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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The White Crucifixion

Once in his or her lifetime, every painter turns out a work of art coming from the heart in which he or she pours out their guts.  If that's a little too anatomical for you, perhaps the word "soul" might be more appropriate.  Picasso had his Guernica.  Michelangelo had his Sistine Ceiling.  Gericault called his The Raft of the Medusa.  For Marc Chagall, it was The White Crucifixion.  Painted in 1938, it may well have been influenced by Guernica, painted less than a year before.  But what makes The White Crucifixion so startling was that it was painted by a Jew.  More than that, it was not Chagall's first crucifixion.  In 1912, while under Cubist influences he painted Golgotha, heavily laden with blues and greens, a much less impressive though thoroughly "expressive" work.

The White Crucifixion,
1938, Marc Chagall
The White Crucifixion is enigmatic.  To describe it, the roughly square painting depicts a slightly distorted crucified Christ clad not in the traditional loin cloth but a Jewish prayer shawl, the cross bathed in a blistering white beam of light from above while all around are elements of the Jewish unrest and persecution taking place in Germany and Russia at the time.  A synagogue burns, homes are destroyed, the Red Army marches, no match for the impending holocaust.  The warm white and gray tones of the overall painting make all the more disturbing the bursts of color as refugees flee aboard a boat or on foot, attempting to rescue sacred scrolls or merely themselves from the onslaught of terror.  This was Chagall's Guernica.

Knowing what we do about Chagall, the pre-WW II history of Europe, Jewish traditions, the Holocaust, and all the other baggage this painting carries with it, makes understanding it all the more difficult.  Of course Chagall was outraged and fearful of what he knew and heard of the plight of Jews in Europe.  But what is he trying to say, juxtaposing all this against the merciless whiteness of a crucifixion?  Was he portraying the persecution of the Jews as retribution for a Jewish role in the crucifixion?  Was he simply portraying Christ's crucifixion as the ultimate Jewish persecution?  Perhaps he was equating it to the quiet desperation of Jews in the world at the time?  Whatever the case, the experience of the painting is one of immense tragedy, made all the more powerful to us now by the then unknown and unfathomable horrors that were to come.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Andy Warhol

We all seem to have a hunger to know how the "other half" lives.  Actually the term is a misnomer in that we are usually referring to celebrities, wealthy ones at that, and they make up far fewer than HALF our population. In terms of art, there are very few genuine celebrities alive today and those who are, guard their private lives desperately. It's only when a celebrity passes on that we sometimes get a glimpse into their closely guarded private lives. It usually takes an author to pry into such things and one such author was Robert Colacello. The artist whose life he pried into was a friend and colleague who helped him found Interview Magazine--Andy Warhol.

The first of the series that
made Warhol famous, dating
from 1968
 Along with Picasso, Dali, and maybe two or three more, Warhol leads the list of true painter-celebrities of the twentieth century. Some artists, like Warhol, thrive on their celebrity status. Most abhor it. Contrary to popular believe, it wasn't Warhol who invented the phrase "fifteen minutes of fame", but it was he who celebrated often as possible. (Marshall McLuhan likely said it first.) We are already familiar with Warhol's legendary soup cans, Brillo boxes, and celebrity Pop portraits. We're almost as familiar with his chauffeur-driven forays to flea-markets and garage sales where he amassed his phenomenal cookie jar collection. Yet, beyond his groundbreaking Pop Art paintings and photographic silkscreens, Warhol's artistic interest also extended into Avant-garde film making and publishing. Recently, Warhol's East Side, New York City townhouse was awarded it's "fifteen minutes of fame" as a plaque was mounted to it's red brick facade declaring it a National Historic Landmark. Warhol bought the five-story townhouse in 1974 for $310,000.  He lived there until his death in 1989 following gall bladder surgery.  He would have been 82 today.

Living there with him was interior designer, Jed Johnson, plus two dachshunds, Amos and Archie. His favorite room was the kitchen, where he was in the habit of eating, even before going out to eat. He seldom ate anything other than white foods such as cottage cheese, apples, turkey breast, white bread, and popcorn (little wonder he had gall bladder problems). According to a onetime confident who was privileged to access Warhol's private domain, he was not the "neat" person usually seen in his public image.  His home was littered with used batteries, Polaroid film, and in his bathroom, a collection of pimple medicine of heroic proportions.  He slept in a bed with a dark brown canopy while on his night stand were two crucifixes, two alarm clocks, and a box of dog biscuits.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Ceiling Race

 When we think of a large painting, wall-size dimensions of perhaps ten to twenty feet in either direction come to mind. Of course we're usually thinking in terms of a framed canvas painting. If we think of LARGE paintings, then we get to contemplating works too large for canvas--murals, usually frescoes. However when we stop measuring works in feet and start referring to yards, or meters, then we're talking...well, maybe ENORMOUS is adequate. And for this scale, the surface is usually a ceiling. It's tempting to thing first, foremost, and maybe even exclusively, of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco when the subject of ceiling painting comes to mind. But long before Michelangelo ever dripped paint in his eye, there was a long tradition of Italian ceiling painting. Michelangelo's masterpiece was simply an opening shot in what became a race among artists for several generations to paint the most remarkable ceiling frescoes ever seen by the eyes of man.
Loves of the Gods, Farnese Palace Ceiling, 1597-1601, Annibale Carracci
The first leg of the race was won by Annibale Carracci with his Farnese Palace ceiling fresco (above), painted between 1597 and 1601. The long, vaulted ceiling, not unlike that of the Sistine Chapel, is decorated by a series of tightly abutted, trompe l'oeil (fool the eye) groupings of framed scenes from mythological sources not unlike the French Salon habit of completely covering an entire wall surface with paintings. The trompe l'oeil sculptural decorations between the works and half concealed greenish medallions, add to what is already an overwhelming artistic encounter that leaves one breathless, not to mentioned stiff-necked. Each of the dozen or more paintings begs to be studied individually yet there is no place other than the cold hard floor to lie down upon ones back to do so comfortably.   

Triumph of Divine Providence, 1633-39, Pietro da Cortona
The second round might well be said to belong to a relatively unknown, Pietro da Cortona for the ceiling in the Gran Salone of the Barberini Palazzo in Rome between 1633 and 1639 (above). Titled Triumph of  Divine Providence (or of the Barberini), it is, in fact a last judgement in which the entire ceiling appears to open up to a giant whirl of figures being swept upward toward the figure of Christ looming from a cloud slightly off-center of the main axis.
Worship of the Holy Name of Jesus, 1676-79, Giovanni Battista Gualli
But possibly the ultimate in trompe l'oeil fresco ceiling decoration combines stucco sculpture with fresco in a mixed-media extravaganza titled Worship of the Holy Name of Jesus (above). Painted by the little-known Giovanni Battista Gaulli around 1676-79 to cover the vault of the Church of ll Gesu in Rome. In apparent direct competition with the Barberini ceiling, the effect is at once theatrical, yet inspirational. The theme is the same but the work is so much more visually believable, merging illusion with reality as it combines architectural elements (both 2-D and 3-D) with sculpture, painted figures, and almost surrealistic heavenly happenings. Miraculously, you no longer notice your stiff neck.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Causes of the Renaissance

If you've ever taken an art history class, or even one in art appreciation, you know that the era they call "The Renaissance" is held in reverence something just short of the second coming. This "reawakening" is set atop on an historic pedestal intended to inspire a worshipful awe as everyone from the highest high-priest-art-history-professor to the lowest graduate-student-teaching-assistant-altar-boy marches around it swirling incense while intoning the words Raphaellllllll... Michelangelooooo... Leonardoooooo." Meanwhile all the art appreciators genuflect and murmur an appreciative background litany of gasping ooooo's and ahhhhhhhh's at every Madonna, David, and Mona flashed upon the screen to identify, categorize, and immortalize. Then, when it is all done, you take an essay test and I'd bet dollars to donuts the very first question is:  "Discuss the causes relevant to the development of the Renaissance and its effect upon the various forms of art of the time."  (Or something to that effect.)

Well, let me answer the first part of that question in one word--money. Of course that's a gross oversimplification and would rate a single word response--explain! Actually, it's not only an oversimplification, it's a bit inaccurate too.  Actually credit would be a better response. Now, let me explain. During the Middle Ages, there were two-forms of trade--gold, and barter. Gold was in short supply until the new world explorers robbed the native Americans and flooded Europe with it. And Barter was terribly inefficient. Credit, on the other hand, basically letters of credit, couldn't be easily stolen, weighed very little, and were an efficient way of transferring huge quantities of wealth. Which brings us back to the original answer--money. Without large amounts of it, there were only fortress prisons in which those who had accumulated some wealth relied upon ugly stone walls to avoid being murdered in their sleep.  When it became economically feasible to enclose an entire city in fortress walls, then those with money could begin to relax and enjoy it, which meant a craving for beauty, which meant art.  The city of Florence, Italy, is a classic example.

Florence's fortress-palace-city hall
Palazzo Vecchio

Italy, jutting it's booted peninsula out into the maritime trade lanes of the Mediterranean, was ideally suited to taste, and enjoy this new found prosperity first. The Italians spent the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries accumulating wealth and the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries enjoying it. Yet, even in Florence, the palazzos of the Medici and other wealthy families still have a fortress-like quality to them. But inside, as they open into delightfully sunny courtyards, there is light--light to see paintings hanging on walls, to enjoy tapestries, to admire garden sculpture, fountains, and manicured landscapes. And with wealth comes time--time to enjoy reading and writing poetry, music, great novels, opera, and high fashion. All of these things came together to define the Renaissance and to impact the arts. So, the next time you take an art history course, and it comes time for the final exam, just cut and paste this explanation and you'll be home free.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Stages of Life

As the average life span for those living today continues to rise, now well past seventy for both sexes, we tend not to think so much about life and death--our own mortality. I suppose the closer one approaches the proverbial fourscore such thoughts may become more common, but even at that, even as artists, we tend not to let such thought dominate our thinking or creep into our artwork. Two hundred years ago, when every minor battle with ill-health held out the possibility of an early death, regardless of one's age, such thoughts were much more prevalent. When people felt they had very little control of their health and thus of their lives, they tended to be much more philosophical about life and their place in the grand scheme of things. Caspar David Friedrich was a German Romantic landscape painter during the early 1800s, and it would seem, judging from his work, he thought about little else.

Friedrich was born in 1774, the son of a candle maker. Though born in Pomerania on the Baltic, he was raised in Dresden, Germany,  where he had a strict, Protestant upbringing, marred early in his life by an incident in which he fell through some ice. In rescuing him, his older brother drowned. His brother's death was to profoundly effect him for the rest of his life. He was a deeply sad and melancholy individual. He was forty years old before he married, and then to a girl 22 years his junior. She bore him three children. A product of the illustrious Copenhagen Academy, Friedrich spent his entire life in Germany, where his exquisitely detailed, modest-sized landscapes each come loaded with solemn symbolism relating to his deep awareness of his own mortality. The Stages of Life, painted in 1835, just five years before his death, is one such work.

The Stages of Life, 1835,
Caspar David Friedrich
 Though all of his work was done from his imagination, they were loosely based upon sketches of actual locations. This painting is set on a beach recognizable as the harbor of Greifswald where he was born. Five ships are depicted at various distances representing the passing of life. The mast of the central ship, painted head on, forms a crucifix symbolizing Friedrich's deep religious faith. On the shore is an old man in the foreground, his back to us, representing old age (Friedrich), while a young man in a top hat, (his nephew) represents maturity. Beyond them, playing on the beach are a young girl (his eldest daughter) representing youth, and two children playing with a Swedish flag, (his two younger children), representing childhood. The painting with its luminous, golden sky and lavender clouds is remarkably tranquil. Yet there is a feeling of sadness as one watches the ships, symbolizing life, sailing away into the sunset. How different we are today.  How likely we are to dismiss such musings as something we'd just as soon not think about.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Annibale Carracci

Yesterday I wrote of the artwork of a particularly notorious young Baroque artist by the name of Caravaggio, noting something to the effect that while saints were nice, sinners were more interesting. So, having given the devil his due, the saints now demand equal time. Annibale Carracci (pronouced anNIBalee caRACHee) of course was hardly a saint, except perhaps in comparison to Caravaggio. (Their names are similar enough they are often confused by art students.)  
In any case, artistically, as well as personally, they were pretty much exact opposites. Carracci was brooding and withdrawn while Caravaggio was violent and dramatic. Carracci was of the classical school of painting (ala Michelangelo and Raphael), while Caravaggio was on the cutting edge of the  new Baroque movement. Carracci painted mostly frescos while Caravaggio worked exclusively on canvas, though both their work was on a similar scale. Carracci was establishment. Caravaggio was anything but! Carracci painted in a joyous, almost frivolous style while Caravaggio was strikingly dramatic to the point of being "gritty" in his search for naturalism and visceral impact.   
Being some 13 years older than Caravaggio, Carracci considered his primary rival for artistic commissions something of a brash, young upstart. Critics, for the most part, saw him in that light as well. Caravaggio suffered in comparison to Carracci because, at the time, canvas painting was something of a poor stepchild to fresco, considered the ultimate in the painter's art. Carracci's major masterpiece, the Farese Palace Galllery was ranked by critics at the time, and up until the 19th century, alongside the Sistine Chapel Ceiling and Raphael's School of Athens.

The Assumption of the Virgin,
1601, Annibale Carracci
 In the long historical run, however, Caravaggio has come to be seen as something of a towering giant as compared to Carracci imitative efforts to outshine the Renaissance. Caravaggio ushered in a whole new era of art--the Baroque period. Carracci is considered a Mannerist painter, though in effect, he was more like the last dying breath of the Renaissance, suffering in comparison to both that which came before him and the art of Caravaggio, which came after him.  Compare his Assumption of the Virgin to Caravaggio's Death of the Virgin from yesterday.  Carracci's painting is sweet scriptural fantasy, a hybrid of Raphael (the upper portion) and Michelangelo (in the lower half).  Caravaggio's Baroque depiction, though perhaps overly melodramatic, seems much closer to the truth.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Caravaggio, Artist, Rapscallion

 The story of painting is filled with all sorts of interesting and diverse figures from near saints to authentic rascals and rapscallions. Of course saints are nice, but not nearly as interesting as the rapscallions. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio falls into the latter category. Born in 1571, Caravaggio very nearly invented Baroque painting with his masterful use of chiaroscuro (high contrast modeling of figures for dramatic three-dimensional illusions). His work is nothing if not powerful in its devastating, visual impact.   
Setting aside his scandalous private life and his white-hot temper, Caravaggio's work might well have been sweeping enough in it's naturalness and "newness" to have avoided much of the controversy and criticism that dogged his every artistic effort, except for the fact that he often worked for the church. Then, as now, the church was a temple of conservative thought, especially during the counter-reformation. This included doctrine and dogma, of course, but also matters of art as well.     
Death of the Virgin, 1601-06,
About 1597, Caravaggio received a commission for several religious paintings to decorate the Contarelli Chapel. Among these were The Martyrdom of St Mathew, The conversion of St. Paul, and most controversial of all, the final one, The Death of the Virgin completed in 1606. Caravaggio's brand of "naturalness" demanded the use of unsanitized, peasant, dirt-on-their-feet models, in no way resembling the idealized figures of Raphael or Caravaggio's main rival at the time, Annibale Carracci. In The Death of the Virgin, the figure of the Virgin was derived from the drowned body of a prostitute (for that bonafide "dead" look, no doubt). Predictably, the word "blasphemy" came to mind as word of this sacrilege reach the ears of church figures.   

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Canaletto's Venice

Imagine rendering a detailed painting of Times Square on New Year's Eve, or a similar scene of a Presidential Inauguration in oils on canvas. Everything must be there in infinite detail, from the hot-dog vendor in the foreground to the lady atop the Capitol dome in the background.  Even if the canvas was measured in feet rather than inches the task would still be least to modern day artists. Of course today, with photography, no one would bother, even though the use of photographs would make the task quite a great deal less difficult. But one artist, the Venetian painter, Giovanni Antonio Canal, best known by his signature, Canaletto, did just such a painting.

The work is entitled Return of the Bucentoro to the Molo on Ascension Day. It was painted in 1732, and not only did the artist accomplish everything outlined above, but this painting is not at all unique. He made a habit of it, building a very successful career around just such enormously detailed works. The painting is large, nearly 12 by 14 feet, but into it is crammed such exquisite detail, such ornate decoration, such a wonderful sense of movement and activity, that the effect is nothing less than breathtaking. It's all there, all the architecture including the mint, the library, Sansovino's towering Campanile, St.  Mark's Cathedral, The Doge's Palace, arrayed in glorious sunshine against what can only be called a truly Venetian sky. And that's just the background.

Return of the Bucentoro to the Molo on Ascension Day,
1732, Caneletto
 The real action is on the water as the Doge's barge moves along the Grand Canal accompanied by a flotilla of other ornately carved and gilded gondolas all heavily populated with figures from rowers to royalty. Every figure has a highly decorated costume, a face, and is actively involved in some activity. In fact, everything appears to move, flags wave, the water glistens, the boats glide in what seems to be a painted extravaganza to end all painted extravaganzas. Every detail is done from on-site drawings yet the whole perspective is straight from Caneletto's imagination. There is no building or quay where he could possibly have set up an easel and painted the magnificent celebration. Today, Venice is, without doubt, the most romantic city in Europe, perhaps the whole world, and if this artist wasn't singlehandedly responsible for making it so, he can be said to have at least played a major role in fostering that image.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Grand Tour

In this century, we take travel and tourism for granted. What with jet planes and cruise ships, even the "middle classes" can save a reasonable amount and take a week-long vacation almost literally anywhere in the world (or at least anywhere in the world the middle classes would want to vacation). Actually the term "vacation" is very much a twentieth century word. Before it came the term "tour" which now, ironically, usually means a side-trip of some sort. And "touring" was largely a manifestation of the upper-classes. For Americans, Europe was the most common touring destination, usually starting in either England or France, and ending in Italy. Germany and Holland were somewhat less popular. In Italy, the mandatory stops were Venice, Florence, Naples, and Rome. The bathers went to Capri. The adventurous headed for the picturesque beauty of the Italian Alps.    
What has all this to do with art?  Well, often the art and architecture of France and Italy especially, were the main drawing card for these tours. And, in an age before picture postcards and genuine Italian/Taiwanese souvenirs, many of these wealthy globe trotters carted off the real thing--original oil paintings, Roman artifacts, sculpture, even whole rooms and buildings. It was a buyer beware market of course, and many an eighteenth and nineteenth century "robber baron" found themselves, when they got home, having paid good money for bad copies, but then, perhaps they got what they deserved. In the area of painting, an entire cadre of painters (also engravers for the economy-minded) developed to satisfy the "Grand Tourist" desiring to take home a painted memory of Venice, Rome, or Naples. And in spite of the fact that they were essentially cranking out large-scale, high-class, picture postcards, many of them were actually quite good.    

Grand Canal and the Church
of the Salute, 1730, Canaletto
One of the best was Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto. Born in 1746, in Venice, his work became so popular with British clients, his dealer (yes, even back then there were agents) arranged for him to spend nine years painting in England, the views of London and the nearby countryside presumably to satisfy those touring the British Isles. A typical Canaletto painting is not large, perhaps in the range of about 18"x30", no doubt to make them easy for the 18th century "tourist" to take home. And when we see them in reproduction today there is a very definite picture postcard quality to them--perfect perspective, perfect sunny day lighting, dramatic angles, and almost endless, exquisite, minute detail--all this on barely 4 square feet of canvas. 
Northumberland House, London,
1752, Canaletto

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Father and His Son

The relationship between artists and their families has always been an interesting one for me, especially that which exists between fathers and sons. In today's American culture, parents are mostly supportive of their children's interests and eventual career choices. Would-be artists today seldom encounter resistance from their parents as they struggle through various forms of art schooling and then try to make a name for themselves as practicing professional artists. That's largely been the case for the past hundred years or more.

 In 1846, when a painting by an artist named Camille Corot's led to his receiving the highest award given to French artists, his father, who had always considered him little more than an amiable good-for-nothing, remarked that "...maybe the boy had some talent after all." By then the "boy" was fifty years old. Of course Corot had been forty before he sold his first painting at which time the father had pretended distress, complaining that no longer did he have a complete collection of Corot's work. To his credit, Corot's father had supported his artist-son all his life, so perhaps the "old man" had good reason to be surprised at such a distinguished award.

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot was born in Paris over his mother's millinery shop in 1796.  He was an unexceptional student and when he announced his desire to be a painter his father was at first horrified. But, reluctantly, he decided to give "the boy" a chance, though not expecting much.  He noted that he was good only for "having fun".  Years later, Corot agreed with his father's assessment: "My whole life I painted and had fun."

Ville de Avray, 1865
Camille Corot
 Corot had the best art education money could buy. He went with his teacher to Italy where he ignored the Raphaels and Michelangelos in favor of the Italian landscape. When he returned from Italy, he took up the French landscape in its place. His early work is sharp, precise, and classically academic in subject matter, but always with an expressive, spirited landscape. Later, his drawing and painting became softer, relying more and more on color rather than draftsmanship. It was a generally accepted fact, even amongst his friends, that Corot "never knew how to draw", which was not true. He simply defined drawing differently from his peers. His father's wealth allowed him the freedom to be "himself" and as a result, his work defies the usual categorization so dear to art historians. Like Boudin and Millet, Corot is best thought of as one whose influence upon the Impressionists may have been as important as his body of work. His early advice to a young Camille Pissarro was one such instance: "Never lose the first impression which moved you."  Pissarro, in turn, passed this entreaty on to a generation of artists who were themselves moved by Corot's "impressions".

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Camera Obscura

One of the best kept secrets amongst artists is the degree to which they rely on photos in doing their work. And here I'm not just talking about the occasional use of pictures from a "grab file" but photos from which most or all of the painting is rendered. Today, portrait artists are most open regarding their use of photos though still quite reticent usually in divulging just "how" they use them, and not without good reason. Most individuals commissioning a portrait consider photos a convenience as much as does the artist. After all, without them, both would be tortured by long, tedious settings from which only the best models and the best artist would emerge from the ordeal with great paintings. Beyond that though, artist make sure few people are aware if they use any kind of projection device to enhance speed and accuracy. Though most artists no longer feel "guilty" in this form of "cheating," some still continue to condemn it, especially when in the hands of the clumsy practitioner.  In terms of the general public, an artist drawing from a projected image is still very much frowned upon.  It seems to them to somehow destroy the mystical magic of "drawing."

A cutaway drawing dating from the
Renaissance detailing the workings
of the Camera Obscura
It may come as a surprise to some, but a couple of the most admired artists in history seem to have relied almost totally on projected images in the drawing stages of their paintings. In the mid-1600s, Jan Vermeer was probably the first to actually USE such labor-saving methods as his sole means of drawing upon his canvases. But the device he used was not new by any means. The Italians had first experimented with it during the Renaissance. The "contraption" he used was a wooden framework set against a wall with a wooden top and dark curtains hung on the other three sides. The canvas was mounted on the wall, and a plank with a tiny, rectangular hole in it was mounted on the front of the frame to allow a small amount of light into the cubicle. The size of the hold determined the sharpness of the image while the depth of the cubical determined the size of the resulting, projected image. The image, of course, came out upside down on the canvas, but that was of little consequence.

The Milkmaid, 1660,
Jan Vermeer

The device was called the camera obscura (dark chamber). One of the hallmarks of Vermeer's work included a wall of windows on the left in most of his paintings through which bright sunlight was admitted--a prerequisite for using such a device. Holland being the world center at the time in the production of lenses, it's quite likely his camera obscura pioneered their use as well. A hundred years or so later, the Venetian artist, Canaletto used a similar device. Or more precisely, it's likely his assistants did.  It takes no great artistic skill to use such a visual aid beyond some basic instruction and a little trial and error. The sheer quantity of Caneletto's output alone would have dictated their use.  Beyond that, the consistent quality of his renderings of the Venetian cityscape gives further evidence of his reliance on such technology.  Believe it or not, there was even handheld, portable camera obscura (a canoe-like contraption which fit over the artist's head and shoulders), for drawing on location. What can I say? Another art "secret" bites the dust.

Drawings by Canaletto using a Camera Obscura

Friday, November 19, 2010

Calvin and the Arts

Even today, I think we'd have to say that there remains, to some degree, an uneasy alliance between organized religion and art. It is uneasy both on an institutional and a personal level depending on the denomination and the individual. Both the artists and the clergy are wary of one another because neither are dependent on the other economically or symbiotically. Today, there is a strong Calvinist streak running through Protestant denominations in particular that, if not totally eschewing art and decoration, at least they tend to use it sparingly.
Iconoclasts in a Church, 1630,
Dirck van Delen
Some five hundred years ago, however, the Calvinists, often referred to as iconoclasts, went to war against all forms of religious art. Arising from various excesses of the Catholic Church, the followers of John Calvin in Holland and northern Europe had a great deal of popular support. They were especially severe and dogmatic in banning the use of all imagery in places of worship. They considered it idolatrous and evidence of the corruption of the Catholic Church. Their preoccupation with this belief reach its militant height during the sixteenth century when they tore down art from many northern cathedrals, leaving once magnificent interiors whitewashed and spartan.

Boy Removing Fleas from His Dog,
Gerard ter Borch
By 1566, support for the arts from the Dutch church had totally collapsed and artists were forced to turn elsewhere for sustenance. Their economic salvation was in the newly affluent middle class. The impact of this change was far more than economic, however. A new market required a new art. Grand religious murals and enormous Biblical scenes were out. Modest depictions of everyday life among the common people were in. Portraits became the artists' bread and butter. Landscapes thrived. Genre arrived. Artists like Gerard ter Borch painted pictures such as Boy Removing Fleas from his Dog, and that boy was not Jesus. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Alexander Calder

The truly great artists of today seem able to navigate freely from one medium to another leaving behind works of art that transcend narrow, artificial boundaries imposed by art critics, historians, and collectors. As a painter, we're most familar with his childlike swirls and squigles of paint transforming huge, tubes of airbourne, passenger-laden  metal into moving artworks soaring across the skies at speeds his earlier "moving" works could not approach.  Alexander Calder is one of the few artists who can be said to have "invented" a kind of art work.  Marcel Duchamp coined the name "mobile" for the free-floating bits of painted sheet metal, wood, and wire that made up Calder's first sculpture.  The year was 1931.    

Aula Magna, Las Nubes. 1953,
Alexander Calder
Born 100 years ago, Calder's father and grandfather were both sculptors, while his mother contributed his background as a painter. His earliest sculptural innovation came when he first dabbled in wire sculpture at the age of nine. His educational background included a degree in mechanical engineering. He studied art only later. But it was a course in applied kinetics that inspired his signiture works in which time and movement added two new basic elements to the medium of sculpture. Some of his moving sculptures were hanging, free-floating pieces, in others he experiemented with motorized, "programmed" movement.  Albert Einstien is said to have gazed upon one such piece for almost an hour.  
De tre vingarna (The Three Wings), 1967,
Alexander, Calder

After living in Europe for many years, Calder returned to the U.S. in 1933 where he rented a farmhouse near Roxbury, Mass. There, working out of an old ice house for a studio, he explored the relationship of art and movement, creating a lifetime ouevre of over 16,000 pieces. He died in 1976.  Two years later one of his largest mobiles was installed in the the new East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The U.S. Postal Service has since released a series of stamps featuring his mobiles.  For the first time, his work was not only be "moving", but moving mail.   

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cafe Guerbois

The address was number 11, Avenue de Clichy. Today, it's a group of small shops, but in 1866, it was the Cafe Guerbois (pronounced gur-BWA).  It was a noisy little place filled with marble-topped tables, cheap, metal chairs, smoke, a few paintings on the dark, paneled walls, a bar across one end of the room, and young mademoiselles taking orders and delivering drinks. During the day it was just another Paris street cafe serving light lunches, lemonade, tea, wine, and presumably more potent beverages as the evening approached. It was then that the place came alive. The Guerbois was the favorite hangout for the "arty" crowd, especially painters, and especially those painters who admired the work of Eduoard Manet.   
Manet was the center of a group of friends, and younger, admiring fellow artists. Among the daily guests at the Cafe Guerbois were Paul Cezanne, Alfred Sisley, Claud Monet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Jean Renoir and Frederick Bazille. The list reads like a who's who of rogue painters at the time. Writers such as Emile Zola, and the photographer/caricaturist, Felix Nadar,came often as did lesser-knows, Astruc, Duranty, Fantin-Latour, Constantin Guys, Duret, Guillemet, and Bracquemond. Thursday nights were set aside especially for these artist to meet, eat, talk, drink, argue, and expound.  They did not always agree...actually, perhaps they seldom agreed fully with all that was said, and some talked more than others.  Some, like Cezanne did more listening than talking, but when he did, everyone listened intently. Cezanne observed that they argued and drank so late they couldn't get up to paint the next morning. 
Bohemes au Cafe, 1886,
 Jean-Francois, Rafaelli 
Few in the group could match Manet's intellectual prowess.  Except for Pissarro, he was the oldest, by far the best educated, and the wealthiest.  He dressed with great care, spoke with modesty and kindness, but by nature was ambitions and impetuous. He was often witty, at times he could be ironic, occasionally even cruel. His chief conversational rival was Edgar Degas. Though their tastes in art were similiar and they seemed to respect one another, they more often than not disagreed. When they were not quarreling, they were friendly, though both were known to bear one another grudges.   

Of the others, only Frederick Bazille had the education and taste for verbal sparring to tangle with minds as sharp as Degas' or Manet's.  Shy, but firm in his beliefs, he stood up for them with undeniable logic and passion. Together, they made up the main event, the only source of entertaintment, and the chief source of philosophical interaction for these nascent minds that were to revolutionize art during their own lifetimes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Cafe Alcazar

Where do artists go to hang out? If you asked that question in most communities today, or even most cities, you'd be met with a shrug or a blank stare. Although one might expect to hear of some colorful neighborhood bar or pub, one might also be quite disappointed. Actually, few artists today hang out anywhere like that. Instead, quite likely, their favorite hangout would be their own studio in front of a glowing rectangle and the familiar blue and white screen of Facebook or some such other social networking site. They might still be  chatting with their like minded friends but there would be no amiable bartender serving frosty mugs of brew--maybe a can of beer from the fridge in the kitchen. And the friends? They might well be thousands of miles away under similar circumstances.

Contrary to popular belief, given the enormous quantity of work many famous and historic artists produced during their lifetimes, they didn't paint twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They ate, slept, and relaxed at the end of a hard day's work the same as the rest of us (painters or otherwise). Usually such periods of relaxation involved a small cafe where they took their meals, drank their wine, and met and talked with fellow artists. The Impressionist had their Guerbois; Picasso and his friends the els Quatre Gats; the New York School, the Cedar Tavern; and in the tiny village of Arles in the south of France there still stands today The Cafe Alcazar.

Cafe Terrace at Night,
1888, Vincent van Gogh
The address is number 2 place Lamartine. Except for it's two most famous customers it was not really much of an artists' hangout. In large part its clientele consisted of ordinary farm workers, a few merchants, government workers, and some prostitutes. It was not a pretty place. The colors were predominantly green, browns, rather garish yellows, made all the more so by the primitive electric lights hanging from the ceiling. There was a billiard table, a bar, crude tables, chairs, and no discernible decor. It was a place, as the tavern song says, "...where everybody knows your name." And speaking of names, its main claim to fame today is Vincent Van Gogh and his sometimes friend, Paul Gauguin. Here these two ate, drank, argued, fought, and joked with the waitresses, town drunks and prostitutes. Here they relaxed and took the edge off a grinding, precarious daily existence in which poverty and emotional instability were never far removed.
The Night Cafe, 1888,
Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh painted the place on a couple occasions. The more famous Yellow House, which he also painted, was nearby. It was destroyed during WW II bombing, but his  paintings of the area give a good feel for what the place must have been like 120 years ago. Vincent also painted many of the people who frequented the tiny tavern, including his good friend and postman, Joseph Roulin, his wife, also Marie Ginoux, wife of the owner of the place, and some of the young ladies he met there.  But it is his haunting depiction of the bistro's deserted, lonely interior  at night, after all the patrons had gone, that is our most lasting impression of the Cafe Alcazar.  It is a place, Van Gogh said, "...where you can ruin yourself, go mad, commit a crime...  So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hieronymus Bosch

If Renaissance painting tends to bore you to death with one classical (usually male) figure after another arrayed in all their naked, Greek splendor, then perhaps you need to take time out and pay a visit to Hieronymus Bosch. Specifically, take a look at his most famous painting, Garden of Earthly Delights. You'll still see lots of naked splendor, but Greek it is NOT! Your first reaction might well be, "What planet did this guy come from?"

The Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch, was born on this planet in 1450 as the Renaissance in Italy was starting to flower. The Garden of Earthly Delights was painted during the period of time from 1505-1510, making it an almost an exact contemporary of works like Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling and Raphael's School of Athens, both in the Vatican. Even though the painting has a deeply moralistic theme, Vatican art it ain't. Actually, it's not one painting, but three, a triptych, nearly seven feet tall and stretching some twelve feet in length. And, with its outlandish depictions of sin and the afterlife, it is one of the oddest, most outlandish paintings ever produced.

Garden of Earthly Delights,
1505-07, Hieronymus Bosch
The Last Judgment, 1534-41,

The left panel is a fairly straight-forward Biblical (though somewhat fantastical) rendition of God, Adam, and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The massive center panel, titled The World before the Flood, however, almost defies description, peopled with dozens of nude figures engaged in every form of debauchery known to man amidst what can only be called a fairyland of vice. And even more disturbing, the right panel is titled simply, Hell. It's Salvador Dali run amok, Steven King on an upset stomach, seasoned with a generous portion of Adolph Hitler at his best (or worst?). One has to wonder if Michelangelo was influenced by Bosch in his painting of The Last Judgement. Look at them both side by side. You be the judge. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sandro Botticelli

There would, no doubt, be very few artists today if they could paint only one area of subject matter. If the only buyers of art today were the religious clergy and the only subjects they bought were those from the Bible, the vast majority of artists would probably take up a different profession. Therefore, modern day  artists should be glad they didn't live some six hundred years ago when such circumstances were the norm. As fascinating and exciting as it might have to have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Leondardo, Ghirlandaio, and Donatello during the early Renaissanace, they might also have felt more than a little hamstrung.

However, at a time when all the important painting being done was overwhelmingly of a religious nature, one Renaissance artist stands out for the fact that his work was entirely mythological. That artist is Sandro Botticelli. Born around 1444, he was a formative influence in the Early Renaissance and something of a grandfatherly icon by the time of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. These giants of the High Renaissaance undoubtedly knew his work and were tremendously influenced by it. Traces of his love of lines can be seen in Leonardo's painting while his voluptuous colors can be found in the painting of Michelangelo and indirectly, through him, in the murals of Raphael. 
Michelangelo and Botticelli shared a mentor. The Florentine prince, Lorenzo de Medici, known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, surrounded himself with Neoplatonists, or those who followed the Greek philosophy of Plato. It was little wonder, in this womb-like atmosphere, that art and artists flourished in Florence, none moreso than Botticelli. Building upon the work of Giotto and Masaccio, and particularly Piero della Francesca, under whom he may have studied, Botticelli is all the more remarkable in that, while borrowing their trademark chiaroscuro, his work, with its tightly drawn, yet flowing lines, otherwise looks nothing like theirs.   
La Primavera, 1485-87,
Sandro Botticelli
Two of Botticelli's works have been lifted as standards by art historians, his La Primavera, a lyrical, dancing composition of flowing lines celebrating the rites of spring, and perhaps more importantly, The Birth of Venus, painted about 1482. Dubbed by wags as "Venus on the Half-Shell," there is a breezy, airy, weightless quality to the nude and semi-nude figures. Entwinded zephyrs breathe winds causing the painting's namesake, born of the sea, to float shore, rising up in a modest pose epitomizing forever the Renaissanace ideal of feminine beauty. Oh yes, the model was somewhat famous as well, or rather one of her relatives earned a perhaps undeservedly high place in history. She was Simonetta Vespucci, cousin to the Italian navigator and explorer for whom America was named.
The Birth of Venus, 1482,
Sandro Botticelli

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Body Art

In all the arts there can be found what we might call "high" art and "low" art.  In sculpture there is bronze casting on the high end and airplanes made of beer cans on the low end. In Architecture, there is Fallingwater and there is Levittown.  In music there is Beethoven and Tiny Tim. On the comic pages there is Doonesbury and Garfield. And in painting, there is the Sistine Chapel Ceiling and Elvis on black velvet.  Actually, there may be something often considered "lower" than that--body art--tattooing. The sleazy storefront "parlors" are as far removed from SOHO galleries as Motel-8's from the Hilton.

But if the Reverend Daniel Ostrowski has his way, perhaps body art might move up a few notches on the spectrum. He runs a Christian tattoo parlor.  He "paints" portraits of Jesus in place of flaming skulls. Tattoos of St. Michael doing battle with the devil and copies of Leonardo's "Last Supper" are also popular. In Rome, Italy, Jason Gennaro specializes in portraits of Christian figures. There is even a Christian Tattoo Association with over 100 working members across the nation. Some born-again Christians have their entire backs decorated with such art, sharing their believes in places where it's never been seen before. Randy Mastro, another Christian tattoo artist also does a brisk business removing demonic artwork from the newly converted.

Jesus Tattoo,
 Jason Gennaro

Mary Tattoo,
 Jason Gennaro

Whatever the art crowd might think of such work, some members of the clergy tend not to look very favorably upon it. They contend there are better ways to spread the word. Some go so far as to cite a Biblical passage from Leviticus which warns: "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you." Of course most born-again Christians disregard the teachings of the "Old Covenant" in proclaiming their faith. Short phrases such as "Praise the Lord" cost as little as $40. Larger "masterpieces" can run in the thousands.  It may not be high art, but it gives a whole new meaning to "putting on the faith."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Blatant Realism

When times are tough, people, even whole nations, have a tendency to return to basics. This is true of art and artist, as well. Realism has always flourished during difficult economic times. During the 1930s, the realism of Grant Wood is a perfect example. Today, when we think of Realism as a style of painting, we tend to look at it broadly, not discerning any degrees of Realism. However, in looking at the art of the nineteenth century, the painted Realism of the first half looks quite different from that of the second. Nowhere is this more evident than in the painted portraits from those two eras.

During the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States, times were rough. The nation was in the throes of growing pains similar to a sort of national adolescence, and struggling mightily simply to remain United states. There was a "no nonsense" quality to everything the country did during this era from canal building to railroad building to nation building. That quality also carried over into the art of the times. If the word "naturalism" befitted the style of landscape painting during this time, the term "realism" was the dominating element in portrait painting, then still the nations most important form of art.  In fact some historians have even gone so far as to label the style Blatant Realism, and not without good cause.

Daguerreotype photo of
Congressman Abraham Lincoln,

Portrait painters in the first half of the nineteenth century were second generation American artists with an artistic tradition (albeit a very shallow one) to look back upon and build upon. It was a pretentious era in which the veneer of success and respectability was paper thin. Scratch it only slightly, even in the civilized East, and just beneath the surface was the remnants of the American frontier--a life and time many of the dignified faces staring out from genteel oil portraits of the time were trying desperately to put behind them. Add to that the arrival from France in 1839 of Samuel F. B.  Morse with Louis Daggeurre's process for making photographs and you have the makings for a little "war" between new science and old art that promised to make life miserable for portrait painters for the next 25 years.

 It's difficult to overstate the impact the advent of photography had on the painted portrait in a nation of hard-nosed Yankee pragmatism coupled with our long-standing love affair with new technology. Almost immediately painters of miniature portraits became extinct. Seeing the writing on the wall, artists like Charles Loring Elliot, Chester Harding, and Lilly Martin Spencer felt the need to compete head on with portrait photography. They had on their side the ability to paint much larger than early photographs and, of course, in color. Also, they had a tradition of artistic excellence that early photographic processes couldn't come close to matching.

Samuel Putnam Avery, 1863,
Charles Loring Elliot

What they lacked was the verisimilitude that photography offered in capturing every line, hair, and nuance of the sitter's appearance. It was here where painters crossed the line, from simple realism, into the blatant realism that today makes art historians cringe. In their struggle to compete, they often gave their painted portraits, much the same stiff, stark, unblinking harshness of most photographs during this period. In fact, many portrait painters were already embracing the time-saving benefits of photography by using photos from which to paint, though often surreptitiously. It remained for artist such as Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent to eschew the photograph and return some sanity to the art of portrait painting during the final decade of the nineteenth century.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Black Mountain College

One of the hallmarks of what we fondly call the "American educational system" is the fact that someone, somewhere, is always dissatisfied with it. This has been the case all the way back to Cotton Matther, up through the first high school in Beverly, Massachusetts, the first college, not far from there (Harvard) and fortunately, this dissatisfaction continues today. It is, I think, what has made our HIGHER education system (at least) the envy of the world. It was this feeling of dissatisfaction, a feeling of "we can do better" that led John Andrew Rice into the backwoods hills of North Carolina to a small town called Black Mountain and the founding, in 1933, of Black Mountain College.

Black Mountain College
from 1933-1941

As institutions of higher education go, even in the midst of the Great Depression, it wasn't much of a college, at least not in the traditional sense. It held its first classes in a rented church social room, then eight years later moved across Lake Eden to cobbled up "permanent" facilities that were much more like a farm or summer camp than any kind of college campus. Actually, during the summer it was both, supplying the college and the local community with agricultural products while at the same time playing host to a list of guest lecturers that today, reads like a "Who's Who" of the arts and liberal learning of the time. To a somewhat lesser extent, the same could be said of those who attended classes there too. It was a topsy turvy educational world having the faculty (rather than the administration) in command, with a great deal of democratic input from the student body. It was never accredited by any governmental or educational authority and was never far from financial collapse at any point in its 24-year history. In fact, fewer than 1200 students ever attended classes there before it closed in 1957.

Black Mountain College,
Lake Eden, 1941-57

It may sound trite to say so today, but back in its heyday, it was more a frame of mind than an institution of higher education. Even the phrase, liberal arts school, doesn't do it justice. The centerpiece of the entire curriculum were the fine arts--music, dance, drama, and painting. Grades were unimportant. What mattered was the complete freedom on the part of the students and faculty to experiment with all things new and beautiful in the arts. Studies were rigorous and the faculty demanding, but neither of these factors adequately account for the creative burst of energy that radiated into the American fine arts world from this tiny candle of free expression. It was not, however, a perfect learning situation. A former student perhaps put it best: "If you went to Black learned a LOT about art in its various forms; you learned  nothing about the Real World."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Birth of the Renaissance

The Florence Baptistery

Being painters, we're tempted to see the past from a painter's perspective with all other arts somehow having secondary status. And, there are times in the history of art, such as the Impressionist era, when painting was making such great strides that it more than lived up to this ideal as first among equals in the arts. But at other times, the development of the painted illusion trailed other areas of art. The birth of the Renaissance was one of those times. It isn't often that such an important era in art has such a clear and concise genesis. The year was 1401, the start of a new century that would come to be known by art historians as the quatrocento. And the catalyst for this milestone century in art was a competition, not amongst painters, but among sculptors.

The competition was for the design and casting of the great bronze doors to the Baptistery of Florence. The competing artists were given a scene from the Old Testament to translate into a high-relief bronze sculpture. The scene was the sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham replete with an angel, a donkey, and a couple supporting characters. The format was the quatrefoil, which is basically diamond shape with semicircles on each of the four sides. There were dozens of entries in this highly prestigious contest, the winner of which would undoubtedly become the most important Florentine artist of his time. Only two entries have survived (undoubtedly the best of the lot), one by Filippo Brunelleschi and the other by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401,
Lorenzo Ghiberti

The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401,
Filippo Brunelleschi
 Brunelleschi's design features Isaac in the center, kneeling upon an altar, his neck and body distorted by his father's lunging grasp while above, the angel struggles to restrain him. A violent energy pervades the composition in spite of the rather static division of the upper space into two quadrants by the interaction of the two main figures, while the broadside view of the donkey in the lower half of the work forms a solid, stable base. Ghiberti's design, in contrast, has a nude, classically muscular Isaac, with both knees on the altar, struggling against the forward movement of his father. Both figures are placed to the right-hand side of the composition while a ridge of rocks divides the space diagonally. The donkey and other characters are subordinated to the lower left. Both designs had their strengths and weaknesses. Brunelleschi's depiction evoked a dramatic degree of anxiety appropriate to the scene, but it also tended to place equal visual emphasis on each and every figure, while Ghiberti's design, in placing Abraham near the center of the composition and the peripheral characters off to one corner, made a much more dynamic, if somewhat less intense, presentation. Ghiberti's design was declared the winner.  Today, his doors to the Baptistery in Florence, Italy, are among the city's greatest art treasures.

Meanwhile Brunelleschi chose to abandon sculpture in favor of architecture. He went on to achieve the greater fame as he designed and built the famous dome of the Cathedral of Florence (known as the Duomo) literally just across the street from Ghiberti's doors. Ghiberti was left with a commission for two bronze doors and bragging rights. "To me was conceded the palm of victory...  To all it seemed that I had...surpassed the others without exception..."  And the Renaissance was off and running!