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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Max J. Friedlander

Max Jakob Friedlander
(not to be confused with art
historian Walter Friedlander)
In dealing with "The Master of..." phenomena yesterday (the item just below) I encountered at art historian who may well have invented the concept and means of "remembering an artist no one remembers."  I don't think I've ever written about an individual art historian before. In delving into the life and writings of Max Friedlander I've discovered the likely reason why--for the most part, they're a dry, colorless, long winded, pretentious lot. Quite frankly, some of those adjectives could easily apply to Friedlander. And, as art historians go, despite some excellent books on the narrow range of "Netherlandish" art from the 15th century, no one is apt to find them topping any best-seller list (even one limited to art history). Yet, he certainly was the foremost authority on his area of expertise, and  he's also quite readable:
"Formerly pictures and sculptures were produced in the same spirit as furniture; that is to say, the professional attitude, the relation of the producer to his patron or client, and his social position were those of the craftsman. Art separated in recent times from craftsmanship, or rather, craftsmanship and art parted company-to the disadvantage not only of craftsmanship. Punctuality of delivery, fulfillment of the agreed conditions, solidity of execution were in past days demanded from painters and sculptors, and remuneration adjusted to the time spent. Even Durer, on asking for a higher honorarium from a Frankfurt patron, still refers not to his name or the superiority of his artistic performance, but to the unexpectedly heavy claim upon his time, and to the high cost of the colours employed. The sons of painters became painters: in choosing a trade one did not wait for special gifts to announce themselves."
Today, in an age when virtually any artist can paint and publish and be remembered as long as the paper and canvas upon which his creative endeavors exists, we find it hard to comprehend that painters of the caliber Friedlander explored could remain anonymous. Above, Friedlander explains why. Were it not for art historians like him, there would be far more such artists today. Why is it important to know who created a work of art? Friedlander explains: "If the determination of the authorship of an individual work of not the ultimate and highest task of artistic erudition; even if it were no path to the goal: nevertheless...without a doubt, it is a school for the eye, since there is no formulation of a question which forces us to penetrate so deeply the essence of an individual work as that concerning the identity of the author."
A work of art is a representation of the artist's mind. And inasmuch as no single work can adequately portray such a complex entity, then the entire body of that artist's work must come into play. Both the artist and his or her work needs to be categorized in order to be placed in the broader scope of human endeavor. That demands labels, and first and foremost among them is simply the artist's name. Lacking that, Friedlander established his own means of identifying unknown artists' minds--the Master of..." But any name is of little value without additional knowledge of the artist's life, training, and influence. Much of such data is trivial, but place against the broader background of art history, joins the essence of art itself. Friedlander was an art detective, but also a connoisseur, espousing what we might call a "right brained" approach to the subject as opposed to the dry "facts and figures" realm of many of his colleagues.
Friedlander was born in Berlin in 1867, professionally coming of age at the turn of the century at a time when the history of art was also "coming of age." It was a time before wars dissipated the wealth of northern Europe. Individuals and state-sponsored museums were collecting art (especially paintings) at a phenomenal pace. There was a need for experts to advise those doing so and to manage their growing collections. The position of curator was born, and Friedlander was one of the best, working tirelessly to not just direct the acquisition of outstanding works from the past, but to study and explain them.
Max Friedlander was a Jew, growing old in a country becoming less and less friendly to those of his ethnicity. Fortunately, the Nazi's liked his kind of art, and despite his faith, valued and respected his expertise. One of these art lovers was Reichmarshall, Hermann Goering, whom he advised in amassing his collection. Friedlander fled Germany for Amsterdam in 1939, only to be arrested, destined for a concentration camp, when the Nazi's invaded the city a few months later. Only his association with Goering save him. After the war he spent the remaining years of his life writing and publishing, completing his earlier series of works on Netherlandish painting. He died in 1958.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Masters of...

The Legend of St. Lucy, 1480, Master of the S. Lucy Legend
One of the most difficult problems faced by art historians is the anonymity of some 14th and 15th century artists, individuals with painting styles so distinctive it's possible to ascertain their working careers to within a year or two, the dates when they died, and even speculate quite accurately as to when they were born. Yet no one knows their names. There are at least five artists who fall into this category. What's an art historian to do? Well, starting back in the early 1920s when this phenomena first appeared, these art history researchers have taken to calling their artists, "The Master of..." These painters tend to have one thing in common, with one exception, they were all what art historians have termed "Netherlandish," having lived and work in and around Bruges, Belgium, mostly during the 15th century, which would make them "Pre-Northern Renaissance," a term I just made up for lack of a better one (as an amateur art historian I reserve that right).

Last Judgment, ca. 1422
Master of the Bambino Vispo
Starting with the one exception, we have The Master of the Bambino Vispo, an Italian working in the early 1400s. He was identified by the early 20th century art historian, Osvald Siren, as the artist behind four separated religious panels found in Florence, Rome, Philadelphia, and Berlin all depicting a rather lively countenance of Jesus and his mother, as well as an exceptional Last Judgment (left) from around 1422. At least four artists have earlier been credited with this latter work, none of them with any degree of certainty, though the Italian, Gherardo Starmina, may be the most likely.

The most well-known "Master of..." has to his credit some twenty-five to thirty-five paintings, by far the largest body of work by any of the "Netherlandish" group. He's referred to as The Master of the St. Lucy Legend after his most famous work, a three-panel altarpiece depicting scenes from the life of the saint dating from 1480 (top). The date is based upon the level of completion seen in the background depiction of the belfry of the city of Bruges. Further detective work indicates that, whoever he was, he was trained by Dieric Bouts and Hans Memling. By the same token, his influence can be found in the work of several Spanish artists he likely trained in his workshop.

The Mass, ca. 1500,
Master of Saint Giles
The German art historian, Max Friedlander in the 1950s came up with the Master of Saint Giles based upon his study of two wooden panels of an altarpiece in London's National Gallery. He titled them The Miracle and The Mass (right). Later he identified two additional panels by the same artist in Washington's National Gallery. Friedlander wasn't sure if the artist was French or from the Netherlands and simply migrated to France. But in any case, these four works are by far the thinnest oeuvre of the group. Friedlander attempted to rectify this problem by proposing additional works as being by his master, but encountered the biggest difficulty faced by art historians in doing so. The more pieces he studied and labeled by his artist, the more other art historians called into question, not only them, but his earlier pronouncements. Thus by attempting to bolster his case he may, in fact, have weakened it.
Phillip the Handsome and
Joanna the Mad, ca. 1500,
Master of Affligem
Friedlander also identified the Master of Affligem (sometimes called the Master of the Joseph Sequence) as having painted a number of round (tondo) paintings all having to do with the Legend St. Joseph, and later still, more paintings depicting the Life of Christ and The Life of the Virgin. In this case, the more works, the more likely the attribution, though the name of the artist is still just as unknown. The reference to Affligem comes from an altarpiece in the Abbey of Affligem, a Last Judgment (ca. 1500). Two unusual side panels depict Phillip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad (left).
Virgin and Child in a Landscape, 1492-98,
Master of the Embroidered Foliage
The Master of the Embroidered Foliage is another of Friedlander's anonymous painters from Bruges. No, the artist didn't take up needle and thread to create his greenery (interesting idea, though), it only looked that way, at least to Friedlander. Here Friedlander grouped five paintings, all quite similar, of a Virgin and Child in a Landscape (right). Other authorities have suggested each was done by a different artist using the same template, but again, were unable to come up with names. So they chose to continue Friedlander's designation as a catchall until someone can come up with something better.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

It's All Greek to Me

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Is it Ionic, Doric, or Corinthian?
I was there, only one column still stands.
Anyone who reads my daily musings here probably wants to know a little about art. That being the case you're probably not beyond wanting to know a little about architecture as well. Virtually all knowledge about art, including architecture, falls under the heading, trivia. What good is trivia? Well, to hear my wife tell it, not much, except for cluttering up the mind. It used to be that trivia was useful for ready access to facts and figures, though the Internet has pretty well abolished that reasoning. Albert Einstein, I believe it was, is famously quoted as saying, "I don't remember anything I can look up," and that included his own phone number. I guess today, about the only purpose there is in remembering trivia comes in playing parlor games or trying to impress others with ones intelligence and vast storehouse of knowledge.

The Temple of Zeus ruins, Athens, demonstrates the ancient
Greek penchant for decorating their posts and lentils.
With that in mind, here's a little about architecture. When you "invent" a new line of human endeavor you get to name all its parts. Discounting the crude, post and lintel "architecture" of Stonehenge in England, it was the Greeks who garner the "naming rights" as they explored post and lintel. (The post being a column, the lintel being that which bridges the space between the columns, thus lessening the need for solid stone walls.) The Greeks especially, and I suppose mankind down through the ages, have always delighted in decorating things (above). With wood first, and later stone, that meant carving; and since you have to cut and shape a hunk of stone to make it into a column (unless you're a prehistory Brit) that means you might as well decorate the thing while you're at it. Thus, the most basic understanding of architecture begins with the three major "orders" used to decorate these "advanced" posts and lintels. Today we call the primary decorative device used at the top of the column the "capital," (that which separates the post from the lintel).

Doric decoration as seen
in the Parthenon
The simplest style, thus probably the oldest, is Doric. How do you remember that? I'm a great believer in mnemonics (the Greeks invented them too). Mine rhymes (sort of)--Doric is boring. It's plain and simple, a squished cylinder beneath a squished cube. If it's an important temple, the decoration of the lentil gets a little more complex and Doric columns never have a base, but other than the broad, vertical grooves in the column itself (called flutes) that's about all you need to know about Doric.

The iconic Ionic
Ionic is iconic. Most often when we think of Greek columns we picture the iconic rams horns squished between the column and the lentil with maybe a bit of extraneous decoration thrown in, and this time, a simple base at the bottom. The Ionic is easy to remember because it is so iconic.

Corinthian Convolutions.
The Corinthian capital is named for its capital, Corinth, and is quite convoluted and complex. Pick your mnemonic, any will do, so long as the description starts with a "C." There is always a multi-layered, squished base as well. The U.S. Supreme Court uses Corinthian columns. Victorian era builders of French Beaux Art architecture loved this highly decorated embellishment and often chose it for their Classic Revival, wedding-cake-style extravaganzas (bottom) though sometimes they used Ionic, but never Doric).

So, apart from impressing one's friends, why is it important to know at least a little about Greek architecture? It wouldn't be, except for the fact that the Romans copied the Greeks, then the Italians copied their erstwhile forbearers and French copied them followed, lastly by us Americans who copied the French (and virtually everyone else). Fortunately, we don't do that so much anymore. Classical Greek architecture probably enjoyed one too many "revivals" and even for government buildings, has fallen out of favor. But who knows? It might come back. In the meantime,  with a little mnemonic strategy, it won't be "all Greek to you."

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building (next door to the White House). Beaux Art architecture decorated in Greek fondant with a chocolate marble center.
(The capitals are Ionic.)

Saturday, April 27, 2013


Disney topiary--the art form comes to America
When I mentioned to my wife that I planned to write on topiary sculpture this morning, her reaction was, "Isn't that redundant?" Of course, I always listen to my wife so I changed the title. My own first exposure to topiary came in 1974 when my wife and I made our first trip to the newly opened Disney World in Orlando. I'd never even heard of the term, much less seen what the creative genius of Disney horticulturalists could do to poor, defenseless shrubbery. This first exposure was, however, some of the best this side of the Atlantic had to offer (and remains so today). Disney plant artists were very much responsible for sparking interest in the U.S. for an art form with deep roots (pun intended) in Europe dating back at least to the 16th century. 

Chateau Vilandry, French gardening at its best
In Europe, Vilandry Gardens (above), sprawling out before the Vilandry Chateau (dating from 1532) in France's Loire Valley; or the Marqueyssac Chateau Gardens (below, left) in Vezac (dating from 1861), are among the most impressive historic topiary seed beds; the former being traditional, the latter a more modern and free-flowing style. (Vilandry Gardens are in north-central France, while the Marqueyssac Gardens are in south-central part of the country.) Don't expect to see cute little green critters at either place. Those, for the most part, have their origin in England where topiary took on a more whimsical expression following its revival in 1800s as seen in the print of Levens Hall (below) near Cumbria.
Levens Hall, 1833, the English contribution.

The Marqueyssac gardens, Vezac, France--
far removed from the strict geometry of Vilandry
or Versailles
One can imagine topiary having originated when some bored gardener started getting creative with a pair of shears (ala Edward Scissorhands). His employer, being startled by the man's talent, asked for more. At first geometry dominated the designs, punctuated by architectural spheres, cones, pyramids, and obelisks, literally in a maze of ever growing complexity and proportions. Basically all art starts as two-dimensional design. When the third dimension is visualized, it's not surprising that various garden creatures, birds, squirrels, deer, and gnomes were hiding just around each hedgerow.

Topiary Bridge, 2008
Olympics, Beijing
There is also an oriental aspect and history, both Chinese and Japanese, though in both cases the emphasis seems to be on orchestrating an appearance of natural growth rather then human design. However the Garden Bridge (above) from Beijing's Olympic extravaganza indicates an encroaching European mentality into their ancient topiary aesthetic. The Japanese form of topiary has traditionally been seen in their long affection for bonsai trees, which adds a miniature, indoor element to the art.

The Longleat Maze near Warminster, England
Topiary began with merely trimming various dense hedges as in England's Longleat Maze (above). Before long trimming proved insufficient so topiary artists began tying and training the growth of their works of art. Next came cages, growing the plant inside wire sculptural boundaries, which meant virtually anyone could maintain their shape using the barely concealed wire framework as a guide. In more recent times, topiary artist (Disney's among them) have taken to growing the greenery on the outside of such frames covered with a binding mesh. The latter allows for the addition of plant life and flowers of various and appropriate colors adding yet another dimension to the art (below) while also making them portable. Topiary purist might object to this more recent development, but such reservations fly in the face of one of the most important values inherent in any form of art--that it be a living, growing, evolving entity. Never is this more obviously the case than in the fine art of creatively manhandling plant life.

Topiary art about to take flight.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Crayon Art

Not your childhood crayons anymore.
In my book, Art Think, I speak disparagingly of crayons: "...we put them in the hands of two-year-olds, the only art instruction being, 'don't eat them' (not that it would hurt them if they did)." Perhaps I should have been more respectful. There's probably not an artist alive today who didn't encounter the waxy little sticks as their very first art medium. In teaching art in the public schools, I pretty much discarded them around the sixth grade in favor of colored pencil, which I considered a more legitimate adult art medium. Maybe I shouldn't have been so hasty. Maybe I should reconsider the "waxy little sticks" in lieu of some of the incredible ways in which they've been adapted today into the ingredients of fine art.

The gold medal refers to a
prize won at the 1904 St.
Louis World's Fair
First, a little history. There's nothing knew about pigmented wax. The ancient Egyptians used it to color their stone wall carvings. The Romans used to paint with it (called encaustics), while their descendants found they could combine wax with charcoal to make a dandy drawing implement. During the 17th and 18th centuries, wax crayon development was tightly interwoven with chalk, and later, oil pastels. It wasn't until the 1800s that various European manufactures created a "cottage industry" in making them for color sketching as a replacement for "messy" and highly temperamental chalk pastels. A Paris lithographer, Joseph Lemercier, as early as 1828, opened a business to manufacture artists' crayons. In the U.S., it wasn't until around 1902 that Dixon Ticonderoga and Binney & Smith (now Crayola) began making and marketing crayons for children. Within two years, Crayola's color selection grew from a mere eight to twenty-eight (now up to sixty-four or more).
Runny colors
Herb Williams--gluing crayons
by the thousands.
For years, one of the problems with crayons has been, they melt (not to mention break). Both these "shortcomings" have been employed by Crayola artist, Herb Williams, into various two and three-dimensional applications that have broaden both our definition and our appreciation of crayon art. Williams and others have demonstrated the use of crayon by using them intact, straight from the box (albeit boxes of a thousand or more), as well as cutting, carving, melting, and gluing them in ways that are as eye-catching as they are revolutionary. Even school-aged children, using a common hair dryer, can safely create amazing images by melting crayons. Older school children attach them to various underpinnings while adult "children" employ computers to create crayon-tip pixelated images, or by chipping and reshaping multiple colors into crayon sticks, produce ever-changing streaks of color as they "color." Today, it's goodbye coloring book, hello hairdryer.

Random streaks of color.
Crayons are not just for coloring.

Using just the crayon tip.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The U.S. Capitol

Capitol reflections at sunset.
In studying famous architectural landmarks, I've always been as much fascinated by what was and what might have been as by what is. In no case has this been more the case than in looking at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. This magnificent, stately, sprawling, domed structure has not always been so magnificent, so stately, or all the other adjectives incorporated above. Like the nation it represents, colonial architect William Thornton's original drawings for the Capitol bear only slight resemblance to what we see today. However, they're far more familiar than a proposal by a James Diamond (influenced by Thomas Jefferson). His design was for a modest, two-story building crowned by an equally modest Florentine ribbed dome (topped by what appears to be a rather immodest "chicken"). The design featured a ground-floor arcade of decidedly Spanish influence. There were ten other designs submitted hoping to win the $500 prize, and this was one of the better ones.

Capitol design by James Diamond--love the bird on top.
Dismayed at the lack of architectural talent among colonial architects, Jefferson (an architectural critic, if not an actual architect himself) approached his friend, William Thornton, to submit a design, which he did, and with which he won the prize (you might say the contest was fixed). He became the first of a long line of Capitol architects, which later included Benjamin Latrobe, Charles Bullfinch, Thomas U. Walter, and August Schoenborn (the latter two far more responsible for what we see today than any of the others). Latrobe came on board after the British burned the Capitol, while Bullfinch was responsible for the original dome. Walter and Schoenborn designed the current north and south wings as well as the present dome.

The U.S. Capitol, Spring, 1814 (computer recreation)
George Munger's 1814 painting of the aftermath of the British invasion.
When the British set fire to the place in 1814, the central section, not to mention the dome, did not yet exist. Connecting the sandstone House and Senate chambers was a wooden, two-story covered passage (upper image). Fortunately, as George Munger's painting (above)suggests, sandstone is relatively fireproof, so in the process of rebuilding, the Bullfinch designed and completed the rotunda with a rather unimpressive flat dome which served its purpose up until the Civil War era when the current structure took shape.  President Lincoln insisted the work go, on despite the war, as a symbol that the union would endure.

An early distant view of the Capitol by August Kollner dates from 1839 and illustrates the
"simplicity" of Bullfinch's dome.
When the Capitol sprouted wings after the Civil War, Bullfinch's dome was seen as ridiculously ineffectual from a design standpoint. So, a cast iron version on a masonry, colonnaded drum took it's place. Of course the whole east front of the building had to be rebuilt in 1904 to help support it's massive eight-million pound weight. Then in 1958, a whole new east front was built some 35 feet in front of the old to correct a poor visual impression. This time they used marble, instead of sandstone. The Capitol remained largely unchanged from then until June of 2000 when a 580,000 square foot underground visitor center was created beneath the east plaza of the Capitol, as much out of security concerns as for the comfort and edification of visitors, following a 1998 shooting incident on the ground floor of the Capitol in which two Capitol police were killed.

Cutaway drawings of Thomas Waller's
19th century Capitol dome give some insight
into both the complexity of the construction
project and why the east front of the building
had to be rebuilt...twice (1904 & 1958)
Architecturally, despite it's humble beginnings, the Capitol is an ongoing tribute to skill and good tastes of a long line of designers, architects, and engineers over more than 200 years. In it we can see the influence of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and St. Paul's Cathedral in London. In return, a number of state capitol buildings since the Civil War bear a striking resemblance to the U.S. Capitol.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ellsworth Kelly

Spectrum V, 1969, Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly,
a part of his art.
New York City, after the war, the 1940s and 50s, likely no other time and place on earth before or since has ever had such a vibrant art world, especially for painters. Today we refer to this time and place as the New York School. It wasn't a "school," of course in the scholastic sense (several of them, perhaps), and though it's most associated with Abstract Expressionism, even at that it sported several different "brands" of this last great painting "ism." There was the Kandinsky-de Kooning branch, the Jackson Pollock gestural branch, the almost non-representation painters, Fairfield Porter and Romare Bearden, the Color Field painters, Ellsworth Kelly, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Mark Rothko, and others, followed by the Minimalists. All the great ones are dead now...except for one.
Seine, 1950, Ellsworth Kelly--something like today's computerized camouflage.
Awnings Avenue Matignon,
1950, Ellsworth kelly
Ellsworth Kelly will soon be ninety years old (as of May, 31, 2012). He's outlived them all--even many of the younger ones. Born in 1923, Kelly was not a part of the hard driving, hard drinking, hard living stereotype of the Abstract Expressionist wild bunch (which probably explains why he's still living). In fact, during the formative years of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Kelly spent, not in New York, but in Paris painting figures. He painted his first abstract painting Seine (above) as late as 1950. His painting, Awnings Avenue Matignon (right) from the same year, not only illustrates his rapid movement into abstraction, but also portends his later work with color fields.

Red Blue Green 1963, Ellsworth Kelly.
By the 1960s Kelly's palette had left behind largely
monochromatic subtleties in favor strong primaries.
Kelly came to abstraction naturally. During WW II he was assigned to a group known as "The Ghost Army." Perhaps a better description might have been the "inflatable army." Their job was to create the illusion of armed might using inflatable tanks, Jeeps, trucks, artillery, and other war machines, to mislead the enemy as to the disposition of allied forces. He was involved in the most abstract of these undertakings, camouflage. That experience, coupled with training in technical drawing at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute before the war, combined to give birth to his highly geometric form of abstraction, the very antithesis of what most artists of the New York School were doing about the same time. Moreover, Kelly was a latecomer to the New York art scene, arriving back home in 1954 after some six years studying and working in Paris.

Untitled VI, 1983, Ellsworth Kelly
His sculpture is as dramatic,& yet
strikingly simple as his paintings.
It was another two years before Kelly's first show at the famous Betty Parsons Gallery and several more years before his brand of abstraction began to catch on around 1960 (his work was considered "too European"). His solid color fields and shaped canvases influenced other artists, but not buyers. After that, Ellsworth Kelly's work evolved, as seen in his Spectrum V from 1969 (top), but not as much as that of the fading New York School. Abstraction began meaning color fields and that gradually evolved into Minimalist work during the 1960s and 70s as tastes in the rarified world of fine art gradually caught up with Kelly's way of exploring the colorful, geometric world around him.

Saint Martin Landscape, 1979, Ellsworth Kelly. Yes, it's a painting, not a collage.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Damien Hirst

Spin Art
Damien Hirst, spots before his eyes.
Many (very many) years ago when I was an undergrad in college, (roughly 1970), I mounted a square box on a potter's wheel, placed cardboard in the bottom, then began rapidly rotating the box as I adding liquid tempera causing the centrifugal force to spin it outward over the cardboard (pretty much as seen above). Was that art? In a similar manner, I coated spherical objects such as marbles and golf balls with paint and rolled them around over a sheet of paper. One of my instructors questioned as to whether such random movement of inanimate objects constituted human creativity so later, I cut them up and made a collage. Though using traditional media, such work, at the time, stretched the definition of art into the realm of the conceptual raising the question often raised by British artist, Damien Hirst, which is more important, the concept (idea) or the resulting art? Hirst postulates the former over the latter, claiming that once the idea is established, virtually anyone (myself included) can "make" the art which can then be signed by the original concept-generating artist.
Spin painting, 1969, Annick Gendron
One of the problems with this theory is that concepts can easily be stolen. Plagiarism often raises its ugly head. Hirst has had an exceptional amount of litigation on both sides of this issue, all of which basically boils down to "who had the idea first?" In studying the provenance of such work one might think these artists spend more time suing one another than creating. Spin art, for example has been around since the 1960s (I stole the idea, though I never tried to sell such works). Damien Hirst, on the other hand, has, and in the process made millions (either in pounds or dollars). What he didn't make was the paintings themselves, which were done by studio assistants under his direction (not uncommon with Postmodern art). The same goes for his famous "spot" paintings (above left). If you think there's something new and slightly disreputable about such practices, you'd be wrong on both counts. The 17th century painter, Peter Paul Rubens (and others), ran virtual "art factories" populated by such apprentice assistants, not to mention Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons in more recent art history.

Beautiful Revolving Sphincter, Oops,
Brown Painting, 2003, Damien Hirst.
The Hirst spin. The titles of Hirst's
paintings are often more interesting
than the works themselves.
All of this is fascinating, and serves to illustrate the nature of conceptual art, but in fact, Hirst is far better known for his controversial "sculptural" installations than his paintings. You've no doubt heard of his love affair with formaldehyde in giant "vitrines" (custom made aquariums) preserving sharks, sheep, flies, maggots, and various bovine body parts powerful enough to once get his work banned from a U.S. show for public health reasons (they caused people to vomit). Now, before you dismiss all this with a disgusting UGHhhh...or maybe YUCK (take your pick), Damien Hirst is by far the richest artist in history with a reputed net worth of $358-million (hey, formaldehyde doesn't come cheap).

For the Love of God, 2007,
Damien Hirst
Just the cost of creating some of Hirst's works easily blows past record sales figures for most of his contemporaries. His diamond encrusted skull (recreated in platinum) titled, For the Love of God with its 8,601 diamonds weighing in at 1,106.18 carats, came too $24.6-million. The asking price at auction was $77.8-million. The work eventually sold for somewhat less than that. However in 2008, Hirst's one-man show, Beautiful Inside my Head Forever (218 pieces) at Sotheby's in London sold out for a record $198-million--more than ten times their previous record for a similar show. And that was without a single drop of formaldehyde.
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, Damien Hirst
The work originally sold for around $73,000. The most recent price was $12-million.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Robert Henri

Cumulus Clouds, East River, 1901-02, Robert Henri
Robert Henri Self-portrait, 1903
Quite a number of times I've written on the American painting style called "Social Realism," (04-26-12) as well as the Ashcan School (11-05-10) and the Group of Eight (02-07-11) painters from the latter years of the 19th century. And individually, I've written on most of the painters making up this migrant mélange of macho malcontents. And though I've obviously mentioned him many times, just today, however, I realized I'd somehow skipped the leader of the group--Robert Henri (pronounced Hen-rye). The reason for this oversight may revolve around the fact that, except perhaps for Ernest Lawson, Henri may be the least well known of the eight, which includes such outstanding American painters as Maurice Prendergast, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, William Glackens, and Arthur B. Davies. Of course, even among such an illustrious, illustrative group, it's to be expected that fame is seldom spread evenly.
The Laughing Boy (Jobie), Robert Henri.
Few artist delight in painting children as
much as did Henri. Few paint them so well.
And fewer still paint them laughing.
Of this group, Robert Henri might well be considered the most thoroughly and most academically trained. Henri was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1865, the son of a heavy gambler and real estate developer (something of a redundancy, perhaps). Robert's last name was originally Cozad. After the war, his father founded Cozaddale, Ohio, then moved his family, first to Nebraska, where he founded the town of Cozad. Then, after a homicidal brush with the law, the Cozad family moved on to Denver, Colorado, where they ditched the besmirched family name in favor of Lee, while Robert and his brother chose the last names Henri and Southern. In 1883, the family moved back east to New York City, before finally settling in Atlantic City, New Jersey. There Robert managed to stay put long enough to finished high school. After high school, Henri studied under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts followed by a two-year stint in Paris at the Academie Julian, where he studied under William-Adolphe Bouguereau (an academician) and was exposed to Impressionism. He also made brief visits to Italy and Brittany in the north of France. It's quite obvious he was likewise exposed to the work of Franz Hals. By 1892 he was back in Philadelphia teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.
Patience, Robert Henri. There's no
indication as to whether that was her name
or what it took to capture her on canvas.

It was starting about this time, and through much of the 1890s that the Group of Eight artists known as the Philadelphia Four--newspaper illustrators, Glackens, Luks, Sloan, and Shinn--began to form around Henri's studio where they drew from life and studied the philosophies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Emile Zola. As a result of these encounters and the group's gradual move to New York, Robert Henri, the genteel academic became what writer/publisher, Emma Goldman, termed: "an anarchist in his conception of art and its relation to life." (She ought to know, being an anarchist herself.)

Young Sport, Robert Henri
The list of artists Henri influenced, often as the result of his teaching position at New York's Art Students' League includes such notables as George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and of course the younger, more impressionable, members of the Group of Eight. Henri was very much a leader, organizing shows on a yearly basis, including the famous Armory Show of 1913, which were just as regularly panned by many New York critics. "The Eight" were deemed "the Apostles of Ugliness," and accused of "exhibiting our sores." To eyes used to "pretty" pictures, the coarse, often vulgar, painterly social realism of the Group of Eight, was offensive. Collectively, they were termed by critic, Art Young, in 1934 as the Ashcan School. The name stuck, and while quite descriptive, and perhaps even accurate, it was not meant as a compliment.

Willy Gee, Robert Henri,
as dignified as a banker.
The Laundress, 1916, Robert Henri.
Henri painted adults too, though
even at that, seemed to have had
a fondness for "characters."