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Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Night to Remember

From the book by Walter Lord, screenplay by Eric Ambler.
One of the most consistently popular items I've posted here over the years has been a piece on James Cameron's blockbuster hit movie, Titanic. That's not surprising in that, for twelve years, Cameron's 1997 film was the highest grossing movie of all time, surpassed only in 2010 by Cameron's Avatar, weighing in at $2.7-billion (that's billion...with a "B"). Titanic was "only" $2.1-billion. No other films have ever surpassed the two-billion-dollar mark in world-wide earnings. Titanic is all the more remarkable in that it was essentially a "remake" of the 1958 British black and white film, A Night to Remember, which was based upon Walter Lord's book by the same title.
The paperback art was a bit more exciting.
First edition cover. The
original art was
rather subdued.
Walter Lord, 1958

Decades ago, while on vacation, I picked up a paperback copy of Alvin Moscow's Collision Course, detailing the sinking of the Italian ocean liner SS Andrea Doria in a collision with the Norwegian liner, MS Stockholm near the foggy mouth of New York Harbor in 1956. That led me to check out Lord's A Night to Remember; and despite the fact both were about tragic shipwrecks, I've been an avid fan of such books and movies, not to mention ships and cruising ever since. Walter Lord's book came out in November of 1955 and was an immediate best-seller (60,000 copies in the first two months). NBC and Kraft Foods first brought the his book to American television in 1956. Then the British movie director William Ward Baker and the Irish producer William MacQuitty came together with Lord, purchasing the film rights to make the movie in 1958. NBC and Kraft had sunk the Titanic for a mere $95,000. It cost the two British filmmakers $1.6-million to send her to the bottom.

The painting artist played a much more important role
in moviemaking in the 1950s than today.
The climactic scene. The lifeboats slip
away, the ship slips under.
Any comparison of Cameron's Titanic and the British A Night to Remember is inherently and grossly unfair. First of all there was forty years between them. The arts and crafts of filmmaking during that time had jumped ahead by leaps and bounds. CGI not only didn't exist in 1958 but could not even have been dreamed of. Special effects were still languishing in the realm of what was then known as "trick photography--reversing images, filming models, mat shots painted on glass, etc. Moreover the $1.6-million mentioned above ($9.3 million in 1997 dollars) couldn't hold a candle to the $200-million Cameron spent (or overspent) to sink his Titanic (half a ship, built full-scale, in a custom made swimming pool). Cameron had an all-star cast of DiCaprio, Winslet, and some of the most expensive supporting talent Hollywood had to offer. Barker and MacQuitty had...well, Kenneth More. And before you say "Kenneth Who?" let me advise you that absolutely none of the cast in the 1958 move were anyone you'd recall today.

Scenes and cast from A Night to Remember.
Perhaps the most unfortunate factor in the making of A Night to Remember came down to the fact it was not shot in color. It could have been. Color was, by 1958, a staple of the filmmaker's art, though far more costly than black and white. However films as late as 1970 were still being shot in black and white, and for the same reason. Color would have elevated a very good effort at capturing the drama and pathos of such a tragic incident to the level of outstanding. As it was, the film was lauded for its historic accuracy (though it was loaded with intentional and unintentional errors) and good to excellent performances. The British have always stood out in that regard. Likewise, Eric Ambler's screenplay, written under the caring, expert guidance of Walter Lord himself, could easily be considered equal to or surpassing that of Titanic, which many critics deemed its weakest element.

Actress Tucker McGuire plays a dazed Margaret (Molly) Brown as she
watches the Titanic go down from the relative safety of a lifeboat.
One of the more fascinating figures consistent with virtually every telling of the sinking of the Titanic is the colorful presence of Mrs. Margaret (Molly) Brown of Unsinkable Molly Brown fame. There's even a striking resemblance between the actress, Tucker McGuire (above), who plays Molly in A Night to Remember and Kathy Bates, who landed the coveted role in Cameron's epic. Of course, neither of them much resemble Debbie Reynolds from the unsinkable hit musical version detailing Molly's Colorado frontier background.

The RMS Titanic as seen in the film, Night to Remember, steaming
at full speed toward her catastrophic rendezvous with a North Atlantic iceberg,
the night of April 14, 1912, with 2,223 passengers and crew on board. Only 706 survived.

Click below to see the trailer for A Night to Remember:


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tennessee Art

Heatin' Up, Berlynne Holman, of Trenton, Tennessee

All That Glitters, Vergil C. Stephens
Tennessee is a long state, from the Mississippi River in the west to the Appalachian "Mountains" in the east. One might expect a vast diversity in the state's art simply as a matter of geography. Strangely, that's not really the case. Perhaps that's because a single city has come to symbolize the whole state--Nashville. However, though music may be the primary export of the "Volunteer State" that product is not a single, homogenized entity but at least three, rock 'n roll in the west out of Memphis, country out of Nashville and mountain music in the East (Knoxville and Chattanooga). Mixed in with this tuneful stew (right) is a generous dose of blues and Dixieland as reflected in Berlynne Holman's watercolor, Heatin' Up (above). And despite Nashville's faithful, full-size replica of the Parthenon, the musical holy temple venerated by all is the old Ryman Auditorium (below) in Nashville where country music's Grand Ole Opry became a nationwide symbol of the state. (It started out as a church, in fact.)

Ryman Auditorium, Michael Doyle
Bait!, 2008, Bonnie Shields
Of course, Tennessee is more than guitars, fiddles, and recording studios. There's also the landscape, the whiskey, the mules, the cities, the people, the history, and one of the strangest looking art museums I've ever seen. Tennessee artists obviously have no shortage of subject matter. However, as is often the case, it's the Tennesseans themselves who serve as the heart of artists best efforts to portray the state. The expressionist Tennessee Couple (below) by Corey Barksdale, while not likely to appear on any tourist brochures, is also quite emblematic of a large segment of Tennessee's eastern mountain population, while Bonnie Shields 2008 Bait! (right) humorously reflects the western Tennessee lifestyle. Her team of iconic Tennessee Mules, (below, right) pretty fairly represents the animal residents.

Tennessee Couple, Corey Barksdale
Tennessee Mules, Bonnie Shields
Tennessee has been deemed by some (mostly Tennesseans) as the buckle on the Bible Belt. Of course, half the states in the south also claim that distinction. Nonetheless, there is a strong religious element in the state's creative output, especially with regard to their landscapes as seen in Steve Norris' nostalgic Missionary Baptist Church, Cades Cove (below), as well as the work of a huge number of other rural landscape painters.

Missionary Baptist Church, Cades Cove, Steve Norris
Donna Littleton, Nashville
Closely related to landscape painting is the whole area of history painting, or perhaps historic paintings from painters out of Tennessee's history. The Civil War, tragic as it was, continues to fascinate Tennessee artists both in depicting battle scenes but also in contrasting the peacetime history of the state as seen in Edward Lamson Henry, In East Tennessee (below, right).

In East Tennessee, Edward Lamson Henry
Tennessee art is not just painting. In looking at the state's sculptors, I came upon Brad Spencer's carved bricks. My guess is his overstuffed sofa (below) is not as comfortable as it looks. The abstract piece by the same artist (below, left) can be found along Chattanooga's Art Trail.

Sofa, Brad Spencer
Brick sculpture by Brad Spencer
I hinted at the beginning that Tennessee is the home of one of the strangest art museums I'd ever seen. It's located in Chattanooga, the Hunter Museum of American Art (below). I know little about the museum itself or its holdings, however the facilities exemplify a problem art museums all across the U.S. and around the world have had in trying to cope with expanding collections beyond the capacity of their walls, often built centuries earlier in the prevailing architectural styles of their times. With the Hunter, we see a southern Georgian mansion with a ghastly cubistic wing seemingly creeping up to devour the original structure. Though difficult, some museums architects have learned to cope with this style disconnect between the then and the now. Apparently, that was not the case in Chattanooga.

Hunter Museum of American Art ,Chattanooga, Tennessee


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Avian Art

Phoenix, the Bird of Life, Igor Paley                                            
Japanese Bird Painting,
ca. 1750-1850
There are three or four basic approaches in studying art. One is to study the artists themselves, and through them, their work (I do a lot of that here). Another is to study each art medium and through that the artists and their work. The third means is to study art from strictly a historic framework, not necessarily chronologically, but by stylistic periods or ethnic, national, or political eras. If you're a history buff, that's fine, otherwise you'll be bored to death. And finally, you can study art with regard to various content areas (perhaps the most interesting approach). There are major types of content with each of those content areas breaking down into several minor ones. Take the painting of animals, for instance. There's wildlife and...for lack of a better term, "tame" life or domestic animals which itself can be broken down into livestock and pets. Over the years in writing I've covered such content areas involving animals as bovine art, equine art, feline art, canine art, and most recently juvenile humanoid art broken down by gender (the two items directly below). Now that's really exploring a content area with a fine tooth comb. Yet even those two categories could be refined down to studying them by age, ethnicity, by country, and even by era--English Victorian pre-adolescent female portraiture.

Roseate Spoonbill, John James Audubon
Egyptian wood falcon sculpture
representing Horus, ca. 945 B.C.
When it comes to animals, I've still got a number of classifications to explore. I've never dealt with porcine art, marine art, reptilian art, ovine art, or avian art. So, let's talk about the last one--better known as birds. When we associate art and birds, the first name to come to mind is John James Audubon. That's good. Audubon's work (above) stands head and shoulders over that of any other avian artist of his time. But speaking of time, Audubon was not the first nor the last artist to paint birds. The earliest "birdwatchers" were probably Egyptian, some of their oldest surviving images and objects (left) dating from roughly 1,000 BC. There may be some Chinese and Japanese bird art (above, right) with roots nearly as old.

A 1st-century BC. Roman mosaic depiction of birds
(and their mortal enemy, bottom, right).

The Romans didn't paint birds, or model them, but their mosaics (above) were rich in a avid appreciation of avian art. Also, like the United States today, the Romans chose the same powerful bird as their national symbol. Moreover, as with virtually every other creature in the animal kingdom, birds have found their way into both ancient and modern folklore, everything from Igor Paley's expressionist Phoenix (top) to Fritz Freleng's 1947 Tweety Pie (right). Artists M.C. Escher (below, right) has used the bird's streamline shape juxtaposed with the similarly streamlined fish on several occasions to tessellate into fascinating designs. Opposite Escher harmonious grace, Donald Gialanella has chosen to depict in scrap steel the clumsy movements of his "pet" Dodo (below).

Metamorphosis--Fish and Birds,
1938, M.C. Escher's
Dodo, Donald Gialanella,
steel sculpture.
Drippy Bird, Rich Johnson
Speaking of clumsy, with the exception of the DoDo, it's hard to imagine a more ungainly avian creature (at least on land) than the "tuxedoed" penguin out for a stroll in Richard Johnson's watercolor (below). Besides being clumsy at times, all birds are "drippy" as seen by Rich Johnson (left, not the penguin artist, Richard Johnson, mentioned just above). Yet it seems to be the most colorful of the avian aristocracy which tend to captivate the painters among us who dabble in illusionary feathers. The artist Vera Cauwenbergh of Flanders, Belgium, paints Macaws (bottom) with much the same color flourish as Igor Paley's mythological Phoenix, the Bird of Life (top), except that hers, with their Technicolor plumage, actually do exist.

Richard Johnson's watercolor penguin painting
Vera Cauwenberghs' Macaws


Monday, March 23, 2015

Painting Boys

My Boys and Brownie, Leah Hopkins Henry
Portraiture is such a vast topic I've felt the need to split it into two segments. The differences in painting girls (yesterday's item, below) and painting boys is largely artificial. Much of what was said about painting girls also applies to painting boys, especially in terms of style and technique. As I pointed out yesterday, poses and dress are the main differences (whether they should be or not). It's hard to say whether boys are becoming more like girls or girls more like boys, but even the differences in poses, activities and clothing seem to be melding together in recent years. Leah Hopkins Henry's portrait of her sons and their dog (above), however paints a perfect example of how pose and clothes, and in this case, color also, are strikingly different than if the artist were painting her daughters. The feet together, knees apart pose of the older boy would never do if he were a girl.

Boy and Dog making eye contact. There's always a danger in a portrait like
this of the dog "stealing" the show, especially when the animal is placed in the
foreground as in this case. The butterfly on the boy's shirt completely mystifies me.
The Henry portrait (top) also underlines an early decision every portrait artist must make,--eye contact, or no eye contact. In this case, only the dog interacts with the viewer. Either is acceptable, but each has a profound effect upon the way the viewer sees and reacts to the painting. The portrait above illustrates the more "gripping" effect of eye contact, though some find the (eyes-following-you-around-the-room) psychological illusion disturbing.

Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem (detail), ca. 1901-14, John Howard Sanden
Portrait of Yeray, Ben, Lustenhouwer.
(Click on the video at the bottom to
watch the artist begin this portrait.)
In delving into the history and background involving "boy portraits," one figure stands apart almost as an iconic ideal--Jesus Christ as a boy. There have been many, starting with Leonardo's and Raphael's many Madonna and Child portraits up through to John Howard Sanden's Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem (above) from the first decades of the 20th century. There is a knowing innocence in the face of Sanden's Jesus, but also a tendency toward effeminacy that would be a definite "turn-off" in any portrait of an adolescent boy today, despite the distinct element of androgyny present in some boys at that age. It's a factor every artist painting boys must be aware of, especially where long, wavy hair is present (left), not necessarily striving to eliminate this tendency, but in minimizing and controlling it. No portrait of a young boy should raise the question in the viewer's mind, "Is that a boy or a girl?"

The Fifer, 1865,
Edouard Manet
Blue Boy, Portrait of Jonathan Buttall,
1770, Thomas Gainsborough
Fajum Portrait of
Eutyches, 100-150 AD
As in painting girls, it's quite valuable to look back and see how artists from the past have handled the subject. The earliest example, and frankly, one of the best, is the Egyptian Fajum funerary portrait of a Greek boy (left) dating from 100-150 AD. There is some obvious idealization in the eyes and the mouth seems a little tight, but the work illustrates the highly refined painting style and technique of the Fajum portrait painters at such a remarkably early date in art history. Edouard Manet's The Fifer (above, left) from 1865 is not technically a portrait. At least two models posed for the boy's face. One of them was, in fact, a girl. Moreover, if it were a portrait it would be a rather disturbing one in that the body to head proportions are poorly rendered. Manet's front lighting, here as in several of his other works, tends to flatten the figure (likely the result of using photos taken with flash powder). But, having said that, who am I to criticize the great Edouard Manet and a painting now valued at $80-million? Thomas Gainsborough's famous Blue Boy (above, right) from some one-hundred years earlier would seem today a LOT too effeminate, what we might term "foppish." Even in 1770, few boys would have been caught dead wearing such a baby-blue satin "get up" like that, knickers, white knee socks, with bows on his toes. Tradition says the costume belonged to the artist. The subject was the son of a friend of the artist. Some art historians suggest Gainsborough may have had a love affair with the boy, whose face looks somewhat younger than his lean stature would suggest.

Singing Boy with a Flute,
1623-1625, Frans Hals
Self Portrait as a Boy, 1830,
Frederick Lord Leighton
Two other historically renown portrait artist have left us interesting examples of the art of painting boys. The English artist, Frederick Lord Leighton, depicts himself as a teenager, (above, left) apparently having mastered the all-important face; but in labeling himself as an artist with the awkward inclusion of his palette jutting strangely across the picture plane, not to mention the nearly impossible, even painful, looking thumb position holding the palette, inadvertently tells us his lordship still had a lot to learn about painting portraits. In contrast, the great Dutch barroom portrait painter, Frans Hals, is quite adept in panting his Singing Boy with a Flute (above, right) painted a couple hundred years before Lord Leighton's boyish effort. Like Manet's Fifer, this work, if it is, indeed, a portrait of a specific individual, is only secondarily so. It fits much more snuggly into the realm of Hals' many genre paintings.

Boy portrait, 2011, L.T. Branston,
(using studio lighting)
Portrait of a Boy
(utilizing flash photography)
In mentioning Manet's fondness for the primitive manifestation of flash photography, it came to mind that discussing what not to do in painting portraits was, in fact, just as important as illustrating what to do. I don't care if your name is Edouard Manet, as a portrait painter, flash photography is not your friend. Flash photography is a convenience at best, and not even good lighting for photographic portraiture, much less the painted variety (above, left). It screams out the most glaringly inept use of source photos imaginable. The flatness I mentioned before causes a lack of modulation in the flesh tones as well as often bleaching out the tonal warmth of the face. It can also cause harsh, distracting, background shadows as well. Notice the differences in the two paintings above. The Branston portrait (above, right) not only captures the facial anatomy in a much more natural manner, but is also more likely to capture the likeness, personality, and human warmth so important in good portraiture at any age. Branston's painting also serves to remind us that good portraiture does not demand eye-catching gimmicks to be deemed outstanding art. That's not to say that dramatic lighting and background effects have no place in children's portraiture, especially where boys are concerned. Boys are prone to drama and excitement. For the artist who can handle them, whether dealing with the messianic qualities Robert Schoeller is so adept at suggesting (below, left) or the tribal ethnicity Leslie Tribolet exploits (below, right), both go far in telling us what these two boys are like (or at least what their parents think they're like).

African Child, Leslie Tribolet,
photographer, Lee Turner
Portrait Little Boy,
Robert Schoeller

Skateboarder with source photo.

And while on the subject of using photos as source material, let me also caution against becoming a "slave" to the photo. Good photography is very often accompanied by excellent background effects. And, the painter is quite free to use them if he or she sees fit. However, especially with amateur or action photography, the background is very often quite mundane at best, and quite disturbing or distracting at worst. The painting Skateboarder (left) is quite revealing of an artist who recognized that fact. While the photo background isn't necessarily "bad" he came up with something better simply by rendering it in a painterly modulation of grays and whites, which not only eliminates the distracting trees at the head level of his figure but also suggests tense movement and action.

Sammy in Blue, Talya Johnson,
winner as my favorite boy-portrait of the day.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Painting Girls

Ans Werker, Little Girl Reading, progressive photos.
Young Girl Reading, 1776,
Jean-Honore Fragonard, a classic,
almost iconic "girl painting."
For the portrait painter, there is seldom any greater joy than painting children. Needless to say children come in all sizes and dispositions, as well as two major types--boys and girls. I've painted children's portraits as young as infants and pretty much up through their teens, though the exact turning point when children cease to be children is hard to place. One of the greatest things about painting children is that, almost without exception, children are beautiful...or at least can be made to appear that way by a good artist and adequate photography. I'm mentioning photography at this early juncture because from the early 20th-century on most children have been painted using one or more photos as source material. I'm sure there is no need to go into WHY this is true, but suffice to say the art and science of photography completely changed the art of painting children. Before photography, poses were stiff and lifeless, much like Fragonard's academic Young Girl Reading (above, right). Since painting children from photos became acceptable...well, it's pretty much anything goes as regard to pose.

Young Girl in a Blue Hat,
1881, Pierre Auguste Renoir
Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens,
ca. 1614, Peter Paul Rubens
Portrait artist, Ans Werker, shows us how it's done with her Little Girl Reading (top). Let me emphasize that there is no ONE best way to paint a portrait, regardless of the age or gender of the subject. For instance, Werker starts with a very highly developed, high contrast, tonal drawing. (Few artists go this far in their drawings). From that she begins to develop the portrait as a whole adding color washes (either oil or acrylic, it makes little difference). Once she rids herself of any lingering gray with the addition of warmer tones, in the third stage, she develops cooler colors and introduces color variants to arrive at the completed portrait. Notice, that at no time is there any loss of control as to likeness or finish. The portrait could conceivably stand as a finished work at virtually any point from the time she starts painting to the final stroke. Few portrait painters maintain this manner of tight control during the course of their work.

Family Portrait, Robert Schoeller
Seated Young Girl, 1918,
Amadeo Modigliani
Contrast this with the sort of painted sketch seen in Robert Schoeller's Family Portrait (above). Here we notice two distinct elements in his work. First the contrasts are greatest in the children's faces as compared to most of the background, and second, boys are handled differently from girls as to their dress and pose. I don't know how old this painting is but that factor may be changing somewhat as gender equality becomes more prevalent. Nonetheless, one of the best ways to gain insight into painting girls is to study what great portrait artists have done in the past, such as the Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens (above, left) by her father, and that of Renoir's Young Girl in a Blue Hat (above, right). Note that there is more than 250 years between the two works. Painting styles change, as do ideals of feminine beauty regardless of age. Such works are valuable to study, but long past their worth in imitating. Even the Renoir is well over a century in age. Any portrait similar in appearance today would appear quite dated, as is George Lemmen's Three Little Girls (below) from 1907, some twenty-six years after Renoir's. It has an old fashioned appearance as compared to Amadeo Modigliani's Seated Young Girl (above, right) from just eleven years later.

Three Little Girls, 1907. Georges Lemmen
Few artists from the past made such a deliberate effort to capture the essence of female childhood as did the American expatriate painter from the late 19th-century, Mary Cassatt. Her Little Girl in a Blue Chair (below), from 1878, captures the supreme boredom of the posed portrait from life to the point the viewer feels the need to blurt out, "Don't slump." Apparently Mary Cassatt got tired of that phrase or was so attuned to her subject and the difficulty in getting a young girl to pose in a stiff, traditional manner, that she didn't even try to correct the young lady's natural, predisposed posture.

Little Girl in Blue Chair, 1878, Mary Cassatt. Why portrait artist love photos.
As you will note from the paintings below such as Just One in a Thousand, by Agnes Cecille, portrait painters today are much more interested in capturing the essence of their young girls than in realistic depictions. Of course, a portrait in watercolor and those in oil introduces an "apples and oranges" situation with watercolor being such a spontaneous, trying, unforgiving medium few but the best portrait artists would even consider those difficulties as assets to be exploited in the manner Agnes Cecille has.

Just One in a Thousand, Agnes Cecille
Even today most portrait painters prefer a more "finished" look as seen in Robert Schoeller's Little Girl Portrait (below, left), a detail of the head from a full-length painting. Compare it to Helene Schjerfbeck's Portrait of a Girl (below, right), from 1886, for another look at how portrait tastes and styles have changed in the past century or so.

Portrait of a Girl, 1886,
Helene Schjerfbeck
Little Girl Portrait,
Robert Schoeller
And finally, I should point out, there was a time when painting styles and portrait tastes tended to reflect geography, nationality, and ethnicity. When we isolate and narrow the content in a given type of painting (portraits) then further divide that by gender, it becomes plainly obvious that the factors mentioned above, today have little play in virtually all types of painting. Today, with the advent of global Internet communications, we are moving toward a one-world culture, mostly dominated by western tastes but with subtle flavorings from many of the other "stronger" art cultures such as the Chinese Girl (below) and the portrait of the little African girl (bottom).

Chinese Girl--western style, oriental flavored
Young African Girl