Click on photos to enlarge.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lee Krasner

For some years, my wife was burdened with the fact that she was best known as "Jim Lane's wife" or "Jonathan's mom."  In more recent years, since I've retired and chosen a more low keyed approach to life as an artist, I've come to know a little how she felt.  Since my wife has continued to work part time for a leading tax preparation service, I've come to be known as "Sharon's husband."  Really, though, I can't say that I mind all that much.

One of the more interesting painters of the so-called "New York School" had the same problem. Lee Krasner was born in 1908. A number of features make this exceptional artist of the Abstract Expressionist era stand out, not the least of which is the fact she was a woman. By mid-century, of course, women like Georgia O'Keefe, Helen Rosenthaler, and later Agnes Martin, had managed to crack the male-dominated world that was the New York art scene, but none with the gusto or free-wheeling style exhibited by this painter.
Cool White, 1959,
Lee Krasner

Her work, such as Cool White, painted in 1959, displays the exuberant brushwork of a Willem de Kooning or Arschile Gorky with a certain degree of cubist influence, not so much of Picasso, but of Marcel Duchamp. There is a robust, angular movement to her modest sized (by Abstract Expressionist standards) canvases, usually in the range of four to five feet square. The paint is heavy, the colors subdued, with strong, linear blacks that threaten to burst the bounds of her dynamic, yet surprisingly stable compositions.

If you're not familiar with the work of Lee Krasner, the reason may be that she labored in the critical shadow of her much more prominent husband who was also a painter. In many respects, her work was similar to his, though not as large-scale nor lacking in constraints. In spite of her own strength and originality as an artist, she pointed out: "I was not the average woman married to the average painter. I was married to Jackson Pollock. The context is bigger, and even if I was not personally dominated by Pollock, the whole art world was."

Monday, August 30, 2010


With all the multi-media communication links available to, indeed assaulting, artists in this first decade of this twenty-first century, it may be difficult to imagine a time when artists were starving for new influences and new ways of seeing the world around them.  Most artists in this mega-communication era have a pretty good handle on the nature of, and the images of various foreign cultures.  Sometimes we even employ them eclectically in our work.  We take these outside influences for granted.

French Impressionism was a direct reaction to the boorish, factory-like French Academy and it's tightly governed style of painting. Largely because of this, the various artists we now associate with Impressionism soaked up outside influences like a sponge, among them, photography, scientific color theory, and the subject matter of the Industrial Revolution, especially trains and train stations. However, it might be that the strangest outside influence to insinuate itself into the Impressionist movement was the art of Japanese prints.

In the late 1800's Japanese society was only just beginning to open up, and trade with the western world was sparse to non-existent. How could it be then, that the dramatic diagonals and asymetrical compositions that so delight the eye in the art of Japanese prints came to influence artist like Degas, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others?

Sudden Shower at the

Ataki Bridge, 1856,

Actually, it happened largely by accident.

One of the first and most valuable commodities exported from these lands were fragile Japanese porcelains. These exquisite art objects had to  be packed very carefully to survive the torturous sea voyage to Europe and  eventually Paris, that hotbed of Impressionist insurrection. You guessed it, those precious art objects came wrapped in another form of artwork, discarded Japanese prints. One man's trash is another man's treasure.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Edward Hopper's Depression

Recently, we find ourselves amidst what many are calling "The Great Recession."  Although I don't claim to have coined the phrase, I did predict its use long before it became common.   It was simply to apt not to come about.  And, though times are tough, especially for those unemployed or underemployed, this era lacks the bleakness and severity by a very wide margin of that which we've come to call "The Great Depression."  This tired, trying, drab, depressive era in American history had its own music, its own literature, its own movies, even its own art.
The Nigh Hawks, 1942, Edward Hopper

Moreover, no artist more perfectly represents the harsh, barren realities of Depression America than does the work of Edward Hopper. Born in 1882 and working well into the 1960's he painted this country's darkest and brightest periods with the same colors of cold, lonely, isolation. Exhibiting the infuence of Robert Henri and John Sloan, Hopper was also the product of commercial art, signs, and the advertising imagery he had to rely upon for survival in many of the bleakest years of our collective economic and social depression. His cityscapes feature strong, baking sunlight, painted from a low vantage point with stark whites and cold, blue shadows, often devoid of human habitation, underline the haunting loneliness that pervaded his artistic existence.

Even when he escaped the city and painted the New England coast, Hopper's monumental landscapes are quite empty of detail and warmth despite his obvious use of warm colors. Like the regionalism of other artists of the time like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry, Hopper's work reflects his deep, preoccupied personality and the overhelming emptiness he saw in the American urban scene. In 1932, Hopper achieved a degree of recognition from the art establishment when he was elected a member of the National Academy of Design. Characteristically, he declined the honor. His work had been rejected by the organization too many times.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Making of The Raft of the Medusa

A journalist, writer, or documentary film maker today spends weeks, perhaps months, or even years putting together background material before ever stepping behind a camera or typing the first word. Today we call this "doing your homework". Most painters today don't go much beyond a few preliminary sketches, a photo or two, or maybe some quick color studies before putting brush to canvas. It's little wonder our paintings today have about as much social significance as an aspirin tablet. As I said in yesterday's epistle, it wasn't always that way.
The Raft of the Medusa

Theodore Gericault, in preparing his epic, scandalous painting The Raft of the Medusa, went to lengths only matched in this century by The Titanic film makers or perhaps the writer, James Michner, in order to immerse himself in his subject. Gericault rented a massive barn of a studio, had the surviving ship's carpenter build an exact, full-scale replica of the raft, interviewed other survivors, had some of them pose for the painting, and even went so far to visit his friendly, neighborhood morgue where he cajoled the coronor into lending him a few dead bodies to decorate the foreground of the movie-set-like conglomeration from which he painted. It made for an authentic painting, but it's doubful he was very popular with his neighbors.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Hiding Cracks in the Plaster?

When was the last time you recall a painting, newly completed by a living artist, being reviewed in a national publication? If you're like me, the answer is...well...never? When was the last time you recall a newly released motion picture being praised (or panned) by a critic on national television, or perhaps on the pages of Newsweek? Every week...more like every day? Would it be safe to assume from this that painting is now irrelevant? Are the personal statements we make in paint merely one person's opinion and of no more significance than anyone elses personal opinion, whether visual, written, or spoken? Is what we do, at best, an adjunct to interior decorating--covering up bare spots on walls with pleasantly pigmented musings? Has painting now become an "antique" artform? Could it be that all we're good for now is hiding cracks in the plaster?

It hasn't always been this way. In 1817, a French government vessel, the Medusa, foundered off the coast of West Africa with hundreds of men on board. At a court of inquiry, it was revealed that a boatful of officers had been towing a raft heavily laden with passengers and crew. However, fearing for their own lives, the officers cut the rope, expecting the raft to be lost and all those onboard to drown. They didn't. The French painter Theodore Gericault created a massive 16'x23' depiction of the moment when those on The Raft of the Medusa sighted the rescue vessel. Widely displayed first in France, then in England, the painting was instrumental in a massive shakeup of the French government of the time.
The Raft of the Medusa, 1818, Gericault

Maybe someone should paint a mosque near ground zero in New York.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Those of us who bemoan the fact that painting in the first quarter of the twenty-first century is no longer on the cutting edge of art might wax nostalgic for the first quarter of the twentieth century when painting was nothing if not reactionary. Just as Impressionism in the nineteenth century had been a reaction to the French Academy and state-sponsored classicism, there sprung any number of styles and movements in the upheaving first twenty-five years of the twentieth century in reaction to Impressionism.

The Germans seemed to be the most discontent. In addition to Dada, there came Expressionism (not to be confused with Abstract Expressionism which was largely an American phenomena). Expressionism as a style was, itself, split into at least three different movements, and that was just in Germany. In German Expressionism there was Die Brucke (The Bridge), Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), and finally Neue Sachlichkeit (The New Objectivity). In France, they were called the Fauves (wild beasts).Though very different in form, they all tried to communicate the inner feelings of the artist through paint.
On White II, 1923, Kandinsky

Artists involved in these various German movements include Emil Nolde, Wassily Kandinsky, and Max Beckmann, while in France the Fauves worshipped Van Gogh and Gauguin through the work of Henri Matisse and Andre Derain. In the meantime, also in France, Picasso and Braque were drawing inspiration from Cezanne in their expressionistic exploration of Cubism. All these styles, movements, and sub-movements were like a powder keg just waiting to explode.  That is almost literally what happened when the political powder keg that was Edwardian Europe did explode into the horrendous cataclysm of World War I with its dispersing effect upon the European art world.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Painting Outdoors

Not many, but a few artists, some of the most dedicated, in fact, paint outdoors.  Even for those who like to travel light, the gear and various creature comforts for several hours of concentrated artistic effort still involves several pounds of baggage.  Unless you plan to sit on the ground, you need some form of folding chair, your painting suface, an easel, of course, plus your paint case, and probably something to eat and drink.  It's just about all one person can carry.  The French call it "plein aire" painting, usually watercolors, but sometimes in oils or acrylics.

It's only natural that the French should coin the term "plein aire." One of the "inventions" of French Impressionism was painting out-of-doors. Of course artists of the so called "Barbizon" school of art had done some painting outdoors for years, sketching the scene in oils, maybe brushing in a few colors, but they had always finished their work in the studio. What was unique about the Impressionists was that they not only started their works outdoors, but finished them there as well. Among these was the early Impressionist Eugene Boudin.

Trouville, 1864, Eugene Boudin

The Realist painter, Gustave Courbet once dubbed Boudin "the monarch of the skies". His father ran a stationery store in the northern French coast town of Le Havre where Boudin exhibited his canvases in the shop window. Also exhibited there were the clever caricatures of a brash young teenager. When the two met in the shop one day, Boudin's sympathetic question to him could be said to have changed the history of art. "Why don't you PAINT," he asked? The next day, Boudin took the young man with him to paint the seashore.
Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Claude Monet

Who was that young man?

Claude Monet.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Painted Any Funerals Lately?

I suppose they were never at the top of any artist's list of "must do" paintings, but I would hazard a guess very few if any artists today have ever done a painting of a funeral.  Yet five-hundred years ago, they were not all that uncommon.  Quite a number of quite well known artists have painted them.  Probably the most noted funeral painting was created by a man born in the year 1541, on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean, an artist by the name of Domeniko Theotokopoulos.

In Italy, the Renaissance was past its prime, but still vibrant. Michelangelo was still a force to be reckoned with in art. And throughout Europe, the arts were flourishing as never before. For an artist, it was a great time to be born. As a young man, he traveled through Italy and was briefly a part of Titian's workshop of apprentices. His work picked up Venetian and Mannerist influences.

The Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586
The painting was for the church of Santo Tome in the artist's adopted hometown, Toledo, Spain.  It is an enormous 16' x 11' mural-size canvas bridging the the gulf between the realism and mysticism of the Mannerist era. Created in 1586, it is entitled The Burial of Count Orgaz.

On its lower level, the painting depicts the title event in a group portrait encompassing some 27 life-size figures, dressed in the contemporary finery of the time. If the work were nothing more than this funerary scene, it would still be remarkable.
But above it, on a second level, under an arch shape, we see the deceased pleading on behalf of his soul before Christ on his throne, St. Peter, Mary, numerous angels, and a multitude of heavenly hosts.

The figures below are slightly antenuated, those above, more obviously so. Some experts believe the artist suffered from an astigmatism. Others see it merely as a matter of style. The influence of Michelangelo's Last Judgement is noticable. Recently, a reader told me she keeps an "art book" near her computer to read further regarding some of the artists mentioned here. So, before you go looking in your art history books for the tongue-curling name Domeniko Theotokopoulos, perhaps you might want to know that his "professional name" was El Grecco.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Painters Teaching Painting

Being an art educator, I am fascinated by those artists who both paint and teach painting. We take them for granted today, and I suppose there have always been such artists, we have just never been particularly aware of them because, in most cases, what they did with a brush always out shone those they taught with a brush. In this country, among them are artists as diverse as Charles Wilson Peale, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and most particularly Thomas Eakins.

Born in 1844, in Philadelphia, Eakins was an unrepentant realist. Whereas several of his collegues at the time (Winslow Homer, George Innes, and others) studied in Europe and eventually became influence by the Barbizon School and their much looser handling of paint, Eakins studied in Paris, not in the fresh air of Fountainbleu Forrest, but at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with leading academic painters and draftsmen of the day, most principally Leon Gerome. In spain, he studied Velasquez.

The Gross Clinic, 1876, Eakins

But landscapes did not appeal to Eakins as they did to Homer and Innes. Instead, he chose to focus his art studies on the human anatomy. Back in this country, frustrated with drawing plaster casts of nude figures (the accepted method of the time), he enrolled in an anatomy course at Jefferson Medical College. Such studies paid off in his unconventional choices of subjects--outdoor activities, hunting, baseball, rowing, prizefighters. As a result, his work did not sell well. To augment his income, as so many of us have, he taught art at the Pennsylvania Academy.

Perhaps his greatest masterpiece is The Gross Clinic. Unrelenting in its harsh realism, the painting, depicting a bloody operating room, was received quite unfavorably and refused exhibition space in the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876. Instead, Eakins work was consigned to the U.S. Army Post Hospital Exhibit.
In 1886, teaching a mixed-sex drawing class, he was further humiliated by being dismissed from his teaching position for removing a loin cloth from a male model in order to show certain tendons and muscles. Freed from the constraints of academia, he moved into portraiture and the use of photographs to further heighten the realism of his work. Though unappreciated by the public, the list of students influenced by his work reads like a Who's Who of early 20th Century American Artists.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Laughing or Buying

Not all artists sell their work, but very many do...or try to, at least.  It can be a very discouraging enterprise, treking from gallery to gallery or art show to art show--sitting up displays, tearing them down a few hours later, stowing them away in various vehicular manifestations artist have been known to jerry rig to contain their work.  Of course there's nothing at all new in this endeavor now or in the past, only different means of conveyance, perhaps.

Though the darling of art collectors today, the Impressionists in France during the 1870s and 80s were hardly an immediate success. Rebuffed and discouraged, they were reduced to organizing their own exhibitions in place of that of the official Academic Salon. Dubbed the Salon de Refuse', these shows over a period of a half-dozen years, ranged from small scandals to major disasters. Scorned by officialdom, critics, and the public, viewers laughed and ridiculed their work, and most pointedly, did NOT buy.

Paul Durand-Ruel, 1910, Renoir
However over time, a few enlightened collectors did step forward to purchase their work, and the true champion amongst these, was a Parisian gallery owner named Paul Durand-Ruel, who bought more Impressionist paintings than perhaps seemed sensible at the time. Unfortunately, he did not have any major success in selling them until two major exhibitions he held, not in Paris, but in the United States in 1886 and 1887. Durand-Ruel put it suscinctly: "The American public does not laugh. It BUYS!"

Saturday, August 21, 2010


For perhaps 500 years or more there have been art "movements". Some are merely the figments of art historians' fertile imaginations, fulfilling a need to give a "name" to a period in the course of human artistic events. In so doing, they have developed two lighthearted theories regarding art history. One, the sequential view, states that art history is just one damned thing after another. The other, a cyclical view, states that art history is the same damned thing, over and over again. There are viable arguements for both views but personally, I tend to favor the sequential over the cyclical.

Regardless of your point of view, during this century, art movements have become much more self-conscious, and none more so than that which arose in 1916, during World War I, which declared itself against art itself. The name chosen by the architects of this movement, chief among them Marcel Duchamp, was the supposedly nonsense term, Dada. Said to have been chosen at random from the dictionary, such a claim is at best, dubious. The term, in fact, has different meanings in different languages (as befits an international movement). In Russian, for instance, it means simply "yes, yes". In English, it is often a baby's first word. Whatever the case, it has come to refer to art which is meaningless, absurd, and/or unpredictable.

Citing the absurdities of life, death, and war (and the insanities that give rise to it), the Dadaists declared that art, a reflection of such nonsense, was itself stupid and must be destroyed. Yet, to communicate their outrage, the Dadaists created works of art. Such contradictions inevitably spelled an end to the movement by about 1922. It did however, during its short life, give birth to a much more substantial movement--Surrealism.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Painterly Influence of Photography

As painters, especially those of us who have worked with landsacapes over the years, it is practically impossible that we have not, to some degree, been influenced by photographs in the way we see the environment around us. Even those who eschew all photographic sources in favor of direct, out-in-the-fresh-air painting experiences cannot erase from their memories the many good, bad, and ugly landscape photographs they have been exposed to over the course of their painting lifetimes.

Imagine then if you will, what it must have been like for a man like French landscape painter Camille Corot. Born in 1796, he studied in Rome, and was influenced by another great French landscape artist, Nicolas Poussin, who had done likewise. He was already an accomplished landscape painter when, in the mid 1800's, the camera became a viable tool for capturing landscapes scenes. By the 1860's the exposure time for an outdoor photograph had dwindled to only a second or two. Suddenly landscape painters were confronted with a whole, new, undeniably accurate way of seeing their beloved world.

Ville d'Avray, 1867, Camille Corot
For Corot, the impact was profound. However, instead of his work becoming more "realistic", the effect was that it became more "phtotographic" in the 1860's sense of the word. Film technology being what it was at the time, any movement in the landscape caused blurring, strong sunlight caused solid forms to become "feathery", and the combination of the two created an intergration of areas which served to unify the entire picture plane. The result was a new set of conventions for describing in paint the natural world, which in turn quickly paved the way for an even more revolutionary departure from convention--Impressionism.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Color Photography

Today we take color for granted in every media we encounter.  However, when you're among the older generation of artists, you can, no doubt, remember when your held in your hands the first color photo you ever saw.  You can easily remember the first time you ever glimpsed color TV.  You might even recall the first time you saw a color picture in a newspaper.  Now, when advertisers in slick magazines want to attract attention, they juxtapose a black and white photo among the rainbow of ultra-colorful come-ons.

When the first photographic processes began to appear around 1840, painters still held one important "ace in the hole" when it came to reproducing reality on a two-dimensional surface--COLOR. That is, until 1907. Just over a hundred years ago, Louis Lumiere, who had also pioneered motion pictures a decade earlier, developed what he called the Autochrome process. The invention involved the coating of glass plates with three layers of dyed potato starch which served as color filters. A layer of silver bromide emulsion covered the starch. When developed, the process yielded a positive color transparency much akin to the paintings of the Post-Impressionist George Seurat, done some twenty years before.
A WW I era Autochrome
Process photo

Well, so much for the painters' monopoly on color! Unbelievably, given the almost continuous development of photography in the last 150 years, the Autochrome process was not replaced until Kodak began to produce color film some 25 years later using basically the same principles but with more advanced chemistry they dubbed Kodachrome.  Kodak still makes cameras, but virtually none of them still use Kodachrome...or any other film, for that matter.  Now we recall with nostalgic fondness the first time we ever took a digital photo.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Prodigious Prodigies

So far there have been very few professional artists born in this century.  There's probably a good reason for that.  This is 2010.  They'd be, at most, ten years old about now.  There is one, however, I came across recently.  His name is Kieron Williamson and actually, he's only eight, but who's counting.  Born in 2002, he lives in Holt, Norfolk, England with his parents and sister. Recently, 33 of his paintings sold  for 150,000 pounds ($235,000).  That was his second show.  The first, the year before, featured 16 paintings which brought only 18,000 pounds. Beyond that, there's a waiting list of more than 3,000 others anxious to nab one of his watercolors.  Now, if you're expecting a reincarnated Picasso or Kandinsky indiscriminately just slopping paint around, think again.  If one had to name an artist from a previous life, you'd tend toward Monet or Pissarro.

Kieron paints cows...and horses, snow-covered meadows, streetscapes, virtually any locale to which he's been exposed.  Art doesn't run in his family, though his father is  a 44-year-old art dealer.  His mother is a nutritional therapist.  His sister is a six-year-old. Not surprisingly the blond-headed boy wants to be an artist when he grows up.  Actually, he's been something of an artist ever since he was five, gradually growing into his prodigy standing as his work has "matured" over the years.  He also likes soccer and kicking around the beach in his free time.

Though younger than most, Kieron is representative of a long list of child art prodigies.  Many flame out before puberty, their notoriety as much attributable to their age as their art.  But then there have been the Picassos, the Leonardos, the Michelangelos, the Rockwells, the O'Keefes (meaning those of their ilk) who started young and ended old--prodigies who went on to produce art prodigiously.  And what abut Kieron Williamson?  Well, remember that name,  I'll get back to you  in twenty years.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Early Christian Art

Nearly every shade of religious belief today readily embraces the arts to some degree, if not on their walls, then in their publications, their worship services, and even around their necks.  Often, we've come to equate the physical beauty of such endeavors with the spiritual beauty they often inspire.  In many worship venues, it's come to be taken for granted.

Strangely, the earliest surviving Christian art was not gold crucifixes or silver chalices. Nor were they elegant triptych altarpieces. Painting being the quickest, and the most easily accomplished of the ancient art forms, it was natural that the early Christians should turn to it first to express their faith. These painted works of art were not wooden panels but fresco paintings, not on the ceilings of cathedrals but the humble arches and lunettes of Roman catacombs. Carved from a soft, porous stone, a virtual MAZE of these burial chambers hid beneath the seven legendary hills of the city of Rome. Within them were the remains of over six million former citizens of the city (only a few of them Christians, of course).

Often small chapels, some no more than thirty feet square, had been carved out within the catacombs for the worship of the dead in ancient times. Early Christians found these chapels convenient for their secret meeting places.  Over them, were executed some of the earliest crude, Christian paintings. Surprisingly, these earliest Christian images were not the crucifixions, or nativities, or martyrdoms we are now accustomed to associating with religious art. Instead, the image of the "Good Shepherd" or iconography involving fish and Biblical parables were the most common subject matter employed by these largely unskilled, early Christian painters.

The frescoes of the catacomb of Saints Pietro and Marcellino are strikingly beautiful and touching in their own primitive way, sharing a style that was realistic, and reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman images. Most, however, were not as finished or as well done. Most dealt only with early (often secret) Christian symbols or icons. Most did not feature human or divine figures. It's quite likely their artists were somewhat uncomfortable working amongst the dead in such superstitious times, and equally as likely that they desired to spend no more time than absolutely necessary breathing in the fetid stench of all that decaying flesh. One would have to say Michelangelo was fortunate that by the 1500's, Christianity was no longer literally an "underground" religion.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Cartoons Now and Then

Cartoon for a
stained glass window,
Edward Burne-Jones,
Much has been made recently regarding the fact that painting is no longer capable of making an earth-shaking impact on the world at large as in the days of Gericault, Manet, Picasso, Kandinsky, or Warhol. Yet today, one remnant of the art world closely associated with painting in the past still can have a discernible impact. The vehicle for that moving and shaking is the cartoon, especially the editorial cartoon. Images from artists like Herblock and Trudeau have been known to drive Presidents and P.R. agents alike to near hysteria.


The Discussion, 
Honore Daumier, 1864 
Derived from the Italian word "cartone", meaning paper, cartoons were originally full-scale line drawings used in the creation of stained glass windows, frescoes and tapestries. (see above) In 1843, in London, the term was appropriated to include humorous published drawings that parodied cartoons submitted for the fresco decoration of the houses of Parliament. The key element in cartoons as we know them today is caricature, and one of the earliest practitioners of this needling craft was the French painter, Honore Daumier. In the mid 1800's he raised caricature to a high art displaying mocking figures of French politicians and bureaucrats rich with sharp, dry wit. At his death, he left a collection of some 4,000 such painted and inked works of art--a very major part of his lifetime work.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Violence in Art

One of the biggest "beefs" with the entertainment media today is that it is too violent. Children aside, there is much evidence and complaint that TV and movies may be too violent even for adults. Though today painting is usually too "genteel" to raise the hackles of parents and pundits regarding violence, this hasn't always been the case. During the Baroque era, from approximately 1600 to 1750, some of the most violent, most gruesome paintings ever done were committed to canvas. The very term Baroque is usually defined as meaning "theatrical". Everything was dramatic, even beyond that sometimes, melodramatic! Lighting was strong, harsh, from the side; action was frozen at the climactic moment of highest visual and emotional impact. And the baroque element cut a wide swath across not only painting but sculpture, architecture, music, and the other arts as well.

Judith Beheading Holofernes
Caravaggio, 1598
The Steven King of the Baroque era is, without doubt, Michelangelo de Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, who lived from 1573 to 1610. His work is nothing if not powerful. Blood spurts--cold blood. Eyes bug out. Muscles strain. Flesh glows. In Judith Beheading Holofernes, painted around 1598, the murderess is seen gripping a hairy beast of a man, decapitating him with a bloody double-edged sword. And lest you think Caravaggio is an anomaly, Artemisa Gentileschi painted the same scene (below, right) in an even more brutal depiction, and Gentileschi was a woman.
Judith slaying Holofernes
by Artemesia Gentileschi

Caravaggio, however, went beyond just painting violence. Between the years1600 and 1606 he was arrested for attacking a man with a sword, disrespect toward a police officer, carrying a weapon without a permit, breaking windows, assaulting a waiter, wounding a man in an argument over a prostitute, and finally, he had to flee Rome after killing a man in an argument over a tennis match. A short time later, having taken refuge in Messina, Sicily, he was forced to flee once more after attacking a teacher who accused him of molesting school children. Sounds like the plot for a movie of the week!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Canadian Art

To the dismay of our friendly neighbors just to the north of us, American's tend to think of Canada as a woodsie backyard, a place to sometimes go and play in the heat of the summer, but most of the rest of the time, a somewhat "bland", ordinary plot of land very easily ignored. And, for better or worse, there are far more similarities than differences between the two countries. Of course you wouldn't dare point this out to the French Canadians of Quebec Province who pride themselves on not only being different from the U.S. but being different from the rest of Canada as well.

Red Maple by Canadian artist,
 A.Y. Jackson, 1914
A Canadian friend recently pointed me in the direction of Canadian art and that of Quebec in particular. I tried to approach the subject with an open mind but in the end, as I mentioned above, found many more similarities than differences in the history, philosophy, content, style, and beauty in comparing the two artistic communities. And, at the risk of starting something of a cultural war, I must say I found really very few differences between the art of Quebec and the rest of Canada...or the U.S. for that matter. There are sectional differences of course, as one finds amongst the different geographical areas of this country. I dare say there are more differences between New England and Southwest art than between New England and Canadian art, especially in the area of landscapes. But of course, this is as one might expect.

Cornish Hills by American artist
 William Metcalf, 1911
What did strike me as unique to Canadian art was the more pronounced European (both English and French) influence in work created during most of the nineteenth century at a time when American art was well on its way to becoming an independent entity deliberately isolating itself from Europe. Americans still studied in Europe, but in returning, they tended to maintained a distinctly (often fiercely) American quality to their work. Having become a political entity separate from Great Britian about 90 years after the U.S. did, without the animosities engendered by a war of independence, Canadian artists seem not to feel the need to be different for the sake of being different. I suppose, this too, one might expect. I must confess, I didn't expect it. Today in Canada, there are those who bemoan the fact that Canadian culture is not different for the sake of being different, not from Europe, but from their overbearing neighbor to the south.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Most Influential Artist of All Time

Let me ask you.  Who do you think could be considered the most influential artist of all time?  If we were to take a poll , the results might be quite interesting. Certainly Picasso would be listed, as would Van Gogh, Monet, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Caravaggio, Leonardo, Raphael and maybe Titian. But the artist nearest to God himself as a creative genius would undoubtedly be Michelangelo Buonarroti. A giant in his own time, his works were influencing other artists often even before they were completed. His stature in the eyes of the art world has only grown as time has given testimony to the scope, depth, power, and beauty of his talent. Even allowing for Picasso in the previous century, I think it would be safe to say, no other artist in the history of the world single-handedly changed the course of art in western civilization. So great was his talent in so many areas, art historians never know for sure whether to think of him first as a painter, a sculptor, or an architect. Certainly, given the chance to write his own epitaph, Michelangelo would choose to be remembered as a sculptor.  Yet his painting, limited as it was to but a few great masterpieces, was possibly even more influential than anything else he did.

An interesting case in point is his earliest known painting, the Doni Tondo. Tondo means round. It was a holy family, painted in tempera on a wooden panel about four feet in diameter with an ornate, deeply carved, gold leaf frame almost as much a work of art in itself as the painting it holds. Joseph, in the middle ground, hands a rambunctious Christchild over to his mother who reaches for the boy over her right shoulder while just beyond the parapet is John the Baptist, and beyond that, a group of five, nude, pagan youths bear witness to Michelangelo's preoccupation with the male human figure even in such an unlikely context. The figures of the holy family have solid sculptural mass, brilliant color, and the feeling that they were sculpted first, then painted.

The painting is thought to have been a gift from Agnolo Doni to his wife, Maddalena Strozzi on the occasion of the birth of their first child, Maria in 1507. The Doni family were wealthy Florentine bankers. Even at this point in his career, before Pope Julius II had so much as considered a new ceiling for his uncle's chapel, Michelangelo was having a profound influence on painters such as Florentine artist, Agnolo Bronzino, and Palma Vecchio of Venice. It's believed Michelangelo himself may have been influenced by the Florentine painter, Luca Signorelli, who also rendered a holy family tondo about 1491 having some similar sculptural qualities, which Michelangelo seems to have admired. However in no way does Signorelli's work match the brilliance of color we see in the Doni painting, and later, even more forcefully in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. The mystery seems to be why a man who was so GOOD at it, seems to have ABHORRED painting so much.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Modern Art Invasion

It's hard for us to imagine today, in this Post-Modern era of an international art world, or even in the context of the last century when the United States so dominated the world of art after WW II,  but a hundred years ago, in the early years of the Twentieth Century, this country was an artistic backwater.  We were only vaguely familiar with the artistic trends rocking the European art scene and largely ignorant of the movers and shakers of the dozens of art "movements" terrorizing the staid art establishment that had so dominated France, England, Spain, Italy, and Germany for so many years. Art in America had only recently assimilated Impressionism and was still, in fact, debating it's finer points long after the style had become almost antique in Europe.

A number of American artists of the time had in mind to change all that. They counted among their membership men like Walt Kuhn, Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Bellows, John Sloan, and Maurice Prendergast. Davies and Kuhn spent the summer of 1912 in Europe rounding up a selection of works representing all the current art movements. What they brought back with them was over 1300 works representing 300 different artists.  The list read like a who's who of Modern Art. Names like Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, Derain, and Duchamp were shown side by side with American artists, Stuart Davies, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Joseph Stella, and others.

The show opened on February 17, 1913 in the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory in New York to an audience of over 70,000 people. A smaller version of the show traveled inland to Chicago, and later to Boston. The effect was stunning, also scandalous and amusing as a naive American public struggled to come to terms with the European artistic invasion of their native shores and sensibilities.

Known today simply as The Armory Show,
 American art would never be the same again.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Encountering My Own Portrait

In studying the lives and works of various artists, I'm always on the lookout for some interesting little quirk or peculiar incident or personality trait to use as a point of departure from which to launch into the depth of character that makes that artist unique. At times, I devour art books voraciously. I've been known to  go through three or four a month. I have some favorites--Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Manet--not necessarily because of their artwork, but because of who they were as artists and as individuals. Another all time favorite is Pablo, Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santisma Trinidad Ruiz Picasso. (I just had to do that.) Imagine my surprise, in thumbing through a book on...HIM...when I came face to face with a drawing by Picasso of ME! It was uncanny. The likeness was incredible--the beard, the eyes, the expression, the bald head, the body proportions, even the hands.

The date at the bottom of the page told me it was drawn in pencil about 1915 and could be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The style was surprisingly realistic for that period in Picasso's work. The strangest thing is, I don't at all recall sitting for the portrait. No, I'm not really that old. The figure is the Parisian art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, a longtime friend of Picasso, who was largely responsible for promoting his work during the prewar period. More than any other single individual, this man "made" Picasso the artist. In May of 1901, Picasso set up housekeeping in Paris. In June of that same year, he had his first one-man show in Vollard's Gallery. There is no record I could find of how many works by Picasso were exhibited, nor the prices they brought, but he sold fifteen.  He was just 20 years old.

This was not the first time Picasso had done a portrait of Vollard. Five years earlier, in 1910, during the period when he was just starting to explore Synthetic Cubism, he did a much more probing visual investigation of the man. Unlike the 1915 pencil drawing, which is a full-length image of a conservative businessman in a three-piece suit, the earlier, painted portrait is awash with Picasso's angular elements through which he attempts to expose the figural planes and linear structure of his subject. It is a full-faced, dark, brooding, half-length portrait full of interesting shaded gradations. The likeness is there. IT, too, looks like me, though not so obviously. Vollard had the same feeling. He often said his friends couldn't recognize him in the portrait; though it's also recounted that his four-year-old grandson had no trouble in doing so. I'm no great believer in reincarnation, but it would seem ironically appropriate that a wealthy, successful art dealer should be reincarnated as an unknown, late-twentieth century painter so that he might know life from the "other side" of the easel.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Lowest Form of Painting

It's interesting that in discussing preferences for one type of art over another and the tolerance we try to show even those types of art of which we are not fond, there is one type of painting that seems to be almost universally rediculed in nearly every art circle in which I have ever circulated. I have even dabbled in it a few times (five or six paintings I think) and displayed these much-maligned works amongst my other paintings. The reaction at one show I recall in particular was that I was asked to REMOVE them from my display. They were not obscene, the subjects were not in bad taste, they made no political statement, and were technically quite competant (in my humble opinion), certainly on a par with the rest of my work. Moreover, they were actually more difficult to do than most of my other work.

There is a certain historic precedent for such works. Paul Gauguin is said to have done some of them, and may, in fact, have invented them. An entire country actually seems to have them as part of their cultural heritage. Yet no gallery I have ever known would be caught dead with such works on their walls and very few artists would admit to having tried doing even so much as ONE. We have all seen them, perhaps secretly admired them, maybe even have one hidden away somewhere in the deepest, darkest reaches of a back closet. What is this dreaded painted scourge on the art world? Why, the velvet painting, of course.

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