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Friday, January 30, 2015

Muscle Painting

The Battle of Cascina, 1504, Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Muscular skeletal drawing by
Leonardo da Vinci
For those working artist who have never had the joy or privilege to have taken a college-level figure drawing/painting class, this is for you. You really should. Sooner or later, as you move through your career as an artist, you're going to want to or need to paint the human figure, either nude, nearly nude or clothed in form-fitting clothes. Having had little or no experience in this endeavor you're going to try nonetheless and realize pretty quickly there's more to it than simply drawing naked people. The fact is, every naked figure is composed of skin, bones, and muscles (by far the most demanding part) whether they're exposed or merely suggested. The reason so many otherwise excellent artist avoid painting figures are many, but most come down to the fact that, first of all they're quite difficult, second, there are certain societal and religious moral factors mitigating against such works (many of them solely in the artist's mind, and third, in today's art world, the line between legitimate figural art (below) and erotica or even pornography is treacherously thin. Moreover, it's an undulating line, changing position, if not daily, then at least yearly. Add to that, the element of gay erotica, and most male artists wouldn't touch the genre with a ten-foot paintbrush.
 
Muscles II, 2009, Rob Bartrell,
tinged with homoeroticism.
Nude on Pillows II, 2003, Robert
Lambert, muscle panting today.
The female nude today, lots of
muscles, spike heels and all.
I don't suppose I'm revealing any long kept secrets, but let me say for the record that painting nude figures goes back at least to the Ancient Greeks around the 6th-century BC rendered in black on jars meant to contain olive oil for coating the body the PanHellenic games around that time. I mention it here but don't offer photos simply because this type of painting is far too familiar include. And, I might as well bring it out in the open here as anywhere. Such figural art often evolves into sometimes quite graphic homoerotic art. Moreover, that's pretty well been a trend down through the entire history of painting. Regardless of era, even pretty much regardless of artist, painters have been unwilling or unable to divorce sex from the nude body. And if that were true in the past, in today's Internet-driven world of art, that's doubly the case. You have no idea how much porn I had to plow through to collect the images you see here...okay, maybe you do.
 

Study for the Creation of Adam, 1514, Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Vitruvian Man, 1490, Leonardo
Regardless of whatever latent sexual motivation an artist might have, stick figure just don't make it. Neither do shapeless blobs. As two of the stars of the Italian Renaissance demonstrated more than five hundred years ago, drawing nudes is a scientific pursuit as well as artistic. Well, that kind of takes a lot of fun out of it right from the start. We see that in Leonardo's Vitruvian Man (left) from around 1490. There's even an element of mathematics and geometry involved. Michelangelo, no doubt, instinctively recognized this but mostly chose to ignore it. A few of his drawings would indicate that decision had it's negative impact. Aside from his David, which is, after all, sculpture rather than painting, Michelangelo's most famous painted rendering of a nude figure is his Creation of Adam (above), the centerpiece of his Sistine Chapel Ceiling. And, had he consulted Leonardo, he might have more accurately gauged the proportions of the head to Adam's muscular nude body. As many critics and historians have pointed out however, Michelangelo was much more interested in muscles than faces. Often his drawings simply omit the head. In fact, it would seem that he was only interested in male muscles. His female bodies don't differentiate much as to gender. His female sculpture of Night (below) from 1526-31 in the Medici Chapel in Florence appears to be a man with breasts attached (and somewhat ineptly at that). He does, however, redeem himself somewhat in his (now lost, except for copies) Battle of Cascina (top) from around 1504. Never before, and seldom since, has a single composition delivered so many complexly drawn figures interacting so perfectly.

Night, Medici Chapel, Florence, 1526-31, Michelangelo Buonarroti
Elevation to the Cross, 1610-11,
Peter Paul Rubens
With the passing of the Renaissance, only Peter Paul Rubens (in painting) and Bernini (in sculpture) carried on in the muscular tradition of Michelangelo despite the much vaunted impact of the Sistine ceiling on painters yet to come. Rubens had a muscular festival of the arts in his Elevation to the Cross, from around 1610-11. Much of this embracing of the female nude (no pun intended) can be laid at the doorstep of the rise in social acceptance and male popularity of the female nude during the 17th-century Europe. What? You say, women have muscles too. Well, no, not like they do today, nor would painting them in the manner of Michelangelo's masculine female figures have been acceptable in any case. Women were seen as rounded, soft, chubby, voluptuous, in fact, sometimes what we'd call simply downright fat. We see this in no less an artist the Diego Velasquez's Venus at her Mirror from around 1649-51. That tradition carried on to the "sanitized" nudity of French academic art in the 18th-century as seen in Alexandre Cabanel's Birth of Venus from 1863. I've seen Teddy bears with more muscle structure. It began to wane only as the purposeful distortions of Cubism and the various flavors of Expressionism took hold in the early 20th century, largely eliminating the sexual element from nude painting (not to mention any hint of muscles).

Venus at her Mirror, 1649-51, Diego Velazquez
Female Nude, 1907-08, Pablo Picasso
However, during the 20th-century, largely replacing the nude painting came nude photography--some of it quite artistic, some...not so much. Although pornography had existed mostly in etchings and even in some painting for hundreds of years (thousands if you count the Greeks), photography allowed it to explode, first in Europe, then after the wars in the more prudish United States. First there were the imported French postcards, then cute, and relatively harmless pinup calendars, then in men's magazines, and now it literally pollutes the Internet to an almost unimaginable degree. What is more, with the advent of body building to a level that would have made Michelangelo rub his eyes in disbelief, the nude figure, of either gender, bears little resemblance to those in the past. Sexual elements, if not overtly exploited, lie just beneath the surface. Cabanel would have rubbed his eyes too. Yet as never before, figure painters have come to recognize the importance of accurately rendering muscle structure, whether in their "fine" art or the most disgusting examples of (mostly male) pornography. Full-frontal nudity is pretty much the acceptable norm, the line between that and pornography seemingly resting with the display of erect genitals. Within a century or less, this line will probably have moved further to depend only upon the operational status indicated.
Birth of Venus, 1863, Alexandre Cabanel--marshmallow soft.

Paint my muscles...please. The artist is listed only as Hughes.







 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Maris Brothers

The Maris Brothers, the two on the left by Willy Sliuter, the third, Matthijs, is a self-portrait.
View of the City, 1882,
Jacob Maris
It's not all that uncommon, especially among Dutch artists, to find entire families, sometimes spanning three or four generation, with several fair to good artists hanging from the boughs of the family tree. The Dutch Golden Age period during the 17th-century is loaded with such instances. Once you move into the later years, as Dutch painting became no better nor worse than all the other national flavors, art families became less common. By the 19th-century, the apprenticeship system of training artists had pretty well fallen by the wayside to be replaced by government supported art academies. Thus fathers and uncles were much less likely to train up their sons to follow in their footsteps. And, by the same token, sons and daughters were far less likely to feel the duty of carrying on the family name, especially as educational and career opportunities broadened in the modern era. Usually, when I encounter such a family of artists, I select the best one or two and ignore the others. However, in the case of the Maris brothers, Jacob, Matthijs, and Willem (above), choosing the best of the three would be splitting hairs and an injustice to the brothers not covered.

The Bridge, 1878, Jacob Maris. It's not hard to see how he
may have influence van Gogh.
Portrait by Jacob Maris
As art families go, the three brothers not only didn't look much alike, they didn't paint much alike either. Moreover, they're also rather unusual in that prior to the oldest, Jacob, taking up the brush, there doesn't seem to be a tradition of artists in the family. In fact, only one brother, Willem taught his son, Simon, to paint. Yet, the three together, came to form what has come to be called "The Hague School." And though they had fewer than a handful of students amongst them, their influence among 19th and 20th-century Dutch painters is said to have been enormous. If nothing else, they brought Impressionism to the Netherlands. Jacob Maris in particular could well have been a major influence upon Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh could hardly not have known of the elder Maris' work, having lived in Holland during the mid-1880s. Only in the area of his brilliant colors does van Gogh depart noticeably from Jacob Maris.

A Corner of the Hague Levee, Matthijs Maris

Study of an Old Woman,
Matthijs Maris
Jacob Maris was born in 1837, his younger brother, Matthijs in 1839. Jacob started taking art lessons at the age of twelve. And, by all accounts, he then taught is younger brother to paint, though both became students at The Hague Academy of Art. Willem Maris (born in 1844) seems to have picked up any painting skills he possessed either from his brothers or in being self-taught. After their time at the art academy, the two Maris boys traveled through Germany, Switzerland, and France, there no doubt picking up on the first nascent stirrings of Impressionism. In returning home (they still lived with their parents), the two took up traditional Dutch painting in the tradition of Jan van Goyen, Jacob Van Ruisdael and Johannes Vermeer.

Gabriel Painting, Jacob Maris
The Bride, or Novice Taking the
Veil, ca. 1887, Mathijs Maris
Around the mid-1880s, Jacob Maris began having some success with his work, selling and exhibition to national acclaim both in the Hague, and in Paris where he eventually set up a studio. His brother, Mathijs, upon returning home from their European travels, was not so lucky. Shows of his work in The Hague and Amsterdam were met with something less than positive reviews. Matthijs became bitter and depressed. His brother invited him to Paris where they shared a studio. However, the outbreak of hostilities in the city during the bitter days of the Franco-Prussian War and the Siege of Paris quickly sent the two scrambling back to The Hague. There Jacob Maris continued to be successful. Matthijs didn't. His landscapes lacked color and the precision to which the Dutch art world had long been accustomed.


Butterflies, Matthijs, Maris
Eventually, Matthijs' art dealer persuaded him to move to London and start over. In doing so around 1877, Matthijs came under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, and while he was too much of an outsider to join them, his work, superficially, at least, began to take on much of the same "look" as the highly refined, effete painters of medieval English literary legends. His Butterflies (above) would seem to indicate an affinity for John Everett Millais and his Ophelia. Matthijs' The Bride, or Novice Taking the Veil, (above, left) dates from 1887 and is considered his masterpiece. Mathijs was to spend the final years of his life in London. He died there in 1917. His older brother, Jacob, died in 1899.

Cow to the Ditch, 1885, Willem Maris--one of the best cow paintings I've ever seen.
Ducks in the Meadow,
1848 ???, Willem Maris ???
The youngest Maris brother, Willem, not only knew his limitations as an artist but was satisfied to create within them. I found one painting, Ducks in the Meadow (left) dated from 1848, which would have made the artist about four years old at the time, so the date, (or the attribution) to say the least, is highly suspect. Nonetheless, in imitating the art of his older brothers, Willem seems to have commenced painting at an early age. Unlike them, however, Willem seems to have been an "outdoor boy" learning his art, not in a studio or classroom, but out in the colorful rural meadows of the Dutch countryside.

Calves at the Trough, Willem Maris
In response to the question of why he painted cows all the time (and other farm animals), Willem Maris responded, "I don't paint cows but rather the effects of light." Nonetheless, his early work is very much involved in the study and rendering of bovine anatomical details. Later, he laid more emphasis upon the colors of nature and the effects of the early morning mist upon his landscapes. It later years, his painting style grew richer, heavier, looser, and more confident. Willem Maris may have been mostly self-taught, but that being the case, and from all appearances,he was an excellent, patient, instructor.

Boys Herding Donkeys, 1864, Willem Maris







 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

De Hirsh Margules

Coenties Slip, New York, 1947, De Hirsh Margules
De Hirsch Margules Self-portrait
One of the hardest things for a writer dealing with art to do is to expound upon an artist whose work he doesn't much like. I do it several times a year but it doesn't seem to get any easier. Why I do so boils down to the fact the my tastes in art are not universal. If an artist is important, regardless of my own personal feelings, I feel obliged to bring him or her to the attention of readers whose taste in art may differ a great deal from my own. The other problem is that after covering so many artist the past few years I sometimes become jaded. It's very easy to do. Dutch Golden Age painting effects me that way, as does German expressionism, and especially good, old-fashioned American Abstract Expressionism. Although I try not to eliminate artists based upon their style or era, sometimes I get the feeling that if I see one more Polish painter (for example), I'll scream (in Polish, of course). De Hirsh Margules (who's not Polish, by the way, but Romanian) effects me that way.
 
Bedford Street Fantasy, 1947, De Hirsh Margules
Bi Focus, 1843, De Hirsh Margules
Although born in Romania in 1899, Margules spent all but the first ten weeks of his life in New York City. The family was Yiddish, Margules' father active in the Yiddish theater. Margules' mother was an actress and some thirty-nine years younger than her husband. Margules' and his brother and sister appeared as child actors on stage while another brother became a magician under the name "Rami-Sami." Around the age of nine or ten, young De Hirsh began to take art classes at a local Boys Club. At the age of eleven, the young artist won a city-wide art competition sponsored by Wanamakers (department store). During his teen years, Margules studied art at the New York Evening School of Art and Design, while working as a clerk during the day at Stern's Department Store. He took up painting around 1920 and had his first showing in 1922 alongside Stuart Davis, Jan Matulka, and Buckminster Fuller.
 
Safe Harbor, De Hirsh Margules
A "Time Painting" by
De Hirsh Margules
During the 1920s, Margules traveled broadly around Europe, eventually ending up in Paris's Montmartre area near an "art park" called Place du tertre, where he sat up his studio on the top floor of a nearly deserted fleabag hotel with neither heat nor running water. During the day he studied on his own at the Louvre. At night, he set up his easel on the darkened banks of the Seine painting nocturnes. He joined a group calling themselves "Noctambulist" (nightwalkers). The group experimented with painting and exhibiting in low light. Margules also began experimenting with what he called "Time Painting," (right) that is, dividing the canvas into quadrants and using colors in each associated with different times of the day.

New York Street Scene, De Hirsh Margules

Willem de Kooning, 1948,
De Hirsh Margules
Returning to New York in 1929, Margules's art associations would tend to confirm that "it's not what you know but who you know," especially where art is concerned. He impress Alfred Stieglitz, his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, and Elaine de Kooning, among others. His friends urged him to open his own art gallery (two rooms) on West 8th Street which he called "Another Place." There Margules held fourteen highly acclaimed art shows featuring his own work alongside that of several other artists who were to make a name for themselves with the advent of the New York School after the war. Margules' career took off about the same time when New York's Museum of Modern Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts both purchased his paintings as part of their permanent collections.
 

Figure and Flowers at Rest, 1941, de Hirsch Margules

Boat Plant, 1943, De Hirsh Margules
De Hirsh Margules was more than just a painter, though he was painting "realistic abstractions" long before WW II even began, positioning himself several years ahead of the Post-War period of Abstract Expressionism. Margules prided himself in being, what we'd call now, perhaps then too, a "character." His hair was long, his black French beret holding most of it in place, his clothes deliberately sloppy and mismatched, his demeanor full of life to match the avant-garde nature of his art. Writers began writing about him, even as a fictional character. The comic book writer, Alvin Schwartz pictured him in a debate with Clark Kent as to whether Superman could have stopped Adolph Hitler. In a sense, he became a part of the 1950s "beat generation" almost before that generation was born. His antics might well have been a model years later for the painter/showman, Salvador Dali.
 

Geometric Abstraction, 1959, De Hirsh Margules
The death of De Hirsh Margules in 1965 was treated by the New York Art World as, if not the end of the world, then something of the end of an era. In reality, they weren't far wrong. The era of Modern Art was winding down. Minimalism and Pop Art were in the offing. Despite his carefully honed persona as a Bohemian starving artist, the New York art world was shocked a few months after his death by the news he'd left an estate worth over $100,000. Apparently Margules was something of a stock market wizard as well. He was remembered at his wake as a kind, generous, though rather flamboyant man always ready to help a friend of struggling artist. Margules' sister, actress Annette Margules, remembered him as charitable and generous to all who needed help. He took care of people, he even fed them. "Why, last night, people came up to me and said, 'How am I going to eat now that De Hirsh is gone'?"

Approach to Provincetown, 1948, De Hirsh Margules











Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Louis Marcoussis

Untitled Still-life, 1929, Louis Marcoussis                                        
Louis Marcoussis Self-portrait
It's difficult to overstate the profound influence that Pablo Picasso's Cubism had on the French world of art during the second decade of the 20th-century. Picasso wannabes crawled out of the woodwork like bedbugs from a discarded mattress. First of all, Cubism was easy to imitate. Second, there was a substantial demand for any type of painting that even so much a looked like it might be a Picasso. To a lesser degree, that's still the case today. Third, Picasso seems not to have cared about his imitators, apparently seeing imitation as the sincerest form of flattery. In fact, the more other artists copied his style, the higher prices for authentic originals rose. Moreover, for Picasso, Cubism was just a phase, a style of painting and a means of seeing, to be explored, explained, exploited, then expelled as he moved on to other phases (or periods) in his work. Picasso never stood still. Those who copied him did. One of those artists was the Polish-born (later a French citizen) Louis Marcoussis.
 
Still-life with Mandolin and Guitar, 1924, Pablo Picasso. Note the similarities between this a Marcoussis' work (above) but don't ignore the differences.
Louis Marcoussis (formerly Ludwik Kazimierz Wladyslaw Markus or Ludwig Casimir Ladislas Markus,) was born in 1878 (or 1883, depending upon who you listen to). The frequent name changes should give you some insight into his character. Marcoussis studied art briefly in Warsaw and Krakow before moving to Paris in 1903 (roughly the same time Picasso did). In the cafés of Montmartre and Montparnasse he got to know Apollinaire, Braque, Degas, and of course, Picasso. Except for Picasso's alter ego Braque, each of these men had their own, well-established painting style. Marcoussis did not. His earliest works were Impressionist, then he switched to German Expressionism; but mostly his art was limited to cartoons in French magazines. After a stint in the French Foreign Legion during WW I (1914-1919) Marcoussis came back to Paris. That's when he discovered Cubism.
 
Portrait of Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso
Lines In The Hand suite of 16 drypoints,
Gaston Bachelard, The Devins,
Louis Marcoussis
Marcoussis wasn't the only painter pounding the Paris pavement purveying Picasso's Cubism. Juan Gris, Juan Miro, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, and Fernand Léger played around with Picasso's invention. Some improved upon it slightly. Others came close to desecrating it. Marcoussis falls somewhere in the middle of this range. It might be going to far to refer to Marcoussis as a copyist but there are quite a number of Picasso paintings for which we can find a similar Marcoussis version. Even his drawings (above) bear a striking resemblance to those of Picasso as does his figural work (below) and landscapes (bottom). The man himself, even began to look like Picasso in their later years.

The Card Player, 1921, Louis Marcoussis
Figure Study, 1907, Pablo Picasso




Marcoussis died in 1941 shortly before the Nazis goose-stepped into Paris. All of this is not to say that most knowledgeable art appreciators would get the work of the two artists confused. There are definite and discreet differences, but if you're the type to announce, "if you've seen one Cubist painting, you've seen them all," you might want to take a second look.
Kerity Landscape,1927,
Louis Marcoussis
Landscape with Two Trees,
1907-08, Pablo Picasso


















 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Joe Mangrum

Union Square, Joe Mangrum, one day in 2010
A whole new meaning to "handmade" art.
Sometime, several thousand years ago, there developed the theory that art should be permanent. I'm tempted to blame that on the Egyptians who seemed to think everything (even life itself) should be permanent. However, in contemplating the whole phenomena, I'm thinking it likely goes back much farther than that, to some creative cave dweller daubing colored mud and black ashes around with a dead animal tail on the stone walls of his humble abode. Whatever the case, the concept stuck. Moreover, to the delight of present day archaeologist and art history aficionados, artists and scientist have since gone to great lengths to ensure this element of art permanence is...well...permanent. Any misconception that is thousands of years old is quite difficult to correct. Art, in effect, causes time to stand still. As an artist pours hundreds of hours into a painting or sculpture, he or she freezes that time in the form of an archival creative statement. Well, not all artists. Not Joe Mangrum.


Joe Mangrum's temporary art.

Joe Mangrum
I suppose there are probably other art media that are less permanent than Joe Mangrum's sidewalk sand paintings, I just can't think of any at the moment. Sand painting is not the only type of art Joe Mangrum does (he creates large scale sculptures as well), and he's not the only artist creating sand paintings. Tibetan monks make a fetish of their art being temporary. The Navajo use it to heal the sick. Meanwhile others bottle their images in striving for permanence. Permanent or temporary, Mangrum IS one of the best at what he does. And, thanks to photography, as you can see above, his work does have a degree of permanence. Although he employs many hours in creating his sidewalk decorations, he's not the least bit sad to see the rain, wind, or human footprints eventually destroy them.


Expand-reflect-exist, 2009, Joe Mangrum, All Points West Festival
Not all of Mangrum's art involves
geometric abstraction
Joe Mangrum is no simple itinerant street artist with a tin cup to facilitate tips. Though he now lives and works in New York City, Joe was born near St. Louis in 1969. He's started painting lessons when he was eight and by the time he was sixteen his art had won him a trip to India, where he first picked up his interest in sand painting. The trip also sparked an interest in travel and multi-cultural art. In returning, Mangrum enrolled in Chicago's AIC School of Art where he received his BFA in 1991, majoring in painting and photography (a good combination for a would-be sand artist). Since then he estimates he's created well over six-hundred sand paintings. His large scale site-specific sculptural installations(above) have brought him almost as much fame.

Photo by Billy Sheahan
Starting with a geometric outline, surprisingly precise for a freehand drawing.
As with every work of art, it starts out small, a tiny pile of sand, which then Mangrum's talented fist sweeps outward in carefully planned arcs, swirls, lines, circles, and fills. It's not an art for those reluctant to get their hands dirty. A wisp of air, a few drops of rain, and it's all for naught. However, Mangrum is sometimes amazed at the longevity of his work, even on busy urban sidewalks. Even those who respect little else, seem to respect the great beauty of fine art.

Photo by Billy Sheahan
The shadows grow longer as the work nears completion.
Creating a medium to large-scale work of sand art is an all-day job, stopping only long enough for lunch, restroom breaks, photography, and to talk to passing strangers about his art. That may well be he part of his art he loves most. By the time the work is finished (below) it's often after sunset, with only moonlight and streetlights to illuminate his work.

Photo by Billy Sheahan
The finished work, about eight p.m.
The art of sweeping up.
Some of Mangrum's sand paintings last longer than others. Some are created indoors and thus cannot rely upon the elements to do the messy work of cleaning up (left). Check out the video below on what it's like to deliberately destroy art.




 This is just the first phase of cleanup.
Once the dust has settled, they come back and do it again.