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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Betye Saar

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972, Betye Saar
I've never known or met and artist who didn't have at least a passing interest in their native heritage and family background. It seems to go with the territory. My mother was into genealogy. I'm not, though I do have my father's fascination with history in general. He was a great Civil War buff, though he never served in the military nor did he have any known ancestors involved in the war. He loved to visit battle sites and watch reenactments. When my mother died, as her executor, I had the job of settling their estate, which, though not all that great in terms of dollars and cents, was exceedingly complex in many other ways (my mother never met a bank she didn't like). Adding to this burden was her accumulation of antiques, some of which were of little value (all but worthless, in fact) while others were quite rare and/or valuable.

Betye Saar Self-portrait
In going through all the "stuff" the night before the estate auction, I chose some of the more attractive items and arranged them into a still-life, which I photographed extensively for future reference in doing a painting of the family heirlooms. Some of them sold the very next day. It was one of the least successful still-lifes I've ever done. The problem was, most items bore little relationship to one another, and all were of approximately equal size and interest. Thus, they competed visually with one another. At best, it looked like a display in an antique shop window. Moreover, there was no cohesive theme or message to tie it all together. In looking back, I wish I'd known the Los Angeles artist Betye Saar. She might have helped me better "pull it off."
 
The line between assemblage and
collage can sometimes be quite thin.
Sambo’s Banjo,
Betye Saar 1971-1972
Betye Saar seldom paints still-lifes. She makes still-lifes, an art form invented by no less an art icon than Pablo Picasso himself. He coined the word "assemblage" to differentiate such works from their two-dimensional ancestor, "collage" (which he also fathered). When Betye's great aunt Hattie died in the 1970s, she found herself in much the same position as I, going through family photos and other memorabilia, trying to sift the treasure from the trash. She began to turn her talent for assemblage (should we call it sculpture?) toward boxed or framed icons, arranging old photographs, letters, lockets, dried flowers, and handkerchiefs in shrine-like windows to recall memories, lost ones, and the passage of time. Sambo's Banjo (above, left) is a Saar assemblage. The untitled work (above, right) more nearly fits the definition of a collage, though once the piece begins to take on the element of depth, the line between the two art forms can become a matter of opinion.

Eat Seeds n All, Betye Saar
Ragtime, 2005, Betye Saar
Betye Saar first made a name for herself as an artist in the late 1960s when she began her collection of what are euphemistically called “black collectibles”—everyday objects that featured racist caricatures of African Americans. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, these items became the cultural debris of racism she would recycle into art. In 1972, she created her first series of assemblages, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (top). The most iconic of these featured a “mammy” figure standing in a field of cotton backed by a series of images of Aunt Jemima. In the center of her body is an image of another “mammy,” standing before a picket fence, and holding a white baby. Saar explains, “the ‘mammy’ knew and stayed in her place. I attempted to change that ‘place’ [by turning] a negative, demeaning figure into a positive, empowered woman who stands confrontationally with one hand holding a broom and the other armed for battle--a warrior ready to combat servitude and racism.” Her Eat Seeds 'n All (above), takes a similar swipe at the black stereotype children's storybook character, Sambo. Saar's Ragtime (above, right) references traditional racial stereotypes having to do with music.

Betye Saar with her artist daughters, Lezley and Alison.
Mother and Children in Blue,
 1998, Betye Saar
Betye Saar was born Betye Irene brown in 1926. She has lived all her life in and around Los Angeles. When her father died in 1931, her mother took Betye and her younger brother and sister to live with her great aunt, Hattie Keys, in Pasadena. Betye began her academic studies at Pasadena City College, later graduating from UCLA with a degree in design. She did her graduate work at California State University while employed as a social worker and jewelry designer. During this time she also married Richard Saar and gave birth to two daughters, Lezley and Allison Saar, both of whom have also become artists. Saar's Mother and Children in Blue (left) from 1998, no doubt reflects her having survived such a hectic period, attempting to balance her own hopes with the needs of her family and the demands of her job.

Tangled Roots, Palmer Museum of Art installation, 1996, Betye Saar
In growing up as a child, Betye often spent summers with her grandmother, who lived in Watts (an eastern suburb of L.A.). Thus she had the opportunity to watch as Simon Rodia's Watts Towers took shape. Along with her mixed African-American, Irish, and Native American heritage, Saar credits Rodia as having been one of her major influences (only on a smaller scale, of course). Her 1996 installation, Tangled Roots (above) suggests this ancestral mélange while Mystic Window #1 (below), from 1965, and The Phrenologer’s Window (bottom), done the following year, reflect her earlier interest in mysticism and Voodoo. In the early 1980s, once her daughters were, themselves in college, Saar taught at the University of California and the Otis Art Institute (now called Otis College of Art and Design). As her work matured, Saar began doing large, room-size, site-specific installations, including altar-like shrines exploring the relationship between technology and spirituality. She paired computer chips with mystical amulets and charms, suggesting the need for an alliance of both the technical and the spiritual. Betye Saar, even at the age of eighty-eight, continues to live and work from her home in Los Angeles.

The Mystic Window #1, 1965. Betye Saar
The Phrenologer’s Window, 1966, Betye Saar.





























 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Craft Stick Art

Pixelsticks, Nathalie Chikhi
I've debated a little as to whether to call this "Craft Stick Art" or "Popsicle Stick Art." The Internet was no help, they seem evenly divided on the subject. It's pretty much irrelevant in any case except that the term "craft sticks" has been broadened to include everything from toothpicks to tongue depressors, even those little wooden paddles they used to provide for eating ice cream samples. In my years of teaching sculpture at all grade levels, I've probably utilized all of the above in sufficient quantities to have done severe damage to at least one good-sized tree.

Popsicle enticements from roughly a hundred years ago.
Popsicles are what we in the field of art education call a "happy accident." In 1905, an eleven-year-old boy named Frank Epperson, from San Francisco, invented the popular hot-weather treat as we know it today. One cold evening Frank forgot and left a mixture of powder flavored soda water with a stir stick in it on the back porch. Because of the cold weather outside, he awoke the next morning to find a frozen treat on a stick. It was, however, seventeen years later, in 1922, that Epperson first served his ice lollipops at a Fireman’s ball where they were a huge hit. It didn’t take long for him to realize the commercial possibilities of his accidental invention. A year later, in 1923, he introduced the frozen pops on a stick to the public at Neptune Beach, an amusement park in Alameda, California. Again, they were a huge hit. Epperson applied for and received a patent for a quiescently “frozen confectionery,” in 1924, which he named the “Epsicle Ice Pop”. He began producing them in different fruit flavors on birch wood sticks. The name, "Popsicle" came when Epperson’s kids began calling them "Pop’s cycles." So, on their insistence, he renamed his invention the “Popsicle,” a name which has stuck for nearly a century (above).
 
The Popsicle grenade (no glue needed)
As for my history with Popsicle sticks, I go waay back. I was probably little more than six or seven when my friends and siblings used to save the fruity stained Popsicle sticks left over from our indulgence in the sticky sweet treat. They were sticky and sweet for good reason--sugar--which also served to keep them from freezing into hard, solid masses of ice, making them much more easily edible...though preferably in haste. I'm not old enough to remember their ever costing only five cents, though, as the ad above proclaims. I think they were a dime during the 1950s. In any case, once we'd collected five sticks we were able to make a Popsicle grenade (above, right), sticks woven together in such a way so that when thrown and striking the victim (or anything else) they would "explode," presumably inflicting major bodily harm.

Tongue depressors seem to be the
weapon of choice with this little stunt.
Along the same line, utilizing the tensile strength of the birch wood, juvenile Popsicle demolition experts are today involved in much more sophisticated endeavors--spectacular, large-scale, chain reactions (left) that make tipping over dominoes seem like child's play. But seriously, folks, as any art teacher will tell you, the humble little sticks have within them the potential for becoming amazingly varied works of art. When combined with hot glue (I always used Elmer's with the kids), or paint, cloth, and other decorative craft items, the results can be quite impressive such as seen in Nathalie Chikhi's Pixelsticks (top). Though usually referred to as "craft" sticks, in the hands of such artists, perhaps "art sticks" might be more appropriate. Henry Toro (below) creates a similar effect using dyed (stained) tongue depressors to render his abstract images.

I could find no title for this piece by Henry Toro. Perhaps Stalactites would be appropriate.
A double helix marble racing
sculpture...I think.
Of course, the various incarnations of craft sticks have long been more of a sculptural medium than a base for paintings and other types of wall hangings. My students tended to prefer building towers, sometimes in competition with one another seeing who could build the tallest piece of "abstract" art. Over the years, I gained some insight as to how God must have felt regarding the Tower of Babel. Fortunately, none of my students' works reached the heights of the spiraling "thing" at right. I think there may have been some marbles involved, judging from the spiraling ramps (lost ones, perhaps). However, such high-rise towers need not be so enormously complex as seen in the simple spiraling twist formula of the sculpture below. Used in such a manner, carefully (and patiently) constructed, the sky, or at least the ceiling, is the limit.

Side view (left), top looking down (right). The sky's the limit.

Authenticity combined with precision.
Craft sticks are great for building models such as what I've termed the "Pop Cycle" (below). On today's market, the cost of craft sticks varies (mostly depending upon quantities purchased) from less than five cents to as high as thirteen cents each. Judging from the quantities Chip Addington must have needed in creating his wooden motorcycle, it might have been cheaper (not to mention far less work) to have bought the real thing. Insofar as models are concerned, various places of abode appear much more frequently. Some builders strive for architectural authenticity as with the modest little Tudor dwelling at left. Other model builders prefer a more free-form creation as with the example of medieval pretentions (bottom). A man's home, (even when built from Popsicle sticks), is his castle.


Chip Addington's Popsicle Stick Motorcycle

Walt Disney World has nothing to worry about.














 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Andrei Ryabushkin

Esther Before Ahasuerus, 1887,Andrei Ryabushkin
Andrei Ryabushkin Self-Portrait
There was a time when I used to paint primarily children and adults at moments when unexpected circumstances caused them to be and behave in a manner reflecting their true character rather than that which we all "wear" when we think others are watching us. I enjoyed capturing quiet, intimate moments of people alone or in small groups, in effect, being themselves. Some might consider such works to be modern-day genre, though that label tends to conjure up the kind of more general "scenes," the American vignettes, for which Norman Rockwell was justly famous. And while I admire Rockwell, and like so many Realism painters of my generation, I undoubtedly exhibit in my work some degree of Rockwellian influence (whether conscious or unconscious), my genre seldom depicted more than one or two figures and were never quite so "orchestrated." I just realized it's been several years since I've done any works of that nature, having moved instead toward Postmodern landscapes and still-lifes. Aside from sporadic complimentary references to Rockwell, my work has long been pretty hard to categorize in that it lacks consistency as to content. I recently stumbled upon a late 19th-century Russian artist with much the same problem--Andrei Ryabushkin.

Tea Drinking, 1903, Andrei Ryabushkin.
(Notice, the guy on the far right seems to prefer his "tea" from a bottle.)
A Deacon, 1888, Andrei Ryabushkin
How do you categorize an artist born in 1861, painting from around 1880 until his death in 1904, whose works run the gamut from as Esther Before Ahasuerus, (top) painted in 1887, to Tea Drinking (above) from 1903? There's the pomp and circumstance of all the great Russian history painters in the first image juxtaposed with a sort of dry, Grant Wood style and humor in the latter. Of course, there's seventeen years between the two works, and artist are prone to evolve over such a period of time, but there's also half a lifetime (in Ryabushkin's case) of other equally varied works in between the two. Ryabushkin's Christ-like A Deacon (left), for example, from 1888, came just a year after Esther Before Ahasuerus, yet there is nothing to suggest they were even done by the same artist.

The Feast, 1888, Andrei Ryabushkin
In a similar vein, Ryabushkin's deeply shadowed, but boldly lit The Feast (above) also from 1888, bears little in common with either of the other two, suggesting that the artist may have studied under some Russian incarnation of Rembrandt. It has a striking resemblance to some of Rembrandt's group portraits. And then, there's Peasant Wedding in the Tambov Guberniya (below), from 1880, painted while Ryabushkin was still a student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Granted, it's a student work, lacking the clarity and polish of the artist's paintings after studying for ten years at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, but it also underscores the broad range of style and content which makes him just as difficult to "pigeon hole" today as it did during his own time.

Peasant Wedding in the Tambov Guberniya, 1880, Andrei Ryabushkin
Though Andrei Ryabushkin died of tuberculosis in 1904 at the age of forty-three, he had a rather long painting "career," from around age ten until his death. Ryabushkin was born not far from Moscow where his father and brother were engaged in probably the most traditional of all forms of Russian art--icon painting. His first training undoubtedly came as he learned to help in his father's studio. However, Ryabushkin became an orphan at the age of fourteen. Nonetheless, his talent had bloomed well before then to such a degree that he was accepted as the youngest student in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, where he attended from 1875 to 1882. His dark, monochromatic Noah's Ark (below) came in 1882 as he was graduating from the Moscow school before moving on to St. Petersburg. Though his style and content seems set, Ryabushkin's palette, at that time, seems to have been very much in a state of flux.

Noah's Ark, 1882, Andrei Ryabushkin                              
In the latter years at the Imperial Academy, and in those which followed, Ryabushkin seems to have rebelled. His diploma painting, Descent from the Cross (which has apparently disappeared) did not receive the award he and others expected, but it did impress the Grand Duke Vladimir Konstantinovich, who, from his own funds, awarded Ryabushkin a stipend to travel around Europe in furthering his studies. However, in a surprise move, the artist chose instead to travel about Russia, visiting the ancient Russian towns of Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow, Uglich, and Yaroslavl where he studied the architecture, folk crafts, weapons, fabrics, tapestries, embroidery, and icons from the 17th-century and before while also painting the local natives as they went about their daily lives. Here was a man who broke the mold, fully trained in the finest traditions of Russian history and religious painting, yet he chose instead to paint peasants.

Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich with the Boyars in his Throne Room, 1893, Andrei Ryabushkin
Moreover, it wasn't simply that he chose to paint peasants, Ryabushkin preferred 17th-century peasants. And when, on occasion, he chose to paint Russian history, it was invariably 17th-century history, as in his Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich with the Boyars in his Throne Room (above), done in 1893. In many ways, Ryabushkin might be termed the Russian version of the British Pre-Raphaelites, though there's no evidence to suggest he had any personal contact with Hunt, Millais, Rossetti or the others. It is very possible, however, that he knew of their work and was sympathetic to their ideals, if not actually influenced by their movement. Although today, an artist which paints "outside the box" is often praised for his creativity and daring, the successful artist of the late 19th century was expected to do what was expected of him. As a result, Ryabushkin was not very successful. History paintings were not considered "living room" art at the time, and certainly not peasant history painting. Had Ryabushkin lived to a ripe old age, as was expected of him, art history and appreciation might have eventually caught up with him. Today, Ryabushkin is appreciated simply because he was not your typical Russian history painter. As for his 17th-century Russian portraits (below)...not so much.

Merchant Family in the 17th century, 1896, Andrei Ryabushkin













 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

An Open Letter to Jose Higuera

The paintings of Jose Higuera. Is talent enough?

Spanish artist, Jose Higuera
Señor Higuera--

I was somewhat surprised to receive your unsolicited e-mail last week. No other artist has ever before written me suggesting I showcase his or her work. I must say I was as skeptical as I was curious in drawing up your Website to see what you have to offer. Then as I skimmed through your figural paintings, any skepticism quickly waned. Your two paintings of Jose (above) won me over. As you may or may not know, I seldom write regarding living artists (unless they're barely living). There are just too many of them, most just as talented as yourself. And like them, I consider your art, your life, and your career to be a "work in progress." I'm not in the advertising or public relations business, nor do I consider myself an astute art critic. So what I have to say here is, at best, a personal opinion with all the individual biases that entails, far more than learned criticism. However, quite apart from your work, the fact that you have written me as you did indicates an exceptional attribute I wish to highlight. It's one every artist should possess. You are audacious. I admire that.
 
Woman 2, Jose Higuera
Elena, Jose Higuera
You are at an important point in your career. If my math is correct, you are about forty-nine years old. That means more than half your life is already history. Your Spanish heritage is set in stone. Your self-taught skills and style are fully developed. Your talent for seeing and your aesthetic instincts are well-honed. Judging only by your highly professional Website, www.josehiguera.com, you seem to know what you want from your art and your life. A great many artists of your caliber, even some well beyond your years, cannot say that. As a portrait artist, I have long admired painters who can handle the beauty of he human figure without being salacious. You have a knack for capturing sensual beauty and striking, high-contrast color which, quite frankly, I envy. It must be the sunlight of northern Spain. I also like the fact that this trait carries over into your handling of young people as well. Your Woman 2 (above) is seductive, and all the more so in that she's not nude. In the same vein Elena (left) has a latent sensuality without the sexual overtones.

Rock Lover, Jose Higuera
La Voluntad, Jose Higuera
On the male side of the ledger, I'm impressed to find an artist who can (and will) handle masculine image with the same style and mindset as you've exhibited in your female figures. I hope the model for Rock Lover (above) didn't get a sunburn. Few artists like to work in the harsh rays of direct sunlight, and fewer still do so as effectively as you do. The highlighted flesh tones seem to melt into your sun drenched setting. That's also the case with your white on white clothing in La Voluntad (right). Personally, however, I prefer a natural setting as to one involving an improvised drapery. Doesn't anyone in Spain wear shoes? Although your public presentation of your art doesn't feature portraits, I have to wonder, given your skill with figures of both genders and all ages, why you don't venture into such efforts. Yes, it's demanding, perhaps the most demanding form of art there is, but let me encourage you to rise to the challenge. I'd like very much to see what you could do.

Manhattan, Jose Higuera
Now, as to your other work. Although I especially like your Manhattan (above), your cityscapes, as a whole, seem to lack the one feature that makes a city a city--the human element. Though technically adept, in looking over all your work in this genre, I could not find a single human figure larger than an ant. Why is that? You are obviously quite adept at painting figures; why have you not integrated the two? I'm sorry to say this, but your cityscapes leave me cold. Moreover your seascapes, are not much better. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be North Sea (below, left). I like the many vivid shades of blue and the fact that you were unafraid to break the traditional horizontal mold so often used without thinking by those painting the dramatic point where land meets water and the two clash. However, having said that, where's the clash? I can admire to some extent your willingness to paint the encroachment of the tide upon the sand as a "close-up" encounter (and your expertise in doing so), but the sea is a massive, powerful entity. For the most part, your seascapes strike me as being "wimpy."

North Sea, Jose Higuera
As for your still-life efforts, your masterful handling of color continues to exalt itself, but by their very nature, still-lifes have a tendency to be borrrrring, and except for your luscious Grapes (below, right) I find little more than a seemingly academic interest in juxtaposed shapes. And fruit and flowers, no less, perhaps the most overworked, overused still-life subjects since the Greeks first pained grapes. Although what you do, you do well, I'd skip the produce and concentrate on faces and figures, your greatest strengths. Perhaps you could paint them by the sea or in the city. Likewise, if you feel you absolutely must paint fruit and flowers, they too could be integrated into your figural work.

Grapes, Jose Higuera


In closing, let me bring up one other factor with regard to you and your work. As I alluded to briefly before, and I'm sure you're well aware, you are just one of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of equally talented Realist painters all over the world working today. Their skills and aesthetic ideals are a given. The one thing which separates the greats from the would-be-greats is the audacity and drive you exhibited in writing to me. But that's only a part of the formula for success. You must rise above the skills and best efforts of all the others. You seem to have a knack for, and understanding of, the importance of self-promotion; but the same audacity you have exhibited in promoting your work must also be seen in your work. Technical skills alone are not enough. The artist must also work to break the mold as you did with North Sea, or, as the Star Trek intro used to proclaim, "Go where no one had ever gone before." That is the single most important hallmark of the Postmodern era in which we, as artist, live and work and compete today. Don't be afraid to fail. With a few minor exceptions, Jose, your work is no different than that of similarly talented painters a hundred years ago, near the beginning of the era of Modern Art. That means you are painting in the past. There are many different possibilities. Inject humor. Startle the viewer in some way. Know the rules and then dare to break them. Attack the bastions of traditional content. Mix media. Use words. Impress with sheer scale. Break free of the little window we call the picture frame. Blend the abstract with the realistic. Be controversial to some degree. Give art critics something write about rather than yawn at. In short, you have, in abundance, all the tools you'll ever need to rise above the timid masses of thousands of other artist struggling to get their heads about "see" level. As Nike says, "JUST DO IT!"

Part of Jose Higuera's impressive 2014 show, "Art Revolution," in Taiwan.















 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Vlady Kibalchich Russakov

Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library murals, 1972-82, Vlady Russakov
When we contemplate Mexican art during modern times, we almost instantly think of large scale murals, decorating both the inside and outside of public buildings. It would seem that Mexicans love their murals. Yet, for the most part, this love affair is less than a hundred years old, although they can be found among the ruins of the ancient Olmec civilization. Murals were also used to Christianize the Central American population in the Post-Hispanic era as well. However, most present-day murals date from the era following the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) when the new constitutional government sought to unite the country into a single nation through the use of what were, essentially, cultural propaganda broadsides. From this era, three names stand out, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. They were the first generation. Vlady Kibalchich Russakov was a second generation Mexican muralist, though, more accurately, he should be termed a Jewish Russian/Mexican muralist.


Vlady Russakov Self-portrait
Vlady Russakov basically reinvented the Mexican mural. He was inspired by Venetian colors, as well as the monsters of the Bosco, and the fluid rhythms of Francis Bacon. But the melding of soft forms, hard lines, and stark precision, reflected in his Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library murals (top), are unique in the world of mural art. Mexican artists invented muralism in the 1920s to present a human and heroic image of the Zapata revolution. Russakov was able to transform this art movement combining his informed cultural encyclopedia and his vivid Russian imagination. Today, Mexican muralism integrates two currents, the old--Orozco, Siqueiros and Ribera--with Russakov's.

Vlady Russakov in his studio
The Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library murals of the Ministry of Finance were commissioned by then Mexican President Luis Echeverría Álvarez in 1971. Russakov labored on this monumental work from for some ten years. Most of the frescoes were executed directly on the wall, using the stone as a pictorial element. The arches of the gates were painted on several giant canvases. Some of his more intimate works have been installed in a mezzanine. A burning Chapel adjacent projects the Freudian revolution. This library is located in an ancient temple-like building of pure Baroque style, designed by San Felipe Neri, and built in the 17th century as a hospice. The vaulted murals of the main reading room have often been compared to those of the Sistine Chapel, though in fact, at some 2,000 square meters, they occupy a space almost four times greater. (The Sistine ceiling is a mere 567 square meters.) Russakov's murals are dedicated to revolutions--all revolutions--from Cromwell to Lenin, the American Revolution, the storming of the Bastille, as well as those of Latin America. But all revolutions are not political or military. Russakov includes the Christian revolution, the Freudian revolution, and even a musical revolution depiction of Johann Sebastian Bach shaking hands with John Lennon. Russakov combines Russian emotion with European traditions and Mexican vitality to create a new type of mural expression.

Russakov is dwarfed by the scale of one of his
Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library murals.
It was a long, treacherous road from St. Petersburg, Russia, where Vlady Russakov was born in 1920. His father was the Russian writer/photographer, Victor Napoleon Lvovich Kibalchich, better known as Victor Serge. Serge was secretary to Leon Trotsky. When Joseph Stalin took over around 1924, the family was exiled to Kazakhstan, where they lived in extreme poverty. In 1933, Russakov's mother succumbed to mental illness and was committed to the psychiatric clinic of the Red Army. Vlady accompanied his father to the gulag. His schooling during this time came from Bolshevik professors allied with Lenin who were also deported by Stalin. Thanks to pressure from European writers and intellectuals, the family was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1936 moving first to Belgium then to France. While in France, the young Vlady became involved with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, though he was too young to join the fighting. Along with a revolutionary spirit, Russakov's time in Belgium and France gave him his first exposure to modern art, which inspired him to become a painter. In Paris, Russakov studied with various painters including Victor Brauner, Wifredo Lam, Joseph Lacasse, André Masson and Aristide Maillol. However, with the likelihood of a German invasion of France in 1941, the family once again became refugees.

Russakov's work varies from near abstraction
to Expressionism with fascinating touches
of Realism at times.
Russakov and his father were able to catch a boat from the south of France to Cuba, even though it meant leaving Vlady's mother in a mental hospital. She died there in 1943. He and his father never saw her again. From Cuba, father and son were obliged to move on to the Dominican Republic and from there to the Yucatan Peninsula. Later they found their way to Mexico City. Vlady was twenty-three, and neither of them spoke Spanish. Nonetheless, Russakov had his first exhibition in 1945 and married a Mexican woman the same year. His father died just days later. In 1947, Russakov became a naturalized Mexican citizen.

Another section of the Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library mural.
Although Russakov developed his artistic career in Mexico, he also maintained frequent contacts with Europe. His first visit back was in 1950, as the continent was recovering from the war. He traveled to the Netherlands, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Spain, Italy, England and France. During the 1960s, Russakov returned to Europe on at least three occasions. Then in 1989, following the Gorbachev era, Russakov returned for the first time since childhood to the Soviet Union where he pressed unsuccessfully for the rehabilitation of his father and Leon Trotsky. Russakov lived and worked in Mexico City until 1990 before moving to Cuernavaca, where he bought a country house with a large studio. He continued to live there with his wife, working until his death on July 21, 2005 from brain cancer. He was eighty-five.

The frustrating thing about dealing with Russakov is that his various Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Library mural elements are seldom title individually.














 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Lyndon B. Johnson Portraits

Portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968, Elizabeth Shoumatoff
One-hundred and seven years ago today, August 27, 1908, the thirty-sixth President of the United States was born in a small farmhouse on the Pedernales River near Stonewall, Texas. Lyndon Baines Johnson was the eldest of five children. Some fifty-five years later, Johnson, as Vice President, became President following the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was elected in his own right in a landslide victory in 1964. President Johnson is the only president I have ever seen "in person"--from several hundred yards away, for about one second, as his bubble-top limousine passed in a Cincinnati motorcade. My first impression--he had big ears. Indeed, they were a featured noted by more than one artist who was unfortunate enough to have painted this president. I say "unfortunate" because LBJ hated sitting for artists and seldom gave artists more than an hour to do their best. His official White House portrait by Elizabeth Shoumatoff was no exception, other than she rated two such brief sittings.
 
The unfinished portrait of President
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1945,
Elizabeth Shoumatoff
The Russian-born Shoumatoff painted Johnson in 1969 after he'd left office, so he was a little more free with his time. Never one to heap praise, Johnson responded to it, "It's excellent. I like it very much. Shoumatoff also painted the first lady, Claudia (Lady Bird) Johnson. However her most famous presidential portrait went unfinished. On April 12, 1945, in the early afternoon, while Shoumatoff was working on a preliminary watercolor portrait (left) of then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he suddenly told her, "I have a terrific pain in the back of my head." He collapsed and died within hours, of a massive cerebral hemorrhage (stroke). President Johnson was more fortunate. He lived for another five years following his portrait encounter with Miss Shoumatoff.

Norman Rockwell's Look magazine portrait of Lyndon Johnson, was
published just two days before the 1964 election opposite a much more
flattering Rockwell painting of Johnson's opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater.
As a subject for portraits, LBJ was a tough customer to deal with. Even the iconic Norman Rockwell had problems. During the 1964 campaign, when Rockwell was first introduced to the president, Johnson told him he could afford but twenty minutes, "So get crackin'." Even for an artist of Rockwell's caliber, that's a ridiculously short period to even begin a portrait, not to mention the fact that Johnson was a somewhat hyperactive sitter, easily bored, and short-tempered as well. Despite Rockwell's best efforts to engage the president, joking with him, trying to reason with him, giving him instructions, the man simply sat there glowering at him. Finally Rockwell played the political card, "Mr. President,” he said, “I have just done Barry Goldwater’s portrait and he gave me a wonderful grin. I wish you would do the same.” It worked, but only to a degree. Johnson obliged the artist for about one minute forcing his mouth into a manifestly fake smile, “like he was competing for the Miss America title,” as Rockwell put it later. The portrait of Johnson (above), with his long face and droopy ears, did little to rehabilitated the tired tradition of the presidential portraits. Yet it is probably as appealing a portrait of Johnson as any ever done, honest in its likeness, psychologically astute, and utterly devoid of pomp.

Johnson's National Portrait Gallery portrait, 1966, Peter Hurd.
Rockwell was considerably more fortunate than Peter Hurd. At the time, Hurd was probably the most famous and sought-after portrait artist in America. Hailing from the famous N.C. Wyeth clan of the Brandywine School centered around Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, Hurd was married to Wyeth's daughter, Henriette, the sister of Andrew Wyeth, and a very respectable painter in her own right. Hurd had, in fact, studied under his father-in-law. Unlike Rockwell, Hurd was afforded two relatively short sessions with the president, though, during one of which, LBJ nodded off, presenting Hurd with a view of little more than the president's thinning hair. Despite the difficulties presented by a less than cooperative model, Hurd and his wife drove to the famous LBJ Ranch in Texas late in October, 1966, where they gave the president a sneak peek at the painting before it was to be officially unveiled at a White House ceremony a few months later. The timing was probably fortunate. The president's reaction: "[It's] the ugliest thing I ever saw." While probably not quite that bad, the painting does present a rather manikin-like stiffness suggesting Hurd might have completed it at Madame Tussaud's Washington Wax Museum. Stunned, Hurd managed to control his dismay asking the president, “Just what do you like, Mr. President?” Johnson is said to have rushed to his desk and pulled out an old Look magazine, shouting, “I will show you what I like!” Then he waved the portrait that Rockwell had done. The Johnsons refused to hang Hurd's portrait in the White House. Therefore, seeking revenge, in March, 1967, Hurd put the painting on display at the Diamond M Museum in Snyder, Texas. It drew the largest crowd in the museum's history. Hurd later donated the painting to the National Portrait Gallery where it hangs today.

LBJ portrait, ca. 1965-67, Robert Templeton
Lyndon B. Johnson, by an
unknown artist, is obviously
based upon Johnson's official
White House photo.
Two unofficial portraits of Johnson have struck me as exceptional, each in their own way. The first, (above, left) by the well-known portrait artist, Robert Templeton, attempts to capture the president in three familiar moods. The second (above, right)is by (so far as I can tell) an unknown artist, based upon Johnson's official White House photo. Templeton's painting, despite his use of three separate photo-based images, seems lacking in the most basic portrait attribute--a good, solid, likeness (the lower-right image appears to be the best of the three in that regard). And though the pose may be quite characteristic, a portrait artist should never cover his subject's most expressive feature with fingers. Also, a portrait image in profile is seldom a good idea either. By way of contrast, the likeness is much better in the portrait by the unknown artist, though the painting style seems somewhat harsh. Having an excellent photo from which to work helps too.

Claudia (Lady Bird Johnson), 1968, Elizabeth Shoumatoff
As is sometimes the case, the official White House portrait of Lyndon Johnson was painted by the same artist who simultaneously did the official portrait of the First Lady. Elizabeth Shoumatoff's brightly colored portrait of Claudia (Lady Bird) Johnson (above), would suggest that at least someone in the Johnson family knew how to smile convincingly. Shoumatoff had earlier done an informal portrait of LBJ (below), which apparently won her the commission, in the wake of the Hurd fiasco, to once more have a chance to paint an official portrait of a president.

Portrait of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Elizabeth Shoumatoff