves can be mischievous, too, as Wyeth demonstrated throughout his life. “I’m not a nice man,” Wyeth once said. Instead, Wyeth was quintessentially human in his art, plumbing the depths of both the good and bad in human nature, from the warmth of his scenes of African-Americans living their simple lives to the chilling cruelty in Karl Kuerner, Sr.’s ice-blue eyes.

The Brandywine Museum already has a memorial page set up, including an Andrew Wyeth Blog at which you can pay your virtual respects. It will be interesting to see how the Brandywine evolves after Andy’s death. Andy blocked many attempts to study his long career, which stretched back all the way to the 1930s. (Wyeth’s 1938 Self-Portrait appears above.) Will the Brandywine become finally The Andrew Wyeth Museum? Andy was certainly prolific enough to provide enough material to assemble new exhibitions for a long, long time. The Brandywine has long been known as the museum of the Brandywine School, but the other artists of that description have long taken a back seat to Andy, including his father. Much of the Wyeth oeuvre has languished in storage, unseen by the public. Often, new paintings would appear in the Andrew Wyeth gallery of the Brandywine with little or no fanfare and disappear just as mysteriously. Hopefully, the fears that overexposure would hinder Andy’s work have died with him. Now is the time for us to see Wyeth whole.

I regret never having the chance to meet Andy. I came relatively close when hoping to do a piece or perhaps even a book on his sister Carolyn, whose upcoming exhibition at the Brandywine may now be overshadowed by Andy’s death. Age, illness, shyness, and just a plain weariness over covering well-trodden ground kept Wyeth from doing many interviews over his last years. The full portrait of Wyeth remains to be written. In 1981, Wyeth painted Dr. Syn (above), a “self-portrait” based on x-rays of himself. Wyeth was never so self-revealing in life, even though his paintings always came from some piece of his life. Wyeth’s art was almost always the cycling and recycling of memories—both his own and those of the landscape around him. Now that he is gone, we will discover how many of those memories were taken with him and how many were recorded for us to study and learn from. I believe that today is not the last day of Andrew Wyeth’s life but rather the first day that the world truly begins to appreciate and look to understand this remarkable man and his unforgettable art.

Mountain Range

In the New York City art scene of the 1950s, artists joked that you were either with the “red mountain,” Harold Rosenberg, or with the “green mountain,” Clement Greenberg. Born January 16, 1909, Greenberg helped set the standards of taste for post-war America like few other critics. A failed painter himself, Greenberg (above, photographed in 1972 by Arnold Newman) built an entire system around the idea that traditional ways of painting, including painting recognizable subject matter, were not only passé but dangerous for society. After witnessing the way the Nazis commandeered art and culture for nefarious, propagandistic purposes in World War II, the Jewish Greenberg sought to turn the tide and incite a new way of painting that stressed the individual and freedom over the state and state-enforced control. Such a goal neatly survived the transition into the Cold War period by replacing the fascism of the Nazis with the Communism of the Soviet Union. America, Greenberg asserted, as the beacon of freedom for the world, would also illuminate the path to the next stage in the evolution of art.

For Greenberg, the next stage came in the person of Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. Works such as Pollock’s Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 (above) epitomized everything that Greenberg wanted for art and culture. While Rosenberg championed Willem de Kooning, Greenberg hitched his wagon to Pollock’s star. Greenberg and Pollock rose together into the cultural firmament. The two names became almost synonymous. Greenberg worked with the U.S. Government to organize international exhibitions of Pollock’s art to counteract the ideological spread of Communism during the 1950s. Unfortunately, Pollock’s messy personal life and chaotic psyche clashed with the fastidious habits of Greenberg. In the movie Pollock, Jeffrey Tambor captures that aspect of Greenberg’s personality beautifully. Pollock the man always interfered with Pollock the abstraction for Greenberg, who wanted an idea free of all baggage.

Greenberg seemingly found this baggage-free type of painting in the next style he championed, which he called Post-Painterly Abstraction but is also known as Color Field painting or Lyrical Abstraction. Many artists in the 1960s left behind the angst of Pollock and took a cooler approach to art that reveled in color and shape with no reference to subject matter, including their own mental state. Morris LouisAlpha-Pi (above, from 1960) exemplifies this person-less, subject-less style. Greenberg swayed the taste of contemporary art even further towards abstraction, leaving contrary-minded artists far behind and devoid of any chances of fame. Furious at Greenberg’s stranglehold over the artistic dialogue, Peter Saul painted the critic in 1971 as Clemunteena Gweenburg. Saul’s feminized caricature sits on a palette marked “Abstwack Arts” with a paintbrush extending from his (female) genitals that reads “Hy-Brow Art.” Saul and others saw Greenberg’s move to abstraction not as an escape from fascist circles but as an escape from responsibility to address the wrongs of capitalism and American “democracy.” In their view, Greenberg’s belief in the American way blinded him to its wrongs and drove him to blind others to them as well. Greenberg ruled over the art world for nearly two decades, passing down judgments that still echo in the works of critics influenced by him who set today’s standards. Like a mountain, Greenberg continues to cast a large shadow.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Beautiful and the Damned

I both love and hate lists. They’re great fun to compile but always lead to an argument, which can be great fun, too, but not always. Someone always gets left out. A braver man than I, Stephen Farthing, editor of 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, slaps a new bull’s eye on his back with 501 Great Artists: A Comprehensive Guide to the Giants of the Art World. As with his previous book, the “and one” acknowledges that there’s always “one more” name that should have been thrown into the mix. Farthing and his minions, however, ably take up the challenge and bear the brunt of critique, to which I shall add here. 501 Great Artists, however, unarguably achieves its primary goal—getting people to talk about artists and art. From the rank beginner to the rankled expert, 501 Great Artists will get you flipping pages one way or another and before long you’ll find yourself hooked on new discoveries or griping over new injustices. “The reach is chronologically and geographically vast,” Geoff Dyer writes in his forward. “We begin in China over a thousand years ago and end, in Iran, with an artist born in 1974—a welcome reminder that the word ‘artists’ is not invisibly or tacitly preceeded, either in the book’s title or its conception, by the word ‘Western.’” Noble in conception, 501 Great Artists’ sins of commission and omission all fall under the category of crimes of passion—passion about art in all its incarnations.

Starting with Dong Yuan in China circa 900 AD and wrapping up with Shirana Shahbazi, born in the age of Disco, 501 Great Artists does it’s best to span the centuries and circle the globe with individual artists as the touchpoints. “In the end, art history boils down to people: writers, patrons, collectors, artists, and then finally the audience,” Farthing writes in his brief introduction, “without the people there is no art.” Almost every artist earns a full page of coverage, with some, such as David Hockney (above), earning more thanks to their greater importance in the scheme of art history. Beneath each artist’s name appears their lifespan, “artistic style,” a list of masterworks, a short essay, and maybe a sidebar with an interesting factoid or two. Oversized text features quotes either from the artist or from some critic on that artist, ranging from Giorgio Vasari to Sister Wendy Beckett. I found myself at one point just scanning for those quotes. (Two favorites—Henry James on Correggio, “That’s a very pleasant life, to renounce everything but Correggio!” and Carl Jung on Hieronymus Bosch, “The master of the monstrous.. the discoverer of the unconscious.”) The format really does humanize art history, giving flesh and blood to the cold facts and reinforcing the idea that art is of the people, by the people, and for the people. As comforting as it is to come across familiar names, it’s even more enjoyable to experience the thrill of discovering a new star situated within a constellation you already thought you knew too well.

It was heartening to see some names included that normally don’t find a place in the pantheon. Jean-Leon Gerome and Hans Hofmann deserve spots as much as for their influence as teachers as for their own art. Alfred Sisley and Emile Bernard emerge from the Impressionist tangle. The underrated George Bellows finds a place on this world stage, yet Robert Henri and John Sloan, equally influential members of the Ashcan School, fail to make the cut. As much as I applaud the visionary and deserved inclusion of composer John Cage (above, Cage’s Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, a 1969 tribute to his friend Marcel Duchamp), I can’t agree with the logic of some of the choices. Farthing is British and I anticipated the same Anglocentrism demonstrated in 1001 Paintings, but what kind of good Englishman picks John Flaxman over Sir Thomas Lawrence? Do you really need both James Gilray and Thomas Rowlandson to acknowledge British political caricature post-Hogarth? Can Art Nouveau be understood without Aubrey Beardsley? In photography, is Edward Steichen more important than Alfred Stieglitz, Eugene Atget, and Walker Evans? I’m sure that the Guerrilla Girls would take great issue with the exclusion of Kathe Kollwitz (below, Kollwitz’s Self-Portrait With Hand on Brow, 1910), the otherwise fine selection of women artists notwithstanding. Although the essays are generally well written, clunkers such as calling Thomas Eakins “an unflattering portrait painter” that no Eakins’ authority would accept slip through.

The most dangerous part of this very dangerous list comes when dealing with contemporary artists. Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst eat up several pages each thanks more to their notoriety than greatness next to the giants of the past. Hirst’s section almost comically includes among his “themes” “pharmaceuticals, narcotics, love, the nature of existence, mortality, and religion,” which pretty much covers everything. All the Young British Artists appear as well as anyone within sniffing distance of the Turner Prize. Among all these Brits, couldn’t a slot have been found for Kehinde Wiley, the great young African-American artist? 501 Great Artists does a marvelous job of finding the fine young artists of the Middle East, but I found myself wondering how many deserving artists such as Wiley fell short in the barrage of Damien Hirst wannabees. As I said, lists are dangerous, but trying to write art history on the fly, literally trying to predict the future giants, borders on madness. Farthing courageously accepts the challenge and that courage should earn him some forgiveness for perceived failings. 501 Great Artists belongs on the shelf of any art lover, especially that of a young person to whom these artists are often just names on a museum wall or footnotes in a book. Farthing restores the human touch to these works and incites argument in a good way, calling out those who love art to pronounce or defend their territory. 501 Great Artists restores the giants to life size and allows us to see them again as the wonderful, fallible, contextualized, and context-breaking people they once were.

[Many thanks to Barron’s for providing me with a review copy of 501 Great Artists: A Comprehensive Guide to the Giants of the Art World, edited by Stephen Farthing.]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Troubling the Waters

When Art Young published his political cartoon titled Poisoned at the Source (above) in the July 1913 issue of The Masses, The Associated Press sued him for libel. Born January 14, 1866, Art Young fought against the establishment at every turn, taking on the compliant media that Young saw assisting capitalism in its oppression of the people. Young married his passion for justice with his passion for art at a young age. After looking at a book illustrated by Gustave Dore, Young decided to become an illustrator himself, eventually studying at the Art Students League of New York, where he may have encountered several of the members of what later became known as the Ashcan School. Whereas the Ashcan School artists sought to depict the new urban existence of big American cities such as New York at the beginning of the twentieth century, and some of those artists, such as John Sloan and George Bellows dabbled in what could be called Socialism, none of them took their art as far left politically as Young. Sloan, the art director of The Masses, left over the ideological breach. "To me this magazine exists for socialism,” Young then said of The Masses. “That's why I give my drawings to it, anybody who doesn't believe in a socialist policy, as far as I go, can get out." Young believed in The Masses as an antidote to the “poison” spread by the AP and other mainstream media outlets.

Young truly saw the battle for social justice as a religious crusade. “I think we have the true religion,” Young told an interviewer in 1940 in his defense of his Socialism. “If only the crusade would take on more converts. But faith, like the faith they talk about in the churches, is ours and the goal is not unlike theirs, in that we want the same objectives but want it here on earth and not in the sky when we die.” In A Compulsory Religion (above, from 1912), Young portrays capitalism as the great god mammon, before whom the masses must bow out of fear of poverty and sickness. It’s amazing that we face the same concerns today, nearly a century later, as health care and bankruptcy haunt Americans as the twin specters of economic recession. Young uses amazingly deep blacks to depict the dark mood and ever-present fears of the people, whom he dwarfs before the gluttonous, grotesque god of greed. Although surrounded by the Impressionist-influenced Ashcan School artists, Young instead approaches the techniques of the German Expressionists in visually plumbing the depths of the collective American psyche.

I find Young’s illustrations still fresh and relevant today. Although he points to specific concerns of his time, those concerns still remain with us as long as social and economic injustice reigns. The timelessness of Young’s crusade coincides with the eternal message of Christianity in Young’s He Stirreth Up the People (above, from 1914). For Young, Jesus is “The Workingman of Nazareth” speaking to other workers to stand up for their rights. Here is Jesus the community organizer and rabble rouser causing trouble who refuses to be silenced. The U.S. Government tried to silence Young and The Masses in 1918 under the Espionage Act, claiming that Young’s anti-war comics interfered with the draft for World War I. The charges were eventually dropped, but The Masses ceased publication soon after. Young, however, continued to stir up trouble in other publications, practicing his personal brand of Christianity that placed the Beatitudes over the Ten Commandments. “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled,” said Jesus. Art Young lived those words and drew them until the end.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Revenge of the Nerd

You may have noticed a new box on the right-hand column featuring The Nerd Test, a cute little quiz to help you measure your nerdiness or lack thereof. (And, no, that’s not a picture of me above on the left. But it’s close.) Around the same time I found the test, Annie sent me a link to a story musing over whether Barack Obama is our Nerd-in-Chief. Annie and I proudly wear the mantle of nerds and will happily raise Alex to be a nerd as well. (Of course, Annie and Alex hide their nerdy exterior beneath a beautiful and stylish exterior, whereas I actually look more nerdish than I am, if that’s possible.)

Take the quiz and see how you do. However, keep in mind that the quiz tests more for the computer/mathematics strain of nerdishness than the arts and culture variety. That being said, I still scored a 62, making me nerdier than roughly two thirds of all the people who’ve taken the test, most of whom have built a computer with their bare hands. Just call me a nerd for all seasons.

I thus offer the following “Are You an Art Blog By Bob Type of Nerd?” Quiz:

1. Do you have your own art blog?

2. Have you ever gone to a wedding and gushed over a painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence as much as you did over the bride?

3. At the same wedding, did you reel off the names of the four top English portraitists of the reign of George III as if they had gone to YOUR wedding?

4. Have you ever had other museum visitors ask YOU questions rather than the people working there because they’ve overheard you talking to your spouse and friends?

5. Do you covet art books like a crack addict looking for a fresh pipe?

6. Do you save art calendars for years after they’ve expired just to look at the pictures?

7. Do you look at a painting and think of three other paintings similar to it but done by other people?

8. Did your spouse enlist her friends to find a Hawaii state quarter to put in your Christmas stocking and thus complete your collection, which you see as tiny sculptures?

9. Have you ever eaten at Hank’s Place in Chadds Ford, PA, hoping that Andrew Wyeth and Helga will stroll in for pancakes?

10. Have you ever compared a work of art to an episode of Seinfeld, a Shakespearean sonnet, or a Woody Allen movie and then blogged about it?

If you answered yes to most of these, you qualify as a full nerd. Go out and get a pocket protector! (If you answered yes to all of these, we may have been separated at birth. E-mail me.) Either way, embrace your inner nerd and celebrate (don’t curb) your enthusiasms, whether they be Starry Night or Star Trek, Pollock or politics, da Vinci or da Bears. The nerds shall inherit the earth, or at least have fun trying.

[Please feel free to include your own most nerdish art moments or experiences in the comments. It’s OK, you’re among friends.]

UPDATE: I took the 2.0 version of the quiz that has some literature and other arts-related questions and achieved “Cool Nerd King” status. Now that's an oxymoron if there ever was one.