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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Crowd Art

Artist/photographer Spencer Tunick creates using nude crowds.                              
Marilyn Monroe, Craig Alan--people as pixels
Over the past several months (years?) I've written about the knack artists have in utilizing just about anything they see and touch as material for making art; everything from fruit to frost, cakes to flakes. In recent years some vary daring and creative artists have started using people as an art medium. For lack of a better term, I'm calling it "crowd art." Now, having said that, let me point out I'm not including simply photos of massed humanity. Virtually anyone with a camera and tickets to a rock concert can take such pictures, and, in the very broadest photographic sense, call it art. That's too easy. That's little more than taking attendance at a public event. Nor am I talking about the digital photographer who manipulates a crowd image (more than a little, at least) to create art; though that does involve a good deal more creative input than some guy at the top of a Ferris wheel shooting all the "little people" below. No, I'm interested in the artist who can arrange for a crowd, then rearrange that crowd, molding it, directing it, shaping it, moving it, and using it to create an image (abstract or representational) to make a statement in the larger context of art or social interaction. I'm talking about an artist such as Spencer Tunick (above) and all his naked little people. Craig Alan (above, right) does largely the same thing but in a portrait mode using large groups of people like pixels on a computer screen (presumably with their clothes on). It matters not how the artist chooses to preserve his or her efforts, whether using a camera, or in painting on canvas. That's how I'm defining "crowd art."

Le Sabine, 1799, Jacques-Louis David, who apparently favored nude crowds too.
Crowd art in the traditional mode of painting is really not all that new. Many of the earliest examples involved battle scenes such as Jacques-Louis David's Le Sabine (above) from 1799, or still earlier frescoes on the order of Michelangelo's mostly nude Last Judgment. In fact, medieval painters often used massed humanity in depicting Biblical events hundreds of years before that. The French painter, Thomas Couture, with his Romans during the Decadence, (below) from 1847, must have had a ton of fun depicting sin, far more than the Italian Baroque artist, Giovanni Lanfranco in painting his The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes around 1620-25 (just below Couture's painting). Very often depictions of Christ teaching have involved several dozen figures. All these efforts are impressive from a strictly artistic point of view, but none of the artists mentioned rendered their crowds from live models. Painting crowds hardly lends itself to that approach.

Romans during the Decadence, 1847, Thomas Couture

Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes ca. 1620-25, Giovanni Lanfranco
Crowd painting taken literally.
With the coming of non-representation art during the early 20th-century, artists began creating crowds in their heads, massing human figures as shapes, rather than as a living entities to create their art. An unknown British artist, apparently a soccer fan, exemplifies this approach with his abstract, yet semi-representational image below. Such massed humanity engaging in a single activity also extends to photography, in the scene at right in which the crowd is, quite literally, painted as well as photographed.

Supporting Manchester. I wonder if that's a self-portrait in the upper left corner.
Looks like a rough crowd. Actors and women were barred from attending coliseum events. It would appear that a few women sneaked in anyway, perhaps dressed as men
Modern day artists have sometimes turned to depicting ancient crowds as seen in the depiction above of Roman gladiator fans enjoying a fun day cheering and booing their favorite athletes in entertainment events often not too far removed from our present day wrestling. It looks like they could have used a hotdog concession. The artist is un-named. Perhaps one of the most daring and complex examples of crowd art comes from Latvian conceptual photographer, Misha Gordin, who has made a career of photographing multiple painted human figures, massed in such a way as to largely negate the fact that his medium of expression is, in fact, human. His black and white photo images such as Texts for Evading Nomads VIII: Museum 2 (below) caught my eye for its incredible sense of design quite apart from the human shapes involved. In fact, the heads seem quite secondary to the designs painted upon them, all but eliminating the human element for the first few seconds when the work is seen.

Texts for Evading Nomads VIII: Museum 2, Misha Gordin
And finally, I'd be remiss in not mentioning the greatest of all crowd artists working today, the British illustrator, Martin Handford. If that name doesn't exactly ring any bells, perhaps you might be more likely to recognize his alter-ego, a slender, bespectacled guy wearing blue trousers, and a red and white, horizontally-striped, shirt. One of his names is "Waldo." Waldo's main claim to fame, other than entertaining thousands of children (and a similar number of adults, no doubt), is that he keeps getting lost in crowds. Handford and Waldo (in the U.S. and Canada), Wally and several other similar names in a total of 26 other countries, have turned a bad sense of direction into an art form. First introduced in 1987, and becoming a pop-culture icon during the 1990s, Waldo (aka. Wally, Wizard Whitebeard, Wilma, Wenda, Woof, Odlaw, and several other aliases) today not only has his series of books, but his own line of dolls, toys, comics, magazines, and a Where's Waldo? TV series. Can you find Waldo in the crowd below?
Where's Waldo, (Wally Wilma, Wenda, Woof, Odlaw, et. al.), Martin Handford
I should note that I'm not totally without experience and a small degree of expertise when it comes to painting crowds. Some thirty years ago, I attempted a crowd scene which I later called Escape (below). It grew from a heavily altered and adjusted photo and was originally intended to have a square format. Half-way through painting it, I said, to hell with this, and chopped it in half, re-stretching the canvas into the horizontal depiction of beachgoers, having taken the better part of two years to complete. Crowd art is hard, boring, work.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Escape, 1984-85, Jim Lane


Friday, October 24, 2014

Ilya Repin

The Barge Haulers of the Volga, 1870-73, Ilya Repin
Ilya Repin Self-portrait, 1873
When it comes to painting, there seems to be a "hole" in American art appreciation--Russian art. I suppose a lot of the blame for this can be laid at the doorstep of the Cold War and before that, the Soviet Union and some seventy-years of Communist domination (work dismissed as commie art). There's also the problem with the god-awful spelling and pronunciation of Russian names, which often baffle and trouble even me. Whatever the cause, it's time we come to the realization that the distinctive qualities and history of Russian art, painting in particular, go back far beyond our own, and in fact, rest on a par certainly with those of France, England, and the Baltic countries. Only Italy and the artists of the northern renaissance (who basically taught the modern world how to paint) could be said to have a longer, broader painting tradition. Over the past few years, I've highlighted some of these Russian painters, yet somehow managed to miss one of the greatest of the 19th and early 20th-centuries--Ilya Repin. If you've never heard of him, that only serves to prove my point. Russian artists are underappreciated.

Ivan the terrible and his Son, 1870-73, Ilya Repin
Agony in the Garden, ca. 1860,
Ilya Repin
Ilya Repin was born in Chuguyev, now the eastern Ukraine. Yes, that's where the fighting is at the moment, (2014). The year was 1844, and the area has seen a good deal of fighting both before and after that time. Ilya's father was a private in the tsar's army, so naturally his son's education began in military school. At the age of twelve, boy became an apprentice to a local icon painter. His Agony in the Garden (right) from around 1860 dates from his earliest art studies. Later, around 1864, Repin enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Art where he graduated in 1869. Though he was quite adept at portraiture, Repin's real goal was to become a history painter. One of his first efforts along this line, Ivan the terrible and his Son (above) dates from this period. Another, The Barge Haulers of the Volga (top), which first won him national recognition, likewise dates from the years 1870-74. You'll notice these lengthy time spans often in studying Repin's work. He was a very meticulous painter, producing hundreds of preliminary drawings and painted sketches, frequently spending years working intermittently on a single painting. He was known to go back years later and correct faults he found or, sometimes simply starting over, painting a second version. There are two versions of The Barge Haulers, the second painted some forty years later in the spirit of the Russian Revolution.

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, 1887,
Ilya Repin
Portrait of Modest Mussorgsky
1881, Ilya Repin
Tsar Nicholas II, 1896, Ilya Repin.
Ilya Repin died in 1930. He was eighty-six, which means his career, from his earliest efforts in the 1860s spanned around seventy years. Moreover, these years saw drastic upheavals and revolutionary changes both in Russian society and governmental politics, not to mention art itself. During the 1870s and 80s, Repin's reputation continued to grow to world-wide proportions, becoming the most famous painter in Russia during the 19th century on a par with Tolstoy in literature, and Mussorgsky in music (both of whom he painted) as well as Tchaikovsky (whom he didn't). His 1881 Mussorgsky portrait (above, left) is probably his most famous and recognizable work, the only one I'd ever noticed before. I found his regal, 1896 portrait of Tsar Nicholas II (right), posed in the throne room of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (now part of the Hermitage Museum) to be quite familiar looking. I've been there. I'm not positive, but Repin's 1894 Wedding of Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna (below), from what I recall of the place, appears to have occurred in the same grandiose setting.

Wedding of Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna, 1894, Ilya Repin
Crown of Thorns, Ilya Repin
Christ, 1884, Ilya Repin
Not all of Repin's paintings were so lavishly elegant. In fact, most weren't. As a history painter, Repin was especially revered for his handling of peasants, soldiers, and religious scenes from the life of Christ. Two of his portraits of Christ I've found particularly intense, his 1884 Christ (above, left) and his Crown of Thorns (above, right), go well beyond similar efforts by so many artist of all nationalities painting both before and after the Russian master. Repin's other religious works include a Last Supper and the Christ Raises the Daughter of Jarius. There were others as well, but his most powerful religious works came not from the Bible but from more recent history, such as his St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia (below), from 1889 depicts the 4th-century saint interceding to prevent the execution of three innocent men condemned by the local governor.

St. Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, 1889, Ilya Repin
Unlike any number of other artists who deserted Russia with the onslaught of national adversity, Ilya Repin changed with the times. Despite having long been a favorite of the Russian Imperial Court, Repin fully embraced the 1917 Russian Revolution. His Manifestation, 17 October, 1905 (below) depicts an important political demonstration in the years leading up to the uprising. In return, the Bolsheviks embraced Repin, his work becoming a major part of the Tretyakov Museum, whose founder, Pavel Tretyakov was an early patron of the Repin's work. After he death, Repin's home, The Penates, became a museum devoted to his work. Repin's style, however, changed little over the course of his lifetime. Only some of his religious works at times veered of toward the popular Impressionist movement, or later, Expressionism and, indeed, the trends toward abstraction which followed. Probably the most difficult aspect of writing about Repin is the fact that there is so much of his work to see and so little space here in which to see it.

Manifestation, 17 October, 1905, 1906-11, Ilya Repin.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Georges Croegaert

The Model, Georges Croegaert
Georges Croegaert, ca. 1885
In writing about art for as many years as I have, I sometimes delude myself into thinking "I've seen everything now." I haven't, of course, and every once in a while, that fact is brought home to me when I come upon a painting such as Georges Croegaert's The Model (above). Whoa, a Cardinal and a naked woman? The alternate title is The Cardinal Approves the Painter's Model. Well...that removes, perhaps, some possibilities, but in no way makes the painting any less shocking. It only raises the question as to why the Cardinal might be approving the painter's model. In other paintings by the same artist, we see the Cardinal himself at his easel painting (below, left), though the model is nowhere in sight, then in a third vignette (below, right), the cardinal is studying quite raptly the results of his work. The three paintings, taken together suggest that the Cardinal is either a very broad-minded former artist turned prelate, or that the aging codger is something of a "dirty old man."
Friday, Charles Edouard Delort
Training the Parrot, Marcel Brunery
The Diet, Andrea Landini
In pursuing Croegaert's work, I found that he was one of at least four painters from the second half of the 19th-century who did similar works, basically within the theme of "Cardinals are people too." The other label for such work is "anti-clerical painting." Other such artists so inclined to paint "red hats" included Andrea Landini (above, left), Jehan Georges Vibert (below), Charles Edouard Delort (above), and Marcel Brunery (above, right). Landini was Italian, Croegaert was Belgian, the rest were French. Except for Brunery, all were born within ten years of one another (1840s). Brunery was born in 1893. While they each had their strengths, to my eyes, Croegaert was the best of the lot. Most such works are more in the mildly humorous vein, no where near as shocking as Croegaert's duo. Nonetheless, such paintings were a velvet gloved attack upon the Catholic Church and the very human men who governed it as they invariably enjoyed the lap of luxury at their parishioner's expense.

A Fine Point, Jehan Georges Vibert
The Cardinal Studying his painting,
Georges Croegaert.
The Artist at Work,
Georges Croegaert
Georges Croegaert was born in 1848 in Antwerp where he later studied at the city's highly acclaimed art academy. Early in his career he painted still-lifes before moving on to portraits of ravishing young beauties lazing about in lavishly appointed interiors or grassy parks. While an ambitious young artist like Croegaert might get away with making a career of such art in Antwerp, when he moved to Paris in 1876, he joined literally thousands of excellent, academically-trained French artists doing work not unlike his own. Rather than compete in this overcrowded field, Croegaert, perhaps almost by accident, began painting clerics. One good portrait led to another, priests led to bishops, arch bishops, monsignors, and eventually Cardinals. France was (and is) a heavily Catholic country and at the time, had a heavily overblown priestly hierarchy, enjoying wealth and privilege which escalated considerably as one climbed the clerical ladder. They could well afford the services of a highly-paid portrait artist.

The Bird Feather,
Georges Croegaert
The Philatelist,
Georges Croegaert
However, as Croegaert painted more and more princes of the church, he also got a glimpse inside the cloistered world they inhabited. There were few monks in coarse, woolen habits or horse hair shirts. By the latter part of the 19th-century, these men of God lived in palaces, enjoyed the best food and drink there was available. They spent far more time pursuing hobbies, entertainment, and a rich, highly formal social life than preparing homilies, overseeing needs of parishioners, or caring for the poor and disabled. From all this, these few artists began a subtle form of religious protest. Rather than engaging in biblical study, prelates were portrayed indulging their passion for philately or participating in gambling, gluttony, smoking and drinking, not to mention the occasional fishing trip.

The Ball of String,
Georges Croegaert
The Parrot,
Georges Croegaert
A Quiet Smoke, Georges Croegaert
In effect, clerical portrait painters such as Croegaert were biting the hand that fed them. Therefore, this type of art, initially anyway, was a subtle, under the counter, though quite popular, sideline. Keep in mind, such paintings were seldom more than one or two square feet in size, yet extremely and exquisitely adorned with luxurious detail adding further contrast to the vow of poverty under which these Cardinals presumably lived. Not all were overtly hostile to the church or it's cardinal red Cardinals. Some we could only call charming, humorous, and humanizing in their loving warmth. Others, however, depicted these vaunted leaders as subject to the same human temptations, succumbing to the same sins as anyone else. Croegaert died in 1923. Whether any of his "protest paintings" had a lasting impact as they exposed the opulent lifestyles of the French clergy would be hard to say, and certainly an area well beyond my knowledge of church history.

The Winning Hand, Georges Croegaert


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tamara de Lempicka

An overview of Tamara de Lempicka. Her self-portrait is top-center.
Her daughter, Kizette is depicted in the upper right corner.
Kizette, ca. 1920, Tamara de
  Lempicka, the first of many.
In all of human relations, there is hardly a more touching and unique bond than that between a mother and her daughter. The nature of that bond varies in a million ways depending upon a million different factors, personalities, and circumstances. Yet it is a relationship not often explored on canvas. There is, of course, a very good reason for that. Most artists are not mothers. Moreover, those who are, don't always have daughters. Male artists have, from time to time tried to express the love and companionship of mothers and daughters, but having never been either one, their efforts are observational at best. Mary Cassatt explored this relationship as did Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun. As the number of women artists has increased in the past hundred years, so too have their expression of this special bond between two female generations. Among these more recent mother-daughter endeavors has been the work of Tamara de Lempicka.

Portrait of Kizette (detail), 1927, Tamara de Lempicka

Kizette on the Balcony, 1926,
Tamara de Lempicka
Kizette in Rose, 1927,
Tamara de Lempicka
Tadeusz Lempicki, 1928,
Tamara de Lempicka
Despite her exceptional adeptness with a brush and insights into what a mother and daughter feel for each other, Tamara de Lempicka is not likely to ever grace a Mothers' Day card. In fact it would be easy to argue that she was the type of woman who should never have become a mother in the first place. She was very much a "liberated" woman in the days when liberated women were not at all common, much less having managed to work out the conflicting pressures of motherhood and a career. All this is to say she was not a good mother to her young daughter, Kizette, born in 1917. Tamara was married at the time to Tadeusz Lempicki, ten years her elder, whom she met in St. Petersburg as a girl of fifteen. Maria Górska (her birth name) was born the daughter of a wealthy Jewish lawyer and a Polish socialite. They divorced when she was a child. leaving their daughter to be raised by her grandmother. It was she who first exposed Tamara to the great masters and stirred her interest in art.

Tamara de Lempicka could hardly have picked a worse husband. Tadeusz Lempicki could best be called a "playboy" by today's standards, a well-known ladies' man, and gadabout, who was officially a lawyer, but in fact was more interested in his young wife's significant dowry. Shortly before their daughter was born, the Russian Revolution boiled over in St. Petersburg where Tadeusz Lempicki was arrested by the Bolsheviks in the middle of the night and hauled off to prison. It would probably have been just as well if Tamara had allowed him to rot in prison, but instead she drew upon family connections and eventually managed to find him and get him freed. Reunited, they quickly departed for Copenhagen and later Paris.

La Bella Rafaela di Tamara de Lempicka.
The Mother Superior, 1939,
Tamara de Lempicka
Kizette was born in Paris (some sources say St. Petersburg) as the family struggled financially, living on the sale of the family jewels. The best part about their living in Paris during the 1920s was the avant-garde artists also living their. The vivacious, highly-attractive Tamara Lempicka knew virtually all of them from Picasso to Maurice Denis and Jean Cocteau. She and her sister, Adrienne Górska were "into" Art Deco. Tamara's sister designed tubular, chrome-plated furniture in that style. Tamara began to study art at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, which soon led to portrait commission in a style reflecting Art Deco only cooler and more sensual. Though her portraits often brought up to 50,000 francs (about $2,000) her style was not without critics, who termed it 'perverse Ingrism' (pronounced ang-ism). That means it resembled too closely the work of the out-of-favor academician, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres. It was during this time, as Kizette was growing up to be a very pretty little girl that Tamara was growing to be a very remote and highly preoccupied artist. The nature of her series of portraits dating from around 1920 through to about 1934 (below) center upon her motives. Were her painted portraits the one and only way she could express a mother's love for her lovely daughter, or was she simply callously using her daughter as an artist's model?

The Communicant,
Tamara de Lempicka
Kizette, the Polish Shaw,
Tamara de Lempicka
Tamara and Kizette,
Paris, ca. 1923
The evidence swings both ways. Many of Lempicka's closest friends didn't even know she had a daughter despite the many paintings she was producing using Kizette as a model. Her portrait of her daughter titled The Communicant (above, left), is an example of this deception. In other cases Kizette's name is mention in the title but with no indication of their mother-daughter relationship. Kizette wasn't the only one Tamara Lempicka neglected. Her husband deserted her in 1927. They divorced in 1931. She became involved in a number of bisexual trysts in Paris and elsewhere as she travel about Europe and the United states attending exhibitions of her work. An exhibition in New York, for instance, was an immense success, but the artist lost all the sales proceeds from the show when the bank she used to transfer the money back to Europe went bankrupt with the stock market crash of 1929.

Kizette Sleeping, 1934, Tamara de Lempicka

Portrait of a Man,
Baron Kuffner,1932,
Tamara de Lempicka
About the same time, Baron Raoul Kuffner von Diószeg visited her studio and commissioned a portrait of his mistress. She completed the portrait, then seduced the Baron, replacing the subject of the portrait as his mistress, eventually marrying him after the death of his wife in 1934. Seeing WW II on the horizon long before most of her friends, she and the Baron took an "extended vacation" to the United States to be near Kizette, who had by then married a Texas geologist. Now a baroness, she ended up in Hollywood during the 1930s, residing in the Beverly Hills mansion which had once belonged to the movie director King Vidor. There she painted the likes and likenesses of stars such as Tyrone Power, Walter Pidgeon, and George Sanders. Though Lempicka never painted her, the baroness took on the style and mannerisms of Greta Garbo.

Kizette as an Adult, 1954, her
mother's final portrait of her.
The special relationship between Tamara and Kizette, despite the strains imposed upon it during Kizette's neglected childhood, matured as the years passed, taking on a new dimension. Tamara de Lempicka didn't changed. In fact, she grew ever more difficult to endure as she grew older. Kizette became her mother's agent, managing her fiancés, while indulging her frivolous whims, and complaints, everything from the poor quality of American paints to the poor quality of Americans. She longed for the glory days on royal refinement before such pretensions went out of style in Europe (they never were in style here). In 1978, Tamara de Lempicka moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where there was an aging, dying colony of royal refugees. There in 1980, she herself died at the age of eighty-two. Although the critical popularity and appreciation of her work faded during the latter years of the artist's life, just before her death, as so often happens, the arty crowd once more took an interest in her work. Barbra Streisand paid about $2-million for Lempicka's 1931 Adam and Eve (below). Books were written, stage plays evolved, and a movie was made based upon her colorful life. Kizette Lempicka Foxhall (above, right) died April 16, 2001, at the age of eighty-two.
Adam and Eve, 1931, Tamara Lempicka.