Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Art Museums and Movie Palaces

Louisville, Kentucky's J.B. Speed Memorial Museum of Art, ca. 1927
Milwaukee Art Museum,
100 years in the future?
Sometimes I'm led to wonder, given the lengths art museums have to go to today to attract visitors, whether in another generation or so, a lot of them will be forced to close their doors for lack of support. It would seem that today, if you want to give an art show, and get anyone to come, you either have to have the ghost of van Gogh, elephant dung, or tofu sculpture to more than raise an eyebrow of interest among the local gentry. And you practically need live performances of the whole Star Wars trilogy to bring in the men, women, and children off the streets. Add to that the apparent necessity that museums themselves be architectural works of art (right) which seem at least 100 years beyond their time, and cost 100 times what they did 100 years ago when many of our art museum first raised their roofs, and you end up with a tremendously costly burden of proof of relevance insofar as the present is concerned.  The big museums can afford this. They have the people, the prestige, and the premises to survive. It's the little fellers I'm worried about, in smaller, Midwestern towns like Louisville (above), Nashville, Columbus, Memphis, Des Moines, places with very modest, Beaux-arts museums and collections, which survive mostly on handouts already, the vast majority of the local population couldn't even  find the local art museum without a street map.

The Cadillac of Chicago's shrinking theater district.
It's happened before, not to art museums, but to another sort of museum, those glorious marble palaces dedicated first to vaudeville and then motion pictures.  Motion pictures killed off vaudeville and those "museums" that couldn't or wouldn't adapt became either parking lots or dime stores.  As the popularity of motion pictures grew in the 1930s and 40s with the advent of "talkies" the museums dedicated to displaying their art became ever more and more lavish, sometimes growing in size to as many as 2,500 seats. Chicago's old Palace Theater is a fine example. Having made the transition from being a vaudeville showcase for the likes of Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Mae West, Jimmy Durante, and Sophie Tucker, the gracious old theater was even more popular featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, and Kathryn Hepburn. Then came Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, and Ed Sullivan and it was literally "lights out." Today, after millions of dollars in renovation, the Cadillac Palace (guess who put up a lot of the money) is one of only three old time Chicago theaters (out of more than a dozen) left in what was once the hottest theater district in the nation.

Are silent art Museums next?
During the 1960s, when I was a student in Cincinnati, despite television, I had a choice of four palatial downtown movie theaters showing first-run films. Today, only one of those theaters is even still standing, and it's been turned into a Taco Bell. Years later when I revisited my old college haunts I found that, in all of downtown Cincinnati, there was only one movie theater (a two-screen cineplex) to be found tucked away off a second story skywalk in the back of an old hotel. In Los Angeles, the cradle of motion picture art, there is also only one movie theater dating back to the 1920s and silent films. Called, appropriately enough, The Silent Movie Theatre, this motion picture shrine shows only one film, ironically, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, said to be the last great silent film. When it opened in 1921, it was one of over 100. Are our smaller art museums today destined for such fates, instead of holding art relics, destined to become relics themselves? As the online art experience grows ever more accessible, cheaper, less virtual, and seemingly ever more real, will we one day eschew the two-hour walk-thru art experience for the leisurely five-minute surf-thru glance?

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Birds of a Different Color,
Caryl Bryer Fallert,
the art quilt has arrived.
There are all kinds of interesting ironies with regard to art and art history. Subject matters come and go, and then come again. Ditto for various styles. And, the same could be said about various art media as well. For example, two or three hundred years ago, if a painter failed to find work elsewhere, or if his work was overwhelmingly popular (an interesting irony), he could get a job designing tapestries, or see his paintings translated into delicately woven and embroidered works of art designed to warm the rooms and tame the acoustics of even the draftiest old medieval castle. Today, you probably couldn't buy this kind of tapestry if your life depended upon it (except for computer generated ones perhaps). Yet, one of the liveliest "new media" today is that of the "art quilt" (left). Often more closely related to painting than what we think of as traditional quilting, the art quilt bears a sibling relationship to both. And, though this still-evolving art form is a close cousin to the traditional tapestry, it is infinitely more varied and "modern."

Alexander Besieging Babylon (tapestry), 1661-65, Charles Le Brun
When we think about the art of tapestry weaving, one name stands apart from all other--La Manufacture des Meubles de la Couronne. If you've never heard of it, perhaps you know it by its more popular name, Gobelins. Founded in 1667 in Paris, this royal tapestry works may have been built on French soil, but it had its roots in Italy, England, and Northern Europe as well, drawing from a pool of designers, artisans, and weavers dating back more than a thousand years. But it was the reign of Louis XIV that pulled these threads all together into the most incredible art factory ever seen before or since. Much of the success of the enterprise rests with one Charles Le Brun. His allegorical depictions of the Sun King likened to Alexander the Great were not only great PR for his king and patron, but great art as well.

Neptune and Anymone (tapestry), 1757, Francois Boucher
Le Brun's Alexander Besieging Babylon (above), dating from 1661-65 is an incredibly complex scene of Alexander riding atop a massive white chariot pulled by a team of elephants (no less), amid a melange of celebrants, soldiers, and spoils of war so great they all but obscure the central figures. (I know it sounds hard to lose two elephants and a big white chariot but it happens.) Le Brun also designed a series of tapestries titled Maisons Royales, which depicted the splendors of life in the court of Louis XIV. In the eighteenth century, production demands grew so great, two more factories were opened at Aubusson and Beauvais which worked from cartoons (tapestry designs) by popular Rococo painters, Francois Boucher and Charles Coypel. Tapestries such as Boucher's Neptune and Anymone (directly above) from The Loves of the Gods series and Coypel's The Ball in Barcelona from The Stories of Don Quixote series were no longer used merely to cover vast expanses of walls, but were placed in large, elaborate, gold leaf frames, competing for wall space with regular oil paintings. Ironically, painters today are having the same "problem" with regard to the tapestry's close cousin, the quilt.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Stuart Davis

Garage No. 1, 1917, Stuart Davis,
Robert Henri's student
One of the hallmarks of parents, going back at least to Adam and Eve, maybe before, is that they want to protect their children from bad influences. During the 1800s, and early 1900s, this instinct was especially a problem for parents of fresh young artists, right out of college, at a time when the only way to round out and complete a thorough art education was to study abroad primarily France, but also sometimes in Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. The problem was, that parents worried about what exposure to the radical influences of modern art from these countries might do to their impressionable young sons and daughters. It wasn't that they did not trust their offspring, but the fear that in returning, the work of their artistic treasures would forever be tainted with "foreign" influences. This was no doubt the feeling as the parents of a young Stuart Davis enrolled him instead in the New York art school of Robert Henri.

Father's fears realized, jazz and a foreign influence,
Hot Still-Scape for Six Color--7th Avenue Style,
1940, Stuart Davis, lingering Picasso.
Henri was thoroughly American. Stuart's father knew him well, and in fact, as art director of the Philadelphia newspaper, The Press, he actually employed as illustrators the work of many of Henri's artistic proteges, including John Sloan, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens. The elder Davis felt his son was "safe" with Henri. And in 1914, when young Stuart was fortunate to have  five watercolors accepted in the International Exhibition of Modern Art, his father was no doubt overjoyed at his son's success. However when the show opened at the Sixty-ninth Regimental Armory, what has since come to be called "The Armory Show" not only confirmed a father's suspicions regarding the "foreign" influence of "modern" art, but also proved his worst nightmare. No longer did a would-be artist have to study in Europe for his mind to be polluted by the "worst" that continent had to offer.  Stuart saw Van Gogh, he saw Picasso, he saw Gauguin, and Matisse; and to his father's dismay, it changed his art forever.

International Surface No. 1, 1960,
Stuart Davis, Pop goes the Abatract.
Robert Henri had always encouraged his students to paint what was around them. Stuart Davis was no exception. From the beginning, like Henri's famous "Group of Eight," his work had always centered upon the urban scene. Perhaps somewhat to his father's relief, he didn't reject his American culture, just the traditional ways of depicting it. He painted New York like Picasso might have, using Matisse's flaring colors, emphasizing the undeniable picture plane of the canvas as did Van Gogh, while all along searching for a deeper meaning to the gaudy signs and billboards that defined the American city, much as Gauguin tried to do with the South Pacific. He came to reject all tendencies toward illusion. His work became more and more, that of flat design, never devoid of subject matter, but ever more and more abstract. However it was an abstraction of realism rather than illusion. The result was that, not only was he a strong forebearer to Abstract Expressionism, but amazingly, with his heavy emphasis on words, letters, and signs, he also served as a direct link from the past to the Pop Art that replaced it.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Stanford White

Stanford White in a Stanford White Frame;
framed by the press?
The last decade of the nineteenth century is often referred to as the "gay nineties." The last decade of 20th century has been called the "gay nineties" too, but obviously with a different connotation. The period 1890 to 1900 is usually pictured as, first of all, lighthearted, as well as frivolous, ornate, pretentious, rambunctious, pretty, and petty. It was a time of overblown expectations, elegant male dominance, swashbuckling financial adventurism, delicate feminine retreat, warm family values, Victorian morality, and barely concealed decadence. In the arts, it was a time of John Singer Sargent, Richard Morris Hunt, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Louis Sullivan, and perhaps the man whose designs and lifestyle singly personify the "gay nineties" more than any other individual--Stanford White.

H.H. Richardson's Woburn (Mass.) Public Library,
 1877, contrasts sharply with the nearby Boston
Public Library built 23 years later.
White was born in 1853, the son of a New York theater critic. At an early age, he showed a talent for painting and drawing, but was advised by the painter John La Farge that "...the chances of gaining recognition were faint, and those of making money, fainter still." Reluctantly the energetic, nineteen-year-old, red-haired youth became a draftsman, intent on eventually becoming an architect at a time when architects were suspected of being little more than glorified carpenters. He was fortunate, his apprenticeship was served under the stringent tutelage of the architectural magnum opus, Henry Hobson Richardson himself. While working for the "Great Mogul" as White called him, he met fellow apprentice Charles Follen McKim. Together, having saved a small amount from their $8 per week salaries, the two took off a summer to hit the art and architecture trail of high adventure in Europe. There they met Augustus Saint-Gaudens, already a successful sculptor busily engaged in sculpting monuments to Civil War legends. After what turned out to be almost a year of soaking up European culture and styles, White and McKim returned to the U.S. McKim joined forces with William R. Mead and William Bigelow to form an architectural firm. When Bigelow was forced to liquidate his holdings in the firm to satisfy a divorce settlement, McKim recommended Stanford White as the new junior partner.

Photo by Eric Baestscher
Boston Public Library, 1895, McKim, Mead & White
Old Madison Square Garden, 1825, McKim, Mead, and White (demolished 1968)
Old Pennsylvania Station, New York City, 1903-10, McKim, Mead, & White (demolished 1963)
It was an excellent choice. Over then next three decades as McKim, Mead, and White became the leading architectural firm in the leading economic area of the country, White became its flamboyant poster boy, McKim its academically grounded breadwinner, and Mead its stern taskmaster, serving, as he put it, " keep his partners from making damn fools of themselves." Their legendary works included the Boston Public Library (by McKim), the old Madison Square Garden (White's baby), and the enormous Pennsylvania Station (primarily McKim's work). White was a socialite workaholic who literally designed anything asked of him--buildings, monuments, yachts, interiors, magazine covers, parades, banquets, restaurants, even items as mundane as picture frames (top). He kept such a whirlwind business and social schedule he was probably the first businessman to see the automobile as a business necessity. So it was when, on the night of June 25, 1906, as he sat alone at his customary front table in Madison Square Garden watching a stage show, he was shot three times by the Pittsburgh millionaire, Harry K. Thaw, who claimed White had "despoiled" his wife. In the scandal that followed, Thaw was acquitted of the crime by reason of insanity while White, the victim, was convicted in the press, if not the courtroom, of just about everything from rape to poor taste.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Social Realism

Jersey Homestead Mural, 1936, Ben Shahn
As artists today, we sometimes long for the times in the past when the work of painters had an impact upon their own world at large. We long for a time when a major painting might "shake up" the social and political powers by awakening within the general population some spark of outrage that would, in turn, bring about some long-needed demand for change, thus improving the overall well-being of generations to come. WOW! Wouldn't it be great if a painter could do that today? Sadly, it's not going to happen. A painter hoping to do such work today would find himself holding one-man shows in his own attic. A gallery attempting to promote such work today would have to serve some very good cheese and extremely expensive wine to garner much of a crowd at an opening. A collector of such work would have to be either very gullible or very shrewd beyond all reason, caring little about contemporary tastes or what his or her heirs might do with the stuff when he died. It's unlikely any major museum would be much interested in such a bequest.

Nazi Interrogation, 1936, George Grosz
Today, an artist hoping to make such an impact would hardly choose paint on canvas. He'd probably go with film or video, or more likely, a Web site where his disturbing visual creation could be seen easily by millions in a medium allowing them to manipulate the work and respond to it electronically. Still we can reminisce. Alas, those were the "good old days." Those were the days of Social Realism. didn't know it had a name? Not only that but it had artists, men such as Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn  (top), Jack Levine (below), George Grosz (above), and others. We might more accurately call it Depression Art, because it coincided almost perfectly with the economic and social turmoil of the 1930s, before television usurped art's visual impact and movies were still shackled by the iron hand of self-imposed censorship and the Hayes Commission.

Gangster's Funeral, 1952-53, Jack Levine,
perhaps the funeral of Social Realism as well,
attended (but not mourned) by TV and
Abstract Expressionism.

Social Realism was the last great art movement before the Abstract Expressionists took over and moved creative expression into the esoteric, intellectual, and aesthetic stratosphere where artists painted only for other artists, critics, or cultured effetes. It was a time when Hopper could paint a corner coffee shop at two a.m. and cause people to realize how cold and lonely urban life could be in the midst of a population numbering in the millions. It was a time when Shahn could paint his outrage at a lack of safety precautions causing underground mine disasters in West Virginia, or the outcome of a famous trial with The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. (In contrast, we saw no such paintings after the OJ Simpson trial, did we?)  It was a time when Jack Levine could bring the light the political corruption that took place just beneath the surface of polite society as in his The Gangster's Funeral.  George Grosz captured the same look in the ugly, fat faces of his 30s Nazis. Today, we painters make no pretense about changing anything more serious than the public's taste for teal and mauve. We wouldn't dare paint anything predicated on offending "political correctness." Today, despite our nostalgia for the "good old days," we are a spineless bunch.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


A page from the catalogue of the
First Impresssionist Exhibition,
Paris, 1874
As Americans, when we hear the term "secession" our eyes glaze over and we lapse into a U.S. Civil War history daze expecting the next word out of the instructor's mouth to be "reconstruction."  Few people are familiar with the term "secession" as it applies to art history.  You can relax, it has nothing to do with American Civil War art history. The term came to use around 1900, not in the U.S. but in Central Europe. Moreover, it had little to do with politics and everything to do with the oppressive force of various national art academies and their near total domination of the art world at the time. The French Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s had fought the battle first, though they didn't call it secession.

A poster from a 1900 Secessionist exhibit.
The First Secessionist movement came in 1892 in Munich, followed quickly by the Berlin Secession in 1893, and the most famous, the Viennese Secession in 1897. Later came the Roman Secession, which was an adverse reaction to not only Academic art, but Futurism as well (very strong in Italy at the time). The effort was to make art global in nature, uniting artists from the various local schools opposing Academicism into an international force, making the work various secessionist movements and their members known all over the western world. They did this by emphasizing two, often-opposing elements, quality and quantity in not only their work but in the dozens of exhibitions they mounted to promote their goals. The Secessionist movements embraced not only painting, but sculpture, graphic arts, and architecture as well. Symbolism played an important part, as did various Art Nouveau influences--almost anything that was not Renaissance, not Baroque, not Rococo, and especially NOT ACADEMIC.

The most famous Secessionist movement
developed in Vienna, which had its own
museum as seen in this 2006 photo.
Secessionist movements were very democratic, admission prices to their exhibitions were often free or very modest, with free catalogs and guided tours. It was an overt strategy to bypass traditional avenues to artistic acceptance in favor of mass, public appeal. Often the exhibits centered on a single work of art or artist with all the other participants creating and exhibiting work to supplement the main theme. Artists such as Gustav Klimt, Carl Moll, Koloman Moser, Maximillian Lenz and Max Klinger rose to prominence from these movements. And the various secessionist movements were not merely flashes of greatness. Their exhibits continued well into the first decade of the new century, and were to lay the groundwork for what later came to be know as Avant-garde art.  In fact, had they not mounted their crusade for freedom from the Academic past, there might never have been and Avant-garde movement.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sargent's Portraits

Self-portrait, 1906, John Singer Sargent,
his own "mugshot"
Even though you're good at it, even though you're famous for it, even though you earn big bucks doing it, can an artist do so much of a particular type of painting that he grows sick of them, even though their popularity demands he continue? That was the predicament in which John Singer Sargent found himself shortly after the turn of the century as wealthy European dowagers and their debutante daughters practically lined up outside his London front door in an effort to join the elite group of rich and famous society ladies to be portrayed by perhaps the most successful portrait painter in history. He came to despise the "paughtraits" for which they heaped obscene amounts of money upon him to paint, referring to many of them from the latter part of his career as "mug shots."

Ceiling Mural, 1921, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, John Singer Sargent
This was not the only difficulty Sargent faced. Coupled with the fact that his portraits had ceased, even in his own eyes, to be great art; was the uprising known as "modern art." His style and subject matter came to appear dated as compared to the work of Picasso, Matisse, even as compared to a painter from his own generation--Monet. Critics declared him passe`. His work was that of another century. During his later years, Sargent sought refuge painting murals. Today, even though they were painted in England, his mural work can be found in numerous public buildings in the Boston area. He often journeyed to Boston to supervise their installation. So great was his reputation, he was even known to demand changes in the architecture to accommodate them.

Madame X, 1884,
John Singer Sargent
Sargent died suddenly in 1925 as he once more prepared to depart London for America,  this time to supervise the installation of a series of murals in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Sargent's most famous (or infamous) portrait was of the American-born Paris socialite, Judith (Virginie) Gautreau. It was this daring depiction of a pasty-white dilettante in a sleek black dress with it's scandalous cleavage and slipped shoulder-strap (later altered) that drove Sargent from Paris to London in 1884. Ironically, dispite his distate for it, Sargent eventually sold this painting to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, insisting upon the title Madame X. He described his subject as having a complexion of "...uniform lavender or blotting paper color all over." (She is said to have regularly ingested small amounts of arsenic to keep it this way.) Her mother told Sargent, "My daughter is lost--everyone in Paris is making fun of her. My son-in-law will have to challenge you to a duel." Sargent is said to have joked in response, "Every time I paint a portrait I make at least one enemy."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sale of the Century

There are those among us who, for some reason, just cannot resist going to auctions, garage sales, yard sales, or other merchandising venues, in hopes of finding a rare bargain. And, indeed, there are afloat, just enough rags-to-riches stories of some fortunate bargain hunter stumbling upon a valuable antique or work of art to whet the appetite of even the most jaded "K-Mart shopper" in favor of such daring forays into the land of flotsam and jetsam. Too bad for these folks today that they were not alive in the summer of 1657, strolling along St. Anthoniesbreestraat, in Amsterdam, pausing at the De Keyser's Kroon tavern to see what all the excitement was about. In the square out front, there was stacked all manner of fine furniture, paintings, collectibles, costumes, antiques, and household items for the curious to poke through as a Dutch auctioneer did his best to incite the townspeople into a buying frenzy.

Saskia, ca. 1635, Rembrandt van Rijn
There were bargains to be had. It was a bankruptcy sale, and the impecunious debtor was an artist. Dozens of his paintings were being auctioned off to the highest bidder at prices that today would make art collectors cry. On top of that, this artist was a collector of fine art himself. Among the 363 items he was being forced to part with were paintings by the likes of Raphael, Giorgione, Van Eyck, and even a preparatory drawing  in Titian's own hand for his Martyrdom of St. Peter (now in the Louvre). The whole lot brought 11,218 guilders (about $4,500), far short of the 20,000 guilders (about $8,100) needed to satisfy the creditors of the no longer fashionable Dutch artist, Rembrandt van Rijn.

Titus as a Monk, 1660, Rembrandt,van Rijn

It could have been worse. Following the death of his beloved wife, Saskia (above), Rembrandt was left to take care of his one-year-old son, Titus. In his wife's will, he inherited an endowment upon which he could have lived quite comfortably. He hired a nurse for his son and proceeded to carry on a scandalous affair with her which ended in his having her incarcerated for in a reformatory for "dissolute behavior" (whatever that might be). He took on another nurse, Hendrickje Stoffels, picked up where he left off, fathered a daughter, Cornelia, and proceeded to live lavishly beyond his means, which eventually ended up in their being summoned into court for concubinage. (They had chosen not to marry so as not to lose his entitlement in Saskia's will.) It was only by a convoluted legal maneuver on the part of his son, Titus (above, right), who died in 1668, leaving his share of his mother's property to Hendrickje and Cornelia, that Rembrandt was able to avoid joining the ranks of the homeless.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Roman Painting

House of the Vetti, Pompeii
Having dealt at considerable length with great paintings from the last thousand years, I guess I should give at least some time to painting from the thousand years or so before that. Aside from some cave painting and that which the Greeks saw fit to decorate their ceramics, most of the rest of the history of painting can be summed up in that dating from the Roman Empire. And even here there is precious little of it from the BCE period. However, thanks to the Roman art of fresco painting, some minor earthquakes, and an unfortunately volcanic eruption near the Roman towns of Pompeii and Heraculeum, we do have barely enough two-dimensional art preserved for posterity to enable us to catch a glimpse of what Roman artists had to offer in the way of painting.

Domus Aurea ceiling, Nero's palace, Fabbulus,
Rome, first century CE.
Even by today's standards, it was surprisingly good. Roman artists had an excellent grasp of one-point perspective, even to the point of painting fool-the-eye architectural features on the frescoed walls of some of their finer homes. The newly restored Room of Masks in the House of Augusta has a theater scene expertly depicting a stage, curtains, columns, topped by a pagoda style roof. A similar wall in the House of the Vetti in Pompeii (above, left) has a painted window niche replete with a still-life on the sill and featuring a very deep illusionary perspective while the surrounding area is highly decorated with delicate, flowering vines and ivy. Near the end of the fifteenth century, the remains of the Domus Aurea, the palace of our friend the fiddling-firebug, Emperor Nero, was discovered beneath the Baths of Trajan. The vaults were heavily decorated by a painter named Fabbulus (above right), who apparently lived up to his name, painting in a manner to suggest marine grottos (as well as their supposed flora and fauna) found along the Italian coast of the Aegean Sea. The fifteenth century Italians loved it, and imitated it in what came to be know as the "Grotesque" style.

Roman couple from first century
However, one of the most interesting and striking paintings from the Roman era is a fresco dating from the first century CE of a man and woman, thought by some to be the lawyer Terentius Neus and his wife.  Others have held him to be the baker, Paquius Proculus and wife whose Pompeii shop was next door to the house where the portrait was found. In any case, the only slightly stylized features give us a good feel for not only their appearance and the state of the art insofar as Roman portrait painting is concerned, but a surprising degree of insight into their personalities. She thoughtfully clutches a stylus and a wax tablet used to keep records, while he holds a rolled scroll. Their eyes are somewhat exaggerated. Her features are otherwise quite delicate, his typically Roman with the prominent nose associated with his race. Both appear quite attractive and learned. It's probably not the greatest painting of the first thousand years in the history of art, but it's a good representative piece attesting to the considerable skills and highly developed artist's eye of Roman painters of the time.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Robert Campin

As working, and sometimes teaching, artists it is very gratifying to see a pupil excel. And, it is an ironic twist of art history that sometimes an artists is remembered not so much for his own work but for the influence he may have had upon the work of a far greater painter. The Florentine master, Ghirlandaio, is as much recalled for his having trained Michelangelo as for his own early Renaissance work. In the Netherlands, about this same time there was kind of a reverse twist on this. An artist referred to now as the Master of Flemalle is known primarily by tracing his distinct painting style back through the work of two somewhat lesser Flemish painters, Roger van der Weyden and Jacques Daret. It is through the work of Daret and van der Weyden (whose work is easily on a par with his assumed instructor's) that art historians have mostly attributed the work of the Master of Flemalle to Robert Campin.

The Entombment, 1410-20, Robert Campin
Just as the attribution of his name to the work of the Master of Flemalle is a bit shaky, so is Robert Campin's date of birth, thought to be around 1378. Similarly, almost nothing is known of his early years until his work came to prominence around 1406 in the city of Tournai. Often another Flemish master, Jan van Eyck, is given credit for everything from inventing oil painting to "humanizing" the painting of the human figure and the "discovery" of naturalism. Robert Campin was his senior and many of these characteristics can be seen in work attributed to him dated well before that of van Eyck.  The Entombment (above), was painted between 1410 and 1420, which puts this earliest work some ten to twenty years before van Eyck's most famous masterpiece, the Arnolfini Wedding.  It is clear therefore, that Campin must be credited, along with van Eyck, as being one of the founders of the Flemish School of painting, which was the shining star of the entire Northern Renaissance.
The Merode Altarpiece, 1425-28, Robert Campin

Campin's work marked a radical break with what had been, that is, the elegant, gold-leafed, International Gothic Style. His most famous work, The Merode Altarpiece (above), painted around 1425-28, seems to be an attempt to bridge the gap between ancient religious events and the life and times in which he lived. Divided into three panels depicting the painting's donors in prayer on the left, peering through an open door to the main panel, an annunciation, while Joseph tinkers in his carpentry shop on the right, is set in thoroughly Flemish surroundings. Mary is dressed in the current fashion of the day, in a middle-class Flemish interior, before a fireplace, leaning against what we would today call a church pew. The one-point perspective is exceedingly natural even though it was not typical of the time. And Campin makes good use of the then-new medium of oil painting in rendering in extreme detail everything from the lavish folds in his draped figures to a distant cityscape seen through a window in Joseph's carpentry shop. Given such a breakthrough in style, such mastery of the new medium of oil painting, and such a warm, homey, yet inspirational altarpiece, it's a shame the Master of Flemalle chose, in the Medieval tradition, not to sign his work. Fortunately for art historians, with the dawn of the fifteenth century, he was one of the last painters to espouse such modesty.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Renissance Cities--Venice

Return of the Bucentaur to he Molo on Ascension Day, 1727-30, Caneletto
When the President of the United States travels today, he boards a Boeing 747 nearly as big as the White House itself, and considerably sleeker. Crammed to the ailerons with enough electronic gear to start a small TV network, the massive, flying, presidential palace roars off into the wild, blue yonder with a grace and heroic power befitting its importance in the political scheme of things. During the Renaissance, the Doge of Venice had a lesser degree of political power (except within his great city of course), but no less grand and glorious mode of transportation. It was called the Bucentaur (above), and rather than gliding over the air streams it glided over the Grand Canal of his aquatic municipality with much the same grace and heroic power for its time as Air Force One.

The magnificent barge was meant primarily for ceremony and entertaining. Some 98 feet long and 26 feet wide with a lower deck sprouting 46 oars pulled by 138 rowers, and a grandly decorated upper deck for the Doge and his court, it's doubtful its low-slung beauty would have made it very seaworthy had it sailed far into the Adriatic. But in its own domain, from its overhanging throne room over the stern to the seated statue of Justice mounted on the double-prowed bow, its princely presence was second to none. With its red and gold banner streaming in the wind over its Venetian red canopy, its very existence was supremely appropriate to a city whose streets were paved with water.

Venetian View, ca. 1768, Francesco Guardi
Venice was founded in the sixth century upon a group of marshy islands in a shallow lagoon at the northern head of the Adriatic Sea as a refuge from invading Germanic tribes. At first, little more than a handful of tiny fishing villages, in the eighth century they came together and elected a leader called the Doge. Thanks to its geographic location and nearby port, by 1300, Venice was one of the most powerful city-states in all of Europe, growing rich as a trade crossroads between the Turkish East and the fragmented fiefdoms of the West. With this wealth came great art and artists, including painters such as Antonello de Messina, Andrea Mantegna, Francesco Guardi (above), Giorgione, Titian, and the Bellini brothers (Giovanni and Gentile). Their father, Jacopo Bellini, (also a painter) was said to have been employed in decorating the interior of the Bucentaur.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

American Realism

One of the most persistent hallmarks of American art, painting in particular, is our fondness for Realism (with a capital "R"). The French think they invented the style, citing artists such as Gustave Courbet or Camille Corot; but long before either were ever born, since colonial times and John Singleton Copley and Charles Willson Peale, one might even go so far as to say Realism has been the predominant style of art in the U.S. And in the more recent past, it can still be seen in the work of Andrew Wyeth. Americans have, at times, flirted boldly with everything from seductive Romanticism to harsh abstraction, but again and again, the same, no-nonsense, Yankee pragmatism that says hot dogs should be the same length as the bun, or that the popcorn is just as important as the movie, exerts itself and we find hard-edged, you-can-tell-exactly-what-it-is painting continuing its presence even in the most snooty, upper-crust art galleries.

Perils of the Sea, 1881, Winslow Homer
Each century has its "Kings of Realism." I've already mention Copley and Peale from the 18th century and Wyeth from the 20th. During the 19th century two names compete for top honors--Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. Homer is somewhat Romantic. Eakins, on the other hand, is so nearly his opposite, so analytically cut and dried, even dramatically so, that what we have are two extremes which, together, mark the outer boundaries of what American Realism is all about. Homer started as a Civil War illustrator (a foundry of realism if there ever was one). After the war, he studied Corot and Courbet in France and found their style matched his first name--Yankee (I kid you not). In returning to the US, his style matured over his lifetime, becoming slightly more "arty" perhaps, but never losing sight of the American tradition for (as Dragnet's Joe Friday put it) "just the facts, ma'am."

The Gross Clinic, 1875, Thomas Eakins
One has only to catch a glimpse of Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic, painted in 1875, to recognize it as one of perhaps two or three of the greatest American paintings of the 19th century (all of which were rigidly realistic). There are elements of Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulip though Eakins goes beyond this prototype in depicting not only the "facts," but the drama, even the emotion of the moment as one of the patient's female relatives hides her face, unable to stand the sight of her kinsman's open incision. Eakins' skill at portraiture is immediately apparent, but so are his compositional skills in the seemingly spontaneous grouping of the figures that in fact, hides any apparent studied arrangement that might in any detract from the naturalness of his presentation. If art imitates science, only in America is there an art so realistic that it attempts to become a science.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Kazimir Malevich

Kazimir Malevich Self-portrait, circa 1908
If you think that all art should be comforting, literal, narrative, perhaps somewhat erotic, and depict rationally classical subject matter, then your taste in art coincides quite easily with those of that noted German art connoisseur and would-be artist from the early 20th century, Adolf Hitler. If, on the other hand, you feel art should have no relation whatsoever with nature, humanity, politics, or social message but exist purely for its own being, its form dictated only from the graphic, intellectual exercises of the artist's brain, then your tastes would fall perfectly in line with another art extremist of the time, Kazimir Malevich.

Suprematist Composition:
White on White, 1918,
Kazimir Malevich
Kazimir (or sometimes Kasimir) Malevich was ten years older than Hitler. Born in Russia, near Kiev, in 1878, Kazimir studied art first in his hometown, then in Leningrad, even managing to publish a book, The Nonobjective World in 1926. It was to literature what his groundbreaking Suprematist Composition: White on White (right) from 1918, was to painting. He labeled his work "Suprematist" and under the influence of Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian, took Picasso's Cubism to it's ultimate conclusion. In the early 1930s the Communist government of his homeland came to the conclusion they didn't like his work despite the fact he'd moved back from purely nonobjective art into abstract figures, rich in color and innovative design elements. About the same time his aesthetic opposite in Germany decided he also didn't like Malevich's work which he was labeled, along with the other Eastern European Avant-garde, as "degenerate."

Suprematist Painting:
(Rectangle and Circle), 1915,
Kazimir Malevich
Scores of Malevich's work from the 1920s were brought by the artist himself out of Russia to be exhibited in Germany, which, at the time, was more accepting of his work than was the Soviet Union. Malevich died in 1935 without having retrieved any of them. About the same time, the director of the Landesmuseum in Hanover, Germany, Dr. Alexander Domer, recognizing the importance of Malevich's work in the development of abstract art, managed to smuggle out of Germany in his luggage, two small works by Malevich when he fled to the United States. Today, for the time being at least, Suprematist Painting (Rectangle and Circle) (left) and an untitled drawing rest in Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum; though since the fall of Communism in Russia in 1993, Malevich's heirs have mounted a campaign to recover all his widely scattered work. Such repositories as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Harvard museum have agreed to purchases or return of their Malevich collections. However, the biggest cache rests with the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, with owns 36 Malevich paintings, making it the largest collection outside Russia. Not surprisingly, with a single Malevich Suprematist period painting now worth upwards to a million dollars, the Stedelijk has announced it has no plans to repatriate any of Malevich's work.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Paula Rego

Paula Rego Self-portrait
Although I try, goodness knows I try, I'm sure I don't write about female artists as often as their numbers or work would justify. More than that, I don't write about Portuguese artists as often as I should either. Okay, I've never written about a Portuguese artist, much less a female Portuguese artist...mea culpa. Paula Rego is worth writing home about. She's quite the unique individual. Try to imagine an artist whose influences are as diverse as Walt Disney and Dante's Inferno. Maybe Disney should do an animated feature on Dante. They wouldn't have to look far to fine a lead artist. Rego's work is often compared to illustration perhaps because of her Disney affections. She has a body of work covering such classics as Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Snow White, and the ostrich ballerinas from Fantasia. Her father owned Portugal's first private cinema. It was there she "cut her teeth" on such Disney fare. But let me warn you, before you go searching through the archives, don't expect anything even faintly resembling the "Disney style." It's an affection, not an affectation. For this, look instead to the ancient illustrations of Dante's Inferno, another of her father's favorites. Bedtime stories from The Inferno?

Snow White Playing with Her Father's Trophies,
1995, Paula Rego
The Disney connection is but a small part of her work. Rego's art is an excellent example of the difference between abstract and nonrepresentational work. Though she comes close at times, like Picasso, she never steps over the line. Though she never mentions the work of her Iberian neighbor, there are similarities between her work and his early, Pre-Cubist painting. At times there can be found the Fauvist look of Matisse as well. But also, there is a sketchy, etchy, illustrative, almost comic strip quality to some of her art. There is little doubt in looking at any of it that its artist is a woman. A female point of view permeates both the content and attitude, and if she's nothing else, she is a woman with an attitude. She's outspoken, very literate, opinionated, and blunt.

Girl and Dog Series, early 1990s,
Paul Rego
Paula Rego had her first commercial success in England through the Marlborough Galleries with her Girl and Dog series (left).  Later, her Maids series based upon Jean Genet's play in which the maids murder their mistress, was spread in limited edition prints around the world. In a typically female manner, nowhere in her biographical material could I find mention of her age or date of birth, though I think I recall seeing somewhere the year 1935. Her husband, Vic, was a tremendous influence on both her life and work. His death in 1988 she recounted in her Departures (below) series. Her media ranges from pen and ink washes to traditional oil on canvas. It wouldn't be going to far, I don't think, to call Paula Rego Portugal's most famous female artist...okay perhaps we might even leave out the female part.  But it can never be left out of her work.

Paula Rego with her Departure Series, 1990

Casa das Historia Paula Rego, Cascais, near Lisbon ,Portugal, her own museum.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Paul Signac

Portrait of Paul Signac, 1890, George Seurat
In chronicling the annuls of mankind's endeavors, very possibly the most important word in the historian's vocabulary is the word "first." Men's and women's fame and fortune often balances precariously on those five little letters. Occasionally it happens that current events bestows a "first" honor on an individual only to have it taken away many years later by an astute historian who, having dethroned one individual, then has to build up the reputation of the new "first" individual. The whole enterprise sometimes takes on a silly "who cares" aspect in retrospect, but it persists in any case. Art is no different, except that the value of various artists work will fluctuate with the bestowal of that precious word. Picasso is credited with "inventing" Cubism, never mind that he worked so closely with Georges Braque in doing so that their work for a time is virtually indistinguishable. Despite that, Picasso was "first". Or take the artist Georges Seurat for example. Art history recalls him as the first "Neo-impressionist." Later they thought better of it and changed the designation to "Post-impressionist" and concocted the term "Pointillism" to describe his work. But nonetheless, he was "first."

Road to Gennevilliers, 1883, Paul Signac, an impressionist effort
before he came under the influence of Georges Seurat.
Seurat's "Braque" was Paul Signac. He's listed in art history as being a "follower" of Seurat. Well, perhaps, for a time. They met at the founding of the Salon des Independents in 1884. Thereafter they became close friends and together developed what later came to be know as Pointillism. But Seurat died in 1891 at the age of 32. Signac lived another forty years. And so, from that time on Seurat followed no one. In fact he led. Though not as well known, he led the pack with Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh's posthumous work in defining the Postimpressionist era. And with his pseudo-scientific studies of color, he was undoubtedly the most influential artists of his generation in sparking the colorist work of Fauvists such as Matisse, Vlaminck, Derain, and Delaunay. And, as president of the Salon des Independents from 1908 to 1934, he was a major figure in promoting these artists and their work.

Portrait of Felix Feneon, 1890, Paul Signac's Pointillism, one of his most famous works.
Paul Signac was born in 1863 into the comfort of a prosperous shopkeeping family. Financial independence is very often a major factor in the development of groundbreaking artists. It means they can paint what they want rather than what others will buy. It also granted Signac the freedom not to see the need for a formal art education. Unlike Seurat, he didn't attend the Ecole des Beaux-arts. He taught himself to paint, studying the work of Monet and others before teaming with Seurat in trying to "firm up" Impressionist color theory one paint dot at a time. Signac's work can easily be divided into two periods, that painted under the influence of Seurat, and the looser, large, "square" strokes having somewhat the effect of mosaic. Dare we call lit "Squareism?" Despite this, despite his undeniable influence on the post-Postimpressionists, despite the pure, colorist beauty of his twentieth century works, Signac will always be seen as painting in the shadow of Seurat. It's not fair. People who come in second don't get no respect.
The Grand Canal, 1905, Paul Signac, no longer dots but dashes of color.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Parmigianino Self-portrait, 1523-24
It's one of the most amazing little paintings I've ever seen. It's a self-portrait. The young artist was barely twenty when he rendered his precocious, reflected image from a convex mirror onto a round, wooden panel barely nine inches in diameter. In the foreground is the graceful image of his right hand, slender, feminine, and delicate. A window lights the scene from the left, illuminating his and brown hair and boyish face most effectively. It looks much too young to belong to such an accomplished artist.  The painting was done in 1523 just a year before he was to arrive in Rome to begin his professional career. His name was Girolamo Francesco Mazolla. He was born in 1503 in Parma, Italy, and it was from his hometown that he derived the name by which we know him today--Parmigianino--the boy from Parma.

The Conversion of St. Paul, 1528,
The youthful face in the mirror gives no hint of the misfortune that was to befall the talented young man in Rome. He died, a tired, worn-out man in his thirties. But in the seventeen years of his professional career, he managed to master the painting style of his hometown hero, Correggio, as well as Rome's Michelangelo, Raphael, Rosso Fiorentino, and Giulio Romano. Parmigianino had been in Rome for just a short time when it was Sacked by invaders from the North in 1527. He was imprisoned. Yet even there, he continued to paint. Upon his release, he was forced to flee Rome for Bologna where some of his greatest works were completed. One of the best, his 1530 painting, The Conversion of Paul, demonstrates a mastery of both medium and message. Parmigianino may have been the first artist to be considered a "Mannerist" painter. In this work, we see the full force of that much misunderstood and maligned style. It's a tour-de-force of his elegant, sometimes exasperating painting skill.

Madonna with the Long Neck,
 1535-40, Parmigianino
Parmigianino's most famous work was one of his last, painted in 1535 but still considered unfinished at his death. It is an enormous, full-length Madonna and child known as Madonna with the Long Neck. Critics have loved it and hated it for centuries because it is about as far removed from any other painting of its type either before or since as can be imagined. I mentioned that Parmigianino is exasperating. On the one hand he is probably the best painter of his time (excluding Michelangelo). Yet he insists upon an elegantly elaborate, anatomical (not to mention unbiblical) distortion of the mother and child as to be irreverent and even erotic. Some have likened it to an abstraction; others probe its setting and peripheral figures for deep symbolic meaning; while others simply have trouble getting past the massive thighs, petulant breasts, gossamer clinging garments, and stylish hairdo, not to mention the damnable goose neck from which the painting gets its name. Among art historians, Mannerist painting is not the most beloved period in art. Though Parmigianino, along side Tintoretto and Pontormo, are obviously the best of the lot, it's work such as this enigmatic Madonna that gives the style such a bad name.