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Monday, March 18, 2019

Unfinished Masterpieces

Madonna with the Long Neck, 1534-40, Parmigianino
One of my "pet peeves" as an art instructor for many years were perfectionists. These were often fine artists of whom I joked, "gave perfection a bad name." I've always suspected such people simply feared starting a new project to the point they seemed to hang on to the previous one eternally. I have nothing against an attempt to achieve the highest standards in ones work...up to a point. Then there develops the scientific principle of diminishing returns. Or, as I put it, some things are too major to fix and not major enough to worry about. History fails to record whether Girolamo Bedoli held the same opinion as I regarding this artistic trait but he certainly encountered it during his time as the painting master for a young man named Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola. Today we know him better by his nickname, Parmigianino (the little one from Parma).

 Study for Madonna With The Long Neck, Parmigianino,
Parmigianino Self-portrait,
at the age of twenty-one
Parmigianino (left) was a perfectionist who often tinkered with his works to a fault. He ended his life in debt and disgraced by the church after failing to adequately complete a fresco-commission in his native Parma. But he is remembered primarily for the curious grace and elegance of his elongated figures, represented best in the Madonna of the Long Neck (top) painted between 1534 and 1540. That's six years and it was still incomplete! Parmigianino's obsessive working of the fine composi-tional details of the figures meant that he left other parts--the sky, the columns, the partially faded figure of Saint Jerome in the bottom-right background--incomplete. Incidentally, the face peering over the shoulder of the virgin is identical to a portrait he painted in 1524 of Antea Fox (below), said to be his girlfriend. The strange mystic quality of the painting is arguably heightened by the unfinished details. The self-portrait at left was created using a convex mirror.

A comparison of the two paintings leaves little doubt as to the identity
of the girl peering over the Madonna's shoulder.
Perfectionism is by no means the only reason major works of art go unfinished. Sometimes events intervene giving the artist good reason for leaving a painting unfinished. In 2012 Contemporary painter Natalie Holland began a portrait of the athlete, Oscar Pistorius (below). The commission was in celebration of Pistorius, a double-amputee who ran with the aid of specially-designed "blades," becoming the first with his condition to compete at the non-disabled Olympic Games. While Holland was still painting, Pistorius was found guilty of culpable homicide following the death of his partner, Reeva Steenkamp, from gunshot wounds. Deeply disturbed by the event, Holland left the painting incomplete, making it a haunting monument to the faded glory of Pistorius and the tragic loss of Steenkamp.

Oscar Pistorius, 2012, Natalie Holland (unfinished)

The famous painter, Jacques-Louis David encountered a similar confluence of events causing him to leave unfinished what might have been his greatest masterpiece. David, the most prominent French painter of his day, became a follower of Robespierre and supporter of the French Revolution towards the end of the 18th century. The unfinished canvas of the 1789 Oath of the Tennis Court (below), depicts a crucial moment of solidarity and purpose for the revolutionaries. It includes certain heads and figures partially-completed in oil paint. The exposed musculature of their sketched bodies seems to break through a surface to reveal detailed, impassioned faces. The first engravings showing The Tennis Court Oath only appeared in 1790, the year David convinced the Jacobin Club to launch a national subscription to fund a painting to depict the event. He exhibited a pen and brown ink drawing of his planned painting in the Louvre in 1791 but did not have enough money to follow it through as the subscription had only had a 10% return. The National Constituent Assembly thus decided to fund the work from the public treasury instead, topped off by selling engravings of the painting. Numerous political events intervened causing the artist to eventually leave the work is disgust. It’s possible the unfinished work is even more evocative of the National Assembly’s struggles than a completed painting would have been.

Upper image: David's unfinished canvas when the money ran out.
Lower Image: A copy based upon David's false start.
Pietà Rondanini, 1552-1564,  Michelangelo
Perhaps the best excuse an artist might have for leaving a work unfinished is death. Michelangelo’s final sculpture the Ron-danini Pieta (left) he began in 1552. He died in 1564, frail, and in ill health at the age of 89. The marble sculpture depicts the moment when Jesus’ body was cut down from the cross, falling into the arms of his mother. The artist began carving a muscular, idealized Christ, much in the high-Renaissance style. At some point during the process, however, he had a change of heart. The curved arm of the old figure remains, but the sculptor has dug deeper into the marble to begin forming a broken, emasculated corpse. It’s possible Michelangelo realized as he progressed that changing his mind as to his vision of the scene was not such a good idea and simply abandoned the work. However the unfinished results may well be the most human and touching depiction of Christ ever done by Michelangelo, even as it re-mains unfinished.

On a less noble note, we find an American painter who left his most important portrait unfinished out of what could only be termed, sheer greed. Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished version of Washington has become one of the most instantly-recognizable portraits in history after its use as the basis for the President’s image on the one-dollar bill. Though Stuart and others painted many portraits of Washington, this particular painting has most endeared itself to the American public. Nineteenth-century critic John Neal even went so far as to say, “Though a better likeness of him were shown to us, we should reject it; for, the only idea that we now have of George Washington, is associated with Stuart’s Washington.”

Gilbert Stuart Self-portrait, 1778
Stuart was born a few hundred miles north of Philadelphia in 1755, in what was then the colony of Rhode Island. The son of a Scottish settler who made snuff in the family basement, a young Gilbert Stuart honed his precocious artistic talents under the guidance of the Scottish painter Cosmo Alexander. In 1775, amid the clamor of the American Revolution, Gilbert relocated (fled?) to Europe to forge a career as a portraitist. He found little success until the highly sought-after American-born painter, Benjamin West, took the younger artist under his wing. Under West’s tutelage, surrounded by the work of the foremost British portraitists, Stuart began to blossom. After leaving London for Dublin in 1787, “Stuart came promptly to dominate the portrait market,” In a letter a friend and fellow artist, Stuart wrote of his upcoming return to his native land: “There I expect to make a fortune by Washington alone. I calculate upon making a plurality of his portraits…I will repay my English and Irish creditors."

Leaving his portrait of Washington unfinished made a great excuse for not delivering it to Martha Washington as promised.
Stuart made his return in 1793. After working for a year in New York, Stuart finally travelled the 80 miles to Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States. Armed with a letter of introduction from a new patron, the Chief Justice John Jay, Stuart left his calling card at Washington’s house in 1794. A year later, the President sat for Stuart for the first time. By all accounts Washington was sullen and cross, annoyed at having to sit for so long. Stuart, who was known for his temper as much as his charm, and who often refused to finish a work if he found the sitter dull or unattractive, brought his best behavior to these sessions. His first painting, known today as the Vaughan Portrait, shows Washington from the waist up: Stuart painted him proud and tall and lit from behind, as if haloed.

The unfinished portrait of Washington
as we know it today, cut down to
obtain a more pleasing composition.
That painting was so successful that, according to artist Rembrandt Peale, Martha Washington “wished a Portrait for herself.” She persuaded her husband to sit again for Stuart “on the express con-dition that when finished it should be hers.” Stuart, however, did not want to part with the picture and left it unfinished so that he could refer to it when producing future commissions. Known as the “Athenaeum” portrait because it went to the Boston Athenaeum after Stuart’s death, this is the painting which served as the basis for the engraving of Washington that appears on the one-dollar bill. Stuart painted some 130 copies of his long delayed portrait of Washington which he sold for $100 each. Martha never did receive her promised painting.

Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi, begun in 1915, still under construction today. 
It might seem hard to believe, but at least one artist began his most famous work never intending it to be finished. Antoni Gaudi was not a painter but a Spanish architect born in 1852. He died in 1926 at the age of 73 leaving behind a large Roman Catholic Church in Barcelona. Sagrada Familia (above, meaning holy family) represents the peak artistic achievement of the Catalan architect and designer. Such was the ambition of GaudÍ’s visionary modernism that his designs are yet to be completed more than 90 years after his death and more than a century after his church was begun. Eighteen spires are planned (of which eight have been completed) representing the 12 apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four evangelists, and Jesus Christ himself. The facades and interiors are replete with carvings and sculpture reflecting the natural world, telling bible stories, and decorating the whole building with intricate, neo-gothic modern art. It's as if Gaudi, fully aware of all the other unfinished works strewn through the history of art, sought to outdo them all. The best estimate as to completion of Gaudi's masterpiece is around 2026...or 2028, sometime thereabouts.


Monday, March 11, 2019

Cinta Vidal

Living Together, Cinta Vidal. She seems to have wadded up life and then tossed it up in the air.
When you travel as much as we do you're advised by travel agents and others who travel a lot to familiarize yourself with the various customs and laws governing the many different countries on your itinerary. The most important of these we tend to take for granted, don't shoplift, try not to kill anyone, and keep your hands to yourself. Then, of course, there are even more stringent laws of nature--days are only 24 hours long, storm clouds mean grab an umbrella, dust storms demand you keep their mouth (and often your eyes) firmly shut, not to mention the ever-present, "What goes up must come down." Likewise, there are laws or rules governing artists having to do with linear perspective, lighting, composition, mixing media, and plagiarism. Yet academic art instructors often advise students to step outside the box, bend the rules, sometimes even break them. Such advise usually comes with yet another stricture, that an artist must first know and understand the rules quite thoroughly before he or she dares contemplate violating them in achieving their goals. Often the most successful artists have been those who learned to skillfully break the rules. Picasso was notorious in this regard, as was Leonardo, Warhol, and a few others.
Outing, Cinta Vidal. Mixing hyper-realism with abstraction.
Not that she's on the same plane as those I just mentioned, but the Spanish painter, Cinta Vidal is one who routinely breaks a number of art rules, often with startling results. Her Living Together (top) and the even more audacious Outing (above) start by breaking the law of gravity, then veer off into various other violations having to do with composition. M.C Escher may have been the first to dare such a departure along with Mark Tansey. Escher made this type of work his trademark while Tansey indulges only occasionally. Cinta Vidal owes a lot to both artists--their influence is unmistakable. Yet her work could easily hang side by side with theirs, serving as simply a point of departure for her in studying interpersonal relationships (or a lack thereof) with her novel juxtapositions.
Co-working, Cinta Vidal. The painting can be seen just below rotated to better display the four different vantage points (images 1-4).
Which view is right-side up? Does it really matter?
Vidal attempts to explore the inner dimensions we each possess, which often do not match the mental structures within us no matter how hard we try to synchronize our emotions with our surroundings. When observed from a traditional perspective, these concepts might logically be better investigated with abstraction, but the artist has remained true to figural painting for the entirety of her career. Her creative ideas try to show us just how hard balancing and fitting everything that shapes our daily lives can be. She delves into areas such as our relationships to our professions, and our ambitions seen next to our dreams. Vidal's Co-working (above images) illustrates the lengths she has gone to in order to depict these relationships.

The many faces of Cinta Vidal.
Raised in the small town of Cardedeu, Cinta Vidal lives and works in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. She studied at Escola Massana in Barcelona until she was 16, when she started working as an apprentice in Taller de Escenografia Castells Planas in St. Agnès de Malanyanes. There she learned from Josep and Jordi Castells to love scenography and the painting theatrical backdrops. Such a background helped both to improve her painting skills while enabling her to work in many different styles. In addition to her continued work in this field, she also earns a living from what she like to do most, drawing and painting, working on freelance projects for advertising, or commissioned works. In the beginning, her own work used to take but a small amount of her time, but more recently that time has gradually increase.

Couple 2, Cinta Vidal
Once her artistic vocabulary was developed, Vidal began creating complex acrylic paintings on wood panels which reflect how our outer realities frequently do not reflect our inner natures. Manipulating everyday objects and spaces placed in impossible forms. Often colossal in size, the work of Cinta Vidal forces the eyes of viewers to go through a long process of navigation through all the visual elements present in her paintings. In her newer series of works, Vidal focuses intently on intimate relationships, populating her suspended clusters of furniture, animals, and household objects with only two or three individuals rather than a larger population. Her Couples series (above and below) places pairs of characters in opposition to each other, exaggerating her previous explorations of human understanding. In these works two male figures sit back-to-back as they type on their own laptops, a woman peers longingly from an armchair as a man stands facing the opposite direction below her chair, and a boy photographer and woman stare at the same scene, but from flipped perspectives. These works show how two people might hold differing ideals, despite occupying the same community or household.

Couple 4 and Couple 3, Cinta Vidal
With her un-gravity constructions, Vidal shows us that we live in one world, but we live in it in very different ways – playing with everyday objects and spaces, placed in impossible ways to express that many times, the inner dimension of each one of us does not match the mental structures of those around us. The architectural spaces and day-to-day objects are part of a metaphor of how difficult it is to fit everything that shapes our daily space: our relationships, work, ambitions, and dreams. She paint realistically (as opposed to working in the abstract) to help the viewer recognize the quotidian space that we all inhabit, assisting them to understand the ordered maze that is this proposal. She intends the viewers to recognize what they are seeing, but to see it in a very different, unstructured, broken way. Vidal's On Chairs (below) illustrates this far better than any words.

On Chairs, Cinta Vidal
Cinta Vidor worked as an illustrator for several years, finding quite enjoyable, the act of switching from the gigantic scale of backdrops to illustrations such as the one below in tribute to a teacher marking his retirement in 2013. Vidal finds it both fascinating and refreshing to feel the difference between painting in a small format, where each stroke is made with a tiny movement of your fingers, and painting backdrops, where each stroke is made with a very large movement of your whole arm. She confesses to having a tendency to paint in a small and tiny format, with a tiny level of detail. However, painting with brushes as big as brooms makes use of the entire body, which is a powerful experience. Huge projects are much more impacting, not only for their size, but for their presence and power, as artists walk and paint over the fabric. That’s something that a plotted picture cannot transmit.

Regardless of scale, Vidal has claimed the defiance of gravity as her own.

You know you've "made it" as an artists when your work shows up as a jigsaw puzzle. Can you imagine putting togeth-er a puzzle in which there's no up nor down? And to make matters worse, the puzzle shape is round.

For those with about nine minutes to spare--

This one is only one minute long--

Snapshot of an Artist: Cinta Vidal from Selina Miles on Vimeo.


Monday, March 4, 2019

1890s Art

Portrait of Felix Feneon, 1890, Paul Signac. Art history's first psychedelic painter?
As I've mentioned a number of times before in undertaking to guide readers as they study the art and artists of the past, dividing up such studies by decade is, at best, an artificial delineation. However, despite its various shortcomings, it seems to be the one method which touches upon the important and interesting without dwelling in excess on traditional people, places, dates, and other items that can make art history a dreadful bore. One might say that each decade becomes like a clothes hanger in the history closet. It seems too that the further we go back the less relevant such material becomes. I suppose that's true of history in general but especially so with a narrow thread like art. Those decades we've experienced ourselves are steeped in nostalgia--they're fun to recall. Those before our time seem only to be steeped in trivia. Yet from the moment I first began to love history in the third grade, it's always been the peculiar events and the trivial pursuits of past generations that I've found most interesting.

Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh
The French Impressionist, Paul Signac with his Portrait of Felix Feneon (top) is a fine example. By the 1890s Impressionism was well established in the world of French art and, indeed, much of the western world. Yet the original impressionists, and especially their students, were dropping the style like week-old bread. They fragmented into a dozen or more directions collectively known as Post-impressionism. One such artists was George Seurat and his Pointillism. Signac was a colleague, student, and follower of Seurat who moved Pointillism to new heights well into the 20th-Century. We can all recall psychedelic art. Look at Signac's work. Was he the "inventor" of psychedelia, or what? Some might contend that Signac should share such an "honor" with the far more well-known, Vincent van Gogh as seen in his famous Starry Night (above) from June of 1889 (almost the 1890s). Was van Gogh on drugs? Well, actually he was (in combating a number of mental problems), but that's another story. The colors are somewhat less vivid than those of Signac or what we think of as psychedelia of the 1960s, but van Gogh's emotional fire and brimstone is as powerful as it gets.
Nature Morte Aux Livres, 1890, Henri Matisse
William Morris wallpaper, 1896
Speaking of vivid colors, another artist of the 1890s comes to mind in the work of Henri Matisse and the Fauvists. However, as seen in the artist's Nature Morte Aux Livres (above), from 1890, Matisse seems mired in academic grays, blacks, and earth tones. Nowhere is there to be found the wallpaper flat, bright, freely distorted im-ages of his later years. Several artists of the 20th-Century, like Matisse, found their "foot-ings" during that century's previous decade. Speaking of wallpaper, the name William Morris stands apart from similar artists whose reputations are indelibly linked to wallpaper design. However, there is a ten-dency to over-estimate the influence he had in this field, at least in his own lifetime. In fact, despite his much repeated belief in "art for all", his wallpapers, like most of the pro-ducts of Morris and Co., were hand-made and expensive (below). Consequently they had a relatively limited acceptance. His papers were slow to find a market beyond fellow artists, and were positively hated by some influential figures, such as Oscar Wilde. How-ever, Morris has had a long-lived effect on wallpaper design and consumption, creating designs which have enjoyed lasting appeal. This relatively inexpensive art form came to life with the development of steam-powered printing presses early in the 19th-Century, but hit its stride as a number of technical improvements in printing came along. These two factors allowed manufacturers to mass-produce wallpaper (and Morris' 1890s designs), thus re-ducing its price and so making it affordable to working-class people. Thus "art for the masses" was an important development derived from the 1890s.

Mother Feeding Child, 1898, Mary Cassatt
Dancers, Pink and Green, 1890,  Edgar Degas
Despite the fact that many of today's most well-known artists were moving beyond Impressionism by the 1890s, the style was, nonetheless, in its prime during this final decade of the 19th-Century. Edgar Degas (left) and his female protégé, Mary Cassatt (above), were still exploring and producing along with the stalwart revolutionary, Paul Cezanne (below). Both Degas and Cassatt often dis-pensed with traditional impressionist oils in favor of the much more con-venient and perhaps more expressive medium of dry pastels. Cezanne, for his part, while espousing Impres-sionism, had deserted many of its tenets, or at least given the style new definition as he sought to reassert the dominance of masses over the tra-ditional delicacies of painterly tech-nique and color.
Still Life with Peppermint Bottle, 1890-94, Paul Cézanne
On the western shores of the Atlantic, Impressionism had not yet made much of an impression. The American frontier artists of the 1890s were reveling in a newfound beauty of the "wild" west while Frederick Remington (below) was making a reputation for himself with his depictions of the more brutal realities of America's vast interior. Remington was celebrating not the beauty of the western landscape but the hearty bravado of the men and women who "won" the West. Both he and his eastern colleagues were glamorizing. Most of the West was not nearly so stunning as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Ayres, or Willis E. Davis depicted while few American "cowboys," as painted by Remington, were as brave, skilled, or adventurous as he suggests. For the most part, their art of this era was one of subtle (though sometimes not so subtle) exaggerated idealism.
Bear Hunting, His Last Stand, 1890 Frederic Remington
For better or worse, whether in America or Europe, the 1890s is often summed up as the Victorian Era, so named for England's long-time reigning monarch. I suppose that's better than referring to this decade as the "gay" nineties, though the Victorian Era actually encompassed most of the latter half of the 19th-century. To our eyes today, the art of this lengthy period seems fussy, puritanical, and retrograde (as with the Pre-Raphaelites). It might surprise many of us today to find that the artists of this period, though having to live amid the stylized ornamentation of the era, actually had much the same negative opinion of the over decorated cultural milieu which they were struggling to reject.

A decade with a look all its own, never to be seen again (thank God).
Regardless of the region or socio-economic level, Victorian niceties extended into every nook and cranny of the 1890s. Industrial wealth and mass production had fostered a degree of nearly infinite ornamentation upon virtually everything made by man (or women in the case of female finery). Whether the art was that of fashion design, architecture, advertising, illustration, painting, sculpture, or domestic items, far from the later mantra of Modernism, More is less," the operant ideal of the 1890s was "More is not enough."

If the 1890s were gay, few people talked about it. "Blissful" might be a better word.
Many art historians point to the birth of Impressionism as the opening overture of Modern Art. Certainly many of the first "strains," both stylistic and philosophical were being heard, seen, and felt during the 1890s and before. Yet one look at the "fashionable" work of artists and designers of this period serves to underline the fact the Modern Art was still in its infancy, awaiting the fresh start of a new century to stretch its limbs. The word "new" was to become the most powerful word in the vernacular parlance taking shape as the decade drew to a close. On the horizon were new means of transportation, communication, visualization, and most of all idealization. I'm not sure when or where the first reference to the "good ole days" arose, but there can be little doubt that the associated images the phrase evokes are those of the 1890s.

Items from the 1890s are often the star attractions of antique shops and similar TV shows.
Modern Art as seen in a typical 1890s gallery setting.

    Van Gogh's view of the 1890s.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Dinosaur Art

Dinosaurs--art and paleontology meet and mingle in this montage by Nadi Spencer.
Growing up way back in the 1980s, our son was quite fascinated by dinosaurs. Like hundreds of thousands of other kids, now and then, he enjoyed the pastime of playing with his collection of as many as two dozen plastic toy dinosaur replicas of various sizes and degrees of scientific accuracy. He outgrew them, of course and in his case moved up to live ones, I can recall more than one snake, chameleons, even a not-altogether-friendly iguana. They have, of course, all gone to that great snake pit down below, but the toy ones remained. I used to cart the whole lot into my elementary art classes for the kids to draw. There were enough of them they each could choose a different one to star in their imaginary prehistoric jungles. More recently my nephew, who's five years old, claimed the whole lot of them as if he'd discovered buried treasure.
Tyrannosaurus Rex, sometimes known as "Sexy Rexy."

Over the past couple centuries, artist too have embraced this paleontological subject with similar fervor. Artist at all levels from scientific illustration, illustrations in children's books, even cartoonists, have lingered with their childhood intrigue. One of my favorite comic strips in growing up was the caveman Alley Oop (left), who rode to and from his various misadventures on the back of his pet dinosaur, a Ceratosaurus named Dinny. First created by the cartoonist, V.T. Hamlin in 1930, Alley Oop is still riding high today in the hands of writer Joey Alison Sayers and artist Jonathan Lemon as of January 2019.
Prehistoric time traveler.

Nolan's Wilbur is disturbed in the night by a baby Apatosaurus' approach outside his window, shortly after he has put away his favorite dinosaur book and settled down to sleep (upper image). The lower images depict the red pajama-clad boy and his reptilian friend in a series of hair-raising adventures all of which may or may not be a dream.
Dinosaur art presents two theoretical problems. First, the natural tendency for artists is to paint and draw images they and others can relate to easily. A cartoon strip or children's storybook is far more captivating when human figures, be they the likes of Alley Oop or writer and illustrator Dennis Nolan's ten-year-old Wilbur in his juvenile literature classic, Dinosaur Dreams (above). Yet conventional scientific thinking places human development several million years after the Jurassic period when dinosaurs were out and about. However, some archaeologists and paleontologists claim to have found evidence in prehistoric carvings (below) and paintings of human hunters pursuing dinosaurs among their other prey.
During the late 1800s, Samuel Hubbard, Curator of Archaeology of the Oakland Museum, visited an area of the Grand Canyon known as the Havasupai Canyon. As an evolutionist, he was amazed to find a petroglyph (carved rock drawing) of an elephant next to a much deeper carving of a creature he took to be a dinosaur.
Behemoth and Leviathan,
a 19th century watercolor,
by William Blake.
Moreover, the Bible in the final chapter of Job (40:15-24) as depicted by the 19th-century British artist, William Blake (right), mentions the behemoth or leviathan, which many con-servative theologians contend is a scriptural reference to dinosaurs, though many others conjecture that the creature may well be an elephant, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, buffalo, or giant crocodile instead. Still others believe that this powerful creature is to be seen figuratively as the Devil or a composite of mythical creatures with enormous strength, which humans, like Job, could not hope to control. More recently, the World News Daily (a Zionist newspaper published in Israel) reports that a 67-year old shepherd in Kuwait, looking for one of his animals, stumbled upon what could be one of the most astonishing discoveries of modern archeology. The man noticed a barely visible entrance to a group of caves covered with prehistoric art depicting many humans and animals, but also depic-ting a few live dinosaurs, bringing many questions concerning the chronology of the extinction of these gigantic creatures (below).
Archaeological evidence or simply evidence of a vivid imagination?
The second "problem" is also theoretical, but one with which only art historians and museum curators might be concerned: is it a dinosaur or a dragon. There are few instances of dinosaur art much before the early 1900s, but hundreds, perhaps thousands, of works in which early (mostly Medieval) artists depicted dragons in combat with any number of historic and fictional figures. There is no firm rule governing this tempest in a teapot, but in general, if you can name the reptilian creature, it's probably a dinosaur. If it breathes fire, it's probably a dragon. If it's a work Japanese artist kazuhiko Sano, (below) it's definitely a dinosaur.

Evolutionists have their dinosaur artists too as seen in this painting by Kazuhiko Sano.
T-Rex by Isabelle Dillard
Regardless of the medium, watercolor (left), a child's collage (below), or a children's wall mural (bottom) that only a dinosaur lover could love, and though originating in the distant prehistoric past, dinosaurs are very much a part of the present. I should also note that it's artists, not paleontologists, that keep them before our eyes.

Paper plate dinosaurs
How would you like to wake up to this every morning,
if indeed, you managed to go to sleep the night before?


Monday, February 18, 2019

Snow Globes

Though long associated with Christmas, the snow globe is really as much or more an emblem of winter.
It's mid-February and so far, we've had a relatively mild winter--cold, but no blizzards or major accumulations of snow--while some areas have had more than their fill of the white stuff already. We do get a quickly-melting inch or so from time to time, what my wife calls "decorative" snowfalls, but seldom anything worth shoveling. (Hurray for global warming!) Regardless of the depth, snow makes an otherwise brown, gray, dreary landscape into an exquisitely beautiful winter wonderland. About a 130 years ago a company in Paris came out with a much smaller, more manageable "decorative snowfall" in the form of a glass orb filled with water and tiny white flakes featuring a miniature figure of a man holding an umbrella (in a snowstorm?). They promoted and sold them at the Paris World Exhibition in 1887.

A self-portrait by the inventor?
Probably not.
Be that as it may, the real "inventor" of the snow globe was an Austrian man named Erwin Perzy, though he apparently did so accidentally. In 1900, while living outside Vienna, where he ran a medical instrument supply business, Perzy was asked by a local surgeon to improve upon Thomas Edison’s then-new lightbulb, which the surgeon want-ed made brighter for his operating room. Drawing upon a method used by shoe-makers to make quasi-“spotlights,” Perzy placed a water-filled glass globe in front of a candle, which increased the light’s magni-fication. Then he sprinkled tiny bits of re-flective glitter into the globe to help brighten it. But the glitter sank too quickly, so Perzy tried semolina flakes (commonly found in baby food) instead. They didn’t quite work, either, but the appearance of the small, white particles drifting around the globe reminded Perzy of snowfall. Wasting no time, he quickly filed the first official patent for a snow globe, or Schneekugel (in German). By 1905, he was churning out handmade snow globes by the dozens. Often they featured small church figurines made from pewter—through his company, Firm Perzy. They became so popular among well-to-do Austrians that in 1908, Perzy was officially honored for his treasured item by Emperor Franz Joseph I.
Typical of the content, style, and decoration of late-19th-Century snow globes. Notice, it makes no reference whatsoever to either Christmas or winter.
The snow globe appeared at a time when upper-middle-class families, newly wealthy from the Industrial Revolution, began collecting intricate, artistic objects and displaying them in their homes. Though it’s unclear exactly how much these early globes cost, they were expensive due to the amount of time necessary to paint, mold, and assemble them. After World War I concluded in 1918, a boost in tourism led to greater demand for eye-catching souvenirs—especially snow globes. Gradually, news of the whimsical trinket reached America. In 1927, a Pittsburgh man named Joseph Garaja applied for the first snow globe patent in the U.S. and with it, he introduced a radical new means of production: underwater assembly. This ensured that each globe would be fully filled with liquid and saved a significant amount of time and money—transforming the snow globe from an expensive indulgence into the affordable commodity we know today. Within a few years, snow globes were being sold for as little as $1 (around $19 today).
Orson Wells/Citizen Kane's fragile, if somewhat melodramatic, snow globe.
Hollywood discovered the snow globe around 1940. The 1940 Oscar-nominated drama Kitty Foyle, used one as a plot device to trigger flashback scenes. And in 1941, the Orson Welles epic film, Citizen Kane, also featured a snow globe, (made by none other than Erwin Perzy) in its now-legendary opening sequence, wherein Charles Kane dies while holding a glass sphere containing a wintery miniature log cabin, which falls and shatters on the ground. Sales of snow globes increased 200-percent. By the 1950s, snow globes had become an American phenomenon employed for advertising, having been used to promote civilian morale during World War II featuring tiny soldiers. The introduction of plastics and injection-molding further improved the snow globe with pricey particles used for the “snow” replaced with cheap plastic “flitter.” Adding glycol to the water helped it fall more slowly. Snow globes could be found in gift shops across the country, becoming a highly sought-after souvenir during the post-war tourism boom. Walt Disney’s earliest-known snow globe, with its miniature Bambi, dates to 1959.
When arranged in a grouping, the impact of artisan snow globes is often greater than the sum of its parts.
As collectors' items or art objects, snow globes have since became so common they've earned the designation as "kitsch," a term reserved for art that has become too successful. Quite frankly, the label is often well-deserved. However, the key factor is not the globe itself, or even the "snow," but the tired, trite content commonly depicted. Notwithstanding Citizen Kane, when you've seen one stylized church, one Alpine village, or grove of woodland firs, you've pretty much seen them all. Yet, as illustrated in the snow globes above and below, there is room for a considerable range of uniquely original content if an artist takes the time to seek it out. (As seen in the video at the bottom.)
Snow globes evoke memories of childhood before snow became a shoveling nuisance.

The polar bear in a snowstorm.
Trite? Or cleverly humorous.
In recent years, artists have employed words within the snow globe as a medium to proclaim a message, or perhaps illustrate periods of art history as seen below. As an art instructor, I used to refer to a blank sheet of drawing paper as a "polar bear in a snowstorm" (right). Despite their century-long period of development, snow globes are not hard to make. In fact, they are ideal as DIY projects for both adults and children (under close supervision by adults, of course). 
The snow globe as a message medium--funny, educational, sometimes even obscene.
Amazon offers an empty snow globe kit priced at $32 (with free shipping). The kit includes easy to assemble instructions, floating bits of "snow," a dark cherry wood base, and a six-inch clear glass globe. Just add water and stir. For the more economy minded, materials needed are a glass or plastic jar (with screw-on lid), waterproof glue, plastic figures, trees, or other decorations, distilled water, glycerin, white glitter (available at craft stores) and an optional ribbon with an optional bow to cover up the base (lid). Be sure to remove the label from the jar.

The form is not important, it's what's inside that counts.