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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mythology I


La Primavera, c. 1481, Sandro Botticelli
From the beginning of time, or at least the beginnings of art, there have been, broadly speaking, four areas of painting content--contemporary, religious, mythological, and formalistic. The earliest cave paintings were contemporary, dealing with current events or recent history. Religious works dealt entirely with various deities. Mythological works probably grew out of Greek religious content but came to prominence in Western art long after they had lost any religious following. And finally, in the 20th century, came formalistic content in which the subject of the art is art itself. At various times though history, several of these areas have dominated art. If we count painting as having come into its own during the Renaissance, then we find much of it religious, with mythology running a distant second but gaining ground. With the Reformation, contemporary content slowly began to dominate. During the 18th and 19th centuries, mythology replaced religion and contemporary subjects as the artist's subject of choice. Since Impressionism, contemporary subject matter has seesawed back and forth with newly important formalistic concerns while religion and mythology in art became practically non-existent. That's a brief, breathless history of art in one short blurb.

The Rape of Europa, 1910, Valentin Alexandrovich Serov
Today, while there, in fact, continues to be a small religious presence in painting, mythology is dead. Sandro Botticelli is credited with having painted the first revival of mythological content since Roman times with his La Primavera (top, 1481). In modern times, Valentin Alexandrovich Serov with his The Rape of Europa (left) in 1910 may well have been the last artist to seriously explore Greek mythology in painting. In between, there was the exuberance of Raphael's Galatea (below, right, 1506), the careful, narrative choreography of Guido Reni's Atalanta and Hippomenes (bottom, 1612), the Rococo fantasy of Boucher's Triumph of Venus, (1740) and the medieval longings of Edward Burne-Jones' King Arthur in Avalon. That's not to say we have no taste for mythology today. Movies and television love it. But movies and television are well suited for telling the moralistic stories for which mythology is famous. It's entertaining, intellectual, adventurous, sexually exciting escapism.


Triumph of Galatea, 1514, Raphael
Today, painting takes itself too seriously for any such foolishness. Moreover, today, if artists even know or care about mythology, they are ill-equipped to deal with it visually. Painted mythology demands a familiarity with the subject matter that most people (including artists) simply don't have. Or, it demands the ability and willingness on the part of the painter to visually expound upon the arcane antiquities of the subject which few if any artists possess. All of which would be of little consequence except that with religious painting seemingly following the same path to oblivion, we find relegated to benign obscurity fully half the traditional subject areas of the painter's art. And that's both sad and frightening.
Atalanta and Hippomenes, 1612, Guido Reni
 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Mythical Women in Art

Creation of Eve, 1506, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling,
Before the Renaissance, women entered into art only through a biblical portal.
Madonna in Sorrow, 17th Century,
Sassoferrato--sweet, chaste, and boring.
There's an old saying, undoubtedly originated by a man, "Women...you can't live with them and you can't live without them." (Women have also made the same claim about men.) That may not always be the case in real life, but it has been a common thread insofar as the portrayal of women in the arts. Before the fourteenth century, few women, other than the Eve and the Virgin Mary had appeared in art since the ancient goddesses of antiquity. And, except for Eve, none of them were portrayed nude. The nude figure of either sex was considered shameful. Then, with the rebirth of learning during the Renaissance, there came a rediscovery of the classical nude figures of ancient Rome in both painting and sculpture.


The Roman Venus
 
 
 
The Roman Diana
But even then, the first nude figures by Donatello and Michelangelo and others were primarily male. Only gradually, as church domination of art and artists waned with the Reformation, did female figures, and almost always, nude or semi-nude, take hold. Predominantly, such secular females were of mythical origins (and proportions). Venus, the Roman goddess of love, (right) was a favorite, followed by Diana, the goddess of the hunt and chastity, and then Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and the protector of warriors. Later, during the 19th century, the Mesopotamian myth of Lilith surfaced in both literature and painting. Then in 20th century art, stereotypical females replaced mythical females.

The Birth of Venus, 1484, Sandro Botticelli--more accurately, Venus rediscovered
From her rediscovery during the Renaissance, up until the downfall of Academicism during the latter half of the 19th century, Venus has been the favorite of artists and their patrons alike. And why not? She's beautiful, amorous, seductive, and most of all naked...err...excuse me...nude. As artists tired of the religious restrictions placed on their depictions of Mary, they turned to Venus, perhaps because she was everything Mary was not. And, being a goddess, far removed from contemporary life, she was a relatively safe, yet erotic model of idealised feminine beauty. And, most of all, she was neither virginal nor motherly.

Diana, the Huntress, 
1867, Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Diana, on the other hand, was something of a paradox. While sexually alluring in her athletic prowess and physical beauty, she was often seen as being frigid. Yet her perpetual virginity only added to her sexual allure. This untouched and untouchable quality thus created a psychological tension that often made her far more intriguing than Venus to the psyche of male artists. And, given her mastery of a predominantly male pastime, she long held a special appeal to artists' wealthy (mostly male) patrons as well.
 

Minerva Victorious over Ignorance:
Allegory on Rudolf II, 1591,
Bartholomeus Spranger
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Minerva, however, was usually thought of as being sexually neutral. Yet in Bartholomeus Spranger's Minerva Victorious over Ignorance: Allegory on Rudolf II (left), painted in 1591, we see a hefty, thoroughly militaristic, female figure with nude breasts "to die for." While not nude, in fact sheathed in what was supposed to pass for armour, she might as well be. Her body armour, with its amusing, 16th century "miniskirt," appears to be literally painted on her voluptuous young body. The painting may have been a political allegory, but it's also quite obvious that, even 400 years ago, sex and politics were inextricably mixed.

Lilith, 1887, John Co
With the figure of Lilith, we find that sex and religion are also intermixed. Lilith is described as a nocturnal visitor who consorted with men in sexual dreams. Goethe, in his poetic drama, Faust, was probably responsible for first mentioning her in modern times (early 19th century) while Robert Browning, in his poem, Adam, Lilith and Eve published during the 1820s, portrayed her as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. John Keats, around the same time, changed her name to Lamia and saw her as treacherous, beautiful, and a figure to be feared by men as a demon or vampire. Created at the same time as Adam, this mythical female figure was seen by the Romantics in 19th century England as the first woman in place of Eve. John Collier's Lilith (left) in 1887 portrays her as a rather modern looking woman entwined by a snake which she amorously caresses with her cheek. During the 20th century, Lilith has often been associated with the women's liberation movement.



Circe, 1927, George Grosz
 
But, even before the dawn of the 20th century, artists such as Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and the Impressionists found little need for the mythical cover stories that had long been associated with female figures in art. In exchange for the covert sexuality of Venus, Diana, and Lilith, their females became "bathers" or just simply prostitutes. And though the German painter, George Grosz alluded to Circe from Ulysses and The Odyssey in his 1925 watercolor, Circe, the disguise is transparently thin. She's a vamp. And that's been the story throughout the rest of the past century as male artists have struggled, with varying degrees of success, to find ways to portray the female figure in their art as well as accommodate them in their lives. Only now, ironically, they find there are more female myths than ever before.

Monday, October 29, 2012

J. Pierpont Morgan




Very few portraits of J.P. Morgan exist, and what few there are, seldom
are very flattering. Above, Puck magazine in 1911 characterized and caricaturized
Morgan's overwhelming financial influence over the U.S. economy.
As much as we'd like to think so; as much as we'd like others to think so; art is not just about artists. Art is also about collectors. Without them, artists would quickly run out of room to create, not to mention the will and the wherewithal. The truth is, there are far more collectors of art than creators of it...thanks be to God. And insofar as history is concerned, most of them are about as anonymous as the artists they collect. In terms of numbers, I suppose there are about as many famous collectors as famous artists, which perhaps would explain why there are so few famous artists. Some, the legends of art collecting, I've written about...the Guggenheims, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Fricks, Marjorie Merriweather Post, Isabella Gardner, the Cone sisters, Paul Durand-Ruel, and most recently, Gustave Caillebotte, an artist himself. However, one of the biggest, and perhaps the richest, was not your typical Rockefeller or Guggenheim.

One of THREE
Gutenberg Bibles on display
at the J.P. Morgan Library
His name was John Pierpont Morgan. He was born in 1837 to an already wealthy financier and his wife. His father was Junius Spencer Morgan. J. Pierpont came of age in the business world shortly after the Civil War, working as an accountant in a New York banking firm. Ten years later, he joined his father's firm as a full partner in Drexel, Morgan and Company. When his father died in 1890, Morgan reorganized the business as J.P. Morgan and Company (later Morgan Guaranty Trust, now JPMorgan Chase Bank N.A.). He was instrumental in the founding of U.S. Steel, General Electric, Equitable Life Insurance, and International Harvester. He owned banks, several insurance companies, 5,000 miles of railroad, mining and manufacturing concerns; and in 1895, he single-handedly raised $25 million in fifteen minutes to keep the US Government afloat and stabilize the currency, thus avoiding a major financial collapse. (The syndicate he formed eventually loaned the government a total of $62 million in gold--a kind of reverse bailout.)


The J.P. Morgan mansion on Madison
Ave. and 36th Street in New York,
torn down to make room for the library's
first annex, 1924.
Morgan was first and foremost a businessman; and a far cry from the "culture vulture" art collector we might normally associate with those of his ilk. With the death of his father, Morgan suddenly had more money than he could ever hope to spend and already owned every creature comfort he might ever want or need. He lived rather modestly (for a multi-millionaire) in a New York City brownstone (left). His collecting urge started not with art but ancient books and manuscripts, eventually to include prints and drawings and a few paintings, but it was primarily history he collected in any case, and in whatever form. He owned a Gutenberg Bible (above right), Henry David Thoreau's journal, art from Babylon, Mozart's Symphony in D Major, a Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, as well as  drawings by Rembrandt and Rubens. It's typical and trite to conclude by saying, "the list is endless," but in Morgan's case, that's very nearly true.

McKim's 1906 architectural drawing for Morgan's library.
As years progressed, the collecting urge got out of hand. In 1906, he had Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, and White build him a Renaissance style palazzo library to hold it all--which it very shortly did not. When he died in 1913, Morgan's fortune amounted to about $113 million (around $30 billion in today's terms). Most of the art went to the Metropolitan Museum (housed in the Pierpont Morgan wing). In 1924, his son, J.P. Morgan Jr. opened the library to the public and had his father's home beside it torn down to construct a much-needed annex. When J. P. himself died in 1943, he left his own next door townhouse to the library/museum. It was annexed in 1987 with the addition of a cloister gallery and garden court, effectively doubling the size of the place. Today, the three-building complex is the home of a wide array of research facilities, lecture and exhibition halls, and various educational programs; as well as the museum and library.
The Pierpont Morgan Museum and Library today with its various wings and additions, the latest by famed architect, Renzo Piano (central area). The original library is at lower right.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Monster Art


Medusa, 1598, Caravaggio
Those of us who are fond of movies, in our younger years at least, and especially those of the male persuasion, probably also had similar fondness for scary movies. I recall particularly one of my favourites, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. There was also The Blob and, of course, all the Godzilla and King Kong movies, as well a flock of 1950s shock schlock having to do with creatures mutating from exposure to nuclear radiation. Before that there was Dr. Frankenstein's monster, Count Dracula, and the Zombies or The Mummy, which has been remade. Also in more recent years, we have at least two werewolf movies I can think of plus Jaws, The Fly, and Arachnophobia, not to mention Steven Spielberg's Jurassic dinosaur series. If nothing else, such movies were great "date flicks" in that they guaranteed a very close, clinging relationship in the movie theatre.

The Chimera, 1867, Gustave Moreau,
a monster too gruesome to be depicted.
We might have a tendency to think that such perverse entertainment was invented by the warped minds of Hollywood producers to scare the bejeebers out of adolescent moviegoers while at the same time keep then coming back to be scared and re-scared again and again. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Such monsters have been the horror of men's minds probably since cave men first sat around campfires like prehistoric boy scouts. Greek mythology is full of them - starting with Pegasus, the relatively benign winged horse who sprang from the not so benign snake-haired gorgon Medusa (top). Pegasus was ridden by Perseus (left)  who destroyed the Chimera, a monster possessing a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail. Let's see Hollywood top that!


The Unicorns, 1887, Gustave Moreau
Not all the creatures from Greek and Roman mythology were so frightful. Painters have long given us gentle images such as Gustave Moreau's The Unicorns (1887) and Piero di Cosimo's A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (c. 1495). A satyr, by the way, is half man, half goat, not to be confused with a centaur which is half man, half horse, or a Minotaur which is half man and half bull. Picasso's 1936, Minotaur and Dead Mare paints a not so pretty picture of this breed of monster. From the Egyptians, we get the Sphinx, half man, half lion, or at least he was until English artists got hold of this particular creature and changed his sex, turning him...it...her into a beguiling temptress (now that's really frightening). Add to this any number of manifestations of the ever-popular dragon starting with Paolo Uccello's St George and the Dragon (below, left, c. 1460) and ending with Ingres' Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica (below, right, 1819), and you have quite a horrific zoo of genetic crossbreeds. It's no wonder we hold in horror today even the thought of what modern mad scientists might do once they get their hands on the genetic code.
 
St. George and the Dragon, 1455,
Paolo Uccello
Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica, 1919,
Jean Auguste Ingres

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Modern Housing Styles


1940s vintage cost-cutting, corner-cutting housing.
One of the basic needs of those like myself who write about art is that the terms be specific, readily definable, and easily understood. Unfortunately, certain terms sometimes get tossed about so much they begin to fulfil none of these needs. One such term is "modern." It means current or new or updated, except that "modern art" began way back in the 1870s or before, and carried on for at least a hundred years before being replaced by Postmodernism which, I fear, is eventually destined for the same fate. That's why I cringe when someone talks about "modern" architecture. It doesn't have the same ancient lineage as modern art (which can create confusion) but does have much the same breadth--way too much of it to be a good descriptive term. Okay, if we must use it, what do we mean by it in respect to architecture. Historically, we'll define it as post-WW II. Stylistically, it is evolutionary rather than revolutionary as we've come to expect in housing styles. Loosely speaking, it has five evolutionary periods, and to make matters worse there was quite a degree of overlapping among them. And though appearances may have been simplified, compared to previous styles, there's nothing simple about the mid-century modern era of architecture.

The Lustrom all-steel prefab, started appearing in 1949
and could be assembled by unskilled labor for a total
of $10-12,000. The siding was steel baked enamel tiles.
Domestic housing construction virtually came to a halt during WW II. The result was a tremendous build-up of unfulfilled demand when the war ended. What the country needed was a good five-grand house (top). I won't get into post-war suburban sprawl at the moment, only into that which did the sprawling. Construction companies and later, those building manufactured housing (right), turned to the bakery business for inspiration. They fashioned a half-dozen or so giant cookie cutters. Though slightly different in terms of floor plans, all were designed to turn out modest little two or three-bedroom bungalows with full basements and half-story attics which could be used to store either kids or Christmas decorations as the need arose. There was sometimes a secondary front gable, a tiny stoop of a porch, and little or no exterior decoration beyond maybe shutters or perhaps window trim painted in a pastel colour. The term nondescript comes to mind. After a few years, some of these plain Jane doll houses sprouted one-car garages, a back porch or patio, and maybe a little brick veneer to make it easier picking it out from its neighbors on a dark and stormy night. It was cosy.

Ranch style sprawl far from its native West. The "picture window" ruled.
The "ranch" consisted of a neatly mowed front lawn.
Once the worst of the post-war housing backlog took the pressure off, urban sprawl began to translate itself into design sprawl with the ubiquitous Ranch Style (above). Designers and contractors borrowed Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style, low-slung, hipped roof that vetoed attic space in favor of a more expansive floor plan. Bands of International style windows, aluminium siding, and perhaps shoulder high cut stone or brick veneer gave an overall look of sweeping, streamlined horizontally broken only by a one or two-car garage to house the overwhelmingly streamlined '59 Chevy with its overwhelmingly horizontal tail fins. It was more laid back than cosy.


The split-level was ideal when the lot sloped from
side to side. When the slope was front to rear,
the variation known as the split-foyer evolved.

Both these styles were fine so long as there was plenty of nice, flat, treeless farmland to usurp for their purpose. But once builders began sweeping subdivisions up and down over hill and dale, valley and vale, lots began to resemble rolling pasture fields rather than Midwestern wheat fields; and a new, more practical type house was needed. American architectural ingenuity came riding to the rescue with a uniquely American solution--the split-level. It was simple, compact, efficient, and novel--garage, laundry and utilities on a lower level, living room, dining room and kitchen half a level up the hill from that, and bedrooms half a level up from that atop the garage. Sloping lots were no problem. Tiny lots left room for back yards, and for the first time since before the war, the whole thing offered all kinds of opportunities for individualization. They were great for raising kids; but with all those steps so tightly integrated into the living space, not so great in which to grow old. But what the heck, one could always retire to Florida and a cinder block contemporary when the old arthritis kicked in.

Southern fried contemporary housing.
The South was the stronghold of the Contemporary style (another abominably ineffectual label). Land was still flat and plentiful. Need more land? Just dredge a canal, fill in another swamp, or (in the west) sprinkle water over a sandy piece of desert and presto, instant Palmdale or Boca Raton. Along the gulf, with the water table mere inches below the concrete slab floor and termites an ever-present nuisance, the concrete block came to the rescue. Terrazzo replaced oak, pastel stucco disguised the industrial ambiance, and broad, flat roofs with overhanging, sun-shading eaves finished the look. Windows grew to wall size; the enclosed lanai allowed the back patio to be air-conditioned; and the term wheelchair-accessible was invented to describe the floor plan.


The contemporary shed.
Meanwhile, back up in the mountainous north woods, the Contemporary style took on a totally different look in what's commonly become known as the Shed style. This time it's an admirably descriptive designation. Just imagine a whole group of backyard tool sheds with their unidirectional sloping roofs grouped together; multi-directionally sheathed in natural wood siding; pierced by energy wasting floor-to-ceiling windows (Thermopane of course). Add a sleek, but rustic stone fireplace, cathedral ceilings, broad wooden decks, two and sometimes three-car garages, dramatic bedroom lofts, all embraced by tall, sheltering, oaks and a carpet of cypress mulch in lieu of a labor-intensive lawn that wouldn't grow in any case with so much shade. It was the International style with a touch of Paul Bunyan.

Suburban sprawl, G.I. housing not far removed from the barracks.
If I seem a bit jaded or derisive in recounting the so-called "Modern Styles" of domestic American architecture it's because, in our search for a truly "American" style in this century, we have inevitably been short-sighted. We've adapted our housing styles to the ever changing building landscape admirably, sometimes with stunningly beautiful results. But we've treated that landscape itself as if there were no tomorrow. Whereas our ancestors built houses designed to shelter generations of their kin, we raise and raze largely inconsequential "people sheds" often lasting little more than half a century. The term "ghetto" no longer conjures up only images of abandoned urban tenements. We can now easily visualize suburban ghettos as well, whole blighted neighborhoods of single-family congestion replete with chain link fences guarding Post-it note backyards where the lawn is cut with a Weed-eater. I'd feel much better about this if I could say that the Modern Style was just a passing phase, like the Italianate, or the Tudor, or the Queen Anne, but it's not. In the last thirty years, though styles have changed, even our environmental attitudes and lifestyles have changed; yet we still think like frontier squatters throwing up log cabins (sometimes quite literally), in trying to selfishly lay claim to an ever-shrinking dot on the American landscape. Maybe we need to be reminded that even the biggest ocean dies if it sprouts too many islands.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Modern Look

The Barcelona Chair, 1929, Mies van der Rohe,
the quintessential "modern" look.
When we think of something as being "modern" looking, we tend to think in terms of its being simplistic in design, sleek, streamline, functional not given to excessive (or perhaps any decoration, having "style" without being "busy" or "pretty". We often think in terms of less being more, a tendency at least in the direction of abstraction, or "form follows function", but in any event a sort of cold, hard-edged refinement to the bare essentials. Now, having defined, to some extent, what we mean by "modern" looking, perhaps we begin to wonder just where these aesthetic qualities originated and how they became fixed in our national (indeed, international) design psyche.

Antigraceful, 1913, Umberto Boccioni,
a portrait of his mother--old modern.
One thing about them, they are not new. "Modern" design, like modern art is about as new as our grandparents (or in some cases, our great grandparents). It didn't begin in this country. During the first half of the 20th century, very few things that were truly "new" in art originated in this country. No, much of what we now consider "modern" originated in Italy, about 1910, with a group of antiestablishment artist who called themselves collectively Futurists. Among them were Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini, and Carlo Carra. They held their first exhibition in Paris in 1912. And while their paintings tended to have a "modernizing" effect upon art in Europe, in the U.S., Joseph Stella and Charles Demuth were the proselytizing disciples of the "modern" look in art and design. Though not actually Futurists, they derived much of their influence from this movement.

Battle of Lights, Coney Island, 1913, Joseph Stella,
(Jackson Pollock was a year old at the time.)
Sailboats and Roofs, 1917,
Charles Demuth
Stella's Battle of Lights, Coney Island (above), painted in 1913, is a glorious, every-color-in-the-rainbow confetti confection bordering so closely on Abstract Expressionism as to make Jackson Pollock worry about being labeled a copyist. Charles Demuth's Sailboats and Roofs (left), painted in 1917, has a look of 1990s corporate art at a time when "corporate art" meant nothing more than an attractive logo. By 1939, when Stella painted his famous The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme, the "modern" look had been set in stone and had acquired a monumental quality as well. It was sharp, pointed, soaring, smooth, shiny, linear, and geometric, waiting only for cubism to migrate to this country to add the rectilinear quality we also now associate with modern looking art and architecture. The problem with the "modern look", is that it became soo old there had to be another term invented to differentiate between modern then and modern now. Art historians have somehow settled on a mobile (but barely adequate) term, contemporary, a sort of test-of-time entrance portal through which all that is considered modern today must pass in order to survive.
 
The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme,
1939, Joseph Stella--forever modern.
 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Beyond Abstract Expressionism

Helen Frankenthaler, removing the expressionism from Abstract Expressionism
It would come as no surprise to professionals and layman alike that artists are often misunderstood. In fact, many artists seem to thrive on this very fact. In some cases, one might even suspect they go out of their way to be misunderstood. Without a doubt, the group of artists that would seem to be most guilty of this would be the abstract expressionists. Often there is little in the way of representational subject matter to offer the viewer a clue as to what's going on, and in many cases, the artist strives to be deliberately obscure, insisting that the viewer "imagine" with him what the painting is all about. Actually however, there was one type of art that went even beyond this. It developed in response to Abstract Expressionism as well as in reaction to it. We're often tempted to think that Abstract Expressionism was the only thing happening on the modern art scene during the 1950s and 60s when the New York School held sway in the international art world. That wasn't quite the case. There was a small band of New York artists that sought to counter the extreme emotionalism they found in Abstract Expressionism, in effect, wishing to shear from it the expressionism in favor of they abstract. They were called the Colorfield and eventually Hardedge Colorfield painters.

Where, 1960, Morris Louis
Much of this movement was an outgrowth of the soak and stain methods of Helen Frankenthaler (top). Artists such as Morris Lewis (left), Barnett Newman (below), Ad Reinhardt (bottom, left), Elsworth Kelly (bottom, right), Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella began with her colors and, in effect, masculinized her art, giving their work hard edges, geometric shapes, and studied compositional arrangements which gradually evolved toward ever simpler designs until, by the late 60s, what they did became known as Minimalism, which was actually a much more descriptive term for the whole movement. If Abstract Expressionism had been obscure, Minimalism breathed such a rarefied air few besides artists could appreciate intellectually what its creators were striving to accomplish. While the Abstract Expressionists had been creating art for art's sake, the Minimalists had refined this trend to the far more esoteric, color for color's sake. The result was it left many artists and nearly all the general public blinking their eyes in astonishment.

Barnett Newman with his Onement VI, 1953
Part of the astonishment was disbelief, that art had ascended (or descended, depending upon your point of view) to such a level. The other element was the sheer, overpowering beauty these experiments fostered. Inasmuch as it was impossible to get involved emotionally in any subjective content (there simply was none) and very nearly as impossible to see much in the way of design or composition, the only thing left was to envelop one's self in the enormous blanket of color subtleties employed. Even here, artists such as Ad Reinhardt with his series of black paintings (gridded squares using subtle shades of black), or Joseph Albers with his concentric squares employing extremely subtle shades of a single color, didn't make the task of enjoying or understanding these works easy. Later artists such as Kelly, Noland, and Stella made it a little easier, allowing extremely simple compositional elements to vie with their color studies for viewer interest, but all in all, the entire movement far outstripped the Abstract Expressionists in the race to be the most misunderstood art of all time.
Red Abstract, 1952, Ad Reinhardt
Green Blue, 1967, Ellsworth Kelly.
Colorfield painting also had its sculptural
element.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pierre Mignard

Pierre Mignard Self-portrait, ca. 1635
In American politics we call them Republicans and Democrats. On a broader, more international political spectrum, they're called conservatives and liberals. In art they've gone by names such as Academicians and Avant-garde or, before that, the Poussinistes and the Rubenistes, and in the 20th century, the Realists and the Expressionists. Regardless of the game, or the playing field, or the season, it seems there have always been two sides to every issue. Dating back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle, we find, on the one hand, those defending age old traditions, values, procedures, and styles. And on the opposite side, those in search of the new and unique, the daring, the exciting, and the liberating. Like a ticking clock, the pendulum of time and temperament swings between the two as tastes expand and contract, the old dies off and the new grows old. Politics, art, history, mankind in general, breathes in and out, expanding and contracting, in effect a massive human social organism in which we are all single cells, and which, barring catastrophe, lives on forever.

Cardinal Richelieu in Three Views, ca. 1640,
Philippe de Champaigne
In 17th century France, a century before they began calling themselves the Poussinistes and the Rubenistes, there had long been a conservative and a liberal element in French Art. The conservatives, with the help of Cardinal Richelieu (left), founded the French Academy in 1635. To oversimplify a complex artistic and political milieu, this organization, though made up mostly of painters, considered drawing to be the highest art. In the broadest sense, their paintings were simply colored drawings. Opposing them were a much more loosely organized group consisting of domestic and imported artists who had studied in Italy. There, the expressive use of color was much more dominant, perhaps as a result of the Italian love of fresco painting (in which drawn lines were merely "suggestions" as to where an artist might apply paint). Besides the strong use of colour, their art was marked by a striking sense of drama, brilliant light, grand scale, daring composition, and dynamic movement. Michelangelo was, to them, like a god. These we would call the liberals. Pierre Mignard was a liberal.

Altarpiece, Church of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane,
Rome,  ca. 1637, Pierre Mignard 
Pierre Mignard was born in Troyes, in 1612. His older brother, Nicholas, also became a painter in Avignon. In his formative years as an artist, Pierre studied in Paris under both Simon Vouet and Jean Boucher (not to be confused with 18th century Rococo artist Fran├žois Boucher). In the studio of Vouet he met fellow student Charles le Brun. In 1635, the same year the French Academy was founded, Mignard grabbed an opportunity to study in Rome. Le Brun, on the other hand, remained in Paris, joined the Academy, and later became its president. Meanwhile Mignard studied and painted in Rome or traveled about Italy for more than twenty years, familiarizing himself with all the Italian "schools," working in fresco, painting portraits, and making quite a name for himself in both pursuits. He found himself painting three popes. But it was his frescoes in the church of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (above, right) that brought him to the attention of Louis XIV back in France.


The Heavenly Glory, 1663, Pierre Mignard

One of Mignard's more vainglorious renditions
of the exceedingly vainglorious Louis XIV, 1672
Summoned back to Paris by his king in 1657, Mignard became the court painter. He was to paint his close friend the king as many as ten times over the remaining years of their lives. But he refused to join the Academy and instead fell in with the social group of Racine, Boileau, la Fontaine, and the poet Moliere--all critics of the Academy and its president, (and now Mignard's rival) Charles le Brun. In 1663, Mignard's name and reputation were forever "plastered" into French art when he was awarded the commission to decorate the dome of the Val-de-Grace (above). It was then, and now, the largest fresco in the world. Composed of the Blessed Trinity encircled by a throng of over 200 colossal figures representing apostles, evangelists, confessors, founders of various religious orders, holy kings, and an assortment of other saints and church notables peering down from Paradise, this apotheosis formula, while somewhat trite by Italian standards, was nonetheless new and quite impressive in Paris. Mignard completed the work in just eight months. And, while modern day critics might crack, "Yes, and it looks like it too," the court, the clergy, the critics, even the French Academy of his day, had nothing but praise for Mignard's efforts.

Old friends, bitter rivals, Charles le Brun and
Pierre Mignard (right) in an etching by le Brun.
The polarizing dichotomy of drawing versus painting nonetheless continued in Paris despite Mignard's immense popularity. His work was firmly grounded in the Italian Renaissance style as filtered through Mannerist interpretation and bridged the gap between the Mannerist and the Baroque eras, bringing an influential mix of the two to French art. And in so doing, it challenged the dry, academic traditions of the home-grown variety. In 1690, Charles le Brun died. And upon his death, in what could only be called a startling apotheosis of his own, Mignard was, in one day, welcomed into the Academy as an associate member, then solemnly elected a full member, rector, director, and finally, chancellor (replacing le Brun) of the same conservative, authoritarian institution he had so long opposed. It was a position he was to hold for just five years, during which time the two opposing philosophies of art became an internal academic conflict that was to go on for another two centuries. In 1695, while working on a painting in which he himself appears, St. Luke Painting the Blessed Virgin, Mignard died, literally with a brush in his hand. He was 84.
St. Luke Painting the Blessed Virgin, 1695, Pierre Mignard, seen in the background
holding brushes, his final work. (Notice the difference in size of the saint's feet.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian Self-portrait,
1679
If you're of the typical female persuasion, your reaction to bugs and caterpillars might range from "uuugh" to "eeeeeyyykkkes!" I'm not female but I share those sentiments exactly. Several years ago I had occasion to spend a little time with some elderly ladies at the small apartment complex where my mother-in-law resides. It was a warm, spring evening and they were sitting out on the sidewalk in their lawn chairs chatting. It was also the height of the tent caterpillar season. They were making sport of the furry little worms by zapping them individually as they crawled by with some kind of insect spray, watching them writhe around a little, then curl up and die. I told them about Maria Sibylla Merian.

Butterflies, 1771, Maria Sibylla Merian




Maria Sibylla was born in Frankfurt Am Main (now in Germany) in 1647. Her father was an artist and publisher. He died when she was three. Her mother remarried another artist, a painter, also an engraver and art dealer from who young Maria learned all there was to know about her stepfather's various arts and interests. When she was sixteen, she married an artist, one of her stepfather's students. They moved to Nuremberg where she built her skills painting on parchment and linen, as well as engraving and embroidering while teaching a number of female art students. It was during this period, doing all this, while at the same time raising a family and keeping a home, that she also began producing detailed copper plates of European flowers in the highly detailed, seventeenth century Dutch style. Between 1675 and 1677, working with her stepfather, she published them in two elegantly illustrated books on the subject. But it was her third publishing effort that earned her a memorable place in both art and science. Entitled Wonderful Transformation, it was published in two volumes, each containing some fifty copperplate engravings cataloging 186 different European moths, butterflies, and insects. Going beyond this, along with each one, she also illustrated on the same page each stage of each insect's metamorphosis along with the plant upon which the caterpillar fed. This was one lady not afraid of, or repulsed by, creepy crawly things. And they were all drawn from life.

Insects of Surinam, 1700, Maria Sibylla Merian
In 1685, her family grown, Maria Merian left her husband and converted to Labadism, a religious sect which eschewed all worldly possessions, so as to allow herself the freedom to study her favorite bugs and worms without the troublesome nuisances of daily life. By 1690 however, perhaps yearning for troublesome nuisances once more, she rejected Labadism, and her husband as well, to move with her daughters to Amsterdam where she again established her reputation as a teacher and painter of various native flora and fauna. But her foremost goal was to raise enough money to travel to the Dutch Colony of Surinam in northern South America where she'd learned there was a whole new world of unexplored caterpillars, moths, butterflies, and other assorted insects to study. In the spring of 1699, at the age of 52, accompanied by her youngest daughter (then just sixteen), she made the trip. Systematically sketching the various six-legged creatures they encountered, along with native flowers, fruit, reptiles and their eggs, the two explored the country entomologically. Although ill health forced Maria to return home after just two years, her daughter remained for another three years to complete her work.

Maria Sibylla Merian's bug book in German, 1719

Some of Maria Sibylla Merian favorites.
Back in Amsterdam, with the help of other engravers to whom she "farmed out" some of the work, the total number of South American engravings eventually reached sixty. These she published in a book titled Metamorphosis Insectorium Surinamensium in 1705. Although it doesn't exactly sound like bedside reading, the book was so popular it came out in a second edition in 1719. The frontispiece (left) was a detailed drawing of her favorite fruit, the pineapple, along with her favorite insect, the albino cockroach (which shared her love of the pineapple). At the time, Maria Merian was acknowledged as the foremost authority in the world on insects, her paintings much sought after by collectors, her knowledge pursued by other scientists. Maria Sibylla Merian died in 1717. She left behind a collection of more than 300 paintings which Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, bought as a group, placing them in the first art museum in his country. More recently, Maria Merian's personal journal, which she kept for some 53 years (from the age of 16 to 69), was discovered and published. Her illustrations continued in use in scholarly texts until the advent of high-resolution photography in the 20th century. Having recounted all this to the ladies on the sidewalk with their spray can of insecticide...they were not impressed. Pssssst, another one bites the dust.