Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Ronald Reagan Portraits

Portrait artist Everett Raymond Kinstler with Nancy and Ronald Regan at the unveiling of the official White House portrait of the former president in 1991.
Ronald Reagan Official White House
portrait, 1991,  Everett Raymond Kinstler
One-hundred and five years ago, our 40th President was born, February 6, 1911. Whether you agree with his political persuasion, Ronald Wilson Reagan stands as one of the most beloved presidents of the 20th-century. His "aw, shucks" demeanor, his patented crooked smile, his jet black pompadour, his blue jeans and cowboy regalia, even his "I'm paying for this microphone" anger have endeared him to Republicans of all stripes and other Americans covering a broad spectrum of political beliefs. Democrats have their John F. Kennedy, Republicans have their Ronald W. Reagan. They were alike in many ways, perhaps even more alike than they were different. Both had (and have) a cult-like following readily willing to forgive their numerous shortcomings and praise the many charismatic gifts that made them two of the most likable men to ever hold the office of the presidency. They both had very attractive wives too. Their wives even liked the same portrait artist (bottom).

Ronald Reagan, 1968, Henry Casselli, National Portrait Gallery
A life-size Reagan by James
Michael Mahler stands on a
street corner in Rapid City, SD.
The Reagan portrait destined for Washington's National Portrait Gallery (above) is based on some thirty studies that artist Henry Casselli made of Reagan over four days at the White House in late 1988. When Reagan saw it, he exclaimed, “Yep! That’s the old buckaroo.” In many ways, Casselli's NPG portrait is more typical of the vast majority of White House presidential images than the Kinstler portrait (top). That is to say it is dark, static, formal, and statuesque--the President, despite his warm, ever-present smile, seems like a statue. Speaking of statues, there are far more unexpected bronze figures of Ronald Reagan in cities around the world than any other recent American President. Some, unlike his main street sculpture in Rapid City, South Dakota (right) are as much as twice life size. London, Warsaw, Budapest, and of course, Washington, D.C. all have such works. On the other hand, the portrait bust (below) is less than a foot tall. In general, few of the bronze portraits bear as strong a likeness to the former president than do most of the painted portraits.

This version of Reagan by sculptor, Don Winton, is about a foot tall.
As is the case with most recent presidents, especially the more popular ones, there are a vast number of unofficial portraits of Ronald Reagan. A few are even on a par with the official portraits, though most are in the fair-middling range (below).

The face of Ronald Reagan has a lot of character, not to mention individually
distinct characteristics. Some artists see them and capture them very well..
Others seem unable to do either.
Nancy and Jackie shared the same refined tastes in portrait artists.

Portrait of Ronald Reagan, Igor Lukyanov
I hope Nancy Reagan has a sense of humor.


Friday, February 5, 2016

The Star Wars Saga

Three prequels and three sequels (with two more in the offing).
On course to become the biggest
grossing film ever.
We have a family tradition that every New Year's Eve, we go out to dinner then to see a movie (sometimes the only movie we see all year). Normally I acquiesce to something my wife likes, usually some dumb (and very forgettable) romantic comedy. This year, however, I dragged her kicking and screaming to see Disney's Star Wars: The Force Awakens (episode VII). She had in mind to sleep through the whole thing but literally came in for a rude awakening (several, in fact). They kept blowing things up...and waking her every few minutes. As you might have guessed, she's no great fan of the Star Wars franchis which George Lucas in 2012 sold to Disney for $4.2-billion. For myself, I've seen (I think) all six of the previous episodes. Therefore, as we left the theater and all the way home, I spent the next hour filling her in on all the character's relationships and the background leading up to the most recent installment. I'm not going to get involved in any of that, nor discuss the new plot or characters. I've already paid homage to George Lucas, one or two of his movies, and the artwork involved in their creation. This is not about any individual Star Wars episode. There are way too many to single out any particular one to expound upon. Instead I propose to discuss all of them--what some have called the Star Wars saga.

The first trilogy (the prequels, top row) a the second trilogy (the sequels, bottom row).
Trivia question: Which characters appear in both trilogies?
"Long ago in a galaxy far, far away..." George Lucas opened up his creative genius brain and gave us Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV). The long ago year, to be more precise, was 1977, the galaxy far, far away was Hollywood. It was the first time in history a motion picture storyteller began his tale halfway through the adventure. Why? Simply because, in Lucas' galaxy far, far away, when you strike gold, you hang on to it, mining it for every yellow nugget you can. Lucas worked his golden mind to tell what happened to bring Luke, Leia, Solo, Yoda, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2D2, and C3PO together in the first place, and what happened to them later. Thus, in terms of characters (and casts), the Star Wars saga has three prequels (the first trilogy), three sequels (the second trilogy), and eventually, once Disney gets done milking their mega-billion-dollar franchise for all it's worth, three sequels to the sequels (the third trilogy). By the time all is said and done, the galaxy may still be far, far away but it's not going to have been all that long ago.

The "Force" behind the Star Wars saga. Does he have a dark side?
Aside from its science-fiction technology, Star Wars features elements such as knighthood, chivalry, and princesses all related to archetypes of the fantasy genre. However, the Star Wars world, unlike fantasy and science-fiction films which featured sleek, futuristic settings, has always been portrayed as dirty and grimy. Star Wars contains many political themes which mainly favor democracy over dictatorship. The plot climax of Star Wars is modeled after ancient history, specifically the fall of the democratic Roman Republic and the formation of an empire. Star Wars also reflects events following the September 11th attacks. Some critics have drawn similarities between the rise in authoritarianism from around the beginning of The Clone Wars until the end of the Old Republic and the U.S. government's actions after 9/11, specifically the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001.

 Even in the far, far off galaxy of Hollywood, actors continue to age.
With so many episodes and two distinctly separate casts, it's interesting that the second trilogy cast featuring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Alec Guinness (now deceased) had been the most memorable. So great has been their popularity and identification with the Star Wars saga that all three living actors were cast with important roles in the most recent episode, Harrison Ford having a starring role, while Mark Hamill has no lines and little more than a few seconds on screen. Carrie Fisher maintains her gutsy, no-nonsense demeanor that made her such a breath of fresh air in the original second trilogy (no bikini get-up this time around, though).

Intelligent life in a galaxy far, far away.
Quite apart from the main (humanoid) characters Lucas created, his secondary cast of alien-looking characters have become as beloved as those wielding light sabers. (I almost forgot, Yoda was a Jedi Knight.) "I'd rather kiss a Wookie than..." became a figure of speech while Yoda's strange syntax could be heard as often in school yards as between office cubicles. And come Halloween, Darth Vader lives again. To date, the Star Wars film franchise has grossed over $30-billion with the remaining three episodes having the potential to rake in for Disney another thirty-billion in revenue. Depending on sources, the Star War saga is the most lucrative film series in motion picture history, though the ongoing James Bond series and Harry Potter give it a run for the money. The only question remaining is whether Disney can finesse such a valuable property in line with the demanding expectations of the massive army of Star War fans (or fanatics) Lucas sold them as an intangible bonus of Lucasfilms.

George Lucas' worst nightmare.
Lucas' latest undertaking, eventually will grace Chicago's lakefront.


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Vasily Vereshchagin

Apotheosis of War, 1871, Vasily Vereshchagin
Of all the changes we've seen in our modern-day world, one of the most profound has been those having to do with our attitude toward war. Here I should clarify that I'm speaking mostly in terms of the Western world having it's roots in Europe and to some extent those of the Far East. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing us today is to somehow propagate our attitudinal changes involving war to the more backward cultures where war is still seen as the first, rather than the last resort in settling differences. This won't happen in my lifetime, but I'm hopeful that it will one day. I'm not talking necessarily about some utopian "peace on earth," international disagreements are endemic in a world with as many ethnic, religious, economic, and political differences as our. I mean simply a willingness to work out disagreements without resorting to armed conflict. For those less optimistic, let me suggest you look at the history of warfare over just the last two to three hundred years. Look at the root causes. Look at the brutality. Look at the politics. Look at the winners and the losers. In short, look at the why and how. Then look at the why, how, and also where wars are still fought today.

The Return from the Petroff Palace, 1895, Vasily Vereshchagin
Europe was once a hotbed of nearly continual warfare. Today, it's been seventy years since there was any major conflict on that continent. The same is largely true of North and South America. Today wars are mostly limited to the most horrid, hard-scrabble geography the planet has to offer. And were it not for the oil beneath this hostile terrain, most of it would not be worth fighting over. In our country, this change of attitude came as a direct result of the Vietnam conflict and the ensuing Peace Movement which brought it to an end. As political leaders in many different countries have learned, no nation can long sustain, nor hope to win, a war which is not supported by those providing the money, and flesh and blood to fight it. Perhaps this change of attitude could best be seen in the U.S. when they changed the name of the War Department to the Defense Department after WW II. What caused this change of attitude? It happened when the horrors of combat changed from an abstract concept of heroic glory to a nightly living room reality show of blood and guts seen in living color every night on the news. I know of what I speak. I lived through that change. However this confrontation with the lunacy of death and destruction did not begin with Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley. In a very real sense, it began with the Russian painter, Vasily Vereshchagin.

Vasily Vereshchagin, born in 1842, may well have been the first anti-war artist, and certainly the first such painter to gain international recognition in depicting the horrors of warfare.
If you've never heard of Vasily Vereshchagin, it's not surprising. Artists who don't paint "pretty" pictures seldom maintain much name recognition after their death (his being Russian was negative factor as well). But, had you lived back during the latter part of the 19th-century, that would not have been the case. His name was instantly identified with his art. His work depicting what he saw and experienced during the 1860s and 1870s in the war-torn regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. They were so visually powerful several European military leaders of his time refused to even look at them and forbid their soldiers to do so either. His painting, The Apotheosis of War (top), dating from 1870, but shown widely all over Europe for the remainder of the century, was one such example of this refusal of those in power to confront the ugliness of war even decades after the conflict had ended.

Vereshchagin's depictions of war depicted both past of present, starting with Napoleon (above-top), down through the British occupation of India, the Russian conflict with Turkey (1877-78), as well as the Boer Wars in South Africa (1879-1915).
At one point in time, the Russian government forbid the display or printing of Vereshchagin's work since they deemed it as showing the army in a "bad light." The British were outraged that he painted so realistically their practice of tying colonial revolutionaries in India to the business end of cannon in executing them. He depicted native fighters in Afghanistan and Turkistan collecting decapitated heads for ransom (thus resulting in the pyramid of sculls picked clean by vultures in Apotheosis of War). Vereshchagin painted the dead and dying left along snow covered roads, Napoleon executing prisoners (Russians) within the walls of the Kremlin, even the selling of children into slavery (Afghanistan). There have always been those who have long relished and collected military art. But even for them, as well as those who pursued art featuring far off people, places, and things, Vereshchagin's work required a strong stomach.

Definitely not for the living room, barely suitable for art galleries.
One of Vereshchagin's most touching series of paintings depicts an American soldier (where and what war is not clear) beginning with a rectangular work picturing him riding his horse, and titled Wounded (below-left). The whole series dates form 1901. Vereshchagin's four additional round vignettes depict the soldier being brought into a hospital ward; his dictating a letter to his mother, then suffering some type of medical crisis which causes his death. The final work in the series is titled, The Letter Remained Unfinished. After the Russo-Turkish War, Vereshchagin settle in Munich where he produced his war pictures so rapidly that he was frequently accused of employing assistants. The sensational subjects of his pictures, and their obvious purpose aimed at the promotion of peace hrough a representation of the horrors of war, attracted a large section of the public to a series of exhibitions in Paris in 1881 and later in London, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, and other cities.

Wounded, 1901, Vasily Vereshchagin
Like many artists, Vereshchagin loved to travel. And even though during most of the time he was "on the road" he was in the Russian military, he also found time to paint the people, places, and things he saw. His architectural paintings include everything from Jerusalem's Solomon's Wall (Wailing Wall) to at least two exquisitely rendered views of India's Taj Mahal. Though there are fewer of them, his scenic landscapes are second to none in their careful compositions, color, and attention to detail.

Late in life, Vereshchagin's international travels reach as far away as China and Japan.

Central Asia as seen by Vasily Vereshchagin in the 1880s

A journey to Syria and Palestine in 1884 furnished Vereshchagin with a thoroughly comprehensive set of subjects from the New Testament. Vereshchagin's paintings caused controversy over the portrayal figure of Christ with what was thought at the time to be an unseemly realism. His depiction of Jesus's features was thought of as excessively vulgar and over-emphatically Semitic in ethnicity (he didn't look European enough). His Crucifixion by the Romans (below) is typical of the naturalism Vereshchagin applied to his genre subject imposed upon the oft-painted Crucifixion. Vereshchagin was in the Far East during the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, He was with the Russian troops in Manchuria during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The following year he visited the Philippines, and in 1902 the United States and Cuba. 1903 found Vereshchagin in Japan. During the Russo-Japanese War, he was invited by Admiral Stepan Makarov to join him aboard Makarov's flagship, Petropavlovsk. On April 13, 1904, Petropavlovsk struck two mines while returning to Port Arthur in the Philippines. It sank, with most of the crew, as well as both Admiral Makarov and Vereshchagin. Vereshchagin's last work, a picture of a council of war presided over by Admiral Makarov, was recovered almost undamaged.

Vereshchagin's version of the crucifixion has almost a movie-like quality, based up the artist's intimate familiarity with the garb and appearance of the descendants of those present at Christ's crucifixion.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Alexey Venetsianov

Full-scale Class, 1824. Alexsey Venetsianov
When I finished college and began teaching in 1972, all I had to do was fill out a state application and attach a transcript to obtain a license to teach students from Kindergarten through the twelfth grade. The first year I taught, I believe I had two high school classes and six seventh-grade classes the first semester, switching to six eighth-grade classes the second semester. It was an exceptionally heavy teaching load (especially for a rookie teacher) for which I earned a grand salary of about $8,000. I was born one of the first "baby boomers." I ended up teaching the very last of that demographic group twenty-two years later as the number of school age kids had started to decline. Believe me, I learned more than my kids did (I should have been paying them). Being an artist is one thing, teaching artists is quite another, especially from puberty on. Today, I think all would-be teachers (depending on where they live) have to pass a teacher competency exam. As much as things have changed in the past two-hundred years, sometimes it's surprising how much they haven't changed. When the Russian painter, Alexey Venetsianov, decided he wanted to be a portrait artist, back about 1811, he had to submit two works to the Board of the Academy of Arts in order to get a license just to call himself an artist (academician).

His own self-portrait and one painted of him by an academically trained friend.

Bathers, 1829. Alexsey Venetsianov
Although Venetsianov was actually a pretty good artists, he wasn't very successful in landing commissions. He painted mostly himself, his mother, sisters, and his wife(below). The self-portrait (above, left) was one of the two he submitted to the Academy Board to get his "painter's license." Some ten years later, about 1820, when Venet-sianov decided he wanted to teach art at the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg, the door to that aspiration was sum-marily slammed in his face. He had no academic credentials. Though not tech-nically a self-taught artist, in that he had served an apprenticeship with an es-tablished artist for a few years, and had spent many hours copying paintings at the Hermitage, in order to become reasonably competent, such training in no way resembled that of the art academies of his time as seen in Venetsianov's Full Scale Class (top) from 1824. His Bathers (left) from 1829, shows evidence of his time spent in the Hermitage Museum.

The portrait of the artist's mother is Venetsianov's earliest surviving work.
The painting of his sisters appears to be unfinished.

Marva Venetsianova. The family was of Greek descent.
That is, those Father's Dinner,
1824, Alexsey Venetsianov
Rejected by the Academy, Venetsianov, in turn, rejected the academic life, leaving behind a small group of student followers in St. Petersburg, for the village of Safonkovo, which, according to one source, he bought, and in any case, lived among its peasants, painting genre scenes of their daily life, landscapes of the area, and most importantly, many deeply insightful, sympathetic portraits of those around him. Threshing-Floor (below), from 1822, is one of his early genre works typical of those which brought him recognition at an exhibition in 1824 as the first Russian artist to depict rural peasant life. Another such example, That Is, those Father's Dinner (right), from 1824, of a peasant boy with an empty lunch pail, is sadly charming, even though the title is more than a little ambiguous.

Threshing-Floor, 1822, Alexsey Venetsianov
Finding some success despite his lack of academic training, Venetsianov decided to reach for the top, trying his hand at the vaunted realm of the history painter. His Peter the Great, Founding of St. Petersburg (below), from 1838, is surprisingly adept for an artist having had no formal training or experience in such art.

Peter the Great, Founding of St. Petersburg, 1838, Alexsey Venetsianov
Venetsianov's Communion of Dying (below), from 1839, exemplifies the deeply moving religious nature of some of the artist's later works. His Lamentation (bottom), from around 1846 is one of his final paintings. He died the following year in a carriage accident when his horses dashed off and fell down a steep slope.

Communion of Dying, 1839, Aleksey Venetsianov
The Lamentation, 1846, Alexsey Venetsianov
Two of Venetsianov's highly expressive peasant portraits

On a Ploughed Field, Spring,
ca. 1820, Alexsey Venetsianov

The Russian sense of humor...
ca. 2010


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Bedroom Art

I don't care if you're the most dedicated paleontologist in the world, this might be a bit much for your bedroom. Yes, I did a little Photoshopping, but the giant 3D painting is available for purchase.
There's a tendency for people, when they think of art, to automatically think of "living room" art, paintings to hang over the couch. There's usually not much room for art in the kitchen or bathrooms but probably dining room art comes to mind next. I mean, if you're going to spend the big bucks on paintings and objects 'd art, you want to make sure they're out where your friends can see them, enjoy seeing them, and be impressed with your wealth and good taste in choosing them. Right? The other major rooms of importance where there's room on the walls for artwork, and probably the last rooms to actually get art work are the bedrooms. Here, however, the criteria for choosing such art changes from impressing your friends to the interests and personality of the bedroom's occupants. There's not a more personal, individually distinctive room in the entire house.

If you're an artist reading this, you may want
to express yourself and save a little money
too by painting your own bedroom mural.
In discussing bedroom art I'm not going to get into interior design, as such, though the image you choose to go on the wall above your bed does play a big part in that endeavor. Inasmuch as the bed is the lar-gest piece of furniture in most bed-rooms, and thus unavoidably the focal point, the wall behind the bed is the second most important surface to be dealt with. Sometimes its a framed painting, a pleasant landscape, or per-haps a genre scene. However, more and more often the wall itself is the basic surface to be decorated whether with a hand-painted mural or (more likely) some type of removable wall covering, "sticker," or decal in which the paint color of the wall become the back-ground. Today, there are a mind-boggling variety of such items to choose from. It's enough to keep you awake at night.

Be daring. Express yourself. Have fun. No one else is going to see your choices. If married, consult your spouse first before painting Audrey Hepburn's eyes peering down at your bed.
Whether the bedroom is for a child or an adult, it goes without saying that the wall art should reflect the bedroom occupant's interests, gender, and age. Shortly after our son was born, two of my high school art students decorated a wall in his room featuring a cast of Muppets and Sesame Street characters with the words, "Jonathan's Friends" in their midst. By the time he was ten or twelve, he was more than willing to help wallpaper over it. The redecorating project involved black carpet, a blinking traffic light, and I think a plastic skull or two. I drew the line when he asked me to paint a KISS album cover on the wall. Inasmuch as decisions involving the décor of the master bedroom usually fall to the female of the species, most such rooms have a decidedly light, pleasant, restful décor and fairly unobtrusive choice of art. Conventional wisdom suggests, soft, neutral, low-contrast colors. Borrrring... If you and/or your spouse like camping, consider a woodland wallpaper mural (above, right). For the more daring, the black and white room (above, left) might be fun (the face of the giant clock is painted on the wall, the hands, however move.

For most kids, plan on redecorating their bedroom at least once as they get older.
A young child's bedroom (or nursery), regardless of gender, is usually an adults-only series of decisions as to colors, furnishings, and wall art. The child may have some indirect input based upon early interests--a favorite cartoon character, movie, or toy--but not to the point of making demands as to such décor. However, the second time around, usually about the time they hit puberty, all bets are off. They not only want their voice heard in outfitting their sleeping quarters, they often expect to make the final decisions involved. Short of celebrating the drug culture or images pulled from Internet porn sites, most parents would be well advised to take on a merely advisory role at this point, reminding the young man or lady to choose carefully in that you can't afford to redecorate their room every time they change their favorite rock group or teen idol.

Just because it's tastefully decorated, don't expect your kids to keep their rooms neat. Be satisfied with clean and pest free.
Our bedroom. My wife gave me a free hand in decorating,
though she retained veto power.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Pep Art

College football Pep Art--quite a rowdy looking group
Aunt Annie's blue pretzels
Virtually everyone has heard of Pop Art. Let me be the first to coin a new kind of art. I call it Pep Art. Everybody has seen it in one form or another. It's been around in one form or another for about a hundred years (maybe longer if you want to stretch the definition a little). If you haven't guessed by now, I'm talking about the arts and crafts of creating live action mascots. As for the definition, it's an animal or costumed person intended to bring luck to its sponsor. You may have noticed that I've not mentioned the fact that most mascots have to do with sports teams. Even elementary sports teams now days sometimes have mascots at their games. From there it goes straight up through the ranks to professional sports. But, I should also point out that such mascots are not limited to sports. Corporations have mascots too, such as Aunt Annie's blue pretzels (above, left). Just why they're blue, is beyond me.

The Oregon Ducks mascot was, of course, designed and crafted by Disney.
Big Al, the charging elephant
of the University of Alabama.
Mascots are customarily born in a design studio, professional, amateur, or in the case of colleges, probably in-house. Very often the college team may have a nickname nearly as old as the college itself. The University of Alabama has long been referred to as the Crimson Tide. That doesn't suggest any possibility for a team mascot. Thus, they chose a charging elephant known as Big Al. But in most cases, the school's official name or it's nickname suggests some type of human or animal image. Despite their powerful mascot, the team has not come to be known as the "Big Als" However, that's not the case with the Oregon Ducks, of the University of Oregon. They now use Donald Duck as their mascot, though the Ducks nickname goes back to the 1920s, long before Walt hatched Donald. Disney did, however license, design, and craft the costume (above). Unlike Big Al, the hapless Donald Duck is not likely to strike fear into the hearts of the team's opponents.

I think they're supposed to be woodchucks, or groundhogs, but they're sometimes known as simply as Chucks, Wood-shocks, Groundpigs, Whistlers, Thickwood Badgers, Canada Marmots, Monax, Moonacks, Weenusks, and the Red Monks.
Big Al and his avian counterpart, despite their differences, have one thing in common. Sports of all types have as their prime purpose that of entertaining their fans--whether soccer moms or dyed-in-the-wool pro football fanatics. Cheerleaders, and more recently, the growing gaggle of costumed mascots are part of that team effort to entertain by winning. Winning boosts the team (or school) image as well as fan morale. But the game does not go on without interruptions. That's especially the case with baseball, as compared to the tense sport of basketball. The job of the mascot is to basically "keep the ball rolling" when the team take a time out. More often than not, this involves comedy antics. Thus the good mascot need not be fearsome so much as funny. Some have been known to indulge in the ludicrous in this effort, even to the point of bad taste and sexual harassment. Though most mascots are theoretically male, some also have a female counterparts (above).  

The designer's input. (Probably some that didn't "make it".)
Mascots are seldom the creative endeavor of a single individual. The logo designer is usually not the costume designer, who is usually not the pattern maker or the one who pads and puts it all together; and certainly not the comedic show-off wearing the get-up (most such individual see through the mouth of their costumes). Mascot costumes evolve. Some are even cooled inside by battery operated fans. In any case, what looks really cool on paper, may not, in fact work at all on the field. The human being inside has to be able to see, move, and communicate visually. A costume, no matter how creative, which hampers any of those functions goes back to the drawing board and or at least to the costume shop (often a university's theater department). Creating such outfit is a job for professionals, or on rare occasions, highly talented amateurs. There are even businesses which specialize in creating such things. Below is a sampling of their work. Some are pretty lame. Others border on sheer genius.

Sometimes the nature of the beasts are somewhat ambiguous. I especially liked the
 artichoke which has apparently swallowed up Mickey Mouse.
Likely not a team mascot, but someone went to a
lot of trouble just to be kicked of the field.