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Monday, June 17, 2019

Lizzie Fitch & Ryan Trecartin

Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch pose at the opening of their movie/art exhibit, Whether Line at Fondazione Prada, (Milan, Italy) 2019.
Almost fifty years ago, I earned my B.A from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. About forty-five years ago, O.U. bestowed upon me a M.A. in Art Curriculum and Instruction. Athens, Ohio, is a strange little community, thought probably not as compared to other university towns. The estimated population is about 25,000, not including another 29,525 students (as of 2018). Perhaps most peculiar is that politically, it's a bastian of progressive liberalism deep in the heart of Trump country. It's an attractive little bastian straddling the Hocking River, nestled in the hills created by the moraine from the last ice age. For the most part, the people are friendly, sometimes to a fault (i.e. nosey). All this and probably more would likely account for the migration of the rising conceptual artist, Lizzie Fitch and her longtime partner, Ryan Trecartin (above) from the megalopolis of LA. to the quiet little "burg" sometimes referred to as "Harvard on the Hocking."
Overview of the (as of yet unnamed) amusement park still under construction roughly five miles east of Athens, Ohio.
A 55-foot watchtower along one
of the park's woodland hiking trails
Athens is also a rather unlikely site for an amusement park, not to mention movie sets and ghostly female figures straight from a "B" movie horror picture show. Yet those represent the creative presence of Fitch and Trecartin. The two were originally from Ohio. Their hyperkinetic video works have one thing in common: a sense of overload, both linguistic and visual, leaving the viewer pleasantly adrift. Whether Line, the center-piece of a new exhibition at the Fondazione Prada in Milan, is no exception. It’s a whirlwind tale of rural gentrification, Amish identity, queer dance parties, DIY real-estate projects, and what happens when Mid-western manners are confronted by surreal bad attitudes.

A closer look--the Fitch-Trecartin home, video studio, and would-be amusement park.
The two conceptual video artists began developing a tract of land into an ever-evolving video set. They built a massive house (above) as part of a postmodern fever dream that nonsensically Frankensteined unrelated design elements into one semi-cohesive whole. Fitch and Trecartin are now continuing to expand their land into a sort of art-damaged amusement park. Building such a place with their own hands has not been a "walk in the park." They had a landslide, a mudslide. There was an unprecedented rainfall, and none of the buildings were done in the way that we originally envisioned, because of extreme weather delays. Farmers were even getting FEMA money. They ended up digging out the mud with their bare hands. The house they made combines wildly different styles and features into one. It's almost ready to move into--except for the septic system.
The viewing room, replete with old-fashioned Amish rocking chairs.
Whether Line explores the idea of a culture clash between all of the characters seen in the movie. Lizzie Fitch notes that almost everyone they’ve met has been very open, accepting, and curious. hey do have one neighbor, though, who’s very extreme. He definitely inspired a lot of the content in the movie, indirectly and directly. But that’s just one person in a whole community around them. They tell people they're making a movie. Then they jokingly add that they’re building an amusement park. But it’s not really a joke. They are, it’s just not a traditional one. There are certain traits of reality TV that went into the conception of Whether Line, particularly peoples’ new relationship to acting, and also the fear of acting. Ryan Trecartin explains that years ago, if someone asked non-actors if they would be in a movie, it would be, "Hell yeah! I want to be in the movie!" Now, however, they ask questions: “What’s the context? Where’s it going to show? What’s the meaning?” Fitch believes everyone has a relationship to their mediated self. Today, a lot of people have a fear of context being weaponized. People are more wary. There is more anxiety around cameras than there was just five years ago.
A Whether Line production still featuring Lizzie Fitch, Jason Rankin, and Ryan Trecartin.
On the sets of Whether Line, it always seems like everyone involved is having a lot of fun, as if it’s all a big, sprawling, unwieldy party. However, some scenes are difficult and painful with everyone working really hard, often doing every line 25 times. Fitch points out that it looks like way more fun than it is. Of course there are other scenes that are really quite a lot of fun to shoot. It depends on how they decide to direct the script. Sometimes it’s line-by-line, very formal, and other times the script is little more than a suggestion. While there is an agenda to it, there is also a lot of space for improv and invention and for people to add content and ideas. Those shoots are usually a lot more fun.

Much of the film is about finding a perfect place to settle. Have these artists done so? Although Fitch and Trecartin seem to love their new creation in its most unlikely setting, there's also talk of maybe moving somewhere for a year to do their next project. They plan to continue to add to their Athens County park and build it out. At this point, exhaustion has set in. Fitch insists she's not going anywhere fast. "This is the first time we’ve ever owned anything. We’re definitely not going to sell it. This body of work has just started."

Production still from Whether Line

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Real Raphael

The Transfiguration, and Ascension of Christ into Heaven, 1516–20, Raphael--final work completed after the painter's death by an assistant.
If one were to question a group of art layman (non-artist) today asking them to name some of the painters of the Italian Renaissance, the responses would probably surprise (and dishearten) you. Virtually every response would include Leonardo and Michelangelo, artists we have come to know on a first-name basis. Fine, but after those two, would follow a lot of blank stares or blank space if this were a quiz. Actually there are enough painters alone to fill a whole sheet of notebook paper. Yet, there is at least one more Renaissance painter we often refer to by his first name yet he would likely land several lines down--that of Raphael (or Raphaello di Sanzio). And even though some might readily recognize and recall the name (even his last name), few people could identify even one of his works.
School of Athens, 1509-11, Raphael
Why is it then that we are somewhat familiar with the name, but are so unfamiliar with the work of Raphaello de Sanzio? Well, first he worked constantly in the shadow of Michelangelo...and a huge shadow it was. Second, while he could be relied upon to complete that which he started (unlike Leonardo), his one failing, if you could call it that, was that he never completed his own life. He died suddenly of a mysterious ailment in 1520 at the age of 37, leaving behind his one unfinished painting, his work depicting the Transfiguration and ascension of Christ into Heaven (later completed by an assistant). The third reason is that, while outliving both his rivals (Leonardo died in 1519), Michelangelo's star continued to rise (as did Leonardo's in spite of his death). With Raphael, that was not the case. He left a dozen or more major masterpieces but none were to become art icons. His School of Athens (above) comes closest, and is on a par with anything (other than Michelangelo's ceiling) done by the other two. However it seems his work was either too cerebral or too "sweet" (sometimes both at the same time) to have earned him the "superstar" status he so richly deserved. Though his memory glowed for a short time after his death, only in the 1800s did his work come to be really studied and admired again. Who knows, maybe it will take another hundred years or so before we can call to mind his Transfiguration (top) with the same ease we can Michelangelo's Last Judgment.

The Alba Madonna, ca. 1510, Raphael

Doni Tondo, 1507, Michelangelo
According to Renaissance hist-orian and architect, Giorgio Vasari, Raphael was the one who suggested Michelangelo for the commission in the hopes that he’d fail, since Michel-angelo was mostly known as a sculptor. Yet Raphael seems to have respected Michelangelo’s style: From the older artist, Raphael learned how to imbue the figures that inhabit his The Alba Madonna, completed in 1510, has a monumental quality. While Raphael was at work on The School of Athens, Michelangelo was painting his frescoes on the Sistine Ceiling. The Alba Madonna (above), completed in 1510, has a degree of monumentality not seen in Raphael's earlier works. We have only to compare Raphael's Alba with Michelangelo's Doni Tondo (right, completed in 1507) to gauge the effect Michelangelo works, both in the Sistine Chapel and elsewhere to get a first glimpse of the "Real" Raphael.

Raphael Self-portrait, 1506
However telling, Raphael's larger com-missions expose only one aspect of his personality and character. Born on Good Friday, April 6, 1483—the same day on which he’d eventually die—in Urbino, Raffaello di Sanzio took over his artisan father’s workshop as a teenager. In 1500, at 17 years of age, the boy received his first commission: an altarpiece for the church of Sant’ Agostino in Perugia, an assignment that would launch his precocious career. He began charming wealthy patrons from a young age, ensuring that he always had commissions to execute and money to spend. His self-portrait, painted around 1506, helps explain his success: Raphael rendered himself with long curly locks, searching brown eyes, smooth skin, and plush lips, glorying in his image as a sensitive, soulful aesthete. From his adolescent years on until his death, women found him attractive. Beyond this romantic reputation is a prolific artist who produced a varied body of work that brought Renaissance painting to its pinnacle. In his 2006 biography Raphael: A Passionate Life, Antonio Forcellino writes that the young artist “...acted as the interpreter of a very particular world, the dream of a golden rebirth to be brought about through literary studies and painting.” Raphael’s oeuvre likewise reveals a sense of “harmony, culture, and intellectual and sensual equilibrium.”

Lady with a Unicorn, 1505, Raphael
Two portraits, one from early in his career (above) and the other, painted over the final years of the artist's life (below) illuminate Raphael the man. Raphael's Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn, painted 1505 when the artist was twenty-two, depicts an elegant blonde woman holding a small unicorn, her head framed by two columns and a far-off landscape of green earth and blue sky. Yet for centuries, the picture showed a different scene. In the 1930s, conservationists revealed that the painting had undergone multiple revisions. Raphael had initially painted a dog instead of a unicorn. Then sometime in the 17th century, another artist had painted over Raphael’s composition entirely, turning it into a picture of St. Catherine holding a broken wheel, the symbol of her martyrdom. The vandal also added a shawl over the subject’s shoulders, which had originally remained bare. Subsequent scholars have come up with myriad interpretations of the painting. Some note its compositional similarity to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, began around the same time, in 1503. Both women look out at the viewer with impenetrable glances and pursed lips, and the paintings similarly employ a half-length format in which their subjects appear seated, the frames cutting them off at their waists. But the identity of Raphael’s sitter, and the symbolic meaning of the unicorn, remain puzzles for historians. The mythical creature may have functioned as a symbol of purity: Legend maintained that only virgins could attract a unicorn. Of course, these virgins’ powers of persuasion also warned potential suitors of seductive cunning.

La Fornarina, 1518–20, Raphael
Through his painting, La Fornarinawe see Raphael at his most lascivious. Against a dark, leafy background, a woman with a bare torso and pert nipples holds a sheer cloth by her left breast, while her left arm, encircled with a blue band that reads “Raphael Urbinas" rests on her lap. A colorful turban wraps around her dark hair, which is elegantly parted down the center. Her large brown eyes look left, out of the frame. She was probably his lover Margherita Luti, a baker’s daughter, or fornarina. The armband is often interpreted as a token of the woman’s ownership rather than of the painting’s authorship.” Raphael died before he could complete the work, which remained in his studio for the remainder of his life, suggesting that the artist may not have intended it for public view. Even centuries later, the intimate portrait remains one of the most erotically charged paintings in Western art.


Monday, June 3, 2019

How Art is Priced

The Piano Lesson,  1923, Henri Matisse
In 2011, The Piano Lesson (1923 version, above) by Henri Matisse sold at auction for $10.8-million. It was expected to sell for more than $12-million. Just over a year ago I wrote as to why certain painted masterpieces of the past became famous while similar works did not. Today I'm going to discuss a related question, not from a historic point of view, but from an economic one. How do gallery owners set prices for their high-end fine art? And, moreover, how do the wealthy buyers of such art decide the prices they are willing to pay? And beyond that, we take a glimpse into the workings of today's art market.

The Stolen Mirror, 1941, Max Ernst
Max Ernst's The Stolen Mirror (above)from 1941 is a dream-like landscape which sold for £10.3million in 2011, (a record for the surrealist artist). The European collector who bought it accepted a loss, offloading the work for just £8m at Christie’s in February. Although there may seem, in some cases, to be no "rhyme nor reason" in the astronomical sums paid for paintings by artists such as Matisse, Picasso, Max Ernst, and Alberto Giacometti, there is a certain basic logic involved. In nearly all cases, to varying degrees, the following nine factors come into play--

       1. The name of the artist.
       2. The size of the artwork.
       3. The medium employed.
       4. The date created.
       5. The content.
       6. The provenance.
       7. Recognizability.
       8. The condition of the work.
       9. The rarity of the work.

Les-femmes d Alger (Version "O"), 1955, Pablo Picasso
Picasso’s 1955 oil painting Les-femmes d Alger (above) sold for $179,365,000 at Sotheby's last month. Perhaps most important of all these criteria is the name of the artist. A billionaire art collector would be unlikely to bid the same price for a Jim Lane painting as one by Picasso. Picasso is internationally famous, a major mover and shaker in several groups of artists during his era. I can barely move much less shake. Any art group I've ever headed has had little or no impact on the overall history of art. The impact of Picasso's work on the history of art is nearly inestimable. Picasso's work, from time to time, comes up for auction. So far as I know, my work has yet to be sold at auction.

Nymphéas en fleur,  1914-17, Claude Monet
The other price determining factors all involve characteristics of the work itself. For example, damaged work obviously bring lower prices. But also, evidence of restoration likewise lowers price.
,As to size, in general, the larger the work the higher the price, but only up to a point at which size influence becomes less and less important. The break point as to sizes for collectors involves dimensions they can comfortably display in their homes. Larger works are purchased for corporate and institutional collections. Works such as Monet's Nymphéas en fleur series from the Peggy and David Rockefeller collections, are often measured in feet or meters. Nympheas en Fleur (above) sold for $84.6-million. Even some museums would be hard-pressed to display canvases of such size.

Picasso's Tete de Femme, (1935), sold for £18.9-millon at a Sotheby's last month, a far cry from the £28m which the seller paid for the work at the auction house’s 2013 sale.
Oil paintings tend to bring a higher price than works on paper. An artist's primary medium will bring the highest prices. Mixed media prices tend to fall somewhere between those for paper and canvas, depending on the artist's style, size and content. Speaking of content, content--male buyers tend to prefer female figures with nudes fetching the highest prices. Portraits of unknown figures bring lower prices, and today religious are quite out of fashion for individual collectors. They thus bring lower prices. The date of a given work must be correlated with the various developmental stages most artists go through during their careers--early, transitional, and mature. An artist's mature work is usually priced higher than his or her earlier pieces when they are struggling to "find" themselves.
Typical Certificate of Provenance provided by the artist. Where art history begins. Some are less "fancy" than this, some far more so.

Bust of a Man, plaster, 1965.
Alberto Giacometti .
The term "provenance" (above) comes to us from the French and might best be equated to an animal's pedigree. It begins with the artist's signature and the date completed, usually rendered on the work itself, but also includes what amounts to a written history of the work from the time the piece is first sold by the artist (or his estate) to the current owner offering it for sale. It is a legal document, often coming to the fore in court cases. Works without provenance are little more that wall decorations.

And finally, art history comes into play as prices are often determined by the impact the artist's following or that of the individual work on the overall art scene A .Giacometti painting similar to the plaster sculpture at left was bought just before the credit crunch for £1.6 million . The price was estimated at £1.8-2.5 million at Christie’s but failed to find a buyer. Apparently Gia-cometti's stature in the history of art has suffered in recent years. Works by artists who have created a relatively small amount of work brings higher prices. Giacometti does not fit into that category. The 17th-century Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer does.


The dominant forces of the fine art market today.
High-end art is one of the most manipulated markets in the world. Who are these manipulators? Major gallery owners you've probably never heard of, and the two giant auction houses, Sotheby's and their rival,Christie's (above). Both are venerable, ancient institutions, Christie's dating from 1766, Sotheby's from a few years later in 1774. Both houses no longer sell only art but high end real estate, cars, jewelry and other expensive knick-knacks for the terminally wealthy. moreover both behemoths have auction floors in all the many centers of sophisticated wealth around the world. They cater to a clientele of art collectors different than consumers or investors in any other market. High-power art collecting is both time consuming and expensive, so collectors tend to be very wealthy. Art collecting is often more of an avocation than a utilitarian pursuit. Although there's joy in collecting beautiful things, the social benefits are a large part of that enjoyment. The high-end art collector is part of community of collectors who go to fairs together and enjoy a friendly rivalry in acquiring the work of certain artists. He’s spent his life in the company of major collectors, dealers, and artists. At the same time many collectors are skeptical of the industry. They see prices that are often bogus; Bad art often sells for too much. Some question the integrity of many dealers. Yet these same avid collectors each, believe they are well informed, rarely overpay and enjoy what they’ve acquired.
Auction Room, Christie's, circa 1808.
Price manipulation occurs at the elite end of the primary market. There exists a lower tier art market, full of small unknown, local galleries outside of large urban areas where prices are listed, transactions occur at that price, and the work is sold to whomever wants to buy it off the street. These collectors buy art simply because they love the work, Artists who sell at these types of galleries probably can’t support themselves selling their work. Galleries must invest many costly resources in the artists they represent. They mentor them by visiting their studios, fostering their relationship with collectors and plot their career. But they’ll probably only represent a rising artist for a short time as the artist progresses they’ll move on to a higher tier gallery. Galleries promote the artist by presenting their art at an exhibition or at an art fair like Basel. Before new work is shown, the gallery has already offered it to their preferred clients, which include museums as well as major public and private collections. Their motivation to select buyers is inclusion in a major collection that signals that an artist’s work has been endorsed by the art world. This can increase the value of the artist’s portfolio and catapult him into another tier of prestige. Galleries also want to know the buyer in order to keep track of the work. That way they can ensure it’s available for exhibitions in the future and that it won’t be sold on the secondary auction market.
How the art market works.
Many art experts today feel that we have finally reached a peak in art sales? Works by Matisse and Picasso are going for a song as the world’s leading auction houses report a slump in sales. It’s less than a year since Pablo Picasso’s Women of Algiers (Version O) set a new world record for the most expensive artwork to be sold at auction after reaching $179m (£115m) in New York. Now even Picassos are falling in price after a run of disappointing sales which has forced the leading auction houses to take radical action. When Sotheby’s and Christie’s held a series of impressionist and modern art sales not long ago, they collectively sold $210-million worth, a dramatic 45 per cent decline from the $381m total for similar sales the year before. Christie’s International, the world’s leading auction house by revenue, reported a 5 per cent decline in annual sales, ending five years of growth. Sales of postwar and contemporary art, Old Masters, 19th century and Russian art were among those in decline. In further sign that collectors are becoming more selective, Sotheby’s sold just 67 per cent of its 37 offered lots at one recent sale, for a total of $114 million, below its own expectations of a $123m return.

Vincent Price, legendary art collector.


Monday, May 27, 2019

How We View War

Memorial Day, 1950s
When I was a child growing up in a small, Southeastern, Ohio, village some sixty years ago, we tended to view military duty as every young man's obligation to his country. Every Memorial Day the preteen children in our community, dressed in their "Sunday best," met in the school yard along with one or more high school bands, and a color guard from the local VFW or American Legion where we formed a parade down Main Street. Each of us carried a basket of handpicked flowers (even Dandelions) to a point on the bridge across the Muskingum River. There we threw some of our flowers over the edge to float on the water below, presumably coming to rest over the graves of our naval forces who were buried at sea during past wars. (In fact, few of our bouquets made it intact over the dam just a hundred feet downriver, much less the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.) From there we "marched" to the local cemetery where we decorated headstones decked out with a small American flag.

On a larger scale, in comic books, paperback novels, TV, and of course the movies, war was depicted as something from which heroes were made (right). Of course, Vietnam changed all that (below). Our soldiers overseas were often seen as little better than murderers, or worse, baby-killers, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." Only those shrewd enough, rich enough, and smart enough were exempt from the draft as full-time students or those suffering from "bone spurs on their heels." (Sound familiar?) TV news brought the killing fields to the American living room while draft dodgers left such a bitter taste that before long, the draft was abolished.
Heroes or hooligans in uniform?

Gulf (anti-)War poster
As for myself, I avoided the draft by enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. The military decided I had adequate typing skills and a good ear for Morse code so myself and six other guys I knew from basic training ended up in Alaska for two years. When our time was up, we were asked to indicate where we would next like to be stationed. As might be expected, each airman chose the Air Force base nearest their homes. They ended up plying their skills in unarmed "Goony Birds" (prop-driven C-47s) flying over the dense jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia. I, on the other hand, realized that there was no way in hell I would be allowed to exit the Air Force Security Service in the middle of the Vietnam War (June, 1968) so I chose Fort Meade, Maryland, flying a desk at NSA for the next ten months. Incidentally, it was while there I took my first college class in composition (I thought I knew how to write. The instructor's comments on my first assignment caused me to realize otherwise.)

The Battle of Blenheim on the 13th August 1704, painted in 1743 by John Wotton.
For centuries, artists have been commissioned to paint huge history paintings depicting victorious battles. Only the enemy is shown as dead or dying. John Wootton's The Battle of Blenheim on the 13th August 1704, (above), which dates from around 1743 (39 years after the event), is typical of such works,--tastefully balanced, panoramic, enamored with the dance-like beauty of combat. Great pains were taken in the realm of geography, troop placement, environmental factors, personages, and carefully balanced academic compositions. History painting at the time was the highest level toward which an artist might strive, and their carefully well-ordered depictions (in lieu of TV news) totally shaped civilian mental images and attitudes toward wars. Even as late as 1830 when Eugene Delacroix painted La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple (Liberty Guiding the People, below) though depicting the chaos of street fighting, the primary emphasis remained one of romanticizing and glorifying combat heroism.

 La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple, 1830, Eugene Delacroix. Grizzly, yes, but still propaganda art.
In 1814, when the provisional Spanish government commissioned the native-born Francisco José de Goya to commemorate the heroics of the most recent rebellion against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte, the artist assured the government authorities that his painting would “perpetuate…the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the Tyrant of Europe.” Just six years later, with Napoleon’s empire in ruins and Charles’s son on the Spanish throne, Goya completed two large canvases depicting the events of the rebellion,: one of the May 2nd uprising and the other—the more iconic and disturbing—of the May 3rd executions. Goya was a master at convincing his patrons to sign off on one thing, and then delivering quite something else. It’s certainly true that The Third of May 1808, (below) kept the memory of the Spanish insurrection alive, but whether Goya intended this event to appear glorious or heroic is, to put it mildly, questionable.
The Third of May 1808, painted in 1814 (only six years after the fact) by Francisco José de Goya.
The Third of May’s executioners are terrifying because Goya shows us very little of them, its victims are unforgettable because we see so much. The painting’s white-shirted, wide-eyed “martyr figure,” as he is sometimes called, has been termed one of the most vivid human ‘presences’ in all art. Others have likened his pose to that of Christ on the cross. Looking closely, in fact, you will find wounds on the man’s hands, an unmistakable allusion to Christ’s stigmata. Yet Goya never lets these allusions drag his painting into sentimentality. This man is a victim, but not quite a martyr. He hasn’t chosen to die, much less die for a cause; as he throws out his hands, brow contracted in terror. He stands for nothing more or less than himself. His death is raw, incomprehensible and enraging. No amount of religion or corny patriotism can explain it away.

Goya often says more with a few strokes of paint on a few inches of canvas than many of his contemporaries could with an entire painting.
Quite apart from the martyr figure’s pose and expression. The Third of May is one of the rare paintings in which almost every square inch contains details or bears a message. Notice, for instance, the glittering curve of one French soldier’s saber (above, left) It's a minor detail on such a vast canvas--beautiful but obsolete. The weapon dangles uselessly from its owner’s hip, a symbol of the phony romanticism of war, to which The Third of May is itself the ultimate rebuttal. Notice too the painting’s distant, forlorn cityscape (above, right), linked to the foreground by a long chain of prisoners barely visible over the French soldiers’ heads. Without painting ruins, Goya evoked ghosts of towns. No one else had ever achieved that.

The Execution of Emperor Maximillian, 1867-68, Edouard Manet. 
That isn’t to say that other painters haven’t tried to achieve what Goya did. Édouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (above) dating from 1867–68, hardly bothers to hide its indebtedness to The Third of May. The Execution of Emperor Maximilian is a series of paintings by Manet from 1867 to 1869, depicting the execution by firing squad of Emperor Maximilian I of the short-lived Second Mexican Empire. Manet produced three large oil paintings, a smaller oil sketch and a lithograph of the same subject. Pablo Picasso’s most famous work, Guernica (below), dating from 1937 is The Third of May for the 20th century, right down to the martyr figure’s outstretched arms. Picasso' Guernica is certainly the his most powerful political statement, painted as an immediate reaction to the Nazi's devastating casual bombing practice on the Basque town of Guernica.

Guernica, 1937, Pablo Picasso--war in Cubism.
Goya’s The Third of May 1808 is variously described as the greatest anti-war painting, the first modern work of art, and the artist’s unquestioned masterpiece—spent most of its first 40 years in storage. The painting and its companion piece, The Second of May 1808 (below) were coolly received. Later they were transferred to the Prado Museum in Madrid. Not until 1872 did the museum bothered to list the painting in its catalogue. By that time, the horrors Goya had depicted were almost beyond living memory. But in 1814, they were as fresh for the people of Spain as the slaughter of protesters in Cairo, the gassing of Damascus, or the Boston bombing were for us today.

The Second of May 1808, painted in 1814, by Francisco José de Goya--depicts the prelude to the slaughter of the following day.

Two Old Men Eating Soup,
one of the fourteen "Black Paintings" created by Goya
between 1819–1823. By this time, Goya was in his
mid-70s and deeply disillusioned. He painted
the works on the interior walls of the house known
as the Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man).


Monday, May 20, 2019

The Color Blue

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh
What's your favorite color? If you're male, there's a 42% chance you'll choose blue. If you're female, that number drops to 29%. It would be interesting to know if the choices and percentages are also the same for artists. My guess is that, generally speaking, they are. The least favorite color, by the way, is yellow. However, Vincent van Gogh is an interesting case in point. Judging from one of his most famous paintings, The Starry Night (above), it's obvious he loved blue. Yet one doesn't repeatedly paint sunflowers without also having an affection for yellows. He originally planned to paint a series of twelve. He ended up doing only seven, two of which have disappeared. Personally, I'm not sure I have a "favorite" color, but I suppose, if I did, I'd choose blue as well.

Sphinx of Amenhotep III
Why is blue a perennial favorite of so many people? My guess is because there are so many of them (shades and tints of blue, that is, not people). When the range is from navy blue to so-called "baby" blue that equates to just about one shade or tint" per person. Over the course of art history, artists of all media have utilized the multitude of unique shades of blue as a means of expression. For example, Pablo Picasso underwent a “blue period” where all his paintings were created in shades of blue and blue-green to create a subdued, melancholic at-mosphere. With the latest blue pigment, YInMn, which was discovered less than a decade ago, the color blue continues to unveil its artistic prop-erties, carrying a rich history and significance for both artists and audiences alike. As with so many other things, the first blue color was produced by ancient Egyptians around 2200 B.C. in an effort to create a permanent pigment that could be applied to a variety of surfaces. Since, the color has continued to evolve, and its association with calming, natural elements like the sky and clear water have solidified it as a universal favorite among artists, interior designers and other disciplines.

Although the Egyptians were fascinated with lapis lazuli, they never discovered how to create pigments with the mineral. Not until the 6th century did the color blue emerge as a true pigment when it appeared in Buddhist paintings in Afghanistan. The pigment was eventually imported into Europe by Italian traders in the 14th and 15 centuries, where it was renamed “ultramarine.” In Latin, ultramarinus translates to “beyond the sea.” It soon became the most sought-after color in medieval Europe, with a price tag that rivaled that of gold.

The Last Judgment, 1536-1541, Michelangelo Buonarroti,
The scarcity of the blue minerals ultramarine and lapis lazuli led early artists to seek chemists in their search for a means to produce blue that was less costly. Because blue pigments were rare and expensive to acquire up until the dawn of the Industrial Age, it has often been associated with royalty and divinity. That may be why it is a favorite color today. Because it was so costly, the color was often reserved for royalty.Great artists of this era such as Michelangelo and Raphael were forced to use it sparingly. Art historians believe that Michelangelo’s The Entombment (1500) was left unfinished because he could not afford to buy more ultramarine. Ultramarine is a blue pigment found naturally. It is ground down from a mineral called lazulite, the main component of lapis lazuli. The pigment remained expensive until a French chemist discovered a synthetic version in 1826; aptly named “French Ultramarine.”

Vue du Mourillon, 1890, Pierre-Auguste Renoir
In 2016 Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Vue du Mourillon (above) sold for £305,000.  Renoir and Vincent van Gogh utilized cobalt in many of their iconic works, including the instantly recognizable The Starry Night (top). Cobalt was originally discovered in the 8th and 9th centuries, where it was used to decorate ceramics and jewelry. In China, cobalt was the chosen pigment for the iconic blue and white porcelain patterns that emerged in the region. A purer version was discovered by French chemist, Louis Jacques Thénard in 1802. Not long after, commercial production began in France.

Le Grand Canal, 1908, Claude Monet
Cerulean comes from the Latin word caeruleus, which means “dark blue” and is most likely derived from caelum, the Latin word for “sky.” The pigment was originally composed of cobalt magnesium stannate, or compounds of tin. In 1805, it was perfected by roasting cobalt and tin oxides. It was put on the market for artistic use in 1860. Cerulean was used heavily by Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet as in his Le Grand Canal (above), one of 37 Venetian scenes painted during his stay in the city in 1908, Monet combined cerulean with other bright blues like cobalt and synthetic ultramarine to create vibrant, colorful works. In 1999, cerulean was even named “color of the millennium” by Pantone.

Indigo is a blue dye, rather than a pigment, which comes from Indigofera tinctoria, a crop grown in abundance around the world. The indigo plant originally came from India. The Ancient Greek language word for the dye is indikon. The Romans used the term indicum, which passed into Italian dialect and eventually into English as the word indigo. Because it could be grown in excess, it was an affordable option for dying textiles, and became a highly desired import throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, sparking tensions and trade wars between Europe and America. Isaac Newton named and defined indigo as a spectrum color when he divided up the spectrum into the seven colors of the rainbow. In 1880, a synthetic version of indigo replaced the natural version, and it is still used today to dye blue jeans. The color shown at right, electric indigo, is the closest hue possible to display on a computer to the color of the indigo color band in the rainbow.

Portrait d’Angel Fernández de Soto, 1903, Pablo Picasso
The pigment Prussian blue consists of iron cations, cyanide anions, and water. The name Prussian blue originated in the 18th century, when the compound was used to dye the uniform coats for the Prussian army. Over the years, the pigment acquired several other “blue” names, including Berlin, Parisian, and Turnbull’s blue. It has been used for centuries in unusually diverse applications Despite the presence of cyanide groups, the pigment is not toxic to humans. Older artists among us will recognize “Prussian blue” as a crayon color. Prussian blue was one of the 38 original Crayola colors introduced in 1903. The Prussian blue crayon name lasted until 1958, when it was changed to midnight blue. The reason for the change is unclear. One source says it was made because by then no one knew what Prussia was anymore; while others suggest the move was spurred by political correctness during the Cold War. Picasso's Portrait d’Angel Fernández de Soto, (above) dating from 1903. is painted almost entirely in Prussian blue.

Moonscape, 1965, Roy Lichtenstein
Navy blue is the darkest shade of blue, and they have many variations of the pigment. It is not normally termed an artist's pigment. It was originally referred to as marine blue since it was the color for British Royal Navy uniforms and worn by officers and sailors after 1748. Since, modern navies have darkened their uniforms even further in an effort to reduce fading that happened quicker with a lighter navy color. Today artists often create navy blue using Phthalocyanine Blue (below, right) which is also called by many names. It is a bright, crystalline, synthetic blue pigment from the group of phthalocyanine dyes. This brilliant blue is frequently used in paints and dyes. It is highly valued for its light fastness, tinting strength, covering power and resistance to the effects of alkalis and acid. Roy Lichtenstein makes heavy use of it in his Moonscape, (above) painted in 1965.

Blue can have a variety of meanings and symbolize a diverse range of ideals depending upon various cultures. Largely, the color blue is considered beneficial to the mind and body. It is believed that it slows human metabolism, which produces a calming effect. Light blue is associated with health, healing, and tranquility while dark blue represents a more powerful, serious, but sometimes melancholic nature. Surveys have shown that blue is the color most associated with the masculine, just ahead of black, and was also the color most associated with intelligence, knowledge, calm, and concentration.